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Lady Jane Gray
Violence/Discomfort Disclaimer: Though neither Gabrielle nor Xena are injured in this story, there's a fair amount of physical violence. None of it is graphic or gratuitous, but if violence disturbs or offends you, choose another story.
Season Three Disclaimer: Gabrielle's line, "I dreamed we had a daughter. We named her Hope" was written in spring1997. It no longer sounds as I'd intended. The story collides with season three in a few other places; I decided to let the story stand, unchanged, as it appeared before season three.
Sexual Content Disclaimer: This story depicts a consensual, committed relationship between Xena and Gabrielle. Some sexual acts are depicted. Though none of it is graphic or gratuitous, if lesbian sexuality disturbs or offends you, choose another story.
Subtlety Disclaimer: This story pays tribute to the world of fan fiction. In particular, homage is paid to the following works/individuals; no violation of copyright is intended: Lord Bowler; "Riddle of the Sphinx"; "Plink"; "These Things Happen"; "Assassin, Oracle, Bard"; "Murder at the Academy of Performing Bards"; "All Through The Night"; "Gabrielle and Xena: Dead By Dawn"; "Unforgiven"; Lady Delirium; Tom Simpson; Corinne Simpson. If fanfic disturbs or offends you, choose another website.
Copyright Warning: The characters Xena, Gabrielle, et. al. are all the intellectual property of MCA Universal. Athena copyright Olympian Productions. Inclusion here is not intended to violate their copyrights. The story may not be copied or reproduced, in any form, without this copyright warning.
Cliff's Notes: This is the conclusion of a story arc: Isle/Wrath of Achilles/Higher Wisdom/White Warrior/Commitment/High Priestess. It was the fifth story I wrote; parts of it were posted beginning March 1997. I recommend the arc be read: Higher Wisdom- Commitment - High Priestess. I'd personally recommend skipping Isle/Wrath of Achilles/White Warrior.
Dedication: To Kate: for the unselfish encouragement, criticism, lectures on non-linear narrative structures and the genre criticism. Without you, there wouldn't be.
Xena stretches, the back of her arms brushing morning dew. . . . something warm next to her body: Gabrielle, spooned up against her. She smiles, pulls the robe over Gabrielle, rises. Stretching, she picks up her scabbard, quietly leaves camp. Though she'd never admit it to Gabrielle, palaces had advantages. Like running water.
Later, rinsing her mouth by the stream: the contrast of cool mountain runoff, warm air against her. Closing her eyes, exhilaration rising in her body: summer, on the road, with Gabrielle.
She glances around . . . there: mint. To bring her a smile, when Gabrielle tasted it on their morning kiss.
Something . . . the ghost of a dream. A walk in the hills; tired, she rides on her father's back. Later, sitting in his lap, her mother spills out a basket of herbs, flowers. As she looks at the pretty colors, smells each one, her mother, very serious, names them. Something important. She strains to remember . . . . . becomes aware of someone standing behind her. Not Gabrielle. No hesitation to betray her, Xena turns and leaps.
And lies, hands around throat, on top of a young woman in a saffron tunic.
"Hi, Xena," Athena smiles brightly: "Good seeing you again too. It's OK about the tunic; it only took two virgins four years to weave it."
"Stop appearing behind me."
"Let go of my throat."
"Somehow, I just know this isn't as friendly as it looks."
"Gabrielle!" Simultaneously. As Xena rolls off Athena, Gabrielle unfolds her arms, reaches a hand down to Athena, hugs her full body. "Mmm, haven't seen you in a while. How's young love?"
"Happy. Iros started self-defense lessons for the kids. I think she's trying to live up to Xena's reputation. 'Course, that's a mixed thing in Amphipolis. Elatos looks all better; she helps out at the inn. Xena, your mom says come home soon: everyone wants to meet Gabrielle. She says the young men want to see . . ."
"Athena?" Xena, who discretely rid herself of the mint in her mouth, now leans back on two arms, looks at the two, arms still around each others waists. "Couldn't she just write?"
"Ah, well, we met at the wedding, kind of became friends, you know, and I don't mind . . . ."
"So the goddess of wisdom relays village gossip. Things slow on Olympus?"
"Oh, ah, . . . right. Almost forgot. I need your help."
"Let's hear it."
"We'll be headed to the Panathenaic festival. We need to stop at Olympus and Thebes. We need . . . ."
Gabrielle steps away, interrupts "Olympus? Why don't you just go?"
"Because *I* don't need to get there. I need you two there, to pick up Kara."
"Kara?" Turning towards Xena, "Wasn't she your first lover?" But Xena seems to be avoiding her look. Picks up her scabbard, half-draws the sword, sheathes it. Finally, looks at Athena: "When do we leave?"
Gabrielle, open mouthed, stares at Xena, glances at Athena, then, unbelieving, back at Xena. "What!" Turning, "Athena, go away somewhere. The campsite, anywhere." Then, back to Xena: "We have to talk. Now."
As Athena vanishes, Gabrielle, hands on hips, confronts Xena. "In case you forgot, we're partners. We make decisions together. Got it?"
Xena, angry, her face blank, breathes, controlling herself. After a few seconds, still tight-lipped, she nods, and Gabrielle reaches a hand to her.
"Another thing. I didn't even get a chance to tell you I love you. Or get a morning kiss."
Standing, Xena smiles slightly; with one arm, gathers Gabrielle to her. "Rinse your mouth out, first." But Gabrielle, on tip-toes, leaning her weight against Xena, reaches up for a quick kiss: "Mmmm, smells nice. For me?" Relaxing, her head resting on Xena's chest, "By the way. Your back is covered with dead leaves."
Hand in hand, they follow the river, Gabrielle with a secret smile, Xena serious. "Gabrielle. I have to go with her."
"We don't owe her anything."
"Helping people is why I'm here. Remember what you told Hades."
"Foo. Athena isn't people."
"For one night, which I don't even remember. I don't think that should count."
"You chose her. Makes her family by me."
"Family? Oh, really? Hmmm. Are we settling down? I know a great little island."
By the time they return to camp, Argo is saddled, Athena sits astride Athanike, impatient. "Right. I forgot to mention. It's a hurry-up kind of thing. We need to go."
Gabrielle rides, cheek against Xena's back, occasionally picking off a bit of dead leaf. They keep a fast pace, through increasingly rocky scrub, towards the foothills of Olympus. Xena calls back to Athena, "Let's hear details, Athena."
Pulling her mount alongside Argo, Athena gives the impression of a maiden aunt, smiling on favorite nieces. "You two make a pretty couple. Aren't you glad I got you together?"
"Xena, do you have this feeling that there's something the goddess isn't telling us?"
"More than one."
"I give up. Yes, some things I'm not saying. It isn't pretty.
Every generation, I choose one young woman to be my high priestess. There's nothing more important: she's my voice, visible, every day. To remind mortals of my will. She'll be presented at the end of the great procession of the Panathenaic festival. She'll wear my tunic, the sacred peplos. It takes the virgins of the city four years just to weave it." Fingering her tunic, "A lot like this one, you tore this morning."
"But that's a great story. I can imagine it. A young girl in a small town. She's heard of the procession, of course. . . "
"Gabrielle, please. I've found the young woman in Thebes. She even wants to be a priestess. Now, I want you to escort her to Athens."
"Escort? We're escorts?"
"Gabrielle, I'm not done. Someone is defiling my temples. Then they take the priestesses and cut their throats. When the blood has stopped flowing, they cut . . ."
"Stop! Athena. I . . . I'm sorry."
"Who's doing this?"
"The other reason I need your help: I don't know. The pattern of killings suggest one person. Right now, he strikes at random, but centered around Athens."
"So they're searching. You think, for the high priestess. But they don't know who it is, yet. So they're just killing. And when you find the high priestess, she'll be in danger. That's why you want us." Xena shudders.
"Yes. This is why I want you."
"Is Kara in danger?"
"Might be, Gabrielle. I warned all the temples; Olympus should be safe from one madman. But the sooner Kara is with us, the safer she'll be."
"I don't get that. We could make better time skipping Kara, Olympus and going straight for Thebes."
"Athena. Stop." Xena holds up her hand; as the horses pull up together, Xena turns her head to Gabrielle. "See that tree up ahead? On the cliff?"
While they've talked, the road has climbed, narrowed; it now passes between two high cliffs. Halfway up, a small tree juts out, roots in the cliff, branches reaching to the sky.
"Yeah. I can do that." Gabrielle takes the chakram from Xena's side, dismounts.
"Spin. Hit, bounce off the other cliff, and come back." Gabrielle nods, takes a breath. Swinging, underhand, she tosses, flicks her wrist.
The chakram flattens itself, flies true, and hits the tree at its root, not quite cutting it, deflects off the rock, hits the opposite side, and heads straight back to Gabrielle.
Clunk. She opens her eyes again, sees Xena holding the chakram. "Nice toss. You're getting the hang of it."
"I wish I could catch it."
Xena steps Argo back, touches Gabrielle on the shoulder. "You're doing fine. Next time, try it with your eyes open."
"You two want to stop for some archery practice?"
Gabrielle takes her staff from the saddlebag, assembles it. "Athena. Take a look ahead. A close look." In the distance, five men move away from nooks, crevices in the sides of the cliffs. Back, to the end of the pass. "Good old chakram."
"See? Like I said: why I wanted you two together."
Gabrielle walks behind, alert, as the three head through the pass. Xena slows her pace, and Gabrielle picks up the conversation.
"You want to explain about Kara?"
And then they're safely through the pass. A small group of men stand at the side of the road. Staffs, slings, daggers. One man, tall, thin, with a leather cap leans on a sword, point in the dirt.
"Hello, boys. How's business?"
"Not bad, Xena. Paying toll?"
"Not this time." Gabrielle, walking backwards, continues to cover them.
When they've gone a few hundred feet, Gabrielle remounts, but the pace is slow, tricky, going down the side of the mountain. Athena glances about, impatient. "When you get to the bottom, there's a fork in the road. There's a small temple at Dios, I want to stop and warn the priestess. It's almost on our way."
The temple is just visible in the forest, off the main road to Dios. About as big as four houses put together, white stucco walls and red-painted wooden roof. Filtered forest light illumines the entry. The three dismount, walk up cautiously.
"It's been a sacred site for centuries. They only got around to building a real temple in the last few years. The priestess is part time. Xena, let's see if she's in. Gabrielle, guard the entrance."
Gabrielle, slightly annoyed at being left out, says nothing. Her back to the temple, she glances at shadows in the forest. The sound of a child singing, nearby . . . when Xena stumbles down the steps, coughing, doubled over.
"Xena. What?" Xena stands at the edge of the clearing, her cough turned to an empty retching. As Xena bends over, Gabrielle runs her hands over her: no injuries. Xena's eyes water as she straightens, tries to regain control of her body, bends over again. Athena, expressionless, strides out of the temple. As Gabrielle holds Xena from behind, Athena kneels in front, holds her head. "Xena. Look at me. Xena."
Like an injured animal, Xena moves out of control; her eyes darting, searching. Athena's tone changes, softer, but commanding. "Look at me. My eyes. Breathe." Xena continues to shudder, but her head is still, eyes focused on Athena. "Good. Gabrielle, sit her down."
Sitting across from each other on the forest floor, Athena takes Xena's head between her palms, stares into her eyes.
They sit. Gabrielle loses track of the time; eventually Xena closes her eyes, quickly reopens them. "Callisto. No-one else could be so . . . "
"Depraved. But I talked to Hades. Callisto is right where she's supposed to be."
"I don't trust Hades. Too much goes on, he doesn't know."
"I saw her myself. Xena, you won't like this. I . . . listened to Callisto's thoughts. There's no mind left inside her body. Either the pain or the guilt drove her insane. I could barely hear the mind of a very frightened child."
Xena looks at Gabrielle, Athena. Back. "You can't torture a little girl."
"Yes. Hades knows. Can you be sure Callisto's personality will never come back?"
"Does she get a second chance?"
"Let it go, Xena. Worry about the living. About Kara. Can you travel?"
The smell of smoke: a reminder. Athena doesn't even look back, as flames appear along the roof of the temple. "A woman who trusted me died here. It won't be sacred again. Ever."
They reach the temple of Athena on Olympus at midday. Athena leaves them together as she searches for Kara. The two appear at the entrance of the temple, walk down the steps, arms linked.
Kara is nothing like what Gabrielle thought: she'd expected a warrior, someone . . . someone just like Xena.
Instead, Kara is tall, slender; walking with Athena, she moves with precision and grace, as though her steps had been planned from eternity.
And then Gabrielle feels Xena's hand on her back, hears her whisper. She nods, and they walk forward, together, to greet Kara.
Events wash over Gabrielle, dreamlike. She sees Kara's eyes: strikingly deep, like Athena's, but with a slight slant to them. She feels Kara's touch, taking her hands in welcome. A light kiss on her cheek, an exotic smell.
And then . . . Xena smiles at Kara, her face a mask of excitement. Walks into her arms, merging their bodies in a hug. Lost in each other's eyes, they exclude her. She steps back, once. Twice.
"You two have a lot to talk about. I'll . . . take a walk. Yeah. I've never seen Olympus." Turning, she walks quickly away. Xena breaks the hug, starts to follow, but Athena stops her.
Gabrielle wanders through Olympus, building to building, finally coming to a simple temple, the oldest on the mountain. Tall, graceful, the roof supported by marble columns, open to the light, the air.
The columns cast shadows, and a small pool of water takes light, reflects it, plays it along the walls. An altar. The entire temple had been built around this altar, a natural outcrop of black marble, veined with white. Gabrielle runs her fingers along the cool surface, polished by the hands of thousands of supplicants; she smells the centuries around her, her senses absorbed in the temple. Finally, she loosens the golden labrys from her neck, places it on the altar. Gold glinting on black. Kneeling, she prays:
Gabrielle jumps up: "You!"
Kara nods. "I hope Xena hears that someday. Meanwhile . . " She reaches around Gabrielle, picks up the labrys. "Keep this. I'm not after your girlfriend."
"Are you still in love with her?"
Instead of answering, Kara slips past Gabrielle's glare, sits on the edge of the reflecting pool. Her face composed, she beckons Gabrielle to sit beside her. Hesitating, Gabrielle stands, caught.
"Is that really the question, Gabrielle?"
"Will she leave me?"
The silence of the wind, through the temple eaves.
"Does she really love me?"
"You spend every waking hour with her. You sleep next to her at night. When you make love, you see into her soul. Gabrielle, if you don't know these things, how could I?"
"Yes. That's real. Come here." Kara holds her, and slowly, Gabrielle relaxes. At first all she can feel is the burning of her face, the tears that want to come, the weight in her chest. And a silly thing: all she can think of is Kara's exotic, spicy scent. Her heartbeat.
Kara takes Gabrielle's hand, brushes it against her own cheek. "There. That's real. Not things in your head. If you want to know Xena, talk with her. Or make love with her. But Gabrielle: stay with things that are real."
They sit together for a few minutes, in the quiet of the temple. "Peaceful."
"They'll be wondering about us." Kara disentangles herself, stands, but Gabrielle stops her. "I never thought . . . you would be the one I could talk with. Thank you."
"No. Thank you for sharing your real self with me." Kara takes her again in her arms, but this time, the embrace is theirs. And. "Around Athena? Nothing happens by accident."
Riding arrangements change, as they head down Olympus, with Gabrielle and Kara together. Athena's instructions are to "follow the river to Larissa. There's a safe place for us to stay the night." Other than that, awkward silence; Xena seems put out by the rapport between her two loves.
The rocky slopes of Olympus gradually change to meadow, and they stop along a stream, letting the horses graze.
"Hey, Athena. I just thought of something."
"Yes, Gabrielle." Patient, amused.
"If they're after this new high priestess, why not Kara?"
"Kara isn't a high priestess. This generation has none. This is a generation of warriors."
"I'm sorry, Kara. I didn't . . . "
"It's alright, Gabrielle. The task, the mission, Athena has given me is to train the new high priestess. We have very different roles, and I've never aspired to hers. I want to heal people in trouble."
"Just like Xena."
Xena sits next to Athena, quietly, listening to the interchange. She picks a small herb --- thyme, takes several tiny leaves, chews.
"Yes. Xe . . . " Kara stops for a moment. Measuring her loss? "Xena and I are still much alike. Perhaps why we argued so much, when we were lovers."
Athena's voice, commanding: "Kara. That's enough. Let's get moving."
The temple at Larissa is secure, the priestesses safe, but Athena leads them past the city, up a small hill. A single building, a fortress, dominates the hill and the city. They stop some two hundred feet before the walls, and Athena vanishes. A few minutes later, she reappears, but now clearly the goddess Pallas Athena, Spear-Wielder, with leather body-armor, helmet, spear and shield. "I went ahead a little. Kind of announced us."
"I can imagine."
Athena smiles at Gabrielle, continues. "The guards will let us through; after that, no-one enters. My . . . ah, . . . worshipers left food, but we'll be alone in the castle. It should be very safe."
The fortress is surrounded by fifteen-foot walls; a three-story stone castle looms in the twilight. Xena stops, checking angles, places to climb, weaknesses. "Who's the host?"
"The tyrant of Larissa? Nice friends."
"Xena, I need a safe place. This is the best I can do."
"Then let's go in. It's getting dark."
The doors are thick oak planks, eight feet high, reinforced with iron. Once inside, Athena insists Xena let down the bolt -- a massive log, thicker than her thigh, slides into place. "Must be well loved."
"Let's just say he has a reputation. I suppose you want me to supply the light."
The four look around: the only windows are narrow slits, high up the castle wall, admitting scant light. Athena takes a candle, lights it, passes it to Gabrielle. The small circle of light makes them aware of how massive the fortress is. At the entrance, twin staircases rejoin in a second-story balcony; beneath, blackness welcomes them. Underneath the balcony, the gleam of bronze: weapons mounted high on the wall, perhaps trophies from the hunt. Or massacres.
"This is great, Athena. Perfect for a young couple." Gabrielle turns full circle. "If I were designing this, the banquet hall would be there." She points into the darkness. "And servants entrances there and there. Kitchens!" Gabrielle, bearing the light, plunges ahead.
"Gabrielle!" But Xena's call is too late, and they have no choice but to follow. The stone entryway had resounded with their steps; now, they hear, feel and smell hard-packed earth. The candle barely illumines stone walls lined with shelves, row after row of containers; set in the floor, giant two-handled storage jars. Gabrielle stops, reads a wax seal. "Wine. Anyone thirsty?"
Eventually the storage rooms end, and they come out into a larger open space. Flagstone floors, an enormous arched fireplace, and in front of it a table. And in the shadows, the hint of row upon row of table. "Likes to party, right?" Peering into containers, tasting here and there, Gabrielle eventually gives up. "If they left us dinner, I can't find it. Athena?"
The goddess, barely visible in the candlelight, shrugs. "The old tyrant is nothing if not a gentleman; he knows the laws of hospitality. Maybe in the rooms?"
Gabrielle takes one last look around, before handing the candle to Xena. "Your turn."
"You don't know that. But I bet you can get back faster."
Xena, grinning to herself in the dark, "You mean find dinner faster."
"Honestly, Xena. Don't you think of anything besides food?"
"This way to the banquet hall. Then straight out."
The hall itself seems to be as tall as the castle, though in the declining light they see almost nothing. Window slits, high up one end, show traces of moonlight. "Other direction."
The twin staircases have now disappeared in the gloom; Gabrielle navigates by running her hand along the wall. Rough, uncut stone, chilly and damp, more like a fortress than palace. "You think we're safe enough? Why not just lock us in the dungeon?"
Xena's voice, "I have a bad feeling about this. Four women. Alone."
"Three women, one god. The guards wouldn't dare." Pause. "You might be right. I'll stop in later, shake some lightning. Put the fear of Zeus in 'em."
Athena halts them at the top of the landing. "I've never been up here, but women's quarters should be off left." Gesturing into the emptiness. Gabrielle, coming up behind her, peers out from under her arm. "What do the laws of hospitality say about Lord Bowler's rooms? I could use a nice bed."
They head right; a trace of light from one doorway. Cautious, Xena pushes it open . . .
"Yes!" Gabrielle runs, jumps into a room-filling bed. Directly across, a fireplace stocked with wood, and to one side, a line of tables bearing food. Candles give warm light and delicate fragrance to the room; on either side of the bed, charcoal glows in bronze tripod braziers. "Bridal suite!"
Athena, Xena glance at each other. "Why don't you two take this room. Kara, come with me. We'll be down the hall."
Lying in the middle of the bed, Gabrielle moves her hands over the coverlet. "This is the softest fabric I've ever felt. Warm, too. Makes me think of lying on you."
"Don't get too comfortable."
"Hey! What's that mean?"
"Like I said. The guards worry me."
"Oh, foo. Isn't like you." Picking dried dates from a wide-brimmed bowl, Gabrielle inspects the room as though she were thinking about rebuilding at Samothrike. The bowl itself, red with black painting, shows a banquet scene, women together. And along the outside, a geometric design: concentric circles, staring at them like so many eyes.
The stone of the walls has been covered in plaster and painted in light blue with a simple geometric design; the doors carved with a design, repeated in the handle: the letter digamma, with a bar sinister through it. In back of the bed, an intricate parquet of red cedars and white oak; above the fireplace, a tapestry, showing three women bathing together. "I bet I know what this room was used for."
"Don't even think about it."
As she unfolds a towel from a wooden shelf of linens, holds it against her face: "Alright. Remember, you brought it up. Why not?"
"Dead things need to stay dead."
"Xena! That's horrible! Isn't she 'family'?"
Xena, who had been taking off her greaves, stops. The candlelight, or the reddish glow of the charcoal, emphasize the dark shadows of her face. "Cold in here. Help me start a fire."
They find tongs on the massive carved mantelpiece; Gabrielle arranges kindling while Xena brings a glowing coal. Watching sparks drop from the coal, Gabrielle notices the floor tile, patterned into a mosaic. Then the pattern resolves: three women, interlocked in a highly geometric design. Here, in the private room of the lord of the castle, the effect is disquieting.
"So. What did you and Kara talk about?"
Again taken by surprise, Gabrielle looks into the flames. "Honestly? I asked if she was still in love with you."
"She said . . . she said it wasn't the right question."
Xena laughs, a genuine smile on her lips, freeing the tension between them. Kneeling behind Gabrielle, she puts her arms around the younger woman's chest, and Gabrielle rests back against her. With her cheek buried in Gabrielle's fine hair, Xena closes her eyes, breathes. "Welcome to Kara's world. She takes her priestess role very seriously."
"She's really into the 'yes, goddess' thing."
"Changed since I knew her. I wonder . . " her voice grows distant.
Gabrielle whispers. "She told me to ask you the same thing."
"I don't need to. Xena? The floor's cold . . ."
Muted, but distinct: the sound of something falling, breaking. Inside the castle. Instantly, Xena is at the door. "It's started. Gabrielle. Bolt the door after me. Don't let anyone through. Even if they say they're a guard. Especially if they say they're guards." Detaching the chakram, "Use this if you have to." Tosses it to Gabrielle, who plucks it out of the air. "You're getting better." Smiles warmly, then is gone.
Xena navigates the darkness of the castle. The first time through, her senses had mapped it: counting paces, listening to echoes, feeling the texture of walls, smelling the earthiness of the storerooms, oiled wood in the banquet hall. Now she moves there without hesitation, listens. The sound of breathing. Her eyes adjust, pick out a figure in the moonlight. The two stand, across a table, tense, reading each others shadowed face.
"I knew you'd come."
"Athena loosed your chain?"
"She's checking temples, see if they're safe. I'm more worried, why you're angry."
"Are you trying to come between me and Gabrielle?"
A tinge of irony, "Is that really the question?"
"Kara. Be human, just once. For me?"
"I was. Just once."
Xena reaches across the table, to grab Kara by the wrist, but she easily dodges.
"You regret us?"
"Xe . . . Xe. You don't know."
"This is so romantic. Old lovers meet again, by moonlight."
"Athena!" In the corner of the room, a soft glow illumines her. She walks carefully through the maze of tables, takes Kara's arm: "Get to your room. Xena, stay here; I want to talk with you."
Gabrielle lies, restless, on top of the sheets, staring at the tapestry. Somehow, she'd talked with both Xena and Kara, without learning what either felt. Smiling: you had to admire two people, so good at hiding themselves. With Xena, she was still learning; they were still refining the truths they could share. Refining: something pure. And an image: Xena, molten . . .
Startled by a knock, she yelps out, "Yes?" before even thinking. No response: she picks up her staff, bends, to listen at the door. "Xena?"
"Yes": muffled woman's voice. Breathing relief, Gabrielle pulls at the bronze door handles: "Kara!"
"Please. I have to warn you." Kara slides in through the part-opened door, stands close to her.
"Is Xena safe?"
Placing her hand on Gabrielle's arm: "She's talking with Athena. Gabrielle, Athena isn't a safe person."
Gabrielle, momentarily speechless, steps back once, then again, until she sits at the edge of the bed. "Not safe?" As Kara steps into the room, kneels before her, takes her hands.
"Athena has her own plans. Without much worry for what happens to mortals, along the way."
"But . . she brought Xena to me."
"And took her away from me. Have you thought why? Doesn't it worry you, the goddess of wisdom is so concerned about your love life?"
"What . . why? Why did Athena take her away from you?"
"I ruined her little plans. If I were you, I'd think about what she'll do when you cross her."
Xena stands in the corridor opposite the suite, body pressed into an alcove in the castle wall. It smells damp and earthy, reminding her of a crypt. Light from an open doorway: she hears Kara, then Gabrielle. Restraining herself: waits. Kara emerges, and she follows.
"You've been crying."
"No. Yes. It doesn't matter. Why are you here?"
"I need someone to talk with. Looks like, so do you." Sitting on the edge of the bed, Athena takes her hand. Gentle, warm Athena. Always there for her.
"Why would you need someone?" Gabrielle instinctively pulls back her hand.
"Maybe those five young women who were murdered in my temples. You know, I feel things too."
"Don't forget number six."
"Gabrielle: There is no number six. There is not going to be."
She stands, looks angrily at the goddess. "You're lying, Athena. Number six died tonight, a few minutes ago. It's on your face; I smell the blood. The murderer is following us, isn't he? And we'll take him straight to the new priestess. Dare to deny it." Gabrielle, spitting in her anger, hovers near the goddess . . .
"No, you're right. That's why I wanted . . ."
"Why you wanted Xena and me to be lovers? To be a team, pulling for you? Are we your prize-bred oxen, Athena?"
"What's the other part?"
"For the other part . . . you need to understand politics. On Olympus."
The sound of pottery breaking, nearby; a scream: "Xena!" Grabbing her staff, Gabrielle rushes to the door. A shout . . . left, a room . . .
Kara and Xena, facing each other. Kara moves like a huntress, circling, closing in, her face contorted. Xena steps back warily; Gabrielle notices a cut, bruise on Xena's face. She takes in tables of food overturned, an olive at her own foot . . . and Kara rushes Xena.
She steps aside, but Kara knows her body, anticipates the move. Then she's on her, arm around waist, falling together. Xena's back shatters a small table, sends dishes falling, shattered; falling with her, Kara pins Xena to the floor, raises a hand . . . Gabrielle's staff comes down on her back, head. A moment of surprise, before she falls forward, unconscious, on top of Xena.
"Xena! You alright?" Kneeling beside her, she pulls Kara half off Xena, shifts the body away.
"Gabrielle. I was trying to not hurt her."
"Yeah." After helping to lift Kara onto the bed, she back-of-hand touches Xena's cut cheek. "I wasn't worried about her."
Athena moves from the doorway to the bed, placing her hand on the forehead of the fallen priestess, gently brushing away a lock of hair. "Xena, Gabrielle. Maybe you two would do me a favor. Stay away from Kara? Just go to your room, lock the door, and find something else to do besides bashing my priestess."
Gabrielle opens her mouth to protest, sees Xena's look, and follows her back to their bedroom.
"Gabrielle, I'm really not in the mood for this." Irritable, Xena lies face down on the bed, stripped to her chemise, with Gabrielle kneeling beside her. Each touch seems to hurt her.
"You have to deal with it sometime. Mmm. Bruises. No cuts. Turn over; good. No broken ribs? I want to wash that cut. This isn't going to get any easier to talk about, by waiting." Taking a soft towel, she dips it in water, gently washes Xena's cheek. "What were you doing in Kara's room?"
"Kara came to me because Athena sent her. To train me."
"To be the high priestess? That sure didn't work."
Xena nods, swallows. "Gabrielle, I know it doesn't make sense. But yes."
"And that's why Athena said this generation was all warriors."
"Yes. When I became a warlord, I failed her. And Kara left."
"So you went to Kara's room to ask forgiveness."
Silent, Xena looks away from her, to the fire they'd built.
"What happened, tonight. It's built on lies, secrets and silence. Xena, we promised more than that."
As the silence continues, she takes away the cloth, bowl. After a few minutes, "Deal with it now, warrior princess. I'll only get angrier with you."
"I went to her room. To ask if . . . Athena chose her as my lover."
"Of course. Your wife is waiting in bed for you. And you go to your old girlfriend to ask if she loves you. It makes perfect sense." Gabrielle takes a trembling breath. She moves back to the bed, all the while looking at Xena, who only lies silent, staring ahead.
"Not dawn. Go back to sleep."
Propped up on elbows, she sees Xena alone, sitting in front of a fire no more than a glow of embers. Gabrielle brings a blanket with her, rests her head on Xena's shoulder. They sit silently, until Xena puts her hand around Gabrielle's waist, begins to sing softly. The sound of her voice, warmth of her body. . . . Gabrielle weaves sleep in with sense, memory.
Inside the castle there is no sign of time or season; at Xena's best guess for dawn, they lift the heavy bolt holding fast the doors, re-enter the world. The stablemaster is already out, walking the courtyard with two golden-haired dogs, coats brushed. "Fine dogs": Xena holds her hands out for them to smell. On one knee, she moves her hand along a forehead, scratches.
"That they are. And fine watchdogs, too. They've a fancy for you; not many they'll let do that."
The dogs follow, frisky, as she and Gabrielle walk to the stables. Argo stands alone; Athanike and her saddle gone. "Middle of night, the dogs woke me. There they were, saddling that horse. Said you'd know where to find them."
They ride, silent. The road to Thebes first follows the broad flat river basin, framed on either side by gentle hills. Soon enough they leave the river, cut through scrubby hills. Yellow and white meadow flowers; bare limestone ledges peek out like a skeleton. The uneven terrain frustrates any attempt to set a pace, forces her attention on the road.
Gabrielle's hurt, unreachable. Athena's senseless plan to train her as priestess. Kara's violent anger.
Worse: the feel of her own body, again lying underneath Kara. As though a dried, pressed petal could blossom: its fruit, memory.
Touch and conflict: their bodies, alike, different, with different language, different meanings.
What it was: Kara's firemoon tongue, and all at once a subtle fire racing inside her skin. Standing at the door of the heaven she thought out of reach: Kara, triumphant, around her the Pleiades broken loose every constellation flinging out fiery threads and Kara could distinguish all, knew her way among them.
What it wasn't: Kara's body become home, her hand become direction. Pleading 'let me' but she wouldn't. They fought about what it meant to touch, not touch, in a country that had no language.
Xe. Kara's syllable defined her, a glyph. As indecipherable as Kara's own body. What it wasn't: love.
Three hours of silence and hard riding. She feels warmth against her back, and Gabrielle's hold on her waist tensing, releasing, as she falls in and out of sleep. Gabrielle's trust abided.
"Uh-huh. Stop a minute?"
They find a stretch of riverbank a few hundred feet from the road; firm grassy ground leading into dense forest. Gabrielle returns, singing quietly to herself. Stops.
"A blanket in the woods. Really?" as though amused at Xena's presumption. Unsure exactly how seductive she can manage to be, old leather riding clothes and all, Xena sits with one knee raised, the other flat, a heel underneath. Smiling, her body an offer to communicate. Gabrielle kneels, kisses her lightly on the lips. "Well. We did lose the goddess. And Kara." She leans forward for another kiss, as Xena leans back, pulls Gabrielle on top of her.
The sweetness of her laughter; lips upturned: generous, delicate mouth.
Arteries glowing in Gabrielle's clasp; sliding against her hand, tumbling over: red-gold hair on green crushed grass, earth.
She opens wet like summer rain; she comes red wine and honey.
Double-axes Amazon Gabrielle lies weight on Xena asking with touch and tongue, their private speech, while there is still language. The terrifying world she made with Gabrielle knowing when to touch to withhold. To touch: gives her the rose with unfurled petals.
Gabrielle, sleeping, lies spread across Xena's body: head on shoulder, hair over breast, leg twined with hers. The familiarity, comfort taken in her body become home.
A cool breeze, and a blade of grass blows against her cheek. Mysteries of touch and sensuality. . . . she'd learned to feel her body through Kara's discipline of it. The first weeks she was in awe; wondering if Athena had chosen to visit, disguised as a teenager.
They worked out every morning in the empty field in back of the inn; grass worn to bare earth. Dust and heat: a morning of basic movement exercises. Sweating, covered in dust, Kara declares a break and Xena fetches a heavy stoneware jug of cool water; laughing, Kara pours half of it over Xena. "Hey!" She grabs, Kara lifts the jug out of reach. Again . . . where it just was. Reaches around Kara's waist, pulls her close, takes the jug.
Her giggle, her touch cross weeks of distance.
"Xe, you're ready for the next level." It was just a test.
She shifts, waking Gabrielle.
"Just an excuse for an extra nap." Instead of smiling, Gabrielle moves over, again on top, directly in Xena's line of vision. "I dreamed we had a daughter." Contemplative; shifts her weight, takes a lock of Xena's hair, lets it flow through her fingers. "Your hair, my eyes. We called her Hope."
"I'm not much of a mother."
She rolls over, to look wherever Xena's gaze had been fixed. A tree limb? "It would be a second chance." Nods her head. "We'll talk."
"I don't like the sound of that."
"How's a bath sound?"
Gabrielle tucks her blouse into loose riding shorts, tight at waist but flared at mid-thigh. In back of her, Xena places a hand on one hip, rests it there a moment, until Gabrielle covers it with her own, looks back at her.
"If we ride hard, we can make Alos, on the coast. By nightfall."
"Then let's ride."
As they move out of the river valley, back through the hills, Gabrielle wonders why she'd ever traded the sensuality of riding with Xena for having her own horse. Of course: it was before she could even remember.
Smiling: she could honestly say she'd been in love with Xena longer than she remembered.
Hugging closer to Xena: her hair was still wet but it didn't matter; she didn't want to miss anything.
She'd thought she was connected with her own body, but being with Xena was like . . . like waking up. Embarrassed, briefly, remembering how she'd said Perdicus taught her about love.
Well, alright. He was sweet, and gentle, considerate . . . but she sure hadn't been pushed to her limits exhausted.
Uh-oh. Briefly wondering if Xena could maybe somehow sense when she was excited. Nah. But she was in a rare affectionate mood.
Rare. That was the important word here.
"You've been really sweet today."
"Was it because of Kara?"
Stiffening slightly, "No. Us."
Before, she would have missed that . . .
"Uh, huh." Gabrielle pulls away.
"Gabrielle, you're the one who wanted Kara to be part of our family."
"That was before you lied to me. 'Three women, alone!' You went downstairs to meet Kara." Pause. "I'm not stupid."
"I didn't want you to be hurt."
"Yeah, well that sure worked." Taking a deep breath, dropping the subject.
Xena was still big on protecting. She didn't know what it felt like, probably. As if she hadn't told her ten times. Maybe if she felt it? Well maybe not with her. She seemed pretty much in charge with Marcus too. Kara? Hard to imagine Kara letting anyone hold her, protect her.
She was a lot like Xena. Kara was saying they argued all the time. That made sense; they really weren't right for each other. Imagine Kara falling asleep after sex. Right.
So how'd they ever make it in the first place? Oh, yeah: Athena set them up. Hearing that must have hurt.
"I'm sorry I got mad about Kara. It must have hurt, about Athena and all."
"Don't worry. Kara and I never had what we have."
Wow. She was in a sweet mood. If she'd . . . oh. She had. That's what Kara said: she and Xena were only together cuz of Athena.
"Athena got us together, like you and Kara."
Suddenly, she has Xena's full attention. She reins in Argo, turns. Face gone blank, Xena looks at her. Imposing, unreadable herself, she scans Gabrielle's face. "Athena had *nothing* to do with it." Why was Xena so angry? "I've been in love with you a long time. Before you married . . . him."
Put off, she reaches to touch Xena's arm; hesitates . . . moves her finger slowly along the metal tracery of Xena's armor: "Ephiny said . . . "
Startled, "She told you about us?" Recovering quickly: "Gabrielle. . . I never meant you to know."
Drops her hand. "Don't apologize. I made love with Perdicus."
"You were in love with him. And . . . I was in love with you."
"You never told me."
"You would have left; I couldn't stand that." Xena pulls the reins, and Argo moves forward, throwing her back, briefly, away from Xena.
That was intense. Had Xena ever said 'in love' before? Cheek against back, she lets the feeling wash over her. Xena really truly was in love with her.
Ephiny sure must have been angry. No wonder she was always so . . . cold.
"She must have really hated me. If I was Ephiny, I'd never visit Samothrike."
"I asked her. To watch over things: Stepissos worried me."
Very quietly, "Oh."
There you go again. She wasn't that helpless. Someday she'd really tell Xena how she felt. Make her understand.
"Gabrielle. Can you stop thinking about our relationship? Just for a while?"
"Sure. Right. I'm on it."
So let's see, where was she. Right. Xena should understand. She used to be ruler of Samothrace. She could take care of herself.
Used to be. All she was now was Xena's 'friend'. If anyone even accepted that much. Xena was right, tho: the blood-feud would keep them off of Samothrace for all their lives.
Why did it have to be? She missed Mentor, talking about the affairs of the island, over tea, every Thursday. Sometimes they rode together and visited the crafthalls in the city. Iros and Elatos took over the self-defense class; they all lunched in the courtyard, good weather.
Then Xena came back. It wasn't a community anymore. It was home.
They walked the land, the city, every morning; she introduced her to all the artisans. They'd stop with a master craftswoman or man, share tea, talk. Lady Xena and Lady Gabrielle.
Hugging Xena harder: there wasn't any good reason to be crying.
Every afternoon Xena went for a ride, alone, while she and Elatos worked on their poetry. When she came back, fresh meadow flowers by the bed.
How could they have lost it all?
"Do you miss our home? As much as I do?"
"No. Home is where you are."
When they first met . . all she wanted was, share just a little of Xena's life. Now . . . it was more. But . . .
Why wasn't it enough?
"Gabrielle? Remember what you told Hades: I belong in the world. This is where I need to be."
Right. Xena had her destiny. Funny . . . what was Gabrielle's destiny? Xena was always the leader. It was like Meloutos; she had an older sister. And if there was something Meloutos wanted, her sister had been there, done that, felt it, thought about it, first. It drove Meloutos crazy.
That's exactly what it was like, being around Xena. She was always the older one.
Of course, that's why she'd been attracted to her. She'd been everywhere and knew everything and she was strong . . .
All that, and having her love.
It wasn't enough: she'd outgrown Xena. And it wasn't even Xena's fault.
"I forgot to tell you this morning. I love you."
And hoped it would still be true tomorrow.
You reach Alos only from the land side, it sprawls over a steep hill; walled, a citadel overlooking the ocean and the countryside. The path up is slow, as Xena and Gabrielle are forced to turn their path back in on itself several times. Marked with small rocks, the path is wide enough for a single horse; looking up, the walls of Alos loom.
"What?" Xena turns slightly in the saddle.
"I said, that was a definite cramp." And, as Xena turns to look at her, she adds "You can stop looking so proud of yourself. It would have come anyway."
"Fine. Well. Do you want to stop?"
"Sure. With everyone in Alos watching. I'll just stop at Athena's temple, before we look for an inn."
Completing the ascent, they find no landside gate; the path leads them out a narrow ledge overlooking the sea. The low sun highlights choppy waves; looking down, in the distance three cormorants skim the water, searching. The massive gate to the town presents not even an opening; Xena bangs on it with the hilt of her sword. "Guards!"
Gabrielle looks up at row upon row of carefully laid stone . . . there; about fifteen feet above ground, a small opening. A face . . .
"What business in Alos?"
"Travelers. To spend the night." Xena seems accustomed to it; reflecting, Gabrielle can't recall ever being challenged.
"Hmm. Where from? South?"
"Pretty country. My brother in law's from there; wait while I get him."
"Xena! How long is this gonna take?"
"I don't know. The town was built to defend. And he seemed worried."
They wait. A second face, above them:
"Amphipolis, is it? Father raise sheep?"
"No. My mother owns an inn."
"The inn . . . I know you." Turns . . . "We're a peaceful town. We don't want your kind here."
Xena turns back to Gabrielle: "Let me handle this." Front. "All we want is to stay the night. I'll leave my sword with you."
More wait. "Fine. Set it down; stay on your mount."
Xena complies; the door slides leftwards . . and a short, heavy man in simple woven cloth stands in front of them, holding a spear. Gabrielle suppresses a giggle . . .
"What's going on?"
"You wouldn't have heard. The warlord Kylos is on the move; took Aulis last week. We could be next. And, if you're thinking of spying on us, you think again. Go straight to the inn. And be here at dawn tomorrow; you're leaving."
"I suppose we ought to thank you for letting us in at all." Gabrielle can no longer contain herself.
"Just be quiet, young one. You don't know who you're riding with."
"Gabrielle." Then: "We'll stop at the temple of Athena, first. Which way?"
"Straight to the main square, turn right. My daughter's the priestess. She'll know if you've been." He starts to walk away, stops suddenly, turns. "Wait. Today's childrens day at the temple. Lissos told me this morning." Gesturing at Xena. "I don't want you anywhere near them."
Quickly, Gabrielle swings off Argo; shoulders squared, strides towards him. He raises the spear; Gabrielle feints left; the spear follows . . and she's on him, hand around throat, shoving him back against the wall. Wriggling under her grasp, face just beginning to turn red, he shakes the spear once . . . drops it, to bring both hands to his neck. Gabrielle's grasp only tightens as she looks coldly in his eyes.
"You half-dinar, pathetic excuse for a man. Who do you think you are, to tell me where I can go?" Lifting him slightly above ground . . . against the rough stone of the wall. When he begins to gasp, Gabrielle releases him, and he simply collapses to the ground. Picking up his spear, she breaks it over her knee, throws the pieces on him. Turns to Xena. In a casual voice,
"OK. I'm ready now."
"Gabrielle . . ." slowly, with a touch of anger.
"Xena? Did you notice . . . he treated me like I didn't exist?"
Xena, frowning slightly, nods. "Gabrielle: I'm really disappointed in you, if this is about getting attention. Start carrying a sword on your back and you'll get all the attention you want."
Gabrielle shrugs. Inconsequentially.
The town is run down; instead of a paved courtyard, caked mud from the last rain. Buildings in disrepair . . . even Athena's temple, which should have been the focus of civic pride, has weeds growing on the marble steps.
Gabrielle dismounts; looks in her saddlebag for a moment; palms something discretely and heads up the steps.
"Gabrielle . . . ."
"What?! I'm in a hurry."
Xena sighs . . . "Remember? A psychopath?"
"Here?" Turns away. Dismissively, "I don't think so." Walks up another step . . as Xena tosses the chakram to her.
"Xena, how am I going to explain . . . ."
A scream . . . and an unearthly laugh. She jumps the remaining steps, entering the temple at full run. A woman on the floor, blood covering her neck; a white tunic disappearing down a hallway . . she looses the chakram, then kneels before the bloodied priestess. Xena follows a moment later; wordless, Gabrielle points down the hall. And watches, horrified, as, with each pulse, blood oozes out a cut artery.
Moving the head of the dying woman to her lap, Gabrielle looks helplessly around. Emptiness, shadows. The blood begins to soak into her clothes, still warm. The priestess opens her eyes a moment . . .
"Athena? . . . . so beautiful. The glow . . . "
Placing her menstrual sponge against the wound: cut off the blood supply. Laughing, hysterically, under her breath. No more than thirty seconds.
"Am I dying, Athena?"
"No. You're going to be fine." Some well of cheerfulness inside her. "Xena's going to come back and you're going to be fine. Try not to move."
Gabrielle looks around: yellowed marble, cobwebbed statues. Athena, pensive, seems sinister in the fading daylight. Where was Xena?
Running through the back hallway of the temple; passes her chakram on the stone floor, then out the back. A courtyard: loses seconds examining shadows. There: stables, the only exit. Leaping down, the courtyard overgrown with tall weeds, the stable doorposts unpainted, worn: disused. Then she's through: rotted hay, scattered. This way, out on a fountain square. A group of children, holding hands; women with bright-painted vases. There: a saffron tunic, disappearing. Pushing her way through, she follows a back alley. Apartments, three stories: row upon row of doorways. Empty. Brought up short, she breathes out. And begins to search each one.
Xena walks slowly back to the temple. Drawing stares from women she'd pushed out of her way, she keeps her gaze fixed ahead. In the empty stable, she stops, bends over. A small, silver-handled dagger. With blood along the blade. So close.
In the temple, picks up her chakram, looks, strides forward.
"Gabrielle. Why is my horse in Athena's temple?"
But Gabrielle only looks at her. Kneeling, Xena feels the priestesses pulse; nods, then moves her head from Gabrielle's lap, places it on the floor. Lifting aside her poultice, Xena inspects the severed artery: sloppily but tightly sewn with black thread. Replaces the poultice.
"Will she live?"
"Xena." Gabrielle draws a breath, trembles slightly, swallows. "I don't know. She lost a lot of blood."
"Right. Most of it on you."
Gabrielle actually smiles, before her eyes begin to tear. Breathing deeply, regularly: "Did you get him?"
But before Xena can answer, a footstep . . a young woman. "Great goddess! What have you done to Lissos?"
Gabrielle, startled, pulls back, but Xena looks up. "Saved her life."
"What? What's happened? What did you do to my sister?"
She kneels, and Gabrielle places a hand on her arm, but the young woman shakes it off. "Someone attacked her. We stopped them. Look:" she lifts the poultice again, shows her the stitches.
"Who would attack her." Looking at Xena. "My father told me about you. How. . . . " She throws herself on Xena, who catches her hands at the wrists, stops her short. Looking the young woman in the eyes, "Gabrielle saved your sister's life. If you want Lissos to stay alive, you'll listen to her." And shoves her forward, so that she falls, kneeling, before Gabrielle.
"Someone attacked her with a knife, not deep enough to kill. But she'll bleed to death if you don't keep the stitches closed."
The young woman nods, shakily, and Gabrielle continues. ""If her head moves too much, she'll tear the stitches. And you need to change the poultice. Did your mother teach you herbs?"
The girl nods, still silent, but hanging on Gabrielle's every word. "I gave her valerian to make her sleep, walnut leaves to bind the wound, and beech to cleanse it. She's lost a lot of blood. When she wakes, she'll have a fever. Give her a strong broth with comfrey and barberry -- agrimony if you have it. If you aren't sure what to do, come see . . . us. We'll be at the inn." Gabrielle looks briefly at Xena, who purses her lips. "Do you understand?"
She looks between them, smiles unsteadily, nods. Gabrielle continues: "Now, you need to get your mother and your friends, to take her home. We'll be here."
The girl rises, quickly leaves. Gabrielle looks again at Xena kneeling beside her.
"Xena, I don't want to have to do that again."
"Gabrielle?" Pauses, but whatever she wanted to say won't come. "Let's get out of here. Find an inn."
"Shouldn't we wait?"
"I'm getting really tired of the people of Alos."
Gabrielle turns again to Lissos, feels her pulse, forehead. Closes her eyes in silent prayer; stands.
As they leave the temple, she pauses a second. "So what do you think?"
"I was impressed."
"Really?" She smiles, then, as Xena leads Argo carefully down the steps: "I think I'll walk. Argo would never forgive me."
While Xena negotiates their room, Gabrielle waits in the courtyard; with a handful of hay, she begins rubbing down Argo for the night. The tavern and the rooms are separate, thankfully; when Xena finally does emerge from the tavern, Gabrielle is almost done. They pause, savoring a moment together . . . and the innkeeper has followed Xena outside. Spotting Gabrielle's head on the other side of Argo . . .
"Hey! Is she staying all night?"
"Yes?" Languidly, threatening. "I paid for two."
"Well, this'll be extra. Your kind is trouble."
"Gabrielle!" Too late; she's already moved out from Argo. The innkeeper takes in her blood-soaked clothing, grim look, as she grabs the staff . . . . "Our kind? What kind is that?"
"Ah, well, nothing, miss. I didn't mean nothing."
Gabrielle stops: "Good. I didn't think so." Turns to Xena, grabs a saddlebag: "See?" Wasn't that easy?" But Xena only shakes her head.
The room, up a flight of stairs past a landing, has a solid door, double bed and a fireplace. Xena takes kindling, starts the fire, while Gabrielle stands next to her, strips off her bloodied clothing. "Xena? I think . . . all I want to do tonight, is lie in bed."
Xena looks up at her, lingering . . . nods. "I'll go down to the tavern. Should I bring something?"
"I just want to be alone."
The tavern is in keeping with the town: dirty, rough. She steps over a dog licking the last food off a plate, claims a place by the fire, sets down a flagon of wine. Long day. And she hadn't even taken out any armies. Taking a sip of spiced wine: pleasantly warm; if she didn't have some real food, it would be easy to drink too many of these.
Stretching slightly: Gabrielle'd overlooked a muscle pulled when she'd fallen. Ah, when Kara took her down: give her credit.
A sigh . . . Kara always had to be better. But she *was* right, as usual: they were alike. Training, beliefs; they'd grown up together, childhood sweethearts. Surprise: here she was, still in love with Gabrielle. Did Kara care?
Why was she even thinking about Kara, relationships? The murder attempt. What Kylos was up to: those were real questions. Had her mind had been Poteidaiacized? Talking too long with Gabrielle could do that . . .
Smiling wryly, she takes another sip of wine.
Unhooking the chakram, Xena leans back, feet up against the fire, looks closely. A small white thread, caught by the edge of the bronze fitting. Damn: she'd chased saffron. And . . . a line of blood along the edge. Whoever Gabrielle had thrown it at, she'd found her target.
She sets the chakram resting on crossed knees, an ache growing in her stomach. S'pposed to be over it: Gabrielle wasn't going to leave her.
Right: her stomach didn't believe it, either.
Looking around, casually . . . One thing you learned as an innkeepers daughter. Don't order 'till you see what the others are eating.
Saving Lissos, prescribing herbs: Gabrielle's confidence worried her. She still didn't know who Gabrielle was.
The bloodied chakram, tossed so casually. It could just as easily killed as cut. And flashes of violence, with the gatekeeper and the tavern owner.
The knot in her stomach turns tighter. Then a feeling, in her chest, she hadn't even a word for. Gabrielle had been protecting her. Xena's reputation. Their marriage.
She'd changed. She felt it inside; Gabrielle was growing. And when you were all grown, you left.
And still all she could see was the innocent young girl she'd fallen in love with. And needed so much to hold, feel respond, recognize Xena's touch.
She picks up the cup, takes a deep drink of hot red wine, sweetened with honey. Moves her knee, flips the chakram in the air, catches it. Looks around: that got some attention. Standing; sees three men, swords at their waists, looking at her, talking quietly. Sauntering over, she sits on the edge of their bench: "Well, boys. Tell me about Kylos."
Almost asleep . . . two heavy knocks; Gabrielle opens the door. A pair of men, farmers, or village workers. . . . half drunk already. Grinning stupidly, showing uneven yellowed teeth.
"We heard there was girls, here."
"Well, you heard wrong." Slamming the door.
A few minutes later . . .pounding; she opens the door: "You're a girl."
"Nope. Wrong again."
Now, a heavy, continuous knocking. Gritting her teeth . . .
Later that night, ascending the staircase to their room. On the landing, two limp bodies. Xena leans over, smells . . . drunk. Big surprise. Looks closer, notices bruises on their chest, cheeks. Remarkably like a staff would produce. Smiling . . . she looks out a window, at the courtyard below. Throws them, one after another, onto a pile of straw, under the window.
"Yeah." Sitting next to Gabrielle, placing a hand on her cheek: "How's it going?"
"Usual." Gabrielle half sits up, takes Xena's arm, turns the flesh, exposing a welt. "That's new, isn't it?"
"Uh, yeah, I guess."
"Xena, you promised me you wouldn't get in any more bar fights."
"Yeah. I was defending your honor."
"I can defend it on my own just fine."
Gabrielle drops back down; not a lot of point arguing. Quiet for a few moments .. . . "Gabrielle? Turn over on your stomach."
Insistent: "Trust me."
"Xena you know . . . " she manages to get out before Xena places a finger gently on her lips, and with the other hand flips her over. Pulling back the covers, she looks at the beautiful curve of her back . . . and places two thumbs along the base of her spine, begins massaging Gabrielle's lower back.
She feels Gabrielle relax almost instantly; switches to the heels of her hands, centering, moving up and outward. Finally, Gabrielle sighs and Xena smiles . . .
"A little lower. Mostly on the left. Xena. . . where did you learn this?"
"Would you believe Marcus?"
"Like, things mom never taught us? Wonder where he learned?"
"Actually he told me: his father."
"I adore you for this."
Then all is quiet except for Gabrielle's heavy breathing. Now? No. . . . yes.
"Gabrielle. I . . . "
"I need to talk with you."
She tries to rise, but Xena's hands push her down. "You're angry."
"No. Just . . . "
"I know I was wrong about that silly man at the gate. I shouldn't have humiliated him. I lost it when he said you shouldn't be around children."
Making it worse; her stomach and chest now against her too. She tightens . . . can't breathe . . . gasps . . .
Gabrielle sits up instantly, on the edge of panic, searching her face. A flickering candle reveals tears flowing down Xena's cheeks; throwing her arms around Xena, she pulls her close. "Don't talk: breathe. Focus on breathing."
As soon as the muscles in her throat relax she starts to breathe . . . and the tears take over. She struggles, caught between breath and control . . .
and a sound from the courtyard below reaches her: throat instantly relaxed, face calm as though a magic cloth had been passed over it. . . Xena is up, at the window: "Gabrielle. Get dressed. Now."
Grabbing one of Xena's black leather corselettes, she pulls it on, straightens it while Xena rummages through the saddlebags . . pulls out her old sword. The one with the curse. They look together out the window . . . torches. A group of some dozen men, holding staffs, spears, a few swords, all standing in the courtyard, looking up at them. At their head . . . Lissos' father, brandishing Xena's sword; next to him, the owner of the tavern. Gabrielle assembles her staff, nods at Xena . . .
They walk slowly, calmly into the courtyard. Facing the crowd: "If this is men's night out, do it some place besides under our window."
"Xena!" The gatekeeper. "I know who you are. And your friend. You left my daughter to die."
Gabrielle, staff ready, looks up at Xena . . . as the innkeeper confronts them.
"You two are an offense to the gods. Warrior women: why aren't you home, with your children?. " Two other men step up beside him: the ones Gabrielle had forcibly ejected from her room.
And suddenly Gabrielle has had enough; as she steps forward, Xena grabs her arm but misses: "Gabrielle! No . . ."
She confronts the gatekeeper; feints just as she had earlier; he slashes with the sword . . and her staff is up, under his hand; the sword now flying through the air. Gabrielle steps back, plucks Xena's sword from the air, as the gatekeeper stands, holding his broken hand.
Xena, furious, has no choice but to step beside her, brandishing Gabrielle's sword. The two stand, dangerous, holding the small mob at bay.
And then Gabrielle walks forward, falls to her knees; two-handed plunges Xena's sword into the earth. Defenseless, she pauses . . .
"Well? Isn't this what you wanted?" Looking about her, holding the eyes of the men, one by one, her gaze covering the crowd. "What next? Are you going to kill me?" Looking up at the gatekeeper. "Is that how you want Lissos to think of you?" He steps back, uncertain.
Gabrielle turns to the men who'd come to her room. "I'm here. You wanted to rape me. Now's your chance. Or aren't you drunk enough to rape defenseless women?"
Turning again . . "Tavernkeeper! I thought it was your job to protect the purity of the town. Abuse the visiting women. So your children can look up to you."
Gabrielle stands slowly, extracts the sword, picks up her staff. Turns, dragging their tips slowly through the dirt: "C'mon Xena. Let's hit the road."
Morning in an olive grove. Gabrielle's clothes, scattered about the lower branches, are damp and show traces of blood. Xena's clothing fits funny at her waist and promises to be a real pain at the bust. Her breasts were already heavy, sore; the prospect of a day in this . . . too loose but pinching all the same . . .
Xena packs, takes care of saddlebags while she feeds, talks quietly with Argo. Another bond broken, when Athanike came along.
They'd been riding quietly for an hour; Xena knew the silence was too good to last. Closing her eyes a second: serene; her voice betraying no trace of irritation . . .
"How can you wear this thing? I swear either it's gonna fall off or I'm gonna pop right out of it. And you sleep in it?"
In the tone of voice you'd use to explain rain to the village idiot: "Gabrielle, it's battle-dress. It's not supposed to be comfortable."
"So that's why you're always in a bad mood."
"What! That does it." Leaning back, she tries to push Gabrielle off Argo. "You're walking." But Gabrielle only holds on more tightly, the two of them swaying back and forth, each trying to topple the other.
By the time it's over, they're lying in the grass by the side of the road. "If it's uncomfortable, take it off."
Gabrielle struggles to move out from under her: "No, thank you. I don't trust you in this mood."
"You said you could protect your honor."
She suddenly stops struggling. "Don't overdo it. All I meant is, you don't have to protect me all the time. Hey! wait!" as Xena shifts a leg, sits beside her.
"We need to talk."
"You're still mad about last night."
"Gabrielle, I'm not angry. But now you have a reputation."
"You mean the village drunks won't bother me anymore?"
"Others will; now you're a threat. For some men, that's a challenge."
"I don't get it."
Instead of answering, Xena looks around, scanning the grass, bushes. She stands, walks briefly alongside the woods, returns with a handful of green. Thyme; sitting alongside Gabrielle again, she plucks a few leaves, places them on her tongue and picks up the conversation.
"Think about Lissos' father. Nothing we did was right. He couldn't let go until he'd had his fight."
"Xena, isn't there anything I can do to stop them?" For a moment looking so lost, so innocent . . .
Xena forcibly pulls her emotions away. . . . "No. You've crossed a threshold. There's no going back."
They sit, silent. Even the morning breeze takes on significance in the silence; Gabrielle focuses on the sway of the tall grasses. Reaches to Xena's hand, takes a sprig of thyme from her.
"What's that mean?"
"You can't live in two worlds. If you want to be free, you have to take care of yourself. Not rely on me every time the swords come out."
"You're saying I do that."
"Gabrielle, do you really want me to stop protecting you? Go your own way?"
"Go my own way? Xena, what . . . "
"Forget I said it."
Gabrielle leans back on her elbows, looking up at Xena. In one hand, she twirls the thyme branch, absently. Examining Xena . . .
Impassive as ever, gaze fixed on the road ahead. Emotionless . . . yet not.
In the silence between them, minor details stand out: the rhythm of her breathing, the resilience of a small red corn poppy, bending underneath her.
"Why are you doing this?" Xena turns to her with unexpected gentleness. . . . face focused, lips pursed.
"I don't know. It's . . ."
"You don't know!" Xena pounces, angry. "I could lose you, and you don't know?"
"You're not even trying to listen." She drops the sprig, gets to her knees, but Xena is already standing. "Let's go."
Firmly seated on Argo, back on the road: "So where do we go from here?"
"The plan was Aulis, by boat; save us three days. But Kylos took Aulis . . . "
She pauses a moment . . . "Maybe you're right; I'm being protective. Kylos doesn't worry me."
"Look, Xena. We can head to Volos, go down to the docks. Aulis is the main port. Even if Kylos is still there he wouldn't pass up the tariffs. And the fishing fleet alone . . .
"Even if? You know something about Kylos that I don't?"
"Only what you told me: he's ambitious; if he takes a town, it's to build up his army."
"Right. Alos has delusions; there's nothing there for a warlord. He'd move against . . . Thebes. Or Athens. Leave a small force at Aulis, move on."
"So . . . the docks at Volos?"
Xena pauses for a second, before turning Argo. "You know? This could be the start of something . . ."
"Well, anyway." She turns Argo: "To Volos."