SEX AND VIOLENCE ALERT: There isn't any, but that got your attention, didn't it? Any sex and violence happened earlier in time, so there's nothing explicit here, only vaguely implied. Sorry.
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Gabrielle froze when she first spied the tapestries lying on the rough hewn table in the open bazaar. They were exquisite, each one a different size, from a hand's breadth to a couple of feet long, each filled with vibrant colours, dazzling the eyes. It was the individuality, however, that took the bard's breath away, for every single tapestry told a story that leapt to life. Here one portrayed a woman with long, blonde hair, gazing across a wind swept meadow towards a man, walking slowly towards her. The look in the woman's eyes was of great peace as she waited patiently for the man to join her. Another displayed children playing outside a small hovel, laughing as they tossed a ring from one to another, a small puppy scampering in and around their feet.
Yet the one that most caught her attention was of a tall, young woman sitting by the edge of a lake, wrapped up in a dark cloak to ward against the chill of the frost that lay thick upon the ground. Her face was averted, while her long dark hair fell softly over her shoulders as she gazed over the wide expanse of the lake. The tapestry was not large, only a few square inches, but the finely wrought detail made the image come to life. Gabrielle simply had to have it.
Unfortunately their dinars were few. It had been a while since her last tavern performance, and that was one of the reasons they were in town today, hoping tonight to find an audience that would replete her very thin pocketbook. Xena had left her at the edge of the town square after eyeing the crowded tables and booths with as much distaste as the bard did with delight, muttering something about finding them a suitable tavern to spend the night that would appreciate the bard's formidable talent.
Gabrielle lay the tapestry back on the table, while casually glancing over the rest of the display, fingering the odd one before moving on to the next one, her lip curled in studied disdain.
The older woman behind the counter scrutinized the young blonde examining her wares as she tried to determine how serious a buyer she was likely to be. She surreptitiously examined Gabrielle's belongings, noting the travel-worn bag slung over her shoulder and long quarterstaff that the young woman had leaned against the table a few moments before. Her clothing was also worn and very simple, only a brief tunic cut away at the shoulders and above the knees, revealing a fine muscle definition that puzzled the seller. The blonde looked like she didn't have enough money to scrape together a meal let alone buy anything in the bazaar, yet there was an air of confidence about her that was surprising in one so young. The woman pursed her lips as Gabrielle picked up a small tapestry displaying a cow grazing in a meadow and looked up at the merchant.
"How much?" she asked casually.
"Thirty dinars," the woman threw out an initial amount to test the bard's reaction.
"Thirty dinars! You must be joking!" Gabrielle laughed scornfully. "For this little thing?" She tossed the cloth down and picked up another. "I suppose this one's going to be a hundred."
"No, thirty," replied the woman firmly, watching as Gabrielle laid down that one and picked up the tapestry depicting the dark haired woman by the lake.
"And this one?" Gabrielle raised her eyebrows slightly contemptuously, trying to bait the woman a little.
The vendor locked dark brown ones with bright green eyes. "Still thirty dinars," she replied.
Gabrielle was in a dilemma. She had only seventeen dinars in her bag, and some of these had to pay for at least their dinner, even if she had been able to earn more later this evening. If she wasn't, they would be flat broke, a not totally unusual but still unhappy state of affairs. This woman was beginning to annoy her, however, having felt her earlier scrutiny and somehow made to feel like she was lacking in some way. Looking down at the extraordinary fabric in her hand, a strong need to possess it seized her, and that, coupled with her exasperation at the woman's behaviour, hardened her resolve. The battle was on.
Gabrielle studied her opponent for the first time. The woman was probably seven or eight years older than her, and maybe an inch or two taller, with a lean, work-hardened, but graceful body. She was dressed in a simple peasant dress, with a scarf tied around her long hair that fell down her back. She was still a beautiful woman despite the lines of fatigue and experience that were etched deeply into her face. Gabrielle looked into the dark brown eyes that were examining her own so readily, somewhat taken aback by the appraising expression that she read there.
The bard, ever a student of human nature, pondered the merchant for a moment before glancing toward a giggling sound she heard coming from behind the table. A small tow-headed boy played behind, while a slightly older girl sat behind the child in the dirt, keeping an eye on the younger one. Gabrielle nodded to herself knowingly, still annoyed with the woman's frank appraisal of her. The woman was obviously looking down at Gabrielle, having seen her as nothing but a road bum, no husband, no children. The woman had probably had several children by the time she was Gabrielle's age, married by fifteen to some local farmer who was dying to have strong sons to help him work the land.
She picked up the tapestry that most touched her heart. Enough fencing, it was time to get down to business.
"I'll give you ten dinars," she offered steadily.
What was with this woman? This was no way to make a sale. Gabrielle sighed and lay the tapestry back down. This was obviously out of her hands. Her seventeen dinars were no match for thirty, and from the inflated price the woman clearly had no intention of selling it to her.
As she turned to walk away, dejection rounding her shoulders, Gabrielle heard the woman sigh behind her, and she smiled secretly to herself.
"Twenty-five," the woman relented.
Gabrielle turned and looked at her once more, still puzzled by her behaviour, and still very much annoyed. The woman's level gaze held her own, and she felt her stomach tighten as she tried to control her anger.
She took a deep breath, then looked the woman in the eye, saying, "Seventeen dinars. That's my final offer."
The merchant looked at her for a moment, seeing the bard was serious. She picked up the tapestry one last time, turning it around in her hands, then nodded.
"Seventeen dinars it is."
Oh gods, Gabrielle thought. I can't believe I'm doing this. She dug into her bag for the very last of their dinars, handing it over and taking possession of the tapestry. "Xena's going to kill me," she muttered.
"Xena?" the woman looked at her, amazement, disgust and something else combining to make the word an expletive. "You travel with the Warrior Princess??"
Gabrielle had had enough. First this stupid woman tries to make me feel inadequate for the lack of a so called normal life, then she uses the derogatory tone referring to the person I care most about on this earth, she fumed to herself. Her earlier irritation quickly flared into a raging fire as the words poured onto her anger like newly distilled alcohol. Her control snapped, and she turned on the merchant.
"Yup, that's right. Me, the helpless little farm girl from Poteidaia, travels with the vicious and bloodthirsty Agent of Death." Gabrielle's voice oozed with sarcasm. "I couldn't find a mean enough oaf in my village to marry and spawn a dozen brats, so I was forced to join up with a horrid despot who needs to drink blood at least every other day, preferably from small children. I traipse after her without a thought in my little head except how to fulfill her every whim. Thanks for the tapestry." With that Gabrielle spun on her heel, crossing the busy square before she was even aware of having taken her first step.
Gods, she was angry. How could someone so blatantly judge her like that, especially a mere village woman who had never traveled farther in her life than the next village over? She stalked down the street, pushing through the crowds, unaware of anything but her own fury until a strong arm snaked out and grabbed her by her elbow. She looked up, startled, to see the Destroyer of Nations herself leaning languorously against a wall, amusement in her eyes having had a full view of the earlier spectacle.
"So, Gabrielle, what's got you so tied up in knots?" Xena inquired innocently.
Gabrielle, adrenaline still rushing through her veins like a river out of control, launched into her tirade. Xena gazed at her as she listened, watching the face before her flush with righteous indignation. When Gabrielle got to the part where she mentioned Xena's own name, she at last interrupted.
"What did she actually say about me, Gabrielle?" She peered at the red-faced bard.
Gabrielle hesitated for a moment. "Well, it wasn't so much what she said as how she implied it. I mean, what does some village woman know about us and what we do on the road? If she knew a quarter of the good things you've done in the last couple of years, she wouldn't dream of thinking such things. And me, I'm not some stupid old maid that doesn't know any better than to follow you..."
Xena interrupted the torrent again, worried that the bard was going to rupture something. "You're hungry, aren't you?" she asked, recognizing the all too familiar signs.
Gabrielle stopped abruptly, the realization of spending all their dinars finally sinking in. She hung her head for a moment before looking up at the tall woman guiltily, tears starting to sting her eyes. "Xena, I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I've spent all our dinars."
Xena looked at her speculatively for a moment, then held out her hand. "Let's see this thing you felt was worth our entire grubstake."
Gabrielle reached into her bag, then handed the tapestry over. Xena gazed at it thoughtfully for a moment, then handed it back. "Very nice. Not very filling, though, is it?" Gabrielle shook her head dejectedly.
Xena smiled to herself, enjoying the bard's discomfort for a moment. "Gods, I am soo hungry right now," she sighed, playing Gabrielle a little. "I could use a nice bowl of stew, with fresh bread glazed with melted butter just out of the oven. A mug of port, and maybe they'd have a fresh pie or cake or something..."
Gabrielle moaned in agony, and Xena laughed to herself until she saw tears shimmering on the bard's eyelids. Instantly contrite, she dropped her arm around her shoulders. "Come on, Gabrielle. It so happens I have five dinars stashed away so let's live it up a little. There's a tavern right around the corner where tonight a certain bard is appearing to refill our coffers." She grinned down as she saw Gabrielle's tentative smile, then led her down the street.
They paused outside the heavy wooden door to the tavern. Gabrielle read the sign hanging under the eaves in disbelief. "The Mute Balladeer." She looked over at Xena, who smirked at her.
"Perfect for your confidence level, don't you think?"
"Oh ho, very funny," Gabrielle mumbled as she headed into the tavern. She sat down at a corner table, automatically leaving the seat against the wall for Xena so the warrior could have a full view of the room. She hunched over the table, idly tracing her fingers over the scarred wood, a scowl on her face.
Xena watched her impassively for a few moments until a young barmaid interrupted their solitude.
"What can I get for you, ladies...er...mam...er..." The young woman looked at Xena in her armor uncertainly, feeling perhaps ladies wasn't the proper form of address.
"Two full suppers, a mug of port and ..." She looked at Gabrielle, who muttered what sounded like a dark curse but was really a mug of cider.
"And a mug of cider for my cheery friend here." The barmaid nodded and left, glad to leave this unusual pair.
"So Gabrielle, are you going to be this chatty all evening?" Xena looked at her, raising her dark eyebrow.
Gabrielle sighed. "I'm sorry but I just get so bloody mad when people aren't open minded about others."
"Uh huh," Xena said to herself.
A few minutes later their mugs arrived. Xena took a long pull from hers, while Gabrielle ignored her own placed in front of her brooding countenance. Xena contemplated the silent woman for a few moments and then, clearing her throat, began to speak.
"Several years ago", Xena began, "I was in the south with my army, near a small village called Heklion, a few miles from Larissa in Thessaly. It was a typical village in the area, a few hundred people living there so it had a lot of the usual things, a couple of blacksmiths, lots of shops, temples, you know. I had previously used the village fairly regularly as a supply post, the villagers falling over themselves to provide my army with anything they needed in exchange for my protection."
Gabrielle swiveled her eyes over in Xena's direction, intrigued despite herself that the warrior was actually willingly telling her a story from her degenerate past.
"The best part about Heklion, though, was the night life. In their eagerness to keep the local warlords and their armies happy, they built up quite a red lantern district, with plenty of taverns, gambling houses, and bordellos. I wasn't usually that keen on gambling even back then, nor have I ever had to pay for...entertainment...like the rest of my soldiers although I certainly was entertained a great deal." She grinned at the bard when she mentioned the euphemism, but Gabrielle refused to look embarrassed, still sulking a little while she listened.
"But," Xena continued, a little disappointed that she had failed to shock the bard, " I was always looking for a good time, so I got to know a few of the taverns pretty well. One in particular was always a pretty happening place, called The Truculent Maiden of all things. My men and I had been fighting hard for several weeks, doing the usual sacking of the region." Xena gave Gabrielle a wry look. "I was pretty keyed up, not having had a break for so long, so I was looking for an outlet. A few guys were having a card game, so I sauntered over and was invited to join in." She didn't mention the initial refusal before the men realized whom they were dealing with, then the hurried vacancy of one of the chairs by the nearest individual.
She sat down, and the cards were dealt. They were playing Aphrodite's Tartarus, and as the evening progressed, the stakes got higher and higher. After a few hours, they were down to three players, herself, a Macedonian named Zamik, and a fat Athenian named Lumar. Zamik was another warlord, whom she had met on battlefields before, but Heklion was now a no-man's-land, a neutral spot where anyone could meet for a good time.
"Made it more interesting that way. I didn't much like Zamik, in fact, I didn't much care for anyone in those days." She smiled at Gabrielle, "but I did respect him. Lumar was another story. I detested him. He was a fat slob, always dressed in too tight clothing, constantly running in sweat, out of shape because he would never do anything for himself," the ultimate sin in Xena's eyes. "He was a slaver by trade, one of the wealthiest around, and you know how much I love those guys. Anyway, I was bound and determined to beat these two, and as the evening progressed and I got more than a little drunk, I became more and more determined to win."
She took another swig from her mug, and Gabrielle secretly wondered if she wasn't becoming a little drunk now, as loquacious as she was becoming.
"Hours went by. We were all experienced card players, and used to putting it all on the line. I began to hate Lumar more and more. The guy was clever, but in a low cunning kind of way. And he had some weird kinks. I had heard he had his own group of boys he used to call his minnows, who had to go swimming with him, and...." Her voice tightened with disgust, and she visibly shuddered. "Anyway, that evening he was attended by one of his slaves, a young woman, not much older than you."
"Being a slave," Xena continued, "she was at Lumar's beck and call. She brought him drinks, fed him, even suffered through his hand groping her while he played." Xena looked down at her mug of port, twirling it idly in her hands. She was beautiful, too, with long dark hair, a slight body, but her eyes...one look and you didn't know what to think, she thought to herself. She remembered watching as Lumar's arm grabbed the slave around the waist as she brought him a mug of mead. He clasped her to his foul, sweating body as his hand reached up and started kneading her breast. Xena's lip had curled in disgust, then stopped, remembering how the woman had looked her right in the eye, defying Xena to pity her in any way. Sure the woman was beautiful, but it was her silent defiance burning in her dark eyes, the refusal to allow her will to be broken that had intrigued the warrior.
"Finally, we were on our last hand. I had drawn four Centaurs, and I was sure this hand was mine. I put an initial bet into the pot -- a thousand dinars." Gabrielle gasped at the sum, and Xena looked over at her. The bard had forgotten all about her own earlier truculence as she became immersed in the tale.
"A thousand dinars in a card game," she breathed.
"Ah, Gabrielle, it's only money, as the next bet proved," Xena smiled. "Zamik couldn't hack the pace, so he backed out of the game, leaving only Lumar and me.
"I looked up at Lumar. 'Well?' I said to him, sure he was going to fold. He looked at me, and I could see the hatred in his eyes. He didn't want to lose to me any more than I wanted to lose to him. He called over to his right hand guy, a scrawny little worm that leapt to attention. They had a hurried discussion, and I smiled to myself, thinking and secretly hoping that not only did I have a better hand, I had more money to prove it. I waited as patiently as I could that night, which wasn't very long, then demanded to know what he was going to do. Finally, fury written all over him, he grabbed the young slave by the wrist.
"'I see your thousand dinars, Xena,' he hissed at me, 'and I raise it by Cleo here. I see you can't keep your filthy eyes off her. You accept?'
"I looked at him for a few moments, letting him stew a bit, then glanced over at Cleo who looked back somewhat cryptically. Finally I nodded. 'All right, Lumar, I accept.'"
Xena paused as the barmaid came over, asking if they wanted another drink.
"I do," Gabrielle blurted, fascinated by the story so far, and amazed that the usually taciturn warrior was so...well... so talkative tonight. She waited expectantly for the warrior to continue, then finally broke the silence. "Well, what happened?" she demanded.
Xena smiled at her impatience, then picked up her freshly refilled mug, taking a long swallow. "This is great port. You should really try it, Gabrielle."
"Xena," the bard hissed, threateningly.
"Okay, okay," the warrior relented and continued with her story. "I looked up at Lumar, and asked him what he had. He smiled at me. 'Four Daggers,' he replied, laying them on the table.
"I smiled right back at him. 'Four Centaurs. Sorry Lumar, and I grinned at him even more as he stood up furious, then stalked away without a glance, leaving Cleo at the table with me. I looked up at her. Cleo was standing quietly, then she looked me right in the eye.
"'So now I'm your slave.' The words were polite, but her tone was not. Gods, how I had admired her spirit. I had quite the reputation, and Cleo wasn't afraid of me in the least.
"'It's up to you,' I said, testing her a little. 'You're free to go if you want, but I figure you may want to join up with me for a while.'" Xena was sure the woman was as intrigued with her as she was with Cleo. She waited for a moment for Cleo's reply.
Gabrielle stirred. "She went with you." Gabrielle knew herself how fascinating the warrior was. Hadn't she followed her half way across Greece before the woman finally relented, allowing her to become her companion?
"Yup, she came with me all right." Xena was silent for a moment, immersed in her thoughts, already beginning to wonder why she had started the tale.
Gabrielle watched her surreptitiously. She could see the warrior was wrestling with how much to tell her, which only intrigued the bard more. "So what happened?" she asked quietly, trying to encourage Xena without pressuring her. Her stomach was tying itself in knots for the second time that day, this time in fear the warrior would cease the tale.
"Oh, she and I got to be pretty good friends." She raised her eyebrow at the bard, who blushed very faintly, but didn't speak. "Cleo followed my army for months, and we became pretty close," she continued.
"Cleo had been captured by slavers from her village when she was sixteen, so she had been a slave for four years. Her entire family had been wiped out during the raid, and now she had no one in the world. And she was no innocent village girl, either. She was smart, beautiful, devious, and she had guts." Xena shook her head. "She had heart, too. I thought she was wonderful, although I never let her know it. As the months progressed, she began to worm her way into my confidence. She seemed so...I don't know...wholesome?. No, that's definitely not what I mean. She was just...vibrant. And utterly intriguing. I was fascinated by her, wanted to know what made her tick. She would just look at me with her unfathomable eyes, and I would always wonder what she was thinking. "
"You were in love with her," Gabrielle stated flatly, thinking of her Amazon sisters.
Xena looked at the bard for a moment, gauging her response, then said, "No, love isn't the word. I was entranced by her, maybe even a little infatuated. I wasn't really capable of loving anyone except myself, and even then..." She shook her head. "I wanted her with me all the time, if only just to talk to me."
Cleo had been such a change from the soldiers she normally had around her. She was an unbelievable wit, and always had some sage comment to make. One day Xena had discovered that she was an incredible artist, something Cleo had tried to keep hidden from most people. It wasn't the most admirable talent to have in an army camp, but since she wasn't a warrior, Xena had allowed it. They spent countless evenings lounging in the warrior's tent, as Cleo painted, drew, or embroidered.
"And yes, Gabrielle, she's the one who taught me to embroider, although I certainly didn't advertise that little skill to my men," Xena grinned.
"As the months went by, I had begun to rely on her advice more and more. Cleo was bright and conniving, a trait I admired a lot back then. She was able to take a bad situation and turn it around completely, and I was able to profit from her schemes more than once."
Pausing for a moment from her reminiscing, she silently compared Cleo with the bard. Similar in so many ways, fiery, cantankerous and brave beyond compare, they both were able to make the best of any situation. Yet where Cleo was devious and contradictory, Gabrielle was painfully honest and steadfast, always looking for the good in everyone. She shook her head, marveling at the change in her life.
"We had been working our way toward Macedonia, raiding as we went. My main lieutenant was a man by the name of Axus. I liked him a lot. He was tough, loyal, smart, and damned good looking. Nice body, too," she grinned wickedly at Gabrielle. "He had been in my army for a couple of years, and I trusted him implicitly. I'd been sleeping with him since shortly after he joined up, not uncommon with lieutenants in my army; it was a great way to control them. I figured I knew him as well as I could know anyone then."
Xena took another drink. Gabrielle was amazed that she was telling her all this. It was frequently impossible to get a civil greeting out of her, let alone this incredible tale, and she wondered where the story was heading.
"After a while, the three of us became almost inseparable. Not exactly the best of friends, since there was never any doubt as to who was in charge, but we spent most of our time scheming, raiding, and drinking together. Gods, we had a lot of fun, and now that Cleo was no longer a slave, she was a wild one. Nothing held her back. She had been unhappy for so long, victimized and brutalized for years, and now this - the complete opposite. As long as I stayed happy - it was still my army, after all -- Cleo was allowed to do anything she wanted. Trouble is, when you've lived your life a certain way for so long, it's hard to cope with change, all of a sudden. Cleo had everything now, adventure, nice clothes, money to spend, the best food and drink. It was enough for a while, but I gradually began to realize she wasn't satisfied. Something was missing in her life, and damned if I could figure out what that was and how to give it to her.
"Weeks went by, then I noticed another change in her. And in Axus. Their eyes began to shine when they looked at each other, a certain indefinable feeling in the air when they were together."
"You mean..." Gabrielle broke in.
"Yup," replied Xena, looking sideways at Gabrielle. "They fell in love. They waited until my army had had a very profitable day, hitting a supply train on the way to a coronation for a small kingdom. That night, Cleo encouraged me to have a party in celebration. It had been so long since she had spent any time alone with me, and I was thrilled." Xena laughed self-depracatingly. "I had come to depend on Cleo's company, much to my surprise, and when she became increasingly withdrawn, I missed it intensely, though I'd rather have died than admit it.
"That night Cleo entertained me, almost killing me with laughter at all her antics, meanwhile practically pouring wine down her throat. After a few hours, I passed out. When I woke up the next morning, Cleo and Axus had disappeared, taking with them a thousand dinars and a couple of my best horses. The guards had been used to seeing the couple disappear into the woods for a few hours at a time, so no one thought to tell me until the next morning. I was furious. I had packed light, traveling alone so I could move faster, determined to find them and kill them.
"I told myself it was the money and the lack of loyalty to me that drove me relentlessly to catch them." Xena stopped speaking again, gazing at the table in front of her for a moment, then looked up directly into Gabrielle's eyes. "The real truth was that I was jealous. Not over one of them, but of both of them.
"The fact that they had managed to find love in all that chaos while I had nothing both infuriated and confused me. What did they have that I didn't, and how had it missed me? I followed them for days, harassing them at a distance, constantly biting at their heels but never quite catching them. Axus was good, and he managed to keep one step ahead of me, constantly anti-tracking and laying down false leads. I was able to follow them - I'm pretty good, too -- but still it took time. Finally, they were galloping through a field strewn with boulders and badger holes, racing side by side, as I finally began to gain on them. I was still a few hundred yards behind them, but I heard the leg of Axus' gelding snap like an axe against a castle door as the horse stepped into a hole. Axus was thrown, breaking his own leg on impact. By the time I caught up to them, Cleo had hauled her own horse around, and leaping off, she grabbed Axus' sword.
"I laughed at her. 'Give it up, Cleo, you know I can disarm you with both hands broken.' Cleo stood over Axus defiantly, her eyes flashing, holding his huge sword doublehanded as she tried to support the weight. As I lifted my own sword to strike her down, Cleo looked at me a final time in that way of hers.
"'Maybe so, Xena,' she had replied quietly, 'but at least Axus and I will be together in eternity, and that's more than I can say for you. You'll always be alone.' I froze at her words, and we stood there for gods knows how long, just staring at each other."
"What did you do?" Gabrielle could hardly bear to ask the question, fearing the worst from the former warlord.
"I lowered my sword, got on my horse without another word, and rode away."
"You softy!" Gabrielle's mouth hung open.
Xena grinned in reply. "Yup, that's me. Just a romantic at heart." Now she was glad she had decided to tell the bard this story, one of the few from her warlord days that she was pleased with the outcome.
"Did you ever hear what became of them?"
Xena smiled enigmatically. "The last I heard, they had settled not far from here, buying land and becoming farmers of all things. I never saw Cleo again...until today."
"Today?" Gabrielle was shocked. "Where did you see her? Did you speak to her?"
"No, Gabrielle, I didn't." Xena was quiet for a moment, then picked up the tapestry that Gabrielle had bargained so painfully for. She looked right at the bard. "Cleo does nice work, doesn't she." She paused for impact, barely able to keep a straight face. This was too good to miss, having been on the receiving end of the bard's lectures on human nature far too many times. "Funny thing about assuming things about people, Gabrielle. They often backfire big time. You really shouldn't be so hasty on passing judgment on people you don't even know."
She laughed delightedly at Gabrielle's incredulous expression. "Gotcha," she said.