THE GIFT OF GAB
This Xena: Warrior Princess story takes place immediately after "On Uncertain Ground." While not absolutely necessary, it is HIGHLY recommended that this story be read before "The Gift of Gab."
This story is dedicated to my fellow recreational writers who are possessed by an urge to touch others through their words and endure the constant struggle to find the right wons.
Content: While not sexually explicit, the story involves mature themes and a romantic relationship between two woman. This story also depicts violent acts.
This story exemplifies how the author is unable to write a short story. Unless you have taught yourself to read very quickly or you are related to Evelyn Wood, be prepared for a long haul.
Avoiding operation of heavy equipment after having read this story in one sitting continues to be sage advice.
For those who are impatient, the story may really bother you.
CHAPTER 1 - PATIENCE
Xena quickly left camp to intercept the intruder, wondering who was foolish enough to approach them this late at night, and more importantly ... interrupt them. "Damn it." Xena muttered under her breath, feeling for her chakrum only to find an empty thong. At least she had enough wits about her to remember her sword, an irritated Warrior Princess considered.
No longer on uncertain ground, the two best friends finally embraced the feelings they had for each other. Xena could not believe that after such darkness in her life, she would be able to experience so much joy. How wonderful it was to finally show Gabrielle how much she loved her, well...almost show her, the Warrior Princess sighed heavily.
Her eyes narrowed, hearing yet another sound from the ill-timed interruption.
Quickly moving through the forest to flank the noisy intruder, Xena's thoughts lingered back at the camp with Gabrielle. She could not believe the incredible depth of Gabrielle's love for her. A smile slowly crossed Xena's face as she recalled the most recent evidence of that love...the tender words, the gentle touch.... the incredible passion in her kisses.
"Focus, you idiot." Xena scolded herself, hearing the surprising sound of a second intruder. Waiting motionless, Xena monitored the progress of the two intruders by their not so subtle noises.
As the second intruder came closer, Xena's body tensed, ready for a battle. Finally appearing, the second intruder surprised Xena again. "I thought I told you I'd take care of it." Xena sighed as a disheveled bard came along side her.
"I know what you said," Gabrielle responded, trying to tie her top's laces with her staff awkwardly wedged under her arm. "But you were taking entirely too long," The bard complained, still fumbling with the laces. The staff slipped. As she grabbed for it, she knocked herself in the head. "Ow..." The bard muffled her moan and rubbed her head.
"You ok?" Xena asked, wisely wiping the grin from her face before the bard's eyes caught it.
"Just wonderful," Gabrielle muttered, placing her staff back under her arm and continued her struggle with the laces
"Let me help." Xena offered with a slight grin, reaching out for laces that moments ago, the warrior had no difficulty untying.
"Thanks." Gabrielle responded, placing her staff in the surprised warrior's hand. "There." Gabrielle exhaled with quiet triumph over the stubborn top. With a slight sigh of disappointment, Xena returned the staff to the now-laced bard. Back to the business at hand, Xena's attention refocused on the intruder.
The Warrior Princess seemed amazingly calm to the bard. Almost too calm.
"You act as if you expected this," Gabrielle whispered, also noting the warrior fully dressed and ready for battle. "...and how did you get your armor back on so quickly?" Gabrielle quietly interrogated her partner who tried, with great difficulty, to keep her attention on the intruder's movement.
Gabrielle looked at her feet, one bare and one booted. "You don't happen to know where my other..." Xena gently put her fingers on the bard's lips and pointed towards the shadowy figure, now very close.
The shadowy figure tripped and fell down with a familiar metallic thud. The two women looked at each other. "Joxer" They sighed in unison.
"You know Xena...I won't hold it against you if your chakrum just happens to slip out of your hand," Gabrielle offered, eyeing the intruder as he quickly picked himself up and looked around to see if anyone saw him.
"Gabrielle," Xena sighed and shook her head, hiding her amusement. "Ok, ok...no chakrum...hey...where IS your chakrum?" Gabrielle noticed and touched the empty thong.
Probably next to your boot, Xena thought to herself. "Hard to get a good shot with all these trees." Xena explained to the interested bard. "For close-in confrontations, a sword is a better weapon." Xena lectured, further amusing the bard.
Before Gabrielle could respond, Joxer called out to them. "Xena?... Xena?...Gabrielle?" He scratched his head wondering why both of them were away from camp this late at night.
The two sighed again as they looked back at Joxer. "OK...Did you know sword accidents are very common? People trip and fall on swords all the time," Gabrielle casually informed the warrior.
"Are you trying to tell me something Gabrielle?" Xena asked innocently.
"Well you did say YOU would take care of it didn't you?" Gabrielle turned to her partner with a raised eyebrow, causing the warrior to smile and laugh softly.
"Well?" Gabrielle quickly added as she crossed her arms and impatiently tapped her bare foot. "Gabrielle," Xena responded, tenderly caressing her cheek, making the bard's irritation evaporate. "Patience..." Xena whispered, leaning towards the bard for a kiss.
With her flame of desire just extinguished by that incredibly cold bucket of wisdom, Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. "All right." Gabrielle responded with a polite smile as she stepped back from the Warrior Princess, avoiding the kiss. "I can be patient." Gabrielle slowly added.
"Gabrielle....I didn't mean...I....Gab..." Xena called to her partner, who ignored her as she briskly turned and headed back to camp. Watching the one-booted bard hobble away, the warrior made a mental note that not all of her wonderfully sage advice should be shared with the bard.
"Ugh" Xena groaned, wondering just how patient the stubborn bard intended to be.
Returning to camp, Gabrielle's eyes furrowed at the intruder who was inspecting her misplaced boot. "Joxer!" Gabrielle called out with a forced smile.
"Gabrielle!" He responded happily but coughed and took on a more dramatic tone to deliver his news. "I have news for Xena, where is she?" He looked around the camp, then down curiously at the bard's bare foot.
"Out there." Gabrielle sighed, pointing over her shoulder to the forest. "Being PATIENT." Gabrielle snapped, taking the boot from his hands and plopping down on her bed roll. Lying back with her head on her arm, Gabrielle let out a long sigh.
"Joxer..." Xena nodded to him, noting Gabrielle ignore her return. "You said you had news?" The warrior questioned the intruder, disclosing mild interest.
"You bet Xena, your friend Texius needs your...uh ...OUR help." He grinned widely, excited there was to be another adventure for him with the Warrior Princess.
'So somebody needs her help, what ELSE is new?' Gabrielle thought. 'Will THEY get told to be patient? Oh no... just the bard,' Gabrielle sighed heavily.
"Why?" Xena asked, ignoring Joxer's "our" comment and Gabrielle's belabored sigh. "He wouldn't tell me...just that it was important to his people. He said he would tell you everything once you got there." Joxer shrugged.
"There where?" Gabrielle asked, still staring at the stars. As if it really mattered, she sighed.
"Someplace you will appreciate Gabrielle." Xena spoke enticingly, eyeing her. Rolling on her side, Gabrielle propped her head up on her hand and finally looked at Xena.
"Oh?" Gabrielle responded casually.
Xena grinned slightly, waiting for the ever-curious bard to ask again before explaining. Gabrielle, however, had no intentions of complying. Although dying to ask, she just looked at the Warrior Princess and demonstrated...patience. The Warrior Princess considered the bard's curiosity would ultimately overwhelm her, so Xena waited....patiently.
"Well, I thought the Verbinians were just a myth until I actually met them." Joxer offered, drawing a sharp look from Xena, who carefully weighed the pros and cons of the chakrum and sword accidents.
"Verbinia! We are going to Verbinia?" Gabrielle bolted up with a huge smile on her face, all evidence of her annoyance evaporated. A response that pleased and, though she wouldn't admit it, relieved Xena. "Unless Texius moved..." Xena looked at Joxer.
"Nope...you know it's weird that not too many people get a chance to see their city." He shrugged. "They seem nice enough. Makes you wonder why the walls and secrecy." Joxer added as he plopped down his bed roll between the two women. They stared at him for a moment as he made himself comfortable.
"So what is Verbinia like?" Gabrielle asked her partner, exaggerating the need to look around an unaware Joxer. Xena smiled, considering perhaps her comment about patience was water under the bridge.
"Don't know. I wasn't allowed in," Xena replied, sitting down on her bed roll. She eyed the distance between bedrolls and sighed. A sigh not lost on the bard.
"Well...I've seen it and once you've seen one Greek town, you've seen them all..I don't know what all the fuss is about." Joxer lied back on his bed roll, shifting around a number of times to get into the most comfortable sleeping position.
"But to be around a people with such a RICH literary history, to be around such great story tellers!" Gabrielle responded with infectious enthusiasm. "It is said that the Verbinians are gifted with the ability to tell their tales at a very early age, some say they are gifted from BIRTH. Imagine!"
"I'm not sure I'd like to hear a story from a newborn." Xena grimaced.
"Me neither." Joxer interjected.
Ignoring the two, Gabrielle continued with her unabashed appreciation of these mysterious people. "A elderly Verbinian poet, Loquus, came to the Athens Academy causing quiet a stir in the bard community. His poetry was SO incredible." Gabrielle beamed.
Xena enjoyed watching the bard, especially when such enthusiasm radiated from the young woman. Of course, Xena noted as she eyed the intruder, watching was the only pleasure she would be able to enjoy this evening. Patience, oh wise warrior, patience, Xena sighed heavily, starting to remove her boots for a second time that evening.
"What's wrong?" Xena asked softly, noticing the bard's smile fade.
"For a man so proud of his people, I would have expected him to want to talk a bit more about them. He always seemed to be alone in the library, writing." She relayed.
"The Verbinians are a secretive people." Xena responded from experience. Gabrielle nodded.
"Tell me about it! I kept asking Texius what was wrong and got no where fast," Joxer relayed.
"Wait a minute, why would Joxer be allowed in their city but not you?" Gabrielle questioned her partner.
"Yeah." Joxer interjected.
Xena stopped unlacing her boots and looked Gabrielle directly in the eyes. "I was with my army. They made the right decision to keep us out." Xena said bluntly.
"But how could they stop you? Especially with how strong your army was." Gabrielle questioned, always wanting to understand.
"Yeah" Joxer interjected, wanting to participate in the conversation.
"Their army was formidable and they had the benefit of a strong defensive position. It wasn't worth the risk." Xena relayed matter-of-factly, staring into Gabrielle's eyes, wondering what she would ever do if those beautiful eyes, that had always shown her love and understanding, ever turned away in fear or disgust.
The bard shook her head, confused. "Hmm...all the stories I've heard about the Verbinians were about their stories and literary gifts... I've never heard of a Verbinian army...seems ....odd." Gabrielle shrugged. "Do you think that could be the problem now? Someone challenging their army?" Gabrielle asked her partner.
"Don't know. I guess."
"Hmm!" Joxer interjected thoughtfully, wanting to participate in the conversation.
Gabrielle looked at Joxer and sighed, not exactly happy about the evening's interruption. Nor was she happy about this mysterious Verbinian problem which threatened to prolong the interruption, not that the Warrior Princess seemed too concerned, the bard noted with irritation.
"Well, rather than letting my imagination run wild and guessing the worst about your friend, I guess I should be... PATIENT... because we'll find out once we get there." Gabrielle informed her partner with a thin smile, as she pulled her blanket up over her and laid down.
Well, so much for water under the bridge, Xena sighed, removing her boots. The bard was not going to let this drop, Xena correctly concluded. Wondering what it would take to get Gabrielle to forgive her, a slight grin formed as she thought of ways they both would enjoy. There may be a silver lining in this after all, Xena considered.
"Good night you guys." Joxer said happily. "Good night Joxer." The women sighed in unison.
CHAPTER 2 - SLEEPING BEAUTY
"How do you feel?" A young man asked his brother, touching his forehead and temple gently. "Gods, I feel...REBORN! I want to sing the songs of Verbinia from the highest mountain!" The soldier announced enthusiastically. "I had no idea it would be so wonderful!" He beamed. The young man smiled, relieved there were no adverse side affects.
"Look" The soldier pointed to the evening mist over the pond. "In the still of the night, a heavenly cloud steals a gentle kiss from the slumbering pond." The soldier smiles at the sight. "I see things...differently...Like I have been stumbling my way through a dreary cave and finally a torch has been lite, revealing the wondrous beauty of the path I've been traveling." He laughed when his brother raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Well, at least I can express my wonder more articulately." He added with a grin.
"Brother, you know you mustn't let anyone know of this yet." The younger brother cautioned, attempting to temper his enthusiasm. "I know. I know." The older brother sighed sadly. "But you don't know what it was like to live without it all your life, and to finally get one so truly great." The older brother explained with great emotion, tears forming in his eyes.
"No....I don't. But I do know what it is like to want something better...for all of us." The younger brother responded. "I hope you can restrain yourself from singing brother, we are not finished yet." The younger brother added.
"I owe you brother. You have my help." The soldier promised.
Xena spent most of the night lying back with her head resting on her arm, listening. Between Joxer's snoring, interrupted by occasional mumblings of grandeur, and the bard's heavy sighs as she tossed and turned, the warrior found little sleep.
"You're up." Xena stated softly, hearing the bard stir more as the first rays of morning light peered over the mountain.
"Unhun." Gabrielle mumbled affirmatively, rubbing her eyes. "Sleep well?" Xena asked, already knowing the answer.
"UnUn." Gabrielle mumbled negatively, slowly stretching her stiff body, unknowingly mesmerizing the Warrior Princess. "You?" The bard asked with a yawn, snapping Xena's attention back to the conversation.
"NO." Xena responded gruffly, making the bard giggle and in turn, the warrior chuckle.
Gabrielle rolled over on her side, eyeing Joxer. "You know, I've heard of people accidently suffocating while they sleep," Gabrielle noted with great seriousness.
"Gabrielle!" The warrior tried to feign annoyance but couldn't keep a straight face. The two chuckled again, making sleeping beauty stir, but not wake.
"He looks so...." Gabrielle sat up and looked at Joxer thoughtfully. "Annoying?" Xena guessed the first word that popped into her head.
"No...ok...yes...annoying does describe him, ESPECIALLY his snoring." Gabrielle agreed. "But he LOOKS so..." Gabrielle responded, still thinking.
"Peaceful?" Xena got up to get a closer look at Joxer. "Well yes, but that wasn't exactly the word I was looking for," Gabrielle responded thoughtfully then grinned, thinking of the word. "Vulnerable! Veeeery vulnerable." Gabrielle spoke with a sinister tone while eyeing him.
"Gabrielle, I'm not going to kill him. Not even for you." Xena responded matter-of-factly.
Gabrielle sighed with disappointment as she got up from her bedroll. "I know...I know...not enough of a challenge for you..." The bard eyed the sleeping form at their feet, then her warrior. "But a girl can dream, can't she?" Gabrielle shrugged.
"I know I do." Xena slipped her arm around the bard and pulled her close. "Good morning Gabrielle." Xena greeted the bard, looking deeply into her eyes.
"Good morning Xena." The bard responded softly, almost forgetting how annoyed she was with the warrior. As Xena slowly leaned closer to the bard, she noticed the bard not stepping back. Finally forgiven, Xena happily concluded with a smile.
A loud yawn interrupted their attempt at a morning kiss, drawing their attention towards sleeping beauty. Xena reluctantly broke from their warm embrace, but the thought of Joxer observing an intimate moment between them was even more distasteful.
Finally aware of someone watching him, Joxer bolted up from his prone position and looked around until he focused on the two familiar faces.
"Oh! Good morning you guys" Joxer responded, surprised to see the two standing at the foot of his bed roll.
"Good morning Joxer." The two responded flatly. Gabrielle shook her head and returned to her bed roll to pack up.
"You guys were waiting for me? You should have woken me up. Warriors don't need much sleep. In fact, I could have stayed up to guard the camp...I..." Joxer found himself talking to the air. Xena had also returned to her bed roll to pack up. "Could have woken me up...." Joxer muttered to himself.
A robed man stood nervously before the Verbinian Counsel of Elders. This very rare audience with the Counsel was granted due to his position as lead Attendant. A position, he wondered if he would still have after all of this.
Respecting protocol, he waited for the Counsel of Elders to formally address him before he spoke. Texius found himself scanning the long, semi-circular table with nine chairs, one of which was now vacant. A sight that painfully reminded him of their people's desperate need for help.
Actions taken involving Outsiders were not allowed without the Counsel's consent. Despite that knowledge, Texius still sent word requesting the Warrior Princess to come to Verbinia for help. He wondered if they would actually listen to him plead his case, or just make an example out of him.
"Texius, you have gone TOO far this time!" One Elder snapped at the man, finally breaking the silence. "Verbis, we are a DYING people! We need help." Texius responded emphatically, looking at the empty chair.
"You know we do not involve Outsiders in our problems, our worries." Thesaurus, the First Elder, spoke with fatherly warmth, a stark contrast to Verbis. "They do not understand our ways, our customs...how can they possibly help, assist?" Thesaurus added, holding his hand up to prevent an annoyed Verbis from interrupting.
"If lack of knowledge of our ways is a problem, then we should explain our ways." Texius spoke confidently. The bold suggestion caused a great murmur from the other counsel members. "NO!" Verbis strongly objected.
"Thesaurus, we can not allow that WOMAN in here. She's a murderer!" Verbis argued, remembering as if it was yesterday when her army camped outside their walls.
"We already have one murderer to deal with Thesaurus, we should not invite more trouble." The Third Elder, Loquus, agreed with Verbis.
"I have asked for her help only because I am unwilling to let our people loose our Gifts. We have already lost one Attendant and an Elder! An ELDER! If we don't get help, who will be next?" Texius looked each of the Counsel members in the eye, making many of them shift uncomfortably.
"Our past is in jeopardy Thesaurus....we suffer every loss, even Attendants and their modest Gifts. Xena is my friend and she WILL help us." Texius looked at the unconvinced faces of the elders.
"I stake my life on it." Texius added, making Thesaurus sigh.
"We will put it to a vote, decide by ballot." Thesaurus waived his hand for Texius to leave. Texius bowed and left, uncertain he had been convincing enough. For the first time, he was envious of those blessed with a superior Gift.
CHAPTER 3 - SENSURIA
As they entered the town of Sensuria, Gabrielle and Xena walked numbly side by side. They stared at Joxer who continued his enthusiastic lecture on the Sensurian tourist sites they just shouldn't miss. Joxer pointed to the blacksmith's shop. "The blacksmith is really good Xena, he'll have Argo's shoes fixed up in no time." Joxer said happily.
"Why don't you show Gabrielle the sights while I tend to Argo." Xena offered. It seemed like a good idea, until she saw the look on Gabrielle's face. Gabrielle's cold glare at a certain, helpful Warrior Princess, was interrupted by her tour guide.
"Sure thing Xena! Come on Gabrielle!!" Joxer bubbled as he pulled Gabrielle's arm and the bard attached to it, towards the shops. "You'll like the shops Gabby, the best craftsmen and artists from all over display there goods here. OH, and they have the BEST taverns here too!" Joxer informed her with a huge smile.
"JOXER, you've told me this already!" Gabrielle stopped in her tracks. "In fact, you've told us EVERYTHING about this place.....MANY times!" Gabrielle blurted, yanking her arm from his hand. Turning to have a word with the Princess of Help, she found the woman and her horse gone. "How does she DO that?" Gabrielle muttered with annoyed amazement.
"Sorry Gabby...uh Gabrielle. I just wanted to show you this place, since you've never been here and all...uh I guess I..." Joxer stumbled over his words, making the bard feel bad.
"Joxer, I'm sorry too. I have been... preoccupied lately. Sorry for being so short with you." Gabrielle smiled weakly, feeling trapped.
"No problem! Let's start with..."
"Joxer?" Gabrielle held her hand up to stop his tidal wave of enthusiasm. "Why don't you go on ahead, I need to tell Xena something." She added.
"Tell her what?"
'She's a dead woman', Gabrielle considered would be a good start. "Uh, I just wanted to see if she needed anything... at the stores." Gabrielle considered that close enough to the truth. "No use in both of us going. You go...enjoy the sights, I'll catch up." She smiled, patting his arm.
"Oh, ok Gabby." He responded with a shrug. "Don't take too long...there is this really neat glass blower..." He noted, instinctively launched into another lecture on Sensuria as he looked towards a favorite tourist spot. Turning back to see if Gabrielle found this as interesting as he did, he found her already gone.
On her way to the blacksmith's, Gabrielle slowed to a stop, watching a man in a familiar looking robe enter a store with a young child in hand. Two soldiers traveling with them waited outside.
"Verbinians." An old woman offered flatly, confirming the staring bard's suspicions. "Do they travel here often?" Gabrielle asked, not sure from the woman's tone how she felt about them.
"Not often." The old woman responded, arranging the fruit on her cart. "They don't like to leave Verbinia unless they have to. Many Sensurians don't like them, weird customs...too secretive." The woman shook her head, watching the soldiers use hand signals. A sight that fascinated the bard.
"But if they bring us business..." The woman shrugged. " the whole lot of them are welcome as far as I'm concerned." She eyed her potential customer. "Apple? Best you'll ever taste." She held a beautiful red apple up to entice the bard.
"Oh, no thank you." Gabrielle declined, focused on the soldiers as they used hand signals. Xena mentioned that hand signals allowed warriors the ability to communicate without giving away their position. These Verbinians, however, were using hand signals in public, she noted curiously. "Do you know what they are saying to each other?" The bard asked.
"No. Though I wish I could. I might be able to sell them an APPLE." The woman responded. The bard was still watching the soldiers. The woman sighed.
"I heard the young one was sick and needed a healer." The woman finally got the bard's undivided attention. "Of course, in Sensuria, we have the best here. Best healers, best APPLES," She added, holding up an apple, eyeing it then her tough customer.
Gabrielle grinned at the woman's tenacity and bought an apple. She wasn't disappointed. "Mmmm" Gabrielle relayed appreciatively, biting into the best tasting apple she ever had.
"Told you." The woman responded. Gabrielle smiled warmly, wiping the juice from the side of her chin.
"Why don't the Verbinian's have their own healers?" Gabrielle asked.
"Don't know. I've only seen Soldiers and Attendants. I've heard about the Elders. None of them are healers. Guess they realize Sensuria has the best healers....did I mention we also have the best APPLES?" The woman added with a smile.
Gabrielle looked at her and chuckled. "You ARE good." Gabrielle grinned as she bought another apple. Not a bad bargain, she considered. For one price, she not only got a delicious apple but interesting information.
"The best." The old woman stated with pride.
"I heard the Verbinian children are gifted with the ability to tell stories from birth," Gabrielle relayed.
"Well, I don't know about that. I heard that child is mute. Can't speak or understand a single word. Most kids you can't get to stop talking at that age. Such a shame. Maybe that's why they needed a healer." The woman guessed. Gabrielle pondered the intriguing information. "Of course, they are in the best place for healers...and APPLES." The old woman grinned.
Enjoying the sights of Sensuria, Joxer failed to see a well-dressed portly man, who was frankly, not easy to miss. Due to the man's enormous size, Joxer merely bounced off him.
"Hey! You ...You....YOU!" Joxer called up from the ground, tongue-tied with annoyance. The large man looked down at the skinny, oddly clothed soldier in the dirt and shook his head.
"Verbinian idiot" The portly man sighed, shaking his head as he walked away.
Joxer jumped to his feet. "Yeah...wise choice my friend." Joxer called out to the portly man. "And I just washed!" He whined, brushing the dirt off himself.
"OK?" A young soldier asked Joxer with concern, having heard the insult. "Oh him? No problem there. He knew not to mess with me... too intimidated by my warrior bearing." Joxer saw the soldier look at him oddly.
"Joxer's the name." He held out his hand to the soldier, who smiled and happily shook it.
"Joxer." The soldier said slowly, repeating his name a few times.
"Yeah buddy, don't wear it out." Joxer responded with a little concern at this man's fixation with his name. The soldier looked at him and smiled.
"JOXER!" The Verbinian soldier called out happily. "My name... is... Basullus." The man said slowly. "Call me Bass. Easier." Bass added with a smile. Joxer returned the smile, concluding the poor young soldier was a few slices short of a full loaf.
"Well Bass, thanks for your concern...Believe me, I can take care of myself...don't you worry about me! Are you a Verbinian? Your armor looks Verbinian. I don't recall seeing you there the last time I was there. Have you been visiting Sensuria long? They've got the best Tavern food don't you think?" Joxer rambled on, delighted to find a new friend, even one who's eyes glazed over as he rambled.
Finished chatting with the old woman, Gabrielle finally made it to the stables, armed with a large bag of apples. She spotted the blacksmith nervously watching Xena as the Warrior Princess thoroughly and slowly inspected Argo's new shoes. Apparently satisfied with his work, though not obvious from her expression, Xena silently paid the blacksmith.
"Uh, I hope you'll consider me the next time your in the area and need a black...smith." He smiled weakly as the still silent Warrior Princess raised an eyebrow and dropped the last coin in his hand.
"Well, I'll be going now." The blacksmith nervously informed her and quickly left. Waiting until he was out of sight, Xena turned toward her beloved horse. "There there" She patted the horse's neck lovingly. "Happy now? Do you like your new shoes?" She asked, causing the amused bard to grin.
"Don't look at me like that." Xena told the bard in the shadows.
"Like what?" Gabrielle asked, approaching the warrior and her horse.
"Like I'm being over protective." Xena responded cooly, placing Argo's saddle back on. "There you go girl." Xena spoke warmly to the horse.
"You ARE." Gabrielle answered, scratching Argo's neck. "But I think it is sweet." Gabrielle added quickly with a warm smile.
"Sweet huh?" Xena responded, tightening up the saddle.
"Yes, VERY." Gabrielle answered, gazing appreciatively at this beautiful, caring, strong, amazing woman, wondering how she could ever get annoyed with her.
"Try to remember that the next time you think I'm being over protective of you." Xena noted dryly. "What's with all the apples? How much did you spend? How much do we have LEFT!?" Xena asked with concern, eyeing the large bag. Gabrielle sighed, knowing EXACTLY how she could get so annoyed with this woman.
Argo neighed and nudged the bard, who handed over an apple. At least someone appreciated her purchase, she considered.
"We still have about 6 dinars. Why?" Gabrielle asked, slightly defensive in her tone.
"Well, Sensuria IS supposed to have some of the best food and Inns in the area. How does a good meal and a comfortable room sound to you?" Xena asked with a twinkle in her eye, stepping closer to the bard.
"Sounds WONDERFUL." Gabrielle responded with a large smile that quickly faded. "But do you think 6 dinars will get two rooms?" Gabrielle asked.
"Two?!?" Xena responded with confusion. "Oh...yeah." Xena exhaled.
"And we can't let him eat alone...." Gabrielle sighed as she hugged the warrior with her free arm. "No, I guess we shouldn't." Xena responded, resting her chin on top of the bard's head.
"Unless..." Gabrielle offered. "Unless what?" Xena asked looking into the bard's serious face. The bard placed the bag down and picked out a single apple, which she carefully inspected.
"Did you know a number of people have died in apple choking accidents over the last year?" Gabrielle responded with a serious face.
"Gab..." Xena's attempt to scold the blood thirsty bard was interrupted by a kiss to the warrior's neck. "ahhh...uh...Gabrielle?" Xena responded, quickly looking around for intruders.
"Xena, we should make the most of the privacy we get. And right now, its just you ...and me." The bard responded with a sly smile. Argo snorted. "Oh..Sorry." Gabrielle apologized. "And Argo." She added. "You don't mind do you?" She asked the horse. Argo neighed. "I didn't think so." Gabrielle smiled then looked at the warrior who chuckled at her bard.
Xena's smile faded as she gazed upon the amazing woman who completely captured her heart. Not needing anymore encouragement, she leaned down for a kiss. Their lips barely touched when the two heard the sounds of swords clanking. Xena's head snapped towards the noise. "Why am I NOT surprised?" Gabrielle blurted with frustration.
The Warrior Princess looked back and smiled warmly at her bard. "Gabrielle, pa--" The warrior stopped just before finishing the bard's least favorite word.
"What?!?" Gabrielle's eyes narrowed. "Nothing." Xena blurted innocently. The sound of clanking swords was now accompanied by the unnerving screech of a child.
Rushing out to the main road, the Warrior Princess and Amazon Bard immediately found the source of the disturbing noise. A large group of armed Sensurians were closing in around three Verbinian soldiers, a robed young man, a small child and....Joxer. Greatly outnumbered, the soldiers bravely fought the advancing men.
The familiar war cry of the Warrior Princess made Joxer's face brighten with a huge smile. "That's Xena... the Warrior Princess, she's my friend." Joxer proudly informed his new friend Basullus, who successfully parried the thrusts from two Sensurian swords.
Unlike Joxer however, the sound of her war cry and name caused the three Verbinian soldiers to look to each other nervously. They were acquainted with her reputation and results of her deeds. She killed two fellow Verbinian soldiers during a brutal interrogation.
The Warrior Princess somersaulted into the middle of the Verbinian group, making it perfectly clear she was fighting with the Verbinians.
The first two men who dared to approach the Warrior Princess held their weapons awkwardly, obviously inexperienced in fighting. Revealing a relaxed grin, Xena pulled out her sword with a flourish. The Sensurians stood frozen for a moment, considering whether or not to continue with the attack.
"Tsk...Tsk....Tsk...You know, hospitality like this is the kind of thing that really hurts tourism." Xena warned them and proceeded to easily disarmed the men. Skillfully parrying their uncertain thrusts with great power, the Warrior Princess grinned as their swords flew through the air and imbedded in a water barrel.
Only half of the Sensurian mob was not wise enough to realize they had no way of winning. Incorrectly concluding the raven-haired warrior lucky, three Sensurians exercised their poor judgement and decided to approach her. One man with an axe went first, cautiously stepping towards the smiling warrior.
"Please, everyone... PLEASE!.... stop fighting!" The well dressed portly man called out, trying to squeeze his way through the spectators. The man's pleas fell on deaf ears.
"Perhaps if you recommend a REALLY good restaurant, I will over look your town's little hospitality problem" Xena informed the attackers, kicking the axe out of the man's hands. The axe whirled over the head of another attacker, knocking his hat off and pinning it to the side of a wagon with a reverberating thunk.
"What do you know, Sensurians DO have some manners after all." Xena smiled at the shocked and now hatless man.
The Verbinian soldiers watched with amazement at how much this warrior woman talked during the fight. They silently signed to each other and shrugged.
Easily blocking the attacks of two Sensurians, Gabrielle made her way over to Joxer, who successfully avoided getting killed by sticking with his new friend Bass. "Hi Gabrielle!" He greeted the bard with a happy waive.
Gabrielle sighed and shook her head before deflecting a swordsman's lunge with the end of her staff. With a graceful sweep, she followed through with a blow to his chest. With the wind knocked out of him, the attacker collapsed to the ground.
"JOXER! Why are these people attacking these soldiers with this child here?" Gabrielle asked hurriedly, watching out for attackers. "DUCK!!" Gabrielle ordered as she swung her staff towards Joxer's head.
"Huh?" Joxer responded, unaware that a man behind him about to thwap him over the head with a spiked club. Bass, finishing up with his attacker, grabbed Joxer just in time and pulled him out of the way. The staff forcefully met the attacker's arm, imparting great pain to the man. In a quick and concise motion, Gabrielle lunged at the attacker's chest with the opposite end of her staff, knocking him down.
"Hey! Are you trying to KILL me????" Joxer snapped at the bard who glared at him.
"Never ask questions you don't want to know the answer to." Gabrielle responded coldly, surprising Joxer. Seeing that her comment drew a raised eyebrow of reprimand from a certain Warrior Princess, the bard sighed with exasperation just before responding to another attacker. With swift and precise staff work, she blocked another blow, swept the feet out from under the attacker and knocked him out.
Seeing four Sensurians approaching, Xena swung her sword easily around her in a amazing flourish. The sword appeared like an extension of her body. With a deadly grace, the sword was guided through the air in intricate patterns that mesmerized the oncoming Sensurians. The fighting around her slowed down to a stop as everyone's attention was drawn to the skillful sword display.
Gabrielle smiled as she considered the Sensurians may have a lot of bests, but none could hold a candle to Xena.
Xena stopped her sword display, indicating she was ready to fight again as she sported an unnerving grin. "Come on." She encouraged the hesitating attackers as if they were little children. "Come on," She repeated her invitation. Suddenly, they must have heard their parents calling, for they abruptly ran away.
"Leaving so soon?" Xena questioned the four fleeing men. "And I was just starting to enjoy this place." She muttered. Looking to her bard, Xena found an amused grin on Gabrielle's face. "What?" Xena asked innocently.
CHAPTER 4 - INTRODUCTIONS
Except for the unconscious bodies, Xena had cleared the streets of Sensurian attackers. Sheathing her sword, she approached the Verbinians.
"Alright, somebody start talking. What that was all about." She commanded the group. Despite her having just saved their lives, the robed man looked surprised and insulted by the warrior's demand.
Xena looked coldly at the robed man, quickly concluding he was not about to offer any information. "You" Xena barked at the oldest soldier.
"Darmas." The soldier responded uneasily.
"Well Darmas" Xena spoke with a tight smile and stepped closer to the nervous soldier. "There is something about fighting and not knowing why that tends to bother me." She relayed, her smile faded with her patience. "Why were you attacked by the Sensurians?" Xena asked, her eyes narrowing.
The man looked incredibly nervous but didn't respond. "Tell me!" Xena snapped.
"We will be going back to Verbinia now." The robed man snidely interrupted her questions.
"Not until you explain what just happened." Xena eyed the young man, who was visibly irritated. "Perhaps we should see if you are able to hold your tongue as well as the soldiers." She suggested.
Bass noticed the Attendant's anger grow the more Xena spoke to him. "Xena...Outsider."
He reminded the Attendant. The Attendant looked at Bass and nodded. "Yes." The Attendant exhaled slowly, remembering to be patient with this disrespectful warrior woman.
"It must be apparent, even to YOU, that Sensurians don't like Verbinians." The young man responded condescendingly, looking around the city.
"Then why are you here?" Xena asked cooly. The young man forced a smile. "It is not of your concern, warrior." He uttered with contempt. "We will be on our way."
"Well, before you head back, I'd like to at least be properly introduced. Since we did, after all, fight together." Gabrielle interjected with a warm smile. The young man looked over the bard, thoroughly, further irritating the Warrior Princess.
"You seem to already know of Xena, I am Gabrielle." The bard introduced herself, ignoring the man's blatant assessment of her. "I think you already know Joxer." Gabrielle added flatly.
"Not really" Joxer shrugged and pointed to Bass. "I just..." Joxer's comment was interrupted by the Attendant who recognized the bard's name.
"Gabrielle?" The man questioned with interest, surprising the bard. "Gabrielle...the bard?" He asked with growing excitement. Well...uh...yes, I'm a bard" Gabrielle smiled awkwardly at this incredible change in demeanor. "THE Gabrielle?" He asked in amazement, almost awe, Xena noted.
"She's the only Gabrielle I..." Joxer was interrupted again.
"I can't believe I get to meet you." He responded, reaching for her hand to shake it but stopped short with an embarrassed laugh at his considerable breach of etiquette. "Your scrolls are held in great esteem by the Elders. I have been fortunate enough to read THREE of them." The Attendant informed her enthusiastically.
"You truly have a great Gift! There is even a rumor that you are a Verbinian Elder." He smiled and laughed warmly.
Gabrielle smiled awkwardly, unused to such unabashed praise over something that meant so much to her. She was well aware he was giving her a great compliment.
His comments obviously pleased her, Xena noted, trying to remember the last time she told Gabrielle how much she really liked her stories.
"Are you a bard?" Gabrielle asked. The Attendant smiled broadly, acting as if she had just given him a Solstice present.
"Oh no...I wish...I am only an Attendant." Liberus's smile quickly faded as he realized another breach of etiquette, he still hadn't introduced himself. "Oh PLEASE forgive my poor manners...I am Liberus, Sixth Attendant." He announced his position with a formal air.
"Well Liberus, I'm pleased to meet you." Gabrielle smiled warmly. "We were actually heading in your direction. Xena was invited to Verbinia by Texius. Do you know him?" Gabrielle asked him nonchalantly.
Appreciating Gabrielle's subtlety, Xena quietly waited and listened. Though his annoying fawning over the bard gave Gabrielle a useful edge in obtaining information, the Warrior Princess still preferred his previous rudeness.
"Texius?" Liberus questioned the bard, who smiled and nodded. "Invitations to outsiders are very rare." He informed her, surprised with the news.
"Why is that?" Gabrielle asked curiously.
Liberus looked sharply at the Warrior Princess who stared blankly at him. "Safety." He answered bluntly. "Gabrielle...we really must be going now." He added quickly, before the bard could question him further.
"Perhaps we could travel together..." Gabrielle offered.
The prospect of traveling with this irritating Attendant did not please the Warrior Princess. Strategically, however, she knew it would give the clever bard more time to extract information.
"NO!...I mean...our protocols on travel and interactions with outsiders are extremely rigid, especially before a Ceremony." He added, his eyes glancing down at an amazingly quiet young boy.
"Ceremony?" Xena asked, eyeing the Attendant and the young boy, unable to contain her curiosity. Once again, Gabrielle noted uncomfortably, the warrior and Attendant staring coldly at each other.
"Ah Liberus, you can't go before you introduce me to this little guy." Gabrielle interrupted the unproductive cold war, kneeling down and smiling at the young child. He was little over six summers old and shyly returned a smile.
Bass smiled and pointed. "Scholaris. Elder." He informed them. Calling the young child an Elder surprised Gabrielle, who also remembered the old woman telling her this child was mute. "Hello Scholaris. Aren't you a little young to be an Elder?" Gabrielle greeted the child with a warm chuckle. Scholaris smiled back.
"No Gift...yet." Bass explained warmly, gazing down at the boy.
"Move! Verbinia. NOW." Liberus barked to the soldiers, glaring at Basullus, who cringed. As he took the child by the hand, Liberus looked at the bard with mixed feelings. "We must go now Gabrielle. It has been an honor. I hope to hear one of your stories one day." He rushed off with the Verbinian group.
The Warrior Princess and bard looked at each other then the departing Verbinians. "Odd." Joxer vocalized their thoughts. "I'll say." Gabrielle agreed. "Yeah, I can't believe he was making such a fuss over a BARD." Joxer smirked.
"Excuse me" A portly man came up to the three. Joxer eyed the familiar man. "EXCUSE me. Uh..." The portly man cleared his throat, seeing all three stare at him, unamused. "I wanted to apologize on behalf of Sensuria for the little..." He searched for the right word. "scuffle... here today." He informed them, diplomatically. Xena's eyebrow raised.
"Little scuffle? Your whole town tried to KILL us!" Gabrielle snapped.
"Yeah!" Joxer agreed, making Gabrielle's eyes roll at his helpful commentary.
"Uh, well, we never meant for tourists to get involved in our problems with our enemies." He responded nervously.
"Why are the Verbinians your enemy?" Xena asked.
"It goes back generations...when a Sensurian witnessed one of those heathen Ceremonies they put their old people through...just before they pass on." He shuttered as informed them.
"Heathen Ceremonies? What happens at these Ceremonies? Don't they have children participate in them too?" Gabrielle asked, concerned for Scholaris.
The portly man shrugged. "I'm afraid as the stories have been passed down through the generations, many of the details have been lost."
"Your town attacked the Verbinians today because of an old story no one knows the details too? Gabrielle blurted in amazement.
"We know enough Miss." He responded defensively. "The Ceremony the Sensurian witnessed was performed on a man who didn't want it to happen. He died a painful death. What kind of civilized people torture their elderly?" He responded emphatically to a stunned bard, who looked into Xena's concerned eyes.
"Enough of boring Sensurian politics. As Mayor of Sensuria, I wanted to show you how truly sorry our fine city is about the unfortunate event this afternoon. I have reserved a table at our finest tavern and three rooms at the best Inn." The portly man smiled proudly.
"That's gre..." Joxer enthusiastic response was interrupted by the Warrior Princess.
"That won't be necessary. We must be on our way." Xena informed the portly man who frowned. She looked sadly at Gabrielle, who nodded in agreement.
"But we'd be glad to take a rain check." Gabrielle interjected, not wanting to let an opportunity pass. Xena grinned.
"Very good!" He bellowed. Carefully looking around the street, he spoke discretely to the group. "You wouldn't mind keeping this little... incident quiet would you? Five-star Triple Alpha ratings are very hard to get..."
While Xena and Gabrielle were extremely quiet, Joxer rambled on, pleased they would be staying overnight in his favorite tourist spot.
"There you go." The portly man smiled happily, pulling out chairs for the two women in the Tavern. To avoid anymore risk to his Triple Alpha rating, the Mayor decided it was best to personally take care of the three travelers.
"I hope you'll find everything satisfactory...if you need anything..." The Mayor bowed graciously and left. Joxer was extremely happy the meal was on the house.
"This is great!" Joxer relayed. "I can't believe they wanted to make up for that little incident in the street. But I'm sure glad they decided to!" Joxer eyed their surroundings appreciatively.
"I said I was sorry." Gabrielle quietly offered again.
Ignoring the apology, Xena silently reached for a goblet on the table. As she raised the goblet to her lips, she noticed it was wine. Shooting a cold glared towards the bard, she placed the wine goblet down and picked up a goblet of water. The warrior exhaled slowly and proceeded to quietly drink the water.
"How many more times do I have to apologize?" Gabrielle asked in an irritated whisper.
"I'M not the one you have to apologize to." Xena finally responded. "Of course, thanks to you, Argo is in NO condition at the moment to ACCEPT your apology." Xena added curtly.
"LOOK....how was I supposed to know we would be off fighting and she would eat the entire bag?" Gabrielle responded.
"You know how apples affect a horse! You placed the ENTIRE bag next to her." Xena replied, struggling to keep her voice down.
"Yeah, well...I didn't hear YOU say anything to stop me." Gabrielle countered with a good point, annoying the warrior more.
"She'll sleep it off and be fine...don't you wor..." Joxer interjected, overhearing the not so quiet argument.
"Stay out of this Joxer." The two responded in unison, making him cringe.
"Well?" A young woman asked Texius, who sat outside the guarded doors of the Counsel Chambers. "Any word on the vote?" She added, seeing her mentor not budging from his slumped position.
"No." He sighed, straightening up, lifting his head out of his hands. "They are probably taking a nap in there...." He remarked glibly.
"Texius...you should respect your Elders!" Talea scolded him, restraining a smile.
"Let's go for a short walk." Texius responded, taking a deep breath. As he stood up, before his resting body was ready to, he let out a pained groan.
"You sound like an Elder." Talea remarked with a grin. "Talea!" Texius feigned surprise at her insolence, which caused her them to chuckle.
"Are you excited about the ceremony?" Texius asked the young woman with a knowing grin. She beamed. "Of course I am! To be the Attendant for the Gift of Loquus is truly an honor...the THIRD Elder!" She beamed, then saddened when she realized what would happen to the old man.
"I really enjoyed talking with Loquus...it is so sad." She became depressed. "Talea" Texius spoke with a fatherly tone.
"He knows he is old and not in the best of health. For him to die without the Gift being passed on would be the true death of the man....as well as the death of a piece of all of us...REMEMBER that Talea." Texius lectured. Talea nodded. "I know. It is still so sad, I don't want him to die Texius." Talea obviously still had mixed feeling about the 'honor' of being the Attendant.
"Death is HIS choice...REMEMBER that!" Texius spoke with conviction, looking into her eyes. She nodded. "I know...It is still sad." She sighed.
"You must get use to it Talea. Your role in Verbinia is as sacred as the role of the Elders." He lectured once again. "With the Attendants lies a great responsibility to facilitate the passing of the Gifts ...without us" Texius was interrupted by his student.
"I know Texius, without the Attendant, the cycle would not be possible." She repeated the words Texius made them learn by rote.
"Hey you were listening!" He grinned at his protegee. "Come on, we'd better get back to see if their nap is over." Texius sighed, rubbing his sore neck.
After dinner, the Mayor personally escorted the three travelers to the best Inn in Sensuria. He spent a moment in an animated discussion with the Inn keeper, before returning to their side. "Good News!" The Mayor plastered on a smile. "You will get the honeymoon suite, it has PLENTY of space....two HUGE beds...I'm sure..." He blurted out quickly.
"WAIT a minute," Gabrielle interjected. "You couldn't get us THREE rooms?" She snapped, looking at the Warrior Princess who shook her head at how amazingly bad this evening was.
As the Mayor started to apologize profusely that it was the height of the tourist season, and there were no other rooms left, Joxer patted the nervous man on the back. "No problem Mayor," Joxer consoled the nervous man. "I am sure my friends and I will enjoy a soft bed after spending many a cold and harsh night, sleeping on the unforgiving ground." Joxer offered, being magnanimous about this minor inconvenience. "In fact, its been ages since I have been....Hey! Wait up!" He interrupted himself, calling to Gabrielle and Xena, who had already left for the room.
"I'm NOT sleeping on the floor." Xena cooly informed Gabrielle, as they arrived at the door. "FINE. Neither am I," Gabrielle cooly informed Xena. "Fine," Xena responded as Gabrielle opened the door to the large room.
"Oh my." Gabrielle uttered with awe, eyeing the luxurious room. Joxer caught up to them quickly and had a similar reaction.
"WOW!" He slipped past the two women in the doorway as he inspected the large room. "This is GREAT!" He looked around then spotted the two large canopy beds. "I've got dibs on the bed by the window." He jumped up on the soft mattress, relishing the entire experience.
Eyeing the remaining bed then each other, each held their ground. "I'm NOT sleeping on the floor." Xena repeated. "Neither am I." Gabrielle responded.
Joxer let out a huge yawn. "Sorry, a big meal always does that to me." He smiled as he rolled around happily on the bed. "Hey...if this is the honeymoon suite, why are there two beds?" Joxer asked Gabrielle, who shrugged.
"Maybe as backup, in case the deliriously happy couple have a really big argument." Gabrielle offered as she sat on the edge of her bed and coldly eyed Xena.
Removing her armor, Xena noticed a large basket of fruit on the table by the fireplace. "Oh LOOK Gabrielle." Xena grabbed the red fruit and tossed it to Gabrielle. "They must have heard how much you like APPLES." Xena spoke coldly, as the bard caught it.
The lack of an acerbic response from the bard surprised the Warrior Princess, until she saw the look on Gabrielle's face. Xena realized she had once again managed to say something wrong. This time, however, she knew exactly what she was saying and still said it. Guilt was not in short supply between the two women.
"Argo will be ok...right?" Gabrielle asked weakly, her voice barely audible, still staring at the apple.
"Sure Gabrielle, like I told you...Argo just needs to sleep it off." Joxer offered warmly.
"Joxer, could you give us a moment...to get ready for bed?" Xena asked, focused on the bard, who continued to stare at the apple in her hands.
"Oh SURE...but I still have dibs on this bed....OK?" He asked. "Yes, Joxer." Xena sighed, nodding in agreement. "Great," Joxer responded, leaving happy he called dibs.
Gabrielle was unable to meet Xena's gaze. "I keep doing stupid things don't I?" Gabrielle muttered, berating herself as her eyes welled up with tears. Xena sat next to the bard and wiped a tear of her bard's cheek.
"No more than I keep saying stupid things." Xena responded, her words heartfelt.
"Because of me, Argo is in no condition to travel...we are delayed in getting to Verbinia...who KNOWS what awful things are happening there..." She blurted with great guilt.
"We haven't lost much time Gabrielle... and if Texius wanted us to rush to get there he would have said so." Xena put her arm around the bard and pulled her close. "I over reacted Gabrielle, I'm sorry." Xena admitted, kissing her on the forehead.
"And I am sorry I argue so much, and give you such a hard time, and...." The bard's rapid apologies were halted when Xena placed her fingers gently upon Gabrielle's lips.
"Gabrielle, don't be sorry...just.." Xena removed her fingers from the bard's lips too soon. "I know, I know...improve." Gabrielle interrupted with a heavy sigh, considering the comment deserved.
"No." Xena responded with a chuckle, surprising the bard. "Though, one SHOULD always try to improve one's self." Xena added thoughtfully with a slight grin.
"Stop apologizing?" Gabrielle guessed.
"No. But you really do apologize too much and it's unnecessary...most of the time." Xena added. "MOST of the time?" Gabrielle queried.
"What I was GOING to say ..." Xena responded, wisely ignoring Gabrielle's dangerous tangent. "Was just... kiss me." Xena told her.
"Oh" The bard responded with a slight grin and gladly leaned towards her partner to comply. As their lips brushed, there was a knock on the door and a familiar voice calling to them. "You guys finished in there? I'm kinda tired."
Gabrielle pulled back with a frustrated grunt. Xena calmly closed her eyes, sighing heavily, carefully weighing the merits of the chakrum, sword, suffocation and apple accidents.
As they settled in for the night, the two women, lying painfully close to each other, stared at the ceiling. In the next bed, Joxer exhaled loudly as he rolled on his side. The two women stared at the ceiling. Joxer muttered something as he drifted off into sleep. The two women sighed heavily and stared at the ceiling. Joxer began snoring.
After a moment, the two women turned their heads and stared at each other.
"I think I'll sleep on the floor." Xena informed the bard, who nodded weakly.
CHAPTER 5- A NECK IN THE ROAD
"Verbinia is up head Xena! Why don't I go there first...to make sure they really know you're not a blood thirsty warlord anymore..." Joxer suggested. "Thanks." She replied flatly.
"Uh..Well, I should at least make sure it's safe for Gabrielle...don't you think?" He offered, pointing to the bard. Gabrielle nodded weakly in agreement, unruffled by his comment.
Sure, she could have told him that she could best him blindfolded and he was a complete idiot. Sure, she could have reminded him that the Verbinians, for some reason, admired her a great deal and wasn't worried about their reception, and of course, that he was an complete idiot. But, she didn't bother. Gabrielle just sighed and nodded in agreement.
Xena looked at Gabrielle wondering if she should be concerned by Gabrielle's unusual calm around this man.
"Sure," Xena responded, cautiously eyeing the bard, never quite sure how she would react. Seeing that the bard didn't flinch at her agreement, Xena followed up more confidently. "Good idea Joxer."
Joxer happily jogged towards Verbinia on a mission. "Thanks Joxer." Gabrielle called out, almost making the man trip. "Sure thing Gabby!" He waved back at her, a very happy man. Even that annoying nickname Gabby didn't seem to bother the bard, Xena noted.
Xena eyed her, confused. "Feeling ok?" Xena asked.
"Look" Gabrielle responded, pointing to Joxer, who was getting further away. Following the bard's instructions, Xena looked at him.
"I'm feeling... better...much better" Gabrielle remarked. "Oh much MUCH better." Gabrielle informed her warrior as Joxer disappeared over the hill. "Haven't felt this good in a long time, but then... it's really up to you to decide how I feel." Gabrielle moved closer to her warrior with a sly grin.
"Couldn't you have just said, 'yes...he's leaving'...?" Xena asked with a small chuckle, hiding her anticipation at being alone with the bard, even if it was for only a few precious moments, in the middle of a well traveled road.
"Sure...but that would have been boring...and I don't want to be...boring" Gabrielle put her hand on the warrior's waist. "Gabrielle, you are many things... but boring is not one of them." Xena responded with a caress to the bards face.
"Good..." Gabrielle responded with a sultry voice. Xena leaned in for a kiss but was stopped by gentle fingers which slowly traced over the warrior's lips. A not entirely unpleasant surprise, the Warrior Princess noted. Gabrielle smiled, feeling the warm breath from the warrior's slightly parted lips.
"But what... " Gabrielle slipped her arm around the warrior's waist, receiving a grin of approval.
"WOULD..." Gabrielle removed her fingers from the warrior's lips, trailing them gently over the warrior's chin and slowly down her neck. The warrior swallowed hard at the gentle touch's effect on her senses.
Xena had a feeling this bard would be good at foreplay. Unfortunately, they were in the middle of a road during midday, the warrior noted. Xena was about to mention they should move out of the road and continue this in private over by that...thing...over there... out of the... road.
"you..." Gabrielle kissed Xena's neck, causing the warrior to shudder at the gentle, wet touch of lips.
Road...concern...what WAS the concern? The warrior wondered.
"say I..." Gabrielle spoke into her neck and slowly placed another wet kiss in a different spot.
Concern...we're on the right road...no concern, the warrior concluded.
"was..." The bard paused. Her warm breath against the sensitive, freshly kissed flesh dominated the warrior's senses.
The bard did not move. "Gabrielle.." Xena asked softly, still feeling the warm breath on her throat, wanting the bard to continue.
"Well?" Gabrielle asked, her breath heavier against the warrior's skin, waiting for the warrior to answer.
"Gabrielle..." Xena sighed with increasing impatience, not really up for a chat at this moment.
"Impatient?" Gabrielle challenged the warrior, as she pulled away.
"All right....yes...I guess I...YES!" The warrior blurted, a little annoyed the bard would turn her comment against her now. Xena waited for the bard to display a huge victory grin at the warrior's admission.
"Ugh!!" Gabrielle growled loudly and broke away from the confused warrior. "Impatient!?! That's just WONDERFUL!" Gabrielle blurted angrily and stomped off to Verbinia.
Xena's mouth dropped, wondering what in Tartarus just happened. "Gabrielle...What .....I ...Gab.." Xena called out as she watched the bard march down the road. "...brielle" Xena finished weakly.
The warrior didn't know what she would apologize about if she caught up to her. All she knew was that every time she said something, Gabrielle got mad at her. If only they didn't have to talk to each other, Xena sighed, considering that would be the only possible way she could avoid getting the bard mad.
"Don't start." Xena snapped at her horse, who's ears twitched at the loud sound. "And YOU should have known better about those apples." She scolded Argo, who's head sunk.
CHAPTER 6 - WHO THERE GOES
Joxer stood staring at the large Verbinian gates, scratching his head. "Joxer?" The bard called out, surprised to find him still waiting outside the city walls.
Now close enough to touch the impressive wall, Gabrielle indulged a moment to inspect the sight before her. Running her fingers over the cold smooth marble, she strained her neck looking up at the wall's height. Considering the wall impervious to arrows, torches, battering rams and most likely catapults, the bard understood why Xena didn't think her army could get past these defenses without heavy losses.
Gabrielle stared for a moment at the two massive statues which stood guarding the entrance. Yet, instead of a sword or spear, the statues held a scroll in one hand, and a quill in the other. Gabrielle smiled, pleased with the sight.
"Joxer, why are you still out here?" The bard asked, finally finished with her appreciation of the Verbinian statues.
"They won't let me in." He shrugged. "Don't tell me they think YOU are a threat." She laughed. "NOooo" He responded slowly with irritation. "They are voting on whether or not to let Xena inside. I told them she was good now. But they still..."
"Didn't you ask for Texius?" She interrupted. "Of course I did!" He squeaked, insulted she thought him so stupid. "But the guard told me it was not up to an Attendant to decide who can enter...it is up to the elders. The guard didn't think they would allow Xena in." Joxer explained with a frown.
"We'll see about that!" Gabrielle snapped, marching up to the small side door.
"Getting her to come all this way..." Gabrielle muttered as she knocked on the wooden side door. "To HELP them for Gods' sakes..." Gabrielle muttered as she banged on the door with her fist.
".. and they have the AUDACITY to make her wait while they VOTE to let her inside??" Gabrielle complained, pounding on the door with more gusto.
"If they think they can just...." She immediately stopped muttering when the small side door cracked open, allowing a guard to peek through.
"Who goes there?" The soldier barked.
"Hello!" Gabrielle boomed brightly, sporting a big friendly smile. "My name is Gabrielle. I travel with Xena who was invited here by Texius. If you don't mind too terribly, I would like to talk with Texius." Gabrielle asked with the most courteous and pleasant voice she could muster.
"NO" The soldier barked and slammed the door in her face. Gabrielle's mouth dropped.
"See!" Joxer responded, relieved it wasn't just him for a change.
"WELL!" She blurted with indignation and pounded on the door again. "Do they expect her to help them out here? Do they? I'll give them 'NO'..." She muttered until the small side door opened slightly again.
"Hi again." Gabrielle smiled, giving a small friendly waive and a sheepish laugh. The soldier rolled his eyes and sighed. "I don't suppose there's a.... REASON.... " Gabrielle paused, looking down bashfully as she stepped closer to the suspicious soldier. "...for not letting us in..." She batted her innocent eyelashes.
"YES" The soldier barked and slammed the door in her face once again. Her eyes, at first wide with surprise, narrowed into dangerous slits.
"Gabrielle...perhaps we should just..." Joxer tried to defuse the situation.
Gabrielle pounded on the door again. The Amazon Bard was not amused.
The door opened slightly with a different, younger guard. "WHO there GOES! Uh... Who goes THERE!" The young man corrected himself, causing the bard to roll her eyes in disbelief.
"LOOK! You know DAMN well who I am. I've already told you!" Gabrielle snaps. Anticipating another slamming door, the bard quickly wedges her staff between the door and frame, frightening the young guard. "But in case you forgot, I'm GABRIELLE, I travel with XENA, and I want to talk to TEXIUS...NOW!"
The door opened wider, making the bard sigh with relief that the soldier was finally being rational. She looked over her shoulder at Joxer with a smug victory smile. However, she realized too late, she had removed her staff too soon, when she heard the familiar sound of a door slamming shut.
Inside the Counsel chambers, the Elders finally finished debating and announced their decision. "I am sorry to say there was no majority, the votes were tied, even." Thesaurus informed Texius. "You wouldn't be tied if you had a ninth elder!" Texius responded bitterly.
Thesaurus sighed and continued. "As you know Texius, there must be a majority decision before an action can be approved, authorized. Your friend must remain outside our walls, our ramparts. So is the decision of the Counsel." Thesaurus proclaimed and banged his gavel.
"Now for the matter of your actions, your deeds. Since Four Elders agreed with your heartfelt actions..." Thesaurus paused and looked at the outspoken Verbis, who argued strongly for disciplinary action. "You will not be punished, disciplined. So is the decision of the Counsel." Thesaurus proclaimed and banged his gavel.
After the final proclamation, an Attendant rushed into the Counsel chambers. "First Elder! Please forgive the intrusion but we have some Outsider trouble at the front gate." The Attendant relayed.
"I bet it's the Warrior Princess trying to get in." Verbis smirked, confident the walls would keep her out. "Actually no... it's a woman named Gabrielle."
"They won't let us in." Joxer relayed to Xena while they watched Gabrielle attack the door.
"Why not?" Xena asked, staring at the bard, who continued to lash out at the door with everything she had to lash out with...her staff, shoulder, fist, hip, foot and a few colorful phrases that surprised even Xena.
"The Elders need to vote. Your friend Texius didn't clear it with the Elders before he asked for your...our help..." Joxer explained, still eyeing the flourish of anger called Gabrielle.
Finishing her unsuccessful attack on the door, the bard approached them. "There seems to be a little misunderstanding." Gabrielle spoke nonchalantly, breathing heavily and wiping the sweat off her brow.
"It must be something in the air..." Xena muttered under her breath, eyeing the impressive wall around the city. "We should wait and find out how the Elder's voted." Xena announced, considering it would be much easier to be invited inside.
"Wait." Gabrielle repeated flatly. "I guess that WOULD be the PATIENT thing to do." Gabrielle snapped, eyeing the Warrior Princess, who finally realized what got Gabrielle upset in the road.
"What if they don't..." Joxer's question was interrupted by an irritated warrior.
"Gabrielle, we REALLY need to talk." Xena blurted with great exasperation. She sharply eyed Joxer, who looked back and forth between the two in confusion. "ALONE." Xena curtly added.
"I'll be by the door if you need me." He responded nervously, quickly retreating.
Gabrielle waited silently, eyeing the Princess of Patience. "I want to clear something up RIGHT now!" Xena blurted with obvious frustration. She hated the feeling of being out of control and, unfortunately, with this particular bard, she found herself in that position quite often.
"Hey you guys, they are going to let us in!" Joxer yelled to them happily, waiving to them to come towards him.
Gabrielle immediately felt bad for being the cause of such frustration for the warrior. "Xena. We'll talk later, I promise." Gabrielle offered warmly, reassuring her partner with a gentle squeeze of her forearm. Xena sighed, nodding in agreement that this discussion would wait.
"Come ON you guys!" Joxer called to them again, his head now poking out the side door.
As the three were escorted inside, they received curious stares from everyone they passed. "Gab. Jox. Xena. Follow." A soldier instructed them.
"Rather informal of them." Xena noted to Gabrielle with a smirk.
"Well, I think a little Verbinian informality is still better than Sensurian hospitality." Gabrielle relayed while the three were escorted to through the main street by four Verbinian soldiers.
"I'll say." Joxer added, wanting to participate in the conversation.
"Don't get too relaxed here Gabrielle." Xena whispered in her ear, placing a protective hand on her shoulder. Gabrielle nodded, continuing to take in the Verbinian sights. Xena noticed the look of surprise from two soldiers when she touched the bard. A cold warning glare immediately stopped their stares.
"This is not exactly what I expected." Gabrielle noted with disappointment, seeing so many run down buildings. As they passed two impressive stone buildings, the bard frowned. "How can they keep up those beautiful buildings and ignore all the others?" Gabrielle asked aloud.
"I'm sure you are not the only one asking that question." Xena responded, seeing an obvious and dangerous class division among the Verbinians.
"Yeah, especially the soldiers. They live in those run down buildings with the other workers." Joxer interjected, giving Xena more reason to consider the class division dangerous.
Gabrielle focused on a blond messenger gesturing to their escorts and their responding gestures. "I saw the soldiers do that in Sensuria, what did they say?" She asked Xena quietly. "They are using more hand signals than I know. I can make out only some of what they are saying." Xena noted with some concern.
"That's Greco-Verbinian sign language." Joxer announced, surprising the bard and warrior. "He is telling the escorts to quickly bring us to the Elders. The Elders are ready for us, and they should not delay." Joxer added as they continued their brisk pace to the Counsel chambers. After one of their escorts signed back to the blond messenger, the soldiers all smiled and chuckled.
"What?!? What did he say to them?" Xena asked Joxer, feeling incredibly uncomfortable not being able to understand them.
"Oh, he just said it was probably a good idea because the old men just might fall asleep again if left alone too long."
"How did you learn sign language?" Gabrielle asked Joxer, amazed at his useful skill.
"Uh...well, I had a crush on this girl...and uh...well...I wanted to ask her out." He admitted with embarrassment.
"You learned a whole language to ask a girl out?" Xena asked incredulously.
"Well, uh...yeah." Joxer answered.
Gabrielle grinned widely. "How romantic!" Gabrielle responded enthusiastically, her opinion of him significantly improved.
"What happened?" Xena asked, actually finding this interesting.
"Uh...I never got up the nerve to ask her out. I didn't want to say something stupid." He responded with embarrassment. Joxer's honest answer greatly disappointed the bard, who's eyes rolled. Her opinion of the man plummeted once again. Xena, however, appreciated Joxer's honesty and sympathized with his trouble finding the right words.
"Maybe you'll get another chance." Xena's encouragement surprised the bard. "Yeah. Who knows." Joxer responded with a shrug.
"Xena!" Texius called to her, meeting them outside the entrance of the Counsel chambers. Xena nodded to her old friend, who smiled with relief. "Joxer, thank you for delivering the message."
"No problem." Joxer responded, smiling proudly.
"This must be Gabrielle. Your presence has caused quiet a stir Gabrielle." He grinned, causing her to cringed with embarrassment.
"Yeah, well, I'm sorry about the door...I kinda lost my temper." Gabrielle laughed sheepishly. "And that happens so rarely." Xena added dryly, drawing an unamused look from the bard.
"Oh that. It was actually a good thing you...uh...made your presence known or we wouldn't be talking now." Texius informed her. "Your work has drawn the attention and great admiration of the Elders. They would very much like to meet you Gabrielle. I believe you already know Loquus." He smiled, noticing Xena's annoyed stare at his prolonged pleasantries.
"Xena, we can catch up on old times while Gabrielle visits with the Elders." He quickly answered her unspoken question.
"Perhaps we can catch up after Gabrielle and I ...visit with the Elders." Xena responded, not wanting to leave Gabrielle alone in this heavily fortified city. "I'm sorry Xena, you have not been invited by them." Texius responded uncomfortably.
"What?!...You ask her here to help you and now you are saying she's not allowed to talk to the Elders!?" Gabrielle blurted angrily.
"Gabrielle. We have our customs. The Elders must invite you to visit them in their chambers. They did not invite her, they invited YOU." He explained. "It IS a great honor Gabrielle." He added nervously, not sure how he would explain it to the Elders if the greatly admired bard decided not to accept their invitation.
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other, neither pleased.
CHAPTER 7 - A GREAT HONOR
On her way to the Counsel chambers, Gabrielle quizzed the Attendant escorting her. "So... why do you think they want to talk to ME?" She asked.
"You've got to be kidding." Talea responded with a laugh. Gabrielle's shrug, made Talea realize she really didn't know.
"You Gabrielle, are one of a VERY few Outsiders who's works have been enshrined in the Great Library." She enthusiastically informed the bard of her incredible status. "I've even been allowed to read FOUR of your scrolls." She responded proudly.
"Talea." Gabrielle stopped her, taken aback by the word 'enshrined'. "I've never been to Verbinia before and apparently Verbinians don't like to travel...how is it everyone knows of my stories?" She asked, trying not to be overwhelmed by the honor given her by a people she admired so much.
"Loquus personally made copies of your stories when he visited the Athens Academy. We were all very fortunate he was able to go. Once the Elder's learned of your Gift, they insisted on collecting your stories." Talea smiled warmly. "You are quite the celebrity here Gabrielle."
"Except with your guards ..." Gabrielle responded with a laugh, trying to comprehend all of this attention.
"The Elders will likely formally apologize to you for that." Talea informed her, surprising the bard. "The soldiers really had no idea...Soldiers are worker class after all. They wouldn't recognize someone with a Gift as great as yours. They can't read and they can barely talk, so how could they?" She defended them.
"I thought that ALL Verbinians were gifted with verbal skills." Gabrielle stated, wondering what other perceptions she had were incorrect.
"Not all Verbinians are blessed with the Gift Gabrielle." Talea responded, seeming slightly annoyed. "Without it, they can barely communicate, so they resort to signing." She sighed. "It is a shame we don't have enough Gifts for all Verbinians, but that is neither here nor there, we just don't." She said bluntly.
"Gabrielle we really should not keep the Elder's waiting." Talea interrupted started to get a little nervous. The plethora of questions on the tip of the bard's tongue would have to wait.
"So this is what I missed?" Xena looked around, unimpressed as she and Texius walked through the streets of Verbinia. It looked like the city was a grand place to live at one time, but that time had passed, Xena observed.
"Sorry for the delays but I don't know who to trust anymore...and caution is the better part of....something..." Texius sighed. "Valor." Xena responded. "You are gifted Xena. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise." She shook her head, feeling insulted for some reason.
"Texius, I'm here like you asked...now talk." Xena instructed him bluntly.
"We've had two murders." Texius responded, looking around nervously.
"Keep talking." Xena eyed him.
Loquus took Gabrielle's hand, as he tried to stop laughing at the tale the Elder's practically begged her to tell. "My dear. You make us young again with your stories." He smiled at her, his comment pleasing her. The rest of the Elders continued to giggle at her adventures when, thanks to Hermes, she had to live in a man's world, perceived as a man.
"Amazing." They kept shaking their heads and laughing at the absurdity. "Don't mouth off to a God." One Elder repeated to another. Even the First Elder, Thesaurus, could not contain his chuckling. Not all the Elders, however, were so taken with this young woman.
Verbis sat brooding, not happy with the last minute change in vote when the Elders heard the bard was at their door. Unlike the rest of the Elders, he was unmoved by Gabrielle's obvious skills at story telling. He seemed to get more irritated as she continued to tell stories about the Warrior Princess...especially now that murderous Warrior Princess finally made it inside the walls of Verbinia because of THIS young woman.
"You've graciously endured the requests of a bunch of old men. But tell us my dear, which of your stories is YOUR favorite?" Thesaurus asked.
Gabrielle was amazed. Not even when telling a prize winning story at the Academy had she been so honored. Every time she would answer an Elder's question, a hush fell over the room as they waited to hear her response.
"Well, I really don't have one favorite. Though, I would have to say my favorite stories are about Xena, if you hadn't guessed that already." She grinned.
This was the last straw for Verbis. "Enough! I will not tolerate another moment listening about that... Murderous BITCH." He exclaimed, storming out of the Counsel Chambers.
Gabrielle was shocked by the outburst and surprised to see she was not the only one. The great embarrassment felt by the Elders, and especially Loquus, was obvious from the look on their faces. "I guess this means he won't be requesting any more Xena stories." The bard responded to Loquus.
The stunned Elders looked at each other a moment and burst out laughing, relieved their honored guest was being so gracious. "My dear, you are a treasure." Loquus smiled broadly at his favorite bard.
Investigating the site of the murders, Xena entered the hallowed Ceremonial Hall. "It's just a library." Xena noted, unimpressed.
"SHHH." Texius responded to her loud voice. "Sorry." Xena apologized insincerely, continuing to look around. Though not exactly her idea of fun, Gabrielle would certainly love it here, Xena noted eyeing the thousands of scrolls as they moved through the building.
After peeking carefully around the wall into the hallway to make sure the way was clear, Texius started for the Ceremonial Alter. Xena grabbed his arm, stopping him. "Texius, the Elder's didn't agree to my help...DID they?" Xena asked bluntly.
"SHHH!" He responded with a finger to his lips. "Over here..." He whispered, waiving her towards the alter, ignoring her question.
"Wonderful." Xena sighed as she followed.
"Gabrielle, I would be honored if you join us for my Ceremony Dinner tomorrow night." Loquus invited the bard, causing another murmur among the Elders.
"Loquus..." Thesaurus called to him cautiously. "You know what happened the last time an outsider..." The First Elder reminded the Third Elder.
Gabrielle refrained from asking "what". In this case, the bard considered patience was warranted.
"Thesaurus...It's MY Ceremony damn it." Loquus interrupted.
"You know you don't have to curse...there are more than enough words you could use to more than adequately express yourself Loquus." Thesaurus lectured him, causing the Third Elder to roll his eyes and lean towards the bard.
"Thesaurus wrote this book on synonyms and antonyms and now he acts as if he's the only one who understands the language." Loquus explained while the other Elders, also tired of Thesaurus' lecturing, chuckled.
"Well if you Elders would try a little harder to be more concise you wouldn't hear so many lectures from me!" Thesaurus defended his role.
"I happen to think a well placed swear or curse word is worth a thousand pictures." Loquus noted with a wink, making the bard smile.
"You don't even know the difference between a swear and a curse do you?" Thesaurus challenged him.
"There IS no difference!" Loquus responded confidently. "Is there?" He quickly asked the bard.
"What's your book called?" Gabrielle asked Thesaurus, avoiding the question and hopefully the argument.
"I haven't come up with a name yet..." Thesaurus responded thoughtfully, scratching his chin.
"So will you join us for the Ceremony Dinner?" Loquus smiled at her, patting her hand affectionately. "Yes. Please." A few Elders spoke up though, it was obvious no one in the room objected.
"I really couldn't, unless Xena and Joxer were going to join us." Gabrielle knew that would be pushing it, but considered her chances good to get her way.
A nervous hush fell the room. "Oh Damn." Thesaurus mumbled.
"Where does this lead?" Xena asked Texius, finding a hidden passageway connecting to the Ceremonial Alter room. "To the Attendant's chambers...why?" Texius asked. Xena rolled her eyes.
"You said that the Library..." Xena started to explain.
"Ceremonial Hall" Texius corrected her, making the Warrior Princess roll her eyes.
"Ceremonial Hall...was guarded by soldiers preventing access during Ceremonies." Xena noted. "That makes this the only escape route for the murderers. Didn't your soldiers do ANY investigating, ask ANY of the Attendants if they saw something unusual?" She asked incredulously, seeing Texius shake his head no.
"Soldiers are only worker class Xena, they wouldn't know where to start...without the Gift, they wouldn't be able to converse with the Attendants, let alone ask them questions." Texius revealed. "What?" Xena asked, taken aback by this information.
"They speak very few words, how could they? They don't have the Gift." Texius relayed matter-of-factly then froze with fear as an Elder approached them.
"That's why they are no use to enemies who wish to EXTRACT information from them." Verbis interjected, joining them by the Alter. "I guess you found that out when you killed my brother during an interrogation." He added coldly.
Xena stared at the Elder, remembering how uncooperative the Verbinian soldiers were while she interrogated them. She wondered whether they were very brave or just very foolish. Now she understood they simply did not understand her.
"I must tolerate your presence in Verbinia, Warrior. But I WILL not tolerate your presence in this hallowed place. Leave... now." He struggled to remain calm, not wanting to give his brother's murderer the satisfaction of seeing him loose control.
Accepting the hateful glare as deserved, Xena took a deep breath and left the Library.
"What do we do now?" The Soldier asked his brother. "How will we get the Gift of Loquus with those Outsiders poking their noses in Verbinian business?" Darmas added, looking around for unwelcome ears.
"I have changed our plans." Liberus informed Darmas.
"What?! We can't let the Elders to continue to decide who receives the Gifts. They condemned ME to a life of servitude because of some unfounded concern...Our people should decide, not a group of OLD MEN!" Darmas responded bitterly.
"Brother, calm down. I have not given up on our plans. Only on the Gift of Loquus." Liberus relayed.
"That's the same thing! Even the Verbinians anxious to break from tradition still respect the Gift. They will only be lead by someone with the Gift. Without it, they will not listen to you, let alone follow you in a revolt." Darmas argued to his brother. The Elders had controlled the Gifts too long, Darmas considered.
"I will get a Gift Darmas. A truly great Gift." Liberus smiled.
"But it will be a while before another Elder will be ready to pass on their Gift. We agreed not to cross that line...it's too cruel, even for those old men." Darmas responded to his brother.
"I have no intention of crossing that line with our Elders Darmas." Liberus smiled at his brother.
CHAPTER 8 - STRATEGICALLY SPEAKING
In the soldier's barracks, Joxer and Bass were engaged in an animated discussion about Joxer's adventures with Xena. As Joxer was signing that he had single handedly killed three hydras, saving both the Warrior Princess and the bard, he was interrupted by another soldier.
"Don't go away. I'll be right back." Bass signed to him. Joxer nodded and started up a discussion with the soldier who regretted interrupting them.
"Hello handsome." Talea surprised Bass, pulling him from the sight of unwanted eyes and kissing him passionately. "Hello." He spoke as he came up for air. "Should not be here." He said haltingly, then kissed her back with the same intensity.
Talea caught her breath. "I wanted to tell you we should stop the classes until the Outsiders are gone." Talea signed to him. He frowned and nodded. "Don't worry...we will continue just as soon as they leave. They are asking a lot of questions and I don't want to risk the Elders finding out about our work." She signed.
"We'll have you and your friends reading in no time!" She kissed him again. "I love you." He signed. "You just love my words." She signed back, eyeing him playfully. "Those too." He spoke to her with a grin.
"Xena?" Gabrielle called out as she entered the Warrior Princess' room. Xena stared out the window to the alley below. "Xena?" Gabrielle asked again, concern evident in her voice. "What's wrong?" The bard touched her arm.
"How did your visit with the Elder's go?" Xena asked turning towards her, ignoring the bard's question. "I'll tell you AFTER you tell me what's wrong." The bard countered. Xena sighed, looking at floor. "Is it something I did?" The bard asked, causing the warrior to look up with surprise.
"NO!...no...It's something I did." She responded, uneasily pulling the bard to her for a needed hug. Now the bard was getting really worried. "Xena...talk to me. What's wrong?" Gabrielle asked.
"Did you know the soldiers don't barely speak? They can't read either." Xena relayed, the bard still in her arms.
"That's one of many strange things I've learned today. Did you know the Elders actually restrict access to their scrolls! And did you know they don't have ANY schools here?!? They don't allow it because they think it a waste of time! No wonder the poor soldiers can't read...." The bard shook her head. Realizing she was off on another tangent, she refocused on the Warrior Princess' odd behavior. "Why are you so bothered by the soldiers?" Gabrielle asked, stepping back to look into her warrior's eyes.
As soon as Xena started to explain, there was a knock on the door. "GODS...now we can't even TALK to each other?" Gabrielle blurted with frustration, causing the depressed warrior to crack a smile.
"I'll get rid of whoever's there." Xena informed her, caressing her cheek before tending to the door.
"Oh GREAT. You said you'd take care of Joxer and HOW many days has he been traveling with us?" Gabrielle responded, with a raised eyebrow.
"Be nice." Xena responded before cracking open the door.
"Yes?" Xena asked cooly.
"Is Gabrielle here?" Liberus blurted, annoyed to have to talk to this warrior.
"Why do you want to know?" Xena asked him, confident that would further annoy him.
"Loquus has prepared a special room for his honored guest and I am to escort Gabrielle there when she is ready to retire for the evening." Liberus explained coldly.
"Oh really?" Xena responded, unimpressed.
"Is she here?" He asked again slowly, his temper close to flaring.
After eyeing him a deliberately long moment, Xena stepped back quietly as Gabrielle came to the door. His disposition immediately improved as he smiled warmly at the bard. "I really don't need a special room Liberus...I'm fine here." She explained.
"Gabrielle...it is an HONOR you can't ... I mean...I ...please??" He implored, stumbling nervously over his words, not exactly knowing how he would explain it to Loquus if the honored bard didn't accept the offer. He knew for the time being, he still had to play by the archaic rules.
"Give me a minute?" Gabrielle caved in, not wanting to cause any difficulties or ill feelings with the Verbinians. Liberus nodded and smiled with relief as Gabrielle stepped back in the room. Closing the door behind her, Gabrielle eyed the Warrior Princess. Surely Xena knew that strategically speaking, this was a good move, she hoped.
"Xena I..." Gabrielle started to explain. "I should have never let you near the door." Xena shook her head as she analyzed her mistake.
"Actually this will..." Gabrielle tried to explain. "I KNOW Gabrielle...But I don't have to be happy about it." Xena blurted. "At least I'm not going to have to sleep on the floor." Xena muttered.
"Hey, that was your decision." Gabrielle responded playfully.
"No, THAT was a necessity." Xena responded bluntly. Gabrielle's grin faded as their eyes locked. Without a second thought, she leaned into the warrior for a kiss. As their lips brushed together, they heard a pounding on the door.
"Are your men ready for tomorrow night?" Liberus asked his brother. "Are you sure about this Liberus?" Darmas asked.
"Absolutely." Liberus responded confidently. "Ceremony time is the still perfect time to pull it off, besides being incredibly poetic" He laughed. "With everyone focused on the preparations, no one will question our activities." Liberus informed his brother.
"Not even Xena?" Darmas asked nervously.
"I expect her to be suspicious, but her attentions will be focused on Loquus...right where we want them." Liberus grinned, his plans were coming together beautifully.
Darmas shook his head, not as confident as his brother. "She will be dangerous Liberus. She won't let you get away with it." Darmas questioned.
"She'll be beside herself trying to figure out what happened." He explained. "When she does, those archaic Verbinian laws will actually prove useful to us, just before our little Civil War does away with them. She won't be able touch me!" He laughed, pleased his plan would not only get him the greatest Gift but the pleasure of tormenting the Warrior Princess. Darmas eyed his brother, looking forward to the day when this would be behind them.
Surprised he broke with tradition, Gabrielle eagerly took Loquus up on his invitation to inspect the Ceremonial chambers with him. Entering the chamber through the Attendant's door, Gabrielle noted how barren the room was. "So what is the purpose of this chamber?" Gabrielle asked Loquus with a yawn.
"You are not a morning person are you my dear." Loquus remarked with a grin. "Not really. But you did keep me up quiet late you know." Gabrielle gently scolded him for his contribution to her fatigue.
"I want to thank you for indulging me with your stories my dear. You have made an old man VERY happy." He smiled at her warmly, making her glad she lost those hours of sleep. Gabrielle thought she saw tears welling up in his eyes. He coughed, collecting himself and stood in the center of the chamber, next to the lone chair in the cold room.
"This is where I will collect my thoughts before I pass on the Gift." He informed her. "I will come here after the dinner and spend the entire night here...alone... contemplating the past and the bright future in store for Scholaris." He smiled, gliding his fingers gently over the chair.
"In the morning, I will go in a Grand Procession from here to the Ceremonial Hall, to the Alter room, where I will pass on the gift with the help of Talea, my Attendant." He saw confusion in the bard's face.
"You act as if you are handing over a scroll or something, I don't understand this GIFT you keep talking about." Gabrielle admitted honestly. Loquus smiled. "Outsiders usually don't." He relayed with understanding.
"I thought the gift you kept talking about was just the natural talent given by the Gods... that we each have within ourselves to develop." She noted. Loquus shook his head no.
"My dear, Verbinians rely on the talent of our Ancestors. The Gods have not blessed us with 'natural talent', as you call it, for centuries. Before an Elder or Attendant dies, they must pass on their verbal talents, The Gift, or it will be lost forever. That tragedy is felt by all Verbinians." He explained to a wide-eyed bard.
"What...what happens to you..." She spoke weakly. "...after you give your gift?"
Loquus sighed, knowing his answer would upset the bard. "My life will be over but Scholaris' will have just begun." He stated calmly, accepting of his role and short future.
"Xena!" Joxer called out as she entered the soldiers barracks. The bustling room became still. She couldn't blame them for their fear. She had severely tortured the two Verbinian soldiers because they wouldn't answer her questions, adding to the Warrior Princess' already long list of shameful acts. Yet, this act weighed more heavily upon her than the others. Even as a ruthless warlord, she had a code which would not have allowed torture of the slow or dim witted.
Xena focused on her friend, ignoring the many eyes staring at her. "I need your help investigating two murders." Joxer looked over his shoulder, convinced she was talking to someone else. "Joxer" She blurted with impatience to get his attention. "We need to ask the soldiers what they saw the night of the murders." She added. "Sure thing Xena! I'm your man." Joxer gushed.
CHAPTER 9 - GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINER
Gabrielle waited outside of the Dining Room for the Warrior Princess. If someone asked her, she would have to admit, yes, she was waiting... impatiently. She had not seen Xena all day and had so much to tell her.
Seeing Xena enter the building, she rushed up to her. "What's wrong?" Xena asked. "This whole place is wrong Xena. We need to talk." The agitated bard responded cryptically.
"What is SHE doing here!" Verbis called out indignantly.
"Verbis, Xena is my guest." Loquus quickly explained. "WHAT!?!" Verbis blurted angrily.
"The Elder's voted, for some reason you weren't there..." Loquus cleared his throat. "and we have seven votes saying they are to be my guests. Of course you can still vote if you care to." Loquus smiled at him.
"This is an OUTRAGE! You are allowing this murderer to ruin your Ceremony!" Verbis blurted.
Gabrielle saw something more disturbing than Verbis' tirade. Instead of standing up straight and staring him confidently in the eye, Xena focused on the ground, quietly enduring the harsh words.
"I trust we are all getting to know one another." Thesaurus asked with unsuccessful diplomacy as he joined the vocal group. "How could you allow a vote without me?" Verbis asked, beside himself with anger.
"Hi everybody!" Joxer entered the Dining Room, interrupting Verbis' tirade.
"Dear Gods! Don't tell me you voted to let him in too?" Verbis asked in utter amazement. Thesaurus cleared his throat, giving Verbis the answer. "Is there no end to this madness?" Verbis stormed off to his seat.
"Where's the food, I'm starved." Joxer smiled.
As the group headed into the Dining Room, Gabrielle looked at the Warrior Princess with concern. "I'm fine." Xena responded unconvincingly to the bard's questioning gaze.
"What is Verbis' problem with you Xena?" She asked directly, knowing she didn't have time to beat around the bush.
"I killed his brother." She admitted cooly, yet her eyes revealed deep remorse to the bard.
"He was one of the soldiers you interrogated?" Gabrielle asked, surprising the Warrior Princess. Xena nodded silently. "You didn't know he was unable to talk Xena. I KNOW that." Gabrielle emphasized. "I also know you wouldn't have...tortured him..." Gabrielle paused uncomfortably as disturbing images entered her mind. "...had YOU known."
"I still would have killed him." Xena responded bluntly. "I know that too Xena." Gabrielle responded with equal bluntness.
"Come on you guys, the Elders are waiting!" Joxer called back, interrupting the women's intense gaze. They looked to Joxer and back to each other.
"Well, we don't want to keep Verbis waiting, now do we. I'm sure he'll want to sit next to you." Gabrielle quipped patting the warrior's shoulder, hoping to lighten the mood. She carefully eyed her partner to see if it worked.
"I knew he was just playing hard to get." Xena replied, attempting to find comfort in the banter. "Of course he'll have fight on his hands...Liberus will be here tonight too." Gabrielle added with a grin.
As required by tradition, each Elder took their turn reading the Ceremonial blessings, which Xena guessed was taking about the same amount of time it took to grow the food they were about to eat. Xena noticed the Elders never once looked at the scrolls they held. They had memorized their very, very, very long parts. If she had been even remotely interested in what they were saying, she might have been impressed.
Glancing over to Gabrielle during the blessing, Xena noticed the bard hanging on every word. At least someone was enjoying this, she sighed, thinking of all the stones left unturned in her investigation of the murders.
Muffling a yawn, Xena finally noticed some movement at the head table after the last Elder spoke, giving her hope the blessing would be over soon. The Elders looked to the ninth and empty chair. Verbis was visibly irritated with the discussion, Xena observed. She barely heard Loquus but could swear he responded to Verbis with "Its my Ceremony Dinner damn it." Thesaurus rolled his eyes and nodded to Loquus.
Loquus came over to their table with a broad smile.
"Gabrielle my dear." He looked upon her with genuine affection, Xena noted. "Loquus, that was a lovely blessing." Gabrielle responded. "I'm pleased you think so but we are not done." He noted. Xena's eyes rolled when she noticed a slumped over Joxer, fast asleep. She debated whether to wake him but considered he would have a better time sleeping.
"Our ninth Elder would have finished the blessing but, as you know, he can not." Loquus looked back at the head table sadly. "Thesaurus would have spoken the ninth Elder's part but I just came up with a better alternative." He grinned at the bard, who's eyes widened with both delight and uneasiness. "Would you mind honoring me with the reading of the ninth Elder's words?"
Gabrielle paused a moment with mixed emotions. She didn't believe in the Ceremony but knew this meant everything to the old man. "I would be honored to Loquus." Gabrielle's answer made the old man beam.
Xena scanned the room as Gabrielle walked up to the head table and opened the ninth Elder's scroll. All eyes were fixed on the bard with great anticipation, especially an extremely attentive Liberus, Xena noted, her eyes narrowing.
While the Elders didn't need to read their scrolls, Gabrielle took a moment to carefully read her's. Her face cringed with confusion as she went over the ancient text again. Xena felt bad, considering the bard was having difficulty with the ancient Verbinian dialect. Gabrielle looked up at the Elders.
Except for Verbis, who rolled his eyes with disgust, the Elders encouraged her on with warm smiles and nods. She shook her head, sighed, and plowed right in.
"Brothers and Sisters of Verbinia....The Elder's before me spoke of the past and the glory of the word. I speak of the future and the glory of our people." Gabrielle proclaimed as if she were a Verbinian, obtaining appreciative nods from the audience and head table. Xena smiled at the regal bard, who was definitely in her element.
"The future is bright. Our youth shall inherit the Gifts of our ancestors, passed on through the generations to our fathers and those here today. Yet a bright future is NOT assured with the mere receipt of those Gifts." Her inclusion and emphasis of the word 'not' took the audience by surprise.
Incredible tension grew throughout the audience as Gabrielle continued. The Warrior Princess somehow knew Gabrielle would liven the Ceremonial Blessing up. Surely, she was reading it wrong, Thesaurus considered uncomfortably.
"The gift of experience and understanding MUST ALSO be passed on with the Gift." She eyed Loquus who was shifting uncomfortably in his chair not sure what to do. Surely, she was reading it wrong, Loquus considered.
"Without THAT gift, education of the word would be useless. For mere words are NOT enough."
"STOP THIS BLASPHEMY!" Verbis called out as he bolted out of his chair and tore the scroll from the bard's hands. In a blink of an eye, Xena was out of her chair and beside the bard.
"You speak LIES!" He opened the scroll up with great agitation and searched the text to prove the offensive words did not exist. "I have only read what was written Verbis". Gabrielle responded calmly, confident in her translation.
"..bright future IS assured." He repeated nervously, more from memory than from the text before him. He fumbled through the scroll with great agitation, realizing how much difficulty he was having with the ancient dialect.
"Is NOT!" Gabrielle argued, pointing to the word. "The ending on that word makes it a negative...just like that word for enough...its 'NOT enough' not 'ENOUGH'. Granted, it is very subtle and easily missed..." She pointed to the other word.
"You insolent little..." Verbis boiled. "I'm sure you were going to say bard." Xena responded, standing between the two as she coldly eyed the Elder.
"FRIENDS!" Thesaurus interjected. "Please this is a Celebration Dinner!" He squeezed between the Warrior Princess and Verbis.
"It ceased to be a Celebration went you let this IGNORANT BITCH in." Verbis spued, eyeing the murderer of his brother.
"HEY!" The angry bard moved out from behind Xena and Thesaurus, to face Verbis.
"Gabrielle..." Xena called softly to the determined bard.
"How DARE you call her ignorant. It takes not only strength but INTELLIGENCE to be a good warrior. And part of that intelligence includes language skills." She poked him in the chest.
"Did you know Xena speaks four languages fluently? Not to mention a handful well enough to communicate with?" She continued with fire in her eyes. The bard's fierce defense of the Warrior Princess shocked the group and made Xena hope that one day, she would actually be worthy of such devotion.
"She killed my brother..." He replied weakly. "Yes...she did. And she regrets it and there is nothing she can do to bring him back" Gabrielle snapped. "But what she CAN do is help..."
"I think we have heard enough Gabrielle....It is time to eat." Loquus interrupted the bard. "After dinner, I will retire to the Ceremonial chamber for an evening of meditation, as is tradition." Loquus added loudly, indicating to the Verbinian gathering the Ceremony would still proceed as planned.
"You can't possibly go through with this NOW Loquus...the scrolls." She responded with disbelief.
"We can not change our ways over night because of a few minor errors..." He explained uneasily. Her mouth dropped. "MINOR ERRORS? You should look over ALL these scrolls to see what other MINOR errors were missed before you commit yourself to a death sentence!" She blurted.
"Gabrielle, the Ceremony will proceed. It is my duty." He said looking at the bard hoping she would understand. Gabrielle was speechless, unable to think of any more arguments to change his mind. Her eyes dropped to the ground, understanding but not agreeing with his duty. Unable to stay any longer, the upset bard left the Dining Room.
Turning to follow the dejected bard, Xena noticed Joxer still hunched over and sleeping in his chair. "Joxer, time to go." She startled him by placing her hand on his shoulder. "Huh...What!? Did I miss anything?" Joxer looked around seeing a bunch of anxious Verbinians. "Come on Joxer."
As they left the Dining Room, Xena stopped Joxer. "I would like you to follow Verbis. I don't trust him as far as you can throw him." She relayed. "SURE THING Xena!" He responded with loud enthusiasm, making the warrior cringe. As he started to leave, she grabbed his arm. "Discretely Joxer...discretely." She instructed him. "OH!...oh...sure thing..." He whispered to her and left happily, on another mission.
"Gabrielle?" Xena called softly, opening the door to her room. Gabrielle stood quietly staring out the window, down to the dark ally. "Find anything interesting in the ally?" Xena asked as she approached the bard and peered out the window herself. Gabrielle sighed, remaining silent. "Gabrielle, you can't make a person change his mind...not even you." Xena smiled down warmly. Gabrielle nodded.
"Well I guess I shouldn't expect to get my normal speaking fee." Gabrielle quipped, starting to wipe a tear from her eye. "Well, I found it became more interesting when you spoke." Xena informed her, intercepting the tear before the bard. "Of course, compared to those blessings, Joxer's snoring was more interesting." Xena added, making Gabrielle break into a smile and soft laugh.
"What did you find out about the murders?" She asked, making Xena sigh.
"Not much. The Attendants didn't exactly open up to an Outsider asking a bunch of questions." She relayed with frustration.
"Even with Joxer's sign language, the soldiers weren't exactly...." Xena sighed again, then continued. "Texius told me the murders didn't occur the day of the Ceremony but the evening of the Ceremony." The Warrior Princess relayed what little she knew.
"Well, with the GIFT Giver stuck meditating alone in the Ceremonial chamber all night, it would be the best time for an attack." Gabrielle considered.
"Exactly." Xena relayed with a nod.
"Liberus, NOW what?" Darmas paced the Ceremonial Hall, empty except for the two brothers. He watched Liberus happily arrange a few things on the alter.
"You worry too much Darmas. This little revelation helps our position!" Liberus responded with enthusiasm. "The archaic laws and beliefs which we want to do away with were actually a result of the MISINTERPRETATION of the ancient text by those FOOLS!" Liberus laughed, shaking his head. "Who knew that Great Gift would have come in useful so soon! To think, I would have settled for the Gift of Loquus!"
"Get your men ready, we've got a busy night ahead of us." Liberus added.
Darmas looked nervously at his brother. "With this fortunate turn of events, are you sure we even need to do this?" Darmas added, still not comfortable with the idea. "What you wanted...we wanted...was change. I think that door has been opened for us." Darmas noted. "They..."
"Those Elders are too stubborn to change Darmas." Liberus blurted angrily. "They have their position and they are comfortable. There is no reason for them to WANT to change. And as YOU have reminded me Darmas, even the Verbinians ready for change still respect the Gift." Liberus added emphatically. "And what better assurance of our people getting that change than for ME to receive the Gift of Gabrielle?"
"Loquus will need our protection this evening." Gabrielle sighed, enjoying the Warrior Princess' comfortable embrace she knew would end all too soon. "He's determined to meditate alone ALL night in the Ceremonial chamber after dinner." Gabrielle added sadly.
Suddenly, Gabrielle stepped back with a big smile. "Which means I have a whole night to try and change his mind!" She blurted with hope. "Gabrielle...you can't just..." Xena blurted, causing the bard to furrow her eyebrows. "And how do you expect to do that?" Xena asked, shrewdly rephrasing her comment, making the bard grin.
"I'm not EXACTLY sure yet, but just keep him alive until I can talk some sense into him!" She enthusiastically started for the door then stopped and turned back to the Warrior Princess. "OK?" She asked as an afterthought, squeezing the warrior's forearm. Xena shook her head.
"Do I have a choice?" Xena replied, making the bard grin. "NO." Gabrielle forcefully responded, planted a kiss firmly on the warrior's lips, grinned and left.
CHAPTER 10 - WHERE TO BEGIN
Gabrielle proceeded through the dimly lit Ceremonial Hall. Somewhere, there had to be some persuasive and sacred Verbinian words that would change Loquus' mind about the Ceremony or at least, postpone it. She knew somewhere in this Library there was hope. She only had to find it, she sighed. Where to begin?
Xena peered out from the rafters high above the Ceremonial chamber. From her position, she could see the entire room, the two doors and the currently empty chair at the room's center. Shifting to make herself as comfortable as possible, Xena sighed, considering it was going to be another long night.
A door creaked opened. Loquus quietly entered, followed closely by Talea. Loquus removed his Ceremonial robe and handed it to his sad Attendant. "My child, the bard's words have disturbed you haven't they?" He asked with a fatherly warmth.
She paused, carefully considering her answer. "If anything Loquus, they have given me hope." She said honestly, folding his robe and handing it to him.
"What do you mean?" He asked. "You won't like what I have to say." She found strength and would tell him the truth. "Speak your mind child."
After reading ten scrolls which were of absolutely no help to her, Gabrielle started to have doubts she would find anything to change Loquus' mind. "Gabrielle?" Liberus questioned the bard. "AH!" The startled bard jumped. "Oh ...Liberus." She exhaled with a laugh. He smiled at his fortune. He didn't have to go get her, she had come to him.
"What ARE you doing?" He questioned softly, looking over her shoulder at a scroll.
"I was hoping to find something that would convince Loquus to stop this foolish..." Gabrielle looked at the Attendant and sighed. "I'm sorry Liberus, I don't mean to insult your people." She apologized, frustration evident in her furrowed brow.
"Don't apologize Gabrielle." He said honestly. "The whole Ceremony has lost its original meaning over the years." He surprised the bard with his admission. "The Elders have gotten too lazy. They have let their precious Gifts atrophy away." He relayed sadly.
"You saw how Verbis struggled with the Ancient dialect. I wonder how many other mistakes we are living with because of a letter dropped here, a missed word there..." He shrugged.
"I was hoping to find more of those mistakes to convince Loquus he should change his mind about the Ceremony." Gabrielle revealed.
"No one ever challenges the Elders. He will not listen to your arguments. They are stubborn foolish old men." Liberus disclosed.
"If things are as bad as you say, why hasn't anybody ever tried to challenge the Elders?" She questioned. "They have great Gifts Gabrielle...that means incredible power here." Liberus explained to the curious bard.
"Respect for the Elders is a hard thing to overcome. But, that respect is crumbling as our people become tired of living with the mistakes those men make." Liberus spoke from the heart.
"Sounds like you are ready for a change." Gabrielle observed, surprising him.
"Yes, you could say that." He laughed softly, smiling at the woman who was part of that change. "I would like to show you something. Maybe it will help you with Loquus." He added quickly, amused at the ease of it all. She nodded, considering anything better than the random reading of thousands of Verbinian scrolls.
"And they have even learned how to write their names and basic words Loquus." Talea, now sitting at the man's feet, informed the Elder. "They may not have THE Gift but they do have ability. It is amazing no one considered their sign language another expression of the Gift. They only need to be TAUGHT, nurtured, like all of us Loquus." She explained emphatically.
Loquus sighed. "Talea...if I were to ask you to still be my Attendant tomorrow...would you?" He asked her, not sure she would. Apparently none of Talea's impassioned and eye opening words sunk in, Xena sighed. Gabrielle certainly had her work cut out for her if she expected to change his stubborn mind, Xena considered. Of course, in a battle of stubbornness, she would place all her dinars on the bard, she mused.
"I will do my duty Loquus. But I will not be happy." She responded, getting up from the floor. "Is that what you want?" She challenged him.
Loquus sighed. "I am old Talea. I don't have many choices or much time. That is what I want." Getting her unwanted answer, Talea left him to prepare for the Ceremony.
Alone, curled up on the alter, the bard struggled with consciousness. Her body convulsed uncontrollably as she gasped, as much out of pain as for air. The disjointed pieces of her memory slowly emerged out of the whirlpool of confusion.
She remembered the faces of the men, pinning her on the alter, the chants, the laying on of hands to her head. She remembered fighting, every step of the way, lashing out, scratching a face, drawing blood. She remembered fighting until she was too weak to fight. That was when it was ripped away. She remembered the pain....such pain.
Once the tearing of her mind and soul was complete, she was left alone in her new darkness, a scary emptiness where only confusion dwelled. Her hands grabbed her throbbing head, just one of the remnants of the crime. Though her mind unable to construct a coherent thought, her heart told her one thing with great clarity - she needed the Warrior Princess.
Climbing down from the cold stone alter, she instinctively headed towards the door. Her trembling body, still too weak from the crime, was unable to comply. Her legs buckled under her, causing her to fall hard onto the stone floor.
The pain from the fall did not register with the bard. It was nothing compared to the ache still permeating through her wounded mind and soul. A steady stream of tears flowed down her face as she struggled to control her fear. She needed the Warrior Princess.
Crying out for the one she needed, only a pained yelp emerged, like an animal caught in a hunter's trap. A name did not come from her lips because a name could not form in her mind.
"DEAR GODS!" Talea blurted, rushing into the alter room, locating source of the yell. "Gabrielle!" She called out, kneeling by the bard. The words caused the bard to moan in pain as she held her throbbing head in her hands.
"Gabrielle..." Talea called again, trembling as she witnessed the horror that, until now, this Attendant had only witnessed in her worst Ceremony nightmares.
Verbis rushed in, hearing the commotion. "What's going on?" He called out indignantly, stopping dead in his tracks seeing Talea unsuccessfully attempting to comfort the bard. "No." Verbis uttered hollowly, not wanting to believe.
"Gabrielle?" Joxer called from behind a startled Verbis, almost bumping into him. "Gabrielle! Don't you worry Gabrielle, I'll get Xena." He called to her not understanding what he saw. He just knew everything would be OK once the Warrior Princess got there.
Verbis realized valuable time was being lost. "Stay with her." He called to Talea as he left to alert the gate guards. No one would be leaving Verbinia until the thief was caught, he promised himself angrily.
After alerting the soldiers, Verbis knew that despite tradition, the Third Elder would want to know. "Loquus!" Verbis called as he barged in the chamber, trying to catch his breath. Xena tensed, her hand on her chakrum. "This had better be good Verbis." Loquus warned the winded Elder, who interrupted his needed meditation. "Its Gabrielle." He blurted with genuine concern.
Suddenly, the Warrior Princess descended from the rafters. Within one step, Xena grabbed Verbis by the front of his robe. "What about Gabrielle!" She snapped. "Someone..." Verbis paused, still unable to believe it himself. "Someone WHAT!" Xena barked, shaking him with an angry jolt.
"Someone stole her Gift."
Curled up on the floor in a mass of sobs, the bard pushed away those who tried to help her. She wanted no one except the one she cried out for. Her cries were finally soothed by the touch of the one she desperately needed. Strong, but gentle, arms lifted the bard into a protective embrace. A flood of sounds spilled from the warrior.
Unable to accept the possibility that someone stole Gabrielle's Gift, the Warrior Princess attempted to prove it just wasn't so. "Come on Gabrielle...say something to me..." Xena stroked the bard's face nervously, seeing confusion and fear in her eyes.
"Gabrielle, SAY something." Xena urged the bard, who's trembling shell desperately clung to the warrior as she heard sounds which meant absolutely nothing to her.
"SAY something Gabrielle....please..."
"Xena, her Gift is gone, she can't understand you." Talea relayed with tears in her eyes. Xena desperately looked around the room for someone to tell her there was some misunderstanding.
"We've got to get it back..." Xena responded hollowly, finally accepting what the bard's eyes told her. The Gift was gone.
"We don't know who did it Xena..." Verbis relayed, feeling something for the Warrior Princess he never expected to, incredible sympathy.
"What are you standing around waiting for?!? FIND THEM!" Xena barked angrily. "NOW!"
Verbis nodded at the warrior and left.
Hearing a moan from the confused woman in her arms, her rage was temporarily pushed aside. "Don't worry Gabrielle...you need rest. Everything will be fine" Xena rambled, lifting the bard from the floor. "Don't worry...everything will be fine." The warrior repeated with a distant look in her eyes. "Everything will be fine." The warrior softly repeated to herself as they headed back to her room.
Knocking the cup of tea out of the warrior's hand, Gabrielle moaned while trying to get out of bed. Gabrielle found strength to fight sleep and the warrior who tried to bring it to her, Texius observed with utter amazement.
"Gabrielle. Gabrielle! No..NO Gabrielle." Xena called out nervously, holding her down. Each word spoken just made the woman of no words more upset, Xena quickly realized.
Xena firmly grabbed Gabrielle's chin and made the woman of no words look at her. After a moment of resistance, the woman of no words finally focused on the silent warrior's eyes and calmed down. Xena released her hold on Gabrielle's chin when the Amazon gently pulled the warrior's hand away.
Gabrielle focused intently on the warrior as she showed her five fingers. Xena stared with confusion at her open palm. Gabrielle sighed and closed her eyes, then tried again. She displayed her fingers this time, one at a time before stressing five. "Five men attacked you?" Xena asked, receiving a confused look from the woman of no words. "Oh Gabrielle...." Xena whispered, aching for the bard's loss.
Xena breathed in deeply as she lifted up five fingers and nodded. Gabrielle nodded back with a relieved sigh, the warrior understood.
"Joxer" Xena called softly and received another cup of tea. The bard shook her head no, holding her hands up in protest. Xena's annoyed stare made Gabrielle shake her head no again. Xena forcefully held out the cup insisting Gabrielle take it. Gabrielle sighed and firmly grabbed the warrior's chin and stared deeply into her eyes. Xena realized the stubborn bard wasn't finished telling her wordless story.
Gabrielle raised her hand up and clawed at Xena's face, falling short of actually striking her. Xena looked at her with surprise than an inkling of understanding. Gabrielle nodded, tracing her fingers on Xena's face where she had left her mark on the attacker. Gabrielle suddenly withdrew her hand and clenched her head with a groan. Xena's heart dropped as she watched the one she loved recoil in pain.
Breathing deeply and slowly, Gabrielle lifted up her head from her hands revealing fresh tears. Xena slowly and gently placed the cup of tea to the bard's lips. The bard finally accepted the sedative.
With Gabrielle finally asleep, Xena reluctantly left her bedside. "I will find the bastards who did this." Xena spoke cooly to Texius and Joxer. The vacancy in her eyes disturbed them.
"No one can leave Verbinia without us knowing Xena. We will find them." Texius tried to comfort her.
"If someone could take her gift...she get it back, right?" Xena asked, attempting to construct a plan. Texius shook his head no. "I've never heard of a Gift being returned Xena." Texius responded sadly, his words powerful blows to the warrior, who's gaze fell to the ground as she struggled with feelings of helplessness and fear.
"Just because you haven't heard of such a thing doesn't mean it can't be done ....does it?" Joxer interjected, drawing a quick look from Xena which made him uneasy. He had a habit of being annoying when he tried to help and he sincerely hoped that was not the case now.
"DOES IT?" She snapped back to the Verbinian. Texius scratched his head. "I ... I don't know..." Xena's hope resurfaced. "Well FIND OUT!" Xena barked. "All right Xena." He nodded and left.
CHAPTER 11 - IN SEARCH OF A THIEF
With explicit instructions from the Warrior Princess, Joxer went back to the soldier's barracks that evening. Upon his arrival, he was immediately questioned by the soldiers about Gabrielle's condition. "She's strong but..." Joxer signed to them. "We have been told no one survives after losing the Gift." Joxer added sadly, carefully eyeing the soldiers for a man with a scratched face.
Liberus woke from a sound sleep, refreshed and ready for the glorious future. He stretched as he yawned, eyeing the room and the other Attendants. Soon he would not have to live in such cramped surroundings, he mused. Soon his brother would gather the Verbinians ready for change and they would finally break the chains of the Elders' rule. Soon he would lead his people. He looked out the window at the glorious weather, nice day for a take over, he laughed to himself.
Drawing his attention away from the window, he heard the name Gabrielle. "What are you all talking about?" He asked nonchalantly, joining the other Attendants.
"Liberus, I'm surprised you were able to sleep with all the commotion last night." An Attendant noted. "Commotion?" He asked innocently.
"The Gift of Gabrielle was stolen last night..." Talea spoke numbly, worn out from a sleepless night.
"Gods NO!" Liberus feigned concern. "How is she?" He asked, expecting a sad answer.
"It's too soon to tell." Talea noted, tears welling up in her eyes again.
"WHAT!?!...uh...She's still alive?" He asked, surprised by the news.
"Yes, but I think it is wishful thinking to believe she'll recover." Talea sighed, wiping the tears she thought she had under control.
"Oh...Yet, she IS strong" He said distractedly, patting Talea on the back. "What are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to be preparing for a Ceremony?" He asked, still pondering the disturbing news about the bard.
"Loquus has postponed it...thank the Gods." Talea relayed.
Gabrielle woke, cringing at the blinding beam of light peaking through the curtains. Xena quickly closed the curtains, stopping the offensive beam. "Is that better?" She asked, turning to the bard, hoping for a response. Yet, the bard remained quiet.
Gabrielle watched the Warrior Princess approach and sit down on the bed. Soft sounds came from her lips as she took the bard's hand in hers. Gabrielle's eyebrows furrowed as she listened, as if she believed she could understand if she just concentrated more. The effort encouraged the Warrior Princess, who spoke slower and more deliberately.
"Gabrielle...can you say your name?" Xena asked. "Gab...brie...elle." Xena broke the name down. "Gab...brie....elle," she repeated, slowly.
"Uhh," the bard responded.
"No...Ga..Ga..." Xena corrected her.
"Uhh," the bard repeated.
"NO!..GA..GA..." Xena snapped with frustration, causing the bard to cringe at the harsh sound. "Oh Gods Gabrielle.... I'm sorry." Xena immediately blurted, her heart dropped realizing what she had just done. "I'm so sorry...."
With the desire to erase that look of panic in the warrior's eyes, the bard reached up and caressed the warrior's cheek.
Verbis and Texius searched the scrolls in the Ceremonial Hall. "Any luck?" Verbis asked. "No. I have not ready ANYTHING that would help us." Texius blurted with frustration, rubbing his sore neck.
"Help you with what?" Liberus asked the two tired men.
"Liberus, another set of eyes...come and start reading!" Texius ordered, handing him a scroll.
"I am honored but...what am I looking for?" He asked.
"A way to return the Gift." Verbis relayed.
"Wha..Why would we want to do that?" He asked, growing nervous.
"Xena says she will find the thief who stole the Gift of Gabrielle. When she does, I don't want to be the one to tell her we can't give it back." Texius' hope the situation could be reversed unnerved Liberus.
"But our laws... they don't allow such things. Returning a Gift is unheard of." Liberus argued nervously. Verbis shook his head no.
"Technically our laws don't cover Gifts of Outsiders. We are treading new ground here. I suspect anything is possible." Verbis interjected, holding out a scroll and eyed the Attendant. "Well?"
Taking the scroll, Liberus felt ill. "A Gift wouldn't be returned to someone who's not healthy right?" Liberus asked weakly. "All this depends on Gabrielle's recovery doesn't it?... How is she?" Liberus asked.
"She's alive, I don't know how...but she's alive." Verbis shook his head as he reached for another scroll.
"I'm sorry Xena. I haven't seen anybody with a scratch on their face. They are probably laying low." Joxer relayed sadly.
"Just keep looking." She said gazing upon Gabrielle, who was asleep. "He will show up. When he does..." Xena's voice trailed off.
For hours the Verbinians searched through the thousands of scrolls for some instructions on how to return the Gift. "HEY!" Texius blurted with excitement, causing everyone, except Liberus, to look up with hope. "Oh..." Texius sighed and shook his head. Another false alarm.
"You keep DOING that...STOP IT!" Verbis blurted at the Lead Attendant.
"Sorry." Texius winced at the Elder's admonition.
"Let's take a break for dinner and start fresh afterwards." Talea suggested to the group.
"We shouldn't ..." Verbis started to decline.
"You need a break, as we all do. And don't argue with me Verbis! You know I'm right!" She scolded him. Texius and Liberus looked at her with shock.
"I'm sorry Verbis an Attendant should never..." Texius started to apologize for the rude behavior.
"Don't be sorry...she's right." Verbis got up and stretched. "It's about time someone wasn't afraid to speak their mind..." He added. Liberus could not believe his ears, the change was happening before his eyes....and without him.
When Xena answered the knock at the door, she was surprised to find Verbis. "Did you find anything?" She asked cautiously, not to get her hopes up.
"No, but we are still looking." He relayed, genuinely hopeful. "Here's some food for her...there's enough for both of you." He handed her a tray. He watched her silently stare at the food.
"Don't worry, it's not poisoned Warrior Princess." He added.
"I..." She looked up, speechless at the unexpected kindness.
"Just make sure she gets some." He added and turned to leave.
"Verbis." Xena called to him.
"I hope she likes nutbread." Verbis responded with a grin, making the warrior nod.
Gabrielle stretched as she woke to the voices. Closing the door behind her, Xena came over to the bed with a tray of food, confident the bard must be hungry after a day of only tea. Xena sat on the bed and with a slight smile, uncovered the plate to reveal healthy portions of nutbread. Gabrielle closed her eyes and exhaled as she shook her head no.
"We've got to act and we've go to act now!" Liberus blurted nervously to his brother, who was packing his bags. "You can't be serious." Darmas responded, still feeling the ache in his face.
"What do you mean? You have the Gift of Literas and I have the Gift of Gabrielle...we are all set! We just need to gather..." He responded with confusion.
"Gather whom? Who will follow YOU?" Darmas shook his head at his gullible brother.
"The Verbinians ready for change! The soldiers...the Attendants," Liberus responded with confusion.
"You are so naive." Darmas shook his head with amazement. "Do you actually think anyone will follow a murderer and a thief, a thief of the Gift of an OUTSIDER?" Darmas shook his head as he tied together his sparse belongings.
"But...we have the Gifts! You said..." Liberus was in shock at this betrayal.
"I said what I NEEDED to, to get myself a Gift brother. That is all I wanted from you and these Gods' forsaken people. Now I can leave this Tartarus Hole and have a chance to live like a normal person." Darmas spoke the blunt truth.
"What are you saying? Why didn't you leave then, after you got the Gift?" Liberus asked, his rage building.
"I was SO tempted, but I OWED you and the idea of taking another Gift from an Elder was...incredibly appealing." Darmas looked at his brother and shook his head. "But you just had to take that poor girl's Gift. That is something I will always regret...but I don't OWE you anymore brother...good bye." He lifted his pack over his shoulder.
Xena sat quietly on the edge of Gabrielle's bed looking at the bard stir, waiting for the next round of nightmares to wake her. Throughout the night she would jolt awake with violent gasps, remembering the attack, Xena guessed. Each time the Warrior Princess would cradle her and rock her back to sleep, wishing she could take away the pain and fear.
As Xena had come to expect from this weary cycle, the bard once again jolted awake with an unnerving gasp. Though Xena knew to expect the look of terror in the bard's eyes, it didn't make it any easier to witness. Xena took the bard in her arms once again. "Shhhhh." Xena responded to sooth the bard as she gently stroked her red head and kissed her forehead. Tears welled up in the bard's eyes as she clung to the Warrior Princess, seeking strength and finding sleep.
Joxer barged in the room. "Xena! Oh...sorry...we found the guy with the scratch on his face!" He said out of breath. The bard woke to the noise and felt Xena tense up in her arms.
"When I get my hands on him..." She said cooly. "He's dead Xena." Joxer informed her, making her stomach drop. There were still four others, she reminded herself....four others.
Xena gently removed the bard's arms from her waist and looked in Gabrielle's eyes. Xena pointed to herself and then the door. Gabrielle nodded and started to get out of bed.
"No" Xena spoke softly, gently pushing her back down. Xena pointed to herself then the door, then pointed to Gabrielle then the bed.
Gabrielle looked at her with a furrowed brow, shook her head no then pointed to herself, to Xena, then the door.
"NO" Xena responded firmly, shaking her head no as she pointed to Gabrielle then the bed. Gabrielle firmly shook her head no. Xena's eyes rolled, not believing the bard was successfully arguing without words.
Not about to loose this argument, Xena sighed and sat on the bed, staring at the bard....patiently. Gabrielle's eyes rolled as she shook her head. With a thin smile, the Amazon pointed to Xena and the bed, then herself and the door and started to get out of bed again.
"NO," Xena repeated firmly, pulling the bard back. Gabrielle let out a perturbed grunt. Noticed the ever-present Joxer watching the argument, another option crossed Gabrielle's mind. Gabrielle returned her gaze to Xena and lifted her hands up in what looked like surrender to the hopeful warrior.
She pointed to herself then the bed. "Finally," Xena blurted with relief.
Gabrielle pointed to Joxer then the door. Xena eyed her curiously as she cautiously nodded yes. Gabrielle then pointed to Xena, raised an eyebrow and pointed to the bed. Joxer's eyes widened.
Staring at the knife sticking out of Darmas' back, Bass guarded over the body of Darmas. When she entered the storeroom, Xena's heart sunk seeing the lifeless form There were still four others, she reminded herself....four others.
"Did any of the soldiers see ANYTHING?" Xena blurted with annoyance.
"No Xena. Bass found the body this morning," Joxer informed her. Bass signed something to him. Xena looked sharply at them.
"WHAT did he say?" She snapped with frustration.
"Liberus hasn't been told of his brother's death yet." He relayed.
"Darmas is Liberus' brother," Joxer informed her.
All of the Warrior Princess' senses screamed out to her. They told her he was the one with Gabrielle's Gift. "I'll do it," She responded coldly, slowly standing up. "But I suspect he already knows."
Her eyes scanned every inch of the Attendant's chambers as she walked in. "Xena!?!" Talea called to the warrior. "What are you ...What's wrong?" She asked, seeing a hardened look on the warrior's face.
"Where is Liberus?" Xena hissed, her cold stare making Talea uncomfortable.
"I don't know... he hasn't been here all night. Why are you looking for him?" Talea asked.
Liberus shook with fear as he hid in the alley, his world crumbling around him. Darmas ruined everything, he thought, staring at his bloody hands. "Oh Darmas, why," he asked silently. His eyes focused on the gates, the barriers to the outside....his freedom and a fresh start. Patience, he told himself, patience.
"Where is his bunk?" Xena asked bluntly, ignoring Talea's questions.
"Right there," Talea immediately responded, knowing better than to impede this warrior.
"Xena why are you looking for Liberus?" She asked again, fearing the answer. Xena knelt down to inspect the box of belongings under his bed. "Xena??" Talea asked again.
"He did it." Xena spoke matter-of-factly.
A claxon sounded, bringing a slight smile to the Warrior Princess' lips. "Gods. What's going on?" Talea blurted.
"He's running," Xena stood up slowly "as he should be."
CHAPTER 12 - THE HUNT
Dismounting Argo to more closely inspect the tracks, Xena noted that Liberus may have stolen the bard's Gift, but he certainly did not take her intelligence. Gabrielle would never have left such a careless trail of broken branches and poorly hidden footsteps, she considered as she assessed Liberus' performance.
"Tsk...Tsk...Tsk...and you had SUCH a good head start too." The Warrior Princess smirked. Her smirk melted into a cold, hard gaze as she eyed the trail This was his second mistake, she noted. His second and last, she promised.
Remounting her horse, Xena noticed Argo was a bit skittish.
"Come on girl." Xena coaxed Argo, surprised when the horse wouldn't budge. "We've been on worse trails before" Xena noted with mild amusement, eyeing the varying terrain and narrow trail that made navigation with the large animal difficult.
"Come ON girl." Xena repeated with growing annoyance. Argo snorted again.
"COME ON!" Xena snapped. "What is WRONG with you??" She yelled, beside herself with anger.
Not about to waste any more time dealing with Argo's bizarre temperament, Xena angrily dismounted and headed down the trail, alone.
The foot prints left the rocky trail and headed through the dense forest. The softer dirt of the forest floor easily captured his footprints, which were now deeper and further apart. He was finally in an all out sprint, she concluded with satisfaction. Some signs of intelligence after all, she mused. She picked up her pace, feeling she was very close to the thief. A shift in the wind confirmed that feeling. She could now hear him.
The frantic sounds of gasping and breaking branches, made her heart race with the thrilling anticipation of a hunter, closing in on the kill. She paused, almost overwhelmed with that powerful feeling. Her eyes closed as thoughts of Gabrielle filled her mind. The terror in her eyes. A terror he caused. But she had to take this thief back to Verbinia, ALIVE, she reminded herself.
Taking a slow and deep breath, Xena continued the pursuit.
Gabrielle looked out the window, waiting for Xena. Her morning headache, which unfortunately caused Xena her victory in the morning argument, was finally gone. Gabrielle was ready to comb the streets to look for the attackers. She just needed Xena to be there when she did. She sighed, waiting for Xena.
With each passing moment, Gabrielle's concern grew. Soon, that concern grew into fear. A fear not for herself, but for the Warrior Princess. Unable to bear it any longer, Gabrielle's instincts took over. She reached for her staff.
The Warrior Princess caught up to her prey and somersaulted over his head letting out her war cry. She landed in front of him, blocking his path. Liberus skidded to a stop and tried to run the other way, but tripped and stumbled to the ground.
Xena eyed the thief coldly. "I'm taking her Gift back." She spoke evenly as the fearful man scrambled to get up.
"NO! It is MINE! I'm NOT going back!" He responded vehemently.
"I'm taking HER...gift...back." Xena repeated slowly and deliberately, struggling to maintain control of her rage.
Back on his feet, he proved her wrong by making a third mistake - pulling out a dagger.
The Attendant lunged and swung his dagger wildly at the Warrior Princess, who easily stepped out of the way of this untrained fighter. He didn't immediately catch on that after each wild swipe of his blade, the Warrior Princess would respond with a powerful punch.
She knew there was only one way to ease the rage within her, but she had to bring him back... ALIVE, she reminded herself.
Growing tired of this skirmish, she easily grabbed his wrist after his final brutal attack of the air. Her crushing squeeze caused him to drop both his dagger and jaw.
She hurled him against an unsuspecting tree. He made a pleasing thud when he hit, and a more pleasing moan when he collapsed to the ground. She watched the thief get up with difficulty. Apparently she broke his wrist, she noted unsympathetically.
Physical punishment of this man gave her no second thoughts. Liberus had stolen something very precious and hurt Gabrielle. It was not a matter of whether she would hurt him. It was only a matter of how badly.
When he finally stood up, he leaned against the tree and looked over to her defiantly. "I'm taking HER gift back," Xena repeated. Her icy blue eyes sent shivers through him.
"No," he answered. Expending every last ounce of energy he had, he made a mad dash for the forest. A thin smile formed on her lips.
Within three strides, she once again stopped his attempt at escape. Her fists seemed to have a mind of their own. She didn't think as her fists repeatedly found their target. With each strike, she felt a satisfying release of her anger. Nowhere near complete satisfaction, she watched as the bloodied body could no longer support his own weight and crumble to the ground.
She towered over him, trembling. She wanted to hurt him more. Hurt him for the pain he caused Gabrielle. Hurt him for stealing a part of Gabrielle, such a special part of her, that she may never get back. Hurt him for making the Warrior Princess feel ...so... helpless.
Almost collapsing from running so hard, Gabrielle thought she was delirious when she found Argo alone in the road. The horse lifted her head and neighed hearing the familiar woman approach. Gabrielle wondered why Xena would have left Argo behind. She stared a moment at the horse, then at the trail that left the main road. There was something about Argo's neigh that gave Gabrielle a bad feeling.
When Gabrielle finally caught her breath, she headed towards the narrow trail. Argo neighed again with a different sound, stopping her in her tracks. Gabrielle turned slowly and eyed the animal. She could have sworn Argo was inviting her to ride.
Gabrielle shook her head no, concluding the trail was better traveled by foot. Argo shook her head yes and neighed louder, surprising the woman of no words. Gabrielle shook her head no and gestured that she would be walking the trail. Argo shook her head no, neighed, and this time, stomped her foot.
Gabrielle couldn't believe she was having an argument with a horse.
"Xena! Xena!" A familiar voice called out to the Warrior Princess. Out of nowhere, Joxer came to her side.
"He has her Gift.." Xena spoke hollowly, still staring at the thief.
"The have searched the scrolls Xena, they haven't found any on how to return the Gift. Xena...without that, none of the Attendants can help you... poor Gabrielle." Joxer's news hurt more than any physical pain she ever endured.
"There must be a way..." She turned to him with a weak voice.
"I'm so sorry Xena. If only the price wasn't so high..." He added.
"What PRICE...what are you talking about??" Xena blurted with confusion, starting to get angry with her friend.
"Talea told me there is only one way to return her Gift to her and I know you can't do it...I just wish.." Joxer spoke sadly.
Hope filled her eyes. "I can return it to her??? I thought only an Attendant...." Xena's heart pounded. GODS let it be possible, she prayed.
"Tell me what I have to do...I'll do anything...ANYTHING!" She grabbed Joxer with her bloody hands, utter desperation in her eyes.
He shook his head. "Xena no....you can't....you would have to kill him, it would be cold blooded murder." Joxer mildly protested.
Without another word, the Warrior Princess unsheathed her sword and stood over to the bloody heap named Liberus.
She understood what she had to do to return Gabrielle's Gift. Without her Gift, the bard would slowly die inside. He caused Gabrielle unimaginable physical and emotional pain. For that, Xena would never forgive this worthless flesh. For that, Xena could not allow him to live.
Gabrielle clung to the reigns tightly as she let Argo follow Xena's trail. Despite her fear of riding this treacherous path, she was actually glad for Argo's company. Seeming to sense her need, Argo responded with comforting neighs.
Gabrielle stared down at the ground where there were still traces of a trail. The footprints were further apart, she noted uneasily. Another neigh caused the woman of no words to look up from the trail, just in time to see the low hanging branch wack her in the face.
Liberus' confused eyes had no affect on the Warrior Princess except to give her the satisfaction that he would be awake to see his death approaching. Without reservation, Xena slowly raised her sword. Clenching the hilt with both hands, she pointed the tip of her weapon towards his heart.
Her only wish was he would taste true terror. A Terror like she saw in her bard's eyes. That wish was granted, for gazing up at her were wide eyes of terror. Savoring this look, like a fine wine by a discriminating connoisseur, a slow and satisfied smile crossed the Warrior Princess' face. Her appreciation of this situation served to make his fear grow and, in turn, her smile.
"No, please," he whimpered before fainting. She couldn't help but laugh at this pathetic sight as a magnificent feeling of power washed over the Warrior Princess, an incredible aphrodisiac.
This ironic twist of having to kill this pile of worthless flesh to help the love of her life was not lost on the Warrior Princess. She was doing the right thing AND enjoying it. Such incredible control. Such exquisite power, she mused. Such familiar power. Poetic justice that a bard...would appreciate.
The amusement in Xena's face rapidly drained away. She thrust her sword downward with incredible strength, letting out a primal scream. She collapsed to her knees, her hands still fused to her sword hilt.
Joxer grinned until he realized the sword was stuck in the ground between the Attendant's arm and body. "You missed???" He questioned with annoyance.
Xena lifted her head and stared across the unconscious body at Joxer. "YOU BASTARD!" Xena cried out with incredible rage.
Joxer shook his head and smiled. "I really thought you'd do it Xena," He relayed casually. Xena's anger made her speechless. "You were SO close...you could taste it couldn't you? That sweet taste of revenge."
CHAPTER 13 - THE GOD OF BARDS
Before her eyes, Joxer transformed into another familiar face. The God of War looked at his hands and body. "MUCH better," he relayed with relief. "You just don't appreciate what I will DO for you." He added with a shudder. He smiled and cautiously approached her, sensing her vulnerability.
"You hurt her." She spoke evenly, yet her eyes betrayed weakness with moisture.
"Oh Xena, I wish I could take all the credit...but I can't. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time," He spoke nonchalantly, easing closer.
"I have to admit, an opportunity like THIS doesn't come twice! Even for a GOD" Ares laughed. "I don't even think I could have conjured up a plan so perfect...so...poetic. Those wonderfully twisted Verbinians." He smiled, looking down at the Attendant.
"I'll have to find a way to thank them." He added thoughtfully stroking his goatee. A grin suddenly crossed his face. He knelt down on the ground across from the Warrior Princess. Showing his appreciation, he patted the unconscious man lying between them on the head. Ares took a deep breath as his hand lingered on Liberus' forehead. "Thank...you... Liberus!" Ares laughed with great amusement. Now he had everything...well, almost, he considered, eyeing the Warrior Princess.
"GO. You DISGUST me." Xena blurted, her weary eyes staring through the God of War.
"If you really want me to," he sighed, not budging. "But I thought you would have wanted to help that bard..oh," he blurted with feigned sympathy, and leaned towards her. "...I guess she can't be called that anymore, can she?" He relayed softly, his words emotional daggers.
"Such a shame. Despite her...unflattering portrayals of me, I was actually fond of her story telling. She could really CAPTURE an audience. Her voice was... well...beautiful."
Ares relayed his strategic compliments.
"Yes...beautiful." Xena whispered.
"Such a shame..." Ares purred. "To never again hear her soothing words of encouragement when you need to hear them," He sighed sadly, observing the Warrior Princess' strength crumble before his eyes.
"To never again hear her say 'Xena, I love you.'...after it took you two SO long to realize you loved each other." Ares was enjoying this torment, though careful not to enjoy it too much.
A tear escaped from the Warrior Princess' eyes. Then another.
"To never again hear her call out your name during the height of passion....oh..." Ares almost laughed. "I'm sorry Xena...you've never HAD that pleasure, have you?" Ares feigned sympathy. Her head dropped against her forearms, her hands still clutching her sword hilt.
"Such a shame." Ares purred. "She'll probably feel she's a burden to you now." The words rang of truth to Xena. "Unable to help you out of a jam with her clever words. I wouldn't be surprised if she decided it was best for you if she left you." He sighed again, shaking his head with feigned sadness.
"She would be doing it for YOU....because she loves you." He offered. "If only you loved HER as much." He whispered.
Xena lifted her head from her arms and looked him squarely in the eyes. "I love her with all my heart." Xena declared with such strength, it surprised the God of War.
"Sure you SAY that, but Xena... what are you willing to DO for her?" He challenged her. "I love her." Xena repeated weakly, desperately holding on to that source of strength.
"Of course you do Xena," Ares responded condescendingly. "But how much?" He softly challenged. "What if I asked you to ... kill yourself, to get her Gift back." He asked, knowing the answer.
"Would you do that for her?" Xena asked with a glimmer of interest.
"Would YOU??" Ares eyed her.
"Yes." Xena softly admitted.
"Hmmm." Ares responded, stroking his chin. "But Xena, you would die for many just causes now....wouldn't you?" Ares asked.
"Yes." Xena admitted wearily.
"So that really wouldn't show how much you loved her... would it?" He questioned her, not expecting an answer.
"I......no..." She responded, barely audible. Tears freely flowing from the Warrior Princess' eyes.
He paused, considering that right now, he could be called the God of Bards. The Gift was very powerful indeed, he mused. But she looked so weak, Ares noted with disappointment. Not the Warrior Princess of old, he thought sadly. However, with a little practice in raiding and pillaging villages, Ares was confident he would rekindle that good ol' Warrior Princess spirit in her. She was, after all, Xena.
Surprising the God Of War, Xena looked into his eyes. "Can you give Gabrielle her Gift back?" She asked with her remaining strength.
"Of course I can." He said softly. "But what will you give ME for returning her gift?" The God of War asked, struggling to contain his joy of this sweet and certain victory. Xena looked at him, knowing what he wanted, knowing the price.
A sound of hoof beats and an Amazon yell interrupted her answer. The God of War turned his head towards the commotion to find, the woman of no words charging him with her staff. Before the shocked God of War could act, he felt a powerful wack under his chin, toppling him on his backside.
"NO!" The woman of no words barked to the God of War, becoming a woman of one word.
Xena bolted to her feet, not sure which surprised her more, Gabrielle attacking the God of War or her utterance of a word. "Gabrielle..." Xena called out in amazement.
Busy with a God at the moment, Gabrielle kept her attention towards Ares. "No." Gabrielle repeated her word, angrily eyeing Ares. She gripped her staff firmly, ready to use it again. "No," she repeated slowly, with conviction.
The attack greatly improved Ares' opinion of the former bard. "Impressive," Ares responded, rubbing where she hit him. He stood up and sighed. Slowly brushing himself off, he felt not angry but rather, put upon by the inconvenience.
"Trust me Xena, you will get tired of hearing NO all the time." He informed Xena smugly.
"You should know." Xena responded dryly.
Ares looked up with surprise at the Warrior Princess, who found new strength. The bard did it again, he realized, growing concerned. "You still can get her Gift back Xena, her Gift for your allegiance...just say the word." He offered.
"NO." The woman of one word repeated, having a feeling it was still an appropriate response to this particular God.
"That's the word....NO." Xena responded, drawing a look of relief from the woman of one word. Seeing the smile the former bard, and her word, put on the Warrior Princess' face, Ares realized this battle was lost. The God of War groaned angrily and raised his hand to the former bard, who did not cower from Ares' imposing presence or the impending blow.
"Ares!" Xena called out, drawing his gaze from the bard.
"Yes Xena?" He asked in a pleasant voice, knowing he still had some control.
"Don't...please," Xena asked sincerely. Ares knew Xena was not bargaining, she was simply making a request. Ares paused a few moments as he debated with himself. Sighing heavily, the God of War lowered his hand.
"Don't you DARE tell anyone I showed mercy to someone who hit me in the face....You just don't appreciate what I will DO for you." Ares shook his head.
"Thank you." Xena responded sincerely. Ares sighed, shaking his head.
"You know Xena, she's your greatest weakness," he relayed, eyeing the former bard.
"Your wrong Ares, she's my greatest strength."
CHAPTER 14 - THE GIFT OF GAB
"HEY!" Texius blurted out for the millionth time. They ignored him, continuing their monumental task of reading through thousands of scrolls to find a scroll that might not exist. "No, I really mean it! READ this!!" Texius rolled out the scroll on the table for the other Verbinians to read.
Verbis reluctantly got up and eyed Texius skeptically. "Read!" Texius prompted him. Sighing heavily, Verbis began to read. "My Gods," He blurted, his head snapping up. "there IS a way."
With Liberus snugly tied to Argo, the women headed back to Verbinia. Every time the Xena would check on Liberus, Gabrielle noticed the warrior cringe. There was no mistaking the evidence, Xena had severely beaten the man. And now she was struggling to deal with that, Gabrielle observed. How could she help her warrior without her words, Gabrielle wondered with a sinking heart.
Finished checking on Liberus, Xena reached for Argo's reigns to continue their trip back. Surprising the warrior, Gabrielle took Xena's hands in hers and inspected her knuckles. Xena pulled her hands back, but the Amazon would have none of that. As Gabrielle firmly held onto the offending hands, Xena's head sunk in shame.
"No," Gabrielle uttered her word. Xena hesitantly looked into Gabrielle's eyes, afraid to see them full of disgust for her loss of control. Yet, the warrior found no such look. Instead, Gabrielle's eyes met hers with an unflinching gaze of love. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the stiff warrior, evoking a heavy sigh from Xena. A long moment passed before Xena finally returned the needed embrace.
"XENA! XENA!" Joxer called excitedly as he ran towards them.
Gabrielle pulled away from the embrace with a furrowed brow. "No, No, No, NO!" The bard blurted.
Xena, Gabrielle and Joxer returned to Verbinia with the unconscious Liberus. As the soldiers lifted Liberus' body off of Argo, Verbis eyed the beaten thief, then Xena. Xena took a deep breath to prepare herself for his comments.
"I don't think I could have stopped." Verbis admitted and abruptly left. Xena stared numbly at the brother of the man she killed, as he followed the soldiers to the Ceremonial Hall.
"Come on you guys!" Joxer urged them.
As they entered the Ceremonial Hall, Gabrielle became visibly agitated. Instinctively, Xena placed her hand on the bard's shoulder as they entered the Alter Room. While the thief was being lowered to the alter by the soldiers, Xena noted the entire counsel of Elders observing anxiously.
Talea nervously reread the scroll of instructions. Texius tried to quiz her on the steps. "Would you MIND?" Talea snapped at the lead Attendant, who's actions made her more nervous.
"She is only the Fourth Attendant." Loquus relayed with some concern. "Are you sure you can do this?" Loquus asked Talea.
"Talea is the best choice Loquus," Texius responded. "She's the quickest study of ALL the Attendants." Texius announced proudly.
"Lucky me," Talea muttered as she reread the scroll one last time. "OK...Let's get on with it." Talea announced.
Talea took Gabrielle's hand to lead her over to the Alter. Gabrielle looked back at Xena uneasily. Xena nodded, encouraging her to follow Talea. Gabrielle swallowed hard and followed the Attendant to the head of the Alter. Texius stood next to Gabrielle, holding the scroll open for Talea, in case she forgot what came next.
"Shouldn't she be lying down?" Joxer asked.
"It's harder on a person to give than to receive Joxer," Talea replied. "She'll be fine STANDING," Talea blurted. "Ok then," Talea exhaled loudly, ready as she was ever going to be.
"What will happen to Liberus?" Xena asked, surprising everyone. Talea looked to the Lead Attendant to field that question.
"We don't know." Texius admitted. "If he still has his gift, perhaps nothing...or perhaps... he'll die." Texius added. "We just don't know."
After an uneasy and quiet moment, Talea exhaled impatiently. "Everyone ready?" Talea asked, eyeing the Outsiders. Joxer and the Warrior Princess nodded quietly.
Talea looked at Gabrielle, who shifted uncomfortably. "The Gift of Gabrielle belongs with Gabrielle." Talea announced formally, beginning.
"It is because of this, we are gathered here." Talea looked around the room. "With the blessings of the Elders, the Gift of Gabrielle shall be returned."
Talea raised her hands and held one over Liberus' forehead head and the other, beside Gabrielle's temple. "In Liberus, lies the Gift, unjustly. By the powers of the Ancients, I take back this Gift to right a wrong." Talea touched the two.
"Ugh," Gabrielle moaned, her eyes fluttered. "NO!" She blurted, recoiling back abruptly, almost falling.
"Gabrielle!" Xena called, immediately moving to her side. "What happened!" Xena snapped, looking coldly at Talea.
"I ...I ...don't know." Talea shook nervously. "I followed the steps...I ...I don't know what happened," Talea added, fearing she did something wrong and hurt Gabrielle.
A laugh filled the room, a familiar laugh to the Warrior Princess. "I'll give you a hint." Ares offered, appearing next to Talea.
"He doesn't have it anymore," He whispered loudly in Talea's ear, making her jump. He laughed as he walked around the nervous Talea. His eyes were fixed on the Warrior Princess who eyed him back. "Oh, he has HIS meager gift, but not hers...I'm taking care of that now." He gently touched his temple and grinned. "hmmm...I guess that really wasn't a HINT, was it?" He crossed his arms and tapped his cheek thoughtfully.
"Why are you doing this to her?" Xena said bitterly.
"Xena, don't you know? I want you back. The Gift for your allegiance" Ares shrugged. "It's that simple"
"NO!" Gabrielle yelled out, moving to stand between Ares and Xena. Whatever he had to say, 'no' was likely a good response, Gabrielle considered. She realized when Talea touched her, her Gift was lost. She wasn't about to loose another precious thing in her life, the most precious.
"PLEASE Xena, take my offer," He urged her, rolling his eyes. "this NO thing is getting really old."
"No Ares." Xena replied weakly, painfully aware of what her answer meant for the bard. "No deals."
Ares eyed the two a moment, considering it just a matter of time. "We are not done, my Warrior Princess." Ares informed her and disappeared.
The uneasy silence in the room was interrupted by the moan of a waking Liberus. "Get him out of here." Verbis blurted with contempt. As the soldiers took Liberus away, Verbis took a deep breath. "We should all get some rest...its been a long day." He sighed.
The Alter room slowly cleared, as the sad eyes of soldiers, Attendants, and Elders alike, awkwardly glanced towards the two numb women. Joxer lingered behind, in case they would need him for something. He watched the two stare into the empty space, previously occupied by the God of War. He waited patiently, then reluctantly left the two alone. The foot steps of their friend echoed in the almost empty stone room.
Xena didn't know how long they stood just staring, but she did know it was time to leave this vile room. She stepped along side of Gabrielle, finally seeing the drained expression on her face. Xena placed her arm around the Amazon and guided her out.
That evening in the soldier's barracks, Joxer, Bass and Talea sat behind a table with a large pile of scrolls. As they handed them out to the long line of soldiers, Bass kept looking around for Elders or Attendants.
"Are you sure the Elders won't mind we are doing this?" Bass signed nervously.
"Nope," Talea said flatly, continuing to hand out another scroll to a soldier with a warm smile. The soldier signed 'thank you' and moved on.
"Oh," Bass blurted uneasily. "Where did you get these?" He signed, then handed out a scroll.
"Where do you THINK?" She responded, shaking her head. She handed out another scroll and another smile.
"Oh," Bass blurted uneasily. "What if they get mad...order us to stop or ...worse?" He signed to her.
"Bass, this is right. If they get mad, tough! If they order us to stop...well...tough! How can we teach them well if we don't have the materials?" She signed with a passion that made him smile.
"Oh," he responded with a wide smile, not so uneasy anymore. That was, until Thesaurus surprised them.
"What's going on here, what are you DOING?!?" He asked loudly. The line of soldiers started to quickly disburse and Bass was considering retreat himself.
"HALT!" Talea ordered, surprising the scattering soldiers who complied. The soldiers stood frozen in place waiting for their next order. "I am handing out scrolls to them to help them to read." Talea informed him boldly, ready for an argument.
"I see," Thesaurus responded with a raised eyebrow, looking at the stacks of scrolls yet to be handed out.
"It IS a really good idea..." Joxer interjected.
Bass was praying he would only be assigned extra guard duty at the front gate for this.
"Do you need any help, assistance?" Thesaurus asked with a grin, making Talea smile brightly and Bass very relieved. Joxer handed him a scroll.
Not long after the soldiers reassembled and the scrolls were once again being handed out, Xena entered the barracks. She walked briskly towards the table of scrolls, passing the long line of soldiers. The stares she received were not out of fear this time, but sympathy. Xena wasn't sure which was worse.
"Xena! How's Gabby?" Joxer asked, bolting up out of his seat, making her wince.
"Sleeping." Xena responded flatly.
"You know if you need anything..." Joxer offered, interrupted by Thesaurus.
"We are here for you my child," Thesaurus informed her.
"Yes, whatever you need..." Talea offered, interrupted by Bass.
"Sorry ...about...Gab," Bass relayed sincerely, which was the last straw for Xena.
"Her name is not GAB. Her name is not GABBY. Her name is GABRIELLE. She may not know the difference, but I DO," Xena snapped.
"I'm sorry Xena." Joxer cringe as the Verbinians wisely backed off, giving her a much needed wide berth.
"Joxer..." Xena exhaled heavily and paused, not knowing how to being. "I need your help." She finally blurted, shifting uncomfortably. Joxer looked back at the Verbinians, wondering who she was talking to. "Joxer," Xena blurted with frustration.
Through the night, Gabrielle slept soundly, thanks to a healthy dose of Xena's tea. Her peaceful form gave the illusion that all was well, nothing had changed. What a wonderful illusion, the warrior considered. Soon dawn came, and the morning rays of light spilled into the room.
"Gabrielle?" Xena gently shook the sleeping Amazon, who pushed the warrior's hand away and rolled over. "Gabrielle" Xena tried again, shaking the bard a little more with no effect.
Some things didn't change, the warrior noted.
"Gabrielle." The warrior shook her again. The sleeping Amazon continued to resist the warriors attempts at waking her. Xena shook her head and sighed. She could easily extract the Amazon out of the bed by force, Xena considered, but she didn't want to have to live with the consequences. Being the good warrior that she was, she quickly came up with another plan.
Gabrielle slightly stirred as she felt a cool breeze over the back of her neck. She stirred more when that cool breeze turned into a warm breath. Gabrielle's eyes popped wide open when she felt soft kisses trailing up her neck. Gabrielle quickly closed her eyes as those kisses found their way to her ear. As Xena started to nibble on her ear, Gabrielle let out an obnoxious snoring sound and rolled on her stomach.
"ACK," the Amazon blurted, suddenly no longer on the bed. Within one fell swoop, the warrior had extracted the Amazon using the original plan - force. The Amazon struggled half-heartedly in the warrior's arms, since being in the warrior's arms wasn't all that bad. Looking up at Xena's face, Gabrielle saw a smug victory grin. The Amazon had the incredible desire to wipe that grin off her face. There was only one thing left for her to do.
As Gabrielle leaned and kissed Xena, there was a loud knocking at the door.
"No..no ...no." Gabrielle weakly cried as her forehead plopped against the Warrior Princess' chest. Xena grinned as she kissed the Amazon's head.
"Come on in Joxer." Xena called out, still holding the Amazon in her arms.
"Good morning!" He came in happily.
Gabrielle recognized the annoyingly cheery voice. "AAAHHHHH ...no...no...no...no."
"Gods, is Gabrielle all right?" He asked with concern. "Should I come back later?"
"No. We should get started as soon as possible." Xena responded. She looked at Gabrielle with a raised eyebrow and shook her head no, which diffused the Amazon's temper tantrum. Gabrielle exhaled loudly, making her annoyance very clear to the Warrior Princess.
Xena pointed to herself, Gabrielle then the chairs. Gabrielle sighed and followed the warrior, eyeing Joxer the entire way to the chairs. She plopped down and sighed, looking to Xena with an annoyed smile.
"Ok Joxer, go ahead." Xena sat down.
"Xena, I don't want you to get your hopes up..." Joxer relayed nervously.
"You'll do fine, go ahead." Xena encouraged him, her eyes fixed on him.
"Uh...ok...why don't we start with 'things', I think they will be easier to ...be..gin....with...." Joxer replied seeing half his class looking straight up at an apparently fascinating spot on the ceiling. Either that, or she was counting the wood planks, Joxer guessed.
"Gabrielle!" Xena blurted and slapped her arm, drawing Gabrielle's attention away from the fascinating ceiling. Xena gave Gabrielle a scolding look and pointed to Joxer. Gabrielle sighed. "Go ahead," Xena repeated with a firm nod.
"Ok..." Joxer raised his hand, then noticed half his class was still distracted by other things. Gabrielle found her nails in horrible condition and was tenaciously digging at the dirt beneath them.
"Gabrielle!" Xena blurted again. Gabrielle cringed at the noise and looked up with annoyance. She did, after all, want to keep her nails nice. With a heavy sigh, Gabrielle finally focused on their visitor.
Joxer showed them the sign for cup and pointed to the cup. "Now you sign 'cup'," Joxer instructed them. Xena signed it perfectly and looked to Gabrielle to make sure she wasn't off counting floor boards. Gabrielle was not counting floor boards, or tending to her nails, or mesmerized by the fascinating spot on the ceiling. She was looking at the Warrior Princess with tears in her eyes.
"Gabrielle's not ready for this Joxer." Xena blurted nervously. "You should go," She added, feeling horrible for rushing the lessons.
"Oh...ok, Xena. Maybe later then," he replied and headed for the door.
"NO!" Gabrielle blurted in a panic. Within a blink of an eye, the Amazon grabbed him, turned him around, pushed him back in place, picked up the cup, slammed it into his chest, and sat back down. She exhaled heavily and lifted up her hand to sign 'cup'.
"I guess she IS ready for this," Joxer rubbed his sore chest.
"We shouldn't... disappoint her then," Xena responded softly, words catching in her throat.
Joxer nodded and started to sign cup again but noticed that now, his entire class was distracted by other things. "It would REALLY be easier if you and Gabrielle looked at ME instead of each other..." Joxer complained, wondering if he really was cut out for this teaching thing. Xena slowly turned back to him with a raised eyebrow. "I didn't mean...I mean...not that there's anything..." Joxer blurted nervously.
"Go ahead Joxer," Xena interrupted her nervous friend. "Teach us."
CHAPTER 15 - LIFE GOES ON
Xena had waited for Gabrielle to come back from one of her long walks, which seemed to be getting longer each day they stayed in Verbinia. Xena paced the room with frustration. When they spend time together, it seemed to be either in the company of Joxer, who continued to teach them sign language, or with an exhausted Gabrielle, who wanted to sleep.
Xena sat down annoyed and tapped her fingers on the table. She couldn't blame Gabrielle for being so exhausted, considering everything she had been through and how hard she was working to learn sign language. They had been at it for over a week, and Gabrielle had learned so much, so quickly, the warrior thought proudly. Her tenacity and drive were incredible, Xena considered.
After a short moment, Xena stood and walked over to the window. She gazed down at the alley, letting out a long sigh. Xena wondered what ever possessed her to encourage her partner to take a break from their lessons and suggest nice long walks. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Gabrielle was working so hard and needed a break, Xena recalled. Of course, that idea didn't go over that well at first, Xena remembered. Must have been that incredibly annoyed look on her partner's face that tipped her to that conclusion, Xena cringed at the memory.
Though, after much effort to convince Gabrielle she should go for a walk, her partner finally agreed. Xena had intended they go for a walk together, but it didn't exactly turn out that way. The incredibly annoyed Amazon finally told her that she needed a break and would go - alone. Since that first walk, Gabrielle continued to go alone, Xena sighed. Now these walks were taking an incredibly long time, Xena considered with growing concern.
Once again, Xena sat down at the table and tapped her fingers on the table. Gabrielle should be back by now, the warrior considered. "This is ridiculous," Xena blurted and left the room in search of Gabrielle.
Ares emerged from a dark corner of the room, eyeing the door and waiting.
As Xena passed people in the street, she asked if they had seen the redhead. After having no success with the first eight people she stopped, she finally found someone. "Oh yeah Xena, she's in the Ceremonial Hall." An attendant informed the surprised Warrior, who nodded.
As she walked to the Ceremonial Hall, Xena couldn't understand why Gabrielle would want to be there. That place had brought Gabrielle nothing but pain and to be around so many scrolls she couldn't read, could only bring her more, Xena considered.
Entering the Hall, Xena noticed how many soldiers were there. "Xena," Verbis came up to her with a smile.
"Have you seen Gabrielle?" She asked, looking around.
"Yes, she's in class right now," Verbis informed her.
"Class?" Xena questioned.
"Yes, come" He relayed, escorting her to the class room. "Her dedication is amazing." He informed the confused warrior. "Verbis, what class?" Xena asked.
"Reading and writing, of course," Verbis relayed, a little confused at her question.
They stopped at the door and peaked into the class in progress. Talea was instructing a diverse class, from children to old soldiers, with an ex-bard thrown in. In the front row Gabrielle sat with a quill in her hand, in the middle of a writing exercise.
Talea held up the letter Kappa. The class repeated "Kappa" and started to write the letter on their parchment.
"This is the beginning class. They are learning the alphabet, how to recognize, say and write the letters." He informed Xena quietly, not to disturb the students. "Talea is an excellent teacher." He smiled appreciatively.
"She's been coming for a week...." Xena said hollowly.
"Yes...Oh, they are almost finished." Verbis informed her.
Xena waited outside the room as the students exited the room slowly.
"Xena," Talea emerged from the room. "She's in there still, like usual." Talea smiled. "Practice, practice, practice...." Talea laughed softly.
"Talea, I need to talk to you when you are done," Verbis interjected. Talea looked at Xena who nodded.
"What's up?" Talea asked.
"Come, we have much to discuss about the school," Verbis informed her.
Talea smiled, feeling almost giddy. "I'd thought I would never hear an Elder discussing a school." Talea relayed with enthusiasm.
"You may not think that such a good thing after you hear the ideas Thesaurus has," Verbis relayed, wiping the grin off of Talea's face.
Xena watched as the Amazon continued to work on her letters. The intense look on her face as she diligently copied the letters made Xena remember happier days, when the bard was working on perfecting a poem or story. Now she was simply copying letters, Xena sighed, a little louder than she intended.
Surprise filled Gabrielle's face. She sighed and looked to the ground, not up for another argument about pushing herself too hard. "Gabrielle..." Xena uttered sadly, pulling up a chair and sitting beside her partner.
"I am sorry," Xena signed to the Amazon, surprising her. Gabrielle gazed in the warrior's eyes a moment then stoked her cheek. She smiled and signed something.
"Big Shield???" Xena uttered in confusion. Her shrug caused her partner to sign again. Xena stared at her a moment then understood. "Oh," Xena softly laughed. "You said over protective was sweet," Xena signed to her with a raised eyebrow, making Gabrielle's eyes roll.
"It's a pain in the..." Gabrielle signed.
"Gabrielle!" Xena blurted, interrupting the Amazon's next gesture. "Be nice," Xena signed.
Another week passed and Gabrielle noticed her warrior was slowly being driven insane by the boredom. As Gabrielle practiced her letters, Xena stared out the window. Xena must have every inch of that alley memorized by now, Gabrielle considered. She put her quill down and walked over to the warrior, touching her gently on the shoulder.
"You are ready to leave," Gabrielle signed.
"We will go when you are ready, " Xena signed back.
"I am ready to leave," Gabrielle signed, surprising the skeptical warrior.
"You have much more to learn," Xena signed. "We will stay."
In the morning, Xena and Gabrielle stood at the Verbinian gates saying their good-byes to their friends. Talea hugged the Amazon. "I want to thank you for all that you've done." Talea signed to her. "Your words helped us change," Talea relayed.
"I read what was written." Gabrielle signed back and shrugged. "I am glad I had that chance." She added, sadness in her eyes though a smile on her face. "Have you talked to Loquus? He had some ideas about your school," Gabrielle signed. Talea groaned, considering all the wonderful help she was getting from the Elders.
Verbis and Xena stood awkwardly next to each other. "I ..." They spoke in unison, then softly chuckled.
"I am sorry about your brother, Verbis." Xena looked him in the eye. Verbis nodded, quietly accepting the apology.
"If someone told me a month ago, I'd be standing and chatting with the Warrior Princess, I would have told them they were crazy." Verbis relayed with a half laugh. His eyes glanced over at the former bard, causing the warrior's eyes to do the same. Talea and Gabrielle were signing furiously to each other.
"Gabrielle's works were celebrated because they were a breath of fresh air, Xena, like the woman herself." He saw Xena shift uncomfortably, but he had to continue. "She has showed us that words alone are not enough." He informed her what she already knew. "Verbinians will always be grateful for that lesson. But we will always be sorry the price of that lesson was so high."
"Xena! Gabrielle!" Joxer rushed up to them.
"Are you ready to go?" Xena asked, grateful for the interruption. Gabrielle sighed.
"Uh Xena...I'm staying here for a while." He announced and signed. "To teach?" Xena asked.
"Yeah. I figure if I can teach you two to sign, I can teach anybody ANYTHING," Joxer relayed. "Uh I didn't mean that you were difficult...uh....I meant...the way you two....uh .....not that there's anything wrong....uh," Joxer nervously added.
"Joxer...." Xena interrupted. "I owe you a great debt. You are a true friend." Xena relayed honestly, making Joxer smile broadly.
"Thank you," Gabrielle signed.
"Don't think anything of it, I am glad I could help." He smiled warmly as he signed.
"You were my best student," Joxer signed to Gabrielle, then glanced over to Xena, who shook her head. "Uh...not that ...what I meant was...." Joxer's nervous explanation was interrupted by a kiss to his cheek by his easily distracted, best student.
"Thank you," Gabrielle signed to the now blushing Joxer.
CHAPTER 16 - THE SPARK
Xena and Gabrielle were relieved to finally be traveling away from Verbinia. They rode for most of the day, making good time to a destination Xena had not picked yet. She didn't care. She was just content traveling. They both were. It felt almost normal.
"We should make camp, it'll be dark soon," Xena announced, Gabrielle to turned in the saddle and looked back at her curiously. Xena sighed, silently scolding herself for relying only on words. Xena simply pointed to the clearing. The bard nodded.
They went about their chores, finding a little comfort in the familiar routine. As Gabrielle collected wood for the fire, she found a large bush of berries that would make a nice dessert. She came back to camp with a smile at her discovery. It quickly faded, however, when she realized she would have to wait to inform the Warrior Princess. With her arms full of wood, she couldn't talk.
"What's wrong?" Xena signed, seeing the perplexed look on the Amazon's face. Gabrielle eyes glanced down at the wood and unceremoniously tossed it into the pit.
"Nothing," Gabrielle signed and exhaled loudly as she stacked the wood in the pit.
"I'll get some fish," Xena signed to her after unpacking. She left camp before Gabrielle could tell her it wasn't necessary. The Amazon wasn't very hungry.
Gabrielle sat and poked at the fire with a stick. It seemed that Xena was taking an awfully long time catching a lousy fish she really didn't want, Gabrielle considered, poking at the fire again. Looking at the stick in her hand, Gabrielle decided to make use of this time. Gabrielle wrote the letter alpha in the dirt.
After going through the alphabet a few times, Gabrielle started to get worried. She reached for her staff and stood up, just as the warrior returned. "Where have you been?" Gabrielle signed with a worried look on her face.
Xena just shrugged and showed her the fish.
After they ate, Xena was going to attempt some small talk. They didn't have any chores to make it difficult, and that was what they would normally do after dinner. Actually, it was what the bard would do after dinner, the warrior recalled the usual one-sided conversations.
The Amazon had other plans. Gabrielle picked up her stick and went back to her writing exercise in the dirt. In addition to fire building, nnpacking, and tending to Argo, Xena found it was also extremely difficult to converse with someone who was practicing writing in the dirt. Xena sighed as she pulled out her sword and sharpening stone.
The next day, the two were abruptly woken by sounds of fighting. Xena immediately left camp to investigate the commotion. The Amazon followed closely behind. The two tracked the sounds to the main road, where they found a man fighting to protect his wife, small child and loaded wagon from four robbers. Xena jumped into the fray, wielding her sword with a flourish. Her eyes narrowed at the attackers.
Ares stood by a tree watching with a grin, always pleased to see Xena use her skills with the sword. This ought to perk her right up, Ares thought as the invisible spectator circled the fight.
"I suggest you leave...now." Xena spoke cooly. The four looked at each other, seeming to consider her words, much to the God of War's dismay.
"No you don't," Ares muttered when the four started to back down. With a new surge of energy, the robbers attacked with more vigor. Xena sighed and easily blocked the attackers' blows. Gabrielle moved to the wagon, fending off attacks to the family. Xena quickly disarmed the robbers, who ran away.
Xena sighed, eyeing them as she sheathed her sword. "I don't know who you are but THANKS!" The father blurted wiping the sweat off his brow. "We were on our way home from the market in Sensuria and these guys come out of no where....the roads just aren't safe anymore." The father blurted more than he intended.
Gabrielle turned and smiled warmly at the young girl who clung to her mother. "Thank you." The mother spoke to the Amazon, who guessed they were saying thanks and signed back "Your welcome....glad to help."
"What is she doing?" The young girl blurted nervously, clinging to her mother tighter. "She said your welcome" Xena explained.
"Don't be frightened honey, she's just an idiot." The mother informed her child matter-of-factly, causing the Warrior Princess to recoil.
"She is NOT an idiot!" Xena snapped.
"We meant no offense...I'm terribly sorry," the father apologized nervously, quickly moving to his wagon.
As the family rode away, Xena noticed the bard staring blankly at the ground. When Xena placed her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, she turned to the warrior. "The child was scared," Gabrielle signed. "Scared of me," She added, slightly cringing. She went back to camp and quickly made herself busy, packing up their things.
Xena tried to sign to her, but Gabrielle wasn't looking. Xena turned the Amazon to face her. "They didn't understand," Xena signed to her. Gabrielle nodded weakly, and returned to packing. Xena sighed, not knowing what else to say.
When they stopped for lunch, Xena sensed something wrong. Gabrielle could feel the warrior's body tense and instinctively slipped down off of Argo, knowing something was going to happen. She wasn't disappointed. Out of the dense foliage came seven armed men. Xena and Gabrielle quickly glanced at each other and sighed heavily.
Ares stood grinning, watching the Warrior Princess unsheathe her wonderful sword. "There you go Xena, some more entertainment for you," the invisible spectator mused. Then caught some interesting action from the Little Amazon. "Ouch!" Ares recoiled seeing the Amazon strike the attacker in a sensitive area without hesitation.
"Ohh that WAS cruel..." He laughed at the attacker's expense. "Oh NICE follow through!" He added, seeing the crunched over attacker's feet swept out from under him. He fell to the ground with a heavy thud.
Ares looked over at Xena who was easily besting the attackers, yet, without the enthusiasm he had hoped to see. Ares sighed and returned his attention to the entertaining woman of one word. "YES! TWO down...nice block....Oooh good hit!" He blurted, surprising himself. The attack was quickly over, to the disappointment of the God of War. The Little Amazon had fire in her, he mused appreciatively. He watched the Warrior Princess sheathe her sword and shook his head sadly.
That evening they made camp and once again, Xena offered to go catch something for dinner. Her quick departure from camp surprised the Amazon, who still wasn't that hungry. Gabrielle sighed and sat by the fire, poking at it with her stick.
Xena found she had wandered miles from camp in her half-hearted attempt at catching something for dinner. She hadn't intended to go that far, it just happened. She sat down on a felled tree and stared off into the trees.
"Are you expecting your prey to come to you?" Ares asked smugly.
"Go away," She said weakly, still staring off into the trees.
"Xena, you look so sad. Where is that spark of fire in those beautiful eyes of yours?" He relayed, eyeing her. He shook his head sadly.
"What ever happened to that Warrior Princess who took glorious satisfaction in winning a battle?" He asked.
Her eyes slowly shifted to meet his gaze. She stared cooly at the God who obviously was using Gabrielle's Gift. A weapon less dangerous now that she recognized it.
"What ever happened to that Warrior Princess who took pride in her amazing skills and delighted me by showing them?" He asked, recalling fondly the battles of not so long ago.
"That Warrior Princess died." Xena informed him bluntly. His eyes narrowed. That damn bard did it, he fumed silently. That damn bard she loves so much. Extreme situations call for extreme measures, the God considered, pondering his next move. Why must things be so complicated, he sighed.
"I know something that should put that spark back in those eyes Xena." He stood with a smile. "How fast can you run?" Ares challenged her with a grin and disappeared.
"NO!" She blurted fearfully. She bolted up and sprinted with all her might back to camp.
Gabrielle was done poking the fire, practicing the alphabet in the dirt, and had now moved on to pacing. She was running out of things to do while waiting. Why did Xena have to insist on hunting for dinner, Gabrielle sighed.
Ares suddenly appeared in front of her, blocking her from continuing on her well worn path. "Do you know what have you DONE to her?" Ares asks her accusingly. Jumping back with surprise, Gabrielle glances over at her staff which was too far away. Not that it would help against a God, she considered. She caught her breath and eyed him coldly, wishing she had her staff, if not just to lean on.
"She's a PATHETIC excuse for a warlord! You have turned an amazingly powerful woman into a pile of ...of .....MUSH" He spits out distastefully, his loud sounds making the Little Amazon cringe.
"Over YOU." He spurts out in disbelief. "YOU and your damn words... DAMN IT!" He points at her accusingly. "How can I get the old Warrior Princess back with her in this condition?? I throw a little skirmish here, a fight there and NOTHING! She has no spark left!!! Because of YOU." He angrily blurts to the underminer of his perfect plan, who winces at each loud sound, but stands her ground.
"YOU!! You keep RUINING everything!" He barks. The look of confusion the former bard's made him groan. "Of course I'm wasting my time YELLING at you ... because YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND ME!" He yells up to the sky with a frustrated laugh.
He sighs heavily and turns his gaze to the woman of one word, still standing her ground. Ares nodded appreciatively at this bold mortal, making Gabrielle more nervous. She was actually more comfortable with his display of temper.
"Well it's about time," Ares grinned, hearing Xena approaching.
He looked at the Little Amazon. "I almost forgot why I was here...there is that little matter about being WACKED in the face," he relayed with annoyance, swinging the back of his fist towards the Amazon.
"NO!!!!" Xena yelled out as she ran towards them, too late to stop the attack. Ares' back hand contacted the bard under her chin with such force, she was propelled back a few feet. She landed on the ground with a thud.
"GABRIELLE!!!" Xena yelled out, rushing to her side.
"I owed her one." Ares grinned smugly.
"You BASTARD," Xena blurted, nervously checking the unconscious Amazon for a pulse. There was one, Xena exhaled, briefly closing her eyes with relief.
"I've been called worse" He grinned, pleased to see at least some spark left. "Until next time my Warrior Princess..." He disappeared.
Xena laid the unconscious Amazon down carefully on her bedroll and proceeded to put a cold compress on her jaw, knowing it would ache when Gabrielle woke. She was lucky it wasn't broken, Xena considered, closing her eyes with the unsettling memory of Ares striking the one she loved. She sat staring at the red headed woman, who didn't deserve all the pain she was living through. Pain Xena felt responsible for bringing her.
Gabrielle stirred from her unconscious state. "Gabrielle..." Xena uttered softly, gently caressing her partner's forehead, then cheek.
Gabrielle sat up slowly. "Ugghh," she blurted, holding her head.
"This should help...." Xena remarked absentmindedly, handing her a cup of tea. Herbal tea was something Gabrielle had needed a lot of lately, Xena thought sadly.
Gabrielle nodded slowly and took the cup. "Thanks." Gabrielle remarked, rubbing her sore jaw.
"Your wel...come." The Warrior responds, staring at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle gulps the entire contents of the cup and rubs her temple. "Ugh...I've got SUCH a headache."
Xena eyes widen in disbelief. "Gabrielle??" Xena asks cautiously.
"What?" Gabrielle responds absentmindedly, still rubbing her temple. "What??" Gabrielle asks again, becoming a little annoyed when Xena doesn't answer. Just like her to say something and not complete...a ....thought. It finally hit the bard.
"XENA!" Gabrielle blurts, grabbing her partner's arm. "I've got a HEADACHE!!" Gabrielle repeats with great excitement. "Ow.." She cringes at the sound of her loud voice. "Xena say something to me...please..." Gabrielle requests, looking to the Warrior Princess, who was too afraid to hope, to speak.
"Please Xena, say something to me..." The bard pleaded, fearing this was a trick or dream.
"Gabrielle," Xena uttered, her voice catching. "Gabrielle, I love you..." Xena pulled the bard into her arms and held on to her tightly. "I love you! Oh Xena, I can understand words!" Gabrielle laughed with shear joy.
"Beautiful, glorious, wonderful, fabulous, extraordinary, amazing, stupendous, marvelous, incredible, fascinating, wonderful...oh...I've already mentioned wonderful... but they truly are! So are you! And in case you have been wondering...I... love... you, I love you, I love you, I love you." The bard blurted, hugging her warrior tightly, and sighed with relief.
The Warrior Princess broke down and cried, desperately holding onto her bard. After a moment waiting for the Warrior Princess to say something, the bard pulled back and looked her in the eye. She gently wiped the stream of tears from Xena's face. "Those had better be tears of JOY Xena." Gabrielle remarked dryly, causing Xena to give her the precious gift of a smile and a laugh.
"Do I get a moment to think about that?" Xena asked, causing the bard's eyes to narrow.
"Sure Xena, I can be PATIENT," Gabrielle responded.
After dinner, Xena attempted some small talk. "How's your jaw?" Xena asked, getting up from the opposite side of the fire.
"Fine," the bard responded bluntly, noticing the warrior moving closer.
"Your head?" Xena asked, casually stopping at Argo, giving her a scratch on the neck.
"You know my headache was gone, then all of a sudden...it came back, funny isn't it?" Gabrielle relayed with amusement.
"Hilarious," Xena muttered. "I could get you some tea for that," Xena added helpfully.
"No thanks, I am SICK of tea," Gabrielle blurted honestly. "I could go for some wine..."
Xena was immediately at her side with a wine skin. "... if you have... any." Gabrielle eyed the wine and innocent look on the warrior's face. "Thanks," Gabrielle took the wine and a sip.
"Nice weather we're having..." Xena offered, sitting next to the bard.
"What?!?" Gabrielle asked incredulously.
"It's NOT nice weather?" Xena asked, looking up at the sky.
"You are incredible!" Gabrielle blurted with frustration.
"Thank you. You're pretty amazing yourself." Xena responded, smiling warmly with a playful twinkle in her eye.
The bard looks blankly at the Warrior Princess for a moment. "Xena, for someone who is fluent in four languages...." Gabrielle responds.
"Five, if you count Greek." Xena corrects her with a grin, noting the bard made the same mistake at the Ceremony Dinner.
"I AM counting Greek." Gabrielle stated flatly.
"Ouch," Xena laughed and shook her head. The bard was back and she was not pulling any punches, Xena thought, not wanting it any other way.
"I've missed this," Gabrielle relayed.
"Verbally abusing me?" Xena asked.
"No, your fascinating discussions on the weather." Gabrielle stated flatly. "Sure, some people might look up at the moon and become romantically inspired...but not the Princess of Practical." Gabrielle noted with feigned appreciation, as she turned to face the Warrior Princess.
"Sure, some people might notice how beautiful, let's say for argument's sake....your hair is, in the moonlight." Gabrielle relayed, gently touching the raven hair in question.
"For argument's sake...I'm with you," Xena responded, intently focused on the bard.
"Of course you would point out that the lack of clouds in the sky precludes the need to seek shelter from the elements." Gabrielle relayed flatly.
"And your point is...?" Xena asked. Gabrielle eyed the warrior and sighed.
"Some people would notice how the moonlight makes your eyes sparkle with such...breath...taking... beauty, the stars in the heavens are put to shame..." Gabrielle gazed into the eyes in question. "For example," Gabrielle added bluntly.
"For example...of course," Xena inched closer to the bard.
"You, however, would point out that the moonlight makes traveling at night easier...unless you were interested in moving undetected in the forest, whereby moonlight would be a disadvantage..." Gabrielle relayed.
"An important consideration Gabrielle," Xena responded thoughtfully.
"But, there are some people that might even say... that the moonlight embraces your enchanting face, creating a magnificent aura, which only pales in comparison to your own natural radiance." Gabrielle informed her, slowly tracing her fingers along the enchanting face in question.
Xena swallowed hard and waited.
"And what would I say?" Xena asked, feeling the warmth from the bard sitting inches from her.
"I'm not sure...." Gabrielle responded, her heart racing. "...perhaps that romantic words are wonderful...but... not enough..."
Xena slowly leaned towards the bard. When their lips finally met, they abruptly pulled back and scanned the forest for interruptions. With small chuckles at their common apprehension, their gazes returned to each other.
That night, there were no interruptions.