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.
She watched Alik leave, and sighed with regret. He need to stop in the village before heading for the fields. Estrus was staying behind today; his boil had been lanced and the old man admitted he couldn't do his day's work. Estra had suggested Alika go in his place: "Strong as a horse," she'd commented, but Alik refused to take her. The tender kiss they'd exchanged outside the door had raised the eyebrows of both old people. Estra was combing the nearby fields for herbs. Estrus sat in the corner, smoking his pipe, watching Alika, on hands and knees, scrub the hearthstone.
"A mug of ale, girl," he demanded. She rose from the hearth slowly, poured the mug of ale from the large pitcher on the table, and put it on the table by his side without comment. As she turned to go, Estrus rose to his feet, and two strong arms grabbed her from behind. Salt-fury blurred her vision. Her own hands clutched his and squeezed; he gasped at her strength. It was almost supernatural. "I've told you once, old man: keep your filthy hands off me," she hissed. The back of her head slammed into his face and she released his hands, letting him fall back into his chair. She strode back to the hearth, shaking. Her hands were working, and she wanted very much at that moment to have her fingers around his throat. The old woman came in at that moment, and ran to Estrus, who mopped his bloody face with a handkerchief. "I fell," he lied. She ran to get a towel, and shrieked at Alika to fetch water. As she passed his chair Estrus warned her grimly: "This isn't over."
"Pray that it is," she cautioned him, in a voice which chilled his blood.
For the first time, Gabrielle and Joxer decided not to break camp. They were near the river, the main road which bisected The Vale, and what seemed to be the only village in the place. Wherever they chose to search today, they would return to this base camp. "Where now?" Joxer asked as he munched on his skimpy ration of bread. The generous supplies Joncas had provided were running low. Their chief problem was not money, but no place to spend it.
Gabrielle considered Joxer's question. Where indeed? They had combed The Vale, yet so much lay hidden behind the closed doors and tight-lips, that Gabrielle felt they hadn't really begun to see what was right in front of them. They needed to search from the inside, she knew, but masquerading as settlers was not enough. It might take months for them to be accepted and trusted, and then, if Xena was not here, they would have lost precious time searching elsewhere. They had to get to the bottom of this place fast, but Gabrielle had no ideas.
"I'm a people person," she said at last, "so we might as well go where there are people." "The village is today's destination."
By any reasonable standard, this was not much of a village; it hardly classified as a hamlet. It was more a glorified crossroads. There was a smithy, an all-purpose store, a cooper, and a tavern. Nothing more was needed for people who didn't like to spend money. One large building intrigued Gabrielle, it looked like communal gathering place. "Joxer, ask about the big building across the road," she whispered as they entered the store together.
"Right," he whispered back, then aware they were being watched he boomed: "Right woman, we will buy only what I decide we need, that's 'I', not 'we', none of this equal voice business in my household." Gabrielle cringed, but it seemed to have the desired effect. The man behind the counter actually smiled.
"What can I get you, brother," he asked holding Joxer's gaze, avoiding any notice of Gabrielle. "I, ah, need several things. My wife wrote, that is, carries the list *I* wrote. Joxina," he snapped his fingers at her. "The list." She thrust a small piece of parchment into his hand, which he passed on to the shopkeeper. "Nice little village," Joxer commented. "I hate a place that gets too big, too many choices, crowds---" Gabrielle delivered an unseen kick to his shin. "Ow! Bunion," he lied to the querying look of the shopkeeper. "That building across the way is a fine structure."
"Yes, it is," the shopkeeper agreed.
"Used for...?" Joxer prompted.
"That's our Ladies' Hall. Which community did you come from?" he asked pointedly.
"Don't you have a Ladies' Hall?"
"Yeah, we do," Gabrielle put in quickly, "but not nearly as fine as that."
Her comment was ignored. "Ours isn't nearly a fine," Joxer mimicked.
"It is a good piece of work," was the proud reply. "Wait until tomorrow. Every woman in The Vale will be there, busy preparing for the festival." Every woman? Gabrielle's heart leaped.
"The river festival." He looked at Joxer suspiciously. "You don't know much about our customs. You are one of us?"
"Bred in the bone," Joxer assured him. "But, uh, we didn't have a river of any size flowing through our old community, so, we didn't have a river festival."
"Oh." That seemed to satisfy him. "Here we rely on the river for transport and water for the crops. Each Spring we offer to the river gods to ask that the water stay within its banks. The River Ela looks peaceful enough sometimes, but in the Spring, when the mountain snow starts to melt and the rains start...Well, it's created a lot of havoc and tragedy. This is a fine valley, but some years it seems cursed by the gods. There was a lot of snow in the mountains this year; the festival will be well attended."
Gabrielle nudged Joxer. He opened his mouth, hoping he could divine her thoughts.
"And the women come to prepare? What, food?" he guessed.
"Food, baskets to float the offerings down river; most of the women make new frocks for the occasion. For some, it's the only new dress they get all year." Gabrielle's face darkened. Too bad," he ended ruefully. "I could use more drygoods sales." The door opened, and a tall, sandy-haired young man walked in. "Good morning, Alik. What do you need today?"
Alik smiled and nodded, "Good day to you," including Joxer and Gabrielle in his greeting. Gabrielle decided she might like him. "I need some fabric. I can't have my wife being the only one at the festival without a new dress."
"Come and look," the shopkeeper invited, leading him to a bin piled with bolts of cloth. Gabrielle followed, feigning interest in the cloth. "Something blue, I think," she's got the most fantastic eyes.
"Blue?" Gabrielle asked casually, being careful not to get her hopes up. He nodded. His smile told the pleasure he took in this woman.
"That is a pretty blue, Gabrielle agreed. "Is her hair light or dark? This red would go with dark hair."
"Very dark, but that might be a little showy. My family's a bit---staid."
"Nope, I don't guess Estrus would want any woman under his roof wearing that red. But some man will buy it for some lucky woman," the shopkeeper commented, as he took it from Gabrielle and replaced it in the bin.
"No reason Alika shouldn't be that lucky woman," Alik exclaimed with sudden boldness, as he pulled the bolt out of the bin again. "And something for nightwear. A white linen, maybe?"
"Fine. How much shall I cut for you?" At Alik's uncertainty he prompted "How tall is she, for starters?"
Alik considered, then held his hand at his own height. "She's about my height. Maybe a shade taller." Gabrielle felt a little breathless. It has to be Xena, she thought fiercely. Six feet tall, dark hair, blue eyes... She didn't know how it was that she was this man's "wife," but it had to be her.
"One more thing. I need a comb."
"Curry comb?" the shopkeeper asked.
"No. A pretty comb, for a pretty lady."
"Sounds like you need a lot of things," Gabrielle commented. "Newlyweds?"
"No. We've been married for three years now, but we just arrived here from back east. We had a little accident on the way. Alika's chest was lost." He had told a variation on that lie many times since they'd arrived in The Vale, yet he still looked closely to see if he was believed.
Joxer had followed the conversation with interest. His hopes rose with Gabrielle's then fell as Alik told the lie of his three-year-marriage. "We're new here ourselves," he announced now, spreading his own lie. He didn't see Gabrielle wince. "Joxer's the name." He extended his hand. Alik took it briefly, suddenly uncomfortable that these people were from outside. Could they know her? It seemed impossible, but...Joxer? That was the name of the couple who stopped for water and were refused by Estra. Alika had shown some interest in the name.
"Could you hurry that, please," Alik asked. "I still need to stop at the cooper's. We could use a tub."
"You sure act like a newlywed," the shopkeeper teased. Alik felt himself blush deeply.
"I've been with Joxina five years," Joxer boasted suddenly, crossing over to smack Gabrielle on the bottom. She smiled at him adoringly. "We had a tub. Couldn't carry it all the way here, but we'll be getting one as soon as we're settled. Whether you like it or not," he threw at her. She thought he had blown it when he mentioned they were new in The Vale, but the longer he spoke, the less likely they'd appear to be suspicious. She hoped. "I've always said, behind every happy woman is a domineering man." No one could be pompous like Joxer could be pompous. No one could believe he was undercover; that would require some subtlety. "Right, Joxina.?"
"That's what he always says," she agreed.
"I really should apologize to you both," Alik said slowly. "It seems you stopped at my home yesterday for water, and my mother turned you away."
"Oh, yeah, I think I recall that. That was your home?"
"The family lives together. The old folks can't manage alone. Where have you put down roots?"
"No place yet, I want to be sure," Joxer drawled the well rehearsed lie.
"That's right," Gabrielle said. "In fact, we'll be leaving this area early tomorrow."
"Missing the festival?" The shopkeeper was surprised. "You'd likely have a good time with the other women in the hall tomorrow."
"It can't be helped, isn't that what you decided Joxer?"
He didn't understand this at all, but followed her lead. "Nope, can't be helped. We have lots of The Vale still to see, some other sites to visit. You know," he shrugged.
"Shame you'll miss the preparations, Joxina," Alik said wanting to be sure that's what he'd heard.
The shopkeeper broke in with a large bundle for Alik. "I put in thread, needles, whatever else she might need. Oh, the women like that embroidery work, so I put in that sort of thread as well."
"Good. Alika does fine embroidery," he said, much relieved that this would-be problem had turned out to be a phantom. "My best to you all," he nodded as he left.
"We've found her, Joxer." Gabrielle allowed a slow stream of tears to escape from her eyes once they'd driven beyond sight of the village. The embroidery had cinched it for her.
"Gab, what are you talking about?" Joxer was confused. "I know it sounds like Xena, but they've been married three years!"
"Joxer, he was lying," she explained patiently. "Do you expect him to say 'I fished my wife out of the river a short while back'? He didn't even know how much cloth to get. In three years don't you think he'd know how much cloth to ask for, for Gaia's sake?"
"Yeah, that's a point," he conceded.
"And she obviously has nothing, like Xena," her voice faltered. "What I can't figure is why she's staying with him. Why would she live as his wife?"
"Well, he seems like a nice guy. Maybe he's a fast worker," Joxer suggested.
"Joxer! It's more likely she's being held against her will."
"Hold Xena? Anywhere she doesn't want to be? C'mon Gab."
"It could happen. If she's hurt, or sick. We won't know until we see her."
"Now, that's what I don't get! If you think it's her, why are we leaving?"
"We're not leaving. I just said that because I think Alik might be wary of us, since we're from the outside."
"Ouch. I shouldn't have let on, huh?"
"It's okay. Chances are the shopkeeper would have mentioned it anyway. This way it doesn't look like we're hiding anything. If Alik thinks I won't be there, it's more likely 'Alika' will be." She grew silent for a long moment, and the tears began again. "I was just thinking, Joxer. That old woman at Alik's house spoke about 'walloping' her 'lazy daughter-in-law'. That was Xena she was talking about. How can that be?"
Something had happened. Alik felt the tension as soon as he entered the house. His colorful bundle was forgotten for the moment as he looked from one face to the other. Estrus' lips and nose were swollen; he glowered at Alik. Estra looked up from the turnip she was peeling, opened her lips to speak, then decided on silence. Alika was drinking deeply from a pitcher. She set it down and wiped her mouth on a filthy sleeve. She crossed the room to Alik and kissed him deeply. He pulled away, at last "Not now, Alika," he whispered.
"You've been gone so long," she purred, reaching a hand inside his shirt.
"Not now," he insisted.
"Forgot. Not in front of Mommy and Daddy," she sneered.
"What's happened?" Alik asked.
"Your father had a fall." Estra complied with the lie. Alika's lips turned up slightly at the corners.
"This stuff's all gone," she complained to Estra, holding up the pitcher.
"Don't fret; I'll be making more," she promised.
"Is that for me?" Alika asked, pointing to the forgotten bundle in Alik's hand.
"Yes. Would you take it upstairs, please," he asked gently. "I'll be up in bit."
"Don't be long," she encouraged him. She moved to the stairs. A flicker of movement in the corner caught her eye. She grabbed the paring knife from the old woman's hand and flashed it across the room. In the corner, near the cupboard, the bandit-rat lay skewered. Alika showed her teeth in a brief smile before climbing the stairs to the loft. The family watched her, stunned.
"You've introduced a monster into the house," the old man growled.
"Me! I wanted to return her to her people," Alik pointed out. "You insisted on keeping her with us!"
"I still think she's one of them river nymphs; sometimes they go bad," the old woman put in.
"She's not a monster, or a river nymph," Alik exclaimed, exasperated. "She's a woman who's been treated badly: abducted, forced to work like a hired hand, abused..." He lowered his head, "and convinced she's the wife of a stranger. How should she behave? Do you really expect gratitude?" he asked, looking from one to the other. "We should all be horse-whipped."
"Show respect boy," Estrus growled.
"I'm not a 'boy'. I'm your son, yes, but I'm no 'boy'," he replied with heat.
Estrus regarded him without comment. A viper had been introduced into the nest. Another one. Had turned Alik against them. "Well, we can't go back to that day and leave her in the river," Estrus reasoned. "We'll just have to try and get along."
"I'll see to that," Estra mumbled. "Never fear, I'll see to that."
Alik followed her to the loft. "How did you do that?" he asked.
"What? The rat? That's just a little trick I learned for getting rid of vermin." She moved to him, arms extended. I missed you."
"I missed you, too." He pulled away from a brief embrace. "How do you like the fabric?"
"Lovely, thanks. I'll use the red first." She took the fabric from his hands and dropped it on a chair. "What's the matter? Don't like me any more?"
"Of course, I like you Alika; I love you. But somehow today, you're different."
"The old folks are afraid of me." She had enjoyed that discovery.
"Don't make them angry, Alika," he warned her.
"Maybe they shouldn't make me angry." Her eyes narrowed in a way that made him uncomfortable. He held up the blue cloth.
"You know, this might be more suitable for the festival, than the red."
"I like the red." She moved to him again and refused to be put off. "Let me show you what's been on my mind all day."
They sat at table, as usual, but it was different. Alika held the platter, but her dark smile hinted that she'd as soon dump the food on the floor, or in the faces of Estrus and his wife. She snickered when he failed to spear a parsnip with his knife. Alika took little food, being content to nibble on a piece of bread, and drain a pitcher of the old woman's brew.
"There's something new in here," she commented, waiting for a reply from Estras.
"The new herbs from the field taste fresher than the old dried things I've been using. And I threw in some mint. Otherwise, it's just the same." She returned to her food, hiding a malevolent smile.
Wagons and carts arrived at the Ladies' Hall shortly after dawn. It seemed to Gabrielle that the shopkeeper had spoken truthfully, the sheer early volume suggested that every woman in The Vale would be here. From under the canvas cover of their own small cart she and Joxer could see, yet not be seen, as the early arrivals were left at the door before the rough vehicles rolled away to other chores. There had yet been no sign of Xena or the family she apparently was with.
"Gab? What if she doesn't come? What do say we go to that farmhouse, bust down the door and liberate her?" Joxer had come up with a dozen variations on that basic scenario, and Gabrielle's reply had always been the same: not until we know what's going on. She merely looked at him now.
"I know," he said before she could speak, "not until we know what's going on. I'm just tired of waiting," he sighed. "Xena wouldn't be waiting."
"No, Xena's not much good at waiting, but we are not Xena. So let us wait and see." This isn't easy for me, either Joxer, she thought. Since this nightmare started she'd awakened to vivid dreams of Xena calling her, reaching for her. Last night the dream had been different: a vast darkness had enveloped her, threatened to obscure her existence, yet she knew that in the heart of that darkness Xena waited for her. It had been unsettling, and she felt the chill of it now, despite the closeness of the confined space she shared with Joxer.
She loosened the canvas cover to let in more air as another wagon rolled by. This wagon was used for farm chores now, not traveling and the canvas cover was gone. Gabrielle looked closely, and her heart caught in her throat: there in the back, seated on a crate, was Xena. "Joxer!" she whispered. "She's here."
Transfixed, they watched the wagon rumble by, jarring over the ruts and stones. Xena seemed not to notice. She sat perfectly still, head down, seemingly oblivious to her surroundings. When the wagon stopped, she made no reaction, only moved when Alik climbed in back to rouse her and help her climb down. That done, she waited, immobile while he performed the same task for his mother. Finally, he took two bundles from the wagon and carried them to the hall in one hand, holding Xena's elbow by the other. He stopped at the door. This was women's territory, and he would go no further. He said some short words to his mother, held Xena's face while he spoke to her, with apparent tenderness, and kissed her forehead. A ghostly smile touched her face at that. Alik departed, and Xena was led inside by the old woman. Gabrielle realized she had been holding her breath, and it came out in a long exhale.
"Gab, what *was* that?" Joxer asked, the shock on her face mirrored in his.
"I don't know. She's not herself, that's clear. I don't know what's happened to her, or what they've done, but I'm going to find out. Joxer, keep the wagon nearby. "If this turns out to be easy, we'll pile in the wagon and fly on out of here."
"Gab, it looks like she doesn't know her own name." An anger Gabrielle had never known in Joxer was in his voice. "I don't think this will be easy."
"We'll soon know." She grabbed her own bundle; she couldn't sew, but this was one party she wasn't going to miss.
The Ladies' Hall was a beehive of activity. Long tables in the center of the vast room held basket weaving materials, and swift-fingers were already snaking the fibers into large, intricate baskets. These tables were staffed by experienced women, a matronly group, somewhere between the senior women and the younger marrieds. The maidens had a space to themselves, and they were called on to do the bidding of the women with greater status. The older women were seated around the periphery of the building, there less to work than to supervise the activity and cast aspersions on the skills and character of their younger sisters. The younger married women, those of child bearing years, were grouped in one end of the building, some weaving the baskets of lesser importance, some kneading great mounds of dough, some preparing curious mixtures of fruits and spices. Gabrielle stood for a moment to get a sense of where she might fit in here, and try to locate Xena, when an acerbic voice at her ear asked: "Excuse me? To whom do you belong?"
Gabrielle turned and managed to put on a pleasant face. "Joxer," she said. "I'm called Joxina."
"Oh. I don't know the name. We weren't expecting you."
'Well, I'm sorry. I just wanted to be of help, you know, soothing the river god." "Of course. What is it you do? Baskets?"
"No, I'm not much good at that. I don't suppose you need any ornamental scrolls? Designs that is, not writing, of course, what woman knows how to write?" she laughed, but there was not even a smile in reply.
"What's in your bundle?"
"Sewing goods. Fabric, thread. Thought I'd make a frock for the festival." The older woman looked at the worn, striped skirt and faded blouse that had been provided by Joncas' wife. "Yes," she agreed. "That seems like a good idea." She took Gabrielle by the arm and lead her over to the area where the married women were cutting cloth, measuring and pinning. Gabrielle couldn't see Xena, but it was likely she'd be involved in that activity. She didn't want to meet her yet, not in the middle of a crowd.
"You know, I have strong arms. I'm good at kneading dough, just let me at ..."
"I think you have greater need of a new dress, " the older woman insisted as she pulled the hapless bard on.
As they passed the older women Gabrielle spotted Xena seated on a bench next to Alik's mother. Xena drained a mug and gestured at an earthenware crock at the old woman's feet. Gabrielle couldn't hear what she said, but the pleading in her eyes was evident. Firmly rejected, she sat back in her chair, dark head down, hands folded in her lap, defeated. At several other points around the room young women sat with grey-haired---'custodians', Gabrielle supposed. There was a sameness about them, a sadness, a lack of energy. What had Xena said? They devour members of their own community, in the spirit? Gabrielle fought the urge to go to Xena, to lead her away from this killing-place. Wait until you know the score Gab, she reminded herself, as she had reminded Joxer so many times.
Gabrielle was soon at work, following the patterns of dresses laid out by a bevy of women. Hecata, Treobia, and Protea she recognized by name, the others came and went in a mad confusion. She didn't know what she was doing, and little cared; it was hard to follow directions while keeping one eye on Xena. Estra spoke to Xena; she objected, reached for the jar, and the old woman smacked her hand. Stung by the rebuke she picked up the bundle at her feet and crossed the room.
"Look at her," Hecata said, with a superior smirk. "I'm surprised they risked bringing her here."
"Why do you say that?" Gabrielle asked.
"She's a bit addled. Her family says she had an accident." She shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe she was born that way."
"A little crazy. Tried to walk out on her husband, stark naked! My father was there, said they had to knock her out to keep her from leaving. It's the talk of The Vale. Still I think her mother-in-law's getting her under control." She snickered. "That dress was one of my mother's, you know. It was either give it to the new neighbors or tear it into rags. It hardly covers the brute."
Gabrielle wanted to slap the expression off Hecata's smug face. She dug her nails so far into her palms to keep control that she drew blood. "Well, you know, with that body, she could wear anything. Or nothing," she told the stunned trio.
What Hecata said was only a small exaggeration; the dress was inadequate. Her hair had been combed, but it hung loose around her shoulders, and fell into her eyes. Several small girls surrounded her as she made her as she made her was across the floor. She smiled tentatively; Xena liked children, but they joined hands and began to circle her, skipping and singing : "Crazy Alika wears no clothes, crazy Alika wears no clothes, crazy..." Confused, unable to proceed she watched the little horde, anger and a sort of panic showing in her eyes. Gabrielle broke through the little circle and gently, but firmly, shooed the children away. She took her hand and pulled her along to a bench by the wall, as she blinked back hot tears.
"Kids. They didn't mean any harm." She held Xena's hand a long time after they were seated, didn't want to let go, after so long. She looked into Xena's eyes, hoping for some sign of recognition. There was none, but she was glad to see that the anger was receding.
"Are you Alika?" she asked, hoping to start a conversation.
There was a pause. "They call me that," she said at last.
"They call me Joxina here," Gabrielle began, "but most people call..." Xena was not listening, she stared in the direction of the old woman, who stared back.
"I'm very thirsty. She won't let me have anything to drink," she said as if talking to herself. There were several pitchers in the area. Gabrielle found one with a dipper and offered some to Alika. "Here. I don't know what this is, but it smells okay." Alika sniffed it suspiciously, then pushed her hand away, spilling the liquid over the floor. "No. The old woman's got what I like." An ugly look crossed her face. She began to rise.
"No. Look, I'll go." She couldn't bear to see Xena subjected to the old woman's abuse again. "Maybe she won't say no to a stranger." As if.
"Alika's not feeling very well, Estra. She asked if I could get her some of that special drink you've brought. Please?" Gabrielle's anger was barely masked by the smile she forced to her lips. She remembered Xena's own anger when she had first spoken of The Vale. 'This is the place I should have destroyed,' she had said.
"Don't trouble yourself, I'll pour," she said, giving the old woman no opportunity to refuse. She took the whole jar, and sniffed it warily as she returned to the bench. Xena eyed her closely. Maybe a glimmer of recall? No, Gabrielle realized. She was focused on the jar. She did manage a 'thank you' as Gabrielle came close. The bard pulled the container out of her reach. "I'll pour," she said.
"You don't have to." Gabrielle hadn't thought her capable of such quick movement, but in a flash she had seized the jar and held it to her lips. She took a long draught, and sighed, like an alcoholic after a long drought, Gabrielle realized. She was being drugged. It was unmistakable. This concoction of the old woman's was inducing this odd behavior.
"Maybe that's enough for now," she urged, anxious to get the jar away from her, " you should save some for later." That logic seemed to work. Alika looked into the jar and made a small face at the scant amount left. She replaced the large cork in the opening, and looked at Gabrielle, more alert, and refreshed. "Thanks," she said again. "The old woman can be pretty mean. How can she expect me to do all this work," she held up the bundle of sewing materials, "without..."
"Without what, " Gabrielle asked gently. There was no reply. It's as if her thoughts just hit dead ends, Gabrielle realized with an anguished heart. "Look. Do you need some help with your dress?" she offered.
"I can sew," was the defiant response.
"Good. I can't do it very well myself," the blonde confessed. "Maybe you could show me how?"
Xena shrugged. "Sure." Her eyes met Gabrielle's, and lingered for a moment before passing on. Gabrielle fought the urge to hold her. She retrieved her own materials from the little coven of Hecata, Treobia and Protea, who were happy to see her go.
"I don't think this color will really suit me," Gabrielle said of the soft lavender cloth she had bought the day before. Please, let me cut the pattern in your size. There's plenty of cloth." Xena hesitated. "I'd like you to have it. You remind me of a friend. Did you ever feel you've known someone forever, even though you've just met?" Xena smiled uncertainly, and took the cloth.
Together, she and Xena laid out the fabric and traced patterns with chalk. Oddly, Xena took the lead, knowing where to alter the cut, how to modify for size differences, and what allowance to make for the seams. At times she worked with speed and decision; she really can sew, Gabrielle realized, surprised. At other times she seemed to lose focus; then she'd take a swallow from the jar. By noon, both dresses were cut out, and the lavender one, which Xena had sewn, was all but finished.
"Your stitches are beautiful," Gabrielle admired.
Xena smiled, sweetly, pleased to have a compliment. "Thanks. My mother.." She lost the thought.
"Who is your mother," Gabrielle prompted. Xena looked at Estra, then shook her head. "I don't know," she confessed softly.
"What were you called before you were married?" Silence answered. "Have you always lived in The Vale?" Gabrielle could see the wheels turning as she reached for the answers. "Are there a lot of things you don't remember?"
"No," she lied. An edge of belligerence crept into her voice.
"Look," Gabrielle changed direction, "Let's get this on for one last look. They went into the small room set aside for clothing changes, and Xena disrobed. "Let's get rid of this, for all time, Gabrielle said, and slashed at the hated garment with pleasure. She looked up. Xena was transformed. The dress was a miracle in fluidity, conforming to her shape, flowing around her legs with grace. The lavender complemented her eyes as Gabrielle had known it would.
"One last touch," Gabrielle decided. She extracted a comb from her bag, sat on the floor, knees drawn up, Xena between her legs, and began to braid strands of the long dark hair. How she had missed these quiet moments, when even the Warrior Princess had taken time to debate hairstyles, and argue over who produced the better braid. She wondered whether any of this seemed familiar to Xena. She prolonged the hairgrooming, hated the moment when she finally said, "Turn around." A slow smile crept across her face. "You look like ten thousand dinars." The smile was mirrored by Xena. For a long moment their eyes met, and Xena smiled. Her eyes narrowed, as Xena's often did when she was in thought. Know me, please see me, Gabrielle implored silently. It was impossible that Xena could not feel something, not recall her friend on any level. Cursed by the gods, Xena had said. This place and it's perverse inhabitants were certainly that. Xena's gaze started to wander. The moment was lost. When they emerged, a quiet buzz began in the hall. Crazy Alika, of the unkempt hair and deplorable clothing, was gone. The woman in her place was even more to be despised. Contempt was easy; envy was hard. Estra was torn. This woman's loveliness did honor to her son, Alik, yet her transformation at the hands of the stranger was a threat of some sort, which she couldn't define.
Lunch was provided for the group, lavish dishes of stewed fruits, prepared from the last of the dried fruits put aside the summer before; cold meats, a variety of cheeses and breads. Xena was required to fetch Estra's food and to sit with her through the meal, but soon was rescued by an insistent Gabrielle, who needed "Alika's instruction in embroidery." Estra inspected the work Alika had already done on the red dress, and complied, grudgingly proud of this family member for the second time that day.
Gabrielle was truly impressed by Xena's embroidery. She was inventive, fast and produced remarkably consistent work. Some of the stitches Gabrielle had seen: hearts, flowers and X's, like those that adorned a small pillow she always had with her. It had been produced by a very young Xena, and Xena's mother had turned a blind eye when Gabrielle lifted it from the inn in Amphipolis. She watched wistfully now, wishing it was the Xena she knew, sitting by the campfire, showing her how to hold the needle, produce the best knot, keep the thread from being tangled, instead of this stranger who looked like Xena. In some ways it was like other lessons Xena had delivered, in fishing, tracking, riding and so many other skills. Xena was, like all good teachers, demanding, and she understood the value of well-earned praise. "That's it," she enthused at Gabrielle's least accomplishment. "But you've got to practice." Xena's credo. Other times, in the middle of a stitch, her hands would start to tremble, and her eyes betrayed an awful anxiety. Gabrielle knew that then she would want another drink from the stoppered jar. They were left alone for the afternoon, the two strangers, and after a time they were forgotten by everyone, except Estra. Husbands and fathers began arriving for their wives and daughters before sundown. Gabrielle made no move to leave until Alik arrived, peering anxiously in from the door to find his wife.
"She flew to him Joxer, as if he meant the world to her.' Gabrielle's fury was still evident. They were walking back to camp, Gabrielle holding Argo's reins, Joxer lighting the way with a torch.
"Gab, isn't that good?" Joxer asked, trying to understand. "I thought you'd be glad to know that she likes the guy. It must mean he's nice to her."
"Nice? Don't get me started," she fumed. Using all her bardly gifts, Gabrielle described the day in the hall, leaving out no detail of hurt or humiliation which had been visited on the woman they both cared about. "As bad as Estra is, Alik is the real monster. At least she knows Estra's her enemy, but she thinks Alik's wonderful. Of course he seems to be nice to her, but he lets everyone else use her, abuse her. He has to know she's being drugged. It's so obvious, she's after the stuff like a bi..." She backed away from using the phrase about Xena. "What kind of man is that?" she asked instead. "He's using her worse than anyone, making her think they're married..." The strain of the afternoon showed in Gabrielle's eyes, and her jaw clenched in anger, kind of like Xena, Joxer mused.
"It would be better if she hated them all. Maybe then we could persuade her to come willingly. As it is, she won't leave him," she acknowledged, shaking her head in wonder.
"It would be a lot easier to save Xena if we had Xena to help," Joxer declared. "We could have just grabbed her this afternoon and made our escape."
"Yeah, that would have been Xena's plan," Gabrielle agreed. "But now, not only is Xena not with us; she's likely to be against us."
"Gab. Maybe we should leave here---Hold on," he stopped her as he she turned to him, irate. "Just long enough to find Hercules and Iolaus. They'd come and help."
"I've thought of that, but we don't have that kind of time." She stood still for a moment. "When she looks at that old woman, she gets an odd expression. I've seen it before; it means she's about to lose it. When she does, she'll kill," she pronounced grimly. "They're pushing her too hard, and she's not making rational decisions, everything is a gut reaction. Because of the drugs it's very confused, and not always appropriate, but it's all from her emotions, and that," she acknowledged, dropping her voice, "can be very ugly. They don't know who they're dealing with, Joxer. They think she's a harmless woman. Someday they'll go too far. If we don't get her away from them, soon, she just might kill them all."
They walked on in silence. "So what's the plan?" Joxer asked at last.
"I don't have one, yet," she admitted, "but I had to do something, so I asked Alik to bring her to camp for supper tomorrow night. It's the night before the festival, no one will work the next day; I thought it would be a good time."
"And Estra had a conniption. Xena had kind of drifted out by then, but Alik said yes. I think he was impressed with what I'd managed to do for her. I think he's happy she's found a friend." She reached in her pocket, and thrust a piece a of cloth at Joxer. "Our warrior can really handle a needle, Joxer." He examined the cloth by the flickering torchlight, avoiding Gabrielle's face. He knew she was crying, and wasn't sure if he should try to comfort her or pretend not to notice. In the end, she made the decision; she turned to the startled Joxer and buried her face in his shoulder. He stood, a bit embarrassed, and more than a little proud to be trusted this way. "We'll get her back, Gab," he told her softly, "we'll get her back."
The cottage was dark when they reached home. It was the glow of his pipe that gave Estrus away, in his dark corner. He barely looked, accepted a perfunctory peck on the cheek from his wife and stared in sullen silence at Alik and his woman. Plates of leftovers had been left for the men. Estra ordered Alika to clear away the mess they'd left behind.
"I'll do it," Alik volunteered, sending his wife upstairs to put her new wardrobe safely away.
"What's got into her, then," Estrus growled. "Looks like a different woman. Don't suppose she threw knives at anyone there, did she?"
"She had a fine time; found a friend, made three dresses." He held up three digits, and beamed with pride.
"Behave herself, Mother?" he asked his wife.
"Aye. Alika will be no problem now," she said with sly confidence. Alik cleared away the supper things and joined his wife in the tiny loft.
Alika swallowed deeply from the ever-present pitcher on the small table beside the bed and settled into Alik's arms with a sleepy sigh. The day had been good, but the details seemed already to be receding into the murky past. She remembered the woman who had worked with her, but had to reach for the name. "Joxina, I think. She was nice."
"Did you know her before?"
"Know her?" She was puzzled. "How would I know her?
"From before we were married; we haven't been together always, you know."
"Well, I don't know her."
"Does she seem familiar? Like someone you once knew?"
"No," she said absently, then in a different vein, "Do you really like my dress?"
"I love your dress. I love all your dresses," he enthused, "and I love your hair. I have the most beautiful wife in The Vale. The most beautiful wife in the world. And I love her very much."
She smiled, pleased with herself, pleased with him. "Show me," she said urgently.
"Gabrielle, sit down. You're wearing a rut in the ground." Green eyes flashed in the late afternoon-light.
"I can't sit. What if Alik's decided not to come?" She looked anxiously toward the path which led to the road.
"They'll be here," Joxer replied with board assurance. "And, if they don't come we'll see her at the festival tomorrow."
"Joxer, this is my only chance to see her alone, or nearly alone. If you can manage to---"
"I know, persuade Alik to look over the land, help me decide whether to settle on this spot. I know my role here, Gab. Trust me a little, huh?"
"Right. Look, Joxer, I'm sorry," she apologized. "This whole thing just has me a little anxious."
"I understand, Gab. I'll get him out of the way, while you chat with Xena. Then what? that's the part that's a little fuzzy." He poked a stick at the smoldering campfire.
"We could knock Alik on the head---"
"And Xena, Alika, whoever she is would knock us on the head. She wouldn't stand for anyone hurting Alik."
"We could thunk *both* of them on the head, tie them up, just long enough to get out of here. They'd never think to look for them until it was too late. They'd never catch us."
"Joxer, it will be dark soon. Could we escape on these strange roads in the dark? With two captives? And ford the river, as high as it is, with this wagon?" She shook her head. "I don't see it. Besides." Her voice faltered. "I don't want to thunk Xena on the head. You haven't seen her up close, Joxer. She's had a hard time. I want to do this without hurting Xena anymore. I have to woo her back. I'm hoping this will jog her memory." Her gesture took in the little campsite. "We've spent so much time in places like this. She's still in there, Joxer. She hasn't embroidered in years. That comes back to her; why shouldn't more recent things come back? It's as if they've stolen her identity, and in the absence of the warrior, a simple village girl has taken up residence."
"It sounds like she's who Xena might be if she hadn't become a warrior."
"Parts of her, maybe," she shrugged, "but she *is* a warrior, Joxer, and so much more. All her experiences, good and bad, have made her a person of strong opinions, intense likes and dislikes, unique skills; she has a right to be that person." She was angrily mopping the tears from her face when the tall couple ambled into the clearing.
"Hi. Hope we're not late," Alik said, in his deep baritone. "My wife decided it was a nice evening for a walk." His arm was around her waist; he gave the hand he held a small squeeze; it did not go unnoticed.
"No; we're not big sun watchers," Gabrielle said, before remembering that to follow custom, she should defer to Joxer.
Alik handed a small cloth bundle to Joxer. "Something from my mother's kitchen,' he said with pride. Under Alik's arm there was tucked an earthenware jug. Gabrielle's nose wrinkled in disgust.
"Thanks, and welcome to the campsite; it's not much, but well, we're all here," Joxer ended pointlessly. He was trying to look at Xena without staring. Gabrielle had given up on that and turned to the pot she had simmering over the low fire. "Please have a seat," he continued with a gracious gesture at the small bench he'd managed to put together from two rocks and a plank wrenched from the side of the wagon. Xena waited for Alik to make the first move, then sat next to him, thighs touching.
Gabrielle turned from the pot and stared at the couple. Joxer caught something in her eyes and decided now would be a good time to get Alik out of there. "Alik, the sun will be down soon, what say we have a look around? Leave the cooking to the ladies, eh?" Alik rose from his wife's side with a reluctance she shared. She held his arm and pleaded:
"Can I come?"
"No, sweetheart. You stay and help Joxer's wife with the meal. I'll be back soon." He left her with a small kiss on the cheek. She looked around awkwardly. Gabrielle joined her by the fire, taking the seat Alik had vacated. Xena shifted a few inches away.
"That's a really good dress for you Alika," she began. "We had a lot of fun yesterday, didn't we. You sure could teach me a lot about sewing." Xena hadn't responded to any of Gabrielle's words, but watched her intently. Gabrielle gave her a huge smile; it always works with kids, she reasoned. She had guessed right. After a moment Xena responded with a cautious smile. "You do remember yesterday, don't you, Alika?" The blue eyes looked away, as the groping for a thought, a memory began. "We met with all the women, and..."
"And the children were singing something---"she recalled, a touch of yesterday's unease in her face.
"Yeah, kids." Gabrielle laughed, and hurried on "But we were sewing, and I did your hair. She reached to touch it, as it now hung loose around her shoulders. "I wouldn't mind braiding it again."
Xena's face brightened. "That would be nice. Alik liked it," she said with pleasure.
"Oh. Good," Gabrielle said trying to maintain her smile. "We'll find a minute before you leave tonight. You know," she said, changing direction, "I have to see to our horse. Would you come with me?" She held out her hand, and as she had the day before, Xena let herself be led away. Gabrielle tried to rise above the sadness she felt, and focused on the strong hand in hers. This is Xena, she told herself, and we will save her. She led her to the big mare that was tethered behind a small stand of trees. Argo looked up and whinnied at Xena's approach.
"Easy, girl" Gabrielle said, as she reached out to stroke the horse. "Isn't she beautiful?" she asked Xena, who stood a bit behind Gabrielle. She produced a brush from a bag hanging on a nearby tree and began to groom Argo, with slow, gentle strokes. After a few moments she thrust the brush in Xena's hand. "Would you give me a hand?" she asked without explaining why she needed help. Xena set to the task as Alika did to all her others.
Gabrielle observed silently, certain that the unspoken communication between horse and rider would be effective. Xena observed the same silence at first, then began to speak softly to the great horse, gentle endearments, much as Xena had done when she was herself. At the same time her free hand lingered on the horse's flank as if bestowing a caress.
"Her name is Argo." Gabrielle's voice came softly from the corner, and Gabrielle didn't know whether Xena's started reaction was to her voice or the name.
"Have you ever had a horse?" Gabrielle asked.
"Y-yes. I think so," came the uncertain reply. Gabrielle didn't question her doubt.
"Argo's very special."
"She doesn't look like a draughthorse," Xena said, continuing to stroke the soft hide of the animal.
"She isn't. She's a warhorse. She belonged to a friend of mine. A warrior." Gabrielle stopped and waited for a reaction. It was slow in coming.
"Your husband let you have a warrior friend?" Xena asked quietly, looking at the bard.
"My friends are for me to chose Alika, not my husband."
Alika turned her attention back to the horse. "Where is the warrior now?" she asked.
"She's lost, but I think not really far away," was the cryptic reply. "You're not surprised that the warrior is a woman?"
The dark head shook slowly from side to side. Her mouth opened to speak, then closed again. "Why not?" she asked finally.
"You remind me of the warrior," Gabrielle told her.
"That's funny," Xena laughed, but she looked away. "I think the horse---"
"Argo," Gabrielle prompted.
"Argo is well-groomed. Can we go back? I'm thirsty."
Gabrielle overlooked the question. "Wouldn't you like to ride her? We have a saddle."
"You do ride, don't you?" the bard pushed.
"Yes, of course I..." she answered abruptly, then stopped just as abruptly, as if the thought had not been completed. "I want to go back. Where did Alik go?" A note of panic tinged her voice.
"Alik will be back soon," Gabrielle reassured her. "We'll go back now, if you like."
Xena shook her head vehemently, and started to stride off, then uncertain of her destination, she stopped and waited for Gabrielle.
Little progress had been made, Gabrielle realized, and the men would be back soon. She had time for one bold move. When they reached the campsite Xena, predictably, drank from the jug Alik had brought. No sense trying to dissuade her, Gabrielle had decided. When she was finished Gabrielle called her over to the wagon.
"I need help with something," she coaxed her. The wagon was much like the one Alik's family had, it was cramped and dark, but it was not offensive to the nose. Gabrielle's back was to her as she climbed in, then she turned suddenly and something in her hand caught the last, low rays of the sun. Gabrielle thrust the chakram at her. "Do you know what this is?" Alika looked at the metal ring, then brought her gaze to rest on Gabrielle's face.
"This belongs to my friend, the warrior. Her name is Xena," Gabrielle said.
Something sparked in Xena's eyes, Gabrielle was certain she remembered something. She reached for the chakram, her movements less uncertain than before.
"Alika?" The voice boomed out of the silence. Xena's head snapped around; she turned briefly to look at the chakram, then exited the wagon, and returned Alik's greeting.
"What were you doing in there?" he asked, with a hint of suspicion?
"Joxina needed help with something," she replied, suddenly animated and focused on Alik. Her left hand held his, her right reached up to caress his hair.
"The river's a bit high. We couldn't see all the property," Joxer explained.
Gabrielle descended jumped down from the rear of the wagon with a large cloth. She turned to shake it out, and to hide the tears that welled up in her eyes. Damn you, Alik, she cursed. She threw a vexed look at Joxer, then scolded herself. A wasted opportunity. How many more would there be? Throughout the meal it was the same. If it embarrassed Alik to be so publicly adored by his wife, he didn't show it. He smiled at her attentions and responded in small ways. It made Gabrielle crazy.
"Where did you two meet?" she asked at last, hoping to see the fraudulent husband squirm. Xena looked at Alik with open curiosity. He smiled to buy time, patted her arm and said: "I bid for Alika in our last community." It was the agreed upon lie. "Almost exactly three years ago. I couldn't resist those eyes and..." His voice trailed off. Three pair of eyes were staring at him. Alika's arm was still twined around his, but had grown noticeably limp.
"You bid for her?" It was Joxer who spoke first.
"Why are you all looking at me like that? It's our way," he defended himself. "Alika? I know you don't remember much, but you weren't upset when it happened. You've always been happy with me." He gripped her hand hard, insisting she listen.
"Yes, Alik. I've always been happy with you. I just didn't remember---that." Her cheeks were a shade of crimson.
Of course he hadn't bid for her, Gabrielle and Joxer both knew that, but the causal way he spoke of bidding for a wife spoke scrolls about him. More importantly, Gabrielle nodded with grim approval, it had captured the attention of his 'wife'.
"What if she hadn't been happy with you Alik?" Gabrielle looked at Joxer in surprise as he asked the pointed question. In this place, that question was best put man-to-man. "I was fortunate to find a woman I loved and respected without having to bid for her. But sometimes, it must happen, that a woman is not happy with the highest bidder."
"Of course it happens." Alik picked up the jug and passed it to the grateful Alika. "They adapt. It's all in what they get used to. Tomorrow, at the festival, you'll see marriage ceremonies for those who were claimed since the last festival. They'll be perfectly happy women there." And perfectly drugged women, Gabrielle was certain. "Do you see many discontented women around The Vale?" Alik asked. "Or in your other community? Where was that?" It was his turn to ask the questions.
"We were in a small, very small, embryonic, community. Decided we'd like a larger support system. Too many outsiders. You know." Joxer wagged his hand in a dismissive way. "We didn't have much opportunity to bid on anyone. Often we had to court the local girls." He pointed to Gabrielle. "In a small community, old customs are hard to maintain. Still, Joxina has fit in nicely."
"Didn't have to adapt?"
"No," Gabrielle answered. "I wanted to be with Joxer. I didn't need to be forced into it." She refused to use the euphemism.
"Alika isn't 'forced' into anything," Alik quietly. "She's perfectly contented with her life."
Gabrielle rose as if in sudden pain. "I need to start cleaning up. Alika, would you---"
"I think Alika would like a break from household chores. I'll help," Alik volunteered, following Gabrielle as she left the fire. Alika seemed to have stopped paying attention, whether lost in thought or unthinking, she gave no sign that the exchange had taken place.
Gabrielle swallowed the curse that rose to he lips, and set about her tasks. As they worked, Alik began to speak.
"I haven't had the chance to properly thank you for yesterday. I think it's made a big difference to Alika, having some decent clothes for a change." They both looked up at Joxer's loud efforts to get Alika's attention. "
"Alika did most of the work," Gabrielle said simply.
"I gather that. She's quite talented with a needle, but I know she can be a little..." he groped for a word. "Passive," he decided. " I'm certain you must have helped her focus, helped her get through the job. You certainly made an impression. She talked about you half the night," he exaggerated I just wanted you to know I appreciate it, but it wasn't really necessary."
"What do you mean, not necessary?" Gabrielle asked ,almost fiercely.
"We look out for our own," he asserted evenly. Gods, he believes what he's saying Gabrielle thought, astonished.
"You look out for your own, " she repeated. "Alik are you even vaguely aware of the way she looked, the way she was behaving? She became the instant focus of attention. I became her friend because she needed a friend, someone to 'look out' for her. Because the children were taunting her, the other women were laughing at her. She couldn't think straight, could hardly see straight. What kind of man subjects his wife to that kind of abuse?"
"My mother was there to..."
"Your mother hates her. That's clear. She's just a household drudge to your mother."
"This isn't your business," he said, mildly, trying to avoid offense.
"Where I come from, we believe that helping people out, even strangers," she threw in, "*is* our business."
He was at a loss. "Where are you from, anyway? You aren't one of us."
"No. I wasn't born one of you. I read. I write. I think for myself. I don't understand any of your ways," she said with ill-disguised contempt.
"Then why are you here?"
"I would do just about anything for love, Alik. How about you?" Both heads turned to the campfire, where Joxer entertained the bemused woman with an entertaining, though unsuccessful, knife trick.
"I think it's time for us to leave."
"I was going to fix her hair," Gabrielle said urgently.
"I think we'll manage," Alik said with forced politeness. "Maybe we'll see you at the festival tomorrow. If it doesn't rain." He gathered his silent wife and they left.
Joxer and Gabrielle watched the campfire burn low, as they assessed the evening. The weather had turned damp, and the nightair bore an uncomfortable chill.
"Not a total waste," Gabrielle reassured herself, "I think Argo and the chakram made some impression." That thought seemed disturbing. "But I can't understand something," she began sadly. "She responds to Argo; she responds to a piece of metal. She looks at me and sees nothing familiar. Even here, around a campfire, there was no glimmer of recall. Why can't she remember me?" She didn't expect a reply, but Joxer provided one.
"Gab, whatever place in here life was filled by Argo, or the chakram, or even me," he stopped, and held his hands up defensively, as if expecting a reaction, "Gab, I saw a look in her eyes sometimes. I think she found me vaguely familiar." he ended apologetically.
"Anyway, those places are still empty. I don't think a needle and thread replaces a chakram! But Alik is with her all the time, he shares a life with her. Your place, Gab, has been taken." He paused to consider. "I don't know how that drug is supposed to work, but Xena seems to be terribly anxious when ever there's a conflict. They'll be one hell of a conflict if, I mean when, it occurs to her that Alik is not necessarily the right person in the right place. As long as she doesn't recognize you, that's one less conflict to deal with."
Gabrielle listened to his theory with interest and surprise. "Joxer," she said at last, you might be on to something." It made her feel better, to know that there might be an explanation. Everything led back to the same problem: the drug. She had to be cut off from it, but her craving was so strong she would not willingly give it up. Yet Gabrielle had made a decision over supper, and it was not to be put off. "Joxer, we have serious planning to do."
Continued - Part 3