Copyright July 1997
DISCLAIMER: These characters belong to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures, as do any references to broadcasted stories here; no copyright infringement is intended. The other parts belong to me. Just think of this as ramblings of an idle mind ....
DEDICATION: This story is gratefully dedicated to my friend LMC whose warm and generous heart have produced a rebirth of my own spirit. Her gentle and steadfast affection have given new life to a floundering vision of friendship I had been ready to render deceased. Thank you, my friend, for restoring my faith in the concept.
JUST FOR THE RECORD: Amity (friendship) isn’t only what we say, or what we don’t say, the things we remember or what we occasionally forget. It isn’t holding onto the times we didn’t receive enough or the moments when we got less than we expected. True friendship is extending the core of yourself to another human being and expecting absolutely nothing in return except the best that they can do. If your friends know that, they’ll be your friends until we all meet again in the Elygian Fields.
Watch how these two do it. They’ve got it ‘down pat’. MMG
The rockslide was sudden and ferocious. It rumbled down the mountainside, slicing away small trees, shrubs, turf, roots, loose gravel and any other unsecured matter along the way. The two women walking along the narrow path had only an instant to turn frightened eyes toward the approaching danger before being attacked by the thundering debris.
The warrior’s immediate attention was drawn to the terrified horse prancing in front of her. Argo reared and pawed the air, then jerked fearfully at the taut reins held by her determined mistress. Due to the fact that the reins had been tightly wound around her palm at the moment of the explosion, Xena was roughly pulled forward onto the ground, then dragged a short distance by the animal’s panicked actions.
After a few extremely uncomfortable moments, the warrior struggled to her feet and reached to calm her frantic mount. She turned at once to search for Gabrielle and her heart plummeted when she failed to find the small form of her blonde friend.
Gabrielle had been only a few strides behind her when the cacophony had erupted above them. The bard stood stock still for a moment, then cowered as the clamoring devastation rained down around her. She wrapped her arms over her head for protection, and, in doing so, dropped the staff that had become an integral part of her identity.
The deadly wreckage swept her feet out from under her and slammed her down hard on her back, driving the air from her lungs. She heard the sickening sound of her own skull banging against the hard ground and fought instinctively to regain her awareness, at the same time struggling to pull breath back into her chest.
The unrelenting rubble swirled against the slender prone form, pushing the small bard closer to the side of the trail. As she began to regain her perception, she realized she was being propelled toward the edge of the precipice. The bard tried valiantly to combat the heavy, imperious mass, but it out-weighed her. Then, as Xena watched helplessly, the little blonde slowly disappeared over the side of the mountain, shrieking helplessly for her friend.
Chapter One ~~~
"Gabrielle!" the warrior screamed, racing toward the edge of the path. She trained a horrified gaze over the side of the mountain and gulped in grateful surprise when she saw her terrified friend desperately clinging to a large tree root jutting out from the side of the mountain. Xena dropped to the ground, reaching frantically for the young bard. She swore loudly when her extended arm failed to come anywhere near closing the distance between them. She pulled her arm back, then had to fight to maintain her own balance on the uneven, gravel-covered earth.
"Don’t move!" she yelled at the terrified girl. Gabrielle turned a blank stare in the direction of the warrior’s voice, then frantically wrapped her arms more securely around the tree root.
"Xena," the little bard whimpered. "Please help me." She kicked her boots against the craggy surface of the cliff, trying desperately to gain a foothold on the bumpy surface.
"Hang on!" the warrior yelled again, her heart pounding in fear.
Xena leapt up and turned to the golden mare now standing quietly behind her on the path. She hurriedly pulled the coiled rope from the side of the tack and tied one end tightly around the large horn at the front of the saddle. Quickly she uncoiled more of the hemp, tied the middle section around her own waist and gathered the remaining length into one hand.
"Back, Argo," she said softly to the mare and the horse took several, easy steps backward, tightening the rope between herself and the warrior. Xena anxiously turned back to the edge of the path and leaned over to focus on Gabrielle. The girl had managed to thrust her feet into a small depression in the earthen wall in front of her, and she still had both arms wrapped around the jagged root.
"I’m coming, Gabrielle," she shouted to the terrified girl. "Hold on. I’m coming down to get you."
Xena turned her back to the edge and gripped the length of rope between her waist and the saddle horn. She looped the gathered length of rope over her shoulder and turned again to the horse.
"Slack off, Argo." The horse took a tentative step toward her mistress.
Xena stepped off the path and eased herself down the side of the mountain, sliding her feet along the rough surface of the apex, her hands tightly gripping the taut rope stretching from her waist. Her descent continued as Argo advanced steadily toward the edge of the path, responding exactly to the warrior’s commands.
"Forward, Argo," the woman yelled as her body continued to drop closer to the trembling form of her friend. "Again," the warrior called. The horse advanced another pace toward the voice, and the woman stiffened her legs against the side of the cliff.
"Hold, Argo!" Xena shouted as the shale under her feet gave way, causing her to temporarily lose her footing. She closed her eyes and turned her face as the loose fragments pummeled her arms and neck, then shook her head briskly to dislodge the pebbles that had assaulted her hair.
Gabrielle screamed fearfully as the debris pelted her body on its way past her. She buried her face against her arms, and renewed her grip on the tree root. When the gravel torrent had finally ended, she turned pleading eyes toward the approaching form of the warrior.
"Again!" Xena called out and the golden horse responded, lowering the warrior closer to the little bard. The tedious descent progressed smoothly as the warrior and the mare coordinated their efforts in a seamless maneuver. After several agonizing minutes, the warrior had reached the little blonde. Xena reached out to her friend, gritting her teeth when she felt the violent trembling shaking the girl’s frame.
"Gabrielle," she said smoothly to calm the girl. "It’s OK." She wrapped a strong arm tightly around the slender waist. "Let go, Gabrielle. I’ve got you." She tugged gently at the little body, but the girl’s arms were locked around the tree root.
"Gabrielle, let go," the warrior pleaded. "Please. Let go of the tree."
Gabrielle was frozen in position. She tried desperately to respond to the warrior’s words, but she couldn’t seem to release her hold on the craggy root. She felt the strong arm pulling at her middle, but her own hysteria refused to let her react normally.
Suddenly the bard’s panic overwhelmed her. "NO!" she sobbed and struggled fiercely against the warrior’s grip, locking her knees against the rocky surface in front of her. Xena quickly released the girl and put a gentle hand against the blonde head.
"OK," she crooned. "OK, just hang on a minute." The bard’s fear subsided slightly. Her sobs lessened and she buried her face in her arms again.
Xena planted her feet against the mountainside and lifted the length of rope from her shoulder. "Hold, Argo!" she called toward the edge of the mountain. She felt the rope extending from her waist grow stiff. Leaning back and pulling against the rope, she gently, carefully looped the hemp around the bard. As she worked, she spoke softly to the rigid form of her friend.
"Take it easy. I’m just going to tie this around you, OK?. Just relax, alright? Ju-u-ust relax."
The bard slowly lifted her head, a small degree of terror retreating from her eyes. The warrior’s calm voice was having the desired effect. The girl numbly dropped her gaze to follow the actions of the woman beside her.
"You’re going to be fine," the warrior’s voice was calm and firm. "We’re going to be OK."
When the rope was secure, Xena put a gentle palm under the bard’s quivering chin. Green eyes turned slowly toward the source of the liquid voice. Before the bard could focus on the blue eyes of her friend, the warrior delivered a quick, but effective jab across the jaw of the young face. The bard’s head bounced away, then the small body slumped limply, the slim arms slowly releasing the ragged tree root.
In an instant, Xena gathered the little form against her as she felt the rope between them pull against her hip. She turned the bard to face her, draping the girl’s arms over her own shoulders and resting the blonde head against her neck. Working quickly she wrapped the remaining rope around them both, securing the little bard tightly to her own body.
Hugging the little blonde to her with one arm, the warrior gripped the tight rope in front of her and looked up toward the edge of the cliff above them. "Back, Argo!" she called sharply and felt the rope pull her upward along the side of the rocky peak. As they neared the top, she whispered quietly to the still form in her grasp.
"Almost there, my friend." The bard stirred slightly. Xena tightened her grip around the slender waist. Soon she could see the mare’s golden head above the brink of the path.
"Good girl, Argo," the warrior chanted as the horse continued steadily backing up .
Chapter Two ~~~
Xena knelt on the rocky path and tried to calm her senses. Her heart was pounding and her breath was short. For a few minutes, she fought against the blinding panic that had threatened when she’d first glimpsed Gabrielle clinging to the tree root on the side of the mountain. Twisting her head, she glanced nervously at the still-unconscious bard wrapped in her arms. The warrior slowly loosened the rope that secured the little blonde’s body to hers and lowered the small form to the ground.
"Gabrielle?" the warrior called, stroking the young face gently. "Gabrielle?" she said again, watching the slim form closely for any reaction. Finally the blonde lashes fluttered and the green eyes drifted open. The girl scanned the area around them, eventually coming to rest on the warrior’s worried face.
A thin smile lit the bronze face. "Are you all right?"
The little bard gulped and swallowed then pulled one small hand across her eyes. She blinked again and tried again to focus on the concerned blue eyes meeting hers. Xena put her hands on the slender arms and tried to help her friend sit up. There had still been no response from the stunned bard.
"How do you feel?" the warrior asked.
Still no words from the normally loquacious blonde. Long moments passed as the sounds of the path drummed around them. Finally Argo nudged the warrior’s back and the woman turned toward the animal. She stood and put slender hands on the mare’s proud head.
"Thanks, girl," the warrior said softly, burying her face in the silver mane. "From both of us." She stroked the sinewy neck, burying her tears in the horse’s golden coat. "You were a real life saver."
Xena took a deep breath and turned back to the girl still sitting uncertainly on the ground behind her. Steeling against her nervousness, she held out a hand to the bard. Gabrielle looked at the hand for a moment, then up at the woman who extended it. She let the warrior pull her up. When she was on her feet again, the girl pulled her hand away and absently brushed the dirt and debris away from her clothes.
Xena untied the rope around her waist and released the end secured to the saddle horn. As she recoiled the length of rope, she walked to the edge of the path and retrieved the bard’s staff, then handed the wand to the girl. The green eyes studied the pole for a moment, then the girl reached to accept it from the warrior.
As the warrior turned back to the horse and retied the coiled rope on the side of the
saddle, she spoke casually. "We’d better find a place to camp. It’s getting late," she said, hoping her calm tone would disburse the tense atmosphere on the path. "You ready?"
She gathered the reins laying loosely across the horse’s neck and turned to find the little blonde standing immobile, casting a befuddled look at the long pole in her hands. Xena watched the girl, a gnawing fear returning within her. Then the green eyes turned a dazed glance at the warrior.
"Yeah, ok," the little bard said, a nervous laugh behind her shaky words. She cast another bewildered glance around the area and slowly moved to follow the warrior and the horse.
As the trio slowly walked away from the frightening location, a thin wave of rubble skittered down the side of the hill and peppered the ground behind them.
Half an hour later, Xena was still glancing nervously at the quiet bard sitting tensely on a large fallen tree limb, trembling fingers playing with several small twigs. She had already performed a cursory examination of the little body, trying to determine if the girl had sustained any serious injuries during her harrowing time with the tree root. The warrior felt slightly guilty when she noticed the faint bruise that had become evident along the jaw of the young face, but, other than a few scrapes and small cuts on her arms and knees, which had required only a minor consideration and a light application of soothing herb salve, the bard was relatively unharmed as a result of her experience.
It was the lack of conversation that rattled the warrior’s senses.
As she arranged the sticks of dry wood into a heap and started the fire, Xena watched her friend sweep troubled glances around the campsite. The girl seemed dazed, her face resembling the unsettled gaze of someone who had just awakened from a very disturbing dream.
The warrior stood and crossed the campsite, bending again to retrieve the bard’s abandoned staff. Carrying the weapon, she walked back toward the little blonde and carefully laid the wand next to the nervous girl on the tree limb. She dropped to one knee in front of the little bard and put a tentative hand on the small hands fumbling in the girl’s lap. She watched the startled green gaze fall to her hand, then rise again to meet her own blue eyes. She smiled warmly at the young face, waiting for the onset of the usual dissertation about the day’s events that she had to admit, she had come to expect, and now heartily wished would spill forth, from her small companion.
What she saw in the sweet face was a high degree of bafflement and an alarming level of fear. Xena’s nervous laugh broke the silence in the clearing.
"I never thought I’d hear myself say this," the warrior said softly. The girl’s expression changed slightly as she waited for the warrior to continue. The tall woman smiled widely as she looked directly into the clear green eyes and said, "Talk to me."
The reaction from the bard was certainly not one the warrior would have predicted. The verdant eyes remained vacant and totally unaware. If anything, they registered even more confusion. The smile on the bronze face faded slowly as a tightness grew in the chest beneath the leather bodice.
"Gabrielle?" the warrior said in a voice now tinged with concern. "What’s wrong?"
The little blonde took a slow, deep breath and searched the blue eyes locked on hers. Displaying a flimsy smile that only heightened the panic behind her eyes, the bard took a firm hold on the slender fingers of the warrior.
"Since you keep calling me that, I assume that’s my name. Right?"
The warrior’s heart thumped hard against her ribs. Her mouth dropped open and the blue eyes widened in shock.
"Yes, that’s your name," she said in a stunned tone.
"OK. I’m Gabrielle," the young blonde said unsteadily. The green eyes darted over the bronze face. "Then who are you? Why are we out here, in the middle of nowhere? And why do you keep trying to give me that stick?"
Chapter Three ~~~
Xena stared open-mouthed at the face of her best friend. She felt a crippling numbness settle over her and realized her hands were now shaking. She sat back sharply onto the ground, a loud ringing sounding in her ears. Breathing heavily, her blue eyes blinked quickly in an attempt to shore up her own awareness. Finally she forced a breath around the tightness that threatened to close her throat.
"My name is Xena," the warrior whispered, her voice wavering in alarm.
The young bard watched the woman’s reaction closely. She felt a puzzling concern for the person sitting so obviously panicked on the ground at her feet. Without knowing why, the little blonde reached out to soothe the alarm she saw in the woman’s eyes. The tall warrior took the small hand in her calloused palm and felt the paralyzing fear gripping her chest loosen slightly.
Gabrielle’s eyes traveled over the shocked face of the woman before her. Her expression was warm, her usual friendliness radiating from behind her still-uncertain smile. She slowly withdrew her hand from the warrior’s and wrapped her arms around her knees.
"You’re obviously a warrior," the little blonde said, her eyes settling momentarily on the scabbard laced to the warrior’s back. "The weapons, the armor ... that round, shiny thing on your belt."
The woman on the ground waited, speechless, unnerved by the impersonal quality to the young woman’s tone.
"Well, Xena," the little bard said quietly, as if introducing herself to a stranger. "I guess I should thank you for saving my life." The gentle, polite smile on the bard’s face made the warrior’s heart ache. "Thank you ... Xena," the girl said hesitantly, the lack of recognition in her voice sending the warrior’s heart to her knees.
"You’re welcome," Xena said haltingly, her own bewilderment stiffening her words even more than usual.
The two women studied each other’s face for several long, taxing moments. Finally the little bard took another short breath. She craned her head around to look at the honey-colored mare who stood quietly chomping the lush grass surrounding the clearing of the campsite. She turned back to the warrior still sitting motionless on the ground.
"Your horse?" the girl asked, gesturing with her thumb in the animal’s direction.
Xena nodded wordlessly, then ran her tongue over her parched lips. She experienced another wave of wonder as she watched the young blonde cross the campsite to stroke the mare’s smooth neck. Gabrielle rubbed the horse’s soft muzzle and spoke gently to the animal.
"I should thank you, too ...." The girl turned a questioning glance toward the warrior.
"Argo," Xena volunteered.
"Argo," the girl repeated, turning back to the mare. She smiled as the golden steed whinnied gently against her chest. "Thank you." The little bard rubbed the horse’s forelock, then turned a nervous glance back to the leather-clad woman
The young bard absently rubbed the back of one hand across her eyes. Xena’s senses finally awakened. She unfolded her long legs, straightened her back, rose and strode slowly toward the young woman.
"Are you OK?" she asked the girl, her normal reflexes having returned. She placed a tentative hand on the slender arm of the bard. "Does something hurt?" the warrior studied the young bard’s face. As the girl turned toward her, the warrior’s heart leapt at the sight of the terror in the soft, green eyes.
"I’m not sure," the little blonde said. "My shoulders are a little sore. And there’s this knot back here," she confessed, reaching toward the back of her long blonde hair.
The warrior reached to examine the back of the girl’s head. Her gently probing fingers did indeed find a slightly raised area at the back of the bard’s skull, but she decided it wasn’t serious enough for more than ordinary concern. The girl was obviously conscious and not otherwise physically injured. As for her lack of memory - the warrior’s heart bounced in her chest. She could only hope ...
Gabrielle ran her hand over her jaw, stroking the area tenderly. "And my jaw is really sore, too." She turned a puzzled glance toward the bronze face near hers. "Did you hit me or something?"
Xena’s chest tightened and she stepped back, slightly shaken by the question. She gulped and lowered her gaze to her own fingers, then looked up to meet the wary green eyes again.
"Yes," the warrior said contritely. Her heart thumped at the mild accusation in the bard’s green gaze. "You wouldn’t let go of the tree limb and ..." the warrior’s voice wavered. "I had to get you out of there. I had to get you to let ... go somehow." Her words dwindled under the scrutiny of the young woman’s stare.
The bard continued to study the contrite face. Her instincts told her this was an honorable individual, yet the weapons and the guarded manner formed an odd paradox to the tenderness the woman had employed when tending the scratches on her arms and legs.
Gabrielle nodded, evidently satisfied with the warrior’s answer. After another moment, she turned from the blue eyes and took a few uncertain steps toward the campfire, then stopped to let her gaze travel around the wooded area surrounding the site. Xena saw the panicked eyes darting about and noticed the short, rapid breathing that had now overtaken the bard’s manner. She waited, still in position behind the young blonde, not wanting to intrude for fear she might hinder the girl’s recovery.
Suddenly, the bard covered her face with her trembling hands and the warrior instinctively moved to gather the sobbing form into her arms. She flinched when the girl stiffened slightly.
"It’s OK, Gabrielle," the warrior crooned gently. "We’ll work it out. It’s OK."
Gabrielle raised tear-filled eyes to the compassionate blue eyes of the slender warrior who now held her tenderly. She felt an odd safety in the woman’s embrace; a strange comfort emanated from this rather contradictory figure. Almost against her own volition, the little bard wrapped her arms around the warrior’s waist and snuggled comfortably against the hard metal apparatus covering the woman’s torso.
"I’m so scared," the little bard sobbed plaintively. "I don’t remember you. I don’t remember anything!"
The small form shook within the circled arms of the warrior. Xena held the little body carefully, using one hand to cradle the blonde head against her. She gently moved toward the campfire, slowly lowering the quivering bard onto the blankets spread near the circled flames. The little blonde sat down wearily, using her hands to wipe the tears from her face. The warrior crouched facing her, her blue eyes concerned and sympathetic. After a few moments, Gabrielle turned back to the dark-haired woman.
Gabrielle studied the kind blue eyes focused on her face. Her mind was straining painfully to identify the deep connection she felt for this woman who now offered her such solace. ‘Why can’t I remember her? Why does this person’s touch affect me so profoundly?’ the bard wondered. She felt herself returning the woman’s gentle smile. All the uncertainty she had felt earlier faded away when she saw the honest affection shining in the clear, blue gaze of the leather-clad warrior. She took the woman’s hand without reservation or hesitation.
Xena waited patiently until she saw the calmness recapture her friend’s manner. She rose and crossed the campsite, returning to hand the bard the waterskin and a soft, clean cloth from the saddlebags. The warrior sat down cross-legged next to the girl, lean forearms perched on her sleek thighs, her long, slender fingers folded in a relaxed clasp As the girl swallowed several mouthfuls of the cool water, then dried her face with the cloth, the warrior trained a loving smile on the troubled expression.
After another moment, the bard’s shaky voice sounded in the quiet clearing. "You must be my friend," the girl said, gazing cautiously into the blue eyes. The fluttering in her chest vanished when she saw the warm smile the warrior returned.
"Best friend," Xena said quietly. "You and I are best friends."
A soft laugh escaped from the tearful bard. She squeezed the slender fingers resting softly on her knee and relaxed comfortably against the strong arm wrapped around her shoulders.
Chapter Four ~~~
Gabrielle watched the warrior’s activity at the campfire, her eyes openly amused at the rather awkward efforts of the lean combatant. After several frustrating moments, Xena turned to meet the little bard’s smile.
The girl sheepishly moistened her lips, looked away, then returned a playful grin to the warrior’s embarrassed scowl.
"I don’t know why but I have a feeling there’s something very wrong with this picture."
The dark-haired woman’s face lit in a subtle grin.
"I never was much of a cook," she admitted with chagrin. "This is usually your area."
The little blonde’s smile faded slightly. "Me?" she asked. "Really? I did the cooking?"
The warrior nodded, returning her attention to the fire. "Yup, and you were ... are very good at it."
The bard looked genuinely surprised. "Seriously?" she asked, green eyes wide.
Xena paused in her efforts to turn a serious glance to her blonde friend. "Very good at it." She watched as Gabrielle considered this information. The little bard’s gaze swept the ground around the campsite, renewed confusion reflected in the green pools. The warrior could read the maddening frustration in the girl’s expression as she waited for the little blonde to voice the questions raging clearly in her face.
After a moment, the young woman raised her eyes to meet the warrior’s again. "Was I good at anything else?"
Xena’s felt a sharp tightness return to her chest. Her blue eyes locked on the vulnerable face of her closest and dearest friend. She dropped the slender branch she’d used to stoke the coals and brushed her hands across each other. She rose and crossed the campsite, picking up the colorful, cloth satchel that the bard usually carried slung over her shoulder.
"You tell great stories," the warrior said, striding back toward the girl to gently drop the bag in her lap. "Here. Read them for yourself."
Gabrielle tentatively accepted the satchel and gently pulled at the cords gathered at the opening. The warrior returned to the campfire, covertly watching as the girl withdrew a number of rolled parchments from the bag, selected one and began to read the words transcribed on the page.
After several minutes, the little bard returned her gaze to the woman at the fire. The green pools glistened and the girl swallowed hard.
"These are mine? I wrote these?"
The warrior nodded, a gentle smile creasing her face. "You wrote them all. You’re a bard, Gabrielle. You’re a very talented bard."
The girl returned her attention to the scroll she held. Xena concerned herself with securing the fish she’d caught to the grate over the leaping fire. She used her dagger to position the trout while maintaining a guarded observance of the girl on the blanket. While she watched, the girl’s expression changed from curiosity to surprise to disbelief, settling finally into a slightly perplexed frown. She turned a searching glance toward the warrior.
"Did I make these up ... or did these things really happen to us?" the bard joked weakly.
The woman at the campfire smiled. She turned gentle blue eyes toward the young woman. "Most of the ... events happened," she said, laughing softly. "But, I think you may have ... ‘sweetened’ them up a bit, to make a better ‘tale’." The warrior’s smile faded slowly when she noticed the look of concern on the little blonde’s features. She started to voice another comment, then decided to wait for the bard to pursue the subject.
The young blonde had grown quiet again as her raven-haired friend detected a degree of puzzlement returning to the soft face. Gabrielle carefully replaced the scrolls in the satchel and sat quietly, considering the information she’d gained from the rolls of parchment. Finally the green eyes rose to meet the blue crystals again. As the warrior watched, a minute level of calm settled over the young face studying hers.
"Have we been ... friends a long time?" the girl asked softly.
"We’ve traveled together for nearly three summers now," Xena told her, trying to keep her voice light and casual. "We’ve been ... we’ve had some real ... adventures."
The warrior felt her pulse quicken as she realized the possible consequences of the current state of the bard’s memory, or the lack of it, to be more precise. It was conceivable that the girl’s recollections would not return and therefore her concept of their friendship would never be a part of Gabrielle’s consciousness again. It would mean she’d lost her best friend in the most devastating way, not by some act of violence or as a result of some illness. She would have lost the bard’s memories of their relationship, and more importantly, the girl’s heart and her own soul’s custodian.
Suddenly the little blonde squealed and pointed to the smoking fire next to the warrior. "Hey! The food’s burning!" She giggled as the tall woman swiveled toward the leaping flames. Xena used her dagger and the slender stick to try and save the fish but it was soon obvious that her efforts were in vain. She swore quietly as she thrust one scorched finger in her mouth, then turned embarrassed toward the girl smiling widely from the bedroll.
"Well, now you know why you handle the cooking," the warrior said, a faint blush warming her smooth face. She scraped the burned remains from the grate into the fire, then gingerly lifted the lattice away from the flames and brushed her hands against each other again. She exhaled a short, exasperated breath and stood up.
"I’ll see if I can get us some more." She turned a questioning gaze toward the bard. "Will you be all right for a while? I won’t be long."
The girl’s face still displayed the gentle smile that had danced there during the warrior’s struggle with the fish and the flames. She unfolded her slim, muscular legs and stood up, moving to the tall woman’s side.
"Go ahead, I’ll be fine," she said laughing softly. She gently took the dagger from the woman and, reaching down, handed the small cooking pot it to her. "Bring back some water," she said absently, then strolled toward the edge of the campsite. "I’ll see if I can find some mushrooms and wild tubers to make a st—"
The girl’s progress stopped abruptly as she turned slowly back toward the other woman. The warrior’s slow smile had begun to reappear as she recognized what the bard’s unprovoked intentions meant. She waited for the girl to react.
"Wild tubers?" the girl asked softly. She turned a befuddled expression toward the warrior. "How did I know about wild tubers?"
The tall woman placed a gentle hand on the young blonde’s shoulder. She spoke softly to the anxious green eyes. "Some things you don’t forget," she said, her smile warm. "Once a good cook, always a good cook."
The bard’s nervousness faded when she saw the support and affection radiating from the cobalt blue pools. A little laugh escaped from the girl as she seemed to accept the explanation. Then she squared her shoulders and turned again toward the forest surrounding the campsite, striding off to complete her mission.
The warrior swallowed hard as she watched the little blonde move away, her vision clouded by the tears slowly filling the blue eyes.
"Keep trying, Gabrielle," she murmured softly. "Keep trying to remember. I can’t go on without your spirit shining beside me."
Chapter Five ~~~
The two women were enjoying their very appetizing, if somewhat late, meal. Xena had returned from the nearby stream with another string of trout and Gabrielle’s search of the adjacent foliage had indeed produced a modest cluster of wild mushrooms and two good-sized tubers. The bard had expertly sliced the vegetables into the small pot which the warrior had filled with water. Then, adding a handful of spices and herbs she’d found in one of the saddlebags, had produced a delicious, satisfying stew. Throughout the preparation, she had marveled at her own talent and remained surprised at the level of capability she had demonstrated.
‘I guess she’s right,’ the little bard thought to herself. ‘Evidently there are some things you never forget.’ She glanced across the campsite at the tall woman enjoying the stew. ‘Then why can’t I remember her and what we mean to each other?’, the young woman queried to herself. The little blonde studied the face of the lean warrior in the light of the dancing flames of the fire.
Xena could feel the bard’s quiet contemplation of her as she focused on the remains of the fish on the earthen plate in her hands. Her pulse sped up as she sensed another probing question forming in the bard’s mind.
"Xena?" the bard asked, her voice quiet and pensive. The warrior raised her eyes to meet those of her best friend. "I have to ask you something." The bard’s small laugh floated across the fire. "Like I haven’t already been doing that all day," the girl chortled, a sheepish smile lighting the open face. "Is that something else I do ... regularly?"
The warrior’s eyes were soft. "As a matter of fact, yes," she quipped. But it’s all right," she said calmly, leaning a little closer toward the bard. "Tonight, you can ask all the questions you want."
Suddenly, the muscled shoulders relaxed and the blue eyes fell reflectively toward the ground. How often had she and Gabrielle sat in just these positions near the fire, the bard posing gently probing questions while she fought to control her own impatience and unwilling participation? The warrior’s introspection triggered a weighty sense of remorse as she scolded herself for her past insensitivity.
After a few moments of self-chastisement, she raised patient blue eyes to the bard’s. "What is it?" she asked gently. "What’s your question?" She watched as the girl seemed to choose her words carefully.
"Why are we ...?" the little bard began, then paused to rephrase her question. The green eyes returned to the warrior’s. "What is it we ‘do’, exactly?" she finished awkwardly. "I mean, do we just travel around together, or do we have a particular ... destination?" The girl’s expression was one of honest curiosity although the warrior could see the genuine desperation behind the soft, green eyes.
Xena took a breath and tried to gather her own thoughts. She tried to formulate her answer as honestly and sincerely as the bard’s inquiry had been. But, she found herself feeling even more inept than usual in attempting to verbally express herself.
‘What do we do?’, she thought, Gabrielle’s question echoing in her mind. She let out another nervous sigh and returned her gaze to the bard’s anxious face.
"Well," the warrior began uncertainly, "we travel to different places to ... help people. To try and solve problems and ... handle situations that they ... can’t handle for themselves."
She watched the girl try to interpret this new piece of news.
"Oh," Gabrielle said, nodding. "We ‘help’ people." She repeated the warrior’s phrase, her tone reflective and thoughtful, her expression contemplative and serious. Finally she looked back to at the blue eyes of the warrior. "Do they send for us or something? Or do we just ... keep traveling until we find them ... somehow?"
The question was so simple, so clearly an expression of the purity of Gabrielle’s open, loving spirit, it brought a wide, open smile to the warrior’s lovely face. The girl’s earnest expression responded warmly to the tall woman’s soft laugh.
"Well, I guess you could say a little of both. Sometimes we get a message from someone in need," she said, a lop-sided grin now gracing the chiseled features. "And other times it seems like ‘trouble’ finds us."
Gabrielle’s soft laughter joined the warrior’s at this last subtle phrase. She found herself responding to the warmth she felt in the other woman’s manner. She still hadn’t figured out why she felt such a connection to this leather-clad entity, but she couldn’t deny the innate confidence and blatant trust she felt deep within herself at the tall woman’s presence and attitude towards her. ‘Whatever we’ve shared’, Gabrielle thought, ‘I know this person is important to me, and I’m important to her.’ It gave the young woman a sense of peace, even with her mind so rattled and unsettled as it was right now.
After a moment, the bard swept a shaky hand across her eyes, then turned a tired gaze to the woman across the fire. Xena saw the fatigue evident in the open face; she recognized the signs of exhaustion that accompanied the extremely formidable task being endured by her friend. She remembered having been occasionally rendered without that comforting awareness after being injured in battle. There was nothing more frightening than not being able to reposition one’s own identity.
"Listen, why don’t you get some rest?" the warrior said. The girl turned an appreciative, if slightly vague, expression toward the tall woman. "I’ll handle clean up. Go ahead, try and get some sleep."
"OK," Gabrielle said softly, pulling off her boots. Then she cast a hesitant look at the bedroll beneath her. She turned again to the warrior, another unspoken question in her eyes.
"Yeah, that’s yours," the leather-clad woman answered, anticipating the question. She
moved closer to help the little bard get comfortable on the blanket, gently stroking the soft blonde hair away from the slightly flushed face. Gabrielle took a deep, steady breath and looked up trustingly at the warrior.
"Get some sleep. I’ll be right here, don’t worry. You’re safe, Gabrielle." The little bard’s thin smile tore at the warrior’s gallant heart. Then the green eyes closed and it seemed the girl fell instantly asleep.
‘You’re safe, Gabrielle.’ The warrior’s own words echoed loudly in her head. ‘Such a lie!’ the woman taunted herself. ‘When have you ever been safe being with me?’ She looked down at the precious young face next to her. Slowly the clear blue eyes filled with remorseful tears.
Xena sat next to her sleeping friend for a long time. She rose once to add new wood to the fire, returning promptly to pull the thin blanket back over the young bard after the girl had restlessly pushed it away. As the night progressed, the sounds of the forest provided an ironic counterpoint to the warrior’s relentless internal reproach.
Chapter Six ~~~
During the last vestiges of darkness, as the dawn began to awaken to replace the blackness of the night, the warrior rose from her place on the bedroll and quietly ‘handled the clean up’ from the previous evening’s meal. She gathered the eating utensils, tools and cooking equipment, made a quick trip to the stream, cleaned them, refilled the cooking pot, then strode back toward to the campsite in less time than it would have taken anyone else.
On her way back to the clearing, Xena used her chakram to provide the main ingredient for breakfast. She returned to the campsite with two plump game birds, then used her dagger to clean and prepare the wild fowl for the fire. When she had finished with the birds, she cleaned her knife, then poured some water from the pot into her hands to clear away the remnants of her efforts. She placed the carcasses on a flat piece of bark and covered them with a wide, green leaf.
Xena silently returned to her blanket, now spread within arm’s reach of where Gabrielle still slept peacefully. The warrior had moved it there during the night, feeling a more than ordinary need to stay close to the little bard, to protect her friend from further trauma but mostly, so she could be near at hand in the event the girl might awaken and need her comfort and help.
The bard had stirred only a few times during the night, making quiet, murmuring sounds that the warrior chose not to interpret and struggling slightly against a troubled sleep. Each time, the slender woman in leather had waited for calmness to return, then replaced the blanket over the girl, gently stroking the soft blonde hair until the bard’s breathing became regular again and her form quiet.
Xena knelt down next to the sleeping girl and gazed down at the soft, serene face of her best friend. Gabrielle’s expression showed none of the rampant confusion that had tormented her during the previous day and night. Her near-fatal ordeal on the side of the cliff had left a traumatic void within her sentience and the warrior felt a numbing helplessness at her inability to relieve the bard’s fears and combat the girl’s terror.
As she stood and rolled up her blanket, the warrior’s mind traveled over the past three summers, lovingly recalling the bard’s entrance into her life. The chiseled face grew soft and kind as she remembered how the young woman’s friendship and trust had healed the pain in her heart and rescued the soul she had thought lost forever.
Xena took a deep breath to combat the aching remorse that clamped a painful hold around her conscience. Her thoughts turned to the many tests of faith and courage that had been inflicted on the bard’s loyalty; the times Gabrielle had met the darkness still threatening her own sanity with waves of friendship and love. She remembered the many times she’d used the girl’s goodness and truth as a sanction for her constant battle against her own demons.
She had come to regard Gabrielle as a precious gift, a bequest sent into her world by some generous, compassionate force. The warrior’s throat tightened as she recalled the steadfast, unshakable devotion the two now shared and how completely her spirit depended on the little bard’s presence. She vowed to accept whatever challenge it took to rid her soulmate of this terrible, destructive emptiness.
"We’ll defeat this thing, my friend," the warrior said quietly to her sleeping friend. "Just like we’ve handled every other demon we’ve faced ... together."
The dark-haired woman began reviving the dying embers of the fire. She repositioned the spit and hung the small pot over the new flames. She glanced at the sleeping bard, then dropped several dried leaves into the water in the pot. Soon the spicy aroma from the vessel floated across the clearing to awaken the bard’s senses. Xena smiled when she heard the girl stirring in the blanket behind her.
The little blonde’s sleepy face slowly emerged from beneath the blanket. "What smells so good?" she asked, then surrendered to a wide yawn.
"Herb tea," the warrior answered. "It’s about the only thing I can’t ruin." She turned to find the girl’s gentle smile lighting her face.
Gabrielle slowly untangled herself from the bedding and stretched gracefully. She ran her fingers through her blonde locks then bent to pull on her boots. When she had both coverings on, she rose and walked over to the warrior. She watched as the woman poured some of the dark tea from the small pot into one of the earthen mugs resting on the stones surrounding the fire. The bard accepted the cup the warrior handed her and sat down on a large log facing the fire.
The tea was warm and fragrant and the little bard welcomed the stimulating taste. As she blew into the cup to cool the liquid for another sip, she watched as the warrior’s deft hands maneuvered the glowing wood into a tight pile and replaced the spit over the leaping flames. She sat mesmerized by the precise, controlled movements and by the warrior’s skill.
Xena turned to retrieve the game birds from the bark piece and began to lower them onto the spit when Gabrielle’s voice stopped her.
"If we wrap those in hickory and bake them in the coals, they’ll lose that ‘gamey’ taste," the little bard said, then giggled at the warrior’s surprised face. "I’m beginning to think I have a whole cookbook in my head." The green eyes softened as they met the questioning blue gaze.
"And I’m starting to get little ... glimpses of things. Ordinary things, like you at the fire and," she rested one small hand on the sheath strapped to the warrior’s back, "you sharpening your sword while I get supper ready." The bronze face smiled warmly. The little blonde looked down at the mug in her hands. "And you watching over me ... like sitting up all night next to me when I’m having nightmares." She raised her eyes to meet the warrior’s. Xena’s heart caught at the tears glistening in the green pools.
Gabrielle saw the warrior’s nervous gulp and smiled at the woman’s embarrassed grin. The little bard studied the stoic face, basking in the warmth and friendship she saw there. After a moment, the young woman took another sip from the mug in her hands.
"Tell you what," she said, putting the mug down next to the log. "Let me go ‘visit the forest’ and freshen up, then I’ll take over here. OK?" She stood up and started toward the trees. "You probably want to get started early, as usual." Again the bard smiled at the warrior’s surprised, and relieved, expression.
Chapter Seven ~~~
As they enjoyed their breakfast, Xena cast a leisurely glance at the bard sitting cross-legged on the blanket. She sensed the girl would soon resume the questions they had pursued the night before. The warrior’s stomach twitched nervously as she considered how the bard might react to some of her answers.
Even with the tenseness she felt, watching the bard’s irrepressible enjoyment of her meal sent a warm comfort through the warrior’s being. She always experienced a deep pleasure whenever she witnessed Gabrielle’s unlimited delight in ordinary, everyday things. It was only one of the elements of the girl’s nature that gave the warrior a sense of renewal.
After several moments, the girl looked up from the earthen plate in her lap and systematically licked each of her fingers, cleaning the remnants of the roasted bird from the digits. Unexpectedly, the warrior’s bright laugh danced across the campsite.
"Well, that’s one thing you haven’t forgotten ... how much you like to eat."
The girl cast a teasing look at her companion, an impish grin answering the warrior’s smile. "How could I forget that?" the bard quipped. She wiggled her moistened fingers, then wiped her hands on a corner of the blanket under her.
The two friends enjoyed the lighthearted moment, then the bard’s eyes grew serious again.
"Xena," she began softly and the warrior focused her attention her. "If we’ve been together for the past three summers, where was I before that? And where were you?"
The warrior’s heart leapt. The moment she’d been dreading had finally come about. She lowered her eyes to her plate, then slowly placed the platter on the ground next to her.
Slowly she raised her eyes to meet the bard’s steady gaze, took a deep breath and swallowed against her own reluctance.
Gabrielle saw the fleeting panic cross the warrior’s face. She knew that the questions she’d posed had made the woman more and more uneasy, and she had a rising sense of regret at causing this distress. Yet she felt an abiding faith in this person’s honor and she knew the answers, and the cure for her confusion, lay in the hands of the leather-clad warrior. She knew she could trust this woman completely, even if she didn’t yet understand why.
Suddenly, a wave of panic traveled over the soft face and the girl gasped sharply. The little body recoiled as if it had been struck, the green eyes opened wide in shock. The warrior’s internal warnings sounded loudly. She reacted to the sharp impact she felt at the bard’s look of fear.
"Gabrielle, what is it?" the warrior asked nervously, reading the dread in the little blonde’s open face. She moved quickly to kneel beside the bard. "Let it out. Tell me what you’re thinking."
The bard blinked quickly several times, then turned to meet the concerned blue eyes. She took a shaky breath and tightly gripped the slender fingers laying on her arm.
"I just had a ... a flash of an image," she said haltingly. Her eyes darted fearfully over the bronze face. "I saw you ... in a coffin. Your face was very pale. You were ... you were dead." The chilling statement hung in the quiet of the clearing. The warrior’s blue eyes fell from the frightened green gaze.
"You died, didn’t you?" The strident tone in the bard’s voice drew the cobalt pools back to her face. "I saw you ... in your coffin, didn’t I?" The little form was trembling and the green eyes showed true, clear horror.
The warrior’s throat contracted tightly as she tried to calm the pounding in her chest.
"It’s a long story," she began, searching the frightened green eyes. "Gabrielle ... please let me ... just try to ...."
Unexpectedly, the bard’s expression grew calm, the panic slowly receding from the steady gaze. She took the slender fingers from where they hovered on her forearm and covered them with both hands. As the warrior watched, the young woman’s eyes traveled over her face, them swept slowly over her body. The combatant quietly endured the young woman’s scrutiny, despite the rising panic thumping in her chest.
"If you just ... read the scrolls...." the warrior said, her voice smooth. "Read your own words, Gabrielle. It’s all there."
The bard’s gaze traveled back to the blue crystals. She reached to gently touch the smooth skin of the bronze face. The green eyes softened as the girl recognized the remorse and regret in the warrior’s apprehensive expression. The small hand joined its mate, to again clasp the warrior’s long fingers.
"I’ll read them later," the bard said softly. "But right now, tell me about ... what I saw. It’s true, isn’t it? You died. I was there. You were hurt ... and you died. Isn’t that what happened?"
"Yes," Xena whispered, closing her eyes tightly against the despair she remembered across the young bard’s face when the warrior had been between the other side and reality. When she opened her eyes again, she saw the astonishment in the girl’s green eyes. The verdant pools seemed focused on a fleeting vision. Finally they met the blue of the warrior’s again.
"The Amazons," the girl said simply. "They helped us. And Autolycus." The green eyes searched the area, chasing the fleeting perceptions that floated through her consciousness. "We took you to the Hall of Ambrosia and ...." Suddenly the open face clouded, grew fearful, then flashed angry.
"Velaska," the girl said sharply. The warrior touched the girl’s shoulder, bringing the bard’s gaze back to her.
"Easy," the warrior crooned. "Go slow here, you’re going to get ...."
"And someone named ... Callisto," the bard sputtered, teeth clenched in disgust. "She and Velaska ...." The young face contorted in horror as the hateful images in her memory began to ravage her senses.
Xena took a firm hold on the slender arms. "Gabrielle!" she called sharply, shaking the girl abruptly. The girl’s attention snapped towards the warrior. For an instant, the warrior recognized the same level of rage and hate that had long ago controlled her own spirit. Then the young face cleared and the bard collapsed, panting and weak, against the armored chest of the warrior.
The tall woman held the girl tenderly, waiting patiently until the rasping breath quieted. Eventually she released the trembling body a little and leaned back to look directly into the frightened green gaze.
"Read the scrolls," Xena said deliberately. "They’re your own words."
A look of quandary crossed the bard’s flushed face. She tried to concentrate on the crystal pools. The girl took a deep breath and swallowed hard.
"The scrolls," the bard repeated blankly. She searched the warrior’s face and felt a safety and tranquillity in the steady blue eyes. The bard’s breathlessness dissipated and the pounding of her heart lessened.
"Right," she said softly. "I should read the scrolls."
Xena watched the bard try to regain control over the chaos raging in her mind. After a few moments, the green gaze drifted back up to meet the cobalt pools of the warrior. A little smile graced the young face.
"Don’t we have to ‘help someone’ today?" the bard asked, a trace of her normal jaunty humor coloring her remarks.
The warrior returned the simple grin. "They can just get along without us for a few days," the liquid voice said. "We can stay put right here," she told the girl. "Until you feel ... until you’re ready to go on."
Gabrielle took in a shaky breath. She nodded slowly, then gently disengaged herself from the warrior’s comforting embrace. She swallowed her fears and turned a determined glare toward the cloth satchel near the warrior’s right hip. Throwing a resolute glance at the tall woman, the girl pulled the bag into her own lap, tugging at the cords at the pouch’s neck, and chanting quietly, "Read the scrolls, Gabrielle. Read the scrolls."
Xena quietly withdrew from the blanket, stood and strode over to the mare standing patiently at the edge of the clearing. The warrior stroked the great steed’s sinewy neck as they both trained their attention toward the little bard on the blanket, intently examining the rolls of parchment. After a few moments, the mare whinnied quietly, rubbing her face against the warrior’s chest.
"She’s workin’ on it, Argo," the warrior whispered, running a hand over the animal’s long nose. "Let’s give her some time. OK?" The mare neighed in agreement.
Chapter Eight ~~~
Xena spent the next few hours brushing Argo, sharpening her sword and affecting minor repairs to various pieces of their equipment, while training a guarded eye toward the bard from time to time. She saw the little blonde’s expressions run the gamut of emotions as the young woman scanned scroll after scroll from the collection scattered around her on the blanket.
At one point the bard turned to find the warrior’s cautious gaze on her face. She met the concern in the blue pools with a tired smile, drawing one small hand across her eyes. The warrior paused in her activity to turn her attention toward the young woman’s dubious expression.
"You’re right," the little blonde said with a touch of uncertainty. "We ‘have’ had some interesting adventures."
The warrior smiled.
"Do you really know Hercules? And did we really meet Goliath?"
The slender warrior tried to keep her casual expression in place. "Yes, I know Hercules. And so do you. We’re all great friends."
The bard nodded, as she tried to absorb the rather extensive amount of information she’d found transcribed on the parchments. She rose and absently crossed to retrieve the waterskin from its place on a nearby low-hanging branch. As she uncorked the container and enjoyed the cool liquid inside, she absently studied the surrounding forest. She re-corked the skin, then turned abruptly to the warrior seated cross-legged under a small tree at the edge of the campsite.
"Xena, who’s Lila?"
The slender woman in leather reacted, surprised, to the bard’s unexpected question.
"She’s your sister, Gabrielle. She lives with your parents in ...."
"Poteidaia," the bard finished, an warm smile lighting her open face. The little blonde turned a triumphant gaze toward the woman across the campsite. "I remember Poteidaia," the bard said, her voice reflecting the slight awe she felt at the reinstatement of her own hazy recollection. She turned directly to the warrior.
"That’s my home village, isn’t it?"
The warrior swallowed quietly. "Yes, that’s where your family is."
A wave of apprehension swept over Xena. It clutched at her throat and raised the hair on the back of her neck. Suddenly, she felt a nagging uneasiness when she realized that the bard was slowly rebuilding the past in her mind. It brought another glaring fact to the front of the warrior’s awareness.
Sooner or later, the nature of her own past would realign itself in the bard’s memories as well. Would the girl’s perception of that history return their relationship back to its normal state? Or would the bard now become repulsed and disgusted at the violent, ruthless warlord her best friend had once been? A frightening anxiety gripped the warrior’s inner being. She had been so intent on restoring the bard’s inner tranquillity and confidence that all the possible ramifications of reviving that knowledge hadn’t fully occurred to her - until this moment.
Gabrielle’s focus slowly scanned the warrior’s tense expression and a soft smile warmed the open face. The little bard walked toward the leather-clad woman whose fear now registered clearly on her lovely face. The young woman gazed affectionately at her dark-haired friend.
"That’s where we met," the bard said softly. "You saved our village. You saved me ... and Lila ... you saved all of us. From ...." the green eyes darted about for an instant, then returned to the warrior’s blue gaze.
"From Draco and ... the slavers." The young face now smiled brightly at the concerned azure pools. The warrior let out the breath she realized she’d been holding for several seconds and swallowed back her own dread.
"That day in the glen outside Poteidaia. You ... you saved my life." The bard’s quiet statement sounded plainly in the small clearing.
"I .. I just," the warrior began, as usual feeling very unsettled by the bard’s blatant admiration at the past event. "I just ... ‘helped out’," she finished, feebly. "That’s what we do, remember? We ‘help people’."
Embarrassed, Xena thrust aside the leather bridle she’d been polishing, stood up and marched resolutely toward the collection of snares and traps piled near the saddlebags under the branch where the waterskin had hung. As she passed the little bard, the girl reached out to stop her progress. A dizziness passed through the warrior as she stared at the small hand resting on the leather gauntlet binding her left arm. With her heart pounding in her ears, Xena slowly raised her eyes to meet the green pools of the bard.
"According to what’s in the scrolls," the little bard said, "you do that regularly... save my life." The green eyes traveled gently over the blushing bronze face. In a very quiet voice, the warrior answered the girl’s grateful comment.
"You’re my best friend. How could I do any less?" The liquid voice wavered.
A single, unfettered tear traveled down the stoic, chiseled face. The bard gently brushed it away, then studied the self-conscious, flustered expression.
"I’m beginning to remember," the bard said, smiling softly. "It makes me feel safe."
The tightness in the warrior’s chest eased as she covered the little hand with her own.
Chapter Nine ~~~
Xena approached the campsite carrying the rabbit she’d retrieved from one of the snares. When she emerged from the foliage, she found herself standing entranced by the performance taking place in the middle of the clearing. She watched as the bard executed a series of proficient moves, manipulating her staff with perfect precision.
The girl spun the wand over one shoulder, reaching adroitly under her arm to recapture one end then flipped the weapon handily back across her body, striking mightily downward and away. Next she whipped the staff fiercely to one side, its course exactly level with the ground, then repeated the move in the opposite direction, slicing the baton sharply and meaningfully through the air.
Gabrielle tucked the staff neatly under one arm, swiveled her shoulders to one side, then briskly unseated the weapon and extended it sharply forward several times, keeping her weight balanced cleanly between her well-placed boots. She pivoted, changing the focus of her attack and completed a series of similar jabs, thrusting the wand from the mirroring position and direction.
Finally the bard pulled the staff across her waist, held it close to her body for a moment, then spun the rod around herself, using her hips as a centering fulcrum for the staff’s journey. When the circular trip ended, the little blonde caught the staff cleanly in both hands, then planted one end of the pole on the ground next to her boot and ran both hands along the wooden shaft in a familiar caress.
"Nicely done," the warrior said, striding toward the breathless young woman. "I see you’ve remembered your drills, too."
The bard turned toward the approaching warrior, her face flushed and perspiring. A glow of pride shone brightly in the green eyes and the girl returned the tall woman’s grin.
"It just felt right," the little blonde panted, turning to return the staff to its place next to the blankets. "I dunno. All of a sudden, I thought I’d just try it and ... well ... it all kinda came back to me."
She turned back to the warrior with a satisfied grin, her hands on her slender hips. "Is that something else I’m going to have to cook?" she asked, green eyes focused on the rabbit hanging in the warrior’s grip.
"Lunch," Xena announced, holding out the carcass proudly.
The little bard giggled as she accepted the carrion. "And I found some big, juicy apples, too." She turned toward the campfire, then noticed the slight frown across the warrior’s bronze face.
"What?" the bard asked, suddenly concerned at the woman’s fretful manner.
"I don’t think it’s a good idea to go off by yourself right now, Gabrielle. You’re not in your best - fighting form, at least not yet," the warrior said, softening the admonishment with a gentle smile. "I can see it’s coming along, but—" she began, referring to the bard’s skillful display with the staff. However, the intended compliment was soon dismissed by a very irritated little blonde.
"There you go again!" the girl said angrily, dropping the rabbit near the fire and turning an irked glare at the warrior’s surprised blue gaze. "You’re always trying to protect me, to keep me ‘out of harm’s way’. Well you can juck knock it off, OK?" The bard’s strident tone echoed across the quiet little glen. She faced the warrior angrily, hands on her hips, the soft chin jutting stubbornly.
The warrior’s jaw dropped so suddenly and so far that she had to blink hard and fast to regain her senses.
"Excuse me?" she stammered. "I can WHAT?" She faced the blonde squarely, mirroring the girl’s position, hands on her hips, boots wide apart.
The bard flounced away. "I said, you can just stop trying to prot—" The tirade was stopped mid-sentence by the girl’s astonished expression. She turned slowly toward the tall woman and saw the once angry frown now dissolve into a knowing, grateful grin. The little blonde brought one small hand to cover her open mouth as her green eyes grew wide and alarmed.
Xena’s smile grew wider as she faced her friend’s questioning stare.
"I guess reading the scrolls helped, huh?" the warrior said quietly. "Or have you started to remember more things on your own?"
A tiny smile began in the corner of the bard’s mouth, traveled to her eyes, then settled comfortably across the soft, open face. She took a tentative step toward her companion, then quickly crossed the distance between them. Without hesitating, the little blonde wrapped her arms around Xena’s slender waist and the warrior instinctively returned the hug, holding the little bard close. The two held the embrace for a moment, then the bard drew back to gaze into the blue eyes of her best friend.
"I’m still only getting snatches of things - little, unexpected bursts." The girl laughed softly. "Sometimes they’re in my head before I know it." She put one small hand on the muscled arm at her waist. "I’m sorry, I didn’t mean --"
"I know you didn’t," the warrior said, smiling down at the little blonde warmly. "Don’t worry about it. This has to be very hard for you." She put a gentle hand on the bard’s slim shoulder. "But you’re right ... about my trying to protect you. It’s something I just ... do."
"I know," the girl answered, a catch in her voice. "I’m very lucky," she said to the gentle blue eyes. "You’re a very good friend." The little blonde swallowed hard, the tears in her eyes brimming high almost before she could control them. As she blinked hard, one large droplet left the confinement of the long lashes and traveled slowly down her soft cheek. Xena’s heart caught at the sight of her friend’s renewed panic as she reached to brush the tear away.
Abruptly Gabrielle stepped back from the warrior’s tender embrace, wiped her face and turned purposefully back to the carcass on the ground near the fire. Xena held her position, fighting her impulse to offer renewed support to her best friend.
"If I don’t get started with lunch, we’ll end up having this rabbit for supper," the bard said, striving hard to keep the new dread she felt out of her voice. She knelt and began to add some kindling to the smoldering fire. The warrior waited several moments, then crossed the campsite and bent to retrieve the snares she’d dropped upon returning with the rabbit.
"The apples are over there," the bard said over her shoulder. "I washed them and set them out on that big rock." The girl’s tone was impersonal, almost brusque.
Xena gulped instinctively as she felt a new uncertainty clutch at her throat. She could sense a troubling stiffness in the bard’s manner towards her. Something had suddenly disrupted the girl’s trust of her; there were still some unanswered questions in the girl’s mind and the warrior felt a numbing dread seeping into her spirit at what results the answers to those questions might produce.
As she picked up the snares and walked to repack them in the saddlebags where they normally resided, Xena battled the effects of her worst fears; Gabrielle’s restored memory had finally reconstructed the one set of facts the warrior had hoped she’d never remember. But this time, they were too vile for the girl to accept.
Chapter Ten ~~~
The warrior moved the food around on the earthen plate, her stomach much too unsettled to even think of bringing the pieces of meat to her mouth. Twice she raised her eyes to focus on the young blonde across from her on the blanket, but both times found herself lowering her focus back to the plate quivering unsteadily in her hands. Finally, she thrust the platter away and dropped it somewhat roughly on the ground beside her. She sat forward abruptly, drawing one slender hand nervously across her forehead. The deep blue eyes closed tightly for a moment, then traveled slowly across the campsite to rest on the green eyes now focused on her face.
Gabrielle raised a questioning eye at the tenseness she saw in the warrior’s manner. She watched as the woman rubbed her forehead briskly, as if to disburse an annoying ache or clear some unsettling thoughts. The bard swallowed the food in her mouth, lifted the waterskin and took several slow mouthfuls before turning again to the crystal blue stare. For a long moment, both women studied the face across from her.
"Xena ..." the bard began.
"Look, Gabrielle ..." the warrior said at the same instant. She stopped when she heard the bard’s lilting laugh and saw the girl’s gentle smile.
"Go ‘head," Xena said, almost welcoming the chance to finally end the foreboding dread she’d felt in her chest since the beginning of the meal. "I know you have more questions about what’s in the scrolls."
The bard waited quietly, her eyes still steady on the warrior’s piercing blue gaze.
"Let’s have them," Xena said, her heart pounding uncomfortably against her leather bodice.
Gabrielle put the waterskin and the plate back on the ground, then spent several moments studying her own laced fingers. She took a deep breath and looked back up at the warrior.
"Well, let’s see," the girl began softly. "I’ve read about how you and Hercules freed Prometheus, and how you rescued Hades’ sister, Death, from King Sisyphus. I read how you saved Helen and helped stop ten years of war at Troy, how you kept a man from killing his own son because his other son had been drugging him, even though I almost ruined that plot by getting looped on some pretty spicy nutbread myself." The bard’s crooked smile did not dispel the warrior’s tightly strung nerves.
"And, I read how you literally brought me back to life after I’d been injured in the war between the Thessalians and the Mitoans, just minutes after you’d delivered Ephiny’s baby and made me an aunt. And by the way, we really have to talk about the first time we visited the Amazon village because the way I read it, I’m an Amazon princess?? You have to explain that one to me again. I can’t believe I ..."
"Gabrielle," the warrior said sharply and the bard’s animated chatter ended in an instant. The little blonde waited quietly, her eyes still trained on the tense woman before her who was making a concerted effort to keep her own panic under control.
"Do you remember any of those ... events, or were you just reading them for your ... entertainment?" Xena’s clenched fists rested nervously on her own knees. The bard could see the rippling movement under the warrior’s smooth cheek as she took a short breath and leaned closer to her leather-clad companion. Looking deep into the blue eyes staring back at her, the bard spoke clearly and with heartfelt emotion.
"As I’ve been reading, I’ve been remembering more and more."
The warrior’s heart plummeted and she tried hard to keep her breathing steady.
"I remember that my best friend has saved my life more times than I can count, that you’ve risked your own life time and again, not just for me, but for all kinds of people in all manner of situations," the bard continued, her tone steady and calm. The blonde head tilted slightly to recapture the warrior’s averted gaze.
"I know you have a son, a child you placed in safe-keeping with the centaurs for his own safety, to protect him from the many who would try to hurt him to hurt you."
The warrior gulped against the tightness threatening to close off her throat. She took a slow, shaky breath and lowered her eyes to her own fists.
"I also remember that, even when you had the chance to reclaim him and satisfy your own heart, you chose instead to leave him again, safe with the only family he’s ever known to keep him from being hurt and keep him from knowing the truth about what an extraordinary woman his mother is."
The warrior’s eyes closed tightly and she lowered her head, taking slow, agonizing breaths.
"You’ve taught me to defend myself, taught me to trust my instincts and not be afraid to follow my own heart. You’ve taught me more about myself and about the world we encounter every day than I could ever, ever transcribe on these scrolls," the girl said, lightly touching the parchments still closeted in the cloth satchel. "But you’ve also taught me that what is right is more important than who may be stronger, that the weak and helpless deserve the benefit of your ‘many skills’," the girl smiled softly again.
"You are Xena, Warrior Princess, a title you hate but one that I think truly suits you." The bard paused briefly, taking a short breath to calm her own nervousness.
"I know you have a violent, ugly, bloodthirsty past that even now haunts you and tortures you, punishing you with shame and remorse. I’m still not clear about exactly what - or perhaps who - hurt you so badly that your life became filled with such rage and hate. I know the guilt about your past took you to Tartarus, nearly breaking my heart, but you came back because you knew I would be lost and devastated without you."
The warrior’s blue eyes rose slowly to meet the bard’s again.
"But I know it made you stronger, and I don’t just mean physically, and more courageous, more skillful and more compassionate, and that you are the most honorable person I have ever known.
The warrior swallowed hard, her jaws closed tightly together to stem the choking pain that threatened her very being.
"We’re ... family. We’re the best kind of friends. We have faith in each other, we are a part of each other, we guard each other’s ... spirit, each other’s ... souls. Xena, we love each other. And our hearts have become melded together in a most beautiful, magnificent trust."
The tears that had filled the warrior’s blue eyes slowly washed over the satin cheeks. She felt her mouth open as she tried in vain to form the words she longed to voice to answer the bard’s profound statements. But the wracking pressure in her chest would only allow her to gaze in awe at the small blonde’s earnest face. She gulped hard and raised slender, tanned hands to cover her smooth, bronze face.
The little bard moved quietly across the campsite and knelt to enfold the sobbing warrior in her arms. She held the woman tenderly, rocking the shuddering body gently and stroking the long, raven hair. After several long minutes, the warrior’s sobbing ended slowly and Gabrielle opened her arms to gaze lovingly at the tear-covered face. She smoothed away a strand of the dark hair, then took the warrior’s hands in her own.
"Hey, I don’t ever remember you losing it like that," the little blonde quipped quietly, her gentle open smile bringing a small, barely-noticeable laugh from the warrior. "Are you all right?"
Xena wiped her wet face with one slim palm, then recaptured the little hands clasping her other hand. After several tries, she managed to whisper, "I think so. Sorry to be so ...." The subtle grin on the bard’s face silenced the warrior’s apology.
"So what?" the little bard said softly. "So human?" The warrior blinked hard to stem another wave of tears. "You’re entitled. OK?"
Gabrielle gave the warrior another little hug, then dropped down to sit on the ground beside her friend. Stroking the tall woman’s back soothingly, she craned her head down to meet the blue eyes again. The girl pulled the waterskin across her lap and offered it to the trembling warrior. Xena took the skin, wiped her face with the back of her hand and raised the skin to her lips. After swallowing a big gulp of the cool water, she lowered the skin and turned to the girl beside her. She smiled back at the open face and wrapped a slender arm around the bard’s shoulders.
"How about you?" the warrior said to the soft green gaze. "Are you OK now, too?"
The bard’s smile faded slightly and she pulled her gaze away from the clear blue eyes meeting hers.
"What is it?" Xena asked softly, her stomach tightening quickly again. "You still have ... questions?"
Gabrielle pulled her hand from the warrior’s back and clasped both small hands in her lap. She leaned forward, her body suddenly tense and nervous again. Xena waited several moments, watching the girl’s face carefully. A degree of dread was slowly returning to the warrior’s consciousness. There was an unnerving expression now in residence across the bard’s gentle face and it was setting off warnings in the warrior’s senses. She took a deep breath and plunged into the fray.
"Gabrielle, what are you unclear about?" The bard raised her gaze to meet the questioning blue eyes, studied the azure pools for a moment, then pulled away to focus on her fingers now tracing non-existent patterns along the laces of her boots.
Finally Xena put a gentle hand on the girl’s soft chin. Slowly, carefully, she turned the bard’s face toward hers. She saw the uncertainty in the green gaze and felt the pounding in her chest resume.
"What else is scaring you?" the warrior asked softly, her own dread returning full force even as she heard her own words sounding in the clearing.
The bard swallowed quickly, moistened her lips with her tongue, then took the calloused hand under her chin and clasped it warmly in both of her own. She took a breath and, keeping her eyes focused steadily on the intense blue gaze, quietly posed the one question she somehow knew would cause the warrior the most pain.
Gabrielle saw the visible quake that shook the warrior’s muscled form at the sound of the uttered name. She felt the hand she held stiffen in a primal reaction and saw the warrior’s breathing quicken, then settle into an icy calm. The warrior looked down at the small hands clasping hers, then back up at the gentle face of her best friend.
"Callisto is a name ... a person ... out of my past ... the darkest, most violent part of it." The warrior’s quiet voice silenced every other random noise in the clearing and the forest surrounding it.
"Callisto is the reason I ... went to Tartarus ... to pay for what I had become and to answer for my ... sins. That’s when you saw me ... die."
The bard’s focus remained locked on the troubled blue eyes. She watched a painful remorse travel over the chiseled face while the warrior’s eyes seemed trained on a distant, anguished memory. The woman’s words came slowly, arduously, each thought the expression of an excruciating vision in her mind’s eye.
"A long time ago, when I was a ... when fighting and conquering were all I knew or even cared about, my army destroyed her home village and killed her mother and sister." The leather-clad woman blinked hard, drew in a shaky breath and continued her torturous narrative.
"The village was called Cirra and my army and I left it ... " the warrior gulped convulsively, " ...completely devastated, totally ruined, and only a few people from there survived the attack, Callisto among them."
The clouded blue eyes dropped to meet the green eyes of the bard. There, as always, they saw no recrimination, no judgment, no reproach. Only an understanding, empathetic sorrow glowed in the shining gaze, twin pools of comfort, of sanctuary, of safe harbor. The warrior’s chest tightened at the unqualified affection she recognized there. She felt the small hands around her own press together gently.
"Two summers ago, I found out ... we found out .. that Callisto had formed her own army and was destroying villages and towns almost at will, telling people that she was me and that the devastation was my doing and that I was responsible."
Xena looked away, unwilling to meet the bard’s honest glance.
"In a way, I felt I was responsible. If my army hadn’t destroyed her village so many years ago, she would never have ...." The warrior’s voice caught tightly. "She wouldn’t have been so ...."
The bard laid a gentle hand on the warrior’s lean arm. A calmness overtook the trembling bronze form and she covered the small hand with her own.
"That summer, she took you hostage and I had to ... come get you ...." the warrior’s said, glancing at the soft face, her lovely face lighting in a tiny grin. The bard smiled back. "Anyway, she was brought to justice and was put in prison to pay for her ... crimes." The warrior looked back down to the two small hands still holding onto her own tight fist.
"Then she escaped from prison and ... she came ... after us again and she ...."
The warrior’s attention was quickly pulled to the look of terror and pain that had overtaken the bard’s face. The green eyes now blazed wide and fearful as the small body trembled in horror. Xena pulled the little form into her arms, holding the bard close against her chest as the little blonde gasped in panic and unbridled fright.
"I’m sorry," the warrior crooned. "I’m sorry, Gabrielle. I’m so sorry." Xena stroked the blonde head and wrapped her arms around the whimpering bard’s quaking form. The warrior held on tightly, waiting patiently until she felt the violent quivering slowly leave the bard’s body. Finally the girl snuggled tightly against the warrior, her breathing slowly quieting, the shallow, fragile sounds ending.
"I’m sorry, Gabrielle," the warrior said contritely to the blonde head still tucked against her shoulder. "I should have prepared you for that." She gently kissed the soft hair. "I thought you ... no, I didn’t think. I’m sorry."
The bard relaxed and sat back to meet the warrior’s eyes. After a moment, the girl spoke.
"I keep seeing this ... this maniacal face. The eyes are empty, like pieces of coal. She just laughs at me ... more like a scream. But it all happens in an instant, you know?" The bard turned confused eyes to the ground, then back to the warrior.
"What’s really crazy is, sometimes it’s that ... insane face, but she moves and talks like ... like you! It’s so ... scary and ... strange. It’s just for a split second, then it’s gone again." The warrior smoothed a lock of the golden hair and waited for the girl to continue. After a moment, the bard looked back to the clear blue eyes again.
"I saw the name in one of the scrolls, but there was nothing about it that ... made sense. What does it mean, Xena? Who is this ... person?"
Xena took the slim shoulders in her hands. "Don’t dwell on it right now," she told the frightened bard. "When you’re ready, it’ll come back to you. But not right now."
The green eyes began to clear, the tenseness in the little body slowly receded. The girl studied the blue eyes so close to her own. She felt a calmness travel between herself and the warrior, the same security she had felt so many times before. The little bard gulped hard and nodded slowly.
"OK. OK," she chanted. She let the warrior gather her close again, then gently pulled back from the comforting embrace. After a moment, the little blonde let out a shaky breath. She turned to scan the campsite, her focus settling on the plates of food they had both set aside earlier.
"Well, I guess I should clean these up, huh?" she said, rising and crossing back to her own blanket. She picked up the plate from the bedroll, then reached to retrieve the one that held the warrior’s still-uneaten lunch. "I’ll take them to the stream and be back in a minute."
Xena watched the little bard’s progress as she crossed the campsite. The warrior knew her best friend was still not completely ‘back’; there were still memories not restored in the girl’s mind. She recognized the activity as a ploy to find a certain comfort in ordinary chores. The warrior sat back and let the bard go about the contrived business, willing to let the girl use the routine to calm her own anxiety.
‘I wish I could spare you the pain, my dearest friend,’ the warrior thought sadly. ‘But the only way back for you is through this.’ Xena closed her eyes and tried to steady her own fear. ‘I just hope it doesn’t destroy what is ‘us’ in the process.’
Chapter Eleven ~~~
As Gabrielle gathered their food gear in preparation for the trip to the nearby stream, Xena came to a totally uncharacteristic conclusion; she decided a little ordinary fun was in order. The lean warrior unfolded her long, slender legs, stood up and strode in a leisurely fashion to stand next to the little bard. She relieved the little blonde of a few of the articles which the girl was loading into her arms.
"Tell you what," the warrior said, a childlike grin creasing the sculpted face. "Let’s both go down to the stream. It’s a perfect day for a swim."
The little bard’s face brightened immediately. She grinned at the tall woman, her green eyes flashing in anticipation.
"Really?" the girl said, her tone much like that of a child who’s been given a surprise holiday.
"Sure," the warrior answered. "We’ll take Argo too. She can get a long, cool drink."
The mare whinnied at the sound of her name and bobbed her head up and down.
The little bard’s giggle brought a warm glow to the warrior’s heart. "C’mon," Xena said, reaching to gather their blankets from the ground. "A nice swim will do us both good. You game?"
Watching as the bard happily gathered up the rest of the utensils, the warrior moved to the saddlebags hanging from a nearby tree limb. While the girl spread the coals in the stone-rimmed fire site, rendering them safely inactive, Xena pulled out their bathing cloths and a clean shift for each of them.Without announcing her actions, the slender warrior slid her sword out of its sheath and buried it quietly in the bundle of cloth. ‘You never know’ she thought. When both women were ready, they walked toward the sparkling water.
Within minutes of arriving at the bank of the stream, the eating equipment had been cleaned, rinsed and laid out on the sun-bathed rocks along the side of the steam. As she placed the last of the earthen plates flat on the hot, stony surface, Gabrielle watched as the warrior promptly dropped to the ground and began pulling off her leather boots, followed quickly by the shiny chakram and finally, the leather gauntlets and arm bands.
While the little bard giggled quietly, the warrior reached behind herself to attend to the lacings at the back of her leather bodice. Instantly the young blonde woman knelt and replaced the long, slender fingers with her own.
"Here, let me," the bard said, not realizing that here was yet another activity which had returned unfettered to her memory. She pulled expertly at the leather ties, loosening them enough so that the warrior could pull the garment up and over her shoulders. Just as the slender face began to disappear under the brown piece, the blue eyes popped out again.
"Get a move on, girl," she said tossing the smaller shift at the bard’s delighted face. "You don’t wanna swim in your clothes, do you?" The warrior pulled the bodice up over her head, then removed the leather skirt from her hips. When she was clad only in the white linen shift, she stood and turned to check the little bard’s progress.
The little bard squealed and sat down on the ground to pull off her boots. In a few brisk moves, the girl had removed her Amazon skirt and green top and donned the short white shift. She rose to stand next to the sleek warrior at the side of the gently lapping water. The warrior pulled her long mass of hair into a bundle, secured the knot at the back of her head with a silver hair buckle and stood poised, ready to enter the clear, calm water.
Suddenly, the little bard trained a quizzical expression at her companion.
"Xena?" she asked cautiously as the warrior turned to meet her gaze. "Do I know how to swim?"
A playfully, fiendish grin slid over the warrior’s bronze face. The blue eyes twinkled as the slender body advanced slowly toward the retreating bard.
"Only one way to find out ... ready?"
The bard’s delighted shriek sent dozing birds flapping angrily away from nearby branches. In one fluid movement, the warrior picked up the slim form and launched it into the air. Before the little body had broken the water’s surface, the warrior dove into the stream, her sleek, bronze body streaking below the plane of the water and reappearing at the precise spot of the bard’s impact. The dark head thrust through the current and, as the warrior blinked away the moisture from her eyes, she scanned for the bard’s blonde head, spinning in a tight circle surveying the sparkling surface for a sign of the young woman.
"Ok, little one," the warrior muttered softly. "C’mon surprise me. I’m ready for you."
Xena turned around again, sweeping her long arms about beneath the water, expecting to find a slim, outstretched arm about to encircle one of her legs. After a few moments, the warrior’s lightheartedness began to dissolve slightly.
"Oh, gods," the warrior said. "Surely she hasn’t forgotten how to ...."
At that instant, a petite, shapely, well-muscled form shot out of the water and landed squarely on the warrior’s solid back. The force of the impact drove her forward, her normally perfect balance having been thoroughly thwarted by the small, determined form.
As Xena struggled to regain her posture, the bard wrapped her arms around the warrior’s neck from behind and tried hard to push the muscled shoulders under the water. The struggle lasted only a moment as the warrior easily pried the slender arms loose, pivoted around to face the laughing bard, and, with her strong hands positioned around the girl’s slim waist, lifted the little form up and out of the pool, then again propelled it again high above the surface.
The boisterous squeal accompanied by the resounding splash caused the great, golden mare to lift her head from the small pool of water that had formed in the rocks at the side of the stream. She glared disdainfully at her human companions and admonished their undignified behavior with a loud, raucous laugh of her own.
The blonde head reappeared instantly and the warrior reached to capture one small hand. The clear look of pleasure and contentment on the little bard’s face brought a wide smile to the tall woman’s lips as well.
As she smoothed back her wet hair from her eyes, the little bard poked one finger into her ear, then shook her head vigorously to one side. When repeating the procedure twice only resulted in a furious look of irritation, the warrior moved closer to the slim form. She put her hands loosely on the bard’s waist and turned the girl around to face the bank of the stream.
"Here, let me try," she said, placing one hand flat against the bard’s pink ear and the other
just above the ear on the other side. She gently bent the girl’s head to one side and pressed firmly against the soft cartilage in the middle of the orifice. After a moment, the water that had been trapped inside the canal trickled down over the girl’s earlobe, relieving the slight discomfort.
Gabrielle giggled as the warm water inside her ear left its momentary hiding place. The bard turned to the warrior, puzzled at the slightly surprised look that had settled on the sculpted face as the blue eyes peered oddly at her ear.
"What?" she queried to the quizzical glance.
"I’m not sure," the warrior said, her brow furrowed even more. She took the girl’s shoulders again and turned the little body slightly away from her. Slowly, she lowered her face until she had pressed one eye tightly against the bard’s small ear. "Oh, wow, look at that!" the warrior marveled, one hand manipulating the bard’s soft chin.
"What?" the bard asked again now even more curiours.
"I can see ... Argo," the warrior quipped, "and trees ... ," the smooth voice continued. The warrior held out her other hand, the palm directly outside the bard’s other ear. "Hey!" the deep voice boomed. "I can see my other ...."
"Oh, YOU!" the bard shrieked, playfully elbowing the warrior’s stomach. The two friends laughed together, then the girl pushed away from the muscled form and leaned back into the soft, cool water. Just as the warrior leaned forward to stretch out and enjoy a leisurely swim, two handfuls of water cascaded across the pool’s surface, much of it landing in the warrior’s open mouth. She waited until the onslaught had ended, blinked the remaining droplets from her long, dark lashes and leveled a menacing glare at the smirking bard. When the girl got a closer look at the warrior’s face, she began propelling herself backwards, away from the advancing threat.
"Oh, boy," the bard murmured. "I think I’m in trouble." She turned and began swimming away as fast as she could, but the warrior’s superior strength, and much longer arms, made it a very short race. Within a few minutes, the bard’s wet face was again breaking the plane of the gentle pool, and the warrior was again wrapping a strong arm around the slender waist to support the small, sputtering figure.
* * * * *
The two friends relaxed on the warm, flat rocks at the side of the stream. Their linen shifts were nearly dry after the time spent in the sun and damp heads of hair, one blonde, one blue-black, were approaching the same state.
The little bard sat up and leaned back, supporting her weight on her arms. She turned to the long, slender form laying a few feet away, watching the warrior’s strong, sleek back rising and falling rhymically. The bard returned her attention to the calm, gentle stream. After a moment, the girl curled her short, sinewy legs in front of her and sat forward, intently studying the random journey of a large, white butterfly. She smiled as the insect landed on her open palm, then fluttered quickly away.
When she turned again to the prone warrior, she found the woman’s clear blue eyes on her face and a wide smile trained in her direction. Xena shifted her position to lean on her side facing the bard, one hand supporting her head, the other stretched lightly along her hip.
She let her eyes travel over the little blonde’s flushed face, searching hopefully for a new level of calm in the green eyes.
Gabrielle stretched out her slender legs, then flopped down on her back on the warm, flat rock. After gazing at the sky for a moment, she turned to the warrior still studying her face.
"This was fun," she said to the warrior’s smile. She looked up at the sky again. "’Course you almost drowned me ... twice." The bard met the amused blue eyes. "One of these days ... I’ll get you. You’ll see," the little blonde warned the reclining form at her side.
She turned again to the warrior’s smug grin. "Anytime, little one. Anytime." The warrior rolled over on her back and laced her fingers behind her head. The two women lay quiet for several minutes. Then the warrior swung her gaze back toward the bard again. She lifted her head to focus more directly on the bard’s slender shoulders, her expression soon clouding when she noticed the very noticeable bright, reddish tinge to the girl’s soft skin.
"Uh-oh," the warrior said. "You’re getting scorched, my friend." Gabrielle craned her chin over her shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of the redness the warrior had mentioned. She put a tentative hand on the warm skin and grimaced at the slight tenderness she found.
"Yup," the warrior announced. "Scorched." The tall woman rose gracefully from her position and held out a hand to the little bard. "C’mon, I’ve got some salve back at camp that will take the sting out."
The girl took the hand and stood up. The women gathered up their clothes and the various utensils laid out on the rocks and started back toward the campsite. When she noticed her two-legged companions were leaving, the great horse turned to follow.
Chapter Twelve ~~~
The warrior sat in the middle of the bedrolls, her long legs stretched out before her, straddling the bard’s compact body. The girl sat cross-legged between the warrior’s knees as the tall woman gently applied the soothing salve across the bright pink skin of the little blonde’s back. The woman’s long slender fingers rubbed the ointment deftly, careful not to irritate the tender, sunburned skin across the girl’s shoulders. She paused to sweep the long blonde hair out of the way, gathering the soft locks in one hand and draping them against the bard’s slender neck.
"Here, hold this," the warrior said as the little bard reached to accept the bundle of hair.
"I don’t think your hair needs this salve."
A small laugh sounded from the bard as the girl twisted her reddish-blonde tresses slowly around her finger. She winced slightly when Xena’s application found a particularly singed spot.
"Sorry," the warrior said, grimacing in sympathy.
"It’s OK," the little bard answered. "I should know better. I always forget."
The warrior groaned at the girl’s unintentional joke, then the girl giggled quietly at her own comment. A few quiet minutes passed in the little clearing. The warrior gently tapped the back of the girl’s head and she lowered her chin to further expose the tender section at the back of her neck. When the warrior’s fingers returned to her back, the bard raised her chin again.
Finally the young bard’s quiet voice broke the silence. "Xena, why do you think this happened?"
The slender warrior paused in her application of the warm balm for a moment, considered the question, then replied.
"Well, how about, you have very fair skin, and we were in the sun, near the water ...."
The little bard giggled and twisted her face around to address the droll comment.
"I’m not talking about the sunburn." She turned her shoulders slightly to meet the warrior’s subtle grin and slapped lightly at the knee beside her hip.
"What ‘are’ you talking about?" the warrior asked after another moment, although she already had a good idea what the bard’s question referred to.
The little blonde tapped her forehead with one finger. "This!" she said, a touch of exasperation in her voice. "This - lost memory thing?" Gabrielle let out a small sigh.
"Why would I suddenly not be able to remember ... us and all the ‘adventures’ we’ve had? Or even, my own family, and Potidaea?"
"Well, you had a very frightening experience, being thrown off the side of a mountain ...."
The bard’s chin turned slightly toward the warrior.
"But, I’ve been frightened before. Lots of things have happened to us that were ... as scary or ... scarier ... than what happened yesterday."
Xena stopped rubbing and she rested her hands on the bard’s shoulders. After a moment she gently pulled the girl closer to her and wrapped her arms around the slender
body. She rested her chin on the blonde head and held the girl close for a moment.
"Well, for you, I think being that high up might have had alot to do with it. You were literally ‘scared out of your wits’." The girl turned toward her friend again and the warrior read the question in the soft face. "You hate being ‘high up’," she told the young woman. "You don’t even like to ride Argo because you always say ‘she’s too high’."
The girl’s green gaze met the warrior’s blue pools. A tiny smile played at the corners of the bard’s mouth. "Really?" She glanced across the campsite at the great, golden horse. Argo’s disgruntled guffaw brought a laugh from both women. After another moment, Gabrielle craned her head around to meet the blue eyes of her friend. She studied the cobalt reservoirs for a moment, then leaned back against the warrior’s strong frame again. The girl put both her hands on the warm, strong arms wrapped under her chin.
"Will I ever remember again, do you think?" she asked quietly, her tone reflecting the fear still in residence in her chest.
"I don’t know, Gabrielle," the warrior said softly. "I hope you will. But, you’re the only one who can make it happen." She tightened her hug when she felt the little body shudder slightly.
"My grandmother used to say that memories are the guardians of the spirit," the warrior’s liquid voice said into the bard’s ear. "She always told me that our memories keep our hearts from losing faith."
The bard turned in the warrior’s embrace. "You never talked about your grandmother before," she said to the warrior’s quiet expression.
The remark triggered a knowing look from the warrior. "Haven’t I? Maybe I have and you just don’t ...."
"No," the little bard said, her tone decisive. "I know I would’ve remembered that."
The two friends smiled at each other, then the warrior released the young woman and nimbly swung her legs up and away from the girl’s body. She wiped her hands on the piece of cloth she’d brought to the blanket for that purpose, calmly aware that the bard’s gaze was still fastened on her face. As she cleared the balm from between her fingers, she fought against her own reluctance to continue the discussion of this subject.
"Sometimes, our memories are our own downfall. Some memories are best left forgotten."
The little bard kept her attention on the warrior’s serious face. After a moment, she put one small hand on the tall woman’s shoulder. Xena raised her eyes to meet the bard’s gaze.
"Like your memories of your life as a warlord?" the girl asked quietly. "And Lyceus?"
The warrior’s face showed her surprise. Her throat constricted for an instant as she raised a questioning eyebrow.
"I told you ... I’m still getting little glimpses of things, short pieces of ... conversations and thoughts." The little bard pulled her hand back to her own lap. She swallowed nervously.
"Today, when we were laying in the sun, I remembered the things you’ve told me about ... the time before ... we became friends."
The warrior’s blue eyes were locked on the bard’s gentle face.
"You must have been in a lot of pain back then," the girl said softly. "I’m sorry you had to go through that without me."
Xena sat transfixed by the vision of her lovely friend. It had always been Gabrielle’s decency and gentle, open heart that had remained her most significant trait, in the warrior’s mind. It had been the most compelling aspect of their friendship from the first moment they had met. Even when the girl had first learned of the heinous, inhumane nature of the warrior’s past, there had only been compassion and sweet tolerance in the bard’s generous, benevolent heart.
"Well, I’m grateful you’re here with me now," the warrior said.
Xena laid a gentle finger against the bard’s soft cheek. The bard smiled. Then a slight shiver traveled across the little frame. The warrior pulled herself out of her reverie and leaned to one side, pulling the blanket from beneath her. She wrapped the covering around the young woman and brusquely massaged the girl’s arms to generate some warmth.
Gabrielle’s eyes reflected the fatigue that still plagued her. The ardent struggle of the past day and a half were beginning to overcome the normal resilience of the girl’s nature. She ran a weary hand across her eyes and looked apologetically at the warrior.
"That swim really wore you out, huh?" Xena quipped, maneuvering the little bard into a prone position on the other blanket. "Take a nap. I’ll go catch us some fish for dinner, OK?"
The little bard snuggled lower into the blanket wrapped around her and, resting her head on the rolled blanket the warrior had pushed under her head, took a deep, steady breath and closed her eyes tiredly.
"Well, maybe just a little one," the girl murmured. "I expect to see some chubby fish on the spit when I wake up." The warrior stroked the blonde head and watched, almost relieved, as the girl seemed to fall instantly asleep.
When Xena returned to the campsite half an hour later, the bard was still curled up under the blanket, her blonde hair falling lightly across the blanket pillow. The warrior spent a few moments gazing down at the sleeping form, then turned back to the fire’s stone-rimmed site and began to stack the dry kindling in the center of the circle. She was so intent on her task, and her thoughts so fixed on the distress of her sleeping friend, that another unusual event occurred in the quiet clearing; the warrior was unaware that, not only had the bard awakened behind her, but the girl was advancing toward her, a ragged, incensed scowl on her young face.
As it happened, the bard’s bare foot settled onto a small twig, snapping the stem loudly and thus garnering the warrior’s attention. The tall woman swiveled in the direction of the sound, turning just in time to see the livid bard, her body quivering in rage, her fists tightly clenched at her sides, striding stiffly towards her. The hostile glare that contorted the young woman’s face took the slender warrior completely by surprise.
"Gabrielle?" Xena said, unnerved by the bard’s antagonistic stance. "What it is? What’s wrong?"
The bard stopped abruptly and glared enraged at the woman kneeling by the fire. She took one more tense stride toward the warrior, then quickly closed the distance between them.
"You killed him!" the bard spat out, flinging her open hand directly at the warrior’s face.
Xena’s reacted, instantly as usual. She rose halfway up from her crouched position and put out both hands to fend off the girl’s attack. But Gabrielle’s fury produced an accelerated quickness. When the warrior’s grip stopped one hand, the girl lashed out with the other and the second attempt caught the side of the warrior’s face full and hard.
Xena recoiled, fighting her own impulses and striving desperately to subdue the furious bard without retaliating against the girl’s rage. Gabrielle wrenched her arm away from the warrior’s grip and leveled a stinging slap to the warrior’s other jaw.
"YOU KILLED HIM!" the bard screamed at the astonished warrior. The girl raised both fists for another blow and flung her whole body weight toward the woman trying desperately to avoid her assault.
"You killed Perdicus! YOU KILLED MY HUSBAND!" Gabrielle shrieked, her voice shrill and hysterical. She tried again to pummel the warrior, hysteria filling her a frenzied passion.
Xena finally managed to get to her full height and, still trying heartily to avoid the bard’s furious blows, grabbed the girl’s wrists roughly, spun the little form around and wrapped her arms firmly across the little blonde’s thrashing body. Stoically ignoring the sharp kicks the bard delivered against her shins, the warrior held on tightly until she felt the bard eventually surrender to her restrained position.
Several moments passed, with the bard trapped within the warrior’s strong grip, as Xena was forced to exert all her strength to combat the bard’s continued attempts to free herself.
Finally, at an infinitesimal rate, the little body began to relax as her rage eventually appeared to drain away. Xena slowly loosened her hold on the trembling bard, keeping alert for any signs of a return to the manic behavior that had consumed the little form moments before.
Gabrielle was panting, her face white and clammy, her chest heaving, her throat parched and dry from the screams she’d flung at the warrior. The bard gulped several times and seemed to regain a sense of reality, emerging numbly from her violent state. Suddenly the warrior noticed a dramatic weakness invade the small body in her arms as the girl crumpled against her. She bent and swept the bard off her feet, then carried the limp girl toward the large, fallen tree limb beside the ringed campfire.
Xena sat down on the log, lowering the shuddering girl onto her lap. Gabrielle’s tear-streaked face stared blankly as the girl fought hard to regain her senses. A long silence invaded the clearing as the warrior watched the bard’s breathlessness gradually subside. Slowly, almost painfully, the bard brought her gaze to meet the warrior’s crystal blue gaze. She studied the bronze face as though seeing it for the first time in her life. The girl gulped again and blinked several times, her gaze locked on the smooth face inches from hers.
"No," the bard whispered hoarsely after what seemed a very long time. "You didn’t kill Perdicus." The warrior let out a faint sigh as she recognized the source of the bard’s manic behavior. The little blonde moistened her parched lips. She opened her white-knuckled fists and took a very, deep breath. The green eyes focused vacantly on the nearby forest for a moment, then returned to the warrior’s azure gaze.
"Callisto killed Perdicus," the bard said slowly. "And she tried to kill me. Because she knew that would hurt you. But she killed Perdicus instead." The emerald gaze searched the warrior’s. "That’s what happened, isn’t it?"
Xena met girl’s the piercing gaze calmly. "Yes," she said quietly. "That’s what happened." The warrior’s body relaxed as she gently brushed the tousled blonde hair away from the bard’s flushed face while the girl sat stunned on her lap. She rested her free hand against the damp shift clinging to the bard’s perspiring back. The green eyes drifted away from hers to again focus numbly on the foliage around them.
A long moment passed. Then the bard’s green eyes drifted back to meet the warrior’s. A wave of peace floated across the flushed, tear-streaked countenance as a warm, easy smile unseated the terror in the young face.
"I remember now," she told the warrior’s soft blue eyes. "I remember all of it."
The warrior gathered her friend into her arms and the little blonde returned the comforting embrace. The two friends sat on the log, holding onto each other, for a long, long time.
Xena turned from the saddlebags she was packing to address her blonde companion.
"You sure you want to leave today?" she asked the girl who was energetically tamping the ashes of the campfire. She waited until the girl looked up to meet her attention.
"Yes, I’m sure," Gabrielle told her friend. "I think we’ve been here long enough."
"But, are you sure you’re feeling --?"
"I feel fine, Xena," the bard returned firmly. "Honestly. I’m getting ... bored just hanging around here. I think we should move on. It’s time."
The warrior’s blue eyes remained concerned. She pursed her lips as she studied the shining face of her dear, young friend. The effects of the girl’s strenuous ordeal did seem to have vanished from the open expression. Gabrielle appeared fit and assured, her normal buoyant spirit evident in her manner and attitude.
The bard ended her efforts at the lifeless fire, brushed her hands together and turned to face her friend. She recognized the worry in the warrior’s blue eyes and smiled warmly at the friendship and affection she knew was behind the troubled look. She crossed the campsite to stand next to the tall warrior, laying a slim hand on the woman’s slender arm.
"Whatever small things that haven’t come back to me will pop into my head soon enough. I think it’s better if we get back to our normal routine. I think that’ll help me remember better than anything we could try by staying here."
Xena met the bard’s green gaze, her eyes traveling over the soft, clear face. A warm smile lit the warrior’s expression and she touched the young woman’s shoulder.
"OK," the warrior replied, resigned. "Do we have everything?" She turned back to finish retying the leather straps on the saddle.
"Yup, everything we came with," the bard chirped, enjoying their standard mutual joke.
The first time she’d uttered that particular pronouncement, the two friends had been preparing to depart from a campsite early in their travels. When the girl had approached the warrior, demonstrating her readiness to resume their journey, the tall woman’s raised eyebrow had proceeded her silent nod, correcting the bard’s statement. Gabrielle had turned around and soon realized she had forgotten to repack a good portion of their cooking gear and had to spend several embarrassed minutes retrieving the items from the abandoned campfire. The statement had become a private joke between them ever since.
The warrior’s gentle smile showed she remembered the bard’s long-ago faux pas. She gathered the horse’s reins and turned expectantly toward her blonde friend. She watched as Gabrielle gathered her staff and repositioned the strap of the cloth satchel over her shoulder. The girl walked back across the campsite to stand next to her leather-clad friend.
Xena turned to leave the clearing, then noticed the bard’s hesitant glance around the little glen. She saw the girl draw a deep, steady breath.
"This place, I will remember. That’s for sure." The bard strode confidently out of the cove.
‘So will I’, the warrior thought gratefully. ‘So will I’.