History Cast in Amber
(c) July 1997
E-Mail LZClotho at firstname.lastname@example.org
CHAPTER ELEVEN - END OF INNOCENCE
Gabrielle stood at the entrance to the central chambers of Olympus, where Zeus held court. To one side was a large amphitheater model. Niches on the wall held delicately carved statuettes. She found the floor of the amphitheater already occupied with statues of hands-width height of Draco and Xena. Draco was standing, but Xena was down, on hands and knees.
Gabrielle wanted a closer look at the craftsmanship of the statues and reached over to lift Xena's statue for a closer look. The surface felt like hardened clay, but was warm.
"Wonderful pieces aren't they?" The voice startled Gabrielle and she had to stretch to catch the statuette she nearly dropped.
The bard turned around and found herself looking at a slight woman with honey hair and pale blue eyes. "You're not Aphrodite, I've met her." Gabrielle combed her bardic descriptions of the various goddesses and tried to match one to the woman before her. "Artemis the Huntress?" The goddess nodded.
"What are you doing with Zeus' pieces?"
She didn't answer. Gabrielle sketched a curtsey, glad she'd had Xena teach her since her encounter with Vidalis. "I am honored to meet you, Artemis. I am Gabrielle..."
"Yes, I know," answered the goddess. "You are allowing Ephiny to be regent of my Amazons in your place."
Gabrielle frowned. "You sound disappointed in me. I'm sorry."
"I'm not disappointed, Gabrielle. My queens do as they see fit. I am curious about your reasons though." Artemis went about the business of sloughing off her bow and quiver.
Gabrielle scuffed her boot on the floor before looking up at the goddess. "I tried to stay with them, I did. But then Xena came back, and I realized she needed me."
"Xena needed you? I know that one. She's quite strong."
"She's so unsure of herself sometimes, though. Ephiny leads the Amazons very well. I'd just be in the way most of the time with my inexperience."
"Melosa didn't accept your rite of caste without a little arguing from me, you know, Gabrielle."
"I didn't know that."
"It was very fortuitous that you rose to the occasion for Terreis, Gabrielle. You are very valuable to the future of the Amazon nation."
"Did you plan that?" Gabrielle asked.
"Not really. But I followed it. The Amazons are very important to me," Artemis confirmed. "But you've managed to avoid my question."
Gabrielle blinked. "What?"
The goddess nodded. "What are you doing with Zeus' pieces?"
"These belong to Zeus? What would he want with warlord statues?" Gabrielle corrected herself.
"This is Zeus' amphitheater. Anyone who has caught his attention is rendered by Hephaestus so that he can watch their lives unfold. It amuses him." Artemis moved past Gabrielle and showed the bard the collection of statuettes in niches behind the amphitheater. "Here's Hercules, Perseus, even the annoying Roman, Julius Caesar. He even has a few women, like the one you're holding, and Hippolyta, of my Amazons."
"Why doesn't he just have a mirror like Ares?"
"You're here with Ares? I'm surprised. You don't seem like his type. I'll have to have a talk with him about his rights where my Amazons are concerned."
Gabrielle shook her head. "It wasn't my idea."
Artemis smiled knowledgeably. "It seldom is, dear."
"No, no, that's not what I meant. Ares brought me here because of a deal he made with Xena." Gabrielle pointed to the statuette in her hand.
"Ah, his little favorite. His favor is why I've never let her become one of my Amazons, you know." commented Artemis.
"No, I didn't know. But you know she's foresworn her allegiance to him?" Artemis nodded. "So, why can't she be Amazon?"
"Gods don't mess with other gods favorites, Gabrielle. And allegiance or not, Ares has told me to stay away from her."
Gabrielle's mind fell back to something Artemis had said earlier. "But Zeus... What brought Xena to Zeus' attention? When was her likeness crafted for him?" Gabrielle placed the statuette back into the amphitheater. It promptly crumpled over. The bard didn't notice, as she turned back, awaiting Artemis's answer.
"Don't know that. Zeus keeps his own counsel as to the whys and wherefores of his little statuettes. If you stick around long enough and you might be able to ask him."
"I don't intend to stay." Gabrielle looked back at the amphitheater, saw the change in the positions of the figures and had a thought. "Excuse me."
Artemis watched the bard leave the chamber. When the girl was out of sight, Artemis turned to search the shelves behind the amphitheater. She'd been right. On a shelf, next to several empty niches was a newer statuette. It bore a remarkable resemblance to the young woman who had just fled the room. Artemis was going to have to ask Zeus where he'd become interested in her Amazon bard.
Gabrielle returned to Ares' rooms. She pushed Strife aside, ignoring his grunt of displeasure and stared at the mirror. Xena, Draco and Fracchus were with Ares on the battlefield. Xena was lying on the ground, Draco over her. Fracchus was pleading with Ares to let him take Xena's life. The god was sternly shaking his head.
Gabrielle saw the signs building. Fracchus came to his feet, defeat boiling up in his gut, plain as the nose on his face. She saw the man slide a hand toward his ankle, and knew in an instant that Fracchus had reconciled he was Tartarus-bound already. The god's warnings no longer had weight to sway him.
"No! Xena!" She lunged at the mirror, uncertain what she could do, but determined to try something. In the next moment, Gabrielle stood in the middle of the battlefield, about 100 paces away from the collection of warriors and god. In her hands was a shimmering weapon, steel pounded as thin and fine as the edge of a parchment. She must have grabbed one of the swords from Ares' wall. She looked from the sword to the scene up ahead. She almost dropped it to the dirt and screamed. Then she saw Fracchus raise an arm, his battered sword glittered in the sunlight. Gabrielle didn't think, only ran toward the group swinging the sword like a staff.
In the instant as she raised the weapon above her head, Gabrielle watched Xena lift her head from the ground. There was pain in her crystal blue eyes, and the sight ripped through Gabrielle's chest as surely as if a knife stabbed there. She tore her eyes from Xena, feeling rage, anguish and desperation well up in her.
She swung at Fracchus' back as he leapt for Xena. The warlord pushed the God of War to the ground in his rush to get to Xena. Gabrielle felt the sickening thud as the sword sank into Fracchus' side. Her arms ached with the reverberation all the way into her back. Draco was coming to his feet when Fracchus fell against him. He pushed the man to the ground as Fracchus' last dying breath escaped his lungs.
Gabrielle pulled back, ripping the sword from Fracchus' body. She fell to her knees next to Xena. Gabrielle gingerly touched Xena's bloody body, and passed a hand over her friend's mouth. No warm breath tickled her fingers. Gabrielle came to her feet and charged Ares. "Help her!" He took a step back from the bard, and his face became a mask of impassivity. "You gods!" the bard shouted and noticed the god wince. "Do something!"
"I can't," Ares retorted. "It isn't within my power."
Gabrielle sank back to her knees next to Xena.
Ares looked at Gabrielle, blood dripping from the sword in her left hand as she laid her cheek against Xena's still back. I hadn't thought of that at all. Not at all, he mused. Incongruously he considered another thought. It was funny to him to discover that the girl would wield a sword left handed. "Will miracles never cease," he realized, as his strength began to return. Then it gained an extra push and he looked at Xena, and knew he must leave.
"Take care of our warrior princess," Ares cooed. To the now unconscious Xena he doffed an imaginary hat, "Take care, my lovely. To fight again another day."
Gabrielle sat up, shaking all over. She threw the sword aside, seeing its blood-covered blade touching Xena's body near her bloodied left side. "Xena," she murmured, raising a hand to stroke Xena's pale cheek.
Tears coursed down her own cheeks as she tried to remember what had just happened. She took a deep breath, realizing her weapon hadn't pierced Xena. Fracchus had done that. Then how was it that the sword was bloody? Gabrielle looked around.
She found Draco pushing Fracchus off him. The dead man's gaze fell on her, eyes still open. Gabrielle screamed.
Draco leapt to his feet, the scream making him think there was an attacker behind him. When he found nothing he turned back to look at the bard. Her arms were spattered with blood, both Xena's and Fracchus'.
He brought to mind the strike that had killed Fracchus. Gabrielle had swung wide, not with a proper fighting strike, but the blade hadn't missed the opening below Fracchus' chest plate. It had struck true. The man was nearly severed in half at the waist.
Draco glanced back over at the weeping Gabrielle. She had collapsed back against Xena's still form. He went to check on the warrior princess. The blood on the ground did not bode well, but he had to see. He crouched on Xena's other side and held his hand a few inches in front of her face. No breath whispered against his hand. He laid his fingers on the smooth line of her throat. There was a sporadic echo in her blood to match the weak beating of her heart.
Now he had to get through to Gabrielle. "Gabrielle, listen. Xena's not dead yet. If we can get her someplace safe we might be able to treat her wounds. Come on," he urged, pushing her shoulder. "We've got to get moving."
Suddenly Gabrielle's shivering stopped. She stood quickly and fell backwards over Fracchus' body. Finally she came to her feet successfully and watched as Draco maneuvered Xena carefully to a better position.
Draco was able to hoist Xena in his arms and stepped over Fracchus' prone body as he walked up the battlefield. Gabrielle whistled for Argo. The palomino mare trotted out of the nearby trees and Gabrielle held the reins as Draco mounted up still cradling Xena.
Gabrielle led the horse and her two passengers toward the river she remembered from their earlier visit to Fracchus' camp. Both Draco and Gabrielle were silent, thinking over the last few hours. Xena remained unconscious in Draco's arms aboard Argo. Draco was beginning to get uncomfortable with the warrior princess's blood seeping through the leather of his pants. Then he looked down at the bard leading the mare.
The sight that met his gaze shook him deeply. Golden hair and pale arms were spattered with blood, probably from when she stumbled over Fracchus' body. Her hands, clutching the reins, were covered in blood. She walked stiffly, and Draco recognized shock.
She stopped the horse in a clearing, dropped the reins, and stepped away from the mare. She walked around the clearing, picking up small stones and sticks.
Draco dismounted. "Gabrielle, I need a blanket."
She registered his words without excessive motion. She moved quickly to Argo's saddlebags and untied the bedding. She shook out one of the blankets and bent quickly, efficiently smoothing it over the dirt.
Draco crouched as slowly as possible, but the warrior woman was heavy. She hit the blanket a little harder than he intended. Xena moaned very softly, but did not awaken.
Gabrielle gasped and growled. Draco looked up and shrugged.
The bard's eyes narrowed, but she finished gathering the firewood. Within a few moments she was arranging the stones, and building a fire next to where Xena rested.
The warlord had put a blanket over the warrior and already removed her boots, when Gabrielle returned to Xena's side. He moved to tend the fire, exchanging responsibilities wordlessly with the bard. Gabrielle moved to the saddlebags and withdrew Xena's bag of medicinal supplies.
Gabrielle examined the gaping wound in her friend's side with clinical appreciation. She pressed cloths to it and after a moment removed them to see the condition of the wound. It was deep and long from just below Xena's hip to just above her lowest rib. but it seemed to be a clean slice into the flesh and muscle beneath. Thank the gods for a warrior's attention to his weapons, Gabrielle thought sarcastically. If Fracchus' blade not been honed to the finest edge, Xena's side would look like a meat mallet had torn through it, and be ten times harder to repair.
Draco turned his head aside as Gabrielle slipped Xena out of much of her armor and leathers as quickly as possible. When he saw her pull the blanket back over the warrior's body out of the corner of his eye, he turned back. "Need any help?"
Gabrielle shook her head and pulled out the specially curved needle and sinew thread. "Be glad you're asleep for this," she quipped to the unconscious woman.
When Gabrielle pressed in the first stitch, Xena shot bolt upright, her eyes wide and alarmed as she screamed. "Shh! Draco!" Gabrielle pressed on Xena's shoulders and Draco's help, got the woman lying back once again.
Draco pinned her shoulders while Gabrielle tried as quickly as possible to pull several stitches through and close the wound. Xena was unconscious again for the moment and Gabrielle could see the flush of a fever beginning. With Draco's help, she propped Xena on her side and examined her back. She found the stab wound and bit her lip to keep from crying. A little higher and Gabrielle knew Xena wouldn't have been breathing. She started to clean the wound and realized it would be easy to close and wrap when she wrapped Xena's middle for the side wound.
With a deep breath she started working on sewing the skin closed. After another moment her stomach rebelled and she hurled herself from Xena's side to retch in the bushes.
Draco laid Xena carefully back and went to see to the bard. He snatched up a waterskin and offered it to Gabrielle.
She swigged some of the water and spit it into the bush. Then she took a sip, and another. Finally she collected herself and nodded her thanks, returning the empty waterskin. She came back to Xena's side and finished her nursing. "That should hold. Now I've got to make a salve to go over that, protect it from infection."
Gabrielle came to her feet too quickly, and swayed on her feet. Draco caught her. "Just tell me where it is," he told her. "You sit." He lowered her back to the ground gently.
"I have the makings here, but I need water to mix it with." Gabrielle lifted out several pouches of herbs.
"I'll be right back. You sit by the fire and keep an eye on her temperature." Draco strode off to the river, grabbing another waterskin off Argo's saddle.
As Gabrielle watched him go, her eyes caught sight of the saddle still on the palomino. Xena will be angry when she wakes up if I haven't seen to Argo, she thought. She rose stiffly and went about the task of removing all the bags and pushing off Argo's saddle. The saddle fell to the ground with a loud thud. Argo whinnied her thanks. From the saddlebags Gabrielle filled a burlap bag with oats and settled it over the mare's nose.
Xena was awakening and the pain she experienced made her moan. Gabrielle dashed to her friend's side and urged her, in hushed tones, to lie still. "You'll be all right. Draco and I are seeing to that. We're in a secure location, so just relax."
Xena didn't open her eyes. She calmed and her breathing returned to the soft, even pattern of sleep.
"Come on, Draco, I need that water now!" Gabrielle turned away from her friend's side and yelled toward the water.
"Here," he shoved two waterskins into her hands even as she yelled for him.
"Thanks," she replied sheepishly. Gabrielle laid out a green leaf and began mixing the herbs and water into a paste. She added some white powder. "To take the edge off some of the pain," she explained. "Worked wonders in the paste she made for my injuries in Thessaly." Draco just nodded. Gabrielle suddenly looked at her hands as she started to scoop some of the paste onto her fingers. "I can't do this! Look at my hands!"
Draco took the paste from Gabrielle and responded curtly, "Go wash yourself. I'll do this."
"Be sure to coat the entire wound." The bard came to her feet and headed for the water. "I'll only be a second."
Draco plastered the wound with the paste quickly and thickly, using nearly every drop of the strong-smelling stuff.
"It's only slightly better smelling than I am," he told the sleeping warrior as, in her sleep, she wrinkled her nose when he leaned close. "Don't complain."
Gabrielle returned and checked Draco's work. "Good job. I've got to brew some tea. Make her drink some water while I work on that. She's lost a lot of blood."
Draco sat back and looked up at the bard. "You're doing very well," he said. "I'm impressed."
Gabrielle replied curtly, "Just give Xena as much water as she'll take; I'll do the rest."
Draco raised his hands. "Hey, what did I say?" He shook his head and moved to raise Xena carefully and put a waterskin to her lips.
Gabrielle opened their bags again, this time hunting for their food supplies. The roots Xena liked to make into tea were soon in her hand. She pulled out a small knife and took one bulb, marking the soft part with several small cuts. It would help the tea infuse faster.
She pulled a rock away from the fire and set the second waterskin on top. Xena moaned deeply and Draco stilled her thrashing with his strong arms. Draco laid his hand across Xena's forehead. "She's got a fever."
Gabrielle nodded. She withdrew the waterskin and poured some into a mug over the root. She gave it a few moments to infuse and then removed the root, passing the mug to Draco. "Here, give her this."
Draco, with Gabrielle's help, got Xena to drink down all the tea in relatively short order. A combination of Gabrielle's insistent voice and Draco's strong grip and Xena was asleep again shortly.
Draco fetched the other blankets and smoothed out two more out for bedding for himself and Gabrielle. He put the bard on the outside of Xena, and took the other side of the fire for himself. "Get some sleep, Gabrielle. Both of us will hear anything if she awakens."
Gabrielle laid a hand on Xena's shoulder as her own head sank to the blanket. "Thank you for everything tonight, Draco."
Draco tapped at the fire with a stick, kicking embers away and bringing new wood into the flames so the fire would peak a bit, lasting the night. Then he too lay back, arms crossed under his head, staring at the sky. "You're welcome."
Hades met the shades of those who died on the battlefields across Greece that day. Among those to be judged was Fracchus.
"Interesting life you led, Fracchus of Thermopylae. What have you to say for yourself?"
"I served the gods well. I brought you many residents, Hades, and brought respect to the name of Ares throughout my campaigns."
"You turned on your own commanders when it suited you."
"When it suited Ares' plans," Fracchus protested. "Ask him."
"Ares won't concern himself with your future. You're Tartarus-bound, and you've always known it."
Fracchus nodded. "You are right, of course. I should have been able to bring the bitch down with me."
Hades perked up. "Who?"
Fracchus spat, a neat feat for a shade. "Xena!"
Hades groaned. "Xena was somehow involved in your death?"
"No," responded Fracchus. "Her little bard sliced me open with a sword. But not before I gave her warrior bitch what for with my sword. Xena might be joining us soon."
Hades considered this information. Fracchus was the bard's first kill, and apparently, Xena lay near death. "Thank you for your information, Fracchus. Take him away."
Shade guides, skeletal warriors of Hades' domain, grabbed Fracchus and blinked, with him, out of sight.
Persephone came forward to her Prince. "Love, we owe Xena a debt. Perhaps now is the time to repay it."
Hades knew Persephone spoke the truth. "I'd better get to Olympus and talk this over."
"With whom? Ares?"
CHAPTER TWELVE - TOSSING AND TURNING
A light rain started that night. Gabrielle stirred to find Draco erecting a small lean-to of branches over the women's blankets.
"Shh," he whispered. "Go back to sleep."
But Gabrielle didn't. After she pushed her hair out of her face, she caught sight of her hands covered in blood again. She began to cry. Draco studied her and decided against offering solace.
The bard looked at Xena and sprang to her feet.
"Where are you going?" Draco yelled as the bard disappeared.
She didn't answer, but a moment later, Draco heard a splash as Gabrielle apparently jumped in the river. He became alarmed and knew Xena, if she survived this, wouldn't take it kindly if the bard drowned while under his care.
Even if she didn't survive this, Draco had a feeling Xena's shade wouldn't leave him alone either. He glanced over and saw Xena sleeping peacefully for the moment. He sprang to his feet and ran down to the water.
"Gabrielle, be careful!" He yelled to the young woman just as her head ducked beneath the water. "Get clean, but please, gods, don't drown!"
Gabrielle stood in the middle of the river and Draco turned his head aside. She was naked, but didn't seem to care.
"Come on, get out of that water!" He dashed back to camp and returned with a towel. He held his gaze averted as he strode into the river and reached out to envelop the bard in the towel.
He started to drag her back to the campsite, but she struggled. He debated and finally decided not to hit her. She was just so frantic. He simply wrapped the towel more tightly and forced her back down onto her blanket.
"Take care of Xena," he commanded, hoping the stern sound of his voice would snap the bard back to some semblance of herself.
It worked. Gabrielle laid a hand over Xena's shoulder, feeling the gentle rise and fall of her chest. The steady motion flowed into her own body, calming her hysteria. She started to lay her head back down when Xena stirred. The warrior thrashed as if fighting someone in her dreams.
Gabrielle sighed. She'd hoped none of the nightmares would assault her friend. Tonight of all nights, she needed her rest. She pulled herself next to Xena and cradled the woman's head in her lap, stroking her face and hair. Xena did not awaken, and her thrashing became worse.
Draco came around to the front of the lean-to and asked if she needed anything. Gabrielle shook her head. The warrior went back to his blankets, already under a lean-to.
Gabrielle studied the eyes of her friend, fluttering in the throes of some powerful dream.
Xena found herself lying in a bed in a dark tent, warm candlelight flickered over the walls. The bed shifted to her right, and, Xena tensely rolled toward the motion. Pain sliced through her sharply, taking her breath.
A man, a little older than Gabrielle, slid onto the bed. His eyes were a luminous blue. His beardless face was smooth and unblemished. When he smiled, his teeth shined white in the lamplight.
He moved to her side. "You should rest, my lady," he told her when she met his eyes. "You need your sleep."
"Who are you?" she asked. Then she remembered. "Mendices!" Xena sat up momentarily thinking that it was strange she could move at all. "I haven't seen you in ages. What are you doing in Amber?"
"I came by to see how you were doing, my lady." He reached out a hand to touch her brow. "You're still burning with fever," he commented. "Let me give you something for it."
Xena shook her head and grabbed his hand, moving it from her forehead to her cheek. "I've missed you, Mendices."
"You were beautiful fighting today, Xena. Absolutely beautiful. But now you need your rest."
"No," she said in her fierce battle lust voice, "I need you."
Mendices smiled and grasped her arms, pulling her to him in a fierce hug. Then she pulled back and kissed him on the cheek and then nuzzled the skin of his neck below his left ear.
"Make me remember what it is to live, Mendices," she whispered fiercely in his ear.
Mendices was a gentle and insistent lover. It was intoxicating, soothing and afterward, she slept more peacefully. Her fever had abated.
Gabrielle awoke to the sounds of Xena stirring. She sat up immediately and looked down at the pale face looking up. "Xena?" Gabrielle grasped the woman's hand that lay limply on her stomach. "Hi."
Xena felt the warm feeling, which had accompanied her sleep, slide away from her body. Xena ran her tongue over her lips. Gabrielle brought a waterskin to her mouth and she drank quickly. Too quickly. Gabrielle helped her up and rubbed her back for a few seconds to help ease the warrior's coughing fit.
"Oh, Gods! That hurt." Xena gasped, lying back. She took in their surroundings. "Draco," she said, noticing the former warlord asleep on the other side of the fire.
Gabrielle smiled. "He's been quite helpful. You're really a handful when you're in pain. He carried you here on Argo. I couldn't have managed it myself."
Xena nodded. She was awake now and surprised. "Either you're early, or I was unconscious a lot longer than I thought."
Gabrielle didn't misunderstand. "Ares didn't have much to do with it. I saw you fighting Fracchus and in the next instant I was out on that battlefield charging at the group of you."
Xena absorbed this. "So, how was Olympus?"
Gabrielle's jaw dropped. "How'd you know where he took me?"
"You just confirmed it," Xena replied, a smugness lacing her words. "So, how was it?"
Gabrielle thought back on her visit to that dwelling place of the gods. "Interesting. Unique. But I like it down here a lot better," she finished with a grin.
"You're all right, though, right? Ares behaved?"
"A nice guy," Gabrielle said and shrugged. "As nice as he gets. He's even quieter than you are . . . most of the time."
Xena wondered at that amended statement but said nothing. "Is there anything to eat? I'm kind of hungry."
"Well, it's nearly dawn. If you'd like, I can make some more tea, and go hunt up some berries. Bread's in the saddlebags."
Xena nodded. "I'd like that." As the bard got up to fetch the food, Xena called her back to her side. "Gabrielle?"
"Stick close. I'd rather you not disappear now that you're back."
The bard smiled warmly. "I'd prefer that too. See you in a few minutes."
Xena struggled to sit up gingerly and stretched carefully to retrieve the stick Draco had used to tend the fire the evening before. She poked at the embers, sparking the fire back to life. She felt better, though stiff, for her efforts.
Draco awoke at a particularly loud pop, as some damp wood came in contact with a flame. He grabbed his sword, having only laid it on his other side when he fell asleep.
"Good morning, Draco," said Xena.
Draco sat up and grumbled something vile. "You're certainly not a morning person," commented Gabrielle as she returned carrying a load of berries cradled in her skirts.
Draco smiled up at Gabrielle. "You're chipper. I hate that," he groaned.
Xena smiled. "Trust me. She likes mornings. It's how long it takes to wake her up that drives me crazy..." Xena took a good look at her friend. There were circles under her eyes and the shadow of pain in her expression.
"Are you all right, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle looked at Xena, remembering how she had killed to protect this woman. But she didn't want Xena to know that. It would put an enormous weight on the warrior's shoulders, and right now, Gabrielle knew, she needed to focus on healing. She forced a shrug. "I'm fine. How are you feeling, Xena?" Gabrielle dropped her harvest of berries into a bowl and used a rock she'd fetched out of the river to crush some. Then she spread the mashed fruit on several chunks of bread from the saddlebags. Draco accepted bread with crushed fruit but declined the offer of tea. He frequently paused between bites to swig from his waterskin. Xena accepted a hunk of bread and a mug of the tea still sitting near the edge of the fire.
While she ate, Xena contemplated her body's signals. Finally, after a soothing sip of tea, she answered the bard, "Right now all I really feel is stiff."
"No more fever?"
Xena shook her head. "No more fever."
Gabrielle's smile returned. "Good. I wanted to thank you...for everything last night."
"You're welcome." The former warlord turned to Xena, "You've got quite a friend there, Warrior Princess. Fights like a warrior. Why the way she took out Fracchus -"
Xena sat up, wincing at the stiffness of her side. "Took out? Gabrielle, you lost your staff. What'd you hit him with?" Her voice barely concealed her suspicions. In her head she recalled a flash of light above Gabrielle's head, when she'd caught sight of the bard behind Fracchus on the battlefield.
Gabrielle sat down. "I hit him with the - sword - in my hands." She looked down at her hands and remembered her mad dash across the open ground and finally striking out. "I - I struck at him with a wide arc. I hit him. He's. . .dead." Gabrielle looked up waiting for the explosion. It didn't come.
Xena laid back and closed her eyes. "Could you take our stuff to the river and wash it out," she said calmly to the other warrior.
Draco nodded. He had seen a darkness cloud Xena's eyes before she closed them. A deep anger was banking in those blue eyes.
When Draco was out of sight, Gabrielle took the mug from Xena's hands. "What's the matter?"
"I'm sorry you got involved in this." Under her breath, she murmured, "I'll kill him."
Xena sat up. "Gabrielle, you killed someone. I asked Ares to keep you safe. And he betrayed that promise."
"I didn't!" Ares popped into the clearing. "She killed Fracchus! I had nothing to do with it!"
Xena scowled at the God of War, who, to Gabrielle, looked like nothing so much as a husband who was about to be tongue-lashed for staying out too late drinking.
"What's wrong? Ares?" Gabrielle came to her feet and stood between Ares and Xena, looking at the God of War. She saw the anger, and the hurt. She'd guessed it was possible for Xena to hurt the god, from everything she'd learned in Olympus, but here was the proof. "Xena's hurt. She doesn't know what she's saying."
Ares pushed the bard aside. "I am not going to have her blaming me for this." Gabrielle looked confused. "You took your first life. On her account." To Xena, he added, "She willed herself to your side. Not much I could do about it."
Xena was struggling to sit up, looking around for a weapon. Gabrielle turned and pushed her back down. She grabbed Xena's chin. "Listen to me. He's telling the truth! Do not put any blame for this on yourself, you hear me? I was protecting you the only way available at the time. I wasn't about to let Fracchus chop your head off."
Xena looked from Gabrielle to Ares and then down at her wound. She glared at Ares, and then took a deep breath, her eyes meeting Gabrielle's. "I'm not happy about it."
"Neither am I, but I'd do it again --" Gabrielle met the dark eyes of the God of War. "To save Xena's life."
"How noble of you, little bard. But once tasting of death's sweetness you didn't even wash the blood from your hands."
"That doesn't make me a murderer. Fracchus was an instrument of yours. I'll not regret sending him to Hades..." Gabrielle finished with a vicious verbal cut, "Especially since I can't send you there."
Ares nodded his head with approval. "Touché. I shall leave you with your thoughts. Both of you."
With that, the God of War strode to the edge of the clearing and vanished. Gabrielle sank to her knees, her face in her hands. "I can't believe I just threatened him."
"Comes easier when you know him," Xena murmured. "And as much as I hate the fact, Gabrielle, you now know the mind of the God of War."
Gabrielle considered that, seeing Xena glaring at the spot where Ares had vanished. And I've had a glimpse of his heart, too, I think. She remembered the pain in Ares' face when Xena's accusations struck him. "And that will be his undoing," she murmured.
"Oh, nothing." Gabrielle forced a smile. "We need some more water for tea. I'll be right back." Gabrielle snatched up a waterskin and headed for the river.
Xena frowned and tried to stand to follow her friend. But Draco emerged and motioned for her to sit.
"Why don't you sit and rest for a while? The wound is seeping a bit." Draco's words brought Xena's attention to her side. The stitching was beginning to be visible through the paste and there was blood dripping down her hip.
Draco went to his blanket and shook it out, rolling it tightly and stowed it with Xena's saddle. Xena sat and began to unpack the wound herself, but Gabrielle came up and gently slapped her hands aside. "I'll do it," she told the warrior, and expertly began sluicing away the paste from the stitching. "Thank the gods, the stitching isn't pulling out."
Xena studied her friend's face carefully, looking to see what changes had come over the bard. Gabrielle had been very insistent that the killing was her idea, but Xena wasn't entirely sure Ares didn't have something to do with it. The opportunity, a nudge mentally here or there...something. She studied Gabrielle, hoping her friend's innocence wasn't completely gone.
Xena didn't remember much about her own first killing; one of Cortese's men no doubt, since that was the first pitched battle she'd ever been in. There was a hardness about Gabrielle now. She had been fairly stern faced through the encounter with Ares, and there had been no softness in her eyes when she'd held Xena's chin, conveying her guilt. She winced as Gabrielle prodded the cleaned wound. Then the bard announced Xena ready for more salve and a bandage.
Gabrielle returned from the saddlebags with several small cloths and a larger strip of fabric. She applied the salve and then had Xena hold one of the small cloths against her side as she wound the large fabric strip around Xena's middle twice before tightening it and tying it off in a small knot.
"How's that feel?" asked the bard, sitting back on her heels and examining her handiwork.
Xena straightened her back and slowly turned at the waist. "Not bad. The pressure feels good, not constrictive. I could probably help clear camp."
Draco shook his head. "I'm returning to my camp alone, Xena. You and Gabrielle ought to move on."
The Warrior Princess looked at Draco. "Are you sure?"
"Yes. I can handle any other scum that come traipsing into Corinth."
Gabrielle nodded. "I'll pack you some food. It's a long walk back to your camp, and your horse is still at the battlefield, I think."
Draco shook his head. "No doubt he returned to camp with my remaining men shortly after I took my leave with you."
"Well, then, you have an even longer walk ahead. Let me pack you something." Gabrielle got to her feet and rummaged through their packs coming up with a cloth in which she wrapped some cheese, a hunk of bread, and stowed some uncrushed berries. She dropped the bundle into Draco's hands when he stood. "Thank you," the warrior said.
"Thank you," Gabrielle replied. She looked into his face and saw admiration. She knew it was reflected in her own eyes. "You're a good man, Draco."
Draco turned aside. "Coming from you that is a great compliment." Draco turned and smiled at the bard, then down at Xena, still seated on the ground. "I really do like this helpful stuff. But you're not for me," he told the bard.
Gabrielle smiled, relieved that Draco apparently wouldn't be following them around. Then she frowned, realizing Draco wouldn't be following them around. "Oh," was all she could come up with to say.
Draco turned and strode out of the camp. Xena came to her feet slowly and hugged the bard from behind. "I'm glad you're back."
Gabrielle shook herself from watching Draco go and turned to Xena. "So am I. Shall we pack up? Want to go visit another old warlord friend of yours?"
Xena thought a moment then shook her head. "Actually, I think we both need to return to yesterday's battlefield."
Gabrielle's eyes widened and she stepped back from Xena. "No."
Xena shook her head. "Gabrielle, we need to make sure all the dead are buried. Fracchus' army disbanded. I doubt anyone dragged away any of the bodies."
"That's what I'm afraid of," stated the bard.
Xena nodded. "I know, but it has to be done. Without burial, the shades of the dead will haunt the living."
Nodding her compliance, Gabrielle grabbed their small shovel and followed Xena from the camp.
CHAPTER THIRTEEN - BURYING DREAMS
The battlefield was strewn with bodies. Gabrielle could see Draco at the far end of the battlefield, burying someone. He was shirtless, shoveling dirt in a mound.
Xena put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Probably one of his lieutenants."
Gabrielle nodded. "Well, we'd better get to it."
Xena took the shovel and Gabrielle struggled to drag the bodies near where Xena dug their graves. By noonday, both women were aching and covered in dirt and sweat, but nearly half the bodies were now covered in the soil. Fracchus' body waited off to the side. Gabrielle unconsciously skirted around it.
Xena noticed and stepped out of the hole she was digging. "Gabrielle, get over here."
Gabrielle stopped in her task of dragging a burly soldier towards that hole and looked up. "I'm already coming. Hold on."
Xena shook her head. "No, put him down, bring Fracchus over here." Time to get this out of the way. She'll either break, or start healing.
Gabrielle looked at the bloodied body, and started walking toward it. Xena held her breath, watching with her hand above her eyes so that she could see Gabrielle despite the sun almost directly in front of her.
The bard crouched next to Fracchus and looked into his face. He wore a shocked expression, which Gabrielle wiped off with a smoothing hand over eyes, nose and mouth, slackening the rigid muscles.
Ares watched from the darkness of the trees. Xena always fascinated him, but during their burial task, he found his eyes drawn to the bard almost as often. What a puzzle she was, and yet, not a puzzle at all. She was, quite frankly, amazing. No wonder Xena likes her. If I was in a different line of work, I might like her too.
Xena waited, and watched. Gabrielle had finally raised up so that she could get some leverage to drag the body toward the grave. She pulled on the shoulder guards of Fracchus' armor, and finally the dirt beneath his body relinquished him and he slid forward abruptly. Gabrielle lost her balance and stumbled backward.
Xena jumped, but fought with herself to remain where she was. Gabrielle had to do this alone.
The bard struggled another few feet with her burden and fell onto her butt on the ground. Xena nodded, relieved the situation was going to begin to resolve itself for the younger woman, as tears poured over Gabrielle's cheeks. The bard pounded Fracchus' chest, and then stopped to stare at her fisted hands. She cried harder, realizing what she was doing. "Oh gods, no!"
Xena struggled with herself only another moment before giving in to the ache of watching her friend's suffering and ran the short distance separating herself from her friend. She gathered Gabrielle in her arms. "Shh, Gabrielle, it's all right."
Gabrielle pulled away. "How can you touch me," she screamed and started to scramble to her feet. "Oh gods, Xena, it hurts!"
Xena nodded and clasped the bard tighter.
"I really did it," Gabrielle cried. "I've killed someone!"
Ares found himself surprisingly moved by the crying bard, more than he ever expected. He regretted his crass words to her on the battlefield and wondered what he ought to do about it, if anything.
Xena and Gabrielle remained in a heap next to Fracchus' body for a long time. The bard cried; Xena cradled her friend.
Ares watched, trying to sort out his own thoughts. Suddenly, the god straightened at a voice in his head. "All right, I'm returning." With that he vanished and returned to Olympus.
He stood in the great chamber. Zeus sat enthroned, his great hands holding to the armrests. "You called?" Ares bowed and smiled ingratiatingly at Zeus.
Zeus said nothing. In another moment, Artemis entered the room, so did Hades and Persephone. "We have a problem," the King of the Gods finally said.
Artemis stepped forward. "You didn't keep the girl bard safe as you promised Xena."
Ares shook his head. "I didn't promise her that. I promised I wouldn't harm her friend. And I didn't. She did it all on her own."
Zeus shook his head now. "Technicalities will get you nowhere."
Ares closed his eyes and groaned. "What is it you want me to do?"
"You let a blood-innocent kill for the first time, Ares!" Aphrodite entered the room. "She was meant for different things, and now you've ruined her."
"She ruined herself! She loves Xena more than her blood innocence," argued Ares. "I can't take it back even if I want to."
Zeus eyed Ares. He was not telling them everything. "What's going on here? What have you done?"
Ares told Zeus about Fracchus, and wanting to give Xena back his army. He explained that the bard, he'd thought, stood in his way. So he'd stolen her. But nothing went as planned. Xena made him promise to keep her safe. He hadn't expected Gabrielle would think to jump into the middle of a battle.
"She seemed too mousy for that." He sighed, "I was wrong."
"What has tied you so tightly to the warrior woman?" demanded Zeus.
"I can't say. Even to you."
"I'll find out eventually," replied the King of the Gods.
"Not everyone knows all of your indiscretions, either, Zeus, so leave me a few secrets, too." Ares turned on his heel and started to stride out of the chamber.
Zeus' voice called him back. "I have not given you leave to depart," the King of the Gods boomed.
Ares frowned, but turned, remaining near the archway.
"Anyone else able to shed some light on this situation?" demanded Zeus.
Artemis stepped forward. "I was here when Gabrielle was a guest of Ares yesterday. We spoke."
Zeus listened as Artemis related what she had gleaned from her brief encounter with the bard. "For a bard, she wasn't very talkative at the time," the goddess offered when her information was so brief.
Zeus sat back, his eyes drifted to his amphitheater. He'd had Xena's statuette made when she broke her allegiance to Ares with Hercules' help. And the bard? He thought back to the night he'd commanded Hephaestus to render Gabrielle.
He'd almost forgotten. Unlike some of those who earned the attention of the King of the Gods, the bard seldom needed his protection and almost never called upon his name ...except in her stories.
She had absorbed a story at the Bard Academy while reading through the large library of scrolls. Around a campfire later, she'd retold it to her warrior friend. And it was as if Zeus had never heard it before.
Not a simple retelling, she'd told the story of him and Danae and their love making the hero Perseus. It wasn't about a demi-god Perseus' heroic exploits, and it wasn't about a cruelly fated Danae being cast adrift in the seas by her father-both angles every other bard in Greece would take with the story.
She told the story as if she'd been spying on him and Danae in her father's palace, witnessing their nights of love locked behind closed doors. Gabrielle the Bard from Poteidaia had found the heart of the King of the Gods and revealed it so plainly the heavens erupted that night in one of the few rainstorms caused by his own tears.
What could happen to her heart, to the inner ear she used to see that deeply into someone's soul, now that she had taken a life? He did not want to contemplate the death of the young bard's soul. He came to a decision as he studied the faces before him and finally spoke, his voice shaking the very foundations of Olympus. "Hades, you will not mark this event in the chapters of the bard's life. Understand?"
"We're just going to let it pass?" Hades asked. Zeus nodded. "She killed another person. Even as bad as Fracchus was, it deserves some mark," Hades argued, knowing he had to tread lightly. He wanted the bard off the hook too, but all the angles had to be covered, so no one could challenge the ruling later.
Ares nodded. "And balance. Zeus, you're always saying how the world needs balance. I lost Draco as a follower because of Xena's twisted sense of humor. I should at least be permitted to keep the possibility that her bard will follow me."
Hades frowned. "No. That wouldn't do. The bard is too close to Xena. If you try to corrupt her, Xena could rampage."
Ares' grin widened. "Even better. I'd get Xena back in the fold and gain her bard in the bargain."
Zeus barked. "Ares, you're heedless of my will. I will not have the talent of that bard squashed by your heavy-handedness."
Ares bowed low. "I was just thinking ...."
Zeus exploded. "Then stop thinking! Some are never meant for battle, Ares! "
Ares frowned in the face of Zeus' rage, and mentally retrenched. "So, what's the decision?"
Zeus reiterated his earlier decision. Hades nodded. "As you will it." Proper form had been satisfied after all. Hades and Persephone blinked out, returning to the Underworld. Zeus watched Ares pace around the room, waiting to be dismissed. He wanted the god to regret his actions, but so far, Ares seemed only to regret that he was going to lose a potential follower.
"Hephaestus!" boomed Zeus.
"What are you going to do, Zeus?" asked Ares.
"I need to discuss with him a fitting prison for a god."
"All this because a bard lost her blood innocence?"
"You are defiant, unrepentant, and have done something which probably conflicts with the Immortal code. I would do more. I will call you for sentencing. You are dismissed." Zeus' voice rumbled through Olympus and brooked no argument, not even from the God of War.
Ares blanched and blinked away.
Gabrielle and Xena stood in the dying sunlight. Gabrielle handed Xena the torch to light the funeral pyre under Fracchus' body. The warrior shook her head and handed it back to the bard.
"You have to do this, Gabrielle. Fracchus' shade won't leave you alone otherwise."
Gabrielle sighed, looking over her shoulder, wondering if the man's shade hunted her even now. She stepped forward, thrusting the torch between the branches. In another moment the conflagration started.
Xena looked at Gabrielle expectantly. "No, Xena, I can't."
Xena shook her head. She sang a song of warriors, pride and death on the battlefield. It wasn't the same song she'd sang for Marcus or Perdicus, but it was an eerie tune, meant to be heard by the soul of the deceased in the Underworld.
Gabrielle withdrew her panpipe, and, from somewhere in herself found the emotion to blow three notes, each longer and lower than the last. The final note hung on the air, caught in the breeze.
Xena enveloped her in a hug as the final note finally dissipated. They turned and walked away from the burning pyre.
Gabrielle and Xena returned to Amber that night. The bard was tired, emotionally and physically from the strains of the last two days. If Xena would admit it, her own exhaustion was only partly due to her injuries. She was also emotionally a bit of a mess.
Amber was close by and was home to new friends; Xena couldn't yet travel very far, and Gabrielle needed to retrieve the bag of scrolls she'd left with Theocratus. The Amber bard and his daughter were happy to see the pair, welcoming them with open arms and a call to a healer to review the warrior's wounds.
Neither woman revealed everything that had happened over the last two days. The experience was too new. Xena only said that the women were being returned, and Fracchus had been dealt with. He would cause no more trouble.
They asked to retire early. Theocratus and Arianna agreed. Both women were covered in dirt, dried sweat and their smooth faces were deeply lined with unhappiness. Theocratus wanted to ask, but a look to Arianna, who shook her head, stayed his tongue. He kissed Gabrielle on the cheek and shook Xena's hand before waving them both to the back of the house.
Arianna accompanied the women to the room they'd shared before and promised to bring them food shortly. Both women stripped down to their shifts to be comfortable. Xena stretched out carefully on her bed. Gabrielle fell asleep practically the minute her head was lower than her shoulders as she flopped out stomach down on the other bed.
Arianna came in with the tray of food and brought it to Xena.
"You've done a lot for us, too. This is nothing compared to what you've been through for us." Arianna took her leave as Xena nibbled on an apple from the well-laden platter.
Xena looked over at Gabrielle, studying the bard's face in repose. "Gods, I'm sorry, Gabrielle," she whispered at the unhearing bard. "I'd have preferred to die than have you kill for me."
That thought brought Xena's attention to her wounds. She felt the stab wound itching in her back, a sure sign it was healing. And the wound in her side pained her when she breathed too deeply. By all rights the sword wound should have killed her. It hadn't.
Xena remembered the dream she'd had the night after the battle. She hadn't thought about Mendices in ages. The man had been a new recruit in her army. Against her better judgment, she let him stay. She had wanted to turn him away from war, away from killing. But he'd sworn he was doing it for his family. He had, for a time, become her lover, the man she turned to when the battle was over. Together they made love with an abandon, a sense of awe in living, that she hadn't captured with anyone else. Marcus had been soothing, tender. Borias had been adoration. Mendices, was, well, Mendices.
He was fierce, passionate, giving and taking of her love. She'd always slept so deeply after they made love. It had been during some of her hardest campaigns, some of her darkest years on the far side of Greece.
He was her nursemaid for all the cuts, scrapes and wounds she received in battle. He let no one else near her until she was in perfect health. "To preserve your image," he'd tell her. He wasn't particularly skilled but his touch was gentle and the attention warmed her heart.
She rolled over, remembering she'd wondered why he'd left so abruptly about three months after joining up.
Ares appeared in the corner of the room, standing in the shadows. "Hail and well-met, Xena," he whispered. "How are you feeling?"
Xena looked from Gabrielle to Ares and slowly got out of bed. "Shh. Don't wake her. She needs her rest."
Ares replied, "So do you. Oh, I have news. Zeus has decided that Gabrielle's little incident down here against Fracchus doesn't get recorded. Hades was ordered to wipe the slate clean."
"So, you don't get her this time."
"Nope, guess not." Ares crossed his arms over his chest. "She's got spunk. I can see why you like her." Xena came closer, hearing an intimacy in Ares' voice she didn't like. She moved with stiffness. Ares' eyes grew dark and concerned. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"Concerned?" Xena met his gaze squarely. Sarcasm laced her words.
His look became closed. Ares turned his head aside, masking his face. "You're my prize. I want you to live long enough so I can claim you again." Ares vanished.
Xena looked over at the bard, whose deep breathing became suddenly hitched. Gabrielle began to moan, then whimper, then the bard cried. Xena waited not another moment, forgetting about Ares and her own dream. She went to the bard and rubbed Gabrielle's shoulder and hair, willing her to calm.
The tenor of Gabrielle's cries changed and finally disappeared. The bard rolled over and Xena wiped the tears from her pale cheeks. Gabrielle opened her eyes to find Xena's blue eyes warm on her face, edged with a deep sadness.
"Are you all right?" Gabrielle sat up and gripped the warrior's arms, looking her over critically.
Xena nodded. "I'm fine. I came over to see how you are." She made the statement an inquiry with an arch of her eyebrow.
Gabrielle shivered remembering her dream. "I was reliving yesterday. In flashes, but all the same..."
Xena hugged Gabrielle close. Neither woman spoke for the moment. When Xena relented and released the bard, she said quietly, "Tell me about Olympus."
It would take her mind off of yesterday, she guessed, so Gabrielle complied. She closed her eyes and told the story. She was halfway through describing Ares' chamber when Xena put a finger to Gabrielle's lips. "It sounds like a beautiful place. Certainly nicer than here. So how'd you come back so quickly?"
Gabrielle sighed. "You have such a bad habit of asking ahead in my stories. If you'd be patient, I was getting to that. It's a mirror Ares has in his chambers. It's shrouded most of the time, but when he wants to watch a battle unfold, he uncovers it. He showed me the beginning of your battle with Fracchus."
Xena sighed. "I'm sorry. Go on with your story."
Gabrielle nodded. "The neatest thing was Zeus' amphitheater. He had statuettes for all his favored mortals. I saw Draco, and you. Hercules was on the shelf. There were likenesses of Perseus, Achilles, Troilus, Cressida, just anyone. I tried to find out why he commissioned your likeness, but Artemis didn't seem to know."
"A likeness of me? Great. Another god wants me to play with." Xena sat back, laying her hands on her lap.
Gabrielle shook her head. "I don't think so, really. Artemis seemed to think that Zeus just watches."
Xena shook her head, unable to believe that. "Gods prefer to play with mortals, Gabrielle. Look at Ares and what his obsession with me did to you."
The bard looked up at Xena and her eyes began to brim with tears. Xena put a hand to her friend's lips and nodded. Gabrielle knew Xena understood something of what she felt.
Then she really looked in Xena's eyes. She saw a guilt there, a guilt the woman didn't deserve to claim. She put her hand on Xena's arm and started, "Xena, please, it's my fault. All of it. Ares may have been after you, and ... Oh, never mind. I killed Fracchus, you didn't." Xena frowned. "Don't blame yourself," Gabrielle translated herself succinctly. "Listen, I'm going to go for a walk. Do you want to come along?"
Xena felt like Gabrielle really wanted her to say no and was only offering out of politeness. "I think I'll stay here. Maybe have Theocratus spin me a tale."
"Don't go hiring a new bard on me, all right?"
Gabrielle pulled on her skirt and pulled a blouse over her head. She left quickly, closing the door to the room as she went. Xena remained on Gabrielle's bed for a long while. Then tired, she laid back down.
Sleep claimed her almost immediately.
CHAPTER FOURTEEN - REFLECTIONS OF LOVE
Outside, Gabrielle emerged onto the street, adjusting her eyes to the evening light. She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. A voice sounded in her ear. "Good catch."
Gabrielle turned and found Ares at her elbow. "I didn't do it for you," she informed the god.
"Perhaps not, but you saved both of us a great deal of embarrassment," said Ares.
"Me? What do I have to be embarrassed about?" Gabrielle replied, stalking away from the imposing god.
He grabbed her arm, then pulled away as if burned. "Damn!" He rubbed his hand and followed, trying to gain her attention without touching her. "Gabrielle, you have to understand. Zeus has stepped in."
Gabrielle stopped. "Why? And no more evasions. You tell me the truth."
"He favors you." Ares punched a tree. "He thinks I abused you because of her. He's going to punish me. I think he means to do it through her. He's consulting with Hephaestus right now."
Gabrielle sighed. "What can Zeus do?"
Ares laughed, "Anything he wants, bard. Anything at all. He has the power to strip me of my godhood." He snickered. "And if Zeus has his way with me, she'll die."
Gabrielle shook her head. "I don't understand, but I am tired of asking questions of you. I don't think even you understand yourself sometimes. Why do you torture yourself chasing after her?"
Ares smiled. "Xena was my pupil. I want her back. Your blood innocence was lost tonight, and it gave me some small measure of strength. But I want more. I want her back with me."
She looked over her shoulder back at the house, thinking of the woman inside. As irritating as you are to her, I think she would be lost if you didn't come around occasionally to spice up her life, she thought. She turned back to the god. She had a flash of insight again as she saw him staring at the bedroom window behind which Xena slept, and the pieces started fitting together. "You love her, maybe more than is healthy. You're as honest with her as probably anyone could expect." Gabrielle steeled herself to reveal her decision. "But she shouldn't suffer for your crimes, whatever they are. When Zeus calls you before him, send for me. I'll meet him with you."
Ares frowned. He gestured at the house. "She won't permit it."
Gabrielle sighed. "She won't know. I promise I won't tell her anything you've said to me. You have to promise me, though, you will find a way to make my disappearance for the duration as discreet as possible."
"What can you do?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "I'm not sure yet. But I have a pretty fast tongue, or so Xena says. I should be able to come up with something. So, do you agree or what?"
Ares nodded. "I agree. Why, exactly, are you doing this?"
"Because I love her. Right or wrong, somehow you've tied yourself to her. You two are each other's strength. But, if I can manage it, I won't have her hurt anymore, even by a noble attempt to punish you."
The god disappeared, leaving Gabrielle alone in the alleyway where they'd spoken. She wandered a curio shop until she had stayed away from the house for a sufficient amount of time to suggest an aimless walk. Then she returned to the house and found Theocratus pouring over her scrolls.
"Find anything you'd like to copy?"
"Several, but your friend won't let me have any of the scrolls about her adventures." Theocratus stroked his beard and fingered one scroll in particular. Gabrielle saw it was the tale of David and Goliath.
"Xena is awake?"
"Has been for a little while. She asked after you about a candlemark ago."
"I'm sorry about her attitude." Gabrielle told Theocratus about Xena's reluctance to hear stories about herself.
"But she's such a wonderful person," the Amber bard protested, seeing through Gabrielle's eyes, the woman Xena was. Who'd she'd been didn't matter.
"She didn't used to be, and that's all she sees herself as...most of the time."
Theocratus rubbed his chin. "I think I understand."
"Read some more and don't mind what she said, they're my scrolls. Copy anything you want."
Theocratus thanked Gabrielle and the bard left to visit her friend. "Xena?" she called through the closed door.
Gabrielle hoped none of her decision showed on her face. She had promised the God of War that she would not tell Xena anything, but she couldn't prevent the possibility the woman would discover things on her own. If Gabrielle helped Xena focus on regaining her full strength, perhaps, just perhaps, the warrior would not look too closely at her bard for a while. At least until all this was settled.
"You're back," came the reply. Gabrielle opened the door to find Xena seated at a desk. She had a writing quill in her hand and parchment lay on the surface.
"Writing? I thought that was my job."
"I was writing a note to you in case you returned while I was out looking for you."
Gabrielle absorbed that and then noticed the woman was completely attired in her leathers and armor, even her sword was stowed in her scabbard on her back. "Are you sure you should be this active? I wasn't gone that long."
"I'm fine," argued the warrior. She stood, and couldn't quite hide the grimace as she straightened.
Gabrielle went to Xena and hugged her tightly from behind. "I missed you too. I just had to stretch a bit, take in some normal life for a little while. I saw some interesting curios. The proprietor was a little disappointed I didn't buy anything. But window shopping is an art form. Never spoil it by making a purchase," she finished, her eyes glowing with mischief, but her voice conveying a convincing seriousness.
Xena laughed. "I'll bet."
"It's good to hear you laugh. Does it hurt much?"
"Surprisingly, no. I'm sure I'm not up to fighting strength but I don't feel any stiffness in my back, and my side pulls only when I do something stupid."
Gabrielle smiled and again hoped she could extricate Xena from Zeus' punishment for Ares. She still wasn't entirely clear why Zeus was punishing Ares, but she hoped to remember to have enough presence of mind to ask the King of the Gods when she and Ares came before him.
"What's the matter?" Xena held Gabrielle's shoulders and studied the bard's face. Something was wrong. "Are you having flashbacks again?"
"What? No." Gabrielle blinked and focused on Xena's face. "I was just listening to my stomach," she lied. "Are you hungry?"
"No, Arianna brought a platter while you were sleeping earlier and since you didn't eat any, well, when I got hungry, I finished it off."
Gabrielle knew it would be easier to disappear for a few hours if they stayed in Amber until this was over. "How about we stay around here for a few days? Until you're feeling top form."
Xena looked out the window at the surrounding town. "Maybe a few days. It's quiet around here. Draco's troops have the policing of the area under control; it might be nice to have a bit of a vacation."
Gabrielle came up behind her. "Exactly
CHAPTER FIFTEEN - THE TRIAL OF ARES
The next day dawned rainy and dark. Gabrielle, her fertile bard imagination running rampant, wondered what was going on in Olympus. She wished Ares would show up and whisk her off so everything could be explained. In the dreariness of the day, she poured over her scrolls but couldn't make headway with her chore of editing. She switched to writing, but couldn't pen anything that didn't stray toward the events of the last few days, and so she stopped, deciding instead to sleep.
As she slept, her mind worked on the problem. First, it made sure she'd defined the situation properly, reading all the signals right from Ares, and partnering that with all the information she'd gleaned from her encounters with Artemis and Hermes.
From there she mentally wrote the story of the young god, Ares, and his love for a new warrioress, fresh from the battlefields of Thrace. Gabrielle's sleep wasn't easy, but a lot of questions were answered. She just hoped that Zeus would listen to her arguments before passing summary judgment.
Xena was caught in the downpour on her way out to the town stables to see to Argo. She stayed with the mare instead of braving the storm to return to the house. It was an easy decision to make. The warrior princess had not communed with Argo in several days and they needed the time together. Xena groomed Argo muzzle to hooves, cleaning the mare's coat until it shimmered gold. And besides, facing Gabrielle right now wasn't manageable. She wasn't sure when it would be; Xena had too many issues to work out herself before she could really talk to the bard about events on that battlefield.
While the mare contentedly ate a double portion of oats, Xena practiced with her sword, taking advantage of the quiet and emptiness of the stable to test her returning strength. The rain showed no signs of letting up, so she turned for a while to practicing with her chakram. The particular throwing motion was a bit hard on the wound in her side, but the dull ache was welcome, as it meant her muscles were coming back.
It was near the end of this day that Ares came for Gabrielle. He appeared in the bedroom at Arianna and Theocratus' home, finding Gabrielle asleep.
"Gabrielle, it's time to go."
The bard awakened and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. "Is Xena anywhere in the house?" she asked the god.
Ares closed his eyes and sought out the essence of the warrior. "No, she's down at the stables with her horse."
Gabrielle nodded. "Okay." She splashed some water on her face to brighten it. "Let's go." Ares watched as Gabrielle fidgeted with her clothing. "Do you think I should change?"
"No, I don't. Come on, Zeus doesn't wait very patiently."
Gabrielle nodded, pulled a hand through her hair and straightened her back. "I'm ready."
Ares shook his head and asked her to take his arm. Apparently, he still couldn't technically touch her. With a snap of his fingers, the two of them vanished from the room.
They reappeared in Ares' chambers in Olympus. Gabrielle looked around. "You've changed things a bit," she noted. Several of the armor pieces and weapons were gone from their spaces on the wall.
"Something like that," muttered Ares. "Come on. I had to stop here. It's not acceptable to just pop in at the Great Chamber."
Gabrielle nodded. "Makes sense." She followed the god out the door. They made their way down the hall.
If she hadn't been on such an intense mission, Gabrielle would have paused to admire the candelabrum lining the walls of the corridors, and the beautiful artistic displays on pedestals at regular intervals.
Ares entered the Great Chamber first, and Gabrielle waited at the doorway as the God of War walked to stand directly before the enthroned Zeus. The rest of the gods and goddesses were seated gallery-style in front of the throne, well back from Zeus and Ares, but witnesses and audience just the same.
"I have come, as required," he announced formally. "I have a mortal with me. She wishes to speak on behalf of my case."
Zeus nodded. "She is welcome here. Now, Apollo will read the charges."
Gabrielle realized that Ares was still on trial, a final judgment had not been made. Apollo stepped forward and read from a scroll he materialized in his hands. "Ares, God of War, son of Zeus and Hera you are charged with breaking the code of the Immortals. Knowingly and willingly altering the life of an innocent personally."
Ares nodded. "I understand the charges. May I speak to them?"
Zeus nodded. "Now would be the time for your mortal to speak."
Ares motioned Gabrielle into the room. A murmur erupted as she walked up the aisle between the assembled. "Her? But how could she defend him?" "Ares must be mad." "Perhaps he is relying on her glib tongue to free him," replied another. Gabrielle stole a glance and recognized, from descriptions, Io and Ganymede, the goddess twins of the stars, whispering.
Gabrielle was astonished at how many of the gods and goddesses made comments about her. She hadn't really thought she'd come to anyone's attention other than Ares, and only because she stood between himself and Xena.
The bard came to a stop on Ares' left, facing Zeus. She curtsied before the King of the Gods and when she arose, began to speak.
"Great Zeus, wondrous is your name in the known and unknown world. Thank you for this opportunity to address you." She turned to the gallery, adding, "All of you."
Zeus nodded. "You may speak your mind here, Bard. We cannot in good conscience begrudge you the opportunity, should this be what you desire -- to state Ares' case for him."
Gabrielle nodded. "Thank you." She turned to the gallery, and backed up so that she was addressing all those assembled. "I do not begin to comprehend everything about your Immortal code, but I must let you know that what happened in the valley of Corinth that day was not explicitly the fault of the God of War. He may have instigated the battle by driving together three of the age's greatest combatants through trickery and deceit, but it was they who chose to fight. Fracchus knew that Ares wanted to gift his army back to Xena. He reacted as any man would threatened with the loss of something he held dearly.
"Further, Draco's defection was quite a blow to the God of War. I do not like war, fighting or its aftermath, but it is a part of life down there. Ares may be the God of War, but only inasmuch as the people down there require him to channel their needs. We are poorly disciplined.
"Xena was a warrior long before Ares got to her. He gave her a harness for her rage, gave her control and an outlet for a grief so deep she sought her own death in battle after battle. Only the deep affection of Hercules, son of Zeus, gave her an alternative. When she seized it, though, she had no way to know that she took Ares' only control with her when she left."
Ares leaned close. "You're getting close to private matters, bard."
Gabrielle whispered out of the side of her mouth. "You want me to save your godhood or what? I promise no more will be revealed than necessary."
"How is it you know all the details anyway? I didn't tell you," he shot back.
Gabrielle smiled. "I have a good intuition about these things." She returned to addressing the assembly. "Ares made a pledge a long time ago to a mortally wounded woman on a battlefield. He portrayed a lieutenant of hers, he was so infatuated with her. In saving her life that day, he sweated over her body, painfully aware that the power to heal was not his. It belonged to Aphrodite and Apollo." Gabrielle took in, with a sweeping gesture, the goddess and god standing to the side. "So he asked those two to heal her wounds. They refused to do even that, since she was a warmaker, not a follower of the gentler paths."
Gabrielle knew she was about to make a huge leap in assumptions and turned to Ares as she continued, watching his face for his reaction, for further clues as to the details.
"So, Ares pledged to her his own strength." The God of War's swarthy skin took on a decidedly pale pallor. "So that she could never be fatally harmed in battle again." Gabrielle placed herself in Ares' shoes, remembering her own motivations on the battlefield the day before, and translating that into her story. "'Our strength is one,' he said, 'when you need strength you need but to call out.'" Ares hung his head, and Gabrielle continued. "To seal the pledge, in human form he made love to her, filling her with his gift in those hours of pleasure." Gabrielle's voice trailed into silence. She looked at Ares beside her.
Ares had backed up, looking at Zeus, whose face was darkening as much as one of his thunderclouds, Gabrielle noticed. Then the hall's murmuring returned. Ares no doubt registered all the chatter, but Gabrielle saw his eyes were closed, remembering those days and nights, so long ago, when Xena had captured his heart.
Gabrielle continued after clearing her throat. "He hadn't intended it. It just happened. Like the battle the other day. And...my own actions that day. Ares had nothing to do with them." She paused, thinking. "No, that's not exactly true." She remembered the prayer conversation Ares had with Fracchus. "You angered Fracchus when you said you would not permit him to kill Xena, but his tribute was such that you did promise not to interfere. You were stuck watching him wound her, powerless to break your word to Fracchus but unable to give Xena your strength to stay alive --" Gabrielle put her hands on her hips and faced the God of War. "I must have sensed that somehow, because I knew you wouldn't do anything. Xena was down, about to die, yet you couldn't do anything."
Ares nodded. "It was how our bond was sealed. If she'd cried out. Anything at all. Until then I was bound by my word to Fracchus.""You did help later. Did you come to her in her dreams, Ares?" The god nodded. "Nice to know my fever remedy needs a god's help to work," she murmured sarcastically. "No, wait. My shedding blood made you strong enough to help her. Gods, this is complicated. My innocence for her life."
She went on with her 'testimony.' "I understand now. I'm not happy about losing my blood innocence, Ares. But I love Xena. I told you once down there that I could never see her suffer." Gabrielle turned to Zeus, who had been listening intently as she spoke. "I ask for mercy for Ares. For Xena's sake. If he is imprisoned, she will lose her strength. The greatest warrior woman of the age will whither away and die, and she would never know why. I don't want that to happen."
Zeus considered her words. "You are very persuasive bard. But as you point out, she is Ares' balance as much as he is her strength. He must still be punished for forgetting himself so badly. And for defying my will."
Gabrielle protested. "Please, can you find some other way to punish him? I don't want Xena to die."
Zeus contemplated a moment. "What would you have us do? He linked her to his own power. She is the only tool we have. Even I cannot undo such a gifting."
Gabrielle tried again. "She deserves to continue living. She's done so much good."
Athena stood. "Traveling with her brought you into Ares' influence, bard. And you killed."
Zeus nodded. "Yes, speak to that, bard. His influence has corrupted you."
Gabrielle blanched. She had used one of Ares' weapons to kill. To the gods it would seem a logical conclusion that Ares had influenced her. Xena, too, had thought as much.
"I think for myself!" she replied vehemently. "I tried to explain that to Xena too."
Zeus didn't believe her. He said as much. "Xena was dying. Ares could not let her die, so he used you to prevent that from happening."
"No!" Gabrielle panicked. "I did what I had to do to save my friend. He couldn't," she said, pointing at Ares, "so I did. But he didn't influence me."
Ares turned to face Zeus again. "Let's get this over with."
Gabrielle pulled Ares' arm. "No, no. Listen to me. They're going to entrap you and Xena will die! You can't let that happen."
CHAPTER SIXTEEN - THE BARGAIN
"Great Hephaestus, Master Smith of Olympus, come forward." The God of the Forge limped forward, his massive hulk thudding nearly silently. "What have you come up with?"
The massive God of the Forge studied
Ares, Gabrielle and thought on all that had been said. "A sarcophagus shall
captivate Ares. The only lock will belong to the Warrior Princess. Her
chakram, a gift from Ares, will unlock the sarcophagus and a Great Eye
will keep watch over the tomb, to be relieved of duty only when a descendant
wields the Warrior Princess' weapon. Whenever one walks the earth, the
other will also - perfect balance." Hephaestus looked from Zeus to Gabrielle
and asked her, "Does
this meet with your conditions?"
"You're asking me?" Gabrielle was surprised.
Zeus nodded to her, as did Hephaestus. "You are his defense, as well as hers, bard."
"Does this 'revival' give her immortality?" Gabrielle wasn't sure, but she suspected Xena would despise that state.
Hephaestus shook his head. "No, she is the only one who can wield the chakram. It is an eternal - a power of Olympus itself, able to survive the ages to assure the prison is complete. She will be called at any time the chakram is wielded by a descendant."
Gabrielle absorbed this. "There has to be another way. Please?" Hephaestus was already shaking his head. Ares groaned. Gabrielle protested, "But what about all the good she has done? Isn't there any way we can separate the threads of their fate?" Gabrielle glowered at Ares. "You did this!" she growled at the god.
"Cupid already did! And look what happened!"
The God of Love stood up in the back. "Hey, I didn't do this! Don't drag my name into it."
Gabrielle flushed. "Sorry. I didn't mean - it's just an expression where I come from..."
Zeus waved off the apology. "Cupid, Gabrielle didn't mean anything by her comment."
Gabrielle flushed again. "Please tell me. Is there any way to separate their fates?"
Zeus shook his head. "Once tied in a god's gifting, there is no relinquishing the relationship. Even if given without forethought, a gift can not be undone. Many of us here have suffered the reminder in smaller, less significant gifts. Ares lost his head and it will now cost him his godhood."
"But Xena -" argued the bard.
"The Warrior Princess is our only tool for punishment," Hephaestus confirmed. "Only a delay in sentence could preserve her life. A bargain might be struck, if Zeus is willing."
Ares sighed. "What do I have to bargain with?"
"Wait!" Gabrielle cried to Zeus. "Hold on. I have something." Gabrielle swallowed. "My blood innocence. I killed Fracchus and you, Zeus, and you, Athena, something says to me you didn't want that to happen."
Athena nodded. "Your innocence is, or rather, was your finest trait as a bard."
Gabrielle considered this. Ares grabbed her arm and asked, "What are you doing? He --" Ares pointed to Zeus. "He gave you a clean slate, wiped the whole event out of your history."
Gabrielle turned to seek another from among the assembled. "Artemis, patron goddess of the Amazons, please make known your presence," Gabrielle bespoke, relying on her position as Amazon Queen.
Reed-like, the auburn-haired goddess, protectress of the Amazons, rose from the assembly. "I am here, Gabrielle. What is it you would ask?"
"I would know your position on my taking the life of the one known as Fracchus," the Amazon bard questioned.
"It had no impact on the Amazon nation. I would that you had not killed him. Part of the reason I convinced Melosa to honor your right of caste was to bring a peacemaker to my subjects. As their leader, you have never shed blood. This is a powerful example to set, worth peace for generations."
Gabrielle shook her head. "I will always pursue peace for my sisters, Artemis. I swear it. The blood on my hands will not change my heart. What would you give me in exchange for that price?" She turned and faced the King of the Gods.
Zeus considered all he was learning. The bard was an Amazon queen? It pained him to harm Artemis, his youngest, sweetest child. "Ares must be punished, Artemis. You must make your own decision about your queen."
"I want peace for my Amazons. She is my instrument among them. Xena is her chosen champion."
Gabrielle flushed. "I am honored for your continued belief in me, my goddess," the bard bowed low before Artemis, who strode to stand at her side.
A murmuring rose again from the gallery. Gabrielle ignored it, her eyes on the only one who possessed the power to alter things. Zeus seemed to assess her in a glance and think a moment. "Why would you do this? Your gift, young bard, is truly in your innocence."
Gabrielle shook her head. "I want Xena's life protected," she replied, intent. "I'll do anything to see to that."
Zeus shook his head. Ares was beginning to have a new appreciation for the bard's loyalty. "Your afterlife is at stake here, Gabrielle. Are you certain you comprehend this?"
Gabrielle opened her hands in a gesture of supplication. "Great Zeus, what is my afterlife compared to her life?" Artemis nodded in concurrence. Truly Gabrielle had become an Amazon this day.
Among the rest there was a wide murmuring at this thought voiced by the bard. The Elysian Fields were supposed to be everyone's dream. No one who'd killed with intent had ever ended up there. The murmuring fell aside as Zeus raised his hands.
"You speak with a great persuasion, Gabrielle. Please avail yourself of our amenities. Hades, I need to speak with you. We will reconvene and render a decision."
Her heart heavy as she wondered if her bargaining chip would be worth anything to the gods, Gabrielle tore her hands from the loving grip of the Amazonian goddess and walked out of the Great Hall.
Aimlessly wandering the corridors of Olympus, she finally found herself in Ares' chamber and headed straight for the mirror. "Can I see her one last time?" she wondered touching the glass that only reflected her paled, worried countenance.
"You are doing very well," commented Ares, coming up behind the bard. He waved a hand and the mirror revealed Xena in Amber's stables. She was covered in sweat, completing an intricate set of exercises with her sword.
Gabrielle traced a hand over the warrior's cheek as tears coursed down her own. "Ares, do you think Zeus will accept my bargain? Will any of what I've argued change his mind."
Ares shrugged. "Honestly, Gabrielle, I don't know. But not much of this little episode has gone as planned. I was supposed to get Xena back, not draw you into the fold. I was supposed to get rid of Fracchus as head of my army, not have you kill him. I was supposed to make Xena regret freeing Draco from my service, and well, you know how that went."
Gabrielle groaned. "After all this, all you can think about is what you're losing? Ares, Xena is going to die!"
"So am I, bard."
Gabrielle hit him; Ares swung back, but stopped short of hitting her. "You still are keeping your promise to her? Amazing," Gabrielle sighed. "Too bad you didn't have enough forethought to keep your pants on all those years ago. Just how long ago was it, Ares?"
"Eight. She returned to Amphipolis after a war with the Centaurs. Grief hounded her pretty hard. I was entranced by how well she fought. She drew me away from a little Asian war with a fellow by the name of Genghis Khan."
Gabrielle pushed him. "Could you stop reminiscing for a minute and think about this? This is supposed to be the woman you love, you know. If you really loved her, how could you consign her to death?"
"I was a lot happier before you killed Fracchus, Gabrielle," Ares sighed.
"Well, I can't take it back. Fracchus is dead. Wait, Fracchus! That's it! What if I get him to testify?"
Ares shook his head. "Fracchus can't help. Gabrielle, no shades are permitted in the Great Hall. Besides, what would he have to say that would, in any way, change things?"
Gabrielle sat down hard, on the chair in front of the mirror, her head in her hands. "Oh, gods, I wish they'd hurry." She saw Xena, visibly weary, check yet again at the stable doors to see if the rain had let up. "What am I going to tell her if I fail?" She took a deep breath and let it out on a choked sob. "What am I going to tell her if I succeed?"
"If Zeus accepts your bargain, Gabrielle, what am I going to do with you?"
"What do you mean?"
"With the mark, you become a subject of mine."
Gabrielle rubbed her temples. "Great! Just great!"
The two did not have any more time to discuss the situation. Ares announced the summons abruptly. "It's time."
Gabrielle stood, her step heavier. She looked at the mirror one last time. Xena was sitting on a hay bale stroking Argo's side, her head against the mare's hide. Gabrielle crossed her fingers. Please let it be enough, she prayed.
Xena collapsed against her mare's coat, tears coursing down her cheeks. "It isn't really Ares' fault, is it, girl? It's all mine. I took her from Poteidaia and taught her the path I walk. Gods, what a braggart I am, telling Draco I'd kill Fracchus. What a fool!" Xena had finally worked her emotions out in her swordplay. Ares no longer held blame in her eyes; it all was heaped on herself.
Gabrielle and Ares stood side by side in front of the throne, eyes only on the King of the Gods as he spoke the judgment. "Ares, this will be your punishment. You and the Warrior Princess were bound by your own actions. That I cannot undo. She, therefore, must be the instrument of Olympian punishment. As Gabrielle has bargained, we will spare Xena's thread - for a time. However, when she dies, all will be as Hephaestus has decreed and Gabrielle, the Bard of Poteidaia, has agreed. You will spend eternity after Xena's death without power, and without life unless unchained by a descendant of the warrior woman."
Zeus continued, to the assembly. "No one in this assembly is to bring about the premature death of Xena, directly or indirectly. You do not have to interfere if a mortal beholden to you decides to attack her. That would be beyond fulfillment of the Code. But you may not directly influence such a mortal choice."
Gabrielle sighed. After her defense of Ares and Xena, Xena's life was safe from all godly hands. But her soul was forever bound to the god who had given her his essence in a moment of passion.
Gabrielle started toward Zeus, but he held up a hand. "This court is adjourned." In moments the Great Chamber was empty save for Zeus, Hades, Ares, Gabrielle and Hephaestus.
Gabrielle sighed. Now was the time she dreaded. "I am ready to accept my blot, Lord Hades," she told the Master of the Underworld.
Hades nodded. A great book appeared in his hands. In it he made a mark; he motioned her forward and with a quill she affixed her name to the blot with shaking hand.
When his brother had disappeared, Zeus shook his head. "Gabrielle, you have a great heart."
"Everyone keeps saying that," the bard sighed. "I don't feel very great right now."
"You saved Xena's life," reminded Hephaestus.
"I had to," Gabrielle replied softly remembering the last vision she'd had of Xena, alone in a stable, with only her horse for companionship.
Ares looked at the bard who had just saved his life, at least for the time being. "Thank you, Gabrielle." She arched an eyebrow, and he smiled lightly. "I know, you didn't do it for me. Thanks all the same. Never disregard a god's thanks, bard. It could come in very handy someday."
He snapped his fingers and took his leave in the blink of an eye.
"Do not throw away your talent lightly," Zeus commented.
Gabrielle nodded. "I haven't thrown it away. I'm still a bard. I am the bard of Xena of Amphipolis. That means everything to me." There was silence for a few moments as both god and mortal dwelled on separate thoughts.
"I am curious. From whom did you learn of Ares' fidelity?" asked Zeus.
Gabrielle cocked her head to one side. "What?" She shook her head and answered him, "I've seen the same signs in humans. It's intuition. Gods are not so different in matters of love," answered the bard. "I don't know all the details, but it isn't necessary to know the details to figure out a love story when I see one. I'm not sure how I'm going to tell this story. Xena...I don't think she knows she slept with him."
"You can't tell her about this, can you?"
Gabrielle thought a moment. "I can't tell her. She's conscious enough of Ares' power that she just might seek her own death in order to rid Greece of his influence." She stalked around the Great Chamber. "I have to keep this secret for the rest of my life. How can I do that?"
"How can you not? After what you've done here, how can you undo it by giving her a reason to take her own life?" Zeus replied. He then asked his own question. "Is your intuition why you tell the story of myself and Danae the way you do?"
Gabrielle thought a moment and decided a more coy reply was called for. "Did I get it right?" she managed a half smile for this god, who'd been as merciful as possible under the circumstances.
The King of the Gods smiled. "You are also a modest bard. How unusual."
"Thank you, Great Zeus." She curtsied. When she stood, Zeus was gone.
Only Hephaestus remained. Gabrielle turned to the God of the Forge and held out her hands. The burly god sighed. "I am sorry I could not free Xena from Ares."
Gabrielle nodded. "I know. If there was a way, I'm sure you would have found it."
Hephaestus smiled and said ironically, "I'm glad you have such faith in me."
Gabrielle laughed. "I do, you know. You are a god who cares deeply for humans and their problems. I am only sorry that you so often get caught in the struggles between the other gods." Gabrielle looked around the Great Hall and her eyes rested on the Amphitheater, recalling forcefully her life below, and the woman who waited for her. "I'd better be getting back."
Hephaestus nodded. Gabrielle turned to leave for Ares' chambers then looked back over her shoulder. Hephaestus watched her for a moment longer, then turned and limped slowly away.
She walked into Ares' chamber to find the God of War staring into his mirror, caressing the blade of a sword. "You're free to return to Xena," he said, without turning around. He sounded drained; when she replied, Gabrielle sounded little stronger.
Gabrielle looked at the mirror; Xena was walking in the rain. "Ares, she plans to challenge you until the day she dies, you know."
"I won't stop her. I don't want her dead, but if she finds out that her death will end your reign..."
"I know that also." Ares swished the sword.
"Because she will be your prison guard, do you still love her?"
Ares cocked his head to one side and thought a moment. "I don't know. She will be the death of me, and yet, I'm not sure I care that's the case." His face broke into a half smile. "It'll be interesting to meet up with her every age or so and banter."
Gabrielle shook her head. She took the sword from his hands, weaving it in a slow pattern. "I've learned one thing in all this," she mused, watching the blade dance in her hands.
She sliced the blade down toward the god, and he stepped aside. "The deepest cuts come from those we love."
Ares shook his head and took the weapon from the bard's hands. "Philosophy is definitely your strong suit."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Just send me home. To Xena."
Ares nodded, then he lifted his hand
to snap his fingers and send her back to Amber.
Gabrielle emerged from the room at Arianna and Theocratus' to find Xena sitting, soaking wet, in front of the fire. The warrior was sipping a mug of something, steam rising before her face.
"Sleep well?" Xena asked. "I went to the door and heard you snoring so I left you alone." She stood and watched the bard closely as she moved into the room. While in the stables something had told her Gabrielle was in trouble. Xena's relief of hearing the snores when she'd returned to the home had been palpable.
Gabrielle silently thanked Ares for that little ruse. Gabrielle braced herself and walked over to Xena, smiling down into the crystal blue eyes of her friend. "Yes." Then, "How are you feeling? You look wet."
"I spent as long as I could at the stable, but finally Argo tired of my company," answered the warrior. "So I braved the storm to come back here. And wouldn't you know it, as soon as I stepped into the house, the rain ceased completely? It is now a beautiful night."
Gabrielle walked to the door and looked out. "Come with me outside?" Xena tossed off her blanket and, in damp leathers, walked with Gabrielle to the porch. Trying to come to terms with her actions of that night, Gabrielle stepped up and leaned on the railing. She took a deep breath, exhaling the sweet scent of freshly wet soil and grass. "It is a beautiful night." She looked up at Xena.
Xena took the opportunity to tell Gabrielle about Ares' visit to the bedroom the night before. "You've been given a clean slate by Hades, Gabrielle. Fracchus was apparently scum enough that even Ares didn't argue that you should have the mark."
"Oh," Gabrielle said. Then carefully, she added so as to explain her continued melancholy, "I may not have to do the time in Tartarus for the death, Xena, but still I killed someone. I won't forget that easily."
Xena nodded. "I'm here if you want to talk about the last few days. It's been rough on you, I know."
Gabrielle suddenly knew the full price of losing her blood innocence. She now had to hide things from her best friend. It was an uncomfortable feeling, but one she would learn to live with if it meant keeping Xena safe.
Xena took a deep breath of the clean air. Her body tensed as she sensed someone nearby. But she saw no one as she looked around.
Gabrielle felt the warrior woman tense beside her and looked over to her left and up. She frowned. Perched in a tree, dressed all in black was a dark figure. Ares, she thought, leave her alone.
Ares voice echoed in her head in reply. "I'm watching you, bard. Xena still holds my heart, but you, little bard, now also hold my interest."
Gabrielle frowned. I won't kill again, Ares. Not for you. Not for anyone.
Ares laughed. "It is always my way to dream, bard."
Gabrielle shook her head. If you make her mad, Ares... Gabrielle warned. The god laughed again and disappeared. For the moment, things were back to normal. Ares was obnoxious, and probably would dream up more schemes to drag Xena around the known world so he could watch her work. But Xena wasn't in any danger. If only to preserve his own existence, Ares would make sure Xena survived her battles.
The warrior had watched Gabrielle's face from the moment she turned her head away from the view of the road. The rapid change of emotions, from aggravation to exasperation, to anger and finally resignation, puzzled Xena. She asked, "What is it?"
The bard's head snapped up. "Oh, nothing. I'm just wondering where we're headed next. Now that Draco has Corinth under his watchful eye... What else is there to do here?"
Xena didn't have any opportunity to respond. Arianna and Theocratus came to the door. "It's cold, Gabrielle, Xena. Please come inside, we've prepared a late night snack."
"Gabrielle," commented Xena as they reentered the home. "I think we can leave tomorrow. I'm thinking of visiting Athens for a while. It'll give you a chance to submit some more of your stories to the Academy library."
Gabrielle asked, "One of your stories?"
"You did finish that tale about Velasca. What did you call it?"
"A Necessary Evil," replied Gabrielle. And this one should be 'History Cast in Amber'. If only I could write it.
They shared fruit and soft bread with Arianna and Theocratus, discussing crops and simple village life. Finally as the moon crept toward zenith, Gabrielle and Xena excused themselves to catch a few hours of sleep before departing at daybreak.
Gabrielle asked Xena one last question as the two women laid their heads down and were drifting off to sleep. "Xena, where did you learn your battle cry?"
Xena thought a moment. "I'll have to give it some thought. It was a long time ago." The warrior rolled over to study her friend's face. "Why? Hoping to write another 'Xena: The Early Days' story?"
Gabrielle replied, "Let me know if you remember." Ares watched from the window; he glared. She frowned. I'm still upset with you, she told the god.
"Why?" replied Ares. "You won."
No, I managed to find a longer path to the end, Gabrielle thought angrily.
"She will never reach the end, bard." He did not smile. "You made sure of that. Even when she dies, your efforts today will preserve her spirit."
And you get to live. I hope I'm there when the lid is slammed shut on your sarcophagus, she retorted.
"I can live with that," the god replied with irony.
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