Most of the characters herein belong to Renaissance Pictures, MCA/Universal, Studios USA, Flat Earth Productions, and any other individuals or entities who have an ownership interest in the television programs Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. This story was not written for profit and no copyright infringements are intended.
Violence/Sexual Violence/Angst Warning: This part, and this part only, deals with child abuse, attempted rape, and suggestions of incest (at the risk of spoilers, the rape/incest is NOT of Gabrielle or Xena). And sorry, the angst meter is still high, with some hurt/comfort involved. It took more than one chapter to work through it, but its mostly uphill from here, I promise.
Subtext/Maintext: PG-13. Yep, X & G are in love. If that offends you, you might not want to read this story because you could find yourself enjoying it.
Questions/Comments/Suggestions welcome: email@example.com
Setting: This story falls sequentially after "A Solstice Treaty." Ive taken extreme liberties with history and religion here, but then, so does the show.
CLEOPATRA 4 A.D.
(posted May 31, 2000)
Through presumption comes nothing but strife,
But with those who receive counsel is wisdom.
- Proverbs 13:10, the Bible, New American Standard Version, copyright by God.
Gabrielle was rooted in place, unable to move her feet, as her heart beat wildly in her chest. She laughed and then tears sprang into her eyes, as she held one trembling hand over her mouth and the other stretched out to hug Eli, as he quickly strode forward and threw both arms around her. She clutched handfuls of the rough brightly-colored material that draped his back, and shivered, partly from giddy happiness and partly from her memories of her last encounter with the Devi. I owe him for her. I couldnt have brought her back without him. And Id be here alone. And lost.
"Gabrielle! You look fabulous." He held her at arms length for a better appraisal of the friend who had been quite pale the last time he saw her. I suppose, he admitted to himself, that being dead for almost two days will do that to a person. He was glad to see that she looked tanned, healthy, and ... Happy? But there were other mixed emotions swimming in the green eyes to mingle with the twinkle that indicated happiness. Hmmm. Some things never change. He peered over the short womans shoulder toward the warrior, who stood back several paces and was looking intently at the ground. Yes. Some things indeed, never change. "And Xena. Good to see you."
The dark head slowly raised, and the troubled blue eyes somberly studied the Devis face, unsure of what, exactly, she expected to find there. "Hello, Eli." In so many ways, the holy man was Gabrielles friend and not hers. She knew how he felt about her. Her spirit had been hovering in the corner of the room of that inn while he tried to raise her first, and failed because he was unable to summon up the depth of feeling required for the task.
No love lost ... she stopped and mentally corrected herself. Wrong, Xena. She knew that on a certain level Eli cared about her, but it was like the concern one feels for a much-loved, but admittedly-acknowledged, lost cause. Thats what I am to him. The lost cause that spends my days ... and my nights ... with the prot»g» that slipped through his fingers.
The warrior wracked her brain trying to remember the last time she had spent more than a few moments with him. True, after their crucifixion, he had raised the bard from the dead and then helped her find the courage to bring Xena back as well. But the warrior had been out of it that night, with little energy for discussion, and then Eli had disappeared by morning, so they didnt get a chance to talk about everything.
And before that ... ah, yes, the prison at Mt. Ymarro. Xena had seen Eli only long enough to break him free of his shackles, before her attentions had turned to fighting off the Roman guard unit while the Devi and his followers escaped. Nope. No time for talking then.
So the last time we really talked was ... Indragit. Funny that. I had to become this but-kicking she-demon to save the neck of one who wouldnt fight, and one who was trying to decide if she was going to fight. And when all was said and done, he both loathed me and was grateful to me all at the same time.
And Gabrielle had made her decision shortly after that, turning on to Elis way of peace and love, and tossing her Amazon staff into the Ganges River, setting in motion a short period of time in their lives that in some ways had been almost as hard on Xena as the whole episode with Hope. I would have indulged her forever. Xena knew the truth of that statement. They knew they were soulmates, and that it would take a lot to ever separate them, but thats all it would have been, an indulgence.
The warrior could neither embrace nor understand Gabrielles pacifism, and had worked doubly hard to keep them both safe. She never wanted her best friend to kill, but the knowledge that the bard was proficient enough with the staff to fend for herself if need be had been comforting to Xena. Gabrielle had come a long way from the innocent defenseless young girl that had initially run to duck behind the nearest log or boulder every time the warrior fought off the baddies. During the first leg of that trip to India, the bard had demonstrated some of her finest fighting skills ever, up to that point, and had displayed a confidence and an assurance with her staff-wielding abilities that had made Xena proud.
When Xena watched that staff float down the river, she felt part of her soul slip away with it, and along with that an infinite sense of loss had settled in, as if something very fundamental had changed between them forever. And it had. The warrior looked on with near disbelief, as after three summers of fighting side by side, Gabrielle was once again forced to run and seek cover while Xena fought off the various assailants that tried to harm them.
She had barely managed to contain her silent laughter when the bard came up with her little smoke-blowing machine. She had tried to explain that all it would take was one stiff wind blowing in the wrong direction to make the contraption backfire, but had backed off when Gabrielles crestfallen face told her that her best friend was doing her best to still help Xena, without going against the new beliefs she so firmly embraced. She had quickly tried to come up with something positive to say about her friends ingenuity, but the words sounded hollow on her lips, and they both knew the compliment came from a desire to placate, and not from a place of true sincerity.
The first few fights after they came back from India had been surreal, as the warrior would momentarily forget that Gabrielle was no longer going to fight, and they had both taken a few hard knocks with various staves and sword hilts before Xena got the concept firmly ingrained in her subconscious. Once again, she was fighting alone to protect both of them, and she had best get used to it, less either she or the bard end up dead as a result. She reluctantly admitted that she missed having her best friend watching her back, although Gabrielle did continue to provide verbal warnings and occasional other forms of relatively non-violent assistance.
Gods, I was so angry. She remembered a renewed ferociousness to her fighting, and suddenly realized that part of the anger had probably been subconsciously directed at Gabrielle. That fight inside the temple before we ran into Najara again ... she had fought with a vengeance and without mercy, the dark side flooding up and taking over, blocking out all other emotion. Bet Ares was smiling on me that day. On a certain level she had felt deserted by the bard, although she had tried very hard to let it go, knowing Gabrielle was doing what she felt she had to do, or not do, as the case was.
After awhile, she had almost gotten used to Gabrielles new lifestyle, and they had spent several long nights by the fire trying to figure out how things were still going to work between them. How a total pacifist could be teamed up to travel with a warrior who had the blood of hundreds, maybe thousands of innocent, and not-so-innocent victims on her hands. There had been so many uncertainties and unanswered questions, as Gabrielle confessed that she didnt know exactly where her new way would lead her. But she had calmly assured Xena that she believed that they belonged together. That, at least, she seemed solidly sure of.
Things had gradually become smooth between them again, and then transformed into something almost easy. Xena had realized with quiet surprise, that even though she didnt always understand her friend, that she had a new-found respect for the bard, and for her tenacity in seeking to be true to herself. Raw nerves had been soothed, and their friendship had grown deeper, and had become one of equals. For the first time since that fateful meeting outside Potadeia, the warrior found herself listening, really listening to her friend, and taking the words of wisdom to heart.
Gabrielle wasnt a star-crossed idol-worshiping kid anymore. When she looked at Xena, the warrior no longer saw the desire of one who wanted to be just like her. It was a different kind of desire ... quiet and unabashed affection had radiated from the bards eyes. In the days that led up to that ill-fated introduction to Amarice on the bank of a favorite fishing hole, warrior and bard had been closer than ever, their relationship cemented in the firm knowledge that best friends and soul mates stood by each other, even in the face of seemingly divergent life-philosophies.
But when all was said and done, as Xena lay helpless on the ground in that Roman compound, Gabrielle had chosen the way of friendship, as she called it, and had fully embraced the only real choice she had, to protect her soulmate as best she could, even though it meant killing seven or eight Roman soldiers with Xenas own sword. In the end, friendship had been the winner. We were the winners. Us. The taste of that knowledge was sweet, and she savored it as the precious gift it was.
The warriors thoughts drifted back to the present, and she studied her partners well-defined back muscles and the firm curves of the backs of her thighs and calves, finally taking in the strong biceps. Even the bards forearms showed signs of corded muscles that ripped under the surface of her lightly-tanned skin. When did she develop all of that? Xena vaguely remembered a rather thin girl, bathing in a lake near Amphipolis. Suddenly, she had looked up in another lake, in another place, during a fishing lesson six moons later, and discovered that somewhere along the way, Gabrielles stomach muscles had become more defined, and overall, she just looked more capable and sturdy, somehow.
And now. The warrior finally smiled. Shes an Amazon queen who successfully defended herself against a challenge only a few moons ago. Xenas breath caught in her chest. By the gods, Gabrielle has become a warrior, too. And Ive become less quick to kill. The smile grew bigger. She was right, way back there at Mt. Ymarro. After all this time, we have managed to finally meet in the middle.
"Xena?" Her lovers voice startled her out of her quiet musings. "Are you okay?" A small hand tapped her gently on the shoulder.
"Yeah. Sorry. Got a little distracted there for a minute." The warrior clasped forearms with the Devi. "Eli, howve you been?"
The holy man felt the stiffness in the arm he held on to, and saw the uncertainty in Xenas eyes. "Quite well, my friend. And you?"
The warrior locked eyes with her lover, momentarily pushing aside their recent impasse on the road, and a tiny grin tugged at her lips. "Better than ever."
"Im glad. I had hoped as much. Im sorry I didnt ever send word to the two of you. I know we left things somewhat unfinished between us ..." He looked around at the group of thirty or so followers he had been teaching just prior to their arrival. "Ive been very busy almost from the moment I left the inn at Mt. Ymarro that morning."
"We ..." Gabrielle faltered, remembering Elis inability to feel enough love for Xena to raise her at the same time he raised the bard. "... I would like very much to hear about it."
"Lets go somewhere more private and talk." The Devi turned his back, facing the crowd. "Forgive me. These are dear friends that I havent seen in a while. Ill be back tomorrow morning. May Abba grant you peace for the rest of the day." Eli dismissed his disciples and returned his attentions to his two Greek companions.
"Eli, I cant believe its you." The bard hooked one hand through her former teachers crooked elbow, as she curiously watched the mixed group of men, women, and children disperse in various directions up and down the river, as well as toward the central district of Cairo. "We had heard there was a prophet teaching by the river, but I never thought to ask the name. Wish I had. I would have gotten here sooner."
"Well youre here now." The Devi grinned broadly and then peered at Xena, who had retreated back into her own personal internal reflection. "Where to, ladies?"
"Why dont we go back to the inn?" Gabrielle could sense her reticent partners discomfort, and she looked sideways at the warrior, who had fallen in silently next to her. "We can get some lunch and then have a nice long talk. What do you think, Xena?"
"Fine by me." The warrior quietly clasped hands with her lover, remembering their discussion back on the road, and needing to feel physically connected with her. "Do you still want to go to the library later this afternoon?"
"Oh gods." Gabrielle squeezed the warm familiar hand she held. "I forgot about that. Yeah. We definitely need to do that."
"Library?" The Devi noted the hand-holding, but decided to save his questions for later, at least on that subject, remembering the warriors and bards need to be close to each other after they had been brought back from the Elysian Fields. His last memory of the two was of Xena wrapping herself around the younger girl before they fell into much-needed sleep. It had been a new development, at least as far as he knew at the time, but for some reason it had not surprised him all that much.
"Long story." The bard sighed. "Ill fill you in during lunch."
"Speaking of stories, what brings you to Egypt, and who told you I was teaching by the river?" Eli shaded his hand over his eyes to block the intense rays of the sun, which was nearly directly overhead.
"Were here to stop Marc Antony and Cleopatra from taking over the Roman Empire." Xena said matter-of-factly, as she squinted and studied several figures approaching from way down river.
"Just the usual, then?" The Devi joked, trying to lighten the mood. "Im glad to hear its nothing I should be concerned about."
"Ha-ha." Gabrielle said sarcastically. "Eli, I do believe youve managed to develop a sense of humor somewhere along the way."
"Ive always had a sense of humor, Gabrielle." The Devi chided. "I just never got many opportunities to use it around you two. Seems like we were always busy escaping angry deities or rulers every time we got together. Not much room left for jokes, Im afraid."
"Point well taken." The bard felt Xenas hand suddenly drop hers, and she turned to face her partner. "Xe ...?"
"Trouble." The warrior drew her sword and stopped, judging distance and terrain, as it became apparent that the approaching group was a regiment of Roman soldiers, and that they were harassing some of Elis disciples as they tried to pass them to turn toward the road going into the city.
Eli watched as Gabrielle bent down and pulled her sais from her boots with an efficient motion, following Xenas gaze with her eyes, not even looking down as she retrieved the weapons, as if it were something that were almost automatic for her. Things have definitely changed between those two. In more ways than one. He instinctively stepped back. The Devi had learned from past encounters with the warrior that there was no arguing with her about fighting to protect him, or about fighting in general. He didnt like it and he didnt agree with it, but he had to admit that he would be dead by now without it. He sighed heavily.
"Ready?" The warrior looked over at her partner, who answered with a faint nod before they both took off running down river. "Eli, well be back in a minute. Stay put." Xena called over her shoulder, and then she went into high speed, running on legs that were practically a blur. As she reached the band of soldiers and disciples, she leaped into the air, tucking her body into a tight ball, and let out her war cry as she hurled herself through space, landing in the middle of the group.
"You boys always take out your aggressions on unarmed women and children?" The warrior snarled at the soldiers, before she looked around at the frightened disciples, many of whom were huddled together in fear, the mothers holding their children protectively against them.
"I dont know who you are lady, but this is none of your business." One of the soldiers moved to push Xena out of the way, and was surprised when he found himself sprawled on the ground instead, wiping the blood from his split lip where the warrior had slugged him.
"Youve made two mistakes." The warrior stood over him with her hands on her hips. "First of all, I aint no lady." She grinned menacingly. "And second of all, I make it my business to protect innocent people from the likes of you."
"Get her!" The solder spluttered, spitting more blood from his mouth, as he realized she had also managed to knock a tooth loose when her fist made contact with his face.
"Gabrielle!" The bard had just reached the group. "Get Elis people to safety."
"Come on!" Gabrielle urged the disciples into motion, as they managed to tear their attention away from the threatening Romans. She led them toward some trees that were part of the oasis on the river bank. "Sit down and wait here." The bard saw Eli approaching, and she motioned toward the group. "Eli. Stay with your people."
The bard joined her partner, who was already in the process of beating up on several of the soldiers with punches, kicks, and broad swipes of her sword hilt, the satisfied grin on her face evidence that she was obviously enjoying herself. Gabrielle crossed her sais with the flat blade of a sword, and at the same time, spun her body sideways, landing a solid kick in the Romans gut, sending him rolling across the sandy ground. She righted herself just in time to find three more soldiers bearing down on her.
Uh oh. She drew her sais up defensively, holding off swords coming at her from both sides, and at the same time, she kicked both legs out in front of her, intending to push the Roman directly in front of her away and flip backwards from the leverage of the impact. It was a move she had seen her partner make a hundred times, but she realized that watching and doing were two completely different things, as she halfway succeeded, sending the soldier flying, but not quite completing the flip, landing flat on her back instead, looking up at two swords both coming toward her neck with rapid speed.
She desperately scrambled to fight off her attackers, and stabbed one of the soldiers in the calf with her sai, grimacing as he screamed in pain and fell to the ground clutching his leg and rolling around. She turned to the other soldier, and suddenly the pointed end of a sword hilt appeared out of nowhere, and expelled itself from the middle of his chest. Blood spurted across her torso as his hand released its grip from his sword and it dropped to the ground, while he fell next to her in the sand with a heavy thud. She looked up in confusion and saw relieved blue eyes, and realized that Xena had stabbed him in the back.
A grim look of understanding passed between warrior and bard, before Xena turned and continued to fight. She had managed to injure or frighten off most of the soldiers, and a few of them lay dead on the ground, their blood soaking into the tan-colored sand, dying it to a russet hue. She gutted yet another Roman as he approached her from behind, plunging her sword into his stomach with a backward twirl of the hilt, and then pulling it out to swing it in front of her in a wide arc, disarming another soldier as he attacked her from the front, sending his sword spinning high into the air. He looked into the fiery blue depths, and let out a squeak of surprised fear before he turned on his heels and ran.
Finally only one remained that was still mobile, the one the warrior had punched in the first place. With a swift motion, she got inside his defenses and quickly jabbed two fingers into each side of his neck. The man gasped and a trickle of blood ran from his nose, joining the blood still oozing from his upper lip. He dropped to his knees and looked up with wild eyes, unable to figure out what she had done to him.
"Heres the drill." Xena managed to look almost bored. "Ive cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You have thirty seconds to live unless I release you. Now ..." She knelt down on one knee, resting her forearms lazily on her other upraised knee, and stared directly into his eyes, which were starting to roll back in his head. "I know youre Roman. Who sent you here, and why?"
"M ... M ... A ... Antony." The man groaned, holding his hands up to his throat with a pleading look in his eyes, feeling as if his brains were about to explode.
"That answers my first question." Xena waited, knowing she would get what she wanted.
"P ... Pl .... Please." He wheezed as the warrior counted twenty-nine seconds and released him.
"Why?" She kept her fingers poised, ready to re-apply the pressure points if he balked at her request.
The man realized his dilemma, and surrendered. "He wants the prophet. Says hes a threat to his plans."
"How can an unarmed man who teaches peace be a threat?" Xena snorted and stood up.
"Just following orders." The soldier backed away out of the warriors reach. "Thats all I was told."
"I have a message for Antony. You tell him that Xena said the next time I hear of him ordering attacks on innocent people, I will personally come make sure he never does it again." She moved closer and leaned down, getting directly in the frightened Romans face. "Got me?"
"Y ... yyeess." The man slowly stood up, holding both hands up in front of him. "Ill tell him." The Roman walked backward for several paces, not turning around until he was sure the warrior wasnt going to follow him.
Xena turned and moved to her partners side. "You okay?" Skilled fingers probed the bards body for any injuries, and she sighed with relief as she found only a few minor scrapes and beginning signs of bruises, along with the dead soldiers dried blood that was splattered liberally across the bards midsection. "Gods ..." She reflexively pulled her soulmate tightly against her as she released a shuddering breath. "When I saw him standing over you with that sword, I wasnt sure if I was gonna get there in time. I ... sorry. I ... I wish ..."
"Shhh." Gabrielle rubbed her hands up and down the leather-clad back. "Its okay. You did what you had to do, just as you did on the ship."
"What about the others?" The deep voice was forlorn, and almost inaudible. Just like on Ronans ship, she was more remorseful of her partner having to watch her kill than of the actual killing itself.
"Xena. Honey." Green eyes met blue. "There must have been at least twenty of them. I dont think you had much choice. Its not like you can always just injure them. Im surprised you didnt have to kill more of them. Love, when youve got four or five of them coming at you at once, I think youre going to have to eliminate a few of them. The way of the warrior, remember?"
Xena looked around at the four bodies that lay still on the ground, the wounded having all managed to limp or crawl away with the assistance of uninjured companions. She kissed the blonde head. "I love you." She whispered softly into the pale hair.
Gabrielle closed her eyes, and leaned into the strong body that held her, resting securely in the arms of the one who had saved her life more times than she could count. "Love you too. More than ever."
They stood that way for several long minutes, allowing the close contact to calm their frazzled nerves, until they became gradually aware that they had an audience. "Um ..." The bard looked shyly up at her partner and buried her face into Xenas leathers. "Guess weve answered a few of Elis unspoken questions."
"Probably so." The warrior chuckled and looked over her partners head toward the Devi and his band of followers. "Excuse us. We just had to work out a few things."
"All better now?" A bemused Eli tugged at his beard and smiled knowingly.
Xena looked down at her soulmate, who still had her face hidden against her chest. "I think so. For the most part anyway. Gab. Sweetheart, you can come out now."
"Sorry." A blushing bard reluctantly let go of her tall friend and turned to face Eli.
"Xena ... Gabrielle." The Devi cleared his throat. "Thank you. Once again I find myself indebted to you for my life."
"Just consider it a return favor." Two pairs of expressive eyes met and suddenly the walls came down. "I never did get a chance to thank you ... for ... Gabrielle. If it werent for you, wed both still be ..." She stopped and considered for a moment. What? In the Elysian Fields, in love just like we are now, but without all the problems that go with the land of the living? She knew everything happened for a reason. It wasnt our time. "Anyway. Im grateful for what you did for us."
"Well. Were still not even." The Devi smiled. "I saved your life once, you saved mine, what is it, about four times now?"
"Lets just hope you dont get a chance to even the score." Xena chuckled. "Eli." The warrior wrapped an arm securely across Gabrielles lower back. "Why dont you give us about a candle mark to get cleaned up, and then meet us at our inn for a late lunch?" They gave the Devi directions to the inn, and then walked toward the central part of the city, not letting go of each other until they reached their room.
Xena held her sweet-smelling partner against her, as the bard slept peacefully with her head pillowed on the warriors chest. They had bathed and Gabrielle had changed into her red outfit while the new one hung out to dry. The warrior had saddle-soaped her leathers and put them back on along with fresh underclothing. They lay on top of the covers on the bed in their room, taking advantage of the emotional healing that they seemed to derive from the close physical contact.
The bard stirred, and nuzzled her face into the musky clean skin. "Mmmm. Sit time to get up yet?"
"Almost." The warrior kissed her soulmates forehead. "Hey. Would you mind terribly if I bow out of playing catch-up with Eli?"
Gabrielle rolled over on her stomach, half-sprawled across her lanky partner, and smiled sleepily. "Chicken?"
"Partly. Maybe." Xena fluffed the bards hair. "But Ive been thinking about those soldiers on the road. I need to go talk to Cleopatra and see if she knew about it. Im betting she didnt, that Antony made that decision without her consent. Far as I know, Egypt is still technically her country, and his soldiers are only here with her permission."
"And if she did know about it?" Gabrielle traced a firm jawline with her fingertip.
"Then my work with Cleopatra is done, and we can just ride on out and meet Octavian halfway." She captured the finger, holding her partners hand against her upper chest. Im not going to form any alliances with someone who would attack unarmed women and children like that."
"Xena. Antony is back in town." Gabrielle felt a cold chill in the pit of her stomach at her own mention of the Romans name. "Hes more than likely at the palace. How are you going to meet with Cleopatra without him seeing you?" The bards eyelids fluttered closed, her chill forgotten, as the warrior kissed her knuckles.
"Sneak in." The warrior grinned. "Stealth is one of the many skills."
"Yeah. I know." Gabrielle smiled in return. "Just be careful, okay?"
"Always." Xena tilted her partners head up, gently rubbing her thumb across the full lips. "You and I have some unfinished business, my bard. Remember?"
Gabrielle lowered her eyes. "I know." Her voice was very soft. "Im not ready yet. Not here. Not in the middle of the day when Im about to go meet Eli. Its too much to deal with all at once." Her words almost echoed verbatim her excuses back on the road.
"Okay." The blue eyes were more than a little bit worried. "I just cant stand to see you hurting."
"I ... I want to talk to you about it when we have plenty of time. Tonight maybe." Or maybe not if I can distract her. "Xena. Youre not the only one who has things in your past youre not especially proud of."
"Listen to me." The warrior took a firmer grip on her partners chin, re-establishing eye contact. "There is nothing you could tell me about your past that would make me think any less of you. Understand?"
"Its really hard." Gabrielle swallowed, as she felt tears stinging her eyes. Damn that promise of no more secrets.
"Baby. Remember who youre talking to, okay?" Xena was starting to picture various ways she could torture whoever had caused the pain she saw in her partners eyes. Drawing and quartering seeming like a fitting punishment. Or plucking toenails out one by one. "It would be pretty hypocritical of me to judge you, now wouldnt it? After everything Ive told you about myself."
"Guess so." The bard leaned down and kissed the warriors cheek, before burrowing her face back into Xenas shoulder and sighing as the long arms hugged her tightly. "Give me a little more time. Please?"
"Take all the time you need, love." Xena stroked the fine hair and continued to hold her partner close, frowning at the tiny tremors she detected, until a knock at the door from one of the barmaids indicated that Eli had arrived and was waiting for them downstairs.
The warrior assessed the high wrought-iron fence and the sharp spikes that were evenly spaced closely together along its top for as far as she could see in both directions. Hmmm. She loped around the back-side of the palace, knowing the barrier wasnt going to be any different, but thats not what she was looking for. There. An small orange grove fairly close to the fence, several of the trees a lot taller than the imposing spikes.
Xena had already determined that Cleopatra apparently didnt have many guards posted along the fence, and could only assume that the Egyptian was relying on the tall pointed spikes and the wide open space that surrounded most of the palace to keep out any intruders. Bad assumption. The warrior smiled wickedly.
She glanced up momentarily at the warm summer sun, which was beating down with its strongest heat of the day. She drew the back of her hand over a dewey brow and then brushed the moisture off against her leathers. Grasping one of the low branches of an orange tree, she swung up, landing and balancing like a cat on the precarious perch, before she reached up, taking a firm hold, and pulled herself up to the next one. After several such maneuvers, she found herself on a sturdy, but slender branch that was at least a meter higher than the top-most portion of the fence.
She bounced lightly a few times, testing the springiness of the leafy appendage, and smiled with satisfaction. She studied the inner yard of the palace below, and found no one in sight. With one deep breath, she jumped and planted both feet on the branch, allowing the upward rebounding snap of the pliable green wood to propel her through the air and over the fence. She turned several forward flips in the air and landed solidly on her feet before quickly tucking and rolling to break the force of the impact on her legs. Once she was standing upright again, she quickly ran toward the nearest building, keeping as low to the ground as she could while still running.
Pressing her body against the warm sandstone, she inched her way toward the nearest corner and looked around, still seeing no one in sight. She cautiously moved around the corner and once again stayed near the building, inching her way along until she reached a doorway. She cautiously pushed it open just a fraction, and peered inside to find a narrow rush-strewn hallway similar to the one that had led between the main banquet hall and the guest quarters she and Gabrielle had stayed in.
Xena cocked her head and closed her eyes, gaining her bearings. She realized that this hallway was more than likely on the opposite side of the main hall from where they had been housed, and that quite possibly it was nearer to Cleopatras private quarters. She ducked inside with the footsteps of a predator, extending her senses to detect any signs of life as she stalked ahead toward what appeared to be another hallway intersecting the one she was in. Bingo. The crossing hall was thickly carpeted in what appeared to be red-dyed camel hair rugs, and had gold-encrusted sconces on marble-tiled walls for candles and torches. Looks like a hallway fit for a queen.
She looked both ways and thought for a moment. If I were a queen, Id have my quarters on the outside of the building where I could have a nice view. She instinctively turned in the direction that would lead back toward the outer part of the palace. As she drew near to the end of the hall, she took a deep breath and closed the distance between herself and a tall arched door, which was slightly ajar. She dropped down on all fours and pushed it open a bit wider, prepared to bolt if necessary.
Hearing nothing and growing bolder, she crawled through the door and found herself in what she was sure were the royal bed chambers. Large floor-to-ceiling windows lined one side of the room, and a four-poster king-sized bed graced the very center of the room, the mattress itself hidden behind long sheer curtains that hung from the upper poster frame and draped the bed on all sides. Xena shrugged and crept toward the bed, freezing when she heard light snoring.
She listened intently until she was certain the occupant of the bed was still sleeping soundly, continuing to breathe with even nasally rumbles. She continued on her course toward the bed and rose up on her knees, and tentatively parted the draped material a few centimeters, just wide enough to peek behind it. A muscular naked man lay on the bed, face up, his arms and legs sprawled wide. Xena quickly dropped the curtain and sat down on the floor. She peered under the bed and saw a pile of clothing and armor laying on the other side. She crawled around very quietly until she reached the discarded garments.
A red cape and silver-plated armor, along with leathers and a large pair of mans sandals sat there. She lifted the cape and underneath found a white sheer negligee and a pair of white satin underwear. Xena studied the cape more closely, and on the buttoned flaps that would attach to epaulettes, she saw embroidered initials. MA. By the gods, thats Antony in the bed.
She felt the familiar roiling in her blood, as the anger rose and she could taste how easy it would be to just slit his throat right here, right now. No one would ever know I was here or who did it. And hed never be able to hurt anyone again. She reached down and drew a dagger out of her boot, running her thumb along the smooth flat side of the blade, as a hiss of what amounted to pleasure issued forth from her lips. Suddenly, an image of two sparkling green eyes came into her mind unbidden. She shook her head and tried to force the thought back down to no avail. Quietly, she pulled out another dagger, and looked at the carved willow tree on the ivory handle. Sorry Gabrielle. She reluctantly slid both daggers back home into the top of her boot. Cant do that. But if he gives me even the slightest provocation ... Oh, gods, how I wish he would.
With heightened curiosity, she stood up, and boldly pulled the curtains back again, taking in the long muscular body, the smooth face and chest, the dark brown wavy hair, and the smaller than average ... oh my gods. Xena snickered silently and sat back down. Well, now I know Cleos not in it for the satisfaction. No wonder she seeks her pleasure from more than one source. I sure as Hades would if thats what I had to look forward to every night.
Might as well get this over with. Xena had to talk to Cleopatra, and she didnt need Antony to wake up and find them in mid-discussion. She reached into her belt pouch and withdrew a small vile of foul-smelling liquid herbs, and moved to the head of the bed. With one fluid motion, she placed a pillow over the sleeping Romans eyes, pried his lips open, dumped the contents of the vial down his throat, and then worked a couple of pressure points that forced him to swallow. He jerked only briefly, his muscles twitching as he struggled against her firm hold, before he went limp and once again fell into a deep sleep.
Thatll take care of him for a few candle marks. She regretfully looked down at the twin daggers she carried in her boots, her fingers still itching to exact revenge on the defenseless man for his transgressions against her partner. The old Xena wouldve done it in a heartbeat. She sighed with regret. Sometimes being a good warrior really sucks.
Xena took a seat in a thickly-padded chair and waited. She didnt have to wait long. After about a quarter candle mark, Cleopatra entered the room with freshly-washed hair, clad in a long golden silk robe. Two attendants followed closely behind her. She blinked at the silhouette of the warrior, who had moved to stand in front of the windows when she heard the Egyptians footsteps in the hallway, the backlighting from the sun burnishing dark red highlights in the almost-black hair.
"Xena." Cleopatras smile was forced. "I tried so hard to get you into my bedroom, and now here you are, and I didnt even have to seduce you first. Although I have a feeling youre not here to have a threesome." She turned partway toward her handmaidens. "Leave us."
The servants, both of whom had attended Xena and Gabrielle in the baths a few days before, grew wide-eyed before they quickly scurried away, disappearing into the hallway with soft footfalls on the thick carpet. The Egyptian turned back, focusing her full attention on the menacing six-foot warrior, whose presence filled most of one window frame. "Now. Why are you here and what have you done to my lover?" Cleopatra glanced anxiously at the soundly sleeping form of Antony on the bed, where the curtains had been drawn back by Xenas own hand, and she had looped them around the carved wooden posts so that he was in full view.
The warrior merely stepped closer, crossing her arms over her chest, and made a single noise, a cross between a snarl and a snort of disgust.
Gabrielle studied the rim of her mug with an intensity that the plain pewter cup didnt warrant. To say things had become strained between she and Eli over the past candle mark was putting it mildly, and the discomfort was mostly on her part, she ruefully acknowledged. She sipped at the fermented cider and enjoyed the sensation of the cool strong liquid as it slid down her summer-parched throat.
"So, Gabrielle." The Devi was also enjoying a rare cup of the same alcoholic cider the bard was drinking. "Youve told me about your visit to Amphipolis, your move to the Amazon village, and your peace treaty with Octavian. I feel like Ive gotten a blow-by-blow of your daily activities for the past season. What I havent heard is whats going on in here." Eli thumped a fist over his own heart.
"Yes." The bard swallowed and looked across the table at her former mentor. "I know. Because Im afraid to disappoint you." And you only think youve heard everything. Gods forbid I ever tell you about Zakynthos, or Xenas recent discovery regarding her parentage.
"You could never disappoint me." The Devis smile was warm enough to melt ice.
"I ... Eli, in that Roman compound, I ... um ... that is." Gods, how am I going to explain killing eight Roman soldiers with Xenas sword? Or that Id do it again in a heartbeat if it meant saving her life?
"Gabrielle, I know all about that." His large hand patted her smaller one gently.
"You do?" The bard hadnt counted on that.
"Yes. Amarice told me about it before I raised you from the dead." The compassion burned from the Devis eyes. "I was saddened, but not surprised. You and Xena have a very strong bond. That was obvious from the day I first met you. I knew you killed those soldiers before I ever attempted to raise you from the dead."
"And ... and you brought me back anyway?" Two green eyes grew wide at the knowledge. He brought me back. Even though I killed.
"Gabrielle, I discovered something when I looked into your soul that night." Eli folded his friends hand into his own. "The way of peace is not the only way. There is an individual way for each one of us. Even if you hadnt killed those soldiers, your path and mine were not destined to be identical, because no two paths are."
"Really?" The bard felt a sense of relief.
"Yes. It was a revelation to me, but the more I thought about it and meditated about it, the more I realized the truth of it." He looked down. "Im sorry I tried so hard to mold you exactly in my own image. That was wrong. I think at first I was so unsure of myself, that it gave me comfort to know that someone else believed in me. You were my first convert. But I should have encouraged you to explore your own individual potential instead."
"Theres something else you need to know, then." The bard took several more quick gulps of her cider, feeling her lips grow dry.
"I suspected as much." The Devi smiled gently and tapped Gabrielles betrothal ring. "Perhaps you should start with this."
"Eli, when Xena and I were in the Elysian Fields, we discovered that we had been in love with each other for a long time." She smiled timidly.
"I could have told you that, my friend." The Devis tone was encouraging, hoping to draw his friend out of the shell she was hiding behind. He remembered the desperation in Xenas voice when she had begged, no commanded him, to cast Tataka from Gabrielles body, and the warriors tearful relief when she held her friend close after she realized the bard was going to be okay.
Gabrielle laughed. "Everyone keeps telling us that. Its like we were the last ones to see it. Anyway, my path is with Xena. Has always been with Xena, I think. She ... is ... my way. And that means sometimes I fight, and if I have to, Ill kill to protect her."
Eli flinched slightly at the thought of the once-peaceful bard taking more lives. "I noticed how proficient youve become with those sais you carry around."
"Shhh." Gabrielle leaned in as her eyes darted around the room. "Im hoping the owners and patrons of the inn will forget about my sais. They were already afraid of me, and then I come back in here a little while ago splattered in blood. Not a pretty sight."
"Huh?" The Devi sat back and looked around the room himself in confusion. "I dont understand."
"Another long story that I dont really care to go into now." The bard took a deep breath. "As for weapons, I work out regularly both with Xena and Po ... Eponin, the Amazon weapons master. Between the two of them, I keep up my staff skills, and I keep improving on the sais as well as a bit of sword. Xena says Im a natural with the sais. She ..."
Elis face was a picture of something between horror and fascination. He couldnt ever recall seeing Gabrielle enthusiastic about her fighting abilities. It saddened him, but he recognized the necessity of such skills in the life the bard had chosen to lead. Unconsciously, he hung his head, unable to meet his friends exuberant gaze.
"Im sorry." Gabrielle backed off, tempering her excitement. "Here I am gushing about the very thing you are working so hard to stamp out forever."
"Its okay." The Devi smiled tiredly. "You, my friend, have been through a lot since this past March. More than I can fathom. Tell me, Gabrielle ... you still havent answered my question, not entirely. I know you and Xena are in love. But there is more than happiness in those beautiful eyes of yours. Whats going on with you?"
"I ..." Tears stung her eyes and she let out a frustrated sigh. "Eli. On the one hand, its been so hard. And on the other hand, Ive never been more happy. Xena and I, we arent always an easy combination, you know?"
The Devi chuckled. "I can imagine."
"But without her, I would surely have gone mad these past several moons." The bard sniffed, wondering how many times she could cry in one day. "That crucifixion. It ... changed me forever. And her. I still have nightmares sometimes. What they did to her. It stripped her of her dignity on so many levels. And it about killed me to watch. We were both completely helpless. And the pain ... I cant describe it. And not just the pain, but knowing that Xena was watching the entire time while they drove those spikes in. Eli, I clamped my jaw shut, cause I wasnt going to make her hear me scream. I didnt want her last feelings before she died to be guilt over what was happening to me. But you know what happened?"
"What?" Elis own eyes reflected sympathetic tears.
"Her last words to me were Gabrielle, you were the best thing in my life. And then ... when they started to nail my hands down, she was the one who cried out. Eli, it was the most gut-wrenching thing Ive ever heard." The bard shuddered, remembering the anguished cries that had ripped from Xenas throat. "She felt my pain. I know it. And ... since then, there have been several times when I was feeling intense emotion, especially if it was fear or pain, and shed tell me later that she felt it too."
"Really?" The Devi was fascinated.
"Yes." The bards voice was a hoarse whisper. "Something changed with us in the Elysian Fields. We discovered that we were so totally in love with each other. It was the most incredible peace we had ever experienced. You should have seen Xena there. All the guilt and all the darkness were just gone. She was like a little kid, happy and smiling all the time. And then all of sudden here we are back alive again, and everyone around us just goes on, as if nothing has changed at all. It seems like weve taken care of one crisis after another ever since we got back."
"So on the outside, you have your life back just like it was before, but on the inside everything is different?" Eli scooted closer, reaching across the table to once again take his friends hand.
"Exactly." Gabrielle managed a smile. "And Xena, shes been so good to me. I think she just takes it all in stride, and the whole thing doesnt seem to have gotten to her the way it got to me. Shes the same old Xena, except shes in love with me and she shows me in so many different ways."
The Devis eyes twinkled as a slight blush crept across the bards face. "I see."
"Not just ... that." The blush grew darker and Gabrielle took another sip of cider. "Eli, shes always going to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders, or at least the weight of Greece. But she puts me first now. All the time. She gave up everything to come stay with me in the Amazon village, because its what I wanted. Sometimes its almost like weve switched rolls."
"How so?" Two dark brows furrowed.
"When Xena and I first met, I was so sure of who I was, and she was the one floundering around trying to find her way. And I was the one who gave up everything to follow her wherever she wanted to go." She smiled at the memory of her former self. "Now ... Xena is very grounded. She says Im her way. Shes still very much a warrior, but she says that comes second. Shes very protective of me, which she always was, but theres more of a fierceness to the protection, and I think part of it is guilt because she feels responsible for everything we suffered at Caesars hands. She seems bound an determined that no one will ever hurt me again."
"Which is impossible, correct?"
"Yes. She ... Eli, shes even more reluctant to kill, which is a good thing." Gabrielle smiled.
"A very good thing." Perhaps I have misjudged the warrior princess. The Devi mused silently.
"Although," the bard laughed, "I think shes more afraid of my sensitivity to killing than of the actual killing itself. Weve even talked about it. She doesnt want to do anything that would make me be disappointed in her."
Ah, well, so Xenas motivations are not entirely pure. If Xena being in love with Gabrielle will make her think twice about killing, Ill consider that to be a step in the right direction, regardless of the reason. Eli could almost, almost accept that Gabrielles path might include a willingness to kill to protect someone she loved. It was still hard to accept killing when the reasons were less clear. And the killer seemed to enjoy the killing for the sport of it. He pushed his thoughts aside for the moment, taking a closer look at the obviously troubled emotions on his friends face. "And what do you want, Gabrielle?"
"I ... want so much to be a good queen of the Amazons and a good partner to Xena." The bards eyes reflected a profound sadness.
"Does something make you feel like you arent?" Eli studied the distraught face with sympathy.
"Yeah. I do. I make me feel like Im not good enough." The bard dragged a shaky hand through her short blonde hair. "It seems like I keep dealing with stuff. My past. The crucifixion. Trying to figure out who I am, how best to serve the Amazons. And she just puts up with me, Eli. I dont deserve it."
"Gabrielle." The Devis comforting voice visibly calmed the bards nerves. "Do you think Xena expects you to be perfect?"
"Well ... no. I ... I just dont want to be a bother to her. Shes been through a lot too."
"Do you think she expects that just because you two are in love, that you are never going to have to face another problem again?"
"Of course not."
"Then just be. Just be. And dont be afraid to let her in. Completely." Eli smiled. "From what I saw today, and from what I know of your past, I think the reason Xena is so grounded is because of you. After all her searching, she has finally found someone who loves her no matter what. But the thing is, she also loves you, without conditions. Isnt that true?"
"Yes." Gabrielle smiled as she felt a warm flutter in her middle. "She is so sweet and so incredibly unselfish and undemanding. She told me that all she wants is for me to be happy. And shed probably die of embarrassment if she knew I told you that."
"Gabrielle, Xena wants to feel needed. Especially by you. You are a naturally introspective person. Xena knows that about you. Shed have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to."
The bard finally laughed. "Thats true."
"I think. No. I know, that Xena wants more than to put up with you. She wants to be strong for you. She wants you to lean on her when you need to." The Devi searched his friends face. "Isnt that what you want from her?"
"Yes." Gabrielle smiled. "I guess Ive been trying so hard to be strong. I think I had this stupid idea that shes taken care of me so much, that Id used up my share or something."
"How old are you?"
"Pretty young to have used up your allotment of anything, dont you think?"
"Guess so." The bard giggled, and then her face grew sober, realizing that she needed to have a long talk with her tall dark lover sometime soon. "Eli. Thank you."
"Youre more than welcome." The Devi squeezed her hand. "Gabrielle, you were one of the first to believe in my cause. You havent used up your allotment with me, either. I will always be here for you if you need me."
"I appreciate that."
"You never did tell me." Eli decided a change of subject was in order. "How did you know I was teaching down by the river?"
"Oh." Gabrielles voice became suddenly animated. "We met Yoseph and Mary. And Yeshu. Actually, we met them in Greece quite a while back, when Yeshu as a baby, and we helped them out. So when we ran into them here, they had us over for dinner."
"Really." The Devi was puzzled. "Ive tried to get close to them, but Mary, especially, is somewhat reluctant."
"Eli. Think about it." The bards voice was soft. "From what shes told me, you and several other prophets believe that Yeshu is going to change the world, but not without great personal cost. To her, hes her child. She wants to protect him from harm."
Elis eyes grew very sad. "There will be no protecting Yeshu from his future."
"What do you mean?" Gabrielles eyes took on a slightly angry glint. "Hes a little boy. Who would want to hurt him? Caesar is dead. I dont understand so much fear and hatred around one innocent child."
"He will not always be a boy. And one day he is going to present some very radical ideas to his people and ultimately to the world. I believe his own people will eventually turn against him because they will not be able to accept his message." The Devi looked down, clasping his hands in his lap.
"And what is his message?"
"Love. Even for those that are considered to be different. Even for those that do not follow his teachings, choosing to find their path by a different means. Unconditional unselfish love. Not so entirely different from what I believe you and Xena share." Eli smiled. "You see Gabrielle, part of love is recognizing that every one of us is different, and that every one of us lives a unique life. And knowing that every one of us deserves love and peace and to be treated with dignity."
"What is so terrible about a message of love, that people would hate him for it?" The bards eyes were very troubled. Gabrielle couldnt imagine something as wonderful as what she shared with Xena causing division among people.
"Not everyone in this world has a pure heart, Gabrielle." The Devi looked back up. "Yeshus message will eventually get twisted. Men will use it to control other men. They will use it to put fear into the hearts of good people, causing them to live lives full of doubt and extreme guilt and pain. Many, many good things will be done in Yeshus name. But just as many bad things will be done in his name as well. And it will break his heart. And the heart of his god."
"His god?" The bard shivered, remembering Xenas conversation with Ares on Mt. Olympus about a one god that opposed Satan, the god that had ordered their deaths. "Sounds a lot like something we discussed with Ares a while back."
"Ares?" Eli frowned. "The Greek god of war? Youve met him?"
"More than once." Gabrielle sighed, thinking of Xenas own inner demons concerning her link with the god of war.
"He mentioned a one god?"
"Yes. And it sounded a lot like the one you talk about, or at least the way you talk about his followers. The guilt and fear and all of that." The bard leaned forward heavily, resting her forearms on the rough wooden table. "So whats the point? Why should Yeshu fulfill his destiny if the outcome is going to be pain and fear for many people?"
"Because for many, he will be a source of hope. And courage. And love. And without that spirit of love in the world, we are all doomed. Some will find their source of love through his message, others will find it in other ways, and still others, sadly enough, will not find their way at all." Eli placed his head in his hands. "But there will be no peace for his family. They will be the ones who will make the greatest sacrifice."
"Oh." Gabrielle grew thoughtful. "Eli, I had hoped that talking with you might give me some source of encouragement for Mary. I guess I was wrong."
"Gabrielle." The Devi was heartened, realizing that despite her decisions regarding violence, his friend was still fundamentally the same in many ways. "With Mary and Yoseph, it will take time. Theres nothing that can be said to comfort a parent who knows their childs life is going to include great pain. They may know in their hearts that their childs life will be sacrificed for the greater good, but that doesnt mean that their sadness will be lessened any by that knowledge. You, of all people, should know that."
The bards eyes grew wide, as she thought about all the sacrifices she and Xena had made for the greater good. Would I give up fighting for the greater good, would I compromise my principles, if I knew that Xena and I would never have to face pain again? She thought about that for a long moment, realizing that to compromise would bring a different sort of pain, in that any less would mean not being true to themselves. Yet I wouldnt give up my life with her, even though I know we will always face opposition, and know that someday we may not be as lucky as we have been so far. Someday death may separate us, if only for a while. "So I guess what I can tell her is that the love she has for her child is worth the pain? Is that where she is to find her comfort?"
"You, my friend, are wise beyond your years." Eli shook his head. "Yes. If any comfort is to be had, it will be in the knowledge that she loved her child to the best of her ability. Take that to her, Gabrielle. I dont think she would accept it from me, but from you, she just might."
"You really need to re-think your security around here." The warrior smiled evenly.
"Oh, believe me." Cleopatra mimicked Xenas posture, crossing her own arms over her chest, and tapping her toes on the marble tiled floor. "My chief security captain has plenty of things to answer for, and I plan to question him as soon as Im done talking with you. Now. One more time. What have you done to Antony?" The Egyptian could see that the Roman was asleep, and not dead, his chest rising and falling evenly with his deep breathing, but beyond that she wasnt sure why he was sleeping through their increasingly-heated conversation.
"Your so-called lover will be just fine." Xena moved back toward the large padded chair and made herself at home, plopping down and draping one leg across a rounded chair arm. "I just gave him some strong sleeping herbs. He never saw me, and when he wakes up, he shouldnt even remember our brief struggle while I gave them to him. I just needed him out of the way for a moment."
"Why?" A perturbed Egyptian queen padded over, taking a seat across from the warrior.
"Cleopatra, do you know anything about a prophet named Eli that teaches down on the shores of the Nile?" Xenas face was a muted mask, revealing nothing.
"Ive heard of him. In fact, Antony has mentioned him a few times. Doesnt seem to care for him much, but he seems fairly harmless to me. I havent heard of the prophet making any threats toward my government, and Ive left him alone because of it." The Egyptian peered over at the sleeping Roman, and got up to cover him before sitting back down.
The warrior wiped a smirk off her face as Cleopatra returned to her seat. Wonder if she did that for his benefit or hers? She chuckled inwardly. "Were you aware that Eli and his followers believe in total pacifism? They dont carry weapons, and even if threatened, they wont use any form of physical violence to defend themselves."
"Then my instincts were correct. Hes no threat to me." The Egyptian could feel her agitation rising. "Why dont you get to the point, my friend? Or are you still my friend? Most of the people who have earned my friendship dont feel the need to sneak into my bed chamber just to talk to me."
"Yes." Xena sighed with mental fatigue. "Im still your friend. I just needed to make sure of something, and I needed to get to you without anyone else seeing me, especially Antony."
"What did you need to make sure of? And what does Antony have to do with it?" Angry fire flashed in the dark eyes.
"Before I answer, I need to ask one more question. Please?" The warrior hoped her slightly pleading tone would diffuse the brewing storm before her. It did.
"Does Antony have authority to order his troops to take any military action in Egypt? That is, without your permission?" Xena watched her friends face, noting the rising suspicion.
"No." Cleopatra rose up and paced over toward the bed, her back turned, as she studied her sleeping lover. "His troops are here only to protect him, and they have no other authority. I am still in charge of Egypt, and the only military action allowed is by Egyptian troops. And only at my command. Xena, speak up. I am growing weary of this game."
"Would it interest you to know that your lover ordered some of his troops to attack Eli and his followers this morning?" The warrior noted the sudden stiffening of Cleopatras back and shoulders.
The Egyptian spun around. "Youre absolutely certain of this?"
"I was there. And now some of his troops are dead." The warrior also stood, and moved toward the window, peering out at the mid-afternoon sun, and missing the cooling protection of the trees in Greece. "And if he hasnt already, one of his soldiers is bringing him a message from me. I will not tolerate such treatment of peaceful people, and I made that abundantly clear to Antonys soldiers this morning."
Hmmmmm. Cleopatra frowned, remembering an earlier cryptic meeting between Antony and one of the members of his guard unit. They had insisted on privacy, and she had thought little of it at the time, assuming it was something personal on the part of the soldier, not her lover. She picked a place on the opposite side of the window frame, noting the contrast between the cool tile on her bare feet, and the scorching sun on the side of her face. "So you came here to see if I was behind the attack?"
"Yes." Xenas voice was low and even. "Your answers to my questions have made it pretty clear to me that you werent."
"And if I were?"
"You and I would now be at war, my friend."
"Xena. I need for you to leave now. When Antony wakes up, Im going to have a talk with him, but I need to think about how. And what Im going to say." The Egyptian turned to face the window, also squinting into the bright sunlight. "If what youve said is true, it changes everything for me. I wont tolerate attacks on unarmed citizens, either. And I certainly wont tolerate deception or usurpation of my authority in my own country. Especially by my own lover. Just give me a little more time, okay? Ill have an answer for you by sundown tomorrow."
"Fair enough." The warrior chuckled suddenly. "Oh. Those herbs. Dont be surprised if Antony wakes up a bit ... um ... amorous. Its a fortunate, or maybe unfortunate side effect, depending on who you give it to."
"In the name of Ra, Xena. Did you have to do that to me? Once today was enough already." Cleopatra placed a hand over her own forehead.
The chuckle became outright laughter, as Xena shook with mirth. "Gotta admit. After getting a good look at your man over there, I have a whole new respect for you and the lengths you will go to in order to protect your country. Or maybe length is a poor choice of words." She shook harder.
"Gods. Xena. Just go." The Egyptian sighed heavily, wondering how quickly she could feign all the symptoms of a full-blown headache.
"Ill ... um let myself out the way I came in." The warrior stopped before ducking out the door. "Cleopatra, be careful. You may be sleeping with the enemy. Watch your back. Gods know Ive made the same mistake plenty of times."
"I will. And Xena ..." Cleopatras eyes reflected a decision that was practically already made. "Thank you."
The warrior looked down, studying the gold flecks in the polished marble floor, barely containing her inner smile. She smelled victory. "Youíre welcome. Until sundown tomorrow, then." And she was gone.
The musty odor of dust and aged parchment tickled Gabrielleís nose, making her sneeze, the sound reverberating off the walls of the completely silent upper room of the Cairo library. Xena was leaning over a nearby table, methodically making her way through a pile of scrolls, even as a disgruntled librarian brought yet another stack of parchment to the bardís table. "This is the last of them. And you have one candle mark until I have to close up for the day, so whatever youíre looking for, youíd best hurry."
"Thank you." The bard smiled charmingly. "We will."
The librarian merely rolled her eyes and turned away, all but stamping on the floor as she briskly exited the room. "Whats her problem?" Xena looked up toward the empty doorway.
"Um ..." Gabrielle studied the tall leather and armor-clad figure, along with the array of weapons, and grinned.
"What?" Blue eyes grew wide as two eyebrows rose in irritated question.
"Honey." The bards eyes made one last sweep of the tanned muscular frame. "I think six feet of tall dark and deadly pushing its way into the private reading collection is her problem. This room is normally off limits to most Egyptian citizens, much less foreigners. I think she would have appreciated being asked nicely first. Or maybe having written permission from Cleopatra would have helped."
"I did ask nicely." The warrior pouted.
"Xena." Gabrielle wove her way between the tables until she was beside her lover. "You asked nicely once, and when she refused, you took your chakram off your belt loop and started flipping it between your hands while you muttered something about being glad youd sharpened it really well this morning."
"I was just making an observation on the condition of my weapons. Can I help it if she jumped to conclusions about my intentions?" An evil grin played at the warriors lips while a mischievous glint sparkled in her eyes.
"Xenaaaaaa." The bard poked her partner in the ribs.
"Oh, come on." The warrior suddenly wrapped her arms around the shorter woman. "We were in a hurry and there was no way in Hades she was gonna let us in here. I cant go back and see Cleopatra today, so we werent going to get permission. I had to do something. Are ya mad at me?"
"No." Gabrielle nipped at the exposed skin above an arm bracer. "Just explaining why the librarian isnt in exactly the best of moods right now, thats all."
"Oh. Good." Xena looked down at the table. "Any luck over there?"
"No." The bard sighed. "Havent found any mention of Saqqara at all. Are you sure Yoseph said she was an Egyptian princess?"
"Yeah. He wasnt sure where he knew that from, but it was really familiar to him. Her name is picking at my brain too, but I dont know why." She reluctantly let go of the firm body she held and turned back to the table. "Shall we?"
"Guess so." Gabrielle returned to her own stack and they spent another half candle mark in silent review.
"Half a candle mark." The librarian practically growled as she poked her head through the door.
"Okay. Thanks." The bard sighed and looked back down at what seemed like the hundredth scroll shed scanned that afternoon. At least Alexander the Great had all the ancient texts translated into Greek. This would have gone even slower if wed had to rely on that damned Rosetta Stone. "Oh ...." She quickly re-read a paragraph. "Xena. I think I found her."
"Yeah?" The warrior vaulted over the two tables between them with a single leap, landing neatly next to her soulmate.
"Show off." The bard went for another rib poke, but Xena attempted a duck and Gabrielles finger made solid contact with the very edge of a leather-clad breast instead, part that had no brass armor protection.
"Ouch!" Xena flinched.
"Ouch?" A quizzical blonde brow rose. "You take several blows with fists and sword hilts this morning, shrugging them off like they were nothing at all, and I barely touch you and you say ouch?"
"Almost that time, remember?" A sheepish smile appeared on the chisled features. "Im a little tender there."
"Oops. Sorry." Gabrielle leaned in, kissing the exposed upper skin of the supposedly-injured body part. "Better?"
"Mmm." Blue eyes fluttered closed briefly. "Yeah. For now." She winked and forced her attention back to the scrolls. "So what did you find?"
"Looks like Saqqara was one of Khufus daughters." The bard thought for a moment. "That last pyramid we were in. Wasnt that Khufus tomb?"
"Yeah." Xenas eyes narrowed in thought. "And thats where you were the first time Saqqara made contact. I bet that was her sarcophagus in that room you were in."
"Wonder what she meant by me knowing one who could help her?" Gabrielle sat down, resting her elbows on the table and her chin in her upraised hands. "Help her with what?"
"Dont know, love." Xena laid her hands on the two small shoulders, gently massaging them. "Maybe we need to ask her."
"As ... ask her?" The bards voice quivered with a note of fear. "How do you propose to do that?"
"Well ..." The warrior used a knuckle to work on a knot of tensed muscle. "Gods, sweetheart. Youre really tight through here." She patted her partners upper shoulder area before continuing to work on the knot."
"Guess Ive had a lot on my mind." Gabrielle mumbled.
Xena felt her own muscles tense suddenly at the comment, and she felt the tiny vise grip at her heart just a little. The one she always felt when she was afraid of the unknown implications of anything going on with her partner. She swallowed and tried to concentrate. You told her to take her time. "Um ..." Contact. With Saqqara. Focus, warrior. "We can go back to the pyramids. Or, if I had to bet, Saqqara may come to you again, especially if she somehow knows youve figured out who she is."
"You think?" The bards voice squeaked.
"Just a guess. But it kinda makes sense that she would."
"Xena." Gabrielles voice was very soft. "Please dont leave me alone until we figure all of this out. Please?"
"Hey." The warrior stopped the massage, and knelt down next to her partner, pulling Gabrielles chair around to face her. She carefully pushed her way in between the bards knees, scooting forward on her own knees, and rested her hands on the top of each of her partners thighs, gently squeezing the firm muscles. "I wouldnt dream of it."
"Even if you have to talk to Cleopatra again?" Small fingers found their way into long dark locks.
"No matter what, Gabrielle." The warrior wrapped her hands around the compact waist. "Im by your side, in sight at all times, until we get to the bottom of this."
"Thank you." The bard let out a long trembling sigh, and pulled Xena forward until the warriors forehead rested against her upper chest. "Means a lot."
"Gabrielle." The warrior kissed the cleavage that was conveniently below her lips. "Why didnt you tell me you were afraid to be alone? I coulda figured out something else this afternoon. Maybe sent word for Cleo to come to me instead."
"I ... just knew you needed to take care of things, and I didnt want to be in your way." The bard kept a firm hold on the back of Xenas head.
"Baby." The warrior kissed the soft skin again. "You are never in my way. You got me?"
"Part of me knows that." She reached down and around, cupping Xenas face in her hands so they could look at each other. "But part of me really wants to be self-sufficient. To feel like I can handle things without always running to you to take care of me."
"Gabrielle." The warrior turned her head and lightly nipped at her partners inner wrist. "I have every bit of faith that when push comes to shove, you are perfectly capable of taking care of yourself. And me too, if I need you to. But the point is, weve got each other. We dont have to face stuff alone. I want to take care of you. Wont you please let me?"
"I know." The bard bent forward and kissed the top of the dark head. "Eli helped me to see that today."
"Eli did that?" Black brows shot into Xenas hairline. "Thought hed tell you to turn around and run away from me as fast and as far as you can."
"He might have at one time." Gabrielle smoothed back the shiny black hair, something her fingers could never get enough of, and knowing that Xena secretly loved to have her hair played with. "But he and I talked about a lot of things this afternoon, and I made one of them crystal clear to him."
"Whats that?" The warrior closed her eyes at the pleasurable sensations that were dancing across her scalp.
"That Im so in love with you." The bard made circular motions against the back of Xenas head with her fingertips. "And that my ... way ... is with you. And that I will do whatever I have to do to protect you."
The warrior sighed at the heartfelt declaration, and felt the vise once again detach itself from her heart and disappear. She knew it would come back again at some point, and probably many times over the course of her life, but she was beginning to understand that Gabrielle was always going to say or do something to make it go away again. She suddenly realized that some little demon in the back of her mind had been trying to make her believe that Eli might convince her lover that they were better off apart, and that Gabrielle might actually consider it.
She opened her eyes and stood up, lifting the bard and swinging her around onto the edge of the table, before she leaned in with one hand on the smooth polished wood, and gently touched the side of Gabrielles face with the other. Her fingers trailed across and down to full lips, which she circled. "So soft." She leaned in closer, and replaced her fingers with her lips, lightly kissing the bard several times, increasing neither pace nor contact, but nonetheless feeling her partners breathing gradually quicken. "Gabrielle." Another kiss and then another. "Love you. With all my heart."
The gentle kisses continued until a throat clearing interrupted them. "Go get a room. Were closing up now." The librarians disgust was readily apparent on her face. As the warrior and a somewhat embarrassed bard passed her to leave the building, the woman couldnt help but try to get in the last jab. "Perverts."
"Excuse me?" Xena stopped and slowly turned around. "What did you say?"
"I said, you two are a couple of damned perverts." She stood firmly in place despite the chakram, which was in plain sight.
The warrior sized up her tormentor, who was not much older than Xena herself, and let her first inclination, which was to slam the woman against the wall and choke her for a while, pass. "Lady, if what I have with her is perversion ..." She inclined her head over her shoulder toward where Gabrielle stood with breathless anticipation. "... all I have to say is thank the gods for whoever corrupted me. Now if youll excuse us, I think Ill heed your suggestion."
"What suggestion is that?" The librarian tilted her nose up just a bit.
"Take her back to our room and finish what we started in here." A feral smile appeared and then she turned, grabbing the bard by the hand as they made their way back to the inn, while a shocked librarian stammered incoherently in their wake.
As they reached the inn, Xena placed one hand in the small of her partners back and ushered her through the door. "Eli joining us for dinner tonight?"
"No. He had to go meet with some of his followers. He said hed come back by here tomorrow after breakfast." The bard could feel the energy rolling off her partner.
"Good." Xena purred. "Lets eat dinner. And then ..." She leaned down and whispered into a small ear, which turned bright pink. She led her partner to a table in the corner of the room, and as a server came around, she ordered two plates of the special, her eyes never leaving the passionate green ones staring back at her from across the table.
"Would you care for a drink?" The server persisted, despite the fact that he was being ignored. "We have several wines to choose from, as well as the house ale, and two fine imported ports."
"Where is the port from ....?" Xena trailed off and looked up at the server, her forehead wrinkling. "Ah ... never mind. Ill just have a cup of cider."
"Excellent choice. Its aged for a season, and has a nice kick to it." He smiled, making notes on a small piece of parchment.
"No. Not that cider." The warrior waived him off before he finished writing. "Just plain apple cider, you know, apple juice?"
"Okay." The server scratched out something, and made a new note before he turned to a very confused bard.
Gabrielle studied her partners chisled profile. Hmmm. "Ill have the same."
The server left them alone, but before the bard had time to question her partner, she felt strong fingers wrap around her leg under the table, as Xena teased her inner thigh just above her knee. The question got lost, as they shared a quick dinner, exchanging smoldering glances as they fed each other bites from across the table, their eyes clearly communicating that there were things besides food to be consumed on this night. Neither one of them remembered what the special was, or how they made it up to their room afterward, or exactly how all their clothes ended up in a mixed heap on the floor at the foot of the bed.
Xena hovered on her forearms over her partner, before she lowered herself, kissing the bard passionately before she descended lower, nipping at some particularly sensitive flesh.
"Oh gods." The bards whole body jerked.
"Did I hurt you?" The warrior drew back and delicately traced the skin she had been savoring.
"No, not exactly. Just ... well remember when I poked you in the library?" Gabrielle carefully touched the body part she was referring to.
"Mmm." Xena smiled. "Sorry bout that. Guess youre a little hyper-sensitive too."
"Yeah." The bard gasped, as the warrior corrected her action, changing from nipping to feather-light kisses and tiny licks.
"Hows that?" Xena murmured against the sweet salty skin. "Better?"
"Oh, yeah." Gabrielle closed her eyes, sensing that something had changed since the morning, and allowed herself to get lost in her partners extremely gentle and sweet attention. She had never felt so loved.
The warrior continued, as she worshiped the small body she held, until her partner was reduced to a quivering contented mass that she pulled tightly against her. "You okay?" Xena ran her fingers along an exposed hip, and then moved down, splaying a protective hand across her soulmates belly.
"Um-hmm. Just felt a little intense." She smiled against a collarbone, where her lips had come to rest. "That gonna keep you happy for a few days?"
"Id say the old happiness rating is off the scale right now, why?" The warrior caressed the skin on her partners stomach.
"Cause, the playgrounds gonna be closed for a few days, starting tomorrow."
"Huh?" Xena frowned. Oh yeah, time to cycle. Yippee. "Gabrielle." The warrior tugged at the small body until the bard was stretched out full length on top of her, belly to belly. "One look. One touch. One word from you, gives me more satisfaction than anything Ive ever done with anyone before you. Just to hold you brings me all the happiness I could ever want or need."
"How about one kiss?" The bard teased, as she tested for an answer to her question.
"Um ..." Xena pulled back and grinned. "Try that again."
"Tease." Gabrielle kissed her partner again, and whimpered when the warrior deepened the contact.
"Yeah." Xena grinned as they broke off. "Kisses too."
The bard smiled dreamily and licked her lips, tasting the remnants of apple juice from her partners mouth. She frowned.
"Hey." The warrior reached up to smooth her lovers forehead. "Whats that for?"
"Xena. You have always enjoyed a good port, havent you?" She felt the warriors body stiffen under her.
"Yeah." Blue eyes lowered slightly.
"In fact, Ive seen you go out of your way and across a village to a different tavern if you thought you were going to have a chance to try a new imported port." Gabrielle bit her lower lip.
"Yeah. True." Xena pulled the fair head down, pushing the bards teeth back carefully with her fingers, and wrapping her own lips around Gabrielles lower one, sucking it gently before she pulled back, releasing it. "Theres another question in there just dying to get out, isnt there?"
"Uh-huh." The bard willed her body to back down from the renewed stirring caused by her partners actions. "Why no port tonight?"
"I ... um ... until I know what was going on with you on the road this morning, I kinda decided I needed to stay away from alcohol." Xena bit her own lower lip. "Dont want to do anything to hurt you."
Oh, Xena. Gabrielle sighed. From anyone else it might have come across as manipulative, a way to force her to talk out of sheer guilt. But from Xena ... the bard knew it was a purely unselfish decision. Something the warrior had decided to do all on her own. And the fact that Xena had given no explanation until Gabrielle questioned her proved it. If I hadnt asked, she would have just quit drinking until I finally decided to talk, no matter how long I took. Gabrielle smiled sadly and rolled over until her back was against the warriors side. "Xena, hold me. I have a long story to tell you."
"Okay." Xena spooned her body around her partners back, wrapping long arms around the bards middle, and throwing her long upper leg across Gabrielles hip just for good measure. She kissed a bare shoulder and pulled the light sheet up until it was tucked under their arms. "Remember, Gabrielle. No matter what, I love you. Okay?"
"Yeah." The bard twined her fingers with the ones resting against her stomach, and idly stroked a calloused palm with her thumb. "When we were little, Lila and I, my mother and father, they used to go to market every fall right after the harvest to sell crops, and every spring after the annual sheep-sheering to trade wool for seed. They were usually gone for a week. The last few years before I met you, they took us with them. Woo-hoo. I actually got to go to the next town over. My twice-a-year chance to get out of Potadeia." The bard laughed nervously.
"Musta been fun for you." Xena swallowed a large lump in her throat.
"Yeah. It wasnt Athens, but it was something." Gabrielle unconsciously took a firmer grip on her partners hand. "Anyway, when we were little, they didnt take us with them. I guess two little girls were too much trouble to keep up with. Or maybe they enjoyed getting a break from us every now and then."
"Cant imagine anyone wanting a break from you." The warrior pulled her partners body more closely against her.
"Come on, Xena." Gabrielle teased. "Those first couple of moons we traveled together, I bet you were dying for a break from me."
"Only cause I wasnt used to traveling with anyone, not cause of you." The warrior pouted.
"Uh-huh. Whatever." The bard took a deep breath, gathering her courage. "For whatever reason, until I was about fourteen summers old, they would leave us with my Uncle Petras and my Aunt Arta. Aunt Arta was my fathers sister. They lived on a farm several miles outside Potadeia."
"Any cousins to play with?" Xena rested her chin against the bards head.
"No. Aunt Arta couldnt have any children. She was pretty frail. Always in poor health. She was in bed a lot and Uncle Petras pretty much ran their farm by himself, except for some hired help every now and then. He was a bitter man. Dont know why, exactly, or at least I didnt back then. He used to drink. A lot. Every night." The bard shivered.
"Baby, Ive got you." Xena felt the trembling body and something else in her own gut. Her partners fear. Damn you Lao Ma, I didnt ask for this gift. The power of it made her stomach heave in a sudden wave of nausea, which she quickly forced down.
"When he drank, he got real angry and belligerent. He ... Lila and I learned to stay out of his way. Once he got started drinking, wed go play in the barn, or out by the pond. Which was fine in spring. But sometimes in the fall, it was so cold. We could stay in the barn for a little while, but after a few candle marks, it just got too cold. Id try to build us a fire, but I didnt really know how, and Lila was afraid Id burn the barn down." Gabrielle felt the fist tears sting her eyes. "So wed eventually go back in and try to sneak off to bed. But he always caught us. And hed ..." She trailed off and swallowed hard. "Wasnt much fun."
"What ... did ... he ... do to you?" Xenas words were carefully measured, as she fought back her own rage, that was rapidly rising to mingle with her partners transferred fear.
Gabrielle sniffled loudly. "Slapped us around a little. For anything." She took a couple of deep breathes. "If we didnt clean the dishes good enough. Or if we hadnt put our clothes away just right. Or if we didnt fill the sheep trough full enough with water. Just any reason to hit us a couple of times. Sometimes with his hands or his fists. Sometimes with his belt. I tried to tell my father, but he didnt want to believe me. Said I must be mistaken and that we must have done something to be punished for. I even showed him my bruises, but when he questioned Uncle Petras, he told my father I had fallen out of the hay loft. So after that, Lila and I, we just worked extra hard to stay out of Uncle Petras way. But he always got to us. Id eventually get us to our room, and Id keep watch through a crack in the door until Uncle Petras passed out. Lila would lay in bed and cry until it was safe to go to sleep. Usually took him about five or six flasks of ale or wine. Um ... Xena. Youre about to squeeze me in half."
"Gods. Im sorry." The warrior loosened her grip. "Can we switch positions?" She was desperate to get a look at her partners face, to make eye contact and offer comfort.
"Not yet." Gabrielle hiccupped before she felt new tears trickle down her cheeks to dampen the pillow. "Theres more."
Xena gasped as her stomach suddenly twisted into a tight knot. "Oh gods." She flinched, briefly letting go of her partner to double up into a ball.
"Xena. You okay?" The bard rolled over, resting a concerned hand on her partners forehead.
The warrior managed a pained laugh at the irony of the situation. "Yeah. Um ... remember that emotional thing that I discussed with you? The one that Lao Ma taught me about where she could sense my negative feelings?"
"Uh-huh." Gabrielle moved closer, rubbing Xenas arm soothingly. "Whats that got to do with ....? Oh."
"Yeah." The warrior took long deep breaths until she managed to straighten her body. "Whatevers going on in here ..." Xena placed her palm gently against the bards stomach. "... must feel like Vesuvius erupting, at least as far as I can tell. Either that or the cycling cramps are kicking in early and with a vengeance this moon."
"Xena. I dont have to finish ..."
"Oh no." Before the bard knew what was happening, Xena had flipped her back over and they were spooning again. "Is this the preferred position for discussing whatever in Tartarus you were about to tell me?" The warrior tried to lighten the mood, but couldnt, opting instead to pull the bard so close, that she swore she couldnt tell where her skin ended and Gabrielles started. "Got you baby. I know youre hurting, but Im here for you. Ill hold onto you however you want, and for as long as you want me to, okay?"
"Forever." Gabrielle knew the dam was about to break. "Hold onto me forever." Her voice was a painful hoarse whisper.
"Deal." Xenas own eyes began to water. So much pain. How has she carried this, whatever it is, around for this long?
"That last spring we stayed with Uncle Petras and Aunt Arta, it was really bad. He practically beat us up for three nights straight. Like I said, I was almost fourteen summers old, and Lila, she would have been almost eleven. She cried herself to sleep every night, and I kept trying to figure out what to do. And then that fourth night ... he ... oh gods." Gabrielle began to sob uncontrollably.
"Gabrielle." The warrior was trying really hard to honor her partners desire to talk without being face to face. "Did he ...?"
"Gabrielle?" Xena was about to raise up, her heart threatening to beat a hole through her ribcage.
"No. Yes. He ... he ..." More tears fell, and the warrior waited, trying to work out what no and yes meant.
"Sorry." The bard re-gained use of her voice. "He came in our room and he was so drunk. He stumbled around and sat down on the bed. Lila and I ... we shared a bed when we stayed there. He started running his hand up and down my leg on top of the covers, and I just laid there, petrified. He was talking crazy, said that he hadnt had relations with my aunt in years, and he couldnt take it any more. And then he looked at me and said I was too old ... said I was probably able to get pregnant. He ... um ..." Gabrielle wailed loudly. "Oh gods. He pushed me onto the floor and he went after Lila. I jumped on top of him and tried to pull him off of her, but he picked me up and threw me against the wall. I ran out of the room and out of the house. I didnt know where I was going to go. We werent near any other houses. I wanted to get help, but I didnt know what to do."
"Gabrielle, you were ..."
"No!" The bards anger silenced the warrior, as it broke free, mingling with the tears. "I finally went back to the house. It was dark and quiet, and I went into the room where Lila was. She was curled up in the corner of the room and she was so scared, she tried to fight me off when I first got to her. I just held her for a long time. She said he had tried, but he couldnt ... get in. She was hurting so bad from where he had tried. She said he had made her touch him and stuff instead. I didnt understand what she meant, and she wouldnt tell me exactly what he had made her do." Gabrielle shook, as fresh sorrow erupted from deep inside.
"Lila and I snuck out that night, and we walked all the way home to Potadeia. My parents werent due back for three more days, but Uncle Petras didnt try to come after us. When my mother and father got home, we just told them that he had dropped us off earlier that day so that wed be there when they got home and they wouldnt have to come get us." The bards voice vibrated with barely-controlled rage. "They bought it, hook, line, and sinker, and kept going on about how thoughtful Uncle Petras was. The year after that I convinced them I was old enough to watch Lila if they would take us to market with them. We never told anyone, and whenever he came around, Uncle Petras acted like nothing had ever happened."
"Gabrielle." Xena stroked the pale head. "Im so glad he didnt ..."
"NO!!" The bard sat up and held the edges of the sheet clenched tightly in her balled-up fists. "Xena, you dont understand. It should have been me. It was my fault. I am the big sister, and I didnt protect Lila. All my fault ..." Gabrielle brought her hands to her face, covering it as she rocked back and forth, weeping silent tears of self-loathing.
"Baby." The warrior carefully moved in behind her partner, pulling her slowly back against her body, and held onto her. Xena knew that later, they would deal with how to help Lila, who was most assuredly still carrying the scars from the experience. But now, now was the time to convince Gabrielle that the whole thing was not her fault. "You were a young girl. What, exactly, do you think you were supposed to do to stop him?"
"He could have taken me instead." The bard sniffled against the skin of a warm neck.
"What would that accomplish?" Xena pushed the image itself out of her mind, lest she become too angry to stay focused.
"Would have spared her." Gabrielle whispered.
"No." The warrior made tiny shushing noises to calm her partner before she continued. "Gabrielle. Some of the men in my army ware rapists. I didnt condone it, but I wasnt always able to stop them until it was too late. Let me tell you what would have happened if you hadnt run away when you did."
"Wh ...what?" Watery red eyes looked up into blue, hoping for salvation from her pain.
"A few different things could have happened." Xena reached across, brushing tears off her partners cheeks. "If you had insisted he take you, you would have been raped, because you were older, and probably he would have been able to ... get in. And it would have hurt like Hades. In more ways than one. And Lila would have had to watch that. And theres no guarantee he wouldnt have gone after Lila when he was through with you. Or, if you had continued to try to fight him, drunk as he was, he might have killed one or both of you. Or, if you had stayed and he had gone after Lila, and not been able to get what he wanted, he almost assuredly would have gone after you to finish it off."
"You ... you think so?" Gabrielle closed her eyes as the first symptoms of a post-crying headache began to make themselves felt.
"I know so, because thats what drunken rapists do. They strike out blindly and they take their pleasure any way they can. And Im so glad you didnt have to suffer through a rape, love." Xena softly kissed her partners forehead. "You did the smartest thing you could have done."
"But Lila." The bard sniffled quietly. "Xena, shes turned away every attempt my father has made to betroth her to someone. I know shes afraid to let anyone touch her. I just know it. Shes eighteen summers old. She cant put him off forever. You and I dont necessarily believe a woman needs a man to survive, but in the world Lila lives in, shes going to have to marry or probably end up destitute someday. Shed have to get out of Potadeia to remain single."
"What was that whole love letter to Joxer about last year?" The warrior mused to herself, wondering of the implications of that. "Remember at your birthday party?"
"Dont know, because Lila and I have never talked about that night again. I mean the night with Uncle Petras. And I had no idea she had a thing for Joxer before my birthday party." Gabrielle smiled briefly. "But I suspect that she thought Joxer would at least take her away from everything. Xena, you and I both know Joxer was a bumbling dufus, but he was a kind and gentle dufus. I think Lila saw that, and thought he probably would be gentle with her."
"Maybe." Xena spared a smile for their slain friend. "Although he had quite a reputation with the girls at Megs tavern. I never did figure that one out."
"Xena." The bard managed to laugh. "Joxer once confided to me that he had started those rumors about his prowess himself. Hed never been with any of those women other than Meg."
"Really?" The warrior quirked an eyebrow. "Too bad things didnt turn out differently. He and Meg might have been really happy together, if he could have gotten over his crush on you, that is."
"Ewww. Xena." Gabrielle wrinkled her nose. "Joxer with someone who looks exactly like you. Cant go there for too long. The mental picture is a little too much."
"Oh gods." Xena cringed herself at the thought. She swung her legs over the side of the bed, and felt a vise-like grip on her arm.
"Dont leave." The bards chin quivered.
"Im not leaving." The warrior turned, and wrapped her arms around her partner, gently lowering the grief-stricken body to the mattress. "Im going to get something for you to take to make sure you sleep okay. Ill be right back. Youll be able to see me the whole time, I promise."
"Okay." Sad green eyes followed her every move, as Xena padded over to their bags and retrieved a water skin, a tin cup, and a packet of herbs. She sprinkled a handful of the herbs into the cup and then filled it part-way with water. She sniffed the concoction and then retrieved a vile of honey, dropping a liberal dollop into the herbal mixture, and earning a tired, but grateful smile from the tear-stained face on the bed.
"Here ya go." The warrior made her way back to her partners side and offered the mug to the bard, who sat up and drank it all down. "Good girl." Xena placed the empty mug aside and doused the candle before she crawled back into bed. "Come here." She pulled Gabrielle into her arms, holding her tightly as the bard lay her head against Xenas shoulder and sighed. "Sweetheart, Im not going to pretend that one talk with you is going to convince you that you were not at fault with what happened to Lila."
"You know me pretty well, dont you?" Gabrielle yawned as the herbs began to take effect.
"I hope so." Xena's hand made wide comforting circles on the bare skin of her partners back. "But I promise you, I will not quit until you are convinced you did nothing wrong. And Im going to help you figure out how to help Lila, too."
"Xena. I love you." The bards eyelids slowly fluttered closed, fighting the sleep as it quickly claimed her.
"Love you too, baby." The warrior lay awake for a long time, thinking about the beatings her partner had suffered, the near-rape of Lila, and whether or not she was ever going to ingest alcohol again.
Continued in Part 7
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