Part 2 She didn't have long to wait as a hand shot out grabbing the mug. Half a candle
mark later they were on their way with full provisions compliments of Janos
and Joseph. Somewhere around mid-morning, Xena began to feel human again and
told the bard to whistle. She complied at once, but the warrior could tell there
was no joy in the music. Not feeling like facing the bard, she pulled out two
trail bars and tossed one to the younger woman as they continued on until evening.
Camp was set quickly and soon Xena had two rabbits roasting. She hadn't needed
to hunt, but it gave her something to do. While the food cooked, the bard came
forward and wrote in the earth, 'Thank you for letting me help in saving the
child.' The warrior merely nodded so the bard moved away to tend the food. After
supper and clean up, the older woman called to her, "Come and bring the medicine
bag." She always obeyed quickly, but wondered what Xena could possibly need.
"Sit. We need to change your bandages."
She wrote, 'You don't have to.'
"I know I don't have to. But it only makes good sense." She reached out and
began to unwrap the cloth. "Julianna did a good job on your arms. I didn't realize
how badly you'd been torn." She applied some ointment and then re-wrapped them
both. "I'm going for a swim." She walked off.
The bard watched the retreating back, then pulled out parchment and began
to write. By the time the warrior returned, Gabrielle had written out several
questions and observations for her to read. Before Xena could reach for the
wineskin, she handed her writing to the warrior.
Taking the scroll, she looked down and read, 'I want to make things better.
I want to help you heal. I know I can't bring back your son or make up for his
death. And yet I want to. I gave myself over to you so you could have justice
or vengeance or whatever you want. I hoped by doing so, it would help you. Except
for one whipping, you haven't really demanded anything of me in retribution.
And what you're doing to yourself is worse. You're avoiding villages and drinking
every chance you get. That's not you.'
She paused for a moment from her reading and looked at the bard, "How do you
know what's me? I avoid villages because right now I can't stand to see happy
little children running and playing. And a little drinking to quiet the ache
in my heart and the voices in my head isn't going to hurt me."
The bard pointed back to the parchment. "We all deal with grief in our own
way," she growled. Again the bard pointed and the warrior looked. 'You do nothing
to work through your grief. If you would continue working for the greater good,
it might help you. All I care about is you being healed.' The warrior turned
steely eyes on her. "Sorry I'm not healing fast enough for you."
The young woman leaned forward scanning the scroll and then pointed to a section.
'You've been dragging me around the countryside for a moon. Why? Will making
me your slave help you to deal with the death of your son? I fear my presence
is only making things worse. I'm a constant reminder. I would rather you send
me to prison or kill me than allow my very existence to hurt you more.'
The warrior threw down the parchment and got up to walk away, but the bard
was determined. She picked up the discarded scroll and grabbed the tall woman.
"Stop it!" she shouted. "Stop tormenting me!" She pulled out her dagger. For
a second the bard was convinced she would now die. Instead she found herself
being dragged to a tree, the chain lifted high over her head, and the dagger
driven up to the hilt through one of the links. Then Xena turned, grabbed the
wine, and walked off into the night. The bard struggled to get free but knew
it was useless. She would be here until the warrior returned and decided to
It was in the late hours of the night when the warrior stumbled back into
camp, falling into her bedroll and passing out. The bard watched sighing and
tried to will herself to sleep. When dawn came Xena slowly rolled out of her
tangled blankets to see the bard's empty bedroll. Shakily she got to her feet
and began to curse. "Damn you. I knew I couldn't trust you. I knew you'd leave
me!" She whirled around to grab up her sword and saw the bard hanging from the
tree unconscious. "Oh Gods, what have I done?"
Racing to the bard's side, Xena yanked the dagger from the tree and caught
the fragile body before it hit the ground. The warrior searched for signs of
injury but could find none. 'She's cold as ice. Son of a Bacchae! I remember
pinning her to the tree. But then what? I was angry
I got drunk
and I forgot
just left her hanging there all night. What's wrong with me?' She
wrapped the bard tightly in a blanket and rubbed the arms to help bring circulation
back. She could see little spots of red here and there on the bandages. 'Some
of the stitches must have torn and she bled. But thankfully it was very little.
Warlord: 'So no permanent damage was done. Friend: 'No
a simple night of torture.' Gently she rubbed the bard's neck and shoulders
in an attempt to rouse her. "Come on, bard, time to wake up."
Slowly blonde lashes fluttered slightly, finally opening to take in her surroundings.
She looked nervously at the warrior unsure of her mood. "How are you feeling?"
The bard tried to assess the sensations her body was giving her. She felt like
Tartarus, but what did it matter? She simply nodded a yes to indicate she was
alive. "I didn't mean to leave you there all night. I
I just wanted
I didn't mean
" The warrior was at a total loss to explain her actions and
she couldn't bring herself to apologize. The bard nodded again in understanding.
if you're all right, I'm going to make us a quick breakfast and
then we'll get moving."
Xena moved with precision around the encampment. Preparing a small meal for
them both, she laid Gabrielle's beside her and stepped away to eat her own.
The bard's arm shook as she turned on her side and brought the food to her mouth.
She didn't have the strength to sit up and barely had the strength to control
her trembling hand. She inched her way closer to the plate and ate directly
from it. The warrior never looked, but knew what the bard had to do in order
to eat. Rising, she hurriedly packed everything up then came over to the small
woman. "You're riding today. I know you don't like it, but I want to make up
for lost time so no fussing." The bard looked at her perplexed. 'As if I
could complain? I'm not allowed to talk and I can barely move thanks to you
leaving me strung up all night and you actually tell me not to fuss? And I can't
even tell if you're sorry or just annoyed that you have to deal with me.'
The bard felt herself lifted onto Argo's saddle still wrapped in the blanket.
Xena was behind her in one spring. Roughly she placed one arm around the bard
to hold her in place. Both bodies were tense with the nearness of the other.
Gabrielle hoped she'd be able to walk soon because this situation was too unnerving.
It was going to be a very long day.
The warrior stopped for a mid-day meal and rest. When they resumed, the bard
was able to convince her that she was capable of walking on her own. They traveled
until nightfall and made camp as the sky darkened. The bard went about her usual
chores while Xena brushed Argo. The night was almost still. Tonight there was
no drinking, there was no writing, there was not even a gentle whistling to
fill the void. Both women turned to their bedrolls, lost in despair, lost in
pain, simply lost.
Part 2Gabrielle was determined to be up before the warrior and show she was fit for travel. Though her ankles were sore, they weren't swollen so she slipped her boots on. Peeking outside the door, she succeeded in getting someone's attention and soon Julianna arrived. Handing her herbs and instructions, the wife smiled knowingly and left to make the hangover remedy for the warrior. Then she turned to the leathers and armor, cleaning and polishing while trying to be as quiet as possible. When all was finished and everything packed, she once again slipped the manacles on just as Julianna knocked on the door. Taking the mug, she smiled and bowed her head to the woman in thanks. She placed the drink on the table by the bed and simply sat down to wait.
She didn't have long to wait as a hand shot out grabbing the mug. Half a candle mark later they were on their way with full provisions compliments of Janos and Joseph. Somewhere around mid-morning, Xena began to feel human again and told the bard to whistle. She complied at once, but the warrior could tell there was no joy in the music. Not feeling like facing the bard, she pulled out two trail bars and tossed one to the younger woman as they continued on until evening.
Camp was set quickly and soon Xena had two rabbits roasting. She hadn't needed to hunt, but it gave her something to do. While the food cooked, the bard came forward and wrote in the earth, 'Thank you for letting me help in saving the child.' The warrior merely nodded so the bard moved away to tend the food. After supper and clean up, the older woman called to her, "Come and bring the medicine bag." She always obeyed quickly, but wondered what Xena could possibly need. "Sit. We need to change your bandages."
She wrote, 'You don't have to.'
"I know I don't have to. But it only makes good sense." She reached out and began to unwrap the cloth. "Julianna did a good job on your arms. I didn't realize how badly you'd been torn." She applied some ointment and then re-wrapped them both. "I'm going for a swim." She walked off.
The bard watched the retreating back, then pulled out parchment and began to write. By the time the warrior returned, Gabrielle had written out several questions and observations for her to read. Before Xena could reach for the wineskin, she handed her writing to the warrior.
Taking the scroll, she looked down and read, 'I want to make things better. I want to help you heal. I know I can't bring back your son or make up for his death. And yet I want to. I gave myself over to you so you could have justice or vengeance or whatever you want. I hoped by doing so, it would help you. Except for one whipping, you haven't really demanded anything of me in retribution. And what you're doing to yourself is worse. You're avoiding villages and drinking every chance you get. That's not you.'
She paused for a moment from her reading and looked at the bard, "How do you know what's me? I avoid villages because right now I can't stand to see happy little children running and playing. And a little drinking to quiet the ache in my heart and the voices in my head isn't going to hurt me."
The bard pointed back to the parchment. "We all deal with grief in our own way," she growled. Again the bard pointed and the warrior looked. 'You do nothing to work through your grief. If you would continue working for the greater good, it might help you. All I care about is you being healed.' The warrior turned steely eyes on her. "Sorry I'm not healing fast enough for you."
The young woman leaned forward scanning the scroll and then pointed to a section. 'You've been dragging me around the countryside for a moon. Why? Will making me your slave help you to deal with the death of your son? I fear my presence is only making things worse. I'm a constant reminder. I would rather you send me to prison or kill me than allow my very existence to hurt you more.'
The warrior threw down the parchment and got up to walk away, but the bard was determined. She picked up the discarded scroll and grabbed the tall woman. "Stop it!" she shouted. "Stop tormenting me!" She pulled out her dagger. For a second the bard was convinced she would now die. Instead she found herself being dragged to a tree, the chain lifted high over her head, and the dagger driven up to the hilt through one of the links. Then Xena turned, grabbed the wine, and walked off into the night. The bard struggled to get free but knew it was useless. She would be here until the warrior returned and decided to release her.
It was in the late hours of the night when the warrior stumbled back into camp, falling into her bedroll and passing out. The bard watched sighing and tried to will herself to sleep. When dawn came Xena slowly rolled out of her tangled blankets to see the bard's empty bedroll. Shakily she got to her feet and began to curse. "Damn you. I knew I couldn't trust you. I knew you'd leave me!" She whirled around to grab up her sword and saw the bard hanging from the tree unconscious. "Oh Gods, what have I done?"
Racing to the bard's side, Xena yanked the dagger from the tree and caught the fragile body before it hit the ground. The warrior searched for signs of injury but could find none. 'She's cold as ice. Son of a Bacchae! I remember pinning her to the tree. But then what? I was angry I got drunk and I forgot about her just left her hanging there all night. What's wrong with me?' She wrapped the bard tightly in a blanket and rubbed the arms to help bring circulation back. She could see little spots of red here and there on the bandages. 'Some of the stitches must have torn and she bled. But thankfully it was very little. Warlord: 'So no permanent damage was done. Friend: 'No just a simple night of torture.' Gently she rubbed the bard's neck and shoulders in an attempt to rouse her. "Come on, bard, time to wake up."
Slowly blonde lashes fluttered slightly, finally opening to take in her surroundings. She looked nervously at the warrior unsure of her mood. "How are you feeling?" The bard tried to assess the sensations her body was giving her. She felt like Tartarus, but what did it matter? She simply nodded a yes to indicate she was alive. "I didn't mean to leave you there all night. I I just wanted but I didn't mean " The warrior was at a total loss to explain her actions and she couldn't bring herself to apologize. The bard nodded again in understanding. "Ok, well if you're all right, I'm going to make us a quick breakfast and then we'll get moving."
Xena moved with precision around the encampment. Preparing a small meal for them both, she laid Gabrielle's beside her and stepped away to eat her own. The bard's arm shook as she turned on her side and brought the food to her mouth. She didn't have the strength to sit up and barely had the strength to control her trembling hand. She inched her way closer to the plate and ate directly from it. The warrior never looked, but knew what the bard had to do in order to eat. Rising, she hurriedly packed everything up then came over to the small woman. "You're riding today. I know you don't like it, but I want to make up for lost time so no fussing." The bard looked at her perplexed. 'As if I could complain? I'm not allowed to talk and I can barely move thanks to you leaving me strung up all night and you actually tell me not to fuss? And I can't even tell if you're sorry or just annoyed that you have to deal with me.'
The bard felt herself lifted onto Argo's saddle still wrapped in the blanket. Xena was behind her in one spring. Roughly she placed one arm around the bard to hold her in place. Both bodies were tense with the nearness of the other. Gabrielle hoped she'd be able to walk soon because this situation was too unnerving. It was going to be a very long day.
The warrior stopped for a mid-day meal and rest. When they resumed, the bard was able to convince her that she was capable of walking on her own. They traveled until nightfall and made camp as the sky darkened. The bard went about her usual chores while Xena brushed Argo. The night was almost still. Tonight there was no drinking, there was no writing, there was not even a gentle whistling to fill the void. Both women turned to their bedrolls, lost in despair, lost in pain, simply lost.
Time drifted, playing with their senses. The monotony of the landscape did little for either woman's spirit. The sameness of the days only drove them deeper into themselves. A little after a week, they ran into a small band of thugs. Though the distraction was welcome it did little to change their moods.
As days ran to weeks, Xena again began drinking while Gabrielle wrote furiously. The bard knew better than to force the issue, so she would tear off little pieces of parchment writing down questions, fears, or thoughts and leave them for the warrior to discover privately. Sometimes the notes touched her deeply, sometimes they unleashed great anger. On the occasion that the warrior went into drunken rages and passed out, Gabrielle would take the wineskin and, if any was left, pour it out in the woods. Besides assuring a few sober nights, it forced Xena to a village if she wanted to replenish her supply.
One such time they hadn't yet reached a village, but it was obvious the brooding woman was agitated. Carefully the smaller woman came forward to write in the dirt, 'would you like to spar? It might help.' She glared at the red-blonde, but nodded consent. Looking for two sturdy straight branches to substitute for staves, she tossed one to the bard. They began slowly with standard moves and soon progressed to more intricate patterns. It was evident the bard was out of shape and out of practice as the warrior landed several blows she shouldn't have been able to. But the warrior herself was also having difficulty executing her usual proficiency. They sparred for nearly two candlemarks. The bard was growing weary and the warrior sloppy. With a last burst of energy, the bard swung at the warrior's head expecting to be blocked and instead dropped her on her butt. She was astonished to find herself standing above the fallen warrior who blinked back in surprise. Tossing her makeshift staff aside, she knelt to see if she'd caused any damage. Embarrassed, Xena shoved her away and walked off to the river to bathe. Grabbing a towel and clean shift, Gabrielle followed out of concern.
Waiting patiently by the river, the bard splashed water on herself having received no encouragement to join the warrior. As the tall woman emerged from the water, the bard held out the towel. Xena dried herself quickly and turned to find the small woman holding out the clean shift. Slipping it over her head, the warrior returned to the fire with the bard close behind. The stoic warrior turned to her sword and whetstone. The silent bard turned to her quill and parchment. The cold night eventually turned to dawn and warmth.
The next day found them on the road to the little village of Tyne. As they rode in from the south, they could just see a small band of soldiers exiting north, leaving behind a large crowd of villagers. The warrior rode up on her large war-horse to ask, "What's going on?"
They turned to see just another soldier to their eyes. "Great," the elder said sarcastically, "another one. Whatever you want, you'll have to fight Barticus' army to get it."
"What if I want to help?"
They looked up at her surprised and hopeful. "Do you mean that?" asked the elder, Tamos.
"Why don't you tell me what's going on and I'll see what I can do." Tamos quickly explained the demands of the small army outside their walls. By mid-day they were to have wagons loaded with supplies and riches waiting just outside the village or else suffer their wrath. "I've heard of Barticus. He's a small time wannabe warlord. Fifty men at best and not well trained. But even I can't take on fifty men alone. Together we can easily set up defenses that should discourage them."
The villagers looked at each other anxiously. Was it better to just give in or fight? Then Tamos spoke for all of them. "We're not warriors, but we're strong. You tell us what to do and we'll follow your lead." The warrior grinned as she dismounted. She was in her element now. She felt alive for the first time in months. Giving out orders and instructions, she soon had the whole village involved in their own defense. Children gathered stones, women boiled oil and water, and men dug trenches lined with an assortment of deterrents. The bard watched the warrior slip into warlord mode and wondered if she'd be able to call her back.
By the next morning, all was prepared. Xena took no chances and had scouts posted along the way in case the ragtag army decided to visit earlier. Sure enough the call was sounded, but the villagers were ready and sprang to their assigned stations. The children had all been gathered and sent into caves just east of Tyne. Those unable to fight went with them. Women gathered on rooftops to throw stones, men positioned themselves on the other side of trenches to lure the army into their trap, and Xena strode with confidence calling out reminders and last minute commands. The bard stayed closely by and was relieved when the warrior at last gave her a staff to fight with.
The soldiers attacked from several directions, as Xena knew they would, but they were in no way prepared to meet resistance. Rocks rained down on them, leaving several badly hurt or unconscious. Others felt the ground give way beneath them, landing on spikes or covered in oil with the threat of a torch to send them running in the opposite direction. Of course some broke through and the warrior led her farmers with shovels, axes, and pitchforks into battle. In a few hours she had taught these men enough about strategy to make them formidable. Those soldiers that could still stand, took off in a great hurry leaving their leader to whatever fate befell him. Barticus had barely managed to sneak away in the whirling swords, determined to take his revenge on the warrior princess later.
The little town cheered their victory watching them run for their lives. Those left behind were quickly gathered up and taken to their jailhouse. And all turned to thank and praise the warrior who had saved them all with her leadership. "Tonight we must celebrate, friends, and Xena shall be our guest of honor!" yelled Tamos above the crowd. We know you didn't ask for payment, but you shall have the finest room in our inn and supplies enough to burden your horse."
They laughed and talked excitedly as they made their way to the tavern. The bard watched the warrior carefully. She could tell by her strut and stance that the warrior still saw herself as commander with her troops around her and that the warrior was enjoying it. Gabrielle followed close behind and ended up sitting on the floor as Xena picked a table. Food was brought out and ale flowed non-stop. People took turns entertaining each other, playing the lute, singing, dancing, even story-telling. It was a celebration to rival the Amazons. And then Xena began to join in the festivities by telling her own tales. People gathered around the table to hear the war stories she related. The bard sat passively knowing the warrior was lost back in time in her head. As the warrior ate, she lowered some meat to the bard who began to take it from her hands. It was quickly withdrawn and for a moment, the bard wondered if this was meant as teasing or torture? She looked up into the ice blue eyes and realized she was looking at the warlord. The hand lowered again with the meat and this time she understood she was suppose to eat directly from her hand if she wanted food at all. 'So Xena's come up with another form of mind torture, but does it really matter? After what I did to her, am I really any better than a dog?' She ate without pleasure, she ate merely because she knew she had to. The tall woman continued to drink and regale the crowd with her exploits and occasionally feed the small woman at her feet.
All ignored her despite the fact she had fought along side them. The party went long into the night so that the young woman finally curled up in a ball at Xena's feet to sleep. Somewhere in the wee hours, the warrior stood, more sure on her feet than she had the right to be, and grabbed the bard up with her. Jeers and chuckles followed them up the stairs, making the strawberry blonde head turn to try to understand what they were snickering at.
Once inside their room, the bard turned to ready the warrior for bed when she noticed the heated look in her eye. She'd seen it before after a fight, battle lust Xena called it. The young woman backed away to busy herself elsewhere when she heard the warrior's voice, hard with desire, "Bard, come here." She complied, what else could she do? "Take off my armor." Carefully, trying to avoid physical contact, Gabrielle loosened buckles and pulled the breastplate free. Next she knelt to unfasten the leg guards. Each time careful to avoid contact. But she could feel the heat coming off the warrior. 'Oh Gods, she drank enough to fell an ox. Why is she still standing?'
Without warning, she felt herself yanked up against the larger woman. She tried to pull free, but Xena was too strong for her to fight. Roughly the warrior's mouth came down on hers, bruising, taking, invading. Somehow Gabrielle managed to wiggle down and away from the tall woman. But it was only a moment's reprieve. A low growl was emanating from the warrior's throat as she stalked the girl around the room. "What's the matter, little one? Isn't this what you really want? Not that I care. It only matters what I want and what I need." Quickly she grabbed the girl, throwing her on the bed, and then climbed on top to prevent escape. "You followed me and now you'll see what it really is to follow a warrior." Savagely she sucked and bit at the bard's neck while the young girl thrashed beneath her.
'I've got to stop her somehow. She'll hate it when she realizes what she's done. Or maybe she won't. I don't know her anymore.' Grabbing onto the chain between her manacles, she pushed it against Xena's throat in an effort to push her back. But Xena's strength was such that the chain began to bite into her neck. Howling in frustration, she pulled back and slapped the bard. "You want to fight? You think you can take me, little girl? We'll see who the master is!" Grabbing the bard's wrists, she pulled them behind her back and hooked the manacles together. Try as she might, Gabrielle couldn't figure out how to unhook them. She looked up into Xena's blazing blue eyes which were almost gone now behind black pupils. The warrior grinned in that way that scared grown men senseless. Ripping open the bard's top she lunged at the breasts, biting and leaving her mark. Again she claimed the helpless woman's mouth forcing her way in.
'All my life I've loved her. All my life I've wanted her to love me, but not like this. Please, Gods, not like this.' She continued to resist, which only seemed to excite the warrior more. 'I give up. If this is all that's left, so be it.' And with that she stopped her struggles. She even returned Xena's passion with her own. But not devouring like the warrior, but sweet and gentle and full of love. Without realizing the change that occurred, it calmed the lust in her warrior soul. Suddenly Xena broke all contact and looked down at her captive. She saw green eyes filled with love and sorrow and was that pity? Warlord: 'No! How dare she feel pity for you! You're the one in command! Xena: 'Stop looking at me like you actually love me! Damn you to Tartarus!' Her mind railed against what she saw and she struck out again. Warlord: 'Now let me see hate and fear in those eyes, but not love, never love, because that's just a lie!' She slapped her again and was rewarded with a look of fear, but not hate, not even anger. "You think you can comfort me?!" she screamed at the small woman beneath her. "You think you can make it all better?! You have stolen more from me than you'll ever know and I hate you for it!" With that last pronouncement, she threw the bard off the bed to land heavily on the hard wood floor. "And I better not hear any crying from you tonight! You have no right to tears." The bard lay very still shoving her face into the cold floor to stifle her sobbing. The warrior turned in the bed and shoved her face into cold pillows to stifle her own.
The next day the warrior was awakened by a knocking on her door. "Got breakfast for you, Xena!" a hearty voice called out.
She was a morning person herself, but by the Gods, no one should be that cheerful in the morning. "Come in and put it on the table, thanks," she managed to groan.
Gently the door opened as the innkeeper entered. "Well looks like someone had fun last night," he chuckled as he set down the tray and slipped back out. Confused, the warrior looked around the room to see what he could possibly mean. Her eyes found the bard on the floor, arms behind her back, top torn away, bruises and bites covering her breasts and thighs.
Friend: You've finally done it. You raped your best friend. You didn't allow your soldiers to do that and now you've done it yourself.' She stared in shock at the curled up figure. Slowly the bard began to stir and turned toward the warrior showing a black eye and busted lip. Once the young woman had woken enough to realize her surroundings, she tried to sit up and turn away. Xena hoisted her up onto the bed, releasing the clasp that kept the manacles bound together. No words were spoken as the brooding woman took out her medicine kit. She cleaned the bites and scrapes and put ointment on each small wound with actual tenderness. Unlocking the manacles, she pulled away the torn top which could not be saved, giving the bard another to cover herself with. "I've never raped before. I've taken women and men, but they've always ended up begging me for it. Rape is without honor-" She saw the red-gold head shaking 'no' at her. Xena looked up. "You trying to tell me I didn't?" The bard nodded yes, then no. "I see the evidence, little girl. I know what I did." She turned away packing their things.
She was lost in her activities when a small hand gently touched her on the shoulder and held out a small note to her. 'You stopped. You did NOT rape me. You stopped.' The warrior looked at the words in relief. She couldn't face the young woman just yet, so merely nodded and continued her packing.
They were soon back on the road. The only noise was Argo's hooves and the jangling of the manacle chain. Usually the warrior enjoyed the silence, but today it weighed her down. Gabrielle looked at the shoulders that seemed to bear the weight of Gaia herself. Timidly she began to whistle. She stopped as the warrior turned to look at her. "Go on."
She continued her whistling through the morning and noticed as the muscles in the taught back slowly relaxed. Every tenth song she made sure to whistle a particular tune that was very soothing. The bard hoped it would sink into the warrior's mind as a way to reach her during nightmares.
After more than a candlemark, the bard's whistle dried up. She tapped the warrior pointing at the water skin. Xena handed it to her and moved on, letting her keep the water. 'Well I've finally been trusted with something.'
They traveled without incident for the rest of the day. As Apollo began to take the sun away, Xena found a cave to protect them against the rain that threatened to fall. Moments after setting up for the night, the downpour came. The blaze kept them warm, dancing on the cave walls and sending out strange shadows. The bard took care of all cooking and cleaning chores while the warrior tended Argo. Soon after, each woman was emersed in their own world of parchment and sword. The tall woman's strokes with the whetstone slowly drew to a stop as she stared out at the pouring rain. The bard had no idea what was going on in her head, but she knew better than to do anything without permission. Coming forward, she made one of the signs they'd come up with in order to communicate more easily.
The warrior glanced outside again. "I don't think it's going to stop anytime soon so I don't think you're going to want the bushes out there. Go back further in the cave, maybe you'll find a more friendly spot." The bard nodded and wandered off to explore. Once more the tall woman let the insistent drumming of the water take her to another place. Without realizing it, almost half a candlemark had passed before Xena noticed the bard had not returned. What caught her attention was a faint tapping of rock on rock. 'Great now what?'
Carefully the warrior moved towards the sound. The tunnel twisted and around the bend was a smaller opening off to her left. The tapping of the rock was louder and she could also hear the sound of running water. Kneeling down, she began to crawl through the small space. 'Damn it, bard, what have you gotten yourself into now?' When she emerged on the other side, it had opened into a big cavern partially illuminated by a strange moss on the rock walls. The water turned out to be a gently flowing stream through the mountain. Sensing no danger, she lit the torch she had brought with her. The small light couldn't begin to cover the large cavern, but Xena's eyes were keen and it was enough to help in finding the bard.
She heard the tapping coming from below her and slightly to the right. Feeling loose stone beneath her feet, she moved slowly coming to the edge of the bank that dropped about ten feet to the stream. As she looked over, she could make out the young woman alternating between tapping a rock and trying to pull her foot free from where it had become wedged. 'How does she manage to get into trouble where there is none?' Shaking her head, she slowly made her way down the side of the embankment to stand over the golden red head.
The bard turned nervously and made her sign for sorry. "What are you sorry about? Did you fall off the edge and get your foot stuck on purpose?" The small woman nodded no. "All right then. Now let's get you out of here." None too gently she grabbed the leg and, sliding her sword into a tight space, she managed to give just enough leverage to pull the foot free of the rock. "What made you come in here?" The bard pointed to the water then held her hand to her ear. "Heard the water. Good find. Soak your foot. I'm going back for a few things. Might as well take advantage of it. Be back in a bit."
The warrior returned shortly dropping the medicine kit and key by the bard as she went on to the stream. Stripping quickly, she dove cleanly into the water. As she resurfaced, she called out, "Might want to wash first before you tend those scrapes." Gratefully the bard shed her manacles and clothes, and slipped into the refreshing water.
After bathing she reluctantly began to leave the stream. "I don't care if you swim," the warrior called out flatly. Turning in her direction the bard offered a smile in thanks, but the warrior had already resumed her own activities. Gabrielle lazily floated, letting the water wash away the ache in her muscles. 'If only it could wash away the ache in my soul.'
Climbing onto the opposite bank to warm up a little, she watched the warrior's strong body slice through the water. Finding herself staring at the beautiful form, she pulled herself up to explore the cavern's formations. Then something caught her eye. 'Could it be?' She went closer and was rewarded with the sight of a natural hot springs pool. Clapping her hands to get Xena's attention, she motioned her over excitedly.
"This had better be good," the tall woman grumbled coming to her. Seeing the bubbling hot water, a small smile crept across the usually stoic face. "Nice," she said as she lowered herself into the soothing pool.
The bard watched as the warrior closed her eyes, letting her head lean back, and a peace settle over her face. 'Finally, I did something right. Wonder if she'd let me give her a backrub?' Tentatively she moved forward, placing her hands gently on the broad shoulders. She felt the woman tense, but not pull away. Taking it as a sign of acceptance, Gabrielle continued the massage.
After a bit, she heard the low alto voice address her. "Get in so you can reach better." Eagerly she slid into the warm waters. For a moment she was lost in the relaxation of her own muscles before she brought her attention back to the warrior. After kneading the knots in the larger woman's back, she began to work on the arms. Imperceptibly the warrior leaned back against the bard enjoying the sensations. Gabrielle hoped Xena wouldn't notice her own heart beat quickening. 'At least she won't be able to tell my body heat's rising since it's already so warm in here.' But the warrior did notice the smaller woman's heart rate. Xena: 'Fear or arousal? Friend: 'And how do I feel out that? Warlord: 'What does it matter anymore?' Easily she began to move out of the pool. "We'd better get out before we pass out from the heat."
They both dressed and gathered the few things Xena'd brought into the cavern. Gabrielle reached for the manacles, but the warrior picked them up. "It'll be easier to climb out of here without those. I don't want to have to go back for you." They made their way back to the warmth of their fire. Throwing more wood on, the bard then turned to lay out the bedrolls. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the warrior toss the manacles into one of the saddlebags.
'I wonder what that means. Either she's healing or she's thought of another way to mess with my mind. Strange I feel naked without them. I know I deserve them and it's such a small penance.' She kept an eye on the tall woman as she slipped under the covers and quickly followed suit under her own covers. The rain continued with no signs of letting up. The bard whistled them both to Morpheus' realm.
Somewhere in the middle of the night, the thrashing began as dreams assaulted the warrior. Gabrielle was instantly awake and began whistling the soothing tune she'd drummed into the woman's head. Slowly she inched forward, continuing the song, and reached out to caress the raven head. As she stroked the black hair away from her face, the warrior's thrashing began to subside. The bard never stopped whistling and patting as she moved closer to the troubled woman. But eventually the nightmares ceased and Xena became still. The only problem was she had a death grip on the bard's hand. Eventually Gabrielle gave up trying to free herself and slipped back into sleep.
The next morning found both women wrapped together in a tangle of arms and legs. As the warrior began to stir, she realized that the warmth she felt was actually a body cradling her own. Quickly she bolted and looked down at the young woman who was jerked awake by the sudden motion. "What are you doing?" Rapidly the bard scrawled 'nightmare' in the dirt. "Yours or mine?" The bard pointed at the warrior. "Of course. It's not safe getting next to me during a nightmare." The bard whistled the soothing tune as answer. "Clever. You always were good at handling people." She rose and walked away. 'Was that a compliment or an accusation?' the young woman wondered.
Unfortunately the rain was still coming down holding the travelers imprisoned. Xena went to the cavern to drill and swim, then drill some more. Gabrielle followed taking parchment and writing furiously. 'She seems more relaxed, more at peace. Maybe she's ready to get back on the path of fighting for the greater good. Maybe she's ready to hear what I have to say.'
There were a few fish in the stream and the warrior soon had them sailing into the air. "Time for lunch," she called as she watched them arc and land on the bard's head. There was almost a smile as the warrior saw the bard wiping her face. "Didn't realize you were sitting so close." The bard didn't quite know what to do and the expression on her face caused the warrior to laugh out loud. The small woman slowly smiled seeing light in her friend's face for the first time in months. 'Keep laughing and I'll let you throw fish at me all you want.'
The laughs ceased abruptly as if the warrior had just caught herself doing something wrong. Sobering, she strode past the strawberry blonde woman, calling out, "Cook the fish. I'm going to check on Argo."
The mood had changed drastically and the continuing rain didn't help. After lunch, Xena returned to the cavern making sure the bard knew she wanted time to herself. Meanwhile, Gabrielle poured over all the different letters she'd been writing to the warrior still hoping to find those magic words that would touch her heart. The younger woman began to worry when the time grew late and closer to bedtime than supper. 'Once more into the jaws of Tartarus's hounds.'
Quietly she made her way to the cavern, not wanting to disturb, merely wanting to assure herself that the warrior was all right. Peering into the darkness, she could barely see the figure sitting on the bank absolutely still. 'At least she's still alive. Guess I better get out of here.' Of course it was at that moment that the bard's stomach made itself known and the warrior's keen ears heard the grumbling. Turning she growled at the small woman, "What do you want? I said I wanted time alone." She watched as the bard mimed sleeping. "Time for bed already?" The bard nodded, then mimed eating and pointed at the warrior. "Not hungry, but you can go ahead." She started to retreat back into the darkness, but heard clapping to get her attention. The bard was shaking her head no and pleading with her to come out of the cavern. "What's the matter? Is Argo all right?"
'Ok, this has possibilities. I'm sure I'll pay for it later.' The bard shrugged and again motioned to follow. 'See? Not an out and out lie. How would I know if Argo's all right? I'm not in the cave right now.' But the warrior was already bounding up the bank. "Damn it, bard, why didn't you say something right away?" she snapped as she ran past her.
Xena went over every inch of her horse reassuring herself that all was fine. Argo enjoyed the attention, constantly nuzzling her mistress, making the procedure more difficult. "She's fine. What did you think was the problem?" The steely gaze made the bard gulp and she bent to write, 'Something didn't seem right. Knew you wouldn't want to take chances.' 'Again, not a lie, but hopefully it will cover my ass and keep me from getting yelled at or worse.' The warrior stared a moment longer, then turned back to her horse. "You were right to get me. After all, she's all I have left."
The bard knew the remark had been intentional. But could she blame her? She pulled out some bread and cheese for the warrior and apples for Argo. Gently she tapped the warrior on the shoulder. "What?" The smaller woman pointed to herself then signed sleep. "Sure hey, did you eat?" Gabrielle shook her head and indicated she was not hungry not any more. Slipping into the blankets quickly, she turned from the warrior incase the tears could not be held at bay.
Nightmares crept into the warrior's slumber. Gabrielle woke to the woman's groans and whimpers. She began the soothing tune and slipped close enough to caress the troubled brow. This time she made sure not to let Xena capture a hand so there would be no risk of being trapped for the night. But these nightmares were relentless and the bard found herself up most of the night to keep them away, allowing the woman some measure of rest.
The next morning Xena awoke to Gabrielle's hand resting on her head. She could tell the bard had tried to keep her distance. Friend: 'She continues to look after you even trying to take care of you by not letting you know.' Glancing out she saw the rain had lightened, but it was still too wet for them to be moving on. Warlord: 'Damn be the Gods, I don't know how much longer I can stand this.' There was nothing to do, so she let the bard sleep while she gathered her sword and chakram and went to the cavern.
It was mid-morning before the strawberry blonde peeked out from under the covers. There was no sight of the warrior so Gabrielle assumed she'd taken herself to the cavern. Quickly she made tea and grabbed some biscuits knowing the warrior had probably not seen to her needs. Emerging from the small tunnel, she whistled to the warrior to announce her arrival. Ceasing her drills, the tall woman came over to accept the offered mug and food.
"Thanks." The bard nodded and waited patiently. "Rain stop yet?" She nodded no in reply. "It had lessened when I got up this morning." A nod in agreement. 'Is she trying to make small talk?' the bard wondered. Finished with her tea, she handed over the mug, "You can go back." The small shoulders slumped in disappointment. The warrior pretended not to notice, but watched the woman's slow departure wondering, 'What does she want from me?'
It was several candlemarks later before the warrior returned to the campsite. The bard had just started to retrieve the warrior and they slammed into each other, putting the smaller woman soundly on her butt. The tall woman looked down with a little smirk. "What's your hurry?" The redhead pointed to the cave entrance. Xena smiled fully and let out a happy sigh, "Finally!" She walked to the opening breathing in the still air. "I'm taking Argo out for a walk. I know we could both use it." The bard started to rise. "You can stay here." And she was gone while Gabrielle looked at her retreating back knowing she was not wanted.
Apollo was just taking the sun down when the warrior returned, refreshed from her outing. She was talking with Argo as she entered the cramped space and spied the bard trying to keep supper warm. "Smells good. Hopefully things will be dry enough by tomorrow so we can be on our way." She settled down and helped herself to the golden fish. Then she noticed some berries sitting on a leaf nearby. "You found berries? Great." She eyed the bard who sat so still. "You mad cause I didn't take you for a walk? Seems you went on one of your own anyway." The bard merely shook her head no and continued to stare at the fire. "Let's see red wine goes with fish, doesn't it?" Silently the bard rose and went to retrieve the wineskin for Xena. "Uh thanks." The warrior knew the little woman didn't like it when she drank so she was surprised by her submission. "While you're up, toss me the money pouch." Gabrielle complied then reseated herself by the fire. The warrior took a long swallow from the skin, then turned to see what was left in the little bag. "Running low. Too bad we can't rely on your stories anymore."
The bard's eyes shifted slightly to look at the warrior. 'Is she taunting me or blaming me?' Ignoring the look, the warrior continued to eat her food and drink her wine. The younger woman sat slipping deeper into her own private torture. 'I'll never reach her. She wants nothing to do with me. She has no idea how I feel how torn I was with my deception. I would give anything to go back and undo what I sowed that day. I so wish I could give my life for Solan's. Tartarus would be kinder than being with her knowing I've lost her forever.'
Both women stared as the flames danced gaily, one getting drunk on wine while the other got drunk on despair. As the wineskin grew dry, the warrior began to grumble. "Going to need to refill that for sure. Hey, maybe we could sell your scrolls for a dinar or two."
The bard's head snapped around at that. 'Sell my scrolls?! But that's all I have left!' The warrior noticed the quick motion and saw the fear-angered eyes. "What's the matter? You have a problem with that?" The bard remained frozen. "You can't tell your stories anymore. At least if we sell them, someone's still enjoying them, right? Thought you'd like that." Fiercely the younger woman shook her head no. "Why not? You can always write them down again. What's the big deal? You'd think I was selling your babies!" she growled becoming agitated by the woman's reaction. Then the thought slowly turned in her sodden brain. "You love those damned pieces of parchment more than life, don't you? That's all you really care about, isn't it? Words. Exciting words. Enticing words. Words of love and adventure and honor and truth! And you know what I think of your words? They're empty!" The warrior's voice was growing louder with each statement. "Without action, that's all they are - empty! Meaningless! But you love them. Because they're safe? Because they can't hurt you? Because you can control them? By the gods, your words mean nothing!!"
Abruptly the warrior rose and dug threw the saddlebags for the scribe's pouch. She pulled out a scroll and threw it on the fire. Then another. Gabrielle was reaching into the flames without thought to rescue the children of her mind. Watching her desperation enraged the warrior. 'Where was this caring when Solon needed it?' Turning back to the saddlebags, Xena reached for the parchment box. Without looking she had pulled it out upside down and all the scrolls within had fallen out into the saddlebags. Fumbling awkwardly with the box, she strode towards the bard. Anger seethed in her voice when she spoke, "May the fire take your damn precious words!" She raised the box to fling it into the hungry flames. In seconds the bard had tackled the warrior to the cave floor and ripped the precious cargo from her hands. Startled, but determined, Xena tried to recover the object and was met with a fury of fists. Swiftly she grabbed the offending hands and looked fiercely into crazed green eyes. "You fight for your scrolls. Why couldn't you fight for Solon? Why couldn't you fight for me?"
The accusation hung in the air and the younger woman froze in horror. She didn't know herself anymore. What kind of monster was she that cherished words over life? In that instant her soul screamed, her heart wept, and her mind shattered. With revulsion she picked up the once precious box and took it to the fire herself, tossing it in violently. The warrior sat up and stared in confusion. Frantically the smaller woman paced, tears streaming down her face as her fists hit her thighs. 'By the Gods, I think she's going mad before my eyes.' Her pacing took her to the saddle where she stumbled into it falling. Her hands landed on the whip and she picked it up without hesitation and stormed back to Xena.
For a moment the warrior believed the little woman was actually going to use it on her. Instead she found it tossed in her lap while the frantic woman returned to the saddlebags in search of something. Pulling out the manacles, she yanked off her top, then slapped them on. Again she paced, looking wildly for something, the warrior knew not what. Then she stopped in front of a portion of rock that jutted out from the wall. Reaching high she swung the chain up above her head until it caught in the crevice. She had had to jump to make it and now her feet were not even touching. Turning her head to look at the still stunned warrior, she gave the Amazon whistle for 'attack'.
Xena sat as her mind waded through the wine, "You want me to whip you?" Again the whistle came, stronger this time. "By the Gods, isn't this a funny twist. Well, no thank you, I don't think I will. Physical pain would feel too good to you right now." The bard was still but a moment then turned back to the rock and began to bang her head against it. "Stop that!" the warlord voice came out to command. But the bard was beyond such attempts of intimidation and only banged more fiercely. Scrambling up, the warrior let one lash fly in order to distract the bard. The smaller woman stopped instantly waiting for the next sting, but it didn't come. When she realized this was the only one, she resumed her attack on the rock wall with her head. "Damn it, bard, you're going to kill yourself if you keep at it!" Again she let the whip fly, once, twice, but careful not to break skin. Gabrielle momentarily ceased, expecting to finally receive the lashing she deserved. Instead, the warrior's wobbly legs brought her beside the hanging woman where she expertly applied a pinch that rendered her unconscious. "Son of a Bacchae, woman! You just made me waste a good drunk! I should leave you there all night," she rambled to the inert form. "With my luck, you'll come to just when my headache's getting good and make it worse." Clumsily she grappled with the stuck chain 'til she could lower the bard. She looked at the small woman in amazement. "Damn it, girl, what you've done to yourself." The raven head shook in disbelief as she went for the medicine pouch.
The bard woke the next morning to a mass of blurred images and muddled sounds, not to mention a head that felt like it was being kicked by a herd of centaurs. Try as she might, she couldn't open her eyes. Each time she tried, nausea swept over her, pain stabbing her eyes. The she felt a hand on her shoulder. "I'm guessing your head hurts like Tartarus. I want you to drink this."
Gabrielle struggled to sit up and take the offered mug, but was unable to make her body function. "You gave yourself a concussion last night. Take it easy." She felt a strong hand cradle her head and hold the drink to her lips. "Drink it all. I know it tastes like gorgon's dung, but it'll help. Good. Now lay back and rest." The bard peered through slit lids and mimed walking. "It won't hurt to give the ground another day to dry. Argo hates walking in mud." Xena noticed the barely perceptible nod and watched as the small woman succumbed to the healing herbs.
As the sun tiptoed into the cave the next day, it tickled the occupants into awareness. Gabrielle was quick to move with the warrior's first stirrings. Despite her headache, she packed efficiently and was ready to leave before Xena could finish her breakfast. One brow raised as she spoke, "You in a hurry?" Surprised, the bard shook her head no. "Good, we're changing your bandages before we start."
Grabbing the medicine kit, she knelt in front of the warrior. Tenderly Xena re-wrapped the wrists which had become bloody with her recent struggles in the manacles. Then she turned to Gabrielle's head. "Nice shade of purples and yellows," she observed as she applied more salve. "Think we need to leave it covered another day. Now let's take a look under your shirt." The strawberry blonde looked at her puzzled. "You don't remember." She pulled up the oversized tunic to reveal various cuts and scrapes on the front. As she applied ointment, she spoke, "You did that when you were trying to get me to whip you. Turn around. I had to give you a couple of lashes to distract you from attacking the cave wall. Ok - all done," she finished as she pulled the shirt back into place. "Guess we can move out." She noted that again the bard reached for the manacles like some sort of safety line.
The sun felt good on their backs as they set out. The warrior's spirits were definitely lifted being out and able to travel. As they made their way down the road, Xena called out, "How about a song?" The bard complied whistling with precision, but without passion. The warrior could tell the difference in the young woman's performance. She glanced back over her shoulder to see the strawberry blonde staring straight ahead and merely going through the motions.
They stopped at mid-day and Gabrielle busied herself with chores. She couldn't seem to sit still as she went from cooking to searching for herbs to cleaning to rearranging Argo's pack. "I stopped so you could rest. You're not a hundred percent yet so just sit." The younger woman obeyed immediately staring at the campfire. "Eat." Again she did as she was told. The warrior watched her automatic movements that were devoid of feelings. 'It doesn't feel like she's in there.' She watched awhile longer as the bard chewed absentmindedly. "Done? Let's go." Once more they were off with the hollowness reaching out to encompass the warrior, too.
The rest of the day went without incident. As they set up for the night, the bard was in constant motion. She polished armor, repaired leathers, and even cleaned Argo's tack and saddle. The warrior shook her head, finally speaking, "You're making me dizzy. Stop and eat."
Slowly the woman moved to eat with little enthusiasm. "What's the matter?" Xena queried. "You're the one who cooked it." Lifeless green eyes turned to the tall woman. She signed 'not hungry.' "That's too bad since you don't get dessert until you finish your plate." She gave the smaller woman a smirk, but was met with disinterest. 'By the Gods, where has she gone?' The warrior studied the bard as if seeing her for the first time and didn't recognize the woman before her. After eating, Gabrielle turned to cleaning all cookware, then went to gather more wood. She ended up by Argo, brushing out her tail. "You brush that tail any more and all her hair's going to fall out."
The bard stopped, looking for her next project. She began meticulously clearing the ground of every pebble, then raking the earth to soften it for the bedrolls. 'What is going on with her?' she wondered as she sharpened her blade. "Bard! Everything's fine. Why don't you relax and write on your parchment." Pained green eyes snapped up. "What? Oh I forgot you don't have any more. Well we can pick up some in the next town." The bard shook her head 'no' as she turned away to feed the fire. Finding nothing more to do, she came to the warrior signing 'me - sleep.' Xena merely nodded and waved her away. 'I've lost her. I already lost Solon and now I've lost her.'
Xena relied on the birds for her music as they traveled the next day, unable to stand Gabrielle's emotionless whistling. Just before they were to stop for mid-day meal, a band of mercenaries made themselves known. A heavy sigh escaped the warrior's lips. "You really don't want to do this." Raucous laughter was their answer. "Have it your way."
Somersaulting off of Argo, the warrior's cry filled the air. The group of nine raced at her in mass figuring their numbers alone would overwhelm her. The bard watched as the men surrounded Xena, completely ignoring her. Their mistake, for the small woman was so filled with rage at herself that the sight of the warrior drowning under a sea of swords made the young woman snap. Charging at the nearest soldier, she slung the manacle chain over his head, pulling back on his neck so he tumbled to the earth. Once there the bard's foot sent him into the next realm. Once done, she turned to the next. Xena was by no means being over powered by the ragged group. The precision of her moves was taking out one opponent after another, sending some to Morpheus and others to Hades. Still even the unworthy can get lucky as a wiry little man slipped in behind the warrior who parried with four very large brutes.
Without thought, the bard opened her mouth to shout warning, but her voice hadn't been used in moons and failed her now. Determined she tossed aside the man in her way as she placed herself between the dagger and the warrior. Swinging fiercely she hit the man squarely in the jaw with her manacled wrists sending him flying. Feeling a twinge in her side, she bent over to catch her breath. Xena was just dispatching the last two mercenaries on their butts with a flourish. Turning to the bard, she asked gently, "You all right?" The bard nodded positively as she straightened up. "Let's get going then," she said as she vaulted onto Argo. With a quick glance back to make sure the bard was following, she headed down the road.
Gabrielle's adrenaline was still pumping strong and she felt a little lightheaded. 'Guess it's the excitement of the fight. Haven't had to do that in awhile. By the Gods, it's gotten hot,' she thought as she wiped the sweat that poured from her body. As she trailed the warrior, she realized Xena was pulling further ahead. 'Better catch up.' She attempted a quick jog but was stopped short by a stabbing pain in her side. Grabbing it, her hand felt very wet. 'What's the ?' She looked down to see her hand covered in blood. 'That little weasel must have stuck me and I didn't even realize.' Looking up she attempted to whistle to Xena, but the sound was too faint and the warrior too far ahead. 'Ok, better hurry up then.' Holding her side firmly to stop the bleeding, she tried to pick up her pace. But she'd already unknowingly lost too much blood. Her vision began to blur and her feet shuffled in the dirt. After a few more steps her knees buckled and she found herself on all fours. Attempting to rise only brought her further down to taste the earth. 'This is not good. Get your ass up and moving, Gabrielle.' But though the desire was there, the strength was not and she tumbled into unconsciousness.
As the warrior rounded the bend, she was so lost in her own thoughts she'd been unaware that the bard had fallen behind. Not until Argo whinnied at her did it occur to her that the sounds had changed. She whirled the mighty war-horse around to see nothing. Warlord: 'Son of a Bacchae! She gave you the slip! Friend: 'That's ridiculous. The bard covered her back. She wouldn't leave us.' Xena: 'Something's wrong.' With a stern nudge she urged Argo back up the road to track the runaway. Racing around the turn the bard's body was plainly visible in a heap in the middle of the road. "Gabrielle?" Spurring the great mare forward, she jumped from the saddle before the horse had a chance to stop. As she turned the small woman over, the wound began to bleed anew. "Damn it, Bard, why didn't you tell me?!"
Ripping off a strip of the large tunic, Xena used it to bind the wound temporarily. Then scooping up the young woman, she remounted the war-horse in search of shelter. The Gods must have taken pity on the bard, for the warrior soon came across an old abandoned cabin. Pushing open the door with her back, she carried in her fragile package and laid her down. Returning to Argo for their things, Xena was soon back at the bard's side.
Removing the manacles first to get them out of her way, the older woman worked with precision as she cleaned, sutured, and re-bandaged the younger woman. Finished, she looked down at the woman who lay so helpless before her. Shaking herself into motion the warrior brewed tea to help prevent infection. Gently she tried to coax the bard to consciousness. "Come on, wake up. You need to drink this. You can do it, Bard, come on." Eyelids slowly raised, eyes bleary and confused. Slipping a hand to the woman's head, Xena supported her while she sipped the healing liquid. "That's good. All right, you just lie still. Try to sleep. I'm going to go take care of Argo, all right?" There was a weak nod in response.
The large mare greeted her as she exited the small shelter. The rough warrior gently caressed the large muzzle. "Thanks, girl. The bard and I owe you one. You're going to get the best brush out you've had in a long time. And I think I can come up with an apple or two." The horse snorted her pleasure at that promised treat.
It was several candlemarks later when the warrior finished caring for Argo and chopping wood for the fire. As she entered, she could see that Gabrielle was still asleep so she focused on cleaning out the small fireplace. Soon a roaring fire was going and a soup was simmering. 'She's going to need some protein. I better see about catching a rabbit. She should be fine while I'm gone.' Before she headed out she talked to her war-horse. "Argo, I'll just be gone a little while. Stay and protect, all right? Good girl."
It was an entire candlemark before she returned. She looked quickly to see the bard still asleep and turned to skinning and preparing the rabbits for dinner. The smell filled the small space and tickled the bard's nose causing her to wake. "Wondered when your stomach was going to get you up." After helping the strawberry blonde to sit up, she placed a cup of soup and a plate of rabbit on the cot. "I've already eaten so you get to work on this. I'm going to check on Argo and the perimeter one last time."
She was gone longer than she intended, having found a nearby stream and berry bush. It felt good to be clean and even better to be bringing back this treat for the bard. As she entered she could see that the young woman had eaten very little. "Hey, I know my cooking's not the best, but it's not that bad." Gabrielle smiled weakly and signed that she wasn't hungry. "It's important to eat right now. At least try to finish the soup," she replied in a no nonsense voice. The bard nodded and picked up the cup. Xena relaxed on an upturned crate to begin sharpening her blade and cleaning her leathers.
The stars were just coming out to dance in the night sky when the warrior's attention was drawn to the small woman who began to whimper and groan. Putting aside her things, Xena approached the tossing-turning figure. "Wake up. It's just a dream," she soothed as she put out her hand to shake her awake. "By the Gods, you're burning up." At that moment the bard's eyes flew open and it appeared like she was attempting to speak. Swiftly the warrior's hand covered the bard's mouth. "You can't speak, remember?" The young woman's eyes darted about rapidly in confusion and her hands tried to pry the one from her face. 'The fever must have her mind.' The woman's struggles became desperate. "Calm down, you're safe. You just mustn't talk. Gabrielle! Stop it!" All movement ceased as the eyes snapped onto the warrior then just as quickly rolled back and she was out. 'Well that takes care of the problem temporarily.' Picking up several pieces of cloth, the warrior addressed the unconscious form. "Sorry about this, but I can't take a chance you'll speak in your delirium," she explained as she gagged the small woman. "Ok, now to keep you from pulling it off." Loosely she tied the bard's wrists above her head to the frame of the cot. "I can't take the chance Ares would make me follow through on that foolish oath. Let's take a look at that wound." Pulling back the bandage, swollen red tissue greeted her. "Damn, it's become infected. I'll have to cut it open and drain it." The small woman moaned under the ministrations, but did not regain consciousness. Then she wet another cloth and bathed the bard's forehead hoping to cool it. "Better make some tea for the fever." Rummaging through the saddlebags in search of her herbs, she soon discovered something else. "What's this? By the Gods, her scrolls. They must have fallen out somehow." Pulling them out she laid them on the table, then turned to brew the tea. While it seeped she looked through the parchment. "Looks like most of them are here, little one. Wait what are these? Never saw this before." It was a thick stack of what looked like unfinished letters to Xena. She glanced at them, then forced herself to put them aside to aid the bard. Removing the gag, Xena cradled the woman in her arms and slowly let the tea flow down her throat. Reflexes took over and Gabrielle swallowed until it was gone. Tenderly the warrior wiped the woman's face before replacing the gag.
Then she looked at the stack of parchment. 'Since they're addressed to me I guess that means I can read them.' Gingerly she picked up the letters, looking at them with trepidation. 'What's the worse she can say? I brought it on myself? That she hates me? No news flash there.' But that was not what greeted the warrior's eyes. Instead she found sorrow, remorse, shame. She was surprised as she read the bard's words. 'How could I let you kill Hope? I was afraid I would hate you and I couldn't stand that. I'd rather give up my child than destroy our love. And yet, I've done just that. And worse, I destroyed your child. I was trying to protect you and I hurt you more than I could ever imagine.' 'Trying to protect me?' She turned to another page. 'I was a coward. I'm sorry. I tried to drink the poison after Hope, but I couldn't leave you. I see now it would have been better for you if I had.' 'I had no idea you tried to kill yourself, little one,' she thought as she glanced over at the still form. She continued reading one parchment after another. Some appeared finished, some were mere scraps, some sections were repeated, some pieces so scribbled through, it was impossible to read.
Long into the night the warrior continued to read until the silence was broken by the small woman's feverish agitation. She was at her side instantly. 'Damn, the fever's gotten worse.' Pulling aside the bandage, she shook her head as she looked at the angry wound. 'By the Gods, I'll have to drain it again.' The task completed, she picked up the bard and headed for the stream. "Need to get your fever down," she explained to the unconscious woman as she carried her into the water. There was the briefest of struggles as Xena lowered her charge into the river. Soon though the coolness calmed the bard, gently bringing her body temperature down. The tall woman sat patiently submerged herself as she supported the bard. She stayed in as long as Gabrielle needed though she herself was becoming quite cold. But the trick had worked and the fever had lessened and gratefully Xena returned to the warmth of their shelter.
Keeping one eye on the bard, Xena continued her reading until she'd finished every last scrap that had been written to her. She stared at the small woman who lay weakly on the pallet. Concern pulled at her as the night passed. "Damn it, Bard. Are you even trying to heal? You listen to me, I want you to fight. I want you better. You owe me and dying will not pay the debt." With that outburst she laid her head down on the cot and gave in to exhaustion.
She could hear someone yelling at her through the fog of her mind, but could make nothing out. Where was she? What was happening? Was she in the dream world or maybe she was dead? There was pain and it was hot, so incredibly hot. That's all she knew for certain. She must be in Tartarus. That would make sense. The heat continued to get worse. She wanted to run from it somehow, but felt herself bound, unable to move though she tried. Then unexpectedly she felt herself floating and it was cooler. She must be in water and someone was talking to her. The voice was kind and gentle and coaxing. Who was calling to her? It sounded like Xena, but that seemed impossible. If it was the warrior, then that proved it was all a dream. She drifted in this strange realm, occasionally aware of someone at her side, bathing her forehead, singing to her, helping her to drink. And she would talk to this light in her darkness. She would ask for Xena, ask for forgiveness, and ask for death.
It was during one of these times that her body shook uncontrollably and her heart hurt to bursting. Then all was still. There was no pain, no sound, no sensation, nothing at all, except for a small light so very far away. It grew brighter and closer and seemed to be coming right at her. She was afraid to look until she heard her name called. She was even more afraid after she heard the voice. "Solon?" she cried as she threw herself at his feet. "Solon, I'm so sorry .. sorry I never meant for anything to happen to you. I have no right to ask for your forgiveness, but please know how sorry I am."
She felt a soft child-like hand on her cheek and a voice equally soft speak. "Gabrielle, I would forgive you if I could. But I can't forgive you for something that isn't your fault." Fearfully the woman looked up into those blue eyes that were so much his mother's. "Do you hear me? It was not your fault. There is nothing to forgive. Everything you did, you did for love."
"But I killed you."
"No! No, you didn't kill me. Hope did. Hope is responsible for her own actions. Though our actions may be born out of love, they don't always get the desired results because we can't control the reactions of others. You know this."
"But it was because of me that all this came about. How can I ever make it up to you?" Tears freely flowed down the bard's face.
"There is nothing to make up for, but if it will help you, then I ask you to go back and take care of my mother."
"How did you know ?"
"The dead can hear the thoughts of the living, remember? She needs you, Gabrielle. Don't leave her alone. She couldn't bear to lose us both."
"No, I bring her only pain."
"Right now that's all her heart can see, but with you by her side she will learn to see past it. I promise. Please, will you do this for me?"
"I would do anything for you, Solon."
"Then go back and love her."
"Breathe!" The fist came down again hard on the bard's chest and in that instant the small body shook and gasped for air. Surprised, the warrior stared in shock for a moment, then gathered the limp form in her arms, crying in relief. "By the Gods, don't you ever do that to me again!" she whispered as she continued to rock and caress the small woman. Eyelids fluttered briefly open, green meeting blue. Xena smiled, kissed her forehead, and held the bard until she drifted off into a safe natural sleep.
The sounds of the forest greeted her as she slowly exited the sweet land of Morpheus. Looking around for the warrior, she found herself alone. Gabrielle sat up wondering if she'd been left behind until she spied both their things neatly stacked in a corner. Then she saw something that amazed her, her scrolls. But she had burned them herself. Where had they come from? Slowly she pulled herself from the cot and shakily made her way to the table. Not only her scrolls were there, but also all the unfinished letters to Xena. 'Gods help me, she's read these.' Frantically she tried to think through the fog that still encompassed her brain. She gathered up all the writing and turned toward the fire.
"What in Tartarus do you think you're doing?!" snapped a stern voice from behind. "Put those down right now and get back into bed" Throwing the parchments down, she practically dove onto the little cot. Crossing to the fireplace, Xena put the rabbits on the spit before turning her attention to the bard. Gently she asked, "How are you feeling?" Gabrielle nodded positively. "Let me see how your wound's progressing." Lifting the bandage, the healer smiled to see the pink skin. "It looks great. You had me worried there for awhile." The bard eyed the great warrior cautiously as the woman reached her hand out to touch her forehead. "No fever at all," she sighed in relief. "I pronounce you officially well, but I still want you to take it easy, understand?" The reddish blonde head nodded, while the green eyes looked down. The warrior's eyes clouded as she observed the bard's distance. "I'll get you some tea." Taking the mug, Gabrielle made her sign for thank you. It was then that Xena realized the bard had no awareness of the last few days.
"Gabrielle?" The bard's eyes locked on the tall woman. This was the first time she'd heard Xena say her name since she'd surrendered herself. "Gabrielle " the warrior paused gathering her thoughts. "Damn it, this is the third time now. You're going to make me work for this, aren't you?" The bard's eyes lowered again, unsure of what she'd done, but sure she'd done something wrong. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't tease right now." Again the eyes snapped up. "Yes, you heard right. I said I was sorry." Taking a deep breath, she began again, "I have to thank whatever God was watching out for you, that I didn't destroy your scrolls. They must have fallen out of the box into the saddlebags.
Gabrielle, I read your letters to me, all of them. I wish you had given them to me right away, but then maybe I wasn't ready to listen. Almost losing you got my attention I guess. You need to know that I consider justice satisfied and I forgave you two days ago. Although I feel silly saying it because I've come to realized there was never anything to forgive." The warrior took another deep breath to steady her nerves. "So you see, you can speak without fear. In fact we've already had a few short conversations though I can see now you don't remember." She looked into the green eyes that were filling with tears. "I know these many moons have been torture for you. And somehow I'll make it up to you as best I can." Tears flowed freely now and the warrior's heart broke to watch it. "Gabrielle, I'm so sorry for everything I've done to you. I hope that one day you can forgive me, too." Rising, she walked out, leaving the bard alone with her thoughts.
Xena was outside brushing Argo, not that the horse needed it, but it gave the warrior something to do. She could hear the bard behind her in the doorway. Without turning, she spoke to the woman, "I'm not sure it's wise for you to be up so soon."
"I needed some air," she replied quietly.
The warrior turned and supported the young woman as she walked to a log to sit. "Do you need anything?"
"I'm fine. Thank you, Princess." Hurt flickered across the blue eyes before she could bring her warrior's mask into place. Gabrielle realized her mistake immediately. "You're the one who asked me not to call you by name."
Unable to look the woman in the eye, she mumbled, "I ordered you. And I wouldn't blame you at all if you never wanted to use my name again. I can't believe the way I treated you. But I couldn't allow myself to love you. I had to hate you. And you kept trying to help me, console me. I think I felt if I accepted anything from you, I'd be betraying Solon's memory."
"You were hurting. Losing a child is the most traumatic event in the world. I understand really. And I don't blame you for what your grief drove you to. I guess we need to do some talking, Xena."
The warrior turned to the small woman beside her, relief flooding her face. "Thank you for saying my name. It makes me feel like well like maybe you don't hate me."
It sounded like a lost child asking for forgiveness to the bard's ears. "I could never hate you, Xena. We just need some time to sort this out and I'd like to do that together."
"I'm just grateful for the chance. You know you died during that fever."
"Maybe I shouldn't tell you, but you did. I haven't been that scared since Thessaly. I breathed for you. I pounded on your chest. I screamed for you to come back. And then you did and I thanked every God alive."
The bard smiled to herself remembering what she thought had been a dream. "I think you should be thanking So- uh, thanking your son."
"What do you mean?"
"He came to me. He told me I had done nothing wrong." Tears welled in her eyes as she remembered his gentle voice and touch. "He asked me to go back to you. He seemed to think you needed me," she finished in hushed tones.
Gulping back tears, Xena nodded in agreement. "He's a smart boy. Gabrielle uh, please, you can say his name. I wish you would."
"Thank you. Xena, the dead can hear when the living think of them. Solon knows you're his mother and he loves you very much."
And with that the damn broke, tears flooding down the stoic warrior's face, sobs wracking her body. Strong arms slipped around the grieving woman and held her fast, rocking gently. Gabrielle's own tears mixed with her friend's and together they shared the pain.
Evening found the two women still in each other's arms though they had managed to move inside. Staring into the fire, Gabrielle talked, taking them both on an emotional journey. Before long the bard began to nod. "Think maybe you need to get to sleep," the warrior said as she helped the young woman up. Gently she helped her onto the pallet, pulling the blankets up around her.
"What about you, Xena?" the bard queried.
"I'll be fine on the floor. It's only fair," she smirked.
"I've missed that."
"That crooked half-smile of yours. Good night, Xena."
"Really, Xena, I'm fine. We can get back on the road. I know you hate to stay put too long in any one place."
"I don't want you over doing it."
"How about if I ride? That is if you don't mind."
"I'd insist on it."
She smiled up at the tall woman. "Then let's go." Tucked in front of the warrior, they headed down the road. Argo's loping gait soon rocked the bard to sleep. Mid-day the warrior pulled the great war-horse over to a small glade complete with gentle stream. "Gabrielle? We're stopping to eat all right?" The bard's stomach answered for her which caused both women to share their first chuckle.
Xena was in no hurry as she set up a fire and encouraged the bard to take a swim while she saw to lunch. Gabrielle floated lazily in the water letting all her muscles relax. The smell of Xena's cooking, or attempt, drifted over to her. Pulling herself out of the cool stream, the bard went to see if she could salvage anything. "Hey, I thought you weren't going to torture me anymore," she said teasingly. The tall woman smiled, but the younger woman noticed the smile didn't reach her eyes. Gently she lowered herself next to Xena. "I guess it's too soon for teasing, huh?"
"Don't be silly. You know I like a good joke."
"But not right now. I'm sorry. I guess I want so badly for things to be like they were. But it will take time before we both feel comfortable again." The warrior merely nodded as she threw out her culinary catastrophe. "I also think we could get to that feeling of comfort sooner if we talked."
"We talked last night."
"No, I talked, you grunted. Ahhh, there's that crooked smile."
"Ok, so what do you want to talk about?"
"How we feel. How you feel."
"Hungry. I just ruined our lunch."
"Make you a deal, oh warrior princess. I'll cook us up a great lunch if you'll go talk to your horse."
"Xena, I know when you're troubled, you often talk to Argo. It's all right, I understand. It's like me writing in my scrolls. So I want you to go talk to Argo just talk loud enough for me to listen in, all right?"
Unsure of this approach to the problem, the warrior shrugged and went to the mare. "Hey Argo, Gabrielle wants us to talk. So how are you doing?" The horse whinnied in response. "Gabrielle, this is silly-"
"Uh-uh, turn back around. Just ignore me and talk to yon faithful steed."
Shaking her head, Xena smiled, turned back and began to talk of silly things. She expected the young woman to interrupt her frivolous banter, but Gabrielle remained quiet. And so Xena kept talking and without realizing it, the dialogue changed in tone. Slowly her thoughts peeked out followed by fears and doubts and longings. She anointed Argo's neck with her silent tears. Everything had ceased to exist except herself and the horse. That is, until she felt gentle hands upon her shoulders lending strength. "How can you do that? How can you still be here for me?" she mumbled.
"Because I love you, Xena. You'll just have to accept it," came the tender reply.
Frozen by the words, the tall woman battled with herself. Finally she turned into the gentle embrace of the young woman.
"I promise you, Xena, somehow we'll find our way back to each other."
As they traveled on after their revealing lunch break, Gabrielle began to wonder where they were headed exactly. "Back to the Amazons."
Wary of the warrior's reasoning, she asked, "Why?"
"We didn't leave under the best of circumstances. Thought you'd like to go back to show them you're all right for the most part. Then you can reclaim your Queen's mask."
"And then you can decide if you'd rather stay with them or possibly go back to Poteidia or I don't know . just to have a place of safety to decide what you want next."
"I see." Inside the bard shivered wondering if the warrior meant to leave her behind one final time. Perhaps too much damage had been done and could not be mended for her.
That night as they set up camp, both women tiptoed around each other, handling the other as if they were tending fragile glass. Gabrielle made a stew filled with spices to rival anything they might have in the Elysian Fields. "This is incredible, Gabrielle. I can never understand how you can do so much with so little."
"I have many skills," she grinned at her friend attempting to imitate Xena's infamous arched brow. The warrior laughed at the impersonation and the tension of the day dissipated. "Guess we should turn in." Reaching for their bedrolls, they bumped into each other, standing motionless in confusion. Trying to get out of each other's way they only succeeded in performing a little awkward dance back and forth. "This is silly. Where would you like me to lay my bedroll?"
"Where ever you're comfortable."
"Xena, you know what I mean. Before all of this, we'd lay our bedrolls side by side. But I don't know if you want that."
"I don't know if you do."
"So that's it. We're each scared to go first. Scared of rejection."
"You are, you big dumb warrior. And so am I. So the truth is, I want to lay our bedrolls together like always. But I'll understand if-"
"I'd like that, too," the large woman interrupted quickly.
"Good. That wasn't too difficult." They smiled shyly as they spread the bedrolls and blankets and settled in for the night. Looking at the sky, they playfully argued about whether a star cluster was a bear or a dipper. Then silence fell and thoughts chased each other round and round inside the bard's brain. "All right, I have a doubt so I'm going to voice it and I would appreciate the truth." The warrior looked over at the young woman. "Are you doing this out of guilt? To make it up to me, as you said."
Without hesitation, she answered softly, "No. I want you beside me. You remember our first night together? I tied you to the tree?"
"Your anger came out of nowhere. I didn't know what I'd done."
"You laid your bedroll across the fire from mine. I felt so alone. I'd lost Solon and with that simple act, I realized I'd lost you, too."
"I'm so sorry. I just thought oh, Xena, you were never alone."
"I know that now." They listened to the night sounds for a moment, regrouping emotionally. "I guess this sharing feelings thing isn't too bad."
"It grows on you," the strawberry blonde smiled. "Xena would you hold me tonight?" Fear flickered in her eyes as she turned her face towards the raven head.
"I would be grateful for the opportunity not to be alone again."
And with that, they wrapped themselves in each other's arms and together went to Morpheus.
It took half a moon to reach the borders of Amazon land. During that time the pair strove to regain their sense of normalcy with each other. Gabrielle guided their path refusing to allow the warrior to hide any part of herself. And she opened her own heart with the same determination.
The fire crackled and the bard took one of her deep breaths that always signaled the beginning of one of those "sensitive" chats. Xena rolled her eyes knowing what was coming. "Gabrielle, what more could there be to talk about?" she asked with a grin.
"We promised no more secrets, right?"
Warily she answered, "I promise you, I've told you everything. I even told you about Ming Tein. You know everything I think and feel and wish."
"I know, Xena. And now it's my turn. There's one last thing I need to tell you."
"Why do I get the feeling I'm not going to like this?"
"It might not be that bad then again it could ruin everything." She took one last big breath, bracing herself, and blurted, "I love you."
"Yeah? Why else would you put up with me?"
"Ok, this is going to be harder than I thought," she mumbled to herself, then turned to the woman beside her, "I'll try again. Xena, look at me and listen carefully. I - love - you." She stared deeply into the crystalline blue eyes as understanding spread within.
"Oh," came a very timid gulp.
"I have for a long time. I felt it was important you know. And I also understand you don't feel the same so if you wish to leave me with the Amazons, it's all right. But if you can handle my feelings for you, I'll do my best to handle yours for me. I don't want to mess up this friendship that we've just barely put back together."
"What makes you say that?" sorrow mirrored in her eyes.
"Because I want to keep traveling with you. You're my family."
"No. I meant why did you say you know I don't feel the same?"
"You've certainly never given me any indication."
"I'm a stoic warrior, remember? What about you? How come I never realized?"
"I'm a bard and acting is part of it, remember?"
They simply sat staring at each other. The immensity of what the other had said was flooding them both.
"If this were one of my stories, we'd be kissing by now," she whispered. Together they leaned in, stopping a breath away, unsure of reality at this moment. Tenderly the bard reached up her fingers to caress the warrior's cheek and the distance fell away as their lips locked firmly. Parting regretfully to breathe, they leaned their foreheads together, bracing each other. "Wow," gasped the all expressive bard.
"I'll second that," the warrior agreed. Looking at each other they smiled a lifetime of smiles in that one instant.
"Can we try that again? Just to make sure we got it right?" the young woman queried.
"Gabrielle, are you sure about this?"
"Excuse me? Am I not the one who dared to face the big bad warrior and express my feelings first? I'd say I was sure."
"You're amazing you know that."
"I know, and you're about to find out just how amazing," she teased, her nose crinkling up at the beautiful woman before her.
And very gently, very slowly, very passionately, the warrior did find out.
As they began the last few miles to the Amazonian border, Xena broached a topic which had been on her mind since they started back. "You know the Amazons are not going to be happy to see me."
"But you're the one bringing me back. Everything will be fine, don't worry."
"Gabrielle, I owe them an apology."
"You don't need to apologize for your grief."
"I owe them an apology."
"If it'll make you feel better."
"And I want your word you won't interfere."
The bard glanced sideways at the woman beside her. "What are you up to?" she asked suspiciously.
"Fine. I promise."
A candlemark later they stood at the border and waited as sentries came down from the trees. Masks slid back to reveal smiling faces. "Gabrielle!" Eponin shouted as she lunged forward, embracing the smaller woman in a back breaking hug. "I thought we'd never see you again! Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Eponin, really."
The Amazon's eyes finally rested on the dark warrior. "Is justices satisfied, warrior?" her eyes dark and piercing.
"Yes, Eponin," she replied quietly.
"Thank you for returning her to her family," she said coldly. "Come, Gabrielle, Ephiny will be so glad to see you."
"Wait, Eponin," the bard interrupted, "Xena's coming, too."
The eyes clouded as she looked back. "She's not welcome."
"Eponin, please," she began laying a gentle hand on the Amazon's arm.
"I'll speak for myself, Gabrielle. Eponin, I'd like to apologize to the tribe as a whole."
"Words are easy, warrior," she said defiantly.
"Not for her," the bard teased trying to lesson the tension.
Nodding in acceptance, the sentries formed an honor guard around the young bard, forcing the warrior back. They entered the village to mixed responses. Women ran forward in joyous greeting, then would stop short at the sight of the dark figure trailing behind.
Gabrielle soon found herself in the arms of Queen Ephiny. "Gabrielle, Artemis heard my prayers! Welcome home." She turned to the warrior, steeling herself to be civilized in front of her people. "I understand you have something you wish to say to me."
"I'd like to speak to the whole tribe." Glare met glare, neither backing down.
"Please, Ephiny, could you call the tribe together for me?" the bard pleaded.
Facing the young woman, her smile spread again. "For you we will have the biggest feast to date! And before the party we will meet in the square so that the warrior may address the village, then leave," she finished pointedly. "Now come with me. We have much to discuss." Before Xena or Gabrielle could protest, the bard was whisked away in the company of her sisters, leaving the warrior to tend her horse and simply wait.
Just before the evening festivities were to begin, the entire tribe crowded into the square to hear what the warrior had to say to them. Curious whispers traveled the crowd as well as grumblings at her presence. Determined, the warrior took long strides forward to address the gathering.
"Amazons, I owe you all an apology. I took your Queen from you without just cause. Though it's true that Gabrielle lied about her child, I realize now that she did what any mother would do when the life of that child is threatened. To punish her for an act we would all commit without hesitation is not justice. And when she saw that her child was a force of evil and destruction, she took responsibility for that child. She could have asked any of us to stop Hope, but she didn't. She took on that pain herself. How many of us would have been able to end our child's life for the sake of others? By doing so, she avenged the Centaurs, she avenged the Amazons, and she avenged Solon. My grief wouldn't allow me to see that then, but I see it clearly now. And so I ask for Gabrielle's forgiveness and I ask for the Amazons' forgiveness." A rumbling went throughout the mass of women. "Eponin said that words are easy and she's right. Action is demanded to know the depth of a person's remorse such as Gabrielle's personal sacrifice. When I was here last I whipped your Queen in front of you all. I now offer to stand under the lash, mark for mark given to Gabrielle."
The bard turned in surprise at the woman, "Xena, no, I don't want that!"
Steel blue eyes held her, "You promised." Then she turned to Eponin who stood beside her friend. "Eponin, I don't think Gabrielle will be able to do it, so I ask you to carry this out in her place." Taken aback, the Amazon could only nod her willingness. "And I know I owe all the Amazons here, too, for forcing their Queen away and threatening the tribe. Every Amazon here may come forward to give one lash mark once Gabrielle's retribution is fulfilled."
"Xena, no! There's over two hundred Amazons here tonight!"
"Queen Ephiny, Gabrielle gave her word not to interfere. I hope you'll help her to keep that word." Then the warrior stripped herself of her armor, weapons, and leathers to stand in her simple shift which she lowered about her waist. "Eponin, I'm ready if you are," she finished, extending her arms for binding. The Amazon stepped forward to escort the warrior to the public whipping post.
"Xena, no! Stop this!" The bard tried to lunge forward to stop the procedure, but the Royal Guard had a firm hold on the young woman. As Eponin raised the whip to begin, Gabrielle cried out one last time. "Eponin! I order you to stop." The Amazon froze, accustomed to obeying the strawberry blonde. "If anyone is going to do this, it will be me. It's my right!" Xena looked at the blazing eyes of her friend. Maybe she had misjudged Gabrielle's forgiveness. Maybe this was exactly what the bard wanted. The warrior lowered her head in shame and closed her eyes in avoidance. She heard the soft footsteps stride with purpose behind her, heard the whip arc in the air, heard it hiss towards her. But she was not prepared for the very small bite it took from her back. 'Ok, it stings, but that's no proper lashing. Just what is Gabrielle trying to pull?'
"That is all the retribution I require," she said, facing the crowd. Then held out the whip for Eponin to take, and sat directly between Xena and the Amazons facing whoever would take the whip next. Eponin stepped forward first. Gabrielle was in no danger where she sat, but each woman would have to face her in order to wield the lash. Looking into the woman's eyes, then at the small bite on the warrior's back, she made her decision and let the whip fly. Xena was surprised to feel merely another bite.
One after another they came forward, looked at the face of the strong young woman, looked at the warrior, and gave the stinging bite. Gabrielle had refused to look behind her to see what damage might be being done. She knew she would hear no cries from her warrior no matter what was done, but she didn't hear her hold her breath and her breathing wasn't ragged. This hopefully meant that her sisters had followed her example. The process took quite awhile for two hundred warriors to go through. Xena ached and could feel blood running down her back, but knew she was not receiving the beating she had expected. When the last Amazon had taken her swing, Gabrielle rose gratefully to cut her friend free. The warrior's back was covered in blood, but it was also obvious that the tribe had done no more damage than she herself had. Walking rapidly to the post, she cut the tall woman down, anger barely held in check as she said, "I certainly hope that's out of your system." She freed the bound wrists and pulled the shift up to cover the woman. "Ephiny, is there a hut we may use?"
"Use your old one. Everything's as you left it. I didn't have the heart to give it to anyone."
"Thank you, my friend. Come on, my big dumb warrior, this will take a little tending."
"Gabrielle, the Amazons are throwing a party in your honor. You should go. I'll be just fine."
"Yes, you will because I'm going to take care of you. Ephiny, thank everyone for me. Especially for this," she finished as she glanced at Xena's back.
"We only followed our Queen," she said with a smile. "It looks like justice has finally been satisfied for all concerned." She left them to head for the hut while she went to join the festivities, which would probably go on through the night.
Gabrielle noticed their things had been set in the hut, so she pulled out the medicine pouch. With a feather light touch, she began to clean the warrior's broad back. Unable to contain herself any longer, she asked, "Xena, why did you do this?"
"Warriors need action, Gabrielle. If I hadn't given them the opportunity to confront me, they would have always resented me. And as a warrior, I needed it as much as they did."
The bard merely humphed in reply and went to get fresh water. As she turned around, she realized a design had been cut into Xena's back. "Oh Gods."
"What? What's wrong?"
"Uh Xena, your back "
"Honest, Gabrielle, it's fine."
"No, Xena, the Amazons cut a mark into it."
"All the little cuts together make one larger design."
Rolling her eyes, the warrior sighed. "Great. Should have known they'd find a way to make me remember this. So what is it? Artemis's moon?"
"No it's a 'G' with what looks like a quill under it. I had no idea that was going on. Oh, Xena, I'm really sorry."
A smile slowly played on the warrior's face. "I'm not. I'll wear it proudly."
"I'm sure with the right ointments, we can make it fade."
"No, I don't want it to fade. Many masters mark their slaves with their own personal symbol. I think your Amazons chose well."
"But, Xena, you don't belong to me."
The raven head turned to face the strawberry blonde, blue eyes piercing into her very depths. "Yes, I do, Gabrielle, heart and soul."
And as the last rays of the sun wisely left the two women alone, they began the passionate act of blending their hearts and souls together - forever.