Black Lily

In the Hall of the Mountain Queen (Part 02)

Chapter 6

Gabby quit her job and enrolled in Karate the very next day. She wasn’t about to get caught like that, ever again. The world was a cruel place and dangerous, but she had never before realized how dangerous. Now she knew, and she wasn’t going to stay unprepared.

For the next week, she scanned the papers, but no mention was made of two men found behind the mall. She assumed they had recovered and left the area before being discovered. Mall security hadn’t ever found them. Great. That could have been her and Ami out there, waiting…. No mention was ever made of a woman on a black motorcycle being seen, either. Gabby thought of her frequently and of her firm handshake, her booted feet and her black hair tumbling out of the helmet…

Gabby practiced her self-defense with a ferocity that surprised the other students, but worried the instructor. He took her aside and they discussed her “dedication” and the reasons for it. He was understanding, encouraging her to continue, in a slightly more disciplined manner. As the summer progressed Gabby’s ferocity changed to focus and she moved quickly up the ranks. The heat of August broke and the clear days and crisp nights of late summer came in.

One clear September evening found Gabby leaving the dojo in an excellent mood. She had been *on.* And she, the instructor, and everyone in class had known it. It was a good feeling and Gabby let herself be buoyed by it. Her feet felt firm on the ground, her breathing was deep and calm and she felt on top of the world. As she headed towards her car, she noted a motorcycle parked not too far away. Motorcycles now always caught her attention, as she looked in vain for one in particular. This bike was odd. It was a large model, completely black, but it had no brand or make on it. Gabby found herself walking towards it.

“Hello again.” A soft, smooth voice came from behind her and Gabby jumped as she spun, instinctively lifting her hands to defend herself. She dropped them almost immediately as she found herself looking into brilliantly blue eyes.

“I’m sorry – I always seem to startle you.” The voice continued. Gabby gaped openly at the face she had been thinking of for nearly a month.

“It’s okay – really. I just…I…I saw the bike and I thought…” *Oh, God, could I be any less intelligent?* Gabby groaned internally. “I hoped it might be you.” She blurted. Mentally she slapped her forehead in disgust.

Alex smiled a stunning smile. “Well it is me.” Her face quickly grew serious. “But I have to be going. It was nice to see you again.” She pulled on her black gauntlets and began to put on her helmet. Gabby was at a loss – she wanted to keep this mysterious woman here, but she didn’t know how.

“Yes, it was nice running into you. Um…” Gabby gave up trying to look sophisticated, “will I ever see you again?”

Alex drew her hands down, helmet still in her grip. “Gabby, you don’t want to see me. I’m not a good person to know.” With that, the tall woman pulled on her helmet, fastened it and mounted the bike. Before Gabby could respond, she was gone.

For a long time Gabby sat in her car, hands on the steering wheel, thinking of the woman with the icy blue eyes…

On the back of her bike, Alex kept slamming herself mentally for being seen. It was all fun and games to watch this kid practicing karate, but this would not do.

“Damn, damn, damn.” She repeated. It was time to go away and not come back to this town for a very, very long time.

 

**********

Gabrielle flexed her leg. Gelonus pronounced her fit and ready to do do some light exercise. The bard wiggled her toes appreciatively and began to lace up her new boot.

“Oh, it going to feel good to be able to walk again.” She sighed. She looked over to where the healer’s were inspecting Xena’s wound. Gelonus was frowning intently at the warrior. Gabrielle’s heart began to pound. She quickly stood and walked over, trying to see what the healer saw, but was unable to see over the taller healers surrounding the pallet.

“What is it?” She asked impatiently. “What do you see?” Gabrielle grabbed at Gelonus’s robe to gain his attention. He turned and looked at her, frown still on his face.

“Well, come look. Make room, back up, everyone.” The healer looked at Gabrielle seriously. “As you know our Queen’s power allows us to heal quickly here. Your leg, for instance took only a fourth of the time it would need and may very well be stronger than it was before, but this… I have never seen this.”

Gabrielle stepped up and forced herself to look at Xena. She lay, arms behind her head, a side-laced shift now partially open to reveal…nothing. No wound, nothing. There were no marks where thread had been used to sew the wound, no bruise where the ribs had been broken. Tension flowed out of the bard so quickly that tears sprung into her eyes.

“Oh, that.” She laughed tightly, as she wiped her face with her hand.

“You mean you’ve seen this before?” Gelonus spoke with disbelief.

The bard shrugged. Xena sat up and began relacing her shift calmly. “Sure. Look at her. I’ve never seen a scar on Xena. She always heals completely.”

The healers spoke quietly, their voices buzzing. Gelonus turned to the warrior, who had completed her dress and was now standing and stretching luxuriously.

“Is this true? How?” He asked impertinently. Gabrielle noted that he looked very put out by it, in fact. *As if she didn’t have the right to heal so well.*

Xena shrugged. “Yes. I don’t know.” Her eyebrow rose as did the color in the young healer’s face. Xena held up a hand. “I’m not witholding information from you – I just do.”

Gelonus opened his mouth then closed it quickly. A shuddering breath moved through him and he spoke apologetically. “You have been favored by the Gods, Xena. You must be grateful to them.”

The warrior turned away, speaking blandly. “Oh yeah. I’m grateful.” She moved purposefully towards the farthest pallet. Gabrielle followed, using her newly unencumbered leg carefully.

The tall warrior leaned over the pale young man on the pallet. “Hylas.” she called quietly. The eyes fluttered. “Hylas, wake up.” The eyelids fluttered, opened, closed and opened again. Golden brown eyes looked up in confusion at the dark-haired woman standing by his bed.

“Do I know you?” He asked. His voice was light and high-toned, but it was thick with sleep and pain. “Are you a healer?” The young man closed his eyes again and sighed.

“No, I’m not a healer. I’m a warrior…” The youth bolted upright, looking wildly for escape. Xena laid a firm hand on his chest. “I’m not from your father’s army, Hylas.” The golden eyes widened, then cleared. He sat, looking at his hands, then at Xena’s face.

“Then how do you know me?” He asked at last. Xena shook her head.

“Are you all right? I found you in the forest.” She spoke as if the question had never been asked.

“You…you found me? I was riding, I think.” He shook his head, the memories unclear. “Yes, I was riding, with some men…we were…” His eyes closed again. “Hiding.” Hylas croaked out the word. “My father.”

Xena placed a hand on his arm. “Hylas, we know about your father. He’s coming here to find you. But,” her grip tightened as the youth tensed, “you’re safe here. He can’t find you here. Is that clear?” She shook the arm she held. Hylas stared at her without acknowledgement. “Hylas – if you leave here he will find you. You are only safe as long as you stay here.” Slowly, he nodded. Xena relaxed her shoulders.

The warrior turned to Gelonus, “Please inform me if he shows any agitation or signs of trying to get up. His life is in danger, Gelonus. Please, he needs your help.” The healer nodded solemnly.

As Xena turned to stand, The young man grabbed at her. “Please, can you tell me…my men?” His eyes were clouded, as unpleasant memories flooded back. Xena shook her head, her lips pinched. Tears fell freely from the golden eyes as Hylas fell backwards onto his pallet.

Xena nodded to the bard and they left the cavern in silence.

 

Chapter 7

They walked aimlessly along the passages, taking comfort in the sounds and sights of domestic work. Servants with linens and foodstuffs passed them with pleasant greetings. Warriors in training clothes saluted and Xena returned the salute. But no word passed between the women.

Eventually they came out into an open area. Open to the sky, Gabrielle noted with delight. A grassy sward was occupied by animal handlers, training horses and dogs, while warriors in light armor held bouts. The noise was loud, but friendly and Gabrielle found herself relaxing. Which surprised her, really. There was a time, not so long ago, when she would have looked at these men and women with sadness, not pleasure. And now, the thought of a bout or two, and even better, watching Xena fight, filled her with a pleasant anticipation. *Funny thing, isn’t it?* she thought.

Xena strode purposefully towards the training soldiers. She nodded at several she seemed to know. Gabrielle watched for the tense faces and tightened grips that usually accompanied Xena’s entrance, but none were forthcoming.

As if by agreement, 4 warriors surrounded Xena, swords at the ready. The others faded back, towards the fence. Xena stood, arms apart, waiting. She feinted towards one smallish man in blue, then turned suddenly towards a large man in a black padded vest. He started to swing, but the Warrior Princess had already anticipated the blow and lightly kicked the sword out of his hand. She followed up with a blow to the head which knocked him backwards. As she completed the move, she turned and ducked another blow form an older warrior, with a scar on his left cheek. Scarface overcompensated and his followthrough tangled up the man in blue who had been thrown off by Xena’s feint. The last fighter, a woman almost as tall as Xena, with a grim face, leapt over the tangled soldiers and aimed a kick at Xena’s chest. The woman warrior’s visage changed to one of surprise as her leg was grabbed and her leap transformed into a throw.

Xena stepped up and grabbed the arm of Scarface, swung him around and disarmed him in one move. She countered a blow to the back from the man in blue and spinning quickly punched him with the hand that held the captured sword. As he staggered backwards, she used his body as a launch pad and performed a stunning backflip, landing on the big man in black.

The Warrior Princess looked around, dropped the sword and stood back. For a moment silence hung heavily across the practice ground, then a swell of applause filled the canyon.

Xena breathed deeply, then smiled. The man in black and Scarface got up, shook their heads, retrieved their weapons and looking at one another, smiled.

“Dammit, Xena, did you have to *land* on me?” Scarface laughed, as he felt along his ribs dramatically.

“You would’ve been disappointed if I hadn’t, Alcaeus.” The Warrior Princess extended a friendly arm to the grinning soldier. He nodded and returned the clasp.

“Yeah, I guess I’m not as young as I used to be.” He said ruefully.

“You old goat – you’ve never been young.” The other three warriors glanced at Xena with varying degrees of open admiration and joined in her joke. Xena turned to the man in black and clasped his arm. “Hippasus,” to the man in blue, “Daunus,” and finally, grinning widely at the woman, “Hermione.”

Hermione held Xena’s arm for a long moment. “It’s good to see you again, Xena.” She looked around, “And where’s this Bard that’s been making such a stir about your new career?” Xena waved Gabrielle forward. Gabrielle joined the small group for introductions, noting names and hometowns with her usual attention.

“But you’re an Amazon, surely?” She looked up at the salt and pepper-haired Hermione with wonder. “It’s not often that one sees an Amazon in the company of non-Amazons.”

Hermione smiled brightly. “I never did fit in, I guess. That’s how I met Xena.” A swat of an arm stopped her short. She glanced at Daunus, who was shaking his head rapidly, almost desperately. She smiled at him and pulled him close. “Okay, hon, I won’t embarrass you.” He smiled, giving her a one-armed hug. Hermione looked over his head and mouthed to Gabrielle, “later.” The bard grinned back conspiratorily.

“So,” Hippasus said pointedly, “now that you’ve had a warm-up, are you ready for some real fighting?”

Xena looked at Gabrielle, “Are you up for it?”

The bard considered, feeling her mending leg. “Yeah – I think I need to jump back onto this horse.” She grinned and swung her staff, testing her stance.

Hippasus looked at Xena questioninly. “I thought she was a bard?”

Xena winked at Gabrielle and looked back at the large warrior. “She is. The best.”

The next hour was filled with sounds of metal and wood and people clashing with various force. Gabrielle bowed out after a solid blow with a staff landed just a little too near the break in her leg. But she had gotten most of an hour in and was feeling pretty good about her abilities. Two or three of the younger soldiers had learned an important lesson or two. Gabrielle nodded with satisfaction. *It’s so odd, that this makes me feel good. But it does. An not just because I can take care of myself. Or for praise from Xena.* The train of thought was set aside when the bard noticed Xena break off from the crowd and head back towards her.

Immediately Xena took a long look at Gabrielle’s leg, pronounced it fit and gave the bard a quick squeeze of relief. The warrior thanked all the combatants and the two women took their leave.

 

Chapter 8

“Okay, what is it?” Gabrielle asked, as the two women basked luxuriously in the bath. “It was Hylas, right? Whatever happened, is happening, you needed to work it out. Now you need to talk it out.”

Xena didn’t even pretend to not know what the bard was speaking about. She pulled her hair tight and lowered herself in the warm water.

“Yes. You heard what Dione and I said. Ioxus is coming here.” The bard nodded. “His father has a death sentence pronounced against him.”

Gabrielle flinched. Xena looked at her evenly. When she spoke, the warrior’s voice was soft. “Ioxus was a warlord. He had three sons. His two oldest sons died in battle. He became possesive of his other son, jealous, insisting the boy become a great warrior. He wanted Hylas to follow in his footsteps and lead an army.” Xena fell silent.

“But Hylas isn’t a warrior.” Gabrielle said.

“Exactly. And he took after his mother – a gentle woman, a brilliant mind. But Ioxus wouldn’t hear of it. When Hylas would play with machines or take his toys apart to see how they were built, Ioxus had his toys taken away and weapons put into his hands. Hylas wasn’t meant to be a warrior, but Ioxus could not accept this.” Xena’s voice became intense. “He loved his son, Gabrielle, but he just couldn’t see past his own desire.” She sighed.

“Ioxus only loved one other thing in his life, one thing more than his son. His wife, Althea. She reminded him that he was a man, not an animal. She had actually married him for love, she was never taken in a raid. Althea meant everything to him that was good about human society. One day he chose to lay siege to a small city, one that had a citadel within. It wasn’t a big deal, nothing to lose. He had plenty of land to raid – it was almost his way of taking winter quarters. Only he didn’t know that a warlord already “owned” that land. It was under the protection of a newly come warlord from the steppes. His name was Borias.

“I wasn’t going to be with Borias much longer, just this one last winter. He was getting soft, and I needed more to fill me, more vengeance, more pain, more blood. While he forged alliances and made deals, I would raid and kill. Alti had told me my fate – I was going to be a Destroyer of Nations. And that was what I wanted.

“One day, while Borias had gone to speak with the town elders, I took a few men and swept down upon the enemy camp. It was a cold day, but clear and most of the troops had gone foraging. Only a few men remained, and they were clearly protecting the contents of one tent. I wanted to know what was worth protecting, so I killed the men. While my soldiers looted the camp, I entered the tent. What I saw made me furious. All that, for nothing more than a woman and her child. I went wild. I slashed the tent up, screaming and cursing. The woman sat still, putting her child behind her. When I couldn’t get a reaction out of her, I just grabbed at the child, but she was too fast for me. Pushing the boy out of the way, she threw herself at me, clawing at my eyes.

“I saw red. When the bloodlust receded, I found myself, covered in blood, her body mutilated in front of me. The child was nowhere to be seen. My men found me and dragged me out of the camp before I could find him.”

The two women sat, Xena stared at the small waterfall that flowed into the bath.

“When Ioxus returned he went mad. As far as he was concerned I had slaughtered his last shred of humanity. And Hylas ceased to be a son. He became more desparate than ever, trying to force Hylas to become a warrior. When the boy turned 16, he ran. Ioxus put a high price on his head. He stopped raiding and devoted all his energies to finding his son – the son who betrayed him. And the price for assisting this son was death. His men mutilate those who protect his son, the way I mutilated his wife. It’s his brand of justice.”

Gabrielle was silent for so long that Xena finally looked up. The bard sat, her eyes sad, watching her lover’s face. She put a hand out to touch the strong cheeks, the tense mouth.

“Xena,” the bard said softly, “I have heard all that you have said. You tell me all these stories, each one worse than the last and each time you look at me, hopeless, positive that I will leave you. Each time we lose someone close, or almost lose each other, it only brings us closer. I’m sorry Xena, I can’t forgive you, because I can’t, until you forgive yourself. But I will not leave you. And I will not hate you.” She pulled herself closer and leaned over to kiss the warrior’s bowed head.

Xena looked up and shook her head in wonder. “Gabrielle, I’m not sure if I’ll ever forgive myself. But you – you‘ve grown so wise and so strong. I may be called a Princess, but you are most definitely a Queen. The Amazons should be proud to claim you. Dione saw that immediately, didn’t she? Her insight never fails to amaze me, and neither does yours.” She kissed the bard lightly, glad for the water that slid down her face and hid the tears.

 

**********

Gabby had combed the library, the local newspaper morgue and every resource she could think of. No one seemed to have heard of this mysterious woman in black. Every rejection made her more determined to find her, find out who she was.

“Jennifer, please. I need your help.” Gabby used her most wheedling tone.

“I don’t know what I can do for you, Gabby, really. The only place Carl and I go is a very boring middle-class weekend warrior bar. No real bikers would step into it.”

“Jen, I’ll take it. I’ve got to find a lead.”

There was a short silence. “Okay, Gabby, I’ll go with you, but I’m telling you now, I think you really need to get a new hobby. This seems…I dunno…it seems a bit obsessive.”

Gabby laughed nervously, trying to cover up her intensity. “No, its just a project for school – I really have to do well in this class. Thanks, Jen, I appreciate the help.”

“Sure. I’ll see you Friday at 8, then.”

They hung up and Gabby returned to her files. Her coffee was lukewarm, but she drank it anyway. This Friday, she knew, this time, she’d get a lead.

   **********

As soon as they pulled into the parking lot, Gabby’s heart sank. Jennifer was right – nothing but Yuppie bikes and gleaming new Harleys. No real bikers *would* come within miles of this place. But she didn’t let her disappointment show. Jennifer’s boyfriend had a bike and Jen was doing her a favor by bringing her here, introducing her around.

Jen brought Gabby to the bar and Gabby bought the first round. Jen introduced the bartender and a few friends, then went to mingle with the crowd at the pool tables. Gabby chatted with the people she had been introduced to, but when she asked about a tall woman on a black bike, none of them knew anything.

Disappointed, Gabby asked the bartender for another beer. Jennifer came back with a young man, who apparently attended the same college as Gabby. He was nice, she thought, but she didn’t spare him much of her attention. Defeated, Jennifer and the guy left her alone at the bar. Looking around at the well-heeled crowd in designer leather, Gabby felt a little like crying.

Jennifer came over again, this time with an older woman. Her face had been attractive once, but too much makeup and too little hope gave her an unattractive visage.

“This is Maggie. Maggie, my friend Gabby. Maybe you can help her out, she’s looking for someone.” Jennifer shot Gabby a glance that said “This is it. No more help.”

Gabby introduced herself and sat while the older woman ordered the next round. Jennifer and Maggie obviously knew some people in common and they spoke of their mutual acquaintances. In a pause between topics, Gabby blurted out, “Do you know a tall woman, black hair, rides a black bike?” She was sure she saw Maggie’s lips tighten, but the older biker denied any knowledge of Alex.

Gabby tuned out the rest of their conversation, her mind wandered. Jennifer excused herself to go the ladies room and Gabby nodded absently. As soon as Jen had gone around the corner, Gabby found her wrist in a strangling grip.

“What do you know about her?” Maggie hissed. Gabby jerked back, but the older woman held her tight.

“I j…j…just want to know where she is.” Gabby stuttered.

“Whatever you want, forget it. Forget her!” The biker’s voice was tense. “She chews little girls like you up and spits them out.” The bitterness in Maggie’s voice was palpable. Gabby could see Jennifer returning from the bathroom. Maggie let go of Gabby’s wrist and turned to light a cigarette, her hands shaking with emotion. Just as Jennifer sat down, Gabby could swear the older woman had said. “She did it to me.”

 

Chapter 9

Dione sat on her throne when Xena and Gabrielle entered the hall. She greeted them with a smile and waved them forward.

“We haven’t eaten together yet.” She said plainly, “And a new guest has come to grace us with his presence. I think a feast is in order.” She put a hand up to forestall Xena’s comment. “And then a war council, yes. But first, the feast. There are garments in your room – change and meet me in the formal dining hall. I have declared this evening a holiday!” Her eyes twinkled with mischief and Gabrielle found herself grinning along with the Queen.

When the two women returned to their rooms, they were delighted to find the clothes that Dione had had prepared for them. Xena’s tunic was a deep berry color, with loose sleeves, and brown leather leggings. Gabrielle had been give a jade colored long tunic, with loose baggy pants. Xena stared at the garments she held, sniffed them and opened her eyes wide.

“This is from Chin!” she said. “Feel the texture. They’re smooth and cool, like the clothes they wear in Chin.”

Gabrielle picked up the green tunic. “This isn’t from Chin, though. I mean, the material is, but the clothes aren’t the right pattern.” Xena looked at the outfit the bard held and knitted her brow.

“No, you’re right. They’re from another place, somwhere between here and Chin. I think its called Bengal. The women wear these clothes.” There was a knock on the door. Two women stood outside with a tray of combs and cosmetics.

“The Queen sends us…”

Xena waved them in. “Obviously.” She smiled.

Gabrielle delighted in the texture of her new clothes. Cool and loose, the feeling of the material against her skin was ecstasy. *Some of this material, and Xena and…* her thoughts drifted as one of the women combed out her hair, twisted it and placed it up with the combs. Then the other came over and applied the cosmetics. Gabrielle never turned to look at Xena, she wanted to be surprised.

When the second woman held up a mirror, Gabrielle noted the subtle shadings of her eyelids and cheeks and she was exceptionally pleased with her hair. The braid hung to one side and swept upwards. She looked, if she did say so herself, worldy, mature, cosmopolitan. *Damn, I look good!* She chuckled wickedly.

The two serving women said their goodbyes and left quickly. Gabrielle sat, not moving. The only sound in the room was the crackling of the lamp wicks. Her breathing came a little quicker. Gabrielle could hear the slither of material against furniture, then soft footfalls against the stone floor. The lamps near her flickered, then came a soft, almost imperceptible touch at her neck. The touch followed her neckline upwards, ran across the curve of her upswept hair and down again past her ears. Lips followed fingers. Gabrielle closed her eyes and let out a small moan. Kisses moved down her neck, light fingers played at the edges of her tunic. Xena stepped around to face Gabrielle, her eyes shining.

Gabrielle caught her breath. In the lamplight, Xena’s hair shone as if it were alive. It lay, soft and loose on her shoulders. The shirt she wore clung to her body, accentuating the warrior’s slim waist. It had an short open stiff collar, which fascinated Gabrielle, drawing her eyes down along the tan neck into the shadowed areas of the blouse. The warrior’s eyes sparkled from a delicately made up face. her high cheekbones were even more striking, her natural color enhanced, her lips almost the color of the silk shirt.

Xena lifted Gabrielle’s chin and smiled slowly. “You have got to be the most stunning woman I’ve ever seen.” She said plainly.

Gabrielle grabbed the hand that touched her. “It’s the hair – it makes me look older.” She grinned. She lifted herself out of her seat. “You look unbelievable, Xena. No one’s going to look at me after they’ve seen you. I’d better go in first.” Xena caught the laughing bard up in her arms, but Gabrielle swatted her away.

“You’ll ruin my hair!” she cried.

Xena laughed throatily. “I’ll ruin more than that.”

“Promise?”

“Oh yeah.”

With that said, they left for the feast.

 

Chapter 10

 

The crowd was immense. Gabrielle didn’t think she had ever seen so many people, so much finery in one place. Not even Athens on a crowded market day had this many people in one place, she thought.

“Huh. You can’t tell which people are serving and which are attending.” She noted out loud, as she and Xena moved through the crowd.

“They all are attending. There are no servants here in Dione’s kingdom. Just residents.”

“But I saw…”

“You saw citizens contributing. There are no classes here. That is the law. There are no servants, no masters. If you come here hoping for that, you change your mind or…”

“Or?”

“Or you never make it here.”

“Oh.”

Gabrielle greeted the few faces that were familiar. She mingled and chatted and paid compliments. Very soon she and Xena had been separated, but it wasn’t hard to find the tall warrior in the mass of people. Light shone off her sable hair as if Xena herself were the source of the light. Gabrielle found herself lost in simply watching her lover move around the room.

“Can I join you in there or is there only room for one person?” A pleasant voice brought Gabrielle back to the present. She saw Hermione, resplendent in a deep blue gown, accompanied by Daunus, once again in blue. The Amazon had a net of chain and stones that made her hair look like the night sky.

“Hello – am I glad to see a friendly face.” Gabrielle laughed.

Daunus pulled a face and gestured at Gabrielle. The bard looked at him, then the Amazon.

“He’s rebuking me for disturbing you in thought.”

Gabrielle waved the thought away, “Really, I was being unsociable.”

Daunus pointed and made a series of small hand movements. Hermione laughed.

“He says he was watching you watch Xena.”

Gabrielle felt herself coloring. “I…”

“Oh stop. She’s something to watch. Daunus agrees. He says he was watching her too.” Hermione laughed gayly as Gabrielle searched for words.

“Oh, I give up. Let’s watch her together.” The bard finally stated. They all laughed.

“What is so funny?” Gelonus approached the small group. Greetings were made. The healer appeared to know the warriors and they greeted each other cordially.

“How is your leg, Gabrielle?” Gelonus asked. Immediately Hermione spoke up.

“You’d be amazed – she took a blow to that leg the other day which should’ve broken it. But this bard’s pluckier than most – she whacked the guy who hit hard enough to knock him over and then exited the ring with a polite comment.”

The healer flinched at the part about the hit, but smiled, albeit a bit thinly.

Daunus made some gestures and Gelonus nodded.

“No, I never really do get used to the idea of pain being fun, no.” The healer turned to Gabrielle. “And you’re a bard, why do you practice warrior’s skills?” Immediately he colored. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude… I always seem to be, well, touchy around you.” The young healer looked embarrassed.

Gabrielle smiled comfortingly. “I do it, well I’m not sure, really. Partly because I have to. Xena and I live a dangerous life and I never want to be a burden.” Hermione nodded at this wisdom. “I also do it, because I feel more in control of what happens to me and in some way that I can’t explain…it’s fun.” Daunus and Hermione grinned at this last part, but Gelonus shuddered.

“I don’t think I’ll ever understand that part.” He said candidly.

“You won’t understand what?” Xena walked up and pulled Gabrielle close, one arm around the bard’s waist.

She looked at Gabrielle with a smile, then turned to the other three. Two men and one woman gaped so obviously that Gabrielle was forced to laugh out loud.

“See?” She demanded. “I’ve got to go in first.” She tried to look fierce, but the look on Xena’s face was precious. “It’s the pants. You’ll just have to get used to it.” And she gave the warrior a squeeze.

By the time their companions had recovered, Queen Dione was sending couriers to guide guests to their seats.

No dais had been prepared, but by now Gabrielle felt she understood Dione’s ways, so she wasn’t surprised to find herself and Xena seated next to the Queen at a long table, right in the middle of the room. The meal was sumptuous. The Queen was gracious, but not aloof, and she had the entire table laughing at many of her stories. Gabrielle felt that she had not ever attended a meal so pleasant.

 

**********

As the meal wound down and the tables were being cleared, Dione turned to Gabrielle and Xena. “I did tell you we had a special guest, but he did not want to come to dinner. So, in deference to his sensiblity, I am going to meet him for dessert in my personal chambers. Will you join me?”

They acceded gladly and followed the Queen as she made her farewells and left for her own quarters.

As they drew close to the Queen’s rooms, Gabrielle could feel Xena tensing up. The Bard quickly grabbed the warrior’s hand and gave it a squeeze.

“Stop it.” Gabrielle said firmly.

Xena looked down at her. “Stop what?”

“Stop beating yourself up. I’m not jealous.” Gabrielle stopped and watched the warrior process the information.

Xena shook her head with a sigh. “Sorry. I didn’t even realize…”

“I know, now relax. I trust Dione And I trust you. And the past is past.” Gabrielle led Xena towards Dione’s chambers.

The light was dim in the Queen’s rooms, but not so dim that it was a strain to see. Where the Queen’s Hall was autumn twilight, these rooms were evening, dark and soft. The two women were seated on cushions and drinks were served. Dione left them and returned a moment later with a man. He was tall, but bent, stooped with age and care. His eyes were bright, filled with pain. He approached Xena with a glad smile and held out his hands to her. She rose and kissed him on the cheek. He moved to Gabrielle, kissed her hand solemnly and smiled at her.

“My dear Gabrielle. I have longed to meet you for quite some time. I am Daedalus, you may have heard of me.” His voice was deep and soft.

Gabrielle jumped to her feet. “Daedalus! What an honor it is to meet you!” He waved her back to her seat and took one of his own. Dione served tea for all four, then sat back quietly.

“It is my honor, you know.” Daedalus said to Gabrielle. “Xena we knew, but the woman who has caused this great change in her…well, you know you’re as famous as she is now.” He looked at the bard seriously. Gabrielle blushed.

The famous inventor looked at each one of them in turn. “There’s no need to blush, young bard. We four may very well be four of the most powerful minds in Greece right now.” He held up a hand to forestall Gabrielle’s protest. “Yes, you too. Dione you know, has much power, she sees far and long and she has given her mind to memory and healing, but her time will pass. You know my story. This kingdom is my last greatest contribution, but it too will be lost. Xena, well, there are no words to describe your quest. But you Gabrielle, your power is that of Love – don’t think for a moment that it is not a power. Learn to use it as you do that staff you carry, and you will be remembered long after we three disappear.”

Dione added, “Her stories will live on forever, as well. I have seen them. Xena and Gabrielle will continue long after Greece or Amazons or the Gods.” But the small smile on her face gave Gabrielle the chills. There was something in what she said that wasn’t the whole story….

“We may live on forever in tales, but we may not in our lives. Ioxus is coming and we need to deal with that.” Xena stated plainly.

“Yes, this is our war council. We will deal with Ioxus, we four.” Daedalus agreed.

“Five.” Dione added.

 

Chapter 11

Gabby grabbed the baseball cap and threw it on as she pulled her keys out of her pocket. After she had called every friend she had, invoked every favor she was owed, no one, not even for her, was going to go with her tonight. Most had laughed her request off, thinking it a joke.

But it wasn’t a joke. Tonight she was going to find Alex, even if it meant she had to do something stupid to do it. The bartender had told her that there was a real biker’s bar outside town. “The Pit” wasn’t a place for girls, he told her, especially not ones that didn’t ride. *Right,* she thought, *whores and molls welcome, but no girls.* Nonetheless, she was determined to face the beasts in their den and maybe, just maybe, find out a bit about the woman who had taken over her thoughts.

Gabby had chosen to wear loose jeans and t-shirt, with denim jacket and baseball cap, sacrificing age to appear less interesting. She had no real hope that it would help, but it couldn’t hurt.

As she pulled into the parking lot at the “Pit,” she could see the difference immediately. The smoke was thick enough to actually pour out of the door when it opened. The music was loud and the bikes were well-worn, custom jobs. No weekend bikers here.

She walked in, thankful there was a large crowd. Women in leather, some nearly topless, meandered among the tattooed crowd. Gabby found a spot near the end of the bar, with a view of the door. She sat on the stool, motioning for a beer. The bartender plopped one down on the sticky bar and gave her a long look. Gabby didn’t meet his eyes, but paid and took a sip of the beer. It was surprisingly good. She guessed bikers weren’t going to put up with bad beer. Gabby sipped her beer slowly, then turned and surveyed the room. No tall, shapely, dark-haired women. Mentally Gabby slapped herself. *What do you think you’re doing?* She chastized herself, but she had no answer for herself.

The next few moments passed, as she watched the door open, as groups of two or three entered or left. The stool next to her was now occupied by a youngish blond. He looked clean and intelligent, his leather vest over a denim jacket. He turned to Gabby and addressed her.

“You here alone?” His voice was open, unpretentious. Gabby’s eyes slid to the door, then back.

“Yeah. I’m, uh, supposed to be waiting for a friend.”

“Oh, well, can I buy you a beer? Just in case the friend never shows?” He looked eager, but not hungry, so Gabby said yes cautiously. He introduced himself as Duke.

“Like, as in John Wayne?” Gabby asked incredulously.

He laughed pleasantly, his long ponytail swaying gently. “No, as in the Duke of Edinburgh, the former Edward the 8th. My mother was so moved that he abdicated for love that she swore she’d name her son after him. And my father hated the name Edward. So they compromised.” Gabby laughed with him.

“Okay, that blows all my preconceived notions about bikers.” She admitted. He smiled.

“Good.” Duke noticed her look towards the door again. “When is your friend supposed to get here?” He asked.

“Um, well, I don’t know that she will come. I was just hoping…”

“Well, what’s her name? I’m pretty familiar with everyone here, maybe I can help you find her.”

Gabby took a deep breath and let it out. “Her name is Alex.”

Duke’s eyes widened, but he didn’t answer.

There was a moment of silence than a man on the other side of Duke spoke up.

“What do you want with Alex?” The man had stringy unwashed hair, pulled back by a bandanna. His leather jacket was brown and old, with the Flying Tigers patch on the back. He pushed past Duke and thrust his face into Gabby’s ignoring the hand Duke put on his shoulder.

“You a narc?” He stared at Gabby for a moment, then moved even closer. He pushed his groin up against her, pinning her to the barstool. “Alex’s business isn’t your business. What you want with her? You gonna tell me?” He pushed his body up against Gabby, thrusting in time with his words. She could smell the alcohol on his breath. He stank and she tried to calm her breathing, so she wouldn’t gag. The stringy man slapped Duke’s hand away and moved his face closer to Gabby’s.

Slowly, trying to be imperceptible, Gabby slid her leg a little lower on the stool, but the biker felt her move and he smiled. Gabby had to work not to be sick. He thrust his groin up to her one more time, then pulled back for another thrust…

Just as he shoved his body forward, she pulled her knee up sharply. As the rank biker leaned forward, she shoved the heel of her hand into his nose and pushed. He reeled back with a yell. People were moving back, clearing space, supposing this to be just another bar fight. Gabby couldn’t see Duke, but it didn’t matter, because the smelly biker came back at her. She blocked his punch, but he caught her with the next one and his fist grazed her head. She pulled her head to the side and kicked at the biker’s knee. He caught the leg, but dropped it and she managed to get in another strike before his booted foot caught her a solid blow to the chest. Gabby retreated, wheezing and coughing. Both combatants were bent over now, and Gabby wasn’t sure she’d be able to take much more. She glanced over to where the biker was nursing a gimpy leg, from her kick to the knee.

She stood upright and moved away from the biker, trying to take advantage of the bad leg. The crowd wasn’t going to stop this fight, and she couldn’t count on support if she lost, so she knew she’d have to make this next shot count. Smelly stood up, yelled and charged, Gabby sidestepped, punched him in the neck as he passed and left a foot out to trip him as he went by. The punch glanced off of him and he got up, mad.

He charged again and she sidestepped again, but this time he grabbed her and they went down. Gabby closed her eyes, not wanting to see the blow coming, but no blow came. She opened her eyes and looked up. Smelly was being lifted slowly, from on top of her. Gabby scrambled back and got to her feet. The biker was now face to face with a figure in black. Gabby fought back a yell.

“Smoky, Smoky. How many times have I had to tell you this? I don’t need your help. Right?” The voice was insinuating, friendly. Smoky nodded, his stringy hair bobbing. “And my business is mine, right?” Smoky nodded again.

“Then I’ll go over this once more. What’s mine is mine. You and no one else touches it, okay?” The voice was a little colder.

“If someone comes in and asks for me, you leave them alone and I’ll deal with them, okay?” Nod.

“Repeat what I said.” The voice was icy now.

“What’s yours is yours and you don’t need my help and I should leave people alone when they ask for you.” Smoky couldn’t get it out fast enough. He was set back on his feet, brushed down.

The icy voice said. “Good, now get the hell out of here and don’t let me see you around for a while.” Smoky opened his mouth to protest. A black gloved fist struck him hard enough to knock him off his feet. The figure turned to some bystanders and ordered them to take him out. Smoky was picked up and escorted out the door.

Alex, clad in black as always, grabbed Gabby by the arm. She pulled the young woman towards the bar.

“What the hell did you think you were doing coming here?” Alex demanded. She told the bartender to get her a cloth, some water and two beers.

“I wanted to see you again…” Gabby began. Alex handed her the wet cloth, glaring at the young woman. Gabby pressed it against her head where the biker had struck her.

“And I told you not to.” Alex’s voice could have cut steel. Gabby stared defiantly at the tall biker, meeting her eyes. They battled for a moment, then Alex broke into a tight smile. “I’ve got to admit, you’ve got spirit, though. Not too many people can knock Smoky down.”

Gabby tried to smile, but her lip had split and it hurt. She pressed the cloth to it. They drank their beers in silence. Alex turned a bit and leaned against the bar. Gabby could see the silk shirt under the leather jacket and the long neck visible beneath that. She caught herself staring when Alex shifted a bit. Gabby blushed, not meeting the biker’s eyes.

“So ya found me.” Alex said laconically. “What did you want?”

Gabby didn’t say anything. She looked into her beer, drank a big gulp, then looked at the tall woman. “I want to go for a ride.” Alex stared for a moment, then grabbed her wrist and pulled Gabby towards the door. As they left a silence fell, then chaos ensued as the evening’s events were weighed, bets were placed and drinks bought.