(or what happened between the episodes)

by Texbard

For Disclaimers, see "Looking for Trouble"



(post "Chariots of War")

G: "I believe everyone will find their tree in the forest someday -- even you."

X: "I find the strongest trees in the forest stand alone."

X: "I left a friend back in the last village-- she depends on me."

G: "I'm looking for my best friend-- maybe you've seen her?"

X: Do you ever miss your family?"

G: "Sometimes-- but not as much when I'm with you.

-                Chariots of War


She has got to be the most confusing person I've ever met. One minute, she's trying to get rid of me, the next, she's leaving behind a perfectly good family and a man who's in love with her, to go back to this uncertain life on the road. Okay, so I guess I left behind a perfectly good family and a man who's in love with me, for this uncertain life on the road, so maybe I have no room to talk.

Mostly, I guess she scared me. I could see it in Darius' eyes -- he adores her. And those kids! They're absolutely precious, and they all worship the ground she walks on. I guess I know how they feel.

I heard him ask her to stay, and I held my breath. I don't know what I would have done if she'd taken him up on it, because there sure wasn't room for me in all of that, or at least I don't think there would have been. I can't go back to Potadeia, I just can't, but I don't have what it takes to make it on my own out here, not yet.

She looked sad when she left them, but at least she smiled when I told her I don't miss my family as much when I'm with her. Honestly, I don't have much time out here to think about my family. Everyday there's something new to see, that I haven't seen before. Something new to learn. New places to go, and people to meet -- some of them unlike any people I've met before. Although I guess Xena would be at the top of that list, as far as being unlike anyone I've met before.

We've been traveling together for a few weeks. I know I pushed myself on her, and I know she doesn't understand why. I do miss my sister Lila sometimes. My parents -- they're fine. Nothing really to complain about there, except that they never were very happy with my "flights of fancy," as mother called them.

I told Xena I wasn't the little girl they wanted me to be. That's an understatement. Potadeia was never enough for me, and I think on some level, that hurt my parents. It was all they had ever known. It was all I'd ever known too, until I met Xena.

I always dreamed of what might be out there. And I sometimes saw visions.* I learned early in life not to share those with anyone, even if they did end up coming true. It was the fastest way to make people believe I was a freak.

Maybe I am. I was born with those six toes on my right foot, after all. Thank the gods mother had that taken care of at birth. I don't even remember it myself, but I can just imagine the teasing I'd have taken if that ever got out.

I was teased enough as it is. I taught myself to read and write -- something my father found unbecoming in a girl. I think he was afraid no man would want to marry me if I was more educated than him. But I needed it like I need air and water -- when I read, I could escape Potadeia, and go places in my mind that I wonder if I'll ever get to see with my eyes.

So anyone in the village who had any scrolls, I'd beg them to let me read them. Any strangers who traveled through, I always talked to them as much as I could, until inevitably father would come looking for me, or he'd send Lila after me. I sometimes got punished for that -- talking to strangers.

But there was so much to learn from them. Some of them had been places I could only dream of. Sometimes they had maps and they would let me look at them and see where all those places were -- Athens, and Rome, and once even a man who had been all the way to India. It sounded so wonderful and so different. I hope I get to travel the world someday, but seeing Greece is a good start.

I'll never forget the traveling bard who came through once, and stayed an entire week. I made sure and finished my chores early each day, so I could go hear him tell stories at the inn at night. It was more wonderful than I can describe to hear his stories. I followed him around one day, and got him to share a few extra stories with me.

I fancy myself a bard. I used to love to tell stories to any of the kids who would listen, usually the younger ones. The ones my age thought I was strange. I tried telling stories to my parents a few times, but they just shook their head and told me I'd be better off spending my time practicing my sewing and cooking.

I should have seen it coming when I was betrothed to Perdicus. It was what eventually happens to every girl in Potadeia, and it's what they had tried to mold me for my entire life. Nonetheless, I was shocked when it finally happened to me. I'd never really pictured myself married and settled down, much less having children.

I still remember the betrothal supper with our families -- father at one end of the table, and Perdicus' father at the other end. And Perdicus and I sitting across from each other at the table. I don't remember anything that was said that night, or what kind of dowry was agreed upon. I don't even remember what mother cooked, although I think it was more special than usual.

All I remember is feeling as if the world had suddenly closed in on me, and gotten much smaller. My chest felt tight and I remember the food sticking in my throat. I wanted to run fast and far away. Anywhere.

Maybe I'd read too many tales of romance, but I knew I didn't love Perdicus. I suppose most women don't love the men they are betrothed to. Mother said love would come with time, and I wanted to believe her. I really did. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't feel the things for Perdicus that I knew I wanted to feel if I was going to spend my life with someone.

I felt trapped.

There were no more dreams for me after that supper. Every time I pictured going to some beautiful faraway place, reality would sneak up and crush those dreams, and then all I could think of was the fact that I was going to spend the rest of my life in Potadeia. I was going to marry there, birth children there, run a house, tend a garden, and someday I was going to die there.

If that was all there was to look forward to, it made me wonder if dying up front might be the easiest thing to do, since I was going to die without ever getting to live first. I can't think I would ever kill myself, but I have to confess something.

When those slavers came through, it wasn't so difficult to offer myself to them. I had this silly idea that if they captured me, maybe they'd take me someplace far away, maybe even to the sea and on a boat, and then maybe I could escape and see the world that way. I didn't realize there might be whippings or beatings as part of the package.

I would have learned that end of the bargain all too soon, if Xena hadn't been there. Watching her fight was like poetry. I even wrote a story about it, although I haven't had the courage to share it with anyone, especially Xena herself.

I'd never seen a woman like her -- so independent and self-assured, and able to take care of herself in any situation. Suddenly I realized that life didn't have to end in Potadeia. I want to be just like her. It was probably completely insane to follow after her like I did, but I thought maybe, just maybe, she might let me hang around long enough to learn from her.

So far, so good. I try so hard to be helpful. I know I'm a burden, more than anything. I slow her down, since I walk most of the time rather than ride. Funny, though, she hasn't complained much, and doesn't seem to mind slowing Argo down enough that I can keep up. I just hope my feet get a little be tougher. Right now, I'm so glad when we stop to make camp each night, I sometimes want to cry from relief.

She taught me how to build a fire, so that's something. She doesn't talk much, and that can be maddening sometimes, especially when she starts ignoring my questions. I don't mean to be a pest, but there's so much out here I want to learn about. What plants can I eat and not poison myself? How does she trap the rabbits we eat? And watching her fish -- wow! She doesn't even use a fishing pole sometimes -- just reaches into the water and pulls out fish with her bare hands. I've never seen anyone do that before.

She's simply amazing. She hears the slightest little noises, long before I do, and she hears other things that never catch up to my ears. And she's so fast. She can be ambling along lazily enjoying the day one minute, and next thing I know, she's grabbed me and dove behind a tree. And she's always right -- sure enough something or someone dangerous will come along. Although I really hate that the first thing she does when she does this, is clamp her hand over my mouth. I do know not to talk when we're in danger for Zeus' sake!

There are even little things that fascinate me, like the care she takes with her armor and weapons. Even now, while I'm sitting here scribbling away, she's over there across the fire mending a tear in her leathers. She already sharpened her sword, something she does every night, and she always gives her armor a rubdown as well.

She said keeping things clean and in working order can make the difference between life and death -- if she takes care of the little problems, they won't become big ones at a critical time, like in the heat of battle. So I try to stay out of her way while she goes through this routine every night.

Besides, sometimes I just like to watch her. She's always alert -- you can see it in her eyes and her body language. Sometimes she'll be working on something, and I'll see her frown, and cock her head just a little bit, and slow down her movements, and I know she's hearing something. If it turns out to be nothing, she goes back to her work, and of course, if it is something bad, she'll stop completely and give me this look, and I know that's my cue to go duck behind the nearest rock.

I hate that I have to do that. I see her when she fights -- she's not just protecting herself. I know she's constantly aware of where I am, and if anyone is coming after me. More than once I thought I was a goner, only to have her chakram come flying, or Xena herself come flying, and save my neck, just in the nick of time.

She's taken a few hits for me, and that hurts, especially since she didn't invite me to come along for the ride in the first place. A few times now she's left me for half a day, or a whole day, to go check things out. I'm not stupid. I suspect sometimes she just needs to get away from me for a while. Yet she always comes back.

But this last time, she was gone for a few days, and when I finally caught up with her, the first thing she tried to do was send me down the road to stay with some family on a farm. I halfway suspect she planned to leave me there. Maybe she was thinking of staying with Darius and having me in the way messed that up for her. She doesn't talk that much, but I know she has demons she's fighting. Maybe Darius was her tree in the forest. Maybe --

"Xena?" I look across the fire and wait, as she ties off a knot and looks up. I should be used to it by now, but her eyes always do something to me -- they're so intense, even when she's not being intense, if that makes sense. In the firelight, they're all silvery pale blue, and as usual, I find myself losing my train of thought for a moment under her gaze.

She raises an eyebrow, and I feel my shoulders slump a little. I had hoped for at least a 'yes?' or a 'what?'

"Darius seems like a very nice man." I can hear my voice and I know it sounds thin and uncertain.

"He is." She folds the leathers over once, and lays them aside on the log next to her. I feel myself relax a little bit, as she stretches out her legs toward the fire and crosses them at the ankles. She's barefooted, and wearing her shift, and somehow she looks a little less intimidating than when she's in the armor. Not much less, though.

"He . . . he loves you, doesn't he?" I bumble my way forward, hoping I won't learn that she didn't stay with him because of me. I don't think I could stand it if she out and out resented me.

"No." She leans back a little bit against the log, and looks down at her hands in her lap. She looks back up and I see that sadness in her eyes again. "He's in love with the image he was trying to make me into."

"I don't understand." I roll up my scroll and tuck it into my bag, so I can give her my full attention. I think we might actually be on the verge of a real heart-to-heart, and I sure don't want to miss that.

"He . . . " she wrinkles her nose and I see the tiniest hint of a smile on her lips. " . . . he had me put on a dress for a village meeting."

"A dress? Really?" I can't picture it, hard as I try. All I've seen her in are her leathers or her shift.

"Yes." She finally laughs, a throaty chuckle that lights up her eyes. "Long blue thing. I had to rip it up the sides so I could move in it when those warlords attacked us."

"Oh." I laugh with her. "I wish I could've seen that."

"Trust me, by the time I was done with that dress, it wasn't pretty." The smile fades, but doesn't quite leave her eyes, making me wonder what's going on behind them.

"So you didn't stay with him because he was trying to make you be something you aren't?" I find myself holding my breath again, just like I did when Darius asked her to stay.

"Partly." She looks down again, that long hair hiding her face, and she's quiet for so long, I wonder if she's decided not to elaborate any further. I start to smooth out my bedroll, but stop when she looks up again. "Darius and I are two very different people. He doesn't fight."

I don't know what to say to this. I don't fight either. I feel a little knot forming in my stomach, and I wonder if she's about to tell me she needs to send me home because I'm too much of a hazard.

"It's more than that." I see her face soften a bit, as she continues to speak. Do I sense a note of compassion in her voice? I quickly try to look neutral, wondering if she read my thoughts. "I can deal with someone who doesn't fight. It's that he didn't want me to fight either. And that -- that's such a part of who I am. I don't think I could give up fighting for anyone. Do you understand?"

"Oh. Perfectly." The knot in my stomach unties itself, and I feel my body relax, just a little. "That's just silly, Xena. He knew you were a warrior when he took you in." I shudder and pause, remembering the arrow wound she finally showed me. She could have been killed, and I can't even bring myself to think about that, so I push forward. "Besides, the world we live in, you have to be able to protect yourself."

"Or find someone who can protect you," she adds. Our eyes lock for a moment, and for once I feel she's let me in, just a little.

"Yeah." I finally look away, and go about getting ready to sleep, and she does the same. After a bit, we're both snuggled up in our bedrolls, the remains of the fire crackling between us. For once, it feels warm and friendly here in the silence before Morpheus takes us, and I feel more relieved than I have in days. "Goodnight, Xena." I look across the fire, and she rolls to her side.

"Goodnight, Gabrielle." She closes her eyes, but I think I see a smile on her face, albeit a subtle one.

"Xena?" She opens one eye and I know she's giving me her 'I'm going to be patient' look. "Where are we going next?"

"There's a village not far from here. I need to get a new sharpening stone for my sword, and some oil." The eye closes again. "Night, Gabrielle."

I smile. She said it first, and that's a first. "Goodnight." I'm not sleepy yet, and I look up at the stars above the treetops, wondering what tomorrow will bring. Now if I can just get her to teach me how to defend myself, instead of having to hide all the time. I have to learn everything I can, before she meets a Darius who doesn't mind her fighting.

I review our conversation, and I smile. I'm in, for now.


* Visions were seen in "One Against an Army," and it was hinted at that she had seen them before.

NEXT in the BTL Series - "Stones in the Pond" (post "Dreamworker")

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