Hazim watched the two strangers leave the audience chamber. When they were finally gone, he breathed a sigh of relief and directed two other guards to remove the corpse lying against the wall. His hands clasped behind his back and he paced about for a while, deep in thought.

  “Well, Hazim,” A voice said from the balcony above. Hazim looked up and saw the silhouette of a man standing near the pale stone arch. “It would seem that this little game has gone rather well for you?”

  Hazim placed his right hand over his heart and bowed.

  “My Lord Gurkhan,” he said humbly. “I only played this part to the limits you prescribed. I trust you are not disappointed?”

  The shadow folded its arms across its chest, and there was a gentle laugh. “I think there would have been ways to finish out this game without costing the life of a Successor. You know what pains are taken to procure men of the right temperament to continue the name of Gurkhan. Jaleel would have been the next one.”

  “Indeed, Lord,” Hazim agreed, suddenly nervous. “Yet the stranger, this David, saw through the guise and manipulated him into revealing his true identity. I have no doubt that he could have discovered our true purpose if Jaleel had lived.”

  The shadow considered that for a moment. “It is possible, I’ll grant. Still, this has been a costly endeavor. More so than I had intended to pay.”

  “They have not yet left the city, My Lord,” Hazim suggested. “They can still be brought back here?”

  “No,” the shadowy figure replied. “Gabrielle and Xena played the first part, by allowing us to cleanse the house of Gurkhan so we could reset the stage. The money in the stranger’s pockets is her payment for that service.”

  The figure stepped towards the light and his cool gray eyes looked down at his elder subordinate with cold mirth.

  “Do you truly understand why the House of Gurkhan has existed for two centuries? How we have maintained this facade long enough to continue our work?” He paced back and forth, musing. “It is in the blood of warlords that we gain our passion and strength, and in the consideration of those who have retired to the council that we maintain our wisdom.”

  Hazim stared up at the young Greek man in wonder. Even the boldest of the Gurkhan Warlords had never shown their faces to an elder before retirement.

  “Tell me,” the young man said, still musing. “Did David accept my gift of the young girl?”

  “He created a clever illusion,” Hazim replied. “So as not to insult you. However, she did not have him. The bed, though unruly, was cold.”

  “He is a very, very clever man,” The real Gurkhan said, his thumb and forefinger stroking his chin. “Though, I’m sure he did learn something.”

  “Lord?” Hazim asked.

  Gurkhan smiled and looked down at his advisor. “David is planning to take his betrothed to Egypt after their ceremony. I thought it would be fitting to give him the gift of an Egyptian woman for the evening. Even if nothing happened between them, Niri played her part. There will be just enough suspicion generated by this, to keep the young Bard’s heart uncertain.”

  “So,” Hazim asked. “Then the Bounty on the young woman is truly cancelled?”

  “Yes,” Gurkhan replied. He swung his legs over the low railing and dropped to the floor below with the grace of a cat. It was a grace in movement that he rarely showed in public.

  “This action has had the desired result. There is a wedge between them now, which is what I wanted.” He smiled again. “And I will be there just enough to tap that wedge further, a bit at a time, until the gulf between them is unbridgeable. Without the Warrior Princess to fall back on, Gabrielle will have no one else to turn to, and in the end, with the correct words, and proper timing, she will be mine.” He shrugged. “And if she chooses otherwise? She will die.”

  “You understand, My Lord,” Hazim said cautiously. “That your time is running short. You must produce an heir to the title within the next five years. Perhaps this is not the wisest course of action to follow. This David seems most formidable?”

“Indeed,” Gurkhan replied. “But consider the gain to the house of Gurkhan? The bloodline of my Grandfather, mixed with the warrior bloodline of the extinct Amazon Nation? What does it matter that my own father was a bumbling idiot? The combination of our two families could produce the greatest warlord that the house of Gurkhan has ever seen! The potential gains make it worth the risk!” Gurkhan smiled with a face that would have sent normal men screaming in fear. A face that could have buried the greatest heroes in the ancient world. He smiled with the face of Virgil.

  “One way, or another,” Virgil said. “Gabrielle will be mine, and our child will become the greatest warrior in the world.” He began to laugh in a way that was more menacing, more filled with lust and ambition than any of his “friends” in the real world beyond would have seemed possible.

  “In the mean time,” Virgil continued. “Continue as we have for the next year. I will return with my friend and her betrothed,” he spat the word as if it were venom. “So that I can see our plans continue as I have laid out. Continue our other operations in Greece and Gaul. The Council will meet again in one year to consider the options for the next generation.” His manner and voice shifted suddenly and he looked, once again, as the young, enthusiastic son of Gabrielle’s late friend. “I had better get down to the docks ahead of them, so I can secure our passage and make sure they’re alright.”

  Hazim’s face changed to a smile that was cold as a mountain stream.

  “Of all the warriors to hold the name Gurkhan,” he said appreciatively. “I think you wear the two masks of the face the best. In one year, My Lord.”

  Virgil turned and vanished down a second passage at a casual jog.

  David assisted Gabrielle down the last few steps and began looking for a ship that was readying to leave.

  They spied Virgil sitting on a small rough bench, his hands wringing nervously.

  “Hey, kid,” David called. “Over here!”

  Virgil looked up and smiled in relief, then his face changed to concern as he saw Gabrielle, battered and bruised, moving stiffly with David.

  “Gabrielle?” Virgil asked. “By the Gods, are you alright?”

  “I will be,” Gabrielle said weakly. “I just need to rest for a while.”

  “Stay with her,” David said. “I need to try and find us a ship.”

  “Oh,” Virgil said quickly. “I already found one. It’s leaving in the morning, but the Captain said we could go aboard whenever we wanted.”

  “And how did you manage that?” David asked.

  Virgil gulped. “I told him that you would take care of the, um, passage?”

  “Which ship?” David asked.

  Virgil pointed down the dock to a small freighter that was loading supplies and cargo. “That one, there,” he offered. 

  David helped Gabrielle settle onto the seat and then stalked off to pay for the passage.

  Virgil looked after him angrily and then back at Gabrielle.

  “This is his idea of a good plan?” he said, and then he snapped his mouth shut when he saw the look on Gabrielle’s face. “I’m sorry. I should keep my mouth shut.”

  Gabrielle smiled grimly, though the pain in her eyes was from more than just the recent beatings she had endured.

  “No,” she said. “It’s alright.”

  She watched David speaking with the captain of the ship. After a feew moments, David looked over at them and then they saw money change hands, and sighed.

  “This is mostly my fault.” She finally admitted.

  “How is this,” Virgil gestured to her. “Your fault?” His expression was a mix of concern and frustration. “If I had been there – “ he started, but Gabrielle put a hand on his arm.

  “You couldn’t have done anything, Virgil,” she said.

  “I wouldn’t have let them do that to you, Gabrielle,” Virgil said angrily. “I would have –“

  “You would have been killed,” Gabrielle finished for him. “I know what your trying to say and I appreciate it. But there was no way for either of you to prevent this. You did all you could.”

  “Yeah, maybe,” Virgil replied, unconvinced. He rubbed his hands together, his eyes said he was thinking furiously. In retrospect, yes he might have been able to come up with something, but at the time?

  “Look,” he said suddenly. “You’re my friend, Gabrielle. I don’t want you to get hurt. And I definitely didn’t want this to happen! I just thought it would be simple, you know. In and out, and you could be back with David before he knew what happened?”

  “That was the idea,” Gabrielle nodded. She shrugged painfully as David began walking back toward them.

  His eyes were still filled with dark anger and something else as he looked down at them.

  “Man,” Virgil said. “He’s still angry.”

  “I think,” Gabrielle acknowledged. “He’s going to be mad at me for a while.”

  David stood before them, still glowering at them as he looked down at Gabrielle.

  “The captain said we could go aboard whenever we want,” he informed them. “I told him that we had a wounded companion. He said you could use his cabin.” He looked down at Gabrielle and his gaze softened a little. He offered her his hand up. “Come on. Lets get you settled in.”

 They got Gabrielle situated in the cabin. She lay on a layer of thick cushions and tried to get comfortable.

  “I’m not going to be able to stay here without getting seasick,” she said, knowing how these kinds of voyages went.

  David reached into his coat and pulled a small silver packet from the inside pocket. He broke the seal and handed the small pill to her.

  “Take this,” he offered. “It’ll help.”

  “What is it?” she asked.

  “Dramamine,” David replied. “Helps with motion sickness.” He rose and stepped to the door. “This may be a bit of a surprise, but I hate boat trips as much as you do.” He pulled another pill out of the packet and popped it into his mouth. Then he left.

Gabrielle watched the closed door for a moment, wishing vainly that he would come back in and hold her, but knowing that he was too angry to consider it.

  “Boy,” she said as she swallowed the tiny pill. “I really know how to get myself into trouble.”

  The trip went smoothly and Gabrielle didn’t get seasick once, though she felt sick at heart. David said very little to her the entire trip, and Virgil simply kept a respectful distance for the first couple of days, allowing David to cool off, and not approaching Gabrielle for fear of re-igniting that fire.  Finally, on the fourth day of the journey, he came and leaned against the rail next to the big man, looking out at the sea.

  “You know,” he offered sincerely. “The entire time we were on our way there, all she did was talk about you.” He laughed nervously. “I feel like I’ve known you for years.”

  “On the way there?” David said. He turned his red glasses to face the younger man. His expression was set in stone.

  “Look, Virg,” he said. “I’m sure you’re a real cool guy to hang with. But anyone that would put her life in that kind of danger doesn’t rank to high on my social list right now, got it?” He turned back to the expanse of water for a moment, and then he turned and faced Virgil again. “And why in the name of all that’s holy didn’t you try and talk her out of it in the first damn place?”

  Virgil started slightly at the vehemence of the question. He shrugged and rubbed his hands together.

  “Have you ever tried to talk her out of something, once her mind was made up?” He asked.

  “Yeah!” David retorted.

  “Did it work?” Virgil asked.

  David opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it again. He sighed. “No. Once she’s got her mind set, all you can do is go along for the ride.”

  “She didn’t want me to come along either,” Virgil offered. “She was set on doing this all by herself. I had to fight just to get her to let me tag along. I figured, since I couldn’t talk her out of it, and I couldn’t get back to Poditea in time?” He shrugged. “I’m sorry about what she did. But I know why she did it. Don’t be mad at her for that.”

  David seemed about to say something, but just then, the cabin door opened and Gabrielle emerged, moving stiffly, but looking much stronger.

  Her injuries had faded somewhat, though her face still bore some of the cuts and bruises.

  David looked at her and then turned and moved forward, a low growl issuing from his throat.

  Gabrielle watched him go and then looked at her friend. Virgil looked at David and then back and slowly shook his head.

  Once back home, David spent a good deal of time away from Lila’s small home while Gabrielle healed.

  One morning, Gabrielle rolled over in her bed and found David’s sleeping roll empty, yet again. She pulled herself out of bed and padded groggily into the small kitchen.

  Lila was cleaning up the last of a morning meal.

  “Hey, Gabrielle,” he said, smiling. “You just missed David.”

  Gabrielle nodded.

  “Are you hungry?” Lila asked, trying desperately to keep the mood light. “I can make you something?”

  Gabrielle shook her head.

  “I really screwed up,” Gabrielle asked as she sat down at the table. “Didn’t I?”

  Lila finished wiping the plate she was cleaning and smiled.

  “Yes, honey,” she said. “You really did.”

  “Is it wrong for me to want to keep him safe?” Gabrielle asked, her own frustration rising. “I just don’t want anything to happen to him!”

  “I know you don’t,” Lila said, seating herself across from Gabrielle. “It isn’t that you didn’t want him to get hurt. That’s not why he’s angry.”

  “Then why?” Gabrielle asked.

  “You didn’t give him the chance to make the choice,” Lila answered.

  “We both know what his choice would have been!” Gabrielle shot back. “And he was in no condition, Lila, you know that!”

  “Yes,” Lila nodded. “And so does David. But he never got the chance to make that decision. You took it away from him. He loves you Gabrielle. He loves you as much as mom and dad ever did. You hurt him when you ran off like that.” She stared at Gabrielle for a long time. “You never would have done something like that when Xena was here.”

  “Xena’s not here anymore, Lila,” Gabrielle said. “I don’t want the same thing to happen to David, or you, or Sara. I want you all safe.”

  “David doesn’t feel safe right now,” Lila said. “He feels betrayed. I think the two of you need to have a long talk. And expect him to be angry with you when it starts. He has every right to be.”

  “Do you know where he is?” Gabrielle asked hopefully.

  Lila nodded. “He’s been spending a lot of time out at the old house, though I don’t know what he’s been doing there?”

  Gabrielle thanked her sister and left the house. As she moved out beyond the old walls of the village, she began to feel as though she was walking back in time, into her childhood.

  There were the neighbors kids, running up and down the muddy road after a rainstorm, laughing as they got filthy in the splashing water. There was Beltius, following the ox as he plowed his field for the spring corn. And around the bend, her old home.

  She felt a pang of sorrow when she saw the dilapidated old house. One side of it had collapsed in a recent storm, and it looked like the rest would soon follow.

  As she slowed her strides, she began to hear a rhythmic whacking sound coming from behind the partially wrecked structure.

  She moved around the house and realized it was the sound of fists striking something.

  Whap..whap….whap, whap, whap…whap, whap, “H-ya!” Whap!

  She peered around the corner and saw David, his back to her, punching a vertical wooden post. The top part was wrapped in thick rope. Not much of a cushion and Gabrielle could see splotches of what had to be dried blood on the surface.

  David’s body was covered in a sheen of sweat, and his hair hung in a wet ponytail down his back. His powerful shoulders flexed with each and every move.

  He stopped and leaned against the target for a few moments, catching his breath. Gabrielle took a step forward. Then David straightened and cut loose with another series of strikes. A growl began somewhere in his throat and rose to a shout of rage as he spun around and hit the target with a devastating kick. The board unearthed itself and went sliding through the earth.

  He cursed softly and bent to retrieve a thick wooden mallet, then he stepped over and pulled the post back up, setting it back into its hole and pounding it deeper into the ground.

  “David?” Gabrielle asked.

  He stopped and looked back at her.

  “Oh,” he said simply. “Hi.” Then he went back to pounding the post.

  Once he was satisfied, he stepped back and resumed a fighting stance. His hands began pounding the post again with relentless energy.

  Gabrielle circled around to face him. His eyes were set, focused on the target, and his fists pounded unceasingly against the rope pad.

  “David?” Gabrielle asked again.

  “Yeah,” David continued his relentless assault on the post.

  “David, we need to talk,” Gabrielle said nervously.

  “Fine,” David replied, still punishing the post. “Talk.”

  Gabrielle watched as the post began vibrating more and more with each of his strikes. After two whole weeks, he was still that angry.

  “David, I’m sorry,” Gabrielle stammered, not even sure if he was paying attention. “I never should have left you here and gone off like that. It was stupid, and cruel to you, and-“

  David’s fist slammed into the post once more, setting it to wobble dangerously. He cried out in frustration and turned, walking away a few paces, his hands on his hips, his shoulder flexing as he breathed deeply.

  Gabrielle had a sense of a volcano standing before her, ready to explode. She mentally braced herself for the coming immolation.

David looked up at the sky for a moment, and then he turned and faced her. Sweat was dripping down his face and chest, and his breath heaved. He looked her square in the eye.

  “Do you want me in your life, or not?” he asked.

  Gabrielle was stunned. “What?”

  David stepped up before the post. “Do you want me in your life, or not?” he asked again, more slowly. He reset himself and began punishing the target again.

Gabrielle didn’t know what to say for a moment. That question was so outrageous to her.

  “Yes,” she said flatly. “Of course I do! You know I do!”

  “Do I?” David replied, his hands slamming into the target. “After that pretty patch of bullshit you pulled! I’m not so sure!” His fist blasted the post again, and this time, it cracked and fell in two pieces.

“Son of a bitch,” David muttered, and he went over to a stack of discarded posts.  He lifted one up and began wrapping the end with rope from a coil lying on the ground.

  “David,” Gabrielle said, feeling his anger even from that distance. “I said I was sorry. It was wrong for me to leave you like that. I just-“

  David set the post down and stood.

  “Where I come from, we have a little saying,” he said angrily. “In for a penny, in for a pound.”

  Gabrielle watched him and realized that it was more than just anger she felt in his gaze. It was the same expression that she remembered outside that police station, in his world. There was anger, yes, but there was also pain.

  “I knew that coming back here would be a risk,” David continued. He picked up the post again and resumed preparing his next target. “And I wasn’t looking for a god damned fairy tale! I’ve read enough history to know that life here is a hell of a lot harder than where I came from, but I didn’t care! I wanted to be a part of your life, for better or worse! It’s that simple! I knew there were things that would come up! Things that you brought with you! This is probably the only relationship in history where the baggage is one sided because all the shit I’ve pulled in my life won’t happen for another two thousand years! I thought that might make things easier, but man was I off on that one!”

  Gabrielle sat down on a pile of broken wood, and suddenly realized they were other unfortunate posts that David had been pummeling for the last few days.

  “You have to understand,” she said softly. “Xena and I made a lot of enemies over the years. Some of them are going to want to get even with me, especially since Xena-“

David slammed the post on the ground.

  “I DON’T CARE!” he roared. “What part of that don’t you understand, huh? I don’t give a ragged rat’s ass if the entire Roman Army is parked outside our door tomorrow, looking for their pound of flesh! If Atilla the Hun stopped by, I’d tell him what he could go do with himself! I don’t care about what’s in your past!”

  Gabrielle tried to lighten the mood.

  “Atilla the what?”

  It didn’t work. He simply stared at her, and this time there was no explosion of frustration. There was simple, solid, steel resignation.

  “I don’t like being played, Gabrielle! You want me involved, then it’s all the way,” he said finally. “All the way, or not at all. Either I’m a part of your life – your whole life, or I’m gone! You decide, right here, right now! I will not spend the rest of my life wondering when I’ll wake up one morning to find you gone!”

  She stared at him, and the weight of those words began to feel like a stone around her neck. A sudden fear tightened about her heart as she realized that he was serious. He would walk away that moment, if it came to that. She also saw the fear in his eyes.

  The gauntlet had been thrown. He was hoping that he wouldn't have to go. At the same time, he was afraid that she might hold something back, and then there would be no discussions, no chance for an apology. She had an image of him, walking out of her life forever, and it frightened her more than the countless times she had faced death in the past.

  “David,” she said. “It’s not that I don’t love you. I do. I’m just as afraid of losing you. I thought that I could give you the life you were expecting, and still keep my demons to myself. You shouldn’t have to deal with all those things. They were my responsibility, not yours. I’d rather have you alive and hate me –“

  “Then dead and loving you?” David finished. Apparently, he had heard that line before.

  He came over and stood before her.

  “Which type of death is worse?” he asked. “Dying at the side of the person you love, knowing that you’ve treasured every moment up to that point, or walking about, dead on the inside until your body decides, one day, just to quit. You have to know that I could never hate you to begin with, no matter what you did?” He sighed. “That’s not to say I can’t be angry with you, because, right now, I am.”

  She reached up to take his hand and unwrapped the cloth binding his knuckles. She saw the dried blood on the cracked skin. She kissed it gently and pulled him down to her, wrapping her arms around him and holding him tightly.

  “I promise,” she whispered. “If there’s anything, we’ll face it together.”

It took a moment before she realized that he was actually trembling as he held her, and it wasn’t from his recent physical exertions.

  “You are the better part of my soul, Gabrielle,” he whispered back. “I know that, someday, I will lose you. But I’m not going to lose you without a fight.”

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