The characters Xena, Gabrielle, and Toris are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this story. All the other characters are mine. This story contains descriptions of violence along with some profanity and depicts the two main characters as lovers.
Any resemblance between the former editor of Tom's Xena Page and her namesake in the
story is purely intentional.
If there is a nicer person in the Xenaverse I haven't met 'em. My friend, your infectious enthusiasm has made this fun again.
The first rays of dawn peeked over the window sill and fell onto the face of the middle- aged woman curled up snugly in bed. Gabrielle winced and grudgingly cracked open one eye. Another day. She yawned and looked down at the arm girding her just above the waist. Lovingly and ever so gently she touched the hand. As she did she studied the back of it. The skin was not as smooth as it had once been. There were the first signs of what some called "age spots" forming on it and Gabrielle noted there was considerable dryness there too. Yet as far as she could tell this hand was just as strong as it had ever been.
Ten years ago this mundane little scene would have been unthinkable for the arm encircling Gabrielle was Xena's and there was no way in Tartarus she would have allowed Gabrielle to awaken before her. Back then Xena would have been up and about long before Gabrielle but now that their days on the road were over she did not seem so, what was the word Gabrielle thought, driven? Well, she thought, smiling to herself, it's only natural. After all she did turn fifty just a couple of months ago.
Gabrielle tapped the hand a couple of times. "Come on, sleepyhead," she said brightly. "Time to get up."
"Mmmm, already?" groaned Xena.
Gabrielle laid Xena's arm back and sat up on the side of the bed. She shucked the large shirt she used for a nightgown and slipped the plain peasant's dress down over her head. "So, Xena," she asked, "what would you like for breakfast?"
"Roast duck basted in honey," Xena murmured.
"Hah! That's a good one," laughed the bard. "How about eggs boiled in water instead?"
Gabrielle walked around to Xena's side of the bed and sat down. She then gazed into those so wondrously enchanting blue eyes. For over twenty years now she had been held captive by their magic. Even now, just staring into them never failed to thrill her. She leaned over and gently kissed her warrior. "You're not going to be a grump all day now, are you?"
Xena flashed one of her oh-so-familiar half smiles and replied, "No, not all day. Maybe just till noon. How's that sound?"
The searing pain shot through Xena's lower back like an electric shock. All Gabrielle saw was a slight narrowing of Xena's eyes and the faintest, faintest hint of a grimace on her face. To anyone but her it would have passed completely unobserved but to one as well versed in the subtle nuances of her lover's face it was as if Xena had screamed at the top of her lungs.
Gabrielle placed a hand on Xena's arm. "It's your back again, isn't it?" she asked softly.
Xena knew it was no use to try to lie to the woman. Gabrielle knew her too well. "Yeah."
"That's the third time this week," observed Gabrielle. Actually it was merely the third one she had been witness to. In reality there was hardly a day that went by now when Xena didn't experience this at least two or three times. The pain didn't seem to be caused by any particular movement. It just more or less came and went at random.
"I'm all right now, Gabrielle," Xena assured her. "The pain's gone." She raised herself up and sat on the side of the bed.
Gabrielle then rose and made her way to the bedroom door. "I'll get breakfast started," she said.
Gabrielle exited the room and tried to give the impression she was on her way to the kitchen. Instead she ever so carefully crept back and peeked through the bedroom door she had deliberately left ajar. She watched Xena swell up her chest as it to gather herself for some, if one could be excused for saying it, "Herculean" effort. Slowly she stood up and took off her gown. It was blue and made of the finest Egyptian cloth-- a token of appreciation from the King of Crete for services long ago rendered. At the time Gabrielle had been shocked when Xena accepted it. Before this the warrioress had not shown any interest at all in such finery but the gown had somehow struck her fancy. Now Xena carefully folded it and placed it in the large chest adjacent to the bed.
Gabrielle marveled at the fact that, despite her fifty years, Xena still had the same trim, powerfully built, and yes, alluring body she'd always had. The bard smiled ruefully when she thought of the ten or so extra pounds she had put on since the two of them had quit the road. Gods! she thought as she watched her dress, she's as beautiful as she ever.
Xena had long since discarded the leather and armor of her warrior days. These days she preferred the loose pants and equally loose tunic she was now donning. This garb, when combined with her height and build, sometimes caused people to mistake her for a man but she did not care. To her comfort and practicality were much more important.
Xena knew she was there. She always knew. They went through this little charade every morning. Gabrielle would pretend to be busy in the elsewhere and then return to peek through the door to make sure Xena was all right. The bard knew the morning was the roughest part of the day for her. It was as if Xena needed an hour or two to work all the knots and kinks out of her well-worn body. Gabrielle would always linger there until Xena was dressed just to make sure before tip-toeing off to the kitchen. Sometimes Xena wanted to come to the door and tell her to stop worrying so much but she knew it would only embarrass her lover.
After dressing and brushing her now-graying hair Xena joined Gabrielle in the kitchen. As always breakfast was barely just begun. With a playful smile Xena asked, "And just what have you been doing all this time anyway?"
"Mee?" the bard sputtered. "Oh, uh, I had to, uh, I had to gather some eggs."
"Ohhh," Xena said, tilting her head back slightly.
Gabrielle quickly strove to change the subject. "So, umm, what are you going to do today?"
Xena tore off a piece of last night's bread and popped it into her mouth. Between bites she said, "I'm hoping to finish up that problem for Philos."
Gabrielle furrowed her brow. "Philos? Oh, the one whose son had the little ah, liaison with that Etruscan princess?"
"That's the one," replied Xena, smacking her lips.
Philos was a rich and powerful merchant who happened to be good friends with king of Etruria. When the king's daughter, Rhysa, came to Greece to study music at the nearby academy he naturally invited her to stay at his large villa.
Unfortunately upon meeting his son the two of them had become instantly smitten with each other. Before you could say "Cupid's arrow" they had managed to circumvent her nurse and succeed in making her virginity a thing of the past. When poor Philos discovered his son and his best friend's daughter were now lovers the poor man nearly had an apoplexy. In itself their tryst was serious enough but matters were further complicated when Rhysa revealed she was betrothed to a Sicilian prince and was to marry him upon her return home. Naturally it was tacitly understood she was expected to return home the same way she had left--that is as a virgin.
And now to make matters worse her term at the academy was almost over and her father would soon be sending a company of courtiers to escort her home. This problem meant not only the probable demise of his friendship with the King of Etruria but almost certain financial ruin as well for Philos had considerable assets tied up in a new trading venture based there. If the king saw fit to kill the deal now it would be very bad indeed for Philos.
Nearly at his wits' end wondering what to do, Philos had at last called on Xena for help. This was how she made her living now. To be sure it wasn't as exciting as matching wits with Ares or battling some no-good warlord but then again she wasn't twenty-five years old anymore either. She was still a "problem solver"--it was just that now she relied more on her intellect that her muscles to get things done. Over the last five years her work had included everything from reorganizing the army of the kingdom of Euboea to settling a "nasty" dispute between two rival pig farmers. Hardly a week went by now without someone knocking on her door asking for help. If it happened to be some ordinary guy in need of her unique services she never allowed them to pay her when the job was finished. Her conscience would not allow her to accept money from these simple folk.
However she made up for it when she extracted her fee from all those kings and whining fat merchants who always seemed to be screwing up one thing or another. She had no qualms whatsoever about making them dig deep into their purses. To avoid any misunderstanding she always named her price up front and to her recollection only one man had balked at her fee. Most were only too glad to pay. They knew she had a reputation as a woman that could get things done. And Xena always delivered.
A byproduct of all her work was the fact that she was, by and large, a respected member of society now. She had outlived most of the enemies from her black past and she had by now learned that the younger generation simply did not care. She knew she would never be revered like the great Hercules but it was enough for her to know that she was not looked upon with fear and hatred anymore either.
For over fifteen years she and Gabrielle had roamed over most of the known world making a difference in people's lives. She loved it. To a warrior in the prime of her life it was like Mount Olympus on earth. Then came that fateful day she battled Jarvis. She thought him to be just another in a seemingly endless line of bullies who looted and pillaged defenseless villages. The people of Charla, afraid they were next on Jarvis' hit list, had asked Xena for help. Of course she had agreed and, on the day before the fall equinox, confronted Jarvis just outside the village. She had done this sort of thing many, many times before and she never knew how they were going to turn out. A good percentage of the time her name was enough to deter them. That was all right with her. If they chose to fight...well that was all right too.
But this Jarvis was unlike any enemy she had ever faced. He was big, almost seven feet tall. He was quick and unusually agile for his size and almost as strong as Hercules. And, as Xena would soon find out, he could fight. For almost an hour they clashed in the most brutal, vicious fight anyone had ever seen. Those who were there still spoke of it with awe. Twice Jarvis succeeded in knocking Xena to the ground with thunderous punches. The first time she went down he broke two of her ribs with a crushing kick. The second time she went down he kicked her so hard in the back Xena thought her spine was broken. In all her years of warfare she had never felt pain like that. However, by summoning up all her remarkable courage and determination, she managed to somehow ignore the excruciating pain and continue the fight.
In the end her experience was the difference. By falling back on the old soldier's philosophy of going for the opponent's legs in a sword fight, she at last was able to bring him to one knee. Almost blinded by her own pain, she called upon her last bit of strength and managed to ram her sword up to its hilt in his guts. The victory won, she collapsed on top of him and the next thing she knew she was lying in a soft bed and Gabrielle was telling her she had been unconscious for ten whole days.
It took many her weeks to recover sufficiently enough to travel again. By then Xena had made up her mind. She had decided it was time to call it quits. She had known for some time now that her once magnificent skills were slowly, almost imperceptibly, eroding. No one else could see the change yet but to her it was as plain as a sunrise. At the time she was forty-five years old and her hand was just a liiiittle slower, her eye not quite as keen, her remarkable hearing not quite as acute. And already her joints were beginning to experience the same soreness and stiffness that had plagued her mother so. To be sure she still in remarkable shape but she knew it was just a matter of time before her skills eroded to the point that she could no longer rely on them to aid her tread that fine line between life and death.
So she had lain there in that bed, staring up at the ceiling and made her decision. No more life on the road. No more living from hand to mouth. No more fighting. Alone she probably would have just continued on until she met the young foe who would, either through luck or skill, put an end to her remarkable life. But she was not alone. She had Gabrielle to think of. She knew fully well the bard was more than capable of taking care of herself but seeing to Gabrielle's well being had become so ingrained in Xena's psyche over the last two decades that it was just something she could not help. It would be like asking a fish not to swim or a lark not to sing. Gabrielle was hers and she had to take look out for her. For over twenty years now they had walked the same path and they were much, much more than mere lovers now. Their souls were irrevocably intertwined and their hearts beat as one. Even Xena's analytical mind conceded that one could probably could not live without the other now. They were just too much a part of each other.
So the Warrior Princess decided she had had enough. On a dark, cloudy day just after the winter solstice she made her decision known to Gabrielle. She had been a little concerned with how the bard would take the news but she need not have worried. Gabrielle had merely said, "Okay." Xena should have known. After all, it was not love of the road or even of adventure that had kept Gabrielle steadfastly at her side all those years. It had been her love for Xena. Gabrielle had merely followed where her warrior led.
Xena finished off the egg, her fourth, and washed it down with some herbal tea left over from the previous evening. "So," she asked, "are you coming?"
"Are you coming with me today?"
The bard's presence on these excursions with Xena was not an automatic thing anymore. Sometimes she just liked to stay home and maybe write or think or do nothing at all. After all, Gabrielle reasoned, if you've seen one king you've seen em all. On this particular day, however, Gabrielle allowed she would go.
"Ohh. Uh, yeah. I'll go. Just let me bring in some wood first. It looks like it might rain today."
Xena walked to the window, opened it, and sniffed the air. "No rain today," she said. "More likely tomorrow."
This never ceased to amaze Gabrielle. Xena's ability to predict the weather was not just uncanny it was almost supernatural. In all their years together she had never known the warrioress to be wrong.
"Well, I'll get some anyway," said Gabrielle.
"Suit yourself," said Xena, shrugging her shoulders. "While you're doing that I'll fetch the horses."
Xena exited out the back door and leisurely made her way to the barn. As she opened the door the two horses, both mares, nickered softly. And, as it often did when she came here, Xena's thoughts turned to the lovely golden horse of an earlier time. Argo had been dead for many years now but even today Xena could rarely get near a horse without having the memories of that magnificent animal come flooding back to her. For a long time Argo had been her only true friend.
She lingered at the door for the briefest, briefest of moments remembering her beloved Argo. The warrioress allowed herself a faint smile of remembrance before entering. "Okay, girls," she cooed. "Vacation's over. Today you work."
"Owww!" Gabrielle dropped the stick of wood and popped a finger into her mouth. Damn splinters, she thought. She held up the offending digit and and squinted. "I know you're in there, you devil," she muttered. "I can feel you."
"What's the matter, Gabrielle?"
"Awww, I've got a splinter in my finger," Gabrielle replied.
"Here, let me see. You know, you really should be more careful," said Xena. She pulled out the small dagger she always carried and, in the wink of an eye, removed the splinter.
"Well," Gabrielle snorted, "it wouldn't kill you to help me every once in a while."
"Now, Gabrielle," said Xena, smiling in amusement, "we've been through all of this before."
"Yeah yeah, I know," the bard answered grumpily. "You bring in the dinars, I bring in the wood."
"You know you don't have to make it sound so... demeaning," smiled Xena.
"I'm sorry," said Gabrielle. "You do provide such a good living for us. It's just that sometimes..."
Xena wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and softly kissed her on her forehead. "I know," she said quietly. "I know. Tell me something, Gabrielle, and be honest. Do you ever, you know, regret hitching your wagon to such a horse as me? You could have been the most famous bard in Greece by now. I mean, look at that Homer guy. Everybody thinks he's the greatest thing since heeled shoes and you are ten times the bard he is. Don't you ever...?"
Gabrielle touched a finger to Xena's lips. "No," she smiled. "No I don't. The life we've had together is something I wouldn't trade for all the glory in Greece. You've given me something much more important than all that--a happiness I didn't know was possible. And if my life were to end tomorrow my only thoughts would be of you and our life together."
"Gabrielle, it's no wonder I love you so. Now let's get started before I get all mushy on you. And don't worry about the wood. When we get back I'll fill the wood box for you. How's that?"
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose and smiled. "Nah, I'll do it. You'd probably bust up my wood box or something. You know how you get carried away."
"Come on," said Xena.
They turned toward the horses when suddenly Xena stopped and put a hand to her ear.
"What is it?" Gabrielle asked.
"Shhh." Damn it, thought Xena, cursing her hearing. "It's a horse," She said finally. "A horse and rider, coming this way--fast."
It was not until the rider topped the small rise in the road a couple of hundred paces away that Gabrielle at last was aware of them. The rider reined in his horse and stood up in his stirrups for a moment. Obviously he had seen them. In one motion he dropped back into the saddle and spurred his horse to life once again.
Xena watched the man approach, her hand shading her eyes from the sun now peeking through the clouds. She did not like the way the fellow was madly spurring his horse. "Gabrielle," she said quietly, "get my sword."
Without a word Gabrielle bolted the short distance to the house and almost immediately returned with the sword. The rider was now only about fifty paces or so away now. Now the man began shouting, "Xeeeena!"
"Who is it?" asked Gabrielle.
By now Xena knew who it was. That voice belonged to someone she had not seen in over ten years--not since the death of her beloved mother. His hair was mostly white now and he seemed smaller than she remembered but there was no mistaking the slope of his shoulders or the way he sat on the horse.
"It's my brother," said Xena, matter-of-factly. "It's Toris."
Toris greedily quaffed down another dipper of water, spilling some on his chest. "Thank you, Gabrielle," he gasped. "My throat was as dry as the great desert of Egypt."
The three of them sat at the large, round table that Xena had fashioned out of a large birch tree some years before. Toris had obviously driven himself and his horse to near exhaustion. After pulling up his sweat-soaked horse he had literally fallen off into Xena's arms. Ignoring the pain in her back she bore him into the house with the ease one carries a small child. With Gabrielle's aid she was soon able to revive him. Wisely Xena did not permit her brother to speak until she was sure he had gained some measure of his strength back. Toris had always been such an excitable individual.
"All right," she said finally. "What's this all about?"
"It's Sonia," Toris blurted out. "She's disappeared!" Sonia was Toris' daughter, the eldest of his three children. The last time--the only time Xena had ever seen the girl was at Xena's mother's death rite. Sonia was about seven years old at the time and Xena remembered her to be very level-headed for one so young.
"Was she kidnapped?" asked Gabrielle.
"What do you think I am, an oracle?" snapped Toris.
"Toris!" Xena barked. Brother or no, she she was not about to tolerate him being curt with Gabrielle.
Toris sagged his shoulders and buried his face in his hands. "I'm... sorry, Gabrielle," he said, looking up at her. "The truth is I don't know. Not for sure anyway. All I know for certain is this is about to drive my wife and me crazy."
"It's okay," Gabrielle assured him.
"Tell us what happened," said Xena.
Toris ran the back of his hand across his forehead and blinked his eyes hard. "It was three days ago," he began. "Sonia and Sara, one of the neighbor girls, had gone to the temple of Paeon to pray for Sara's mother. She's been very ill lately and they thought an offering might cause Paeon to look upon their request with favor.
Hah! thought Xena. I'll bet that got results. If their was anything she had learned in the fifty years of her life it was to never count on the gods for anything. By and large every one of them was vain, cruel at worst, indifferent at best. Except for Hercules she had interacted with them more than anyone and she knew them for the shallow beings they were.
"Did they go to the temple alone?" she asked Toris.
"Yes. Sara said when they got there the line was very long and they had to wait for quite some time before they were able to make their offering. By the time they left the temple night had fallen."
Do you normally allow her out after dark?" Xena asked.
"We give her more leeway than we used to," replied Toris. "After all she is seventeen now."
"You shouldn't have allowed her to go," said Xena sternly.
"Don't you know there have been reports of slavers operating in Elis?"
"No, I didn't," Toris admitted. "I've been working very hard lately and I haven't been keeping up with what's going on."
"That is so typical of you, Toris," rasped Xena. "You never think anything through. You should have made them go earlier in the day."
"Umm, Xena?" To Gabrielle it looked as if Xena was on the verge of really lighting into Toris. She hoped not. Xena's wrath was enough to make even the strongest of men shrivel up and poor Toris was in no condition to withstand one of her fierce tongue lashings.
Xena shot an annoyed glance at Gabrielle but did not carry her verbal assault any further.
"It wouldn't have done any good to go earlier in the day," Gabrielle continued.
"And why not?" retorted Xena.
"'Cause offerings at a temple of Paeon are not accepted until the sun is a fist's width from setting," the bard explained.
For a moment Xena was slightly flustered. "Oh. I didn't know. Still, Toris, the times being what they are, you should have provided an escort for them."
"I suppose you're right," he said. "But I didn't come here to have you second guess me. I came to ask for your help. Besides, the temple is barely a discus throw from my house."
"Okay, okay, I didn't mean to come down on you so hard," said Xena. "So what happened next?"
"Sara said about halfway home Sonia stopped to look at the dresses in the needle worker's shop. Knowing they were already in trouble, Sara tried to convince Sonia to come on home but she said Sonia insisted on looking around some more." Toris chuckled weakly and added, "She is kind of stubborn."
"Big surprise there," said Xena dryly.
Boy, was that ever an understatement, thought Gabrielle. From her experiences with Xena's kinfolk she knew mulishness not only ran in her family--it practically stampeded!
At this point Toris gulped down another dipper of water. "Sara said she finally gave up and went home," said Toris, continuing. "The last she saw of Sonia she was still in the shop looking at the dresses." He lowered his chin and ran his hand through his hair. "She hasn't been heard from since. We've looked all over for her."
"Did you talk to the shopkeeper?" asked Xena.
"Of course," replied Toris dejectedly. "She said Sonia left a few minutes after Sara did. She did notice that she turned in the direction of our house."
"And how would she know where you live?" asked Xena suspiciously.
"Well," said Toris, clearing his throat softly, "I am somewhat well known in Tulis."
"Ohhhh, I see." Xena could not help but notice the slight hint of smugness in her brother's answer.
"Xena, do you really think she was taken by slavers?" asked Gabrielle.
"No," Xena answered. "No I don't."
"How can you be so sure?" demanded Toris. "Just a few minutes ago you were ready to bite my head..."
"A few minutes ago I didn't know you lived in a city as big as Tulis, either," snapped Xena.
"How could you know?" shouted Toris. "You never wrote, you never even bothered to ask where I live..."
"Well neither did you," retorted Xena in that menacingly slow, throaty voice of hers.
Here we go again, thought Gabrielle. What is it with these two anyway? Why can't they get along?
Xena closed her eyes and placed her thumb and index finger on the bridge of her nose. "As a rule slavers don't operate in well populated places. It's too risky."
And then she saw Toris compress his lips tightly together. Uhhh huh, she thought. Xena, you idiot, you should have known. She had just seen him do something that had been a habit of his since childhood. Xena had long, long ago learned that when he did that he was hiding something.
"Sorry, can't help you," Xena said bluntly. She abruptly stood up and jerked a thumb toward the door. "Come on, Gabrielle, let's go. We're wasting our time here."
"But, Xeeena!" the bard protested. "You can't just leave Toris here like this."
"Oh no? Watch me," she replied. "After all, why should I help someone who doesn't even have the common decency to be honest with his own sister?"
"I don't...know...what you're talking about," Toris sputtered.
"Yes you do," scowled Xena. Savagely yanking back its latch, she flung the door wide open.
"Wait!" Toris yelped.
Xena stopped dead in her tracks and slowly turned around. "Yeees?" she purred.
With a sigh of resignation Toris said, "Okay, Xena, you win. I ought to have known I couldn't put one over on you."
"Are you ready to tell me the real story now?"
She flashed him one of her rare, full smiles. "Good."
Gabrielle could only shake her head in wonder. Xena had played him like a lute.
Xena sat down on top of the table, letting her long legs dangle over the side. "Okay, Toris," she announced, "I'm waiting."
Summoning up what little dignity he had left, Toris began. "Let me start by
telling you that Elis and my country, Arcadia, are having very strained relations right
now. Very strained. Three weeks ago Draganis, the queen of Elis, sent a diplomatic
mission to our country in a last ditch effort to settle our differences peacefully. As a
token of her good faith she send her son, Felix, to deliver a personal message to our
Well, things went so well the first couple of days the king allowed me to invite Braxxus, their lead negotiator, to come to my house for supper. That's when the trouble seemed to have started.
"You're with the government?" Xena asked incredulously
Toris looked up at her with an odd smile on his face. "You see, Xena. You don't know a damn thing about what I've been doing the last ten years do you?"
"I guess not," she conceded. "So? Just what have you been doing?"
"Just working my way up to be the king's most trusted advisor on foreign affairs, that's all. You see, I promised mother on her death bed that I would improve my station in life. That's what she was always after me to do. It seemed to make her very happy when I told her." Toris eyed his sister sharply and added, "But you wouldn't know about that, would you? Since, of course, you weren't there."
Toris was right. And it was to Xena's eternal regret that she was not by her mother's side when she passed away.
"After mother passed away I went to Athens to study the law. It wasn't easy. By day I went to class and at night I worked in a slaughterhouse to provide for my family. I spent two long years in Athens doing this. Many was the time I was so tired I didn't even know what day it was. I wanted to quit and go home a hundred time but my family's love and support, and my promise to our mother, saw me through."
Xena reached over and touched him on the shoulder. "She would have been proud of you, Toris," she said softly.
Toris nodded and continued. "Soon after I returned home I received a summons from King Spiro. It seems one my instructors at the academy knew him well and when I finished my schooling he sent a note to the king recommending that he find a position for me."
"Wow, talk about rapid advancement," marveled Gabrielle.
"That's what I thought too," said Toris. "Anyway, it was the king's wish that I become an assistant to the minister on foreign affairs. To make a long story short they liked my work and when the minister died the king named me to his post. That was three years ago and I've been in that position ever since."
"Hmm, sister to a minister," said Xena, thinking out loud. "That might prove to be useful someday."
"Yeah right. So what do you think, Xena?"
"I think mother would be very proud," she replied.
"You already said that," said Toris. "I'm asking you what do you think."
Gabrielle noted Xena was remaining noncommittal on the subject. Nothing had really changed between them. As always their relationship centered on events now more than thirty years past. Gabrielle sat there silently monitoring their words and was again struck by how different they were. Yes, there was some family resemblance but that was about as far as it went. She knew it must be extremely difficult for Toris. For the rest of his life he would have to carry the guilt of abandoning his mother, Xena, and younger brother Lyceus in their darkest hour inside him. While on occasion Xena had stated she was no longer angry with him for what he did Gabrielle also noted that not once had she said she forgave him for it either. To Xena the cold fact remained--he ran, she stayed. Lyceus, their baby brother, had agonized over whom to follow. In the end he chose Xena and stayed. And he had died for it. Even now, more than thirty years later, if one looked close enough one could see the sadness in Toris' eyes. With a soft sigh Gabrielle lamented for a once- loving family forever changed by choices made and silently cursed Cortiz for forcing Xena and her family to make them.
"You did okay," Xena said finally. "Now what happened at this little get together of yours?"
"Well, as I said before, we have been in negotiations with Elis for the past few weeks."
"The border dispute?" asked Xena. She was aware it had been a bone of contention for almost two decades between the two countries.
"Yeah," replied Toris. "After two days of talks things were going so well I asked permission from the king to allow me to host a small party for Braxxus and the members of his delegation. Naturally this included the prince. During the course of the meal I happened to notice him staring at Sonia.
"You mean the prince, this Felix?" Xena asked.
"Yes. Obviously he was attracted to her. I suppose it should not have come as a surprise. She is very beautiful. As a matter of fact she looks very much like you, Xena." He added a quick qualifier, "I mean at the same age of course."
"Yeah right," Xena snorted. "You're talking about back when my joints didn't crack like dry sticks every time I got up in the morning. You know, Toris, a young man gawking at a pretty girl is not exactly unheard of."
"I know that," he replied. "But what surprised me was the fact that she seemed to be paying attention to him too. After we ate my wife and Sonia were about to sing for our guests when a messenger appeared at my door with a note for Braxxus. After reading it he announced he and his party would have to be leaving in a few minutes. He said he could stay for one song and then he would have to go. It was then that Sonia abruptly excused herself. She said something was on her dress and she wanted to change. She begged Braxxus to please remain until she got back. She said she really wanted to sing for them."
"And what was so unusual about that?" asked Xena.
"I didn't see anything on her dress," replied Toris.
"Maybe it was something personal," said Xena.
"You mean...?" Toris could not bring himself to say the word "menstruation." He shook his head. "That's not why she went to her room, Xena."
For a brief, luxurious moment Toris thought he had her stumped but by now Xena's remarkable intellect had ascertained the real reason for Sonia's actions. "She wrote him a note, didn't she?"
Toris dropped his jaw and stared wide-eyed at her. "You're scary sometimes, you know that? That's exactly what she did. After she came back down she and my wife sang one song. That done, Braxxus and his party rose to say their good-byes."
"And it was then she passed her note to Felix?"
"Yes. And she was very sly about it too," said Toris.
"Did you confront her about it?" asked Xena.
"No. I figured the two of them would never see each other again anyway," said Toris.
"Surely you knew the probable reason for the note was to arrange a meeting."
"I didn't think they would ever see each other again," said Toris. "The prince is forbidden to travel anywhere alone. Besides, I figured they would soon forget each other."
"But they didn't, right?"
"Evidently not," Toris said. "You see, they're gone."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Gone? When?"
"Three days ago. It turns out they were secretly seeing each other after all," said Toris.
"How do you know?" asked Xena.
"Braxxus showed me a note written by the prince saying so. It said also he and Sonia were going away together."
"And Sonia left no note to you?"
"Not a word," said Toris sadly. "He, ah, he must have been waiting for her that night."
At that moment Gabrielle didn't think she had ever felt as sorry for anyone as she did for him. She looked into Xena's face hoping to see some hint of sympathy there but her face was as blank as a slab of marble.
"We've been looking for them ever since," Toris continued. "And then last night we received a communication from Queen Draganis demanding the return of her son. Apparently she thinks his disappearance is our doing. She says we have three days to return him unharmed or there will be war."
"Did you answer her?" Xena asked.
"We sent a message," Toris said. "But she won't believe us. That's when I decided to come to you. I rode all night to get here. Xena, you've got to help us. We are not ready to fight a war at the present time. We--I need you."
"So what do you want me to do?" she asked him. "Organize a defense? Lead your army?"
"No. Nothing like that," said Toris. "It's too late for that. But it's not too late for you to find Felix and Sonia and bring them back. They couldn't have gotten far. We've looked all over but we don't have your...skills."
Xena stuck her tongue in her jaw as was her habit and slipped her behind off the table. She glanced over to Gabrielle. "Well," she said, "it looks like Philos and his daughter-in-law trouble will have to wait." Returning her gaze to Toris she said, "It will take us a day or so to reach Elis."
"What are you going to do?" asked Toris.
"Speak to the queen," Xena replied. "In the meantime you're welcome to stay here and rest for awhile."
"No, I have to get home right away."
"Then you'd better go to the village and get yourself a fresh horse," said Xena. "From the looks of that poor thing outside I'd say he was about done for."
Although he was the elder he nodded his agreement in much the same manner a little boy does when his mother tells him to do something. He knew he was, and would never be, anything like her equal. "You're right, Xena," he said quietly. "Damn it, you're always right."
"Not always," smiled Xena. "But I am right about this." She moved closer to him and placed her hands on his shoulders. "Toris, don't worry. We'll get to the bottom of this."
"I know you will."
"I'm sure everything will be all right," Gabrielle assured him.
"Get the bag."
"Oh, uh, right."
The bard circled the table and exited the kitchen. She quickly traversed the short
hallway leading to their bedroom and planted herself beside the sturdy bed. She then
placed both hands on one of the posts at the bed's foot and, with a soft grunt, pushed
with all her might. The bed only moved about a foot's length sideways but for her purposes
that was enough. She knelt down, reached up under the bed and extracted a small knife Xena
had mounted there. Sticking it into a crack in the floor, she pried up a loose board.
Laying the board aside she dropped to both knees and plunged her arm down into the hole. As always, she was struck by the coolness of the place. After a second or two her groping hand found what it was looking for. She wrapped her fingers around the top of a large leather bag making sure her grip was very firm and, with a sharp "uhhh," yanked it up out of the hole. Darn it, she thought, if this thing gets any heavier I'm gonna need a lever and fulcrum to get it out. Hefting up the bag with both hands, Gabrielle bore it back to the kitchen and set it down in front of Xena.
"What's this," Toris asked.
"Our nest egg," said Xena, patting the bag.
Toris whistled softly and said, "Judging from its size I'd say there must be twenty thousand dinars in there."
"More like forty," corrected Xena. She pulled loose the drawstring securing the top of the bag and ran her hand inside. She removed a fistful of coins and plunked them down of the table.
"How'd you get all this?" asked Toris, somewhat suspiciously.
Xena smiled faintly and said, "Don't worry, Toris, I didn't do anything bad. What you see here is the result of an obscure practice called saving."
This last remark by Xena made Gabrielle somewhat uncomfortable. The chief reason the "practice", as Xena called it, was obscure was because most people didn't make enough money to allow them to save anything. Everything went toward life's necessities.
Most, but not all, of their money had been amassed by Xena through hefty consultation fees and some very shrewd trading. However, every now and then Gabrielle was able to sell one of her stories to one of the big name bards from Athens or somewhere for a hundred dinars or so. While pleased to able to contribute to their household it nonetheless sometimes made her a little wistful because when these well-known bards bought a story they routinely claimed it as their own creation. While this was certainly not ethical Gabrielle knew there was little she could do about it. After all, whom would a judge believe--the big name bard from the big city or the nobody from out in the sticks? More than once she had heard some traveler just recently from Athens rave about some great new story or poem such-and-such had written only to find out it was actually hers. It was at a time like this she wanted to scream, "That's mine, damn it! I wrote that!"
Of course she never did. And despite all this Gabrielle was not touched by regret. Yes, maybe if she had went to Athens twenty years ago like she originally planned she would be one of those famous bards today. However, the way she looked at it, this what-might-have-been was an in infinitesimal weight on the scales compared to the life she had shared with Xena. In the course of their twenty-odd years together Gabrielle had seen and experienced things even the most brave adventurer could only dream of. She had met over two dozen kings. She could call the great Hercules her friend. She had seen many of the most powerful gods and goddesses--even Zeus himself.
And she had found love. Even today she sometimes wondered what the great Xena, the "Conqueror of Nations", had seen in the pushy, skinny and talkative young girl from Poteidaia. For her part Gabrielle had been enchanted by the tall, dark, incredibly beautiful Xena from the first time she had beheld her in those woods near her home. She could still see her, dressed in that ridiculous dress, making mince meat out of Draco's minions. Now, some twenty years later, Xena's hair was streaked with gray, crow's feet were beginning to creep around her eyes and she could probably no longer whip ten guys with one hand but to Gabrielle she was more lovely, more enticing, and more impressive than ever.
Xena had been Gabrielle's teacher, confidant, friend...lover for well over half her life. They were as one now and Gabrielle would not have traded her opportunity to grow old with Xena for all the accolades and prestige garnered by all the bards of Greece.
They were so attuned to each other they rarely disagreed on anything anymore but the one thing that did cause them to raise their hackles from time to time was the subject of money. During their life on the road money had never meant very much to Xena. What few dinars they did manage to pick up she generally let Gabrielle handle as she saw fit. And yes, the girl did tend to spend money on frivolous things but Xena didn't care. As long as she was able to provide food for Gabrielle what did a new scarf or a wooden turtle that stuck out its head when its tail was pulled matter? It had made Gabrielle happy so it had made Xena happy. But things were different now. Since her injury Xena had become determined to see to it that Gabrielle's future would be secure. She felt she owed to her.
When the two of them were so much younger their age difference had not seemed important. Now the stark reality that she would probably die before Gabrielle drove Xena to make certain the love of her life would not have to spend her last years being mocked in some filthy inn or tavern as she told her beautiful stories in the hope some clod would maybe take pity on her and toss a dinar her way so she could buy a crust of bread and thus stay alive another miserable day. Xena was not one for emotion but the mere thought of this scenario was almost too much for her to bear. She had sworn by every god she could think of that she would not allow this to come to pass. Although she would never tell Gabrielle it was the driving force in her life now.
This caused the two of them to exchange words every now and then. What usually triggered these lively, though never bitter, arguments was the appearance of some ragged, half- starved wayfarer at their door looking for a hand out. Xena, of course, was more than willing to come across with a good meal and maybe a couple of dinars for the road but she often felt these guys were just a liiiitle too quick to take advantage of Gabrielle's boundless kindness.
To Xena's way of thinking there was a vast difference between the poor soul who was truly down on his luck and those con artists who were so adept at playing on the sympathy of others. She could always spot them. Their line was too smooth, their eyes were just a little too sincere. They knew all the right levers to pull on an immeasurably kind soul like Gabrielle.
But to Xena's frustration Gabrielle saw no difference. To her a hungry belly was a hungry belly and, anyway, what was wrong with slipping a few extra coins in someone's pocket to tide them over? After all, it wasn't like she and Xena were broke. Every time she did this Xena would set her jaw and shoot arrows at Gabrielle with her eyes but not once had she interfered. Invariably when the guy was gone Xena would say, "Gabrielle, did you have to give him that much?" And just as invariably her lover would answer, "Honestly, I don't see why you have to be so tight-fisted."
But to Xena it was like the guy was taking food out of Gabrielle's mouth. Not today, not tomorrow, not even next year, but someday when she was no longer...
Xena picked up some coins and idly began to stack them. "Do you need money for a fresh horse?" she asked Toris.
"No, I've got money."
Xena made two more stacks like the first and then retied the bag. "This ought be enough," she said. This was Gabrielle's cue to take the bag and return it to its hiding place. She heaved the bag up to her chest off she went.
"Toris, have you spoken to the king about coming to see me?"
"No," he answered. "To be honest, Xena, he doesn't think much of you."
"I see. Does he know I'm your sister?"
"No," Toris replied again, this time more softly.
In a minute Gabrielle was back and she began to drop the stacked coins into a leather pouch.
Toris rubbed the back of his neck and said, "Well, I have to go now. My poor Andrea is probably sick with worry."
As he made for the door Xena followed him. "I'll get in touch with you as soon as I learn something," she said.
Toris stopped in the doorway and turned to her. He looked deep into his sister's eyes and said, "Xena, I truly appreciate this. Not only for my family but my country as well. I--"
Xena held up a finger, "I'm glad you came, Toris. Now you go on home to your wife. Do what you can there and with any luck we'll get this mess cleaned up soon, okay?"
Gabrielle joined Xena at the door and together they watched as Toris mounted his horse.
"Good-bye, Xena," said Toris.
Xena smiled and lamely raised her hand in reply. Toris kicked the horse into a trot and soon he was over the rise in the road and out of sight. Xena stared up the road for a few seconds longer and then whispered, "Good-bye."
"Xena, I find it a little hard to believe Sonia would just up and leave her family for someone she barely knew, don't you?"
With a sly smile Xena replied, "Oh, I don't know. I seem to recall a certain girl, kid really, from Poteidaia who did just that some years back.
"Hmph," Gabrielle snorted. That was different.
Xena looked in amusement at her and merely said "Ooohhhhh." She and Gabrielle stood there by the road basking in that special warmth that only those who had shared love, and pain, and hope and sorrow together for as many years as they had could possibly know or understand.
Finally Xena said, "Well, let's lock up and get out of here."
The two of them walked to the horses and Gabrielle was just beginning to mount hers when Xena suddenly said, "Wait. I almost forgot something."
"Huh? What?" Gabrielle called out after her.
Not bothering to reply, Xena strode quickly to the house and entered. A few seconds later she emerged carrying an oilskin bag. Gabrielle knew very well what it contained.
"Yep. Never know, I might need it."
Gabrielle gently jerked her head to one side as she sometimes did when perplexed. "Gods, Xena, are you even sure you can still throw it? I mean, it's been so long since you used it."
With a wicked grin, Xena held the chakram up to her face. "Gee, I don't know, Gabrielle. That's a good question."
Suddenly she whirled and let the weapon fly. Sixty paces away it hit the ax stuck in the chopping block, caromed off and struck the weather vane on top of the barn. This altered its path to the rain barrel by the side of the house where it was re-directed back toward the two women. Gabrielle could hear its distinctive whine as it came hurtling back. The bard's eyes got as big as an Assyrian skillet when she realized the thing was heading directly toward her head! At the last second Xena, stifling a yawn, shot her hand up and stopped the chakram no more that a hand's width away from Gabrielle's neck.
"I, uh, heh heh, I uh see you haven't lost your eye," said Gabrielle, gulping hard.
"Gee, I don't know, Gabrielle," Xena replied nonchalantly. "I think I am slipping. You see, I was aiming for your nose."
"Oh you're a regular cutup, that's what you are!" huffed Gabrielle. "Well just for that there won't be any rolling in the hay for you tonight.
Xena responded by sticking out her lower lip in a pronounced pout but her eyes were sparkling like diamonds. She figured Gabrielle's intended retaliation for scaring her would be long forgotten by the time they nestled in together for the night. That night in an inn some ten leagues away, events would prove that Xena had figured correctly.
Xena awoke to the soothing tones of Gabrielle's soft humming. She was busily performing the painstaking task of trying to brush her hair with only a very small hand mirror to guide her. Xena watched in amusement as the bard repeated the process of brushing several strokes and then peering into the mirror to check the results. From the frown on her face it was clear she was not pleased with her efforts. As Gabrielle lay the mirror down to try again Xena reached up and pulled her back down on the bed.
"Bad hair day?" she asked.
"Yeah," Gabrielle sighed, "must be the rain." Outside a heavy mist was falling--Xena had been right again. She gently laid her cheek on Xena's stomach and stared at the far wall. "Xena?"
"I was thinking about what Toris said. How come you and he never, you know, kept in touch after your mother died?"
"I don't know," replied Xena. "I guess we were both too stubborn to go out of the way to try."
"But he's your brother."
"Gabrielle, even when we were kids Toris and I were never really that close. He was always hanging around with the older ones in our village. On the other had Lyceus and I were..." Xena crossed her middle finger over her index one, "like that."
She closed her eyes and for a brief, sweet moment was once again a skinny eight-year-old dutifully washing her squirming baby brother's face while their mother made supper over the hearth. She could still hear his giggles. Poor Lyceus, she thought, you never could keep your face clean. Xena opened her eyes and fixed them on one of the crossbeams running over head. "Gabrielle," she said softly, "it's been over thirty years now since he died and in all that time there's not been one day that I haven't thought of him. I still miss him so much."
"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle sighed, burrowing her face in Xena's shoulder. She could only imagine the pain Xena had suffered all these years. Lyceus' death, her long, dark years as a warlord and the crushing guilt resulting from it, the death of her beloved mother, all this grief for one person, even one so strong as Xena--well it just didn't seem fair.
Xena reached up to and began to gently stroke Gabrielle's cheek. "Gabrielle, if I had not found you I'd probably be dead by now," she said quietly.
Gabrielle tried not to show how stunned she was by this revelation. Never before had Xena said such a thing to her. "Awww, you know that's not true," said Gabrielle, looking up at her. "I don't think there was anything that couldn't be defeated by the 'Warrior Princess'."
"Oh yes there was," said Xena.
"Oh yeah? And what might be?"
Something more terrifying than any warlord or monster or even a vengeful god," said Xena. "Loneliness."
For a few moments neither spoke. Then Xena grinned and nodded toward the door. "Why don't you go down and see about getting us something to eat? I'll be along in a minute."
Gabrielle looked at her quizzically but did not protest. "Okaaay. Just don't be too long. You know how crabby these innkeepers can be when the guests don't empty their rooms on time."
"Screw him," said Xena, smiling mischievously. "And if the truth were known he probably does have crabs."
Gabrielle giggled and said, "Now now, naughty naughty." With that she rolled off the bed and was gone.
Xena listened intently for a few moments to make sure Gabrielle was really gone and then slowly lifted herself up out of the bed. On this particular morning her back was killing her. Idiot! she reproached herself. You've got to remember not to stay on that damn horse so long. She made a mental note to stop and rest more often from now on.
An aching back would have been bad enough but her already miserable situation was compounded by the fact that the knuckles in her hands felt like rusty hinges. Xena held her slightly swollen hands up in front of her face and glared at them like they were a pair of despicable traitors. In truth that was the way she felt, betrayed. For most of her adult life she had able to make her body do wondrous things. The astounding fighting maneuvers and the amazing acrobatics had been as natural to her as breathing. But not anymore. To her regret her body was now what she considered insubordinate. It just simply would not obey her commands like it once did. Even when it did comply it would only do so grudgingly. Every now and then Xena would steal away to the woods behind their home and stubbornly try a back flip or some other move. Sometimes she could, sometimes she could not.
She stood up and put a hand to the small of her back. With a mirthless grin she said, "So this is what it's like to grow old, huh? Well, it stinks." She sighed and sat down on the side of the bed. After carefully pulling on her short boots she went to join Gabrielle.
The rest of the day proved to be an uneventful one and the next afternoon found them at the river that served as the western border of Elis.
"Well, there it is," Xena observed. She held her hand up to shield her eyes from the sun's rays and added, "Funny though. I don't remember it being that wide."
"It just looks wider, that's all," laughed Gabrielle.
They pointed their horses down the long, sloping hill that had served as their vantage point and soon reached the ferry. Luckily it was on their side of the river so Xena dismounted and walked up to the pimply-faced young man who seemed to be in charge. By Gabrielle's reckoning he seemed to be about twenty or so.
"How much?" Xena asked.
The young man was immediately joined by his two cohorts who had been on the ferry noisily pitching coins against a board propped up by two barrels. Now the three of them moved in close to Xena--so close she could smell their foul breath.
The pimply-faced one folded his arms and leered at her. "What was that?" he asked. He and his companions were not above strong-arming defenseless travelers to pick up a few extra dinars. He had taken one look at the tall, mostly gray-haired woman and the smaller one still on her horse and decided they were harmless enough.
Easy marks, he thought.
Of course, Xena's powerful mind had already sized up the situation. She swept her eyes over the three men and replied, "I said how much? How much to cross?"
Having been a witness to, or a participant in, countless numbers of little confrontations like these Gabrielle instinctively knew to wait for Xena to make the first move before reacting. And having been a lifelong pupil of such a warrior as Xena, Gabrielle no longer needed to rely on a weapon for her protection. She was now more dangerous with her hands and feet than she had ever been with the staff.
The pimply-faced one smirked and said, "Well, usually we charge five dinars each to cross but ahh, today we're running a special."
Xena's only reaction was to raise an eyebrow. "Oh?"
"That's right. You see, today it's gonna cost you all you've got."
"And your horses too!" crowed the fat one on her right. At once he was joined in his laughter by the other two.
Slowly, carefully, Gabrielle eased her right foot out of the stirrup and swung her leg over the head of her horse. "You bastards are in for a surprise," she chuckled softly.
Xena swiveled her head in a slow arc, briefly boring her eyes in on each one of them. "Tell me something, boys," she said, smiling thinly. "Do your mammas know you brainless piss-heads have escaped from your manure pile?"
The laughter stopped and for a moment the three men stood silently staring at the strange woman. There was a look on her face like none of them had ever seen before. It was as though her ice blue eyes were looking right through them. Like an adder before it strikes, the pimply-faced one thought. The three men were taken aback by the woman's defiance but they were not about to allow themselves to be intimidated by this old relic.
"Okay," the pimply-faced one sneered. "I tried to be nice but..."
He lunged at Xena but she deftly avoided him and he grabbed nothing but air. As he lurched past she punched him hard in the stomach causing him to fall to his knees gasping for air. Seeing this, the fat one roared and tried to wrap his arm around her neck but she caught the arm and flipped him head over heels and he landed hard on his back, knocking him unconscious.
Now the third one backed off and pulled out a rusty old sword from his belt. "Stay back or I'll cut you, old woman," the man shrieked.
"Why you miserable, snot-nosed little shit," rasped Xena. "Put that thing down before you hurt yourself."
By now the pimply-faced one had recovered sufficiently to rise to one knee. Seeing the devil- woman with his back to him, he drew his dagger and tried to stand up. Immediately a million colors seemed to explode inside his brain followed by a swift descent into blackness.
Xena heard the accompanying groan and took a peek over her shoulder. She saw Gabrielle standing over the pimply-faced one.
"Pivot kick?" she asked.
"Drop kick," answered Gabrielle, matter-of-factly.
Xena returned her attention to the one in front of her. "So, what's it going to be, boy?"
"I, I don't...know," he replied lamely.
"Tell you what," said Xena. "You chuck that sorry excuse for a sword and help us cross the river and I'll forget all about this little...," Xena looked at the two fallen men, "unpleasantness."
The young man was still too shaken by Xena's fury to be coherent.
"Awww come on," prodded Xena. "I don't want to hurt you. Besides, we're in kind of a hurry."
Despite the Xena's reassurance the fellow was still hesitant. He still couldn't believe what the woman had done to his comrades.
"Look," Xena said finally, "you pull the ferry across for us and you'll get the ten dinars and no lumps on your head. How's that?"
The prospect of having enough money to buy a couple of rounds at the tavern was too much for the fellow to pass up. "You've got yourself a deal, old woman," he said.
He took two steps forward when Xena held up her index finger and wagged it from side to side. "Ah, ah, ah."
The young man caught her meaning at once. He stopped and sheepishly looked down at the sword still in his hand. "Oh, sorry," he said meekly.
Twenty minutes later the ferry bumped up against the opposite riverbank. By the time they were across Gabrielle had gotten the guy's name, where he was from, his age, and half his life history out of him. As always Xena was amazed at how open people were around Gabrielle. She had a remarkable talent for making them feel so at ease.
The two women led their horses off the ferry and onto the bank. While Gabrielle held the horses Xena paid the man the promised dinars. As she plunked them into his hand she said, "Let me give you a piece of advice, boy. Being a ferryman is an honorable way to make a living but, if I were you, I'd forget about that side job. I don't think you're cut out to be a robber. After all, if an old thing like me can..." She let her words trail off.
The young fellow grinned and nodded. "I think maybe you're right, ma'am."
As Xena turned to leave the young man cleared his throat loudly.
"Yes?" Xena asked, looking back at him.
"I ah, I was just wondering," said the man. "What is your name?"
"My name is Xena," she answered.
The fellow's jaw dropped and his eyes grew wide. "Great Zeus!" he exclaimed. "Not the..."
Xena smiled in amusement and replied, "Yes the. Good-bye, son. And remember what I said."
Xena joined Gabrielle and together they watched the young man for a few moments as he pulled the ferry back across the river.
"Do you think he'll listen to what you said?" Gabrielle asked.
"Who knows?" Xena replied, shrugging her shoulders. "He might. If he doesn't I don't think he will be having many more birthdays."
She looked down at her hands and frowned as she flexed them a couple of times.
"You okay?" asked Gabrielle.
With a not very convincing smile Xena answered, "Yeah."
"How's your back?"
"I'm fine, Gabrielle," lied Xena. "Now come on. The capital is only a couple of leagues up the road. If we're lucky we can make it there before dark."
Xena was tired. She was really looking forward to a good bath and a nice, soft bed. She had long ago gotten her fill of sleeping on the cold, hard ground. No sir, she thought, there won't be any of that crap if I can help it.
After they had made a league or so Gabrielle turned to Xena. "Do you remember the last time we were here?" she asked.
Xena merely nodded her reply. It was when Ephiny died. Some ten years ago the Amazon had been on her way to mediate yet another round of peace talks between Elis and Arcadia. By that time she had built up quite a reputation not only as a wise leader but a skilled mediator as well. On several previous occasions Ephiny had been asked by various kingdoms to assist in talks and, her sense of duty being what it was, she had never refused.
But the day before she was due to arrive at the designated place for the talks she and her party were ambushed by Arcadian hard liners. They had been afraid Ephiny would be much too sympathetic to the opposite side's position because the ruler of Elis was a woman.
And so as her good and noble life ebbed away there on that muddy road, her sisters did their best to comfort her. Her oldest friend sat there in the and held her head to her breast and gently rocked her while the others softly chanted their "Death Hymn."
To the last Ephiny's loyalty and sense of duty were as strong as ever. The last words she ever spoke were, "Good-bye, my old friend. Tell Gabrielle that I'm sorry I won't be there for the Spring Festival."
And then she had closed her eyes and crossed over. That very day two Amazons were dispatched to inform Gabrielle of Ephiny's death. Although no longer considered even a titular queen Gabrielle was, nevertheless, still held in high esteem by the Amazon Nation. Ephiny had seen to it her name was not forgotten.
Gabrielle still remembered the deep sorrow and sense of loss she had felt as she watched the funeral pyre consume one of the very best friends she had ever had. And for several months after that these feelings would come rushing back to her forcing her to seek the solitude of the woods for an hour or two so she could mourn unobserved. Ever the considerate soul, she did this because it always made Xena so upset to see her weep. Xena did not like to see Gabrielle unhappy. Thus to avoid having both of them upset Gabrielle would steal off to the woods whenever she felt the sorrow welling up inside her, cry her eyes out for a hour or so, then compose herself and return home. Many was the time it had made her wonder. If it hurts this bad for Ephiny what's it going to be like when Xena...
For her part Xena would see Gabrielle's red, puffy eyes and act as if everything was normal. She knew it was something her love would have to deal with herself.
Gabrielle cast her eyes downward for a moment before again fixing them on Xena. "It doesn't seem like she's been dead ten years."
"She was a good person and a fine example of how an Amazon should live her life," said Xena. "Now try not to think about it anymore, okay? You'll only get upset."
"Don't worry," said Gabrielle. "I'm all right."
That night in the inn, as they lay in each other's arms, Gabrielle thoughts again returned to the Amazon woman with the unruly blonde curls. She lay there listening to the sleeping Xena's deep, rhythmic breathing and watched as her chest rose and fell in time. "Gods, Ephiny, I miss you," she whispered.
This time she allowed herself to shed one tear of sorrow before returning her cheek to Xena's shoulder. She closed her eyes but it would prove to be many hours before Hypnos came to give her peace.
The next morning Gabrielle awoke to find Xena gone. The bard sat upright in the bed and sleepily rubbed her eyes. "Hmmm. I wonder where she is," she murmured. Momentarily surprised, she had almost forgotten how back in the old days Xena used to do this sort of thing all the time. She was not in the least bit concerned
Gabrielle put on her boots and rose to her feet, sleepily scratching her buttocks and yawning so hard tears came to her eyes. Before going downstairs for breakfast she poured some water in a bowl and washed her face. She paused for a moment to look in the very good looking glass located by the bed. She put her hands to her face and gently pulled on the puffy bags beneath her eyes. Damn, she thought. Where did those come from? Gabrielle, she warned herself, the first thing you know you'll be an old woman. With a sight of resignation she whispered loudly, "Damn," and went downstairs.
A half hour later she was joined by Xena looking like the cat that had swallowed the canary.
"Good news?" Gabrielle asked her.
"Yep. The queen will see us," said Xena.
"Great," said Gabrielle. "When?"
"One turn of the glass."
"Do you want some of this?" Gabrielle asked, pointing to the bacon and corn cakes piled high on her plate.
Xena rubbed her hands together and said, "I thought you'd never ask."
At the appointed time two palace guards escorted Xena and Gabrielle down the long, well lit corridor that led to the throne room. Queen Draganis stood at a large table in the corner of the room. She and a man, obviously a soldier, were looking at a large map spread out on the table. Upon seeing Xena enter the room the queen folded up the map and gave it to the man. Taking his cue, the soldier bowed from the waist and departed.
As he brushed past Xena he gave her a cold, hard look. A look of recognition Gabrielle noted. "Who was that?" she whispered.
In a low voice Xena replied, "Arless, her top general."
"You know him?"
"Yeah, I know him."
"From where? I don't recall meeting him," Gabrielle said. "Was it before...?"
"Yeah, it was before I met you," said Xena. "He was one of my lieutenants."
Draganis walked over and extended her hand. "Xena, it's been a long time."
"Yes, it has," agreed Xena. "Queen Draganis, this is my friend, Gabrielle."
"Gabrielle," said the queen, nodding.
"It is an honor to meet you," said Gabrielle. She was somewhat embarrassed by her stiff attempt at a curtsy but by that time the queen had returned her attention to Xena.
"So, what brings the Warrior Princess to my country?"
"I'm here to stop a war," said Xena.
"How do you know about that?" Draganis asked suspiciously.
"It's not important," said Xena. "What is important is I think there's been a misunderstanding here.
"There's no misunderstanding. For whatever reason those Arcadian bastards have taken my boy and I'm going to have him back if I have to turn over every rock and pebble in that miserable piece of ground they call a country," said Draganis.
"So you don't believe the note then?"
Queen Draganis snorted and said, "I think that's rather obvious. No, my boy would not just suddenly elope with some slut daughter of a lowly civil servant." The queen took a deep breath and said, "You must forgive me, my old friend. I am not myself today."
"I understand," said Xena.
"So what is it you want from me?" the queen asked.
"Time," Xena replied. "Time to find out what really happened."
"Then you don't think he and this girl ran off either, then?"
"No," said Xena. "No I don't. But whatever happened I'm sure the Arcadians had nothing to do with it."
"You have a short memory," said the queen. "There is a faction in Arcadia that would stop at nothing to keep their country from settling the border dispute with us peacefully." Pausing for effect she added, "Or have you forgotten about Ephiny?"
Xena drew herself up to her full height and looked down her nose at the diminutive queen. "I never forget friends," she said laconically.
"Then you know what these people are capable of." Draganis walked over to a table and poured a cup of wine. "Would either of you like some?" she asked.
"No thank you," Xena replied, answering for both of them.
"I'm curious," the queen said. "What is your interest in all this? Do you live there now? Have they hired you to come here?"
"No. But that slut you spoke of? She's my niece. And she has in fact disappeared."
"I meant no disrespect," the queen said. After an awkward silence she continued, "If you don't think they eloped and you don't think they were abducted what do you think happened?"
"Oh they were abducted all right," said Xena. "I just don't know by whom...yet. As to what purpose, well I'm not sure if it was for ransom but I need time to get to the bottom of this." Softening her voice Xena said, "Draganis, I'm asking you to trust me."
For a moment the Queen of Elis stood there looking at Xena. Finally she said, "How can I not trust the one to whom I owe my very life?"
Out of the corner of her eye Xena saw Gabrielle shoot a puzzled glance up at her.
"As a favor to you, Xena, I'll give you three more days. If by that time you have not succeeded... there will be war."
"Thank you," said Xena. "Now if you don't mind, I have one more favor to ask for you."
"Do you mind if I see that note?"
"Of course not," said the queen. "Excuse me while I get it."
As the queen walked over to one of the palace guards posted by the door Gabrielle sidled up next to Xena and whispered, "I don't remember you saving her life. When did you do that?"
"Remember that time you went home for a month to take care of Lila during her sickness?" Xena whispered back.
"It was then."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
With a devilish smile Xena answered, "You never asked me."
Gabrielle frowned and gave her lover a gentle elbow to the ribs.
"Now now," snickered Xena. "The queen might take a dim view of someone assaulting the one that saved her life."
Gabrielle smiled through gritted teeth. "Perhaps there's other things you haven't told me about."
Xena glanced up and saw the queen was returning. "Shhh, here she comes."
"Here it is," said Draganis, handing the note to Xena.
Xena took the note and began to scrutinize its every detail. "You are positive this is his hand?"
"Yes," said the queen. "I've studied it very carefully. It's undoubtedly his hand although it is a little different."
"How so?" Xena asked.
Draganis pointed to the note. "Well mainly it's these betas," she said. "Normally he is much more precise forming them."
"You're sure of that?"
The queen smiled weakly and said, "I ought to be, I taught him the alphabet myself." She sighed and added, "I guess he was nervous."
Xena stared at the parchment for what, to Gabrielle, seemed an inordinate amount of time. Three times she saw Xena turn the note over and look intently at the back of it.
What is she doing? wondered Gabrielle.
Xena walked over to the window and held the parchment up to the light.
"What is it?" asked Draganis.
"Nothing," replied Xena, "just checking something." She handed the note back to the queen. "With your permission, I would like to speak to Braxxus."
"He is to report to me this evening," said Draganis. "You can speak with him then. If you tell me where you will be I will send a messenger to fetch you."
"That's very kind of you," said Xena. "We'll be at the Blue Star Inn." She turned toward the exit. "We've taken up enough of your time. Thank you for seeing us."
Draganis held three fingers up in front of her face. "Three days, Xena. Remember that."
Xena nodded once and without another word left the queen standing there by the window.
Once they were outside the palace Gabrielle took Xena by the elbow and squeezed. "You know something, don't you?" she asked excitedly.
Her face expressionless, Xena replied, "I might."
"C'mon, Xena," pleaded the bard. "Tell me."
"Can't. Not yet."
"Hmph," snorted Gabrielle, folding her arms. "You'd think after all this time you could trust me."
"Gabrielle, you know better than that," said Xena.
"Then why won't you tell me?"
"I will, when the time is right. In the meantime we've got work to do."
When Xena started off to where the horses were tied Gabrielle let her proceed about ten paces before following. Mimicking Xena's voice she said, "I'll tell ya when the time is right, Gabrielle. We've got work to do, Gabrielle. Hah!"
Xena suddenly halted and slowly turned to look back. "Gabrieeellle."
This very gentle admonishment was as familiar to Gabrielle as rain. If she had heard it once she had heard it a thousand times. "Whaaat?"
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Be nice."
"Oh all right."
Xena stretched out an arm and smiled that killer smile of hers and, just like that, the bard's frustration was gone. Xena wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder and the smaller woman instantly felt the warmth, the security...the love that was always there.
"I'm sorry," said Gabrielle. "I didn't mean to be snotty. I know you have your reasons for not telling me."
Xena squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder and said, "I promise you, before the day is out you'll know everything."
She knew she was supposed to leave it at that but Gabrielle just couldn't. "It's big, isn't it?"
Xena touched a finger to her lips for a moment and the replied, "It's big."
Continued - Part 2
The Bard's Corner