In a very undignified and un-queenly fashion, Gabrielle sprinted for the dining hall, feeling a bit like she had when she was little back in Potedeia and got scolded for daydreaming when she was late for dinner. Arriving at the door, she stopped and composed herself before stepping calmly inside and taking her place at the head of the largest table.
"So nice of you to join us," Ephiny deadpanned, making Gabrielle wince. That was always how her mother had started her lectures, and Gabrielle looked down at her plate, missing the twinkle in Ephiny's eyes.
"Sorry," she mumbled filling her plate with food.
"We were about to send out a search party," Ephiny leaned over, whispering conspiratorially. "We figured if you were late for a meal, you must have been kidnapped or something," she finished, this time unable to keep the smile and the small chuckle from escaping.
Gabrielle looked up and saw that her friend was teasing her, and did her best to glare, which only made Ephiny laugh harder.
"Gabrielle, you're the Queen. You can be as late as you want," Ephiny said, smirking into her own plate. "Were you talking with Xena?" she asked quietly, so they wouldn't be overheard.
"No, I was reading," Gabrielle confessed, starting in on her own dinner. "Where is Xena?" she asked, looking around and noticing for the first time the warrior's absence.
"I thought she was with you," Ephiny said, looking around the hall as if one more check would reveal the location of the warrior princess.
"No, I haven't seen her since this afternoon," Gabrielle said quietly. It wasn't like Xena to wander off without saying anything.
"Last I heard, she had had quite a sparring match with Eponin," Ephiny offered helpfully.
Gabrielle and Ephiny both looked down the table where a drunken Eponin was trying to balance an egg on her nose.
"Excuse me," Gabrielle said, getting up and walking down between the rows of chattering Amazons to stand behind Eponin. Just as she was almost successful in balancing the egg, Gabrielle tapped her on the shoulder, upsetting Eponin's balance and the egg landed at Gabrielle's feet with a sodden thunk.
"What in Hades - ?" Eponin began, then stopped when she turned and saw her queen. "Hey! My Queen!" she exclaimed, as if just now discovering she had a monarch.
"Hi, Ep. Have you seen Xena around?" Gabrielle asked quietly, noting how the nearby Amazons had stopped their conversations to watch.
"Absolutely not!" Eponin stated emphatically, shaking her head for emphasis, then losing her balance and nearly toppling from the bench. "We did not have a drinking game and we did not talk about anything. Especially not you," she said, just as emphatically. Gabrielle's brow furrowed and she frowned down at her weapons master.
"Eponin. Where is Xena?" she asked slowly.
"Not here," Eponin said, smiling up at her Queen. Obviously, Gabrielle was having trouble following the conversation, and Eponin would have to explain carefully.
"I can see she's not here," Gabrielle said patiently. "But where is she?"
"I don't know. She had to go," Eponin said.
"When did you see her last?" Gabrielle asked.
"Well, let's see," Eponin said, thinking. "She was at the practice field, then she was here, and then she wasn't."
"When was she here?"
"Right after she was at the practice field."
"When wasn't she here?"
"Right after she was here. Gabrielle, I told you all of this," Eponin said, exasperated. "Are you feeling all right?"
"I'm fine," Gabrielle said, turning on her heel and making her way back to her seat. Frowning, she sat back down and rejoined Ephiny.
"So where is she?" Ephiny asked.
"Your Amazons seem to have forgotten in a drunken stupor," Gabrielle said, glaring genuinely this time down the table at the Amazon in question.
"How come they're always my Amazons when they're doing something stupid?" Ephiny complained, finishing up her meal.
"Because my Amazons know not to lose Xena," Gabrielle explained, still frowning. 'Where in Hades could she be?'
"Don't worry," Ephiny said, seeing that Gabrielle was really more concerned than angry. "She'll turn up."
"You're right, Eph," Gabrielle said on a sigh, but deep down she wondered if Xena had taken off because Gabrielle had tried to kiss her. 'Gods, I shouldn't have done that. That was so stupid.'
Gabrielle finished her meal in sullen silence, then walked out of the dining hall, halfheartedly returning the greetings of her subjects. Making her way to the Queen's Hut, Gabrielle decided to stop by the stables and see if Argo was still there. Hand trembling on the door, afraid of what she would find, she slowly pushed it open, and was relieved to see the golden mare in the stall where she had been left.
"Hey Argo," Gabrielle said when the horse nickered in greeting. "Where's Xena, girl?" she asked, petting the horse absently. Argo just shook her head as if to signify that she did not know the warrior's whereabouts and, dejected, Gabrielle made her way back to the hut and got ready for bed.
After a candlemark of tossing and turning, Gabrielle realized she could not fall asleep. 'Where, by Artemis, is Xena?' Afraid that her friend had, indeed, left on purpose to avoid her, Gabrielle could not bring herself to rouse the Amazons and start combing the forest, even though that was what she dearly wanted to do. 'I have to respect her privacy.' Still, she was worried, and resolved to start the search in the morning if no one had heard from the warrior princess by then. Unhappy with her choice, but knowing that was the best she could do, she still could not fall asleep.
Gabrielle slipped from the bed, making her way around the dark room, eventually finding and lighting a candle. She moved it over to the bedside and climbed back under the covers. 'Might as well get some reading done,' she thought, picking up one of Lorien's scrolls.
It was morning of the first day and I wasn't dead. To say that I was disappointed would have been a gross understatement of magnificent proportions, but I do not have the words to describe the depths of despair I was flung into by my living. No torture of Tartarus could be as painful for me as my continued existence in this world, for Tartarus bound I was. I was my master's property and plaything, and by stealing myself away from his control, I was no better than a thief. I was, in fact, no better than a murderer, I was sure of it, for I had stolen from my master a living breathing human being. I knew for my transgressions I would be damned, but remorse was beyond me, for to be truly remorseful I would have to go back and right the wrongs I had committed. I did not have the strength.
I call it the first day, because it was the day I was born. The nightmare of my life with my master and the idyllic daydream of my simple life on a small farm were unreal. The images of those times were fragmented and blurred as if they were not my memories, but rather vague pictures instilled in my mind by a half-remembered story of someone else's life. The only things that were real and true were the wounds on my body, the glade, and the warrior women I knew would plunge me back into the nightmare.
Knowing the warrior women would not give up and would return for me, I made my way back to the fallen log I had hid under and improved the cover. This I did carefully and cleverly, having spent so much time wandering the forest before my life started that I knew how to make it look natural. This was the first time I noticed an almost sixth sense that showed me how the job should be done, and it would not be the last time this strange knowledge came to me. And so I worked all day with no rest to secure my hiding place, and at dusk I returned to my clearing, for surely tonight I would die.
When I arrived, there was once again food and water waiting for me. I do not know what stopped me from entering the clearing from my crouched spot in the foliage, but stop I did when I noticed the offerings. Looking up into the trees around me, I circled around the clearing until I saw her. The slanting light of the dying sun cast strange shadows across her face, for this time she was without mask and unarmed. The one called Terreis sat watching my haven, waiting for me, and I began to doubt that she meant me harm. It was only a small niggling doubt, for why would one as beautiful as she wish to help a thief and a murderer? Still, the seed had been planted in the desolate fields of my mind.
I waited in the shadows until full dark and a little after until Terreis tired of waiting and left. I followed her, though I know not why. She passed several sentries, calling to them to announce her coming, and had she not, I would have been caught by their watch. But knowing where they were hidden, I snuck past them with ease. Little did I know then just how foolhardy my task was, and in my slightly fevered state, I probably would not have cared. In retrospect, I know how impossible it is to follow one of these women warriors through the forest and into their village without detection. I know now that it cannot be done, but I did and I can. I had never learned the art of moving quietly leaving no trace of my passing, but like a creature of prey born to the forest I stalked the woman warrior named Terreis to her destination. My movements were instinctual and my stealth was achieved without conscious thought. But I had been born to the forest, just that day. I had lived there all my life, and so following Terreis was easy.
Once we arrived at the village, I almost turned back, sure that my master had moved his camp looking for me. Then I noticed that all of the inhabitants of this place were women, whereas everyone who had come to my master's tent were men. This could not be the same place, and so when Terreis entered, I followed once again.
"Tracking your little pet?" a taunting voice called out as I hid in the shadows of a hut.
"Valaska," Terreis said coldly in greeting.
"There is a stranger," she called out loudly, gaining the attention of all the nearby women, "in our forest - likely a spy, judging by how close she was to Centaur lands. But do we capture her? Do we question her? Do we kill her as is our right to insure our safety? No. Apparently, we give her food and water and let her have the run of our land!" Many of the women nodded their agreement and voiced their support of Valaska.
"No, Valaska. There is an injured woman within our jurisdiction who has been ill-used by the outside world and needs our help," Terreis said quietly. Some of the women shifted uncomfortably at this, others agreed, and others still argued Valaska's side of the argument. Though I was obviously the topic of conversation, I felt somewhat uncomfortable witnessing this confrontation.
"And our Princess goes out without a guard - with no weapons - to find out!" Valaska said, still speaking loudly. "She could be a spy for the centaurs!"
"A wounded human woman?" Terreis asked incredulously. "Even if they had come up with that plan, wherever would they find one?" she asked. The women started splitting physically, some standing by Terreis and others by Valaska. Those undecided stood about, shifting their weight from foot to foot in the middle.
"You would risk the safety of your Amazon sisters for this woman you don't know?" Valaska all but screamed.
The crowd murmured, talking amongst themselves, then quieted as another woman joined them.
"What's going on here?" the newcomer asked, looking at Terreis.
"My Queen," she said formally, bowing her head in greeting. "Valaska and I are having a disagreement."
"She is endangering the village!" Valaska demanded.
"What is this all about?" the Queen asked, ignoring Valaska's outburst and raising a hand in her direction to ward off any of her attempts to explain.
"While scouting in the forest south of here yesterday to confirm rumors of Centaur movement, my group came upon an injured woman in a glade. She was startled by our appearance and ran - "
"Not until after she attacked you!" Valaska interjected.
"Is this true? A woman attacked you?" the Queen asked, narrowing her eyes.
"No, Melosa. I would hardly call a handful of dirt to the eyes by a battered naked woman an attack. I'd care to think of it as an evasive maneuver," she commented dryly, barely keeping her anger with Valaska in check. This seemed to appease the Queen's ire at my actions, and Terreis continued. "She fled into the forest and I ordered the party to move on and leave her be. I left food and water for her last night and did so again today."
"A battered naked woman?" Melosa asked, raising an eyebrow and looking over at Valaska.
"Yes," Terreis said softly. "There are lash marks on her back and poorly healing cuts on the rest of her."
Melosa looked into Terreis' eyes, and I do not know what she found, for Terreis was facing away from me, but I saw a look of surprise cross Melosa's face, then saw her expression soften. "You will do what you can to help this woman. In the meantime," she said, her voice raising on this last phrase to be heard easily by the gathered Amazons. "In the meantime, no one is to go near the glade in question without Terreis' permission, and none are to hinder Terreis' efforts to help this woman."
"Thank you, my Queen," Terreis said, her posture relaxing at Melosa's words. Valaska stormed off, an angry scowl upon her face and the rest of the crowd dispersed.
"I trust your judgement in all things, Terreis, and especially in people," she said, looking sadly at Valaska's retreating form. "But be careful and take your pick of warriors to accompany you."
"Yes, my Queen," she said wryly.
Having seen and heard more than I had wanted to know, that seed of doubt in my mind grew into a flowering plant, and I knew almost certainly that Terreis could be trusted to help. The question was, did I want help, or did I wish to die? No matter, really, for I could feel the fever starting to spread and felt for sure that tonight I would be allowed to die. I returned to my glade quietly and consumed the nourishment left for me and lay awake for quite some time thinking of Terreis and her brown eyes.
As Lorien fell asleep in the scroll, Gabrielle's head kept nodding, until finally she too fell asleep, the scroll still held in her hands.
'So,' Thelestris thought, creeping up on the sleeping warrior. 'Xena has found Lorien's glade. But it's too late, because I found it first.'
At breakfast that morning, word had spread that Xena was missing. Gabrielle had quickly organized a search and was barely talked out of going along. Thelestris had come straight here, wondering how much Xena had known of her plans. Obviously, Xena knew more than she let on, but that wouldn't stop Thelestris. She already had Lorien's mask, and with it, the only thing standing in her way was the little bard, and Xena couldn't stop her.
Thelestris had been charged with cleaning Terreis' hut before the queen had arrived. She had found and read through a few of Lorien's scrolls, and discovered the location of this glade and its special meaning to the warrior. On a hunch, she had started digging and it hadn't taken long to find the spot where Lorien had buried her warrior's mask. With it, she could claim to have seen Lorien and been named her champion in her bid for the Queen's Mask. The beautiful thing was, and she had spent hours going over Amazon law to be sure she remembered it correctly, that Lorien never had to appear. Thelestris would be her champion in her absence and then Queen in her absence once she had killed the current Queen. It was all too perfect, for at her word as an Amazon, none would dare say she had not, in fact, seen Lorien unless they had absolute proof she had not. The only thing that would do that was Lorien herself, and she was likely dead.
And then, of course, there was the added benefit of the mask itself. It was a beautiful piece of work and safely stashed in Thelestris' hut. She had worn it only once, and had such a sense of power and control over her own body that it had startled her. In the safety of her own hut, she had practiced some rudimentary sword drills, amazed at her own speed. Adorned with the Antlers of Actaeon, bequeathed upon the Amazon Nation by Artemis herself, Lorien's Mask was powerful, indeed.
Thelestris crept up on the sleeping warrior, giddy that she would catch the living legend unawares. She walked right up to the warrior, and reached out a hand to shake her awake.
Blue eyes snapped open as one tanned hand grabbed Thelestris's wrist and pulled her over the prone body until she was lying on her back. A dagger appeared seemingly out of nowhere and pressed against her throat.
"You first saw me quarter 'mark ago, you hid behind the shortest tree on the south side of the glade, you crept to the southeast side. You entered the clearing, and then you crept up circling east to west until you were standing over me," Xena hissed, releasing the startled Amazon and standing up smoothly. "And if at any point in all of that you had drawn your sword, you'd be dead now," she said, returning the dagger to its mysterious hiding place and walking calmly out of the glade and back towards the village.
'She's good,' Thelestris thought, 'but that won't save the Queen.'
'Damn it all to Tartarus,' Xena cursed herself. 'Gabrielle is going to kill me, and then when she's done, she's going to lecture me about worrying her, and then she's going to kill me some more.' Still, the adrenaline of being stalked and the ease with which she had detected Thelestris' presence pleased her. 'Aw, Hades! I bet Gabrielle was worried sick,' she admonished herself and with a guilty start, she broke into a jog, then an all out run, rushing through the forest to reassure her bard that she was all right. 'Stupid to worry about me,' she continued petulantly, 'but then again, it's nice to know she cares.'
Xena passed the sentries with nothing more than a cursory nod, and they let her pass without comment, for they knew she would be along any moment now, news of her outing having spread quickly through the village. She was reluctant to return, feeling something like a stubborn child who has run away from home, but having been a stubborn child who ran away from home several times, she knew it would be easiest just to hurry back and apologize. Maybe grovel a little.
She slowed to a dignified pace when she entered the village, but made a direct line for the Queen's hut and walked quickly, her brisk pace eating up the ground at a fast rate. She arrived at the door, but suddenly didn't know what to do. 'Should I walk right in or knock?' she wondered. Gabrielle would likely be mad, but how best to diffuse that anger. 'Maybe I should say I was captured by slavers and it took me all night to escape? Nah, that would just worry her. Then again, if I tell her I fell asleep in the forest, I'll get lectured. Hmmm.'
Xena decided to just take it like a warrior, and she opened the door and stepped inside quickly, wanting to get the worst of it over with.
"Xena!" Gabrielle said, jumping up from her chair and launching herself at the warrior. Xena's first instinct was to toss the bard through the closed door, but then she realized that Gabrielle just wanted to hug her. Taking a shaky bard into her arms, Xena held her close, rocking back and forth as Gabrielle fought back tears of relief.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," Xena said, suddenly realizing just how worried Gabrielle had been. 'If Gabrielle had disappeared all night, I'd have gone berserk,' she realized.
"I was so worried," Gabrielle said, her voice trembling. Reassured by the warm body in her arms, Gabrielle pulled back and glared up at the warrior. "Where in Hades have you been?" she demanded, not relinquishing her hold. Xena winced.
"I really am sorry," Xena said contritely, looking into angry green eyes. "I went for a walk and fell asleep," she confessed, deciding to stick with the truth, knowing deep down that she couldn't lie to this woman.
"You went for a walk? And fell asleep?" Gabrielle said in disbelief. "And you didn't tell anyone where you were going? I didn't know what had happened to you," she ranted, pulling away from the warrior and pacing, making emphatic hand gestures in the air. "I didn't know if you had left me until I checked on Argo, then I didn't know if you just needed some time to yourself, but that's so unlike you. You usually let me know - and then, I figured if you did need time, it would be so very rude of me to follow you, so I just waited until this morning. And then! Then, those Amazons wouldn't let me search because I'm the gods-be-damned Queen!"
Xena waited until Gabrielle paused to take a breath, then scooped her up into her arms and sat on the edge of the bed, placing Gabrielle in her lap and wrapping her arms around her.
"I'm truly sorry, Gabrielle. If you had disappeared like that, I'd have been frantic," she said, surprising herself at the words. "In a stoic warrior kind of way," she amended. That got a chuckle out of Gabrielle.
"Well, I was frantic," Gabrielle said, sighing and putting her head down on Xena's shoulder and wrapping her arms around her neck. "In an emotional bard kind of way," she amended. Xena leaned her own head down and rested it on top of Gabrielle's, and they just held each other for a long moment.
"Next time I try to kiss you and you freak out and run away, let me know, okay?" Gabrielle asked quietly, deciding to confront the issue head on and bracing herself for Xena's reaction. Xena snorted.
"I did not freak out, or run away," she said automatically, then the rest of the sentence registered, causing her body to tense. "Is there going to be a next time?" she asked.
"Do you want there to be a next time?" Gabrielle responded, lifting her head and looking into Xena's eyes shifting nervously about the room. "Hey," Gabrielle said softly, grasping Xena's chin. "Look at me. It's okay," she continued, still in the same soft, soothing voice. "There doesn't have to be a next time if you don't want," she said, her own body stiffening. "You're my best friend and I don't want to do anything that would make you uncomfortable."
"I- " Xena began, leaning her head forward and touching her forehead to the bards, closing her eyes and sighing. "There can't be a next time," she said quietly. "We're friends. That's all I can be for you," she finished firmly.
"That's, umm. That's what I figured," Gabrielle said, standing and moving to the window. 'Gods, that hurts,' she thought as her heart cracked.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," Xena said, her voice hoarse. She wanted nothing more than to go the bard and hug her, but instead sat on the edge of the bed feeling very alone.
"That's all right," Gabrielle said softly. "You can't, umm, change how you feel."
Xena's heart lurched at this. "Someday you'll find someone who deserves you," Xena whispered.
"Is that what this is about? You don't think you deserve me?" Gabrielle demanded, her breathing becoming ragged, and her body tense as she waited to hear Xena's answer.
"No," Xena denied. Gabrielle breathed in a shuddering breath, then looked up at the warrior. Xena's resolve almost faltered at the wounded look in her eyes. "I, uh. I can't love you. Like that," Xena lied, her own heart tearing.
"So what now?" Gabrielle asked, looking down and fidgeting, feeling very foolish.
"I don't want to lose you," Xena said honestly.
"I don't want to lose you, either," Gabrielle said. "Can we go back?" she asked, clinging to her last hope. Xena stood, taking Gabrielle's shoulders in her hands.
"I'd like that very much," she said, pulling the bard into her arms. Gabrielle buried her face in Xena's neck, breathing in her scent and taking comfort in their closeness. She was relieved beyond words that she was still allowed to hold the warrior. Xena kissed the top of the golden head nestled against her and fought the urge to cry. "You are the most important person in my life. Never doubt that."
"I won't always be," Gabrielle said before she could stop herself. Having started, she went on. "You'll give your heart away someday, and that person will be very, very lucky."
"Not as lucky as the person who loves you and gets your heart in return," Xena said, her voice thick with emotion and regret. "It's such a very, very good heart. And I am so very sorry," the warrior said, tightening her hold on the bard.
"So," Gabrielle said, pulling away slightly and forcing a light tone. "Where did you camp out last night?" 'I expect this. We're back where we were two days ago, and I will handle it.'
"It's a beautiful spot," Xena said, smiling at the memory of the peaceful glade. Some of the tension drained from her body at Gabrielle's words. 'This can work. I haven't lost her.' "You didn't sleep very well last night, did you?" Xena asked quietly, noting with concern the dark circles under the bard's smiling eyes.
"No, not really," she said, sighing.
"My fault. I'm sorry," Xena said, looking down and stepping back from the bard.
"Xena, do you actually look for things to feel guilty about?" Gabrielle asked a bit more sharply than she intended, causing Xena to look up quickly, surprise playing across her features. "Stop apologizing to me for things you can't help. You made a mistake. Everybody's allowed to make mistakes," she continued, purposefully gentling her tone.
"I can't afford them," Xena said frankly. Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest, but stopped when Xena continued. "When I make mistakes, someone usually gets hurt."
"No one got hurt from that one, Xena," Gabrielle said, frowning. "And I'd really prefer you didn't beat yourself up over it. So I lost a few hours of sleep because I was worrying a little. Not a problem. I can take a nap today or something."
"That's a good idea," Xena said, filing Gabrielle's comments away in her mind to think about later. "So what queenly duties do you have today?" Xena asked lightly, trying to turn the conversation back to normal matters. Gabrielle grimaced and rolled her eyes.
"I have to inspect the newest rank of warriors and hear 'petitions of grievance," she said grandly, lifting her nose in the air and laying one hand against her chest as she swept the other outward in a broad gesture.
"Are you going to find time in your busy schedule for a nap?" Xena asked, raising her eyebrow and silently daring Gabrielle to say 'no.'
"Inspections aren't until after lunch and grievances aren't until after dinner, so yes I'm going to find time for a nap," Gabrielle said, smiling sweetly at Xena. She honestly didn't feel tired, just relieved that Xena was all right. Still, a nap couldn't hurt, and though she felt there were still things they needed to discuss, neither one of them was ready for more serious talk. 'I'm hurting, but mostly I'm just relieved I haven't lost her. I can't help but be glad I haven't ruined everything,' Gabrielle thought.
"Gabrielle," Ephiny called, knocking on the door and waiting a few moments before opening it. "Did Raine find you?" she asked, stepping into the room. "I'm not interrupting, am I?" she asked, looking back and forth between the warrior and the bard.
"No, not at all," Gabrielle assured the regent.
"Right," Xena agreed, feeling the weight of their emotional talk. They were both secretly glad for the regent's interruption, the heavy conversation taking its toll. "Gabrielle, I'm going to get some breakfast. Do you want anything?" Xena asked gently.
"No, I'm fine," Gabrielle led. She had been too worried to eat that morning, but the thought of food right then turned her stomach.
"You sure?" the warrior asked. At Gabrielle's answering nod, the warrior said, "Right. I'll, uh, see you later?"
"Of course," Gabrielle said, smiling a little at her friend. As Xena left, Gabrielle's smile faded. "Um, no, I haven't seen Raine," Gabrielle said, remembering why Ephiny had come to see her.
"She just wanted to remind you about the inspection right after lunch. Personally, I think right after lunch is the worst time to inspect a warrior," Ephiny added, deciding to let the subject of Gabrielle's strange behavior drop and not prod her for information about where Xena had been all night. Gabrielle seemed on edge about something, and though she was concerned, right now didn't seem like the best time to pry. Besides, she knew Thelestris had been the one to find Xena that morning, so she would just ask her.
"Depends on what you're looking for," Gabrielle said, continuing to avoid eye contact with the Amazons.
"How so?" Ephiny asked, tilting her curly head to the side and looking at her Queen.
"Well, a really good warrior is ready at all times. It doesn't matter if they've just woken up, eaten, or fought. They'll still look sharp," Gabrielle explained. "If you're trying to find out who your best warriors are, inspect them at an awkward time when they don't really have a chance to prepare."
"Hmm. Surprise inspections," Ephiny mused as they reached the door to the Queen's Hut. "Well, I just wanted to make sure Raine had found you. But, umm, is everything all right?" she asked, changing her mind about not prying when she saw the lost look in Gabrielle's eyes.
Gabrielle briefly considered lying to her friend, but discarded the idea at the worried look on Ephiny's face. "Xena and I, um, talked," she said softly, moving to sit on the edge of the bed.
At Gabrielle's tone, Ephiny knew how the talk had gone, so she sat beside her friend and rubbed her shoulder gently, offering what comfort she could. Gabrielle looked down at her knees, covering Ephiny's hand with her own.
"She, uh. She doesn't feel the same way," Gabrielle whispered. Ephiny pulled Gabrielle into a hug, and the emotions of the morning slammed into Gabrielle at the supportive contact. Sobbing into the regent's shoulder, Gabrielle tried to compose herself to speak but could not. Ephiny rubbed her back making soothing noises and letting her cry.
When Gabrielle had cried herself out, she pulled back, blushing in embarrassment. "I'm sorry, Eph," she said, wiping her tear-streaked face with her hands.
"Don't be sorry. What are friends for?" Ephiny asked gently, holding Gabrielle's hand and giving it a squeeze. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"There's not much else to talk about," Gabrielle said. "We're, uh. We're still friends. That's really more than I could hope for considering she doesn't feel the same way. I really don't blame her." Ephiny snorted.
"Well I do. If she doesn't realize how lucky she is, she's been hit in the head a few too many times."
Gabrielle smiles weakly at her friends words. "Thanks, Eph, but it's really all right."
"You go ahead and think that," Ephiny said. "That's part of why you're so special. I, however, am going to be very angry on your behalf. She's obviously pig-headed and stubborn and doesn't have the sense the gods gave a goat."
That got a genuine laugh and a smile from Gabrielle. "Just be nice, Eph," Gabrielle said.
"As much as I'd like to knock some sense into her, I know better," Ephiny said dryly. "And though you're worth spending a week in the infirmary for, I'd be in the infirmary and you'd be mad at me," Ephiny said, teasing her friend gently. "Nobody wants that."
"No, nobody wants that," Gabrielle agreed, smiling at the regent.
"Are you sure you don't want any food?" Ephiny asked. "I know you didn't eat this morning."
"I'm really not very hungry," Gabrielle said. At Ephiny's concerned frown she went on. "I'll eat at lunch, okay?"
"Sure, sure, Gabrielle. Is there anything I can get you, though? Anything I can do?"
"You've already done it," Gabrielle said affectionately, tapping her shoulder.
"I need to get going," Ephiny said regretfully, hugging Gabrielle one last time before standing. "Will you be all right?"
"I'll be fine, Eph. I'm just going to take a nap. Maybe get some more reading done."
"All right," Ephiny said. "But if you need anything - anything at all - you send for me, all right?"
"I will," Gabrielle assured the regent. "And Eph?" she said, stopping the woman when she was halfway out the door. "Thanks."
"You're welcome, Gabrielle," she said, shutting the door behind her.
Gabrielle lit a candle, covered the windows and removed her boots, skirt and top, slipping into a plain tunic. Sighing contentedly, she got into the bed, stifling a yawn. Last night really had been awful, she considered, slipping into the bed.
She burrowed into the bed, hugging a pillow to her chest and let her eyes close as she forced her body to relax in preparation for sleep. Her mind, however, kept racing with thoughts of Xena and their conversation. Frowning, she looked around for something to distract her from thoughts of the warrior princess. Her eyes fell on Lorien's scrolls, so she retrieved one and moved the candle next to the bed and settled in to read.
It was the morning of the second day, and I was still alive. Sometime during the night, my fever had worsened, and my limbs felt heavy as my head throbbed. Soon. Soon I would be in Tartarus where my master would never find me.
The sun was already well into the sky when I shook myself awake, but I was still very weak. Shakily, I struggled to my feet and tried to remember what I had hoped to accomplish that day. My thoughts still a little fuzzy, I drank the last of the water Terreis had left for me, and then I remembered. I wanted to watch Terreis as she watched for me. I started down the little hill, then fell as my legs would no longer support me. On hands and knees, I watched a shadow separated from the surrounding forest and move towards me. It was then I remembered I had drank the last of the water the night before. I passed out.
When I awoke, there was a cool cloth on my brow, and my head was cradled in a warm lap. I pretended to still be asleep and started to gather my strength. It was when a hand started stroking my hair that I exploded into action, striking wildly at whoever was touching me. In some corner of my mind, I thought it likely to be Terreis, and though she wished to help, human contact repulsed me. It had been so long since I had been touched in kindness I could not distinguish her soft touch from my master.
I ran blindly into the forest, and though I could not hear her pursuit, I kept running. I wasn't just running from her, but from the remembrance of my master's cruelty. This headlong flight through the forest landed me in my master's grasp.
I had turned a blind corner around a stand of trees, and in my panic, my senses had not detected the group of men who must have heard my pounding steps through the underbrush. I recognized their leader immediately as one of my master's men who had had me as a reward for a job well done on several occasions. I was shocked motionless for a second as one of the men tackled me, his weight pinning me to the ground, fallen leaves and twigs digging into my bare body.
When I realized my situation, my body bucked beneath his, and I screamed wildly. He straddled me and attempted to pin my arms, but my hand found the dagger in his boot and I buried t to the hilt in his neck without a second thought. His blood fell upon my face and chest, and it gave me purpose. I had his blood, and I would have the others as well.
There were three more, and they circled me warily as I rolled the limp body off of me and rose to a crouch. Snarling, I swung the dagger in an arc, keeping them at bay. Two flanked me and drew their swords, the leader standing in front, taunting me.
"Looks like our little slave has been a bad girl. Your master wanted you back alive, but I think you'd survive the punishment session I have planned," he said, leering at my naked body. The leader drew his sword and advanced. "How about you put the dagger down and come with us back to your master? You know that's where you belong."
He was right. It was where I belonged. Master fed me and clothed me, and only sometimes punished me for his pleasure instead of my own mistakes. I looked around wildly, something inside of me wanting to escape even as something inside of me wanted to drop the dagger and go back. My master was a god to me: an evil and twisted god, yes, but a god nonetheless. He had told me so often enough. His power and control over me had been absolute before I had escaped. I had been at the mercy of his whims, and a part of me said that was as it should be. I should not be surprised his men found me, for who can defy a god?
While my spirit was tearing in two, one of the men attacked, bringing the flat of his blade to bear against my head. Before my mind even registered what was happening, my body took over and I rolled towards him under the blade. At the completion of the roll, I was behind him and a little to his left. My arm swung and I neatly severed his hamstring. When he fell to the ground, I slit his throat and growled as the warm sticky blood covered my hand.
It was then, unarmed and alone, that Terreis slid down a vine into the clearing, appearing before me like a vengeful goddess. I was sure she had come to make me pay the price for the blood I had spilt that day, but she turned her angry gaze on the two very surprised men alive and standing.
"This is Amazon land and this woman is under my protection. Leave now before you're so riddled with arrows - "
I never found out how she planned on ending that thought, for the leader yelled and rushed her as the other man fled. She somehow dodged the sword blow, landing a solid kick to his midsection.
I wanted to run into the forest, but Terreis' deadly grace had me rooted to the spot. Eventually, after the leader grew weary from swinging at air, she scooped up a blade from one of the men I had killed and attacked with such fury in her eyes that I cowered reflexively. It was over in a matter of seconds, her sword buried deep in the leader's gut.
Suddenly, we were surrounded by masked Amazons. Terreis must have followed Melosa's orders and had a group nearby who had responded to the sounds of battle. The women surrounded me, and one removed her mask and stepped towards me.
"Give me the dagger," she sad, holding out one hand. My back pressed against a tree, I looked once more for an escape. My eyes had just landed on the dagger in my hand when Terreis spoke before my mind had considered all the options the dagger gave me.
"Ephiny. Stand down," Terreis ordered, and the Amazons immediately backed off. "Please," she said, crouching down to face me and tossing the bloodied sword aside. "Let me help you."
I looked into brown eyes and remembered. I remembered a concept from Before, and suddenly I recognized the compassion in her strong, steady gaze. The dagger fell from my nerveless fingers, and I huddled up on the forest floor, keening like an animal. She moved slowly forward and held out a hand, and this time I did not shrink from her as she clasped my shoulder gently. Yes, this touch was different. This touch was kind. Ever so slowly, making soothing noises the whole time, she pulled me into her arms and held me as I cried for the first time in my life.
Gabrielle fought back her own tears, her bard's imagination making it far too easy for her to visualize the scenes described and the total lack of a sense of self Lorien had. Putting aside the scroll, Gabrielle lay down and settled into an uneasy sleep.
Xena left the Queen's hut, the ache in her chest making her wonder if she'd done the right thing. 'I had to. I had to stop this before it started,' she told herself firmly. Gabrielle was able to distance herself from Xena's past while they were friend. If they were lovers, Xena could see all too clearly the darkness swallowing the younger woman whole. 'I can't do that to her. I won't.'
"The Queen in there?" Raine asked, coming upon the warrior outside the Queen's hut.
"Yes," Xena said. "She's talking to Ephiny."
"Ah, well then. Ephiny will remind her about the inspections," Raine said, falling into step with Xena as she headed to the dining hall. "Where you off to?" Raine asked.
"Just getting some breakfast," Xena responded.
"I think I'll join you," Raine declared, inviting herself along. "You gave the Queen quite a scare last night."
"Mmm," Xena hummed, not bothering to respond verbally to the reproachful tone in Raine's voice.
"You stay away from her!" came a voice across the main yard. Raine and Xena stopped, looking towards the gathering crowd surrounding three women.
"We were just talking," the smallest woman protested. One woman was small and fair with a slight but toned build. She stood between and older woman with pale hair and a larger woman who was obviously a warrior. The older woman grabbed the smaller woman by the arm.
"You stay out of this," she hissed, glaring at the warrior across from her.
"Who are they?" Xena asked in an undertone, her eyes narrowing dangerously at the rough hold on the small woman's arm.
"The older one is Othalia. She and Clymene, the small one, come from another tribe. The big one there is Eurybia," Raine said, moving closer to the commotion.
"There's no law saying I can't talk to her," Eurybia insisted, glaring at Othalia.
"What's going on?" Xena asked Raine.
"Mm," Raine said, pursing her lips, then pointing at each woman as she spoke of them. "Clymene and Othalia are joined by royal commandment of Queen Marpesia of their old tribe. Clymene, however, is in love with Eurybia, and she feels the same. They say Clymene won't sleep with Eurybia because that would give Othalia grounds for a challenge of honor. That means Othalia gets a champion if she wants and Eurybia doesn't. Clymene doesn't know who Othalia would pick, so she's afraid Eurybia will be hurt, so they aren't, erm, sharing bed space. Still, they spend as much time together as possible, just walking and talking. Clymene has this idea that it is her duty to stay with Othalia, because Queen Marpesia is her old Queen and her mother."
"Well, that's convoluted," Xena said dryly.
The confrontation had escalated as Raine was explaining the situation, and Xena frowned as both Othalia and Eurybia started shouting, Clymene cringing between them.
"All right, that's enough," Xena said, stepping forward and glaring at everyone, including the crowd.
"Who are you?" Othalia asked belligerently.
"Name's Xena. You must be new," she said, grinning down coldly at the woman.
"I've been traveling," Othalia said haughtily. "Should that name mean anything to me?" she inquired.
"That's Xena. The Warrior Princess. The Queen's Champion. Are you stupid as well as ugly?" Eurybia asked hotly.
Othalia bristled and opened her mouth to respond when Xena raised a hand to stop her. "All of you clear out. You're keeping me from my breakfast. I hate missing breakfast," she said, her voice silky and dangerous.
The crowd dispersed under Xena's watchful gaze.
"Couldn't have done that better myself," Raine admitted grudgingly, walking with Xena to the dining hall when the last of the watching Amazons made their way back to their daily duties. "I was quite the warrior in my day."
"I almost wish that had degenerated into a good fight," Xena mused aloud, very conscious of the edgy tension in her body from the exchange and her talk with Gabrielle.
They gathered up some food and sat at the table in silence before Raine spoke. "You look a little edgy. I'd spar with you if it weren't for my bad back. You're lucky I'm not feeling up to giving you a sound thrashing," she said, drinking her water.
"I'll take that under advisement," Xena said, laughing. She couldn't help but like Raine, and had only recently figured out it was because the Amazon reminded her of Tallia, a crazy old lady who had lived in Amphipolis. Tallia used to wear the strangest bright-colored tunics and mismatched boots and hobbled around on her cane. On the busiest market days, she would raise her cane in the air and yell, 'make way,' and everyone always stood aside to let the woman go by. She had passed on when Xena was only ten, but she could still see clearly the old terror marching through the marketplace. Xena chuckled at the memory and shook her head. "Just don't let anyone know I backed down from a fight, all right?" Xena asked, a twinkle in her eye. "I have a reputation to maintain."
"Sure thing. I know when to keep my mouth shut," Raine assured.
"So what's up with all the new people?" Xena asked casually. "And how come I haven't seen Othalia before?" Eponin had said that Thelestris was new as well, and Xena didn't like new people. Unknown quantities made her edgy and nervous.
"Oh. That one," Raine said, snorting. "Been a member of the tribe for a few seasons now. But she's a healer and has been traveling and learning from the other tribes. As for all the new people. Well," Raine said. "Any time word gets around that there's a new Queen in one of the tribes, new Amazons show up. Especially if she's young. Looking for signs of weakness and trying to work an angle to get into power. You know, challenging the Queen or joining with the Queen. That kind of thing. Harder to do with an older, well-established Queen," Raine explained, ignoring Xena's frown at her words. "What with our Queen ruling in absentia with Ephiny, they figure we have a power void here. Opportunists, the lot of them!"
"But Othalia has been here awhile?" Xena asked, her mind busy with this new information.
"That's right," Raine confirmed.
"What about Thelestris? She new enough she could be here just to gain power?" Xena asked, leaning forward.
"Absolutely," Raine agreed. "Don't trust that one. She's got beady little eyes." Raine rose to go, but stopped when Xena spoke.
"Could I ask you a few more questions?" Xena asked.
"Love troubles?" Raine asked with a wicked little smile and a gleam in her eye, seating herself again and winking broadly at Xena. "I was quite sought after in my day. Still am, really, but my back, you know," she confided.
"Um, no," Xena said carefully running her tongue around her teeth. "I've just been hearing the name 'Lorien' thrown around. Apparently she has a claim to the throne?"
"Ah, well," Raine hedged, "we're not supposed to talk about Lorien."
"You're not. You're just answering questions about a hypothetical person and situation," Xena said, staring at Raine, all trace of humor gone from her stern features.
"Er, hypothetically?" Raine asked, shifting in her seat and resting her forearm on the table. Xena nodded. "Hypothetically, were there a person named, say, Lorien - yes, that person would have a claim to the mask because, hypothetically, offered it to her."
"Raine," Xena said, frowning at Raine's light tone and banter on a subject Xena found to be very serious.
"Sorry," Raine said, looking down at the table and tracing the grains in the wood lightly with her pinky finger. "That's actually conjecture, to be perfectly honest. It's said that Terreis offered her the Rite of Caste, but no one was around. They also said she turned it down, which explains why Terreis needed to give it to Gabrielle. If it isn't passed on and accepted, there's a contest to see who gets it. What with Valaska being the best warrior at that time, Terreis couldn't afford to just leave it. What else do you want to know?"
"Is she a threat to Gabrielle's safety?"
"No," Raine answered immediately.
"How can you be certain of that?" Xena growled.
"It wouldn't make sense. Why would she come back after all this time? Why didn't she assert a claim when Terreis first died if she intended to take the mask?"
"Do you know where she is now?" Xena questioned, having gotten Raine talking and wanting her to continue.
"Nope. No one knows that. She just up and disappeared. Didn't even stick around to see how that whole thing with the centaurs and Phantes turned out. You'd think she'd have stayed long enough to see justice done for her Terreis," Raine finished, frowning at the old puzzle.
"So no one knows where she is and no one knows why she left, meaning no one really knows for sure that she'll never come back. Right?" Xena drawled out, pinning Raine with her stare.
"Ah, I guess that's about right."