Disclaimers: Father, forgive me, for I have used without consent, characters owned by Renpic and MCA. Some of the persons depicted are in loving consensual relationships. Couples are sometimes the same sex, and if that bothers anyone, I personally think they need more exposure to it, but if you’re under 18 or live under primitive legal statutes, move on or move. If I occasionally blushed while reading it aloud, it must be PG 13.
Violence: No more than the show
This is a revised edition of the first fan fiction I ever wrote. It was directly inspired by my daughter and the bards I was devouring at the time, many of whom would later become friends and assist me in writing. For that and many other reasons, this is very special to me.
This story was originally told as a bedtime story, nine years ago, for two very special young women: my daughter Danielle and her best friend Azra. They suggested plot points and provided the names for all the original characters. They also encouraged me to post it online.
While writing this, I was thrilled to receive assistance from the very bards I most admired. I placed all of my characters squarely in the ‘Missyverse’ with the consent of Melissa Good. B.L. Miller graciously allowed me the use of Saras. DJWP checked my Amazon protocols. Gin took time out from her own writing to push me. My first beta reader, MyWarrior, deserves undying gratitude for being the first to read this and to still tell me to keep writing. Mary Morgan has always been a touchstone and guide to the characters and much more. Thank you, all.
I was also aided by Bards Thenorm, Extra, Georgia, and Advocate. During this period, Archaeobard was showing me how much fun the net could be.
Ann Dancer betad a previous posted version; Ann Braxton fulfilled that service here. Please accept my gratitude to each of you for your patience, skill and graciousness.
I cannot forget the webmistresses who also made this adventure possible. Ruth, MaryD and Lawlsfan. You made the Xenaverse a true wonder for me.
I and many others would never have written anything if Lunacy had not created her listings; many of the best stories written online and off, owe her a huge debt.
Mail is always appreciated and answered at firstname.lastname@example.org
Home Page: http://dreamcatching.netfirms.com/kam/index.htm
When the original version appeared in serialised form, some readers wrote to ask why it seemed to start in the middle of the story.
The answer? That’s the way it wrote itself. The previous trips by Robin and James and all other complications will eventually be explained or occur in flashbacks. Honest!
Cedar and DIRT, in her mouth? What the...? Robin groggily wiped off her offended lips, and opened her eyes.
Trees. Big trees. She closed her eyes again. There were no trees in her bedroom, were there? At least, there hadn’t been just before she’d closed her eyes the last time.
Still hoping it might be some kind of dream, she kept her eyes closed and tried to focus on only the sounds. Birds chirping. Leaves rustling in the wind. Lots of leaves. A forest? She opened her eyes again and found herself looking directly at a fern right in front of her prone body. She was lying on hard, very real ground, not in a dream, and sure as hell not in her bed, which was where she was supposed to be. She stared at the fern. It was ...different. Not alien, but the veins dividing the leaves were like none she had ever seen before, but then, the bird calls were not familiar and even the air had scents that she knew were foreign...
She tried to slow her heartbeat. Where the hell was she?
She raised her head and propped herself up on one arm to look around. Definitely woodland, but the trees were like the fern, subtly different from what she was used to. It was only then she noticed that she wasn’t alone; there was another sprawled out figure lying apart from her in this mysterious glade.
James had come to without as much disorientation, having become accustomed to awakening in strange places. He hadn’t noticed Robin because he was preoccupied with other concerns. His mind was racing: wondering why he hadn’t heard the familiar pop when he was transported, trying to analyse why this felt different from his usual trips, searching through his memory for what he called the case file, finding nothing. It was only then that he realized that he had company. His response was to first move to a defensive crouch until he identified his companion. Then he relaxed and his face broke into a grin.
"Robin! I..." he started, until he saw her expression.
Robin’s eyes widened at the sight of the familiar figure. Average height, reddish blonde hair and moustache, son of a...
"Where the hell are we? What have you done, you asshole?" She had only begun to hurl abuse, when she stopped, surprised that it had an effect. James’ welcoming grin vanished and he literally seemed to deflate. ‘What the hell?’ she thought. It was bad enough that this creep must have been stalking her for weeks; now he was hurt that she didn’t ENJOY being kidnapped?
‘Dammitall,’ James was thinking. ‘We’re back, and she still doesn’t remember. What the hell am I supposed to tell her?’
This time he wasn’t at fault, he was sure. Somebody else had transported them here. Right. All he had to do was convince her of that. Simple, enough, really. Just because he was probably the last person in this or any other world she would ever listen to was no problem, right? And hey, she still hadn’t heard the explanation.
Then she’d really blow.
He took a deep breath.
"First off, I didn’t bring you here." They were now both standing and Robin was unsuccessfully trying to brush off the forest floor grit from her clothes, when she finally noticed she was dressed in garments she had never seen before. Some sort of pastel-coloured peasant skirt and blouse. Sandals. She turned blazing eyes to James, who realized that this, this, could be very difficult.
‘Just keeps getting better’, he noted, before bracing himself to try again. “I didn’t dress you, I swear I didn’t bring you here, and I further swear on my mother’s grave, I’ll try everything I can to get you home... but you’ve got to give me some time to figure out exactly where we are."
Robin pursed her mouth and dropped her dark eyebrows over her green eyes to tell him exactly how much she believed him. Even so, she was so, damn it, cute. Short cropped black hair, smaller than average, if she hadn’t been so threatening he might have considered her pixieish. But she was blazing with anger, and she’d already hated him. Perfect. ‘I love my job’, he thought for the thousandth time.
Robin took a deep breath. ‘All I wanted’, she thought, ‘were a few guitar lessons from this guy'. That was all. He had seemed safe at first, even nice. Hardly at all psychotic. Another deep breath. ‘Panic will not get you out of this’, she told herself. ‘Start again’.
"Where are we? How did we get here? How do we get back?"
Good, he thought. She was trying to be rational. Unfortunately the only answers he had so far were guaranteed to change that for the worse. He knew by the rough weave on the sleeveless coat that was his usual costume for these visits, when they were. It was only after spotting the stone marker beside where he had been lying, that he could guess where. ‘So we start all over again,’ he thought.
"What do you know about Amazons?"
How the hell did that answer her questions? She noticed for the first time that he had a rather large knife attached to the leather belt at his waist. ‘Answer the question,’ she told herself quietly. "Do you mean the jungles or the women?"
He wasn’t even looking at her now. He was looking up through the trees, for God’s sake! Just what specific kind of crazy was he?
James listened to the birdcalls for a moment while searching the upper branches. "Definitely the women." He looked at her. He was still waiting for an answer to his question.
"They were woman warriors," she stammered. "Uh... Wonder Woman, Cut off their breasts to shoot arrows? Why? Is this important?"
"Crucial," he said wryly. He seemed to steady himself. "I pretty well know where we are, and I think we’ve got a few minutes to talk because it looks like this is the outer boundary. But if I’m wrong about how much time we have, there are three things you must believe, no matter how much you distrust me, no matter what you think of me, please try to, to…" he struggled, "…to accept what I have to tell you. First and most important, no matter how weird or strange this all may seem, this is NOT a dream. There are real PHYSICAL," he emphasized, "consequences to being here."
She looked at his knife, and he noticed it for the first time.
"Not from me!" and she saw he seemed shocked at the suspicion. "If you hadn’t noticed, you have a dagger as well." He pointed to her right side. Her hand moved casually to grasp the hilt.
"What I mean by consequences," he continued, trying to ignore that her hand was now gripping the knife, "is that if you were to cut yourself here", he indicated the general area around him with his hands, "you will still have the cut when you get back," and he pointed to a tree behind him with his thumb.
She looked at the tree, and then at James, her face expressionless.
"I meant... Back. Home!" he almost yelled.
‘This isn’t going well’, he thought. Running his hands through what he thought of as his now rapidly greying hair, he tried again.
"Look, what I’m trying to say is, that no matter how weird it gets here, no matter how strange it may seem, this is REAL, and if we get hurt or even killed here, I believe it would be permanent. Completely. Final. Permanent. The last time you were here..."
Robin broke her silence. "The LAST time I was here?"
His mouth opened, then closed. "Ah... well, you see, that’s point number two, you’ve been here before, but you ..." he almost stopped upon seeing her expression, but ploughed on nonetheless, "...you don’t remember it." He put up both hands, "but that’s actually the good news!"
"Uh huh." She looked about ready to tell him just how good she felt about this whole story so far.
"...Because you’re amongst friends who know you."
"Right." Expressionless. “What’s point number three?"
"Well, point three," he gritted his teeth, "is that this is, uh sort of, or at least like, uh," he closed his eyes and waited for the explosion,"Ancient Greece...?"
"Sort of, like… ANCIENT GREECE?" her voice rose.
Actually, that wasn’t as bad as he had expected. "Well, there are, what you might call inconsistencies."
"Like the fact I’m supposedly there instead of in bed?"
"No, more that everyone in…uh…ancient Greece, seems to be speaking North American English..."
"And you call that an INCONSISTENCY?" Her voice was steadily becoming more strident.
"I’m not doing this very well, but," and he flashed a resentful look at her, "last time you were a lot easier to explain things to."
Her eyes widened. "Right." Pause. "The LAST time..."
James looked about for a stone to sit down on. "Look. Whenever I travel like this, everyone seems to be speaking English, the signs are in English, the books are in English, but when I return home, suddenly, I can read Russian, or olde English or whatever. So I think there may be some sort of translation going on..."
"So now we’re at point four? That you’re a time-traveller who keeps busy by giving guitar lessons on the side? And you want me to call that reality?"
He stared right back at her. "Well, yes," he said reasonably.
He ignored her reaction. "But I was trying to explain about everything being in English. Remember that poem I showed you?"
Things were moving a little fast, but she pushed herself to try to keep up. "You mean the love poetry you tried to get me to read, after I told you to leave me alone?" Oh yeah, she remembered that...
"I showed it to you as a test after you were here..."
"Yes! It was a fragment of a poem from around six hundred BC."
"It was a love poem. That my guitar teacher suddenly showed me. Do you know how creepy that was?"
"It was in the original language, and yet you read it without any problem."
"That’s bull, it was in English." There was no trace of doubt in her voice.
"It was in ancient Greek, a dead language that hardly anyone can even translate, and you read the first lines like it was an email from a friend."
She merely crossed her arms and clamped her mouth tight.
James had been through this with her before, so he threw up his hands and started walking up the path. "Look. Don’t believe me. I don’t even care, because soon you’re going to have to, or else figure that you’re the one going nuts. Now, just let me work out which way to go..."
Robin stayed where she was. "I thought you were beginning to figure out where we were."
Shading his eyes, James stopped to look around. "Well, that marker there, says we’re on the outskirts of the village where I think we’re supposed to go to, but I don’t know which way it’s facing... So, I don’t know what direction north or anything else is exactly. OK?"
She rolled her eyes. "What, Mr. Big Time Traveller can’t tell by looking up at the sun?"
"You still need a time reference. It would help if I knew the time of day or what month it is."
Robin laughed. "What do you mean? It’s May."
"You can almost accept that we’ve travelled over two thousand years through time, but you figure it’s still the same month?"
"Well, excuse me! I’m new at time-travel, okay?"
James looked around at the countryside. Robin waited impatiently, until a thought struck her. "Wait a minute. You said you didn’t know how we got here, but then you implied you do this all the time?"
James seemed to blush a bit. "This time it’s different, I’m not quite sure how we got here or why," he mumbled.
"So... why can’t you use your regular magic powers to get us back?"
He stared at her. She stared right back.
"Well, I don’t really understand how I usually travel...." he trailed off, "...but this time I know it’s different. In fact, I’m sort of hoping that this is the holiday of sorts I was offered a while ago, and that two friends of mine, well ours, really, have arranged for us to attend... a sort of party," he finished falteringly.
Her eyes bulged for a split second, but quickly hardened. "A party. Of course. Maybe these friends of yours also have magic powers? Ones that they can like, USE?"
He gritted his teeth again. "Considering the fact that you’re a stranger in a strange land, you’re being pretty damn belligerent. And no, they don’t have magic powers, but they know...people… that do."
‘Which of the Gods would have grabbed us?’ James was frantically thinking. Ares had transported mortals though time before, but Gabrielle would never ask a favour of Him, and whoever it was would have to be at the same level in the pantheon to pull off something like this. Not Artemis. ‘She wouldn’t have to leave us at the boundary of the Amazon territories. It would have to be someone else, someone unreliable, or...(oh no), flaky,... or else Xena and Gabrielle would know when we were arriving and be waiting for us. And,’ he sighed, ‘it had to be someone who would want to snatch this particular woman from her warm bed.’
"So why am I here?" Was she reading his mind?
"I think I just figured that out..." he cringed in anticipation.
She stopped. "Well...?"
"I think you’re supposed to be… my date."
If it hadn’t hurt so much, he would have laughed at her reaction. "No, but that may be what Aphro... what she... our ride, thought. I mean, you probably had your own invite to this, but..." Robin heard a whizzing sound and James suddenly froze.
"Throw down your knife," he ordered.
"What? No way!" she began to protest. "I just got this thing!”
Then she noticed that he had already tossed his blade down beside what seemed to be an arrow, still quivering from the force of striking the ground, right between his legs.
"Shit," he moaned what seemed like even more gibberish to her. "I don’t know what the birdcalls are or any of the passwords. Damn it! Do I have the pendant... yes! Wait... OK. Put your hands up above your head, palms out like this."
Shrugging, she had just begun to comply when they seemed to be under attack by giant, feathered spiders that began to suddenly drop from the trees. She had time for a broken shriek before they were surrounded by very pointed spears, held by what she now realized were leather-clad women.
‘This is not happening!’ she told herself, `you are not about to become shish kabob in some ancient forest. Just imagine you’re on a ride at Disneyland,’ and she waited for her heart to stop pounding. None of the feathered women moved; both they and James appeared to be waiting for someone, and sure enough, a mounted Amazon soon emerged from the trees in front of them.
‘OK, Alice’, she thought, ‘just how much curiouser can this get?’ The mounted woman was fairly impressive, she judged, and the voice was appropriately deep.
"Male, you are trespassing on the lands of the Amazon, why should we not just kill you now?"
This was the final straw for Robin, and finally unable to take any of this seriously, she stage whispered to James, "Someone else you’ve dated?"
James ignored her, and decided to go on his hunch.
"We have been brought here by the Goddess Aphrodite," he intoned, "to witness the joining of your Queen and her Champion."
The impression these words might have had was somewhat lost by Robin’s sarcastic ‘Oh, pulleeasse!’
The spears remained in place.
"What proofs do you offer of this?" the mounted warrior demanded.
James pulled the pendant from his neck and showing it to the Amazon, stated "I received this during a tribal initiation ceremony from your Regent, Ephiny, as a sign of free passage, and it carries the marks of your Queen and her Champion." Robin looked at it and saw only an ornate circle crossed by a feather.
The object seemed to make no impression on the large woman in the mask. "You think that this trinket allows you, Male, to enter onto our sacred grounds?"
Ignorance having made her fearless, Robin had gotten bored with all this attitude, and with a slight cough, called up to the treetops with a fake British accent, "Is there anyone else up there we can talk to?"
Maybe it was partly because of the tension, and James knew it was the wrong thing to do, but he dropped his eyes and a chuckle escaped.
That was enough. The horsewoman shouted out, "Perhaps your deaths will seem as amusing to you, as Amazon honour seems to be."
Cursing his loss of control, and quickly collecting himself, James stood his ground retorting, "It’s you who are not respectful of Amazon honour. For what you call a trinket, I received with the greatest of pride, and I would fight for what it represents with my honour, and... MY... LIFE!"
"Good answer," called out a voice from behind them as a tall, unmasked warrior rode forward, carrying the reins of another horse trotting alongside. "Stand down" she ordered. "Raza..." she acknowledged the other mounted Amazon.
The spears were withdrawn and the warriors drew back a pace. James’ shoulders relaxed. "Solari. Really, REALLY, good to see you."
"Sorry, but we weren’t sure when you would arrive, and I stopped to pick up your horse," the scout said, offering the reins to Robin.
This floored her.
"MY horse? I haven’t ridden since I was twelve!"
Now it was Solari who was puzzled. "What are you talking about? Robin, you rode every day for weeks when you were in Amphipolis."
James began to explain. "She doesn’t remember anything about her last visit. It’s a complete blank...."
By now Robin had seen the horse. "Titan!" the horse’s name sprang to her lips as she pushed aside the armed warriors.
Solari looked at James questioningly. He shrugged. "She forgets me, travelling through time, the Warrior Princess, right? But her horse, that she remembers."
Robin had frozen in the act of hugging the steed, and was now turning towards him with alarm dawning in her eyes. "This isn’t... real, because, I don’t..." He ran over to her. She waited for his words of reassurance. He took one hand and said to her carefully, "You told me last time that you hadn’t read much philosophy, but you did read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."
"WHAT?" She dropped his hand quickly.
James ignored her reaction. "We had a talk about reality. In that book there was the discussion by David Hume, that reality could not be proved because we only feel the sensations of the objects we perceive and not the objects."
"James? This is NOT helping."
"Hume said that we could feel the weight or the cold of an iron bar, but not the bar itself."
"James? Not helping At All."
James was now off on one of his lecture modes. "Immanuel Kant, amongst other things, said that we can prove reality by its continuity through time and space. If you walk around a tree, it has continuity, because you see it from each side, the sun and shadows change as you would expect. But in dreams and moments of insanity, there is no continuity. As much as things appear real, there is a jump or leap from position to position that doesn’t occur when we are really perceiving things. Now look around," he said drawing her head up. "As weird as all this is, if you get up on that horse, you will see everything as it was, but from a new angle, your perspective will shift in a manner consistent with..."
Robin finally interrupted, shaking her head to clear it. "Okay! I get it, I get it. This isn’t a dream, because dreams are weird in a different way."
"If there’s a next time, just tell me to pinch myself, because pain has continuity too."
"Now what?" She stood, hands at her hips.
"I remind you that you’re amongst friends."
"Oh, yeah..." Again her eyes rolled.
"And then I get on this horse with Solari. But stay close."
"I know. Whatever else you are, you’re still my ride home."
Quiet now, they separated, and with a lift from Solari, James managed to get aboard her mount. Once they were settled, they made their way towards the Amazon’s village.
There was no small talk between the travellers or their escorts. James gave a few worried glances towards Robin, but she seemed to be enjoying the ride and was keeping her eyes on the ground ahead of her mount.
He tapped Solari on the shoulder. "I was only guessing about the Joining and Aphrodite. Was I right? What sort of deal did Gabrielle have to make?"
James knew that it could have been worse if it was Aphrodite who brought them here. Though she could be quite helpful if it suited her, uh, goals, none of the Gods were known for doing something for nothing.
As Solari confirmed. "She did it for an invite, because even though the Joining will be on the border for non-Amazons, apparently Artemis is keeping strict tabs on who attends from Mount Olympus".
"So we won’t have Ares giving away one of the brides, I take it."
Solari snorted, "No. No Gods allowed on the tribal lands without permission from the Pantheon."
James hoped that Robin couldn’t hear any of the conversation. If she was already feeling disconnected from reality, she didn’t need to learn about, or much less meet with, the Valley Girl Goddess of Love right away. Maybe later. Much, much later.
"So, are we special, or is everybody getting such a warm welcome?"
From his position, James could see the scout’s muscles tighten.
Solari had a moment of hesitation, and then remembered who this was. "I don’t know. Normally when both the Queen and Tall, Dark and Deadly are here, most of the featherheads are on their best behaviour. This time it’s different. There’s been a lot of rumours about another challenge..."
James was shocked. "Again? Now?"
They came to another clearing, and here they saw a fairly large encampment, with a few smoking fires surrounded by various men, who drew the first mounted Amazon’s stony stare.
"The Centaurs have set up camp at the east entrance, and here," Solari raised her voice deliberately, "this is where we drop off the riffraff."
"Are Hercules and Iolaus here?" asked James.
"Iolaus, yeah, but Hercules has another one of those beads."
"But I thought there was only one per Queen?"
"Well, his comes from Hypollyta, you know about the Girdle? Well, never mind. You don’t want to go there."
Noticing his expression, Solari added quickly, "It doesn’t make yours any less special..."
James rolled his eyes. "No, it’s not that, it’s just that I think Robin overheard that last bit."
"Hercules?" said Robin, bringing her horse around, "You mean like the cartoon? Disney? God wannabe?"
"Not quite," James noticed a stocky, tousled blonde emerge from the shadows accompanied by a tall darker type who seemed somewhat familiar to Robin. "But I think here’s the guy to ask."
"Iolaus!" called James, receiving an answering grin in response. He reached down and gripped the smaller blonde man’s elbow as Iolaus returned the gesture. "I wanted to thank you for what you did for Xena and Gabrielle, especially since they, ahh, aren’t in a, position to ... appreciate what you had to ... go through to, ah...help them." Iolaus, by this time was blushing more than James, and while Robin was trying to figure out exactly what the hell they were talking about, the tall, dark and handsome type had approached her from the side.
"Robin!" he said, staring directly up into her eyes, “What a charming surprise to have you grace our humble camp. I don’t suppose you could stay and brighten our...."
"Autolycus," James interrupted, "Robin isn’t brightening anything of yours. She also has a slight problem with remembering anything about her last visit."
Iolaus interjected. "That’s perfect for Autolycus. He’s great with introductions, it’s just after that he just sort of," and he made a downward motion with the flat of his palm.
"Ignore the rabble, sweet lady, I am, Autolycus," and with a motion of his finger along beneath his moustache, "The KING... of Thieves."
Something about the gesture was so familiar, that Robin began to chase the memory down. "I remember you!"
Autolycus responded with "Of course."
James, now a tad bitter, rejoined as he dismounted, "Yeah, you and her horse"
Autolycus stroked Titan, murmuring, "and a fine animal she is", when Robin announced that she had seized the elusive memory.
"Yeah! I remember, you were being held against a wall. By someone terribly strong, and you were begging for your life!"
At both James and Iolaus’ derisory laughs, Autolycus responded, "Pleading possibly, dear lady, but never begging. Anyways..." he turned to look at James, "I take it you’re another one with those protective Amazon collars? Are they any good against fleas?"
James, threatened by yet another pass at Robin, ‘as if she wanted his protection’, he reminded himself, returned, "You tell me. Are they driving you away? Or are you just jealous?"
"Jealous! If the Amazons are creating some kind of petting zoo in there, I consider it a privilege to be out here with the rest of the men."
"Well, Auto, you can go and sleep with all the men you want, it’s fine with me."
Pointedly ignoring him, James turned to Iolaus and asked, "How long have you been here and when are the festivities?"
"We’ve been here two days, three days to go. We’ve managed to build that platform for the ceremony," pointing towards the flat space on a hillock, "on what is the inner boundary, and now Salmoneous is working with Cyrene to open some kind of outdoor tavern this afternoon. Jessan and Elaini got here today. She was supposed to go on but she refused. Do you know them?"
Not sure exactly how much Iolaus knew about the forest dwellers and their Bond, and for his own personal reasons, James only commented, " She couldn’t go, could she. How’s the big guy?"
Accepting that James was changing the subject, Iolaus answered the second question. "Bored. No one will let him do anything. I think he’s about to go crazy without any emergencies. I keep telling him to relax, enjoy the holiday, but..." He shrugged.
"Is there any thing I can do for you or have sent once I’m inside?"
"No. Gabrielle makes sure that there are runners going back and forth regularly."
"I should have known she would have thought of that."
"Yeah," Robin wasn’t sure who this Gabrielle character was, but she knew she didn’t like the doe-eyed looks that had come over all three of the men at the thought of her.
"Shouldn’t we be going somewhere?" she pointed at the impatiently waiting Amazons.
Again, with the help of a strong arm from Solari, James was once more astride the war-horse and they continued their trek.
Robin’s first thought was that the village looked like a live action version of Celesteville from the Babar books. The same thatched huts, arranged in neat rows, though in back and front of each were the nitty gritty of real life; latrines, drying tables, fire pits, while the sounds of a warrior camp mixed with those of a child-filled town.
She was interrupted in her examinations by James’s loud cry of "What the hell is that!" and she saw he was pointing at a large unfinished stone structure that was already dominating the rise above the village.
Solari’s eyes followed his finger. "I think it’s supposed to be some sort of therapy for Xena." She grinned.
"Therapy? Why? Did someone take her pyramid away from her when she was a kid?"
"No, uh." Now Solari seemed to be almost blushing. "Amazon tradition dictates that a couple must be, well, separate for a week before the ceremony, and Xena has, well, some excess energy...."
"A WEEK! Both of them? What’s Gabrielle doing, writing epic plays?"
"At first, yeah. But the last while it’s been five, six times a day, staff demonstrations." She pointed down to a large clearing, where to Robin’s horror she could see three heavily armoured, six-foot Amazon warriors holding swords, surrounding a small strawberry blonde grasping only a pole. In contrast to the attackers, she was clad only in a skirt and what looked to be a hideous green sports bra. What was even worse was that there seemed to be a line of warriors waiting impatiently to join in.
Instead of riding down to her defence, James only called out to the potential victim, and was rewarded by an enthusiastic wave. Robin wasn’t sure what happened next, but the blonde was suddenly a blur of movement, using the staff to pole-vault behind two of her attackers, unleashing a complex series of strikes with it, leaving both of them lying on the ground while the third was staring stupidly at her hand where the sword had been. After what seemed to be, to Robin’s amazement, a quick apology to one of the fallen, she was racing up the hill towards them.
‘So this must be the famous Gabrielle, who turns strong men to mush’, Robin thought. She was pre-disposed to not like this woman, but as she approached, calling out a glad "Robin! James!" she was hard pressed to feel threatened by her. She was only a little older than Robin, the same small build, and Robin couldn’t get over the welcome that was clearly radiating from those green eyes. But then she stopped suddenly, and was looking at Robin with caution, tinged with worry. James noticed her hesitation even while dismounting, and after an exchange of heartfelt hugs, he led Gabrielle over to Robin.
"Robin seems to be having some difficulty remembering most of her time here," he explained quietly.
Robin saw sadness? grief flash through those eyes for a moment, before being replaced with concern after a sympathetic look towards James. The girl held out her hand.
"I’m the resident expert on lost memories, so I know something of what you’re going through." She gave Robin a quirky grin, before becoming more serious. "Just so you know, whether you recover your memories or not, you’re among friends, who are grateful for what you did when you were last here. If you get scared, or worried, I hope you’ll feel you can talk to me about it."
Robin couldn’t deny the sincerity that seemed to flow from this woman, and mumbled a thank you.
"I told her that," grumbled James, "and all she did was bark at me."
"You’re not the Queen of the Amazon Nation," said Gabrielle playfully.
"True." said James, catching at the finger that prodded his shoulder.
"Let me walk you to where you’ll be staying."
Robin followed, still stunned. This little girl, Queen? Commander of these fierce warriors?
"Oh Tartarus," said the Queen.
"What’s the problem?" James asked.
"It’s just that with the Joining and all the guests, we’re pretty tight for beds, so naturally we put," and Robin noticed she reached over to hold James’ hand to comfort? him, "both of you in the same hut. Separate pallets, but there’s no space left, really..."
They had now reached one of the thatched huts. Both of them looked at Robin, awaiting her decision. The problem was, that as unfair as she was now suspecting it to be, she still saw James as the creepy stalker she had been trying to rid herself of for two months. And now some insane Fate and the Queen of the Amazons were conspiring to have them room together. Finally she sighed.
"We’re both adults, right? Any unwelcome attention..."
"The next day, two hundred Amazon warriors would be wearing small parts of my anatomy as fanny packs," James completed, and Robin noticed that Gabrielle was still grasping his hand in support.
"Then, it’s fine with me."
But Robin was not ready for what greeted her when she the door was opened. Completely filling this primitive thatch hut was an enormous, heart shaped, pink bed, complete with four posters, canopies, piles of pink pillows, and a mirror mounted on top, as if transported directly from a sleazy 20th century motel. Robin stopped dead.
"Oh no, I don’t think so, Not At All," she said, and strode off in the direction she had last seen her horse.
Gabrielle and James stood in the doorway and stared at the bed, and then each other.
James pursed his lips. "When you asked Aphrodite for that favour, she was allowed to come onto Amazon territory, right?"
"You didn’t happen to mention where you were going to put us up, did you?"
Gabrielle scanned the massive pink bed with a straight face.
"I’m thinking that it might have come up."
"Hmmm," was all James could manage.
"Oh, James, I am sorry," but her words lost some of their sincerity when giggles began to erupt from her clenched teeth, and soon they were both laughing and crying. "I really am sorry, James, but this bed, it’s just so, so..."
"Hideous, I know, but we both better shut up, or Aphrodite will take this as an invitation to visit again."
They both calmed down, and the Amazon Queen tilted her head to one side and asked her friend, "This memory loss, it’s not new, is it?"
He confirmed with a sad nod.
"When you got back, it was as if you’d never met?"
He nodded again. "What was I supposed to do? ‘Oh, by the way, we now have this relationship when you travelled back in time with me, which you seem to have forgotten.’ What was worse, was that I couldn’t act like I didn’t know her, and then the more I tried to ..." He gestured at the room and this world in general. "And then," he paused. "Then, even little things of familiarity, scared her... I saw she was becoming... afraid of me. She thought, I..." Quickly, there was that hand in his. "I knew that I should fight for us, I knew that we have this connection, but that fear.... I just couldn’t face that. So I tried to let go. But now," he gave her a broken smile, "here we are, all happily together again. And here I am telling you my problems, when this is supposed to be your celebration. Thank you for bringing us."
"Hey, you two are important to us, and anyways, I’m going nuts waiting for this celebration."
"Yeah, I heard. Nice muscle tone though," James laughed.
"You think?" She pirouetted gracefully before returning his smile.
"Pretty good for an old mom. How is Lycea?"
"Gods, over three moons old, and already crawling everywhere, can you believe it? Oh, don’t get me started. I’ll make sure you see her when she gets up. Aunty Ephiny is with her now." She caught herself and rolled her eyes.
"Vanity and my baby. Nice try at changing the subject. OK. Let me try this. You DO have a connection; whatever else, you know that, Right?" James nodded. " With all the reminders of her last trip, she’ll probably get back her memory. And whatever else happens, you’re going to make new ones while you’re here. So?"
"And what if she forgets again when we go back?"
"You’ll just have to do like Aphrodite did last time and drop another tankard on your foot. Now, for a real problem, how in Tartarus are we going to move this bed?"
Looking at the object that had dispatched Robin, James growled, "Axes or fire?"
"So’s the bed."
Gabrielle laughed. "I suppose you would see it as a potential timeline endangering anachronism."
James stepped back. "You write your scrolls with that vocabulary?"
The bard blushed. "Ever since Xena told me about an alternate reality she was in, I’ve been wondering about a few things…" She gave him a measuring look before turning back to the bed. "But I find it hard to imagine a time in human history where this would be appropriate."
"3:00 to 5:00 AM?" he guessed.
"Between the bars closing and dawn"
"Your world is very strange, you know that?"
Telling him she had warriors waiting, Gabrielle sent James off to explore the village, hoping he would find Robin. After a time, he came across a very stone-faced demi-god.
"Hercules, drinking alone?"
Looking up from his mug, and managing a polite smile, Hercules pointed to the empty space on the bench beside him, "I was wondering when you’d arrive." He continued with exaggerated politeness. "Please, sit down. Relax. Have a vacation. That’s what I’ve been told to do. Several times."
James allowed his eyes to wander about the various tables. "Who’s the kid who’s watching you so carefully?"
Without glancing over to her, he said, "That’s Stalia. You’ll be assigned one soon."
"Amazon law allows for men to walk on their ground, but not unescorted. Apparently the original phrase is something about having a constant knife at the throat."
"And that’s your 'knife at the throat'?" Looking at the anxious girl, James figured her age to be around twelve.
"Ephiny and Gabrielle are interpreting the law rather loosely. She gets points towards some training exercise if she keeps me in sight for the whole shift."
"I notice that the passing glances you’re getting seem to be rather mixed. Sort of a Love or Hate thing going on."
Hercules nodded. "A few of the Amazons aren’t too happy about a male wandering around the tribal grounds. Now that there are two of us, we should really bring out the best in them."
"Well. I’m in good company, at least."
James was rewarded by the first real smile he had seen on the demi-gods face, and he poured them both a fresh drink.
Robin had caught up to James and was watching all of this, debating whether to approach James or not, when her attention was caught by the meanest looking woman she had ever seen, (though still one of the most gorgeous,) who was being followed by Gabrielle. She was carrying what appeared to be another of Gabrielle’s victims, if the Queen’s abject expression was any indicator. The warrior was at least six feet tall, and her armour and leathers were different from any other she had seen in the village. Her hair was darker than, well, hell, it was black. She was carrying a massive Amazon with almost no effort, and she seemed to be struggling with herself not to kill an older woman who was barring her entrance to what seemed to be a clinic of some kind. Meanwhile, a group of the village children were clustering around, all of them somehow ignoring the violence-laden looks she was parcelling out. The warrior spotted the Fabio-type guy seated with James and yelled at him.
"You! You wanted something to do, right?" Yelling, her voice sounded like raw silk. She shifted the injured warrior and pointed at the older woman in her way. "Pound this relic into the ground like a tent post, please? You know I’d do it myself, but..."
There was a backward glance towards Gabrielle. Then she saw James.
"And YOU, you could take these children and bore them to death!! OK? Like now?"
She pushed past the older woman, ignoring her cursing, and still carrying the wounded Amazon, strode inside. Hercules and James noticed Robin staring after her in shock.
"That was Xena," explained James.
"She’s our friend," added Hercules.
For full disclaimers, see part 1
The conception of a child in a tree house is entirely the creation of Missy Good and as this story is set partially in her universe(along with Jessan and Elaini), I have borrowed it here with grateful thanks and the author’s permission. Please read her stories if you wish to know more and because they are still amongst the best written. www(dot)merwolf(dot)com(slash)ffiction(dot)html#xwp
Hercules leaned over to James. "Would it be too much to ask exactly what that’s about? Am I really expected to pound the head healer into the ground?"
James sighed. "Actually, the answer is sort of yes. I wasn’t told the whole story, but I think Saras can’t believe that a blood-stained maniac like Xena is allowed to get within fifty leagues of the Queen, much less joined with her. Meanwhile, Xena knows that Saras is related somehow to Velaska. You remember, briefly Amazon Queen? Wanted to make the Amazons into a war machine and nearly killed Gabrielle? Xena can’t believe anyone who might still be loyal to that maniac, hasn’t been banished to Tartarus. So every time there’s an injury, they work out their attitude by having a turf fight over who’s in charge."
“Too much information.” Hercules reached out his hand and picked up what appeared to be a round, dense tumbleweed, and looked over to the kids. "I have an idea I’ve been kicking around for a while. How about if I deal with the kids, and YOU pound Saras?"
"Sounds like a plan."
Hercules gave him a look at the familiar phrase. "Sounds like you’ve been hanging around them for a little toooo long."
Returning his smile, James got up, and Robin followed discretely.
Robin realized that she had been right. This was some sort of infirmary. Gabrielle was stooping over to talk to each of the patients, and as she overheard some of the conversations, Robin realized that most of the infirm were there because of the Queen’s staff ‘demonstrations’. Picking her way through the tables, apologizing to each patient, Gabrielle was forgiven by each victim, with the same soft doe-eyed look she had first noticed on Iolaus and James.
Meanwhile James was making his way to the main bout, Xena versus the head healer, Saras. He was welcomed by Xena’s standard -Oh Good, more people I have to kill before I can relax- look.
To Robin’s amazement, he walked right by the glaring warlord and took the older woman aside.
"Saras, how many years has this gone on? You and Xena, fighting over patients? Two, almost three years? And it looks to me like it’s getting worse. Would you be willing to try a possible solution, no matter how dumb it sounded, just as long as it worked?"
Saras’ suggestion of what the best solution might be was imaginative, but quite obscene.
Though James had been speaking softly, he knew that with Xena’s hearing, she could follow the conversation. “So?” he asked over his shoulder.
"What?" the warrior growled.
"A solution, are you interested?"
There was no answer, so he took that as a yes.
"Saras, you have to admit that Xena knows more about some types of combat injuries right?" Once again, James decided to take silence as assent. "And Xena, you know that Saras is in charge here, right?"
"So Saras, if Xena would just ask permission, before bringing in a patient, do you think you could swear that you would always let her in?"
"What?" exploded from both women.
James continued as if they hadn’t spoken.
"Now, Xena. If Saras swore that she would always let you in, if you’d ask, could you swear that you would always ask?"
"This is nonsense," grumbled an angry warrior princess.
"For the sake of the people you both claim you want to help, let’s try, okay? Xena. Please ask Saras if you can use her hospice to treat a patient."
Robin watched in amazement as James coaxed the words slowly out of the warrior.
Saras was next. And when she was done, he turned to the two and said, "And unless you both enjoy arguing, while sick and injured people go untreated, you can now swear to do this every time."
Robin watched disbelieving, as they did just that. Then he left the two women, both staring daggers into his back. As she exited into the sunshine, she was almost as astonished to see that Hercules had set up a form of goalpost at each of the common and organized the group of kids into two teams, who were kicking his tumbleweed up and down the field. Eventually deputizing a few of the older kids as coaches, he rejoined Robin and James at the benches.
"Just don’t let them wear numbers. Next thing you know, they’ll be doing soft drink commercials," James joked.
The big man was puzzled for a moment. "What? Oh, that’s another one of those things I’ll get in two thousand years, I’m guessing."
Hercules sat down with a heavy, satisfied sigh and reached for his drink. He froze when he realised there was a particularly dark storm cloud now looming above him.
"I believe," said Xena, in a deceptively calm and deliberate manner, "that I asked YOU to pound someone into the ground? As my guest, it was just a small request," at this point she smiled sweetly, "and I so seldom ask you for these little favours."
Hercules gave her a lazy shrug, saying, "I think you’re just upset because for someone who conquered half of Greece, you can’t admit to giving out the wrong assignments." He looked pointedly to James, and then over to where the kids were playing.
James took a sip of his ale and added, "It’s called proper use of your resources." Both men solemnly nodded at each other.
Xena stared at them. Robin began to wonder where the steam would come out, and moved to safety down the bench away from the men.
Xena clenched her teeth for a moment, and finally spat out "RESOURCES?" and then stalking away, continued to growl. "I’ll tell you what proper use of these RESOURCES would be...."
James looked over at the cringing Robin.
"See, she’s really just a pussycat."
Taking another sip he said, "Good ale, eh?"
Smiled Hercules. "Tastes a bit better now, for some reason."
It was about half an hour and several ales later that Xena returned with a malevolent grin and a tray of mugs. Clearing a space across from Hercules, she placed two sets of five mugs of the high proof port in front of the two of them, taking a space at the table with five more for herself. Knowing that Xena seldom drank excessively, at least excessively for her, Hercules raised his eyebrows but accepted the challenge. A look to James followed, and he too leaned forward and grasped a tankard.
Robin decided it was time for her visit to Gabrielle.
She found the Queen’s hut with some help, but when she arrived at the hut, she hesitated. There were two Amazon guards at the door, and before they could step aside, she was seized by a series of memories, so compressed and intense, that she almost fell. One of the guards steadied her, but she waved her away to concentrate on the images.
She was standing with James in front of two similarly garbed Amazons, also guarding the Queen’s lodging. She knew that they were in a village called Amphipolis, and James was arguing with one of them, a curly haired blonde, who was obviously in charge, that he was calling Ephiny.
"I know that she’s ill, that’s why I’m here. She must have told you who I am, she tells you everything.”
Robin remembered James telling her about Gabrielle, that they were there to help her, but it was clear they first had to get by her best friend. Fortunately, it appeared that Gabrielle had told Ephiny about this strange healer and friend who seemed to know everything about them without having ever met them. But the question was, could Ephiny trust an unknown male, when they were miles from home and the Queen was in some kind of coma, in her ninth month of pregnancy? As James and Ephiny argued, there was something about a Xena, who was away on some search instituted by Gabrielle in a moment of fever. Robin had no clue who this Xena person was, but knew whoever they were, James was extremely worried about them as well.
"I know I can reach her,” James was pleading. “I swear I won’t give her any drugs or harm her in any way. Please, for her sake and for the baby."
Robin watched the indecision flash over the woman’s face. In the end she had no choice, desperation was at hand, and someone the Queen trusted offered hope. She ordered the guards to let them both in.
Robin watched as James quickly shed his cloak and ran over to the pale pregnant woman. He touched her hands tenderly and with the other hand lifted her head and began speaking gently into her ear.
"Gabrielle... Gabrielle? It’s James. Listen to me, Gabrielle, Xena and I need you. Xena needs you. Gabrielle, you have got to come back."
There was no change, but he never reduced the care and emphasis, never let his voice grow softer or less insistent. Eventually so much time had passed that Robin had begun to give up, when they were rewarded by a movement and then a flutter of the eyes.
In relief, James turned to Ephiny and asked for information of Xena. She began to explain why Xena had gone but he interrupted, "I already know the why, we need to know the where."
Ephiny nodded and quickly went outside. Moments later a scout was galloping off in search of the missing warrior.
Gabrielle opened red-rimmed eyes and looked about the room anxiously. "Xena, where’s Xena?” She entreated.
"We’ve sent someone to find Xena. You’ve got to relax. One problem at a time. We need to talk, Gabrielle."
"James?" her eyes cleared a little as she saw who was with her. “Oh Gods, James, I’ve been so scared. I’m afraid it’s all happening again, and... I don’t think I could survive that." The sick woman clutched him convulsively. He reached over and gave her some fresh water from a wine skin, and waited until she had finished.
"I know. It’s not that, I swear. Let me tell you what is going on, Okay?” There was a slight nod. "Since you first realised you were pregnant, you’ve known that Toris couldn’t be the father, because the timing wasn’t correct. But you kept trying to convince yourself that maybe you were wrong about the dates, right? But now that you’re due, you couldn’t fool yourself anymore and the strain and worry were too much and you made yourself sick. Worrying that it’s Dahok or some other God playing with you both. But it’s not that and it’s going to be OKAY. I promise."
He looked down and then into her eyes. "When you were in the fever, you told Xena you had to know who the father was, and your warrior was crazed enough to follow your instructions. Xena’s out interrogating potential fathers."
"The irony of it is that you already know who the father is. And when your child was conceived. You just can’t believe it."
Gabrielle became very still. "Because it can’t be... and if that is true... then that could be... the worst thing..."
"No. You remember what you experienced at Dahok’s temple?" He felt her shudder and move away from him. He only held her more tightly "What did you feel? What were the emotions of your heart? Come on, Gabrielle."
He could barely hear the words, but they came. "Fear, Anger... Hate."
"But remember, the two of you in the tree house. When you ate the fruit? What did you feel then?"
There was another shudder, but this one was different. "Trust. Peace... and Love."
"So the million dinar question is, Gabrielle, if you know that Hate can conceive a child, why can’t you believe the same of Love?"
Gabrielle swallowed, and pulled her hands up to grip his face. "How do I know that you’re not Ares, or that this is not just another horrible trick?"
Words said so softly, Robin had to strain to hear them.
"Because `Ri, you already know in your heart and your soul, that somehow ,unbelievable as it might seem, through your love, somehow, Xena is the father. I’m just here to confirm it for you.”
He reached over to brush away a tear from her cheek and Gabrielle did the same for him. Robin was holding her breath; this was so intimate and, yet...
James cleared his throat to break the mood. "If it helps," he added casually, "I’ve already seen the kid.”
Gabrielle stopped breathing for a second. He continued, "You know I pop in and out, I don’t always visit in sequence. I tried to explain that to you last time..."
"You’ve seen my, our baby?" she said, her voice growing stronger, moving one hand to protectively hold her stomach.
"Yes, but one thing did worry me, but then you explained it…”
Gabrielle reached up and twisted his ear, hard. "Ouch, jeez, who do you think I am, Joxer?”
Gabrielle glared at him, unrepentant.
"The kid had white hair, okay?”
Gabrielle gave him a smile, that as weak as it was, seemed to light up the room, and released him. "My hair was white for over a year, my mother told me. It turned darker as I got older.”
"Well, I don’t want to ruin all the surprises, so you get only one more question, eye colour or sex?”
There was a glint in her eyes, and Robin could see by the relief on Ephiny’s face, that the old Gabrielle was back.
"Well,” she drawled, "Since you’ve mentioned eye colour, I have to assume that’s what you want to tell me.”
"But is it more important than the potential heir to the Amazon throne?”
"Talk, you son of a Cyclops, what colour?”
"Blue, of course. And not just blue, ice blue.”
Gabrielle gave a great sigh, and smiled the brightest smile Robin had ever seen.
"Now, you go find Xena,” she commanded.
"Yes, my Queen.” James saluted her.
But then the thought struck her, "You realize that Xena won’t see you as a friend come to help, but more likely another potential father?”
"Then I better come up with a good line in less than thirty seconds.” Their laughter only further confused Robin.
"Of course,” he added, “On the positive side, Xena may already have come across Joxer.” Gabrielle raised her eyes in mock censure, but laughed in spite of herself.
He gave her a kiss and left, pulling a very baffled Robin with him.
"What is the big deal?" she asked once they were outside. "Why is this Xena guy so sure he’s not the Father?”
Ephiny and James stared at her for a moment, and blinked, before Ephiny pulled him aside, ignoring Robin like a piece of wood, demanding: "She may need to know the colour of eyes, but I want to know about the future of our tribe!”
"Relax, Ephiny. We’re talking healthy, bouncing, all ten fingers and toes, female.”
"Well, that’s a possibility, but the votes aren’t in yet. Now how in Hades am I supposed to track down your scout?”
"She’ll have left trail markers. We have a horse here, Titan, but there’s no one to ride him and still have someone stay with the queen.”
"I can ride.” Robin startled them both. She was tired of being a stooge, and she was damned if she was going to tell them it had been eight years since she had been on a horse.
"Titan isn’t just a big name, are you sure you can handle him?”
"Just show me how the bridles work, and point me in the right direction.” Robin figured that Ephiny was used to confident women and would take her offer at face value, though little voices were screaming in her head, "Are you crazy?”
* * * *
It was already past sundown, but the road was clear. As they rode along, James seemed to be trying to adjust his balls so that they might have a future some day. Each slam along the road was probably taking him to a new place in pain, but he was still too shy to hold onto Robin tightly enough.
Finally Robin called back to him. "James, if you don’t hold onto me tighter, you’re going to fall off. I’m not made of glass and my job is to get you there.” He complied.
‘I could get to like this confident thing,’ she smiled to herself.
They met the scout who directed them to an inn in the next town. When they got there, James dismounted like an old man, and while Robin took care of the horse, he carefully walked up the stairs into the bar.
When Robin had ensured that Titan was all right and would be watered, she went to join him inside, and was immediately caught up in the most bizarre sight she had ever seen. Standing in the centre of this grungy tavern, this gorgeous woman, and it clearly seemed to be a woman, was holding a tall, rather handsome man against one of the walls, hoisting him above her with only one hand around his throat. Though somewhat constrained, he was attempting to speak.
"Not that Gabrielle isn’t a wonderful woman, a wonderful, wonderful, woman, but I would never, ever...” It was difficult to tell exactly how long this had been going on, but to judge by the colour of the man’s face, it would end soon.
To Robin’s amazement, James moved quickly to the middle of the room, and called out "Xena!”
‘That’s Xena?’ thought Robin. ‘ We just convinced some half- crazed prego that this was the father of her child?’
Xena dropped Autolycus like a sack of potatoes, and turned to James. From where Robin was standing, she couldn’t help but be shocked by the madness in her eyes. James managed not to move as she seemed to fly through the air silently, landing directly in front of him, and striking a quick blow to his neck. He collapsed instantly.
"You know everything, so you must know the drill,” Xena snarled, leaning over him.
"I didn’t know how painful it was.” he gasped.
Without thinking, Robin launched herself at Xena, and was flung away backwards with one arm, without the warrior even breaking her gaze.
"Talk. You know what I want to hear.”
James stared into her hate and pain filled eyes, and said only one thing. "Gabrielle sent me.”
The seconds ticked by. Horrified, Robin watched as a tendril of blood slipped from his nose, and still the two stared at one another.
Robin felt as though she were frozen, watching them, until a shift in the warrior’s expression indicated that some decision had been made, and the warrior struck again at James’ neck. James began to pant as if he could once again breathe.
Xena looked at him. "Now what?”
"What else, we sit down and we talk.”
Something passed over her eyes for a moment.
"How was Gabrielle?”
"After our talk she was laughing and smiling. I’m going to try for two for two, okay?”
With an angry and bruised Robin on one side and Xena on the other, ignoring the other bar patrons, they helped James over to the far corner of the room.
Robin tried to read the older woman’s expression, but it was a mask. Xena waved away both the waitress and Autolycus, before sitting down herself. They waited.
"I’m not the father,” he began. “And you don’t need to be out ‘interviewing’ poor Autolycus because both you and Gabrielle know who the father is already.”
"What crap have you sold Gabrielle?” the warrior growled.
"Look, I know when MY daughter was conceived, and I didn’t have half the bond with her mother, you two have. I have to assume you know when and where Gabrielle became pregnant.”
"So I’m to believe that some God gave me my greatest wish, and then didn’t ask for something in return, didn’t even take credit for it?” She gave a bitter laugh.
"All I had to do, was ask Gabrielle if she accepted that if hate could produce a child, why not love? The truth was enough for her. But for you, I’ll tell you my theory.” He paused to massage his throat. "Xena, I don’t have to tell you about Yin and Yang. Your whole life has been about balance. You know what Gabrielle is for you, and that night can’t exist without day.
“I don’t think that Dahok could exist without his opposing force, for lack of a better term. I also know three other things.
"One, as a favour to you, I asked Iolaus to follow you nine months ago. Herc checked out the Gods in Olympus, and Iolaus was with you on the ground. You had to wonder why Iolaus kept cropping up at some awkward times?”
"Any ways, they reported no strange God-like activities, at least from the Olympian Gods.”
He stopped. "Do you think that I could get a drink?”
There was a motion of the hand, and a full mug was immediately placed in front. Xena’s eyes were still focused on James’.
"Two,” she barked.
"Two, how did I know to tell them to look nine months ago?” Xena nodded almost imperceptibly. "Because I’ve seen the kid. Held her in my arms.”
Robin thought the warrior’s mask was about to crack at this, but instead she only nodded. James continued. "Knowing when the kid was born made it a bit easier.
"And three, why don’t you just ask your friend Jessan? He can See the bond. He’ll tell you the child is a product of that, and nothing else.”
This last part completely lost Robin, but she could see the effect that this had on the woman; but she still shook her head, denying it.
"The problem, Xena, is in your own words, your greatest wish has been granted! You still can’t believe that the little girl from Potadiea would stay with you. You can’t believe that she would eventually love you... so you know you can’t deserve this, right? You assume it has to be another punishment for all you’ve been.
"Well, maybe you’re right. Maybe a child made from your love is the perfect and final justice you’ve been waiting for.” Xena gave only a grunt, but she was definitely listening.
"Now I’m not talking about just a simple case of you trying to raise a miniature you. No, you live life too large for that to be sufficient. All the regular parent type stuff, the sleepless nights, and the worrying, the sicknesses, the spitting up, and the arguments? That wouldn’t be sufficient penalty for the Warrior Princess. No. So, I want you to think about what was accomplished by a certain girl, who started out with nothing, and lost everything she had that was important, and still became the conqueror of half of Greece.
"So consider this little girl, born as the Princess of the Amazons, with hundreds of warriors at her command from the moment she’s born. With one of the greatest warriors and tacticians the world has ever known as her devoted parent. The other parent, one of the most loved rulers, and the best negotiators I’ve ever seen. You tell me, all that potential, all that power, you don’t think you’d have Ares creaming in his leathers for her?
"You want to talk interference from the Gods? They’ll be standing in line for her, from Artemis to Zeus. Is that enough punishment for you yet?”
As James had begun to describe the future, Robin was sure there was some movement on the stone face. But it was only when she heard the break in the voice that she knew Xena was accepting all this.
"What will she look like, was she healthy, strong?”
There were tears in the crystal eyes now. James now moved forward to gently touch the warrior’s hand. "I saw her as a baby, but she’ll have Gabrielle’s hair, and your eyes.”
She pulled at her nose in a compulsive gesture, and mumbled, "All babies have blue eyes.”
"I didn’t say blue, I said your eyes. With the darkest eyebrows I’ve ever seen on a blonde.”
Now there was a storm about to break, but Xena surprised them by rising quickly, “then I should be getting...” she pointed vaguely in the direction of Amphipolis.
"Yeah, I think so.” Robin thought that she was going to shake James’ hand, but then she startled them both by grabbing him in an almost crushing hug. Still, she wouldn’t meet his eyes, and moving awkwardly for such a normally graceful woman, she quickly stumbled out, leaving them alone.
"Tell Gabrielle we’ll be along soon,” James yelled at the closed door. At this point the waitress decided to take a chance and dropped a bill on their table. It seemed to be a list of all the damages to the establishment as well as Autolycus’ bar tab.
"Now see,” James said pointing to the bill, "This is the kind of job satisfaction you just don’t get from your regular nine-to-five employment.”
Robin had just begun to congratulate herself on how well she was handling each shock, when she was again proved wrong. Out of nowhere, in a shower of dust, there appeared a beautiful, half-dressed woman. What astounded her more, was that James seemed completely nonchalant.
"Wow, like, you do good work.” The apparition certainly seemed friendly. “But I am a little bugged to find out Herc was just spying on us. I really figured he wanted a little quality family time.” Now she was pouting?
Robin’s body was rigid. She felt her lips moving but no words came out.
James finally decided that there should be introductions. "Aphrodite, this is Robin. Robin, meet the Goddess of Love.”
The woman appraised Robin coolly for moment. "I like this one, a little quiet, though, isn’t she?”
"She’s had a busy day. Listen, I would hesitate to put this as a favour, and you know that Xena would never ask for a God’s protection, but...”
"But it does seem to me that they are sort of a walking ad for Love Conquers All, and it might be in your best interest to make sure they have a level playing ground when certain family members become involved?”
"A walking ad for Love, huh? Yeah, I can see that. I’ll think on it. Anyways, just dropped in to say congrats and ask if you two...?” Pointing now at Robin quizzically.
"No, no." James said quickly. "Don’t need any help, just working together for now, bit of an accident, really.”
"What-ever,” said the Goddess as she swept a heavy tankard off the table on to James’ toes. Simultaneously both Robin and James grabbed their suddenly identically bruised feet.
"Just something I thought you both should know.” She smiled at the stunned and goggled-eyed Robin. "I like her. Very respectful. Don’t get enough of that anymore. Ciao!” There was a flash and the Goddess vanished.
Robin opened her eyes to sparking green. Gabrielle was in front of her on her knees. Ephiny was behind her holding a struggling child.
"Robin, are you all right? You just blanked out for a while there. Where’d you go?"
"I met Aphrodite?"
"What? When? How did she..."
"No, in Amphipolis, I was just remembering when I met for you the first time...."
Gabrielle’s expression became hopeful but then she looked deeper into Robin’s eyes and her face fell again. "But you only remember parts of it, right?"
Robin began to feel uneasy. "Is there something I should know about us, something..."
Gabrielle laughed, "Yes. No! Nothing like that, it’s... I’m being selfish. It’s just that there are certain experiences, that are so...important... that when the people you shared them with are gone, or lost, you lose a part of yourself, do you know what I mean?"
"Don’t let me put anymore pressure on you than you already have."
Robin looked up at a smiling Ephiny and the contents of her arms. "Is that...?"
Gabrielle grinned. "Yup, this is Lycea."
Her mother cocked her head and examined the golden haired child with a smile. "We think so. Would you like to hold her?"
Ephiny cautiously passed over the future ruler of her tribe, while Gabrielle remained with Robin, kneeling on the floor.
"Part of that memory, it seemed like there was a strange kind of connection between James and I, but..."
Gabrielle became still.
"Yeah. That’s probably something else we should talk about. Does it scare you?"
"What do you expect? I don’t know James, not really. I mean, we haven’t even been on a date, and suddenly..."
"Nobody is ‘expecting’ anything from you. James is a good person to have as friend. He wouldn’t rush you into anything, so don’t you go rushing yourself."
"What’s really weird to me," she said rocking Lycea in her arms, "is that I’m calmly accepting all of this. I met Aphrodite, for God’s sake! What is it about this place?"
"Well, from what James was willing to tell me about where you guys come from, I think I’d consider that most of what you think as normal, is just as amazing," the Queen pointed out. Robin just shook her head and began making cooing noises to the bundle in her arms.
"And Robin?" Gabrielle hesitated. "About the bed in your hut? That was a gift from Aphrodite. James and I knew nothing about it. James said he figures she passed something he called a No-tell Motel, whatever that is, on the way to pick you guys up, and brought it with her. She’s not always subtle with friends. We would have told you earlier, but James was afraid you might find the idea of Goddesses with bad taste a little more than you could handle right away."
Robin laughed. "He was right, but can you get it out of there?"
A galvanized Gabrielle leapt up to search through a pile of scrolls. "I’ve got a few ideas. ‘Cause you see, it’s too big for the door, so I figure we can lift up the hut with these levers Xena uses. But then I was thinking, that if we put some wheels here and here..." she put some drawings in front of Robin.
"But don’t you need something to attach them to, up above?"
Gabrielle wasn’t fazed. "Well, that’s where this tower comes in..." and she reached for some other sketches.
Robin found herself rolling her eyes. "What does Xena say?"
"She says sleep in the bed."
Meanwhile, the drinking had long since passed the point of being casual. Hercules had already kicked back more than he could remember in his life. ‘It really was nice’, he thought, ‘to have at least one safe place where no monsters or Gods can spring out at you. I wonder if Xena really appreciates being with the Amazons?’ He squinted across the table. She was relaxed, even smiling. ‘Gods’, he thought, ‘she must be pissed.”
No, he smiled. It wasn’t just the alcohol, and he wondered again at the change from the hate-filled woman he had once known. Not that she had lost any of the fire within, it was just...directed, he thought. He remembered when he had first heard that she was travelling with a young girl...who would have ever imagined...?
James had switched to tea when he discovered that he was too drunk to stand to go to the toilet. At one point, the weapons master, Eponin had been playing some incredibly dangerous knife drinking game with Xena, but had then disappeared. James vaguely hoped she was all right. What was bothering him was that he suddenly seemed to have at his command, all of the tribal laws of the Amazons, and he knew he had to bring the subject up.
He turned to his companions, concentrated on basic tongue function, and said, "I think I may have received a case file."
As he’d hoped, Xena knew what he meant and was immediately serious. "For here?"
Hercules moved closer. "What’s a case file?"
Figuring that Xena knew as much as he did, and was more able to communicate, James made a gesture of invitation to her and drank his tea.
Xena had questioned James carefully about his assignments. She now trusted the traveller as much as she could, considering that he seemed to be the pawn of unseen powers. Regardless of their proven good intent, Xena never trusted anything to do with powerful outside forces.
"When James arrives at a…" she searched her vocabulary unsuccessfully"...job,"
"Assignment," James interrupted.
Xena gave him a glare, which he ignored. "An assignment, he always has a complete scroll in his mind of all the information and profiles of the people he might need to bother..."
"...help, is the word."
"Yeah, right. Help, so he can do whatever he’s there for."
"And what does he do, exactly?"
Considering the grin on Xena’s face, James decided to field that one.
"I’m usually sent to someone in emotional pain. Actually, all I do normally, is talk to them. And then, if I’m successful in helping them deal with it, I pop back home, and for me, it’s as if no time has passed."
Xena added, "James is an empath, he finds these people by their pain. Emotional, not physical pain. He links with them,” a glance passed between the two that Hercules just caught, "some, more than others."
Now James was really rolling "But this trip, ‘cause Ap, Aphro, APHROdite... brought me, us, and it wasn’t as, anassing , a job, of course there were no files in my head."
"Until just now. This minute. But I’m wondering if it’s really a case or..." He belched.
"You see, Robin and I have this connection, a bond, but somehow it disappeared when we got home along with her memories of the whole trip. It was bad enough at home, but now we’re back here..."
He stopped and sipped from his mug.
"See, here I am, completely in love with her. And not only doesn’t she feel the same way, I managed to creep her out and now she hates me. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling jealous of everyone she talks with. I mean, she’s surrounded by hundreds of women, any of who, whom, could kick my ass in a second. Plus, in this corner, we have the Yin and the Yang of sexual attractiveness; the Warrior Princess and the Amazon Queen. And if I’m lucky and she doesn’t swing that way, we have Iolaus, Furking Autolycus, and, if that wasn’t enough," waving his hand in frustration towards the demi-god, "Fricking HERCULES!"
"I think I prefer mighty Hercules, but, go on," that worthy responded amiably.
"Sorry, mighty. Anyways, I’ve got to wonder whether this is a real file, or am I feeling so useless here, I wanted something to do just to impress the girl?"
"Tell us about the file," suggested Hercules.
"I suddenly seem to know all of the tribal laws of the Amazons."
Neither of his companions seemed impressed.
"Look, while we’ve been drinking, I’ve been thinking. About the way Robin and I were welcomed at the boundary. About some of the stares Herc and I have been getting, and I’ll tell you, some have been not too friendly. I saw maybe half of the troops loyal to Gabrielle in the infirmary having been Gabwacked...” He stopped and sipped the tea. "So a while ago, I went and figured I’d have a little chat with one of the guards. Bam!" Xena ducked as he flung out his hand. "I got a rant about feeble Amazons partying every night, children being assigned to watch men, and how this is supposed to be a warrior camp... I mean no one came out and gave me the line about Velaska was a better Queen, or that Gabrielle isn’t a real Amazon, but now I suddenly have all these regulations in my head..."
James faced Xena. "You’re the Queen’s Champion, right? That means you can take her place if someone challenges her for the Queen’s Mask. But did you know that there are still certain challenges that you hafta leave the Queen to take by herself?"
"So… when you’re joined, as Consort, those loopholes close."
Hercules watched as the gears began moving in Xena’s finely tuned brain. "So if anyone wanted to try a Queen’s Challenge directly against Gabrielle, their time is about run out, right? Tell me, what kinds of challenges?"
"Well, Here’s a good one. Civil War. If the majority of the ACTIVE warriors support the challenger, the challenger even gets to choose weapons. Gabrielle wouldn’t be able to use her staff. That’s the one I would worry about."
Hercules interrupted. "Wait, Civil War? Everybody loves Gabrielle."
Xena was grim faced "Maybe, but are they all completely convinced she’s taking them in the direction the Amazons should go? All these peace treaties, her refusal to kill..."
"Velaska had a lot of supporters, and they weren’t all banished, and with the lack of discipline of the past few days..." James added.
"Well, we can fix that fast enough." Instantly sober at the thought of a threat to Gabrielle, Xena stood up. "Where’s Eponin? We need to roust some of these soft butts."
"And get some real Knives at the throat. Loyal to Gabrielle," James suggested.
Hercules was still confused. "Why would we want that?"
"Because as the only men here, we’re the focus of anger, especially you. Because, if there’s a fight, they know where you’ll stand and you’ll be a target. Me, I may need someone who can help if I get hit with another hunch about what’s going on. And, oh yes," asked James nonchalantly, "While this is being organised, what are you going to tell the Queen?"
"I’m not going to tell her what we’re guessing. I’ll tell her what we know, which right now is nothing."
"Here’s a prediction from this oracle. You’re going to get yelled at."
"I’m a big girl. So where in Tartarus is Epinon?" Xena rumbled. "We need to get the watches out, security has to be checked out..."
From out of the dark came a complaining voice. "I told you all this days ago. But you were too busy building your fricking palace."
"Eponin? Where are you?"
"Where you furking left me, under the table with a knife pinning my arm to the chair!"
"Oh right... the game." Xena smiled. "You lost."
Leaving the planning of security in the hands of the experts, James decided to try to sober up with a stroll to the Queen’s hut to visit the now and future Queens of the Amazon Nation. He was almost there when he was struck by an anxiety attack that he recognized as coming from Gabrielle. He broke into a run, but just before reaching the hut he was passed by a blur he knew would be the Warrior Princess.
"What’s wrong?" He managed to gasp out when he finally got to the Queen’s hut.
Gabrielle was pointing to Lycea, standing alone in the centre of the room. Both Ephiny and Robin were tense, but Gabrielle was hyperventilating.
"Lycea, she’s, she’s walking!"
Seeing that Xena did not appreciate her fear, she emphasized, "She’s less than four moons old! And she’s walking!"
Figuring that he knew why Xena still didn’t understand, James moved behind Gabrielle.
"Relax `Ri. Xena, when did you start to walk?"
With a shrug Xena answered, "Three, four moons. Why?" This last was said with a hint of asperity.
Gabrielle looked across to the child and the warrior to see two pairs of identically confused blue eyes. She shook her head, sighed, and reached for her baby. James whispered in her ear in sepulchral tones, "I take it back. Be Afraid, Gabrielle, Be Very...Afraid."
Batting at him with one hand, Gabrielle kissed her child and then handed her over to her other mother and said to them, "She’s walking, so that’s going to mean You Know Who will be getting ready, sooner than we thought. So, I think we might consider Robin being here a Godsend. Maybe someone should talk to her and ask if she’ll help with The Plan?" She indicated a strawberry blonde hairpiece on a shelf. And with that cryptic remark, she grabbed her staff and asked James, "Would you like to go for a walk? I think I need to talk to Cyrene."
Hearing that Cyrene was still involved in the decorating of the wedding site, or more likely being roped into working at Salmoneous’ tavern, the two had a pleasant stroll through the village to the border, being stopped occasionally by various young Amazons. When they came to the boundary, James was surprised to see Eponin carrying her ale as well as new guard patrol assignments, while trying to explain her latest wound to Iolaus. It clearly wasn’t his first mug of the day either, and both seemed rather relaxed.
"Hey there," grinned Iolaus, as he stood for Gabrielle. She waved him back down, saying. "We’re just looking for Cyrene, I have a few questions for her."
"She went to check out some supplies, and she’ll be right back,” said Iolaus.
"Questions?” asked Eponin. "Like what?"
"It was just brought home to me that Lycea might be more like Xena than I thought, and I think I should ask the expert."
Iolaus and Eponin looked at each other. Then at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle was not amused by their expressions. Eponin ventured out first. "You’re going to ask Xena’s mother... for advice about child rearing?"
"Yes," Gabrielle responded patiently.
"Xena’s Mom?" Iolaus repeated in a strangled tone.
"Ye-es. Does that seem STRANGE to you?" Still being patient, but a little colder.
"Well, of course not." said Iolaus.
"Certainly," agreed Eponin.
"Wouldn’t want the child to grow up..." Iolaus searched.
"Unfriendly..." put in Eponin.
"Naughty...” added Iolaus
Gabrielle was tapping her foot by now.
Then of course," Iolaus considered, "You want to avoid any problems with normal sexual orientation..." and froze.
Gabrielle’s foot was no longer tapping. Iolaus looked up to see the Queen of the Amazons smiling a cold smile.
"I’ve always found Xena’s orientation, to be quite..." she searched for the right word, "...unerring." Pleased, she turned, and taking James’ arm, she walked regally away.
Behind them, they heard Iolaus and Eponin say together "Unerring?"
Night fell. Head aching, still buzzed from the afternoon and having learned more than he wanted to know about Xena’s childhood, James made his way back to his hut under the stars. There was a light burning inside, so he was cautious as he opened the door. The giant bed was still there filling the entire room, but sitting in the middle was Robin reading what he knew to be one of Gabrielle’s scrolls. She looked up and to his relief, smiled.
"Have you read any of these? They are incredible. How much of it is true? Did Xena really do these things? And the story telling...."
"You have to hear the storyteller herself, the scrolls are only a part of the performance. I’ve seen whole rooms of troglodytes crying in their beer when she gets going." ‘And the scrolls really are only part of the story’, he thought. He fell silent for a moment. This wasn’t the time for a serious talk. The combination of the events of the day and the after effects of the marathon drinking had him running on empty for some time. He could barely keep his eyes open. Robin didn’t seem to notice.
"Some of them are hilarious. Who is this poor sap Joxer? Is he here?"
He leaned over to see what she was reading, trying to ignore her proximity. It was titled ‘Been There, Done That’. He shook his head to try to clear it.
"Yeah, he’s not only here, but I think I lost some sort of bet while drinking with Xena today, and now I have to have a talk with him."
"He has always had a thing for Gabrielle, and apparently he didn’t see this coming. Xena wants him to feel better." He rolled his eyes.
"Xena cares about this guy?"
"She cares about all her friends. Loyalty is very big with her."
"So you have to make Joxer feel better about Gabrielle being gay, or not with him or what?"
"You think Gabrielle`s gay?" he thought he mumbled before finally passing out onto the bed.
He was struggling to open his eyes, because it was important that he wake up. There was this terrible ache in his stomach and he wasn’t alone. Everyone around him was groaning and he couldn’t stay standing on any of his many legs. Many legs?
He woke up.
Robin was gone. On their last visit she would always have a night ride with Titan, so he figured she might have fallen back into the habit, not even remembering it. His dreams were usually a kind of update to his case files, and always crucially important, but he was losing it rapidly. He tried to focus. He had been a horse? No human...Centaurs! What had Solari said? The Centaurs are securing the ...eastern entrance. Now, he thought, how sure am I that I know what it means? And where is a good Knife at the Throat when you need one?
"Hello? Who’s on duty?" hoping to the Gods that it was someone took their job seriously, not another sweet kid.
"What by Narcissus’ Nuts do you want?" came a familiar voice outside the door.
"Shit, is that you, Pony? What are you doing? Shouldn’t you be sleeping it off, or in the infirmary or both?"
The door opened and the big weapons master shambled in and bumped into the point of the foot of the bed. She swore at it.
"I’ll have you know that drinking helps me stay awake. Also, I took this duty because I would rather be on site, than dragged out of my bed if something happens. So,” Eponin perched on the edge of the ludicrous bed, "Is something happening?"
"Would you believe, I’d like you to try to put the whole village on as close to alert status as possible, but not wake anyone up."
She sighed loudly. "More information."
"I think we could be in big trouble, but I don’t want to bother anyone in case I’m wrong."
She rolled her eyes in disgust. "Civilians. Let me get Xena."
Outside they both heard the sound of an approaching horse. James turned to Eponin.
"You do what you can to prepare for an attack from the east side, but if that’s Robin, I’m going to hitch a ride and check out the Centaur camp. Soon as you can, you follow us, okay?"
"Wait, what kind of attack! What’s wrong with the Centaurs?"
"If I knew, I’d have you roust everyone, but all I’ve got right now is a bad feeling about the Centaur encampment. Tell Xena, and do what you can with whoever is already up. And get everything ready for whatever you do when there is an attack."
"Thanks for all the technical instruction."
The approaching rider was indeed Robin on Titan.
"Is he rested enough to go for a quick ride?" he asked her.
"Another midnight ride?" Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes were bright.
Realizing this meant she had recovered at least some of their previous excursion, he could not hide his exaltation and grinned back.
"Getting hooked on adventure?" he grunted as she pulled him up.
"There are worse things. Where are we going?"
"Whatever looks east. It’s June, so the line should be right along the sunset, ride away from the sunset." ‘The sunrise, shit’, he thought. He yelled back to Eponin "My vague hunch is now centred around dawn. Does that help any?"
"Apparently not" he mumbled into Robin’s shoulder as they galloped away from the Weapons Master’s cursing.
"I hope you have some better directions once we start through the woods," she called back to him as they left the village.
"What? Can’t tell the direction from the stars? Oh, Miss Big Amazon in Training?"
"What’s that supposed to mean?" she yelled over the hoof beats.
"You asked Gabrielle about some sort of staff training, so she signed you up for the whole nine yards. As of this afternoon, you are a member of the tribe for as long as we stay. You already swore your oath last time you were here, so you join the rest of the trainees tomorrow. Unless you don’t want to?"
"Are you kidding?" She made a credible Amazon cry and Titan moved into overdrive. "Are you all right back there?"
"Bruises on top of my bruises but keep it up!"
"Yeeeaaahhh" yelled the Amazon in training.
All James had to direct her with was his gut, the sense of wrongness that had woken him early, but within a half hour they approached the silent camp. No guards or sentries were visible. They hastily dismounted and approached the larger of the tents. Sprawled out front were two Centaurs.
"They’re still breathing," Robin told the relieved James after a quick examination.
"Of course. Whoever did this didn’t want to make any permanent enemies. Not here, and not yet, at least. Give me a second to think." He looked up at the range of mountain cliffs that ringed the eastern gate.
"Okay. You’ve got to ride back and take a message. Let’s see. One, describe the conditions here. Two, say that it’s got to be an attack at dawn when the sun will be in the eyes of anyone coming from the village. Now, we still don’t know what kind of attack, who or what we’re facing, but they are probably working with people inside the nation. So…" he made his decision. "Three. Tell Xena to get the wedding present I left with Ephiny the last time I was here. Make sure Gabrielle has it and points it ..." he followed the ridge with his eyes. "There, right where that tree stands alone in the cleft. Can you see it well enough to describe it to someone so they can find it?"
"Are you sure? Can you repeat what I said?"
When they were sure she had it down, she mounted again, and hesitating, surprised him by clasping his hand for a brief moment, before riding off. He stood watching her for a moment, and then started to make his way to the base of the cliffs.
Xena was not one for subtle alerts. When Eponin rousted her, she had immediately begun waking up the rest of the warriors she and Pony trusted. As they waited, already mounted, watching the preparations, the weapons master brought up her concerns.
"You know, that by bringing only loyalists to what is probably a trap, we’re doing exactly what whoever planned this wants us to do."
"I know, but if the choice is to ride into an attack with friends or traitors, I pick friends."
Gabrielle had been wakened without the usual struggle. Sleeping without Xena had not been conducive to deep sleep. So she was dressed and ready to take her position on Argo while many of the warriors were still putting on their leathers. Ephiny looked as though she might object when she saw Gabrielle on Xena`s horse, but she was satisfied with a reminder that neither was to leave Amazon territory now that Lycea was walking. She was the first to see Robin, and they rode to meet her.
"Wedding gift? Ride halfway?" sputtered Eponin. "I mean, I like him, for a guy he’s okay, but he’s got all the military smarts of a carrot. I’d rather Argo was plotting this defence."
"We go with the man in the field until he makes a mistake," decided Xena.
Robin would not wait, and had already begun the ride back hoping that Titan still had one more trip left in him. The Joining present was found with a parchment attached, and so with Argo in the lead, they began a slow march towards the eastern gate.
Aware of Ephiny watching her like a chaperone, Gabrielle dropped the arm that had been holding Xena and unwrapped the gift. She was able to read the parchment in the bright moonlight. It seemed to be mainly a series of warnings.
My dearest friends, (James had written,)
I hope you realize what you and your joining means to me. We three all know that my visits could end at any time, and if I never see you again, I need to give you one last gift to keep you both alive and together. I am breaking every rule I’ve told you about not changing the past by giving you what is inside, but I have to balance my honour with my love for you both, and I know that my trust in your honour is merited. What is in this bag will not come into use for over one thousand years. In this form, maybe two thousand. The possibilities for altering the future are endless, especially in your hands.
Xena, this could allow you to truly conquer the world. Gabrielle, it could allow you to control it. I have designed it so it can be hidden and carried safely without its true use being discovered. Arrangements must be made for its destruction upon your deaths. Please Xena, use it as a defensive weapon, Gabrielle, please use the information gained for your own use, and may the Gods forgive me.
I love you both,
“What by Hades has he got in here?” Gabrielle muttered. “When we see him again, I’ll tell him a nice set of dishes would have been fine.” Gingerly she unwrapped the heavy package revealing what looked like one of her regular leather scroll cases. By this time, Xena had finished the note.
"If it’s some new kind of black powder, I’m all for destroying it now."
"It looks like just a scroll case so far." She unsnapped the clips and almost dropped the two clear glass disks that slid out. "So that’s what he had the glass blower make, at least that explains why he needed all those dinars. Wow! They’re flawless!
"Okay, there’s more instructions. They snap in at either end apparently..." There was a click as they fit in position. "Now we pull on the ends..." and she watched as the scroll case extended until it was triple its original size. " Oh, that’s clever, there’s a series of smaller covers inside. Now what? ‘Gabrielle’, that would be me, ‘Look through the smaller end,’ that would be this one, ‘and point the other at the moon. You can turn the scroll closest to your eye to focus.’ Okay, I can do tha....GREAT APOLLO IN THE MORNING!!"
"What?" Xena quickly brought Argo to a halt. She looked at her partner who was shaking.
"The moon is round," the bard said quietly.
"The MOON is ROUND."
"I know the moon is round."
"Not just round, round. All the way around."
"Is that what this gift is, the gift of insanity?"
"No, you dumb warrior, look through the small end and point it at the hillside."
Then there was silence. Long and complete.
Then Xena began to rant, forgetting entirely the impending crisis.
"Do you know what I could have done with this? Do you know how many men I could have saved by knowing where to attack ahead of another force? I could have moved armies like pieces on a chessboard! The signals I could have sent over ten times the distance of any other army, the..."
"Do you realize the secrets I could discover?" Gabrielle blurted." Things no one is supposed to guess at, I could prove!"
Then simultaneously, "We can’t keep it."
"On the other hand, it could be a defensive weapon. We could do reconnaissance from a distance instead of risking our lives every time." Ignoring her Regent, Gabrielle moved up to behind Xena’s ear and whispered, "We could finally not worry ‘bout being surprised while on the road... we could... relax sometimes, hmmm?"
Crawling up a cliff in the dark had left James with several more scrapes and bruises, but he noted that nothing seemed to be bleeding seriously. He was in the cleft on the hillside, in position, and there was a camp below him, preparing for an attack. There was light enough now, and he shifted from time to time to watch the horizon where he hoped the Amazon forces would halt before approaching any further. He figured that the renegades were waiting to capture or kill the dawn courier, to trigger their scheme. When she failed to report, a small hand-picked force would be sent out from the village to investigate, only to be slaughtered. Then the Queen’s slack reign would be blamed for the losses, the loss of loyalists. Simple enough, but who were the leaders? Not this group below him. What he assumed were the banished Velaska Amazons were pointedly avoiding a dozen or more greasy males. Probably paid mercenaries. It would still be an hour before the sun was fully over the horizon, what would they do when the courier never came?
It was then that he caught the sight of what he was hoping were horses moving in his direction, but was it only his imagination that saw the flash that might be glass? ‘Please,’ he prayed, ‘let them stop’, as he watched the renegade Amazon archers prepared to move into various positions below him. ‘And please, let Gabrielle be the one with the telescope.’
The Warrior Princess might have many skills, but one of them was not Charades. He stood up, and sheltered by the outcropping from the army below, began waving.
"I see him!" Gabrielle cried out excitedly. She pulled her eye away from the lens and marvelled again at the change in perspective. She adjusted the lens and continued to view, calling out to Xena in front.
"He’s got his hand in front... he’s motioning to stop."
"Great." groused Eponin sidling over on her mount. "We’ve already stopped. What’s the next bit of strategic brilliance?"
"He’s doing something with his head, and neck..."
"Oh, God’s..." Epinon moaned.
"No, it’s head dresses and necklaces.... Amazons?"
"Banished Velaska supporters. Gotta be." Xena said. "How many?"
"He’s holding out his palm... five?" She watched as James mimed an imaginary drawstring. "With bows...now he’s pointing... they’re ringed around to his right...."
"We would have ridden right into that," Xena called back to the waiting mounted warriors. "Dismount!"
"Now he’s rubbing his finger and thumbs..."
Now Eponin was amazed, "You can see that?" she said staring at the cliff face.
"He’s giving something to someone, paying them..."
"Mercenaries," Xena was already off Argo, gathering the commanders together. "How many and where?"
"Five, ten, fifteen..." Both Xena and Eponin tensed as the count continued and relaxed when it stopped. "Twenty. All grouped directly behind the archers."
"No back-up, no sentries?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Why would they think they’d need them? Wait, he’s indicating we split into two and circle behind them."
"Gee, thanks James. Maybe we’ll just try that," Eponin said sarcastically.
"Now he’s pointing, there’s someone approaching. He wants to know who it is? Oh God’s, it’s Robin!"
Xena already had split the forces into two groups of twenty-five and given command of them to Ephiny when she heard Gabrielle. She grabbed the telescope and grunted in dismay.
"She’s too far ahead for us to stop her, but James has left his position and is going down towards her. Since you and I can’t cross the border to fight, maybe we can help them. But, I don’t think we can make it in time."
Tying off their horses, the three crouched low and began to run.
For disclaimers, see part 1
Songs used in this part are used without permission
Hay una Mujer Desaparecida by Holly Near
Testimony by Ferron
Mail is always appreciated and answered
As he ran, James kept reminding himself that if he was seen by the archers he wouldn’t live to warn Robin, so he forced himself to keep to the side of the ridge and behind the brush that hid him from the rival army. His heart was pushing the other way though, urging him to charge down by the straightest course to call out to her. He ran towards the base of the hill, his arm catching occasionally on an outcropping, scraping at his flesh, once nearly twisting his ankle as it slipped into a hole. Finally near the bottom, he stopped, gasping, to get his bearings and saw one of the archers had spotted Robin and was moving into position for a shot.
"Shit, I’m never going to make it," he cursed. There had to be a way, someway he could stop her and not warn the rebels. There was a grove of trees right along the ridge he was on, that rose up above the path Robin was riding towards. He should be able to intercept her at that point, he thought.
He had almost reached the interception point when he could see through the trees that the archer was drawing a bead on her. Panting, he saw Robin had made herself a perfect target and he knew that there wasn’t going to be time even for a warning yell. As he leaped down towards her, he felt rather than saw the release of the arrow, and time seemed to almost come to a stop as he hurtled towards her.
A conversation with Xena about being fired upon had flashed through his mind, and he remembered her saying ‘present a profile, harder to hit and you protect the vitals’, and in this strange time-suspended moment he had time to turn his body as he leapt. He thought that the arrow striking would feel like a knife and there would be a simple shock, not pain, but he was wrong again. There was a great agonizing impact as it hit him hard on the right shoulder, knocking him slightly off trajectory. But he still seemed to have all the time in the world as he grabbed at Robin, hoping to pull her down off Titan and carry her to the culvert below. There was a moment of panicked struggle from Robin as he pulled at her, and he knew that because of the great height of the horse, and his own weight pushing her down, any muscle tension could be deadly.
So using his forward momentum, and against every instinct he had, he struck her across the jaw. As he pulled her body into a protective embrace, he felt her go limp and her feet ‘thank God!’ pulled out of the stirrups as they fell to the side of Titan. Still amazed at the slowness of their fall, he almost forgot to begin the roll to distribute the impact while relaxing his own limbs until the ground was all that he could see, and then there was nothing at all.
"Hades, one of those bitches shot James."
"Where? How’s Robin?"
"I don’t know yet, check for broken bones, that was a big fall. They might have internal injuries too."
Robin felt someone raise her gently. Damn, she hurt. Her jaw, shoulder, sides, especially her right shoulder. She lay still while the examination was made, and felt vaguely resentful when she was pronounced fine. She heard James complaining querulously that he was fine as well, but Gabrielle just snorted at that.
Eponin was asking him how he could have landed and not have broken anything.
"Parachute class at home." James tried to sit up, but the searing pain convinced him to stay where he was. He realized that he was surrounded by blank looks. "You jump from high places with some… material above you, that catches the wind and slows your fall," he explained. "But they also train you how to land if there are problems. How to roll and distribute the shock. And I had all the time in the world to do it too. I had so much time, I presented only profile..." He stopped at a shimmer of understanding, and looked at Xena. She was nodding.
"That’s how you two do what you do, isn’t it? You both seem to move so fast, but to you it’s all in slow motion. The adrenaline speeds your mind or something."
Xena was grinning, and smirked. "If you had all that time, why didn’t you just catch it?" pointing to the arrow.
James grumbled, "Wimps catch the arrows in their hands." The warrior laughed.
Robin finally spoke out. "Would someone do something about MY shoulder, damn it?"
She opened her eyes and saw Gabrielle staring at her from the ground with an Amazon behind her. James and Xena were on either side of her, and the positions were so familiar. She followed their glances to her completely unmarked right shoulder, but the pain from it hit her again, and once more an intense stream of memories struck her, overwhelming her.
Once more, she was in Amphipolis. A very pregnant Gabrielle was arguing with Saras, who had ridden all day to be there and now was not pleased to have her advice rejected. The Amazon Queen was lying on a litter being dragged along the ground by Xena who had a wicked smirk on her face. The expectant Queen was red in the face and yelling.
"I am not staying in that furking room any longer, Saras! I am not sick. This,” pointing at her belly, "isn’t an injury or a disease! It’s my baby and it’s going to be born under the same stars it was conceived under!”
Xena drawled, "The Queen has spoken, Saras.”
Gabrielle now turned on her warrior. "You, you shut up and pull.”
She lay back as another contraction hit her and Robin instinctively grabbed her hand and felt her own groin pinch and flare. She rode out the pain until it passed, and looked to Gabrielle in astonishment. James and Xena looked over at Gabrielle and from his own pain-filled hunched position he questioned, "That wasn’t as bad, was it?”
Gabrielle nodded and looked up at Robin, who shyly suggested, "Maybe if we were holding hands each time, it would help?”
In silent assent, Xena pulled Gabrielle’s pallet to the centre by the fire they had built and began to move the log seats around her. James picked up his present from Gabrielle. She had commissioned an Amazon craftswomyn for the addition of a sixth string to a five string lute, and with some ingenious adjustable clamps as frets, James was trying to tune it as a classical guitar. Xena listened to him for a while and growled, "I still say you should have just learned to play the lute.”
He ignored her, and looked to Robin, asking, "How’s this?” and played a G chord. Robin grimaced; it was getting closer, but...
They had just gotten settled, and Saras had left predicting dire consequences, when James called out "Incoming!”
Robin grabbed Gabrielle’s left hand and Xena her right, and James dropped the instrument and closed the circle. Immediately they all felt a muscle grinding, tensing pain that left them grateful when it had passed.
They looked to Gabrielle who nodded weekly. "Much better”, but she looked at each of her friends questioningly. Robin spoke what was on their minds.
"I don’t know why we can do this, I’m just glad we can. For some reason we’re in this together, and we’re going to help. Okay?”
Gabrielle smiled crookedly, and said, "Much more than okay.”
James picked up the pseudo guitar again and Xena, after whispering a few words to Gabrielle, began adding to the fire. Robin stopped her and said, "I can do that,” and motioned her back to sit by Gabrielle.
She watched the couple as their foreheads touched gently. Sometimes it was hard to think of Xena that way. Except when the warrior was with Gabrielle. She had been so frightened of Xena, intimidated by both her beauty and presence even before she had heard about her warlord days. But here and now, observing the tenderness between the two of them, and the gratitude she had tried to express every time Robin or James did some small thing for her bard, she now knew where James found the courage to occasionally confront her. There was a core of loyalty to friends and family that overrode any of her inner violence. All you had to do was simply touch her heart, and she could never hurt you again. She looked up to see Xena watching her gather the wood. There was that strange wordless exchange between them, a passing of some kind of sympathetic awareness that she felt with James sometimes, and then the warrior turned back to her bard.
"There,” yelled James triumphantly, startling her. He immediately began banging a boogie riff in E, until the strings stretched and he had to stop to tune again.
"There is no way,” Robin pointed at his hands, "That you are going to introduce Rock and Roll to Ancient Greece. Got that?”
"But I could be Elvis!” he mock whined.
"No, you couldn’t,” but gave him a kiss on the forehead seeing his disappointment. "We’re all here for a while, so let’s figure out what we can sing.”
James thought. "Nothing based on rhyme alone. I’ve tried it before, and it doesn’t seem to survive the translation from English to whatever it is we’re all talking. Presumably modern French wouldn’t do any better. And that would rule out most syncopation as well, because it’s based on the beat of the words.”
"Well, what does that leave?”
"Any simple songs, or ones with real poetry in the lyrics.”
As the hours passed, between contractions, Robin sang with Xena, working out the concept of harmonies. Gabrielle told stories, and Saras would interrupt periodically to remind the Queen that she had promised to return at the slightest complication. Ephiny had gotten over her resentment at not being able to join the ‘contraction circle’ as she called it, and sat behind Gabrielle, occasionally massaging her queen’s aching back muscles.
Finally James took over the guitar and began to play. He began with songs of children, and switched to laments of love and wars, before switching to a song by Holly Near. With Xena and James as the basses;
And the Junta....
Ephiny’s tenor would join in,
And the Junta...
then Robin’s clear contralto:
And the Junta knows...
And Gabrielle with the weakest voice, but still the most creative in finding a new or different harmony between the singers;
And the Junta knows where they are hiding her,
And their sounds filled the clearing and glowed with the fire and the anticipation and sense of the uniqueness of the moment. Several times, various guards on the perimeter had attempted to approach with some message, and had been stopped by the almost physical barrier that had been created by their circle.
When James next tried a song by Cris Williamson, Robin finally decided to corner him.
"What is it with the gay songwriters? How do you know all this stuff?"
James seemed shocked. "Robin. Gay Songwriters? These are folk songs. Like Woody Guthrie. Some are songs about what’s wrong, and unfair or how things should be. They’re political and some are about human values and feelings, and when they’re well written I want to play them."
She stared him down.
"Okay. That’s all true but... there’s a song I want to do, and I’m softening you guys up so that the irony of a man singing won’t be as... apparent."
"What is it?" she asked.
"I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar."
She hit him.
"OK! No, it’s by a fellow Canadian, Ferron. It’s called Testimony. I just hope I remember all the words."
Despite breaks for contractions, by half an hour they had the first few verses of the song down.
There’s Godlike, and warlike, and strong like on-ly some show
There’s sad like and mad like, and had like we all kno-ow...
But by my life, be I spirit.
And by my heart, be I Woman.
And by my eyes, be I open.
And by my hands, be I whole.
There were many other songs as the waiting continued, but as the night drew on Testimony was requested again, especially by Gabrielle. She simply said it gave her strength. Robin could see that Ephiny was memorizing the song for future camps, and she wondered what the implications would be for Ferron to know her song had been sung around ancient Amazon campfires.
She decided that the writer would probably appreciate it.
It was only after a particularly heavy contraction that left them all weak for a moment, that James introduced the third verse.
You young ones, you’re the next ones
And I hope you choose it well
You can be baited, and trade it
For the Jaded Jewel.
But by your lives, be you spirit.
But by your eyes, be you open.
And by your hearts, be you women.
And by your hands, be you whole...
Earlier in the night, there had been a crying towel that had been passed between them when the emotions had overflowed. Occasionally with jokes and smirking comments. But that had long since passed. They had also stopped breaking the circle of hands between contractions, and while James played, Xena and Robin’s hands lay across his lap completing the circle. With this last verse there was no attempt to wipe away the tears, and the only movement occurred when Xena leaned over to very gently touch Gabrielle’s belly with her lips.
If the third verse had been a prayer, the fourth was a declaration of purpose.
Listen, there are waters,
Hidden from us
In the maze we find them still.
We’ll take you to them,
You take your young ones,
May they take their own in turn.
And by our lives, be we spirit...
And by our hearts, be we women
And by our eyes, be we open....
And by our hands, be we whole....
And the moon and stars were listening and waiting, and the whole universe was complete within that group and they were part of a greater whole like nothing she had ever experienced before and Robin caught Gabrielle’s eyes and knew that they were both sharing the identical thoughts: ‘I will never, ever forget this moment, this night. I will hold it with me until I am an old woman, I will never forget...’
Robin couldn’t move. She felt overburdened by the memory, by joy and pain. She tried to find her way back to the present, to the attack, her shoulder, and James being hurt, but the first thing she saw was Gabrielle and she felt such a sense of shame that was almost a kind of betrayal, and she broke down, reached out to the bard and clutching her, cried, "Gabrielle I’m so sorry. I swore I would never forget and..."
And then they were both crying and Gabrielle was laughing through her tears, "I told you I was being selfish..."
Whatever she might have said next was cut off by the pain that shot through Robin’s shoulder, and she looked over to see that Xena had just thrust the arrow backwards through James’ arm.
"I thought you said I wouldn’t feel it, that I’d probably just faint," James complained.
Xena sniffed at the arrowhead for poison. "I used to tell people it would hurt like Tartarus, but I found they tensed up." She put her hand out without looking and Gabrielle dropped a needle and thread into it. Robin wanted to turn away, but the pain was just as strong whether she watched or not.
"I missed something didn’t I? How did you, we, get that arrow?"
James tightened as the needle passed through his skin. "There was a sale," he said through clenched teeth.
Gabrielle held Robin’s hands as she explained. "You were riding into an ambush. James got between that arrow and your heart."
Robin stood, but she had nowhere to go, so instead she slumped down beside Xena. "What do you say?" she mumbled. "I never had anyone save my life before." The warrior didn’t respond. Gabrielle took one of her hands again and laid it on James’.
She swallowed, and faced him. "Why did you do it?"
James looked away. "I don’t know. Why did you come ahead and not wait for the cavalry?"
Robin gripped James` hand hard, and they both grimaced as Xena tied off the last of the stitches.
Eponin coughed. "Excuse me, but isn’t there a civil war going on somewhere? I think we have a few decisions to make."
Her question broke through each of their thoughts.
"She’s right. And though I’m assuming that forty plus trained Amazon warriors aren’t having any problems subduing twenty-odd rag-tag mercenaries, this doesn’t solve the bigger problem, does it?" James said to Xena.
An idea began to form in Xena’s mind. "And even if we capture a few who might name names, we still will have a danger to..."
Robin interrupted. "So we need to get them to expose themselves, and crush them completely in front of the rest of the tribe…"
Robin and Xena were both now thinking out loud.
"But if they thought we’d lost,”
“Then the ones in the village would have to think..."
"But we’d need casualties..."
"We’d need some…sheets? The centaurs wouldn’t mind losing a few sheets in a good cause, would they?"
"There are some berries on the hillside that would be perfect..."
"As a genuine casualty, James could go ahead..."
Xena and Robin stopped, noticing that the others were staring at them. Eponin asked, "Who’s bonded to who?"
Xena looked at Robin and they both shrugged. "Straightforward tactics, that’s all."
Robin added "A leads to B leads to C."
"Exactly. We need materials for litters and berries for blood. James, I’ll show you where the berries are. Sorry to make you run around, but you can’t tear sheets into bandages, and we’re going to need lots of them."
The march home was a dismal affair, as the litters and casualties were brought slowly through the village to the hospice. Saras, regardless of her loyalties, had followed instructions. She had examined James and had put him prominently on display while waiting for the rest to arrive. It didn’t take long before there was a crowd of Amazons staring dumbfounded as the injured continued to be carried in. Several older Amazons began to work their way among the crowd of watchers, whispering and commenting. Finally the Queen arrived, untouched and unhurt, for she’d refused to join the charade. She stood, staff in hand, waiting.
Robin had positioned herself behind the crowd, and she could see that Gabrielle was as angry as she had ever seen her. Gone was the gentle bard; this was a furious Queen. She wasn’t surprised when the pompous Amazon, who had nearly barred their entrance to the tribal grounds on the first day, stepped forward. Behind her were several younger Amazons, and there was a shocked expression pasted onto each of their faces.
"Are you here to take responsibility for what you have brought my people to?" the big warrior accused.
"Raza, what a surprise,” Gabrielle answered coldly. “And what are you claiming I’ve done?"
"You have tried to remake a nation of warriors into submissive fools. You have contaminated our sacred grounds by allowing men to wander it at will. You were never entitled to the mask you wear, and now, by bringing us to defeat in battle, you have proved yourself unworthy of it as well."
Robin assumed that Gabrielle would know to interrupt before a challenge was properly issued, and looked about for Xena. But the Queen had had enough of this and cut in on the speech.
"Interestingly, the only injury to my forces was one of those males contaminating the land. And he shed it saving the life of one of our trainees," she replied coolly.
"The only injury? What do you call these?" Raza pointed to the bloody bodies that lay around them.
"I call them the mercenaries hired by your dinars," Gabrielle’s voice carried across to the crowd of onlookers. "I call them the traitors who were banished for following the murderess, Valasca." She strode over and reached into the pallets, tearing off the gag on one of the renegades, who obligingly babbled, "She promised us we could return to the Nation, Raza promised us..."
The rest of the pallets were turned over to reveal men wrapped and immobilized by their supposed bandages. Gabrielle continued mercilessly, "I call them men, that YOU hired, women YOU ordered to fire, in AMBUSH, upon your own SISTERS! But even in this despicable treachery, you were incompetent.” Her eyes blazing, Gabrielle was barely aware that her loyalists had now moved to stand behind her. But her words reflected their presence.
“Those soft troops you just criticized, took less than a QUARTER of a candlemark to find, defeat and capture, WITHOUT any injury, all of the forces you had under your command. This would be YOUR leadership?” Gabrielle slowly moved her eyes from Raza and spoke only to the gathered tribe. “Amazons, do you wish to support THIS woman as Queen?"
Raza was now standing entirely alone, as her supporters had long since melted away.
She had stood motionless, as the small, enraged woman in front of her had torn apart her greatest dream at the very moment she thought it had been accomplished. She needed almost no provocation, and Gabrielle was counting on it. The Leader of the Nation calmed herself, and gripped her familiar staff.
"So, Raza, you still want to challenge your Queen?"
Gabrielle had made her evaluation of her opponent. About a foot taller and almost twice her weight, all of it muscle. Left-handed.
Raza had never sparred with her, and she knew that the renegade’s plan had centred on gaining her own choice of weapons, not wanting to face the Queen’s staff. Gabrielle had saved choice of weapons, but was she prepared to take on this mountain with a staff? One of the village’s best swords, and those vicious little throwing knives she was so skilled with? And had she already palmed one?
Yes, Gabrielle could see that the fingers of her right hand were fully extended, hiding the blade. The Queen took a moment to glance over the crowd, finding her lover immediately. Xena gave her a quick nod, the picture of confidence in the skills of her bard, but Gabrielle saw the pain in the eyes of a small Amazon standing in front of the warrior, and realized that Xena was unconsciously clutching the poor warrior.
Xena was a mixture of outer stoicism and inner turmoil. One part quietly evaluating each combatant’s stances and positioning, the other screaming silently, ‘the knife...in her right hand...she’s going to throw it and go for your right shoulder with the sword…’
‘She knows that’, she told herself. ‘You know, she knows that...’
Her bard’s voice, beautiful to her even when laced with sarcasm, called out, "Are you going to fight? Or have you hired someone to do that for you as well?"
Then suddenly, the challenger broke. With a cry, and an upraised sword, Raza charged forward. Gabrielle batted away the thrown knife and dropped her right side, then used her staff to pivot away from the whistling sword. She had no chance to strike, but was just grateful she had survived the first rush. As she turned and prepared for the next attack, she once again looked to her warrior.
"Xena you’re hurting her..." she called to her. The warrior didn’t understand, until she looked down at her hands and saw they were gripped like talons into the shoulders of the Amazon in front of her, that the girl would have fallen to her knees in pain if the warrior hadn’t been holding her up. She quickly released her grasp, and the small Amazon looked up with relief and gratitude. Xena returned the look with embarrassment and mute apology. ‘How did she do that?’ Xena thought. ‘How did she take a moment in a fight for her life to stop me from hurting someone?’ And not for the first time thought, ‘But that’s who she is. Despite what I’ve done to her.’
Gabrielle stumbled under the force of the second of the two upper body blows. Her ears were throbbing from the crack of the flat of the blade against her staff. Aware that the larger woman was forcing her into a crouch, she managed to push against both legs in time to leap as the blade swept across along the ground. Knowing that Raza had thrown all her weight to the move, Gabrielle was able to give a hard strike along the renegade’s outer thigh and use the momentum of the blow to move away from her. Even in her pain, Raza moved to palm another of her knives, and Gabrielle knew that she had to knock that dangerous right hand out of commission.
‘Damn me to Tartarus. This is my fault.' Xena thought. Flashes of Gabrielle as she had first seen her. That innocent little girl, who was supposed to be farmer’s wife. ‘She’s been brought to this moment because of me. Forced to fight, to die or kill, because of a crown and mask she never asked for. And even if she wins, she’ll never wash off the blood. I’ll have stood here and done nothing. Nothing but watch like she was an animal in a ring.’
Raza was already panting heavily, Gabrielle noted, and concentrated on her own breathing, knowing that her seeming calm would further enrage the other warrior. ‘And the Queen mustn’t sweat’, she told herself, not enjoying the irony. ‘But all the Queen wants, is to be so far from all of this, to be beside a flowing stream in the arms of her lover. But,’ she reminded herself, ‘you won’t have that chance if you don’t focus.’ She forced herself not to look to where the knife was, remembering to watch the eyes...
‘The eyes, Gabrielle, the eyes will tell,’ Xena thought. ‘She won’t try the same thing twice, this time the sword will be first..."
Raza looked to the apparently confident woman waiting for her, and knew she had to rattle the smaller woman if she was to win. She called to her, "This isn’t a practice, QUEEN," she sneered. "It’s kill or be killed. Can you do that?"
Gabrielle gave no sign that she heard the taunt; she stood silently, her weight ready to shift the moment she could read the attack.
But in her mind she knew the effect those words would have on her love, and she spared a quick glance at the warrior, knowing that those around Xena only saw her mask. ‘God’s, she must be frantic’, and she willed her green eyes to meet blue and say through them, ‘it will be all right, love, everything will be all right,’
That done, she turned and forced her anger to rise. She looked at Raza, not just as the attempted murderer of HER Amazons, but as the thing that was hurting her lover, an obstacle to them being together.
Xena had felt Gabrielle’s gaze like a caress, and in that second felt her heart rate begin to return to normal. ‘She WILL be all right,’ she knew. ‘She is the Queen. She’s the valiant woman I am proud chose me. She will be fine.’ She watched as Gabrielle’s eyes darkened, and instead of fearing that expression, cheered her on. ‘Get her...’
As Gabrielle had anticipated, the sword came first, but instead of evading it as Raza had expected, Gabrielle only stepped back, leaving herself open, and in her greed and eagerness, the renegade tried to switch plans in mid attack and arrived, prepared for neither. As she pulled back her throwing arm, she gave the Bard the second she needed, and moving faster than Raza could have ever expected, made a light thrust to the sword arm, and knocked it out of position. A quick shift of her hands spun the staff and let her put the whole of her momentum into a blow to the right elbow. There was an audible crack, and the knife fell from the useless fingers. Raza withdrew, only her eyes indicating her fear and pain.
‘Damn this woman, Damn her to Hades’, and swinging her sword wildly, Raza rushed again.
There was no fire in Gabrielle’s eyes, but the chin showed her determination as she turned from defence to a systematic attack, striking the larger woman almost at will. In her mind, she calculated the centre of gravity, and when Raza attempted to slice her in the midst of a pivot, Gabrielle saw her chance and swept her feet from under her. Ignoring the cheers, she placed her foot on the renegade’s stomach, and the end of her staff at her throat.
"Yield," she demanded.
The panting Amazon shook her head. "You can’t end it this easily. Kill me, or let me stand to fight."
Gabrielle looked into her eyes, and knew that the warrior would not yield, not yet. She still had no more options than when she had begun this joust. She could call for her guards, and Raza would be arrested and dragged away, to sit for days and then be executed for treason. In her name, and in cold blood. Banishment had never been an option for this dangerous traitor. She could force her to fight her champion, but that would be just another form of execution. She had defended her throne, as a true Amazon, why wasn’t that enough? But kill her in battle? Could she? And wouldn’t that give Raza a victory as well?
Robin and Xena were right. Raza and what she stood for had to be crushed. For the mask and for the nation. It was better she died now. Gabrielle stepped back.
‘Gabrielle NO!’ Xena moaned as Gabrielle released the renegade to the murmurs of the crowd. ‘Why wouldn’t you leave her to me?’ Every thought that had flashed through the Queen’s mind might have been shouted aloud, the warrior knew her so well.
Raza slowly stood, and this time began her attack cautiously, but with even less success. The bard gave a demonstration of how to blow by blow, limb by limb, immobilize your opponent. Dazed, jeered at by the crowd, the renegade could feel the humiliation on top of the pain. Once again she was knocked down and the Queen stood above her fallen opponent, seemingly untouched, grim faced. Raza lay in agony, bleeding and bruised and she watched, shocked, as the woman she despised for weakness and peacemaking, began to slowly grind the heel of her boot into the soft bones of her hand.
"Yield." she demanded again and Raza screamed, "Yes! I Yield!"
This was it. Gabrielle kept her face expressionless, but her mind was racing to the next phase. ‘Am I fooling myself? If I let others kill her, is it just so I can convince myself that my hands are clean? Yes. It is. But it will be up to Raza, she’ll have the choice...’
She turned her back on the Amazon, ignoring the surreptitious scrabbling of the weakened hand for the last knife. She continued to walk, not turning her head to see her opponent raising herself to stand. She willed her back muscles not to tense, and closed her eyes as she heard the sound of the chakram being thrown and almost simultaneously, the twang of the archer’s bows. ‘What would be first to strike?’ she thought. There was the clash of metal striking metal as the throwing blade was knocked from the air only inches from her unprotected back by Xena’s weapon, then arrows from several archers struck a battered human body. The blade clattered to the dirt, the body fell limply, and the crowd released its breath.
Arms were around her, and Gabrielle opened weary eyes to see her lover, who said, "You gave her a choice, love."
"Really? I knew what she would choose."
"Yes, but you still gave her that choice. It was her decision."
And it was hard to see who was holding whom as they moved into the crowd.
Not anxious about the eventual outcome of the fight, James had left the scene early, finding himself drawn towards the Communal baths.
There was definitely something still wrong. He noticed that he seemed to be drawn to follow a set of drag marks that led to the doors of the springs. Stepping inside, he found himself looking down at an unconscious Hercules and a bound Solari being held at knifepoint by a wild looking Amazon warrior.
"Oh, hi," said Solari, as casually as one could with a blade pressing into your throat. "James? Have you met Raza’s big sister, Andrea?"
Clearly surprised, Solari’s huge captor flashed crazed eyes towards James, but then her face lit up with a feral grin.
"Both sons of Ares have been delivered into my hands and our lands will be cleansed!" she chanted." Praise Artemis!"
Solari said, "Nothing personal. Andrea has never been really enthusiastic about guys in general.”
James smiled uncertainly. "I could always come back..."
Andrea tugged the smaller Amazon forward. "Don’t move, or this bitch will be smiling with her throat."
Solari struggled with her bonds to look up at the broadly built Amazon. "Don’t you think it’s kinda ironic that you keep using the threat of killing a woman, to capture men?"
"Silence! They will die, and our lands will be purified once more! It doesn’t matter the method." She beckoned to James.
James didn’t move. "Solari, weren’t you supposed to be...?"
Solari was embarrassed. "Hercules’ Knife at the Throat? No one told me it was a job description. Now I know how Gabrielle feels." She lifted her chin slightly to reveal a series of cuts, some weeping blood. "She forced Herc to drink some of that stuff they gave the Centaurs. I think we both hoped it wouldn’t have any effect on him, but..." She indicated the unconscious demi-god at their feet.
James tried to evaluate the threat. Andrea was big, really big, all over. To overpower Solari and drag Hercules all this way... and calling for help would only result in Solari`s death. He definitely needed an edge, or at least an equalizer. Shrugging his shoulders, he gave Solari a look that was returned when his eyes flickered towards the mineral springs.
Andrea smiled as he slowly approached, and when the hand holding the knife relaxed slightly, Solari clamped down with her teeth.
James jumped forward, using his head as a battering ram, and managed to knock Andrea away from Solari and they both plunged into the spring. Almost blacking out with shock of the water hitting his injured shoulder, he forced his body to drop into the depths of the pool, hoping that the greater floatation of the mad woman would keep her near the surface. His panicking mind saw vivid images of a knife slicing his flesh to bloody ribbons in the swirling water.
He touched bottom, and saw a shadow pass above him. He began to pray that Andrea was too much of an obsessive to think of simply waiting for him to rise for air. And some God must have listened, because she wasn’t waiting for him to surface. The crazed Amazon was fighting her buoyancy, and slowly descending, feet first. He braced himself against the floor and the sides of the pool and kicking forward as hard as he could, thrusting against the feet of his attacker, launching her against the rocky sides of the spring. Her size and the mineral content in the water propelled her like a cork.
Reaching the surface, gasping for air, he scrambled to pull himself out. Solari called over to him, "Take your time. I don’t think there’s any rush now."
He followed her eyes. Andrea was floating lifelessly on the surface, blood flowing profusely from her dented skull. Noticing James’ expression, Solari said, "It’s not like she wasn’t already cracked, you know."
Seeing that her attempt at humour had not succeeded, she hopped over to where he clung, panting, to the side of the pool.
"Hey, you did really good, you had no choice."
He looked up at Solari, his mind racing through the tribal regulations. "A male, has just killed an Amazon, on Amazon tribal grounds."
Realization struck Solari. "Oh, crap."
"Hi,” said James to Robin, waggling his chains and manacles to indicate she should sit, though there really weren’t any seats in his cell.
Robin continued standing. "I can’t believe Gabrielle had you put in chains! What am I saying? I can’t believe she arrested you at all!"
James was relaxed. "I know. About now, I miss that little bed in the hut."
"These are supposed to be your friends..."
"You’re in chains!" she shouted in exasperation.
"Gabrielle is hoping that if she follows protocol leading up to the trial, there won’t be so much resentment if she conducts the defence herself."
"Trial? You were defending yourself and two of her best friends!"
"It doesn’t matter. There are certain laws that are truly sacred. A male, on Amazon lands, killed an Amazon. Anyone else would have already been lynched."
"She was a traitor to the Queen!"
"At the time of her death, still a member of the Nation. The law is clear. I shouldn’t even be getting a trial."
Robin paced about the cell. "What kind of trial, who is the judge?"
"I shouldn’t call it a trial. It’s more of an encounter session with the whole tribe. Personally, I thought it was just a delaying tactic until you and I could be sent back by Aphrodite."
"Then let’s go! Now!" James’ reasonableness was beginning to grate.
"Gabrielle has to ask Artemis to allow Aphrodite on site. And she can’t, if it’s to let someone escape Amazon Justice."
Robin exploded. "Andrea wasn’t declared non-Amazon, Gabrielle can’t call on Artemis... are they going to let you be executed because of technicalities? You saved two lives! They should be having a feast in your honour!"
"I’m putting my life in the hands of two of the smartest people I know. I’ve done stupider things."
There was a commanding voice at the door, some banging of locks, the cell door opened and Gabrielle and Xena came in.
"James," began Gabrielle apologetically, ignoring the glare that Robin was giving her.
"It’s OK, ‘Ri, I’ve just been explaining everything to Robin. I know you’re trying everything you can."
Xena grinned. "I’ve been offered three different escape plans just walking over here. Solari has over a dozen volunteers for her tunnel alone."
"See Robin, they want to dig me a tunnel. Isn’t that much nicer than a feast?"
"Yeah," Robin groused as she paced. "Very thoughtful."
Xena squatted comfortably against the far wall, and said, "Gabrielle’s been spending all her time in the library..."
James interrupted "I have the library in my head and I can’t find anything."
"You’re not the Amazon Queen," Xena observed.
"People keep telling me that." He looked towards Gabrielle.
She smiled and began hesitantly, "I think I’ve got something, but..."
"I like it. Whatever it is," James said immediately.
"Good." Xena smiled, using all of her teeth. "She was worried you might have a small,” and she spread her thumb and forefinger apart, “little, objection."
James began to worry as he contemplated that smile. "Why would I object?"
"Well," Xena was clearly enjoying herself as she explained, "The law is clear. Any male, who kills an Amazon, on tribal ground, is to be put to death. Andrea was clearly an Amazon, and you certainly killed her. For a moment she thought we could claim that water wasn’t tribal ground..."
Gabrielle interrupted now, "but the tribal lands are defined by the boundaries..."
"So, somebody definitely killed an Amazon on tribal lands, " Xena continued, "that only left...."
All three women stared at James. He smiled wanly.
"This doesn’t involve surgery, does it?"
Xena crossed her arms comfortably. "I thought you said it didn’t matter?"
"Ah, not recently, but I had hopes, eventually, you know...."
Xena grinned. "Well. We’ll see what we can do."
The tribe was gathering around the main ceremonial campfire. All were in full regalia.
Gabrielle was resplendent in her Queen’s leathers, but James was not ogling her. He had eyes only for Robin, who had been convinced by Gabrielle that as an Amazon trainee she should dress to show proper respect for her new status. She complained that she felt like Peter Pan in a bondage movie, but James had been too tongue-tied to comment. Ephiny dragged him away from watching her.
"The trial? Your life is on the line? Remember?"
"This is how it works. There are sixty of these peat stones. Each burns for a short time. The law is read, the accusations are made. You or your defender gets to distribute each of the stones, and one by one they are tossed into the fire. Each witness can speak for only as long as they burn."
"How long is that?"
The Regent was silent for about a minute. "That long."
She held up the bag of stones and cocked her head.
"Give them all to Gabrielle," he said confidently.
"Yeah, but for how much longer?"
Ephiny grinned again and carried the bag over to Gabrielle.
For disclaimers, see part 1
Of all the settings Robin had experienced so far, this was the most surreal. The crackling bonfire flickered across on the masks and painted skins of the warriors circling it, dancing silently to a single drum, in a clearing of the forest under a waning moon. And yet their intention, the fair trial of an outsider, represented the highest aspirations of civilisation. The mix of the cultured and the primitive had never been more apparent to Robin.
When the drum halted, the head of the council stood to begin the session. Gabrielle had pointedly left her seat at the council table empty, choosing to sit beside James. In fact, with the Regent, and the Queen’s Champion also seated alongside him, the table was only half occupied, an occurrence that Danielle, the head elder of the council, acknowledged right away.
"As can be seen by the absences in the governing council, the emotions of the Nation are divided by this trial," she said. "No one will deny that many of us wish we were not here to pass judgment on the act of this man. But our laws are our nation, and we are directed to follow them.
"James, the Traveller, are you present to accept the judgment of Amazon Justice?"
There was a flurry of whistles in support as James stood. "I am."
"Daughters of Artemis, it is claimed that this man killed a sister Amazon on tribal grounds in direct contravention of our most sacred laws. Does the prisoner deny this?"
"My Queen, you wish to speak for this man?" Danielle stated formally.
For someone who had spent the last day in agonizing rehearsal for this moment, Gabrielle seemed remarkably assured. "I wish the opportunity to prove that the crime did not occur as described. I have several speakers, after which my defence will be made."
"Then begin." The head of the council rapped the table with her stave.
The Queen selected one of the peat stones and tossed it into the centre of the fire. Immediately, a green glow arose. Gabrielle faced the fire-lit assembly, while addressing her partner beside her.
"Xena of Amphipolis, this tribe acknowledges your outdoor skills and abilities. This respect has been validated by the fact that you have been asked to act as a trainer of many Amazons. Have you had the opportunity to evaluate James the Traveller in this respect?"
Whatever James had anticipated as an opening argument, this was not it. "What the hell...?" James blurted out. "Maybe I could mention that it was the BOY Scouts..."
Robin leaned forward and hissed into his ear. "Shut up. Unless you want me to do tongue surgery. Right now."
Xena caught a stone tossed by Gabrielle and flicked it into the fire. "Though he had certain basic abilities before coming to us, through my instruction and in the course of travelling with us, I would say that he is now as skilled in outdoor survival as any I have trained, and that would include tracking, and hunting."
Gabrielle nodded. James could see he was not alone in wondering what Gabrielle was doing, but he tried to take comfort in the fact that the confusion on the faces of most of the assembly was not mirrored in the expressions of his friends. Another stone was thrown. "Robin of Royal Mount, would you describe the actions of the accused in thwarting the recent rebellion, and evaluate his actions."
Robin stood, and in her nervousness bobbled her catch of the stone, but Xena batted it into the fire with a slight move of her boot.
Clearly coached, Robin told of their night ride, how James had remained behind, going behind the enemy lines to signal the opposing force. She concluded as instructed: "I consider this to be a clear act of valour on behalf of the Nation," and resumed her seat. Gabrielle reached over to give her arm a squeeze in congratulation. Robin just sighed her relief and became occupied with looking anywhere but in James’ direction.
"Eponin," Gabrielle continued. "Would you describe the events concerning the attempt on the life of a member of our tribe?"
Eponin stood, and almost casually told of James’ leap to take the arrow intended for Robin, concluding, "I consider this an act of sacrifice on behalf of the Amazon Nation."
Gabrielle took a deep breath, for now came the hard question. "As Weapon’s Master, have you had the opportunity to judge this individual, and how would you judge his abilities in the warrior Arts?"
Eponin looked to James and sighed. This was gonna hurt. "I wouldn’t want a command filled with warriors of his... inclinations..."
Gabrielle had to restrain her foot from tapping. ‘Come on Pony...’
The Weapons Master bit the bullet. "...But I have nothing but admiration for the decisions and actions taken by the accused during the recent...unpleasantness."
Gods, was she really going to be forced to say this? "And IacknowledgehisskillsintheWarriorArts." Eponin glared at James, daring him to comment, and squatted down on the ground.
James hardly noticed, he was furiously running through the laws and regulations in his head, and still had not a clue as to where Gabrielle was going with all this.
"Solari, "Gabrielle called, tossing another pebble, "Describe the events in the public baths."
This time the crowd was entirely silent as Solari recalled the death of Andrea. Solari finished by saying, "This was clearly a killing on behalf of the tribe."
Gabrielle threw a stone into the fire and turned to the front. "Elder Danielle," she said addressing the head table. "Please describe the ceremony at which James the Traveller received his pendant of free passage."
Puzzled, the older Amazon stood. "He received it during the initiation of last year’s trainees, as was your wish."
"In fact," Gabrielle tossed in another of her stones, "Did he not also take the oath of fealty and loyalty to the royal mask with those trainees?"
"And what is required of these trainees before they may be full members of this tribe?"
"There are so many requirements..."
Gabrielle interrupted. "I believe this is the complete list. The trainee must have completed their training by a recognised teacher in skills of the outdoors, including tracking, hunting and survival. They must be judged proficient by the tribe’s Weapon’s Master. They must commit an act of valour on behalf of the tribe, an act of some form representing a sacrifice on behalf of the nation, and kill or assist in a kill on behalf of the tribe. They must of course, swear their loyalty to the Nation in a public assembly. Is that a complete list?"
"Yes, but, this is foolish. He is not a woman, and as merit-worthy as his actions are, he cannot be a member of this tribe."
The Queen waited for a beat. "Well actually, the laws do not require that the trainee be a woman, only that they not be a man."
Xena leaned over and whispered to James. "Don’t worry, I’ve been sharpening my blade all night," indicating it with her thumb and giving him a not very reassuring pat on the arm. James shakily returned her smile, but his lips weren’t the only thing clenching.
Gabrielle continued. "The laws have allowed that there are many whose physical appearance and gender are not easily classified. There is no mention of what sorts of sexual organs are necessary to be an Amazon."
Xena whispered, "Oh, well," in a dispirited tone. James tried not to let out the breath he had been holding too loudly.
"What the laws do, is describe the attributes of a man. They are quite long and detailed. I quote. ‘They’ referring to men, ‘are deceitful, can never be trusted. Will never submit to Amazon Law, be a true friend or feel the pain of childbirth. Their sensitivity is of dust compared to that of a sister’" She paused, and tossed another stone. "It goes on in this vein ..."
The Queen then transformed into the bard, her tone and manner drawing her audience under her spell as she described the birth of her child. Then, once she was satisfied the audience was hers, she moved onto their very first meeting with James, the only interruption being the periodic toss of the peat stones into the crackling bonfire.
The campfire had been silent. As had all the campfires since Britannia. Though Illusia had made them both recommit to the friendship, there were still too many apologies for inconsequential acts, too many long pauses that were no longer comfortable. Gabrielle looked over at Xena, alone, sharpening her sword in the moonlight, and felt such a sense of loss, that she thought her heart would break open.
At that moment, there was a popping sound and Xena collapsed with the weight of a body dropping on her from the skies.
There was an instant that Gabrielle had never seen before, where Xena actually froze, but then quickly the intruder was lying on his back with Xena’s sword at his throat.
"I’m unarmed and alone,” the intruder gasped out.
"Then you get to live for another breath. Who or what are you?” the Warrior growled drawing a line of blood along his throat.
"Xena?" Gabrielle gasped at her actions. Xena didn’t even glance her way but answered, "Just need to see if he bleeds and how fast it heals."
The man on the ground said, "I’m not an immortal. Keep that up and I’ll die just like a regular person. I promise!”
"How did you get here and who are you?” she demanded, still holding him at the point of the blade.
"My name is James, I’m a traveller. Somewhat like you, I journey to help those in need. As to how I travel, that’s something I’ve never been able to work out. But I’m no magician, I have no spells or magic potions. And I swear by all that I do believe in, I am not dangerous to either of you.”
"So, why are you here?" Gabrielle had stood up, and was examining their guest. Older than Xena but not by much. Short hair, in a colour similar to her own, scraggly moustache, average build, and brown eyes that seemed to be looking to her for help. "You help those in need. You think we need your services?”
"Yes, you’re both in pain... you need help. That’s sort of what I do.”
Xena gave a strangled laugh and pulled her sword back an inch. "What do you know about our pain?”
The man swallowed, seeming to consult something, and began to recite, "Xena, Warrior Princess. The Lion of Amphipolis, Destroyer of Nations." Seeing this had no impact, he swallowed again, "Mother of Solon...” The sword was suddenly back and touching his throat. He gasped out, "Lifebond of Gabrielle..." and his eyes rolled back to catch the bard’s.
Gabrielle reached out to hold Xena’s sword hand. "And me?"
"Gabrielle, the great Bard of Potadiea, Holder of the Queen’s rite of caste, Princess of the Amazon Nation... Victim of Dahok... Mother of Hope,” at this his voice had died to a whisper, and Gabrielle’s hand shook for a moment. Gabrielle looked directly into his eyes, held them for a long moment, then said to her partner, "Let him up, he can’t hurt us.”
"What do you mean? We know noth...”
"I mean, he literally can’t hurt us. It would be like hurting himself. He felt the pain I felt at the mention of Hope, and Dahok. He’s some sort of empath.”
Xena stood back and Gabrielle reached her hand out to him to help him up.
James stood and stared at the Bard. "In the midst of your own grief, you could feel what I was feeling?”
Gabrielle gave a weak smile. "Strange, isn’t it? I felt a sort of echo of... what I was feeling, and I realized you were hurting because of me.”
Xena stomped around feeding the fire. "We don’t need help, we only need time.”
"I agree,” said James, turning to her. "Just like you needed time after your death. But then there was Valasca, wasn’t there? And Calisto, and so on and so on? Your life together doesn’t seem to allow you to have the time you need to heal alone, so some kindly force in the cosmos sent me.”
"Would this kindly force answer to the name of Ares?” Xena’s smile did not reach her eyes.
"I travel all over the world, and to different times. I’m not sure where my abilities come from, but I know where they don’t. This is my first visit to this Greece. All I know of Ares is a few lines in a book.”
“So. How Do You Know. Of. My. SON?” Xena’s demand was clearly emphasized.
"Part of my job. I get what I call a case file inm my head about the people I’m supposed to help.”
Xena merely snorted in disbelief. She noticed Gabrielle evaluating the stranger. "You can’t be seriously considering listening to this?”
Gabrielle ignored her. "What does this ‘help’ entail?”
"We sit. We talk. I go away and you two talk some more. Then we start over.” James looked to the stew on the fire. "Ah...is there enough for three? Because I got pulled away from my dinner to come here.”
Xena’s eyes grew wider at this, and she threw up her hands when Gabrielle moved to get a bowl.
"This is really good," James said after the first mouthful. "I mean, I understood that you were a good cook, but I figured that it meant considering the conditions. But this is really good.”
Xena had just about enough of this. But Gabrielle sat down and waited for him to finish.
"So we just talk, right?”
"Absolutely, and I don’t come with guarantees. But, if ever I saw two people who needed some misunderstandings cleared up, it’s you guys.”
"Like what?” the warrior demanded.
James grinned. "OK. I see two people, standing at the base of the largest mountain on earth. At the base of the mountain there are cracks and garbage and graffiti. And for the moment, that’s all these two people can see. On both sides pretty much the same garbage.” His voice took on a casual singsong. "Both of you are worried about whether Gabrielle can be trusted ever again. Xena worries that she might crack again and kill you, or be responsible for your death. Right? You worry about how much of Gabrielle’s innocence has been lost. Oh, and you both are scared to the pit of your souls how the other could go on if one of you died, regardless of the circumstances.”
James took his last piece of bread and wiped the bowl clean, popping it in his mouth. "Really good.” Both women stared at him stupefied.
"Just so you know, Gabrielle, that if Xena died, you’d survive. You have too strong a sense of responsibility. You have the Amazons and your family to keep you here. Of course, you’d be a shell of yourself, but you’d survive a while. Xena, on the other hand, would be dead in a week.” He held out his bowl, "Is there any more?”
"What in Tartarus are you?” Xena growled, "Do you find this amusing? Or is there a point to this?”
"Of course there’s a point. You have all these incredible reasons to be apart, every force on earth seeming to drive you away, and here you are together. In pain, but still together.
"That’s the mountain. That’s your love for each other. You two need to spend some time looking at that mountain instead of the damned superfluous junk lying around the base of it.”
He looked at the women, both frozen on either side of the flickering fire, and stood up.
"Now, this is where I go for a short walk over to that rise, maybe catch up on my sleep. There’s a sort of jet lag I get sometimes. You two talk about the mountain. And only the mountain. You got that? Nothing but the mountain.”
And he left. And after some silence, as the shock wore off, they began to talk. For many hours. At first Xena kept a watchful eye on the sleeping figure on the hill, but she soon almost forgot his presence. There were no angry words, or silences. Each time a guilt would surface, one of them would say, "that’s not the mountain.”
Andafterwards, they slept beside each other for the first time in a moon.
To her own amazement, Gabrielle was up before Xena the next day. She looked over at the warrior beside her, and lovingly brushed the bangs away from her face. Xena had talked nearly all night! Her taciturn warrior had blurted out her feelings, and Gabrielle wanted to shout them out to the world. She looked up to the rise and saw James lying on his back, but awake, his face turned towards her. She slid out of her bedroll, and giving a contented kiss to her warrior, grabbed her staff, and went up to meet him.
Gabrielle sat down cross-legged beside him, and with a grin replied, "Great day!” wondering all the time why it was that she instinctively trusted this stranger. It was the same as with Lila almost...
"So, you still claiming no magical powers?” she asked.
He answered her grin. "Nope. This was easy, it was all you guys .I figure you’ve been agonizing and apologizing everything to death, I just come along and give a little prod, and take credit when the good stuff pours out.”
Gabrielle started to pump him about what he knew about his abilities, and James answered as best he could, both of them knowing that Xena was listening while pretending to be asleep. After a while, though, James lowered his voice, and speaking directly to the bard, said, "I meant what I said about the easy part. You know the problem goes deeper. Today, I’ve got a harder story to tell. And it’s going to hurt. I need to apologize to you now, because, it’s not something I want to do...”
"But it will help us?”
"I think it will.”
"I trust you.” And with that, she simply smiled and left to make breakfast. He stared at her for a moment, shook his head, and went towards the stream to wash up.
It was after breakfast that the mood changed. Both James and Gabrielle watched Xena expectantly, until she stopped ignoring their stares and sat down across from them.
"All right, what do we talk about now?” she said in half-meant disgust.
James took a deep breath and looked directly at the warrior.
"I want you to know, I’d rather crawl into a hungry tiger’s cage and slap it around, than start this conversation with you, but... here goes.”
Xena’s face was impassive, Gabrielle reached across and held her partner’s hand, but there was no change in her expression.
"Xena,” James began, "there have been times when you have seen injuries or wounds that because of the way they were inflicted, they filled you with rage or guilt. But you knew… that as a healer, you had to focus on the job, not let your emotions keep you from dealing with the injuries.” He took another breath.
"Now, there’s been a wound that you have not treated properly, and when you realize that, you’ll feel even more guilt and anger. But you can not. We need the healer, we need that cool mind, that cool assessment that confirms the symptoms, and evaluates the different treatments. You have to be able to do this.”
There was still no movement from the warrior.
Glancing quickly at Gabrielle, who gave him a nod of encouragement, he began.
"Xena, I want you to think about Gabrielle. What she’s been like, not what she’s been through, but what she’s been like, since Britannia. Now I want you to strip away all the horrors, forget about Hope, forget about who or what was responsible for her being there, forget about her blood innocence,” Gabrielle was becoming more tense with each word.
"Again, think about Gabrielle, how she has acted, her reactions to you, to others, and then strip away all those horrors and realize, really realize, that Gabrielle… was raped.”
The word seemed so loud, that James could have sworn the woods fell completely silent. He saw in Xena’s eyes the shock, and then a thousand differing suffering emotions, each combating the next. He saw his own death there for a moment, but he spoke again.
"We need the healer now, Xena. No one but the healer."
She turned to look at Gabrielle, who was staring at the ground in pain, or shame, or a dozen emotions she could not, would not, have her feel, and she tenderly reached over and lifted her bard’s chin, and looked into the tear-filled eyes.
She heard James say, "This isn’t about you. Gabrielle doesn’t need to hear you’re sorry.” And once again, he silently slipped away.
They broke camp the next day. As they packed up, James was just in the way of the efficient rituals that the two had created. Each job long ago delegated and swiftly achieved, so he stood aside and watched in admiration. When all traces of their camp had been erased, Xena faced him and asked, "Can you hunt?"
"Some basic snares...."
"Can you fight?"
He looked to Gabrielle, but the bard stood silent. "No,” he answered.
The warrior made no visible judgment. James added indicating the darkening skies, "I can build a fire in damp woods... and though I’m a slow learner, I do learn. And I can follow orders."
Xena grunted, "That may keep you alive,” and mounted Argo without another word.
Gabrielle smiled and with a flick of her head indicated he walk with her, and they set out.
It rained most of the next two days as the three made their way back to the Amazons.
During the day, Xena treated James as she would a slightly dim child, but he listened and managed to keep his tongue silent until the evenings. Then they would talk, Xena still resentful, James patient, Gabrielle eager. James slept away from their camp, but still under the warrior’s suspicious eyes. But as each day passed, the mood lightened, and James was assigned the fire and some cooking tasks. One day Xena took him to hunt, and when they were returning with a buck, somehow both sensed danger to Gabrielle. Xena charged out of the woods chakram first, and there were three dead before James even arrived. He watched the two perform their deadly ballet, styles so different that they could not be compared, yet somehow complementary.
Gabrielle had forgotten where James was, she was too occupied by two of the raiders when she realized that she was out of position and a third was behind her. She began to force her two forward in hopes of giving Xena room to help her, when she heard a loud clunking sort of noise, and senses told her that the danger was gone. But when the last of the brigands had run off, she turned to see James still holding her frying pan, now badly dented. She nearly exploded and advanced towards him, only to be stopped by the sound of her love’s laughter. She turned as Xena, helpless now, pointing at her outraged face and the fry pan. She wanted to keep her anger intact, but the warrior’s laughter was something she had missed, almost more than her touch. Xena continued to laugh and moved to stand protectively between her and James. "I’m sorry Gabrielle, but we never explained to James that if it came to a choice between your life and the fry pan...”
From that point on, James might have still been a third wheel, but one that took some weight, and the warrior was more relaxed, less resentful of the prying he was forced to do at night. Then there was a finally a clear day with no clouds in the sky, and a beautiful lake all to themselves, when Xena was attacked underwater by a laughing bard who had somehow gotten right beside her without her being aware of it. And one night, a half-day’s ride outside of the village, the two soulmates made love. And when they awoke the next morning, James had gone.
Gabrielle stood before the assembled Nation. "This is my friend," she said standing behind him and gripping his shoulders. "On each of his subsequent visits he has placed his honour and his life in our hands, and committed himself to the survival of us as individuals, and as a nation.
"Are these the acts of one of the males described in our scrolls? He sits here, waiting for our judgment of an act that most of us applaud. A judgment that most believe means his death! Is this someone who would never submit to Amazon Law? Is this the male described as having no sensitivity, and incapable of being a friend? Will you call for the execution of this person, when our law clearly states that no male is capable of making such sacrifices?" The transformation from storyteller to Queen of the Nation was complete. She threw her last stone into the fire with intentional emphasis.
"My Amazons," and the pronoun was deliberate, “Do you find that this person, my friend and our comrade, is a male as described by these laws?"
This was not a rational request for judgment. This was an emotional demand from their rightful ruler, and the Amazons responded to it.
Shouting above the calls and cheers, Gabrielle turned to the council table and hurriedly pronounced, "Then as Queen, I accept the decision of this assembly that no crime has been committed according to the definition of our laws, and I close this session of judgment."
For a moment, Gabrielle thought she might have overestimated her authority, as she saw Danielle struggle to get the attention of the delirious crowd. Failing that, she called to Gabrielle directly.
"Is it your intention to submit this...person... to be accepted as a member of this tribe?"
Gabrielle was gracious in victory. "This person has already been submitted, but like any other petitioner, it will be up to the council to decide...his...acceptability."
Robin had reached from behind and placed her arm around James’ neck, and above all the hoorahs whispered in his ear, "Sounds like you better get measured for the leather."
James turned to face her and whispered back, "I have many fantasies, Robin, but none of them include wearing a leather bra."
There, at the very centre of the chaos that had begun the moment Gabrielle had demanded the vote, Robin realized that she was looking into the eyes of the love of her life... and saw fear. And before she could ask or question it, James quickly broke away to congratulate the Queen.
In fact, as the evening wore on, the pattern became clear, as James seemed to thrust people between them and evade any attempt by her to be alone with him. During one escape, he nearly collided with Solari, and as the two watched him slip away, the Amazon raised her eyebrows to Robin. "What’s with that? I thought you two were...?"
"Maybe I should have the Queen arrest him again?"
"Of course, being declared not a man, isn’t the best way to start a relationship," the scout offered.
Robin frowned. "You think so?"
"Nah. You going after him?"
"Eventually. Maybe. Gonna think about it..." And she hoisted her glass.
High above all this, a Warrior and her Bard were stealing some private time in the crook of a branch directly over Robin’s head. Sharp, but concerned blue eyes watched her, and then closed in feral pleasure.
"Yes. Xena," a sultry but grinning Queen answered.
"If you don’t stop playing with fire, I’ll make you look down."
Gabrielle smirked and didn’t remove her wandering hand.
Feather light caresses continued along the Warrior’s inner thighs and she began to tremble slightly with repressed desire. "Remember, you, we...have an obligation...and we promised Ephiny...?" There was no response except that a cinch at the warrior’s waist was loosened.
Somewhat desperate now "Gabrielle! You bet every dinar we have...that we would keep to the laws and stay celibate for a week until after the ceremony..."
The Bard slowed her movements slightly.
"They gave us TEN to ONE ODDS, Gabrielle!!!"
The Bard pouted and turned to sit in her warrior’s lap. Xena tried to relax but found herself catching the scent of their arousal mixed with the perfume of Gabrielle’s hair.
Gabrielle eyes settled on James and Robin, separated by half the clearing. "We’re going to have to talk to them. We have to tell them what it’s like..."
The Bard heard a strange strangled muttering above her head. It seemed to run along the lines of "You worry too much, Xena. It’ll be great, Xena. We’ll invite everybody and it’ll be just a big party, Xena. Nothing complicated, Xena..."
"We ARE going to talk with them," the Queen repeated, leaning back against the warrior, partly to avoid looking down from their leafy perch.
Xena buried her nose in the bard's hair. "We? Nope. Not my department, love."
Gabrielle tilted her head, giggling when her partner’s nose slipped along her ear. "This is about the two of them, so it’s about the two of us, isn’t that clear by now? Robin has got to know about the Bond, and how separation can feel. And James has got to be shown that the risk is worth it. And since you can’t leave the tribal grounds without endangering Lycea, at least until the Plan comes off, you might as well work with me."
Xena sighed and in frustration grasped her nose with her thumb and fingers. "My advice? If you want a battle plan, you need more reconnoitring. James already tried to talk to Robin. He was shot down. Still has scars. We also don’t know why or how she lost her memory. So if they have your little talk and Robin doesn’t remember when she gets home… It’ll kill James. I’m not doing that to him." Xena shook her head, knowing that despite what she was saying, there would still be a familiar optimistic gleam in her bard's eye.
"No, I don’t know why she lost her memory, but it sounds like a curse. And there’s always a way around a curse. I’m thinking that the solution is in getting them to make a commitment. A declaration. So…”
"I hate sensitive chats," the warrior muttered half-heartedly.
"But you’re so good at them." Gabrielle shifted herself about and right into a kiss. It began as a sweetness, and despite their promise to keep apart until after the ceremony, it was beginning to turn into something else, when Xena stiffened.
"Ephiny... about three trees back, trying to figure how to get over here..."
"Oh, poop," said the Queen of the Amazons, as she began to straighten her clothing. There was a movement on the branch above them as weight was added, and then the Regent was facing them on the branch, arms crossed.
"Hi, Ephiny!" Gabrielle said a little too brightly, trying not to feel like a teenager caught necking by her father.
"Uh, huh," said the Regent.
"Don’t look at me like that, I mean! Really! This branch is hardly a handswidth. It’s not like we could DO anything..." Gabrielle’s attempt at outrage only got another, "Uh huh."
"Anyways, we were just coming to see you..."
"Uh huh," said the Regent.
The banquet that was thrown together was held at Cyrene’s, though no one would call it that within earshot of Xena’s mother. The open-air bar was strictly Salmoneous’ creation, she was assuring all and sundry, especially after she saw the price list.
James, still avoiding Robin, had moved to a seat at the head table, and sat listening to Gabrielle and Ephiny having their usual argument.
"You can’t seriously still call what you do as ‘playing at being the Queen’, Gabrielle. Not after your performance at the trial," Ephiny was yelling over the din.
"But that’s what it was, a performance. You’re the leader, Eph, my life is with Xena on the road."
"I know, I know, I’ve heard it a thousand times, but have you considered that..."
At this point, Ephiny reached over and grabbed a surprised James by his collar and pulled him over, nearly spilling his drink. "James and I have been talking..."
"You have?" Gabrielle looked at James accusingly.
"Yes, and we think that you’ve been selfish, especially as far as your adventures on the road are..."
"Not selfish,” James hastily corrected. “Perhaps too concerned with the lives of your Amazons."
Ephiny disagreed. "Selfish. If she would allow us to make our own choices..."
James tried to move away from the argument, "Actually, I thought of this as a way of ending the tension between the warriors and the peacemakers. I mean, Gabrielle? How many challenges to the Mask do you want to go through? Do you really want to spend all your time and maybe your life defending your beliefs AND the mask? You have to give them something to do. Velasca was right, if only that these ARE warriors...."
Several people noticed the discussion becoming more heated and Autolycus was waved over to be questioned by the bard.
"Don’t tell me you’re volunteering to help them with this squad?" Gabrielle accused.
"Well, let’s see the disadvantages," Autolycus mused. "I’ll be forced to work in close quarters with several young, even attractive, women. At times of my choosing. Virtually preventing you and Xena from calling on me at, shall we say, awkward moments. Gee, Gabrielle. I can’t see why I would agree."
Gabrielle, looked at him with feigned distaste and turned to Ephiny. ‘"What does Xena say?"
Ephiny now played her trump card. "Oh, she said it made sense, but that you would never agree to it..."
The thief, James and Ephiny maintained straight faces as Gabrielle’s eyes blazed, and then she stood. Banging her staff on the table until quiet was achieved, she called out.
"Amazons! I have an announcement!"
The celebrations ceased instantly.
"It has been brought to my attention, that there have been several instances when Xena and I in our travels have needed the help of our Sisters. And I might have hesitated… calling upon them… because I felt it was not my place to risk more lives in our pursuit of the Greater Good. I have been advised that some of you might have gladly volunteered for such adventures, and that I might have been ..."she choked on the next word slightly, "selfish, in not offering this...ah, chance."
She looked across to Xena, who was staring at her open mouthed. This seemed to galvanise her. "I now believe, that a select group of Amazons, with specialized training, including," looking to Autolycus now, "Lock picking..."
Ephiny broke in, "Dungeon and prison rescues, castle storming..."
Now the Amazons in the crowd were really listening.
"...teaching villagers basic defensive techniques…" Gabrielle tried to continue, but the Regent interjected again. "Specialized combat training by a certain warrior princess..."
Gabrielle glared at Ephiny until she meekly sat down.
"If there are any that would be interested in such a force, Eponin will take your names and..."
The rest was lost in the sound of one hundred Amazons leaping to their feet and charging the unprepared Weapon’s Master, who failed to move from her stunned stupor before being swamped by the stampede.
Iolaus caught up to James and they watched with amusement as Eponin cowed and threatened the eager volunteers into orderly lines. "Of course you realize that you guys have just given the former Destroyer of Nations her own elite strike force, don’t you?"
James took a sip of his ale and said, "Hell, with Xena’s charisma, she could sign on as a cook in someone’s army and within a week she’d have the sworn loyalty of every soldier they had. If she wanted. And this army will be under Gabrielle, with Xena as her commander. So, nope, not worried."
He noticed that Iolaus was staring at a point above his shoulder, and wasn’t surprised when a silky voice spoke from behind him.
"Perhaps he’s more worried about his talk with Joxer?"
"What talk with Joxer?" said a slightly sloshed Solari, joining them.
James cursed to himself. ‘That damn bet. Of course she would remember it’. "You’re going to hold me to that? I don’t even remember what it was I lost at."
"There was a bet?" Solari inquired.
Xena leaned over to Solari’s ear and began explaining something. Solari’s eyes grew large, and she sputtered, "And He Lost?" She turned to evaluate James again with a now critical eye. "No wonder he’s avoiding Robin..."
"What the hell?" James turned to face Xena. `"Look, I still don’t know what this bet was, but I’m damn well not going to counsel poor Joxer if he finds out that I’m only doing it because I lost some stupid drinking contest. How do you think he would feel?" The group fell silent.
"Wow," said Iolaus noticing Xena’s expression. "Xena is embarrassed. And about hurting Joxer!"
"Xena likes Joxer, Xena likes Joxer," Solari started chanting drunkenly, before she was picked up by an angry warrior princess and swiftly carried from the bar. Eponin called out from her registering duties, "Twenty dinars says we can hear the splash from here!"
James left to look for his new client while Iolaus began to calculate the distance to the nearest stream, not realizing that it was just outside the Amazon territory. But Xena had forgotten that as well...
Joxer was sitting alone, staring at an empty pitcher in front of him. James stood above him until Joxer lifted his head to look up. He grimaced. "It’s OK, I heard about the bet. I’ll tell Xena we talked." He turned back to look at the pitcher. James could only curse himself, and sit down beside him. "Look, Joxer…"
"Go away. Please."
"Xena cares about you..."
Far off in the distance there was a screech that was clearly from Solari, and then a slight splashing sound. Eponin called out "YES!" and began collecting money from those around her.
"...though she has strange ways of showing it sometimes..." James sighed before continuing.
"Look, Joxer, Xena couldn’t do the sensitive chat, so she sent me. That’s all. I know it’s not right, I mean, you don’t even know me... almost like Gabrielle doesn’t know you."
That got his attention. "What do you mean Gabby doesn’t know me?"
"Joxer, you think you’re the king of rejection? I got you beat all over. Chances are a week from today, the woman I love will be calling the police if I show up at her door. And that’s where the real pain is when you’ve got unrequited love. You let your heart and your soul hang out there for this person to see, and you’re so open, a breeze hurts. Because you’re showing them everything you are...
... and then they say ‘No`."
They sat in mutual silence for a moment.
"That’s pain." James continued. "They seem to be saying ‘I reject YOU,’ because you were so open and you figure they’ve seen and judged your very core, everything you are. But Gabrielle, she never saw that. She was looking only at Xena the whole time. She never really knew you, Joxer, she never did. Your heart is still a secret from her, and she never knew what beautiful things you might have offered her. She missed all that. For whatever it’s worth, she hasn’t rejected you.
"But hurt like this, knowing the facts isn’t enough. So, you just have to be strong. You have to be immensely tough, to try to remind yourself, biting back the pain, that these two people are your friends, and somewhere what’s best in you is happy for them. Time won’t heal this wound now. Strength of character is what you’ve got to find. Anything else will destroy you, and your relationship with them." Joxer lifted his red eyes and looked mournfully to the dais at Gabrielle.
"They are your friends," James continued. "They’ve needed you before, and they will again. And if you don’t bite back the pain, and keep this from twisting you, you won’t be there for them."
"Might serve them right..." he mumbled.
"I’ve read Gabrielle’s scrolls, Joxer. I know the one thing you are not, is a coward. So, let me buy you a drink, and let’s try to toast true love, even if it kills us, okay?"
Joxer hesitated. "You mean that about being in love with a girl who would call the cops on you?"
"If you had a choice, do you really want to listen to my problems? Or do you want to get your lute, I get my guitar, and we get into some music after we finish these drinks."
"Yeah," his hound dog face grinned crookedly," we could do that."
Neither noticed that a thoughtful Robin had just moved away from the table directly behind them, and slipped away.
He had just taken Joxer`s arm when James felt a strange crawling sensation on the back of his neck. It was that perplexing link with Gabrielle again, and when he looked up to the front, he saw Gabrielle’s head snap around to stare at him from across the tavern. 'Lycea! Oh God’s, where...? The Plan! And we’re not ready!’ they thought. He saw his own anxiety, mirrored on the Queen’s face, increase when he put up his hands to indicate he didn’t know where to start.
She turned and began speaking urgently to Ephiny who nodded and ran off. James spoke to Joxer.
"I’m really sorry, but we have to put off that session for a moment. We have a real emergency, Joxer. We need to find Robin, right away. Grab anyone you have to, but find her! Okay?"
"Sure," Joxer said, confused. "That shouldn’t be too hard, she was sitting right there a moment ago..." and he pointed to the seats behind them.
James blanched. “You mean she heard everything…” and shook himself. ‘No time for that now.’
Gabrielle ran up to him, calling, "She’s gone! Lycea`s gone! One of the guards is dead. Ephiny’s gone to the Temple of Artemis. Where’s Xena?"
"She just took Solari for a swim, she must have gone to the stream at the base of the hill." He grasped the hands of the frantic bard.
"She just walked off the grounds without thinking? I’m going to kill her!" Gabrielle stormed. "Where’s Robin?"
"Joxer is in charge of finding her." She nodded and touched Joxer’s arm, then spotted Iolaus and Eponin and called out to them. "Pony, we’ve run out of time and He’s made His move. We’re on! I have to get around to the stream without being spotted, so you guys get the clothes and the wig. Iolaus, talk to Joxer, you have to find Robin and get her ready. Now!"
James and the Queen looked at each other, and she said, grim faced, "This had better work, because we only get one chance."
Standing in the moonlight, Xena had been enjoying herself watching Solari swimming to the opposite bank, making note of some of her newest obscenities, when she felt a familiar prickle on the back of her neck. Cursing her stupidity, hoping that she hadn’t ruined everything, she spun around, her sword already drawn.
The God of War was hardly visible in the starlight, but Xena knew there would be a confident smirk on his face.
"Xena," he purred. " Here I was becoming worried that we might not have a chance to chat before the big event. You’ve been avoiding me." He shook his head sadly. "Hiding is so unbecoming in a war-...Ah Ah!..." he cautioned as she moved towards him, and Lycea materialized in his arms.
Xena froze, murder in her eyes. "How did you....?" she hesitated.
"Get her out of Amazon territory? I didn’t. I had some human helpers. Those caterers that Salmoneous hired, and Falafel, was it? Very eager to help, and oh, so easily terrorized..." He looked over at the grim face and smiled.
"Oh, don’t worry. I already took care of them for you. Consider it a favour. We couldn’t let people live who could so easily betray my new Chosen. Could we? And one of your Amazon Guards was a bit... damaged as well, I’m afraid." He leaned over to kiss the child’s forehead.
Xena restrained herself with an effort.
"She is NOT, and never will be your Chosen, Ares. Put my daughter down."
"Oh, but Xena. You knew I’d be, how did your friend James put it, creaming my leathers, over her? Ugly phrase, by the way. And yet, when the moment came, you were hardly watching her at all." He circled behind her, his whispers brushing the taut muscles of her neck. "But I wouldn’t worry, I’m leaving her with you until her Time. I wouldn’t want her to lose all the advantages of home and family. I’m just here to make my claim, just the Touch, make my Claim, and then I’ll be off... for a while."
"No offer of a deal, Ares?"
"Her, in exchange for you? Oh no, Princess. I’m afraid that you’ve become rather set in your ways, old news really." He raised the child and stared into her eyes. "There’s a new player in town, and she’s going to be all mine."
"Don’t you think that you’re moving a little fast, Bro?"
Ares spun about to face Aphrodite and an implacable Artemis. Despite focusing on them, he was still aware that Xena had moved closer to his sword side.
Any shock or concern was quickly masked and he oozed confidence as though he was still firmly in control. "Ladies, I’d like to assume that the two of you aren’t here to interfere." He placed Lycea on the ground, keeping himself between the child and Xena. "After all, Artemis, I believe you already have a Chosen?"
Artemis gestured up the hill where the moonlight was illuminating a familiar strawberry-blonde in Amazon leathers standing beside James. The Goddess’s voice was cold.
"Yes I do, and she’s waiting for her child to be returned."
"What do you plan to do about it? Complain to Daddy?" Ares scoffed. "I’m within my rights. You can’t interfere directly."
"But perhaps, I can," scratched a strange, gravelly voice behind him.
Ares whirled about, and now to his astonishment, he was staring at Gabrielle’s duplicate, who responded with a thin smile. Of all the things that could possibly throw him off his game, this was it. Extraordinarily flustered, he glanced up again at the figure on the hill, then down at the apparition in front of him, trying to cope with the series of jolts, and blurted, "Hope? How could you...?"
Ares’ complete confusion had given Xena more than enough time. He never saw the blow that sent him flying, even while her hand grasped the hilt of his sword from its sheath. Immediately Xena felt an almost drunken rush as the energy of Ares’ Godhood flowed into her.
"Now, let’s see. You were saying...?" The warrior smirked, twirling the sword about casually, watching the moonlight reflect off of it. "Nice. I’d forgotten what an excellent balance it has," she commented professionally. "What do you think, Ares, Goddess of War have a nice ring to it?" She looked down at the now mortal Ares.
Ares leapt up to retrieve the child but found himself facing an angry and armed Gabrielle, who struck him in the chest and then swept his feet out from under him with her staff, before dropping her weapon and bending over to clutch her daughter to her heart. James and Robin came running towards them, Robin taking the time to remove the blonde wig on the way.
Gabrielle then turned to Xena, who shifted the sword somewhat defensively, as her angry soulmate stalked towards her warrior in fury and said, "...And YOU, if you think being the Goddess of War is going to protect you from me, you’ve got another think coming..."
"Yes, Gabrielle," said a suddenly subdued Xena.
"What were you THINKING about? Walking beyond the protection of the borders when we weren’t ready? For months we planned this! And you KNEW that as soon as Lycea was able to walk, He would show up! We had this planned for MONTHS, and you nearly risked our CHILD in another demented, impulsive... Did you know we almost couldn’t find Robin? How many other Amazons do you think are MY SIZE?"
By now Xena had been backed up to the edge of the water, and had stopped trying to make any more placating noises. She had closed her eyes and was waiting to be shoved in to the stream. But Gabrielle surprised her by growling deep in her throat, spinning on her heel, and walking away. As she sat down in the shade of a tree, they could hear her telling Lycea in the softest of voices, what an a-hole her mummy wummy was.
"I thought she liked it when a plan came together?" James asked mildly, as the chastened Xena approached. "Maybe you should seriously consider this Goddess of War thing for a bit?"
Ares moaned from the ground. "Goddess ‘THING’?" He slowly pulled himself up, watching as Xena began again to practice her drills with his sword. "Oh, quit that. We all know that you have no intention of keeping it. Why don’t you just stop all this gloating and tell me what you want?"
Xena paused. "Oh, you’re right, I’m not planning on keeping it. But we didn’t do all this just to get another of your useless promises."
There was another flash of light and Robin stared as a stunning woman appeared with a shield and goatskin draped over her shoulder.
"So nice when the family can get together like this." Athena smiled. "Ares....Artemis...’Dite..." Each acknowledged their sister’s greeting in turn. She turned to Gabrielle.
"Is this the child? And she has stood unaided?"
Gabrielle nodded and carefully presented her daughter to the Goddess. Athena turned to the Goddess of the Hunt. "Artemis, are you certain that you have no problem with this? The potential ruler of your nation sponsored by another?"
Artemis looked to Gabrielle and spoke, "It is the request of my Chosen, and I am bound to agree."
Athena raised her hand and a glow touched the child. "No!" shouted Ares in dismay. Athena ignored him. "I then claim this child. To be prepared as my Chosen upon her maturity. That I will guide her in Wisdom, and the Art of War..." Gabrielle flinched slightly but remained still, "...and grief to any who harm her."
Then she reached over to Xena, and taking Ares’ sword, said, "I think I’ll keep this for a while, until my brother and I can reach an arrangement." And then she and the sword were gone.
Ares looked at the remaining mortals and Gods and blurted, "What?" Gabrielle just glared. Keeping one eye on her staff, Ares said, "You don’t think that this ends it? You don’t think Athena has her dark side?"
Gabrielle stood firm. "You chose this for us, Ares. We made this decision a long time ago. The lesser of two evils."
The War God held her eyes. "There are always loopholes..."
The Queen returned: "We’re counting on it."
"Ares, Ares, Ares...." interrupted Aphrodite. "Pretty tough talk from a guy who needs a lift home?"
He gave her a pout, and she touched him, and the mortals were again alone in the early morning mist. There was a hush as each considered what had just happened.
To James` surprise it was Robin who snapped out of the reverie first. "Breakfast or sleep?" she said brightly. They all turned to the Queen.
Gabrielle looked at Lycea for her opinion and voted, "Breakfast, and no one make any cracks."
Afraid that their return would be used as an excuse to continue the party at Cyrene`s, the two couples and child opted to take the long walk to the dining tent in the village. The mist had dissipated in the sunrise and it looked to be another glorious day. Neither Robin nor James noticed the slight tap by a staff on the ass that forced the dark warrior forward with a resigned sigh. Robin soon fell into step along the well-worn path with Gabrielle and Lycea, as their taller companions drew ahead under the canopy of the forest.
Xena was staring straight ahead when she finally asked, " So, what’s up with you and Robin?"
James stopped dead. "Wha...?" He looked askance at the dark woman at his side, but she seemed to be engrossed in checking her teeth with her tongue. He glanced back suspiciously at Gabrielle, smirked knowingly, and then continued walking.
"So," he said casually, "It’s really sweet that, for some reason, all of a sudden, you have this strange desire to talk about Robin’s and my relationship?"
"Gee. I think a better question would be...when did you get so..."
"Don’t say it," growled Xena.
There was another, deeper growl. "I dunno. When did I start cutting you so much slack?"
"Around the time you found out I could make dumplings on an outdoor fire."
There was chuckle. "That’s right. That was when Gabrielle was..." and both fell silent.
"Damn, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t joke about that time..." James apologized.
"No, that’s all a part of why we have to talk," and she put her hand on his shoulder and clenched it firmly, but gently.
When she knew that James, if not Xena, was out of earshot, Gabrielle asked Robin, "Do you know what’s bugging James?"
With Lycea in the Queen’s arms, Robin was now walking with Gabrielle’s precious staff, and the Queen was trying not to flinch as Robin began striking the end aggressively into the ground with each sentence. "How would *I* know? He’s been avoiding ME. If HE wants to TALK. I’m right HERE. And it’s NOT like he can PRETEND he doesn’t KNOW where I AM, because THANKS to this BOND-thing I can pretty well FEEL him wherever he GOES!"
Not able to bear seeing any more damage being done to her staff, Gabrielle reached over to clutch the shaft. Robin halted and looking at the exasperated expression on the bard’s face, realised where her anger was being transmitted.
“Sorry,” she said meekly.
Gabrielle let go and sighed, shifting Lycea slightly. “It’s a lot to get used to. It’s scary. I get that. And…I feel I’m sort of to blame, ‘cause the last time you were here, it was you that was avoiding him, and I... I convinced him to talk with you."
Remembering the conversation between James and Joxer that she had overheard, Robin paled. "He asked me, about us, and I told him ‘no’. Right?"
"Not exactly, more that this bond thing scared the Centaur crap out of you. You told me he was very calm. Even apologized to you for putting you on the spot. Left with a joke, you said."
Robin closed her eyes. "Oh....”
" ...Gods. I think I really miss my daughter," James said to Xena, and received what he took to be an understanding grunt. "And since all the crises have passed...." He waited.
Xena didn’t slow her step, but turned and asked, "You stay for a week, or a day, but you still go back to the same moment in her life, right?"
"You planning on missing our Joining?" There was no hurt in her tone, merely a statement.
"Not planning, but the assignment is over..."
"When did this become an assignment?" Xena asked.
"Well, no..." Flustered, James was searching for excuses. "You know I’m not exactly a free agent. Things happen. It’s only chance..."
"...only chance, Robin, that James brought you here that first time?"
Robin looked over at her companion, and they both stopped while she thought for a moment. "Could I...?" she gestured towards Lycea. Without hesitating, Gabrielle passed the baby over, and gratefully took back her staff. "She’s getting so big...." They smiled and continued walking.
"James said that the first time we came here, that he was leaning over me, arms sort of, wrapped around me, showing me the fingering for a chord on the guitar, when he was... transported. He figured I was just in the field... or something, so I came too."
"So, it just made a mistake, what James calls his friendly..."
"... friendly force in the cosmos,” Xena said. “The one that has always seemed only concerned with emotional pain, it suddenly decided to send you to kill Andrea, help stop Raza...?"
"You don’t think so." James said.
"I’m not sure. But I’m beginning to think that if you’ve decided that you should leave, somehow you will..."
"…because I’m beginning to think James is like Dorothy." Robin jumped as a partridge fluttered out of their path.
Gabrielle grinned in anticipation. "This sounds like...."
“…a story, a children’s story, actually. So it’s funny you should say that.” James glanced over at Xena. "It’s about a farm girl who gets picked up by a…”
“…a cyclone,” Robin explained
"Been there, done that," Gabrielle laughed.
"Well, Dorothy finds herself in this strange land, filled with magic and really odd people..."
Amused, Gabrielle interrupted. "And you think JAMES is like her?"
Robin blushed but pressed on. "So, she thinks that she has to…”
“… complete this series of challenges on a sort of quest, in order to get back home..."
"...but in the end she finds out that she had the power with her all along."
"Interesting..." Gabrielle mused.
Robin abruptly changed the subject. "You know, I had a talk with Elaini..."
James abruptly changed the subject. "I went and had a talk with Jessan..."
"To ask about the bond? And?" Gabrielle prompted.
Robin smiled at the trepidation with which she had approached the Elaini and Jessan’s tent. To her, it was like Beauty meeting the Beast right up until she had seen the furry healer playing with her children.
"And...." Robin sighed. "She saw that there was something. Faint, but she saw it."
"Bet you she told you Jessan`s mum would be pissed."
Robin relaxed and laughed. "Yeah, she told me that they were just getting used to the idea that you and Xena shared the same... connection. She asked though, if the four of us were, uhh, related..."
"She did, did she...?" Robin ears pricked up at the curious note in the bard’s voice.
“And?” Gabrielle prompted.
"And?" Xena prompted.
"He told me that for him and Elaini, at least, the bond had gotten stronger with contact, especially when they acknowledged that they were linked."
"So, you’re gonna try avoiding contact, head back now, that’s the plan?"
James hated to be seen as a coward. "Look. What do you expect? Remember, I saw you, when Gabrielle was..."
Once again they shared the memory, of the loss, the pain. The warrior curled up like a child, in agony so great that tears would have been a blessed relief.
James mumbled, "I could barely handle the rejection before. If we were together, and she couldn’t… I know I couldn’t cope with the kind of..."
"...pain, when separated from your bond, or what happens when a bondmate dies?” Robin muttered. “Yeah, she told me."
"That’s gotta scare you too. I still see the shadows in Xena’s eyes from when I was missing, when she doesn’t know I’m watching. But," and Robin could hear the conviction in her voice, "it’s still the greatest gift, the most extraordinary thing that I’ve ever known or even imagined, the... completeness... I feel with Xena , I wouldn’t, I couldn’t ever trade it just for peace of mind." The bard held Robin with her eyes. "For two with this bond to find each other. And to love each other. There’s nothing more important than that. Sure, it’s frightening. Terrifying as Tartarus. And James has seen what that pain is like. But imagine how it was for him, wondering how his soulmate could say no. Or worse, forget him."
Robin looked up ahead. She saw that James and Xena had stopped, and Xena was looking longingly at Lycea. She considered her options and eyed Gabrielle before asking, "Do you think Lycea would like to see her other mother?"
Gabrielle frowned, and leaned over the child. "Are we going to trust that warrior with you?" Lycea pursed her lips and gurgled happily. She looked towards Xena and then James and nodded. Robin ran along with her bundle only to pass James halfway. He gave her a shy grin, as he retreated to where Gabrielle stood leaning on her staff. Robin sighed and moved on to join Xena. Thus coupled, they continued the walk.
"Well, that worked," Gabrielle commented with some asperity.
James fell into her stride. "What?"
Gabrielle just looked exasperated. "Nevermind. So, what were you and Xena talking about?"
"Guy stuff, you know, gladiators, sword play..."
Xena took Lycea into her arms gratefully. "Eponin told me she was impressed with your sword play."
Robin’s eyes widened. "Really? That’s funny, she told me that Lycea had more upper body strength than I did."
"Well, she told me, you were a natural."
Xena smiled at her glowing face. "She said with some exercise, you should be in the intermediate class in a week."
"Wow." Robin beamed. "I mean it felt right, you know?" The warrior gave her a grin, reminding her that if anyone knew what it was like, it was this woman. Robin added, "But then a lot of things feel right lately…
" ... right lately. Things are changing for Robin. You know, this isn’t like last time. She’s becoming stronger, she’s not frightened by all this, now."
"I know. Being around you and Xena challenges people."
"Being around Xena, you mean."
The bard blushed.
He paused. "I wish I could bring my daughter here."
Gabrielle appraised him. "And you think maybe you could do that, now? Why?"
Deliberately avoiding her point, he said "Because of the confidence in your abilities. Because, where we come from, it’s different for girls, for kids, growing up. They get beat up, one way or another every day. I was thinking about what you said about Xena leaping onto Cecrops ship. You said that the sailors were amazed that she could make that jump, but you were amazed she did it, knowing it was a cursed ship. Just because you were trapped on it.
"I think what was amazing, was that she knew that she could do it. I just wish your scrolls existed in our times. That’s the type of hero my daughter, Robin and I need. A woman who doesn’t give a damn who sees that they can handle anything. A woman who is…”
“….confident.” Robin tried to explain. "It isn’t about holding the sword. It’s knowing I can use it. When Solari gave me Titan’s reins, you know, when we arrived this time, I backed off. I copped out. I said, ` I haven’t ridden since I was twelve`. And, sure, that was me. But, that very first time, in Amphipolis, when I was needed, I said `I can ride`. That was me, too. But I like the woman that got on the horse a lot more, you understand? James asked me if I was getting hooked on adventure, but it’s just that I want to do whatever it takes to be the person that…”
“…got on the horse." Gabrielle pointed ahead at Xena and Robin. "I think Robin is already taking those chances gain. She’s had an opportunity to see what she can do. And she’s really enjoying it. As much as Xena does. Those two have a lot in common, don’t you think?"
James looked askance at the tall muscular warrior, and her shorter walking companion, then back to the bard. "O...kay! No, no..."
"No, I do know what you mean," answered Xena. "Sometimes I wonder if Gabrielle..."
"Well," The reticent warrior tried again. "I’ve watched you with the sword.”
Robin looked up.
“I saw, I know, what that’s like for you. But Gabrielle, even when she’s been forced to fight, there’s no pleasure. She only feels the responsibility. She doesn’t often feel the... joy… of the fight. I think James is like that too..." She glanced down at Robin. "Do you think that maybe…"
"…there’s a connection? Quit this right now, Gabrielle." James stopped. "We’re not going to have that conversation where you figure that I’ll end up calling you grandma, or even great-great-great grandma. Robin and I are not like you and Xena. I don’t know where our bond comes from, but whenever or whatever this place is, I’m sure that this is not my past. And I am not your future. You already have one kid. Don’t try to adopt me."
"Then," said Gabrielle, "if there’s no link, than we wouldn’t be changing the future if you and I were to talk about...say…”
"…flying machines again! Oh ho! " chortled Xena, looking back at where their companions had halted. She watched as her partner made a swooping motion with her finger. "She’s going to her Beta plan."
"She thinks that where you come from has flying machines. And that James won’t tell her because he’s afraid she might invent them too early." Xena laughed, waiting for Robin to join in. And waited. The warrior cleared her throat. “Tell me, that Gabrielle is just adding one and one and getting…”
"Five.” Gabrielle was counting points on her fingers. “When we were in the mountains you told me where you live is rather flat. So how do you get high up enough to go para-whatever jumping?" She quickly cut him off. “No, don’t start. You’ve never lied to me before, you aren’t going to start now. Six. You also once said that you were looking for landmarks, so that you could come back and maybe recognize it from the air..."
James was getting what he thought of as his Gabrielle headache. “What is it with you and flying? You hate heights. Wouldn’t you rather let me tell you…"
"…all about TV, Xena? Umm... Pictures travelling through the air? He seems pretty free about telling you about some things from our era. Why would flying be such a big deal?"
"Because Gabrielle isn’t obsessed with pictures flying through..."
" …the air, Gabrielle. History of man flying starts with Icarus, and then goes downhill. Literally. It’s full of people jumping from barns and castles and cliffs and ending up at the bottom, real fast and sometimes dead. I just think you could be doing other stuff, you know?"
"Oh, I agree. I wouldn’t want to do that."
"No, I’ve been thinking about Xena`s flying parchment."
"What about her kite ... er, parchment?"
"Well, if it stayed up there because it was like a bag or a sail, and it caught the wind, I could understand. But, Xena showed me it had to have a certain curve. So, I was thinking that if I watched it through your telescope, and tried different curves and shapes...."
"Uh huh." James’ grunt was non-committal, but the bard noticed with amusement that his patronizing smile was as phoney as his relaxed air, and that his hand was clenching slightly. "And then," she continued ingenuously, "there’s the business with the sparks."
Relieved that the subject seemed to have been changed, James said "The sparks? What about the sparks?" He nodded encouragingly.
"Well, you know how sparks fly upwards in a fire? And then fall down when they drift away from the heat? Well, I’ve played with a lot of fires in my life, and I don’t think they float because they’re burning. I think the heat makes the air around them lighter and pushed them up." She looked up at James. He had his eyes closed and was using one hand to massage his temples. “I bet, if we still had some of that…”
"… black powder that James said you destroyed coming back from Chin, even though Gabrielle thought it could have some good uses."
Xena grunted an assent. She still had nightmares because the formula had been so simple.
"Well, imagine how much more dangerous it would be if you could drop that from a flying machine. And what if the powder got more and more powerful. Till they could drop a..." She hunted for a word "... a big amount of it, so powerful, that if they dropped it here, that people in Amphipolis would die a second after we did, and then those in Potedaea would die from the poison from the explosion days later..."
Xena stopped and stared at the earnest face beside her. This wasn’t hypothetical to the smaller woman, she knew that somehow. "You will not tell Gabrielle any of this." Her voice had become remote and harsh.
Robin froze, realizing she had crossed a line. She waited for Xena to explain. Looking away from her, the warrior tentatively began, "You see, she still believes..."
"...in education. Knowledge isn’t a problem. It’s the key to understanding ourselves. To peace! What’s wrong with believing in that?"
James thought about all of the places he was terrified he could be sent to. The deliberate famines, the genocide’s, the Holocaust... He forgot about their connection until he noticed the shock on Gabrielle’s face. He tried to push his visions away to a far corner of his mind and although Gabrielle wasn’t sure what he had been seeing, she caught enough to demand, "What are you hiding? If there are such terrible things in the future, what difference would it make if...why are you always afraid of …”
…altering the future?" Xena asked. "James once told me, you have these huge cities. Like a thousand Athens packed together. I couldn’t, I didn’t want to picture that. People living like ants in an ant hill... Someone dropped one of those bombs you’re talking about on a city, a city big like that, didn’t they?"
Robin couldn’t look at the warrior. "Sometimes it seems in our time, there are so many people, we see each other like ants, and so life isn’t as... precious. So that we could do..."
"Gods." Xena was surprised she could still be shocked at war. "If that’s the future, what in Tartarus does it matter…”
“…what we do here?”
James tried again. "You and Xena, in this time, doing what you do, I believe you’re holding off even greater evils. It’s a burden, but it’s a glory too..."
"That," The Bard spoke for the first time, "is also a good description of the Bond..."
James stopped, and mumbled, "Maybe, I don’t know. But I do know this....
"...what you and Gabrielle do, that’s what ultimately counts." Robin implored. "I’ve learned while being here, really learned... that peoples’ dreams come from inspiration. Not from envy or power. It’s the caring, and Love, and Sacrifice, that’s what changes the world for the better. It’s what keeps us apart from the animals. You and Gabrielle, you’re heroes...
"...And the world has never had enough heroes..."
"...And the world has never had enough heroes..."
Robin and James heard their words echo and all four stared at one other.
There was an uncomfortable silence until Gabrielle broke it by saying, "Whose bonded to whom, indeed?” Then indicating the dining hut on the rise, “We’re here.”
James sighed, happy that the subject seemed to have been dropped until Gabrielle pointed at him and said, "This isn’t over.”
James smiled and said, "Yeah, yeah," and speaking to the others, mocked in a low guttural voice, "She’ll be back..."
Robin had anticipated that the dining Hall would be empty, forgetting that there were children and the next patrol shifts that had not been up all night. But none of them expected to see the figure slumped at the rear table preferred by Xena.
"Is that the same flagon?"
"I think we can guess it’s not the same ale."
"I know that it’s the same leathers."
"Phew... Pony, go take a bath, and go to bed," ordered Gabrielle.
Eponin blinked, and smiled widely, greeting them. "Aww, Gabrielle, don’t tell me that, please. I could fall asleep and drown." Robin, breathing cautiously through her mouth, whispered to Xena, "That might be safer for the tribe."
Eponin caught that. "Hey!"
Xena slumped onto the bench. "Eat. Then sleep. Please. We’re all exhausted."
Eponin disagreed. "You’re all exhausted. My staying awake has become a spiritual quest. The first three days up are hard, but after that ..." She looked at James, "I know you’ve done this. You know what I mean, don’t you?"
James looked at her sourly "I know after three days of drinking without sleep, humanity becomes THEM."
"And the downside of this is? Anyways, I’ve got a class of trainees in an hour, and so do you, Missy."
Robin hung her head. "Oh, Gods..."
By now the hall was filling up with warriors, many from the party, if the groans and moans were any indication. Gabrielle and James were ignoring them all, arguing again.
"I could make it an order..." Gabrielle was warning.
"No, you couldn’t," James said confidently
"Gabrielle. The Amazon nation has had just about enough of me. They don’t need to have a male leading the Queen’s escort at her Joining. It’s supposed to be someone who is your second in command. That’s Ephiny."
"She’s conducting the ceremony. Anyways, it’s also supposed to be someone who helped bring you to this point, to the person that you’re being joined to. That’s why Xena chose Hercules."
"Another male. All the more reason to choose.... I know! Your Mom!"
"You really think that my Mom wants to be considered accountable for my life with Xena?"
“Point taken. Lila."
"Lila? Anyway, if I pick Lila then my Mom would be hurt."
"Of course, that makes sense," he said sarcastically. "Meleager."
"I thought you said it couldn’t be a male. And I want you."
"You’re being overly sensitive."
"Overly sensitive? Gabrielle, I think that Artemis and I had a talk a few nights ago."
"Well, it was a talking deer in the dreamscape.”
"And she said no, too?"
"I do seem to be on a bit of a streak. Maybe it’s my look. I should grow a beard."
Gabrielle didn’t laugh. "It’s not up to Artemis to say no."
"I say no, I withdraw any application to be your second. Regretfully."
Gabrielle simply stared at her friend, and he could almost hear the gears in her head working.
"How many women are here because of violence from men?" he asked.
"Directly? About a quarter. But if you count children and next generation... maybe half."
"This is a refuge, Gabrielle." She nodded. James put his hand on hers. "’Ri, Artemis was right. I’m pretending that being a male here is an ironic joke, reverse sexism. But I’m doing it amongst people who are wounded."
Gabrielle had no intention of losing this argument. "James, you believe that a soul has no sex, right? You also said that you didn’t like organising basic human rights into parts. That’s what women’s rights were, you argued. Just one part of the fight for all human rights, correct?"
"Gabrielle, that’s great as philosophy. But this is real life. Their lives. I can’t pretend to be some sort of role model, when really, I’m the enemy."
"Centaur crap. I refuse to see you as the enemy or even as an exception to a rule. I think you’re using these arguments to chicken out."
She called over to the Weapon’s Master. "Pony, as an Amazon, would you object to James leading you in Joining escort party?"
Eponin popped a nut into her mouth, and looked at James. "Xena`s already asked me for her side. I’m going to be a token Amazon."
"Great. Well, what do you think the other warriors would think?"
"I dunno. Let’s ask them."
James blanched. "No, Pony, Don’t..."
It was too late. Clambering on top of the table. Eponin clapped her hands for attention. Robin found herself completely blocked and looking up the warrior’s skirt. She looked to Xena in dismay.
"For Hades’ sake, Pony" Xena said. "If you can’t take a bath, at least close your legs. We’re trying to eat here."
Eponin ignored them and addressed the room.
"Apparently, the Queen’s choice to lead her escort has worries about how the members of this nation will react to...his ... being chosen."
Various hazy faces looked to James, and then back to their bowls.
"Maybe some of you might feel it’s embarrassing to have a male lead the Queen’s contingent." There was a murmur of agreement from some of the younger warriors. "Me, I have trouble seeing why there might be embarrassment. Of course, we’re the ones who set the rules for admission into the tribe. He just went ahead and completed them, with honour, and we still won’t let him join, because of what’s between his legs. That, I find embarrassing. Unless there’s something else..."
There was some grumbling. "Oh yeah, maybe some people could worry about establishing a precedent, having a male in a command capacity, even if it’s only a one time honorary position."
Several older Amazons nodded at this. "Don’t really see that either. What’s the precedent? That some one could come in and save the Queen’s life, child, mask and sanity again, exactly as he has, which I can’t really see happening, then yeah, I think we’re stuck with them, even if they’re a Cyclops. See, I thought,” and now she was sweeping her gaze across the tables, “that the point of being Amazons is that we have confidence in ourselves, in our abilities. And if we’re too frigging insecure to accept one ragged-ass guy for a temporary, and deserved honour, then what the Hades does that say about our confidence?
"Meanwhile, Xena has Hercules leading her group. Anyone here want to tell Xena she can’t do that?"
There was silence.
"So, could it be that we have less respect for our Queen than her Consort?" There were mutterings of denial. "Then I don’t what the big problem is, do you?"
This time the muttering was agreeable, and any incipient tension left the room. James noticed several Amazons giving him shy grins of acceptance, as Eponin climbed off the table towards them.
Gabrielle was smiling complacently, until she saw James’ smile didn’t reach his eyes. He whispered to her, "You win, but I still want a Knife at the Throat for the rest of the stay, and I’m going to go talk to Hercules, and try to explain it to him, too."
James then turned to grasp Eponin’s arm, and she returned the clasp.
"You were amazing. Thank you. I know, well... anyways, thank you. You still smell like day-old fish, though."
"You’re welcome. I think I’ll try a shower. I’ll see you," pointing to Robin, "and your little friends in half a candlemark."
Hercules had been put in a bed in the corner of the hospice, surrounded by a single sheet to separate him from the rest of the patients. He was sitting on the edge of the pallet, stripped to the waist, his normally tanned complexion pale, and he was sweating as he was vainly reaching up for his shirt on a hook.
He didn’t look at James as he entered, dropping the dividing sheet behind him.
"Let me get that for you..." James said as he reached for the shirt.
""Don’t bother." The Demi-God’s voice was quiet but firm.
"Look. I’m already getting a complex about the fact that half the women here have bigger biceps that I do. Yesterday I was declared not a man, now you want to force me stare at YOUR chest? Please, let me give you the damned shirt, okay?"
Hercules laughed and acquiesced as James lifted his arms to place them in the sleeves.
"Going somewhere?" James asked.
"Well, I believe there’s a Joining to organize, though I heard you planned to withdraw as Gabrielle’s proxy."
"So you went to tell Gabrielle...?”
"And, now of course, you’re back in?"
"Yup." The two shared a smile. "So we have to make our selection of who’s travelling in which party soon. But I was thinking, if it’s okay with you," James continued, "since Gabrielle’s family is only arriving today, as well as a few other guests, I was planning to put off our picks until tomorrow morning, when we know who’s here."
"I hear Hades is coming. And Athena." There was a note of surprise in Hercules’ voice.
"Not her usual thing? Actually, I was told that She and Artemis are more or less bouncers."
"You know, keeping out Ares, Callisto..."
James looked at the big man curiously. "How do you hear about them anyway? You’ve been locked away here."
Hercules grimaced. "That’s really why I have to get out. Do you know what injured Amazons do all day? And night?"
James shook his head.
James shook his head. "It’s called purging, Herc. Traditionally, sick Amazons pass on their stories..."
"Sure, that’s bad enough. But the younger ones, it’s Gossip. Mainly, well sex. Continuously. About everything. Everybody. When, who, how many times..." The strain increased in his tone. "I have got to get out of here."
James began to laugh. "Learn anything interesting?"
"Mainly things I didn’t want to know. Though I did hear that Ephiny finally decided what Xena’s challenge was."
"You mean to prove herself worthy of Joining with the Queen? What was it? Nobody’s talking. She has to fight a dozen warriors with a fish?"
"No. Ephiny figured that jousting would be pointless and only injure more Amazons."
"Climb a mountain barefoot?"
"Gabrielle was against anything that might injure Xena. No, they decided on self-discipline. Xena had to stop working on her palace."
"What? Why that?"
"I think the real reason was Ephiny wanted to get some work out of her warriors." Hercules grinned.
"Xena was conscripting Amazons to work on her house?"
"No, they were all sitting around watching her. You know, watching her lift stone blocks... sweating away... Nothing else was getting done."
"Oh yeah, I can see that ..."
"See what?" James spun about to see an inquisitorial Xena behind him. Gabrielle and Ephiny behind her.
"Hercules was telling me about your challenge."
"Bunch of Centaur dung," the warrior mumbled.
James thought about Xena having to watch Gabrielle fight to the death, and then staying back while the Amazons captured Raza’s mercenaries. Building their home had been her only outlet. Then he remembered. "But you did get to punch Ares today!"
Xena’s face brightened, as did Hercules’. "Yeah..." But it quickly darkened. "Only once."
She pouted and Hercules patted her shoulder consolingly. The Demi-God made a move to stand.
"What do you think you’re doing?" protested Gabrielle.
James moved between them. "Ah... Gabrielle. Hercules was telling me, that he needs a bit of... quiet, that it’s a little too...noisy here He doesn’t need any real care, so if he could get a bit of exercise walking to his hut, then he’d be happy to lie down and relax until tomorrow." Hercules threw James a grateful look.
Then the Demi-God thought for a second, "There are a few things I should probably be..."
Gabrielle interrupted. "Iolaus keeps asking for you, he really hates being separated like this. If you let him do some of that stuff, it would really make him feel better."
Hercules looked at Gabrielle and then James and Xena, and shook his head ruefully, and all three smiled.
It was then that powerful dread struck.
James felt it first, and looked, panic-stricken to Xena.
The warrior and bard both tensed and said. "Robin!"
James nearly fell as another wave of emotion bore through him.
"She’s...she’s OK now, but... what was that?"
James tried to read the Warrior’s expression. "Oh damn..." Xena whispered.
"What?" James eyes darted between the Xena and Gabrielle.
Gabrielle took his hand and said softly "Robin... you have to find her. Now."
Robin snapped out of her daze and looked around the forest. She had accepted that going into the woods without sleep was risky; she had almost fallen over during the tedium of the instruction. But she was paying for that now; she was completely lost. A quick scan of the immediate area confirmed that she had been separated from the other Amazons, and she wasn’t sure how long it had been since she had last seen another human. She hadn’t even a clue in which direction the rest of her group of trainees were.
Of course. Today was supposed to be an exercise in concentration.
With nothing to lose, she tried extending her senses as she had been taught, focusing on her personal field; and to her surprise, it happened, as natural as breathing. Her exhaustion actually helped. She took another breath and closed her eyes. To her amazement, she felt herself becoming almost intimately aware of the space around her. The air became a tangible thing, even the insects could be felt as interruptions in its natural streams. She began to advance, and the doe-skin boots of her Amazon costume seemed to anticipate each twig before enough pressure could be made to snap it.
Quickly gathering confidence, she silently slipped through the forest. Always in the back of her mind, there was the warning they had all received of a dangerous cat somewhere about, one that had been terrorizing a nearby village. They had all been instructed to remain close.
`Close?’ She thought as she looked about alone, `you really screwed up this time, mighty Amazon. Who’s going to have to rescue you this time?’ The strange thing was that she couldn’t really feel sorry for herself, because she felt too good. Here, a thousand years and miles away from her comfortable suburb, she was... at home.
She heard, almost felt, a vibration that she knew was not a predator. Not entirely sure why, she circled around, and approached the source, amazed at how soundless her movements were. She sensed the breeze, and a voice in her mind whispered `downwind` and she adjusted her position again. Through the trees, she saw a deer rubbing its flank on a tree, and she reached for her bow.
Up till now, she had been moving on instinct, but once she had drawn an arrow from her quiver, and positioned herself, she found could not shoot. ‘Who am I kidding? I’m not an Amazon. I can’t kill... not like this. I’m just a city kid, playing a game...’ Her burgeoning confidence fell from her like a rock, until another sensation froze her. A stark and freezing sensation of impending danger.
The doe had attracted another, meaner predator, one who was not so choosy. A midnight black panther was watching both her and the doe, its snapping tail the only visible movement. Some one or thing had partially succeeded in an attack on it; part of its ear was torn off, and it had not healed. She could see that despite that wound, it still moved sinuously enough, and towards her.
Her brain tried to function. She presumed that she must have walked ahead of the other trainees, and that the panther had been driven ahead of them as they fanned out through the forest. Driven it right towards her.
At first she had frozen, staring into its hypnotic yellow eyes as it deliberately stalked towards her, but now she was suddenly calm. She carefully lowered her bow to the ground and slowly drew her hand towards her dagger, her senses heightened like never before. Without looking, she knew that there was a small depression just below where she was standing, but she waited for the cat to make its move. She watched its paws, and when she saw the claws extend, she made a feint towards the cat as it leaped. Then dropping instead into the small culvert, she gripped her dagger in both hands and timed her jab, thrusting her fists upwards as the beast overshot her and passed overhead, the massive backpaws just grazing her shoulders. She felt a warm spray on her face and the knife was torn from her hands, and she spun around, grabbing her bow and notching an arrow in one swift movement, ready to anticipate the cat’s response. The panther landed awkwardly, and snarling, tried to circle, but instead slumped on its side, futily stretching its forepaw towards her in a sad parody of menace. She stayed in her crouch, holding her bead on the animal, panting heavily, a feeling of exhilaration filling her. She stared into the big cat’s eyes, but they gradually lost their beauty and glazed over. She was intensely aware of her dagger buried deep in the panther’s chest, into its heart.
Her stumbling return to the village was a haze to her. She was aware of others greeting her, and their shock and concern for the blood that covered her face and chest. She was conscious of the shouting when the body was found and that she was being escorted in triumph. But all she could think about was the thrill as her knife had entered the beast; all she could see were the panther’s glazing eyes. She came to herself in the healer’s hut, aware of James’ arm around her, and thought for a moment that the black cat was still with her. But it was Xena, the warrior’s usually stoic expression touched with sadness. They stared at one another for a heartbeat, when Ephiny came in.
The Regent evaluated the patient, and spoke softly to her.
"I know that you’re not familiar with our custom, so the prayers for the panther were made for you. But there was a large bounty on that cat, and there are many people who would like to thank you, Robin. You have completed a kill on behalf of the Royal Mask." She paused. "And by tradition, these are yours."
Robin looked to the Regent’s hand, where she saw four canine teeth. Ephiny continued, "Normally they are made into a necklace. I can have one of the craftswimyn make it for you..."
"A necklace? No... I couldn’t..." Robin looked at Xena for help, and the warrior pulled a small pouch from her side. Taking the teeth from Ephiny, she dropped the teeth into the sack, and surprising Robin with her gentleness, put it in Robin’s hand, holding it there for a moment, saying;
"This is a part of who you are now. It’s not for display, but for good or bad, it’s still a part of you."
With their hands clasped, they shared another silent moment, and then Robin nodded and took the pouch, tying it carefully onto her belt.
Xena walked the two back to their hut. James` heart was aching for Robin, and he felt slightly ashamed that despite his concern, a small part of him had been moved because Robin seemed to want his arm around her, and he enjoyed the contact too much to question it. It had taken only a moment of adjustment, and they had... fit.
No bones jutted out in uncomfortable places, no stumbling, no conscious slowing of the speed of their step, they just... fit. Xena laid her hand on Robin’s shoulder, and said to James, "You’ll look after each other?" He looked into the warrior’s eyes to discern what exactly she meant by that query. He answered the unspoken question as well.
"As long as she’ll let me."
Xena nodded and lowered her eyes to Robin’s. Robin was momentarily blinded by blue, but she nodded and gave her a half smile. She broke away from James, and suddenly missing the contact, reached out and grabbed his hand, pulling him into the hut.
Once inside she stared with exasperation at the bed. "I am really not in the mood to look at you right now," she told it.
"You are speaking to the bed, aren’t you?" James said from behind her.
Robin turned to him. "I guess."
"Strangely enough, the fact you are talking to a piece of furniture, comforts me."
She didn’t laugh. "James..." she started.
He knew what she was going to ask. He sat beside her. "No, Andrea was not the first person I’ve killed. I plan for her to be the last... but I always do."
"But you’ve never felt... enjoyment, or satisfaction?" Robin saw him preparing to lie to her, but she held his eyes until he lowered them.
"No." He held out his hands to her. "But just like you, I killed because I knew I had to, just like you..."
"James." He waited for her to continue. " I know it was an animal. Not a human being. But there was a moment, a moment when I was ready for another panther, or...” She stared at her palms sadly. "I enjoyed the kill. And… I’m not the person I’ve always thought I was."
James took her hands in his. "I know who you are. You are a compassionate and good person, who regrets a death, even though you know it was the right thing. Half the village would be proud to wear those teeth. All of the village, including me, sees you as a hero. And yet, you’re here, knowing that the death was a... a loss. That I admire even more."
"You think I’m a hero, too?" She roughly removed her hands from his. "This wasn’t a quest, or a challenge. It was almost a fluke. It was easy. Too easy."
"Robin, I can’t...."
The day had simply been too much and Robin’s temper flared. "What do you mean, you CAN’T? James: Warrior Psychiatrist, can’t find the words to comfort someone? Oh sorry, not someone, just ME."
"Robin, I know how you feel. WE, know how you feel..."
The Amazon in training nearly exploded.
"Oh, you know how I feel, do you? " but she stopped, as comprehension swept her.
"You DO, don’t you? Of course! The BOND! Wonderful! How many times have you been happily rummaging through my feelings, before this? What’s the problem, James? No cases to solve? Don’t have enough emotions of your own? You have to steal some of mine?"
She had hurt him. Good.
"It’s not like that."
"So, what IS it like? Eh?" Her anger gaining hold, newly developed muscles tensing, she advanced towards him, planning to try to throw him out when she stopped and stared at the door. A tentative knock was heard.
"Go away," James said.
"Shut up! What?" she said to the door.
"Go away," James repeated loudly.
Glaring at him she yelled, "Ignore the wizard behind the curtain. Come in."
The door opened cautiously and a young Amazon entered, or tried to, the bed making occupancy by three nearly impossible. It was one of the craftswimyn, holding a series of sketches. She looked at Robin’s stone face, and felt the tension in the room.
"I could come back, but I wanted..." she trailed off, clearly uncomfortable.
"Neshia, is it? What do you need, I could use a break."
The Amazon coughed and began again. "I’ve been working on a piece and I was hoping, you would let me sketch you, it won’t take but a moment."
James stood up. "You’re the potter, right?" She nodded shyly. "You’ve done some great stuff, can I see?" The artisan blushed and handed over some drawings. "I’d already tossed the pot, and I was beginning the etching but..." she stopped when she saw the expression on James’ face.
His legs weakened and he fell back on the bed. He was staring at the sketch of a panther and his face was white. He looked at Robin.
"The panther, it was missing an ear? Like this?" He thrust the drawing at Robin.
"You mean, you didn’t already know?" she snarled sarcastically.
"Why would we know about the panther? When we felt, whatever, the emotions. We only wanted… had to find YOU. Can we talk about this later? Please?" He turned to Neshia. "There hasn’t been another panther, just like this, killed by five Amazons, was there?" He gave her a sickly smile.
Confused the potter blinked. "You've seen my original drawings? I assumed that the sisters would track and capture it in the traditional manner... how did you see my original sketches?"
James ignored the question. "But now that Robin kill... hunted it, you want to put HER on the urn, right?"
Neshia watched the way James’ hands were spasmodically shaking, and became more uncertain. "Yes, it really wouldn’t take very long."
Robin was about to refuse, so James handed the papers back to the potter, saying, "She has to think about it."
"No, I don’t."
"Yes, she does," he said, ushering the artisan from the room.
James took a deep breath and faced the outraged woman.
Gabrielle was sitting, waiting on the stoop outside the Queen’s hut. "Is she, are they going to be OK?"
Xena shrugged. "They’re going to have a talk. Now’s when we leave them alone and go for a nap."
Xena was tempted to pick up her exhausted bard in her arms, but pushed down the frustration. She offered only her a hand, but it was so gratefully received that she couldn’t resist pulling her bard up into an embrace. The warrior froze when she heard a quiet snicker. Gabrielle released her partner with a sigh and looked over to see two younger Amazons (Dioxippe, Evandre, was it?) watching and shaking their heads in admonishment.
Their pantomime stopped immediately when Xena began to advance towards them. Evandre, the elder of the two, knew enough to be very frightened, but her years of training didn’t help from being caught by the intensity burning through the slits of those incredible eyes, even as her mind registered one terrifying thought, "Oh Gods, she’s smiling...."
Just as hypnotically frozen, Dioxippe had time to register the same information but instead interpreted it as "Well, she seems happy...?" before both of them found themselves lifted easily into the air where they hung suspended by the two very powerful hands attached to six feet of frustrated Warrior Princess. Something under other circumstances might have been a recurring fantasy, but now brought to them the realization that they had made a big mistake.
The voice was quiet, but almost inhuman in its power and depth. The smile was even more frightening close up. "I hope you weren’t showing any disrespect for your Queen just now?"
Both Amazons struggled to squeeze an answer through their constricted throats. The sound that came out was rather high pitched. "No...?"
"Because I’m becoming just a bit BOTHERED by some of the things I’ve heard and seen in the past few days..."
Evandre seized upon the one thing that might be their salvation. "My Queen?" She looked over in desperation.
Gabrielle was so fatigued that she was leaning on the building’s supports to remain standing, and part of her objected to the way that Xena was bullying these hapless women. Another part was inexplicably evaluating their relative weight. ‘Hmm. The larger one is in her left hand, so after about 100 heartbeats, she might begin to strain...’ Unfortunately for the two, another part was remembering a party when a drunken Evandre had made a pass at her partner, and that was the part that responded when she heard the whimpered plea directed at her.
She called over to them. "You know what bothers ME...?" ‘Dear Artemis,’ thought Evandre as she vaguely recalled a certain drunken moment as well, ‘We’re dead.’
"...what really bothers me is when people treat Xena like she’s some kind of dancing bear and I’m her trainer."
Evandre was upset to notice that the terrifying smile, if possible, had become broader. ‘Please don’t let me pee my leathers,’ she recited to herself.
"Now, I’m going to let you down." ‘Thank you’ thought both women, but the warrior made no move to do so. "But first I want something understood." Both heads bobbed assent. Whatever it was they would understand, they were sure.
"That, is the Queen of the Amazons, rrrriiiiight? And if she decides to remain celibate in order to fulfil some Amazon ritual, then she will. And be supported in this. Right?" Furious agreement. "Or if she decides to be joined here, or in Amphipolis, or on Mount OLYMPUS, THAT will be her choice as well, RIGHT?" And now the smile disappeared. "And if she wants to have screaming to the moon, gut wrenching, passionate sex right in the centre of the Gods be damned village, that’s going to happen too! DO you understand?" Realizing that their continued nodding might be indicating too much enthusiasm for this spectacle, the two Amazons stopped, and with relief felt themselves being lowered to the ground.
"Now I would like the two of you to explain this to your friends, because I really don’t think I’ll have the patience to do it again." The Amazons were immediately forgotten the moment they floundered off. Xena turned and gave an embarrassed look to her soulmate.
"Maybe I shouldn’t have done that..."
Gabrielle took her arm. "No, I thought you handled that quite well."
"Maybe I am getting better at these sensitive chats," Xena mused.
"Oh yeah. We should give you a special hut and make you the tribe’s councillor." Gabrielle said seriously.
"Well, I’ve never been very good at DESCRIBING it..."
A sigh. "Only one more day, right?"
"One more day, Love."
Back in the hut, James began. "You know in your heart that we haven’t, that we can’t read your mind, don’t you?"
He cut her off. "It was a one time thing. I don’t know if it was because the three of us were together, or because it was so... new to you, what you were feeling, but it hit us like a blow to the stomach. Gabrielle and I didn’t understand, but Xena..." He fumbled for a second. "You admire Xena, right?"
"Admire? Xena?" ‘What was this about?’ "She’s incredible."
"Well, she knew... she tried to explain to us what it was that you were feeling..." He stumbled on. "She wanted me to be alone with you, but I insisted she come with me to the healers, because... well, you saw how she felt, how she understood. So. With all that you just went through. Would... Could discovering that a part of you is... like her, could that really be so frightening, or so terrible? You could live with that as a part of you? Couldn’t you? If it was... true?"
Robin pushed her resentment aside, if only because she knew something more important was in the air.
"What just happened with Neshia?"
"Noticed, eh?" James sat, or rather collapsed on the bed.
"Unless you’ve just come down with epilepsy, yeah, I just missed something." By now, Robin could recognize the expression on his face. Where do I start...? She gave him a moment. He raised his eyes to hers.
"You can understand that I might have taken an interest in Grecian artefacts over the past couple of years?"
"Because despite everything you keep saying, you were on the lookout for a scroll or two, or maybe a rusty chakram?"
He gave her an embarrassed smile. "Sorta. So, believe me when I tell you that in a glass case in our very own Musee des Beaux Arts there is an urn, dated around 100 B.C., that depicts a hunt. I have a photo of it in my apartment, because it shows what are supposed to be Amazons. With me so far?"
She nodded for him to continue.
"It has a very distinctive glaze, certain patterns around the rim... and it shows the killing of a huge black panther with its ear torn in a distinctive diagonal slash..."
"I take it the patterns and glaze..."
"It’s what Neshia does, it’s her... signature..."
"And you think..."
"I think that that when we get back that pot won’t exist anymore. Or if it does, it will show a single Amazon, one with short, black hair, and green eyes."
Of all the reactions he might have expected from Robin, laughter, deep rolling chuckles, was not it.
"Robin?" he asked.
"I was just imagining the look on your face when you have to tell Gabrielle!" She started to snort. "This is not my past," she recited pompously, "and I am not your future."
She pounded her knees.
"You were listening?" he accused.
"You were shouting."
"I love it!" she chortled. "She was right all along! And it's me and Xena... that’s why you’re asking..." and the implications of what had happened that day, and all that the warrior was and had been, hit her, and her laughter stopped. "If I can live with a part of Xena?"
James spoke carefully; worried as he tracked her mood swings. "Maybe not. There could be just some weird parallel existence, I mean the pot was dated 100 B.C., Hercules, if he existed, was already supposed to be dead ages before, Caesar wasn’t born; it doesn’t suddenly all fall together."
"I’m sure you’ll explain that to the Queen next time she asks you about airplanes, or flush toilets or whatever," Robin said absently.
James lowered his head. "Hell, suddenly I’m scared to step outside and step on a bug, in case I exterminate a species."
Robin thought again of the woman who had held her hand and given her the canines. The moments when they had shared a gaze, a thought. The hero of Gabrielle’s scrolls. And it was suddenly all right. More than all right. She took a deep breath and grinned. Actually laughed out loud again.
"Oh, stop worrying, and live life, James," she chortled happily. "You know what? I’m in Ancient Greece!" As she began to giggle, she reached down and pulled him to her, and locking her arms behind his back, kissed him solidly on the lips. He pulled away and she released him immediately, shaking her head as he backed off.
"This is not bad news. Not at all. What is your problem?" she said with frustration. "Or am I alone here, am I alone in feeling this?"
He shook his head slightly.
"What are you so worried about? The bond? I ‘m not scared about that, and..." interrupting before he could speak, "I don’t care what I said LAST TIME. I’ve had time to think, and what we’ve been feeling and … whatever else happens between you and me, THIS... is the best time I’ve ever had. You," pointing at James dramatically, "whether you wanted to or not, have given me the best time I’ve ever had. This is Narnia, the Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland and I don’t know what else, all rolled together and I don’t want it to end!
"Did you realize" she dropped her voice for the first time, "that I was taking guitar lessons from you, and voice lessons to balance out getting a degree in accounting? Your guitar lessons were supposed to give me enough balance of some kind, to breathe, so that I could become… AN ACCOUNTANT!" she shouted. "And you offer me this! I don’t care if we COULD die here, I don’t care if it ends tomorrow, and I can handle being a descendant of the most impressive woman I’ve ever met, whatever the cost. I’m happy. Really, really happy. This moment, here and now. And yes. A big part of it all is that it’s with you. This is worth the risks to me. Why isn’t it for you? What is your PROBLEM?"
It was a very quiet voice that answered. "Because whatever we have is probably a gift of some God. Because they never come without a price. Because I’m a coward who has never been in love before in his entire life. Because if I let go... If we go back and you don’t remember this," he closed his eyes and paused. "If you don’t remember me... I don’t think I would survive it this time."
She slumped down beside him. "Whoa." She turned to him with all the intensity she could gather. "Listen to me. I know, I mean I really know, that I’m not Xena. But a part of them, how much I don’t know, but a part, including the greatest gift they ever got, made it all the way to us. Who knows how many times it was wasted, or separated, or wasn’t risked?”
Robin took a deep breath. "Now, we’re here, together. This thing is getting stronger. No, better. And there’s a vibe, a sexually compatible vibe, I think. I mean, we really like each other, and we have this incredible connection..."
In her nervousness, she stood up and was above him on the bed, staring down, and reached to run a hand softly through his hair. "Yesterday you were about to be executed, remember? And you were willing to trust that it was a problem that could be solved. Well, this is just another problem, and there’s a solution, okay? I refuse to believe that it’s something we can’t work out together, and with their help. And they clearly want to help us."
James took a deep breath of his own, looking up at the small figure towering above him. He thought over all she had said. Focussing on the most important part. "Sexually compatible?" he asked.
Robin rolled her eyes. "I was assuming..."
"Oh yeah. Assume."
"So, James, what IS your problem?"
"Right now, it’s that women standing pretty well on top of me, are not on my list of turn ons."
"You have a list? Am I on it?"
He smiled and shrugged. "You are it."
"Then I can’t take your objection seriously." A leather skirt fell down, hitting his knees. And his mind went completely blank.
Robin smiled. "Now considering we probably have only a little while before some new hell breaks loose…”
It was night.
In a sheltered boundary area of the Amazon Nation, a tall, dark-haired male was digging. There were no torches to light his work, and when his shovel struck a large root, the sound of his muffled cursing echoed from inside the pit he was standing in. Two other figures sat ominously in the shadows watching.
Toris leaned onto the shovel, wiping the sweat from his brow, leaving a trail of dirt across it. "Ah, Sis? Tell me again why I’m digging this hole?"
The warrior didn’t move from her squatting position. "Because Gabrielle wants it."
"Ah... fair enough." There was silence except for the sound of the shovel as her brother persevered for a moment. Then another pause. "But, Xena, tell me again why you aren’t digging?"
There was grumble from the warrior. "I can’t do any heavy labour. I’m undergoing an Amazon purification ritual."
Toris was silent for a moment. "Didn’t you already try that once on Mom to get out of cleaning the cellar?"
The grumble changed to a growl. "Keep digging, Tor."
He struck a rock and the vibration rang right up through his arm. He stopped again, turning his head towards the second figure. "Gabrielle, you have all these Amazons...?"
The Queen spoke up from the comfort of her warrior's arms. "If the Amazons knew that we were burying any of my scrolls, eventually someone would want to dig them up. And the whole point is to keep them hidden until our friends can find them."
"And this will be...?"
"Not for a loooong time... so deeper, Tor."
Toris looked beseechingly to Gabrielle.
She responded sympathetically. "We’re really sorry you have to do this alone, Toris, and we do appreciate it. In a way, well, it’s sort of an honour that Xena asked you. We needed someone who we could trust completely, someone we both knew would never reveal what we were doing. It’s the only way to really be sure that these will be here thousands of years from now."
Gabrielle almost lost it at the very familiar look of disbelief that crossed Toris’ face. "Fine. I’ll believe you, Gabrielle. But Xe... should I be worried this is like the guys who built the secret chambers in the pyramids? You’re going to throw me into the pit afterwards, aren’t you?"
Xena’s slow smile was visible even in just the moonlight. "Keep digging, Toris."
There was no trigger that Gabrielle could hear, but she responded instantly to Xena’s slight repositioning, knowing the warrior had shifted so as to be able to jump from her crouch if necessary. The tightness vanished a moment later. "Small Amazon, twenty lengths away."
“Neshia,” Gabrielle guessed.
Both partners rose and quickly pressed through the brush, meeting Neshia before she could approach any further. The small potter handed an urn to the bard, who inspected the wax seals.
"This is perfect, Neshia, I must thank you again," Gabrielle murmured in approval.
"You’re very welcome, My Queen, and I will keep this secret." She paused, another question on her mind.
The Queen of the Amazons noticed. "There’s a problem?"
"Your friends... is the male an oracle?"
The partners exchanged glances. "Well, sort of. Why?"
Neshia had never been alone with both of the tribe’s celebrities before. And in her abashment she blurted out, "He was looking at some sketches I'd made of a pot showing Robin killing that panther, but he described them as if he’d already seen the original drawings I'd made, and that’s impossible! Anyways, he started shaking, and talking in a weird voice...and the Hunter started yelling, and... What’s a wizard? And why would it be hiding behind a curtain...?"
Xena was amused. "It’s OK. We don’t always know what they’re talking about either. They have very strange ways."
Gabrielle eyes had lit up, and she began to smile. "Neshia, let me get this straight. No one could have seen your drawings. Right? But he described them, almost like you had already made the pot? As if he’d already seen it, as if you’d already made it? And that’s when he started panicking?" Gabrielle smile turned to a grin at each nod.
"YES!!!" The artisan was bewildered even further as her Queen began an impromptu dance. "Gotcha, James! You are so going to get it later!" she called out to the night. Turning to the craftswomym, she ordered, "Neshia, get back home, and talk to no one about this. And thank you again." The confused artisan bowed, and shaking her head, began her return to the village, muttering about insanity being contagious. Gabrielle grabbed her soulmate's hands and started tugging. "Come on, warrior, we have a pit to dig."
"Look, love, nothing says I can’t help Toris."
"Yes. Me. You want me to watch you, bending over, sweating..."
"Xena." But then she saw the frustrated look in the twitching eye. She sighed and called over to the waiting workman. "Toris. Please keep digging?"
They resumed their earlier positions, but Gabrielle’s mind was racing through the possibilities of what she’d learned and surmised. "Xena?"
"You realize that this means I was right? That this might actually work out? You’re sure that this spot can be found, no matter how long, no matter what changes happen to the landscape?"
"How are they going to get here again?"
"Gabrielle. We can only leave the message. They have to come and pick it up."
"I wish we could do more." There was silence as Toris rested again. "Xena," Gabrielle asked. "Does it make you feel weird to think of them standing on this spot, thousands of years from now, when we’re just dust?"
The warrior thought on that for a moment. "No. It makes me feel weird, sitting here now, listening to you TALKING about them being here thousands of years from now."
"But we won’t be dust."
"Not if you’re right. Not if they get together. We’ll live on in them and their children."
There was a long silence. Then they looked at each other. And back at the resting workman.
"Keep digging, Toris!" they both yelled.
Strangely enough, back within the village, it was also night. Had anyone dared to be outside the windows of a certain hut, they might have heard a great deal of panting, completed by an exclamation...
“How the hell do Xena and Gabrielle get to do any of the things in the scrolls? Hell, how do they get out of the hut every morning? And this is supposed to just get stronger? James, stop laughing!”
“I can’t help it. I can… feel… you. So much.”
“So I guess no more sneaking up behind each other.”
“Or accidentally overhearing conversations.”
“Oh, right. James…?”
“I don’t want to think about that now. It’s too late to stop feeling what I feel.”
“This isn’t a death sentence, damn you! I love you and we aren’t going to lose this. I swear. I promise you. If we got back, and I forget all this again… Without this, I’d… you don’t think I wouldn’t notice the loss? That I wouldn’t know that I was missing something this important? Living half a life?"
"So you’d miss the Amazons?"
"You great asshole! Listen, James...You remember the ads for the army? Well, to me the Nation is like that. Boot camp."
"Boot camp. For what?"
"Well. Look. I was thinking... you’re going to need... Like, you can’t just keep dropping out of the sky on top of Warrior Princesses or whoever without someone to watch your ass, you know."
"You want to..."
"I think that's what we're supposed to do, yes."
"You going to look after it?"
"I think you should just accept that your ass is mine, from now on.”
“Have I told you lately…”
“That you love me?”
“That too. Actually, I was going to say you are a filthy minded, incredible, wonderful woman.”
“Why are you moving?”
“James, you need a break and we do need to talk. About using the pot.”
“Only if you stay lying just like… that. Perfect.”
“Okay, I was saying that I don’t think asking Neshia to leave something like the panther’s teeth in the pot will work, because it’s under glass in the museum, right? And if you don’t remember anything, you wouldn’t go to the museum on just my say so anyways."
"Maybe we’re obsessing about the pot, and we should just mark something else we know survives."
"I know, we’ll go to the Parthenon and write on a pillar, ‘For a Good Time, call Robin...’ Oww! Hey! No hitting!"
"Rules? Since when were there rules?"
"Civilisation ended when the legs on the bed broke? Wait! I know! Your phone number, that actually might work!"
"Right, James. Dateline, the Louvre. A mystery 200 generations old was solved today when archaeologists dialled a phone number discovered chiselled on the butt of the Venus de Milo..."
"No, Robin, on the pot. Wouldn’t you freak out if your phone number was on a pot with your face on it? We ask Neshia...”
"When did freaking become a good thing?"
"Was a few minutes ago..."
"Shush. It would have to be in Roman numerals...."
"I don’t know, a Roman reference might change its value. Change history. The Museum might not buy it."
"But James, she could work it in as a part of the pattern on the rim... and you can’t see it unless you know to look."
"But, Robin, how do we get you to look at it?"
"I’ll write me a note. Well, I’ll compose a note for you to give me, with stuff only I would know about me. That should get my attention."
"You realize that by changing the design, or Neshia’s making it later, may have already changed the future, and that’s assuming it really is the same pot and not some parallel version..."
"Look, James, stop that. We’ll do whatever we have to, because I am not going to lose this. We are not going to lose this. Do You Believe Me?"
“Robin? When did you get that growl?"
"I don’t know... Do you like it?"
"Seems appropriate for someone who owns my ass. Yeah, I like it."
"Good. Because that and your ass are just two of the things I‘m going to keep."
"Well, we got out! But you look so exhausted, James." Robin’s grin seemed brighter than the sun this morning.
They were standing on a hill overlooking the boundary grounds. It was lit by early morning sunshine only occasionally obscured by the few clouds drifting on a light breeze. Below them, Amazons and guests were sparring, or generally milling about. The lovers leaned against each other, their hands and hips occasionally brushing against each other, still unable to move too far apart, despite feeling as though they were connected by all of their senses.
Reacting to her teasing, James threw Robin a half-meant glare. "Please! Don’t tell me you’re a morning person." He unsuccessfully fought a yawn. "If I had known letting you have a few extra hours to sleep this morning would put you in this horrible and unpleasant condition, I wouldn’t have wasted my precious sleeping time writing poetry."
"Wasted?" Robin pouted. "I distinctly remember waking up and letting you read it to me."
"Let me? Oh, lady, that extra sleep is a thing of the past for you."
"If I have anything to do with it, you will be red-eyed and..."
"Miserable? I don’t think so..." She pulled his head down and kissed him. "And here I was, worrying about that bet you lost with Xena."
James lowered his head and closed his eyes, slumping forward in defeat. "Okay. I give. I am apparently the last person in the village to know what this frickin’ bet was. It sure as hell must be something, considering the looks and the smiles I’ve been getting. I don’t get it! What could be so embarrassing in losing to Xena, right? Everyone here must have done that at least twice?"
Robin was trying to hold a straight face. She allowed only a small smile, but it was a strain. She began to explain in a very controlled tone.
"Well, you see, your bet with Xena was..." She took a breath.
"Yes," James said impatiently, "I bet Xena…"
"The bet was to see..." Robin looked down at the ground, "...to see who could pee the furthest." And the strain was too much and she exploded with the repressed laughter.
"And I LOST?" James’ eyes were coming out of his sockets.
Robin was trying to control her laughter but not succeeding. She wrapped her arm around him. “James. She suckered you. You were too drunk to take down your pants." She broke up again.
She put her hand on her lover’s shoulder. "Oh, I’m sorry" slowly containing herself, "I shouldn’t be laughing, James, but..."
To her surprise, he seemed amused. "You know, I’m such a pompous asshole. I suppose the whole village knows all about this, right?"
"So, I’ve worried about being thought of as a danger to the women here. A Threat, a lean mean raping machine," he started a rueful chuckle. But then his head cocked and his tone and eyes changed. "So I suppose I owe Xena one, don’t I? For helping me like that, I mean."
Robin saw the look in his eye, and worried. "Uh, James, I really don’t think you want to get into paybacks with Xena."
They heard a cough behind them and found a still sickly looking Hercules and Iolaus standing behind them. James frowned at Robin. "I thought you were supposed to hear people sneaking up behind us, Amazon?"
Iolaus added, "And I thought Amazons walked more smoothly, but you both have this strange stiff..." Hercules hit the grinning blonde on the shoulder. "Ow! Hey, you’re the one who told me that you could hear them like they were in the next room... Ow!"
Robin and Hercules both hit him this time. James wished that he wasn’t blushing. Robin just looked mad. She put her hands on her hips and asked, "Well, are you two going to start picking teams? Though I can’t help feeling it sounds less like a wedding that a flashback to gym class.”
James grinned. "Except this time, the geeky kid is the captain."
Robin looked at the demi-god and joked, "You used to be geeky?"
Iolaus laughed, "I don’t know about geeky. I don’t even remember him having bad hair days."
Hercules was becoming embarrassed and his weakness wore at his patience "Can we get started? Because right now, I think I’m willing to trade Iolaus for Robin."
The blonde started to interrupt, but James stopped him. "That’s not a bad idea. Look. I know that Gabrielle expects Iolaus on her side, and that after yesterday, everyone sees Robin as a miniature Xena... but I think it would mean a lot to Xena, after all that’s happened with you guys in the past, if Iolaus was standing up for Xena. If that’s all right with you?"
Iolaus blinked and nodded. "If it’s OK with Xena, I’d be proud to..."
"It would mean a great deal to me," came a low murmur. This time, all were caught unawares, as none of them had heard the warrior approach. They watched as she slung an arm around a suddenly nervous looking Iolaus. "Fact is, I think we all know, that if this really was a battle between Gabrielle and I, I’d be out there alone." The Warrior added, muttering," and that just might include my mother. So, I’m glad of the support." She released the apprehensively smiling Iolaus. Robin realized that Hercules had probably told his partner that Xena might need... relaxation. Having experienced this particular relaxation herself for the first time, well, first times, Robin tried to imagine what going without might be like. Xena looked almost fine, except for that nervous twitch under one eye.
"Well, then," James said blandly, " I know that several of the Amazons are ready to fight each other for a position with Gabrielle. And since we have to have equal numbers, the more on Xena’s side, the better for peace in the tribe. So, I’ll give you Joxer, Maleager, Minya..."
Later Robin took James aside and said "That was very... considerate of you, James." She gripped his face with her hands. "Obliging. Actually accommodating...."
"You know how this ceremony is supposed to work?" he asked.
"Yeah, it’s a throwback to raiding parties. The two factions, representing the couple’s tribes, arrive fully armed for battle. They present their weapons, then symbolically disarm, allowing the couple to be joined in peace, joining their tribes as well." As with anything to do with the Amazons, Robin had quizzed Ephiny in detail.
"Well, maybe that’s how other people get married around here, but I don’t quite see it that way. You see, if we had Iolaus and Xena had Hercules, our tribe would be seen as the number twos. The sidekicks. Not going to happen.
"It’s not going to be a marriage of the great Warrior Princess and her sidekick. If this is ever to be seen as a union of equals, then people have to see it as the Queen of the Amazon Nation choosing her Consort. AND, after all these years of trying to get the jump on Xena, Pony is going to piss herself when she realises she’s on the wrong side." He grinned.
"James. " Robin was beginning to be worried. "This doesn’t have to do with Xena and the bet, does it? You are planning a wedding, right? Gabrielle’s wedding? Don’t you think she would like to be consulted?"
"Consulted? It was her idea." Robin stepped back, shocked.
"I’m just going to enjoy it a lot more, now." And he grinned again.
The afternoon was bright and clear. Certainly clear of any members of the wedding parties. Robin was watching from her perch in the trees that grew high above the platform. `Just your average wedding,’ she thought. `I’m in ancient Greece, at least, sort of, like, ancient Greece. I’m waiting for the groom, who is a woman, with the bride, in a tree. Yeah, I can handle this.’ She remembered James dealing with her objections.
"First off, Xena isn’t a factor,” he’d told her. "Whenever she does figure out what’s going on, she won’t do anything to stop us. The rest know that we’re a group of mainly Amazon warriors, but they won’t realise that we’ve selected all the archers. And they think we’d never do anything crazy with Gabrielle’s Mom and her family involved. But with Hecuba safe on the ground, and Lila willing to try anything once... we do have the element of surprise."
"Gee. Why would they be surprised?" she’d replied. "Why wouldn’t the groom’s party expect a fully armed attack by the bride at the wedding? Unless they’re planning the same thing?"
"That motley crew of Kings, forest dwellers, Gods and thieves? They couldn’t agree on lunch. They’re going to roll down that aisle like it was the beginning of the Bugs Bunny Show. All that will be missing is someone singing 'Overture, turn the lights...' And maybe the kangaroo.”
Robin smiled at the memory and looked over to see a matching grin on her companion in the tree. She whispered to Gabrielle, "Is this REALLY how you pictured your wedding?"
"No. Never thought I’d be this lucky."
Robin just shook her head. "I thought you were afraid of heights?"
"Grrls gotta do, what a grrls gotta do!" The bard snickered.
Robin laughed, and covered her mouth quickly. "Then all I can say, is you Go girl!"
There was a blare of some sort of trumpet, and the Warrior Princess’ caravan came into sight. Robin had gotten to know the name and reputations of many of Xena’s friends, but was surprised at the amount of heavy artillery they were carrying. Even Salmoneous had been convinced to carry a sword for the ceremonial disarmament, and Robin began to have new doubts about the intelligence of this plan.
There were several carts, each hauling a different grouping of dignitaries, all joyfully waving at the seated guests. Xena, of course led, riding Argo, who was in full battle regalia.
Behind her was a somewhat recovered Hercules and Iolaus driving the cart with Cyrene carrying Lycea, while Toris walked alongside. Xena’s eyes scanned the ground, no doubt noticing the large bales of hay placed on the right hand side of the road. When her eyes did glance upwards, Robin felt as though the warrior was staring directly at her, even though she knew that she was hidden in the dense foliage. Gabrielle was carefully checking that each cart was in the expected position, her green eyes dancing with inner excitement. Another birdcall sounded, and Robin watched Xena’s head jerk. `Wondering what that new one meant, eh warrior?` The caravan came to a halt. Xena, her tense posture indicating she was anticipating something, dismounted slowly. She climbed the steps to the platform directly below Robin, and stood waiting like a martyr.
Unusual in an Amazon attack, there were no war cries. The first intimation that something was planned were the crashing sounds as each cart had its rigged right wheels pulled off by ropes hidden in the path, and the shouts as the passengers lurched and fell onto the handily padded sides. Dozens of archers appeared from behind each hay bale, and more warriors vaulted from the trees. Each with a specific assignment, only one or two surrounding the royalty, five archers in a ring around a chagrined Hercules and Iolaus. Grabbing their ropes and closing their eyes, Gabrielle and Robin landed just out of sword’s reach of Xena. The Queen of the Amazon’s gave her soulmate a dazzling smile before turning towards the now surrounded carts.
"All members of the Warrior Princess’s contingent, DISARM! All weapons, NOW."
In the stunned silence, a voice could be heard cursing fluently. "Three furking years." Eponin was saying, "Three furking years, trying to get the drop on her...and finally someone does it...and I’m...." The rest was unintelligible but one of the Amazons had her hands pressing on Xenon’s ears anyways. James appeared along side, carrying a detailed weapons list. Salmoneous had already tossed his sword away the moment his cart had tilted, but most of the rest were looking to their commander. Xena dropped to her knees before the Queen and without hesitation formally presented her with her sword.
From her kneeling position, she spoke clearly for all to hear, but her eyes were fixed only on the Queen. "My sword, and whatever else I have, whatever I am, or will be... yours." For a moment it appeared to Robin that Gabrielle was ready to melt and call the whole thing off, but she gathered herself, took the sword, and pointed at the warrior's side.
"The round killing thing, the breast dagger, the thigh knives, the boot dagger, the new whip… let’s have it."
James was going through a similar list, and many of the guests were astonished at the pile of equipment that appeared in front of Autolycus alone. After a quick inspection by Ephiny, each victim was allowed to join the seated wedding guests. Finally when the last chobos, knife and spear had been removed, Gabrielle again called her warriors to attention. She raised her arms and a cry of victory rang out through the woods. Then, before the echoes had died, she lowered her hands and commanded
"Amazons, HOLD! Amazons, DISARM!" and their weapons were dropped in military precision, Gabrielle moved to her warrior’s side, and presented her staff, her eyes tearing slightly, saying with her love shining in the words, "Whatever I have. Whatever I will be. Yours. Forever." She then pulled her soulmate up with her, and for a moment they were alone in each other’s eyes. The Amazon Queen kissed her Consort; to the cheers of all the warriors present, and they were brought back down to mortality. As Ephiny mounted the platform to begin the ceremony, Gabrielle whispered, "You knew, didn’t you, and yet the Warrior Princess led her friends into a trap?"
Xena smiled. "All I knew was that the Amazon Queen was unlikely to disarm her Nation first, not if there was a choice. And the Amazon Queen is very clever about coming up with choices. As for traps, I trust you, my love. And I was trapped a very long time ago."
Gabrielle buried her head in her warrior’s shoulder. "Please, don’t call this a trap. Or else we’re both prisoners. It’s home."
"Always. Where you go..."
"And where you go. I go. Always."
The Regent interrupted with a harsh whisper. "I am glad to say this for the very last time, but Break It Up! Because in less than candlemark, the three of us are going to be very wealthy."
Gabrielle was about to ask for a definition of wealthy, but Xena asked, "No one else bet on us?"
Ephiny grinned and rubbed her hands together and said, "Consider it as... a sort of compliment," before regaining her Regent’s poise and turning to the crowd and beginning the first of the prayers to Artemis.
After a soaking them in an alcohol mixture, Ephiny raised the couple’s hands and placed a double-edged dagger between their palms and withdrew it quickly, slicing identical wounds along their lifelines. She reached for the leather to bind their hands together, when she was surprised by a strong arm pulling her gently away from the couple.
The Patron of the Amazons dismissed the Regent, who dropped to her knees. Pleasantly aware of the sensation she was causing amongst her gathered faithful, Artemis spoke to Xena first. "Warrior?" Xena dropped her eyes for a split second before nodding, and Artemis almost smiled at the unexpected deference. She turned to Gabrielle, and said softly "Chosen?" and Gabrielle nodded as well. Ignoring the proffered leather strap, she reached into her ever-present quiver and drew out an unused bowstring. Running it through the drip of blood which had started to form at the base of their joined hands, she then began to tie their wrists together, speaking the words of the ceremony as she did so. "As your blood is joined, so shall your hearts, your souls, and your futures."
She turned to the hushed audience. "I. Artemis, Patron of the Amazons, bless this union, and all of their progeny, as long as the faith remains."
There was a bright light and Artemis was suddenly joined by her sisters; Aphrodite for once showing the regal bearing of her status. Athena, bold and strong as always, but with one eye looking through the crowd to verify the whereabouts of a certain child.
The Goddesses each raised their hands above the couple, blessing them, and then they were gone.
The crowd was hushed, staring in awe at the literally thrice-blessed couple.
Robin whispered to James, "Geez. After that, I hate to think of what they’d have to go through for a divorce."
James knew he should be wondering where she got this nerve, but once again, ignoring the stern Amazons about them, broke up.
‘They must have a whole subdivision in this tribe that just works as brewers.’ thought Robin as she watched as several more casks of ale were rolled out. She looked around at yet another Amazon celebration. She had secured a place near the throne as the line of guests continued to offer their gifts to the happy couple. Throughout the evening, groups of dancers, performers and musicians had come and gone, the only constant, Gabrielle’s squeals of delight as she had received each present. Armour, weapons, clothing, exotic foods lay scattered about, and still her enthusiasm did not diminish. Though Robin had taken this position in the hope of spotting James, who had disappeared on some mysterious errand, she almost missed him hiding behind a tree trying to catch Xena’s eyes surreptitiously. She strolled over to him.
"Where the hell have you been? You’re not back to avoiding me..."
"No, of course not, not you, love," and he gave her a long kiss that left them both breathless. "There’s something going on with Gabrielle, and I’d just like to talk to Xena without..."
"Jaa-ames?" Gabrielle’s voice carried over the music to them. James stiffened.
Gabrielle was doing the old crone imitation that she used in performing her stories. "Come over her and give your sweet grandma a kiss."
James shot a look at Robin.
"I didn’t say anything," she protested.
The traveller slouched his way over to the Queen.
"That’s my sweet boy. Cute, and smart as a whip, I’ll have you know." Still joined by Artemis’ string, she cackled to her amused partner.
James faced the grinning bard with hands folded across his chest.
"OK, what do you think you know?" he demanded.
"What’s that?" She cupped her free hand to her ear. "Can’t quite hear you..."
"Neshia couldn’t have known. Robin says she hasn’t talked..."
Pure pleasure was shining from the jade eyes. "You nearly passed out looking at drawings for an urn?"
"Maybe I recognized it as a classic and valuable piece of art?"
She changed back to a her normal tone "Not saying that it isn’t. But with all your travelling, you’ve had the chance to stash any amount of gold and artwork long ago, if that’s what you were interested in. Nope," she rested her chin on her palm, " It’s a link. You’ve seen that pot before. And if you’ve already seen it, and it doesn’t exist HERE yet, then it exists in your future." She cackled again. "Pretty smart for an old lady, eh? Now where’s my kiss, Sonny?"
James hated being forced to smile. Now was no different. "One, I am not going to start treating beautiful 24 year olds, like grandmothers. And two, you’re right, I have seen that urn before, but when I saw it..." he paused dramatically, "... it had five Amazons killing that same panther." He almost added ‘so there’
The dinar dropped. "Centaur droppings," Gabrielle cursed softly.
Xena looked over to Robin. "Five Amazons were supposed to kill that cat? You changed the future?" Robin shrugged. She grinned at her lover. "So, no more conversations about flying machines for you, huh?"
Gabrielle actually started to sulk. "Never needed yours or anybody’s help..."
James looked at the unusual picture. Xena relaxed and smiling, Gabrielle sulking.
Xena used her free hand to placate her. "Why don’t you open some more presents, love. Cleopatra sent that huge chest, Zeus knows what’s inside?" Still grumbling, the bard signalled to a member of her retinue.
Xena turned her curious eyes to James. "So what have you been up to all day?" she purred.
"Yeah?" Robin interjected, joining them.
"Well, you already opened the telescope, so I thought I’d work up a new gift."
"It’s OK, you know, Lao Ma’s daughter sent a compass..."
"No, No. I want to introduce a fine new custom from the future. It’s called: ‘A Honeymoon’."
"Oh?" Xena seemed intrigued.
"Yes, you see, basically what happens is the joined couple skips out in the middle of the party and goes off to be alone..." he paused as Xena’s eyes lit up. "And they don’t tell anyone where they’re going. Sometimes for days..." Pausing again. "Usually somewhere private no one knows about. Well, almost no one... Sound like fun right about now?"
Xena contemplated James’ face, knowing that both of them were thinking of a certain nearby cave.
The warrior spoke cautiously. "But wouldn’t this place be a little... uncomfortable for tonight?"
"Not if it had been completely and totally restocked, very recently," James hypothesized
"How well stocked?"
"Xena, you just stood up in front of the whole nation and saluted my survival training. I would have thought that you would have faith, and trust, that I know most of the basic and essential items needed for such an... outing."
"One extra large, fully loaded cartload of basic essentials, yes."
"Hmmm." The corners of Xena’s lips twitched. "And when would you advise that this... ‘honeymoon’ begin?"
"Well, I don’t know if you were aware that there are of several rather pay-back minded types who have their eyes on a certain Amazon Queen..."
"Anyone I know?" Xena was only mildly curious.
"I’d think it’s safe to say, after today’s capture, pretty well everyone you know."
"I’m told at one point there seemed to be a plan involving moving the Queen’s hut to another, ah, less desirable location..."
This struck a chord with Xena. "I knew I should have finished the house. Like to see them move that! This is just like Gabrielle’s story about the straw and stick houses."
Robin was stunned. "Gabrielle wrote the original Three Little Pigs?"
James grinned. "Yes, but in her alternative version the smart little pig ends up making it with the big bad wolf."
"I heard that!" came a voice from the throne.
Xena reached over to the bard. "Be nice, love. James has been telling me some very important strategic information." She turned back. "What else is planned?"
"Well, someone suggested burning some parchment and substituting it in her scroll cases...but it was explained that there were rules to this if they wanted to escape being ...sternly lectured by you, possibly firmly and repeatedly ah... lectured, and one of them was; Don’t Touch The Scrolls."
"Good to know people are listening," The warrior commented.
"Not necessarily. There was a plan to drug her and haul her..." He stopped, seeing the expression on Xena’s face.
The warrior spoke with precision "I’m guessing that person didn’t get the basic concept contained in Don’t Touch The Scrolls."
"Don’t Touch The Bard?"
"Well, as we speak, several small sacks of dye are being readied for an unusual attack late tonight."
Xena looked at James and smirked. "And why are you ratting them out?"
"As interesting and erotic as a multicoloured Bard might be, you would no doubt be forced to retaliate."
James smiled. "I’m just trying to stop the cycle of violence."
"Oh, and by the way, not that you need the help, but King Laius agreed to speak to the guards of the night shift, about specific travellers wandering south east..."
"They have the Southern quadrant?" she questioned. He nodded. She looked around the room and James could see that flicker of frustration. "When is night, night?"
"Finish with the presents, then there’s a toast... " Xena rolled her eyes and growled deep in her throat. "That’s all, that’s it...and then both of you head for the back of the platform. There will be a friend waiting behind it."
"A four-footed friend?"
"Oh I don’t know," and with her free hand, the Destroyer of Nations gently pulled him into an embrace.
"You told me, " said a comfortable and pleasantly sloshed Robin, taking another sip from her cup, "that one of the reasons that the Amazons party so much, is ‘cause only a third can attend at the same time. The rest are sleeping or on watch. But it seems to me that just about everybody is here." She was sitting on James who was using her shoulder as a chin rest.
James pulled his lover even closer. "One of the advantages to inviting royalty to your wedding is that they tend to travel with a small to middle size army."
Robin almost jumped up. "Are you saying the Our Land is being guarded by foreign troops?"
"Our Land? Whoa, Amazon!" She settled back down in his lap. "Technically no. Actually it’s being guarded by troops sworn to obey their Amazon Commanders, at least for tonight."
"They swore fealty to Amazons?"
"Something about having each of their rulers captured and released by the Queen seems to have influenced their... trust." They both shared a grin.
"She probably considered that, didn’t she?"
"She can be a very devious lady."
A voice came from behind them. "Talking about Xena?"
"Uh, yeah, who else, Joxer?" Robin resentfully stood up.
Someone had convinced Joxer to remove his armour, and he stood before them in a shift, hair brushed, looking, well, almost competent. "I think it’s time to do our thing," and he thrust out the instruments he was carrying, nearly striking them on the table.
Gingerly taking his guitar, James asked, "Are the music sheets distributed?"
"Worked all day, as many copies as we could make," was the reply.
Robin looked at a copy. "Is this the translation? It doesn’t rhyme."
"That’s how we know it’s the translation," Joxer explained patiently.
Robin nodded, and then gave him a double take.
"How about the original Afrikaans Lyrics?"
James looked to Robin. "What do you think, time to bring it all to a close?"
Robin eyes wandered over the scene. Gabrielle was happily ensconced in her Xena, Warrior Chair. The bound hands were supporting her cheek, her free arm draped around her Consort’s back. Laughing and intoxicated, the guests filled the clearing right to the edge of the trees, lit by the torches and the stars. James caught her suddenly pensive expression.
"Memorizing it all?" he guessed.
She turned to him and said firmly. "No need. I’m not going to forget this. Ever. You’ll see." She took his hand to her lips and repeated, "Ever. Now go up there, and finish this off."
For Disclaimers, see part 1
Robin kissed James and pushed him up. "You’ll be great."
"Thanks," he said, softly returning the kiss. "I love you, you did know that?"
"You’d better." The threat was balanced by her smile.
James held her hand for another moment before regretfully letting it go and beginning to work his way to the stage. Once there he stamped for attention. While waiting, he absorbed the incredible scene before him: this crowd of completely disparate friends, with almost nothing in common but their love and respect for these two women. A group that only Xena and Gabrielle could have gathered together. Slowly the raucous noise quietened and all faces turned towards him.
"Friends and Sisters, Ladies and Gentlemen, Kings, Queens and Princes, and to all and any Gods and Goddesses nearby..." and he bowed. "On behalf of my friend Hercules," A still pale but smiling demi-God stood and gestured in acknowledgment, "it is the tradition where I come from for the...the...(‘what the hell am I?’, he thought, ‘The maid of honour?’) "...for there to be speeches and toasts at this point..." His voice trailed off as a muffled groan came from the Amazons and others, led he suspected, by Autolycus. "So how about if we drop the speech part and move right to the toast?"
A spontaneous cheer broke out.
He indicated his guitar with a grin. "OK, but you’re going to have to sing it."
The groans occurred in even greater number.
He raised his guitar. "There should be a song sheet near you, but if there isn’t, don’t worry. All you have to do is repeat the last two lines of each of the verses after me and then raise your cups and salute our favourite lovers." Servers were scurrying around to fill each table with ales, mead and wine. Joxer moved into his position at the far end where the rocks would work as a soundboard to amplify his accompaniment and began to pluck. James took a cup and called out "HERE’S TO THE COUPLE!" saluted his friends in the throne with his ale, gulped it down, and began to play.
Here's to the couple so valiantly wed
And here's to the years that for them lie ahead
we wish them good fortune and good health and the best
He paused, and raising his arms, directed the crowd to repeat:
“WE WISH THEM GOOD FORTUNE, GOOD HEALTH AND THE BEST!”
“Strong children, good neighbours and all the rest...”
Raising their drinking vessels, the crowd responded:
“STRONG CHILDREN, GOOD NEIGHBOURS, AND ALL THE REST!”
With a pause for cat calls and swallowing, he continued:
“Here’s hoping they never do part, and that
All of their quarrels be patched ‘ere they start
Let love be the teacher and make all the rules... ”
With no hesitation the refrain was sung out:
“LET LOVE BE THE TEACHER AND MAKE ALL THE RULES!”
“Let love be the doctor and cure the fools!”
Laughter broke out and he caught a glance of a blushing Gabrielle, as the crowd drank again and sang:
“LET LOVE BE THE DOCTOR AND CURE THE FOOLS!”
“They venture now out on life’s stormy seas
May they hold to their course be it North, South, or East
May they hold to their course though the canvas may blow
And reach their goal, the goal of us all
For them and their children, a world at peace.”
“FOR THEM AND THEIR CHILDREN A WORLD AT PEACE!”
All joined in now with enthusiasm.
“HERE’S TO THE COUPLE SO VALIANTLY WED
AND HERE’S TO THE YEARS THAT FOR THEM LIE AHEAD
WE WISH THEM GOOD FORTUNE GOOD HEALTH AND THE REST
WE WISH THEM GOOD FORTUNE, GOOD HEALTH AND THE BEST
FOR THEM AND THEIR CHILDREN, A WORLD AT PEACE!”
James held up his hand to indicate the end, and the last line was sung dragging out each note.
“FOR THEM AND THEIR CHILDREN, A WORLD........ AT...... PEACE!”
Congratulating themselves, the guests applauded and cheers shook the woods as James made his way back to the couple. A crying and happy Gabrielle nearly socked him in the face with Xena’s attached hand in her eagerness to embrace the traveller. Amid the apologies he managed, "I think this is your cue to leave," and he pointed to the chaos around them.
But then Robin spoke. "First, I have a special present for my Queen."
James looked at her with disquiet. He objected, "But, this is the distraction, I timed it just right, they have to go... now."
Unfortunately for James, Gabrielle, had seen the look in Robin’s eye. "James, I love you dearly, but I think you should shut up." She directed her attention back to Robin and called over the clamour, “What’s up?”
Robin had decided how to do this. "How long has James been visiting you, in his time line?"
"About three years," answered the Queen.
"So his daughter was born about ten years before he even met you guys, right?"
James stood silent, not sure how or if he could stop what he knew was coming.
Robin continued. "Have you ever noticed he always refers to ‘his daughter’?"
Gabrielle eyes began to glow. "And whenever we ask him for her name, he always manages to change the subject?"
Robin continued. "I saw some of his mail when I was at his apartment for a guitar lesson. It had his full name, including his middle name. His daughter has the feminine version of it. Now that I know him better, I don’t think he would name his daughter after himself. I’m willing to bet that it’s a traditional family name. Probably goes way back..."
James’ head had sunk lower and lower with each word.
Gabrielle turned to James, with iron in her smile, and asked sweetly "What is your daughter’s name?"
James mumbled something.
"Didn’t hear you, James."
"Gabrielle. Her name is Gabrielle."
The Queen raised her free hand in the air and pumped it, shouting "HA! Yes!"
Without a second of hesitation, she jumped out of the chair, unfortunately forgetting that she was attached to a rather large warrior-type object, creating a sort of bungie effect for a moment. Giving a fierce tug, she began to pull an unwilling Consort Princess along with her towards the stage.
James smacked his forehead with his palm. "Oh Gods, not another pronouncement."
Xena’s eyes were slitted as she thought of how close she had been to being alone with her new wife, and she glared angrily at Robin and James as she was dragged off, mouthing several well thought out threats, directed mainly at Robin.
Gabrielle finally got to the stage, with Xena sprawled unhappily at her feet, and called out. "I have an announcement."
The crowd miraculously fell silent.
"Some of you know that James, Robin, my Consort and I have a special bond. And although the explanation for that should have been obvious to anyone..." She looked directly at a sulking James, "...It is only just now I have received another...proof, of that connection. And since by extension it would seem that Robin of Montreal has a blood tie with my Consort, I would like to formally welcome her to my family." Applause. "And though not in the line of succession", she gestured to her royal scribe, "I now confer upon her the designation Amazon Princess. This to be a hereditary title to be passed to her heirs and descendants. May they always be welcomed to our lands."
As the Amazons as a group stood and welcomed their new princess, Robin was frozen in shock. At Gabrielle’s urging, she raised her hands and the applause from the warriors grew even more ardent. Swallowing, she stood, stunned at the sight of her sisters and friends’ support and welcome. ‘What do you do, when a dream you couldn’t have imagined, comes true?’ she thought.
James was grumbling, "Sure, reward the snitch."
"James GABRIEL, the Traveller," Gabrielle started ominously; at least it sounded that way to James. "Has also been revealed to be of my blood, and though he has asked to be removed from consideration as a member of this tribe..."
There was some shocked reaction to this, but Gabrielle waved it off, "He might be able to choose membership, but he cannot choose his family. As such, though there may be no rank of Amazon Prince, I designate his daughter a member of our tribe, in training, and as her father and my kin, I command that he be accorded all rights as a member of the Royal Family, also to be transferred to his daughter’s heirs and descendants. Amazons, will you welcome them both to our Nation!"
James looked about in terror as dozens upon dozens of drunken Amazons rushed forward to hug them both, while shrieking war cries. The last thing that James saw was Gabrielle being hoisted into Xena’s arms as she waggled her fingers in an ironic good-bye, Xena doing the same with her eyebrows, clearly indicating her appreciation of what a real distraction looked like. Then before the crowd engulfed them, he noticed to his chagrin that the encroaching group included a very curious Cyrene, and a furious Lila.
A few candlemarks later, two riders reached the outskirts of the Amazon territory. A relaxed but giddy Gabrielle felt her soulmate’s muscles finally unbend as they passed the boundary marker.
"Hey, glad to be out?"
"Oh, Yeah." Realizing how that might be interpreted, Xena backtracked. "I mean, we’re going back, and I..."
"It’s OK, love. I’m glad too." She chuckled into her warrior’s back.
"Gabrielle.... we haven’t really talked this out yet. You’re their Queen; I think a great Queen, and they need you. Now there’s a child...it changes everything."
"Sure, it’s going to change things. Doesn’t have to end anything. Not if it’s important to us." Gabrielle took her lover’s hand and pointed down the path. "You see up ahead? That’s where I want to be. I don’t know if there are bandits, or another village threatened by the bad guys, or a waterfall in a valley filled with daisies... but it will be you and me and Lycea together finding out, that’s all that matters. That’s where I want to be. Where we’re supposed to be, and I know that as well as I know anything in this world."
Xena’s throat caught. "I am blessed to have you," she said huskily.
They rode in silence for a while, both enjoying the peace and their own company for a change, when a rock face came into view. Xena quickly hopped off, turning to assist the bard. Dismounting slowly, Gabrielle slowly slid down the length of her warrior’s body, smiling up at her as her feet finally touched the ground. Xena held her like that for a moment before kissing her gently, before removing the saddlebags and giving Argo the signal that she was to find shelter. Gabrielle gave the war-horse a hug, and they moved towards the hidden cave entrance.
Carefully stepping on only the bedrock as they approached, Xena stopped suddenly, giving a whistle of astonishment.
Gabrielle shook her head. "Well, the student certainly learned from the master. Or else he didn’t mean this cave?"
Xena gave an appreciative grin. "Nice job, isn’t it? I bet those stones over there are to mask the cart tracks, but he’s placed them all in the right position, with the moss facing the same way, then he swept the area and used the same surface dirt, let it fall into natural patterns..."
"If I didn’t know what to look for... well, I guess no one’s ever going to find us are they?"
"That apparently is the idea."
Gabrielle smiled, "Look. He even put the lichens back here, and these cobwebs look like they’ve been here for years."
"He’s a fast learner. Sort of takes after someone I know."
They entered the cave carefully, Xena first as always, cautious that there might be unexpected visitors, when both of them caught a panoply of new scents.
Gabrielle sniffed appreciatively. "Someone’s been busy. If it weren’t for the line of Gurdsbane, the whole forest would be in here, I think. What are you looking for?"
"I was thinking he may have left a note."
"Why? Instructions?" Gabrielle smirked. "He probably decided we could figure most of it out by ourselves."
But Xena had spotted the parchment on the ledge. "Ha!"
"What does it say?"
Xena read and started to laugh. "It says ‘I was going to leave instructions, but I decided you guys could figure most of it out by yourselves.’"
Gabrielle crinkled her nose. "That’s almost scary."
"Almost? I‘ve learned to handle the family traits, but think of poor Robin."
Xena chuckled and was about to reach for her flint to light one of the torches that lined the narrow entrance when her eyes adjusted and she realized there was already light coming from the adjoining cavern. Taking her bard’s hand she led them towards it.
Hundred of candles lit the high ceilinged cavern; their steady glow lighting the dozens of furs laid about the floor, reflected and multiplied by the cunningly placed shards of mirrors behind them, making the cavern seem to stretch off forever. The light from the natural spring behind them was iridescent. Both partners found that they were holding their breath as they took in the scene.
Xena looked up to confirm that any debris had been removed from the natural chimney above them, before dropping their saddle bags alongside where their bedrolls had been laid out in their standard camp arrangement, near a ready made fire. Gabrielle went immediately to the table where several pots were arranged; the source of the scents that had drawn her in.
"Look, he bought some of those containers from Salmoneous, the ones he said you could keep stuff and cook in the same pot. And there are more in the pond! We just hang them over the fire or the candles, and the meal’s ready. Now that, is genius...."
"You would say that." Xena pouted. "Are we going to talk about your family all night? Because if you’re going to be thinking about either of them, for any of the next while..."
Gabrielle was about to respond when she saw that their personal items from the Queen’s hut had also been brought. She felt a spark of consternation that her journal had been moved, but shrugged it off knowing James would have respected its intimacy. She opened it and withdrew a scroll that she shyly presented to her warrior.
"I know we said that we wouldn’t exchange any more gifts, but..."
Xena smiled and took a similar sheet from her bracers, and shamefaced, they exchanged them.
Both were poems, both reflected their different ways of expressing themselves, but both began with the same words:
Two hearts/one soul...
"Xena, I..." She began, but she was silenced by a kiss that took every conscious thought away. She looked up in a daze at her lover, revelling in the peace and desire she found there. Shaking her head in an attempt to clear it, she reached over to the table and grabbed a snack and asked: "Bathe or eat first?"
"Whichever you choose will have to be second." Xena adding deferentially, "My Queen."
"Hmmm, Your Queen, huh? Then how come you’re making all the decisions again?"
"Only the ones involving life and security."
"And this does?"
"It’s been a long, long week, Gabrielle. So, yeah. Life and security are definitely in danger if we eat or do anything else first."
"Hmmm. Say that again. Right...there..."
"Oh, yesss... How long are we going to stay here...?"
"Well I’d say there’s enough food here to feed an army for about a week. But since it’s you, maybe two, three days...."
"You are going to regret saying that..."
"Doubt that, my love. Right now, I can’t regret anything. Not a single moment..."
A week of events and partying had finally caught up with the Amazons, for only a few candlemarks after the royal couple had escaped, they and their guests had all drifted off to their various quarters, and Robin found herself helping to clean up. She was jumping up to extinguish one of the torches when she fell back and was caught by a pair of very strong arms. She turned to see who it was.
"Hercules, thank you. How are you?" she added.
"Getting there," the big man grimaced. "Getting there. I noticed the Centaurs are all up and about. I feel a little embarrassed..."
She looked him in the eye. "They’ve had at least a dozen hours more than you to get over something that was slipped into their food. You drank it straight, remember? To save Solari’s life?"
"Thank you," he said and gave her a slow smile and then began to help her with the clean up. As they worked, he caught her looking at him every so often, until amused, he said, "What?"
"I was just thinking, that this was hardly the Aegean stables, and I realized who you were again, and what you’ve done..." and her voice became quieter, "and some of the other things you’re supposed to have done..."
"And," he said as he threw more chair stumps to where the wood would be stacked, "you were thinking, they couldn’t be true, what a nice guy, right?"
Hercules sat down in front of her, capturing her attention. "Do you think that someone like Xena, would have listened to just another ‘nice guy" all those years ago?"
She shook her head.
He grew serious and looked her in the eyes. "When you’re young, and you have certain abilities, you can abuse them. They can attract the attention of unwelcome forces... and it can be dangerous."
"You’re telling me this, why?"
"Robin, I watched you practice with Xena. I saw you disarm a well-trained Amazon warrior, after only working with a sword for less than a week. Why do you think I’m telling you this?"
Robin was silent.
"Are you and James going to work together? Follow in their footsteps?"
"Umm, we’ve been talking about it, yeah."
"Good." He stood up, and put out his hand. "Then welcome to the fraternity. There’s never enough heroes in the world, I’m told."
Robin blushed, too embarrassed to take his hand. "I’m, we’re not heroes, Hercules."
He gravely took her hand, "Maybe not yet, but you can be. I think it’s planned for you." And he smiled. "I’m still not sure if it’s a curse or a gift, but it’s meant for you, if you have the heart."
James chose that moment to interrupt with a small wheeled cart. "This is the best I could find to move stuff, but it shouldn’t shake too much...Oh, I see you found some unskilled help." He left the cart and was about to ask about the demi-god's health, but something in his eyes told him that Hercules had had enough of that question.
Hercules cleared his throat. "I’m always happy to help, but I WAS hoping to talk to both of you." James moved to Robin and even though angry at him for the interruption, she took his hand.
"I would like to thank you..." Hercules began.
James saw where this was going, and knew how hard this was for his friend, so he interrupted. "It wasn’t your time. The Fates would have just brought someone else if I hadn’t been there."
The gentle giant smiled. "That may be, but I don’t like owing ...things, so... If you still need a ride, I think I can cash in one of my sister’s favours. But it will have to before Iolaus and I leave tomorrow. It could be right now, if you want."
For all of Robin’s bravado the night before, despite all their plans for ensuring that she would remember, both lovers were struck with a sudden wave of fear, no terror, that this could be their last moment together. Turning to look at James, Robin blurted out, "No, we need another night..."
Hercules looked down at her, pretending to be sceptical. "If you think that the Goddess of Love would understand being together for another night, I’ll try to convince her."
“Could…” James shook his head. "Could it be in the morning, a few moments after we both wake up?"
As the demi-god got up and walked over to resume the clean-up, he said "I’m sure that it will be okay," and the two frightened lovers wondered if he was right.
"We’ve been ripped off! Half that neat disgusting stuff that was stuffed in the drawer that came from the motel with the bed is gone!"
"Uhh, well I sort of decided that it was essential, uh camping gear."
"Camping? Ooohh! What about the timeline?"
"I washed off all the labels?"
"So, how will they know what it is?"
"Finding out could be part of the whole camping experience."
"Hopefully enjoyable too..."
"I was thinking that."
"James. Are we going to talk about family all night? Because if you’re going to be thinking about either of them, for any of the next while…"
Robin awoke slowly. Every nerve in her body enjoying the luxuriousness of her stretch. She snuggled against the body beside her, feeling the warmth of their connection. ‘Could get used to this’, she mused, and then the thought struck her, ‘Hell, how will I live without it?’
She opened her eyes to find James’ centred on hers, seeing her panic mirrored in them. James leaned to kiss her but she evaded his lips and instead grasped his body with all her strength, as if she was defying the Gods to separate them.
Both were thinking the identical thoughts, ‘please, dear God, Aphrodite, Artemis, Lord Jesus, don’t take this away from me...’
And then it was all gone.
James opened his eyes to find himself alone in the silence of his own bedroom. He had one last breath of her scent, their scent, in his nostrils, and then it too disappeared. He could see the light from his bathroom, and hear the dulled rumble of motor traffic outside his window. A sense of catastrophic absence, of loss tore through his soul, and he began to hyperventilate. Each time he began to control his breathing, his throat would catch, and it would begin again. He sat on the edge of his bed like a child after a nightmare, rocking slightly back and forth, holding his cupped hands pressed to his diaphragm. He listened to his daughter’s light snoring in the next room, and knew what he needed to calm himself.
He went to her bedroom door and watched her for a moment, her mouth slightly open, surrounded by her cats. One of the cat’s eyes opened and caught the reflected light from the doorway, and he knew if he stayed for a moment longer Gabrielle would wake.
He went back to his room and stared at the telephone on his nightstand.
‘If she can’t find the number where she thought it was, she’ll look it up. Anyways, I could just call Directory Assistance for her number.’ He continued to stare at the phone. He looked at the clock. 3:45 A.M. ‘I don’t have to talk to her, I could just call, and when she answers... she will say... God, why hasn’t she called?’ His mind was blank. All the alternatives were just too frightening. He couldn’t even pace, he could only stare at the phone, thinking of the night before. Their confidence, their plans... Her face, her hands, her eyes and smile... He was reaching for the phone for the second time, when it exploded with sound. He grabbed it and put the receiver to his ear so quickly he struck his head.
A warm voice complained "Whose dumb ass idea was it to beam out, whatever, right after we got up?"
Trying to control his emotion, James croaked, "If it was the last time, I wanted...I needed to wake up with you, just one more time."
He could feel the tears welling up as he tried to clear his throat.
"Then, I better haul my ass over there before the sun comes up, right?"
"Yup. That would...work. I’d like to see that ass, and ...you. Here. Soon as possible."
"You’re not crying are you, James?"
"Why would you think that?"
"Because, I am. Crying for happy. So I’ll take a cab. ‘Cause, faster would be good too, right?"
"Sounds like a plan." And there was a click, and a moment of anxiety even at this separation, until his eyes caught sight of a picture lying discarded on his coffee table. It was of an ancient clay pot, depicting the killing of a panther. By a single Amazon. And even in the photo he could clearly see that the hair was short and black. And the eyes were green.
Used without permission, Here’s To The Couple, a translation of Bantu Wedding Chants, arrangement by Pete Seeger
My sincere thanks to all who helped with this, the first fanfic I ever began, and to all who read this far.