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"You can't be held responsible for that, Xena. You were out of your head. If you had been yourself, you would never have done it," Gabrielle answered, taking another step closer.
"But I did do it. You can't deny that one simple fact. I killed all the men here and whatever the reason, I am responsible. I am worse than a murderer when it comes to these men," Xena said, her voice becoming flat again.
"You're a warrior. You'll always be a warrior. Sane or insane, it's what you are and it is just one of the things I love about you," Gabrielle said softly.
"Then stop loving me, Gabrielle. It just isn't safe anymore. Sooner or later I am going to end up killing everyone around me, including you, so it's better to end it here, now." Xena suddenly turned and ran for the covering forest.
"Not this time, my warrior love," Gabrielle muttered as she took off after Xena.
On any other day, Xena would have out-distanced the smaller bard in moments but her reserves were long gone after a night of running and a day of tracing the river. Gabrielle pelted along behind the warrior, never quite losing sight of her through the trees. Two summers of walking beside Xena and Argo had given her shorter legs the strength she needed to keep up and her own fierce determination had her dogging Xena's footsteps through the woods.
Following close behind, Gabrielle saw Xena slide to a halt in another tiny clearing, bringing her sword up in front of her body. The bard burst through the last of the low branches a dozen or so paces from the warrior. Xena took a very half-hearted swing at the woman. She was not trying to harm the bard but Xena did want to convince Gabrielle to return to the village and simply let her get on with what she had decided to do. Gabrielle ducked under the sword, rolled and bounced back to her feet on Xena's right. Xena swung the sword again, no more seriously than before, Gabrielle stepping back a bit to let the weapon move passed her.
Xena turned and took off into the forest once more, hoping if she could just run far enough she would shake the smaller woman from her trail. She could hear Gabrielle panting along behind her, slowly dropping behind.
Just when Gabrielle thought she was going to have to fall back and hope she could follow the tall warrior's trail, glancing behind her, Xena stumbled over a protruding tree root as she took her eyes from the path ahead. She hit the ground hard enough to stun her for a moment. It was all the time the bard needed to catch up again. From somewhere deep inside she found a short burst of speed. Throwing herself bodily at the still rising warrior, both tumbled over each other until Xena came to rest on her back, Gabrielle sitting heavily on her chest, one hand holding the tired warrior to the ground.
"You have never run from a fight in your life, Xena," she yelled angrily into the other woman's expressionless face. "If you want to run from this one, if you're so damned determined to leave this world," Gabrielle tore Amaran's knife from the sheath at her waist, "then it will be my hand that does it and no other." Gabrielle was sure this time. This was the right decision.
Pushing the knife against the warrior's throat, its razor sharp edge under her chin, Gabrielle said, "Goodbye, Xena. I love you."
"What an unholy MESS!" Ephiny snapped, once she had gotten a full report from Eponin and Amaran. Even from the palace, she had heard the uproar coming from the meeting hall and the sound of hoofbeats thundering out of the village. "Where is the delegation now?" she growled.
"Back in their huts and under guard," Eponin replied. "It was the only place to put them for the moment. Half the women want to hang that idiot Drayton for the things he was saying, and that was before Gabrielle suddenly took off."
"Either of you know where Gabrielle was headed?" the Queen asked, her temper far from cooling. She watched, annoyed, when both Eponin and Amaran shook their heads.
"A safe bet would be somewhere on the western border," Amaran offered quietly. She knew she shouldn't have let the princess go like that but there was nothing she could have really done to stop her, short of tying her up, perhaps. Then again, Gabrielle was so frantic to find the warrior woman she may well have wriggled off on her butt to get to Xena.
"BY ALL THE GODS ON MOUNT OLYMPUS, EVEN I COULD HAVE FIGURED OUT THAT MUCH!" the Amazon Queen bellowed.
"EPHINY! STOP IT!"
The Queen spun at hearing her name shouted from the other side of her bedchamber, to see Jadax trying to struggle into a sitting position. Rushing over, Ephiny gently forced the scout back down on the bed. "Shhh, you'll hurt yourself again if you try to get up."
"Then stop shouting at Eponin and Amaran. It's not their fault that Gabrielle took off like that and Drayton is an idiot. Imagine, insulting an Amazon Princess in her own village," Jadax said, ending with a smile. "At least Amaran made sure Gabrielle had a weapon of some sort on her before she left."
"Well, there is that, I suppose. Nothing we can do about it until one or the other returns here," Ephiny said in a much calmer tone of voice, as she sat down carefully on the side of the bed to make sure Jadax didn't try to rise again. "Okay, what do we do about the delegation? I can't even guess at how long it will be before Gabrielle returns."
A very timid knock at the door distracted everyone for a moment. One of the guards who had been assigned to watch after the villagers poked her head hesitantly around the frame, not wishing to disturb the Queen in her bedchamber even though it was being used as an office more often than it was for sleeping lately. "Um, Queen Ephiny. I've brought one of the delegation with me and I really think you should hear what she has to say," she said.
"Show her in," Ephiny replied, irritably. "I wonder what little gems she is going to bring?" the woman asked as a quiet sarcastic aside to Jadax.
The guard quickly escorted the old village woman into the room and then stepped back outside to stand watch over the door. Both women had heard the Queen's bellow from the other side of the outer door and the woman was understandably nervous about approaching the Amazon Queen. It was only because she felt what she had to say was so important she allowed the guard to take her into the Queen's quarters at all. Eponin kindly led her to a chair and seated her before letting Ephiny and her uncertain temper say anything.
"Please, um, Your Majesty?" the old woman asked, not sure of how to address Amazon royalty.
"Ephiny will suit for now. What seems to be on your mind?" the Queen inquired mildly, not wanting to frighten the woman any more than she already appeared to be.
"Ephiny, about our menfolk, the ones who came onto your lands?"
"The clearing," Eponin whispered almost soundlessly from behind the woman.
"The ones who were looking for gold, you mean?" the Queen asked.
The old woman nodded and made an obvious attempt to brace herself for the worst.
"I'm sorry to say, they are all dead. We didn't kill them but they died in a clearing near the western border," Ephiny explained as gently as she could.
The old woman hung her head for a moment. When she raised her head again, her eyes were bright with unshed tears but she continued. "We, the women, I mean, thought that is what had happened but Drayton wouldn't tell us anything, you see," she said calmly.
"What's Drayton got to do with all this?" Ephiny asked. She was already starting to get a good idea of what had been going on in the villages on the western border but she wanted to hear it from someone who actually lived there.
"He was the first one to find the gold in the river near my village. He managed to convince a lot of the menfolk to start looking, taking some of what they found for himself. Said because he had found it to start with, he had a right to a percentage from everyone else who looked," the woman explained carefully. "Eventually he had menfolk from all five villages down on that river every day. But there wasn't a lot there to start with and it soon ran out. So he kept moving the sites further and further up the river until he got to the border."
"Which is where Kaliope came into it, I'm sure," Eponin said from behind.
Twisting a little in the chair, the woman nodded. "That one had been feeling the rough hand of her brother from the time she was born. Even when she was full growed, he was still beating on her all the time. She just got to the point where she did whatever he told her to do. Like he broke her spirit or something," the old woman said. Hanging her head a little, "There was talk about other things happening behind closed doors at night but..." shrugging her shoulders, "it was just talk. I never saw anything to say it was true."
All the Amazons shuddered at the knowledge of what those 'other things' were, knowing exactly what the woman was talking about.
"So he convinced her to come here and act as his inside contact," Ephiny stated.
"Oh, it was more than that," the woman said. "Near the end of the cliffs, there is a place where the caves pass right through and come out at a ravine somewhere inside your lands. Kaliope would lead menfolk through the caves at night and take them to the river to look for gold."
"Knowing exactly where to go to avoid the patrols and border parties. Tricky, that. I know about the cave you mention too. It's a bit of a rough trip getting through but I suppose greed can make people do all kinds of funny things," Eponin said quietly. "When did that start?" she asked.
"About a moon or so ago," the woman answered.
"Well after I had broken my ankle and couldn't patrol that section of the border," Jadax almost shouted.
"I wonder how long he intended to keep it up? Jadax was eventually going to go back on patrol and would have found them at that clearing in a matter of days, if not sooner," Eponin asked.
"Can't answer that one for you but I do know the gold in that river is the reason Drayton is so keen to have passage rights," the old woman said quietly.
"Well, he wasn't going to get it anyway. These are Amazon lands and we have no men walking across them unless they have been invited," Ephiny snapped, frightening the woman a little at the sight of an angry Amazon warrior.
Jadax raised her head slightly so she could see the village woman. "Why are you telling us all this?" she asked.
"You mean aside from the fact we have lost so many of our menfolk to this madness?" the woman questioned in return.
"Yes, why put yourself in this kind of danger?" Ephiny replied.
"Because Drayton has started bringing in some of the worst kind of thugs you can imagine, to protect the villages, or so he says. Personally, I think he wants to use them to keep us in line or to attack your lands so he can look for more gold in the rest of your rivers and streams. But that is just an old woman talking," she said, shrugging one shoulder.
"You keep right on talking. You've made more sense in this little while than Drayton did all afternoon," Eponin said kindly. "You leave everything to us now. I'll make sure the guard gets you back to your hut without Drayton seeing you."
Gently handing the woman over to the guard at the door, she turned back to the room and asked, "Well, what are we going to do?"
Xena looked up into the sea-green eyes of the bard. Although she could see the sadness and pain welling up in them, she was also aware Gabrielle was very serious. Deadly serious, in fact. If Xena really was that determined to end her own life, the bard had just made it clear, she was going to be the one to do it. Slowly reaching up with one hand, Xena gently pushed the tightly closed fist holding the knife away from her throat. "No, Gabrielle, I don't want to leave this life but I'm not sure I know how to live it anymore either," she said.
Sliding the knife back into the sheath at her waist, Gabrielle answered quietly, "Then we'll figure it out together, just like we've always done." Moving down the warrior's longer body, the bard stretched out and wrapped her arms around Xena, feeling the other woman return the embrace.
"I really did kill all those men in the clearing, Gabrielle," Xena said, feeling another wave of guilt wash over her.
"I know. We came across it when we first went looking for you," the bard replied, her ear against Xena's chest, listening to her strongly beating heart. It was a sound she never tired of hearing. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner but the time never seemed quite right."
"Would it have made it any easier?" Xena asked, enjoying the feel of the other woman's slighter body against her own, grounding her in its solid reality.
"It might have been easier than coming across it on your own. At least I would have been there for you," Gabrielle replied.
"I don't think even having you with me would have stopped the guilt. I killed over two dozen innocent men for no reason at all. At least none that I can see now, anyway," the warrior whispered.
"Tell me, does madness need a reason?" Gabrielle asked seriously.
Xena thought about the question for some time before answering. "No, I guess not. I still don't understand why I lost my senses though," she finally replied.
Gabrielle sat up a little so she could see into the sky blue eyes of the woman who meant more to her than anything in the world, even more than her own life. "Think about it, Xena. I'm not saying this is the answer. Maybe there simply isn't one but this is what I think, for what it's worth. You had over ten cycles of whatever it was you were feeling when you were a warlord. Then there was everything that happened before that, the death of your brother, for example. I'll bet anything, you never once mourned him properly."
Xena dropped her eyes for a moment. It was true. At the time her brother had been killed, she had simply shut down all her feelings, letting a cold rage fill her heart instead. It had been almost the only feeling she was aware of for cycles after that, ruthlessly crushing from her thinking mind any other emotion that dared to raise its head, until she finally saw what she had been doing with her life and decided to change.
Gabrielle waited until Xena's eyes had returned to her own before continuing. "There was all that locked away inside of you, as well as everything you've felt since then. You never talk about it, never let any of it out. Sooner or later it was going to hit back."
"It might be part of the answer, Gabrielle but will it happen again? Will I lose my grip on reality and kill even more innocent people?" Xena asked.
Now it was the bard's turn to think long and hard about a question. Eventually, she reached some conclusion. "I don't know. Maybe it will, if you keep yourself so locked up. Then again, it may never happen. All I know for sure, is if it does happen again, then I am going to be right there to help you."
Xena's eyes filled with tears. "Help me now, Gabrielle. How do I live with what I have done?" Xena closed her eyes and started sobbing quietly.
"You're already doing it," Gabrielle whispered as she tightened her grip around the tall warrior's shuddering shoulders.
Xena's sense of direction had quickly gotten them onto the river path and they were now slowly walking back to Argo, still tied to a tree near the clearing. True night had long fallen and both women had felt a little chilled lying on the forest litter. The warrior had wept for some time, Gabrielle simply holding her closely and allowing Xena to find a little solace in the release. Walking passed the bottom of the clearing, both women stopped for moment to look at the strongly glowing pile of embers that had once been over two dozen men.
"I still feel responsible for this," Xena said, taking the bard's hand in her own.
"They are just as responsible for their own deaths, Xena. Greed did this to them as surely as your blade," Gabrielle replied.
Turning from the scene in front of them and continuing down the path, Xena leaned towards the smaller woman at her side, "You were really serious about ending my life earlier today, weren't you?" she asked quietly, touching the shallow, bloodless cut under her chin.
Gabrielle looked at the ground for several heartbeats, finally raising her eyes to meet with Xena's impossibly blue ones. "Remember how you told me about Marcus? What you did when the extra day of life Hades had given him came to an end?"
"Yes, I remember," Xena replied, the memory causing nothing more than a sweet ache in her heart.
"You loved him enough to do what you thought was right for him, didn't you?" the bard asked.
"I wanted it to be my hand to send him back to the arms of death," the warrior said, softly.
"Well, I did what I thought was right for you," Gabrielle answered.
"I'd wait for you, you know," Xena stated.
"You wouldn't have to wait long, Xena," Gabrielle said seriously, turning the taller woman until the bard could slide her arms around Xena's strong, muscular body, drawing her down into a tender kiss.
Reluctantly breaking their lips apart, Xena began to move along the path again, the bard tucked under one arm. Reaching the patiently waiting mare, she quickly mounted, holding her hand out to help Gabrielle.
"Do I have to ride, Xena?" the blonde asked, the hesitation clear in her voice.
"Can you think of a faster way back to the palace and a hot meal?" Xena asked, a small smile on her face.
"It's just that I'm kinda chafed from coming out here, is all. Hurts a bit, if you know what I mean," Gabrielle said, the chagrin showing in her eyes even in the thin light of the rising moon.
Xena laughed kindly, not meaning to tease the smaller woman standing by her leg. "We'll ride slow then. You won't chafe anymore that way."
Letting the warrior lift her up, Gabrielle found herself in front of Xena instead of behind where she usually sat. Strong arms circled her waist and a pair of soft lips began to nibble their way up her partially exposed shoulder and neck. As Argo started a slow walk down the path, Gabrielle was no longer noticing the rub of mare's coat against her skin. She wasn't noticing much of anything, other than what those warm lips were doing to her heart rate.
Eponin stretched lazily on the bench outside Amaran's hut, her hands coming to rest on her full stomach. When Amaran had offered to make a late night snack for them both, Eponin had willingly agreed to it. It wasn't often she had someone else to cook for her, usually taking most of her meals in the mess building or simply throwing something together for herself. The Royal guard settled on the bench next to the warrior and handed her a wooden cup full of hot mint tea. "Thanks," she said, taking a careful sip.
"Xena seemed a little, I don't know, quieter than usual tonight," Amaran said.
"Probably just tired. She managed to cover a lot of ground last night and today," Eponin replied, though she had noticed it herself.
"With those red eyes? I think not. Something happened out there or why did the Princess take off like that this afternoon?" the guard asked.
"Guess we will never know. Xena doesn't talk much and when she does, it's usually to Gabrielle," the warrior answered.
The two women sat in silence, thinking about everything they had heard earlier. No one had been surprised to learn of Xena's discovery of the sluice boxes in the river or the places where digging had already taken place inside the hunting grounds. Ephiny had decided to be at the meeting scheduled for the next afternoon to back Gabrielle up in any decisions she made regarding the negotiations. Eponin had expected more of a protest from Jadax, who would still be in bed recovering from her back injury. The little scout had barely said a word after Gabrielle and Xena had returned from wherever they had been. They had also not been surprised when Xena made it clear she was going to be at the meeting as well. Eponin still felt the tall, dark-haired woman should have been there from the start but Xena did things her own way and for her own reasons.
"Where's your daughter tonight?" Eponin suddenly asked, noticing the utter stillness of the Royal guard's hut.
"Lias? She's with one of her aunties. I thought we could do with some peace and quiet after the day we put in," Amaran answered.
"Bit of a tearaway, is she?"
"Not really, just your average Amazon girl coming up on the Age of Beginnings," the guard replied, smiling at the thought of her young daughter who would soon be starting her own training as an Amazon warrior.
Eponin laughed lightly. "I remember it myself. By the gods, I felt so grown up at eight cycles, just starting out on the path of a warrior. They soon knocked all that cockiness out of me though, once I walked onto the training ground for the first time," the warrior grinned broadly at the memory. "I thought I would never stop aching all the first cycle. I guess after that, I got used to the pace and the rigours of training."
"Did you ever sneak of to, well, you know, as you got older?" Amaran asked, the heat starting to grow on her cheeks.
"Who didn't," Eponin found herself also blushing at the memories of those early explorations. "When a girl's womanhood starts to come on her, I think the trainers plan on losing us for a while. At least until we have broken our hearts a time or two anyway."
"You must have broken quite a few hearts," Amaran said gently, carefully placing her hand over Eponin's as it rested on the bench between them.
The warrior stared down at the hand over her own, her heart feeling as though it was trying to climb out of her throat. Struggling to force the words passed her lips, "N...not really. I..."
Eponin's voice was stopped dead as the other woman gently picked up the warrior's hand and kissed the back of it, watching for any reaction in Eponin's eyes. The feel of soft lips caressing the skin of her hand caused those eyes to close slowly. Amaran turned Eponin's hand over and kissed the strong palm she was presented with, calluses from sword and bow feeling rough against her tongue. The guard stood, pulling the other woman to her feet.
"Why don't you sleep here tonight?" Amaran asked softly.
"I...I'm n...not sure," Eponin managed to say at last.
"I don't want to do anything. I'd just like to hold you in my arms for one night. I won't push you for anything you're not ready to do yourself," the other woman replied, slowly embracing the nervous warrior. If she is going to bolt, now is the time, the guard thought to herself.
Eponin felt the arms come around her, hands gently rubbing her back. Fighting the fears she could hear screaming in her heart, she stepped closer into the embrace and circled the other woman's waist with her own hands. "I think I'd like that," she said, feeling a little of the hurt she had carried for so long open up to be healed.
The two women, still arm in arm, entered Amaran's small hut and within moments the candlelight died into comforting blackness.
Gabrielle let herself sink deeply into the warm waters of the hot spring until just her nose and eyes were above the waterline. For a change there was no one else there and she was enjoying the moment of rare privacy she had been given. Taking advantage of the emptiness of the place, she had happily climbed into the biggest spring, even though her feet came nowhere near the bottom. Usually she chose one of the smaller pools so she could stand up while she bathed. She was revelling in the feeling of floating in the largest hot tub in the known world. Xena always did say I was nothing more than a big hedonist, she snorted to herself.
The healer had suggested she have a soak before the meeting scheduled for the afternoon, to ease some of the ache in her legs from her run after Xena the day before and to soothe the chafing of her knees and thighs. Xena had gently rubbed oil onto the raw skin the night before, which had soon led to other things but the continued stiffness when she woke had her visiting the healer to gain some relief. There would be no way she could have sat through the entire meeting otherwise.
Xena still seemed rather quiet and subdued over breakfast but had reassured the bard, several times, she was not the cause. Gabrielle had noticed as soon as the warrior had stood up after eating, her back was straight and true again, though the heavy weight of Xena's guilt still showed strongly in her shadowed eyes. The bard hoped, with time, Xena would see she was not responsible for what she had done to those men in the clearing but she doubted the warrior would ever completely forgive herself.
Thinking about it, Gabrielle realised why she had been having so much trouble dealing with her own decision to kill Xena on the morning she had returned to the village, insane and uncontrollable. I couldn't forgive myself, she thought. Yet, yesterday I held a knife to her throat fully intending to do it again. Only this time it was the right decision to make, and for the right reasons, she mused. Rising from the water a little to rest her head against the rim of the spring, she muttered, "So maybe the first decision was the wrong one to make but I made it for the right reasons." For the first time in several days, Gabrielle felt a part of her mind relax and her self-confidence rose a little from rock bottom. Remembering what she had said to Xena the day before about reasons always having meaning, she decided no matter whether decisions were right or wrong, if the reasons were true then, whatever the outcome, she could learn to live with them.
Feeling she had learned something new and maybe had taken another small step towards growing up to be the person she wanted to be, Gabrielle sank under the water to wash her hair. Her feet had barely touched the sandy bottom of the spring when something massive and heavy landed on the top of her head, holding her under the water. She started to struggle, lifting her hands up to shift the weight that was holding her down. Her fingers suddenly found themselves wrapped around the massive digits of someone above her. Hands that large could only belong to Drayton, Gabrielle had seen them thumping the table in front of her enough times the day before. Fighting harder, she tried to twist her body from under the man's weight bearing down on top of her but another giant fist grabbed her shoulder, suspending her in place under the water.
Dark spots began to fill her vision and she could feel the urge to breathe growing stronger. Trying not to panic, she allowed a small stream of bubbles to leave her mouth. It took some of the pressure off her chest but she knew it wouldn't be too much longer before she would fighting to inhale again, even if it was the warm waters of the spring. Planting her feet solidly on the bottom, she used her strong legs to try to push back against Drayton's hand on her head. It was like trying to move a mountain. Blackness was starting to creep in around the edges of her sight and she was fighting her own panic at drowning as much as she was trying not to open her mouth and breathe in warm water. Just as she felt herself beginning to black out, sure the next lungful she got would be liquid and not air, a massive body suddenly tumbled into the pool with her, quickly followed by another dressed in lighter buckskin and armour. Feeling the weight gone from above, Gabrielle shot to the surface, gasping air into her oxygen starved lungs.
Clutching at the side of the spring with almost strengthless fingers, she looked down at the churning waters and the two people fighting under it. She couldn't see much, just two bodies twisting and turning over each other, sand clouding the pool until there were little more than dark, moving shadows under the water. The movement grew more frenzied, the shadows becoming grey shapes as they sank to the bottom, sand obscuring all signs of what was happening. After several moments of stillness, one of the shapes disengaged from the other and headed for the surface.
A head, covered in long raven hair with impossibly blue eyes emerged from the water, searching out the bard, still hanging onto the side weakly. "Let's get you out of here," Xena said.
Gabrielle nodded. She was more than happy to end her bath today.
"What did he hope to gain from drowning me?" Gabrielle asked. She was stretched out comfortably on the bed, a long robe wrapped around her. Xena had helped her from the pool but as soon as she had stood on her own two feet, the reaction of what had just happened hit home. The bard's knees had given way and the warrior simply picked up Gabrielle's small weight and carried her back to the palace. She was still trembling a little even now, a full candlemark later but the tears had long stopped and she was slowly calming down again. She knew, in the deepest parts of her soul, another dozen heartbeats and she would have been dead, if not for Xena appearing out of the blue.
"Maybe, he thought if he removed you from the negotiations, he could bully someone else into giving him passage rights. Someone who didn't appear as strong as you did yesterday," Eponin offered.
"Strong? Me? I was too terrified of saying the wrong thing and ruining the rest of the negotiations to even make a sound," Gabrielle replied, surprised her silence of the day before had been so misinterpreted.
Xena looked down at the woman she knew to be the other half of her soul. "If you don't feel it, fake it," she said.
Nudging the tall warrior's thigh with her foot, the bard giggled, "So that's who told Eponin. She gave me the same advice the first morning of the meetings. Does this mean that some of your big, tough warrior silences are simply you faking it?"
Xena dropped her head and blushed a little before raising her eyes to the blonde lying on the bed. "Gotta have some secrets, don't I?"
"Hmmm, we'll see about that, warrior," Gabrielle said. "Speaking of secrets, how did you know to come and save me, again, when Drayton tried to drown me?" she asked, shuddering at how close he had come to doing just that.
"Spotted him sneaking around the back of the springs as I came off the training ground. We all know none of the men from the delegation are allowed near the springs. I didn't know you were in there at the time. I thought he was trying to grab a quick bath or something. I crept around the back myself just in case that was what he was doing. The last thing I wanted to see was his naked body, so I was careful. When I saw him leaning over into the water of the big pool and your clothes piled up next to it, I realised what was going on," Xena explained to a rapt bard. Something tells me this is going to end up in another of those tales she is so good at writing, Xena thought to herself. Only this death was for the right reasons. To protect and defend.
"So what do we do about the delegation from the villages and the trade agreement?" Gabrielle asked quietly. She was not looking forward to the negotiations any more than she had before but it would be a lot easier no longer having Drayton's big fists slamming into the table every few breaths.
"Ephiny..." Eponin started to say when the Queen walked into the room, briefly startling everyone, except Xena who had heard her footsteps long before she arrived at the door.
"You were saying? Ephiny what?" the woman asked.
"I was about to say you had gone over to talk to the delegation yourself and see what they had to say about Drayton's death," Eponin answered. "What did they say?" she asked.
"Well, one or two are not particularly happy. Cronies of Drayton's from what I could gather but most of the others are, how would I put it, guardedly optimist about the success of the negotiations now," the Queen replied. "They've already chosen a new leader for the delegation too."
"Let me guess. The old woman who brought us all the information about what has been happening in the villages lately," Amaran said from her position just behind Eponin.
Ephiny laughed. "Ever thought about moving into politics, Amaran?"
"Nope. I'm perfectly happy being a Royal guard," she answered, a shy smile on her face that every one in the room knew was just for Eponin who had turned around the first time the guard had spoken.
Xena and Gabrielle shared a private look and a nod between themselves, knowing what they were seeing in front of them.
"I have to get back before Jadax crawls from that bed on her hands and knees but I thought I would just let you know the meetings have been re-scheduled for tomorrow. I can't see it taking more than a day or two to sort things out now. The villagers seem reasonably happy with the agreement as it stands, with just a couple of minor changes," Ephiny said. She left a few moments later, humming happily to herself.
"I'm off too," Amaran said as she headed towards the door. "My daughter hasn't seen a lot of me lately and is starting to think I have abandoned her to her aunt."
"Mind some company?" Eponin asked, rising from her seat.
"Umm, no. Lias is dying to meet you. Heard all about your adventures and stuff," Amaran replied, blushing a little.
Xena and Gabrielle watched as the two women left the room, walking so closely light wouldn't have passed between them.
"If those two aren't joined by season's change, I'll eat my quill," Gabrielle stated confidently.
Xena moved up the bed, stretching her long length against the bard's shorter body, a melting look in her eyes. Holding her close, one finger tracing intricate patterns on the other woman's back, she asked, "Ever thought about a joining for us?"
Gabrielle stared back, speechless. For the first time in her life, she had absolutely no idea of what to say.
Four days later and the two women were back on the road once more, Gabrielle having completed the negotiations to the satisfaction of everyone, villager and Amazon alike. Xena and Gabrielle had fallen back into the rhythm of the road like they had never been away but they weren't pushing the pace just yet. A couple of seven-days at the Amazon village had given Gabrielle an extra layer of cover she hadn't anticipated and Argo was certainly a little rounder than when she had first arrived. Xena hadn't gained or lost any weight at all but then, she rarely did.
The sun was well down in the afternoon sky and Xena was already looking for a place to camp for the night. Gabrielle had been so quiet for the past candlemark or so, the warrior thought she must be tired already. It had been a while since the bard had walked all day in the hot sun. Glancing down she noticed the concentrated look on the other woman's face. "Whatcha thinking, Gabrielle?" Xena asked curiously.
"It was really special the way you offered to come back and help with the sheep," the bard replied, looking up at the mounted warrior beside her.
Xena closed her eyes for a moment before speaking. "They're going to be pretty shorthanded come market season. It was the least I could do after..." she couldn't continue. Taking a deep breath, "At least they accepted, even though they had been told who killed their husbands and brothers."
"I know, Xena but it was still special. Though, " the bard giggled, "what are we going to tell people? Xena, Warrior Princess becomes Xena, herder of sheep. Now there would be a tale to tell."
The tall warrior gave Gabrielle a nudge with her toe. "Don't even think it, bard. It's bad enough your making a tale of my drunken night with Eponin. Do you have to be quite so graphic with the morning after part?"
Gabrielle laughed aloud. She had gotten a chance to tell her version of the whole story over a festive evemeal in the Queen's bedchamber the night before, soon having the entire gathering in stitches, including Jadax who was sitting up for the first time and well on the way to recovering. Both Xena and Eponin, however, had looked about ready to crawl under the bed with embarrassment. "That's half the charm of the story, Xena. Show's you really are human like the rest of us poor mortals."
Xena grunted in response before returning her eyes to the road ahead, thinking she remembered a place a little further along that would make a good campsite.
Gabrielle walked along quietly for a few moments before saying, "What do you think of Eponin and Amaran?"
"I think they are quite suited to each other, if Amaran remembers to take her time and go slow," Xena replied.
"Was that what you were telling Amaran this morning?" Gabrielle asked, her bump of curiosity tingling away.
"Among other things. I was also telling her she needs to stop leading with her elbow quite so much. One day it might mean losing that arm if someone hits it the right way," Xena said.
"Oh! You warrior types are all the same. Where's your sense of romance?" the bard grumbled.
Xena smiled down at the shorter woman. "I thought that's what I had you for?" Digging her heels into Argo's ribs, she was some distance down the road before the bard could think up a fitting retort.
By the time Gabrielle had strolled into the clearing where they were to spend the night, Xena had already started a fire and laid out the bedrolls. The bard found the tall warrior on the other side of a screen of low bushes, thigh deep in a stream, her head cocked to one side, listening for fish. Gabrielle was still amazed at Xena's unorthodox fishing method but it seemed to work for her and had filled the bard's stomach on many a night. Standing well back from the fishing woman; remembering the faceful of fish she had gotten the last time she had been too close, Gabrielle watched, fascinated.
"We could do with some more firewood, Gabrielle," Xena said, not taking her attention from whatever she was hearing under the water.
"Hrumph. I thought you liked an audience so you could show off a little," Gabrielle replied.
Xena grinned back over her shoulder. "You already know how good I am," she said.
"In more ways than one," the bard answered wickedly, already backing away to look for wood.
The warrior chuckled to herself. "And I fully intend proving it tonight," she muttered. It was wonderful to be completely alone again after days around the Amazons. However much she enjoyed their company and liked the life of the village, she felt more comfortable around Gabrielle when they were like this, alone in the forest with just each other and no distractions.
Gabrielle was still smiling to herself as she entered the forest and began to collect deadfall to use on the fire that night. She was also looking forward to having the warrior all to herself again. Out here in the woods, they didn't have to muffle their love making in the least. Gabrielle was still cringing over the look one of the guards had given them the morning after Xena had made love to the bard in a chair. She hadn't meant to be that loud, she was just used to the privacy of the forest.
Picking up branches as she walked, Gabrielle let her mind wander over the impending wonders of the night ahead. She was paying enough attention to the sounds around her to warn of trouble but beyond that, her mind was firmly centred on the dark-haired woman still fishing in the stream. Eyes on the ground, looking for dead branches, she stepped into a small clearing, delighted to see it covered with enough wood to fill her arms several times over. Stooping to pick up the deadfall, Gabrielle heard an ominous sounding creak. Snapping back up again, she swung her eyes in every direction to try to identify the noise. Looking up, she saw something that stopped her heart for a moment, only to have it start again at twice its usual pace. "Xena," she called over her shoulder. "XENA!!"
The warrior had heard the first call and from the tone of voice, Gabrielle was in some kind of trouble. Not bothering with boots or armour, she snatched her sword from its sheath and pelted into the forest in the direction of the cry. Hearing the second scream and she quickened her pace to a dead flat run. Xena came to a sudden, skidding halt beside the shaking bard, trying to see where the enemy was. Turning to the bard, she could see the pale, staring eyes of her lover, her head tilted back looking at something in the trees above them. Following Gabrielle's eyeline, she peered through the branches and spotted the same thing that had so shocked the bard.
High in the branches, swinging gently back and forth in the late afternoon breeze was Kaliope's body.
"Go back to the campsite, Gabrielle," Xena said softly.
The bard simply shook her head, her eyes never leaving the body.
"Don't argue with me. Go back," the warrior said again, a little more sternly than before. Turning the other woman around, Xena waited until she had lost sight of her in the trees.
Two candlemarks later, Xena trudged back through the growing darkness, arriving in camp to find Gabrielle seated in front of the fire, tear stains still fresh on her cheeks.
"What took you so long?" the bard asked, her voice sounding a little ragged.
"I buried the body," Xena replied.
"Do...do you know what happened?" she asked hesitantly, not sure if she wanted to hear what Xena might tell her.
"She hung herself."
"But why?" Gabrielle questioned.
Xena squatted down in front of the other woman, gently taking the bard's cold hands in her own callused ones. "We may never know but I think it might have something to do with the way things were for her at that village. Once she had been banished from the Amazon Nation, there really wasn't anything left for her. Kaliope didn't want to go back to the life she had led before."
Gabrielle shuddered, remembering what she and Xena had been told about Kaliope's possible living conditions at the village with her brother, Drayton.
"And her spirit was probably broken like the old woman said. She may have felt there was nothing else to live for, so she took her own life. It was probably the most honourable act she had ever performed," Xena explained. The big woman's death had shaken her too but Gabrielle needed to lean on her strength for a little while until she made sense of it herself.
"Suicide? Honourable?" Gabrielle asked, shocked. "Since when is taking your own life honourable?"
"Sometimes, when someone is in a lot of pain, for a long time, in their body or in their soul, maybe the only option they can see for themselves is the path of death. Which is the better choice? To stay in this world and continue to suffer or end it all and stop the pain?" Xena replied gravely.
Gabrielle's optimist nature wanted to say a person should stay but then she remembered a defeated and despairing warrior, with bleak eyes and an expressionless face. She remembered holding a knife to the throat of that warrior and offering them the choice of living or dying. "I don't know, Xena. It just seems so cruel, is all."
Tenderly pulling the other woman into her lap and wrapping strong arms around her still trembling body, Xena said, "The world is a cruel place. There isn't a lot we can do about it right now. But, believe me, with people like you in this world, things will change and maybe it will grow a little less cruel."
"It will change with people like you too, Xena. The world will always need its warriors to help protect and defend," the bard said softly, nestling into the comfort of Xena chest, listening for the sound of her strongly beating heart.
Xena kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. "Maybe," she whispered. "Maybe."
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