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DISCLAIMER/WARNINGS: This is a work of fan fiction. The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, and Argo are the property of Universal/MCA and Renaissance Pictures. No attempt is being made to profit from the writing of this story. Violence and mild subtext ahead.
The Poetry of Your HandsThe poetry of your hands, More eloquent than words I say; It seizes my delight by day And holds me captive in the night. Verses you inscribe on flesh I memorize through sense, not thought; The artwork that your hands have wrought Enchants with love and inspires delight. Your hands proceed with gentle might As love's path they would prepare; What I write cannot compare To the poetry of your hands.
She woke up with the feel of a soft, warm body behind her and strong arms enfolding her. With a smile, she rested her own hands over those clasped around her waist. They were such beautiful hands, she thought, narrow, with long, graceful fingers, tendons sharply defined under the smooth, tanned skin. She studied the one imperfection, an index finger that was slightly crooked at the tip. Last night she had kissed that small crookedness, feeling such tenderness for this one small blemish among all that perfection. With a contented sigh, she settled her head against her companion's shoulder and slept again.
The owner of that shoulder was content, also. Content to lie there for a while longer as the western sky turned rose and pink and finally blue. Content to feel the small weight of a golden head against her body. To breathe in rhythm with the object of her love. Love, she thought with wonder. Long past the time when I expected to say the word or even feel it, I hold in my arms this small being I love with all my heart. If I could, I would lie with her forever, as the sun set and rose and set again a million million times. Gods grant I never hurt her or betray her trust in my protection.
Gabrielle tried to tell the four men they were in trouble. "My companion is getting water. She'll be returning to the clearing soon. You better not be here when she does."
"She?" the ugliest sneered. "Hey, there's another woman. We'll have at it with this one, and be ready for the other one."
"That quick, are you, Martel?" one of the others asked. "Guess I'll wait for the other one."
"Your waiting is over." The voice was low and calm, but Gabrielle realized that the tone was dangerous. But the men were not touching her, and that might save their lives.
The men all turned toward the voice and saw a sight unlike any they had ever known. A leather-clad woman, taller than any of them, stood just inside the clearing. In her left hand was a large water skin. One instant her right hand was empty and the next, it held a sword. The ugly man motioned for his companions to spread out, one circling to their left, the others to the right.
Xena smiled, which Gabrielle knew to be a bad sign for the men. The bard tried once more. "You can all go away now. That way you can live."
At a nod from their leader, the three men drew their own swords and charged. The man running at Xena from their left reached her first and, dropping the water skin, she neatly chopped him in the throat with her left hand. Before he could fall, she ducked and flipped him over her shoulder and into the other two. When one of those swung his sword from the ground in a clumsy attempt to cut her leg, she clubbed him with the hilt of her sword. The warrior turned her head as the leader charged toward the smaller woman. That's when the third man kicked out hard and made contact with her knee. Xena grunted and took one step back to recoup.
Gabrielle had stepped forward to meet the onslaught of the leader. His pockmarked face registered surprise as she used her staff to sweep his feet out from under him. This put all of the attackers on the ground with no blood spilled. Gabrielle felt a glow of satisfaction at this outcome. As her man tried to raise his sword, she delivered a stunning blow to his elbow, and the weapon fell from numb fingers. "Get out of here!" she yelled, and she let him up to run from the clearing, not even looking back to check on the fate of his companions.
Gabrielle turned to smile at Xena, who was delivering a kick to the pants to encourage one attacker to follow his leader. The other two were already scurrying on all fours, trying to get as far as possible from the woman warrior before making a run for it. Then Gabrielle sensed that something was not as it should be. Xena was holding her sword, but it was in the wrong hand. And, as Gabrielle watched in horror, Xena dropped the sword and clutched her right arm with her left hand. Bright red blood spurted out between her fingers as she dropped to one knee.
"Xena!" Gabrielle cried as she ran to her friend. "What happened?"
"One kicked me in my knee. I was careless, and the other one got in a slash with his sword." Xena had regained control and, with Gabrielle's help, was able to rise to her feet. "Bring my sword," she said. Gabrielle picked up the sword, noticing that the hilt was slicked with blood. Xena's blood, since none of the attackers had seemed to be cut. Xena was already in the campsite and trying to open her saddlebags. Gabrielle rushed to help her. "You'll have to stitch this," Xena said. "It's not going to stop bleeding otherwise."
Gabrielle nodded. This wasn't something she liked to do, but she was competent in dealing with sword cuts. Xena sat down on their blankets, and Gabrielle was surprised to see her stagger as she did so. Then, as Gabrielle prepared the suturing materials, Xena removed her hand from the cut, and Gabrielle saw the wound for the first time. It was high up, between Xena's shoulder and the leather that protected her upper arm. And it was clearly a cut to the bone. Although the blood pulsing out obscured her view, she could see muscle bulging from the wound, the muscle as ragged as the surrounding skin.
"Xena," Gabrielle gasped, "I don't know what to do. I've never handled anything like this."
"Listen," Xena said quietly. "Find the blood vessel that is cut. You have to sew that back together or I'll bleed to death or lose my arm. Then start with the deepest layer of muscle. Stitch that, then the next deepest, and so on until you've pulled everything back together. Then stitch the skin over it."
"I can't. . . ."
"Gabrielle, one step at a time."
As Gabrielle stepped forward to follow Xena's directions, the warrior passed out.
Gabrielle blamed herself, but Xena never did.
"You saved my life," Xena said. "I would have died if you hadn't stitched up the wound."
"And if I had done it correctly, you would be able to use your arm." Just thinking about the warrior's arm could cause the young woman to cry.
Seeing it as she did every day, hanging useless, or bound in a cloth across the warrior's chest. . . .this was almost more than she could bear. "Or if I had taken you to a healer instead of trying to do it myself."
"The nearest town was too far away," Xena reminded her. "You did the best you could. You've seen the crippled warriors we've come across during our journeys. You know that something like this--or worse--is bound to happen sooner or later to people in my profession."
"We'll keep up the massage," Gabrielle promised. "Just like you showed me. We'll make that arm work."
"No, Gabrielle, the massage will keep the arm from drawing up, from withering." Xena spoke gently. "It won't make it work."
"There has to be something we can do. A healer. Niklio." Her eyes shone with hope. "He couldn't help you the last time you were there, but you said yourself he's a great healer. We'll go there and...."
"No, Gabrielle. Niklio can't help me this time either." Seeing the hope die in the young woman's eyes and begin to be replaced with despair, Xena struggled to come up with something that would help her. For herself, she would accept this loss as she had others. What she couldn't stand was her companion's guilt, the trading of her youthful confidence for feelings of defeat. "There might be someone who can, though." Even as she said this, she wished she could call the words back. Then the light she saw in Gabrielle's eyes made her glad that she had voiced her thought.
"Who?" Gabrielle cried. "Who can help you?"
Xena felt a chill as she uttered the name. "Adja Ka."
To Gabrielle's surprise, Xena took Argo up the trail that would lead to the good-size town of Vinca. Why here? she thought. They had avoided all but the smallest villages since setting out two weeks before. And in those villages, Xena had hung back, staying with Argo as Gabrielle bargained for food. Sensing the question, Xena explained, "We're coming near country where the roads are even more dangerous. I have to be able to protect you."
"I'm not helpless, you know," Gabrielle reminded her, and she punctuated her words with a twirl of her staff, ending with it in thrusting position.
"I know that," Xena said, "but a staff isn't effective against a dozen swords. Besides, the best defense is avoiding a fight to begin with. My name combined with my appearance is often enough to do that, especially with men savvy enough to be dangerous."
"You do have a reputation," Gabrielle agreed mildly.
"But my reputation will do us no good if people see I can't even draw my sword."
"Just wear it so you can draw it left-handed," the small woman suggested.
"You fight better with that hand than any ten men with their right."
Xena shook her head. "If I want to avoid fighting, that won't work.
Everyone who knows my name also knows I fight right-handed. If my sword is rigged for the left hand, they'll know something is wrong with me. That will only encourage trouble. No, I need something completely different, something that will allow me to use my left hand without revealing any problem with the right." She tried to remove her scabbard and sword and grimaced with frustration. Gabrielle rushed to help her and soon held the equipment in her own hands. As always, she wondered at the weight of the iron sword and at Xena's ability to wield it one-handed. One-handed, she thought . . . .
"This trail leads into the quietest part of town. Go down it until you come to a large wooden house with tile on part of the roof. That's the armorer's house. His name is Crestes."
"Crestes," Gabrielle repeated. "Wooden house, some tiles on the roof. But aren't you going?"
"No," Xena answered. "Crestes is an old acquaintance of mine, and he might keep his mouth shut. And he might not. We can't chance it. When you get there, talk to Crestes himself. Give him that sword and scabbard and tell him you want a double rig. Long swords. Tell him it's for me, and he'll know exactly what I want."
"Why is that?"
"Crestes made my swords when. . . .before I met Hercules." She looked away, then took a deep breath and faced the younger woman again. "That's the kind of rig I used then. He'll remember and just figure I'm switching back."
"I don't understand," Gabrielle said. "Why do you need two swords when. . . ." Her voice trailed off.
"If I have two swords and they're rigged for a cross-draw, people will assume I can use both of them." She gave a tight smile. "If I have to fight, and I draw only with my left hand, they'll figure I'm showing contempt for my opponent and don't consider him worthy of fighting with my right." That will work as long as my useless arm looks normal, she thought. Maybe I can have Gabrielle to safety before that becomes a problem . . . .
Gabrielle was nodding. "That makes sense. We can get to that healer faster if we don't have to fight or go out of our away to avoid fights on the way." She placed the harness of the sword scabbard over her shoulder and let it hang down. Xena noticed that the sword tip almost touched the ground and laughed. Gabrielle followed her gaze and, glad to hear that sound, made a show of trying to hold up the weight of the sword. Without warning, she stood on tiptoe and kissed the tall woman on the mouth. For an instant, she felt the kiss returned and then deepened. . . . before Xena stepped back.
"You better hurry," the warrior said gruffly.
Gabrielle nodded and started down the trail alone.
Even coming into the village from what would be considered the "back side," Gabrielle had no trouble recognizing Crestes' shop. As Xena had told her, it was one of the larger wooden structures and the only one with tiles on the roof. The back was obviously the living quarters and a small shed for animals, so she walked along the side of the building to the front.
Hearing men's rough voices, she paused before rounding the last corner.
"This sword better keep its edge, old man, or I'll hone it on your skull!"
"You don't like the sword, leave it," a steady voice replied.
"Just remember my words."
Gabrielle peeked around the corner of the building to see three big men, all dressed in the rough leather and metal of mercenaries, crossing the street. The one in the middle wore the shaved skull and topknot of the feared Draconian Guard. Gabrielle waited until the men had ducked through the dark doorway of the tavern across the way before she walked to the front of the armorer's shop. The man who had been the object of the mercenary's threats was just entering the shop.
"Crestes?" Gabrielle called. "Are you Crestes?"
The man turned. He was not tall but was powerfully built through the neck, chest, and arms, as men who work with metal often are. Although he was past his prime, his hair gray and broad face lined, Gabrielle could see that he had been handsome in his youth. Clear gray eyes regarded her suspiciously. They rested briefly on the sword and scabbard slung over her shoulder and then returned to her face. "What are you doing with that sword?"
"Xena sent me," she explained. She unslung the weapon and held it toward him. "She wants to trade this for a double rig like she used to wear. Do you know what she means?"
He nodded. "I know." Not looking any friendlier, he strode to his shop and motioned for her to follow. Weapons of every description hung from hooks on the walls and lay on two plank tables in the center of the room.
At one of the tables, a young man looked up from the work of tooling a piece of harness, whether for the breast of a horse or of a warrior, Gabrielle couldn't tell. "My son Glaetus," Crestes said gruffly. Then to Glaetus, "Watch the shop. But first tell the forge workers to take a break. Too blazes hot today, and I don't need none of them passing out."
As Glaetus jumped up, his father walked on through the shop and, when Gabrielle hesitated, motioned impatiently for her to continue following.
They passed through a doorway into a small kitchen area. Crestes gestured toward a table around which were three stout chairs. "Sit," he ordered.
Gabrielle fumbled with the scabbard, and he took it from her, placing it and the sword it cradled to one side of the table top. With Gabrielle seated, he plopped a mug in front of her and filled that and another one from an earthen jug, which he placed at the center of the table. Gabrielle didn't touch the mug. "Drink." He sat across from her.
She took a cautious sip. It was sweet cider. She drank again before setting the mug down.
"Now, who are you and how did you really get that sword?" Gray eyes bored into hers. "If you lie, I'll know."
"I'm Gabrielle of Poteidea. I'm a bard, and I travel with Xena of Amphipolis." His eyebrows raised, but he didn't stop her, so she went on.
"Xena sent me here to trade that sword for ones like she used to use. She described your shop to me and told me to come here to make the trade." She decided to add one embellishment. "Xena said you were the best armorer in all Thessaly."
"That last's a lie," he pronounced. He took a swallow of the cider. "I'm the best, but Xena wouldn't say it. And why wouldn't she come to town herself? Why send a little thing, a 'bard,' like you?"
"There's a problem," Gabrielle said. Could she trust this man? She thought she could, but. . . . "Xena doesn't want to be seen."
"Damn!" Crestes spit out. "On the run, is she? Back on the outlaw path.
As soon as you said she was going back to her old style of fighting, I figured she was up to her old ways." Shaking his head, he drained the rest of his cider like it was strong drink. "Stay here." Not giving Gabrielle a chance to refute his theory, Crestes rose and returned to his shop. He was back almost immediately, and in his hands were twin swords in a beautiful leather harness. He threw the double rig in the center of the table beside the jug.
Gabrielle touched the ornate metal work of the sword hilts and ran a finger along the intricate tooling of the leather. "These are exactly what Xena wants."
"Ought to be. They're hers. Or were before she traded them for that." He gestured toward the heavy iron sword Xena had carried for three years.
"That sword was supposed to be a symbol of her change." He pulled the sword from its scabbard and hefted it before laying it aside. "Symbol of the guilt she carried, I always thought. Twice as heavy as any one-handed sword ought to be. Rough-edged and ugly, hard to keep honed sharp. I was ashamed to let it out of my shop." He shook his head and refilled his own and Gabrielle's mug. "And now you tell me she's trading it in and going back to her old ways."
Gabrielle finally got a word in. "No. Xena isn't going back to being a warlord. She's still fighting on the side of good. Xena IS good."
Crestes searched her face for the truth, then nodded. "When I knew her, that woman was better than anyone could credit. Better than the scum she ran with. Crestes continued to fix Gabrielle with a steady glare. "She was worse, too, worse than you could ever know."
"I know Xena did terrible things," Gabrielle began. "She's told me."
"You think you know, but you don't. You couldn't stand to be around her if you really knew." He blinked, as if with sudden understanding. "If you're with her voluntarily. If you're not, maybe I can . . . ."
Loud shouts and a tremendous crash from the direction of the shop interrupted whatever he was about to offer. Recognizing one of the raised voices as his son's, the armorer rose and hurried toward it, Gabrielle close behind.
The heavy table where Glaetus had been working was overturned, and leather, weapons, and tools were scattered on the floor. In the midst of the wreckage stood the three mercenaries who had left the shop earlier. The one with the shaved skull was holding Glaetus by the neck, barely allowing the shorter man's feet to touch the floor. Against the young man's throat, he held the sharp edge of his new sword.
At a glance, Gabrielle took in the condition of the three men. Whatever they had drunk at the tavern, added to their already surly dispositions, had put them in an explosive mood. Gauging the situation the same way, Crestes, instead of demanding the release of his son, asked, "What, Sharom?
You decided you don't like the sword?"
Looking at where the blade had nicked his hostage's neck, the warrior laughed. "I like it fine. But you overcharged me for it. I want half my money back. Now!"
Not arguing, Crestes opened a small iron box that lay on the table that had not been overturned. He counted out several coins and, holding them out, started toward the mercenaries.
"No! Have the girl bring them over."
"Sharom, she has nothing to do with this."
"Now. Or I start cutting."
Gabrielle saw nervousness, but no real fear, in the eyes of the mercenary's captive, and she smiled reassuringly. She held out her hand, and Crestes placed the coins in her upturned palm. "You don't have to do this," he said, but she and he both knew she must. Slowly, keeping her smile in place, she approached the one called Sharom. When she was within half a pace, he roughly pushed the armorer's son away and grabbed Gabrielle. He snatched the coins from her hand and held her to him, the flat of his blade across her belly.
"Let her go, Sharom," Crestes growled. "You've got the sword and the money."
"And you've got your boy," the mercenary answered. He and the other two backed through the doorway and into the street, Sharom, holding Gabrielle, going last. "We've always preferred girls to boys, so everyone's happy."
"I'm not happy."
Gabrielle blinked and looked from the bright street into the darkness at the rear of the shop. There stood a tall woman warrior, clad in a leather battle dress, a sword at each hip, their hilts almost touching in front.
"Xena?" Gabrielle breathed.
At the sound, the warrior stepped into the light, crossing the shop to lean casually against the doorway, the thumb of her right hand resting inside the harness that cradled her two thin blades. Her eyes flicked from Sharom to the other two, then back to Sharom. "No, I'm not happy at all."
"Xena!" This time it was the man holding Gabrielle who breathed the word.
Recovering, he gave Gabrielle a shake with his free hand. "This yours?"
Xena's eyes swept over Gabrielle and, cold as ice, returned to the man's face. "Yes, that's mine."
Sharom shoved Gabrielle toward the taller of the other two mercenaries.
That man, right hand already occupied with his sword, grabbed her wrist with his left and forced her to her knees in the dirt of the street. He rested his blade on her shoulder and fixed his gaze, not on Xena, but on Sharom.
"You want her back, Xena, you'll have to take her." Sharom licked his thin lips. "Or you can walk away. Either way, I win."
Xena regarded him without emotion. "How do you figure?"
"If you walk away, I'm the man who made Xena back down. And we get to enjoy the girl."
"And if I fight you?"
"I'm almost as good with a sword as you are. And my friend Partho is almost as good as me." He glanced at the man who had slowly worked his way around to stand to Xena's left. This man, evidently the one called Partho, grinned and drew his sword. "If you fight us, we'll kill you. Then I'm the man who killed Xena." His eyes shifted momentarily to the young woman kneeling in the street. "And we still enjoy the girl. For as long as she lasts."
In that instant, Xena attacked. Cross-drawing a sword with her left hand, she lunged, not toward Sharom, but toward Partho. The mercenary tried to react, but her thin blade was under his heavy one before he had a chance to block it. Entering just beneath his last rib, it found his heart and withdrew. He was dead without even knowing he was wounded and, with a look of wonder on his face, followed his fallen sword to the ground.
Gabrielle had not been idle, but had released the tension on her wrist by allowing her captor's force to take her backward to the ground. As she fell, she rolled away from his pinioning sword and swept her left foot around. Going from a kneeling position, she could strike no higher than his ankle, but it was a healthy strike against bone, and he lowered his sword for the moment she needed to roll away. As he recovered and raised his sword to strike her, Crestes ran around the corner of the shop, Xena's broad sword in his hand. Not pausing, he swung the blade in a wide arc, and the mercenary was looking at a bleeding stump where his sword arm had been.
Sharom, who had stepped toward Gabrielle at the instant Partho died, found a grinning Xena in his path. He backed away to get fighting--or running--room.
"Surrender," Xena said, her tone implying that she hoped he wouldn't.
The mercenary leader, now sadly lacking followers, calculated his chances.
"Are you going to fight left-handed?" he asked.
"Count on it," she answered.
"Then you'll die. No one can be that good with their weaker arm." On the last word, he lunged, and Xena parried, lightly stepping out of his way.
Gabrielle, still sitting in the dusty street, tore her eyes away to look at the man who lay near her. Crestes, kneeling to touch the man's chest, shook his head, and she shifted her attention back to Xena and the fight.
Repeatedly, the big mercenary pressed, and Xena avoided. She seemed to be making no offense, but her skin remained unmarked, and his face and arms were soon covered with bright red blood. Always circling and backstepping, the woman warrior kept her right hand at her waist, thumb tucked into the weapons harness, seemingly too contemptuous of her enemy to give her best effort. Yet, each flick of her blade delivered another stinging wound.
Gabrielle heard a murmuring around them and realized that a crowd of townspeople had gathered to watch the fight. Hearing a word or two, her viewpoint shifted, and she found herself seeing the battle as a stranger would. A skilled and muscular woman warrior, her face revealing something akin to joy, toyed with an overmatched opponent, his breathing now coming in painful rasps, his face a mask of blood. Not even giving him the dignity of his defeat, the warrior fought on with her weaker hand so she could prolong the torture.
Finally, the mercenary gave a roar of rage and pain and charged his tormentor, sword point before him. Stepping easily away from harm, Xena ran him through, holding him up with her sword and shoulder before shrugging and allowing his body to fall free of her blade. Bending forward, she found a part of his clothing that was not soaked with blood, and wiped her blade clean before returning it to its narrow sheath.
Xena's cold eyes swept the crowd before resting on Gabrielle. "Are you ready to leave?"
Stopping far from the town, the two women made a silent camp. Xena held out cold, dry meat, and Gabrielle shook her head. The smaller woman rolled into her blanket near the fire and fell into a troubled sleep. Making her bed a short distance away, the warrior lay awake. Should she wake her friend? Could she comfort her? Or would the touch of this hand, so recently stained with red, cause fear worse than any nightmare could? As Xena silently debated, Gabrielle settled the issue by rising and, swaddled in her blanket, coming to look down upon the other woman. Xena patted the space beside her, and the bard dropped to the ground and settled in, her head nesting against her companion's shoulder. Xena slipped her left arm around the small body and let her own cheek brush the top of Gabrielle's head. Hair so soft and fragrant, she thought, and lightly kissed the young woman's cheek.
Gabrielle shifted so she could study Xena's face. "How can you be like this--and like that--and still be one person?"
"I didn't fight like that to be cruel," Xena answered, ignoring the larger question.
"Then why?" When Xena didn't respond, Gabrielle guessed, "Because he told you what he and the others would do to me?"
"There was that," Xena replied slowly, "but for that and for touching you, I would merely have killed him. His suffering was a message to anyone else who might attack us. Word will spread about how I killed him and that I did it without half-trying. We won't have any more trouble on our way to Adja Ka. No one will discover why I fought left-handed."
"A message," Gabrielle repeated. Xena thought she felt her shiver, but her next questions dealt with the future, not the past. "Who is Adja Ka? Is she such a great healer that you know she can cure you?"
"Don't worry about her now." Xena put another kiss on Gabrielle's cheek.
"Two days' ride will find us at her door. Sleep now." Gabrielle started to speak, but Xena placed a finger across her lips. "Sleep." When we reach Adja Ka, we'll worry, she thought. When we reach Adja Ka; when it's too late.