VERSION as of 9/15/99:
I've always been less than satisfied with the third part of "The Tavernkeeper's Sister." It was a writing exercise in point-of-view that just never quite worked for me. So, for those of you who have read this story before, be advised that I've dropped the original ending and replaced it with an entirely new, much improved Part III. I've also made a few, minor edits to Part II (mostly to the timeline) to accommodate the altered resolution.
by Ella Quince
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Oil-soaked wood caught fire, then blazed into a passionate dance of heat and ash. Locks of reddish-blond hair mixed with the licking flame, then curled to black char.
The body burned more slowly.
When the funeral pyre was reduced to smoking rubble, the warrior turned and walked back into the forest.
I noticed her right away. It was hard not to. In a tavern full of farmers and tradesman, an armor-clad warrior is rather conspicuous, even when she sits at a table in the back of the room and stares down at her hands.
"Has she ever been here before?" I asked Nicos as I waited for him to fill empty cups from the wine cask.
"No," he said. My brother was used to my questions by now and answered them with endless patience. "And with luck, she'll never come here again. We can do without her business."
"Why? Who is she?"
But this time he shook his head. "You don't need to know everything."
I bit back an angry reply and busied myself with filling up a tray with drinks. I knew so little that his refusal seemed almost cruel, but there was no time to argue the point.
Keeping my curiosity in check, I served the regulars first: ale for the tanner and the weaver, port for the blacksmith, and hot barley water for the elderly farmer who was too poor to leave a tip but always treated me with respect.
"You're getting good at this, Larissa," said the old man as I placed the mug in front of him. "You learn fast."
"I have a good memory," I said dryly.
He patted my hand with his gnarled fingers, and for that gesture of kindness I vowed to sneak him some wine before the evening was over.
There was one last cup left on my tray, so I cautiously approached the stranger. I was no expert on warriors, but even I could see the coiled tension in her muscled shoulders and arms. Judging from the mud splattered on her boots and the faint reek of horse sweat, she had been riding long and hard. With her unruly black hair and deep brown leathers, she was like a storm cloud of darkness.
Then she looked up, and I found more vibrant color in her eyes than in this entire dreary village. When the silence between us had stretched too long for comfort's sake, I recovered my breath and said, "Port?"
She nodded, and that slight movement drew my attention to the harsh planes of her face. "You look like you could use some food, too. When was the last time you ate?" My question startled her, and she frowned in thought, which was all the answer I needed. "I'll bring you some soup from the kitchen." She nodded again, and I began to wonder whether she had a voice at all. But when I returned to her table with a bowl of broth and a thick slice of buttered bread, the warrior finally spoke.
"Thank--" Her voice had a hoarse quality to it, as if she didn't talk often. She cleared her throat and said more clearly,"Thank you... Larissa. I hadn't realized how hungry I was."
Her accent was foreign to these parts, smoother and darker toned. My name sounded almost melodious on her lips, and I decided I could grow to like it if I heard her say it often enough.
"Can I get you anything else?"
"Yes," she said quickly, then seemed to grope for an answer, "... salt... I could use some salt."
She hadn't even tasted her soup yet, but I fetched a small dish of salt from the kitchen and watched as her lean fingers sifted the grains into her bowl. There was no other excuse to linger -- not when it was late and we had so many customers -- but even if the warrior and I had been the only two people in the room I couldn't imagine that I had anything to say that would interest this woman. I left her to eat in peace.
Yet, for the rest of the night I felt her watching me. It must have been my imagination. Each time I looked back over my shoulder her face was turned toward the fireplace. Then, not long before we closed, I glanced at the back of the room and she was gone. She had left without saying a word... not that I'd expected she would speak to me again... or perhaps I had.
As my brother barred the door behind our last customer, I wondered where she would spend the night. We offered the only lodging for miles around, and she wasn't staying in one of our rooms. She must have camped--
"Larissa!" My brother's voice, usually so gentle, was loud with dismay.
Too late, I noticed the shifting balance of weight on the tray in my hands. Despite my desperate effort to juggle my load back into place, two cups fell to the floor and shattered. Dregs of red wine splashed across my sandals.
"I'm sorry," I said with a sigh. Setting the tray aside, I stooped to gather the shards of clay, but my brother took my elbow and pulled me to my feet.
"You're tired," he said. "Go on to bed."
"But I can't leave you with all my work." I had straightened up too quickly, and the room began to twirl around me. If not for his steadying hand, I would have fallen.
"You're pale as a sow's belly. The healer warned you not to work too hard, so do as I say and go to bed."
With a weary nod, I left him to clean up the mess our customers had made, as well as the mess I had made. Perhaps it was just as well the warrior hadn't stayed here; it would have meant even more work for poor Nicos. And yet ....
Slipping my hand into the pocket of my skirt, I fingered the large coin I had found tucked beneath the empty wooden bowl on the warrior's table. It was a very generous tip, more than my service had deserved.
Just what had she been thanking me for?
I was jolted out of sleep in the middle of the night, my body gasping and trembling from a dream vision that was already fading from my memory. Despite my pounding heart, I wasn't afraid. An emotion other than fear had pulled me out of the arms of Morpheus...
...and out of the arms of the warrior.
I remembered... but no, I remembered nothing.
Curling up on my side, I tried to recapture the oblivion of sleep, only to find myself thinking about the warrior again.
It was her eyes that had drawn me. They shone with an icy-blue brightness. One look at those eyes and I had known she had a cunning mind and a restless spirit. One look at those eyes and suddenly my life had seemed unbearably dull.
She came back the next evening.
This time I saw her as soon as she pushed aside the tavern door. She strode through the room, head held high, staring down the curious as she made her way to the table where she had sat before. The wild tangle of her hair had been brushed into submission and twisted into an intricate braid that ran down her back. She was taller than I had realized and moved with muscular grace.
"Don't gawk," said Nicos, handing me a tankard of port.
When I served her, I noticed that the chalky pallor of her skin had deepened to bronze, all traces of dirt had been worked out of her worn leathers, and the brass swirls of her breastplate were gleaming, even in torchlight.
"I'm more presentable tonight," she said wryly.
I blushed that she could read my thoughts so easily. "You weren't that bad last night." She raised an eyebrow, and I felt my cheeks grow even warmer. "Oh... I... I... didn't mean...."
"Too bad," she said. Her laugh was teasing, but not cruel. "I don't often get compliments from young women -- at least not often enough."
With a shiver of amazement I realized she was flirting with me. The next move was mine, but my wits had scattered; I couldn't think of a clever retort.
She misunderstood my hestation. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend you."
Watching her face grow somber and contrite, I found my voice again. "I wasn't offended," I confessed, "just speechless."
Her smile returned. "I have that effect on some people."
My pride stung just a little at that remark, and I found myself explaining. "I'm new at all of this. I haven't been working at the tavern for very long."
Her curiosity seemed genuine and invited an answer. "My parents died this last winter, so I came here to live with my brother."
"Your brother... that would be the man behind the bar who keeps glaring at me."
I could well imagine the expression on his face right now. "Nicos hadn't seen me since I was a child, so he's a little over-protective, but he means well."
"I'm sure he does," she said softly. "But that doesn't make it any easier."
"No." Who would have thought a warrior could be so understanding. Too understanding. I had to bite my tongue to keep from blurting out how lonely I was here, a newcomer in a community that did not welcome outsiders.
"Larissa!" My brother's call saved me from the humiliation of further revelations.
"I have to get back to work," I muttered, and fled from her sympathy.
Several hours passed before we could talk again. The warrior sat quietly nursing her drink as the tavern filled with more and more people. To my amusement, she began to fidget as soon as Pestir started his first oration. I expected her to leave then, but when she didn't I brought her a fresh cup of wine.
"What do you think?" she asked.
She nodded toward the scrawny young man whose arms were waving wildly in the air. "Of the bard."
I was too tired to lie or even answer tactfully. "He's not very good."
She didn't react one way or another. "Everyone else seems to be enjoying his tale," she said in an uninflected voice, and sipped her port.
It was true. The villagers were laughing and clapping, and I could hear the chink of coins being thrown at his feet. I frowned and wished the throbbing in my head would ease; the smell of spilled ale was making me feel nauseous. "I don't care what everyone else thinks. He's still not very good."
She smiled ever so faintly, and I read approval in her expression.
Soon after that, she left. Not soon enough for Nicos, however.
"Don't talk to her so much," my brother scolded. "She's a wild one is that Xena, and the tales that are told about her are not for your ears."
Xena .. so that was her name.
As soon as the tavern closed and my chores were done, I slipped out into the cool night air and went in search of the village bard. In exchange for a sloppy kiss and a groping feel of my breasts, Pestir told me all about the Warrior Princess.
By the next day, like sparrows twittering over the appearance of a hawk, the entire village was gossiping about the warrior. Someone claimed to have seen the glow of her campfire, another a glimpse of a golden horse, but no one could say for certain where she was camped or what had brought her to this valley. For all their talk behind her back, the villagers didn't have the courage to say anything in her presence. Everyone fell silent when she entered our tavern that third night.
I reached for my serving tray, but my brother said, "I'll take care of this." His footsteps echoed loudly on the floorboards as he walked up to the warrior's table and slammed down a cup in front of her. Unruffled by his rudeness, she thanked him for the drink, and Nicos had the grace to look slightly sheepish when he came back.
Eventually, when she did nothing more dramatic than sip her wine, the crowded room resumed its normal hum of activity. I waited until Nicos was busy in the kitchen to stop by her table. When she looked up at me there was a hint of relief in her expression, as if she'd been waiting for me to approach her... and not certain that I would. Her doubt gave me the courage to speak boldly.
"I hear you travel with someone -- a bard named Gabrielle."
There was an undercurrent of pain in her voice. I should have stopped asking questions then, but I needed to know more. "And?"
She drew a deep breath. "And she was... hurt... in a fight, when I wasn't there to protect her."
"Where is she now?"
The warrior's body, always controlled, grew more still yet; her face, cut out of stone, was impossible to read. "We don't travel together anymore."
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Nicos return to the bar. My time was up. Reaching for her empty cup, I said in a low voice, "I'll be in the stables tomorrow, early."
I didn't wait to see her reaction. If I was wrong about what she wanted, I didn't need to learn it now. Tomorrow morning would be soon enough to be embarassed by my fantasies.
The sun had barely risen above the horizon when I eased open the stable door and slipped inside, taking a deep breath of the comforting smell of leather and hay and horses.
Xena was waiting for me.
During the night I had convinced myself she wouldn't come, that I had made a fool of myself for even thinking she cared enough to meet me here, alone. Seeing her now made me reckless with joy, reckless enough to move so close that I could touch her if I just reached out my hand.
"I liked it better when you were sitting down." I angled my head up to meet her gaze. "You weren't quite so imposing."
"I'm even friendlier lying down," she said with a knowing smile.
So, my desire was that obvious. I saw an answering fire in her eyes, but I wondered once again why this warrior was drawn to me, a common village girl. There were any number of unlikely reasons and one rather obvious possibility. "What does she look like?"
Xena turned away, not able to meet my eyes. "Who?"
I ignored this clumsy evasion. "Is she taller than me? She could hardly be much smaller if she fought beside you."
"She's about your size," Xena said at last.
"And is her hair black or brown... or blond?"
With a defeated sigh, the warrior turned back to face me. She raised a hand to brush a lock of my hair from my face. Her fingers played with the reddish-blond strands. "She's about your color."
Then I felt the light touch of her fingertips tracing a line on my left temple. "But no scar," I said, and winced at the memory of recent pain.
"It will fade."
"I'm not so sure."
Her hand came to rest at the base of my neck and began to knead tense muscles. With a thoughtful frown, she asked, "How did you get hurt?"
"On my way here... my caravan was attacked by raiders. Nicos says this village will be next. "
"You don't need to worry about the raiders anymore," she said in a voice as soothing as her caresses. "Just concentrate on getting well and--" She broke off abruptly. There was more she wanted to say, but I could tell from the tight set of her lips that she had decided against it.
I pulled away from her, reluctant to leave but suddenly shy of staying any longer. "I have to get back to the tavern or my brother will come looking for me."
Her only protest was a soft sigh, enough of a reaction to flatter without pressuring me to linger. She could easily have overpowered me, yet her restraint promised a leisurely and gentle seduction.
When I reached the door, I looked back. A question must have been written on my face because she said, "Yes, I'll be there."
True to her word, she sauntered into the tavern that night... and into the trap that had been set for her.
Nicos was clever enough to keep the plans a secret from me. Perhaps he suspected my loyalty was divided and I would be tempted to warn her; perhaps he wanted to shield me from distress for as long as possible; or perhaps, just perhaps, he knew that I was the bait for this trap, and he wanted to keep me innocent of the part I was to play in Xena's destruction.
"By Hades, she's back again!" Nicos had grumbled as the warrior settled at her usual table. "Worse luck. She's starting to scare away my customers."
Lost in my own thoughts, I readily accepted this explanation for the sparse evening attendance. If I had paid more attention to my surroundings and less to the quickening beat of my heart, I might have noticed that none of our regulars were present and that the strangers who were scattered about the room had an edge of danger about them.
"Here," Nicos said with a resigned sigh, "take her some wine and keep her occupied."
It was hard to keep the grin off my face when I carried the full cup over to the warrior. She arched an eyebrow in surprise when I plopped down in a chair across from her.
"We're not very busy tonight," I explained, "so I'm under orders to entertain you."
Her answering smile was cooler than I had expected, and my confidence faltered when her voice echoed that lack of warmth. "Your brother is in a mellow mood tonight. I wonder why?"
"Well, probably because he's relieved to hear the raiders aren't coming." I hadn't meant to launch into this sober topic so soon, but suddenly more frivolous chatter seemed out of place. "There's been a defense force out looking for them, but when they found the raider's camp all the warriors were dead. Someone else had wiped them out."
She shrugged, as if the news had nothing to do with her, but I could see a glint of satisfaction in her eyes when she said, "I told you not to worry about them anymore."
"That's true." At the time I had thought she was simply trying to reassure me. Now I knew better.
"So," her hand curled around the base of her cup, "where did Nicos hear this news?"
"Huh... I don't know." The question nagged at me, although I couldn't pinpoint why. "From a traveller, I guess." A very well-informed traveller, evidently. I didn't mention the gossip about a mysterious funeral pyre that had also been found at the camp. The pyre was unusually small for a warrior, and now I was certain the ashen remains were those of a woman.
Not hurt. Dead. And although I held no grudge against the bard, I was relieved to know she couldn't come back into Xena's life; their journey together was over. I wondered just what the young woman had meant to Xena. Although I sensed a sadness in the warrior sitting across from me, she wasn't grief-stricken. Death must be a common occurrence for her, so perhaps it wasn't so strange that she was already looking for companionship.
"Anyway," I said, eager to change the subject, "I wanted to--"
"Larissa!" I heard Nicos call out from behind the bar. "I need some help over here."
Annoyed by the interruption, I frowned and was about to refuse.
"Do as he says," said Xena tersely, her voice pitched low. "Hurry."
There was an urgency to her command that demanded immediate obedience. Bewildered, I rose from my seat, then froze as a sudden clarity of vision warned me of what was about to happen. "Xena...."
"Yes, I know," she said grimly. Our table went flying to one side as she jumped to her feet. "Stay out of the way. This won't take long."
In an explosion of movement her body shot up and flipped in mid-air, and by the time she landed in the middle of the room, her sword was unsheathed and swinging in a wide killing arc to meet the attack against her. But even as those men fell, a second wave of warriors poured in through every doorway. She met them with a ear-splitting war cry and a dazzling series of kicks that sent men careening into each other. She overturned tables and flung chairs about, transforming every piece of furniture in the room into a weapon or an obstacle. Although she was outnumbered twenty to one, within minutes she was the only warrior left standing in the tavern.
I stared, horrified, at the blood that was still dripping from the edge of her sword. If she had been any less skilled, it would have been her blood pooling on the floor.
"Why?" I asked. "Why would they do this?"
With a world-weary sigh, the warrior princess said, "For money, for revenge, for reputation, because the raiders were dead and there was no one else to fight . . . I'm tired of counting the reasons people want to kill me."
"Please, you have to get out of here. Nicos will be back soon with help."
"I promise I won't hurt him."
Her concern for my brother shamed me. Looking up, I said, "I was worried about you."
Blue eyes blazed with hope. "I'll leave now... if you come with me."
"Because I remind you of Gabrielle?"
"Because I want you to."
That was enough reason for me to go.
We melted into the shadows of the night, leaving behind the shouted alarms of the town rousing for a fight against the warrior. But I knew they would never find her, not if she was determined to stay hidden. She led me through the forest with a touch to my arm or a whispered caution. The ground beneath my sandals grew steep and rocky, then she pulled me through a shadow that was darker than any other. I heard the crack of flint being struck, and a sudden blaze of torchlight illuminated the cave in which she had made camp.
After wedging the torch into a crack in the rockwall, she turned to face me. "We'll be safe here, Gabri--" She broke off, catching herself too late.
"You can't forget her, can you?" It wasn't really a question; I knew the answer. The only question was why I had fooled myself into believing she could want me instead of the dead bard. "I'm nothing more than a... a ghost taking her place in your life."
"You're not a ghost. You're very real."
"No more lies!"
"All right," she said grimly. "No more lies."
Her blue eyes deepened in color, taking on a smoky grey hue that was the reflection of some strong emotion she had kept hidden from me until now.
"You aren't taking the place of Gabrielle... you are Gabrielle."
Silence hung between us for a heartbeat.
"That's crazy," I said, swallowing hard. "You're crazy!" It was dangerous to argue with a madwoman, especially one as formidable as this warrior, but I was too unsettled to keep my peace. "My name is Larissa. I have a brother named Nicos, and... and...." And it was time to run.
She sensed my panic before I even moved, and stepped in front of me to block my flight back down the mountain.
"I know you're confused, Gabrielle, but you've got to trust me."
"No!" What a fool I'd been to follow her. Now I was tangled in a net woven of her grief. The strands threatened to choke me. "No... I don't see how...."
"It was an honest mistake," the warrior said, with a calmness that echoed sanity. "Larissa looked very much like you, or at least she did before the raiders carried her off and...." She shuddered at some private vision. "You must have fought to protect her caravan, and when Nicos saw you among the wounded he claimed you as the sister he hadn't seen in years. He wanted to believe she had survived the attack."
I could I feel my life -- faint and insubstantial -- slipping from my grasp. Without memories of my own, I was nothing more than a tale told by others. "It's still just your word against his."
"I can prove you're Gabrielle."
"I know you," she said with a slow smile. "There's no part of your body I haven't touched. Listen to my hands." She slipped a hand across the back of my neck and began a featherlight caress so delicious it made my head swim. Her other arm wrapped around my waist and caught me just before my knees gave way.
"Oh... how did...."
"I know you better than you know yourself," she said, pulling me into the circle of her arms. "And this is where you belong."
She kissed me with enough force to silence my protest and with enough gentleness to disarm my fear. There was no need for her to push me down onto the blankets -- her embrace unstrung my limbs and I sank beneath the weight of my own desire. At her whispered urging I uncovered myself and my skin flushed under the heat of her gaze.
Then she lay down beside me, and with hands and lips and tongue she stole my body from me. Her caresses set the rhythm of my pulse and molded the arch of my back. She stopped my breath, then just as easily gave it back again, only twisted into gasps and moans. A fierce hunger grew under her hands, so fierce I heard myself begging for her to touch me here, touch me there, touch me harder.
"Sing for me," she commanded, and my cries rang out.
When my body had finally stopped its trembling, she said, "You're Gabrielle."
"Yes," I answered.
She believed enough for the both of us, so I stayed.
Her name is Gabrielle, but she doesn't believe me.
And yet she wants to believe. Even now, by the flickering light of the campfire, I can see the desperate yearning in her eyes... and the sadness. She knows that Gabrielle is a storyteller, but she has nothing to say. A few days ago I tried to tell her about her family in Poteidaia and of our life together on the road, but as she listened she started to shiver. She wouldn't ask me to stop -- she hasn't lost her courage -- but I didn't have the heart to keep talking. This woman is afraid that some morning she'll wake up and remember a life different from the one I've given her. Rather than lose herself again, she has become no one.
So we spend our evenings sitting in silence while I sharpen my sword.
Gabrielle... I've always loved the way the fullness of its sound rolls off my tongue. But I've seen the slight twitch of tension in her shoulders every time she hears her name. I've started saying it less often.
And I wonder, would she be happier if I'd never found her?
Over two weeks have passed since the night I walked into a small tavern in search of a woman called Larissa. I slipped into the shadowed back of the room the same way I would stalk through the forest tracking a deer. I didn't want anyone watching me when I caught my first glimpse of the tavernkeeper's sister. If by some cruel trick of the gods that woman was a stranger....
But no, it was Gabrielle.
She stepped out of the kitchen, a tray dangling from her hands, and I knew her in an instant -- knew the familiar curve of her body, the shape of her face, the sound of her laugh. My hands began to tremble. I placed them palm down on the rough tabletop and tried to steady my breathing. So, it was true: the blonde young woman I had given over to Hades was not my bard. A wave of dizziness washed over me, equal parts relief and exhaustion. I could afford both now that I was certain Gabrielle was alive and safe.
There were times -- dark times -- in the weeks before when I had been afraid my frantic search for her would end... differently.
When she missed our rendevouz in the village of Acora, I wasted days waiting for her, then even more days searching the area in widening circles, expecting to see her come striding over the next meadow... or the next. Finally I returned to our last meeting place and painstakingly picked out her cold trail. When it merged with that of a caravan, I moved more quickly, until I rode into a clearing of churned earth and trampled debris. I studied the ground for hours, teasing out a rough scenario of attack, defense... loss. There was blood spilt on both sides, but mostly from those who had huddled around the wagons. Judging from the fading pattern of tracks, their goods had been rifled and carried off in one direction, along with the horses; the plundered wagons had been dragged off in another direction, probably by the survivors.
I hunted down the marauders first, racing toward my greatest fear. I must have found it. When I emerged from the blinding cloud of my rage, every last man in their campsite was dead and I was cradling the body of their battered victim in my arms. But there was a subtle difference -- of weight, of shape -- that made me take a closer look at my burden.
With renewed hope, I doubled back and followed the second trail to a bustling market town whose petty, self-important inhabitants had little patience for answering my inquiries. Eventually, however, I tracked down a healer who had tended to some of the wounded travelers, and what I learned from that woman brought me here, to a tavern owned by a man named Nicos.
Hearing the familiar sound of Gabrielle's footsteps, I looked up. There was surprise in her expression, but no hint of recognition. The healer had warned me, so I had thought I was prepared for her reaction, but nothing could buffer the shock of being a stranger to those sea-green eyes.
Looking back, I can't even remember what I said to keep her near me as long as possible. I battled the urge to wrap my arms around her and let her warmth melt away memories of touching a cold, still body that looked too much like her. Instead, I watched her move around the room as she served ale and wine to the tavern's patrons. She answered to the name Larissa with an ease that unsettled me. With all the trust that was in Gabrielle's nature, she believed this was her life. And I began to realize it wouldn't be as easy as I had expected to pull her away.
Our campsite is bathed in moonlight. Gabrielle rises to her feet and walks over to me. Her movement breaks my reverie; her words break our silence.
"Love me," she whispers.
I reach for her, my hunger rising fast and sharp. Her urgency matches mine, breath for breath. We've come together every night since we fled the tavern and there's no shyness left between us. Our bodies talk with ease, pleading, demanding. Hands grasp my shoulders and shake me. Harder, faster!
Her urgings fire my blood in ways that almost frighten me. I used to be so gentle with my bard; I didn't want to hurt her. Now our love-making is fierce and uncontrolled, I don't hold back. If there's any pain, Gabrielle seems to welcome it as much as pleasure. Perhaps she doesn't care either way. In the throes of passion, with a body alive to every kind of sensation, she finds herself.
We travel in silence now, too. And without that connection of words constantly flowing between us, I can't bear to ride on Argo. Side by side, we march down the road, each of us lost in our own thoughts. I'm not sure where she goes. What place can you visit without a name, without memories?
My own mind keeps searching for a solution to our problem, a plan that will bring Gabrielle back to herself and back to me. After all, I constructed a plan before, just after I found her.
I decided to seduce Larissa.
Larissa, not Gabrielle.
The idea came to me the morning after my trip to the tavern. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the cave that served as my refuge, I mulled over my approach while I patiently worked saddlesoap and oil into my stained leathers. Although I was a stranger to her, the shy gleam in Gabrielle's eyes had hinted at a strong attraction. I'd seen that same look in her eyes two years ago in Poteidaia. If I could lure her into going away with me again, then she would have all the time she needed to heal and remember -- and if she didn't remember, I would have time to win her trust before I told her who she really was.
So I returned to the tavern night after night, talking to her as often as I dared without drawing too much attention to what I was doing. I knew my plan was working when I heard the jealousy in her voice.
"I hear you travel with someone -- a bard named Gabrielle."
I wanted to tell her the truth -- that she was jealous of a love that was already hers for the asking -- but I still doubted whether she would believe me rather than Nicos. So when we met in the stables the next morning, I continued to play the part of a warrior toying with a new bauble that had caught my eye.
After much too short a time together she pulled away, flushed with her desire. "I have to get back to the tavern or my brother will come looking for me."
Just as I'd suspected, she wasn't ready to follow me of her own free will, at least not yet. Of course, we were alone in the barn, unwatched. I could have carried her away by force. But then what? If she regained her memories, she would thank me... but if she didn't, my impatience would have destroyed all hope of trust between us.
When she reached the door, she looked back at me, her expression a touching mixture of bravado and uncertainty. Despite her lust, she was still an innocent.
"Yes," I reassured her. "I'll be there."
Nothing could have kept me away from the tavern that night. The minute I walked through the door I knew a trap had been set for me, but even then I wasn't about to abandon her. Since my time for a leisurely seduction had just run out, I trusted that I could turn the attack to my own advantage. And I did. The betrayal sparked an anger in Gabrielle that swayed her loyalty away from Nicos. With my blade still wet with the blood of my enemies, I said, "I'll leave now... if you come with me."
"Because I remind you of Gabrielle?"
"Because I want you to."
She had no reason to believe me, except that it was my heart-spoken truth. To my relief, that plea was enough to call her to my side. But my conquest blinded me to the distance that still divided us. It was the tavernkeeper's sister who had followed after me, not Gabrielle. Through carelessness I took the name of Larissa away from her too soon, and not even my love has been enough to fill the emptiness it left behind.
This quiet woman who walks beside me is willing to be my lover, but I miss my friend.
And I think back to that night in the cave and how her body remembered the touch of my hands...
... and I start to wonder what else her body remembers....
... and then I have my answer.
I wait until we stop for our noonday break, when she is tired and hungry and longing to rest. Before she can reach the shade of a tree, I step in front of her. I draw my sword slowly, but she's still unprepared for my attack.
"Ow!! That hurt!"
"Yes, I'm sure it did." And then once again I slap her thigh with the flat surface of my blade. She'll have bruises there tomorrow. "Come on, defend yourself."
She steps back hastily. "With what?"
"Your staff," I say with an exaggerated sigh. "It's more than just a walking stick, you know."
Her eyes widen with shock, but I see her hands automatically move into place along the shaft. She hefts it up, creating a barrior between us.
"Go away," she says.
"No." And with a sweep of my boot I knock her feet out from under her, dumping her to the ground on her back.
"I hate that!" she cries through gritted teeth. Knuckles white as she grips the Amazon wood, she flails back wildly.
With a mocking laugh, I easily side-step her swing.
Scrambling to her feet, she shouts, "Look, I don't want to do this!" She's very angry now. "What's the point?"
I shrug. "No point. I'm just in the mood for sparring." And I aim a quick overhead blow to her head.
Her staff squarely blocks my blade's descent. The elbows of her arms are bent just enough to absorb the force of the blow.
So fast she doesn't have time to think, I disengage and swing for her midriff.
She blocks me again.
I pivot and come at her from another angle.
These are the opening exchanges in a routine I devised to hone Gabrielle's fighting technique, a set series of moves and countermoves that she followed for form and speed. She's practiced that same routine with me almost every day for over a year. The pattern is as much a part of her as her muscles and bones.
I continue to set a pace beyond thought, and without thought she enters into the rhythm and flow of our movements. It's a dance between us, one of my favorites. And it ends with a dramatic flourish as one end of her staff sweeps up under my arm. As always, my sword goes flying through the air.
We face each other in a new silence, one that shouts with meaning.
"How did I do that?" Bewildered, she stares down at the staff. It drops from her hands as she stammers out, "I... I don't know how to fight...."
I don't answer. I give her the time she needs to realize--
"Unless... I'm Gabrielle," she says in a whisper. "I'm really Gabrielle." Then she looks up at me and I nod.
The relief shatters her. I catch her as she crumples toward the ground. I hug her as her body sobs out all the fear she's been hoarding for so long. And I stroke her hair, murmuring her name over and over again.
Someday she will remember. For now, it's enough that she believes.
We lie in a tangle of limbs, bare skin cooling and drying in the night air. The moon has risen and then set again; the camp fire has burned down to ashes. We are wrapped in darkness and tree shadows and not even the stars can cast enough light to show me the face resting on my shoulder. I don't need to see; I know every curve and plane of her body by touch. I sigh out my contentment, and in response Xena stirs in my arms.
"Again?" I ask, only partly teasing.
"No... wore me out," she mumbles. Her arm snakes across my stomach and she pulls me closer. "Met my match...."
I laugh, but she's already fallen asleep again.
And I lie awake, studying the patterns of the night sky, not willing to let sleep waste away this serenity that visits me so seldom. I worked hard for it tonight, battling against consciousness and self-consciousness, fighting down my stubborn tendency to watch myself as if I'm a player in a story. Tonight I lost myself in sensation moment by moment for what must have been hours...
....and emerged with a calmness born of satiation and exhaustion.
If I bathe myself in Xena's desire long enough, letting it crash over me wave after wave, her love fills the hollowness inside me. The peace is fleeting, an illusion burned away by the rising sun of each new morning, and so I stay awake as long as I can....
Just past dawn Xena's whispering voice wakes me, but when I roll over to greet her the bedroll is empty of her presence. I jump to my feet at the sound of faint, mocking laughter, but the clearing in which we have camped is empty, too.
I whirl around to confront the soft rustle of leaves and sigh with relief when my warrior parts a bank of bushes and walks toward me. I almost ask her if we have company... but a vague unease holds me back.
"Another headache?" she asks, after one look at my face.
"Yes," I say, realizing for the first time that my head is throbbing with pain.
"You need more rest." It's an order rather than a suggestion, and I wonder if she thinks I'm still too crippled to make my own decisions. "We'll camp here another day."
"But Xena, we need fresh supplies."
She shrugs off my protest. "They'll last one more day." Barely. Would she have dismissed Gabrielle's concerns so easily?
Stepping closer, I take a breath to argue the point, then notice that Xena's face is drawn and her eyes are smudged by fatigue. Since our escape from the tavern our trek toward friendly territory has been relentless. She could use this rest as much as I can, or so I tell myself. "Thank you. I wouldn't mind the break."
I see the surprise in her vivid blue eyes. So Gabrielle would have persisted, and I gave way too easily, but it's too late to change my mind now. As always, I'm a step behind the bard, no matter how hard I try to keep up with the memory Xena has of her.
Without further comment, Xena strips down to her shift and grabs her sewing kit. She sits cross-legged on the ground, painstakingly examining her leathers, mending small tears with quick, sure stitches, while I munch on a dried apple and worry about how we'll afford the staples we need to survive. A decent bard can earn enough dinars to buy cheese and bread, but I'm no bard....
Tucking myself around my discontent, I doze for the rest of the morning until the sharp cry of a raptor pulls me out of sleep. The forest is ringing with the call of birds. They're raising such a clamor that the sky should be dark with swooping, diving forms, but all I can see are darting shadows out of the corner of my eyes, as if I'm not fast enough to catch anything more than a gliding wingtip. I watch Xena grooming Argo with slow, steady brushstrokes. Despite her keen hearing she doesn't seem to notice the uproar and so I say nothing. Perhaps this is a normal rhythm of nature that I've simply forgotten, as I've forgotten so many other aspects of our traveling life. Gabrielle would probably laugh at my naivete, and just as surely the bard would have had more patience with a warrior's single-minded absorption with the maintenance of her horse and equipment.
I take advantage of Xena's preoccupation to quietly prepare an elaborate meal of all the delicacies the forest offers for free. My leisurely activities go unremarked and by late afternoon all my ingredients are assembled. To my gratification, our last strips of dried rabbit meat take on an appealing aroma once I mix them with a stew of wild onions and mushrooms, seasoned with fresh herbs. Even Xena, usually oblivious to the subtleties of cooking, can tell the difference. Despite her rapt involvement in sharpening her sword, she eventually looks up and sniffs appreciatively. "When do we eat?"
"Soon." I know her well enough now to be flattered by the brusque inquiry. "I even managed dessert," I say, flourishing the limp wineskin that I've kept tucked in my saddlebag for just this moment. There's not much more than half-dozen swallows of port for each of us, but in our impoverished state it's a treat nonetheless.
"What's the occasion?" I can tell from Xena's careless manner that she doesn't really expect an answer.
"It's my birthday," I announce proudly. "I'm three months old tonight." Three months since I awoke with a clean slate where my mind used to be, three months since I wrote the name Larissa with such a firm hand that even now I have trouble erasing it.
Xena's face freezes, leached of any emotion. "Oh."
"Hey, this is a celebration, not a funeral." And suddenly it's very important to make her understand, to get behind the hard mask that shields her discomfort. "Three months may not seem long to you, but it means I have a few memories of my own now," I explain. "I can actually look back and see a trail behind me instead of a wall. And I'm finally forgetting things, little things that are too trivial to remember. There's no room for them up here anymore." I tap my head lightly with my knuckles. "See, no echo."
She chuckles, not quite easily, but enough to break the tension between us. And a steaming bowl of food, followed by a few pulls from the wineskin, puts her in a mellow mood. We sit in companionable silence while Xena polishes her boots and her chakram and I stare at a scroll. She thinks I'm reading one of the bard's stories, but it's hard for me to concentrate. The bird calls have given way to the murmur and whisper of voices carried on the evening breeze.
After nightfall, wrapped around each other in the comfort of our shared bedroll, Xena says, "If I'd known it was your birthday, I would have gotten you a present."
"Well, it's not too late yet," I answer.
She hisses when I touch her breast, but her lips curl into a smile despite the pain from her tender nipple. "No, Gabrielle," she says with an incredulous laugh. "I couldn't possibly, not so soon after last night."
I'm disappointed and can't resist a protest. "But I need the practice," I say lightly, teasing at the ache that never seems to leave me. "After all, how many nights like that have I forgotten?"
"None," she breathes, her reply so soft I almost don't hear it. Her face has turned somber. "We never... not like that."
Her answer startles me. I had assumed my every action is familiar to her, that every experience that is new to me is a tedious repetition of events she's already lived through. "But why not?"
Xena shrugs, a bewildered gesture. Then, drawing me close, she buries her face against my neck. Her teeth fix on my pulse and I groan at the sharp pressure. When she pulls away her breathing is ragged, her eyes so bright that heat sparks to life low in my belly. "I didn't realize until now how much we both held back from each other," she says.
So, this wildness is all mine, newly minted, not a ghostly echo from a borrowed past. And the thought that I exist -- apart from the shadow life of Gabrielle -- gives me a new sense of weight and substance. "What's changed?" I ask. "Why me?"
"Maybe because we started over... a little differently." Xena's brow furrows as she reflects on a wealth of memories; there is no hollowness in her. "Before, you were the one who took the first step. You had to persuade me that I had a right to this kind of happiness. That took courage. You declared your love even though I hadn't given you much reason to expect that I would love you back." She lapses into a brooding silence.
Impatient, I call her out of the past. "And..."
Her eyes sharpen and fix on my face with an intensity forged from fresh insight. "And looking back, I think you paid a price for that courage. I think you always believed that I was... reluctant, that you had to coax me into loving you. So you never asked for more than you thought I'd give." Reaching out, she caresses my face, fingers absently feathering down my cheek, as if wiping away tears.
"But I know better," I say smugly, quick to draw yet another distinction between myself and the phantom who hovers between us. "When I talked to you in the tavern, I could tell you wanted me."
Xena's hand falls away from my jaw and down to my breast, where it settles with easy familiarity. Her smile returns -- predatory and triumphant. "I had to seduce you. There wasn't time to win you over with friendship."
Her instincts were sound. Only lust, heady and entrancing, could have lured me away from Nicos and the life I thought was mine. "You cheated though," I say with mock disdain to cover my embarrassment. "You knew how it would end. You knew how much I was attracted to you."
"Strategic advantage." She smirks, although there is a fleeting dark shadow to her expression that tells me she wasn't as sure of the outcome as I have assumed.
"That explains why Gabrielle held back, but what about you?" I insist, my curiosity still unsatisfied.
She draws a breath, mustering her own brand of courage. I've learned that confessions don't come easily for her. "We were friends first, and then when we became lovers... I just didn't know how to shift onto new ground. Or maybe I was afraid to change our friendship into something too different and risk losing you. I've never been friends with my lovers before... and I need you in a way I've never needed them."
"So what am I now?" I wonder out loud.
"Gabrielle... my lover... my friend..." She embraces me, her body trembling with a sudden surge of desire. Her voice drops to a hoarse whisper against my ear. "All things... everything."
Our talk gives way to showing, demanding, needing -- all the forms that love can take between two bodies. Once again we touch without holding back the need to grasp and bite and stroke and lick and suck and scratch and then, finally, cry out.
"By the gods," Xena pants, as she recovers her breath. "I'm going to be so damn sore tomorrow."
We dissolve into laughter, and this night I forget to stay awake.
The voices are stronger the next morning, loosing a steady stream of words that whisper seductively in my ear, tempting me to stop what I'm doing and listen until I untangle their meaning. I try to focus on the urgency of my chores, the need to break camp so we can be on our way....
It takes me a moment to realize that it's Xena speaking, not the phantoms. She's shaking my arm to bring me out of my daze. The blanket I've been clutching slips from my grasp, but before I can stoop to pick it up, Xena says, "Leave it. It doesn't matter."
She leads me to the campfire; her hands push gently down on my shoulders to make me sit on a fallen log. If I weren't so tired, if I could only find the strength to focus, I could do these things for myself.
Her palm comes to rest against my forehead. "How bad is the pain?"
I shrug. I've learned to ignore the headaches; surely I can ignore the voices, too. But it's so hard not to listen....
"Here," she says. Kneeling beside me, she thrusts a cup of steaming tea into my hands. "Drink this."
I take a sip, then almost choke on the liquid that fills my mouth.
Xena frowns. "Too hot?"
"No, no... it's..." Too thick. There is no other way to describe the taste of too many flavors, as if I'm drinking every kind of tea ever made, each one distilled and distinct as it hits my tongue. I take another cautious sip and somehow manage to swallow the stew. "It's fine, Xena. Just right."
She's not convinced by my deception. Her frown deepens. "Gabrielle...."
"I'm fine--" I start to say, but my reply is drowned out by a rising tide of sound, as if the babbling brook I've been avoiding all morning has suddenly overflowed its banks, angry and impatient for my attention. The cup falls from my hands as I try to scramble to my feet, desperate to keep my head above the swirling echoes.
"Xena! Help me..."
I can't tell if she heard me. Her mouth moves, but her words are swept away by the chorus that has turned the air as thick as my tea. Shouts and cries and laughter, people talking quietly, children chanting, the clamor of war... too many, too much....
I see fear written on Xena's face, and confusion, then her features begin to shimmer with every emotion of hers I've ever seen. I close my eyes against the sight of her blurred, radiant beauty.
She catches me when I fall, holds me tightly. Too tightly. I struggle to get back to my feet, but I can't escape her embrace, her comforting, fatal embrace.
"No," I scream. "I'll drown!"
And then, finally, I understand what is happening. I stop fighting -- I let the flood claim me -- and my limbs are pinned beneath the weight of returning memory. I am buffeted by images of horror and sweetness, of darkness and light and all the colors in between, an endless stream of remembrance stretching back and back until it disappears into the shadows of my earliest infancy.
Gradually the chaos subsides. I've swallowed it whole, sheltered it in the hollow spaces that belonged to Larissa.
I search for her, but she's gone, overwhelmed. Her few months of existence were no match for the years that belong to me. She's the ghost now, not me. And yet, despite her brief life, she had the strength to leave me one precious gift.
I lie still in the shelter of Xena's arms, savoring the familiarity of her body against my own. Thanks to Larissa, my warrior and I know each other in ways I have only dreamed of before.
Xena, frantic and pleading, calls to me. With effort, I open my eyes.
"Yes," I say, smiling up at my love. "I am."
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