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CONTENT WARNING: This story contains mild sexual content and strong violence, including injury to one of the main characters. If these things are disturbing to you, please do not read it.
Such tenderness has no place in a warrior's heart.
It will get me killed.
I have to bury these feelings. I can't care about her. Can't care this much. I almost told her how much she means to me. And yet I know I scare her. She doesn't know what to do with such intensity. Nor do I.
I feel so protected.
I love her so much.
I wish that she could tell me how she feels.
She always buries her feelings. It scares me to think how closed in she is. She needs to talk, tell me what she's been going through. She doesn't know what to do with such intensity. Nor do I.
The rhythm of the horse's movements lulled both women. Their bodies close together as their thoughts, swaying hypnotically, hoping they would never be apart. Dangers past, loyalties proven, they rode in peaceful territory, on a mission for an ally. A message would be delivered, a needed rest enjoyed, and then on to new adventures.
"Xena, how long has it been since you saw Demitros?" The bard had been silent longer than usual. "Do you think he'll have changed?"
"It's been over two years, and he wasn't king yet." Xena considered. "No, I don't think he'll have changed. Not really. Even though I only met him once, I could tell he was a kind boy."
"Were you a warlord then?"
"No. I had. . . . started to change, thanks to Hercules. I just wasn't sure what to do. I was finding out it was easier to say I was going to do good, than it was to figure out what that was." Gabrielle could tell that Xena was still troubled by that time, almost as troubled as by the ten years that preceded it.
"You were always good, Xena," Gabrielle said. "You just lost your way for a time."
"After the last couple of weeks, the way I was, you can still believe that?" The contempt in the warrior's voice was a tone she reserved for bullying cowards--and for herself.
"You did what you thought was necessary--to save me."
"Or to save myself." Xena halted the horse. "It's too dark to make it to the castle tonight. We'll camp and move on in the morning." She used a mock stern voice. "At first light."
"Yes, ma'am," the younger woman replied. Xena took her hand and helped her slide down the tall horse's side before dismounting herself. Having made camp so many times these last two years, it took no discussion of their roles. Xena quickly cared for her golden mare and then helped Gabrielle complete the simple chores. For once, they were well-supplied with fresh food, a bonus for agreeing to deliver Tibor's message.
Later, they relaxed by the campfire, well-fed and unafraid. Unafraid. Gabrielle studied her friend's profile and thought about a Xena who was afraid. Before two weeks ago, she hadn't known a fearful Xena could exist. She had seen her friend happy, silly, irritated, angry, concerned, even enraged. But to see her frightened by a force over which she thought she had no control. . . . Of course, Xena had been wrong. She had controlled the situation, finally putting her own life on the line to save them all. Gabrielle shivered in the warm night air. This didn't get past her sharp-eyed friend.
"Yes," but the little redhead knew that wasn't all it was. She had seen Xena in a way she had never thought possible. She had seen her fully human; she had seen her nearly irrational with fear. She had seen Xena fall back on her old weapons, her old ways, try to fight savages in a savage way. She shivered again, knowing this reaction was caused by the Horde, but by more than just the Horde.
Seeing the second tremor, Xena moved to Gabrielle's side of the fire. Sitting behind the smaller woman, she wrapped a blanket--and her arms--around her. She knew the night was warm but knew also of a chill that didn't come from cold air and ground. This chill came from inside, and it would respond only to human contact. As a child, Xena had known that mere closeness could comfort but had lost that knowledge. Gabrielle had retaught her.
Gabrielle leaned back, content, and said, "Tell me again about the trouble between the two kingdoms. I still don't understand that."
Xena chuckled. "You do. You're just full and lazy and want me to be the bard."
Gabrielle didn't deny it, but said, "Please tell it."
"Okay." Xena started by mimicking her companion's storytelling tone, but
soon reverted to her own low voice. "Tibor and Demitros are cousins. Each now rules a kingdom their fathers, feuding brothers, kept on the edge of war."
"The feud was over religion," Gabrielle prompted.
"Or which brother their mother liked best. But, yes, religion was the excuse." Xena thought about all the things that were done in the name of religion. Was that why she, who knew more of gods than most mortals, had so little religion?
"Bards have to talk. . . .preferably out loud."
"You have that part down." Xena thought about where she had left off but not long enough that Gabrielle would remind her. "The brothers were raised in the same religion, of course, but each followed different priests as adults. I never understood the differences, but the brothers thought they were real. When each inherited a separate kingdom. . . ."
"They each inherited a kingdom from a grandfather."
"Right. One line of succession was patrilineal, the other matrilineal, so each got a kingdom to rule."
Like a child hurrying to her favorite character in a bedtime story, Gabrielle asked, "How did you get involved?"
"My first involvement was as a warlord." Xena didn't like to talk about this part, but she was too honest to leave it out. "Tibor's father's kingdom was more prosperous at the time, so he could afford to pay me more."
Gabrielle realized she hadn't heard this part before. "So he paid you to attack his brother's kingdom?"
"No. He paid me not to attack his. I did the other on my own."
"How did that end?"
"Demitros's father scraped up enough money to buy me off. So I left both sides alone and found other people to attack." She shook her head as if wondering at her own capacity for evil. "I got involved again two years ago. It was between the time I left Hercules and when we met."
"When you saved me, you mean. For the first time."
Xena ignored the interruption, always embarrassed by what she considered Gabrielle's hero worship. "I came upon a group of people being herded like animals into a pen. I thought they were being taken by slavers, and I. . . . interfered."
"I can imagine."
"When they were free and the people holding them had . . . . left, I discovered what was going on wasn't slavery. It was religious persecution. You see, these people lived on land ruled by Demitros's father, but they followed the religion of the other kingdom. They had been beaten and thrown out of their homes, and they were about to be imprisoned. All because they didn't kneel at the 'right' times or say their prayers in the 'right' order."
"So you went to talk to the king."
"Yes, I did. I was full of this new zeal of mine to do good. I knew that I would convince the king to treat these people fairly."
"But it didn't work."
"No, it didn't work." Xena stared into the fire. "While I was talking to the king, some of these people's good neighbors, the ones who had already take over their homes, captured them and hacked and burned them to death."
Gabrielle placed her own small hand over her friend's. Comfort flowed in this action as in her words. "But you did do some good."
"Yes, but only by accident. The king's heart was hardened against anyone who didn't believe exactly as he did." Xena felt her own heart harden as she remembered the results of that old man's stubbornness. "But his son, a boy of only eighteen, heard what I said. He stopped me as I was leaving the castle. He said that when he was king, he would bring peace between the two kingdoms and make it safe in his own country for people to worship in any way they wished."
"Did you believe him?" Gabrielle asked.
"I believed he meant it, but he wasn't yet king. I hurried from the castle to tell the people I would help them get to safety." Xena tensed again at the memory of what she had found, the mutilated bodies of the men and women and . . . .
Gabrielle tightened her grip, and Xena wondered who was holding whom. "But he became king a year later, and he has kept his promise," Gabrielle said.
"Yes, he and his cousin Tibor became kings of their countries within months of each other. Demitros changed the religious laws in his own kingdom and sent an offer of peace to Tibor."
"And that's where you come into the story again," Gabrielle said with satisfaction.
"Where WE come in." Xena smiled for the first time. "For two years, I thought of the massacre of those poor people as my worst failure. It was what sent me running from the mission I had told Hercules I would take, from my promise to make up for some of the terrible things I had done. I decided to bury my past, my weapons, to bury myself." She lost herself in thought again but recovered without prompting. "Anyway, a few days ago Tibor was finally able to contact us. Demitros had asked that I be the one to carry the treaty between the two kingdoms. The treaty that would
guarantee peace and religious tolerance in both countries."
"Because you were the one responsible for it, the one who convinced Demitros to right his father's wrongs," Gabrielle said proudly.
"No," Xena corrected, "because he is a good man and was ready to hear what I had to say. Even without me, he would have come to it."
"Maybe." Gabrielle tried to stifle a yawn. "So tomorrow we enter Demitros's kingdom. And you'll usher in a golden age, a time of peace, a day of . . . ."
Xena leaned around to give her friend a kiss on the forehead. Gabrielle was so startled she stopped orating and asked, "What was that for?"
"I don't know," Xena said. "But it worked."
Arrows sing through the air. The soldiers huddle beneath the wall and hold small shields above their heads. As some arrows find their marks, the cries of the wounded inside the fort join with the high keening of the dying enemy. Xena is outside the wall, fighting her way through a mass of flesh, her sword cutting through necks and limbs, piling up bodies. . . . No matter how many fall, still others take their place. Her sword hilt grows slick with perspiration and with blood, and she is still no closer. "Gabrielle! Gabrielle!"
Xena realized that she was lying on the ground. Her chest felt as if there was a weight on it. Was she wounded? Oh, no, who would save Gabrielle?
"Xena, I'm right here." The voice was close to her ear. Calm. "I'm not hurt. We're in our camp."
The warrior opened her eyes to firelight. Her friend's face was inches away, and her body was the weight on Xena's chest. Seeing comprehension enter Xena's eyes, Gabrielle slid to the side, but still cupped the other woman's chin with her hand. "You're okay," she soothed. "I'm fine. No one is hurt." The assurances continued until Xena's breathing became more even, her eyes less wild.
"You had a bad dream." Gabrielle impulsively put her cheek against Xena's. Pulling back, she looked into the face of the woman she trusted beyond any other. Remembering the comfort she had once received through that woman's kiss, she sweetly placed her lips on hers. The kiss lingered, and then strong hands turned the slight redhead onto her back. Xena's weight pressed down on Gabrielle, and the kiss changed, the sweetness of one woman exchanged for the urgency of the other.
The smaller woman's hands were penned between them, and she struggled to free them. Xena placed her hands beside Gabrielle's head and raised her body, allowing her own elbows and forearms to take more of her weight. Able to move, Gabrielle pushed upward with all her strength. Surprised, Xena raised her head to study her friend's face. "Stop," Gabrielle gasped. "Don't. . . ." The other woman saw shock where she had thought to read desire.
Xena rolled away and lay on her back, an arm covering her face. "I'm sorry."
Gabrielle sat up. "It's all right. I just panicked. It was a surprise."
"I would never hurt you."
"It was my fault. You weren't even awake yet, and I practically climbed all over you." Gabrielle touched Xena's hand and felt her friend recoil. Xena sat up and looked into that dear face. She felt it was the hardest thing she had ever done.
"Nothing was your fault. And I was awake and knew exactly what I was doing."
"Xena. . . ."
"You're the one who always says we should talk. Listen to me now." Gabrielle nodded. "I have these feelings for you." She took Gabrielle's hand and held it over her own heart. "Here." Gabrielle felt the strong beat, and this time it was she who pulled her hand away. "I feel filled with you. With caring. With a tenderness like nothing I have ever known. Can you say you haven't known this? If nothing else, you had to feel my fear."
"Fear? The Horde. . . ."
"The Horde. Not just the Horde. Anything that threatened you." Gabrielle was still, so still that Xena was reminded of a hare just before a fox grabbed it. . . . "Haven't you seen how I've been the last few weeks? Realized that I would do anything, give up anything, my sight, my life, my honor. . . .to defeat anything that might harm you?"
"But you didn't recognize it for what it was?" Xena sat back on her heals and looked away. "Neither did I. I'm still not sure. But what else could this feeling be? What could cause such desperation?"
"I love you, Xena. You know that."
"And I know that you have made sacrifices for me, Gabrielle. But I don't just have this tenderness. There is a longing with it, a longing for something, but for what I haven't known. I just knew that I needed something." She returned her gaze to Gabrielle's face. "Something."
"Xena, have I done anything. . . ."
"No, Gabrielle." Xena's laugh was tinged with irony. "You've done nothing. I've done nothing. I've only wondered."
"I didn't know."
"Now you do." At the look on Gabrielle's face, Xena gave a genuine laugh. "Ah, Gabrielle, don't look so tragic. I asked. You answered. That's all that happened here. We're the same people we were a little while ago. And we're still friends."
Gabrielle's eyes gleamed with unshed tears. "Best friends."
Xena nodded. "Now, it's going to be light soon. Let's break camp and travel. I don't think either of us feels much like sleeping."
The castle town was decorated with brightly colored banners and pennants and crowded with celebrating people. Leading Argo, Xena and Gabrielle made their way among the happy groups and were plied with offers of food and drink and other diversions. Gabrielle accepted food, Xena the drink, and the tall warrior's scowls discouraged other offers.
They reached castle gates that stood wide open and were waved in by soldiers who could only loosely have been termed guards. Xena started to give a reprimand and then let it go. Not her worry. Xena tied Argo with some other horses, and she and Gabrielle walked into the castle. They were questioned when they asked to be admitted to the great hall and, when Xena identified herself, were announced with great pomp and ceremony. Inside the great hall, a young man in simple clothing, but with the bearing of a noble, came forward to greet them.
Xena dropped to one knee and pulled her companion down beside her. "Your highness," she said, not quite managing to bow her head.
The young man held out his hands and urged her to her feet. He had to look up to smile into her eyes. "Xena." He looked at Gabrielle, who was just rising to her feet. "Here is someone who has to look up to me."
"This is Gabrielle. My friend."
"Gabrielle." The young king dropped Xena's hand and briefly touched the younger woman's. Gabrielle thought how nice he seemed. For a king. And how young, no older than she.
Xena seemed to remember the leather pouch she wore at her side. "Your highness, I've brought the treaty and a message from King Tibor." She started to hand the pouch to the monarch, but he waved it away.
"We'll do that at the official ceremonies tonight. We need to talk about your role in those."
"My role?" Gabrielle saw Xena start to tense up. She knew well her friend's aversion to any kind of public rituals.
"You must be tired from your travels," the king said. "Perhaps you would like to rest in your rooms before we discuss all that."
"No," answered the warrior. "I think I would rather discuss 'all that' now."
"Very well." The king led the way to his private chamber just off the great hall. Along the way, he gestured for two men to join them. One was tall and cadaverously thin. The other was a little shorter than Xena, muscular, and clearly a veteran soldier.
The king sat at a long table and nodded permission for the other four to sit, Xena to his right, and Gabrielle to his left. Demitros indicated the skinny fellow sitting beside Xena. "This is Pedicles. He is my minister of protocol. The sturdy individual by Gabrielle is Medoc, who is in charge of the town's security."
"Security," Medoc growled. "There's little enough to be in charge of."
Xena nodded. "I noticed that things seem to be a little. . . .open."
"Open? Try completely exposed."
"Medoc," the king cautioned, "I've told you that the people are coming together for a celebration, for the first time as ONE people, with no distinctions according to their religious beliefs. I won't have my castle town looking like an armed camp."
The old soldier said, "Yes, Your highness," but his raised eyebrows communicated another message to his fellow warrior.
"Pedicles," directed Demitros, "explain tonight's ceremonies to Xena. She needs to understand her part in them."
"Yes, your highness." The minister pulled from beneath his robe of office a rolled piece of parchment. After consulting it, he turned to Xena. "There will be some festivities for the crowds in the late afternoon. Then, when half of the sun's orb is below Mt. Themos, King Demitros will appear on the raised platform at the base of the mountain. He will give a signal by raising and lowering his hand. Do you understand?" He peered at Xena and seemed to expect an answer.
"Yes. Raise and lower his hand."
"Good." He consulted the parchment again before going on. "At the king's signal, drums and trumpets will sound, and the royal guard will march from the castle gate and form a guard of honor. That will be your signal to ride your horse through this guard of honor . ."
He repeated, "You will ride your horse through this guard of honor. When you reach the king's platform, you will, while still mounted, hand him the treaty and message you have brought from King Tibor." He waited to see if Xena had a question. She didn't appear to. "You will dismount and stand
by while the king places his seal on the treaty. A herald has already been assigned to take your horse. Then, when the king hands you the torch of peace. . . ."
"Torch of peace?" Xena looked so uncomfortable by this time that Gabrielle could hardly keep from giggling. To keep from looking at Xena and probably dissolving into laughter, the bard glanced at the young king. Her eyes widened as she realized he too was struggling to control his mirth.
"Yes, torch of peace," Pedicles continued, totally oblivious of the warrior's increasingly rebellious expression. "You will run up Mt. Themos, holding the torch before you."
"Run up the mountain?"
"Yes. Don't worry. The ascent is gradual for most of the way. And steps were long ago cut into the summit for just such ceremonial occasions." For the first time, he seemed to study the warrior. "Besides, you look in good enough shape. I doubt you'll have any trouble making it to the top."
"Thank you. I think."
"At the top, you'll use the torch to light a great pyre."
Gabrielle asked, "There's a pyre at the top?"
"Purely symbolic," the minister assured her. "Death of prejudice and war." He consulted his parchment one last time. "Your lighting of the pyre will be the signal for the release of flaming arrows by archers stationed all around the mountain. Don't worry. The arrows will fall harmlessly on the rocky slopes."
"Is that all?"
"All? Yes. That's all. There will be food and drink, of course. And music and dancing for the citizens. The usual."
"I see." Xena turned to the king. "No."
He said sternly, "You don't say no to the king."
"I don't run torches up mountains."
For a moment, the warrior and the king locked eyes and wills. Then he said in a soft voice, "Xena, when I was a boy, I knew that something was wrong in my father's kingdom. Good people were frightened, of their neighbors and of soldiers that should have been their protectors. No one knew when someone might make an accusation that would lead to their imprisonment--or worse. The land was rich, but most of its revenues went to supporting our readiness for war, a war that consisted of skirmishes along the border. Sometimes, we had to raid the treasury's reserves to pay off warlords who knew we couldn't afford to be weakened by taking on another foe."
Xena looked away for a moment at these words and, when she looked back, her expression was less defiant.
"I knew something was wrong, Xena, but my heart was just a boy's heart, and I didn't know what. Then along came a warrior who had the fire of righteousness in HER heart. And she stood before my father and told him what was wrong in the kingdom." He reached out and briefly touched her hands, which were folded on the table. "He didn't hear you, Xena, but I did. I knew you were right. If you remember, I told you so."
"I was lucky your father didn't have me killed."
"Oh, he would have except for one thing." Demitros chuckled. "His counselors reminded him that you just might have an army somewhere outside the city gates. He decided not to risk retaliation for your death."
"But the people I tried to save were killed anyway."
"That wasn't your fault. I'm convinced my father didn't even know that was happening." Gabrielle could tell this was the hope of a young man who wanted to believe some good of his father. "Xena, I consider you the author of the new laws of my kingdom and of this treaty. They are both based on your words to my father. Don't refuse to take your rightful part in the ceremony to honor these changes."
Then he said a word that is rarely said by leaders and almost never said by kings. "Please."
The two women were given separate rooms and, for once, neither objected. Gabrielle lay down on a fluffy feather mattress. Above her head was a beautiful green canopy sprinkled with small yellow flowers. She, who would usually delight in this taste of luxury, paid no more attention than if she had been lying on the hard forest ground under a canopy of branches. Had she wounded her friend in a way that would not heal? What had Xena meant by a "longing?" Being Gabrielle, her thoughts turned soon to what she could do to make things right for her friend. Having determined a course of action, she set her small chin and marched to Xena's room. What she saw when she pushed open the door almost drove her plan from her mind.
Xena was standing in the middle of the room, her back to the door. Hearing Gabrielle enter, she turned and smiled. "Good. You can help me with these straps. Have you ever seen anything more complicated? Or more ridiculous?"
"It's. . . .it's beautiful."
"Right. Now come help me."
Gabrielle broke from her spell and went to Xena, who wore, not her usual black battle dress, but a dress of the same style made of pure white leather. Gabrielle had to touch it to assure herself that leather could
really be that color and found it to be as soft and pliable as cloth. Over the white dress, Xena was struggling to fasten golden armor, intricate in design and ornamentation. Every piece, from greaves to breastplate to bracers, was shaped and polished 'til it shone like the sun and fit as if designed for Xena alone.
"This is complicated," Gabrielle said. After some study, she figured out what combination of straps and laces would bring the pieces together into a whole.
"Can you imagine my riding into battle in something like this?" Xena laughed, then thought for a moment. "Well, at one time I did own a suit of armor similar to this one. In another lifetime. Now something like this is just . . . . embarrassing."
"You'll look wonderful riding Argo," Gabrielle said. Her eyes shone as she started to make up the story that would go with this evening. "The golden warrior princess on the golden horse. . . ."
"You know, I think this armor might be real gold, Gabrielle," Xena commented. "Feel how soft it is. Fat lot of good this would do in a fight."
"It's for show, Xena, not for protection," Gabrielle said. "Sometimes, things should be appreciated just because they're lovely."
There was a silence, and then Xena said, "What are you wearing to the celebration tonight?"
"Don't worry about that. Nobody is going to be looking at me." Gabrielle fiddled with a strap as if it were not already correctly fastened. "Xena, could we talk about something else?"
Xena's attention was drawn to the strap as she tried to figure out if something was still wrong with it. "Sure. What's up?"
"I want to talk about what happened this morning."
"This morning?" Gabrielle suddenly had Xena's full attention. "I thought we settled that."
"Well, I don't think it's all that settled. I've been thinking."
Xena gently batted her friend's hands from the strap. "There's nothing wrong with that. Leave it alone."
"Xena, I know that you would do anything for me. HAVE done anything for me." Gabrielle kept her head lowered, and her complexion was pinker than usual. "It wouldn't be right for me to refuse you something you need."
"Something I need?" Xena's voice was carefully neutral. "Just what is it that I NEED, Gabrielle?"
"Well, I know that you might need. . . .things that. . . .things you're used to . . . ."
"Gabrielle, do you think this is about my needing sex?"
Gabrielle looked into blue eyes that blazed with anger. Reluctantly, she nodded.
"And you're willing to sacrifice yourself to my 'needs?' Because we're such good friends?" The smaller woman looked so miserable, Xena felt her anger sliding away as quickly as it had come. "Gabrielle, if all I need is a man--or a woman--for the night, I can get that in any tavern or inn on the road. Don't you realize that?"
Gabrielle looked at her friend and knew this was true. She nodded again and tried not to cry.
"Gabrielle, you used to say I didn't respect you. I think it may be the other way around now. You don't respect me. To think that I can't control myself any better than you're suggesting? Have I shown myself to be that undisciplined?"
"No." Gabrielle thought back to the times she had tried to control the kind of emotions that Xena dealt with every day. "You are the most disciplined person I know. I just thought if I could help, it wasn't fair for me not to."
"Don't you ever, ever do that again." Xena put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and made her look at her. "Don't ever offer yourself to anyone, to ANYONE for any reason other than that you want to be with them more than anything else in the world. Do you promise?"
"Yes, I promise." Gabrielle wondered how the plan that seemed so perfect when she had entered this room could have proven to be so wrong. Why couldn't she understand what the warrior was feeling? "Xena, when you kissed me and talked about a 'longing,' if you didn't mean sex or not just sex, what did you mean?"
"Gabrielle, I honestly don't know. Maybe it's all mixed up with other things that have happened to me, terrible things I don't want you to ever know or to have to try to understand. Things that have gotten all mixed up with how I feel about you. You just need to know that I care about you so deeply that I'll never willingly cause you pain."
"I do know that, Xena." The look of trust that accompanied these words shot straight to the warrior's heart.
When Xena broke the long silence, she spoke gruffly. "Then help me out of this ridiculous armor, and let's find something to eat. I'm starving."
A little mischief crept into the bard's voice. "Well, don't eat too much. You'll never get back into that dress tonight."
It all proceeded as Pedicles had described. As the sun began to sink behind Mt. Themos, King Demitros stood on the platform at its base. With
the attention of a great crowd of his people and of visitors from the neighboring kingdom, he raised his right arm and then dramatically and decisively dropped it to signal the start of the ceremonies. Only Gabrielle, who stood at the side of the platform, caught the little smile that showed the young king was fully aware that he was acting a role on a stage. And that he was enjoying it.
The crowd roared, and then, over the din, the sound of trumpets and drums could be heard. Through the gates of the castle marched the royal guard, with Medoc, mounted on a midnight black horse, at their head. The soldiers formed two columns and drawing their swords, held them in high salute to the figure that next emerged from behind the castle walls. Gabrielle had anticipated a golden warrior princess on a golden horse. Instead, the rays of the setting sun seemed to set the armor ablaze, making of Xena a warrior of fire. The crowd fell silent. As Xena passed the last guardsman, Medoc rose up in his saddle and, raising his sword high in a soldier's salute, began a battle cry. "Xena! Xena! Xena!" This was picked up by the soldiers and then the crowd as Xena kicked Argo from a walk directly to a gallop. When she reached the platform, she turned and motioned the crowd to silence. All voices hushed as people strained to hear her words.
"King Demitros, I bring greetings from your kinsman, King Tibor. It is his wish to have eternal peace between his kingdom and yours." Xena's voice rang clear and sure throughout the valley.
The young king walked to the edge of the platform and took from Xena the pouch she had carried from his cousin. "I thank you, Princess," the king said, surprising the warrior with his use of this title. As Xena dismounted, the king walked with dignity to a table that had been placed in the center of the platform. With great ceremony, he unfurled the parchment of the peace treaty and seemed to read its provisions. He was facing Gabrielle as he dropped hot wax on the bottom of the document and then rolled the seal on his ring into the wax. He mouthed to her, "It is done." Turning, he took from a courtier a lit torch. This he held high for the crowd to see before he carried it to the edge of the platform and handed it down to Xena.
Gabrielle tried to catch Xena's eye, to show how proud she was to just be her friend, but Xena was already running up the trail that led to the summit of the mountain. The sun was now completely behind Mt. Themos, and all that could be seen of Xena's progress was the bobbing flame as she ran up the trail and then raced up the steps cut into the steepest part. At the peak, Xena touched the torch to the pyre that symbolized the death of prejudice and war. The pyre ignited, and Xena was silhouetted against the roaring flames, her armor again seeming to be afire. Even knowing this was a spectacle planned for the watching crowd, Gabrielle felt her breath catch and tears spring to her eyes. In her mind, she took up the earlier shout, "Xena! Xena! Xena!"
The dark night sky over the mountain was suddenly punctuated by flaming arrows, seemingly coming from all over the mountain.
That's when Gabrielle realized that something was very wrong. Screams and shouts erupted throughout the crowd. She heard the sound of metal striking metal and looked toward the castle, where a battle was seemingly being fought between the royal guard and a mob of men with swords and other weapons. Instinctively, she looked toward Xena just in time to see several of the flaming arrows fall toward her friend. Then Gabrielle was grabbed from behind and thrown to the platform floor. Even lacking her staff, which she had left in the castle, she fought bravely and effectively. She saw that the king and, of all people, Pedicles were still on their feet and engaging their attackers with only the small ceremonial swords they had worn. She tried to make her way to them and saw Pedicles go down with what was obviously a mortal wound. As she reached the king, she was hit a stunning blow from behind, and that was all she knew.
Gabrielle came to in the great hall, where she and Xena had first met with King Demitros. Xena! Gabrielle struggled against her bonds to turn over. The king reached down and helped her to her feet. A burly guard reached out to stop him, and a voice commanded, "Don't touch my cousin. So long as he lives, he is still a king!" King Tibor, Gabrielle thought. So he's responsible for all this!
Gabrielle swayed for a moment, then got her balance. She looked at the young king, who was disheveled but apparently unhurt. She saw that his hands were not bound as were hers, but he was under heavy guard.
"Xena?" she asked.
"I don't know," he answered. "She wasn't among the prisoners I saw."
"Tibor never planned to honor the treaty. He sent it here with Xena and
you; then he and his soldiers infiltrated the celebrating crowd. They surrounded the royal guard and the platform." Anger and regret etched new lines on his boyish face. "His men even killed and replaced the archers who were stationed on the mountain. They shot the flaming arrows that signaled the start of the attack."
Just then the doors to the great hall burst open and a detail of soldiers entered. The two in the lead stepped aside, and those who followed threw a limp form on the stone floor. King Tibor, dressed in black armor emblazoned with the emblem of his religion, stood over this prisoner. Gabrielle strained to see through the crowd of soldiers, all of whom were far taller than she. Finally, she was able to see that the figure on the floor was dressed in gold and white and was still, too still.
"Xena!" she cried and pushed forward.
A guard stopped her, but Tibor said, "No. Let the girl come. And Demitros. Cousin, come see how your hero has fallen." Gabrielle and Demitros were allowed to come within a few paces of Tibor and Xena before they were stopped again.
"Is she alive?" Tibor asked one of his soldiers.
"Yes, your highness, but gravely wounded." Xena was alive! Gabrielle did not dwell on the second part of the message. She could not.
Tibor motioned for the soldiers to pull back, and Gabrielle got her first clear view of her friend. Xena lay on her back, curled slightly around an arrow that protruded near her right shoulder, above her breast. The arrow had gone through the golden armor. Oh, Xena, Gabrielle thought, your own armor would have stopped that arrow.
Tibor lightly tapped Xena's thigh with his boot, and she moaned softly. "Cousin, I think your champion needs medical attention." Leaning over the helpless warrior, Tibor suddenly placed his foot on her shoulder and, grasping the feathered shaft of the arrow, drew it out. Xena's scream echoed through the chamber and caused even some of the enemy to wince. Gabrielle fell to her knees in shock.
"NO!" Demitros thundered and would have charged his cousin if two guards had not blocked his way.
Tibor studied the writhing woman as if her pain was of great interest to him. "Oh, my," he said to the room in general, "I guess that was supposed to be removed from the other side." He handed the bloody arrow to one of his soldiers and ordered, "Get her standing." Two of his men stepped forward and lifted Xena until her feet bore some of her own weight.
Tibor faced the young king. "Demitros, you are in error, in matters of both religion and politics. However, you are my kinsman, and I am willing to forgive you and give you a chance to mend your ways. Look at this woman warrior. Years ago you fell under her spell and believed her false words. Instead of converting to the true religion and joining hands with me through the faith, you thought you could have peace by allowing people to worship any god they wanted and in any way."
Throughout this long speech, Gabrielle's eyes never left Xena's face. She saw the blue eyes open and attempt to focus. She could tell the instant her friend came to full awareness of her surroundings. "Xena," she mouthed. She thought the warrior nodded, but she couldn't be sure.
"Choose, Demitros," Tibor was saying. "You can stay in error and lose your kingdom and your life. Or you can correct your ways and be my ally in the true faith."
Gabrielle was stunned by the young king's question. "What do you want me to do?"
"The Festival of the Three Vessels occurs in twelve days. You must kneel at the evening celebration and swear the conversion of yourself and of all your people."
"And this will bring peace?" Demitros asked.
"You must do one other thing to show that you repudiate your past error." Tibor pointed to Xena, who was looking directly into Demitros's eyes. "You must condemn this witch to die at the Festival."
Her gaze riveted to Demitros's face, Gabrielle did not see the look exchanged between the woman warrior and the young king. In a steady voice, he said to his cousin, "I so order."
"NO! You can't do that! You coward!" Guards restrained the small woman as she threw herself at the man who had just turned traitor to her friend.
"Enough!" Tibor shouted. "Take the little one to a cell."
"The warrior?" asked a guard.
"Her, too." He seemed to have a second thought. "But first give her a taste of the wheel. I don't trust that her wound will keep her docile enough."
For days, Xena knew only two things: pain and Gabrielle's voice. A healer came and, without the use of painkillers, cut into and stitched up the arrow wound. When Gabrielle protested, he said, "My king wants her alive. He doesn't want her comfortable." Gabrielle talked to Xena by the hour, telling stories, crooning songs remembered from childhood, making plans for when they would again ride freely through the forests and make camp under the stars.
Xena would listen and try to whisper replies, but Gabrielle's cell was far away, and the bard usually could not hear her. Xena's body tried to heal itself, but whenever she would show signs of recovering any of her legendary strength, Tibor would visit and order her taken to the wheel.
Gabrielle could not imagine what this was, but she heard Xena's screams through the thick dungeon walls and saw the results when her friend was returned to her cell.
Gabrielle begged to be allowed to share a cell with the warrior, or at least to be in the next cell, but the guards just laughed. Other than feeding Gabrielle, they paid no attention to her. Once a day, a guard held Xena's head and poured water into her mouth until she swallowed. Food was thrown on the floor for her, but she was unable to crawl to it.
"Water." Xena thought she was making a sound, but she wasn't sure. "Water."
"Guards!" Gabrielle yelled. "She needs water. She's suffering. Bring
No one answered. "If she dies before the Festival, your king will have you on that wheel!"
A guard reluctantly came from the guardroom. He was a man Gabrielle hadn't seen before. "More trouble than she's worth," he grumbled, but Gabrielle saw he had a dipper in his hand. He opened the cell and stepped in. "Stinks." He leaned down and held the dipper to the woman's mouth. "Hey! Take it easy. All you get today, so don't spill it."
"Demitros?" Xena whispered.
"Yeah, Demitros," the guard answered. "That's who condemned you. You'll be the first act at the Festival. Yeah, when that headsman's ax goes up tomorrow, that's the signal. Before it comes back down, everything is changed. Everything is new. Chop! Chop!"
"Stop tormenting her!" Gabrielle shouted.
"Yeah, too bad you won't know it! Chop! Chop!" he taunted. "Chop! Chop!" He left the cell and laughed at his own joke all the way back to the guardroom.
"Xena," Gabrielle called. "Don't believe him. We've been in bad spots before and got out of them. We'll get out of this, too."
"I can hear you."
"I tried to tell you."
"I know. Save your strength." Suddenly Gabrielle didn't want to hear what she was sure Xena was about to say. This seemed too much like an ending.
"But I couldn't."
"I know. Hush. I'll tell you a story."
"Tried the only way I knew how."
Gabrielle was crying unashamedly. It shouldn't end this way. Not this way.
"I love you."
Tibor visited the next afternoon. He stood outside Xena's cell and studied her.
Gabrielle begged for his attention, "Don't take her again. Please take me. Break me on your wheel. Please."
Tibor finally looked in her direction. "You beg so nicely I'm tempted to give you your way. But, no, no one is going to the wheel today." He turned back to Xena. "Witch, can you hear me? Tonight you die. I want you able to walk to your doom."
"I've no interest in her, and my cousin has asked for her life. She'll be freed after the Festival."
"Guard!" The new guard, the one who had taunted Xena the day before, appeared at his side. "Her condition is disgusting. Clean her up. I'll send down the clothing and armor she wore at that other ceremony. I want her dressed in those for this evening's festivities."
"Yes, your highness."
"You'll bring her down the same route she rode that other time."
"I don't think she can walk that far."
"Use an ox-cart. Put the girl in chains and bring her along, too. I hear she's a storyteller. Let her tell how the warrior woman paid for her errors." Tibor spoke once more to Xena. "When next I see you, your head will be on the block. And my cousin's soul and kingdom will be safe at last." Then he walked from the dungeon.
The guard returned to Xena's cell with a bucket of water and some rags. He seemed to hesitate outside the cell door. "Let me do it," Gabrielle suggested.
He shook his head. "I'll get in trouble."
"You don't like going in there," Gabrielle reminded him. "You hate the smell. And I don't think you like dealing with injuries, do you? I can do it for you. And no one needs to know."
"There are only a couple of us here. Everyone else is on duty for the Festival."
The other guard, a huge brute who seemed to take special pride in tormenting Xena, carried in the white leather dress and golden armor Xena had worn for the treaty ceremony. "You want me to get her ready?" he asked. He smirked and rubbed his face with a grimy paw.
"No," said the new guard. "King Tibor wants her able to walk up the steps to the block. It'll be BOTH our necks if she can't."
The brute looked disappointed, but he didn't argue, just dropped the
clothing on the floor and walked out. The other guard looked at the complicated armor and seemed to come to a decision. He took a set of manacles from the wall and walked toward Gabrielle's cell. "Hold your hands together," he ordered, and Gabrielle complied. Reaching through the bars, he locked the manacles around her wrists before opening the cell door. "Don't try anything," he said. "I can take it out on her so long as I don't hurt her TOO bad."
Then he handed Gabrielle the bucket and the clothing and let her into Xena's cell. "May we be alone?" Gabrielle asked.
"No," he said. Then, "I won't watch, but I'll be listening. Don't talk."
"Thank you for. . . ."
"Don't think I'm soft. I need to get this job done." He laughed. "Chop, chop. That's the signal, then home before midnight. Maybe get a promotion." Still chuckling, he kept his promise to turn away.
Gabrielle leaned over and started to whisper something, but Xena shook her head. "No," she mouthed. Gabrielle nodded, realizing that she could not chance it. Carefully, avoiding the worst injuries, Gabrielle removed the filthy rags Xena was wearing. The arrow wound was actually healing, but she gasped at the condition of her friend's leg and arm joints. Bruised and swollen, they looked like they had been twisted and pulled apart. Raw marks that resembled rope burns circled her wrists and ankles.
Using the rags and water, and a bit of soap she found in the bottom of the bucket, Gabrielle gently bathed her friend, trying to spare her some modesty and some pride. When Xena was clean, Gabrielle helped her to stand. By holding onto the cell bars, Xena was able to stay upright while Gabrielle slipped the white battle dress over her head and helped her into the matching breeches. Gabrielle remembered her joke about the tight fit of the dress and felt a pang at how loosely it now fit. Feeling sure that dressing Xena in the golden armor was supposed to mock her, Gabrielle hesitated over this. However, the warrior, who had balked at wearing the decorative armor for the first occasion, seemed eager to don it this time. Gabrielle placed each piece and, even wearing the manacles, efficiently fastened it in place.
Seeming to draw strength from again being dressed as a warrior, Xena stood a little straighter. She managed a smile for Gabrielle and whispered what sounded like, "Don't worry."
The other guard came out of the guardroom. "It's time," he announced. Then, seeing Gabrielle in the cell, "What's she doing in there?"
"Pretend you didn't see that," the new guard suggested. He unlocked Xena's cell door.
"Aren't you going to chain her, too?" the other guard asked.
"Not supposed to," he answered. "Anyway, she can barely stand. What's she going to do?" He motioned Xena and Gabrielle to come out of the cell. He and the other guard followed them, Xena leaning on her smaller friend, through the dungeon and up the long, stone steps to the castle courtyard. It was dusk, and the courtyard and the road beyond were lit by tall torches stuck in the ground. An ox cart awaited them. The new guard pushed the women into the cart and went to lead the ox toward the castle gate. The other man stayed behind, but several soldiers surrounded the cart as it moved through the gate. A silent crowd lined both sides of the roadway, and their mood was not the celebratory one of a few nights before. As Gabrielle looked toward the people, she saw an occasional man or woman mouth the word, "Xena." She realized they were trying, without incurring the wrath of the soldiers, to raise a silent chant. Xena. Xena. Xena.
Too soon, the ox cart reached the base of Mt. Themos, where the royal platform still stood. In place of the table where Demitros had placed his seal on the false treaty was an executioner's block. And beside it stood the headsman, a masked figure in black, his fearsome instrument resting on his right shoulder. Two kings, Demitros and Tibor, stood side by side at the edge of the platform.
As hands reached to pull Xena from the cart, she whispered to Gabrielle, "Watch." Before Gabrielle could touch Xena one last time or do more than gasp, "Goodbye," her friend was on the ground and being pushed toward the steps of the platform. Xena shook off the supporting hands at the foot of the steps, and except for one stumble, mounted them with her head held high. Her gaze met Demitros's, and he dropped his eyes. Even to Gabrielle, Xena's expression was unreadable.
"Watch?" Gabrielle murmured. She couldn't mean I'm to watch when. . . . The small woman shuddered.
"Get down." It was the guard who had allowed her into Xena's cell. When she didn't move, he grabbed her chains and pulled her out of the cart. "You're to stand here," he said and pushed her to a position near the platform and directly in line with the executioner's block.
Drummers began a slow cadence, and, unaided, Xena walked to the center of
the platform. She knelt behind the block, and the headsman reached down a hand to position her neck. Gabrielle longed to look away but remembered Xena's last word to her: Watch.
It was Demitros who raised a hand, causing the drums to fall quiet. Then, looking directly at Xena, he quickly lowered his arm. The headsman's ax fell and, at the same moment, Gabrielle felt the manacles fall away from her wrists and a stout staff shoved into her hands. She blinked as Xena stood and a sword magically appeared from under the executioner's robe. Then the sword was in Xena's hand, and the executioner swung his ax to cut a wide swath through the soldiers crowding onto the platform. Gabrielle was suddenly too busy fighting off Tibor's soldiers and supporters in the crowd to follow Xena's movements. Beside her, the new guard was pulling weapons out from under the platform and handing them out to citizens of Demitros's kingdom.
Xena, seeing that Gabrielle was holding her own, gave a ululating battle cry. Knowing that she was not mobile enough to pursue the enemy, she hoped that this would draw them to her, and it did. Ignoring pain and refusing her body's claims to weakness, she turned her sword into a blur of blood and death for any who approached her. Then before her was only one opponent, King Tibor, he who had planned her demise that day. She saw King Demitros approaching, also, and determined to end this before that young monarch had to live with kinsman's blood on his hands. Faking a stumble, Xena lowered her sword as if at the end of her strength. With a triumphant look on his face, Tibor swung his sword in a wide arc that would have beheaded the woman warrior. . . .if it had connected. However, as he recklessly came forward, Xena pushed up from one knee, her sword point not stopping until it scraped against Tibor's spine. Tibor dropped beside the executioner's block, dead before he hit the wooden floor.
Seeing their king fall before the woman warrior, the soldiers still standing on and around the stage dropped their weapons and pleaded for mercy. The executioner, dropping his hood to reveal himself as Medoc, shouted for Demitros's followers to grant it.
Gabrielle turned toward the man who had so recently acted as her guard, and, with a grin, he lifted her to the platform. Dropping her staff, she ran into Xena's arms.
Xena would have preferred to leave the kingdom immediately, to avoid the gratitude of king and subjects. But, the battle over, she was too weak to travel and had to endure the thanks and adulation she found more painful than her injuries. Lying in her bedroom in the castle, she tried to send away as quickly as possible all her visitors. All except for one. Gabrielle.
Gabrielle attended her friend day and night. Slowly Xena told her the secrets of their dungeon stay. Of how the new guard had been placed there by Demitros's supporters to make contact with Xena. Of how, in the guise of complaints and taunts, he had passed her information about the plot to regain control of the kingdom. She had understood his talk of a signal, and the repetition of the words "Chop. Chop." had told her that the executioner would give the order for the insurrection. She had not known Medoc was the executioner until he had whispered to her as he positioned her neck on the block.
"And when you told me to watch?"
"I couldn't risk telling you about the plan, what little I knew of it. I wanted you alert so you would catch the signal and be ready to fight." Xena's eyes held pride in her protege. "You did exactly as you should. You kept more soldiers from getting near the platform while our friend the guard distributed the weapons that had been hidden there."
"I can't believe that you could fight, the shape you were in." Gabrielle sat on the edge of Xena's bed and stroked her friend's wrist. The swelling had lessened, but the joint was still painfully bruised and bore the deep rope burns. "Now tell me the rest. Tell me about the wheel."
And Xena did. But this was private, and never to be shared except by the two friends.
Such tenderness fills this warrior's heart.
It saved my life.
I will never again bury these feelings. I will always care for her. Every day I will tell her what she means to me. I know sometimes I still scare her. But she will learn what to do with such intensity. And so will I.
I feel so protected. And protective.
I love her so much.
I'm so glad she has told me how she feels.
She's learning to reveal her feelings. And sometimes this scares me. She trusted me enough to tell me what she went through. We'll learn what to do with such intensity. Together.