DISCLAIMERS / THE CLIFF'S NOTES VERSION
(The novella length version can be found at the end)
Legal Disclaimer: The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess and all other associated with the television series of the same name are owned by MCA/ Universal Pictures. This is a work of fan fiction and no copyright infringement is intended. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author.
Subtext: This story depicts a love relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it.
Violence: No more than on the TV show. Possibly less.
Hurt/Comfort: Yes; appropriate for the story line.
Language: No expletives harsher than damn, used sparingly.
Timeline: Set early in Season Three, before Dahak and the Rift stories.
Sincere Thanks: To Lunacy, for providing a list of beta readers; to beta reader Gin, who did NOT take time away from her Xena the Conqueror stories to offer helpful suggestions (as the gods are my witness: any advice she gave me did NOT interfere with her own wonderful writing! I promise!); and to my family and friends for their love, advice, and tolerance of my ineffable weirdness.
Feedback: Send compliments, comments, and constructive criticism to email@example.com.
By tomorrow at this time, it will be over.
She twisted uneasily on her bedroll.
One way or the other...
A chill crept slowly down her spine despite the warmth of the fire nearby. She considered exactly how dreadful one of those ways might be. A sob started to work its way past her tightly compressed lips. At the last moment, she turned it into something like a stifled cough, praying that the innocuous sound would not catch the hypersensitive ear of her traveling companion.
The warrior on the other side of the banked embers stirred, then rolled to her other side, toward the fire. Her arm moved awkwardly, as if expecting to encircle something, then fell to her side. A frown creased her face, then the deep, even breathing resumed. She was exhausted. It had been a long, hard day. Gabrielle refused to think about just how hard.
The young woman cast about desperately for something -- anything -- that would quiet her mind and permit her to sleep for the few candlemarks remaining of the night. Dawn would come early. It was nearing the summer solstice and the longest day of the year, and they were on the eastern slope of the mountain. The nights were still cold here at the foot of Mount Kintla, however. She pulled her sleeping fur closer around her. Studied the stars shining so brilliantly in the thin, crisp air. Listened to the creek tumbling past on its way to the Aegean Sea.
It was a far cry from the quarters she once shared with her sister, she mused. There she would have been staring at a cracked ceiling, listening to her sister's gentle snores, her parents in the next room, the animals in the barn. She wouldn't have been sleeping in the same clothes she'd been traveling in for what seemed like weeks or be covered with furs. She'd have on a soft sleeping shift, and the temperate climate of her hometown would require no more than a light blanket. I wouldn't be sleeping on rocks either! she thought, squirming to find a more accommodating piece of ground.
Her restless mind filled in a few more details. Potadeia would be stiflingly comfortable and predictable, Gabrielle. You still wouldn't be the person everyone wanted you to be. You couldn't be the person YOU wanted to be. And Xena wouldn't be there. She shuddered. No Xena!
It was hopeless, she decided. Maybe if she stopped avoiding the subject. If she faced her fear head on...
After all, there's always the chance that it won't be as bad as I think, that tomorrow night will find us together still, sharing another campfire, another meal. We'll be bruised. Maybe worse. But beginning to heal...
That other part of her mind ruthlessly pointed out that Xena had never before faced a trial of this magnitude -- and that it was one that called upon skills that even Xena would admit were not her strongest.
Gabrielle shuddered again, more afraid than at any time during her travels with the warrior princess. More even than when they faced the Horde. That, after all, would probably have only ended with both of them dead.
Our encounter with the Horde! Doesn't that show how much Xena has changed? Grown? She was able to see things in a new light then, to overcome her fears, meet that challenge. Surely there's a chance, a slim one, but nevertheless a chance, that she'll meet this one? There just has to be...
The bard's body sagged in exhaustion. There was no point in dwelling on what the next day would or wouldn't bring. Gabrielle willed her mind to go blank. To cast away the thoughts that had tied her in knots for days.
Think of a new scroll. The way it smells. The way it crackles as you unroll it for the first time. The possibilities. The endless possibilities...
Sleep finally claimed Gabrielle. But it was a slumber filled with foreboding. One that left her trembling.
Where in Tartarus WAS she, anyway? She was lying flat on her stomach and something soft was pressing against her nose and mouth, making it difficult to breathe. Her eyes felt as if they had been glued shut. She was dazed, disoriented -- the way she'd been the morning after that harvest party in the village last year, thought Gabrielle. But without the killer headache. So far.
Just in case, she kept her movements to a minimum while she tried to figure out what was going on. The smell of... burnt pine? Bird song. The nicker of a horse. She shifted her head slightly, trying to zero in on the noises around her. The movement helped her identify the stuff in which her face was buried. It was fur. Her sleeping fur.
Slowly she pushed herself upright. She rubbed her face vigorously with both hands, digging grit from her eyelids, then glanced around. Ah. Another day, another infernal campsite. Argo was saddled. Virtually all the gear was packed except for the bedroll on which she sat. Her eyes narrowed. The sun was higher in the sky than it should have been. She turned her head at the sound of approaching footsteps.
"Xe... What's going on?"
Xena walked up to drown the last embers of the fire with a spray from their waterskin.
"Why didn't you wake me?" She stared indignantly at the tall, armor-clad silhouette that stood between her and the morning's rays.
"I tried, Gabrielle. You just twitched, groaned, and burrowed deeper into your furs. I figured yesterday's little adventure had taken more out of you than I realized, so I ... "
"Augh!" Cutting Xena off in mid-sentence, the groggy bard threw aside her coverings, grabbed her staff and stomped off to do what had to be done before a lengthy day on the trail.
Xena stared after her friend with concern. Whatever was bothering Gabrielle was getting progressively worse... and, uncharacteristically, the bard didn't seem to be able to talk about it.
Oh, Hades! she thought. Who wouldn't be upset to wake up on the cold, hard ground to face another meal of dried meat and trail bread, another day traipsing about the countryside contending with murderers and thieves?
She pictured Gabrielle as she should be, in the kitchen of a comfortable home, two or three tow-headed children helping her prepare the evening meal and set the table. She'd be telling a story, keeping an eye on the loaves in the oven and on the window that looked out upon the barn, where the cows were being milked. Waiting for a certain tall, dark form to pass by it on the way to the wash house -- the signal that dinner needed to be on the table soon.
Gabrielle and a farmer? I don't think so! It's easier to see her as a teacher somewhere. Back at the Academy for Bards or ruling the Amazons. But definitely not here, cooking over a smoky fire, peeing in the bushes, washing in ice water, traveling with a someone who can go for candlemarks on end without saying a word. She deserves so much more!
Mentally Xena counted the dinars remaining in her pouch. Maybe they could afford to stay at an inn in Mancor. Or maybe whatever's bugging her will just blow over... the warrior thought wishfully. With a shrug that suggested that she knew somehow that it wouldn't, she returned to the task of breaking camp.
Xena was tying Gabrielle's bedroll to Argo's saddle when the bard returned, tugging her garments back into place. She had dashed handfuls of water from the icy creek into her face in an attempt to wake up. Water droplets glistened on her ruddy cheeks and in the red-gold down that covered her finely toned arms.
"Ready?" asked Xena, with an indulgent smile. It faded abruptly at Gabrielle's retort.
"No! I'm not ready! I haven't had anything to eat. And I don't know where in Tartarus we're going! I'm tired of following along like some trained animal, Xena. It would be nice to know, if somehow we got separated, that you thought I was competent enough to get myself to our next stop. Not someone who has to be rescued like some helpless child!"
Sure! As if you'd waltz off and leave me behind somewhere if we got separated! I know you're not a child, Gabrielle. (Believe me!) I just never thought you wanted to be bothered with this kind of stuff... Right. Key words, Xena: "never thought." Get a clue.
The hand on Argo's halter had clenched -- painfully -- at Gabrielle's caustic words. Now Xena relaxed her fingers, raked them through her shiny black hair.
"You're right, Gabrielle." The glowering bard gave a start. "I've been acting like I'm still running some army. Giving orders. I need to... I mean, I'll try to..."
Xena threw up her hands in frustration. She was no good at these sensitive chats, and they both knew it.
"Here," she said finally, "let me draw you a map."
Crouching down, she picked up a charred stick from the remains of their fire, then thought briefly, getting the picture of their position clear in her mind. She drew an upside-down bowl in the dirt. Above that she incised a slightly flattened X. She pointed to the top right side of the X: "We're here, near the base of Mount Kintla." Then indicated the inverted bowl: "And this is the coastline."
"We'll be traveling southward, on this diagonal, around the mountain and down next to the coast, and then up to Mancor." She traced a V-shaped route. "That's where Athol said the new slave ring is operating. When I 'put the pinch' on him yesterday."
"And if we kept going to the southwest?" Gabrielle asked, pointing to the lower left leg of the X.
"That leads past Amazon territory, in two or three days, and then on to Amphipolis and Potadeia. That's one of the reasons I want to check out this slave ring if it exists. It's pretty close to home."
"And this leg? To the southeast?" Gabrielle's voice had a strange timbre to it, but her mist green eyes met Xena's guilelessly.
"That's the way to the coastal city of Kavala. I hear it's grown a lot since last I was there. There's a new academy, even some theaters. We'll have to visit someday," said Xena, dusting off her hands and preparing to rise.
"How long till we get here?" Gabrielle stabbed the center of the X with the end of her staff.
"About mid-day," Xena replied. "If we leave soon," she added pointedly, getting to her feet.
A few more candlemarks, then. To prepare. Or do I mean, to survive?
"So... ready now?"
"No!" the bard responded angrily. "Where's my scroll case?"
"I packed it. I thought..."
"You thought wrong!" She strode over to Argo. "I'm not the same know-nothing girl you rescued in Potadeia, Xena. Even if I don't like to ride on gigantic beasts -- sorry, Argo -- or chop thugs into itty-bitty pieces. By the gods, Xena, at least let me take care of my own stuff!"
Missing the wince that flashed across her companion's face, Gabrielle propped her staff against the patient mare and fumbled with the ties on the case containing her scrolls and her journal. Xena followed, growing increasingly concerned about her friend's extreme behavior and wondering what she could do to help.
"I'm sorry. I didn't know. Here, let me..."
The warrior reached in to loosen the knotted cord on the case, brushing Gabrielle's shoulder in the process. The bard gave a startled cry and shied violently. When she came to rest, she was shaking uncontrollably. Eyes closed, she wrapped her arms tightly around her torso and rocked back and forth slightly, trying to regain her composure.
"What is it, Gabrielle?" Xena asked frantically, moving in front of the young woman. "What's going on? You flinch every time I come near. You moved your bedroll to the other side of the fire. You've barely said a civil word to me in days!"
She paused, uncertainly, then continued, her voice growing more and more strained. "What did I do? Why are you so afraid of me? Tell me -- so I can fix it!"
"Me? Afraid of you?!" Gabrielle bit back a savage laugh. "You think I'm afraid of you. That's funny!" She paced back and forth in front of the warrior, muttering as she wrestled with her emotions. Xena herself was motionless. Hands clenched at her sides, she watched anxiously as her companion grew more and more agitated. Finally the bard stopped dead in her tracks, fell silent, seemed to reach a decision.
This isn't how I envisioned it. But what is it that Xena says? Battles have a way of setting their own timetables. This one has just decided that its time is now.
Gabrielle took a deep breath, turned and faced her friend, who stood braced, as if to receive a blow, an uncharacteristic look of apprehension upon her face.
"I'm not afraid of you, Xena. I'm afraid for you. Afraid of what might happen to you because of me." The warrior stared at her, clearly at a loss. Gabrielle took another breath, uttered a silent prayer, and plunged ahead.
"I love you, Xena. With all my heart."
The only response to her declaration was the sharp, mournful cry of a hunting hawk, high overhead. The warrior's face showed no sign of comprehension.
"As in, I am in love with you." She waited another beat.
"As in, I... desperately want to make love to you."
Still the warrior gave no indication that she grasped what the bard was saying, not so much as the twitch of a muscle. Gabrielle carried on, determined to make her understand and respond.
"I can't stopping thinking about you, Xena. About that. And yesterday it almost got you killed! Damn it, Xena! I never even saw those guys!"
To this statement, the warrior finally reacted: "It was nothing, Gabrielle. Don't worry about it."
" 'Don't worry about it' ?!" Gabrielle was close to hysterical. "I was supposed to be watching the back door at the tavern. Instead I ended up watching you -- the way you grinned as Athol's men came at you. The way the muscles in your arms rippled as you fought them off."
She buried her face in her hands, remembering what had come next. How the men who'd slipped past her had moved to stab Xena from behind. How Xena somehow had sensed the threat. With a leap, she'd jabbed her sword into a rafter for safekeeping and vaulted over the goons in front of her. Then she'd grabbed the broom from the guy who'd been sweeping the floor and used it to bowl the first group into the second. A high arching somersault took her back to her sword and over the tangle of thugs on the floor, just in time to cut down the scumbag who trying to choke the life out of Gabrielle.
The rest was anticlimactic, really. Gabrielle had collapsed into the nearest chair, while Xena tidied up. A forearm smash had greeted the first guy to try to get out of the pile on the floor, and a head butt silenced the second. The rest of the gang wisely decided to stay put and nurse the injuries they'd already received, rather than incurring more. When Athol burst in from his backroom headquarters, Xena had treated him to a free demonstration of her famed pressure points interrogation method. Pretty much the usual "Wham! Bam! Whaddya want to know, ma'am?" routine.
Except for the momentous resolution it had forced Gabrielle to make as she sat there, absently fingering the angry marks on her neck but visualizing what might have happened, not to her, but to Xena, as a result of her mental lapse. Imagining Xena's body on the tavern floor, limbs slack, the light fading from those beautiful eyes. It wasn't hard to do. She only had to remember how the warrior had looked outside Cirra, after that log booby trap had slammed into her, catapulting her into a tree -- with deadly results.
"Don't worry?" she reiterated. "Xena, I made you promise never to die on me again. And then I nearly got you killed! That can't happen again. I won't let it!" She approached the warrior, stared her full in the face. "I thought this would go away. I tried with all my heart to make it go away. That's not going to happen, Xena. Ever. You are my heart.
"And I know you feel the same way." The dark head in front of her started to move silently from side to side. "Don't deny it, Xena. I felt it -- when you were inside me, when we were racing Velasca to the ambrosia. But you're afraid I'll get hurt, that I'll miss out on a 'real life,' whatever that is.
"The only thing that would hurt me, Xena, would be to not be able to share my life with you. And the only way I can see of doing that is to acknowledge the way we feel. We can't control it, can't shape it, if we keep pretending it doesn't exist!"
She turned away, coming to the hardest part.
"Either way, Xena, I can't go on as we have been. It's just too dangerous for you. Too painful for me. Too damned lonely. So... either we go forward together, become more than 'best friends,' or we go our separate ways. Learn to live apart."
I was right to be terrified of this moment, thought Gabrielle as the stark silence behind her grew. What a fool I am! Xena wasn't able to make this kind of commitment to Borias, Marcus, even Hercules! Lao Ma, the woman she said saved her in Chin, couldn't hold her either. Why did I think for a moment that some peasant girl from Potadeia...?
Behind her, Xena warred with her own emotions. Even if... She terminated that thought before it could take root; how either of them might feel didn't change the realities of their situation. There's no way that this could work. None. It just can't.
A look of unutterable sadness crossed her face. By the time Gabrielle turned back toward her, however, the warrior's face was once again shielded, an impenetrable mask that revealed nothing to the bard's hope-filled eyes.
Gabrielle faltered, then continued. "Anyway, I'd planned on telling you this at the crossroads. So I'd still have some traveling time if I had to find my own ... " She trailed off, then started again. "You've got till then, I guess, to decide what you want to do."
The bard walked over to Argo and retrieved her staff, leaning briefly against the mare's strong, warm side and caressing the soft dark muzzle before grabbing her reins. "I don't want to talk about it till then, Xena. I... can't. Let's just go, okay?"
The warrior nodded tersely and took the reins from Gabrielle's outstretched hand, being very careful not to make physical contact. Slowly, carefully, she began to lead the palomino down the rocky path that would take them to the crossroads. Her bearing was erect as always. It gave Gabrielle no clues as to what would happen when they reached their destination -- at least none that were encouraging.
Two candlemarks later the heavy silence hanging over the travelers was broken by the sounds of armed conflict.
Dense forest on either side of the road lent a sinister air to the place. Xena was riding slightly ahead. She'd led Argo until the steep trail had leveled out a bit, then mounted up, announcing curtly that she wanted to keep an eye out for those slavers. She'd been finding it hard to breathe, for some reason. Probably all that dust that our feet churned up. And the bard's staff, thudding over and over again into the trail, had begun to feel like it was pounding directly upon her skull. In truth, she'd found it impossible to ignore Gabrielle's declaration -- and her ultimatum -- with the bard striding stoically beside her. She wasn't ready to deal with that yet. She wasn't sure she'd ever be.
They were nearing the spot, Xena realized, where a rutted overgrown wagon path from Pagosa, to the north, would cross their own. Her ears caught the sound of metal hitting metal. Horses neighing. Voices raised in anger and in pain.
Gabrielle had heard it, too, she saw, glancing back. The warrior circled Argo around quickly, extended a powerful arm, and pulled the bard up behind her on the warhorse. It was a kind of relief, really, to be riding into danger. They always shelved disputes at times like these. The chance to do so now, to pretend -- for a little while anyway -- that things were normal, had never been more welcome. She kneed Argo into a gallop.
They pulled to a halt at the edge of a small clearing in the forest. Twenty-odd men and women were locked in combat there -- in an arena formed by a circle of four colorful wagons.
There seemed to be two parties in contention here: a band of ragtag foot soldiers who might have been outfitted by Joxer's armorer and another group whose fanciful garb marked them as actors -- or really bad fashion designers. No one seemed to have been seriously injured yet, but the horses hitched to the lead wagon were wild eyed at the noise and commotion.
"Whose side are we on?" asked Gabrielle, peering around Xena's armored shoulder.
Sides are evenly matched, number-wise. Soldiers are competent -- barely -- but their hearts clearly aren't in it. Actors probably don't have any real experience, however. So? Ah ha!
"Them," said Xena, indicating a duo at the center of the hubbub. A valkyrie dressed incongruously in layers of fluttering chartreuse scarves had just employed a sturdy wooden bucket to dispatch an on-rushing swordsman. The dapper man next to her, though short enough to tuck under her chin, was wielding a dirt-encrusted spade with equal efficacy. "You gotta admire people with that kind of imagination!"
With a pang, each of them realized that this could well represent the final airing of their long-running debate on the merits of being creative in combat.
"So," said the bard, her voice suddenly husky, "what's the plan this time, Warrior Princess?"
What indeed? Xena fought to drag her mind back to the business at hand. Well, creativity aside, it's hard to tell who's in the right here. Or what started all this. Maybe the best thing to do is just bust things up before someone gets killed.
With a bittersweet smile, she realized anew just how much traveling with Gabrielle had changed her -- and for the better.
"Actually, Gabrielle, I think we'll just..."
Suddenly, from the corner of her eye, she saw something -- an open grave and, next to it, a pine casket that plainly seemed intended to fill it. That changed everything.
"You're going to stay right here!" she declared, swinging the startled bard to the ground.
"Don't argue, Gabrielle! And don't go anywhere." She nodded at the gravesite. "At least not until I find out if whatever that guy died of is catching." She kneed Argo into action.
"Aiyiyiyi!" Xena's warcry momentarily froze the combatants in place -- or was it the sight of an impossibly tall, dark woman charging between the wagons on a warhorse, the sun glinting off her armor and upraised sword? Xena pulled the palomino 'round in a tight circle, preparing to make another pass. Before that could happen, however, the band of terrified soldiers broke and ran for the hills. Most of them, that is.
One enterprising lad made for the wagons instead. He leaped into the seat of the lead wagon, startling its team into bolting down the rugged shortcut that would lead him -- if he were lucky enough to negotiate all its wicked turns -- to the coast road and Kavala.
"The props!" cried the man with the spade. As one, the troupe charged after the jouncing wagon, their evident desperation drawing Gabrielle into the chase as well. Xena shook her head ruefully as the motley crew pounded after the runaway cart, then urged Argo to follow suit.
The shouted warning gave the pursuers just enough time -- barely -- to hug a tree or throw themselves into the bushes on either side of the track before Xena thundered through. As she passed, the warrior noted with approval the precision of her companion's graceful tuck and roll.
She turned her attentions back to the track in front of her, to the wagon jolting violently along between trees seemingly just far enough apart to permit its passage. Redoubling her efforts, she closed quickly on the wagon and flung herself on its back.
Now what, O Warrior Teamster?
A glance inside the transport revealed that the wagon was packed too tightly to allow her to scramble to the front that way. Resigning herself to the inevitable, Xena began pulling herself along the outside of the careening vehicle, plastering herself to its surface occasionally as branches tried to pry her off.
She congratulated herself when she reached the front -- and the warrior wannabe clinging there for dear life. Yes! No gods-damn-it-to-Tartarus supply buggy is gonna get the better of me! Her triumphant crow ended abruptly. That vicious turn up there just might, however!
She grabbed the reins from the nerveless hands of the soldier and hauled back on them with all her might. The potency of that pull told the lathered team that someone was once again in command. And the fire in her eye convinced her passenger that it would be wiser for him to disembark before the vehicle came to a full and complete stop and she could get those powerful hands on anything attached to him. He scanned quickly for the softest-looking piece of brush, then dove over the side. He landed with a clatter and a groan that seemed to presage an extended convalescence.
One less thing to worry about, thought Xena, getting back to the task of stopping the wagon before it slammed into the unforgiving trunks looming about 200 feet ahead. She had managed to pull the horses to a trot, but the momentum of the massive wagon forced them onward still. She started seeking out road hazards -- roots, rocks, anything -- which would slow the vehicle further.
By the time they reached the deadly turn, the team was going slowly enough to safely negotiate it. The heavily laden wagon was not as fortunate. Xena balanced on the balls of her feet, assessing the shift in its center of gravity. As it tipped up on two wheels, she vaulted into the air, landing at the side of the horses, calming them, as it fell ponderously on one side and spilled forth part of its cargo of... army uniforms?!
Xena had unhitched the horses and was examining them for injury when a pandemonium of performers appeared in a cloud of dust -- followed shortly thereafter by a breathless bard.
"Gods, Xe... Are you okay?" Gabrielle struggled to pull air into her heaving lungs.
"Just fine, Gabrielle, though the horses and the wagon are a bit worse for wear. Not to mention your... uniforms and weapons?"
Xena fixed the group's leader with an icy glare that would have made a lesser man wet himself. The impresario, for all that he looked like a bit of a peacock, was evidently made of sterner stuff. He didn't even blink.
"These?" he replied, holding up a vicious-looking sword. It was obvious, upon closer examination, that it was made of wood covered with shiny silver paper -- now tattered and torn.
"Chama!" A handsome young man stepped forward. "Examine all the props. Looks like we've got a lot of work to do before we can perform in Kavala." He kicked disgustedly at a ruptured crate full of armor and arms whose dents and dings now revealed all too clearly their counterfeit nature.
"Actors, eh?" said Xena, lowering her guard a bit.
"And 'purveyors of potions to alleviate diseases and discomforts of every kind.' Ozymandias the Wise and Wonderful at your service. I am the patriarch of this merry band of players." He preened himself, twirling his dark, luxurious mustache. His garish tunic was adorned with mystical symbols.
Oz the Wonderfully Slick or Slimy, perhaps! A healer herself at times, Xena despised the traveling peddlers who took scarce dinars out of the hands of the ailing in exchange for alcohol-laden potions that dulled their pains just long enough for the so-called healers to leave town. She was disgusted that she seemed to have inadvertently assisted one of these snake-oil salesmen. Oz the Worm! That'd be more appropriate!
"My profound gratitude for your aid," he continued, in a voice much too smooth and practiced for Xena's taste. "We rely on our performances to draw in those in need of our healing herbs and elixirs. Without these props, we'd be hard pressed to feed ourselves during our sojourn in Kavala. How can we ever repay you?"
"That's not necessary. Really!" said Xena, who now had an overwhelming urge to wash herself from head to toe with the strongest soap she could find. "We'll just be on our w..."
"Nonsense!" he barked. "It will take several candlemarks to unload the wagon and tip it upright again..." He turned again to the young man. "Chama, you and Nat and the boys set things to rights, won't you, please? We'll be back to help after we get the rest of the wagons. YOU, lovely ladies, must come back to our camp with us!"
Oh, we MUST, must we? We'll see about that, you little...
The look on Xena's face must have alerted him to the need for a change of tactic. Abruptly, Oz turned his attentions to Gabrielle, a kindred soul if ever he'd seen one. "Can we offer you some food at least?"
On cue, the bard's stomach growled like a rampaging minotaur -- reminding Xena that the young woman had had nothing to eat since the night before and little enough then. She cringed inside. As if she needed further evidence that Gabrielle would be better off away from her!
Gabrielle stubbornly refused to respond to the man's invitation herself or to look at the warrior. She was damned if she'd admit to being so hungry she'd willingly chew on a bootlace -- or to her sudden hope that a distraction of this sort might somehow alter the course that Xena seemed to be set upon following at the crossroads.
Xena relented. "Well, we're going back that way, anyway. I should probably check to see if anyone there is in need of real medical assistance. I'll get my kit."
She strode off to locate Argo, pretending not to see the wounded look that Oz threw his mate at her implication that his healing abilities were as phony as his company's theatrical props. Along the way, she checked for signs of her former passenger. At the point of his departure, however, she found only the nasty gouge where he had impacted with the ground and some limping footprints in the dust. They disappeared as soon as he'd been able to make his way to the rock surface that comprised most of the rest of the path.
Didn't even have the courtesy to bleed, blast him! Smarter than he looked. A lot smarter...
Xena found the mare sampling the grasses along the path near where the warrior had taken leave of her. "I swear, Argo, you are getting more like Gabrielle every day." She spoke softly so only the mare's sensitive ears would pick up the mock-serious chastisement. "When did you decide that it was appropriate to take lunch breaks during a battle?!"
Leaning her head against the palomino's sturdy neck, she reflected again on how much Gabrielle had come to influence their lives, from the way the warrior now dealt with conflicts to the jokes that lightened their daily load.
Thank you for that, my gentle bard... She quashed that thought. Violently. She's not your bard, you big dumb warrior! She belongs to herself. She can never be yours. You'll have to make your own life, your own jokes, if you want her to live past age 30!
She seriously considered just mounting up and riding away -- till the sound of approaching voices prompted her to contemplate what it would do to Gabrielle to be abandoned in front of so many witnesses. She snorted bitterly.
Yeah, right! Much better to do it when there's no one around to pick up the pieces, Warrior Wuss!
The bard seemed to be quizzing the actors about their recent travels as they neared. Xena heard the words "Pagosa" and "king" and "the best of modern theater." It wouldn't be long, she knew, before Gabrielle had extracted their life stories from them. She had a way about her, something Xena would never be able to master, that was more effective than the warrior's "pinch" in gathering information.
Suddenly Ozymandias gave a heartfelt groan and turned to his wife, tears in his deep brown eyes. "Oh Hades, Treeza! I forgot about Piedra! How could I forget about Piedra?"
The large woman clasped him to her ample bosom for a moment, then gently thumbed a tear from his cheek. "He'll not be going anywhere, Oz my love. And I'm sure he'd understand. We didn't know him long, but it was easy to tell he was a real trooper."
"Piedra?" interjected Xena. "He the corpse back at your camp? What happen -- he take one of your potions?"
"Xena!" cried Gabrielle, aghast. She didn't know what was bugging Xena.
Well, that isn't strictly true, is it, Miss Love Me or Leave Me?
But it was clear to her that the couple felt this Piedra's loss deeply.
"No, dearie," said Treeza, clearly a more forgiving sort than her affronted husband. "We didn't get a chance to physic Piedra. I only wish... The poor lad only joined us a day or two ago. He'd seen some hard times, to be sure, but he didn't look sick. I think his dear heart just gave out once it knew he was in the company of friends."
"No fever, headaches, confusion, red rashes on the skin?" probed Xena, trying to determine if they had the beginnings of an epidemic on their hands. She remembered all too well the dread disease that had devastated her army on the eve of a major campaign in Gaul.
"No, no signs of typhus," replied Ozymandias, surprising her with his quick grasp of the question underlying hers. "No real way to tell what happened without cutting him open. And there didn't seem to be any point in harming the boy further. We were preparing for his funeral when we were attacked."
"Yeah, tell me about that," said Xena. "Who were those guys?"
"Never saw them before," puffed Oz's mate, resuming her journey back up the path, scarves fluttering in the breeze she created. "We'd had breakfast, a quick rehearsal. We were going to bury Piedra before changing into our traveling clothes and heading to Kavala. Suddenly, a bunch of vermin was swinging swords at us. Real swords!" she added indignantly.
Gabrielle reinitiated her gentle interrogation, with a pointed glance that warned the warrior to keep out of it. Xena listened with half an ear as she replayed the earlier clash in her head. She hadn't recognized any of the attackers -- with good reason probably, since most of them looked too young to have served in her army. And they were too inexperienced to be working for any of the warlords she knew to be operating in the neighborhood. Still...
She moved out in front of the walkers, determined to examine what clues there might be to the soldiers' identities before careless feet could destroy them. Her eyes scanned the woods restlessly, assessing every scurry in the brush, looking for anything that was out of place. There was nothing.
Sooner than she expected, she was back at the camp. The canopies of the remaining wagons showed up first, bold lettering proclaiming them to be the property of the Natural Wonders Theatrical Troupe, directed by one Ozymandias the Wise and Wonderful, agent of "Apollo the Physician, Asclepius, Health, Panacea, and all the gods and goddesses," and featuring the fortune-telling talents of Treeza the All Seeing.
Shoulda just said 'charlatans'! Xena scoffed, once again angry with herself for contributing in any way to their chicanery. She'd like to introduce them to the healer's oath composed by her friend, Hippocrates -- forcibly, if necessary. Especially that part about "I will ... never do harm to anyone."
Her disdain did not prevent her from noticing, however, how tidy the actors' camp was. Their gear was worn, but very well maintained. Some familiar smells drew her attention to one of the wagons. Poking her head in, she discovered drying bundles of feverfew, an herb she used herself to treat migraine headaches. And what was that? Leaves of mugwort. Pumpkin seeds. Senna and comfrey?
She pulled her head out as the others came into the clearing and glanced quickly around the camp one more time. The marauders had left no casualties behind and only one artifact, a broken sword that bore no distinctive markings. As she had somehow expected, the tracks of their feet led unerringly from the dust of the arena in which they'd fought so ineffectually to unrevealing rock that would shield them from pursuit.
The troupe set to work assessing its losses. They were minor, just a damaged utensil or two and a few welts where the inept swordsmen had gotten in lucky swipes. These they were treating, Xena noted approvingly, with a soothing salve of aloe. She gave Ozymandias a glance of reappraisal.
"Where'd you learn to fight like that?" inquired Gabrielle, as Ozymandias returned his spade to its rightful place in the supply wagon. She cocked her red-gold head to one side, as curious as Xena was about this paradoxical lot.
"On stage," the dapper director responded nonchalantly. "As a matter of fact, we'd just rehearsed a play this morning that required everyone to swing a sword or cosh someone on the head. Never done it for real before -- but the line between art and life can be a pretty thin one," he concluded, a little grandiosely.
Yeah! A thin bloody one requiring dozens of stitches! Xena's riposte was silent, though her snort of disgust was not. Why was it that people who had never engaged in actual combat or had to deal with its aftermath always thought it was so damned glamorous? You're lucky, little man, that this particular scene isn't going to leave major scars on people you love. Very lucky.
Gabrielle's stomach growled again, reminding Oz of his offer.
"Enough palaver! Treeza, my sweetling, can you hunt up some bread and cheese for our friends here? Will that suffice, er...? By the gods, where ARE my manners? You've saved our livelihood, if not necessarily our lives..."
He smirked as his slighting words registered with the oh-so-superior black-haired beauty.
We're even now, warrior. I'll play nice from now on... He spread wide his hands in a plea for absolution.
"And I haven't even asked your names!" he concluded, with genuine chagrin.
"I'm Gabrielle. And this is Xena."
"Xena the Warrior Princess?!"
The traveling companions braced for the comment that inevitably followed this discovery, making mental bets as to its nature. Would it be antagonistic? Or admiring?
This bantam has a sharp little beak. I betcha ten dinars he's gonna...
"Then YOU must be Gabrielle the Bard!" exclaimed the director, saving the warrior from making a losing wager with herself. "I read some of your scrolls in Athens. They're magnificent!"
He wrapped his arm cozily around the waist of the startled, but pleasantly surprised storyteller and drew her to a log seat in the center of the camp. "Tell me, my lovely one... Have you ever considered adapting some of your stories for the stage? That one about the Titans, for instance. Or the one about Morpheus?" He leaned in engagingly, bringing his considerable charms to bear on the young woman.
"Don't mind him!" said his mate, taking note of Xena's glower and drawing the conclusion that any rational person would about the two women who traveled so closely together. "He'll not lay a hand on her. She'd be wise to keep a close eye on her newer scrolls, however," she concluded with a chuckle. "He has very few scruples when it comes to a really great story."
She stuck out a hand in greeting. "I'm Treeza, by the way. Thank you again for your help. We'd have been in real trouble if we lost those props. Takes a might of acting to fill all the stomachs we do. And speaking of stomachs..."
She handed a crusty loaf to Xena and grabbed a golden wedge of cheese, then nodded over at the seated duo. "We better get some food into your lovely bard before she keels over -- and before he forgets he prefers women with a little something to hang on to!"
Xena followed slowly in the big woman's wake, trying to determine why she was so unsettled by the discerning way Treeza had referred to the bard.
The figures seated next to what used to be the cook fire looked cozy -- too darn cozy, in fact, to Xena's eye. The dark head bent closer and closer to the amber one as Ozymandias continued his campaign to convince the bard to put her talents to work for the benefit of the Natural Wonders Theatrical Troupe.
Moving with the grace, and lethal intent, of a panther on the prowl, Xena glided forward. She had just the weapon she needed to break up this little tête-a-tête. Three strides past Gabrielle, she pivoted and held out the bread Treeza had provided. Gabrielle was compelled to leave her seat on the log in order to reach it. That she managed to do so without lunging at the loaf like a ravening beast was a tribute, thought Xena, to the iron control she'd learned to exhibit while performing in some of the scuzziest taverns in Greece -- where predatory patrons had been known to knife one another at the first sign of vulnerability.
The bard's discipline didn't extend, however, to waiting longer than absolutely necessary to alleviate her hunger. Loaf in hand, she dropped back down on the log (now at a respectable distance from Ozymandias, Xena noted with satisfaction) and ripped the bread apart with strong, tanned hands. When Treeza handed her a chunk of cheese, she simply nodded her thanks, her mouth too full to permit intelligible speech.
"How many people in your party altogether?" Xena baldly inquired, seating herself ostentatiously on the other side of Ozymandias. This meant the man either had to turn his attentions away from the bard -- or turn his back on deadliest woman in the Known World.
He quirked a bushy eyebrow at the warrior in appreciation of her stagecraft, then surprised her with a genial smile. "Ten," he replied amiably and began to list them.
"The two of us. Our darling daughters." He indicated two beautiful young women who were finishing the packing of the cooking utensils, including a bucket, soup pot and ladle that had seen use as weapons. Their flaxen braids matched their mother's, and their melting brown eyes were clearly a legacy from their father.
Next he indicated the couple in their mid-20s who were leading the rest of the horses in from pasture, in preparation for harnessing them to the remaining wagons. "There's Treeza's brother, who helps with the leading male roles, and my sister, his wife. She plays the female leads in all the musicals. A voice like a lark, she has."
"Then there's the boys working on the props wagon: our lute player and drummer; Nat, our new stage manager; and Chama, our adopted son." His tone softened noticeably as he named the young man who served as his second in command.
"Then, of course, there was Piedra," his wife added somberly. "Another one of our 'strays.'"
"Oz seems to be a magnet for hurting and helpless souls," she explained, standing behind her husband and patting his shoulder fondly. "I call them strays, but in truth they've proved to be some of the finest people you'd ever want to know -- better than many a man with the best of pedigrees and opportunities.
"Chama is one such. We found him wandering in a forest, no more than four, injured and in shock. Mayhaps his parents had left him there to be savaged by wild animals. He only had the shredded clothes on his back and a toy sword he must have used to defend himself. It was broken and bloody..."
She squeezed her mate's shoulder as they recalled the deplorable condition the child had been in when discovered.
"Anyway," she continued, clearing her throat, "it was the better part of a year before we got him to talk. Still doesn't say an awful lot, except when he's on stage. We named him Chama, after my dad. He's one of the joys of our life."
"Still a good hand with a sword," added Ozymandias. "As you may have seen earlier."
Treeza plopped herself down on the log next to her mate, bussed him on the cheek and smoothed his lustrous mustache. They exchanged proud and loving grins -- as their visitors reflected that it was probably more than chance that the odd couple's 'strays' all turned out so well.
"We keep hoping Chama will fall for one of the girls," Ozymandias confided. "Guess he can't decide which he prefers. Gods know, I couldn't choose between them!"
"More like he knows that choosing one of the them will break the heart of the other," Treeza said. "Too bad there aren't two of him."
"What about Piedra?" asked Gabrielle, for whom the subject of choices and broken hearts was all too immediate and painful.
"Another forest foundling," said Treeza, "though less ragged than Chama and looking to be 14 instead of four. We were making camp day before last when he turned up on our doorstep, as it were. He was half starved. Garbed in pretty fancy dress, he was, but it looked like two or three fellows had worn it before he had. Wouldn't tell us how he came to be out in the wild on his own. Seemed to be suspicious of us -- or maybe afraid that he'd bring trouble down on us somehow. Anyhow, we persuaded him to stay on for a bit, especially after he let slip that he was a fair hand as a tailor, having had training in sewing."
The formidable fortune-teller spread out her mighty mitts and stared at them ruefully. "I have many skills," she began, before breaking off in alarm when this simple statement somehow caused Gabrielle to choke on the cheese she was eating. Xena, for her part, might have been carved from stone. She arched an eyebrow, but otherwise made no move to aid her spluttering companion.
Breathe, Gabrielle, breathe. And for gods' sake, don't look at Xena!
Finally, the bard caught her breath. "So sorry. Something went down the wrong way, I guess. You were saying...?" She assumed an air of complete concentration, but continued to avoid Xena's gaze.
"Saying? Oh, yes. Well, using a needle isn't one of my many talents. Piedra, though, was a marvel. That's why we left him in camp yesterday, when we went out to help Chama and Nat finish harvesting the comfrey they'd found. He was feeling poorly, he said, and volunteered to stay behind to stitch up some of the costumes we'd be needing in Kavala."
"You weren't worried he'd rob you and leave?" asked Xena. She received a pair of incredulous stares in answer.
"He wasn't like that!" protested Ozymandias. "I've never met anyone I knew from the get-go was so essentially good and kind. He was probably taking a bigger chance hanging out with a bunch of disreputable actors than we were taking him in to the troupe."
Xena looked abashed -- and nodded in agreement. Treeza resumed her story.
"Anyway, when we returned with the first load of herbs, we found his body crumpled on the ground, near the props wagon. No marks, just a very peaceful expression on his sweet face, as if he'd fallen suddenly to sleep. We decided he must have had some malady that he didn't want to tell us about..."
"If only I'd known!" blurted Ozymandias. "I might have been able to do something!"
"There wasn't any pain, Ozzie," his wife murmured quietly, trying to soothe the distraught healer. Xena shot him a comforting glance as well. She, too, knew what it was like to be powerless to help, despite all one's skills.
Deciding that a certain briskness was indicated, Treeza turned the subject to matters more tangible: "So, we put Piedra's body in the simple casket we use in our performance of Antigone. We planned to build another once we got to Kavala."
"It's hard to beat a ripping story with a duel, a burial, and a double suicide, isn't it?" noted the impresario, distracted for the moment from his sorrow. "Especially one with a really, really strong woman at the center of it."
Ozymandias gave Xena a calculating look, as if wondering whether she might consider auditioning for the title role. She shot an icy blue glare back at him. The strong woman at his side slapped him lightly on the leg. "Oz, you fool! She'll chew you up and spit you out. Then it will be MY turn!" When he looked vaguely intrigued at the prospect, she gave him another tap and a fond smile. He grinned in reply, looking surprisingly boyish.
"Anyway, this morning we dug the grave," Treeza continued. "We were going to bury Piedra just before we left." Husband and wife looked at each other with an understanding borne of long years together and on the road.
"Guess we better get on with it, then," said Ozymandias resolutely.
"Anything we can do?" offered Gabrielle, just as Xena was about to stand and suggest that it was time for them to be on their way.
Oz embraced her warmly. "Your compassionate soul is a match for that of Piedra, Gabrielle. Thank you. We'd be honored if you'd help us lay him to his rest. Do you have something that you'd like to read?"
Gabrielle nodded somberly, remembering a poem she'd written on the long lonely trek down Mount Nestos with Xena's body. The warrior resettled herself on the log. Neither of them, it seemed, was particularly eager to resume their journey to the crossroads.
When the actors left in the camp had put the final touches on their preparations for departure, they gathered at the fire circle for a solemn procession to the gravesite. There was a certain theatricality to the moment, though it was clear when Ozymandias tried to speak the opening words, and failed, that Piedra had indeed died among people who had cared for him.
Clearing his throat, Ozymandias was about to begin again when he noticed that the lid on the simple pine box was slightly askew. When he reached to straighten it, his trembling hand knocked it further awry -- revealing that it was empty!
Gasps turned in the blink of an eye to shouts of outrage, as the mourners crowded around the open casket. Treeza's anguished cry rang out above the rest. "Those bastards! Why would they steal the body of a poor lad who never did them any harm?"
This time it was the diminutive director who comforted his sobbing mate, wrapping his arms as far around her as they could reach and rocking her as you would a child.
"Is there anything we can do, Xena?" Instinctively, Gabrielle had turned to the warrior for a remedy to this dreadful situation. Xena hated to disappoint her.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. These soldiers were inept fighters, but they seem to have been expert woodsmen. They left barely a trace in the camp, and the area around it is largely rock. They'd be almost impossible to track in any case, and they're more than a candlemark ahead of us now."
She shook her head, sorrowfully. "Whatever their reason for robbing this grave, there's little chance that we'll discover it -- or them -- any time soon... Unless you want to postpone finding out about those slavers... er, and other things... until this is settled?"
It was tempting, thought Gabrielle. This situation offered an easy out: these were good people and Piedra had been a good lad who deserved a decent burial. Much as she wished their conversation at the crossroads could be delayed -- or averted altogether -- the bard knew that doing so would resolve nothing, would make it harder, in fact. Xena wasn't ready for this confrontation either, she sensed, but the warrior's integrity wouldn't permit her to lie, or encourage false hope, in order to avoid it. There really wasn't anything they could do.
Oz seemed to sense that, too. He and Treeza had overheard Xena's response and drawn their own difficult conclusions. Hard as it was, they had a theatrical troupe to run, ten mouths to feed, and performances in Kavala in three days' time. They, too, could spare no time to find the scum who had kept Piedra's body from its rest. The best they could do was to remember their departed friend and ask the gods watch over his mortal remains even as his soul began to explore the wonders of the Elysian Fields.
They said as much to the group, asking them to gather again around the gravesite. Afterward, Gabrielle recalled not a word of what was said, only that it was somehow simple and eloquent and inexpressibly sad.
The mourners stood for a moment in silence, then life resumed. Undirected, the couple's daughters shouldered the pine box and carried it to one of the wagons for eventual return to its place among the props. Their aunt followed with the lid. Oz and his brother-in-law began refilling the hole.
That left it to Treeza to bid their visitors farewell. She walked Xena and Gabrielle over to where Argo stood patiently waiting.
"It's a hard world, my friends, and no lie," the older woman observed. "And Piedra is in a better place. Thank you again for your help. If we can be of assistance to you, you'll find us on the road to Kavala for a day or two, then hawking our wares in the central marketplace there for a fortnight or so thereafter. 'Performances twice daily!'"
She embraced them both brusquely, wrapping Xena in a bear hug before the astonished warrior knew what hit her. She gave the bard a motherly buss on the forehead, then addressed them both solemnly, affixing them with a prescient stare:
"Life is too short to waste a single moment of it. Hold tightly to it -- and to each other. Nothing else matters. Nothing!"
With these startling words, Treeza the All Seeing turned back to her family:
"Let's get this show on the road!"
(Novella length disclaimers at the end of this part)
"Life is too short, life is too short..."
The fortune teller's words fit themselves to the cadence of Argo's hooves on the stony path. Try as she might, neither woman could ignore them.
For Gabrielle, Treeza's parting advice was an affirmation of her decision to demand that Xena allow their relationship to grow beyond its present bounds. "Life is too short to waste a single moment. Hold tightly to it -- and to each other. Nothing else matters." Not warlords bent on revenge, not murdering thugs, not a life on the road, not what her parents and others would think! By the gods, if only Xena could take those words to heart!, thought Gabrielle.
Xena, however, was hearing only the first four words of the fortune teller's admonition: "Life is too short." She agreed. Gabrielle's life was too precious to be shortened by a single second or impoverished by another day of sleeping on the ground exposed to the elements, to hunger, to disease, to the horrors of Xena's past. She deserved a home and a family. People who could be counted on to stand by her day after day, year after year, rather than dashing off whenever some stranger asked for assistance. All things that Xena knew she could never give her.
All too soon, the travelers came to the crossroads. The branch on their right angled sharply up toward Mancor. The gently sloping road ahead to the left would lead past Amazon territory. The third alternative led north up the coast, to Kavala. A lush meadow filled much of the top part of the X formed by the trails. It had a gentle stream where horses and riders could refresh themselves and trees and boulders for shade.
The duo halted uncertainly. The moment had come. Buying a little time, Xena looped Argo's reins over the saddle horn and slapped her on the hindquarters, directing her to the meadow. Silently, she crossed to the other side of the intersection and descended the set of shallow stone stairs that led to the cliff's edge and a precarious footpath to the beach far below. When she reached the bottom, she took a deep breath, sucking in the salt air, listening to the gulls wheeling overhead, watching the sun sparkle on the waves. Slowly she turned to face the bard, who had followed her down the steps and now stood a short distance behind her waiting for her answer.
At the sight of Gabrielle's resolute, yet somehow hopeful face, Xena forgot the speech she'd been rehearsing for the better part of a candlemark. The bard, in turn, studied the warrior's face intently. She read in its stillness, the tightness of its jaw, the expanded area of white around those impossibly blue eyes the answer she had prayed she would not hear.
"You're not going to do it, are you? You're not going to take the chance." The bard spoke before Xena could marshal her thoughts. "Damn it, Xena! You can be such a coward sometimes. The gods alone know why I love you so." She turned to leave, fists clenched and jaw set.
"Wait a minute!" Stung by Gabrielle's comments, the warrior grabbed her by the arm and whirled her back around. "Who are you calling a coward, damn it?!"
"I'm not talking about physical courage, Xena, or what it takes to run an army or half the Known World. Or the moral courage to take responsibility for your actions. You've got that by the boatload. I sometimes wish you didn't. The risks you take scare me to death."
She paused, choosing her words with even greater care than usual.
"I know you'd never hesitate to put your body or your life on the line to save me or to serve the greater good. I've seen you do it, time and again...
"But face it, Xena. You're an emotional coward. Nothing scares you so much as a genuine feeling, especially one that you might be expected to reciprocate. You'd put your life on the line for me; you'd just never risk your heart! Look at you! Your eyes look like Argo's during a thunderstorm. You'd bolt for cover if it wouldn't just confirm what I'm saying."
The cords of Xena's neck bulged, and her eyes flashed ominously. Recovering her voice -- and her wits -- she struck back.
"This isn't about courage, Gabrielle. This is about common sense. About what is, not what you wish things would be. Just how long do you think we can keep this up? How long will it take before I don't block one of those sword thrusts, don't see the guy sneaking up behind you?"
"I can take care of myself, Xena!"
"Yes, you can, Gabrielle. You are the best staff fighter this side of the Alps. But if you weren't traveling with me, you probably wouldn't have to use a staff at all! And you wouldn't be sleeping on the side of a mountain, cold and wet, or wondering where your next meal was coming from and when."
"I told you before, Xena. I'm not a child. I accepted long ago the possible consequences of our life together. I'm prepared to be cold sometimes. I'm prepared to be hungry. And I'm prepared to die."
"Are you prepared for my death, Gabrielle?" The warrior was almost shouting. "I know what I promised, but sooner rather than later someone's gonna be faster or smarter or luckier. I know what you felt like as you brought my body down from Mount Nestos, Gabrielle. I heard your thoughts. I am NOT ready to cause -- or to endure -- that kind of pain again! Are you?"
Gabrielle faced the question square on, putting her heart and soul into the answer.
"No, Xena, I'm not ready to feel that pain again. I won't ever be. Nor am I willing to pretend that what I feel for you doesn't exist. 'Life is too short to waste a single moment,' Xena. That's what Treeza said and I believe her. I won't waste another moment being with you and not being able to love you fully and openly."
She gave a forlorn laugh. "You seem to think I'll find someone else. Been there. Done that. It wouldn't have worked out even if Callisto hadn't killed Perdicus. As Minya put it so well, you're 'the main thing, the real deal, the #1 attraction.' The choice isn't between you and someone else, Warrior Princess. It's between you and anyone. If I leave here alone, I won't be leaving in search of some man or woman to take your place. I'll be leaving in search of a way to fill the days until we meet again in the Fields -- which will be about two heartbeats after I learn of your death."
Gabrielle watched as her words hit home -- and as Xena willed herself to dismiss them.
She waited another long moment, hoping against hope that the warrior would find the fortitude to overcome her fears. It was no use. It just wasn't going to happen.
"I'll get my stuff off Argo and go, Xena." She nodded grimly. "The gods be with you."
"Wait! I mean... What are you going to do? I mean, you'll need a waterskin, other supplies..."
"That's not your concern any more, now is it?"
Xena's flinch woke Gabrielle to the realization that this was not the way she wanted to remember this moment. This wasn't about hurting back. Nor was it about being nobler. It was about honoring what the two of them had shared.
"I'd intended to head for Amazon territory," she said, studying the ground and the groove her boot was carving in the dirt. "I thought maybe... some time to sort things out. You know, something to keep me occupied. But I think now I'll take Oz and Treeza up on their offer. With any luck, if I hurry, I'll meet them at nightfall where the shortcut comes out on the road to Kavala. Being a stray worked for me once before," she noted wryly. "My sewing's lousy, but they can always use another spear carrier. Who knows? Maybe one of those scrolls will turn out to be the next Oedipus Rex! And if that doesn't work out -- well, you said Kavala was booming. I'll find something." She took a deep breath.
"Goodbye, Xena. And thank you. You taught me more than you'll ever know." She ducked her head. "And I'm really sorry about the 'chopping thugs into itty-bitty pieces' crack this morning. You didn't deserve that."
She looked up wistfully at the proud, pained face of the woman she loved, at the sculpted jaw, the lips that deserved to smile much more often than their owner would ever allow. It hurt almost beyond measure to think she might never see her again. Still... it was time to go.
"I love you, Xena, and I will miss you more than I can say."
She headed for the stairs and had climbed one or two when Xena suddenly spoke.
"Stop!" Gabrielle took another step up, then stiffened, sensing a tall, dark body closing in behind her. "I mean... Please?"
She halted, turned to listen and found herself staring squarely into a pair of sky blue eyes -- eyes that blinked in shock, then dropped to the steps in a near panic. The stairs had negated the difference in their heights and it was throwing everything off -- at least for the warrior.
Now it was Xena's turn to stare at her boots while she scrambled to collect her thoughts. After a moment, she stammered, "I'm sorry, too, Gabrielle. I wish I were able to... I mean... You've gotten closer than anyone else, ever, and if it were possible... well, you'd be it."
It wasn't terribly articulate, but Gabrielle would probably know what she meant, the warrior reassured herself. She fixed her gaze on a point slightly to the right of Gabrielle's right ear and continued her farewell, finally finding a way to impose order upon her fractious thoughts and words.
"You taught me as much as I ever did you, bard -- and more. From the beginning you brought light to my darkness and made it possible -- even necessary -- for me to do things even I knew were impossible."
She cracked a crooked smile and risked looking at Gabrielle. "Like getting you up in the morning with only a minimum of physical violence!" They managed to laugh a little at this small, safe memory, each knowing they'd probably weep later about so many others.
"You changed my life, Gabrielle. I'll never forget our time together -- or you. I promise always to try to live up to your faith in me. The gods be with you."
Xena stepped forward and clasped the young woman's forearm in a warrior's handshake. "I'll miss you, Gabrielle. I w..."
She started to make a "wish" with her lips, then, without warning, without conscious thought, did what her body had wanted to do almost since the day she had stopped outside Potadeia to bury her bloody past. She leaned forward and pressed her lips firmly against the bard's warm, red ones.
So sweet! She took a deeper sip. Sweeter -- and more precious -- than any honey I've ever tasted! I...
It hadn't felt like this, when she'd kissed Gabrielle while occupying the body of their friend Autolycus. Not at all. This was... more immediate. More real. And more intense. Much more.
Abruptly, she was back on the steps, her arm still clasping Gabrielle's smaller, smoother one. Their eyes locked in surprise and wonder.
"I... I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I didn't mean t... "
She dropped the bard's arm as if scalded, straightened, and backed away from the stairs, waving her arms in front of her as if to brush away what had happened. Gabrielle dropped to the steps, her knees suddenly too weak to support her.
"Your mind didn't mean to do it, Xena, but your body seemed to know what it was doing."
And how! She gulped and then continued out loud, "Stop listening to your head, Xena. Start listening to your heart."
Xena continued to retreat, shaking her head. "I can't, Gabrielle... It's just too..."
"Stop, Xena! I mean it! Don't move another step!"
The terror in Gabrielle's voice cut through the warrior's own fear, and she halted as ordered. Slowly the bard advanced and extended an arm. Xena gawked at it dumbly.
"Xena," Gabrielle asked gently, "do you trust me?"
As the warrior nodded, Gabrielle grabbed a major handful of leather and metal and yanked as hard as she could -- pulling Xena away from the brink of the cliff, to which her panicky steps had unknowingly led her.
Xena gazed soberly at the rock-strewn base of the cliff, some 40 feet below, as Gabrielle traced soothing circles on her rigid back. "It's okay, Xena. I've got you."
"No, Gabrielle," said the warrior regretfully, drawing slowly away. "No, you don't. This doesn't change anything. It can't. I meant everything I said..."
"And everything you did?"
"I don't know how... But... It won't happen again!"
"That's too bad. I really liked it..." She stared at the warrior in wonder, remembering. "Your lips, Xena! They were so... sweet!"
Xena's head jerked at the bard's use of that particular word.
"Please, Xena! I'm not going to say anything else. You know how I feel. But you don't really seem to know how YOU feel. Give yourself time to find out." She glanced about quickly. "Take a walk along the shore, maybe? Please?"
The warrior wavered, looking at the beach below and then back at Gabrielle, who nodded encouragingly.
"G'wan. I'll take care of Argo till you get back."
Xena started slowly picking her way down the path to the sea - and Gabrielle started praying.
The sea air and the crash of the waves weren't helping at all, Xena realized. Her head still felt as if it were stuck in a hive full of fidgety bees -- an image that led rather naturally to thoughts of honey... and of honey-colored hair... and of lips as sweet as...
"Augh! This is getting me nowhere!"
She'd been pacing the beach for the better part of a candlemark and had whacked the tops off most of the scraggly weeds growing amid the boulders at the bottom of the cliff. Putting away her sword, she began to vent her frustration on the wave-washed stones scattered along the shore. Including a deeply buried one that kicked back, rather than splashing into the surf as expected.
Hopping about on one leg, Xena gave the gulls a demonstration of her impressive linguistic abilities. You couldn't run an army without swearing, she had discovered, and she knew at least one eye-popping profanity in every major language of the Known World.
She was surprised at how easily she recalled the words. She seldom got to use them any more. She'd let loose with some really colorful ones the first day she'd been traveling with Gabrielle. And the shock on that sweet young face had reminded her that many normal folks lived their whole lives without making reference to the grossest of bodily functions or perverted sexual acts. Since then, she tried to confine herself to epithets of the mildest sorts.
It was liberating, in a way, to be able to express herself so freely now. To say "shazbat," an extremely potent oath she'd picked up in the Far East, since that was, in fact, what she meant. Why, then, the unaccountable sense of melancholy that swept over her at the realization that she no longer had a reason to temper her language? She limped sourly to a boulder at the cliff's base to nurse her bruised foot and battered psyche.
"Way to go, Destroyer of Nations! Laid low by a rock -- and a green-eyed girl! Mind telling me again how you came to be in this dreadful fix?"
What if I hadn't decided at exactly that moment to bury my weapons? If that valiant girl hadn't tried to save her friends? If she hadn't followed me to Amphipolis and stepped forward to save a woman who was ready to die at the hands of her former neighbors rather than continue to fight the guilt and the pain?
She rubbed her booted foot absent-mindedly, reliving the confrontation in her mother's inn, feeling anew the profound despair of that moment.
I was so... dead. Being stoned by the people of Amphipolis would have just made it official. That's what I was looking for, I know. I was standing on the edge of a cliff then, too, and waiting for a breeze, any breeze, to blow me over, put me out of my misery. Gabrielle pulled me back somehow. By filling my days with innocuous chatter and finding patterns in the night skies that helped stave off the nightmares. By giving me somebody to take care of. To care for. By seeing something in me that I'm only just beginning to...
She brought me back to life, damn it! Gave me the chance to know my mother again. My brother. Autolycus, Ephiny, Joxer. And Solan! She shook her head in amazement, as the numbers continued to mount up. At one time, she'd have needed no more than one or two fingers to count the people upon whom she could rely -- and who would care if she came to harm. She bowed her head in gratitude.
I can't have you, Gabrielle. But thanks to you, I'll have things I never dreamed I could: family, some friends, the "greater good."
"A lot more pain, too," another part of her mind warned her. "Pain that you wouldn't have felt before she came into your life! You thought it was bad when she left for the Academy in Athens? When she married Perdicus? That was nothing, Warrior Princess! This one's gonna hurt like..."
Like it did when Gabrielle died in Thessalonika, Xena admitted to herself. Because this is going to be forever. We're not going to be getting together for the Winter Solstice or swapping birthday presents.
And I'm not counting on a reunion in the Elysian Fields either. Sorry, Gabrielle. With your help, I've managed to make amends for some of my sins. But I've spilled enough blood, my bard, to fill the Aegean Sea. And I've paid off only one or two buckets' worth. Much as I'd love to see your beautiful face on the other side when it's my time, I don't think we're going to the same place.
"When it's my time..." The words reminded her of another shore and another sweet young woman.
M'Lila -- you took me down from Caesar's cross, threw yourself in front of an arrow for me, because you said it was not my time to die. I repaid your love and your sacrifice by raining death and destruction as far as my bloody hands could reach...
And when Nicklio was unable to save me the second time, when I died on Mount Nestos and hung on another cross, one of my own making, you told me I had a "destiny" -- but I had to choose it. You told me to listen to Gabrielle's thoughts... and when I did, I knew I had to find a way to come back. Is this what you keep saving me for? This moment? This decision? Is this my destiny? Is this how I am to honor your memory?
M'Lila. Caesar's soldiers had killed the beautiful brown-skinned stowaway before she had had the chance to tell her how she felt about her.
"What a pile of crap!" exclaimed the part of her mind that seemed to be in charge of keeping Xena honest, at least with herself. "Who do you think you're fooling, Queen of Denial? You had plenty of chances -- but you passed them by because you thought you had all the time in the world! Are you going to make the same mistake with Gabrielle?"
And what did us loving each other ever get M'Lila but dead? It won't matter how much I love Gabrielle if being with me gets her killed!
"Or if you betray her love, the way you eventually did with all the others... Do you even have it in you, Xena, to be faithful to just one person, for the rest of your life? To love her, not just use her?"
Xena cradled her head in her hands, massaging her temples in a vain attempt to ease the pounding there. She fought to quiet the clash of her thoughts, to focus instead on the sound of the birds and the surf. An errant noise and the barest whiff of something foul alerted her to a more immediate threat -- but too late. Even as she recognized the danger, a net settled over her, pinning her arms and legs in place.
Unfazed, she used her body as a weapon, flinging herself at the nearest of the two rancid men trying to capture her. He dodged, but managed to maintain his grip on the rope that held the net closed. Xena was flat on her back on the sandy soil now -- though hardly defenseless. She kept them at bay with several well-placed two-footed kicks, all the while struggling to extricate her hands.
If she could stretch her fingers... just a little further... she might be able to reach her breast dagger and then...
"Ooh, got a wildcat 'ere, Noxon. Some kinda Amazon looks like. Oughta bring plenty of dinars! Tip 'er upside down, shall we, and drop 'er a few times? See if she lands on her feet?"
The man with the rope tossed the end of it over the branch of a nearby tree and pulled down hard on it, inverting the net and the warrior suspended within it. Fatal mistake! Aided by gravity, the dagger at last slid free. A judicious wriggle or two brought it within reach of Xena's teeth. She bit into the handle and, with a quick slash of her head, severed the rough twine imprisoning her hand. Taking up the dagger, she ripped a hole in the netting big enough to drop through. A quick roll and she was up. With a feral grin, she flipped the dagger to her left hand and slid her sword out of its scabbard with her right. Her would-be abductors drew their own weapons and split to either side.
No negotiation now. No chats -- sensitive or otherwise. Just death. These guys were begging for it, from their poor personal hygiene to the cruel manacles that dangled from their belts and the string of human teeth the bigger one was wearing as a necklace.
Her blade whipped through the air. Teeth went flying as the cord of the necklace was severed -- along with a significant portion of the neck it had been encircling. Hot, coppery-smelling blood sprayed into the air, blinding her. The warrior stepped to one side, anticipating the rush of the remaining slaver. When he drew even with her, she ran him through with her sword.
Swiping the back of a hand across her face to clear her vision, Xena knelt to examine the carcass sprawled grotesquely in the dirt at her feet. Only one part of his noisome garb looked like it wouldn't generate disease on contact, the insignia affixed to his tunic. It was a blood red dagger overlaying a black star with five points. It was slightly less filthy than the rest of his clothing, suggesting that it had been added more recently. Xena was moving to examine the other man when noises from far above froze her in her tracks. She heard a distinctive neigh and a woman's shout -- followed by the unmistakable sound of wood colliding solidly with flesh. Gabrielle!
There was no time to pick her way back up the rugged footpath. Hastily sheathing her bloody sword, Xena surveyed the cliff's face. There! That looked like the only possible route.
Xena returned the dagger to her right hand and started climbing. Time and again she buried the weapon in crevices of stone too small to be seen. Together with the nails of her other hand, she used it to claw her way up the rock. At times her boots -- and her hopes -- rested on little more than an exposed pebble or root.
The cliff wall bowed outward slightly. She pressed her body into it, filling the whorls of her armor with dirt and rock as she pulled past it. Her heart pounded in her throat: "Life is too short," it pulsed. "Life is too short." Calling upon any gods still willing to listen to pleas from her, Xena prayed as she climbed: "Give me one more chance. Please. Just one more chance to tell Gabrielle how I feel. I promise. I won't waste it."
With that she pulled herself up on a shallow ledge about 10 feet below the lip of the cliff. The sound of fighting was clearer now. Its very existence was reassuring; it meant that Gabrielle was still holding her own. Facing the sea, Xena threw herself upward and back in a mighty somersault. Powerful legs cushioned her landing, then pushed her into a twisting back leap that cleared the steps to the crossroads. Sword in hand, Xena flew toward the meadow, where she could see the bard, back against a tree, repulsing the attack of three thugs. A fourth was closing in from her blind side, however, sword drawn.
With a piercing cry, Xena vaulted across the open ground, reaching Gabrielle's side in time to intercept a blow meant for the bard's back. The slaver's sword glanced along Xena's armor instead, then sliced cruelly into her left thigh, just below the protection of her battledress. It caught there long enough for Xena to send its wielder to Tartarus.
"'Bout time you showed up," Gabrielle grunted, between swings of her staff. She was beginning to show signs of tiring. Her opponents, the warrior noticed, looked even more weary.
"That's what you get for asking a warrior to think about something. You know how that slows us down!" retorted Xena. "Do you mind...?"
"Heavens, no," said the beleaguered bard. "Take as many as you want."
With a swipe of her blade, Xena transferred two of the slavers from Gabrielle's To Do List to her own. With a few more flicks, she separated them from their putrid lives. Gabrielle, with a resounding thwack, smacked the weapon out of the hand of the final swordsman and sent him scurrying for the hills.
Xena turned to pursue him, bloodied leg and all, when her ears detected the characteristic whir of arrows in flight. She deflected the first into the ground with her sword, but the only way to thwart the second was by tackling Gabrielle. The arrowhead lanced into her right shoulder instead of Gabrielle's torso.
Not a bad trade. she thought, forbidding the pain to register for a moment. Not bad at all.
Bending down, she scooped up the slaver's abandoned weapon with her left hand and flung the sword like a javelin at a tree 20 feet away. The archer hiding there toppled to the ground with a satisfying thud. The sword had impaled him before he could reload, Xena noted with a savage pride.
A low groan drew her attention back to Gabrielle. The bard was lying crumpled on the ground, where she had been driven by the force of Xena's desperate dive.
"Are you okay, Gabrielle? Did they hurt you? Did I?
The bard slowly pushed herself to a sitting position. She surveyed the blood-soaked warrior in front of her. Xena's right side was covered in gore, some of it from the vermin she'd just dispatched, the rest streaming slowly but steadily down her arm from the arrow piercing her shoulder. The slash across the top of her left thigh, below her leathers, was beginning to close, but blood had traced a grisly map on her leg as it had escaped. Her raven hair was sweat-soaked, and the swirls of her armor had somehow become encrusted with dirt.
She was a mess, the most beautiful, blue-eyed mess the bard had ever seen. Gabrielle smiled tremulously. "I'm fine, Xena. Really. But you look like something the cyclops stomped."
"Just what is it with you and slavers, Gabrielle?"
The bard rose to her feet, dusting herself off. "I only do it to get your attention, Xena. You know that."
"Well, you've got it. Totally. You can stop now."
The sword dropped from the exhausted warrior's suddenly nerveless right hand. She gawked at it, surprised, then stumbled to a nearby boulder and lowered herself down on it. "Whoa!" She swayed.
"Gods, Xena..." Gabrielle rushed to her side. Her hands fluttered uncertainly over the warrior's battered body, not sure where to start.
"The shoulder first, Gabrielle. We've got to stop the bleeding. Then the leg."
Xena appraised the shaft protruding from her shoulder. She gave a tiny shrug. Good, no sensation of wood grating on bone. It was a clean shot. She could tell by the way that the skin pulled along her back, however, that the point had not emerged fully. She contemplated smacking her shoulder into the trunk of the nearest tree, then decided she'd faint before she got halfway there.
Not good. The Code of Conduct is quite explicit on this matter: warrior princesses are NOT allowed to fall flat on their faces -- at least not in front of witnesses. Totally ruins the image.
She sighed, then looked at the bard ruefully. "You're going to have to push it through, Gabrielle, before you can break the head off. You know, same old same old. We'll need my medicine pouch."
Belatedly, she registered Argo's absence. Before she could ask, Gabrielle pointed to a nearby rise, to which she had sent the palomino when the slavers attacked. Putting fingers to her mouth, Gabrielle gave the sharp whistle that would recall the horse. She raised an eyebrow at her companion as Argo cantered to a stop beside them.
"Gabrielle of Potadeia, Bard, Amazon Queen, and... Horse Wrangler, I presume?" said Xena, rebounding quickly from the surprise.
"I have many skills," Gabrielle responded in a very familiar tone.
"Including stealing other people's lines, I see," replied Xena with a touch of asperity -- which she offset with a good-natured grin. She started to reach for the saddlebags -- abruptly changing her mind when the movement caused her shoulder to feel as if an entire legion of Roman soldiers were tap dancing on it. She slumped back on the rock.
Without a word, Gabrielle moved quickly to unlash the pouch holding Xena's medicines and lengths of clean linen. Placing them on the boulder where they could be easily reached, she moved in front of Xena and slightly to one side. She bit her lip in concentration and eyed the distance to the end of the shaft. Then mimed hitting it with the open palm of her callused hand, adjusted her position minutely, and braced her powerful legs. She waited for warrior's nod. When she got it, she took a deep breath and struck as hard as she could.
Xena grunted harshly and bent over in pain. "Now the arrowhead, Gabrielle," she instructed through gritted teeth. With her left hand, she handed the bard her dagger.
Moving behind the warrior, Gabrielle studied the way the shaft protruded from her shoulder, quickly planning her moves. She nodded grimly. "Okay, Xena. Here we go." Xena clenched her teeth again and steeled herself for the pain.
Taking care to jar the shaft as little as possible, Gabrielle scored the arrow deeply about an inch behind its barbed and bloody point. Wrapping her right hand with the linen, she firmly grasped the shaft on either side of the groove she had notched.
With a swift flex of hands made strong by hours of staff practice, Gabrielle broke the shaft. Xena sagged back against her, unconscious. Taking advantage of the woman's insensibility, Gabrielle balanced her partner lightly against her chest and, reaching around, in one swift, sure motion, pulled the remains of the shaft from Xena's body.
With a grimace, she tossed the arrow aside, then grabbed for another piece of linen. Wadding it up, she pressed it firmly into the exit wound on the back, where blood flowed most freely. With a quick flick of her wrist, she loosened the cloth around her hand and used it to secure the compress tightly to the shoulder, front and back. The leg needed cleaning and bandaging, too, but it would just have to wait until Xena revived and could sit up on her own. Till then...
Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the woman she loved and, with a quiet sob, pressed her lips to the top of her head. It was so hard, sometimes, to be as tough as she thought Xena expected her to be. Healing wasn't something that came naturally to her. She'd never liked dealing with blood of any kind. She could catch fish and cook them; she just couldn't kill or clean them. In the course of their travels, Xena had showed her how to dress battle wounds. She'd learned well. She had to. Her thoughts flashed to the people she'd tended at Thesssaly and when they fought the Horde. So much blood -- but none as precious as that now staining her hands.
Forget all those earlier requests about keeping us together, she told the gods. Just make her well again. That's the only thing that matters.
Gabrielle prayed to Apollo and Asclepius to give her the strength and the skill to do whatever it would take to keep Xena alive. Then, having done all she could do for the moment, she closed her eyes and allowed herself to surrender briefly to the stresses she had been bearing for what seemed like centuries.
As Xena resurfaced, her mind registered first the rocking sensation, then the splash of something warm and wet on her neck and chest. A ship perhaps? Was she at sea? She listened for the creaking of the ropes and the crack of the sails. The next breeze, however, brought to her ear the sound of gentle weeping and wisps of red-gold hair that caressed her face.
The arms encircling her tightened, almost painfully.
"Xena? Thank the gods! I was afraid you'd never... Oh, Xena! I'm so sorry. I tried so hard not to hurt you, but..."
"Gabrielle, it's all right. I'm fine!"
She moved to sit upright, jolting her injured shoulder and setting off a tsunami of pain that threatened to put her under again. She groaned involuntarily, then finished pushing herself upright. The bard moved in front of her, prepared to catch her if she wavered again.
"I mean, I'm obviously not all right... But I'm a lot better than I would have been without your help."
"Xena, if it weren't for me you wouldn't have been hurt in the first place..."
Xena rubbed a grubby hand across her face to cover the pain she knew must be registering there. It didn't work.
"Look at you! I've never seen you in such agony, Xena. I can't bear it!"
"I said, 'I can.' I have endured much worse. I've just tried to never let you see it before," she declared, staring unflinchingly into Gabrielle's disbelieving eyes. Thanks to the rock on which she was sitting, their gazes were once more level with one another. A flush moved through Xena's body. It was time to make good on her promise to whoever had helped her up that cliff.
"Gabrielle," the warrior said, enfolding the young woman's hand in her own, "there's only one pain I can't endure -- being separated from you. It nearly killed me when you died in Thessaly. Hurt only slightly less when you married Perdicus." She turned and looked seaward, speaking to herself as much as to the bard. "I don't know why I didn't remember that this morning."
Gabrielle gulped, tried to respond, then decided that it was foolish to interrupt if the taciturn warrior had finally decided to speak. She managed to squeeze Xena's hand, hoping the older woman would interpret it, correctly, as permission to proceed.
Evidently, she did, for after a moment her gaze returned again to the bard.
"It doesn't make sense, Gabrielle. It makes you a target. Makes me vulnerable. And yet, when that scum ambushed me down there, the only thing I could do was pray that I'd be given another chance to tell you..."
Locking eyes with Gabrielle, she continued. "It still makes no sense. And it scares me to death. I don't know if I can do this. How it can possibly work. But whatever the cost to either of us, I realized during that climb that you need to know this. I need to tell you. I... love you."
Leaning forward, she shared a kiss with Gabrielle that started as a repeat of their tender embrace on the cliff, then grew in intensity. It ended only when Xena shifted to draw Gabrielle nearer to her and jarred both her shoulder and wounded leg in the process.
"Ow! Double ow! Hydra poop!" She managed to control her language, but her eyes were still watering when she finally managed to look up at the bard.
The bard's eyes shone as she caressed the warrior's face with the back of her hand. "Sorry, my love. We still have a few repairs to attend to."
"So I see," her companion replied, sheepishly. Reluctantly she dragged her thoughts back to matters more practical. She eyed the wound on her leg. "This should probably be sewn up -- or it'll take a set of leathers as long as that old skirt of yours to cover the scar."
She glanced around, quickly sizing up their situation. "First things first, though. It's getting late in the day and at least one of those scumbags got away. He may bring back reinforcements to try to finish us off. We've got to get out of here."
"Xena! I'm not letting you off that rock till we treat your leg! There's no point in dodging the bad guys and dying of blood loss on the trail!"
She is SO cute when she's mad. Thing is... she's right. A few minutes now to tend that slash will extend by half a day our ability to get to a safe haven.
"Okay..." She stretched her left hand toward her healer's bag, noting with amusement Gabrielle's astonishment at her capitulation. "When you're right, you're right, Gabrielle. Must have had an awesome teacher."
"She was... adequate," the bard retorted, trying to look as if she had known all along that Xena would give in. She grabbed the bag before Xena could reach it. "Nah ah! That's my job. What do you need?"
"I need you to hand over that bag," the warrior growled, her fear of being dependent surfacing with a vengeance. "Before I have to beat you over the head with it."
Gabrielle held the bag high, glaring at her in defiance. "You and what army?"
Realizing that her "faster-than-a-speeding-arrow, able-to-leap-tall-huts" attitude was getting her nowhere fast, the warrior relented.
"Please, Gabrielle. I need to pull out some herbs to help clean the wound and keep it draining until we have time to sew it up properly." She put on the puppy dog face that she had always used on her mother. "I need you to get the waterskin and the wineskin from Argo -- so you can wash out some of the debris and 'pickle' anything nasty that gets left in there. Then we'll wrap it for travel."
The bard handed over the bag -- without a trace of subservience, Xena noted a bit nervously -- and strode briskly to where Argo was patiently cropping grass. The mid-afternoon sun danced in her beautiful hair, played along her taut body, stroked those incredible abdominal muscles. Xena was mesmerized.
"Wuh?" She realized Gabrielle was standing in front of her once again. The bard was gazing tenderly at her and -- was that a smile?
"I said: what do you want me to do now?"
"Oh!" Xena shook her head. "Must be the pain. I kind of faded out of it there." She fanned herself and glanced up through fluttering lashes, expecting to encounter a guilt-ridden gaze. She got a full-fledged smirk instead. Gabrielle wasn't buying it. She was well and truly busted.
She flushed and gave a shy grin of acknowledgment, then wiped her forehead a bit shakily. It was beaded with sweat.
Damn. You're not just love sick, Warrior Mushball. You're sick sick!
She compared the symptoms in their varying intensities to other times when she'd been wounded. Oh yeah! This was NOT going to be fun. Probably be delirious before it's all over. Better warn Gabrielle pretty soon. Let her know what she's going to have to deal with.
She directed the grinning bard to flood the leg wound with water while she brushed at it gingerly with some relatively clean cloth. When the worst of the grit was removed, she had Gabrielle spray the area liberally with wine. She wasn't sure how it worked; she only knew that battle wounds soaked in wine seemed to fester less often, especially if treated with certain herbs.
Reaching into her medical supplies, Xena selected two of the dried herbs stored there. Crushing them together with her fingers, she sprinkled them over the oozing gash. Selecting a third herb, she washed it down with some water and a grimace. She took another long drink from the waterskin, thanking the gods that they weren't dealing with an abdominal wound. Water seemed to help somehow when you'd lost a lot of blood, but you had to avoid it when anyone had taken a sword in the gut. She wiped her forehead again and looked up at Gabrielle, whose grin was being replaced by an anxious frown.
"Xena? You look like... dryad dung."
The warrior was surprised into a laugh. That was a new one. "Thanks. That's about what I feel like. And it's going to get worse before it gets better. This should hold it for a couple of candlemarks, though. Long enough for you to get us to shelter."
"Me?" squeaked Gabrielle. "What about you?"
"I'm going to be too busy being feverish and out of my head. It's going to be up to you to get us to safety and keep us going for a couple of days until my body fights off the nasties."
"I'm a bard, Xena. Not a healer or a scout!"
"Oh, I'm sorry. I mistook you for the young woman who just removed an arrow from my shoulder. You know, the one who followed a wicked old warlord all the way from Potadeia to Amphipolis without so much as a map?"
"What about him?"
"He's a healer. We could catch up with him on the road to Kavala and HE could take care of your wounds."
"In the first place, Gabrielle, it will take four or five candlemarks to find Oz-who-sias -- if he hasn't been delayed by more wagon trouble or waylaid by the slavers himself. We need to get to someplace secure long before that. The place I'm thinking of is a rough ride, but it's only two candlemarks away."
"But... you're bleeding and..."
"There's nothing he can do that you can't, Gabrielle. Absolutely nothing. Besides, my body recognizes your voice, your touch. If things get as bad as I think they might, I'm likely to kill or maim anyone else that tries to get near me." She gave a bitter laugh, remembering times when she'd done just that.
The bard's voice quavered. "But what if you're hurt worse than you think, Xena? What if something...? I couldn't get you to Mount Nestos fast enough that time and..."
Xena's fingers stilled her trembling lips. "This is nothing like that. Except in this respect: I trust you with my life. You're a very strong, very smart, very competent woman. I can't think of anyone I'd rather have in charge of taking us to my safehold."
Gabrielle's eyes flashed, full of equal parts of fear and anger. "If I'm so damned competent, how is it that you don't allow me to come up with my own plan? 'Take us to my safehold!' Sounds to me like you're still calling the shots! The Amazons trust me to decide the destinies of not only themselves individually, but also their nation. Why is it that you can't trust me to decide what the two of us will do for the next few candlemarks?"
"I do!" Xena cried. And then, her innate honesty overriding tact: "Sort of..."
"Ah ha!" said Gabrielle, confronting the warrior, hands on her hips. "'Sort of'?"
Xena hesitated. This really wasn't the time for this kind of conversation. She wasn't good at this kind of thing even when she wasn't bleeding. Gabrielle was strung as tight as a harp. The slavers could come back at any moment. And yet -- this felt like something they needed to do, something that would shape their future together. She swallowed nervously and tried to explain.
"I've always tended to go things alone, Gabrielle. Even when I was running an army -- especially when I was running an army -- I required total control, instant obedience. There was only one person I trusted. Me! Everyone else I just... used." Gabrielle stirred, started to say something. Xena shook her head.
"It's the truth, Gabrielle, and you know it. And then one day, I discovered someone else I could trust, a man who believed that somewhere inside the Destroyer of Nations was a human being. Someone who could help others as much as she had hurt them. Who wanted to."
"Hercules showed me the path, Gabrielle, but I always envisioned traveling it by myself. Alone." She gave a snort. "That lasted about... a day and half. Till I ran into this stubborn girl from Potadeia who insisted on tagging along with me. I kept her at first because I was afraid the next cyclops would eat her -- and get terminal indigestion." Gabrielle smiled, reluctantly, at the memory of the first of her adventures with Xena. "And then because she had a way of knowing when people needed rescuing (or causing them to NEED to be rescued). And then because I couldn't imagine spending my days without her.
"For most of that time, she let me take the lead -- because I was older, scarier, more experienced -- or because that's the way we've always done it. And I left it that way, not because I didn't trust her, but because changing things might upset the balance in our unlikely relationship. I couldn't take the chance of losing her -- even though it sometimes gave her the impression, I'm sure, that I didn't think she was as capable as I was."
She looked deep into the earnest green eyes across from her. "Truth is, Gabrielle, you're every bit as capable as I am. Just... different. Your first instinct is always to bring people together to help. Maybe because you're not aware of your own abilities. Probably because you're so sure that other people are good and kind. More often than not, they rise to your expectations. But not always. In this case, I assure you, you don't need anyone else." Gabrielle started to object. "You may not think so, Gabrielle, but it's true. You're one of the strongest people I know. And one of the bravest. And one of the smartest..."
"And if I really believe that..." Xena sat back with the sense that she was about to do something unprecedented, yet something she'd probably have occasion to do many times in the future -- if she were lucky. "You are right, Gabrielle. And I am wrong. You should choose the course we take." The bard gawked at her, unsure she had heard her correctly.
"Just promise me one thing," Xena added. "Go with your gut."
The bard looked at her blankly. She translated it into words Gabrielle might understand better.
"I mean, listen to your heart." She held up a hand to stave off Gabrielle's astonished protest. "Yeah, I know. Look who's talking, huh? But honestly, Gabrielle, this isn't something you can weigh on a scale or put on some list, pros here, cons there -- your skills here, Ozymandias' there -- two candlemarks vs. four. It's... making sure you do whatever it takes so that, at the end of it all, you know, deep inside" -- she thumped her armored belly -- "that you did everything you had to."
"I do that all the time, Xena!"
"With others, Gabrielle. Not always with me. Because you think I know more than you do."
"I used to!" the bard retorted.
Her anger was beginning to abate, Xena saw. Hey! I think I'm getting the hang of this chat stuff. Let's see how this works...
"And because I can be a little bit intimidating..."
"You try, anyway..." The bard's eyes were beginning to twinkle now.
"And a little stuck in my ways."
"Try pigheaded." The put-down came with an outright grin.
"Just promise me that you'll do what you really feel is best for me, for us, Gabrielle. Whether you think I'll approve or not."
"I promise." Gabrielle leaned forward and touched her forehead to the warrior's. Its heat alarmed her, but she knew that making a fuss would be counterproductive at this point. "So... I am right. Right?"
"Right," said Xena, preparing herself to endure a modest amount of gloating on the bard's part.
"And you were wrong, right?"
"Right," said Xena, gritting her teeth.
"So... I get to choose, right?"
"Right. It's your call," said Xena, vowing to herself that nothing short of an imminent threat to Gabrielle's life would cause her to break that pledge.
Gabrielle grinned at her. "So-o-o-o-o-o-h..."
Xena closed her eyes, admonishing herself to accept whatever the bard's fertile imagination cooked up.
There was a tantalizing pause before Gabrielle continued. "Here's the way I see it, then." She took a breath. "Since we can't be sure of connecting with Ozymandias, we need to take refuge someplace where the slavers can't find us for a while."
It didn't make any sense to reject Xena's plan just because it wasn't hers, Gabrielle realized. The warrior knew the area and her own physical condition better than she did, and it was clear that she really DID think that Gabrielle was capable of handling whatever might come along. She watched a relieved smile cross the warrior's face.
"You wouldn't happen to know a place like that around here, would you, Xena?"
Xena was not at all complacent about how future encounters of this kind would end up, and she was careful not to suggest otherwise with her diffident answer.
"As a matter of fact, Gabrielle, there's a cave about two candlemarks from here. It's got water and plenty of pasture for Argo. I stocked it to use as a hideaway in case things ever got too dicey." She stopped.
The bard nodded, inviting her to elaborate.
"To get there, you ride down the trail toward Amphipolis until you reach a mountain creek. Ride up the creek until you see a small waterfall on your left. Up the bank directly opposite you'll find a deer trail, near a massive log, I think..."
Things were getting a bit fuzzy. She shook her head. "Anyway, follow the deer trail up the slope to a big outcropping of white rock. The cave's entrance is behind it, camouflaged." She shook her head again, trying to clear it. "Got it?" The pain in her shoulder made her final words much sharper than she intended them to be.
The young woman flushed again with anger. "Yes, I got it. What kind of a bard would I be if I couldn't remember a few simple details like..."
That's what I get for being civilized, she glowered, before noting Xena's growing pallor -- and the regret shining in her clear blue eyes.
"Sorry," the warrior whispered. "That's not what I meant. Honest."
Wow, an admission that she was wrong AND an apology -- all in one day. She must really love me -- or else she's very, very sick. She looked at her partner more closely. Or both. Whatever. We'll talk more about this later. Time to get a move on.
She gave the warrior a brief smile of forgiveness while mentally reviewing the instructions. Then she summarized them: "Down the trail toward Amphipolis to a mountain creek. Up the creek bed until I see a waterfall..."
"On your left..." Xena prompted. Her eyes were closed as she concentrated on staying upright and following Gabrielle's synopsis.
"Right," the bard replied, hoping to inject a touch of levity into the increasingly somber mood. Xena's scowl scotched that notion. She returned to her recitation. "On my left. Up the opposite bank to a deer trail and past a fallen tree to an outcropping of white rock. Behind the rock to the entrance of the cave. About two candlemarks from here. Okay?!"
Xena slowly focused on her. "Okay, then." A curt nod indicated her approval of the bard's summary. "Guess it's time to hit the road!" She extended an arm toward Gabrielle, asking to be assisted to her feet.
Gabrielle looked at her in dismay. "Aren't you forgetting something, Xena?" The warrior looked puzzled. "Your leg?"
Xena looked down at her still unbandaged limb.
"Oops!" She paused. "Tear off another length of that linen. We'll wrap it loosely. The ride will probably keep jarring it open, but the cloth will keep it clean until you can stitch it."
Using Xena's dagger again, Gabrielle cut off a long bandage. Dropping to one knee, she began looping it around Xena's wound, marveling as she did at how silky the warrior's thigh felt and how firm and... Confused, she looked up.
"What did you say, Xena?"
"I said: 'why did you stop?'"
The bard looked down and discovered that her hands (Gods!) were encircling her partner's leg, her thumbs gently stroking its warm surface. She stammered...
"Ah... I'm sorry, Xena. It's just... you're so beautiful. I..."
"Don't be embarrassed, my sweet." Xena laughed dryly at Gabrielle's predicament. "It certainly bodes well for our old age!"
"What?" The bard was still in a bit of a daze.
"It's nice to know you find my body... attractive... even when it's caked with blood, sweaty, exhausted, and aching. Wrinkles and sags should pose no problem at all!" She patted the muddy, bloody hand resting on her thigh. It felt like it belonged there, almost as if it were part of her.
"Believe me, my bard. I'd give anything to be able to continue this exploration right now. I'd rather do it for hours on end, however, and that won't be possible if the bad guys ride up over that ridge and attack us. At this point I don't think I could even beat up Joxer."
She cupped Gabrielle's face with her left hand. "But someday... When we're in a safe place and when we're both healthy..."
Studying the bard's blushing face, she saw arousal, embarrassment, and... yes, apprehension.
"And when we're both ready -- then! Then -- I will give you some details to remember!"
Xena thumbed the young woman's cheek and tenderly pushed back a lock of red-gold hair. Little does she know that it will probably take longer for me to be ready for that next step than it will for her, she thought. As much as she ached to show Gabrielle how much she loved her, she didn't know if she could assure the bard that she'd never desire another -- or never act on that desire. And she knew that Gabrielle would accept nothing less, deserved nothing less.
"Promise?" The countenance that looked up at her was filled with love, anticipation -- and relief.
"I promise." She lightly kissed the tip of Gabrielle's nose, almost positive that she meant what she was saying. "Now finish wrapping that leg and we'll figure out how you're gonna get me up on Argo. Then we'll start working on Requirement #1: Getting to a Safe Place."
With that inducement, the bard returned to her task. In short order, she patted the finished bandage, gathered up Xena's supplies and replaced them on Argo's back. Grabbing the halter, she led the palomino back near the rock on which Xena was sitting, now looking a bit lost.
It scared Gabrielle more than she wanted to admit to realize that the warrior was not only putting her in charge, but also willing to let the bard see how sick she really was. At the same time, that willingness to be vulnerable was somehow reassuring in some convoluted way. She'd have to figure it out later. They had caves to find, slavers to avoid.
"Okay, now what?" she asked Xena in a determinedly chipper tone. "I fling you on her back with a mighty toss? I hoist you up on the rock and you make a frantic leap?"
"Frantic leaps are your specialty, Gabrielle," the warrior replied sardonically. "I was thinking of something a bit simpler, actually."
She used the bard's staff to push herself to her feet. "Argo!" The palomino swiveled large brown eyes toward her mistress. Placing two fingers in her mouth, Xena gave a two-toned whistle that prompted the mare to slowly kneel.
"Hah! Didn't think you'd ever seen that one, Gabrielle," she smirked when the bard looked at her in astonishment. "We old warhorses still have a few tricks up our sleeves, don't we, Argo?"
Using the staff as a kind of cane, Xena hobbled slowly forward. When she reached the side of her four-footed friend, she frowned. "Uh oh, this is going to take some figuring."
She didn't think her injured leg could bear her weight for the time it would take to swing the right one over Argo's broad back. And her right hand and arm certainly weren't going to be strong enough to grasp the horn and pull her onto the saddle.
"Allow me!" Gabrielle grabbed Argo's reins, brought the horse to her feet, turned her around and led her back. When she tried to replicate Xena's whistle, however, the mare just gawped at her.
"Almost, Gabrielle. The second note needs to be a bit lower."
The bard whistled again, and this time, after glancing at Xena for confirmation, the horse once more knelt, presenting her right side to the warrior this time. Well, it was unconventional, Xena mused, but she'd trained the warhorse to allow her to mount from virtually every direction -- just as she'd trained herself to use her weapons with both hands -- and her teeth and toes if possible.
Haven't done this in a while, though -- and never while Argo was kneeling. Ah well, nothing ventured...
Xena limped as close as she could to the mare. Nestling her right foot against the golden belly, she handed the staff to Gabrielle and grabbed the horn with her left hand. Before the bard could stop her, she swung her injured leg up and over -- almost. The weakened left leg failed to clear the back of the saddle. After slamming into the hard leather, it rebounded painfully. Xena would have toppled backwards had not Gabrielle caught the leg and lifted it quickly over and down, bringing Xena to rest behind the saddle. The warrior gasped and fought to clear a galaxy of stars from her vision.
"Damn it, Xena! Give me a little warning, will ya? I was going to help you get on, you..."
"It's all right, Gabrielle. Really!" She blew out a breath. "It's probably just as well to get the agony over all at once!"
Then she realized where she was sitting.
" 'Course, now I have to figure out how to ease myself into the saddle without passing out." She winced. "No problem. I'll just..." She braced herself for the effort.
"Oh no, you don't, Warrior Princess. I get the front seat this time!"
"Gabrielle!" The exclamation had a note of outrage in it.
"Correct me if I'm wrong, oh Mighty One. Did you or did you not put me in charge of getting us to your safehold?"
Trying to ignore the throbbing that was building in her leg and the fresh blood seeping through the bandage, Xena reluctantly nodded: "Did."
"That means I have to see where we're going, Miss-I'm-a-Better-Door-Than-a-Window. And that means I have to sit up front, right?"
"Right, Your Runtiness," replied Xena with a lot of spunk, but a conspicuous lack of volume.
Gabrielle cut short the banter after a glance at Xena's face. It was as pale as parchment.
"Okay, then. As Treeza would say, 'Let's get this show on the road!'" She gave Xena's sword a quick wipe and sheathed it for her and put her staff in its loop on the saddle. A fast circuit of the field of battle made sure they were leaving nothing behind. Gabrielle maneuvered herself into the saddle in front of Xena. After she gathered up the reins, the warrior gave Argo the command to rise.
Hampered by the double load, the palomino lurched up and forward, stumbling a few steps before coming to a halt. Feeling Xena listing to one side, Gabrielle reached hurriedly behind her and grabbed a handful of breast armor, pulling her back into balance.
"C'mon, Xena. Get with the program! Wrap your arm around me. Tighter! That's right..."
Xena snaked her good arm around Gabrielle's torso, settling a broad hand on the bard's well-toned -- and toasty -- abdomen. "Umm, feels good..."
"Tell me about it," said Gabrielle, an unfamiliar but very pleasant glow enveloping her from head to toe. I could get used to this. Oh yeah! "Lean on me if you get tired. And let me know how you're doing now and then. Okay?
"Okay..." The sick and weary warrior rested her head lightly on Gabrielle's shoulder. It felt so good, that contact, that connection. "Love you," she muttered. She didn't know, she realized, if she were capable of living that love, at least the way Gabrielle expected, even if the rest of the world allowed it to be. Still, it was important to acknowledge the emotion, however frail or transient. Gabrielle deserved to know, whether or not that knowledge eventually led to heartbreak and despair.
It might not, she reasoned. Never before have things felt this... right. With that comforting thought, she let herself drift off.
"Love you, too, Xena," replied the bard, with a catch in her throat. "Nighty night."
Okay, thought Gabrielle. Things were going to be o-kay. She would get them to Xena's safehold, stitch up her leg, and watch over her recovery. And then... Well, it was too soon to start thinking about that. It would be some time yet before they were ready to proceed to the next step in their relationship. Even though her partner had spectacular powers of recuperation, Xena had lost a lot of blood. She needed time to mend. And not just physically. She seemed to have something on her mind. There was no way to get at it, probably, until the warrior was more rested.
I could use a little rest myself. When was the last time I slept? Gods! To think that it was just last night I was agonizing about how all this was going to turn out! Much good that did... somehow it never occurred to me to worry about runaway wagons and actors and fortune tellers and slavers and Xena scaling a 40-foot cliff to save me...
"Well, as Xena would say, 'First things first.' C'mon, Argo." She pointed the palomino down the path to Xena's hideaway. The big horse moved out surely and steadily. "We've got promises to keep and leagues to go before we sleep."
Have to write that down when I get a chance. Fits so well with Argo's gait. Hope I can remember it...
Argo moved forward, striding steadily through bars of dark and light created by the afternoon sun and the tall trees beside the road. Gabrielle gently stroked the strong arm wrapped around her waist and then went back to trying to find the rest of the words of that poem. They were just waiting for her to recognize them, she knew.
And when she did, she would inscribe them with her quill on crisp clean parchment. On the brand new scroll on which she would begin to chronicle the adventures of this day and all that followed. A scroll that she now knew held many more pleasant possibilities than she had ever dared to imagine.
DISCLAIMERS / THE NOVELLA
Legal Disclaimer: Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all copyright notices and disclaimers.
All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. Resemblance to persons living, dead, or fictional is strictly coincidental, as far as I know. If anything here resembles something previously published, it is strictly unconscious. Let me know and I'll fix it.
Resemblance of any poetry to that of my friend, Bob (Frost, that is), is intentional, but is not aimed at monetary gain and should be construed as a compliment. The name Ozymandias owes a little something to a poem of the same name by Percy Bysshe Shelley -- and to a "wiz" of a book written 100 years ago by L. Frank Baum. Ozymandias is the Greek name of the Egyptian king, Rameses the Second (1290 to 1223 B.C.).
Subtext: You betcha. Why? Because the story gets a lot more interesting and complex if Xena and Gabrielle share more than platonic love. You know, just like real life. But PG-13 in this particular case. So -- just to make it official: This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.
Violence: Yep. She slices, she dices, she severs and impales -- but no more than on the TV show. And no one dies who didn't really, really deserve it. Again, pretty much PG-13.
There are scenes of hurt/comfort appropriate for the story line.
Timeline: Set early in Season Three, before Dahak and the Rift stories. Why? Because angst is very, very hard to write. And unlike the great and powerful Good (Melissa, that is -- also known as the Greater Good), I haven't figured out how to deal with that traumatic period or if I want to. Maybe I'll tackle it after I get a little better at this -- or maybe I'll just ignore it altogether.
Language Alerts: Sentence fragments aren't the end of the Known World. Really. But if you want people to truly understand what you meant to say, spelling matters -- and so does punctuation. All my subjects and verbs are in agreement -- I think. If you find any that are bickering behind my back, let me know. I'll straighten 'em out.
Vulgarities: No expletives stronger than damn. Unless you're of the opinion that "hydra poop" actually does exist -- and are offended by it.
Medical Malpractice Alert: What little I know about the realities of ancient medical practices, I learned at http://www.indiana.edu/~ancmed/concepts.HTM Within this tale, wine is used for medicinal purposes -- and applied externally. Fewerfew, mugwort, pumpkin seeds, senna, and comfrey are all natural ingredients (probably certifiably organic, come to think of it) with medicinal properties. While using any of these substances in moderation probably won't kill you, you are advised to study a reputable book on alternative medicine beforehand. In any case, it's a REALLY good idea to consult a doctor ANY time an arrow or germy sword pierces your body.
A Little Knowledge: Is a dangerous thing. Case in point: my knowledge of Greek geography. I've never been there, but I have looked closely at a map. With the result that I had to totally rewrite whole passages to get the real places of Potadeia, Amphipolis, Mount Nestos and Kavala correctly oriented with one another. All other places are fictitious. Their names -- and the names of many of the non-XWP characters here -- were found in an atlas of the U.S. My thanks to the states of Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, and Minnesota and several western Canadian provinces for their colorfully named places.
My Heartfelt Thanks: To my sister, the bank vice president, for allowing me to borrow the pen name we're going to use if we ever follow through on our plan to write trashy romances. To the incomparable Lunacy, for providing a list of beta readers (http://lunacy.simplenet.com/beta.shtm). To my beta readers: Gin, author of a wonderful Xena the Conqueror series (http://xenite.simplenet.com/bards.html#gin), who counseled me to slow things down a bit; my son, David, a fellow Xenaphile, who giggled in the right places; and my spouse, Ken, who provided some extremely helpful advice based on his experience in courting of one of the world's most inscrutable and elusive of women.
Inspirations: The music of Lucy Kaplansky (http://www.folkartists.com/kaplansky/), Ann Reed (http://members.aol.com/AnnReed/home.html), Kate Wolf, Bonnie Raitt, -- and Tom Paxton. The mythic cowgirl art (http://www.snowgoosegallery.com/gwartis/howdon.htm) of Donna Howell-Sickles. And the example of my mother, who marked the approach of her 50th birthday by taking flying lessons and going white water rafting.
First Time Alert: No, not theirs. Mine. This is my first piece of fan fiction. I've never even written fiction before. (Oh wait! I work in PR and marketing -- scratch that last sentence.) So, in the inimitable words of Llachlan, "if reading someone's first piece scares you as much as posting it scares me, skip this one." Feedback is welcome. Just... be nice. I've got at least three more stories in me (and outlined). They won't come out if they're scared.
Feedback: Send your compliments, comments, and constructive criticism to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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