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DISCLAIMER: Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
VIOLENCE AND SEX WARNING: This story contains definite violence and bloodletting, no explicit sex, though love between women is an issue, and occurs shortly after my third story "The Warrior's Love." You should read that one to understand this one. Besides, it might be fun. © December 1997
NOTE TO FANS: This is the last story by MythMaker unless I get some feedback to persuade me otherwise. I believe very much in celebrating love in its many forms. Gender is irrelevant to the core of a human's ability to reach out and connect with another human being; to be caring, loving and committed to that other soul.
DEDICATION: This story is for my sister, the most eloquent bard I know, with love and thanks.
The Undone Warrior
Gabrielle had to admit there were times when she actually enjoyed riding Argo. After three days of hard walking, it was delightful to rest her weary feet and lean against her warrior's strong back and doze. Xena always knew when the bard fell asleep, the strength of the young woman's grip lessened until she would let go all together. The warrior, sensing the coming of that moment of total release would casually rest her left arm over the clasped hands of her little bard and keep her securely tethered. Xena laughed to herself. Gabrielle fought so hard to avoid getting up on the tall horse, then fell asleep as if she was an old hand at riding. The Warrior Princess took it as a compliment that her friend trusted her so completely.
The two companions were on their way to Larissa in the Thessaly plain. Xena had heard from the Amazon healer, Ama, about a man there who knew more healing techniques using pressure points. He had recently come from the Far East. The women had been journeying since early morning and both Argo and Gabrielle needed a rest. Xena dismounted and helped Gabrielle down. Still not back into the rhythm of travelling, due to their two-moon stay with the Amazons, Gabrielle stumbled as she tried to walk. Xena steadied her and helped her to a convenient log. The bard enjoyed having the strong warrior's arms support her. She felt very happy and secure. It was also wonderful to relax and not think about being constantly on display. Being the Amazon queen was exhausting, if for no other reason than she was always being observed and sometimes worshipped by her subjects. It was a difficult thing to handle for the humble bard.
"It feels so good to be alone again. I hate always being watched," Gabrielle said.
"But Gabrielle, I thought you loved being around people," teased Xena.
"Well, Xena, I do, but especially on this visit, it was as though I was always performing. I could only relax with you, Ephiny, and maybe Solari and Eponin. Everyone else was so, I don't know, deferential. I hate being looked on as royal. It's just not me."
"But Gabrielle, you do the Amazon-queen-thing so well. You're so gracious, and wise, and . . . oooff!" Xena stopped as Gabrielle jabbed her elbow in the warrior's stomach.
"Enough!" commanded the Queen.
"Yes, your majesty," Xena said, bowing as she backed away from her regal pal.
Xena thought about where to set up camp for the night. As she assessed their location and the state of the sky, she realized they were in for a storm. Better eat a quick meal of bread and cheese, and then find a cave for shelter.
"Come on, Gabrielle, eat this. We need to get going. Looks like a storm is headed our way. I want to get us to the White Scar Cliffs before it hits. There are some good caves there."
Gabrielle grumbled but ate quickly. Despite Xena and Argo's best efforts, they were soaking wet when they reached the cliffs. The torrential rain made it difficult to see and Xena was glad that she knew the area so well. She was able to ride Argo into the largest of the caves. Their luck improved as Gabrielle found some dried wood stacked at the back of the cave. Xena unsaddled and groomed Argo, while Gabrielle worked at building a fire. Xena was finished with Argo before Gabrielle was successful. Her shaking hands fumbled at the task. The warrior took the flint from the bard and soon had a small blaze growing.
"Get out of those wet clothes, Gabrielle," she said as she looked at the shivering woman. When she began to help the trembling bard undress, she was reminded briefly of that fateful night in Amazonia.
Gabrielle seemed to have the same thought. "Don't be getting any ideas, you warrior hussy," she said tremulously. They both laughed. Soon the women were in dry tunics, wrapped in a shared blanket by the fire. A small pot brought some water to a boil as Xena crumbled herbs and tea leaves into it to brew a hot, reviving drink.
Sitting quietly and trying to get warm, Gabrielle thought back to that night. It had been the culmination of two moons spent in the Amazon Village. While Xena's battered body healed, they restored their trust in each other and redefined their mutual love. That night had been a test -- a test of their love on the physical plane. The young Amazon healer, Delia, had fallen in love with Xena, and Gabrielle had caught her kissing the Warrior Princess. The bard had become jealous and confused -- so confused she forced herself and Xena into a situation neither of them could handle. That night they discovered their fear was greater than their desire. At last they understood that they didn't want each other as lovers. Their greatest fear was losing each other, and through that, they discovered the power of their love and the form their love would take. Gabrielle sighed in contentment.
"Xena, I'm kind of tired," she said, "Just some more bread and cheese will be fine for me. But if you want, I can make some stew. There are vegetables and some smoked meat in the pack the Amazons gave us."
"Cheese is fine with me. We'll have a substantial breakfast to make up for it. Can't have you wasting away," Xena smiled. After they ate they spread their bedrolls by the fire. Xena could see the bard was still chilled, so she invited her to share her blanket.
"Are you sure, Xena?"
"Gabrielle, I thought we were going to be honest with each other. You know I say what I mean. Come on, we both need to get warmer; come here." Gabrielle came over and the two women snuggled down comfortably, Gabrielle on the fire side, with Xena wrapped around her back. A wonderful warm feeling of being loved enveloped Gabrielle.
"Xena, this reminds me of those cold winter nights when Lila and I used to share a bed to stay warm," Gabrielle reminisced. " It was very cozy and loving. I'm glad we feel comfortable enough with each other to do this. I never dared hope we could get this far with our friendship."
" I . . . you know I don't find it easy to say these things . . . but that night in Amazonia we almost went a lot further with our relationship than either of us really wanted." Xena struggled to communicate, "Do you understand that although I have had sex with a number of people, I have never had a loving relationship with anyone? Never. I . . . I like this very much."
"Xena, this is better than being with my sister. I love my sister, and we grew up sharing so much, but it was expected. I mean we were family. But with you, because we had to work so hard to get here, it makes it more special. We're here by choice."
Xena smiled and said, "Gabrielle, let's go to sleep."
Things were quiet for a little while then Gabrielle asked, "Xena, why was there wood stacked up so neatly in here?"
"There are two possible explanations, Gabrielle. One is that this is a shelter often used by travelers, and it is common courtesy to replenish the wood before leaving. Secondly, this could also be a place someone is using on a regular basis. I've used it before. I've been keeping that in mind. I don't want to be surprised." Gabrielle thought about that for a few moments and then fell asleep secure beside the warrior. Xena watched for a while until the drumming of the early winter rain lulled her to sleep as well.
The Warrior Princess and her bard slept peacefully for three candlemarks before they were rudely awakened by the thundering of horses' hooves as the cavern suddenly filled with seething, wet animals. Xena sprang to her feet with sword in hand. She sized up the situation swiftly and pulled Gabrielle to safety behind her. Though somewhat spooked by the storm, the animals were under the control of their owner, a tall young man, glistening from the rain, who sat astride his horse like a god. Gabrielle, awakening and slowly focusing through the confusion and the low light cast by the dwindling fire, saw this heroic figure rein in before her like Apollo. Her mouth dropped in awe. The young man beheld a fierce and long-legged, dark-haired woman shielding a young maiden with her body. The lovely young woman pulled at her friend's arm as she sought to come forward into the light to see.
"Put up your sword, woman. We'll not harm you. I'm sorry we startled you. I was not expecting anyone to be in my cave," he said as he swung down from his horse. He began herding the horses to the far side of the cave. Xena handed Gabrielle the blanket to cover herself as she went to help the horseman and to resettle Argo. "The name's Gregori," he said holding out his arm.
Xena gripped it and said, "I'm Xena; my friend's name is Gabrielle. I've stayed here before; I didn't realize someone had taken up residence. We needed shelter from the storm."
"No, that's all right. I'm glad you knew of this place. It's a wicked storm tonight. In truth, this is not my cave. I have been using it for the past few seasons as a resting stop for me and my horses as I take them to market. I am honored to share with the legendary Xena and her personal bard. I've heard much of you both." He looked into Xena's eyes and caught a dangerous glint there.
Gabrielle moved between the two tall people like a peaceful little wedge and said, "Nice to meet you, Gregori. Would you like some tea? Or something to eat?"
"Tea would be nice, but I don't want to disturb your rest." He looked the women up and down reminding them they wore only their sleeping tunics. Gabrielle blushed, and the Warrior Princess seethed.
To avert any action on Xena's part, the young woman spoke up quickly. "No problem. We were both soaking wet and cold, so we were trying to get warm and fell asleep." The horses were settled, so the three went to sit by the fire. Gregori pulled off his wet shirt and rubbed his hair and chest with it to remove what water he could. He had selected a dry shirt from his saddlebag earlier. Gabrielle couldn't help but notice his smoothly muscled chest, covered with fine golden hair that matched his curly-haired head. Not wishing to antagonize the bristling warrior further, he confined his appreciation of womanhood to the young red-headed bard. He looked for a place to put his wet shirt while he donned his clean one. Gabrielle intervened, "Here let me take care of that for you." She soon had it wrung out and hanging with their clothes to dry near the fire. Xena added more wood, figuring they would be up awhile longer. She once again handed Gabrielle a blanket, draping it over her shoulders, her hands resting protectively there for a few moments. She watched Gregori carefully. He noticed. So did Gabrielle.
"Thanks, Xena," she said warmly. Xena smiled down at her, then settled next to her bard. Gregori sat across from them on the other side of the fire.
"So tell me Gregori, what have you heard?" Gabrielle said, " I know Xena is famous, but I didn't know I was."
"Oh, but you are, Gabrielle. Stories are told of the golden bard taming the wild, dark warrior woman. Once in Athens I saw the bard Homer perform. He's the first one I heard tell these tales. He spoke well. I asked him afterwards how he made up such stories, but he said they were all true, he had learned them from the golden bard herself. Tonight I see the golden bard is really more reddish, but maybe it's just the firelight."
"Hmm. Seems like the horse trader has a little of the bard in him himself," remarked Xena, in a none too friendly tone.
"That Homer" chimed in Gabrielle nervously, "I miss him. I can't believe he's telling stories of me as well."
"Well, Gabrielle, you are as much a part of these adventures as I am. If it weren't for you, the stories would be all darkness. You are the light," Xena said, amazing both the bard and the horse trader.
"It seems to be a night for bardic remarks," quipped Gregori.
Gabrielle and Gregori chatted about Athens while the horseman drank his tea. When Xena prepared to sleep, Gabrielle wanted to join her. Though she hesitated now that they had company, she wasn't sure what she should do. Xena solved it for her. "Come on Gabrielle, you're still cold. Don't be afraid to share my blanket; I won't eat you. I only eat children, remember. And only then if they annoy me." Gabrielle laughed and slipped comfortably into the bedroll with her warrior. Gregori smiled and was soon asleep in his own blankets.
Xena woke first, shortly after dawn. She lay in a snug tangle with Gabrielle, and thought how nice it was to share the warmth and closeness. She imagined what her life might have been like if she'd had a sister. She carefully sat up so as not to wake the bard. She watched Gabrielle sleep for a bit, enjoying the peaceful moment. Gregori woke and quietly observed the two women. Seeing Xena now as a softer, loving woman, rather than the fierce warrior of the night before made him realize how beautiful she really was. And how guarded was her usual composure. He thought that perhaps he had never before seen such a handsome woman. She reminded him of the statue of Aphrodite in Athens. But Xena's kind of classical beauty made him uncomfortable. Now the bard, the lovely and charming Gabrielle, was his very ideal of comeliness. Xena felt his eyes upon them and looked up. Gregori smiled at her, noticing again those amazing blue eyes. He wondered how these two women had become friends. They were so very different.
"Good morning, Warrior Princess."
"I prefer Xena, Gregori. Good morning."
Gabrielle began to stir."Is it time to get up already?" she mumbled sleepily. Both Xena and Gregori laughed.
"You can have a few more moments. I'm going to look around outside and take Argo for some grass and water. Then I'll catch a rabbit or two for that big breakfast I promised you. I'll wake you when I get back." Xena rose and felt her garments. They were still a little damp, but her body heat would finish the drying process. She added some wood to the fire to get it ready for breakfast and to heat the water, then went over to Argo and changed, using the horse as a screen. When Xena, dressed in full armor and weapons, stepped to the mouth of the cave leading Argo, Gregori gained an appreciation for the Warrior Princess of the legends. The sun shone on her armor and on her tall strong body, throwing a long shadow back into the cave. Then she was gone.
By now Gabrielle was sitting up in her blanket. "She's impressive isn't she Gregori?" Gabrielle said as she watched him watching Xena.
He looked at her and smiled. "Yes, but not very approachable. How did you ever become friends with her?"
"I will admit it took some doing, but it was worth it. She is the most amazing woman, and the best friend. Don't get me started, I can talk about Xena for hours. In fact, I often do. That's why I began following her. I wanted to record her adventures and make Xena the most famous hero."
"From what I've heard she was pretty famous before you were out of swaddling clothes."
"That's not true. She's not even ten years older than me. And she is a changed woman from the wicked warlord you may have heard about. This is the third year I've been traveling with her; I have never seen her do anything but what's right. She risks her life over and over for people. I am determined my stories will make her known as Xena the Good." Gabrielle's shining face and faith in her friend made Gregori smile. She was so seemly and innocent.
Xena stepped out into the newly washed morning and smiled at the sweet smell of the air. She and Argo made their way down to the ancient river whose course had cut the land deeply. Xena worked to find a slope gentle enough for Argo. When they were down by the water, Xena looked back and judged the steep banks, noting the erosion. The animal and the warrior both enjoyed the cool water. Argo drank lustily while Xena rinsed her face and arms, and scooped up some to drink. Suddenly her keen ears picked up a distant shriek and activity upstream. She ran quickly to see who might need help. The farther she ran, the steeper the banks grew. She hoped whoever needed help was on her level. As she rounded the bend in the river, she saw a petite, blond women running in her direction, being pursued by two large men. The woman shrieked again when she saw Xena, a large sword-wielding warrior standing before her. She stopped, uncertain of which way to run.
"Come this way, I'll help you!" yelled Xena. The woman came on and Xena ran to meet her. As they drew together Xena launched herself in the air, somersaulted over the woman and landed to face her pursuers. As she flipped over her, Xena noticed slave bracelets on both wrists. Though slavery was legal in Greece, Xena disagreed with it. So many slaves were captives of war, but others were victims of greed and debt. Xena knew this young woman could end up as a house slave or a prostitute in the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth. Either way she would be subject to the whims of men. Her anger at such injustice fueled the ferocity of her battle. The surprised slavers fought for their lives. Xena downed one and was just about ready to smite the second when the world began shaking. An earthquake! Xena's mind flew simultaneously to Gabrielle in the cave, and to the unstable banks of this river. The quake shook them all to their knees. Xena looked to see the young slave girl huddled on the ground and the river bank starting to crumble over her head. The warrior woman struggled to her feet and dove to shove the woman to safety. The bank buried Xena. She went down heavily.
In the cave, Gabrielle and the horse trader were exploring deeper into the mountain. Gregori showed the bard the underground stream where blind white fish swam. As they watched, the water began to froth. Then the earthquake hit. The ground shook indescribably; the earth roared. Gregori and Gabrielle held on to each other as their world became a terrifying place. Gregori pulled her under a solid overhang to protect them from the falling rock. Before the shaking and rumbling stopped, a landslide entombe them. Oppressive silence and darkness followed.
When the dust cleared by the river, the young slave woman slowly rose to her feet and looked around. Where she had stood just before the earthquake was a pile of rock and earth, extending from the debris was the warrior's right hand. Her head and torso were completely covered, only her legs were clear of the landslide. Forgetting her own problem, the slave quickly began to dig out her would-be rescuer. She was soon joined by the slaver Xena had not subdued. Together they uncovered the warrior woman. Because she had fallen face down from the onslaught of the river bank, Xena's face was dirty but marked only by a small cut on her temple and a bruise forming on her left cheek. It was the rocks to the back of her head that had rendered her unconscious. She was bleeding heavily from that wound. Seeing the warrior was still alive, the slaver turned to his escaped slave. She became aware of his attention too late to flee. He snapped her chains in place and then securely bound Xena with a long rope.
Frightened by the amount of blood, the woman pleaded, "She's going to bleed to death if you don't bind her head, then what good will she be to you?"
"Oh, she'll make Stephanos a lot of money," t he slaver answered. " If he'd seen her fight, he'd sell her to the Romans for the gladiators to have fun with. When her sees her face and body, he'll want her for himself and then sell her as a temple slave. I'm tempted not to warn him how dangerous she is. Then the business will be mine." So saying he grabbed the girl and ripped a piece out of her leggings to bandage Xena's head. Then he flung the vulnerable warrior woman over his shoulder and carried his prize back to the caravan. He left behind his still unconscious fellow guard and Xena's sword buried beneath the rubble.
At last the rumbling and shaking stopped in the cave. The two young people frightened and huddling in the dark realized they were unhurt, and the world had not ended. As their eyes adapted Gabrielle and Gregori could see that the cave entrance was not entirely blocked.
Anxious to check on his horses Gregori aked, "Will you be all right if I leave you for a few moments while I see if my horses are safe?" He squeezed her hand as he spoke. She squeezed back.
"I'm fine. Go ahead," Gabrielle said. He touched her shoulder and left her side. The bard moved to the mouth of the cave. "Xena!" she called.
"Gabrielle, she probably can't hear you."
"Knowing Xena, she's already digging us out."
"Well I'm not waiting for the Warrior Princess to save me. Come on Gab, let's start digging."
It was surprisingly easy. At first it was scary as the soft earth fell on them as they pulled the larger stones loose, but then, as they grew accustomed to the showers of soil, they ducked their heads and worked together to move small boulders and the debris. Gabrielle kept listening for Xena. When they broke through, Gabrielle could not believe that her warrior was not there to greet her. Something must have happened.
She began calling "Xena! Xena!" Argo responded to her voice and cantered up to the startled bard. Turning to the horse trader Gabrielle lamented, "Oh Greg, now I know something has happened to Xena. Come on, we need to find her."
"Don't worry, Gabrielle, we'll find her." They headed for the river, knowing that was her intended destination when she left. The damage to the river bank shook them both. Gabrielle looked up and down the river to no avail. Not knowing in which direction Xena traveled, they split up. Gregori finally found the unconscious slaver. He called for Gabrielle who ran up within scarcely a candle drip. As Gregori tried to rouse the guard who was slowly coming around, Gabrielle looked around. She saw the rubble heaped next to the bank, and wandered over when a glint caught her eye. It was the hilt of Xena's sword. She dug a bit and then drew it from the rubble. As she did, she found evidence of someone having been wounded.
"Gregori," Gabrielle said, "look, Xena's sword, and there's blood here too." By now the guard was conscious, though confused. Little by little they discovered he was a guard to a slave caravan run by a man named Stephanos. They were headed for Athens, with stops in Corinth and other cities along the way. His last memory was of fighting Xena for his life. Well, not her by name, but some dark-haired virago. He was not pleased to have been left behind. Since his arm was broken and his head was pounding, he decided to go home. He headed east. Gabrielle, determined to save Xena from slavery, headed west with Gregori accompanying her. His business took him in that direction anyway. Gabrielle rode Argo gingerly, but out of necessity. Despite her fears, riding the tall mare made her feel closer to Xena.
Stephanos was delighted with his new slave. The overfed, overdressed merchant lovingly stroked the warrior's smooth cheek. His eyes gleamed as they traveled over her unconscious form. Penelope felt sick at his expression. Satisfied, the stout slaver almost forgave Pathetus for losing the other guard. Despite his greed, Xena's captor told Stephanos he had a dangerous woman on his hands.
"Yes, but such a beautiful warrior. Put her in the wagon. I want silver bracelets on her right away, with a long chain to a silver collar. I will enjoy parading her around the markets."
Pathetus warned, "Stephanos, silver might not be strong enough."
"Use the ones we had for that brute we traded last winter, you know, the eunuch we sold to that Arab. Those were heavy and very strong. Get her out of that armor for now. I want her defenseless till she gets used to my command." Pathetus smiled to himself, he did not think she would ever bow to Stephanos. He decided he was going to enjoy this trip.
He supervised the banding of the warrior, relieved she was sealed in silver before regaining consciousness. The smith fitted the hinged bracelets on each wrist, then inserted two pins in each clasp and bent them closed. The work tempered metal could not be bent back again; it would require a metal saw to remove the bracelets. He repeated the procedure with the collar. Pathetus delighted in taunting the slave Penelope by making her prepare the warrior for her captivity. When she stripped the armor off the dark one, she found the breast dagger. No one was watching as she slipped it into her voluminous waistband. As soon as the chest, arm, and leg armor was off Xena, the chains were attached to the loops in her bracelets and collar. Pathetus wanted to attach leg irons as well, but Stephanos would not hear of it. He would change his mind later. As punishment to Penelope, her left wrist was chained to Xena's right. The unconscious warrior's dead weight would keep Penelope from running off and later it would slow down the warrior in case she decided to try anything.
Penelope was worried that it was taking the warrior too long to regain consciousness. They had been on the road for at least two candlemarks. As the slave gently cleaned the woman's beautiful face she was startled by the turquoise eyes that opened and focused on her own hazel ones. Xena examined her companion, swiftly taking in the youth and delicacy of the slave girl. Though younger than Gabrielle, the Warrior Princess still made the association. The innocence and gentleness she saw inspired her protective instincts. Her quiet voice asked, "What's the situation?"
"You not only did not save me, but you are now a slave yourself. And you are permanently bound by chains the smith put on your bands. There is no getting free without his help. Pathetus warned them what a strong fighter you are. Stephanos is delighted with his new merchandise. That's you, woman. Welcome to Tartarus!"
"Hey, to quote my best friend, 'How bad could it be, right?'" she said and then threw up. Penelope was not amused but she helped the warrior clean up. They decided she best lie down for as long as they would let her since Xena became dizzy whenever she tried to sit up. She questioned the young slave about the earthquake and asked if she had seen any damage near the caves. Unfortunately Penelope knew nothing that would relieve the warrior's mind about Gabrielle. All Xena could hope for was that Gregori would look after her. Penelope and Xena exchanged names and stories. Penelope had been sold by her father to pay his debt to his city state. She was the fourth of five sisters.
"At first I thought getting away from my sisters might be fun," Penelope explained, "but that was before the reality of being a slave set in." She paused and averted her face, "And I haven't even been sold yet, except by my father." The warrior woman put her left hand on Penelope's shoulder. The young slave turned and was startled by the angry look on Xena's face.
Seeing her anger scared the girl, she softened her look and inquired, "Was it Stephanos?"
"Yes, and he will probably want you tonight."
"I don't think he'll enjoy me. Were you a virgin?"
"Xena!" Penelope hissed, blushing hotly.
"I'm sorry. I just get very angry with men who mistreat women. I'll pay him back for you tonight if he calls me to his tent."
"Xena, you'll be beaten if you try anything," Penelope said, her eyes wide with the wonder of this warrior woman.
"They won't do too much damage. After all, they want to sell me for a lot of money. I'm going to make them earn every dinar. Do you know how many slaves there are in this caravan? How many will fight if I get them loose? How many are men and how many women? Are there children here too?" She grilled poor Penelope for the next few candlemarks. Finally she relented when the pain became too much for even her meditation techniques. She tried to sleep for a bit. She would need her energy that evening.
Penelope woke Xena as the caravan stopped for the night. The guards and selected slaves set up tents and started campfires. Pathetus came for the two women. "Come on you two, Stephanos wants to be entertained this evening. You may both take baths to prepare for his pleasure." Xena decided she would like a bath. It might relieve her headache, and she needed to assess the situation, so she went along quietly.
A large wooden tub had been set up in one tent. Xena and Penelope were taken there. They were not allowed to undress in privacy. Pathetus did not trust Xena. They also could not complete their undressing without the chains being removed. Penelope was shy, but Xena was more interested in using this opportunity for freedom. Pathetus was too wily for that. He first undid the chain to Xena's left wrist and refastened it to a deeply staked pole set up by the tub after she had removed her shoulder strap. Then when she was nude except for the right shoulder and Penelope's left sleeve, he undid that chain. Then he rechained the women to each other and herded them into the bath. He had enjoyed every moment of the procedure. Although Penelope had been thoroughly humiliated, Xena had not responded at all, much to his disappointment. However, with Xena's left arm secured to the pole, and her right to Penelope, the women only had Penelope's right hand with which to wash. Pathetus determined if Stephanos was going to have fun tonight, so would he. He watched Penelope as she washed herself. When she was done, she looked into Xena's eyes for guidance. Having Penelope wash her might be too much fun, so Xena opened her right hand for the sponge. Then she washed herself with Penelope's hand as companion to her moves. There were four large links of play between their cuffs, so it took them a while to get synchronized. Xena smiled reassuringly at the young woman. Pathetus could not take too much more.
"Shall I scrub your back, Xena?" he asked evilly.
She thought for a moment and said, "Yes, that would be nice, thank you." She leaned forward to make her back accessible, and whispered to Penelope as she did so. Pathetus came up, his eyes gleaming at the lovely skin presented to him. He slowly scrubbed Xena's back, and then, as she expected, he could not resist reaching around to bathe her breasts.
"Oh, that's lovely," she said and raised her arm and Penelope's, to give him more access. In fact it gave her access to his foolish neck. Within seconds Xena had pulled him into the tub to drown and choke him. Terrified, Penelope tried not to scream and to help Xena. It was horrible. Pathetus fought. He gurgled and bubbled under the water; Xena held him down unmercifully. His hands clawed at the women, but Xena shouldered them away. His flailing was weakening. Everything would have worked had the other guard had not come in just then. He called for more help and soon the very angry Pathetus was in charge again. His first thought was to backhand Xena across the mouth.
He was ready to beat her unmercifully when Samson stopped him."Stephanos wants her face to be untouched, remember?"
"Fine," Pathetus snarled, "let's whip them both."
"No!" Penelope and Xena screamed at once.
Xena spoke again. "Penelope had no say in the matter. It was my hand that tried to drown you, Pathetus. She had no choice."
"If that's what you want, Xena, you will take both the beatings. I prefer it that way myself. Penelope, get dressed. You will stay to watch this."
"Oh, Xena," said Penelope as they unchained the young slave.
"Don't worry, Penelope, I've been beaten by better men than this." Xena was hauled out of the bath by the three guards and was soon chained with her hands over her head to the tall pole in the center of the tent. Her lean and muscular body dripped with the sweet smelling bath water. The water was soon joined by rivulets of blood as Pathetus extracted his revenge. But it was not sweet. Xena uttered not a word, nor a whimper. This angered him and he struck her harder, and perhaps longer than he had originally intended. Penelope watched for as long as she could, but the very first lash was almost more than she could stand. The leather whip hit Xena's back and seemed to sink into the bath-softened flesh. As he pulled back for the next lash, the blood ran freely from the long line that ran from her left shoulder to the small of her back. His next stroke was so near the first Penelope thought her vision was blurring. Then the third cut into Xena's right shoulder. He struck again and again and again. Finally one brutal lash ran down her right buttock to her thigh. Penelope fell to her knees at that stroke and began to cry noisily, as if her own back was taking the beating. Stephanos strode into the tent to see what was taking so long for his women to be brought to him.
The sight that met his eyes made his blood boil. In one corner the young slave, Penelope, lay in a heap weeping. In the center of the tent was the object of his desire, the beautiful Warrior Princess, chained in silver, bathed in blood. Her priceless flesh was marked! He furiously ripped the whip out of the hands of his insane guard, Pathetus, and began whipping the guard himself. He stopped only after the guard fell to his knees and begged for mercy. Stephanos kicked him away and ordered the other two guards to take Pathetus to his quarters and bring the healer for his most valuable slave. Then he walked around the tent pole to face the Warrior Princess. He couldn't help but admire the luscious body. Xena's head hung down. He lifted her chin and looked into those amazing blue eyes. Her lip bled where she had bitten herself to keep from crying out. A few tears had escaped, but her gaze engendered hate. Stephanos flinched from her look, but placed a hand on her arm, and said, " I am sorry, Princess, he will be punished for his audacity." He left the tent, walking heavily.
Xena and Penelope were alone for a few moments before the healer and the others arrived. Penelope approached the warrior. "Oh, Xena, I am so sorry. Did you imagine it would be this bad?" She gingerly wiped the blood and tears from Xena's pain wracked face. The warrior's eyes were closed. When she inhaled a deep, cleansing breath, she realized the expansion of her chest opened her wounds. She coughed softly and took shallower breaths. She opened her eyes and gave Penelope her crooked little grin.
"As I said earlier, how bad could it be?" she said and tried to chuckle. Then she closed her eyes again and grimaced. Penelope just shook her head, unable to comprehend such stoical strength. They were soon joined by the healer and the guard, Samson, who unlocked the chains and helped the healer guide the wounded warrior to a cot on which Penelope had spread some fine linen earlier
"I am sorry, Princess," Samson said as he attached chains to Xena's two wrists, securing them to another deeply driven stake. The chain was a longer one this time so that her arms were not stretched, which provided some small measure of comfort. Penelope thought she was going to get away without chains for the rest of the evening, but Samson returned with ankle cuffs and a hobble chain for her. Runaways lose their status of trust.
"You may wait outside, Samson," said the healer. She knelt down in front of the cot to talk directly to the warrior. "Xena, my name is Frieda. I have much experience with whippings and good healing salves. Pathetus was very angry, and the slashes are deep, so there will be some slight scaring. Over time they should heal to only faint white lines. My salves have painkillers in them as well. Tonight will be the worst. By the day after tomorrow you should be able to get around with just slight pain. In two weeks this will be only a memory. The application of the ointment will not be fun, but it works swiftly. Penelope, come here and hold her hands."
"Thank you, Frieda. I have been whipped before, but rarely have I had a caring healer attend me afterwards. It will be a pleasure to have you apply your salves. Don't worry, I won't flinch." And she didn't. Penelope did. She held Xena's hands and watched the rippling muscles of her jaws as Frieda worked her healing. Xena kept her eyes shut, but she surprised Penelope by not clenching her hands. She had no idea how hard Xena was concentrating on not crushing those gentle fingers. The effort to stay her grip helped her fight the pain. At last it was over, and the Warrior Princess opened her eyes and smiled at the young slave girl. Once again Penelope could only shake her head in awe.
"Well done, Xena. Now let me look at these two head wounds." Frieda said. She parted the silky black hair and was satisfied the contusions would not need stitches. Penelope interrupted to tell the healer that a river bank had collapsed on Xena knocking her out, and she had thrown up when she had regained consciousness. Suspecting concussion, Frieda knelt again in front of the warrior to examine her eyes. With a candle she checked both pupils which contracted and expanded normally. She was surprised at the amount of abuse this woman could withstand. She'd make a good slave, yet somehow Frieda knew she would not be a slave for long. "Alright, Xena, I will send someone with food for you both. Penelope will help you eat. I'll check on you in the morning. Some herb tea will come with your meal, if nothing else, drink that. It will ease the pain and start the healing."
That night sleep eluded her. The pain in her head and brutalized back were less anguishing than the pain she felt in not knowing Gabrielle's fate. She tried to reassure herself that Gabrielle was all right by examining the structure of the cave in her mind's memory. Gregori was an experienced traveler, who knew the cave well. She had to trust that he had looked out for Gabrielle. She knew her bard could really take care of herself. She had to believe she was safe. Xena could do nothing to help her right now. She could barely help herself. And now she had Penelope to worry about as well. No matter what, she had to get Penelope out of the clutches of this slaver. And then what? She finally fell into an exhausted, pain-filled sleep, thinking of what to do with Penelope after she was rescued.
Gabrielle hated to stop for the night. She wanted to catch up with Xena before the warrior got herself into even more trouble. She voiced her concerns to Gregori ."Xena thinks she's invincible. She risks everything without thinking of her own skin. I just know she plans to free all the slaves. And then where will they go? Will she guide them all home too?"
"Gabrielle, I seriously doubt that the Warrior Princess does anything without thinking. She can take care of herself. Besides, they have to stop for the night too."
"But Greg, it took us so long to get out of the cave. They're too many candlemarks ahead of us."
"They can't go as fast as we can. They have the caravan wagons and a fair number of slaves on foot." He finally persuaded the bard to help him set up camp, eat some supper, and even tell him the heroic tale of Xena and Hercules freeing Prometheus. It was quite obvious to him the bard worshipped the Warrior Princess. 'Putting the warrior so high on a pedestal must make them both lonely,' he thought. He wondered if they were able to relax together. He remembered Xena inviting Gab into her bed last night to get them both warm. He saw how nervous that had made the young bard. It must be a difficult life for her. He moved over closer to Gabrielle and put his arm around her shoulders. "Are you warm enough Gab? It is getting quite chilly now that winter is approaching." He rubbed her back briskly and then squeezed her shoulders. Gabrielle enjoyed the warmth and closeness, but then suddenly realized she didn't know this young man very well. He seemed friendly and helpful. They got along like old friends, but still, this was too soon.
"Thanks," Gabrielle said, "I am a little chilly. I think I'll check on Argo and then get into my blankets. Let's get an early start in the morning. Do you think we'll make Corinth tomorrow?"
"No, Gabrielle, Corinth is still many leagues away, at least four more days. But it will be the first stop for selling slaves. I know the temple and the city market are both good points of sale. I have regular customers in Corinth. I wonder where the slaver thinks to sell Xena. She would certainly make a beautiful priestess of Aphrodite. But I would sell her to the Gladiator ring. However, the best prices would be in Rome. And then . . . "
"Gregori! I don't want to debate selling Xena." Gabrielle interrupted, "She is not for sale. She won't let herself be sold. She'll be free long before she gets put on the block."
"I hope so, Gab," Gregori replied quietly.
The healer had been right. By the end of two days, Xena was walking around. She was actually in better shape than she let on. She was biding her time for an escape. Gabrielle had also been right; Xena hoped to release all the slaves before she left. With the exception of Penelope, they would all be on their own once released. She felt in a large city like Corinth they would have the best chance of getting lost in the crowds. Penelope was attached to Xena like a charm on a silver chain. Stephanos had decreed their shared fate. He wisely knew Xena would not risk harming the young slave. It hampered her efforts, but it also made her more cautious, her planning more cunning and thorough. Xena was becoming quite fond of the girl; she had a feistiness which reminded her of the young bard. Gabrielle had influenced the warrior. Aloofness was her natural tendency. To protect her inner vulnerability, she tried to maintain a distance, yet her closeness to the bard made her more affectionate and gentle with the weaker ones.
Because of her back, Xena could not wear her leathers. She was forced into wearing brilliant silks. They were comfortable, but a little too revealing and she felt quite exposed and unprotected in them. She hated that Stephanos was overly enamored of this softer look. Yet he wisely refrained from asserting his rights as slave master until he deemed her well, little knowing that he was also postponing his own death. Pathetus, meanwhile, was recovering from his whipping, and developing a hate for the Warrior Princess the magnitude of which he never thought himself capable. And finally, Penelope was developing an opposite but equally strong emotional attachment to this magnificent warrior woman. The brew was strengthening, like the gathering forces of a typhoon.
Slaves were never allowed idle time. A good slave dealer knew the capabilities and talents of his merchandise and used that knowledge to enhance sales and to match slaves with suitable masters. This was only in the interest of repeat business, not out of any concern for the slaves. So Xena was put through her paces as durable goods. Stephanos suspected she was a woman of many skills. He knew she was a warrior, but he also learned she was a talented seamstress, a healer, and, as he predicted, her voice was lovely when prompted to sing or see Penelope beaten. Gods but he wanted to keep her for himself. Alas, he could not afford to lose the profit she would bring him at the market. He planned to reveal her on the block as an enticement for private sales. It was a show for which he was famous. Whenever he had women of exceptional beauty, or even splendid young men, he would parade the merchandise the morning before the sale, and on demand, strip them for the potential buyers. His biggest sales were usually private ones arranged before the open auction. In rare cases, a young man or other gentle soul would make a fast and rash purchase before some innocent young woman was humiliated in this fashion. Stephanos often thought he should charge admission for the show.
Although an accomplished showman and marketer, he failed to understand Xena was worth more as the Warrior Princess. Many a vindictive warlord would offer outlandish wealth to own her, not to mention the numerous bounties on her head from city governments and other private sources. All he saw was a magnificent, spicy piece of flesh, with talent.
By the morning of the auction, the Warrior Princess had managed to talk to every slave, assess their willingness to break out, and assign tasks to the willing. Frieda, though the official healer of the caravan, had been a slave with Stephanos for three years and she knew his routine. She warned Xena what was in store for her. The proud warrioress felt her humiliation a small price to pay for the release of the slaves. She timed the rebellion with her performance on the platform -- when all eyes would be on her.
"Gregori, let's go directly to the slave auction," Gabrielle suggested.
"Gabrielle, I have to deliver my horses. Besides, the stables will know the sale schedule. Some times Stephanos has a private showing or he goes to the temple first." Noting her anxiety Gregori added, "Relax, Gabrielle, they could not have beaten us to the city."
At the stables they learned that not only was Stephanos having a showing in half a candlemark, but it was reputed he had a magnificent woman to display. Everyone was going. Gregori tried to convince Gabrielle to leave Argo at the stables with his horses, but she insisted she bring the mare in case Xena needed to make a getaway on horseback.
"Gregori, I wish you would bring a horse or two as well," Gabrielle implored.
"Gabrielle, I can't risk my horses, they are my livelihood."
"What about Xena? What about her life?" she said.
"Gab, what do you really expect you can do? Stephanos has many guards. Xena will probably be in chains. The best you could hope for would be to buy her, but where would you find enough money?"
"Your horses!" she screamed, suddenly inspired.
"Forget it, Gab. You know I'd do anything for you, but Xena is not high on my list of people to give up everything for. I'm sorry."
"OOOH! You are so selfish! Come on, let's hurry to the auction block!" Gabrielle said and grabbed Argo's reins and walked off in the wrong direction. Gregori steered her around and guided her to the market. When they got to the square, they found the place jammed. They could not find a way to get close. In desperation the bard mounted Argo to see over the heads of the crowd. She was in time to see three young women clutching bundles of cloth to their naked forms being hustled off the stage. She could just make out Xena's dark head as she climbed the steps to the top of the platform.
"And now the moment you have all been waiting for, Xena the magnificent! She will be revealed in all her glory. But first I have persuaded her to sing for you so that you may see she has more to offer than a beautiful body. She is also a healer and a seamstress."
"And a murderess!" someone from the crowd yelled.
"And warlord!" shouted another.
A harsh voice added, "And the Conqueror of Corinth!"
"I'll bid 1,000 dinars!" came a cry from the back.
"1,500!" offered a tall woman at the front.
"Please, please! The bidding will not open for another five candlemarks," Stephanos pleaded, "We are just presenting the merchandise now. Listen!" Turning he nodded, "Xena, please."
Xena walked proudly to the front of the platform. She was dressed in the finest selection of blue silks. Her attire was a collection of veils layered for slow removal and revelation, in three colors of blue, like the various depths of the Aegean Sea. The silver collar at her neck and the cuff bracelets flashed in the eyes of the crowd. The silver chains connecting them reminded all of her new status. She was statuesque with a face to inspire poetry in the illiterate.
The Warrior Princess looked out over the masses. Then, there at the very back of the square she saw the bard astride Argo. She was so happy to see Gabrielle safe, she smiled that brilliant smile that the bard could never get enough of. That smile that touched all of her face and soul. The blue eyes twinkled like the constellations, her teeth sparkled, her happiness shone through. It was a magnificent display, and it astounded the crowd. The angry murmurs and the eager discussions were stilled. The square was silenced. The little bard herself could not have primed the audience better. Xena began to sing.
Her sublime voice filled the marketplace. She sang a love song of a young woman sold by her father to pay his debts. Her lover returned from war with the bride price, made his way to Corinth only to find his love was now a slave, a temple prostitute. The sorrowful song went on to tell of how they faced what she had been made to become. At times Xena's voice soared, at others it was soft and low and the crowd leaned forward to hear. They were so mesmerized Xena wished that the slaves would choose now to break out, but the plan was for later, as the unveiling began.
Gabrielle had never seen Xena like this. She could hear the love in the song, and the sadness. 'Goddess, but we would be great together on stage. Give up the warrior business and do strictly theater,' Gabrielle thought longingly.
"Gabrielle, she's magnificent. I had no idea. Maybe there is still time to sell my horses, and Argo," said the astonished Gregori.
"Argo? Xena would never forgive us," Gabrielle retorted.
"Hush, wait, I think they are about to undo the veils."
"What!?" exclaimed the horrified bard over Xena's impending humiliation.
The masses sighed and then burst into applause as Xena finished the song. She looked to the back of the stage where Penelope was standing with Pathetus; he removed the dagger from her throat. Penelope's eyes were shining, sure that the love song Xena sang had been for her.
Stephanos came up to Xena. "Well done, Xena," he said only to her. "Are you ready for your big number now?" Xena gave him a wicked grin. That smile frightened him. Stephanos never knew where he stood with her.
"If you insist, Stephanos. But I think of it as your big number, not mine. And remember, if you don't want any trouble, Penelope will be assisting me, not Pathetus."
The fat slave trader nodded his agreement and gestured to Pathetus to release the young slave woman. Penelope nervously stepped toward Xena. Xena took her hand and smiled reassuringly at her. Penelope responded to her smile with one of her own, projecting all the love and admiration she felt for this astounding woman. Xena, almost blinded by such open devotion, shook her head, closing her eyes briefly, then looked to her left where the slave pens held the impending rebellion. She nodded to them and the show began.
Stephanos boomed out this splendid woman's qualities, and Penelope lead her around the platform as each veil came off. The first two dark blue veils, though not uncovering any flesh, disclosed the next layer of pale turquoise silk, and hinted at what lay beneath. The crowd was loving the show. 'Definitely charge admission next time, and maybe some music for this part, to heighten the drama.' thought Stephanos. The masses in the square clapped their hands in a heartbeat rhythm. They were enraptured. The obese slave merchant could barely keep his eyes off her himself. Neither could Gabrielle nor Gregori. Penelope was sweating; Xena was concentrating on timing. The next veil would reveal her chest, the following her back. Her hips and legs were still veiled. Xena would see how it went, but she judged the next two would define the moment. She was right. Penelope removed the turquoise layer over her breasts, underneath was a very sheer layer of pale blue opalescent silk, not hiding, so much as enhancing, the fine forms it covered. The clapping intensified.
Xena chose that moment. As Penelope reached for the last veil on her back, the Warrior Princess leaped into the air, ululating loudly enough to wake the dead. She flipped over Stephanos and landed facing Pathetus. She cut off the flow of Pathetus's blood and demanded the keys to everyone's freedom. He gave them up quickly. She rendered him unconscious and threw the keys to Frieda who waited by the pens. As the healer began releasing the slaves, Xena flipped back to confront the four guards who surrounded the platform. Undone by the warrior's beauty, the stunned guards were slow to defend themselves. She looked so vulnerable and womanly. The wrong swords stood at the ready. Using her chains as weapons, and her exquisitely trained body, she fought all guards simultaneously. This show was definitely worth the price of admission. Stephanos was thinking of a new line of work. 'Women wrestling, in the nude, maybe in mud?'
Xena had expected some dispersal of the crowd to allow for movement of the rescue. She had no idea her performance would be so engrossing to the audience. At last she was the only one left standing on the platform with the exception of Stephanos and Penelope. Penelope stood behind the slave trader with Xena's breast dagger biting into his throat, the sweat from his brow competing with the blood from his throat to wet his expensive embroidered silk vest and blouse. The nervous crowd began to disperse at the sight of blood.
"Penelope, No!" Xena cried. She flipped again, landing behind the young girl, and gently relieved her of the dagger. She used the hilt to knock out the corpulent trader. The two women fled the platform, and were met by Frieda who had Xena's leathers, armor and chakram. She also had the keys to the warrior's chains which they removed as they escaped. The collar and bracelets would have to wait till they could find a friendly smith. The three made their way through the crowd which parted like taut cloth touched by a sharp blade. At last Xena reached Gabrielle, who jumped off Argo into the warrior's arms. They hugged mightily. Xena grunted in pain as Gabrielle's embrace pulled on her whip-tortured flesh. Gab released her and turned her around as she felt the texture of her back.
"Oh Xena!" she moaned, tears immediately starting.
"Ah Gabrielle, it's not as bad as it looks. Come on, we have to get out of here. Hi Greg, thanks for looking after Gabrielle."
The horse trader could only stare with his mouth open. Xena wanted nothing more than to get on Argo, pull Gabrielle up behind her and get the Tartarus out of there. Unfortunately there were five of them to consider now. At least she didn't have to worry about the rest of the slaves, who had successfully escaped and disappeared. Xena rummaged in her saddlebag, glad Gabrielle had thought to bring Argo to the square. She packed away her leathers and pulled out a seldom worn tunic and gingerly slipped it on. Fortunately the collar hid part of her silver neck band, the sleeves almost covered the cuffs, but it was enough. They quietly left Corinth and headed eastward. Gregori followed after selling all but two of his horses. He kept his own and one he hoped to entice Gabrielle into riding.
By nightfall the five travelers had put enough leagues behind them that Xena felt they could stop. She was grateful Gregori was along with his two horses. Gabrielle rode in front of Xena, much to Greg's annoyance, Frieda and Penelope rode together, much to Penelope's annoyance. Gregori rode his own stallion. The horses had provided the necessary key to achieving this distance. Xena fervently hoped Stephanos had enough to keep him occupied so that he would not try to recapture the women. As they dismounted, Xena stumbled a little, due to fatigue and the pains of her still healing body. All the women immediately rushed forward in concern.
"Whoa ladies, back off. I just slipped. I'm fine," Xena said raising her hands and trying to back away. Gabrielle was the closest, so she took her warrior's arm and guided her to a rock ledge.
"Xena, you are not all right," Gabrielle insisted. " Your back looks terrible, and it's bleeding in a few places."
Frieda moved forward and took command."Yes, Xena, you put quite a strain on those cuts with that fight. Let me put some more salve on them. Penelope, find some blankets for Xena to lie down on." Gabrielle, Penelope and Frieda looked at each other and decided Xena was more important than their rivalry.
Xena threw an imploring look at Gregori. He smiled back, shrugged and spoke."Xena, I'll take care of Argo and my horses if that's all right with you?"
"Thanks Gregori, I appreciate it," Xena replied and then gave in and let the women lead her to her bedroll. Frieda applied the salve while Penelope grabbed Xena's hands and repeated her performance of supporting Frieda's treatments. Gabrielle stood helplessly by until the medication had been applied. She then took charge by organizing the young former slave and the healer into setting up camp, collecting firewood, after first checking with Xena that a fire would be safe, and then preparing a meal. Somewhere in there Xena fell asleep. Gabrielle knew her Warrior Princess was truly spent, because she was not patrolling the perimeter or doing some other protective maneuver. Gregori thoughtfully took care of that. Gabrielle was grateful and had come to rely on Greg since they had dug themselves out of the cave.
When the meal was ready, Gabrielle decided she would feed Xena. Frieda came over and handed her a mug of drugged tea for the pain and healing. "Thanks, Frieda, I am so glad Xena had you to help her."
"You're welcome, Gabrielle. I have never seen anyone withstand as much pain and be up and active so soon. She is truly heroic."
"Yes I know," Gabrielle smiled.
Penelope came up to join them. She was beginning to acknowledge regretfully to herself that Gabrielle had a prior claim to Xena's affection. "May I help you?" she asked tentatively. Gabrielle smiled at the girl and handed her the mug. Then she gently woke Xena who jerked awake and pushed herself up. Since her tunic had been removed to treat her back, her front was bare. Gabrielle had a brilliant stroke of fashion genius.
"Penelope, didn't I see you carrying Xena's veils when we grouped in the square?"
"Yes, I have them, I'll go get them." She quickly returned. Gabrielle took two of the darkest silks and layered them for an almost opaque effect. She held them up to Xena's chest and secured them to the silver collar, and then tied the bottom around Xena's waist, thus effectively clothing her chest yet leaving her back exposed to the healing air. Very effective, efficient, and a wonderful new look for the Warrior Princess.
Stepping back to admire her handiwork Gabrielle added, "Oh, I like that. I think I'll make myself something similar come the summer. Are you warm enough, Xena?"
"You are really something, Gabrielle. Yes, I'm warm enough, the fire is nice, and that salve has some heat in it as well. Can I eat now?" she said, chuckling and smiling at her bard. "And I don't need to be fed, there is nothing wrong with my hands."
They all ate. Gabrielle and Gregori told their story, followed by Penelope's rendition of how the caravan contingent faired. The bard and the warrior exchanged looks as each dire event was revealed. As always, Gabrielle and the other women talked so much Xena had a hard time getting a word in edgewise. Just when she thought she had a chance, she found herself fighting sleep. 'Tartarus, Frieda drugged the tea.' "Frieda, what did you . . . ?" Xena began and fell over against Gabrielle who gently laid her friend down, turning her back to the fire. She pulled a blanket up to Xena's chin in front, and over her legs.
Gregori winced when he got a good look at Xena's back. "I can't imagine doing that to a woman," he said to Gabrielle. She wiped a tear from her cheek in agreement.
Sadly Penelope observed, "Pathetus wanted to beat us both but Xena wouldn't let him, so he beat her twice. He originally wanted to hit her in the face but the other guard stopped him. It was horrible. I felt so awful because she was taking my beating too. And then afterwards, she made a joke about it. She never made a sound when he was whipping her. It made him so mad he whipped her harder." Penelope began crying.
Gabrielle put her arm around the young girl and spoke softly to her, "I'm sure there was nothing you could do."
"Gabrielle," Penelope sobbed, "she was a slave because she tried to help me. If it hadn't been for the earthquake and her getting hit in the head by those rocks, and then half buried, we would both have been safe."
"Penelope, didn't you stay to dig Xena out instead of taking your chance to escape?" Gabrielle asked, trying to comfort the young woman.
"Well, yes, but I couldn't leave her."
"Because . . . I don't know . . . ?" Penelope searched for the right words. " I . . . maybe because she didn't know me, but she came running to defend me. You should have seen her fight those guards. She was so angry and dangerous. She was like a goddess the way she jumped over their heads and fought . . . I don't know . . . I was mesmerized. I couldn't run away from that."
Gabrielle smiled, "I know. I've seen her fight like that. It is amazing." The bard gently wiped the tears from Penelope's face, gave her one last hug and said, "I think we better get some sleep. I'm sure Xena will want to get going early." Turning to Frieda she added, "That is if you haven't drugged her too much?"
"No, just enough to help her sleep."
"Good, now we need to take turns watching for the slavers' pursuit. I'll take the first watch."
Gabrielle sat beside Xena's sleeping form as the others settled in. She thought back over the past few moons and reflected on how much damage Xena had sustained including two serious head wounds. Somehow she had to find a way to get her warrior to slow down and stop throwing her body so carelessly into danger. Of course, Xena would not see it that way, but the bard was determined to convince her to take a holiday.
At dawn Xena was awake. She flexed her back gingerly and decided she didn't feel too bad. She rose and found some leggings to wear, glad they were old and soft, Her right buttock was still a little tender. She put on her boots, a belt on which to hang her sword and chakram, and was ready. She checked on Argo, pleased to find Gregori had tended her well. Gabrielle woke to the sound of Argo's hoof beats leaving the camp. She sat up suddenly and looked around. Finding Xena gone she swore, "Tartarus, that woman never gives in." She looked over to see Gregori smile at her.
The horse trader said, "She's better this morning. She's checking out the trail, a little behind and ahead. She told me she wants us to be ready to go when she gets back."
"What about breakfast?" she almost whined.
"So, get going on it, make it portable for Xena's share."
Within half a candlemark the troupe was on its way. Xena was amused that no one had asked her where they were going. They were just blindly following her. And then she became irritated. 'Why are they leaving it all up to me? Always, Xena, decide what is needed; protect us all, Xena. Lead us, Xena.' Before she could work herself up to a total tear, she pulled up Argo and stopped. "Where are we going, folks?" The other two horses sidled up to Argo, their riders confused. Everyone looked at Xena.
Gabrielle finally spoke up, "Where were you leading us?"
'Why didn't you ask?" Xena demanded. "Why do you always assume I have all the answers?"
"Because you always do," Gabrielle countered. "Don't you prefer to make the decisions? I assumed you wanted to be in charge."
Xena turned to the others. "And the rest of you?"
"We're only along for the ride and by your grace," said Frieda for herself and Penelope.
"And you, Gregori."
"I'm here for Gabrielle." That got him a second look, and one for Gabrielle as well.
Gabrielle blushed, shrugged, and admonished the warrior, "Fine, Xena, stop playing games with us. Where did you think we should go? You must have had a plan. You always do. You're always thinking several steps ahead. I'm sure you knew before you freed the slaves exactly where you thought everyone should go. So tell us, what is this all about?"
Xena smiled a little at Gabrielle and said, "You are right, I did have a plan for everyone. But it just struck me that none of you ever asked, or seemed to care. You were all happy to let me lead the way without question."
Gabrielle asnwered with great seriousness. "Xena, you're such a powerful leader. It would never occur to us to question you."
The warrior sighed, "Well you should. You may not like my plans. We're headed for the Amazon Village. I have made no plans for you, Gregori, in fact you won't be able to come with us once we hit Amazon territory. I felt that Penelope would be safe there, and could find herself a new life, with new friends. Friends we know and trust. I know Frieda will be welcome as well. Her healing skills would be welcomed anywhere. Frieda, where would you like to go? Do you have family you want to go back to?"
"Not any more, Xena. The Amazon village sounds good to me if you think they will have me."
"Penelope?" Xena looked to the young girl behind Frieda on the chestnut mare.
"I want to go where you go, Xena. I can't go home."
"Well then, we're going to the Amazon Village."
Gregori spoke. "Gabrielle, you didn't say where you wanted to go."
"Given a choice, I always go where Xena goes, Gregori." Though she did not mean to hurt him, Gregori felt as if the bard had slapped his the face. Xena didn't wait for more talk, she spurred Argo on. Gab sat in front because Xena's back couldn't take contact yet. Xena's arms surrounded her. Frieda kicked her horse in pursuit. Gregori stayed where he was and thought 'Why am I here? What am I sticking around for? Xena has them all enthralled. She's no better than a slave master herself. I thought I had a chance with Gabrielle. But maybe not. Well, I am not giving up yet!' He kicked his horse in anger as he urged him on after the women.
Over the next few days with Gabrielle's loving attention Xena's back healed. The bard borrowed the salve from Frieda and took over her warrior's treatment. Gabrielle politely but firmly made it clear that Xena did not need them now that Gabrielle was here to take care of her friend. Xena neither noticed nor cared. Penelope was surprised at how forceful the little bard was. Gregori watched the process with interest. He began to revise some of his interpretation of the relationship between the bard and the warrior. He saw that they were quite capable of relaxing together. Yet, aside from her possessiveness of the warrior, Gabrielle was sweet and friendly with everyone in the group. She tried to draw Penelope out, and she talked frequently with Frieda about the Amazons and all she knew about Ama, the lead healer. Gabrielle did not ignore Gregori either. She was like a wonderful little hostess or tavern keeper, mindful of the needs of all, yet still treating Xena as the most important guest.
Gregori was not the only one quietly observing. The ever vigilant Warrior Princess watched everyone, carefully assessing the interplay of characters. She decided to focus on Gregori as the trouble spot. He touched Gabrielle too often; he always asked her first what she wanted. His care and thoughtfulness was getting on her nerves, probably because she saw that she did not treat Gabrielle as thoughtfully as he did. He caught every little slip, every bit of neglect, and called attention to it by offering his services where Xena ignored Gabrielle. And to make matters worse, Gabrielle responded to the horse trader. But in a way, this was good. Xena, a smart tactician, learned from her mistakes and began counter-courting Gabrielle. Where she had been neglectful, now she was attentive. Gabrielle was thrilled with the attention. Frieda was amused. Penelope was NOT amused. Gregori was irritated.
That evening after the meal and before Xena made it to the woods to run a final perimeter check, Frieda approached her. "Xena, can I talk to you a moment?"
"Certainly Frieda, is everything all right?"
"Well, that's what I want to talk to you about. Can we sit on this log and talk?"
Xena nodded her assent and they sat. "Xena, I am older than you, and I do have your best interests at heart. I truly admire you, and I care about you, so please, hear me out and don't be insulted."
Xena arched an eyebrow, "I'm not going to like this, am I?"
Frieda smiled, putting her hand gently on the warrior woman's arm "Relax, I really only want to ask you what you are doing."
"I'm taking you all to the Amazons." Xena said, confused more than ever now.
"I know that Xena, but what I want to know about is you and Gabrielle. I have been watching you together and I am wondering what kind of relationship you have. Is she your lover? Don't jump down my throat, this is not idle prying."
"Since you ask, Frieda, I'll give you a chance to get to your point. No, we are not lovers. We are best friends, soul mates. But what are you really asking?"
"Then if you are only friends, Xena, I want to ask you again, what are you doing? Or do you not realize that you are competing with Gregori for Gabrielle's love?" Frieda watched the warrior very carefully. She got the reaction she expected. Shock. And then realization. The appalled look on Xena's face changed to one of distress. She put her head in her hands and sat for a few moments. Finally she looked up at Frieda and saw the kindly woman's face reflecting her compassiona and understanding. She also saw that Frieda was expecting this reaction from Xena. Somehow that made it easier to talk to her now.
"Thank you, Frieda, you were right to point that out to me. I guess I was getting jealous and competing, as you say. I just care for Gabrielle so much, I can't bear the thought of losing her. I have to think about her needs, not just my own. I guess I'll talk to Gregori and see if his intentions are honorable."
"Xena, you might want to talk to Gabrielle first. You do tend to take charge of everyone's life. We can all think for ourselves. You do not have to bear the burden for us all."
Xena smiled at Frieda, and then laughed at herself. "Frieda, I think I need to keep you around for a while. You're almost as good as Gabrielle at teaching me how to be human." She squeezed the healer's shoulder and left to patrol the perimeter.
As she walked she thought about her conversation with Frieda. Yes, she wanted to be adult about this and give Gabrielle a chance for total love with a man. But could she let go? How much influence did she really have over Gabrielle? Probably more than either she or Gabrielle would admit. In all humility Xena knew Gabrielle was strongly influenced by Xena's thoughts and desires. 'Tartarus, now the shoe is on the other foot. I AM jealous of Gregori claiming Gabrielle's love. Is this a dog in a manger kind of thing? I want Gab for myself but I'm not ready to give her a complete relationship? And do I mean ready? I don't know that either Gabrielle or I will ever be ready for that kind of relationship. Hades! I thought we worked this out. Why do I feel this way? Maybe I just haven't had enough love in my life to understand. And certainly I don't want to lose this love. Whatever our relationship, I can't live without Gabrielle.' The poor warrior pounded through her guard duty scarcely noticing her surroundings.
Luckily there was no intrusion before Gregori took over the watch. Xena gave him a hard look that shook the poor guy. He certainly had things to think about, maybe foremost was, 'Is Gabrielle worth this?'
Due to low supplies, everyone shared blankets. As Xena was usually either the last in or the first out, she slept on the outside, most often against Gabrielle's back. Tonight as she crept in next to the bard, Gabrielle turned to face her. Xena saw she was still awake. "Everything all right, Xena?"
"Yes. Gabrielle, can I talk to you a moment?" Xena propped her head up on her arm.
"Of course, always." She examined the warrior's face. She could see Xena was working herself up for a difficult conversation. This scared Gabrielle. She reached across and caressed Xena's cheek. "What is it?" The Warrior Princess took Gabrielle's hand away and squeezed it reassuringly, holding it warmly and caressing the back with her thumb.
She gave the bard that crooked little grin and began talking. "Gabrielle, remember we agreed we could trust each other and say anything, discuss anything?"
"Of course I remember," Gabrielle said slowly, thinking madly 'Oh goddess, what is it?'
"Gabrielle, Gregori has been making it very clear to me that I have not always treated you fairly, or with consideration. . ." Gabrielle's face immediately registered her distress and she opened her mouth to reassure Xena, but the warrior forestalled her, holding up her free hand. "Wait, Gab, let me finish. And you may have noticed I have been trying harder to think of your needs and give you a chance to speak up."
Gabrielle couldn't hold it in any longer. "Xena, I have noticed, and it's made me feel so loved, thank you." Gabrielle smiled sweetly as she spoke.
"And who do you feel loved by Gabrielle?" Xena asked.
"Gabrielle, don't give me the answer you think I want," Xena insisted. " I am asking who you think loves you?"
"Well, I know you love me," Gabrielle said and then asked softly, " You still do, right?"
"You know I do. And who else?"
"Do you mean Gregori?"
"Yes I do. How do you feel about him?" Xena watched her bard was struggle with the answer. She was trying to figure out what Xena wanted her to say. The warrior decided to help her.
"This is not a trick question. I want to know if you want to get serious with Gregori. Do you want me to speak to him to see if his intentions are honorable?"
Both women had been reclining and talking quietly but at this last question Gabrielle sat up abruptly and said quite loudly, "Xena!" Gabrielle could not believe this maddeningly reasonable person was her Xena. The question came as a complete surprise. Her first thought was that she was being rejected by her Warrior Princess, a thought which showed on her face.
"Hush Gabrielle, come here." Xena put her hand gently over the little bard's mouth, and pulled her back down on the bedroll.
Gabrielle pulled the hand away and held it tightly. "Xena, are you trying to marry me off again?" The concerned and wounded bard examined the warrior's beautiful face carefully, distractedly noticing how the firelight accentuated the wonderful planes of her features.
"Gabrielle, will you stop evading the issue." Xena said with exasperation. "I want to know what you want. I don't want to compete with Gregori, I don't want to get in your way. I want you to be happy. Now stop being so indignant. Just help me out with this. Come on, we're supposed to be able to talk about anything." Gabrielle was making it so hard for Xena to stay calm. She pulled her hand free. "Frieda pointed out to me that I was coming between you and Gregori. Now what do you want?"
"Xena, I can't believe we are having this conversation."
"Tartarus! Gabrielle, do you love Greg or not?" the warrior demanded.
"You are sure talking a lot for someone who doesn't like to discuss personal things. What happened to my Xena? Did Stephanos pull a switch?" This selfless routine made the bard wonder if Xena cared anymore about how Gabrielle felt about HER?
"Fine, Gabrielle, I give up. You win. I'm sorry I interrupted your sleep. I thought maybe this was important to you." Xena turned her back on Gabrielle and tried to settle down to sleep. Then she felt Gabrielle's hand softly creep up her back to her shoulder. The bard pulled Xena's hair away from her neck and kissed her there. 'Gods, Gabrielle, don't do this now. I am trying to stay rational,' she pleaded in her mind.
"Xena, I'm sorry. I guess I don't have the answer. Maybe I am afraid of the answer. Gregori and I went through a lot together, trying to get out of the cave. When I was worrying about you, he tried to reassure me. He was there for me, Xena, and I began to think about him a little bit like I think about you; someone I could trust, someone who would be there for me when I needed help or comfort. I don't know that that is love. It may just be friendship. A brotherly thing maybe."
"Gabrielle, it's natural to draw close to someone after you've shared a traumatic experience. And he is a nice, caring, man. Have you kissed?"
"Xena!" This was not a subject Gabrielle wanted to discuss. She felt she might be betraying Xena. It made her too uncomfortable.
"Gabrielle, I'm just trying to find out if you've had a chance to find out if there's a physical attraction as well as friendship. That's important too." They were facing each other again and Xena fervently hoped the other two women were asleep.
"No, we haven't kissed," Gabrielle blushed. "I don't know what he wants to do. I don't know if he's really attracted to me."
"Of course he's attracted to you," Xena smiled, "Who wouldn't be. By the goddess, Gabrielle! You are so beautiful, so loving, so caring. I've seen how he looks at you, looks after you. Take it from me, he wants you. So what do you want me to do?"
Gabrielle's blush deepened. "Nothing. Can we wait and see what happens?" She looked up at Xena imploringly.
Still smiling, Xena reached over and cupped Gabrielle's chin, "I'll do whatever you want." She kissed Gabrielle on the forehead. Then they tucked in together and drifted off to sleep. Penelope had strained hard to hear everything. Now she could relax. She closed her eyes and tried to sleep, a happy little smile on her face.
So far there had been no trouble. Xena didn't believe Stephanos would give up so easily, especially since she had cost him his whole season's profit . If he and his men were going to follow, today was the day they would catch up. She alerted Gregori who agreed with her. They took turns riding point and rear guard. Xena felt they would be safe once they hit Amazon territory; she pushed them hard. At one point Gregori suggested Gabrielle ride with him for a bit, to give Argo a rest. Xena was about to veto that when she reined in her natural inclination for protection and thought this might be an opportunity for Gabrielle to decide how things stood.
"I don't know Gregori, it took me a long time to get used to riding Argo," Gabrielle said apprehensively. "And your horse is bigger."
"Gabrielle," Gregori assured her, "I would never let you come to harm. Don't you trust me?"
"It's not you I don't trust, it's that huge, black horse you want me to get on." Somehow they were able to persuade her to give it a try. Probably seeing the encouraging look in Xena's face tipped the scales.
After a full candlemark Gabrielle had almost forgotten her fear. She and Gregori brought up the rear. Gabrielle felt safe as she rode in front with Greg's strong arms holding her on. In fact she was starting to have fun. They cuddled and chatted. Gregori was regaled with tales of the Warrior Princess. He didn't mind because he loved to listen to the little bard's musical voice as she wove her stories. Xena caught Frieda's eye and they smiled at each other. The warrior's smile was a little forced, however, because the sight of her bard and the horseman did not make her happy. Penelope thought Xena was smiling at her. Her face lit up. Xena focused on the girl and smiled for her benefit. Frieda felt the young woman tense up at the attention. 'What a triangle,' she thought.
The group's mood was good, but maybe a little too carefree. Later Xena was to question herself, wondering what made her think she could relax and let down her guard as much as she had; acting like a normal human instead of an ever vigilant warrior. A cross bow arrow struck Gregori in the back and he tumbled off his horse. Gabrielle managed to barely hold on as the stallion panicked and galloped off, passing Xena and the others. Gabrielle screamed. Xena turned in time to see Gregori fall and Pathetus approach leading a contingent of slave guards. Xena had only a moment to choose -- rescue Gabrielle from the runaway horse or save the remainder of her charges from the guards. She knew Frieda's horse could not elude the pursuing force. Gregori was wounded. Gabrielle was scared, but the stallion was taking her away from the battle. Xena turned and faced the slavers. "Frieda, go! Go as fast as you can! I'll try to stop them. Look after Gabrielle for me."
Xena slapped the chestnut's rump as she sped by. She charged directly at Pathetus, screaming her war cry. Pathetus was so frightened he pulled back on the reins causing his horse to rear up and dump him creating a confusion among the soldiers. Xena wielded her sword over her head and swept three guards from their horses. She swung Argo around and unseated two others. Leaping from her mount, she landed squarely on two of the first guards she had knocked to the ground. Soon a pitched battle was underway. By the time Pathetus had regained his courage, his hate for Xena raged out of control. Xena dispatched all but two of the slavers. She fought them both together, timing each sword thrust to alternate between her opponents, skillfully deflecting their ripostes.
Gregori had regained consciousness and watched from where he lay. He wished he had the strength to join in, but was astounded to see the legend in action. Just when it looked like Xena was getting bored, Pathetus joined the fray. Greg was about to shout a warning when Xena sensed the slave guard's approach. She switched sword hands and clashed with Pathetus before turning back to counter a move from one of the other two opponents. She pulled her chakram into her right hand and used it as a shield as she matched the three men stroke for stroke. Slash left, duck, parry right, overhand to back, then again. Suddenly one went down. At first Gregori thought this was good, but as the guard dropped, his leg kicked out and caught Xena behind the knee. Her leg buckled. As she went down, a sword slashed over her head -- that was good -- but then her knee hit the ground. Pathetus jumped her. His weight temporarily held her down. The remaining guard crushed her sword hand beneath his heavy boot. Momentarily distracted by Pathetus, she suffered two broken fingers on her left hand and the loss of her sword, but he battle was not done.
Xena grabbed Pathetus by the shoulder, thrust up with her right leg and flipped the man over her. She was now on top, and once again she showed him her skills with pressure points. As he gagged and gasped for breath, Xena stood up and dispatched the last guard with her chakram. She stole a moment to look at Gregori, who smiled his encouragement to her. She grinned and turned back to Pathetus. She was too late, he was gone, too much time without blood to the brain. Xena heaved herself to her feet, picked up her sword, thrust it into her scabbard, and hurried over to Greg.
She bled from a shallow slice on her left shoulder, and a long deep gash on her right upper thigh. Her left hand was already swelling, blood dripped from her knuckles and thumb. Her beautiful face was unmarked. Not speaking, maybe because she was breathing too hard to waste air on speech, she knelt by Gregori and pulled him up to examine the cross bow bolt. It had gone straight through his back. The feathers peeked from the entrance wound. It was a metal shaft; she couldn't break it. Xena decided the wound would bleed less if she left the bolt in until Frieda could treat him. The warrior woman pulled Gregori to his feet and maneuvered him up onto Argo. She quickly mounted behind him and spurred the mare in pursuit of the women. She still had her bard to rescue.
The battle had only taken a quarter of a candlemark. Xena galloped in the direction the stallion had taken Gabrielle. Surely by now the bard had stopped the horse, or fallen off. Holding Gregori with her broken hand, Xena urged Argo forward. Within a few leagues she reached Frieda and Penelope. They all halted and Frieda helped Xena lower Gregori to the ground.
"Don't worry, we won't be followed," Xena explained. "The guards are gone. Where is Gabrielle?"
"We haven't caught up with her yet." Frieda answered.
"Look after Gregori. I'll get Gabrielle," Xena commanded as she leaped back onto Argo.
"Xena, wait, your hand. . ." Frieda called after her.
"Later," she yelled over her shoulder. As she crested a rise, a cloud of dust billowed skyward over the next hill. She urged Argo to go faster. The golden mare pushed herself for her mistress, and the little bard. Xena was surprised the stallion still raced so madly, and more so that Gabrielle continued to hold on. Probably her panicked clinging was urging the stallion onward.
As Argo and Xena came closer, the Warrior Princess began calling 'whoa' in a deep calming voice. The heaving stallion was lathered and the whites of his eyes showed as the pursuing pair neared. Gabrielle clung to the beast like a monkey, both hands tangled in the long black mane. Her head was down and she was more lying on the horse than sitting. Xena decided to try and pluck Gabrielle from the animal's back. She made her approach. There only would be one chance; Argo didn't have the strength for another chase. The warrior gripped Argo with her thighs and reached out for the bard as she nudged the mare against the stallion's side. Gabrielle barely acknowledged the second horse bumping her leg. With the reins secured to the saddle's pommel, Xena leaned way over and slipped her broken left hand under the bard, and with her strong right arm she reached across the bard's back and scooped the young woman back with her onto Argo. Gabrielle did not release her hold on the stallion's mane, causing the horse's head to pull back violently. The stallion reared and screamed. Argo responded in kind. For one brief moment the gods were privy to a savage performance as the two horses pawed the air. Gabrielle fell back against Xena's chest, regained her sense enough to realize her warrior had her and transferred her monkey grip to the Warrior Princess. Xena endured the crushing embrace, giving as good as she got. Then the two women slipped to the ground as Argo came to a halt. The stallion gave up his wild ride and trotted around in circles as he slowly calmed down.
Xena managed to get Gabrielle over to a stout tree before they collapsed. They lay together in a heap, the warrior and her trembling bard. Finally Xena sat up and leaned against the tree, pulling Gabrielle with her. Gabrielle still clung to Xena as if her life depended on it. The Warrior Princess did not have a lot of experience at comforting humans, so she used the techniques she would for an animal. She began making soothing noises, trying to ease the bard back to sanity. Gabrielle's trembling continued and worried Xena who began to gently stroke the bard's back and hair. Finally, not knowing what else to do, Xena resorted to something drastic. Slapping Gabrielle was out of the question. Instead she lifted the young woman's head and tried to make eye contact. Gabrielle was practically catatonic, no eye response. Hesitating for only a second Xena kissed the bard deeply, one strong arm around her back, the good hand cradling her head. Gabrielle couldn't pant and kiss at the same time. Her breathing slowed, her focus narrowed. She smelled Xena, she tasted Xena, she became aware that Xena had her safely in her arms. Gabrielle kissed back, and all too soon Xena released her. The two women separated and looked at each other. Xena smiled that wonderful smile that always warmed Gabrielle to her very core. The bard smiled back.
"Artemis! Xena, I thought we decided not to do that."
"Yeah we did," Xena replied, still smiling. "I thought it might shock you back to reality. It worked before."
"Oh, you!" Gabrielle said as she slapped playfully at her warrior. But when Xena raised her hands to defend herself Gabrielle saw her bleeding and swollen left hand. "Oh Xena, what have you done to your hand?" She reached out for the warrior's left wrist and pulled the hand down to examine it.
Xena responded protectively, grabbing the bard's other hand to stop her from touching the painful extremity. "Ah, Gabrielle, I've broken a few fingers. It'll be all right. Let go."
"Xena, we have to do something," Gabrielle insisted.
"Yeah, we do. We have to collect the horses, rub them down with some grass to get the sweat off and start walking them before they get sick from being so poorly used," Xena said, pulling her hand loose and standing up.
"Xena, I meant we had to do something about your hand and you know it. I couldn't care less about the horses, especially that black demon from Tartarus!"
"Well, I do care. Come on," Xena said, trying to distract the bard.
"No," Gabrielle insisted, "We need to fix your hand first before we do anything else."
"Tartarus, Gabrielle! To do that I need cold water to bring down the swelling before I set the fingers and stop the bleeding. I need special plants and two hands that know what they are doing to get the bones right. So, in other words, we are not going to do anything until we get back to Frieda and the others. Now come on! I'll deal with the stallion. You're not afraid of Argo. I won't ask you to ride either horse right now. I promise."
"Wow," Gabrielle said. "I think that's more than you usually say in a month." Xena rolled her eyes and helped Gabrielle to her feet.
Somehow they managed to get the horses into a condition that satisfied the warrior and began walking back. It took nearly a full candlemark to reach the others. By then it was dark. When they arrived at the camp site, Xena checked on Gregori and reassured him his stallion was unharmed. With Gabrielle and Penelope's help they unsaddled and settled the horses for the night. The women all made Xena stop and have her hand attended. Frieda had already gathered the necessary items. Penelope quickly collected cold spring water in the cooking pot. Xena plunged her hand in. while Frieda worked on the warrior's shoulder and thigh. The soaking would clean the hand as well as reduce the swelling. Frieda added some herbs to the water. Gregori produced some wine and both he and Xena imbibed until their pain became more a memory than a reality.
A little supper brought their overindulgence back to sobriety. So did Frieda's next words. "Xena, I think it is time to set those fingers." Frieda said.
Gabrielle and Penelope immediately looked at the warrior's face. She caught their looks and gave them her crooked grin. "So, how bad could it be?"
Pretty bad. Xena knew it would be. Frieda had Gabrielle hold Xena's left arm tightly against a large rock they had chosen for a work table. Frieda first pulled the second finger straight, aligning the bones. Then she did the third finger, this one made a nasty grating sound as it slipped back into position. That sound matched the grit of Xena's teeth and the warrior's grimacing face as well. Yet only a single tear slipped from her left eye. Penelope reached up to capture it which made Gabrielle grit her teeth.
"Penelope, hand me those little splints we made earlier." Frieda said. She attached one to each side of the broken fingers, then bound the four fingers together to form a strong wedge. But when she tried to put Xena's arm in a sling the warrior balked.
"Frieda, I need my hand free for defense."
"Xena, you need to keep the hand up to avoid swelling again. Take it easy. I thought you said we were safe from the slavers."
"Well we are, but you know these roads are not safe, and Gregori is incapacitated, and . . . ." Frieda cut her off.
"And there are three more of us. Get some sleep, Xena. Gabrielle, why don't you check on Gregori for a bit. I think he needs to see you're all right after his horse ran away with you." Gabrielle went to attend to Gregori while Penelope helped Xena to bed. Penelope held the covers up for the warrior who reluctantly got in, her gaze fixed ont the bard and the horse trader. Penelope climbed in next to her. Xena slid a little bit away from the young woman. They lay quietly for a minute. Xena's keen hearing picked up the soft conversation between Gregori and Gabrielle. Gregori was apologizing and the bard was embellishing the adventure on the runaway horse. Xena smiled to herself as Gabrielle came to the part where Xena was trying to calm her down. 'What is she going to say, I wonder.'
"How did she bring you to your senses, Gabrielle?" Gregori asked.
"Um, she grabbed my head and tried to make eye contact, but I was too out of it to focus. Finally she blew into my face and that brought me back. Then, you'll be glad to know, she made me help her rub the horses down and walk them back here. She's as bad as you, horses come before people."
Xena chuckled to herself and stopped listening. "Xena?" Penelope ventured.
"Yes?" Xena answered quietly.
"Are you all right? I mean, not just your hand and the other wounds, but your back too?"
"My back is almost healed, the rest will soon follow. Don't worry about me, I'm used to this kind of abuse."
"How did you get used to it? I mean, why did you have to? How did you become a warrior? I mean, Xena, you are a woman."
"Ah, Penelope, that is a long, sad story. You don't want to hear it. And there are many woman warriors."
"As beautiful as you? " Penelope asked shyly. "The only other female warriors I have seen are hard-faced women. With your beauty, surely there was something else you could have done besides become a warrior."
Xena laughed softly at her innocence. "Beautiful, me? I don't think so. Anyway, wait till you see the Amazons. There you'll see many very beautiful women, and most of them are warriors. Looks have nothing to do with it. Besides, I really didn't have a choice. My village was attacked, and it is in my nature to fight. What happened afterward is not something I want to discuss tonight. Let's go to sleep." Penelope realized she was upsetting the warrior. She reached over and stroked the back of Xena's right hand. Xena was lying on her stomach with her left hand stiffly in front of her, her sore back not ready for lying on.
"I'm sorry, Xena, I didn't want to upset you. I mean, I just wanted to get to know you better, and understand . . ."
"That's fine, Penelope, no harm done. I'm tired, let's sleep now." She pulled her hand away and resettled her self to sleep.
Much later Xena woke up screaming, "Gabrielle!" Frieda had taken the first watch, Gabrielle the second, and Penelope was now on guard. Gabrielle woke immediately and gathered Xena into her arms.
"Easy, Xena, I'm right here. It was a bad dream." The warrior held on tightly, thinking desperately, 'A very bad dream, Gabrielle. You left me. First in Thessaly, then for Perdicus, and now for Gregori. Oh, goddess, I can't let you do this to me. I've given you too much power over my life and heart.' When Penelope came running up to see what the scream was, she was shocked to see Xena crying in Gabrielle's arms. After all the pain and suffering she endured, to be crying over a dream did not seem like the brave Warrior Princess. The young woman did not yet understand that the pain of the heart is so much fiercer than physical pain.
"Bad dream, Penelope, go back to your watch," Gabrielle said, waving off the young woman. Penelope left and Gabrielle pulled Xena down to sleep with her.
The next morning the small group made their way to Larissa to leave Gregori to recover from his wound while they went on to the Amazon village. Xena finally met the man from the Far East, he agreed to teach her some of his new techniques when she came back through. Gabrielle and Gregori had come to an understanding which gave Xena hope. Their relationship was too new. Gabrielle would look for Gregori on their way back, in a few week's time. Gregori loaned his chestnut to the group. Xena promised him she would return the mare safely, or sell her to the Amazon's for his agreed upon price. They left Larissa. The Warrior Princess sighed in relief as they rode out of the town. "What was that big sigh about, Xena?" Gabrielle asked her.
"Hmm, nothing Gab, just smelling the flowers."
"Oh no you don't, that was an exhale, not an inhale. Be honest."
"Gabrielle, do you really want me to be honest?"
"You know I do," Gabrielle said earnestly, wishing she could see Xena's face.
"All right then. I'm sighing because I am glad Gregori is no longer with us."
"But why?" Now the bard really hated sitting in back, if she were in front she could at least turn to see her partner's expressions.
"Because I was worried he was going to take you away from me." Xena answered with surprising honesty. "Now I have a reprieve. I can pretend to myself that I am safe for a little longer." Gabrielle was dumb struck. Xena had never bared her soul so perfunctorily like that with her before. They rode for several leagues in silence.
The band of three women traveled onward to the Amazon territory for another four days. At last the troupe approached the beautiful valley that cradled the Amazon Village. They were greeted by the masked warriors who descended from the trees like birds of prey. Frieda enjoyed the show. Penelope was terrified, then astounded as the warriors dropped to their knees before Gabrielle. Xena noticed the play of emotions over the young woman's face and whispered, "Oh, sorry, forgot to mention. Gabrielle is their queen." Penelope turned her slack-jawed stare on Xena.
Soon the group and their escort rode into the main compound and were greeted by Ephiny and Solari. The two Amazons wondered what kind of adventure their friends returned from this time. Xena sported more battle wounds and some interesting new jewelry. It almost looked like slave bands, but in silver. Most unusual, they could hardly wait to hear the bard's tale. Xena felt those speculative looks and was glad her back had healed enough to don her leathers before they reached the village. Things were bad enough without riding in wearing a harem outfit with two new women in tow. As they dismounted Eponin joined the group and confidently led away the horses. Xena merely raised her eyebrow and Eponin reassured her with a smile that Argo would be well looked after.
Their arrival coincided with the noon meal. All went into the eating house to talk and enjoy some warm food. As they entered the main hall, Xena noticed Delia in the corner. She waved to the healer's apprentice and beckoned her over. Delia jumped up in delight and hurried to join their table. Ephiny and Solari looked at each other as if to say, 'Oh goddess! What is Xena up to now?'
Delia bowed to Queen Gabrielle, the regent Ephiny, and then hugged Xena joyfully. Xena managed to escape without a kiss. She held Delia off and turned her to face the two new women.
"Ephiny, Solari, Delia, " she said indicating each woman in turn, "I'd like you all to meet Frieda, who is an excellent healer, and Penelope, both of whom would like to join the Amazons. Gabrielle and I endorse their candidacy for acceptance." She looked to Gabrielle who smiled her agreement to the Amazons. She then turned the conversation over to Gabrielle who amply filled the Amazons in on their adventures. As the tale progressed Xena smiled to herself as she observed Penelope's reaction to the young healer's apprentice. Here was a fine warrior, near her age, with a delicate face and a height to rival Xena's. Delia was equally interested. Xena had initially called Delia over to introduce her to Frieda, one healer to another, but this was better, Frieda would understand.
"Xena as a slave. I would like to have seen that," said Solari.
"It was not nice. They whipped her savagely for almost killing the slave boss," Penelope piped in.
"Yeah, I noticed the new scars on your back. Xena, can't you play nicely?" Solari teased her friend.
"Nah, you know me better than that," the Warrior Princess retorted.
"I like the new collar and cuffs. Very attractive. Gabrielle, do you have the chains that go with this outfit? I bet that's fun too," Eponin joined in the fun, teasing Xena. Gabrielle blushed and looked at Xena. Xena merely smiled back, that wry grin. Penelope looked back and forth between the Amazons and her friends, trying to decide what was joking and what serious.
Xena said, "Speaking of my new look, Ephiny, may I use the services of your smithy, please?"
"Certainly, Xena," Ephiny said, adding dryly, " if you're sure bondage is not your thing."
"Oh, I'm sure."
As Xena left the hall, Ephiny instructed Delia to escort Frieda to Ama's hut, and to give both women a tour of the compound. "Penelope, each Amazon has a skill to contribute. Think about what you would like to specialize in as Delia shows you around. You will also need a sponsor in your chosen area. We'll talk some more tomorrow when you've had a chance to look around. Come, Gabrielle, I have much to discuss with you."
Meanwhile Xena was with the smithy, Nerissa, who carefully used a flexible saw to cut the bolts securing the collar and manacles.
"I've never seen silver slave bracelets and collars like this, Xena. What do you want to do with them when you are free?" Nerissa asked.
"If you would like the collar, please help yourself. I would like to borrow some of your tools to work the two cuffs into removable bracelets. I'll saw off the chain rings, maybe cut them down a little to make them lighter. Do you have a suggestion for a removable clasp? I figure with some polishing, they will make an attractive pair of bracelets." Xena thought her bard might enjoy wearing a shining silver reminder of their connection. The Warrior Princess herself enjoyed the thought of being enthralled with Gabrielle by sharing the pair.
The smith said, "I like it. They will be very nice. Yes I know what we can do for the clasps. Thanks for the collar, I can melt it down and make all kinds of things. I don't often get so much silver to work with, you must have been a very valuable slave, Xena."
"Hmph, I was a very expensive slave. That bastard, I put him out of his foul line of business. Let's get this over with, I'm looking forward to having my neck back. This has been Tartarously uncomfortable."
It was mealtime once again before Xena and Gabrielle were able to get together. The same little group collected to eat dinner. More stories were shared. At last Xena persuaded Gabrielle to leave their friends and join her at the hot springs. "I want to wash the grime of slavery off me."
Gabrielle said, "Oh, Xena, it was very bad wasn't it?" By now the women sat up to their necks in soothing hot water. Xena held her broken hand up, her elbow resting on the edge of the pool.
"It was bad because I feel so guilty about my own casual disregard for the rights of others when I was a warlord. I almost enjoyed the whipping, not for what I did to the slave guard, but for my earlier crimes. It really bothers me that I have never been punished for my crimes, Gabrielle."
"Ares, Xena, you seem to me to be punished almost every day. Look what you do to yourself. You are your own executioner. Is this what your life is all about, Xena? You are not seeking absolution and redemption, you are seeking punishment."
"That's not true." Xena explained. "I am trying to atone, but I can't help feeling this is not enough. So when something like this happens to me, I feel a little better."
"Tartarus! You make me so angry sometimes."
"Gabrielle. I'm trying to be honest with you. If you're going to attack me whenever I tell you these private thoughts, I won't do it again. This is why I keep so much to myself!" At this the warrior climbed out of the pool and left.
Gabrielle stayed where she was. She knew they both needed to calm down before talking again.
Frieda, Penelope, and Delia joined the bard.
"Do you mind if we join you, Gabrielle?" Frieda asked politely.
"No, please come in."
"Where is Xena?" Penelope asked, looking around.
"Didn't you see her? She just left in a huff. We had a fight. She makes me so angry when she punishes herself so."
"You mean when she gets hurt?" asked Delia.
"No, I mean because she wants to get hurt," Gabrielle pointed out the difference.
"What? How could that be?" asked Penelope.
Gabrielle asked with some shock, "Penelope, have you never heard of Xena before? The Destroyer of Nations, the dark warlord?"
"Is she famous or something?" Penelope asked innocently. "What do you mean. I thought she was just another Amazon warrior. I mean, not just, but a warrior, no matter how magnificent. What are you talking about?"
"She is not an Amazon, Penelope," Gabrielle explained and turned to Frieda. "And you Frieda?"
"Yes, Gabrielle, I have heard of Xena, the Warrior Princess, disciple of Ares, dealer of death. But I realize this Xena is not that woman."
"You are wrong, Frieda. My Xena will always be that Xena. I know she is good and just, but she will never forgive herself. That's why we were fighting. She said the whipping made her feel better. Tartarus! The woman is crazy!"
Frieda began patiently. "Gabrielle, let me tell you a little about some of the people I have treated while they have been slaves. I have met many who, while crying from the pain, felt that they deserved it. Some of them were folks who had beaten their children, some were warriors at one time, others had done something in their lives of which they were ashamed. They were all plagued by guilt. A guilt so strong they felt they deserved any punishment they got. But to me, they were all good people. It is those who don't look for punishment who are the truly evil people of the world. They either revel in their vileness, or they have no understanding of right from wrong. Xena is one of the good people, Gabrielle. I would worry more if she did not seek punishment."
"But Frieda, will she ever feel she has been punished enough?"
"I wish I could say yes, but I think this pain and guilt goes too deeply with your warrior. Let her suffer, Gabrielle, just be there for her when she cries."
"Frieda, she hardly ever cries. And after tonight, she may never reveal her pain to me again. I really made a mistake by getting angry at her didn't I?"
"No, Gabrielle, you showed her how much you care. Make her see that." With that thought, Gabrielle stepped out of the pool and went to see Xena.
That conversation made Delia think too. She realized loving Xena was a very difficult thing. She was so much more than a beautiful woman and a wondrous warrior. Too much more for Delia. She could see why Xena might prefer someone gentle like Gabrielle to another warrior like herself. Delia decided she was lucky to have escaped that entanglement. She turned her sights on Penelope.
When Gabrielle entered their hut, the room was dark. At first she thought Xena was not there, but then she heard that hint of metal. Xena did not speak nor resume sharpening her sword. She waited in the dark. 'Shall I speak or leave her in peace?' thought the bard. 'No, I came to tell her I love her, and that's why I rejected her private thoughts of punishment. I need to break through or we will have lost our fragile bond of trust again.' The bard walked to the table by the bed. She knew the candle and flint were there. She lit the candle and turned to the warrior. Xena was biting her lip and her cheeks were streaked with tears. She sat cross-legged on the bed, with her sword in her lap, the sharpening stone in her right hand and the broken left anchoring the hilt.
Gabrielle climbed onto the bed and took the sword and stone from her warrior. Noticing that Xena was wearing her sleeping tunic, Gabrielle changed into her own. The warrior watched the bard's actions and wondered what was coming next. Neither spoke. Gabrielle avoided eye contact. She was afraid if they looked eye to eye they would both start crying. She sometimes felt Xena was like a feral animal. If you stared into the eyes of an animal you challenged it. She did not want to see Xena look away from that challenge nor to attack in response. They needed a gentle moment.
The bard blew out the candle and pulled Xena into her arms. The two women held each other and Gabrielle sheltered her warrior from the storm. In this case it was a storm of emotion. Gabrielle knew she could talk and pour out all her reasonableness and her love, but words would not do tonight. She would have to do it the warrior's way, with action.
As her eyes adapted to the moon-lit room, the bard realized she could see the clean lines of her warrior's elegant face looking up at her. The dignity and richness of her features were offset by the wildness of those blue eyes. Gabrielle could see fear there, such a rare thing in her warrior. Very slowly and softly the bard ran her hand up Xena's neck to her cheek. She caressed that smooth skin, feeling the dampness from her tears. She let her fingers wander to the warrior's lips and felt Xena tremble. Smoothing the tears from the other cheek, Gabrielle's hand slipped behind Xena's neck and drew that proud head up to her own lips. The tender kiss deepened. Without words, the bard spoke long into the night until her warrior understood.
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