DISCLAIMER: Xena, Gabrielle and the rest of the crew belong to MCA/Universal. And since the gods are cruel, thats the way it shall stay. Also, the title is unashamedly stolen from Seeds Of Faith. The story and other characters are mine, however unless you hate them. In that case, Kamouraskan is wholly responsible. <g> There be violence here, but no naughty touching, for I am shy! İMay 2000.
TIMELINE/PISS-POOR EXCUSES: Now this is important, folks. This story is set in Season 5 between God Fearing Child and Eternal Bonds. Lets just say for the sake of argument that after Eve was born, Xena and Gabs had a couple of days to themselves before the gods started Tommy Lee Jones-ing them. Again, if you have a problem with this, Kamouraskans e-mail address is .
THANKYOU: To the Thing Who Needeth No Sleep and Speaketh Much Crappe. To Dom, who says That sucks, why dont you try . And to Mary Morgan, who has a keen eye and a kind heart! I hope you like it - feedback is happily devoured and always answered at: email@example.com
YEAH, BUT WITH A REALLY BIG SWORD
Hack. Slash. Parry. Thrust. Hack. Slash. Parry. Thrust.
Parry. Parry is the important one, Gabrielle. Parry, parry, deflect, parry, parry. Might save your life.
Block. Block. Spin. Kick. And:
"Yaaaaah!" The scream tore through the clearing the way the blade ripped through the bark of the towering tree.
It was amazing, reflected Gabrielle as she yanked her sword free and tossed her sweaty hair from her eyes, how animal sounding she had become in the last few months. Fighting with her staff had never really been a vocal thing. Oh sure, there were grunts, the kind where the sheer force of a swing had pulled them from her chest. Even occasional coarse language. But Yaaaaah!? That was new.
Briefly mourning the damage she had done to the tree, she turned the heavy sword over in her hands. The untarnished blade was nearly the length of her outstretched arm, engraved at the base with swirling patterns reminiscent of some of the artwork she had seen in Britannia. A dark green stone was set into the hilt, polished to gleaming.
The blade was sharper than it looked, and it had sliced through the delicate skin of her palm, leaving a thin trail of blood behind. Gabrielle hesitated a moment, then bent, wiping it off on the grass. The cut wasnt deep, or serious, but it made her regard the sword in a new light. First blood.
She had picked the sword up in Namisopoli while Eve was getting checked out by the local healer. It was precisely the right length - the smithy had walked her through his whole shop, suggesting this and that, letting her try out everything that caught her eye.
"A sword should be an extension of its owner," he had explained, digging this one out from a chest. "No good getting one that dont fit exactly - or youll never be proper partners. Or safe with each other, for that matter."
When she first picked it up, it had felt a little heavy in her hands - but the smithy, a good-natured fellow, had unbound some curling metal from the grip. He said it shouldnt affect the balance and when she tested it by swinging madly around the shop, it turned out he was right.
Gabrielle had bought it, immediately stashed it, and spent the next week feeling guilty about it. Once she bullied herself through her initial misgivings, she realised that five years of watching Xenas drills and fights had probably taught her more than she could have learned anywhere else. In that sense, she was fortunate. So for the last few days, under the guise of giving Xena and Eve some "quality time", she had been slipping off to practise whenever she could, determined to master this weapon as skillfully as she had others.
Now, there are remarks made in everyones childhood that at the time are merely passing shards of wisdom from well-intentioned adults, most of whom probably went home and forgot what they said, at least half of whom in truth never practiced their lofty advice themselves. But sometimes, just sometimes, these loaded pieces of this is how you live your life, kid never quite leave the listeners mind.
Uncle Pelios, a bachelor in his early forties and always a party guy, was the kind of man who was first to every festival, last to leave every sacrifice, the life of the harvest party and - paying the price for this reputation - the man everyone tried to keep their children from listening to. So, of course, any word he said was fascinating to an eight-year-old Gabrielle, whose earliest years were spent thinking his name was Uncle Hush, because thats all her mother ever really said to him.
He had been (drunkenly, for the most part) responsible for many tidbits of memorandum over the years. Among them had been, Dont mess with the Minotaur or youll get the horns, Pardon me Priestess, I thought you were my wife, Never, never, climb a barn roof after drinking four of these, and Yes, this is a goat. But its not what youre thinking. Gabrielles mind, in its usual patter of random under-thoughts during the day, often came across bits and flashes of Uncle Pelios. But one thing he said landed home, and landed home hard.
"You can either do a thing, or you cant. If you cant, then try something new. But if you can, then make sure you try as damn-well hard as Hermes to do it properly."
Of course, he had been taking part in an Croatian Dwarf Throwing contest at the time, but the sentiment was still there.
So young Gabrielle, without even knowing it, had learned a lesson that she would teach herself a little more of every day of her life. Especially now. She wanted to be her own person. It wasnt about being able to point at herself and say Bard. Or Warrior. Or Amazon. She wanted to be able to point to herself and say, Gabrielle. And whatever becoming that person entailed, she was damn well sure she was going to do it properly. That meant walking the line between white and black, and seeing which one drew her closest.
So she got a sword.
Xena didnt know she owned it yet; it was kept stowed safely down the side of her horses saddle, hidden by leather and material. For some reason, Gabrielle just hadnt found the right moment to tell the warrior she wasnt the only one packing heavy steel in this partnership any more.
My sword. Not that I have anywhere to keep it, not in an aesthetic sense, thought the bard/warrior. She twisted gracefully, not for the first time cursing how little leather actually covered her fair skin. Oh, I suppose I could attach the scabbard somehow, she ruminated. On my back, dont want to throw my balance off. She was strangely loathe to do this, though - there was something so final about it. So definitive. Yes, Look, I Have A Sword. Warriors had swords. Killers had swords. Is that what I am?
Experimentally, she tried a few unsheathing maneuvers on her way back to the campsite. It was harder than it looked. Xena had it down, but then Xena had fifteen years of practice. Fifteen years. Fifteen years ago, I was waiting for my first kiss. Fifteen years ago, I was still in long skirts and owned dolls. Now I have a horse, some sais and a sword. If only my mother could see me now.
Gabrielle shuddered at the thought. Dear Gods, when Mom does see me now... Last time Gabrielle had been home, her parents had had enough trouble coping with her newfound independence at it was. Now, it didnt even bear thinking about.
They would arrive in Potadaeia by the next afternoon. Where would the arguments start first, she wondered. Her appearance, her new philosophy, or the perennial favourite - her warrior friend?
Herodotus would probably have a heart attack. He hated Xena. And he had always loved her hair - sometimes he would let his hand rest on her head, and his fingers would idly stroke through the long blonde locks. He didnt even know he was doing it. Gabrielle had loved him for that, for his unconscious affection, as much as she hated him for his deliberate intolerance and suspicious rages.
Hecuba would say nothing at first, glad to have her daughter home, but her disapproval would begin to show itself in other ways. Silences. Glances. Little sighs designed to be heard. Pointed comments.
The imaginary conversation sparked off in Gabrielles head as she picked her way down the hillside toward the river.
So you say you went to Rome, dear. Thats a long way off, isnt it? And yet you havent been home for two years?
Sorry Mother, I was kind of getting crucified at the time.
A cold shiver ran through her body with the words. She and Xena never discussed that day. Never. How could they? Everything that had happened was wrapped up tightly in a guilty package beneath both their skins. Xenas guilt for her inability to stop, her choice not to prevent something she had known would happen. Gabrielles guilt for the principles that had put her in harms way in the first place. It was sickening, sickeningly close to the surface and sickeningly untouchable.
What would she tell her family? What could she tell her family? Was there anything at all about her life in the last two years that shed be able to share with them unreservedly? Gabrielle thought not, and the nearer they got to her home, the more fretful she became.
So what have you been doing, dear?
Ahhhh ... delivering Xenas fatherless child while Hercules killed the King of the Gods a few feet away, Mom.
Thats nice dear. Anything else?
A few little things. Saw India. Met a lot of people who wanted one of us dead. Oh yeah, and I started killing people some time last year, and now I dont seem able to stop.
Nothing. Nothing. No way. As far as her family was concerned, she and Xena had spent a blameless few years helping villagers, or something.
Or something? Ha. Killing people. Killing people. Killing people, taunted a little voice. Shut up, she commanded. Sometimes theres no other choice. Gabrielle sighed and rubbed the back of her neck as the wooded area she was walking through gave way to a gentle copse, green, sheltered and peaceful.
The campsite was as it always was - both horses grazing contentedly nearby, a neat layout, the extra accessories that came with a baby not making much difference to their spartan lifestyles.
Xena and Eve werent back from the river yet, so the fire had burned low. Gabrielle stowed the sword and spent a few minutes bringing the coals back to their former glory. It was exactly the right time of the afternoon for the fire to begin leaping, she decided. That time when the air began to cool. When the air became rich with the scent of dying sunlight. When the light began to fade so gradually that you didnt realise it - until suddenly the faces opposite you became harder to see, began to reflect the deep red flames instead of the golden sunset.
There was a hallooing from the river bank then, and Gabrielle smiled as the warrior swooped into the campsite with a chortling infant cradled in her arms. It was impossible not to smile at the picture - Xena with her raven hair wet from the river and the tiny child with her mothers big eyes. The tall warrior ploughed to a halt next to the bard and held Eve out to her with an expression of mock-petulance.
"Kiss her, woman! She missed you!" To the baby: "Yesyoudid, diddenyou? Yesyoudid!"
Gabrielle, who always had an insane urge to giggle when Xena used baby-talk, bit it back and lovingly obliged. Tiny fingers wrapped themselves in her hair.
"Hello sweetheart," murmured the bard softly, smiling, and the baby answered by smacking Gabrielles cheek affectionately. Gabrielle felt the rush of warmth and love move from her body to her throat. What an amazing thing this is, she thought. Everything that is good and perfect in the whole world is in this child ... and none of it came from me. This made the smile slip from her face.
"Whats wrong?" asked Xena lightly, settling herself down on the bedroll and fidgeting with Eves swaddling.
Gabrielle sighed. Is it worth it? Xena hates these kind of discussions ... and Ill only end up saying something that makes her feel bad, anyway, even if I dont mean to.
She briefly weighed it up, and brevity won. "Nothing. Tired." A graceful flop to the bedroll followed. "Are you hungry?"
"No ... no," reassured the warrior. "Im still full from lunch." She glanced casually at Gabrielle, who was now lying on her back, one arm thrown over her face, the other hand idly playing with Eves tiny fingers. "Somethings wrong. What is it?"
"No, theres not. Dont worry about it."
"Okay, and now Ill ask one more time." She preempted the bards protest with: "Only because later youd be mad if I didnt." Xenas voice became higher, lilting. "Xeeeeeena, you arent sensitive enough to my feeeeelings. Cant you tell when Im upset?"
This got a muffled chuckle. "I do not sound like that."
"Come on, spill it." Silence. "Is it because I made you get up when Eve was crying last night?"
"No." Gabrielle rolled onto her stomach, propping her face up in her hands.
Xena made an exasperated sound. "Is it because I made you change the poopy one this morning?"
"No," replied Gabrielle shortly, suddenly resentful for no reason she could put her finger on. "Not everything is about Eve, okay?"
"Okay." Xenas voice was quieter. Hurt.
"And you might want to think about how many times you just used the words made you," finished Gabrielle bitterly. Immediately the words were out she regretted her tone. She closed her eyes, berating herself, but refusing to apologise for truth. Good one, Gabrielle. She looked up cautiously to see that the warrior had clasped Eve closer to her chest, as if to ward off the words, or the feeling behind them.
The fire popped loudly at that moment. One of the bigger pieces of wood broke and fell into the coals, making the light flare briefly.
"Is it something I did?" asked Xena , no trace of her smile left now.
"No, its something I..." the bard trailed off, then gathered herself. "I think there are a lot of times when Im not honest with you about the way Im feeling. Sometimes they sort of collect into a little bubble, and it gets away from me and bursts." She paused, studying the face opposite her, the face that was both wary and concerned. "Im sorry, Xena. Not for the words. For the way I said them."
Xena took a breath, let it out, and there was no other sound but the night-insects beginning to thrum in the grass. "I make you angry?" asked the warrior slowly.
"No, not angry," Gabrielle hastened to say. "I dont believe in anger any more."
Xena just waited silently.
"I I think its a false emotion," explained the bard, her brow furrowing as she searched for her meaning. "A mask. I believe that every feeling that you have can be broken down into one of two things. Love. Or fear."
"And which of those do I inspire you with, exactly?"
Gabrielle was silent for a second. "A combination of both."
Eve hiccuped loudly and began to cry. For the first moment, Xena simply held her, silent, eyes flicking from Gabrielle to the ground, to the baby, to nothing. Then she cradled Eve close and began humming, as Gabrielle turned away and studied the gathering dusk.
Xena was confused. The old Gabrielle could never have been content with such a succinct answer. The old Gabrielle would have not been able to stop the words flowing from her mouth like water. What concerned Xena was not that she believed the bard to be thinking things she wasnt saying, but the possibility that the words just werent there any more.
"Youve been so solemn lately," began Xena carefully.
"I have we have bigger responsibilities now, Xena. Things are different. Im different. Im trying to understand that difference, dont you see? I want to know," she put a hand to her heart, "whats happening here. I need to set my feet on something firm, and Im having a little trouble with it."
"Is this about going home? Its been a long time."
"We dont have to go if you dont want to. Its just that its on our way, I thought-"
"I dont want to. But I know I should."
Xena accepted this quietly, and nothing else was said for a time. Then, finally
"Im tired. Goodnight, Xena."
* * * *
The next afternoon found them less than a league from Potadaeia, Gabrielles moroseness growing with each stride of the horses. They had talked little on the trip. Their morning routine was so established that few words were necessary. Xena rode quietly, murmuring to Eve occasionally, and Gabrielle was lost in thought.
Ahead on the road was a blob of blue and red that Xena recognised before Gabrielle even noticed. Her keen eyesight picked out the long brown locks, the elfin features.
"Gabrielle!" came the cry, a lithe arm waving happily.
The bards head snapped up. "Lila! Hi!" She dug her heels into her horses sides and spurred him forward, forgetting her natural caution for the moment. The horse loped down the road, and as the blue and red blob firmed into the beaming face of her younger sister, Gabrielle couldnt stop an answering grin from spreading over her own face.
"What are you doing out here?" she exclaimed happily as the horse drew close. "Im so glad to see you!"
"A merchant came through this morning and said hed passed your camp last night," Lila explained, reaching up to take Gabrielles hand. "I decided to come and meet you so I could get you to myself for a bit." As Gabrielle dismounted, Lilas eyes cut quickly to the approaching warrior with a flicker of resentment. "Did she have to come?"
Gabrielle straightened her leathers and reached for Lila, wrapping her up in her arms. "Yes, she did, Miss Poopy Face, so be quiet and gimme a hug."
"But I dont know where to put my hands," taunted her sister, hugging her back tightly. "What happened to you? Did a Cyclops tear off some of your clothes?"
The bard grinned. Fair shot. "Hardy Har Har." It was good to see her. It hadnt been a mistake after all.
"Ive missed you," admitted Gabrielle, holding her at arms length and silently noting the changes in her face.
"Me too," grinned Lila. "Now enough of the mushy stuff. Ill be sick and thats no way to start a party."
Gabrielles brow creased. "Did you say party?" Uh-oh.
Lila nodded. "Mom told Uncle Pelios you were coming home and he arranged a party for you."
"He didnt gods please tell me thats not true," begged Gabrielle, her heart sinking.
Lila laughed. "Relax, its not true." Lila briefly wondered if Gabrielle would be more horrified at the prospect of a party, or at the fact the proposal of one had been resoundingly ignored. "But hes dying to see you hes been fixing the tavern roof for the last three days because he says now that youre old enough, theres serious conversations to be had inside. Hi, Xena." This last was said shortly to the warrior who had caught up and was sitting silently on Argo.
"Lila. You look good." As always, Xena was taciturn to the point of rudeness with Gabrielles family members, although when she thought about it, Gabrielle couldnt blame her. They had never been especially welcoming or friendly themselves.
Lilas face changed as she gave Xena the once-over. "Is that a baby?" she asked, her eyes widening. "I didnt know you had a baby." She turned to Gabrielle accusingly. "You never mentioned that in your letter."
She didnt? thought Xena, trying not to feel hurt. Why not? Aloud, she said, "This is Eve."
"Shes beautiful," crooned the girl, stretching up on tiptoe to take a tiny hand and smile into cerulean eyes. "She looks just like you."
A smile crossed the warriors face. "Thank you."
"Whos her father?" asked Lila guilelessly. To the baby: "Wheres your Daddy, huh? Wheres your Daddy?"
"Lila," said Gabrielle flatly. When the girl glanced at her, surprised at her tone, Gabrielle shook her head slightly, frowning.
"What?" Lila looked up at Xena to see her eyes fixed on the road ahead, no expression in them at all. She was instantly uncomfortable. "Sorry. Im sorry, I didnt mean-"
"Its alright," said Xena. "Its complicated, dont worry about it."
Lila turned to Gabrielle, the worry clouding her eyes. Had she done something wrong already? Gabrielle laid a placatory hand on her arm and smiled. "Come on sis, you can ride with me. Well get there faster."
"Is this your horse?" asked Lila, regarding the large bay with more than a little trepidation as Gabrielle mounted confidently. "When did you get a horse?"
"A ways back, after Rome. Come on, grab my arm." The bard reached down and with little effort hauled Lila up to sit in front of her.
"Gods, Gab, whats with the Hercules impersonation?" Lila blurted, astonished. "Been lifting trees or something? Look at these!" She pinched Gabrielles biceps with amusement, made her best barbarian face and growled, "My names Gabrielle. Back off, or Ill brain you with my bare arm." She laughed. "Not to mention the other parts of you that are bare."
There was a snort of amusement from Xena. Looked like verbosity ran in the family. Gabrielle stops babbling, Lila begins. The warrior had to admit, Lila was hard to dislike. She was so very like the young girl who had followed her five years back before that young girl had become the serious-eyed woman on the horse, that was.
Gabrielle merely sniffed. "Watch that smart mouth, little sister, or I might have to do this! Yah!" She slapped the reins down hard and spurred the horse forward at an alarming pace. Lila shrieked and clutched at the pommel, but in a moment began to laugh gamely, her long hair whipping backwards and branding her sisters cheeks.
Xena watched for a minute before starting after them, drinking in their laughter and shouts. It had been too long since she had heard that sound. And the scary part was, she hadnt even known how much she missed it.
Fair and dark, the two sisters rode together until the outlying farms of Potadaeia came into view.
* * * *
Gabrielle looked around her with a weary sigh as the horses shouldered under the arch leading into town. Potadaeia never changed. Never. The same self-important women bustled about with the same destinations, no doubt all going home to the same husbands, and to the same sons or daughters they had been plotting to marry off amongst each other since time immemorial.
It was deadening. It was like stepping into a time vortex. The bard could feel any sense of self slipping from her control, felt that familiar teenage sinking sensation in her stomach. Noted the stares, the whispered asides.
" Gabrielle ."
" heathen warrior see the hair "
" poor Hecuba, must be so "
" and Gabrielle ."
Nobody addressed her. It didnt seem to be hostility based, more an uncomfortable kind of silence. What do you say to your villages biggest export, especially when you know nothing about what they do? A few called out to Lila, pretending, if they were pretending, not to recognise Gabrielle and the dark-haired warrior who had saved many of their lives more than once. Xena rode carefully, Eve shielded within a bundle of blankets set in front of her.
Feeling conspicuously ignored, Gabrielle halted the horse and leapt lightly down, collecting the reins. She started across the square again, leading the horse with Lila perched atop it. She nodded briefly to a few people. Let them look me in the eye and turn away. Let them try that.
"Go on. Thats right," she muttered fiercely between her teeth. "I have weapons in full view now. See em, Caddell? Yep, you saw em thats right, Ayrya, I still travel with the warrior yes I do thats right, what are you gonna say about it? Nothing? Nothing, Beth? I thought so. Yeah, come on, one of you say something, I dare you ."
"GABRIELLE!! Stone the crows, girl, what have you done to yourself?"
The bellow stopped her dead. It came from somewhere above her head and it sounded like .
"Up here! Open your eyes, girl!"
Gabrielle craned her neck upwards. Hanging from the roof of The Bleeding Titan with a hammer and a smile, was Pelios. Bear-like, shabby, cheerfully creased and weathered, all six feet of him. The five winters had left their mark though, not the least on his nose, which had grown redder and more bulbous. He waved frantically, tossed the hammer aside, awkwardly slid down the shingles and dropped off the edge, landing among a crowd of drinkers beneath him.
"Scuse me, Aldric, sorry bout that Hephateus, comin through, watch your step, sorry, sorry well if youre gonna have feet that big, Lariel, you gotta expect people to step on em Gabrielle!" He pushed through the last remaining people and ran towards her with a broad grin. "Take your sweet time to come back and see me, why dont you!" He reached the bard and crushed her in his thick arms, beaming all over his sweaty face. "Forget your old uncle then?"
"Maybe because youre not really my uncle, hey Pelios?" returned a laughing Gabrielle as she hugged him back. "I mean, nothings been proven "
"None of your lip, now."
"Got anyone minding your lip yet? Mom hasnt married you off?"
A look of mild horror crossed Pelios face. "Good Gods, no, and dont say that so loud, girl. I maynt be much of a prize, but theres still women round here whod like to unwrap me, know what I mean?" He winked broadly and then grinned, looking past Gabrielle. "Hello, Xena, glad to have you back."
Xena frowned, a little uncomfortably. "Im sorry, Pelios, have I met you before?"
"Never ever, not even once," crowed Pelios happily. "Doesnt mean I cant be glad to see you, does it? I know how good a friend you are to my Gabs. Its an honour." He extended his arm and she gripped it firmly, smiling. Inwardly she was shaking her head. Now if only all of Gabrielles family were like this
"Lila," instructed Pelios, "why dont you run off home and tell your parents that well be at the inn?"
"Ah, go on, girl, I could use a good drink." He winked again and settled an arm around Gabrielles shoulders. "And the company to match."
"Gabrielle," said Xena, indicating Eve. "I dont know if I should take her into the tavern. Too many eyes about, know what I mean?"
Gabrielles brow creased as she thought this over. "Well why not? After all, she is my cousin from Mantarus, right? Were just looking after her." She lowered her voice. "Ill fill Mom and Father in on it later, okay?"
"Problem solved!" cheered Pelios, as Xena nodded briefly. "I dont know what the problem is, but it sounds solved to me! Go on Lila, off you trot."
Lila sighed. "Alright. But-"
Pelios held up his hand. "Ah, but, but, but!" He turned to Xena and rolled his eyes. "Tis always a but! Never was there a bigger pair of buts than this pair, I tell you! I swear Gabrielle was born saying it."
Xena smiled. "Believe me, I know all about it." Gabrielle slapped her leg lightly, grinning.
Pelios looked back up at Lila. "And what were you but-ing about this time, girly?"
"What I was going to say was," said Lila haughtily, "Ill go, but can someone help me down from this horse?"
* * * *
This time it was Gabrielle who led the way into the tavern, and Gabrielle who threaded her way through the tables to the corner of the room. Old warrior habits become new bard habits, apparently. She settled into her chair with her back to wall, running her eyes lightly over the patrons, the windows, the exits, then caught herself.
This is Potadaeia, you idiot. As if
"Nervous much?" asked Pelios gruffly, who had followed her eyes. "Whatcha, afraid Farmer Billy over there might have a lash at you?"
"Nooo," Gabrielle groaned and put her head in her hands. "I dont know, its just what we do."
"We? Doesnt look much like your warrior friend is too worried," Pelios said, pointing at Xena. She was stuck near the doorway, suffering the attentions of the barkeep and two serving girls, all of whom were gaggling over Eve like love-struck cows. Xena just propped a boot on a chair and smiled, mildly pained, but inwardly fretting that the association of her with a baby was too conspicuous, no matter what the cover story.
Gabrielle laughed briefly. "Odds are even shell give them three minutes, then accidentally put the pinch on one of them."
"Oh, yeah? Learned any tricks like that from her on your travels, then?"
This brought Gabrielle pause. Sure have. More than I know, I think. "Yes," she answered slowly. "Id like to think weve taught each other things."
Across the room, Xena gamely tolerated Eve being handed from one to the other of the serving girls, who were both making silly faces. Pelios snorted. "Well, you managed to teach her some patience, looks like."
"Theyre just lucky theyve found her weakness," murmured Gabrielle, suppressing a momentary bitter twinge. What am I thinking? I love Eve
Pelios leant back in his chair. "Looks like," he said appraisingly. "And whats your weakness?"
The bards head came up at this. Was she that transparent? She gazed into the florid, friendly face of a man she had grown up loving, and felt the barriers tear down. Worse: be stampeded upon. She was tired of reining herself in. Tears began to prick her eyelids.
"Oh, Pelios," she said, holding back the tremble in her voice, "everything here makes me feel weak. Everything."
Her uncle raised an eyebrow. "Well, I was talking about what you might like to drink, but at least youve given me an opening for my other topic of choice." Pelios leant over the table and placed his hands over hers. "Gabrielle-girl," he said softly, "wheres your smile?"
Gabrielle covered her face and let the tears fall.
From the corner of her eye, Xena watched as Pelios coaxed something from Gabrielle that she had not been able to. She excused herself quietly and left the tavern.
* * * *
Xena tried to walk as if she had somewhere to be. It was useful, that sense of purpose, even if it was false. Eve was snuggled against her chest under her coat and the comforting presence of her was the only thing that helped to assuage the warriors sudden emotional vertigo.
Something is very wrong with Gabrielle.
And I cant help her.
And I dont know how to try.
And she doesnt want me to.
She strode through the square, shielding the baby and heading for the forest, deliberately not making eye contact with any of the people she passed.
"What am I supposed to do about this, huh sweetheart?" she muttered to Eve dully. "How can I fix something if I dont know how it broke?"
* * * *
Pelios quietly waved away the approaching serving girl. Gabrielle hitched a breath in and raised her face to him, still-unshed tears glistening.
"Look at me, huh?" she said miserably. "Im sorry. Back for two minutes, and-"
"Ah, thats alright, girl," reassured the carpenter. "Looks like you needed to do that."
Gabrielle traced a splintery crack in the table with her finger, blinking. "I need a lot of things, Pelios. I need to know who I am, who Im becoming."
Pelios pointed toward her sais, sticking out of their holsters on either side of her calves. "Those things helping you learn, then?"
"Huh. They keep me alive so I can learn, if thats what you mean."
"Been using them much?"
"A little too often. Too much. Xena thinks so, she told me Im being too violent."
Gabrielle was silent.
Pelios cleared his throat. "Theres no nice way to ask this, but have you killed?"
A quiet intake of breath. "Yes."
Pelios felt something inside him begin to hurt. Gabrielle had always been his favourite among the children of the village so eager to learn, so intuitive and thoughtful, so full of life and fun. To see her sitting opposite him now with eyes older than her years, with new lines appearing on her face and invisible blood on her hands well, it hurt him.
"For what reason?" It was all he could say.
Gabrielle turned to look out the window, and the change in the light caught the drops on her face.
"To to protect. Myself. To protect Xena and Eve. To help people there always seemed to be a reason ."
"But it hurts you?"
Gabrielle swallowed. The truth. The truth was "Not always. Sometimes, yes. But sometimes, in the middle of a fight, when a soldier is running at you with that look in his eyes, when you know that its either him or you, you just do it. And there are times Ive found that I dont have the head space to regret it later." She ran a hand through her cropped blonde locks. "And thats one of the things that scares me the most."
Her uncle patted her hand. "Hold that thought, girl. Back in a second." He wormed off his chair, made his way to the bar, and returned with a jug of ale and two glasses.
"I always find I think better with one of these in front of me," he said almost apologetically.
"The way I remember it, youll use any excuse to get one of these in front of you," grinned the bard, taking her mug and fiddling idly with the handle.
"Tis true enough," acquiesced Pelios gleefully, with a not-quite-shamefaced shrug. "Now, back to what you were saying." He leant back in his chair and studied Gabrielles face for a moment, head tipped slightly to one side. So many changes in her, he mused. But Im betting she can still talk a good game. Okay Miss Gabrielle. Lets make you talk to yourself. "If you can," he said aloud, "try to define what it is thats troubling you in one sentence."
Gabrielles brow furrowed. "One?"
"Go with me, girl," averred Pelios, tapping the table. "Sometimes when you have to put it in words for other people so as they can understand, you find youve put it in words for yourself as well. Try it."
The bard took a sip of ale as she thought about this. "I suppose " she said slowly, "that I feel as if Im not actively living my life. Instead, Im being forced in a certain direction. By circumstance, by people "
Pelios nodded. "Hm. Thats interesting. Three sentences, mind you, but interesting. Have you ever heard of the Stoics?"
"You read philosophy, Pelios?" asked an incredulous Gabrielle.
The whiskers on the carpenters chin disappeared into wrinkled folds as he chortled with amusement. "Where did you think all those books you read as a littleun came from?"
"I never really thought about it. Maybe Dad ."
"Herodotus?" snorted the carpenter. "I know hes your father, but Hermes, Gabrielle, the man couldnt find his own ass with both hands."
She sighed. "I know. The books were yours?"
"And the texts, and the scrolls, even those faerie tales from Britannia."
"I loved those!"
"I thought you did."
"Yours?" Gabrielle was beaming. "Really?"
"Every one. Im not a terribly skilled man, girl. Its not like I have a lot of prospects for greatness. Im fat, Im ugly, I drink too much and I have too much fun for the liking of the folk round here. Least thing I could do was learn a bit about the world. Does two things for me - opens my eyes to what Im missing and opens my eyes to what Ive got."
"I never imagined," said Gabrielle, her voice echoing strangely in the depths of her mug.
"No-one does, so thats our little secret, eh?" He grinned and tapped the side of his nose. "Cant have all of them knowing Im a learned man, or the attraction might be too much for them. So, youve heard of the Stoics, then?"
"Sure they were taught by Zeno, right?"
An affirmative nod.
"And yeah right, they said that since everything is a result of divine will and the natural order, humans shouldnt become passionate about upsets in their lives. Just to calmly accept everything as coming from a higher power for a higher reason."
"Good girl. Youre still reading every day?"
She took another drink. "I read when I can but I havent had much time lately."
"So what do you think about that theory?"
Gabrielle laughed. "Are you kidding? Have you met any of our higher powers? Do have any idea how petty and selfish and, and random their acts are? Id never trust my free will to them and Id never, ever give up believing that I make my own fate. Its too important. And as for calm acceptance of acts that cause harm as far as Im concerned, thats like asking a fish not to swim."
"So you would challenge the idea that humans are powerless?"
"Absolutely I would. I met a man, in India, and he was the most powerful person Ive ever known." Momentary sadness crept into Gabrielles voice as Elis gentle face rose in her mind. "He could see people," she said softly, "really see into them, and their hearts. He saw into mine. He taught me that you have to find your path and follow it, no matter where it leads you. No-one, not even the Gods, can tell you what your path is you have to find it for yourself. If thats not power, I dont know what is."
Pelios sat back in his chair and smiled. "Then, Gabrielle-girl, youve answered your own question. You are in control of your own life. You are making your own decisions. You just have to start accepting the path youve chosen, and the consequences for it."
He took a breath and decided to go for it. "Just one more thing, eh? Have you talked about any of this with Xena?"
* * * *
Xena accepted that she would have to go into Potadaeia to see Gabrielles family soon, but she was putting off the moment as long as possible. She had briefly considered dropping back into the tavern and making her excuses, but she knew Gabrielle would be hurt.
The afternoon sun filtering through the trees could not quite take the slight chill from the air. Xena had someone other than herself to think of now, so shed made up for it.
"See that, Evie? Were you watching me? Thats how you make a fire. Big sticks on little sticks, bigger sticks on those and then whammo "
The baby gazed happily at Xena from the protective circle of her arms, drooling slightly. The warrior, perched on a log, cracked a smile. "Uh-huh," she crooned. "Like you care. Youre there thinking, Im hungry, whens she gonna take her shirt off, right? Arent you?"
"Geg," replied Eve.
"Oh yeah?" smiled Xena. "Whered you get language like that from, hey? Im gonna have to have a little talk with Gabrielle. Whats in those scrolls shes been reading you?"
Maybe you should have listened to her, then youd know, hissed a little voice.
Eves little fist struck the warriors chest lightly. "Puh."
"Puh?" asked Xena. "Puh? Well, youre quite the conversationalist, arent you?"
Maybe if you paid more attention to what shes feeling, youd be the one in the tavern right now.
"But its not that easy, is it Evie?" said Xena aloud. "Had a lot of things on my mind. And in my stomach."
Youre selfish, Xena.
"No Im not. Do you think Im selfish, Eve?"
Yes you are. Ever since Eli brought you back youve been on some sort of manic quest, something that only involved your feelings. What about Gabrielle?
"Gabrielle is a grown woman, if something was bothering her, shed tell me."
Not for a moment did Xena consider the oddness of the situation. Here she was, in the middle of the Potadaeian forest, chatting with herself.
Like the way you tell her when somethings wrong? She has to prise it out of you with a pitchfork. You never give anything away. At least she tries. And you havent even made an effort with her.
"Thats not true."
Isnt it? Who did you share your fears for this child with? Joxer.
"Well, Gabrielle wasnt there at the time."
Would it have made a difference?
"Shes the one whos different!" burst out the warrior. "Anyway, I did try talking to her last night she didnt want to tell me what was wrong. Somethings different now!"
What is it?
"I dont know! Shes a different person! Sadder older all her fighting. Its like shes holding all this rage inside. I dont know where the old Gabrielle has gone."
So instead of trying to find out, you close yourself off from her, is that it? Hows that supposed to help?
"I dont know," said Xena slowly. "Is that what Im doing?"
You might have to face the fact that it isnt a case of the old Gabrielle getting lost and needing to be found, its a case of the new Gabrielle trying to find her feet. The Gabrielle who is here to stay. Get used to the idea, Xena.
"I miss her." Xena felt the lump rise in her throat.
You dont have to. Shes still here. You just need to see her.
* * * *
" and when Hercules left, Xena decide decided to come here. Just for a little bit. Until we figure out where to go next. Xena thinks the gods will be looking for us for Eve. Potadaeias a perfect pit stop, she said you know, seeing as its on the road to, to nowhere and all that? Plus I havent seen Mom and Lila for ages." She frowned. "Can only stay a night. Too dangerous."
"Good enough <hic> plan," nodded Pelios, his florid face suspended above the table like a grinning moon. "Spose you gonna water this story down some for your folks?"
"Hades yes," groaned Gabrielle, "and I wish someone had watered this ale down, too. I feel feel a bit ." A little light-headedly, Gabrielle levered herself from her chair. "I think Ive had too much to drink, Pelios, you know I shouldna we shouldna had the fourth jug. Makes me sleepy." She put a hand onto the table for support. "Woah."
The demon ale, thought the bard woozily, as Pelios laughed at her. Way, WAY long time since shed come across it, actually. She had badly misjudged her capacity, and since drinking with Pelios was like watching a thirsty Charybdis suck down the ocean, she suddenly found herself dangerously unsteady on her feet.
Pelios giggled into his mug. "Watcha father gonna say, hmmmm?"
"Aw, crap!" mumbled Gabrielle in panic. "Forgot about going home!" She stared frantically out the window. "Its almost dark! Whyd you let me sit here this long? And," she moaned, putting a hand to her head, "whyd you let me get this drunk?"
Pelios burped. "Ahem. I thought wed estab estabblish that youre in control of your own life, thankyou very mush." He wagged an unsteady finger. "Dont you go blamin me, specially to your mother. She already thinks Im Bacchus incarnate."
"I met him, you know," said Gabrielle absently. "He was red."
"Met him? Zeuss ass, thats a tale for another time, Ill warrant."
Gabrielles face clouded for a second. "Met him, too."
Pelios roared with laughter. "You best get yourself home now, girl. Tell your <hic> father I said, I said, ummm The biggest grass will grow itself. Tell him that."
Gabrielle stared. "Whats that supposed to mean?"
"Nothin," giggled Pelios. "I just like messing with his head, is all. He never liked me mush."
Gabrielle snorted. "You sir," she said regally, "are an oaf. But thank you for listening to me. Youve really helped. I have to talk to Xena." Suddenly remembering the warriors departure from the tavern, she said, "Ill have to find Xena, then I can talk to her. Okay, Im going now."
She held her head high and made her ever-so-slightly-weaving way to the tavern door, smiling genially at all and sundry.
"Hi, hi, hi no, I wasnt ignoring you, Brayle, I was "
"Get yourself home, girl!" Pelios roared, interrupting her as she was about to sit down with the town healer and her husband. "And stick your head in the horse trough on the way!"
Gabrielle froze mid-sitting action. "Bye now, Brayle, scuse me seeya ."
The tavern door closed behind her and Pelios laughed delightedly. Half a jug left. All the more for him. He dedicated himself wholly and happily to the task, and did not notice the slender woman who watched him from the shadows near the back door.
* * * *
"Stupid inner self with a voice," grumbled Xena as she kicked at the dead remains of the fire. "Who asked you? Its not like I dont know how to talk to my friend."
Then why dont you-
"Stay out of it!" snarled the warrior. "Im going, okay? Ill go back and find her, well talk this out, and everythingll be fine. Just stay out of it."
What will you do if she brushes you off?
"Ill make her talk to me for her own good whether she likes it or not, thats what Ill do."
Good one, Xena.
Resolutely ignoring herself, Xena waited and watched the fire for any tell-tale signs of still-burning embers. The white-grey ashes settled heavily in a heap. Dead. Time to go.
"Come on, Evie, lets put on our happy faces," grumbled the warrior. "Grit your teeth now. Oh, you dont have any teeth. Okay, Ill do it for both of us. Why, you ask? Why? Have you ever met Gabrielles father?"
* * * *
"Hello, Mom? Father?"
Approaching the farmhouse door, Gabrielle caught her foot on the boot scraper and swore to herself.
Maybe outside the town walls she was Gabrielle, Amazon Princess, bard and warrior, companion of Xena: Warrior Princess, but inside them, she was still
"Punkin? Sweetie, is that you?"
Gabrielle sighed. Brace yourself, bard. She had briefly considered changing her clothes and hiding her sais, but the notion passed as quickly as it came. If her parents were to see her, they were to see her as she really was. But when she heard her mothers trilling, excited voice from inside, a momentary panic gripped her. Maybe its not too late. Maybe I could even get a wig, or something
The door flew open and Hecuba stood framed by the glow of the lanterns behind her. "Gabrielle? Is that you?" She peered uncertainly at the stranger in front of her.
"Yes, its me, Mom," answered Gabrielle. And so it begins "See?" She stepped forward into the light. Hecubas eyes widened for a fraction of a second. Recovering herself, she swept her daughter into a hug, but not before Gabrielle had seen the paling of her cheeks and the quick, disapproving flicker of her gaze.
As Gabrielle had done to Lila earlier, Hecuba now held her daughter at arms length and studied her openly. "Well, Gabrielle," she said softly. "We expected you earlier. Come in, dinners waiting."
"You look good, Mom," said the bard as she followed Hecuba indoors. "Im happy to see you." Like the village, everything in the farmhouse remained exactly as she had last seen it. Gabrielle felt the mantle of childhood settle lightly on her shoulders and had to resist the urge to run and hide in the barn. She cleared her throat, tasting the ale, and wondered if her I Am Completely Sober act was working.
As if on cue, Hecuba, sniffing, said, "Gabrielle, have you been drinking?" Her tone implied that to be drinking was something akin to either murder, or rolling in horse dung.
"A little, Mom." Gabrielle had, however, found the after-effects of the ale to be rapidly wearing off, much to her surprise. It left her tired, though. "With Pelios. He just wanted to welcome me back."
"With that man, theres no such thing as a little," stated her father, ducking under the skins that separated the main room from the bedroom he and his wife shared. "He turned excess into an art form by the age of twenty and hes never looked back. Im surprised you let him talk you into it. Lila says you arrived hours ago."
Gabrielle smiled thinly. "Hello, Father."
"Gabrielle," replied Herodotus, awkwardly returning the brief hug she gave him. "Well," he said, openly looking her up and down. "Lila was right. Quite a few changes, I see. Theres still a trunk of your belongings in your room. You may change your clothes before we eat." It was not a request.
Gabrielle stiffened. "Are you afraid what Im wearing will offend the food, Father?"
"You will dress decently in this house," stated the farmer firmly. "This is not a battlefield, or a tavern. I dont know how you behave on your little travels, and I dont want to know. Youre back in civilised company now, daughter."
"Ah, civilised. Of course," said Gabrielle quietly. "As opposed to ?"
"You know what Im talking about," Herodotus replied. "I hope you dont plan on wearing those weapons to the dinner table." He indicated her sais disapprovingly.
"No," sighed Gabrielle, unsheathing them and placing them on a shelf near the fireplace. "No, I hadnt planned on it. And its good to see you too."
"They look more like barbeque forks than weapons anyway," piped up Lila from the doorway. "Wheres Xena?"
"Shes not here?" asked Gabrielle, and Lila shook her head. Damn, thought Gabrielle.
* * * *
"Shes not here?" asked Xena, and Pelios shook his head. Damn, thought Xena.
"Got a good twenny minutes on you," the carpenter informed her with a grin and a burp. "And a good jugga ale, too. Here." He handed Xena his half-full tankard and she downed it in a gulp.
"Aye," nodded Pelios. "I like to use it as a Herod <hic> Herodotus shield. Makes lookin at him easier."
Xena laughed. "What do you think?" she asked. "Should I go over there now, or wait dinner out? I dont know which would offend him more, arriving late, or missing it altogether."
Pelios laughed and tipped his chair back. "Oh, warrior, you havent figured it out yet, have you?"
"There isnt anythin you can do that wont offend that fellow," explained Pelios drunkenly. "Youre goin into the bloody lions den, my dear. But do it with a smile and he cant touch you. Just dont give im an excuse to start anythin."
Xena looked down at Eve. One baby, no husband. If thats not an excuse, I dont know what is. "Great."
* * * *
"Were not waiting dinner on her and thats that," said Herodotus sharply. "If she hasnt the manners or the sense to be here on time, then we owe her nothing."
"We can wait a little while, cant we?" asked Hecuba timidly. "Its a cold spread, nothing will be ruined by waiting."
"Except our dignity," snapped the farmer. "If that woman thinks she can waltz in here and take advantage of our hospitality whenever she chooses, she can think again."
"Its not the end of the world, Father," Gabrielle protested.
"Its a matter of principle!" shouted Herodotus.
Lila stood in the corner, hands clasped nervously. She hated fights, but was secretly delighted at Gabrielles newfound confidence.
"Shes just late for dinner!" exploded Gabrielle. "Its not even her fault! I didnt tell her what time to be here. Youre behaving as if shes on trial for murder!"
"She should be!" Herodotus shot right back. "Look at what shes turned you into! Shes a heathen! And an outlaw!"
"And my FRIEND!"
"Gabrielle " soothed Hecuba. "Your father is only-"
"Acting in accordance with his prejudices?" asked Gabrielle heatedly. "So that makes it all right to be a total bastard?"
"How dare you-" began Herodotus, cheeks flaming.
"No!" shouted Gabrielle furiously. "How dare YOU? Youve always been completely unreasonable where Xenas concerned, and Ive always let you do it! Well, not any more!" She marched toward the fireplace. "Gods, I dont even know what Im doing here anyway. It was a mistake to come."
"Your mistake was in bringing that warrior with you, daughter," snapped Herodotus.
"Oh, go ahead and eat," said Gabrielle tiredly, taking her sais down from the shelf. "Xena and I will get something from the tavern."
"Where are you going?" demanded her father.
"To find her," she replied shortly, sheathing her weapons and heading for the door. "Frankly, Father, shell be a damn sight better company than you are. You see, its funny, but she doesnt care what Im wearing."
She yanked the door open and glanced back. "Im sorry Mom, Lila. I didnt mean for this to happen. Ill speak to you both tomorrow."
"Dont you leave this house in that manner, young lady!" roared her father. "I wont tolerate being spoken to in that manner!"
"Hades, Father," snapped Gabrielle, drawing a gasp from her mother, "you dont tolerate, period. And Im not the little girl who puts up with it any more." She stepped outside. "And by the way, thanks for making me feel so welcome. I appreciate it." The door slammed behind her.
* * * *
It was funny, the way the two of them met in the middle, right under the arch. The torches that ringed the town square didnt really cast much of a gleam. If you wanted to walk around Potadaeia after dark, it was in your best interests to carry your own light. So Gabrielle and Xena were practically in each others pockets before they realised it.
They stood there for a moment, looking at each other. Both with something important to say.
Neither of them said it.
Finally, "Hows your father?" Xena asked a little uncomfortably.
"Xena," Gabrielle answered wearily, "do you know, sometimes I think I must have been adopted."
"Oh yeah? No welcome mat, huh?"
Gabrielle sighed. "Hows staying at the Titan sound to you?"
"Just fine," replied the warrior with more than a little relief. "What about the horses?"
"Theyre safe enough in the town stables," Gabrielle said. "Embeths an old friend, shell look after them. Are you hungry?"
"Me too. And I could use another drink. Lets go."
* * * *
If Pelios had taken the front door, he would have run right into the two of them on his way out of town. But since the outhouse was behind the tavern, the back door had been the natural choice. He was stumbling along happily now, warmed against the chill by an excess of both ale and weight.
Clouds scudded fitfully, crossing and shadowing the slivered moon. Pelios had no torch, but he knew the way. The road between The Bleeding Titan and his remote and ramshackle abode was one he trod so frequently that he could have done it blind, a state his alcohol intake often reduced him to.
If pressed to describe himself, Pelios would have said he was a people person who loved the quiet. What he had said to Gabrielle in town was true; his gregarious nature and kind heart made sure there were several widows in Potadaeia who would love to make an honest man of him. But he would have none of that. His fun was found in the company of others, but his joy was found in his own. Besides, there was nobody on earth patient enough to withstand his terrible singing voice.
"Baaaaaaash the tart oh, bash the taaaaaaaart," he wailed in an earsplitting tenor yawp as he cut across Horwoods back fields to the forest beyond. "Don take those cruel words too mush to heeeaaaaaart!"
"Shut up, Pelios, gods blast you!" bellowed a voice from the distant farmhouse. "My dogs afeared!"
"Cram it, Horwood!" roared the carpenter. "Get yaself a wife, then you can turn the bloody mutt outside at night!"
A cackle of laughter floated back to him on the wind, and Pelios grinned. Ah, Potadaeia. The place where everybody knows your name.
Half an hour later he was nearing his home, and the bite of the night breeze had finally taken some of the glow from his cheeks. He was thinking happily of a warm fire and a jug of some special stuff he had bought from a trader from Chin, when the sound of approaching hoofbeats caught his ear.
The part of the forest he was in was not thickly inhabited, nor particularly well-traveled. Pelios was not a fighter; he carried no weapon, nor had ever had need to. He wished fervently for one now though, because something told him that the many horses approaching him were not bearing friends upon their backs.
He stopped in the middle of the trail, and cast a glance around him. Too late to run, too few trees to hide in, none of them built for climbing. Pelios sighed. Fine. Let them come. Moving to the side of the trail, he waited as the horses rounded the bend in front of him. Seven eight nine. Nine heavily armoured and helmeted men on horseback, each carrying a long spear. Pelios stood back as the first of them thundered past him, but one of them, a tall man, noticed the carpenter in the shadows. He raised his spear and shouted a command.
As if moved by one spirit, all nine horses stopped dead. Pelios felt his heart quicken. The armour was gilded with the mark of the Matrigari. The carpenter knew these men for fierce fighters, and loyal fanatics to their god. Though their temple and outpost were only mere leagues from Potadaeia, they seldom came near the town, preferring instead to trade with the larger city of Lemarch, a day to the east. Pelios remembered Gabrielles tale with a barely suppressed shiver. They were looking for Xena, they must be. And they were far, far too close for safety.
"Good eve, stranger," said the leader. "Well met on a dark night."
"Depends on which of us youre talking about, doesnt it?" said Pelios airily, determined to hold them up as long as possible. "Well met for you, certainly, for Im a nice fellow. As for me well, perhaps armed strangers who outnumber me nine to one maynt be so much in my favour, eh?"
"We mean no harm to you," the leader said, his eyes invisible beneath his helmet. "We are men of faith, and need only information."
"And what faith might that be?"
"We are disciples of Boreas, God of the Wind. His sweet breath blows in your face even as we speak, stranger."
"Should try flossing, perhaps," suggested the carpenter. "Dont know what sweet breath youre getting up there, but Im getting horse patties, myself."
A mutter ran through the group at that, and the leader shifted forward on his horse. The polite tone vanished, to be replaced by a bitter edge. "Do not think to mock those who are above you, old man."
"Why not?" asked Pelios. "Theyre gods, arent they? Seems to me they got themselves a lot of privileges, what with immortality and all that. Id say mockerys the price you pay for being a public figure, eh?"
"The gods are divine and therefore deserving of our worship," the man flung at him. "You will watch your tongue." The helmeted mans voice was as sharp as the point of the spear glittering in his hand, and for once, the swarthy carpenter decided not to risk the challenge. Instead, he put his hands in his pockets and leaned back onto his heels.
"My apologies, then. May I help you gentleman with something?"
"We are looking for someone. Perhaps you have seen her?"
Pelios shrugged. "I see a lot of people. Anyone in particular I should have noticed?"
"This woman is a warrior, a very dangerous warrior."
"Was she fighting someone here? Is she wanted for crimes?"
"Of a sort, yes," replied the leader, casting a glance back at his companions. "She would not have been fighting. I believe she would be trying to keep her identity a secret."
"So, let me get this straight. Youre looking for a warrior woman."
"Who is wanted for crimes "of a sort", but wasnt fighting anyone?"
"And shes trying to hide?"
"Then how am I supposed to know if Ive seen her? People dont walk around with signs saying dangerous, now do they? I could be dangerous, but youd never know unless you tried to fight me, would you? How am I supposed to know someones dangerous just by looking at them? Youll have to do better than that."
"You are being very trying, stranger," snapped the leader. "Do not think that because I am a man of faith I am also a man of patience."
"And dont think just because Im a man of striking good looks, wit and intelligence that Ill know a dangerous warrior when I see one," returned Pelios smartly. "Im a country lad, I am. Can you describe her for me?"
"Tall, dark hair, blue eyes. Travels with a friend, a blonde Amazon warrior."
Gabrielle a warrior? thought Pelios incredulously. Her description of herself as a fighter had been tempered by her gentle voice, and he had had trouble visualising it, but here was the proof.
Aloud, he said, "And a baby?"
The mutter was louder this time, and the leader snapped up his hand for silence. "Youve seen them?" he demanded, his voice betraying him with an excited tremble.
"Believe so," said Pelios thoughtfully. "Was up to Killarnus a week or so back, heard some people talking. Would the name be Xena, by any chance?"
"The Warrior Princess, yes." This was luck beyond belief. "Killarnus, you say?"
"Aye," agreed Pelios happily, in his mind imagining the one hundred-odd leagues that separated the village from Potadaeia. "Do a bit of traveling in my line of work. Im pretty sure I saw them. They were staying at the same tavern I was. Only saw them for a minute, but you mentioned the Amazon. Caught my eye, you know what I mean?" He winked exaggeratedly.
The leader leant down and extended his arm. "You have done us a great service, stranger. Boreas will not forget your help or your discretion in this matter." The hint of threat in the words made their sentiment ring false.
Pelios pretended not to notice and gripped his forearm in a friendly fashion. "No worries," he nodded, smiling. "Anything for men of faith, eh?"
The leader did not respond. "Naius," he barked. "Go back the temple and tell the others what we have learned. Wait for word. Killarnus is a long journey, but they may be moving. Keep an eye on the local inns and the road." He wheeled his horse. "The rest of you, follow me." He nodded to Pelios and spurred his horse into the darkness. The rest followed suit in eerie synchronicity, the trees and the gloom swallowing them like a thunder cloud.
When they had gone, and Pelios could no longer hear the thud of hooves, he let out a shaking breath. He had no false notions about how little his life would be worth if they discovered his lie. On slightly weak legs, he turned about and headed back to Potadaeia. A little while after that, he began to run.
* * * *
Sated and silent, Gabrielle and Xena lay on their beds on opposite sides of the room. Eve was sleeping peacefully between them in the crib the tavern owner had thoughtfully provided them with, and the only sound was that of her light breathing.
Gabrielle was stretched out with her arms crossed behind her head, mind racing, her thoughts scattering and tumbling over one another like untrained puppies. How to tell Xena what she was thinking? It would be a lot easier if she could understand it herself.
"Hey." Xenas voice cut into her internal babble.
"Hey yourself," replied Gabrielle uncertainly.
"Need some company over there?"
Gabrielle was mildly amazed. Xena never initiated any kind of physical closeness. The barriers around her had lately stretched to include the bard, and it had been a long time since they shared anything other than the briefest of hugs, the lightest of touches. The choice of the word need, however, amused her. Same old Xena. If Gabrielle answered yes, it was always implied that even though Xena had made the suggestion, it was to fulfill something for Gabrielle, not for herself. Old, old habits, as transparent as glass to someone who loved her.
"Sure," Gabrielle said, sitting up and patting the bed beside her. "Always room for you."
Xena crossed the room with that way she had, the way that looked deceptively calm. Gabrielle had long since learned to recognise that walk, and she knew that there was something playing heavily on the warriors mind.
Instead of making herself comfortable, however, Xena sat gingerly on the edge of the bed, hands in her lap. "Gabrielle, I, uh I need to talk to you."
There was that word again. Need. Only this time applied to herself. Incredible. Gabrielle couldnt stop the smile from spreading over her face.
"What?" asked Xena a little self-consciously. "What are you smiling at?"
"Nothing." A reassuring touch to the shoulder. "Nothing, Im glad you said that. I need to talk with you, too."
"Really?" asked Xena a little too eagerly. "Well maybe-"
"Nothing doing, Xena," said Gabrielle, grinning. "You go first."
Xena smirked, caught. "At least youre making it easy on me," she said wryly.
"Dont I always?"
Xena sobered. "Yes. You do. Maybe too much."
"I dont follow."
"Youre always making it easy on me, Gabrielle. I never realised that by doing that you were making it hard on yourself."
Gabrielle, unaccustomed to such insight from her friend, was speechless for a minute.
"Like tonight," continued Xena, staring at the floor. "We should be at your parents house, but you chose here because you knew itd be easier on me."
"No, no," interrupted Gabrielle, taking Xenas hand. "It might have worked out that way, but believe me, I wasnt thinking about anyone but myself. That man ." She fell silent and subdued the momentary rage that surfaced at the memory. "He treated me badly, Xena. He treated me like a stranger whod offended him in some way. I wasnt going to stay there and let him."
Xena clasped her warm fingers between her own and was happy to feel them there. Happy to be near her again. "Are you all right?"
"I am now," Gabrielle replied. "I have a choice to be angry or not. I choose not. It isnt worth it. Im tired of being angry."
"I thought you said last night you didnt believe in anger any more."
Gabrielle smiled. "Last night, I didnt. But things change for me, for us, every day. Its hard to be definite about anything. Dont listen to me, I never know what Im on about from one minute to the next."
Xena laughed. "Thats probably the closest thing to total absurdity that Ive ever heard come from your mouth. Dont you know youve made more sense to me than anyone in my whole life?"
"Id say thats because you never let anyone else talk to you for more than five minutes," grinned Gabrielle, before sobering. "Im sorry, Xena," she burst out impulsively. "Im sorry things have been so strange lately. Im sorry Ive been shutting you out."
"You?" Xena said incredulously. "I was going to apologise to you for doing that! I was going to tell you that "
Xena gripped her hand more firmly. "That Im sorry for being so distant. That Im sorry for not including you more, telling you how Im feeling about things or asking you how you were feeling."
"Dont try and make excuses for me, Gabrielle," insisted the warrior. "Ive been completely preoccupied with Eve and before that with myself. We havent been talking, and I miss it like crazy."
Xena caught and held her eyes. "Yes, I do. Eve the gods this prophesy, they dont just concern me. Youre a part of my life too, and Ive been forgetting that. There are so many things I want to ask you about."
Gabrielle squeezed her hand. "Like what?"
"Like your writing."
Gabrielle stiffened slightly and Xena did not miss it. "I know youre having trouble with it lately. I wish I could help you."
Gabrielle found something on the end of the bed rather interesting and stared at it. "You do "
"Thats not what I mean. Your writing has always been so important for you, its like its like ."
"Self-expression heals the wounded heart." Gabrielle shrugged, a tiny half-smile on her face. "I read that somewhere once. In Athens, I think. Funny that I should remember it now I always thought it was true without ever really knowing how true." Her smile grew lonely for a second. "I didnt know the kind of damage that could be done to a heart then. I didnt have a clue."
Xena touched her hand gently, suddenly wildly afraid. "Your heart is wounded?"
Gabrielle sighed. "I I dont know. Sometimes ." She trailed off, searching for the words. "Dont you ever get stuck, Xena? Afraid?"
Worry creased the warriors smooth brow. "Of what?"
Gabrielle lifted a hand. "Everything," she said helplessly. "And nothing. All of it. This life were living its so so unbalanced. I keep telling myself that one day Ill be able to make sense of it all, understand which way were going, but it never seems to be the right time."
"What is it youre trying to make sense of?" Xena was having trouble following. To the warrior, each day was fresh its own blessing or its own curse. She had spent many years training herself not to hope for anything and she had trained herself well. The lesson was ingrained. Xena very rarely questioned her decisions, or thought about what was around the next corner, or the corner after that. That raised too many complex issues. Yes, she had fear, but fear of tangible things. Of imminent danger. Of loss. Of hurting or losing the people she loved. But not of her philosophies or her choices. For her, her road was straight and as long as she had Eve and Gabrielle safe by her side, she saw no end to it.
Gabrielle searched for the elusive words, the words running about her head with scorched feet, twisting and mocking her inability to grasp them. Finally, she closed her eyes.
"When you have all the choices in the world, Xena, dont you find that the hardest thing to do is make one?"
Xena smiled in what she hoped was a reassuring way. I wish I knew the right words. Damn me for never knowing the right thing to say to her. "Gabrielle, whatever this is, whatever youre struggling with, from now on well get through it together, I promise you. We always fall on our feet."
Gabrielle gave a small, bitter laugh. "Thats not the problem, Xena. The problem is were always falling."
* * * *
Heaving for breath, a sweating Pelios at last sighted his sisters house. The barn doors were open, and the first thing he noticed was that there were no horses inside. Confused, he stopped for a moment. No horses but a dim light and three cloaked figures.
Pelios started to creep, placing his large feet very carefully on the ground so as not to give away his presence. He made his way forward in the shadows. Something was wrong. Nobody had business in barns at this hour, least of all those with such a shady appearance. He gauged the remaining distance between the tree-line and the barn wall thoughtfully. There would be a stretch of some good feet where he would be in the open, but the figures had their backs to him. He decided to risk it.
Taking a deep breath and holding it, he scooted forward gently, silently, praying desperately that none of the figures would turn. When he felt the rough surface of the barn beneath his outstretched fingertips, he almost sighed with relief. Until he heard what they were saying.
" this child will be our damnation, you must understand this. A world without gods is a world without the divine. No guidance, no leadership, no miracles." The voice was heavily accented, the deep growl of an older man.
"No faith," said a female voice, lilting and persuasive. "Can you imagine what it must be to live without hope of a better life? You must help us prevent this. You must."
The first voice continued. "When you die, where is it you hope to go?"
There was a pause. Then "The Elysian Fields, of course."
Pelios froze in horror. Herodotus. The carpenter felt his stomach drop and his hands began to shake with rage.
"There will be no Elysian Fields," said the woman fervently. "Hades is the ruler of the Underworld how can it exist if he does not? You see the danger we are all in? We will all become creatures without soul."
"Yes," answered Herodotus slowly. "Yes, I see. But-"
"I know you are afraid for your daughter," continued the first voice. "We would take steps to see she will not be punished for her part in this matter."
"What of my daughter?" questioned Herodotus sharply. "You spoke only of the warrior, not of Gabrielle. What do you know of her?"
"They are together with the child," said the woman. "I know theyre here, I saw them at the inn earlier. They have been watched by our people since the birth. You must see, to protect them is to risk your own soul."
"If you know where they are, why have you come to me?" asked the farmer. "Why did you not tell the templemen?"
"We are not part of Boreass temple," said the man. "That is all you need to know."
"You wont even tell me who you are, yet you ask me to betray my child?" asked the farmer bleakly.
"No," said the woman. "We are asking you to help save her."
Pelios, flattened against the wall, had heard enough. Gabrielle was at the inn, was she? Then it looked as if The Bleeding Titan would receive his patronage for the second time that night. He held his breath again, and crept quietly away.
Had he stayed for a moment longer, he would have heard the woman say, "We are but a small group of worshippers, but we have enough men to put guards at the inn, until the Matrigarians can be informed. They will not be able to leave without us knowing."
* * * *
"Its the fighting, Xena. All the fighting, all the time. It just keeps getting worse and worse, and I keep shutting myself off from it. Its not right."
The two of them were sitting with their backs to the wall now, side by side, Gabrielles head resting on Xenas shoulder.
"You dont have to fight. Id understand. After India, when you chose not to fight, I told you Id protect you, and I still mean that."
"Its not so simple now, Xena. Theres Eve to consider. And the gods. Theres too much for you to handle alone, and Id never ask you to do it. And theres something else."
"What is it?"
"The sense of power ." Gabrielle fell silent, unable to meet Xenas eyes.
Xena sighed, understanding at last. "Youre talking about battle lust?"
Gabrielle nodded. "If thats what you call it, I guess I am. How do you control that?"
"Sometimes, I cant," Xena said quietly. "Youve seen that and you helped me a lot with it. The only thing that stops me now is thinking about you. And Eve. About the kind of world I want for us, the way Id like to see her grow up. I dont want her surrounded by blood and death but it seems to follow us around, huh?"
"Understatement of the century, Xena," Gabrielle said wryly. "I just find that in the middle of a fight now, I lose myself. Its like another person takes over, guides my hands, shields my feelings from what Im doing. But then Im the one who has to pay for it later."
"Gabrielle, thats always the case. It never changes and it never gets any easier."
"Then how can I justify my OUR path? Tell me that."
"If I could, then Id be telling myself, too."
Gabrielle glanced down. "Um I got a sword." She looked mildly embarrassed.
Xena was quiet.
"A ways back, in Namisopoli," continued Gabrielle, still studying the bedspread. "You were at the healer."
Xena smiled. "I know."
Gabrielle looked up in shock. "What?"
Xena said nothing, merely turned Gabrielles palm up to the ceiling. Her fingers traced the callous marks that had formed from her long hours of practice.
Gabrielle made a face. "Oh. Of course. Miss Hawk-Eyes. Should have known."
The warrior chuckled.
"I have no secrets," complained Gabrielle in mock-frustration.
"Sure you do," said Xena, smiling archly. "You never told me what happened with Ling-Qui."
"If you knew, why didnt you say something?" asked Gabrielle, colouring slightly.
"Why didnt you?" countered Xena.
"I wasnt ready."
"Well thats what I figured."
"I hid it."
The bard shrugged, a dull rose staining her cheeks. "Dont know why, really. Lots of reasons. I was a little scared, for one."
"Scared of what?"
"I always remember what you told me, about a sword making you a target. I mean, I carry weapons now, Im a target anyway. But a sword theres something very archetypal about it, isnt there? Long bright steel ."
"Hey bard, youre talking to a simple village girl here," said Xena with a crooked smile. "Wanna skip the symbolism?"
Gabrielle slapped her arm. "You know exactly what Im talking about. Stop pretending youre stupid."
The look on Xenas face was one so innocent that Gabrielle had to laugh. "I mean that a sword is a symbol. Its the symbol of a warrior. And I dont know if I want to paint that picture of myself, do you understand?"
"Xena, do you know something?"
"I might, since weve now established Im not stupid. Try me."
"Do you know that if I hear the words I dont know come out of my own mouth one more time, I might jump from the next bridge we see?"
* * * *
Pelios had had more exercise this night than any other of his life. Staggering a little, for the last of the bracing alcohol was now gone from his system, he focused upon the gates of the town, this time coming in from the south. The Titan was close now, he could even smell the familiar scent of barley in the air.
Though the tavern had been closed for some time, there were yet two men propped at one of the outdoor tables. They were big men, both of them, and though cloaked, Pelios caught a glimpse of armour glittering beneath.
"Late revels, eh gentlemen?" asked Pelios breathlessly as he approached. He was wary, for he did not recognise either of them. Potadaeia was sizeable for this area, but not enough so that strangers werent instantly accounted for.
"Aye," replied one of them shortly, tapping the earthen jug on the table. "Keeps out the chill."
"It does, that," agreed the carpenter, knowing from long experience that the sound the jug made meant it was empty. He gave away nothing, though, and instead lifted the heavy iron knocker on the door, while the silent men watched him carefully.
"Jonas!" Pelios called loudly, banging away. "Jonas, you slug! Let me in, eh?"
The sleepy face of the tavern owner appeared from a window on the second story. "Pelios?"
"Let me in, Jonas!"
"Pelios, you sot, your house is out of town, remember?" yawned Jonas. "Didya get lost a bit? You know the missusll have my hide ifn I let you sleep in the bar again."
"No, no sleeping, Jonas, I just need to see someone, is all," explained Pelios with false cheerfulness, trying not to look at the two men he knew were eyeing him closely.
"Go round the tradesmans entrance then," was the owners irritated reply.
Pelios forced a laugh. "You cant get up to the rooms from there. I dont want staff, I want one of the guests. My, ah, my niece. Come on, let me in, willya, I promise Ill fix the roof up proper this weekend, and I wont bother you any more."
Jonas yawned again, then sighed. "Alright you drunken bastard, but you owe me good, hear?"
"Aye, cross my heart," called Pelios with momentous relief. Jonas had not mentioned names. Thank the gods. At least, thanks to any god who was still friendly to Xena, that was.
He waited impatiently, trying not to glance at the strangers, humming under his breath. After what seemed like an age, Jonas opened the door, dressed in a heavy robe.
"Take your time, man," growled Pelios.
"Would you have me come down naked, then?"
The carpenter shuddered. "Good gods, no," he said fervently. "I might be getting old, but Im not ready to go blind yet, thank you very much."
Jonas chuckled deeply and stood back, holding open the door. "Come on, then. I took some food up not an hour ago, and Xena was still awake. Im sure-" He stopped, seeing the carpenters face had suddenly gone white. "Are you alright, man?"
It was the last thing he ever said. Without warning, the two men outside launched themselves through the doorway, shoving Pelios ahead of them violently. The carpenter smashed into Jonas helplessly and bore him backwards, a grunt of surprise flying from his lips. Pelios hit his head on a table and fell heavily to the floor, dazed for the moment.
"I knew it," snarled one of the strangers. "I knew you were here to warn the heathen!"
A metal-bound club appeared from under the cloak and Jonas flung up a shaking hand as if to ward it off.
"This is for sheltering the demon child, barkeep!" The club descended swiftly, violently, and Jonass forehead shattered under the impact. He staggered back, his body already convulsing uncontrollably. A chair broke and splintered beneath his weight. Jonas lost his footing, fell over and lay still, a thick glut of blood beginning to mingle with the sawdust on the scarred floorboards.
"Jonas!" cried Pelios, in anguish for his friend. "Jonas, no!" He groaned as a heavy boot caught him in the chest and he felt a rib crack.
"If you will lie down with dogs, heathen-lover," growled the taller of the two, kicking him again, savagely, "you get up with fleas."
"Or you dont get up at all," added the second, before swinging his club.
* * * *
"Have you thought about where to go next?" asked Gabrielle.
"Well? We cant stay here forever. Not just that the idea makes me sick to my stomach, but its not safe to stay still."
"I know. Where do you think we should go?"
"Youre asking me?"
"But youre the one whos been to all the places there are to go youd know better than me."
"You might think that, but I happen to disagree," said Xena lightly. "You see, theres this smart bard I keep running into and she has the best ideas of anyone I know."
Gabrielle grinned. "Dont lay it on too thick, warrior. Although flattery will get you everywhere."
"Oh yeah?" said Xena. "Does it get me my friend back?" Though the words were airy, there was no mistaking the seriousness in her eyes.
"News flash, Xena. She never left."
Xenas answering smile disappeared as there was a distant thud from somewhere underneath them.
"Did you hear that?" she asked quickly.
"Jonas! Jonas, no!" The voice was muffled, but there was no mistaking the panic in it.
"THAT," said the warrior, leaping from the bed. "Somethings happening in the bar."
"Ill go," Gabrielle said promptly. "The more you stay out of sight, the better."
Something wooden splintered.
"Sounds like a brawl," said Xena, her brow creased with worry.
"Stay here," insisted Gabrielle, as she grabbed her sais and ran out the door.
Xena followed her to the doorway and watched as the bard disappeared down the rickety stairs. She was torn. If there was danger, she didnt want Gabrielle going alone . Taking two steps forward, she-
"I SAID STAY THERE!" Gabrielles yell floated back up the stairs, and despite her worry, Xena couldnt help but grin guiltily.
As Gabrielle ran down the narrow hallway leading to the tavern area, doors began to open on both sides. The tousled head of a serving girl poked out.
"Gabrielle, whats going on?" she yelled after her.
"Get Landros!" Gabrielle called back. "And stay out of the tavern!"
Gabrielle burst into the bar room with one sai poised like a dagger, the other stretched in front of her. She was not prepared for what she saw, and for a second, she felt the floor tilt under her feet.
Jonas was already there, dead, sprawled on his face near a broken chair. Pelios was being held down by one man and savagely beaten by another.
After only a seconds pause, Gabrielle snapped.
She flew across the short distance separating her from the attackers, a blur in leather, the snarl already crossing her face. The first man never knew what hit him. Suddenly, a blonde tornado who seemed all feet and metal fists had tossed him across the room. He hit a table and bounced.
The second man, who had been holding Pelios on the floor, received a stunning blow to the head, followed by a foot planted so violently onto his solar plexus that the air left his chest with a whooshing sound. He fell backwards, gasping and choking.
Gabrielle dived after the first man and jerked him to his feet. "Who sent you?" she snarled, a sai poised to strike at his temple.
"Nobody sent us," panted the man. "We do our own work."
"What work is that? Why did you attack these men?"
"Any god-fearing mortal who wishes to be saved knows the child must die. We do what we think is right."
"So do I," growled Gabrielle furiously, and struck him savagely on the side of the head. He slumped, wordlessly.
The second man had staggered to his feet and now stood, swaying a little, club clutched in his hand.
"Do you subscribe to your friends philosophies too?" Gabrielle asked dangerously, advancing upon him with her weapons ready.
The man did not reply, but flung himself at her with a roar, his unsteady feet doing him a great disservice.
"I guess thats a yes." Gabrielle ducked his clumsy charge with ease and kicked him hard in the back as he stumbled past. He fell on his face. "Youll stay down if you know whats good for you," she said angrily, before rushing to Pelioss side.
"Pelios? Pelios?" As she knelt beside him, she felt her heart thudding in her chest. Was she too late? Was he ?
"Gab " moaned her uncle, blood bubbling from his mouth.
"Oh, thank you," she burst out feverishly, clasping his hands between hers. "Just hold on, okay, were gonna fix you right up. Dont you go anywhere, you just stay here with me, okay? Okay, Pelios? Just hold on."
She turned toward the stairs. "XENA!" she shouted urgently. "XENA, I NEED YOU, QUICKLY!"
Pelios struggled to speak, his breath coming in ragged gasps. The bruises were already beginning to surface.
"Dont try and talk, dont try and talk, just lie still, okay?" pleaded Gabrielle, stroking his hair. "Youre safe now, just be still."
Pelioss eyes drifted hazily to a point just over her shoulder, and he hissed suddenly, unable to form words. Gabrielle spun instantly, to discover the second man had not given up. He lumbered toward her now, club in hand, desperation in his eyes.
She leapt to her feet, and as the club swung for her skull, dropped to one knee and drove a sai deeply into his chest. His eyes flew open with shock and pain, and hot blood cascaded over her hands. As she pulled away, the man sank. There was a peculiar grace in the manner of his death. He sank like a butterfly, floated towards the floor, hands clasped to his chest as if in prayer.
Xena ran into the room then, sword in hand, Eve cradled in one arm, and Gabrielle glanced at her. When she looked back, the man was dead.
"What happened?" demanded the warrior, going down on her knees next to Pelios, skilled hands running over the length of his limbs.
"They were here for Eve," explained Gabrielle sadly. "Jonas ."
"JONAS!" came a scream from the doorway. Standing there, hair askew and tears in her eyes, was Kathleen, Jonass wife of thirty years. Her face was stricken, as well it might be, for there was no grace in the manner of her husbands death. He was simply an old man, clubbed down where he stood, and his body seemed smaller now, crumpled as it was.
Gabrielle went over to her. "Kathleen, Im so sorry. Im so sorry," she said softly, her own tears beginning. "I couldnt he was already I didnt get here in time. Gods, Im sorry."
"Who has done this?" sobbed the old woman, as Gabrielle wrapped loving arms around her. "Why has this happened to him?"
"This is my fault," said Xena quietly, the guilt a sheen on her skin, burning her fiercely. "Kathleen, I brought this to your home. Im so terribly sorry."
"No!" protested Gabrielle. "No, this isnt your fault! Kathleen, it was my decision to stay here."
Kathleen said nothing, her sobs against Gabrielles shoulder wracking her frame too deeply for speech.
Xena went to Jonas and turned him over, gently closing his eyes. Then she stood. "Gabrielle," she said, the calm veneer carefully in place, "were there any more of them?"
"No, just the two."
"Who do they work for?"
"Im not sure," said Gabrielle. "They said they did their own work, whatever that means."
"Probably just thugs trying to get in good with one god or another," the warrior said.
"Xena, we cant stay here."
From the floor, Pelios choked something unintelligible. "Shhh," soothed Xena, kneeling by him again. "Youre just in shock. Youll be okay. Sore for a while, but youll live. Right now you need rest. Dont speak. Well take you home."
"Its too far away," spoke up Landros, the cook, who had come in and now stood pale with horror, his big arms around Kathleen. "And theres nobody to look after him. Better to take him to Gabrielles house."
Pelios spluttered then, clinging to consciousness by a thread. When Xena looked down, he rolled his eyes at her weakly, coughing.
"Pelios, save your strength. Its over. Were safe now, just relax." He subsided, his head lolling limply.
Gabrielle touched Kathleens shoulder. "At least there is still one person able to be held responsible," she told her gently, pointing to the unconscious man on the floor. "Landros, you should take Kathleen up to her room now. Well organise everything down here, okay? Well take care of everything."
Kathleen straightened in Landross arms and faced Xena. "Warrior," she said brokenly, her voice barely a whisper, "you will never be welcome here again. Do you understand me?"
Xena paled and swallowed. "Yes. I understand."
Kathleen said nothing and made her way unsteadily into the hall, followed by Landros. Xena and Gabrielle stood silently as her shuffling steps grew quieter and finally disappeared.
Pelios had succumbed to the worst of the blows he had received; he lay now, heavily unconscious and snuffling thickly through his own blood.
"Please forgive me ." Xenas voice was a whisper too, and Gabrielle could almost see her heart breaking. She went to her friend and held her close. Xena clutched her desperately with shaking hands.
"When will this be over?" she asked, shuddering. "When will it stop?"
"Xena, youre not to blame," Gabrielle murmured softly. "You know that. I know that."
"Gabrielle, Eve is my child. I should never have brought her here. Its my fault."
"No, it isnt," insisted Gabrielle. "Its brave of you to allow Kathleen to believe it. I love you for it. And one day, when her pain is gone, well come back here and shell know it too. Okay?"
"Okay," agreed Xena. "Gabrielle, what would I do without you?"
Gabrielle laughed softly. "Traveling salesman?" she suggested.
Eve began to cry.
* * * *
Outside the Titan, Elrisia nodded to her companion. "Its time," she said in her melodious voice. "Send a man to the temple. And warn the farmer."
Her companion hesitated.
"What are you waiting for?" she hissed. "Look in there! If we do not act, we will be discovered! Do you wish to be held accountable for the misfortunes that child brings among us?"
"No. But I think-"
"I am not paying you to think, Vestan. Our sect is small. Do you not wish for it to thrive and gain followers? You know we can only survive with the goodwill of a god behind us. Can you think of a better way to obtain it than to prevent his death? We do not have the force or strength to best these warriors, that much is obvious. But the Matrigarians do. Go, NOW."
* * * *
It was half an hour before the tavern had been returned to its normal state. Both Xena and Gabrielle were weary, and the hour was very late indeed as they bore Jonass body to his room. Not speaking to the sobbing Kathleen, they respectfully withdrew to allow her to clean and clothe him. Downstairs, they debated briefly about the horses and the decision was made to leave them where they were until morning. Landros offered to come with them to help get Pelios to the farmhouse, and his offer was gratefully accepted.
They staggered through the dark now, Gabrielle carrying their belongings and a fractious Eve, Xena and Landros at either end of the stretcher of a still-unconscious Pelios. Xena felt his weight dragging at her arms and shoulders, and her feet were heavy as she stumbled along the road.
Her physical weariness was not what was breaking her down it was the fresh burden of guilt that she bore. Guilt, as Xena well knew, kept a cruel household, and she had been a resident for as long as she could remember. The gentle, bloodied face of the tavern owner kept surfacing in her mind, and she knew it would be long nights before she could sleep properly again.
Gabrielle followed quietly, in her mind rehearsing what she would say to her father. Here, right in front of her, was an example of what it was he feared most about Xena. How was she to convince him to let them stay until morning?
"Next gate, Xena," prompted Landros.
"I know," said the warrior, her heart sinking as she saw a light still burning in the house. She had secretly hoped it would just be a matter of bedding down in the barn, but she saw now that was not to be.
"Hecuba!" bawled Landros, caring nothing for the hour. "Hecuba, your brother is wounded!"
It was a mere moment before the door opened, Herodotus outlined in its frame. "Who comes?" he called.
"Its me, Father," called Gabrielle. "Pelios has been hurt. We have to come in."
The smaller shadows of Hecuba and Lila appeared behind the farmer. Hecuba pushed past her husband and ran forward.
* * * *
One half-hour and one explanation later, Herodotus was furiously pacing the length of the house while Lila and Hecuba tended to Pelios. He stopped near the collection of swords on the wall, and if they could have cut Xena down by his willpower alone, they would have.
Xena sat quietly next to a smouldering Gabrielle. It had been mere minutes before she and her father had come to confrontation, and she was having trouble restraining her newly-awoken temper.
"And how is it you now dare to bring this danger to my house, warrior?" Herodotus demanded.
"As my guest," said Gabrielle firmly, pushing her chair back. "As my friend, who needs shelter."
"It isnt enough indignity that she takes my daughter and turns her into a, a monster, a girl masquerading as a hero?" exploded the farmer. "Look at you, you sit there with the blood of my neighbour, my friend, on your hands! To ask our protection is outrageous! How can I have her here?"
"I was hoping after all this time the fact that Im your daughters friend would be enough to win your tolerance, if not your respect," said Xena flatly. "I see I was wrong."
"Damn right youre wrong!" Herodotus spat. "Youve brought danger to this whole village just by your presence. You and your child."
"Therell only be trouble if someone betrays her OUR presence to the gods," said Gabrielle. "Im bound up in this too, Father, havent you realised that yet? I go where Xena goes."
"Right now, Xena goes to the forest," said the warrior quietly. "Gabrielle, I dont want you to fight with your family over this."
"This?" shouted Gabrielle, suddenly angry. "Whats this? This is you, Xena! You and Eve, and your safety! Dont you play this down, dont you DARE! Dont push aside my feelings like that! Ive fought for you a hundred times and Ill fight a hundred more if I have to! If you leave, you make that worth nothing! Do you think I havent had to compromise myself before?"
"I never asked you to compromise, Gabrielle, just to be my friend."
"Gods, Xena, being your friend means compromise. It means danger and, and stress, and killing to protect ourselves ." She trailed off and stared at her hands. The mans blood had dried between her fingers now, and it cracked as she flexed her fist. But it was shed so that Eve may live, so that Pelios would be safe in defense, not with intent. And that makes the difference
New understanding flooded her heart, tempered by the oddest of feelings. Relief. "Xena."
The warrior looked up, afraid.
"Xena, Im willing to pay that price to be with you."
Xena wondered if she had heard correctly. "You are?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Yes," she said slowly. "I am. I didnt accept it before. Now I see."
"But your fighting ."
Gabrielle crossed the room and knelt next to her friend, placing a gentle hand on her cheek. "Ill always hate violence. Always. But I also know that its a necessary evil. People, human beings have such great power for harm. And for good. I choose now to use my power of harm for good. To defend myself, to defend you and Eve." She tilted Xenas face until blue eyes met green. "Xena, I wont lie to you. It hurts me and itll continue to hurt me. But I can live with it if it means I can live with you."
Xena covered Gabrielles hand with her own and fought against the most un-warriorish tears that were threatening to consume her. She couldnt speak, but she knew that, as always, Gabrielle understood.
"And if my family cant support me," continued Gabrielle, glancing at Herodotus, "then theres more truth in what you told me than ever before."
"What truth?" asked Herodotus. "What are you talking about?"
"Xena once told me that there are two kinds of families, Father. The kind youre born into and the kind you make for yourself." She stood up and fixed serious eyes on Herodotus, not letting go of the warriors hand. "Xena and Eve are my family too. I would never turn my back on you, and I wont turn my back on them. Please understand me, Father. Please. Dont make me choose between you."
Stricken, the farmer stood silent. His eldest daughter had drawn an invisible line in the air between them and for the first time in his life, Herodotus knew that his heart had been blind to what was right. But the choice had been made and unbeknownst to Gabrielle, already set in motion. This knowledge was what now turned the farmers face a sickly shade of grey.
"Daughter," he whispered, "I cannot stop them. They are already on their way."
"Who is?" demanded Xena, rising to her feet.
"The Matrigari they promised you wouldnt be harmed," said the broken farmer, as he felt the room begin to sink beneath his feet, knowing even as he spoke the weakness of the lie, the sheer translucence of what he had desperately forced himself to believe. "They promised "
Shouts came from the forest then.
"Father, what have you done?" Gabrielles voice was hollow, and the blood drained from her cheeks.
"What I thought best, Gabrielle." Herodotus held out a pleading hand. "Only what I thought best. I was afraid for your life. The Matrigari-"
"So you thought youd sacrifice Eves life for mine?" Gabrielle snarled as she moved swiftly to the window. "What kind of best is that?"
"Nine out back," reported Xena, the flat curtain of battle-sense already veiling her features. "One hundred yards out and closing. Fire and spears."
"Five out front," replied Gabrielle shortly, digging for her bag. "The same. I hope youre proud of yourself, Father."
The shouts grew louder, and a rock smashed against the front door. "Send out the child!" bellowed a heavy voice.
Lila came running in from the bedroom. "Whos outside, Gabrielle? Whats happening?"
"Father knows best, thats what," spat her older sister. "Stay inside, Lila. Watch Mom and Pelios, okay?" She stood upright, and the sword flashed in her hands, to be used in battle for the first time. "Xena, Ill take the back."
"No time to argue. Just go, alright, dont worry about me. GO!"
"Im sorry," choked Herodotus blindly. "Im so sorry."
"Its a little late for that," snapped Gabrielle, heading for the back door.
"I want to help," called the farmer. "Please let me help."
"Watch Eve." Xena opened the front door and vanished into the darkness. The lilting battle cry burst into the air like song, and the first clashes of steel on armour were heard. Gabrielle flattened herself against the back door jamb and cracked it open. Firelight flickered through the small opening, and she could see the line of men with torches climbing the back fence. There was no time.
"If you really mean that, Father, then theres one thing you can do for us. But you have to hurry."
"Anything anything ."
"When I draw the men away, I need to you to take Eve and our bags to the stables. Saddle the horses, and get them to the arch."
The line of men were less than twenty feet from the house, now, and Gabrielle knew that if she didnt distract them, half would peel away after Xena within seconds. It sounded by now as if Xena had dispatched at least three of her opponents, but Gabrielle was taking no chances.
"But-" protested Herotodus.
"Do you want to help or not?" she growled. "Do it! Do it now!"
Gabrielle flung the door open. It slammed back on its hinges, the wood splintering under the strain. Then she charged.
Easily ducking the first two spears that hurtled toward her, she quickly cut her eyes to the left. The outhouse. If she could get her back against it, they wouldnt be able to close a circle around her.
She ran, the nine Matrigarians following. The killing blood began to pound in her ears, and she could feel her body take on a floating sensation. It was the moment when instinct took over from reason, and for the first time, Gabrielle went with it willingly. With a impulsive dodge to the left she doubled back, swiftly weaving just beyond their reach, using her momentum to strike fiercely at the legs of the last man she passed. He toppled, screaming, the blood jetting thickly. She ran again, curses echoing in her ears and the sweat forming on her forehead.
A sai flashed in the darkness, hurtling lethally. Metal buried itself in flesh.
Another, the whistling sound of its flight stopped short with a meaty thud.
She had passed the outhouse now, and angled right, bringing herself around in a wide circle. It was impossible to face them straight on until their numbers were diminished. A spear buzzed past her head and buried itself in a furrow. She stumbled for a second. Closing her hand over the shaft as she passed, she jerked it free of the earth, turned swiftly and hurled it into the shadows behind her without aiming. There was a choking scream and she tallied up as the chase began again. Five left.
Ahead of her was the northern fence boundary. She picked up speed, vaulted lightly over it, and dropped into a crouch. Remaining as still as rock, breathing deeply and quietly, she scanned the darkness. Coming towards her, she could hear the Matrigarians spreading out in a wide line. She grinned. They thought they were netting her in, but what they had really done was to make each other more vulnerable, like a deer that separates itself from the herd.
The first man surfaced through the gloom, and came straight to the fence, not even looking around him. Gabrielle waited until he began to awkwardly climb and then shot upwards, steel flashing. The sword pierced his throat. Four left.
Xena was dimly aware of a distant bell ringing. She planted her foot on the belly of the last templeman and ripped her sword free of his ribcage. What was the bell for? Fire? Raiders?
"Do you hear that?" choked the dying soldier at her feet, the blood running down his chin. "Thats our temple bell. The Wind God knows youre here, heathen. You might kill us, the messengers, but your demon child will not be spared."
"Spare this," growled Xena angrily, and a boot smashed down upon his face. She searched the darkness for any sign of others, her senses alive. She saw and heard nothing but the rising wind.
Boreas. The wind. It was picking up with an alarming rate, whipping the treetops into a awkward dance they didnt know the steps to. Xena whirled. "GABRIELLE!" she screamed. "GABRIELLE! TIME TO GO, COME ON!"
Just past the north pasture, Gabrielle heard Xenas cry through the mini-tornado she was in the middle of. The loose-packed soil stung her face, arms and legs like bees, and not for the first time she mentally patted herself on the back for cutting her hair short. It was strange the kinds of thoughts that came into your head while you were sticking a sword through somebodys stomach.
The last Matrigarian was not having as much trouble with the sudden gale as she was. His heavy armour and helmet protected him from the worst of the debris, and he angled toward her now with deliberate steps, his spear clutched firmly in both hands. Gabrielle weighed the sword in her hands, and tilted her head against the wind. She had been practicing this, and if she could compensate for the wind .
She drew her arm back, sighted and threw as hard as she could. The sword flew from her hand, blurring and whistling, tumbling end over end and buried itself deeply in the narrow gap between the templemans helmet and breast plate. He fell, his choking squeal cut deathly short, and Gabrielle covered her face with horror.
"Gabrielle!" came the shout from behind her.
"Xena! Over here!"
They were both shouting now, the howl of the wind sucking away anything of less volume. Xena staggered through the dust, her long hair whipping about her face in mad tangles, dirt streaking her face. She reached the bard and immediately hugged her close, an embrace which Gabrielle gratefully returned, resting her head on a broad shoulder for a moment.
"Are you all right?" asked Xena into her ear.
"Yes, are you?"
"Never better. Are there any more?"
"No, that was the last one," Gabrielle yelled, pointing at the dead man on the ground, her eyes blurring with wind-tears. "I have to get my sais, though, theres one over there, and one near here somewhere."
"Split up!" called the warrior. "But we have to hurry, did you hear that bell?"
Gabrielle, searching the ground ahead, shook her head.
"It was the temple," shouted Xena. "Boreas knows were here!"
"DAMN MY FATHER TO TARTARUS!" screamed Gabrielle, furiously wrenching a sai free from its bloody housing. "Ill never forgive him for this!"
"Gabrielle!" shouted Xena, turning over another body, secretly impressed with the amount of damage the lithe young bard had done, "thats not the way to think! Hes your father!"
"I dont care!" shouted Gabrielle, wiping the sai off on the dead mans hood. "He turned us in, Xena, how can I forgive that?"
Xena went over and put her hand on Gabrielles shoulder, leaning in close. "Because youre you," she said, smiling, ignoring the soil that stung her face. "Because youre the only person in the world who could." She held out a sai. "Here. Lets go."
Gabrielle briefly clasped Xenas arm. "Thank you. For both things."
They headed back for the house Gabrielle wanted to check to make sure Herodotus had not left anything behind. Near the fence-line again, a glint caught Xenas eye and she ran over to the last downed templeman.
"Gabrielle!" she called. "Your sword!" She pulled it free and held it out.
Gabrielle stopped and turned around, a strange expression on her face. Finally, she shook her head. "Leave it, Xena," she shouted. "I got it as a symbol of something I thought I needed to be to survive. I dont need that symbol any more. I know I dont need a sword to fight for what I believe in."
Xena nodded and let go of the hilt, squinting her eyes against the stinging winds. "If Boreas is on his way, then we cant stay here hell destroy the whole town!"
"I know!" Gabrielle called back, already moving. "Fathers got Eve and the horses ready. Hurry!"
They set off at a dead run through the gale.
* * * *
Herodotus waited nervously under the arch, the horses blowing and stamping irritably at this stranger who had disturbed their rest, made more uneasy by the unnatural wind. There was nowhere to put Eve, so the farmer had to hold her, something which made him more unsettled than ever. It had been a very long time since he had held a child. He spent a good portion of time trying not to look at the baby, and the rest of his time trying to tear his gaze away.
So this was the child who would ruin the gods.
"You look like your mother," he admitted quietly, and Eve blinked at him, beaming. Herodotus caught his grin before it surfaced. "Yes, youre very beautiful. And dont you know it?" He looked off into the darkness. "Gabrielle was a beautiful child, too," he said softly, wondering sadly if he would ever be able to look his daughter in the face again.
As suddenly as it had arrived, the wind fell eerily dead. A creeping heaviness hung in the air, the trees as lifeless now as they were frantic beforehand. Silence. Nothingness. A storm was coming.
Herodotus struggled for his breath, feeling the heavy air slide down his throat like treacle. There was a snapping sound from the woods then, and the farmers heart nearly stopped. Just a branch. Just a branch?
The farmer backed into the shadows, breath thundering in his lungs. Was it more soldiers? How would he explain himself if it was?
Then "Herodotus!" A hiss from the trees.
"Pelios?" quavered the farmer.
"Yes, damn you, you serpent!" growled the carpenter, limping forward painfully, followed by a nervous looking Lila and Hecuba. His face was battered and lumped, one eye purple and swollen shut. The words were thick in his mouth, slurred and slow, but there was no mistaking his rage. "How dare you, man? How dare you betray them like that? I should snap your neck from your shoulders for what youve done!"
"Pelios, I cant excuse myself," stammered Herodotus. "I, I thought I was doing the right thing ."
"People like you always think theyre doing the right thing," snarled Pelios. "And more often than not, its people like Gabrielle who wind up the worse for it, you bloody coward. Did you think to save her skin or your own?"
"Dont talk to me if you know whats good for you," Pelios snapped. "Hand over that child."
Herodotus turned pleading eyes to his wife and daughter. Lila turned her back, her face white. Hecubas eyes were brimming with tears.
"Husband," she whispered, "please dont say anything. Dont say anything to me right now."
She turned away from him, and a small scream escaped her lips as she was presented with the blood-spattered visage of her eldest daughter emerging from the trees, Xena a few steps behind.
Gabrielle ignored her father and went straight to her uncle, who was cradling Eve with incredible gentleness.
"Salright, girl, dont worry about me, Im fine. You have to get going now. This calm isnt natural. Somethings coming, and you shouldnt be here to find out what." He held Eve out to Xena. "Here. Good journey, Xena. Ill be praying for you."
"Not to any of our gods, I hope," said the warrior, taking her daughter and clasping his hand warmly. "Thank you, Pelios. Eve and I wont forget you."
"Aye, Im a hard fellow to shake," he agreed, his grin disfiguring his battered face almost beyond recognition.
Gabrielle flung her arms around him, drawing a hiss of pain. "Pelios," she said, her voice cracking. "Im so sorry."
Her uncle held her tightly. "Dont you ever be sorry for who you are or what you believe in," he told her firmly. "Youre my girl and I wouldnt have you any other way, you hear me?"
"Thank you," she whispered, holding him close. "Ill miss you."
"Me too, girl. Now get out of here."
Xena nodded to Hecuba and Lila, and turned away. Thinking better of it, she suddenly went to Lila and kissed her on the forehead. "Goodbye Lila," she whispered to the surprised girl. "I hope were friends."
Lila smiled awkwardly. "Of course," she mumbled, colour rising in her cheeks.
Gabrielle hugged her mother and her sister. "Ill come back as soon as I can," she said. "I promise."
Without a word, she took her reins from her father and jumped atop her horse. Behind her, Xena did the same.
A whistling noise came from the sky, high-pitched and threatening. The heaviness of the air was suddenly gone, replaced by a chill that made them all shiver.
"Go!" urged Pelios frantically. "Look!"
A league or two away, above the treetops, was a heaving mass of dark clouds, circling slowly, forming themselves into a funnel shape. A tornado. Boreas. Gabrielle spurred her horse forward a few steps, looking back to where her family stood.
"Go! Go!" shouted Lila. "Please hurry!"
Gabrielle let her gaze linger on her father, who was drooping like a broken branch, one hand supporting himself on the arch. He stared back at her, white-lipped, his mouth moving but making no sound.
Finally "Forgive me."
Gabrielle couldnt hear the words with her ears, but she heard them with her heart. "Yes," she said, knowing he saw.
She turned her horse to the road. The storm was closer now, and she could see black specks in its core, pieces of the forest that had become part of its rage.
"You ready?" she called to Xena.
"As Ill ever be," came the reply. "Lets go."
The horses thundered away, Xena in the lead, Gabrielle at her shoulder. Neither looked back.
Pelios watched them go. The swirling storm instantly changed direction to follow, cutting a swathe through the forest behind them, carving out trees as if they were toothpicks, tearing logs and rocks from the earth like feathers.
"Safe journey," he whispered. "I pray someone watches over you, if the gods will not."
He turned, blinded by tears, and made his way back to the inn.
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