STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Xena, Gabrielle, et al are property of Renaissance Pictures, MCA, Universal and whoever else has the legal documentation to back up their claim. No infringement is intended. They are borrowed only.
CONTENT DISCLAIMER: This story contains scenes of love between two consenting adult women, with graphic sexual content. Also, seeing as one of the women is a sword-wielding ex-warlord and the other is a staff-wielding Amazon Queen, it is safe to say there will be violence in this story, although not violence against each other. (Didn't we have enough of that at the beginning of Bitter Suite?)
Also, this particular Xenaverse does not acknowledge the third or fourth season, meaning there was never any rift, any lies, any Hope, and--although not in this story--Callisto and Solon are still alive.
This is the first piece of published fanfiction I ever wrote and I wrote it around 1997. Please take that into consideration with any criticism you might wish to share with me.
OTHER NOTES: Please feel free to e-mail me constructive criticism, comments, etc. at firstname.lastname@example.org
THANKS: To Stacey: Thank the gods I have an editor like you who asks the right questions, probes the right weak spots, encourages the right plot turns, and generally makes me feel like the luckiest Bard around to have found someone like you who not only understands my Muse and her sadistic ways, but who knows how to get the most out of what I write… Do you realize that two seconds either way that night in the Palace chat room would have meant we would never have met? I just love those Fates!
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Something More Than This
That morning began like every other: A candlemark's drudgework in the inn followed by a half-mark trek to my favorite hunting spot, a sturdy tree in who's branches I could wait out those indigo times just before first light breaks across the sky.
What was I waiting for in that tree? Well, mostly I waited for the bread dough to rise in the stone bowls back at the inn or for the morning's catch to wander by, unaware of me and my bow hidden in the clean-smelling leaves. I also waited for something spectacular, something truly wonderful and strange that would break the spell of utter boredom bewitching my life.
Who could have foreseen it would come on so ordinary a morning?
I heard them before I saw them. The gentle crash of an over-weighted horse through thickets and the tones of a quiet conversation announced their presence. When they entered the meadow and I finally saw them clearly, my breath caught in my chest.
Two women rode a golden mare. But these were no ordinary women.
One of the women, smaller, with hair the color of fall wheat in the late afternoon, sat forward in the saddle. The other-may the gods spare me-the other was the most magnificent creature I had ever laid eyes on. Tall, wearing armor and leather, with a river of inky hair cascading down her back, she looked alert and battle-ready even with the fair one settled against her. A sword's hilt kept watch over her shoulder and I could see the tension in her muscles, the readiness to pounce on an enemy should one attack.
She protected the small one. That much was evident. A closer look showed me the fatigue in the small one and a pallor unnatural to her. I soon noticed the stained bandages wrapped around her chest and shoulder, revealing the cause.
They stopped in the meadow, the magnificent mare with the corn silk mane answering her mistress' nudge. The dark one tipped her head back and took a deep breath of the cool morning air. The fair one stirred, opened her eyes, and whispered something that made the dark one smile and curl her head back down for a conspiratorial reply.
A more fanciful woman than I might have mistook this pair for the Goddess of the Hunt complete with consort, a wounded fawn saved from certain death. I, however, have always been practical. And I have always been utterly sure that no god or goddess would ever take the time to appear to me, a lowly innkeeper's apprentice in the small village of Galasia.
Another nudge from the dark one started the mare down the path leading to the village. At their pace, it would take them a candlemark or more to reach the inn. Me? Less than half that if I ran. There was only one inn in Galasia and my brother, Pirro, owned it. He would never give a room to these two. With any help from the Fates, Pirro would still be sleeping off last night's rum when I got home.
"Are you sure I'm not hurting you, Xena?" asked the bard for the fourth time. Xena grinned. True, it was very unusual for Gabrielle to ride in front like this and yes, the warrior had had to make several adjustments to accommodate the change. But no, the bard wasn't hurting her. If anything, having the bard cradled against her like this was driving her crazy with the desire to nuzzle her honeyed hair and…
Xena pulled her mind out of that little daydream like a hand from the fire. Better not go there, she thought with a sad frown. Okay, she admitted quietly to herself, maybe it did hurt a little, but not in the way the bard thought it did.
"For the last time, Gabrielle, you are not hurting me," she whispered, scanning the forest with her huntress eyes. Although they had not encountered any trouble in almost a fortnight, when the warrior had taken on fifty men of varying levels of skill in what could only be called an ambush, Xena was still wary. Gabrielle had been injured in that little grudge match and Xena wasn't eager to repeat that again so soon. She tightened her grip around the bard's body just enough to reassure herself that her precious cargo was safe.
"Good," replied the bard. "Because you sure are comfortable. Explain to me why I've never ridden this way before?"
Xena swallowed her real answer and growled playfully instead. "Because I knew if I let you ride this way once, you'd want to ride everywhere. And then Argo would stop speaking to me."
Gabrielle chuckled. "Oh, ha ha."
"You don't believe me? Ask her."
Argo ignored the quiet banter taking place on her back and continued lazily along the path her mistress had set her on. When she rounded a blind bend into a small meadow, she answered her mistress's nudge and came to a gentle stop. Xena looked around, the hairs on her arms standing at full attention. She tipped her head back and took a deep breath of the still morning air.
"We're being watched, aren't we?" came Gabrielle's soft question. She felt the increased tension in the muscles underneath her and knew there could only be one cause.
Xena smiled and curled her head down to whisper in the bard's ear. "Yes. Where?" She never passed up an opportunity to strengthen Gabrielle's skills.
"The only place that makes sense. The big tree at the northern end. She can see the path coming and going and the leaves of that one provide the best cover." Gabrielle also knew-by the fact that Xena had not drawn her sword or chakram-that they were in no immediate danger.
"And how do you know it is a woman?"
"Because she hasn't fallen out yet," grinned Gabrielle. Xena laughed and nudged Argo. The mare began her slow trek through the forest again.
I was already back downstairs setting water on the fire for tea when I heard the heavy footfalls on the porch. I smiled a little self-satisfied smile. Everything was ready for our royal guests. Oh, I knew they weren't really royalty, but that's how I was going to treat them. That was all that mattered.
The door opened and the smile melted off my face. In the warmth of the blazing fire, I found myself looking into eyes so blue they startled me. Suddenly I was struck dumb as to what to call her. Lord? Lady? Sir? Something told me any or all of those titles might find me on the pointy end of her sword.
"Can I help you?" I asked from behind the bar.
The dark one's eyes regarded me suspiciously for only a moment before her mask of indifference returned.
"Need a room," she said. "Have any?"
Just one? I thought. Interesting. I came around the bar to wipe down a table or two.
"Aye," I said nonchalantly. "How long are you needing it for?" I looked past her shoulder out to where the mare sat patiently in the road. The fair one slumped slightly in the saddle, protecting her wounds, but her sharp, moss-hued eyes tracked the dark one's every move. Looking past the injured woman, I noticed a small group of villagers-mostly men-eyeing my guests apprehensively.
"A week maybe," she said. Then, also noticing the ever-growing gaggle of ogling townsfolk, their postures defensive and hostile, she added, "Maybe not."
I walked out onto the porch, smiling at the injured woman in silent greeting. Looking into the crowd, I spotted the man I sought.
"Something you all need, Takis?" I called.
He stepped forward. "Not this morning, Taren. You?" His question was pointed and his gaze swept from me to the warrior and back with deceptive leisure.
"Well, I could always use a thousand dinars, but which of us couldn't?"
Nervous laughter rippled through the crowd and several people drifted off, apparently more at ease. I didn't blame them for their mistrust. This woman looked like she could be a vicious warlord running from the law or worse. In fact, I had no knowledge otherwise except a gut feeling that neither she nor her wounded companion would bring harm to us.
"Aye," said the barrel-chested man, smiling widely. He knew me well enough to know I was in no danger. "Well, I'll leave you to your boarders, then."
Takis waved and set off down the dusty road for his smithy. A few stragglers with deep frowns tried to stop him, angrily pointing in my direction, but Takis dispersed them easily. I knew I could count on him. Even though I had turned him down for marriage seven times he was still a good and wise friend.
I turned back to the warrior. "The room is cheaper for a week. Ten dinars instead of fourteen, stable included. Would you like to check the room? See if it suits your needs?"
"And if it doesn't? The next village is two days ride from here."
"You have a point," I laughed.
The fair one suddenly began to cough and the warrior's eyes darted to her, filling with concern.
"Is there a healer in this town?"
"She's away. Went to Typhonaea to help with her sister's first baby." I glanced at the small one, her fit lessening. "I heal some and I have enough herbs on hand to mix up a good green-mold poultice for her wounds. We should get her off that mare and into bed soon."
The warrior nodded and took five dinars from a pouch on her belt.
"If we stay a week, you'll get the other five when we leave."
"Fair enough. Let me settle the lady upstairs and get started on that poultice. You can take your mount to our stables. No one will bother her there." I jerked my head to where three men still stood watching. "They know better."
"Thanks," she said, moving to the lady's side to help her from the saddle. "Come on, Gabrielle," she said softly. "Time to get you into bed."
Gabrielle grimaced as she slid into the warrior's waiting arms. "It hurts, Xena," she whispered.
Xena. The name hit me like a rock between the eyes. The Destroyer of Nations. The most vicious warlord the world had ever known. And I had just given her a room. May the gods protect us.
I didn't know it just then, but the weave on the fabric of my life had begun to change.
"She's not like that anymore, you know," said Gabrielle as I helped her up the stairs. "And you don't need to help me. I can manage." She leaned on a staff that was too battle-scarred to be a cane.
"You're wounded and you're a guest of this village's finest inn. It's all part of the service. As for the other, it's none of my business."
"I saw the men watching us. And I saw your face when I said her name. She's not a warlord anymore. She helps people now. People who can't help themselves."
"Like you?" The question popped out of my mouth before I could stop it. Green eyes flashed indignantly at the remark.
"She may have rescued me from slavers two years ago but I've been travelling with her ever since. I can take care of myself! And I take care of her just fine!'' She stumbled as we neared the door to their room and I noticed a fresh red stain seeping through her bandages.
"It looks like you need caring for now," I said grimly, pushing open the door and helping her inside. We had only taken a few steps toward the bed when she stopped, gaping at the room with incredulous eyes. She took it all in, from the fire in the large fireplace to the fresh flowers on the table in the corner. I had been very busy this morning.
"Is the room not to your liking?"
"No, no," she said. "It's fine. It's just-I mean-I can't remember the last time we had a room this big." I helped her to the edge of the wide feather bed and she brushed her hand across the blankets, smiling for the first time since I had seen her. Her smile completely ensorcelled me. It was bright and pure, like morning sunlight dipped in fresh cream.
"In fact, I can't remember the last time I slept in a bed." She looked up at me rather sheepishly, adding, "We usually make camp in the forest or sleep in stables."
"Sounds better than an old inn." I smiled, thinking how wonderful it would be to travel all over the world and not be bound to anyone or anything.
"Don't you like being an innkeeper?"
"Not especially. Too dull. Never many customers except around the big festivals. But it's not like I have a choice, is it?"
"What do you mean?"
"I'm apprenticed to my brother. He owns the inn. He says I owe him because I refuse to marry like the other girls. If he can't get a dowry out of me, he might as well get work out of me. It's a fair arrangement."
"Fair, huh?" she asked, not sounding at all sure. Before I could respond, she gripped her side in obvious pain.
"We need to get you into bed, M'Lady," I said, dropping their saddlebags over the back of a chair. I bent to help her with the laces of her boots.
"What did you just call me?"
"M'Lady. That was it. Cut that out. I'm not a lady. I'm just a bard." The woman was clearly irritated.
I turned the blankets down and settled her back against the freshly stuffed pillows.
"A lady isn't always born of regal parents." I smiled despite the deep furrowing of her brow.
"Well, my father is just a shepherd from Poteidaia, so you can call me Gabrielle."
"Whatever you say, Lady Gabrielle. Do you have a mind to eat? I have some wonderful broth on downstairs and the bread should be done any minute. I can bring you up a tray when I bring the new poultice for your wounds."
The mention of food distracted her from my formalities and she nodded enthusiastically, sighing, "I almost forgot about breakfast. I hardly ever do that." Then she realized what I had called her. "I said call me Gab-"
I escaped the room before she could finish the protest.
A half-mark later Pirro made his first appearance of the day as I was putting the finishing touches on the tray. He shuffled into the kitchen growling like a disturbed bear, surprised to find his breakfast ready and waiting for him. He sat down heavily in his chair, holding his savagely throbbing head in his hands.
"What time is it?" he croaked, holding a cool mug to his head for relief before downing its contents in two gulps.
"It's still morning, if that's what you're asking. Everything's been done. Even the firewood, so you're off the hook for today."
He squinted at me, his frown consuming his entire face.
"Who's that for?" he asked, gesturing with a hunk of bread at the tray I was fixing.
"If you'd been up when you were supposed to be instead of sleeping off a cask of rum, you'd know we have boarders."
Just then, Xena thumped through the door. I caught her eye and said, "I'll be up with some food and the poultice shortly. I've got the lady settled in upstairs, last room at the end of the hall."
She nodded. "Thanks." Her bootfalls as she climbed the stairs thundered in the silence that followed her exit. I could feel Pirro's rage like heat from the fire.
"What in Zeus' name do you think you're doing, girl?! Givin' a room to her kind?!" He slammed his mug on the table and got up. "Well, I'll have none of it, do you hear? I'm going up there and tellin' them to be on their way-"
The clank of three dinars on the table stopped him in his tracks.
"What's this?" he demanded.
"It's what she paid for the first night, Pir, so just leave off! She's got a wounded girl with her that can't be moved and I'll be roasted on a spit before I ask them to go!"
He picked up the dinars, fingering them suspiciously until he was convinced they were real.
"How long are they stayin'?"
"Maybe a week."
I watched as he added up the profits in his head. He grumbled something about how the dinars were probably stolen and sat back down to his breakfast. I was inclined to agree about the stolen part, especially since the eleven dinars I would be contributing to the bill would be donated from Pirro's own pocket. The thought almost made me laugh out loud. Somehow I knew that wouldn't be a wise course of action.
"All right, they can stay," he conceded. "Only I don't want any trouble, Taren. Trouble from them will mean trouble for you, do you understand?"
"I understand." I knew he meant it. He could throw me out or worse if he had a mind to. But as I carried the tray up to Xena's room, I suddenly didn't care what happened to me as long as it was new and different.
Their door opened before I had a chance to knock.
"Is the room suitable?" I asked the warrior as I placed the tray on the table.
She swung a cool gaze around the room as if noticing it for the first time.
"It'll do," she deadpanned, but I could see she was impressed.
"Good," I grinned. "Now, I've brought breakfast for you both, but perhaps we should change the lady's bandages first."
"See? She keeps calling me that!"
"Lady!" said Gabrielle, completely exasperated. "Make her stop, Xena!"
One of the warrior's eyebrows arched curiously.
"Why don't you curtsy for her?" she asked, grabbing an apple from the breakfast tray and crunching into it. "She'll stop."
Xena smirked and took another bite of her apple.
"This is some sort of conspiracy. I know it," grumbled Gabrielle.
I held the fresh poultice up questioningly. "Lady?" I asked, barely able to contain my mischievous smile. The bard rolled her eyes, but obediently loosened her top and the soiled bandages and allowed me to do my work.
She had two angry wounds, one in the fleshy part of her left shoulder and one below it, in her underarm. The size of the wounds and their proximity to one another told only one story: crossbow bolts. Sometime within the past moon, some spineless dog had aimed and fired a crossbow with steel-tipped bolts at this beautiful woman for reasons that could only be evil. I was instantly seized with the desire to hunt the man down and rip his heart out through his throat. The emotion startled me with its intensity and I forced it away with a sharp mental shove.
"Were the bolts poisoned?" I asked quietly.
Gabrielle froze beneath my hands and her eyes darted nervously to Xena's. The warrior took a protective step closer to us.
"I…found the antidote." Xena's tone was emotionless but her sky-blue eyes had sharpened to cobalt and she was a notch or two more alert. I was acutely aware that I had just crossed a line. I imagined how she had 'found' the antidote. Every scenario I imagined ended with bloodshed.
"You've seen this type of wound before?" Although Gabrielle, too, was more alert, I could tell she was naturally more trusting than Xena. After all, she was no warlord.
"When I was little, a renegade war party sacked Typhonaea. A boy with a wound just like this escaped and ran all the way here to warn us, somehow keeping ahead of the soldiers. I remember how his back looked-two diamond-shaped wounds not more than a hand apart, one lower and to the right of the other. The skin at the edges bubbled and turned black from the poison. He died shortly after he delivered his warning. My brother told me what made the wounds."
"And your village?" Gabrielle's voice was soft with concern. Genuine sorrow for the dead boy flooded her eyes.
"We had warning enough to get the women and children into hiding. Tall, sturdy trees are no match for drunken raiders in heavy armor. A few of our men died and some of our homes burned. My father lost an eye. It could have been much worse if not for Lidio. We have a festival every year to honor him." I pulled Gabrielle's new bandages tight, but she didn't seem to notice. She seemed lost in her own world.
"Uh oh," said Xena, apparently recognizing the behavior. "She's doing the bard thing."
"It's a terrific story, Xena! You'll see. That is," she said, looking up at me with hopeful eyes, "if you'll give me permission to write it down."
"Only if you perform it downstairs when you're feeling better. This inn hasn't had a proper bard in it since before I was born."
"And only," added Xena, carrying the breakfast tray over to her friend, "if you eat first. You need your strength." Somehow, I knew that the tenderness I saw in the warrior's eyes was a rare thing and reserved for the bard alone. I suddenly felt like an intruder.
"Deal?" I asked, smiling. Both women turned, one guarded and one grinning.
"Deal," said Gabrielle.
"I'll let you settle in then. Yell if you need anything. A bath can be brought up for you if you wish, no extra charge, and there's a basket outside your door for any washing or mending you may have."
Gabrielle looked from me to Xena and back again with wide, unbelieving eyes.
"You do washing and mending??" she squeaked.
"I said you were guests of this village's finest inn, didn't I? It's all part of the service." I turned to leave, finding myself escorted by the warrior. I chuckled when I heard Gabrielle's whispered "Wow. Mending too." I stopped at the threshold and turned back to Xena, all seriousness returning. "She's a bit feverish," I whispered. "Do you have the herbs for-"
"I have them," she said. "Do you serve port here?"
I nodded. "Sure."
"I'll be down later. I don't want her disturbed," she said, indicating the bard who was now rummaging through her scroll sack and munching on some fresh bread at the same time. "She needs her rest."
"Understood." I stood at my full height, almost as tall as Xena, and walked purposefully away. I understood, all right. The ex-warlord didn't trust me…yet.
Xena closed the door behind the innkeeper and turned to see Gabrielle discard the half-eaten slice of bread she'd just been munching on. A worried frown creased her brow and she walked over to the bard.
"Not hungry?" she asked quietly.
Gabrielle had intended to lie and tell the warrior that she was just savoring the meal, but one look in those worried blue eyes made her change her mind.
"I thought I was but when I started eating…" She sighed in weak frustration and dropped her head onto the pillows behind her.
Xena immediately knelt next to the bed, laying her cool hand on Gabrielle's warm forehead. She strung a wild list of innovative curses together that surely would have shocked the bard if she'd said them out loud. As it was, Gabrielle caught the slight tightening of her lips and the deepening of her frown.
"My fever's back, isn't it?"
Xena nodded slowly.
"I thought so," continued the bard, closing her eyes in a moment of self-indulgence. "My head feels like it's been stuffed with wool and honeybees."
Xena's lingering hand moved to cup Gabrielle's cheek and she turned the bard's face towards her own, waiting for her to look at her. When she did, she almost gasped aloud at the openness and trust that shone from those beautiful jade eyes. It startled her, like it always did. Startled her and more… She quickly pulled her hand away from the bard's face and said in a low monotone, "You'll have to have more of that herb mixture you didn't like."
Gabrielle nodded and made no protest…and if Xena hadn't been worried before, she surely was now. Gabrielle always complained about Xena's "foul-tasting concoctions". Always. She cursed again while rummaging through the saddlebags for her healing kit and this time Gabrielle heard it.
"I'm sorry, Xena," she whispered, watching Xena mix the herbs with a practiced hand and then dump them in a mug, pouring steaming tea over them. A pungent smell filled the room.
"About what?" asked Xena, delivering the mug to the bard. She helped her take the first sip, privately adoring the way Gabrielle's nose wrinkled up with the taste.
"I know we can't afford this room or being stuck here for a week or-"
Xena put two fingers across babbling lips, ignoring for the moment the tingles traveling up and down her arm as a result.
"I can't afford to have a sick Amazon Queen on my hands," she admonished gently. "Ephiny would skin me alive if she thought I wasn't taking proper care of you."
That thought made Gabrielle giggle. "Yeah, right! Even if you were blind and one-legged, Ephiny couldn't catch you!"
Xena chuckled. "True," she agreed. Then her face suddenly went quite serious. "But no more about not being able to afford this. I don't give a damn about the money or the time. Got it?" She gently gripped the bard's arm and shook, trying to drive the point home. She needn't have, for Gabrielle had already wound the words tightly into her memory, holding them to savor later.
"I got it."
The warrior nodded and then released her grip. "Good. Now finish that," she said, indicating the cooling mug of herbed tea.
"Okay." Gabrielle stared into the brown liquid and sighed, then obediently tipped more of it into her mouth.
"Yllaaargh!" Her face screwed up dramatically. "Gods Xena, do you scrape this stuff off the bottom of river rocks or what?"
"I know, I know. I'm finishing it, see?" She took another sip. "Ew, ew, ew," she added.
Xena just chuckled, settling into one of the high-backed chairs with her sword across her knees, running the whetstone down the blade with a rhythm that never deviated. When she looked up much later, she found Gabrielle asleep, the mug hanging dangerously from her limp hand. Xena quickly put aside her sword and snatched the bit of earthenware up before it hit the floor, grinning victoriously to herself. Timing is everything, she thought.
Then she looked at Gabrielle sleeping comfortably in the wide bed and realized how very true those words were. Like any knife-juggler in the agora, Xena had manipulated timing many, many times in her life. To give her the advantage in battle or in negotiations, to save her own life or end another's. But that moment-the one that had led her directly into the path of one brave, fearless little bard fighting off slavers at the river near her home-she couldn't take credit for that. No, that had been pure, unadulterated, Fates-tinged luck. And timing was everything, she realized, because the merest untamed sliver of it had brought this beautiful woman into her life.
She tucked the blanket around Gabrielle and sat on the edge of the bed, for once giving her hand leave to caress the bard's face at will.
"Get better soon, my bard," she whispered, thinking she liked the possessive sound of that more than she should.
That evening, as shadows crawled across the wood-plank floor and the red ribbons of light in the sky competed with the bright dance of the hearth fire for my attention, Xena came down from her room. I stood at the bar, wiping out the last of the mugs from the mid-day "crowd"-if you could call eight customers a crowd. I reached for a clean mug and a cask of port and set them both in front of me with a decidedly cool thump. It was an invitation.
"Evening," said the warrior, taking the invitation and sitting stiffly on the barstool.
"Yes," I agreed, glancing out the window. "How's the lady?" I asked casually. Despite her mistrust of me, I could see laughter in her blue-upon-blue eyes.
"She'll be fine. She doesn't like when you call her that," she offered. She poured herself a mug of port and took a long draw of it.
"I know." We regarded each other for a moment. Xena measured me to standards ingrained in her from her warlord days while I wondered just exactly what it would be like to walk in her boots for a day. Finally making some sort of decision, Xena spoke.
"You were in the tree. Northern end of the meadow." It was not a question. She knew.
"You use a very distinctive soap. Mint and thyme."
I am ashamed to admit it now, but I gawked at Xena. Flat out, bug-eyed gawked.
"Any good with that longbow?" she added, her gaze falling to the callused fingers of my right hand. The stories I had heard about this woman had not been exaggerated; she did have many skills. And by the way her eyes sparkled, she obviously enjoyed using them to throw people off balance. I was no exception.
"Fair," I said, forcing myself to regain some semblance of composure. "Throwing knife, too."
A crooked, quizzical grin broke the tension between us. "I don't frighten you." Almost a question. Not quite.
"No. I have waited my whole life for something wonderful to happen. Didn't expect it to be today, but wonderful doesn't always send a warning before it walks into your life, does it?"
I would have missed her imperceptible glance at the ceiling if I had blinked. "No, it doesn't." Was her voice softer? Was that longing in her eyes?
The moment passed.
"Is that the reason for the 'service' we get here?"
I hesitated. "What do you mean?" I feigned as much innocence as I could muster.
"I mean my mother's an innkeeper in Amphipolis and she wouldn't do my wash or mending even if I asked on my knees." Her grin was infectious.
I had a hard time envisioning the warlord on her knees asking for anything. I laughed, in fact.
"Like I said, it's all part of the service. And speaking of service, dinner will be ready in about a candlemark. Shall I bring up a tray?"
Xena nodded, laying two dinars on the bar. Before I could protest, she put up her hand. "Take it." The tone said she would brook no arguments from me on this. "I'll be back soon. Just want to take a look around." She downed the last of her port and walked out into the twilight, heading for the stables.
I watched her go, wondering how it had happened that this once feared destroyer of entire nations had found the humanity inside herself. Then I remembered the woman upstairs and I understood. Gabrielle could lead Cerebrus out of Tartarus and teach him to fetch, if she wanted. I knew that much already. One battered warlord would hardly be a challenge at all.
Gabrielle woke to long shadows and the orange glow of sunset on the bare walls of the room. She was momentarily disoriented and caught herself looking for childhood mementos she had no doubt her mother still kept in her long-unused room in Poteidaia. Finally her gaze fell on the healing kit sitting neatly on the table with the little mug she had drunk the potent tea from sitting next to it. She wondered idly how it had gotten all the way over there. The answer soon washed over her, a warm ache that made her happy and sad at the same time.
Xena, of course.
She looked around the darkening room and felt silly for thinking the warrior would still be there, watching over her.
Not her style, she reminded herself. Although she grudgingly admitted she'd liked the small gestures and the extra attention she'd been getting. And Gabrielle's heart knew these little extras were the result of a long-overdue thaw on the warrior's part, something she'd been noticing for a while now. She grinned then immediately frowned, noticing with distaste that her mouth felt sticky and hot.
Guess I still have a fever, she thought as she stumbled out of the bed and padded over to the water jar. She poured herself a big mugful and drank it down, noting happily that her head didn't feel as fuzzy as before. She poured another mugful and trotted back over to the bed, setting the mug on the bedside table and crawling back into the wide bed with a sigh of luxurious abandon. She could think of only one thing that would make the bed even better…and she immediately blushed with the thought.
"Knock that off, Bard," she chided herself as she reached for the water, hoping it would cool down her heated face. "You are wishing your heart away." A familiar sadness stole its way onto her face. "She makes it really hard NOT to, though," she sighed.
She thought briefly about working on the story of Lidio and the heroic deeds that saved this little village, but she remembered she really didn't have enough information to start that story yet. She decided to wait until she could talk with the innkeeper again. She smiled to herself, thinking of Taren and wondering how Xena felt when another strong-willed woman came down with Warrior Princess Haze. At least Taren was tamer than Minya had been. They almost hadn't survived Minya's hospitality.
I wish every innkeeper came down with Warrior Princess Haze, she thought wistfully. Maybe we'd get rooms like this more often.
She snuggled under the blankets for a long, guilty moment then pushed them off with a grunt. Slug, she thought. Nobody likes a slug. Gotta do something productive.
She felt like writing but the scrolls looked heavy and boring. Then her face brightened with a mischievous smile and she rooted around in the bottom of her scroll sack for the perfect diversion. It was just a little something, really. Evenly cut squares of parchment sewed on one edge and bound with leather. Gabrielle ran her fingers lovingly over the leather, which had once been a piece of Xena's battlewear before it became irreparable and was donated to this little project.
She wasn't supposed to know that.
Silly warrior, she thought. I would know the feel and scent of it even if I were blind and dumb and had no hands.
She'd found the bundle tucked into her bedroll one night not long after… Here her mind stumbled as it always did. She forced herself back through the thought reluctantly. She'd found it not long after Xena died. There. She took a deep breath to calm her racing heart, swerving off that path of memories and back to the little book.
Xena had been off checking the perimeter of their camp and Gabrielle had been getting ready to crawl into her bedroll, knowing that she would wake sometime in the night to feel Xena sleeping close to her. She'd discovered the warrior's new sleeping arrangements after a particularly harrowing nightmare one night. Although far enough away to be deemed respectable, Xena had begun to place her bedroll close enough to Gabrielle to be able to reach her with a healthy stretch. Which made Gabrielle feel cared for and for which she eagerly awaited every night. But on this particular night, she'd gotten more than she bargained for.
She'd opened the bedroll near the fire and saw the rich chestnut tones of leather in the firelight. She'd reached down wonderingly and picked up the bundle, noting the G carefully embossed on the cover. She'd opened it up and stared at the neat little note printed on the first leaf of parchment.
For the stories you never tell-the ones with you in them. X
The bard smiled with the memory of that moment and opened her journal to the first page, reading the little note again. Then she found a clean page, dipped her quill in some lovely dark ink, and began to write…
The crowd that night-despite the village's growing curiosity about my guests-was small enough that the neighbor girl, Annis, could serve by herself. She often helped out around the inn when she wished to escape the torture of her five younger siblings. Serving adults who could speak in complete sentences (most of the time, anyway) and who usually didn't throw food at one another seemed quiet in comparison to her home. I always appreciated the help, especially when Pirro disappeared every day after the mid-day meal to get drunk and gamble with his friends.
Xena had still not returned from her ride so I decided to make up their supper tray and take it upstairs anyway. I knew if Gabrielle were awake, she would be hungry. She hadn't eaten much of her mid-day meal.
I slipped silently into their room. One candle flickered next to the bed and I could see Gabrielle was still asleep. I put the tray on the table and moved closer to the bard to see if her condition had improved any. I was startled to see a fine sheen to her skin. Her fever had worsened. I started out of the room to fetch some catnip and feverfew tea that I kept for especially for fever, but a frightened whimper stopped me in my tracks. I turned to see Gabrielle struggling with her blankets, her whimpers growing into desperate murmurs and then into a low keening that made my heart ache.
"No…NO! Don't leave me! How could you?" Her fierce whisper made me wonder if she was only having a nightmare or if she was awake and in the clutches of some fever-vision. She swung her head blindly back and forth. Nightmare, I decided. No doubt made worse by her fevered brain.
I crept closer to the sobbing bard. I didn't know who had left her but I was determined to see her through this horrible dream without waking her or causing her more fear. I sat at the edge of her bed, careful not to disturb the quill and the parchment in her lap. In the dim light, I could just make out the bard's graceful handwriting and the words distracted me from my original intent.
And when her eyes opened, and I fell into the Summer Sea I saw there, I knew I had fallen in love…
Could it be? There was only one set of eyes I knew that matched that description… Were they really in love?
Well, it makes sense, I thought. Two women, one room…and the warrior's protective streak…
My heart began to race as if I had just run to Typhonaea and back and something that had been sleeping inside me began to awaken.
Maybe that would explain…
Takis' last proposal, at the spring festival, had been a painful one. The resigned look of disappointment in his eyes as I told him no for the seventh time had nearly brought me to tears. And then his soft question…
"Why do you hate me so?"
And I tried to explain it, my tongue thick and stupid. I tried to tell him he wasn't the problem, that I didn't hate him. Tried to tell him he was a wonderful man, a good provider, a kind soul…
His obvious confusion asked the question he dared not voice and I just sat there. I couldn't tell him that whenever I thought of marriage my chest closed up and my throat burned and I felt like I was drowning. I couldn't tell him how ashamed I was to be so different from all the other girls in the village who had been choosing and discarding potential husbands for themselves since they could braid their own hair. I couldn't tell him that somehow the gods had shaped me wrong, leaving me without that passion. I couldn't tell him it was all my fault. Instead I ran off, mumbling something about him deserving a better wife than I could ever be.
But this tiny glimpse into Gabrielle's life gave spark to tinder that had long lay dormant within me. I picked up the leather-bound book before I knew what I was doing, wanting to read more, but Gabrielle's cries reminded me why I was there. Caring more for her wellbeing, I closed the book and reached for her, finally managing to cup her face in my hands.
"Shhh… I'm right here, little one. I haven't gone anywhere. You're safe. I haven't left you." I continued to whisper those words over and over. My mind swam with questions and wondering and half-formed truths about myself. Between the chaos in my head and trying to calm Gabrielle, I did not notice the sound of the door opening nor the warlord standing in the doorway. I have no idea how long she stood there, watching.
"Get away from her." Xena's voice was low and hard with the promise of endless pain unless her demand was met. I have no idea why I didn't obey her that very instant, but I didn't.
"Now." Her low growl terrified me. I snatched my hands away from the bard's face and backed away from the bed, my eyes never leaving the frozen glitter of Xena's murderous gaze. She countered my movements with cat-like grace, putting herself between the bard and me, ready to pounce if I made any sudden movements. We stood there, locked in the moment as if we'd been painted into some strange tableau. I started to say something-anything-to explain but she spoke first.
"Xena?" The bard's confused whisper startled both the warrior and myself. "What is it?" Her hair clung to her face in soaked ringlets and her eyes were fever-dulled.
I turned and fled, barely hearing Xena's whisper of "It's nothing, Gabrielle." I ran down the stairs and past Annis and the startled customers. I ran out into the street and past the stables. Past Takis' smithy, past the tannery, past the edge of the village. I didn't stop running until I reached the tree in the meadow-my tree-and I flung my arms around it and clung to it with all my might.
It wasn't fear that had driven me there, nor sorrow, nor pain. It was envy, sharp and deadly. My heart hammered in my chest and my blood rushed with the force of ten waterfalls in my head. I stared out into the darkness, my breathing heavy. How much would I have given to be Xena at that moment in time? The answer, even now, frightens me.
It was maddening.
Xena rested a palm against Gabrielle's cheek and sighed in relief. It was cool…for now. But Xena knew the fever could rear itself again at any moment and that drove her crazy because she knew her limitations against this kind of enemy. Before, when the poison was still the biggest danger, it was only a matter of Gabrielle waking up…or not. And somehow that ordeal had been easier than this maddening back and forth dance with infection and fever.
She remembered sitting through those nights, listening to shallow breathing and her own heartbeat for candlemarks on end, waiting for Gabrielle to wake up or… She drew in a shaky breath.
Maybe 'easier' isn't the right word, she admitted. Because that was far from easy, my bard. I couldn't bear you leaving and I couldn't tell you why to stay, even though my heart rehearsed the words over and over…
The warrior shook her head to scatter those haunting thoughts.
Gabrielle woke up, she told herself firmly, refusing to be ensnared by visions that hadn't come to pass. She gazed quietly at Gabrielle and sighed. At least the fever had broken again and the bard was sleeping comfortably.
Xena stretched to ease muscles cramped from sitting in a damn uncomfortable chair all night. Then she crossed to the window, looking out at the starless indigo sky and the darkened village.
No point in sleeping this close to dawn, she thought. And she knew a little fresh air would quietly disperse the wire-taut tension in her that was making her head ache. She shuttered the window against the cool morning and tucked Gabrielle's blanket under her chin. One last shadowed gaze from the doorway and she was out of the room and slipping down the stairs, only to find the younger serving girl-Annis, was it?-sleeping at a table near the hearth.
She took a hesitant step towards the girl, a careless creak of the floorboards giving her presence away. The girl's head rose, her eyes barely open.
"Taren?" she whispered.
"No," said Xena, her body hidden in the shadows. Her pale eyes and her armor glittered in the dying firelight. "Go back to sleep."
The girl mumbled softly and let her head drop onto her arm again. Xena frowned deeply. She threw a few logs onto the fire, stoking it to a blaze for the girl, then stalked out of the inn.
The knowledge that Taren was out there somewhere, alone and afraid, brought a sneer to her lips. All the anger and menace that she had carefully shelved while tending to Gabrielle came back in an instant. She drew in a long, lazy pull of the spicy night air, feeling a surge of evil delight ooze through her body. And with the dark emotion came another unfamiliar one that the warrior didn't recognize.
Serves her right, she thought, pushing the biting and unfamiliar emotion away. The kid should learn to keep her hands to herself.
She chuckled for a moment, thinking of the pathetic innkeeper who was too friendly and too helpful. Whose compassion and openness and trusting nature made her weak, an easy target, just like--
The black humor the warrior found in Taren's personality suddenly dissolved under the harsh glare of one obvious fact: the same things she considered weaknesses in Taren she valued as strengths in Gabrielle. In fact, she had always believed those traits to be essential to Gabrielle's very being.
Xena puzzled over that for the briefest of times until she realized-with a start-that perhaps the unfamiliar emotion hiding behind the fangs of her anger was envy.
No, she decided. It wasn't that. But her mind stole back to the forbidden thought until she had no choice but to face it head on.
Okay, then why? She challenged her mind to show her something that would explain why she, an ex-warlord who had once commanded armies and riches and kings, would envy an innocuous, good-hearted, fearless nobody of an innkeeper…who had just been comforting her wounded and feverish friend in a way she never could.
Dazed, Xena hesitantly probed the truth of it. She was envious of Taren.
And why not? Taren was everything she wasn't…honorable, good-hearted, passionate, devoted. She came by her goodness naturally, and why shouldn't she? She didn't have the blood of thousands on her hands or the weight of so much evil and guilt upon her shoulders.
Taren was someone whom parents could be proud of, whom children could look up to, whom any village would be glad to call "one of our own." And Taren was someone deserving of Gabrielle's friendship in ways Xena knew she wasn't and never had been.
Xena's shoulders slumped in the darkened street.
"I've just proven what a monster I am," she said quietly. She had terrorized a woman simply for doing the one thing that she herself ached to do, for reaching out to Gabrielle in pure, unguarded love. It wasn't Taren's fault her heart was unfettered and unhidden. It wasn't Taren's fault she could risk so much so easily. And it certainly wasn't Taren's fault Xena had never spoken of her true feelings for the bard, which were far deeper than friendship and were hidden behind a leaden door inside her heart to which there was no key.
Pain, bright and hot, seeped into the warrior's chest. She had seen the ease in which the bard and the girl had become friends. In shorter time than it had taken her to stable and care for Argo, the two had settled into a comfortable banter that had put Xena on edge.
If Gabrielle's friendship could be won so quickly, what was to say her heart couldn't be won just as quickly? And if so, wasn't it telling that she and the bard had only just begun feeling comfortable with the odd hug and the occasional teasing remark? And finally, in the long run, who was the more deserving woman?
Xena already knew the answer to that question. Totally and irrevocably. And that made any further arguments her heart might have made moot and pointless.
With a face as emotionless as stone, Xena walked down the vacant road and out of the village.
I wandered back into the village at first light. I had stayed with my tree all night. I couldn't remember if I slept. I couldn't remember much of what I did, actually. All I knew was that I had more questions than I did when I went out there and not a single answer. I felt empty. I wanted…something.
I shuddered when I saw the rugged, weather-grayed building I called home, a chill creeping under my skin. It was a dark hole in the gray light, a burden, a duty…
I want…I want something more than this, I thought numbly.
As I passed the stables, I noticed Xena's horse was not there. A momentary panic that they had left clutched my heart. It faded when I remembered Gabrielle was in no condition to travel, not even the two-day journey to Typhonaea. I quickened my step anyway.
I found Annis asleep at one of the tables near the hearth and smiled sadly down at her. Silly girl. I nudged her awake. "Annis?"
Annis' fawn-colored eyes snapped open and she lifted her head from the table, marks left by the rough wood blemishing her fair skin.
"Taren? Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. You go on upstairs now and get some proper sleep. Pick any room you like."
She shook her head and yawned, rubbing her eyes. "Unh-unh," she said, as another yawn twisted her face. "Give me two blinks and a sip of water and I will help you get the morning meal started." She unwound her chestnut hair and re-braided it with the graceful ease of someone who had been braiding hair for years. As the oldest of six children-five of them girls-I had no doubt that Annis spent most of her mornings doing just that.
"Annis, you need to sleep-"
"Please, Taren?" Her plea halted my protest. Looking into her wide eyes, full of longing and admiration, I suddenly understood what Annis was really saying.
I want to be useful to you in some way. Please don't send me away right now. I want to be near you.
"All right," I relented. "Go draw the water for tea, then."
The girl-almost a woman, really-bounded out into the kitchen to fetch the water jar. I could have sworn she was humming as she left for the well.
She had a crush on me. That much was plain now. A headstrong young woman, a loner, a favorite with the boys of the village but who rarely showed them any favor… She reminded me of myself. I wondered why I hadn't seen it before. I also wondered if that explained the newfound feelings I had for Gabrielle…a simple crush? I doubted it. It was more than that. It was deeper and less…defined.
Too tired to think anymore, I shuffled into the kitchen to see what I could scare up for a decent meal. We didn't have much and I had obviously not been on my usual hunt this morning.
Well I suppose I could make a-- I stopped in mid-thought, my eyes growing wide at the site of four skinned and dressed rabbits on the bar. A half-smile tugged at my lips. I recognized a gesture of peace when I saw one. I knew the warrior would never say a word of apology, of explanation. None was needed now; her offering had been given. I accepted it without hesitation, partly because I admired Xena and her aloof reserve and partly because I wanted to stay in her good graces. I had already learned one of the most important lessons one could ever learn about the Warrior Princess: cross her at your own peril.
Learned it, yes. Put it into practice? Not quite.
With Annis' enthusiastic help, I managed to create a rather hearty meal of rabbit stew, bread, tea, and some wild berries Annis had been only too happy to go out and root around in prickly bushes for.
We sat down to our meal, both of us too exhausted to do more than eat, then I stopped putting off the inevitable and I made up a tray for Gabrielle. I added a new poultice and some fresh catnip tea to the tray and headed glumly up the stairs. I dreaded facing her after what had happened, but I knew I would be remiss in my duties if I failed to serve her as I had been.
My knock was feather-light and hesitant. A bright voice answered instantly.
I opened the door slowly, afraid to look up from the tray I was balancing so carefully.
"I've brought your-"
"Breakfast!" said the bard. I looked up and found her flushed but sitting up, surrounded by parchment and scrolls. She chewed on the end of her quill, grinning happily. Her stomach echoed her outburst by growling loudly. I smiled in spite of myself.
I set the tray on the table and brought a bowl of stew and a plate of bread to the bard. She dug right into the stew, making little humming noises of appreciation as she chewed. She was almost done in less than ten bites. I made a mental note to bring a bigger bowl next time.
"I'll let you get back to your writing, Gabrielle," I said, desperate to find any excuse to get out of there. The less said about last night, the better. "Let me know if you need anything."
"Taren, wait. Don't go." I turned to find her munching her way through an entire round of bread. She finished one bite and paused before another. "I'm writing the story of Lidio and your village and I have tons of questions. Do you have time to answer them?"
Confusion must have crossed my face before I could stop it because the bard knit her brows in a sudden frown.
"Is something wrong, Taren?" I didn't answer but she didn't wait for me to, anyway. "Whatever it is, it can't be that bad, can it?"
She didn't know. I remembered the rabbits and realized the warrior must have slipped out before Gabrielle had woken…and that made things infinitely easier for me.
The bard's concerned and expectant gaze reminded me of her question.
Well, what was I supposed to do? How could I possibly tell her what had happened while she'd been unaware? How could I possibly tell her that I'd spent the night in the forest because her lover had chased me from my own inn?
"No. I was just thinking about all the work I have to do today." I lied. So there.
"It can wait. We're still your only customers, right? And the customer is always right, right?"
I nodded hesitantly. "Uhh…right."
"Then please stay and help me with the story. Xena won't be back for a while and I wouldn't mind having a little company. I'm not good at being cooped up in a room alone, even if it is a beautiful room."
Part of me desperately wanted to stay and part of me vibrated with alarm at the very idea. But with those sparkling green-gold eyes gazing up at me hopefully, the part of me all for staying easily drowned out the buzzing alarm. I fetched the bowl of berries from the tray and a chair and moved to the side of the bed. I held the bowl out to the bard.
"You said you had questions, M'Lady?" I asked, grinning from ear to ear.
"Ooooh, berries!" She popped a handful into her mouth, frowning when she realized I was back to calling her the hated title. "An' qui' callin' me tha'!" she said around a mouthful of sweet, red pulp, a trickle of juice escaping down her chin.
I laughed. "Your wish is my command, M'Lady!"
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