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Chapters 7 - 9
Xena knew exactly where she was going as she climbed out of the chilly waters of the Pres. Argo had waited through the night, and now whinnied softly in appreciation at Xena's touch on her soft muzzle. No point in waiting to dry out, she decided as she swung into the saddle, a few miles on Argo would take care of that. She headed toward the main road back to the river crossing. With any luck she wouldn't need to stop until she was out of Prestia. She rode hard, fueled by an intensity of emotion she didn't stop to identify. Argo enjoyed the stretch after the inactivity, and Xena found that her mind worked at a different level when the rest of the world was blurred by speed and the rhythmic motion of the smooth-gaited mare. She was gripping the reins tightly, and her body leaned into the horse to feel the jarring impact of hooves and road. She had gone to Prestia hoping to solve the riddle of her parentage. That had been ridiculously easy. But it now seemed pointless. She had merely traded one absentee father for another. "What did you expect?" she reproached herself angrily. "You didn't matter to either man, why go to all this trouble to confirm that? You've gotten along without a father for most of your life. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Grow up." She gave herself to the rushing road, and the increasing warmth of the sun.
The sun was nearly at its apex when Xena's eye caught a glint of gold on the road far ahead. There was a lone figure coming toward her. Something about it was familiar. A sudden hope leaped to life, but she pushed it aside. She wasn't used to her fondest wishes being instantaneously realized. Only Gabrielle did that for her, if it was in her power. That thought caused her to rein Argo in. Gabrielle? She stood in her stirrups and looked hard at the figure, eyes shielded from the sun with her hand. Suddenly she smiled, and spurred Argo forward.
Gabrielle had no doubt who was approaching, even from a distance. Xena made a striking, even dashing figure on horseback, and now her dark hair and tall form brought a smile to Gabrielle's sun-kissed face. The attack in Amphipolis had driven away any resentment Gabrielle had felt about being left behind. For the first time in days she felt her body relax, relieved at last to know that Xena was safe. Because she was relaxed the emotions she had held in check for so long now burst through her defenses. Her greeting of Xena was not what either expected.
"Good to see you Xena," the bard began, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "Find a little time to fit me into your schedule? Or - let me guess? You hit a dead end in Prestia, and you're off to Corinth? Sparta? Egypt? to check out some other father-candidates? Well don't mind me. I'll just head back to Amphipolis, wait with Cyrene, make sure no one else tries to kill her." She turned around and took several purposeful strides the way she had come, expecting Xena to call out, or grab her arm. Neither happened. Why did I do that she asked herself? I wanted to hug her, know that she was really here, instead-- She turned back, contrite, her face soft, smiling uncertainly. Xena stood as she had left her, Argo's reins in her left hand, right hand at her side, lips parted, as if waiting for words that wouldn't come. Her eyes were steadily on her friend. To Gabrielle's surprise and horror, they were brimming with tears. "Xena, I didn't mean--" she began.
Xena looked away and blinked, hard, fast. "Someone tried to kill my mother?" she asked, in control, but her voice husky. "What happened?"
"She's all right, a bump on the head. Your Uncle Stas is staying with her. The village really came together to look out for her."
Xena nodded shortly. "They're good people. What happened?" she repeated. Her eyes were hard now, probing Gabrielle as she spoke, to determine if she was telling everything. She was interested to hear about the struggle in the kitchen. Gabrielle thought she detected a hint of amused pride on Xena's face when she described her fainting ploy, but Xena said nothing until Gabrielle was finished. Then she said "You said there were two men. What happened to the first?" "I knocked him out. With a baker's peel." Xena waited for more, but there was no elaboration.
"Why did you come looking for me in Prestia?" was her second question. "The dead man," she shuddered," had a tattoo. I suppose it was to be burned with him, with us, in the fire. Your mother recognized it. It had elements of the crest she had seen on the stranger that night. She didn't know what it represented, but your village brewer..."
"Hecus," Xena supplied.
"Yeah. He knew it, said it was from Prestia. The royal crest. He guessed the man was from the king's household. With what the other said about you not living long enough to ... You know. I guessed you'd be here, so here I am!" She smile broadly, and threw her hands up in an expansive gesture, hoping to lighten the mood.
Xena squinted at the sun and looked closely at Argo, rubbing the mare's broad nose. "I think you'd like a little rest. So would I." She started walking towards a path which led off the main road, into a forest. "It seems as if all these paths lead to a small lake or to the river. Nice spot to take a break." She had spoken to Gabrielle without looking at her, and didn't wait now for the bard to catch up.
The path did, indeed, lead to a small lake. Gabrielle emerged from the woods minutes after Xena, to find her splashing pristine lake waters in her face.
"Nice day for a swim," Gabrielle suggested. Xena nodded. "Go ahead. I've had one already."
"Bet the fishing's good," she tried again.
"It's been good every place else here," Xena agreed. "Try your luck."
"You're probably tired of fish."
"It's kept me from being hungry, and it's free. Are you hungry? I have some fruit. Or would you like bread? Or cheese?" All this was said while Xena rummaged through her saddle bags, without so much as glancing at Gabrielle.
"What I'd *like* is for you to look at me. Please," she entreated. Xena turned around, a bulky cloth in her hands.
"I don't want the bloody food," Gabrielle yelled, knocking the parcel out of her hands. Xena was immediately on her knees, unwrapping the folds of cloth. The scent of roses filled Gabrielle's nostrils. Xena picked through shards of pottery, stopping to rub a spot of oil on her wrist, while a widening circle of the fluid spread on the multi-colored cloth which had wrapped it. Gabrielle caught her breath and sank to her knees.
"Xena? You were giving me a gift?"
"Not the oil, that was for mother. She's always liked roses. Whenever I smell roses it takes me back to my childhood. This was for you." She gathered the oil-dripping cloth and handed it to Gabrielle. "Thought it would match your eyes."
Gabrielle hugged the cloth close to her, without seeing it. Her eyes were fixed on Xena's face, where tears flowed freely as she wrapped the last of the broken pottery in a cloth, stood, and hurled it into the center of the lake.
"Xena, you must hate me." Gabrielle stood beside her, and reached a hand to wipe the tears away.
"I could never hate you, Gabrielle. I've told you that. More than once," Xena said, exasperation tingeing her voice. "You always tell me I'm the one who doesn't listen, I'm the one who doesn't talk. Well, this time you were right. I should have told you what was in the package. Only I thought you'd have more fun opening it yourself. My fault."
"I made you cry."
At that, Xena moved Gabrielle's hand away from her face. "Time of month." she said. "And what makes you think I have nothing to cry about but you? All right, I wanted to give you a present. It didn't work out." She shrugged, "Atlas won't drop the world over it."
Gabrielle stroked the cloth, then held it next to her face. "It's beautiful Xena, and look, it does match my eyes. You must have gone to a lot of trouble. I know how much you hate shopping, " she smiled, and took Xena's hand.
Xena looked at Gabrielle's face, framed by the soft fabric. "It was no trouble," she sniffed, and wiped her eyes with one hand. "I missed you, Gabrielle. I wanted you with me. I felt closer to you in the bazaars, sorting through the fabric. I guess that's because you love to shop," she offered Gabrielle a crooked smile.
"I missed you too, Xena. I was so happy, and relieved to see you... and then every word out of my mouth was calculated to hurt you, for leaving me behind," she confessed.
"It hurts to be left behind," Xena agreed. The two stood silently, fingers loosely entwined, for several minutes.
"Gab? You still want that swim?"
Two hours later they sat on a grassy knoll above the lake, sharing a simple lunch, augmented by freshly gathered berries. Xena wore her chemise, allowing her leather, finally, to get a thorough drying. For two hours nothing had been said of Amphipolis, Atrius, or Cyrene. The water had been cold, encouraging strenuous movement. Xena had insisted on teaching Gabrielle a new stroke, and Gabrielle had allowed herself to be bullied into it. Xena was still giving her positive feedback.
"You just need to practice to get the movements coordinated. Your legs are a lot stronger than they used to be. You've got a powerful kick."
"My legs should be stronger. I've walked over most of the known world. Twice," she smiled ruefully.
"Don't complain; it's good training for a wandering bard." Xena was smiling now and the tension in her eyes was gone.
"Maybe you could take students from the Academy on their summer breaks. A few weeks with you--"
"I'd rather fight a snake-haired gorgon monster. I'm fussy about my traveling companions," she declared. She stretched her long limbs and took in the horizon. "That was a good break."
"This place is incredibly beautiful. Prestia is like another world. The flowers are different, the grass smells sweeter; why is that?"
Xena shrugged. "The altitude, I suppose."
"That can't be why the people are more friendly," Gabrielle observed.
"More friendly than who? Anyone who's known war, and famine and trying to survive after an army has burned their homes? Prestia is surrounded by mountains, and protected by a river that's better than a moat. That's why the people can afford to be friendly. If Cirra had the same protection---"
"Stop it." Gabrielle's voice broke in. She spoke softly, yet her voice had a quiet insistence, as if she was repeating a an often expressed belief. "Cirra is long past. I know you would give anything to change it." She fell silent, thinking about Callisto, the monster that had been born in the flames of Cirra, dedicated to destroying Xena and all she loved, including, maybe especially, Gabrielle. Perdicus had fallen to that hatred. Gabrielle admitted to herself that she was sometimes, unfairly she supposed, angry with Xena for the vortex of trouble and discord that swirled around her. To be close to her was to be caught in that same vortex. She knew that Xena was keenly aware of that danger, was certain it was plaguing her now, causing a furrow to form over her eyes. She tossed a berry at her face, catching her on the chin, bringing her back to the present moment. Xena looked at her with wonder, still not certain why the young girl chose to be her companion and friend. How can I say it? she asked herself. How can I tell her that I had the power to change it all and chose not to change a thing. Chose you instead, Gabrielle. Just as you are. Instead, she said: "That's why the people are friendly. They have nothing to fear."
"The people I've spoken with here really like their king, too. That's likely to make them happy."
"Yeah." Gabrielle looked up, puzzled at the edge in Xena's voice. "There's a few hours of daylight left. If we leave now we may still be out of Prestia by sundown."
"What's the rush Xena? We may never come by this way again. I'd like to at least see the castle, the ferryman's wife told me--."
"Gabrielle. It's a castle. You've seen them before," Xena pointed out.
"But not one with a legendary romance attached to it! I heard the story of the courtship of King Cletus' courtship of his queen. With a little embellishment, I think I can use it. If I could see the sun glinting off the castle walls---"
"I didn't notice any 'glistening'."
"You wouldn't," Gabrielle snorted. "But I'll bet you could tell me the best way to mount an attack of the castle, or how to sneak in unobserved."
a'That's right. I could tell you all that, and more. We look for different things as we go through the world Gabrielle. Sometimes I can't believe we're looking at the same landscape," she said, shaking her head.
"I know what you mean. Maybe it's because we've had different goals?"
"Or because we've learned to expect different things." The tension was back in her eyes. She took Gabrielle by the shoulders and looked at her directly, imploringly. "Gabrielle. I don't want to go back to see the castle. I won't go back. If you insist on going, I can't stop you, but I'd rather you were with me."
"Xena, is this because of what happened in Amphipolis?" Xena stared at her blankly. "The men who attacked your mother, Xena. I told you they wore the crest of Prestia. That's why I'm here, remember? I thought you'd be anxious to find out who did it. But if you're afraid I'll be in danger--"
Xena put her hands to her face and rubbed her eyes, hard, then nodded. "I wasn't thinking of that, Gab, and I should be. I should find whoever did it," she said, half to herself. "You'd recognize him if you saw him?"
"Anywhere. I'd know him by sight, by smell, by the sound of his smooth voice." Gabrielle's own voice was tight with anger. "Some circumstances just burn details into your memory."
"I know," the warrior nodded knowingly. "So I guess we go see your castle."
Gabrielle delighted in Prestia more with each passing step. "I think I could be very happy here, Xena, if I ever settled down. The flowers, the music. I think it would enhance my bardly skills."
Xena frowned. "Bardly, huh? Is that a real word or did you make it up?"
"New words have to start some place. It fits, like I would fit in here," she said with a happy nod. They were passing another tidy farm, where red-cheeked, jolly children stopped their game to wave at the travelers. "This is good," she said waving back enthusiastically. "Not dark enough for you, huh?" she joked.
Xena's mouth twisted in a angry scowl. "There's plenty of darkness here, Gabrielle. You just can't see it. Everything's so neat and pretty, no need to look closer. So much order makes me uncomfortable."
"That's just your warrior background talking, Xena. You lived outside the law for so long, thriving on chaos and disorder, any place that's so peaceful must make you edgy."
Xena looked at Gabrielle sideways for a moment. Was she serious? Didn't she know that no one in the world longed for peace more? She was on the verge of speaking, but Gabrielle went on. "Have you noticed, Xena? Except for the guards at the border I haven't seen anyone with weapons but us. And I only have a staff. You're the only one with---"
"With what?" Xena exploded softly. "Deadly weapons? Sharp edges? Yeah, I've got them. But you're forgetting one thing: the men who tried to kill you and my mother came from this 'peaceful' little place, and brought their sharp edges with them. Remember?"
Gabrielle did remember, and remembered something else, something she had not mentioned to Xena: she may have killed.
A long silence followed. Gabrielle worked on thinking of anything but the dead man in Cyrene's kitchen. Xena seemed to have settled into a semi-permanent bad mood. Whatever effect Prestia had on Gabrielle, it seemed to have the opposite effect on Xena. Of course, Xena hadn't yet spoken of what had happened in Prestia on her first visit. Gabrielle had been waiting for her to raise the topic, but sometimes with Xena waiting could take forever. "Xena? You never said anything about, well, why you came here. Did you find any answers?"
Xena looked straight ahead. She might not have heard but her eyes narrowed and her mouth tightened. "Yeah," she said, opening her mouth a little. "I found my father."
"You mean you learned his name, or---"
"I found him. Or rather, he found me. Seems he's followed my life rather closely." Xena didn't try to keep the bitterness out of her voice.
Wow, Gabrielle thought, that goes a long way toward explaining her mood.
"Did you meet him."
"Yeah. We talked."
"And? What is he like?" Gabrielle's attempt to sound casual was a miserable failure.
"He's like any man who fathers a child and walks away." Xena's face was taut with anger. The fist around Argo's reins was white-knuckled. "And I'm not forgetting what I did to Solon," she murmured, voice barely audible. "As for my 'father', I was happy to be done with him, thought I'd never need to see him again."
"Well, Xena, you know where he is. We can avoid him," Gabrielle offered, uncertain of how to approach this pain and anger in her friend.
"He's the one person in Prestia we have to see, Gabrielle. He might be the one with the answers."
Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's arm and pulled her to a halt. "Xena. exactly who is your father?"
"His name is Cletus," she sneered. "He lives in that 'glistening castle' you want to see so much." She pulled her arm away and strode on.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's voice held a hint of anxiety. "Are you sure we can afford this?" She stood in the doorway of the spacious room and gestured "Look. We even have a fireplace!" Xena looked up from her seat on the edge of the big double bed and continued to unlace her boots. "We passed a lot of other inns on the way here that didn't look nearly as expensive," Gabrielle pointed out.
"Gabrielle, I don't suppose I'll ever be wealthy, in material things, but I do know that we can afford to pass a night in a comfortable inn, on occasion. And this seems to be an occasion. You deserve this." A random memory of a treasure she had stashed away years ago surprised her with its sudden appearance. Where had that come from? She lifted her bare feet onto the bed and stretched out, more relaxed than she had been in days. "So make up your mind that whatever else the world has waiting for us out there, tonight the bed will be soft, the bath will be hot and I will try to make up for everything. Besides, it's off season. We probably won't even need it," she finished.
Gabrielle stared at the non sequitor. "What?"
"The fireplace. The evenings haven't been cold."
Gabrielle left her post by the door, anxiety allayed, and stood at the foot of the bed, watching Xena, who had closed her eyes. "What did you mean, Xena? Why do I 'deserve' this?"
Xena opened her eyes, and looked directly at the bard. "For putting up with my rotten moods. I've been a bitch since that day in Cythera. You shouldn't have put up with that."
"No? Well, I'll take any advice. What should I have done? Walked away? Hit you with my staff? How do I handle your occasional rotten moods? Your mother never did figure it out either."
"My mother? You discussed my moods with my mother?" Indignation rose in Xena's voice.
Gabrielle smiled smugly. "Yup, Warrior Princess, that's the price you pay for leaving me alone with Cyrene all that time. We had a lot of chat time. And since we basically have only one thing in common, you became the chief topic of conversation after about---oh, three minutes." She sat on the end of the bed and watched the color drain from Xena's face. "Moods were a big part of the conversation."
"I've always been moody?" Xena asked with genuine interest.
"That's how your mother remembers it. You were good: respectful, obedient, to a point, and normally you had a 'disposition like undiluted sunshine'. Your mother's words." Xena smiled.
"But other times, your anger or hurt or sadness, whatever it was, would be overwhelming, and Cyrene felt you were just out of her reach." Xena's eyes closed again. "I feel that way, sometimes, Xena, as if you erect a wall so high I can't ever breach it."
"I---I don't mean that Gabrielle..." her voice faltered.
"It's all right," Gabrielle assured her. "You're a lot more open than you were; even your mother's noticed that."
"Really? I was always a trial for her. She was too easy on me, I think. Let me get away with mur---" she stopped abruptly. "More than the boys."
"She didn't like to discipline you." Gabrielle hadn't expected for the conversation to go this way, but here they were. She weighed her words quickly and forged ahead. "She couldn't bring herself to be hard on you after what Atrius did." She sat very still, waiting for a reaction from Xena. None was forthcoming. She touched Xena's arm. The muscles were like bands of iron. "Xena?" she called softly. "Don't shut me out. Not now." She picked up her hand, now closed in a tight fist and slowly coaxed each finger free, until she could fit her own small hand inside. The fist closed again in a vise-like grip.
"There, that's better," she grimaced. "At least we're touching." she smiled. The warrior's eyes were still shut, but Gabrielle's smile was in her voice as well as her face. Have to get through somehow, she reasoned. "You know Xena, what you said about being a bitch just now, it wasn't true. I was the bitch. From the minute your mother told me I knew why meeting Atrius was so upsetting to you. Still, I ---"
"No." The guttural word was accompanied by a sharp head shake. She eased the pressure on Gabrielle's hand and closed her fist again more gently. "Never you," she managed, before lapsing into silence once more. Long minutes passed in silence. Some struggle was going on in Xena, Gabrielle knew. Her jaw muscles clenched and unclenched, she swallowed hard. Some very hard words were being born.
"She knew?" she asked at last. "How long did she know?" Xena spat the words out and waited for the final betrayal. Gabrielle sat stunned. 'How long?' Another surprise. This wasn't a one-timer. And Xena seemed to believe that Cyrene...she had to fix this quick. "Xena? How long did it go on?" the bard asked softly.
"It went on forever," she said in a voice Gabrielle hardly recognized. A steady stream of tears had started down her face. "I can't remember when it didn't happen." She shook her head immediately. "No, that can't be right. Kids think everything bad goes on forever." She drew the back of a hand across her face in a vain effort to stop the tears. "And then it stopped. It stopped because he left." The last words came out in gasps. Her mouth hung open and she dragged in long shuddering breaths.
"I know." Gabrielle watched Xena carefully. She had to understand Cyrene's role in this. "Xena, your mother found out the last night it happened. She found him with you and sent him away." It seemed to take a long minute for the words to be understood. Then Xena repeated hoarsely, "She sent him away?" Her eyes bore into Gabrielle, wanting to believe her. The bard nodded.
"She never would have let him hurt you," she spoke slowly, holding Xena's eyes with her own, making certain they were understood. "He's lucky she didn't kill him. Or tell your uncles." She rolled her eyes knowingly, and Xena's face relaxed into a half smile. It was a start. Gabrielle took her first normal breath in minutes. "Xena? You believe your mother would have stopped it if she had known?" The dark head moved in assent, then Xena spoke haltingly. "He--said if m-mother knew... she'd make me go away; yet, I thought she knew everything. I couldn't figure it out." She looked down quickly. Her free hand kneaded a fistful of down quilt.
"That must have been scary," Gabrielle commented simply, one part of her mind trying to imagine how she would have felt as a young child in that position; it wouldn't come to her.
Xena nodded. She picked her head up again and looked at Gabrielle. Her features were puffy, red and wet with tears. She needed a handkerchief, badly, but Gabrielle couldn't move to get one: her hand was still locked in Xena's firm grasp, and Xena's need to talk was greater. "Lyceus knew. And Toris." Xena said. She moistened her dry lips and looked far away. "Atrius was never quiet. I think sometimes, I--I made noise. He hurt me," she explained. "Toris heard and cried into his pillow. Lyceus woke one night and began to beat on Atrius." For a moment her face beamed with pride. "He was so small, only a baby. He didn't know what was happening, just that I was being hurt. Atrius turned and caught him. He whispered something to Lyceus; it made him cry. Then he put him back in his bed. After that Lyceus stayed out of his way. He had been so brave, even then. My champion. I think that's why we were so close. We had our secret. And we knew we had to look out for each other." A dangerous look crossed her face. Gabrielle guessed what she might be thinking. "Xena, you did look out for Lyceus. His death was not your fault." Xena shrugged noncommittally. "Maybe."
Gabrielle felt a change of direction was called for. "Lyceus sounds brave and noble. I think I would have liked him."
Xena looked at her dully. In another lifetime you did, Gab. "Lyceus was brave and noble," she repeated. "When we were old enough to play with swords Atrius was always the monster we slew. We never used his name, never spoke his name, but we both knew who we killed every day." She fell silent, remembering.
"Xena, is this the first time you've talked about it?"
"Oh, yeah," she nodded, as if stating the very obvious. She was more relaxed now; one hand still clung to Gabrielle.
"Are you sorry I know?"
"No," she said after a moment. "I told you: I say things to you I could never say to anyone else. I never could have said any of this to Mother." She shook her head emphatically.
"Maybe someday, Xena," Gabrielle suggested. "I think she'd like a chance to comfort you after all this time. You know, she holds herself partly responsible."
"How could she be responsible? You said she didn't know until the end."
"She didn't," Gabrielle rushed to assure her. "But you remember a time when Atrius wasn't---bad to you?"
Xena nodded. "I thought he was wonderful."
"I figured. That's why Ares was able to win your affection when he impersonated Atrius. He appealed to whatever part of you remembered Atrius with fondness. And then everything changed abruptly?"
"Yeah, it seemed like that. I could never think what I'd done," she shook her head, as if still puzzling over it.
"Xena. Your mother learned that Atrius was arranging a marriage for you. She wouldn't let that happen, so she told him he had no right, that you weren't his child. That's when he changed."
"Marriage? She never told me that." She peered uncertainly at Gabrielle. "Anything else about my life I should know?"
The bard answered defensively: "I think I'm just---"
"I know. Easier to talk to. No one ever accused me of that."
"You have your moments." Gabrielle squeezed the hand that held hers. "Xena could you maybe loosen your grip, just a bit? My fingers are a little numb."
Xena grimaced apologetically, let go and then grabbed the hand again, more gently. "I wish you had been with me these past few days. I'm glad you're here now." She sniffed. "Thanks for putting up with that pathetic display." She quieted Gabrielle's protest. "Yes, it was pathetic. Maybe once in a while I need to be pathetic," she admitted with a crooked grin. She shook her forefinger in the bard's face to issue a mild threat. "This stays between us." Gabrielle pulled her head down and sealed the deal with a small kiss on her cheek.
The evening was as Xena had promised. They had dinner sent to the room. Heaping portions of roast meat and vegetables, fresh bread and wine disappeared between them. Whatever tension had accompanied them to Prestia had dissolved in the emotional exchange of the afternoon, and Gabrielle was happy to see the eyes, which had captured the blue of the heavens, clear and untroubled for a time. Conversation turned eventually to Xena's meeting with King Cletus. "Another father story," she had snorted, but this one required no catharthis. Dispassionately she told the tale of Cletus and his desire to test his manhood by fathering a child.
"Does he really think that's the test of a man?" Gabrielle asked. "He certainly didn't fill any of the roles of a father."
Xena was swirling the last of her wine in a deep goblet. "I don't know what he thought. Maybe that's important to some men. Maybe it's important to royals." She drained the goblet.
"Xena, your father is a king. I guess that makes you-"
"It makes no difference for me," she cut her off sharply. "I have no father. I just got rid of one who didn't deserve the title 'father', and I'm not having another," she said almost fiercely. "I am Xena. My mother is Cyrene of Amphipolis, who runs the finest inn in Thrace. My people are sheepherders and farmers. I will find my own destiny. The people who fill my life will be of my choosing, not accidents of blood. And those who don't belong in my life..." Her face darkened. She heard the tone in her own voice; it was not in keeping with her effort to lighten the mood of the evening. "Being Warrior Princess and occasionally filling-in for Diana is all the royalty I need. And the first one around here to call me "Highness" gets up early to stoke the campfire for a month." Gabrielle smiled a little more broadly than necessary. "I should have gotten more wine," Xena sighed as she stood. "I'll be back in a minute."
"No. I'll go Xena," Gabrielle said. "You don't even have your boots on. I'll see about the bath while I'm down there. Anything else?"
"Yeah. Don't mention my name to anyone you meet. The innkeeper didn't seem interested in my name, but I'd as soon we keep a low profile."
The public room of the inn was nearly full. A minstrel strummed a small stringed instrument and sang softly in a language Gabrielle didn't know, but was certain she had once heard Xena speak. She sat for a few minutes to listen. She would have liked to ask Xena to join her, but was certain what the answer would be. Too bad. Xena liked music, and could probably tell her what the song was about. She strolled over to the long bar and asked for a jug of wine. While she waited she inspected the portrait of Cletus which hung on the wall over the bar. Despite it's faded condition, there was no mistaking the resemblance to Xena. Given that they were everywhere in Prestia, she was astonished that people didn't comment on the resemblance. Xena's too out of context, she decided. She looked closer at the image. There was someone else there, she thought, some other face she knew was hidden in those features. The nose? The mouth? She wasn't sure. The wine came and she sought the innkeeper's husband to ask about bathwater for the big wooden tub which nestled in one corner of their room. While they spoke she heard the snippets of countless other conversations. Overhearing the private words of others was a skill she cultivated as a bard. These words hit her in the pit of the stomach.
"His name was Atrius. Seems he tends- that is, tended- an inn in Cythera. Found in an alley. Someone stuck a knife in him.. Funny thing is, his purse was full. Seems someone just wanted him dead."
Gabrielle agreed to whatever the man said about the bath. The wine jug was nearly full, and in her haste to get away she sloshed wine over the sides. Atrius was dead. She found Xena as she had left her, she might not have moved. The dark head turned to the door when she entered, a smile on her face. "I'm surprised to see you back so soon. When I heard the music I thought you'd be gone for the night. I was just deciding whether to join you. Would you like to go back down?"
"What?" Gabrielle asked startled. She wasn't sure what Xena had said. Maybe the bath? "Yeah, the bath water will be up soon."
Xena's eyes narrowed. "Are you all right? Did anything happen downstairs?"
"No. I think the day is just catching up with me. It seems like years ago that we met on the road."
"Yeah," Xena agreed. "We've had a full day." She looked at Gabrielle closely, unable to read her. Something had happened, yet she didn't want to talk about it. Or maybe she was seeing things that weren't there. She wasn't used to the outpouring of emotions she'd indulged in -more than once- today; it left her feeling not quite herself. She took the wine jug and poured a small portion for Gabrielle and a larger share for herself. She raised her goblet: "Here's to shaking the dust of Prestia from our feet as soon as possible. You don't have to drink to that Gabrielle, I know you like this place."
"No. I think I've had enough of Prestia," the bard said quietly. Xena wondered at the change of heart. The truth about Cletus? The arrival of the bath water ended speculation. When the tub was filled and the water-bearers withdrawn Gabrielle sat at the table. "You go first Xena," she offered.
Xena's eyebrows arched in surprise. "First?"
"The tub's sort of small," she explained weakly.
"Who'll wash my back," Xena protested with a smile. She studied Gabrielle's face. "Have I done something wrong?"
"No," Gabrielle said, too quickly. "I'm...that is..."
"Yes?" Xena encouraged.
"Never mind," Gabrielle relented. "We'd better get in. The water's getting cold."
Xena had kept her promise about the hot bath. It felt wonderful. It was more wonderful to be so close to Xena again. All those days waiting in Amphipolis were forgotten. Xena hummed as she scrubbed Gabrielle's back, rinsed her hair and made a game of scrubbing away the "potato fields" behind her ears. True to her word, she was trying hard to make up for her moodiness of recent days, as if that were necessary. She had wrestled with demons, again, and Gabrielle had long since become accustomed to her own role in that struggle. This time she had only been upset at being left out. In light of all that Xena had kept hidden about her childhood, it was small wonder that she felt the need to deal with Atrius alone. Gabrielle kneaded the sponge against Xena's powerful shoulders. How had she dealt with Atrius? What had she said? 'I just got rid of one...father...'. Could that be why she had been so adamant about not returning to Prestia? Had she finally slain the monster she and Lyceus had killed time and again in their childish, but deadly serious games?
She forced herself to listen to Xena, who was more talkative than usual tonight.
"...I don't remember bards being part of the festival, but I'm sure you could start a new tradition. What do you say?" She half looked over her shoulder to get Gabrielle's reaction to something. She slapped her hand against the water, sending a splash into Gabrielle's face. "You haven't heard a word I've said."
"Xena." Should she mention Atrius? Tell Xena that he was dead? She realized that she was afraid of the reaction. She wouldn't have blamed Xena for killing him, during Xena's recitation she felt she could have killed him herself. Killed him. Killed. She had killed, maybe. Xena was waiting for her to speak. She opened her mouth, not quite certain what would come out.
"Something happened in Amphipolis. I think I may have killed a man."
Xena turned almost completely around to face her too-solemn friend. She had sensed there was more to the story of what had happened at the inn in Amphipolis. "Tell me," she said simply. Gabrielle retold the story of the attack. This time she included the comment: 'I had to make sure you killed him.' "I haven't been able to get it out of my mind, all the blood, the smoke...That one comment stands out above all." she shook her head, holding Xena's eyes with her own, looking for the warrior's wisdom to set things right. "Xena, do you think I killed him?"
Xena knew the answer she would give anyone else: "What's the difference? It was self defense, not murder." That wouldn't work for Gabrielle. Gabrielle fought, but didn't kill. Even in defense of her own life Gabrielle would seek a non-lethal way of ending the threat. That code had once caused her heart to stop beating, her soul to wander closer to Hades than Xena like to recall. She shuddered as the memory of those long seconds flooded back. Gabrielle misunderstood.
"Are you cold Xena?"
"Yeah, Gabrielle, I am. Let's dry off." That would buy her time anyway. They toweled themselves dry silently, Gabrielle trying not to think of anything, Xena searching for the right answer. "Please Artemis," she prayed, "Gabrielle's an unlikely Amazon, but let me find the right words for one of your own." At last, each clad in a chemise, Gabrielle wrapped in a thick blanket, they were ready to talk. Almost. "This calls for a fire," Xena decided, and she quickly kindled one in the fireplace. They settled themselves on a sheepskin before the fire, and Xena spoke, in that low, husky voice which seemed tonight to be warmer than the fire.
"Gabrielle, I won't coat this with honey for you, I know you wouldn't thank me for that. The blow you've described could kill a man, if it hit him just right." She touched a spot just above the bridge of her nose. "I wasn't there, I didn't see the body, so its hard for me to say." Gabrielle's face fell, and Xena reached her hand out to hold her chin, forcing her to maintain eye contact. "That doesn't mean you killed him, but you need to be realistic. How many blows have you dealt out with that staff? None of them were meant to kill, but many of them might have. Strike a head that's taken too many blows already, knock someone off balance so he falls and breaks his neck, drive your staff into someone's midsection and rupture a vital organ... It's not like my sticking a sword in their gut, but the effect can be the same. The difference is that when I kill, I mean to do it. If you killed this time or any other time, the intent would be missing." She paused and waited for Gabrielle's reaction.
"Xena, regardless of the intent, I would have killed." The anguish remained in her eyes.
"Then, Gabrielle, you had better think again about fighting at all. Someday, inadvertently or not, you will cause someone's death, if you continue to fight with your staff. I can guarantee that." She let go of the bard's chin and folded her hands in her lap, waiting for Gabrielle to absorb her words.
"I like helping you, Xena," she said at last.
"I appreciate the help," Xena responded truthfully. "I appreciate more having a friend who is strong in her principles. Don't decide this based on what you think I need or want. Don't even decide tonight. Just think about this before you pick up your staff again."Gabrielle nodded.
"Now, tell me," Xena said in a different tone, "did he bleed a lot?"
"Why?" the bard asked, confused.
"You said there was blood all over," she prompted.
"From your blow or the knife wound?"
"The knife. It gushed all over the floor. The village women were forever getting it all up."
The warriors face creased in a half smile. "You didn't kill him, Gab. My experience with wounds is that a dead man won't bleed if you stick him second time. Your attacker was alive when he was knifed."
Gabrielle's eyes closed, and she exhaled a long breath. "Are you sure?" she asked.
Xena nodded gravely. "Very sure." Gabrielle's face lit up in a radiant smile-for a moment, then: "Xena. You could have asked that question at the beginning. Why did you keep me in agony?"
"I could have ended the agony sooner," she agreed. "It was more important that you focus on the real question: how will you feel if you really do kill someday? Is it worth the agony to take that risk? You don't fight to take life, only to defend it." She shrugged. "In my eyes, that's okay, but I can't begin to understand how you think. So if a killing, even an accidental killing in a just cause, will be a problem for you, put the staff aside now. Stick to the scrolls."
Gabrielle sat for a long time staring at the fire, aware that Xena was staring at her. The warrior hoped she had said the right things, in the right way. Certainly the haunted look was gone; in its place was a perplexity that seemed a long way from being resolved. The bard yawned. It had been a long day, Xena recalled, and she gently nudged Gabrielle. The soft hair caught the color of the flames for a moment as it came to rest on the broad shoulder of the warrior. "Thanks," she muttered, as she settled down. "I don't have my answer yet, but I know the question."