For Want Of A Nail
Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.
I wish it would just go away, this aching emptiness I feel. Xena says that it will, in time, and I have to believe her, but that doesnt make me feel any better right now.
Its only been a few days since it all happened, days in which I feel Ive aged a hundred years. I have no appetite, Im restless at night; when Im awake I feel as though Im in a nightmare I just need to snap out of, yet in my troubled sleep I can dream of nothing else.
It is late, past the time for bed, but I sit and stare into the flames of our campfire. The night is cool and the heat of the blaze warms me, but it cannot take away the chill that grips my heart. I shudder involuntarily, just as Xena comes and eases down next to me.
"Here," she says, draping a blanket around my shoulders.
"Thanks," I reply, but I dont turn my head to her, for it pains me to look upon the worry in her eyes. She doesnt have to say it - I know what shes thinking: that she is somehow responsible for it all. Shes wrong, but I dont have the strength to reassure her right now, not when Im still on such shaky ground myself.
"Gabrielle..." she reaches her hand to my face and thumbs away a tear I hadnt realized was there.
"Please, Xena," I twist away, holding up my arm against her touch. "Just... just dont!"
Maybe its the guilt that wracks me, maybe its a way for me to punish myself, but I refuse to allow myself to be comforted by her presence, this woman for whom Id give up my very soul. I sense her pull back, giving me space, yet she refuses to leave my side and some part of me is grateful for that. She wont let me push her away.
"Cant sleep, eh?" she asks, in a voice that holds no anger at my moodiness.
"No," I answer softly, keeping my eyes on the fire.
"Neither can I," she says and, with a great sigh, props up her bedroll behind us. "How about if we just sit here for a while, okay?"
She takes my silence as a yes, and settles back, stretching her long legs out in front of her.
How did we get here? To this place where I can barely tolerate the attentions, the intimacies of my companion? Ive been so cold to her, and Im not even sure why.
"If you want to talk about it," she says to me now, as shes said to me every night since it happened, "Im here for you."
I breathe in a draught of the cool night air, tempered with the sweet, ash-wood scent from the fire, and I consider how our lives are like a series of links in a chain. Many chains, in fact, assembled together. I dont know what the Fates would think of my new theory, but it seems to me that one link, one event leads to another. Break that link, and we turn to a different course. A different chain. Stay on the path of that chain, and the inevitability of the final outcome is certain. To turn away from it, to break it - no matter how small the link - and our lives turn out differently. For better, or for worse.
It wasnt supposed to be this way, I am sure of it.
"Oh Xena," I sigh, and I can barely recognize the sound of my own voice for the sadness that fills it, "I wish wed never gone to Axos!"
"Xena... Xena! Are you okay?" I lightly tapped her cheek, and was relieved to see two pale blue eyes flicker open.
"Im fine," she growled, struggling to sit up.
It had happened quickly. One moment she was galloping down the trail to make sure there was a stream up ahead for re-filling our water-skins, and the next moment Argo seemed to stumble and then rear back on her hindquarters.
"Down Argo!" I heard Xena cry out, as she fought to keep her seat on the panicked war-horse. But the frightened mare continued to paw at the sky, with its high-pitched screams reverberating through the surrounding trees. At last, it was too much even for Xena, and she tumbled backwards from the saddle, landing hard on the uneven, rocky ground.
"Xena!" I ran towards them, unsure of what I would do when I got there. Fortunately, Xena only seemed stunned by her fall.
"Argo?" Xena looked past me. The horse stood a few lengths away, trembling, favoring one foreleg. "What happened, girl?"
"Take it easy, Xena," I said, but she brushed me away and went to the shaken animal.
"Sssh... there, there..." She reached out to stroke the mares sweat-slickened neck, only to sharply recoil her arm. "Aaah!"
"Xena - youre hurt!"
"No, Im not," she insisted, even as she held her sword arm close to her middle. "I just landed wrong on my shoulder - itll be fine."
"Oh, really," I was skeptical, but knew enough to let the subject drop - for now. Xena squatted down next to Argos left leg, examining it, murmuring soft re-assurances all the while.
"Why that no good..." her lips pursed in anger, and I watched her tug a semi-circled piece of metal from the horses hoof.
"What is it?" I asked as Xena stood, rolling her right shoulder painfully.
"Its her shoe. Looks like a couple of the nails werent secured properly." She squinted back down the path we had traveled. "It mustve loosened, and started to come off thanks to this rough terrain. If wed been walking, it wouldnt have been so bad. But in mid-gallop--"
"Ouch!" I said sympathetically.
"Ouch is right, isnt it girl!" Xena patted the Palominos creamy muzzle. Just that touch, and the sound of her voice, seemed to settle the animals jangled nerves. "Wait until we pass through Kamari again, and I get my hands on that blacksmith. What a slipshod job!"
And as Xenas eyes narrowed, I didnt envy the smithy. He would have some explaining to do to the warrior princess.
"What now?" I asked, leaning upon my staff, "Will Argo be okay?"
"Shell be fine. I just need to rest her leg a day or so, then get her a new shoe." Xena looked ahead. "If there is a stream down there, we could camp for the night--"
Our conversation broke off at the sound of hooves pounding our way up the road. A great ebony horse came into view - a charger by the looks of it - with a rider of a size to do the animal justice.
"Hallooo!" the horseman greeted with a wave and a smile, pulling up next to us. In one swift motion, he swung down from his saddle onto the ground, raising a cloud of dust as he went. He strode over to us, and I saw that with all his stature and muscled girth, he was a young man, barely older than me. I could sense Xena straighten to her full height next to me, but for all that it was apparent that he bested her by quite a few inches.
"Having a bit of trouble?" he asked, and a smile creased a face that had two deeply set dark-brown eyes, framed by curly pitch-black hair.
"Yes," I said, in an answer that was drowned out by Xenas simultaneous, firm No. She turned and arched an eyebrow at me.
"Well," he laughed. "Its a tie. One for, one against. I wonder what your horse has to say about that?" and he reached out and gave Argo a familiar slap on her rump. Uh-oh.
"My-- my name is Gabrielle," I extended my hand, eager to avoid any trouble, "and this is my friend, Xena."
"Im Lindros," he said, clasping my arm in greeting, "of Davilia." His leathered warriors garb creaked as he leaned for Xenas hand - she was slow to offer it, but eventually she did.
"Lindros," she said evenly, but I could see her jaw muscles flexing, "nice to meet you. And," she added, "for the record, my horse always agrees with me."
"Fair enough," he replied, still smiling. "Are you two on your way to the festival?"
"Festival?" Suddenly, the new arrival had my undivided interest.
"The annual Axos-Davilia festival," he paused. "Surely, youve heard of it?"
"Noooo..." Xena said, moving away to check on Argo.
"Tell us about it!" I wanted to know more, and could not help but return Lindros charming smile.
"Its a festival held every year, to celebrate the peace between our two villages," he explained. "Axos and Davilia used to be at war, and a number of years ago a truce was declared. The festival was inaugurated then to celebrate it. Theres feasting, games, competitive events... each year we alternate where its held. This year, its in Axos!"
"Sounds like fun, Xena," I said, addressing her broad back.
"It is!" Lindros agreed, and the sparkle in his eyes was not unattractive. "Im a warrior, of course," he said proudly. "Im to complete for Davilia in the war-games. You should come!" he said, directing his comments to me. "Axos is only a short distance from here."
"Xena, could we--"
"No!" came the gruff response, tossed over her shoulder. She was busy massaging Argos leg.
"Xena," I could not keep the exasperated tone from creeping into my voice, "why not? You said Argo needed to rest a day or so!"
The warrior straightened up and turned to face us, shaking her dark head. "I dont know..."
"Theres a nice stable and smithy in Axos," Lindros encouraged us. "Your horse would be well taken care of."
"Please, Xena?" and I took a step closer to her, and spoke quietly, "We could relax... just the two of us?"
"The two of us... and all of Axos and Davilia, from the sound of it..." she rolled her eyes to the sky, and then turned to let them rest upon me.
I silently implored her one last time. There was no rational reason why she should refuse me this, and she knew it. Like ice melting, I could see her relent. "Oh... all right," she sighed. "But just for a day or so!"
"Wonderful!" Lindros sported a grin that ran from ear to ear. "Follow me!" he said, and he pulled himself up into his saddle, nudging his charger into a slow walk.
With a final sidelong glare at me, Xena gently tugged on Argos reins, gingerly falling in behind Lindros. I headed off after them both, towards Axos. Towards our future.
Another link in the chain.
The annual festival was obviously in full swing, as we entered Axos. The streets were teeming with people engaged in various stages of celebration; laughing, drinking and dancing, and there were small children running about and frolicking like mice among them. I gazed longingly at the crowds gathered around the merchant stalls, and at the games of chance and skill being played at a number of kiosks along the main thoroughfare.
Thanks to Lindros help, we were quickly able to get Argo settled in at the stable; Xena made sure to provide exacting, detailed instructions to the stable-master. I could see the middle-aged, rotund mans head bob up and down agreeably as he listened to Xena, nervously wiping his hands on his leathered apron, and I smiled to myself. It was apparent to me that he had no desire to disappoint the warrior princess when it came to the care of her horse.
"Okay... now what?" Xenas disinterest was plain as we walked back into the thick of the festival.
"Are you blind?" Lindros threw his arms open wide. "Look around you! Enjoy yourself!"
"I am not--" I could see a spark of anger set Xenas blue eyes a-light, and I swiftly laid a hand on her arm.
"Thanks for everything, Lindros," I jumped in, "we will!"
"Great... well... Ive got to register for the competition tomorrow," he said, looking towards a booth set up in the town square. "See you later, and at the banquet, then?" and with a smiling nod, he was off.
I turned to the tall woman next to me. "Xena," my voice was a hiss, "couldnt you at least try and be nice? After all, he helped us!"
"Did he?" she dryly commented, and we moved back into the crowds. "If you say so," she shrugged.
It did not take long for me to notice the delectable smells of the foods cooking on open fires, available for sampling to all passersby. There were very few I resisted. And I must give Xena credit, she said not a word as we stopped at merchant after merchant; they obviously had trotted out their best wares for the festival, and at last I broke down and began to negotiate for a silken scarf colored in a cobalt blue and white.
"Two dinars, and thats my final offer," I turned away.
"All right...all right!" the merchant said with a scowl, and he handed it over. "Those are Axos colors, you know!" he added.
"Really?!" I said, draping the scarf around my shoulders, modeling it for Xena. "Ah well, rooting for the home team, I guess!" and I grinned up at her. I was relieved to see her return my smile, with a bright twinkle in her eye. It seemed she was relaxing, at last.
"Lets hear it for the home team!" she said with a laugh, and we waded back into the crowds.
I have to admit that I was taken aback by the large number of weapons merchants at the festival, but I attributed that to the fact that some of the competition the following day would involve arms demonstrations. And even Xena paused at one of the booths, wistfully admiring a whip. I turned my head away, blushing at the memory of how Id traded hers for a good frying pan. Xena had had many an opportunity since then to replace it, but she never did, and so still I felt guilty over the whole thing.
"Twenty dinars, and not a one less!" The merchant sidled next to her, opening the haggling.
"Not interested, thanks," Xena said, handing the whip back.
"Nope, sorry!" and she turned away.
"Ten!" he screeched after her.
"Xena!" I said, "Thats an incredible deal!"
"Not if you dont want it!" She gave me a teasing grin.
"For the love of Zeus, Xena!" But she just laughed, content to let me suffer a while longer. We continued to explore Axos, progressing to an open, grassy area where there was a knife-tossing game under way.
"Step right up, right up here!" hawked the game-keeper. "Best throw wins the big prize!" and he pointed to a gleaming dagger displayed on the top of his booth. Several men were already in line, taking aim at a bulls eye target some paces away.
Thwack! the first mans throw was good, but the man after him was better, closing the distance by half to the center of the target. A cheer went up from the festival-goers who had paused to watch the event. The third mans throw was not even close, striking well below the outer-most ring of the target.
"Why Petros," the barker laughed, "you couldnt hit the broad side of a barn door. Lets make it a little more interesting, shall we?" With a wave of his arm, an assistant ushered out a blanch-faced, brown haired young man, and began tying him up to the target board. The crowd roared its approval, and the youth tilted his head up apprehensively at the bulls eye that was now just above his head. It was apparent that he had no desire whatsoever to participate in the contest - but there he was.
"Whats going on?" I asked, as Xena took a step forward.
"Hes from Davilia," an older man next to me answered, never taking his eye off the event. "He lost the knife-toss last year. Its a tradition!"
Before I knew it, the warrior at my side was gone, just as I heard Petros next throw whizzing through the air.
"Thwack! The knife hit the bulls eye this time, still far from the center mark, but barely missing the crown of the young mans head. His knees nearly buckled in fear.
"Not bad, Petros - for someone from Axos!" the barker mocked him over the shouts of the spectators, "but we still dont have a winner. Whos next?" his eyes searched the crowd. "Whos the best among you?"
And there was Xena, her dark hair shining in the light of the setting sun, holding out her hand for a knife.
"Oohhh!" the barkers pinched features screwed up in what passed for a smile. "And you are...?"
"Xena. Of Amphipolis."
"Xena of Amphipolis!" he shouted the introduction to the crowd. "How many throws will you have?"
"I only need one," she said grimly.
I pressed forward against the crowd, struggling for a better view. I noted with some consternation that Xena favored the shoulder shed fallen on, taking up the knife in her opposite hand instead.
The people grew quiet as she eased her arm back, taking aim. The young man at the bulls eye squeezed his eyes shut, the sweat was pouring off of him, and I worried that his terrified quaking might interfere with Xenas throw.
I should have known better. In one swift blur of a motion, Xena released the knife towards the target.
Thwack! A roar went up from the crowd, and the youth hesitantly opened his eyes. Xenas blade had landed dead center. The contest was over.
"Well...well! What do you know?! We have a winner - Xena of Amphipolis!"
I shoved my way next to Xenas side, as she received the congratulations of the crowd. She paused, making sure that the youth was released from the target area. He was, and scurried off into the throng like a shot.
"Xena... that was amazing!" I gasped.
"Here you are, Xena!" the barker stepped in-between us, holding out the prized knife.
"Keep it," she said, pushing it away.
"I said keep it!" And the hardness of her voice told him she would brook no argument.
We walked quickly away from the buzzing crowd, and I could tell that Xena was furious. "Some game," she muttered through clenched teeth. "I dont know about this place...."
"Xena!" It was Lindros, back again, with an older man in tow, who wore cobalt blue robes with white trim. He had a full head of silver hair, a beard, and piercing blue eyes.
"Congratulations!" the young warrior said. "I heard you won the knife throw!"
Xena stiffened. "Well losing certainly has its downside," she replied, but Lindros only laughed.
The tall young man motioned to his companion. "Xena, Gabrielle, Id like you to meet Pericles, the Archon - the leader - of Axos.
"It is a pleasure, ladies," he bowed to us, and cast an appraising eye at Xena. "Xena of Amphipolis," he said, stroking his beard, "the warrior princess?"
"Xena fights only for the greater good now," I heard myself explaining to this stranger as Id done countless times before in our travels together. The person whod built the reputation of Xena - the evil warlord - no longer existed; I knew in my heart this was so. Yet from time to time we encountered people who still had memories of those days long past, of a cold, brutal fighter who would stop at nothing to capture and conquer whatever and whomever her whims desired.
Now, Xena was content to let me do the talking, and instead show that she had changed through her deeds. It was a path of healing that we walked on together, and I trusted that she would never stray from it. She had promised that to us both.
"Yes... your reputation precedes you, Xena, and we are pleased that you have chosen to join us for the festival." Pericles smiled, stroking his beard thoughtfully. "Please, would you do us the added honor of being the judge of our competition tomorrow?"
"What?" Xena was clearly taken aback, and gave me a sidelong this is your fault look.
"Normally, the archon of the host village does the judging--" Lindros spoke up.
"But it is rare that we have so esteemed a guest in our midst!" the archon bowed again, this time keeping a gimlet eye on my warrior.
"Absolutely not!" Xenas voice was firm, and it was obvious to me she was in no mood to continue the discussion.
"The archon shows the highest regard for you with this offer Xena," Lindros looked nervously from the warrior to the older man. "To refuse him is a matter of great offense."
"Its not my place to judge your people!" There was no trace of apology in Xenas voice.
"Look, Xena, whats the harm in it?" I tried to keep the peace.
"Well said, young lady!" Pericles agreed. "Accommodations will be made for you at the inn..."
"Which is otherwise full!" Lindros added.
"... and you will have seats of honor at tonights banquet."
"There! How about that?" I said, pulling on Xenas arm so that she would face me. "A good meal, a nice bed, and fun at the festival tomorrow!"
"Gabrielle..." Xena shook her head. Her voice sounded tired, and indeed it seemed as though wed been disagreeing on just about everything, this day.
Pericles waved his arm, and out of nowhere a scruffy-faced serving boy appeared. "Listen to your young friend, warrior princess, she knows of what she speaks. Mintos here will show you to your room at the inn. Please, refresh yourselves, and then I look forward to seeing you this evening!" With that, he and Lindros melted back into the crowd, leaving Xena no opportunity for further protest.
"What just happened here?" I could see the storm brewing in the blue ocean of Xenas eyes.
"Cmon, celebrity judge," I said, linking my arm through hers as we trailed after Mintos. "Tonight we eat, drink, and be merry. This is a festival Xena. Lets enjoy it!"
Xena sighed heavily, and ran a hand through her long hair. "And tomorrow, let the games begin," she said without humor, gazing past the village towards the mountains to the west. A coppery sun was rapidly being swallowed up between two snow-capped peaks, slipping silently out of sight.
The unbroken chain.
The banquet was magnificent, and I have to say that even Xena was impressed. Serving platters groaning with meats, breads, and cheeses were constantly being ferried back and forth from the kitchens; the staff could barely keep up with the ravenous demands of the banquet guests. The wine and ale were flowing freely too, and I found that my cup was automatically being refilled without my bidding try as I might, I could not put a stop to the punctual service!
It was not long before I found myself feeling very full and jolly; it was exciting to mingle with the festival-goers and hear their wonderful tales of competitions past. There were seeds for a story there, I felt certain of it, and the bard in me looked forward to morning all the more. How fortunate we were that wed literally stumbled across the festival!
As promised, Xena and I had seats of honor, situated in-between Pericles and the Archon of Davilia. And it seemed that Lindros was never far away either, kindly checking on us to make sure that even the most insignificant of our needs were being attended to.
The judge at my side certainly garnered her share of covert attention, I could hear the many whispered comments and see the sidelong glances. Though not much was made at the outset of Xenas warlord past, as the evening wore on and the flood of wine swept through the hall and loosened tongues, I could see Xena become increasingly uncomfortable with the more direct comments that were being made.
"Look the warrior p-princess will be at the games tomorrow!" One drunken man stumbled by and rudely pointed at Xena.
His red-nosed friend belched and tightly gripped the hilt of a sword he wore at his side. "Did you hear of her deeds at Corinth?"
"What warrior hasnt?" the drunk replied, slapping his companion on the back as they staggered off.
I could feel Xena bristle. "Theyve just done a little too much celebrating," I reassuringly laid my hand on her gauntlet.
"Theyre not the only ones," Xenas eyes roamed over the hall. A barely controlled mayhem appeared to be taking over, with a fight here and an argument there; voices were raised in direct proportion to the volume of sounds emanating from the musicians, something vaguely resembling a tune wailed loudly over the gathering. I could tell that Xena wanted no parts of this, and frankly neither did I.
"Will they ever have a headache tomorrow!" I laughed, trying to lighten the moment, but I jumped at the sound of a great crash. At the far side of the hall, one man had tossed another through a window frame. It splintered into pieces, and a gust of chilly air blew in. "Especially that guy!" I said, sliding closer to my friend.
"Thats it," Xena stood. "Ive had enough celebrating for one night. The sooner we leave, the sooner tomorrow will be here, and the sooner all this will be over with!"
"Surely youre not leaving?" Pericles magically re-appeared behind us.
"Gabrielles tired," Xena said, and she gave a discrete nudge to my side.
"Ahh yes. " I feigned a yawn and stretched. "Big day tomorrow!"
"Very well," he looked disappointed. "Shall I have Lindros show you out?"
"No well be fine," Xena quickly replied and, with a nod at the archon, she took hold of my elbow and guided me towards the door.
"Phew!" We burst out into the cool night. "I feel like I need a bath, after that!" A disagreeable shiver ran through Xena.
"Im sorry," I said, and I meant it. "We could have left sooner"
"No... no," she looked back over her shoulder at the hall. The building fairly quaked from the din pounding within it. "You were having fun it was all right."
"It was fun," I smiled up at her; Id needed this night to relax. And truth be known, it made me feel special, to be so attended to. "Thanks."
We arrived back at the inn. It looked peaceful in comparison to the hall; the glow of a few soft lamps shone through the windows, dappling the ground outside. Apparently, the banquet was the place to be this night.
A thought occurred to me as I raised my head to the sparkling, clear night sky, and I turned to my companion. "Speaking of a bath," I grinned, giddy from the wine, "that doesnt sound like a bad idea. I wonder if Mintos can scare one up for us?"
Xena instantly grasped my meaning. "Well, after all," I could see her tongue planted firmly in her cheek, "I am a celebrity judge. That ought to count for something!"
"It does with me," I said, and with a wicked wink I bounded into the inn, leaving the warrior princess in my dust.
There was not much that frightened me anymore. The confidence I carried with me, Xena said had always been there, waiting to show itself. I wasnt so sure about that, content to rely on my own conviction that whenever I most needed it, I could draw my strength from her. And I wonder if she knew how many times I did just that. Evil, famine, injustice, ignorance... like the warrior princess herself, these things I no longer feared.
Truly, I fancied that even mighty death itself had no hold over us. We had each conquered it in the past, thanks to our love for one another, but we both knew that one day it would return and claim us with a finality not to be bargained with. When that day came, it was understood we would see it through together.
No, what frightened me sometimes, if I gave into it, was the depth, the power, the completeness of the love I had for Xena. It held me enthralled, I was awed by the face of it, and perhaps the only thing that terrified me more was the thought of ever having to live without it.
The bath water had long since cooled. The room was dark, save for a bedside candle that had nearly burned down to a lumpy puddle of wax; its poor light merged with faint streaks of moonlight that trickled in the window, kissing our bed where Xena lay. She was dead to the world.
My warrior slumbered contentedly on her stomach, her dark hair glistening like fresh ink against the whiteness of her pillow, and she had flung an arm possessively across my middle. I gently slid the appendage back to her side, taking care not to wake her, and I leaned over her sleeping form to blow the candle out.
I pulled back, then, and let my eyes roam along the sloping contours of her body; drinking in the bronze skin covering a well-muscled physique that I knew from our exertions earlier this night could be tender beyond compare. It was all I could do to fight down the fresh surge of desire that welled up within me.
Instead I sighed, and tugged a blanket up higher on Xenas back. I let my fingers briefly rest on the angry bruise just below her right shoulder blade - a souvenir from her misadventure with Argo that morning. Id gasped when I first saw it in the bath, and as usual she vowed that it didnt bother her in the least. But the deep, purple and black blight was easily as broad as both of my palms across, and now I measured it again in the pale moon-glow. It had to hurt, I knew it; shed released a soft, low cry previously that had not been one of passion, when I had accidentally touched her there.
Even now, I could feel the heat of inflammation rising from the spot. Hrmph! Wed see about that. Impulsively, I pressed two fingertips to my lips, then lightly touched them to the bruise. Tomorrow, if it didnt look any better, I would insist that she allow me to put a healing salve upon it.
Tomorrow. My brow furrowed. "What have you gotten me into here, my bard?" Xena had asked me earlier, flashing me a sly smile as we bathed.
"Youll see," Id mischievously replied, conveniently choosing to ignore the fact that shed meant the festival, and not our toilette.
I didnt know why I couldnt sleep. It was a joke between us how Morpheus always took me first, but I felt... unsettled, somehow, and I closed my eyes, willing for the sensation to pass me by.
I heard muffled laughter outside as revelers returned from the banquet; the door to the inn opened and slammed shut. Heavy footsteps tramped up the stairs, and after several thumps and a high-pitched yelp, all was silent once more.
I eased as close to Xena as I dared without waking her, so close that I could feel each light caress of her breath upon my cheek. I could not resist lifting her arm and laying it across me again, as if I had never disturbed it in the first place. There! I felt myself begin to relax at the warm weight of her, touching me, claiming me for her own.
Another deep sigh, and my thoughts began to muddle. My consciousness drifted away. Xena was right. Tomorrow would be here soon enough.
The festival games were situated inside a natural, sloping amphitheater at the southern edge of Axos. There, the gentle grade of a hill flattened out for some distance, until the earth began to rise up once more to another low hill. In the central open field, it was obvious that competitive events had been held there before. There was an oval track, used by both men and horses, extending along the perimeter, and stone distance markers were positioned at intervals along the length of the field. A small grandstand had been constructed on the steeper slope; this was where the dignitaries from both towns would observe the events.
Lindros met us at the entrance of the makeshift arena, and excitedly showed us to our seats. His face was flush and his dark eyes glittered as he described to us the line-up of events: discus throwing, javelin, running, a chariot race, combat sparring, and a large team event at the end of the day. That contest involved strategically moving a ball from one side of the field to another, scoring points in the process. Owing to Xenas position as judge, we would be front and center of the grandstand, affording us an ideal view of the field. Pericles would be to our left, while the Archon of Davilia and his party would be on our opposite side.
"Welcome!" Pericles bowed a greeting to us, accompanied by a somewhat distant smile. "I trust you will enjoy all that the games of Axos-Davilia have to offer!"
"Oh, Im sure we will!" I bobbed my head enthusiastically, motioning for Xena to slide into the seats first. The air was warm, and the sky above was crystal blue and cloudless. A moderate breeze briskly snapped at the brightly colored pennants that flew from the grandstand, casting undulating shadows onto the field below. There was barely a seat to be had, whether in the grandstand itself, or on the banks of the amphitheater.
The gathering throngs were buzzing with anticipation; and I noticed many family groupings among them; quite a number had brought picnic lunches or purchased them from the vendors outside they were obviously prepared to make a day of it. The scent of their food mingled with that of the leather and horses, the fresh sawdust lining the track, and the thick carpet of green grass, creating an altogether intoxicating perfume that only added to the festive atmosphere.
I took out my new scarf, and tied it loosely around my neck. There! Now I really felt a part of things.
"Gabrielle! Xena!" Lindros swung by on his way out of the grandstand, after having shared a few words with the Archon of Davilia. "Wish me luck in the war-games!" He was positively beaming, and how young and handsome he looked in his fighting leathers, with a gleaming sword at his side! His exuberance was contagious, or at least it was to me, for once again I could see that Xena didnt even crack a smile.
"Are you kidding?" I laughed. "I bet you win it all!" and I idly fingered the cobalt and white scarf I wore.
Lindros eyes narrowed. "Those are the colors of Axos," he said, and there was a hardened edge to his voice that I had not thought him capable of.
"Why yes," I stammered, suddenly unsure of myself. "I- I didnt know it yesterday when I bought it. I just thought it looked pretty "
He was silent, his mouth set in a thin line, and then the moment passed. He grinned. "And so it does, on you! Here " he loosened a swath of cloth tied off on the hilt of his sword, "Wear this, too. For Davilia. For me!" and he handed me the green and yellow streamer.
For some reason, I found myself anxious to placate him, and I gathered the cloth around my neck as I had done with the Axos colors. "They look good together, dont they?" I said, ignoring Xenas skeptical snort as she lowered herself into her seat of honor.
"By days end, you will want to wear only my colors," he confidently declared, and with a waving flourish, he turned smartly on his heel and took his leave.
I sat down and stared at Xena. She said nothing, but gave me a look I had seen many times before. It was bemused, questioning... with a hint of a smirk there, too.
"What?" I demanded, more sharply than Id intended.
"Dont look at me!" the warrior said defensively, and she turned an eye to the arena.
"Hes hes just excited!"
"Ill say," Xena shook her head. "With that kind of energy, I feel sorry for whoever he goes up against."
"As long as the judging remains impartial, Xena," I said in a huff.
"Hey!" she held her palms up in surrender. "Nothing but!" Although she would not look at me, I could hear the smile in her voice, and so I relaxed and eased back into my seat.
A fanfare of trumpets sounded, and all heads turned to Pericles. The archon stood, his blue and white robes swirling in the breeze. He announced the opening of the competition, then introduced a reluctant warrior princess to the festival-goers. She kept her eyes down and barely acknowledged the cheers of an appreciative audience, and I had to smile at her rare display of bashfulness.
Pericles silenced the crowd with a slight motion of his hand, and he continued to speak of the long-standing peace between the two villages: Axos and Davilia, expressing the hope of the people that the peace would continue, to be handed down like a cherished heirloom to their children, and their childrens children.
"This is our gift, this is our legacy!" he held his fist up to the sky, and his blue eyes seemed ablaze with his conviction. "Let the games begin!" he finished, as the crowd roared its approval. I felt the grandstand shake with the resounding vibration of it all.
"Here we go," Xena muttered under her breath.
Maybe it was all the excitement, maybe it was because I hadnt gotten much sleep the night before, but a shiver ran through me that I was hard-pressed to explain. Instead, I sat back and watched it all unfold.
One link leading to the next. And the next. How can we fight it, when we dont even know who the enemy is?
The games started innocently enough, with each event being introduced by Pericles. Xena had very little to do, simply confirming the results of the running, discus, and javelin events. We laughed when we saw that one of the competitors in the javelin was Petros - the poor knife-thrower from the previous day. Amazingly, he had a better command of the spear; in fact, he nearly won the competition.
Next, the chariot race was announced, and the throng let loose the loudest road Id heard so far. It was obvious that the event was a favorite. There had to be ten chariots clogging the starting line, winner take all.
"Arent there too many chariots for that space?" I was concerned as I saw the drivers jockeying for position, even as the wild-eyed horses kicked at the dirt and strained anxiously against their reins.
"Yes," Xena replied, and I could tell she didnt like it at all. Just as she leaned towards the archon, he dropped his arm and the racers were off. There was nothing we could do.
The crashing of wheels-against-wheels, the braying of the terrified animals as they slammed into each other, was difficult to watch. Thankfully, several of the chariots dropped out in short order, and it soon became apparent why. A number of the competitors vehicles were affixed with razor-sharp blades that whirled along as the wheels revolved. Their opponents wheels had simply snapped off under that assault, and I could see the bloodied legs of some of the animals, too. Even more appallingly, many of the drivers were equipped with short swords or other weapons, which they did not hesitate to use on one another.
"Oh Gods, Xena," I cried out, but I was one voice against swarms of people that were otherwise thrilled by the spectacle. At last, I had to turn my head away, averting my eyes from the sight, but that did nothing blot out the pounding of the hoof-beats, the cold rattle of the harnesses, and the shrieks of horses and men alike. I held my hands to my face, trying to keep down the prickly scent of the dust-cloud that filled my nostrils.
I could feel the touch of Xenas hand briefly on my shoulder. "Itll be over soon," I heard her say, apologetically, and indeed, with one final great roar from the crowd, I knew it had ended.
I forced myself to look at the wreckage on the track: limping horses, upturned chariots, bruised and bleeding men. The winner had literally been the last one standing, and he and his chariot were certainly the sorriest looking winners Id ever seen, thanks to the battering they had taken.
The driver pulled his chariot around towards the grandstand and paused, looking expectantly at Xena. She gave a barely perceptible thumbs up, and once again the people broke into shouts and applause.
"Hes from Axos," I heard Pericles say in a soft, satisfied tone of voice.
Xena was furious, I could tell, and so I thought it best to stay out of her way as she approached the archon. "What in Tartarus was that all about," she demanded, motioning towards the track. Quickly, a team was already hard at work, clearing out the debris in preparation for the next event.
"Now Xena," he began, "I know what you must think. But since we are not at war, these games are the only way we can safely keep our military skills sharp. Weve been quite successful at peace," he explained to the angry warrior, "but what if we were threatened by outsiders? We must remain prepared... vigilant!"
Beneath the frizzled gray of his beard, I could see a heated flush rise to his face; it painted a stark contrast against the coldness of his eyes.
Xena pointed to the field, her face was dark as a thundercloud. "What you did... was cruel!"
"So is war," the archon said flatly. "Who better than you, warrior princess, should know that," and he turned away.
"Whats happening, Xena?" I was worried.
"Whats happening is, were getting out of here."
Another clamor erupted from the crowd, as a dozen warriors marched into the arena. They were paired off, the colors of Axos against the colors of Davilia.
"Let the war games begin!" Pericles dropped his arm, and with a thunderous roar, the dueling began.
"Pericles!" The sharpness in Xenas tone got the archons attention. "Were leaving."
"Our honored judge, leaving before the final event? Unheard of!"
"Theres always a first time," Xena said icily, grabbing my arm.
"Wait!" he called out. There was something vaguely threatening in his manner, I could sense it. "Dont go - not when theres still so much exciting competition... the thrills..."
"This is no exhibition," Xena swore angrily. "Its a sorry excuse to continue a war that never really ended!"
"Wha--" he looked scandalized, bringing his hand to his breast in feigned shock and indignation. "Is that how little you think of us?"
"Xena - look!" My eyes were locked on the arena. The warriors there were in a fight to the death, I could plainly tell. And the crowd seemed to welcome it, to encourage it. My stomach sickened as I saw adults and children alike, reveling in the sight of blood, filling their senses of it... and howling for more.
One warrior, larger than the rest, lifted his sword over the body of a downed opponent. With his blade poised, he cast a sidelong glance to Xena.
Oh gods, I thought, the warrior was Lindros!
"NO!" Xena roared. "As judge I order you to spare him!"
But it was if he hadnt heard. I could see the sunlight shining off the finely honed metal as it rapidly descended; I could hear over the cheers the nauseating sluice of his weapon, cutting into his prey.
"Oh..." I cried out, trapped in a nightmare of my own doing, and I turned and buried my head against Xenas chest. "Xena... stop them!" And even as I heard the words leave my lips, I wondered what the warrior princess could possibly do to end this blood sport.
"Thats enough!" Xena said grimly, extricating herself from my arms. "Stay here!" Before I was even aware of what was happening, she had vaulted over the rail of the grandstand and into the killing field.
"Yi-yi-yi-yi-yi!!" Xenas battle-cry pealed above the thunderous cries of the crowd, wild at the sight of her diving into the fray.
Quickly, Pericles took advantage of this turn of events, leaping to his feet. "And now, for a special demonstration! Xena, the warrior princess, challenging the best that Axos and Davilia have to offer!" His words sent the mob into a frenzy. "May the best man - or woman! -" he winked, "win!"
I trusted no-one more to be able to defend themselves in a fight, than Xena. Sure, there were times when she took unnecessary risks, but it seemed the Fates were on her side - at least most of the time, anyway - and she would emerge unscathed.
As Id seen her do countless times before, I watched her move around the arena like a panther, feinting and parrying. She preferred to use the flat of her sword, the heel of her palm, or a spinning kick to take her opponents down. It was painful enough to them, though intentionally not a lethal technique.
With each clang of a blade, or thrusting blow, the crowd was right there, vociferous in its appreciation. After what were agonizingly long moments to me, Xena had whittled down the standing men to three - one of whom was Lindros.
I was more than a little concerned by this time; the crowd was oblivious to it but I had instantly detected the precise moment when Xenas bruised shoulder began to pain her. She had shifted her sword to her left hand, while her right arm dangled at an awkward angle by her side.
Xenas remaining opponents were wary now, and Lindros let his two associates take the lead. One of them must have noticed her injury, for as Xena worked on dispatching the first individual, the second warrior - wielding a cudgel - got in a lucky strike. I winced aloud when I saw the club slam into Xenas back.
"Xena!" I gasped, but she staggered only slightly and whirled around, leading with her elbow, knocking her oppressors senselessly to the ground. Wisely, they stayed there. Now, it was down to Lindros and Xena.
I couldnt believe it - I saw the young giant of a man smile as he approached Xena - and it sent a shiver through my soul. It was clear to me now - hed been waiting for this moment since first meeting us on the road. How long ago that chance encounter seemed!
The two warriors maneuvered around the arena, urged on by the crowd, and though even a one-armed Xena was a formidable foe, I could tell that doing battle with nearly a dozen heavily armed adversaries had taken its toll. She was breathing heavily, slowing down; sweating and straining with the effort of defending against his fierce onslaught. I began to fear that unless she had a trick up her sleeve, she would have her work cut out for her in dealing with this final opponent.
Xena and Lindros had battled next to the grandstand, and as they drew close I was relieved to see the first signs of exhaustion appear in Lindros dark eyes, too.
Suddenly, it happened.
"FINISH HER!" There was a raw, impatient growl from someone in the grandstand, and a small dagger flew out of the throng towards Xena. The crowds reaction to this affront was a mixture of cheers and hisses - but it was all the distraction Lindros needed.
Xena had to swivel to one side; I could see the pain sear across her face as she reached for the dagger. She had no choice but to use her injured right arm, barely catching the knife in time. And at that same moment, the flat of Lindros blade delivered a bone-crushing blow to the side of Xenas head.
She dropped like a stone, blood spattering her face and spraying onto the dusty dirt of the arena floor. The crowd roared at this crimson evidence of the festivals latest sacrificial offering. Lindros stood triumphantly over her, receiving the accolades of the crowd, his weapon poised for the final, killing stroke.
Xena, get up! In my mind, I frantically willed for my warrior to move, to rise to her feet, to pick up her sword. But I could see no sign of movement, no flickering of her eyelids; she was out cold.
"NO!" I heard my own voice shout, yet it sounded so far away, so muffled, blending with the now-distant sounds from the spectators. I had no clear thought in my head of what I would do, I only knew that somehow I propelled myself over the barrier and into the arena.
I was aware of how soft and springy the earth felt beneath my feet. How large Lindros back loomed to me as I closed the distance between us! I shifted my gaze to his bloodied sword, shimmering in the sunlight, and I focused on that, instead.
I hurled my body into him, trying to tackle him, but it was like throwing myself against a massive, oaken tree-trunk, with much the same result. Now it was my turn to be stunned. He shrugged me off as if Id been no more diverting than a pesky fly. I found myself lying flat on my back, staring up at the sky.
Xena! Im not sure if I thought her name or said it aloud, but at last the roar of the crowd penetrated through the fog of my hearing, rousing me. I rolled over onto my hands and knees, gasping for breath, raising my head to see that Xena once again had Lindros undivided attention.
With some relief I saw that Xena was still alive, weakly trying to get to her feet, but she wasnt even looking in Lindros direction as she struggled to clear the blood from her eyes. One hand awkwardly tamped the ground surrounding her, blindly searching for a weapon - any weapon. In a flash of sickening clarity, my heart stopped beating. Xena would never recover in time to stop the warrior from Davilia.
Lindros was smiling now, egging the crowd on, and they complied with shrieks and bloodthirsty howls that I felt surely must have been heard in Tartarus itself. How Lindros delighted in this glorious moment! The pride he took in destroying the helpless!
He raised his sword high above Xenas head, and I knew what I had to do.
I pushed myself to my feet, spitting out the sawdust that had crept into my mouth. There was Xenas sword, lying uselessly on the ground. Fitting, I thought. I picked it up. Felt the weight and heft of it in my two hands.
I dont know whether the roar I heard was the crowd or the blood rushing through my veins, but the sound completely overwhelmed my hearing. I was deaf to all else. Lindros lips moved soundlessly, and I could see his sword begin to fall. I dared not look at Xena now, for I feared if I did, the sight of her might cause me to waver. I had to be strong. For us both.
Did Lindros hear me as I approached? Catch my movement in the corner of his eye? Even as his weapon continued on its lethal course, he turned his head to me. Saw me with the sword I gripped in my hands. Laughed.
The smile never did leave his face, not when I felt the initial resistance from his leathers, not when the tip of my sword punched through to the softer, muscled flesh beneath, not when I sharply pulled the blade from his swaying body. For this was Xenas sword, it belonged to her.
The arc of Lindros blade had faltered, and his weapon clattered to the ground. Soon after, it was followed by the warrior himself. He sank to his knees, then pitched over onto his side, blood streaming from his mouth. I watched him closely, still on guard, and he blinked at me once, twice, and then closed his eyes. They did not open again. The smile was gone.
"Lets hear it - Xena, the warrior princess, with a little help from her friend, wins the competition!"
Numbly, I looked to the grandstand. There was Pericles, exhorting the crowd, cheering me on. Would this nightmare never end?
My feet would not move. I held a death-grip on Xenas sword, not daring to release it, and I could see the breezes fluttering at the colors still draped around my neck. The feel of them suffocated me, choked me, better than had they formed a noose.
"Gabrielle... no!" Xena lurched to her feet, and moved painfully to my side. She laid her hand on top of mine, gently drawing the sword free. "Are you okay?" Her eyes worriedly searched my own, but I had nothing to say.
The applause and cheers of the spectators continued, yet the silence between us was deafening as we walked past the grandstand to the exit.
"Xena, wait!" The archon scurried after us, his blue and white robes billowing in the wind. He reached out and tugged on Xenas bad arm.
Xena whirled on him, barely hanging on to her composure. Just the fury on her face alone, caused him to drop his hand away and back off.
"B- but... theres still the team competition... who will be our judge?" his voice was more of a plaintive wail, now.
"You dont need me," Xena wearily slung an arm around my shoulder and we turned to leave, "to do Hades job."
And still, the crowds continued to cheer. The final battle, disguised as a team event, was about to begin. How theyd been waiting for this... since forever.
The chain remains unbroken.
Ive been crying for quite a while now. Im not sure exactly when it started, but I can barely catch my breath between aching sobs that seem inclined to go on forever.
I feel Xenas arms around me. Im not sure when she did that, either, but for the first time in a while I dont feel driven to pull away from her.
"Ssshhhh...." The stroking of her hand through my hair, the gentle rocking motion as she holds me, imbue me with a peace I thought Id never again be deserving of.
It was different with Meridian. I was a pawn of Dahak and his evil plans, but it was not until the birth of Hope that I realized just how much I had been used. Even so, I never stopped feeling responsible for my daughter, for her deeds. Although we both survived the fiery pit, Id had every intention of killing her. Sacrificing myself to save Xena, and the world. And thinking that I was going to die - that I wouldnt have to live with the consequence of what Id done - somehow, made it all easier.
Strange. As surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, I know that I cannot kill another to save myself. And Phlanagus died, because I couldnt commit myself to spilling blood - even in battle - to save him.
But for Xena... a shiver runs through me, and I can tell at last that the river of my tears is beginning to ebb.
"Itll be okay," Xena whispers. How patient she is with me!
I shift myself slightly so I can look at her, finally. I can see the fading bruise on the side of her cheek, the angry scar running into her hairline where Lindros blade made contact. She heals quickly. I do not.
Killing. Its different for Xena. She says she never gets used to it but... shes found a way to live with it. Im not sure that I want to. And yet, if I hadnt picked up that sword, Xena would not be with me now.
A cool breeze rustles through the trees, and Xena pulls the blanket more tightly around me. I hear an owl hoot, off in the distance, and at this moment it seems to me to be the most mournful sound I have ever heard.
When you take a life, everything changes. How well I know it, and I feel that pain. The anguish. I worry that the day will come when I wont. But when you save a life, everything changes, too. I gaze up at Xena, and allow myself to be captured by her eyes... to see the love there. So powerful it frightens me. And I am certain that if I had to do it all over again, I would.
"I wish youd never done it, Gabrielle," she says, holding me close, and I know she means it with all her heart.
"I dont," I reply in equal measure.
I turn back to the fire, and I feel Xenas lips, soft against my cheek. I reach out and take her hand and we sit, silently, watching the dying flames.
Its funny, I think, how one event leads to another, like the links on a chain. The decisions we make in life. For me, there is only one life - once choice - and that is to be with Xena.
We will move on from this place. We have to. We have decided that. Together.
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