Part 1 The warning echoed through the village, racing the sun itself, and bringing
those still with Morpheus to life.
"Everyone into position now!" the Amazon Regent commanded. "We only have a
few moments." She turned to the pale young woman beside her. "Are you sure this
is what you want to do?"
"No," came the reply, "but it's the right thing to do."
A collective breath was held by all as the gates to the village were opened
allowing the rider easy access. Thundering hooves could be heard now in the
'She's not even slowing down,' the young woman thought, 'which only
proves she's out of her mind with grief, holding only one thought: revenge.'
The golden war-horse seemed to explode into the center of the village, rearing
high as the raven head whipped around looking for her target.
"Xena!" The blue piercing orbs locked onto green, causing the bard's breath
to catch in her throat as she recognized the cold hate contained within. Steadying
herself, she raised her voice for all to hear, praying it wouldn't crack. "Warrior,
hear me out. I have a proposition for you."
"You're in no position to make deals," she growled as she moved the mare forward
"I think I am," she spoke quietly and finally the warrior noticed dozens of
Amazon archers all trained on her. "I know you're good, Xena, but not even you
can catch fifty arrows at once. Will you listen to me now?" The bard watched
incredulous as the warrior took the time to consider. 'Please don't rush
me. You know they'll protect me. Be smart.'
"Xena, an injustice has been done to you. The Amazon nation is prepared to
turn over the perpetrator on two conditions." She paused trying to judge Xena's
openness to the proposal. "You will give your word that no harm will come to
the Amazons for having sheltered her."
Mockingly the dark woman asked, "And I suppose the second is that no harm
will come to the traitor."
"No. You will be free to do as you please with your prisoner. The second condition
is that you continue on your path of working for the greater good." This request
surprised the warrior. "Do you accept?"
"You expect me to believe that the Amazons are going to actually let me do
anything I wish with my prisoner and not interfere?"
The bard turned to her Regent. Quietly Ephiny pleaded with her. "Don't do
"Ephiny, we've been through this a hundred times. I lied to the Centaurs and
their leader is dead. I lied to my people and put the children, including your
own son Xenon, at risk. I lied to Xena who paid the ultimate price. I betrayed
you all. If a stranger stood in my boots now, would you not demand justice?
Xena has that same right and I will not put my people at further risk by allowing
them to defend me out of misguided loyalty." She held the gaze of her friend
who finally turned to face the tribe and Xena, giving declaration.
"As Regent of the Amazon Nation, I pledge that upon acceptance of the conditions,
Xena, Warrior Princess, will be given Gabrielle, Bard of Potediea, to carry
out justice for crimes committed against her and her son, Solan. Further more,
no Amazon will interfere with any punishment until Xena is satisfied that justice
has been served."
All stood quiet, waiting, watching. "And if I don't accept, I suppose I die."
"You are free to leave, but if you ever enter Amazon land again, you will
be shot on sight."
Again silence, the large horse pacing back and forth for its mistress. "I
Without a word Gabrielle turned to Ephiny, handing her the Queen's mask and
her own staff. Though her arms felt like lead, she held the mask above her indicating
its passage to her. "Archers, put down your bows on the ground. We have given
our word, and so it shall be." Two of the Royal guards stepped forward to escort
the small woman to the one who still towered in her saddle, then returned to
their new Queen. Once they had backed up, the warrior slid from her perch with
lightening speed, and struck the bard hard across the face sending her sprawling.
Poised to strike, Xena looked to see who would retaliate, but all held their
ground, though some barely in control.
"Get up." The young woman rose on shaky legs. "Put out your hands." She complied
and found her hands quickly bound. As she dragged the smaller woman to a large
post, she called out for all to hear. "I think it only fair that the Amazons
get to see a portion of your punishment, traitor, since your lies put your own
people in danger." Roughly she tied the bards hands to an iron ring high above
her head, her feet barely able to touch the ground. "Wouldn't want this getting
in the way," she said yanking up the long golden red hair. With one quick slash,
the tresses fell to the earth. "Fitting." After ripping the top exposing the
bard's back, she turned to Argo for her whip. "One lash for each year of my
son's life!" and with that, the whip cracked fiercely against the tender skin.
Before she could prepare herself, the lash fell again forcing a cry between
her lips. Gabrielle, being a gentle soul, was in no way prepared to endure such
cruelty. When it ended, tears streamed down her face, sobs racking her body.
The warrior strode forward, releasing her from the ring, watching her fall in
a heap to the ground.
Ephiny approached, keeping herself tightly in control. "Are you satisfied,
They glared at one another. "Not by a long shot." Attaching a rope to the
bard's still bound hands; she mounted Argo and tied it to the saddle horn. Without
looking, she spoke to the shaking woman. "You can get up and walk or let Argo
drag you. Your choice."
"Warrior! At least let us tend her back and cover her before you take her."
Ephiny begged with as much dignity as possible.
She glanced briefly at the small beaten woman who looked at the ground in
defeat. Voices argued in her head as she finally spat out, "Be quick."
With the greatest of speed, the healer stepped forward to give the wounds
a cursory cleaning and treatment. Then Ephiny slipped a soft leather poncho
over her friend's head, tying a sash around the waist to hold it closed. Before
Gabrielle could whisper her thanks for this kindness, she felt herself pulled
forward and out of the Amazons' lives forever.
Part 1"She's coming!"
The warning echoed through the village, racing the sun itself, and bringing those still with Morpheus to life.
"Everyone into position now!" the Amazon Regent commanded. "We only have a few moments." She turned to the pale young woman beside her. "Are you sure this is what you want to do?"
"No," came the reply, "but it's the right thing to do."
A collective breath was held by all as the gates to the village were opened allowing the rider easy access. Thundering hooves could be heard now in the distance.
'She's not even slowing down,' the young woman thought, 'which only proves she's out of her mind with grief, holding only one thought: revenge.'
The golden war-horse seemed to explode into the center of the village, rearing high as the raven head whipped around looking for her target.
"Xena!" The blue piercing orbs locked onto green, causing the bard's breath to catch in her throat as she recognized the cold hate contained within. Steadying herself, she raised her voice for all to hear, praying it wouldn't crack. "Warrior, hear me out. I have a proposition for you."
"You're in no position to make deals," she growled as she moved the mare forward slowly.
"I think I am," she spoke quietly and finally the warrior noticed dozens of Amazon archers all trained on her. "I know you're good, Xena, but not even you can catch fifty arrows at once. Will you listen to me now?" The bard watched incredulous as the warrior took the time to consider. 'Please don't rush me. You know they'll protect me. Be smart.'
"Xena, an injustice has been done to you. The Amazon nation is prepared to turn over the perpetrator on two conditions." She paused trying to judge Xena's openness to the proposal. "You will give your word that no harm will come to the Amazons for having sheltered her."
Mockingly the dark woman asked, "And I suppose the second is that no harm will come to the traitor."
"No. You will be free to do as you please with your prisoner. The second condition is that you continue on your path of working for the greater good." This request surprised the warrior. "Do you accept?"
"You expect me to believe that the Amazons are going to actually let me do anything I wish with my prisoner and not interfere?"
The bard turned to her Regent. Quietly Ephiny pleaded with her. "Don't do this, please."
"Ephiny, we've been through this a hundred times. I lied to the Centaurs and their leader is dead. I lied to my people and put the children, including your own son Xenon, at risk. I lied to Xena who paid the ultimate price. I betrayed you all. If a stranger stood in my boots now, would you not demand justice? Xena has that same right and I will not put my people at further risk by allowing them to defend me out of misguided loyalty." She held the gaze of her friend who finally turned to face the tribe and Xena, giving declaration.
"As Regent of the Amazon Nation, I pledge that upon acceptance of the conditions, Xena, Warrior Princess, will be given Gabrielle, Bard of Potediea, to carry out justice for crimes committed against her and her son, Solan. Further more, no Amazon will interfere with any punishment until Xena is satisfied that justice has been served."
All stood quiet, waiting, watching. "And if I don't accept, I suppose I die."
"You are free to leave, but if you ever enter Amazon land again, you will be shot on sight."
Again silence, the large horse pacing back and forth for its mistress. "I accept."
Without a word Gabrielle turned to Ephiny, handing her the Queen's mask and her own staff. Though her arms felt like lead, she held the mask above her indicating its passage to her. "Archers, put down your bows on the ground. We have given our word, and so it shall be." Two of the Royal guards stepped forward to escort the small woman to the one who still towered in her saddle, then returned to their new Queen. Once they had backed up, the warrior slid from her perch with lightening speed, and struck the bard hard across the face sending her sprawling. Poised to strike, Xena looked to see who would retaliate, but all held their ground, though some barely in control.
"Get up." The young woman rose on shaky legs. "Put out your hands." She complied and found her hands quickly bound. As she dragged the smaller woman to a large post, she called out for all to hear. "I think it only fair that the Amazons get to see a portion of your punishment, traitor, since your lies put your own people in danger." Roughly she tied the bards hands to an iron ring high above her head, her feet barely able to touch the ground. "Wouldn't want this getting in the way," she said yanking up the long golden red hair. With one quick slash, the tresses fell to the earth. "Fitting." After ripping the top exposing the bard's back, she turned to Argo for her whip. "One lash for each year of my son's life!" and with that, the whip cracked fiercely against the tender skin. Before she could prepare herself, the lash fell again forcing a cry between her lips. Gabrielle, being a gentle soul, was in no way prepared to endure such cruelty. When it ended, tears streamed down her face, sobs racking her body. The warrior strode forward, releasing her from the ring, watching her fall in a heap to the ground.
Ephiny approached, keeping herself tightly in control. "Are you satisfied, warrior?"
They glared at one another. "Not by a long shot." Attaching a rope to the bard's still bound hands; she mounted Argo and tied it to the saddle horn. Without looking, she spoke to the shaking woman. "You can get up and walk or let Argo drag you. Your choice."
"Warrior! At least let us tend her back and cover her before you take her." Ephiny begged with as much dignity as possible.
She glanced briefly at the small beaten woman who looked at the ground in defeat. Voices argued in her head as she finally spat out, "Be quick."
With the greatest of speed, the healer stepped forward to give the wounds a cursory cleaning and treatment. Then Ephiny slipped a soft leather poncho over her friend's head, tying a sash around the waist to hold it closed. Before Gabrielle could whisper her thanks for this kindness, she felt herself pulled forward and out of the Amazons' lives forever.
The sun was hot as they made their way down the road and Xena kept the pace brisk. Sweat slid down the bard's back causing the wounds to sting. At mid day the warrior finally pulled off the road and Gabrielle collapsed in a heap. Slipping from the saddle, she led Argo to a stream forcing the bard to struggle again to her feet. As the mare drank, the young woman crawled forward to quench her own thirst.
Xena sat separate, watching. She noted that blood dripped from the bound wrists and the leather poncho stuck to her back with small discolorations. Just as the bard began to doze off, the warrior mounted and kicked Argo into motion dragging the woman a few feet before she could get her legs under her. The bard almost cried out in protest, but caught herself in time. Any complaining would only make her situation worse she knew.
The day continued as it had begun, in silence, except for the heavy breathing of the woman trying to keep up with the war-horse. As the sun threatened to leave the sky, the brooding warrior finally halted their journey. Uniting the lead rope, she commanded, "Get wood. Make a fire." The young woman merely nodded and turned to her task though her hands were still bound. Once accomplished she turned automatically to the saddlebags, pulling out their pot to heat water for tea and stew. "What are you doing?" came the growl over her shoulder.
"I was going to make you supper. You haven't eaten all day," she spoke quietly, fearfully.
Xena could smell the fear coming off the bard. The Warlord inside her emerged thinking, 'Good. You better be afraid, little girl.' She turned away to care for Argo. "Continue."
As quickly as possible she finished preparing the meal, placing the bowl and mug before the dark woman. "Xena?" There was no acknowledgement. "I need to use the bushes please."
Slowly the blue steel gaze turned on her, holding her, making her squirm. "You try to run, I'll track you down. You can't escape me." The newly shorn head merely nodded. "Hurry up then." Like a cat hunting prey, she tracked the young woman's movements into the shadows and back again. Never breaking contact, she watched as the bard cleaned up after the supper, swallowing the small amount of food she had left behind. Then she laid out the bedrolls on opposite sides of the fire. For some reason this angered the warrior anew. 'We use to sleep side by side, but no more, not after your betrayal!' With the blood pounding in her head, she grabbed the lead rope and then the bard by the scruff of the poncho, ripping the scabs of the lash marks. Stifled whimpers met her ears, but she ignored them as she threw the young woman down against a tree and proceeded to tie her to it.
"Xena, you don't have to do this. I give you my word I won't go anywhere."
"Your word?! Like you gave me your word that your devil child was dead?!" She pulled tightly on the rope, forcing the tender back into the rough bark of the tree. Without another word, the warrior turned away throwing herself into her bedroll, blocking out the quiet sobs that drifted across the campsite.
The morning broke on two very tired travelers. Once released, Gabrielle moved quickly to pack their things when it was obvious that Xena was not interested in taking the time for breakfast. Timidly she handed the warrior trail biscuits for her to eat as she rode, then she handed over the lead rope. The tall woman stared down at the young girl who kept her face to the earth. Silence held them both still until Argo whinnied restlessly to be on their way. Quickly she tied the lead to the bound hands and leapt into the saddle. Today though, the bard noticed the pace was gentler.
'Is she actually taking it easy on me? Maybe she doesn't hate me completely.' Without warning a trail biscuit was tossed back at her which she ate gratefully. Again at mid-day, the warrior pulled them over for a short rest, but refused to look at or talk with her prisoner. The hardest part of the journey for both of them was being alone inside their heads while the other was just feet away.
Early evening found them approaching a large village. Xena found the local tavern and went inside for supplies leaving the bard tied to Argo's saddle horn outside. Needing time away from the small blonde, the warrior sat drinking mead to clear her head. Or dull it, she wasn't sure which.
"Hey! Who owns the wench outside?" came a loud coarse voice.
Piercing eyes looked over the rim of a mug. "Who wants to know?"
"If she's yours, I'll give you twenty dinars for her."
'That would certainly serve the little bitch right. And then I wouldn't have to look at her.' But the Warlord voice in her head warred with her as she sipped her mead. 'But then you wouldn't have the satisfaction of watching her suffer.' Setting her mug down and gathering her purchases, she spoke, "Sorry, friend, can't do that. She's a prisoner."
"Damn. Well then, how 'bout I give you five dinars just for a quick tumble then?"
"Now that offer has potential. One condition: I get to watch."
"Always did like an audience," he smirked.
Together they walked out of the tavern. The steely eyes bored through the young woman as the warrior grabbed the lead and tossed it to the man. Licking his lips and chuckling to himself, he began to pull the bewildered girl behind the building.
"Xena ?" But she saw that Xena was following them, so she knew she wouldn't be alone. Then she saw the tall woman seat herself on a stump as if to enjoy some show. The man roughly whipped her around to face him. Grabbing her face in his large meaty hand, he kissed her fiercely while his other hand squeezed her breast. Her first reaction was to struggle and pull away from this foul smelling mountain of a man. "Stop!"
He grabbed her throat almost pulling her off her feet. "Be good little miss. I paid her for a good time and that's what I plan to have."
The bard looked at the stoic expression of the warrior. In that instant she knew she was despised and all hope left that there might ever be healing between them. In that same instant, the dark woman saw defeat, shame, and surrender flicker in the green eyes. The bard's struggles stopped as the man continued to paw her. The warrior's struggles began. The part of Xena that had loved Gabrielle, that still loved her, pushed forward to make her presence known, 'No one deserves this. You didn't allow your men to do it when you were a warlord. So why are you allowing it now? But the Warlord inside raged in answer, 'Why should she care that he's hurting her? She deserves it, damn it!' But the Friend would not be dismissed so easily, 'She's given you too much for you to let her be treated like this!'
Without realizing she had moved, she found herself pulling the bear of a man off the small woman. "Changed my mind. Here's your money back."
"Wait a minute now. I don't want my money. I want the girl."
Death filled her voice as she whispered, "I said I changed my mind. You have a problem with that?" The chakram pressed against the man's throat.
"No no, not at all," he squeaked. It almost made the warrior laugh. "Too skinny for my tastes anyway." He scrambled up, leaving as quickly as he could.
She turned to the figure still curled on the ground. The green eyes looked up fighting to control the tears. She wanted to smash that face. She wanted to comfort it. So she did the only thing she could, she grabbed the lead rope yanking the bard to follow.
Instead of staying in the village, Xena took them to a small glen just on the outskirts. The thought of people around her was more than she could bear. If she could have been rid of the bard for one night, she would have. But the small woman was smart and staying out of her way, busying herself with setting the camp and cooking. Gabrielle noticed she hadn't yet tended to Argo. Timidly she approached the horse and began pulling at buckles, which wasn't easy with her hands still bound. She pulled out an apple for the large mare who nuzzled her in gratitude. 'At least someone doesn't hate me.' Grabbing the currycomb she hesitantly went towards the brooding warrior.
"Xena? Do you wish me to brush Argo or would you prefer to do it yourself?" The woman sat so still, the bard wondered if she'd heard her. "Xena?"
Nodding, she turned to her task grateful to be busy and away from the strong woman's dark mood. "I know I'm not as good at this as Xena, but I'll do my best, girl," she spoke softly to the horse. Without realizing it, she continued to talk to Argo and had soon fallen into telling a story. The melodic voice slowly sifted into Xena's mind carrying a momentary peace at its familiarity.
'What do you think you're doing, warrior? The Warlord voice railed at her. 'You enjoying the little bitch's story?' She became angry with herself for this lapse. "What in Tartarus are you doing?" she barked.
"I guess I was telling a story to Argo. I didn't even realize-"
"Well stop it and check the food."
"Sorry." Preparing a plate she placed it in front of the warrior, afraid to get too close right now. "Xena, may I go to the bushes please?" The dark head nodded in response. The bard made sure to be quick. Noting that the warrior had finished her food, Gabrielle began to scoop the small remainder out for her.
"You take it, then clean up."
"Thank you." Once she'd eaten and cleaned up, she sat out of the warrior's line of vision, unsure what to do next. Bracing herself, she ventured, "Xena, I want to thank you for earlier in the village."
"I didn't do it for you. I did it for me. It was without honor."
"I see well, thank you all the same." They sat in silence for awhile. Once more the bard braved, "Would you like me to tell you a story?" A glare was her only response so the bard made sure to find the campfire intriguing. So engrossed in becoming invisible, she was startled when Xena suddenly grabbed her arm and began uniting the leather strap. Tossing down the medicine pouch she simply said, "Clean yourself up."
Gabrielle stared at the retreating back in amazement. With pleasure she stretched her arms for the first time in two days. Gingerly she cleaned her wrists, applied salve, and wrapped them. Suddenly a shirt tunic landed in her lap. "Do your back." The bard didn't look forward to this. She knew the leather had once again attached to her back. Slowly she peeled the poncho off and could tell that several marks began to bleed again. Try as she might, she couldn't reach them all. She heard the crunch of footsteps and the warrior knelt in back of her. Taking the rag from her hand, the dark woman cleaned what couldn't be reached. The touch was anything but gentle, but at least there would be no infection.
"Couple of these need stitches," she said as she picked up the needle. The bard bit her lip to keep from crying out, so fierce were the warrior's ministrations. Finally she was finished and Gabrielle slipped the soft tunic over her in relief. The bard had no delusions that this small respite changed anything.
"Thank you," she said as she handed the leather strap to the warrior and held out her arms. She studied the bard's submission to her. Warlord: 'It's just a manipulation to make us feel guilty? She's in for a surprise.' Pulling manacles out of the saddlebags, she snapped them on the young woman's wrists. The warrior looked down expecting to see surprise on her face. Instead she saw gratitude. Xena: 'She really does accept this. She's actually happy to have that two-foot length of chain between her hands. Warlord: 'Good that's as it should be.' Again she reached into the saddlebag, producing a five-foot chain. One end she locked on the manacles, the other onto a ring on Argo's saddle. The young woman realized immediately she'd be able to lay down tonight and maybe even get a little sleep. "Thank you, Xena." A blanket thrown at her was the only response.
Considering the circumstances, the next morning Gabrielle felt better than she had in days. She even managed to wake up with the warrior. Even Xena seemed more relaxed and allowed the bard to make her breakfast. The young woman wisely continued the routine of eating anything left behind by the dark woman.
The mood was still solemn and both soon became lost in their own torturous minds. Until they came across three large bandits pummeling an old man and his daughter. There was a smile on the warrior's face as she slid from the saddle slowly pulling her sword free. The men noticed her arrival and began to circle her.
'Why is she letting them get behind her? To make the fight a challenge or to get herself killed? It was obvious to the bard that Xena was taking her time, toying with them. She'd push and then give ground. The bard stood by anxiously still chained to Argo's saddle, wanting to be there protecting her warrior's back.
Xena soon had all three disarmed, but he warrior hadn't used enough energy and so laughingly tossed her own sword aside. The men hazarded baffled glimpses at each other before charging in mass. The warrior wanted to feel her fists pounding flesh; she even wanted to feel them hitting her. She was enjoying the physical contact. Physical pain she understood. Physical pain distracted her from her heart's pain.
However one of the men, realizing they had a crazed warrior on their hands, pulled a dagger from his boot in the hopes of evening the odds for them. The bard was instantly alert. "Come on, Argo, Xena's getting a hand whether she wants it or not," she said pulling the horse after her. Kicking up, she caught the man on the side of the head, then slammed her foot on his wrist efficiently breaking it. The warrior turned at the noise behind her, glaring at the interference. Turning back to the two remaining, she jumped high, kicking both in the chest and sending them to join their companion into unconsciousness. She growled once at the bard, then went to check on the two victims.
When she began to examine them, she felt a twinge of guilt. She should have ended the fight immediately so she could tend to their injuries. "Bard, come here." When Gabrielle approached, she unlocked her from the saddle so they both could help. "Look after the girl," she snapped as she turned her attention to the old man. The wounds were not life threatening if treated right away. She hoped she had not waited too long. Soon their wounds had been treated as well as possible on the road. "We need to get them to a healer." Luckily they had been riding in a small wagon. The warrior quickly rearranged the supplies in the back to make room for the father and daughter. Then she firmly bound the three battered men and tied them to the wagon to follow. Wanting to keep an eye on her prisoners, she turned to the bard. "You drive the wagon." Quickly Gabrielle climbed aboard and nudged the little horse forward. The warrior followed on Argo.
A candlemark later they reached the next village. The men were lead away to the local jail while the family was taken to the healer's. Before they could leave, the old man took Xena's arm. "Thank you for what you did. My child is the most precious thing in the world to me. I was willing to give those men everything I had, but they wanted her. There are supplies in my wagon, food, drink, blankets. Please take anything you want."
"That's not necessary, old man."
"Please, it's so little to give for the life of a child. May the Gods bless you on your way."
"Thank you," she whispered as she slipped outside. The warrior took a quick glance into the wagon, not really wishing to take anything, but also not wanting to offend the man. "Well, a flagon of wine might be nice," she said pulling out a large bottle. Returning to Argo, she saw that the bard had re-chained herself to the saddle and was leaning on the mare's neck talking to her again. 'Now she decides to get along with my horse. Ironic.'
As Xena approached, the bard finally got a good look at her. "Xena, you need tending yourself."
"Nothing serious. It can wait 'til we make camp."
Reaching out a hand to the warrior, she implored, "But you've always said-"
Grabbing the chain, the tall woman yanked the hand away from her. "I said later. What did you not understand?"
The smaller woman lowered her gaze to the ground. "Nothing. I'm I'm sorry."
The warrior was in the saddle in a heartbeat and they were off at the brisk pace again, Gabrielle struggling to keep up.
It was early evening by the time Xena found a spot suitable for camping. Gabrielle quickly set up camp while the warrior finally settled down to tend her wounds. She could tell the warrior was only giving herself a cursory cleaning. Once her duties were done, the bard determinedly placed herself in front of the warrior and wordlessly began removing the bracers, grieves, and armor. Neither made eye contact as the bard re-cleaned all the cuts, applying a healing ointment. After she'd finished, she placed a plate of food firmly in the warrior's hands with a command of her own, "Eat." An eyebrow shot up at her. "Please." The bard watched from the corner of her eye as the brooding woman picked at her food.
"You helped those people today," she ventured. Silence. "The father was very grateful. She's his only child." Silence. "It must have been difficult for you. The girl was fair like Solan-" She felt a hand gripping her throat in an instant as the warrior snarled closely in her face, "I told you once - never say his name. I won't tell you again." The bard tried to apologize but could get no words past the chokehold. Finally the warrior threw the smaller woman from her and she sucked in deep gulps of air. "S-s-sorry sorry."
The warrior reached for the wine bottle not bothering with a mug. The pain in her heart was flaring again, the voices in her mind screaming and she had to quiet them. The bard turned to Argo on the premise of brushing her out, but it was really for her own comfort. The night dragged on forever as Xena continued to drain the bottle. When it was empty, she threw it at a tree, smashing it in anger. Gabrielle jumped, putting herself on the other side of the great horse, hoping not to be noticed. The warrior strode to the tree and swung her sword. She kept whacking at the poor tree for at least half a candlemark. The last swing was so fierce, the sword became firmly wedged and try as she might, could not free it. But it didn't stop the warrior as she began to pound the helpless tree with her bare fists.
'Gods - she's going to break her hands if she keeps that up.' Bravely the bard ran forward trying to grab the wildly swinging arms. "Xena! Stop! You're only hurting yourself! Xena!" But the bard was shaken off without notice as the warrior continued to beat the tree. "Xena!" she cried trying once more and again landing in the dirt. 'Gods, protect me.' She thought as she placed herself between Xena and the tree. She tried to protect herself as she felt blows landing on her mid-section. "Xena, please, stop, please!" The fists kept coming but now the warrior was firmly focused on the bard. The woman slid to the ground unable to withstand any more. Xena knelt over her, grabbing the front of the tunic and pulling back for what surely would be a deathblow. But at that moment, visions of Solan took the place of the bard's face. She froze, stammering, "S-S-Solan?" The young woman dared not move. The warrior reached out patting Gabrielle's head still seeing her dead son. "My dear Solan." She wrapped her arms around the woman, leaned against the tree, and promptly passed out.
The bard carefully wiggled out of the warrior's strong arms. 'Tartarus, I feel like I was in the middle of a Centaur stampede.' She stumbled a little as she tried to right herself. 'Need to get Xena over by the fire.' She started to tug on the larger woman, but the pain in her side was too much, preventing her from succeeding. "Guess you're staying here tonight." She made her way to the blankets and then grabbed the medicine pouch on the way back. 'Damn it, Xena, your hands look like tenderized meat.' Gently she cleaned them both, applied ointment, and bandaged them carefully. Once done, she wrapped the blankets around the warrior tightly. 'That's one. My turn.' She looked down at her tunic covered in Xena's blood. 'Got to clean this out. Won't help for her to know what happened. With the little strength she had left, the bard cleaned the shirt as best as possible. Then she inspected herself and saw that from chest to stomach, she was one solid bruise. Tenderly she felt along her ribs. 'Thank the Gods, nothing's broken. Guess the wine pulled some of her punch.' Slowly she made her way to the saddle, re-chaining herself for the second time that day. 'No sense taking chances with her anger if she finds me free. My one consolation, warrior, is that you're going to feel like Tartarus tomorrow, too.' With that last thought, the bard gave in to her exhaustion falling immediately into Morpheus's arms.
The sun came much too early to the little encampment. The warrior slowly lifted one eyelid and slammed it shut again quickly. 'Gods, who's hammering on my head?!' She groaned and pulled the blanket over her head.
"Xena? Xena ."
"What?" she growled under the safety of the covers.
"You never sleep this late. Are you all right?"
"I will be when you stop shouting."
"I'm speaking very quietly, Xena."
"Then stop talking and make my hangover remedy."
"I can't until you release me."
'Damn. I have to move? Ok - which is the lesser of evils, hangover or moving?' She moved and found her stomach leaving. 'Ok, the hangover is good. I can be still 'til the Gods get tired of playing drums in my head.'
"Shut up!" she yelled causing her head to pound more. "Just give me a little time."
Gabrielle waited patiently for half a candlemark before the big strong warrior could bring herself to face the battle with her body. Tossing the key at the bard, she finally noticed her bandaged hands, "Hey, what happened?"
"You had a disagreement with that tree over there." The warrior looked back to see her sword wedged tightly in the trunk. "Damn." Slowly she made her way over to retrieve her sword while the bard brewed Xena's special tea. Approaching as silently as possible, the young woman held out the mug, whispering, "Xena, here's the remedy."
Grabbing the cup out of the young woman's hand, she gulped the concoction in one swallow. "Now let me be for a candlemark, and then we'll leave. Be ready."
That was fine with Gabrielle who settled herself down to rest knowing that it would be much longer before the warrior was able to move as she had also added just a little sleeping herb to the concoction.
It was mid-day before the warrior stirred. She was still feeling less than herself and seemed to move in slow motion. Without a word she saddled Argo as Gabrielle packed their things and they were off. The bard felt elated not to be chained to the saddle. 'Of course I don't know if it's because she's starting to trust me or just plain forgot. Bet she still feels like Tartarus, she's moving so slow I could pass her up if I wasn't so sore from that beating last night.'
By early evening they arrived at a village and headed for the local inn. The warrior began to enter without a glance at the bard.
"Excuse me, Xena?" The woman turned to glare at her. "Do you wish me to stay with Argo or to come with you?" She considered a moment before nodding for the bard to follow. They entered the place, which bustled with all kinds of patrons. The warrior found an empty table by unseating a drunk. She sat as always with her back to the wall and able to see the entire room. Gabrielle turned to get food for the warrior not wanting her to wait for the serving girl to arrive. She knew Xena's mood was dark and hoped to avert bloodshed, returning with a bowl of stew, bread, and cider.
"What's this?" she growled slamming the mug on the table. "Get me some ale."
"I just thought since last night, you might want-"
"You thought wrong. You have no idea what I want, little girl, so better not try to guess."
"Sorry." The young woman went quickly to fetch the ale. Once Xena had been served, she wasn't quite sure what she should do so she just stood beside the woman ready to do what ever was wanted next. As she stood there, she looked at the patrons of the inn. There were several farmers and merchants, but there was also a table of mercenaries in the corner getting very drunk. They kept giving the young serving girl a hard time and it was evident the innkeeper was getting nervous. The noise became louder and soon mugs were being thrown and the girl was being shoved among them.
"Stop it now!" The men slowed their assault and looked at the dark warrior who had spoken to them from across the room. "I came in for some peace and quiet and you are disturbing that."
The men laughed and resumed their activities. Slowly the tall woman rose to her full height, stepping up to the ruffians in three smooth strides. She gripped the hand that held the girl, twisting it until the wrist snapped. The girl fled behind the bar for safety. "You gentlemen need help finding the door?" she snarled in their faces. Apparently they did, and she swiftly obliged.
"Thank you," the innkeeper spoke coming forward, "I was afraid there would be trouble. They've come in the past two nights and each time it's gotten worse. Your meal is on the house and if you should want a room for the night, it's yours."
The warrior considered his words. "In that case, I think I should make sure that the garbage isn't still in front of your door." She strode out with purpose. Grunts, punches, and kicks could be heard right outside, but slowly growing fainter as the men were steadily being thrown down the road. She returned moments later, a satisfied grin on her face. "I think it should be a quiet night now." Sitting back down at her table, she had Gabrielle fetch more ale. Though the fear of the mercenaries was gone, there was still tension in the room. The warrior looked at the patrons who eyed her nervously. "Bard, why don't you do your bard thing and put these good people at ease." Gabrielle glanced at the warrior in surprise. "But only the classics, none of your own tales, understand me?"
"Perfectly, Xena." She moved towards the hearth and began weaving one tale after another. The crowd was soon under the bard's spell; laughing, cheering, and clapping. One story after another for over two candlemarks. Xena could tell the bard wouldn't last much longer, her voice was getting raspy. Each time Gabrielle had tried to bring the telling to an end, Xena had commanded another story. The crowd was oblivious to the exchange and merely sat back reaping the benefits. But the innkeeper could see and had watched as the warrior became increasingly drunk. He began to worry that he had traded the small trouble he knew for an unknown terror he didn't. He'd heard stories of Xena having changed, but realized they might not be quite true. Coming forward, he handed a cup of cider to the young woman, then turned to his patrons.
"We've certainly had a treat tonight. I think it only right we pass the bowl for the bard and show her how much we've enjoyed her." There were more applause and cheering as the bowl made its way around the room. Happily the man presented the filled bowl to the bard who merely indicated that it should be given to Xena which he quickly did. "Thanks again for sharing your bard tonight, Xena."
She took the dinars and gave the innkeeper a small cut. "I think the bard has one last story in her to end the night with." The people cheered at this. Gabrielle swallowed her cider hoping to ease her throat. "Why don't you tell the tale of the traitor?" Blue eyes stared into green as the bard's face went pale. She struggled with herself. "By the Gods, she doesn't know what she's asking of me. We haven't even spoken of it and she wants me to turn it into a tale for a room of strangers?!' Her body shook in anger and shame. 'But maybe this is what Xena needs. She can't talk about it, but she needs to. Maybe if I tell the story for her, just maybe it will put her on the path to healing.'
Taking a deep breath, the bard began. "I tell a tale of friendship. I tell a tale of sorrow and shame. I tell you the tale of two friends who shared one soul. And I tell you of the betrayal of that friendship." The bard wove the story through Xena's eyes. She was harsh and unforgiving of her own actions, focused only on the loss of the centaurs, the loss of the Amazons, and the loss of the warrior before her. She painted a beautiful picture of a young boy who never had the opportunity to know his mother was only a heartbeat away. Silent tears ran down the woman's face as women sniffled and men fiercely wiped tears away before anyone could see. And when she was finished and the room sat spellbound by the tale, she finished by claiming it as her own story. Heads shot up startled.
"This is true?" someone asked.
"You did that to your friend?" another voice called.
"You should be ashamed!" came a voice accompanied by a tomato, which hit her squarely in the face.
More food was thrown as the innkeeper stepped forward to make peace. "All right, everyone, calm down! I think we've had enough trouble for the night. The girl is obviously paying for her crimes, so let's all go back to our food and drink, shall we?" He pulled the young woman to Xena. "Please, you're welcome to a room if you wish one, but I think it would be best to retire to it now."
Xena merely smiled, picked up her tankard of ale, and grabbed the chain to pull the bard after her up the stairs. Tears continued to escape the smaller woman's eyes but she kept herself as silent as possible. Once in their room, the sotted warrior collapsed on the bed. Gabrielle stood shaking for a moment, her back against the door. She wanted to run from the room, away from this woman she no longer knew. But this was her friend whom she had wronged. She owed her so much and if she could not help the warrior to heal, then she deserved whatever befell her. Slowly the bard moved to Xena, removing her armor, grieves, boots, and leathers. Then she reached for the medicine pouch and tended to the hands which had taken such a beating the night before. After the fight with the mercenaries, the bandages needed changing and several other bruises and cuts needed attention. With the gentlest of touches, the woman saw to the warrior. When she was finally finished, she covered her and turned to clean herself up. She hadn't been hurt by the food thrown at her, just humiliated as she was sure Xena intended. After cleaning herself, she lay down on the floor by the bed wishing to escape into sleep.
Why were mornings becoming so difficult the warrior wondered as she pulled herself up. It took a moment for the fog to clear from her mind, but when it did she immediately realized the bard was nowhere in sight. Warlord: 'I knew you couldn't trust that little bitch!' Ignoring the effects of last night's drunk, anger fueling her, she dressed in seconds. Yanking open the door, the bard stood there on the other side stepping back in surprise. The warrior's arm shot out to grab her around the throat, lifting her off her feet and dragging her back into the room. "Trying to run, traitor? I knew you couldn't be trusted and I promise you'll pay!" The rage flamed in the ice blue eyes and frantically the bard lifted up the steaming mug in front of Xena's face as her only defense. The dark woman's senses finally brought her to the mug as she smelled the familiar fragrance of her hangover remedy. Taking the cup she released the smaller woman who fell to the ground coughing and sputtering. As she drank, she turned and walked away from the prone figure.
"I'm . sorry. I knew you'd want that when you woke . I'm sorry."
Xena's emotions again warred within her. Friend: 'She didn't abandon you. You haven't been betrayed this time. The bard was attempting to care for you.' She noticed the fresh bandages on her hands and saw cuts from last night which had been tended. Then she remembered how she had woken, wrapped warmly in blankets, her armor and weapons polished and stacked neatly, ready for her. She'd been wrong, but there was no way she could apologize to this person who was responsible for her son's death. "Never leave without permission, " was all she could say.
"Yes, Xena. I'm sorry."
"Gather our things. We're leaving." The bard turned to her task without hesitation. For the first time Xena noticed the stiffness with which the young woman moved. "What's wrong with you?" she snapped.
"Nothing," she whispered as she continued her work.
"Liar," she said coldly as she approached the bard. Thinking that the lash marks might have become infected, she grabbed the shirt pulling it up and was surprised to see the mass of bruises covering the body? "When? How?"
"I got in the way of your argument with the tree."
"I didn't mean to do that," her voice neutral.
"I know, but at least justice was being served, right? Don't worry, I know it's not satisfied and probably never will be," she finished as she tugged her shirt back into place.
"You're not stupid, bard, how did you 'get in the way'?"
Worried for some reason that it might make the warrior angry again, she mumbled, "I was afraid you would break your hands if you kept it up. I tried to stop you and kept ending up in the dirt. I didn't know what else to do so I just got between you and the tree. I'm sorry. I won't let it slow you down when we travel."
"I could have killed you."
"Then justice would have been satisfied." She turned back to her packing. The warrior stood dumbfounded by the bard's response.
Soon they were on the road. Gabrielle noted that once again Xena had failed to chain her to the saddle. 'I wonder if it's her way of apologizing to me for almost taking my head off this morning. Guess I'll just enjoy it while it lasts.' The pace was leisurely and the bard wasn't sure if it was for her or the warrior who still struggled with aftereffects.
Today the warrior pulled them over for a mid-day meal and rest. As she headed for the stream, she heard the bard's stomach roar loudly. "When was the last time you ate?"
"Two days ago, breakfast," she shrugged.
"What happened to last night? I know I left food behind."
"After the last story, the innkeeper asked us to go to our room. Things were sort of getting out of hand."
Vaguely she recalled the response of the crowd to Gabrielle's story of betrayal. She winced inwardly remembering the bard being pelted with food. She continued to the stream and caught two big fat trout. When they were finished cooking, Xena threw one fish on each plate and motioned for the bard to eat now.
Looking warily at the warrior, she simply said "Thank you." She practically inhaled the trout almost causing the warrior to smile. When things had been cleaned and repacked, they set off again. Gabrielle could tell the warrior was deep in thought. 'If she doesn't let her feelings out, she's always going to be in pain.'
But the dark woman's thoughts were not only for her dear son, but for the emptiness she felt at the loss of her friend.
The rest of the day went without incident. The bard wondered if it might not have been better to run into a band of robbers just so the warrior could release some of her tension. After the meal and chores were done for the night, Xena settled into sharpening her sword.
The bard gathered her courage and approached the brooding woman. "Xena, I'm very concerned about you." An eyebrow arched in her direction. "I know you're not big on talking, but you really need to let your feelings out." The warrior merely glared at the bard. "Xena, whether you believe it or not, I care very much about you. You need to get past this. I know it will take time, but it will take even longer if you keep on the way you have. Please, Xena, I love you and-"
"Love me?!" she exploded. The bard realized her mistake immediately backing away fearfully watching the fury before her. "That's why you lied - out of love?" she sneered. "And that's why you continued to lie when you found that child of evil?! No - don't you dare say that to me! You don't love me and you're not my friend. In fact, I don't even want you to call me by my name. Now stay away from me, bard!"
The woman scooted out of her line of vision, put her arms around her knees and laid her head down to muffle her crying. 'Words are my gift, why do I keep messing up with Xena? Every time I open my mouth, I make things worse. Gods, please, help me to reach her.' Suddenly she felt a strong hand on her arm pulling her up. No words were spoken as the warrior secured the chain from the saddle to the manacles for the night.
The bard lay awake long into the night watching the warrior. The tall woman paced, tossed her dagger at a tree, groomed Argo, and finally wore herself out enough to throw herself in her bedroll. But it was not a dream of peace, but of nightmares that soon took hold. In her dreams, Xena stood by helplessly as Hope reached inside Solan's chest, seizing his heart, causing it to stop. She watched the agony on her son's face and heard the evil laughter coming from Hope. As she watched, Hope's child face grew into Gabrielle's mature one, still twisted in evil delight at the pain being caused. The warrior thrashed in her sleep, attempting to reach her son.
The bard woke and tentatively tried to soothe her. "Princess . Warrior it's just a dream! Wake up! Princess!" 'Tartarus! This is getting us nowhere. I don't care what she said.' "Xena! Xena it's me, Gabrielle, you're having a bad dream. Wake up, Xena! Let it go and wake up. Xena! Xena!" Abruptly the warrior sat up, blinking her eyes. "Princess, it was a dream. You're safe. Everything is all right."
Slowly the warrior looked around her and mumbled, "No, it's not all right. It will never be right again."
They were on the road early as usual, Gabrielle having shoved trail biscuits into Xena's hands. The warrior looked coldly at the young woman. "Stay in my line of sight and make sure you keep up."
"Yes, Princess." The bard wondered what was going on in the warrior's mind, but could not see past her stoic mask. She trudged along beside the great war-horse grateful to be free of the lead chain. Sometime during mid-afternoon, the sounds of a skirmish could be heard. Heading for the noise, they came upon ten raiders gathering up young women who'd been at the stream washing clothes. A young man, who must have been their protection, lay on the ground unconscious. The old women were separated from the young and it was obvious they were planning on executing them.
Warrior and bard sprang into motion. Xena attacked those threatening the old women first. Gabrielle looked for a branch she could use as a club and was soon between a raider and the prone young man. Several bloody minutes later, the raiders realized this was no longer an easy catch and retreated into the forest.
"Free the women, I'll look after him," she said as she grabbed her medicine kit. The woman expressed their relief and gratitude to the bard and then gathered around the warrior. "No problem," was her only response. "We need to make a litter for the young man." The bard helped the women and soon they were on their way back to their village.
They were met with much enthusiasm and backslapping. Villagers attempted to shower them with gifts, but Xena refused. "At least let us give you a good hot meal and room for the night," ventured the tavern owner whose young daughter had been among the captives.
"That would be nice. And for your generosity, I'll have my bard entertain tonight. Spread the word." The bard looked up at the warrior and knew she was in for a repeat of the other night.
"Thank you, Xena, that would be wonderful. My son, Palin, will tend to your horse."
"Her name's Argo. Take good care of her. By the way, she likes apples."
"Yes, ma'am. I'll make sure she gets the royal treatment," he beamed at the warrior.
"This way, Xena," Torrin, the innkeeper gestured. "I can have my daughter prepare a bath for you if you like."
"That would be wonderful, Torrin, thank you."
"Stacia, see to all the warrior's needs."
The young girl led them into a large room with fireplace and large tub. Then Stacia went to get hot water for the bath. Gabrielle was confused by Xena's acceptance of the room. She thought they would be on their way to catch the raiders.
"Excuse me, Princess? Aren't we going after the raiders?"
"Eventually. But right now I'm having a bath," she growled as she began unbuckling her armor. The bard stepped forward to help. "I've got it." She stepped away quickly afraid to anger the woman.
Stacia returned with buckets of water and with the bard's help soon had the tub filled and ready. The warrior lowered herself into the warm water, relaxing her head back against the rim and merely soaked. Gabrielle busied herself with cleaning the armor and leathers and laying everything out the way she knew Xena liked it. "Wash my back."
"Yes, Princess." The bard knelt behind her, taking a cloth and washing the strong back. Even though this was not the Xena she knew, she couldn't help admiring the body in front of her. Stacia entered at that moment with a platter of fruit and a pitcher of mead.
"Thought you might like a snack until this evening," she smiled at the warrior. Gabrielle noticed the young girl ogling the warrior's body. She bristled without knowing why.
"Thank you, Stacia. Very thoughtful of you," she smiled warmly.
'My gods, is Xena actually flirting with this little girl? What is going on with her? We have raiders to stop.' She scrubbed the back roughly to get the warrior's attention. The dark woman turned quickly grabbing her wrist and staring coldly. "That's quite enough. Get me a towel." The bard moved to retrieve a towel and when she turned back, the warrior had risen and stepped out of the tub. Water glistened on her tanned skin, trailing down her well-muscled body. Stacia stood spellbound and Xena returned the look with a small smirk. Quickly the bard moved forward to cover the tall woman, then she turned to Stacia taking the tray and pitcher from her. Reluctantly the young girl turned to leave.
Once alone, Xena turned to the bard, "You stink." The bard blinked in surprise. "Bathe." She reached for the manacle key in the saddlebags and released her. "Be quick."
"Yes, Princess." While the young woman bathed, the warrior dressed, then turned to the pitcher on the table. Sitting with her legs propped on the table, she leaned back enjoying the drink. The bard could feel the warrior's eyes on her. 'Gods, what is happening? I better make this fast. I don't have a good feeling about this with her just sitting there, drinking.' As quickly as possible she finished her bath and dressed in clean clothes.
"Re-wrap your wrists," she said tossing the medicine pouch at the bard. She complied without haste as Xena strode to her and pulled up her shirt to look at her back. "I'm going to pull out the stitches." The bard nodded and felt the tugs on her back. "Those bruises still look bad." Not knowing what to say, the bard merely shrugged and pulled her shirt back down. Turning to face the tall woman, she held out her arms and the manacles were snapped back into place. "Let's go."
As they entered the main room, villagers cheered and clapped for the warrior. Relaxed from her bath and mug of mead, she actually smiled and nodded at the crowd as she found a table. Stacia was quickly there with roast lamb and potatoes and another pitcher. Gabrielle frowned, worried this was about to become a very had habit. "Thank you, Stacia," the warrior smiled.
"Do you wish me to bring food out here for your slave or do you wish her to eat in the kitchen?" She smiled back.
The bard flinched at the word, realizing for the first time that's what had transpired over the last week, she had become Xena's slave. She barely heard the warrior's answer.
"Bring it out here. Some slaves are not to be trusted out of sight." Tears stung the bard's eyes, but she refused to let them fall. Stacia was back quickly with a less than full plate, but Gabrielle still took it gratefully. "Sit," came the voice as the eyes looked to the floor. The bard eased herself to the floor by the tall woman's side and ate quickly unsure whether the food would be taken away at any moment. The young woman noticed how often Stacia came by their table. While flirting with the serving girl, Xena actually patted the bard on the head like a dog. She bit her lip unwilling to bring attention to herself in the hopes the warrior would forget she had offered the bard's services for the night.
"Looks like the entire village turned out tonight, Stacia," she said looking around.
"They wanted to honor you for what you did. Also they were promised they'd get to hear a bard."
'Son of a Bacchae! No way out of it now.'
"I did promise. Bard, go."
Taking a deep breath, she rose and went to the hearth. She told one classic after another and the people responded warmly. For a brief time, the bard felt loved and safe in the telling of her tales. The warrior would call out tales and she would comply waiting for the moment when she knew Xena would demand the traitor's story. It came all too soon.
The warrior watched through glassy eyes as the bard steeled herself for the telling. She watched the bard tremble through the tale though she was sure no one else noticed. She saw the light leave the green eyes. She saw sorrow and shame fill them. She saw pain as green eyes looked directly into blue. But never did she see the woman deny her part in the events, never deny her responsibility of the outcome. Friend: 'Is it possible she feels as much pain as you do? Is it possible she misses you, too? Longs to go back? Warlord: 'What does it matter? It's done, we can't go back. She'll always be a traitor to us. Xena: 'How can I ever forgive her for the death of my son?' Tears began to fill the warrior's eyes as the bard's story drew to a close. There was complete silence in the tavern as people stared in disbelief. After all, this woman had helped the warrior to save their women. How could she also be the woman in the story? Slowly the people turned their backs on the bard and began departing, many going by the warrior to give comfort as they left.
Even when everyone had left, the bard remained where she was, tears silently crawling down her cheeks. The warrior stood a little unsteadily and Stacia was there to support her. They turned to make their way to the room while the bard followed. Behind the closed door, Stacia tried to comfort the warrior while the bard sat as far away as possible, her back to them. Ironically, Stacia's attempt to ply the warrior with drink and make her more open to seduction, only succeeded in giving her a warrior open to Morpheus. Soon she had passed out and was snoring loudly. The serving girl turned in frustration, leaving abruptly. Gabrielle couldn't help but smirk and began the task of readying the warrior for bed.
The bard made sure to have the hangover remedy made and waiting on the bedside table for the warrior. Luckily, since there was a fireplace in the room, she hadn't had to leave and risk Xena finding her gone for the task. From her place on the floor, she heard the woman groan. "The remedy is on the table next to you, Princess," she made sure to whisper. Grabbing the mug, she downed it in one gulp, then lay back waiting for the pounding to stop. It took Xena longer than usual to gather herself together so they could be on their way and trailing the raiders. At least that's what Gabrielle presumed they would do, but she wasn't sure since the warrior's travel right now seemed haphazard.
"Princess we are going after the raiders, aren't we?" she ventured.
"What? Raiders? Tartarus, completely forgot about them. Yeah, yeah, of course son of a Bacchae, guess we have to go back to where they surprised the women so we can pick up their trail. Sorry, Argo, need to turn around and go back."
"Excuse me, Princess . Uh, it was this way," she said fearfully. 'By the Gods, I'll be glad when all the drink is completely out of her system. This is too strange, me guiding her.'
The warrior might have been under the weather, but it didn't keep her from doing her job once she was focused on it. They tracked the raiders for the entire morning as it turned into mid-day. Finally they heard a combination of men yelling and women screaming, and knew they'd found their target. Xena spurred Argo forward, totally forgetting about the bard who ran after her.
The bard followed, the sounds of swords clanging echoed in her ears. Bursting through the brush, she took in the scene before her. Xena had obviously interrupted several of the raiders in taking their pleasure with one of the women. As Gabrielle dashed towards the young brunette lying on the ground, the warrior was in full battle mode, viciously cutting down her opponents. Seeing that the woman before her was merely bruised with minor cuts, the bard turned her full attention to the fight. One raider directly behind Xena was struggling to his feet, sword in hand. As if possessed by Hermes, the bard leapt forward swinging her chain around his neck. Crying out in surprise, he dropped his sword alerting the warrior who turned and ran him through without blinking. Gabrielle looked down, seeing the blade having missed her own body by inches. Had Xena been careful or had she merely been lucky? The sword withdrew and moved on in its bloody course. The body slumped against the bard almost knocking her over. Pulling her chain free from his neck, she continued to keep one eye on the fight while freeing the women. She could see that the warrior was fully caught up in her battle lust, aware of very little around her. Xena moved with a fierceness and speed beyond most mortals. In a terrifying way, it was beautiful to behold. And then it was over. The raiders lay lifeless at her feet as she moved slowly, covered fully in blood.
In gratitude, the brunette raced forward to thank their savior. But the bard recognized the glaze in those blue eyes. "No, don't! Stay away from her," she cried, rushing to stop her. She just managed to pull the woman away when the warrior turned to the figures at her side. Seeing only forms, she lashed out with the hilt of her sword sending the bard flying. The women gasped, stepping back and giving the warrior wide berth. Fighting unconsciousness, the bard called to them, "Stay still she's lost in the battle still don't go near her." Then she turned her attention back to the warrior, looking through blurred eyes, "Princess, it's over. The battle is over. You've won. Put your sword down. It's over, Princess." Slowly Gabrielle's soothing voice reached inside the warrior's mind, her eyes focused, and finally she sheathed her sword. Seeing that the women were safe, the bard gave in to oblivion.
Xena looked around her realizing she'd been lost for the moment in her battle rage. She approached gently, calling out, "Sorry about that. When you're fighting for your life, sometimes it's hard to see you can stop. Is everyone all right?"
The brunette bravely faced her, "Just minor cuts and scrapes, except for your companion there." Xena turned to see the bard crumpled on the ground, blood gushing from a wound at her temple. "I didn't realize the danger of approaching a warrior right after battle. She stepped between us." The raven head looked up at the woman's words, then back at the bard. She whistled for Argo who trotted over at her command. Taking the medicine bag, she saw to the seeping wound stitching it expertly.
"You, what's your name?" the warrior asked as she worked.
"I'm Xena. Tara, there's ointment in my bag. Why don't you see to anyone who needs some attention. As soon as I'm finished here, we'll start back for your village."
"Thank you, Xena. Please, could we go back first to the place we were captured?
"Why would you-?"
"They killed the ones with us that they didn't want. We'd like to take them home for a proper burial."
"Of course." 'Damn it. Why did I wait so long to go after these vermin? Why didn't I leave yesterday like the bard suggested? Just because she suggested it?' She turned to the woman lying at her feet and gently shook her. "Come on, bard, time to wake up." Splashing water on the young woman's face, she continued, "We've got to get moving. Wake up. We need to get these women back to their homes. Come on, you can do it."
The strawberry-blonde head turned and eyelids fluttered open. Sternly she asked, "You all right?"
Struggling to sit up, the bard replied simply, "Fine."
"Good. Let's go." She rose and turned away to prepare the war-horse. Tara came to Gabrielle's side to help her up and steady her.
"My name is Tara. I want to thank you for stepping in. I believe she would have killed me."
"It would have been an accident. She was just lost-"
"I understand now. Good thing for me, you understood then. What's your name?"
"Well, Gabrielle, you just lean on me, ok?"
A candlemark later, the group arrived at the place where their companions had been left. Xena stared as the women gathered up three old women and two very young children. 'Their deaths are on my hands.' Soon litters had been made and the bodies placed on them to be carried back. It was a somber procession to the little village. When they arrived, joy and sorrow mixed together for daughters returned and mothers and children lost. The townsfolk tried to pay Xena for their rescue, but she wouldn't allow it.
Tara came forward with a bag of supplies, simple food and drink. "Please, take this at least. You did so much for us."
"It wasn't enough," she muttered as she walked away.
That evening Gabrielle set up camp while Xena stayed with Argo brushing her over and over again. The care of her horse was like a meditation for the warrior. She spent so long on the brushing though that Argo began to fidget under her touch. "Sorry, girl, guess I got carried away. Go on, enjoy yourself," she said giving her a tender slap on the rump. She watched the great horse for a moment frolic and kick up her heels, then turned to the campsite.
Sitting down, she began to nibble at the food on her plate, but soon lost interest. "Here. Finish," she said tossing the plate at the bard. She went to the bags of supplies they'd been given and rummaged through them to see what was there. As she'd hoped, they'd included a skin of wine. She took a long draw on the skin hoping to silence the voices in her head. Turning back, she saw the bard sitting quietly, barely eating more than she had.
"What's your problem?" she hissed at the girl.
Kneeling down, she took the bard's chin firmly in her hands, turning her face towards her. The warrior inspected the injury as she spoke. "You know better than to get near a warrior in the middle of battle rage."
"Yes, Princess, it was my fault." Then the young girl's brows knit in puzzlement. "How did you know ?"
"Tara told me. You probably saved me from killing her."
"She didn't know any better."
"Why did you step in?" Firmly she held the face looking deeply into the green eyes. The bard looked back afraid as if to tell the truth would incur her wrath. "Well? I'm waiting."
"I was afraid for you."
"What do you mean? I was perfectly safe. It was the girl who was at risk."
"If you had hurt her, you never would have forgiven yourself even though it would have been an accident."
"And it was all right if I killed you?"
"I don't seem to be doing you any good alive, Princess. Maybe my death would bring you peace." There was such sorrow in those eyes, Xena felt she might drown in them. Pulling her walls tightly around herself, she shoved the young woman from her. Gabrielle could see her withdrawal. Things were only getting worse. The bard knew Xena was blaming herself for the lives that had been lost that day. It didn't matter to the warrior the ones she had saved. And yet, how could she argue with her. If they had left right away and tracked the raiders, things might have been so very different.
They sat in silence for awhile, the night playing it's usual melodies. The bard glanced at the dark woman staring into the fire. She thought she could actually see the warrior becoming smaller, darker, colder. Walls were going up around the walls already there. 'Will there ever be a way through now?' she wondered. "I know what you're feeling, Princess."
The eyes narrowed to a slit, "Do you?"
"You're blaming yourself for the deaths today."
"Don't you? If we'd trailed those raiders immediately, none of this would have happened."
"Did you notice there were more raiders at this site than what you first encountered?"
"Twice as many, Princess. Obviously they had split into groups. There's no way to know if tracking the first group would have led you to the second one in time."
"But I didn't even try," she grumbled.
"No, you didn't and so you'll always wonder. But it doesn't negate the good you did for the other women."
"I should have known."
"Not even the Gods know all things, Princess. As you've said to me many times; 'don't apologize, just improve'." The raven head turned toward the bard, the blue eyes almost black with the rage and loathing held in check. 'But is that loathing for me or herself?'
"Enough talk. Here, clean my leathers."
An eyebrow arched at the way she'd been addressed. She looked at the young woman for some sign of disgust or sarcasm, but saw only acceptance. She took another swallow of wine, but now it tasted bitter. Corking it, she tossed it to the side and grabbed her sword to do drills. Two candlemarks later and covered in sweat, Xena went down to the stream to clean up.
When she'd finished, she watched the bard still working on her leathers. Certain realizations began to penetrate her thoughts as she continued to stare. The bard felt her gaze and timidly turned, "Have I done something wrong, Princess?"
"This afternoon when I charged at the raiders, I totally forgot about you."
"Yes, Princess?" she wondered what she was getting at.
"You could have run."
She merely shrugged as she continued the cleaning, "What would be the point?"
"Why didn't you?" Again a shrug. "I want to know," she commanded as she placed herself in front of the bard grabbing her face. The warrior noticed the wince of pain flash in the eyes. "Your head hurt?"
"It's nothing, Princess."
"Do you lie so I won't feel further guilt about today?"
"No, Princess, I'm not foolish enough to think I matter any more to you."
"So explain," her voice came hard.
Gathering her courage, she wondered if she just might be sealing her fate, "I'm afraid if I become a burden, you'll sell me."
Shock flicked on the warrior's face, but she brought her warrior's mask firmly back into place. "Though you're my prisoner, you're still a free person."
"No I'm not," she spoke to herself.
"What was that?" she snapped.
"Sorry, Princess, but I led to the death of your child and then I murdered my own in cold blood. I will never be free again. Except for the slim chance that I might be able to help you in your grief, I'm sorry you didn't kill me out right." This time the warrior couldn't hide her shock. The bard turned away, finished with her cleaning, "I'm done, Mistress, may I go to bed now?"
"What ? Yeah yeah, go ahead." She watched as the smaller woman laid out the leathers to dry and then walked to the saddle, clicking the lead chain onto her manacles. The warrior went to the medicine pouch, extracted herbs for pain, and began making a tea. When it was completed, she approached the bard and held out the mug. "Drink this. It'll help your head."
She looked up in surprise at the dark woman whose face was hidden in the shadows of the night. "Thank you, Princess." She took the offered mug and drank greedily. The warrior went back to the fire, sat, and stared at it throughout the night.
Dawn came and they were off. The road was dusty, the sun hot, and the silence heavy. The warrior took them by back ways avoiding humanity. Apollo took the sun across the sky with a slowness that rivaled the great tortoise. Finally they camped for the night, both looking forward to doing chores. The bard tried her best to engage the dark woman in conversation. Starting with inconsequential trivia, she managed to get a few grunts out of her. But as she tried to progress to feelings, the door slammed shut.
Nightmares, always present, became more intense, more violent. Gabrielle woke to Xena's cries. "Xena, it's just a nightmare." This was the only time she used the warrior's name knowing she was safe and knowing it was the only way she stood a chance of reaching her. "Xena, you're safe." Slowly she inched forward as the thrashing lessened. "Ssshhh, Xena, you're safe, let it go it's only a dream." Gently she stroked the warrior's head until she settled back into a dreamless sleep. 'At least I can still do this for her.' The bard continued stroking and talking for half the night to assure a restful night.
Days blended together with little to tell the difference. They rose early, traveled in silence, and ended with the bard trying to chip away at the warrior's walls. Then the bard spent half the night whispering to the woman as she struggled with her demons.
After a week of this, supplies were so low Xena had no choice but to head towards a village. As they arrived, they noticed the people scurrying out of their way and not meeting their eyes. The warrior paid it little attention as she made her way to a table.
Nervously the innkeeper approached, "We don't want any trouble, warrior."
She looked him up and down. "Don't worry, neither do I. Just a hot meal. I'll even let my bard entertain your customers. How's that?"
His eyes perked up a bit at that and he nodded enthusiastically. Meals were presented to them both and word was sent out as they ate. People poured in at the promised treat, but when they saw the warrior their pace slowed. The innkeeper assured them things were fine, but a tension hung in the air. As the bard began she couldn't help but notice that part of the attention stayed on the warrior in the back.
"You all seem a little wary of the warrior at the table," she addressed them. "But I tell you she is a warrior of honor, one who fights for the greater good. She is a modest woman, but if she will permit me, I will tell of one of her great adventures." The crowd turned, waiting expectantly. Finally she gave in and nodded her assent. "Thank you, Princess. I tell you the story of Prometheus and how Hercules and Xena, Warrior Princess worked together to free him and save mankind."
When the story ended, the crowded clapped enthusiastically. They turned to smile at the warrior and cheer for her. Then they yelled for more tales. The bard asked for Xena's permission before continuing. She was surprised when the woman gave it. 'I wanted to tell the first story just to make everyone feel comfortable. But just maybe this is my opportunity to remind Xena of who she is. Ok, pick carefully, bard.' She made sure to recite the stories that showed Xena's compassion, her wisdom, and even her humor.
The dark woman sat perfectly still watching the bard weave one tail after another. Warlord: 'What does she think she's doing? Trying to flatter you? She knows you hate that. Trying to take you back to a time before the betrayal? Does she think you can forget that easily?' But as she watched Gabrielle's face she saw the bard's deep commitment to the person in those tales. Friend: 'Maybe just maybe she does still care.' Warlord: Damn it, warrior, what are you thinking? Friend: 'Leave her alone. There's nothing wrong in just listening.' She let the stories wash over her and calm her soul. Almost two candlemarks had passed since the bard began. The bowl had been passed and presented to the warrior. She finally realized the bard was about to tell her closing tale.
"And now I will tell a tale of friendship and betrayal-"
"No." All eyes turned to the warrior. She shifted under the crowd's gaze. "Not tonight." The bard was confused by the command. "Tell about Cupid's son. That's a good way to end the night."
"Yes, Princess, as you wish." Gabrielle sighed with relief at being spared the telling of her crime, and with joy she began the Comedy of Eros. The villagers were laughing so hard, they had tears in their eyes. She thought that just once she might have seen Xena almost smile. It was indeed a good way to end the evening.
So delighted was the innkeeper with the night, he offered a room free of charge, but Xena paid anyway, not wanting to take advantage. The room was clean with one very large bed, but no fireplace so there was a slight chill. Gabrielle pulled out the few things they'd need and then began to polish the warrior's armor.
"I didn't tell you to do that," the tall woman said evenly.
"I know, Princess, but I'd like to if that's all right."
Not looking at the figure that loomed over her, she quietly admitted, "To say thank you for not making me tell my crime."
"I didn't do it for you."
"I know, but I'm still grateful no matter the reason."
The warrior walked away preparing for bed and climbed under the warm covers. She watched as the bard laid a blanket on the floor. Friend: 'She's going to get cold tonight. Warlord: ' And why should she care? Even the bard knows she deserves everything she gets.' She stared at the woman as the debate continued in her head. Xena: 'And if she gets sick, I'm the one who'll be stuck taking care of her.' Damn, but she hated the constant warring in her head. "Bard, sleep at the foot of the bed."
"I don't need to be burdened with you getting sick, there's room at the foot."
Gabrielle was unsure of this arrangement. "But Princess, you know I'm a blanket hog. I wouldn't want to disturb you. I'm really fine here on the floor."
"Bed. Now," she commanded in a tone that said the subject was closed. Carefully the young woman slipped under the covers and curled herself in a tight ball as close to the edge as possible.
As they were getting ready to depart the next morning, Gabrielle gently questioned the innkeeper about the people's attitude when first seeing Xena. She found out a small band of mercenaries had been through only a few days before causing trouble and taking what they wanted. "Do you know which way they went from here?"
"Think they headed east."
"Thank you," she smiled at him. "Princess, did you hear what he said? They're only a few days ahead."
"And in the wrong direction," she snarled as she moved out and towards Argo.
"But I didn't think we had a specific destination "
"No one was killed, there wasn't even much damage done, just a group of idiots flexing their muscles. These people here were afraid to stand up to a small band of bullies. The next village may not be so tolerant and if they are, they deserve to get sand kicked in their faces." With that she mounted the great war-horse and was off with the bard following quickly behind.
Again the warrior took the less traveled roads and the days once again blurred. Frustrated with her lack of progress, Gabrielle decided to try a different approach. Instead of waiting for the evening when the warrior often drank making communication impossible, maybe if she tried talking while they traveled, she could take the woman off guard. "Princess, may I ask a question?"
She heard the heavy sigh and could tell the eyes were rolling. "What is it?" she said through gritted teeth.
'At least she's going to let me ask. Please Gods, let me keep my head.' As sincerely and innocently as possible, the small woman ventured, "Am I telling the betrayal to your satisfaction?"
"What?" She had definitely not been prepared for that one.
"We've never talked about it, Princess, and I didn't know if I was telling it true from your point of view."
"You talk as if there's two sides to the story and which could be the truth," she threatened.
"I'm sorry. That's not what I meant to imply at all. But I know there were things that happened that I didn't witness personally. I've tried to piece it together. And you caught me by surprise the first time you had me tell it. I never thought I'd make that part of our lives into a story. So that's why I'm asking if you're satisfied."
The warrior sat silently on the mare for a moment as she thought. "Mostly."
"Mostly? Then I'm doing some part of it wrong. Could you tell me where?"
The warrior looked back at the bard suspiciously. 'What's she up to?' But she could see nothing in the earnest face except it's desire to please.
"Well for one thing," she began slowly, "I'd made the decision to tell Solan about me."
Gabrielle was surprised by this admission. "I'm so sorry, Princess. I didn't realize." They walked for awhile, each in their own thoughts. "Please, what else don't I know?"
She could hear the pain in the bard's voice, she didn't need to look. Without meaning to, the warrior began to tell bits and pieces of the story. But as the bard had hoped, the things the warrior spoke of were not about events but feelings. The rest of the afternoon the dark woman spoke from her heart unaware of everything around her. Occasionally the bard would oh so gently ask a question or give a supportive comment to keep the words flowing when she grew quiet. There reached a time though when the stoic warrior refused to talk further.
Stopping for the day, they set up camp with only Argo making conversation. As the strawberry blonde made the meal, she noticed the warrior sitting off a ways staring at the stream and drinking wine. 'Maybe getting her to talk wasn't as great an idea as I thought.' The warrior was definitely stuck in her head with thoughts that tore at her heart sending her deeper into despair. Gabrielle watched carefully seeing the mood darken and the wineskin drain. When the food was ready the bard brought it to the brooding woman. She knelt holding it out for her.
"Not hungry. Take it."
"Princess, you haven't eaten since breakfast. You need to keep your strength up."
"And you need to keep your mouth shut."
The bard took a deep breath. She knew she was taking her life in her hands by continuing. "Princess, I know you must be thinking about the things you talked about today on the road. I'm sure it was very hard, but it was also very necessary. By getting in touch with your grief you can heal."
"Heal so I can forgive you?" she snarled at the woman causing her to retreat a step.
"This isn't about me."
"Oh this is very much about you! You've been on my back ever since I took you. This was your plan all along wasn't it? Talk me to death! Or better yet, drive me crazy with your incessant chatter!"
"Princess, please, my only concern is you," she pleaded.
"You lost your child, so you made sure I'd lose mine!" she screamed as she towered over the woman.
"By the Gods, Princess, no!" Things were so out of control. Was this the wine or the pain? "Just try to calm down and listen to me-"
"No! I am through listening to you!" She grabbed the smaller woman by the shirt lifting her off the ground. "In fact I don't want to hear another word from you. You got that?! You say one more word and I swear on the name of Ares I will cut out your damn tongue!" Her eyes blazed as she threw the woman down. "And you will never talk again until justice is satisfied and you have been granted my forgiveness!" An evil grin twisted the warrior's face. Warlord: 'Yes, this is what you should have done in the beginning. All those pretty words of hers gone! She took a threatening step forward. "I think we can safely say your bardic days are over." Turning on her heel, wineskin in hand, the warrior walked back to the campfire.
Gabrielle sat in the dirt speechless. What had just happened? It seemed that the afternoon had been a positive thing for Xena. 'But I guess I pushed too hard. Too much, too soon. And now I've ruined any further chances to reach her if I can't talk. Damn that wine! If she hadn't been drinking, maybe she would have dealt with the pain instead of running away. Oh Gods, what do I do now? Sweet Artemis, I know I'm no longer your chosen, but if you could help Xena, I swear I will try to find a way to repay that help.'
Returning to the fire, the desolate woman sat opposite the warrior and for the first time felt truly helpless.
The first rays of light trickled into the encampment and touched the warrior, warming her cheek. 'Too damn early for that.' She groaned as she slowly disentangled herself from the bedroll. "Bard!" 'Son of a Bacchae! Must remember not to shout.' She grabbed her head in an effort to keep it from falling to pieces. Gabrielle looked up bleary eyed at the warrior. "Remedy, now." The bard shook the lead chain to get her attention. "Ah, Hades. Either I've got to get a longer lead chain or just give up on locking it after I drink. Now that I think about it, I don't think I did lock it.' She threw the key and lay back down watching the light filter through the leaves.
Silently the bard went about her morning chores and soon was handing the steaming mug over to Xena who gulped gratefully. As the morning progressed, she finally realized the bard had not uttered a word. "What's your problem?"
The bard turned to the woman perplexed. 'Could it be she doesn't remember last night? Oh great! This is going to be just great.' She shrugged hoping this would suffice.
"Bard, when I talk to you I expect an answer." Her eyes narrowed threateningly. Gabrielle looked at her wondering what to do next. She reached out for a stick to write in the dirt but the warrior grabbed her wrist, the headache still not subsided and making her very cranky. "I repeat, what is your problem? And I won't ask again." The shaking woman could only nod her head no. Without thought, the warrior struck her, sending her flying. "Do you dare defy me?!" She walked to the woman and as she reached for her again, she saw that the woman had written something in the dirt. 'You forbid me to talk.' "What?" The woman underlined the words already written. "What are you talking about? I mean just tell me what this is about. I give you permission to talk, all right?"
Again the woman shook her head no and wrote again. 'You swore by Ares - cut my tongue out if I talk.'
"Yeah, yeah, but now I give you permission ok?" the warrior said in exasperation.
Again the younger woman shook her head no and continued writing. 'Only when justice satisfied - when you forgive.' Looking at the words, the warrior sat back in surprise. "You're telling me that I actually swore by Ares' name I would cut out your tongue if you talked? And that you may never talk again unless I say justice is satisfied and that I forgive you?" The bard nodded relieved that the warrior finally understood. Xena stood over the woman thinking. 'I hit her because I thought she was giving me the silent treatment, trying to punish me. Friend: 'And it seems in your drunken stupor you condemned her to a life of silence. This isn't right. Warlord: Wrong! It's more than fitting.' Friend: 'You shouldn't be doing things to her when you're drunk.' She saw the blood still flowing from the split lip and went to get a cloth and water. "Come here." The woman rapidly scrambled to her feet to follow. "I didn't remember about last night or I never would have hit you," she stated flatly as she handed the wet cloth to the bard. "And don't worry. I made that oath drunk so let's just forget it, ok?"
Gabrielle turned frightened eyes on Xena and knelt to write again. 'Will Ares forget?'
"Probably not, but I can deal with him."
Determinedly she shook her head no. 'He will demand my tongue or demand something from you. And we both know what that would be.' Xena knew very well that Ares would take advantage of the situation to force her return to him if she broke her oath. The warrior nodded in agreement. "You're right. Guess we're stuck with this." She walked away to start breaking camp and the bard followed suit. "Bard, I didn't mean to do this to you. I was drunk. It's not right for you to be punished when I'm drunk."
Gabrielle looked at the tall woman who kept her eyes on her horse. 'Was that an apology? Is she actually sorry she did this? Sweet Artemis, is there really some possibility that I matter to her? That she might let me help her?' She moved to the horse to load the last few things then reached for the lead chain.
"No," the warrior interrupted her action. "It's not necessary. Just stay in my sight, ok?" The bard nodded quickly. "Let's go." As they traveled, the warrior became aware that the absence of the bard's voice was unsettling. She never allowed her to talk very much, but Gabrielle could never help herself and would come out with little comments here and there along the way that Xena found comforting. But now there was only this deafening silence that pushed the warrior further into her depression. The bard noticed the dark woman's withdrawal and ached that there was nothing she could do. Then an idea occurred to her and she tapped the warrior's leg for attention. Slowly the woman turned to look at her. The bard was pursing her lips together with a questioning look on her face. "Whistle? You want to know if you may whistle?" The bard nodded yes. "Well, it's not talking, so yeah, sure you can whistle." The smile flooded the young woman's face as she began to whistle a tune. The warrior felt a slight weight drop from the burden she carried as the whistling gave her comfort and helped to anchor her back to the world.
The bard was beside herself with joy. 'Yes! I can still reach her! I can still comfort her!' And she whistled all morning until her mouth was dry and she was forced to stop.
For the first time in several weeks they stopped for a mid-day meal. The warrior watched as the younger woman went about building a fire and cooking the fish she'd caught. It dawned on the woman that this little slip of a girl had been doing this for three seasons now. The bard had been looking out for her every need, caring for her, comforting her, always putting her first. 'Well ' she thought ironically, 'almost always. Warlord: 'The one time she doesn't put you first, your son ends up dead. Friend: 'And so does her daughter. And she killed her own child. I can't imagine that. Actually she lost her child twice. Xena: 'But it wasn't a natural child. Surely somewhere inside herself she knew that. Friend: 'But but it was still her child.'
The warrior's thoughts continued to do battle round and round in her head as she stared into the flames. Tears crept down her face without her knowledge. The bard turned and saw the pained expression of the warrior and the tears that silently fell. Her heart went out to this woman as she knelt beside her brushing away those tears. The warrior took no notice of the gentle caress and so the smaller woman dared to move behind her and wrap her in her arms rocking and humming to her. There was the briefest moment when the world went back in time and all was forgotten, except for the friendship holding them close. And then the warrior snapped back to the present aware of whose arms held her, aware of allowing herself to be comforted, aware of her own betrayal to her son. She flung the arms from her and walked away shaking. Gabrielle was startled at this sudden shift and had no idea how to react. The warrior paced obviously upset with herself and the bard. Finally she sprang onto her war-horse and rode out at full gallop leaving behind a very confused bard.
Xena had no idea where she was going, she just had to feel movement. With wild abandon she pushed Argo, relishing the feel of the horse beneath her. It felt like she was out racing the wind. If only she could out race her thoughts. Eventually she brought the great horse to a halt and slowly turned to head back. It was several candlemarks before she returned to camp. She almost hoped that the bard had taken this opportunity to run away, but knew she would find her waiting.
And she was, so busily writing she didn't hear the warrior's approach at first. When the bard looked up there was both relief and trepidation on her face. "You're still here." It was just a statement. The bard nodded and walked to the warrior. She pointed to them both then the camp. Again she pointed to them and then the road, finishing with a shrug of her shoulders. "You asking if we're going or staying?" The bard nodded. Xena looked at the sky. They had a good 3 candlemarks of light left. Argo was rested from the wild run as long as she didn't repeat it. And she herself would rather be moving than sitting around. "Let's go." The bard was quick to hand Xena her uneaten lunch as she broke camp. The warrior wasn't really hungry, but ate out of habit.
Three and a half candlemarks later they found themselves in a breathtaking valley complete with waterfall. While the bard set up camp for the night, the warrior headed for the water. She stayed under the pulsing water over half a candlemark letting it push the tension out of her muscles. When she returned everything was set as she liked it with stew simmering on the campfire. As she began to work on the bowl the bard handed her, she watched as Gabrielle wrote in the dirt. 'May I go to waterfall?' She looked the bard over and realized for the first time how dirty and disheveled the young woman was. "Go ahead." After quickly scribbling 'thank you' in the dirt, the bard turned to go. "Wait. Come back." The bard's shoulders sagged as she returned, sitting down and staring at the ground. Then the warrior was leaning over her, unlocking the manacles. "Can't bathe properly with your clothes on. Though it wouldn't hurt for them to get a washing, too."
The bard sat for several long moments feeling the freedom of movement. Gathering some fresh clothes, she turned first to the warrior to make sure it was all right. "They're your clothes, take them. Besides you can't very well put on wet ones."
The bard almost skipped to the lake, she was so happy. She took great care in washing the clothes she removed from her body and then even greater care in scrubbing every inch of herself. She finished by standing under the waterfall feeling the thundering water almost cleanse her very soul. Almost, but not quite. Emerging refreshed, she dressed quickly and hurried back, worried the warrior would be angry with her for taking so long. She found her sitting sharpening her sword, looking relaxed. Laying out the wet clothes to dry, she then went to the manacles and clicked them back onto her wrists. The warrior was aware of the bard's actions though she never looked. "There's stew left." The strawberry blonde nodded in thanks as she gulped down the food. Then the bard continued with cleaning up after supper and preparing the bedrolls. She returned to the warrior and wrote in the dirt, 'Anything you wish? Or may I go to bed?' "Go." Again she nodded her thanks and automatically clicked the lead chain on and settled in for the night. The warrior stared at the young woman. 'She does it every night herself.'
As the warrior sat working with her sword, she heard the bard humming a tune. It was comforting in the dark of the night listening to her whistling and humming for almost a candlemark before she drifted off to sleep.
The next day the warrior finally took inventory of their supplies and realized she'd have to go to a town whether she wanted to or not. Of course the dinar pouch was pretty light also. Maybe something would come up since she couldn't rely on the bard's storytelling now for income. 'Funny. I've always thought of myself as the provider, the protector. Friend: 'Obviously she's been holding up her end and you never noticed.'
By mid-day they arrived at a sleepy little village. While Xena was calculating their needs against the amount in their purse, a man came running, shouting into the center of the village. "Help! Please someone, we need help!"
Several villagers came running out of different buildings to find out what the commotion was. "Joseph, what is it man? What's wrong?"
"My little girl, Tana, slipped down an air shaft of the old mine. I can't reach her."
The warrior broke through the crowd. "Take me there. I might be able to help." The warrior and bard as well as several villagers followed Joseph to the mine. "How old is the girl?"
The warrior looked grim not sure how much a five year old would be able to help in her own rescue. "Tana, can you hear me?" she called down the hole. "Joseph, she's scared I'm sure. Call to her."
"Tana, darling. It's Papa! Tana, answer me please, Tana."
A small little voice came up the hole, "Papa?" The crowd cheered that the girl was alive.
"Are you ok, Tana?"
"My arm hurts, Papa."
"Hang on, sweetie, we're going to get you out!" He turned to the warrior. "What do we do?"
"It won't do any good to lower a rope if she's hurt. The hole's not big enough for us. We can dig a parallel hole-"
"And what if we cause a cave in of the shaft?" a voice questioned.
"Or she falls further down?" asked another.
They all began debating the merits of the different ideas. Gabrielle came forward trying to get Xena's attention. She pointed at herself then the shaft. "Everyone quiet!" She looked back at the bard. "Are you sure? We'll have to lower you head first and you could get stuck further down." She nodded determinedly. "All right people, listen up. We'll lower the bard by the feet. She's small and hopefully can wiggle through to the girl and then we'll pull them both up." The warrior turned to the bard as she unlocked the manacles. "Since you can't talk, we'll decide on a set of whistles. For stop?" The bard gave one of the Amazon birdcalls. "Go?" Another whistle. "Pull up?" A third whistle. And then she did a fourth whistle. "What's that?" The bard leaned down and wrote in the earth 'Stuck - pull like Tartarus.' It almost got a grin from the warrior. "Be careful."
They tied a rope securely to her ankles, then several men held her upside down and began to lower her. The shaft was small even for the bard and she ended up scraping along the sides. At one point she almost become wedged and whistled for a stop. She dug at the sides to make the opening bigger. When she was satisfied, she whistled go and the descent began again. A quarter of a candle mark later she had reached the girl. She hummed to the girl who slowly looked up and whimpered at her.
"Are you a Goddess?" she cried.
The bard simply shook her head no, smiled as comfortingly as she could and held her arms out to the girl. Slowly little Tana inched forward, putting out her tiny hands. The bard clutched her tightly, then whistled for pull up. The rope began hauling them up, but they stopped in that same place where she had dug to make the shaft larger. She hadn't taken into consideration that by holding the girl, her arms and shoulders would take up more room. Whistling stop, the bard tried to see another way to safely hold the girl. But the child was frightened and clinging so fiercely, and there was no way to explain what she needed of the little girl. 'Damn, now what? I guess I take a chance and give a prayer to any God listening that the earth is soft enough to pull free and let me through. Please, for the sake of the child, let this work.' She whistled up and the rope began moving again. In seconds they were wedged. She wiggled as best she could and whistled up again. They moved a few hand spans and stopped again. Then she gave the whistle for pull like Tartarus. She gritted her teeth as she felt the rough pulling on her ankles and the scraping of her arms against the shaft, but she held tightly to the child. It felt like eternity that she endured the pull, but finally they pulled free with a force that made them bounce a little. The bard prayed they'd reach the top soon since her arms were torn and bleeding and it was becoming increasingly harder to maintain her grip.
At last fresh air greeted them along with the cheers of the villagers. The men laid them on the ground and it took a few moments to pull the child free of the bard's arms which had spasmed. The girl gleefully jumped into her father's arms. Xena checked the child over and assured Joseph the arm was not broken, only scraped and bruised. The warrior then turned her attention to the bard who had scrawled 'Child all right?'
"The girl's just fine. Better than you," she finished as she looked at the gashes in her arms. Let's get these tended." She pulled the bard up who immediately felt light-headed and fainted. The warrior caught her before she hit the ground.
"Is she all right?" Joseph called out in concern.
"She'll be fine."
"I'd like to pay you for helping us and risking your slave to save my little girl."
"That's all right." Then Xena remembered their financial predicament. "But if you could spare a few supplies?"
"Consider it done! Whatever you need," he said joyously.
"And if you'll come back to the inn, I'll be happy to give you a hot meal and put you up for the night. That little girl is my niece," Janos' big voice boomed. Gratefully the warrior followed the villagers back, still holding the unconscious bard in her arms.
At the tavern the villagers insisted on starting the celebration with the warrior right away. "Don't worry, Xena, my wife, Julianna, is a great healer and she'll look after your slave."
"Thank you. Her name's Gabrielle. She can't speak," she told the wife. "Take good care of her," she mumbled. Janos carried the bard upstairs, then left to attend the tavern.
Julianna expertly stitched and dressed the wounds ending up covering the bard's arms from shoulders to elbows in one solid bandage. Then she removed the woman's boots to find bruising around the ankles. The footwear had saved her skin from being torn but could not protect her from the pressure exerted. Applying salve, the healer then elevated the legs and laid cold compresses on them. She'd done what she could and decided to sit with the small woman until she awoke.
Soon the bard's eyelids fluttered open as she looked tentatively around trying to figure out where she was. The wife saw the movement and came to sit in her line of vision. "Hello, Gabrielle, my name is Julianna. I'm the innkeeper's wife and a bit of a healer. It was our niece you saved this afternoon. Thank you." Gabrielle smiled up at the woman even as pain reflected in her eyes. "Now that you're awake, I want you to drink this. It will help with the pain and make you sleep."
The bard looked around for Xena and not finding her, shook her head no. "What's wrong, little one? Are you looking for your mistress?" She nodded yes in reply. "Xena is downstairs celebrating with half the town. Don't worry, you're both staying the night. And she told me to take good care of you." Green eyes shot up questioningly. "Yes, it's true, so I think it will be all right with her if you drink this." The bard tried to reach for the mug but found it hurt too much to move. "Let me help, little one." Lifting the bard's head, she brought the drink to her lips. "Good girl, now are you hungry?" The bard swore her stomach had a mind of its own as it rumbled in response. "All right then, you rest and I'll be right back with something special." She noticed the young woman was shaking her head no again, but chose to ignore it.
Making her way through the crowd, she approached the warrior. "Xena, I've tended her wounds and I'd like to take her some food. What would you like me to serve your slave?"
The warrior struggled for a moment with her words. "She's not my slave. She's my prisoner."
"Prisoner?" Janos asked overhearing. "What did she do?"
Again she struggled, the words sticking in her throat, "She led to the death of a child."
"But she saved my little girl," Joseph said in awe.
"Perhaps to make some atonement for her deed. I don't know."
"Are you taking her to trial?" Janos' voice boomed in her ear. "Or is the trial over and you're escorting her to prison?"
What was Xena doing with the bard? The ale had relaxed her mind and the words bounced around inside echoing it seemed. "It was my child. She placed herself in my hands as jury and judge."
Julianna placed her hands on the warrior's shoulders in comfort. "I'm sorry for your loss. No parent should outlive their child."
"So what do you plan on doing with her? I mean, how will you exact justice for her crime?" surprisingly Janos' voice came very gently.
"I'm not sure. I've just been wandering not really thinking about it." The warrior couldn't believe she was actually letting some of her thoughts out to these strangers. "I gave her a lash for every year of my son's life."
"You're kinder than I would have been," Joseph's voice came coldly. "I'd have given one lash for every year not lived."
"She's a bard and I've forbidden her to ever speak again."
"That's a small price to pay for her deed."
"Xena," Julianna claimed the warrior's attention before a debate began, "do you wish the girl fed?"
"What? Yes, of course. She saved Tana. She risked her life for a stranger. Please feed her well. Oh, and Julianna if you have any nutbread, she really likes that. Thank you."
The wife turned to carry out her task as the villagers surrounding the warrior continued to ask questions and offer comfort. Several even made suggestions of appropriate punishment for such a crime. Others offered to have a trial right here and now. Xena fluctuated back and forth from laughing at the torments they suggested and wanting to scream that the little bard didn't deserve such treatment.
Meanwhile, Julianna had re-entered the room and put down a heaping tray on the table next to the bed. Gabrielle was sleepy but became more alert as smells tickled her senses. She looked at the food with surprise and her face lit up at the sight of the nutbread. An instant later her eyes clouded and she looked away.
"Gabrielle, it's all right. Xena told me to bring this to you. She was the one who told me you were fond of nutbread." The bard turned back to the gentle woman smiling her gratitude. Again she attempted to fend for herself, but her arms felt like heavy logs. "It's all right." And without another word, she began to feed her. Julianna was amazed at the small woman's appetite. Where was it all going? After she had devoured every last scrap, it was obvious the medicine was taking its effects and about to send her to Morpheus. Before drifting off, she looked quickly around the room, her eyes resting on the manacles. She looked from them to the matronly woman then to her wrists. "Little one, you're not going anywhere. I don't think Xena will mind if you sleep without. It will be better for your healing." The bard shook her head insistently, looking with pleading eyes. "You poor tortured soul. You wish to atone for your crime, don't you?"
Startled green eyes looked at her. "Yes, Xena told us what you did. Not everything. She doesn't speak much." The bard nodded in agreement as shame filled her eyes and tears followed. She looked once more at the manacles pleadingly. "All right, if that's what you wish," she replied as she went to fetch the chains.
But the warrior had been standing on the other side of the door. She had opened it a crack and watched the exchange through blurred vision. As Julianna was about to snap the cuffs around the wrists, the warrior strode in quickly, "Not tonight." Both wife and bard stopped as if frozen. "Thank you for your kindness, Julianna."
"It was my pleasure, Xena. If you should need anything, just let me know." And she slipped out the door closing it gently. The warrior looked over at the bard who was still staring at her in surprise. "Get some sleep. I want to leave tomorrow if you're able." Tears began flowing freely down her cheeks now. "Stop crying," she said roughly. It was not out of a lack of caring, but rather that it hurt her own heart to see the bard in such pain. Turning her back, she threw off her armor and clothes and dropped into the other bed across the room. The night still swirled in her mind as she sought to escape the turmoil and give herself over to sleep.
Continued in Part 2.