In The Heart Of The Siege: Conclusion
The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and Autolycus are owned by Renpics apparently, and not only that, Im not going to make any money from this! Is that justice I ask you?
Timeline: Around the second season
Sex: Just two people in love with each other, who are also women. If thats a problem according to age or locale, move, or move on.
Thanks to: BlindzonElyzon, Cath, Claudia, JLynn, Leslie Ann Miller, especially Mary Morgan, MyWarrior, Nancy, Power Chakram, Stacia, Temora and all the members of the Tavern Wall and the Bardic Circle. Two places I can still be proud to call home.
Inspired by the far better writings of Melissa Good, DJWP, and by the woman I love.
Disclaimers in Part I
"O what hills are yon, yon pleasant hills,
That the sun shines sweetly on?"
"O yon are the hills of heaven," he said
Where you will never win."
" O whaten mountain is yon," she said
"All so dreary wi frost and snow?"
"O yon is the mountain of hell," he cried
"Where you and I will go."
-The Demon Lover
Day 42 of the Siege of Namea: After Sunrise
The scream began somewhere deep inside of her heart and expanded to a brutal rupturing that seemed to shred her soul. But all that escaped from her lips was a soft, trembling, "No. "
Her eyes still squeezed shut, she heard Gabrielles cry of surprise from somewhere inside the pit that she seemed encased in, followed immediately by the cracking of the railing of the cart as her bards body struck it and pitched over side. It was hard for her to tell what was real; it had somehow become mixed with her memories of herself as a teenaged girl watching her brother die in front of her.
Helpless. Completely helpless.
Drawing on all of her discipline, determined to face what she was sure she already knew, she opened her eyes. Yes, there was the general lying still, two arrows piercing his chest, inches apart. That would have been the harder of the shots, she knew. Her expert marksmen could not have missed the bard upright and facing them, and she did not know if she could bear to see what lay on the ground on the far side of the wagon.
" NO! NO! NO!" Ares cry of exasperation stunned her before she realised what it might mean. Suddenly she was free from his paralysis, and she vaulted over the wall, not even thinking of what was her next point of landing. She heard him muttering behind her in frustration. "There is no WAY he could have moved that fast. Who is watching over her? This is so WRONG!!!"
As she descended, she suddenly remembered the archers above her, and saw that several were staring at their bows with bewildered looks. She reached down to grip her chakram, and shouted to them, "The men who loosed those arrows are to be put under guard, and will be taken immediately to my quarters to wait there." She raised her chakram. "The next man who even thinks of shooting at anything without my direct order will taste this across his throat... after its worked its way up. Everybody got that?" She waited. "Good."
She arrived on the ground out of breath, panting slightly, to see Gabrielle struggling under and partially covered by a huge soldier. She was so gratified, her smile was as broad as anytime in her memory. Her happiness was so great that she didnt immediately notice that Gabrielle was in tears, tugging vainly at the large man.
"Salmakis... hey, Sal...?" The bard looked to her with a face that pleaded to be told what she wanted to hear. "Xena?"
The warrior rallied quickly and knelt to the ground to carefully lift the man onto his side, and allow Gabrielle to slide out from under him. Salmakis made a slight hissing noise in pain, but otherwise seemed unconscious. The arrows had entered deep into his back, and at least one was obviously a mortal wound.
"Is there...?" The bard asked hopelessly.
Xena shook her head and Gabrielle lowered hers. She felt an pang of jealousy as Autolycus and Ikaros each took one of the bards hands and the three of them formed a circle exclusive of her around the dying man. She looked about for something that needed her attention, even though she knew she could not drag herself away from this place. The upper walls and windows were filling with townspeople, but all were silent.
The bard broke loose from Ikaros, and seized her bracer, asking, "Why?"
The warrior refused to show how her powerlessness had effected her, and only shrugged. "Ares. He thought I would go to him if you died. He must have ..."
Gabrielle could not listen, and turned to try to make the dying man more comfortable, and her tears continued to fall. Xena was still awash with such relief that Gabrielle was alive, that it was impossible for her to feel the immense gratitude she knew she should for this mans act of sacrifice. So her explanation was probably only a half heard mumble to the ears of the devastated girl. "Ares thought if you... he thought I would have to take command, he didn 146;t know..." He didnt know that I wouldnt have been able to raise my own hand, much less an army if you had died.
Again Gabrielle looked at her through sodden eyes. "I have to..." and she waved her hand at the army and the total sum of the task she still had to complete. "I dont know if I.. How can I? Who is going to follow me now?"
Her question was answered by a gruff voice at her feet. "I would. To Tartarus and back. "
The giant tried to raise his head, but his three companions stopped him. He looked about at each of them, before finally settling his eyes on the young blonde.
"Why you being so sad? This aint a bad way to go... and you, you gat an army to command, dont ya?" He winced before continuing, his breathing a wheezing that seemed to vibrate through the arrows in his back. Gabrielle tried to shush him but he shook her off. "I got some time here. Let me say what I gotta say." She nodded and waited. "During your fight. Me an Ikaros were telling the lads back there what you done. Talking you up.... I trained most of em... Told em, This lady, shes the real thing. Youre in a right mess now, I said, and yer only hope is to have her stand before you wit the dark one here. Shell do you right." His face clenched in pain and Gabrielle clutched his hand. "So you get your face all washed up. Show them I wasnt a liar, quick, okay?"
Xena thought she heard a broken thank you from Gabrielle but wasnt sure.
"It all worked out like the Gods musta wanted. I was supposed to die for killing that sonofabitchin commander, but they let me stay... so I could save a real one." He smiled at her. "I got no regrets. No more. So you dont neither. Okay?" Gabrielle nodded. The words came slower now, and she had to lean over to hear them. "I got an extra day... to, to do one... very important thing."
And then the stillness entered him.
Gabrielle raised herself and covered her face with her hands. She stood there alone and Xena awkwardly moved towards her, not sure what to do when she got there. The bard looked up and the warrior was surprised to see that her eyes were angry. "Xena? Is this what it takes? To constantly shove all these feelings into some hole just to keep going on? Is that what its like for you?" she demanded.
The warrior bit her lip, but was compelled to answer. "Yes."
Gabrielle shook her head. "How can you...?"
There was no movement of the stoic face and she only said, "I dont know."
But she thought : There is so little about myself I understand anymore, Gabrielle. I only know, I know that the only truth I have found in any of this... has been you. I have no right to ask this of you, but please dont quit now, Gabrielle. Please.
Gabrielle had been silent as though listening, as if the words had been spoken out loud. She nodded and picked up her staff. With all eyes on her, she carefully rinsed her face from a waterskin handed to her by a restrained Autolycus, and then walked slowly over to face the soldiers held against the walls. Xena could only stand and watch as she took a deep breath and squared her shoulders.
"Listen up. Im the only chance you have to get out of here alive. In fact I think I can do better than that. But if I start negotiating, I want it understood Im in command for now. You got that?"
Each man looked up at the archers poised above them, and grunted or nodded assent.
Gabrielle waited before speaking again. "Okay. First thing." She move back to where Xena was waiting over the body of the giant, and reached down to touch Salmakis gently, but when she stood, her eyes were still clear. "This man was offered a commutation of a death sentence if he volunteered and succeeded in a mission under my command. He not only succeeded, but gave his life to save the life of his commander. I order that he be ...." she looked to Xena who whispered into her ear for a moment..."reinstated to full rank, and receive all privileges due him. His family will be notified that he died with honour." She stared about waiting for a challenge. Instead the there were nods and smiles from the men in front of her. She continued more confidently. "The same applies to the other two men released, and they are now assigned as my Aides de Camp.
"Now. Whos the senior officer?"
One of the older men looked about and above again before stepping forward. "I am."< /P>
"Okay Porlus. Were all getting out of this, I promise." She received a nod, and then the girl turned to face Xena. She spoke formally, all too aware of the watchers and her rank.
"Xena. Rukcal has been defeated, and you watched as it was done. You are freed from your oath honorably. But you are in command of this fortress. As the commander of these men, I have a list of demands before we surrender."
Surprised at the presumption, Xena spoke loudly, also aware of the crowd listening. "Demands? And why are you in the position to make demands?" Come on. Gabrielle, youve thought this out, I know you have. I would have.
The bard smiled grimly. "There are still eight hundred men outside, waiting to storm this place. I am effectively in command of them as well. AND... Polybus is about to arrive. I think it makes sense that you grab your alliances as fast as they are offered."
"Lets see these..." and Xena dragged out the pause, "demands... first. "
"Okay." Gabrielle reached inside her ever-present scroll case, and pulled out a crisp sheet of parchment.
Xena quickly scanned it and looked up with a small grin. "Gabrielle, this is a treaty. "
The grin was returned. "It is, isnt it?"
"But Im the military commander. A treaty has to be ratified by the Council."< /P>
Gabrielles face dropped, and they both looked to the quickly rising sun and the passage of time it represented.
If she tells me she can't, I'll reply
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Let me know that at least she will try
And then she'll be a true love of mine
Day 42 Before Noon
"We cant allow the price of silver to be dropped for Corinth!"
Xena listened in amazement and frustration as the council elders raged. "If we reduce it for them, wed have to do it for all the other states and customers. The price of silver would drop, and there would be all sorts of economic repercussions for the entire region!"< /P>
Only her respect for Gabrielle stopped Xena from pouncing down on the man and illustrating exactly what repercussions a sharp blade could produce. She tried not to pace as she watched the sun rise higher in the sky.
"We dont have to lower the overall price." Gabrielle spoke evenly, somehow hiding her own anxiety and impatience. "It can be a fee for the protection of the City by Corinth, and will be made up in the savings from not having to hire the mercenaries."
"But you have all these payments to be made to these common soldiers. Where is that money coming from?"
Gabrielle looked over to the thief who was nodding off in a corner. "Autolycus?"
The thief blinked twice. "Wha...?"
Shaking off his lethargy, the Thief ambled to the table. "Oh. Right. I was sort of hoping you might have forgotten." He addressed the council with his customary insouciance. "Gabrielle noticed that the mines and smelters were working throughout the siege, and smart lady that she is, wondered where the ingots were going when there was nothing to buy with them. So I looked around, and whadya know, I found three large chests, each with about one hundred thousand dinars worth of silver bars locked up in Agathes rooms."
Gabrielle added, "and thats what were going to pay off the mercenaries on both sides with."
"That money is ours!" shouted the Council Elder in consternation.
Jumping into action was a relief to Xena. Her stress-taut muscles smoothly responded and she was beside the councilor in a heartbeat. "What dont you understand about the situation were all in? That you have hundreds of soldiers ready to take this money from your dead hands? That its all extra that you never knew you had? That we already have it in our possession? That time is running out and youre sitting here TALKING?"
She released the man who slumped slightly before whining, "possibly a few soldiers may take the coin and leave. But the rest will simply use it to buy trash and drink it away." P>
Gabrielle leaned close to the man. "And where are the nearest shops and taverns they 146;ll be spending it in?"
Illumination came to all at the table, and the elder reached for the scroll and quill.
As soon as all the signatures were affixed, Xena stopped for a second, and stared with undisguised admiration at one of the copies, and then at her partner. "This is quite the document, Gabrielle. Well done."
The bard blushed slightly and grinned. "Xena. Im used to negotiating for a room and bath for one dinar. The day I cant broker a peace with the backing of a warrior princess, fourteen hundred soldiers and three chests of silver, you should trade me in."
Before Xena could retort, there was a call from the lookout on the upper wall.
"Commander?" Both Gabrielle and Xena looked up. "Xena." He clarified. "I can see a mist outside settling on the valley. Ive never seen one so thick, or in the day like this. Its making it impossible to see and the men outside are growing restless."
Alarmed, Gabrielle stared at Xena who voiced what they both were thinking. "Then Polybus wont be able to see a flag of truce, will he?"
And both said simultaneously, "Ares."
O whaten mountain is yon," she said
"All so dreary wi frost and snow?"
"O yon is the mountain of hell," he cried
"Where you and I will go."
" He struck the tap-mast wi his hand
The foremast wi his knee,
And he broke that gallant ship in twain,
And sank her in the sea.
-The Demon Lover
Day 42: After Noon
Xena tilted her head and shouted out to the empty space in front of her. "Ares? Come on out! You know I can smell you."
Immediately, he materialized in front of her, grinning derisively. "You must have known this wasnt over."
Xena didnt take the time to respond. She simply drew her sword, and calculated the distance between them. "Come a little closer, Ares."
Ares only smiled and drew his own sword, and they prepared to face off.
"You bastard," she spat. "You went waaaay over the line this time."
Ares made a show of concern. "Theres a line? Really? Thats strange. I thought I was... a God?"
"A God who failed. Again. If I were you Id wonder about why that keeps happening. Id even wonder if you were making someone mad."
There was a flicker of real concern on the war gods face, but it quickly disappeared as the two began their dance. The room was far too small for much maneuvering, and it was with one eye to the walls that they began to circle each other.
Then both surged forward with a clash of steel above their heads, and another at mid level. They held their swords in that position for a moment, wrists straining, and Ares said, "Youre wasting time, Xena. And you need to save your strength for the battle." Xena said nothing. Merely disengaged, spun and just missed the God with a murderous kick. Ares continued to speak as if they were having a quiet tea. "You know Polybus is about to charge down those hills with that absolutely superb army of his."
Another kick, this one connecting, but the War God simply flipped and moved forward unruffled .
Gabrielle appeared in the doorway. "It wont happen, Ares."
Both pulled back, and Ares rested his sword casually against one leg, smirking. "Oh yes, The Partner. You know, I dont mind that you two are..." He fluttered the fingers on one hand, "whatever you are. Because this time it works for me." He raised his sword and pointed at the scowling warrior across from him. "See, what Xena would like to do is run that message over to Polybus all by herself, but you..." indicating Gabrielle, "wouldn ;t let her take that risk, would you? And Xena wont do the smart thing and just knock you on the head, because now she wants to show she respects you ." The sarcasm dripped from his words. "And neither of you will allow the other to go alone without a complement of soldiers because you might have to fight Polybus in full charge. So this wonderful irony occurs. In order to make peace, youll have to bring an army. And arrive too late. The armies will meet," he clapped his hands together, and Gabrielle involuntarily jumped, "and you two will have the chance to respect each other right into the grave. And Ill be watching. Waiting for one of you to say those wonderful words," he switched to a falsetto, "ARES! Save her! And I will. And you will pay my price. " He stepped back and sheathed his sword. "Or Ill just have to watch you both die in the midst of all that wonderful carnage."
And he shimmered and was gone
There was silence for a moment before Gabrielle spoke.
"So you going to knock me out or tie me up?"
"No. He was right about being forced to take a regiment with us, but thats all he was right about."
There was no reply from the warrior. Gabrielle reached over to lay a hand on Xenas shoulder. "Do you believe we can reach Polybus before he launches an all out offensive? "
"No." The word was stark in its unremitting honesty. "But you believe it. "
Gabrielle waited for some further statement of assurance, but none was forthcoming.
"So we arent going alone," Xena pronounced.
"Nope. I wouldnt let you go alone."
"AND... we cant leave the town undefended because theres sure to be an advance squad in the woods just waiting for us to leave the city, so MY men will have to stay... "
Gabrielle blinked. "Oh! My men. Id better... mustard? them or whatever you call it?"
There was a slight twitch of the warriors lips. "Muster."
5)Peace Good Judge, sweet Lord Judge
Peace for just a while
I think I see my Lover
Riding by the stile
A little of your gold, my Love
And likewise of your fee
To save my body from yonder grave
and my neck from the hangmans tree
"All of my gold now shall you have
And likewise of my fee
For I have come to see you saved
And Saved you shall be"
-A Maid Saved From Hanging
Day 42: After Noon
Ismene had not reached her position in life by worrying about consequences to other people, and it more than annoyed her that it seemed as though a few days spent with two women had changed her whole philosophy.
She stood on the rise overlooking the valley. Above it was a bright sunny day, and she marveled at the fog below them. It was as though she was staring into some boiling broth. Perhaps thats what it was, she speculated, as if it were her own agitation incarnate. A shout broke through her thoughts and she looked up to see riders emerging from the mists. She and Polybus waited until the horsemen had halted the tired and sweating mounts. The lead scout dismounted and panting, knelt before her husband.
"What have you have to report?" he demanded.
Catching his breath, the scout responded, "Majesty. Weve captured the third outpost, and again there were only support staff left in the camp. They also surrendered without a fight."
Polybus mused out loud, "so we have the high ground on three sides, without a loss of a man."
"Yes, my Liege."
"Any further word from the scouts on the ground?"
"As best they can tell in this fog, the bulk of Rukcals army is still outside the walls, waiting. They seemed confused and disorganized."
"Any sign at all of a struggle inside the city?"
"We have no way of knowing, sir."
The Kings mind was already decided, but he put the question to the soldier anyway. "Your recommendation?"
There was no hesitation. "We attack immediately, Liege. Take advantage of this. The men ... they are ready."
Polybus chuckled. "More than ready, I believe." He waited for one moment of reflection. "Then send word that orders will be coming down soon."
"Yes, majesty." Ismene watched as the man remounted and retreated, feeling her inner unease grow.
Wrong. This was all wrong. What was it that was feeding her apprehension? It was as though she was watching her husband take step after step towards a chasm, and some instinct was screaming at her to stop him. She found herself asking, what would Xena and Gabrielle do?
But she was not them. They were clever, talented, dedicated to some Greater Good, and she was ... not. Not that Xena and her bard were perfect. Both of them were flawed. But together... that was the true reason she envied them. Somehow their respect and care for each other managed to plaster over the faults and cracks. Even in her short time of observation she could see that they were stronger as a team than as individuals. That was what she wanted. That was what she envied. Was that still possible for her now, after all she had been and done? And the answer came from a response Gabrielle had given to some question about Xenas past. "All that matters is what you do today, and intend to do tomorrow." Could she take that step? Would her husband join her on that path?
Rational mind no longer warred with the instinctual. This was wrong for Polybus. This act would change him. And for reasons she could feel more strongly than ever before, she could not allow that to happen.
She cautiously approached the King. "Dont do this, Husband."
Lost in his planning, Polybus was startled that she had spoken. "My lady?"
What could she say? Would he accept her intuition? Perhaps there was some logic to her unease. "Isnt attacking in this fog dangerous?"
"Of course. But not as dangerous as not taking advantage of whatever has caused this break down. Rukcal must have attempted some ill planned guerrilla attack, and now waits for it to come to fruition. This is the kind of fortune you do not turn away from."
"What if... what if this is not the moment? What if its a trap?"
"Ive interviewed the men in the first camp we took. The cavalry simply charged out in a mass of confusion. It was not planned."
She took another step forward. "What if that confusion was due to Xena, or Gabrielle, or even the Thief?"
He seemed puzzled, unable to break the grip of his combat fever. "What if it were? "
"Then this could be a terrible mistake," she uncharacteristically blurted. "You would be sweeping down there and killing everyone in your path before their plan has succeeded, without knowing what is there. Who is there." She was directly in front of him, and she searched his eyes for understanding. "We made a pact with them. We might be breaking it now. Please, husband."
That seemed to strike a chord, but he shrugged it off before she could continue. "I cannot let this chance slip away. Commanders seize the moment."
Ismene impulsively grasped his hand. "One candlemark, then. Thats all I ask. "
Now his attention was on her and her alone. "That could be the difference between a clean sweep, and a bloody battle. Do you wish to see more of our men die for a chance that we could save the enemy?"
She nodded slowly. "You have the forces to win this battle, regardless of their positioning. All I ask is one candlemark. Please. You have on occasion heeded my advice, and I have never needed you to trust my senses as much before. Please."
NO! A voice inside him screamed. And yet... For the first time this woman and he were connecting on a plane that he had never known before. At some level she was touching him in a manner he had never experienced, despite their bedroom gymnastics. It stirred a memory of the moment she had first appeared before him. This was what he had imagined then, had wanted and hoped for. This very feeling, like some new life stirring. He closed his eyes, and gave it reign for a moment.
There was no contest. It was too precious to ignore. More important than his desires of conquest. But even as he acknowledged it, a strange shyness crept over him and he turned away before saying quietly. "As you ask."
She shivered, as though some great pain had passed through her, and giving up all pretense of control pulled him to her, and felt his arms do the same. So... is this what love is? How strange. Trust, peace.... Completely new, and somehow it seems as though Ive always known it.
The same thoughts shimmered through her husbands mind, stained though with the additional worry, Have I gambled mens lives because I love this woman? Risked my army and my domain?"
Yes. I have. And yet I feel no regret or fear.
Now they had to suffer through the consequences of their action. The waiting.
Word was sent to the various commanders, and still the fog did not lift. Time passed, and there was no sign of any movements. Both husband and wife could not help but begin to doubt the wisdom of their inaction, and yet both found themselves consoling the other in their shared responsibility for it, and it was remarkably comforting.
The sound of hoofbeats brought them both to stand, but when the rider appeared, they both were frustrated to see it was the commander Parmenion.
For all his weight and size he seemed pushed by a force greater than his bulk and he bounded from the horse and demanded without any amenities, "What are you waiting on?"
Astounded at his underlings forwardness, the King replied formally. "We wish to give our agents the opportunity to extract themselves or resolve this."
"Agents? You mean those fools who were captured? Rukcal executed all of his prisoners two mornings ago. You are poised to strike. Strike!"
Angered by his attitude, Ismene spoke with precision. "Take care to address your King properly, Parmenion."
The soldier glared at her for a moment, and then turned to bark at Polybus. "This is HER influence isnt it? Youve let this womans feelings blind you to your duty. Give the order. Strike!"
The King of Corinth voice betrayed none of his rage, but the words were soft and menacing, unlike any Ismene had heard him use before. "And you should also be careful in how you respond to your Queen, Commander."
It was a moment before Ismene would realise the significance of his reference. She had grown almost used to the embryonic nature of her status as consort. It did not escape the figure to whom they were addressed. "Queen?"
"Yes. There will be a formal ceremony when we return."
Parmenion shrugged angrily. "None of this matters. That is pageantry; this here is the future of your rule. You have a responsibility to your men, to your people. How can you stand here and do nothing?"
She saw the doubt in her husbands face, the urge to loose his forces, and beseeched him with her eyes before grasping his hand tightly, closing her eyes and reciting every prayer she knew, one after another. She could feel the urgency in her husband rise and still she chanted in her mind. How long she stood there, while the ranting of Parmenion increased in force, she did not know. Until she felt a shift in her husbands grip, and opened her eyes.
There would be a time in the future when she would tell her childrens children of how she opened her eyes to see the flag of truce resolutely emerging from that mist. How the haze swirled about it tentatively revealing the two persons holding it. Striding, together, towards what for all they knew was certain and violent death. Xena in full battle garb, but not holding a sword. Gripping only the reins of her horse trotting behind, and the flag staff, her hand covered by Gabrielles, clad in only her simple traveling clothes.
That was what she remembered thinking as they emerged from that supernatural fog, as though they were the only real and substantial things for as far as she could see.
Not because they were more than human. No. All too human, mortal and flawed, but that was what made them heroic.
Parmenion had fallen silent, but she could see that he was grudgingly impressed by the scene. He turned and glared at her husband and said "YOU... are not worth the time and effort. " And to the astonishment of both, he vanished.
Somehow her husband recovered quickly, and he turned to her matter of factly and said dryly, "It would appear that we were visited by someone other than Parmenion."
Ismene half sobbed, half laughed, and grabbed his hand, pulling him towards the mist as though he were an errant schoolboy.
There was a warning cry from a soldier. "Sir! theres an army right behind them. " Certainly the shapes of hundreds of men were not entirely lost in the whirl of gray and white haze. The cry caught the ears of Xena, and as Ismene continued to pull her husband down the slope, she waited for Xena to give the command for the army to stop advancing. To her surprise, the warrior looked down to Gabrielle, who threw up her hands and said something that brought a smile to the warriors face before shouting, "Halt." and then "Stand easy! " At her order the corps stopped and waited. There was only the unnatural mist and an utter stillness
It was then she saw the second moment she would never forget. Perhaps they were somehow unaware that Ismene and Polybus were close enough to see. Perhaps Xenas focus was solely on the bard, or possibly she didnt care. But as Xena smiled, Gabrielle brought her finger up to wag it in the warriors face, and even as the mist drifted its tendrils about them, instead of biting the offending finger, Xena grasped the hand it was attached to, and gently, ever so gently, brushed her lips against her bards knuckles. And Gabrielle took her warriors hand and pressed it against her own cheek, and they stood there frozen in time like that, and in Ismenes memory forever.
Love imposes impossible tasks
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Though not more than any heart asks
And I must know she's a true love of mine
Day 42: Nightfall
Polybus was first to break the spell, pulling his wife back, feeling that they were intruding. But Xenas eyes caught their retreat and followed by a slightly blushing bard, cut them off .
"Hi! Wherere you going?" Gabrielle chirped. "We were just coming to see you." Ismene hesitated for a moment, shook her head, and then broke from her husband to take Gabrielle into her arms. She pulled back and admonished her. "Was this all part of the plan?"
"Welll..." the bard began.
"Gabrielle had to improvise a bit, but I think youll be happy with the result. " Xena handed the treaty over to Polybus, who unrolled it and began reading. After a moment he looked up at her and said precisely, "This is quite a document, and quite an accomplishment."
Xena prodded Gabrielle forward. "Then you should thank my partner. I just tried to stay out of trouble."
"I had a similar experience." The King took his wifes hand and the four survivors grinned.
Polybus consulted the text of the agreement again. "Two chests of silver?"
Gabrielle explained. "One is the first payment and dependent on you extending your security cordon to include Namea. The other is for new coins."
"Then we should speak to our troops, and arrange for a formal signing, and then prepare for our march home."
Ismene noticed that he still spoke with a tinge of disappointment, and objected. "Husband, you are still filled with the energy for battle, your lack of fulfillment fashions your stance. Perhaps if Gabrielle, or Xena addressed your men...?"
Before Xena could refuse, Gabrielle asked, "What would you have us say?"
Ismene thought. "I think you must satisfy them somehow. You must tell them they won. Perhaps you could say... " and her voice toughened and she spoke clearly. "Men of Corinth. Great news! You have won a victory simply by being on the battlefield! The foe has sent word of their surrender, in such terms that all of you will return to a welcome and glory. Whole and victorious, with not a drop of our blood shed, safely returned to your homes and families. Your victory here will..." she faltered, as all three were looking at her with amusement. "What?"
"Thank you, Gabrielle. But I think..." said Polybus, fighting a smile. "...that we will not have need of your services in this area."
"Agreed," deadpanned Xena. "I think we can each deal with our own troops. Afterwards we can meet at your campsite to effect the treaty?"
With a nod the two couples separated and Ismene and Polybus began to walk up the hill. He said, "I think we will have to commission a new coin. One to celebrate our new Queen. "
"No!" Ismene demurred. "It would be too much all at once."
"Then both of us it shall be, one on each side."
And be called two faced?" Ismene retorted. "No. I would be with you, or nothing. "
Her husband objected. "Two profiles on one side? Its not done."
Smiling, Ismene ignored him. "Facing each other, I think."
Polybus took her hand. "No. Side by side."
"Always." She gripped his hand tightly as though her words were a vow. "What about the other side?"
Polybus stopped and kissed her lightly, and said, "What should I care? When I have you. "
Ismene remembered then about a certain wager. "I think you owe me the first one that we mint..."
Dear, when thou has finished thy task
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Come to me, my hand for to ask
For thou then art a true love of mine
Day One: Epilogue
It had been another tedious day of negotiations, with the added pressures of paying off over one thousand men. With her crew, including Xena in full warlord glower, there had been no real problems, but Gabrielle was well aware that she was long past her second wind.
The strain had been both tempered and tautened by the goodbyes. Ikaros, like many of the former mercenaries under Rukcal, had handed over his weapons with some relief, and taken his silver to return to his family. Some, the second or third sons, seized this chance to purchase their own farmlands. Others had applied to be part of the new Namean security forces under Polybus. At Xenas suggestion it was agreed that their training would take place in Corinth to integrate them with the rest of the army.
Gradually the camps had emptied, with strings of chanting soldiers streaming from them until finally the hills surrounding the city were almost unnaturally quiet again, cleared of all but two solitary inhabitants. The grounds were still scarred, the foliage in the hills trampled and flattened for leagues in all directions. But Gabrielle reminded herself, it would recover, and it was not stained with blood and death as it might have been. There was little time to acknowledge that she had something to do with the outcome, because as usual Xena was in a rush to set up a camp for the night. They had been separated during much of the day, and she barely had time to catch up with some small talk as set up camp and laid out the bedrolls. There were so many things she wanted to discuss and she was in a hurry to get dinner over, relax and talk about, well... everything that was new. But jobs kept getting in the way, and habit threatened to overcome their breakthrough.
Once again she found herself futilely trying to prepare a speech for her warrior while clearing out a firepit, when Xena returned from grooming Argo carrying the last of their saddlebags and noticed the speculative grin on the bards face.
"What are you smiling about?"
Her mind still swamped in exhaustion, she was unprepared for any serious discussion, so Gabrielle blushed and covered. "Autolycus?" she hazarded.
"Uh huh," Xena said skeptically, setting the bags down. "Did you manage to find a way to pay him in the end?"
Now the grin was genuine. "Yes, he turned down the bars of silver, just as you expected. He said it had no style"
She brushed off her sooty hands. "I very casually asked him to make sure that a certain necklace wasnt lost when the soldiers began apportioning out the bars."
Xena rooted about in the bags before asking, "I bet his eyes lit up?"
"No, you know hes better than that. He only said Oh? So I told him that Agathes had stolen this absolutely gorgeous piece of jewelry, and wed have to find its owner, but it was going to take some doing. But in the meanwhile the necklace was under heavy guard, in a pick proof box attached to the base of the second chest."
"We couldnt make it easy or hed be insulted."
"That was nice of you."
"He is our friend, right?"
Xena couldnt resist prodding the bard further. "But that wasnt what you were smiling about."
"Well..." she stooped over, rolling some of the nearby rocks into a horseshoe shape. "There was something he told me."
Satisfied that the opening for the fire was facing the wind, Gabrielle stood and stretched. "Did you know that Ismene and Polybus had a bet about whether we were... if we... you know? "
"Really?" Xenas face was bland. "Im shocked."
"Demeaning isnt it?"
"Yup," she agreed.
"Betting on whether or not someone is in love."
"They should be ashamed of themselves."
There was another long pause, before the bard finally broke it. "So? Wheres my money?"
The warrior tried to stare down a smirking bard. "You wish. Our bet was whether or not Ismene or Polybus were in love. They werent until now. So I won."
"No way, you won! Love isnt made..." At the raised eyebrow, Gabrielle stopped and started again. "You know what I mean. They always had love, they just werent aware of it. You can lose love, and I think it takes a lot of work to keep it. But you dont create it. Its either there to be found or it isnt."
Despite her fatigue, or maybe because of it, Gabrielle found herself speaking with a certain vehemence. And to an empty space, as Xena muttered that shed better hunt up some dinner, and slipped off to the embankment in search of any game that might have returned once the armies had decamped. With a muttered curse, Gabrielle stomped off to look for firewood.
Much later as night fell, so did an awkward silence. Occasionally both warrior and bard had seemed about to say something, and had instead returned to the work of preparing their meal before the sun withdrew, and then quietly but resolutely devouring it. Both were depleted mentally and physically but the bard felt obliged to try to record some of the facts of the preceding days on her scrolls in the dying glow from the horizon. Xena sat cross-legged on the other side of the fire and was preparing to do an armour and weapon inventory. Gabrielle sat with scrolls and quill lying beside her, staring sightlessly into the fire.
Okay. This ends now. I didnt go through all of this, just to end up right back where we were, the Bard groused to herself. But.... where to begin?
Xena had chosen the best site for a camp as usual. High ground, good drainage, natural protection. So it wasnt coincidental that it was a familiar location to Gabrielle. It was then that she realised how to broach the subject that they were avoiding.
"You know," she ventured, "this is right about where Rukcal had his tent." There was a noncommittal grunt as a response.
She thought about that moment. Partly trying to form it into words for her scroll. She pictured herself standing there, holding in all her fear, trying not to be that farmers daughter from a small town up north. What had Rukcal thought?
"I wonder if he would have believed that the little girl in front of him was capable of taking his whole army from him." She spoke casually, as though simply thinking aloud
"He underestimated you." The words were passed her lips before Xena could stop them, and she grimaced at how shed been snared into the very conversation shed wanted to avoid. She lifted her eyes to a bard that was waiting expectantly. The words And so did you. were plain, if unspoken.
"No. Gabrielle, I never underestimated you..."
Gabrielle hung her head, and sighed dramatically.
"Dammit, Gabrielle, all right. I did." The warrior stopped and groaned. "But you know me. Im used to taking charge. Being in charge! I dont..."
"Xena. Back there you said you were sorry for not trusting me. I thought wed reached an understanding. I THOUGHT you were okay with this."
"We have. I am., Gabrielle.... And Xena was suddenly staring into her eyes with all of the intensity she usually kept shielded. "I know youre not a kid anymore. I know were a team, I trust you. But I worry, I still want..." she searched for the words. P>
"You want whats best for me," Gabrielle assayed.
The Bard said quietly, "If you trust me, you have to trust that I know what I want. Or are we back to where you send me away? Leave me somewhere safe?"
Xena turned her face slightly aside. The words came but they were muttered. "You know that hasnt been an option for a long time. But you know Ill keep worrying about you. I cant give my word that I wont try to protect you..." The warrior hesitated, and finally said, "but Ill always remember its only thanks to you that I still have a word of honour to give." She finally raised her head to look directly at the bard. "Thank you."
Gabrielle swallowed, unsure whether she could accept this gratitude, but was caught by the deep sincerity. Xena continued, "But this whole thing with you willing to kill Rukcal...for me. I cant pretend it didnt shake me up. Im afraid youre..."
Gabrielle walked over and placed a hand on Xenas arm. "This is all because a lifetime ago I told you I wanted to be like you."
"And it frightens you that it might be happening."
Now we were getting somewhere, Gabrielle thought a little giddily. "Then..."
"Accept me. You say you need my belief in you, but its a two way street." Gabrielle hesitated and completed the thought. "Until then, you cant accept... us, Xena."
The warrior ruminated for a moment, tasting the idea in her mind. "You make it sound so simple."
"It is. Xena. Its not like Im not unsure. I have fears. I have all sorts of doubts about where Im headed..." She cut off the warrior before she could speak. "I know its not safe what we do..."
Only to be stopped with the quiet words, "Gabrielle. I wasnt going to say anything like that. Weve passed that point."
"Good." Her victory on this point disconcerted her for a moment and she tried to reconstruct her thoughts. Struck by inspiration for her scroll, the bard leaned over to grab a quill, and looked about for a place to settle down to write. Xena pulled herself up slightly, took a deep breath, and nodded her head to indicate the spot directly in front of where she was squatting. Gabrielle looked at the warrior quizzically. Xena tapped the ground with her fingertips while maintaining her rigid face. Feigning trepidation, Gabrielle moved in front, but was soon leaning back cozily in her favorite warrior chair, reveling in the contact. She felt the somber mood that had held them lift perceptively.
"We arent done, are we?"
"Nope. But we can take a break for a moment. Okay? " Gabrielle said guilelessly.
There was a relieved nod, which lasted four heartbeats before Gabrielle asked, "Do you think I should be ashamed of what I did the past few days?"
Behind her, Xena snorted. " Thanks for the break."
"Let me try that again. We were talking about choices and mistakes." She lifted her index finger. "Who is alive? Who made it through all this? Why arent Agathes and Rukcal standing over our bodies right now?"
The warrior shrugged. "Because they were on the wrong side."
"Nope. I think it was because they made the right decision at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons."
"And we made the wrong decisions for the right reasons?"
Without looking back, she knew there was a rolling of blue eyes. "Gabrielle?" Xena said with some exasperation
"Look, you not killing those men in the courtyard, Ismene trying to stop Polybus at the moment of his victory, they were lost opportunities by the standards Rukcal and Agathes set. But they got us where we wanted to be." " Where I, we, need to be. she thought, in the comfort of those arms.
"Why do you think that is, Xena?"
She continued without waiting this time.
"Each of us was tested, but only those that had a connection, a connection with another human being, that werent out for themselves ... that made a sacrifice against what seemed to be their own best interests, their baser instincts, survived. Agathes, Rukcal did what they thought was best. But you and I and Polybus and Ismene made our choices, what seemed to be the wrong choices, the hard ones for our... mates." Now her voice was passionate, determined to convince her partner.
"See, Xena? Being together isnt the problem. Needing each other, it isnt a weight, its our salvation! The one thing, the only thing, I have no doubts about is... us. What we do, what we are..." The bard struggled to keep her voice firm. "You felt it yesterday, I know you did. Its all so... so big and powerful and it comes from inside of us. The two of us together. I need you to believe that. And I need you to believe in me. Otherwise..."
There was no sound from the warrior, so Gabrielle sighed again and picked up her quill and parchment. She paused with pen poised, and her thoughts again turned melancholic. "Though that doesnt explain everything. I cant explain what Salmakis did..."
There was a clearing of the throat behind her. "I think I can."
"I found out that Salmakis had been a drill sergeant with Rukcal in the Athenian Guard. Hed trained most of the men. He believed in the... the nobility of war, in the obedience of the common soldier. In following orders. Then on the night of the first assault..."
"When Ikaros deserted?"
"Yes. This is my story, please?"
"On that night, the orders were to keep throwing the men against the defenses. Sending out wave after wave from trenches against those bowmen. They were losing 10 men for every one they took out. Salmakis broke every rule hed believed in when he slit the commanders throat to stop the slaughter."
"So hed lost what he believed in. "And then..." Even without looking, Gabrielle could somehow hear a smile appear , "... a certain green eyed firebrand showed him a commander with brains and guts who cared as much about the men under her command as her own life."
Gabrielle coloured slightly. "I wondered why it seemed... But I had a good teacher, thats all. Someone I really admire. Did I thank her for singing at his pyre?"
A shrug, but the hoarse whisper belied it. "You didnt need to. I owed him..." and strong arms came about the bard, giving and needing reassurance, "... everything. "
There was a pause that Gabrielle clung to while waiting for Xena to continue Which she finally did. "So maybe your theory is right. You restored a faith for him. He needed that connection to find his... redemption." The thought floated between them ,and if he could...
A breeze from behind them caused a slight chill, and Gabrielle snuggled deeper, and her movement seemed to push the last hidden thought out of the woman behind her, "But I still dont like... I dont want our lives... together... to be a constant series of bloody problems and puzzles."
The bard turned to face the woman who held her, body and soul. "Thats not what its about. And I like what we do. Ill never regret getting on this path. Anyway, you and I love solving problems. And I plan to spend a long time working out the biggest puzzle I know."
"That would be... me?" Xena said quietly.
Tears pricked at her eyes on hearing the uncertainty in that voice. "Yes, you. I could spend my whole life doing that. So we have time, just as long as we go forward, okay?" She turned forward again to watch the last crimson sliver on the edge of the earths sky. "You know, this whole thing has been about choices, and whatever you think about it, I ;ve made mine. Well," she temporised. "partly, its also been a riddle."
"Oh no. You know how I feel about those," Xena teased, trying to lighten the mood.< /P>
Gabrielle ignored the expected attempt at diverting her. "You like word games, I know that. Answer this one." And she carefully enunciated, "Oh tell me what is louder, than is the loudest horn? And tell me what is sharper, than is the sharpest thorn?"
With a small flush of embarrassment, she began tentatively singing the verses..
Oh tell me what is deeper
Than is the deepest sea?
And tell me what is longer
Than the longest path there be?
"Do I have to answer them as a poem?" Xena grumbled, but a smile twitched about the corners of her mouth.
"You dont have to answer it all. If you cant figure it out."
The warrior accepted the mock challenge and leaned back and thought. When she finally responded it was in a clear contralto, echoing perfectly the notes Gabrielle had sung.
Thunder I know is louder
Than is the loudest horn
And hunger it is sharper
Than is the sharpest thorn
Tartarus is deeper
Than is the deepest sea.
Xena held the note, before completing in her softest tone.
And Love surely is longer
Than the longest path there be.
Gabrielle sat silent, before shaking her head in delight. "You knew it?"
"Never heard that one before now," Xena grinned.
"Just another one of the many skills?"
"No, this one I had to learn. But I had a good teacher, thats all. Someone I really admire. Who knew all about getting around and through walls."
There was a muffled chuckle and Xena tightened her embrace about the warm body nestled against hers, and waited for that sense of calmness that the golden head resting against her breast now brought to her.
There. Like that . All the walls penetrated and if I surrender... Peace? Xena thought with wonder. " Of course, theres still fear lurking around. Fear of hurting her. Fear of death because it would mean being separated. Being separated from her... not growing old with her... But for this one moment, all of the forces against us mean nothing. I can believe in her, in us, and Ill gladly accept this one moment.
The stars were now out in full, and there was only the intermittent flicker of firelight on their faces. The occasional pop of the wood the only sounds. Both were staring somewhere off into the distance when Gabrielle said with confidence. "This is going to make a great story. "
Xena smiled. "Yup."
The bard continued with even more certainty. "And therell be more."
The rejoinder was with just as much certitude. "Yes."
Gabrielle nodded, and Xena was closing her eyes when...
"Now I just have to figure out what to do with all those dinars you owe me."
And this time there was a full bodied laugh that rumbled deep in the warriors chest, and when the bard turned slightly in her arms in simulated outrage, Xena dropped her shoulder so that their faces were inches away. Surprising them both, she seized the moment, and with the most tender kiss she could ever remember giving or receiving, allowed any further bets, fears or any thoughts at all to dissolve in the sweetness of feeling, of love, and the unanticipated possibility of the future.
Mail Kamouraskan at email@example.com
As this will most likely be my last full length classic Xena and Gabrielle piece, I would like to thank all of the people that have made this last year and a half so much of an adventure. So many have touched my life and heart through this medium that I cannot list them all. If I never write another word, I owe all of you a debt I can never repay.
As they say,