Xena:Warrior Princess, and the names, titles and backstory used in "The Reward" are the sole property of MCA. The author intends no copyright infringement through the writing of this fan fiction. The action and events of this story are the creation of the author and may not be sold and may be archived only with the direct permission of the author. Any archives must carry this entire copyright statement.
Disclaimer: This story is written solely for your entertainment and enjoyment. There are several references to Joxer that may be offensive to his fans. Please dont take this seriously, folks. It was all done in good fun.
(This story takes place immediately following "The Price.")
by Rebecca Weiner (Aceberry)
Copyright 1997 by R.G. Weiner (Aceberry)
The silence between them was long and uneasy, a natural reaction considering their most recent experience. Gabrielle leaned back in the canoe and took in a deep whiff of the fresh , sweet scented air that surrounded them along the river. Ahhh! What a great feeling to be alive! Having fulfilled her need to enjoy that pleasure, she tilted her head toward the subdued warrior, seated cross-legged behind her.
"Xena, you all right?"
"Working on it," the warrior said tersely.
Xena pushed her paddle into the water with added fervor, causing their canoe to glide even faster down the river. It felt good to release the pent up energy that spiked through her body following the brutally fought battle against the Horde.
"Hey, Xena. How about some kaltaka?" Gabrielle smiled at the sound of this new word that rolled so naturally off her tongue.
"Its water, Gabrielle. Okay?" The warrior scowled at the bards use of this foreign expression, so distasteful to her for its barbaric origin.
"Is that a yes or a no?" Gabrielles face lit up in a big grin, as she tried to charm the warrior out of her foul mood.
Xena shook her head and looked away from her best friend. With her dark brows creased in a pointed glare and her clear blue eyes roaming the surrounding area, the warrior continued to push the pace of their canoe, determined to get as far away from the site of the battle as possible.
Gabrielle shrugged, not at all surprised by Xenas heavy silence. The war against the Horde had taken a serious emotional toll on both of them. Added to that was the aftershock of their own private trauma, an intense battle of words and actions that raged between them for several days as they fought the Horde. Gabrielle had been exposed to a huge dose of Xenas dark side and she was left dazed by the experience.
The day had started innocently enough. Xena and Gabrielle were fishing along the tranquil river when they were suddenly attacked by a fearsome group of savages. The two companions managed to escape by canoe, but their journey downstream was filled with strife as they were relentlessly pursued by the bloodthirsty Horde. The young bard had never been so terrified in her entire life. Even Xena, the most courageous warrior she had ever known, showed fear in her eyes during their horrifying escapade. Just as the situation seemed hopeless, they found unexpected refuge in a garrison of Athenian soldiers further down the river.
While Xena assumed command of the dwindling, dispirited troop, verbally lashing them into shape, Gabrielle gravitated to the healing room, lavishing gentle and proficient care to the many wounded. Even those near death were treated to Gabrielles kindness, as she kneeled beside them and tilted a filled water bottle to their cracked lips, talking softly into each mans ear.
During the battle, Xena periodically entered the healing room, callously ordering all men capable of walking and holding a sword to resume fighting. Gabrielle was furious at Xena for taking those men that she had mobilized as aides for the seriously wounded. Each time Xena made an appearance inside the healing area, scouring for additional men to join her ranks, Gabrielle cringed, knowing the warrior would deliver yet another order to incite her wrath and add further fuel to the already high level of friction between them. Their most serious confrontation occurred when Xena ordered Gabrielle to give water only to those wounded soldiers who were physically able to fight, ignoring all others. The warriors face was stone hard and her tone chilled. Despite her best efforts, Gabrielle could not break through to the Xena she knew and loved. It frightened her, more than death itself, to see her best friend so heartless.
Gabrielle glanced briefly at the warrior who was quietly humming an unfamiliar tune. This Xena was such a contrast to the bloodthirsty warrior princess who had licked her lips with insatiable lust each time she had sliced open the throat of another of the enemy Horde. The warrior had single-handedly slaughtered many of the enemy, including one she had struck in the back with an ax.
The young bard tipped the waterskin to her lips and swooshed the cool liquid inside her parched mouth, savoring the smooth feel of the water as it slid down her dry throat. It took several more deep swallows until she was finally satisfied her thirst had been quenched. Then her stomach started to grumble. There were no food reserves in their canoe, leaving Gabrielle to wonder how much longer it would be until they landed somewhere. Behind her, she could hear Xena still quietly humming to herself. Tempted as she was to question the warrior, Gabrielle kept silent. Xena would let her know their plans when she was ready, not before.
As they proceeded to travel rapidly upstream, Gabrielle found herself enjoying the temperate nature of the lush green wilderness around them. Wouldnt it be nice to land along the shore of one of these cozy, inviting places? Her empty stomach was not impressed. Next, Gabrielle focused on the delightful warmth she felt on her back from the blazing, hot midday sun. Such a simple, satisfying pleasure in life, why couldnt everyone sit back and appreciate it like she did? Her stomach rumbled even more insistently. Gabrielle turned her head to sneak another peek at Xena. The warrior had stopped humming and was now grunting with the added effort she was exerting with her oar to speed up their pace. Gabrielle decided to help.
The bard wearily dragged her paddle through the water, struggling not to feel the numbing pain that weighed down her limbs. Though she desperately wanted to land the canoe somewhere, she still said nothing to the warrior.
It would have surprised Gabrielle to know that Xena had been watching her all along, carefully noting her slumped form and growling stomach, clear signs that the bard needed to stop and rest. Xena had a specific destination in mind that she knew Gabrielle would enjoy.
"Just a while longer," Xena said, breaking her long silence. "As soon as we land Ill catch you as much fish as you can eat."
Gabrielle straightened her aching back. "Is that a promise?" she asked, raising her eyes expectantly in the warriors direction.
"Yeah," Xena said, with a quick lift to her brow. "Any special requests?"
"Anything. You catch it. Ill eat it."
"Thats a deal." The warrior watched as Gabrielle pushed her paddle through the water with renewed zeal. The younger womans enormous appetite never ceased to amaze her. In this case, however, she was justified in her hunger. The past few days had been brutal. Food had been scarce, and as the war raged on, their reserves dwindled until there was nothing left. It didnt bother Xena. Lack of food never did, especially during battle. In the past, the ruthless battles she fought as a warlord served as her best source of nourishment, each killing a welcome notch to her tight fitting belt. If only Gabrielle had been there in the beginning when her lust for hatred and revenge had taken root. Her past would have been so different, her present more tolerable.
Xena closed her eyes to blot out an idealized thought that could never be realized. She, the warrior princess of Amphipolis, was doomed to live the rest of her days filled with horrendous memories of a haunting, degenerate past, never to be altered. It was only by the grace of Gabrielle that she had received a reprieve from the constant torture that pervaded her soul.
Gabrielle was probably the most courageous person Xena had ever met. She had seen this quality time and again with the kind hearted bard, but it was their most recent adventure that had impressed her, most of all. Despite the risk of certain death, Gabrielle left the safety of the compound to face the Horde alone. As long as Xena lived, she would never forget the sight of her best friend giving water to the wounded enemy, surrounded by armed savages. Anyone else would have cowered in fear. Not Gabrielle, who kept nourishing the wounded with her waterskin, despite the danger around her.
As for her own actions, Xena felt hopelessly entangled in a web of confusion. She hated for Gabrielle to see this brutal side of her, but she believed her harsh rule was the only way to survive the Horde. Gabrielle had disagreed. With forced patience, Xena had tried to explain to the bard, calmly at first, the reasons for her tough methods and seemingly heartless decisions. At one point, the warrior went so far as to warn Gabrielle to go from the room when she was about to torture a captured prisoner. Instead of leaving, Gabrielle continued to question Xena in front of her men, an inexcusable act that earned the bard a private tongue lashing for interfering with her command. Xena shuddered, as she recalled the sharp exchange that followed, their final confrontation before the war ended.
"I love the peace of the river right now. Dont you, Xena?" The warrior looked up, startled by the unexpected sound of Gabrielles voice.
"Uh huh." Xena answered.
The bard observed how Xenas eyes were darting back and forth as she scanned the surrounding area. "You know, it wouldnt hurt for you to just sit back and enjoy the peace for once."
"That would be nice, Gabrielle, but its a luxury I cant afford." She dipped her oar into the water to coincide with the slower rhythm of the tired bards paddle. "One of us should be prepared for an unexpected crisis. Right now, it might as well be me."
"So, youre telling me to enjoy the serenity while I can. Is that it?"
"You deserve that pleasure after all youve been through."
"How about you, Xena? Whats your pleasure?"
"Knowing youre still here beside me," the warrior said quietly.
Gabrielle shook her head, her reddish gold bangs swaying insistently in the warm, gentle breeze. "Where else would I be?"
Xena stared at the bard, her vivid blue eyes pensive and sad. "You could be anywhere else. I disappointed you, Gabrielle. I dont know how to fix that." She leaned over the side of the canoe and thrust her oar into the water, her gaze fastened on the river, away from Gabrielle.
The young bard stopped paddling and turned her body completely around until she was directly facing the warrior. She watched Xena discharge several more powerful strokes with her paddle, then she placed her hand on Xenas thigh. Xena stopped paddling and looked up at Gabrielle. The bard was smiling. "You dont have to worry, Xena. Youre my best friend. I know who you really are."
Xena shifted her long legs which had grown tense beneath the bards grasp. After everything Gabrielle had seen of her dark side, why was it so hard for the bard to accept the truth about her? "Do you really know me?" she wondered aloud. "What you saw back there, the darkness, is a part of me thats real. I cant change that, Gabrielle, only control it with your help."
"You are changing," Gabrielle persisted. "Dont you see that? When you realized your order to feed only the healthy soldiers was too harsh, you revised it to include all the wounded."
Xena shook her head sadly at Gabrielles continued effort to cast her in a good light. "It wasnt kindness, Gabrielle. The situation was so desperate it didnt matter anymore. Your realizing that kaltaka meant water was the key to our survival."
"And you fought the Hordes leader and defeated him," Gabrielle declared firmly. "Seems to me we both did what we had to do."
Xena kept silent. Despite Gabrielles reassuring words, her chest felt as though it was being tightly bound by a thick, hard knot, making it difficult for her to breathe. She pushed away that feeling and set her mind to paddling. She and Gabrielle needed food, shelter and a good nights sleep. It was her job to provide them with those essential requirements.
A short time later, Xena guided their canoe toward the shore with her paddle. "Were here, Gabrielle. Recognize this place?"
Gabrielle smiled broadly. Of course she did. It was the site of their successful fishing expedition. The two women had planned to set camp there before they were so rudely interrupted by the attacking Horde. Gabrielle leaped out of the canoe, but in her haste to reach dry land, caught her boot over the edge and tumbled to the ground. When she raised herself off the wet earth, Gabrielles mouth, elbows and legs were covered with mud. Nonetheless, she was grinning widely.
"Youre gonna have to take a bath to wash off all that mud, you know." Xena said dryly.
"Thats the plan. Right now, in fact." The bard sprinted past Xena toward the river, shrieking at the cold as she splashed through the still waters. After dunking her body underwater a few times, she playfully sprayed water toward Xena, careful not to wet the warrior, who did not seem in the mood for an unexpected shower.
"Come on, Xena. Join me. Think of the great time we can have together."
Xena punched the air with her fists, trying to relieve her cramped muscles. "Not now, Gabrielle. Ive got things to do first."
"Suit yourself," the bard said casually. "You dont know what youre missing."
"At least one of us is enjoying herself," Xena muttered under her breath. She left her carefree companion and wandered through the thick brush until she located their fishing rods further up the riverbank. Continuing to trek inland, Xena followed the trail back to their original campsite where she retrieved their two supply pouches hidden beneath some rocks. Not in the mood to set up camp just yet, Xena tried some slow stretching exercises to relax her taut muscles. It did not help. She found no relief. Without thinking, the warrior vaulted into the air and twisted her body in a perfect somersault, savoring the energy she felt in her limbs as she landed fluidly on the ground. Pumping both arms up in the air a few times, Xena laughed out loud. Maybe a little action was what she needed.
The warrior removed her sword from its scabbard on her back and twirled it once in her hand before drawing it forward in front of her body. She tilted her head to the right, then to the left, eyes pointed forward in rapt attention, as she slashed the air in a swirling arc with her blade. Inching her body steadily forward, she continued to swing her blade nimbly in all directions, leaping at times as though she were dodging an opponents lethal blow. She was so absorbed in her movements that she almost didnt notice the rock barrier that stood at the rear of their campsite. With no more room to maneuver her body, Xena plunged her weapon into a large section of earth pressed tightly between two rocks, delivering a high pitched scream as she released the hilt.
Her heart pounded rapidly against her chest as she gripped the handle and pulled the blade from its dirt enclosure. After wiping the droplets of sweat from her brow, she spent the next few minutes walking slowly in a wide circle, puffing loudly until her breathing slowed to its normal rate. Still feeling restless, she ambled over to a nearby boulder and sat down in her usual cross-legged position, slowly turning over her sword to examine it. This weapon, so comfortable in her hand, had killed so many. Shortly after the war ended she had gone to the river to immerse her sword and cleanse away the blood soaked memories of her latest killings. To her mind, the Horde were savages who deserved to die. It was her duty to kill them, not only to end the war, but to avenge the vicious slaughter of one of her troops, several years before. It still sickened her to think of their skinned carcasses, all that remained of her men after being stripped away by the Horde.
The more gentle-minded Gabrielle had thought of the Horde as human beings capable of communication, despite their foreign ways. Xena shivered in the sun fueled heat, as she recalled the acute conflict between them that centered on this issue. In the end Gabrielle had been right, and she, the warrior, had been short-sighted. It was why she had gone to the river with her sword, to restore the humanity she had lost in her battle with the Horde -- until the next time when she killed again. She was, after all, a highly skilled warrior.
Xena shook her head in bewilderment. She certainly was not acting like one. Too much thinking, probably due to Gabrielles influence. Enough of that. She forced her attention back to her weapon; this time she examined it with a warriors vigilance, running her thumb along the flat side of the blade, noting the many nicks embedded along the edges. A quick trip to her supply pouch brought forth her sharpening stone. Returning to her seat by the boulder, Xena began to rub the stone vigorously across the blade, hoping to release her pent up energy in the process. When she finished, she closed her eyes and took in long, slow, even breaths to ease the pressure that had not ceased, despite her best efforts, to assault her body. After what seemed like a long time, she opened them again to survey her surroundings. The sweet smelling green shrubs highlighted by the soft, twittering sounds of natures calls did little to alleviate her stress.
She stood up to stretch the stiffness from her arms, shoulders, and neck muscles that felt cramped from sitting so long, then glanced up at the deep blue sky. Its golden, luminous sun surrounded by wide, bulging cushions of snow toned clouds extended as far as she could see across the horizon. It was a beautiful skyline that gave her no pleasure. On the contrary, this place seemed too peaceful for what she was feeling. She needed noise, action, excitement, other soldiers around her. In the old days she had celebrated the end of a battle surrounded by men who were feeling as feral and crazed as she was. Instead, she was alone in this secluded area with her best friend, filled with a turbulent force that needed to be released. The thought of what could happen when she discharged that energy was terrifying. She needed to speak to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle was drying herself off in the sun, feeling totally relaxed after her long time in the water. She looked up as she heard the soft, insistent sound of Xenas footsteps. The warriors face, ever the barometer for her assorted moods, appeared grim. Gabrielle ran up to greet her best friend with a ready smile.
"Hey, Xena. You really should spend some time..."
"Not now, Gabrielle," Xena said brusquely. "We need to talk."
"Theres plenty of time to..."
"Now!" Xena commanded. She walked briskly past Gabrielle and sat down by the riverbank. The younger woman followed, curious at her best friends strange behavior.
"Whats going on?" she asked, as she settled next to the warrior.
"Gabrielle, have you ever heard of battle shock?"
"I live with you, Xena. Of course I know about battle shock. Not personally, of course. Youre the one who usually goes off by yourself doing who knows what." Gabrielle grinned. "As long as were on the subject, what is it you do off by yourself?"
Xena ignored the bards banter and closed her eyes. She breathed in deeply several times before opening them again. "Gabrielle, its happening to me right now and I dont know how to relieve it."
"Youve handled it before. Why is this time different?"
"Maybe its because I felt the thrill of leading an army in battle again. The pressures on a commander in combat are enormous. You saw that, Gabrielle." The bard nodded briefly, but otherwise kept quiet, leaving the taciturn warrior the unpleasant task of continuing this conversation on her own. "In the old days, after every major war we spent the next couple of days immersed in battle shock, celebrating our survival by releasing our pent-up emotions."
"How, Xena?" the bard asked , finally breaking her silence.
"Different ways. Ive seen big strong warriors revert back to childish behavior. Others black out after theyve done something so shocking they dont remember anything afterward." The warrior bit down on her lower lip, wishing she had been one of those lucky ones who had forgotten it all. "Theres a great need for physical release," she said, staring at Gabrielle, "and we do things we wouldnt under normal circumstances."
Gabrielles eyes widened as the implication of Xenas words set in. "Come on, Xena. What would we do? Were not like that."
The warriors clear blue eyes misted over in a cloud of gloom. "Youre not, Gabrielle, but Im...different." Xena swallowed hard, the agony of her concealed burden weighing down her words. "In the past I used people... for my own pleasure." She stared toward the river, away from the bard. "I did it...after every battle."
Gabrielle reached out to Xena, as she usually did when the older woman was upset, but drew back when she saw Xena pull away.
"Thats in the past." Gabrielle said. "Youre not like that now." She seized the warriors arm and held onto it. "Youd never hurt me. I know that."
Xena peered at Gabrielle, the intensity of her startling blue eyes overpowering the bard. "I shocked you when we fought the Horde. Its the dark side of me youve never seen before." Xena closed her eyes. "I pray you dont experience it now."
"Im fine, Xena. I wont let anything happen to us. Thats a promise."
Xena smiled weakly at Gabrielles show of confidence. Such a typical reaction from the determined young bard. She just didnt understand. No one who survived a brutal war as the one they fought was immune from battle shock, not even Gabrielle.
"Youve been through a lot, Gabrielle, more than you realize. Its hard to know how youll react." Xena inhaled a deep breath of fresh river air. "I dont know whats going on with me," she admitted, "and I dont like that feeling."
"Well get through this. Its only temporary, isnt it?" Gabrielle asked. Though she tried to sound convincing, a note of uncertainty slipped into her tone.
Xena grabbed a stray branch off the ground and snapped it in two; the sharp crackling sound of splintering wood intruding on the peaceful nature of their surroundings. "A lot of damage can be inflicted in a couple of days," Xena said, tossing the broken branch aside. She stood up abruptly and left the bard, pacing briskly toward the shore.
Gabrielle rubbed her hand across her forehead, puzzled by her best friends strange behavior. In all their time together she had never before seen Xena so shaken. Normally, the warrior relished the opportunity to confront any kind of obstacle that came their way. Yet, here she was, acting almost defeated, as if all was lost between them. How could Xena ever believe that? True, the bard had been upset with Xena for her brutal actions during the war; but she would never forfeit their friendship because of it. Tempting as it was to go over to the warrior and reassure her of their strong bond, the emotional wall that Xena erected when she needed to shut herself away, was now solidly entrenched, leaving that option out of the question. Undecided in how to approach the reluctant warrior, Gabrielle chose to improvise, confident a solution would come to her as they talked. She was an accomplished bard, was she not? Fortified by those positive thoughts, Gabrielle rose to join Xena by the edge of the riverbank.
By this time, the warrior had stopped pacing and was standing by the river, a faraway look in her eyes. "Tell me what to expect," Gabrielle began, with a light touch to the warriors elbow.
Xena stared at the bard, her blue eyes boring into Gabrielles green ones. "Things will seem normal between us but the simplest word or gesture can happen to set either of us off. We may snarl at each other for no apparent reason or we may feel an overwhelming desire to release ourselves physically." The warriors smooth, resonant voice faltered. "Theres only two of us here; not much choice in picking your partner." Then, without warning, Xena clamped her hands on Gabrielles shoulders, tightening her grip as she brought to light her greatest fear. "I dont want to ruin what we have together," she cried out to the astonished bard. "I like things just as they are between us." For one brief moment, the warrior stared frantically into Gabrielles eyes. Then she released her hold on the bard, and walked away, her bearing erect and proud, as always, despite her personal torment.
As Gabrielle watched Xena wander off toward a nearby tree, she could not help but feel sorry for her best friend. It was an emotion she rarely accorded the fearless warrior, whose intense pride and rigid control held her together, despite the severe anguish that ravaged her soul. In spite of all the terrible things that Xena had predicted for them, Gabrielle had to believe deep in her heart, that somehow, everything would work out in the end. Xena would come up with a plan, as she always did -- or would she?
The bard watched as Xena removed her breast dagger from inside her bodice and proceeded to dig a hole into the trees solid dark brown crust. Her hands shook as she worked, a cause of great concern to the bard, as Xena was normally so adept with a knife. The longer she watched Xena strain to dislodge the bark, the more upset Gabrielle became with their plight. It was all because of that horrible war against the Horde. Xena was being seriously affected by it and so was their friendship. She had hoped that a few days rest would restore everything back to normal between them. The warrior, however, was telling her otherwise.
The bard walked over to her companion and stood anxiously by her side. Sensing Gabrielles presence, Xena stopped what she was doing and looked up at her friend. "What is it, Gabrielle?" Her tone was curt and her manner distant, as though she didnt care. In truth, she felt angry at herself for disappointing Gabrielle, and at the bard for placing such faith in her. The responsibility of finding a suitable solution for both of them seemed like an impossible burden to the overwrought warrior. How could she possibly admit that to the bard?
Gabrielle held onto the warriors arm. "Xena, talk to me. Please. Youre scaring me. You know that?" She shook her head in frustration at the warrior. "Youre saying we cant trust ourselves or each other. How, in Hades name, are we supposed to know whats real and whats due to battle shock?" The bard took a deep breath, then peered solemnly into Xenas sapphire-blue eyes, hoping to find some form of encouragement in their expression. The warrior held the bards gaze briefly with her own. Then her eyes flickered and Gabrielle grew afraid. Xena never reacted that way, especially when she knew Gabrielle was seeking her assurance. The bards green eyes glistened with tears. "I trust you with my life, Xena," she said trembling. "Promise me you wont let us drown in battle shock. Yours or mine."
Stirred by the intensity of Gabrielles plea, Xena moved in closer to the bard and placed a comforting arm around her shoulders, her own feelings of darkness replaced by an even stronger sense of caring for her best friend. "Well get through this together, somehow," she said softly, "I promise." They held each other for several minutes, silently arming themselves with mutual courage to confront their fears. When she felt they were reasonably recovered and ready to move on, Xena casually rubbed her moist eyes, then let go of the bard. "Just beware of any strange behavior or unusual feelings that may suddenly emerge out of nowhere," she cautioned her friend. Gabrielle smiled faintly at the warrior; her smile broadening to a full grin as the warrior responded with a brief, but genuine, smile of her own.
As Xena led the way to their campsite, Gabrielle spotted their fishing rods lying next to the two leather pouches. "You found them!" she cried out. "Guess the Horde arent into fishing."
"Too busy hunting us," the warrior commented dryly. "Come on, Gabrielle. Well set up camp and then try and relax."
Gabrielle bent down to untie one of the leather pouches and began to unpack their supplies. "No, warrior princess. You rest or do whatever it is you do after a battle to unwind. Ill take care of camp."
Xena was too exhausted to argue. "Are you sure?"
Gabrielle nodded. "You need the break. Take it. Thats an order."
Xena eyed her friend warily. "I can follow orders, unlike a certain bard I know."
Gabrielles jaw muscles clenched tightly, a subtle facial movement not lost on the warrior. "Go on, Xena. Before I change my mind."
As Xena wandered off by herself, sword and fishing pole in hand, Gabrielle began to arrange their campsite. After gathering enough rocks to form a fire pit, she systematically laid them out in a neat circle, humming one of Xenas favorite tunes as she worked. Somehow, thinking of the warrior in this way helped her feel better.
She loved the sound of Xenas voice. Its well modulated, expansive range possessed many subtleties that held Gabrielle captive to its potency and charm. On rare occasions she used it to entertain the bard, choosing a wide medley of ballads that displayed a more sensitive side to the warrior.
Gabrielle smiled to herself as she recalled the first time Xena had treated her to a private performance. It was on her birthday, two moons after they began traveling together. That whole morning Gabrielle had been irritable and kept picking fights with her taciturn companion. At one point the warrior exploded, going so far as to yell at the girl that maybe it was time she returned home. Gabrielle started to cry and, when pressed by Xena, finally confessed it was her birthday.
"Happy birthday, Gabrielle," the warrior said, "but you dont have to cry about it."
"Thats not why Im crying, Xena, and you know it."
"You should have told me it was your birthday," Xena insisted. "None of this would have happened."
"I thought you wouldnt care about that kind of thing," Gabrielle blurted out.
"It obviously means a lot to you. Why wouldnt I care?" Xena was sitting on Argo and held out a hand to Gabrielle, standing beside her. Thinking it was a gesture of peace, Gabrielle clasped hands with the warrior. Much to her horror, she suddenly found herself being lifted onto the horse behind her smirking companion.
"Thats not fair, Xena. You know how much I hate riding."
"Come on, Gabrielle. Its your birthday for Zeus sake, and this is your present. Argo wouldnt have it any other way." As the big war horse cantered down the dirt road, Gabrielle squeezed her arms tightly around Xenas waist, praying to the gods she would survive her birthday.
Almost immediately, she felt Xena tug at her grip. "Easy, Gabrielle. I need to breathe." Then, the older woman turned and peered directly into the frightened girls eyes. "Trust me. I wont let anything happen to you." Gabrielle loosened her hold on the warrior.
The two companions rode until dusk, camping out at a cave that Xena remembered when she was a warlord. As they settled in for the night, Gabrielle took out her scrolls and began to write while Xena polished her armor. After a short while, Gabrielle, who was immersed in her writing, was startled by the sound of Xena singing. She looked up to make sure she wasnt dreaming. Sure enough, Xena was singing a sad ballad about a teenage boy who left home to fight, only to be killed in battle. As she sang, the expression in her face, normally set in a stoic cast, appeared unguarded, making Xena seem more youthful and exquisite looking. As she listened to Xena sing, Gabrielle felt her insides quiver. Xenas voice was melodious, expressive, and hauntingly beautiful. She sang at least a half dozen songs, each very different, but all equally as moving. When she finished Gabrielle had tears in her eyes.
"That was beautiful." Gabrielle said, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. "Why havent you sung before?"
"I sing when I feel like it. I guess I wasnt in the mood."
"Im glad you chose tonight. It made my birthday feel special." Gabrielle blushed. "I mean, riding Argo was all right but this was the best."
Xena settled down into her blankets on the other side of the campfire, across from the bard. "You better get some sleep," she said with a yawn. "Early day tomorrow. You may be older but I better not find it harder to get you up in the morning." She looked up at the girl. "You dont want to get me mad, do you?" Gabrielle smiled uncertainly at Xena. The warrior smiled back.
Gabrielle squealed in disgust as a half dozen slimy fish came flopping into her lap, breaking into her musings. She looked up and saw Xena grinning down at her.
"You wanted fish, didnt you? I got you fish."
Gabrielle picked up the strung fish from her lap and scowled darkly at Xena. "This fish does not belong in my lap. Got that warrior princess?"
Xena grabbed the fish from the bard. "If you feel that way about it, Ill just keep it for myself, and youll have nothing for supper."
With hands placed firmly on her hips, the bard stood up to confront the much taller warrior. The tension thickened as both warrior and bard glared at each other, neither one sure where this confrontation would lead or why it was taking place.
"You know, you need me, " Gabrielle began. "Who else can cook this fish?"
"I cooked fine before you came along," Xena shot back.
"If I die from starvation it will be your fault."
"Go on, Gabrielle. Catch your own fish."
The young Amazon was the first to weaken, probably from staring so hard into Xenas deep sea blue eyes that she loved so much. "Xena, this is silly," she said with a sheepish grin. "Im just mad because your dumb fish interrupted my wonderful daydream."
"If you tell me about it. I may reconsider." The warrior swung the fish lightly by her side.
"Only if you wipe that smug look off your face."
Xena rolled her eyes at Gabrielle, but the smug look disappeared. "Well?" she asked.
"I was just thinking about the first time you sang for me."
"Your birthday," Xena said. Her face softened at the memory.
"Did I ever tell you it was the best birthday present I ever had?"
"Im not sure I ever gave you the chance." Xena stared past her best friend, "I was a lot more reserved then."
"HA! Thats a nice way of putting it." Gabrielle held up her hands at the warrior. "Not that Im being judgmental or anything, but you werent the easiest person to be around."
"Can we save this honesty until after we eat? Im starved and these trout need to be cleaned and cooked." Xena handed the strung fish back to the bard. "Take care of these. I need some time alone."
"Your wish is my command O warrior princess," The bard said, curtsying toward Xena.
"Your curtsys improved, but your knees are still too stiff." Xena bent down smoothly to illustrate a perfect curtsy.
"Just keep practicing, Gabrielle. Youll get it before you are betrothed to your next dead king."
The bard shuddered at the memory. Not long ago, she had been kidnapped to marry a deceased king. As she was about to cremated along with her royal dead husband, Xena came to the rescue, despite being blind at the time.
"That wont be for quite awhile, Xena. Ive sworn off all men. Too dangerous."
The dark haired woman raised her eyes at this unexpected piece of news. "Come on, Gabrielle. You dont mean it. You like men. We both do." She peered at the bard through narrowed eyes. "Are you serious about this, or is this just a reaction to the dead king?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "I dont know. I cant explain it. I just feel that way."
Sharp intuition and an intimate understanding of her best friend led Xena to believe that the bards response may have been less casual than it appeared, but this was not the time to delve into the subject; her own need to relieve her inner turmoil more pressing at the moment. "Think about it while Im gone," she suggested mildly, picking up her sword. "Well discuss this later." The warrior hoisted her sword over her shoulder and left Gabrielle to sort out her own confusion.
Gabrielle sat down by the fire pit to cut open and clean the trout. Leave it to Xena to catch more fish than they can eat. Maybe not. The bard was so hungry her stomach had turned numb from the pain. As she scraped the insides of the trout her thoughts inevitably turned to her last comment to Xena. It had come from nowhere, surprising the bard, and from the looks of it, Xena, too. During their travels together both women had, on occasion, found men that appealed to them, but unforeseen circumstances had cut short those relationships, leaving the two friends back together again.
Earlier in the year, Gabrielle had left Xena to marry Perdicus. His sudden death, the day after their wedding, had devastated the bard. There were times she wondered if she would ever recover from her sorrow. In the beginning, she had blamed Xena for Perdicus death and left her best friend to return home to Poteidaia. After some time apart, Xena came to see her and the two friends resolved their differences. Over the coming months, Gabrielle learned to be more appreciative of the former warlord, who showed surprising sensitivity, as she patiently helped the bard to grieve her loss. It took a long time, but Gabrielle eventually became fully recovered and content to remain alongside her best friend.
As for Xena, life was pretty quiet in the romance department; not that there wasnt a long line of boorish men ogling after her stunning looks and exceptionally toned body. The warrior laughed at those clowns and took special pleasure in beating them up in various, inimitable ways. She was comfortable around those ill-mannered types and knew how to handle them, having been that way, once, herself. Serious relationships, though, built on trust and love were a lot more difficult for the the warrior princess to engage in. There were three men that Gabrielle had met personally whom she believed Xena had truly loved.
The man who probably meant the most to Xena was Marcus, an old friend from her warlord days, whom she encountered again while trying to save the life of a young princess. Xena had tried to convince him to reform his evil ways and was gratified when he finally agreed. Tragically, his first and only good deed was to sacrifice his life to save the young princess. His death, during Gabrielles first year with Xena, had depressed the warrior. Xena didnt talk much to her about it, but Gabrielle sensed that her presence was a great comfort to the warrior. Shortly afterward, Gabrielle began to notice subtle changes in Xenas attitude that showed she was finally beginning to trust the bard.
The second man in Xenas life was Hercules, the towering, powerful demigod who had turned her toward the path of goodness. Gabrielle understood the special place that Xena held in her heart for Hercules. It was obvious those rare times they met on the road together. When the news spread that he had married for a second time, Gabrielle realized her best friends anguish, even though Xena never openly admitted it to her. Somehow, a visit to Hercules after his wife died made it clear to the warrior that she and the demi-god were meant to pursue separate journeys in life.
Finally, there was Ulysses, king of Ithaca, Xenas most recent love interest. Gabrielle cringed as she recalled that long, horrible sea voyage to Ulysses homeland that brought romance for her best friend and a wretched bout of sea sickness for herself. She gave Xena her blessing to enjoy that love, but felt secretly relieved when Ulysses wife turned out to be alive, ending all hopes for that relationship. Xena was sad, at first, but as far as the bard could tell, time seemed to have mended her heart from that brief love.
Thinking it over, Gabrielle didnt really need men in her life. Xena was more than enough to handle by herself. The young bard was so busy trailing along with the dauntless warrior on countless adventures, she never had time to crave a normal existence. Those times, between exploits, when she and Xena were alone together, were, surprisingly, never dull. Even the long periods of silence between them had turned comfortable, even cozy, at times. The bard had learned to talk less; Xena, to communicate more.
There were moments when Gabrielle missed her family, such as those times they visited a friendly village. A family invitation to a home-cooked meal, or a request for the bard to tell stories to a captive audience of children, brought back cravings for her own family and village of Poteidaia. One look at Xena beside her, though, and her pangs of homesickness inevitably disappeared.
Xena meant everything to her; family, best friend, soul mate. When Xena had died and come back to life, recently, Gabrielle learned it was possible to survive without the warrior princess by her side. Her life, though, could never be the same. Gabrielle shook her head to clear away that depressing thought. She and Xena were back together and nothing would change that, not even battle shock.
Placing the last of the cleaned fish in a large pan she had brought in her supply pouch, Gabrielle spread a generous helping of her select herbs and spices over the batch. She lit the firewood and placed the pan on a flat, broad rock near the low flame. Knowing it would take awhile for the trout to cook, she grabbed a container and went to pick wild berries from a cluster of bushes she had spotted earlier. Xena would be pleased with the surprise dessert.
As the bard picked berries off the shrubs, she felt a sudden urge to taste them. She soon found herself eating more fruit than she was placing into her pot; not good news if she was hoping to have berries for dessert. With a determined vow to stop eating and start picking, Gabrielle promptly filled her pot and headed back to camp.
The air near their campsite permeated with the rising, nose tingling aroma of cooking trout. A quick look around the area confirmed that Xena had not yet returned. No doubt, she was still busy practicing with her sword. Having watched the warrior a number of times, Gabrielle knew how intense and physically demanding these workouts can be. At the same time, there were extended periods of controlled slow motion movements that required enormous mental concentration. Xena had once explained to her that highly skilled sword fighting required the total fusion of peak physical stamina with sharp mental agility.
With the campsite set up and the fish still simmering in the pot, Gabrielle found herself wondering what was taking Xena so long. The warrior should have returned by this time. She briefly considered leaving the campsite to find her friend but quickly rejected the idea. Xena seemed unusually tense and needed her private time. She would not infringe on that right. Having made that decision, the amazon neatly set down her blankets near the fire and lay down to rest.
A short time later she opened her eyes and noticed Xena kneeling over the fish pan, portioning two generous servings of trout onto their plates. The warrior was dressed in a clean white shift, her long, jet black hair, freshly washed and brushed. Gabrielle sat up in her bedroll and took in a deep breath, relieved to find that the air she inhaled smelled pleasantly of cooked trout. Amazing! Despite her nodding off to an unexpected sleep, the fish had not burned.
Xena handed Gabrielle a filled plate and motioned for her to dig in; the warrior too busy chewing on a generous morsel of trout to speak. Gabrielle took a forkful of fish and gasped in wonder at how fresh and scrumptious her dinner tasted. The fish was spiced exactly right. The two companions ate hungrily, not speaking until the food on their plates was totally consumed. Afterward, Gabrielle placed their dirty dishes aside to be washed in the river later. Then she brought out the container of wild berries she had hidden under one of the bushes and set it between them.
Xena grinned appreciatively at the welcome treat. "I noticed wild berry bushes all along the woods here. I had a feeling you wouldnt let them go to waste."
"Dont tell me Im getting predictable," Gabrielle declared with an exaggerated sigh.
"You predictable?" Xenas eyes grew wide. "And Im a GORGON-eating sea monster!"
"You are, sometimes," Gabrielle said soberly.
Xena frowned, the soft hairs on the back of her neck prickling incessantly. The memory of the war against the Horde returned, drowning out the inner sense of calm she had been enjoying following her vigorous exercise and swim.
Gabrielle noted the sudden shift in the warriors peaceful expression and immediately regretted her words. "Im sorry. I didnt mean that the way it sounded."
Xena swallowed the soft, ripe berries she had been swirling around in her mouth and looked at the bard, her blue eyes sharp in their gaze.
"Yes, you did. You meant every word." She wanted to say more but controlled herself, surprised at the intensity of her feelings.
"We have to talk about this. Maybe now isnt the right time." Gabrielle waved her hands as she spoke, a familiar gesture she used to make an important point.
"When is the right time, Gabrielle? The next time were engaged in a full scale war? That will happen, you know. Life on the road is not only coming to the aid of poor, defenseless villagers." The warriors tone was cutting, knifelike.
Gabrielle forced down a huge gulp of air as she felt a heavy, concealed anger struggle to release itself from somewhere deep inside her soul. How dare Xena treat her like a naive child after all they had been through together! "Whats wrong with helping villagers?" She retorted hotly, her voice scaling to an irate pitch. "Too dull for the bloodthirsty warrior princess?"
"No, Gabrielle. Thats not what I mean," Xena held up a hand to restrain the bard, softening her tone, at once, as she realized how harsh her words must have sounded. "Youre making more out of this than you should."
Gabrielle shook her head, her pale blonde eyebrows creased in a deep frown. "No, Im not." The bards breathing quickened. "I saw that look in your face when you killed the Horde, then again when the men called out your name. Pure pleasure." She stood up suddenly and glared down at the seated warrior. "Is that how you feel when you help poor, defenseless villagers, or do you do it for my benefit?"
The warriors hand drew instinctively to her cheek, as though she had just been slapped by her best friend. Gabrielles accusation startled her. Such an unusual reaction from the kind hearted bard -- where did it come from? The warrior closed her eyes for a long time, to gain some form of composure. When she finally opened them again, her best friend was gone. Their plates and cooking utensils were also missing which meant that Gabrielle must have left to wash them by the river. Xena hesitated about following her. The bard was angry and needed time alone to sort out her rage and confusion.
Continued - Part 2