Echoes of the Future
Two disclaimers are needed for this story. Firstly, Xena, Gabrielle and a few other characters (who shall remain nameless so as not to ruin the story,) belong to MCA Universal, and any other parties who have a share in ownership of Xena: Warrior Princess. No copyright infringement is intended.
Secondly, some of the story, (again I wont mention which bits here so as not to ruin the fun,) is directly influenced by the great bard of the Xenaverse, Merwolf.
To both parties I owe a debt of thanks, without their vision and talent I would not have been inspired to write the story below, one that I enjoyed immensely. For more specific details on what belongs to who, please e-mail me using the link below and I will be happy to give you the full details.
There are some scenes of violence in the story. If you are reading Xena fan fiction I am sure you will know roughly what to expect. If you are likely to be offended by this perhaps you should look for Teletubby fan fiction instead.
This piece of work was written by an author who believes in soulmates, a wondrous union that is a gift given without thought to gender. If you are likely to be offended by the idea of people of the same sex being in love I suggest that you find something else to read. Equally, if you are looking for some sort of lusty romp then reading this will disappoint you, however there are plenty of other pieces of work that specialise in that.
Enough with the disclaimers, I hope you enjoy reading my work as much as I enjoyed creating it. It is my first venture into the world of writing so any comments will be gratefully received and can be sent using the link below. Happy reading!
The setting sun painted soft, amber rays over all in its path, creating a merry glinting in the tumbling water that chased its way over the small waterfall. The pool underneath spread outwards into a calmer area where smooth pebbles nestled together in the clear water. A small bird hopped to an overhanging branch watching the insects that skated on the waters surface. Suddenly, a nearby sound alerted the bird to potential danger and it retreated towards a higher vantage point, watching as two figures, complete with golden horse, entered the clearing.
It was the tall dark-haired woman that broke the silence. "It is getting late, we should camp here tonight." The comment was directed at her shorter, fair-haired companion who had been trailing slightly behind her and carried a quill and unmarked parchment.
The younger woman looked up and briefly viewed the clearing. "Its nice," she began in a rather unfocused manner. Her eyebrows knitted together as she took a deep breath and continued, "Would you like me to prepare a fire while you catch some dinner?"
The dark-haired woman nodded in response, setting down her luggage and producing her bow. Within moments she had melted into the surrounding woods as quiet and unobtrusive as any creature that would naturally be found there.
The shorter woman looked round the clearing with a manner of one experienced in the outdoor life. Having moved their travel bags to a dry patch of springy moss, stripped the horse and set it to graze, she began to systematically locate stones to build a fire ring. In a short time she had cleared a small area, lined it with the rocks and found enough dry wood to begin a neat fire. In fact, as she soon realised, she had collected rather a lot of wood, more than they would need to keep the fire burning throughout the night. As she slumped down on a nearby rock she ran her hand through her hair, pulling it away from her eyes and sighed.
"Look Gabrielle, just because Xena is a little quiet today, it does not mean that you have to start worrying to this extent," she told herself firmly. Xena had been quiet for more than just today, her brain reminded her, and preoccupied would be a better word to use than simply quiet. Gabrielle considered this, Xena was more than just quiet, and she did seem extremely preoccupied. Everyone was allowed a little distance Gabrielle reminded herself but it was far more disturbing when it was the usually attentive and observant Xena. They had become a lot closer in the time they had been travelling together and had gradually learnt to share all their problems. Gabrielle had to acknowledge the progress they had made in this even if it did take losing it to make her see it so clearly. "That progress took a lot of work," she thought "and I am not about to let it slip away that easily, think practically Gabrielle. When was the last time she was normal and what has changed since then?" Of course, the most drastic recent event was the friends deaths. Obviously, the situation had taken its toll on both of the friends but Gabrielle realised that things had worked out fine and the fact that they were together, both healthy and off on their travels again should outweigh the pain caused. "No," Gabrielle persisted, "there is more to this than I know about." She stood up purposely and retrieved her flints from her saddlebag, "Well, in that case I am just going to have to ask," she decided with a relieved sense of satisfaction at having established a plan of action.
Xena moved stealthily towards their camp and squatted as she placed the two limp rabbits down by her side. Through the foliage of the shrubbery she could see Gabrielle putting down yet another load of firewood on to an already generous pile. Xena continued to observe the scene, watching as the preoccupied look briefly left her friends face as she surveyed the pile of firewood. As Xena watched, she thought for the hundredth time how Gabrielles face would so easily mirror the thoughts behind it. Although Gabrielle was a very open person, Xena knew that it was their close relationship that enabled her to interpret the expressions so easily. That created a warm feeling inside her and an unconscious smile crossed her face. However, the smile soon faded as she watched the emotions her friend was expressing, frustration followed by concern. Something was bothering her friend deeply; the furrowed eyebrows and slightly inturned lower lip were a testament to that.
Just as Xena was trying to mentally run through the potential causes, she saw Gabrielles eyes move unseeing to the warriors sword. It was her. Xena waited in her green sanctuary, unwilling to disturb Gabrielle in her musings. Xena knew that she had not been as communicative with her young friend as normal, another unconscious smile passed her lips at her use of the word normal, although she did have her reasons. "You need to either talk to Gabrielle about it or keep it buried deeper," she chastised herself, "it is not fair to worry her like this, she has hardly said three words all day and her scroll was as empty when we arrived here as it was when we set out this morning." The sounds of movement roused Xena out of her musings and she saw Gabrielle lighting the fire. The tilt of her friends chin confirmed that the look of concern had been replaced with one of determination. Mentally, Xena sighed theatrically because she knew her friend had devised a plan, however, it was a tender feeling towards her the blonde woman that spread through her as she emerged from the trees.
"Dinner." Xena reported as she held up the rabbits.
Gabrielle smiled and decided not to comment on the fact that there were two as she saw her friends eyes track to and away from the large pile of firewood. "Great," she responded, "Would you like some stew to go with the fresh bread we picked up this morning?"
"Only if we can take a bath while it is cooking." Xena answered, the thought of soaking off the days grime suddenly seeming very appealing.
"Its a deal," smiled Gabrielle and they began working in a contented silence as Gabrielle prepared the vegetables and Xena skinned and diced the meat.
It was not long before their chores had been completed and they were stripping off and heading into the clear, inviting pool. The cool water was very refreshing and they each began to feel happier and more relaxed. They both laughed as they issued simultaneous sighs of contentment.
"This feels so good," remarked Gabrielle, "it is a pity we cant always find camps as nice as this."
Xena considered this. It was true, although they both enjoyed their travelling lifestyle, after a long day of dusty tracks and hot sun it felt a necessity to be able to take a bath. "Would you like me to wash your hair for you?" she inquired. It wasnt really necessary as they had stayed at an inn last night with a good bathing room which they had been able to take advantage of before they had set out this morning, however, it was one of those things Xena enjoyed doing and tried not to think too deeply about the reasoning behind it.
"Do you expect me to decline an offer like that?" Gabrielle grinned and floated over to her friend turning her back and allowing the warrior to reach more easily. She loved it when Xena washed her hair, it was something that would always make her feel special that someone whose hands could and had been so brutal and powerful could perform the most gentle and tender of actions when applied to her.
Gabrielle allowed her body to relax completely, floating gently in the soothing water. Her awareness of the outside world seemed to drop away, leaving her mesmerised by the magic the warriors long fingers wrought on her scalp.
"All done." Xena reported some moments later as she ran her hands down the long golden strands, teasing out the knots. When Gabrielle didnt move straight away, Xenas hands eased across to the bards shoulders, her thumbs gently kneading out the knots she found there. "Feels like you have been carrying the weight of the world on these today," she remarked. "Here." Xena took her friends hand and led her over to the small waterfall, manoeuvring Gabrielle so that the rushing water was gently pounding her shoulders.
"Now that really does feel good," smiled Gabrielle as she tilted her head back and felt the flow run over her scalp and down her back. "Mmmm," she murmured in appreciation. Xena just smiled.
The warrior broke the silence a few moments later. "Well, I can leave you there while I have some food," she offered, her twinkling eyes betraying the seriousness in her voice.
"Food? Im there!" Gabrielle responded quickly, smiling at the familiarity of their long-standing joke at the expense of her appetite. Xena seems better now, she thought to herself as she turned to study her friend. It was true; there had been more conversation between them since Xena had returned from hunting than there had been all day. There were more frequent smiles on both of their faces than there had been for some time too. Gabrielle moved away from the cascading water and towards her friend. Their eyes met and locked for a brief moment. Xena had smiled but Gabrielle saw that those beautiful blue eyes were not smiling too, realising sadly that whatever was bothering Xena was still there; she was just making more of an effort to hide it. "Race you!" Gabrielle challenged, endeavouring to keep the mood light and they both sprang towards the bank.
It was not long before the friends had eaten their fill, drying themselves by the warm fire at the same time. The pair rose, moving around the camp to complete the final chores of the evening. Gabrielle began to wash the dishes in the stream, pleased as she found the mini waterfall made short work of the task. Xena was grooming Argo with steady strokes along the mares golden coat. Darkness had settled and the horses mane seemed to glow with life in the flickering firelight. Xena began to think deeply as she often did while performing the methodical task of grooming Argo. She and Gabrielle were back together after a time she thought she may never see Gabrielle again. Xena shuddered involuntarily as she relived the feelings that thought had induced and pushed them deeper down inside herself. Subconsciously, her eyes were drawn to the form of her friend, her heart directing the thoughts of her mind.
Gabrielle was her source, as she had told her before. However, that did not even come close to explaining the bond she felt between them. In a world that was capable of such hardship and cruelty, a world that sometimes seemed little more than a plaything for the gods, a world where she had learnt not to love because to love was to risk pain, there was Gabrielle. Gabrielle was her constant, the one thing she could always turn to for guidance, a spiritual North Star who continually guided her towards goodness and provided her with hope. Gabrielle had taught her that she was naïve to believe that she could choose to avoid love but who had also taught her that although to love is to risk pain, love could bring unimaginable rewards she had never experienced before.
"Enough of that," Xena told herself sternly. She already knew how important Gabrielle had become to her, she had grudgingly accepted that fact a long time ago. However, she was the only person that would ever know about it and daydreaming about it served no useful purpose. Back in her safe haven of practicality Xena inspected Argos coat. The dull amber glow reminded her of molten bronze, testifying to a thorough grooming which had cleared the mares coat of the dust and grime accrued over a long days travelling. Xena looked towards the heart of the camp, at the fire and the bard crouched beside it. Gabrielle held a worn, leather-bound volume open on her lap. To Xenas relief the page bore writing, a reflection of a happier Gabrielle than the one who had travelled the same roads as her through the day. At that moment the bard looked up, a little furrow along her brow reflecting the creativity that was taking place within. Xena smiled at the familiarity of the expression and giving Argo a final pat moved towards the fire.
After her chores Gabrielle had settled down to update her diary. It was a task that she found immensely comforting, both in its familiarity and as an opportunity to clear her mind of the days stresses and worries. She knew that Xena felt the same way about grooming Argo. With Xena it had to be something practical, however, the ethos was the same. Tonight, Xena had been deep in thought, her brushstrokes had almost been hypnotic in their regularity and the usually animated horse had simply stood quietly while Xena completed her task. Gabrielle too had simply sat quietly. She had often found Xena to be a great inspiration and had composed some of her favourite pieces of work based on the warrior. Tonight, Gabrielle had let herself drift mentally, enchanted by her friend. There was so much about Xena that inspired her, the sultry confidence, the keen intelligence, the beauty that was evident in everything about her, from the tiniest muscle movements under the tanned skin to the deep blue eyes that she could never look at for too long. Those eyes were mesmerising, they conveyed to Gabrielle a great deal of Xenas communication with an intensity the bard wasnt sure even Xena was aware of. Sometimes she would just see those eyes and know everything would be alright. That would be when she had to look away.
Gabrielle started as a voice anchored her back into the present. She looked down at her diary and was surprised to see a page of writing, she shut the volume abruptly, both unsure and dubious of the content given where her thoughts had been for the last candlemark. She struggled to find a topic of conversation, not usually a problem for her but one that seemed to be happening more frequently, around Xena at least. Perhaps it was herself she should be worrying about rather than her friend.
"Argo looks shiny," she remarked. Argo looks shiny??? Gabrielle, you are supposed to be a bard, conversation and wit being your trademark skills. Argo looks shiny. Definitely top material there. Yeah.
Xena smiled, the horse certainly was gleaming. "How about a little sparing practice?" she offered, the prospect of a physical challenge most likely to concentrate her mind on more practical matters.
Gabrielle considered the offer. Sparring with Xena was something she had learnt to enjoy. At first it had been a chore, hard work to hone survival techniques. However, as time had passed Gabrielle had begun to improve and she realised that gaining the skills was similar to gaining freedom. The greater her skill level, the more use she could be in a situation that required action rather than conversation. She had also begun to enjoy the independence and self-sufficiency of being able to defend herself and not make Xena have to look out for both of them all of the time. Not that Xena had stopped looking out for her but Gabrielle could recognise Xenas growing respect for her friends ability and that was the greatest reward of all. Anyhow, the more she improved the closer she came to her goal of dumping her tall friend on her backside in the mud. Gabrielle grinned at the thought, "Youre on!"
The moon was full and bright in a sky littered with stars. In the clearing the silvery light shone down on two figures and their staffs. The pair had loosened up as they circled each other, watching for hints of movement. Gabrielle was planning an attack, Xena merely watched as she let her instincts take over, trusting her finely honed reactions. Sure enough Gabrielles first strike met with wood. Xena took the advantage and swung her staff down for a gentle tap behind the knees. Gabrielle was improving though and she reversed her staff countering Xenas attack. The pair circled again, the opening bout complete. Xena made the first move this time, a swing aimed at the bards shoulder combined with a follow through at knee level. The bard countered both moves, the concentration evident on her face. She ducked down with a decoy attack to Xenas thigh but once close enough rose to attack her upper body. The blow never connected but Gabrielle knew that she was getting closer. She had realised some time ago that her more compact form gave her manoeuvring advantages over her taller friend and all she had to do was discover the best way to exploit these advantages. She didnt have time to launch a second attempt because Xena lunged forward and engaged her in a rapid set of attacks and counters that soon had them both sweating freely.
Time and time again wood met with wood, only the occasional attack getting through either friends defences. Gabrielle knew Xena was going easy on her, recognising that the warrior was holding back. Although that always frustrated her in one way, in another it only made her respect Xena even more, Xenas fighting skills were legendary but what people didnt see was the self-control she displayed too, if she didnt have such mental strength Gabrielle knew she would have been seriously injured a long time ago. Xena watched as the bard began to tire, the furrows in her forehead were deeper and her moves becoming less frequent and less precise.
Suddenly Xena stopped all movement and tilted her head as though listening. Gabrielle looked puzzled but followed suit aware of her friends sensitive hearing, a talent that had so many times given them a much needed advantage over surprise attackers. Xena made no sound as she quietly began to walk towards the pool, her eyes tracking the surrounding trees. She crouched as she reached a large boulder by the waters edge, maintaining a constant vigil in the direction of the forest. Gabrielle crept silently towards her unable to sense the intrusion that Xena seemed to be preoccupied with. Then she realised too late that there was no intrusion, she merely saw a blur of action as Xena twirled around from the water, sending what seemed like half of the pool all over the bard.
"Xena!" Gabrielle cried indignantly "What did you do that for?"
"You looked like you needed a little cooling down," replied the warrior, her eyes dancing in amusement and her mouth trying to repress a grin.
"You, you " Gabrielle could not think of a suitable insult so instead she charged towards the chuckling warrior, using body weight and momentum to propel the pair of them into the pool.
"Oh, that was mature!" Xena taunted when they both surfaced.
"Hey, I am not the one that started this you know!" responded the bard, pleased with the effectiveness of her attack. Although she had landed in the pool too she had been pretty wet to begin with and, oh dear, leathers did take so much longer to dry out than linen!
Xena put a reconciliatory look on her face and swam over to the smug looking bard. At the last minute she did a sudden surface dive, locating her friends knees and pulling them out from under her. She then raced to the shore and grabbing a piece of linen to dry herself off, dived down on to the sleeping fur closest to the fire, leaving a spluttering bard in her wake.
"Ill get you for that, you know that dont you," Gabrielle warned as she emerged from the pool and flopped down next to the warrior.
"I am counting on it," replied Xena, passing another piece of linen to the sopping bard. "It is a good thing the weather is so good, such recklessness could have got us both a fever," she continued in a mock chiding manner.
Gabrielle just looked at her friend and started to giggle as she took a swipe at the wet leather-clad stomach by her side. The pair lay back on the furs as the warmth of the well-stocked fire began to dry them. The stars really were beautiful; it was one of the things Gabrielle most liked about their outdoor life.
Xena pointed upwards, "That looks like a horse."
Gabrielle grinned as she tilted her head to each side, "funny looking horse," she responded, "could be a whip though, you see, all curled out there," she concluded gesticulating.
Xena shook her head, "Well, you bards are supposed to have good imaginations" she replied. The warriors face assumed a more serious expression as her natural practicality re-surfaced. "We ought to get some rest now, we have a long day ahead of us tomorrow."
Gabrielle sighed. "Yes, youre right, goodnight Xena."
"Goodnight Gabrielle," the warrior answered as she closed her eyes. She felt a sense of inner peace that had eluded her for some time. Since the visions had started in fact. But here and now everything was just right and if she waited just a little while longer
Gabrielles breathing began to become slower and more even, reflecting the sleep she had rapidly succumbed to. Soon, in her sleeping state, she edged over to the warrior, draping an arm across the leather-clad stomach and nestling her head against her friends powerful shoulder. In the darkness a flash of white teeth and the glint of two very blue eyes could be seen.
The early morning sun shone down on two very awake companions. Xena had taken advantage of the nearby pool to take a brisk, icy dip. She had then launched herself into a set of warm up sword drills, partly to dry herself off and partly to warm up muscles she never knew when she would need to call upon. Gabrielle had enjoyed a more sedate start to her day. She had packed up their camp into neat travelling bundles and loaded up the waiting Argo. She had also done her best to ignore the scantily clad, toned warrior doing her early morning drills. Despite the droplets of water glistening on the tanned skin and despite the sleek muscle movements extenuated by the damp linen clinging to the warriors body.
"Its going to be a hot one," remarked Xena as she studied the almost cloudless blue sky, her eyes squinting against an already bright sun.
"Yes," the bard answered in reflex, slightly distracted. She shook her head, forcing her thoughts back to the less personal. "A perfect opportunity to work on my tan then," she continued, responding to her friends comment for the first time. Gabrielle was in a much more relaxed mood following the playfulness of the night before, she hummed quietly to herself to fill the silence that followed.
Xena smiled as she led Argo out of the clearing and towards the small track. They travelled on in silence for a while, each busy with their separate thoughts.
Gabrielle broke the silence. "Where exactly are we going Xena?" she asked suddenly. Usually she knew all about the mission, who was in trouble, why, who the bad guys were and so on. She had suddenly realised that nobody had really asked for help recently but still they were definitely travelling with a purpose.
Xena had been waiting for her blonde friend to ask this question as it saved her having to venture information unnecessarily. However, now that she had, Xena wasnt sure exactly what she could say. "We are going to see Elkton," she answered in a matter of fact way.
There was a little pause as Gabrielle tried to place the name. She was great with faces, she could always place them but names always got a little confusing. After all, they did meet a lot of people in their line of work. Finally, the look of concentration lifted off her brow and she responded, "oh yes, the priest of Morpheus, I remember." She stated and continued, "the one who helped you to enter the dream passage to come and rescue me." Gabrielle winced at her own words, how often Xena had had to come and rescue her in the early days, sometimes she had wondered what the warrior would have done all day if she had never met this human trouble-magnet. "Is he in trouble?" She asked, "Did he send for us?"
Xena sighed mentally, she knew that she could never really have expected Gabrielle not to ask questions, this was Gabrielle after all. However, she had still hoped that she might be able to get away with it. "No," she responded, "I need to see him, I need his advice."
Gabrielle realised too late that this was one mission Xena hadnt volunteered information about. Perhaps it was better that she just left it at that and waited till they got there to see what it was all about. On the other hand, Xena had been distracted recently and to have to be asking advice from someone meant she had a problem that must be pretty difficult. Well, two heads were better than one, perhaps she could help. She tried to think of a question that would get a lot of useful information, she had learnt long ago not to bombard the warrior with numerous, frivolous questions. Ask few but make them count she reminded herself. "Why Elkton?" she finally asked.
Xena had taken advantage of Gabrielles momentary silence to organise her thoughts. She knew the next question would be one that she could not avoid and would require a more detailed explanation. Gabrielle never asked pointless questions. "Ever since I we died I have been having visions, they were rare to start with but they have been getting more frequent " she explained.
Gabrielle knew that, the vision where they both died on a snowy mountaintop. It was something that she tried hard not to think about. However, she let Xena continue, if she wanted to find out more and to understand she knew better than to interrupt unnecessarily.
"You know about the mountain one," Xena continued, having searched for an easier way to make reference to that particular vision, "that one I had while fighting Atli. The others are different." The warrior paused with a distracted look on her face.
"There are others?" Gabrielle probed gently.
"Yes they are not about us dying," Xena sought to reassure her friend, "they are about us but in places that are very bizarre. I have been having them since we were in Rome that time. I see these things both in visions during the day and in dreams at night. That is why I thought Elkton could help."
"As he is a priest of Morpheus, I understand," Gabrielle confirmed. However, there were a few things she didnt understand. It was clear to her now from her friends body language and tone of voice that this is what had been causing the change in the warrior that she had noticed. She was glad because she finally knew what it was and could try and do something about it. However, all Xena was saying is that she had been having dreams about them. That was not surprising, they were travelling companions and spent all their time together. However, the warrior hadnt sought out Elkton about the mountain vision and that was a dire one that had disturbed both of them. What was in these other dreams that bothered Xena so much that she had to seek advice? There was something that Xena wasnt telling her. Well, there was only one way to find out. "So what are these other dreams about?" she inquired.
Xena considered the question, on the surface the answer was very simple, the two of them in strange surroundings. There was no sense of danger, often they were just together with nothing really happening. It was the tone of the visions that really bothered her, raising questions that Xena was afraid to find the answers to. After the first she had hoped it was just a one-off but the visions had kept coming, insinuating situations that Xena found terrified her in a way a battalion of armed minotaurs could not have. As any good warrior she had found comfort in action, the practicality of seeking out Elkton easing her nerves. Xena knew she risked too much by explaining to Gabrielle her reactions to the details of the dreams so she just decided on the simplest response. "Nothing in particular, just you and I in very strange surroundings." Xena replied, she continued on to give Gabrielle an answer to the question she was trying not to ask. "I want to see Elkton to see if there is anyway of stopping the daytime visions, if they start in the middle of a fight it may put us both in danger."
Gabrielle considered this. It was typical warrior reasoning. It was practical and sensible. However, she doubted it was the main reason for Xena seeking out Elkton and it also did nothing to explain her friends preoccupation recently. Gabrielle eyed the tall woman striding by her side. The forceful step and slightly jutting jaw told the bard that Xena was on the defensive, expecting and prepared for further questioning. Gabrielle knew her friend well and as much as she wanted to help she knew that Xena had said all she was going to on the matter, for the time being at least. "I understand," the bard said as she slipped her arm round a surprised Xenas waist.
"So, who am I?" Gabrielle asked, starting up a familiar game of theirs.
It was more feelings that tangible events. She could feel Gabrielles presence very close to her. It was a world that was alien, full of strange noises and little open space. This time the surroundings seemed to sharpen, the murmurings evolved into voices, shapes took human form. Xena realised she was fighting. It was an odd sensation; the fighting was different to what she was used to. There was the normal anticipation and energy and the sheer enjoyment, they were all as familiar to her as old friends. However, this time competition replaced fear on both sides, she could see that in her opponents eyes. There were no weapons and people all around her were dressed in white costumes. The vision cleared further and her eyes confirmed what her gut instinct had already told her, Gabrielle was there, away from the fight, just watching. She was dressed even more strangely than Xena but there was no mistaking those green eyes. As the images started to cloud Xena found her attention drawn to a corner of the building where a shadowed figure lurked, a man. Xena knew the man, she cared for him and somehow realised that it was important to her that he was there. As she concentrated harder, squinting to get a clearer image, the surroundings began to fall away, replaced with a more normal environment and a familiar voice calling her name. However, it had not been before she had seen the mans scarred face.
"Xena?" Gabrielle called again, concerned by the distant look in her friends vacant eyes.
"Sorry," Xena murmured, looking her companion in the eye and seeing the relief there.
"Another vision?" Gabrielle asked patiently.
"Yes," Xena replied. She paused for a moment before continuing. "It is as though there is something important, some kind of message that someone is trying to show me but as soon as I start to see anything the vision begins to fade."
Gabrielle recognised the frustration in her friends voice but decided to try and keep the conversation light, after all, Xena had not openly made any indication of how much these visions were bothering her. "Maybe it is that you should get more sleep," the bard joked. Xena smiled, trying to push away the feelings the visions always awoke.
The pair were sat in the shade of a large tree just off the side of the track enjoying a lunch of soft cheese and sun warmed bread. The dappled sunlight painted green twinges over their outstretched legs and the gentle noises of wildlife society dampened the silence. It had turned out to be a very pleasant day that encouraged a feeling of well being in anyone lucky enough to be outside to enjoy it. Xena eased back into the springy bracken behind her. Gabrielle followed suit, looking up at the brilliant blue sky and the occasional fluffy white puffs that crossed it.
A smile crossed Xenas face and she moved her hand until she found a small rock that she threw directly upwards. Gabrielle jumped slightly at the sudden noise as the rock hit a branch and then watched intrigued as two objects tumbled back down to earth, lazily swiped out of mid air by a pair of tanned hands. Gabrielle rolled onto her side and raised an eyebrow at the smug looking warrior.
"Pick a hand," Xena instructed.
"That one," Gabrielle answered as she pointed. The warriors hand opened to reveal the small rock that she had originally thrown. "Ok," Gabrielle said, "the other one." Xena grinned as she opened her hand and passed a perfectly ripe peach to her friend.
"Ooh, of your many skills, I think I like that one the best!" the bard announced as she bit into the sweet fruit. Xena took the rock and threw again, this time capturing a peach for herself.
"So," Gabrielle began, "How long will it take us to get there?"
Xena paused, mentally travelling the route she had planned. "About two more days," she answered. "We will be travelling through Amazon territory for a while so we will have to be ready for anything."
"I never realised we were that close to home," Gabrielle commented as she tried to calculate the distances and directions they had travelled in the last few weeks.
"We arent." Xena confirmed, "We are further East than that. It is another tribe of forest Amazons. I havent had that much contact with them."
"An unknown quantity in Amazon form." Gabrielle summarised, "I can understand the need for caution. Well at least we know the principles of their society, if we do get into difficulties we know how best to approach them."
Xena looked unconvinced, "I still think total avoidance will be the best tactic."
Gabrielle had to admit that she was slightly disappointed. She found the Amazons she had met fascinating, their feminist culture being so different to anything else she had encountered. Plus they did have some interesting traditions. It would have been intriguing to meet another tribe, to see how the two differed and what similarities there were. Gabrielle reminded herself of why they were even in this area at all and decided that meeting Elkton should be the first priority. Maybe on the way back
By the late afternoon the companions had found themselves leaving the leafy forest behind them and had watched as the surroundings they passed though had gradually morphed into rich farmland. Civilisation in the form of a small town had loomed on the horizon, offering the opportunity to get fresh supplies and indulge in a warm bath. Neither friend had needed much persuasion and by the early evening their chores had been taken care of and Gabrielle had even arranged to do some storytelling at the inn where they were staying.
The inn was fairly large, one of only a few in the large town. It housed about fifty tables and offered a wide selection of both food and drink. The innkeeper and his wife were friendly, down to earth people, their high standards and reasonable prices accounting for both their popularity and the success of their enterprise.
Xena had settled into a chair in a secluded corner, near a window that looked out into the courtyard outside the inn. Gabrielle was at the front of the inn, near the serving area, perched on a stool preparing to launch into a story. Xena smiled as she recognised the slightly nervous air about her friend. Despite the numerous times the bard had performed and all the totally positive reactions she had always received, the challenge of standing up in front of a room full of people and endeavouring to entertain them was something even Xena knew she would find secretly daunting. When you were fighting people and you were as skilled a warrior as Xena, the other combatant had no choice, all it took was time before you had them exactly where you wanted them. When you were trying to entertain though, now that was a totally different scenario. It was something you could not control, the crowd chose whether or not to be entertained and there was not a lot you could do about it. However, Xena had total confidence in her bardic friend and recognised that she had already undeniably won over the toughest audience she could ever face. Not that she would ever let Gabrielle know that.
Gabrielle had decided upon a well-known story to start off with. It was a good plan of attack, you proved to your audience exactly what you could do with a story they already knew and then when you did the same for one they didnt know you could have them eating out of your hand. As Gabrielle launched into the tale of Odysseus and the Sirens she began to relax more. Her mind took over automatically and described the pictures she was seeing in clear language using voice control and facial expressions to add the excitement. The crowd was a mixed one, quite a few farmers, some travelling merchants and the usual local tradesmen. The town seemed peaceful and Xena allowed herself to relax, lulled by her friends voice and the inns very acceptable ale.
After some time Xenas wandering thoughts were interrupted by the appreciative noises of the crowd. Gabrielle had finished her third and final story and was basking in the positive attention she was receiving from her audience. Xena watched as her friend gradually made progress over to the table she was sitting at, all the time answering questions, returning greetings and smiling in sheer reflex.
However, before Gabrielle could even reach the table Xenas attention was diverted as her acute senses warned her of nearby danger. She quickly located the source of the alarm and studied the five heavily armed men approaching the entrance of the inn. They were obviously trained warriors, their armour and weapons were well kept and their attitude seemed focused. Xena rose smoothly and slipped outside to meet them.
Despite their purposeful attitude as soon as they saw the warrior heading towards them it was clear the men were looking for a fight. Xena sighed inwardly, a nice peaceful evening at an inn was all she had been wanting, why was it that trouble always seemed to find them?
The leader of the group spoke, "Xena." He stated.
"Thats right." She replied coolly, gauging the men as she waited for a reaction.
Xenas lightening speed reflexes almost surprised even herself as her right hand suddenly swiped at the air in front of her chest and captured an arrow. Her eyes narrowed. The men hesitated for the briefest moment which Xena took advantage of as she drew her sword.
The first two men ran at her with their swords drawn, she dodged them then whirled round sending one to the dirt with a kick to his back. The other man turned and charged again, this time engaging the warrior in a set of skilled parries. Xenas senses alerted her to another threat and she drew her chakram as she saw the archer load his bow for the second time. The disc flew through the air bouncing off a nearby barrel and splitting the arrow in two. Xena caught the returning weapon between sword thrusts as the first man rose and approached her again. Xenas sword moved faster and faster as her mind emptied and she acted on instinct. A gap in her opponents defences allowed her to wound his sword arm and fell him with a roundhouse kick.
As the man approaching from behind was almost upon her, Xena spun round and slammed an elbow thrust to his throat, he collapsed back to the ground on his knees as he clutched his neck. The other three men all moved toward the warrior at once, Xena somersaulted in the air and temporarily felled the archer with a hard kick to his chest. One of the other men fell as a rush of blonde swiped his legs from under him with a staff swung at his knees. Xena was now left facing the leader and the archer who had recovered his feet. The leader was the greater threat because his sword skills were practised and moved with almost the same level of fluidity as hers. All these men were focused and they were proving to be a refreshing challenge.
Suddenly both men facing Xena changed direction and headed straight for Gabrielle and her now recovered original opponent. Xena knew Gabrielle was certainly very capable of defending herself but not against three trained warriors who seemed intent on doing serious harm without an obvious motive. Another summersault placed Xena at Gabrielles side, just in time to slip her sword into the archer approaching Gabrielle with a drawn dagger. The man slumped to the ground bonelessly.
Gabrielle was holding her own against her attacker, moving her staff rapidly in an impressive selection of both attacking and defensive manoeuvres. Xena concentrated on the leader, luring him into an imposing match of swordplay. The man sidestepped her thrust and returned one of his own aimed at her midsection. She smiled as she parried him, the enjoyment of the challenging competition evident in her eyes. He was a highly skilled swordsman and the pair fought with fluid momentum, each looking for a break in the others defences.
Another staff swing at her opponents knees felled Gabrielles attacker and this time when he got up he stumbled off as fast as he could. She prepared for further confrontation as two more of the fallen men rose but they simply chased after their companion. The bard then watched as her friend fought the leader. Xena attacked with a thrust to the mans midsection then swung a roundhouse kick to his chest as he defended against her first move. He fell to the ground from the force of the impact and Xena pounced on him, jabbing his neck in three swift movements.
"I have just cut off the flow of blood to your brain." The warrior informed him as she regarded the wide-eyed man in front of her. "You have thirty seconds to tell me who you are and what you want."
A small trickle of blood ran from the mans nose as he contemplated his situation. Gabrielle walked over to join the warrior. "Twenty seconds." She announced, receiving a subtly amused look from her friend.
"I came to kill her." The fallen man spluttered as he stared at the bard.
Gabrielle felt a chill travel up her spine. Xenas eyes narrowed and bore into him like two ice chips. "Why? Who sent you?" She demanded.
"The Master " the man spluttered, "the Master sent me."
Xenas voice dropped an octave. "Who is the Master?"
The mans eyes were bulging and he was struggling to breathe. He gasped for air, "The Master is " the man was stopped from completing his sentence as two arrows embedded themselves in his throat, sending a spurt of blood down his neck and taking his life with it. Xena spun round to see the archer she had felled earlier collapse. By the time she had arrived by his side he was already dead.
The candlelight that flickered across the simple inn room illuminated the two inhabitants, painting them in dancing stripes of orange and red. However, even the softness of the glow could not lessen the hardened features of the warrior, her hands violently striping a piece of wood with her hunting knife, her eyes cold and remote. The bard was sitting on one of the two small pallet beds, her hands clutching a cold mug of tea. A tense silence hung over the room as each woman thought of the earlier attackers.
After the fight Xena had been left with two dead bodies and too many questions. The towns law enforcement workers had arrived and both friends had had to answer numerous questions about the men and the fight. The moon had been high in the sky and the streets of the town deserted before they were allowed to return to the inn. However, once there, neither had made any pretence at needing to sleep and they had sat down in the positions they still held now.
Xena had been thinking about the warriors and the fight. It was something she usually did to analyse any falters in her defences or particularly effective attack moves that her opponent had made that she could use herself. However, this was more than just her usual post fight analysis, it was personal. The men had been challenging opponents, they were all skilled fighters and their level of focus was rare. Xena had admitted to herself that it had been one of the most challenging battles she had fought in sometime. She had admitted too that she was afraid. It would not have been the same if the warriors had been seeking her out, however, the bard had a hidden enemy, one powerful enough to send out quality warriors to kill her. Warriors that were so well trained that one would use his last moments of life killing his comrade to protect a secret. Who was the enemy? Why Gabrielle of all people? Xenas mind was a minefield of crucial questions.
The tall warrior looked over at her friend sitting in silence on the nearby pallet. Gabrielle looked so pale and drawn, her eyebrows knitted together in worry and total silence replacing her usual cheery chatter. Xena realised that however much she may be worried Gabrielle would see that and right now her friend needed her strength and support more than ever.
"Gabrielle?" The warriors low voice broke the silence in the room. However, there was no response from the bard, her eyes not loosing the faraway gaze they held for one moment. Xena rose and heated some water, she always felt better when she took action. She mixed up some tea and poured the hot water over it, adding a generous amount of honey to complete the concoction. She moved across the small room and seated herself next to her friend, holding out the offering.
Gradually the bard returned to her surroundings and looked up at Xena. "Oh, thank you, I guess this one is a bit cold now." She gazed into the existing cup before taking the replacement from her friend. "Xena, who have I hurt to earn this?" she questioned, her eyes searching the blue ones opposite her.
That was so typical of Gabrielle, the warrior thought, she has a bunch of half-crazed warriors sent to kill her and instead of thinking about herself she is wondering about how she may have caused pain to someone else. The warriors hand lifted to the bards chin, holding it firmly and forcing continued eye contact. "Now, you listen to me Gabrielle," Xena commanded, "every person you have come into contact with in your life has gained only warmth and happiness from knowing you." She paused for the words to sink in, letting the depth of her own feelings for the bard shine in her eyes. "I do not know who these men are working for but I know the attack was tactical, not personal." The bards eyes searched her friends with a deploring hope for the statement to be true. "Gabrielle," the warrior purred, "I will never let any harm come to you, I would die before I would let that happen, you know that." Xena urged earnestly. Her response was a fierce hug that secretly gave the warrior as much comfort as it did her companion.
Two very bright blue eyes greeted the grey, pre-dawn light. Although the warrior had tried to rest, her mind had been doggedly trying to unravel the puzzles of the previous evening and combined with the fact that her senses had been on overdrive since the attack, Xena had not slept at all. However, the time she had spent thinking had relaxed the warrior a little. Well, either that or the night spent with a bard wrapped round her, Xena both sighed and smiled in a moment of self-knowledge. Gabrielle chose that moment to move even closer although Xena would not have thought it possible. Again, she smiled and this time closed her eyes, allowing herself to rest a little longer, lulled by the steady breathing of her companion.
Until her senses cleared, all she could see was blue. Eventually, the fogginess dissipated and shapes began to form. Xena realised she was under water. As she sought and located Gabrielle she realised that although they were both underwater, she could breath as though on land and Gabrielle seemed the same. There was a heavy weight on her back and she was wearing odd clothes which included some kind of mask over her eyes.
Gabrielle had swum over to her and was pointing at a passing fish. It was bright yellow with vivid blue markings, one she had not seen before. Gabrielle had held up a black box she was wearing round her neck towards the fish for a brief moment, then she had turned and smiled at Xena with a look of pure happiness and something else that Xena couldnt name. However, it was a something else that sent Xenas stomach somersaulting and prickles travelling up her spine.
Xena opened her eyes, her senses quickly reconciling her to being back in the inn room with solid sunlight pouring through the open window. A subtle check confirmed that Gabrielle was still asleep, her limbs securing her companion to the bed and her blonde head tucked into the warriors shoulder as usual. Xena smiled and leant back, her mind tracking back to her recent vision. The visions were strange, different to dreams because the images were clearer and when she awoke she could remember each detail perfectly. It was more like a memory but the environments were always so alien and she knew that she had never experienced them. Also, she didnt have to be asleep to see the visions, that was one of the reasons behind a little nagging voice that told her the trip to see Elkton would not give her the answers she sought. However, it was a starting point and she would rather take action than sit around and wait for a possible answer.
Xenas ponderings were halted as Gabrielle began to stir and two sleepy eyes peeped out at her. "Morning" she smiled, watching as her friend realised where she was and what she was hugging so tightly. However, this morning, unlike normal mornings, Gabrielle didnt spring away and make mumbled excuses, she just lay where she was and greeted the warrior in return.
"Good Morning," the bard smiled back. Gabrielle had contemplated moving but had decided that her human pillow was far too comfortable. She realised how much better she felt after a good rest and recognised that a lot of that was down to Xena and the security she felt being so close to her. Mentally she thanked Xena for her tolerance, she usually seemed to end up lolling all over her friend at night but last night she knew that it was something she had really needed. The bard rolled over and peered out of the window, her eyes squinting against the bright light. "Looks like it is going to be another hot day today," she announced.
Xena considered the prospect, it mean that hopefully any potential attackers would leave an attempt till it was cooler and they didnt have the disadvantage of the heat to contend with as well as her. The warrior had grimly reconciled herself to the fact that there would almost certainly be another attack but had decided that it may well give her the chance to discover more about their hidden enemy, an opportunity which was crucial to removing the threat all together. She had decided to keep her concerns to herself though and try to play down the situation to Gabrielle as much as possible. Keep it light and relaxed, the voice in the back of her head told her.
Xena stretched out her long fingers and tickled the bards ribs, "Well, it wont make any difference if you dont get up!" she joked.
Gabrielle shrieked at the tickle-attack and squirmed to try and get free. "Xena, stop it!" she begged between giggles, "it is too early for tickling!"
"It is never too early for tickling," Xena responded, "that is warrior rule number 487."
Gabrielle responded with the tools of her own trade. "Well, how am I supposed to get out of bed if you keep tickling me?" She gasped, impressed with herself for producing such a valid, logical argument while she was so distracted.
"Fair point," grinned the warrior as she released the bard and watched as she scrambled to her feet, giving her taller friend a dire look.
The two traded companionable banter as they washed and dressed. They were just packing up the last of their belongings and making the final preparations for the days travelling when a soft knock came at the door. Gabrielle froze and Xenas hand went automatically to the chakram at her side. "Yes?" She called out.
The door was pushed open slowly and a short, grey-haired man poked his head round. Both friends relaxed as they recognised him as one of the law officers they had talked to the night before.
"Morning ladies." The man greeted them, getting a raised eyebrow in response from the taller of the two. He continued hurriedly, "I am sorry to call in on you so early but I wanted to catch you before you left."
"No problem," Gabrielle responded, "how can we help you?"
The man smiled at her, she was less daunting than her friend and seem to have a lot better developed social skills. "Actually, it was something I thought might help you." He answered and opened his hand to reveal a small object as he continued, "we found one of these on each of the bodies and one in the dust. Looks like it was torn off in the fight." His gaze turned to Xena and he shifted a little.
Both the friends moved closer to the man and his outstretched palm. The item was a small vial with a long strip of leather attached to it, confirming that it would have been worn around the neck. Xena retrieved the vial and unstoppered it revealing traces of a red liquid inside. She lifted the container to her nose and sniffed but even in her wide experience with herbs from many different lands, the mixture in the vial had contained ingredients that even she did not recognise.
"What is it?" Gabrielle asked.
"Some kind of red potion." Xena responded, "it has been taken but there is a small residue around the inside of the vial. I dont recognise any of the ingredients."
The man nodded in conformation. "That is the same conclusion we reached," he explained. "We just thought it was a little odd that they all had the same thing." He paused, scratching his jaw in thought. " I suppose it might give a motive for the attack though, if they had unusual herbs in their bloodstreams who knows what might have been going on in their heads."
Xena didnt particularly agree with this reasoning but decided to keep this to herself as the last thing she wanted was to have to stay in the town and discuss possible motives. "Thank you for letting us know." The warrior said in a matter of fact tone. Gabrielle softened this with a smile and the man bade his farewells and left them in peace.
The bard seemed fairly contented with the possible explanation the man had given them and Xena decided not to ruin this until she had any other possible explanation to offer in its place. "Time to collect Argo and hit the road," the warrior said gathering her equipment and holding the door open for the bard to pass through.
The peaceful little glade, usually so full of chattering birds and scuffling wildlife was now gripped in an eerie silence. Only one creature inhabited the clearing, it prowled over to the serene pool nearby and peered into the water. A beast glared back, similar to a large wolf in appearance with a black shaggy coat, although it walked on all fours it would still have been hip height to an average man. The beast issued a throaty growl, its cruel, elongated muzzle displaying savage white teeth. It moved away from the pool and stalked around the glade, hungrily chasing the residual scent of the quarry it was pursuing. Its eyes held a red tinge to them as it calculated its preys movements around the ground. The scent was particularly strong on the flattened area of grass near the remains of a fire. Satisfied it was drawing closer to its quarry the creature prowled out of the clearing and towards the nearby track, the smell of its soon-to-be victims lingering in its nostrils
The friends had made good progress that morning, quiet roads and good travelling conditions allowing them to cover a greater than average distance. Xena had ridden Argo, the additional height giving her a better vantage point to detect potential danger sooner. Gabrielle had walked by the tall horses side, a little quieter than usual but more positive than Xena thought she may have been.
The pair had settled down for lunch by the side of a small brook in the shade of several large trees. As usual, Argo had been allowed to wander freely and had found a patch of luscious grass in the shade. The road had reached the top of a small slope, allowing the pair to see quite a distance away.
"The roads are quiet today," remarked Gabrielle as she broke off a chunk of bread. "Probably because of the heat," she reasoned.
"Yes," Xena responded as she located an apple from their travel packs.
After several moments of contented silence as the pair ate, Gabrielle looked over at her friend, "Xena?"
"Yes?" the tall warrior replied.
"Do you remember when we went to India and had to use the Mendi to stop Alti?" The bard asked.
Xena thought back, their travels in India had been an important part of the healing process after some difficult times they had both been through, times that had threatened the very fabric of their friendship. She shuddered briefly as she thought back to that period of their lives and all they had come so close to loosing. "Yes," she replied simply.
Gabrielle continued, "do you remember how the personification of the Mendi explained that our souls would go on and on into the future even though we would leave our bodies behind?" She paused slightly before she continued, "remember, you marked your foot so that I could recognise you?" Gabrielle had smiled at the memory, a simple action that had proved to her how Xena had felt about her and their friendship.
Xena smiled too, the thought of their bond surviving time even when their bodies did not gave her a reassurance which she had clung to in many a dark moment. It had also given her the courage to continue fighting when both women were put in life-threatening situations so often in their travels. It was ironic really, before it had been a lack of interest in her future that let her face death fearlessly, now it was a belief in a greater future. "I remember," she confirmed.
The bards brows furrowed in thought. "Well how can that happen when we know the Elysian Fields and Tartarus exist, we have experienced them first hand after all, that is where people go isnt it?" she asked.
Xena pondered this question, her friend had a very valid point. "I dont know," the warrior answered honestly. She rummaged in the travel bag and retrieved her sharpening stone, de-sheathed her dagger and set to work, her eyes distant and brow furrowed with concentration.
Gabrielle leant back and surveyed the landscape, she knew her friend well enough to know that Xena was pondering the question and in time would respond further. The little brook determinedly burbled past her and in the distance she could she a glinting of the river it was rushing to join. Suddenly, she remembered the page of writing that had suddenly appeared in her diary whilst she was watching the warrior groom Argo the night before. She fished in her travel bag, her hand easily locating the small, leather bound book. She opened the pages to the most recent entry, reading the neat words written in her own hand.
It started as just a flicker,
Growing to a small flame,
Buffeted by the winds of life,
We sheltered it with our hands,
Our eyes meeting, reflecting
The flame dancing at our union.
Rains fell, heavy, threatening drops,
The light spluttered, erratic in the peril.
Our hands stumbled,
The flame guttered,
Only the tip held the hint of a glow,
But our souls still believed.
Gently we blew,
Nurturing the pin prick of light.
Our fingers intertwined gently,
The flame recovering,
Growing steadily in the cold darkness surrounding it,
Bringing renewed hope in its life.
Now the flame burns strongly,
Its life no longer to be threatened.
Once again, the light dances in our eyes,
This time it cannot be extinguished.
The flame is eternal,
Unbounded by the constraints of time.
The bard smiled, reflecting that she seemed to write some of her favourite pieces of work when she was not concentrating on the specific words. It tied in nicely with the conversation they were having at the moment too. Her thoughts were interrupted as she heard her friend take a breath, ready to break the recent silence.
"Perhaps," Xena began, "the afterlife is a place for souls to go to recover for a while before they become mortal again." She paused and looked into the distance. "Or maybe people have a role to fulfil in the world and they are reincarnated until they fulfil that role, then they retire to the next world."
The bard considered this, both were plausible explanations, integrating both spiritual futures they had experienced in their travels. "It was just curiosity, I know that whatever really happens, you and I will always be together, it is just the way it is, my gut instinct tells me, just like it told me to follow you in the first place." Gabrielle paused and then reddened a little, although it was true and something she had known for a long time she hadnt really meant to say it out loud. She stole a subtle look at her friend and bit her lip in anticipation of the reaction her words would get.
Xenas mind seemed to be fuzzy, it was taking a long time to process the words her friend had spoken. Her stomach had jumped instantaneously and a warmth had crept up and covered her whole skin. She looked over at the bard and nearly laughed out loud at the barely concealed anxiety her friend was exuding. Then suddenly it wasnt funny, it was invigorating and awesome and joyous, a solid conviction in a companionship that would outlast their physical capabilities. It was an articulation of the desire that had sometime become the most important to her but that she had held for as long as she could remember.
Xena moved over and sat by her friend, gently resting her arm over the bards shoulders. Gabrielle quickly responded and wound her arm around the warriors waist and for some time they just sat in silence, looking over the suddenly beautiful landscape in front of them, together.
The girl leant over and gazed at her reflection in the water. A large bruise was starting to form over her right eye and blood was flowing freely from her lower lip. She pressed some cloth against it and sat back in the long grass. A large black and white dog came and sat down beside her, its pink tongue hanging out as it panted in the hot weather.
"Hey Moss," the girl said as she reached out her free hand to stroke the dogs large head.
The dog licked her arm and raised its big brown eyes to look forlornly into hers. He panted at her.
The girl smiled at him. "No, it is ok, I have had worse, at least I have learned to run now!"
The girl moved slightly and gasped as she did so. She bent over a little and peered at her bare midriff where a large bruise mottled the skin covering her lower ribs. Gently, she lay back in the long green grass and stared at the sky. It was deep blue, only the occasional fluffy puffs of white traversing it.
Moss moved to lie down using her thigh as a pillow. The girl patted him again, reassured by his familiar presence. He was the one thing that made her happy, his loyalty, unconditional love and stability providing her with a reason to get out of bed in the morning and reminding her why she should get up every time she was knocked down. She often wished that it were just him and her in the world.
He had arrived a few summers ago, as her dream had foretold. She had dreamt that she was hunting in the forests that surrounded her home. She had been tracking a large white deer. It was a magnificent animal, almost as large as a small pony. Its pristine white coat had seemed to shine in the dappled sunlight of the forest. The deer had stopped by a small cave and just looked at her. Then, out of nowhere, large angry wolves had appeared and formed a ring around her. She had been terrified but as they began to close in on her a large black and white dog had run out of the cave. It had fought the wolves and sent them fleeing back into the sanctuary of the forest. The white deer had almost seemed to nod before it disappeared and she woke up. Later that day Moss had arrived out of nowhere and had not left her side since.
It was the dreams that had caused her so many problems. She had always had dreams that had foretold important things, if her tribe were going to be attacked, if freak bad weather was going to spoil the crops, those sorts of things. The white deer was usually in the dreams. She used to tell the elders what she had seen. At first they had just said that she was a foolish child but as her prophecies had come true, usually with disastrous effects, they had accused her of causing it. Then they had punished her.
After one particularly bad attack where over half of the tribes best warriors had been lost the elders had turned on her. They had needed someone to blame, it was ironic that they chose the one person that had warned them. They accused her of possessing evil powers and had beaten her until she could barely breathe. It had taken days before she could see out of either eye and she didnt honestly know how she lived though it. It had been just after that that Moss had befriended her.
Although she rarely mentioned her dreams now, people still got angry with her, most of the time she didnt even know why. It was easier with Moss though, he listened and never, ever hurt her. She laid an arm across the dogs back and closed her eyes, revelling in the peace and tranquillity of being on her own.
The afternoons travelling had lasted well into the early evening because the friends had continued until they had found a suitable campsite. As they had journeyed, Xena had pointed out to Gabrielle the subtle signs that they were skirting the outside of the Amazon territory that they had discussed earlier. However, the afternoon had passed uneventfully, much to both friends relief.
The camp was in a fairly rare wooded area, an unusual change from the farmland they had passed through for the majority of the day. However, it had offered shelter, fuel and water, the basics they needed for a camp. They still had a few supplies from their recent stay at the inn and had been able to create a basic but filling meal with minimal effort. Now, after a contentedly quiet evening the pair had settled down on their sleeping furs near the cheerfully flickering campfire. The physical exertion of the day had left both friends feeling satisfyingly tired. Gabrielle had fallen asleep almost as soon as she lay down but beside her two deep blue eyes were gazing up at the generous array of stars watching over them.
Although the warrior was physically tired, her mind was overactive, preventing her from the gently peace that sleep brought. Xenas mind suddenly seemed to have been filled to bursting point with important issues that she randomly switched between with uncharacteristic distraction. There was the attempt on Gabrielles life, with the master still an unknown enemy. There were her visions, unusual in their presence but also raising issues within her that Xena had been trying hard to subdue for what seemed like an eternity. Linked into that was the conversation they had had by the brook earlier. It had threatened a delicate balance she had forged for herself. She knew that the reference had been purely platonic but it was still a shock to her to have heard the level of conviction Gabrielles voice had held as she had spoken.
Eventually, Xena was relieved from her musings as she drifted off into a fitful sleep. Her dreams were vivid but meaningless and her always-alert senses were heightened following the earlier attack on her best friend. Her eyes moved rapidly underneath their closed lids, but finally she began to calm, sinking deeper into a restful sleep.
Gabrielles eyes opened and peered into the starlit darkness around her. Her hearing confirmed Xenas sleeping state and Argos quiet presence nearby. She studied the sky and gauged there to be still be some time before even pre-dawn. Quietly, she extracted herself from her furs, sparing a fond look at her friend before she crept away from the camp, picking up a water flask on the way. She moved stealthily through the nearby foliage to a fallen tree trunk where she sat down, uncorking the flask and taking a long swig.
The bard did not know what had woken her, she clutched the flask and tried to relax, tuning into her senses the way Xena had taught her. Nothing in her surroundings seemed odd, the only thing that was unusual was her sixth sense being more actively present that normal. She just had a sense that something important was gradually taking place, it was nothing she could put her finger on but things seemed to be more intense than usual and events somehow pre-determined. She tried to consider the facts to establish exactly what was bothering her. However, her mind had other plans and as she looked up at the carpet of stars she ended up just spending some moments idling gazing at them.
Again, her senses distracted her, this time however she had been disturbed by a stealthily approaching form. Although her mind began to prepare for danger and chastise itself for leaving her staff by her furs, at the same time she felt there was no danger and was unsurprised when the figure morphed into her tall friend. That had been happening more too recently, Gabrielle realised. She had been able to locate her friend without looking, it was probably the amount of time they had spent together she reflected.
"Hey," Xena greeted her.
"Hey," the bard smiled back.
"No, sorry, I didnt mean to wake you."
Xena sat down on the trunk next to her friend and took the proffered water skin. "Feeling better now?" she asked after taking a swig.
"Yes, thank you," the bard confirmed.
"You should go back to sleep if you can, it is important when you exert yourself in the day to get a good nights sleep. Anyhow, the good news is we should reach Elktons village by tomorrow evening if the weather holds."
"Great," Gabrielle responded, rising off the trunk and moving back towards the fire, followed by Xena.
As they settled back down, Gabrielle reflected that she did feel better. For the time being at least, her senses had calmed down and she felt a sense of inner peace settle over her like a warm blanket.
Xena watched as her friend relaxed and was soon captured by Morpheus realm. She too shut her eyes although she knew that she would not sleep again that night, her panic at finding Gabrielle missing still churning her stomach.
This had to be the most bizarre yet, the room they were in was large and airy but full of alien objects and smells, overwhelming Xenas senses. Gabrielle seemed relaxed though, she was sitting on the floor, a large open chest open in front of her. She smiled as she saw Xena approach.
"Hey, I pulled out your Aunts old chest again, it is strange, it always seems so familiar, even the first time we opened it." Gabrielle mused.
Xena sat down by her friend and peered into the trunk. Its contents filled her with so many emotions, battering her from all sides. It contained their belongings, but everything was dirty and some things damaged. She drew out her sword, it had not been maintained and needed both cleaning and repairing. Then she pulled out a small leather bound volume.
"Look, it is your diary, what happened to it?" She asked the blond woman at her side.
Gabrielle looked confused. "My diary? Are you feeling ok honey?"
Xenas mind was filled with so many questions, so many things that didnt make sense. She looked into those sea-green eyes and knew it was her Gabrielle, so why didnt she recognise her own diary? Why were all their belongings in this chest in this alien place, so dirty and uncared for?
Suddenly, the picture began to recede rapidly. "Gabrielle!" she called, "Gabrielle," but the blonde woman could not hear her.
Xenas eyes snapped open, her heart thumping in her chest as a feeling of total disorientation overwhelmed her. She concentrated her senses and realised that a creature was approaching the camp. It was too large to be an animal likely to be found in the woods. The threat helped her clear her mind, returning her to her present environment. The creature was in the dense ferns to the left of their camp, the side where Gabrielle was sleeping peacefully. The intruder was moving very stealthily, as though hunting prey. Xenas eyes narrowed as her hearing allowed her to track the creature in the darkness.
It was a man, its bipedal footsteps gave it away. He was close to the camp now, he would be able to see the two figures by the fire. Xena closed her eyes and took deep, even breathes, feigning sleep. The sound of quietly scraping metal told the warrior that the intruder was drawing a dagger and her senses heightened to this new, potentially deadly threat. The man had stepped out of the ferns and Xena could hear his footfalls on the leaf litter in the open area around the fire. The man was taking his time, his movements calculated and precise. Xena realised that she was dealing with an experienced assassin.
The warrior mentally thanked her highly tuned senses and self-control as the man halted his approach right next to the blissfully unaware sleeping bard. Xena felt the barely noticeable change in air movement as the man drew his arm back ready to strike. She remained still as the man thrust his arm down with the dagger aimed straight for her friends heart. Then, as though uncoiling a highly-strung spring, her arm sprang out, gripping his wrist and snapping it sideways. The man cried out in pain and tried to free himself from this sudden attack but Xena thrust her hand back, pulling the man over both of their bodies and onto the ground the other side of her.
The warrior sprang up and landed on the assassin, pinning him to the earth with her knees. She sent three rapid jabs into his neck, relaxing slightly as the danger had been arrested, giving her control of the situation. Gabrielle had woken up and was staring at the man who had intended to take her life from her as she slept.
Xena reached around the mans neck and pulled at a piece of leather, exposing the small vial attached to it. Two chips of ice bore into the mans eyes. "Who sent you and why?" the warrior demanded.
The man returned her stare, making no move to speak. Xena moved her face closer to his, "You have no blood getting to your brain, if you do not tell me who you are working for, you will be dead in less than twenty seconds."
The man lay his head back on the ground and shut his eyes. Moments later his breathing stopped. Xena jabbed his neck to release the pressure points but the man had no pulse. The warrior looked over at Gabrielle, "He is dead."
Gabrielle looked shocked. "I dont understand, I thought you said he had another twenty seconds?"
Xena looked at the body. "He did, at least." She confirmed. She leant closer to the mans face, catching a bitter scent that was totally out of place. She opened his mouth and removed the remnants of some leaves.
Gabrielle just sat and looked at her friend, it was all so bizarre, her mind could not make any semblance of sense of the recent events. "What is that?" she asked.
Xenas face was taut and still. "Poison." She responded simply, looking over at her friend. Gabrielle looked totally nonplussed. "It is a deadly herb," she elaborated, "he must have had it in his mouth before he attacked. When I caught him he chewed it and it would have killed him almost instantaneously."
"Oh." The bard was still bewildered. "Why?"
"Probably to make sure he would not get taken alive and be able to divulge information." Xena studied her friend. The growing grey light of the pre-dawn allowed the warrior to see the pallor of Gabrielles face, she was shaking slightly, obviously shocked by the attack. Xena stood and moved to her friends side, gently wrapping her long arms around the bard.
Gabrielle clung to her friend as large tears rolled down her cheeks. This was the second attempt on her life in as many days and they still had no idea who was behind the attacks or why. The attackers had chosen to die to protect their masters identity. Perhaps they would never find out who was behind it and the attacks would keep happening until Xena was just not fast enough or they were outnumbered or Gabrielles body was racked with violent shakes as her body reacted to the shock and her sudden fear.
Xena stroked her friends hair, "Shhh, its ok, it is all ok now, you are safe" she soothed.
"What would have happened if you werent there tonight Xena?" Gabrielle asked, the answer clear to both of them.
"Its ok Gabrielle," Xena soothed, "I was there and you are fine. We will stop these people, I promise you. We can ask around at the town tomorrow, see if anyone knows anything that might help us. It will be fine." She repeated, holding Gabrielle till her sobs subsided.
It was the forest again. She looked around but could only see dark trees, spreading their knarled limbs all around her. She began to walk forward, reassured by the familiar weight of her sword on her back. A glint of white caught her attention, barely seen in the outskirts of her peripheral vision. She turned, watching and waiting. There was a slight movement in the shrubbery between two nearby trees and as she watched, the large form of the white deer appeared. For a few moments it just stood and regarded her in the dim light of the forest. Then, it turned and began to move away. The girl followed, recognising the creature as her guide.
It was odd, she reflected, she always had trouble keeping up with the animal but whenever she thought that she had lost it, its white form would somehow reappear and attract her attention and she would be able to continue again. This time the chase had led her along a heavily overgrown track, deep into the dark heart of the forest. The deer led her to a small glade, empty apart from a few large, moss-covered boulders. She looked around the glade, then realised that her guide had somehow disappeared again. She knew to wait, if she was supposed to continue, the deer would have led her. She moved to a darker area where the age-old trees had created an almost total cover to the sunlight above. Then she settled down to wait, slightly anxious about what, or whom, she was waiting for.
After a short while she could hear the approach of life. Moments later, two creatures entered into the glade, settling in the very centre. The first was a large, sleek black panther, its paws nearly as large as her own hands. It was a magnificent animal, powerful and lustrous giving her the image of cold, hard metal bound in velvet. The second creature was a fox. A lot smaller than the panther, its coat held a red, gold tinge to it. It moved with determined motions and its pricked ears told her of the intelligence and strong will at the centre of its small yet sturdy frame.
A rare ray of sunshine battled its way through the thick canopy overhead, highlighting the faces of the two animals. She stared in wonder as she was able to see their eyes. The fox had bright sea-green eyes, with sparkles of gold that skipped and danced in the sunlight. The panthers eyes were a vivid blue, contrasting greatly with its jet black coat. The pair lay down in the centre of the clearing, and the fox began to clean the panthers ears. The panther lay quietly but never for a moment did she doubt the alertness behind those clear blue eyes.
As she watched, she wondered who these creatures were. When she was in this forest she always saw people as animals, the way they were portrayed to her reflecting what was in their human souls. She knew that she did not know these people yet, although she looked forward to meeting them. Most noticeable to her was that even in their animal form she could see the bond between the two characters, it was extremely rare and she didnt think she had ever seen one as deep and true as this.
Suddenly, two more creatures entered the glade. Neither the panther nor the fox seemed able to see them despite the danger that they posed. A large snake, one she recognised as poisonous, slithered unseen over the ground towards the fox. At the same time, the other creature moved towards the panther. It was a large bear, considerably larger than the panther with a shaggy black coat and eyes that glinted red in the near darkness.
All of a sudden, the bear pounced on the startled panther, pinning it to the ground with its greater body mass. Meanwhile, the snake struck the unsuspecting fox and as she watched she could see the small trickle of blood from the foxs neck as it dripped to the hard ground. The fox collapsed, the poison from the bite taking immediate effect on its small body.
Then as quickly as the two intruding creatures had appeared, they vanished back into the darkness of the surrounding forest. The panther leapt to its feet and to its friends side, poking the limp body gently with its muzzle. However, there was no response. The panther lay down, its nose touching the foxes and as she watched, that glossy black coat seemed to fade and the sleek presence of the creature was reduced to a heap of fur.
She awoke with a start, the dream had been particularly vivid and her heart was still thumping rapidly in her chest. Moss looked up at her, his soft brown eyes holding a gently quizzical gaze. She pulled the furs back and swung her feet over the edge of the bed, planting them firmly on the cold ground. The barely lit window testified to the early hour but she knew that it would be easier to slip away unseen in the pre-dawn. She moved around the small hut efficiently, changing from her nightwear into her most comfortable pair of leathers and boots. She grabbed a travel bag and packed it with essentials including her flints, sharpening stone, basic healers kit, repair kit, some bread and cheese, and a blanket. She filled a water flask, which she fastened at her hip and slung her bow and quiver over her right shoulder, having already strapped her sword to her left.
Whistling for Moss to follow her, she had left the hut within a candlemark of waking up. She slipped out of the camp silently, knowing to avoid the guard huts strategically placed around the perimeter of the village. She knew this quest was going to be difficult, after all she was setting out to find people she had never met and had no idea where they were. All she knew was that she had to find them and warn them, the rest she would just have to wing, relying on her gut instincts to lead her. Despite knowing the punishment for disappearing from the village without permission, she looked at Moss padding along happily by her side and felt that if she were successful, this quest would be worth any punishment.
The sheep roamed around their pen desperately seeking a way out, conscious of the red eyes watching them from the darkness. The baaing grew to a frenzy as the beast slunk towards the pen, stalking the frightened herd. In one fluid movement it vaulted over the tall fencing landing firmly inside the enclosure. The fiend charged at the largest animal, planting its vicious jaws around the helpless sheeps throat and tearing fleshing from bone effortlessly. It gripped the limp body in its bloodied mouth and clearing the fence for the second time, escaped into the darkness to feast on its latest prize
The heat of the day before had dispersed over night, affording more comfortable travelling conditions. Warrior, bard and horse walked side by side along the dusty track that would eventually lead to Elktons village. The surroundings had returned to natural woodland, which provided homes to a rich variety of native wildlife. Birdsong accompanied the travellers as they passed and small rodents scuttled out of the track ahead of them.
Gabrielle was feeling much happier than she had been in the early hours of the morning. Xena had made her a hot, sweet cup of tea that had calmed her heightened nerves whilst the warriors constant presence had soothed her enough to look at the situation objectively. Now, in the daylight and without a rude awakening or shock to contend with, problems seemed a lot easier to conquer. Firstly, the attempted assassin only got as close to her as he did because Xena allowed it. The close proximity had not meant that the man was any closer to taking her life than he would have been from the outskirts of the clearing. Secondly, she had every faith in her friends capabilities, it would take a whole army of men to outfight Xena and double that if she was protecting her friends. Gabrielle was sure that the warrior was good enough to hold off any more attacks that may be made until they were able to find out more information about who was targeting her and why. Then, when this was all over perhaps she could make a great story out of it.
"Are you feeling better now?" Xena had been keeping a close eye on her friend after the early mornings events. Gabrielle had been in shock to start with but after a little time she had begun to relax a little. Xena had urged them to get back on the road, hoping the routine of the travelling would also help soothe her friends jangled nerves. Now the bard seemed happier, her cheeks held a pink tinge to them again and her eyes were beginning to recover a little of their usual sparkle.
Gabrielle turned and smiled at her tall friend, wondering at how Xena always seemed to know what she was thinking. Probably another side effect of spending so much time together she rationalised with a mental shrug. "Yes, thanks, I am sure the fresh air and exercise must really be helping!" she joked.
"Dont knock it." Xena told her, "it helps you grow tall and strong." She eyed her shorter friend exaggeratedly, "Well !"
Gabrielle thumped the warriors arm, "Hey, dont knock short people, we have advantages you tall people could only dream about ." She mock whispered as she continued, "someday, we will take over the world you know!"
Xena snorted, "What sort of advantages, being able to take a horses tack off by just walking under it?"
The bard laughed at the mental image. "One day my friend, one day!" she waggled her finger at the grinning warrior walking beside her. "So, how do you reckon Elkton is doing these days?"
Xena thought for a moment, "He is a good man, he will have been a good leader to both the temple and the village people." She responded.
"You know, I dont think I ever really thanked you for those tips on non-violent options, they saved my bacon back then." Gabrielle smiled and shook her head briefly as she remembered back to the naïve kid who had been so quick to pick up a sword. "It was a scary time but I certainly learnt a valuable lesson."
Xena considered this. "It is always better to try and resolve a situation non-violently, it is too easy to just pick up a weapon. I knew all the theories back then but really it was you who taught me how to put them into practice, you have taught me a lot too you know." Xena urged the bard.
Gabrielle smiled, "I think we make a great team." She paused and grinned at the warriors genuine, rarely seen full smile, "and it all makes for good stories too!"
The conversation lulled as the companions navigated a fallen tree trunk that was barring the majority of the track.
Gabrielle regarded the trunk thoughtfully. "Do you ever get the feeling that someone is trying to stop us getting to Elktons village?" She asked.
Xena looked at her, slightly surprised by the suggestion. "Why would they?" she asked simply.
"I dont know, it is just everything started happening since we decided to visit him." The bard mused.
"I cant see how the two situations are related." Xena replied honestly. "If you want we can turn around and head back?" she offered.
"No, even if they were trying to stop us we should carry on to find out why." Gabrielle reasoned, "Anyhow, are you still having the visions?"
Xena nodded, looking into the distance. "Yeah, I have had a couple since we last mentioned it."
"Are they still the same?" the bard probed gently, not really knowing what they were like before but wanting to show interest and offer help if possible.
Xena sighed, thinking back to the most recent ones. "The images are clearer, it is easier to make things out. Everything is still very strange though " her sentence trailed off.
Gabrielle probed a bit further, "Do you see people in the visions or just things?" she asked.
"People," Xena started, quickly amending her sentence, "people I know and a few I dont." Well, Xena reflected, it was sort of true and saved awkward questions, however, it would have been more correct for her to say person I know and a few I dont.
Gabrielles mind was racing with possible contents of the visions, there was certainly something that her friend wasnt telling her but what was it and why? It took a severe amount of self-control to fight her natural bardic curiosity and not to just blurt out a string of questions. Xena was obviously bothered by something that she was seeing but was reticent about voicing it. Perhaps after they had seen Elkton they may have some answers, then hopefully Xena would elaborate further. "How much longer until we reach Elktons village?" she asked instead, wondering if the events of the morning had delayed them at all.
Xena looked upwards. The weather was clear and dry and the sky suggested it would remain like that for some time, that was always a good thing. "Hopefully by nightfall." She answered.
The gradually setting sun spread its amber rays over the dying activity of the small village. Burnished figures moved around the simple wooden buildings, clearing tools and tidying up after a long days work. The inn doors were open, embracing the finally cooling air and allowing the enticing smell of freshly cooked food to drift into the dusty village streets.
A few people stopped their activities and turned to look at the two women entering the village. Travellers were unusual in this area, it was deep in the rural countryside away from the busier routes to the large towns. This was a devout farming community, rarely even visited by the travelling merchants who roamed the country to sell their wares. These women held a commanding presence, one likely to attract attention even if they were to enter the very centre of Athens itself. Riding a golden warhorse was a tall, alert warrior whose beauty contrasted greatly with her obvious talent as an experienced fighter. Then there was her shorter, blonde companion whose stride was confident and determined, her keen intelligence obvious in her eyes. The eyes of the villagers tracked them until they disappeared from sight, one into the inn and the other into the inns stables.
Xena walked Argo into the inn stables. They were basic, a little in need of repair in a few places, but it was clean and contained all of the basic equipment she required. She led the tall warhorse over to the water trough and stood as the mare drank. She looked up as the stable door was pushed open, revealing the familiar form of her bardic friend approaching her.
"We have a room." Gabrielle announced, "I booked it for just one night but they arent too busy at the moment so if we need to extend it we can."
Xena nodded and led Argo over to one of the several free bays. Gabrielle joined her and they both set to work at removing the tack and giving the horse a smart rubdown with some clean hay. Xena had used to do this all on her own but gradually, as Gabrielle and Argo had started to bond, the friends had begun to share the work. However, the bard was sensitive enough to realise when her friend needed to use the time as therapy and would then leave her in peace. Xena had to admit though, when all she wanted was to get in a bath and wash the days grime away, two hands made faster work. Gabrielle was one of the few people she would have trusted to help deal with Argos needs, she herself insisted on maintaining the best level of care as possible and the bard had always shared that standard, right from the start.
By the time the friends emerged from the stable, the sky was already beginning to fill with glittering stars. Argo had been fed, watered and groomed and a bed of fresh straw was laid out for her. The women entered the inn, their travel belongings slung over their shoulders. After a brief exchange with the innkeeper they climbed the wooden stairs, locating their assigned room and entering. Much like the stable, the room was basic, an empty fireplace with spare wood stacked on either side, two single pallets, a table and chair and a comfortable looking rocking chair placed by the fire. The room was brightened with colourful throws that coved the beds and a matching rug that covered some of the bare wood floor.
Gabrielle dumped her load and flopped down on the nearest bed with a contented sigh. "I love the excitement of the outdoor life but sometimes there is just no match for the creature comforts in life!"
Xena moved to her friends side, and grinned. "Well," she prodded the bards flat stomach, "with your appetite if you had creature comforts on tap you would be the size of a barn " She agilely skipped to one side, just far enough to avoid the bards flailing arm.
"Hey, that wasnt nice," the bard complained, consciously pouting her lower lip and looking up at her tall friend between thick lashes. "Anyhow, I have a quandary, what to do first, eat or get clean?"
Xenas eyes filled with mischief, "I could always feed you dinner in the bath but I am afraid it may well threaten your modesty," the truth of the statement was immediately apparent as the bard turned an attractive shade of pink from the base of her neck to the tips of her ears. The warrior laughed out loud at the human lobster before her.
"Muhumm," the bard responded, trawling through her mind for a suitable change of subject. "So, when do you want to see Elkton, this evening or tomorrow?"
Xena smiled at the swift change of subject but humoured her still crimson friend. "I was hoping to see him tonight, that will give us more freedom in deciding what we want to do next."
Gabrielle nodded, the logic behind the statement concurrent with her own thoughts. "How about you find us some food while I go and wash?"
It was Xenas turn to nod. "Sure," she responded simply.
The bard hummed softly to herself as she padded along the wooden corridor between the bathing room and the room they had rented. Perhaps it was just natural human psychology but she always felt so much happier after a bath. Hopefully, if Xena had been successful she would have some dinner waiting too, her stomach rumbled in reaction to the thought. She pushed open the door to their room and found both some food but also a dripping warrior.
"Why are you wet?" Gabrielle asked, checking the window to make sure there hadnt been a freak rainstorm.
"I had a wash. One usually gets wet when one washes," the warrior answered pedantically.
The bard looked confused. "But I was in the bathroom all the time and you didnt come in "
Xena face was serious. "Yes, you were actually in the bathroom for a whole day, it is really tomorrow now." Xena could not help but laugh out loud at her friends momentarily wide-eyed expression. "Actually, I had eaten my supper and done my drills and you still werent out of the bath so I made alternative washroom arrangements "
Gabrielle scowled at the tall warrior. "I was not in the bath that long, anyhow, you should be glad you travel with someone who knows the virtues of being clean " She eyed her friend critically, "so tell me Warrior, where exactly did you wash?"
Xena moved to the window and pointed, "there."
Gabrielle followed her gaze to a wooden horse trough just outside the stables. "You washed there?" The bard looked incredulous. "Naked?!"
The warrior smirked, "I couldnt wait till you had finished in the bathroom, I would have crusted over with the grime so much I wouldnt have been able to walk!"
Gabrielle couldnt help but laugh at the mental image her friend had presented. Unable to ignore her stomach any longer, she investigated the nice-smelling pots left on the table. "Mmm, whats this, it smells great!"
"Chicken and vegetable soup," the warrior answered, "with fresh crusty bread."
What seemed like moments later Xena spoke up again. "Well, you were certainly quicker with that than you were in the bathroom "
Gabrielle flicked the warriors thigh with the linen she had been using to dry her hair. "So, are we ready to go and see Elkton now?" she asked before her friend had time to counter attack.
The small hut was warm and inviting, a friendly fire crackled in the corner and liberally spread candles bathed the room with a gentle light. The friends were seated in simple but sturdy wooden chairs, taking in their surroundings with interest as Elkton made some tea. He had aged a little since they had last seen him, a few more sun carved lines showing on his weathered face and an extra peppering of grey in his short hair. However, his eyes were bright and almost danced with delight when he had opened the door of his small cabin to his surprise visitors.
He joined them near the fire, setting down a tray with three clay mugs and a large jug that was steaming promisingly. Pouring out the tea with a steady hand he passed around the beverages, serving himself last. Finally, he sat down in a large rocking chair, cradling his warm mug and beaming at his visitors. "So, how have you both been?" He asked.
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged glances, not really knowing how to reply. Their wandering lifestyle had taken them both on many adventures, some amusing and interesting, others brushing with the darkness of evil itself. "Busy!" The friends responded simultaneously.
The old man smiled knowingly. "You have both been through a lot, I know" he sympathised, "I always ask Morpheus to keep me updated with your well-being."
Gabrielles eyes suddenly welled up with unshed tears and a hard lump formed in her throat. Perhaps it was the compassion in his voice or the unexpected conversation dredging up memories she tried to avoid thinking about.
Xena spoke up, "Yes, there were some challenging obstacles to overcome but we made it." She answered, unsure herself it she could continue to honestly say in one piece. She looked over at her blonde companion, her heart clenching at the clearly marked pain on her friends face. "We came to ask your advice actually." Xena decided to get straight to the point and stop the reminiscing that was causing Gabrielle so many difficulties.
Elkton looked at her, one eyebrow slightly raised. "Ask away," he offered.
The tall warrior took a deep breath and tried to decide how to state the problem without making herself appear mad or divulging too many details. She had hoped that she would be able to visit Elkton on her own so that she would not have to censor every sentence before she voiced it. However, when Gabrielle had stood in front of her and offered to let her go alone she found herself declining, somehow comforted by her friends presence in such an alien situation. "I have been having visions," she stated simply.
Elktons brows furrowed as he considered the statement. "Can you give me any more detail?" he probed.
Xena paused for a moment, trying to think of relevant facts related to such personal visions. "I have about two or three a week and have done for the last two months. They started as just noises and blurs but they have transformed into situations I can see clearly. The environments are totally alien, unlike anything I have seen anywhere in my travels. They do not last long but will happen both while I am asleep and as daydreams while I am awake."
The old man nodded his greying head methodically, slightly twisting his mug around in his worn hands. For a few moments the cabin was filled with silence bar the comforting crackle of the fire and the sound of a gentle breeze in the darkness outside. Gabrielle had recovered from her unexpected mood swing earlier and was gazing into the fire, listening to the conversation as unobtrusively as she could.
Finally, Elkton broke the silence. "Well," he began, his hand running over the rough stubble on his chin, "if you have these visions both in your sleep and while you are awake, it is unlikely to be something I can give you any answers to. If it had just been in your dreams then it would have been different but from what you have said it sounds like there is more to this than any of us are aware of."
Xena could not help but feel disappointed, she had found it hard to deal with the frustration her visions left her feeling and had been hoping, perhaps irrationally, that a solution would be forthcoming as soon as she could discuss the matter with Elkton. Well, she would just have to find another solution but first she needed some sort of hint as where to begin searching next. "Have you ever heard of something like this before?" she asked, hoping this would be a good starting point.
Elkton shook his head. "We all know there are gifted people in the world who turn their visions into prophecies. Those people are extremely rare though and every single one I have heard about has had the gift since childhood, that suggests to me that your gift is something different." He paused, considering the problem. He desperately wanted to be of help both out of friendship but also because of a favour long due. "Let me ask for Morpheus help, perhaps he can offer a clue that may be of assistance."
Xena was dubious about the likelihood of this, she had been the one to foil the gods attempt at recruiting the young Gabrielle as his bride, denying him the sacrifice of her blood innocence. However, her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a bell ringing in the distance.
Elkton looked out of the window, noting the positions of the stars. "I am afraid I will have to leave you now, that is my cue for the midnight service." The friends drained their cups and rose to their feet. "I am sorry I could not have been of more help to you," he smiled regretfully at the tall warrior, "come and see me tomorrow though, if Morpheus has smiled upon me I may have something to offer you."
Gabrielle and Xena smiled at him, uttering thanks for both his attempts at help and his warm hospitality. Within a few moments there were outside in the crisp night air, returning to their simple inn room and their beds with tired anticipation.
The sun was high in the sky, bearing down with what would have been an intolerable heat had it not been for the soft but persistent breeze coming from upwind of them. They had been travelling for some time now but had not met another soul on the dusty track they were progressing along.
The young girl watched indulgently as her canine companion rampaged from one side of the track to the other, from in front of her to behind, sniffing at all of the enticing smells he found in the tall grasses. Moss certainly seemed to be enjoying their little jaunt even if they did not know if they were even travelling in the right direction. A flash of black and white whizzed passed her left hand side as the dog chased yet another phantom rabbit. Suddenly he stopped, his muzzle raised in the air and his paw held up off the ground. The young girls face changed from relaxed to concerned as she watched the small muscle movements around the dogs nose.
"What is it Moss?" She asked as she looked at her travelling companion questioningly. The canines sense of smell had given her the advantage several times in the past when his advanced warning had told her of oncoming intruders.
Moss walked over to her, his ears were pricked but his tail hung low, a sure sign that it wasnt a friend that was approaching. The young girl cupped her hands either side of the dogs face and she looked him directly in the eyes. "Hide," she commanded, reiterating firmly, "hide." Obediently, her companion ran off into the thick shrubbery to one side of the track and after some brief rustling had disappeared from her senses.
The girl looked around, not knowing how much time the dogs advanced warning had given her. She moved towards a tall tree and with practised ease climbed it, resting on one of the large limbs high off the ground. Her new location gave the girl a better vantage point and she was able to have a birds eye view of the track below as well as for some way into the distance.
It was not long before her straining eyes were able to locate a rapidly approaching shadow. As the distance between herself and the intruding shape lessened she was able to make out a large wolf like creature approaching. It had a dark shaggy coat and a huge muzzle. The creature paused regularly on its progression down the track and as it traced the scent it was tracking it began salivating heavily, causing its lethal white teeth to glisten in the sunlight. As the girl watched, her intrigue of the alien beast turned to fear as it raised its head slightly and she was able to see a red glint to its eyes that she had only seen one before.
Thinking quickly the girl accessed her healing kit, taking extra special care not to drop anything due to her unusual location. She located a pouch of darkly coloured leaves, carefully bound and stored well away from her other herbs. Ripping up the leaves the girl took an arrow from the quiver on her back, rubbing the sap from the broken vegetation onto the arrows sharp tip, all the time watching the progress of the rapidly approaching creature. Roughly estimating the mass of the beast the girl calculated the quantity of the substance she needed, covering the arrowhead until it was nearly dripping. The creature was almost directly below her now, she briefly spared a moment to thank whichever god was watching over her for the fact that the creature seemed unaware of either her or Moss presence.
Carefully she raised her bow and loaded the arrow, taking care for a precise shot. She held her breath as she drew the arrow back releasing it with an aim that proved true. The creature roared with rage and spun round to try and locate its mystery attacker. It writhed around, trying to free the arrow that was sticking out of its right shoulder but was unsuccessful. Still howling the creature retreated into the cover of the shrubbery to one side of the track, the loud trashing of vegetation testament to the distance away from the track it had travelled.
The girl spent a few moments in the sanctuary of her tree whilst she calmed down and was assured the beast was no longer an immediate threat. She excavated herself from the tree with natural finesse, landing on the ground with solid contact. Still hearing no signs of the recently escaped creature she put two fingers to her mouth and let out a loud whistle. What seemed like moments later a black and white creature bounded out of some bushes nearly bowling her over with his exuberance.
The pair continued along the track, this time their pace faster and more deliberate. "Hey boy!" The girl addressed the dog, "did you see that thing? It was just like the bear in that dream I told you about."
Moss looked up at her with intelligent brown eyes.
"That was poison," she responded in answer to his unspoken question. "I doubt it will kill it, that was some big beast, but it should slow it down enough to give us the advantage. I suppose one good thing is at least we know we are going the right way." Pausing for a few moments the girl considered her luckily successful encounter with the beast. She looked down at the dog pacing by her side, a grave expression on her face, "thanks Moss, I owe you one."
The early morning sun was greeted by two figures battling each other with staves. It would have been a spectacular image had any onlookers been present to observe it. The opponents were knee deep in a grassy meadow at the foot of a gently rolling slope that culminated in a small river. The bronzed gold of the sunrise caressed the skin of the two women, highlighting even the most subtle of curves on their bodies. The light danced as the muscles of the fighters shifted, complimenting the rapid yet fluid movements of their weapons.
Eventually the women allowed their staves to rest, their skin glistening with sweat from the healthy challenge. Moving down to the water they stooped to drink, enjoying the clean tang of the cold, fresh water. Briefly, their heads bent together in discussion then they both began to shed their clothing, laying it neatly on the ground by their weapons.
Gabrielle was trying hard not to look at the beautiful naked warrior she knew was standing just to one side of her. Certainly, she was more comfortable with being naked around her tall friend than she would have been with anyone else. After the several years of travelling together, modesty was impractical and neither were shy about their own bodies. Gabrielle smiled inwardly, Xena never had been, probably the result of looking at her body as a tool for her many fighting years. Gabrielle on the other hand had been shy at first, too self-conscious of her gawky adolescent body. After a few months she had decided to just deal with it and after that she had begun to relax. However, even now she had to try hard not to look at her friend whilst she was naked because she knew from embarrassing experience that she would stare. There was just something about her tall friend with her midnight black hair, the contrasting vivid blue eyes, the tanned skin that covered the finely sculpted muscles, which mesmerised the bard and always had done. She decided to concentrate on the water instead, trying to prepare herself for just how cold it was going to be. "I dont know how you talked me into this when there are perfectly adequate, warm bathing facilities at the inn," she lamented.
"You will get used to it," the warrior consoled her, somewhat distracted. She was trying very hard not to look at the naked bard she knew was standing by her side. The warrior was aware that sometimes she wasnt too talented at masking her thoughts and looking at her friend with an appreciative expression written across her features was not particularly subtle. Xena had begun to notice changes in her friends body over the time they had been travelling together. The bard had of course become fitter, gaining muscle from the physical nature of their lifestyle and loosing any remnants of puppy-fat she may have had to begin with. As she had matured she had gained both womanly curves and the self-confidence that highlighted them perfectly. Instead, the warrior decided to focus on the water, moving towards it and taking a shallow dive.
The bard followed her in, the icy cold impact of the water against her exertion-warmed skin taking her breath away for a few moments. However, soon they were both acclimatised and enjoying the sensation of the cleansing water against their over heated skin as it washed away the sweat and any remnants of sleep still remaining.
She sun was high in the sky before the two women returned to the inn, refreshed and laughing. Their hair was almost totally dry, a testament to the heat of the sun and they were both feeling a healthy pull in their muscles from the challenge of the staff practice. They entered the inn and returned to their room, storing their staves and the spare clothes they had washed in the stream after the combat.
Gabrielle turned to her taller companion. "How about a hearty breakfast before we go and find Elkton?" she suggested.
The warrior grinned at her, "I would have never guessed my favourite bard would be hungry!"
The bard in question flushed slightly at the unforeseen but not unwelcome compliment. "Just for that I will let you off for yet another crack at my appetite. Come on!" She urged, already halfway out of the door.
The pair made their way down into the body of the inn, the lack of patrons emphasising the relatively early hour. They spoke to the innkeeper briefly, Xena requesting an extra large breakfast for her companion and just a large for herself. They seated themselves at a large table near an open window, glad of both the fresh air and light.
Gabrielle broke the momentary silence. "Do you think Elkton will have anything new to tell us this morning?" she asked.
Xena pondered the question. "I think it is unlikely," she said, "I have never known a god to interfere when it would be helpful, plus," she continued, "I havent done him many favours."
The bard took a moment to realise she was referring to foiling his attempts to take herself as his bride. Still, she hoped that there would be something, otherwise they were back to square one, which was nowhere. Trying to maintain the light-hearted mood she simply responded, "well, we will just have to hurry up with our breakfast and find out!"
As if on queue, two large platters were brought out and set down in front of them. "Extra large?" the server inquired, raising an eyebrow at Xena.
"There please," the warrior smirked at she pointed to Gabrielles place.
The food was good in both quantity and quality. Gabrielle silently admitted that a large would have sufficed but decided to eat it all on principle. Anyhow, she justified to herself, they never knew when they were going to get a decent meal on the road. The pair ate in contented silence, washing down the bacon, eggs, toast and mushrooms with a light apple cider.
Xena grinned as Gabrielle pushed her knife and fork together on her empty plate with a faintly triumphant look at her companion. "Ready to go?" the warrior asked.
Gabrielle looked thoughtful for a moment before responding, "Well, I was considering seconds," she lied, "but I know you are keen to get this sorted. Come on!"
Xena shook her head slightly as she smiled but followed suit and left the table, heading out into the bright sunlight outside, a few steps behind her friend. They navigated the village efficiently, ignoring the unhidden stares of the natives. Arriving at Elktons hut Xena gave a short tap at the door which was opened moments later by a smiling Elkton.
"Come in, come in," he ushered, holding open the door and standing to one side to let them pass. "Have a seat, would you like a drink?"
The friends exchanged amused glances, "No thanks, we have just had breakfast at the inn." Xena answered.
"Of course," the old man smiled.
"So " Gabrielle, ushered, putting aside her usual diplomacy in deference to her desire for an answer.
"Well," Elkton began, "I still do not have all the answers but Morpheus did hear my prayers and has given you a starting point." He paused before he continued, "seems like you ladies impressed him with your courage and intelligence, he must have remembered you!"
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged surprised looks, although each had different expectations of the success of Elktons attempt, neither of them had expected to be remembered by a god and certainly never in such a positive light.
"I had a dream," the high priest began, "I saw you, Xena, sleeping whilst a white deer came and stood by your bedside."
Gabrielles voice was high with excitement, "The Amazons say that Artemis often takes the form of a majestic white deer!" she exclaimed, thrilled at what was appearing to be a solid clue.
Xena nodded but looked puzzled. "Artemis? Why?" she questioned.
Elkton cleared his throat, "There is more if you would like to hear it."
Gabrielle spoke up, "Please, continue."
The old man took a deep breath. "The white deer was chased away, many times by something I can only describe as evil," his face was grave but he continued. "However, she did keep returning." He looked at each of the women in turn, "I think there is more to this than just your visions Xena."
Gabrielles excitement trailed away to be replaced with a grave understanding. "Xena, I think those attempts must be linked," she said, giving her friend a dire look.
Xena nodded silently. "Elkton, is there anything you can tell us about this evil force, anything at all?"
The old man shook his head sadly. "I am sorry my friends, all I could see was a shadow without form or colour, it was just the feeling I had when it appeared that let me realise it was evil." He paused for a moment, his eyes raising up slightly as he thought back to his dream. "The essence that I saw," he began, his words slow with consideration, "wasnt there of its own accord, it is a creation of another and though the essence may be evil and cruel, its creator is slightly more balanced." He looked at the friends hoping his words may have made some sense to them.
Gabrielle was relieved. "Thank the gods!" she exclaimed, turning to her friend and quietly admitting, "I had wondered if it was Dahok "
Xena too had considered the prospect and shared Gabrielles relief. If it had been Dahok, the essence of evil would have been the creator rather than the creation. However, they still faced an unknown enemy and the most likely possibility had been eliminated. She smiled and patted her friends hand, "Even if it had been him I would have fought for you Gabrielle." For a moment their eyes caught and locked, silently speaking of their mutually painful pasts and their painstakingly rebuilt friendship. The bond that had held them together had never broken though and now, in the sparse sanctuary of Elktons home, they realised it never would.
A gentle throat clearing interrupted their thoughts. Elkton smiled at them, his weathered face creasing around the corners of his eyes. "I hope that what I have told you will be of some use to you." He said, pausing as an idea struck him. "There is an Amazon village not far from here, a couple of leagues South of that is a large temple dedicated to Artemis, perhaps that should be the next place you visit on this quest."
Xena smiled and rose to her feet, "thank you Elkton, for all you have done for us." She clasped his arm in sincerity.
Gabrielle rose too and the pair bade their farewells to their renewed friend. Elkton watched as the companions strode away from his home and towards the inn to collect their belongings. His eyes twinkled and a genuine smile spread across his face as his instincts confirmed what his life experience had already suggested. He began humming quietly as he closed the door gently and began his daily chores.
Although the friends needed to travel back in the opposite direction they had taken to get to Elktons village, they had decided to take a different route to try and avoid any other would-be threats to Gabrielles safety. The new course would take them longer as it consisted more of winding footpaths that traversed the forest floor, many of the paths were overgrown too and painstaking effort had to be used to clear enough space for Argo to move through. However, both women though that any advantage they could get over their unknown enemy was worth a little extra effort.
It was cooler travelling in the sheltered protection that the forest offered. It was more peaceful too, although the dusty track they had used before had been fairly deserted, the forest was an illogical path to take and in the full days journey they had not encountered another soul. All in all it made for a generally relaxing time and both women were in a more positive mood thanks to the information Elkton had been able to give them.
"Were you surprised?" Gabrielle asked her warrior friend.
"What, that you managed to eat that whole extra large breakfast?" Xena responded, her face serious.
The bard laughed and slapped her friend on the arm. "No! About Artemis being the one behind your visions." The bard clarified.
"Ah," the warrior considered for a moment, "I guess so, yes. I had thought that maybe it was Alti somehow trying to drive me insane or something, visions are very much her style. When I found out it was Artemis I just felt confused, for what purpose is the obvious question, especially since I am not even an Amazon."
The blonde had been thinking about that too but sill had not had any plausible ideas. "Well, you may not be an Amazon by birthright but you do have all of the qualities of one of the best Amazons that I know of at least." She returned her friends smile. "That may well be why she is helping you but it still leaves a lot of unanswered questions."
"We do not know she is helping though," Xena parried, "We do not know her motives so how can we assume her intent?"
Gabrielle sidestepped a large rock in her path. "I think she is helping Xena," she contradicted, "after all the deer kept returning to your side despite the evil presence. It gives me the impression that there is something important to require such persistence."
"Perhaps." The warrior responded simply, leading Argo around a low overhanging branch.
"I suppose we will just have to see if we can find out anymore when we visit the temple." Gabrielle watched as the dubious look returned to her friends face. "What is the matter?"
Xena shook her head. "Nothing, I just dont think it will be likely that we will find out anymore information at a temple, what is she going to do, appear on the altar in front of my very eyes and tell me every minor detail including the colour underwear I am wearing?!"
Gabrielle couldnt help but smile, "I think that may be a little unlikely but seriously, look at it this way, people have visions to tell them things, important things. From what you have said, all you have seen is a lot of alien shapes and fuzziness, and if you knew what it was all about we wouldnt be travelling through this stupid forest." The bards voice had risen a little towards the end of the sentence as she had ripped her sleeve and grazed her arm on a patch of projecting brambles.
Xena stopped walking and reached out for her friends arm, peering at the broken skin. "Just a scratch," she pronounced. "You may be right," she allowed, "but I think I will reserve judgement for the time being."
A loud roll of thunder that sounded as though it came right from overhead interrupted the friends conversation. Xena looked up at the rapidly darkening sky. "We ought to find shelter before this storm breaks," she announced, "we will probably have to take cover until the morning."
Gabrielle nodded in agreement, slightly surprised by the sudden appearance of the storm clouds, especially given the hot, clear weather they had had over the last few weeks and the lack of the air tension they usually felt before a storm.
The friends travelled a short distance further, halting when they found a shallow cave in a nearby rock face. It was a little too close to the river Xena could just see through the trees but if heavy rains persisted they would just have to move on. In the short term at least it provided a secure shelter for all three of them and their belongings.
Trusting her gut instinct the young woman had left the sandy track they had been travelling along for the majority of their journey, cutting instead into the neighbouring forest. Moss had obligingly followed her and was finding the wildlife of the forest just as intriguing as that on the outskirts of the track. It suited the pair better as it offered richer hunting, a facility much needed due to their dwindling rations.
The girl carried her armed bow at the ready, hoping a little luck may allow an opportune rabbit to cross her path. A small rustling in the bushes ahead of them attracted her attention and she laid a hand on the shoulder of her excited canine friend to steady him. Stealthily she moved forward, carefully placing one foot in front of the other as she raised her bow. She signalled to the well-trained Moss and watched as he moved around to the other side of the bushes, making considerably more noise than she had done. A surprised rabbit hopped out onto the path and was killed instantly by a perfectly aimed arrow to its chest. The girl smiled, she liked it to be that way, instantaneous, she had no qualms about hunting to feed herself but she tried hard to avoid unnecessary suffering, even if it was only to a rabbit.
Moss skipped out of the shrubbery, his pink tongue hanging sideways out of his mouth as he panted with excitement.
"Well done Moss," the girl patted his large head and smiled at him, "how do you fancy roasted rabbit for supper?"
As the dog wagged his tail enthusiastically the girl stooped to pick up their prey. She paused and looked up as a loud rumble of thunder rolled around above their heads. She groaned inwardly, admitting that the nice weather had made their travelling a lot more bearable than it could have been. Deciding on a plan of action she progressed through the trees, collecting dry would as she passed. If they could get a fire started and the dinner cooking before the storm broke and the rains came, they stood a lot better chance at being able to share a decent meal. Pausing at a small glade she set down her travel pack and removing her sharp dagger, began skinning the rabbit. She diced up the meat placing it in the pan and turned her attention to the fire, building it for more intense heat rather than longevity.
As the meat cooked she searched the surrounding area for edible roots or berries she could use to produce a more filling meal. Luckily she had already collected a selection as she had passed through the forest earlier and with what she now found she soon had enough to provide for both herself and her dog.
The meal was basic but it served its purpose and the girl found it refreshingly sweet knowing that it had been provided by her own skills, independent from others interference. The storm had become steadily worse throughout the preparation and consumption of the meal and the first splashes of rain began to fall as they were just finishing. She had decided to continue moving for as long as they could as there was no obvious shelter nearby and the activity of the travelling would keep them warmer and dryer than they would be sitting still. Efficiently she packed up her belongings and whistled for Moss as she squared her jaw and set out again in the now heavy rain.
Hours later they had covered a good distance due to their increased pace. The rain was now pelting down, plastering her hair to her face and making visibility difficult. However, she smiled as in the distance she saw the looming shadow of a rock face and as they approached it, the large cave that offered a dry haven to spend the remainder of the night. Moments later she stumbled into the cave, Moss closely behind her as she fished in her travel bag and retrieved a piece of linen which she used to dry off the worst of the water from her hair and body. Utterly exhausted the girl knew it was senseless to look for any firewood as everything would be too wet to light. Instead she made do with curling up in a small ball under her blanket, her back against the tolerant Moss in an effort to share body heat. Her exhaustion alone allowed her to fall into a fitful sleep not long after.
Gabrielle peered out of the entrance of the alcove that had been their home for the night. The rain was sheeting down making it hard for her to see all but the closest trees. She was aware of the approaching presence as Xena moved to her side, surveying the view with a grim look. It was almost midday but neither of them would have known it from looking outside, only their well-adjusted body clocks were able to give them any idea.
"We should leave here soon," the warrior regretfully informed her friend, "we are too close to the river and the rain has been this heavy since just before nightfall last night.
Gabrielle nodded in understanding, she had been half-expecting this problem. "Where will we go?" she asked.
"If we try and head away from the river we may be able to find some shelter that isnt so likely to flood."
In silence the pair began to collect together their belongings, strapping up the bags to keep as much water out as possible. Argo was addled at being surrounded by rock but at the same time was not keen to venture out into the sodden forest. Xena tried to calm the agitated mare, murmuring softly too her as she stroked her neck. When they were ready Xena took the reins loosely in her hands, they had already decided to carry their own gear should Argo suddenly bolt. With a deep breath the three ventured out into the open, bowing their heads slightly against the stinging rain and moving along the soggy path as rapidly as the conditions would allow.
They had not been travelling long before Xenas heart sank and she realised that the path they were following had curved round and had brought them along side the swollen, rushing river. Normally she would have been able to have realised sooner as her bearings were usually very reliable. However, in these conditions she could barely see the sodden bard traipsing along behind Argo let alone enough of the surrounding area to monitor their direction successfully. She cursed violently and paused allowing the bard to draw up along side her.
"Whats wrong?" The bard shouted against the torrents of wind and rain battering her from all directions.
Xena pointed to their right, "River," she shouted in response.
Oh dear, Gabrielle thought, we were supposed to be avoiding the river. She peered through the sheeting water and located the river. Xena had been right, it was heavily swollen and the almost black water rushed by with a force and speed that made her shudder.
The warrior was trying to think of which direction to take to get them away from the river but without getting lost when something on the track ahead of them attracted her attention. She tapped her friends arm and pointed. Two very large figures were heading straight for them in a manner that set everyone of Xenas senses into overdrive. "Trouble!" she shouted at her friend.
Gabrielle nodded in understanding, removing her staff from its resting place by Argos saddle only moments before the warrior sent her horse fleeing into the forest with a tap to her hindquarters with the flat of her sword. Gabrielle knew that Argo would seek out shelter and remain there until the weather calmed and she would be able to come and find them. Right now though they had a more pressing problem to deal with.
The approaching figures had closed the gap between them with disturbing speed. Both the warrior and the bard stood in total silence as a strong gust of wind cleared the visibility for a brief moment, showing the creatures that approached. Two minotaurs. Xena cursed, she had only ever fought one minotaur before and that had taken every ounce of strength and skill she had had. How was she supposed to defeat two in conditions like these?
The creatures paused briefly as one raised its thick arm and pointed to the bard. The other nodded and they charged towards the friends, swords raised.
Gabrielle crouched slightly to lower her centre of gravity, she knew she was going to need every advantage she had in this battle and her compact size and manoeuvrability where the obvious assets. Her opponent towered over her, his body mass at least double, if not treble hers. He swung his sword in a wide arc but the bard dodged, returning a solid thrust of her staff to his midsection. He grunted a little but it was as though she had hit a tree, she re-gripped her staff, dodging his attacks while she considered her options.
Xena raised her sword above her head, gripping it with both hands to defend against the downward stroke that crashed into it, sending sparks flying and shockwaves down her arms and into her muscular shoulders. Again he thrust and again she parried, knowing she was going to have to think of another alternative and fast. The creature lunged forward, thrusting his huge sword straight towards her chest. Quickly, she unhooked her chakram from its resting place at her side and placed it in front of the oncoming weapon. The sword cleared the inside hole of the disk and clutching the rim of the loop, Xena used all her strength to pull the sword off its target. At the same time she thrust her own sword deep into the minotaurs hip. The creature screamed with pain as blood mingled with rain in a pool forming at his foot. Xena was pleased she had slowed him down at least and checked quickly to make sure her friend was still defending herself successfully. Her smile faded as she suddenly realised how dangerous a predicament they were in as they were fighting uncomfortably close to the raging river.
Gabrielle was hoping to tire the creature out. Realistically, she had no chance against it because of the sheer strength it obviously possessed. She was dancing around her opponent, lightly dodging his attack moves. She ducked round to one side of him, putting all her strength into a hit to the back of his knees. The blow connected as she heard a loud crack and grimly acknowledged some damage had been done. She returned to her rapid dodge movements, waiting for her next opportunity to present itself.
Xena somersaulted backwards as her opponent lunged at her, pain and anger making him redouble his efforts. He spun to one side a little as he momentarily lost his balance when his thrust never connected. The warrior charged forward to take advantage but her opponent recovered unexpectedly quickly, she was vulnerable, within his attack reach and with her sword at an attacking rather than defensive angle. The creature had raised his own sword in preparation for another downward thrust; one the warrior would not be able to defend against. She just had enough time to shift slightly, hoping the blow would connect with her shoulder rather than her skull. Unexpectedly the creature reared back, growling in sudden pain. It was only then that Xena saw the athletic form of a female archer through the mist of the thick rain. Their eyes met and held for a brief moment before the battle forced Xenas attention back to her opponent. The tall warrior took the advantage, angling a final thrust towards the minotaurs chest. The sword connected, piercing the skin and passing through the thick upper body muscles straight to the creatures heart. The minotaur slumped forward in death, knocking her to the ground, his body pinning her lower body and legs to the sodden earth, trapped.
Gabrielle had managed another couple of successful attack manoeuvres against her opponent. She had been aided by the unexpected arrival of a large black and white dog that hounded the creature, sinking white fangs into the minotaurs shin. Between the two of them the creature had become increasingly agitated and was flailing its sword wildly in the hope of it connecting with something. Two arrows flew through the air, one piercing his right hand shoulder and the other his neck, spilling blood down his broad chest. With the last of his strength the minotaur gripped his sword with both hands and swung it in a solid arc to his left. Gabrielle dodged but felt her feet slide from under her as the ground she had moved to collapsed under her weight. The earth crumbled away from under her, sending the bard falling head-first into the freezing torrent of the raging river.
"Gabrielle!" Xena screamed through the pelting rain, desperately trying to free herself from the dead weight pinning her to the ground. "GABRIELLE!" There was no response and Xena just managed to see the slim form of the mysterious archer as she dived into the swollen river.
Finally, Xena had managed to free herself. The mysterious black and white dog had pulled at the dead weight of the minotaurs body as she had pulled her own body the other way, eventually releasing her. Accompanied by the dog she had searched the river and its banks for any sign of either the bard or the archer but it was to no avail. She had eventually realised that until the weather abated she had little chance of success and only put herself in danger by continuing to be so close to the rivers edge in the present conditions. She was torn by her need to find her friend and her common sense telling her that she would be far more use alive and in one piece. As night fell she reluctantly returned to the alcove where they had spent the night before, a subconscious decision in reaction to her need to stay relatively close to the river.
The dog had remained with her throughout the evening and although he appeared agitated he had followed her back to the small cave. They had found Argo there too, nestling in the shelter the rocks provided.
"Hey girl." Xena greeted the horse sadly, "we have lost Gabrielle, she fell in the river." Argo nickered softly, nudging her warrior gently in consolation. "Sok girl, well find her tomorrow." Xena replied, the verbal reassurance more for her own benefit than the mares. The warrior sat down on one of the boulders in the alcove. The dog came and sat down by her side, receiving unimpressed whickers from Argo. "This is Dog," Xena informed the horse, "he lost his friend to the river too." Argo seemed to quieten and silence filled the cavern.
Xena got up and collected some of the dry firewood left over from their recent visit. With experienced movements she soon had a healthy fire going, providing them with light and heat at least. She rummaged in her bag and found some cheese and apples. She didnt feel much like eating but knew that it was important she kept her strength up. Sharing her bounty with her two animal friends she sat on the boulder and stared into the mesmerising flickering of the fire.
It had all happened so quickly, the minotaurs had appeared from nowhere, then the battle Xena spent a moment silently thanking the unknown archer whose allegiance had swung the odds in their favour. But then one minute Gabrielle had been there and the next she had gone, swallowed up in that heartless river. For a moment Xena could not breath as her chest tightened painfully, what happened if she didnt find Gabrielle? What would she do then? If she thought about a life without Gabrielle only one word seemed applicable. Empty. No one to share things with, no more of those unusual questions the bard so often presented her with, no more laughter. Her direction had been taken away in one fateful moment, the one person who had taken the time to really know her and who had accepted what she had found. The one person she had learnt things worth knowing from. There were so many things she could have already lost she could spend all night trying to list them and still fall short. Only one word could fully describe the loss she was facing, Gabrielle.
The bright light was painful against her sore eyes. She cracked one open and peered around surprised by her surroundings. She was lying in the mud by the side of a river. Moss was nowhere in sight. Her frown cleared as she remembered the events of the day before.
The rain had been sheeting down outside the cave, barely allowing her to see the forest outside. Moss had been sitting at the entrance just watching. Something had disturbed her and as she wondered what it was, the wind brought the sounds of a battle to her ears. She had leapt up, grabbing the travel bag she had used as a pillow and running out of the cave. Moss had followed her, his four legs easily keeping pace with her longer ones. They had sprinted through the trees, ignoring the pelting rain and heading toward the battle she could now clearly hear.
Though she was used to battles, the scene that had met her eyes had surprised even her, two huge beasts were wielding swords, their half man, half bull bodies dwarfing their opponents. It was the women that had caught her attention though, one was fairly short with blond hair. She was using her compact frame and manoeuvrability as an advantage over her opponent, the intelligence behind such tactics obvious. The other woman was tall with long midnight black hair. Her sleek body moved in testament to her great experience and skill as a warrior. She had turned to Moss and said "Looks like we have found our fox and panther!"
She had then thought practically, trying to decide the best way to help. Direct sword fighting would confuse the battle and that was when injuries were more likely to happen. Instead she had slipped unseen through the trees and emerged onto the path a little way behind the backs of the minotaurs. She had crouched next to Moss and pointed to the one on the left hand side, "Attack," she commanded, "attack." The dog had rushed off in the direction of the creature attacking the blonde woman. In the meantime, she armed her bow and sent an arrow into the creature attacking the taller woman. It had landed squarely between his two shoulder blades, embedding itself deep in the flesh. The warrior had looked up then and for a moment she stood entranced at a pair of mesmerisingly vivid blue eyes that she had only seen once before.
Moss had reached the other minotaur and was worrying it, snapping at its lower legs and prancing around it with a manoeuvrability that matched the blonde womans. She had re-loaded her bow, this time sending two arrows in quick succession. She had only just had time to see them find their target successfully before she saw the shorter woman begin to loose her footing. A quick glance at the dark haired warrior made her heart sink as she realised she was trapped under the solid weight of the fallen minotaur.
She had watched in horror as the bank had collapsed underneath the blonde womans feet and was helpless as she saw her fall into the water. The current had brought her towards her own location and she made her split second decision, silently apologising to Moss. She had heard the tall warrior call out but the sound of the rushing water that enveloped her had muffled the voice.
So here she was. She sat up in the mud and looked around her. The weather had cleared at least, the sky was fairly cloudy but the weak sun was fighting through and it looked as though she may be lucky enough to avoid any more rain, for the time being at least. She stood up and moved down to the now calmer river. She leant over slightly and scooped up some water, cleaning the worst of the foul-smelling river-mud off her face, arms and legs. She stood up again and looked around but there was no sign of humanity, in a blonde female form or otherwise. Knowing that the woman may well not have been as lucky as her, a grim expression crossed her young features. She dusted herself off and set off along the riverbank, "Fox!" She called, "Fox!"
She was so comfortable she almost didnt want to open her eyes, as a compromise she cracked one eyelid open just enough to ascertain her location. Surprised, she opened her eyes fully, revealing a place she did not recognise. She was in a large room with many odd items scattered around. There was a persistent humming noise that sounded like some sort of machinery but she did not recognise it. A large bed formed some of the reason why so was so comfortable, it was an odd bed because as she moved slightly a wave movement echoed underneath her. Whatever it was, it was comfortable, she decided.
The other reason for her comfort was the figure wrapped around her. Blonde hair spilled over the pillow and her friends familiar face was relaxed in sleep. Xena always loved this, such close intimacy with Gabrielle when neither of them were bound by the awkward awareness of their waking time. This time was slightly different though, she gently wrapped her arms around the bards shoulders and smiled as the blonde moved in even closer. As Xena gazed fondly at her, Gabrielles eyes opened a little. Even now, having been friends so long, the warrior was still surprised at the depth and beauty of those sea-green orbs.
"Hey," Gabrielle greeted her, her voice slightly hoarse with sleep.
Xena smiled at her, deciding not to ask any of the logical, practical questions about their location and situation but to just enjoy the moment instead. "Hey," she answered.
Instead of moving away the way she normally did, Gabrielle slid her arm around the warriors waist. "You know the best thing about waking up in the morning?" The blonde woman asked.
Xena raised her eyebrow in question.
"Waking up with you." Gabrielle smiled, creases appearing at the edge of her dancing eyes.
Xena was not sure what to say, she was so completely enchanted with her friends comment. Instead she reached out her hand and caressed Gabrielles cheek. She knew the action combined with the look in her eyes was something that she would not normally do but somehow in this strange place it seemed to be ok to stop denying herself, just this once.
The response though, was something she had not bargained for. Gabrielle had smiled softly and leaning forward held placed her lips gently but squarely on Xenas. It was different to anything the warrior had experienced before, the love and desire clear in her friends eyes. Xena was stunned, she had no idea that Gabrielle felt that way but all of a sudden she felt as though she had just been given the most precious gift in the world.
Xena opened her eyes, a smile still lingering on her lips. Bleakly, she realised that her present situation was very different to the one that she had occupied only moments before. She was sitting on a hard boulder in a damp alcove, staring into the remnants of a fire. Argo and the black and white dog were resting peacefully, and the grey light at the entrance of the cave told her that it would soon be dawn. Water was still falling but she realised it was in the form of drips rather than rain, which meant the weather had cleared overnight. The main thing that was different though, was the absence of her travelling companion, a change that left her chest tight and a hollow emptiness in her soul.
The warrior sighed and poked the embers of the fire with a long stick. Violently, she cursed the visions. It would have been awkward enough to have had that experience and then have had to come back to their familiar friendship but to come back to the knowledge that Gabrielle was not by her side and she did not even know if she was alive anymore, it was just too cruel a contrast. The warrior stood and began to prowl around the inside of the cave, hounded by her thoughts.
It was so frustrating, Xena could still smell the lingering scent of her companion and could also feel the feather light touches on her skin. The visions were so real, is that what it would have been like if Gabrielle had wanted her and if she had ignored her own dilemmas? Morbidly she thrust the stick deep into the heart of the fire, perhaps now she would never be able to find out. She corrected herself sarcastically, she would never have found out anyway. Xena mocked herself, she had so many good reasons why she would never have allowed more than a friendship, most of them based on her own fears and no other reason.
The warrior glared out of the cave entrance, willing the daylight to arrive sooner as it would allow her to resume her search for her missing friend. She stalked back to the edge of the fire, filling a cup with water from her flask and placing the cup into the heart of the embers. Making tea would at least kill some of the time before she could escape the darkness-forced inactivity she was finding so intolerable.
The setting sun hung like a globe of fire just above the distant horizon. Its rays spread across all it encountered, painting trees and grassland in molten gold. The river too was decorated, the deep oranges and reds glinting on the surface of the smooth water. The weather had improved throughout the day, the clouds gradually blowing away to the East allowing the sun to spread its life-giving warmth to the sodden earth. The winds had dropped too, now only a gentle breeze blew, softly tousling the leaves of the tall, willow trees that grew along the river bank.
Amongst the beauty of the natural world a figure stood out in stark comparison. It was a tall woman, her dishevelled midnight hair highlighting the dark rings under her eyes. Her body was covered in liberal scratches and cuts, dried blood was mixed with the black river-mud that caked the majority of her skin. Her amour was dull and un-kept, her leather garment underneath stained with more of the foul-smelling silt from the river. Her face was pale and pinched, a dark streak of dirt travelling down one cheek and a sadly lost look ingrained on her features. By her side was what looked like it should have been a black and white dog. Instead the creatures fur was stained a dark brown all the way up its legs and patches of mud were splattered over its face and body. Both his ears and tail were hung low, his gentle brown eyes searching for something they could not see.
Xena once again mounted the tall Argo, unaware of the beauty the horse captured in the dying evening sunset. They had travelled an astonishing distance along the river in the direction of the now gentle current. However, the warrior seemed unaware of any achievements, she knew all she needed to by the fact she was still travelling alone. As she urged the horse forward a glint of colour half covered in mud caught her eye a little ahead of her.
"Gabrielle?" she whispered hoarsely, hardly daring to get any closer, she was not sure which she was more afraid of, that being her friend or not whatever it was it wasnt moving. She strained her ears, the gentle breeze seemed to caress her hearing with a familiar voice, could it be?
Xena rode the horse as close to the object as she could, dismounting and moving a little closer to it without taking her eyes off it for a moment. She thought she heard the sound again and began to move more quickly, suddenly sinking knee deep into the viscous mud that tried to suck her deeper. She waded further through the mud towards the object, even when her foot caught in a root and she fell, her eyes clung to the object in hope. As she neared the piece of colour, she realised it was only a coloured sack, one that would probably have been washed down from one of the villages up river. She felt this last blow hit her hard and beaten, she slowly waded her way back to dry land. Every inch of her was now covered in the black mud and as she walked along the path small blobs fell onto the sandy earth. Only one part of her was now skin coloured, a thin track from a single tear running from her eye to her jaw line.
The young girl had searched all day and now the sun was setting, she had not eaten since the day before and her heart hurt without the courageous Moss to walk by her side. She looked over at the other side of the bank, searching, when a movement caught her attention. A black figure, accompanied by a black dog and a golden horse were just visible in the distance. Excited by this sudden stroke of luck she whistled and shouted to attract their attention, moving back along the path she had taken, trying to catch up with them. However, fate was cruel, they could not hear her and despite her attempts the figure mounted the horse and began to move away, the black dog trailing behind her. The girl shouted again but the wind just returned her call to her own ears and she watched helplessly until the figures were reduced to mere spots in the distance.
She was torn, part of her wanted to charge after them, at least she would be reunited with her Moss. However, she knew that the blonde woman could have been injured and time was potentially too valuable an asset to waste. Sighing, she turned her back on the dots and resumed her course along the river path.
A little time later, as the sun had almost totally disappeared behind the horizon her efforts were rewarded. A silent figure lay in the mud ahead. "Fox!" the young woman shouted, running towards the body. As she neared she recognised the blonde woman she had seen battling the minotaur only the day before. Squatting by her side the girl felt the womans neck where a subtle flutter of a pulse made her heart skip with joy. She knelt down, gripping the unconscious womans arms and throwing her over her shoulders. It took the girl all of her considerable strength to rise to a standing position with their combined weights. However, she had set her mind to what she wanted to achieve and no minor point like physical limitations was going to stand in her way.
Slowly, using her powerful thigh muscles, the girl carried the unconscious woman away from the river, to a small clearing in the nearby woods. She laid the woman down, propping her up against a large boulder. Free of her burden, the girl moved efficiently around the area, clearing some room in the centre where she built a large fire. She spread her blanket out over a nearby branch to dry completely after its sudden drenching in the river. Regularly checking on the condition of her charge, she moved around, collecting lots of wood and stacking it neatly for use through the night. Leaving her belongings with the blonde woman she collected her bow and quiver, disappearing into the forest. A short while later, she returned with two rabbits and a large partridge. She skinned the rabbits and diced the meat, placing it in her cooking pot. She added some water and the root vegetables she had collected on her hunting trip. She placed the pot on the fire, allowing the mixture to cook thoroughly. She plucked and prepared the bird, skewering it with a long sharp stick and resting that over the now bubbling pan. Nodding in satisfaction she turned to the blonde woman.
Fox was covered in mud, her blonde her dishevelled and matted. She had a variety of cuts and grazes, although nothing too serious the girl was pleased to note. The womans skin was cold though and held a slightly bluish tinge to it. It was probably the amount of time the woman had spent in the icy water the girl calculated. Taking the remaining water from her flask she began to clean the womans skin off with a soft piece of linen, gently rubbing away the foul-smelling river mud that clung to her. After several trips to the river to refill her flask the job was finally complete.
The young girl surveyed her charge. The woman was still unconscious, although her heartbeat and breathing had remained steady. Her skin was clean and her minor wounds dressed, however, her clothes were still heavily soiled and small pieces of riverweed stuck out at random intervals. Making an executive decision, the girl began stripping her charge, placing the dirty clothes in a heap and collecting her blanket, which had now dried out completely. Carefully, she wrapped the woman in the blanket, finally returning her to her resting place against the boulder. She checked on the food as she left their camp carrying the bundle of dirty clothes.
A short while later the girl returned to the camp, bone weary. She laid out the now clean clothes over the branch she had used to dry her blanket. Checking the food again she collected her bowl and spoon, giving herself a generous helping of the thick, nourishing stew. She removed the cooked poultry, wrapping it in a piece of linen and putting it to one side to cool before she stowed it away in her travel bag. Collecting her stew, she sat down next to the silent Fox, and began to eat contentedly. The sky played host to a carpet of bright stars and as she ate she gazed up at their beauty. She began to wonder about her new companion, who she was and what she did. She didnt even know her name. She was a warrior, that much had been obvious as she had seen the clearly toned muscles whist cleaning her tanned skin. Was she a professional warrior or was that just one of the things that she did?
The girl stood again and returned to the cooking pot to refill her bowl. This time however, she brought it and sat down gently at Foxs side. Painstakingly she began feeding small spoonfuls into the blonde womans mouth, knowing a good meal was crucial in the healing process. Finally, when all the soup had disappeared from the bowl, the young girl felt her weariness begin to overtake her. She rinsed the bowl out and restocked the fire. Again she moved Fox, dragging her unceremoniously closer to the heat of the fire. She sat down on the ground next to her silent companion, straightening the blanket. The womans skin was still colder than it should be so the girl lay down beside her, wrapping one arm around the strangers waist and using the other as a pillow for herself. Gradually, she slipped into the realm of Morpheus, positive about the morning light of tomorrow.
Gabrielle opened her eyes slowly. Her head hurt. She was disorientated. Her vision told her that she was lying by the remains of a fire in a woodland camp. The birds were just beginning to sing and the sky was painted with streaks of pink overtaking the receding stars. An arm was wrapped around her waist and she was curled inside a blanket she didnt recognise. Subtly she moved her head to one side.
The owner of the arm around her waist was a stranger lying on the earth next to her. Suddenly, the events of the battle and the river came surging back to her. That explained the absence of her tall warrior friend the bard thought grimly. Thinking practically, Gabrielle realised that she was clean and her wounds were tended. She peered under the blanket to check for more serious injuries. Her head flopped back against the earth and a slightly bemused look crossed her face.
Ok, I am naked, in a strange camp, Xena is nowhere to be seen and somebody I have never met before is lying with her arm round me. Gabrielle decided that if she had been drinking ale the night before she would be congratulating herself at being in such a position.
Gabrielle studied the stranger lying next to her. She was a young woman, probably eighteen or nineteen. From her clothing the bard guessed she was an Amazon and certainly by the care of both herself and the camp the girl had the right skill set. She had shortish blonde hair, that came down to her ears. Although not beautiful, her face was attractive and a splattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose gave her a slightly mischievous look. The bard was just guessing at what colour her eyes would be when they blinked open. The bard stared in surprise, her left eye was green but the her right was split vertically, the left half was a matching green but the right half was a deep, contrasting blue.
"Aarghh!" the girl shouted in surprise, scrambling backwards rapidly.
"Hey, its ok!" Gabrielle soothed, realising that waking up and having a stranger staring at your eyes would probably be a little unnerving.
The girl sighed, "Sorry," she said rather sheepishly, "you startled me a little."
"A little?" The bard questioned, a slight smile and raised eyebrow conveying the humour of her statement. The girl smiled shyly. "Hi," Gabrielle started again, "I am Gabrielle."
The girl smiled fully in response and held out her hand, "Sophea."
Xena had not slept in two days, her mind permanently distracted and sluggish. She had returned to the alcove, finding the knowledge that her friend had recently been there a great comfort. Now she sat, a couple of hours after dawn, clutching a hot mug of tea and trying to think practically to help decide what she should do next. She had searched as far down the river bank as she thought Gabrielle could possibly have travelled and even a little further to make sure. Obviously, the bard may be dead, that was an option she did not want to think about as she had done so too much already, although it had been involuntary. Gabrielle may have been injured and been found and taken to a nearby village. She may be healthy but unable to find Xena. That was a strong possibility, the warrior considered, especially since she had spent the time since it had happened travelling up and down the river bank rather than staying in once place. If that was the case, where would Gabrielle look for her? Possibly the alcove, the warrior thought, although it depended on where the bard had ended up. An idea suddenly occurred to her, perhaps Gabrielle would have travelled to the temple they were heading for before all this had happened, it was the next destination in their quest after all.
Xena swirled her now rapidly cooling tea around in her mug while she considered the options. Assuming her friend was still alive, the best ideas seemed to be to either make inquiries at the villages down river or to travel to the temple and see if there was any sign of Gabrielle there. The temple was only about one days travel away, assuming of course that she was able to avoid the Amazons and any other potential hazards on the roads. It would take her many days to travel between the villages down river. Making a decision, Xena decided to travel to the temple to check before she did anything else. She could always leave a message there should Gabrielle arrive after her and she had already been and gone.
Feeling more positive for taking action, Xena considered her current mud covered state. Gabrielle would flip if she saw her like this, a sadly amused smile flittered across the womans exhausted face. Better have a wash first.
Xena had trekked down to the riverside, finding a bit with a steeper bank which meant less of the mud she was going to endeavour to get rid of. She stripped her armour and leathers off, jumping into the cool water in just her undergarments. The cleansing water felt good against her dirty, itching skin. She washed efficiently, absently noticing how much quicker bath times were when there was no horseplay and no Gabrielle. Climbing back onto the grass she rubbed her skin vigorously with the piece of linen she had set to one side for the purpose. Removing a firm brush from her bag she proceeded to brush off her leathers, removing the dried-on mud and silt that covered them.
Donning the now clean leathers she noticed the dog that had been her companion for the last few days. The poor creature was also caked in mud and looking extremely dejected. "Here boy!" Xena called him, wading back into the river a little. The dog was regarding her, a faintly unimpressed look on his face. "Come on," she urged again, "we are going to go and find our friends and neither of them will be impressed if we turned up looking like this." The dog surprisingly seemed to understand and bravely waded into the river towards her. The warrior began rubbing his filth covered fur down with soap, allowing the cool river water to rinse him off. As she washed behind his ears she noticed for the first time that he was wearing a collar. She felt round the band, her long fingers finding a small wooden disk attached. She angled the disk out of the water and towards the light, reading the carved inscription.
"Hello Moss!" she greeted the dog. His brown eyes seemed to smile and his tail began to wag, showering them both with cold water. "Hey, cut it out!" the warrior exclaimed, deciding the dog was clean enough and moving back onto the dry bank. Moss followed her and she looked them both over approvingly. "Time to get moving." The warrior addressed both horse and hound. Swinging herself up into the saddle she pointed Argo in the direction of the temple and whistled for Moss to follow her.
The pair were sitting by the now small fire, clutching drained mugs of tea. Sophea had given a brief outline of how she had discovered her companion yesterday evening and how she had cleaned and tendered her. The young girl had flushed slightly when she had to explain that she had removed Gabrielles clothes to wash them but she relaxed when she realised that the older woman was nothing other than grateful for her help.
Gabrielle placed her empty mug on the ground by her side as she sat, still wrapped in the blanket. "Well," she began, " I ought to get moving, I was travelling with a friend before I fell in the river and I know she will be worried about me." The bard was very concerned about what her friend may be thinking and how she was faring alone.
"Yes, the tall warrior with the long dark hair." Sophea agreed.
"You know Xena?" Gabrielle asked the young Amazon, slightly surprised.
"Xena?" Sophea mentally kicked herself, she had heard enough about the heroic female warrior in the tales her Amazon sisters liked to tell around the evening campfire, she should have recognised her. Her eyes tracked back to her inquisitive companion, "Oh, well, not really," she began, not really sure of how much she should say. "I saw you two fighting the minotaurs, Moss was helping you."
"Moss?" Gabrielle queried, raising one eyebrow slightly.
"My dog," the girl explained, "the black and white one."
A smile crossed the bards face as she recalled the dog that had appeared from nowhere and had become her ally, giving her the advantage over her much stronger opponent. "He was very brave," Gabrielle complimented and she looked around the camp with a slightly puzzled look on her face. "Where is he?" she asked.
Sophea looked a little sad, "With Xena I hope."
The older womans brow furrowed with confusion, "Why isnt he with you?"
"When your footing slipped," she began, "Xena tried to get to you but she was pinned to the ground by the body of the minotaur she had just fought." She paused for a moment trying to explain clearly events that had happened so quickly that her memory only held a blur. "I was standing a little further down the track, in the direction of the river current."
Gabrielles mouth went dry as her mind presented her with a possible action of the young Amazon that would make all the loose ends tie up
"Moss was with Xena and the dead minotaurs," Sophea continued, "Xena struggled to get free but she could not stop you falling, she called after you," Sopheas eyes welled up suddenly, the human anguish in that cry still fresh in her ears. "So, I dived in after you, leaving Moss to help Xena." She concluded simply.
Gabrielle was silent for a moment as she looked at the young girl sitting next to her. She had just been a stranger to her this morning but already she realised that she owed her life to her. Not only had the girl tended her and cared for her, she had also risked her own life to save her. A tight lump formed in the bards throat as her eyes met the unassuming green ones facing her. "Thank you," she said simply, her sincerity shining in her own eyes.
"Anytime." Sophea smiled, unsure of what she had done to deserve the gratitude her companion was exuding towards her, it was such an alien concept to her. "How about we go and find Xena and Moss?" she suggested.
Gabrielle was still slightly dumbfounded, so she simply nodded mutely.
"I will just go and get some fresh water while you, um ." Sophea nodded to Gabrielles now dry clothes hanging on the nearby braches.
Another nod from the bard.
Sophea stood, collecting her water flask and moving away from the camp towards the nearby river. When she returned Gabrielle was dressed and had packed most of the equipment away. It felt odd, Sophea reflected, that someone was willingly helping her. Knowing that her companion had made a full recovery and that they were off to find their friends gave the girl a feeling of joyous elation.
"So, do you think we should just head up river for a while till we find them?" she asked.
Gabrielle had been thinking about that while she had been getting dressed. She had been trying to think of what Xena would have done and where they might find her. "Yes," she answered, "lets try that, we can always change our plans if we need to." She watched as the girl nodded in response, settling her belongings on her back and stamping out the remainder of the fire. Then the pair headed back towards the river that had played such a great part in their lives over the last couple of days.
The mans face was shrouded in shadow from the deep hood of the black cloak he wore. A smaller man knelt at his feet, his head hung low.
"I am not happy." The hooded man stated, pronouncing his words with over exaggerated clarity.
"No master." The kneeling man responded, clutching his knee with all of his strength in the hope that it would make the shakes that racked his body less apparent.
The first man turned to a small pond like feature built into the barren stone room with its guttering torches. As he looked, a picture appeared of a smiling blonde bard, as she travelled along the side of a river. "She still lives." He growled. "I have sent raiders, assassins, two minotaurs..." The man laughed mirthlessly, "Even my little pet seems to have got lost " he banged his fist into a nearby pillar in rage. The stone crumbled beneath the impact, sending small fragments scattering to the ground like rain. The hooded man squatted and reached out a hand to the quivering man in front of him. The frightened man flinched, surprised when the hand lifted his chin slightly, forcing eye contact with his master. "Go, now, before she returns to Xenas protection." He commanded, "Kill her."
The kneeling man nodded, scrambling to his feet and escaping from the room as quickly as he could. The hooded man watched him go then turned his back to the door, returning to his dark, brooding silence.
They had been travelling along the river bank for a couple of hours now but they still had seen no sign of Xena or Moss. Gabrielle reflected that this was strange as Xena rose no later than dawn every day and if she had been searching the river they would surely have run into each other by now. That did suggest that Xena was not searching the banks, she had probably done that fruitlessly over the last couple of days, she reflected sadly. What else was Xena likely to do, she asked herself, knowing that she knew her friend well enough to be able to work it out. Well, she would have sat down and considered what may have happened to her. Gabrielle shuddered as she thought of her friend having to face the option of her being dead. Xena would not have accepted that though, the bard decided, not until she had seen a lifeless body. So what else? There was the possibility that she had been injured, in which case she would most likely have been found by now and have been taken to one of the nearby villages to recover. That was a possibility, the bard admitted, Xena may have ridden downstream to make inquiries. Were there any other options? They had both been heading to the temple of Artemis before the storm had hit, was it possible Xena had ridden on to there in case the bard had done the same thing?
"Sophea?" Gabrielle broke the silence, continuing when the girl looked up. "How far is the temple of Artemis from here?" she asked.
The girl replied quickly, "A little under a days walk." She answered confidently.
Gabrielle knew that Xena would have known that and that it would have been a much quicker option to try to start with than searching the villages. "Xena will be heading there," she stated positively, "do you know the way?"
"Yes." Sophea responded succinctly, "it is very near my home."
"Are you from that Amazon tribe?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yes. I am on a quest at the moment." Again, Sophea was not particularly forthcoming with details on the subject.
Gabrielle recognised the reticence in her new friends voice. She decided to gently probe a little further. "I am an Amazon too." She admitted.
"Really?" Sophea asked, genuinely surprised. "What are you doing so far from your tribe?"
Gabrielle considered the question, she did not want to admit that she was actually their queen as she did not know how her younger companion would react to the information. "Well, I do not live with them," she began, "I live on the road with Xena, that is where I belong." She added subconsciously. "I visit the tribe whenever I can though, some of my best friends are there." Gabrielle smiled as she thought of Ephiny and Eponin, wondering what they were doing and suddenly realising that she was long overdue for a visit.
Sophea smiled sadly, privately she wished she could say the same thing about her home but she knew she couldnt. If she was honest with herself she had enjoyed the last few days on her own far more than she had anytime with her Amazon sisters, she was unenthusiastic about going back at all. She did not want to think about that now though, there would be time enough for that later. Instead she thought about what life on the road must be like. "So how long have you and Xena been, you know, um " she asked, not exactly sure how to put it.
Gabrielle looked blankly at her, "What? Oh, travelling together you mean? About three years now." She replied, slightly surprised as sometimes it felt much longer with all they had been through in that time.
Sophea looked at the blonde woman walking beside her. Her mind was shocked, she has absolutely no idea how could she not see the bond between them, it was so pronounced, even as a stranger she had been able to see it both in the dream and as she had watched them as they fought side by side. The young girl smiled and shook her head a little as she wondered if Xena had any idea. When they finally met up she would have to find out
Xena steadied Argo as she led the horse around a low branch that overhung the single track. Moss was running out in front, his nose searching for interesting new scents. The three companions had been travelling since mid morning and now the noises of the local wildlife told the warriors experienced ears that it was a little before dusk. She had been trying to decide what to do, whether to push on and get to the temple although it would be fully dark for some of the journey, on a path that would lead her through unknown Amazon territory. Alternatively, she could look for a place to make camp sooner rather than later, resting her animal companions and then set out again refreshed in the morning. The latter plan would allow her to arrive at the temple about mid-morning the following day.
As they walked, the warriors keen hearing picked up the sound of running water. She led the horse and dog in the direction it had come from and as they rounded a dense patch of gorse they found themselves in a small clearing. The ground was mossy and springy and the surrounding trees were tall and full with age, bearing sweeping branches that formed almost a complete canopy overhead. To the back of the clearing a small brook ran, its clear water bubbling and frothing as is swirled over the polished rocks below. The discovery of the clearing made the warriors decision for her and she relinquished Argos reigns, watching as the golden mare trotted towards the stream to drink. Moss trotted over too, a little wary of the tall horse that watched him with vigilant eyes.
Xena reached up, removing the travel bags that Argo had been carrying. She had found Gabrielles bag at the scene of the fight with the minotaurs. It had just been lying, half-hidden in a patch of grass to the side of the track. The bard must have dropped it as the creatures had approached. Although Xena hated to think of her friend without any belongings she had to admit that she found the presence of the bag oddly comforting, as though Gabrielle had just wandered into the nearby trees for a moment, to return at any time.
The warrior moved around the camp efficiently, collecting fuel and setting a small fire going whilst she unpacked the items she would need overnight. She removed Argos tack, stacking it neatly to one side and returning to groom the golden mare. Xena was trying not to think about her missing friend or the vision she had had in the alcove, both were subjects that she could do little about and they only upset her. Instead she considered the route she would need to take tomorrow, the likelihood of running into any Amazons and what to cook for supper. Bizarrely, any topic she thought of seemed to lead her back to the one subject she was trying to avoid and several times she just shook her head, desperately trying to come up with something else to think about.
Finally, when Argo had been fully groomed she let the mare roam free to graze. Xena looked over at the large dog that was lying fairly near the fire, watching her with alert brown eyes. The warrior was not really in the mood for eating although she knew she ought to. However, Moss would need something more to eat than just grass so she collected her bow and quiver from her travelling pack and moved stealthily into the forest.
The dog had followed her and now the pair were creeping through the undergrowth silently. Xena found the presence of the dog a little off-putting, she was so used to hunting on her own, knowing that any other creature near her was likely to be prey. She was about to send the dog back to camp when a distant rustle ahead of them attracted her attention. Arming the bow she raised it slightly, all of her senses tuned into the small creature she was approaching. Suddenly, Moss veered of the path behind her and moved ahead. Moments later she heard his large body crashing through the vegetation. Just about to curse the dogs intervention she was surprised to see a large brown rabbit hop out from the bush onto the path. Her reactions fired the arrow, capturing the rabbit quickly. Moss re-appeared from the bushes, his brown eyes smiling and his tail wagging.
"Well, you have done that before havent you boy?" Xena addressed the dog, somewhat amused. The warrior had to admit though, the strategy allowed her a nice clear shot, making the process a lot easier. "Come on, dinner." She said turning on her heel and returning to the camp.
A little while later both warrior and dog had eaten all they had wanted, the cooking utensils all washed and cleared away. It was full dark now and Xena did not feel at all close to sleep, despite the physically active day she had had. Instead she removed her sharpening stone from her leather travelling pack and proceeded to sharpen her sword. The methodical movements lulled her active mind and the repetitive nature of the task allowed her thoughts to roam freely. As she had done before she forced her concentration back to menial matters, trying to avoid the subjects that she knew would only present her with questions she could not answer.
After about the fifth time finding her thoughts wandering, the warrior stood and jabbed at an unseen enemy in frustration. The enemy evaded and returned an attack of his own. She countered, twirling her sword and thrusting at his sword arm. He was good though, dodging out of her way and sending out a sharp kick to her knees. She leaped, avoiding his leg and watching as he staggered slightly, his balance thrown. She landed firmly, sending out a roundhouse kick of her own that connected sharply with his jaw, he grunted a little with the impact but recovered himself, attacking her again with a complex set of sword manoeuvres.
Moss watched the tall woman as she attacked the unseen enemy. Her efforts had speeded up with time and now her sword movements merged into a single blur. Sometimes it looked as though she were fighting with a single ray of light as the moonlight spilt down between the leaves of the forest, turning her polished blade into a pool of light. It was almost like some exotic dance, fluid movements of the warriors body as it twisted and swirled around the shaft of light in her hand. Even the night creatures of the forest were silent, muted as though mesmerised by the beauty of the scene in this one small clearing.
Eventually, the warrior allowed the blade to rest by her side, her skin glistening with the film of sweat that covered it. Moving down to the edge of the small brook, Xena scooped up handfuls of the cold, crisp water, splashing it liberally across her over-heated skin. She cupped both hands together, lifting the water to her mouth and swallowing, relaxing as she felt the cooling water travel down her dry throat. She closed her eyes for a moment, feeling her rapid heartbeat as it began to steady out to its usual, even rhythm. Now she felt tired, she admitted with satisfaction as she moved back to the fire and lay down on her back on her waiting bedroll.
This time when the thoughts of her friend came to her, she did not push them away. Now it was the night time, the time when every other soul was sleeping soundly, the time when she had always allowed herself to think the more personal thoughts that tried to invade her consciousness during the day. She did not know if she genuinely believed she might find her friend at the temple tomorrow, perhaps it was simply wishful thinking. The only thing she did know for certain was that she could not breath without Gabrielle by her side.
The void she would be left with should the bard have ever left her was something she had been aware of for some time now. The immediate shock of watching helplessly as her friend had fallen into the icy water had ripped a part of her soul out of her body and discarded it into emptiness. The realisation of the full consequences was still occurring to her, the number of times she had looked for the bard and found only shadows. The practicalities of everyday life had fulfilled her for so long but now these thoughts were meaningless against the silence that buffeted her mind. Gabrielle was the one thing that heightened existing into living, the person who painted colours in what she had only know before as a grey, drab world. She was the only person that the warrior had trusted with her innermost thoughts, her beliefs and her feelings. It was dangerous for a warrior to have emotions but Gabrielle had taken them carefully, cradling them gently in her hands and protecting them from all harm.
As Xena lay on her back, her hands folded behind her head, she stared unseeing into the independent flames of the fire. Behind the almost purple, deep blue eyes, she thought of all the times she had simply sat, watching her friend sleep. The bard had always looked so young when her face was relaxed in sleep. She looked as though she should be in a quiet village somewhere, discussing the local boys and the price of cloth. Somehow though, the warrior had been gifted with the young blonde girls presence and now it had evolved into this. Gabrielle was her compass in life, the person who had shown her the good way and had always helped her along that path, supporting her no matter how many times she had stumbled. Without her friends gentle, determined spirit how would this old warrior fare in the world? A world that alone, she had only tried to conquer.
Images from her most recent vision had invaded her mind incessantly throughout the day. Xena had known for sometime the importance of her friends companionship, she also knew that she was physically attracted to the bard. She had always felt that there was a piece missing in the relationship they had, a time when each of them would draw back, where words were left unspoken. It had never occurred to the warrior that she was in love with her friend. She had loved a few people in her life, her family, Hercules, Marcus, but it was a love that only meant caring very deeply for them. Equally, she had had many bed partners over the years, usually for political reasons rather than because she wanted the intimacy. However, in Gabrielle she found the personification of everything she ever needed, she cared strongly for her but the feelings went so much deeper. It was as though she and Gabrielles spirits had merged, they shared a bond that terrified each of them when it was threatened. She thought back to the difficult times they had faced together, some of the darkest moments in her life when the only thing that had kept her sane was clinging blindly to that bond.
The scene of the vision reappeared in front of her eyes. That kiss had broken down all the barriers, merging the various facets of their relationship into one single truth. Xena reflected on the number of times she had thought about the bard and all she meant to her, somehow there was always something to stop her from thinking one step further. When she had felt the physical attraction she had always pushed the feelings away, not wanting Gabrielle to become another one of her many bed mates, lest it weakened such a special relationship in other ways. Only now could Xena see clearly, realising that the act would consummate something so much greater. The bond that she shared with Gabrielle was something unique, something that had grown from being pushed together by fate, to friendship, to this Xena only hoped that she would find the bard waiting at the temple, waiting to allow her a second chance at the most important opportunity in her existence.
Gabrielle and Sophea had made good progress through the day, both of them keen to push on and be reunited with their friends. As darkness had fallen they had only been a few hours travel from the temple. However, they had decided to camp overnight, taking sanctuary in the security of the forest. The conversation had flown freely as they had travelled, the young Amazon only being somewhat vague when talking about her home life or the mysterious quest she was on. Gabrielle had still not been able to ascertain why the girl had dived into the dangerously flooded river after her but she was trying to avoid probing questions on subjects that her young companion seemed uncomfortable with, she owed her that much at least.
Now the pair were sitting in silence by the campfire, both looking aimlessly into the resolute flames, their minds tied up in their own independent thoughts. Sophea was thinking about her Amazon tribe. She knew that when she returned she would have to face the consequences of deserting them, even if it had only been briefly. Even now though, she never regretted for a moment the decision to take up the quest. Gabrielle was a good woman, her heart was gentle and kind, her thoughts intelligent and just. She may not realise the bond that she shared with her warrior friend just yet but Sophea trusted that when they were ready the pair would realise.
Talking about Gabrielles Amazon tribe had made her think though. Sophea liked the Amazon lifestyle; hunting, tracking and all the skills associated with being a warrior. She knew that she would never be happy living in a little farming village somewhere, trapped in a routine and tied to the land. However, she knew she wasnt happy in the tribe that was her home either, the persecution she had received since she was a small child still present, her sisters uncaring and selfish. Usually, she did not like people at all, finding her companionship in animals, mainly Moss of course. Gabrielle was different though and something told her that Xena would be too. She was open-minded and accepting, seeming to see the good in everyone. Wistfully Sophea imagined travelling with Xena and Gabrielle, she knew it would be one person too many but the lifestyle matched hers and she would be free from her closed-minded sisters. Anyway, Sophea resolved, she would have to do something because the last few days had made her realise how unhappy she was and now she knew for sure that there was happiness in the world if you could just have the courage to reach for it.
Gabrielle was staring into the fire and thinking about Xena. If only there was some way she could just let the tall warrior know she was still alive and unharmed. She knew the desolation she had felt when Xena had died, is that the anguish the warrior was alone and facing now? As she looked up at the bright canopy of stars overhead, she found comfort knowing that the same stars were shining down on her friend, wherever she may be. She wondered if the warrior had had anymore of her visions or whether she had been left in peace. The appearance of the minotaurs had suggested that she still had her mysterious enemy, however, that threat had seemed to become only a minor point knowing the possible pain her friend was in.
It had been when Xena had suddenly been taken from her before that she had realised all the things she had meant to tell her but just never seemed to have got round too. It had been before all of the difficulties that they had been through in Britannia and Chin. The dark periods in their history seemed now to have only brought them closer. The bards mind tracked back to the serenity of Elktons hut only days ago as she and Xena had shared a non-verbal exchange that had somehow changed everything. They had become too entrenched with the practicalities of travelling and then the sudden storm and everything that had followed, they had never had a chance to talk. Her instincts had been telling her for some time now that there were important undercurrents in their lives but she had never been able to be able to put her finger on it. Had Xena felt it too? Was it about them? All she knew is that she wanted to be by her friends side, there to comfort her through the pain she felt and any pain that befell her in the future. It was a simple truth that suddenly made so many things make sense. Were her feelings for her friend suddenly deeper than the intense friendship they shared? Or was it just her imagination or something that was not destined to be?
Gabrielle rose, walking a little way into the soothing darkness of the trees that ringed their camp. She felt buffeted, her mind besieged with questions that she had no answer to. She fell to her knees, the rich smell of the damp earth invading her senses, raising her face she looked up to the stars. "Hold on my friend," she consoled, "I will be back by your side soon " Her head fell back down, heavy and reeling with the bombarding questions. A small sound made her raise her eyes, only to find cold, hard ones staring at her from behind cold steel suddenly held at her throat.
She was trapped. The man had caught her on her knees and defenceless. If she had called for Sophea the man would have still been able to kill her before the young Amazon had had time to draw a weapon. So this was it, her unknown enemy had finally trapped her. The irony was bitter, just as she had begun to realise there was something she had not seen before, a rare gift just waiting to be unwrapped, she was going to lose anyway. Why could it not have been a day before, while she was in blissful ignorance and there were no questions? Silently she prayed that Xena was still as unaware as she had been, so that the warrior would only have to mourn the death of a friend She raised her jaw slightly in defiance, if she had to die she would make sure it was with courage and dignity, as befitting to a true friend of Xenas.
The man studied the blonde woman kneeling before him. His master would be pleased; he had succeeded where all the others had failed. He watched as the woman raised her jaw, giving him a clear target. He spent a moment just admiring her courage, he decided to make it as quick and painless as possible for her, already feeling the sense of victory, visualising her warm blood as ran over his hand, ensuring his masters pleasure.
Suddenly peaceful, Gabrielle watched as the man drew the weapon back in preparation for the inevitable thrust. "Sorry Xena " her mind whispered finally as she closed her eyes.
A sudden thump made her open her eyes again suddenly. She was shocked to see the assassin lying dead in front of her, a sword protruding from his back. She looked up and saw the form of her young Amazon friend, a grim look written across her features. Sophea walked towards the kneeling woman, removing the bloodied sword and reaching out her hand.
Gabrielle took the proffered hand, allowing her companion to help her to her feet. They walked back in silence to the camp and took their places by the fire. "Thank you, again." The bard stated, this time totally unable to voice the depth of the gratitude, for this time the girl had not only saved her life but had also given her the opportunity of what may prove to be the most important second chance of her life
Xenas heart was in her mouth with dreaded anticipation as she approached the large stone structure that was the temple. Argo and Moss were waiting patiently at the edge of the large clearing, watching her movements. She felt as though she was in someone elses body as she distantly began to mount the stone steps that led to the entrance. Slowly, she placed her hand on the heavy wood of the door, barely daring to push it open, afraid to find a silence within. Her courage did not fail her though and the door creaked loudly as it swung open, sending a shaft of bright sunlight flooding into the serene room.
Xenas footsteps were loud as she stepped onto the dusty stone floor of the building. Her stomach lurched as a movement startled her. However, it was only a bird, disturbed in its quiet haven and fleeing out of one of the high windows. The building was deserted, there was no Gabrielle waiting for her. Xena had tried so hard not to hope but her mind had kept presenting her with images of her pushing open the door, only to reveal the blonde form of her best friend waiting for her, her sea-green eyes dancing with pleasure that they were reunited. Xena stumbled to the aged alter, falling to her knees. "Dont let her be dead," she begged. "Please dont make me have to face the future without her, I am not strong enough for that " As she spoke, large heavy tears splashed onto the dusty floor below her, her body racked with silent sobs.
Some time later, the warrior rose, her face grey and drawn. The poor light of the temple highlighted the dark rings under her eyes, a reflection of the personal hell she had been through in the last few days. Her leathers were beginning to hang on her tall frame, her physical lifestyle not allowing for a few days of little or no eating. She had wondered how she would cope if she hadnt found her friend at the temple. Although she felt beaten she refused to give up on her friend. She decided that she would write a note to leave should the bard arrive here after she had left. Then she would begin to search the villages downstream of the accident, praying that she would find a recovering bard rather than anything more sinister.
Xena pulled open the heavy door of the temple, blinking against the bright sunlight that bombarded her tender eyes. As her eyes began to adjust she saw two figures entering the clearing. Her heart leaped, quick to recover the hope that had been so cruelly ripped away from her. "Gabrielle?" she whispered hoarsely.
The mornings travelling had been mostly silent, the young Amazon unnerved at being so close to her home village. Gabrielle had still been shaken from the surprise attack of the night before. She was also dreading at arriving at the temple and finding no sign of her friend, all she needed in the world right now was to be by the warriors side. Now all that stood between her and the answer was a few steps as they approached the large clearing that housed the temple.
Gabrielle stopped walking. The large stone temple loomed ahead of her and as she looked, the solid wooden door creaked open allowing a tall figure to emerge into the sunlight. "Xena." She whispered, her heart recognising her friend even before she did. She could not take her eyes off her friend as time seemed to slow to a trickle. She did not see the familiar form of Argo sheltering in the shade of the nearby trees, she did not even see the large black and white dog bounding towards her, knocking her Amazon companion to the ground and determinedly licking every inch of her face. All Gabrielle could see was the gaunt figure before her, the stark sunlight highlighting the dark smudges under her eyes, the hollowed cheeks and the leathers that looked as though they belonged to someone else. The bards eyes welled up as she saw the physical signs of the pain her warrior had been through in the last few days. "Xena." She whispered again, gently shaking her head subconsciously, her chest tight with guilt for the suffering her friend had faced because of her.
"Xena!" The bard called, sprinting the short distance of ground that marked the end of their separation.
It was her. Xena could hardly believe it but the figure running towards her was her Gabrielle. The pain and sorrow that had haunted her since she had watched her friend fall into the river evaporated suddenly in the bright sunlight of the clearing. "Gabrielle!" she called, moving to intercept her friend.
Sophea watched as the two women recognised each other, both unsure for a moment, but then rushing towards each other. When they met they reached out blindly, clinging to each others body as a shipwrecked sailor would cling to a piece of wood. For some time both women were completely unaware of their surroundings, their worlds consisting simply of each other, united in a common joy.
Xena could not stop herself from grinning as she gazed happily at the blonde woman whose sea-green eyes danced with pleasure at their reunion. For the first time in several moments she looked up, suddenly realising that they were not alone in the clearing. She smiled as her black and white canine companion seemed to grin at her, his pleasure at being reunited with his mistress obvious.
Gabrielle followed the direction of her friends gaze to the outlying figure of her young Amazon companion. "That is Sophea." She said in answer to the question that was beginning to form on her friends lips.
Sophea watched as Xena looked up at her, shocked again by the vivid blue eyes that now shone with pleasure. She felt slightly nervous as the tall warrior began to walk towards her. She noticed how gaunt the tall woman looked, such a sudden change from the healthy appearance she had exuded even when battling minotaurs in the pouring rain. Sopheas mind tracked back to her dream and remembered how quickly the panther had seemed to fade after the fox had died.
The three warriors were standing in silence, simply regarding each other. Gabrielle was the first to speak. "Sophea found me unconscious by the river, she tended me." The bard stated simply. "Then last night she saved my life again when I was cornered by another assassin." Gabrielle felt that her words came nowhere close to describing the efforts of the young girl to maintain her health and safety.
Sophea looked at the tall warrior, unsure of what to expect.
Xena reached out her hand, clasping the young girls arm firmly. "Thank you." She said simply, her minds eye replaying the moment she had watched the girl dive into the deadly water after Gabrielle. "I owe you my life for what you have done for my friend." Xena stated genuinely.
Sophea smiled, unsure of what to do with this sudden gratitude. "Anytime." She responded with a grin, knowing that the debt was one she would never call in, as it would take far more than just the warriors life.
The three moved over to the patiently waiting Argo where they rested momentarily in the shade, un-stoppering their water flasks. Xena questioned Gabrielle on her well being for about the twentieth time. Gabrielle fussed about the warriors gaunt figure.
"The first thing we have to do," the bard instructed, "is to find you a decent meal."
Xena smiled slightly sheepishly, muttering something about not having been hungry.
Sophea grinned suddenly, reaching into her travel pack and producing a tightly wrapped bundle. She opened it up to reveal the cooked partridge. "I got this for Moss," she began, "but I am sure he wouldnt mind you sharing it." She concluded handing the bird to Xena.
The warrior grinned as she caught a glimpse of her friends determined face. "I guess I could eat a little something." She said as she pulled a drumstick off and began munching contentedly, regularly throwing titbits to the eagerly waiting Moss.
In the silence that followed, Sophea reflected that it would soon be time for her to leave her new friends behind and return to the Amazon village that was her home. She was loathed to leave but knew that Xena and Gabrielle had business at the temple. However, she could at least wait until Moss had enjoyed the last of his treat though, she thought, smiling.
A throaty growl shattered the happy scene that the women shared.
A surge of irrational panic thrust into Sopheas stomach. "What is it Moss?" she asked the dog. Her nerves only worsened by the ridge of raised hackles that spread down his back.
Her fears were personified as twelve masked Amazon warriors emerged from the nearby trees. Hoping to keep her new friends out of the potentially difficult situation, Sophea mustered her courage and began to walk towards her sisters.
Xena and Gabrielle watched in silence as the young girl walked towards the warriors. Gabrielle whispered to Xena that they were her sisters, the tall warrior nodding in understanding. The girl drew to a stop in front of the Amazons. They were unable to hear what was said but they saw Sophea answer in response.
The friends were shocked into action as one of the warriors suddenly struck the girl, sending her sprawling to the ground with the impact. The Amazon balled her fist again, preparing for another strike. She was stunned when her fist was caught in mid-air, clamped by an iron strength. She looked up and found herself pinned with two chips of ice. Gabrielle had helped the young girl to her feet and had ushered her behind her, putting herself between Sophea and the Amazon warriors.
"What do you think you are doing?" One mask asked Xena aggressively.
"I could ask you the same question," the warrior purred in response, her voice cutting with dislike.
"Not that it is any of your business," the mask began, "but this is our sister, she has to be punished for desertion."
Gabrielle looked at the masked warrior incredulously, "She was on a quest." The bard explained, confused by the situation.
The mask snorted. "Well, it was no quest of ours," she dismissed. "What business is it of yours anyway, stranger?" The mask challenged.
Gabrielle drew to her full height, incensed by the mindless violence towards her new friend. "My name is Gabrielle," she began. "I am an Amazon sister of the Western forest tribe. It is my business because you just struck my friend."
A brief silence greeted her introduction. Then one of the other masks spoke up. "Spies."
Before either Gabrielle or Xena had a chance to disagree, their weapons were seized and their hands pulled roughly behind their backs where they were tightly bound with rope. Looking at each other, the friends silently agreed to let this happen, both conscious of the well being of their friend.
Sophea was roughly pulled to her feet, a large mottled bruise already beginning to form over the right side of her face. The Amazon warriors moved into position, flanking their new prisoners on each side. One grabbed Argos reigns, leading her along behind the small party as they exited the clearing.
It was late into the night before the Amazon party and their prisoners arrived at the village. The several hours of walking had been passed mainly in silence. Both Xena and Gabrielle had been worried by the dejected appearance of their new friend. Sophea had been walking up at the front of the party, her head hung low and her shoulders slumped.
Moss had tried to walk by her side but a masked Amazon had swiped at him with her staff. The dog had yelped in pain and surprise and he dropped back slightly. It had taken all of Xena and Gabrielles considerable will power not to overthrow their guards, bound or not. In an effort to make things as easy as possible for Sophea they had let that slide, although neither of them knew if they had the will power to do it again. Luckily they had no need to because as Moss had approached his mistress side again she had whispered a command to him. Obediently, the dog had dropped back and trailed them from a safe distance.
Now they entered the Amazon camp, surprisingly similar to Gabrielles home tribe. Large torches flared in the cool evening breeze, lighting the scene that was Sopheas home. The village was roughly symmetrical with small huts marking the perimeter of the community. All of the huts faced inward to the large courtyard, deserted at this late hour. A large oblong building was set off to the left of the yard, probably the communal eating and meeting place the friends assessed.
The women shifted uncomfortably, their arms in pain from being so tightly bound behind their backs for so long. The original masked warrior approached them. "Did you enjoy your nice walk in the countryside, ladies?" She asked the friends, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
"What are you going to do with Sophea?" The bard demanded, her eyes alight with defiance.
"That is none of your concern, stranger." The Amazon spat, "whatever it is wont be till morning though, she isnt worth wasting sleep over." She muttered as an afterthought.
Two more guards approached the friends from behind, roughly pushing them to a small hut on the outskirts of the village. "Get in there!" The first guard instructed, harshly pushing the taller prisoner towards the dark opening. The guard was surprised when the figure did not move at all, not even a slight sway. She looked up and found herself captured by two very blue eyes, narrowed in dislike. Xena paused just long enough to make her point then ducked her head, entering the darkened hut.
The guards followed them in, pushing the prisoners down onto a pallet. They unhooked the strong ropes they carried on their hips and knelt down in front of the women, binding their feet together as tightly as they had done their hands. In turn they tied their bound feet to the sturdy supports of the wooden pallet.
"Wouldnt want you going anywhere now would we?" One of the guards joked as she followed her companion out of the hut and locked it behind her, their work done.
Silence had filled the courtyard outside. The hut that served as the prison was cramped and dirty, the single pallet being the only furnishing. Gabrielle and Xena were seated next to each other, their hands still tightly bound. They knew they could escape but had decided that for the time being they would remain in their prison, fearing that to escape may mean putting Sophea in serious danger.
"I dont understand." The bard stated, "Sophea said that she was on a quest, why are they accusing her of desertion?"
Xenas expression was bleak in the darkened hut. "Perhaps she was on a quest but not one they knew about." The warrior speculated.
"But she always intended to return to the village, she would have known that she was going to be accused of desertion." Gabrielle said, her voice echoing the confusion of her mind. "Why did she leave on the quest if she knew that?"
"It must have been something very important to her." Xena responded. "Something worth risking her life for."
Gabrielle mused the puzzle. "She seems to do that a lot." The bard said, more to herself than her companion.
"What?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle spoke up, "Risking her life." She answered, "Diving into the river after me, saving me from the assassin, all the time knowing that this was waiting for her when she returned."
The pair were silent for a moment as they both considered the girls motives.
"Why did she return so close to her home before her quest was completed?" Gabrielle asked.
Suddenly, things began to make sense to the tall warriors keen mind. "Because she had completed her quest." She answered softly.
"What? Why? How do you know that?" Gabrielle challenged, "We do not even know what her mysterious quest was, she clammed up every time I asked her about it."
This last piece of information sealed Xenas conclusion. She turned to the bard by her side. "We were her quest." She stated simply.
Gabrielle was even more confused that ever. "How did you reach that conclusion?" She asked.
"Think about it Gabrielle," Xena urged, "She left on a quest important enough to risk her life for. Because of that, the only thing she would logically risk her life for again would be the quest itself. You said yourself that she put herself in mortal danger a couple of times for you. Also," she continued, "she adores that dog, it would have to be something really important to her to leave him the way she did." The tall warrior paused for a moment, the pieces of the puzzle almost audibly falling into place in her mind. "It was very fortunate for us that she turned up while we were fighting the minotaurs. We were at the disadvantage but then she turns up, in the worst storm I have seen in some time and days from her home. That was no coincidence." The warrior shook her head slightly as she thought about the young girl and her mysterious quest.
Gabrielle raised both of her eyebrows as she could not disagree with her friends logical evidence. "Ok," she began slowly, "so we were her quest but to what purpose? To rescue me after I fell in that stupid river?" The bard was starting to get frustrated by the numerous unanswered questions presenting themselves to her. "Ok," the bard continued further, "how did she know to be by the river at that moment? She must have travelled for days to get there. Are you saying she knew in advance?"
Xena was just as confused as her friend. "I think she must have done but I have no idea how or why."
Silence filled the hut as the friends thought, their keen minds grappling with this new puzzle.
"Well, there is only one way to find out." Gabrielle stated seriously, "and it does not involve sitting around here."
Having decided to escape the friends realised that it would not be as easy as they had originally thought. Their first plan was to twist away from each other and undo the other ones rope without seeing. However, their tightly bound hands were cramped, not allowing either of them the dexterity they usually possessed. The knots in the ropes were tight too and after a few attempts they realised that the plan was not going to work.
The second plan was find something they could use to cut the ropes, something sharp They both looked round the hut but there was nothing; even the naturally sharp areas of the surrounding wood had been sanded down for exactly this reason.
Gabrielle leant back against the wall and sighed. "Did they think of everything?" She asked, frustrated. "They even took your all your weapons "
Xena shifted a little bit, there was one solution but she had been trying to think of something else before she mentioned it. However, there were no other solutions so she said quietly, "Not all of them."
"Sorry?" Gabrielle asked, barely hearing her friend she had spoken so softly.
Xena cleared her throat and repeated herself. "They didnt take all the weapons."
Gabrielle sat up, "Great!" she exclaimed, "which one did they leave, can I reach it?" She asked hopefully.
The warrior was glad of the darkness that covered her deep flush. "Well," she began, "you should be able to reach it "
"Good," the bard confirmed, "So come on, which one did they leave?" She asked, confused by the warriors sudden reticence on the matter.
Xena took a deep breath. "My breast dagger." She stated in what she hoped sounded a matter of fact voice.
A sudden silence filled the hut. "Oh," Gabrielle answered in a small voice, realising that to escape the hut she was going to have to go fishing in her friends cleavage. Unhelpfully, her mind decided now was a great moment to present her with the image of her tall friend as she emerged from a swim, naked and glistening with water. Gee, thanks a lot, she remarked to her brain. Ok, she told herself, just imagine it is someone else. The bard wasnt sure if that made her predicament easier or worse.
Best just to get it over with, she decided. "Ok, bend over," she instructed her friend, twisting so that she had her back to her.
The warrior did as she was bade, trying to imaging that it was someone else other than the bard sitting next to her. She leant as far forward as she could, her bound feet making the twisted angle awkward. Gabrielle raised her hands as high as her restricted arms would let her. It was not particularly high as her limbs were tied behind her back, her shoulders limiting a particularly sharp angle. After a few moments of struggling and each of them turning even deeper shades of red as the bard missed her target, they paused, returning to their forward facing positions next to each other.
After a brief silence the bard spoke up, "thats not going to work," she stated.
"No," Xena agreed.
Both women had come up with the next plan but neither of them wanted to voice it. However, they knew that if they did not escape soon they would loose the cover of darkness, an advantage they sorely needed.
"I could use my mouth." Gabrielle suggested, hoping that Xena could not hear the awkwardness in her voice.
"Yes." Xena agreed.
"Ok," the bard announced, taking a deep breath and wishing it was already over. Xena twisted slightly towards her. She twisted too, bending her head to just above the warriors breasts.
Xena tried desperately to think about something, anything, other than what was happening right at this moment.
Gabrielles heart sank as she realised that the dagger was too far down for her to reach with her teeth. She sat up again. "I am going to have to work it upwards before I can grip it with my teeth," she said, wondering if the situation could get any worse.
Xena just nodded silently.
Gabrielle bend her head again, this time extending her tongue between her friends breasts as she probed for the dagger. Mercifully, she found it, carefully drawing it upwards towards her teeth, at the same time painting a line with her tongue right up her friends cleavage.
Minotaurs, swords, her chakram, Xena was trying to fill her mind with non-sexual thoughts. Then she felt the bards tongue drawing a course between her breasts. She coughed loudly, trying to stop any other sound involuntarily coming from her throat.
Finally, Gabrielle had the weapon firmly between her teeth and she carefully removed it from its resting place. She leant back dropping the dagger on the pallet between them, easily within both of their reaches.
They sat for a moment, each silently recovering from their unusual escape tactic.
"Lets not mention that again," suggested the bard.
"Agreed," Xena quickly responded.
After another brief pause then Gabrielle turned her back on her friend, picking up the dagger in her bound hands. "Ok," she said, "lets get out of here."
The door of the prison hut opened slowly and silently, allowing just enough room for the blonde head that poked around it. The courtyard was deserted and the blonde emerged fully, beckoning to her tall companion who followed her out into the cool night air. Both women were relieved to feel the rush of the clean, crisp air as it filled their lungs. The blond woman stretched her arms out in front of her, the bright moonlight highlighting the wicked rope burns that ringed both of her wrists, leaving them red raw.
Luckily the prison hut hadnt been guarded, the Amazons being a complacent tribe, over confident in their own abilities. The only threat the friends faced were the regular guards that monitored the peace of the camp from their tall guard towers. Xena had made a mental note of the locations of these towers, enabling herself and her friend to walk a hidden path, sheltered from the view of the guards.
The first port of call was the armoury, again unguarded. Gabrielle shook her head slightly; she would never have allowed such lax security at her tribe. Xena unlocked the door, disappearing into the darkness for a few moments and then returning complete with all of her own confiscated weapons. She had also located a staff which she handed to the waiting bard, knowing that Gabrielles own weapon had been lost in the river after the fight with the minotaurs. The bard took a moment to reflect how much more secure she felt while she carried the heavy wooden pole, then she turned and nodded at the warrior beside her, indicating that she was ready to move on.
The pair looked around for a moment, unsure of which hut belonged to Sophea. However, this new problem was quickly overcome as the warrior had a sudden idea. Xena let out a low whistle, only to an alert ear would it have stood out from the other muffled sounds of the night-time forest. Moments later the sure sound of an approaching creature reached the friends ears, quickly personified by the familiar form of the approaching Moss.
The dog greeted them warmly, licking their hands and wagging his long tail. Xena bent down and whispered into his ear, "Sophea," she said, "take us to Sophea."
Amiably the dog turned around and confidently led them on a winding course through the darkened huts. Both bard and warrior took great pains to be a silent as possible, aware that even in a sleeping Amazon camp they were more likely to be detected than in a farming village in full daylight.
Eventually the dog stopped, sitting outside the door to a small hut on the outskirts of the village, the door was locked from the outside. The bard shook her head sadly, undoing the lock and gently pushing the door open. The friends filed inside, allowing their eyes a couple of moments to adjust to the dark interior of the hut in comparison to the moonlight flooded courtyard.
Xena had calculated that they had about an hour before the early risers would begin to rouse in the pre-dawn darkness. Both friends knew that if they were going to escape they were going to have to have left the camp before that time.
Gabrielle moved over to the pallet that contained the sleeping form of their new friend. She sat down gently on the side of the bed, her weight causing the straw filled mattress to dip slightly. She reached out her hand, placing it gently on the sleeping girls upper arm. "Sophea," she whispered.
The girl jumped, drawing backwards away from the touch with a gasp of shock and pain. She winced as the sudden activity sent a jolt of pain through her sore ribs. She pushed the pain aside as she realised that the two figures in her hut were her two friends. She smiled as an excited Moss jumped onto the pallet, rushing towards her face as though he hadnt seen her in years. She put a hand out to steady him and looked at the blond woman perched on the side of her bed. "Xena, Gabrielle, what are you doing here?" She asked, her mind still slightly fuzzy with sleep.
"We came to see how you were doing," the bard answered, the sympathy evident in her voice.
"Dont worry about me," the girl said, "I will be fine, you two ought to go though, escape while you can, they will be so mad when they realise that you got out of the prison hut."
Gabrielle looked at the girl; even in the dim light she could make out the ugly bruise that covered the right-hand side of the young Amazons face. As the bard looked she realised that the girls lip had been cut too, a small line of dried blood clearly evident against her suddenly pale features. "We are not going without you." The bard stated simply.
The girl looked from one resolute face to another. She had only met these women for the first time a few days ago but here they were, ready and willing to do so much for her. "I cant go," she said sadly.
"Why?" The bard demanded, determined to change the girls mind whatever she may say.
Sophea sighed, torn between the words of her head and the feelings of her heart. "I am to face trial tomorrow," she explained, her voice hesitating slightly as she continued, "for desertion."
"What?" Gabrielle exclaimed incredulously. "If you are found guilty you could be condemned to death!"
"Yes, I know." Sophea admitted.
Gabrielle grabbed the girls shoulder, quickly withdrawing her hand when she heard the sudden intake of air from the young Amazon.
For the first time in several moments Xena moved. The warrior lit the candle that stood by the small pallet and gently removing the cloth that covered the girls shoulder, she held the light up towards it.
Both Xena and Gabrielle were sickened as they saw the deep cut and the huge bruise that covered Sopheas entire shoulder blade. It was a nasty wound to start with but knowing that it had come from the girls so called sisters rather than a legitimate battle scenario angered both of them. They were now resolute that they had to take the girl away from this place, at the moment the where or how did not matter.
Gabrielles green eyes beseeched the young girl, "Please Sophea, come with us, escape while you can."
"No," Sophea answered firmly, without hesitation. "I am a warrior, honour demands that I am held accountable for my crimes."
Xena sat on the pallet next to the bard, her vivid blue eyes searching the young Amazons in the flickering candlelight. "I understand what you are saying Sophea," she began, "and I respect you for it, but you are not being held accountable for your crimes, there is no need to put you on trial for leaving the camp for a few days. They are trying you for something else, something that we dont even know about. There is no honour in facing something that is borne of anger, only foolishness."
As the warrior had spoken, the bard had seen the subtle changes in the girls expression. Gabrielle realised that there was more to this than either she or Xena had first realised and the only way to find out more was to invest a little time. Her eyes tracked to the window, they still had a while before they needed to leave. "Sophea, what was your quest?" The bard asked the question directly, not allowing the girl any escape other then pure refusal to answer.
Sophea sighed inwardly. How was she supposed to answer this? "It is complicated " she began, hoping that would put the bard off.
Xenas eyes fixed the young girls. "Trust us." She responded simply.
Sophea gave up, she had nothing to loose, she had accepted the fact that she was facing certain death tomorrow, what should the friendship of two strangers matter now, she told herself. "I have visions." She stated simply.
"Go on," Gabrielle urged gently.
Sophea was surprised by the reaction but continued anyway, she found it hard to resist a request that either of her new friends asked of her. "I have had them since I was just a young girl, that is why the Elders distrust me, they think I have evil powers."
Gabrielle spoke up, "Is that what they are really trying you for tomorrow?" she asked.
Sophea nodded in response, "I guess they have just been waiting for an excuse."
The bard nodded her head in understanding. "The quest must have been very important to you if you knew that taking it up meant giving them that excuse."
"It was." The girl said, the past tense noticed by both warrior and bard. "I hoped they wouldnt be as mad as they are but I knew deep down that they would be." She looked up at the faces opposite her. "It was worth it though."
A sudden silence filled the hut as the older women digested the information. Sophea was totally unaware that they had any idea what her quest had been about. She was more worried about how the women would respond to her admitting that she had visions. Everyone she had ever told before had always assumed that she was either mad or evil. She couldnt help it though, it was not as though she had asked for it to happen.
"I guess you guys think I am mad too, me saying I have visions and stuff." Sophea remarked sadly, totally misreading their thoughtful silence.
Gabrielle carefully took the young girls hand in her own. "Not at all," she said. The bard looked at her warrior friend, a subtle question in her eyes. Xena nodded mutely at her and the blonde woman continued. "Xena has been having visions recently," she explained, "that is the quest we are on at the moment."
Sophea suddenly felt like she was as light as air. All of a sudden she was no longer alone, she had never met a more good or sane person than Xena and here she was admitting to having visions too. It was rather a lot to take in, did it change what she ought to do about tomorrow, should she escape while she still could? She did not want to die, she did not think it was fair either. It had just been that all of the feelings of being powerless and irrelevant had flooded back to her as she had returned to the village, she had not had the strength to keep fighting a loosing battle.
Sophea took a deep breath. "Ok, lets get out of here!" She finally decided, pleased by the delighted grins that greeted her decision.
It had not taken the young Amazon long to pack her belongings. She had very little of any sentimental value and her practical possessions were still in the travel bag that lay on the floor from the night before. Grimly, she had added her weapons to her costume, she hoped that she would never have to use them against her Amazon sisters but she knew that it would have been naïve to assume they would afford her the same goodwill.
When she was ready the three women slipped out of the door, accompanied by their canine companion. Xena broke away from the group, moving stealthily towards the stables to collect Argo. Moments later she returned, leading the golden mare who seemed a lot happier at having been reunited with her mistress. Silently they continued, padding towards the forest. Sophea was almost holding her breath as the anticipation of permanent freedom was finally within her grasp. It seemed to take them hours to clear the range of the last guard tower but finally they were free. Sophea was sure they would be followed, the damaged pride of her sisters at the escaped prisoners driving the Amazons on. However, her spirit was jubilant as she realised that they had a good headstart and finding comfort in the knowledge that her newfound friends would fight in her defence should they need to.
Suddenly the tall warrior froze, signalling for quiet from her companions. Obediently they conformed, watching as the warrior tilted her head slightly, evidently listening. Xenas features turned grim, "Trouble." The warrior stated succinctly.
"Have they realised we have gone?" Gabrielle asked, knowing that the sounds the warrior had heard could only have come from the Amazon camp.
"Probably," the warrior answered, grimly elaborating, "but I dont think they will care too much, from the sounds of it they are under attack."
There had been a hurried discussion in the forest as Xena had tried to persuade her Amazon companions to remain where they were, keeping Moss with them and waiting until she returned. However, Sophea had explained that although she may have no love lost with her sisters she could not stand by in good conscience, knowing that they were under attack and not doing anything to help. Gabrielle had insisted she went too, her reasons a little more personal although she silently admitted to herself that she did not want to be separated from Xena again, especially knowing that danger that lay ahead be it either in the form of the unknown attackers or their Amazon captors.
Finally, all three women had charged back towards the camp they had so recently left. When they arrived they all stopped dead, stunned by the vision in front of them. Even Xena had been shocked, despite her many years on the battlefield. The peaceful village that they had left so recently now appeared before them as the scene of a great massacre. The grey dawn light combined with the low-lying mist of the surrounding forest gave the scene an eerie feel as the women stood, surveying the carnage in front of them. Female bodies lay scattered around the hard ground in pools of still warm blood. The sleeping Amazons had been caught out by a surprise attack, one that had found them completely of guard. The bodies were in various stages of dress but it was irrelevant now, most lay dead or dying from fatal wounds to the throat.
"What could have done this?" Gabrielle asked quietly, genuinely affected by so many needless deaths.
Xenas voice was hard as she responded, "I dont know, but I think we are about to find out." She answered, drawing her sword. The still shocked Sophea mirrored her action and Gabrielle re-gripped her staff as three pairs of eyes searched the swirling mist.
A large shape began to take form in the mist the on the other side of courtyard. Sophea recognised the shape even before the others had realised what it was. "Be careful Xena," the young Amazon warned. "It is after Gabrielle." "Moss! Hide!"
The large wolf-like creature was as large as a small pony, fresh blood dripping from its cruel jaws. Its evil red eyes shone in delight as the breeze carried the scent of the prey it had been tracking for so long. Prowling forward, the creature eyed its victims, instinctively approaching the bard first. Suddenly it leapt forwards, its powerful leg muscles propelling it with full momentum towards the bard, frozen in terror.
Xena let out a wild cry; instinctively realising that this was the being of pure evil that Elkton had warned them about. The beasts malicious jaws frothed as it knocked the bard to the ground, already anticipating the tang of her warm blood slipping down its throat. Its ambitions were temporarily halted as another human suddenly landed on its back, wrapping her strong arms around its neck and pulling the huge head upwards with all of her strength.
Letting out an angered howl the creature vaulted its back legs, throwing the woman off to land in the dirt with a heavy thud. It pounced on her, pinning her to the ground with its great weight. Its jaws snapped, moving closer in cruel delight towards her ripe neck. Suddenly, the creature growled in pain and relinquished its prey, turning its head, the large jaws snapping at the arrows protruding from its rib cage. It recognised the scent of the arrows, its eyes roaming the mist in search of its familiar but unseen assailant.
Sophea stood rooted to the spot as she saw the creature look directly at her. To her surprise the beast did not approach her, instead rushing back towards the blonde woman it really wanted. Gabrielle raised her staff, only just managing to thrust it into the champing jaws of the beast. Xena rose to her feet, sprinting towards the beast attacking her friend. The animal kept tilting its head form side to side, trying to free itself of the sudden restriction to its mouth. It swiped out a large paw in the direction of the blonde woman, sharp talons ripping through her leathers and deep into the flesh of her chest. The bloodlust shone in the beasts eyes as its nostrils tracked the scent of the fresh blood of the prey it so desperately wanted.
Gabrielle drew back at the sudden pain, loosing her grip on the staff against the beasts superior strength. Sophea fired another arrow towards the beast, this time only reaching the creatures thick coat and falling harmlessly to the ground. Xena was almost upon the creature, angling her sword for a deadly thrust to the beasts neck. The angered animal spun round, sinking its sharp teeth deeply into the warriors unprotected thigh. Stumbling blindly with the pain, Xena fell backwards towards the hard ground, the beasts teeth ripping long shreds out of her upper leg.
Sophea rushed forward, sword drawn to protect her fallen friends, she managed to reach the beast before it had disengaged its cruel jaws from its human quarry. She plunged her sword deep into the creatures side, hearing the success of her aim as the beast roared in anguish. It spun towards her, red eyes flashing in anger. Hurtling its large form towards the young Amazon, it knocked her to the ground, sinking its teeth into the flesh in front of it and crushing the girls lower ribs with its muscular jaws. Sophea cried out in pain before blessedly loosing consciousness, her body suddenly as still as the corpses around her.
Gabrielle had recovered her feet, rushing towards the beast to avert the fatal feasting on the young Amazons unguarded neck. She swung her staff at the beasts hind legs with all of her strength, trying to ignore the searing pain shooting across the gaping wounds in her chest. The staff was slippery with her own blood as the bard re-gripped it, watching the angered creature as it turned slowly towards her, victory already shining in its eyes. Gabrielle shook her head, trying to shake off the sudden light-headedness caused by her own rapidly draining blood.
Xena staggered to her feet, not seeing the mess the creature had made of her leg, only seeing the fallen Sophea and the beast as it confidently stalked her best friend. With immense will-power she dragged her leg over the rough ground that marked the distance between herself and the bard now staring death in the face. With a final surge of effort the beast leapt at the weakened Gabrielle who collapsed from the mixture of terror, shock and blood she had lost.
Summoning up the last of her strength, Xena hurled herself towards the airborne beast, her sword drawn and the knowledge that this would be her only chance to save her friends life sobering her pain muddled mind. Time slowed to a trickle as the beast soared towards the fallen Gabrielle, eyes intent on the victim it so wanted to taste. The warrior desperately flew through the air on an intercept course that she could not allow to fail. The two titans met, one of darkness, one of light. Blessedly Xena felt the resistance as her sword punctured the beasts thick skin, slipping smoothly between the giant ribs and piercing its evil heart. The creature landed on the ground by Gabrielles side, its red eyes staring lifelessly into her green ones. It was the last image the bard saw before blackness overwhelmed her.
Xenas body landed hard on the ground, the solid impact knocking the wind out of her battle weary body. Slowly, her blue eyes tracked to the bard and the dead monster lying next to her. As if in slow motion, her eyelids fluttered shut, briefly resting her mind from the bloodied forms of her friends lying completely still on the cold earth. The pain in her leg was almost unbearable as her shredded muscles protruded from the gaping holes in the skin. They had won, she remembered thinking, but at what price?
Xena had blacked out for a few moments, the pain and exertion from the battle briefly overwhelming her battered consciousness. When she had come round she had crawled to Gabrielles side, relived to find a pulse at all, even though it had been faint and slow. She had summoned the hidden strength that was based in all she felt for the blonde woman and had cradled the unconscious bard, gently raising to a standing position and carrying her into the relative safety of the nearest hut. She had returned to the blood filled courtyard and retraced her steps, this time carrying the fallen Sophea. The warriors two friends lay silently on the parallel pallets in the hut. Xena called upon her healers knowledge, pathetically grateful that she could.
The warrior had bound her own leg tightly with a piece of linen she had found in the hut and using Gabrielles discarded staff as a crutch, searched the village for the healing supplies she needed. Both were temporary measures but ones that allowed her enough mobility to complete the more urgent tasks. When she had equipped the hut with all she needed she began to tend blonde woman first, her wounds being more time sensitive. The warrior had taken long pieces of gut and threaded a sharp needle that she had already held in the flame of a candle for a few moments. She used fresh water and soft cloths to clean the three large gashes that had lacerated her friends chest. When the wound was totally clean she re-gripped the needle and threat, sewing together the tattered skin with small, neat stitches.
Some time later the bowed head of the warrior rose, knowing that she had done as much as she could for Gabrielle for the time being. Now the injured warrior moved across the dusty floor of the hut to assess Sopheas wounds. Xenas experience on the battlefield was the only thing that stopped her from loosing her stomach as she gazed down at the mess that was the young Amazons midsection. Puncture marks from the beasts teeth marked the perimeter of the wound. Between the ripped skin, the warrior could see at least three broken ribs, plus extensive damage to the surrounding muscles. She got up again, this time washing her hands thoroughly with soap and water. Returning to the Amazons side she inserted her fingers into the wound, gradually straightening the disturbed bones, trying to return them to some semblance of their original state. When she had done all she could internally, she repeated the process she had already done on Gabrielle, cleaning the wound and sewing it up with the same neat stitching. She then bound the wound, the tight linen providing a support for the damaged ribcage.
Regarding her two friends, the warrior felt desolate. Both women were pale with the amount of blood they had each lost. Gabrielles injuries were worse because the positioning of her wound had meant she had lost a lot more blood. The odds were stacked against her, the warrior knew, she would do all she could but the bard had lost at least half of her blood to the stained earth. Sophea should make it, Xenas healers knowledge told her, as long as the wound did not get infected. She had lost a lot of blood too but enough that her younger body should not be able to replenish given time and rest.
Xena filled a cup with water, gently holding it to the lips of the bard, encouraging the lifeless form to drink. Thanks to the reflexive actions of Gabrielles throat, the blonde woman managed to take some water. Xena knew that if she had any chance at survival this was crucial. Moving once again to the bucket of water, the warrior refilled the mug, this time adding several of the nearby herbs to the liquid. She repeated the drinking process with Sophea, knowing that the girl may regain consciousness at anytime and unless the pain was reduced she would only drift back into the darkness.
Finally, Xena had done all she could for the two women for the time being. She sat down heavily on the wooden chair next to the table that held her supplies. Grimacing silently she unbound her leg, unsurprised at the bloody mess that met her eyes. Her skin, like her companions, was ripped, showing the butchered muscle underneath. The beasts teeth had torn through the fibres as though they were as soft as butter. She cleaned the wound out thoroughly with clean water and yet more fresh rags. Once the injury was clean she reached for a canister of herbs, gently sprinkling the powder directly into the wound. The pain of the intrusion almost sent her back into the blackness that had briefly claimed her before. However, she could not ingest the herbs, knowing that the side-effects would make her drowsy. She would not allow herself to be anything other than alert, knowing each of her friends was depending on her skills and awareness if either of them were going to survive.
For the third time, she cleaned and sterilised the needle, rethreading it with yet more gut. She inserted the needle into her own leg, forcing herself to push it through the tattered remnants of her skin, drawing the edges of the wound neatly together. When she had finished she let her hands rest, leaning her head back against the rough wood of the hut. She just concentrated on breathing until she had recovered enough to finish her work. She picked up a long strip of strong linen and bound her leg again. She did it neatly and precisely, knowing that she should not take it off again for two nights so she did not disturb the healing wound.
After forcing herself to drink some of the water by her side she leant her head back against the wall once again, knowing that now all she could do was to wait, hope and be ready should the statuses of either of her patients change.
Xena had spent some time in the courtyard of the village, searching amongst the dead bodies of the Amazons in the hope of finding survivors. She had seen that though many lay dead, far more were missing and she realised that they had fled the scene of the massacre. Knowing that there was nothing else she needed to do other than tend her two friends she had returned to her impromptu healers hut.
As she had walked in Sophea had raised bloodshot eyes towards her. Xena limped to her side, resting on the edge of the pallet. "How are you feeling?" The warrior asked her patient.
Sopheas voice was hoarse as she responded, "Dont worry about me, I am tougher than I look." The young girl winced in pain as the effort of talking seemed to drive red-hot daggers into her side. "How is Gabrielle?" She asked.
Xena was silent for a moment, wishing that her answer could be different from the one she had to give. Deep blue eyes tracked to the resting form of her best friend, she turned them back towards the young Amazon as she answered her question. "She is resting at the moment." The warrior had said simply.
Sophea looked into the vivid blue eyes lying hurt and open in front of her. Her mind replayed the image of the panther from her vision and those blue eyes that had held exactly the same expressing as she saw now. "You know dont you?" The Amazon asked.
Xena looked at the girl, seeing the surprising maturity and understanding written in her eyes, it looked out of place housed in such young features. "Know what?" The warrior questioned.
Sophea held her gaze steadily, "That you and Gabrielle share a bond that goes a lot deeper than friendship, deeper than life and death. You are soulmates."
Xena looked at the young girl, unsure of what to say, or think or even how she felt anymore. It was a sudden, totally unexpected conversation and one she had not ever expected to have with anyone, possibly not even Gabrielle. However, the chance to share her thoughts was suddenly an appealing one. "That is an overused word." The warrior stated, honestly continuing, "I do not even know what it means."
Sophea nodded in understanding. "I think, that it means that not only are your hearts and minds in love with each other, but also your souls. It is extremely rare, most people would count themselves lucky if they had both of the first two with the same person."
The warriors blue eyes searched the age-old ones ahead of her. "How do you know all this, from you visions?" She asked, slightly sceptical.
"The visions I see tell me of situations, a little of feelings maybe. The philosophy is something that I was born with too, to me the answers are as clear as how you would simply know that it would be more effective to try and kill someone with a sword rather than a sponge." The Amazon answered, trusting the warrior with a truth about herself she had hidden from every other human she had encountered.
"What was your quest?" The warrior asked again, knowing that it was relevant to so much.
Sophea smiled at her friends persistence. "I had a vision," she began, telling the tall warrior the details of the dream, of all she had seen and how she had left the village immediately and had gone in search of a fox and a panther.
Xena smiled sadly at the aptness of the animal alter egos that had been assigned to both herself and her best friend. "So Artemis sent you to help fight our unseen enemy." The warrior concluded, feeling that she was beginning to piece together the parts of the puzzle, she went on to share the details that Elkton had provided them with.
Sophea nodded in understanding, the overall picture gradually beginning to form in her mind too. "So you have been having visions yourself sent by Artemis." She began to summarise, encouraged by Xenas nod. "You discovered that an unknown enemy was trying to kill Gabrielle and that is somehow related to your visions. I was commandeered, sent to help fight that evil."
"From what Elkton said I think the creature lying dead outside is the essence of evil he warned us about." The warrior said, seeking the girls agreement.
Sophea nodded. "I think you are right," she confirmed, "but it does still leave you with the master."
That was something Xena did not want to think about right now. Together, the three of them had managed to fight off everything the master had sent but it had left them in this dilapidated state, the bard clinging onto the barest threads of life. There were still so many outstanding questions though. Who was the master? Why was he targeting Gabrielle? Why was Xena having her visions? Why were the visions so alien?
Although the conversation between the warrior and the Amazon had answered a lot of other questions Xena felt the frustration rise inside her as she realised she was still left with the original questions, their answers still just out of her reach. Her eyes turned back to the Amazon, hoping that her insight may help her with these puzzles. She bit back the questions though as she saw the pale drawn face of her friend, the pain she was in obvious as she temporarily rested her burning eyes.
Instead, Xena looked over at Gabrielle, her world reeling yet again with the intervention of a cruel fate.
The voice startled Xena a little, she had been so deep in her musings. The warrior studied her new friend, so full of surprises. The Amazon had slipped back into the darkness again, her body needing the rest to help rebuild her battered body. Xena felt just a little happier, at least one of her friends was going to pull through and her last waking words echoed round the warriors head, giving her something for her hope to cling on to.
It was dark where she was but there werent any stars to offer her companionship. She was floating, her body and mind oddly at peace in this strange nothingness. As she looked around, a small pinprick of light appeared in front of her. She seemed able to move towards it simply by thinking herself nearer. The light grew until it provided an opening that she could pass through. She could see figures on the other side, shining and holding out their hands towards her in welcome. She could feel the thoughts they were sending out to her, friendship, greeting, happiness. She smiled.
Something made her turn, allowing her eyes to briefly leave the shining figures. Behind her stood a white deer, large and majestic. Something told her to move towards the deer and for a moment she looked between the light and the deer, trying to decide which she ought to head towards. Giving the light a last, longing look, she turned her body round and willing herself, followed the deer.
Both the deer and the nothingness dropped away, leaving in their place a picture that was unfamiliar but at the same time as comforting as home. She was standing on the smooth sand of a small island, surrounded by a few smiling people in oddly dressed clothes. Opposite her stood Xena. She smiled at her tall friend, unsure of why Xena too was dressed in the odd white clothes but reassured by the constancy of her friends eyes. Xena was singing she realised, the words directed solely at her, the voice holding a beauty that matched the warriors features and left the bard enchanted.
It was a poem, the words deep and sung with sincerity. The rest of the island seemed to drop away as Gabrielle looked into the clear blue eyes opposite her, realising belatedly that Xena was singing of her love for her. When the song drew to an end, the warrior gently clasped her hand, smoothly slipping a metal band onto her finger. The blue eyes reached out to the bards soul, as though extending her hand.
Gabrielle felt her own soul reach out in response, she couldnt have stopped it even if she had wanted to, she realised it was something that had begun long ago in a clearing outside Potedia when she had been just a simple shepherds daughter.
Xenas hand had reached out, cupping Gabrielles cheek as she had bowed her head, her soft lips gently meeting the bards own, the final stage in a bonding that had been nurtured since that first moment, culminating in this moment. A moment that had taken so long to arrive but that now filled every gap and healed every wound. She had travelled so far, only to arrive home.
The cooling night air brushed over the warrior's bare skin, causing small bumps to rise along her tanned forearms. She was standing outside her healer's hut, her back resting against the comfortingly solid wood, her right leg bent slightly as she carried her full weight on her left. Her day had been a challenging one, tending the two women inside and trying to adjust to the constant pain of her own mauled leg.
The other Amazon's in the tribe had not yet returned, their absence being nothing other than a blessing in Xena's eyes. The tall warrior knew that it would not be long before they did return and she realised that there was likely to be hostility towards both her and the two injured women she was unable to move. Grimly she knew that that was something she would just have to face and that for the time being, there were no other options.
It was so quiet, Xena realised, the companionship of her new friends silenced by their current conditions. Suddenly she remembered the missing Moss, recalling that Sophea had sent the dog away as the threat of the beast had appeared. Marvelling at the dog's obedience Xena let out a loud whistle as her eyes scouted the nearby trees. Moments later the black and white form of Moss came bounding towards her, leaving the shrubbery by the large meeting hut quivering in his wake.
Moss stopped by Xena's side, his sensitive nose drawing his attention to the odd smelling linen bound tightly around her right thigh. He raised his brown eyes up at her, seemingly in understanding. The warrior stroked the dog's large head, the repetitive strokes seeming to ease her inner pain, albeit only a little. She moved towards the entrance of the hut, pushing open the door and resting her hand on Moss' broad shoulders to prevent him from leaping onto either of the pallets containing the silent women. The warrior led the dog to the young Amazon's side, watching as he poked his cold, wet nose into her unresponsive hand. The dog's suddenly forlorn eyes rose to meet Xenas.
"She is ok boy," the warrior consoled, "she just needs to rest."
Moss jumped up onto the pallet before Xena had time to stop him. He stretched his neck, his nose now investigating his mistress' wounded side. He did not make contact with the tender skin though, instead settling down on the other side of the bed. He stretched his long body out in parallel to Sophea's, resting his head on her shoulder.
Xena smiled slightly, sometimes animals exhibited far more sense than humans. The warrior realised that the companionship of the dog would soothe the young girl's mind, indirectly aiding the healing process. She knew that she too would have to rest soon, her own body needing to heal just as her patients did. She had wondered where to sleep, knowing there was not enough room on the floor of the hut to lie with her legs outstretched as she needed to. Now the answer was simple. She made her final checks of the night, making sure Argo was comfortable in the stable and that she had enough water and hay. Then the warrior returned to the hut, coaxing a little more water down the blonde woman's throat and leaving a full mug by the side of the young Amazon, within easy reach should she wake up in the night.
Xena splashed cold water on her own face and hands, drying them off on the linen cloth left by the basin for just that purpose. She unclasped the metal fasteners that held her armour in place, removing it from her aching body and placing it on the chair for the morning. She was confident that should the Amazons begin to return, the combination of her own keen senses and the dog sharing their hut would give her enough warning to prepare herself. Right now though, rest was the most important thing. She blew out the single remaining candle and waited for a moment as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. As they did, she softly moved towards the pallet that contained her blonde friend and lay down too, settling comfortably with her long body pressed against the wall, running parallel to Gabrielle's. She folded one muscular arm under her head, forming a natural pillow for herself and wound the other arm gently around the bard's waist.
Xena had been hoping that her unusual sleeping location would somehow help to soothe the battered bard, wrapping her in a feeling of warmth and security. A hint of a smile crossed the warriors face as she stared into the darkness and realised that it was doing her as mush good as she was hoping it was doing for Gabrielle. The warrior began to relax, her tired body comforted by the bard's warm presence and even breathing. Finally, sleep overtook the alert blue eyes, delivering the warrior to a world of peace.
She was standing on warm, golden sand, her mind soothed by the rhythmic noises of the ocean. Sea gulls circled overhead, their familiar cry penetrating her memory. The sun was bright, gently caressing her skin with warmth. A gentle breeze blew, sending tendrils of her long dark hair chasing around her face.
She smiled at the familiar figure standing opposite her. Gabrielles odd white clothes seemed almost normal to her now, she had begun to get used to the unusual styles and fabrics. This time, other people were present too, a small group of them stood a little way away from the friends, their vaguely familiar faces smiling and happy. Gabrielle was speaking, she realised suddenly.
The bards voice was soothing and familiar, her words spoken with meaning and conviction. Xena was mesmerised with her friends eyes, the nearby ocean set them off perfectly, the joy that danced in them proving infectious to the warrior. Gradually, the words began to penetrate Xenas consciousness and with disbelief she realised that Gabrielle was declaring her love for her tall friend and a commitment to stay by her side for the rest of their lives, whatever the future may bring.
Gabrielle clasped her hand, gently rubbing Xenas down turned palm with the tip of her thumb as she slipped a metal band onto one of the warriors long fingers. Xena felt as though she was floating, her body held up by the belief and trust in the green eyes gazing into hers. The rest of the scene seemed to drop away as the two friends faced each other, their hearts entwining.
Xena reached out her hand, cupping Gabrielles cheek and gently caressing it, her fingers a vessel of the love that she felt bursting free inside her body. The expression in her friends eyes told her that she could finally stop fighting, giving her the freedom to lay down her weapons of pretence and giving in to her hearts desire. She bent her head, closing her eyes as she felt her own lips make contact with Gabrielles. It was more than she had ever believed possible, the final unity of two souls that had always been destined to walk the same path.
Stark sunlight penetrated the wooden hut, rousing the sleeping Amazon. She felt slightly better today, her side was still very sore but the pain was beginning to even out. It was a relief in comparison to the regular but random shots that had plagued her the day before. Despite her physical predicament she felt happier than she had done in a long time. Her mind tracked to the conversation she had had with Xena the evening before, recalling how she had felt like an honoured guest as she had been allowed close enough to observe the blossoming realisation of Xenas relationship with Gabrielle. Moss was by her side too, lying peacefully on the pallet with his head resting on his large paws.
Sophea gently turned her head to see how her blonde friend was doing, surprised to find to blue eyes gazing back at her. She smiled with genuine pleasure as she recognised the small but momentous step Xena must have taken the night before.
"Morning." Sophea greeted the warrior warmly.
"Morning." Xena returned the Amazons smile.
"How is she doing?"
Xena looked at Gabrielles face. It was still totally relaxed as her mind was gripped firmly in its unconscious state. However, the bard seemed to have just a little more colour in her cheeks than the deathly white that had haunted her the day before. "Well," the warrior began, sighing a little, "She made it through the night and that was the first hurdle."
Sophea nodded in agreement, pleased by the news. "How are you Xena?" She asked, her uniquely coloured eyes probing the warriors.
"My leg seems to be recovering," the warrior assessed practically, "I will not know for sure until I take the strapping off in a day or so."
Again Sophea nodded, her response catching in her throat as Moss raised his head, his ears pricked.
Xena saw the dogs sudden movement and extracted herself from the bed quickly, donning her armour and fastening it rapidly with practiced fingers. She settled the weapons about her person, understanding the grim look she received from the Amazon. The warrior drew herself up to her full height, settling a no-nonsense attitude over her features and poise. She nodded briefly to the young girl before opening the door of the hut and emerging into the sunlight.
By the time she had entered the courtyard the returning Amazons had begun to file back into the camp, their pained features speaking of their inner shock at the sight that met their eyes. For some moments the warrior was all but ignored as the Amazons recognised their slaughtered friends and family members, lying cold in the dust. Xena had deliberately not moved any of the bodies, knowing that the Amazons would return soon and would not have responded well to the intervention of a stranger.
An average looking woman of medium height walked up to the warrior, deliberately stopping well inside Xenas personal zone. "I see you lived then." The woman spoke, the hatred evident in her voice.
Xena recognised the womans voice although she had not seen her face before. She was the same Amazon that had originally struck Sophea and the one who seemed to assume the power that went with leadership. "I wish to speak to the Queen of this tribe." The warrior stated, her voice firm and resolute.
"Oh would you?" The Amazon scoffed, "Well that is her lying dead, face down in the dirt there." The woman pointed, not even looking but still angered when the warrior did the same.
"Who had the right of caste?" Asked Xena, refusing to rise to the antagonistic attitude the woman was displaying.
"What would you know of our traditions, warrior?" The woman demanded, frustrated by this stranger demanding answers that were none of her business. A number of her Amazon sisters had gathered around her, the animosity towards the tall dark intruder obvious.
"My name is Xena." The warrior stated, her eyes narrowing as she grew tired of the ineffective conversation.
Muttered whispers traversed the crowd as Xena heard her name repeated several times. She ignored them, maintaining steady eye contact with the original Amazon.
"Xena, eh?" The woman eyed her disinterestedly. This warrior seemed a mere shadow to the character the legends painted, a woman whose strength was only equalled by her tactical intelligence. "Well, Xena, I had the right of caste, which means I am the new Queen."
Xena felt her dislike for the woman growing by the second, watching as the woman jutted her chin, her self-importance sickening. However, she carried on to address the business she had with the queen. "I have two injured friends in the hut over there." The warrior stated, "I cannot move them until they begin to heal, I am sure you will understand." Xena concluded, doubting her own words seriously but hoping that maybe things would be straightforward for once.
"I think you will find that that is my decision." The Queen responded, angered by the warriors insolence but suddenly sensing the perfect opportunity to prove her new position to her tribe. "I will allow them to remain on one condition," the Queen began graciously. "If you can prove your worth in a simple one on one combat." She laughed inwardly, the warrior was obviously a pathetic facsimile compared to the Xena that legends were built on. She was also injured and already the Queen could almost taste the admiration of her new followers as she made Xena, Warrior Princess beg for mercy.
Xena gazed at the new Queen intently, "Agreed." She responded simply, holding out her arm to seal the agreement.
The Queen was barley able to conceal her evident delight. "Choose your weapon." She offered magnanimously.
"Staffs." Xena replied.
It was early afternoon; the Amazon camp was once again bustling with the activity of its natives. The bodies had been cleared away, including the great black form of the beast. Now the women had formed a ring around the centre of the courtyard. Queen and warrior stood facing each other, strong hands gripping smooth staffs. The queen had adorned herself with all of her ritualistic adornments and her over confident smile was already beginning to grate against the warriors nerves.
The Amazon made the first move, darting into the warriors attack zone and planting a firm tap on the staff she clutched. "Ready Princess?" The Queen taunted, bouncing on her heels slightly in preparation for the warriors first move.
Xena circled the woman, making efficient defensive responses as the woman attacked repeatedly. As the woman gained in confidence, she began to become careless with her defensive positioning, all the time allowing Xena to gather information about her attack style, preferences, favourite moves and so on.
The queen moved in again, this time using a combination move that to her frustration was blocked with wood on both arcs. "Come on warrior, or do you not really like to fight after all?" Her taunting laugh echoing around the watching crowd.
The queen was starting to become frustrated, at this rate it would be so easy to defeat this stranger that she would earn little respect for it whether the warrior had had a legendary reputation or not.
Xena bade her time, waiting until the Queens overconfidence and growing frustration presented her with the perfect opportunity. She had decided well before the fight that she would use it as an opportunity to prove a point, hopefully gaining her friends unchallenged shelter for as long as they needed it.
The Amazon moved around energetically, her over-exaggerated moves reflecting the egotistical bravado in her mind.
Suddenly, Xena saw her opening, the queen was unprepared, her staff about to enter into another pointless display of showmanship. The warrior sprung forward, adjusting for the encumbrance of her wounded leg. She sent her own staff flying out forwards, curling it around at the last moment, cracking the Amazon painfully behind the knees. At the same time she brought the top forwards, catching the side of the Queens head with contained force so as not to kill her.
The Amazons damaged knees were unable to carry her weight, buckling and dumping her unceremoniously into the dust. Her momentum carried her backwards where she was suddenly pinned by the weight of the warrior towering over her, ice blue eyes boring into her own.
The crowd stopped in stunned silence. A small trickle of blood ran down the Queens temple, vivid against her suddenly drained features. The Amazon stared up the staff held menacingly at her throat, her mind still trying to catch up with the sudden change in her fate.
Xena was the first to speak, her voice silky smooth. "I presume this guarantees shelter and independence for my friends and I." She pushed the wooden staff into the Queens neck a little, increasing the pressure on her already restricted throat.
The fallen Amazon nodded mutely.
"And the freedom of Sophea from your tribe?" Xena continued, making sure that all demands were made.
The queens face contorted in anger but she was not in any position to argue. Again, she nodded.
"Thank you." The warrior said simply as she removed the staff and handed it to one of the stunned onlookers. She turned her back and began walking towards her hut, every single one of her senses heightened with anticipation. Sure enough, only a few moments later, she felt a body rapidly approaching her.
At the last moment she whirled around, clasping the outstretched wrist aiming the ceremonial dagger straight for her neck. Her cold eyes narrowed as she twisted her own wrist; the deadly silence of the courtyard was suddenly filled with the sickening cracking noise as the Queens wrist broke in two places.
The Amazon cried out in pain, dropping the dagger and pulling her released arm towards the protection of her body. Her eyes flashed with fear and hatred in the brief moment before she turned on her heel and ran to the sanctuary of the forest.
The rest of the Amazon tribe gave Xena a wide berth as she crossed the remainder of the courtyard. Once again whispers of her name reached the warriors sensitive ears before she disappeared into the hut, closing the door firmly behind her.
Xena dipped the sponge once again into the cool clean water, squeezing and then letting the water be reabsorbed. Lifting the sponge above the surface, she squeezed again, not as hard as the first time but just enough to allow the excess liquid to run between her long fingers and back into the bowl. She moved the sponge back to the bards body, continuing her cleansing of the tanned skin.
The last few days had been fairly uneventful. Sophea had made steady progress, now reaching the point where she would leave the hut to enjoy a short walk in the nearby forest. Moss guarded her faithfully, a permanent shadow by her side, he seemed aware of her disability. Xenas leg had made an astonishing recovery, the first time she had taken off the bandage the skin had already been knitting back together and the strength in her thigh was beginning to return, highlighting the internal progress. Xena realised how lucky she was and had spent a few moments thanking her superhuman healing abilities. She never had understood them but equally she was careful not to take them for granted.
Gabrielle had remained unconscious throughout but there were still signs of improvement that encouraged the anxious warriors hope. The bards skin held a lot more colour and Xena had begun to notice the subtle movements of her eyes beneath the closed lids. The blonde woman could not have asked for a more attentive healer though, during the day the warrior gave her water and soup, her patience unending. She also bathed her and spoke to her, telling her of the returned Amazons, Sopheas progress and reliving old adventures they had shared. At night the warrior supported her with closeness, wrapping a blanket of care and attention around her fallen friend.
The Amazons had not bothered any of them much. When they had seen Xena around the village they had taken care to avoid her, discussing the tall, dark-haired woman in muted whispered. Xena ignored them though, satisfied with their noncommittal hospitality. Ironically she had been the one to treat the Queens broken wrist, the resident Amazon healer having been slain by the beast. The woman had sat in front of her, a distrusting look of inevitability engraved in her features. When the wrist had been tended and strapped, Xena hoped that they would be able to reach an uneasy truce. In her heart she thought it unlikely but had still made the effort on her part. The queen had departed the hut in the same silence she had entered in. The warrior knew that Gabrielle would have wanted her to make the effort though and as a lot of other things in her life, she had acted on the bards beliefs.
Xena rinsed out the sponge again, gently cleaning the bards upper arms and shoulders. The wound that traversed the blonde womans chest was showing signs of a healthy recovery, thankfully, all three women had managed to avoid infection of their respective wounds. The gashes had been cruel and deep, one severing a blood vessel fairly near the bards heart. That had been why Gabrielle had lost so much blood so rapidly, the warrior had realised. However, her friends active and healthy lifestyle had aided the recovery process, providing her with the strength to survive.
Now, as the warrior studied the familiar features of her fallen friend all she could do was wait to see if the bard could fight off the trauma she had been through. Xena knew, from her experience on the battlefield, that the trauma of a serious wound could affect the patient in more ways than just the physical. She also knew that if the injured person remained unconscious for more than a few days that they might never recover, any amount of care and attention becoming irrelevant. It was crucial that Gabrielle began to come round within the next two days or she may suffer the same fate.
The warrior lay down her sponge, instead taking the bards still hand in her own. Her vivid blue eyes studied Gabrielles motionless face, willing her to just open her eyes. Of course, the bard didnt, her eyes remaining shut in their position of rest. It all seemed so unfair to Xena, she had only just got her friend back and then this had happened, taking her away once again. Surely they had had more than their fair share of opposition, of obstacles to overcome. The warrior realised that she should be pleased that they had won against the essence of evil personified in the beast. However, they had not really won, not until the bard was conscious and showing sure signs of recovery.
Sometimes the waiting was too much for the warrior and as she sat in the silent hut, the afternoon sun streaming in the small windows, this was one of those moments.
"Gabrielle, if you can hear me, please, come back." The warrior begged, able to voice her thoughts freely in a room that only contained her and the sleeping bard. "I know that you were hurt badly but I need you to fight it, I need you to come back to me." The warrior paused, her eyes searching for even the faintest hints of recognition. There were none. "We have so many things left to do," she began again, fighting the tight, painful lump rapidly forming in her throat. "There are so many things I want to tell you, things you need to know about " The warriors voice trailed off as it somehow seemed wrong to voice these things while the bard was in her current state. "Just come back, come back to me Gabrielle."
Birds were singing, their melodic chirping greeting the first warm rays of the sun that promised a beautiful day ahead. Something was odd, different, the warrior realised. She opened her eyes to scout the hut for anything out of place. Nothing was obvious. Sophea was asleep on her pallet, her blonde hair spread over the pillow and her arm wrapped around the dog snoozing next to her.
Xena shut her eyes again, not really wanting to get up to face yet another day of waiting and hoping. She shuffled a little on the pallet, trying to ease her aching body. Carefully she moved the arm that was wrapped around her waist, allowing her the freedom to move further. Her eyes snapped open again, this time studying the bard lying next to her. Xenas heart rate began to pick up as she realised that she had not put Gabrielles arm around her waist and that meant that the bard must have done it herself. Had Gabrielle regained consciousness in the night?
The warrior gently put her hand on the side of her friends face, reassured by the warmth she felt there.
"Gabrielle?" She whispered carefully, her heart hanging in a void as she waited and hoped for a response.
Gradually, the lashes flickered and Gabrielle opened her eyes, revealing the scene her friend had been praying to see for days.
"Hey," The blonde woman greeted her friend. Her voice was hoarse, her throat sore from days of inactivity.
"Hey yourself," Xena responded, gently caressing the blonde tendrils of blond hair spilling over the pillow. Her eyes filled up suddenly with unshed tears, making Gabrielle seem to dance and twirl in the distorted light.
"I hurt." The bard rasped, her mind trying to remember the last thing that had happened.
"I know," the warrior responded, her voice soothing. "You were injured in battle but you are ok now, everything will be fine." She smiled in relief, her words comforting herself just as much as her friend.
Gabrielle smiled at the sheer joy dancing in the deep blue eyes gazing into hers. "I missed you." She stated simply.
Xena could not say anything in response; instead she just clasped her friends hand to her chest, holding it tightly as though it would stop her ever leaving her again.
"Im tired," Gabrielle sighed, the truth of her statement evident in her voice.
"Shh," Xena soothed, "its ok, you rest now." She stroked her friends blonde head, watching tenderly as the heavy eyelids stopped resisting, giving in to the now healing sleep she so direly needed.
When she was reassured of the bards slumber, she rested her head back against the bed, bathing in the sudden relief and elation that coursed through her body.
Gabrielle slept for most of the day, only waking briefly in the evening when she greeted the young Amazon that shared her healers hut. She had been very tired but was more aware of her situation and the events leading up to it. The bard took time to assure herself of the health of both of her friends, also checking on the result of the battle, grimly relieved to find out about the death of the beast. She also asked about the other Amazons, the noises of the village alerting her to their presence. She had laughed as Sophea had retold the battle between the new queen and Xena.
She had eaten some of the stew that Xena had prepared and drank copious amounts of water. After that she had felt the drowsiness overcome her again, she gave herself up to it, aided by the warriors gentle encouragement.
Now she slept, curled up on the pallet that had been her home for almost a week. Xena and Sophea had sat up talking in hushed voices, strange shadows crossing their faces as they were painted in the oranges and reds from the comfortingly flickering candles.
"She will be fine now wont she?" Sophea had asked, jerking her chin slightly to the sleeping form of the bard.
Xena nodded, unable to prevent the grin that spread across her tanned features.
Sophea smiled too, the conversation broken by a contented lull. After a few moments the Amazon broke the silence. "After she has rested I guess you guys will be leaving?" She asked.
Again, Xena nodded. "Yes, I think we both need to get away from here as soon as Gabrielle is well enough to travel."
"I understand." The girl confirmed.
"We would still like you to come with us." The warrior stated, comfortable that it was Gabrielles feelings too and willing to speak for both of them.
Sopheas eyes lit up in reaction, she had thought that now the immediate threat had been dispersed, plus all that the two friends had been through, it was likely she would be expected to remain at the Amazon camp. She still had to decide what she was going to do next, travelling with the older women was not a viable option in the long term. However, she knew that it would take Gabrielle another couple of weeks to recover fully and though the Amazon herself was not in peak condition herself, due to her own injuries, she was sure she would be able to offer some valuable help to the companions. "I would like that." She responded simply, her smile saying more than her words did.
Xena had spent some of her more isolated moments thinking about Sophea and her future. There was no doubting all of the help the young girl had given both Gabrielle and herself and though Sophea obviously did not expect anything in return Xena felt that she wanted to help her. The warrior did have one idea that she thought would be a perfect solution all round but she wanted to discuss it first with Gabrielle before mentioning it to their young friend.
The pair gazed into the flames of the candles, Sopheas fingers idly playing with the rough fur that covered Moss shoulder blades. "When do you think we will be able to move out?" She asked, eager to begin the journey that marked the rest of her life.
Xena shook her head slightly. "I dont know," she answered honestly. "It all depends on how quickly you and Gabrielle recover." Although the Amazon village was not the most welcoming place to be, it did offer a certain protection and with Gabrielles enemy still at large Xena did not want to leave the sanctuary of the camp until they were recovered enough to defend themselves from an attack. There was no rush and she did not want to put any of them in unnecessary danger, she had realised in the last couple of days that it would risk more than just their lives.
Sophea agreed with the warriors logic. Xena seemed to have healed remarkably quickly, now she regularly saw the warrior bearing her weight evenly on both of her legs rather than the awkward limp she had been encumbered with shortly after the battle. She herself was recovering too although it was a more gradual process for her. The skin around the wound was starting to heal nicely, the neat stitching encouraging the skin to knit back together smoothly. Unfortunately her ribs were still very sore. Anything other than lying flat put pressure on them and if she moved at slightly the wrong angle, red-hot shots of pain would leave her momentarily breathless. Gabrielle would need another couple of days rest, she guessed, using the time to sleep and eat, giving her body the fuel it needed to allow her to regain her former strength. Despite herself she yawned, the fairly long walk she had taken in the early afternoon having worn her out far more than it should have done.
"We should rest now." The warrior stated, looking out of the window to see the sky bright with stars. She got up from the wooden chair she had been resting on, methodically blowing out the candles that lit the small hut. She checked that Sophea was ready, smiling slightly as she saw the figure huddled down into the furs that covered her pallet, her eyes already shut. Xena blew out the last candle and moved softly towards the bed that contained the sleeping bard. She did not even think about it, it had become habit now. If she had thought about it, she probably would not have done anything differently, the pretences between both friends were dropping away rapidly, both of them having given up trying to create plausible excuses. As she lay down she felt a small response from Gabrielle as she slid a little closer to the warriors warm body. Two vivid blue eyes glinted in the darkness, complimented by the barest flash of a grin.
Gabrielle let her aching body slide deeper into the comforting warmth of the surrounding water. She sighed in contentment, the pine scented bathing oil soothing her tired mind. Xena had arranged this as a surprise for her, it had been a very pleasant one although the bard did not dare think about how many heads the warrior would have had to crack to get her own way. The bathing room was deserted apart from her. The biggest bath had been placed next to the fire and filled to the brim with gently steaming water. Xena had located the bards favourite herbs and minerals, blending them together to form the luxurious concoction she now relaxed in. The warrior had also littered the room with candles and as Gabrielle looked around it was as though she were floating in a sea of warm light.
The blonde woman smiled as her mind replayed the look of childlike hope written across her friends features when Xena had pushed opened the door to the bathing hut and removed her hand from the bards eyes. Gabrielle had not disappointed her though, her genuine pleasure both at the facilities and the thought behind them shining through in her green eyes. The warrior had ushered her forwards, closing the door behind them and going to a small mug and pitcher set on the side. She poured her friend a mug of cool wine, watching as Gabrielle took a sip and the fruity, sweet flavour stimulated yet another of her senses. Xena had smiled then and quietly exited the hut, leaving the bard to bathe in isolated splendour.
A bath had been just what she needed, Gabrielle reflected. Over the last couple of days since she had recovered her consciousness, she had slept a lot. The positive side was that she could feel the strength returning to her body and could see the steady improvement in the wounds stretching across her chest. However, her mind was used to her active and challenging lifestyle and it was rapidly running out of patience with the bed-ridden existence she had lived recently. Now the warm bath was cleansing her skin, wiping away the traces of inactivity as much as any dirt. Her mind seemed invigorated with her change in scenery and it suddenly leapt back to a dream she had had fairly recently, feelings prodding the familiarity of the memory rather than clear images.
Gabrielle concentrated, trying to focus her mind on what she had seen. Gradually, snippets of a scene by a beach began to filter into her mind, bringing with them feelings of wonder and of sheer joy. The bard smiled in reflex to the emotions filling her heart, still trying to remain focussed enough to remember exactly what had caused the emotions in the first place. She shut her eyes, allowing her present surroundings to fade out
Familiar vivid blur eyes searching hers, contrasting with tanned skin and long black hair. The eyes were full of hope and trust and of love. This key allowed the full memory of her dream re-enter the bards mind. She recalled every single minute detail, hugging it close to her and reliving her own reactions. She remembered the few people that had stood with them on the small island, her mind recollecting their strange dress and styles. It had been almost alien. Alien. That was a word she had heard several times recently. After a few moments of probing her brain supplied her with the answer - that was the recurring word Xena used when describing her visions.
Had the strange but beautiful dream not been a dream but a vision instead? Did that mean she too was now being given the same gift that had been bestowed upon her warrior friend? What was the reasoning behind it?
Gabrielle suddenly realised that the bath water was beginning to cool rapidly amidst her distracted musings. She efficiently began her habitual cleaning process, lathering the soap over her feet and taking great care to clean between her toes. She decided that when a quiet moment presented itself she would try and make some subtle inquires to her friend regarding the visions. She did not want to have to explain what her vision had consisted of, it was a sensitive subject that she wanted to consider fully before broaching it.
With a new and interesting puzzle to occupy her previously unchallenged brain, Gabrielle felt even more contented. She began to hum quietly as she continued her bathing rituals.
The blonde woman crossed the active courtyard, fully dressed but with her hair still damp from her recent bath. She knew the Amazons dotted around the village were watching her, their eyes silently tracking her progress from the bathing room to her temporary home. However, she ignored them, walking on determinedly with her head held high. Although she gave them no outward recognition, internally she was willing the time to arrive sooner when they could leave this place and leave these small-minded and cruel people behind. She sighed a little as she pushed open the door to the hut.
Xena was sitting on her chair, carefully braiding three strips of leather together. She raised her dark head and looked up as the bard entered the room. The warriors look of concentration changed to a questioning one, her busy fingers resting for a moment.
"How was your bath?" Xena asked hopefully.
Gabrielle smiled indulgently, "It was wonderful," she responded, "exactly what I needed. Thank you." She finished sincerely.
"No problem." Xena smiled, glad that her idea had made her friend feel so much better. The bard actually looked better, her skin freshly scrubbed and her eyes bright. It was a great improvement to the slightly grey pallor her cheeks had held for the last few days.
Gabrielle put her belongings down on the bed, freeing her arms. She picked up the damp piece of linen she had used to dry herself off and folded it in half, spreading it over the horizontal wooden pole at the foot of the bed to air. She ran her fingers through her dark blonde hair, shuffling it a little to help it dry. Walking over to the window she looked out, surveying the women outside and sighing a little. "Where is Sophea?" She asked, unsurprised that Moss was absent too.
"They have gone for a walk in the forest." The warrior answered, her fingers resuming their rapid twining movement.
The bard perched on the edge of the empty pallet, not really sure what to do with herself now the activity of her bath had been completed. It was a very odd situation to adjust to when she was used to permanent, ongoing activity. She began to fiddle with the straps on her boots.
Xena smiled, the movement hidden by the dark hair cascading around her angled head. "Everything alright Gabrielle?" She asked.
The bard paused, fidgeting for a moment. "I guess I am a little fed up with the recuperation thing now." She answered honestly.
Xena looked up at her, nodding. "I understand," she confirmed, knowing only too well how frustrating it could be when you were hampered by physical limitations. "We need to make sure you are fully recovered though, before we leave the relative protection of the village."
Gabrielle could not argue with the warriors logic but decided to ignore it for the time being. "Yes," she allowed, "but if I stay here much longer I am going to start going out and picking fights just so I have something to do. Now that cannot be safe either " she argued, her eyes almost pleading the warrior to capitulate.
Xena laughed softly. "You are the best judge," she responded practically, "You are the one who knows whether you are recovered enough to travel and to face the danger that may follow."
The bard hated it when Xena did this, she made her feel responsible, giving her the freedom to make a mature, considered choice. The respect that the warrior gave her made it hard to make a decision that was anything other than mature, however strongly her heart may be saying otherwise. She considered for a moment, was she really up to life on the road or was it just a case of itchy feet? "I think we should prepare to leave." She said finally, deciding that she really did feel better and that the challenges of travelling would encourage her body to recover sooner than the lethargic life of staying with this foreign Amazon tribe.
"Ok." Xena agreed mildly, confident herself that Gabrielles recovery had progressed enough to let her deal with sleeping rough again. Privately, it was somewhat of a relief to the warrior. She had longed to leave the village, the Amazons, the scene of a battle that so nearly took her friends life. "I had an idea I wanted to discuss with you." She continued, changing the subject to a related topic.
Gabrielle was both pleased with and reassured by the warriors agreement, knowing that she would not have consented had her healers knowledge said that the bard would have been putting her health at risk. Now though, they could start to get on with things and finally leave this village behind. "Sure, whats up?" She questioned, smiling.
"Sophea. She seems to like the Amazon lifestyle and it certainly suits her " Xena began.
The bard interrupted. "Perhaps we could talk to Ephiny and ask if she could join them?" She suggested thoughtfully.
Xena grinned, pleased that Gabrielle saw the obvious advantages to the solution. "You are the Queen Gabrielle, what you say goes."
"I know," the bard answered promptly, "but when I am not there all the time it seems only fair to run ideas past Ephiny first."
The warrior nodded. "I dont think she will have any objections though "
"I wouldnt have thought so," Gabrielle agreed. A movement outside the window caught her attention. "Time to break the good news." She grinned.
Sophea approached the hut with a spring in her stride. The walks were getting easier each day and today she had covered quite a distance. Moss padded along by her side, his pink tongue hanging out of his mouth as he panted. The ache of her ribs was gradually subsiding and although she knew it would still be some time before she recovered fully, todays walk had proven that she was able to return to a more active lifestyle. She pushed open the door of the hut with a smile already playing on her lips.
"Hey," she greeted her two friends.
"Hey," they responded in unison.
"How are you feeling?" Gabrielle asked, knowing that she and Xena would not depart the camp until Sophea was fit enough to travel too, however much they wanted to leave.
"Much better," Sophea grinned, "healing nicely. We covered a good distance today and I still feel good now." She smiled at the dog panting by her side as she put some fresh water in a dish, which she put on the floor for him.
"Great," the bard responded, it looked like they would be able to set out sooner rather than later. "I have an idea for you," she began, watching the young girls expressions closely.
"Yeah?" The Amazon replied intrigued.
"You know I told you a bit about my native Amazon tribe?" Gabrielle continued, breaking into the subject smoothly.
"Yes, it sounds a great place." Sophea said, a slightly wistful tone underlying her cheerful one.
"How would you like to join it?" The blonde woman suggested simply.
"Really? Me? Wow!" Sophea was not exactly sure what to say, it was as though they had read her mind, found out her dearest wish and just granted it.
"I need to run it past the Reagent first but I dont think she will refuse." Gabrielle could not have been more pleased with the girls reaction. Her young features animated with excitement and enthusiasm, her face glowing.
"When do we set out?" She asked, barely able to conceal her zeal.
Gabrielle looked at Xena who had been following the exchange in silence. The tall warrior smiled; finally, it all seemed to be coming together. "As soon as we have packed?" She offered, laughing a little at her own enthusiasm.
The afternoon sun spilled through the forest sending dappled light to carpet the mossy ground. The light rain of the day before had retuned the plants to a healthy shade of deep green and the rich smell of damp soil clung to the air. The water had affected the wildlife too, birds splashed in makeshift baths, making the most of the abundant insects. A group travelled along the narrow, twisting forest paths, chattering quietly and looking around themselves interestedly.
The group was lead by a striking warrior, tall and proud, her alert eyes surveying the surrounding trees. She led a beautiful golden warhorse that walked by her mistress side, only pausing occasionally to sample the rich grass that grew by the side of their path. A shorter blonde woman was next in the line, assisting her confident and determined stride with a solid staff she used as a walking aid. A taller girl followed on, her shorter blonde hair shining in the afternoon sun. She was tanned and showed signs of one totally at home in the forest. By her side walked a large black and white dog who stopped regularly, his nose raised to the air and telling him things humans could only dream of.
At had taken them two weeks of travelling at a steady pace but now the landscape was wonderfully familiar, Ephinys village only about an hour away. They were already entering the outskirts of the territory on the Eastern side and both warrior and bard knew it would not be long before they were recognised and messengers were sent back to the village to prepare for their arrival.
The departure from the unfriendly Amazon camp had been a blessed relief for all three of them, probably for the Amazons too, Xena had reflected wryly. However, the last two weeks had been good, they had taken the opportunity to get to know Sophea better, the girl being far less reticent about details in her life now that her secrets had been revealed. They had found her a good travelling companion, her cheerful disposition mixed with her well-developed hunting skills proving an asset. Moss had been great too, his specialist hunting help always useful and his presence reassuring. Both warrior and bard were fully convinced that the young girl and her constant shadow would make good additions to the tribe, each friend ready and willing to vouch positively for Sophea should Ephiny ask.
Xena and Gabrielle had enjoyed spending time together when there were no crises or threats to have to deal with. The bards mysterious enemy had not sent any more attackers after her and apart from the usual road brigands, who were easily dispersed, they had not had any danger to face. All three women had enjoyed the trip immensely although they were all looking forward to the more civilised facilities on offer at the village they were rapidly approaching. For the first time in a while the party fell silent, each warrior thinking their own thoughts in the relative peace of the last remaining part of their journey.
Xena had not had any more visions since the last one she had had whilst her friend had been unconscious. The warrior had spent a great deal of her time thinking about the visions, of what she had seen and how she felt about the bard. She was considering talking to Gabrielle about the details of what she had seen. As yet she was still undecided about what the best thing to do was, but whilst they had had their extra travelling companions it was not a subject she would have broached anyway. Maybe while they stayed with their Amazon tribe, the warrior thought, at least then Gabrielle would have her friends around her should it become difficult.
Gabrielle had thought about her vision a lot over the two weeks of therapeutic travelling. She had realised that her feelings for the warrior had not changed but her awareness of them had. She was considering talking to Xena about it but was not sure what the best thing to do was. There was the most important friendship of her life at stake and if Xena did not think of her in that way it could mean the end of their days of travelling together. Gabrielle did not think for one moment that Xena would send her away but so many little things could become awkward that it may be the only option left. She did not want to risk that. Perhaps the best place to mention it was at the village, the bard thought, where they could both be alone should they need time apart to think.
Sophea had had another vision whilst they had been travelling, it concerned her two new friends and the mysterious visions that she knew the warrior had been having. It was something she was planning to mention but had not wanted to raise that sort of subject while they were on the road when any kind of distraction could put them at a disadvantage. She also thought it was something that would be better mentioned when they two friends had the space to be alone together. She had decided that the new Amazon village would be the best opportunity as she knew the friends planned on staying for a couple of days but then would be returning to the road once again.
Sophea felt a sudden, surge of panic grip her chest as three masked Amazon warriors approached them from the nearby trees. She tried to force it down, reassured by the fact that Moss had surprisingly refrained from growling. Her fears were genuinely appeased though when the warriors slid the masks onto the tops of their heads and dropped to one knee at the sight her of friends.
"Welcome back my queen," the lead Amazon said, addressing Gabrielle.
Sophea was momentarily dumbfounded, her brain rapidly trying to make sense of the greeting. Gabrielle was their Queen?
Gabrielle spoke up, a warm smile playing across her lips, "Hi Solari, good to be back!"
Xena caught the eye of the stunned Amazon walking behind the bard. She could not help but laugh at the expression on the young girls face. "Gabrielle?" She purred.
Devastatingly innocent green eyes rose to meet hers, "Yes?"
"I think there was a minor point you may have forgotten to mention to Sophea." The warrior explained, her blue eyes dancing in amusement.
Gabrielle turned to look at her young friend, suddenly finding herself having to use all her self-control not to burst out laughing at the shocked look on the Amazons face. "Oh, yeah." The bard agreed, scratching her jaw a little sheepishly. "Well, lets get to the village, I can explain it all over a cool mug of ale."
The three Amazon scouts had watched the exchange in silence, a little baffled but were encouraged by the idea of cold ale. They dispersed around the group, one in front and two behind, giving the queen her proper escort into the village.
Gabrielle had to feel sympathy for the village cooks. Their small party had arrived in the late afternoon and Ephiny had instructed the cooks to prepare a banquet for the same evening. However, it was great to be back, the bard acknowledged honestly, pleased to see so many familiar faces greeting her with genuine delight. As a matter of priority she had taken Ephiny to one side after the initial greetings and broached the subject of Sophea. She had given a brief outline of the girls situation, omitting certain specific details that were not hers to tell. She explained all that the young girl had done for her and as expected, Ephiny agreed to make her a member of the tribe, saying that they now had two things to celebrate tonight, both the return of the queen and the welcoming of a new sister.
Xena had watched Sophea carefully as they had entered the camp. She usually tended to take a back seat at the tribe, allowing Gabrielle to commandeer the attention that was rightfully hers. This gave the warrior the freedom to see how her new friend adapted to the village that would become her home. She had shown signs of trepidation at first, understandably, the warrior acknowledged. However, after a little time and exposure to the friendly villagers, Xena watched the girl visibly relax and even begin to enjoy the celebratory atmosphere. Shortly after that, Gabrielle and Ephiny had come to find them.
"Hey." Xena greeted her friends. Raising an eyebrow at the bard.
"Hey." Gabrielle responded smiling and giving the barest hint of a nod that was only noticed by the warrior.
"Hello Xena," Ephiny greeted the tall warrior, pleased to see both her and Gabrielle looking relaxed and happy. "Hello Sophea," she greeted the young Amazon, holding out her hand and clasping the girls arm as she continued. "Welcome to the tribe." She smiled, reassured by the pleasure and enthusiasm written across the girls face.
"Hi," Sophea responded, unsure of exactly what to say. "Thank you, its great here, I love it already!"
Ephiny nodded. "We are a little pushed for space at the moment I am afraid," she explained, "we are planning to build some new huts in the autumn but for the time being you will have to share."
Sophea grinned, she hoped that the situation would give her the opportunity to get to know people better and hopefully her bunkmate would be able to show her the ropes a little too.
Ephiny motioned to a young Amazon crossing the courtyard a little way away from them. The girl obediently came over, smiling equally at the faces she knew and the one she didnt. "Loucia, this is Sophea, she is the newest member of our family and will be sharing a hut with you for a couple of weeks. Will you help her settle in?"
Loucia nodded enthusiastically, grinning at Ephiny. "Sure." She confirmed, turning to address Sophea, "Come on, lets go dump your stuff." They began to move away, their conversation still audible for a short distance. "So is this your dog?" Loucia asked hopefully.
"Yes, his name is Moss " Sophea had grinned back.
The three older women watched indulgently as the two girls and dog crossed the courtyard, disappearing into one of the further huts.
Ephiny broke the silence, smiling at the two friends. "So how long can you stay for?" She asked.
"A couple of days," Gabrielle responded, "long enough to catch up at least."
"Great," Ephiny was pleased, "Well why dont you guys go and relax for a while," she suggested, "I will go and see how the cooks are doing."
Xena and Gabrielle nodded, both immediately thinking of the good bathing facilities the village offered.
"See you at the banquet then!" The blonde reagent confirmed as she turned on her heel and moved towards the eatery with determined strides.
The dining area was crowded with merry, chattering Amazons celebrating the return of their queen and welcoming their new sister with copious amounts of wine and ale. The meal had been extravagant, the bard reflected from her seat at the head of the table between Ephiny and Xena. All sorts of delicacies had been served, the cooks having done sterling work considering the late notice. Now the celebrations had progressed to the entertainment stage. There were all sorts of acts designed to impress the queen, displays of weaponry, dancing and singing, all the while musicians where playing in the background.
The atmosphere was electric, Gabrielle admitted, enjoying the pleasure of her fellow sisters. However, she could not help wondering, for the nth time, why the celebrations were always on the day of her arrival after a long days travelling. Perhaps she should suggest to Xena that they camped overnight just outside the territory and arrived mid morning. That way she would be fresh enough to enjoy the festivities. Her eyes moved sideways for a moment, watching as the muscles at the corners of Xenas jaw tightened for a moment as she stifled a yawn. Gabrielle smiled to herself, taking pleasure in realising how well she knew her friend.
The moon was high in the sky, surrounded by bright stars. All the bard wanted to do was return to her familiar hut and fall into the comfortable bed. However, she knew that she was the guest of honour and that when she left it tended to mark the end of the festivities. She resolved to stay a little while longer, indulging her celebrating sisters.
Instead, the queen looked down the long table, successfully locating Sophea. Gabrielle knew that Xena had been keeping a close eye on the girl, noting how she settled in. The bard felt a sense of contentment as she saw the young Amazon sitting next to her new friend. They were each a little worse for wear, their youthful exuberance outweighing common sense when it came to alcohol. They were both happy though, laughing and grinning, their heads bent slightly together. Moss was lying under the table at his mistress feet, he too had enjoyed the evening, having been fed more than his fair share of delicacies by two indulgent pairs of hands that kept channelling the food from their plates towards his waiting tongue.
After two more acts, the entertainment drew to a close leaving only the musicians to continue. Gabrielle could not fight off her drowsiness any longer and decided that now would be a good moment to slip out as discreetly as possible. She leant over and made her apologies quietly to Ephiny, who nodded in understanding. Xena had noticed the movement and was already almost halfway out of her chair by the time the bard turned to her. The pair managed to slip out relatively unseen, Xena only stopping to make eye contact with Sophea and nodding a goodnight to her.
The cool night air was refreshing against the friends over-heated skin and they both breathed in deeply, glad to be out of the stuffy building. They crossed the courtyard in contented silence, entering into the hut reserved for the queen. Gabrielle bent down immediately, unlacing her boots and kicking them off with a sense of utter relief. She looked over at her tall friend who had been a little quieter than usual since their arrival at the village.
"How are you doing?" She asked the warrior openly.
Xena was a little distracted, the celebrations had given her the freedom to just drift off into her own thoughts, too many of which had been dominated with exactly how good Gabrielle looked in her ceremonial Amazon leathers. "Yeah, good thanks." She responded, knowing she needed to elaborate further. "The meal was great and Sophea seems to be settling in well."
"Yes," Gabrielle agreed, pleased that the solution had worked so well for everyone concerned. Xena seemed a little distant though and she wasnt sure why. "Have you had another vision?" She asked tentatively.
Xena shook her head, "No," she answered honestly. "The last one I had was while you were unconscious."
The cold night air and solitude of the hut had woken Gabrielle up a little and she studied the warrior standing before her, deciding to take a chance. "I had a vision too," she admitted, "while I was unconscious I mean."
Xena looked across at her friend, recognising the slightly hesitant tone in the back of her voice. "What was it about?" She asked simply.
Gabrielle focused on controlling the flush that threatened to give her away. "It was all rather odd, you and I on a beach somewhere." She said, trying to make it sound uneventful.
Xena was shocked but was not prepared to give up now. "Really?" She asked, "Mine was the same," she confirmed.
Now it was Gabrielles turn to be shocked as she wondered whether the warriors dream had really been the same as hers or whether the environment was just coincidentally similar. "Oh," she said, her mind desperately grappling to come up with an elaboration to her comment. "I thought it might be similar to your visions," she began, "because there were a few people there that were wearing really odd clothes, I would have described it as alien."
Xena was pleased; this offered her a way to find out if the vision had been the same one or something different. "There were about four or five other people in my vision, and a man who was standing closer to us." She ventured.
This was uncanny, the bard decided, now fully awake. "Were we standing fairly close and facing each other?" She asked.
Xena nodded, her heart in her mouth.
Gabrielle screwed up her courage and prayed it would be ok. "Were there rings?" She asked.
Again Xena nodded as they both realised that they had shared the same vision and had remained silent about it for the past couple of weeks. The warrior recognised the courage that it must have taken the bard to ask the last question and decided that it was her turn. "All of the visions were fairly similar to that," she ventured, "but that last one was special, it has stayed with me ever since."
Gabrielle nodded silently, "Me too," she managed at last.
For a few moments, silence filled the hut as the friends regarded each other, acknowledging the edge of the precipice they were both standing on. They looked into each others eyes, suddenly recognising the same depth and emotions the visions had showed them. Gabrielle crossed the small distance of the hut that separated them, reaching out for Xenas hand.
Xena clasped the warm hand in hers, the moment seeming so familiar but at the same time so new. She was beyond rational thought now, all pretences had been stripped away. Her brain was no longer in control, her soul had taken over and was reaching out to its mate that stood so close.
The warrior bend her head a little, tilting her face down to meet Gabrielles and simultaneously raised her free hand to gently cup the bards cheek. Their lips were almost touching when a sudden flash of purple light made them draw back quickly and the sound of a slow handclap filled the hut.
"Ares!" The two friends exclaimed simultaneously, his image reconciling to their vision.
The tall, dark god stopped his handclap, his face decorated with his usual smug, self-appreciating smile.
"Well, hello ladies " He drawled, grinning at them.
"What do you want?" Xena spat, angry at his intrusion on something so personal.
"My, my, that isnt a very nice way to welcome an old friend," he tutted, the smile not fading for a second. "And after I fought so hard for you too. I had to congratulate you in person though." He told Gabrielle, looking at her demeaningly.
"Congratulate me, for what?" Gabrielle asked, confused and irritated by his intrusion.
"What did you fight for Ares?" Xena asked sighing. Perhaps by playing along with his little game he would leave sooner.
"Why you of course," he smile widened as he looked at the warrior. "Do you think I would let the only woman who ever intrigued me just slip through my fingers without a fight?" He shook his head; "You should know me better than that."
Suddenly, the pieces fitted in Xenas mind. "You are the master," she accused, "you are the one who sent all of those attackers after Gabrielle!" Her voice rose in rage.
Ares looked smug. "Well, she is my main competition," he said eyeing the bard belittlingly. "It was quite a complex operation you know," he began, keen for the warrior to see the lengths he had gone to, to win her. "You noticed the vial early on, very impressive," he complimented before continuing. "It was a special brew I invented, it gives warriors additional speed, strength and focus." He looked immensely proud of himself. "Worked like a dream wouldnt you say?" He puffed his chest out even more, about to explain the crowning glory of his campaign. "I also created my little pet that you met earlier, his veins flowed with the concoction. Only you could have defeated something like that Xena." He finally stopped, realising that his pride had blocked his vision from the steadily growing anger flashing in Xenas eyes.
"You Bastard," the warrior shouted, all of her anger and frustration bubbling toward the surface. "You sent that beast, it nearly killed her." Xena wished that Ares had not been a god, she would have delighted in ripping his body apart piece by piece for all of the pain and suffering he had deliberately caused to both Gabrielle and herself.
"It was you?" The bard asked quietly, part of her angry about the pointlessness of all that had happened but another part relived that his identity had been revealed. "Why?" She asked simply.
For a moment the smile faded, the gods dark eyes flashing. "Because, Blondie, you two were always destined to be together." He informed them, "but since youve been around you have made Xena repress her dark side, walking the path of good." He raised his fingers and gesticulated the last word, spitting it out as though it were poisonous. He continued, slightly calmer, "not only have you taken my woman but you have also robbed me of my chosen warrior. Now, thanks to this," his hand waved around the hut, "I loose her forever."
Xena and Gabrielle were both stunned by his words, rapidly trying to comprehend what he had said.
"You did all of this because of that?" Gabrielle asked incredulously.
"Ares," the warriors voice purred dangerously. "I am not your warrior or your woman and I never will be. Now get the hell out of my hut and if you raise one finger against Gabrielle again I will track you down and sing childrens lullabies to you for the rest of my life."
Ares laughed, the low resonance rolling around the wooden hut. "Till next time then, Xena," his voice echoed as a sudden flash lit the hut, marking his exit.
Sophea looked around the rapidly quieting hall, Xena and Gabrielle had left a little while ago and since then more and more women were returning to their huts and their beds. Her eyes tracked to the young girl sitting next to her. She was pretty, her drunken mind reminded her.
Loucia was a just a little shorter than her with dark brown hair that reached about the middle of her neck. She was fit, as all the Amazons were due to their active lifestyle. She, like Sophea, had a splattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose, adding a little spice to her healthy tan. The most incredible thing though, Sophea mused, was her deep brown eyes with their long lashes. She had noticed them straightaway and her attention had been drawn back continuously throughout the evening. She was rapidly becoming a good friend, the young Amazon smiled, she should thank Gabrielle and Xena once again for setting her free to come to this wonderful place.
The hall was almost empty but Sophea was still wide-awake and wanting to continue the celebrations. Perhaps her friends would still be awake, her slightly fuzzy mind suggested, maybe this would be the perfect time to talk to them about the other thing too. She nodded to herself in satisfaction, that was a great idea! She rose to her feet, the room suddenly beginning to spin but calming down again as she took a few deep breaths. It was really quite odd, she reflected, it felt as though she were looking out through someone elses body and there was a slight delay as the details travelled to her own brain.
"I just want to go and say goodnight to Xena and Gabrielle," she informed her new friend.
Lou grinned, her eyes huge with heavily dilated pupils. "Sure," she responded, "see you back at the hut?"
Sophea nodded and the pair left the celebration together, striding off in different directions across the quiet courtyard.
Xena and Gabrielle were sitting side by side on the edge of the large, comfortable pallet that was the queens bed. Silence filled the room, the friends now fully awake after the surprising events of the evening. They sat contentedly holding the steaming mugs of tea that Gabrielle had prepared, each replaying the conversation they had had with Ares.
Xena was angry; finally, the moment had arrived when she and Gabrielle had drawn naturally closely together, the next few moments inevitable. However, the god had turned up regardless, stopping their long awaited union. Then there was the news that he had been Gabrielles mystery enemy, for reasons that amounted to little more than his male pride. He had put the bards life in grave danger for little more reasoning than his own ego. The warrior was incensed at his selfishness and total lack of morality.
Gabrielle was relieved, now she knew who her enemy was she had also found out the reasons behind it. She felt a great weight lifted off her shoulders from the knowledge that she had not caused someone the amount of pain she feared she had. She tried to look at the situation positively, although she felt anger toward Ares she let it go, knowing that there was nothing she could do about it and that keeping it would only make her bitter. Instead she look at the good points of the situation, she and Xena were both still alive and in good health, they had made a new friend and her enemy had even given her an explanation, leaving them in peace and removing the threat that had hung over her heads for weeks now. There was also something that Ares had said that had stayed with her, her mind replaying it time after time. "You were always destined to be together " No longer was it something that she alone had felt, sharing it only with the warrior on a platonic level, now it was something that the gods were aware of and something that even Ares himself seemed unable to change
A soft knock on the door to the hut roused each friend from their similar musings. Xena sighed exasperatedly, "What now?" She muttered under her breath.
The door of the hut was opened by Xena, Sophea noticed, she liked Xena, she was the best warrior she had ever met and a really good person too. "Hey," she said, trying not to grin manically at the woman.
Xena relaxed a bit when she saw that it was Sophea at the door, she had a lot of time for the young girl and felt her impatience ebbing away into the cool night air. "Come in." She invited, holding the door open to let both the girl and the accompanying dog pass.
Sophea entered into the hut, relieved that the walls remained steady and reflecting that the cool air had probably helped her concentration. "Hey Gabrielle," she greeted her new queen sitting on the side of her bed.
Gabrielle smiled at the young girl with genuine warmth. "Hello Sophea," she answered, "would you like a mug of tea?"
Suddenly that seemed like a good idea, Sophea nodded mutely, sitting down on the sturdy wooden chair in the corner of the hut, Moss settling down beside her. She watched as Xena sat back down on the side of the bed and monitored Gabrielles progress as she made her drink. "Thank you," she said, holding out her hands to accept the steaming mug a few moments later.
"What can we do for you?" Gabrielle asked, hoping that the girl had not fallen out with her new hut-mate so soon.
Sophea looked at them, suddenly unsure if she was doing the right thing by coming to talk to them but she realised that she had already got half way there so she ought to continue. "I had another vision." She began simply.
"Oh," Gabrielle responded, aware that she and Xena would be the only people that the girl could talk to about things like this. "What was it about?" She probed.
"You." Sophea answered, watching the slightly shocked looks inhabit the faces of her friends. She continued, hoping that she was doing the right thing. "It was a vision different to all the others I have ever had. This time I was in the forest and the white deer appeared but instead of leading me to see things it stood and spoke to me."
Xena and Gabrielle listened intently, knowing that the white deer was probably a figure assumed by Artemis, the goddess they already knew was responsible for Xenas visions and probably Gabrielles one too. "What did it say?" Xena asked, keen to get to the point.
"It said that it had been responsible for your visions Xena, and your one too Gabrielle." She looked at her friends in turn.
Gabrielle had not doubted the girl but her statement proved the validity of her vision as the bard had not told another being of her vision until the warrior earlier this evening "Go on," she probed.
"The things that you saw are from your futures." Sophea said, suddenly answering the question of why everything had been so alien. "She wanted to show you that you are soulmates, destined to be together in defiance of the passage of time. The images you saw are several lifetimes into the future but it was important that she showed you what it was like when you shared your lives as a couple."
For the third time in one evening both warrior and bard were left momentarily speechless. A silence filled the hut as Sophea sipped her tea, allowing her friends to adjust to the potentially life-changing information she had just given them. She was, of course, completely unaware that the friends had already begun to realise the situation independently.
Gabrielle broke the silence, "Why?" She asked simply.
"I do not know for sure," she admitted, "However, you are a true Amazon queen Gabrielle," Sophea began, "the truth and goodness in your heart honours Artemis as goddess of the Amazons. Xena may not be an Amazon by birthright but she possesses unrivalled fighting and hunting skills, wherever she goes she raises peoples estimations of women, again honouring the Amazon culture." She paused briefly before continuing. "That would be my guess at least." She laughed softly, "It could be far more simple, she is the goddess of the hunt too, perhaps she thinks that you two have tracked and hunted long enough and it is time to capture your prize." She grinned at them, particularly at Gabrielle who had a faint flush creeping over her cheeks. "I think the important thing is she wanted you to know why you had been shown the things you were, she wanted you to believe in what everyone else can see."
Now Gabrielles flush was rapidly turning into a deep crimson. Xena decided to come to her friends rescue, "Thank you Sophea, you have answered a lot of questions for us."
Sophea nodded, draining her mug and placing it on the side. It was time to leave the friends alone to talk between themselves and for her to return to her new home and the new friend that waited there for her. She rose to her feet and motioned to Moss who rose too. Wishing her friends goodnight, they left the hut, the young Amazon crossing the deserted courtyard with a spring in her step and a suddenly soaring heart.
Warrior and bard sat down next to each other once again, this time all of their questions finally answered, the threats removed, leaving them with just one simple truth shining out above all others.
"Echoes of the future." Gabrielle murmured softly.
The warrior nodded, enchanted by the idea of spending so many lifetimes with the bard by her side, realising they were living a gift. "How are you feeling?" She asked her friend tenderly.
Green eyes met blue, full of hope and trust and a dawning realisation. "Lucky," she answered, "lucky that we are both together and well, lucky that I will spend my future with you standing beside me," she paused briefly, taking the warriors hand in hers. "Lucky that I can finally tell you how much I love you."
Xena smiled at her soulmate through eyes suddenly filled with tears. "Ares said it was always intended to be that way."
Gabrielle nodded, her eyes filling too. "I think it always has been, ever since that first moment in that nondescript clearing not too far from Potadia "
The warrior laughed softly, "There has always been something hasnt there, something that kept us together through the dark times as well as the light." She looked into the bards eyes, searching them intently, "I have loved you for as long as I can remember Gabrielle, I may have been afraid to admit it even to myself but it has always been there. It is the force that my strength comes from, the energy to keep fighting in a world besieged with evil and when sometimes you seem like the only good soul. Your light guides me and I cannot begin to describe how happy it makes me to realise that that light will always be there to comfort me."
Silent tears ran down the bards face as she realised that the intensity of her own feelings were only matched by Xenas. "You are my defender Xena, you are the one who I can always turn to for help and support." She paused momentarily before continuing. "I wrote a poem about that you know " Gabrielle remembered, able to recite the words engraved on her heart. She spoke clearly, her eyes sparkling with the happiness at finally being able to deliver this to her warrior.
You are so much to me.
In you I find everything that I need to survive,
You are the smile that warms my heart.
Even when the world outside is dark and cold,
Your hand steadies me along my path,
The course of life that is as unpredictable as you are dependable.
I know I have never told you,
How your presence by my side gives me the courage to face anything.
How your trust, given so willingly,
Is the greatest gift I have ever received.
And that when your eyes look into mine,
I am both lost and made complete.
You are my protector and defender.
Your strength shining out into the world,
A beacon of goodness, a warning sign to all evil.
I know I never told you,
But I am proud to be standing by your side,
Honoured to be your friend.
Please forgive me for all that I have never said.
I never told you that you are the root of my strength.
Of my belief that as long as your heart beats,
I will always have a home in the world.
I never told you that you are my hero,
My one solid truth in a fickle world.
I have never told you these things,
One simple reason prevented me.
I am afraid of facing life without you,
Terrified of the darkness that would follow.
Your soul paints my world in colour,
Your thoughts creating the depth.
I look into my heart,
And I can no longer deny.
My feelings for you grow stronger,
With each passing day.
So I stand in front of you,
My heart in my hand.
I would give up everything I had,
Just to walk by your side.
I have as little choice as you,
My love is yours.
It is a gift I no longer own to give,
But, for you, it comes with my souls blessing.
Xena simply sat, enchanted with the words that were written for her. She felt totally unable to understand what she had done to deserve the love of her best friend but she knew that she would spend the rest of her life in gratitude for it. She smiled at Gabrielle, contented to lose herself for a moment in those mesmerising sea-green orbs.
The bard broke the contented silence, her words thoughtful. "I think that I finally believe the old myth about soulmates."
"The one where all humans were originally born with two heads and eight limbs " Xena spoke, remembering the fable.
"The gods were angered by something they had done," Gabrielle picked up the story, "and Zeus sent mighty thunderbolts down, splitting each person into two and scattering them around the world. The two halves would spend the rest of their lives searching for each other, living incompletely until they found one another."
The vivid blue eyes gazed into sea-green ones. Xena reflected on the number of times she had heard the tale, but this time, somehow it seemed different. Magical perhaps. She raised her hand to the bards cheek, gently caressing it with her thumb.
Their two faces leant towards each other once again, the taller warrior bending her head slightly to reach down. Finally, their lips met in a kiss that meant more than just friendship, it signalled the dawn of united souls who had finally found their way home.
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