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At the Crossroads
By Medora MacD
August 15, 1999
Legal Disclaimer: The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess and all other associated with the television series of the same name are owned by MCA/ Universal Pictures. This is a work of fan fiction and no copyright infringement is intended. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author.
Subtext: This story depicts a love relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it.
Violence: No more than on the TV show. Possibly less.
Hurt/Comfort: Yes; appropriate for the story line.
Language: No expletives harsher than damn, used sparingly.
Timeline: Set early in Season Three, before Dahak and the Rift stories.
Sincere Thanks: To Lunacy, for providing a list of beta readers; to beta reader Gin, who did NOT take time away from her wonderful Xena the Conqueror stories to offer helpful suggestions (As the gods are my witness: any advice she gave me did NOT interfere with her own writing! Don't hurt me!); and to my family and friends for their love, advice, and tolerance of my ineffable weirdness.
Feedback: Send compliments, comments, and constructive criticism to email@example.com.
By tomorrow at this time, it will be over.
She twisted uneasily on her bedroll.
One way or the other...
A chill crept slowly down her spine despite the warmth of the fire nearby. She considered exactly how dreadful one of those ways might be. A sob started to work its way past her tightly compressed lips. At the last moment, she turned it into something like a stifled cough, praying that the innocuous sound would not catch the hypersensitive ear of her traveling companion.
The warrior on the other side of the banked embers stirred, then rolled to her other side, toward the fire. Her arm moved awkwardly, as if expecting to encircle something, then fell to her side. A frown creased her face, then the deep, even breathing resumed. She was exhausted. It had been a long, hard day. Gabrielle refused to think about just how hard.
The young woman cast about desperately for something -- anything -- that would quiet her mind and permit her to sleep for the few candlemarks remaining of the night. Dawn would come early. It was nearing the summer solstice and the longest day of the year, and they were on the eastern slope of the mountain. The nights were still cold here at the foot of Mount Kintla, however. She pulled her sleeping fur closer around her. Studied the stars shining so brilliantly in the thin, crisp air. Listened to the creek tumbling past on its way to the Aegean Sea.
It was a far cry from the quarters she once shared with her sister, she mused. There she would have been staring at a cracked ceiling, listening to her sisters gentle snores, her parents in the next room, the animals in the barn. She wouldnt have been sleeping in the same clothes shed been traveling in for what seemed like weeks or be covered with furs. Shed have on a soft sleeping shift, and the temperate climate of her hometown would require no more than a light blanket. I wouldnt be sleeping on rocks either!she thought, squirming to find a more accommodating piece of ground.
Her restless mind filled in a few more details. Potadeia would be stiflingly comfortable and predictable, Gabrielle. You still wouldnt be the person everyone wanted you to be. You couldnt be the person YOU wanted to be. And Xena wouldnt be there. She shuddered. No Xena!
It was hopeless, she decided. Maybe if she stopped avoiding the subject. If she faced her fear head on
After all, theres always the chance that it wont be as bad as I think, that tomorrow night will find us together still, sharing another campfire, another meal. Well be bruised. Maybe worse. But beginning to heal
That other part of her mind ruthlessly pointed out that Xena had never before faced a trial of this magnitude -- and that it was one that called upon skills that even Xena would admit were not her strongest.
Gabrielle shuddered again, more afraid than at any time during her travels with the warrior princess. More even than when they faced the Horde. That, after all, would probably have only ended with both of them dead.
Our encounter with the Horde! Doesnt that show how much Xena has changed? Grown? She was able to see things in a new light then, to overcome her fears, meet that challenge. Surely theres a chance, a slim one, but nevertheless achance,that shell meet this one? There just has to be
The bards body sagged in exhaustion. There was no point in dwelling on what the next day would or wouldnt bring. Gabrielle willed her mind to go blank. To cast away the thoughts that had tied her in knots for days.
Think of a new scroll. The way it smells. The way it crackles as you unroll it for the first time. The possibilities. The endless possibilities
Sleep finally claimed Gabrielle. But it was a slumber filled with foreboding. One that left her trembling.
Where in Tartarus WAS she, anyway? She was lying flat on her stomach and something soft was pressing against her nose and mouth, making it difficult to breathe. Her eyes felt as if they had been glued shut. She was dazed, disoriented -- the way shed been the morning after that harvest party in the village last year, thought Gabrielle. But without the killer headache. So far.
Just in case, she kept her movements to a minimum while she tried to figure out what was going on. The smell of... burnt pine? Bird song. The nicker of a horse. She shifted her head slightly, trying to zero in on the noises around her. The movement helped her identify the stuff in which her face was buried. It was fur. Her sleeping fur.
Slowly she pushed herself upright. She rubbed her face vigorously with both hands, digging grit from her eyelids, then glanced around. Ah. Another day, another infernal campsite. Argo was saddled. Virtually all the gear was packed except for the bedroll on which she sat. Her eyes narrowed. The sun was higher in the sky than it should have been. She turned her head at the sound of approaching footsteps.
"Xe Whats going on?"
Xena walked up to drown the last embers of the fire with a spray from their waterskin.
"Why didnt you wake me?" She stared indignantly at the tall, armor-clad silhouette that stood between her and the mornings rays.
"I tried, Gabrielle. You just twitched, groaned, and burrowed deeper into your furs. I figured yesterdays little adventure had taken more out of you than I realized, so I "
"Augh!" Cutting Xena off in mid-sentence, the groggy bard threw aside her coverings, grabbed her staff and stomped off to do what had to be done before a lengthy day on the trail.
Xena stared after her friend with concern. Whatever was bothering Gabrielle was getting progressively worse and, uncharacteristically, the bard didnt seem to be able to talk about it.
Oh, Hades!she thought. Who wouldnt be upset to wake up on the cold, hard ground to face another meal of dried meat and trail bread, another day traipsing about the countryside contending with murderers and thieves?
She pictured Gabrielle as she should be, in the kitchen of a comfortable home, two or three tow-headed children helping her prepare the evening meal and set the table. Shed be telling a story, keeping an eye on the loaves in the oven and on the window that looked out upon the barn, where the cows were being milked. Waiting for a certain tall, dark form to pass by it on the way to the wash house -- the signal that dinner needed to be on the table soon.
Gabrielle and afarmer? I dont think so! Its easier to see her as a teacher somewhere. Back at the Academy for Bards or ruling the Amazons. But definitely not here, cooking over a smoky fire, peeing in the bushes, washing in ice water, traveling with a someone who can go for candlemarks on end without saying a word. She deserves so much more!
Mentally Xena counted the dinars remaining in her pouch. Maybe they could afford to stay at an inn in Mancor. Or maybe whatevers bugging her will just blow over... the warrior thought wishfully. With a shrug that suggested that she knew somehow that it wouldnt, she returned to the task of breaking camp.
Xena was tying Gabrielles bedroll to Argos saddle when the bard returned, tugging her garments back into place. She had dashed handfuls of water from the icy creek into her face in an attempt to wake up. Water droplets glistened on her ruddy cheeks and in the red-gold down that covered her finely toned arms.
"Ready?" asked Xena, with an indulgent smile. It faded abruptly at Gabrielles retort.
"No! Im not ready! I havent had anything to eat. And I dont know where in Tartarus were going! Im tired of following along like some trained animal, Xena. It would be nice to know, if somehow we got separated, that you thought I was competent enough to get myself to our next stop. Not someone who has to be rescued like some helpless child!"
Sure! As if youd waltz off and leavemebehind somewhere if we got separated! I know youre not a child, Gabrielle.(Believeme!) I just never thought you wanted to be bothered with this kind of stuff Right. Key words, Xena: "never thought." Get a clue.
The hand on Argos halter had clenched -- painfully -- at Gabrielles caustic words. Now Xena relaxed her fingers, raked them through her shiny black hair.
"Youre right, Gabrielle." The glowering bard gave a start. "Ive been acting like Im still running some army. Giving orders. I need to I mean, Ill try to "
Xena threw up her hands in frustration. She was no good at these sensitive chats, and they both knew it.
"Here," she said finally, "let me draw you a map."
Crouching down, she picked up a charred stick from the remains of their fire, then thought briefly, getting the picture of their position clear in her mind. She drew an upside-down bowl in the dirt. Above that she incised a slightly flattened X. She pointed to the top right side of the X: "Were here, near the base of Mount Kintla." Then indicated the inverted bowl: "And this is the coastline."
"Well be traveling southward, on this diagonal, around the mountain and down next to the coast, and then up to Mancor." She traced a V-shaped route. "Thats where Athol said the new slave ring is operating. When I put the pinch on him yesterday."
"And if we kept going to the southwest?" Gabrielle asked, pointing to the lower left leg of the X.
"That leads past Amazon territory, in two or three days, and then on to Amphipolis and Potadeia. Thats one of the reasons I want to check out this slave ring if it exists. Its pretty close to home."
"And this leg? To the southeast?" Gabrielles voice had a strange timbre to it, but her mist green eyes met Xenas guilelessly.
"Thats the way to the coastal city of Kavala. I hear its grown a lot since last I was there. Theres a new academy, even some theaters. Well have to visit someday," said Xena, dusting off her hands and preparing to rise.
"How long till we get here?" Gabrielle stabbed the center of the X with the end of her staff.
"About mid-day," Xena replied. "If we leave soon," she added pointedly, getting to her feet.
A few more candlemarks, then. To prepare. Or do I mean, to survive?
"So ready now?"
"No!" the bard responded angrily. "Wheres my scroll case?"
"I packed it. I thought "
"You thought wrong!" She strode over to Argo. "Im not the same know-nothing girl you rescued in Potadeia, Xena. Even if I dont like to ride on gigantic beasts -- sorry, Argo -- or chop thugs into itty-bitty pieces. By the gods, Xena, at least let me take care of my own stuff!"
Missing the wince that flashed across her companions face, Gabrielle propped her staff against the patient mare and fumbled with the ties on the case containing her scrolls and her journal. Xena followed, growing increasingly concerned about her friends extreme behavior and wondering what she could do to help.
"Im sorry. I didnt know. Here, let me..."
The warrior reached in to loosen the knotted cord on the case, brushing Gabrielles shoulder in the process. The bard gave a startled cry and shied violently. When she came to rest, she was shaking uncontrollably. Eyes closed, she wrapped her arms tightly around her torso and rocked back and forth slightly, trying to regain her composure.
"What is it, Gabrielle?" Xena asked frantically, moving in front of the young woman. "Whats going on? You flinch every time I come near. You moved your bedroll to the other side of the fire. Youve barely said a civil word to me in days!"
She paused, uncertainly, then continued, her voice growing more and more strained. "What did I do? Why are you so afraid of me? Tell me -- so I can fix it!"
"Me? Afraid of you?!" Gabrielle bit back a savage laugh. "You think Im afraid of you. Thats funny!" She paced back and forth in front of the warrior, muttering as she wrestled with her emotions. Xena herself was motionless. Hands clenched at her sides, she watched anxiously as her companion grew more and more agitated. Finally the bard stopped dead in her tracks, fell silent, seemed to reach a decision.
This isnt how I envisioned it. But what is it that Xena says? Battles have a way of setting their own timetables. This one has just decided that its time isnow.
Gabrielle took a deep breath, turned and faced her friend, who stood braced, as if to receive a blow, an uncharacteristic look of apprehension upon her face.
"Im not afraid of you, Xena. Im afraid for you. Afraid of what might happen to you because of me." The warrior stared at her, clearly at a loss. Gabrielle took another breath, uttered a silent prayer, and plunged ahead.
"I love you, Xena. With all my heart."
The only response to her declaration was the sharp, mournful cry of a hunting hawk, high overhead. The warriors face showed no sign of comprehension.
"As in, I am in love with you." She waited another beat.
"As in, I desperately want to make love to you."
Still the warrior gave no indication that she grasped what the bard was saying, not so much as the twitch of a muscle. Gabrielle carried on, determined to make her understand and respond.
"I cant stopping thinking about you, Xena. About that. And yesterday it almost got you killed! Damn it, Xena! I never even saw those guys!"
To this statement, the warrior finally reacted: "It was nothing, Gabrielle. Dont worry about it."
" Dont worry about it ?!" Gabrielle was close to hysterical. "I was supposed to be watching the back door at the tavern. Instead I ended up watching you -- the way you grinned as Athols men came at you. The way the muscles in your arms rippled as you fought them off."
She buried her face in her hands, remembering what had come next. How the men whod slipped past her had moved to stab Xena from behind. How Xena somehow had sensed the threat. With a leap, shed jabbed her sword into a rafter for safekeeping and vaulted over the goons in front of her. Then shed grabbed the broom from the guy whod been sweeping the floor and used it to bowl the first group into the second. A high arching somersault took her back to her sword and over the tangle of thugs on the floor, just in time to cut down the scumbag who trying to choke the life out of Gabrielle.
The rest was anticlimactic, really. Gabrielle had collapsed into the nearest chair, while Xena tidied up. A forearm smash had greeted the first guy to try to get out of the pile on the floor, and a head butt silenced the second. The rest of the gang wisely decided to stay put and nurse the injuries theyd already received, rather than incurring more. When Athol burst in from his backroom headquarters, Xena had treated him to a free demonstration of her famed pressure points interrogation method. Pretty much the usual "Wham! Bam! Whaddya want to know, maam?" routine.
Except for the momentous resolution it had forced Gabrielle to make as she sat there, absently fingering the angry marks on her neck but visualizing what might have happened, not to her, but to Xena, as a result of her mental lapse. Imagining Xenas body on the tavern floor, limbs slack, the light fading from those beautiful eyes. It wasnt hard to do. She only had to remember how the warrior had looked outside Cirra, after that log booby trap had slammed into her, catapulting her into a tree -- with deadly results.
"Dont worry?" she reiterated. "Xena, I made you promise never to die on me again. And then I nearly got you killed! That cant happen again. I wont let it!" She approached the warrior, stared her full in the face. "I thought this would go away. I tried with all my heart to make it go away. Thats not going to happen, Xena. Ever. You are my heart.
"And I know you feel the same way." The dark head in front of her started to move silently from side to side. "Dont deny it, Xena. I felt it -- when you were inside me, when we were racing Velasca to the ambrosia. But youre afraid Ill get hurt, that Ill miss out on a real life, whatever that is.
"The only thing that would hurt me, Xena, would be to not be able to share my life with you. And the only way I can see of doing that is to acknowledge the way we feel. We cant control it, cant shape it, if we keep pretending it doesnt exist!"
She turned away, coming to the hardest part.
"Either way, Xena, I cant go on as we have been. Its just too dangerous for you. Too painful for me. Too damned lonely. So either we go forward together, become more than best friends, or we go our separate ways. Learn to live apart."
I was right to be terrified of this moment,thought Gabrielle as the stark silence behind her grew. What a fool I am! Xena wasnt able to make this kind of commitment to Borias, Marcus, even Hercules! Lao Ma, the woman she said saved her in Chin, couldnt hold her either. Why did I think for a moment that some peasant girl from Potadeia ?
Behind her, Xena warred with her own emotions. Even if... She terminated that thought before it could take root; how either of them might feel didnt change the realities of their situation. Theres no way that this could work. None. It just cant.
A look of unutterable sadness crossed her face. By the time Gabrielle turned back toward her, however, the warriors face was once again shielded, an impenetrable mask that revealed nothing to the bards hope-filled eyes.
Gabrielle faltered, then continued. "Anyway, Id planned on telling you this at the crossroads. So Id still have some traveling time if I had to find my own " She trailed off, then started again. "Youve got till then, I guess, to decide what you want to do."
The bard walked over to Argo and retrieved her staff, leaning briefly against the mares strong, warm side and caressing the soft dark muzzle before grabbing her reins. "I dont want to talk about it till then, Xena. I cant. Lets just go, okay?"
The warrior nodded tersely and took the reins from Gabrielles outstretched hand, being very careful not to make physical contact. Slowly, carefully, she began to lead the palomino down the rocky path that would take them to the crossroads. Her bearing was erect as always. It gave Gabrielle no clues as to what would happen when they reached their destination -- at least none that were encouraging.
Two candlemarks later the heavy silence hanging over the travelers was broken by the sounds of armed conflict.
Dense forest on either side of the road lent a sinister air to the place. Xena was riding slightly ahead. Shed led Argo until the steep trail had leveled out a bit, then mounted up, announcing curtly that she wanted to keep an eye out for those slavers. Shed been finding it hard to breathe, for some reason. Probably all that dust that our feet were churning up. And the bards staff, thudding over and over again into the trail, had begun to feel like it was pounding directly upon her skull. In truth, shed found it impossible to ignore Gabrielles declaration -- and her ultimatum -- with the bard striding stoically beside her. She wasnt ready to deal with that yet. She wasnt sure shed ever be.
They were nearing the spot, Xena realized, where a rutted overgrown wagon path from Pagosa, to the north, would cross their own. Her ears caught the sound of metal hitting metal. Horses neighing. Voices raised in anger and in pain.
Gabrielle had heard it, too, she saw, glancing back. The warrior circled Argo around quickly, extended a powerful arm, and pulled the bard up behind her on the warhorse. It was a kind of relief, really, to be riding into danger. They always shelved disputes at times like these. The chance to do so now, to pretend -- for a little while anyway -- that things were normal, had never been more welcome. She kneed Argo into a gallop.
They pulled to a halt at the edge of a small clearing in the forest. Twenty-odd men and women were locked in combat there -- in an arena formed by a circle of four colorful wagons.
There seemed to be two parties in contention here: a band of ragtag foot soldiers who might have been outfitted by Joxers armorer and another group whose fanciful garb marked them as actors -- or really bad fashion designers. No one seemed to have been seriously injured yet, but the horses hitched to the lead wagon were wild eyed at the noise and commotion.
"Whose side are we on?" asked Gabrielle, peering around Xenas armored shoulder.
Sides are evenly matched, number-wise. Soldiers are competent -- barely -- but their hearts clearly arent in it. Actors probably dont haveanyreal experience, however. So? Ah ha!
"Them," said Xena, indicating a duo at the center of the hubbub. A valkyrie dressed incongruously in layers of fluttering chartreuse scarves had just employed a sturdy wooden bucket to dispatch an on-rushing swordsman. The dapper man next to her, though short enough to tuck under her chin, was wielding a dirt-encrusted spade with equal efficacy. "You gotta admire people with that kind of imagination!"
With a pang, each of them realized that this could well represent the final airing of their long-running debate on the merits of being creative in combat.
"So," said the bard, her voice suddenly husky, "whats the plan this time, Warrior Princess?"
What indeed?Xena fought to drag her mind back to the business at hand. Well, creativity aside, its hard to tell whos in the right here. Or what started all this. Maybe the best thing to do is just bust things up before someone gets killed.
With a bittersweet smile, she realized anew just how much traveling with Gabrielle had changed her -- and for the better.
"Actually, Gabrielle, I think well just "
Suddenly, from the corner of her eye, she saw something -- an open grave and, next to it, a pine casket that plainly seemed intended to fill it. That changed everything.
"Youre going to stay right here!" she declared, swinging the startled bard to the ground.
"Dont argue, Gabrielle! And dont go anywhere." She nodded at the gravesite. "At least not until I find out if whatever that guy died of is catching." She kneed Argo into action.
"Aiyiyiyi!" Xenas warcry momentarily froze the combatants in place -- or was it the sight of an impossibly tall, dark woman charging between the wagons on a warhorse, the sun glinting off her armor and upraised sword? Xena pulled the palomino round in a tight circle, preparing to make another pass. Before that could happen, however, the band of terrified soldiers broke and ran for the hills. Most of them, that is.
One enterprising lad made for the wagons instead. He leaped into the seat of the lead wagon, startling its team into bolting down the rugged shortcut that would lead him -- if he were lucky enough to negotiate all its wicked turns -- to the coast road and Kavala.
"The props!" cried the man with the spade. As one, the troupe charged after the jouncing wagon, their evident desperation drawing Gabrielle into the chase as well. Xena shook her head ruefully as the motley crew pounded after the runaway cart, then urged Argo to follow suit.
The shouted warning gave the pursuers just enough time -- barely -- to hug a tree or throw themselves into the bushes on either side of the track before Xena thundered through. As she passed, the warrior noted with approval the precision of her companions graceful tuck and roll.
She turned her attentions back to the track in front of her, to the wagon jolting violently along between trees seemingly just far enough apart to permit its passage. Redoubling her efforts, she closed quickly on the wagon and flung herself on its back.
Now what, O Warrior Teamster?
A glance inside the transport revealed that the wagon was packed too tightly to allow her to scramble to the front that way. Resigning herself to the inevitable, Xena began pulling herself along the outside of the careening vehicle, plastering herself to its surface occasionally as branches tried to pry her off.
She congratulated herself when she reached the front -- and the warrior wannabe clinging there for dear life. Yes! No gods-damn-it-to-Tartarus supply buggy is gonna get the better of me!Her triumphant crow ended abruptly. That vicious turn up there just might, however!
She grabbed the reins from the nerveless hands of the soldier and hauled back on them with all her might. The potency of that pull told the lathered team that someone was once again in command. And the fire in her eye convinced her passenger that it would be wiser for him to disembark before the vehicle came to a full and complete stop and she could get those powerful hands on anything attached to him. He scanned quickly for the softest-looking piece of brush, then dove over the side. He landed with a clatter and a groan that seemed to presage an extended convalescence.
One less thing to worry about,thought Xena, getting back to the task of stopping the wagon before it slammed into the unforgiving trunks looming about 200 feet ahead. She had managed to pull the horses to a trot, but the momentum of the massive wagon forced them onward still. She started seeking out road hazards -- roots, rocks, anything -- which would slow the vehicle further.
By the time they reached the deadly turn, the team was going slowly enough to safely negotiate it. The heavily laden wagon was not as fortunate. Xena balanced on the balls of her feet, assessing the shift in its center of gravity. As it tipped up on two wheels, she vaulted into the air, landing at the side of the horses, calming them, as it fell ponderously on one side and spilled forth part of its cargo of army uniforms?!
Xena had unhitched the horses and was examining them for injury when a pandemonium of performers appeared in a cloud of dust -- followed shortly thereafter by a breathless bard.
"Gods, Xe Are you okay?" Gabrielle struggled to pull air into her heaving lungs.
"Just fine, Gabrielle, though the horses and the wagon are a bit worse for wear. Not to mention your uniforms and weapons?"
Xena fixed the groups leader with an icy glare that would have made a lesser man wet himself. The impresario, for all that he looked like a bit of a peacock, was evidently made of sterner stuff. He didnt even blink.
"These?" he replied, holding up a vicious-looking sword. It was obvious, upon closer examination, that it was made of wood covered with shiny silver paper -- now tattered and torn.
"Chama!" A handsome young man stepped forward. "Examine all the props. Looks like weve got a lot of work to do before we can perform in Kavala." He kicked disgustedly at a ruptured crate full of armor and arms whose dents and dings now revealed all too clearly their counterfeit nature.
"Actors, eh?" said Xena, lowering her guard a bit.
"And purveyors of potions to alleviate diseases and discomforts of every kind. Ozymandias the Wise and Wonderful at your service. I am the patriarch of this merry band of players." He preened himself, twirling his dark, luxurious mustache. His garish tunic was adorned with mystical symbols.
Oz the Wonderfully Slick or Slimy, perhaps! A healer herself at times, Xena despised the traveling peddlers who took scarce dinars out of the hands of the ailing in exchange for alcohol-laden potions that dulled their pains just long enough for the so-called healers to leave town. She was disgusted that she seemed to have inadvertently assisted one of these snake-oil salesmen. Oz the Worm! Thatd be more appropriate!
"My profound gratitude for your aid," he continued, in a voice much too smooth and practiced for Xenas taste. "We rely on our performances to draw in those in need of our healing herbs and elixirs. Without these props, wed be hard pressed to feed ourselves during our sojourn in Kavala. How can we ever repay you?"
"Thats not necessary. Really!" said Xena, who now had an overwhelming urge to wash herself from head to toe with the strongest soap she could find. "Well just be on our w "
"Nonsense!" he barked. "It will take several candlemarks to unload the wagon and tip it upright again " He turned again to the young man. "Chama, you and Nat and the boys set things to rights, wont you, please? Well be back to help after we get the rest of the wagons. YOU, lovely ladies, must come back to our camp with us!"
Oh, we MUST, must we? Well see about that, you little
The look on Xenas face must have alerted him to the need for a change of tactic. Abruptly, Oz turned his attentions to Gabrielle, a kindred soul if ever hed seen one. "Can we offer you some food at least?"
On cue, the bards stomach growled like a rampaging minotaur -- reminding Xena that the young woman had had nothing to eat since the night before and little enough then. She cringed inside. As if she needed further evidence that Gabrielle would be better off away from her!
Gabrielle stubbornly refused to respond to the mans invitation herself or to look at the warrior. She was damned if shed admit to being so hungry shed willingly chew on a bootlace -- or to her sudden hope that a distraction of this sort might somehow alter the course that Xena seemed to be set upon following at the crossroads.
Xena relented. "Well, were going back that way, anyway. I should probably check to see if anyone there is in need of real medical assistance. Ill get my kit."
She strode off to locate Argo, pretending not to see the wounded look that Oz threw his mate at her implication that his healing abilities were as phony as his companys theatrical props. Along the way, she checked for signs of her former passenger. At the point of his departure, however, she found only the nasty gouge where he had impacted with the ground and some limping footprints in the dust. They disappeared as soon as hed been able to make his way to the rock surface that comprised most of the rest of the path.
Didnt even have the courtesy to bleed, blast him! Smarter than he looked. A lot smarter
Xena found the mare sampling the grasses along the path near where the warrior had taken leave of her. "I swear, Argo, you are getting more like Gabrielle every day." She spoke softly so only the mares sensitive ears would pick up the mock-serious chastisement. "When did you decide that it was appropriate to take lunch breaks during a battle?!"
Leaning her head against the palominos sturdy neck, she reflected again on how much Gabrielle had come to influence their lives, from the way the warrior now dealt with conflicts to the jokes that lightened their daily load.
Thank you for that, my gentle bard She quashed that thought. Violently. Shes notyourbard, you big dumb warrior! She belongs toherself.She canneverbe yours. Youll have to make your own life, your own jokes, if you wantherto live past age 30!
She seriously considered just mounting up and riding away -- till the sound of approaching voices prompted her to contemplate what it would do to Gabrielle to be abandoned in front of so many witnesses. She snorted bitterly.
Yeah, right! Much better to do it when theres no one around to pick up the pieces, Warrior Wuss!
The bard seemed to be quizzing the actors about their recent travels as they neared. Xena heard the words "Pagosa" and "king" and "the best of modern theater." It wouldnt be long, she knew, before Gabrielle had extracted their life stories from them. She had a way about her, something Xena would never be able to master, that was more effective than the warriors "pinch" in gathering information.
Suddenly Ozymandias gave a heartfelt groan and turned to his wife, tears in his deep brown eyes. "Oh Hades, Treeza! I forgot about Piedra! How could I forget about Piedra?"
The large woman clasped him to her ample bosom for a moment, then gently thumbed a tear from his cheek. "Hell not be going anywhere, Oz my love. And Im sure hed understand. We didnt know him long, but it was easy to tell he was a real trooper."
"Piedra?" interjected Xena. "He the corpse back at your camp? What happen -- he take one of your potions?"
"Xena!" cried Gabrielle, aghast. She didnt know what was bugging Xena.
Well, that isnt strictly true,isit, Miss Love Me or Leave Me?
But it was clear to her that the couple felt this Piedras loss deeply.
"No, dearie," said Treeza, clearly a more forgiving sort that her affronted husband. "We didnt get a chance to physic Piedra. I only wish The poor lad only joined us a day or two ago. Hed seen some hard times, to be sure, but he didnt look sick. I think his dear heart just gave out once it knew he was in the company of friends."
"No fever, headaches, confusion, red rashes on the skin?" probed Xena, trying to determine if they had the beginnings of an epidemic on their hands. She remembered all too well the dread disease that had devastated her army on the eve of a major campaign in Gaul.
"No, no signs of typhus," replied Ozymandias, surprising her with his quick grasp of the question underlying hers. "No real way to tell what happened without cutting him open. And there didnt seem to be any point in harming the boy further. We were preparing for his funeral when we were attacked."
"Yeah, tell me about that," said Xena. "Who were those guys?"
"Never saw them before," puffed Ozs mate, resuming her journey back up the path, scarves fluttering in the breeze she created. "Wed had breakfast, a quick rehearsal. We were going to bury Piedra before changing into our traveling clothes and heading to Kavala. Suddenly, a bunch of vermin was swinging swords at us. Real swords!" she added indignantly.
Gabrielle reinitiated her gentle interrogation, with a pointed glance that warned the warrior to keep out of it. Xena listened with half an ear as she replayed the earlier clash in her head. She hadnt recognized any of the attackers -- with good reason probably, since most of them looked too young to have served in her army. And they were too inexperienced to be working for any of the warlords she knew to be operating in the neighborhood. Still
She moved out in front of the walkers, determined to examine what clues there might be to the soldiers identities before careless feet could destroy them. Her eyes scanned the woods restlessly, assessing every scurry in the brush, looking for anything that was out of place. There was nothing.
Sooner than she expected, she was back at the camp. The canopies of the remaining wagons showed up first, bold lettering proclaiming them to be the property of the Natural Wonders Theatrical Troupe, directed by one Ozymandias the Wise and Wonderful, agent of "Apollo the Physician, Asclepius, Health, Panacea, and all the gods and goddesses," and featuring the fortune-telling talents of Treeza the All Seeing.
Shoulda just said charlatans!Xena scoffed, once again angry with herself for contributing in any way to their chicanery. Shed like to introduce them to the healers oath composed by her friend, Hippocrates -- forcibly, if necessary. Especially that part about "I will never do harm to anyone."
Her disdain did not prevent her from noticing, however, how tidy the actors camp was. Their gear was worn, but very well maintained. Some familiar smells drew her attention to one of the wagons. Poking her head in, she discovered drying bundles of feverfew, an herb she used herself to treat migraine headaches. And what was that? Leaves of mugwort. Pumpkin seeds. Senna and comfrey?
She pulled her head out as the others came into the clearing and glanced quickly around the camp one more time. The marauders had left no casualties behind and only one artifact, a broken sword that bore no distinctive markings. As she had somehow expected, the tracks of their feet led unerringly from the dust of the arena in which theyd fought so ineffectually to unrevealing rock that would shield them from pursuit.
The troupe set to work assessing its losses. They were minor, just a damaged utensil or two and a few welts where the inept swordsmen had gotten in lucky swipes. These they were treating, Xena noted approvingly, with a soothing salve of aloe. She gave Ozymandias a glance of reappraisal.
"Whered you learn to fight like that?" inquired Gabrielle, as Ozymandias returned his spade to its rightful place in the supply wagon. She cocked her red-gold head to one side, as curious as Xena was about this paradoxical lot.
"On stage," the dapper director responded nonchalantly. "As a matter of fact, wed just rehearsed a play this morning that required everyone to swing a sword or cosh someone on the head. Never done it for real before -- but the line between art and life can be a pretty thin one," he concluded, a little grandiosely.
Yeah! A thinbloodyone requiring dozens of stitches! Xenas riposte was silent, though her snort of disgust was not. Why was it that people who had never engaged in actual combat or had to deal with its aftermath always thought it was so damned glamorous? Youre lucky, little man, that this particular scene isnt going to leave major scars on people you love. Very lucky.
Gabrielles stomach growled again, reminding Oz of his offer.
"Enough palaver! Treeza, my sweetling, can you hunt up some bread and cheese for our friends here? Will that suffice, er ? By the gods, where ARE my manners? Youve saved our livelihood, if not necessarily our lives "
He smirked as his slighting words registered with the oh-so-superior black-haired beauty.
Were even now, warrior. Ill play nice from now on He spread wide his hands in a plea for absolution.
"And I havent even asked your names!" he concluded, with genuine chagrin.
"Im Gabrielle. And this is Xena."
"Xena the Warrior Princess?!"
The traveling companions braced for the comment that inevitably followed this discovery, making mental bets as to its nature. Would it be antagonistic? Or admiring?
This bantam has a sharp little beak. I betcha ten dinars hes gonna
"Then YOU must be Gabrielle the Bard!" exclaimed the director, saving the warrior from making a losing wager with herself. "I read some of your scrolls in Athens. Theyre magnificent!"
He wrapped his arm cozily around the waist of the startled, but pleasantly surprised storyteller and drew her to a log seat in the center of the camp. "Tell me, my lovely one Have you ever considered adapting some of your stories for the stage? That one about the Titans, for instance. Or the one about Morpheus?" He leaned in engagingly, bringing his considerable charms to bear on the young woman.
"Dont mind him!" said his mate, taking note of Xenas glower and drawing the conclusion that any rational person would about the two women who traveled so closely together. "Hell not lay a hand on her. Shed be wise to keep a close eye on her newer scrolls, however," she concluded with a chuckle. "He has very few scruples when it comes to a really great story."
She stuck out a hand in greeting. "Im Treeza, by the way. Thank you again for your help. Wed have been in real trouble if we lost those props. Takes a might of acting to fill all the stomachs we do. And speaking of stomachs "
She handed a crusty loaf to Xena and grabbed a golden wedge of cheese, then nodded over at the seated duo. "We better get some food into your lovely bard before she keels over -- and before he forgets he prefers women with a little something to hang on to!"
Xena followed slowly in the big womans wake, trying to determine why she was so unsettled by the discerning way Treeza had referred to the bard.
The figures seated next to what used to be the cook fire looked cozy -- too darn cozy, in fact, to Xenas eye. The dark head bent closer and closer to the amber one as Ozymandias continued his campaign to convince the bard to put her talents to work for the benefit of the Natural Wonders Theatrical Troupe.
Moving with the grace, and lethal intent, of a panther on the prowl, Xena glided forward. She had just the weapon she needed to break up this little tête-a-tête. Three strides past Gabrielle, she pivoted and held out the bread Treeza had provided. Gabrielle was compelled to leave her seat on the log in order to reach it. That she managed to do so without lunging at the loaf like a ravening beast was a tribute, thought Xena, to the iron control shed learned to exhibit while performing in some of the scuzziest taverns in Greece -- where predatory patrons had been known to knife one another at the first sign of vulnerability.
The bards discipline didnt extend, however, to waiting longer than absolutely necessary to alleviate her hunger. Loaf in hand, she dropped back down on the log (now at a respectable distance from Ozymandias, Xena noted with satisfaction) and ripped the bread apart with strong, tanned hands. When Treeza handed her a chunk of cheese, she simply nodded her thanks, her mouth too full to permit intelligible speech.
"How many people in your party altogether?" Xena baldly inquired, seating herself ostentatiously on the other side of Ozymandias. This meant the man either had to turn his attentions away from the bard -- or turn his back on deadliest woman in the Known World.
He quirked a bushy eyebrow at the warrior in appreciation of her stagecraft, then surprised her with a genial smile. "Ten," he replied amiably and began to list them.
"The two of us. Our darling daughters." He indicated two beautiful young women who were finishing the packing of the cooking utensils, including a bucket, soup pot and ladle that had seen use as weapons. Their flaxen braids matched their mothers, and their melting brown eyes were clearly a legacy from their father.
Next he indicated the couple in their mid-20s who were leading the rest of the horses in from pasture, in preparation for harnessing them to the remaining wagons. "Theres Treezas brother, who helps with the leading male roles, and my sister, his wife. She plays the female leads in all the musicals. A voice like a lark, she has."
"Then theres the boys working on the props wagon: our lute player and drummer; Nat, our new stage manager; and Chama, our adopted son." His tone softened noticeably as he named the young man who served as his second in command.
"Then, of course, there was Piedra," his wife added somberly. "Another one of our strays."
"Oz seems to be a magnet for hurting and helpless souls," she explained, standing behind her husband and patting his shoulder fondly. "I call them strays, but in truth theyve proved to be some of the finest people youd ever want to know -- better than many a man with the best of pedigrees and opportunities.
"Chama is one such. We found him wandering in a forest, no more than four, injured and in shock. Mayhaps his parents had left him there to be savaged by wild animals. He only had the shredded clothes on his back and a toy sword he must have used to defend himself. It was broken and bloody "
She squeezed her mates shoulder as they recalled the deplorable condition the child had been in when discovered.
"Anyway," she continued, clearing her throat, "it was the better part of a year before we got him to talk. Still doesnt say an awful lot, except when hes on stage. We named him Chama, after my dad. Hes one of the joys of our life."
"Still a good hand with a sword," added Ozymandias. "As you may have seen earlier."
Treeza plopped herself down on the log next to her mate, bussed him on the cheek and smoothed his lustrous mustache. They exchanged proud and loving grins -- as their visitors reflected that it was probably more than chance that the odd couples strays all turned out so well.
"We keep hoping Chama will fall for one of the girls," Ozymandias confided. "Guess he cant decide which he prefers. Gods know, I couldnt choose between them!"
"More like he knows that choosing one of the them will break the heart of the other," Treeza said. "Too bad there arent two of him."
"What about Piedra?" asked Gabrielle, for whom the subject of choices and broken hearts was all too immediate and painful.
"Another forest foundling," said Treeza, "though less ragged than Chama and looking to be 14 instead of four. We were making camp day before last when he turned up on our doorstep, as it were. He was half starved. Garbed in pretty fancy dress, he was, but it looked like two or three fellows had worn it before he had. Wouldnt tell us how he came to be out in the wild on his own. Seemed to be suspicious of us -- or maybe afraid that hed bring trouble down on us somehow. Anyhow, we persuaded him to stay on for a bit, especially after he let slip that he was a fair hand as a tailor, having had training in sewing."
The formidable fortune-teller spread out her mighty mitts and stared at them ruefully. "I have many skills," she began, before breaking off in alarm when this simple statement somehow caused Gabrielle to choke on the cheese she was eating. Xena, for her part, might have been carved from stone. She arched an eyebrow, but otherwise made no move to aid her spluttering companion.
Breathe, Gabrielle, breathe. And for gods sake, dont look at Xena!
Finally, the bard caught her breath. "So sorry. Something went down the wrong way, I guess. You were saying ?" She assumed an air of complete concentration, but continued to avoid Xenas gaze.
"Saying? Oh, yes. Well, using a needle isnt one of my many talents. Piedra, though, was a marvel. Thats why we left him in camp yesterday, when we went out to help Chama and Nat finish harvesting the comfrey theyd found. He was feeling poorly, he said, and volunteered to stay behind to stitch up some of the costumes wed be needing in Kavala."
"You werent worried hed rob you and leave?" asked Xena. She received a pair of incredulous stares in answer.
"He wasnt like that!" protested Ozymandias. "Ive never met anyone I knew from the get-go was so essentially good and kind. He was probably taking a bigger chance hanging out with a bunch of disreputable actors than we were taking him in to the troupe."
Xena looked abashed -- and nodded in agreement. Treeza resumed her story.
"Anyway, when we returned with the first load of herbs, we found his body crumpled on the ground, near the props wagon. No marks, just a very peaceful expression on his sweet face, as if hed fallen suddenly to sleep. We decided he must have had some malady that he didnt want to tell us about "
"If only Id known!" blurted Ozymandias. "I might have been able to do something!"
"There wasnt any pain, Ozzie," his wife murmured quietly, trying to soothe the distraught healer. Xena shot him a comforting glance as well. She, too, knew what it was like to be powerless to help, despite all ones skills.
Deciding that a certain briskness was indicated, Treeza turned the subject to matters more tangible: "So, we put Piedras body in the simple casket we use in our performance of Antigone.We planned to build another once we got to Kavala."
"Its hard to beat a ripping story with a duel, a burial, and a double suicide, isnt it?" noted the impresario, distracted for the moment from his sorrow. "Especially one with a really, really strong woman at the center of it."
Ozymandias gave Xena a calculating look, as if wondering whether she might consider auditioning for the title role. She shot an icy blue glare back at him. The strong woman at his side slapped him lightly on the leg. "Oz, you fool! Shell chew you up and spit you out. Then it will be MY turn!" When he looked vaguely intrigued at the prospect, she gave him another tap and a fond smile. He grinned in reply, looking surprisingly boyish.
"Anyway, this morning we dug the grave," Treeza continued. "We were going to bury Piedra just before we left." Husband and wife looked at each other with an understanding borne of long years together and on the road.
"Guess we better get on with it, then," said Ozymandias resolutely.
"Anything we can do?" offered Gabrielle, just as Xena was about to stand and suggest that it was time for them to be on their way.
Oz embraced her warmly. "Your compassionate soul is a match for that of Piedra, Gabrielle. Thank you. Wed be honored if youd help us lay him to his rest. Do you have something that youd like to read?"
Gabrielle nodded somberly, remembering a poem shed written on the long lonely trek down Mount Nestos with Xenas body. The warrior resettled herself on the log. Neither of them, it seemed, was particularly eager to resume their journey to the crossroads.
When the actors left in the camp had put the final touches on their preparations for departure, they gathered at the fire circle for a solemn procession to the gravesite. There was a certain theatricality to the moment, though it was clear when Ozymandias tried to speak the opening words, and failed, that Piedra had indeed died among people who had cared for him.
Clearing his throat, Ozymandias was about to begin again when he noticed that the lid on the simple pine box was slightly askew. When he reached to straighten it, his trembling hand knocked it further awry -- revealing that it was empty!
Gasps turned in the blink of an eye to shouts of outrage, as the mourners crowded around the open casket. Treezas anguished cry rang out above the rest. "Those bastards! Why would they steal the body of a poor lad who never did them any harm?"
This time it was the diminutive director who comforted his sobbing mate, wrapping his arms as far around her as they could reach and rocking her as you would a child.
"Is there anything we can do, Xena?" Instinctively, Gabrielle had turned to the warrior for a remedy to this dreadful situation. Xena hated to disappoint her.
"Im sorry, Gabrielle. These soldiers were inept fighters, but they seem to have been expert woodsmen. They left barely a trace in the camp, and the area around it is largely rock. Theyd be almost impossible to track in any case, and theyre more than a candlemark ahead of us now."
She shook her head, sorrowfully. "Whatever their reason for robbing this grave, theres little chance that well discover it -- or them -- any time soon Unless you want to postpone finding out about those slavers er, and other things until this is settled?"
It was tempting, thought Gabrielle. This situation offered an easy out: these were good people and Piedra had been a good lad who deserved a decent burial. Much as she wished their conversation at the crossroads could be delayed -- or averted altogether -- the bard knew that doing so would resolve nothing, would make it harder, in fact. Xena wasnt ready for this confrontation either, she sensed, but the warriors integrity wouldnt permit her to lie, or encourage false hope, in order to avoid it. There really wasnt anything they could do.
Oz seemed to sense that, too. He and Treeza had overheard Xenas response and drawn their own difficult conclusions. Hard as it was, they had a theatrical troupe to run, ten mouths to feed, and performances in Kavala in three days time. They, too, could spare no time to find the scum who had kept Piedras body from its rest. The best they could do was to remember their departed friend and ask the gods watch over his mortal remains even as his soul began to explore the wonders of the Elysian Fields.
They said as much to the group, asking them to gather again around the gravesite. Afterward, Gabrielle recalled not a word of what was said, only that it was somehow simple and eloquent and inexpressibly sad.
The mourners stood for a moment in silence, then life resumed. Undirected, the couples daughters, Ophira and Oriel, shouldered the pine box and carried it to one of the wagons for eventual return to its place among the props. Their aunt followed with the lid. Oz and his brother-in-law began refilling the hole.
That left it to Treeza to bid their visitors farewell. She walked Xena and Gabrielle over to where Argo stood patiently waiting.
"Its a hard world, my friends, and no lie," the older woman observed. "And Piedra is in a better place. Thank you again for your help. If we can be of assistance to you, youll find us on the road to Kavala for a day or two, then hawking our wares in the central marketplace there for a fortnight or so thereafter. Performances twice daily!"
She embraced them both brusquely, wrapping Xena in a bear hug before the astonished warrior knew what hit her. She gave the bard a motherly buss on the forehead, then addressed them both solemnly, affixing them with a prescient stare:
"Life is too short to waste a single moment of it. Hold tightly to it -- and to each other. Nothing else matters. Nothing!"
With these startling words, Treeza the All Seeing turned back to her family:
"Lets get this show on the road!"
Continued in Part Two
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