Solon saw Xena's jaw quiver and watched her pull a shuddering breath. She drew the body of her partner to her chest. Bending her head over Gabrielle's she pressed her own cheek against the bloody one. Her hair covered their faces, but the shaking of Xena's shoulders told Solon she was crying. He put a hand on her shoulder, feeling helpless. After a few minutes he stood and went about freeing the prisoners.
All of the eyes in the cages had been watching that reunion. At first they were silent, but as the realization of what had taken place dawned on them, they grew more agitated. As Solon opened the cage doors, he saw that several prisoners were blinking back tears. A woman in the last cage cried quite bitterly. There were a few hugs and smiles of relief, but most were silent.
They stepped over the cooling bodies of the slavers with little concern. The impersonal butcher of their captors weighed nothing against the gravity of the death that was now being mourned.
The prisoners moved cautiously toward the huddled forms in the center of camp, pausing at a safe distance. They were drawn to the woman who had died defending them but were stayed by a cautious regard for the woman who saved them. It was obvious that the warrior had loved the small fierce blond. The prisoners made a half-circle around the pair until one of them stepped forward.
"She was very brave," a grown woman blurted out. There was a silence before the second hesitant voice chimed in.
"She tried to save us," said a member of the group Gabrielle had met on the road. One by one voices joined her to tell the story.
"She almost did, until the other men came," another added.
"She gave her life to save my daughter." Xena looked up at this. Encouraged, the woman continued. "They were going to take Thea for their...pleasure," she put her arm around the shoulder of a girl almost Solon's age. "Your friend stood up and told them to take her instead."
Xena closed her eyes. She suspected that her partner had been raped but the confirmation turned her stomach. The voices continued.
"She fought them."
"She killed at least eight of them before they took her."
"She never cried out when they beat her."
Xena clenched her teeth and shook her head. This was too much. First Solon, and now Gabrielle. And the voices were crowding. Xena shut her eyes tightly, squeezing back hot tears. She felt claustrophobic. Anger welled up in her against these peasants who had watched Gabrielle die. They had shared her last moments and yet she was nothing to them!
Xena lay Gabrielle's head on the ground, stroked her face once, then, still kneeling, turned toward the wall of warily watching peasants. She had to get out of here. She was about to start giving orders when a woman spoke softly. "We prayed for her." Xena looked at the old face. The deep creases carved a gentle expression.
Softening her heart to feel this woman's sympathy let loose a surge of emotion. Xena's face burned and her eyes stung with tears she wouldn't release. How could this be? All of these people who could have been targets, and it was Gabrielle who died. It wasn't supposed to happen like that! She was more than this meaningless death. She was fine, and honorable, and courageous. Xena found herself enumerating Gabrielle's merits, stacking her worth against this lot of unrefined humanity. As she felt her grief giving way to anger, she reminded herself that Gabrielle had wanted to protect these people. That was the wish that lead her to her death. Xena would at least see them to safety.
She took several deep breaths and closed her eyes before she trusted herself to ask, "Do you all live nearby?"
The old woman answered for the group. "Mostly. We can help each other get home safely." She looked at Xena without fear, as if divining her thoughts.
"It's getting dark," Xena said. "Salvage what you can from here, then you should go." She turned and walked away from the crowd. She had to clear her head. Looking out into the forest, she let her guard down for a moment, testing. Tears flowed freely. What was she going to do now? She felt a huge painful emptiness in her heart. Xena's mind spun and sputtered half-made thoughts. Only this morning she had been dawdling. Two nights ago she had as much as told Gabrielle to leave. Gods, she and Solon had spent yesterday playing! She clenched her teeth, and, putting her hand over her eyes, tried to make order in her brain.
She started making a list. She needed to clean up Gabrielle's body. She couldn't very well take her back to the Amazons like this. She needed to find food for Solon and a place to sleep, far away from here. She needed to get these people home. She needed to destroy those cages.
Destroy the cages. That would make her feel better. She turned quickly, searching the ground for and axe. She walked through the camp with long, purposeful strides. All of the eyes in the camp were on her when she approached a man with an axe sticking out of his gut. Bracing her foot on his shoulder, she pulled it free.
The peasants scuttled out of her way when they recognized the sudden violence in her eyes. They flinched at the wet, squelching sound of the ax being pulled free. Xena was oblivious to the faces that followed her as she approached the first cage. A child sitting on the ground nearby could see the savage look on her face as she raised the ax. He scrambled away from flying splinters when she brought it down with a satisfying crunch. She hacked at corners and joints, splitting the dry wood like matchsticks. Xena could almost forget herself in the violence. The grim look on her face relaxed a little, but as the work became routine her thoughts intruded. She had saved Gabrielle from slavers like this three years ago.
"Damn it," Xena thought. She pushed back the unwelcome memories with stronger blows. The axe handle burned her palms, but at least the pain occupied her thoughts. She split open the last cage, near the entrance to the camp and paused, just starting to breath heavily. The tumbling wooden lattice was tented by an object that she hadn't noticed before. Rummaging in the debris she found her own water bottle and Gabrielle's scroll case, their straps twined together. The smell of ink and parchment reminded her of Gabrielle's fingertips.
Now still, Xena looked around, sweaty and a little dazed. Most of the prisoners had slipped out of camp under the storm of thundering axe blows and raining splinters. A young woman approached, carrying a pole about Xena's height, fear evident in her walk. The girl used its length to allow her some distance from the warrior as she held it out, offering.
It was Gabrielle's staff. Xena ran searching hands down its length and smelled rather than saw the freshly revealed grain where a sword's impact had chipped the wood. She couldn't help but imagine the last frantic arcs and jabs as her partner fought to avoid being taken. She wondered when Gabrielle had seen the end coming.
Now the dusk was creeping westward, and in another thirty minutes it would be completely dark. She looked over to where Solon was. He had covered Gabrielle with his bedroll, and now he sat a few feet away, looking lost. Xena cursed herself for abandoning him in that moment. He must be overwhelmed. She walked over and knelt down next to him. Words weren't coming easily. She put her arm around his shoulders instead of talking. Without hesitation, he pressed his face into her neck and wrapped his arms around her. She let him, for a long moment, before she joined the embrace. She sighed, leaning her face on his head, and inhaled the metallic scent of a childhood sunny day. Opening her eyes, Xena watched as one of the lingering peasants approached them.
"You could stay at our place tonight, if you've no where else to go." She offered shyly. Inappropriate as it was, in her nervousness she couldn't help but smile. "We have a table. You could lay her out there. I would help you." The girl couldn't imagine this warrior tending the details of preparing a body for eternity.
Xena wanted to backhand the girl for presuming that intimacy. She counted to twenty under her breath.
By the time she had finished, she realized that Solon was tired. She had nothing to feed him, and she needed her only bedroll to shroud Gabrielle. She calculated in her head. The light was fading fast. She didn't want to camp anywhere near here. With Gabrielle she could have pressed on, but Solon was only a child. She needed to find a source of water, too. Tending Gabrielle's body would probably take all night. She thought about the devastation that lay covered by her bedroll. Xena wasn't even sure that she had enough thread to stitch up all of the wounds.
"Thank you," Xena finally responded, after the girl had started to turn away. "We'd be grateful. But," she had to add, "I'll prepare my friends body myself. It's my duty."
The girl, Thea, and her mother lived only a couple of miles away. Solon attached the quarterstaff to Argo's saddle and stowed Gabrielle's possessions. Xena shook her furs out and carefully laid Gabrielle on top. As she wrapped the cooling body, she couldn't resist the urge to leave her face unwrapped, for comfort. She picked the parcel up, cradling her as she would a sleeping child. She turned to look at Solon, her face dripping with sorrow. With a nod he fell into place behind her.
They padded along through the dusky forest in silence. At the wooded lip of a small valley, Thea began to run. Coming out of the woods, the others stood to watch Thea. She followed a dirt footpath, which undulated across a pasture. The night sky was echoed in the deep black green, cropped close by sheep, which was broken by bright dots where the wooly animals caught the moonlight. With her light hair and her skipping step, Thea was a firefly bouncing along among them. Her high voiced echoed a little when she cried out, "Papa!" Xena, Solon, and Thea's mother were just beginning to descend the valley when the door of a tiny windowless cottage swung out. A tall man's form was silhouetted against the warm light spilling out. He swung his arms wide and Thea leapt into them with a shout.
Glad as he was to see his wife and daughter, who had been missing for two days, Thea's father frowned at the bad luck of bringing a stranger's body into the house. The women had to tell the story of their rescue to convince him to honor the woman whose death saved his daughter.
Xena had stood silently, still holding Gabrielle, while they argued. She willed herself to stillness under his appraising gaze. Her veneer of control was thin enough already without having to twist her face into gratitude. She wanted to strike him down. Seeing the violence that rumbled near her surface, Thea's father told his wife and daughter to leave her alone. Thea and her mother exchanged conspiratorial looks, for they had left out the details of this woman's fearsome power. His warning was quite unnecessary.
Once inside, they all felt a little ashamed. Xena's tremble of repressed anger as she laid Gabrielle's body on the kitchen table was taken for grief. With contrition they scurried around to prove themselves hospitable.
Finally, Xena was alone. Solon watched her. A curtain separated the main room, where he slept, from the kitchen, but he could see her dark shape against the lamplight. He listened to the soft sluice of water, the ringing drip from the sponge, and his mother's footsteps as she went back and forth to the well to refill her bucket.
Xena started with the toes and clinically and efficiently washed away the hardened grime. She tried to forget whose body this was, but memories crept in of a time when Gabrielle had done this for her. Xena had heard every thought. The pliable waxenness of Xena's body had driven home what Gabrielle could not bring her mind to accept. Now Xena understood. She used to take delight in this body; now its bluish chill was a little bit horrifying. Gabrielle was really, very dead.
Xena remembered that even then Gabrielle had looked at her body as a lover would have, noticing only those things that she found to cherish. She had treated Xena so tenderly, with gentle, pleading thoughts. Gabrielle was like that. She noticed the best and took everything else with a nod. Xena cursed herself for noting only Gabrielle's deadness in these, the last hours she would spend with her.
When Xena had cleaned off all of the mud, she started again with a scented soap. This time she forced herself to let memories of Gabrielle surface. She noticed the smooth planes of muscle which were defined even in flaccid death. She had changed so much in these years. Xena found such little feet, which, until the day before yesterday, had walked beside her every day, no matter what. She felt Gabrielle's skin. Now smooth as stone, in life it had been delicate as a summer breeze. She had burned easily. She paused at the small hands. Gabrielle's hands were strong and rough from hard work. Her fingers were nimble and learned quickly. She would have been such a great lover. The bard was playful and honest and passionately giving. She had had such an appetite, Xena imagined that as a lover she might have been just a little bit insatiable. Her breasts, still a delicate pink, hadn't changed with childbearing. Gabrielle's cruel pregnancy had ripped through her so quickly. Then the child just vanished, leaving her bruised, rattled, and with nothing to hold on to.
Then Xena had left her for Chin. Xena closed her eyes and concentrated, reciting an apology that Gabrielle might hear. When they first left Britainnia, Gabrielle could hardly keep up with Xena's long, angry strides.
Her lamentations over past mistakes blended with more recent ones. Xena remembered Gabrielle's defeated acknowledgement when she saw Xena in the moments before she died. Why did it have to end like this? Why did Gabrielle leave? Xena didn't even know what had happened the day Gabrielle had left her. What had she done? Xena finished washing her partner's hair and face. Every part of her body sparked memories, some wistful, some harsh. A sick feeling of regret churned in her. Xena realized she had to do something to take her mind off the reconciliation that might have been.
Xena called out to Solon, softly, as she reached for her healing kit. His answer, quick and bright, told her he hadn't been sleeping. He stood up, but shyness stalled him behind the curtain. Xena could see her son's bare feet poking under the curtain, near an edge. "Have you ever seen a wound stitched closed?" she asked. He replied that he hadn't, but made no move forward. Xena encouraged him. "Come around, Solon." She interpreted his hesitation. "Don't worry, she's covered."
He stepped into the lamp lit kitchen and looked at his mother. Weariness was plain and deep on her face. She said to him in a steady, deliberate voice, "When I was hurt in a fight, Gabrielle would sew up my wounds for me. Travelling with me, you may have to do that sometime. You might as well learn what you can about healing."
Over the next two hours, Xena uncovered Gabrielle's wounds and showed Solon how to mend them. They talked about which cuts to close in layers and which ones would best heal alone. Gabrielle's right hand provided a lesson in setting broken bones. Her broken ribs prompted teaching about chest wounds. Solon did not watch as Xena made a cut in her side, inserted a finger, and pulled the ribs back into place. She couldn't help but whisper "I'm sorry," to answer for the pain it would have caused. He understood.
Gabrielle's body made a graphic example for instruction, and Solon's eagerness to learn allowed them both to forget, for isolated moments, what they were doing. When Solon asked for the needle, however, Xena's awareness of her partner snapped back. It hit her abruptly, and before she could check herself, she hissed, "No!" Images of rough hands on Gabrielle's body came to her quite unbidden.
Solon was aware only of harshness followed by silence. He looked at her and saw cold eyes fixed on the curtain, a lip raising to a sneer. Muscles in her neck rippled with the effort of her clenched teeth. A quiver of energy radiated from Xena's body, and for a moment Solon was afraid of her.
Xena felt Solon step away from her. Turning, she saw his look of hurt and... was it fear? She closed her eyes and consciously relaxed her face. "I'm sorry, Solon," she started before meeting his eyes. "You didn't do anything wrong. I'm just angry at the men who hurt her." She wasn't fully in control and couldn't explain further without showing him a darkness she wanted to hide. He took her warm expression and her apology with the trust of a well-reared child, but chose that moment to leave Xena to her work. He had never heard a reprimand from her. After a quick hug, he slipped under the curtain and back to bed.
Xena closed her eyes and took a deep breath. That fury had surged with such small provocation, and it scared her.
Just before dawn, she bound Gabrielle's last wound and applied salve to the last of her now-purple welts. The warrior dressed her lover in her own sleeping shift, since it was the only clothing she had. She carefully braided her hair back from her face. She took a coin from her belt and curled it into Gabrielle's stiffening hand. Then Xena stood to say goodbye.
Gods, this was really it. Gabrielle was really dead. The woman who had finally captured her heart and made the last three years the first ones in her life worth remembering was gone. Just like that. Gabrielle had been so many things to Xena. She had lived with such a furious eagerness. She seemed like too much to be destroyed so easily. Surely it would have been easier for the gods to turn rivers than to break a life force that strong. For a moment in that bleak dawn it seemed to Xena improbable that the mere force of chance could be responsible. Sentimental memories came and begged her to wallow with them for a while, but every sweet scene crushed her chest like a vise. She couldn't do this.
Xena bent to kiss Gabrielle's lips. She pressed her cheek against the cold one and whispered, close to her ear. "I love you. When it's my time, I'll come and find you, even if I have to beat up Charon and the legions of Tartarus to do it." Xena stepped back and sighed, her thoughts finally silenced by weariness. She folded her bedroll over her partner's face and feet then stitched it shut along her length. When the sun rose, Thea and her mother found the warrior asleep at the table, her head resting on her arms, near the corpse's head.
With Gabrielle's body occupying the table, the family ate their breakfast from their laps in the sunny yard. Thea ate greedily, Solon ate politely, but Xena didn't touch her food. "Where will you be going?" Thea's father asked, trying to sound conversational. He was eager to have this vaguely dangerous woman gone.
"I need to take my friend back to the Amazons."
"You...you 're an Amazon?" He looked at Solon with confusion. Her clothing wasn't quite right, but he had never seen a female warrior of her magnitude anywhere else. He looked to his wife, who studied the ground. She had known that he would be angry about this. She had heard, often enough, his opinions of the tribes who held the fertile country to the south. The farmers in these rolling hills were suspicious of the women who lived without men and made deals with those horse-creatures. "Why would they keep an army," she had heard him say, "unless they meant to overtake us?"
Xena looked him in the eye. She also knew what he was thinking. Gabrielle and Ephiny had been discussing the increasingly militant attitude of their wary neighbors over dinner the night they arrived at the centaur village. "No, I'm not," she said slowly. "But my friend, she was their Queen."
They had little else to say to one another. Solon helped Xena build a litter on long poles. They made it broad enough to clear Argo's flanks, and by mid morning it was attached to her saddle, holding Gabrielle's body off the ground at a reclining angle. Solon said a graceful thanks, and Xena said a terse one. She pressed Thea's mother to accept a few dinars for the lamp oil and the food. The farmer watched them turn to go with his arms folded and a square set to his jaw. The women lingered, looking after her with real sympathy as she and Solon climbed out of the narrow valley.
Gabrielle heard the silent moan as Xena realized she was gone. She felt her shuddering sobs, but she couldn't see her. Gabrielle looked around, at first seeing only darkness.
She seemed to be quite alone, but it was so dark that she couldn't even see her own hand. It was as though she stood in a thick cloud of smoke on a moonless night. The edge of her hearing picked up faint voices. Standing quietly, straining to hear, she imagined they might be getting louder. Slowly, slowly her vision adjusted.
Gabrielle became aware of the dim outlines of moving figures fading in and out of her sight. She whirled around. They were everywhere. Gabrielle saw a pale little girl painted in shadows. She was holding a hand that disappeared into the darkness. She turned her head to see the head of an old woman slip through the fog and back again. The faces and bodies passed very close to her, seemingly unaware of her presence.
Suddenly, her head was flooded with thoughts that weren't her own. She heard the thoughts of the freed captives as they witnessed the scene of her death. The peasant's comments brought her a grim satisfaction: they had seen her as a hero. She heard some random worries from Ephiny and Solari. There was a moment of distant wondering from her mother. Solon apologized, in a tiny, far off voice, for spending yesterday with his mother. But mostly she heard Xena.
Overwhelming, crushing sadness, anguished self-reproach, and wild, swirling rage. The anger took her breath away. In her life, Gabrielle had never felt anything like that. It scared her. In those early moments of her death, Gabrielle worried that she had never really known Xena. Maybe Gabrielle had been wrong. Maybe Xena's fury was too volatile to be permanently buried.
How often in her life had she felt like that? How could she control it? Gabrielle thought of all those times when Xena had shrugged off an insult, when she had humbled herself before the people of Cirra at Callisto's request. When Gabrielle saw Xena's jaw clench and her nostril's flare, this is what was boiling underneath.
The deluge of thoughts cut off abruptly, and Gabrielle's mind was her own for a moment. She sat down and tried to focus on her surroundings. It was dim and featureless compared to the vivid thoughts of the living that had absorbed her only a moment earlier. She could see a break in the ground a few feet away as though she were looking through in a heavy smoke on a moonless night. Aided by the reference of that mark, she could tell that the shadowy forms she'd noticed before were nearly trampling her. Straining, she could hear faint voices, but she couldn't make out what they were saying.
Gabrielle wondered how much time had passed.
She felt another shudder of pain from Xena. A dark moment passed and she heard Xena's disturbance at the dissonance between her vivacious friend and the clammy flesh before her. Gabrielle sat very still and listened. For the first time she felt a wistful warmth. As Xena prepared her body Gabrielle heard little loving prayers and apologies. Xena's loving appraisal of her body surprised the bard, but she was too consumed by that hypnotic voice to reflect too deeply.
When Xena whispered goodbye, Gabrielle smiled sadly. She could imagine her partner sweeping though Tartarus like a storm, but hoped to the gods that she didn't have to do it.
As the warrior's thoughts faded away, Gabrielle's thoughts seemed to slow. The fuzzy darkness of her surroundings seemed to penetrate her brain, and she had to strain to remember what Xena had said. She mostly felt an ache of guilt that she was so far away from Xena in her grief. The bard shook her head. It couldn't be helped. She had already done everything that she could to bring her partner comfort. But oh, how she wished that she could explain why she left. No regrets, she told herself with some effort. You have done what you can. Now it is up to Xena.
All day Xena said only a handful of words, most of these terse responses to Solon's outbursts. Solon knew Xena was grieving; his own loss was still fresh in his mind. He was too young, however, to walk beneath that cloud faithfully all day. His mind would dart out from under it or stray behind after the unfamiliar sights and sounds of travelling. At these moments he would pipe up with a question or a comment, and each time, the displeasure in Xena's voice made him regret it.
To Xena the stoic silence was comforting. She had imagined, many times before, what life would be like without Gabrielle. There was a time when Xena had expected to lose her every day and she tried to steel her heart against the young girl in anticipation. By the time she realized that Gabrielle wasn't going to leave...Gods, she had been totally unprepared for the realization that she was in love with her. Xena wasn't used to being caught unaware. She remembered asking herself what she would have done had she found herself suddenly alone.
The answer was easy. She would have withdrawn, become the quiet, angry warrior, and never, ever let her heart slip away like that again. She could do that now. She could put the feeling part of herself away in a small corner of her mind's attic. She could follow the river of her life without sentiment until she was swallowed up in its inevitable end.
Xena felt her legs dragging, as though physical time was slowing down while her thoughts raced on ahead. She pushed on faster, willing her mind to still. She wanted to crawl into a dark corner and let the rest of the world just happen. She looked back at Solon. Xena couldn't blame him for being a child. He couldn't share the depth of her sorrow or follow her into her urge to self-destruct. Of course he shouldn't. And somebody had to take care of him.
With that thought Xena remembered that Solon hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast. She glanced at the sun. It was well past midday. When they sat against a tree to share the lunch that Thea's mother had provided them with, Xena made an effort to break the silence.
"It's going to be a hot afternoon," she began lamely.
"Yeah." Solon didn't take the invitation. He stared at the dust where he was writing his name with a twig.
"Would you like to ride for a while?" She tried again.
"Nah," he said without looking up. Solon didn't know how to act. Xena obviously didn't want to talk, and her effort was almost painful. This wasn't how it was supposed to be. He had dreamed for years about being able to travel and adventure with her. Now it had finally happened, but under the worst of circumstances.
She had always been so much fun before. He had had trouble believing the stories that the centaurs told of her past. Sure, he had seen her fight. He had watched her presence grow as she strutted into battle until she looked taller than Ixion. Then he would catch her eye, and she'd wink at him, and he would know that it was all an act.
The momentary harshness of Xena's reprimand last night and her dour silence today shouldn't have affected him so. He had seen adults under stress. Solon realized that anyone would be poor company under the circumstances, but the combined force of every silent step and every look of anger that crossed her face fanned a little ember of fear that he had always carried.
Xena succumbed to the same worry. Gabrielle's faith had always kept at bay the nagging doubts about her own ability to resist the darkness. She had seen the fear in Solon's eyes and she judged herself harshly for it. While Solon mused, Xena was cursing herself for her habit of silence. They had done well together the day before yesterday, but she had been on her best behavior. That lightness of mood came more easily than it used to, but she still had to remind herself to be social.
"What are you thinking about?" Solon finally asked. It was a rather bold question on this day. Xena stopped her snarl of "Whaddya think?" before it burst out, realizing that his effort was in the right place. If they were going to get to know each other, they had to talk about what was at hand.
Xena leaned back against the tree and hesitated before she answered with the truth. "I am thinking about where to take Gabrielle."
"What do you mean? Aren't you taking her home?"
"Well," She thought aloud, "I'm not really sure where home is." The warrior remembered that Gabrielle had once claimed that her home was with Xena, wherever she was. "Gabrielle grew up in Poteideia, but she never fit in there. Her family wasn't very good to her, I guess. When I met her she was desperate to leave."
"What was she like when you met her?" Solon asked. Xena thought Solon's question guileless, but he knew that he could at least get her to talk this way.
Xena thought for a moment before she answered. "She was so young," she began, a slow smile creeping across her unwilling face. Her eyes focused on the distance. She started again. "I saw her offer herself to a group of slavers, if they just would let the other village women go. It was foolish, really. I caught her eye and she looked at me like..." Xena stopped again.
Replaying the scene in her mind, she saw how much Gabrielle had wanted to leave her home. That offer of self-sacrifice was partly brave and partly suicidal. And the look on her face when she met Xena's eye for the first time was longing, womanly and whole. Longing? Where did that idea come from? It couldn't be. Xena had seen a veiled shadow of that look every day for the last three years. Gabrielle hadn't been like that. When they'd met, she was barely more than a child.
After a pause, Xena told Solon of their meeting and of Gabrielle's sweet, fumbling persistence. She felt better for the telling. At the end, Solon returned to his original question. "If you don't take her to Poteideia, then where?"
"I could take her to the Amazons. They really loved her." Xena mused. "I guess it is a matter of where she would be valued most.
"But you don't stay with the Amazons. How will you visit her? Aren't you the one that valued her the most?"
But I didn't! Xena's mind screamed, though her lips were silent. He had no idea how damning his words were. Xena's mind continued to chide her. I didn't value her enough to stop her from leaving. Why didn't I stop her? How could it have come to that? "I don't know what is the right thing to do, Solon," she finally answered.
When Xena and Solon got back on the road, the silence was more companionable. They walked quickly, and early evening found them a few hours outside the centaur village. Xena wondered for a moment whether to stop now or press on. If they camped outside the village, she was going to have to hunt, and she would have to do the cooking. Her heart clutched around a sudden emptiness. She looked at Solon through a marbled haze of tears. She saw that his step was still bright, and decided that they would sleep in Kaliepus' quarters.
As they neared the village, the sound of Argo's hooves brought men and centaurs from their tents. Ephiny wasn't there. In fact, none of the Amazons were. With a look, Xena singled out a man she knew. She unconsciously assumed the posture of command, and responding to the air of authority, he delivered an honest and efficient report. The Amazon's had found no leads, so they fanned out in a standard search pattern and moved their search headquarters to the Amazon village.
His report finished, the momentary soldier became a man again. Suddenly he wondered why she had come back so quickly. "Did you find anything?" He asked.
Xena simply tossed her head, gesturing to Argo, who waited patiently behind her. She didn't trust her voice, and she was damned if she would break down in front of a group of fighters. She led the pale horse through the clustering men and centaurs with the face of a warlord. As she passed, they saw Agro's burden and understood what it meant.
Later that night, after the travelers had been tended, the villagers held whispered debates over hearth fires and oil lamps. Many remembered this woman warrior as their greatest enemy; only a few fully believed in her goodness. More guessed that she had managed to avoid the chasm of her own darkness only with Gabrielle's gentle guidance. Her demeanor that evening reminded them of the warlord she was. No one was sure who she would become.
Those late night conversations eventually yielded to exhaustion, and now the cluster of huts and stables was completely quiet. The moon was bright, and a solid shaft shone through the window, brightening a sleeping boy's sandy hair. The pale strands mingled on the shared pillow with the dark fan of his mother's hair. She lay curled against his back in a protective attitude, giving him most of the blanket.
The woman turned on her back, restlessly. Her breathing became a little ragged with the intensity of her dream. She groaned softly. Her hands started to move, to reach out for softness and passion to match her fantasy.
Something in the pre-dawn stillness alerted the sleeping woman. Her dream interrupted, she started awake and lay very still. Blue eyes opened to the fuzzy image of bright gold hair tangled with her own. The warrior's face softened as her hand reached into the pool of moonlight to stroke the pale head.
"Gabri..." she started to say but stopped herself as her focus shifted into the distance. Looking past the bright halo of Solon's hair she spotted the carefully wrapped corpse, leaning against the wall.
"Oh gods, no." The words strangled in her throat. Waking and bleary, she was caught completely off guard with the knowledge that the warm sensuous lover of her dreams was dead. The scene of Gabrielle's death came back to her with awful clarity. She remembered Gabrielle's torn body, the sorrow in her face, and her apology as she struggled for her last few breaths. Those memories, stark against the sweet possible future of her dream pointed out what she had really lost. Her arms ached to hold the little bard. Xena sat on the edge of the pallet and sobbed silently.
She had loved Gabrielle as the closest friend she had ever known. She had also desired that lithe, muscular little body, but she had never allowed the feelings to fuse into the overwhelming romantic love that she experienced in her dream. Why? She wondered why. She always told herself that she kept a distance from the bard to protect her. Protect her from what? From being a target, from Xena's own darkness. Searching her mind honestly, Xena realized that the bard submitted herself to those dangers with the intimacy of their friendship. She had kept her at arm's length because she knew she didn't deserve the love of a woman so fine.
Xena held her off so well that the bard had finally left her. Now she was dead.
It seemed that in the last few months, Gabrielle had begun to recognize an artificial distance. There were things they should have talked about that went unsaid because Xena was afraid of promoting an intimacy that was building fast. Xena knew where their friendship would have been headed. A couple of years ago she wouldn't have guessed that Gabrielle could love a woman that way. As Xena let her mind wander over the last few months, she could see how wrong she'd been. She had seen Gabrielle's appreciative, appraising looks at more than one scantily clad Amazon. Once, glancing at her friend sideways, she'd seen Gabrielle moisten her lips as she stared slack-jawed at the writhing, muscular bodies of Amazon dancers.
There was also a change in Gabrielle's touches. Xena had always allowed Gabrielle a freedom with her person that extended to no other, but in the last months the bard's hands had reached out under slighter pretense and lingered longer than ever before. Xena recognized a progression that scared her. She had sworn years ago against giving anyone the advantage of her vulnerability. She wouldn't allow herself to be hurt so easily.
Now that the worst had come to pass, she wondered if an acknowledged love between them could possibly have made it more painful. Xena couldn't ignore the possibility that, if she had opened her heart to Gabrielle, she would have prevented the estrangement of the last few months. That distance Xena had struggled to create had allowed her to ignore Gabrielle's assessment of her obsession with Caesar, kept her from explaining her sense of Hope's evil, allowed Gabrielle to lie to her about her daughter, and, yes, even lead Xena to conceal her actions in Chin. Gods, what a fool she had been.
Xena knelt beside the bed. She knew Gabrielle could hear her thoughts, and she missed her so much. The warrior began in a reverent whisper, "Gabrielle, I'm so sorry..."
Xena and Solon picked their way silently through the Amazon woods. Argo walked at her right, Solon stayed just behind her left shoulder. When the Amazon bird call twittered through the trees, the travelers clasped their hands above their heads and waited.
It was an unusually long moment before the guards descended from the trees. The Queen was missing, and her best friend was transporting a corpse. None of them were eager to confront this situation.
Eponin slowly removed her feathers and approached Xena. The warrior's face was a mask, but Eponin could see that her jaw was quivering.
"I ask permission for myself and my son to enter your nation so that I may speak to your regent and queen." Xena spoke formally, hoping to thwart casual conversation.
Eponin glowered, guessing that the small body must be Gabrielle. Anger rose in her chest and her fingertips tingled. Xena's reputation had lulled the Amazon warriors into complaisance: to no other queen had they been so negligent. They all believed that the finest warrior in Greece was watching over her with a lover's care. As leader of the queen's guard, Eponin wanted to backhand Xena for failing.
The Amazon exhaled audibly through clenched teeth. Damn it. Even if Xena wasn't the most powerful warrior she had ever known, striking her probably wasn't a good idea. Ephiny would be mad. Instead, she nodded once and turned toward the village, motioning for the others to follow.
Once during the silent walk, Eponin looked back. She saw Xena's face, still cloaked in a cold mask, but streaked with tears. Eponin bit her lip and guiltily turned back to the path ahead.
After a painfully silent hour, the weapons master stepped though the brush into the village, catching Ephiny's eye. Xena followed close behind, and when the regent saw her she shouted out, assuming she must have found Gabrielle. She ran across the clearing to meet them, but as she approached, Argo pulled out of the woods with a travois and a corpse. Ephiny's eyes shadowed and she shook her head. She looked at Xena, her wrinkled brow betraying the hope that she was mistaken.
Xena only nodded. Ephiny, thinking as a friend, stepped in to embrace her. She ignored Xena's unfriendly stiffness, taking it for the defense that it was. "I'm so sorry," she whispered in Xena's ear. Xena hesitated for a moment before returning the hug in full force.
When Xena released her, Ephiny clasped her arms. Searching Xena's eyes, she recognized that the warrior couldn't hold up much longer under the scrutiny of the village square. "Come back to my hut. We can talk there." She nodded hello to Solon and turned to Eponin. "Bring Cait to show Solon around, have Argo tended to, and leave your guard detail with the," she paused, "the body. Leave us alone for a little while." She turned toward her quarters.
Ephiny had only walked a few paces when she realized that Xena wasn't following. She turned to find the warrior frozen in place, drawing the attention of the rest of the group. Ephiny took a few steps back.
"I'm not leaving her, " Xena said in a small, almost petulant voice. Ephiny couldn't help but be reminded of three-year-old Xenon when she saw those pressed lips and tense brow. She stepped closer and she realized that the clenched jaw was barely preserving the warrior's dignity.
"Alright," Ephiny said soothingly, "alright. We can take her to the queen's quarters, okay?" Xena only nodded.
Solon watched Xena follow Ephiny with Argo in tow. As he stood and stared, a dark haired Amazon he had never seen before approached him. "Solon, I'm Solari," she started, coming to stand beside him without meeting his eye. She looked down and scuffed her boot in the sand. "We met once in the Centaur village."
"Oh." He wasn't really used to talking to women. He appeared to share the Amazon's fascination with the dirt.
Taking a deep breath, she continued, "Is that Gabrielle in the skid?"
"Yes," he answered, meeting her face for a topic this important. "We found her tied to a tree, beaten by a pack of slavers." He hadn't spoken of the last two days to anyone, and the words tumbled out before he could think to stop them. "She was hurt really bad. I don't think Mom even recognized her at first. She died a few minutes after we got there."
Mom? The look of surprise on Solari's face almost spoke the word, and Solon suddenly remembered that nobody else knew. Solari voiced her question. "Xena's your mom?"
Inside the hut, Xena told Ephiny what had happened since they had last met. She stood at attention and maintained her composure, but her throat constricted at Ephiny's look of sympathy and horror when she described the scene at the slavers' camp.
Ephiny was stunned. She took several deep breaths before speaking. She walked around the hut with her arms folded. She was thinking of the fresh sweet girl, barely a woman, who had thrown herself to the defense of Terreis three years ago. She could grasp that girl's death. Gabrielle had changed so much. Ephiny could see that the wondering innocent had died some time ago, but she could hardly imagine that the gentle, courageous young woman who had become her friend could possibly be gone.
Circling the room, Ephiny paused behind Xena and studied her. How she must be suffering! She had seen the gruff warrior care so tenderly for Gabrielle. Xena was at her fiercest in her defense of the little bard. Xena never played with her opponent when Gabrielle's safety was at issue, she was simply ruthless. Without thinking and without warning, Ephiny reached out to make contact. It was only when Xena failed to react to a touch from behind that she realized she was lucky she hadn't ended up of the floor.
That touch triggered something inside Xena. Her lip quivered a second before her whole face screwed up with tears. The warrior covered her face with her hands and just stood there, her shoulders quaking. For a moment, Ephiny didn't know what to do. She had never seen Xena in need of comfort. She had to remind herself that this warrior was just a woman. She was a woman who had lost a great deal.
Xena allowed herself to be lead to a low couch. She allowed Ephiny, now seated beside her, to gather her in her arms. She allowed her head to rest against the smaller woman's chest and gave into the sobs that had been threatening to overtake her for days. She cried for several minutes. The regent said nothing but rocked her gently and stroked her hair. When the tears finally stopped, Xena looked up at Ephiny.
Ephiny looked down into red, puffy eyes. Xena's nose was dripping. Ephiny handed Xena a piece of cloth and ordered, "Blow." Xena blew her nose and shifted, sitting upright.
"Feel any better?"
Xena stared at her hands and didn't really answer " I haven't done that since I was a child."
"It's about time." For a moment, at least the awkwardness between them had washed away. Ephiny took the advantage. "What are you going to do now?"
Xena looked away. "I have to go to Poteidaia."
"Are you taking Gabrielle back there?"
"I don't know what to do, Ephiny." Xena paused. "We never talked about what she would want if... I always assumed it would be me." She sniffled and began again. "She risked her life to try to take me home. I want to do the same for her, only I'm not sure where home is. I think that Poteidaia wasn't very good to her."
Ephiny thought again about how Gabrielle had blossomed during her years with Xena. She remembered how suddenly powerful she had become when she was filling Xena's last request. "I think that her home was with you, Xena," she said, meaning it.
Xena's jaw tightened and her eyes closed at the words. "I want to take her to Amphipolis, to lay her beside my brother." Xena knew that her family would have loved Gabrielle. "But she had her own life. Other people loved her." Who am I kidding, Xena thought. Everybody loved her. She finished her thought. "It's not right for me to take her back to Amphipolis just so that I can be buried with her.
Ephiny thought for only a moment before she pronounced decisively, "Yes it is. That's what Gabrielle would have wanted."
Gabrielle was sitting on a cool, smooth surface of packed earth with her knees hugged to her chest. She had a dreamy look on her face that dissolved when she opened her eyes. The feel of the ground was strange to her, as though something were missing. As Xena's last words to her freshly cleaned corpse faded away, she looked down at her toes, dim and gray. She decided her feet looked weird. It was as if she was seeing them for the first time. Gabrielle realized abruptly, that she hadn't been able to see them before. She lifted her right hand and was surprised to find it bandaged neatly. Gabrielle peaked under the wrapping and found a delicate row of stitches. With her notice the wound began to lightly ache.
This is what had been missing! The sensations from her body had been totally absent since she died. She looked herself over and it came flooding back.
She could smell traces of a scented soap on her skin. She felt the well-used softness of the linen shirt that she was dressed in. It smelled faintly of Xena. She raised her left hand to her head and found that it carried a coin. Everywhere she looked, she found another wound carefully closed and dressed. As her awareness of her body grew, so did her pain. What had begun as a dull ache now became throbbing and insistent. Everything hurt. The insubstantial scenes around her offered no distraction. Gods, how was she supposed to bear this?
She was relieved when vivid images flashed through her head. This time was different; no voice was addressing her. It was as if she was seeing herself through someone else's eyes.
"Oh..." Xena's hearing detected a sweetly questioning lilt to Gabrielle's moan as she curled her tongue around a tight pink nipple. Gabrielle was kneeling in front of the seated warrior, and, arching her back, she gave her weight into Xena's hands. Xena answered with a low groan into the fragrant skin as she used her mouth explore the curve under her friends' breast. From her position Xena could see the firelight filtered through honey-colored hair. Tracing with her tongue the outlines of a muscular belly, Xena marveled at the gift of this gorgeous woman.
The bard's head was thrown back, and her hands gripped the back of Xena's neck encouragingly. Xena smiled at the silhouette of her bard's breasts and shoulders against the fire. She knew the bard loved her, and she had dreamed this moment but had never dared to hope that it would be made real. She wanted it to be perfect. Supporting Gabrielle's back with her right hand, Xena ran her left down a muscular thigh. The warm body was pliable and willing under her hands. She drew the leg out straight, preparing to settle her new lover beneath her own body. Xena lowered Gabrielle carefully onto the blankets and then shifted, reaching up to capture her lips.
Gabrielle was caught up in the erotic images before she realized what was going on. Xena was having fantasies about loving her! Gabrielle was floored.
For her own part, Gabrielle couldn't remember a time when she hadn't noticed the beauty of Xena's face in repose or appreciated the supple strength of her body when she fought. At first Gabrielle had turned her attentions to the young men who seemed to appear in her path over and over again. She abandoned even these little diversions when she realized how meager their appeal was next to the pull of that incredible woman. Bathing with her, sleeping next to her, riding behind her: these sensual feasts had, for a time, become almost too much to bear. Then Xena had withdrawn from an intimacy that Gabrielle begun to crave quite wantonly.
Gabrielle wasn't sure, but she couldn't help but imagine that she had betrayed her hunger with a look or a gesture. She assumed that Xena, not being interested, had mercifully pulled away before Gabrielle could go too far and embarrass them both. She knew that Xena had been with women before and could only assume that the warrior didn't desire her. Gabrielle wasn't willing to let her animal instincts destroy this profound friendship, so she resolved to ignore the firelight on Xena's tanned arms and the smooth skin of her throat. It hadn't really worked. Even on Xena's most distant nights Gabrielle had been acutely aware of the body lying next to her.
Xena's thoughts on waking to Solon's golden hair cut through the dream, leaving Gabrielle's skin tingling with the memory of imagined touches.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and concentrated on Xena's rhythmic, prayerful apology. Her voice was a balm, but when Gabrielle was alone again, her pain returned in full force. Gods, it hurt! It was overwhelming. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears. She felt trapped. On instinct, Gabrielle stood up and, spinning around, broke into a run. There were people everywhere, but her sense of them was so dim, she could barely make them out until she was upon them. She was beginning to be able to discern individuals around her, but consumed as it was by the pain, her mind couldn't stop to examine them. She ran furiously, dodging in and out. Gabrielle felt her arms push against barely tangible bodies as she struggled to stay upright in the milling crowd.
Her breathing was painful and short. Gabrielle ran on and on instinctively until she found herself recoiling backward. She collided with the ground almost before she realized that she had run into something very solid.
"Where are you going, Gabrielle?" a deep voice asked with a stern gentleness. Gabrielle looked up and saw a man more solid than the forms around her and a face so handsome, he must be a god.
"Hades!" The exclamation was part recognition, part oath. "I...I...I was..." Her mind couldn't supply the rest. She couldn't remember where she'd been going, but she remembered the pain. Oh, the pain was overwhelming. Her eyes were wide with fear and confusion when she asked the god, "Where am I?"
He smiled at her kindly. There was something charmingly infantile about the fact that mortals could be so thoroughly ruled by their bodies. "You are at Charon's dock, waiting to cross the Styx." He pointed, and Gabrielle stood close to him, following the line of his arm. She could now see, some thirty yards away, a boatload of people steered by the immortal guide. Their faces were as plain to her as if they were standing close. A few of them were quite painful to look at. Their features were twisted in agony, but as the boat pulled forward, they melted into peace. "Your pain will end when you cross the river."
Gabrielle thought for a moment, wondering why she was not on that boat already. She had been listening to Xena. She suddenly remembered why she was here and why she had died.
She wanted so badly to see Xena again. She knew the warrior thought that Gabrielle had abandoned her. She heard every thought. Xena blamed herself for the tardiness that, she was sure, resulted in Gabrielle's death. She even rued the time she spent with Solon. Xena hadn't suspected a connection between Gabrielle's disappearance and Solon's restoration. "What about..."
"Your deal with Ares, " the god finished with a sigh. Hades scowled at a mental image of his sauntering nephew. This girl didn't deserve this. The god bent down slightly and consciously gentled his face. "If you cross the river Styx, you can't come back. Ares probably forgot to mention that."
"I have to feel this way for a whole month?" Gabrielle was incredulous. She was to endure all of this pain, only the dim, restless faces of the dead as points of reference. She didn't know if she could do it, at least not without losing her mind.
"No, no. You can cross at any time." The God of the Underworld wished that she would. This wasn't right. He knew that she loved Xena. Hades himself recognized Xena's magnetism. She was a powerful being for a mortal. Half of the Olympians were taken with her. Ares, well... Hades suspected that his brother's interest in her might be unique.
"But I'll lose my chance at coming back to life," Gabrielle finished after Hades had left his thought dangling too long.
Hades came back to the moment. "Yes," he said, straightening fully into the mantle of the God of Death. He looked her in the eye. "This life is not all there is to your existence. Do not rate it too highly." Then, in a flash and a cloud of inky, swirling darkness, he was gone.
Gabrielle could barely think about what he had said. The sensations from her body already had their full grip on her mind.
"We should prepare her body," Ephiny ventured. Xena shook her head, her features forming a gentle grimace.
"Ephiny, I've done all that. That night, " she hesitated. "I couldn't leave her the way I found her."
"I want to see her." Ephiny's voice was almost a pout.
"No you don't." Xena drew the words out gently but firmly, recognizing her friend's helpless anger. "She," Xena hesitated, swallowing hard. The warrior took a deep breath before continuing. "She didn't die easily. When I went to lay her out, I wasn't sure I had enough cloth to wrap all her wounds."
Ephiny closed her eyes and sighed. "No, I mean, I have to see her. Amazon law requires that a queens death be confirmed by Amazon witnesses."
Xena groaned inwardly. She had no wish to revisit the horror of Gabrielle's body. Neither was she willing to abandon her to Amazon inspectors. "Alright," she growled, showing her darker self in Gabrielle's defense, "but keep it to a minimum." After a moment she added "...And make it quick."
Xena just wanted to take Gabrielle home, where she could wallow in her grief alone. She hated having to share her and having to be polite to other people when she felt like this. The warrior was constantly suppressing a tickle in her stomach that told her to bolt. She wanted to escape to an isolated mountaintop where she could nurse her grief and self-loathing. It had worked in the past. She knew she could condense these feelings into a ball of rage that became its own motive for action.
She had to remind herself, again, that Gabrielle cared for these people. They also deserved a chance to put her to rest. Xena resolved to see this through. Ephiny, watching the warrior's face, saw flickers of conflicting, unreadable emotion.
Together Gabrielle's two best friends decided that she should have an Amazon funeral and that Xena would take her ashes to Amphipolis. Ephiny set the village to work, and soon a great pyre was rising in the central square. While preparations were underway, she convened a small council in the queen's chambers. Xena was present, to the dismay of a few. Ephiny refused to argue this point but issued an uncharacteristically snide challenge, asking, "Which of you is gonna kick her out?"
No one had volunteered, so Xena lolled in the background, placing her body protectively in front of the queen's. She struck a pose of disinterest and studiously pared her nails with her breast dagger.
Ephiny started the meeting with an abbreviated version of Xena's report. The reaction in the room was silent. They already knew. Then she broached the issue of the viewing.
"Xena has requested that as few as possible view the body."
"What, does she own her?" Eponin mumbled, not meaning to be heard.
The warrior was already on her feet when a dozen heads turned her way. "Look Eponin, I made some horrible mistakes, and there is no way I can change them." Xena surprised them all by addressing the issue directly. "I know that Gabrielle would hate this. I'm trying to look out for her."
"'Bout time you started," said a voice from the back. Xena didn't recognize its owner. In response, Xena just looked at the woman, her blue eyes pinning the Amazon to the wall. The normally stoic warrior let tears slide down her face, which other wise remained stern and impassive. The woman looked away sheepishly, unable to meet the honesty of her grief in contest.
Ephiny was a little frightened in that moment. She couldn't see Xena's face and could only divine the scene from the features of the young warrior who had given offense. When the look on Xena's opponent's face was sheepish rather than fearful, she realized all at once how much Xena had really changed.
"I don't think that is an unreasonable request." She broke the silence with a voice almost too loud. She had decided, then, to forgo discussion on Gabrielle's funeral, lest the reformed warlord be moved to violence. "Queen Gabrielle will have an Amazon funeral and her ashes will go home with Xena." A general murmur arose at this. Ephiny added, raising her voice, "Xena knew her best. No one is better qualified to speak to her wishes. If anyone has a problem with this they can take it up with me." She raised her eyebrows and looked pointedly at the more volatile elements in the room, daring objections. She didn't like to take such an aggressive tone, but she wanted the women to know that she wasn't being bullied into these choices by the admittedly more powerful warrior.
The tension in the room worried her, and after a pause she stated, in a voice that brooked no argument, "This meeting is adjourned." She would deal with the official business of assuming the right of caste tomorrow.
Xena closed her eyes and ignored the councilwomen leaving. In her head she thanked Ephiny for taking responsibility for the decision and standing up for her. Xena had forged some tenuous friendships with the other amazons, but she suspected that her failure to protect their queen had jeopardized them. She could have silenced any argument on way or another, but she was grateful that she didn't have to endure their condemnation.
When the room had cleared out, Ephiny looked at Xena, unobserved. The warrior was sitting on the couch, in front of Gabrielle's body with the bard's staff in her hands. Her leathers were loose and dirty. Her hair needed brushing. Ephiny made a mental note to ask Solon when was the last time she ate.
Xena opened her eyes to find the hut nearly empty and the curly-haired Amazon queen standing before her. "You didn't decide on a group to confirm the queen's death," she observed softly.
"I thought that tempers were too high. I didn't think that any further discussion would be..." she paused, choosing her word, "fruitful. I will summon them individually." She flopped down on the couch beside Xena. "If they have problem with me choosing the group..."
"Tell them I was about to thrash them all and you just didn't want to see a brawl in the queen's quarters."
Ephiny chuckled weakly. She knew that that wasn't true. "You aren't like that anymore," she said with certainty.
"It would have shut them up, though." Xena reflected that it wasn't so far from the truth. For a few moments during the meeting, it had seemed as though the act of cracking a few skulls would have made her feel a whole lot better. She sighed at the image. She would have regretted it hugely.
Ephiny was silent, then she reasoned, "It's probably better if the whole village doesn't know who sees the body. If Gabrielle wouldn't want to be seen, I'm sure she wouldn't want to be gossiped over. You know how the Amazons can be."
Xena nodded and shook her head sadly. "Xena," Ephiny ventured, "you look awful. Why don't you lie down here and get some rest. I'll wake you when the elders come to see Gabrielle."
"But Solon..." she protested.
"Relax. I'll look after him," Ephiny promised. "Besides, this is an Amazon village. There must be fifteen girls his age who haven't seen a boy in years." Ephiny moved toward the doorway and urged Xena to come and see. "He's probably surrounded already."
Truly, he was. Word about the queen's death had swept through the village like an August thunderstorm, leaving the Amazons pensive and expectant. The news carried with it a whisper about Xena's handsome son. Gabrielle had thoroughly won the affection of this group of women warriors, but still, there were young amazons who were quite incapable of remaining properly solemn about the grave fate of a queen they had never met. These left their huts, ignoring the threatening torrent of stately grief, and made for the square. After a few shy moments they approached the beautiful boy and now could be found clustered around him.
Solon had also been shy at first but now found himself enjoying the attention. He could forget his grief for a moment, chatting with these strange giggly creatures. His mother's eyes found him looking comfortable in his melancholy smile.
Xena also saw Cait watching over him. The slim blond girl was leaning against a post a few paces away with a mug in her hand and a tragic scowl on her face.
A runner had come to tell Cait that she had a guest to entertain, and she used the opportunity to justify dipping into the summer batch of honey mead that was just coming of age. When she arrived in the square and heard the news, she decided that she needed it more than the boy, who, almost four years her junior, was really just a child.
Now she sipped her mead and assessed the situation with adolescent melodrama. She could hardly stand to watch. Stupid kids. Didn't they know? The greatest love had been torn asunder by death and here they were simpering at Solon just because he was a boy. She felt protective of Xena's son, though, and she stayed to make sure he wasn't overwhelmed by the girls, all the while rehearsing the reasons why she shouldn't thrash them.
Satisfied at the scene, Xena settled back on the couch, certain that sleep would elude her.
Xena felt the impact of her sword, satisfyingly cushioned as it sunk into solid flesh. She was in the midst of a battle, surrounded by fighters. Every other man on the battlefield was her enemy and gave her an opportunity to release the pent up rage that she felt. Somehow she knew that this army was connected to the slave ring that killed Gabrielle. With each sword thrust she was inching closer to the center of the battle, where the leader would be. As she slashed through less significant fighters she imagined the pleasure she would take in ripping him apart.
Something tickled the edge of her senses and she roused abruptly, as if to a threat. She looked around with some alarm, but when her senses awakened she recognized a familiar tingle. Her brow narrowed. "Ares, show yourself."
Ares materialized in front of her, his classical features skewed in a smirk. "That's so annoying," he referred to Xena's ability to sense his presence untruthfully. Any skill of his favorite pleased him.
"Hello, Ares," she eyed him suspiciously. She wasn't certain how to address him. She refused to believe that she owed him anything for the return of Solon, but, on the other hand, it didn't seem quite right to treat him with her usual disdain. "What are you doing here?" Xena tried, but couldn't keep the habitual snarl out of her voice.
"Now, now, warrior princess, calm down. I'm just here to express my condolences over the loss of you dear friend, Gabrielle. I know it must be tearing you apart inside." He had meant to sound sincere, but eons of godly privilege made the appearance of anything like humility impossible.
"You don't know anything about pain!" His swagger made her want to vomit.
Ares chose to remain still, lest any movement serve to emphasize his physical perfection and thus weaken his case. "You're right, I don't know. I wanted you to know that she was a strong woman and that she died bravely. I was impressed."
"You were there?" She lowered her voice to a growl. "You could have stopped this. You probably even started it." Xena rose from the couch in a smooth motion and stood tall to meet his eye at a level. She wore her most menacing scowl and radiated an aggressive energy that was fueled by her dream of violence. Ares stepped back, and Xena recognized fear in his body. In a mortal that lapse would have secured for her proof of guilt, but it made the God of War more believable.
"I didn't set up Daradnus' slaving ring." He threw in the name of the local warlord consciously. "I don't mingle in mortals affairs like that."
Xena snorted her opinion of his declaration of non-interference.
"That's different," he defended. "You're my chosen. That makes you my business." She relaxed a little. It was true that he toyed with no other mortal the way he did with her. Ares caught the softening of her offensive posture and brought back his swagger. He stepped around her and spoke softly, standing so close that his breath warmed her shoulder. "I was there because I love to watch a good fight." Ares unleashed his immortal sexuality and let his favorite warrior feel its full magnetism. Xena let her head drop back, losing, for a moment, the harshness of her present reality in his charms.
Her eyes still closed, she asked, "Who was responsible for the slaving ring?"
Ares narrowly stopped a chuckle. "Oh, just some local boys. It doesn't matter, Xena. You're not going to go after them. You're not like that anymore. Besides, remember your promise to Gabrielle." He couldn't believe how easily she was playing into his hand.
"Becoming a monster and stopping a local slave trade are not the same thing!"
"Alright, alright." He backed away with raised hands, hiding his smugness under a contrite look. His warrior princess was brimming with unrealized action. He loved it.
"Who was behind this?" she repeated. "I remember killing those camp guards. They were hack soldiers. There wasn't one of them with the skills or the gumption to organize a slave trade." Ares was going to make her beg.
"It was Daradnus." Ares delivered what he came to give. "They are camped over beyond the northeastern ridge of Amazon territory. They have a pretty good set-up." Ares cemented her scorn for the warlord's band by showing some admiration. "They've been raiding villages quietly for months and exacting tribute in return for protection from the Amazons."
Xena appeared not to believe him. "The Amazons are no threat to those farms."
"These are dumb farmers, Xena, they don't know that." Ares countered. Watching her face, he saw the kernel of a plan developing. This was his cue to leave. "Well Xena, got stuff to do, see you later," he said lamely, then disappeared with a minimum of fanfare. Xena didn't even appear to notice.
Ephiny returned to the Queen's hut to find Xena awake and pacing. Her demeanor was completely changed. The grieving softness had been replaced by a tense energy. All of her movements were quick and precise. Ephiny watched her for a moment, wondering at the change. Xena addressed her before she could speak.
"There is a warlord at the northeast boundary of Amazon territory that is running a slaving ring." Xena eyed the regent with an expectant face, waiting to judge her reaction.
Ephiny kept her face neutral. She spoke evenly. "Yes I know. They've been living off the farmers in that valley for months. That's part of the reason we have had trouble with our trade agreements there."
"How important is the trade to the Amazons?"
"Only moderately so. Markets to the south have been much more profitable."
"Even without a warlord in the valley, that border is a weakness in your defenses." Xena responded too quickly. Ephiny could see that she had been waiting to make this argument.
Ephiny held back, hoping hat Xena wasn't going to propose aggression. "We have always relied on the hills to prevent any attack, because the people in that valley didn't seem to offer much of a threat. At first the council was uneasy about having a warlord occupying a border region, but we sent out scouts who reported that the warlord's army is small and not very skilled. So far, we've been pretty content to let them be."
"That's the group responsible for killing Gabrielle."
Ephiny was silent. She could see where this was headed, and she didn't like it. She knew how the Queen would have felt about a battle in her honor. Besides, the Amazon Nation couldn't afford to send its warriors on a mission like this. Things had been going well, and their stores were good, but they had lost too many warriors in the affair with Velasca. The border patrols had been dangerously thin for months. Their recovery had depended on several promising young women coming of age, and their fighting forces were still inadequate for any major offensive. Besides, the Amazons existed to nurture young female warriors and to preserve their own traditions as the chosen people of Artemis. They had never been in the business of policing the neighborhood.
"You killed all of the men in the camp where you found her, right?" Ephiny could see that Xena didn't like her answer.
"Then none of the men left in the warlord's army are directly responsible for treating her brutally." Xena hadn't voiced her proposal, but the curly headed Amazon wasn't going to let her.
"What is your point?"
Ephiny knew that she was skating on thin ice. She had never seen anyone other than Gabrielle oppose the warrior in this way. "I want you to think about what you are trying to accomplish. Gabrielle's murderers have already paid with their lives. Those bandits aren't worth going after." Ephiny's voice raised in pitch and volume. "As far as we can figure they have never made a successful shipment of slaves."
Xena only glowered silently.
Ephiny returned her look with a scowl of frustration. Xena wasn't the same person that Ephiny had left on the couch a few hours ago. She certainly wasn't the Xena she knew. Ephiny had known her friend to be a smooth, logical, and decisive: a leader who expected no argument. She wasn't clumsy and baiting like this. When she did allow herself to be drawn into an argument, she was generally smart enough to be several steps ahead of her opponent. In Ephiny's experience, if the Warrior princess was manipulating you, you generally didn't realize it. Something wasn't right. The Amazon queen wasn't sure what was going on, but she knew without a doubt that Gabrielle would want her to try to prevent the grieving warrior from descending into violence. So far, Ephiny wasn't getting anywhere. She decided to try a more direct approach.
"What are you trying to accomplish?" Ephiny asked again, this time with a plaintive note.
Xena pressed her lips together. "Never mind." She started for the door, mumbling. "Don't need amazons," was all Ephiny needed to hear. She a made a brief prayer for Artemis' protection before she moved to intercept the warrior. Leaping across the room, she placed herself directly in Xena's path, but Xena acted as if she wasn't there. She carried the full force of her momentum right into the smaller woman, knocking her to the floor. Ephiny looked up through scattered blond curls at the solid bulk towering over her. Seeing the faraway look, she wasn't sure if the action had been intentional or not. Xena appeared so distracted. She pressed that advantage, speaking boldly.
"What are you going to do, Xena, attack the army by yourself? What about Solon, then?" Xena's features were frozen in a frown, looking past the regent, out the door. At the mention of her son, she turned her face toward Ephiny. With a gulp, the regent stood to face the fiercest warrior she had ever known.
"Are you going to stir up an army out of those farmer's sons? Are you going to lead them against a warlord? Where will you take your army next?" She finished speaking through clenched teeth. Ephiny could see the anger on Xena's face, and took a deep breath before reaching out for the warrior's bracer. Xena flinched at the touch, but Ephiny held her firmly, hoping to force her attention. She continued, adding a soothing note, "Xena, what's going on with you? You seem really different than when I left you a few hours ago."
"I don't know what you're talking about." Her words were chopped and perfunctory.
"Look at you, you're bristling. You look like you are about to go off and start a war."
Xena looked into her friend's eyes and saw a compassion that Ares face had totally lacked. Her hard look gentled, and she shook her head. "I feel weird," she admitted. "I just want to clobber him."
"Xena, I know that losing Gabrielle has been horrible for youóprobably more horrible than I can imagine, but she wouldn't want you to do this. She wouldn't want revenge."
Xena snapped back to attention as if supported by an invisible string. "This isn't just about her. It's about stopping slavers."
"Xena, I agree that slavery is bad, but why attack these morons?
"I'm not talking about just this warlord. I could stop slavers all over Greece." Xena's thoughts were gaining momentum, and her voice kept pace. She looked far away, as though she saw through the grassy walls of the hut.
"How are you going to do that? You would need an army. Xena, what are you talking about? Gabrielle..."
Xena snorted. "Gabrielle never did understand the kinds of good I could do with an army. I could stop the slave trade in Greece entirely." She strode back and forth across the room like a marshal.
"Xena! Listen to yourself! That isn't you talking! That's..."
"Ares." Xena whirled to face the regent. The look on her face was suddenly savage and clear. Her eyes searched the room as if she could find something to ground her. That's what this feeling is, she realized. Why hadn't she recognized it before?
"Ares? What are you talking about."
"I've been edgy since I spoke to him." Xena admitted bitterly. She hated the fact that he could take possession of her like that.
"Ares was here?"
Xena didn't like to tell people about this. "Yeah. I talk to him every now and then. It's not my choice. He just drops by sometimes."
"The God of War just 'drops by? How often?"
"Last time I saw him was when he brought Solon back."
"Ares brought Solon back?" Ephiny and Xena had parted in anger three nights ago, shortly after Xena told the story of Gabrielle's child and Solon's death. They hadn't really talked about it. After that the regent had gotten caught up in the search for the missing queen. She had assumed that there was a mystery behind Xena's solitary experience of Solon's death and Gabrielle's disappearance. Ephiny hadn't tried to solve it. She had assumed that Gabrielle would answer her questions when she returned, but the brutality of the queen's death explained nothing.
Ephiny looked at Xena. She was astonished to find that the warrior had been casually conversing with Ares. Why did he bring Xena's son back to life? What had she done for the God of War in order to deserve this gift?
"Xena, what's going on here. What does Ares have to do with it?"
"I don't know."
Ephiny narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "What did you do for Ares to get Solon back? What did you do to Gabrielle to make her leave?"
Xena froze at the suggestion that she thought Ephiny was making. "How dare you suggest," she growled, "I could never do something like this..."
"Look Xena, I would never imagine that you killed her. I'm just trying to understand what's going on."
Xena thought for a moment. Her anger was whirling almost too fast to think. A part of her was furious at Ephiny, but in the back of her mind she recognized that the regent was right.
There was something going on here that had been tickling at the edge of her consciousness, like a thought unspoken. Why had Ares brought Solon back? What were his words? He said "it wasn't his time," and he added that he owed her for stopping Dahok. He had also said that Callisto killed Hope. It had seemed a little strange at the time, but she hadn't been thinking too clearly.
More importantly, why hadn't she recognized this before? She had known there was some thing wrong with Ares' actions, but it had hardly occurred to her to be suspicious of him. She hadn't even thought to connect him with Gabrielle's unexpected disappearance. Xena remembered being confused that morning. Now she was shocked that she had accepted it all without question.
She hadn't questioned the gift of her son's life. She had only felt thankful. That wasn't like her at all. Ares. Suddenly she was seeing the last week with penetrating clarity. Ares had been trying to get her away from the village the day that Gabrielle left. The day spent with Solon had kept her from noticing her partner's absence. And that evening? Why had she accepted that Gabrielle had left her? Why hadn't she followed? Was that Ares' doing? Xena closed her eyes, knowing that it had been at least partly her own choice. Gabrielle leaving her was what she expected all along.
Finally Xena turned to the queen. She met her eyes for a long moment with an achingly clear gaze, and Ephiny recognized the change.
"I don't know what is going on, but I know Ares has something to do with it."