By Maggie (AcerMMG@aol.com) and PeriBear (email@example.com)
Part 2 of 3
DISCLAIMER: Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Cyrene and Argo are the property of MCA/Universal and no copyright infringement is intended here. All other characters, and all story plots, included here come from the fertile imaginations of the authors.
NOTE: This was a collaborative effort; comments, kudos and critiques may be submitted to either, or both, names above.
We just thought that having 'a day' was so great, how about having a whole week? So, we decided to find out. It begins with ......
"I beg your pardon!!"
"Mother, you can't make that trip by yourself. Not along the western route. It's much too dangerous."
The woman facing the warrior wore an irritated scowl.
"Young lady, I was making this trip, by myself, two summers before you were born! And I carried Toris in my arms the entire way!"
Cyrene drew herself up to her full height and glared up at her tall, muscular daughter. Twin pairs of ice blue eyes met stubbornly, neither owner willing to surrender to the authority of the other, neither intimidated by the other's temper. Finally the warrior relaxed and she reached for her mother's rounded shoulder.
"Mother, that was over twenty summers ago. The traffic on that road has changed. It's not safe anymore. Especially for a woman traveling alone."
The older woman scoffed away her daughter's remark. She tossed her mane of shoulder-length, auburn hair and crossed her arms defiantly. Xena turned imploringly to the blonde bard standing silently across the room who was diligently trying not to laugh. She turned back to her mother's angry frown, making an effort to keep her voice even.
"Mother, I know this is the time of year you always go to Kithira for Aunt Dylesta's birthday. What I meant was, Gabrielle and I would be happy to escort you there. I'd like to see Aunt Dy'ta myself." The warrior smiled encouragingly at her parent. "Will you let us do that for you?"
The smaller, dark-haired woman's annoyance slowly faded. She studied the face of her tall, slender offspring. Finally a tiny smile began to emerge across the attractive, mature face.
"Well, it would be nice to have some company. Alright. I've already prepared the food for the trip."
The little blonde suddenly became vocal. "Food? Home-cooked?" she chirped excitedly. "That would be a wonderful change of pace!"
The warrior cast a withering frown at the girl. Then she turned back to her mother.
"We eat off the trail when we're traveling, Mother."
Cyrene's gaze was steady on her daughter's. She turned a questioning eye toward the bard's expectant smile, then returned her attention to the warrior's blue eyes.
"I'll bring the food," she said evenly. "I'll be ready in a few minutes."
With that, the woman crossed the expansive room and disappeared into the adjoining area. Xena's jaw rippled in clear frustration. She let out a short, exasperated sigh.
"Oh, this is going to be a lovely trip," she said, sarcastically. Then she heard the bard's giggle. "You're alot of help," she said to the young girl's amused expression.
"Oh, c'mon, Xena," the bard teased. "You won't have to hunt up our meals for a whole day. Think of that."
The warrior's lips curled into a crooked grin. She sat down heavily on one of the wooden chairs that littered the large room, resting one long leg on the seat of the chair in front of her, and crossed her arms over her waist. She willed herself to induce patience and respect into her behavior, in order to reduce the friction she anticipated from her maternal parent.
"Well, just remember, little bard. This trip was your idea." She turned an accusing look in the girl's direction.
Gabrielle answered the scathing glance with an innocent smile. "You said she would probably try to go anyway." The bard looked in the direction in which the older woman had departed. "She's got a will almost as immovable as yours."
Xena's eyes betrayed the sterness of her glare. "You're about to witness stubbornness at it's highest level."
"You mean I haven't already?" The bard flashed a smirk toward the warrior's pique.
"You're going to pay for this, too." The blue eyes on the bard's face were cryptic and enigmatic.
The young blonde smiled widely at her friend. But the clear warning in the warrior's eyes made her stomach tremble.
"Well, I'm ready," Cyrene announced as she came back into the room. She now wore a brightly-colored shawl, the colors dancing in the streams of light filtering into the room. She walked behind the high counter and withdrew a large, rattan basket. She lifted one end of the lid, scanned the contents, then lowered the cover again.
She picked up the basket and walked toward the two younger women. Xena stood up and turned toward the entrance to the inn. Cyrene paused next to her daughter and wordlessly handed the large hamper to the warrior. The tall woman looked down at the basket with a heavy dose of hostility, then followed the bard and her mother outside.
The warrior secured the basket with the straps on Argo's back. Then she untied the reins from the standing post and the three women walked to the edge of town. When the trio reached the dusty path, Xena turned north while her mother and Gabrielle strode on to the west.
Cyrene soon noticed that her daughter was no longer behind them. She turned to search for the warrior and saw her standing several strides away from them, a stubborn frown pursing her lips. The older woman retraced her steps until she arrived beside Xena.
"Where are you going?" Cyrene asked irritably. "I thought you said we were...?"
"I said the western route is too dangerous. We're going north."
"North?" Cyrene's tone was critical. "That'll take much longer and west is such a pretty...."
"Mother," the warrior said, a bit too sharply. "That road is full of bandits and ambush. We've been hearing about all sorts of trouble all the way here."
Gabrielle had wandered up behind the two arguing at the edge of the road. "She's right, Cyr ... ma'am," the bard said, reluctant to use the woman's formal first name. "We've heard all kinds of terrible stories."
The older woman turned a warm smile to the bard. "Gabrielle, please call me Cyrene. Or, if you wish, you could always call me Mother, too."
The little blonde's smile glowed across her open face. "Thank you, ma'am ... Mother," she corrected. "I'd like that." She turned to find the warrior shooting an aggravated glare at her.
Cyrene turned her attention back to her daughter. "Now, Daughter, I think we would have a much nicer trip if --"
"Mother! We're going north!" The tone warned against any argument.
After a moment, the smaller brunette readjusted her shawl and displayed a martyred expression. "Fine," she said meekly. "I was just making a suggestion." She turned and marched stoically down the dusty path. Gabrielle followed, keeping her eyes away from the warrior's impending fury.
Xena stared into the space where her mother had recently stood. She slowly closed her eyes and took a very, deep breath, then turned and followed the two smaller women. It had already been an exceptionally long day.
Throughout the following hour and a half, the little blonde and the short innkeeper engaged in a steady stream of conversation. Most of the verbiage escaped the warrior's attention; she was happy to have them subject each other to the activity. It left her free to enjoy her own silence.
Cyrene had been entertaining the bard with endless stories of the early days of the warrior's life. Many of the events shared by the matron resulted in the tall woman's hearty embarrassment. It seemed as though her mother was making a special effort to share only those incidents in which a young Xena had managed to break something, ruin an article of clothing, skin some part of her body or stumble ungracefully onto or against some unsuspecting piece of furniture.
Before very long, the warrior's self-esteem and her patience had been pushed to their farthest limits. In an effort to stem the rising tide of irritation she felt, Xena suggested they stop for some rest and a light snack. The two chattering women agreed.
Xena found a small, shady area along the dusty road. She steered Argo toward the grassy spot and looped the mare's reins around a low hanging branch. She unhooked the basket of food and deposited it on the ground beside her mother who had settled herself comfortably on one of the wide, flat boulders on the grassy knoll.
The warrior sat down on the grass and leaned back on her hands, stretching her long, sinewy legs out in front of her. She rolled her chin down toward her chest, then around on her shoulders, not at all surprised at the tightness that had become evident there.
Gabrielle sat cross-legged a short distance away from them, an expectant smile lighting her face. Cyrene was rummaging in the basket, extracting bundles of food she had packed. She handed the bard a small parcel wrapped in a napkin. The girl pulled back the cloth and squealed happily at the serving of nutbread she discovered. The warrior smiled at her friend's enjoyment and turned a pleasant expression up into her mother's proud face.
"As long as you feed her, she's happy," the warrior quipped. Cyrene smiled warmly at the little bard's delight. She handed her daughter a similar bundle.
"No thanks, Mother. I'd rather have a piece of fruit, if you have any."
"But it's your favorite." The older woman's disappointment suddenly covering her expression.
"I know, but I'd rather have some fruit."
"It'th delishoush," the bard mumbled around a bite of pastry.
Cyrene replaced the bundle in the basket and handed a large, red apple to the warrior. Xena's attention was still on her friend's full cheeks, so her hand and the apple didn't quite connect. When her mother released it, the fruit bounced off her knee and rolled across the grass toward the bard's leather boot. The girl retrieved it and tossed it back to the warrior, who caught it easily.
Xena brought the apple to her mouth, preparing to bite into it. Her anticipated enjoyment was abruptly interrupted when her mother snatched the fruit out of her hand and began briskly rubbing it against the fabric of her skirt.
"Here, you can't eat that now. It's been on the ground," the older woman lectured. "You never know what's been wallowing around on this grass."
The warrior watched her mother's ritual with a frustrated glare. She turned to acknowledge the amused snort that escaped from the bard and sent an rankled glower in the young woman's direction. Finally, Cyrene handed the apple back to her daughter, complete with a disapproving shake of her head. Xena took a large, crisp bite out of the newly polished apple and sat chewing the pulp, an adolescent pout clearly visible in her chiseled features.
"She's always been one to just put any old thing in her mouth," the matron said to the smiling bard. "I swear, this child ate more dirt than anyone else in Amphipolis."
Xena sat up quickly and coughed, laboring hard to clear her throat. Cyrene reached with a maternal hand to thump the warrior's back.
"Sassy, are you all right?" she chided. "You tried to eat it too fast, didn't you?"
The bard stopped chewing and she stared at her friend's astonished face. Xena glanced at her mother, horrified, then turned to meet the little blonde's astounded expression. For the first time in their entire relationship, Gabrielle saw a look of supreme mortification cover the warrior's face. The girl swallowed the mouthful of nutbread and watched her friend carefully.
"What did you call her?" the bard asked when she could speak without fear of laughing outloud.
Cyrene kept her attention on her daughter, her hand still in place on the distressed woman's back. Eventually she raised her eyes to the bard's.
"Oh, we used to call her that when she was little." The older woman laughed softly, then bent to focus on her daughter's embarrassed face. "Better?" she asked lovingly, then spoke to the girl.
"Lyceus couldn't say 'sister' when he began to talk. It sort of came out 'sassa'. Then Toris changed it to 'Sassy', when it became clear that his little sister was exactly that ... sassy."
Xena coughed again, her face a study in humiliation.
"Somehow, we all started calling her 'Sassy' and it just kind of stuck. Didn't it?" the woman said, bending her head again toward her daughter. The matron's eyes grew sentimental. "I'd almost forgotten about that silly name. How about you?"
"I remember it. And how Toris thought he was being so clever." Xena swallowed slowly, then took a deep, calming breath. The warrior's gaze clouded in a faraway memory as she touched her mother's hand.
Cyrene's hand closed around her daughter's calloused fingers. Gently, she swept the long, dark hair away from the warrior's flushed face and pulled the brooding woman closer. She placed a brief, simple kiss on the warrior's forehead and watched her take another shaky breath.
"Sassy. That's what you always were," Cyrene said softly, her chin against the raven hair of her daughter.
The bard's amusement subsided. She found herself blinking away the tears that had suddenly appeared in her eyes.
Finally Cyrene broke the heavy emotion in the air. "I do wish you'd try to keep your hair back from your face, though. You have such a pretty face behind all this." She combed the long tresses back with her fingers.
Xena slapped her palm against her forehead and groaned softly. When she pulled her hand away, a soft, open smile lit her face. Unexpectedly, the warrior's bright laughter sparkled across the golden morning as she squeezed her mother's hand. The bard's giggle augmented the cheerful sound.
The warrior retrieved the errant apple which had again fallen to the ground. She took a corner of her mother's shawl and made a great, joking show of polishing the fruit's shiny skin, then raised it to her mouth to snap off a large bite.
Finally, she stood, picked up the basket and handed it to her mother. "We need to get moving again, Mother," she said, still chewing the bite of apple. "You want to make it to Aunt Dylesta's before dark."
Cyrene took the basket and repacked the contents with authority. As the bard rose, the older woman turned to the girl and handed her the hamper.
"Sweetheart, will you take care of this? I need to ... find a private place."
The older woman moved toward a leafy grove beside the grassy area. Xena looked down sheepishly at the bard. She handed Gabrielle the half-eaten apple and reached to reattach the basket to the mare's back. The bard watched as the deft fingers of the warrior tied the leather straps on the saddlebags around the food hamper. The tall woman's glance caught the girl's intent stare and she felt a warm blush slowly cover her face.
"Sassssy?" the bard chanted slowly and deliberately.
"Don't start," Xena answered, her voice threatening.
"Sassy," the bard said very quietly, her brows furrowed in mock consideration. "Kinda cute, when you think about it. 'Saaassssy'. Hmm."
The warrior closed her eyes as her jaw stiffened. "Gabrielle."
The young blonde giggled and handed the partially eaten apple back to the warrior.
"She's the only person in the known world who can always make me feel like I'm twelve years old again." The warrior's expression was equal parts frustration, embarrassment and wonder.
"I'm a grown woman. I've commanded armies, conquered villains, even taken on gods and goddesses, for Hades' sake! And I'm not in that woman's presence for ten minutes before I become a blithering, stumbling fool!"
The warrior crunched another bite from the apple with a bit more force than might have been absolutely necessary.
"Mothers are like that. Yeah, they are," the bard joked. "I think they're all cut from the same bolt of cloth."
The two friends shared an easy laugh as Cyrene rejoined them, readjusting her clothes and reclaiming the colorful shawl. She smiled and walked briskly over to the younger pair. Her eyes scanned her daughter's face, traveled over the young face of the bard, then returned to the warrior's again.
"What are you two up to?" the matron asked suspiciously. "What's going on?" Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a mischievous grin, then turned to the older woman standing between them. At precisely the same moment, they said exactly the same thing.
Cyrene's brows knitted together in a motherly scowl. She turned to her daughter and, with a subtle movement of her hand, reached to touch the long lock of hair that always hung along the side of the warrior's face and smoothed it back behind the woman's ear. She patted the warrior's cheek and started toward the road.
"Well, let's get moving, girls. We don't want to be late for the celebration."
Xena closed her eyes and shook her head slightly. The feathery lock returned to its usual position along the side of her face as an exasperated sigh escaped the tall frame. When the warrior opened her eyes, she was confronted with the bard's small fist, the forefinger pointing directly at her nose. She looked at the finger, then at the sparkling green eyes of its owner.
"Be nice," the bard warned her, shaking the finger firmly. Then the girl skipped away to join the older woman on the road. The warrior retrieved Argo's reins, took a deep breath, and followed the two shorter women's path. The sun was already climbing higher in the sky.
Once the trio was back on the road, the bard and the matron resumed their cheerful conversation, each regaling the other with humorous tales about their various escapades with the third member of their party.
Occasionally the subject of their shared anecdotes was moved react to the chortled comments. More than once, the warrior found herself smiling at the memory of a past event, only to feel her amusement quickly fade away to be rapidly replaced by self-consciousness and embarrassment. She decided to try and ignore most of the dialogue and concentrate on the direction of their journey.
As the morning progressed and the sun climbed higher in the summer sky, the rise in temperature along the dusty path was soon felt by all three travelers. Cyrene decided to remove her shawl and pulled it off her shoulders. Xena took the garment from her mother and turned to drape it across Argo's saddle, walking slowly along side the animal as the trio continued on the path.
Cyrene turned to glance at the back of her daughter's head. "Sassy," she chuckled, again making the warrior's jaws clamp together. "You still have that hair buckle Bou ... my father made for you."
The warrior stopped the mare's progress and turned to face her parent. For a long moment the two women stood looking squarely into each other's eyes. Finally the slender woman spoke, her voice clipped and stiff. "Yes, I still have it. I haven't been without it since he gave it for me."
A brief, tense silence fell over the little group. The bard watched the two women closely. Her intuition concerning her best friend had become honed sharp during their time together, but Gabrielle could sense the tension also present in the matron's reaction. Since it was obvious that the subject remained a painful theme between them, the girl had sense enough not to press the issue.
After a moment, Cyrene turned brusquely away from the piercing blue eyes of her child and resumed walking down the dusty path. Gabrielle shot a quick look at the warrior. There was more than irritation in her strident manner; the bard could see a deep plane of hurt. She laid a gentle hand on her friend's arm and smiled warmly toward the tall woman's pained expression.
The two friends turned together to follow the mature female already several paces ahead of them. When she was again beside Cyrene, Gabrielle put a small hand on the woman's shoulder. The matron turned to meet the girl's green eyes and stroked the long, blonde hair.
After they'd walked arm in arm for a dozen strides, Cyrene turned to the bard and peered at the girl's rather unique blue and bronze necklace. She studied the accessory closely for a long moment, then raised a questioning eye to the young bard's green gaze. Gabrielle's open gaze saw the query in the matron's eyes.
"I'm sorry to stare, child, but I've been curious about your necklace all morning. It's very unique."
The bard reached to stroke the stones lovingly, her green eyes bright with pride. "It was a gift from the Amazons," the little bard explained. "It signifies my official acceptance as one of them." The girl's green eyes softened as her thoughts turned to the brave women in the Amazon village who had welcomed her into their fold and bestowed the royal status upon her. She looked up again into the older woman's gentle blue eyes.
The warrior saw the look of a storyteller overtake the little bard's expression. She smiled proudly as she listened to her friend sharing the details of the history of the necklace and of how the bard had come to be regarded with great prestige in the view of the women whose gift it had been.
Gabrielle told the older woman how she had accepted Terreius' right of caste as the young Amazon princess lay fatally wounded in the bard's arms and how, as a result, the girl had become a member of the tribe with the title of Amazon princess. She told of the care Ephiny had taken when she had first put the necklace around the bard's neck, stating that the blue stones signified royal lineage and that the honored piece was specially crafted to indicate the importance of the little blonde's new title.
"I don't wear it often," she said, her green eyes serious. "Only on special occasions. I don't want to lose it or have anything happen to it."
"Quite sensible," the matron declared.
"But," the bard continued, blushing slightly, "I wanted to wear it today because ... I consider this a special occasion ... being with you, I mean." The girl's face flushed crimson and she lowered her eyes shyly.
The matron gathered the small bard in a loving hug, then gently plucked the soft flesh of the girl's cheek between her thumb and the side of her forefinger, shaking the small mound slightly.
"You are the sweetest child," she said to the girl's beaming face. The warrior watched the exchange, smiling quietly. Yet she felt a tiny sense of regret that she wasn't Gabrielle, at that moment.
Cyrene had been entertaining the bard with another hilarious account of the warrior's childhood clumsiness when the slender woman deduced they had come nearly half the distance to their destination. She knew the road would divert and split soon; she remembered her last journey along this route.
Xena welcomed the opportunity to give her assaulted ego a respite. She motioned for Gabrielle to cross to her mother's other side and handed Argo's reins to the bard. Striding toward the side of the road, the warrior announced she was going on ahead to make certain the road still conformed to the route she remembered.
"Oh, Daughter, stay with us," her mother chided. "We'll be at the fork soon enough."
Xena turned around to answer her. "Mother, I'll be right back. Gabrielle, stay with her."
The warrior sent her best 'in charge' look back toward her mother and the bard. She waited a moment to make sure her authority was not being questioned.
Maybe it was because she was walking backwards at the time. Or maybe she was distracted by the rather odd look on Gabrielle's face. Or maybe, and more to the point, the warrior had by now become so unnerved by her mother's ingenuous attitude toward her that her normally razor-sharp reflexes had somehow become short-circuited.
Whatever the reason, Xena didn't notice the large tree stump at the edge of the road until the back of her boots scraped against the bark of its sides, causing her to sit down on it unexpectedly and rather abruptly.
"Oomph!!" the warrior grunted as her backside came to rest on the hard, wooden surface. The momentum of her backward progress forced her to grab awkwardly at the sides of the trunk to maintain her balance, even though her behind had already come to rest on the top of it. Her legs flailed straight out at the knees, then her feet came to rest on the dirt path again.
The other two women were beside her within seconds. For a long moment, Xena's eyes were locked on the ground at her feet. When she raised them again, her focus was met by her mother's delighted smile. A crimson blush swept over the warrior, from the top of her leather tunic to the roots of her dark hair. Even with her eyes locked on her mother's face, she could still see Gabrielle battling to control her mirth.
Cyrene's blue eyes scanned her daughter's mortified form. She turned slowly to the bard, one dark eyebrow raised in amusement.
"Does she entertain you like this often?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath and swallowed hard. She didn't trust herself to look anywhere near the warrior's blue stare.
"No, actually, our journeys are pretty boring most of the time."
Cyrene glanced again at the woman seated immobile on the tree stump. The warrior hadn't moved one centimeter and the blush was still in place, rampant and dark. The matron took a short step to her daughter's side. She cheerfully pulled the same errant lock of hair back behind the warrior's ear and patted the tall woman on the head.
"With your hair out of your face, maybe you could see where you're going."
Gabrielle clamped her jaws tightly together and turned her back on the dark-haired pair. As the little bard took in long, deep gulps of air, Xena could see the slender form trembling with barely-controlled laughter. Slowly the girl turned back to the two women, her green eyes twinkling brightly, but her expression serene.
The older woman stepped back from the figure on the tree trunk, her arms crossed lightly over her ample figure. She grinned playfully at the sheepish warrior, then clasped her hands casually behind her back.
"When you're ready to join us, we'll be walking that way," the matron said, using her thumb to indicate the direction of the road. She turned and looped her arm through Gabrielle's and the two small women resumed their journey on the dusty path.
Xena sat very still on the large tree stump, embarrassment and frustration rattling her senses. She heard the raucous laughter cascading from her mother and Gabrielle as the pair walked away. The warrior relaxed her jaw just enough to expel a sharp, pent-up sigh. Then she dropped her head, closed her eyes and let out a tiny, barely audible whimper.
Gathering all the self-esteem she could muster, the tall, slender woman removed herself from her wooden throne and turned to follow her companions. By the time she had reached them, she had regained at least a small amount of her composure. But it had taken a hard, concentrated effort.
A little while later, the sun slid into the highest point above them. Gabrielle knew her stomach could always determine mealtimes. She craned her neck to look up into the bright circle and the green eyes lit with pleasure.
"Lunch time!" the little blonde announced and both dark-haired women laughed.
"I told you. Feed her and she's in Elysium."
Cyrene pulled her dark, wavy hair up away from her neck, and patted the damp skin with her handkerchief. "My goodness, it got hot, didn't it?" The mature face glistened with perspiration and exertion. Xena noticed the slight fatigue in her mother's face and decided Gabrielle was right. It was time to stop for lunch.
Once again, Xena selected a quiet, grassy area next to the road. The little grove was sheltered from the path and bordered a small, calm lake. The warrior led the mare to the water and watched as the animal enjoyed the cool contents of the reservoir. Behind her, she could hear the cheerful chattering of the bard and her mother as the older woman emptied the hamper.
"Sweet Artemis, give me patience," the warrior said quietly to the water gently lapping in the small pond. "I love her with my whole being, but she's driving me mad!"
"Be brave. We're almost there."
The bard's light-hearted comment made the warrior turn around. The green eyes were amused, but sympathetic. The little blonde smiled widely at her friend's frustrated scowl and put a small hand on the tall woman's arm.
"C'mon, lunch is ready."
Xena cast a helpless look toward the grassy plane where her mother was laying out the meal. Her lips curled in a knowing grin.
"I'll bet you a bag of dinars that I can tell you what she's pulling out of that basket," the slender woman said, looking back down at the bard's laughing green gaze. "Besides more nutbread and food than the three of us will ever be able to eat, there'll be a tablecloth and at least two napkins for each of us."
Gabrielle laughed outloud, then covered her mouth with one hand. She moved closer to the warrior and laid the blonde head against the woman's muscled shoulder.
"Like I said, they're all the same," she said, nodding toward the grassy area. "Let's eat."
The warrior gathered Argo's reins and followed the small blonde back toward the little grove. She saw Cyrene busily laying out the food for their meal. As she tied the leather strips to a nearby bush, Xena's eyes drifted down to the ground in front of her mother. There, spread over the grass, was a small, blue and white tablecloth with three matching napkins precisely placed at separate points along the edge.
The tall woman turned a smug smile toward the little bard. The blonde's open face was aglow with amusement. The warrior took another deep breath and walked toward the picnic.
Gabrielle sat down across from Xena's mother, happily accepting a good-sized piece of venison from the woman's outstretched hand. As she sank her teeth into the meat, her eyes widened as the matron also handed over a serving of cheese and a rather large piece of hearth-baked bread.
As she lowered her lanky frame onto the grass, Xena focused an amused expression on the bard. It always amazed her that such a small person could devour such large quantities of food. The warrior shook her head in wonder, then turned when she felt her mother's attention on her. The older woman's brow was gathered in maternal concern.
"What's that on your face?"
Xena absently ran a slim palm over one cheek, then turned to casually inspect the food spread on the tablecloth. The matron pulled her handkerchief from the sleeve of her blouse, then moistened a section of the flowery cloth with her tongue. She took a firm hold of the warrior's face and purposefully rubbed at the offending smudge while her daughter grimaced in subdued fury.
"Mother, please," the tall woman whispered plaintively. She clamped her jaws together in a defiant glare.
Gabrielle pulled her lips between her teeth, biting hard to stem the laughter that threatened to overwhelm her. She focused on the piece of cheese in her hand and blinked away tears of unbridled mirth welling up in her eyes. When she felt a modicum of control return, she looked up.
Cyrene was replacing the handkerchief in her sleeve. She looked at her sulking offspring and reached to smooth back the lock of hair that lay along the side of the warrior's face. Xena's hand flew to stop her. For an instant, the warrior's blue eyes flashed the color of cold steel. The matron's lips curled in a disapproval. After a moment the older woman spoke.
"Are your hands clean?"
The blue eyes of the warrior widened in astonishment and her mouth dropped open slightly. She glanced helplessly at the bard. The girl stopped chewing as she looked down at her own hands, then quickly back to the matron across from her. Gabrielle cleared her throat and Cyrene transferred attention to the girl.
"We ... visited the little pond over there," the bard said cheerfully.
One dark eyebrow slipped upward as the mother looked at each younger face in turn. The question having been answered appropriately, she handed a cut of the venison to the warrior and followed it with a large wedge of cheese. Even as she accepted the food, Xena's face remained grim. She silently brought the cheese up to her mouth and bit off a mouthful, chewing it slowly and quietly.
The three women ate in silence for a moment, then Cyrene's quiet laughter floated over the clearing. She smiled across the tablecloth at the bard, then gazed lovingly at her daughter. She dabbed her mouth daintily with her napkin and touched the warrior's arm gently.
"This reminds me of the Harvest Festival when you were six. Remember?"
Once again, the warrior's eyes widened in shock. She stared at her parent, a terrified look in the blue pools. She gulped quickly, trying to clear the food from her mouth.
"Mother, I ... I don't know how you remember all those ... times from long ago. I'm afraid even I can't recall that particular ... day."
There was a desperate plea in the blue gaze, but the matron missed it completely. She laughed openly and turned to the bard whose expression had become expectant and receptive.
"I was giving Sassy a bath --"
"MoTHERR!!" the warrior shrieked and clamped one slender hand over her eyes in shame.
"What?" her mother said as the bard giggled quietly. "I'm sure Gabrielle's mother gave her a bath when she was six." The woman looked innocently at the bard. "Didn't she, honey?"
The girl battled the laughter welling up in her throat and wordlessly nodded in answer to the woman's question.
"You see?" the matron said smugly to her mortified daughter. She turned back to the bard. "Anyway, I was giving her a bath when we heard one of the barkers for the carnival calling all the villagers to come see the show."
The warrior groaned and put both hands to her head. The little blonde felt her laughter bubbling inside again but kept her eyes on the matron's animated face.
"Well, before I could stop her, the little dickens jumped right out of the bathtub and scampered straight out the front door into the street." The older woman laughed openly, her eyes dancing happily with the memory. "Out she went, not a stitch on, trailing bubbles and soap all the way through the house. She was so slippery, even the boys couldn't catch her." Cyrene slapped her lap and laughed heartily again.
Her daughter's reaction was quite different. The tall warrior dropped her hands and shot an imploring look across the tablecloth toward her friend. But any support she might have expected from the bard vanished when she saw the girl's reaction to her mother's story.
The girl had collapsed backward onto the grass, her entire body shaking with laughter. The bard's stomach convulsed wildly as she lay on the ground, cackling loudly and holding her head, tears of merriment streaming down her cheeks. She took a quick, labored breath and rolled over to one side. When she saw the warrior's look of betrayal, she fell down onto the grass again, shrieking and pounding the greenery with one small fist.
Finally the blonde gasped and wiped her face with the back of one hand. She turned a gleeful expression to her friend. "I'm sorry, Xena. I j-just couldn't h-help it," the girl sputtered, then fell flat on the grass, overcome by giggles again.
The warrior glared at the helpless figure, then turned a murderous look toward her mother. The older woman held one hand over her mouth and trained a mirthful gleam at her daughter's furious expression. Finally Cyrene put a loving hand on the angry woman's arm.
"I'm sorry, too, Sas ... Daughter," she amended. "I didn't mean to upset you. It's just such a pleasant memory for me. When you were all so small and ... still so innocent."
Xena felt her irritation drain away. She saw the love in her mother's blue eyes and touched the cherished face gently. A small laugh tumbled from the warrior's lips as she turned to the small bard who was now sitting upright again. The girl's smile was warm and gentle. She turned back to her mother and the two women shared a tender embrace.
"Okay, okay," the warrior said with a calming sigh. "Let's just finish with lunch and get back on the road. We still have some distance to go." She reached for the wedge of cheese. "Eat, little bard. You know how you love Mother's cooking."
The warrior smiled at the little blonde, her deep affection for the girl clear in her expression. As the girl returned the fondness she saw in the blue eyes, she retrieved the piece of venison, took a bite and sent a warm smile toward the matron. The three women resumed their meal.
When the basket was repacked and retied on the mare's back, the travelers started walking again. A camaraderie had been established within the group and at last the warrior seemed at peace. The journey continued in relative calm for the next hour.
By mid-afternoon, the bard was feeling a bit guilty about her friend's day-long ordeal of frustration so she decided to distract the matron's storytelling inclinations by involving the older woman in long discussions concerning various seasonings and food preparations. Without the irritation of Cyrene's incessant, though unintentional, assault on her ego, Xena had actually begun to enjoy the journey.
She watched gratefully and admiringly as the young blonde cleverly enticed her mother into sharing detailed practices involved in certain methods and recipes. The warrior also experienced a sense of pride in her mother's generosity and patience in sharing her 'secrets' with the little bard. She felt a deep contentment when she recognized the two women's obvious affection for each other.
The last leg of their journey was about to be realized. The travelers decided on one more brief stop before traversing the final distance to their destination. The two smaller women selected a shady nook beneath a small cluster of trees a few dozen paces away from the road. Xena felt a slight hesitation about being so far from the path, but she agreed with the others' choice and led Argo into the little glen.
When she had secured the mare, the warrior turned to find her companions again rummaging in the food basket. As she approached the two women seated together on a large fallen tree limb, Xena shook her head, her slim hands poised on her hips. "I told you she'd packed more food than we could ever eat." She met the bard's smile with an amused grin. "I guess I should have realized who I was talking about when I said that."
Cyrene unwrapped a large piece of nutbread and handed it to her daughter who took it happily.
"But then, I do love nutbread," the warrior quipped, raising the confection to her mouth.
The light in the woman's face faded abruptly. The blue eyes suddenly darted into the wooded area behind them. The bard saw the change in her friend's manner. Her own senses became briskly alert.
Xena dropped the wedge of nutbread without even realizing she had done so. Her senses had suddenly become tight and sharp.
"Daughter!" Cyrene admonished. "Please be more careful," she said, rising to retrieve the nutbread from the ground.
"I do hate to waste this, but--."
"Mother, be quiet!"
Something in the warrior's tone silenced the older woman immediately. Cyrene watched her daughter's body become tense and alert, her blue eyes sweeping the area around them. A foreboding grew in the matron's stomach.
"Gabrielle," the warrior whispered.
"I hear them."
An instant later, a sharp whirr sounded in the glen as Xena's hand shot out to catch the arrow quivering directly in front of her mother's throat.
"By the gods!" Cyrene screamed.
The warrior pushed the shaken woman backwards.
"Mother! Get down!"
In one fluid movement, the tall woman drew her sword from it's scabbard and turned to face the group of robbers streaking straight toward them. Gabrielle grabbed her staff and positioned herself in front of her friend's mother. Cyrene cowered behind the bard, trembling and frightened.
In another second, three attackers arrived in the glen, screaming loudly and waving their swords. Two of them headed straight for the tall warrior. She dispatched one easily with a sharp backward slap of her free hand. The blow sent him sprawling and he fell to the ground. The second advanced forward, swinging his weapon at the slender woman's head. She blocked his intended strike with her sword, then delivered a sweeping kick to his chest. The bandit staggered a moment, then recovered and started toward her again.
Gabrielle was dealing with the other brute. Her staff caught the ruffian's midsection dead center and he bent over, coughing and breathless. The little bard swung the wand across her body and brought it down hard across the man's back. He fell to the ground on his face, squirmed a moment, then lay quiet, spread-eagled and unconscious.
Cyrene had stepped backwards when the bard began the conflict with the thug. She stood transfixed as the two younger women battled the three degenerates. She noticed a foul smell behind her and started to turn, but her movements were stalled by the pressure of a filthy sleeve around her throat. When she saw the long, lethal dagger pointed at her chin, she let out a sharp cry.
Xena instinctively reacted to the sound. She parried the thrust of the thief in front of her, then brought her foot up hard against the man's throat. His body flew headlong into the trees as the warrior spun around to confront the villain holding her mother captive.
Cyrene pulled hard against the squalid material clamped under her jaw but the robber pulled her tighter against him. She could see his leer out of the corner of her eye. Then she saw her daughter's face. It bore an expression she'd never seen there before. The cold ruthlessness of the warrior's gaze frightened even her captured parent.
Xena's eyes were shrouded, the lids falling halfway across the blue crystals. The white teeth of her smile were clenched, the crimson lips curled back in a deadly sneer. Her lean body was bent in a low crouch, like an animal ready to attack.
"Let her go."
The guttural snarl from the warrior's throat was primal and eerie. A fearful rage showed clearly in the deep blue eyes as she took a slow, menacing step toward the robber and his hostage.
"Let her go or I'll kill you."
The robber instantly recognized the danger lurking in the warrior's primitive attitude as his gaze locked on her threatening stance. He quickly deduced his precarious position and decided against his original plan. A split second later he loosened his grip on the older woman's throat and shoved her body hard toward the warrior in an attempt to use the elder as a shield for his escape.
Xena responded with lightning reflexes. She easily diverted her mother's stumbling form toward Gabrielle, then advanced toward the backstepping bully with the speed of a ray of light. Before he could raise his arm to protect himself, she brought the hilt of her sword sharply across his jaw. The man dropped his dagger and staggered to the side, groggy and defenseless.
The warrior dropped her sword and grabbed the front of the man's tunic. She pulled him forward and plunged her knee hard into his groin. The man howled and bent forward as Xena grabbed the ragged shirt again, hauled him upright and delivered a crushing punch to his face. The robber fell backward onto the ground.
Cyrene watched from Gabrielle's arms, horrified at her daughter's malicious actions. When Xena took a step toward the helpless marauder, the bard moved to halt her progress by grabbing the slender arm from behind.
"Xena, don't!" the bard pleaded.
The warrior wrenched her arm from the girl's grasp and stepped toward the vanquished brigand. She straddled the prone figure, her weight pinning the man to the ground. Then, with her face contorted in unbridled rage, she thrust both hands onto the rasping throat and began to choke the man unmercifully.
"Xena! No!" Gabrielle screamed, pulling at her friend.
The warrior's attitude remained savage. The sneer had grown even more malevolent as the man gasped and pulled pathetically at the woman's deadly grip.
Cyrene shook herself out of her frozen state and quickly moved beside her daughter. The bard stepped out of her way, but remained nearby as the older woman bent to put a firm hand on the warrior's arm.
"Daughter!" she said sharply. No response. "Sassy!" Still no change in the warrior's actions. "Xena!" Cyrene shouted, her hands tugging hard at her daughter's arm.
The warrior's body jerked and she raised her head slightly. The sneer dissipated as the slender woman slowly regained her senses. The hands on the man's neck loosened as Cyrene reached to pull her child's face toward hers.
"Let him go, Xena" the matron said quietly to the dazed blue eyes. "Let him go."
Gradually the warrior's tense body relaxed as recognition slowly dawned across her ashen face. The blue eyes turned cautiously to the white-knuckled grip she maintained on the robber's throat and her muscled body began to shake. She slowly released her hold on the man and slumped numbly to the ground beside him.
The breathless mugger coughed and tried to pull air into his lungs. When he realized the warrior was no longer on top of him, he scrambled to his feet and stumbled away from her.
"Get outta here!" Gabrielle snapped at the floundering highwayman. When she threatened him with her staff, the man took a few unsteady steps, then turned and ran headlong up the road.
Cyrene knelt and gathered her daughter's trembling form into her arms, holding her child tightly. Xena clung despondently to her mother's supple body, sobs emerging from her quivering frame. The older woman rocked the heartbroken warrior gently, lovingly stroking the dark, flowing hair.
"Shhh, Baby. It's all right," the matron murmured gently. Mama's here. Mama's here."
Two hours later, the trio reached the town of Kithira. They walked casually toward the site of the celebration, their manner festive and relaxed. At the gate of the family member's estate, Cyrene turned to the two younger women and hugged each in turn. Then she turned a gentle expression toward her daughter.
"Well, this has certainly been an interesting journey. But next time, we take the western route."
The tall warrior met her mother's gentle smile. The older woman's weathered hand started toward the side of the warrior's face, but before it could complete its journey, Xena reached up and took the matching locks of hair on either side of the chiseled cheekbones and tucked them both securely behind her ears.
"Happy?" she said to her mother, smiling widely.
An instant later, the three women burst into laughter. Xena took her mother's hand and held in against her own cheek.
"You're right, Mother. But then, you always are."
DAY FIVE: THE ORDEAL
"Hang on, Gabrielle!"
'What in Tartarus does she think I'm doing?' the bard wondered as she gripped the free-swinging bridge's ropes tighter and moved her feet farther apart to accentuate the precarious balance she had barely been able to maintain.
"I'm coming to get you!"
"Good, 'cause I'm not going to be moving from here on my own any time soon," the little blonde shouted, averting her eyes from the floor of the canyon far, far below.
Xena grasped the ropes and stepped onto the bridge, then rapidly made her way toward the middle of the canyon where her friend was frozen in place, too terrified to move.
Suddenly, the bridge began to sway and Gabrielle's eyes widened with fear as the wind funneled through the narrow canyon, buffeting the ropes and causing a terrible shuddering to travel the length of the man-made platform. By the time the vibration reached her, it had attained such an enormous level that she was violently tossed around like a canoe in a hurricane. She turned frightened eyes to the warrior -- but Xena was gone.
"Oh, gods, no," the bard whispered as her eyes frantically searched for her friend. Then, suddenly, she was falling and she closed her eyes, waiting for the destructive end of the free-fall, knowing now what had happened to the warrior.
Gabrielle sat up, gasping. She breathed deeply, trying to calm the pounding of her heart, fighting the effects of the nightmare. She couldn't seem to stop trembling, then realized it wasn't just her. The ground beneath her was escalating from a vibration to a rocking to a violent shaking, which threw her back down. All around, she heard trees toppling and rocks crashing to the ground.
Then, suddenly, it was over, the ensuing silence almost eerie.
"You okay?" The voice came out of the darkness and the little bard was extremely relieved to hear it.
"Yeah, I think so. Geez, that's the worst quake I've ever felt--"
"-- and, to top it all off, I was right in the middle of a horrible nightmare. I don't know which was worse."
"Come over here a minute, would you? I need your help."
"Sure, I'll be there in a second. I've got to quit shaking first."
"No, I need you to come over here right now."
"Oh ... okay."
The bard rose shakily to her feet and began to make her way around to the other side of the cold campfire. Clouds were crossing the moon and visibility was minimal.
"Ow!" she said after stubbing her toe on ... something, she couldn't see what.
"Yeah," Gabrielle answered and inched toward the disembodied voice of her friend. "I can't see anything!"
Slowly, the moon began to peek around the clouds.
"Oh, gods," Gabrielle whispered as the increasing illumination of the campsite revealed the problem Xena needed help with.
The warrior had been sleeping on her stomach when the earthquake had hit. Now she was pinned to the ground by a huge branch which had fallen diagonally across her lower back.
"Xena!" the little bard cried out as she rushed the short distance to her friend. "Are you alright?"
"Well ... no. Can you get this thing off me?"
"Right away," Gabrielle said as she moved to the end of the branch near warrior's head.
"No, not this end," Xena said. "The other end. Now, it's very heavy, so don't try to move it more than a little at a time."
"Right," the blonde said as she began the long and laborious process of moving the log.
Several minutes later, sweat dripping from her chin, Gabrielle was able to push the fallen branch off her friend, after which she collapsed to the ground.
"Everything okay?" the warrior asked.
"Yeah, I just really have to catch my breath now. Are you alright?" No response. "Xena?"
"Come up here, would you," the warrior said and the little bard scooted across the ground from Xena's feet to her head.
"I don't think so. I can't seem to move my legs."
"What?! You're kidding, right?"
"No ... I wish I was."
Stuffing down her rising fear, the bard crawled closer to her friend and grasped the warrior's shoulders.
"Come on, let's get you rolled over so you'll be more comfortable."
"NO!" the warrior shouted, eliciting a muffled gasp from the little blonde. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you, but my back absolutely must not move for ... a while."
"You're going to get the feeling in your legs back, though. Right?"
The warrior hesitated, then said, "Lie down here, I want to see your face."
The bard obliged and stretched her body out perpendicular to that of her friend, resting her chin on her fist, her fist on the ground. Xena just looked at her for a moment, dimly perceiving her friend's open, worried face in the pale moonlight.
"Obviously, my back's been injured. It's probably just some swelling and pressure on my spine that's cut off the feeling to my legs. Once the swelling goes down, I'll get the feeling back and will be able to move them again."
"And ... if that's not what the problem is...?"
Xena looked deep into her friend's sea-green eyes and said, "Then my back won't be just bruised and swollen ... it'll be broken and I'll be permanently paralyzed."
Both women were silent, trying to read in the eyes of the other how she was dealing with this piece of information and each trying to camouflage her own feelings so her friend wouldn't see too much.
"Okay," Gabrielle finally said, "what do we do?"
"Cold compresses. That's the only thing we can do."
"Right," the little bard said as she rose to her feet, then crossed to where Argo's saddle and saddlebags had been placed near a bushy expanse of greenery. She dug into one of the packs and extracted a large piece of blue cloth. On her way back to her prone friend, she picked up the waterskin from where she had left it near the fire the night before.
Kneeling next to the warrior, Gabrielle pulled the cork from the container, wadded up the blue cloth and poured all the remaining water on it. Unfortunately, however, there was very little liquid left in the skin and the cloth ended up, at best, barely damp.
"Okay," the little blonde said, "this might be a little cold."
"Doesn't matter. I won't be able to feel it."
The bard stared for a moment at her friend's back, the possible consequences of the earthquake's destruction finally hitting her full force. The bard's throat grew tight. She swallowed against her own fear and took a very deep breath. After placing the dampened cloth on the warrior's back, knowing the cool wetness would soon penetrate the thin, white shift her friend was wearing, Gabrielle picked up the empty waterskin and crossed to retrieve her staff from where it lay near her blanket.
Xena carefully, slowly turned her head to the right, towards her friend, and said, "What're you doing?"
"We're all out of water. I'm going back to that lake we passed late yesterday and fill 'er up."
"No! Absolutely not! I don't want you going back there alone. Don't forget about those thugs we barely missed having a run-in with. They might still be around."
"And they might not," Gabrielle said as she crossed back to her friend, staff and waterskin in hand. She again kneeled by the warrior and placed a gentle hand on Xena's shoulder. "Don't worry. I'll be more than careful. Besides, if they are still around, they've probably gone back to sleep by now."
"No! It's too dangerous."
The bard put down the water skin and the staff and laid down next to the warrior.
"I've got to do this and I've got to do it now," Gabrielle said, hoping Xena would see the determination in her eyes despite the dim light. "If we're going to get you back on your feet as quickly as possible, I've got to keep your lower back cold. The only way I know to do that is with water."
The dark-haired woman opened her mouth to protest, but the blonde held her ground.
"No. Let me finish. Now, if you'll stop being so protective for a minute, you'll see I'm right about this."
Xena eyed her stubborn friend for a long moment, then nodded.
"Okay. Good," the bard said as she picked up her staff and the waterskin, stood and crossed the campsite, heading south. "Now, I shouldn't be too long -- the lake isn't that far back. Ooh! I know! I'll catch some fish for breakfast while I'm there."
"Would you put my chakram and sword in my hands before you leave?"
The little bard froze, her back to the warrior. Suddenly, she realized Xena was totally and completely helpless. 'Damn,' she thought, 'I can't leave her when she's like this.'
"You know, maybe you're right," she said as she turned around. "Maybe it's not such a good idea for me to go off by myself. There must be some other way to keep the compress cold."
"Look, I know what you're thinking and I know what you're trying to do right now. So, stop it. You were right. We need the water and now is the perfect time for you to go get it. It'll be safer for you in the dark ... and for me."
Gabrielle swallowed hard against the lump that had risen again in her throat, then crossed to pick up the warrior's weapons.
"I guess you're right," she said as she placed one weapon in each of her friend's hands.
"Of course I am. Now, go on, get out of here. And make sure you catch alot of fish. I'm hungry already. I'll be famished by the time you wander back here."
The little bard smiled against this new fear for her friend and said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah," as she again turned south and left camp.
Xena waited until she could no longer hear the bard making her way through the underbrush, then slowly turned her head back to the left, scraping her chin on the blanket beneath her. 'This is just great,' she thought. 'I dare not even lift my head off the ground or I could....' But she didn't want to finish that thought.
She stared into the dark shadows of the night, trying to calm her mind. Fear was not a stranger to her, but her most valuable weapon against it had always been action. That was not part of her armory now, however, and she found herself fighting to control the pounding of her heart every time she heard a noise in the forest.
The sun had been up for almost an hour when Gabrielle finally neared their camp. She'd tried to run most of the way back, but the forest and underbrush were so thick in places she'd been forced to slow to a more sedate pace.
As she broke through the bushes and entered the small clearing, the first thing she saw was her friend's eyes, wide with a fear just short of terror, and the death grip Xena had on her sword, a grip so tight her knuckles were a deadly white.
"Where in Tartarus have you been?!" the warrior shouted. "I've been worried sick. What in Tartarus took you so long?!"
"I'm sorry," the little bard immediately started apologizing. "I came back as fast as I could."
As she crossed the campsite, she laid the six fish she'd caught on one of the rocks surrounding the campfire. When she reached the warrior's side, she knelt down and began to gently, but firmly, pry the fingers frozen with fear from the sword's handle.
"Dammit, Gabrielle, why do you have to be so irresponsible all the time? I laid here for -- what? two or three hours? -- waiting and worrying about you. When the sun came up and you still weren't back, I was convinced something had happened ... and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it!"
"I know," the blonde said quietly. "I took too much time fishing. I know how much you love trout and I wanted to get some for you, but it wasn't easy in the dark."
"Yeah, well ... I was going to say I appreciate your thinking about me, but you weren't thinking, dammit!"
The little bard lowered her head. She knew where this anger and vehemence were coming from, but that knowledge made the harsh words hurt only a little less.
After setting the sword and chakram aside, she removed the blue cloth from the warrior's back and wadded it up again. Then she pulled the cork from the waterskin, soaked the compress and reapplied it to her friend's lower back.
"And these damn flies are driving me crazy!!" Xena waved her hand at her own face in an attempt to ward off one of the pests. "Ever since the sun came up, they've been buzzing around like I'm a piece of rotting meat!"
Gabrielle recorked the waterskin, then crossed to her blanket, picked it up and moved back to the warrior. She started to spread it out over her friend's prone form, but was rudely interrupted.
"What in Tartarus do you think you're doing now?!"
The bard took a deep breath and clamped her jaws together, resisting the urge to fight back.
"I was just going to put my blanket over you so the flies would stop bothering --"
"It's too damn hot! Honestly, Gabrielle, just stop and think for a change!"
"Please stop it."
"Stop what? All I'm doing is suggesting that you --"
"That's enough!!" the little bard shouted and threw the blanket into the dirt with as much force as she could muster. "No more, Xena! I'm not going to take any more!"
She turned and crossed to the rock where she'd placed the fish and silently set about preparing their breakfast.
The warrior watched her with hooded, angry eyes, but held her tongue.
Later that afternoon, after once again soaking the blue compress, as she had done at least a dozen times already, Gabrielle sat across the campsite watching the warrior sleep. All through breakfast and then the rest of the morning, Xena had complained, berated and belittled. She never once thanked her friend for the trout or for constantly waving away the flies while they ate or even for the foresight she'd exhibited in bringing a couple of reeds back from the lake shore so the warrior could use them to siphon water out of her cup.
Not that the little bard expected or required any thanks, but neither did she deserve to be treated like that. As she looked at Xena's face, now relatively peaceful in sleep, Gabrielle made up her mind not to allow this behavior to continue.
Becoming aware of a need to make a little trip into the forest, the blonde rose and quietly left camp, exercising great caution to avoid stepping on anything which could break or snap or make any other type of noise that might awaken the warrior. As long as she was sleeping, she wasn't yelling.
After attaining enough distance from camp, the bard relaxed her efforts to move quietly and started searching for a suitable spot to ... well, to do what she needed to do.
Her task completed, she started to turn back toward camp, but stopped and peered into the forest at a splash of red she had glimpsed some distance away.
'If that's what I think it is,' she thought, her salivary glands beginning to react to the possibility, 'Xena's going to think she's died and gone to Elysium.'
The bard made her way through the forest and underbrush, never taking her eyes off the splattering of red for fear of losing track of it in the thick foliage. When she finally reached her goal, her eyes widened in amazement. Not only were these berries the warrior's favorite food -- so much so that they'd made a half-day's detour once when Xena'd learned from some fellow travelers that a nearby village had just harvested a bumper crop -- but the quantity that lay before her was more than she could ever gather in one trip or two or even three. And, because these were wild berries, they were easily twice the size of any she'd ever seen before.
A huge grin pulling at her mouth, Gabrielle began searching the surrounding area for something -- anything -- that would make a suitable container for transporting this incredible find back to camp.
Her eyes fell on a curve of bark at least two feet long, the sides of which rose six or seven inches. Perfect, she thought, as she crossed to pick it up. She grabbed some leaves and used them to wipe out the inside of the bark, then examined the makeshift container.
The ends were open, of course, but, if she put her hands over the ends while walking back to camp, she doubted she'd lose many berries at all.
Satisfied with her plan, she returned to the enormous patch and started to fill the bark container. Her willpower wavered at one point and she popped several juicy berries into her mouth. As she chewed and swallowed, she closed her eyes in ecstasy, then redoubled her efforts to fill up the bark so she could get back to camp and surprise her friend with this most unexpected treasure. Finally, with her hands clamped over the ends of the makeshift container, Gabrielle worked her way back through the forest.
'I can hardly wait to see the look on her face when she sees this,' the little bard thought, grinning broadly. 'Her eyes are going to pop right --'
Her thoughts were interrupted by a faint, vaguely familiar sound. She stopped her progress and cocked her head, straining to hear whatever it was that had caught her attention, but all she heard were the usual sounds of the forest.
She shrugged and started walking, but there it was again ... and, this time, she knew what it was. She tightened her grip on the ends of the bark, her muscles now taut with gnawing fear, and increased her pace, running when the thick underbrush would permit.
As she got closer to camp, she could clearly hear Xena's frightened voice calling her name.
She finally broke through the thick foliage and darted into the small campsite, her eyes rapidly sweeping the area, but she and her disabled companion were its only occupants.
"I'm here! I'm here!" she said quickly, then moved toward her friend. "Wait till you see what I --"
"Where in Tartarus were you?!" the warrior shouted. "What did you think you were doing going off by yourself again -- in the daylight!! And you didn't even have the common sense to put my weapons where I could at least reach them ... even if I couldn't have used them unless someone got close enough to whack them on the toes." A pathetic, frightened laugh escaped her lips.
The little bard lowered her head, tears flowing unchecked down her face.
"Dammit, Gabrielle, when are you going to start using the sense the gods gave you?"
The younger woman carefully placed the bark container on a nearby stump, then approached her very angry friend and laid down perpendicular to her, not hiding her face, but forcing the warrior to see the tears and hurt so clearly visible there.
"So help me, Zeus, if you go off again without --"
Xena stopped in mid-sentence when the pain on her friend's face finally registered and she closed her eyes against the sight, knowing she was the cause.
A moment passed, then Gabrielle quietly said, "Are you finished?"
The warrior nodded once.
"I think we need to talk," the bard said.
Steeling herself against what she would see on her friend's face, Xena opened her eyes and said, "Yeah, I guess we do."
"You want to go first or shall I?"
"I think I've said enough, don't you?"
The little bard paused for a moment, but made no attempt to hide the pain and tears the warrior had caused.
"I know you don't think I could possibly understand what you're going through, but you're wrong. In fact, I think I understand it better than you do ... but that doesn't give you the right to treat me like you have been."
The warrior closed her eyes again, remorse overwhelming her. "You're right."
"Okay, since we both agree, let's just drop it."
The bard started to get up, but was stopped when the warrior reached over and clasped her hand.
"Wait," Xena said, "I owe you much more than that." There was a clear brand of shame in the crystal blue gaze.
Gabrielle settled back down and waited for her friend to continue.
"None of this has had anything to do with you. It's all been me. I've just been taking it out on you." The blue eyes closed tightly, then opened to focus again on the young face. A single tear slipped from the warrior's eye and dripped onto the blanket beneath her.
"I'm scared, Gabrielle. I've never felt so frightened or helpless in my life." The woman's voice trembled as her words come haltingly, quietly.
The bard squeezed her friend's hand and whispered, "I know."
"It's not just the fear that's eating away at me, it's the helplessness ... and the helplessness is feeding the fear. When I woke up a little bit ago and realized you were gone, I panicked. I really was afraid something had happened to you, but then fear for myself began to grow. I'm totally helpless, Gabrielle," Xena said, a mournful catch in her throat. "I'm like a turtle that's been flipped onto its back ... except, if I was on my back, I don't think I'd be so frightened, because I wouldn't feel so helpless." The little bard reached out to wipe away the tears that had pooled against the warrior's nose.
"I've never known this kind of helplessness," Xena continued. "I've been afraid before -- only a fool denies his fears -- but I've never been so utterly helpless." She paused a moment and looked at her friend. "I don't know about you, but I don't think I'm handling it very well." The warrior's face lit in a frail, little grin.
The little blonde smiled past her tears and again squeezed her friend's hand. She tilted her head to meet the blue eyes directly. "It's okay. I knew where it was all coming from."
"No, it's not okay. I've been treating you like you were my worst enemy instead of my best friend. I'll never forgive myself for that."
"No, you probably won't ... but I already have."
The warrior looked deep into her friend's green eyes. "How did you get to be so wise?"
"I don't know. Maybe it's the company I keep." Gabrielle paused a moment, then started to rise. "I'd better water you down again."
As she stepped away to retrieve the waterskin, Xena waved off a fly that was buzzing around her head. "I swear, I'm beginning to wish I was totally paralyzed so these damn flies wouldn't drive me so CRAZY!"
The bard chuckled as she knelt back down by her friend. "Oh, I don't know. If the flies weren't around, I have a feeling you'd find something else to complain about."
"Me?" the warrior said, innocently, wiping her face with her fingers.
Gabrielle started to laugh, then said, "Wait a minute."
"I almost forgot."
"Oh, you'll see," the little blonde said as she put down the waterskin, rose to her feet and stepped back toward the surprise she'd left on the tree stump. "When you see what I've got here, you're really going to be sorry you were so mean to me."
As Gabrielle knelt down by her again, Xena said, "I already am."
The bard laid a loving hand on her friend's shoulder and said, "I know." After a moment, she continued. "Okay, close your eyes."
"Close my eyes?"
"Yeah, close your eyes."
"What're you going to do with that log?"
"Trust me. You won't be sorry."
The warrior raised her eyebrow, then slowly closed her eyes.
"Now, open your mouth."
Xena's eyes flew open.
"Just do it."
With a deep, tolerant sigh, the dark-haired woman once again closed her eyes, then opened her mouth and Gabrielle popped a big, juicy berry into it.
The warrior chewed for a moment, then opened her eyes and watched with wonder and delight as the bard lowered the bark container to the ground. "Where did you find these?" she asked, then greedily reached to pop several more into her mouth.
"I found a huge, wild patch of them. There's enough to keep you happy for days."
"Mmm," the warrior groaned. "These are wonderful!"
Gabrielle smiled as she watched her friend pop berry after berry into her mouth, then picked up the waterskin and reached to retrieve the blue compress, waving flies away in the process. She caught sight of a movement out of the corner of her eye and looked down past her friend's legs, trying to determine what it was she'd seen. There it was: a fly buzzing around Xena's foot. When it landed, Gabrielle reached to shoo it away, then froze.
She held her breath as the insect flew around, then once more landed and drew in a quick breath when she again saw her friend's foot wiggle to shake it off.
The little bard scooted back up toward's the warrior's head. "You just moved your foot."
"What?" Xena said, a handful of berries hanging in the air halfway to her mouth.
"I just saw it. You moved your foot!" The two looked at each other for a moment, then Gabrielle said, "Do it again."
The warrior took a deep breath and held it, then closed her eyes. A moment later, her foot moved.
"Yes!" the bard shouted with delight, then reached for her friend's shoulders. "Come on, let's get you turned over." Slowly and gently, the little blonde helped her friend roll onto her back. "It's over," Gabrielle whispered. "You're going to be okay."
"Looks like it," Xena said, relief washing over her that she was no longer helplessly face down on the ground. ************
Later that evening, after dinner and just a few more of the berries, Gabrielle looked across the flames of the campfire at her friend, who was now propped up on Argo's saddle, which the bard had dragged over there for that purpose.
Sensing the blonde's eyes on her, Xena looked up, then said, "Come here a second."
"You want some more berries?" Gabrielle asked, reaching for them.
"No, just ... just come here."
The little bard stepped over to her friend, sat down next to the warrior and crossed her legs.
Xena looked at her for a moment, then said, "I want to apologize again for --"
Gabrielle started to shake her head.
"No," the warrior continued, reaching to take one small hand in hers. "I need to say this and I need to be sure you hear it." The bard nodded.
"I am so sorry for the way I treated you today. I know you know it wasn't you I was angry with, but that's no excuse for abusing our friendship the way I did ... and I want to thank you for putting up with me and not just packing up and leaving."
"I'd never do that," the girl said quietly.
"I know ... and I want to thank you for that, too." The blue eyes glistened with tears.
Gabrielle smiled and scooted in closer to the warrior, then reached out to pull her into a hug.
"Hey," the little bard whispered, "that's what friends are for."