Disclaimers: Xena and Gabrielle aren't mine. I promise I'll put 'em back where I found them when I'm done playing with them. The story's all from my diseased little brain. Cait belongs to Melissa Good, and I include her with permission.
Violence? Yes. This is Xena, after all. Some of it is pretty graphic.
Explicit sex? If you're too young or you don't like to read about consensual sex between luscious babes, run away! There is erotica scattered here and there. If you want the all out sex scene, you'll have to skip to the end, but that's not how you're supposed to do it.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Catherine for beta-reading and Silea: Warrior Princess for comments and general encouragement. I couldn't have finished this without you guys.
Comments? Please!! Criticisms and all, to email@example.com. If you just want to flame me for being a lesbian, go find something useful to do with your time, like feeding the hungry or promoting world peace.
Notes: You really should read this! This story is supposed to be an alternative bridge to take our fair heroes from the rift of Maternal Instinct to the closeness of One Against an Army (with a little bit of fourth season sensibility thrown in.) It stands in place of the Bittersuite., I hated the Gabdrag, what more can I say?
"I love you." Gabrielle saw Xena flinch as the words hit her. Gabrielle watched the muscles around Xena's eyes tremble with her struggle for control. She wasn't going to look away from the fire.
Gabrielle had never in her life imagined that a mistake could cost her this much. Even as a child she had never felt this powerless. There was longing on her face as she memorized the light from Solon and Hope's funeral pyres on Xena's features. She tucked the picture away in her mind, knowing that the memory of her partner's face would have to last her a long time. Then Gabrielle turned and walked away.
As she walked back to Kaliepus' hut, where her things were stored, she mulled over her plans. She had decided to go back to her parent's house in Poteidaia. It would be good to see her sister, but the rest of the village had nothing to offer her.
The thought of sliding back into life in Poteidaia and trading her Amazon clothes for the modest costume of a farmer's wife stirred a feeling of panic. "No," she said out loud, shaking her head. Gabrielle reminded herself that she wasn't going back in order to be that person. She could teach the children to write. Maybe they could learn to expect more from their lives. She imagined herself an old woman, trying to ignore her pupils smothered giggles as they guessed at the reasons behind her spinsterhood.
Gabrielle had considered going back with Ephiny to take her place in the Amazon village. It would be easier to be with people who knew the grown woman she was and knew the source of her grief. The possibility was seductive. There would be no looks of disapproval when she used her staff or stood up for herself. She would be valued.
She sighed. A part of her couldn't stand the thought that after all of this, after all of the pain that she had caused Xena, she could go to a ready-made home where she would be revered as a Queen.
Where would Xena go? Gabrielle shook her head to dispel images of her partner wandering alone, shielded by that surly steel mask. She couldn't think about that. There was no comfort that Xena would accept from her now. Maybe someday.
Reaching the hut, she quickly gathered the few necessities for her journey home. She mentally apologized for taking Xena's water skin, since her own was tainted with poison and lay in the woods just outside the village with Hope. Gabrielle had considered taking her own life as she wrapped her daughter's small body in her bedroll but discarded the notion. Her life had a purpose. She had always believed that.
As she packed her scroll case, she tore off a piece of parchment and wrote a quick note. Tears welled up and a catch in her throat took her breath away as she decided what to say and what to leave out. Oh, Xena. Gabrielle hid the note to delay its discovery and slipped silently out of the centaur village.
The early moonlight cast shadows in sharp relief, and a slight chill cut through the humid haze that had muddled the day. So much had happened. The morning had dawned on both Hope and Solon alive. Her relationship with Xena had been strained, but intact. It seemed so long ago.
Gabrielle didn't notice the fine night. As she strode purposefully along the road which would eventually take her to Poteidaia, she slipped out of the dreamlike bewilderment of that day. The journey would take her a week or more. Longer, perhaps, since she had to skirt Amazon territory. She was unwilling to explain why their queen was deserting them for solitary life in an isolated, small-minded village. She planned to travel at night, for safety. Although Xena seemed to enjoy her skirmishes with the petty marauders that stalked these roads, Gabrielle knew she had no hope against a group of more than two or three.
Her mouth quirked into a smile as she thought of that moment just before Xena unleashed her power, when so many filthy, nameless raiders had assumed that the two women before them made easy prey. Now and then she almost felt bad for the young men, barely older than boys, who were so thoroughly outclassed.
Gabrielle made good time, and the moon was high. The rhythm of her steps and the swing of her staff lulled her into forgetfulness, and for a few minutes she imagined Xena following a few paces behind on Argo. As Gabrielle rose to the crest of a small hill, a gleam of the sky captured in a still pond caught her eye. A field of tall grass nodded and beckoned her on. She turned suddenly. "Xe-" she started to ask her companion to join her in a swim. Only the rustle of a light wind in the leaves mocked her lapse. She sighed and stepped off the road toward the pool, unaware of the dark eyes following her.
Leaving her clothes and staff at the water's edge, Gabrielle stood on a small rock and made a shallow dive. A month ago she might have waded in cautiously, but now the unlikely possibility of death alone in this peaceful valley seemed almost comforting. At first the silky cool water soothed her. She floated on her back, the sounds of the world obscured by the water lapping at her ears, and watched the bugs at the pond's surface dancing against the sky. It didn't take long before the ugly memories of the day before resurfaced, spoiling the pleasure. She swam quickly back to shore and scrubbed her body harshly, removing the grime of the road. Climbing out onto a rock, she stood there dripping as she realized that she had left the linen towels.
A motion of grasses sounded behind her and suddenly the air was electric with danger. She reached for her staff and swung it around behind her, catching her surprised assailant in the midsection. Her senses came alive as she poured her anger at the day's events into the fight. She clearly had the upper hand. The sting in her palms as her staff connected with a second man's head felt good, and the thought occurred to Gabrielle that this must be what it felt like to be Xena.
The first attacker glanced at his mate who had fallen, unconscious, in the reeds. His eyes wide, he took in the small, naked woman before him, absorbing her muscular form and reevaluating her strength. Gabrielle caught the narrowing of his eyes as he gathered himself for a lunge. Her staff stopped his rush with a sharp punch in the chest. She dealt two light blows to his shoulders, then, pivoting on her rock, she channeled all of her momentum into a low sweep. The return upswing caught only air as the man went down, striking his head on the rocks.
Gabrielle stood still, panting a bit and letting the night air cool her. Her head was pounding. Reflected moonlight caught the droplets from her hair that trickled over her muscular belly, and the bright band of stars setting behind her silhouetted her generous curves. The contrast of power and sensuality was not lost on the young raider lying on the shore. He decided not to rise against her.
Her stillness lasted only a moment until she realized that the man she had dumped to the ground was lying in the shallows of the pond. Gabrielle couldn't let him drown, so with the hundredth heavy sigh of the evening she dragged his still body toward the shore.
As she quickly dressed, she noticed a springy life in her limbs and felt her blood rushing in her ears. She felt good, too good. Ares. Damn him. This was his magic. Ares was never far from a fight. Now was as good a time to ask for his help as any. Stepping away from the water she cried out. "Ares?! I want to talk to you!" She was answered by silence, save the lapping of tiny waves at the shore. "Damn you, Ares, I killed my own daughter to protect Olympus from Dahok. You owe me." She paused, hoping he wouldn't notice her half truth. She had killed Hope to protect humanity. A jumping fish broke the surface of the pond. "Ares," she began a third time, "I have done everything I could to stand between you and Xena. How would you like to get rid of me forever?"
"Now you're talking." She heard a voice behind her and whirled to see the God of War walking toward her out of a shimmering haze. "What could you have to offer me, little girl?" he sneered. Gabrielle tilted her chin up to face his arrogant cheekbones and his perfect teeth. He crossed his arms and brought his head forward, exaggerating their height difference. She pursed her lips slightly, willing herself not to be afraid.
"How would you like to use my death to lead Xena to vengeance?" she offered.
The God raised his eyebrows, then shook his head. "Oh, but I hear you've quarreled," Ares said, slowly walking around her as Gabrielle stood very still. He leaned over her shoulder from behind and spoke. "You think you feel rage." His lips were close to her ear, and heard their sneer in his voice. "You should feel Xena's heart. I may have her already."
Gabrielle turned her head to meet his eye. "There is no object to her revenge, Ares. Hope is dead."
"You heard what she said at the funeral," he taunted. "She hates you now. What makes you think that she would avenge your death?" Even as he said it he knew he was wrong, but Gabrielle's reaction told him he had hit his mark.
"You're wrong, Ares, " she said, with low-pitched determination that was not compromised by the slight tremble in her voice. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Changing to a lighter tone, she continued. "Imagine for me a death so brutal she would have to respond." She saw his gaze lengthen and put a sultry tone to her words. She hoped to seduce him with a vivid image. "Imagine Xena finding me, dismembered. Even angry at me she would be enraged. Imagine her riding alone without that meddling blond to hinder her. With no one to remind her of the light inside her, her power over others would be her only comfort." Gabrielle's heart clenched at the picture of her partner's savage solitude, but she pressed on. "The light would go out."
"That's what you peace-loving morons always think!" Ares spat. He got right in her face, his voice booming. "Her light would burn for me. Anger and fighting-my gifts-" he tapped his chest for emphasis, "are her strength. I am not evil: I am a necessity." He turned away. "You offer me nothing, mortal. I could kill you at any time."
"Not without getting Artemis on your case." Gabrielle reminded him, trying to keep her voice casual. "I am Queen of the Amazons. " Ares rolled his eyes. "And whatever you think of my qualifications, you know she'd be pissed."
Ares looked away. He watched the thieves that Gabrielle had dispatched. Having awakened to the echoing anger of the God of War, they skulked through the tall grass to the edge of the clearing and then disappeared into the forest. He thought for a moment about how this slender young farm girl outclassed them. He knew Gabrielle was right. Unless Gabrielle came to him willingly, he would have Artemis' anger to deal with. "What do you want out of this?" he asked her.
"Solon's life. Convince Hades to give Solon back to Xena, and you can do with me as you wish."
Ares didn't respond, but stared across the pond. Images of Xena were boiling in his head. Her hair whipping loose in the wind, she rode across the plains of Marathon at the head of a vast army.
Gabrielle took his musings for indecision and, with apologies to Xena, played her final card. "Solon might be worth something to you too." she said. "In a few years he will be a fine man. You should meet him. He has his mother's quick mind, her beauty and her agility. He's brave and noble. Think of it, Ares, " she moved close to him again, "The son of Xena and Borias. You could train a legacy to lead your army for the next generation." Gabrielle's stomach turned at the suggestion.
Later, as the dawn rose, she knelt on the road with closed eyes and apologized to Solon for piquing Ares interest. She told him he could count on Xena to show him the light. "Please protect him from Ares," she whispered aloud.
Ares finally turned to her with a gleam in his eyes. This was too good to be true. "You paint a lovely picture, Gabrielle, and I can't say I'm not intrigued. Where's the trick? Why would you do this?"
"Love," Gabrielle said simply.
"Not that I mean to talk you out of this, but what's her forgiveness worth to you when you're dead?" He bared his teeth to emphasize the word.
"I wouldn't expect you to understand, Ares."
"You're such an irritating sap," the God of War said softly, without malice. "You deserve to die. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some arrangements to make."
Ares turned and walked away. Gabrielle watched him and swallowed, hard. Her die was cast. As his image started to fade, Gabrielle called out after him. "Wait! What am I supposed to do?"
A voice sounded around her. "Keep walking little girl, your time will come."
Xena stood very still before the fires. She passed the night watching the embers, oblivious to the growing chill. Nothing compelled her to move. There was nothing left for her. She felt even more desperate than when she had been cast out of her army. Then, there had been a future of possibilities. Now, having tried to live a different life, she had found that same kind of desolation in just under three years. She was utterly alone.
It was hard to believe all that had been destroyed today. She couldn't have imagined it this morning.
Xena had to admit, she was surprised that Gabrielle had the strength to kill Hope, but that action didn't change the fact that she had lied. She knew that she had hurt Gabrielle. She refused to feel bad about it. She knew that Gabrielle would probably leave, but Xena refused even to watch her go. The warrior told herself Gabrielle deserved her anger. At least she would be safe with the Amazons.
At the low ebb of the night, just before dawn, Xena found relief from these thoughts in an exhausted, dreamless sleep. She woke to a small hand gently shaking her shoulder. "Hades' boots, Gabrielle, leave me alone," she muttered, barely awake. The cold, damp sand beneath her was irritating.
"Xena, wake up," a small voice insisted. "Mom? Are you all right?"
At this, Xena pushed herself up, her eyes wide. "Solon?" she whispered. She stared at the face before her. Even knowing that the early half-light could trick her tired mind, she was unwilling to shake her head to clear the vision. She shifted her weight to free a hand and reached for him. He didn't vanish. Her hand connected with the warm soft face of a child. Her child. She pulled him into her arms and hugged him fiercely. "Please don't let this be a dream," she begged, to no one.
"Mom," said Solon's voice, muffled by her embrace, "It's not a dream. I'm alive."
"How...how did..." she started to ask, then stopped. How did he know?
"It wasn't his time," a deeper voice said.
Xena released Solon and turned around to see Ares. She lowered her brow. "What do you have to do with this?"
"It wasn't his time," he repeated lightly. "He's a good boy. In a few years he will be a fine man. Callisto shouldn't have been allowed to destroy him." The God of War cocked his head to one side. "Besides, I owe you one for stopping Dahok."
Xena knew there was something wrong with his words. For one thing, Gabrielle had been the one to finally stop Dahok when she killed Hope. And it was Hope who killed Solon, wasn't it? Xena looked around. There were no ashes on the ground; no fires had been lit. The sleeping village showed no signs of the battle she remembered. She was confused, but she sensed no danger.
A village man approached them, and Xena put a protective arm around her son's shoulders. The villager addressed Solon without surprise. " I am sorry about Kaliepus, Solon. He was the best leader the centaurs ever had. Tonight we will give him a proper rest." He nodded to Xena and walked off toward the forest. He didn't seem to notice Ares at all.
The hundred questions in Xena's mind faded as she felt Ares' breath tickle her ear. "Enjoy it, Xena. Take a day off. It's time to get to know him."
Then she was alone with Solon. Her head was muddled except for Ares suggestion. Xena pulled her son close and buried her nose in his hair. She inhaled his child-like freshness for a long moment, thinking. She didn't dare waste this opportunity.
"Let's spend the day together, Solon. We can take off on Argo and be back in time to honor Kaliepus."
"Should we wake Gabrielle?" Solon asked.
Xena looked away for a second, wondering what had happened yesterday and where their relationship stood. The young bard had friends in this village, so she ought to be safe here. "Nah, we'll see her later," she decided. She wasn't going to run from this anymore.
Solon needed no convincing to spend the day with his mother. The two of them stole into the communal kitchen for a lunch and a waterskin and were gone before the rest of the village awoke.
That morning, Xena couldn't find her usual restlessness and was content to just let Argo take her time. When the sun rose and the warmth drove them from the mare's back, Xena and Solon ambled along the path reading tracks and answering bird calls. By the time they began to talk about more serious issues, there was no awkwardness between them.
"Solon," Xena began, "What do you remember about yesterday?" She kept up her lazy gait and tried to sound casual.
The boy pursed his lips in thought, sorting out the essentials. "Kaliepus died. You said I could travel with you, so I went home to gather my things. The next thing I knew, I was standing beside a river." Xena breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn't suffered. "A boat came towards me, and just before I stepped on, that man grabbed my hand."
"The one who was with us when you woke up this morning. "
"That wasn't a man, that was the God of War."
"Really?" Solon was delighted. "You know Ares? He was awfully nice."
Xena frowned. Nice? Ares? He must be up to something. Her lip curled as she realized how Ares could use her son. Xena stepped in front of the boy, stopping him. She kneeled to meet his face, emphasizing the gravity of her concern. "Look Solon," she said, with more harshness in her voice than she wanted to hear, "Ares is never nice unless he wants something. He is not to be trusted." Her voice softened. "If you ever meet him again, you need to tell me. Tell me exactly what he said to you."
"He didn't say much," Solon answered. "He said 'I'm taking you back to the living.' When I asked him why, he said that he owed you a favor. I asked him what that had to do with me. He looked at me kinda funny and said. 'You're her son, didn't you know?'"
"Did you?" Xena asked him.
"I thought, maybe. I hoped, but I didn't know."
She wondered at that. "You hoped? Why?"
Solon gushed. Adjectives to describe his idol came easily. "'Cause you are good and strong and brave and you're the best fighter I have ever seen, and you're beautiful...and you're alive."
"Solon, I abandoned you. I was evil. I did horrible things to innocent people every day. Why would you want someone like that for your mother?"
Solon pondered this for a moment. He couldn't connect the friend standing next to him with the image of a brutal warlord. On the other hand, he remembered a conversation he had observed when Xena first came to the centaur village.
"What makes you think we can trust her? She led the most powerful army in Greece just three years ago. I hear that she and her men killed every living thing at Cirra." Garron had said. He punctuated those last words with drops of spittle that caught the lamplight.
"She's ruthless, and clever to. She plays one man against another," a second man said.
Another smirked. "She has seduced many strong men out of victory with no weapons at all." His eyebrows jumped. "No deceit is beneath her."
"I, for one, believe her, " Kaliepus had interrupted. The three turned to him, their faces making it clear that his opinion was not welcome.
Solon regarded Xena with a serious face. "You aren't that person anymore. People can change. My father did."
"How can you trust me?" She couldn't imagine that she deserved this from him.
"Gabrielle knows you just about better than anyone," Solon answered, "and she believes in you. So did Kaliepus."
That trust was a gift, and for the moment she decided to take it in faith. Xena still believed that she deserved her son's anger, and she asked, softly, "Don't you hate me for abandoning you?"
The sandy head shook, no. "Kaliepus wouldn't let me hate you, even when I wanted to. He said my mother was a good woman, but she was dead." He paused, looking at the ground. "I think he was right, only now you have come back to life."
Xena closed her eyes and drew him in for a long hug. "Thank you," she whispered, to Kaliepus, to Solon, to the Fates. Soundlessly, she added, "Thank you, Ares."
Gabrielle had meant to stop for a few hours sleep in the early morning, but she was too agitated. The plan she had conceived only yesterday was already gathering momentum. She walked right through a momentary downpour. Exhausted as she was, Gabrielle was drawn along by the knowledge that events she had set in motion were already leading inexorably toward her death.
The poets said that a vivid awareness of life would brighten the last hours when a man had foreknowledge of his death. As Gabrielle watched the waking countryside, she reflected that these poets must not have written on their deathbeds. This road was pretty much the same as others she had traveled. The dew glistened heavily on the bending grasses. The still, muggy air had driven off last night's chill and promised to make the afternoon uncomfortable.
Just after midday, the stillness was broken by a scream from beyond the next bend. Gabrielle shifted her grip on her staff and jogged ahead. As the scene came into view she cursed. Three filthy, ragged men surrounded a small group of women. Swords drawn, they poked and taunted. A young man with a pockmarked face and reddish hair reached forward with his blade and cut the laces on the tallest woman's blouse.
"Bastard," Gabrielle muttered. She rushed from behind him, staff raised, and struck the young man's flank. He groaned loudly and gripped his side as he went down. His comrades turned away from the women to face her. Gabrielle's nose twitched at their rotten grins. She imagined horrible breath. "You can do this," she told herself. She swung her staff hard at the sword hand of the tall one with hollow cheeks, backing away at the same time to prevent them from surrounding her. His blade met her blow straight on, biting into the wood of her staff and giving her the advantage. She followed through with a tight loop, twisting his wrist and disarming him. The third man was upon her now and she heard the young man rising behind her. Starting low and swinging a high arc, she brought her staff up, under the chin of the swordsman approaching her, and down, on the shoulders of the man behind her. He was still bent over and her blow sent him face-first into the mud.
When she whirled around the tall man had recovered his sword and she found herself back where she started. For a few minutes she lost herself in the fight. The smaller man deflected her staff more skillfully, with sidesteps and glancing blows, but a moment's inattention allowed her to take him out with a hit to the back of the head. The other man was strong, but met her staff with the edge of his sword, each time giving her a split second grip on his blade. She worked him backward, perspiration now clearly visible on her forehead. He was obviously losing, but he didn't seem to care. Gabrielle saw him focus over her shoulder and realized, a moment too late, that she was again outnumbered.
A woman screamed, and Gabrielle turned around to see seven featureless raiders step out of the forest. She didn't even struggle when the man she'd been defeating wrapped a long arm around her, holding his sword at her throat. I guess this is it. She shuddered at the realization that these coarse men would be Ares' instruments. She reminded herself that she chose this path. This was no time to be squeamish.
Gabrielle tried to remain inconspicuous as the men nudged their new quarry of slaves into motion but the other women had already singled her out. They clung to the short feisty Amazon with something like hope.
After they had traveled a short distance down the road, the young red-haired boy parted the underbrush revealing a narrow path. The path was cleverly concealed relative to these raider's skills, and Gabrielle guessed that they were allied with a more formidable force. As the clumsy group passed the hidden threshold into the forest, they left ample clues to follow.
Gabrielle was thankful that she had had the foresight to hide her note to Ephiny, since she couldn't very well have people coming to rescue her. The rain this morning would have obscured her footprints, and even if they were a half-day behind in starting to follow her, her tracks out of the village would be well trampled. They wouldn't expect her to take the long way back to Poteidaia. Still, she knew she was less than a full day's ride from the centaur's village. Xena would have no trouble finding her, if she chose to.
A short distance from the road, they came to a small depression that served as the slaver's camp. The camp was a broad bowl, surrounded on all sides by a berm of earth and cleared except for one tall tree near the center. As the taller women in front of her descended a small slope, Gabrielle gasped. Six rough wooden cages arranged in a half-circle on the perimeter of the clearing held thirty or forty women and older children. Two men were working on fitting a seventh cage to a farm wagon. Half a dozen men armed with swords stood guard around the cages, while a few others lazed about in the shade.
All of a sudden Gabrielle wanted to live. She wished for a moment that the fates had made her a warrior. Xena could sweep into this camp like a whirlwind and free all of these people. The bard knew she couldn't disable all of the men. No, she was destined to be merely a bad memory: the first horror they witnessed on their way to a life of slavery. With her eyes on the camp rather than the root-veined path, Gabrielle stumbled, and rolled down the little incline into the clearing. "Perfect," she thought. "What an idiot." A dirty hand dragged her to her feet and threw her into the closest cage, at the near end of the half moon. She had a good view of the rest of the prisoners.
The women who had been captured with her were to be divided among the cages. An older woman and her daughter on the verge of womanhood clung to one another tearfully, despite the guard's warnings. The slavers separated the two with a fist to the mother's jaw, and the others followed without protest.
Gabrielle felt the anger welling up inside her. How could Ares expect her to go passively to her death at their hands? Oh, she hated this part of her life. She saw so many people that needed the help of a strong arm and a skilled fighter, and her choice to live a peaceful life prevented her from helping. Once again, she was cast in the passive role. She tried to remind herself that this death was not wasted: it would bring Solon back. This thought conjured another moment of doubt. What if this wasn't the death that Ares planned for her? What if he never planned to bring Solon back at all? She asked herself if she would have acted any differently had she known otherwise and concluded, no. She would have tried to free those women. This was truly her destiny.
There was a problem, though. The slavers weren't likely to kill her. The scuffle in the road and the poorly hidden path would be easy to follow. If she didn't die within a day or so, she would surely be rescued. To fulfill her part of Ares bargain, she would have to act.
The more she analyzed the situation, the more she saw Ares' hand in the works. She recognized that the fury that was rising within her was his doing. He teased her with the possibility of freeing these people. Gabrielle furrowed her brow and carefully assessed the prisoners, the slavers, and her options.
The prisoners were simple peasants. No one was likely to rescue them. There were about fifteen guards in the camp. She probably couldn't take them. Maybe she could create a diversion that would allow a few to escape. She had to die anyway; she might as well try. Fighting ruthlessly was her only hope. She imagined Ares dangling his dark gift over her head. She had to admit that she was impressed. The circumstances Ares had created for her death showed more finesse than she thought the brute capable of.
Was her peaceful ideal more important than the possibility of saving these lives? Looking across the clearing at a girl speaking to her mother through the bars of her cage, she decided. No. She knew that Ares gave his warriors strength against indominable odds. Surely there is a similarity between the fearlessness of a warrior and that of a willing sacrifice. Gabrielle didn't know if the certainty of her own death and her righteous anger could give her the strength that she needed, but she prayed to Ares that it would be so.
Gabrielle sat down in the cage to wait for her moment. She smiled bitterly at the irony that after a life of preaching peace and love she would pray to Ares at the moment of her death. "Fine," she said aloud. "You can have the last word." Maybe if she convinced her captors that she was dangerous, they would kill her quickly.
A vulture called overhead, and Ares chuckled. He was beginning to like her. Too bad she had to lose.
As the shadows lengthened, a few more men joined the increasingly boisterous group, and a wineskin of strong liquor was passed from hand to hand. "Lemme see your new toy?" One man jeered to the young red-haired boy, who now clumsily twirled Gabrielle's staff. "Where'd you get it? Look at that dainty grip. That's a woman's weapon."
"Looks good on you," another taunted in a sing-song voice. The boy whacked himself in the head as he changed direction to strike at his teaser. The others watched with evident enjoyment as the boy initiated a game of chase, swinging ineffectively.
"All of these young girls around, and you guys are looking for a fight to pass the time?"
The man leaning against the tall tree in the middle of camp had spoken quietly, but the other men silenced to hear him. He moved over toward the cages, all eyes following him. "I had my eye on one as she came in today. She would make a fine example." He paused at the cage of the girl whose separation from her mother had caused some commotion. He met the girl's eyes and asked her name. She stepped forward with a boldness belied by her trembling voice.
"I'm called Thea," she said.
The slaver shuffled his keys and reached for the lock. "It's time for you to come out and play, Thea."
"NO!" Gabrielle shouted, banging on the bars of her cage. "You want a woman, not a girl."
Thirty pairs of eyes turned to look at her. "That's the little bit of an Amazon that gave me the staff," the red-haired boy said. 'She's fair with it." Gabrielle was covered with mud from her earlier tumble, but she tried to stand straight and tall under their scrutiny. The group appraised her for a moment and then began to snicker. They took their turns poking fun at the three men whom she had bested that afternoon on the road. When the young outlaws hotly defended their fighting skills, the group called out for a demonstration.
The apparent leader walked toward Gabrielle's cage, meeting her eyes all the way. Without a word he unlocked the cage. He bowed his head slightly and motioned with his arm for her to step out. The men were already forming a ring. The red-haired boy was armed with a makeshift staff cut from a low limb, and one of the onlookers threw Gabrielle's weapon into the ring. The boy faced Gabrielle. She held his gaze when she caught her staff one handed, and she did not break eye contact as she struck her first blow.
He didn't handle the pressure well. The third swing connected audibly with his skull and sent him down. Gabrielle was putting all of her strength into her passes. This was no mere demonstration. The small crowd roared, not imagining the seriousness of the boy's wound, and set her up with a second opponent.
Two others went down almost as easily. They weren't practiced with the staff, and her skills were more than adequate to overwhelm them in single combat. The men began to grow bored. As their attention waned, one of them noticed that the earlier combatants had not regained consciousness, each with a rapidly swelling head wound. "Hey, I think she's killed Glaukos!" The men silenced, and Gabrielle's fourth opponent turned to the words. Crash! His head snapped back and his world went black as her staff struck the back of his neck.
The men were stunned. Gabrielle was covered with a fine sweat and radiated energy. The knowledge that she had killed did not shock her. The circle of onlookers started to close in on her, but she swung her staff in a wide arc, keeping most of them at bay. Now she fought furiously. She used her size to her advantage, sweeping low. As her opponents lost their balance she followed with a strong blow to the head. Several men joined the fight with bladed weapons. Gabrielle took a deep gash in her left thigh, but kept fighting. The prisoners gaped but could hardly see her through the crowd of slavers. When the numbers finally overwhelmed her, a total of nine men lay unconscious or dying. The Amazon bard had a cut to the bone on her right shoulder blade and her scalp was split open and bleeding profusely over her right temple.
A large man stood behind her, holding her to his chest. Gabrielle put her last strength behind her right elbow as she spun, slamming it into his face. She was free for a moment, but the man returned a powerful punch to the right cheek that knocked her out, cold.
As their solitary hope for escape lay there, face down in the mud, some of the caged women began to cry. The leader shouted at them, striding toward the cages with his sword drawn. "Shut UP!" He smacked the flat of the blade against the bars, all along the line, frightening the prisoners back. When they were suitably huddled in fear, he said with a snarl, "Let this be a lesson to you. This bitch is going to get what she deserves." He walked back to where Gabrielle lay, unconscious, and used his blade to remove her clothes.
Several times that day, the memory of Kaliepus shadowed Solon's face, and he felt guilty for the pleasure he took. It never lasted long. Xena's impish merriment was infectious. Grabbing his head in a wrestler's hold, she gave him a knuckle-rub and then ran off, inviting chase. He tried to return the insult, but found that he couldn't quite reach.
After searching an hour or so for suitable branches, Xena gave her son a staff lesson. Solon's first session went a bit more smoothly than Gabrielle's had. Xena encouraged him and made him laugh. She was a much better teacher now. As she worked her shoulders lightly to demonstrate a beginner's pass, Xena thought about the person she was then. She realized that that punishing surliness had been an attempt to scare Gabrielle away. It sure hadn't worked. But for Gabrielle's gentle, teasing persistence, she understood, Xena could not have been this free with Solon. The bard had taught her how to play.
When they had worked up a deserving sweat in the sticky midday heat, Solon suggested a swim. Argo, who had had an easy morning, accepted their weight and took off with an extra spring in her canter. She sensed Xena's good mood. After a short ride, the rocky path began to climb and they were forced to dismount. The path twisted and turned around jutting rocks that grew larger and taller as they went on. Xena lifted her head as the path began to descend. She smelled the sharp, acrid scent of a mineral spring.
They rounded a final bend, bringing the pool into view, and Xena smiled her approval. The pool was in a steep-sided rock basin. At the near edge, a creek that was almost as cool as its underground source spilled over smooth stones. The scanty vegetation was thick and moist, like the mosses behind a waterfall. The surrounding cliffs blocked most of the afternoon light, but a smooth flat rock on the far edge was still bathed in sun.
"Kaliepus used to take me here," Solon said, matter-of-factly. "He never swam, though. The sides are too steep for centaurs." Xena gave him a reassuring hug. They looked across the water for a quiet moment. "Xena," Solon said, with a growing tremor in his voice, "there were times when I was mad at him. I wanted to run away. I thought about finding you and traveling with you and Gabrielle. But I never wanted him to die."
"I know you didn't, Solon." She tried to imagine the burden of guilt that his child-like logic wove for him. She cursed herself for not telling him sooner. "Solon, we all get mad at the people we love. The fun we've had today doesn't mean you love him any less." She tried a different angle. "He can hear your thoughts. He wouldn't want you to feel guilty." Images of her last words to Gabrielle flashed in her mind but she pushed them down. She would deal with that later.
A snort from Argo interrupted their thoughts, and they began to remove their clothes for a much-needed swim. Xena wondered briefly whether or not she should leave her shift on in deference to her son. He was only a couple of years from puberty, but soon they would be on the road together and there would be no place for modesty. Might as well get used to it now, she reasoned. As she tugged her linen shift over her head, she caught his eye. He was staring. "What?" she asked, wrinkling her brow.
He stuttered. "IÖIÖI haven't... I've never seen a woman naked before."
Although not a modest person by any measure, there was something about her son gaping at her that unnerved Xena. She decided to remain casual, and made no effort to cover her nakedness. She spread her arms wide. "Well, this is what we look like."
"Are-" he paused. "Are they all as beautiful as you?" he finished, sounding skeptical.
Oh Ares' jockstrap! Xena swore to herself. My first decision as a parent and I already blew it. She said aloud, "It depends on who's gaping at them." He didn't take the hint. "And, Solon," she added, trying to sound playful, "it isn't nice to stare." She stepped carefully down and dived into the pool with a high graceful arc. Solon's boyish modesty caught up with him and he finished undressing with a furious blush. Xena pretended not to notice his embarrassment. He quickly forgot his indiscretion and before long they were splashing each other and shouting mock threats.
When the shadows lengthened Xena and Solon started home. Solon rode in front, and the warrior's arms encircling him allowed him to drift off to sleep. Between the late afternoon rays, the swing of Argo's walk, and her son's small form slumped against her chest, Xena thought that she had never felt anything sweeter. By the time they got back to the centaur village, she found herself in a thoroughly good mood.
From a distance the riders could see Kaliepus' sturdy funeral pyre, which stood waiting for full dark to signal its lighting. Xena noted that a second, smaller stack of wood was being built to one side. She was a little surprised not to see Gabrielle among the milling villagers and she wondered how the bard had spent her day.
Little things all day had conspired to remind her of Gabrielle, but each time, the pleasure that she took in Solon's nearness drew her thoughts back to the immediate. In truth, she was avoiding thinking about Gabrielle. There was so much that they needed to talk about. She had been so angry yesterday. Xena knew that she needed to apologize, but she was so bad at these talks she was afraid to even start.
On the outskirts of the village she dismounted, and, instead of looking further for her partner, she took Argo directly to the stables. She took more than her usual care rubbing her down, cleaning her hooves, and tending to her tack. She moved slowly, every moment expecting Gabrielle to come through the door. When she couldn't think of any other excuse to remain in the stables, the door opened. It was Ephiny.
"Where have you been?" Ephiny asked. Xena noticed that she was scanning the stable as though something was missing.
"I spent the day with Solon. Kind of a vacation."
"I figured. He needs time to grieve."
"Xena, we'd like you to come and look at something." Ephiny seemed hesitant. "Come to the visitor's hut when you're done."
Ephiny turned to go. Before she closed the door, Xena asked casually, "By the way, where's Gabrielle?"
"Didn't she come in with you?" Ephiny paused, turning around.
"No. I spent the day with Solon," Xena repeated evenly.
"Since you were both gone before anyone else was up, we assumed..." the regent paused, concern evident on her face.
Xena gave Argo a final pat and turned toward the Amazon. "I'm done here," she said. They met eyes for a long moment. Ephiny was still pondering Gabrielle's unexplained absence. Something wasn't right. When they had come to the village three days ago, both partners looked weary. The Queen's face was etched with lines of worry that hadn't been there last time they met, months ago. She had seen Xena snap at Gabrielle more than once.
Xena confirmed her speculations. "Look, Ephiny, things have been...difficult. She probably just needed some time alone." It wasn't Gabrielle's usual style to sulk, Xena realized, but that's what she would have done. Ephiny nodded, recognizing that this was a substantial admission from the normally taciturn warrior. They left the building, and Xena followed Ephiny through the darkening village.
The visitors hut was bright with candles against the dusk, and there were voices inside, arguing. Xena lifted the flap to enter, and as her dark head appeared inside the voices stopped. Xena smirked dismally. Even after all of these years they were still afraid of her. Eponin and Solari were standing at the head of a long table, scowling at each other. On the table lay a small body wrapped in firs.
Ephiny entered the hut behind Xena. As she let the flap fall, they looked at her expectantly. She answered their unspoken question. "Gabrielle wasn't with Xena today. Xena doesn't know where she went."
Ephiny turned to Xena and began to explain. "A hunting party found this little girl's body in the forest just outside the village early this morning. She was obviously murdered. She was wrapped in this bedroll like a corpse, not like a sleeping child. We have asked everyone in the village to help identify her. Some of the children called her Fayla, but none of them remembered ever seeing her before about four days ago. No adults claimed her--we don't know where she came from." Ephiny pulled the blanket away, revealing her face. "Some of the children said they saw Gabrielle talking to her. We hoped maybe you would know who she was."
It was Hope. Xena said nothing at first. Her mind raced. They obviously didn't know about Gabrielle's child, and Xena wasn't sure she would want the story told. What had happened yesterday?
She didn't answer their implied question but asked, "How did she die?"
"We found this beside her," Eponin explained, her voice hard with anger. She threw the water skin she was holding at Xena. The warrior caught it and held Eponin's gaze with a raised eyebrow. The water skin was Gabrielle's. She removed the cap and sniffed. The volatile aroma of nightshade reminded her of a conversation from yesterday--her yesterday anyway.
"She is not evil. She is not!" Gabrielle had insisted.
"Maybe it's not too late," Xena remembered saying. "She's young. Poison will kill her if her powers aren't mature."
"Xena," Gabrielle had almost shouted, horror twisting her features. "She's my child!"
Xena fingered the corner of the bedroll, where a tear had been mended with black thread. If Solon hadn't died, what would have changed Gabrielle's mind? What would have made her kill Hope? She experienced a jolt of fear for her partner, which strangely faded away, leaving a dullness behind. "These are Gabrielle's sleeping furs," she said at last, "and that's her water skin."
"We thought so. What would Gabrielle have to do with this?" Ephiny asked.
Xena didn't answer, but Eponin and Solari resumed their argument.
"She had nothing to do with it. Someone's trying to frame her. Gabrielle would never hurt a child." Eponin looked narrowly at Xena, as though she were to blame.
"We don't know what happened, Eponin. Everything about this child has been mysterious. Maybe Gabrielle knows something that we don't."
Xena ignored their argument. She turned to Ephiny. "I need to talk to you, in private." Ephiny tossed her head, motioning for Eponin and Solari to leave the hut.
When they had left, Ephiny turned her full attention to Gabrielle's partner. "What's going on, Xena?" Ephiny asked, her voice commanding.
"I don't know," Xena said truthfully, rubbing her temples. "Ephiny, this is going to sound a little strange, but I need you to tell me what happened yesterday. Tell me every thing. As if I wasn't there."
Xena's air of detachment worried Ephiny. It just wasn't like her to be this calm about Gabrielle's absence. The regent wanted information, but she knew better than to try to force the warrior. The bard was proof that gentle persuasion was the most direct route.
Ephiny told a story that was both strange and familiar to Xena. She told how Kaliepus was found outside the cave. She described Xena entering the cave to seek out his killer. After several candle marks and the rumble of an avalanche, Xena had emerged, saying that Callisto wouldn't be bothering them any more. That night Gabrielle and Ephiny had concluded the treaty negotiations. The party that had been planned to celebrate the Centaurs' alliance with the Amazons had been postponed in honor of Kaliepus. Gabrielle had been quiet and pensive, but no more so than she'd been since they arrived in the village. "Xena," Ephiny asked quietly, in what she hoped was a persuasive voice. "Why don't you remember yesterday?"
"I do remember it," she said, "but it happened differently." She tersely told the story of yesterday as she remembered it, letting Ephiny know the circumstances surrounding Hope's birth. She left out the months of corrosive, sublimated anger and betrayal. She glossed over Gabrielle's misplaced trust in Hope and her own suggestion of death by poison. She left out Chin and Ares entirely.
Ephiny's eyes were wide as she imagined Gabrielle turning against her own child. "It's hard to believe that Gabrielle could have done that," the Amazon shuddered. "No matter what the evidence, I don't think I could kill Xenon. And Gabrielle is so...trusting. I would have expected her to believe in her daughter's goodness in the face of everything." Studying the warrior's face, Ephiny silently completed her thought. Just like she believed in your's.
They spoke for a few more moments before Xena returned to Kaliepus' hut to find Solon. Ephiny had no reason to imagine that Gabrielle had experienced yesterday any differently from the rest of them, but Hope's death made Xena wonder. Maybe Gabrielle remembered yesterday still another way. Xena couldn't think of a reason why Gabrielle, to the exclusion of all the others who were there, would remember events that apparently never happened. Her gut told her there was more to this. The more her mind searched for answers the more confusing the whole situation seemed.
Against her will, memories of her partner's deception surfaced, cutting through her concern. What was she going to say to Gabrielle? Solon was alive, now, but Hope's body was a potent reminder that her partner had lied to her. Her heart wasn't as angry as it had been last night at the funeral fire. Now a foreign stream of thought tried to stir up resentment, whispering that the real issues hadn't changed.
On the way back to the hut she threaded through the gathering centaurs and Amazons. Their numbers seemed to point out Gabrielle's absence. When she reached the hut she briefly searched their belongings to see what Gabrielle had taken. The only things that were missing were the things that went everywhere with Gabrielle. She had taken her staff, a water skin, and her scroll case. Xena was relieved. She must have gone out for a day alone. "Maybe she's finally writing about all of the trouble we've had," she mused to herself. Solon also questioned her absence, and Xena's answer reassured them both. "She probably got caught up in a story and was late heading back. She'll be back soon."
"Maybe we should go look for her," he ventured.
Xena heard her voice answer. "Nah, it's time to light the fire. Gabrielle will be back soon."
Gabrielle came around to the foggy realization that she was being kicked. Gods it hurt. The shattering blows punctuated the distant drone of men's voices. They were shouting and arguing. A few were laughing. Gabrielle struggled to get her bearings and found that she could only open her left eye. She wanted to resist but her arms and legs wouldn't answer. After what seemed like an eternity, she felt herself being lifted. One man held her up as another drew her arms around behind her, so that they almost encircled a tree. A third man tied her in place. Unless she supported her weight on her legs, her bonds cut painfully and her shoulders were rotated beyond their limits. Mercifully, after a few moments in this position, she passed out.
Gabrielle woke again to darkness. It was night in the camp and she was dreadfully cold. Her whole body throbbed. A pain in her side kept her from taking a deep breath. Her head hung down and she could see a gaping wound on her abdomen. It made her want to vomit, and she began to wonder how much more she had to live through. She felt awfully lucid, considering her wounds. Out of the corner of one eye she caught a shimmering brilliance. Inwardly, she groaned. With painful effort, she lifted her head to catch sight of Ares surveying the camp. When he saw she was alert he commented, "You've looked better, Gabrielle."
The blood supply to her brain was insufficient to produce a snappy retort, and Gabrielle simply said, "Leave me alone, Ares."
"No," he said. "I want you to tell me again why you are doing this."
"I told you, I love Xe..."
"No," he interrupted her. "I already got that pathetic line. You love her, but the last thing you would want is for her to come back to me. You wouldn't trade her soul for Solon's life."
Gabrielle was silent while she asked herself why. She didn't see it that way. She answered honestly. "Xena's soul isn't mine to trade. All I've given you is a chance. I wouldn't have offered if I thought you would succeed." Gabrielle taunted him quite unconsciously.
"Oh, yeah?" the God of War fumed. " I'll bet I have her riding at the head of an army within a month."
"You'll bet?" Gabrielle said slowly, recognizing her advantage. Even the gods of Olympus could be bound by a bet. "You're on. What will you bet?"
Ares pretended for a moment that he wasn't aware of his mistake. He pulled together his powers of intimidation, hoping she would back down. He stepped closer. He gripped the muddy, bloody hair and raised Gabrielle's head until they were face to face. "What will you bet, mortal?"
Ares suddenly seemed very large. His power was palpable, but Gabrielle was used to being intimidated. She gave him a condescending look. "Look at me," she spat. "I have already given you my life. I have nothing left. The question is, what will you bet?" she let him stew for a few heartbeats. "What do you have that could be of value to me?"
"You little bitch." Ares realized that he was trapped. He was going to have to give her a chance at her life. "All right," he snarled, with spittle and venom. "If I don't have Xena back within a month, you come back to the living. But if you try to influence the outcome of this in any way, the bet's off."
"How will we know if you've won?" Gabrielle asked, truly unsure.
Ares' eyes took on a sensual look. "Oh...you'll know. You'll be waiting at Charon's dock," he answered, with a menacing chuckle. "If Xena takes an army, you'll know. It'll be standing room only." Gabrielle realized that, listening to Xena's thoughts, she would also know her heart. She would hear Xena's last, fleeting apologies to Gabrielle as she slid into a well of darkness, if it came to that.
As soon as Ares vanished, so did his influence over Gabrielle's consciousness, and she felt her life slipping slowly away.
Xena stood with Solon and watched the fires burn long after most of the villagers had left. When the hour grew late, Solon moved from Xena's side to stand with the centaurs and men who had helped to raise him. She let him go, realizing that he was saying goodbye to the companions of his childhood as well as to his adoptive father. Before returning to Kaliepus' hut she said a funeral prayer for Hope, as she knew Gabrielle would. Whatever else she was, she had a tiny part of Gabrielle in her. That part was gone. Xena wondered how much impact its absence would have on her partner.
Gabrielle's absence was getting more and more suspicious. Xena's concern was beginning to get the better of her attempts to stay angry. She looked at her saddlebags, wondering if her partner had left a note there. She walked over, picked them up, and carried the leather bags to the table. She began to rummage, deliberately at first, then more and more frantically, until she finally dumped the entire contents onto the table. When she finished, she was shaking slightly and her eyes burned with unshed tears. A hint of desperation crept into her mind, but she refused to let it take hold. "Get a grip, " she chided herself. She hated the helplessness of waiting. Xena had just sat down on the pillows in Kaliepus' hut, thinking about what to do next, when Ephiny burst into the room.
"I found a note from Gabrielle." Ephiny said. Xena stood up too eagerly, but kept her face impassive. She took the note from the Amazon. It read:
I want you to have my right of caste. It was ridiculous anyway. Gabrielle of Poteidaia, Amazon Queen. What a joke. I am going back to Poteidaia. My adventure is over. I'm sure I can find a way to make myself useful. I want to return your family's staff to the Amazons, but I will need it for the journey. I promise to send it to you as soon as I'm able. Thank you for all of your help and for your confidence in me. Please tell Xena goodbye for me. She knows that I am sorry. I don't know what else to say.
Gabrielle of Poteidaia
Xena's throat clenched as she read the first line, expecting the worst, but her fears were quickly allayed. That's it? She wondered, incredulous. Three years together and that's it?! She read the note several times over. She noticed that Gabrielle hadn't referred to Poteidaia as home. It was a pointed admission from a woman who took words seriously. Xena was partly relieved. At least this note explained why Gabrielle hadn't returned from her walk. Maybe they did need time apart. There would be time to patch things up later. Gabrielle must think I hate her, Xena realized regretfully. She reminded herself that she was still mad, and that right now, she probably wasn't well equipped to convince Gabrielle otherwise.
Ephiny was impatient for Xena to finish reading. "It just doesn't sound like her. Gabrielle doesn't run away from anything."
Xena remained silent.
Ephiny continued, "I can't believe she didn't say goodbye to any of us. The note was hidden in my healing kit. If Xenon hadn't scraped his arm it would have been days before I found it."
Still there was nothing from the warrior. "Xena, are you listening to me? What are you going to do?"
"Right now, nothing." Xena answered, her face grim. She said quietly, "I am tired. My son is tired." She turned to stare at the fire and squared herself as if daring Ephiny to challenge her inertia.
"Xena!" Ephiny knew that she was pushing the dour woman's patience, but she didn't care. "We can't just let her leave! Something is wrong! We have to follow her!"
Xena turned around, her face savage. "Look Ephiny, you have no idea what we've been through in the last three months. Something is very wrong, but it is between me and Gabrielle. She finally left me. She's a big girl," Xena said this sarcastically, with raised eyebrows and a joyless smirk. "She can do that if she wants." Xena reminded herself that the Amazon regent was her friend. She sucked in her anger with a deep breath. "Gabrielle hid the note because she didn't want it found. She didn't want to be followed."
"She abandoned the Amazons too. Until I hear these words from her lips, I still consider her the Queen." Ephiny said, through clenched teeth. "It isn't safe for her to travel alone. We should at least escort her home."
"You can escort her home. I am going to bed," Xena said with finality.
Xena tried unsuccessfully to sleep. She was exhausted, having slept only a couple of hours the night before, but a nagging voice told her that Ephiny was right. In her worst dreams, where Gabrielle finally left her, it was never without goodbye. Of course, she couldn't have dreamed up the events of the last few months. She knew that Gabrielle's frustration had been building. Still, she was sure that their relationship was more important to Gabrielle than a postscript. What had Gabrielle meant by slighting her this way?
Xena wondered if maybe she just hadn't been paying attention to the bard's signals. She knew that she had been pretty harsh last night. Maybe "I love you," had meant "Goodbye." Was that what Gabrielle remembered?
She and Gabrielle had fought before, Xena reflected, but they had always been able to work it out. Yesterday Xena was sure that it was over. Now, with Solon alive, she saw Gabrielle's offense a little differently. Ephiny's amazement that her gentle queen could recognize evil in her own daughter had caught Xena's attention. Xena concluded, after some reflection, that believing in Hope's goodness and saving her life were totally consistent with Gabrielle's nature. Maybe she was a fool to expect anything else.
Xena gave up on sleep. She stood and walked around the room, shaking out her limbs. Her stride gave momentum to her thoughts and made her feel less helpless. Did it come down to a simple lie that had caused this rift between them? She thought of Ming Tien. If that were the case, then they were even. "No," Xena said aloud, the voice in her head growing harsher. Gabrielle had disagreed with her and had taken matters into her own hands, twice. She couldn't even trust her to follow orders. Xena looked out the window. She watched the smoke from the fires as it crossed the waxing moon.
The thing that surprised her most, she thought as she watched the rising swirls was that Gabrielle had just given up on her. Gabrielle, who had faith even in Callisto's potential for goodness, had always been the one to patch up their quarrels. She normally had unbelievable patience with the warrior's foul moods. Gabrielle had stayed with Xena through weeks of surly condescension without a single kind word. It had taken a long time for her to realize that Gabrielle wasn't just a doormat. Xena's chest felt heavy with regret. She imagined that back then she was probably worse than she would ever know. Why would Gabrielle abandon her now? Was she that bad yesterday? What happened yesterday? Gods, it was going to drive her nuts.
Xena remembered snapping on her armor with a growing sense of apprehension. She could have sworn she was already on her way to the stables. It must have been a dream, because she found herself in bed under the full weight of the brass plates when the sound of the door roused her.
One of the village men edged through the doorway carrying Solon, who was fast asleep in his arms. He nodded to Xena as he laid his burden carefully on the bed. Xena pulled the covers around his shoulders.
Xena woke again with some confusion. The sun was up. Solon was alive. Gabrielle was gone. Ephiny was mad at her. In fact, all of the Amazons glared at her as she and Solon walked to the communal kitchen in search of breakfast. They had been looking for Gabrielle's tracks all night, but the road near the village was so heavily traveled that they found nothing. A small party had taken off along the road to the south, which lead toward Poteidaia through Amazon territory. If they didn't find their Queen, they could at least let the others know what had happened.
They all looked at Xena as though she had driven Gabrielle away. Hadn't she? It is more complicated that that, Xena told herself. Besides, she had no idea why Gabrielle had chosen to go back to Poteidaia instead of the Amazon village. That surely wasn't her fault. Xena knew that her late rising and leisurely breakfast was only adding to the Amazon's anger. They were mad that she hadn't joined the search, but their anger wasn't going to get them anywhere. Xena refused to be commanded.
She had already decided to follow Gabrielle. There were simply too many unanswered questions to leave matters where they lay, but Eponin's pointed glares and Ephiny's averted gaze made Xena feel like a rebellious teenager. She was actually having some fun with them, but when Solon expressed concern that they should be on their way, she felt a little sheepish.
By late morning, Xena and Solon were trotting briskly down the road that led north from the centaur village. They had packed everything into Argo's bags, since Xena had no intention of returning to the Amazons or the Centaurs for as long as she could help it. She wasn't meant to take orders. Solon noticed that they were traveling too fast to pick up a track, especially one that the Amazon scouts couldn't find. "We won't be able to pick it up until we're quite a way out from the village. Too many footprints." Xena explained to his query. "Besides," she continued, "I know that Gabrielle came this way."
"Why?" Solon asked. "It would be safer for her to travel through Amazon lands."
"Yeah, but she'd have to explain why she's going back to Poteidaia to everyone she met. The Amazons would be hurt that she's leaving. They would try to talk her out of it and they'd insist on an escort. It would drive her crazy."
"Why would the Amazons be hurt? I know they're her friends, but its not like she normally lives with them." A thought occurred to Solon. "Gabrielle's not an Amazon, is she?"
"Actually, Solon, she's their queen." Xena always enjoyed the look of surprise that followed when she said that.
"Wow," Solon thought about that for a long silence.
After a few candle marks, Xena caught sight of a short stretch of small footprints that were protected by a spreading tree. The round imprint of a staff appeared between every other step. "Look, Solon," she pointed.
"Hurrah!" He was glad. "How far behind her do you think we are?"
"You can figure that out," Xena told him. "Think about yesterday morning."
Solon was silent for a minute, then he remembered. "It rained." He saw that the tracks on either end of the leafy overhang were smudged by the water. "She was here before the rain yesterday morning. That means she's at least a day and a night ahead of us, but she's on foot. We should catch up to her tonight."
"Right," Xena said proudly.
"Xena, why did Gabrielle leave?"
Xena sighed. How should she answer this? "We had a fight. She's very angry at me."
"What did you fight about?"
Oh Gods, Xena thought. "I don't want to talk about it now, Solon. Ask me later." She said this as kindly as she could, and hoped fervently that he would forget. She knew he wouldn't though.
"But you guys are going to make up, right?
"I think so. I'm not sure." They rode on in silence.
In a little while they came to a pond to the right of the road, across a field of tall grass. Xena noticed a faint part in the long stalks. The path lead to the water. She assumed that Gabrielle had stopped here but continued on. Just after midday she came to a set of tracks that appeared out of nowhere and were untouched by the rain. The realization that Gabrielle had come all of this way before the morning's rain gave her a sense of urgency, and she touched Argo into a faster gait.
It was late afternoon before it occurred to Xena that Solon might be hungry or tired. He hadn't complained. She felt bad that she was pushing him so hard and started to apologize, but she found that she couldn't really explain. It was just that something wasn't right. When they moved on, Solon rode alone, to spare Argo, and Xena trotted beside her with an easy, loping gait.
The sun had almost reached the horizon when Xena sensed a commotion in the brush ahead and to her left. Men's jeering voices sounded over the rustle of leaves. A raised hand brought Argo to a halt.
"What is it?" Solon asked.
"Highwaymen." A woman's voice shrieked, them whimpered. Xena's eyes narrowed, and she corrected herself, "Slavers." Xena stood very still, listening.
"Wait 'til we get you back to camp, then you'll behave," a first voice grunted. A branch snapped and as a second chimed in "...see what we do with troublemakers," another man laughed. She heard a metallic ring as a sword swept a branch aside. Xena's body tingled with readiness. They were moving toward the road. She motioned for Solon to stay put. Slinking ahead through what cover the roadside brush allowed, she moved to intercept their path. Three men dressed in dirty brown rags tumbled, unsuspectingly, into the open. They were herding a couple of women along with the flat of their swords.
They were no match for Xena. She disarmed one with a roundhouse kick and knocked him out with a fist as her elbow bloodied the nose of his partner. The third man didn't even wait to see how his comrades fared. He grabbed the hand of the woman nearest him and took off running, hoping to disappear into the bushes before the fight was over. His mates were unconscious before he reached the next bend. He looked around once to see Xena following.
Xena momentarily forgot her search for Gabrielle and put her energy into the pursuit. The young raider nervously scanned the roadside for that bush, battered from many passes, that had come to mark their secret path. He found it, and the pair disappeared into the brush on the opposite side of the road. Before she ducked in after them, Xena called to Solon, telling him to stay in the road and wait for her signal.
The wooded path was short. Xena knew the chase had ended when she saw his head snap up with recognition, then drop down as he descended a low hill. She paused for half a second at the top of the hill and realized why he brought her back here. In that brief moment she saw several slave cages filled with mostly women, a slumped battered body tied to a tree in the middle of camp, and maybe ten rough swordsmen starting to their feet. Xena crouched low hurled and herself into a high forward summersault which propelled her over their heads and landed her near the camp's center. Her battle senses came alive as she defended herself against unskilled attacks from all directions. With Solon on the road, she couldn't afford any escapes. Her blows were killing.
Xena thanked the gods for their quarry of slaves; because of this they stayed and fought. She quickly lost track of how many fell at her hand, until she looked around and found that the only man left standing was disappearing over the small hill at the entrance to camp. He was heading back toward the road and toward her son.
"Aiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi!" As she'd hoped, the Warrior Princess' battle cry caused the man to turn his head around and stumble in his fear. She caught up with him easily and paused, her sword at his throat. She studied him for a minute. He wasn't young. His chest was scarred and he was missing the first two fingers of his right hand. There was a scar running from his forehead to his jaw which contracted painfully as he spoke. He was filthy, dressed in the usual raiders rags. The man didn't plead for his life but simply looked at her. Xena guessed that he had been in this line of work for some time. "Do you have a family?" she asked, knowing the answer.
"Do you have anything to live for?"
"Do you want to live?"
"Yes." Xena pondered his answers for a moment. That elemental desire to survive in a life of pain and emptiness seemed almost perverse. She shook her head. The drive to kill him was gone.
"What will you do?" she asked. The man started to get up, keeping his eyes on her.
"There are plenty of traders out there. They always have room for a trainer. I can make sure they get good money for female slaves."
"Wrong thing to say." With that Xena raised her sword and cut him down where he stood.
She pushed the body to the side of the path and called out to Solon. She continued along the path toward the road and in a few moments saw a small hand pushing back the tattered bush that served to screen the path. Leading Argo, he stepped forward and met her eyes with a smile. She noted with pleasure that Argo seemed to like him and followed his lead readily
"There was an awful lot of yelling," he said, "but I wasn't worried. When those two men ran out, I knew you must be winning."
Xena frowned and raised an eyebrow. She hadn't realized that anyone had gotten away. She took a deep breath. Solon's fine, she told herself. "Did they bother you?" she asked, trying to sound casual.
"They tried to take Argo, but she wouldn't let 'em. She reared up and shrieked at them. It freaked 'em out. You should have seen them run."
"And you kept your seat." Xena stated this with smug pride. Solon only beamed. Xena's thoughts returned to the prisoners in the camp, and her smile dissolved. "Solon. I have to go back in there because there are a bunch of prisoners who need help. Its pretty gruesome." She paused, and started hesitantly, "Maybe you should stay out here..." She didn't really want him that far away.
"I can handle it, Mom. The centaurs are warriors too. Besides," he added, "You could use my help."
Gabrielle woke again, this time to the commotion of a battle. Her first thought was bewilderment. I'm still alive?!! She had been in and out of consciousness all day but remembered little of it. She remembered being uncomfortably warm. Now she was shivering uncontrollably. Her whole body was stiff, but she could lift her head enough to see a few feet in front of her. She saw a woman's legs, clad in knee high boots, brace for a second then twirl around. A grunt of effort and a brief shout of satisfaction reached her ears through the clashing metal and painful groans. She knew that voice. Her clouded brain found the answer slowly, but when Gabrielle realized that it was Xena destroying these slavers she felt defeated.
If Xena saved her, Solon would stay dead and she would have endured this horror for nothing. Gabrielle felt a choke of tears rise painfully in her throat. Minutes later she felt herself being lifted. "No..." she sobbed, weakly.
As they walked back into the slavers' camp, Xena noticed the figure tied to the tree. She grimaced openly. She thought aloud. "Poor woman, she must have seen Tartarus before she died." She would cut her down so these women could give her a proper burial. Turning to Solon, she told him to see if he could find a way to open the cages. She started toward the tree.
Solon looked at the cages. They were filled with women and children his age and older. Most of them were stunned into silence, their faces turned toward Xena. Their faces were split between concern and revulsion as they followed her. She was walking slowly toward that tree. Solon's eyes followed the path of her feet and he got his first look at the tortured body that hung there. Ugh. His stomach turned and he quickly looked back to the cages. In the first cage there were several children. Two of them were pointing in the same direction. Solon moved forward at their direction, stepping gingerly among the fallen men. He heard their small voices call words of encouragement and he looked down.
In front of him lay a man who was well dressed compared to the others. He wore a black leather vest over a shirt which had once had some color to it. Now a dark stain was spreading down the left arm. Solon walked around the prone body, wondering what the children knew. There. He saw the edge of a key glinting in the setting sun. Solon reached down and pulled, and a set of keys slid out from under the body. He tugged again and realized that the keys were attached to something. He would have to turn the man over. He knew he shouldn't be afraid. The blood on the man's shirt told Solon he was very dead. He held his breath, crouched low, and, lifting up at the man's hips he pushed as hard as he could. The still warm body flopped over with a sickening squish.
Solon tried to ignore the gaping wound in the man's front as he quickly unhooked the keys from the man's belt. He was shaking as he turned back to the prisoners.
Xena was shaking slightly as she walked toward the tree. It had been a long time since she had seen a woman so abused. She was slumped forward, and even from a distance Xena could see that the ropes cut painfully under her weight. Her shoulders were bent down and back at an uncomfortable angle. She was covered with dried, cracked dirt as though she had been rolled in the mud a couple of days ago. Pink welts from more recent whippings shone through. As Xena approached she could see the stains of still-bleeding wounds. There was a deep gash across her stomach that cut deeply, through all the layers of muscle. Blood from a scalp wound darkened her hair on the left, and blood ran thickly down her legs. Coming near, Xena could see that her right eye was forced shut under a huge swelling at her temple.
She focused on a strange deformity on the chest, which looked as though several ribs had been broken together. Xena froze for a moment when she saw those ribs move. "Oh, Gods, she's alive," Xena murmured, a little horrified that someone could live through that. She rushed forward and put her arm across the woman's front. The body was unnaturally warm. Xena reached behind her and quickly cut the ropes with her chakram. "No..." a groan came from the parched lips. As the woman slumped forward and into her arms, Xena caught a flash of a familiar olive green on the other side of camp. Xena ignored it and lowered the woman to the ground, cradling her head on one arm, as gently as she could.
Something was wrong. No. It couldn't be. Xena brushed stiff hair away from the bloody face. It couldn't be. Her throat constricted. "Solon," she called, in a husky voice, "bring me the water bottle, now." She put her fingertips to the woman's neck and felt a weak, thready pulse. She wouldn't live much longer. Xena was searching for something familiar in the battered face when the left eye opened. She knew that shade of green. The woman's gaze, unfocused, held no hint of recognition.
Xena hoped for a moment. Then the parched lips moved. "Xena," the woman stated simply, in a voice tinged with regret.
"I'm here Gabrielle," Xena said. Her chest tightened and tears rose in her throat. Gabrielle clearly wasn't happy to see her.
Gabrielle's breath came in short, ragged gasps. She met Xena's eyes for a long moment without speaking. Her face screwed up as though she would cry, but no tears came. She whispered, pausing once to breathe, "I'm ...so sorry."
Xena's tears fell freely on her face, making dark spots in the dry mud. There were so many things that she wanted to say and so many questions she wanted to ask. Xena knew that there probably wasn't time for that, so she said only, "I love you, Gabrielle."
At that moment Solon knelt down next to the pair. His hand held out the water bottle they had borrowed from the centaurs. "Here, mom," he said, when she didn't react to his arrival. Gabrielle started up. Her eyes snapped open and her brow creased.
"Solon?" She mouthed the word, raising her eyebrows in question.
"He's here, Gabrielle." Xena pressed a hand gently on Gabrielle's chest, urging her to relax. "He's fine, " she added, guessing at what question she was answering.
Gabrielle did relax as a wave of relief washed over her. It had worked. Solon was alive, and he and Xena were travelling together. Xena wasn't going to be alone. She remembered another moment only two days ago, when she had considered ending her life. Now Gabrielle was cradled in Xena's arms, and Solon had never died. Those peasants were free. This was the way it was meant to end. A slow smile spread across Gabrielle's face. Her body felt heavy, so she shrugged it off and stepped away.
"Gabrielle?" Solon asked, looking at his mother. The streaks of tears on her dusty face answered his question. "Is she..." Solon began. He saw Xena's fingertips at Gabrielle's throat.
Xena couldn't find a pulse. The ribs which had flailed painfully with her breathing were still. "She's gone." Xena said tonelessly.