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By Maggie (email@example.com) and PeriBear (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Part 1 of 3
DISCLAIMER: Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Cyrene and Argo are the property of MCA/Universal and no copyright infringement is intended here. All other characters, and all story plots, included here come from the fertile imaginations of the authors.
NOTE: This was a collaborative effort; comments, kudos and critiques may be submitted to either, or both, names above.
We just thought that having 'a day' was so great, how about having a whole week? So, we decided to find out. It begins with ......
DAY ONE: THE GRANDFATHER
As Gabrielle came over the rise in the road, she saw the old man sitting quietly under the tree on a large rock. For a moment, she thought he was napping. Then he turned a cherubic face to meet her gaze, smiled and sent her a friendly wave.
The little bard walked toward the elderly gentleman, Argo's reins dangling loosely from her fingers. She found herself returning the man's open smile.
"What have we got here, Argo?"
The mare whinnied back, only slightly less curious than the bard.
Xena had gone to collect some medicinal herbs she'd spotted in the small meadow on the side of the road.
"I'll meet you up ahead a bit," she'd said as she'd handed over Argo's reins. "I won't be long." Then she'd strode into the grassy area, her long legs taking her swiftly away.
When Gabrielle reached the old man, she noticed he wore a long, multi-colored tunic covered by a quilted, hand-sewn breech jacket. His clothing was well-worn, but clean, and the cloak displayed subtly placed patches, discreetly positioned within the garment's unusual patterns.
One gnarled hand was wrapped around a beautifully carved walking stick. His hair, mustache and short-cropped beard shone brightly in the morning sun, reflecting the color of newly polished silver. Near his feet on the ground was a small, tightly bound bundle with a long, leather loop attached at one end.
"Good morning, young lady. Isn't it a beautiful morning?"
The gentleman's bright blue eyes twinkled in the young bard's direction. He switched the position of the walking stick and extended a slender, long-fingered hand toward hers. Gabrielle transferred the reins to her staff hand and took the old man's hand. The handshake was firm, but pleasant, the skin smooth and nearly transparent.
"I'm Cadmus of Ekhinos," the old man said. "And who might you be, pretty lady?"
"I'm Gabrielle," the bard said. "Of Potidaea," she added as an afterthought.
The man's open smile was certainly contagious. He closed his eyes, took a deep, hearty breath, then turned back to the young girl. "There's nothing like a morning in the forest, I always say," the old man chirped as he turned to face the bard again. "Are you traveling alone?"
"No. My friend will be along any minute now. She's gathering some herbs from the meadow over there."
Argo whinnied and tossed her great, golden head. The old man turned his attention toward the animal, his smile growing even wider. "And you, you beautiful thing. Are you enjoying the morning, as well?"
The great horse slowly stepped closer to the wizened form on the rock. The elder reached a gentle hand to rub the animal's forehead. Gabrielle watched, slightly surprised. Usually, Argo only permitted Xena's or her touch.
The little blonde looked back up the road to where Xena had disappeared. There was still no sign of the warrior. She turned back to the old man. "Are you on your way to some place special?"
The man's attention was still on the mare's forehead. "I'm on my way to Lataera."
"Lataera? Well, my friend and I are going that way," the bard said, motioning toward the road that continued away from them. "We're actually on our way to Amphipolis, but we'd be happy to help you get to Lataera, if you'd like."
The man's face glowed, his round cheeks bright pink above his silver beard. He patted Argo's head one more time, then lowered his hand to his lap. "That would be very pleasant, Gabrielle of Potidaea. It would be good to have company for this journey."
At that moment, Xena emerged from the forest. In her hands, she carried several bundles of roots, herbs and leaves. She opened one of the packs on the mare's back to stow the new supply. Finally she turned to the bard and her elderly companion.
"Who's your friend?" the warrior asked, a crooked grin on her face.
"This is Cadmus of Ekhinos," Gabrielle said, one hand indicating the old man.
"And this is my friend, Xe --"
She stopped her introduction mid-sentence when she saw the expression on Cadmus' face. He was staring openly at the tall warrior, a look of astonishment and joy spread across the
"Galetaia!" the old man shouted. He extended one veined hand toward Xena's slender arm. Before she could react, he had grasped her wrist tightly and was drawing her toward him. "The gods have truly answered my prayers."
Xena tried to gently pull away from the elderly gentleman. "I'm sorry, sir," she said kindly. "I think you have mistaken me for--"
"Galetaia!" the man repeated. He rose and gathered the confused warrior in a tight, furtive hug. His head only reached to the warrior's chin. Over the silver thatch, Xena's startled eyes sought those of the bard.
Gabrielle's wide smile met the warrior's embarrassed look. The bard was enjoying her stoic friend's discomfort at the old man's spontaneous contact and her giggle only deepened the tall warrior's chagrin.
Xena gently withdrew herself from the old man's embrace. With her hands on his slender shoulders, she bent her knees slightly to address his ecstatic face. "My name is Xena," she told the old man gently. "I think you have me confused with --"
"My dear little granddaughter!" Cadmus exclaimed. He took the warrior's surprised face in his hands. "Look at you!" Cadmus squealed. His hands moved to hold the warrior's lean arms. "You're a lovely, beautiful woman! And a warrior, too. Why you were just a young maiden the last time we were together. Now you're all grown up!"
Xena's abashment was growing rapidly. Finally she threw the bard a desperate look of appeal. The little blonde took a moment to regain her composure.
"Cadmus," she said putting one small hand on the old man's cloak. "This is my friend, Xena," the bard said, putting deliberate emphasis on the warrior's name.
For an instant, the man's excitement quelled. He looked quickly to the bard, then abruptly back at the warrior. The bright smile that had lighted his expression faded a slight degree, then returned to beam even more brightly. "I've prayed to the gods that you would return," the old man crooned, "to take me back to Lataera."
Xena glanced at the bard. She saw the look of understanding in the open face of her companion and let the young girl explain the man's reference.
"Cadmus is on his way to Lataera," the bard began. "I told him we might be able to help him get there."
The warrior looked back to the aged face of the traveler. She found herself responding to his open smile herself. "Oh, I see," Xena said slowly. "Well, of course we can do that. We can certainly help you get to Lataera. It's sort of on our way."
The rugged combatant smiled warmly at the old man next to her. The clear adoration in his eyes unnerved her slightly, but she took the man's delicate hand gently in her own. "We can help you get there. Would you like that?"
Cadmus' weathered face glowed again with happiness. He straightened his clothing and ran his hand quickly over his wispy silver hair.
"Thank you, 'Taia," he said to the warrior. "I knew I could have faith in you." He touched her arm again lovingly. "You, too, Gabrielle. I welcome your company as well."
Xena's eyes sought the bard's again. The little blonde shrugged her shoulders and returned a delighted grin. 'She's actually enjoying this little charade', the warrior thought. Xena shook her head slightly, then turned to gather up Argo's reins.
The old man reached down to reclaim the small bundle from the ground. He slung the leather strap over one shoulder and stood up as straight as his ancient body would allow. As he positioned himself between the two women, the trio began to walk down the road.
The small party had gone less than a quarter league when it became apparent Cadmus' age and physical condition were making even casual walking difficult for him. His breath was often short and he seemed to have the utmost trouble attempting even the smallest incline in the road.
Xena decided to stop the journey and let him rest. She covertly suggested that they all take a break and ushered the elder toward a shaded area next to the road.
When the three travelers had settled down to enjoy a light snack of apples from the saddlebags, Xena turned to find the old man's bright blue eyes searching her face. She swallowed the fruit in her mouth and smiled in his direction. "Cadmus, is your apple all right?"
The old man chuckled happily and the warrior found her own smile responding to his mirth. "Why don't you call me 'Papa' like you used to?"
Xena took a breath to again try to convince the gentleman of his mistake concerning her identity.
"We used to have some great games together, remember 'Taia?" Cadmus said, a twinkle in his bright blue eyes. "We drove your mother to distraction!" The old man giggled openly, an engaging flush covering his round, friendly face.
The warrior sensed the bard's focus on her and turned to respond to the little blonde's expression. 'If I didn't know better', Xena thought, 'I'd swear she's sending me a firm warning with those big green eyes'.
The bard leaned closer to her friend, a serious little frown between the wheat-colored brows. "Don't even think about it!" the girl said softly.
"What?" the warrior asked, recoiling slightly from the little bard's chastisement.
"Breaking that old man's heart. Just go along with it for now."
Xena's eyes rolled skyward and a sharp sigh escaped her lips. She turned back to the old man for a moment. The loving, wrinkled face was excited, the round cheeks happily chewing the bite of apple. Unexpectedly, the warrior's heart softened toward the old gentleman; there was a peaceful calm about him and a warm glow radiated from his presence. She abruptly tossed away the remains of the apple she'd been eating, brushed her hands together, unfolded her long legs and stood up. "Gabrielle, can you come help me a minute, please?"
The bard turned to her friend slightly confused, then stood up and moved to the warrior.
"We'll be right back," Xena told the old man, then took the bard's arm and lightly propelled her toward where the mare stood quietly chomping the lush grass.
"He's never going to be able to walk all the way to Lataera," Xena said when they were huddled near the mare. "He's either going to have to ride Argo or we're going to have to build a litter for him."
The little bard felt her throat tighten. She was proud of the kindness showing in her friend's concern for the elderly man. It was not an emotion the warrior displayed to many, but the bard knew a deep level of compassion dwelled within the woman's heart.
"He can't ride Argo, do you think? He's much too ... fragile."
The warrior's lips curled in a grin. "I wouldn't be too eager to count his spirit among the fragile. He's got the heart of an eagle."
The young blonde smiled back at her friend. She sensed the warrior had become more attracted to the old man than even she would admit. But, the bard reasoned, it was a selfless intention that she read in the warrior's manner.
"Okay, I vote for the litter. How long will it take us to build one?"
"I'll handle that. You keep him company. It shouldn't take long."
The warrior drew her sword and turned toward the wooded area next to the road.
"Xena," the bard said, reaching for the tall woman's arm.
The warrior turned back to the young woman.
"Thanks ... for humoring him. He's such a sweet old guy, I'd hate to see him disappointed."
Xena glanced over at the old man still enjoying the apple in the shady area.
"He's a character, that's for sure. Kinda reminds me of my own grandfather. Loving, kind, with a good dose of mischief in his eyes." The blue eyes turned back to those of the bard. "He was a tinsmith," the warrior said, her eyes soft with the memory of her own ancestor. "He made this hair buckle for me," she told the bard, raising her hand to the back of her long hair. "He also fashioned my first sword." The warrior's bronze face lit in a tiny, soft grin. Nearly moved my mother to yell at her own father."
Suddenly the warrior's expression became solemn and introspective.
"Something wrong?" the bard asked
The woman's attention snapped back to the little blonde. "What?"
"You seem upset about something."
For a moment, Xena seemed about to share the unsettling remembrance. Then the granite curtain dropped into place again. "No, it's nothing. Never mind."
Gabrielle recognized the protective veil her friend frequently employed to seal off her emotions and submerged her own curiosity to respect the woman's wish for privacy in the matter.
Then the warrior's expression brightened and she turned a playful glance at the bard. "Seems like the right thing to do, though ... helping him."
Gabrielle nodded and squeezed the slender arm of her friend. Then the warrior poked a thumb in the old man's direction and disappeared into the woods.
The little bard walked back to where the old man sat. His friendly eyes greeted hers, then they scanned for the warrior's tall form.
"Xe ... uh, 'Taia," the bard corrected herself, "went to get some wood. She's going to make your trip a little easier for you."
The girl settled down cross-legged on the grass at the old man's side, laying her staff along side her. Her fingers drew idle patterns in the lush foliage around them.
"I'll wager you're pretty good with that staff," the old man said to the girl on the ground. "I can tell by the way you carry it."
The bard felt herself blushing at the compliment. She raised a wide smile to meet the old man's grin. "I'm still learning, but I'm getting better as it goes along," the girl said.
"How long have you traveled with my 'Taia?"
"Almost two and a half summers, now."
"And you two are great friends, aren't you?"
"She's my best friend," Gabrielle said. "She's the best friend anyone could ever have."
Cadmus placed a gentle hand on the blonde head beside him. Gabrielle felt a warmth spread through her at the old man's touch. She looked up to meet his kind expression.
"She gets that from her grandmother, my sweet Atalanta."
The old man's eyes glistened as he spoke the woman's name. The bard quickly deduced that the reference was to his wife.
Cadmus' glance drifted off in the direction of Xena's departing figure. "My girl's still much too hard on herself, though, isn't she?"
Gabrielle looked up at the old man, startled by his insightful comment about her friend. Before she could respond to his mysterious and surprisingly accurate knowledge, Xena appeared from amidst the trees. She was carrying the frame of a travois, the long, wooden sides already bound and braced with sections between them.
"This should make your journey easier, Cad ... sir," the warrior stammered. "Gabrielle, we'll need some boughs from those fir trees over there."
The girl rose, took the small dagger the warrior handed her and disappeared into the surrounding forest.
Xena watched the girl's departure then turned back to the old man. His steady focus on her made the tall woman slightly uneasy. She found herself returning his attention with a nervous smile.
"You have your grandmother's eyes, you know," Cadmus said quietly. "Kind and gentle. The same soft, sweet, beautiful blue eyes."
For some inexplicable reason, the warrior's attention remained riveted on the aged gentleman's face. She found she couldn't pull her eyes away from his. She felt a light flutter wafting through her stomach when the old man's gaze remained locked onto hers.
The warrior swallowed against the trembling in her midsection and moistened her dry lips with her tongue.
"I ... I remember ... when she taught me to ... sew."
The quiet statement shook the tall woman's inner structure. 'Where in Tartarus had *that* come from?' her mind clamored. She turned a startled gaze to the ground, searching for some clue to the lapse in her usually taut reserve. When she looked up at the old man again, the radiant happiness on the furrowed countenance brought a tightness to her chest.
Xena tenderly touched the sleeve of the worn tunic, feeling the frail arm beneath it. After favoring the elder with another small grin, she moved to attach the travois to Argo's saddle and secure the device behind the mare who stood patiently, impassively accepting the additional weight.
By the time the travois was secured, Gabrielle had returned with the lush branches from the fir tree. Together the two women spread the green blanket across the ladder-structure of the device, creating a soft, fragrant mattress for the old man's comfort.
"Well, I guess I've come to that age, haven't I?" Cadmus said ruefully, gazing down at the bed of branches. His cheerful face turned up to meet the warrior's blue gaze. "But, that's one of the privileges of age, too." He laughed lightly. "May as well enjoy it."
He gathered his long robes around him and sat down in the middle of the branches, his wide grin still in place. When she was sure the man was comfortable, Gabrielle handed him his walking staff and the small bundle he'd been carrying on his shoulder.
Xena moved to the saddlebags and drew out one of their blankets. She swept it down over the old man's slender form and tucked the material tightly around him. The old man laughed softly and trained his blue eyes on the warrior's kind expression.
"Snug as a bug in a rug. Remember?"
The elderly figure smiled lovingly at the tall woman beside the litter, whose own blue gaze softened in return. A gentle laugh escaped from the warrior and the bard smiled in surprise.
Cadmus waved a weary hand toward the warrior and she bent down closer to him. He took her hand in his and gazed lovingly into the crystal blue glance. "Thank you, my sweet 'Taia. I knew you wouldn't let me down."
Xena studied the angelic expression for a long moment. Then she squeezed the bony fingers and reached to smooth the wispy, silver hair. Finally she spoke quietly to the man.
"Why is this trip so important to you?" she asked gently.
The soft blue gaze of the old man traveled over the warrior's face. He reached up to gently stroke her cheek.
"I'm finally going to join your darling grandmother. I will sleep next to my Atalanta again at last."
Slowly a single tear made it's way toward the silvery beard. The old man blinked it away, then turned back to the warrior's gaze.
"She's been waiting almost forty summers for me to return to her. When we were wed, I promised her we'd never be apart. Then the fever took her home to the gods ... and I had the children to concern me ... your father and his brothers were just babies then."
Xena's throat began to tighten.
"So I took them home to Ekhinos with me ... to my childhood home." The old man's gaze seemed trained on his own distant memories. "They're all grown men now, with their own families. All my beautiful grandchildren, like you, are there."
The old man turned slightly, his gaze meeting the warrior's eyes directly. "They don't ... *can't* understand why I must do this," he said, his blue eyes suddenly very serious. "It's time for me to go back to my Atalanta. I've missed her so ... and she has waited so long." His gentle smile warmed his elderly features again. "But I knew *you* would understand. You do, don't you?"
The tall, slender woman found herself responding to the elder's urgency. A warm smile crossed the chiseled face. The warrior's nod was barely perceptible.
The old man's eyes closed and he seemed to fall asleep, a happy, gentle smile playing across the withered face. His hold on the warrior's hand slowly released and his breathing became deep and regular.
The warrior blinked away her tears and reached to gently stroke the grizzled, bearded face. A deep feeling of affection grew within the woman's chest. She watched the peaceful form for a long, quiet moment.
"You rest now, Papa," she whispered. "We'll get you home. I promise."
Xena carefully pulled her hand from the old man's palm and slowly rose. When she turned to search for the bard, she found the girl directly behind her, tears flowing freely over the soft, young face.
The warrior put a finger to her lips and led the bard forward toward Argo's head. She encircled the young shoulders with a loving embrace and pulled the girl close for a conforting moment.
Quietly, Xena freed the horse's reins and gently urged the animal forward. Argo's step was sure and smooth as they returned to the road. The two friends walked side by side.
Both women were silent for a long moment. Finally, Gabrielle seemed to have regained a measure of composure and turned solemnly to the warrior. "He's going home to Lataera to die, isn't he?"
The warrior's glance momentarily met the bard's. The tall woman nodded, returned her attention to the road ahead of them, then turned once again to the bard's tear-streaked face.
"Lataera is more than a day's journey from here, Gabrielle. I don't think he has that long."
The bard turned to the figure sleeping on the travois. New tears traveled over the girl's sorrowful expression. "Maybe he's stronger than he looks."
"I hope so," the warrior said sadly. "We're not even halfway there."
The women walked in silence for most of a hour. Neither seemed willing to comment on the idea of failing to comply with the old man's heartfelt wish. Neither wanted to admit the possibility of Cadmus' age and condition taking their toll on the gentle elder.
By mid-afternoon, Xena became concerned when there had been no further sounds from the travois. She directed their progress toward the side of the road, then stopped Argo and walked back to check on their passenger. The warrior became even more alarmed when she noticed the pallor that had begun to color the old man's sleeping face.
She quickly pulled the water-skin from the packs on the horse's back, pulled the cork from the skin and knelt beside the quiet form on the stretcher.
"Papa?" she said gently. "Papa?" she said again, placing her hand on the old man's shoulder.
His eyes fluttered open and he looked around for a moment, then the tired gaze settled on the warrior's soft smile.
"Would you like some water?"
The old man's smile crept slowly across his lips. He tried to raise himself to accept the waterskin, but it was obvious his strength was waning quickly.
Xena reached behind the old man's shoulders and raised the fragile body. Gabrielle arrived next to the litter and knelt to help Cadmus guide the skin to his lips. He took a short swallow of the liquid, smiled at the bard, then managed another quick drink.
The girl retrieved the waterskin and sat back to replace the cork, then turned a comforting smile toward the weak gentleman.
The warrior lowered the elderly form back down onto the soft branches. Once again, she reached to gently stroke the wrinkled forehead. The old man's eyes flickered open again.
"How far?" he asked in a weary, tired tone.
Xena met the green eyes of the bard. The girl's chin was quivering, but her smile was strong and firm.
The old man settled back down onto the green mattress, contented. Then his eyes sought the warrior's again. She noticed he was trying to hand her the small bundle lying beside him and reached to pull it toward him.
"This is my wedding vest. I want to be wearing it when I meet my Atalanta again."
Xena smiled at the weary, aged traveler. She patted the delicate hand and nodded. "We'll make sure you're at your handsome best."
The old man smiled again and closed his eyes. He cradled the small bundle lovingly, the long, thin fingers stroking the parcel like a treasured artifact.
The two women stood and, after Xena replaced the waterskin on the animal's back, walked back toward Argo's head. The mare quietly whinnied and rubbed her face against Xena's chest. Absently, the warrior reached to stroke the horse's forehead. For a moment, she seemed lost in her own thoughts. Then she picked up the leather reins.
Gabrielle moved to walk beside her. Somehow she felt a comfort in the nearness of her friend. Xena laid a loving hand on the girl's shoulder. For a dozen strides, neither of them spoke. Finally Xena turned to the bard.
"You know, I never got a chance to say good-bye to Boupa ... my own grandfather."
Gabrielle watched her friend's stoic face.
"That's what Lyceus and I used to call him. He was a big, bear of a man, always happy, always willing to give us his attention."
The bard always felt quite special whenever the warrior shared a private memory with her. She waited for her friend to continue, but the woman had lapsed again into her own thoughts.
The girl waited patiently. She could see the private anguish clearly evident in her friend's expression. The little blonde's heart ached at the sight of her companion's pain, but she had come to know precisely when she could prod or tease and precisely when she could not. Finally the warrior began to speak again, her voice quiet and contrite.
"I've had this hair buckle since Boupa made it for my tenth birthday. I've never been without it. It's either been in Argo's saddlebags or in my hair ... always, even when I was ... even during those days of fighting."
The little bard studied the warrior's rippling jaw.
"The next year, he made me a little sword. It was small, you know, just the right size for my hand at that age."
She held her hands out in front of her, a short distance apart, to demonstrate the length of a short, diminutive weapon.
The girl's face lit in a tiny smile.
For a moment, the blue eyes were gentle as the woman enjoyed the happy memory, then the gaze turned remorseful, ashamed.
"When I got the message that Boupa was ill, I didn't even react. I read the words Mother had written, rolled up the parchment and tossed it into the fire." The warrior's voice wavered and she gulped against the pain tightening her throat. "By the time the message registered in my head, it was too late. He was gone. And I hadn't even bothered to take the time to tell him how much he'd meant to me."
The little blonde watched as tears coursed down her best friend's tortured face.
"I tried to find his crypt once, but Mother refused to tell me where it is. Maybe some day, she will. I'd at least like to visit it ... to tell him good-bye and how much ... I loved him."
Gabrielle quietly wiped away her own tears. The two women walked on, each deep in a personal reverie.
Finally Xena stopped Argo, a clear decision showing in her face. The tall woman turned purposefully to the girl and, casting a quick glance at the travois, lowered her head to speak quietly to the bard. The girl inclined her head to better hear the warrior's words.
"We'll be close to the Gulf of Astavia before too long. If we don't make it to Lataera, we'll give him an Amazon funeral on the waters of the Astavia. What do you think?"
The bard's eyes were gentle on the lovely face. She felt a great wave of affection for the honorable woman she called her best friend and a great sense of pride in the warrior's decency and kindness swelled in the girl's heart. The little blonde put a loving hand on the warrior's muscled arm.
"That's a beautiful idea. I'm proud of you for thinking of it."
The two friends exchanged a loving smile. Then the warrior urged the great horse forward again.
Soon the sun began its journey slowly toward the horizon in the sky above them. Throughout the afternoon, the women had taken turns dropping back to check on the sleeping form on the travois. Now, as Gabrielle held Argo's reins, they heard a sad, quiet voice float forward toward them.
The warrior turned immediately and started toward the travois, while the bard brought Argo to a halt. When the horse was secure, the bard hurried back to the litter. She stopped abruptly when she saw Xena cradling the old man tenderly in her arms. Gabrielle stood transfixed as the aged gentleman reached to take the warrior's trembling hand.
"I waited too long, 'Taia," the voice on the stretcher whispered. "I haven't got the strength I thought I had."
"Hold on, Papa," Xena said, her voice wavering. "We're almost there."
The grandfather ran gentle fingers along the weeping woman's face then she reached to recapture his hand in hers.
"It's all right, sweetheart. We tried. You did your best. It's all one can ever do. Remember that. Your grandmother will understand. And you must learn to do the same. You can't do better than your best. You must believe in the goodness in your heart."
Gabrielle brought her hands up to cover her sobs as she quietly knelt next to the warrior.
The old man blinked his eyes slowly, then labored to focus on the warrior again. "No tears for me, my sweet 'Taia. I've had a grand and glorious life. Now I'm going to join my love to spend eternity with her."
Sobs shook the warrior's frame. She brought the long, slender fingers to her lips.
"We'll see each other again," the weak voice said. "In Elysium." The old man pulled the warrior's chin toward his gaze. "I know it," he said clearly. "We will have magic times together again."
The tired blue eyes turned to the young woman kneeling next to the warrior.
"Farewell, little bard," he said to the tear-filled green eyes. "It gives me pleasure to know you two will take good care of each other. Be happy and well, my dear ones."
The clear, blue eyes slowly closed and the slim, frail hand relaxed.
The two women knelt wordlessly next to the travois. Xena reached to touch the wrinkled neck, hopefully feeling for signs of a pulse. When her fingers failed to find one, she sat back resigned, her hands shaking slightly.
She turned to the sobbing bard and wrapped an arm around the girl's quaking body. The two friends wept together for the gentle old man they had both come to cherish in the short time he had graced their lives.
Finally the warrior wiped her face, took a deep breath and turned to her companion. "We'll build a raft and set it afloat on the waters of the Gulf. Then his spirit will be free to travel the rest of the way." She took the bard's hand. "Okay?"
The girl nodded, her sobs lessening, her manner returning to normal.
As the slivers of dusk crept across the salmon sky, the two figures on the bank of the Gulf of Astavia watched the small raft traveling languidly across the shimmering water. The bright flames engulfing the platform were reflected in the reservoir's gently lapping waves.
A haunting, respectful melody floated from the tall, slender form standing next to the swells. As the last note of the song faded into the night, a single whisper was heard against the quiet noises of the sunset.
DAY TWO: THE SURPRISE
by PeriBear _______________________________________
"I hate morning," Gabrielle groaned as she started to build up the fire and yawned a yawn that didn't want to stop. Some mornings it just took her longer to wake up than others. And this was definitely one of those mornings. As she added another piece of wood to the infant flames, she looked longingly at her blanket, then shook her head.
'Stop it!' she thought. 'It's a beautiful morning: cool, crisp, another day of adventure lies ahead. Or maybe just another day of walking ... and walking ... and walking ... and trying to keep a conversation going so I don't go stark raving MAD from BOREDOM!'
She, again, looked wistfully at her blanket and the next thing she knew was on all fours making her way back to its warmth and the dream that had been interrupted when she'd awakened.
'Oh, no you don't,' she thought as she forced herself to a standstill then sat in the dirt where she'd stopped. 'If you don't have a good fire going and a spit ready and waiting when Xena gets back with whatever she's caught for breakfast ... well, she's been so mellow lately, you don't want to set her off, do you?'
'No, you're right,' the little bard thought back to herself.
She was such a verbal individual that, when no one was around to talk to, she simply carried on conversations with herself, usually oblivious to what she was doing and always unaware that many people, including her best friend, would think her a little strange for doing so.
'You can't push her so close to the edge like you did last week,' Gabrielle thought, continuing her internal conversation. 'When you go too far, she punishes you by refusing to talk at all and then where are you?'
'You're right. I know you're right, but sometimes I just can't help myself,' she thought, then started chuckling over how she'd teased and bedeviled the warrior a few days before. 'She said she was going to make you pay for that and she usually likes to wait until you've forgotten about what you did so she can take you completely by surprise. Something about revenge tasting best cold. You've got to stay on your toes. Now more than ever. She's probably going to strike today or maybe tomorrow. Now, come on! Wake up! Get your wits about you, girl!'
The little bard's stomach growled as she shook her head again and stretched languorously before rising and stepping back to the fire. She added another few pieces of wood to the flames, then turned and moved to pick up her blanket, which she folded, as a cool breeze arose to blow her hair back off her face.
A twig snapped behind her. In one fluid movement, she dropped the blanket, bent down, picked up her staff and whirled around, instantly assuming a defensive stance.
"Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!" the warrior said. "It's just me."
Straightening from the crouch she'd automatically assumed, Gabrielle dropped one end of her staff to the ground and took in her friend's appearance from her bare feet to the two large fish in her left hand to her thoroughly wet hair swept back off her face and dripping down her back.
"What?" Xena asked, looking down at herself then back at the bard.
"You took a bath?"
"I'm starving here and you took a bath?!"
"Yeah, well ... yeah."
Gabrielle sighed, dropped her staff and started around the campfire toward the warrior, her hand extended to receive the fish. At the same time, Xena tossed their breakfast to the ground and countered her friend's movements, always staying exactly opposite, the fire between them.
"What is with you today?" the blonde asked as she stooped to pick up the fish and turned into the breeze to look at the warrior.
"What are you talking about? Nothing is with me today."
Suddenly, a potent, musky, horrendous odor reached Gabrielle and she wrinkled her nose in disgust.
"Hoo-wee! What is that?!" she said and turned first one way, then another, sniffing the air, trying to locate the source of the highly objectionable odor assaulting her nose. Finally, her sniffing returned to the direction of her friend. "Oh, very funny. Ha! Ha!"
"What're you talking about?
"You said you'd get me and you've gotten me. Now go bury whatever it is that stinks so bad!"
"What do you mean you can't?"
"Just what I said. I'm not trying to get you; I was the one who was gotten."
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose. "Oh, geez! Well, do something!"
Xena sighed deeply and made a circular motion in the air with her finger, indicating they should return to their original positions, which placed her, once again, upwind of the bard.
As Gabrielle returned to where she'd been when the warrior had come back with breakfast, the disgusting smell dissipated considerably and her face relaxed.
"P-U, Xena, that was stinky."
The warrior rolled her eyes and, on seeing this, the little bard could contain herself no longer and burst out laughing.
"Oh, you're alot of help."
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle managed to get out between guffaws, "but I thought you would have enough sense to avoid a skunk!"
"Well, I didn't exactly go looking for him. When I suddenly realized he was right there at my feet, I was just as surprised as he was. He just had a different way of dealing with it than I did."
The little blonde had just begun to regain her composure, but this last set her off again, weakening her legs and she fell to the ground.
A look of barely controlled tolerance crossed Xena's face. "Are you going to help me figure out what to do about this or are you going to spend the day rolling around on the ground laughing?!"
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle gasped, wiping tears from her eyes, "but this is the most ridiculous thing that's ever happened to you!"
"You think I don't know that?! Now, come on, pull yourself together! We've got to figure out what to do!"
"You're right, first things first. Let's eat."
"And I stink to high Elysium!"
"Yeah, I noticed."
"You can't just eat at a time like this!"
"Oh, sure I can. You know me. I can eat anytime, anywhere, anything."
"Cut it out!"
"Okay, okay," the bard said, beginning to chortle, but clearly trying to get herself back under control. "Obviously, this is why you decided to take an early morning bath."
"Didn't help much, huh?"
"Well, what do you think?!"
Gabrielle almost lost it again, but a piercing look from the warrior warned that it might not be such a good idea to do so. As she finally regained her feet, she said, "Okay, where'd he get you?"
"Both of them?"
"Well, at least you weren't wearing your boots and he didn't get your leathers. We'd never be able to get it out of them."
"Oh, that makes me feel soooo much better."
"Come on, it could have been a whole lot worse."
"That's easy for you to say. You can stay upwind of me. I can't!"
The little bard could feel laughter bubbling up again and bit her lip as the warrior started around the campfire towards their saddlebags.
"Whoa!" the bard said, wrinkling her nose and pointing back at Xena's original position upwind of her. "Please! Have a little mercy."
"Well, toss my armor over here then," the warrior growled.
Gabrielle obliged and Xena donned the breastplate as the blonde set about preparing breakfast.
"Okay, let's see. I guess the first thing we need to do is make a little detour to Pharsalus."
"What for?" the warrior asked as she sat down on the ground and started to put on her boots.
"Hey! Don't do that!"
"Because that stench will permeate the leather inside them and we'll end up having to get you a new pair."
The bard stopped what she was doing and looked at her friend. "You've had no experience with this before, have you?"
"Of course, I ... there were plenty of ... my troops used to ...no."
Gabrielle started laughing again and Xena threw her boot down in the dirt.
The little bard looked at her, wiping tears away, trying to regain some sense of decorum.
"No, I mean it. Laugh. Get it out of your system."
"Okay," Gabrielle said and collapsed to the ground again, holding her stomach.
Xena took a deep breath and leaned back, waiting for this latest torrent of glee to subside.
"You're going to pay for this, you know."
"I know," the little blonde squealed.
The warrior rolled her eyes and waited for her friend's hysteria to wind down. Finally, she said, "Is that it? Have you got it out of your system now?"
"For the moment anyway," the bard said, still chuckling.
"Fine. At this point, I'll take what I can get. So, why do we have to go to Pharsalus?"
"Tomato juice," the little blonde gasped, beginning to give in to the laughter again.
"Tomato juice?! What do we need tomato juice for?"
"You're going to have to soak in it."
"Oh, that's disgusting!"
"I know," Gabrielle squeaked, laughing so hard she could barely breathe.
Suddenly, Xena saw a look of panic invade the bard's face and watched as her friend lurched to her feet and, with knees pressed together, scrambled into the bushes.
"I hope you don't make it!" the warrior called after her, grinning.
A few hours later, Xena was trudging barefoot down the road to Pharsalus. Suddenly, she stopped and grabbed her right foot, hopping around on the left.
"You okay?" the little bard called out from twenty paces behind, the breeze blowing her hair forward onto her face.
"No, I'm not okay! These rocks are killing me."
"Oh," Gabrielle said, valiantly trying to keep from smiling. "You want to try Argo again?"
"No. I don't need to be rejected by my best friend twice in one day."
"Hey! I thought I was your best friend."
"Not today you're not," the warrior said and started down the road again, limping just a bit.
"That's a terrible thing to say. Now you've hurt my feelings."
"Good!" Xena called over her shoulder, then gritted her teeth when the bard's laughter reached her ears.
As the road meandered through the woods in a rather serpentine fashion and the wind changed direction, the bard found herself in the unenviable position of once again being downwind of the warrior princess.
"We need to switch."
"Come on! The wind has changed direction."
"Will you please get upwind!"
The warrior stopped dead in her tracks, a disgusted look on her face. Then she turned and plodded back over ground she'd just covered.
As she neared, Gabrielle smiled and held her nose, which was bad enough, but then Argo whinnied and shied away, pulling on the reins in an attempt to put more distance between herself and her mistress.
Xena threw a withering glance at the mare and muttered, "Traitor!"
The bard's laughter died in her throat when she caught sight of a movement out of the corner of her eye. She looked back down the road just in time to see three men coming into view around the next bend. By their dress and behavior, it was obvious the trio were up to no good.
"I see them," the warrior said as she changed direction again and retraced her steps. She was pulling her sword from its scabbard when the bard laid a hand on her arm.
"You're not going to need that."
"Are you kidding?" the dark-haired woman growled. "Take a good look at them. They're not going to leave without a fight."
"Oh, I think they will."
"Oh, really. And how do you figure that."
The blonde turned to her tall friend, her eyes watering as a result of her close proximity to the extremely odoriferous warrior.
"Okay. You're going to think I'm teasing again," Gabrielle said, her eyes twinkling through the tears, "but I swear I'm not. All you have to do is get near those guys and they'll be out of here."
Xena clamped her jaws together and glared at the bard.
"I mean it. Would you stay around you right now, if you didn't have to?"
The warrior looked at her with hooded eyes, then slammed the sword back into its sheath. She took a deep breath, then coughed the noxious fumes out of her lungs, plastered a smile on her face, turned and strolled down the road towards the trio of thugs.
The bard watched as the men drew their weapons and advanced on her friend. Realizing the warrior was obviously not going to put up a fight, their leers grew and they began taunting the tall woman.
Suddenly, one of the men stopped in the middle of the road and began sniffing the air. The leer disappeared from the face of another as he wrinkled his nose and squinted his eyes. Finally, the third one halted, a similar expression on his face, and looked at the warrior as she continued to approach them.
The third man turned to his friends and spoke a few words, which Gabrielle couldn't quite hear. Then all three turned and started back-tracking as quickly as they could.
Xena quickened her pace and the bard heard her call out, "Wait up, guys!" As the warrior started jogging after them, the men began running. Just as they disappeared around the bend in the road, Xena pulled up to a stop and Gabrielle heard her shout, "Was it something I said?"
Xena heard chuckling from behind her and turned to see the bard laughing and applauding. The warrior hesitated a moment, then took a grand and majestic bow, her smile spreading when she heard her friend's applause grow louder and shouts of "Brava! Brava!"
Within an hour, they had cleared the woods and Pharsalus was in sight. They set up camp near a large pond, then Gabrielle led Argo into the village. She quickly located a shop and bought what she needed, then went to the inn.
Since it was the middle of the afternoon, there was only a handful of patrons present. The bard made her way to the bar, lifted the two containers to place them on the long, flat surface and said to the bartender, "Two buckets of tomato juice, please. To go."
The man just looked at her blankly, clearly not believing his ears.
"Excuse me. Sir?" Gabrielle said. "Could you fill 'er up? I'm in kind of a hurry."
The bartender blinked and came out of his daze. He then smiled and said, "Of course, miss. It'll just take a moment."
A few minutes later, he returned, lugging the now full and very heavy buckets. "Can I carry these to your ... to ... wherever you're taking them, miss?"
"Oh, yes, thank you very much," the bard said. "My horse is just outside."
Relief clearly evident on his face, the man followed Gabrielle outside and helped her secure the buckets on either side of Argo's saddle. After paying him, the bard led the mare out of town. The bartender watched, his brow furrowing, and scratched his head.
Meanwhile, back at the camp, Xena was sitting on the ground, leaning back against a boulder, her well muscled legs stretched out before her,.
'Let's see,' she thought, 'what'll it be this time? I could always ... no, she's probably expecting something like that. What about...? No, I did that last month.'
She thought for a moment, then, slowly, an evil grin began to invade her face, reaching even her eyes. "That's it!" she said out loud, then got up and paced, because she thought better on her feet, and started planning her revenge.
It was early evening by the time Gabrielle and Argo returned to camp. Xena had caught a few fish for dinner and was just about to remove them from the fire when she heard her friend's approach.
"What took you so long? I was beginning to get worried."
"Going into town was no problem, but coming back we had to take it really slow so we didn't spill any."
Xena crossed to remove the heavy buckets from the mare's back. When the horse shied away at her approach, she stopped and said, "Do you want to carry those things all night?" Argo looked at her for a moment, then dropped her head. "I didn't think so," the warrior said and proceeded to remove the buckets.
Gabrielle started across to finish removing their meal from the fire, but suddenly stopped and stood staring at the ground in front of her. "What's this?" she asked, pointing at a tidy layer of branches and leaves between her and the fire.
"Oh, very clever."
"What're you talking about?"
"What'd you do, dig a pit and then cover it over with this stuff so I wouldn't see it and would just walk right into your trap?"
"Don't be ridiculous. What in Zeus' name do I have to dig a pit with?"
The logic of this statement was clear, but Gabrielle still wasn't buying it.
"This stuff was not here when I left."
"Of course it was. Why would I cut a bunch of branches, gather up all those leaves and spread them out there?"
The bard turned to her friend, a look of extreme enjoyment at her own cleverness on her face and said, "We'll just see about that."
"Go ahead, be my guest."
Gabrielle approached the pile and, with her staff, swept a large number of branches and leaves away, revealing ... solid ground.
Xena shook her head and the rather deflated bard turned to remove their dinner from the fire.
The warrior hauled the two buckets over to the campfire and said, "Now what?"
"Oh, please, Xena, upwind! Upwind!" the bard pleaded and pointed at a large log across the campsite.
A scowl on her face, the warrior lifted the buckets and hauled them over to the log.
"Okay, what do I do now?"
"Sit on that log and put one foot in each bucket."
The warrior just looked at the bard, an expression of revulsion on her face.
"Well, you don't have to," Gabrielle said, trying very hard not to smile. "You could just let it wear off."
"How long would that take?"
"I don't know. I've never known anyone who wanted to wait."
Resignation finally washed over the dark-haired woman and she slumped down on the log. She eyed both buckets in front of her, then closed her eyes and submerged one foot in each.
"Eeeeewww!" she moaned and started to take her feet back out, but the bard raced across the campsite, placed a hand on each of her friend's knees and forced the warrior's feet to the bottom of the buckets.
"Oh, gods, this is disgusting," Xena groaned as the cold, thick, pulpy liquid squished between her toes and reached halfway up her shins.
"Now just leave them there," Gabrielle ordered and returned to the fire.
"For how long?"
The little bard looked back at the warrior and sucked her lips between her teeth, fighting a losing battle to keep from laughing. There sat the infamous warrior princess, hated by some, respected by others, feared by most, with her head in her hands, elbows on her knees and each foot submerged in a bucket of coldly thick, squishy tomato juice.
The blonde might have succeeded in swallowing back the laughter that would surely get her in trouble had she not glanced up at the fearsome warrior's face and seen the defeated, dejected, disgusted expression it bore.
As Gabrielle's peals of laughter echoed away from the campsite, Xena's eyes moved excruciatingly slowly to meet the bard's. "You're reeeeally going to pay for this."
"I know," the little blonde wheezed, "but you should see yourself."
As the bard coughed and tried to catch her breath, the warrior spoke, her voice low with implied warning. "How ... long?"
"Just until we're done eating, but --"
"Don't 'but' me!" Xena said, fire in her eyes.
"No, no," Gabrielle quickly said as she carried one of their cups to her friend. "I was just going to say we need to make sure the entire area gets treated."
With that, she dipped the cup into one of the buckets, then poured its cold, disgusting contents on her friend's knee and watched it dribble down her leg. When she looked up at the warrior's face, her eyes twinkling with amusement, she was stopped cold by the ominous look she saw there.
"Uh ... I guess you can do this, huh?" she said, handing over the cup and beating a hasty retreat so she wasn't within striking distance when she again burst out in wild guffaws.
When they were done eating, Gabrielle gathered their various cooking and eating utensils together. "I'll be right back," she said. "I'm just going over to the pond to wash these."
Xena stood, still with one foot in each bucket, and said, "I think I'll join you."
The syrupy sweet tone of the warrior's voice caused the bard to pause, mistrusting her friend's intentions. "No, that's okay," she said. "I'll just run down and wash these and run right back."
"Don't be silly," the warrior said. "I've got to wash this ... stuff off anyway. We might as well walk over there together."
The dark-haired woman slowly removed her right foot from its bucket, her face contorting at the feeling of the pulpy tomato juice dribbling down her leg, then removed her left foot. She gingerly crossed to her friend, everything she stepped on adhering to the goo on the bottom of her feet, and put an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. "Come on," she said, smiling, "let's get this over with, shall we?"
The little bard swallowed and, against her better judgment, allowed herself to be escorted to the pond. Before they got too close to it, however, she dropped several of their utensils and stopped to pick them up while the warrior continued on.
Xena waded into the water and a smile of pure enjoyment covered her face as she luxuriated in the rapidly diminishing presence of the tomato juice on her skin.
She looked back at the bard, who was still several dozen paces away from the edge of the pond, and said, "Hey, I thought you were going to do the dishes."
"I will," the little blonde said a bit too quickly. "I just ... uh ... wanted to ..." Her eyes searched around for something ... anything. "... I just ... wanted to take a look at ... this really unusual flower," she rapidly finished, then fell to her knees feigning rapt interest in a nonexistent bloom.
"Oh ... okay," the warrior said. An evil grin crept onto her lips and she added, in a voice too soft to carry past the water's edge, "I'm going to get you, little bard. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon. Be afraid. Be very, very afraid."
DAY THREE: THE FLOWERS
by PeriBear _______________________________________
"Is it bigger than a muffin basket?"
"Hmm." The warrior narrowed her eyes in thought. "Can you see it right now?"
"Yep," the bard said, looking off across the meadow through which they were passing, her eyes occasionally rising to watch a bird flying overhead. "In all fairness, though, I'm not. But I could see it right now, if I wanted to."
"So, it's out of sight."
"Nope, all I'd have to do is turn my head in the right direction."
Gabrielle snuck a peak under Argo's head at the woman walking on the other side of the mare and smiled. She had her this time!
"Did I ask if it was animal, vegetable or mineral?"
"And...what was your answer?"
The two continued on in silence for several minutes.
"Does it have a distinctive color? Or ... or ... is its color important?"
"Which do you want answered?"
"The second one."
"It's animal, you could see it right now, if you wanted to, and its color isn't important. Hmm."
They fell silent again. As Xena's mind sifted through the meager information she had received, the bard again looked out across the meadow, marveling at how the tall, thick grass swayed and undulated in the breeze. 'It's like wading across a green lake,' she thought and smiled. 'By the gods, it's a beautiful morning.'
A few more minutes passed, then the warrior said, "Okay, if you were to look at it right now, would you be looking at something up close or at a distance?"
She immediately fell back to mulling over the problem at hand, so it was several moments before she realized she hadn't gotten an answer to her last question. She bent over to look under Argo's chin and was surprised to find Gabrielle was not there.
"Oh, no you don't," she muttered and whirled around, expecting to catch the bard sneaking up on her from behind. Instead of coming face-to-face with her friend, however, she saw the bard had stopped several dozen paces back and was just looking at the ground.
"What're you doing?" she called, but got no response. "Gabrielle?!" Nothing. "Gabrielle?" she said again, but, this time, a degree of concern had crept into her voice.
She pulled Argo to a stop, dropped the reins and started toward her friend. "Gabrielle?...Are you okay?"
The little bard looked up, fear and confusion filling her eyes. Xena picked up her pace and quickly closed the distance between them. When she reached her destination, she laid a gentle hand on her friend's shoulder and immediately realized the little blonde was shaking so badly, her whole body was almost vibrating. The warrior reached out and took her friend's wrists, then bent to peer into frightened green eyes.
The little bard looked at the warrior, hiding nothing, all clearly written on her face, and said in a barely audible whisper, "I don't know."
"Okay, let's sit down for a minute," Xena said as she lowered her tall frame to the ground, crossing her legs in front of her, and gently pulled her friend down to sit opposite.
"What's going on?" Gabrielle asked as she looked down at her shaking hands. Tears filled her eyes.
The warrior reached out to take those trembling hands in her own, then placed a finger under the bard's chin and nudged it up so Gabrielle would look at her.
"I don't know," Xena said, "but we'll find out." A single tear slid down the bard's cheek and the warrior gently wiped it away. "We'll figure this out. If there's one thing I've learned in the years since you insinuated your way into my life..." She paused a moment, hoping this last would elicit at least a tiny smile from her friend. It did not. "...it's that there is nothing the two of us can't handle, if we work together."
Gabrielle finally smiled weakly, shakily and said, "Okay."
"Now, when did you start feeling this way?"
"Just ... just a little bit ago."
"Okay. What happened?"
"Nothing. I was walking along and suddenly felt this wave of fear and ... and my chest tightened and it was hard to breathe and ... I don't know how to describe it, but it just flooded over me."
The warrior nodded and thought a moment. "Did you ... did you see or hear or smell anything unusual just before ... before you began to feel this way?"
"No. Nothing," the little bard said, then began crying again. "Oh, Xena, I don't understand what's happening to me."
"Shh. It's okay," the warrior whispered and gathered the little bard in a comforting hug. "Just take it slow. We'll figure this out together."
Suddenly, Gabrielle stiffened in her arms and Xena sat back to look into the frightened eyes.
Gabrielle turned left, then right, scanning the ground around her. "There were some flowers. That's the last thing I remember seeing before I.... The next thing I knew, you were standing in front of me."
"Okay, can you describe them to me?"
The bard turned to look behind her. "They should be right around here somewhere."
"No," Xena said, turning the little blonde back to face her. "That's okay. Just tell me what you remember about them."
"Well ... nothing really ... they were just flowers."
"Do you know what kind they were?"
"Yeah, they were ... oh, what are they called? My mother used to grow them in her garden when I was a kid. Low-growing ... the flowers grow in a cluster on a stalk ... tiny flowers, very tiny ... sometimes red, sometimes pink, yellow, lavender, or white...."
The bard's eyes clicked up to lock with her friend's. "Yeah, primrose ... only...."
"The color ... something about the color...."
Gabrielle closed her eyes tightly, trying to remember.
"The color of the ones in your mother's garden or the ones you just saw?"
The bard opened her eyes and looked at her friend. "Both. Mother grew some unlike any I've ever seen. The color, I mean. I don't know if it was an accident or she planned it or what, but the primrose in her garden were blue. Not a pale blue or sky blue, but a deep blue. People would come out to visit - this was before we moved into town - and they always commented about mother's flower garden and especially her primrose." She turned and looked behind her. "The ones I just saw were that same deep blue."
The warrior reached out to brush the hair off the little blonde's face, taking the opportunity to feel her forehead.
"Well, you're not as flushed as you were and I think you've stopped shaking so badly."
"Yeah. My heart's stopped pounding, too."
Xena whistled for Argo, who came at a trot. She rose, pulled a waterskin from the saddlebag and offered it to her friend.
"Here. Have some water."
The little bard did as instructed, then stared at the ground as if in a daze.
"Think you can stand up?" the warrior asked and, when she got no response, laid a gentle hand on Gabrielle's head. The bard looked up at her. "Think you can stand?"
"Oh. Sure," the little blonde said as she accepted her friend's outstretched hand and allowed Xena to pull her to her feet. She wobbled a little and the warrior put an arm around her friend's shoulders to steady her.
"Yeah. Just a little dizzy there. I think I stood up too fast."
Xena kept her arm around her friend a moment longer, then took Argo's reins and the three started walking again, but, this time, the women were side by side.
Several minutes passed in silence, then the bard said, "What do you suppose caused that?"
"I don't know. Want to talk about it?"
"There's really nothing to talk about."
The warrior covertly watched her friend as several more minutes passed. The only sounds to be heard were the rustling of the meadow grass in the breeze and the occasional lark calling out, protesting its loneliness.
"Wait a minute," Gabrielle said, stopping suddenly in the middle of the road.
"I just remembered. Those blue primrose my mother grew ... she didn't always grow them. It was just one spring they bloomed blue."
"How old were you?" Xena asked, still carefully watching the bard.
"Let's see ... I must have been nine or ten, I guess."
The little blonde shook her head absently and the two resumed walking. Another few minutes passed, then the warrior noticed her friend's brow was furrowed in thought.
"What is it?"
"Oh ... nothing ... I was just thinking."
Gabrielle didn't answer. She just kept frowning and walking.
'I've never seen her so terrified,' the warrior thought as she studied the little blonde's distracted expression. 'Gabrielle doesn't back away from anything, not even something like Velasca. Something is very, very wrong here ... and, whatever it is, it's got her by the throat. By the gods, I wish I knew what it is.'
Xena turned again to her friend. "Is it smooth or rough?"
"What?" the bard asked, completely at a loss as to what her friend was talking about.
"The game. Smooth or rough?
"So, what's the answer?"
"Is it smooth or rough?"
"Well, a little of both, I guess. It's smoothly rough ... or roughly smooth."
"Oh, that's alot of help."
"Well, rough is not the right word. It's more uneven than rough. Convoluted! That's the word. It's smooth, but convoluted."
"That's clear as mud." The little bard smiled up at her friend.
"Let's see ... is it heavy?"
"That's a relative question, but, for our purposes, I'd have to say no."
"It's not heavy," Xena said quietly, then fell into deep thought, as did her companion.
Suddenly, Gabrielle said, "Ten." She turned surprised eyes to the warrior. "Ten years old. I was ten years old the spring of the blue primrose."
"How can you be sure?"
"Because that was the year I fell off the roof."
"You fell off the roof?!" The warrior's blue eyes were wide with surprise. "What were you, of all people, doing on the roof?"
The little bard didn't answer and the warrior could see a painful look sweep over the girl's pensive face. She seemed to recall something, but then shook her head briskly as if to dislodge an uncomfortable memory. The three continued on in silence for several minutes.
"Is it hard or soft?"
"Is it hard or soft?"
"Oh. It is definitely hard. Very hard. Extremely hard."
"So, what you're telling me is that it's hard. Is that correct?"
"Yes, I think you could safely say that. It is hard."
Another mile passed under their feet, both women lost in thought. Then, just as Xena was opening her mouth to ask another game question, the bard said, "I'm hungry."
The warrior looked up to see the sun was overhead and said, "Yeah, I guess it is time to eat a little something. And a rest wouldn't do any of us any harm."
Xena pulled Argo to a stop and removed the saddlebags, then followed Gabrielle a few paces away from the mare. They sat down in the tall grass and the warrior extracted a couple of apples, a chunk of cheese and some dried meat from the saddlebags, which she divided between them.
They both ate in silence and Xena continued to quietly watch her friend, who ate little and seemed lost in deep and troubling thoughts.
"What're you thinking?" the warrior finally asked.
"Oh ... nothing."
"Okay," the older woman said, pulling herself around to sit cross-legged, facing her friend. "That's enough of that. Talk to me."
"Talk to you?"
"That's what I said."
"You are actually asking me to talk? Who are you and what have you done with Xena?"
The warrior smiled, but held her ground. "Come on, what's been going on in your head for the last couple hours."
The bard lowered her eyes and, after a few moments, said, "I don't know ... I can't seem to stop thinking about my father."
"What about him?"
Gabrielle hesitated, then said, "Nothing, I guess."
After a long silence, hoping her friend would release some of the tension and pressure building up, Xena finally acknowledged to herself that it wasn't going to happen yet.
The two sat in silence, each immersed in her own thoughts and speculations.
"Well, I guess we'd better get going," the older woman finally said.
She rose to her feet and reached down to pull the bard up. Gabrielle picked up their saddlebags and they crossed the short distance to Argo. The bard replaced the bags across the mare's broad back and the warrior took hold of the reins. They walked in silence for several minutes, then the little bard said, "Do you give?"
"The game. Do you give?"
"Oh. Right. Wait a minute. Let's see, it's animal, bigger than a muffin basket, but not heavy, you could see it if you looked in the right direction, it's hard - "
"Right. Very hard."
"I get the point."
They continued on in silence for several minutes, then the warrior finally said, "Okay. I can't figure it out. What is it?"
"Yes, I give."
"I have once again beaten the warrior princess?"
"Yes, you've stumped me! Now what's the answer?!"
"Yes, I'm ready!!"
"The head of Xena, Warrior Princess."
The warrior was quiet for a moment, then said, "Oh, very funny."
Gabrielle laughed, thoroughly enjoying the victory and her little joke. As her giggles dwindled, Xena said, "You doing okay?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
As the two women made camp later that day, the warrior maintained a watchful study of her blonde companion. Gabrielle had slipped in and out of silent introspection throughout the afternoon. Xena felt a maddening frustration at her own inability to ease the little bard's obvious pain and her deep longing to help the girl was rankled by the bard's apparent decision to ignore the problem or, at least, submerge it's affect.
After dinner, when Argo had been unsaddled, cooled and rubbed down, the warrior picked up the waterskin and started toward the stream adjacent to the campsite.
"Be right back," she said. There was no response from the bard. Xena waited a moment, then shook her head in resignation, turned and left the camp, her thoughts filled with her friend.
'She can't go on like this,'the warrior thought. 'It's destroying her spirit. She's got to get it out and confront it, whatever it is.'
The tall woman stared down at the water racing past her boots and turned her thoughts back to the days when Gabrielle had first joined her. Initially, the young girl's constant chatter had nearly driven the warrior to distraction and her unbridled enjoyment and optimism had seemed almost artificial.
Soon, however, the young woman's decency and courage had softened the hardened spirit of the battle-scarred warrior. The girl's friendship and trust had reignited the woman's faith in her own worth as well as reinstating her sense of dignity and ethics.
The warrior's throat tightened with affection as she recalled the naive, guileless youngster Gabrielle had been at the onset of their trek together as compared to the confident, mature young woman she had become. Now Xena couldn't imagine going forward without the company and mutual devotion she shared with the young, blonde woman whom she treasured as her best friend.
This insidious crucible was eating away at the bard's spirit and sapping her strength. Before long, the warrior feared, it would consume her friend's essence completely.
Xena retrieved the waterskin and walked back toward camp. As she approached the clearing, her pace slowed and she saw the small, blonde woman cowering beside the smoking embers of the campfire, her arms wrapped around her knees, rocking back and forth.
The warrior felt rooted to the ground as she watched her friend. For a long moment, tears clouded her vision, then she forced down her own emotions and took a tighter grip on the waterskin as she again turned the problem over in her mind.
She knew Gabrielle had been, in effect, running away from this ... whatever it was ... for a long time. Now it was beginning to catch up with her. 'But, dammit,' she thought, 'there's nothing I can do to help until she admits there's something wrong.'
When Gabrielle became aware of her friend's return, she hurriedly wiped her face and tried to give the impression that all was well. The warrior was not fooled.
"Well, I'm beat," Xena said as she tossed the waterskin on the ground by the fire. "What about you? You about ready to call it a night?"
"Yeah, sounds good," the bard said, crawled over to her blanket and curled up in a tight ball.
The warrior watched her for a moment, then crossed to her own blanket and laid down.
An hour later, Xena was still wide awake, her mind racing, trying to figure out what was happening to her friend, what the memory might be she was trying so hard not to remember, what she, the warrior, might be able to do to alleviate Gabrielle's pain.
Then, slowly, she became aware of a whimpering coming from the other side of the campfire. The bard was dreaming and, from the sound of it, it wasn't a pleasant experience.
The warrior rose, made her way to her friend's side, knelt down and placed a gentle hand on the bard's arm. "Gabrielle," she said softly. "Gabrielle, wake up."
Xena's voice echoed down a long tunnel to the little bard as she floated in a place between wakefulness and true sleep, between denial and acceptance.
"No," the little bard moaned.
"Don't be afraid," the dark-haired woman whispered. "You're safe, you're just dreaming."
"Why?" the bard said. "Why don't you love me, too?"
"Who?" Xena whispered. "Who doesn't love you?"
"My daddy," the little blonde whimpered.
"It's only a dream. You can leave there, if you want."
"Oh gods, oh gods, oh gods...."
The warrior reached out and wrapped the bard's hand in her own. "I'm here, Gabrielle. Can you hear me? I'm here. I'm with you."
"I didn't mean to ... I was just trying to...."
Tears began to slip between blonde lashes and Xena moved a shaking hand to gently wipe them away. "What didn't you mean to do?"
"I just wanted to fix it so he would ... so he...."
"So he would what, Gabrielle? What did you want your daddy to do?" the warrior whispered.
"Love me," the little bard whimpered and fresh tears flowed down her troubled face.
Swallowing back her anger at the parent who, above all others, should have loved and cherished this remarkable young woman, Xena pulled the sleeping bard up into her arms and felt the little blonde grip her tightly.
"That's it. Good," the warrior said softly. "Hold tight. I'm right here with you. You aren't alone anymore."
Gabrielle held on and was somehow led away from the painful memories, the frightening vision. By the power of the warrior's voice, she drifted up from the deep place, through the darkness until she bolted awake, gasping for air, tears flowing down her face and pulled back to see not the hated sights of her dreamworld, but the loving, caring, empathetic face of her friend dimly lit by the waning campfire.
She threw herself back into her friend's arms and, for several minutes, Xena let the sobbing run its course. When the warrior was sure the girl had calmed down enough, she released her, rose, crossed to the waterskin and brought it back to her friend, then sat back down beside her. The bard wearily wiped the tears from her face.
"Why couldn't he see that all I wanted was for him to love me as me, just the way I am? Why couldn't he see that?"
The warrior took a trembling hand into her own and waited.
"Lila was always his favorite," the little blonde finally said. "I don't know why ... they just seemed to have a special bond. I was so jealous of that. I didn't have a bond with anyone ... except maybe Lila. I never could quite fit in ... not at home and not in the village. I thought something was terribly wrong with me when I was a kid. Why else wouldn't my father love me?"
Gabrielle glanced up at her friend, the pain of those memories still clearly etched on her face. "Of course, as an adult, I know he really did love me ... but not as much as Lila. That's real hard for a ten-year-old to deal with, you know?"
Xena nodded her encouragement and squeezed the bard's hand.
"I tried everything I could think of to impress him, to get a smile from him or just to get him to notice me. I kept his saddle and tack cleaned and oiled ... that's why I'm so good at helping you keep your saddle and leathers and boots clean. I've had alot of practice.
"When he'd come home, I was always the first one to spot him and run out to meet him. He'd just pat me on the head, then reach down and lift Lila onto his shoulders and stride into the house with her, leaving me outside ... alone.
"That's why I decided to patch the roof myself ... to surprise him. He'd been saying he just had to find time to repair it before the rainy season, so I figured I'd do it for him and he'd be so pleased he'd lift me onto his shoulders.
"I got up real early one morning and snuck out of the house. I didn't want anyone to find out what I was doing. I wanted it to be a big surprise. It took forever to get the ladder up. I just didn't have the leverage. You think I'm short now, you should have seen me back then."
The warrior smiled.
"Anyway, I finally got the ladder against the house and climbed up to the roof. I probably would've been okay, if I'd stayed away from the edge, but I was ten years old. What'd I know?
"I wasn't up there more than fifteen minutes before I lost my balance and slid off. I managed to catch hold of the edge of the roof and hung there for what seemed like an eternity, kicking at the wall, trying to get a foothold so I could crawl back up. I must have made a lot of noise, because the whole family woke up and came outside to see what the racket was about.
"My father had just come around the corner of the house when I lost my grip and fell into mother's garden. I guess I must have been knocked unconscious for a couple of seconds, because the next thing I remember, he was standing over me, yelling about how stupid I was and that I couldn't do anything right and why couldn't I be more like Lila."
By now, the tears were again flowing freely down the bard's cheeks and Xena pulled her into a tight embrace.
"When I opened my eyes, all I could see was mother's blue primrose no more than three inches from my face."
The warrior continued to hold her friend for a few more minutes, finally understanding the sadness, frustration and pain the bard had lived with so long ago and had been trying to forget ever since.
"Why did he have to be that way? Why couldn't he see how much I wanted his love and approval?"
Xena waited for the bard's hurt and anger to run their course, then leaned back, looked deep into the tear-filled eyes and quietly said, "Now do you understand what happened this morning?"
The little bard shook her head, frowning.
"You were suddenly flung back to that moment when you were humiliated by your father just because you weren't exactly like your sister, because you were different, because you were living your life on your own terms and nobody else's ... even as a child."
Fresh tears filled Gabrielle's eyes and Xena pulled the bard into her arms tightly and held her while she cried.
"Well, I think you should know that the things that irritated your father are the things I love most about you."
The little blonde pulled back and looked at the warrior, who nodded.
"That's right. Your independence, your serene conviction that you are always right, your downright eagerness to always take the bull by the horns, your stubborn determination to face any difficulty and beat it. You said you never had a special bond with anyone when you were little. Well, I hope you realize you do now."
This time, it was the little bard who sought her friend's arms and the warrior pulled her in and again held her tight.
"I'll tell you something else, too. I think that's the moment your fear of heights was born."
Xena released her friend and Gabrielle looked at the warrior, her eyes growing wide with dawning understanding. "Kind of makes sense, doesn't it?"
The bard nodded. Her breath still came in quiet gasps, but her face and demeanor were returning to normal.
"And seeing those flowers brought all that back?"
The warrior's raised eyebrows signaled her deductions. "I think so."
Xena watched as the young woman's manner continued to return to her normal, calm sincerity. The bard took several deep breaths, reached again for the waterskin and took a long drink.
"Think you can get some real sleep now?" Gabrielle nodded as she swallowed the water. "I think maybe you can, too."
Xena patted her friend's leg, then started to rise, but was stopped by the blonde's hand on her arm and turned back to look questioningly into earnest, green eyes.
"Thanks," the little bard said softly.
"For being my friend."
The warrior looked at her for a moment, then smiled and said, "My pleasure."