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by Tim Wellman
Gabrielle ran her fingers through the soft cloth on the table, imagining her body rapped in such luxury. She held the dress to her neck, and looking down, surprised herself. She smiled and put the dress back, touching it softly like one last kiss of a friend she had to leave behind. She walked to the next table, unable to buy anything, but felt, somehow, being close to the things she couldn't have was a consolation. Beside her, a well-dressed woman, obviously out of place in the tiny village shop, picked up a dress like the one Gabrielle had held and handed the shopkeeper some money. Gabrielle watched the woman walk back onto the street and disappear into the crowd. She dropped her head for a moment, then gathered enough strength to leave the shop smiling. "Why would I need a silly thing like that, anyway." She found Xena waiting in front of the shop, arms folded, apparently watching what had happened in the shop.
"Why did you go inside?" Xena put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.
Gabrielle shrugged and bowed her head. "Such beautiful things... But what would I do with them?" She tried to hide the sadness in her voice, but she knew Xena was perceptive enough to know. "And it wasn't really my color."
"It couldn't add anything to the beauty you already have." She brought her hand slowly up Gabrielle's neck, and held her chin on her fingertips. She smiled to hide the sinking feeling in her chest. "If I had any money, it would be yours."
Gabrielle smiled, then becoming embarrassed at the situation, backed away from Xena's touch. "I know... and it really is all right." She patted Argo on the back, averting her eyes from the awkwardness. "I would look pretty silly in something like that, anyway."
Xena changed her expression to match Gabrielle's, knowing they both pretended. A cool evening breeze crossed her back, causing her to shiver, as they made their way down the crowded street and out of the village. "I managed to get a loaf of bread... We only had two dinars left."
"Great, I'm starving." Gabrielle stopped Xena and held her by the arm. "Xena, stop worrying, will you? It was just a dress." She pursed her lips in feigned anger, but couldn't hold the expression. She smiled.
"Gabrielle... You always smile, but I know.... If I could, I would buy you your heart's desire." Xena dropped her eyes and shivered again.
Gabrielle lifted Xena's face in the palm of her hand, staring for a moment. "I already have my heart's desire." She turned back to the street and began walking.
Xena stood for a moment, as if something were holding her back, then she forced herself to catch up with Gabrielle. "Maybe I could sell something..."
Gabrielle turned in real anger, now. "Will you just drop this? I told you it wasn't important." She turned back to the road, walking faster, until she was several steps ahead of Xena.
Xena didn't move; she closed her eyes to moisten the sting, and when she reopened them, Gabrielle was staring at her.
"Xena, I'm sorry I snapped at you.... But this is bothering you too much." She smiled and put her arm around Xena's. "Come on, let's make camp before dark." She pulled Xena down the street.
"Xena!" A man's voice came from behind her. She turned to face a stranger. He ran close, then stopped suddenly, forcing Xena to take a step back. "It is you. No one looks as good in leather as you do."
Xena tried to place the face, but friend or enemy, she didn't know. "I don't know who you are."
The man looked shocked, then smiled and drew his sword. Xena put her hand on hers, but the man, seeing the possible confrontation, quickly turned the butt toward Xena and handed it to her. Xena reached out her hand, still not knowing the man or the reason he had just given her his sword.
"Look at the markings." He pointed to the letters engraved on the hilt.
She read the letters. "Lais." It was a faint and distant name from her past. Someone in her army. He was a young boy, looking for adventure; she never really knew him beyond his name. "Oh yea, Lais...."
He smiled and tried to hug her, but she backed away. "So, are you here to take the village?" He pointed to the shops. "Look at it, Xena... riches beyond anything in the old days."
"Boy, are you out of touch." Gabrielle forced her way between Xena and Lais. "Xena's not like that, anymore. She only fights for those who can't fight for themselves."
Lais burst out laughing. "Right!" He pushed Gabrielle out of the way, and before he could move, Xena had him pinned to the ground. "The Warrior Princess.... You haven't lost a step."
Xena was hurt by the words. She loosened her grip and allowed Lais to stand. "You never could fight." It was the only thing she could think of that might possibly hurt him.
"I wasn't much at fighting, but that didn't seem to matter to you." He smiled and touched her arm, but she pulled away.
Gabrielle stepped back in, and pushed Lais away from Xena. "You touch her again and I'll kill you."
"I mean it, Xena." She looked at Lais with nothing but hate. He backed away with a frightened look on his face.
"Gabrielle, let it go." Xena threw Lais' sword to the ground and pulled Gabrielle to her side.
He picked up his sword, still keeping an eye on Gabrielle. "What's the matter, Xena? Men don't do it for you, anymore?"
Gabrielle jumped at him. "I'm twice the man you are." She poked at him with her staff, and Xena grabbed her and pulled her back.
Xena, I've got ten men camped near here." He tried to get close enough so he could speak softly. "We're ready for a leader. Together, we could ride out of here with everything we ever wanted. We're planning on taking everything as soon as the shops close."
"Not interested." Xena turned to walk away. Gabrielle quickly caught up, then looked back at Lais and pointed.
"Isaeus is with us."
Xena stopped in her tracks, then leaving Gabrielle and Argo, walked back to Lais and grabbed the front of his shirt. "What do you mean?" Another name from the past, but this time, a name well remembered. She felt a spark of pain run down her back. "Isaeus is with you?"
Lais smiled in the realization that he had found a weakness in Xena's armor.
Gabrielle touched Xena's back while keeping an eye on Lais. "Xena, we do have to go before dark." She managed to turn Xena's body away from Lais, and lead her away, although Xena seemed unaware.
"We'll be here tonight!" Lais looked around, forgetting he was standing in the middle of a busy street.
Xena squinted her eyes to focus on the road, but couldn't bring herself to speak. She thought she had forgotten nearly everything, and was amazed that one of the few things she still remembered would suddenly confront her.
"Xena, who is Isaeus?" Gabrielle sensed the pain her friend was in and was trying to think of anything to break the silent spell.
Xena looked up for the first time and turned to Gabrielle. She brushed her blonde bangs from her forehead and rubbed it with her thumb, pretending to remove a spot of dirt. "Just a name from the past."
"You mean, in your army?" Gabrielle grabbed Xena's hand from her face and held it by her side.
"No, before... Long before."
Gabrielle's eyes turned to look at the ground. It wasn't a demon effecting Xena at all, it was something pleasant, a better memory than any they had shared. "You mean, before the warrior?"
Xena nodded. Her mouth opened as if she were about to speak, but then she looked back to the ground. What could she tell Gabrielle about Isaeus? She knew every word would hurt her. This was a memory she couldn't fight with sword or chakram, and a past Gabrielle couldn't or shouldn't understand. "We can make camp here." She pointed to a clearing and led Argo off the road.
"Xena, if you don't want to talk about this, I understand."
"But..." Xena knew Gabrielle well enough to recognize an unfinished sentence.
Gabrielle smiled. She felt warmed that Xena had comprehended. "If Isaeus was a friend, once... I mean he's a bandit, now." She helped throw a few twigs onto the fire Xena was making.
"He was more than a friend.... He was a part of my life I've never forgotten, from the only time in my life when I was truly happy." As she squatted by the fire, she looked up at Gabrielle in time to see her eyes close. Xena turned back to the fire, dropped to her knees, and let the heat burn her legs. She winced in pain; it was a small punishment for not thinking before she spoke, or perhaps for what she was about to do. What words could soften the statement? "It was a long time ago, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle sat down beside Xena and Xena fell back into a sitting position. She noticed how red Xena's legs were. "Xena... Oh...." She tried to touch the burns with her fingertips, but pulled away, afraid her touch would hurt too much. She stood up and ran to a small bag beside her staff.
Xena stared straight ahead, and as she blinked her eyes, a tear rolled down each cheek. "No matter what happens.... Please know what we have together is...." She wanted to say 'just as good', but it sounded too mechanical, too obvious, and she was unsure whether it was true.
Gabrielle returned and knelt by Xena's legs, then pouring a small bottle of oil into her hands, she rubbed it over the burns. "This was a stupid thing to do." She wiped her hands on her dress and blew softly on Xena's legs. "You think I can't stand up for myself.... I'm much stronger than you think."
Xena reached her hand out and touched Gabrielle's hair. "I have to see him."
Gabrielle looked up and tried to smile. "When do we leave?"
"I have to do this alone." Xena raised herself up and walked to Argo.
"Xena, don't go... please?" Gabrielle grabbed her by the shoulder and pulled her around. "You're only hurting yourself more. What can you possible get from seeing him?"
"My childhood back...."
"Xena, you heard Lais; he's a bandit now; someone you fight against." Gabrielle couldn't get the quiver from her voice, even by speaking louder than she had intended.
"Let go of my arm." She pulled away from Gabrielle and mounted Argo. She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to erase the sadness, the.... She couldn't think of a word for what she was feeling.
Gabrielle stepped back from her horse and looked up at the warrior. She was crying, but couldn't decide if it was from pain or from anger. "If you go... I won't be here when you get back." Her voice was surprisingly calm.
Xena looked down, fighting desperately to make her eyes stop watering. "You'll be here." Gabrielle tried to smile. Xena looked at her, trying to capture her face in a memory, like a drawing, then turned Argo and rode back toward the village.
She rode quickly, and with each sound of Argo's hooves hitting the ground, her back stiffened more. But why was she going back? She couldn't think clearly... only, Isaeus had something that had been stolen from her, and maybe in his face she could find it, again. As she entered the village, she rode high, feeling the strength of Argo, the strength in her own body returning. Her hair flew back off her face, and the torchlights caught the flashy metal of her armor.
The bandits were drinking at several tables outside the bar. Apparently, they hadn't made any move yet to take the village. As Xena approached, they all turned, staring in awe at the majestic creature now entering their common lives.
As she got closer, one man stood up and walked out into the street. It was Isaeus. He stood in Xena's path, and she had to pull up hard to keep from running him over. She stayed on Argo, turning broadside to Isaeus and the other men.
"Xena." Isaeus smiled. Everyone else was silent, seemingly too afraid to speak.
Xena looked at the face she had burned into memory so long ago. "Isaeus." She had not meant to say his name so softly, but it was the first time it had passed her lips in years as more than a whisper in a dream.
"Xena... still the soft voice that thrills me." He reached out for her leg, but Xena quickly hopped down and tethered Argo to a post. She kept her distance, almost circling Isaeus, and walked toward the other men. "Barkeep, more wine!"
A little man brought a mug of wine and held it out at arm's length to Xena. He averted his eyes, and held his head down. Xena took the mug and the man backed away and disappeared inside the bar.
"You see the fear in his eyes?" Lais stood up and walked to Xena. "What power you have."
Xena pushed Lais' shoulder and he stumbled, falling to the ground. Everyone laughed. She set the wine on a table.
Isaeus walked up behind her and grabbed her arm, and Xena turned around with her hand ready to strike. But she looked into Isaeus' eyes again and slowly lowered her hand. She looked for words, any words, to say, but of the thousands of times she had imagined the scene, she had never seen him as a warrior... worse, a simple bandit. "What happened to you?"
His expression seemed to melt and he dropped his eyes. "Sometimes life doesn't give us a fair chance." He looked back into Xena's eyes. "After the village was destroyed... There was nothing else I could do." He smiled. "But I always heard rumors of you... how you had become the Warrior Princess."
"Are you saying you became a warrior because of me?" She grabbed his shoulder and made him face her. Her heart sank... another life she had ruined, and this a precious one to her.
"And you, Xena, has life given you what you deserve?"
She looked into Isaeus' eyes, trying to find the man she had known. She thought about Gabrielle... the dress she had wanted... about years of destruction, both of villages and nations, and of friendships. "We all get what we deserve, and more." She pressed her lips together to keep from showing any emotion. "The fates see to that."
Lais, regaining enough courage to speak, walked to Isaeus' side. "Will she lead us?"
Isaeus smiled and looked at Xena's body. "She looks prepared to destroy the whole nation." He looked into Xena's eyes. "Bring them to their knees with your beauty, and to their backs with your sword. Isn't that the saying you used to tell your army?"
"You should have never heard of my army... did Lais tell you?"
"Xena, after the shops close down, we strike. Look at the riches... you can have your heart's desire." Lais waved his hand toward the shop Gabrielle had been in earlier.
The phrase struck Xena like a whip across her back, but still, she showed no outward sign. The things she had learned as a warrior were coming back to her... never let anyone know what you're thinking. "I'm only here to see Isaeus. Be a good little boy and get out of my face." Lais backed away and rejoined the others.
Xena grabbed Isaeus' arm and led him away from the others and around the corner of a building. As she stopped, she turned to face him and he was standing only inches away. She could feel his body getting closer. She put her hands on his chest, lingering for a moment at the familiar feeling, then pushed him away. "I didn't come here for that."
"Why are you here, Xena?" Isaeus' voice changed to anger. "You don't need us to take this village... You could do it by yourself."
"I came to see you... To see someone from the old village." Her answer wasn't what she wanted to say, wasn't what she had said in dreams a thousand times practiced. "I came to make you change."
"Change?" Isaeus laughed and looked away. He took a small bag from his belt and shook it in front of Xena's face. "Here's change... a bag full of dinars."
"Isaeus, where is the young man I used to walk with? What happened to the heart of the man so gentle, you used to free animals from other people's traps?" She looked down at the ground. "The man who stole my heart..."
"Is now stealing money..." He shook the bag in front of her again. "Anything you want, right here... Money rules the world, Xena... money and strength." He suddenly became silent and dropped his eyes; he paused for several moments, then looked back at Xena with tears in his eyes. "That man is still in here, somewhere." He reached out to hug Xena and she let him, falling into his embrace as easily as a lost memory.
She found his lips with her own, just for an instant, then turned her head and eased herself away. She still held on to his waist, trying to keep the dream alive. "You have to get out of here."
Isaeus looked puzzled. "Not until after tonight." He pulled away from her grip and motioned to the shops. "Look... there's enough here to live comfortably for the rest of our lives."
"Xena, imagine. Everything you want..."
Xena thought of Gabrielle... she had everything she wanted, that was still possible to have. It was starting to become clear that Isaeus couldn't give her back the childhood she had lost, no one could. She fought to keep a tear from falling down her face, fearing Isaeus would think it was for him. And maybe part of it was, but it was for more... it was for the death of a dream. She was losing the one thing that had sustained her through most of her years as a warrior... that someday she could go back, and the same faces she had left would welcome her home. "I have everything I want."
Isaeus pressed his body against Xena's and forced her to the wall of the building. "Remember old times? You couldn't have _everything_ you want..."
Xena felt Isaeus' body against hers, and surprisingly, she didn't have the strength to push him away. She was fighting a memory and his closeness began to blur the present with the past. "No, Isaeus, stop." She could barely hear her own voice. Isaeus reached up and pulled the straps of her dress from her shoulders, burying his face in her neck. "No, please..." She closed her eyes and tried to get her arms between them, but the memory was too strong; she dropped her arms loosely at her sides. She opened her eyes and starred at Isaeus' face; there was nothing there she recognized. She tried to twist her body out of his hands, and as she raised her hand to strike, she heard a loud 'thump', and Isaeus suddenly stiffened his body and his eyes rolled back in his head. He fell quickly to the ground.
Standing behind him was Gabrielle, holding her staff. "I told you I wouldn't be there when you got back." Gabrielle poked Isaeus with her staff, testing the effectiveness of her swing. He didn't move.
Xena slid her back down the wall, and the coldness of the ground on her legs seemed to bring some sense back to her. She looked up as Gabrielle reached out her hand. Xena grasped her wrist and Gabrielle pulled her up. She felt tears running down her cheeks, but, this time, it didn't matter. The dream had been broken like an evil spell. She tried to say something to Gabrielle, but no matter how she tried, no words would come out. She finally managed to smile.
Gabrielle caught Xena's eyes in the unguarded moment and whispered. "You're welcome." She pulled the straps of Xena's dress back onto her shoulders, then wiped her tears away with her finger. "Boy, these dreams of yours are really going to hurt you someday."
Xena took a deep breath and felt strength coming back into her body. "Gabrielle... Not as long as I have you around to save me." She looked down at Isaeus, then back to Gabrielle. "It's true... nothing stays the same..."
"Xena, you were just trying to find something... something you had a long time ago. There's nothing wrong with that. I'm sorry I didn't understand." Gabrielle looked down at Isaeus and saw his moneybag had spilled beside his body. She shoved the dinars under his body with her foot. "Come on, let's get out of here."
Xena looked down at the money and then at Gabrielle. "That would buy the dress you wanted."
Gabrielle smiled. "Xena... I would rather be naked than use that money to buy clothes."
Xena raised her eyebrow and smiled. She thought of a perfect reply, but her courage failed her. "There are still ten men, waiting to raid the village."
"Let's go get them." Gabrielle started around the corner of the building, but Xena grabbed her arm and pulled her back.
"There are too many of them. We'll have to have a plan." She realized she would have to get Argo, who was tied in front of the bandits at the bar. "I have to get Argo, then... I... we have to stop them." She cleared her eyes, feeling better with each breath, then straightened her body. "I'll have to get them to follow me." She wiped away what trace of the past remained in her eyes, and suddenly, her countenance changed again to the warrior.
Gabrielle stepped back, always a little frightened when this Xena made an appearance. "What do you want me to do?"
"I'll lead them back on the road to our camp. You wait here. After we're gone tell the villagers what's going on. I'll bring them back into town when the shops have closed... be ready for us."
"Xena, that's not much of a plan." Gabrielle smiled.
"It's the best I've got." She touched Gabrielle's shoulder. "I'll think of something before I bring them back into the village. Just be careful... and make sure the villagers don't try to kill me." She pulled her whip from her side and wrapped it around Isaeus' wrists and ankles, tying it tightly to a post by the wall. "Isaeus... you deserved a better hand than the fates dealt you."
Gabrielle reached out and brushed her hand down Xena's arm. "I'll be waiting. But be careful... you're putting yourself into the enemy's camp." She tried to absorb Xena's smile then sat on a barrel; she looked up and winked at Xena.
"Gabrielle... thank you." She smiled at Gabrielle, then took a deep breath. "Now, let's see if I remember how to do this." She walked back onto the street and rejoined the men. Everyone turned to meet her gaze in silence. "You guys got horses?" Everyone nodded. She grabbed a mug from one of the men's hands and took a drink, then spit it out on the ground and tossed the mug into the street. "You call this wine?"
"Where's Isaeus?" Lais, again gathering his courage, stepped in front of the others.
"Isaeus and I couldn't see eye to eye."
Lais backed away as Xena smiled. "You mean, you killed him?"
Xena walked to Lais and grabbed his shirt. "You want to be next?"
"No... I was just asking." He managed to escape her grip, then backed several steps away.
"OK, you boys want a leader...." Xena unhitched Argo and climbed up. She stiffened her back and raised her chin, then looked down at the men. "I'm heading back to camp.... Anyone who wants to follow, come on." The men quickly jumped up and started for their horses. She rode Argo toward them, forcing them to stop. "Leave some money for the drinks. Don't want them to suspect anything."
The men threw money on the tables, then as Xena backed Argo away from their path, they ran to their horses, and fell in behind her. As Xena looked back at the small army, just for a moment, a feeling of absolute power came to her. She shocked herself... surprised, and a little pleased that she still had the spark of a warrior in her soul. As Xena led the men past Gabrielle, she had to stand and watch; she had never seen Xena, the warrior princess, in her glory. And for a moment Gabrielle could imagine Xena riding into battle, afraid of nothing, a beautiful animal stalking her prey... she smiled with pride.
After they passed a few houses, Xena looked back at the men and saw Gabrielle, already talking with some villagers. "Follow me, boys." She picked up the pace, letting the wind fill her hair, and the rhythm pump through her body.
As they rode out of the torchlit village, she stopped them, and dismounting, led everyone into her and Gabrielle's camp. The fire still burned. All the men gathered around Xena, awaiting her command. She ignored them and poured a drink of water. The men looked on, proud to be in her army. She took out her sword and scraped it along the ground, then brought it up so quickly the men instinctively backed away. "Who's the best with a sword, here." No one answered, apparently believing Xena was challenging them. "I need someone to ride beside me."
The men mumbled to each other, then one man stood up. "Xena, I guess I'm the best, after Isaeus." He was a tall, strongly build boy, reminding Xena of Lyceus. She had to turn away for a moment, but quickly regathered herself. "Name is Paleus."
"Paleus. You ride by me." She put her sword back in it's sheath, then pulled Paleus out of the crowd. "The rest ride behind till we get close, then I want you on foot. You'll be quieter, that way." She looked up at the moon and took a deep breath. "The shops should be closed, by now." She mounted Argo, and the others followed her lead. And as they again approached the torchlights, Xena motioned for the men to dismount and walk behind her.
As they entered town, she drew her sword. She hadn't meant to; it was a learned response... every village she had entered with an army, she had needed her sword. The others spread out behind her, filling the street. There was no sign of life, the shops were closed, everything was quiet. Xena looked around to spot Gabrielle, but there was no sign of her. As they approached the shops, she turned her horse to face the men. Everyone stopped in the middle of the street. Even Paleus backed away from her. "OK, boys, here's the deal...." She backed Argo away from the group. "Give up, now, or die."
The men looked on in disbelief, then started to talk to each other. "It's a trap!" Paleus rode toward Xena and the clash of their swords knocked them both to the ground. Suddenly, villagers came from everywhere, led by Gabrielle, mostly armed with staffs and farming tools. Xena jumped back to her feet in time to catch another blow of Paleus' sword on hers. She twisted her hands and drove the tip of his sword into the ground, then, spinning around, she kicked his legs out from under him. Before he could get up, Xena put her weapon to his throat. He paused for a moment, then rolled out of the way. He jumped to his feet, and as he swung his sword again, Xena ducked, then thrush hers into his chest, hitting his heart and splashing blood all over herself. She closed her eyes as if offering a silent prayer.
She turned to the others in time to see Gabrielle hit Lais solidly in the back of his head, sending him over a post and into a table, splintering it into a hundred pieces. She caught Gabrielle's eye long enough to exchange smiles, then went back into the fray. Three of the bandits ran toward her, swords held high, and as they came into range, she threw a glancing kick, catching all three across their faces. They stiffened, then fell on top of each other. The villagers quickly subdued the others, and the small battlefield was quiet again, except for the whispers of the villagers. "Xena."
As the prisoners were rounded up, the villagers started to surround Xena. Gabrielle ran to her side, prepared for anything. One man stepped out of the crowd and made his way to her. "Xena, we are in your debt. These shops are the livelihood of our entire village." He held out his hand and Xena took it in hers. A cheer went up from the crowd. "Your friend has told us much about you; in fact, she wouldn't stop talking." He smiled and Gabrielle looked down at the ground. "You must stay till tomorrow... there will be a festival in your honor."
"A festival?" Gabrielle's face lit up, showing a bit of the child that still existed in her spirit. She turned to Xena, and raised her eyebrows. "Can we?" She looked at the blood covering Xena's body. "You have to have a bath, anyway."
"A warm bath and anything else you want!" The man looked at the crowd. "Tomorrow we dance!"
Xena looked at the ground and smiled, then looked up at Gabrielle. "Anything we want?"
"You name it." The man waved his arm toward the shops.
"Gabrielle, show the man what you want."
Gabrielle smiled, and tried to hold back a tear, but failed.
Xena walked away and made her way around the building where she had left Isaeus.
He was conscious and when she approached, he looked up and smiled. "Somehow, I knew."
She picked him up by the arm and pushed him against the wall. "You've got two choices: you can join your friends, or you can take off running." She untied the whip.
"If I run, I'll come back someday... with more men." He rubbed his wrists and bent down to pick up his money.
"In my mind, I know what you'll do... but in my heart.... Go on, run."
Isaeus stood up, thought for a moment, then took off. But after a few steps, he stopped, and walked back to Xena. "You never know.... Don't stop trusting your heart, Xenie." He turned and ran, leaving Xena with tears running down her face. No one had called her that since she was a child.
Xena turned and Gabrielle stood in front of her, wearing the beautiful dress. She grabbed the sides and spun around. "What do you think?"
Xena smiled. "Do I get the first dance?"
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