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.
The festival was like a microcosm of The Vale itself. No one seemed to have much fun, the foods were pretty much of the everyday variety, except for one honeyed confection which seemed to be only for children. The young women wore new frocks, and early Spring flowers in their hair, yet maintained the sort of matronly dignity the older women modeled, and seemed to expect.
"If I was Crinisus I'd be pretty pissed at this lousy festival," Gabrielle grumbled. It was mid-morning, and there had yet been no sign of Xena or Alik's family.
"Do you think they're somewhere else?" Joxer suggested.
"Yes, Joxer, since they aren't here, they must be somewhere else," she said with thinly veiled impatience. "The question is, where? This is where it all happens, right?"
The shopkeeper had told them the general schedule for the day. It seemed that everyone would gather for official ceremonies early in the day, to be held here, where the river forked around Hare Island. Gifts to the River God, Crinisus, would be set to float down river, marriages would be solemnized, children would be named, and then the men would adjourn for a council while the women... did whatever they did. The shopkeeper wasn't sure what that might be. The men and women would not unite again until parting time, sometime after sundown. Gabrielle was determined that Xena would never depart with Alik again.
Gabrielle and Joxer had been up since well before daybreak making arrangements for their plan. Even now, the little wagon lay within easy distance, ready for the escape. It was not sturdy, not fast, even with Argo as it's source of power, yet it was the only alternative. Joxer had suggested that the two women ride Argo, while he followed on foot, abandoning the wagon, but it didn't seem likely that Gabrielle would be able to keep Xena in the saddle, and they would have attracted a lot of attention, two women riding through The Vale alone. Gabrielle tried to put the discarded plans out of her mind. She was beginning to appreciate the difficulty Xena faced constantly. These plans were difficult to settle on.
"Gab, are you sure you'll be able to get her to the wagon? That old lady, Estra sure looked mean."
"I told you Joxer. She's a nasty, malicious piece of work, but she's also lazy. If I'm with Alika she'll trust me just to save herself the trouble. If we can get one or two hours head start, we'll have a shot." She looked around anxiously. "As long as they show up."
"And as long as the rain holds off," Joxer added, looking at the dark thunderheads above. "If there's a downpour, everybody goes home early."
Estra had insisted that the canvas cover of the wagon be in place. Her joints told her it would rain. She sat in back now, eyeing Alika with disapproval. She had steadily increased the potency of her brew, yet the woman's rebellious streak continued to appear in tiny ways. Last night she had returned from her outing with Alik and ignored the old woman's command to clean up after the supper she'd shared with Estrus. Walked past as if she hadn't heard. Alik made his usual excuses, but the truth was Alika was more that he could handle. Like the other one. She wondered how far she could go without destroying her; shame to lose such a strong worker. Might be good for child-bearing too; had the hips for it. Time Alik became a father.
"How are you two doing back there?" Alik's voice called into the stuffy space. Alika didn't respond.
"Fine son," the old woman called back. "Alika's just taking a little nap, like." She had varied the mix a bit today, added something new. She'd have to keep a close watch on her today, to gauge her reaction.
Alika barely roused from her little nap when they arrived at the river gathering. Alik lead her gently by the hand to a grassy knoll from which they could see the panorama from a distance. Gabrielle tugged at Joxer's sleeve. "There they are. Zeus, she looks out of focus today. I don't know if that makes things better or worse."
Estra and Estrus had seen too many festivals, and didn't bother to climb to a viewing point. They waited near the wagon, smoking pipes.
"There's the old witch now." She directed Joxer's attention to the old couple. "That must be Estrus with her. Looks like a fun couple," she sneered sarcastically. "I'll be so glad to get her away from them." She realized her fists were clenched, and made a conscious effort to relax. "At some point we have to say hello to Alik and Xena. If we stay away altogether, it will look suspicious. We'll just casually run into them."
"My thoughts exactly," Joxer agreed.
And so it was that they found themselves walking away from the river bank at the same time, having watched the maidens set the baskets into the river. One poor maiden was so uncoordinated, or drugged, she fell in with her basket, and had to be hauled out. The crowd departed wondering whether this was a good or bad omen.
"Probably a bad omen for the girl," Gabrielle observed, "it means she'll be a drug controlled little woman for the rest of her life." She had not spoken loudly enough for her words to be understood, but Alika heard her voice in the crowd and turned around.
"Joxina?" she asked uncertainly.
"Yeah, that's what they call me here," Gabrielle replied heartily. "Quite a festival, huh?"
She nodded to Alik, yet never took her eyes from Xena. She was wearing the red dress, despite Estra's objections. 'Red is a color for harlots,' she'd argued. The men had voted her down. She still puzzled over Estrus' agreement with them.
Gabrielle thought it was a wonderful dress. Lavender was better for her eyes, but nothing could ruin those eyes, and this red was a perfect showcase for the cascade of thick dark hair which tumbled over her shoulders. "You look really beautiful today," Gabrielle said quietly. Alik turned to look at her strangely. "You're a very lucky man, Alik. And I'm glad we ran into you. We'll be leaving this part of The Vale, so we'll maybe only see you once a year now." She heard the relief in his voice, even as she thought she saw some small sign of regret in Alika's face. "Maybe we'll see each other when the men go off to their important meeting, eh Alika." She gave a short wave and pulled herself away. Alik and Xena took their places with Estrus and Estra to eat. Joxer and Gabrielle found their own space and nibbled on their own sparse rations, while they made final adjustments in the plan.
There seemed little point in sitting in a grassy field for hours while the men met, but that seemed to be the custom. The children played games while the women sat and talked, or napped or did needlework. Estra was in the nap category. She paid no heed when Gabrielle sat quietly beside Xena and began to chat. There was no hurry, yet. Joxer would have to be visible at the meeting for a while to avoid suspicion. He was to concoct some story, probably the stomach miseries one, to have an excuse to leave early. By that point, say in an hour's time, Gabrielle would have Xena in the wagon, pleasantly drugged with her own concoction, and they'd be off. Chances are no one would miss Xena until the meeting was over, after sundown. The old woman might wake and wonder where she was, but she probably wouldn't bother to investigate. I'll bring the jug of brew, Gabrielle decided. She'll be suspicious if Xena's away from that too long.
Alika seemed to have revived a bit. Gabrielle couldn't figure the cycle of the drug at all. Sometimes she seemed up, sometimes down. Now she was fuzzy, but almost eager to chat. Maybe it was because she missed Alik's presence. Gabrielle wondered who she chatted with while Alik was in the fields. Couldn't be Estra, she decided.
"The horse...Argo? was wonderful. I'll miss her."
"We can go say good-bye in a while," Gabrielle suggested. Great, she exulted, this could be my opening to get her to the wagon.
"I'll miss you, too, Joxina," she continued hesitantly. Xena was present in this anyway, the difficulty in expressing feelings.
"Thank you, Joxina. I'll miss you too. It's hard to lose good friends. They aren't all that thick on the ground." Alika smiled, pleased to be considered a good friend. "You're very sweet, Alika. I'll never forget you." That was true. The bard knew that something in Xena, in some strained form was displayed in Alika's sad existence. When she had Xena back, she would always remember the Alika in her. That realization startled Gabrielle.
"Would you like to hear a story?" Gabrielle offered. "I know a lot of them." Alika nodded.
"Yeah, I'd like that, please."
"I figure you for the sort of woman who likes a romance, with a happy ending?" Alika blushed deeply, but nodded her approval. "Then here we go: Once there were two lovers..."
By the end of the story Gabrielle was certain Joxer had had enough time to make his exit from the meeting. Alika had tears in her eyes despite the happy ending. Gabrielle shook her head at that. Who would have predicted that any of this could be happening. Yet here they were, Xena sobbing over love stories, Gabrielle and Joxer teamed up to attempt a daring rescue, and the villains of the piece, the ones who held power over the mighty Warrior Princess were a trio of mean spirited farmers. She considered her inclusion of Alik in that category, and decided he fit. She imagined that many villains went through the world with friendly grins. In effect, Alik committed rape every time he touched the woman he called wife. She shuddered and turned to Alika with a new plan: time to check on Argo.
The first rain drops hit them as they walked. It was as if a cloud had been rent open and the Mediterranean was pouring through. Esta jumped from her seat on the ground and looked around dazed. "Alika!" came from her lips," and she called in vain over the sudden din. Women and children ran for shelter from every direction. Gabrielle was torn, continue to the wagon, knowing that Alika would now soon be missed? Or stay visible, until the rain had subsided, assuming it ever did? It looked as if it would rain forever. The decision was made for her. The men of The Vale came streaming back into the area, their meeting abandoned, looking for their womenfolk. It appeared that the festival was over. Gabrielle stood stock still, soaked to the skin, hair plastered against her head, and looked at Xena, who was the same way. Odd, that no anxiety touched Xena's eyes right now, she made no reaction, except that she held Gabrielle's hand a little tighter. With sudden energy she pulled Gabrielle under the shelter of a thick bush; it offered better shelter than the trees, she told her. It offered fine protection, but it was cramped. They could not sit next to each other, and Gabrielle found herself on Xena's lap. After a few quiet moments, Xena's voice spoke into her ear: "Let me do your hair," she suggested. Astonished, Gabrielle nodded, and felt the strong fingers combing through her blond tresses, and gathering them into plaits. Gabrielle sat so close to her face she didn't know how Xena had room to move her arms for the work, but she seemed to have no trouble. Minutes before she had been ready to curse the rain, now she felt it as a blessing.
"All done," Xena said, pleased. "Joxer will like it."
"Do you like it?" Gabrielle asked.
"It's lovely. You have beautiful hair."
Gabrielle longed to turn around and look into her eyes, hoping this was Xena back, but was afraid she'd be disappointed. Instead, she leaned back against the taller woman behind her, and pretended they had never heard of The Vale. It was only moments later, it seemed, that she heard the voice outside.
"Gab! Gab!" Joxer called softly.
She felt Xena sit up straighter. "Gab?" she parroted. Gabrielle dove out from under the bush and grabbed Joxer around the ankle, pulling him onto the wet grass.
"The name is Joxina, dimwit," she reminded him. It was still pouring, but Xena stuck her head out, curious. The bard took a sudden, unexpected chance. "Before I married Joxer, I was called Gab. Gabrielle," she explained.
"Gabrielle?" She looked from one rain-streaked face to the other. "And you were called, Xena, and you were---are---my best friend. And I want you to come with me, now, to the life you had before you were brought to this crazy place." She knelt in the mud next to the warrior, who was still half-crouched under the bush, and stroked her wet face gently with one hand. "Please, remember me, and come back with me," she pleaded. She brushed her lips softly against the strong cheek bone, and waited for a response, afraid that she'd gone too far. As the moments went by she was almost ready to resort to Joxer's method: thunk her on the head, toss her in the wagon and go. She wondered if the roads would even be passable now. Too late. If Xena remembered they'd leave right now. If she failed to remember...what had she done? Planted a dangerous thought in an unstable mind. If she told Alik what had transpired, things would be infinitely harder. Come on Xena, she urged silently.
A terrific clamor filled the air. It was the sound of iron pots being hammered with rocks, and spoons and hammers. The people of The Vale were sounding an alarm, beating pots and shouting a warning to the crowd. Gabrielle held a hand for Xena to hold while she scrambled from under the bush. Joxer grabbed a nearby resident and asked for the news. he returned with a worried look. "The elders have reports from up river that the water is rising fast. This rain is coming at a bad time. They want all the men to gather a few miles from here to shore up the banks, or this place will be gone. Women and children are being sent to high ground."
What does this mean, Gabrielle? she asked herself urgently. How do we turn this to our advantage?
"Gab, I have to go with the other men," Joxer was saying.
"What do you mean?" she barked. "We're not here to help them!"
"The roads won't be passable anyway. They're expecting washouts up river; no one's going anywhere for a few days. You and Xena should go with the others to be safe."
"Go with the women and children to be safe?" she asked, incredulously.
"Yeah," Joxer said, trying to be patient. "This isn't the real Xena, you know, and you should be with her, not me. When this is over we'll get back to business."
"Where is Alik?" The voice startled them both.
"He's looking for you. He wants to get you on a wagon to safety," Joxer told her.
"I have to be with him." She started off, Gabrielle and Joxer in pursuit. They found Alik at a stand of wagons, helping an old woman aboard. She was the last in, and the wagon set off, making deep ruts in the sodden earth. A small group of women remained, and Estrus sat as driver of the last wagon.
"Alika," thank Zeus, he exclaimed. "Get aboard, quick, we can't tarry." Estrus reached an eager arm down to her, but she shrank away, and climbed in back instead. She looked to Gabrielle, who hesitated, then stepped back, as the other women climbed in.
"I'll follow in our wagon," she said. At this point she couldn't afford to lose their only possible means of escape, whenever it might happen. Alik opened his mouth to protest, but deferred to Joxer's support of his wife. "Good idea. So much depends on that wagon." You ain't kidding, brother, he told himself.
Alika watched the scene with rare interest. "Joxina?" she called. "Aren't you coming?" Her concern was evident. "I'll catch up," she promised. "Where is this wagon headed," she asked Alik."
"They're going to the foothills in the Western Vale. Stay on the road, You shouldn't have any trouble," Alik replied. "We've got to get going, Joxer. There are two horses waiting for us." He smiled at his wife; "I love you," she called to him.
Joxer smiled at Gabrielle. "Be careful," she admonished.
The rain felt like needles as it struck Gabrielle's face, obscuring her vision and making it hard to follow the road. The small lantern hanging from the side of Estrus' wagon must have gone out, and now she had lost sight of it altogether. Stay on the road Alik had said; she took some consolation in that, and urged a doubtful Argo along the sloppy route.
After an eternity she spied lights on a bluff overlooking the road. This could be the place, but there was no sign of Estrus' wagon.
It was a sort of barn, clean, well-lit, and dozens of women and children were huddled there, waiting out the storm, waiting for their men to return. Gabrielle looked in vain for Xena, or Estrus. Yet she was sure some of these women had been in the wagon with Xena. "Excuse me," she asked one old lady. "There was a young woman in the wagon with you, she was wearing a red dress. can you tell me where she is?"
"She went along with Estrus. He said they had to get home." Gabrielle stared. Why home?
He wouldn't leave her there alone. Was he not going back to help the other men? This was a puzzle; then she recalled Xena's aversion to Estrus touching her. A creepy thought occurred to her. She dashed into the storm again, and urged Argo to hurry. "This is for Xena, girl. Let's make tracks!"
She was halfway there when she heard the "Hallo!" behind her. A rider was approaching, galloping on this impossible road. She was reluctant to stop, and waited for the rider to catch her before stopping. She looked with surprise at Joxer's frantic face.
"Gab," he shouted above the noise of the pelting rain, "Estrus never came to help, and Xena's not in that last shelter."
"I know," she nodded. "Get aboard." He tied his steed to the back of the wagon and climbed up beside Gabrielle to exchange information. His news came from a man named Premus,who'd been at this shelter, and who had witnessed Xena's attempted escape. He had been certain she had never made it to the shelter, and Estrus was certainly not there. He had jumped to the same conclusion as Gabrielle, and shared her sense of urgency. If they were not in time, someone could be seriously hurt tonight.
Xena had not understood Estrus' command for her to stay in the wagon. She thought Alik wanted her to be with the other women, but she must have gotten it wrong. Now Estrus told her Alik wanted her to wait for him at home. Gods, this day was confusing! What had the red headed woman said? Xena? She was Xena, not Alika. She rested her head in her hands and willed it to stop whirling. She looked around frantically. There must be a jug here, someplace, she needed to drink something, she was so thirsty.
"What are you doing back, there?" Estrus' heavy face appeared through the flap of canvas.
Maybe he had a jug. "Estrus? Did Estra leave a jug in the wagon?"
A smile crept over his stubbly features. "Got a nice fresh batch at home for you, daughter," he said in a soothing voice. "Estrus will give you what you need."
In the dark central room Estrus threw aside his rain sodden cloak and rekindled the fire. Alika followed him in quietly and stayed by the door, eyes darting around the room to see the jug Estrus had promised.
"That's better," he said turning from the hearth. He seemed in a good mood. Alika half smiled and asked where the brew was.
"I'll fetch it directly. You'd best get out of those wet things before you catch your death. Alik would be none to pleased. That's why he wanted you home, here, safe and dry, instead of sitting in a drafty barn with all them other women." He gestured to the loft. "Go on, get to it. I'll get the jug."
Alika obeyed wordlessly, leaving wet tracks across the plank floor. She was shaking as she opened the door to the loft, in reaction to the cold and her need for the jug, and sank heavily on to the bed, swallowing hard. She thought she would be sick. She heard Estrus' footsteps on the ladder and flew to answer the door. He entered the room, one hand behind his back.
"Please let me have the jug," she asked holding out one hand, her desperation evident in her face.
"Not in dry things yet? First things first," he said. "I'll just turn my back while you change." That was his ultimatum. He moved cleverly, so that his hidden hand was never revealed to her. Knowing only that she needed the contents of the jug, the din of the day roaring in her ears, Xena turned and began to remove the red dress. At that moment something crashed against her head, knocking her off balance, and preventing conscious thought. Instinctively she struggled against the hands which grabbed at her body. The old man had expected that the blow with the knife hilt would have knocked her out. Instead she was threatening to overpower him. He grabbed her hair and jerked her head back, even as she drove an elbow into his ribs. He gasped and doubled over, but the point of the knife was at her throat. "Be still bitch, or you're dead," he hissed. One hand moved around to fondle a breast. Xena was aware of all this through a veil which threatened to obscure all thought. She felt the dress being torn away from her body, some vile odor, hot breath was on her neck. She willed her hands to move, but action was difficult, and she gave herself over to the visceral instincts which promised to protect her.
"Now Estrus will teach you what a woman should understand," the old man growled, then suddenly he was on the floor, holding his groin, the knife barely held in limp fingers. Before him the woman stood, dress ripped to the waist, but he saw only the ice blue of her eyes, promising his destruction. She followed her first kick with a second to his face and he fell forward, nose split wide open, broken teeth falling in fragments from his mouth. She was behind him now, asking a question: "What's that you're gonna teach me Estrus?" She laughed; the surge of adrenaline had brought her to a renewed awareness. "I can teach you some things, I bet." She settled behind him, one strong arm around his neck, the other holding the knife he'd brought to the loft. "Ever wonder how you'd die, you rotten old bastard? I'll give you a hint." She held the blade to his throat and pressed hard enough to draw blood. She noted with satisfaction the growing dark spot on his pants. "Wet yourself, Estrus? So predictable. You should have stayed away from me." She held the knife to him a second time, plunged the point in, and tore a hole in his throat. "Now it's over, old man."
Smoke curling from the chimney was the only sign of life as they pulled into the yard. Heavy tracks in the mud indicated that a wagon had been put in the barn not long before.
Gabrielle pointed at the barely visible river behind the house, it was over its banks, and forming a pool already. "Why would anyone come here to avoid a flood?" she wondered aloud, suspicion growing. They approached the house stealthily, for no reason they could name. The rain would mask any noise they made, and besides, they were here for a legitimate reason: inquiring about the safety of a neighbor. Joxer knocked on the door, while Gabrielle peered cautiously through one of the tiny windows. No one was visible. Estrus' cloak was tossed on a chair. She motioned to Joxer and her tried the door latch; it opened at his touch, and she entered, not bothering to call out. "It's clear Joxer," she whispered. He followed her in. Together they surveyed the small, sparsely furnished room. "Looks like no one's home," she said puzzled. He pointed to the stairs which led to the loft, and she turned toward them. She was frozen in her tracks by a movement in the corner of the room. From between the uneven plank boards of the loft above, came a steady drip of blood. She raced toward the stairs now, Joxer at her heels. The loft door was open. Estrus lay in a pool of blood in the center of the room, a gaping hole in his throat. Xena sat behind him, lips parted in a perverse smile, pupils dilated, a hunting knife in her hand. As Gabrielle watched in horror she rolled her head back and held the knife at his throat again.
"No." Xena started at the voice. "Put the knife down. He's dead," Gabrielle commanded.
Xena became aware of the other presence in the tiny area and focused on the human face. "Yeah, he's dead." She wiped the knife on his shirt. "Filthy bastard." She looked at Gabrielle and Joxer, who stood before her, in the confines of the loft. "I told him to keep his dirty hands off me," she explained.
Gabrielle nodded her understanding. "Well, he won't touch you again."
"Alik will be angry," she said to no one. "I'd like to kill the old woman, too. Do you want the old bitch with you, Estrus?" she asked the corpse.
"Put the knife down, Xena." She stared at the use of her name.
"Why did you call me that?" she asked suspiciously. "My name is Alika."
"No. There is no Alika, your name is Xena." Gabrielle crossed to her, hand extended.
"We've got to get out of here." Xena didn't move. "Listen," Gabrielle insisted. We have to leave; Alik *will* be angry." Xena hesitated. "Give me the knife, before Alik returns." Xena's nerve suddenly failed, and the knife fell from her hand. Joxer picked it up. Gabrielle grabbed her hand and pulled her up, giving her no opportunity to protest. "Joxer, you have to hide the body," Gabrielle, instructed him, as she led a very confused Xena down the stairs.
"Why not leave him here? No one will look for him in the loft."
"They'll look for Alika in the loft, and find Estrus. Quick. Mop up the blood and bung him down the well. I'll take care of her. Oh, toss his cloak after him, and throw that little carpet over the blood on the loft floor. You'll never mop that up." (Joxer was never able to account for the strength her found that day in shifting the deadweight of Estrus from the loft to the well in minutes, but he never tired of telling the story, either).
Xena sat in the back of the little canvas covered vehicle which rolled through The Vale. She still wore the ripped dress, but was cloaked in a blanket which covered her still form. The woman, Joxina, or Gabrielle, whatever she was calling herself sat next to her and kept up a steady stream of conversation through the opening in the canvas with the man called Joxer. She had said she had something for her to drink in the wagon, but had so far only given her wine. Her hands were gripping her upper arms tightly, and she was certain she'd snap her own bones if ---
"Xena?" The redhead looked at her closely. "Are you warm enough?" Her shivering was evident.
She nodded a yes. "You said you had some of the old woman's drink here," she said half in plea, half in reproach. They had been through this twice, but it seemed to be the only thing which held her attention for long.
"I told you Alik, it's not here. We need to take you to it." She forced her head up, so she could gauge the understanding in her eyes. "We will take good care of you Xena," she assured her, in a quiet, voice. "Joxer and I are you friends, your real friends, and we won't hurt you." She used gentle pressure to bring Xena's head down to rest on her shoulder, and stroked the dark hair away from her face. She was careful to avoid the dark bruise that straddled the hair line on her right temple. Xena's breathing was ragged, and she shuddered on occasion. This thing was far from over, but Gabrielle felt well contented. Xena was back where she belonged, not quite herself, but no longer the toy of those miserable bastards. After a time her body was almost still again. A spasm wracked Xena's body, and she sat up. "Where's Alik? Are you taking me to Alik.?"
"Alik is working with the other men. He can't be here now," Gabrielle explained, careful to hide her exasperation. Xena turned pale and her body was wrenched by dry heaves. She clutched at her stomach and moaned in desperation at the pain that could only be cured by the evil old woman Estra, and time.
"Time I can give you," Gabrielle promised cryptically. "Time to heal."
The cave was damp, but dry. Gabrielle decided it was safe to risk a fire; there was little danger of travelers being out tonight. The entrance to the cave was wide enough to admit the Argo and the wagon. That was good; but it also meant the cave would be widely known. Any search for them would include the cave. Of course, as long as the body of Estrus went undiscovered there would be no reason for a search. It would be quite a mystery for the people of The Vale to chew over, how Estrus' wagon and horses were safe in his barn while he and Alika were missing. They would probably assume they'd been claimed by the river, in some unfathomable way. Joxer and Joxina would only be missed by Alik, and Gabrielle was betting he'd never voice his suspicions to anyone; he had too much to hide.
As long as Estrus went undiscovered...
Joxer had finished unloading the wagon. Gabrielle sat comforting, trying to control Xena. The failure to produce the promised drink at their destination had not sat well with her, and a note of belligerence colored her voice as she threatened to leave the cave to go in search of Alik.
"That's not a good idea, Xena. It's raining, the roads are dangerous, and besides, you're forgetting about Estrus. Alik won't be happy that you killed him."
The dark-haired woman sat against the wall of the cave and covered her ears. "What is happening to me?" she cried in anguish. "Why did I kill him? Alik will hate me."
"Don't worry about Alik. When you wake up he won't matter. She produced a small flask. "I want you to try this, I know it's not what Estra gives you, but it's all I have."
"I told you no," Xena shouted, as she shoved her aside. "Get it away." Gabrielle had to juggle the flask to keep from losing its contents.
"Joxer," Gabrielle called over her shoulder, never taking her eyes from Xena. "I need you." Together they held her for a long moment, until Gabrielle had partially emptied the flask into her mouth. She tried to spit it out, yet too much had been swallowed.
"Why are you doing this?" she wailed. Joxer turned away. Gabrielle moved to her, and sat as close as she dared until a drowsiness seemed to steal over the distraught woman. Then she moved closer and held her, speaking gentle endearments and rocking her until she was asleep, a sleep that would last for nearly twenty-four hours. She managed to remove the red dress, clean her a bit, and garb her in a simple white shift. That done, she and Joxer laid her in warm blankets close to the fire. At last they sat back, pleased to see the woman before them finally at peace.
"I learned this from Xena. She treated a soldier once who had such bad pain he wanted to tear his limb off, only it had already been removed. A 'phantom pain' Xena called it. She dosed him for three days and he just slept through the worst of the pain. The next dose will be easier," Gabrielle commented, assuring herself that there would be no more hurt inflicted on Xena, at least not by her. They both took comfort in believing that the next problem they faced would have Xena as part of the solution. "As soon as the roads are passable, we're out of here."
The men of The Vale worked throughout the day of the festival and that night without rest, shoring the banks of the Chute, a stretch of river which was more narrow than the rest. If the River Ela were to spill over its banks, it would be there first. The gods had sculpted The Vale so that the Chute was on a ridge, and it hung like an executioner's sword over the life of the great valley. At last the rains stopped. The threat was not past, full flood stage would not be realized until the flow of mountain run-off had reached them, but it was all they could do for now. The exhausted men of The Vale returned home.
Alik was dropped off by wagon. Other wagons rumbled throughout the valley, returning women and children to their homes. He noted the signs of wagon traffic in the mud, found the team and wagon in the barn and expected to find someone home. He called, and looked in every room, but found no one. Perplexed, he lay back on the bed he shared with Alik and closed his eyes. The room seemed different somehow; it must be because his beloved was absent. Too tired to think further, he fell fast asleep. It was past midday, when the last wagon of women dropped Estra off, that Alik began to worry. No Estrus, no Alika, no word that anyone had seen them. In a blind panic he ran to the river and surveyed its banks. It was running swiftly, anything caught in there would be long downstream. It was silly anyhow, he told himself. Alika would have had no reason to be near the river, and it would be impossible for both Estrus and Alika to fall in. He hurried back to the house and began a new search, not for the missing pair, but for clues to their whereabouts. He searched the loft last, without Estra's help. The old woman had begun to panic, and hinted at Alika's malevolent nature. Disgusted, he told her to stay put.
He wondered now at the odd feeling he had about the room. Nothing looked different, there was no sign anyone had been there...Except for the throw rug that had been next to the bed. It was in the middle of the room now, at an odd angle. He kicked it aside and saw a dark stain. Someone had tried to clean it, but blood was hard to hide. He sat on the bed, his gaze steadily on the spot. Two people missing, a blood strain in their bedroom. What could it mean? Whose blood could it be?
When the rain stopped the fire was too dangerous, so Joxer and Gabrielle shared cold rations while they waited for Xena to sleep through her cravings. She had not stirred since she was settled down, and Gabrielle had hardly left her side. When the bard did sleep, it was at her side, on the edge of her blanket, one arm protectively over her. Joxer knew he was intruding on a private moment, yet had no place to go. Gabrielle felt for him.
"Have you ever known someone who was a part of your soul Joxer?" she asked. "A person whose existence gave meaning to your life?"
After much hemming and hawing Joxer had to admit he hadn't.
"Ask the gods to give you that in your life Joxer, and it's all you'll ever need." She thrust her uneaten bread into his hand and returned to her vigil by her warrior's side.
The men of The Vale came together for the second time in as many days to search for the missing Estrus and Alika. Against the advice of Estra, Alik had revealed the blood stain in the loft. Tongues were sent wagging, even as the men combed the river for bodies. A full day later they broke off the search, ever practical. "No point persisting," they told Alik, "if they're in the river they won't be alive now; if not, a few days won't matter."
Numbly, Alik had returned to the cottage and thanked the women who had sat with his keening mother.
"It's your water nymph's what done this, Alik. I done my best to keep her under control."
"We don't know that anyone's done anything, Mother." He was sick to hear of the 'control', sick to admit his tacit support of the system. "I'm going to sleep." He stretched his tall frame on the kitchen floor, and pulled a blanket over himself. He could not bear to sleep in the loft. He saw his wife's face in his mind's eye and heard her voice. It was saying "Gabrielle." Somehow, he felt the nosy redhead and her husband were part of this, but how? Had Alika gotten into some trouble, and run to them in a panic? How would she have gotten there? He returned to the yard with a torch and examined the wagon traffic. One set of wheels was set wider apart than the others that had been in the yard. Joxer's wheels had been wide apart. He followed their trail to the edge of the road, where they became lost in the muddy chaos. In the morning, he would find the odd couple.
During the night Xena began to stir. Twice before she'd done so, each time a new dose of the concoction Gabrielle had put together had put her back to sleep. This time was different; she looked at Gabrielle with understanding in her eyes.
"Gabrielle," she whispered.
"Xena? Oh thank you," she breathed to all the benign gods. "How do you feel."
"Not great. Where are we?"
"We're in a cave, in The Vale."
Xena was too weak for a big reaction. "I told you to stay out of The Vale, Gabrielle."
She struggled briefly to sit up, then gave in to the Gabrielle's firm pressure and lay cradled in her lap. Gabrielle was elated at the mild scolding; she seemed to be herself again. "We didn't have any choice Xena."
"We?" she looked around slowly, then: "Hello, Joxer. What's going on here," she asked, her eyes back on Gabrielle.
"Well," she allowed herself a smile, "if I ever put it in writing, it'll be one of my longer stories. Where should I start? Do you remember the message to Arberis? Good..." It was a long story, and Gabrielle had only begun when the blue eyes started to close again. "I'll finish later," she said, planting a tender kiss on her forehead. "I guess you had to be there," she joked to Joxer.
By early morning Joxer declared the ground fit for wagon traffic. He and Gabrielle packed up, Argo stood ready between the shafts, and they waited for the sleeping warrior to awaken.
Alik woke to his mother's insistent nagging. "I can't cook without water. That water in the well's gone off. You need to stop mooning about and clear the well." She had put her grief aside in favor of her stomach, he thought to himself as he pulled on his boots and slogged out to the well. The old woman was right; the bucket came back with a foul load of water. He lowered it again and heard it thud against something. He brought a grappling hook they'd used to drag the river from the barn, lowered it and pulled. He had snagged something, but it tore free. He hauled up the hook to find a chunk of cloth, the hue of Estrus' shirt. He dropped the hook again, knelt beside the well and was sick.
There was no mistaking what had happened to the old man. The hole in his throat could only have been made by a knife. "That woman was clever with a knife," Estra told all who'd listen. "Killed rats that way, just for fun."
She was enjoying this, Alik observed, putting a noose around Alika's neck. Maybe it was someone else, he'd argued, strangers who killed him and abducted her. Maybe it was the couple who called themselves Joxer and Joxina. But the people had decided. It had to be the rebel who'd tried to leave, the woman with the odd behaviors, and after all, she was so good with a knife. And the size of her. Would take someone that size to get Estrus down the well. Why she may have done it, they didn't consider important. Odd that it happened in the bedroom, but after all, she did wear a red dress to the festival. Stood out among the sober, proper colors of the women of The Vale. Most likely she'd enticed the poor old man to the loft with some story...
Alik threw up his hands at their rush to judgment. "You don't know her," he told them. You don't know us, he didn't say. How to tell them about his first bride, who'd accepted his courtship, moved to his home and killed herself within the year, driven to madness by their grousing, narrow ways. Alika had been so much like her. Estra was watching, wondering if he'd speak of things long past. "I'll not come with you," he told the mob which had organized to search for the murderess. He saddled a horse and set out, hoping to find her first.
Xena was sitting up now, still clad in the shift, but animated and trying to eat. Gabrielle was alert for any sign that the evil drugs of the old woman were still affecting her. The withdrawal time had been very short, and as the aftereffects of the sleeping potion wore off, other symptoms might appear. At the moment, Xena looked well, and Gabrielle didn't want to borrow trouble. She had resumed her story, and Xena hung on every word, eager to comprehend her current predicament.
"We searched for days, Xena. That's when Joxer showed up. In the end the men decided you must have gone over the falls. The only alternative was The Vale. So, Joxer and I borrowed a wagon and came this way. We figure you must have been injured somehow. I think you have a wound healing on your scalp." She indicated the older wound, the one she'd found when braiding Xena's hair.
Xena touched it, and shook her head at her lack of memory. "It's almost healed," she said.
"This didn't happen yesterday, Xena. It was weeks ago. We took a long time here, in The Vale, trying to find you. When we did, we had to find an approach. We couldn't march up and say 'That's not your wife, it's Xena, Warrior Princess'. So we had---"
"Wife?" Xena said. "What do you mean?"
Gab took a breath. She hadn't planned to mention this part, yet. "Xena, as near as we can figure, you were found by a family who took you to The Vale. An old couple, and their son, Alik. You lived with them as Alik's wife."
A small tremor passed though Xena. "His wife? I lived as his wife?" she asked stunned.
"Apparently. You sure seemed affectionate when you were together. A couple, you know."
She looked up, stricken. "Oh Gabrielle, I'm sorry. This must have been so hard for you."
"For me? Xena, how was it for you? Were you at all aware of , well, how things were?"
Xena thought hard. It didn't seem possible that weeks of her waking life were a blank to her, yet it was true. "Gabrielle, I don't recall anything, " she apologized.
"It wasn't your fault. You tried to escape." She described the story she'd heard of her attempt to flee, naked, and how it was aborted by Estrus. "After that, I think they got serious about the drugging. That's how they keep the women so pacified, you know. They keep them under control with drugs. Not all of them, some women just fall into the pattern, others, like you, need to be dosed regularly with something. I never could figure what it was; you were different every time I saw you."
"How did you manage to get close to me?" Xena inquired.
"We just tried to befriend you. You sure needed a friend."
She regarded Gabrielle with a strange interest, as she continued the story. In the bard's eyes she could follow all the unspoken parts of the tale, as she saw pity, sorrow, horror and anger reflected there.
"Sounds like I was a mess," she said at last.
"Well, sometimes, but there was something else, someone else in there, that I liked a lot. We had some nice moments together." She fell silent remembering.
"I don't know how you pulled it off, Gabrielle. Thank you. I salute you both. Remind me to tell Joxer."
Gabrielle smiled, pleased to know that Xena was impressed by her efforts, and understood the magnitude of what they'd achieved so far, without her help. But it was too early for celebrating. "Xena, we're not home free yet, we have to get out of here, and we have a big problem." The warrior arched an eyebrow in query. "Last night you killed Alik's father. When they find the body, we'll likely be hunted as fugitives."
The news of the killing served as a wake up call to Xena. The new sense of urgency seemed to infuse her being. She donned her leather and armor with relish, and took time to stretch her limbs, as if to gauge her capabilities. Outside, she found Joxer at his lookout post, and shook his hand in earnest greeting, warrior-to-warrior. "Joxer, you're a good man," she declared, and left before he had opportunity to launch into a discourse of how good he really was.
Over Xena's protest it was decided that she should ride in the back of the wagon. "I'm not skulking through this wretched place," she asserted, but gave in when she considered that she'd been a passenger thus far, and it was an affront to Gabrielle and Joxer to insist on her way now. Besides, it might place them in extra danger. Even if Estrus' body was not found, the memories of the Warrior Princess would still be alive here. She wondered that she hadn't been recognized yet. I must really have been another person, she told herself. "I'll ride in back, out of sight, but," she indicated the clever hidey-hole they'd rigged in the bottom of the wagon, when the plan was still to smuggle her out, "I won't hide in that."
Two main roads traversed The Vale, one running east-west, the other north-south, paralleling the river. The Ela was till running high, and in places submerged the road so that they had to get out of the wagon and help it over the rough skirt of the road. There was talk of abandoning the wagon, but it was decided that they made marginally better time with the wagon despite the problems.
Gabrielle watched Xena closely. The warrior chafed at riding in the wagon and welcomed the chance to get out and push the wheels out of ruts. When she was at rest in the wagon her body beaded with sweat and she grasped her elbows to keep her body from shaking. Her thirst was unslakable; what she needed was not available.
"I don't know what that old woman was giving me, but I sure could use some now,' she admitted to Gabrielle.
"Don't think about it," Gabrielle said handing her the waterskin, and returning to her seat beside Joxer.
No, I'll think about Estrus, instead, eh? she thought. Gabrielle had described the scene in the loft with the barest of details, blaming it on the drugs and Estrus himself. Xena saw only the image of a woman out of control, reverting to type. And Gabrielle had seen her like that. She felt herself color deeply, then caught a glimpse of blonde hair through the canvas cover. To do so much for her, even knowing what she was, what she was capable of doing...She fought back a wave of nausea and took a deep breath to clear her head.
The day was overcast, rain threatened again and Alik shivered as his horse slogged through the mud on the east-west road. He knew where they were headed; there was only one route out, they'd be easy to find.
"One more time, heave," Xena said, as she and Joxer strained together to push the little wagon out of a rut one more time. It moved with a squishy, sucking noise and was on solid ground once again. Xena leaned against the wagon, scraping mud from her boots.
"Be right back," Joxer said, as he dashed into the woods.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's voice came softly from her place at Argo's side, but her tone caused the hackles to stand up on Xena's neck. She looked down the road and saw a fair man on horseback.
"It's Alik," Gabrielle" informed her. Somehow she already knew that.
He approached the group slowly, his eyes on Xena. She was his Alika, yet she was not. He looked with appraising eyes at the blonde woman he knew as Joxina. "I finally meet Gabrielle," he said to her. "From the beginning she was asking for you, calling for you." He looked back to the dark-haired woman. She was dressed like a warrior now, and returned his gaze with steady interest.
"You are called...?" he asked in a neutral tone.
"My name is Xena," she replied. "And we are leaving this place."
He nodded his understanding. "I know, I came to---" He broke off at the sound of hoof beats in the mud behind him. No less than twenty armed men, some with swords, most with only clubs and farm tools stopped twenty yards away. They had not expected opposition. They saw the woman they knew as Alika with new eyes. The name Xena spread quietly among them as they recognized their old nemesis.
"Alik," Premus asked uncertainly, "is this the woman known as Alika."
"You all know who I am," she said with contempt, " and while I appreciate the kindness you've all shown me, I really must be going. Now clear aside, and nobody gets hurt." Her sword was still sheathed, yet the threat emanating from her caused them to shrink back, marginally.
"Xena," Premus, obviously the leader of the group, called out, "you've got to answer for the murder of our brother Estrus."
"Xena didn't murder Estrus." Xena's head snapped around at the sound of Gabrielle's voice. "Alika killed Estrus in self-defense. The old man assaulted her---"
"You'll have a fair trial, Xena," Premus responded, pointedly ignoring the young woman.
"I'm not lending myself to the justice of The Vale. Let us pass," she repeated. "We want no trouble."
"We will have justice," came an unseen voice. "If you won't answer, your accomplice will."
There was a short grunt, then Joxer's strained voice was heard. "Forget it Xena; they can't hurt me." Another grunt. "Much." Joxer was nowhere to be seen.
"There is a noose around his neck, Xena. Throw down your sword and we'll grant your wish: no one will be hurt."
Xena knew these people; her instinct was to demand Joxer's release. If he dies, you all die, she wanted to say. It would probably work; the men of The Vale had never stood up before. Of course she wasn't with an army now, but they shouldn't doubt what she could do. Then again, Joxer and Gabrielle were not in her army; she couldn't expect them to die for her.
"First of all, stop hurting my friend. He's prepared to die for me, but his life will cost twenty of yours." She looked slowly around the group, impressing her words on each man. You want to talk about Estrus, fine with me. There are some things I'd like to say." Gabrielle searched her face, surprised at the response. "But I won't throw down my sword. And my friends go free. Those are my terms."
The men huddled briefly. Alik stayed off to the side. At last Premus spoke: "We can't let you keep your weapons, we know what you can do."
"And that's why no one here will dare take them away," she said simply. They looked at one another, confirming her judgment. "Get Joxer out here, now," she demanded. A call went out to the woods. A moment later Joxer stumbled into sight, a noose still around his neck, one cheek bruised.
"You all right?" she asked him.
"Great, Xena," he replied heartily. "Don't give in on my account."
"Oh, don't worry Joxer, I'm not giving in, just setting the terms for a discussion." She moved a few feet to Gabrielle, drawing every eye with her. "You two get out of ---" Gabrielle put a finger to Xena's lips. "Now I'm setting terms," she informed her. "I'm staying," she told the warrior, loudly enough for all to hear. Xena smiled, resigned, to the bard's decision, and placed a strong arm around her shoulder as Gabrielle's arm encircled her waist.
"Joxer the Mighty is staying too," came a voice from behind them.
Xena arched an eyebrow and moved a wisp of hair from her face. "I think we're ready, now." She lowered her head to accept a peck on the cheek from Gabrielle, and turned too late intercept the rock which hurtled through the air to strike Gabrielle hard on the side of the head. She caught the bard as she fell to the ground and shielded her from further attack. Her attention was on Gabrielle as blood filled her hands; she ignored the men of The Vale who surrounded them. Even as they unsheathed her sword, one part of her mind dismissed them as impotent weasels. When a rope was thrown over her shoulders and pulled taut she wrenched it forward and caught the wielder with an elbow jab behind the ear. Without looking up from her injured friend she commented: "Your sense of honor is rivaled only by your hospitality." She stood, cradling Gabrielle in her arms and placed her gently in the wagon.
"Joxer," she said quietly to the warrior who had resumed his place in the driver's seat, "you've been around The Vale. We need water. Stop at the first fresh spring or well. I won't trust them for it," she said grimly.
She had already determined that Gabrielle's wound was not life threatening, but she was badly concussed and needed rest. Scalp wounds bleed heavily, but the flow was slowing, and no stitches would be necessary. She shook her head at the stupidity of the rock thrower, not only for throwing the rock, but for stepping forward to accept the congratulations of his mates. She had noted his face and marked him down for special consideration.
Joxer concentrated on the road ahead, dimly aware of the pain from his swollen cheek, more aware that he was likely sharing a road with dead men. Xena would never let this pass. The fools could have waved her down the road, lucky to see the back of her; instead they had demanded her continued presence, and rode flanking the wagon as if they were in control. They didn't know they had a tiger by the tail.
The men of The Vale were in high spirits; the barbarian woman who had exacted tribute from them years before was about to pay for her crimes. The fact that she would also pay for the murder of Estrus made it even sweeter. No man of The Vale need fear a woman again for a long time. They could almost forgive Alik and his family for bringing the bitch back to their valley. Secretly, Alik was revered as a man of cunning for having ensnared such a woman that way.
Spirits were also high in the subterranean storeroom which served as prison to the two women, considering their circumstances. They had been left none of their things, and the small stump candle had burned out quickly. The men of The Vale had taken the precaution of putting the warrior in manacles, but she had her freedom within the storehouse, and was well content for the moment to sit with Gabrielle's head cradled in her lap. The young woman stirred now and Xena asked, "How are you doing?"
"You said I was hit with a rock?" she asked after a moment.
She remembered her last lucid interval; that was a good sign. "Big rock," Xena confirmed. "Good thing you have a hard head."
"Where are we now?"
"Looks like a storehouse." A window high in the wall afforded a ground level view of the world. "Can't see much from the window, but from what I remember of The Vale, this must be beneath what they called the Ladies Hall." She swallowed hard, and gripped the window bars to conceal the shaking of her hands. Getting a little better, she thought.
"That's where I first saw - Alika," Gabrielle was saying. "You don't remember any of that? The dresses?"
Xena shook her head. "Not a thing. But I'm not surprised, I -"
"I know: you have many skills."
"I was going to say I've always been pretty good with a needle," she chuckled. She probed Gabrielle's wound gently. "I hope that peck on the cheek was worth this." Gabrielle gave her a questioning look. "They frown on that sort of thing here, Gabrielle. If you kiss another woman, it had better be your mother, or a sister. It's probably a law. That's why you got a rock against your skull."
A furrow appeared above her green eyes. "Did I make things worse? Should I have kept still?"
Xena leaned down to place a soft kiss on the worried brow. "I was never more proud, Gabrielle, or loved you more."
"It's funny Xena, I expected you to be more, I don't know, hostile, toward them."
"Wanted me to kill them all, eh?" the warrior teased.
"No," she blushed, "I was just surprised, you seemed so mild."
"I wasn't angry, then, "she explained. "You need to remember, I woke up in The Vale for the first time a few days ago, with you and Joxer. All of this nightmare is in your memory, not mine. I never did like these people, but until this," she touched Gabrielle's head lightly, I wasn't ready to run them through, either."
"Now? I'd like a word with the man who threw the rock, and the bully who hurt Joxer."
"Where is Joxer?
"I don't know. We have to find him before we make a move." She stared absently at the wall for a moment. Gabrielle knew she was waiting for an idea, uncertain how to proceed, yet no anxiety was evident in the lovely, composed face.
The bard touched the irons around her wrists. "Will these be in the way."
Xena arched an eyebrow. The manacles had been the price for remaining with Gabrielle.
"I'll manage," she promised, with confidence. Her head cocked suddenly at the distant sound of noise outside the door. It opened briefly and a cloth-wrapped bundle was thrust inside, along with an earthenware jug. Xena untied the cloth and inspected the food inside. It looked and smelled all right, but she tossed it aside. She uncorked the jug, and sniffed it carefully. A tremor passed through her body. Gabrielle watched, holding her breath as Xena raised the jug and smashed it against the far wall. "Hope you weren't thirsty," she smiled at Gabrielle. "I can't tell you how much I still want that stuff." She shuddered in reaction. "I came very close to losing myself here, Gabrielle."
The men of The Vale lost no time in organizing their show trial. Early the next morning a bustle of activity woke Gabrielle. She opened her eyes to see Xena standing on a crate, watching the gathering throng through the tiny window.
Xena spoke without turning when she heard the bard stir. "Seems to be a nice rainy day activity," she commented dryly, "watching a murder trial, especially when the verdict is a foregone conclusion."
"Do you have a plan?"
"Generally speaking, to keep my neck out of the noose. Haven't worked out the details yet."
"You don't seem concerned."
She looked at Gabrielle with a half-smile. "I don't know how I'll die Gabrielle, but it won't be at the hands of this lot. Can't even trust the bastards to give a woman a decent meal," she grumbled. "You must be starving."
"I am," Gabrielle replied, aware that Xena was working hard to allay her anxieties. She wanted to thank her, but hated to let on that she knew her game.
"How's the head? I'd like to get the rest of that blood out of your hair, if I won't be hurting you. We're not appearing at the biggest trial in the history of The Vale looking like a pair of ragamuffins."
A short time later she stepped back to admire her handiwork. A bath would have been nice, but the new plait would have to do. "You look super, Gabrielle. Just remember, you might feel well now, but too much activity will leave you dizzy. Joxer should be there, stay with him, and however thirsty you get, don't eat or drink anything unless it's from Joxer," she stressed, hoping Joxer had not accepted any tainted provisions. "They'll be coming soon,-"
The door opened a second time. Three armed men stood there; one motioned her out of the room. They found her broad smile strangely disconcerting.
"After you, Gabrielle," she said easily, as if they were leaving for a party. As Gabrielle passed before her, she touched her arm. "Hey, a kiss for luck, please." Gabrielle complied, and together they exited the room and climbed the steep, narrow stairs which led to the central hall. A figure stepped out of the gloom at the top of the stairs.
"A word, please," Alik asked deferentially. The guard eyed him suspiciously, but stood aside as Xena turned to face him. She arched an eyebrow in query.
"I wanted to say that I'm sorry about everything.," he said looking at his feet. "We---I was wrong to treat you that way." Xena listened mutely, unwilling to help him out. "When I found you, in the river, I thought I was saving you, I didn't know what they had in mind, and then I was too...selfish to stop them. To stop myself." For the first time he looked into her eyes. "I want you to know that I did love Alika, and I think she returned that feeling. I Hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me." He ended and waited for a response.
"There never was an Alika," she whispered harshly, "You 'loved' a creature of your own devising." There was no mercy in her eyes.
The Ladies' Hall was packed to the rafters with spectators, which would be all the women present. Men alone would determine the fate of the accused, and they were grouped in a rough semi-circle of chairs and benches around the makeshift dock. Premus held a central place of authority, apparently empowered to act as judge. Joxer belonged with neither group and was perched on a window sill, waiting for the proceedings to begin.
The courtroom fell silent as they entered, the tall, dark warrior, indifferent to her manacles, and the defiant blonde, wearing her stark bruise like a victory laurel. Joxer rose briefly and called out "Xena." There was no other sound for a moment, then the room erupted with cries of 'bitch', 'whore', 'savage', 'murderer'. Xena had heard this all before; a smile touched her lips when she considered how ludicrous it was that she should be answering for this deed, when her real crimes went unpunished by men. The smile was seen as arrogance, and fueled the crowd to new fury. Gabrielle stole a quick glance at her face before being ushered out to join the spectators, to join Joxer, despite her gender. Whatever Xena was feeling was well hidden.
"Woman, identify yourself to the people," Premus commanded, his tone that of a man certain of his direction.
She leveled her gaze at the assembly. "My name is Xena. My town is Amphipolis, my mother is Cyrene."
"Has nothing to do with me," she broke in. "I don't take my identity from him."
Premus exchanged a knowing look with the men before him. "You disavow your father?"
She stood silent.
He spoke again, his tone still certain. "You are called to answer for the death of our brother Estrus. We allege that he died at your hand, and demand that you refute the allegations, or suffer the maximum penalty, death by hanging. We further allege that you did lead an army of destruction which plundered and ravaged The Vale for your own glory and gain." A murmur went up from the aggrieved men. "What is your reply?"
She was standing a little to the right of Premus, enclosed in a hastily constructed box which allowed her to lean against the rail. She chose to stand upright, giving the appearance of being the one in charge. Her words now were addressed to Premus, as if he alone opposed her.
"As to the destruction and plunder, I can't recall that. I do remember being met at the crossing of the River Ela by men from The Vale leading wagons full of provisions for my army. I thought it was a gift," she spat with contempt. "But maybe you remember it differently, Premus. Tell me, no, it can't be, were the men just so afraid of what I might do, that they were buying me off?" she suggested in an incredulous, almost confidential tone. She looked now to take in the entire body of Valesmen. "I really can't recall ever drawing a sword in The Vale," she began. "Can any of you help me out here? Am I just forgetting? Surely none of you would be so craven as to let an army, led by a woman plunder your land without so much as a skirmish?"
Gabrielle squeezed Joxer's hand in delight as the men of The Vale shuffled their feet and avoided her lingering look over the crowd. Finally, Xena turned her dark head back to Premus. "It would seem that no one recalls my destruction and plunder. Think you'll have to drop that charge." She shrugged with mock regret.
Alik was part of the crowd, sitting where the men's and women's sections were closest, to look out for Estras. The old woman was muttering something, certainly something evil about the woman Xena, or Alika. He didn't know if she had gotten it straight yet. He still smarted from Xena's rebuke, but felt his spirits lift at her deft self-defense. The next charge would be harder to escape, he knew. That view was shared by Gabrielle and Joxer, Premus and Xena. Even now, Premus tried to restore his dignity by demanding her response to the second charge.
"With respect to the old man, I suggest you ask the woman known as Alika about that. I never saw the man in my life."
Premus emitted a short laugh. "The people will hear otherwise. I ask the woman Estra to come forward to give information."
Estra rose with a low groan, and made her way to the front, supported by her son. Her testimony was all calculated to place Xena in the household.
"I treated her like a daughter, despite her foul moods."
"Was she ever violent?"
"Tried to choke me once; and I just coming to wake her for breakfast."
Xena thought hard, but recalled none of it.
"Frightened me badly," Estra went on. "Imagine how poorly I slept after I saw her use a knife. Split a rat in two from across the room. And lightning fast, I can tell you." That was easy to believe, Gabrielle thought, and the folk in the hall thought so too, as they gasped in reaction. Alik sat quietly avoiding the old woman's face.
"We were both afraid of her, Estrus and I. She was only nice to Alik. You know," she lowered her voice, "for sex. Couldn't leave her hands off him."
The men snickered, the women lowered their heads and snickered secretly. Alik shook his head, mortified. Gabrielle cast her eyes at the floor, then raised them with an effort and met Xena's unflinching stare.
"I have a question for you Estra," Xena began when the noise had subsided. "When did I join your family? When did I marry Alik?" The old woman didn't answer, refused to look at her. "What's the matter? Don't recall? Maybe that's because there never was a marriage, you just fished me out of the river and tossed me in the back of the wagon. Instant wife. No courtship, not even a bid," she said with scorn. "And why would I put up with that? The Destroyer of Nations, the Warrior Princess. Could it be because I was hurt and confused? And when I did try to leave I was forcibly detained, clubbed into submission. You can testify to that Premus," she told him. "You had me so drugged, Estra, I didn't even know my own name."
"How you came to be under their roof is all beside the point," Premus ruled. "What you did while there is the only issue."
"No," she shot back. "The issue is *who* was under his roof. I won't be held responsible for the actions of a frightened, dependent, drugged creature. I can't even comment on what happened that night because I wasn't there!"
"We know that Estrus returned to the house with you after he dropped the ladies off at the shelter. No one saw him alive after that."
"It wasn't me," she stressed, fighting to hold her temper. "Gabrielle."
"Xena?" the bard answered from the window sill.
"Come up here please." The young woman complied, feeling every eye on her.
"Outside of that household, only you knew Alika. Tell them about her."
The men of The Vale rose as if one. "Sit!" they bawled. "Down with her," poured from their open maws. As if struck by a physical blow, Gabrielle shrank back.
"She's not allowed to speak," Premus roared over the din. He gaveled the men back to order. "She's not allowed to speak," he repeated.
"She's my witness," Xena retorted.
"Women can only be called to testify by the people," he explained. "On behalf of the people, I decline to call her."
Gabrielle refused to leave the crowded platform. She stood outside Xena's enclosure and placed a hand on the warrior's. Xena offered her a small smile then turned her attention to Premus. "This hasn't been much of a trial. No one has come forward to say they saw the crime, you're just assuming I did it. So I might as well confess to that." She held up her right hand. "This hand held the knife." She felt Gabrielle's tension and squeezed her hand for reassurance. "I'm told I planned on severing his head from his body, but she talked me out of it." She indicated Gabrielle. "Of course I don't remember any of that because it was the woman called Alika who directed this hand. She was the one who wanted him dead." She looked at the women sitting at the far end of the hall.
"Why? You figure it out. Take a woman, and rip her away from her life. Remove her identity. Tell her who to love, how to live, give her a new name. Give her a name," she hissed, warming to her subject, "that says nothing about her, but only tells the world to whom she belongs. Belongs," she said derisively. "Like a cow. Or a horse."
"Down with her," came an isolated shout from the men. A few others picked it up, but it died under an ice-blue glare. "Do all that, then put her at the beck and call of a nasty, querulous old woman." She fixed her eyes on Estra, then looked at Alik. Finally, give her to some man as his wife, tell her she belongs in his bed, and let him rape her every night."
Alik narrowed his eyes at her, mouth open as if to speak. "What's the matter Alik?" she asked over a low murmur, "You have a better word it for it?"
"Oh, I almost forgot. What happens if she objects to any of this? You know how women can be, difficult, moody, don't know what's good for them. Right?" She spoke over the heads of the men, to the women in back. "Some women can be so independent they never find happiness. We all know the solution to that problem." She strode through the crowd, past the startled guards who seemed never to have considered how they'd stop her if she decided to leave. She stopped in the center of the women's seats, and lifted the face of one young woman, manacles clanking. The dilated eyes spoke scrolls. She wondered how she had never seen this before, and realized with shame that when she came to The Vale for tribute she had not seen the women either, had looked right past them. The woman smiled uncertainly, hoping the new face would be kind, and not demand too much. She had a beautiful smile.
"What's your name," Xena asked.
There was no reply; she had already lost interest in the brief exchange.
Xena reached out for the satchel of the older woman with her, and it was handed over without comment. She extracted a waterskin, unstoppered it, sniffed and nodded.
"This is the stuff that's so good for women in childbearing years. I'll take a guess that this young woman had some strong opinions, maybe questioned old customs, could be she tried to teach herself to read." She held up the waterskin. "This'll put an end to that nonsense."
She stalked back to the men's section, and offered the waterskin to the men. "Want to try it? I know it's ladies stuff, but they won't mind." There was no response. "No? It's good enough for your daughters and wives, and mothers, but not good for you?" She returned the waterskin to it's owner. "Try some," she commanded the woman. "Drink it," she insisted, squirting the liquid all over the woman. "No? I don't blame you; last time I drank anything like this I ended up a woman called Alika, splattered with the blood of a dead man." She threw the container on the floor, turned and bore in on Estra. "Here's the woman who killed Estrus: his wife, Estra, and her clever mix of drugs. How many drugs did you need to keep Alika under control, Estra? How often did you change the mixture, to keep it effective. You were very good, you know, I hear you really had me groveling for that stuff at the end. Of course it probably didn't help Estrus that Alika had no control over herself anymore. No real thoughts, no independent actions, just reactions. A smile, a kiss if you're nice to her, if not..." she drew a finger across her neck.
"Have you no decency," Premus cried out.
"What's your criteria for decency," she snapped back. "I don't drug people to get them to my bed." Her voice softened. "If I had a child I'd want it to be itself, not a copy of me." Gabrielle alone understood the sorrow in that statement. "By the gods, you men buy and sell women on the open market. You women school your daughters to accept a life of unthinking servitude and destroy those who rebel. Isn't there any woman here who wants to be free? Who wants to see her children free?"
A missile flew from the back of the room; Xena instinctively raised an arm to shield herself. It fell instead among the men, smashing and showering them with it's liquid contents. A second jug followed, then a third. Joxer lost count as the floor became soaked with the drugged beverages of the women of The Vale. In the back of the room women were crying, lost in each other's arms, comforting daughters, lamenting their deeds, mourning for their own lost lives.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a wondering glance, but the mood of the men had turned ugly, and Premus was screaming for order. In the scheme of things, the men still made the decisions, and they were not to be swayed by an appeal against that which made their way of life possible.
"You have managed to create a lot of confusion here, Xena," he charged, "but I have yet to hear any reason to excuse you from culpability. Diminished responsibility is no defense in The Vale."
"How about self-defense?" she countered. When it was over, Alika told my friends that Estrus wouldn't keep his hands off her. She was bruised, her dress was ripped open to her waist, do I have to draw you a picture?"
Premus stopped and considered. He had no doubt Estrus was capable of that sort of thing. He had taken an instant dislike to the old man. However, the foundations of The Vale had been shaken by this woman, and he was in no mood to indulge her defense.
"You have no witness that can testify to that---"
"Yes I do," she broke in. "Joxer was there, he---"
"We can't be expected to believe Joxer; he's your friend."
"Only my enemies are allowed to testify, is that right?" she asked pointedly.
"No," he searched for a way out. "Physical evidence would do. The dress you said was ripped; where is that?"
She looked at Gabrielle, who shrugged and replied, "It was in the wagon, Xena. I don't know where it is now." Abruptly Alik rose from his seat, and left the hall.
"The wagon was searched and emptied this morning, " Premus said, "there was no dress. And we've spent enough time on a simple case of confessed murder..."
Xena bit her tongue as the man droned on, explaining the niceties of the law to the assembled men. Her eyes told Gabrielle that she was to be ready for action when the verdict came back. The time for being nice was over. A flash of red at the back of the hall caught her eye. Alik had reentered and was holding a bundle of red. Gabrielle knew at once that he carried the dress.
He strode to the front of the hall, avoiding all eyes. As he passed before Xena he stopped and waved the dress. "I can speak for you," he offered.
"What's this Alik?" shrieked the old woman. She had been all but forgotten, despite her presence on the platform. "Speaking for your whore? The whore what killed your father."
He turned from her and held the dress up. It was stiff with blood, and the bodice was ripped to the waist.
"This is how I found the dress in the wagon. I took it because..." He faltered. "I took it to have something of Alika's with me. You all saw her in this dress at the festival," he nodded vigorously, compelling them to remember. "She was the most beautiful woman there. She was the sweetest, most loving and most passionate..." He blushed, then continued. "And Estrus-my father-wanted her. I'd seen him look at her, when her back was turned, when he thought no one could see." He eyes studied the floor, as if the old scenes were played out there.
"Alik, many men are enticed by women, particularly women like---"
"Like Alika? You mean beautiful women? Men *are* enticed by beautiful women. Is that a crime? You knew my father. Do you imagine that Alika deliberately enticed him?"
"She wore that dress," Premus accused.
"She wore a dress, a red dress," he repeated. "It was red because I bought her the cloth, and she wore it because I was proud of her, and I wanted her to be admired. If there was a crime committed, it was my crime." He thumped his chest. "Can't any of you understand that she is the victim here?" He turned to Xena again. "I give you my public apology for stealing you, for lying to you, for raping you." They held each others eyes for a long moment then she nodded briefly. He moved back to his mother. "I had my accomplices, of course, Estrus who urged me on, and Estra who maintained control, bent your will to ours. I thought it would make it better this time."
"This time?" Xena asked.
"I had a wife, a real wife," Alik said quietly. "She was called Alika. She had---her own ideas," he said haltingly. "She did all those things you said," he told Xena. "She questioned and rebelled, and made me teach her to read and write. My mother wanted to correct her, to control her. I refused. She was herself until the end. And that was a mistake." He looked at the assembly. "She killed herself. All that discontent over things that couldn't be changed ate at her until my beautiful Alika took a knife to herself." His eyes brimmed with tears, but he looked again at Xena. "Can you believe that I thought the old woman's drugs were saving you from that?" he pleaded. Alik obviously believed it. He sank to his knees and wept.
"Get up, Alik," Xena commanded gently, touched by something in his sad tale.
"'Get up Alik,'" the old woman mimicked. "Think she killed herself, do you? Because we keep to the old customs? It wasn't that way at all" she announced to the assembly. "She never killed herself. She was like this whore, always throwing herself at Estrus. What was he to do?"
Alik caught his breath and asked incredulously: "What did you say?"
"I said Estrus killed her; don't matter much, now that he's dead. She lured him to the barn where she had the milking to do. Wouldn't leave my husband alone," she complained. "It was a mistake-like, Estrus said. We didn't want Alik to be angry, so we said she done it herself, most like."
Alik roared as he lunged at the old woman. Xena was just quick enough to stop him from breaking her neck. Even now the nasty, simple-minded old woman was puzzled at Alik's anger. Gods, she must have been badly drugged as a young woman, Xena thought. She let go of Alik and he stumbled blindly into the rain.
Premus waved wordlessly to the guards, who stepped forward to release Xena's bonds.
"You'd best see to the levee," Premus advised the men, who were relieved to have an escape.
The men of The Vale shuffled out of the room, beckoning to their women as they moved. The women stood and looked around uncertainly, in no hurry to follow. Their eyes turned to Xena, who stood rubbing away the marks of the manacles. An old woman began to thump her cane on the floor. A second took up the beat, and those without canes began to stamp one foot in a rhythmic accolade. It reminded Xena of the tribute warriors pay to a respected foe, the ceremonial clanging of swords on shields. She nodded her understanding, and stood watching as they filed out.
Premus stopped before Xena as he left the platform. "You'll be leaving The Vale?"
"As soon as I can get my things together," she assured him. "But I'll need another horse, Argo's put in enough time between the shafts."
She was exacting a small price, he decided. "Your things are stored at the stable. I'll leave word there about a horse."
Estras sat alone now, and gave no sign of moving on. "You'd better see to her," Gabrielle commented, having no intention of doing so herself.
"Ah, yes," he agreed reluctantly, "we'll have to see to the old widow. Come along, old woman," he said with barely concealed impatience. When they were gone, Gabrielle finally turned to Xena, and pulled her head down for a kiss.
"Xena," Joxer bounded on to the platform. "Congratulations, I couldn't have handled that better myself."
"I'm sure you couldn't, Joxer," Gabrielle agreed. "You know, Xena I have to be careful, or I'll lose my reputation as the mouthpiece of this duo."
"You can keep the job, Gabrielle," she said quickly, "I'll stick to the swordplay. Now let's get out of here before they think of something else I've done wrong."
Their spirits rose with each mile as they rolled toward the border. Xena rode ahead on Argo, both horse and rider happy to be free again. She returned to the wagon with a bunch of early spring flowers for her bard.
"What's the occasion?"
"Just trying to find a way to say 'thank you'."
"Well, for my thank you, Xena, could you find something edible?" Joxer put in. "I was afraid to eat anything---"
"I'll try, Joxer," she cut him off with a broad grin, and galloped up the side of the hill flanking the road. She thought she saw a berry patch up there---. What she saw from the height alarmed her. Where the lush lowland of The Vale had been, there now pooled a new lake. The waters still spread, silently at this distance. She spurred Argo back down the hill.
"TheChute's given way," she told them, "Keep on this road, it inclines slightly, and the waters won't reach you."
"You're going back," Gabrielle asked in disbelief.
"What can I do," Xena shrugged ruefully, and Gabrielle understood.
It was late the next evening when Xena found the campfire. Gabrielle had made it larger than usual, a beacon for a traveler by night. The warrior appeared silently, taking Joxer offguard and chastising him with a sharp knock on the head. "Is that any way to guard a position," she demanded. Without waiting for an answer she lowered herself to the ground beside the fire. Gabrielle was beside her with a plate of stew. She raised an eyebrow.
"No, we weren't hunting," Gabrielle admitted, "I bought some venison at a farmhouse a ways back. It's nice to be out of The Vale; I'd almost forgotten there was an outside of The Vale."
Xena's face grew grim. "That's about all there is now, Gabrielle. Everything's gone. The farms, the Ladies Hall; the roads are all submerged." She wiped a hand across her mouth. "They were hauling the dead out of the water as they floated by; they didn't want my help, even with the corpses," she said, shaking her head. "They could use some help, there aren't many of them left.' She stared at the fire. "The girl in the hall, the one I spoke to? I saw her in the burial pit. Premus was looking for his wife and children. He was at the levee when it burst; he assumes they were in the house. It's not there anymore." Gabrielle set the plate down, moved closer to the weary woman and held one arm loosely. "Did you see Alik?" she asked after a moment.
"Yeah, and Estras. He died trying to save her." She didn't elaborate. When she looked up from the flames she said simply: "I'm more tired than hungry." She pulled Gabrielle close for a moment. "That place is all gone Gabrielle. Will it be remembered in your scrolls?"
The bard considered, hesitant at first. Why remember a place of misery and injustice? she asked herself, then she read the sadness in Xena's face, and decided it was exactly the type of place that needs to be remembered.
The Vale was becoming a distant memory for Gabrielle, the long search for Xena and the struggle to bring her home had passed into her store of memories, memories that strengthened her confidence, and affirmed her love for the warrior. But she was worried about Xena. She had passed her time in The Vale in another consciousness, and Gabrielle's memories were all she had to rely on. Increasingly she probed Gabrielle for details, and became annoyed when Gabrielle couldn't or wouldn't recall. Altogether, Xena had become much testier, more easily irritated.
She had just barked at Gabrielle, for spending too much time in the marketplace, at a stall selling earrings. "You only wear them when you're with the Amazons, why spend all that time haggling over something you don't want?"
"Because that's my fun, Xena, about my only fun anymore."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Figure it out, warrior. You're the clever one." She trooped along in silence. "Where are we going, anyway?"
"I don't know."
"This seems like the road to Amphipolis."
"Yeah, I guess it is."
"So, we're going to visit your mother?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
"Well, when you figure it out, tell me, if it won't pain you too much, because..." She broke off. It was obvious Xena was about to be sick. She disappeared into the bushes for a few minutes. She returned, chewing on some fragrant leaves, and continued down the road in silence. It occurred to Gabrielle that Xena seemed to disappear into the bushes frequently. "Are you all right?" she asked quietly.
Xena shook her head. "I'm fine now."
"And generally speaking?"
"I've been better. Must be those drugs I was fed in The Vale," she guessed. "Those things can take a long time to clean out of your system." vA wave of guilt swept over Gabrielle. "I'm sorry, Xena, no wonder you didn't want to stand around waiting for me to shop. Why didn't you say something?"
"Because you're entitled to shop, if that's what you like. Don't pay attention to me. I'm just being cranky. And I'm not being deliberately mysterious about our destination. I didn't decide to go to Amphipolis, I just found myself headed this way. If you want to go someplace else, just say the word."
Gabrielle pulled Xena to a stop and kissed her cheek. She didn't let go of her hand when they continued walking. "Why aren't you riding?" she asked.
"More comfortable this way." She patted Argo's golden muzzle. "No offense girl, just need a good few miles to stretch my legs."
They made camp early that night, near a small lake, and Xena caught fish for supper. She ate sparingly of her own, and before the stars were out she announced her intention of getting some sleep. That was more than Gabrielle could bear in silence. She watched the warrior arrange her bedroll and assume an almost-fetal position. "Xena-" she began.
"I know, Gabrielle, this must seem odd." Her back was to the bard, and Gabrielle could only guess at the expression on her face. "I've got a problem. I think I'm pregnant. No, I know I'm pregnant, now. It's unmistakable."
"Are you all right?" Gabrielle asked, gently, fighting to remain composed while she dealt with the stunning news.
"Yeah," the uncertain voice came back.
"Why won't you look at me?" Gabrielle challenged.
After a long moment Xena turned to face her, still lying in the semi-curled position, one hand pressed to her lower stomach. "Because I've spent a lot more time turning away from people when I hurt than turning toward them. Sometimes I forget, even with you. I'm sorry," she apologized.
"Is that why you didn't tell me?" The younger woman tried to keep the hurt out of her voice.
"I saw no point in mentioning it until I was sure. I wasn't exactly thrilled, I didn't think it would be welcome news for you. No sense both of us worrying." I'm surprised you never guessed, she realized, silently. "Are you angry?"
"Of course not. Can I do anything?" Gabrielle asked helplessly.
"No." Her voice was different when she spoke again. "Gabrielle, there's something wrong with this baby. It wasn't like this with Solon."
"Xena, every pregnancy's different, and you are ten years older," she offered.
"No, it's not that." Despite the pain etched on her face, Xena was trying to work this out. She inhaled through her nose, and let it out through her mouth, several times. "The baby's not well. I just have this feeling of ...dread, I guess. I'm going to lose it. Soon." Gabrielle's relief showed, despite her efforts to hide it. She didn't want any blood of those people to survive, she realized to her own shame. Xena saw her face and nodded her understanding, then added: "I know how you feel; but it's part of me, too." She closed her eyes and breathed again.
"Xena," Gabrielle asked after a while. "is this why we're near Amphipolis? You want to be with your mother?"
"No," she shook her head emphatically. "I haven't been a very good daughter. I've brought her more grief than joy. I wouldn't bring her this problem, too."
Gabrielle considered this, then voiced her fear: "Are you afraid you won't survive? You want to die close to your burial place?"
Despite the pain, Xena rolled her eyes, exasperation on her face. "Gabrielle, this is not going to kill me. If I bleed too much...didn't I show you what to do a few months back?"
Gabrielle remembered the young girl they had found bleeding to death in a field outside her town, dying alone because she was afraid to reveal her lost pregnancy to her parents.
Xena had packed her with the right herbs, given her a potion to drink and returned her days later with a masterful story of the girl's heroic aid in their battle with sheep-stealers.
"You can handle that," the warrior urged her now. Gabrielle shook her head. She would do what needed to be done.
"More than likely you won't need to do anything. If there's a major problem, the next village, Emphiris, has a good midwife, Dolora. She'll help you out. Don't think I ever did them any harm," she observed, hoping she was right. "Now, I'm going to try to sleep. You do the same."
"If you need me---"
"If I do, you'll hear Gabrielle, I promise, you'll hear."
She was true to her word. Before midnight Gabrielle heard long shuddering gasps, and the barely stifled groans of a woman in pain. Xena's voice came slow and ragged in between gasps for air. Gabrielle stayed with her for the short time it took for her body to expel the tiny fetus. Then it was over. She whisked it away for burial before Xena had collected herself, and returned with a pot of hot water for bathing to find the warrior sitting up, groping for the wineskin.
"Xena, lie down," she told her, before she remembered that Xena had delivered Solon by herself, and spent her first days as a new mother alone.
"Not too bad," she said looking a bit wrung out. Her dark hair was plastered around her face with sweat. "And now the story's finally over. Estrus, and Estra, Alik and his child, all gone, and no one to remember them."
Gabrielle was surprised at the sorrow in the warrior's face. "Xena, there's a reason for that: they weren't nice people."
'I know," Xena demurred. "In the end, you know, Estras even killed her own grandchild." She looked steadily at Gabrielle. "I can guess at some of the stronger drugs she used; no wonder their kind are dying out, they poison their children in the womb." She shifted her position on the blanket, still in some discomfort. "I never met Estrus, yet I killed him: I met Alik and Estra only at the end, yet they're part of my story. All because a sailor in Arberis needed to know he was a father before he sailed." She shook her head.
"And a nosy bard you ran across in Potadeia insisted you take the message there."
"And a little girl fell into the river while I happened to be having a swim..." She grinned suddenly. "How far back shall we go?" she asked, a twinkle in her blue eyes. She lay back on the blanket. "You know, I would like to visit my mother. Would you mind?" Gabrielle smiled back, well-content. The story was finally, finis.