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Editor's Choice Award

Part 1 of 3

by M. Parnell

Disclaimer: This story contains graphic scenes of violence, some related to sex, and portrays some small gestures of affection between two women who love each other. If any of this is likely to offend you, or make you unhappy, please read another selection.The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer, Argo and Cyrene are not my property, but have been borrowed for the purposes of this story. All the other characters, and the story are mine.

"Who spurns the shrine of Right, nor wealth nor power
shall be to him a tower to guard him from the gulf:
There lies his lot, where all things are forgot.
The Agamemnon of Aeschylus

"Xena, this is not good news." A young redhead faced her taller, dark-haired companion with rebellion in her eyes. "We can ford the river here and cut through that lush valley, or walk up river for two more days to avoid this valley altogether. In the end we'll be in the same place. I vote for the valley."

"Be my guest," Xena said with equanimity. "Wait for me on the other side." She put her hand on Gabrielle's chest to move her gently aside, so she and the golden mare she held by the reins could pass.

"Wait," Gabrielle called, as she quickened her steps to keep up. "I know what this is about," she said confidently. "You've been here before. Maybe you flattened this place when you were a warlord?" Her green eyes narrowed, questioning.

"You're half right," Xena admitted. "I've been here before. I never had to flatten the place. They always fed my troops. I used to wonder why they never resisted. Then it came to me: they had to know that I was itching to end their little community. The tiniest excuse was all I needed." She shrugged with regret. "They never gave me that excuse." She looked across the wide, shallow river at the green valley. "But that's not what this is about." She tore her eyes away and continued down the road.

"Wait, a minute. Don't go getting mysterious on me. If this isn't about a hostile welcome wagon, what is it?"

"They have odd customs, Gabrielle, strange beliefs. Trust me, you wouldn't be comfortable. Or safe. And you wouldn't be able to read or write. It's forbidden to teach women those things." Gabrielle froze in her tracks.

"Hold on! Now I'm really intrigued. Sit down and talk. Can I take notes?" She took one of Xena's arms and tugged her to a halt.

Xena twisted her lips in wry amusement. She had piqued the bard's interest. Gabrielle wouldn't let it go now until she'd wrested every shred of information out of her. "All right," she conceded, "I'll tell you all about them. But I'm not stopping. Just being close to this place gives me the creeps. It's called The Vale. From here it looks fertile and inviting. From the inside it feels dead and cold. I'd like to get far up river before we make camp."

"What can be so bad about them, Xena? Are they cannibals?" she conjectured.

Xena considered, then nodded her head slowly. "In a way they are. They do devour members of their own community. Not in the flesh, in the spirit." She motioned her head across the river, without looking that way. "Cross that river here, Gab, and everything changes. Your name for a start. Over there you'd be---Perdica, Widow of Perdicas. My name wouldn't change, since I've never been married. But they would add my father's name, if I were living in his household. Unless they knew about Solan, then I'd still be Xena, but they'd add 'Mother of Solan', just so I'd have an identifier."

"That sounds rather confusing. What's the point?"

"The point is, your identity comes from your connection to a male member of the community. That connection has to be made clear. Otherwise, you have no identity."

"You're not making this up?" Gabrielle asked, watching Xena's face for any sign of humor.

"Gabrielle, you're the storyteller. I'm just reporting what I know about that place."

"So my identity would be 'Widow of Perdicas', and you'd have none?"


"No wonder you want to avoid it."

"As a widow you'd have certain privileges, you'd be fed, protected, housed. You'd be allowed to keep the profits of your labor. Unless your eldest son, or in-laws objected."

"What?" Gabrielle exclaimed.

Xena pursed her lips. "You'd be better off than I. As a never married woman I'd have less status than Argo. No right to be fed, housed, clothed or protected. I'd have to earn those things with hard labor, until some man who needed a wife put in his bid."

"It sounds like an auction sale."

"It is," she said with distaste. "Father, brothers, uncles, cousins, any male relative, depending on the degree of kinship, can make an arrangement. If there are no male relatives, the community elders accept the best bid and put the proceeds in the community coffer. It's much the same for widows, but you'd have right of refusal, within certain limits."

Gabrielle watched Xena's face as she spoke. Her upper lip was curled in a sneer and her eyes held a deep anger. "Xena, why do the women put up with it?"

"I don't know," she replied tersely. "I'd almost believe they were cursed by the gods. More likely they fell into a bad habit and never climbed out. I never did understand. They look like any other women, yet then again, they don't. They look as if they just don't care. I'd rather be dead," she ended.

Gabrielle laughed. "But you wouldn't be. You'd find another way."


"Xena," she said after a moment, "I can understand not wanting to live there, but just passing through? They can't apply their rules to travelers, can they? I mean, they'd never bother you."

A massive burst of laughter exploded from Xena. "Gabrielle," she said fighting to make her words clear though the choking laughter. "Imagine if they knew Xena, Warrior Princess and Gabrielle, the Queen of the Amazon Nation, were crossing their territory, together, not a man in sight. Think they'd be happy?"

"No, but---"

"All I'd need to see is one face muscle move in disapproval," she threatened. "That'd be all the excuse I need to start some long overdue attitude correction. It wouldn't be pretty. So I think we'd better stay on this side of the river for a few more days." Xena's voice told Gabrielle that she wasn't kidding.

Xena broke the surface of the deep, clear pool and shook her thick mane of dark hair. The icy water had felt good after her long ride, but now it was time to dry off and move on. Gabrielle had been more than content to stay at the small inn swapping stories with the locals, but she had promised to return by nightfall and she'd just make it if she left now.

All in all, it had been a good day. Argo was grazing contentedly on the bank, and had clearly enjoyed the chance to stretch her legs and show some speed. The urgent message she'd conveyed to the port city of Arberis seemed like a small matter, but to the sailor who knew he was a father before setting off on a voyage of six months it was momentous. His response to the news had made her almost feel ashamed of grousing when Gabrielle proposed the mission. "Some favors just aren't very heroic, Argo," she called to the war horse. "But I think Gabrielle owes us big time, hey? What shall we ask of the little bard?"

She climbed out of the pool and looked along the branch of stream which flowed into the River Ela. The current was strong here, and showed heavy white caps. Shortly down stream it negotiated a series of falls and then calmed itself to meander through the valley. She began to towel off with a dry cloth, watching the river as she worked. Something, an animal? was bobbing in the current. Xena threw the cloth down and ran to the bank. Squinting against the high sun she saw tiny limbs thrashing in the water, and a mass of golden hair atop a tiny face. She ran along the bank a few feet, looking for a good point of entry. From a low promontory she launched herself into the water at a point downstream of the child, and struck out with powerful strokes, to intersect the child's path as it was carried by. One arm seized the child around the chest and carried it on its back, while the other arm and the long legs propelled them back to the shore. The bank here broke off sharply. Xena seized hold of the root of a willow and anchored herself while she lifted the child with one arm and heaved it onto the bank. At that moment a heavy branch rolled past, twisting its many limbs to churn the water and sweep up everything in its path. Xena turned in time to see the club-like branch which walloped her. The current took her away from the bank, as if claiming her in exchange for the child.

It was dawn before Gabrielle began to feel concern. She woke and knew at once that she was alone. "Xena?" she called into the still-dark room. Many things might have delayed Xena, not all of them bad. Maybe the sailor had departed early and she had decided to ride down the coast to intercept his ship. Maybe Argo had thrown a shoe. Maybe...It was useless to speculate, but a nagging fear tugged at her heart. It was one of the bad possibilities that had stopped her, she was certain of that. Gabrielle dressed hurriedly and found the innkeeping couple preparing breakfast.

"My friend never returned last night," she explained. "Has anyone brought word from her?"

"No. Sorry. Does that mean you'll be passing another night here? Your stories found quite an audience last night."

"Yeah? Well, thanks, but I'm not certain. I'm sure she'll show up later today," she lied hopefully.

"Hurry with the horses. We don't have all morning." The stout man hawked and spat, not looking at the younger man to whom he gave the command. The young man obeyed wordlessly, quickening his pace with the team of horses which needed to be watered. He lead them to one of the myriad pools which lined the banks of the River Ela. He left them untethered, knowing that the gentle draughthorses would go nowhere but back between the shafts when they were finished. "We all learn our places early in life, don't we boys?" he asked. He sat back on his haunches while they drank, and began to whittle, working wood into the image of a horse. "Excuse me if I get your aft better than your fore," he apologized to the nearest horse." I see a lot more of you from that angle."

He turned his head sharply at a noise nearby. It sounded human, like a cough. "Hello," he called out. There was no reply, but after a few seconds the cough was heard again, this time accompanied by a low moan. He rose and parted the bushes which overgrew the bank. There he found her. She was half submerged in river water, but her head and shoulders rested on the bank. She had been in the water long enough to turn her lips blue with cold. Fresh blood oozed from a place behind her temple. The coughing was involuntary, her body's attempt to rid the lungs of water. Her eyes were closed, and she gave no sign of consciousness when he pulled her naked body onto the shore. Leaving the horses to fend for themselves, he carried her in his arms to the camp his family had established nearby. She needed blankets, the warmth of the fire, and something hot inside her.

"What's that you've got," his mother peered closely as he lay the limp form by the fire.

"A woman. I found her by the river, half drowned. Bring me a blanket." The old woman hurried over for a closer look before fetching the blanket. "Are you sure she's not dead?" she ventured.

"She's not dead! Get the blanket or she will be." He turned her on her stomach and worked her back to expel water from her body. He dried her with a towel, took the thick woolen blanket from the old woman to wrap her, and placed her as near the fire as he dared. "One of your infusions, Mother. Hot and strong. Put some port in it." Her body began to shiver as she warmed, and he held her close to him to keep her still.

"I'd say that's a bit of luck. A gift from the water nymphs. Maybe she is a water nymph," she guessed, a little afraid of this unexpected guest in camp. "I wonder what your father'll want done with her."

"She's not a water nymph, she's a woman, and it's nothing to do with father. I found her."

"You found her?" The gruff voice at the edge of the clearing was much louder than necessary. "I'm still head of this family. Let's see what you've found." The old man shuffled over to the fire and used his walking stick to move the blanket which covered her. The younger man pushed the stick away and closed the blanket.

"Leave her. She needs to be warm."

"Is she a water nymph?" the old woman asked her husband.

"No," he snarled with impatience. "She's a woman all right, a magnificent woman. Quite a gift to you Alik."

"Why are you talking about a 'gift'? Obviously she had an accident and would have drowned except she was washed ashore by the current. We have to take her up river to find her people."

"Are you daft? You have a gift left at your feet and you want to give it back? She's meant to be yours," he stamped his walking stick for emphasis.

Alik called to his mother. "Is that brew ready yet?"

"Almost. One last ingredient," she murmured, almost to herself, as she stirred a fragrant powder into the small bowl she held.

The old couple watched closely as Alik propped her on his knee and gently patted her face to rouse her. Her eyes opened briefly. Beneath heavy lids she saw only the steaming bowl he held to her lips. "Drink a bit," the soft voice at her ear invited. Gabrielle? she wondered fuzzily. She closed her eyes again as the roaring pain in her head threatened to explode at the effort to see. Alik caught her head as it lolled to the side and held her mouth open as he poured some of the warm liquid into her.

By mid-afternoon Gabrielle had determined to retrace Xena's route to Arberis. She's bound to have left some trace, or word along the route, she figured. The innkeepers urged her to stay another night, but the feeling of unease had deepened. She left quickly, once she made her decision, leaving word of her route for Xena if the warrior returned. As she left town the bard was almost running.

Xena woke in the stifling back of a wagon as it jounced over deeply rutted-roads. Scant feet above her head a grimy canvas cover swayed in concert with the wagon. Some overpowering odor assailed her nostrils and she breathed through her mouth to escape it. Cabbage? Rotten onions? She reached to let some air in through the flap of canvas which met the side of the wagon, and caught a whiff of the garment she wore. Gods, what is this thing? She couldn't recall the garment, or the wagon. For that matter she couldn't recall much. She held her face for a few minutes at the open flap, drinking in the fresh air, until, exhausted by the effort she collapsed again on to the heap of blankets which lined the small wagon.

It was been a long time since the words on the signpost had been legible, but everyone knew where the two forks lead: to the left one entered the sleepy village of Akra, to the right one forded the river to The Vale. The Vale had been the destination of the tiny family since they had set out weeks before, yet it was suddenly a matter of discussion.

"We need to find her people," Alik pleaded from his seat on the wagon. "It's only right."

"We're not going to that village. They don't like our kind," the old woman next to him protested.

"All the more reason!" he exclaimed. "If we bring her to The Vale and her people come looking for her, our brethren won't thank us for causing them trouble."

"They'd never dare to look in The Vale," the old man spoke with quiet certainty.

"You'd be safe with her there."

"And what if she objects."

"She'll have no choice," he said flatly, looking along the road, at a speck which kicked up dust a long way off. "Besides, when she woke before she didn't even know her name."

"She was barely conscious," Alik pointed out. "And she said a name: 'Gabrielle'."

"That wasn't her name," the old woman chimed in, "she was looking to see if one of us was Gabrielle. Do I look like a Gabrielle, then, Estrus?" she cackled with glee. The old man ignored the question and looked at his son. "She should have called for a husband when she woke; she's old enough to have one."

"Maybe Gabrielle's her daughter."

"Aye, she's had a child. We woman can tell those things."

"Makes no difference. She was sent to us. It's destiny. Our way is now her way."

"Father, I don't want her!"

"What's wrong with this one, then?" he inquired suspiciously.

"There's nothing 'wrong' with her! I just don't want to find a woman this way."

"Fine. Don't take her. I'll have her." The old woman's eyebrows shot up. "Not that way, Estra. I'll say she's our child, and take a bid."

Alik shot out of his seat to confront the old man beneath the signpost. "That's a monstrous lie."

"Right, and we don't ever lie, do we?" The young man's face changed. "Take it or leave it." He turned to adjusting the harness on the team of horses. "She's your woman, or she's mine."

Alik ran a hand through his long sandy hair and shuddered as he sought a retort in vain. The woman of Estrus, however briefly. That he'd never allow. He climbed back into his seat, and held out a hand for the old man.

"My woman. All right, you have your way." Again.

From a high point in the road Gabrielle watched as the wagon lurched forward onto the right fork. She had been hoping to ask for news or to hitch a ride for a distance, but they weren't going her way as it turned out. So left at the fork, Akra by nightfall, and then...who knew?

It was nightfall when the wagon came to a stop outside an uninhabited cottage, close to the river. Even by torchlight the need for repair was obvious. "This'll be the place, Estra, our home," Estrus sighed, regarding his new property with satisfaction. Estra saw it for all the work it would require.

"How's your woman feeling, Alik," she called to her son. "Looks like she's capable of a good deal of work. "Hope she's fit soon."

Alik climbed in the wagon beside Xena and roused her. He thought he saw her eyes flutter open there in the dark, but she made no response when he spoke. "Sleep," he whispered, as he lifted her from the wagon, "before you wake to your nightmare."

The inn at Akra was a humble establishment of three beds and a stable. The beds were occupied by the time Gabrielle arrived, so she agreed to a place in the loft. It was cheaper, she consoled herself. Inns and prepared food were rarities for the warrior and the bard. Xena hunted, Gabrielle gathered and the sky was their roof. Gabrielle had once suggested a tent. "Bulky," Xena had objected. "Forever putting it up, taking it down or waiting for it to dry out. And who do you suppose will carry it? Argo's not a caravan." Remembering the warrior's low tones, she bid her a silent goodnight.

In the morning Gabrielle woke from a dream of Xena, and carried the sounds with her. Or thought she did. Yet even as she sat up and brushed the hay from her clothes, she heard Argo's urgent whinny. Her heart leapt as she looked down from the loft and saw the golden war-horse being led to a stall, still saddled. Yet Xena's sheathed sword and chakram were affixed to Argo's gear.

"Where's the owner of that horse?" she demanded of the startled man who led her.

"I don't know miss," he answered. "I'm just trying to repay a debt. I wish I did know where she was. Do you know this horse."

"Yes, I know this horse, and her owner." Gabrielle's anxiety fought with her anger as she scrambled down the ladder from the loft. "Where did you find her?"

The man backed away as Gabrielle greeted Argo with an affectionate stroke on the muzzle. Argo lipped her in return, before she began a serious examination of Argo, as she had seen Xena do many times.

"Seems obvious you do know her."

"I said I do," she snarled. "Where did you find her?"

Up river. She was waiting by a pool, as if expecting someone to return. There were some things." He gestured to a bag tied to Argo's saddle. "I figure someone left them behind when she went into the water. "

Gabrielle stared at the contents of the bag: Xena's clothing, armor, breeches, greaves and bracers, all there. The man continued. "Miss, my little girl wandered off and fell into the river day before last. The river's pretty full right now, and wild as ever, We thought she was gone, but we went searching along the banks. On both sides the current throws things up near shore, in shallow basins. We hoped she'd survive until she was thrown into one of them. Turns out, that wasn't what happened. She said a mermaid rescued her, just threw her up on shore, and disappeared. Of course, we laughed, but you know kids, can't make them understand that mermaids are only in saltwater. Anyway, we thought more like, it was a woman. We went on searching the banks of the river. We haven't found her," he ended with regret. "I don't think she would have survived below here. The falls just tumble everything that gets that far to bits." He flinched at his own choice of words.

Gabrielle stared open-mouthed. Xena---just disappeared? "She's a good swimmer. I'm sure she survived. I just need to find her."

" I hope you do miss, and that's a fact. She saved my little girl and I'd do anything for her. The name's Joncas." He held out his hand in introduction.

Why don't you keep closer watch over your daughter? Gabrielle wanted to ask, but only took his hand and said "Gabrielle. The woman who saved your little girl is Xena. I'm grateful to you for looking after her things."

"The innkeeper's my cousin. He said he'd keep the horse and gear until..." He shrugged.

"Well, I'll take them now," Gabrielle said.

"My brothers and I will keep searching the banks, but I'm certain that we won't find her; we would have found her this morning if she had reached the shore. She's either over the falls, or she wandered off, away from the river. I don't know where she might be."

"I know she's alive," Gabrielle said with quiet conviction. "That's all I need to know right now."

Sometime in the night the sleeping woman had begun to thrash around, as if in the throes of a nightmare. Alik had reached out then to hold her, making her still. He became aware of the stench from the ill-fitting dress she wore, and removed it. At dawn she began to stir and heard his voice in her ear. "Good morning. How are you feeling?" She tensed at the unfamiliar voice and touch, and turned to look at him. He touched the wound on her scalp, and she winced. "How is your head? Remember anything yet? Your name?" he urged. Just then he heard his mother's tread on the stairs to the loft. She opened the door without knocking and entered. There were no beds set-up yet, and they lay on a thin straw mattress on the floor. Estra regarded the naked woman soberly then began to smile. "Your woman, eh?" she cackled.

"That dress stinks," he admonished her.

"Not easy to do wash on the road, son. I expect it'll do her until we find something more fitting. Feeling better, then daughter?" Xena's eyebrows shot up. She looked around at the strange room and the unfamiliar faces, speaking as if they knew her. Who was this man in whose arms she had awakened? Why was this woman calling her 'daughter'? Her mouth was dry. Some odd taste lingered on her tongue. There was something she had drunk the night before; that was the taste. The old woman went on, in her pinched, nasal twang: "Remembering our name then, dear?" She paused. "No? Alika, that's your name. Alika, wife of Alik. I'll leave you to your husband." She backed her way slowly down the steep steps which served the loft.

"You're not making this easier," Alik said cryptically. "Try to remember anything," he pleaded, "before it's too late." He rummaged through a small chest which he had lugged upstairs the night before, and produced a long-tailed white shirt, embroidered with an intricate pattern. "My wedding blouse," he explained. "It will suit you better than that old rag of my mother's, at least until I can find something else. You still need bed rest anyway."

She took the shirt and pulled it over her head. It smelled of cedar chips and lavender. She smiled at him. "Thank you."

"I saw the ocean once, when I was very small. I never thought I'd see that blue again." She regarded him with a puzzled expression. "Your eyes," he explained. "They capture that ocean-blue." He paused. "I've always thought so."

"Always? I'm sorry. I don't remember..."

"You took a nasty blow on the head, while you were swimming," he ventured. She gave no sign of recall. "Just wait. Maybe it'll come back."

She was looking at the embroidery. "This is lovely work," she admired.

"Do you embroider?" he asked hopefully. "My...That is, the woman who did that has been dead a long time. Mother's no good at it. The linens always look better with a woman's touch."

"I embroider," she acknowledged. "but not for a long time now." That was a strange thing to recall, considering she couldn't recall her own name. She narrowed her eyes with the effort. "She said my name is Alika. That doesn't sound right."

"What do you prefer?" he asked, trying to sound casual.

"I have a name. Not Alika."

"You've probably skipped back to your pre-nuptial name. We haven't been together long," he said, speaking a truth at last.

"Pre-nuptial?" She remembered: she had awakened in his arms. She looked at his lean, weathered face. The green of his eyes reminded her of someone. "You're my husband?" she asked.

He nodded encouragement. "That's right. It's coming back to you."

"No." She shook her head for emphasis, then held it still to stop the pain. "I don't remember you. I have no husband," she said with certainty.

"Alika, please." He sat beside her on the mattress and held both hands between his, gently. "I am your husband. It's important that you remember that. Even if you don't remember, pretend that you do." She pulled her hands away, and began to rise. The room swam, and at his gentle pressure, she sank back down. "You aren't fit to go any place right now. I'll bring you some breakfast. You must be starving, you haven't eaten since we--in days."

She ate sparingly of the coarse bread he provided. The cheese was hard and musty, and she refused it altogether. "I'm sorry," he apologized. "It's hard to eat well when you're traveling. Mother will make proper meals once we're settled."

"You live with your parents?" she asked between sips of his mother's hot brew. She could taste comfrey and chamomile; some port had been added, but there was a bitter aftertaste, she couldn't identify. She wasn't sure if she liked it, but it certainly made the pain in her head stop.

"Right now, yes *we* do live with them," he nodded. "We were on the way to this place when you had your accident." He looked at her closely for any reaction. "So we're all starting out new. I expect I'll have my own place soon," he added hopefully. "For all those kids we plan on having."

She ignored that comment and asked instead: "Where is this place?"

He laughed. "You really don't recall, even that? All the plans we made to move to The Vale, and you don't recall?" He chuckled. "This was Father's lifelong dream, to live among the Brethren who kept the old ways. You know hard it is to live outside our community."

She looked at him uncertainly. No I haven't any idea what you're talking about, she thought, but ...The Vale. That sounded familiar.

"What's in this stuff? she asked, holding up the shallow bowl she drank from.

"It's my mother's variation on a traditional recipe of the Brethren. I don't know what's in it exactly. Woman's work," he explained. "Like embroidery, " he smiled.

"You didn't know I embroider," she pointed out. "Yet you say I'm your wife? Why wouldn't you know that?"

He turned away to avoid her steady gaze. "Like I said, we haven't been together long. I have a lot to do, and you need to rest." He kissed the top of her head before descending from the loft.

The day was warm for early Spring. That's good, Gabrielle mused, remembering that Xena had nothing to wear. True to his word, Joncas had organized a second search of the swollen river. On both sides, men and hunting dogs combed the bank, while skiffs, without going too near the falls, plied the current. In two's and three's the men had reported back to her, while she patrolled the search, on Argo. No trace yet. Two more men approached her now, not hurrying. Another "no-news" report. One of the men looked familiar from a distance. The sun glinted crazily off the bell-shaped helmet. Joxer. The familiar sight made her spirits rise, for a moment. Why, Gabrielle?, she asked herself. He's hardly the answer to the problem. But he was familiar; he knows Xena.

"Gabrielle," he greeted her warmly. "I should have known you and Xena would be on the job. When I saw her---"

"You saw her, Joxer?" she asked eagerly.

"Yeah, that's why I'm here."

"Where, when?"

"Two days ago, in Arberis. Of course she didn't see me, or I would have accompanied her here. She was chowing down on fish and bread drizzled with liquamen. Yuck!" He made a face. "I don't know how anyone, even Xena, can eat that---"

"How did you know she was coming here?"

"Well, I was in a tavern, Xena was at the far end, eating at the bar. I started over, but was delayed by some, ah, trouble involving---"

"Never mind that Joxer."

Her abrupt manner focused his mind. "Okay. Let's see. When I arrived where she had been there was just her empty dish and mug. She'd been drinking with some sailor. What was that about?" he leered.

"It was about a good deed," that I urged her to do, she lamented. "So he told you where she was headed?" she prompted.

"That's right. I thought I'd join you guys there. Then I ran into this search. Too bad, huh? The locals are certain she's a goner." He looked at Gabrielle suddenly curious about why she was riding Argo. "Feeling brave today, eh? Where's Xena?"

"I don't know Joxer," she said desolately. "She's the one we're looking for."

By late afternoon it seemed futile to continue the search. Joncas promised that the community would remain vigilant, but he held out little hope. "Over the falls," was his verdict.

"I can't believe she's dead, Joxer. I've known that feeling, I don't have that emptiness now. She's somewhere. I just have to find her."

"We, Gabrielle. I care about her too, you know."

She regarded him with a sort of affection. He was grimy with sweat and dust from his long day's search. He had been diligent and tireless, and tried his best to keep the fretting young bard's spirits up.

"I know you care, Joxer. Xena would be glad to know you're with me. Thank you." He returned her small smile. "So, what now?" he asked.

"I don't know," she admitted uncertainly. Joncas seems certain she's not this side of the falls, so I suppose we go down river, look for her there." She squinted at the fading sun. "We still have some daylight, so let's get started."

"Alika! Alika! wake up." The slumbering woman rose with a start, seized the old woman by the throat and cocked a fist, before she focused on the wrinkled, frightened face cowering before her.

"I'm sorry," she managed, releasing her grip and stepping backwards. She warned the old woman: " Don't startle me."

"I nudged you with my foot," the old woman whined. "You tried to kill me!"

"If I had, you'd be dead," came the reply. "So keep your feet to yourself."

The old woman regarded her warily. "I'll speak to Estrus about this," she promised.

"It won't go well for you."

"Estrus? He's the old man?"

"Head of the household! He puts the roof over your head, and the food in your belly." She gestured at the blankets strewn over the floor. "You lie in bed all day, not earning your keep, and attack me when I come to wake you. What sort of gratitude is that?" she ended, raising her voice, but half-turned as if to retreat.

"Look, I don't know who you people are, but you've nothing to do with me, so keep your food, and your roof, and I'll be on my way." She pulled the blouse over her head and tossed it at the old woman. "Where are my things?" she demanded.

"Your things? You still don't remember anything, do you?" the old woman said with relief. "You have no things. 'Your things' were lost in the accident at the river." Xena tried to remember. There was something about the river...she couldn't recall.

"Your things will be whatever your husband provides you. If you don't soon make yourself useful that won't be much, except a good walloping!"

Xena's eyes narrowed. Who was this old woman? Who was this Alik, who claimed to be her husband? She pressed her hands to her temples, and held her head steady for a few minutes. Gods, for that matter, who am I? No matter, she decided, it was time to leave. She started for the stairs.

"Where are you going? Make yourself decent," the querulous old woman exclaimed.

Xena ignored her and continued down the stairs backwards. She saw the main room of the house for the first time: kitchen, dining and living area. It was like any other, but having been unoccupied it needed a good deal of work. She considered the bread which lay on the table, and decided she'd rather live off the land until...something. She tried to focus on an idea which drifted just past her comprehension. Just let me get out of here and I'll be all right, she told herself. As she reached for the door handle, it opened in. There in the doorway stood Estrus, flanked by Alik and a man she didn't know. The three men looked at her, mouths agape. She remembered that she was naked.

"Alik, I'm leaving," she said nonplused, ignoring the other two men. She began to push past them. Behind her, she heard the old woman's voice. "She's gone mad, Estrus, tried to kill me!"

Xena's eyes rolled up. "Then I guess you'll be happy to see the back of me," she shot back.

"Alika, where are you going?" Alik asked.

"Back where I belong," she answered, avoiding specifics.

"That would be with your husband," Estrus said. To the man at his side he confided.

"She took quite a blow to the head, Premus. Hasn't been herself since."

"You need to dress," Alika suggested, trying to buy time.

"It seems I have no clothes here," she answered, and it won't be your problem in a few minutes. May I pass?" she growled.

"I've never seen you like this," he admitted warily.

"Well, we haven't been together long," she threw back at him, " and certainly no longer."

Estrus grabbed her arm as she pushed by. "You let go of me right now, if you want to keep that arm," she threatened. Estrus dropped her arm.

Alik approached her carefully, hands up in a non-threatening manner. "Look I won't try to stop you, but let me find you something to wear." At some level he was disappointed, at another, he hoped she would make good on her departure. Better now than later, he admitted to himself. "The people of The Vale won't be kind if they find you this way. Bad enough you'll be alone," he explained.

"Not that dress from yesterday," she insisted.

"No! I've got something else. Our neighbor here has brought some of his wife's things." He took a bundle from the other man, who had watched the little drama, fascinated. The bundle was opened on the ground outside the house. Alik held up a blue dress. This will suit your eyes, he thought. It looked too short and tight, but it would cover her enough, Xena decided as she took it from him. "Thanks." She raised her arms to pull it over her head. "Let me help," Alik offered, pulling it down over her shoulders. At that moment, while her vision was obscured, Estrus griped his walking stick by the end and brought the knob down hard on the back of her head.

"Father!" Alik protested as she slumped to the ground. "Why did you do that?"

"Because you wouldn't. Never did know how to treat a woman," he grumbled. "Think I never taught you anything."


By morning the bed was erected, and she was securely bound to it, wrists and ankles tied to the four bed posts. The old woman came in eagerly, ready to gloat over the would-be rebel. "So anxious to leave, well look at you now," she cackled. She sat on the edge of the bed, held her chin firmly, and began to spoon the hot infusion down her throat. "Just wait until we swallow this and our poor head will be feeling better," she said with mock sympathy, "you lazy lump of a girl!" Alik had slept on the floor beside the bed. Unable to watch the grotesque scene being played out between his mother and his captive bride he looked out the window instead. It was too late to turn back now, he acknowledged. The neighbor had witnessed the attempted escape, heard the lies, seen the brutality. The family would be branded as liars forever after if they let her go now. Already the story would have spread halfway round The Vale. He ground a fist into his palm as he heard the spluttering attempts of the abducted woman to reject the liquid. It was futile. The old woman had her way.

It was the same in the afternoon, and at night. By morning of the next day she no longer struggled against the infusion, or the thin gruel which was its alternate. She had ceased to strain at her bonds, and waited passively for any attention to be paid to her. She responded to the old woman sullenly, but did respond. The alternative was a sharp slap across the face. Estrus required no response; he merely came to observe her behavior. Her response to Alik was different. He came to her with apology in his voice, and tenderness. One limb at a time he unfastened her bonds and soothed the chafe marks until they were tolerable. His face carried the sorrow she felt. When he soothed her head with a cool cloth, or sat beside her until she fell asleep, she felt less alone. If only he never left. But he did leave, and then Estra snaked her way into the room, staying out of her vision as much as possible, until she felt as if she were being visited by a malign spirit. By noon of the second day Estra commented on how nicely she had finished her ration. "Almost civil, Alik." She commanded the young man in the corner: "Remove her bonds. It's time she was put to work." That's why Alik stayed home from the fields all day, she realized dully as she watched him untie the cloth bindings. There was no soothing massage now. She sat on the edge of the bed rubbing her own wrists until Estra seized her dress by the shoulder and pulled her to her feet. "Now fine lady, we'll see what sort of work you can do."

For two days Gabrielle and Joxer had followed the River Ela, where it resumed its course below the falls. They were relieved to find no body, to hear no reports of a recovered corpse from the locals, but it was disheartening to find no sign of a live Xena. At last, several miles down, Gabrielle looked across the now peaceful river at the valley beyond.

"You know, she said, "it's just crazy enough."

"What?" Joxer asked.

"Xena hates that place. Always has. It would be just crazy enough, for the gods to send her there, against her will."

"The Vale? Nah! I've heard stories about that place. Talk about weird! Missagee, misogi--

"Misogynistic?" she suggested.

"Yeah, that too. She wouldn't stay long enough to take a deep breath. They wouldn't let her stay that long." he said with assurance.

"What if she's hurt, Joxer? Or what if they recognized her as Xena, Warrior Princess?"

"Oh. They know *that* Xena?"

"Yeah. She never did them any harm, but she collected provisions for her army on a fairly regular basis. They wouldn't like her much." A shiver traveled the length of her spine. "Besides, Joxer, if she's not there, where is she? I don't know where else to look."

"We can't just go in there, Gab," he gestured at her. "You're a girl, looking for another girl. They'll want to know where your husband is..."

She looked at Joxer. "How are you at role playing?"

"Alika!" The name came, as always from the old woman, in a tone of command. The dark head whipped up, hoping the old woman was not too nearby. She felt her fingers clench around the stiff brush she used on the cooking pot. Every day, it seemed, the old woman burnt some meal. Today it was the porridge. "Yeah," she responded in the sullen tone she reserved for the crone. "Mother Estra" she tagged on.

"Are you still scrubbing that pot? I could have had it cleaned ten times." The younger woman swallowed the response that sprang to mind. She didn't know if it was too much trouble to form the words, or whether she wanted to avoid another clout from the pot- lifter the old woman always had to hand. The bruise on her shoulder still ached, despite the embrocation Alik had rubbed into it the night before.

"Fetch water from the well, or we'll have no supper tonight." She spoke sharply. The old woman trusted her as far as the well; she was happy to avoid the chore herself. She no longer feared the quiet stranger. Despite her size and strength the fight had been taken out of her. She was content now to do as she was bid, or if not content, no longer in a mood to do otherwise.

A blessing if we have no supper, the woman called Alika thought to herself, but she was happy to go to the well. The air in The Vale was fragrant with the scents of Spring, in sharp contrast to the musty, cabbagey odor of the tiny house. And the sun felt warm. She wanted to rid herself of the constricting blue dress which seemed to be her only garment, and lie in the sun-kissed meadow. She hauled the bucket up slowly, one tiny act of rebellion, and took the time to examine her surroundings. Odd, she thought. The place seems familiar, yet she knew they -the family- were all new to the area. Despite the scents and the sun, the entire landscape seemed flat and dead somehow. So little life seemed to go on here. At the end of the still horizon, something moved. A wagon?

"Alika!" The voice again. "Don't dawdle!" She lifted the bucket from the edge of the well and started back to the house, being careful not to spill. Mud tracks on the floor amounted to some sort of sin, punishable by an extra chance to scrub the board-floor. Much later, she heard the sound of a wagon in the yard. The old woman directed her to fetch onions from the root cellar, while she saw to the visitors. Alika only heard the murmur of voices, but longed to see the people, any people who did not live in this accursed house. Gabrielle took Argo by the bridle and led her along the road which led away from the house. The big mare was reluctant to move. "I know, girl," she sympathized, "you weren't bred to pull wagons." The wheeled vehicle they had borrowed from Joncas could hardly be called a "wagon" but it suited their purpose. As newly arrived settlers to The Vale, they needed some sign they planned on staying.

"That old woman gave me the creeps," she said over her shoulder to Joxer when they were out of earshot. "She's the worst of everyone we've met so far."

"Talk about hospitality!" Joxer threw up his hands. "Her well was right there! And she couldn't spare a cup of water."

"Yeah! Her 'lazy daughter-in-law wouldn't want to come and draw the bucket'; 'time she got another walloping'. What sort of people are these? It's not as if we couldn't draw the water ourselves," she finished indignantly. "If Xena is here I hope we find her quickly."

"Yeah," Joxer agreed, "before I lose control and start busting heads."

Gabrielle smiled as she climbed into the seat beside him. "Funny. Xena had the same impulse about this place," she remembered.

"Yeah, it's that warrior thing," Joxer told her. As he waxed eloquent on the similarities he and Xena shared as warriors, Gabrielle started to regret the remark, then looked at the simple soul beside her and changed her mind. Let him enjoy it, she decided. Someone might as well feel good for a few minutes, and he's earned the right.

For two days they had passed through a land that was as hostile in reality as it was in legend. When I see Xena, I must congratulate her for her accuracy, Gabrielle noted. She filed it away with the dozens of other things she had stored up to relate to Xena. First, I have to find her, she reminded herself, and here, that was no easy task. The bard prided herself on being able to weasel information out of anyone. Here, she would have preferred to use Xena's pinch method. She made a sour face at the memory of these dour people. They might prefer death to giving up anything, including information. She wondered if they were that way amongst themselves, then remembered, that she was, as far as they knew, one of them: Joxina, wife of Joxer. Still they had not spoken to her in any depth, shared little beyond directions, and at no encounter did anyone volunteer a name, even though Joxer was sure to give theirs.

"Gabr---Joxina, maybe at the next chance I should do all the talking. I mean, none of the other women open their mouths. Maybe that puts people off." Joxer said this uncertainly. He knew Gabrielle was running this show, and she had been, sometimes, a bit ...liverish?

She surprised him by smiling. "I think I was coming to that same conclusion, Joxer. I'm beginning to feel like an invisible person." Try as she might she could not recall the features of any individual woman they had met so far, and she had paid special attention to them. Their faces blended into one mask of sadness. They had become, in a way, invisible.

"From here on, you talk. Just remember, don't be too obvious," she cautioned. "wait for them to volunteer information. On second thought, don't ; we'll grow old that way."

"Xena never taught you that pinch thing of hers, huh? We sure could use it now." Gabrielle shot him a sideways glance. This was getting scary.

Supper was the hardest time. The light was fading, and little of it came through the few, tiny windows. The air was stuffy with the smells of Estra's cooking and the acrid tobacco she and Estrus both to enjoyed. Estrus lay his pipe before him beside his place at the table, and the smoke drifted down to the end near the hearth. That was Alika's seat, close to the pots, for serving, and the big wash bucket for cleaning up after. No prayer of thanks started the meal. If the people of The Vale honored any gods, Alika had not yet heard of them. No one ate until Estrus had taken his food from the heavy platter Alika held, and began to eat. Alik served himself next, then Estra. When all were taken care of, Alika had leave to put the serving dish down and serve herself. She took little. The food was barely edible. Estrus and his wife drank ale, Alik chose water, and by Alika's place was the ubiquitous pitcher of the infusion Estra prepared for her. Alika poured a large mug full, and finished it before she touched her food. Estra nodded with approval as Alika refilled the mug. "Specially brewed for women of child bearing years," she had told her. Alika didn't care if it did please the old witch, she had grown fond of the drink. There was little news to be exchanged at the table. Estrus recited the list of the chores he had accomplished that day, waited for his wife's praise, then questioned Alik closely about what he had managed to do. Then the prospects for the weather were discussed, and finally a boil on Estrus' back which needed to be lanced. As he pushed back his plate he inquired about his wife's day. It was much the same with her, she recounted her household routine, ticked off the flaws in Alika's chores and character, complained about the rat which had gnawed into the cupboard, and then mentioned the couple who had stopped asking for water.

"I told them I couldn't spend my day drawing the bucket up for strangers," she explained. "If Alika was a more reliable girl I could have shown some hospitality---"

"Mother, you couldn't give weary travelers a drink of water from the bucket?" Alik exploded. "They could have drawn it up themselves."

"I didn't want to encourage them hanging about," she defended herself. Alika had looked up briefly at the sound of her name. Now she looked again, with interest, at Alik.

"Mind your manners, boy," Estrus scolded his son. "You did the right thing, woman.

What was this couple like then?"

"New to The Vale," she sniffed.

"Like we are," Alik pointed out.

Estra ignored her son. "Young couple. He smiled too much. Let his wife do most of the talking."

Estrus grunted his disapproval. "He'll learn."

"Still she was a pretty little thing. Blondish hair, maybe tending toward the red, and green eyes. Joxer was the name. Calls her Joxina."

Joxer. Alika's blue eyes were raised to stare at the old woman. "What did you say?" Three pair of eyes stared back at her. It was the first time she had spoken at table.

"Here. You see to your supper. You've lots of chores to do before your day is over," Estra reminded her.

"Mother, I'd like some time with Alika tonight. I won't have you wearing her out from dawn to dark."

"Life is hard, son, best she gets used to it."

"No, woman. Let him have his fun." Estrus winked broadly at Alik.

Alika had not followed the conversation. She was trying to recall what Estra had said about Joxer and Joxina. Why did that draw her attention? She swallowed the last of the brew from the pitcher. Joxer and his blonde were soon lost in the flurry of work that followed dinner.

Alik watched with pleasure as his wife undressed. She did her best to wash from a tiny basin of water. She dumped the cold water out the window and refilled the basin from a wooden bucket, to wash her hair. "I need a bath," she said when she had finished." It was as if she had merely thought out loud, expecting no reply.

"Alika?" he ventured, not sure if she remembered he was there. "We don't have a tub, but I'll get one." He would do that he promised himself, although the old people didn't hold with full body immersion. Little enough to give her in return for -- stealing her life, he acknowledged. "Is there anything else?"

She shrugged. What was he asking? Did she want something? At last she said, "I only have one dress; it doesn't fit."

He dropped his head, ashamed to provide so poorly for his wife. "The neighbor brought other clothes but Estra put them someplace. I can't find them," he ended helplessly. Damn, he thought, why can't I insist? They were sent for Alika. "If I got some fabric, could you make something?"

"Yes," she said without considering. "I can sew."

"I'm interested to find out all your skills, " he chuckled, feeling a measure of pride. "I'm sure you have many."

Many skills? "I do," she said, and stopped, trying to catch up with some errant memory. The breath caught in her throat. She picked up the wedding blouse Alik had given her to wear days before, and slipped it over her head. Alik threw back the cover on the bed and invited her in. It felt good to settle into the soft mattress. The Spring was damp, and the night air carried a chill. Alik pulled her to him. She froze for a moment, and began to pull away. He let go. "I'm sorry. I won't force you," he whispered. "Things have been rotten for you, I'll make it better," he promised. Things won't end the same way again, he swore.

She slept deeply, as she had since she was pulled out of the river, but this was not the dreamless sleep of evenings past. Faces floated in fog before her, and then drifted out of her vision. She raced after them, but became lost in the fog. Alik woke to find her thrashing beside him, limbs moving as if in pursuit of something. "Gabrielle," she called urgently. Gently, he shook her awake. "Alika, you had a nightmare," he explained. She sat up straight, eyes darting around the moon-lit room. What she hoped to find was not there, and she sank back against his chest, hot tears streaming down her cheeks. This was her first display of emotion since the abortive escape, and he was pleasantly surprised. The spark was not yet out. He turned her face around and kissed each eye in turn. She did not pull away; it felt good to know that someone was here, in the dark, with her. His mouth moved lower; she met it with her own, and greedily sucked at the solace it offered.

Continued - Part 2

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