Convert this page to Pilot DOC Format
IN THE DUST
This tale takes place after A NECESSARY EVIL and before A DAY IN THE LIFE. It is, in essence, a sequel to the story depicted in "The Better Part of Valor". Reading the earlier story may serve to clarify some things about certain characters; it is only necessary if you decide it is. MMG
Xena stared into the campfire, her blue eyes an idle witness to the sparks and bursts of the dry wood's depletion. The warrior's attention was inward, her perceptions trained on another time and place. Although the woman's instincts kept her awareness undeniably sharp, the glow of the fire revealed an obvious preoccupation.
Across the stone-rimmed blaze, the young, blonde woman's voice floated over the clearing to gently pique the warrior's focus.
"So," Gabrielle said, her tone broaching sarcasm, "to seal their love, the Princess decided to paint her face green to show her devotion to her lover's lush homeland." The bard ended the tale and turned to her quiet companion. "What do you think?" the girl asked. She waited patiently for Xena's response, a knowing glint in her green eyes.
The warrior pulled herself out of her reverie and blinked absently at her young friend. "It's a good story, as usual, Gabri ...." the tall woman began, then stopped her remarks mid-sentence. Dark brows furrowed as blue eyes turned to meet green.
"Wait a minute," the warrior said suddenly. "D-Did you say, 'paint her face green'?" Xena asked, an honest confusion traveling across her lovely face. The bard kept her gaze tight on the warrior's frown. After a moment, Xena read the hurt in the young woman's reaction and swallowed hard against her own discomfort.
"Gee, what a surprise," Gabrielle said in a level tone. "For a minute there, I didn't think you'd been listening."
The clipped statement hung heavy in the quiet night air. Then the warrior looked away to stare at the fire again.
"You haven't heard a word I've said. Not a word." A gentle smile softened Xena's pensive face. "I hear everything you say," she said to the young friend she valued most above all others. "But you're right about this story," the warrior admitted, an apology in her tone and turned back to the flames once more. "Tonight, I wasn't listening," the warrior said contritely. "I'm sorry."
Gabrielle's attention remained on her best friend's features. "It's not just tonight." the girl began quietly, pulling the warrior's focus back to the hurt in the green eyes. "You've been like this ever since we left Taersa.. It's been almost a week now."
Xena studied the lovely face in front of her. The concern in the stare of her soulmate stirred a regret in the older woman's heart. She felt a dismal remorse at having so obviously caused the young woman pain. For a moment, Xena fought the urge to take the girl's hand to soothe the bard's hurt feelings. Finally as the warrior watched, Gabrielle turned away, an angry glare stiffening her mouth.
For a long moment, a stilted silence hung heavily in the small clearing, accenting the crackling fire and the symphony of the forest's inhabitants. Then the bard's exasperated sigh broke the tension.
"I thought, maybe now we could both find some peace," the girl said, a mature weariness in her voice. "With Callisto finally out of our lives," she murmured, turning to stare into the darkness beyond the campsite. "I thought maybe now, we could get on with our lives." Gabrielle turned a glistening glare toward the serious woman seated across from her.
Xena looked away from the searching green eyes. When she heard the catch in Gabrielle's voice, her attention returned to the girl's face.
"But you've gone away again," the bard said, her voice wavering with emotion. The warrior's expression had turned repentant."You've gone deep inside yourself," the girl said. "You're in some dark, angry place. I can't find you and I can't call you back."
Slowly, the tears in the bard's green eyes began to travel down the soft flesh of her face. The girl blinked angrily, then reached to wipe the moisture away with the back of one small hand.
"And you've shut me out," the quiet voice finished.
The warrior saw a wave of pain course over the young features.
"Xena, you are the most important person in my life," Gabrielle said, her gaze steady on her friend's face. "Why won't you let me in? Tell me what you're thinking."
The little bard watched as her friend looked away. The girl blinked hard again, willing her tears away to strengthen the sounds of her convictions.
"You just don't understand," she said to the fire. When she turned back to the warrior, she found the azure eyes again locked on her face. Gabrielle took a short breath and let her eyes travel over her beautiful friend's countenance. Finally she noticed the tears brimming against the brilliant blue, but the bard had already made her decision. She turned to face Xena directly.
"When you planning to tell me?" she asked and watched as her stoic companion strove to recapture her composure.
"Tell you what?" Xena asked, drawing an irritated palm across her own eyes.
"About Coreigas," Gabrielle said, a hollowness ringing in the question.
Xena's jaw tightened noticeably at the mention of the vicious warlord's name. The blue eyes that returned to the bard's face had immediately turned hard and gray. The girl instinctively rallied her own courage against the rage she read in the other woman's face.
"I heard you talking to the merchants," the young woman said to answer the question she read in her angry friend's eyes.
The warrior drew a slow, quiet breath. "Actually," the woman said in a calm, guarded voice. "I haven't decided what I'm going to do about ...." she began. But Gabrielle wasn't convinced.
"Yes, you have," the little blonde challenged. Green eyes flashed mingling anger and disappointment. "I can see it in your eyes." The girl waited as the warrior turned to meet her knowing glance. "Don't you think, after all this time, I can see that in your eyes?"
Xena lowered her glance, somewhat unsettled by the bard's intuitive knowledge of her.
"You're going after him," Gabrielle girl stated flatly. "You're going to take your revenge for ...." her throat caught at the memory. "... for what he did to Myfia," she finished, a mild indictment turning the comment hurtful and angry.
Xena's blue eyes sparked with barely controlled fury. "He killed her!" the warrior spat out. She turned a resentful glare toward the young bard. "In cold blood. And for what?" the warrior queried, almost to herself. "Because she showed us an act of kindness." The tone was hard, her voice full of the rage that threatened her control at nearly every level of her being.
The warrior's breathing grew rapid as she stood up abruptly. She stalked across the campsite at a driven pace, her manner agitated and edgy. Finally she turned quickly to the young woman still seated near the fire, who watched her fury with an understanding, yet frightened, observance.
"I would think even you would feel angry about that!" Xena flung at the bard.
Gabrielle stood up and took a step toward the warrior. Bravely she put a small hand on the woman's leather cuff. "Xena, Myfia was my friend, too. I hate that she died just because she helped us, but ...." The bard flinched as the warrior stomped away and her glance followed the older woman as she tossed some small twigs angrily into the fire. "but I don't think Myfia would want you to take this revenge," Gabrielle said to the pacing form of her friend. "She had begun to regret her ... life." The girl read the rising fury taking place across the warrior's face. Finally the bard reached to stop the pacing figure. "Please, think about what Myfia would want you to ...."
Xena pulled her arm from the bard's grasp, then reached to take the young woman's arms roughly in her hands. "Myfia is dead," she said coldly, her eyes hard on the girl's face. "And Coreigas killed her. Without blinking," the warrior said.
The bard winced at the warrior's hard grip and Xena released the girl.
"She saved our lives, and for her trouble, she is now dead." The warrior said, placing a chilling emphasis on each of the last four words.
Gabrielle watched as the imposing, and compelling, fury began to overtake her friend's reason. She renewed her resolve and turned away from the ugliness in the warrior's manner.
The young woman strode away from her angry companion. Drawing a calming breath, the bard crossed her arms across her chest. When she could that hear Xena had returned to her seat near the fire, Gabrielle turned back toward the flames. She leveled a calm gaze at the warrior's seething form.
"So," the bard began quietly, "you really have made up your mind."
Xena turned an irritated gaze in the girl's direction. Gabrielle's heart flinched at the hardness in the blue eyes. But she kept her attention on the woman's face. Xena tossed another small twig into the fire. The bard could see the chiseled jaw rippling.
"Well, if you do this, you'll do it without me," the girl said clearly. Her heart lurched as the blue eyes she trusted with all her heart jerked quickly to meet hers. "If you go after him, I won't be going with you."
The warrior's eyes widened and her face softened instantly. Gabrielle watched a wave of hurt temporarily take precedence over the anger as the mask of determination wavered on the warrior's startled face.
When she could trust her own voice, the bard continued. "I watched you die once!" she told the blue stare. "I won't do that again. Not even for you."
For a long moment, every other sound in the clearing ceased; all the bard could hear was her own heart pounding in her chest. She clamped her jaws together to stem the rising ache threatening to dampen her resolve, and swallowed hard against the lump in her throat.
"I'll be with the Amazons. They can certainly use all the help they can get right now, getting the village back in order."
Gabrielle's green eyes searched those of the warrior, hoping to find a small inclination of agreement. Instead she saw a deep pain, a pathetic look of betrayal and hurt. The bard swallowed again, her throat tight and aching. The warrior's eyes hadn't moved a centimeter from hers. And Xena's body had remained frozen in position at the fire.
"I would appreciate it if you'd at least help me get there before you ... go on," the young woman finished, tears now falling.
She met the blue eyes of her best friend, but the wall of granite had dropped into place again. Finally Xena's chin nodded almost imperceptibly, thus agreeing to at least escort the bard safely to the Amazon village.
Gabrielle watched the warrior's face for another moment, then turned sadly toward her own bedroll. She went through the motions of readying the blankets for sleep, then sat down on the bedding, curling her short, muscular legs in front of her. She turned her gaze to the silent warrior now staring once more into the fire.
"Xena?" the girl called softly. She waited, but the other woman offered no response.
Gabrielle lowered her gaze to her own hands where they lay, fingers intermingled in her lap. She raised her eyes to welcome her friend's attention, but had to settle for the chiseled features reflecting the orange glow of the fire. She looked down at her lap again.
"I'm sorry if you're disappointed in me," the young woman said quietly, raising her eyes one more time. "You can tell me to stay with the Amazons forever. Or you can tell me you're going to go on afterwards alone. But please, say something."
The girl watched her friend's solemn profile for a long moment. Finally Xena turned a cold, serious glance to the young woman curled up on the blankets. She studied the precious face. Then she spoke, her voice quiet and calm.
"Good night, Gabrielle," the warrior said. Then she turned back to the fire.
Gabrielle sat stunned, staring at the figure by the fire, blinking hard as her eyes filled with tears. She pulled her glance from the solitary form and tried to breathe against the tightness in her chest. After a moment, the girl turned and laid down, pulling the blankets around herself to stem the icy wave that sent a chill through her. She rolled to one side, turning her back to the fire and the still warrior beside it.
Xena listened to the sounds of the bard settling into the bedding. The blue eyes trained on the flames were burning with unshed tears. The long fingers of the slender, skilled hands trembled uncontrollably in the shadows of the clearing. As long minutes passed, a wave of tears washed over the solemn face, and the form on the blankets sobbed quietly.
Dawn broke unrestrained and unhindered. The two figures at the campsight moved in a silent ritual, each performing the various tasks necessary to break camp and resume their journey. Sleeping equipment was packed, eating utensils were cleaned and stored, traveling implements were repositioned for future use. But there had been no conversation. Neither participant was talking, and since neither wanted any breakfast, they began to walk, directing their journey toward the Amazon village..
The trip continued silently throughout the morning. Xena repeatedly glanced at her blonde companion, hoping to hear the bard's regular narration flowing over the day between them. But each time she sought the young woman's eyes, she found them trained on the road in front of them. A heaviness began to settle in the warrior's chest. The day she had dreaded most was beginning to manifest itself; she was loosing her best friend and there didn't seem to be anything she could do about it.
Gabrielle was instantly aware of Xena's wordless attention every time she felt the blue eyes settle on her. Each time it happened, she had to steel herself against the desire to meet the glance of her best friend. Something held her eyes to the road; it was one of the hardest things she'd ever had to do. But, she was determined to make Xena understand her point of view.
When the sun reached its zenith, Xena suggested they stop for their midday meal. Gabrielle nodded, even though she didn't have much of an appetite. The warrior selected a shady little grove beside a lake along the road and headed there, gently leading Argo toward the water. While the mare enjoyed the cool liquid, the two women settled down on the lush grass nearby.
Xena studied the countenance of her young friend. The girl's face was glowing with it's normal bright color, but there seemed to be a sadness clouding the green eyes. The tall woman made a decision. Even though the bard didn't seem willing to talk, the tenseness between them was making the warrior miserable. She moistened her lips and attempted to fix a light smile on her face. She took a short breath and swallowed against her own nervousness.
"Nice day," she began, then immediately felt ridiculous at the silly comment. Xena sighed and she shook her head slightly. 'Nice DAY?' she rebuked herself. 'Some clever conversation, warrior!' she muttered under her breath. She searched the sky for inspiration, then turned toward the bard again. She was relieved to see a tiny smile playing across the young woman's face.
Gabrielle's grin grew in spite of her attempts to quell it. "Nice day?" A small laugh escaped the bard's smiling face. "Well, no one can ever say you're not a mistress of the spoken word," the girl added and the warrior's smooth face creased in a sheepish grin of it's own. The two friends shared a quiet smile.
Blue eyes and green both showed a longing to end the schism that had formed between them. But the hurt connected with their disagreement was still present. And neither friend seemed able to find a way to resolve the problem, even though both wanted more than anything else to do so. The two women continued to share the long glance, then each seemed to find a reason to turn her eyes away from the other.
The quiet sounds of the afternoon filled the air for a few minutes. Xena studied the small lump of cheese she held in her fingers. Gabrielle's focus was held by the portion of apple that Xena had cut for her. Then both the warrior and the girl raised her eyes toward the other and, at precisely the same instant said exactly the same thing.
"I'm sorry," they said together, then they both laughed nervously and looked away, embarrassed. When they raised their eyes to the glance of each other, they both said, "Me, too," again at the same time. Then green eyes and blue met lovingly and held on for a moment.
Finally the warrior broke the still-unsteady air between them. "Look, Gabrielle," she began, an almost desperate plea in her face. "I know how you feel about ...." Her voice ran down as she caught the disappointment still present in the young woman's glance. Xena took a short breath and looked down at the piece of cheese, then raised her eyes again to those of the bard.
"I just need to ...." the lean woman stammered, still rattled by the young girl's look of rebuke. The blue eyes blinked, then locked purposefully onto those of the person she held so dear. "I have to do this," the warrior said, a hardness returning to the liquid voice. "I owe it to Myfia."
The bard watched the warrior's jaw ripple. The girl felt a chill ravage her heart. With her eyes still trained on the warrior's, she took a slow, deep breath.
"I know you think you have to do it," the bard said slowly. "Because of what happened to Myfia." She saw the warrior's chin raise a degree. "But I think you're just using that as a reason to justify your own revenge."
Xena reacted to the statement as though Gabrielle has slapped her. The look of hurt and shock was almost enough to make the bard regret her own convictions, but her basest principles were commanding her actions and she was determined to make her own statement. She summoned the last of her courage and pressed on.
"OK, so you didn't get a chance to say good-bye to Myfia, and you somehow feel responsible for her death." The warrior turned away with an irritated shrug. "What you really want is to pay Coreigas back for what he had them do to you," the bard said, "in that filthy cell ...." The warrior's attention snapped back to her friend's face, surprised. "With the whip," Gabrielle finished, her own stomach turning in revulsion.
Xena's mouth dropped open, the blue eyes were wide and amazed. "How did ... who told you that ...." she stammered, then fell silent at the knowing look on the young woman's face.
Gabrielle's glance dropped to her hands, then returned to her friend. "You'd be surprised what soldiers in a camp will say to each other when they don't know anyone's listening," she finished, a new level of hard awareness darkening the girl's face. She watched as the warrior looked away again. "Well, maybe you wouldn't be, but I was."
The tall woman's gaze rose slowly to meet the bard's loving focus. She swallowed hard and nervously ran her tongue over her lips. "I didn't know you ... had found out about ... that," she said, a tinge of regret staggering the admission. "But that has nothing to do with this," the warrior offered, regaining her own determination. "And it's not revenge I want," Xena said staunchly. "It's justice."
Again silence blanketed the air in the small grove. Then the bard spoke again. "Justice," she said quietly, an unsettling calm behind her tone. The piercing blue gaze locked with the girl's once more. "For Myfia's sake."
The young woman's voice showed a new level of maturity. The realization of it came unexpectedly to the warrior. She began to view her young friend with a new respect. But her own intentions were still intact.
Gabrielle pulled her eyes from the azure attention. After a moment, the girl tossed aside the piece of fruit which by now had become brown and unappealing in her fingers. She rose from her seat on the grass and brushed the dirt and refuse from the ground off her clothes.
"I'm going to wash my hands," she said absently. "I'll be right back." She strode toward the water, the blue eyes now fixed on her back.
Xena sat transfixed for a long moment, confusing emotions churning in her stomach. She treasured Gabrielle's respect and friendship more than that of anyone she had ever known. In her mind, the young woman was the guardian of her soul, the strongest part of her reason for always pursuing the cause of right and decency. Facing the bard's harsh judgment was more painful than the vicious strokes of the whip she'd endured in the cell to which the girl had so clearly referred.
Yet the warrior also felt a binding loyalty to the young woman who had, in effect, saved both their lives by choosing to pursue a simple act of compassion. The younger warrior had rescued Xena from the torture of the malicious floggings and had engineered her escape before the lashings would certainly have claimed her life. At the same time, Myfia had nursed a wounded Gabrielle, ministering to the girl's serious head wound and protecting the bard from any further injury or mistreatment.
Finally, the brave young woman had arranged for the two friends to be reunited in a safe and unthreatened haven where they both had enjoyed peace and enjoyment in the recovery of the other. When her actions had been discovered by the warlord whose army had captured them, the young warrior had been subjected to the supreme penalty of his wrath; Coreigas had killed her with his own sword.
A disabling fury invaded the warrior's chest as she recalled her first introduction to the fate of her one-time protege. When Gabrielle had provided the news of the event, the warrior's guilt and self-indictment had ravaged her senses and produced a scream of remorse. In spite of the bard's gentle reassurances and her attempts to soothe the conscience of her best friend, Xena knew she would forever feel responsible for the villainy which had ended the young warrior's life.
Now the vile degenerate who had performed the callous act was within her grasp. Try as she might, she could not remove the need for retaliation for his heinous deed from her heart. The tall, slender woman was determined to bring the creature to justice, even when she knew that the completion of such a deed was now a serious threat to her relationship with the only true friend she had ever known.
Gabrielle lingered at the water's edge while her thoughts remained on her painful confrontation with Xena. The young woman's sense of decency had always been her strongest attribute. Even the warrior she respected and admired more than any other person in her life would willingly acknowledge the girl's honor and her unquestioned sense of ethics. The chasm that had formed between the two wounded the young woman's heart, but she was determined to keep her cherished companion from making what the bard considered a terrible, soul-threatening mistake.
The Amazon queen made a decision, one that caused even her own courage to waver. The threads of her plan fell into place in her mind. She rose purposefully and strode back to the little grove. Now it was time to see if she really had the heart of an Amazon.
Chapter Three ~~~
The short journey from the site of the meal to the territory of the Amazons passed without incident and, again, without conversation. When the two travelers arrived within the nation's boundaries, the young queen stopped and clasped her hands overhead, displaying the Amazon sign of peace. The tall warrior followed suit, slightly surprised at the bard's blunt display of authority.
Instantly, masked female warriors descended from the trees around them and came to kneel in front of the small bard. The women each removed their ornate masks and cast proud smiles to acknowledge the young queen's appearance. As Xena watched with obvious esteem, her companion favored each of her subjects with a regal, though effective, response.
Solari, a muscled warrior who had stood valiantly beside the young queen when the village had been attacked by the insane and possessed Velaska, rose and embraced the young woman. The bard returned the embrace, then stood back to address the warriors kneeling before her.
"Go back to your positions, my sisters," she said. "We will see each other in the village later."
The Amazons rose, repositioned their masks and quietly disbursed into the forest again. Gabrielle turned to Solari.
"Where's Ephiny?" she asked the dark-haired warrior.
"She's in the village, overseeing the rebuilding," the Amazon replied. "She'll be so glad to see you."
The woman's face lit with a genuine affection for the small queen beside her.
Finally Gabrielle turned to the silent warrior standing behind her, holding the reins of the golden horse. "You'll come and say hello to Ephiny," the bard said, again jarring the warrior's awareness with the tone of authority in her voice.
"Of course," Xena answered, still befuddled by this new, very commanding little bard. She followed the two Amazons, feeling rather insignificant and unnecessary.
When they reached the Amazon village, Solari left the bard's side to find Ephiny and notify her of the young queen's arrival. Gabrielle turned again to Xena and took her arm.
"Look," she said excited. "They've rebuilt the royal quarters."
The warrior's gaze followed the bard's extended arm and pointing finger. The ornate and specifically larger hut clearly marked the home of the reigning queen. A smaller, yet equally unique lodging had been reconstructed adjacent to the sovereign structure.
Xena looked around at the brisk activity in the village. The 'rebuilding' had indeed progressed quite efficiently in the time since they'd last visited the Amazons' home. Many of the buildings and huts which served as living quarters and other facilities for the women had been destroyed by the evil god-villainess, Velaska. Now the structures had been restored and rebuilt. Ironically, the small shed which at one time had housed Xena's own deceased body now stood proudly in it's own refurbished state.
The excited voice of Ephiny made the two travelers turn around to greet it. The blonde warrior trotted happily toward the bard and heartily embraced the small frame. Solari, followed closely, her smile still wide and open.
"How good it is to have you back!" Ephiny exclaimed, throwing a smiling, if brief, glance at the tall warrior standing next to the young queen. The statuesque Amazon held the little blonde at arm's length and registered a slight look of concern when she noticed the look of sadness in the young queen's eyes, but she pushed her own uneasiness aside and wrapped a lean arm around Gabrielle's slim waist.
"Come, let me show you how things are going." She began to lead the bard toward the busy villagers.
"Speaking of going," Xena's voice stopped the women's progress. "I think it's time I do the same."
Gabrielle turned to meet the strained expression on the tall warrior's face. A look of obvious pain replaced the girl's open smile. Her friend seemed decisive, yet regretful.
"I'll be back as soon as I'm ... finished," Xena said, her manner tense and nervous.
Ephiny and Solari exchanged a questioning look. They could sense the atmosphere between the two women was not as it had once been. The two Amazons stood quietly, waiting to receive some sort of signal, either from the young queen or from her tall, obviously anxious companion.
Without responding to the warrior, Gabrielle turned a commanding expression toward Ephiny, causing the Amazon to blink in unexpected wonder. For some reason, the blonde warrior felt like snapping to attention under the young bard's official gaze.
"Ephiny," the queen said in a very regal tone, "is the hut next to the queen's ready for occupancy?"
Again the Amazon warrior blinked, then found her voice. "Yes, it is ... my Queen."
"Then please relieve the Warrior Princess of her weapons and escort her there?" Gabrielle ordered and steeled herself against the angry grumble she heard escape from the furious figure standing behind her.
Ephiny glanced at the tall warrior, who stood seething rage and vehemence at the back of Gabrielle's blonde head. Then the Amazon turned open-mouthed to the small bard.
"Relieve her of .... ?" Ephiny stammered, a look of total amazement lighting her lovely, confused face. She glanced nervously at the angry warrior whose expression now matched the color of her long hair.
"Gabrielle...." the warrior growled through clenched teeth.
The Amazon watched the fury rising in the crystal blue gaze. She felt her own pulse quicken in response to the blatant wrath in the other woman's face. Gabrielle's haughty tone drew her attention back to the young queen.
"Ephiny! Am I your queen or am I not?" The green eyes flashed angrily.
"Yes, of course. You are indeed my queen," the Amazon answered. She glanced apprehensively at Solari standing equally dumbfounded nearby.
The small, blonde woman pulled herself up straight and fixed the two warriors with a commanding eye. "Then do it!" the bard snapped. "And right now!" She stepped to the side and motioned importantly toward the glaring, silent warrior.
Ephiny gulped, then focused attention on the angry warrior princess. The Amazon advanced nervously toward the tall female, fully aware of the incensed glint to the piercing blue eyes. Xena's gaze flicked quickly to the Amazon's, then darted contemptuously back to the bard. When she recognized the stubborn, immovable set to the small woman's jaw, the warrior took a slow, forcibly calm breath and slowly opened her clenched fists.
She saw the apology in the Amazon's nervous expression. The warrior released the reins of the great horse at her side, and slowly raised her hands to allow Ephiny to appropriate her chakrum and her whip.
Ephiny stepped behind the slender form and withdrew the sword that was encased in the identifying scabbard. Wordlessly, Xena reached into the bodice of her armor and produced the small, silver dagger which she carried there.
Once divested of her weapons, the warrior stood motionless, her fury still obvious across the high cheekbones, the seething rage quite clear in the steel gray of her eyes.
Ephiny handed the weapons to Solari, then leveled a questioning glance toward the young queen who had witnessed the procedure without uttering a word.
"Make sure she's comfortable," the bard said, swallowing her own anxiety. "And assign someone to guard the hut. I'll see her after I've inspected the village."
With that, Gabrielle turned sharply and began to walk toward the busy activity around them, using all her courage not to give in to the heady urge she felt to run as quickly as she could.
Ephiny turned back to Xena and motioned tentatively toward the hut Gabrielle had stipulated. After a moment, the warrior started toward the lodging, an infuriated tempo to her gait. Solari gathered up the reins of the great steed, then turned to follow the curious procession, exerting her best control against the smile threatening to overtaking her face.
Xena paced furiously across the floor of the hut. She barely noticed the relative opulence of her surroundings. She had, after all, been escorted to the lodgings reserved for the Queen's 'honored visitors'. But the woman's rage completely thwarted any appreciation she might have felt toward the structure's furnishings.
The warrior clenched and released her shaking fists, then spun around to stomp toward the opposite wall of the room. She stood very still for a moment, her body strung tight, her jaw rippling with trembling intensity. After another moment, the tall, slender form swiveled again, this time to stride angrily toward the heavy wooden door that stood as the domicile's only access.
For a long, maddening minute, Xena seriously considered executing one of the many high-powered kicks for which her battle agenda had become known. Then her senses cleared, if only slightly, as a distinct realization settled upon her. Such a move might very well demolish the door and thus effect her escape from the hut; but once free, she still had to retrieve her weapons as well as find and reclaim Argo. To attain that goal, she would no doubt be forced to do battle with any number of Amazons, as well as endure a confrontation with their young queen, as well.
The thought of Gabrielle's temerity brought a grudging smile to the tall warrior's lips. She had to admit that the young woman had certainly taken a well-considered risk with her boldness, revealing a courage, and a clever talent for planning, that Xena would not have believed of her young friend prior to the event.
"That little devil," Xena mumbled to herself as her anger began to dissipate. "She really has grown up these past few months."
The warrior drew a deep, ragged breath, then shook her head slightly in dismay. She walked slowly over to the sturdy wooden chair which sat near the wall of the lodging. As she sat down on the fixture, the corners of her mouth curled in a small, but genuine, grin.
'She worked this out perfectly,' the warrior thought. 'Got me here, got reinforcements, then executed the capture.'
She leaned back in the chair, crossed her lean arms across her chest, and stretched her long, muscled legs out in front of her. For a moment, the figure in the hut recalled the series of events which had resulted in her current 'captured' position.
"Pretty damn clever, little bard," Xena said quietly to the empty hut. In spite of herself, the warrior acknowledged the resourcefulness shown by her small companion.
"Wonder where she learned to be so --- sneaky!" the woman in the chair thought. She lifted one booted foot onto the small table next to the chair, then drew up the other. With her ankles crossed and her fingers laced behind her head, the warrior's manner had finally approached a relative calmness.
A few minutes later there was a knock on the door. Xena turned toward the sound, slightly surprised at the courteous action.
"Come in," she said toward the door.
A moment later the door opened and Ephiny's tentative smile appeared around the wooden panel. She hesitated for a moment, then entered the hut carrying a large tray on which were a bowl of fruit, some bread, a wooden mug and a large pitcher of water.
"Gabri --" Ephiny began, as she moved toward the table. "The Queen," the woman corrected herself, "thought you might be hungry."
Xena moved her feet so the Amazon could put the tray down on the wooden surface. The warrior surveyed the food, then wordlessly selected an apple from the tray.
Ephiny stood nearby, obviously still feeling guilty about her part in enacting the other woman's state of 'detention'. As the warrior chewed a large bite of apple, the Amazon's eyes met the deep blue gaze.
"Xena, look ..." Ephiny began, "I'm really sorry I had to ...." She stopped when Xena waved a slender hand at her.
"Forget it," the warrior said, then continued to chew the mouthful of fruit. "You really didn't have a choice. After all, she is the queen, isn't she?"
Xena's forgiving attitude put the Amazon finally at ease. Then Ephiny shook her head, making the blonde ringlets bounce. The warrior's chewing halted as she waited for the other woman's comment.
"She has certainly ...." the Amazon started, then seemed to have trouble finishing her thought. She glanced again at the reclining warrior. "She's really ...." the woman tried again.
"Come into her own?" Xena finished for her.
"Yeah," Ephiny said. "She's really come into her own since you ...." Ephiny's face became nervous again as she watched the stiffness returned to the warrior's jaw.
"Since my death? She certainly has," Xena said, her eyes holding the other woman's glance.
The Amazon cleared her throat self-consciously and turned to leave. The warrior watched her go, amused yet also aware of the woman's devotion to their mutual friend.
When the blonde warrior reached the door to the hut, she turned back to the woman who was now preparing to extract another bite from the apple she was examining.
"We're having a regular feast tonight," she told Xena. "To celebrate the rebuilding of the village," Xena nodded. "I'm sure she'll be in to see you before that."
Xena stretched out her long legs again, then turned languidly toward the blonde Amazon. "Well," she said, "obviously I'm not going anywhere."
Ephiny returned a smile which, unfortunately, lacked it's usual warmth. Then she turned, opened the door and stepped outside. Xena listened to the door's heavy latch clang into place. She returned her attention to the apple in her hand, searched the fruit for another place to bite, then brought the apple to her mouth again. The pulp was firm and sweet.
"She certainly has," the warrior said quietly to the empty room. The only sound inside the hut was the crunching in her mouth.
Gabrielle waited until Ephiny was far enough away from the hut to allow for other than whispered conversation. As the blonde Amazon passed her, the young bard grabbed the other woman's arm. Ephiny stopped and turned to meet the anxious green eyes of the girl
"Is she all right?" Gabrielle asked, her gaze searching the Amazon's face.
The blonde warrior took the young woman's hand and patted it affectionately. "She's fine. She's having some of the fruit." The Amazon smiled warmly at the young queen. "She's not even angry with me for taking her weapons," Ephiny said. "But," the woman's tone changed, "you'd better go talk to her soon." Gabrielle's eyes traveled toward the hut where she'd ordered her best friend 'detained'. "She won't stay this calm forever."
Ephiny squeezed the younger woman's hand again, then reached to give her arm a supportive pat.
"Go ahead." the Amazon said. "We won't start without you." The warrior gestured lightly toward the gaily decorated benches and tables that had been set up for that night's celebration.
Gabrielle turned her attention again toward the hut. With a nervous giggle, she swallowed hard and turned to walk toward the structure where she had commanded that Xena be taken. After a few steps, the girl's footsteps slowed and she made a concerted effort to through her shoulders back and raise her chin. Then her steps resumed at their normal brisk rate.
When she reached the hut, she took a very deep breath. She raised one small fist to knock on the heavy door. "Come in." she heard the warrior's voice say. After swallowing hard again, the bard lifted the latch and opened the door.
Xena was lying on her back on the large bed, both hands under her head. She turned slightly to meet the bard's eyes for a moment, then slowly blinked and resumed her study of the ceiling. Gabrielle stepped inside the hut and closed the door behind her. She took a tentative step toward the warrior.
For a long moment, neither of them spoke. Then Gabrielle clasped her hands behind her back and took another step closer to the bed. "Is everything all right?" she asked the sullen warrior.
Xena pulled herself partially up on the bed and supported her torso on her lean, strong arms. She looked directly into the bard's green eyes.. The young woman's gaze stayed linked to hers, then Gabrielle looked down at the floor for a moment. Xena took a short, deep breath.
"Everything's peachy! Except for the fact that my best friend has locked me up like some criminal," the warrior snapped. She resumed her prone position on the bed. "Outside of that, I'm just ... lovin' every minute of this."
A long, stilted moment passed. Outside the hut, the muted sounds of the preparation for that night's festivities formed an ironic background to the stiff silence inside. Finally Gabrielle walked slowly toward the tray of fruit on the table. She picked up another of the apples and tossed it carefully in her hands.
The bard stole a quick look at the woman lying on the bed. The warrior's expression hadn't changed; if anything, the girl could sense the woman's anger had begun to rise again. The girl turned to face the bed, holding the apple in front of her.
"We'd love to have you join us for the celebration." she chirped, making her tone purposely light. The forced happiness in her voice faded immediately when she saw the look in the warrior's eyes.
"You're kidding, right?" Xena said, her tone heavy with disdain.
The warrior's face showed none of the absolution that Ephiny had promised. The blue eyes were cold, unforgiving and again approaching anger. Xena moved to swing her legs from the bed to the floor, then sat glaring at the young bard.
Gabrielle flinched instinctively at the controlled wrath she saw abundant in her friend's features. Without realizing it, she took a small step backward from the warrior, and Xena forced herself to appear more relaxed.
At last Gabrielle turned and returned to the table, gently replacing the apple on the tray with the rest of the fruit. She kept her back to the warrior on the bed.
"All you have to do is promise me you won't go after Coreigas and I'll tell them to let you out of here."
"You know I can't promise you that." Xena said in a low voice. "And you know I'm not about to promise something when we both know it would be a lie."
She watched the bard's chin rise again and realized they were still on opposite sides of this issue.
Several long, quiet, tense moments passed. Gabrielle could feel Xena's steely glance on her back, but she kept her attention on the tray on the table. The bard could feel angry tears stinging her eyes, but she vowed not to let her own resolve be intimidated by the warrior's strong will.
Finally the young woman turned to face her most cherished companion, a notably stubborn set to her features.
"And I'm not about to let you destroy your soul again."
Gabrielle felt a small degree of triumph when she noticed the look of surprise that crossed Xena's face.
"And that's what this revenge trip really is ... it's Ares' last gamble to recapture your soul and make you fight for him again." The girl's voice was soft but the resolve in her tone was clearly evident. "I won't let that happen, Xena. I won't."
The bard met the blue eyes with a fierceness the warrior had not seen before. For the second time that day, Xena realized that her young companion had matured during the past few months and that Gabrielle was now displaying a strong will of her own.
After another tense moment, the warrior spoke. "Well, then, I guess that's where we are." she said.
The strained statement hung in the quietness of the hut as both women affirmed the resolute spirit of the other. Finally the bard broke the silence.
"Yes, I guess that's where we are." she said, echoing the warrior's words.
The young Amazon turned abruptly then and strode toward the door. With her hand on the latch, she turned once again to her friend. Xena's throat caught at the hurt and disappointment she read in her young friend's gaze. But her decision had not changed, nor had her own resolve weakened.
"I'll have Ephiny bring you some of the venison from the feast. I have to go now." the bard said firmly. "They're all waiting."
She let her eyes linger on the warrior's blue stare for another moment. Then she turned and was gone. The door thumped closed and the latch crackled again. The warrior sat quite still on the bed.
Once outside the hut, Gabrielle's steps quickened. She wanted the sanctuary of her own hut to shroud the tears cascading over her face. She quickly crossed the short distance between the structures and hurried through the door of the hut that, as queen, was specifically designed for her. When she was safe inside, she gave into the anger and frustration that had been plaguing her throughout the day.
For no ordinary reason except her own, the young woman slapped wildly at anything that stood upright on the heavy, rattan chest that served as her dressing table. Grooming utensils and vessels holding various herbs and perfumes were sent flying across the hut to crash loudly against the walls of the structure.
After spending several frenzied minutes venting her rage, the bard collapsed limply onto the large bed and pounded the covered pillows with her fists. Then she fell limply forward to sob into the soft cushions. A few minutes later, the exhausted girl sat up and covered her quivering mouth with both hands.
Gabrielle took several shaky breaths, and labored hard to regain her composure. The emotional gasps that had wracked her form slowly subsided as the young woman's awareness slowly returned to normal. The process took several willful moments. Finally, the sobbing stopped and the bard sat up straight, her head upright, her shoulders back and firm.
The young woman drew in a deep, cleansing, calming breath. She glanced at the various broken objects strewn about the hut. For a moment, she considered moving to clean up the mess her tantrum had caused. But the impulse passed quickly. She stood up and crossed to the tall, wooden clothes tree on which her evening's attire was hung. Quietly she ran her hands over the ornate outfit, then reached up to carry the two pieces to the bed. With a proud set to her head, she began to change her clothes to prepare for the evening's celebration.
'The others deserve a night of happiness,' she told herself. 'And I'm their queen.'
"I'm their Queen." the bard said, her voice barely audible inside the quiet hut.
Chapter Six ~~~
The 'honored visitor' inside the hut beside the royal quarters was pacing again. The sounds of the celebration had set Xena's nerves on edge and awakened the frustration she had put to rest earlier. For some reason, she resented the revelry taking place outside and the enjoyment it was obviously bringing the celebrants. It suddenly occurred to her; she simply missed Gabrielle and wanted desperately to reinstate the quality of their friendship. The absence of the girl's spirit was unnerving and disheartening.
The darkness outside made the interior of the hut even more gloomy. Xena lit the two large candles that stood on the table and noticed that the flames brightened the room somewhat. But she was still edgy and nervous, and the unsettling situation with Gabrielle pestered her awareness and chafed at her well being.
Most of all, the warrior hated being confined, 'cooped up', as Lyceus had always put it. She had spent so long choosing her own path, being restrained in the hut was beginning to rattle her senses. The confrontation with her best friend still weighed heavily on her heart, but by now the bard's indifference to her status was turning the hurt back to anger.
Xena sat down dejectedly on the bed. She had already removed her armbands, gauntlets and shin guards and now wore only what Gabrielle called her 'leather suit' and the short boots covering her feet. The warrior pushed herself to the head of the bed and leaned back against the rough wooden plate attached to the fixture. She pulled her knees up and rested her long arms on the raised limbs.
"Enough is enough, Gabrielle." she said to the dim room.
She let out an aggravated sign and rested her head again the high headboard. Xena closed her eyes and tried to engage one of the many techniques she had used over the years to attain calmness within herself.
"When I get my hands on you, maybe I'll just wring that cute little neck."
"I don't think you really mean that." a voice said from amidst the shadows.
Xena's eyes snapped open and she quickly scanned the dimly-lit interior. When she identified the source of the voice, her mouth dropped open in total surprise. There, seated in the wooden chair she had occupied herself only an hour ago, glowed the shimmering image of the young warrior whose death had triggered the growing division between her and her most treasured friend.
The warrior turned slowly toward the flickering apparition. She blinked her eyes, trying hard to reassure herself that this vision truly existed in the room with her. When she was certain she was not hallucinating, she swiveled her body carefully toward the gleaming figure.
"Myfia?" the warrior asked rather nervously. "Is that really you?"
"It's really me.", the figure answered. Then the woman smiled warmly at the wide-eyed warrior. "Hello again, Xena, You're looking well." The transparent face scanned the female sitting apprehensively on the side of the bed. "Well, at least you look a little better than the last time we met." the younger warrior said. "Have you got a minute?" the smiling face asked. "We need to talk."
Xena's mouth snapped closed and she gulped against the rising uncertainty swelling in her chest. She shook her head slightly, trying with all her might to reconcile the event taking place before her.
Then slowly the figure began to loose it's filmy appearance and, as the shaken warrior watched, it was transformed into a completely solid, three-dimensional version of the deceased woman who had so heroically saved her and Gabrielle's lives no more than six moons ago. Moments later, the figure rose and strode across the room to rest casually against the wooden door jam.
Xena stared at the figure standing against the door. She saw exactly the same personage she remembered encountering in the filthy, rancid-smelling cell in Coreigas' camp. In her black, leather battle uniform, long cape, gloves and heavy boots, the young warrior stood, arms crossed over her chest, the shoulder-length auburn hair glistening softly in the glow of the candlelight. Myfia appeared precisely as she had to Xena that night in the torturous cell.
The warrior seated on the bed swallowed once, then again. She tried hard to form the words that were racing through her mind.
"How ...?" Xena stammered. "How did you ...?" she tried once more.
Finally Myfia responded to the fragmented question. "How did I get here?" she asked her old friend. Xena nodded, speechless at the presence so real in front of her.
"You invited me." the young warrior said calmly. "You and Gabrielle." At the older warrior's stunned look, Myfia continued her explanation. "You remember how it works." the woman said, teasing. "Whenever the living think of the dead ...." Myfia's head tilted slightly toward the other woman.
"The dead can hear their thoughts." the tall warrior chanted, completing the statement. Suddenly she felt her panic begin to fade away.
"You do remember." Myfia said smiling. "You and Gabrielle have been doing quite alot of that lately," the small warrior said, "thinking of the dead. Me, in particular." she finished, her eyes gentle and warm. "I appreciate it, believe me. But, I also know that you've both been troubled by it." The small warrior's face grew a bit more serious. "And I know I'm the cause of this ... problem between you." She raised a gloved hand at the warrior's intended objection.
For a moment, the room was quiet again. Then Myfia moved to reclaim the wooden chair. She sat down and pulled one booted foot onto the other knee, rested both hands on the high leather covering and leaned toward the warrior facing her.
"Anyway, I thought maybe I could help you ... again." Myfia said, her smile again lighting her almost-real face. "So I made a little deal with Hades and ..." she spread her hands innocently, " ... here I am."
After a moment, the young warrior's brows knit in mock seriousness. "By the way, he's very fond of you too, did you know that?" she said to Xena's bewildered expression.
Myfia rested her hands on her raised boot again. "Well, he doesn't want you to arrive in Tartarus 'before your prescribed time', as he put it," the small warrior quipped. "So he let me make this 'visit' to try and ah ... straighten things around."
Xena waited, almost impatiently, for the young warrior to continue. The figure in the chair seemed nearly flesh and blood, almost available to the touch. But the surrealism of the situation held the tall warrior securely in place on the bed.
Myfia dropped her eyes to the leather bindings along the side of her boot. Then she raised her gaze to meet the blue eyes of the warrior who sat watching her image. The younger warrior seemed to be struggling with her own thoughts for a moment. Finally she spoke.
"First of all, about going after Coreigas," Myfia began. Xena's eyes widened even more as she listened to the vision of her deceased young friend. "Don't waste the effort. He's not worth your soul."
The tall warrior was clearly struck by the similarity of Myfia's phrase to the same words she'd heard earlier from Gabrielle. As she felt her pulse quicken, she found her voice again.
"He killed you!" Xena said fiercely, the intensity of her comment surprising even her. "In cold blood."
"Hey," Myfia interjected. "I was there. Remember?"
The humor was lost on the warrior. "And it was my fault." Xena said guiltily.
Myfia's manner, and her expression, changed immediately. "Whoa! Time out!" the young woman said firmly. "How was it your fault??" The young warrior almost glared at her one-time mentor.
"If you hadn't helped us ...." Xena began, her voice wavering with emotion.
"Wrong, my friend!" Myfia stopped her again. "Letting you go was my decision. You had nothing to do with it." The young warrior caught the eyes of her old friend, certainty in her statement.
"As a matter of fact," the small soldier began with a grin, "as I recall, I had to practically throw you out of my tent to get you to leave." The young woman's expression regained the teasing quality that had shown on her face earlier.
The warrior felt her own smile slowly grow.
"No, Warrior Princess, you were, in fact, an innocent bystander in that," Myfia said, a reaffirming nod punctuating her remarks. The young warrior rose from the chair and crossed the room again. With her back to the warrior, Myfia spoke haltingly. "You see... to be totally truthful here..." Myfia said, turning to face the older woman, "Coreigas didn't put you in that cell ... I did." The brown eyes were contrite.
Xena stared unbelieving at the vision of the young warrior.
"And I gave Paladron your whip, ", Myfia said, her eyes falling to her own gloved hands, "because I knew exactly what he would do with it. Oh I made a great show of telling him not to, but... did he seem to you the kind of soldier who would follow orders?"
The young warrior bravely endured the other woman's shocked glance.
"What?" Xena gasped. The blue eyes turned accusing, then grew hurt and angry.
Myfia moved away, ashamed and embarrassed by memories of her own desired vengeance. She shook her head as if to rid herself of the painful introspection. Xena followed the young warrior's agitated activity, a feeling of betrayal raging in her chest.
The smaller woman finally stopped next to the wooden chair once again. She put one hand on the fixture and the other on her hip. Keeping her eyes averted from the woman watching her, she began her confession.
"I was so delighted when I heard that I was finally going to get my hands on the Warrior Princess." Myfia turned to meet the eyes of her previous intended victim. "After ten long years, I was ready to enjoy my revenge." she told the other woman, a cruelness in her voice. "All my fantasies were about to be realized, I thought."
The older warrior recoiled at the viciousness now rampant in the brown eyes locked on hers. Xena was stunned by a sinister resemblance to the merciless quality she remembered in herself. She sat immobile, unable to look away from the fury she saw in the younger woman's face.
"I thoroughly intended to kill you." Myfia said deliberately. "Slowly. Painfully." The woman's words struck the warrior like a punishing blow. "But first, I wanted you to feel as lonely and as frightened and as completely abandoned as I had felt ... all those years ago in Amphipolis."
The seething anger in the brown eyes sent a chill across the warrior's being. She remembered that night six moons ago in Myfia's tent when, even in her wounded and pathetic state, she had been confronted with the level of the younger woman's earlier hatred of her. Now she was again disturbed and replused by how deeply Myfia had once despised her. A deep shame enveloped the warrior's spirit.
Then she watched the vehemence suddenly drain away from the younger woman's manner.
"What I hadn't expected was meeting Gabrielle," Myfia said quietly.
Her eyes now soft and warm as she referred to the young bard. The young woman smiled and shared a knowing glance with the warrior.
"She is quite remarkable.", Myfia said softly, focusing her attention on some private point of memory. She looked back at the warrior. "But, I think you already know that.", the young warrior added, her eyes again gentle and loving.
"I spent four days with her, when we first brought you both to the camp." the small warrior said. "Four days, and nights, with the pain in her head making her nauseous and dizzy. In and out of awareness, never truly without the pounding, never escaping the blinding agony in her skull." Myfia paused, a blatant admiration for the young woman silencing her.
"And yet, every time she'd wake up, she'd ask about you. 'Where's Xena? Is she all right? Is she safe?' The first words out of her mouth, every time. 'Is Xena OK?' "
The quiet words rang loudly in the warrior's head. Her throat ached at the thought of her friend's loyalty. The crystal blue eyes filled with tears as the image of Gabrielle, wounded and suffering, her head bandaged by Myfia's gentle hand, returned to the warrior's memory. Her sweet, decent, devoted, loving young friend. The warrior closed her eyes as her own regret washed over her.
"The way she talked about your friendship, how clearly devoted to you I could see that she was. She took away all my anger." Myfia's voice drifted into the warrior's awareness. "She made me see what my hatred was doing to my own spirit."
Xena opened her eyes to find Myfia seated beside her. The warrior swept her tears away with a shaky hand. The young warrior waited.
"It was because of Gabrielle that I decided to release you." Myfia told the shaken warrior. "And it was Gabrielle who really saved you both."
The small warrior's quiet voice floated across the shadows in the room. The two women smiled at each other.
Suddenly Myfia gasped deeply and pressed her hand to the middle of her chest. For a moment, the young warrior breathed heavily as her eyes gaped wide and anxious. Xena reached to comfort the smaller woman, but Myfia quickly leaned away, raising her own hand in a pointed warning.
"Ah-ah-ah. You know the rules." Myfia said cryptically. "No touching."
After a moment, the woman's manner became calm again and she moved from her position on the bed.
"Now," she said, turning decisively to the warrior, "I don't have much time left, so listen up."
The small warrior kneaded her gloved hands together and stood in front of the warrior, her brown eyes direct and clear.
"If you really want revenge on the person who put you in that cell," the small woman chortled, "I'm afraid you're a little late."
Xena reacted to the levity of the warrior's remarks. Then Myfia's tone became serious.
"Leave Coreigas to the Fates, Xena," she said to the warrior. "Let him go. Besides, I have it on great authority the evil bastard'll be in Tartarus soon enough, without anyone's help. So, just walk away. Please," the small warrior spoke imploringly to the blue eyes. "Because, if you send him there, you'll be right back on that road again," Myfia added emphatically, "and Ares will be right by your side."
Xena took a long breath.
"Now that may not bother you," the young warrior said, leaning slightly toward the other warrior, "but it would surely break Gabrielle's heart." The quiet statement filled the darkened hut and as brown eyes locked onto blue. "But I'm sure you'll never let that happen." Myfia said. "Will you?"
The young soldier's eyes softened. Then she smiled warmly at her old friend. After a moment, Myfia stood up straight and placed her gloved hands smartly on her hips.
"Stay well, my friend," she said to Xena's watchful gaze. "And take damn good care of that little bard." The figure in the middle of the hut began to glimmer again, then slowly turned transparent. "I'll be listening for you both. The gods be with you."
She raised a gloved hand in farewell and her filmy image faded even more. Then the figure was gone.
The warrior fell back exhausted onto the cushioned bed. She closed her eyes to collect her thoughts and reflect on her amazing experience.
Gabrielle watched the celebration with less than her usual sparkling interest. The Amazons were enjoying a night of jubilation and thanksgiving. Their village was nearly back to its normal state, with some parts of it even better then new. The women were congratulating themselves on their recovery and on their indomitable spirit.
A short distance from the small queen, two warriors were locked in a serious discussion, as serious as one can be after enjoying numerous tankards of the strong wine that was brewed and distilled by the members of the village themselves. The two warriors bent to share a commentary. The blonde head was covered with tight, unfettered ringlets; the dark head was adorned with leather strips tied amid the long, wavy, chestnut-brown lengths.
Solari's dark blue eyes followed the small Amazon queen's trek from her prescribed seat on the dias across the festive area to the long tables covered with food and other refreshments. Her face clouded with concern for a moment, then she turned to her blonde sister.
"Our little queen doesn't seem to be enjoying herself all that much tonight." Solari said, nodding her head in Gabrielle's direction.
Ephiny lowered her glass to turn toward the petite form. "No, she does seem a bit distracted, doesn't she?"
Solari's eyebrows climbed higher on her forehead. "Well, if you knew the Warrior Princess was ready to wring your neck, wouldn't you be a bit ... nervous?"
Ephiny shot her friend a chastising glare. "Don't be silly," she admonished. "Xena's fine. I talked to her earlier."
Solari's eyes sought the young blonde again. "Maybe with you she was 'fine'", she said to Ephiny. "You didn't lock her in the visitor's hut."
With that, the dark-haired woman lifted her tankard again to enjoy more of the sweet, potent.
Ephiny's gaze traveled again to the small bard. For a moment, the Amazon could clearly see the young queen's face. The look of sadness was obvious, as was the wistful set to the soft, round chin. The blonde warrior touched her sister's shoulder and started across the area to Gabrielle.
When she reached the bard, Ephiny shouted over the loud music that clamored within the festive gathering.
"How you doing?" she asked the bard.
The girl gave her a thin smile, then pulled the green eyes away. Ephiny instinctively put a comforting hand against the young woman's back. Gabrielle turned to favor the woman with another warm grin.
After a moment, Ephiny turned to the table of food. With a few quick movements, she picked up one of the wooden plates and placed servings of various edibles on it. She selected a good-sized portion of the venison, a large cluster of nuts, berries and fruit, then crowned the platter with a big piece of the hearth-baked bread for which the village was renown. Finally she snatched up one of the large tankards and moved it to the edge of the table.
The warrior turned to the small, brooding queen. She took the glass from Gabrielle's hands and replaced it with the large plate of food. The bard cast a surprised look at the food, then a confused glance at the blonde warrior. Ephiny handed over the large tankard and, placing both hands on the young woman's shoulders, turned the girl's body until she was facing the royal hut and its companion structure.
"She's probably hungry", the Amazon said into the young blonde's ear. "Why don't you take her some of this?"
An impish grin played across the woman's attractive face. Gabrielle looked lovingly into the gray eyes of her Amazon sister. Then she leaned to give Ephiny a quick hug. When the two women were again face to face, the bard's usual warm smile was shining from her face.
"Good idea", she nearly shouted over the music.
The little bard started toward the special visitor's hut. She passed Solari on her way and shot the dark-headed warrior another winning smile. The muscular Amazon winked at the young girl and smiled back.
The closer she got to the hut, the more nervous her stomach became. As she balanced the platter in her hands, Gabrielle noticed that her fingers seemed clammy and damp. She stopped once and, carefully balancing the plate and the tankard, wiped first one small palm against her skirt, then carefully drew the other across the garment.
"This is silly!" she said to herself as she starting walking again. "It's Xena, for Zeus' sake!"
Yet when she finally reached the hut, she felt a giant flutter sweep through her chest. She took a deep breath, put on her best smile and knocked gently on the door.
"Come in, Gabrielle." Xena said from inside.
The girl paused for a moment, surprised at the warrior's intuition. Then she opened the door and stepped into the hut.
"How'd you know it was me?" she asked the warrior's subtle grin.
Xena took the plate of food and carried it toward the small table, the blue eyes sparkling over her shoulder.
"Who else would leave the party to bring me some food?"
Gabrielle's heart swelled when she noticed the warmth in her friend's eyes. The girl's face lit up in a tremulous smile. She laughed softly as she followed Xena to the table and placed the tankard on the wooden surface.
"Wow!" Xena said, looking at the large amount of food displayed on the platter. "This looks like it could be your plate!" She turned to smile at the young woman.
"Ha, ha." Gabrielle said, entering into the fun.
The two friends stood quietly, simply enjoying each other's company. Finally Xena put the plate down and turned to the girl. She took one small hand in her own.
"Look, Gabrielle", the warrior began. "I'm sorry about ... this whole stupid mess with ..."
"Me, too." the girl said, her words overlapping the warrior's. "It was wrong of me to ..."
Finally they both simply smiled at each other and laughed together. After a moment the warrior's face changed into an amused scowl.
"We seem to being saying that to each other a lot lately."
"Yeah, I've noticed.", Gabrielle said quietly, looking down at their clasped hands. "Xena", she said, looking up at the blue eyes again. "I would just die if ..." the girl's voice caught and she closed her eyes tight. " .. if anything happ--" she began again.
The little bard took a shaky breath. The warrior reached to take the slender shoulders in her hands.
"You were right about Coreigas." she said to Gabrielle's open face. "You were right about it only being about revenge."
The bard studied her friend's beautiful face. The blue eyes were clear and honest. For a moment, neither woman moved. Then the warrior pulled the girl into a warm, tight embrace. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the slender waist of her friend, her cheek against the woman's shoudler. After a moment, the warrior released the young woman and stood looking into the soft, loving face. Then the blue eyes twinkled and the beautiful face smiled.
"C'mon", she said, moving toward the table. "Let's eat. I'm starving."
Gabrielle pulled one wooden chair closer while Xena sat down in the other. The two friends began to portion out the food and enjoy their private repast.
"Why don't you see if the guard wants some of this." the warrior suggested. "We'll never eat it all." She glanced at the bard and noticed the wide smile lighting the girl's face.
"What guard?" Gabrielle said in mock surprise.
Xena's blue eyes searched the girl's face, then glanced again at the heavy wooden door to the hut.
"There's no guard?" she said, looking closely at the wide green eyes and the smile the girl was struggling to conceal. Gabrielle shook her head very slowly, her eyes bright on the warrior's.
"And the door?" the warrior asked, her own subtle grin easing into place.
"Has been unlocked all along." the girl said, grinning. "I couldn't very well lock up my best friend, now could I?"
Xena's eyes traveled over the bright young face. A slow, admiring smile began to color the warrior's expression. The dark brows furrowed slightly as she watched the girl enjoy a proud moment. Then she reached to gently tug at a lock of the long, blonde hair.
"Where'd you learn to be so ... devious?" the warrior asked playfully.
"I had a good teacher," the bard answered, raising both wheat-colored brows.
The girl giggled heartily and the warrior shook her head slowly, still smiling at her friend. As they began to eat, Gabrielle turned to the warrior, her green eyes curious.
"What changed your mind, about Coreigas, if you wouldn't mind telling me?" she asked around a mouthful of food.
Xena stopped a piece of venison halfway to her mouth.
"Ah ... I did what you said. You know ... thought about what Myfia would have wanted and I ..ah..." The warrior's mind scrambled to provide a worthy tale. ".. I decided she wouldn't want me to ... go after him."
The warrior hurriedly put the meat into her mouth and glanced sidelong at the girl's watchful glance.
Gabrielle stopped chewing and looked carefully at the warrior's blushing face. She noticed that, the longer she stared, the more uncomfortable her friend became. She resumed chewing, then swallowed the mouthful.
"Uh-huh," the bard said, battling to keep a straight face. She took another mouthful of food, then turned to the warrior innocently. "I thought Myfia's visit might have done it."
Xena coughed and swallowed hard to clear her throat. She turned an astonished gaze to the girl beside her. The bard continued chewing, wheat-colored eyebrows hidden behind the strawberry-blonde bangs. The girl kept her expression open.
The warrior took a sip from the tankard and turned again toward the bard. For an instant, she considered sharing the vision of the figure of their deceased friend with the young woman. But then she decided the bard was humoring her, or at least she assumed she was. Gabrielle swallowed again, then focused a superior glance on her friend.
"She stopped by my hut before she came here. She said she was going to talk to you"
The bard put another mouthful of venison into her mouth and looked back at the warrior's startled blue eyes.
The dark-haired searched the girl's face for a sign of the joke she was sure the bard was playing on her. The warrior had already settled her mind on the concept that the 'visit' she'd had with Myfia had only been a dream, a very realistic fantasy that had occurred as a result of the emotional confrontation with the bard and the confinement forced on her in the hut. Now, she wasn't at all sure.
"Busy little rascal, wasn't she?", the warrior said dryly. But she continued to watch the girl's face closely.
Gabrielle gave in to the hearty smile she felt overtaking her face. The girl shook her head lightly then reached to pour herself a mug of water from the pitcher on the table.
Xena kept her eyes on the bard's face a moment longer, then chuckled softly to acknowledge the girl's joke. The two women resumed eating and the warrior turned to the girl again.
"Of course, you leaving your medallion on the table certainly helped my focus," she said smugly.
Gabrielle looked at her friend, genuinely confused. "What are you talking about?"
Xena tossed a red berry into her mouth, then smiled at the girl's innocent scowl. The warrior reached to the back edge of the table and picked up a small, round, metal medallion tethered to a short, leather thong.
"The medallion that Myfia gave you." she said, swinging the ornament in front of the bard. "Leaving it here was a clever idea. It really made me think of Myfia and about what you said about her."
Gabrielle's green eyes were honestly surprised. She looked carefully at the silver disk in the warrior's fingers and another wide smile spread across her face.
"That's not my medallion." she chirped. She reached into the waistband of her Amazon skirt and produced an identical ornament, also tethered on its own leather strip.
"Here's mine," the bard said smiling at her friend.
The smile on Xena's face faded at once. She looked at the circle she held, then back at the circle in the palm of the bard's hand. As her eyes swept the room nervously, she heard the soft, gentle laugh.
"Well done, little bard." the wispy voice said.
Then the warrior noticed the footprints in the dust on the floor.