"What you do to me; the marks, the pain. Soreness I know should linger into tomorrow will be gone. I'll wake up in the morning and it will be as if you were never here."
Xena was stunned. "How long has this been happening?"
Gabrielle knew what she was about to say would hurt her lover, but she had to explain. "Two seasons, at least."
"So tomorrow... ?"
"None of these marks will be here and my body won't be sore."
Xena sat up, confused. "Is that why you think you're losing me?"
"I don't think I'm losing you; I am losing you. Your visits have become more infrequent and you have to expend more and more energy to stay for shorter periods of time. I know you promised I'd never really lose you, but I'm not sure that you're going to be able to keep that promise."
"Gabrielle, I'm so sorry. There has to be something I can do. I'll talk to Akemi when I get back and... "
"Akemi? Please! Like she's going to help you stay with me!"
"She's not like that. I really believe... "
"Don't you dare defend her to me! She's the reason you're not with me in the first place! She's a lying, manipulative... "
"Okay, okay! I'll ask Harukata. Maybe he knows something that can help us."
Gabrielle took a deep breath to calm down. "I'll tell you what. I'll come back tomorrow. We can discuss anything Harukata has to say and I want to watch this new warrior of yours.
The blonde nodded wordlessly. "I have to go now, Sweetheart. My energy is gone."
She turned for a kiss goodbye, but Xena was already gone. Gabrielle curled up in the blanket and cried beneath the stars.
The following morning Janae declared her Rite of Challenge in hand to hand combat. Tyro prepared a series of challenges that included multiple opponents and physical restrictions that ranged from the use of only one arm to attaching weights to one leg to simulate injuries. It was a long, arduous day. The test lasted well into the afternoon without a break for lunch.
As the day wore on, the crowd grew larger and larger, until finally even Gabrielle gave in to her curiosity and wandered over to the training grounds. As she arrived, she felt a familiar presence behind her.
"I wondered if you were going to come down and watch."
"It seems like everyone else in the village is down here. I figured I must be missing something good," Gabrielle replied as she leaned toward Xena's energy. "How long have you been watching?"
"I don't really know; most of the day."
"How does she look?"
"She's very skilled. She does an excellent job of reading her opponent's body to anticipate the next move without giving her counter away. She's strong and she's quick."
"If she's that good, why is Tyro making this last so long?"
"I suspect is has something to do with Tyro's ego. You said she passed two tests yesterday and then turned right around and challenged for the third today. If Tyro is anything like Pony, she's trying to make a point."
Saving the best for last, Tyro entered the fray as Janae dispatched the last of three opponents she had faced concurrently. She immediately landed a blow to the chest that knocked the exhausted young warrior to the ground. Janae glared up at the weapons master, angered by the unexpected attack.
"She's had the wind knocked out of her, but notice how she doesn't grasp at her chest. That's very good."
"She's too angry to allow Tyro to know she's hurt her." Xena's image nodded in agreement.
Janae stood slowly, rolling sore shoulders, clasping and unclasping sore hands. "So you had to wait until the end of the day to face me?"
Gabrielle's mouth flew open. "She's taunting Tyro!" She laughed at the audacity of the young woman. Glancing across the clearing, Cyane had the same look, only it was laced with worry.
Suddenly, Gabrielle understood. Tyro had made a tactical error waiting until the end of the test to face the young warrior. If she defeated her now, there would always be a doubt in what would've happened if Janae wasn't exhausted. If she didn't defeat her, she would lose face. Gabrielle decided to intervene.
"Enough!" she called as she moved to the edge of the combat area. "This is enough."
Both women stood and looked at their queen, startled. "Tyro, has Janae performed well enough to pass the master's test?"
"Yes, my queen."
Janae glanced across the circle at the warrior. This was apparently one of those times when protocol was demanded. She immediately dropped to one knee.
"Then declare this trial finished before I lose two fine warriors who are both too stubborn to know when to quit."
Tyro walked over to the kneeling woman and extended a warrior's handshake. "I declare this challenge finished. Janae is indeed a master of hand to hand combat." As soon as the announcement was finished, the tension dissipated and the audience began to cheer wildly.
Gabrielle walked over to both women and touched each on the shoulder. "It was a long day. Tyro, there will be no training for either of you tomorrow. And Janae, report to the healer; I want her to make sure you're okay."
"My queen, I assure you... "
"It wasn't a request. Go to the healer. Now."
"Yes, my queen."
"Thank you." And with that, Gabrielle turned and walked through the crowd toward her hut.
"That was well done, my queen."
"Alright, no poking fun at me... "
"I wasn't. I'm completely serious. You saved face for Tyro and ended a challenge that, by rights, should've ended hours ago."
"I wondered about that. Why in Hades do you think Tyro allowed the test to go on like that?"
"If I had to guess, I'd say it was because she hasn't found anything this kid can't do yet and she's frustrated."
Gabrielle thought on that for a moment as they entered her hut and then changed the subject. "Did you talk to Harukata?"
"Not yet, but I will. I promise."
They were silence for a moment and then Gabrielle guessed, "If you've been here most of the day, I suspect you need to return soon."
"Yeah, but before I go, how do you feel about watching the sun set?"
"Do you want the truth?"
"Of course... "
"I hate sunsets now." Xena was silent; there was no good reply to that. "Why don't you sit with me for a while? Tell me what you're painting."
"I can do that."
There was a knock on Gabrielle's door. Putting her scroll aside, she called for entrance. It was Cyane and Tyro. Tyro wouldn't make eye contact and Cyane seemed very unhappy.
When Janae failed to show for dinner that evening, Cyane had asked one of the younger warriors to check on her. Word came back that she wasn't in her hut; the healer had required her to remain under her care for the night.
"Tyro, what got in to you today?"
"I'm sorry, my queen. I don't know."
"That's not good enough, Tyro. Janae is not only trusting you with her training; she's also trusting you with her safety. And so am I."
Tyro's head hung lower still. "I know," she whispered.
"Then what happened?"
"I guess after yesterday I just wanted to make her slow down. She seemed so confident. Not at all like a student."
"You mean she seemed confident like a warrior... "
She nodded her head slightly in agreement. "Yes, my queen. More like a warrior."
"And since when do we profit by tearing down our own warriors?"
There was no reply.
"Tyro, you are still young enough for me to forgive this mistake. I know this was a position you were thrust in to after Helicon. But know this - you have been entrusted with the future of our nation just as certainly as I have. Do not make this mistake again."
"No, my queen. I will not fail you again."
"You didn't fail me, Tyro; you failed Janae."
Cyane interrupted to cover for her lover's falling tears. "Do you want me to check on Janae again before we go to bed?"
"No; I'll go check on Janae. Now go and tend to your partner's wounds." Her face softened with a deep understanding as she added, "All of them... "
Cyane acknowledged her graciousness, took her lover's hand and exited the hut. "Goodnight, Gabrielle."
"How's our patient?"
Gabrielle laughed at the reply. "She's a warrior; you were expecting something different?"
"No," Sapphra laughed. "I don't suppose so."
"How badly is she injured?"
"Well, she has three cracked ribs and her right elbow is very swollen. I suspect she injured it early in the day and just continued without saying anything."
"Is the elbow broken?"
"No; she has a full range of motion, so it's not a break."
"Well, she's bruised from one end of her to the other. She's going to be sore as Hades tomorrow."
"Sounds like a trip to the river tomorrow, if she's up to it."
"I expect whether or not she's up to it will depend on who's asking."
It was a strange comment, but Gabrielle decided to ignore it. "Is she awake?"
"You can go in and see."
"Thank you, Sapphra."
Gabrielle moved the hanging curtain and stepped in to check on Janae. The warrior had pulled the shade back and was looking out at the stars.
"How are you?" Gabrielle said softly.
Janae immediately struggled to sit up in the presence of her queen.
"Whoa, whoa! Stop. Lie still."
"I'm sorry, my queen, but I didn't hear you come in. You startled me."
"That's okay. I've been known to gaze at the stars."
The young woman looked embarrassed as she turned back toward the window. "Have you come to ask me to leave?"
"Why would I do that, Janae?"
"I was disrespectful to your weapons master. I just... I was so tired," she offered as her voice trailed off.
Gabrielle moved to sit on the edge of her cot. "Janae, look at me." Swollen brown eyes looked hesitantly at her queen. The eyes awaiting her were kind and compassionate. "What happened today was not... typical. Young warriors are not usually required to test under the conditions you faced today."
"I don't understand."
"I know. The challenge you endured today was extreme and I should have stopped it hours before I did. It's my fault because I wasn't paying close enough attention to what was going on. I'm sorry."
"You're sorry? But you didn't administer the challenge."
"No, but Tyro did; ultimately her actions as our weapons master are my responsibility."
Janae grinned slightly with bruised and split lips. "I have to admit I had started to wonder if everyone was required to test this way."
"No, they're not. Tyro's intentions were good, but her method was poor." Gabrielle hesitated for only a moment before she offered, "That's why, if it's okay with you, I'll be taking over your training."
Janae's eyes widened at the offer. "You, my queen?"
"Yes, me; on one condition... "
Smiling inwardly at the eagerness of youth, she replied, "You have to call me 'Gabrielle'."
The following morning Gabrielle met briefly with Cyane to ask about Tyro, stopped by the dining room to add to her pack, and then headed to the healer's hut to collect her new student.
Janae was already out of bed, which according to Sapphra was no small task. She never so much as whimpered, but it was clear she was very sore.
They moved slowly across the village and into the forest. "I'm sorry. I know this hurts, but if you stay in bed it'll take you longer to heal." It wasn't long before Janae could hear a river.
"Will we be training by the river today, my queen?" Gabrielle raised her eyebrows in a playful, scolding glance. "I mean, Gabrielle."
"No. We will be healing in the river today." Janae looked confused but didn't ask any other questions.
Once they arrived at the river's edge, Gabrielle sat Janae down on a rock to rest while she waded into the cold water. She appeared to be looking for something. "The good news is that the cold water will help take the heat out of your sore muscles, your bruises, and your injured elbow." Suddenly she stood upright; she seemed to be listening to something.
"And the bad news?"
Gabrielle waited to answer as she turned slowly in a circle, studying the tree line and the path of the river intently. Finally she continued, "The bad news is that it's going to hurt like Hades on your cracked ribs." Janae paled just a little; her ribs were already throbbing from the walk there. "Ah, here it is. Xena found this flat rock years ago after she and Pony had gone one too many rounds on the practice field."
Gabrielle climbed out of the river and began gathering firewood. "Her real name was Eponin. She was the weapons master when I became queen."
"May I ask you something?"
"There is a legend that says you slept under a spell for many, many seasons."
"It was 25 years to be exact."
"Twenty-five?" Janae sat silently as she tried to digest that information. Finally, she asked, "How did you... ?"
"Then you get back in the water."
Janae grimaced. "Ooooh, this is going to be fun."
"Well, if it's any consolation, I'm a pretty good cook. We'll spend most of the day out here, so I'll fix us some lunch. I even brought nut bread for dessert."
"Mmmmm, I love nut bread."
"Good, because by this afternoon I may have to use it to coax you back into the water." She laughed at Janae's expression and turned to start the fire. "Why don't you go ahead and start getting undressed."
Several moments later Gabrielle turned around to find Janae still fully clothed, looking perplexed. "What's wrong?"
"Um, I'm having trouble... "
"Oh! Let me help."
Janae stood as Gabrielle moved behind her. She carefully lifted the wrap from her shoulders and placed it on the rock. Turning back, she found herself staring at a broad, muscular back. It was beautifully defined and horribly bruised. She hesitated before reaching up to untie the strings of the halter top.
"Is something wrong?"
"No, I was just studying your bruises." That sounded like a plausible excuse to stare at her back, the queen told herself. With a deep breath for fortitude, she reached up and released the ties. Janae caught it with her right hand and dropped it on the rock.
The skirt was next. Her hands trembled as she moved to undo the clasps. This is silly. Get ahold of yourself! She admonished herself. She's just a girl. She held the skirt in her hand as it fell away from the warrior's body. She wasn't wearing anything under her skirt.
Janae turned around to face her mentor. "When Sapphra helped me dress this morning she said I would be going in the water and, well, it was hard enough to get into my leathers." If she was embarrassed by her nudity, it didn't show.
Oh, Gods... Gabrielle lost her breath. Girl? Not hardly. "Well, let's get started." She turned to walk toward the stream. "The rock is right here. Come on. I'll help you sit down."
Janae followed obediently. She never whimpered or whined. She moved in front of Gabrielle and grabbed the hand she was offered as she sat down in the cold water. It swirled around her shoulders.
"Are you okay?"
She just nodded in reply. She was afraid to speak because she didn't want the beautiful blonde in front of her to see her teeth chatter. Gabrielle waded out of the water and began unpacking.
After what seemed like an eternity, Janae was allowed to leave her icy bath and sit by the fire. A warm towel was waiting for her to dry herself with, but between the injuries, sore muscles, and the cold, it was clear she wasn't able to do it alone.
Gabrielle steeled herself as she crossed by the fire to help her dry off. She forced herself to think of just about anything so she wouldn't feel the firm body sliding beneath the cloth. For the most part, it worked.
They passed the time in the morning talking about Janae's childhood - her parents were killed by raiders on the way to market and she was found wandering in the woods by an Amazon hunting party - and Gabrielle's history as an on-again, off-again queen.
After the fourth time Janae had emerged from the water, Gabrielle removed her own jacket and waded in. She was already facing the bank by the time Janae turned around to ask her what she was doing. "Shhhhh, I'm catching lunch."
Janae looked skeptical until, in a sudden motion, Gabrielle's hands emerged from the water with a fish clasped between them. That one was thrown to the bank and she repeated the process with the same result. "Where on earth did you learn to do that?"
"Xena used to catch fish this way. The truth is, at first I think she was just doing it do show off for me. Well, she couldn't admit that, so she ended up fishing like this all the time." Who's showing off now? She admonished herself. "It used to make me crazy that she could catch fish like this and I couldn't."
By now she was facing the water from the riverbank and had begun to clean the fish with a knife. It was the first time Janae had seen her tattoo. She stared at it until she could tell Gabrielle was almost finished.
"Not really. It just comes with practice, like anything else."
"Not the fishing, the tattoo."
Gabrielle froze for a moment. She really tried not to think of it, yet another permanent reminder of Xena's last days on earth.
"They say you came back from Japa with that tattoo, but without Xena. Is that right?"
"May I ask how she died?"
"She died in battle."
"There are horrible rumors of her death among the young women in your village."
Gabrielle turned from the river and carried the fish to their fire. "They're all true."
Janae wanted desperately to ask more questions, but it was clear the subject of Xena's death was closed. "She was your champion?"
"She was a champion for many people, but if you're asking if she was the queen's champion, then yes, she was my champion. She was also my friend and my teacher."
"And your lover?"
This drew a hard stare from the petite blonde. "Yes, she was my lover."
That was the answer she was looking for. She had heard from the younger women that they were definitely a couple, but the stakes here were too high to risk counting on rumors. "I've never been in love."
Gabrielle softened her glare and almost smiled. "When you find it, it will be the best and worst thing you'll ever know."
It was a strange answer and Janae wanted to ask what she meant, but her growling stomach demanded attention. "How long until that's ready?"
"It won't be too long. Fish cooks pretty quickly."
"Good; I was too tired to eat last night and it took so long to get dressed this morning that I didn't have time to eat much."
"Why didn't you say something?"
"I didn't want to sound like I was complaining."
"Let's get something straight... There's a big difference between telling me when something's wrong and whining because you don't like something. Going hungry when you know I have food to feed you is not complaining; it's taking care of yourself, or at least allowing me to do that for you."
"Don't be sorry. I was the same way when I first met Xena. I was always afraid she'd send me home if I was too much trouble."
"So you won't send me home?"
It was all there: the hero worship, the insecurity, the desire to please. Uh-oh...
"No, Janae, I won't send you home. Not until your training is complete." She flashed a reassuring smile to the young woman shivering across the fire. "Are you still cold?"
"Yes. I can't seem to warm up."
Gabrielle poured some more spiced tea into Janae's cup, put both fish on a plate with some nut bread and crossed over to her. "Here. Lean forward." There was a log behind Janae; she did as she was told. To her surprise, Gabrielle slid behind her. She wrapped both legs along the sides of her legs and began rubbing her arms and back through the blanket draped across her back. "Eat these."
"What about you?"
"There are more fish in the river."
That was all the permission she needed. She wolfed down both fish and the nut bread. Licking her fingers as she complimented Gabrielle's cooking was the last thing she remembered. When she woke up, Gabrielle's arms were wrapped around her as she leaned back, sound asleep against her shoulder.
"Hey there, Sleepyhead. Did you have a nice nap?"
Janae was mortified. "I am so sorry."
"Why? You needed the rest. We've had this discussion, remember?"
"Good, then let's try to get you up. We need to see how you're moving."
Much to her surprise, Janae felt much better. Her ribs still hurt like Hades, but the swelling in her elbow had gone down and her legs and back didn't ache like they had the night before. She got up and walked along the riverbank. "I feel much better. Thank you."
"You're welcome. Let's get you dressed and head back to camp."
To her relief, Janae was able to put on her own skirt and only needed her halter tied in the back. The wrap went on much easier, too.
As they packed up, Gabrielle's stomach growled loudly. "You never ate!" Janae said guiltily.
"Well, you fell asleep and I didn't want to disturb you." And it felt so good to hold someone warm and alive again that I didn't want to get up. Gods, what am I doing? "There's plenty of food back at the village and," reaching into her pack, "I did save myself some nut bread."
They were almost to the tree line when Gabrielle sensed something was amiss. She turned and looked toward the river, but couldn't see the spirit who had been watching the women all day. She was certain they were being watched, but Akemi just smiled as Gabrielle finished her scan and turned toward the village.
Over the next several days Gabrielle led Janae through easy workouts to warm her muscles up and alleviate the soreness. She continued to be monitored by Sapphra for her ribs and elbow, but seemed to heal much faster than most women would have.
Xena visited more frequently than she had been. She was happy to see Gabrielle excited about training Janae. They talked about training methods and tactics that were essential for her to know. It was almost normal. Almost.
One morning they were warming up on the training grounds when a young warrior came running into the village. She found Tyro first, who led her to Gabrielle. At first her words were rushed and unclear. "The men that have been camped at our border... Half of them are gone." Her hands were on her knees and she was gasping for air."
"What do you mean they're gone?" demanded Tyro. "Didn't either of you see them leave?"
"No; they all bedded down for the night. With the rains their campfire went out. When they got up this morning only half of them were in their bedrolls. If we had been closer, maybe... "
Gabrielle took over. "That's okay. We told you not to engage and not to get too close; you did what you were told. Go get some rest." Turning from the lookout to Tyro she asked, "How many sentries did we have on that ridgeline?"
"Just the two; you said to leave the usual compliment because they hadn't posed a threat to us yet."
"So we have a woman out there on the ridge alone."
"We need to find out where the other half of these men are. Take a group of women with you; leave a few extra with the sentry. Take someone with more experience so she can spread them out safely and still have more vantage points. Janae's going with you." They both looked surprised at this decision. "Janae, this will be your Challenge in scouting and tracking. Find these men, figure out what they're up to, and then report back to me."
Janae nodded and ran to her hut to retrieve her full complement of weapons. After she was out of earshot, Gabrielle looked at Tyro and spoke bluntly. "She was never truly angry with you over what happened. She was more afraid she had done something wrong. This is your chance to allow her to feel she has gained your confidence. Remember, we're building a warrior. Allow her to lead unless she endangers the group."
"Don't worry, Gabrielle. I won't let either one of you down this time."
"I know you won't, Tyro. Be careful." With that, Tyro charged toward the weapons hut, grabbing warriors as she went.
The rain started three hours into their tracking of the missing men from the camp. It was hard going and the trail grew less distinguishable with every raindrop. Finally, Janae stopped and gathered the group under a huge tree.
"Something's wrong here."
"How can you tell?" one of the warriors asked, looking at the rain.
Janae glanced at Tyro and then admitted, "I can't for sure. But all my instincts are telling me that this is a wild goose chase."
"What do you mean?" asked Tyro.
Suddenly insecure, Janae began to shuffle her feet and look around at their surroundings. Finally she said, "I haven't lost the trail. Not once. They're leading us around in circles. Why would they do that?"
"I don't know, unless... "
Janae finished Tyro's thought, "Unless they're trying to keep us away from the village."
"Hades! She's right! Take us back Janae."
"I would, but the truth is you know your lands better than I do. I think it would be faster if you led us back to the village."
Tyro nodded in acknowledgement and shot toward the village with the others running behind.
Their sisters were engaged in a battle with at least 20 men by the time the scout group reached the ridge above their village. "Where did these extra men come from?" yelled one of the warriors over the thunderstorm that was raging.
"I'll bet the men at the camp were scouts or a decoy. They're slavers," Tyro explained.
"How do you know?" asked Janae.
"They're not trying to kill anyone; they're trying to take them alive."
"Looks like you passed another challenge. Good job, Janae!" With that, Tyro led the group of women down the hillside and into their camp. Pointing and shouting instructions, the weapons master split the group in two. Tyro, Janae, and two others went straight into the heart of the camp. The others went toward the living quarters.
It was a fierce battle that lasted longer thanks to a torrential rain. Finally it came down to a huge, burly man with long black hair and a full beard and mustache, and their queen. Gabrielle was facing him with her staff.
Janae, who had fought beside Tyro during most of the battle, saw this and panicked. She moved to enter the fight when Tyro grabbed her arm to stop her. "Watch and learn," she said loudly.
It quickly became clear that Gabrielle wasn't trying to win their fight; she was punishing him. The longer he fought the more battered he became. Finally he pulled a knife and his sword. Again Janae tensed, but Tyro actually laughed when her queen tossed the staff aside and drew her sai. "She's mad now. Three moves; watch."
The Amazon and the warlord began circling each other. The dragon tattoo on her back was menacing and beautiful in the flashes of light. Suddenly the man lunged at her with his sword. Gabrielle deftly caught the weapon between her own and sent it flying away as she twisted to avoid the knife. After the sword fell away she used the butt of one of the sai to strike the man square in the back. He lurched forward and then turned on her.
He laughed menacingly as he moved his knife from one hand to the other. Once more he lunged and she caught his arm in her sai and twisted again, the knife falling to the ground as the arm broke. He cried out in agony.
Enraged, he swung with his remaining good arm. He missed and fell off balance to the side. As he passed she fell to one knee and drove one of the sai through the top of his foot and into the ground. Screaming, he fell on his back, defeated.
Women across the village cheered. Tyro grinned over at Janae and winked. "I told you it'd be three moves."
They moved forward to receive their orders from their queen. Get the wounded to Sapphra, round up the prisoners and put them in the cells below the council chambers, and get me a head count on our warriors. I want to know if we've lost anyone." With that she turned and started toward her hut.
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