Disclaimer... Please read.
This story is a continuation of the Vengeance storyline. It contains some discussion of the aftermath of rape. If this is a subject you find offensive or disturbing, please do not read further. It also contains at least one scene of graphic (not sexual) violence.
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The characters of Xena and Gabrielle belong to MCA/Universal. No infringement on their rights is intended.
Xena looked across the fire at Gabrielle. She'd been sitting staring into the flames, silent now for a long time.
"You're quiet tonight."
Gabrielle shook herself and moved around the fire until she sat
next to Xena. She had tears in her eyes, and Xena put her arm around her waist.
Gabrielle shook her head and looked up at Xena.
"I just keep thinking about Taleen." She shivered as she felt a
chill at the memory. "Why did she take her life, Xena? Why didn't I see the blood on her wrists that night and help her?" She looked back into the flames and tears again welled up in her eyes. She remembered her own shock at the sight of the lifeless woman, and the fear of the man who'd led her to such an act.
Xena hugged the bard to her. "Gabrielle, you gave your life to save Reyna. We'll never know why Taleen did what she did. Maybe she couldn't face the possibility that she'd have to live through that night, every night, as a slave. She made a choice. Not what I'd have done." She looked down into Gabrielle's eyes, "Not what you'd do. But for her, maybe it was the only thing she thought she could do."
Gabrielle leaned her head against Xena's chest. "I just felt so.... helpless. I couldn't stop it, and I couldn't do anything for her, after..."
Xena could feel the trembling of the body so close to hers. She leaned her head down and slowly inhaled the fragrance of the soft hair now brushing her face. A memory rose in her mind of another time, another woman crying in her arms; her own helplessness in the face of another's pain. She said a silent prayer for her, for Taleen, for Reyna, and for Gabrielle. Of all the crimes humanity perpetrated against itself, this was the most insidious. She put her arms around Gabrielle and held her gently while she cried, waiting for her to calm enough to hear.
"Do you remember when I told you about how taking a life changes everything? That it becomes a part of you?" Xena waited until she felt Gabrielle's head move in a slight nod. "Rape is the same way. It colors the sun in the morning, and deepens the shadows at night. It makes you question your own worth as a person, and forever destroys any illusion of safety." She closed her eyes and spoke softly, sadly. "It's forever a part of your life; never far away... even in the arms of a lover."
Gabrielle looked up at Xena. "You, Xena?"
Xena shook her head and her eyes moved briefly to look into the
fire, then back to the face so close to her own.
"A friend. A long time ago." She lifted the bard's chin and gently kissed her lips. Her voice was husky with emotion as she looked into the beloved green eyes. "I'm truly sorry about Taleen. No one should have to go through that. But I'm so thankful it wasn't you. And I'm glad you wanted to come back."
Now it was Xena's turn for tears, and she turned away from Gabrielle, rising and walking into the darkness. She walked blindly for a moment, trying to get herself under control. She looked up at the stars and said a silent prayer of thanks to the Gods for returning Gabrielle to her. She still had a hard time believing Gabrielle was really alive. She couldn't get the picture out of her mind of Gabrielle lying in the road, and she could still feel her lifeless body in her arms.
Gabrielle watched Xena disappear into the shadows. She touched her lips with the tip of one finger, lost in thought about Xena's words, and about the look on Xena's face two nights before when she'd awakened from her exhausted sleep, still believing that Gabrielle was dead.
Gabrielle had built a fire and gotten food from the soldiers of Xena's army. She'd been sitting by the fire when Xena had suddenly sat up and looked at her, still not quite awake. She'd looked into Gabrielle's eyes, then lain back on the ground and put her arm over her face. She'd begun to cry, and Gabrielle had realized that she'd thought she was dreaming. She'd walked to Xena, and when she'd knelt beside her and gently pulled her arm from her face, Xena had almost broken her ribs again in a bear hug.
They'd spent many of the hours since talking about the past days, and now were just as likely to burst into laughter as tears. There was still much talking to be done. Gabrielle had been delighted to hear that Reyna was safely home, but felt responsible for Taleen's death. Xena hadn't dealt with the emotions Gabrielle's death had caused, and, although Gabrielle had explained that she wouldn't be alive again if Xena had killed Neptus, she still couldn't forgive herself for letting him live.
Xena reappeared at the edge of the firelight when Darelus hailed their camp. He walked to stand before her, holding out his arm to grip hers.
"Xena, we leave at first light." He looked over to where
Gabrielle sat. Lowering his voice, he turned back to Xena. "The
prisoner is chained as you ordered. I can detail a squad-"
Xena cut him off before he could finish the thought.
"No, Darelus. We can handle him. You're going to need every
man you have. Send word when you find Micasus, and I'll be there to help take him down."
Darelus nodded, looked once more at Gabrielle, and walked back to where the army was camped.
Xena stood looking at Gabrielle, trying to read the bard's thoughts by the set of her body. She didn't look happy.
"Gabrielle, are you sure you're all right with this?"
Gabrielle shook her head, tears on her face. "No, I'm not. Neither are you, but we have to take him back. It's not just what he did to me, you know. It's what he did to Taleen, to Reyna, to you..."
Xena sat beside Gabrielle. Her own face was hard as she remembered the injuries that had taken Gabrielle's life. Her fingers involuntarily sought out the place on Gabrielle's back where the knife wound had been, and the pain of that day was evident in her voice.
"I wanted him dead. The Gods help me, I still want him dead!"
Gabrielle let her arm circle Xena's waist and she laid her head
against the trembling shoulder.
They sat in silence, each lost in painful memories as they stared
into the flames.
Gabrielle awakened to the sound of men and horses as the army pulled out. She sat up and looked around as her mind slowly focused on the world around her. The sun had just cleared the horizon and the morning air was clean and crisp. She took a deep breath, thinking she'd never tire of that simple pleasure. Scanning the camp, she found Xena's familiar form and smiled when their eyes met.
Across the camp, Xena watched Gabrielle as she sat up and stretched, smiling to herself. Xena's eyes lit up and her heart leapt when she saw the green eyes meet hers. She felt again the twisting pain in her chest at the memory of those eyes going dark, and she gave a vicious jerk to the chain in her hand.
"Walk, or I'll get the horse and drag you." She turned to the man behind her with a sneer of disgust. "I promised Gabrielle I'd take you back for trial. You give me the slightest reason, I'll be just as happy to deliver your bones!"
Neptus got to his feet, kicking at the chains around his ankles.
"This isn't the best way to walk. You could at least give me a
horse to ride."
Xena started walking, not looking back as she spoke over her shoulder.
"Just be glad you've still got legs."
Leading Neptus away from the main camp, Xena wrapped the chain around a tree. She checked the chains on his ankles and wrists, then turned and walked back to where Gabrielle sat chewing reflectively on a crust of bread, looking back in the direction Xena had come.
"Thank you for getting him out of my sight for a while." She offered Xena a piece of the bread.
"I don't want to have to look at him either." Their eyes met as Xena reached to take the proffered bread. She was glad to see the smile in Gabrielle's eyes, in spite of the frown on her face.
"It'll take us at least two days to get back to Reyna's village. Like it or not, if we're going to take him back, we've got to look at him. Gabrielle, just try to ignore him, that's what I'm going to do."
Gabrielle sighed, shaking her head. "I won't be comfortable until we're there. I don't even like him looking at me. Gives me chills." She shivered at the thought.
Xena squatted beside Gabrielle, reaching for another piece of bread. "You let me know if he gets out of line."
Gabrielle smiled, reaching down and picking up the staff at her side. "He won't get out of line. I've got my staff now. He's got a few coming, anyway."
Xena chuckled. "The idea is to get him there in one piece."
Gabrielle hefted her staff. "Oh, he'll be in one piece!" She ran
her hand up the length of the staff, her fingers wrapping around it like an old friend. Her voice lowered. "I felt like one of my arms had been cut off."
She turned to Xena. "I need to learn more, Xena. About fighting, I mean. Without my staff, I can't defend myself. Will you teach me how to kick and fight?"
Xena stood and looked toward the trees where she'd left Neptus. She looked down into Gabrielle's eyes, saw the mix of fear and hope. If it would calm her fear.......
Gabrielle's eyes widened. She shook her head as she watched
Xena begin to pack their things. "What, no argument?"
Xena threw Gabrielle's bedroll at her as she answered. "No, no argument." She whistled for Argo. "You're ready. You're pretty good with that staff, but I'd feel better if you didn't depend on it so much."
She picked up the saddle as Argo trotted toward her. She spoke over her shoulder as she threw the saddle across the mare's back.
"We'll never get there if we don't get started."
Through the trees of the thick forest on the other side of the abandoned camp, a pair of blue eyes watched as Xena and Gabrielle packed their belongings on the mare and then moved toward the man chained at the other side of the clearing. The eyes narrowed as the man stood and Gabrielle walked to face him, looking up into his face, shaking her staff at him while Xena stood behind her, holding the chain that tied him.
Neptus stood as the two women walked toward him. His eyes widened as he recognized the smaller of the two, and he growled at her when she walked to stand looking up into his face.
"I thought I killed you."
"Yeah, well, that was your mistake." She put the end of her
staff under his chin and looked into his eyes. Her own eyes were hard, and her voice was edged with steel. "You bastard! If anyone ever deserved to die, and die slowly, it's you! Hades has a special place for people like you, you know."
Neptus met the hatred in her eyes with a grim smile. He didn't know how she had survived her wounds, but the implications were unnerving. She must have favor with the Gods.
Xena unwrapped the chain from the tree and walked to stand behind Gabrielle. She could see the bard trembling in an effort to control her rage. She reached out and put her own unsteady hand on the smaller woman's shoulder.
Gabrielle shook the staff as she looked into his eyes, searching for any sign of remorse; some shred of humanity she could use as a base for understanding. Her voice lowered as she accepted that none existed.
"I never thought I could take pleasure at the thought of anyone's death. I was wrong."
She turned away from him, reaching up to put her hand on Xena's arm, looking into the blue eyes. She shook her head as words failed her, and walked to stand next to Argo. She lowered her head to rest against the mare's side as she fought the tears. She was determined not to let him see her cry. Groping blindly for the reins, she led the mare down the path, leaving Xena to follow with Neptus.
The sun was high in the morning sky before Gabrielle finally slowed her pace ahead of Xena and Neptus. She had walked off her anger, and she wanted to be closer to Xena. She pulled Argo to a halt, and turned to look back at the warrior.
"Are you hungry, Xena?" She looked into Xena's eyes, avoiding looking at Neptus.
Xena walked to stand beside the bard, putting herself between Gabrielle and the man at the end of the chain. She looked into the green eyes, relieved to see a smile trying to work up from the depths.
"There's a creek up ahead. We'll stop there."
Gabrielle peeked behind the warrior, nodding toward the chained
man. "Think we can get rid of him long enough for a swim?"
Xena smiled. "Fish for lunch?"
"Sounds good to me!"
Rounding a curve in the path, they came on the creek. Gabrielle headed upstream to find a pool while Xena chained Neptus securely to a large oak. He made a brief attempt to escape, until Xena's elbow made solid contact with his jaw.
She bent over him as he slumped to the ground. Patting his cheek, she smiled at the thought of a swim.
With a last look at the unconscious man, she followed the creek
to find Gabrielle already in the cool water. Stripping off her armor, she stood still for a moment, listening to the forest sounds around her. Satisfied that they were alone, she slipped out of her leather, then removed her linen shift. She strode to the water's edge, and had leaned down to put her hand in the water when a noise made her turn suddenly, just in time to catch a well-aimed fish squarely in the chest.
Flipping the fish to the bank, she turned to see Gabrielle, waist deep in the water, grinning from ear to ear.
Gabrielle laughed, backing away from the grinning warrior.
"I've waited so long to do that!"
Xena dove into the water, swimming hard toward Gabrielle,
closing the distance between them in spite of the bard's efforts to escape. She came out of the water beside Gabrielle, lifting the smaller woman clear of the water and holding her there.
"Hey, c'mon! It was just a fish!" Gabrielle struggled in Xena's arms as the warrior laughed. "Xena, let me down!"
"Oh, you want in the water? Here, let me help!" With this, Xena flipped the bard out of her arms and headfirst back into the water. She came up sputtering and laughing as Xena began to circle the pool with long lazy strokes, turning onto her back to look back at her companion. She couldn't help smiling as she watched Gabrielle playing in the clear water.
The warm sun and cool, clear water did much to wash away the sorrow both women still felt over the events of the past week. The small pool held many fish, and they soon had more than enough for a meal flopping on the bank. Xena built a fire while Gabrielle prepared the fish for cooking.
They returned briefly to the water after they had eaten, then stretched out in the sun to dry, picking out familiar shapes in the puffy clouds that floated through the blue sky overhead, finally giving in to the drowsiness that came with the feeling of contentment.
As Xena and Gabrielle laughed in the sun, they were unaware of the cloaked figure standing in the trees. The blue eyes filled with tears as they watched the women playing in the water, moving occasionally to look back through the trees to where Neptus lay, still unconscious.
"You know, I like him a lot better this way!"
Xena smiled at Gabrielle across Argo's back as they tied Neptus across the saddle. They'd finally returned with food for him, only to find that he was still too groggy to stand. Together, they'd managed to get him onto the mare, laughing when he nearly slid out of the saddle, then decided to lay him across it and tie him in place.
"Hmmm, I guess I hit him a lot harder than I thought. You're right, though, he's a much nicer guy this way."
They spent the rest of the day walking together, leading Argo with her protesting burden. Xena was glad they'd taken the time to stop and swim at the creek that morning. She hadn't seen Gabrielle smile like this since she'd left her at Reyna's village.
Making camp that evening, Xena chained Neptus to a tree at one side of the small clearing. Gabrielle rummaged through their packs and came up with bread and cheese, and some dried meat.
Xena had disappeared into the trees, so Gabrielle divided the food and took a portion to the man who'd been watching her. He sat against the tree, leering at her as she approached.
"Where'd your girlfriend go?"
Gabrielle spun on her heel and walked back to the packs, placing
the food on the ground. Her hands shook as she began laying out their bedrolls. Behind her, Neptus laughed.
"Hey, you gonna feed me or not?"
"You can starve..."
He leaned toward her, speaking in a mocking tone. "You're
wasting your time, you know. They won't do anything. You're not dead, and Micasus will pay off that bitch's family to get me back."
Gabrielle ran into the woods, trying to shut out the laughter that followed her. Tears blinded her and she suddenly found herself being held in a strong, familiar embrace.
"Gabrielle? What's wrong" Xena dropped the rabbit she'd been carrying and pulled the bard close, feeling an instant rage at the sight of the tears. She held her for a long time, feeling again the urge to put an end to that man's life...
They returned to the camp, Gabrielle staying at the far side of the small clearing, while Xena went to stand in front of Neptus.
He ignored her, looking instead toward Gabrielle. Xena leaned down and put her hand around his throat, slamming his head against the tree behind him, and looking into his eyes. The fire in her eyes and the tone of her voice left little doubt of the truth of her words.
"You say another word, you're a dead man! You got that?"
Neptus looked sullenly into the steel blue eyes inches from
his. He gave a slight nod, and gasped for breath when she released
her hold and spun away from him. She built a fire and skinned the
rabbit. They ate in silence, the happiness they'd found earlier
now gone, and both soon stretched out on their blankets, quietly
waiting for sleep
A shrill cry of pain broke the stillness of the forest night, startling both women to full wakefulness.
Xena rolled to her feet, sword in hand. Gabrielle grabbed her staff and stood behind her. Neptus was writhing on the ground, a cloaked figure standing over him, sword in hand.
"You're pretty good against an unarmed man."
The tall figure turned to face Xena and the hood was thrown
back to reveal thick, shoulder length, honey-blond hair that seemed to glow in the firelight. Sky-blue eyes were framed in a strong, square face. The woman drew herself to her full height and looked down into Xena's eyes. She stood a full hand's-width taller than Xena, forcing the warrior to look up, and Xena wasn't happy.
"I have no fight with you, Xena."
She threw the bloody sword into the dirt. She looked at the
man on the ground as his rattling breath ceased.
"My fight was with him. He slipped his chains. I made sure he didn't escape." She stood silent for a moment. Satisfied that he was indeed dead, she met Xena's eyes again.
"I'll answer your questions; I have nothing to hide. I could use some food."
Xena lowered her sword. She saw pain and sadness in the taller woman's eyes, but no threat. She motioned with her head toward the fire.
"You can start with your name."
Gabrielle moved warily aside as the woman walked to the fire and threw off her cloak. She and Xena exchanged surprised glances at the sight of the armor the woman wore beneath the cloak.
"I am Kitraea."
She sat beside the fire and held her hands out to its warmth.
Gabrielle laid her staff aside when she saw the shaking of the long fingers.
"I'll get you some food." Careful to walk around around the dead man, she moved to their packs, watching as Xena squatted beside Kitraea, studying the woman's face as she stared into the fire.
"How do you know my name?"
Xena looked into Kitraea's eyes as they turned to meet hers. They were the same blue as her own, and she had the unsettling feeling of looking into her own soul.
"I know who both of you are. I've been following you since Gabrielle was killed. I lost you when you vanished from the road, after you took Reyna home. It took me a while to find you."
Xena held her silence as Gabrielle returned, watching the woman eat hungrily. When her hunger had been appeased, Kitraea looked at the two faces in the firelight.
"I know you were taking him for trial, Xena, but there would have been no justice for Taleen. She had no family, no husband to claim compensation for her loss."
Xena heard the anger in her voice, saw the pain in her eyes. She spoke gently.
"She had you..."
Kitraea looked into Xena's eyes as her own eyes filled with
tears. Her voice was soft, the single word speaking volumes.
Gabrielle laid her hand on Kitraea's arm, but the other woman
pulled away and rose to her feet. She stood defensively, looking down at the bard.
"Yes, she had me. For all the good it did her." Her voice broke as she raised her hand to the pendant she wore tied on a leather thong around her neck.
"We were to be Joined after the harvest."
Gabrielle dropped the bread she had been holding and sat back, looking up in surprise at the woman standing over her. Xena stood to face Kitraea. The two warriors looked into each other's eyes, measuring each other by what they saw in the mirror images of blue. Finally, Kitraea looked down, reaching a finger to trace the small scar visible on Xena's right breast, the gentle touch stopping Xena's breath for an instant.
"You bear the mark of the Joining, Xena." Her voice was soft as she again met the blue eyes before her, seeing the flash of pain as she spoke. Xena could not look away.
"You know. You must." She looked down to where Gabrielle sat wide-eyed, watching. "She carries no mark."
Xena glanced at Gabrielle. The bard looked from one warrior to the other, confusion on her face. Xena's voice came low, a warning note that the other woman could not ignore.
"We're not talking about me, or Gabrielle. You killed that man in cold blood."
Kitraea laughed, a cold laughter that sent chills down Gabrielle's spine. Her words were harsh, spat into the air with hatred.
"Man? Man? He wasn't a man! He was a sorry excuse for a human being this world will never miss!"
Kitraea's eyes glinted as the firelight played off the tears she couldn't hold back. She reached down and pulled Gabrielle to her feet. She put her hand lightly on Gabrielle's face, looking down into her eyes. Gabrielle met her eyes with her own steady gaze, feeling no threat from the blond warrior. She felt an aura of power from the woman; felt drawn into the depths of the blue eyes, so like Xena's, yet so different... The same pain, but no veil. Kitraea had no defenses; the darkness and the light were there for anyone to see.
Kitraea shook her head and turned back to face Xena.
"He killed Gabrielle! I don't know how she came back, but I know she died. I watched you bury her, Xena. Just after I buried Taleen."
She looked once more into Xena's eyes, her own eyes pleading as she pushed the smaller woman toward her.
"I know you wanted to kill him, Xena. What if she had been his plaything that first night? Would you have spared him? I'll answer to my Gods for taking his life, but he'll hurt no more women!"
Xena reached out to steady Gabrielle as she stumbled from the woman's grip. She pulled her protectively close and held out her hand, palm down.
"Kitraea, I don't dispute your claim against him."
Gabrielle pulled free of Xena's grip and again laid her hand on
the other woman's arm.
"Kitraea, please. You're among friends." She looked up into the blue eyes, smiling warmly as she pulled the woman back to sit at the fire. "Sit, please. I'd like to talk to you about Taleen."
Kitraea gave in to the bard, knowing what she was about to say. She'd heard much of the talk between the two women since they'd been reunited.
Gabrielle suddenly felt the weight of her feelings of guilt about Taleen. Her voice wavered and her eyes closed briefly.
"I should tell you what happened. When Taleen... died." She looked back at Xena, still standing warily, eyes narrowed.
Kitraea raised her hand, shaking her head. Her soft voice was forgiving, absolving Gabrielle of her guilt.
"No, Gabrielle, you don't have to tell me anything. I talked to Reyna." She reached down and took the bard's small hand in her own, holding it gently, tears again on her face. "You did what you could. I know that. I'm sure Taleen knew that."
Gabrielle couldn't stop the tears that rose in her own eyes.
"I let her die."
"She chose to die."
The blue eyes again held hers. She felt herself being drawn
once more into their depths. Searching, she found no trace of blame, no resentment She felt the weight of the guilt she'd carried begin to lift.
Kitraea raised her hand once more to gently touch Gabrielle's cheek. A sad smile crossed her face. "You bear no blame, Gabrielle. I don't know why she did what she did, but Taleen would not want you to carry this burden."
Gabrielle closed her eyes, leaning into the strong hand that lay on her face. Her words were a whisper.
Xena moved to the edge of the firelight, watching the two by the fire. She wanted to make the woman talk. Now. Where was she from? How had she followed Xena for so long without her knowing she was there? Few had the ability to evade her senses so thoroughly. She'd crossed the camp and had Neptus on her sword, and only his cry of pain had warned Xena. Though she felt no threat, she was not ready to trust. She raised her own fingers to trace the scar on her chest. This was the one thing she'd always refused to talk about with Gabrielle. Kitraea knew far more than Xena wanted anyone to know......
Gabrielle watched Xena pacing just at the edge of the firelight.
She knew the warrior was upset, and not just at Neptus' death.
She and Kitraea had been talking for several hours, and though she had tried to include Xena in the conversation, she had failed to get more than a few short answers and sideways glances.
Kitraea had refused to let the talk remain solemn. She had a bard's talent for storytelling, and held Gabrielle spellbound with her tales of her homeland, a land of tall, fair people; a year's travel from where they sat.
"I come from a line of warriors, though all my people are trained in the use of sword and staff. My first sword was placed in my hand before I learned to walk. Our Gods need trained warriors in Asgard for the coming battle."
Gabrielle listened, entranced.
"A battle? Why would the Gods need mortals for battle?"
Kitraea looked into the green eyes that shined with the joy of learning new legends. She raised her own eyes to meet those of the dark warrior looking at her from the firelight's edge.
"Gabrielle, I think we should save some of this for tomorrow."
She looked up at the stars and smiled. "Which isn't far away."
Xena disappeared into the trees as Kitraea spread her cloak on the ground next to the fire, and Gabrielle sat smiling to herself at the new tales she'd have to tell. She thought back over everything Kitraea had said, then remembered what she'd wanted to ask.
She went to Kitraea and sat on the ground beside her. "Can I ask you something... personal?"
Kitraea sat up and looked into Gabrielle's eyes. "What troubles you?"
Gabreille looked into Kitraea's eyes. She felt again their almost hypnotic pull, and made herself look away.
"I wondered... about this, this 'joining'. Is it like marriage? But.. with women, I mean?"
Kitraea smiled. She took a deep breath and considered her answer. She'd thought from watching and listening to the two women that they were joined. It wasn't until she'd come into their camp that she'd seen that Gabrielle carried no mark, and she'd quickly realized that Xena had not acted on her love for the bard. She knew Xena wasn't far away, and wondered what the warrior was feeling. She'd heard of Xena in the Amazon village that lay to the south.
The story of Xena and Lara was a tragic tale, indeed, and had quickly become legend in that village. Kitraea knew it was not her place to tell this tale to Gabrielle. Xena was still running, and had no hope of changing that until she had faced the past.
In a low voice, she tried to answer. "It's much the same, Gabrielle. For some of us who've found our soulmates in the bodies of other women, and wish to recognize that bond, we perform the Joining ritual. It symbolizes the willingness to die for each other, and the giving of our hearts and souls to the care of our partners. It's a bond not entered into lightly, and can be broken only by death."
Gabrielle felt the sting of tears, and looked down at her hands in her lap. " And Xena carries this mark?"
Gabrielle gave a short laugh and looked out into the darkness
that surrounded them. Her voice was low.
"You know, I've asked her about that scar at least a hundred times. She gets so defensive, I finally just stopped asking. So that's it... She has someone..."
Kitraea laid her hand on the bard's knee. "If she hasn't told you, I'm sure she has her reasons. She cares for you very much."
Gabrielle looked once more into the blue eyes. She saw truth and reassurance. She started to speak, but was interrupted when the blond warrior jumped to her feet, drawing her sword and pushing Gabrielle behind her.
Xena came into the firelight, half-carrying a wounded soldier.
Kitraea sheathed her sword and rushed to help Xena with the injured man. His eyes opened and he tried to speak as they brought him to the fire and laid him on the ground. Xena began to remove his armor as Gabrielle brought the medical kit, and Kitraea checked his wounds. She looked into Xena's eyes and shook her head, and Xena leaned close to him, trying to hear his words.
"Darelus...needs help. Micasus...ambush...trapped."
He grabbed Xena's arm, his grip leaving red marks in her flesh
as a spasm of pain overtook him; then he slumped to the ground as life left him and he began his journey to the underworld.
Gabrielle stood beside Xena. She let the leather pouch she held fall to the ground. "Xena, is he...?"
Xena stood, looking around the camp, then back to meet Gabrielle's eyes. "He's dead. You start packing our things. I'll bury him," she looked over to where Neptus still lay, "and that one. We can be out of here by dawn."
Kitraea stood, looking toward Neptus. "I killed that one. I'll bury him." She looked at Xena, her voice firm. "You'll need all the swords you can get. I'm going with you."
Xena met Kitraea's eyes, then held out her hand, gripping the hand of the taller woman with a grim smile on her face. "I welcome your blade at my side."
Gabrielle watched the exchange between the warriors, secretly pleased. She felt a genuine affection for the charismatic woman, and sensed that Xena was also beginning to respond to her warmth and charm.
Xena rode ahead of her companions, scouting the path ahead so that they wouldn't run unaware into Micasus and his army. She had mixed feelings about Kitraea joining them, but she couldn't argue her right to be there. She saw a mental picture of Taleen as she'd seen her at the camp, and felt a chill at the thought that it could have been Gabrielle.
She again touched the scar on her chest, closing her eyes at the memory of the joy that had put it there, and the pain that had taken away its purpose. She knew Gabrielle had heard Kitraea's words, and she knew the bard would not let it rest once the immediate danger was over. She'd always managed to avoid Gabrielle's questions about the scar, though lately she'd had to get angry at her to convince her to stop asking. It was her only defense against a direct question from Gabrielle, and she wasn't sure she could stand against a determined inquiry.
She had the uneasy feeling she would be just as helpless should Kitraea press the point. The older woman had a quality Xena found compelling, in spite of herself, and she wasn't sure she could look into those eyes and lie.
Gabrielle walked in silence, stealing occasional glances at the tall blond woman walking beside her. She thought about Taleen, trying to picture the two of them together. Taleen's dark beauty would have been striking next to the blond warrior. Kitraea was a beautiful woman in her own right, though the morning sun had shown her age more clearly than had the firelight of the previous night. Gabrielle could see streaks of white in the golden hair, and lines at the corners of the eyes that seemed to open directly into her soul.
She had the feeling she was looking at Xena fifteen years hence, and wondered at the seeming peace of the warrior.
"How did you meet Taleen?"
Kitraea looked down into Gabrielle's eyes. The bard blushed and
"I'm sorry. I... That was stupid and thoughtless of me. I'm so sorry."
Kitraea put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "It's all right, Gabrielle. I'd like to talk about her, if you don't mind."
Gabrielle shook her head, smiling up at the warrior. "You just keep letting me off the hook."
Kitraea laughed, a low rumble that seemed to resonate through Gabrielle and caused her smile to widen.
"It's your hook, Gabrielle, not mine."
"My Taleen..." Kitraea smiled, a sad, private smile. Her blue eyes softened and filled with tears. "She was a proud one! She saved my life, you know. That's how we met..."
"I came through here the first time a little over six years ago. I was attacked by a band of thugs... I escaped, but they killed my horse and left me badly wounded. I crawled into the brush, and little Reyna found me. She was just a small child then, and she thought I was dead. She covered me with leaves and went to tell her friend Taleen about the 'dead lady' she'd found. The next thing I knew, I woke up in a cave, with Taleen tending my wounds. She had hidden me from the men who were still hunting me."
"I tried to heal more slowly, but Taleen had a true healer's skill, and I grew well quickly. Her smile lit that cave as though she'd captured the sun, and I found after I'd gone I couldn't stop thinking of her. She'd told me she had no family, the man she'd been promised to as a child had died of the fever. She was something of an outcast in the village. They thought she was unlucky."
"I went back months later and found her in the cave, holding the nightshirt I'd worn while she cared for me. I'd returned many times, and had been off making arrangements for our Joining, when I returned and found the village empty..."
Her voice trailed off, and tears again rose in her eyes. Gabrielle felt tears of her own as she thought of how Kitraea must have felt, finding Taleen's body.
"After I'd buried her, I set out to find the man responsible. I must have been just a few hours behind Xena, because I caught up with her just as she was burying you. I followed her from there."
"It must have been so hard for you..."
"I loved her with all my heart. If only I'd been there sooner. I
could have helped her, protected her."
"So... Your turn. Tell me about Xena."
Gabrielle laughed. "That could take a while!"
Kitraea laughed also, nodding her head. "That was a little
broad, wasn't it? I meant now. I've heard of her past. The Amazons to the south think very highly of her."
"Amazons? To the south?" Gabrielle was surprised. She hadn't mentioned her Amazon status to the warrior, and, though she'd heard of another Amazon village, Xena had never mentioned having been there.
Kitraea looked over at her companion, thinking about the stories she'd heard. She knew Xena had never returned to the village, and she'd begun to understand that Gabrielle was one of the reasons.
"I take it Xena doesn't talk much about her past."
"Hah! That's an understatement. Most of what I know, I've
learned from other people. Oh, she'll tell me if I ask. She's not very good at lying, at least not to me. But she doesn't volunteer anything."
"Does that bother you?"
Gabrielle stopped, leaning her head against her staff, a
thoughtful look in her eyes.
"I wouldn't say it bothers me. I know it hurts her to have to talk about it. Sometimes, I see... There's a look in her eyes, sometimes. I know she's been through a lot. She has a lot to deal with, you know? I just get the feeling there's something else, something deeper. It's in her eyes. I see it when she's tired, when she looks at me-" She stopped, suddenly embarassed; realizing where she was. She looked up at the blond warrior.
"More than you wanted to know, I guess."
Kitraea smiled and resumed the steady pace they'd kept for
most of the morning. "You seem very close. How do you feel about her?"
"How do I feel about her? Gods, we've been through so much together! She's everything I'm not, and so much more than most people think. They see the warrior, the fighter, that tough side of her. I've seen the other side, the healer, the friend, the one who cares about people, would give her life to help someone. She's both, of course, but she's tried so hard to make up for her past. She's risked her life so many times to help others, and she really fights her dark side..."
"Have you seen that dark side?"
Gabrielle nodded, visions of the fight with the Horde running
through her mind. "Oh yes! I've met her. Can't say I liked her very much. That's not the Xena I know."
"What if she hadn't changed?"
"But she did change. I won't let her go back to that life
without a fight."
"Hmm." Kitraea looked ahead to see that Xena had stopped and was waiting for them to catch up. "She's lucky she has you."
Gabrielle met Xena's eyes and her face lit up. Her voice left little doubt as to her feelings. "No... I'm the lucky one."
They'd decided to stop and rest. None of them had slept the night before and Xena was wary of coming on Micasus' men while it was still daylight. Darkness would allow her to move unseen to the site of the seige.
Gabrielle watched Kitraea lower herself gingerly to the ground, trying not to show the stiffness in her left leg as she bent it awkwardly under her. The warrior saw the glance and smiled wryly.
"Must be rain coming. Old wounds let you know, sometimes."
Gabrielle smiled back, thinking how far they'd walked that day,
then reached for Xena's medical kit.
"Xena has some wonderful salve. Let me-"
She was cut off as Xena took the leather pouch from her hand and squatted beside Kitraea. "I'll do this, Gabrielle. Why don't you see what we've got to eat."
Gabrielle met Xena's eyes and saw that arguing would do no good. She sighed in exasperation and moved toward the mare and the food pouch still hanging on the saddle.
Xena moved to sit beside Kitraea's leg, reaching to put her hand under the knee and lift gently. She felt the raised scar tissue across the back of the thigh and her eyebrow raised in a question as she met the eyes looking into hers. Her strong fingers continued their examination, feeling the missing muscle tissue, and she wondered that the woman showed no sign of a limp.
She gently flexed the leg, feeling the spasm and the grinding in the joint as the limb straightened then curled again.
"That must have taken a long time to heal." She began to dig into the pouch, pulling out a small bladder, tied tightly to prevent leaking the contents.
Kitraea laughed as Xena untied the knot, and the smell of the salve hit her. "Probably not as long as it'll take to get that smell out of my nose! Aren't we planning to sneak up on someone tonight?"
Xena chuckled, "It is pretty bad, isn't it? The smell goes away pretty quickly, though, and it does work wonders. Just sit back and relax."
Kitraea leaned back on her elbows, watching Xena as her hands moved expertly over her leg, feeling the relief spread as the salve created a warmth that Xena's strong hands massaged deep into the aching tissue. She caught her breath when the hands moved to her upper thigh, a different warmth now beginning to rise. She took Xena's wrist in her hand and smiled into the questioning blue eyes that raised to meet hers. "You have a healer's touch, Xena."
Xena frowned, then looked down to see where her hands had wandered. She jerked them back to Kitraea's knee and rubbed vigorously.
"You're no good to me if you can't walk!"
Kitraea threw her head back and laughed, enjoying the warriors
discomfort. "Ah, Xena!" She shot a glance over to where Gabrielle had started a fire and sat cutting something into a stewpot. She lowered her voice, and spoke to the top of Xena's head.
"Methinks it's been too long, eh?"
Xena took a deep breath. Still not looking up, her voice was quiet.
"Please, let it rest."
Kitraea reached to turn Xena's face toward hers, capturing the
blue eyes in a penetrating gaze that laid waste to the walls that had been so carefully built over the years. She saw everything Xena had ever felt, felt the weight that the dark warrior had taken as hers to carry, knew how close the edge; how perilous the balance.
She saw the tears that lay just below the surface, and silently called them forth, gently wiping them away. Asked the question, though she knew the answer.
"Where is she, Xena? Does she still live?"
Xena jerked away from the woman before her. Busying herself
retying the pouch, she refused to meet those eyes again. When she spoke, her voice was low, barely a whisper.
"No. She doesn't."
She cleared her throat as she rose to her feet. Walking around
Kitraea, she spoke loudly, almost angrily.
"Lay there and let that work for a while."
Gabrielle watched her disappear into the trees, then turned and looked into the eyes of the blond warrior, her expression making it clear she had heard the whole exchange. She knew this was an important part of Xena's life, one that she had heard nothing about until now. She thought of the past years she'd spent with Xena.
Nothing she'd heard or seen had even hinted at this. Except... what had Velasca said? "Xena was a true Amazon, even though she denied it." She'd wondered then what she meant. She couldn't believe none of the Amazons had mentioned this, if they knew.
From what Kitraea had said about the Joining, she had to believe that Xena had taken a- she didn't have another word for it- a wife. And from what she'd just heard, that wife was dead. Was this why... She remembered so many times...Xena surprising her with a show of emotion, some sign of affection, then becoming distant, as though she'd crossed some line she'd defined for herself, and had to retreat. Whatever it was, she was sure now that Kitraea knew far more than she was telling, and Gabrielle decided she would ask Xena at the first opportunity. This time, Xena's anger would not keep her from finding the answer.
She turned back to the fire as Kitraea lay back on the ground,
closing her eyes and sliding easily into sleep
Gabrielle squeezed tighter into the brush behind her as a large group of men passed through the trees just yards from where she hid. She'd left Argo when she heard Xena's battle cry. She pulled the hood of her cloak down over her face and kept her head down as they passed, then stepped out and followed behind them. It was a move Xena had used many times, and Gabrielle knew these men were headed to the sound of Xena's battle cry and the fighting that continued somewhere in the trees ahead.
She ducked into the trees when the men before her stopped and formed a tight group. One of the men began to speak in a low voice, and Gabrielle rushed from her protective cover toward him. She was instantly grabbed by several hands.
"Darelus! Da- Let me go! It's me, Gabrielle. I thought Xena was with you? Will you... Let.. me.. go!"
She struggled against the restraining arms as she was dragged toward Darelus. Her arms were held firmly as the hood was pulled from her face, then Darelus reached out to touch her chin, turning her face to catch the dim light now beginning to filter through the trees.
"Gabrielle? By the Gods, woman! What are you doing out here alone?"
The hands released their hold on her, and she straightened, pulling at her clothing and rolling her shoulders as she looked sideways at the men who'd held her.
"Hmmph! What I always do... waiting. Xena and Kitraea
went to scout-"
"Kitraea? Who's Kitraea?"
The question was interrupted by the sound of laughter rolling through the trees. Darelus' men exchanged looks. The sound was unnerving, made the more so by the almost incessant ring of blades in action and the rising sounds of agony that accompanied the laughter.
Gabrielle shook herself, and forced a smile. "Unless I'm mistaken, that would be Kitraea. It's okay, guys, she's on our side, thank the Gods!"
She took Darelus by the arm and pulled him toward the sounds of battle.
"They're going to need our help. Is this all the men you have left?"
Darelus planted his feet. "Gabrielle, wait. I have more men, but we have to send a runner to get them. We won't do them any good if we get ourselves killed."
He turned to the man on his right, speaking to him in a low tone, detailing a plan that would cut Micasus' army in half as they worked their way to Xena and Kitraea. He turned back to Gabrielle as the other man headed back through the trees.
"They'll be here soon. If I'm right, we'll find most of the camp deserted. We can sweep in and drive a wedge right through them before they even realize we're away from the cliff. If Xena can hold out..."
Gabrielle listened as the sounds came together and grew louder. She knew Xena and Kitraea were fighting together. She sent a silent prayer to the Gods to keep them safe, and as an afterthought added a mental note to Kitraea's god, Odin. She leaned against a tree to wait, and soon heard the muted sounds of many men moving through the wet forest.
After a short conference with the sub-lieutenants, Darelus returned, smiling.
"It's just as I thought. The fools have all moved to fight Xena. We'll be coming at their backs." He drew his sword and held it above his head. Looking around at the men through the trees, he then looked at Gabrielle and grinned.
The men kept coming, and the two warriors kept fighting. Their breathing had become labored, their bodies bruised and cut, when Xena felt Kitraea's hand on her arm. She stopped for a second, listening as another noise rose through the trees. Darelus!
Xena turned and met Kitraea's eyes. The coming dawn had begun to lighten the shadows and the silent agreement filled both warriors with renewed energy.
Xena's war cry and Kitraea's hearty cry of "VAHALLA!" rang out together. Side by side, swords humming, the two began a push against the wall of swords before them as the war cry and the laughter mingled into a macabre chorus that carried them through the dark forest toward the army now moving to join them.
Darelus' quick action and the diversion provided by Xena and Kitraea proved a deadly combination for Micasus and his men. In their haste to stop the women, almost all of the men who could walk had rushed to add their blade to the fight. Before they realized they were being attacked from two fronts, they had been divided and their numbers cut almost in half.
Micasus found himself with only a few of his soldiers around him, and Xena and Kitraea were moving through his men as though they were so much tall grass to fall to their blades. Xena heard his panicked call to his men to protect him, and she turned toward his voice, knowing that this must be the leader of the slavers.
Kitraea turned with her, covering her back. She saw Micasus
watching them advance, saw the look of barely-controlled panic as he watched his men flee, then the anger that finally gave him courage to draw his sword. She could see that this was to be Xena's fight, and she moved quickly to close off his escape route, and prevent any of his men coming to his aid. Darelus came through the trees just as Xena and Micasus began circling each other. Gabrielle was just behind him, her eyes quickly finding Xena, then looking to Kitraea, satisfying herself that they were relatively unharmed.
Micasus growled into Xena's face, then the growl became a yell. He was enraged, his fear now forgotten. So this was the woman who'd led Ares' army against his raiding parties! He'd lost over three hundred good men to her and her soldiers, and he had no intention of letting her leave here alive.
He looked into her ice blue eyes as they circled each other, eyes that hadn't shown the least reaction at his enraged bellow. She smiled at him, a satisfied, cold smile that didn't reach those eyes, and he reacted by raising his sword and charging.
Xena side-stepped his rush, and came up with her blade as he went past her. His weight and momentum drove her sword to the hilt through his stomach and spun her around as he looked down at the hand holding the sword. He opened his mouth and looked back into her eyes and this time saw a mix of emotions; satisfaction and hate, pain and something he couldn't name, but had felt himself, each time he'd held someone on his own blade, each time he'd killed.
He was thinking about that look when she put her hand on his shoulder and withdrew the blade. It was his last conscious thought as his body slumped to the ground. Xena stood for a moment watching the blood drip from the end of her sword as quiet returned to the forest, broken only by the moans of the dying men.
Gabrielle ran to Xena's side, hugging the warrior as she turned away from the dead warlord at her feet. The adrenaline had left her, and she gratefully draped her arm over the bard's shoulder, her eyes meeting Kitraea's as the blond warrior walked toward them.
Kitraea had seen the feelings evident on Xena's face in that instant she had turned to Gabrielle, and she knew now more than ever that these two were meant to be together. She laughed inwardly at the sentimentality of old warriors, and made up her mind that one way or another, she would do what she could to make that happen. She held out her hand, and Xena took it in her own.
Xena smiled into Kitraea's eyes and laughed as she spoke.
"I'm glad you were on my side! You swing a mean sword!"
Kitraea laughed also. "I'm not sure you needed me, but it was....
Darelus had his men sweep the forest, but most of the remaining men of Micasus' army had vanished. They had left most of their gear and supplies behind, along with many wounded.
The three women worked through the day and into the night to care for the wounded. When they had finally tended the last man, seen to the last burial, they sat beside the fire and looked at the food one of the soldiers had brought. All were too exhausted to eat.
Gabrielle was the first to give in, her head nodding. Xena moved aside and pulled her to lay beside her, then covered her with her cloak. The bard made little protest, curling next to Xena, pulling the cloak under her chin and laying her head on Xena's lap as she took a deep breath and smiled in her sleep.
Kitraea smiled at the picture before her. She spoke in a low voice, not wanting to wake the bard.
"She's quite a woman, your Gabrielle."
Xena ran her fingers lightly over the hair that shined red in the
firelight. A smile played at the corners of her mouth as she looked into the sleeping face.
"Yes, she is. I forget that, sometimes."
"Does she know how you feel?"
Xena looked into Kitraea's eyes. She didn't want to disturb
Gabrielle. She spoke softly.
"Why are you doing this?"
Kitraea returned the gaze. She spoke with an intensity that
reminded Xena of the loss she had suffered, the loss that Xena herself had suffered.
"I like you, Xena. I like Gabrielle, too. I don't like the idea of either of you being alone. Don't wait... Not everyone gets a second chance."
She waited until she knew Xena had gotten the double meaning of her words, then turned away and stretched out on the ground. Xena leaned back against the tree, staring into the flames until she dozed off, her hand still touching the soft hair that covered her lap.
Xena held an assembly of the soldiers the next morning. She explained to the men that with Micasus' death, her agreement with Ares was concluded. They were free to leave or to stay with Darelus. There were wars somewhere for them to fight, but she no longer needed their swords. She divided the spoils, and talked with each of the men, thanking them for their loyalty.
Kitraea and Gabrielle spent the morning with the wounded.
Darelus had agreed to take care of the men after they had gone. Xena wanted to leave that afternoon, and Kitraea had asked to join them for a short part of their journey.
They had seen to the last of the wounded men and returned to their camp to eat, when Darelus approached them, leading a fine black stallion. He smiled as he put the reins in Kitraea's hands.
"Gabrielle mentioned that you don't have a horse. This one looks like a good fit."
Kitraea beamed. She took the reins and leaped into the saddle, taking obvious delight in the prancing beast beneath her. She could feel the power of the stallion, her size no burden to him. She leaned forward and rubbed the muscular neck as he shook his head and snorted, rolling his eyes to look back at her. She laughed her rumbling laugh and kicked with her heels as she leaned forward, and he jumped up and out at the same time, running like an arrow through the trees as Kitraea roared with laughter and leaned low over his back, trying to stay alive until they broke finally into a meadow and ran a long circle around it.
They returned through the trees to a worried Gabrielle. Darelus had given up and returned to his camp to eat. Gabrielle had eaten little, but her appetite was renewed when Kitraea returned.
The warrior slid from the saddle. Her eyes were shining and she couldn't stop grinning.
"Gods, that felt good! He's a magnificent animal! Where's Darelus? I have to thank him!"
She spotted the soldier across the camp and headed toward him, leading the stallion. She caught sight of Xena, who'd finally finished dealing with the men. She called to her, and enthusiastically waved her over to see her prize.
Gabrielle watched, smiling, as the two warriors checked over the stallion. She was glad to see Xena laughing. She felt that Xena and Kitraea had somehow made a connection, and she was glad Xena had made a friend who could truly understand that warrior side of her.
She set food out for the two warriors and began to pack their gear, as anxious as Xena to leave the forest behind them and breathe air that didn't smell of death. Now that Micasus and Neptus were dead, she and Xena could relax for a while. She wanted to return to Reyna's village to let the girl know she was still alive.
Evening found the three of them well away from the scene of the battle. Gabrielle rode behind Xena, enjoying the feel of the warrior's body next to hers. Kitraea's words had opened a new world to the bard, and she smiled to herself when the familiar feeling began to rise in her. She leaned against the strong back and let her mind go where she'd never let it go before.
She closed her eyes as Kitraea began to sing a slow, haunting melody. She felt the vibration through Xena's body as she began to harmonize, and the voices and the soft swaying of the mare lulled her into a dream state. She saw Xena, smiling down at her, a smile of true happiness. She heard the laughing note in her voice as she leaned toward her. "Gabrielle, I'll always be here."
She felt the soft touch of Xena's lips on hers, their bodies touching, her own body singing in response. She could feel Xena's body beneath her fingers and mumbled a protest when she felt her fingers being pried away.
She raised her head to find that Xena had stopped Argo and was holding her hands.
"Wh-what? What happened? Are we there yet?"
Xena laughed as she helped the bard slide down from the saddle.
"Your snoring was scaring the horses. I thought we'd make
camp a little early. We could all use a rest."
They passed a pleasant evening beside the fire. They'd found several skins of wine among Micasus' belongings, and Kitraea had brought one along. Gabrielle and Kitraea took turns telling stories, and Kitraea listened in fascination when Gabrielle finally told her the story of her return to life. Kitraea asked many questions about Hades and the Other Side, and shook her head in admiration when Gabrielle told of her bet with Ares. She looked at Xena, knowing the parts that had been omitted, the things Xena hadn't told Gabrielle about those days she'd been on the Other Side.
She raised her cup and met Xena's eyes across the fire.
"You passed the test, my friend. What a wonderful reward!" She
turned to Gabrielle. "And you," her voice softened and she smiled at the bard. "What an incredible act of faith! This is the stuff of which legends are made. You've been blessed by the Gods."
Gabrielle leaned against Xena. She smiled up at her and spoke with certainty in her voice.
"I knew she'd do the right thing."
Xena just smiled down at her, the memory still too fresh in
her mind for her to really be comfortable talking about it.
"I came awfully close..."
Gabrielle reached out and took Xena's hand in her own. She
pulled Xena's arm around her shoulder and snuggled against the warrior. She'd had several cups of the wine, and was feeling quite friendly and more than a little drowsy.
"But you didn't..."
Xena frowned down at her, but didn't push her away. Kitraea
chuckled and rolled back onto her bedroll.
"Good night, ladies. You two sure make a cute couple!"
Gabrielle snickered into Xena's shoulder. "Hehee, hear that, Xena? We make... a cute..... couple..."
Xena shook her head and looked up at the stars as the bard slipped into sleep, then looked down into the face that lay against her chest. She reached to touch the soft cheek with a fingertip as her eyes filled with tears. Her voice was a whisper.
"An incredible act of faith..."
They got a late start the next day. Both warriors were feeling the bruises from the fight of the day before, and Gabrielle was feeling the after-effects of the wine. Breakfast and the promise of a swim later in the day gave them incentive and they finally managed to get underway.
It was a quiet ride at first, each of them wrapped in their own thoughts. Kitraea sang several songs in her native tongue, beautiful melodies that Xena soon hummed along with, laughing when she faltered or missed a note. Kitraea's deep voice was a perfect counterpoint to Xena's pure tones, and they enjoyed a kind of vocal dance for most of the day. Gabrielle joined in from time to time, but was content for the most part to listen. Kitraea had brought out a side of Xena she'd never seen, and the bard was fascinated by the playful attitude of the two warriors.
The shadows were lengthening when they reached the creek where they'd stopped the day before Kitraea had joined them. They chose a campsite, and quickly stripped the horses of their loads.
The cool, clear water of the creek beckoned, and in short order Xena and Gabrielle offered to bring fish for supper, while Kitraea volunteered to set up the camp and build the fire. She wanted them to have the time alone, and she could bathe later. She smiled after them as they disappeared into the trees, heading for the pool they'd found last time. Soon the sounds of splashing and laughter hung in the air.
Kitraea sat beside the fire, lost in thought as she remembered that wondrous feeling of love not yet realized. She looked around at the campsite, thinking what a beautiful place it was, with the creek bubbling over the rocks. It was a perfect place for love to bloom.
A shriek from Gabrielle and Xena's answering laugh made her decision for her. It was time for her to leave. She'd avenged Taleen's death, though it had brought no satisfaction. She thought about the plans she and Taleen had made, and knew she'd never do any of the things they'd planned. She was alone without Taleen, and her thoughts turned to her family.
She hadn't been home in many years, and the thought of the clear mountain air of her homeland and the loving welcome she'd receive from her family filled her with melancholy homesickness. She knew that her mother and father may well have died during her absence, but the brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews should still be there. Maybe a new generation of babies to spoil...
Yes, she'd leave before first light. There was still one task
ahead of her, though. One she didn't look forward to. *'Traea, old
girl, you're going soft in your old age... was a time you'd have left
those two to the will of the Gods.*
She shook her head and smiled as Gabrielle burst from the bushes, giggling. Xena followed, carrying an armload of cleaned fish wrapped in leaves. Kitraea was left to imagine the cause of Gabrielle's giggles as the bard pulled out her cooking supplies, and Xena sat beside her, handing her the fish one by one as she rolled them in spices and arranged them in the frying pan. Xena arched an eyebrow toward the older warrior and smiled lazily.
"We'll take care of this. Go. Enjoy the water. We'll call you when it's time to eat..."
Kitraea rose awkwardly to her feet. She hadn't ridden a horse in years, and her body had found new sore places to complain about.
"Mmm. A four-hour soak sounds about right. I'd forgotten how riding beats you up when you haven't done it in a while."
She found a clean wrap in her pack, and headed downstream to the pool, stripping off her armor as she walked, pulling her linen shift over her head as she stood at the side of the water. Her lean, muscular body belied her age, the scars of battle marking her experiences as a warrior. She gathered her long frame into a graceful dive as she entered the water where she'd seen Xena dive in when she'd first watched them from hiding.
The water was indeed a blessing. She swam until the kinks had gone out of her back and her arms were beginning to tire. She lay back into the water and relaxed her body, floating loosely just under the surface as the water worked it's magic on her sore muscles.
She floated this way while she ran a mental check over her body, finding tight spots and willing them to relax. By the time Xena called her to eat, she felt like a new woman.
The food was delicious, and they all ate heartily. Kitraea complimented Gabrielle on her cooking, then sat back and looked from Xena to Gabrielle. She took a deep breath and smiled. Her voice shook slightly when she began to speak.
"I'll be on my way before dawn. I want you both to know how special you are. The Gods truly smiled on me when they wove our paths together. Your friendship is a gift I'll treasure always."
Gabrielle reached out to touch Kitraea's arm. She felt tears as she looked into the eyes of the warrior.
"Where will you go?"
"Home, I think. I was about your age when I left." She looked
over into Xena's eyes and smiled.
"I'm getting a little long in the tooth for the warrior business.
If I like it there, I may stay, teach..."
She patted Gabrielle's hand and rose to her feet.
"We can say goodbye later. I'm going to pack my gear now, so I
won't have to do it in the morning."
Gabrielle sat beside Xena as they watched Kitraea loading her gear onto the stallion. The bard felt her eyes grow moist and she knew she would miss the woman's presence. She leaned against Xena's shoulder.
"I'm really going to miss her. I've learned so much from her.
About myself, and about you..."
She looked up at the face above her, seeing the flash of emotion, the freezing of the features. She realized suddenly that if Kitraea left now, she might never know about Xena's past. The blond warrior had gotten more information from Xena with just a few words than Gabrielle had gotten in three years of questioning. The older woman had touched Xena somewhere deep inside, and she had gained her trust. Maybe together...
Feeling a twinge of guilt, she took a deep breath and turned to face the woman beside her. Placing one hand on either side of Xena's face, she forced the warrior to meet her eyes.
"I know about the Joining, Xena. Kitraea says it means you hav-had, a... a wife."
"Don't get that look, Xena. We've traveled together too long
and been through too much to have this between us." She held fast to the warriors head, standing when Xena rose to her feet and took Gabrielle's wrists in her hands.
"I want to know, Xena. Not next year or ten years from now, or next week... I want to know now. I need to know."
Xena gave an angry growl and pulled Gabrielle's hands from her face. She held the bard in front of her, cruelly twisting her arms as she tried to control the emotions she felt. Gabrielle felt tears sting her eyes and her own anger began to rise as Xena's fingers bruised her arms. Her voice was harsh; sarcastic and damning.
"Hurting me isn't going to stop your pain, Xena! It won't bring her back and it won't make me go away!"
She looked into the tortured eyes above her as the grip eased, her voice softening.
"Xena. Why didn't you tell me? What are you afraid of? Gods, woman, don't you know there's nothing you can tell me that's going to make me leave? All this time... these feelings..."
Xena spun away from Gabrielle and walked to the fire. She was breathing heavily, fighting for control. She held up her hand when the bard approached her, but continued to look into the flames. Her voice was cold.
Gabrielle stopped where she stood, several feet from
Xena's side. She could see the struggle the warrior was waging, but this time, she felt her own struggle more.
"Fine, Xena. I won't. I'll just keep my mouth shut and you can keep your little secret and we can continue this... this... whatever this is we're in until one of us goes completely nuts! You think you're the only one hurting here?" She laughed and turned, waving her hand in the air.
"Gods, do you have any idea what I've been through? For over two years now, feeling this, this wholeness when I'm with you? Not knowing how you'd feel? Having to be careful each time I looked at you? Afraid you'd see? That you'd send me home?" Tears rolled down her cheeks, the release of her emotions too strong to control.
"I thought there was something wrong with me. You couldn't at least tell me I was wrong? You couldn't tell me it was okay to feel this? Even... even if you don't feel the same way?
Xena stood unmoving, flinching as Gabrielle's words cut across her like a whip. Her only response was to lower her head and close her eyes. This was too much for the bard, and with a small screech of rage, she stormed into the trees, the sound of her curses hanging in the air around them.
Xena stood for several minutes, then looked up at the night sky and took a deep, shuddering breath. She sat suddenly, as though all strength had left her, and crossed her arms over her knees as she stared balefully into the fire. She felt Kitraea's strong hand on her shoulder as the blond warrior joined her beside the fire.
"I know it's none of my business-"
Xena's cold voice cut through her words. "You're right. Stay out of it."
Kitraea closed her eyes and shook her head.
"Xena, she loves you, can't you see that?"
Xena looked into the flames, her voice low and flat.
"I know. That's the only thing that's kept me from giving up."
Kitraea reached out and brushed the lock of hair from Xena's
face. "So much pain..."
Xena turned away, and Kitraea put her fingers under her chin, turning her face so that their eyes met.
"I lost Taleen because I waited. You almost lost Gabrielle... Tell me, Xena, what hurt you more; losing her, or knowing you never told her how you feel?"
Tears filled Xena's eyes and she pulled away.
"That's not your concern. She knows I love her. I'd give my life
"That's not what I mean." She grabbed Xena's shoulder and turned her again to face her. Looking pointedly at the scar on Xena's chest, she spoke softly.
"How did she die, Xena?"
Xena shook her head as tears spilled down her cheeks.
"No! I won't do this!"
She tried to stand, but Kitraea held her in an iron grip. "You've
got to face this, Xena. Gabrielle deserves to be loved... by the one she loves. So do you. Why deny her, and yourself, that joy?"
"I can't....I....I love her. I don't want to hurt her..."
Xena's eyes again met Kitraea's. She felt herself losing her
defenses, felt that Kitraea could see her guilt. She had to get away, had to stop this before she gave in. She couldn't break the grip of the hands that held her, the eyes that held hers. Her face twisted and her voice came small, barely a whisper.
Kitraea's voice was kind, insistent. "Tell me, Xena."
"Gods, I don't want to remember!"
"You have to." Kitraea's eyes softened, filling with compassion.
"What happened to Lara, Xena? Who killed your wife?"
Xena buried her face in her hands and began to sob. Kitraea released her grip and put her arm around the warrior's shoulders and pulled her close. She spoke gently, holding her in an attempt to share her pain and give her strength.
"I'd left her at home, at the Amazon village. My army... we were days away. Most of my men were killed. I was wounded... woke up.... someone standing over me, a sword. I thought... I thought I was dying, wanted to take just one more with me... She was supposed to be at the village! Gods...Lara..."
She pulled away from Kitraea. Tears streamed down her face as she curled into a ball, wrapping her arms around her knees. Rocking as she stared blindly into the fire, seeing in her mind the surprise on the face as the body curled around the sword in her hand. Feeling the world crashing around her as she realized what she'd done. The eyes, forgiving her even as they went dark and she tried to stop the blood.... The blood. Lara's blood.
She stopped rocking and looked at her hands, frantically trying to rub away the memory as she tore at the flesh that to her mind was forever stained.
"She died on my sword. The Gods forgive me, I killed her!!"
Reaching to hold Xena's hands in her own, Kitraea again pulled her close, rocking with her as she finally faced the memory she'd been running from for years; the memory which had kept her from loving anyone, letting anyone love her.
She held the sobbing warrior until her cries became exhausted whimpers; held her until she stopped shaking; held her until she took a deep breath and relaxed into the strong arms that encircled her, then laid her head back against the shoulder behind her.
Opening her eyes finally to look at the arms around her, Xena realized that they wore no armor. Turning to look behind her, she looked into the deep green eyes she knew so well. She hadn't seen Gabrielle step into the firelight, hadn't heard her indrawn breath as she heard Xena's words. Hadn't realized that Kitraea had gone, gently leaving her in the arms of the woman she loved more than life itself.
Gabrielle smoothed the dark hair from Xena's face and kissed her cheek, still wet with tears. Xena closed her eyes and laid her head against Gabrielle's chest, listening to the strong, steady beat of her heart. She tried to speak, but her voice wouldn't work. Gabrielle put her fingers on Xena's lips.
"Shh. Xena, it's okay... I'm not going anywhere."
Xena reached up and took Gabrielle's hand in hers, bringing it to
her lips. "Gabrielle...
Gabrielle smiled and laid her head over against the dark hair.
She took a deep breath and laced her fingers through Xena's.
"We've got eternity to talk. At least now I know..."
Gabrielle sank to her knees beside the mound of dirt. Someone had placed flowers next to the wooden marker, and grass was beginning to sprout in the freshly turned earth. She closed her eyes and spoke to Taleen, telling her that Neptus was in Tartarus, and that they had visited Reyna. The girl was going to be okay, with time.
She told her of meeting Kitraea, and of all that Kitraea had done. She wiped tears from her eyes as she apologized again, then reached out to touch the ground, and said goodbye. She straightened when she heard Argo's approach, then the creak of leather as Xena dismounted. She felt the warrior standing behind her.
"Do you think she's in the Elysian Fields, Xena?"
Xena sat on her heels beside Gabrielle and laid her hand on the bard's shoulder.
"Yes, I do. And I'm sure she's glad that no one else will suffer at his hands."
She stood again, reaching down to pull Gabrielle to her feet.
"I don't know about you, but I'm ready for a change of scenery and a nice, simple job to do."
Gabrielle smiled up at Xena as they began to walk down the path, Argo following. "It has been a long couple of weeks."
She looked down the path. "Do you think we'll see Kitraea again?"
Xena smiled sadly. "I don't know, Gabrielle. She said it would take her almost a full year to return home. It will be a long time before she'll come back this way."
Gabrielle reached for Xena's hand, interlacing her fingers with the strong ones of the warrior. Leaning her body against the taller woman, her steps slowed as her eyes softened.
"I hope she comes back soon. She never finished telling me
"Egypt? She wasn't from there."
"No, but she'd been there. She was on her way there when she
met Taleen. They were going there after their Joining. Now she's going home instead. Did I tell you about the pyramids?"
"No, but I've heard they're something to see."
"Hmm... How far is it to Egypt?"
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