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Disclaimer: The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess are owned by MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures, bless them. No copyright infringement is intended.
Note: This is my one and only rift aftermath story. Antipany is a character from a previous story, but this tale stands alone. Suffice it to say that Antipany and Xena still don't like each other very much. Many thanks to Inga, whose command of language is so much better than mine, for suggestions and corrections. The quote from "Silk's Lil Black Warlord Book" is used with the permission of Silk. Thanks Silk. All feedback is appreciated.
There are bonds so strong the gods can not sever them.
Ties that do not succumb to the ravages of time.
Stones that will not wash away in the hurricane.
Together they form an edifice no flood can destroy.
A home in which lasting relationships are nourished and families are formed.
A family of relatives, friends, lifemates, children, community, country.
And every residence is different.
Some are so snug only two contented souls may squeeze in
And others so vast a multitude may reside in comfort.
Some are so solidly built that no one else may enter,
While others sway in the breeze as rooms are added with happy abandon.
One would expect these structures to collapse, but they don't.
Not when their ties are so strong.
But even the strongest of homes can be weakened.
Not by the cataclysmic raging of storms whose battering may only strengthen bonds,
But by the little hidden assaults that chip away at the structure leaving its occupants
unaware of imminent collapse.
There are times when love is not enough.
It was always a bad sign when Xena turned monosyllabic on her. They had been on the move for days and Xena had shown no signs of wanting to stop. And if she had a destination in mind, she had refused to share it with Gabrielle. The truth was that Xena didn't know herself where they were heading. There was an unease within her that she just couldn't quell and it just grew whenever they stopped long enough for her to ponder on it. She had no idea of its cause but she suspected it had something to do with Gabrielle and her instinct told her that if she took the time to analyze it, she would lose something very valuable to her.
Gabrielle was tired. This incessant wandering was wearing her down. It wouldn't be so bad if she could just get her companion to communicate in more than grunts, gestures and a wide assortment of facial expressions. She wondered idly what her punishment would be if she plucked the warrior's eyebrows out while she slept. She would have to be drugged first... Gabrielle shook her head. Stop that, she told herself. She looked up at Xena who was riding impassively on Argo and laid a hand on her companion's leg.
"Xena, walk with me for a while. Please?" She thought that her friend was going to refuse, but after a few moments the warrior grunted and dismounted. They walked silently on. Xena didn't want to walk and she sure as Hades didn't want to talk. And she knew Gabrielle would want to talk, as surely as she wanted to breathe.
"Let's play a game," Gabrielle suggested to the warrior's surprise. They hadn't done that for a while.
"All right," Xena readily agreed. Anything to keep the bard's attention off her bad mood. She didn't know why she felt the way she did but she knew Gabrielle would want to analyze it, discuss it, pick it apart until it bled and she just didn't feel like bleeding this day.
Gabrielle looked at her and sighed. "I'll start. I'm thinking of a man we both know." She looked at Xena expectantly.
"God or mortal?"
"Is he still among the living?"
"Does he do manual labor?"
"Ahh, that narrows the field." She finally looked down at her companion and smiled. "Is he a politician?"
Gabrielle laughed. "How many politicians do we know?" she asked.
"None," her companion admitted. "At least ones that are still living." She never shifted her gaze as a shadow fell over them and moved away. Gabrielle glanced up quickly. A large bird flew lazy circles over their heads, gradually spiraling down to cast a another shadow over them then flapping his wings and rising up. Argo nickered a greeting.
"Hey," exclaimed Gabrielle, "isn't that Peisander?" She waved to the big ugly vulture. He cawed a greeting and settled on a tree branch in front of them.
Xena never broke stride. "So, it's not a politician," she mused. "Is he a bard?"
Gabrielle stopped in front of the bird. She looked at Xena's retreating back. "Yes!" She looked back at the bird and again at the warrior's back. "Wait up!" She ran to catch up. Peisander flew in front of them and settled on another branch.
"A bard, huh? That's not fair. The only bard worth remembering is you." Xena walked on not acknowledging the bird cawing his concerns at her head. "Well, let's see. How about Homer. Are you thinking of Homer?" She walked on until she realized she was walking alone. Gabrielle had stopped. Argo had stopped. And they were both looking at her with a mixture of exasperation and amusement. The vulture just looked exasperated.
"Whaat?!" she asked in irritation.
"Xena, you can't just ignore problems and expect them to go away. That's not like you. What is going on?"
Xena grimaced. "I wish I knew, Gabrielle. But I don't, so there's no point in talking about it." She pointed at Peisander. "We can ignore that though. Let's go." She whirled around and had taken a half dozen steps when she realized her gambit hadn't worked. No one had moved. Slowly she turned around and gazed sadly at her horse. "You too, Argo?" she asked softly. Argo snorted but stood pat.
"What have you got against Peisander, Xena?" Gabrielle asked.
"It's not Peisander, it's the company he keeps. Antipany can't be far away. And where the sorcerer is, trouble isn't far behind."
Gabrielle looked at her in puzzlement. "Antipany has forgiven you for the deaths of her brothers. Why don't you want to help her?"
Xena held up her index finger. "She's a sorcerer." She held up a second finger. "She may have forgiven me, but she certainly hasn't forgotten. She hates me." A third finger went up. "She's a despicable sorcerer. Not that there's any other kind," she added. The fourth finger went up. "She manages to almost kill you every time we meet." Her thumb followed her fingers. "She's a despicable, deceitful sorcerer. Not that there's any other kind." The first finger of her other hand came up. "She's..."
Gabrielle caught the warrior's hands in hers and stilled them against her chest. "All right. All right. It's been over six months since we've seen her. She could have changed by now." Xena snorted. Gabrielle frowned and continued. "You stay here then. I'll go. Come on Peisander, lead the way." The big bird cawed his appreciation and flew off with Gabrielle in pursuit. Xena's face may have been impassive but she was cursing fluently to herself. Argo wandered over and nuzzled her mistress.
"I know, I know," grumbled Xena. Sighing, she mounted the horse and set off after Gabrielle. As she passed her companion, she leaned down and swept her up, depositing the startled bard behind her. "I know I'm going to regret this," she murmured.
They followed Peisander in silence for the rest of the day. Xena's face was set in a perpetual scowl and her companion had given up trying to make conversation after two grunts and an ominous silence were all she could coerce from the warrior. So Gabrielle was left to wonder why they had been summoned after all this time. The thin, delicate sorceress had spent five years preparing her revenge on Xena only to find her plans thwarted by the bard and the knowledge that Xena had changed. What had sealed her fate was the love of a certain priest of Apollo whose peace loving ways finally precluded any further attempt at revenge. Not that she hadn't tried. Twice she had come close to killing Xena, so it was natural that the warrior had a healthy skepticism when it came to the motives of the mercurial sorceress. But Antipany had married Telamedes and in the end she had forgiven Xena. Whatever other faults the sorceress had, she was fanatical when it came to keeping her word.
Peisander led them toward the temple, past well tended farms and peaceful villages. Their only diversion came toward evening when coming over a rise, they chanced upon an overturned wagon. Three men were fleeing across an open field to the trees beyond. Sweeping down on the wagon, the pair saw a man sitting up holding his head.
"Take care of him," Xena ordered, dropping the bard off by the wagon. Gabrielle watched, vexed as the warrior took off after the fleeing men. It was the fourth time in as many encounters that Xena had found some excuse to keep the bard away from the fighting. By the time Xena had rounded up the unlucky ruffians and they had delivered them to the nearby village it was time to stop for the night.
They made camp in silence using food supplied by the grateful merchant for a late supper. Xena sat by the dying campfire sharpening her sword. Gabrielle finally knelt in front of her quiet companion and asked, "Are you mad at me?"
Xena looked up in surprise. "No, of course not."
"Then why won't you talk to me?"
"I talk when I have something to say, Gabrielle. It has nothing to do with you."
But Gabrielle suspected it did. She just couldn't figure out why. The rocky road from Britannia to Chin to home and the death of their children had left large gaping wounds but those had healed. They'd even sung about it for the love of Zeus.
"Why didn't you take me with you today?"
Xena looked at her perplexed. "There wasn't a need for you to go."
"And the last three times?"
"No need there either," Xena replied brusquely. "It's getting late. We better get some sleep." She went to check on Argo, then settled on her bedroll with her back to Gabrielle and closed her eyes. The conversation was over. Gabrielle sighed and reached out to gently touch Xena's back. When she got no response, the bard sighed again and turned away, drifting into a troubled sleep. She was somewhat surprised to wake up during the night to find herself securely tucked within her companion's embrace, Xena's quiet breathing resonating against her hair. Almost, she thought as she gently stroked the arm that encircled her, as if there were nothing wrong. Almost. She drifted back to sleep.
They left early the next morning. At midafternoon Peisander suddenly veered into the trees when they were about a half day's journey from the temple. They came out of the trees to a walled compound that appeared to be the residence of a well-to-do nobleman. Xena had a fairly good idea where Antipany was as they watched Peisander circle above a windowless tower that stood by itself buttressed against the defensive wall.
Xena climbed high into a nearby tree and looked into the compound. The area appeared calm, there being but a few guards. Most of the household was going about their business. A woman was washing clothes and gossiping with another woman carrying a basket. The blacksmith was busy shoeing a horse. Children played in the yard. In the far fields, Xena could see men and women working the neat fields.
"Well, getting in isn't going to be a problem," Xena told her companion. "It all looks pretty quiet in fact. Why don't you stay here with Argo while I go see what's going on..." She paused when she noticed her friend scowl. "On second thought, you'd better come with me. Let's get over the wall at that blind spot over there." She started walking to the edge of the trees with her companion dogging her footsteps.
"She doesn't look like she's in any danger to me," the voice said. "Let's go." Antipany refused to open her eyes. That voice was as welcome as sore tooth and maybe this new pain would just go away if she ignored it.
"Wait a minute Xena," Gabrielle pulled on her friend's arm to stop her from leaving. She looked at the sorceress chained securely to the stone wall behind iron bars that went from floor to ceiling, then rattled the iron bars of the door only to find it locked securely. The sorceress looked terribly ill. Where before she had always been gaunt, now she was bloated. Her hands and face were blown up twice their normal size and her big brown eyes were sunk deep within her face, with dark circles surrounding them. She opened one sunken eye and peered at the two.
"Holy Hestia, if it isn't our hardy heroes. What brings you to this part of the country?"
Xena looked at her with distaste and a growing suspicion. "Peisander," she said curtly.
Antipany opened both eyes in surprise and sat up clumsily. "What?!" she exclaimed. "What is wrong with that bird! I sent him to get Telamedes and he drags you back. You don't look anything like Tele."
"It's all right, Antipany. We're going to get you out," Gabrielle said, waving a set of keys. "These were hanging right outside the door. Someone needs to talk to these people about defense. Theirs stinks."
"I don't need help," Antipany said irritably. "I can get out anytime I want to." She pointed her hands at the door. A dim glow appeared and promptly died at the end of her fingers. "I'm just having a brief power malfunction. I'm sure I can get it corrected any time now." The chains rattled as she shook her hands in frustration and concentrated again.
Gabrielle stood before the door, keys in hand. "I'll have you out in a second," she said, starting to insert the key into the lock. Then felt herself pulled violently to the side as a thunderous energy bolt sprang from Antipany's hands and hit the door with such force it was pulled from its hinges, pushed through the outside wall and fell to the ground below.
There was silence for a moment while the dust cleared. Then Xena picked herself up off the bard and checked her anxiously for injury. "Are you all right?" she asked.
Gabrielle took a slow shaky breath and patted herself to make sure she still had all her body parts. "Yeah, I think so. Thanks, Xena," she said gratefully.
Antipany was looking at them in consternation. "I suppose you're going to blame me for this," she said peevishly. Then she groaned and leaned back against the wall.
Xena couldn't keep the fury out of her voice. "We're leaving," she said with finality and grabbed the bard's arm pulling her to the door. Gabrielle dug in her heels and grabbed the door frame. "No!" she exclaimed, "Can't you see she's sick. She needs our help."
Antipany groaned again. "I just wish these pains would go away. I knew I shouldn't have eaten those pickled sows ears, these cramps are killing me."
Gabrielle noted the sudden look of dismay on the warrior's face as she released her companion's arm. While Gabrielle walked back to pick up the keys, Xena closed and bolted the door to the stairway.
"She's not sick, Gabrielle," the warrior said darkly. She walked back to the cell and leaned against what was left of the iron bars while the bard unlocked the manacles. "When are you due?" Xena asked the sorceress.
"Due?" asked Gabrielle in confusion.
Antipany smiled and took the bard's hand and slipped it into her cloak to rest it on her swollen belly. Gabrielle's face broke into surprised wonder as her hand rested on the obviously pregnant abdomen. "Oh, Antipany. This is wonderful," she said with a delighted grin. Antipany watched as the smile slowly faded only to be replaced with sadness and a look of inexplicable longing. She gently stroked the bard's face.
"Don't worry Gabrielle. I'm sure that one of these days you'll be saddled with a brood of your own. There's always hope you know." And raised an eyebrow as the bard burst into tears. She pulled Gabrielle to her chest, trying to comfort her and turned a bewildered gaze to Xena. "What did I say?" she asked.
"Don't you ever get tired of trying to eat both boots at once?" replied the distressed warrior. Before she could explain there was the sound of feet pounding up the steps. "We have to go, now!" Xena hissed.
Gabrielle gave the swollen belly one last gentle rub before drying her tears and rising. "That's the only way out, Xena. How are we going to get past the guards?"
Xena flashed a wicked grin at the sorceress, who was fairly sure she wasn't going to like the answer. "We're going out that way," the warrior said pointing to the hole in the wall. Antipany was absolutely, positively sure she didn't like the answer.
"Oh no I'm not!" she retorted. "You know I don't like heights. There's no way you're going to get me...awk!" Antipany choked as Xena grabbed her cloak just below her throat and hauled the unwilling sorceress to her feet. The door reverberated from the pounding of the guards.
"Of course you are," Xena replied, the feral smile never leaving her face. She dragged the wailing sorceress over to the hole in the wall and looked down. No sweat. She threw the rope over to Gabrielle. "Tie that to the bars," she ordered. When the rope was securely tied, the warrior tested it and swung half way out. "All right, grab on tight, or I'll just swing you out and you can dangle all the way down," she told Antipany, secretly hoping the sorceress would resist.
Antipany looked down and groaned, then with remarkable agility for such a pregnant body, wrapped her arms tight around Xena's neck and her legs around the warrior's thigh. And shut her eyes tight. The door began to give under the incessant assault of bodies.
"Hey, loosen up a little," Xena growled. "It would be nice to breathe." She swung the rest of the way out and began to descend. When they were half way down, Gabrielle began her descent. And the door finally burst under the pressure, spilling guards into the room.
Xena dropped to the ground and looked up. Gabrielle was still fifteen feet up when a guard dropped over the edge to follow her down. She reached for her chakrum only to discover the sorceress was still firmly wrapped around her. Frantically she attempted to shake Antipany off. "Let go!" she yelled, straining to pry away the arms that continued to have a death grip around her neck. The guard had rapidly descended to just above the slower moving bard and had unsheathed his sword preparing to bring it down on Gabrielle's head.
With a final desperate effort Xena pried the sorceress away from her with one hand and grabbed the chakrum with the other, flinging it up at the bard's head. The sword began it's deadly stroke down. Clipping a few golden hairs, the round disc sliced through the rope and the sword swung harmlessly through its arc as the bard dropped toward the ground.
Gabrielle squealed in surprise as she hurtled down the final fifteen feet. Only to sigh in relief when she found herself gathered into the sure arms of the warrior. The chakrum whizzed by their heads and imbedded itself into a nearby tree. Xena whirled to avoid the sword thrown down by the disgruntled soldier dangling from the severed rope. She fixed him with an icy glare and he suddenly decided retreat was the better part of valor by climbing back up the rope.
The only evidence to betray Xena's stoic calm was her rapidly beating heart which the bard could feel when she laid a relieved head against the warrior's chest. "Sorry about the haircut, Gabrielle. I didn't have time to aim," Xena said regretfully.
Gabrielle felt a shiver run through her body. "Didn't need to know that," she gulped. "Ah...Xena, you can set me down now,"
Xena nodded grimly and continued to walk on still carrying the bard, pausing only long enough to retrieve her chakrum. Gabrielle looked around for Antipany, but the sorceress had disappeared. "Wait, Xena. Where's Antipany?" Xena looked neither left nor right as she continued to walk on out of sight of the guards. "Xena, put me down!" Gabrielle demanded. And found herself abruptly dumped on the ground while Xena looked around with a peeved expression on her face.
The bushes rustled and Antipany walked out adjusting her clothing. She noticed she was being stared at. "I had to go," she said defensively. "Or would you rather I peed down your leg, princess?"
Thunderclouds gathered on Xena's brow and she actually growled at the unrepentant sorceress. "Let's get out of here," she snarled then whistled for Argo and began walking into the trees. Argo whinnied and appeared within seconds, followed by a small brown sway-backed pony. Xena vaulted onto Argo's back and waited impatiently for Antipany to mount her pony, who was named Circe because the sorceress claimed the gentle animal bore such a remarkable physical resemblance to her namesake.
Gabrielle helped Antipany struggle onto the pony's saddle and then headed for Argo. She looked up at a visibly angry warlord and wondered briefly if she was going to get an assist up. Xena finally took a deep breath and reached down to help the bard. They hurried out to the road and soon put the stronghold behind them.
Gabrielle looked back at the sorceress who every few minutes would groan and clutch her belly. "How you doing back there, Antipany?"
"I hurt. My feet are swollen but what the hey, my belly sticks out so far I can't see them anyway. This kid is breaking my back and if she kicks me one more time... And pee! I've watered every bush in the region at least once in the last three months...Oh Hades!" Antipany exclaimed, halting Circe and slipping off her back almost before the horse had a chance to stop. She waddled into the underbrush and disappeared around a tree.
Xena halted Argo and patted the horse's neck. "You just had to ask...," she muttered. She looked around wearily. "Why don't we make camp here. There's a clearing over there. I'll to go back and make sure we're not being followed and see if I can hunt us up something to eat. It's going to be a long night." She helped the bard to the ground, dropped off the saddlebags and set off down the road.
Antipany came back to the road straightening out her clothes. "Where's tall, dark, and snarky off to now?" she inquired.
"She's just checking things out and finding us supper," Gabrielle replied, picking up the saddlebags and headed for the clearing. "Come on, let's go set up camp."
"Great, I'm starved."
Gabrielle raised her eyebrows. Antipany had never had much of an appetite before. "Maybe you should be with child more often," she suggested.
"I thought you liked me, Gabrielle."
The bard laughed. "I do. What are you doing wandering so far from home when you're about ready to deliver?" She dumped the saddlebags on the ground and began to set up camp in the small clearing.
Antipany plopped down with a groan. It felt good to walk, it felt good to sit, it felt good to lie, but never for long in any one position. "The temple is having a small land dispute with the man you rescued me from. I was out at a nearby farm delivering lambs and just decided to see if I could talk some sense into Medius. Besides, it's not time for her to come yet. Tele said she won't be joining us until the third day after the quarter moon."
Gabrielle did some quick calculations. "I hate to tell you this, but today is the third day after the quarter moon."
"No, it isn't," Antipany snorted, counting on her fingers. She frowned and counted again. "Oh, centaur paddies, Tele's going to kill me. Maybe I can get back before he realizes I'm gone." She sighed and fell backwards to look up at the sky. "Time really flies when you're having so much...misery." She rolled over to her side and struggled up into a sitting position. "It seemed like a good idea at the time." She held up a hand as Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak. "No, don't ask me why it seemed like a good idea. I can't remember now, it was something I just had to do."
The bard slowly rose up and stared at her. "Your husband doesn't know you're gone?"
"Well... it's been two days. Even Tele has probably missed me by now. He can be so obtuse sometimes. For a guy so concerned with the afflictions of mankind, he can be a bit oblivious to the people around him." She grabbed a low-hanging branch and stood up. "So, what's been happening with you two? Xena seems a bit out of sorts. Not that it's a big change from her usual demeanor, but she's growling more than usual."
"You wouldn't believe where we've been, Antipany. Have I got a story to tell you!" But when Gabrielle looked into the sunken puffy eyes of her friend and saw only concern and sympathy the storyteller faded into the confused young woman she really was. So she sat down on a nearby log and began with their travels to Britannia, her pregnancy and Xena's reaction to Hope. Then on to Chin and her betrayal of her best friend. Haltingly she explained the death of their children and Xena's attempt to kill her. The lies they both told, the confrontation and making up. Two hours, eleven contractions, and three trips behind a tree later Gabrielle was wiping the tears from her eyes and finishing her story. "But it doesn't feel like before, Antipany. She doesn't ask for my opinions, she tries to leave me behind when she thinks there may be a fight, and lately she barely talks to me. I think she just wants me to go away." That set off a fresh set of tears.
Antipany sat down awkwardly by her friend and drew her close. "You've been through a lot, Gabrielle. Maybe you both just need some time to adjust to the changes." She clutched her belly as another contraction started. She was having difficulty concentrating on the bard's story as the pains became stronger. "Oh boy," she sighed, "I don't think I'm going to make it home."
Gabrielle wiped away her tears and smiled. "No, I don't think so either. I'll put on some water for tea and spread out the blankets. We better get ready for what's coming."
At that moment Xena rode in, blood-splattered and sporting a slight wound in her thigh. Two rabbits and a pheasant hung from the saddlehorn. Gabrielle ran to her side as she dismounted. "What happened!" she exclaimed. "Come over by the fire and let me wash that cut out."
Xena shoved the dead animals at her. "Just get supper Gabrielle. I'm fine. There's a stream not too far from here. I'll get some more water and get cleaned up. I ran into some guards hunting us, but they won't be hunting anything more for a while." She turned and walked into the trees. Gabrielle looked after her with a hurt look on her face but made no attempt to follow. She turned back to the camp, her shoulders slumped in dejection.
Antipany shook her head. "Warriors," she spat in disgust. "What good are they? Destroy. That's all they know. Wouldn't know a true emotion if it punched them in the face. A bunch of idiots, the lot of them. Ah, geez...." she hoisted herself up and headed for the trees.
Gabrielle looked numbly at the dead animals meant for supper and slowly picked up a knife. Something had to give. They couldn't go on this way. She was going to force the issue or die trying. Which might be the only way to get a coherent feeling from her recalcitrant friend who kept telling her everything was all right when she knew full well it wasn't.
Antipany put down her plate after only a few bites. It didn't take much to fill her up and what she was feeling now was not hunger. Funny how life changed, she mused. Not all that long ago she would have been thrilled to see the tension between the bard and her dark companion, but not now. She sighed and rubbed her abdomen. "You know, I'm glad Peisander found you. Tele and I have something to ask you two." She was rewarded with two inquiring stares. "We want you both to be godmothers to our daughter," she announced.
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other. "Me?" asked a skeptical Xena.
"Oh yes," replied the sorceress. "I figure we'll have all bases covered. The artistic," she said nodding at the bard. "The physical," nodding at Xena. "A priest from the temple will provide her with spiritual guidance. And her other godfather will be a farmer from the village."
"And what does he represent?" asked Gabrielle.
"The rational," replied the sorceress dryly. "The only one among us with his feet planted firmly in the soil." To her surprise Xena smiled.
"All right, I'll do it. But what are you going to give her?"
"Birth," replied Antipany, closing her eyes wearily. "She'll think it's my crowning achievement." She opened her eyes and peered up at them. "By the time she realizes I might have an intelligent thought to share with her, I'll be old and gray. Help me up."
Xena reached down and pulled the sorceress to her feet. Antipany stared at her for a minute. "This is all your fault, you know. If I would've just gone ahead and executed you, Tele would have left, I wouldn't be pregnant, and my child wouldn't be alive to follow you around like some lost puppy." She suddenly drew back her hand and let it fly at the warrior's face.
It was stopped just before it connected with Xena's cheek. The warrior gripped the offending hand tightly and leaned forward until she was nose to nose with the sorceress. "Do you have any last requests before you die?" she growled.
Antipany pondered the question briefly then turned into the arm gripping hers and leaned a shoulder to rest against the warrior's chest. "Yes. Rub my back, please. Right there." She pointed to the small of her back with her free hand. "It aches all the time."
Xena threw the bard an exasperated glance before reaching down and rubbing Antipany's back. She was rewarded with a sigh of pleasure as the sorceress relaxed against her. "Tele has consulted the oracle and found out that not only are we having a daughter but she will be obsessed with all things Xena. I can't tell you how thrilled I was to hear that. My daughter, the warrior. Chills ran down my spine, let me tell you." Xena knew she wasn't being complimented.
Gabrielle smiled. "What makes you think she won't listen to you? You're her mother after all."
"Get real, Gabrielle. Like you two are the fulfillment of your mothers' hopes and dreams."
The two friends looked at each other and winced. "Good point," said Xena.
Suddenly Antipany stiffened. "Oh, oh...," she muttered and glanced up at the warrior. "Sorry about that, princess."
Xena stood still for a few moments pondering the many vulgarities of life before finally deciding this was not among the worst. But she was still annoyed. Carefully she moved the sorceress away from her and studied her boot which was now soaked in fluid.
Gabrielle made a face. "But you just went..."
"Her water broke, Gabrielle," Xena interrupted. "I think we better get ready. This kid is coming whether we want her to or not."
Antipany looked dismayed. "She can't come. Telamedes isn't here yet!" She scowled at the ground. "That man will be late to his own pyre." Suddenly she grabbed her belly and fell to her knees, howling in pain. Her contraction was so forceful she couldn't rise. Finally it eased and she sucked in air, grabbing the warrior's arm. "I changed my mind," she gasped. "Get her out! Get her out now!"
Xena snorted. "Sure," She leaned over and tapped the swollen belly. "Come on out kid, I command it. No? Ah, gee Antipany, I guess she's not going to listen to me either." With Xena and Gabrielle supporting her, they managed to get Antipany over to the blankets where they removed her cloak and helped her lie down. She was soon drenched in sweat as another hard, long contraction shook her body. Every animal within a league of their encampment ran for cover as her screams rent the growing darkness.
"Guess only the deaf don't know where we are now, huh?" mused the bard.
"Guess so," muttered Xena, positioning herself between Antipany's bent legs. "What's so hard about this? You come out of battle, drop the kid and go back to fighting. Nothing to it."
Antipany stopped her groaning for a moment to stare up at the warrior, then turned to Gabrielle. "Did I ever tell you how much I hate warriors?"
"Yes, but I don't think now is a good time to bring it up," Gabrielle reminded her gently. "Ah...would you ease up on my hand a little, Antipany. I can't feel it anymore." She wiped the sweat from the laboring woman's face.
"Sorry about that, Gabrielle." She released the bard's now bloodless fingers. Then let out another blood-curdling scream as another contraction hit hard.
Xena lifted her head and examined the darkness. "We've got company," she warned. "One rider, coming fast." Gabrielle craned her neck, hearing a horse but could see nothing in the near blackness. Suddenly there was a rustling in the tree overhead as a big ugly vulture settled on a low branch and called out a greeting. Then a rider on a black stallion appeared in the light of the campfire. He was a big man with a head of curly black hair and a full beard, dressed in gray robes. Telamedes vaulted off his horse with surprising grace and rushed to the group.
"Apollo be praised," he thundered. "I was sure I would get here too late." Telamedes lifted his wife's shoulders and nestled her upper body onto his lap. "Where were you!" Antipany asked plaintively.
"Well, beloved, I spent the better part of two days hunting for you. For some reason it never occurred to me that you'd go running off just before you're ready to deliver our child." He brushed her cheek gently with his hand. "Silly me. Now if you'll just give me some clue as to what direction you plan to disappear in next time..." He grunted as his beloved reached up and grabbed his beard, pulling his face closer.
"Now is not the time for recriminations, my love," she reminded him through clenched teeth. "And believe me, if there is a next time, you'll have to carry the fruit of our passion." Then she howled as another contraction hit full force and Telamedes added his voice when she yanked convulsively on his beard and he found his face buried between her breasts. He stayed there until the pain passed then extricated himself from her grasp and leaned back rubbing his poor face.
"Good grief woman, you're just having a baby. Calm down..." His voice faltered as he noticed three pairs of eyes glaring at him. "...and you're doing a fine job of it too," he finished.
"Why don't you use those pressure points to ease some of the pain," Gabrielle suggested.
Xena smiled. "I wouldn't want to deprive her of the full experience of giving birth..." She stopped, startled as Antipany raised up and grabbed her breast plates drawing the warrior close. My, wondered Xena, where did she get that strength? Last time they clashed, she couldn't beat a corpse at hand wrestling.
"Give me herbs!" she yelled. "Knock me out. Do that pointy... whatever she said thing. Just get rid of this pain. Now!"
Xena winced as Antipany's fingernails dug into her chest above the breast armor. She looked up at Telamedes who just shrugged helplessly. With two jabs at the woman's thighs and two more at her back, Antipany stopped mid-howl and looked at the warrior in amazement.
"Wow," she said. "You could make a living doing that, princess. Women would be falling all over themselves begging for your services." She could still feel the tightening of her belly, but the pain had all but disappeared.
"Women already beg for her services," Gabrielle said dryly. "Men too."
"Gabrielle..." the warrior warned.
"You could say she's a full service provider," the bard continued thoughtfully. "A woman for all reasons..."
"It can't stay on very long, Antipany," Xena interrupted, throwing the bard an annoyed look. "Now push when I tell you to and let's get this child out." She lifted her head once more searching the darkness. "Great, we have company again. Eight, no ten men coming from the direction of those trees." She checked her chakrum and glanced down. Her hand on the laboring woman's lower abdomen noted a tightening of the muscles. "Push now," she commanded.
Antipany was busy trying to peer under her husband's arm at the men who were sneaking up on them. "I don't see anyone out there," she said. She howled in sudden agony as Xena released the pressure points.
"Pay attention," Xena snapped. "Now push! Harder!" As if Antipany had any other choice in the matter. Even if her mind bothered to rebel, her body was busy obeying the command to push. Gabrielle stood up and surveyed the darkness, staff held ready, sensing the presence of others.
Xena peered down and saw a small head trying to force its way out. "We're almost there. One more good push will do it."
Telamedes glanced around nervously. Even if he could pry his fingers loose from his wife's iron grip, he knew he wouldn't be any good in a fight. The gentle priest believed with all his heart in peace. "Maybe I should go talk to them," he suggested. "I'm sure this is all a misunderstanding."
"You're not going anywhere!" panted his wife. "This is all your fault and if you think you can just leave anytime you want..." She let out another howl and pushed with all her being. She felt like her insides were being torn out of her and then there was a blessed relief. She heard Xena coo and there was a gentle slap and suddenly a new howl split the darkness.
"Good lungs," the warrior said with approval. She glanced up. "Gabrielle, duck!" And let fly with her chalkrum. Gabrielle dropped to the ground with the warning, but still lost a few more hairs as the chalkrum flew by her head. They heard a clank as it hit a helmet then a thud as it ricocheted off a tree. Then another clank, thud, sprong, clank, clank, thud, thump, clank, thump, wonk before returning to the warrior.
Gabrielle rubbed the top of her head. "Are you sure you're not mad at me?" she asked, peering at her friend.
Xena shook her head, placing the squalling little girl on Antipany's stomach. "No, of course not. My hand was just a little slippery with all the birthing mess. Come on, you finish up here while I see what's out there. Telamedes, why don't you give me a hand."
The proud parents finished their anxious examination of their new offspring relieved to find ten toes, ten fingers and all other body parts where they should be. Xena stood and stared impassively into the darkness. Judging by all the cursing, someone out there was clearly peeved. A voice called out, "Give us the sorceress and we'll be on our way!"
Xena arched a hopeful eyebrow at the bard who just shook her head and smiled. She felt a tug on her leather skirt. "Would you tell him I'm kind of busy right now?" Antipany asked. The warrior looked up in time to snatch an arrow out of the air just before it impacted into Telamedes' back.
Antipany looked around peevishly. "We don't have time for this." And let fly a thunderous energy bolt into the darkness. It struck a huge oak severing the trunk in half and toppling the tree. There were cries of terror as the soldiers ran to get out of the way of the flaming branches. The burning trunk lit the area.
A tall man dressed in dark robes and armor stomped out into the clearing. "That does it!" he roared. "Telamedes get your conniving, magic-loving, spawn of darkness off my land. If I ever see her again, I'll kill her! Is that clear?"
"Spawn of darkness?" sputtered the object of his rage. Telamedes laid a warning hand on her shoulder. "By the gods, how I despise warriors." She glared at her little girl. "How could you want to be one of those...those..." Words failed her.
"At least he seems to be a shrewd judge of character," Xena archly observed. She walked toward the fuming nobleman and Telamedes joined her. The priest held up his hands trying to placate the man. "Medius, please. Antipany meant no harm. She just wanted to settle our little dispute before the birth of our child. I will, of course, make any reparations for the damage she caused. Ah...what did she do?"
Gabrielle helped Antipany sit up and wrap a clean blanket around the infant. "Listen to that," the sorceress muttered. "Like it was all my fault. That's loyalty for you."
Medius didn't look like he was going to accept anything but Antipany's head until he glanced over at the woman standing by the priest and then took a really good look. "Xena," he gasped. "It's an honor to meet you, but I can't exactly say I approve of the company you're keeping." He nodded at the sorceress.
"You don't always have a choice of the company you keep, Medius, " Xena replied with a small smile. "Perhaps you both just need an impartial third party to mediate your dispute." She thought for a moment. "Would an Amazon queen do?"
The two men looked at each other. Neither wanted to continue this dispute over a little piece of land that really had no value to either one of them. It was the principle of the thing. "All right," said Medius with a shrug. Telamedes nodded thoughtfully.
Xena strode back to the campfire and dropped a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "It's all up to you now, my friend." Gabrielle looked at her for a moment before walking over to the two men.
"Nice to know I'm good for something," she muttered on the way. Xena looked at her retreating back in puzzlement.
Xena proceeded to clean up the campsite and dispose of the afterbirth while Antipany washed her baby and rested. The disputing parties and their mediator settled themselves by the burning trunk and began to argue their cases.
"All that talk, and for what? A piece of land no one really wants or needs," Antipany muttered.
"What did you do to Medius?" Xena asked.
"Nothing!" Antipany protested. "...much." She dropped her gaze as Xena arched an eyebrow at her. "It was accident, really." She glanced at the warrior before studying an interesting finger on her baby's hand.
"Your whole life seems to be one big accident," the warrior observed.
"I'm cursed," Antipany agreed sadly. "I just went over to talk to Medius. Just talk, I swear. You warriors are not good at polite conversation, you know. He insulted me, he insulted Telamedes, the big fool even insulted Apollo. But I was calm. Oh no, I didn't lose my temper."
"And then...?" the warrior prodded.
"He called Peisander a big ugly good-for-nothing freak-of-nature and he would kill him on sight if he ever flew on his property." She glared in the direction of the burning tree. "Xena, no one threatens my bird!" Peisander cawed his indignation from a branch above them. She looked at the warrior daring her to disagree.
But strangely, Xena understood. She would have felt the same way if some fool insulted Argo. She glanced fondly at her big war-horse. Of course no one would have cause to insult such a fine animal, but a carrion-eater...? The warrior exchanged a wary glance with the vulture.
"And then...?," Xena asked with growing impatience.
"I tried to leave." The eyebrow went up again. "But I lost control of a bolt and it did a bit of damage. Unintentional, of course."
"Of course. What damage?" Xena with some irritation.
"Just a few pieces of furniture, a couple of drapes... His wife."
"You damaged his wife?"
"Barely nicked her. That didn't upset him near as much as blasting his dog." Antipany wondered if that eyebrow would stay up there permanently.
"You hurt the man's dog?" Xena just shook her head wondering if even the queen of negotiators would be able to settle this dispute. Although the bard did seem to be making some headway. She watched Gabrielle talking earnestly to Medius, a hand on his arm, then nodding in agreement at something he said.
Xena smiled. She would have just battered the nobleman in submission. Talking took too much time and wasn't near as much fun. So while she made alliances, Gabrielle made friends and sometimes her way worked, sometimes the bard's way was better. And even though Xena recognized the way Gabrielle filled the gaps in her sometimes questionable social skills, she still felt a vague unease. Not since Lyceus had she relied on or trusted another person as much as she did this little bard. But the events of the last few months had sorely tested that trust.
The disputing parties finally stood and exchanged handshakes. Medius called to his men and they melted back into the forest. Telamedes watched them go before engulfing Gabrielle in a happy bearhug.
"She's brilliant, Xena," Telamedes exclaimed when they returned to the campsite.
"I know," Xena said quietly, looking at the bard in fond amusement. "So what are the terms of the agreement?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "The temple gets to keep the land in exchange for healing services for the next two years. Medius must of course, make the proper sacrifices to Apollo...," she glanced down at the skeptical sorceress, "but what really decided Medius was the promise that Antipany would never set foot on his land again."
"As if I'd want to," sniffed the sorceress.
Telamedes exchanged a relieved glance with Gabrielle. He was never sure how his unpredictable wife would react.
They bedded down for the night and headed home the next day. No one could have predicted the turmoil to come and for once Xena was the last to see it coming.
They reached Antipany's home by midafternoon. The corral, stables and outbuildings were just as Gabrielle remembered them. And while Antipany had a serious problem with heights she had no qualms at all about enclosed spaces. Her home was a five room barrow underground and its main access was through a huge oak growing in the yard. Apollo's temple was just on down the road.
Telamedes went on to the temple while the others entered the oak, walked down a flight of stairs and made their way down a short tunnel to the main living area. Antipany murmured a few words and the walls lit up with a eerie yellow glow, providing enough light to illuminate the room. It was furnished with odds and ends from all over the known world, much of which was obtained by Antipany's mentor on his frequent trips. Most showed scorch marks and other damage from failed spells and fits of temper. There was a curious lack of pottery in the room, a tall stately vase along one wall being the only breakable item to survive Antipany's apprenticeship. Gabrielle started for the library while Xena plopped down into a soft chair. "Don't get too comfortable," she called after the bard. "We're leaving soon."
Gabrielle stopped and stared at her. "Where are we going?"
"Down the road," Xena replied with a shrug.
The bard pursed her lips and scowled. This had to stop. Now.
Antipany entered the bedroom and tucked the infant into her cradle with a relieved sigh. It had been a harrowing adventure and she was happy to be home. She'd gladly leave the heroic deeds to Xena. She reentered the main room to find Gabrielle glaring at an impassive Xena.
"Why won't you tell me what I did wrong?"
"You didn't do anything wrong," Xena replied quietly.
"Then why won't you talk to me and what's with this sudden reluctance to have me near you in a fight?"
"I'm talking to you now." Xena was beginning to look a little irritated.
"Xena, I'm tired of this. Talk to me. Tell me what's bothering you." The bard was past irritated and headed into just plain mad.
"Leave it alone, Gabrielle," warned her companion.
Antipany looked on in surprised delight. "It's not my birthday," she mused to the stately vase at her elbow. The vase had no comment.
Gabrielle knew she should be quiet, but right then she just didn't care. "What's the matter, Xena? I'd give you my opinion, but you haven't told me what to say yet!"
"Ooh, good one," Antipany approved.
"Shut up Antipany," both snarled at her. She held up her hands and nodded.
"What do you want from me, Xena?" the bard pleaded.
Xena continued her slow burn. "A little silence would be a nice start," she growled.
Gabrielle stood nose to nose with her companion. "Fat chance. Listen up. If you want to leave me, just say so. Say something."
"You do what ever you want to. At least I never betrayed you," Xena ground out. Then looked bewildered, not knowing where that thought had come from.
Gabrielle recoiled as if she had been slapped. "So that's it," she said slowly.
"Ouch." Antipany winced.
"Shut up Antipany," Xena said automatically. This was exactly why she didn't want to talk. No good ever came out of one of Gabrielle's lets-get-in-touch-with-our-feelings discussions. She reached out to the bard. "Gabrielle, I didn't mean that."
Gabrielle stepped back. "Of course you did. It all makes sense now. Why would you ever have someone you distrust cover your back? No wonder you don't want me around when you fight. But then I'm not much good to you, am I? If you think you can't count on me. I thought we had hashed this all out, but I guess not." She whirled around and headed for the door. And turned back in surprise when a huge bolt of energy flashed by her and hit the warrior square in the chest throwing her up against the wall. She slid down and sat on the floor, stunned.
Antipany pushed away from the wall and confronted the bard. "Gabrielle, she's a warrior. To get her attention you have to take your staff and whack her between the eyes a couple of times. Then you've got her respect and she'll listen to you."
Gabrielle gaped at the sorceress. "Have you been out in the forest gathering nuts with the squirrels again, Antipany?" she demanded furiously. "Just what part of that pea brain of yours came up with that load of horse dung? That doesn't solve anything."
"It makes me feel better," Antipany retorted. She threw another bolt at the warrior who was struggling to stand up. The bolt drove her back to the floor. "I knew this partnership couldn't last and not too long ago that would have made me very happy. But let me tell you, Gabrielle, I'm a mother now..."
"Now there's a scary thought," muttered the bard.
".. .and an unescorted Xena wandering the countryside makes me very nervous."
Gabrielle moved to stand over her stunned companion. "Stop this now, Antipany. Xena has picked her path and whether I'm with her or not, she'll continue on that road. You have nothing to fear from her."
"Perhaps you'd better talk it over some more," Antipany said coolly. She threw another light bolt of energy at the bard. When she collapsed in a heap on Xena's lap, Antipany beat a hasty retreat to the outside.
"Oooh, I hate that," moaned the bard . She struggled to her knees and turned so that she was facing her companion before she plopped back down on Xena's thighs. Even though she had taken a much lighter hit than her friend, she still felt weak. "Are you all right?" she asked anxiously.
"Yeah," Xena muttered. "I just can't move." She glared at the doorway and then turned an inquiring eye to her friend.
"Yes, I'm all right. And yes, I know how much you hate sorcerers. And no, you can't kill her." The warrior's lips pouted for a moment then a sly smile started to appear. "And no," Gabrielle continued, "you can't hurt her, No, not even a little." The pout returned.
"Gabrielle, why is it so important for me to talk? You know what I'm going to say anyway," Xena grumbled.
"Not everything," the young bard said wearily. "I certainly didn't see this coming. Maybe that's because you didn't see it coming either. As long as you don't trust me, I'm a danger to you." Xena opened her mouth to protest. Gabrielle put a finger to her lips. "I'm right," she said sadly. "I'm going back to the Amazons for a while to think things out. You should think about it too and then we'll decide what's best." She leaned forward and gave the warrior a quick kiss before rising shakily to her feet and leaving the room.
"Gabrielle..." Xena called out weakly, but her friend had gone. "Why do you beg me to talk and then never let me get a word in edgewise?" she asked the empty room in frustration. The stately vase wondered about that too.
Antipany was waiting for her when she exited the tree. Gabrielle grabbed her staff and some supplies from the saddlebags and put them in her bag.
"Couldn't talk any sense into her, huh?" asked Antipany sympathetically.
Doing her best to keep her ire under control and her tears in check, Gabrielle turned to the sorceress. "I don't know what you hoped to accomplish in there, but I'm the one who's leaving, not Xena. You keep out of this or so help me if Xena doesn't hurt you, I will!"
"All right, all right," Antipany said soothingly. "I just wanted her to see that you would stand by her, that's all."
"She knows that, Antipany. It's just that we have a different outlook on certain things."
"You violated the warrior's code," Antipany said with sudden understanding.
"Sure. What do you value above all, Gabrielle? Life, right? And what does Xena value above all? What all warriors value. Loyalty. The knowledge that her companion will guard her back through thick and thin, good and bad, right or wrong. You flunked the warrior's code, my young idealist friend. Xena now knows she can't trust you to put her values before your own." Antipany was on a roll. She started to pace. "What she wanted to do to your daughter was wrong according to your standards, and she knew that. But she assumed you would accept her actions because she's the queen of your little household and loyalty is above all else in her home. She dismissed your beliefs, Gabrielle."
"Oh, she did not. She knows how I feel about preserving life."
"Yes, but life doesn't hold the same meaning for her as it does for you. It kind of loses its value after the first few thousand deaths, don't you think?"
Gabrielle just stared at her then shook her head. "My motives weren't all that pure, Antipany. It was jealousy that drove me to betray her in Chin not some lofty belief in life. She has good reason not to trust me. I'm going to the Amazon village; if she wants me to be with her, she knows where to find me. It's her choice this time. Try to stay out of trouble, will you?"
Antipany caught her arm. "The Amazons, huh. Theocles!" she bellowed. A young priest stuck his head out of the stables.
"How would you like to accompany Gabrielle to the Amazons?"
"Great," he exclaimed. "I can take those herbs to their healer. Greetings Gabrielle, nice to see you again. Let me get my stuff and I'll be right with you." He disappeared back into the stables.
"Antipany!" Gabrielle protested.
"It would be a big help to Telamedes," Antipany explained. "We don't want him to make the journey by himself. The poor boy can defend himself about as well as Tele can. He'll be much safer with you along."
Theocles ran out with a large bag draped over his shoulder. "I'm ready. Let's go."
Gabrielle shot a peeved look at Antipany who, being impervious to such looks, simply ignored it and gathered the bard into a grateful hug. "Thanks, Gabrielle. He needs the experience and he'll be good company." She continued to hold her friend. "It's terrible being human, isn't it Gabrielle? To know that as good as you are, sometimes those baser emotions like hate and envy just slip out before you can grab them."
Gabrielle buried her head into the cloak. "And almost destroy the person you love most," she whispered.
"Did Xena ever apologize for nearly killing you?"
Lifting her head, Gabrielle nodded and smiled. "Yes, she did. In Illusia." She sighed wistfully. "It was a beautiful song."
Antipany's eyes widened. "She sang it? That's it? One little song?" She considered that for a moment. "Let's see if I understand this. You destroy the evil created within you, undergo Amazon purging, ask forgiveness in Apollo's temple, confront your harshest memories with Mnemosyne, tell Xena you're sorry more times than I can count... and she sings? Once? In an illusion?"
"No!" Gabrielle protested, "Not illusion. In Illusia."
"Where do you think the word came from, Gabrielle?"
"Why do I talk to you?" the bard seethed. Resolutely she straightened and kissed Antipany. "I have to go."
"Ah, Gabrielle, you're leaving a huge load of your baggage on the floor of my home. Please remove her before you go," Antipany pleaded.
"Oh, I don't think so," Gabrielle patted her arm. "You created this problem, you clean it up."
"She's going to kill me!"
"Consider it an act of mercy," Gabrielle replied tartly. "See you, some day...maybe. Come on Theocles, I'm ready." She strode down the road, the excited young priest chattering beside her. Gods, she wondered, how could anyone talk that much?
Antipany cast a cautious glance around the main room and was relieved to see Xena still sitting on the floor unmoving, still apparently under the influence of the bolts. Her arms were limply handing by her sides, her head resting against the wall, eyes closed. She entered the room and went over to the warrior, sitting down on the floor beside her.
"Sorry about that princess. I was just trying to keep Gabrielle around a little longer. Guess it didn't work. She's on her way to the Amazons with Theocles."
One eye opened. "You expect Theocles to protect her?"
"Well, no. Actually, I expect Gabrielle to protect him. But Theocles is fast, he can outrun the wind when he wants too. They'll be all right."
Xena nodded, then quicker than Antipany could possibly image her hands flashed and the sorceress felt jabs on each side of her neck. Her eyes widened. "Wha...why?" she squeaked.
"It makes me feel better," the warrior growled. "And I'm tired of your meddling."
Dark spots appeared in her vision and she began to feel lightheaded. "Bu...but what are friends for?" she gasped in bewilderment.
Xena scowled at her. "We're...not...friends!"
A thin dribble of blood trickled from each nostril as Antipany tried to focus on the warrior's words. "Oh...yeah." Blackness was threatening to overwhelm her. Suddenly an infant's wail came from the other room. Antipany made an instinctive effort to rise in response to her child's cry, but found she couldn't move. She flashed Xena an inquiring look.
"Oh, Hades," the warrior said in dismay. Her hand flashed again and the sorceress felt immediate relief as blood flowed again to her brain. She sat a moment waiting for the spots to disappear and the dizziness to pass. Then she passed a shaky hand under her nose. "Ugh," she said staring at the blood on her fingers. She reached over and wiped her nose on Xena's shoulder.
"Stop that!" Xena snapped, pushing the sorceress away.
Antipany studied her for a moment. "You know, you're right princess, we'll never be friends. But I think I finally got my revenge." She winced as Xena wiped her shoulder off with an elaborately embroidered scarf from a nearby table.
"How do you figure that?"
"Now that you're my child's godmother, you're part of my family." She reached over and planted a sloppy, bloody kiss on the warrior's cheek. "Welcome to the family."
"Get away from me!" Xena pushed the laughing Antipany away once more and rubbed frantically at her cheek.
Getting up, Antipany made her way on rubbery legs to check on her infant. When she returned Xena was walking to the door. The sound of running feet could be heard coming down the tunnel and an adolescent boy bounded through the door and ran smack into the warrior.
"Xena!" he exclaimed. The warrior steadied the blond headed boy and felt a momentary pang as she studied him. Only a couple of years younger than Solon she thought sadly.
"Do I know you?" she asked with a smile.
"No, probably not," he replied. "You saved our village last year from Zagreas. My name is Chrolus." He looked at her with wide-eyed admiration. "I just wanted to thank you. Gee, are you staying? All the initiates want to meet you."
"Oh, I don't think..." Xena began.
"You know," Antipany interrupted. "We've been thinking a few lessons in self-defense would be good for the boys. Chrolus, maybe you could persuade Xena to teach you boys a few things about staffs."
"Now, wait just a..."
"Oh, wow," the boy exclaimed. "That would be great! Please, Xena." He looked up at her with pleading fawn eyes. And her heart began to puddle, remembering another blond headed boy.
"Well... maybe," she said gruffly, ruffling his hair. "Go on back to the temple and let me talk to Antipany about it."
"Oh, wow," he repeated. "Wait 'till I tell the others!" He jumped up and down a couple of times before dashing down the hall, whooping.
"Chrolus..." Xena protested in vain as the boy disappeared. It always amazed Antipany how fast the warrior's expression could turn from maternal to deadly. She hastily put a table between herself and Xena when those icy blue eyes turned to her and then watched as those same eyes dissolved into grief.
"It's too soon," Xena whispered. She ran her hand through her hair and paced the room. "I can't do this." Antipany waited patiently while Xena continued to pace. "Besides, what do I know about children?" She glanced at the sorceress. "More than you, but still..." Antipany pursed her lips in annoyance. Xena stopped and scowled. "All right, I'll do it for a couple of days until Gabrielle comes back." She started for the tunnel.
Antipany caught her arm. "Ah, Xena. Remember, it's self-defense. Nothing lethal, please. We don't want to upset Telamedes now do we. Please, don't do that."
"Don't tell me he'll beat you." Xena gave a small disbelieving smile.
"It's worse," Antipany swallowed. "He...he pontificates, he orates, he lectures. He can go on for hours, until I'm down on my knees confessing my indiscretions, real and imagined, just to get him to shut up." She shuddered.
The warrior was smiling thoughtfully as she started out of the room.
"Xena," Antipany called, "you'd still have time to go get Gabrielle before she gets too far down the road."
Xena stopped but did not look back. "No, she's the one who left. She'll come back when she's ready." She left the room.
Antipany scowled at the vase. "How can someone so smart be so dumb?" she asked exasperated. And the vase, perhaps fearing for its life, steadfastly refused to answer.
Xena was up with the sun practicing her drills. It was while she was practicing with her sword that she became aware of others hiding in the dense brush. Smiling, she put a little extra effort into her practice, somersaulting off rocks and bouncing up and down trees. Barely audible oohs and aahs came from the brush. Suddenly there was a loud crack and a puff of smoke and eight boys came flying out of the brush, flushed like a covey of quail. They skidded to a halt in front of the warrior princess. Antipany followed them out of the brush.
"It's not nice to spy on people, boys. If you want to watch, then ask."
Chrolus stepped forward as the others studied their sandals. "We're sorry Xena, we just didn't want to disturb you." He couldn't contain his excitement. "Boy, that was cool. Are you going to teach us that?"
"I don't think you're quite ready for that, Chrolus. Why don't you introduce me to your friends and then we'll start with some exercises, all right?"
Antipany made her way back to the stables as Chrolus was making introductions. When she checked on them a bit later, the boys were listening in rapt silence as Xena explained what they could do with a staff, and she breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe this wasn't such a bad idea after all.
When Telamedes came by at the midday meal to check on his family and collect his initiates, his wife again reassured him that Xena wasn't turning them into merciless warlords. As they made their way to the clearing, they could hear shouts and squeals of laughter. Antipany and her husband exchanged startled glances as they watched the most fearsome warlord in the land play tag with a group of Apollo's finest prospects.
"It could be new training technique," Telamedes said slowly.
"Could...be," agreed his wife.
The boys took turns trying to tag the warrior. She jumped, tumbled, ran and somersaulted always staying just out of reach. When the one boy tired he tagged another of his mates and the chase began anew. Finally Chrolus called a few of the others together and they made a new plan. Xena suddenly found herself chased by all eight boys. Laughing, she allowed herself to be tackled and they all piled on, howling in victory.
"She has the right to know," Telamedes said softly, his arms around Antipany.
"All in good time, my love," she replied, reaching up to kiss his cheek.
Telamedes made his way over to the pile. "Time to leave, boys. You can continue this tomorrow if Xena is willing." He looked at Xena and she nodded in agreement. The boys grumbled at the interruption of their fun but soon were headed back to the temple for more sedate lessons. She watched them leave with a smile on her face that faded into sadness as soon as they were out of sight.
"Unique teaching method," Antipany said dryly.
"Teaches them to work together. There's always strength in numbers."
Antipany nodded. "Yes, two together are stronger than one standing alone."
"I'm taking Argo for a ride. I'll be back tomorrow morning," Xena said abruptly, heading back to the stables. And true to her word, she did not appear again until the next morning.
The boys were back early, eager to begin their lessons. To their surprise they found their teacher dressed not in her usual leathers, but in a plain blouse and long skirt. After spending some time with exercises she divided them up and soon they were happily banging away at each other with their staffs. The morning flew by. When Telamedes came by to collect his charges he found a young woman he hardly recognized diligently teaching her pupils the fine art of self-defense.
Later that afternoon Antipany persuaded a reluctant Xena to sit with her goddaughter while the sorceress attended to chores. She exited the stable to find the young woman sitting on a fallen log holding the baby and singing lullabies to her. The voice was exquisite and as she watched, Antipany could almost understand what Gabrielle cherished about the warlord. She listened to the familiar tune until the end then moved up noisily behind her and putting her hands on Xena's shoulders, she kissed the top of her head. "You know, princess, there are times, very brief times, when I almost like you." Antipany leaned down and stroked the baby's cheek. Even though the little girl slept most of the time, she was now looking up at Xena in wide-eyed adoration.
"Oh, child. I can see we're going to have to have a little talk about your taste in role models." Antipany sat down on the log beside Xena. Untying her bodice, she freed a breast and gently took the infant from Xena. The little girl latched onto the offered nipple with gratifying enthusiasm.
"Seems to have a hearty appetite," Xena observed. "Are you sure she's your daughter?" She placed an arm around Antipany's shoulders and the new mother rested against her as the infant suckled.
"Takes after her father, don't you little one."
"When are you going to give this poor baby a name, Antipany?"
"When Tele and I can agree on one. Tele wants to name her Hippolyte after some great Amazon queen. Over my dead body. No warrior name for you, my sweet." Antipany winced suddenly. "Suck on it, don't eat it," she scolded her sweet innocent cherub. Antipany glanced up at an amused Xena. "Have you been teaching her table manners, princess?" She eased the nipple from the infant's mouth and switched breasts. "I'm more inclined to name her Electra."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "After the woman who helped murder her mother?"
"If this little one grows up to follow in your footsteps, it'll kill me. I've decided knowing the future is not what's cracked up to be, princess. I'd rather live in blissful ignorance. At least then there's hope... or at least delusion."
"Stop being so melodramatic, Antipany." Xena squeezed her shoulder gently. "I don't want her to be a warrior any more than you do. You know those oracles are notoriously obscure. It could've meant anything."
"Tell that to Telamedes. He's ready to turn her over to the Amazons when she's old enough." Antipany's lower lip quivered. "I won't let that happen."
"Not all Amazons are warriors. Look at Gabrielle, she's a bard and a diplomat and she fights with words when she can, not swords. We've got a long time to figure this out, Antipany. I promise you, I won't encourage her to become a warrior."
Antipany studied the warrior for a few moments before nodding reluctantly. "All right, Xena." She looked down at her baby who was now sleeping contentedy in her arms. "So that still leaves the problem of a name. Any suggestions?"
Xena was silent for a moment considering. Antipany handed her the infant and proceeded to readjust her bodice. The warrior gently rocked her as she thought. Finally she said, "How about Antandra?"
"Hmm, Antandra? Antandra," Antipany rolled the name around a little. "Not bad. Anyone you know?"
"Knew. She's dead now, but she was a brave, honorable woman. Just like this one's going to be."
"I'll run it by Tele, but I'm sure he'll approve since you suggested it."
Xena thought it unnecessary to mention that she had met Antandra at Troy or that the woman had died fighting side by side with a cadre of her Amazon sisters.
"You know, I used to think love was a bitch," Antipany mused. "Well, I still do, but I think forgiveness is an even bigger one." She glanced at the warrior. "Isn't it, princess?"
Xena's expression grew neutral. "You should know, Antipany."
"Yes, I do. 'I forgive you', so easy to say, so hard to practice. Especially with those you trusted and then let you down."
"I have forgiven Gabrielle," Xena said, her mouth twisting in annoyance. "Unlike you, who can't seem to get past it."
"Ahh, but there's no love lost between us, Xena, so it doesn't matter to you what I think. However, you do love Gabrielle. And you say you've forgiven her but your actions tell her you don't trust her anymore. Deep down you haven't forgotten her betrayal and it haunts you."
"You're the last one to be lecturing me on forgiveness," Xena said hotly.
"You have to go to her, you know." Antipany hated to break the fragile truce the two had just established, but someone had to talk some sense into the blockhead sitting beside her. "Gabrielle needs to know you still want her with you."
"Gabrielle doesn't want to be with me right now." Xena tensed and deposited Antandra back into her mother's lap. "Stay out of it, Antipany. If she wants to come back, she will. I'm not going to force her into anything."
"Anybody ever tell you you're an idiot?"
Xena gave her a cool appraising look. "And lived?"
Antipany looked down at her child. "All right I won't say it. I'll just think it," she muttered.
"This isn't the first time Gabrielle has gone off on her own, and it won't be the last. We see the world through very different eyes. She always comes back as soon as she thinks things over."
"You ARE an idiot!" Antipany burst out unable to restrain herself. Then froze, unable to look at the warrior. You just committed suicide, she thought in detached wonder. She looked up into pools of deadly blue ice and swallowed convulsively. "All right, do your worst, princess." Picking up Antandra, she offered her to the warrior. "Take good care of her, Xena. Being part of your family is not an easy road to travel. May you protect her better than you did your brother or your son or Gabrielle."
Fists clenched, fighting for self control, Xena felt a multitude of conflicting emotions wash over her. Hurt, guilt, rage warred for dominance before icy self control finally reasserted itself. Turning away from the proffered child she said calmly, "I'm going for a ride. I'll be back tomorrow morning for the boys' lesson." Xena stalked over to the corral.
Not even bothering to saddle Argo, she vaulted onto her back and urged the horse into a gallop. With dark hair flying and skirt billowing out, the pair were a picture of power and freedom as they galloped out of sight. Antipany sighed, feeling a moment of regret. Her words had pierced that icy calm, wounding the warrior and she knew they could never be taken back. It would be better for Gabrielle to just go home but that's not what the bard wanted. "Yep, we're definitely going to talk about your choice of heroes," she said to the child sleeping in blissful innocence on her lap. "...Mothers, don't let your daughters grow up to be warriors...," she crooned.
Xena stared blindly down the road her companion had departed on. She had to leave this place. Staying here just put its inhabitants in danger from her many enemies and Gabrielle was no longer here to stop her from finally killing Antipany. It was getting dark when she finally turned Argo around and rode back to her campsite but there was still no sign of her companion and Xena knew in her despairing heart she wasn't coming back.
Gabrielle had to admit that Theocles was good company. The young acolyte was erudite, handsome and best of all eager to hear her stories. They discussed medicines, politics, recipes, the gods, philosophy, and inevitably the conversation eventually got around to Xena. The days flew by quickly as the two talked their way to the Amazon village. Gabrielle hadn't realized how starved for conversation she had become. By the fifth day of travel she had almost stopped looking behind her in hopes of seeing a tall dark haired woman on a golden horse coming down the road after her.
"She'll be along," Theocles said, noting the glances Gabrielle was throwing behind them. "Antipany says Xena is one of the smartest women she knows."
"Antipany said that?" Gabrielle looked at him skeptically.
"Yes, and the bravest."
"Are we talking about the same Antipany? The one who hates warriors?"
Theocles smiled. "Well, I know she would never admit it but I think Antipany really admires your friend."
"I'm not sure she wants to be my friend anymore. I really messed things up in Chin. I told myself I was just trying to protect her soul."
"Are you sure that's your responsibility Gabrielle? It seems to me only Xena can decide where her soul will reside."
Gabrielle considered that for a moment. "Sometimes she just needs a reminder, Theocles. I went way beyond that in Chin. And then I let Hope kill Solon. I can't blame her for not wanting me around and now I don't know how to make things right."
"With the gods involved, there wasn't anything you or Xena could have done to prevent Solon's death. His death was part of a larger plan." They walked in silence for a while. "Kind of hard to patch things up if you're here and she's back there, isn't it?" he asked gently.
She stopped and stared up at him. "Yeah, it is. Theocles, can you go on to the village by yourself?"
"Sure, I've been by there lots of times."
"You have?" Gabrielle frowned. Suckered again.
"Of course," he laughed. "We're healers and priests, Gabrielle and we go where ever we're needed. I've been all over the country."
"I'm going to hurt her," Gabrielle announced, smiling tightly.
Before she could respond the pair were suddenly confronted by a squad of well-armed mercenaries. One grabbed Gabrielle before she could react. Another reached for Theocles but he turned and fled back down the road. Antipany was right, he was fast. But she was also wrong. He wasn't as fast as the wind. Or even as fast as the arrow that impaled itself into his back and sent him sprawling, unmoving in the middle of the road.
"Theocles!" Gabrielle cried, trying to wrench herself free from the grasp of the soldier. She was silenced by a hard slap across her face. "What'll we do with her?" she heard a gruff voice ask. "Kill her. The fewer people who know we're here, the better," came the dreaded reply. Gabrielle shook her head to clear it.
Then another voice piped up. "Wait! I know this woman." He sounded excited. "Ketos, she's a bard. I heard her a couple of years ago and I'll bet she's even improved some by now. But back then she was traveling with Xena."
"Xena?" Heads surveyed the surrounding landscape nervously.
Gabrielle looked almost annoyed. "Relax, boys. She'll not traveling with me now. But I am a bard." She poked the chest of the young soldier who recognized her. "And I'm a darn good one."
Ketos smiled unpleasantly, "We'll let Creon decide that. He wasn't too impressed with the last seven bards who worked for him."
"But I don't want to work for him!" Gabrielle protested.
He laughed. "Neither did they, young bard. Neither did they. Now let's go." He pulled her roughly along.
"But what about Theocles?" she protested.
"If he's not dead, he will be soon. You can't help him now."
At the end of staff practice that morning, Xena called the boys together and proposed a new game. When Telamedes and his wife came to collect his charges they found the boys whooping and hollering, staffs clashing. A piece of cloth was tied to a pole.
Telamedes looked at his wife. "Another new training technique?" he asked puzzled.
"I don't think so," Antipany grimly replied. She had a bad feeling about this. But before she could stop the mayhem, one of the boys thumped his opponent on the head, knocking him to the ground and disarming him. "You're dead," he trumpeted before racing to the pole and grabbing the cloth. "We win!" he yelled and three of his teammates lifted their staffs in triumph. Antipany buried her face in her hands.
Telamedes looked on in horror. When his jaw finally snapped shut, he hurried over to the group. "That's enough!" he roared. The boys looked at him in surprise. They could tell he was unhappy, but didn't know why. He pointed in the direction of the temple. "Lessons are over. Go back to the temple and we'll discuss this." He threw a peeved look at Xena who merely lifted an innocent eyebrow.
He then directed his gaze in Antipany's direction. Stalking over to where she was standing, she could see the words beginning to form. "It's not my fault, Tele!" she protested. "I didn't tell her to do that." Xena smiled innocently and batted her eyelashes at the sorceress. He took his wife's arm and they walked to the stables. Antipany looked back. "We're going to talk!" she said angrily to Xena.
Xena snorted. Talk, talk, talk. Why did everyone feel it was so necessary to talk?
Two hours later Antipany finally got a word in to remind Telamedes that he could have stopped the lessons anytime he wanted. But by that time Xena had vanished. She had said her farewells to the boys, cleaned up her campsite and ridden off on Argo. Antipany knew she wouldn't be back. She could only hope Theocles had better luck with Gabrielle. But it was the finely woven leather Amazon necklace and talisman she found in Antandra's crib that set off her ire once more and the stately vase finally lost its battle to stay intact.
The striking neatness of the camp was the first thing Gabrielle noticed. Tucked away out of sight of prying eyes, the tents were in neat rows, with gear laid out in orderly fashion. The stench that usually accompanied so many men was conspicuously absent. Soldiers patrolled in alert fashion, constantly moving. The little group had been challenged three times while walking to the center of the camp. Everyone was busy. If not on patrol, the men were cleaning gear, practicing with their weapons, or doing a variety of chores. Whatever else Creon was, he knew how to command.
Finally she was taken into the biggest tent and they stood at attention waiting for the warlord to notice them. He was bending over a map talking to his captains. When he glanced up at them with piercing gray eyes, all thoughts of escape fled from Gabrielle's mind. She had seen the fire in those eyes before. When Xena was leading the Athenians against the Horde. What Gabrielle also saw was an opportunity to study and maybe finally understand the life that drove the warrior to act as she did.
Creon straightened up. "That's it for today. Meet back here tomorrow and we'll finalize the plan. We need those scouts' reports before we decide anything else." The captains saluted and left the tent.
Ketos shoved the bard forward. Creon leaned against the table, arms folded across his chest and gave her a lazy speculative smile. "What do we have here Ketos?"
"A bard, sir."
He raised an eyebrow. Gabrielle gave a little mental head shake. It was uncanny how familiar the gesture was. "Doesn't look like much of a bard, does she?"
Gabrielle gazed steadily into his piercing eyes. "If you were really that bad a judge of character, you would have been dead long ago," she said coolly.
His eyes narrowed ever so slightly. "All right. Let's see just how good a bard you are. You will entertain us tonight and every night we're in camp. As long as we stay entertained, you live. Disappoint us and you die. Your predecessor lasted two days."
She studied him for a moment. "What do I get out of this?"
"Your life isn't enough?" he asked quizzically.
"My life is worthless without your guarantee of protection. As long as I'm alive you will guarantee I'll be left alone."
He laughed. "Done. I guarantee it." The smile faded. "But everyone will have a turn at you if you fail."
The fear that caused her heart to clench didn't show on her face. Xena had taught her that. "Done."
He waved his hand and Ketos showed her out of the tent to another. This one had a set of shackles staked to the ground and these he applied to her ankles. "Not that we don't trust you little bard..."
"Gabrielle. Ketos, my name is Gabrielle."
"...Gabrielle, but we don't want you running off before the first performance." He smiled self-consciously at her.
"I never run out on a chance to perform, Ketos," she promised him. And then proceeded to engage him in conversation. By the time the poor man made it out of the tent, the bard knew a great deal about the camp and what kind of stories the men liked.
After the evening meal she was led to a platform. As she looked out into the sea of scowling faces and jeering voices, she smiled and walked along the platform making eye contact with as many as she could. "My name is Gabrielle," she told them in her best bardic voice. "And I tell stories. Some may even be about you." The noise quieted a bit. "I have heard that you are the bravest, and the strongest, and the smartest warriors in all the land." That brought a cheer. "And I want to write your stories so that all may know your deeds." The men were thinking now. "But first let me tell you of another great war, of brave men and heroic deeds. Of lives lost and battles won. A war over which women will forever weep. I sing a song of Troy...," she paused dramatically. With any luck she could keep this story going for weeks. "...the prequel."
The lush green countryside stretched before her in all its glory, but Xena didn't see its beauty. Without the bard to point out the minute wonders of her surroundings, the warrior just viewed it as land to be crossed. To where, she wasn't sure. She simply let Argo have her lead and went where the horse took her, stopping where ever she thought she could do the most good. That Argo was taking a slow roundabout path toward Amazon territory never filtered through Xena's conscious thoughts.
At first Xena enjoyed her newly found solitude. She could come and go as she pleased, relieved not to have to drag the bard out of bed every morning or listen to her chatter every waking minute and food lasted three times as long without having to fill Gabrielle's noisy bottomless pit. So Xena ate when she was hungry, which was increasingly infrequent and bathed when Argo finally refused to carry her. All in all, she thought it wasn't a bad life.
One sunny day Xena passed by a farm house and saw two men arguing in the middle of the road. There was a small pig rooting nearby. She was about to pass them when the men suddenly began to pummel each other. Debate whether to get involved or not ended when one of the men drew a knife and swung it at the other. Casually she vaulted off of Argo and landed between the two men.
"Put that away," she snapped. "That's no way to settle your differences." Good for you, a familiar bardic voice said. Xena narrowed her eyes and looked around but Gabrielle was nowhere to be seen.
"He's stealing my pig!" exclaimed one of the men.
"You sold that pig to me," the other replied.
"Did too." They glared at each other.
Xena looked at them wearily. Assaulting each other over a pig. Shaking her head she walked over to the sow. "This is the pig in question, I assume?"
The two men nodded. Then before they could even blink, the warrior whipped out her sword and cleaved the young sow into two equal halves. Longways. The pig didn't have even time to oink.
The men looked on in shock. "She was going to be a breeder sow," one finally managed to sputter.
"Oh." Xena shrugged. "Well, now she's lunch." She cocked her head and listened, her brow furrowed in irritation. "Oh, for cryin' out loud Gabrielle, it was only a pig." She threw up her hands and started back to Argo. "Yes, I know you would have handled it differently, but you're not here, are you?" She smacked her head a few times. "Except in here. Don't you ever stop talking?"
The two men looked at each other. "Who's she talking to?" one asked.
"Dunno. Who's Gabrielle?"
"Dunno." They picked up the carcass of the pig and beat a hasty retreat to the slaughterhouse, thankful the sow was the only one the deranged warrior thought to kill.
Argo glanced back at Xena before taking a more direct meander to the Amazon territory.
Telamedes made hurried preparations to leave. A messenger had galloped into the temple grounds that morning with the news that Theocles had been found with an arrow in his back. He was still alive, but not by much. When questioned about Gabrielle, the messenger just looked perplexed. Even more troubling was the news that two warlords were about to battle it out not far from where the bard had disappeared.
"We need to find Xena," he said thoughtfully to his wife while he packed. "Would you send Peisander out to find her?"
"What makes you think she'll follow him, even if he can find her?" she asked worriedly.
"I'll write a note." He hastily scribbled on a piece of paper while Antipany called the big bird over. Peisander looked mild insulted when Antipany attached the note to his leg.
"I know you're not a carrier pigeon, but this is important Peisander. Go find Xena." Now the big bird looked mildly alarmed. "Please Peisander. Gabrielle's in trouble. Take Xena to her. She's probably somewhere near Amazon territory, so be careful; you know how those crazy women like to shoot at any moving target." With a loud squawk the vulture flew off. Telamedes kissed his wife and galloped off to aid Theocles. Next time, Antipany promised herself, those two weren't getting out her sight until they patched up their differences.
Gabrielle not only made through that first night but all the rest as well and she was just in the sixth year of the Trojan war. For the first couple of days she was shackled in her tent until it was time to perform. She entertained herself by polishing her stories and by unlocking her restraints with the two thin slips of metal concealed in her braids. Autolycus had been a very able teacher and she had been a very quick learner. It paid to have many skills. Xena had taught her that. On the third morning she was escorted to Creon's tent.
She entered as his commanders were filing out. They greeted her cordially and complimented her storytelling. She beamed at them. "Aww, thanks guys." Creon stared at her as if he were trying to make a decision. She waited patiently for him to speak.
"Well, you're still alive I see," he said finally.
"Ah, yeah." She hoped she looked appropriately grateful.
"I need someone to document my life. I think you just might be the one. What do you think?"
What she thought was that no one would be interested in his life, but wisely didn't say as much. And considering the alternative, it was probably a fine idea. She smiled brightly. "That's a great idea! Let me grab a piece of parchment and I'll get started."
So she spent the next couple of weeks trailing behind the warlord documenting his every word, noting his every action. It took no time at all for her to discover the total reverence with which his men regarded him. His orders were accepted without comment or question. The only two men who dared voice opinions were two of his closest captains. He would listen to their arguments and then make up his mind, but once he gave a command he expected it to be followed without question. And it was.
She marveled at this blind obedience and the harsh discipline that accompanied life in the camp. Only once was she accosted by a soldier and he was dealt with promptly, strung up and whipped in front of his mates. His crime, she knew, was not that he had tried to assault her, but that he had disobeyed the order that she be left alone. Everyone kept a respectful distance after that.
Preparations were underway for the coming battle with Bercilius. There was a tense nervousness pervading the camp which grew as the time for war approached. Swords were honed to razor sharpness, practices became more intense, tempers became much shorter. Gabrielle watched the practice, her attention being drawn to one young man who seemed to lose every match. Finally he stalked off the practice field and headed to the brush. Curious, she followed him and found him on his knees, vomiting into the grass.
He glanced up, startled when she appeared, then sank back down, his head in his hands. "I'm going to die out there," he despaired. "They all say I'll be the first to fall ." He started to cry softly.
Gabrielle studied him for a moment. It wasn't that he didn't know how to fight, she decided. His technique wasn't that bad, he just seemed tentative and defensive. He had been beaten up so many times that now he expected to lose and what he needed was some confidence in himself. "I've been watching you," she said. "And you really are good... ah, what's your name?"
He glanced up hopefully. "Somias," he replied.
"All right, Somias, I'm going to get you something that's going to give you an edge. With this potion you'll be able to beat anyone. Wait here a minute. I want you to build a small fire while I'm gone."
She hurried to Creon's tent and grabbed a small handful of leaves from a clay container. As she was leaving she noticed a couple of scrolls open on the table. Unable to contain her curiosity, she glanced around and finding no threat, she picked up a scroll. "The Art of War, by Sun Tzu," she murmured. Great, now they were writing scrolls about war and making it an art form. It was a good thing most warlords didn't know how to read. She picked up the other scroll. "Tips And Rules To Conquer By, by Silk." Good grief, Creon had a whole library on the best ways to kill and maim. She read the first tip. "Never leave your tent without clean underwear." Huh? Warlords do listen to their mothers, she marveled. This Silk was probably another one of Xena's warlord buddies from the Far East. Then frowned in misery at the thought of her friend. She should have known the warrior wouldn't come looking for her she thought, scowling at the scroll and muttering, "There must be a tip in here somewhere that says, 'Never go running after your sidekick. It might make her think you really care.'" Brushing away a tear, she dropped the scroll and went to the cook's tent to borrow a pot and a few ingredients.
When she returned Somias had a fire going. She put some water in the pot and hung it over the fire. As the water was coming to a boil, she threw in her ingredients, one by one and chanted softly as the brew bubbled. Finally she cooled the liquid and poured some of the concoction into a cup and handed it to the wide-eyed soldier. "Drink up," she said cheerfully.
He looked at her doubtfully, then shrugged and took a careful sip. "Ugh," he said, wrinkling his nose. "What is this stuff?"
She looked around carefully, making sure they safe from prying eyes. "A sorceress friend of mine taught me this. It's made from..." She looked around again then leaned forward and whispered in his ear.
The young man's mouth dropped open and he regarded the brew with wonder. "Really?" he asked.
"Really," she confirmed. "Creon himself drinks it every night." Which was the truth, she thought with only a slight twinge of conscious.
Somias downed the rest of the cup in great gulps. Then he tipped the pot and drank the rest. When she headed back to camp he was licking out the pan and eating the sediment. "Remember, Somias," she called back over her shoulder, "it doesn't make you invincible, it just enhances what's already there."
The next few days flew by as they broke camp and headed for their confrontation with Bercilius. Gabrielle continued to document the warlord's every word and tell her stories at night. By the time they reached their appointment with destiny, Gabrielle had a pretty good idea what life must have been like for the warrior princess. Creon was tense, eager to begin the battle. It didn't help that his once plentiful supply of chamomile tea had mysteriously dwindled down to nothing in no time at all, a cup being part of his nightly ritual to relax after a hard day of command duties. But he had to say he was pleased with the unusually high degree of confidence and aggression displayed by his men.
Argo ambled down the road with her brooding mistress scarcely paying attention to their direction. But even in her pensive state, some part of her was acutely aware of her surroundings. She took note of the chirping of the birds, the rustling of the underbrush from small animals and when the noise of battle reached her subconscious, Xena snapped to attention. A grim smile crossed her face and she greeted the sounds with relief. If there was ever a day she was in the mood for a fight, this was it. She urged Argo into a gallop and entered the embattled village with a warcry that caused heads to raise up in wonder.
The raven-haired beauty cut a swath through the invading soldiers as a sickle through wheat, a feral chuckle greeting every death. She plunged her sword into one after another of the mercenaries, then flung her chakrum and watched it bounce off a rock, a cooking pot, two posts and slice three soldiers' throats before returning to her. She plunged her sword into another when she heard a yell behind her. The approaching mercenary's nose met the end of her elbow.
She dispatched two more men then looked around and found the young soldier had staggered to his feet. Disappointed that he was only one left standing, she decided to take her time with him. A fist to his jaw and the youngster found himself flat on his back once again, a sword digging its point into his throat. She studied him with her intense icy blue eyes. Eyes lost in bloodlust and wanting his life so bad she made no effort to hide her need.
"Please," he whispered, tears forming in his eyes.
"Please," the word echoed in her mind, only in Gabrielle's voice. "Xena, he's hardly more than a boy," the bard whispered. Xena felt the soft touch of her friend's hand as it caressed her arm and rested on her sword hand. "Enough, Xena." Warm gossamer breath kissed her lips.
The beautiful warrior blinked and sanity returned. But no warmth. Stone faced she studied the young man for a few moments before finally saying, "You need a new line of work. Go home."
If the point of her sword had not been planted so firmly against his throat, she was sure the would-be warrior would have nodded enthusiastically. As it was he could only whisper, "Yes, I'll do that. Thank you." The sword returned to its sheath and he scrambled to his feet and began to run, not daring to look back.
Xena watched the young man fly out of the village as if Hermes himself were giving him a lift. She had been ready to slit his throat, eager to feel the power once more. But feeling Gabrielle's hands restraining hers, hearing her young friend's voice pleading for reason had dragged her back from the abyss once more and she held on to those sensations as long as she could.
She looked around slowly. The villagers stood staring at her with a mixture of gratitude and fear. Most of the invaders were dead and those she hadn't killed outright were quickly dispatched by the villagers. "It's all right," she said wearily. "I'm not here to hurt you. I just want to help." So she spent the next few days helping to repair the damage, burying bodies, and fortifying defenses.
But she never felt accepted, never broke through the reserve that surrounded her. Gabrielle would have put these people at ease in a heartbeat with her chatter and stories and by the time they left 'Xena, Destroyer of Nations' would have been remembered as 'Xena, Savior of Timorine'. The villagers were appropriately gratified for her help but still there was a vague sense of relief on all sides when she finally departed.
After another few days on the road Xena accepted the hospitality of a farm family exchanging help in the fields for a place to stay in the stables and some meals. She hoped the hard work would tire her out enough to finally get a good night's sleep. Sleep had always been hard to come by but the last couple of nights it had been virtually nonexistent.
After the evening meal she took an ax and attacked a downed tree, splitting wood with mindless zeal. She began to think about her companion and her fury grew. Why? Whack! A log split into two neat pieces. She hadn't done anything wrong. So why did she feel this was her fault? Whack! Two more sticks of firewood. If Gabrielle thought she was going to beg her to come back... Whack! She couldn't understand what the bard was so upset about. She was only trying to protect her friend. Whack! Why couldn't Gabrielle understand her soul wasn't worth saving? Whack! Maybe this was for the best...
Suddenly Xena stopped and listened. Then curled her lip. "Great, just great. What do you want Ares?"
The god appeared in front of her, pacing back and forth, glaring at her. "What do you think you're doing? I didn't train you to work in the fields or chop wood. This is beneath you!" He stopped for a moment fuming, then made an effort to calm himself.
"It's honest labor, Ares. You should try it sometime."
"Pulleeeze," he said, scorn dripping from every syllable. He trailed a finger along her cheek and stepped behind her whispering in her ear. "I have an army just waiting for you, Xena. That idiot Bercilius commands it now but with you in command it would sweep away everything in its path. No one would question your decisions. No one would make moral judgments against you."
"No irritating little blonde bards in that army, huh Ares?"
"Not a one," he chuckled. "In about a week your army will battle another led by a warlord called Creon. He's good, Xena. Almost as good as you. It will be an interesting fight. Aren't you just a liiittle bit tempted?"
That was the problem. She was always a little bit tempted by his offers and this was no different. And she was tired. Tired of wandering, tired of being alone, and most of all tired of hearing that voice in her head without the comforting presence of its owner. She knew in her heart it wasn't Ares who could provide what she needed.
"Ares, give it up. I'm not interested. Not now, not ever. Go tempt some unsuspecting fool with more balls than brains and leave...me...alone!"
They glared at each other for a few moments before Ares threw up his hands in frustration. He pointed a finger at the downed tree and it blew up in a thousand pieces. "I'm going to do that to you one day, Xena," he threatened before vanishing.
"Hey!" she yelled, looking at pieces of wood scattered everywhere. "You could at least stack it before you disappear." She began to pick up the firewood. "Just like a god," she muttered. "Always leaving a mess behind for some else to clean up."
When she departed the next morning there was an dark emptiness inside her that she still refused to acknowledge. The bard would have told her that her soul was starving in an environment of communal deprivation. The farmer's wife simply commented that Xena was the loneliest person she had ever met.
Xena sat brooding, staring at the campfire and the small pot of vegetables cooking on the fire. She was restless and her feeling of foreboding continued to grow. Sleep had been just a pleasant memory for some days now. She ate just enough to keep her going but not enough to prevent her from losing weight. The circles under her eyes had grown more prominent as the lonely days progressed and the wandering was getting tiresome, but there was only one place she wanted to go and that was anywhere Gabrielle was.
It had been almost a month since she had seen the only face she wanted to see, but the longer she stayed away, the harder it was becoming to believe Gabrielle would want anything to do with her. But she had to know. Argo's wanderings had brought them within a half day's ride of Amazon territory and she was determined to see her friend.
Irritation stirred as she heard the rustling of wings and a big ugly bird settled himself on a branch above her. He cawed out a cautious greeting but the warrior never moved. Argo whinnied and moved closer.
"Fine, you talk to him," Xena muttered.
The vulture stared down for a moment then flew to the ground, awkwardly hopping over to where the woman sat. "Go away," she growled waving an arm at him. The big bird hopped back, startled, then sat pondering his next move. The hubris of these two-legged animals confused him. They all breathed the same air, defecated on the same ground, and in the end even the proudest of all these creatures ended up as roadkill just like any other animal. What was there to be so arrogant about? He was mystified.
Peisander slowly extended the leg with the note tied to it. The warrior glared at him. "I don't care what trouble Antipany is in now. I'm not going back." She cast a feral smile in his direction, her upper lip curling. "And if you don't leave, you're going to end up in that pot of vegetables. I've always wondered what vulture stew tastes like."
The big bird blinked slowly then suddenly squawked and rolled onto his back, feet extended into the air, not moving. Xena looked at him in dismay. "Great Zeus, I've killed Antipany's bird." She looked at Argo. "How am I going to explain this?" Argo just snorted and shook her head.
She knelt down by Peisander wondering if blowing air down his beak would help. After all, it had worked on Gabrielle... She sighed, thinking about her companion. When she looked down again she noted one big eye staring up at her. The leg with the note waved in her face and it was then that she noticed the writing on the note was not Antipathy's. She snatched it off the vulture's leg and sat down on the ground to read.
"Cxah cuote, debtiewlle em lrimbal. triwche himt vltk Clian orn Betqlian. rirrl"
"Hades take Telamedes and his abominable handwriting!" she muttered. Peisander rolled back onto his feet and peered at the note over her arm while Argo looked on from over her shoulder. "I don't suppose either one of you could translate this?" she asked hopefully. All she got in return was blank stares. "Didn't think so," she muttered. Absently she scratched the big bird's head while she tried to decipher the note. Peisander amended his thinking. These two-legged creatures were good for something besides roadkill. He crooned his appreciation.
"All right, Telamedes wouldn't write unless it's important. Maybe that word is..." She jerked upright and looked at Peisander. "Is this about Gabrielle?" The big bird squawked in excitement. "Is she in trouble?" Peisander flapped his wings and started to dance. Her eyes narrowed. "Are those words 'Creon' and 'Bercilius'?" she asked. The vulture squawked again. "Thank you, Ares," she muttered, smiling darkly.
Xena felt a calmness she hadn't felt in quite a while. Now she had focus and a reason to go after her friend. "We'll leave tomorrow morning," she told them and proceeded to eat her stew, sans vulture meat. The rest of the evening was spent bathing, cleaning her leathers, sharpening her sword and waiting impatiently for the first glimmer of light.
Creon stood on the hillside and watched the battle unfold. It was going just like he planned. Carefully he explained what was happening to Gabrielle. "See that group of men there," he said pointing down to a group who were extending themselves precariously forward. "They're going to draw our opponents out and down. We'll be able to divide their forces and bring up our reserves to finish them off."
Gabrielle looked and frowned. "Your men will be massacred, won't they?"
He nodded. "That group will take heavy losses. But they know the risk. It's for the greater good and in the end they'll gladly give up their lives for our cause." Excitement gleamed in his eyes.
Gabrielle looked for some regret, some sign that the warlord saw these men as more than just pieces in some morbid game. But there was no regret in his manner and suddenly she understood the mindset that had molded Xena into a heartless warlord. Gabrielle had always judged her companion in the context of the person she now knew, not the murderer of that past time. But the warlord still lurked beneath the goodness that now defined her friend. It had taken a tremendous strength of character to bring herself back to humanity and a tremendous will to keep herself there.
And as Gabrielle watched those men willingly go to their deaths for a cause that had more to do with power than righteousness, she also understood the gravity of the crime she had committed in Britannia and then in Chin, at least in Xena's eyes. For it was the strong who defined the greater good and set the rules of the game. And by warrior rules, Xena had no choice but to stand by her companions, right or wrong and repay her debts no matter what the cost, even if the price was her soul. Those values Gabrielle knew she could never share because the cost did matter. Right and wrong did matter. Every life deserved a chance.
So Gabrielle had tried to make her friend play by new rules, her rules. She understood now why she shouldn't have tried. Xena had proved her loyalty time after time. When she risked a lifetime on Cecrop's ship for her. When she had defended her from the Horde. And Gabrielle knew the depth of the warrior's love. Powerful enough to want to kill her. And then deep enough to forgive her. But it was a betrayal perhaps too quickly forgiven then buried so completely in her companion's iron will that Xena wasn't even aware that the hurt was still there, festering.
Gabrielle sighed. It was time for her to go home. She prayed there was still a home to go to. Her chance came when the battle being decided, Creon prepared to enter the battlefield and deal with Bercilius himself. Gabrielle politely declined to go, using the time honored defense understood by all men. She fainted.
And was promptly brought back to consciousness by a cup full of wine hitting her face. "Oh, what happened?" she sputtered opening one eye to glare at the wine thrower. She sat up, holding her head. "I don't feel so good," she said softly.
"Too much for you, little bard?" asked Creon with some amusement. "Take her back to her tent," he ordered. He gave her a hand up. "Don't worry, I'll tell you all about it tonight so you can write it down." Barking orders, he mounted his stallion and rode off with most of his men.
Gabrielle was escorted back to her tent and shackled. Darkness was fast approaching and she knew she would have to hurry to get away before Creon returned. Carefully she removed the thin metal strips from her braids and picked her locks. Gathering up her belongings and staff she debated on taking her scrolls and then decided to leave them. Creon deserved them, she thought. She called her guard in and quickly dispatched the unsuspecting soldier with her staff. Because most of the soldiers were at the battlefield, the camp itself was lightly guarded.
Only one sentry challenged her. She tried to bluff her way past but the guard was not fooled. He tried to grab her but she dodged away, bringing her staff up in a defensive position. Growling in frustration, he drew his sword and brought it down on her staff. Gabrielle hit the ground rolling and brought her staff up to strike where it would do the most damage. Suddenly a fist shot out from behind her, landing with devastating effect on her assailant's nose. His eyes glazed and he fell slowly over backwards, his helmet falling off as he hit the ground. Gabrielle continued to roll up to her knees, sweeping the staff to take this new adversary's legs out from under him. Except that this foe wore a leather skirt and easily jumped over the sweeping staff.
And in an instant, Gabrielle's arms were holding her tight, her face buried in the warrior's chest. Xena's heart was right; it was exactly what she needed. She returned the embrace with a relieved sigh. Gabrielle looked up, her eyes full of questions. The warrior held a finger to the bard's lips. "Let's get out of here," she whispered and spun around heading away from the camp before the bard could say any more.
Silently they crept through the trees until they came to Argo. Xena swung up into the saddle and offered an arm to her companion who was showing no inclination to accept the help up.
"I could have gotten away without your help, you know."
"I know." Her arm was still extended.
Gabrielle studied her friend. "You don't look so good. You've lost weight."
"What took you so long?" The query was calm but Xena felt sudden danger.
"I came as soon as I heard you were in trouble."
"Otherwise you wouldn't have come at all?"
Oh, oh. While Xena acknowledged that she wasn't the most sensitive soul on Gaea's green earth, she hadn't lived this long without the uncanny ability to accurately gauge the subtle nuances of her surroundings and she now determined that the air had just gotten several degrees chillier. Xena suddenly cast an alert gaze into the darkness. "They're coming!" she hissed, reaching for her companion's arm.
Years of experience had taught the bard not to question Xena's instincts even though nothing seemed out of order to her. She grabbed the proffered arm and swung up behind the warrior. Xena urged Argo on as fast as they dared through the trees and back on to the road. She breathed a small sigh of relief, hoping against hope that Gabrielle would not utter those four little words that always caused her gut to spasm.
The bard tapped her shoulder. "We have to talk," she said firmly.
Damn. Damn. Damn.
After persuading Gabrielle that silence was needed until they were safely away from Creon's camp, the pair rode steadily in the silvery moonlight until late in the night. Xena would have been content to ride like this forever, with Gabrielle's arms around her waist and her head leaning against the warrior's back. Not that she would admit to anyone, even herself, how much she had missed her friend. When Gabrielle was sure the numbness in her posterior was a permanent condition and Argo was beginning to labor, Xena finally halted the horse and slid off, helping the bard down and led them into the forest to an area hidden from the road.
"We can't build a fire, Gabrielle, it's too dangerous." Xena removed Argo's saddle and the saddlebags. The horse wandered over to the small nearby stream and took a much needed drink of water.
"Fine with me," the bard said wearily. "Let's just go to sleep." She pulled out the warrior's bedroll and sank down wearily. Within minutes she was fast asleep. Xena listened to the gentle snoring and felt a peace within her that had been missing since the bard's departure. She brushed a stray lock of golden hair away from Gabrielle's face and gently kissed her cheek, wondering if that peace would once more take flight after they had her friend's much longed for talk. Sighing, she settled against a tree and prepared to defend against intruders, the blackness, and her own dark fears.
Gabrielle woke the next morning stiff but well rested from the best sleep she'd had in weeks. Sometime during the night she had awakened and noting that Xena was determined to stand guard, she had simply gathered up the blankets, settled herself within the hollow of her friend's shoulder and thrown the covers over them both. Without a word being exchanged, she was asleep again the minute she felt Xena's arm tighten around her, much to Xena's grateful amusement.
They fell into their well established routine with Gabrielle starting the morning meal while Xena foraged and attended to Argo. After breakfast, Gabrielle finally felt awake enough to finish what should have been done a month ago.
"Xena...," she began.
Her companion knew she would not be put off any longer. "Gabrielle," Xena interrupted, "I love you." That stopped the bard for a least a couple of heartbeats. "I just wanted you to know that," the warrior continued, "before we do anymore talking."
"I do know that." Gabrielle smiled in spite of herself then looked stern. "But that's not the problem is it?"
No, it certainly wasn't. Xena tried again. "I do trust you, you know," Xena said finally.
"You trust me to cook your food and not poison it," Gabrielle replied. "You trust me to carry the dinars and not rob you blind. You trust me to find the best bargains in the marketplace and negotiate deals between disputing parties, but you don't trust me to protect your life. I was wrong in Chin and I've admitted that. And if you expected me to see Hope as anything but my daughter, you were wrong." She looked at her friend sadly. "Now you don't trust me to back you in any fight."
"I just don't want to keep putting you in a position where you have to choose between what you know is right and what I believe is right. One of these days you'll defend me and end up violating every principle you hold dear. I don't want to be responsible for that."
Gabrielle thought for a moment. "It's too late for that now, my friend. My view of good and bad, right and wrong has been changing ever since we met. Maybe that's because I'm getting older, I don't know, and things just don't seem so black and white anymore. Or maybe it is because of your influence. You're a strong woman, Xena, with strong convictions. But my principles are not your responsibility. It'll be my choice in the end."
"And my soul is mine, Gabrielle."
They both studied the ground for a moment knowing Xena would never stop protecting the bard as Gabrielle would never stop trying to rescue the warrior's soul. They loved too much to stop now.
"I don't know why I said what I did about betraying me," Xena said finally. "I forgave you a long time ago, after Illusia."
Gabrielle looked up. "But when will you forget?" she asked softly. For that her friend had no reply.
Xena finished loading Argo then turned reluctantly to face Gabrielle. "Are you still going to Amazonia?" she asked quietly.
The bard nodded. "Yes, but I want to see what happened to Theocles first." She paused for a moment studying the warrior's face. All her friend had to do was ask her to stay. "What are you going to do?"
Xena refused to meet her gaze. She looked at the horizon and shrugged. "I don't know." She fiddled with Argo's reins.
Gabrielle sighed. She knew this was all she was likely to get. "Goodbye, Xena. You'll always be welcome by the Amazons." She reached up and kissed Xena's cheek before turning away.
The bard turned back and looked at her questioningly.
"I want to come home," Xena said quietly. "I miss my family."
Gabrielle shook her head, feigning confusion. "Amphipolis is that way," she said waving a hand to the east. "But you know that." Come on Xena, she urged silently, you're almost there.
Xena shook her head in frustration. The bard didn't seem to understand. "No! Not there. I..." She stopped, trying to find the right words. It seemed like everything she said lately came out wrong.
Being one of the more sensitive souls on Gaea's green earth, Gabrielle had a good idea what her companion was struggling to say, but for once she was not going to speak for her. Her hopes were dashed when her friend looked away, saying nothing. Gabrielle turned away once more. "Go home Xena, wherever that may be. I wish you peace." She stopped abruptly when a hand suddenly clamped down on her shoulder.
"Wait, Gabrielle." The urgency in the warrior's voice caused Gabrielle to turn around and stare at her, determined not to move until Xena finally managed to spit it out.
Xena looked down at the bard, who was staring at her with an expectant gaze, and smiled ruefully. "You're not going to help me out here, are you?"
"Nope. Not unless you want me to whack you between the eyes a couple of times."
Those piercing beautiful blue eyes narrowed. "That won't be necessary." She took a deep breath and began, "My soul is just an empty expanse of desolate wasteland without you. My spirit blooms in your presence and dies in your absence. My heart...my heart...," she floundered and looked disgusted. "What a crock of... Aww Tartarus, Gabrielle, I miss you, and I'm dying without you."
Gabrielle blinked. "That was pretty good." More than she expected in fact. Maybe it was time to give her a hand. "So, your home is still with me?"
Xena nodded. This wasn't exactly the reaction she was hoping for but at least the bard hadn't run away.
"And I'm still part of your family?"
"You'll always be my family," Xena replied. Of that she had no doubt.
Gabrielle stared at her, thinking. She wanted to do nothing more than throw herself into Xena's arms and vow never to disappoint her again. But she knew that was a vow she was unlikely to keep. Too much had happened. Too much had changed. She had changed. And there was still too much left unresolved between them. She willed her arms to stay at her sides.
Xena tried to hide her disappointment at the bard's hesitation. "It's all right, Gabrielle," she said gently. "I've handled things badly and if you don't want to be with me, I understand." She turned to mount Argo.
Gabrielle grabbed her arm. "No! It's just that I've changed so much these last few months. I won't follow you blindly anymore, Xena. I won't stand by and watch you assassinate someone. I don't care how much they deserve it. You have to accept me for who I am now. Can you do that?"
Oh yeah, she could do that. You made allowances for family. You forgave family. You loved them in spite of their mistakes. Gabrielle had taught her that. Xena nodded to the gentle green eyes. "Gabrielle, you never followed me blindly and I never wanted you to. I know we'll never see eye-to-eye on everything but I still believe we can work things out when we disagree. I promise you, I'll listen to you better from now on. You won't even have to hit me with your staff."
Gabrielle couldn't stop the tears, she didn't even try. "Then...please...come home, Xena." She gasped as she suddenly found herself in a bone crushing hug. She relaxed and returned the embrace, laughing softly. "I love you too."
They stood for long moments resting in the comfort of each others arms until Xena finally released the bard. Grabbing Argo's reins she started walking down the road. "Let's go then. We'll have to find where you were attacked if we're going to find Theocles." She started to hum happily to herself.
Gabrielle stared after her. Xena humming a lullaby? And here she thought all the warrior sang were dirges. She wiped away the last few tears and ran to catch up. "Xena, what did you do to Antipany?" she asked.
Xena glanced at her companion. "Nothing."
"Nothing?" Gabrielle asked with some trepidation.
"Well...I did put the pinch on her. And she got her revenge. I'd say it came out about even."
"I gather she was still alive when you left?"
"Oh yes, a little livid, but most definitely alive," Xena replied with some regret.
"What was her revenge?"
Xena grimaced. "It seems by virtue of being Antandra's godmothers we've become full fledged members of Antipany's... family." She looked like she just ate a green persimmon.
Gabrielle looked startled then snickered as the possible consequences of that development sunk in.
Xena looked at her, irritated. "That's not a laughing matter. There are certain members of our family who I'd rather not see anytime soon. She's one of them."
Gabrielle stared ahead thoughtfully. She was so happy to be with Xena again. But she wondered if her companion would ever truly trust her. She considered apologizing once more for her betrayal, for Solon's death, but knew in her heart that it would be a futile gesture. Xena was a woman of action, not words. Actions formed a solid foundation to the warrior while words were carried away by the breeze. Well, it had taken three years to build that bond of trust before she destroyed it and if it took another twenty to rebuild it, then so be it. She just hoped they were given the time.
"So they decided to name her Antandra, huh? I like that. Our family sure has grown over the last three years, hasn't it? Your relatives, mine, Solon, a demigod and his sidekick, a thief..."
"Now there's a family member to be proud of."
"Otherwise known as a swindler in some villages."
"Please, Xena." Gabrielle jabbed her gently in her ribs. "A whole nation of Amazons, a sorceress..."
"A madwoman you mean. And don't forget her vulture."
"I didn't forget Argo either. And several wonderful godchildren. A little unusual but It's a pretty good family, Xena."
Xena put an arm around her companion's shoulder. "Yeah, I guess it is. You'll always be the center of mine, Gabrielle. Always." Then her soul grew as lush as a verdant forest when Gabrielle smiled up at her, while her spirit blossomed into a thousand brilliant colors and her heart... Her heart sang with the complex melodies of a chorus, not that Xena was aware of it. All she knew was that it was great to be home.
They walked in comfortable silence for a few moments.
"Xena, can we talk?" Gabrielle grunted in discomfort as the arm around her shoulder spasmed.
There are times when love is not enough.
Or loyalty. Or trust. Or honor. Or forgiveness.
Or any of the other building blocks that form strong relationships and meld families.
There are times when the only way to keep a home standing is simply to forget.
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