Sitting on the side of the bed, Gabrielle gently rubbed the middle of her chest, over her heart. The feeling she'd had in her stomach earlier in the day had moved up to her chest, leaving it tight and aching. Must be nerves, she told herself several times, but somehow it felt like more than just a little fear constricting her ribcage.
"Are you all right, Princess?" Amaran asked quietly, after watching Gabrielle massaging her chest for some time.
Gabrielle looked up, surprised. She had forgotten about the guard being with her simply because Amaran had been sitting so silently by the window. "I'm fine, I think. Just a few butterflies moving around," she replied. Trying to find something to take her mind off the upcoming meeting, Gabrielle decided to chat with the guard. She didn't know a great deal about Amaran beyond the fact she was a Royal guard and she had suddenly appeared in the tight inner circle of people in the palace. "Do you have a partner, Amaran?" she asked, hesitating briefly in case she was being a little too nosy.
"No, not at the moment," the guard replied, but from the way she dropped her head and blushed, Gabrielle was sure she had her eye on someone.
"Anyone you're interested in, perhaps?" the bard inquired, a small smile on her face.
"Yes," Amaran replied softly, the blush deepening even further.
I wonder if I was this bad before Xena and I became lovers, she thought. "Tell me to go away if I am sticking my nose into your business but would you like to tell me who?" Gabrielle asked. She was genuinely curious and this communicated itself to the Royal guard sitting at the window.
"It's Eponin," the guard said, dropping her head again to hide the smile just saying the woman's name had made appear on her face like magic.
Jumping from the bed, crossing the room quickly and wrapping her arms around the surprised woman, Gabrielle said excitedly, "Oh, Amaran. She's been alone for so long. Are you sure?"
"I'm sure about how I feel, but she was so hurt before that I want to take things slow and easy. I think she is interested back, but " the woman said.
Gabrielle laughed as she stood up again. "I'm sure there is some rule in the warrior's scrolls that says you're not supposed to show emotion unless it has been dragged out of you first. Then again," the bard smiled and a warm glowing look lit up her face, "I fell in love with the absolute queen of the understated comment. It might be easier with Eponin, though in some ways she was cut from the same tree as Xena." The bard paused for a moment before asking the next question. The storyteller in her was dying to have all the details but she didn't want to pry into someone else's life too much. "Can you tell me how it all started for you?"
"Well, it all started "
"I don't think I can do this, Eponin," Gabrielle said, as they waited in a small alcove beside the meeting hall. Amaran was standing just outside the alcove watching for any trouble that might head their way. "What if I make the wrong decisions?"
"Want to hear a little advice a very wise warrior once gave me?" Eponin replied.
"If it would help, I would dance naked on the temple altar," the bard said, trying to quell the nerves that were making her chest feel tighter by the moment.
"She said, if you don't feel it, fake it. Works for just about everything but love, I've found."
"How can I fake making a good decision?" Gabrielle asked, her voice catching in her throat.
"Relax, Gabrielle. This is just the preliminary meeting to set the agenda for the next few days. You probably won't even have to open your mouth. Once you get through this one, you'll be fine. Take my word for it," Eponin said, trying to encourage the obviously nervous woman by her side.
One of the other guards came to the front of the alcove and nodded to let the three women standing there know the delegation was ready and everything was set to go.
"Courage, Gabrielle. You're an Amazon Queen, after all," Eponin said as they walked out, heading into the meeting hall.
"Then why don't I feel like one?" the bard muttered under her breath.
Xena sat resting by the side of the river for a moment, letting her breathing settle again. The map had been right about the valley walls coming right down to the water's edge in places. She had gotten past several of these by scrambling carefully along the steeply inclined cliff wall like a rock spider, but a few had necessitated her entering the river and swimming around. Thankfully the river was still fairly broad and the current had not been too strong, though the last swim had been more difficult as the walls had narrowed somewhat and the speed of the water had picked up as a result. Slinging her sword across her back again -- she had swum with it held over her head with one hand -- she started back along the bank.
The warrior knew she was well inside Amazon territory, yet she was still finding the sluice boxes in the river wherever there was a shallow, rocky ford to place them and the occasional area of digging, though none were quite as extensive as the mining she had seen before. The border patrols probably never come down here, she thought as she looked at the valley walls climbing up to the forest above. Here and there the banks spread out to reveal a clearing, but the cliffs surrounding them made them all but useless as camping sites. Xena had noticed the cliffs were getting lower as she moved up the river, though. For another candlemark, she swam, jumped and walked her way up the river until the cliffs had finally dropped down, eventually meeting with the plains of the Amazon hunting grounds.
Rounding a bend in the river, jumping from boulder to boulder, the next section of bank seemed very familiar, but she couldn't recall ever being here before. She could see where the trees opened up, most likely onto another clearing. Xena decided it would probably be the perfect place to rest for a while, as her muscles were aching and sore after first working out with Amaran, running through most of the night and then tracing the river back to this point. "I'm getting a little too old for this," Xena muttered to herself as she climbed up from the boulders at the side of the river, digging her booted toes into the bank above to get to the clearing ahead.
Just before she entered the clearing, she crossed over a narrow path running from the south to the north. "Must be the river path Gabrielle mentioned to me," she mumbled. Less than a candlemark further to the north, the path would come to a dead end but knowing it was there and where it led, Xena was happy to find a quicker way back to the Amazon village, instead of the overland route she was originally planning to take.
Striding into the clearing, Xena was shocked at the scene of devastation in front of her. The rotted remains of an unknown number of men lay scattered about as though some elemental force had simply sucked the life strength from them where they stood. As she walked through the bodies, or what was left of them, she tried to make sense of what had taken place there. The men had not simply been killed in some battle; they had been mutilated, dismembered, many having been sliced limb from limb. Xena wondered what evil could have possibly committed such inhuman acts and whether that evil was still wandering the Amazon hunting grounds.
Crouching down beside one torso; its limbs and head lying elsewhere in the clearing, she examined the open hole in its chest. The breastbone had been split cleanly, laying open the heart beneath. There was something about this wound which bothered Xena. It was too long for a sword thrust and too narrow for an axe. She had never seen a spear or pike make a wound like that either. Then it struck her exactly what kind of a weapon could leave an opening such as this on a human body. A chakram.
The sight of the body in front her wavered, her eyes filling with tears as the images of what had happen that afternoon rose from some forgotten place in her mind. The almost lazy left handed throw of her chakram when she had killed this man. Chasing down others who ran from her fury, killing them from behind, a sword in their backs. Slashing her way so easily through the few who had stood to fight. Their weapons had been little more than long skinning knives or cheap potmetal swords. When all were dead, going from body to body, savaging each corpse, throwing their limbs around the clearing like so much unwanted kindling, brutalising some until they were passed the point of even being recognisable as human. The tidal wave of guilt and unbelieving horror at what she had done screamed up in front of Xena, thundering down on her and crushing her under its smothering weight.
The warrior slowly sank to her knees in the middle of the clearing, her eyes unseeing, her mind blank. All she felt was the unending spiral of guilt that she could have taken the lives of men who had committed no crime other than to be greedy enough to look for gold on the Amazon hunting grounds. She could have easily subdued them without even drawing a weapon, as there hadn't been a true fighter among them. They had been no threat to her, they had barely fought back when she had shot from the trees like an arrow. Yet, she had killed every single one of them, without honour or good cause.
Xena saw only what she had done, not wanting to see the reasons it had happened. Cycles of anger, pain and self-hatred had been locked behind a wall of iron self-control, festering away like an infected abscess. Never permitting it any access to escape, never allowing another close enough that they might see it and help her heal, she pushed it deeper and deeper into herself until it finally pushed back, the pressure building until it burst forth in one unthinking explosion of raw, powerful and uncontrolled emotion, darker than anything she had ever felt during those long cycles as a warlord. A blackness so vast and overwhelming, it had carried her away. And she had gone with it, willingly.
Washing helplessly back and forth in an unreasoning ocean of her own guilt, Xena knew the time had finally come to lay down her sword, forever.
Gabrielle sat fidgeting with the quill and parchment in front of her. She was trying to listen to Drayton as he demanded the villages have right of passage across Amazon lands. The way he had jumped straight into the issue had made it clear he was going to tie the passage rights to every other aspect of the trade agreement. He had no intention of simply using the first meeting to set the agenda, as had been the practise in the past. He was bringing this to the table now and demanding Gabrielle make a decision immediately before he would permit any further discussions about anything else. No one else in the delegation had spoken yet, but most looked uncomfortable with the way Drayton was handling the situation. Several times, one of the other delegates had started to say something and Drayton had bellowed back at them to sit down and shut up.
The bard knew she should have spoken up by now, letting the big man know passage rights were out of the question, but she wasn't sure of her ground. Drayton had leaned as far over the table as he could and was thumping it frequently to emphasise his points. It all served to unnerve the blonde even further, uncertain as she was about her ability to make the correct decisions to guide the Amazon Nation. Drayton's sheer size, not to mention volume, had intimidated the usually courageous bard into silence. The only way across that section of the border was the river, and Jadax had made it clear there was no way to get sheep along the banks because the walls of the valley met the river at several points. But how to get this across to the big man without jeopardising the rest of the agreement?
The longer Drayton stood there yelling, the tighter the feeling in Gabrielle's chest grew, until she felt she was going to have a real problem breathing soon. She could feel Eponin sitting tensely next to her, holding her own tongue still by an effort of will alone. The eyes of every Amazon in the room were on the bard, as well as those watching from outside the windows. Yet she remained sitting quietly as the big man thundered home another of his points with several more thumps on the table with his massive fist. If only Xena were here, she thought.
At the very moment the image of the warrior woman crossed her mind, the tightness in her chest became a fully fledged pain, catching the breath in her throat for a moment. Xena? Is there something wrong with Xena? the questioned screamed at her. The thought of tall warrior being in some kind of danger was so strong, Gabrielle found herself on her feet before she had even made a conscious decision to move. Snatching up the carved wooden block she used as a gavel, she loudly pounded the table several times and declared the meeting closed, much to the surprise of everyone in the room, especially Drayton.
Leaving the meeting hall as quickly as her position and dignity allowed, she left behind a room in complete uproar as Drayton started bellowing accusations at her retreating back, Eponin trying to calm the rest of the Amazons before one of them decided an arrow might be the answer to the big man and his demands. Once past the last of the women, she took off in a dead run for the stables. She wasn't sure why she was headed there, but something inside told her she needed to get to Xena as rapidly as possible, and Argo was the fastest way to get anywhere on the hunting grounds she could think of at that moment.
Skidding to a halt, she grabbed Argo's bridle and reins from its peg on the wall where Xena kept it. She didn't bother with the saddle; she could barely lift it and didn't want to take the time to properly saddle the mare. Gabrielle was just going to take her chances at riding bareback. Behind her, she heard the sound of another pair of feet running into the stables. Turning, she spotted a surprised and, interestingly enough, angry looking Amaran. Gabrielle's sudden departure from the meeting hall had caught the guard a little flat-footed as she had been concentrating on Drayton, expecting him to make some kind of physical attack on the princess at any moment.
"Mother of Zeus! What do you think you're doing?" the guard snapped, not caring who she was talking to. "The negotiations have just been turned into a complete shambles."
"Xena's in trouble," Gabrielle stated simply, heading towards Argo's stall.
"How in Tartarus do you know that?" Amaran demanded loudly, following the other woman. Maybe the Princess really isn't experienced enough to negotiate the agreement, she thought for a moment. All that yelling must have made her lose her nerve or something.
"I don't know, not for sure, but I can feel it, here," she replied, briefly touching the place on her chest she had been massaging earlier in the afternoon. Entering the mare's stall, she tossed the bridle over her amazingly, for once, co-operative head and started to do up the buckles. "Look, I know you don't understand, Amaran but I have been around the woman for over two summers. I love her more than life itself and I feel," emphasising the word, "she is in some kind of danger. Haven't you ever felt someone you're close to is in trouble without you knowing for sure at the time?"
The guard nodded her head. She did know the feeling, and most times it had turned out to be true. "Here, if you're going to be galloping off into the hunting grounds somewhere without me, you'll need this," the woman replied, as she removed her own belt and the long knife she had strapped to it. Reaching round, she buckled it to Gabrielle's thinner waist, settling the sheath at her side.
Gabrielle looked down at the belt she now wore. The blade was almost as long as her forearm, and she hoped she would not find a reason for ever having to take it from its sheath. "Thanks, Amaran. I don't know what to say," the bard said as she turned back towards the other woman.
"You don't have to say a thing. Just let me give you a leg up and then I can go help Eponin calm down the mess we have in the meeting hall," Amaran answered, holding out her hands to lift Gabrielle onto Argo's bare back.
"I'll be back to sort that out as soon as I can," the bard called over her shoulder as she dug her heels into the mare's ribs and started out the stable doors.
The Royal guard watched the princess as she quickly crossed the compound and disappeared into the trees. Spotting a group of people pouring from the doors of the meeting hall like enraged ants, she ran back to stand by Eponin's side once more.
"Okay, Argo. I don't know where we are going, but I'm sure we can find Xena together," Gabrielle said to the mare's head.
Gabrielle used to think riding with a saddle was bad but found bareback was far worse. Two summers of riding behind the warrior had improved her seat a great deal but by no stretch of the imagination would she have called herself a rider. With nothing else to grip, other than the reins in one hand, the bard tightly curled her fingers through the horse's mane and clenched her knees as firmly as she could around Argo's ribs. Praying briefly to whoever might be listening, she hoped to stay atop the mare until she got where she was going, wherever that may have been. From the discussions that morning with everyone in the Queen's chambers, the bard knew Xena had gone somewhere just over the western border, so she headed in that direction, hoping she would figure out how to find the warrior in the mean time.
She had a brief glimpse of the steep path down from the mountain lookout post as they galloped past, her mind working frantically trying to think where Xena might be. No matter how she tried, she couldn't come up with an answer to the problem. Xena could have been anywhere between the village and the western border or even on the other side. Slowing Argo, she tried to think sensibly without having to worry about being thrown at the same time.
Speaking out loud to the mare, Gabrielle said, "She was going to check something on the other side of the border. Something to do with the river." The bard could see in her mind's eye Eponin's finger tracing over the path of the river, time after time, as she tried to explain everything to the blonde. "From the village, to the western border. From the border past that miserable clearing to the ravine," she mumbled, seeing the map in front of her. Then, like someone had lit a torch inside her mind, Gabrielle knew exactly where the warrior was. "That Hades cursed clearing!" she almost shouted. "Come on, Argo. Weve got a ways to go yet," she called to the mare as she dug her heels into Argo's ribs again.
The bard knew there would be no way to get Argo through the brambles on the route she had taken the first time she had been to the clearing; they had missed the turn-off for that anyway. Thinking, she remembered the river path. She had walked out of the clearing along that path. It was narrow, but Argo should be able to move along it -- if she could stay on her back, that is. Gabrielle was not absolutely certain Xena was there, but somehow if felt right.
Gabrielle ducked yet another low branch, straightening on the other side of it. She had no idea how much further down the river path she had to go before reaching the clearing, but she was hoping to get there soon. She had missed the turn for the path initially simply because she hadn't seen it through the thick green cover of branches and bushes surrounding it. She was also hoping to get there quickly because the inside of her knees and thighs were starting to chafe rather badly from the rubbing of Argo's coat against her bare skin. The mare was moving at a swift walk, the path being too narrow for anything faster if she wanted to keep her head attached to her shoulders. Another low branch hung over the path, and Gabrielle ducked once again to avoid it.
The closer she came to the clearing, the more the tightness in her chest eased, finally allowing her to breathe freely again. Gabrielle hoped she was going the right way, because the last time she had been along this path she was in a state of extreme shock and not paying a great deal of attention to her surroundings. But so far the feeling that she was heading in the right direction had not left her, so she stayed with the path, moving towards the clearing where she prayed Xena would be. The bard tried not to think about what had reached her back in the village to let her know Xena was in some kind of danger and she forced her mind away from the images of destruction she had seen there on her last visit. Hopefully by now, the scavengers of the forest would have cleaned up the very worst of it.
Up ahead, she could see the trees beginning to thin and the flat space of the clearing showing through the gaps in their trunks. A faint reddish glow was lighting some of the darker corners of the surrounding forest. Dismounting gratefully from Argo, Gabrielle loosely tied the reins to a branch and walked, a little unsteadily after so long on horseback, the last few paces into the clearing.
Stepping into the clearing, the sight before her both horrified and fascinated her. Xena had collected every single part of the men's dismembered and mutilated bodies and piled them together. Taking the wood from the small lean-tos and other shelters they had built, she had constructed a funeral pyre around them. Gabrielle could see her kneeling beside the burning pyre, greasy smoke starting to fill the sky overhead. Looking more closely, the bard saw Xena had tucked the hilt of her sword between her knees and the point was even now pressing against her heart.
"NO!! Xena, don't," Gabrielle screamed across the clearing. She began to run towards the kneeling warrior to try to stop her from falling on her own blade, barely getting more than a handful of paces before Xena leapt to her feet and turned towards the other woman.
"Stay away from me, Gabrielle. Can't you see I'm nothing more than a mindless killer?" she said, her voice flat and emotionless. "I should have died long ago."
The bard stopped moving, wondering if Xena had lost her senses again and tipped over the edge of her own sanity.
Almost reading her mind, Xena said, "I'm quite sane, Gabrielle. Saner than I have ever been, in fact. Just go back to the village. You're safer there."
The blonde woman looked Xena over carefully. She was willing to accept the warrior's statement of sanity, but there was something very wrong going on. Xena's face was completely expressionless, her eyes shadowed by some hurt or pain from within. Her shoulders were slumped forward as though she was carrying a great weight on her back, a weight Gabrielle couldn't see but one that was there nonetheless. "Xena," she said gently. "I've always known you were a killer, but it was the reasons you killed that were important to me."
"The reasons have no meaning now," Xena replied dully, looking at the flames beside her.
Getting a feel for what was happening to the woman she loved, Gabrielle began to do the one thing she was best at. She talked, fast. "The reasons will always have meaning. You, alone, can't make them go away. You told me you picked up the sword to protect your village. That's a good reason. But you got lost after your brother died. For a long time you killed people simply to see them die, yet you still tried not to harm women and children. So some of that killing was for the wrong reasons. Then you decided to fight for good, to help protect the people who couldn't look after themselves. All the killing you have done in the past two summers has been for the right reasons. To protect or defend."
"And you call this," Xena snarled, pointing at the burning pyre, "killing for the right reasons?"
"You can't be held responsible for that, Xena. You were out of your head. If you had been yourself, you would never have done it," Gabrielle answered, taking another step closer.
"But I did do it. You can't deny that one simple fact. I killed all the men here, and whatever the reason, I am responsible. I am worse than a murderer when it comes to these men," Xena said, her voice becoming flat again.
"You're a warrior. You'll always be a warrior. Sane or insane, it's what you are and it is just one of the things I love about you," Gabrielle said softly.
"Then stop loving me, Gabrielle. It just isn't safe anymore. Sooner or later I am going to end up killing everyone around me, including you, so it's better to end it here, now." Xena suddenly turned and ran for the covering forest.
"Not this time, my warrior love," Gabrielle muttered as she took off after Xena.
On any other day, Xena would have out-distanced the smaller bard in moments but her reserves were long gone after a night of running and a day of tracing the river. Gabrielle pelted along behind the warrior, never quite losing sight of her through the trees. Two summers of walking beside Xena and Argo had given her shorter legs the strength she needed to keep up, and her own fierce determination had her dogging Xena's footsteps through the woods.
Following close behind, Gabrielle saw Xena slide to a halt in another tiny clearing, bringing her sword up in front of her body. The bard burst through the last of the low branches a dozen or so paces from the warrior. Xena took a very half-hearted swing at the woman. She was not trying to harm the bard, but she wanted to convince Gabrielle to return to the village and simply let her get on with what she had decided to do. Gabrielle ducked under the sword and rolled and bounced back to her feet on Xena's right. Xena swung the sword again, no more seriously than before, Gabrielle stepping back a bit to let the weapon move past her.
Xena turned and took off into the forest once more, hoping if she could just run far enough she would shake the smaller woman from her trail. She could hear Gabrielle panting along after her, slowly dropping behind.
Just when Gabrielle thought she was going to have to fall back and hope she could follow the tall warrior's trail, Xena glanced behind her and stumbled over a protruding tree root as she took her eyes from the path ahead. She hit the ground hard enough to stun her for a moment. It was all the time the bard needed to catch up again. From somewhere deep inside she found a short burst of speed. Throwing herself bodily at the still rising warrior, both tumbled over each other until Xena came to rest on her back, Gabrielle sitting heavily on her chest, one hand holding the tired warrior to the ground.
"You have never run from a fight in your life, Xena," she yelled angrily into the other woman's expressionless face. "If you want to run from this one, if you're so damned determined to leave this world," Gabrielle tore Amaran's knife from the sheath at her waist, "then it will be my hand that does it and no other." Gabrielle was sure this time. This was the right decision.
Pushing the knife against the warrior's throat, its razor sharp edge under her chin, Gabrielle said, "Goodbye, Xena. I love you."
"What an unholy MESS!" Ephiny snapped, once she had gotten a full report from Eponin and Amaran. Even from the palace, she had heard the uproar coming from the meeting hall and the sound of hoofbeats thundering out of the village. "Where is the delegation now?" she growled.
"Back in their huts and under guard," Eponin replied. "It was the only place to put them for the moment. Half the women want to hang that idiot Drayton for the things he was saying, and that was before Gabrielle suddenly took off."
"Either of you know where Gabrielle was headed?" the Queen asked, her temper far from cooling. She watched, annoyed, when both Eponin and Amaran shook their heads.
"A safe bet would be somewhere on the western border," Amaran offered quietly. She knew she shouldn't have let the princess go like that but there was nothing she could have really done to stop her, short of tying her up, perhaps. Then again, Gabrielle was so frantic to find the warrior woman she may well have wriggled off on her butt to get to Xena.
"BY ALL THE GODS ON MOUNT OLYMPUS, EVEN I COULD HAVE FIGURED OUT THAT MUCH!" the Amazon Queen bellowed.
"EPHINY! STOP IT!"
The Queen spun at hearing her name shouted from the other side of her bedchamber, to see Jadax trying to struggle into a sitting position. Rushing over, Ephiny gently forced the scout back down on the bed. "Shhh, you'll hurt yourself again if you try to get up."
"Then stop shouting at Eponin and Amaran. It's not their fault that Gabrielle took off like that and Drayton is an idiot. Imagine, insulting an Amazon Princess in her own village," Jadax said, ending with a smile. "At least Amaran made sure Gabrielle had a weapon of some sort on her before she left."
"Well, there is that, I suppose. Nothing we can do about it until one or the other returns here," Ephiny said in a much calmer tone of voice, as she sat down carefully on the side of the bed to make sure Jadax didn't try to rise again. "Okay, what do we do about the delegation? I can't even guess at how long it will be before Gabrielle returns."
A very timid knock at the door distracted everyone for a moment. One of the guards who had been assigned to watch after the villagers poked her head hesitantly around the frame, not wishing to disturb the Queen in her bedchamber even though it was being used as an office more often than it was for sleeping lately. "Um, Queen Ephiny. I've brought one of the delegation with me and I really think you should hear what she has to say," she said.
"Show her in," Ephiny replied, irritably. "I wonder what little gems she is going to bring?" the woman asked as a quiet sarcastic aside to Jadax.
The guard quickly escorted the old village woman into the room and then stepped back outside to stand watch over the door. Both women had heard the Queen's bellow from the other side of the outer door, and the woman was understandably nervous about approaching the Amazon Queen. It was only because she felt what she had to say was so important that she allowed the guard to take her into the Queen's quarters at all. Eponin kindly led her to a chair and seated her before letting Ephiny and her uncertain temper say anything.
"Please, um, Your Majesty?" the old woman asked, not sure of how to address Amazon royalty.
"Ephiny will suit for now. What seems to be on your mind?" the Queen inquired mildly, not wanting to frighten the woman any more than she already appeared to be.
"Ephiny, about our menfolk, the ones who came onto your lands?"
"The clearing," Eponin whispered almost soundlessly from behind the woman.
"The ones who were looking for gold, you mean?" the Queen asked.
The old woman nodded and made an obvious attempt to brace herself for the worst.
"I'm sorry to say, they are all dead. We didn't kill them, but they died in a clearing near the western border," Ephiny explained as gently as she could.
The old woman hung her head for a moment. When she raised her head again, her eyes were bright with unshed tears, but she continued. "We -- the women, I mean -- thought that is what had happened, but Drayton wouldn't tell us anything, you see," she said calmly.
"What's Drayton got to do with all this?" Ephiny asked. She was already starting to get a good idea of what had been going on in the villages on the western border, but she wanted to hear it from someone who actually lived there.
"He was the first one to find the gold in the river near my village. He managed to convince a lot of the menfolk to start looking, taking some of what they found for himself. Said because he had found it to start with, he had a right to a percentage from everyone else who looked," the woman explained carefully. "Eventually he had menfolk from all five villages down on that river every day. But there wasn't a lot there to start with, and it soon ran out. So he kept moving the sites further and further up the river until he got to the border."
"Which is where Kaliope came into it, I'm sure," Eponin said from behind.
Twisting a little in the chair, the woman nodded. "That one had been feeling the rough hand of her brother from the time she was born. Even when she was full growed, he was still beating on her all the time. She just got to the point where she did whatever he told her to do. Like he broke her spirit or something," the old woman said. Hanging her head a little, "There was talk about other things happening behind closed doors at night but " shrugging her shoulders, "it was just talk. I never saw anything to say it was true."
All the Amazons shuddered at the knowledge of what those 'other things' were, knowing exactly what the woman was talking about.
"So he convinced her to come here and act as his inside contact," Ephiny stated.
"Oh, it was more than that," the woman said. "Near the end of the cliffs, there is a place where the caves pass right through and come out at a ravine somewhere inside your lands. Kaliope would lead menfolk through the caves at night and take them to the river to look for gold."
"Knowing exactly where to go to avoid the patrols and border parties. Tricky, that. I know about the cave you mention too. It's a bit of a rough trip getting through, but I suppose greed can make people do all kinds of funny things," Eponin said quietly. "When did that start?" she asked.
"About a moon or so ago," the woman answered.
"Well after I had broken my ankle and couldn't patrol that section of the border," Jadax almost shouted.
"I wonder how long he intended to keep it up? Jadax was eventually going to go back on patrol and would have found them at that clearing in a matter of days, if not sooner," Eponin asked.
"Can't answer that one for you, but I do know the gold in that river is the reason Drayton is so keen to have passage rights," the old woman said quietly.
"Well, he wasn't going to get it anyway. These are Amazon lands, and we have no men walking across them unless they have been invited," Ephiny snapped, frightening the woman a little at the sight of an angry Amazon warrior.
Jadax raised her head slightly so she could see the village woman. "Why are you telling us all this?" she asked.
"You mean aside from the fact we have lost so many of our menfolk to this madness?" the woman questioned in return.
"Yes, why put yourself in this kind of danger?" Ephiny replied.
"Because Drayton has started bringing in some of the worst kind of thugs you can imagine, to protect the villages, or so he says. Personally, I think he wants to use them to keep us in line or to attack your lands so he can look for more gold in the rest of your rivers and streams. But that is just an old woman talking," she said, shrugging one shoulder.
"You keep right on talking. You've made more sense in this little while than Drayton did all afternoon," Eponin said kindly. "You leave everything to us now. I'll make sure the guard gets you back to your hut without Drayton seeing you."
Gently handing the woman over to the guard at the door, she turned back to the room and asked, "Well, what are we going to do?"
Xena looked up into the sea-green eyes of the bard. Although she could see the sadness and pain welling up in them, she was also aware Gabrielle was very serious. Deadly serious, in fact. If Xena really was that determined to end her own life, the bard had just made it clear that she was going to be the one to do it. Slowly reaching up with one hand, Xena gently pushed the tightly closed fist holding the knife away from her throat. "No, Gabrielle, I don't want to leave this life but I'm not sure I know how to live it anymore either," she said.
Sliding the knife back into the sheath at her waist, Gabrielle answered quietly, "Then we'll figure it out together, just like we've always done." Moving down the warrior's longer body, the bard stretched out and wrapped her arms around Xena, feeling the other woman return the embrace.
"I really did kill all those men in the clearing, Gabrielle," Xena said, feeling another wave of guilt wash over her.
"I know. We came across it when we first went looking for you," the bard replied, her ear against Xena's chest, listening to her strongly beating heart. It was a sound she never tired of hearing. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner, but the time never seemed quite right."
"Would it have made it any easier?" Xena asked, enjoying the feel of the other woman's slighter body against her own, grounding her in its solid reality.
"It might have been easier than coming across it on your own. At least I would have been there for you," Gabrielle replied.
"I don't think even having you with me would have stopped the guilt. I killed more than two dozen innocent men for no reason at all, at least none that I can see now," the warrior whispered.
"Tell me, does madness need a reason?" Gabrielle asked seriously.
Xena thought about the question for some time before answering. "No, I guess not. I still don't understand why I lost my senses though," she finally replied.
Gabrielle sat up a little so she could see into the sky blue eyes of the woman who meant more to her than anything in the world, even more than her own life. "Think about it, Xena. I'm not saying this is the answer. Maybe there simply isn't one, but this is what I think, for what it's worth. You had more than ten cycles of whatever it was you were feeling when you were a warlord. Then there was everything that happened before that, the death of your brother, for example. I'll bet anything you never once mourned him properly."
Xena dropped her eyes for a moment. It was true. At the time her brother had been killed, she had simply shut down all her feelings, letting a cold rage fill her heart instead. It had been almost the only feeling she was aware of for cycles after that, ruthlessly crushing from her thinking mind any other emotion that dared to raise its head, until she finally saw what she had been doing with her life and decided to change.
Gabrielle waited until Xena's eyes had returned to her own before continuing. "There was all that locked away inside of you, as well as everything you've felt since then. You never talk about it, never let any of it out. Sooner or later it was going to hit back."
"It might be part of the answer, Gabrielle, but will it happen again? Will I lose my grip on reality and kill even more innocent people?" Xena asked.
Now it was the bard's turn to think long and hard about a question. Eventually, she reached some conclusion. "I don't know. Maybe it will, if you keep yourself so locked up. Then again, it may never happen. All I know for sure is that if it does happen again, I am going to be right there to help you."
Xena's eyes filled with tears. "Help me now, Gabrielle. How do I live with what I have done?" Xena closed her eyes and started sobbing quietly.
"You're already doing it," Gabrielle whispered as she tightened her grip around the tall warrior's shuddering shoulders.
Xena's sense of direction had quickly gotten them onto the river path, and they were now slowly walking back to Argo, still tied to a tree near the clearing. True night had long fallen, and both women had felt a little chilled lying on the forest litter. The warrior had wept for some time, Gabrielle simply holding her closely and allowing Xena to find a little solace in the release. Walking past the bottom of the clearing, both women stopped for moment to look at the strongly glowing pile of embers that had once been over two dozen men.
"I still feel responsible for this," Xena said, taking the bard's hand in her own.
"They are just as responsible for their own deaths, Xena. Greed did this to them as surely as your blade," Gabrielle replied.
Turning from the scene in front of them and continuing down the path, Xena leaned towards the smaller woman at her side, "You were really serious about ending my life earlier today, weren't you?" she asked quietly, touching the shallow, bloodless cut under her chin.
Gabrielle looked at the ground for several heartbeats, finally raising her eyes to meet with Xena's impossibly blue ones. "Remember how you told me about Marcus? What you did when the extra day of life Hades had given him came to an end?"
"Yes, I remember," Xena replied, the memory causing nothing more than a sweet ache in her heart.
"You loved him enough to do what you thought was right for him, didn't you?" the bard asked.
"I wanted it to be my hand to send him back to the arms of death," the warrior said, softly.
"Well, I did what I thought was right for you," Gabrielle answered.
"I'd wait for you, you know," Xena stated.
"You wouldn't have to wait long, Xena," Gabrielle said seriously, turning the taller woman until the bard could slide her arms around Xena's strong, muscular body, drawing her down into a tender kiss.
Reluctantly breaking their lips apart, Xena began to move along the path again, the bard tucked under one arm. Reaching the patiently waiting mare, she quickly mounted, holding her hand out to help Gabrielle.
"Do I have to ride, Xena?" the blonde asked, the hesitation clear in her voice.
"Can you think of a faster way back to the palace and a hot meal?" Xena asked, a small smile on her face.
"It's just that I'm kinda chafed from coming out here, is all. Hurts a bit, if you know what I mean," Gabrielle said, the chagrin showing in her eyes even in the thin light of the rising moon.
Xena laughed kindly, not meaning to tease the smaller woman standing by her leg. "We'll ride slowly then. You won't chafe anymore that way."
Letting the warrior lift her up, Gabrielle found herself in front of Xena instead of behind where she usually sat. Strong arms circled her waist and a pair of soft lips began to nibble their way up her partially exposed shoulder and neck. As Argo started a slow walk down the path, Gabrielle was no longer noticing the rub of mare's coat against her skin. She wasn't noticing much of anything, other than what those warm lips were doing to her heart rate.
Eponin stretched lazily on the bench outside Amaran's hut, her hands coming to rest on her full stomach. When Amaran had offered to make a late night snack for them both, Eponin had willingly agreed to it. It wasn't often she had someone else to cook for her, usually taking most of her meals in the mess building or simply throwing something together for herself. The Royal guard settled on the bench next to the warrior and handed her a wooden cup full of hot mint tea. "Thanks," she said, taking a careful sip.
"Xena seemed a little, I don't know, quieter than usual tonight," Amaran said.
"Probably just tired. She managed to cover a lot of ground last night and today," Eponin replied, though she had noticed it herself.
"With those red eyes? I think not. Something happened out there, or why would the Princess take off like that this afternoon?" the guard asked.
"Guess we will never know. Xena doesn't talk much and when she does, it's usually to Gabrielle," the warrior answered.
The two women sat in silence, thinking about everything they had heard earlier. No one had been surprised to learn of Xena's discovery of the sluice boxes in the river or the places where digging had already taken place inside the hunting grounds. Ephiny had decided to be at the meeting scheduled for the next afternoon to back Gabrielle up in any decisions she made regarding the negotiations. Eponin had expected more of a protest from Jadax, who would still be in bed recovering from her back injury. The little scout had barely said a word after Gabrielle and Xena had returned from wherever they had been. They had also not been surprised when Xena made it clear she was going to be at the meeting as well. Eponin still felt the tall, dark-haired woman should have been there from the start, but Xena did things her own way and for her own reasons.
"Where's your daughter tonight?" Eponin suddenly asked, noticing the utter stillness of the Royal guard's hut.
"Lias? She's with one of her aunties. I thought we could do with some peace and quiet after the day we put in," Amaran answered.
"Bit of a tearaway, is she?"
"Not really, just your average Amazon girl coming up on the Age of Beginnings," the guard replied, smiling at the thought of her young daughter who would soon be starting her own training as an Amazon warrior.
Eponin laughed lightly. "I remember it myself. By the gods, I felt so grown up at eight cycles, just starting out on the path of a warrior. They soon knocked all that cockiness out of me though, once I walked onto the training ground for the first time," the warrior grinned broadly at the memory. "I thought I would never stop aching all the first cycle. I guess after that, I got used to the pace and the rigours of training."
"Did you ever sneak off to, well, you know, as you got older?" Amaran asked, the heat starting to grow on her cheeks.
"Who didn't," Eponin found herself also blushing at the memories of those early explorations. "When a girl's womanhood starts to come on her, I think the trainers plan on losing us for a while. At least until we have broken our hearts a time or two anyway."
"You must have broken quite a few hearts," Amaran said gently, carefully placing her hand over Eponin's as it rested on the bench between them.
The warrior stared down at the hand over her own, her heart feeling as though it was trying to climb out of her throat. Struggling to force the words passed her lips, "N not really. I "
Eponin's voice was stopped dead as the other woman gently picked up the warrior's hand and kissed the back of it, watching for any reaction in Eponin's eyes. The feel of soft lips caressing the skin of her hand caused those eyes to close slowly. Amaran turned Eponin's hand over and kissed the strong palm she was presented with, calluses from sword and bow feeling rough against her tongue. The guard stood, pulling the other woman to her feet.
"Why don't you sleep here tonight?" Amaran asked softly.
"I I'm n not sure," Eponin managed to say at last.
"I don't want to do anything. I'd just like to hold you in my arms for one night. I won't push you for anything you're not ready to do yourself," the other woman replied, slowly embracing the nervous warrior. If she is going to bolt, now is the time, the guard thought to herself.
Eponin felt the arms come around her, hands gently rubbing her back. Fighting the fears she could hear screaming in her heart, she stepped closer into the embrace and circled the other woman's waist with her own hands. "I think I'd like that," she said, feeling a little of the hurt she had carried for so long open up to be healed.
The two women, still arm in arm, entered Amaran's small hut and within moments the candlelight died into comforting blackness.
Gabrielle let herself sink deeply into the warm waters of the hot spring until just her nose and eyes were above the waterline. For a change, there was no one else about, and she was enjoying the moment of rare privacy she had been given. Taking advantage of the emptiness of the place, she had happily climbed into the biggest spring even though her feet came nowhere near the bottom. Usually she chose one of the smaller pools so she could stand up while she bathed. She was revelling in the feeling of floating in the largest hot tub in the known world. Xena always did say I was nothing more than a big hedonist, she snorted to herself.
The healer had suggested she have a soak before the meeting scheduled for the afternoon, to ease some of the ache in her legs from her run after Xena the day before and to soothe the chafing of her knees and thighs. Xena had gently rubbed oil onto the raw skin the night before, which had soon led to other things, but the continued stiffness when she woke had her visiting the healer to gain some relief. There would be no way she could have sat through the entire meeting otherwise.
Xena still seemed rather quiet and subdued over breakfast but had reassured the bard, several times, she was not the cause. Gabrielle had noticed as soon as the warrior had stood up after eating, her back was straight and true again, though the heavy weight of Xena's guilt still showed strongly in her shadowed eyes. The bard hoped, with time, Xena would see she was not responsible for what she had done to those men in the clearing, but she doubted the warrior would ever completely forgive herself.
Thinking about it, Gabrielle realised why she had been having so much trouble dealing with her own decision to kill Xena on the morning she had returned to the village, insane and uncontrollable. I couldn't forgive myself, she thought. Yet, yesterday I held a knife to her throat fully intending to do it again. Only this time it was the right decision to make, and for the right reasons, she mused. Rising from the water a little to rest her head against the rim of the spring, she muttered, "So maybe the first decision was the wrong one to make but I made it for the right reasons." For the first time in several days, Gabrielle felt a part of her mind relax, and her self-confidence rose a little from rock bottom. Remembering what she had said to Xena the day before about reasons always having meaning, she decided no matter whether decisions were right or wrong, if the reasons were true she could learn to live with them, whatever the outcome.
Feeling she had learned something new and maybe had taken another small step towards growing up to be the person she wanted to be, Gabrielle sank under the water to wash her hair. Her feet had barely touched the sandy bottom of the spring when something massive and heavy landed on the top of her head, holding her under the water. She started to struggle, lifting her hands up to shift the weight that was holding her down. Her fingers suddenly found themselves wrapped around the massive digits of someone above her. Hands that large could only belong to Drayton. Gabrielle had seen them thumping the table in front of her enough times the day before. Fighting harder, she tried to twist her body from under the man's weight bearing down on top of her but another giant fist grabbed her shoulder, suspending her in place under the water.
Dark spots began to fill her vision and she could feel the urge to breathe growing stronger. Trying not to panic, she allowed a small stream of bubbles to leave her mouth. It took some of the pressure off her chest but she knew it wouldn't be too much longer before she would fighting to inhale again, even if it was the warm waters of the spring. Planting her feet solidly on the bottom, she used her strong legs to try to push back against Drayton's hand on her head. It was like trying to move a mountain. Blackness was starting to creep in around the edges of her sight, and she was fighting her own panic at drowning as much as she was trying not to open her mouth and breathe in warm water. Just as she felt herself beginning to black out, sure the next lungful she got would be liquid and not air, a massive body suddenly tumbled into the pool with her, quickly followed by another dressed in lighter buckskin and armour. Feeling the weight gone from above, Gabrielle shot to the surface, gasping air into her oxygen starved lungs.
Clutching at the side of the spring with almost strengthless fingers, she looked down at the churning waters and the two people fighting under it. She couldn't see much, just two bodies twisting and turning over each other, sand clouding the pool until there were little more than dark, moving shadows under the water. The movement grew more frenzied, the shadows becoming grey shapes as they sank to the bottom, sand obscuring all signs of what was happening. After several moments of stillness, one of the shapes disengaged from the other and headed for the surface.
A head, covered in long raven hair with impossibly blue eyes, emerged from the water and searched out the bard, who was still hanging onto the side weakly. "Let's get you out of here," Xena said.
Gabrielle nodded. She was more than happy to end her bath today.
"What did he hope to gain from drowning me?" Gabrielle asked. She was stretched out comfortably on the bed, a long robe wrapped around her. Xena had helped her from the pool, but as soon as she had stood on her own two feet, the reaction of what had just happened hit home. The bard's knees had given way and the warrior simply picked up Gabrielle's small weight and carried her back to the palace. She was still trembling a little even now, a full candlemark later, but the tears had long stopped and she was slowly calming down again. She knew, in the deepest parts of her soul, another dozen heartbeats and she would have been dead if not for Xena appearing out of the blue.
"Maybe he thought if he removed you from the negotiations he could bully someone else into giving him passage rights, someone who didn't appear as strong as you did yesterday," Eponin offered.
"Strong? Me? I was too terrified of saying the wrong thing and ruining the rest of the negotiations to even make a sound," Gabrielle replied, surprised her silence of the day before had been so misinterpreted.
Xena looked down at the woman she knew to be the other half of her soul. "If you don't feel it, fake it," she said.
Nudging the tall warrior's thigh with her foot, the bard giggled, "So that's who told Eponin. She gave me the same advice the first morning of the meetings. Does this mean that some of your big, tough warrior silences are simply you faking it?"
Xena dropped her head and blushed a little before raising her eyes to the blonde lying on the bed. "Gotta have some secrets, don't I?"
"Hmmm, we'll see about that, warrior," Gabrielle said. "Speaking of secrets, how did you know to come and save me, again, when Drayton tried to drown me?" she asked, shuddering at how close he had come to doing just that.
"Spotted him sneaking around the back of the springs as I came off the training ground. We all know none of the men from the delegation are allowed near the springs. I didn't know you were in there at the time. I thought he was trying to grab a quick bath or something. I crept around the back myself just in case that was what he was doing. The last thing I wanted to see was his naked body, so I was careful. When I saw him leaning over into the water of the big pool and your clothes piled up next to it, I realised what was going on," Xena explained to a rapt bard. Something tells me this is going to end up in another of those tales she is so good at writing, Xena thought to herself. Only this death was for the right reasons. To protect and defend.
"So what do we do about the delegation from the villages and the trade agreement?" Gabrielle asked quietly. She was not looking forward to the negotiations any more than she had before, but it would be a lot easier no longer having Drayton's big fists slamming into the table every few breaths.
"Ephiny " Eponin started to say when the Queen walked into the room, briefly startling everyone except Xena, who had heard her footsteps long before she arrived at the door.
"You were saying? Ephiny what?" the woman asked.
"I was about to say you had gone over to talk to the delegation yourself and see what they had to say about Drayton's death," Eponin answered. "What did they say?"
"Well, one or two are not particularly happy. Cronies of Drayton's from what I could gather, but most of the others are, how would I put it, guardedly optimistic about the success of the negotiations now," the Queen replied. "They've already chosen a new leader for the delegation too."
"Let me guess. The old woman who brought us all the information about what has been happening in the villages lately," Amaran said from her position just behind Eponin.
Ephiny laughed. "Ever thought about moving into politics, Amaran?"
"Nope. I'm perfectly happy being a Royal guard," she answered, a shy smile on her face that every one in the room knew was just for Eponin, who had turned around the first time the guard had spoken.
Xena and Gabrielle shared a private look and a nod between themselves, knowing what they were seeing in front of them.
"I have to get back before Jadax crawls from that bed on her hands and knees, but I thought I would just let you know the meetings have been re-scheduled for tomorrow. I can't see it taking more than a day or two to sort things out now. The villagers seem reasonably happy with the agreement as it stands, with just a couple of minor changes," Ephiny said. She left a few moments later, humming happily to herself.
"I'm off too," Amaran said as she headed towards the door. "My daughter hasn't seen a lot of me lately and is starting to think I have abandoned her to her aunt."
"Mind some company?" Eponin asked, rising from her seat.
"Umm, no. Lias is dying to meet you. Heard all about your adventures and stuff," Amaran replied, blushing a little.
Xena and Gabrielle watched as the two women left the room, walking so closely light wouldn't have passed between them.
"If those two aren't joined by season's change, I'll eat my quill," Gabrielle stated confidently.
Xena moved up the bed, stretching her long length against the bard's shorter body, a melting look in her eyes. Holding her close, one finger tracing intricate patterns on the other woman's back, she asked, "Ever thought about a joining for us?"
Gabrielle stared back, speechless. For the first time in her life, she had absolutely no idea what to say.
Four days later the two women were back on the road once more, Gabrielle having completed the negotiations to the satisfaction of everyone, villager and Amazon alike. Xena and Gabrielle had fallen back into the rhythm of the road like they had never been away, but they weren't pushing the pace just yet. A couple of seven-days at the Amazon village had given Gabrielle an extra layer of cover she hadn't anticipated, and Argo was certainly a little rounder than when she had first arrived. Xena hadn't gained or lost any weight at all, but then she rarely did.
The sun was well down in the afternoon sky, and Xena was already looking for a place to camp for the night. Gabrielle had been so quiet for the past candlemark or so, the warrior thought she must be tired already. It had been a while since the bard had walked all day in the hot sun. Glancing down she noticed the look of concentration on the other woman's face. "Whatcha thinking, Gabrielle?" Xena asked curiously.
"It was really special the way you offered to come back and help with the sheep," the bard replied, looking up at the mounted warrior beside her.
Xena closed her eyes for a moment before speaking. "They're going to be pretty shorthanded come market season. It was the least I could do after " she couldn't continue. Taking a deep breath, "At least they accepted, even though they had been told who killed their husbands and brothers."
"I know, Xena but it was still special. Though," the bard giggled, "what are we going to tell people? Xena, Warrior Princess becomes Xena, herder of sheep. Now there would be a tale to tell."
The tall warrior gave Gabrielle a nudge with her toe. "Don't even think it, bard. It's bad enough your making a tale of my drunken night with Eponin. Do you have to be quite so graphic with the morning-after part?"
Gabrielle laughed aloud. She had gotten a chance to tell her version of the whole story over a festive evemeal in the Queen's bedchamber the night before, soon having the entire gathering in stitches, including Jadax, who was sitting up for the first time and well on the way to recovering. Both Xena and Eponin, however, had looked about ready to crawl under the bed with embarrassment. "That's half the charm of the story, Xena. Shows you really are human like the rest of us poor mortals."
Xena grunted in response before returning her eyes to the road ahead, thinking she remembered a place a little further along that would make a good campsite.
Gabrielle walked along quietly for a few moments before saying, "What do you think of Eponin and Amaran?"
"I think they are quite suited to each other, if Amaran remembers to take her time and go slowly," Xena replied.
"Was that what you were telling Amaran this morning?" Gabrielle asked, her bump of curiosity tingling away.
"Among other things. I was also telling her she needs to stop leading with her elbow quite so much. One day it might mean losing that arm if someone hits it the right way," Xena said.
"Oh! You warrior types are all the same. Where's your sense of romance?" the bard grumbled.
Xena smiled down at the shorter woman. "I thought that's what I had you for." Digging her heels into Argo's ribs, she was some distance down the road before the bard could think up a fitting retort.
By the time Gabrielle had strolled into the clearing where they were to spend the night, Xena had already started a fire and laid out the bedrolls. The bard found the tall warrior on the other side of a screen of low bushes, thigh deep in a stream, her head cocked to one side, listening for fish. Gabrielle was still amazed at Xena's unorthodox fishing method, but it seemed to work for her and had filled the bard's stomach on many a night. Standing well back from the fishing woman, remembering the faceful of fish she had gotten the last time she had been too close, Gabrielle watched, fascinated.
"We could do with some more firewood, Gabrielle," Xena said, not taking her attention from whatever she was hearing under the water.
"Hrumph. I thought you liked an audience so you could show off a little," Gabrielle replied.
Xena grinned back over her shoulder. "You already know how good I am," she said.
"In more ways than one," the bard answered wickedly, already backing away to look for wood.
The warrior chuckled to herself. "And I fully intend proving it tonight," she muttered. It was wonderful to be completely alone again after days around the Amazons. However much she enjoyed their company and liked the life of the village, she felt more comfortable around Gabrielle when they were like this, alone in the forest with just each other and no distractions.
Gabrielle was still smiling to herself as she entered the forest and began to collect deadfall to use on the fire that night. She was also looking forward to having the warrior all to herself again. Out here in the woods, they didn't have to muffle their love making in the least. Gabrielle was still cringing over the look one of the guards had given them the morning after Xena had made love to the bard in a chair. She hadn't meant to be that loud, she was just used to the privacy of the forest.
Picking up branches as she walked, Gabrielle let her mind wander over the impending wonders of the night ahead. She was paying enough attention to the sounds around her to warn of trouble but beyond that, her mind was firmly centred on the dark-haired woman still fishing in the stream. Eyes on the ground, looking for dead branches, she stepped into a small clearing, delighted to see it covered with enough wood to fill her arms several times over. Stooping to pick up the deadfall, Gabrielle heard an ominous sounding creak. Snapping back up again, she swung her eyes in every direction to try to identify the noise. Looking up, she saw something that stopped her heart for a moment, only to have it start again at twice its usual pace. "Xena," she called over her shoulder. "XENA!!"
The warrior had heard the first call and from the tone of voice, Gabrielle was in some kind of trouble. Not bothering with boots or armour, she snatched her sword from its sheath and pelted into the forest in the direction of the cry. Hearing the second scream and she quickened her pace to a dead flat run. Xena came to a sudden, skidding halt beside the shaking bard, trying to see where the enemy was. Turning to the bard, she could see the pale, staring eyes of her lover, her head tilted back looking at something in the trees above them. Following Gabrielle's eyeline, she peered through the branches and spotted the same thing that had so shocked the bard.
High in the branches, swinging gently back and forth in the late afternoon breeze, was Kaliope's body.
"Go back to the campsite, Gabrielle," Xena said softly.
The bard simply shook her head, her eyes never leaving the body.
"Don't argue with me. Go back," the warrior said again, a little more sternly than before. Turning the other woman around, Xena waited until she had lost sight of her in the trees.
Two candlemarks later, Xena trudged back through the growing darkness, arriving in camp to find Gabrielle seated in front of the fire, tear stains still fresh on her cheeks.
"What took you so long?" the bard asked, her voice sounding a little ragged.
"I buried the body," Xena replied.
"Do do you know what happened?" she asked hesitantly, not sure if she wanted to hear what Xena might tell her.
"She hung herself."
"But why?" Gabrielle questioned.
Xena squatted down in front of the other woman, gently taking the bard's cold hands in her own callused ones. "We may never know, but I think it might have something to do with the way things were for her at that village. Once she had been banished from the Amazon Nation, there really wasn't anything left for her. Kaliope didn't want to go back to the life she had led before."
Gabrielle shuddered, remembering what she and Xena had been told about Kaliope's possible living conditions at the village with her brother, Drayton.
"And her spirit was probably broken like the old woman said. She may have felt there was nothing else to live for, so she took her own life. It was probably the most honourable act she had ever performed," Xena explained. The big woman's death had shaken her too, but Gabrielle needed to lean on her strength for a little while until she made sense of it herself.
"Suicide? Honourable?" Gabrielle asked, shocked. "Since when is taking your own life honourable?"
"Sometimes, when someone is in a lot of pain, for a long time, in their body or in their soul, maybe the only option they can see for themselves is the path of death. Which is the better choice? To stay in this world and continue to suffer or end it all and stop the pain?" Xena replied gravely.
Gabrielle's optimistic nature wanted to say a person should stay but then she remembered a defeated and despairing warrior, with bleak eyes and an expressionless face. She remembered holding a knife to the throat of that warrior and offering her the choice of living or dying. "I don't know, Xena. It just seems so cruel, is all."
Tenderly pulling the other woman into her lap and wrapping strong arms around her still trembling body, Xena said, "The world is a cruel place. There isn't a lot we can do about it right now. But, believe me, with people like you in this world, things will change and maybe it will grow a little less cruel."
"It will change with people like you too, Xena. The world will always need its warriors to help protect and defend," the bard said softly, nestling into the comfort of Xena chest, listening for the sound of her beating heart.
Xena kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. "Maybe," she whispered. "Maybe."
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