Gabrielle considered her options as she walked along the road. Panic, panic or perhaps the ever popular panic, she thought. "Stop it!", Gabrielle scolded herself. Everything is under control. She could handle this little inconvenience for the next month, she tried to calm herself. Sure. No problem. "Oh Gods" She uttered as she thought of Xena. I can't tell her, Gabrielle remembered the conditions. She would have to avoid her, she concluded. But she'll be worried sick for a month, Gabrielle thought. She did not like the idea of putting her friend through that, but saw no other way. The moon was full reminding her of the other condition. In one month she had to be at Hermes' Temple in Athens. She sighed with some relief. At least she wouldn't have to worry too much about that, she thought, she had plenty of time.
Gabrielle woke in the morning, hoping the previous day was just a really bad dream. She looked herself over, still seeing her old self. That didn't mean anything, she thought, people's perceptions of her changed, not her body. After packing up her things, she started down the road again. She still had a present to deliver. She had made a promise to Cumae and she wasn't going to let a little thing like this "change" interfere with that. If she delivered it quickly, she could avoid Xena and make it to Athens in plenty of time. Yes. That was the plan. That was a very good plan. A woman's scream interrupted Gabrielle's very good plan.
"No!" A woman struggled in the arms of two slavers. There were about ten men total, Gabrielle counted as she ran into the midst of them.
Stupid! She scolded herself for reacting and not thinking.
"So much for the element of surprise", Gabrielle thought. There were too many to fight, she assessed the situation. They looked at Gabrielle and laughed.
"Move along boy. This doesn't concern you." Gods, I'm not a BOY, they should at least see a MAN, Gabrielle thought with annoyance. The woman's look of fear and hope helped Gabrielle focus on the situation and not her personal predicament.
"Sure thing. I don't want any trouble and it looks like you definitely have it with her. Good luck guys, hope you don't catch it" Gabrielle remarked eyeing the woman with concern as she walked passed.
"Catch it? What are you talking about?" One guy holding the hostage asked as he released her.
"Oh, Gods, you don't even know? That red discoloration around her wrists..." He looked down at the woman's wrists. Yes, they were red, but he thought that was a result of his tight grip.
"And those watery eyes" He looked in her eyes.
"Look, they ARE watery." He pointed, amazed that he assumed they were merely tears of fear. The woman caught on to what was going on and coughed.
"Oh great, she is at her most contagious stage. LISTEN to that coughing." Gabrielle backed off a few steps. The woman coughed again in the direction of the remaining man who restrained her, causing him to let go.
"WHAT does she have?" The leader of the slavers came over seeing the fear in his men's eyes.
"Placebocondria of course" Gabrielle spoke gravely. "Everyone knows...Oh Gods...you really don't know. Well, I wouldn't worry too much though. It's not fatal or anything." The woman coughs again causing Gabrielle to step another step back.
"Why are you concerned about catching it then, boy." The leader looked at Gabrielle suspiciously.
"Well, its just that it DOES affect a man's ...well you know." The men eyed each other with growing concern.
"What! What does it affect!?" The leader asked with great agitation.
"Well let's say that I would like to have a love life and children someday ..." Gabrielle saw the color fade from the men's faces. "Don't worry I've been told that men affected with Placebocondria have been able to lead productive lives...."
Gabrielle and the woman watch the men ride off in a hurry.
"Placebocondria???" The woman looked over to Gabrielle with a huge smile. Gabrielle shrugged.
"My name is Esther. And to whom do I owe my life?" She looked down to Gabrielle. She was about as tall as Xena which didn't go unnoticed by Gabrielle. If she were a normal man she would be taller, she pondered, thinking what it would be like to stand face to face with.. Ugh oh. "Not that I'm complaining Hermes, my height is just fine" she quickly added in her thoughts just in case HE could hear them. She didn't need to be a man AND a giant.
"It's not a tough question." Esther remarked.
"Yourself." Gabrielle's answer confused her.
"Your coughing was very convincing." Gabrielle smiled, feeling awkward.
"You are different than any man I've ever met - humble. What is your name?" She rephrased her question.
"Gabriel" Gabrielle decided to stick with the one she got in the tavern.
"Gabriel, thank you. I am happy you came by when you did." Esther smiled warmly.
"It is very nice of you make sure I get home." Esther noted as they traveled on the road together. "Between the slavers and the Sunmoon...well, I'm just glad I don't have to travel alone."
Esther squeezed Gabrielle's arm and kept it there. Gabrielle looked down at Esther's hand which she removed after seeing Gabrielle's discomfort.
"Not a problem" Gabrielle responded. "besides you don't live that far away from where I was headed. So Esther, what do you know about the Sunmoon?"
Esther's home town of Corerik was a Sunmoon town and she had some disturbing stories about them. The stories and personal experiences with the Sunmoon didn't make any sense to Gabrielle. The three men on the wagon that attacked her acted completely different than the two men in the tavern. Of course she was a 'man' in the tavern. But somehow, she still sensed that wasn't the only reason for the different experiences. Esther mentioned the leader of the Sunmoon, Sunal, was a decent man. Her father and his son were good friends growing up. Yet her father wasn't one to join a group like that and recently became concerned about Sunal allowing a defensive army.
They made camp and it was obvious to Gabrielle that Esther was not comfortable or used to sleeping out in the open. Esther tried to help, but kept getting in the way.
"Here's some more wood." She tripped over Gabrielle causing her to extinguish the fire she just started.
"Sorry." Her voice was weak. The days events and her inadequacy around Gabriel got to her.
"Hey, it's OK." Gabrielle could see her on the verge of tears. "You should have seen me when I first started traveling. It only took, oh, a couple hundred of times until I got the hang of it." Gabrielle smiled warmly. Esther laughed wiping the tears away from her eyes.
"So there is hope" She remarked with a smile.
"Always" Gabrielle responded with conviction to encourage Esther, and also herself.
The next day they arrived in Apolis. Asking for directions at the blacksmith's, Gabrielle found that Cumae's nephew Alletus lived on a farm just outside of Apolis.
"If you would like, you can rest here in town while I go to the farm. I'll be back in a few hours." Gabrielle offered Esther a break.
"That's OK Gabe, I don't really want to be alone, if you don't mind." She said honestly gently holding Gabrielle's arm.
"I understand." Gabrielle smiled about her new nickname then realized Esther was once again holding her arm. Esther removed her hand feeling a bit self-conscious. She's just glad I saved her, Gabrielle concluded.
"That was so sweet of you to promise to deliver that gift for your cousin...." Esther spoke with growing admiration for Gabriel. Gabrielle had to tell Esther something about herself that made sense yet didn't reveal too much. The less she said about herself in this "condition" the better she concluded.
"Yea, well..She made a promise and a promise is a promise." She said shrugging.
"There it is...what a beautiful garden!" Gabrielle noted with enthusiasm upon the discovery. Esther looked at her hero with amazement at his genuine delight. "What?" Gabrielle asked.
"Nothing. It is a beautiful garden." She agreed. They were welcomed at Alletus' house and fed well. Alletus didn't fail to notice Esther's beauty as he frequently glanced appreciatively her way during their meal. Gabrielle smiled at his not too subtle attention to Esther and thought it was not undeserved. Esther was a very pretty woman, Gabrielle noted. She had light brown hair, pretty green eyes and a beautiful smile. Then Gabrielle realized with great discomfort that Esther's smile was directed her way. She caught Gabrielle looking at her and was pleased. Alletus sighed. Esther looked down at Gabrielle's plate.
"My hero has worked up an appetite." Esther remarked to Gabrielle who compared plates. "YOUR appetite seems to be pretty healthy." Gabrielle noticed her plate of seconds was empty as well. Esther grinned, staring directly into Gabrielle's eyes.
"It is." Gabrielle coughed on a piece of bread. Oh Gods. It would almost be funny if it wasn't so ...Oh Gods, Gabrielle's thoughts repeated. Just get her home and you can be on the road again, ALONE, on to Athens. That is the plan, a very good plan.
"Tell me more about Cumae." Alletus asked, causing Gabrielle to ask the Gods to bless him, his family, his livestock, his harvests, his house, his barn, his tools and anything else of his she couldn't think of at that moment. Though the change of subject was a relief, she knew still had to be careful of what she disclosed about herself.
"Well my cousin and I had only a brief visit before I came here. But she can relay a lot of information in a short period of time. We are both bards you know...." Gabrielle explained.
"Good thing then." Alletus smiled thankfully. "Well now, let me tell you the news from Walsas!" Gabrielle carefully spoke of Cumae and her help to Gabrielle's family.
Esther hugged Alletus goodbye thanking him for his hospitality.
"My pleasure ma'am. Any friends of my Aunt are friends of mine." He said sheepishly, enjoying the hug. Esther laughed.
"Of course neither of use have actually met the woman. Although from what Gabe has said, I think I would have liked Cumae." Gabrielle smiled, she would have.
"Well we've got to get you home Esther, your family is already worried." Gabrielle remarked wanting to get her home as quick as possible.
"Yes, your right." Esther nodded as her smile faded.
"I appreciate you brining me my birthday present Gabriel." Alletus patted Gabrielle's back in a brotherly way.
"My pleasure Alletus." Gabrielle smiled. One delivery down, one to go, she thought as she looked at Esther. THEN, she would be headed to Athens. ALONE. A few hours after Gabrielle and Esther left, an intimidating woman on horseback arrived at Alletus' farm.
"I don't want any trouble." He eyed her as he stopped plowing his field. Xena eyed him.
"Alletus?" She asked. He nodded curiously.
"My friend and I were supposed to deliver something to you for Cumae. Did. .." Her question was interrupted with an enthusiastic farmer.
"Gabriel was already here to deliver my birthday present." He smiled, stepping towards her, wiping his dirty hands on his tunic. Xena heard what he said and assumed he just mispronounced her friend's name. "Come inside, please." He offered warmly. They sat at his kitchen table as Argo grazed and rested up from a hard ride. Xena learned she assumed incorrectly.
"Gabriel? Are you are sure young woman by the name Gabrielle didn't come with them?" She had her usual uneasy feeling.
"No Xena. Just the two. Esther and Gabriel. Gabriel said he had promised to deliver the gift for his cousin Gabrielle." Alletus relayed what he knew.
"Where did Gabrielle go?" She asked. Alletus shrugged.
"I wish I could tell you." He responded. Xena was anxious to TALK to this cousin Gabriel. As Xena walked over to Argo she looked back to Cumae's nephew.
"Thank you Alletus, and happy birthday." She smiled politely. She paused looking at her saddlebag. Why not, she asked herself, pulling out Gabrielle's mystery object.
"You wouldn't happen to know what this is?" Alletus shrugged then guessed.
Entering Corerik, Esther's mood becomes more bubbly. The town looks friendly enough, Gabrielle notices but spots a few Sunmoon brethren strolling around the town.
"Come, Gabriel." She takes Gabrielle's hand and pulls her towards the Inn, smiling warmly at her.
"Ah, Esther, I don't think...." Gabrielle freezes as they approach the Inn assuming less than innocent intentions. Esther is confused at first but sees Gabrielle look at the Inn.
"Oh, OH!..." She laughs a big belly laugh. "No...its not" She can hardly finish her sentence as she laughed so hard. "My father ....he owns the Inn. You thought? We just met! Your cute but...Oh.." She continues her laughing as they approach the Inn. Gabrielle sighs with relief then ponders the word 'cute', wondering just what Esther sees.
"Esther!" Her father comes to the door hearing his daughter he thought he had lost. They hug making Gabrielle very happy.
"Father...I want you to meet the man who saved me! This is Gabriel." She pulled him to Gabrielle. The father looked over this small young man. Gabrielle noticed how these two people towered over her.
"I employed a band of large warriors to save my daughter and yet YOU were able to rescue her...alone yet. There must be more to you than meets the eye Gabe." The man put his hand out which Gabrielle took and shook.
"I'd like to think so..." Gabrielle responded.
"Oh, wait until I tell you HOW. It is SUCH a good story...but then Gabe is really the bard...You will have to tell it to my family." Gabrielle looked uneasy.
"I really should be going. I've got a long trip to Athens..." She saw Esther's buoyant mood was quickly deflated by the comment.
"Nonsense Gabriel, I must at least give my daughter's hero a good meal and a good night's sleep before you go off again." Esther's face beamed appreciatively at her father, who was not going to let Gabriel go so quickly.
"A good meal would be appreciated, if you don't mind..." Gabrielle cleared her throat and responded, thinking of how she was going to politely try to get out of a night there.
As they entered the Inn, Gabrielle looked back noticing a group of Sunmoon and they were no recruiters. They were well armed, unlike the recruiters Leo and Portus. The concern about the Sunmoon's intentions and the threat to the Amazons and her sisters grew. The father noted Gabrielle's interest in the Sunmoon.
"You look as worried as I am. They have been increasing their numbers at a great rate. They are preparing for something. Come, you and I should talk."
Xena rode towards Corerik with a bad feeling. Gabrielle never mentioned a cousin Gabriel. Yet why would someone not her relative or friend deliver a birthday present for her? Alletus also mentioned something about Gabrielle heading towards Athens. What could possibly cause er to go to Athens without waiting for her. So many questions.
"Cousin Gabriel has a lot of explaining to do." She told Argo.
Over a plentiful dinner, which Esther proudly prepared and served to her guest, Gabrielle learned that Corerik was not just another Sunmoon town. It had become one of the main Sunmoon outposts. Their Grand Hall, where Sunal the founder resided, was located in Corerik. Esther's little brother Harral burped.
"I'm bored" He blurted than burped again as he left. "Excuse me?" She called to him. "Sure." He laughed as he ran outside, causing Gabrielle to smile and Esther to be close to mortified. Esther's father shook his head.
"This meal was outstanding. Thank you Esther." Gabrielle appreciation of the meal erased the embarrassment about her brother's bad manners. She beamed as she cleaned up the dishes that Gabrielle was going to help her with.
"No, how sweet. But that's MY job Gabe. Sit and talk with father." There was no doubt Esther was in command of the kitchen.
"OK, thanks" Gabrielle shrugged and smiled, not used to being waited on like this. Esther's father smiled. He sipped his ale then continued relaying what he knew about the Sunmoon. Since they moved in, the people of Corerik became divided in their feelings. Some happily followed the Sunmoon way because it was not different from the way they lived. The Sunmoon also recently offered them increased protection. Yet others, preferring to live the way they wanted, not the way the Sunmoon wanted, found life was made very hard for them.
"You mean the woman who owned the general store actually was forced to sell to a man?" Gabrielle asked in disbelief. Esther's father nodded.
"She was harming no one and she was credit to the community. Yet the Sunmoon do not believe women should be business owners. So they made her sell. She had no means of support here and moved to Athens, hoping she would be able to start a business there." The father shook his head.
"That is ridiculous! I bet they don't like women being rulers of kingdoms either." Gabrielle blurted with anger, considering her sister Sara. The father shook his head no.
As Gabrielle heard more stories about the Sunmoon, she realized it was getting late. She had no intention of staying the evening. Although she knew it would hurt Esther's feelings to not accept the hospitality, it was best for everyone if she left. The more she stayed around Esther, the more Esther seemed to become attached to her. That was something Gabrielle didn't want to deal with. Gabrielle also concluded Xena would eventually catch up to her. She had already left a trail at Alletus'. She would be better off alone on the road, even with the Sunmoon roaming about.
"You are more than welcome to stay with us for a few days, Gabe." The father offered, after Esther whispered something in his ear.
"Oh no. I appreciate the offer." G brielle had collected her belongings and staff. "In fact, I can't stay this evening. I really have to be on my way."
As she left, she wondered where Xena was. It wasn't fair to put Xena through a month of wondering, but If anyone could see through her stories.... Gabrielle's thoughts were interrupted by a painful grip on Gabrielle's arm and her body being slammed against a wall.
"What are you doing with Gabrielle's staff?" Xena barked looking directly into the eyes of a young man. Gabrielle had never been on the receiving end of Xena's rage like this and was too shocked to immediately answer. Xena didn't intend on roughing up Gabrielle's supposed cousin but when she saw Gabrielle's staff in his hands, it happened.
Xena was too preoccupied with the young man and Gabrielle's staff to avoid the attack from behind. Xena fell to the ground after being hit from behind by two Sunmoon soldiers who had spotted her entered town.
"Are you OK brother?" One soldier asked with genuine concern. Gabrielle was still in shock, but now because she just witnessed the Warrior Princess err and get knocked out by men she could have easily taken on in her sleep. They started to lift up Xena to take her away.
"No. This has been a terrible misunderstanding." Gabrielle, shaking off that shock, looked up at the soldiers. "She's with me. We are new in town and don't understand all your rules. We have no intention of causing any more trouble. Please accept my apologies for all of this." Gabrielle hoped that would work.
The soldiers looked over Gabrielle then at the unconscious Xena on the floor.
"You have your hands full with this one don't you." They grinned at each other.
"That's an understatement" Gabrielle tried to joke with the men. "But I assure you we will not cause another stir like this...again my apologies." Gabrielle added. The soldiers seemed satisfied to take Gabrielle's word for it.
"She looks like the type you shouldn't be bothering with brother. You should get her more suitable clothes." One soldier noted. They muttered and laughed as they left.
"Hey, have you been to the tavern yet?" The one Sunmoon asked the other. "There is this barmaid you've GOT to see." The men's jokes were very Un-Sunmoon-like, more contradictions, Gabrielle noted.
In the morning, Xena woke in a comfortable bed. She recalled being knocked out after confronting the young man with Gabrielle's staff. Her hand reached up to the back of her head, which still ached from the blows. She grunted with annoyance with her stupidity of letting anger cloud her judgement. "You know better than that", she silently scolded herself.
Her eyebrow raised when she noticed she no longer had her armor on. However, she concluded that if she were in danger, she wouldn't wake up in such a nice room, free to leave. The door opened, without a knock, and Esther entered the room. Her mood was as cold as the breeze she brought in.
"Gabriel thinks you should wear something less... conspicuous. The Sunmoon don't react well to warrior women." She laid down a dress at the foot of the bed. "It should fit. Bath water is ready for you. You smell of the road." Esther spoke in a monotone, not looking at her until she left. The glare she gave Xena was familiar, one of distrust. Xena sat up scanning the room. Her weapons were also missing.