Please Note! I do apologize for the way the previous chapter ended in the middle of a scene. I was having a hard time deciding where to break the chapters, and I was not satisfied with the decision I made. Therefore, I have pasted the end of Chapter Six onto the beginning of Chapter Seven, in order to provide continuity. I hope this is not too confusing. Thank you for your understanding.
Please read the Disclaimer in Part One!
Major Spoilers: "Apotheosis," Deliverer/Gab's Hope, The Debt
Small Spoilers: Furies, Hooves & Harlots, The Quest/Necessary Evil
Glaring at each other, Gabrielle and Xena entered the cabin. Sitting around the table, which constituted the war room, were Solari, Eponin and the messenger from Minisis. Anaira was there as well, pacing to and fro like a caged beast.
"Ephiny, I-" Gabrielle began, trying to form words of conciliation, but Ephiny was having none of it.
"Shut up," she ordered. And to Eponin, "Well?"
"We killed several of them, exact numbers unknown," Eponin reported, "captured two, as you saw, and who knows how many got away?"
"Too many," Ephiny agreed with displeasure.
"If only we had a better sense of how many there were," Solari complained. "I have my scouts working on it, but it's hard. In the middle of battle you rarely look around to count how many are attacking."
"Mm," Gabrielle murmured, only half listening. The question she had posed to Xena in anger moments earlier was niggling at her mind: "when are you going to stop treating me like a child" ... Gabrielle could remember many times she had asked Xena that question, or a similar one, and the answer was almost always the same. With a small shiver of self-disgust, Gabrielle realized that Xena was right. In crisis situations like this one, she did tend to act like a child -- wanting to be in the middle of it, regardless of her own safety or the safety of those around her. And whenever Xena called her on her childishness, she responded with petulant denial -- in other words, more childishness! No wonder Xena was so anxious to be free of her! All the exhilaration and defiance of the battle washed out of her in a single wave, and she felt sick and weary and angry with herself.
Eponin was still talking. "I spoke briefly to Harisa, the leader of Minisis, before coming back here. She doesn't yet know how many of her people were lost, but she promised to send a full report once things calm down. We left a few injured with her as well, but most of them should be able to return here by tomorrow. We lost one," she added, her voice dropping solemnly. "Galia's cousin, Daraia. We brought her body back here for the funeral fire."
There was a momentary silence as all other concerns were set aside and all seven women took pause to honor the dead. At last the messenger spoke, her voice heavy with grief.
"The death of our sister is on my head."
"Oh, no," Gabrielle said quickly, reassuringly. She slid into the chair beside the woman and put an arm around her shoulders. "Her death is on the heads and her blood on the hands of every renegade who stands against the Nation, against Artemis. You can't blame yourself for their actions."
"If I had been faster...." the messenger lamented wearily. Gabrielle gave her a squeeze.
"Don't be silly. You were chosen as a messenger because you are fast. Only Hermes could have gotten the news to us sooner. You have nothing to feel guilty about."
The messenger sighed. "Thank you, my Queen. I ... I will honor her, and the dead of Minisis, in my prayers to Artemis."
"You do that," Gabrielle told her. Her voice took on an unexpected harshness. "And when you speak to the dead, be sure and tell them that the renegades who murdered them will be joining them in Tartarus, very soon."
Solari looked slightly surprised. "Gabrielle-" Ephiny raised her eyebrows slightly.
"You look like you haven't had that rest that was ordered," Gabrielle told the messenger. "Why don't you go lie down before you collapse. Consider it an order."
"Yes, my Queen." Indeed, the woman fairly sagged with fatigue. She climbed laboriously up out of her chair, nodded respectfully to all, and excused herself.
"Now," said Ephiny wearily, turning to Anaira. The other women gathered all seemed to tense, suddenly remembering that there were a whole host of other issues to consider. "Tell us about that renegade who recognized you."
Anaira's expression was grim. "She knows, Eph. She knows everything. I could see it in her eyes."
"Okay, stay calm," Gabrielle said, pretending not to notice how ironic the words were from her mouth right now. "Just start at the beginning."
Anaira sighed and looked from face to face. "Well, you remember me saying that I first became a warrior after my best friend and her lover were killed. That renegade out there -- her name is Korain -- my friend's lover was her sister. She left the Amazons at the same time Korain became a renegade. Korain was furious; she wanted her sister to join the renegades and be a warrior, but all she wanted was to settle down with my friend and live a quiet, happy life. Korain blamed us both for that. And when they were killed, she blamed me, naturally enough." She took a deep breath. "She led her band of renegade Amazons against my army as soon as she heard that I ... had ... taken up ... with Ares." She spoke this last more slowly, almost hesitantly, as if fearing that to speak the words would cause her physical pain. "I refused to fight them. I told my army to remain in hiding and we lay low until they left. Even in my own bloodlust, I knew that she was only attacking because she grieved for her sister. But she, of course, saw it as a sign of weakness." Her mouth twisted ruefully. "Which, maybe, it was."
"No," Gabrielle protested softly, and Anaira shot her an unreadable look.
"You think she knows ... about Mimi?" Ephiny asked with unaccustomed gentleness. Anaira's shoulders lifted, then dropped tiredly.
"Probably not specifically. But she knows that I was ... with him ... and she could probably put two and two together." She lifted her head and looked Ephiny in the eye. "I should go. Leave this place and disappear before it gets ugly."
"No, you can't do that," Ephiny protested. Anaira's eyes softened.
"Eph, it would be better. If the Amazons find out, in the middle of a battle, that I fought with the God of War for years? My credibility will be destroyed, and yours with it. It'll cause all kinds of confusion. It could compromise the war effort."
"And you just disappearing without explanation is going to do the war effort so much good?" Ephiny retorted. "You're the best fighter we've got...." She glanced at Xena, who might have been made of stone. "The warriors depend on you to provide their sense of cohesion, their self-confidence."
"They can get that from you and Xena just as easily," Anaira insisted. "You did fine before me. You'll do fine after. Eph, you know I don't want to leave this ... to leave you. But if it's best...."
"No, I think Ephiny is right," Eponin chimed in unexpectedly. "Anaira, everyone in this village knows you weren't born an Amazon. And everyone knows, or suspects, that there are some things about your past you'd rather forget. That doesn't change their respect for you."
"And anyway, we can keep this Korain quiet, can't we?" Solari added. "If we interrogate her in private and keep her locked up ... it's not like she's going to be roaming around the village whispering your secrets in every ear."
Anaira looked from one face to another, wavering. "If it brings him down on us...."
"If he shows up, I'll handle him," Xena said with quiet force.
Anaira gave Xena a hooded look. Gabrielle shifted uneasily, remembering how Xena had 'handled' Ares the last time. The other Amazons merely looked bemused. At last Anaira shrugged and nodded.
"All right. I'll stay. But if it starts to look like I'm a liability-"
"Let's not worry about that now," Ephiny said, putting a gentle hand on her lover's arm. There was a world of emotion bespoken in that simple gesture, and Gabrielle felt her own stomach twist again with dismay. She shifted again as if to rise, and Ephiny turned to her.
"Please." Gabrielle held up a hand to forestall her. "It was stupid and wrong of me to go off into the battle like that. I shouldn't...." She glanced at Xena, who was still clearly stewing. "Well, I have a lot to learn. About being the Queen, and about being a warrior." The word tasted unfamiliar in her mouth, a word she would once have said would never apply to her. She looked back at Ephiny and Anaira, who stood close together as if drawing comfort from their nearness. "I'm sorry. I promise it won't happen again. I'll let you decide when and where I should go."
"Well, all right," Ephiny said, mollified. "I'm glad you've come to your senses. I really don't want to have to watch you every minute."
"But," Gabrielle continued firmly, narrowing her eyes in a pale imitation of Xena's stern look, "I can't say I regret having done it this once." She heard Xena let out her breath in a quiet hiss, and winced. "Look, my reasons for going were valid ones. I really think I needed to see first-hand what we're up against here." She lowered her voice several notches and put all the force of her bardic persuasion into it. "Our sister, Daraia, and all the dead at Minisis -- those women died because of me. *For* me. Don't deny it!" she warned as Ephiny opened her mouth to speak. "You said yourself that they probably turned this way and attacked Minisis simply because they had learned I was here. Right?"
"It does seem most likely," Ephiny admitted reluctantly. Anaira nodded.
"Yes, everything we've seen indicates that they have a good strategist or two at their helm. Trying to take Minisis isn't consistent with their previous actions unless-"
"Exactly, so it's like I said," Gabrielle cut in. "Those women died for me, and I have a responsibility to their memory, as well as to all those who will put their lives on the line for me hereafter. Which is why I say I don't regret seeing that battle."
"All right. All right," Ephiny said firmly as both Xena and Solari started to speak. "Reasoning aside, Gabrielle has apologized for her rashness and she swears she'll behave from now on." She narrowed her eyes at Gabrielle, who nodded. "Now what are we going to do about this Korain? It sounds like she's probably the renegades' leader, or one of their top people anyway." Anaira nodded agreement.
"Yes -- at least, she was in a position of command a few years ago."
"So the question is," Ephiny went on, "will the renegades fall apart without their leader? Can we count this the beginning of their downfall?"
"Or, will they stage an attack to try and recapture her?" Eponin added. "Either one sounds equally possible."
"We should interrogate her," Solari opined, "see if we can get a sense of how important she is in their structure, and how they might react to her capture."
"I agree," Anaira said.
"If she's as important as she seems," Ephiny began, looking intently at the map that was spread on the table. She considered it for a moment, while everyone was silent, waiting for her to go on. "Well," she said at last, looking up, "let's deal with that when it comes. Everyone take half an hour to clean up and regroup. We'll meet outside the prison and decide how to conduct the interrogation."
"The cabin next door has been prepared for you, Gabrielle," Solari said. "There's fresh bedding, towels, everything. Do you need anything else?"
Just Xena, and a chance to erase today and start over, Gabrielle thought, but she said wearily, "No, thank you."
"I'll call the guard," Ephiny said, moving to the door. "I think it's best that Gabrielle remain guarded at all times, at least until we have a better sense of the renegades' plans."
"It's just next door. I'll see her there," Xena said grimly, her expression as blank as ever. Ephiny looked at her, and shrugged acceptance.
"Come on, love, let's get you cleaned up," Solari said, rising to her feet and putting her uninjured arm around Eponin. Gabrielle, not looking back, followed them out the door.
Gabrielle could feel Xena watching and following her as she walked the short distance from the door of Ephiny's cabin to her own. She pulled the door open and entered, expecting Xena to stop outside, but the warrior followed her in and closed the door behind her.
The cabin was a single room, airy and neat, with a chest under one window, a bed in the middle, and a small basin in a corner. Fresh cloths were piled neatly on the bed, and Gabrielle took one, dipped it in the basin and began slowly to wipe at the dirt and sweat that mingled on her arms. She sat wearily on the chair by the bed, rubbing desultorily at her skin, trying to keep her mind blank. But it was impossible with Xena standing there watching. In spite of herself, Gabrielle felt hot tears stinging her eyes.
"Oh, Xena, I'm sorry," she snuffled, trying to hold back the tears. "I've made such a mess of things."
She hadn't seen Xena move, but now the warrior was kneeling before her, taking the cloth from her limp fingers and taking over the gentle cleaning. "It's okay," Xena said gruffly. "All's well that ends well. You handled yourself in the battle."
"That's not what I was talking about," Gabrielle said very quietly. Xena's hands slowed for a moment, then resumed. Gently she moved the bard's arms aside, and for the first time discovered the angry bruising where the renegade had kicked Gabrielle in the stomach.
Mouth twisting in reproach, Xena pulled at Gabrielle, turning her in the chair so that the light hit her and Xena could inspect the damage. Gabrielle remained pliant, allowing her friend to minister, but she couldn't stay silent.
"I've been so stupid ever since ... ever since Brittania," she said, watching almost dreamily as Xena prodded at the bruises, wiping away dirt with the cloth. "It's like I just threw away all the learning and maturing that I've done since I met you. I don't know how you put up with it. Or why."
"Don't be stupid," Xena said distractedly, tugging Gabrielle's skirt down on her abdomen to see how far the bruising went. The words echoed in the bard's mind, and somehow she heard them resonate with something Ephiny had said in the bathhouse. 'You love each other.' She shook her head a little, frowning. Was it possible?
"Xena," she began as her friend once again began dabbing at her arms with the cloth. Xena didn't look up. Gabrielle wanted to say, I love you. Do you love me? But when she opened her mouth, she couldn't push the words out. Instead she said, in a rush, "I lied to you about Hope. I didn't kill her. I sent her down the river in a basket."
Xena still didn't look up from her task. She had Gabrielle's arm in her hands and was cleaning it; the back of Gabrielle's hand brushed lightly against her breast. "I know," she said quietly after a moment.
The world seemed to stand still. Gabrielle stared at Xena, blinking for a moment in amazement. "What?" she finally managed to gasp through dry lips.
Xena let go her hand and reluctantly dragged her eyes up to meet the bard's. "I figured as much. I know you, Gabrielle."
"But - you -"
"I didn't realize it at first, of course," Xena added, scowling with self-reproach. "I was too caught up in the moment, my own anger with Caesar and all the rest. But I had a lot of time to think in Ming's dungeon, and I finally realized there was no way you had...." She stopped, leaving the unthinkable unsaid.
"Xena...." Gabrielle pulled her hand back and stood up, walking toward the window, shaking her head in dismay. Xena remained crouched by the chair, watching her. "I can't believe you've known all this time and you never said anything."
"What should I say?" Xena asked, slowly rising to her full height. "'Hey, Gabrielle, is there anything you'd like to tell me?' Force it out of you? What would that accomplish?"
"I don't understand you," Gabrielle said mournfully, staring blindly out the window. Was it possible?
"Yes you do," Xena told her calmly. "You just have to accept it."
Gabrielle's head was spinning again. Nothing seemed to make sense. That one word kept pulsing through her thoughts like the rhythmic drum beat on which all the rest of the music is based. "Love." Only love could explain all of Xena's actions. Only love would forgive the lies, the betrayal. Only love would keep Xena with Gabrielle after everything. Only love would shout those hurtful things that Xena had said after the battle at Minisis. Only love could create an anger that intense and then turn it to the tenderness that had wiped her body clean. Only -
Gabrielle turned from the window and feasted her eyes once again on the sight of her beautiful beloved. And this time she was able to push the words out.
"Xena, do you love me?"
Xena looked at her with anguish. "Does the sun shine?" she asked, her voice so low it seemed to rumble the earthen floor and send a shiver of vibrating pain into Gabrielle's belly. Gabrielle surged forward, her arms lifting to hug her friend, but stopped as she caught sight of Xena's expression.
"I love you too, Xena," she said, and watched as Xena took a slow breath and managed to smooth the pain from her face. "Why doesn't that make you happy?"
"It does," Xena said with strained calm. "But it's not enough."
"Not enough?" Gabrielle stared at her. "Xena, tell me how I can regain your trust. I'll do anything. If we love each other, we can fix this."
"No," Xena said. "It's not about trust, Gabrielle. I do trust you."
"Even after ... everything?" the bard asked, somewhat skeptically. Xena looked solemnly at her and nodded.
"I know you find it hard to believe, but I do understand why you did what you did."
"Then what?" Gabrielle demanded, bewildered. Xena sighed.
"Gabrielle...." She seemed to be searching for words. "Listen, you sent the child away, even though it hurt you, to protect her...."
"Because you were going to kill her," Gabrielle reminded her earnestly, but without anger. Xena nodded again.
"Yes, exactly. You placed her safety above your own desires. Above everything."
Gabrielle shook her head, still not understanding. Yet, as hard as she searched her friend's face, she couldn't see any condemnation in Xena's demeanor. Then what? Where was this leading? "Isn't that what motherhood is all about?"
Xena looked surprised. "Yes, but that's not the point. I have a-"
A knock at the door interrupted them. "My Queen?" said a faint voice from outside.
Still staring with troubled eyes at Xena, Gabrielle answered, "Yes, come in." The door opened and the sentinel entered, saying, "Ephiny asked me to bring you to the prison for the interrogation."
"Oh ... yes," Gabrielle said, reluctantly pulling her mind back to Amazons. "I -- I didn't get your name."
"Surya," Gabrielle repeated. "Listen, I owe you an apology. For hitting you like that ... I hope I didn't do any permanent damage."
"Oh, no, I'll be fine," the guard replied ruefully, putting a hand up to feel the bump on her skull. "Solari always says I have a hard head."
Gabrielle laughed dutifully. "Well, in any case, I am sorry for what I did. I hope we can put it behind us."
"Of course, my Queen."
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. "I thought I told Ephiny to tell everyone-"
"I'm sorry. Gabrielle," the guard corrected herself. "It just takes a little getting used to."
"Right," Gabrielle murmured, looking unhappily at Xena. "Anyway, we shouldn't keep the prisoner waiting."
"Yeah, let's get going," Xena agreed, pulling the warrior mask over her features once more. Feeling highly unsettled, Gabrielle followed her friend and her bodyguard out into the village.
|Go to next part|
Go to previous part
Top of this page
Back to Xena writings page
Back to EnglishChick.com