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Standard Disclaimer - These characters, most of them, belong to Universal, and Renaissance Pictures, and whoever else has a stake in Xena: Warrior Princess. This is written just in fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.
Specific Story Disclaimers:
Violence Oh yes.. there is violence. This is a combination story, and includes both Uber Xena sections, and Regular Xena sections. Regardless of time period, or current incarnation, our lovable Xena does tend to be a violent person. So, we have slicing and dicing, and crunching of bones... but no emasculation in this one.
Subtext - Subtext.. there's a debate going on at this point as to whether subtext is subtext or just plain maintext nowadays on the series. At any rate, this story does involve women who are in love with each other.. so if that puts your undies in a wad, please go to Xeno's listing, and choose something nice out of the general fiction area. There's lot's of good stories there.
And while we're on the subject, if you do read past the above warning, and are offended by the love described in the story, email me your snail mail address, so I can send you some German chocolate cake, OK? I feel horrible for you.
UberXena - Ok - this story contains characters of the Uber Xena genre. Some folks don't like to read that. There are sections of two characters that showed up in a previous story of mine (Bound) and they'll be mixed with sections involving our old friends, Xena and Gabrielle. Just want to warn you, OK? OK.
Any and all comments are always welcome. You can email them to:
Reflections from the Past - Part 1
By Melissa Good
The cabin was a snug, and cheerful place, despite or perhaps enhanced by the howling of the winds that rattled the roof, and caused the wall planks to creak in protest. Inside, a fire crackled invitingly, and the scent of cinnamon and apples was wafting across the room.
On a thick, fluffy hide near the fireplace, a compactly made woman with red gold hair was sprawled, dressed in a warm, soft sleep shirt despite the full daylight outside. A black furred wolf slumbered at her side, his paws twitching gently, and his breath warming her leg. Spread around her were neat piles of very old scrolls, and she was making notes on a newer piece in a strong, firm hand.
Gabrielle paused in her writing to lift a long fork, and probe the apples that were roasting, and spared a faintly amused look towards the tall, still form standing near the window.
"Y'know, Xena.. if you stare out at that snow hard enough, I bet you could get it to stop just by the power of your will." She commented, biting down lightly on the tip of her quill. "I really do." She watched her partner half turn and gaze at her, seeing the glint of wry humor in her pale blue eyes.
"Very funny." Xena drawled. "This is going to last for days." She put a hand on either side of the windowsill and peered out. "I thought we were done with these damn storms."
"So?" Gabrielle replied, moving one scroll off to a pile, and substituting it with another. "Somewhere you desperately needed to go?"
The warrior sighed. "No.. I picked up both traplines a few days ago, I took out the last hunting party yesterday, and mom has a pile of fish the size of Argo that she's preserving." She let her hands drop down to her sides, and padded over to where the bard was reclining, collapsing next to her with a sigh, and propping her head up on one hand. "So.. no."
Gabrielle put the quill down, and gave her partner her full attention, studying the lean, angular face across from her and drinking in the warmth of her presence. "I know you hate being cooped up like this." She commented quietly. "Is it bothering you?"
Blue eyes gazed intently back into hers for a long minute, then Xena's mouth quirked into a tiny, rueful grin. "A little." She admitted, rolling onto her back and gazing up at the timbered ceiling with a sigh. Damn...
Gabrielle pushed her scrolls aside, and crawled closer, reaching out a hand to brush Xena's dark hair off her forehead, and running a finger down the side of her face. "Anything I can do to help?" She asked innocently. "You know.. take your mind off it?"
A dark eyebrow arched. "Possibly." She allowed, a gently amused look crossing her face. "Hmm... trapped in here with you.. I guess I'll just have to tough it out." The warrior spread her arms out to either side of her body, and stretched lazily. "You got those scrolls ready for translation?"
Gabrielle smiled, with a gentle sense of relief at her partner's returning good humor. The restlessly active warrior had been.. pretty good.. all winter. She mused. Hunting expeditions and raiders had kept her reasonably occupied, enough to let her spend more time than Gabrielle had dared hope in what they both jokingly referred to as hibernation mode, long hours spent immersed in each other, sometimes in playful passion, other times simply snuggling together, with Xena a willing ear for her snippets of stories in progress.
The time since their joining, a moon, and half of another, had been completely peaceful, to both of their joint amazement. A few attacks by raiders, sure. Gabrielle reflected. And then there was the day the sheep had stampeded. That had been quite a time. Oh.. and the pig chasing Toris across the barnyard and almost catching him because Xena had been laughing too hard to grab him and pull him over the rail fence. But other than that... no, it had been quiet.
And while she was looking forward to the spring, and resuming their journeys.. a part of her was finding it really liked those long afternoons and would miss them once they were out on the road again. Maybe.. she considered idly. Maybe every once in a while I could get her to just.. take an afternoon off out there, hmm? The idea appealed to her. "Hey.. Xena?"
"Mmm?" Xena curled an arm around her and tugged. "C'mere."
Obligingly, she snuggled close, and slid her body up against the warrior's, breathing in the tickly scent of her woven shift with pleasure as she wrapped her arm around Xena's stomach and laid her head in the hollow of the warrior's shoulder. "I think I found the first scroll." She informed her partner. Her project during the lazy days of winter had been to catalog the scrolls they'd found on their visit to Jessan's people.
"Did you?" Xena smiled, and rubbed her back with the tips of her fingers. "From the dates?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Thanks for teaching me that much." She sighed. "The rest of it.. " She felt her shoulders slump. "Going pretty slow." I just... can't wrap my brain around that language... how in Hades does she do that? It comes so easy to her...
"You'll get it." The warrior assured her comfortingly. "In the meantime, I thought it was just a good excuse for you to get me to read to you."
"Mmmm...." Gabrielle chuckled softly under her breath. "Well..... I won't deny that." She admitted, twirling a lock of the warrior's dark hair in her fingers. "So.. you up for a little translating?" Prodding her was the intense curiosity she felt while handling the scrolls, which bore stories from the Viking and Celt they'd discovered hidden in a cave deep in Jessan's clan's territory.
Xena grinned. "Maybe... if you're up for getting me out one of those apples." She gave the bard a sheepish look. "That smell is driving me crazy."
"Heh." Gabrielle smirked. "Told mom you'd like them." She rolled away from Xena's relaxed form, and got to her feet, moving to the fire and crouching down. "And.. I think they're ready." She threw a triumphant glance over her shoulder at her partner. "So you get ready to read, and I'll bring it over.. deal?"
A low chuckle answered her. "Deal." Xena agreed, moving over to where they had a pile of pillows tumbled about, and settling herself into a comfortable nest, taking the top scroll from the pile Gabrielle had been working on, and examining it. "Oh.. hey, yeah. you're right... must have been. It's kind of a background on both of them." She glanced up as Ares woke, and stretched, spotting her nearby and snorting. "Hey boy."
The wolf scrambled up, and trotted over, curling up against her left side and letting his muzzle rest on her leg with a contented sigh. "Roo." He muttered, as she scratched his ears. "Arrhhgrroo."
Xena grinned as she stroked his thick coat. The wolf was almost full grown in length, but still retained the some of the adolescent gawkiness of his recently left behind puppyhood, and had a bit of filling out to do before his body caught up to his bone structure. His adult coat had come in a rich, dark color, not far from Xena's own, and he had glinting copper highlights around his muzzle, and chest that showed mostly in the bright sunlight
"Ooo." Gabrielle cooed, as she settled herself against Xena's warm body, and peered at the scroll. "Here." She scooped a bit of the baked apple up in a spoon and offered it up, watching with interest as her partner took the bit neatly off the spoon and chewed thoughtfully. "Well?"
Honey. Xena deduced. Cinnamon.. and figs, and nuts...Oh gods.. I'm in trouble... "It tastes even better than it smells. How'd you do that?" She glanced pointedly at the bowl, and grinned as the bard offered her another mouthful. Oh well.. I have been drilling pretty hard.. guess I can afford it.
The bard smirked. "It's those apples mom had left over.. I took out the middles, and stuffed them with cut up figs, and some of those nuts you brought back the other day, and drizzled honey over the whole thing, with some spices. Good, huh?" She took a bite herself. "Oh.. wow.. yeah.. and the best part is, I can make these when we're roaming around out there.. doesn't take hardly any time or stuff."
"Really?" Xena murmured, impressed. "Well, you can make them anytime, so far as I'm concerned." Another pointed stare at the bowl was rewarded with more apple, and a giggle from the bard. "So.. " She let go of the scroll with one hand, and slipped that arm around Gabrielle, then raised a knee to balance the parchment against. "You ready to hear this?"
Gabrielle settled her head comfortably against Xena's shoulder, and nodded. "Go on."
A quick, sly glance. "I dunno.. hard to concentrate with all those nice smells from that bowl."
The bard giggled. "You're so bad." But she delivered up another portion. "Dont' worry.. I've got six of them over there."
"Mmm.." Xena mumbled. "That ought to last through at least.. one scroll." She swallowed and licked her lips, then turned her attention back to the faded parchment in front of her. The language was old, and rhythmic, and she had to spend some time just reading it before her mind started translating the images held in the words into concepts she could explain to her eagerly waiting partner. "Here we go.." She finally said, and took a breath to begin.
Now that the winter cold is upon us, I find it in my heart to set down in peace, and tell the tales from the beginning. As the days shorten, and the quiet time lengthens, I find myself spending moments remembering home.. and the place that I came from.
So here I be, a woman grown, in a land far from my own and with a person such as the likes of which I would have never dreamed of as the child I was, resting quietly in my father's dwelling, listening to our bard tell tales of far away.
Now I am the bard, and I tell the tales.. though there is no campfire left, no home to return to. All our children are gone.. I am the last of our clan, so the history I set down here is also the last living word of the people we were.
Who am I? I am Ardwyn, daughter of Breagan and Ethna from the village of Rehain near the sea. Our people numbered many handfuls, and we lived a well loved life, our warriors were fierce, and our hunters bold, and our village prospered after the way of our kind.
My father was our shaman, and many is a night when, closing mine eyes, I see his as he looked off into the dark silence, and saw the things only shaman's could see, the patterns in the firelight, and the mysteries of the stars.
He was a big man, taller than most, and built like the forest bear with a wide chest, and plentiful hair upon it. His arms were strong, and though he bore a weapon not, his fists had quelled many an argument, when the ale flowed too frequently and tempers were roused.
His hair was fair, naturally so, unlike the warriors who bleached theirs.. no, his was pale as a Northman's, and his eyes were a wonderful pale green, like the sea on a sunny day.
As mine are, but my tresses I got from my mother, who was dark as our people are, though my own hair shows bits of fire in the bright light.
Four brothers had I, all older, and two sisters, younger. We lived with my father's brothers and sisters in our long house, where the fireplace claimed central importance, and was guarded constantly by my mother and aunts, lest the flame be allowed to die out. Our beds were layered around that, the children nearest, until one became of an age of responsibility, then to the outer ring you went, until you a woman or man became, or married into another longhouse.
My father was respected and feared, as a shaman always was, as it was his responsibility to make sure the gods knew the devotion of our village, and that they had ample sacrifices made to keep them appeased, and keep ill fortune from our doorsteps. And a good job he did.. mostly.
Mostly.. though it is of my mind that what befell us was not of his doing.. only that the gods of the Northmen fought with our own gods, and bested them, allowing the raiders to come down upon us like wolves in the snow.
My brothers were warriors, save the youngest, pale Dathan, whose eyes bore my father's dreamy stare, and who shared his visions with a youthful delight that made his sire smile in the knowledge that here, at least, was a shaman initiate of his own loins he could train to the old ways.
My oldest brother, Beolain, was a favorite son of the village, being built like my father, and taking on his golden coloring. He was a favorite with the girls, until my father made pact with Gobhan our leader, and handfasted Beolain with Gobhan's daughter Morwen and so joined our two families to the contentment of us all.
Twas the night of the joining, in fact, on the eve of Summer Solstice when even the gods were celebrating, that our doom came upon us. I was working with my mother, preparing the feast, watching her hands perform the ritual fixings of the meal when I heard the first screams.
Running outside, I felt the sting of a light spring rain hit my face, still cool from the northering wind. And on that wind came the Northmen, pouring into the village on the setting sun like the wrath of the gods themselves.
They seemed to me huge, in their skins, and with their horns flashing against the suns bloody rays as they hacked and spitted all that stood in their path.
Oh.. my gentle sisters... my people. It wasn't plunder they were after, it was a slaking of the blood thirst. Cared not for our bronze, or our foods... they wanted the pleasure of the screams, and the agony of our dying as their reward.
And that, they got, though even now, even all these years later, I shake as I write the words.. even now the grief comes over me like a water fall with it's chilling power. In my dreams.. where they only live now, I see my father, no warrior, but standing over my mother's fallen body with a long sword swinging.. cutting them down until they spitted him like a forest boar.
I see my sisters, the youngest but a lass, being torn to pieces by two tall Northmen laughing. I see my brothers in their colorful wedding tunics, standing firm and bold with our fighters, but the Northmen were far too many, and they rode over them as though rabid, their horrible axes raining down upon their helmless heads and splitting them. My dear gods.. I hate that sound. I dream of it still.
The blood ran freely that day. Only six of us were spared, for reasons I never kenned. Six, of an entire people. I, alone of my family, remained, seeing their bodies kicked and discarded as offal, wounding me to my very soul with hatred for the Northmen. If I had been but a fighter... ah, but then, this story would never have been told, for I would have died that day, my blood mingling with my brothers and sisters, my father and mothers, and there would be none at all left to remember.
I thought, at the time, that it would have been a better thing. To have missed knowing that rage, that emptiness. Now..., aye, now.. I look across the firepit into a pair of Northern eyes, and at last, I can smile. But that took a long time.
Six of us were spared, did I say? Myself, though battered, and Morwen, whose eyes were colder than ice, Morwen's sister Rhun, and three younger lads, hardly more than babes. Into chains we were put, and taken out of the burning wreck of our home to a future none could fathom.
I spent most of the journey in darkness.. I could not tell you if we went by path or by rough lands, or what sights we saw. My eyes were turned inward, seeing the sunlight on my mother's face, and mourning their loss in my life, not caring what might happen to me.
The Northmen were rough, thinking nothing of kicking us forward, or dragging us by the heavy chains that shackled our wrists. On the second night, they took Morwen.. and I did not see her again. But I heard her screams, and did so in my dreams for long after. She had been a pretty lass.. with hair as red as the setting sun. I must set down that I felt then.. that I wished they had taken me instead. All that I knew, all that I had been, or hoped to be, was gone, for what is a person without family? It is a hard thing to be alone.
Such were my feelings when to the Northman's camp we came, filthy and bloodied, in a ceaseless fog of exhaustion and grief.
They took us and set us in rude cages, and we saw that we were not alone, but just a small addition to their spoils. I saw one taken out, and used for a Northman's pleasure there in the daylight, and felt in my heart that I had done some terrible thing.. to be so cruelly used. I prayed to the gods with all my strength that I be allowed to once again join my family, and leave this darkness behind me.
Then as I watched, in sickness, and grief, a tall Northman, bloodied helm held high, crossed to the laughing pile over the moaning captive, and took an ax and swung it, and I averted mine eyes, my heart dying within me.
There was that sound again. But my elbow was gripped by Rhun, and up I looked, to see not the captive, but the Northman lie crumpled on the ground liked a felled deer. And mine eyes lifted, as the tall ax wielder doffed the horned helm, and I beheld a fair face beneath it. Stern and cold, as all that race, with palest straw hair, but a woman's features nonetheless, perched above a body as much a warrior's as any.
To my eyes, whose people come of fighter's blood, whose men and women both take the sword, this was not a wondrous thing. But this Northerner's emotionless face spoke of a discipline that our kind, whose passion rules the battle, surely did not know.
Our cage contained a few, pitiful habitants, and one of these I crept to, and held by the hand. Who, asked I, who is that?
"Elevown." Was the answer. "tis her bloody hand that leads them."
Elevown. Mine eyes were drawn to her as though compelled by the gods. I watched as she wiped the gore from her axe off on the man's brecches, and laughed. I shuddered, and now with the wisdom of time I look back, and remember the chill that raced down my back when her eyes lifted, and, with stark arrogance, met mine own.
Here, was the thing that had taken my family from me. That had seen my sisters ravaged, and my brother's spitted like pigs. Had seen my gentle father turned to violence, and my mother taken headless to the ground. This Northerner. This.. Elevown. My heart should have filled with hatred, and the desire to see her taken to pieces.
And yet. Those eyes meeting mine, and something twitched within me. Something new. Something ancient.
Then it was gone, and I only felt the weariness and grief, and the darkness closed over me, taking my pained body into the realms of the gray mists for just a little while.
I dreamed of my mother, her eyes smiling at me. And of my father, who had bounced me on his knee as he told me the legends of our kind.
I said goodbye.
Xena's voice fell silent on the last word, with a quiet huskiness that scraped raw against Gabrielle's senses. She looked up, to see her partner's eyes closed in pain, and put a hand gently on her arm, letting her thumb rub the soft skin. "Hey..."
The warrior opened her eyes, and gazed dully at the fire. "You know, Gabrielle.. maybe just once, I should have put myself in my victim's place."
It was stark, and cold, and reminded her again that Xena had once been a very different person. Gabrielle kept her silence, not knowing anything to say that wouldn't make the situation worse. Because it was true, Xena had done those things, and no measure of her knowing who Xena was now would change that.
A long, almost soundless sigh. "Yeah?"
Gabrielle slipped a hand under the soft fabric of her partner's shift and started tracing a familiar pattern across her belly. "It.. kind of just occurred to me.. you know.. Ardwyn went through.. kind of the same thing Callisto did." She felt the jerk as Xena's body tensed under her hands. "But.. look how different she turned out."
Xena felt the sick roiling that hit her in the gut pause, as the bard's words penetrated her whirling thoughts. Gabrielle's invoking of Callisto's name.. had sent harsh daggers through her. "But..."
"No.. I mean it." Gabrielle gently insisted. "Callisto always insisted you made her.. but you know, Xena... I really don't think that's true." She looked up, and captured those fearful blue eyes intently. "You told me once that people are who they are... remember?"
A long pause. "I.. I remember." Xena admitted. "But..."
The bard pressed a thumb against her ribcage and took a breath. "You told me.. in.. when the Fates.. I mean, when they gave you that choice.. you said you met.. um.. me there. Right?"
"Yeah." Xena whispered.
"So.. you said lots of bad things had happened to me, right?" Gabrielle persisted.
The warrior nodded slowly.
"Would I have been like Callisto?" Now green eyes met hers with a direct honesty that was inherent to Gabrielle.
Xena let out a snort. "Of course not."
"Why?" Came the steady question.
"Well, because you're not.. that.. kind.. " Xena realized what she was saying and fell silent. "Of person." She finished with a sigh, but her lips quirked. Damn.. she got me.
A dark memory surfaced. Callisto.. Cirra... that night by the campfire.
"Do you want to talk about it?" A quiet question, from a young girl asked in all innocence.
Had she wanted to talk about it? Xena would have laughed, if she could have gotten it past the lump in her throat. How had she rationalized it to herself then? Oh.. right.. fire. Wasn't her fault. Damn if she hadn't gotten good at lying to herself , right?
In the darkness of that night, she'd realized the weight of her past, and made the decision to let Gabrielle in on the monster she'd been travelling with. Maybe then.. the girl would just.. go home. Maybe then she'd understand just how futile this little quest was. "It was.. just another village." She'd said, keeping her voice even. And she'd told her, in all it's disgusting glory.
Callisto had wanted revenge.. and Xena had understood that, oh yes. "I don't blame her."
"I do." Had come the answer from that innocent kid, who saw good in.. damn.. everything. "Xena.. this has to stop somewhere..."
"That.. is so hard." Xena's knowing answer. What would I have done, if someone had slaughtered my family in front of me? Oh... gods.. no question.
"You did it." The girl had insisted. "You were infected by hate.. but you changed that.."
Had she? Xena often wondered. Or had she just shoved it down, under the covers where it lurked, waiting. "I saw what I'd become, and was able to turn it around." Damn.. but she hadn't really changed, and she knew it. "But if something were to happen to mother.. or Hercules... " and now her heart had spoken without regard to certain decisions she'd made. "Or you..."
Startled green eyes had lifted to hers, and a hand gripped her shoulder. "No." Now an intensity animated the girl's young face. "No.. you promise me."
Promise? She wanted a promise.. from someone who had killed in the thousands. What stock could she possible put on that? Did she even know what she was asking?
"You promise me.. if anything happens to me.. you won't become a monster." That came with all the force of Gabrielle's considerable will behind it, and to her shock, Xena actually found herself considering the words.
If something happened to her. Xena felt a sick dropping in her gut. It would be my fault. She closed her eyes against the thought, then opened them again reluctantly.
I.. can't promise that. She found herself deciding, so she reached out awkwardly, and circled the girl's shoulders, pulling her head close for an unexpected hug. "Don't you go changing, Gabrielle. I like you just the way you are."
She felt the girl's breath warm on her shoulder, then a pair of gentle fingers were wiping away the tears that had somehow ended up on her cheek. Embarrassed, she shrugged off Gabrielle's hand, then pushed her away with rough affection. "Go get some sleep."
"NO." Gabrielle's grip tightened, and Xena had found herself captured in the intensity of those eyes, which suddenly seemed ..gods.. when had they gotten so vivid? . "You promise me."
And when she'd looked over, meeting Gabrielle's gaze, she'd known that uttering those words would change something, in a very dangerous way. It would break down a wall she'd kept firmly built. And who knew where that might lead? She was sure she didn't want to do that... this girl would tire of this damn escapade soon enough, and.. she wasn't about to risk exposing her sore spots to this kid.
But then she listened in disbelief as her own voice spoke. "I promise."
Damn.. what had she just done? What in the world was going on with her? But it was said, and even now, the kid wouldn't go to bed. No.. she felt the warmth at her back, and the gentle weight of Gabrielle's chin resting on her shoulder as they both gazed pensively into the flames.
Gabrielle had fallen asleep there, gods only knew how, sitting up and all, and Xena somehow hadn't had the heart to wake her up. Instead, she'd picked her up, and stood for a minute, as the sleepy girl had nestled her head against Xena's shoulder. Trusting her completely.
And as she stood there, bathed in the glow of the fire, she'd felt a deep stirring within her, and sensed herself crossing a line she'd sworn against. Helpless to stop it. Helpless to prevent a part of her heart seeping out of her, captured by this innocent child lying so trustingly in her arms. Captured by her own words, and a promise, binding her as surely as she would be bound in Tartarus at her life's end.
"Ok..ok.. you win." Now she admitted to the bard. "Guess I was just feeling sorry for Ardwyn... that was a horrible thing to have to go through." Xena remarked.
"She survived." Was the bard's answer. "But did you notice how she felt when she saw Elevown?" Now she untangled her limbs from Xena's and went to the fire, capturing another apple and grabbing two mugs of mulled ale. "I know exactly what she meant."
Xena put the scroll aside, and let her hands fall onto her thighs as she watched the firelight neatly outline Gabrielle's slim form, turning her shift translucent before the warrior's appreciative eyes. "You do, huh?" She shifted the parchment to the pile on her left, and picked up the next one. "Imagine that."
Gabrielle smiled, as she reseated herself and snuggled back up, handing Xena a mug and a spoonful of apple. "Do you?"
One raised eyebrow answered her. "Yeahhh..." Xena drawled, drawing out the word. "And I had a bump on the back of my head for days to prove it." She took a sip of the ale, and swallowed, then accepted the spoon. "Let's see what's next."
How can one explain what it is like when one's life changes overnight? One day, and I was with my family, in my home, planning for my brother's wedding. The next..
Aye, the next. That morning's waking was hard. My very soul hurt, as I opened my eyes, to see the rude bars before my face, and understand that nothing.. would ever be the same again. Rhun stayed by my side, and we huddled in the back of our prison, watching the Northmen stride here and there about the camp like ranging wolves.
Animals, I thought them, as they no doubt thought us. Covered in rough skins, with broad belts of hide, and carrying their all important horns , both at their belt and on their fair, large heads. Their language was unknown to us, so different than anything I'd heard. But I made effort to listen, and try to ken out a word here, a phrase there, the better to judge their intent towards us.
Faith, I wash I had not. Two sevendays I labored, and finally had enough of their language to glimpse their thoughts. They spoke of selling, and trading, as slaves of our kind were worth high coin in their lands, and I knew, as I struggled to understand their meaning, that we were meant to go with them in their horrible long boats to a distant place.
It was bitter cold, and we suffered greatly from it, the thin gruel they fed us not being enough to fend off the whistling wind that howled through our cages, bringing the stinging salt spray from the Father of waters over us.
Some sickened, and were dragged away. Our cage was in a more sheltered spot than many, though, so we managed to huddle together, and withstand the weather, though many a night I went sleepless in shivering misery.
One such night, as they made ready for travel, I was crouched in the corner of the cage, just watching, when Elevown returned with the hunting party that had left a few days prior. I found my eyes following her, watching that loose limbed walk so like the Dire wolf of our northern forests I thought, perhaps, that the Northmen might take a furred sister to wed.
Did it make me feel better, to think such of her? Perhaps. But I was the one cold, and starveling, and she dressed in warm furs, so which of us was more the beast? I let the darkness fold over my prison, and as the chill took me again I heard footsteps.
Sure things, they were, and closer and closer they crept, until only a thin layer of darkness separated us, in our cage, from the silent watcher without. I felt air move, and looked between the bars.
And was captured, by eyes the color of the storm filled skies that had just left us. Keen, bright things, they studied me close, set in a face that was all angles and planes, surrounded by a wild mane of golden hair
A faint tinkle sounded, the fair chime of tiny swords which swung from her ears, as she tilted her head to gaze at us.
Nay, at me. Look so strange to her, did I? With my dark features, strange, but of an age with her, I kenned, or just less.
I wanted to hate her. The gods are my witness that I did.. Those cold eyes.. staring at me... scouring my skin with their arrogance. Her hand snaked in, and grabbed my hair, twisting it about and forcing me to yield to her rough inspection.
Then the touch was gone, and she was standing, her body blocking the harsh wind for a bare moment. "Ofsi." Her voice was like the ocean, gentle and rolling, and it crashed against my senses "Otambaer."
Pride, she had said. Wild and untamed. Knew us she did, for that, I knew, was as good a set of words to describe the Kelti as any were.
"Rettr." I answered, unable to stop my tongue. Correct.
Teeth flashed, and her rough laugh was heard. "Kelti." She ducked down again, and lanced me with those eyes. "Nafn?"
Giving of a name.. is giving of self, my father told me. This was no friend, but the enemy who had slaughtered my people.
And yet... "Ardwyn." Said I. "Er tha Elevown." Wild and untamed.. perhaps. But we are a learned people, with a history passed from mouth to ear for time beyond counting.
"Ardwyn." The sound transfixed me. Never had my name sounded so strange. "Djarfr."
Glanced down at that, did I, for bold I was not, and wanted no thoughts of that turned towards me. So few words I'd gathered... and words could be more dangerous than swords in the hands of these Northerners.
Footsteps leaving, but I kept me head down and did not watch her go, just sat there in the dark, aware of the shiverings of my companions and the bleak emptiness of my soul.
Footsteps again, and I knew, with a knowledge beyond my understanding that they were hers, though I had heard them now but twice. How was this? No words this time, but a rough bundle hit me in the head, and I jumped, as it fell from my shoulders and tumbled to the ground.
A blanket. And no words.
Gabrielle chuckled softly as the scroll ended, and she fingered it with a look of wry amusement.
"What's so funny?" Xena cocked her head in inquiry, as she yawned, groaning at her body's stiffness.. "Gods.. I gotta get up.." So saying she stood, and rocked her head back and forth, wincing at the sounds of her neck popping. "Well?"
Gabrielle got to her feet and watched as her partner stretched her long arms up and grasped a convenient roof support, curling her hands around it and letting her body hang for a long, steady moment. "Ow." She commented, hearing the vertebra snap into place.
"Yeah." Xena sighed, wincing a bit. "I went a little overboard yesterday.. did some stuff I probably shouldn't have." A little? Did those lazy months come back to haunt me, or what? The warrior let a half grin quirk her lips. What the Hades.. it was worth it.. consider it a fair trade.
"Mmm.. " the bard rumbled in low mutter, as she slipped over and ran her hands down the warrior's body, giving her a gentle massage. "I told you to take it easier, love."
Xena snorted softly. "It's not that bad."
Gabrielle's pale eyebrows rose, as she worked her hands across Xena's tense back. "Oh really?"
The warrior felt her competitive nature rising to the challenge. "Really." She growled, taking a good grip on the roof beam, then lifting her body up, and wrapping her legs around Gabrielle's body, lifting the bard off the ground as well.
Gabrielle grabbed a hold on her thighs to keep her balance, and just shook her head. "Someday.. you know, Xena, someday I'll learn not to do that." She held her breath as her partner steadily lifted both of them by her arms alone, and held them there, swinging gently, while gazing at her with calm assurance. "All right.. all right... I surrender... " The pressure around her waist tightened, and she found herself being drawn up towards her partner, who was now giving her an evil grin.
"Xena.. " She let go her hold, and slid her arms up around Xena's neck and sighed as their lips met for a long instant, as they hung there, suspended. Then they paused, and Xena let her down easily, and dropped her own feet to the ground with a smile. Gabrielle's arms drew her close again, and she took a deep inward breath as she felt her partner's body shift, and the warrior's warm hands found their way along her sides.
Cinnamon. She could taste it on both of them, and the tickly spice brought a smile to the bard's face as she let herself slide into a familiar warmly sensual place. Her fingers stroked their way down Xena's face, sensitive tips feeling the heat under her skin. She could smell the faintest hint of oak, from the soft carvings that had lodged themselves in the soft fabric of the warrior's shirt, mingled with a touch of wood smoke, and the distinctive scent of Xena herself, which Gabrielle swore she could tell in total darkness.
Like she would have to. The bard laughed quietly. Like the warm bond between them wouldn't tell her long before she'd have to resort to her sense of smell. But she could anyway... and it was something she loved to indulge herself in, taking a lungful of the charged air between them as she explored the familiar contours of Xena's body, mapping with her hands curves and lines of it, and recognizing every uneven line that meant some scar, some story written on the soft skin.
Suddenly the thin fabric that separated them was too much, and she wanted nothing but to get closer still. Xena sensed it, and with a low, sensual laugh, she shifted and somehow.. Gabrielle was never really sure exactly... they were on the low couch, and her fingers were unthreading the laces that caught the warrior's shirt at the neck. A tug of fabric, and a waft of warm air was caressing her body moments before she lowered herself down slowly, making contact along the length of both of them, and causing gentle chills to chase themselves up and down her spine.
Gods.. it was times like this, when she felt herself being taken along on a rush that was equal parts passion and tenderness, that she felt their connection most strongly. It was like a force binding them together, matching their rhythms and needs with a gentle certainty that eventually spent itself and left them in a peaceful drift.
Which Gabrielle floated in, half sleeping and half waking for a long while until she finally let her eyes drift open, and fondly regard the fire shadowed profile above her. Xena was in a very light doze, her limbs curled protectively over the bard's body, which made Gabrielle break into a smile, as she cast her memories back to that first day.
It had been, she fully realized, a crazy thing to do. She knew next to nothing about Xena, and what she did know.. oh boy.. was all bad. What had she been thinking?
Oh... that's right. She'd been thinking about how much her leg hurt, on that long walk to the river. It had been a bad morning... a plate, was it? She didn't remember really well. Just.. something... whatever.. and she'd twisted her knee getting up from the floor. It had been a warm day, and she could feel, even now, the scratching feeling of the fabric of her skirt against her thighs as she trudged alongside Lila, listening to her younger sister relate.. what had it been? Some gossip or other.
Oh. Right. They'd said Menelentus had run off with the weaver's wife. Gabrielle hadn't thought so, really... but she'd merely nodded, and kept her eyes on the ground, watching for rough spots so as not to jar her aching knee any further. She remembered thinking, if it were true, then both of them were lucky.
A crackling was the only warning they had, then the clearing was filled with half armored thugs, grinning from gap toothed mouths. They were upwind, and the smell of them... gods.. it sickened her all over again to think about it.
"We can do this one of two ways..." Their leader had said, with a laugh, as he uncoiled his whip.
Slavers. She'd thought, trying to dredge up the proper measure of fear.
But.. somehow.. she just couldn't. What's the worst they could do to me? She recalled musing. Beat me? "Take me." She'd said. "Leave the others." It hadn't seemed particularly brave, at the time.. just... she had just done it, that was all. .
Laughter had been her answer. "We'll take you, and whoever else.. " His dirty fingers had clawed at her, and she struck them away. "We want." That with a snarl, as he swung the whip back for a stroke, and she stiffened, her body freezing at the threat.
His body jerked, as he was pulled off balance.. by a hand grabbing the end of the weapon, and tugging hard.
Gabrielle had glanced, startled, behind him as he took a side step, and she got a look at the person crazy enough to grab the thug's whip.
Even now, she remembered the tingle that ran down her spine, which she took as shock, then. The last thing she'd expected to see was a woman standing there.
So tall.. she had seemed to fill a space far larger than her physical size, dressed only in a rough shift, barefoot and weaponless she stood, and in the very posture of her body was pride, and fearlessness, and a kind of courage that Gabrielle had often imagined in the golden recesses of her imagination.
But had never seen. Until now.
She had an angular face, filled with a wild, feral kind of beauty, and dark, unruly hair that curled around her face, framing a silent, knowing grin.
He called for a knife, and her eyes never flickered, that faint smile never faltered.
When she moved, it was with a smooth power and inevitable strength that took his legs from under him, and rendered him gasping on the leaf littered floor, there on that warm, humid day, with the scent of the river rising around them.
Thugs attacked her, and tried to herd Gabrielle and the villager's away.. but she struggled... not wanting to take her eyes off...
This warrior.. who fought with an abandon.. no... a delight that she had no understanding of. The breath was knocked out of her as a thug picked her up, and slung her over his shoulders, despite her struggling... she never saw what caused him to collapse, but she heard him grunt in pain before she was falling. Desperately, she turned, to see the clearing littered with groaning bodies
And the warrior was straightening up, and turning towards her.
Their eyes met. Gabrielle felt her breathing stop, as she absorbed the contact, from eyes the palest, clearest blue she'd ever seen. It was as though a fist had closed over her heart, and squeezed it... and she felt a rush of.. something... that she had no way of categorizing.
Then it was over, and the warrior was crashing to the ground, felled by an unexpected blow from behind.. and a ring of grinning swordsmen surrounded her. Gabrielle saw a moments.. no more.. uncertainty cross that impassive face, then a faint twitch moved her lips, and the thug leader's downstroke was met by not flesh, but steel.
Gabrielle blinked as the sun reflected off something shiny, then heard an odd, screaming whistle, and saw the thugs start, and drop their weapons as something hit them, and took their edges off. The warrior reached up a lazy hand and caught something, and then the girl saw it was a ring of metal.
So strange.. and so was the laugh that tumbled from the warrior's lips as she twirled her sword and disarmed him.
"You're with Draco."
Gabrielle remembered every syllable. The voice was low, and deep, and held more than a hint of dark cruelty.
"Tell him Xena says hello."
The name fit comfortably inside her hearing, and she jumped as the warrior's blow lifted the thug off his feet and laid him down, gasping at hers.
Then the thugs were gone, and the villagers were huddled nervously, staring at this apparition in their midst with as much fear as they'd given the slavers. Gabrielle had sucked in a breath. Even she had heard of Xena.
Those icy blue eyes flicked over them. "Go on home." She'd gruffly ordered, letting out a silent, but perceptible sigh as she knelt down and started digging something up out of the dirt.
Lila had tugged on her sleeve, but she'd found herself unwilling to budge. "Go on." She told Lila. "I'll be right there." Two steps, and she took them before her courage failed, and dropped to a knee in the muddied leaves at her side. "Thank you." No answer. "Um.. can I help you do that?"
"No thanks." Curtly. "Get outta here."
Gabrielle had felt Lila grab the back of her shirt and pull, and she twisted free, driven on by a determination she hardly understood. "Look.. um.. you just saved us.. from something that was probably really bad.. and um.. we live over the hill there.. uh.. at least let us give you some.. um.. water or something?"
The tanned, muscular arms stopped their motion, and those eyes caught hers again. "There's a whole river right there." A faint twitch of one eyebrow. "I'll be fine, thanks. Go on."
"No.. really.. I'd feel a lot better if you'd just come over with us.. I mean.. so we could say thank you.. uh.. properly.. I mean." Gabrielle persisted, sensing.. something.
An elbow propped on one knee. "Look." Xena had gazed at he severely. "I'm glad I was around, but it's over now. Go home. "
"Gabrielle!" Lila had hissed, furious, grabbing her blouse again, then had frozen, as Xena looked up, and given her a frosty stare. "Come on.. you heard her. She doesnt want to have anything to do with us."
Had it been that one, perverse statement? Gabrielle had always wondered. "Um... listen.. I dont want to bug you or anything.. and she's probably right.. I mean, I'm sure you're very busy, running around..um... doing.. uh.. I .. I mean whatever it is that's you're doing.. but.."
"Well, you know, I mean.. it would just take a few minutes, and I could help you dig this stuff up.. is it yours? Oh.. well.. that's kind of dumb.. of course it's yours.. whose else.. I mean.. all that brass.. and uhh... what?" Gabrielle finally stumbled to a halt, focusing on what the woman had said.
"I said, all right." Xena repeated tonelessly. "If it'll get you to shut up."
"Oh.. uh.. right." She nodded, trying to ignore the silently seething Lila at her back, reaching out a hand to take hold of a piece of metal poking out from the leaves.
Long fingers caught her wrist, and Gabrielle froze. "That's sharp. Don't touch." Startled, she looked back up into those amazing eyes at close distance.
So.. that was Xena, huh? She remembered thinking. Huh.. she's not so bad. In fact.. if she'd wash her face, she'd be kind of pretty. "Uhm... right. Sorry." She swallowed hard, feeling the strength in the fingers that gripped her.
A very brief, flickering smile crossed the warrior's face, so fast Gabrielle had thought she imagined it. "Can I .. uh.. carry something soft?" She gingerly poked the ground with her other hand. "Um... your pillow, or something? No.. you probably dont have one of those, huh?"
This time the smile lasted a touch longer, and her arm was released. "Nope." The warrior dug up a few more things, and tossed them over her arm. "I use rocks."
Gabrielle's brow had creased. "Uh.. really?"
"Yep." Xena had replied, then, unexpectedly, peered up at her over those dark, curved brows with a look of quiet intimidation. "Really."
Gabrielle had stared back at her, caught between nervousness and intrigue.. her good sense was telling her to get the Hades away from this crazy woman, whose reputation scoured the hills around Potadeia like a harsh ice rain. But driving against that was an intense curiosity and..
Curiosity and intrigue won. "You do not." She breathed, watching that still face intently.
The eyebrow quirked, and a tiny, devilish glint appeared in those very blue eyes. "Come on." And Xena had stood, carrying her gear slung over her shoulder. "Gimme a drink, so I can get outta here."
Not without me. Gabrielle chuckled silently, as she let her fingers trail in a slow stroking motion across Xena's ribcage and her eyes studied her partner's sleeping form critically. Not that bad, huh? She bit her lip, eyeing the bruise that colored the warrior's shoulder, inching up the side of her neck. That was a sword going in the wrong direction, she decided, then glanced lower, where several smaller injuries were vivid against Xena's winter paled skin. Well.. Gabrielle sighed to herself ruefully. I got her to take it easy for a couple of darn months.. I should consider that some kind of success, right?
Right. Gabrielle sighed, then put her head back down, jerking a little when she felt a gentle tug on her hair and looking up. "Oh.. sorry.. did I wake you? Didn't mean to." She gave Xena a teasing grin. "You look so cute when you're sleeping."
Xena returned a sardonic look to her. "If you say so." She muttered, and reached out one long arm, snagging a scroll off the top of the pile and pulling it over to study. "Oh.. you'll hate this one." Her lips twitched.
"Yeah? How come?" Gabrielle mumbled, suddenly preoccupied with tasting the inside of Xena's biceps, where she had a particularly ticklish scar.
"Gimme your hand." The warrior replied. "Hey!" She squirmed. "Cut that out."
"Heh." Gabrielle chortled softly. "My revenge for two YEARS of you driving me nuts" She grinned evilly up at Xena "I want you to know I have memorized every single ticklish spot on your whole body."
Xena sighed in mock exasperation, and grabbed her hand, jabbing her wrist with smooth accuracy. "There. Just in case."
"Ugh." Gabrielle grimaced in memory. "Let me guess.... Sailing sailing over the bounding main.. huh?"
A low chuckle answered her. "Yep... and old Ardwyn loved the water just as much as you do, my bard."
Gabrielle snorted softly, and snuggled closer, reveling in the contact of her bare skin against her partner's. "Ok.. go for it." She looked up when Xena didn't start speaking, startled to see a suddenly uncertain look on her partner's face. "Hey?"
"Um." Xena took a breath. "Listen.. I.. I'm sorry if that really drove you nuts that whole time. You.. could have said."
The bard clucked at her. "Hey.. no... you listen. I was... " A breath. "The only person I ever saw you do that to... " She paused. "And.. um.. it made me feel really special." She curled her fingers around her partner's hand, and brought it to her lips. "I knew.. when you did that.. I'd done something right."
Blue eyes glanced back at her with a touch of sheepish embarrassment. "It was.. mm.. a way to get close to you without getting all mushy." Xena admitted reluctantly. "Pretty dumb, huh?" She reached over and grabbed a mug of cooled ale, and sipped it to cover her discomfort.
Gabrielle smiled. "No." Her mouth quirked. "I had a few tricks of my own in that department."
Xena almost choked on the ale. "You did, huh?" She managed, after she swallowed the mouthful. I thought she developed a fondness for riding there after a while. "Imagine that." She put the mug into Gabrielle's hands, and turned her attention to the scroll.
The day dawned clear, on the morning we left my homeland, the Northerners laughing with pleasure to return to their disgusting, rocking, stench filled boats. Do you imagine that I do not like them? Tis true. The motion has always been unpleasant, even on the gentlest of streams for this daughter of the soil, always happier to be on solid ground.
Taken from our cages, and bound together, we were fastened in the bottom of the crafts, and our hands shackled to the long, rough oars that moved the craft over the never-ending waves.
Such misery, I had never known. Oh Lady, I am so weak from my body rebelling against the sea that I can barely stand, and were my arms not bound to the oars, I would slid down to the middens in despair of my life.
Rhun tries to help me, with tiny trickles of water down my throat one night, a sevenday's length into our journey, but my throat is too pained to swallow, and I huddled over my oar, resting my head against the rough, sea scented wood and once again, wished for the long twilight to take me from this place. Lady, I hurt.
And bootsteps ring over us, as the Northerners go about their rough lives, taking us when the fit strikes them, men and women, and using us as though we were cattle for their pleasures. So far, they have shunned me in my misery.. but.. ah, Lady, they have taken little Rhun.
She comes back, and her face is empty. As empty as the dark horizon over the keel of this gods cursed boat. My heart aches for her lost innocence, as she kneels, unable to sit, and rocks silently, tearless.
I reach out to touch her, but she twists from me, her arms about herself in pining agony for her childhood, now gone. He has hurt her, I smell the blood, and her body shakes with the pain. Or perhaps not, as her eyes are as lost as a newborn's, seeing not me, nor the ship around us.
My anger rises helplessly within me, wanting nothing more than to take my age knife, that father carved the handle for on long, firelit nights, and plunge it in him so that he feels her pain also. But that they took from me, along with my freedom, and I am powerless to avenge her innocence, though my heart tells me to her, it would make no difference. She is gone, and the child she was will never return to us.
I will miss her.
A footstep sounds, and a hand grasps her shoulder, and my courage awakens, from some dark spot I know not where. "Rakki." I snarl. Dog. And though my body is strenghless, I strike out, and hit the Northerner in the leg.
The hand drops from Rhun's shoulder, and grabs my chin, twisting my body about with effortless ease, and I am finding ice gray eyes on mine, as storm driven as the skies above us, and wait for my death. Better I than this child, though my heart's sadness tells me the girl would not agree. But into Elevown's eyes I look, and offer up all I have.
Long moments. My breath paints the air with vapor, and mingles with hers. "Orvieti." Her voice tingles the hair on my neck, and I feel the truth in that. I am, truly, crazed, from lack of sleep, and of nurture.. my body is beyond caring about what fate I might meet at her hands. Perhaps she sees that in mine eyes..I know not, but then a movement, and my shackles are loosened, and I am bodily pulled from the oar galley to the creaking front of the vessel.
Where I am shoved, and pinned in place, and close my eyes in sick surrender to her. The spray of the cold water hits me, and I take gulps of the clean, fresh air so different than that in the pits, and still I wait. Still the hand holds me against the wooden planks, until the cold air, and the spray, perhaps, coax my body into relaxing it's rebellion.
I open mine eyes as her hand forces my jaw, and shudder as I feel an unfamiliar pressure against my tongue. A wet coldness explodes inside me... water. I swallow once, twice, again.. my body craves it, and I stand without resistance until I can drink no more.
And still her eyes are on me, with a cold, even gaze that chills my guts and sets my body shivering. Her hand on my shoulder, pushing, sets me down on a rude bench and I huddle there, silently waiting her whim.
"Darae." Her voice is sneering. Fool.
"Ja" I answer, long since past fighting. Ay, I am.. foolish. But Rhun is just a child.. and her misery haunts me like the darkling side of the moon. "of jagr." The words stumble out. Too young.
"Ardwyn.' My name from her Northern lips, and I can hardly believe she remembered it.
"Ja" I answer, on barely a breath. I am so.. Lady, forgive me, I am so tired my will slips from me, and I stand to obey what whim she sets me.
"Benharugha." She snarled. "Da thar." She walked a step, then back, and pushed something into my hands. I felt her fingers fold over mine for the barest instant, then she was gone, and I was alone on the fingertip of this gods spawned prison, looking out into the endless dark of the sea.
My hands fell open, and my eyes found the bundle she'd given me. Biscuits, and the scent of them rising stirred my senses for the first time since we'd left my homeland. I took a nibble as I gazed out into the night, and to my surprise, it stayed within me.
I slept there, my head resting against the harsh wood, until the gray mists of morning woke me, to the stench of the ship, and the sharp, copper smell of blood. I looked behind, and mine eyes were struck by the sight of Northerner, strapped to the mainsail, his back a bloody map and his body writhing in pain.
Behind him stood Elevown, her face a quiet mask, her hand surely gripping a blood covered leather stick. He keened in agony, and she smiled, and my blood ran cold within me. What manner of thing had he done, to be treated such? I wondered.
Her eyes look over, and find mine, and I shudder. That smile is colder than the northering wind that sweeps over us, and chills me to desperate anguish.
"Rakki." Came the simple, single word, her eyes holding mine, and that chilling smile made me understand that this was Rhun's defiler. My heart raged, between pity and satisfaction, as I bowed my head in silence.
Gabrielle pushed the hair out of her eyes, and gazed at her partner, a worried crease appearing in the skin of her forehead. The warrior had stopped reading, and gotten untangled, then slipped back into her shift and walked to the window to stare out of it in silence.
The bard set the scroll down on the finished pile, and walked over to the fire, setting a pot of water on before she crossed behind the small desk and ended up by Xena's side. "Hey." She put a gentle hand on the warrior's back, startled to feel the tension knotted there. "You..want to talk about it?"
No answer. "Listen.. if these things are gonna.. bring up bad stuff for you... Xena, I don't need to hear them." The bard's voice was quiet, but firm, as she studied the expression on her partner's face. "I'll burn them." She turned, but was held by a sudden, warm, grip on her shoulder, and turned back. "I mean it."
Xena sighed, and shifted her hold to a gentle caress against the bard's cheek. "I .. sorry. I just felt bad for that kid." She explained slowly. "That's.. not something you like to see happen to anyone."
Like it did to you? Gabrielle found the sudden thought etching itself into her mind, and she almost closed her eyes against it. Did it? "I know..I.. think about how close I've come sometimes..." She took a breath. "Xena?"
Shadowed blue eyes flicked to hers. "Yeah?"
The question trembled on her lips, and she searched Xena's face intently, feeling the light motion of the warrior's thumb against the side of her face. Close as they were, still she hesitated, knowing this delved into parts of Xena's past she never spoke of. "What happened?" Not a question, exactly.. and she saw the broad shoulders relax and a soft sigh escaped her.
"It... " Xena started to reply, then shrugged. "Usual story, Gabrielle... I was a kid, I trusted someone I shouldn't have... " Her eyes hardened. "He ended up regretting it more than I did."
Gabrielle swallowed, and let her forehead fall forward, to rest against Xena's chest. "I'm so sorry." She whispered, wrapping her arms around her partner. "I wish I'd have been there for you."
She couldnt see the expression on Xena's face, as the warrior tucked her head beneath her chin.. couldnt see the anguish of memory there, the pain that contracted her features, or the effort it took to push the terrors of another time back down. "Wish you were too." Came the soft answer. "I coulda used a friend."
They stood quietly for a long moment, then Xena took a deep breath. "Thanks." She murmured. "I needed that."
Gabrielle let out a soundless sigh, and sniffled, her hand moving in a slow, comforting circle on Xena's back. "Anytime." She paused. "I dont.. I can't imagine... "
"No." Xena said, with quiet forcefulness. "I dont' want you to imagine that." She laced her fingers behind the bard's neck and met her eyes. "Not as long as I live." A quiet addition. "At least.. I knew.. Perdicus was gentle."
A flicker of vague consternation crossed Gabrielle's face. "Ah.. well, yes.. he.. " She let out a sigh. "Xena.. we... I mean.. well, we didn't."
Xena's dark head cocked to one side, and her brow creased. "Gabrielle.. you.. "
"Well, I mean.. we meant to.. we tried..but.." She shook her head. "The party.. he was kind of drunk.. we..kind of laughed about it. " She fell silent for a time. "We.. thought we'd have plenty of time." A sadly wistful note entered her voice. "And even.. when we were.. trying.. it.. there wasn't.. " A long pause. "It was nice, but... "
"Gabrielle." Xena managed to reply, her face twitching in consternation. "You don't meant to tell me..." That I was... oh... Hades...
Green eyes slid up and met hers, with gentle irony. "I didnt want you to be self conscious about it." She brushed Xena's cheek with the backs of her fingers. "But yeah... and I'm glad." She gave Xena a smile. "I couldn't have asked for a gentler, more wonderful teacher."
A soft, pained laugh escaped from the warrior's lips. "Damn." She sighed. "I never even considered the possibility." And her mind drifted back to another time, another reality.
"You're crazy" Lyceus hissed. "Bringing her back here! What were you thinking of, Xena?"
Xena had glared at him, as she searched her mother's things. "So.. you think I should have left her there?" Fabric went flying. "Friends dont' do that, Lyceus."
"She's not your friend." Her brother had gripped her arm with intent strength. "She's a slave, Xena.. dont' lose sight of that, all right?" Then he was gone, leaving her to the pile of clothes, the gentle herb scent rising to her senses and almost choking her with memories. At last, her fingers fell on the dress she was looking for. She lifted it, and gazed at the outline, mentally comparing it to the form of the girl in the next room. Satisfied, she nodded, and draped it over an arm.
She'd come in behind Gabrielle, and had a moment to study the tense, nervous body before the girl turned and backed, watching her with suspicious eyes. She remembered the whip scars Gabrielle had shown her, and wondered how many more left unseen were on her. "You're.. about the same size as my mother was." She'd gazed into those cold eyes, trying to ignore the wistful loneliness stealing over her. "Here."
Hands took it from her. "It's beautiful." Then, with cold intent. "Why are you doing this? Because I look like your friend?"
Xena had paused, and sighed. "Because you are my friend." So odd, for her to be the one offering. "I guess I'll let you change." She'd turned, and stopped at the girl's words.
"What for?" Gabrielle's voice had held worldly sarcasm. "You'll get to see it soon enough.. I'm not stupid enough to think that's not why I'm here."
Xena had swung around, and stared at her. "What are you talking about?" A step forward, stopping when the girl stepped backwards away from her. "You're not here for anything."
A snort. "Please.. don't lie. Or didn't you know that's what slaves are for?" Gabrielle's face had twisted into a bitter smile. "I have lots... of experience." An ironic look crossed her face. "Do you?"
The warrior had studied her face sadly, and sat down, resting her elbows on her knees. "Gabrielle.. no one here is going to hurt you, or make you do anything you don't want to do." She muttered softly.
"Oh yeah?" The girl crouched down and gazed into Xena's eyes, an unpleasant smile on her face. "Just who's going to stop them?"
Xena had let her dark side surface, seeing by the girl's sudden stiffening that she'd seen it. "I am." She responded with soft menace.
They breathed each other's air for a long moment. "You're not.. just some village innkeeper, are you?" Gabrielle had finally said, confused and uncertain. "I mean.. the world out there is full of dirty bastards and here you are.. telling me you'll protect me." She moved a little closer. "Why should I believe you?"
"Do you?" Xena asked.
Silence settled over them, as the warrior watched layers of fear and distrust slowly peel themselves from the girl's eyes.
"Yes." Gabrielle finally whispered, as, at last, a fearful, aching hope edged it's way onto her face. "It's probably a stupid thing to do.. but.." Suddenly something melted in those mist green eyes. "I can't help it."
She wavered, and Xena grabbed her, as they both ended up on the floor, the warrior with the girl's body cradled in her arms. "Easy.. easy.. I got you." She'd whispered softly, as the girl fought to recover her composure. "It's gonna be all right, Gabrielle. I promise you."
"I.. I dont' even know if my family... " Gabrielle choked out. "They.. my sister was with me when the slavers caught us.. she died last year."
Xena had closed her eyes, and just hugged the girl. "I'm sorry."
Gabrielle sniffled shakily, and rubbed her eyes. "S'not your fault." She freed herself, and sat back with a tired sigh. "Not like you could have stopped it."
How many lives were stacked up against hers, Xena pondered, as she left Gabrielle to change. Lyceus alive, yes, and countless thousands of others that had died at her hands. Surely that was more important than one slave girl, no matter how Xena felt about her? Wasn't it?
A sound at the doorway made her turn, half listening to Lyceus' grumbles, and her eyes softened at the sight of Gabrielle, standing uncertainly in the doorway, her fingers plucking hesitantly at the fabric which outlined her slim body. The soft sunlight crept into the back room of the inn, and caught glinting reflections off her fiery golden hair, and made her green eyes take on a light of their own.
Lyceus was instantly attentive, his prejudices overwhelmed by Gabrielle's gentle beauty, and he graciously seated her, his eyes roving over her shyly. She noticed, and gave him a tentative smile, but her eyes slipped to Xena's silent form, and stayed there.
It felt.. for just a moment, almost familiar, as a glimmering of the person this Gabrielle would have been came peeking through.
I can change her life here. Xena had realized. Despite what she's been through.. I can make a difference for her.. the same difference she made for me in that other life. I owe her that. I owe her..
"Xena?" Gabrielle's voice trickled down her hearing, and she blinked, as the bard's face came in to focus. "Are you all right?"
She studied the bard's face, the open, trusting gentleness so different than the one in her memory, and sighed. No.. this is what she owed Gabrielle. A life without knowing that kind of horror. "Yeah, I'm fine.. just thinking."
"Mm." Gabrielle tucked a hand around her arm and tugged. "C'mere and think by the fire. It's drafty by that window.
Xena allowed herself to be led away from the chill surface, reaching out and picking up her knife and a block of half-carved wood as they moved past the table. "Yes mom." She gave the bard a teasing glance as she collapsed onto the hearth rug, leaning back against the warm surface of the hearth and examining her work.
Gabrielle snorted softly. "As if." She grabbed two mugs and set them down on the floor near her partner, then crossed to the table near the bed and picked up a small jar, returning to where Xena was sitting and dropping down next to her. "C'mere, you klutz."
One dark eyebrow arched sharply. "Excuse me?"
The bard rolled her eyes, dipping her fingers in lineament, and tugging the neck down on Xena's shift. "I swear, Xena.. you put more marks on yourself than any of your opponents ever do." She smoothed the spicy smelling stuff on the long bruise on her partner' neck.
"Hmph." The warrior growled. "I should hope so." She gave Gabrielle a sideways look. "Although given how rusty I am, it's a miracle it wasn't a lot worse." She let out an aggrieved sigh, which was echoed by Ares, who had trotted over and curled himself up next to her. "Who asked you?" She muttered at the wolf, who muttered back.
"Oh.. yeah.. you always say that." Gabrielle commented, moving Xena's head to one side so she could get at the back of her neck. "Yah.. yah.. yah.. rusty this, rusty that, then you go do some impossible stunt and look disgusted at yourself. "
Xena couldnt help it.. she started chuckling.. "I'm not kidding.. I managed to flip myself into a tree twice.. you woulda laughed your head off." She protested wryly, wincing as Gabrielle's gentle fingers found a particularly sore spot. She closed her eyes, and waited for the bard to finish, enjoying the closeness, and the soft whispering sounds of Gabrielle's hands against her skin. The smell of the liniment rose teasingly to her, along with the mingled scents of their bodies, and the wood Xena held in her relaxed grip. "Mmmmm..." The warrior sighed happily, as the bard completed her task, then snuggled into place alongside her, reaching over and pouring the gently boiling water of the herbs she'd put in the cups.
"So." Gabrielle commented, drizzling honey into the steeping tea and stirring it idly. "Whatcha carving?" She handed Xena her cup, and pulled the next scroll over, propping it against her raised knee, and scowling at the words. I can learn this.. I have to. Some of this stuff is hitting her too damn deep..
"Ares." Xena replied absently, peering over her shoulder at the scroll. "Hey!" She protested, when the bard drew it further away. "Don't you want me to read that?"
Gabrielle turned and gave her a direct look. "Not if it's going to bother you." The bard's voice was deadly serous. "I mean it."
This is ridiculous. Xena scowled silently, then her lips quirked into a reluctant smile. "I'll be all right, Gabrielle." She met the bard's eyes. "Really. They're just stories." Those mossy eyes continued to regard her deeply, and she sighed. "Listen.. sometimes dredging all that stuff up helps me to put it a little more to rest, OK?"
Gabrielle finally gave a little nod, and relaxed against her, moving the scroll back where they both could read it. "I could have told you that." She commented quietly. 'You keep everything so bottled up.. it scares me sometimes."
"Survival tactic." Her partner muttered, taking a deep swallow of tea. "Vicious warlords dont tend to be the gentle, sensitive types, Gabrielle."
The bard slid a hand under the soft fabric of her partner's shift and gave her belly a gentle rub. "It's a good act.. you keep practicing, ok, honey?"
An outraged glare. "Get that scroll over here, bard." Xena growled, "Before my reputation gets ruined any worse." She glanced down at Ares, who had lifted his head, and was watching with interest. "What're you lookin at?"
"Roo." The wolf yodeled softly. "Grrrrr.." He laid his head down on her thigh, and gazed adoringly at her. "Arrrgghhrrrooo.."
Xena gave him a disgusted look, then glanced at Gabrielle, only to find the bard gazing at her with an identical expression. "Aw... c'mon you two!"
The bard grinned impishly, and tucked her head back against Xena's warm shoulder. She kept her hand where it was, though, enjoying the feel of Xena's breathing under her slowly moving touch.
The warrior let out a mock sigh, and turned her attention to the scroll.
A moon and more at sea.. and I think my body has finally become used to the motion.. though many nights I sit quiet up in the front of the boat, feeling the harsh wind cut through me.
Why she does this, I do not know. Perhaps she wishes to maintain some value in a slave.. surely a live one sells better.. but for that, why me? All of us are in poor shape, and little Rhun.. I fear for her.. she neither eats nor sleeps willingly.. and her eyes have taken on a gray mist. She goes, and comes, but is not really there, and sometimes I feel it is for the best.
The crew keeps clear of her, though, and of me, though certainly their eyes wander over us, minding me of the crawling of vile bugs against my flesh. At least, the barn isn't with child... the only emotion I have seen in her since is her tears when she cycled.
This night I sit curled up near the bow, my cheek resting against the weather roughened wood and watch Elevown's silent profile as she sits across from me, her hands working a bit of ivory into the shape of a seagull. The night wind blows the mane of fair hair off her face, and I reflect again on how young she is, to be master of such a ship as this.
Her father is a chieftain of their kind, I ken from the small speech I gathered from the others, and she his eldest daughter, and this day we met up with a hand more longboats. Much shouting and wild oathtaking joined the meeting, and my ears caught tiny chips of truth.. we are headed not for their home, but for a new land, which they hope to conquer.
The boats which course alongside us are filled with Northern warriors, and helmed by her blood, her brothers, all big, wild men with coarse voices and whipping, pale beards. Barrel chested and seeming like giants beside her, and yet..
Her strength overcomes them, and her silent presence rules their thoughts, though the eldest breden of them claims leadership. His eyes find hers as he speaks, looking for her nod of yes, and no as he lays out their plan. Agreements made, and then separate they went, each to his own tiny command, and she to hers.
And now she sits, silent as the moon, and regards the cresting waves as her hands craft a thing as beautiful as she is.
Can I be thinking that? This is a barbarian.. who caused the deaths of my family. Mine eyes should find her in revulsion.
And yet.. I do not. Perhaps it is because she took vengeance for Rhun's defilement.. I know not.. but I find myself watching her with furtive eyes as she roams the boat, its master unquestioned.
Now her eyes drift over and before she can catch me watching, I shut tight my eyes. Feeling her cool gaze hit me through closed eyelids that quiver, and knowing my breathing to catch.
Her eyes rest on me a long, silent time, and the gray twilight almost overtakes me before I hear her stand, and her footsteps take her closer, rocking unevenly with the motion of the boat until she stands by my side, still in silence.
The soft furs she wears give off their musky scent, and too I can smell the tang of her sword, and the salt on her skin. The Northmen stink.. but she does not, and I have seen her at her daily bath, her long form diving cleanly over the sides of the boat, catching the trailing line and drifting in it's cold wake to return scoured, and ruddy from the harsh salt water.
Silence, save the creak of the ropes, and the endless sloshing crash of the waves against the boat's side. The a touch of her fingertip against my shoulder, and I look up, playing that I have just woken.
"Blasa." She says, pointing to the dark clouds which had covered the stars. "Haski.. midr." A storm comes, and she warns me to take cover, and that warming I heed well, having been caught in one storm already, and not liking it a bit.
The wind shifts, and shifts again, and the sails flap uneasily above us. The Northmen rush about the ship, and take the sheets down, fastening them with strong oaths as their wild hair is thrown about them. We huddle in the bottom of the boat, the oars pulled in about us as the helmsman turns the boat into the wind, and the waves begin to rise.
Lady, I have never felt a storm so wild, so evil in its fierce intent. The boat spins, it seems, and rain lashes me, as I tied myself off to the benches, holding Rhun tight in my arms for her safety. Bits of the rigging fly past us, slapping me with harsh, wetness, and the roar of the wind takes my breath away.
The ship heels, and a wave crashes in, filling my mouth with dank, and salty spray. Rhun screams, as I stand and turn her away from the flood. Another wave, and to my horror, she is torn from me. I pull myself free of my ropes, and lunge after her.
I catch her hand, and she turns to look at me, her eyes wild, as her salt wet hand slowly slips from mine.
And then she is gone, into the cold darkness.
For a long moment, I hear not the wind, see not the rain driving against me. My mind's eye fashions only her sad, lost face, and I cannot help but to think that perhaps, it is a better thing to let the Lady take her, and give her back her innocence.
Fair Journey, Rhun... we will speak again, at its end, I hope.
The ship shuddered then, as the waves took it one way, and the wind blew it another. I was thrown against the side, and felt the hard caulking scrape raw against my back. The water came over the side again, picking me up and tossing me across the bottom of the boat, and I hung on to the benches, as the bodies of my fellow slaves rolled over me, dashing the breath from my lungs.
A moment's hesitant silence, then the boat screamed, as the waves shook it asunder, and I felt the water close over me, as my grip loosened, and I, too, prepared to make the long journey, sparing a wistful thought of seeing my family again, far sooner than I had hoped.
The boat collapsed on top of me, driving me down, deep under the waves, where a strange, sibilant rumbling filled my senses, leaving behind the fierce howling of the wind. I held by breath, as the chill invaded my body and a numbness began to spread over my limbs
A tug on my shirt almost unfelt, as the pressure began to build in my chest, then another, stronger pull and wood scraped over my head, as a wave slammed into my body with stunning force.
Air, so full of rain it was almost unbreathable and I choked on it, my hands thrashing about and finding a bit of wood planking from off the boat, to which I clung to as a drowned rat clings to a stalk of grass.
I know not how long I lay there, only that some time after, it was quiet, and I was alone in the middle of a cold, dark sea.
What slow torture was this? I escaped the storm, only to die of the coldness, as I could already feel my body succumbing to it. I raised my head, a little, and could see nothing by the faint starlight, could hear nothing save the gentle lap of the waves, now mild and calm, against my poor little raft.
Or was that.. no. Yes.
Far off, so distant I swayed between thinking I imagined it, and truly hearing.. the rhythmic shuffle of surf, curling it's liquid embrace across sand, and rock, and earth.
What is it, in us, that drives us towards life? Life is a hard thing, full of pain, and sorrow, and loss, and yet... we cling to it just as I clung to my bit of wood, loathe to leave it. Slowly, I nudge my body towards the sound, the movement bringing a tiny measure of warmth to my limbs.
How long did I thus go? The Lady only knows.. I do not. It seemed like days.. though the soft gray of the coming dawn was just tinting the sky as my body started to give out, the icy cold taking my strength at last, and I just floated.
A nudge, and I managed to open one, salt encrusted eye, blinking to clear it. My throat was so dry it ached, and drawing breath hurt. I stared into the faint mist, just barely making out something solid ahead of me.
A body, and somehow I found in my body the energy to reach out, and touch the water sodden fabric. My fingers tighten, and the body rolls towards me, senseless.
I can scarcely believe the evidence of mine eyes, as the grudging light reveals to me the pale features, drawn and bloody, of the Northern leader who destroyed my family.
I am shamed to say.. I was glad to see her, the faintest movement of her chest causing a flood of relief in me that I scarcely understood. At least.. I wasn't alone. I closed my eyes, and hung on, feeling the warmth of her body against mine as we drifted nearer and nearer to the sound of the waves, and, at last, felt rough sand scrape against my legs as we came to an alien shore.
Continued in Part 2
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