Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Index
Gabrielle considered her options as she walked along the road. Panic, panic or perhaps the ever-popular panic, she thought.
"Stop it!", Gabrielle scolded herself. Everything is under control. She could handle this little inconvenience for the next month, she tried to calm herself. Sure. No problem. "Oh Gods," she uttered as she thought of Xena. I can't tell her, Gabrielle remembered the conditions. She would have to avoid her, she concluded. But she'll be worried sick for a month, Gabrielle thought. She did not like the idea of putting her friend through that, but saw no other way. The moon was full reminding her of the other condition. In one month she had to be at Hermes' Temple in Athens. She sighed with some relief. At least she wouldn't have to worry too much about that, she thought, she had plenty of time.
Gabrielle woke in the morning, hoping the previous day was just a really bad dream. She looked herself over, still seeing her old self. That didn't mean anything, she thought, people's perceptions of her changed, not her body. After packing up her things, she started down the road again. She still had a present to deliver. She had made a promise to Cumae and she wasn't going to let a little thing like this "change" interfere with that. If she delivered it quickly, she could avoid Xena and make it to Athens in plenty of time. Yes. That was the plan. That was a very good plan.
A woman's scream interrupted Gabrielle's very good plan.
"No!" A woman struggled in the arms of two slavers. There were about ten men total, Gabrielle counted as she ran into the midst of them. Stupid! She scolded herself for reacting and not thinking. "So much for the element of surprise," Gabrielle thought. There were too many to fight, she assessed the situation. They looked at Gabrielle and laughed.
"Move along boy. This doesn't concern you."
Gods, I'm not a BOY, they should at least see a MAN, Gabrielle thought with annoyance. The woman's look of fear and hope helped Gabrielle focus on the situation and not her personal predicament.
"Sure thing. I don't want any trouble and it looks like you definitely have it with her. Good luck guys, hope you don't catch it," Gabrielle remarked, eyeing the woman with concern as she walked passed.
"Catch it? What are you talking about?" One guy holding the hostage asked as he released her.
"Oh, Gods, you don't even know? That red discoloration around her wrists..."
He looked down at the woman's wrists. Yes, they were red, but he though that was a result of his tight grip.
"And those watery eyes," Gabrielle noted.
He looked in her eyes.
"Look, they ARE watery." He pointed, amazed that he assumed they were merely tears of fear. The woman caught on to what was going on and coughed.
"Oh great, she is at her most contagious stage. LISTEN to that coughing." Gabrielle backed off a few steps. The woman coughed again in the direction of the remaining man who restrained her, causing him to let go.
"WHAT does she have?" The leader of the slavers came over seeing the fear in his men's eyes.
"Placebocondria of course" Gabrielle spoke gravely. "Everyone knows...Oh Gods...you really don't know. Well, I wouldn't worry too much though. It's not fatal or anything." The woman coughed again causing Gabrielle to step another step back.
"Why are you concerned about catching it then, boy." The leader looked at Gabrielle suspiciously.
"Well, its just that it DOES affect a man's ...well you know." The men eyed each other with growing concern.
"What! What does it affect!?" The leader asked with great agitation.
"Well let's say that I would like to have a love life and children someday," Gabrielle remarked and saw the color fade from the men's faces. "Don't worry I've been told that men affected with Placebocondria have been able to lead productive lives...."
Gabrielle and the woman watch the men ride off in a hurry.
"Placebocondria???" The woman looked over to Gabrielle with a huge smile. Gabrielle shrugged.
"My name is Esther. And to whom do I owe my life?" She looked down to Gabrielle.
She was about as tall as Xena which didn't go unnoticed by Gabrielle. If she were a normal man she would be taller, Gabrielle pondered, thinking what it would be like to stand face to face with...Ugh oh. "Not that I'm complaining Hermes, my height is just fine," she quickly added in her thoughts, just in case HE could hear them. She didn't need to be a man AND a giant.
"It's not a tough question," Esther remarked.
"Yourself." Gabrielle's answer confused her. "Your coughing was very convincing," Gabrielle smiled, feeling awkward.
"You are different than any man I've ever met - humble. What is your name?" She rephrased her question.
"Gabriel." Gabrielle decided to stick with the one she got in the tavern.
"Gabriel, thank you. I am happy you came by when you did." Esther smiled warmly.
"It is very nice of you make sure I get home," Esther noted as they traveled on the road together. "Between the slavers and the Sunmoon...well, I'm just glad I don't have to travel alone." Esther squeezed Gabrielle's arm and kept it there. Gabrielle looked down at Esther's hand, which she removed after seeing Gabrielle's discomfort.
"Not a problem" Gabrielle responded. "Besides, you don't live that far away from where I was headed. So Esther, what do you know about the Sunmoon?"
Esther's hometown of Corerik was a Sunmoon town and she had some disturbing stories about them. The stories and personal experiences with the Sunmoon didn't make any sense to Gabrielle. The three men on the wagon that attacked her acted completely different than the two men in the tavern. Of course she was a 'man' in the tavern. But somehow, she still sensed that wasn't the only reason for the different experiences. Esther mentioned the leader of the Sunmoon, Sunal, was a decent man. Her father and his son were good friends growing up. Yet, her father wasn't one to join a group like that and recently became concerned about Sunal allowing a defensive army.
They made camp and it was obvious to Gabrielle that Esther was not comfortable or used to sleeping out in the open. Esther tried to help, but kept getting in the way.
"Here's some more wood." She tripped over Gabrielle causing her to extinguish the fire she just started. "Sorry." Her voice was weak. The day's events and her inadequacy around Gabriel got to her.
"Hey, it's OK." Gabrielle could see her on the verge of tears. "You should have seen me when I first started traveling. It only took, oh, a couple hundred of times until I got the hang of it." Gabrielle smiled warmly. Esther laughed wiping the tears away from her eyes.
"So there is hope" She remarked with a smile.
"Always" Gabrielle responded with conviction to encourage Esther, and also herself.
The next day they arrived in Apolis. Asking for directions at the blacksmith's, Gabrielle found that Cumae's nephew Alletus lived on a farm just outside of Apolis.
"If you would like, you can rest here in town while I go to the farm. I'll be back in a few hours." Gabrielle offered Esther a break.
"That's OK Gabe, I don't really want to be alone, if you don't mind." She said honestly gently holding Gabrielle's arm.
"I understand." Gabrielle smiled about her new nickname then realized Esther was once again holding her arm. Esther removed her hand feeling a bit self-conscious. She's just glad I saved her, Gabrielle concluded.
"That was so sweet of you to promise to deliver that gift for your cousin," Esther spoke with growing admiration for Gabriel. Gabrielle had to tell Esther something about herself that made sense yet didn't reveal too much. The less she said about herself in this "condition" the better she concluded.
"Yea, well. She made a promise and a promise is a promise." She said shrugging.
"There it is...what a beautiful garden!" Gabrielle noted with enthusiasm upon the discovery. Esther looked at her hero with amazement at his genuine delight. "What?" Gabrielle asked.
"Nothing. It is a beautiful garden," she agreed, smiling.
They were welcomed at Alletus' house and fed well. Alletus didn't fail to notice Esther's beauty as he frequently glanced appreciatively her way during their meal. Gabrielle smiled at his not too subtle attention to Esther and thought it was not undeserved. Esther was a very pretty woman, Gabrielle noted. She had light brown hair, pretty green eyes and a beautiful smile. Then Gabrielle realized with great discomfort that Esther's smile was directed her way. She caught Gabrielle looking at her and was pleased. Alletus sighed.
Esther looked down at Gabrielle's plate.
"My hero has worked up an appetite," Esther remarked to Gabrielle who compared plates.
"YOUR appetite seems to be pretty healthy," Gabrielle noticed her plate of seconds was empty as well. Esther grinned, staring directly into Gabrielle's eyes.
Gabrielle coughed on a piece of bread. Oh Gods. It would almost be funny if it wasn't so ...Oh Gods, Gabrielle's thoughts repeated. Just get her home and you can be on the road again, ALONE, on to Athens. That is the plan, a very good plan.
"Tell me more about Cumae," Alletus asked, causing Gabrielle to ask the Gods to bless him, his family, his livestock, his harvests, his house, his barn, his tools and anything else of his she couldn't think of at that moment. Though the change of subject was a relief, she knew still had to be careful of what she disclosed about herself.
"Well my cousin and I had only a brief visit before I came here. But she can relay a lot of information in a short period of time. We are both bards you know," Gabrielle explained.
"Good thing then." Alletus smiled thankfully.
"Well now, let me tell you the news from Walsas!" Gabrielle carefully spoke of Cumae and her help to Gabrielle's family.
Esther hugged Alletus goodbye, thanking him for his hospitality.
"My pleasure ma'am. Any friends of my Aunt are friends of mine," he said sheepishly, enjoying the hug. Esther laughed.
"Of course neither of use have actually met the woman. Although from what Gabe has said, I think I would have liked Cumae," Esther noted. Gabrielle smiled, she would have.
"Well we've got to get you home Esther, your family is already worried," Gabrielle remarked wanting to get her home as quick as possible.
"Yes, your right." Esther nodded as her smile faded.
"I appreciate you brining me my birthday present Gabriel." Alletus patted Gabrielle's back in a brotherly way.
"My pleasure Alletus." Gabrielle smiled. One delivery down, one to go, she thought as she looked at Esther. THEN, she would be headed to Athens. ALONE.
A few hours after Gabrielle and Esther left, an intimidating woman on horseback arrived at Alletus' farm.
"I don't want any trouble." He eyed her as he stopped plowing his field. Xena eyed him back.
"Alletus?" She asked. He nodded curiously. "My friend and I were supposed to deliver something to you for Cumae. Did...." Her question was interrupted with an enthusiastic farmer.
"Gabriel was already here to deliver my birthday present." He smiled, stepping towards her, wiping his dirty hands on his tunic. Xena heard what he said and assumed he just mispronounced her friend's name. "Come inside, please," he offered warmly.
They sat at his kitchen table as Argo grazed and rested up from a hard ride. Xena learned she assumed incorrectly.
"Gabriel? Are you are sure young woman by the name Gabrielle didn't come with them?" She had her usual uneasy feeling.
"No Xena. Just the two. Esther and Gabriel. Gabriel said he had promised to deliver the gift for his cousin Gabrielle." Alletus relayed what he knew.
"Where did Gabrielle go?" She asked. Alletus shrugged.
"I wish I could tell you," he responded.
Xena was anxious to TALK to this cousin Gabriel. As Xena walked over to Argo, she looked back to Cumae's nephew.
"Thank you Alletus, and happy birthday." She smiled politely. She paused, looking at her saddlebag. Why not, she asked herself, pulling out Gabrielle's mystery object.
"You wouldn't happen to know what this is?" She asked, receiving a shrug and a guess.
Entering Corerik, Esther's mood became more bubbly. The town looks friendly enough, Gabrielle noticed but spotted a few Sunmoon brethren strolling around the town.
"Come, Gabriel." She took Gabrielle's hand and pulled her towards the Inn, smiling warmly at her.
"Ah, Esther, I don't think...." Gabrielle froze as they approached the Inn, assuming less than innocent intentions. Esther is confused at first but saw Gabrielle stare uneasily at the Inn.
"Oh, OH!" She laughed a big belly laugh. "No...its not," she can hardly finish her sentence as she laughed so hard.
"My father...he owns the Inn. You thought? We just met! Your cute but...Oh," she continued her laughing as they approach the Inn. Gabrielle sighs with relief then ponders the word 'cute', wondering just what Esther sees.
"Esther!" Her father comes to the door hearing his daughter he thought he had lost. They hug making Gabrielle very happy.
"Father...I want you to meet the man who saved me! This is Gabriel." She pulled him to Gabrielle. The father looked over this small young man. Gabrielle noticed how these two people towered over her.
"I employed a band of large warriors to save my daughter and yet YOU were able to rescue her...alone yet. There must be more to you than meets the eye Gabe." The man put his hand out which Gabrielle took and shook.
"I'd like to think so..." Gabrielle responded.
"Oh, wait until I tell you HOW. It is SUCH a good story...but then Gabe is really the bard...You will have to tell it to my family." Gabrielle looked uneasy.
"I really should be going. I've got a long trip to Athens..." She saw Esther's buoyant mood was quickly deflated by the comment.
"Nonsense Gabriel, I must at least give my daughter's hero a good meal and a good night's sleep before you go off again." Esther's face beamed appreciatively at her father, who was not going to let Gabriel go so quickly.
"A good meal would be appreciated, if you don't mind." Gabrielle cleared her throat and responded, thinking of how she was going to politely try to get out of a night there.
As they entered the Inn, Gabrielle looked back noticing a group of Sunmoon and they were no recruiters. They were well armed, unlike the recruiters Leo and Portus. The concern about the Sunmoon's intentions and the threat to the Amazons and her sisters grew. The father noted Gabrielle's interest in the Sunmoon.
"You look as worried as I am. They have been increasing their numbers at a great rate. They are preparing for something. Come, you and I should talk."
Xena rode towards Corerik with a bad feeling. Gabrielle never mentioned a cousin Gabriel. Yet why would someone not her relative or friend deliver a birthday present for her? Alletus also mentioned something about Gabrielle heading towards Athens. What could possibly cause her to go to Athens without waiting for her. So many questions.
"Cousin Gabriel has a lot of explaining to do," she told Argo.
Over a plentiful dinner, which Esther proudly prepared and served to her guest, Gabrielle learned that Corerik was not just another Sunmoon town. It had become one of the main Sunmoon outposts. Their Grand Hall, where Sunal the founder resided, was located in Corerik. Esther's little brother Harral burped.
"I'm bored," he blurted than burped again as he left.
"Excuse me?" She called to him.
"Sure," he laughed as he ran outside, causing Gabrielle to smile and Esther to be close to mortified. Esther's father shook his head.
"This meal was outstanding. Thank you Esther." Gabrielle appreciation of the meal erased the embarrassment about her brother's bad manners. She beamed as she cleaned up the dishes. Gabrielle got up to help her with them.
"No, how sweet. But that's MY job Gabe. Sit and talk with father." There was no doubt Esther was in command of the kitchen.
"Uh...ok, thanks." Gabrielle shrugged and smiled, not used to being waited on like this.
Esther's father smiled. He sipped his ale then continued relaying what he knew about the Sunmoon. Since they moved in, the people of Corerik became divided in their feelings. Some happily followed the Sunmoon way because it was not different from the way they lived. The Sunmoon also recently offered them increased protection. Yet others, preferring to live the way they wanted, not the way the Sunmoon wanted, found life was made very hard for them.
"You mean the woman who owned the general store actually was forced to sell to a man?" Gabrielle asked in disbelief. Esther's father nodded.
"She was harming no one and she was credit to the community. Yet the Sunmoon do not believe women should be business owners. So they made her sell. She had no means of support here and moved to Athens, hoping she would be able to start a business there." The father shook his head sadly.
"That is ridiculous! I bet they don't like women being rulers of kingdoms either," Gabrielle blurted with anger, considering her sister Sarah. The father shook his head no.
As Gabrielle heard more stories about the Sunmoon, she realized it was getting late. She had no intention of staying the evening. Although she knew it would hurt Esther's feelings to not accept the hospitality, it was best for everyone if she left. The more she stayed around Esther, the more Esther seemed to become attached to her. That was something Gabrielle didn't want to deal with. Gabrielle also concluded Xena would eventually catch up to her. She had already left a trail at Alletus's. She would be better off alone on the road, even with the Sunmoon roaming about.
"You are more than welcome to stay with us for a few days, Gabe," the father offered, after Esther whispered something in his ear.
"Oh no. I appreciate the offer," Gabrielle had collected her belongings and staff. "In fact, I can't stay this evening. I really have to be on my way," Gabrielle relayed to a very disappointed Esther.
As she left, she wondered where Xena was. It wasn't fair to put Xena through a month of wondering, but If anyone could see through her stories....Gabrielle's thoughts were interrupted by a painful grip on Gabrielle's arm and her body being slammed against a wall.
"What are you doing with Gabrielle's staff?" Xena barked looking directly into the eyes of a young man.
Gabrielle had never been on the receiving end of Xena's rage like this and was too shocked to immediately answer. Xena didn't intend on roughing up Gabrielle's supposed cousin, but when she saw Gabrielle's staff in his hands, it happened.
Xena was too preoccupied with the young man and Gabrielle's staff to avoid the attack from behind. Xena fell to the ground after being hit from behind by two Sunmoon soldiers who had spotted her entered town.
"Are you OK brother?" One soldier asked with genuine concern. Gabrielle was still in shock, but now because she just witnessed the Warrior Princess err and get knocked out by men she could have easily taken on in her sleep. They started to lift up Xena to take her away.
"No ...don't. This has been a terrible misunderstanding." Gabrielle, shaking off that shock, looked up at the soldiers.
"She's with me. We are new in town and don't understand all your rules. We have no intention of causing any more trouble. Please accept my apologies for all of this." Gabrielle hoped that would work.
The soldiers looked over Gabrielle then at the unconscious Xena on the floor.
"You have your hands full with this one don't you." They grinned at each other.
"That's an understatement" Gabrielle tried to joke with the men. "But I assure you we will not cause another stir like this...again my apologies." Gabrielle added. The soldiers seemed satisfied to take Gabrielle's word for it.
"She looks like the type you shouldn't be bothering with brother. You should get her more suitable clothes." One soldier noted. They muttered and laughed as they left.
"Hey, have you been to the tavern yet?" The one Sunmoon asked the other. "There is this barmaid you've GOT to see." The men's jokes were very Un-Sunmoon-like, more contradictions, Gabrielle noted.
In the morning, Xena woke in a comfortable bed. She recalled being knocked out after confronting the young man with Gabrielle's staff. Her hand reached up to the back of her head, which still ached from the blows. She grunted with annoyance with her stupidity of letting anger cloud her judgement. "You know better than that", she silently scolded herself.
Her eyebrow raised when she noticed she no longer had her armor on. However, she concluded that if she were in danger, she wouldn't wake up in such a nice room, free to leave. The door opened, without a knock, and Esther entered the room. Her mood was as cold as the breeze she brought in.
"Gabriel thinks you should wear something less...conspicuous. The Sunmoon don't react well to warrior women." She laid down a dress at the foot of the bed.
"It should fit. Bath water is ready for you. You smell of the road." Esther spoke in a monotone, not looking at her until she left. The glare she gave Xena was familiar, one of distrust. Xena sat up scanning the room. Her weapons were also missing.
Chapter 7 - An Explanation
Gabrielle sat down with Esther's father at the table.
"I appreciate what you are doing for us." Gabrielle said for the fourth time.
"I'll admit you have an odd way about you son, but I do owe you a great debt for saving my daughter." He eyed the young man.
Esther came down the stair and glanced over at Gabrielle and her father with an annoyed glare as she entered the kitchen to make breakfast.
"She doesn't understand you son." He laughed. "And she certainly doesn't like your woman friend," he added.
Glad YOU find this amusing, Gabrielle thought.
Xena came down the stairs finally, wearing Esther's dress. She looked beautiful and more like what the Sunmoon expected women to look like, Gabrielle thought. Of course, Xena could wear a potato sack and look great, Gabrielle mused. Xena came directly towards them. She spotted her weapons in the corner with no one trying to keep them from her. The father quickly got up, not wanting to get in the middle of this.
"I think my daughter needs my help in the kitchen." He excused himself, politely and awkwardly smiled at Xena before he left.
Gabrielle watched him leave with envy. She would also prefer to do work in the kitchen rather than face Xena, who stood there, glaring down at her. Returning the cool glare, Gabrielle broke the silence with a comment not expected by the Warrior Princess.
"I can't believe you, of all people, were caught off guard. Especially by two green Sunmoon!" The annoyance from this person seemed genuine, Xena noted, considering he was taking a risk speaking to her like that. Xena's eyes narrowed at the young man who quickly followed the admonishment with questions on how she was feeling. The concern from this person also seemed genuine.
Xena sat down, ignoring the young man's apparent concern.
"WHY" Xena barked with great annoyance, but stopped herself struggling to get her temper under control. "Why do you have Gabrielle's staff?" Xena finally asked in a more civil tone.
Gabrielle sighed and got up to retrieve the staff from the wall. Xena tensed up, not sure of what this young man intended to do with the staff. He would be a fool to take her on, but considering his remark to her about being caught off guard, she didn't rule out his foolishness. Gabrielle looked down at Xena and folded it up.
"Gabrielle... left it behind... and I thought she would want it back." Gabrielle found it really awkward discussing herself in the third person in casual conversation. "I can see you have a great attachment to it so, if you prefer, YOU can make sure she gets it." Gabrielle placed it on the table before Xena.
"She wouldn't just forget her staff." Xena stated not taking her gaze off of the young man, looking for any signs of dishonesty.
"I wouldn't think she would deliberately leave it behind." Gabrielle countered and shrugged. 'Why didn't I think about the staff?' Gabrielle silently scolded herself. "Well, I'm just glad I noticed it after she left." Gabrielle quickly added, pleased with her recovery on the staff issue. The words 'after she left' bothered Xena, which did not go unnoticed by her friend.
Torn with the desire to keep quiet and not let anything slip and give Xena some words of comfort, Gabrielle offered more information. "She was headed to Athens and then remembered she had to make good on a promise you made about delivering a present." Gabrielle noted a small hint of relief from her friend.
If Gabrielle was is real trouble, she wouldn't have time to worry about the present and someone intending to do her harm would not be delivering a present for her, Xena finally accepted this conclusion. Still, there were still many questions to be answered by this young man.
"You delivered a present FROM somebody you don't know TO somebody you don't know? Isn't that a little unusual?" Xena asked.
"Have you tried to say no to Gabrielle?" Gabrielle eyed her friend. Xena didn't intend to but she revealed a small smile.
"Why is she going to Athens?" Xena asked, her cold demeanor was thawing but very slowly. Gabrielle was very uncomfortable with that question which Xena noticed.
Gabrielle looked up as if trying to remember. However, she was actually trying to construct a safe story. She again scolded herself for not spending more time thinking about a good story. She WAS a bard after all. No use wasting energy on what she should have or could have done, she concluded.
"She mentioned she was looking...or...investigating something. She didn't say much about her trip." Gabrielle couldn't tell if Xena was buying this or not. "Of course, I was more interested in news of the family. I guess I really didn't give her a chance to tell me about her trip. I'm sorry I don't have more information for you." Gabrielle sighed, that last statement was the truth. Xena heard all the words of this young man. They all sounded right but there was still something odd...something wrong.
"She told you of family news?" Xena asked, probing for more information. Gabrielle felt more relaxed as she could handle that question.
"Yes! Lila and Sarah and the siege at Walsas! And we all thought Sarah was dead!" Gabrielle was able to convey true enthusiasm. Xena's cold demeanor warmed up a bit more. Gabrielle smiled, believing she had gotten through the worst of the storm. However, Xena still felt suspicious of Gabriel. Gabrielle was not one to keep quiet about anything, especially her family.
Esther's breakfast was delicious but strained. With occasional questions about Gabriel's visit with Gabrielle, Xena kept eyeing the young man. This annoyed Esther, who kept looking at Xena. Esther's father smiled, laughing to himself. The problems of the young, he mused. There WAS more than meets the eye about this Gabe, he thought.
Esther's younger brother, Harral, feasted oblivious to the undercurrents at the table.
"Boy Esther, we'll all get really fat if you keep making meals this big," he blurted.
Esther sank in her chair and Xena held back a grin. For some reason, Xena was glad Harral was there to annoy his sister. Although, her own presence seemed to annoy Esther quite a bit as well, Xena noted. Gabrielle felt bad for Esther but elected to remain as quiet as possible.
The strained meal was quickly interrupted by the two Sunmoon guards who attacked Xena the night before. Esther's father excused himself from the table to meet the guards. They asked for his guest, as he expected.
"Gabriel, these men would like a word with you," he called back to the table.
Gabrielle glanced over to Xena before getting up to meet the guards.
"Hello again." Gabrielle smiled determined to convince them she had no problems. The guards looked over Xena's way. Gabrielle also looked over to Xena not sure what she would do if Xena wanted to "engage" them. Xena simply smiled and waved back at them. Gabrielle sighed with relief that Xena was going to play the part and let her handle this.
"Well I guess everything is OK here. We just wanted to make sure," one guard relayed. The other Sunmoon spotted the corner where Xena's weapons were.
"Quite an arsenal. Are you sure you want these lying around with the young one here?" He looked at Harral who was still eating. Xena's attention was drawn to the Sunmoon's hand gripping the hilt of his sword.
"You have a good point. I will take care of them. The young should not be exposed to such things." Gabrielle spoke guessing he would not let the point about the weapons drop.
"Before you go" Gabrielle quickly continued, though they had not started to leave yet. "I was wondering when your next ceremony was. I was told that those interested in seeing the Sunmoon services for themselves could come by as a guest. I don't know if you know Leo or Portus..." Gabrielle dropped the names of the only two Sunmoon she formally met.
"Brother Leo? Sure. He is the Grandson of the founder. He is coming into town in a day or two for our next ceremony. I am sure he would want to invite you himself. Gabriel is it?" The Sunmoon seemed more pleasant.
"That's the name I was given." Gabrielle responded.
After they left, Esther's father was annoyed. "What are you doing? I thought you were concerned about them! Here you are going to join their ranks?"
Xena was quickly beside Gabrielle, watching the Sunmoon leave. "Inside information. That will be very helpful if we plan on stopping them," Xena responded looking at the young man. He saved Esther and seemed to be willing to go against the Sunmoon. Xena's suspicions of him diminished - slightly. This cousin of Gabrielle's was doing what Gabrielle would do if she could. There was STILL something wrong, Xena thought.
"It sounds too dangerous. What if they find out you are there to spy," Esther interjected.
"I'm sure his silver tongue will keep him out of trouble," Esther's father responded, pleased the young man was not really interested in becoming a Sunmoon brother.
"Or perhaps get him into more trouble...." Xena added. Gabrielle wondered if Xena meant with the Sunmoon, Esther or Xena herself.
"I'm going for a walk, Harral...you going to eat all day or come with me?" Gabrielle announced. She was tired and needed a break from questions. Harral nearly tripped getting out of his chair to join the young bard. "I thought we could talk about table manners and such..." Gabrielle looked at Esther's father for permission.
Chapter 8 - The Barmaid
Gabrielle had left the Inn to escape its confining walls and brought Harral with her. Having to watch every word around Xena and Esther was proving a tiring task even for the skilled bard. Gabrielle could feel Xena's constant eye on her. It was very different from her usually friendly eye. It was an eye of scrutiny, which closely observed everything Gabrielle did. Xena knew something was wrong and would find out eventually, Gabrielle concluded. If she could make it through the next couple of days and get to the temple in Athens, then she would be free from this problem. She thought about the time it would take her to get all the way to Athens and the time needed to get more useful information about the Sunmoon. "I WILL get there." She kept telling herself, very aware time was running out.
Spotting a woman struggling to unload a large box from a supply wagon Gabrielle rushed over just in time to prevent it from falling. Harral followed curiously, anxious to meet the type of woman his father cautioned him to stay away from. His father told him that just because a woman may appear beautiful, that didn't mean she was a good catch. Harral thought if attributes, as his sister called them, were a measure of beauty, this woman was gorgeous.
"Let me help you with that," Gabrielle offered then helped the surprised woman take the large box inside the Tavern and lay it down. The woman brushed the hair out of her face, eyeing Gabrielle. She was exhausted and still had much work to do before the Tavern opened. The bar tender stuck his head out of the door then went back into the tavern.
"Why doesn't he help you?" Gabrielle asked loud enough for the Bar Tender to hear. The woman looked over her shoulder at him.
"Bad Back...or so he says." The auburn haired woman responded. Gabrielle shook her head.
"Look, I'm really busy and I don't have time for whatever you are looking...for..." She was suspicious of Gabrielle's intentions until Gabrielle went to the wagon and handed her a box and grabbed another herself.
"You're helping?" Her mouth dropped. Gabrielle smiled at the reaction.
"I guess your not use to getting help," Gabrielle responded as she placed a box on the bar.
"Most of the men I know run when it comes to hard work," she responded looking over at the bar tender.
"Then you don't know the right men," Gabrielle responded also looking over at the bar tender, who ignores the two. The woman grins. It's been a while since a man treated her this nicely, she thought.
Harral saw them come outside to the wagon again and jumped to help. The woman, a little crestfallen, managed a warm smile at the boy.
"I see your son is also good mannered." Gabrielle eyed Harral, catching him peering mischievously into a box of treats. "Harral is just a...CURIOUS friend." Harral caught the glare and wisely decided against sampling.
At the Inn, Xena was bored. She did not like waiting in a strange Inn under these strange circumstances. Gabriel seemed to want to avoid her questions about Gabrielle. Xena wondered when she was going to discuss with him their strategy in questioning the Sunmoon. He couldn't avoid her forever, she thought. She could wait. Although, she would have preferred to wait alone, outside of town. However, under the current circumstances with the Sunmoon, it was prudent to wait in the Inn. So she sat, with a view of the front door and Esther's occasional cold stares. The sitting did not last long. Xena retrieved her sword from the corner and started sharpening it.
With each stroke of the sharpening stone against Xena's blade, Esther's irritation grew. Finally, unable to take the noise any longer, Esther marched over to Xena and stood in front of her.
"Would you PLEASE stop doing that." Esther said deliberately punctuating each word after 'please.' Xena looked up and raised an eyebrow. Taking a long breath and slowly exhaling, she finally stood up and looked Esther in the eye. Xena looked down to her blade then coldly back to Esther who realized there was still a warrior in that dress.
"All right." Xena said slowly.
"Thank you" Esther spoke weakly.
Placing her sword in its sheath, Xena returned it to the corner of the room. She looked over to the fire place mantle where Gabrielle's staff rested and sighed. After a moment she picked up the staff, almost caressing it. Why didn't you leave me a message at least, she thought to herself.
"She's lucky to have a friend who cares so much." Esther couldn't help but see the concern on Xena's face.
Xena didn't like showing weakness to anyone, even Gabrielle. Avoiding a discussion she didn't want to have with this woman, she placed the staff back down on the mantle and retrieved something from her saddlebag.
"Esther, you wouldn't happen to know what this is?" She pulled out Gabrielle's mystery object. Esther looked at it curiously.
"Ah...No...Maybe Father knows..." Esther smiled and shrugged. Worth a shot, Xena thought.
"So, you're NOT married?" The barmaid asked with a bright tone. She, not so discreetly, takes stock of the young man before her. Gabrielle found it amazing the two women she recently met were so preoccupied with her marital status.
"I'm not married" She responded wondering she had ever made any man feel this uncomfortable by asking him about his marital status. Gabrielle was determined not to let herself feel awkward. Trying to turn the tables on her, she looked the pretty woman in the eye.
"But don't you think we should know each other's names before we talk about marriage?" The comment worked, Gabrielle thought, seeing the woman a little embarrassed.
"I'm Rachel, the head barmaid at this fine establishment. Not too many men take the time or care to learn my name," she said honestly, holding her hand out. Gabrielle felt bad for this woman as she shook her hand.
"Like I said, you don't know the right men. I'm Gab..eh..Gabriel," Gabrielle corrected herself, annoyed she was not able to get use to the name. "I'm pleased to meet you Rachel," she said with genuine pleasure that Rachel could sense. The bartender yelled out for Rachel to hurry up with the unloading and help clean up inside. Rachel nodded and ending their discussion.
"Gabriel, thanks for the help. I hope you'll let me repay you sometime." She looked at Gabrielle suggestively.
"Why does she keep doing that? And what exactly does she see?" Gabrielle wondered, having quickly lost her feeling of comfort and control of the conversation. Hermes, you are NOT funny, she thought to herself, having no other explanation for the woman's overtly forward behavior.
"Ah, that's not necessary. Ah, Bye." Gabrielle responded nervously.
Her embarrassment grew as she noticed Harral staring rudely at this woman's attributes. Rachel laughed, used to the attention. Though, she was surprised that Gabriel wasn't openly interested like the young boy.
"Harral! You and I are going to have another little talk about manners..." Gabrielle snapped at him then turned red faced to Rachel. "we've go to get back...ah, See you later." Gabrielle smiled weakly as they started to leave.
"I certainly hope so....Gabriel," she purred and waved with her finger tips.
As they left, Gabrielle felt great relief THAT was over. This predatory nature of the women she had recently met was disconcerting. Gabrielle made the mistake of looking back at Rachel who continued to watch her leave. To avoid being rude, Gabrielle smiled and weakly waved. Rachel grinned seeing the effect she finally had on this young man and blew a kiss. Unfortunately for Gabrielle, her attention was not on the ground before her. A conspicuous stone placed in the middle of Gabrielle's path caused her to trip. The embarrassment did not end, as Gabrielle, fell will the least grace imaginable, directly into a mud puddle.
Outside the Great Hall, Boean was greeted by two armed Sunmoon.
"Brother Boean, we've got good news for you." Boean smiled. "Brother Lerus's men are ready?" He asked. They frowned.
"Why not?" Boean snapped.
"Some weapons are still needed and they were waiting for your speech that you promised," one man spoke up.
"Oh, right." Boean remembered the promise. "After they get the weapons and I talk to the men, then how long until they get to their positions?" He asked.
"About 1 day on foot."
"So what's your good news?" He asked.
"Leo is coming!" They were always happy to see brother Leo. Boean sighed.
"Wonderful," he said forcing enthusiasm. This could complicate his plans, he sighed.
Harral and Gabrielle returned to the Inn.
"Gabriel fell in the mud!" Harral ran in ahead to gleefully announce to everyone. Harral was going to offer more information but stopped seeing Gabriel's cold stare. "I think I hear father calling." Harral ran out of the room. Esther came out of the kitchen with a grin and a plate of hot nutbread.
"Nutbread!" Gabrielle reached out for a piece.
"Not until you clean up." She slapped Gabrielle's hand. Gabrielle frowned.
"Nothing a little soap and elbow grease can't handle. Go upstairs and wash up. I'll be up to get your laundry shortly." Esther was definitely in her element.
Gabrielle silently stood there looking perplexed.
"You need clean clothes." Esther guessed correctly. With great efficiency and speed, Esther retrieved a tunic. "This should do nicely." She held it up to Gabrielle.
"I guess." Gabrielle responded, looking down at it. Esther motioned for Gabrielle to get going. Gabrielle looked at Xena.
"I think you should listen to her," Xena responded, thinking that this obsession with nutbread must be a family thing.
With the promise of warm nutbread downstairs, Gabrielle washed up very quickly and changed into the tunic. Esther knocked and entered the room without waiting for Gabrielle to invite her in. Gabrielle wondered if she could get a lock on that door.
"The tunic looks good on you," she commented as she tightened the sash on Gabrielle. "I knew it would." She smiled.
Gabrielle stepped back keeping a more comfortable distance between the two.
"Do you really think it's a good idea to join the Sunmoon?" Esther asked. "It sounds dangerous." She grabbed the muddy clothes.
"The Sunmoon are becoming dangerous Esther. It is something I need to do." Gabrielle walked out of the room with Esther following.
"Why?" Esther asked as they descended the steps. Xena could hear their conversation now and listened with interest.
"If these men take up arms against the Amazons. There is a good chance there numbers will be so great that they will be successful in destroying them," Gabrielle spoke with passion.
"Why do you care so much about a group of women like that?" Esther really didn't understand.
"Esther, I do. Isn't that enough?" Gabrielle snapped at her. Esther realized she had stepped over the line questioning the bard's reason for caring about someone.
"I'm sorry Gabriel. Don't be mad."
Gabrielle sighed, stopping on the steps to explain.
"This hatred the Sunmoon have for the Amazons, it's like a disease Esther. If they are successful against the Amazons, who will be their next target? Centaurs? Then, if they succeed in destroying the Centaurs, who's next? Everyone they consider different? Women rulers? Well, I don't feel too comfortable with an army that would destroy someone because they don't measure up to THEIR definition of normal."
Harral stood at the bottom of the steps.
"Why don't you just get your own army and crush them?" He asked.
Gabrielle looked down at the young boy waiving a branch around like a sword. She closed her eyes in frustration 'Doesn't anyone understand?' She thought.
"Because there may be a better way," Xena answered, picking the branch out of the boy's hands but gently brushing his hair with her other hand.
"We at least have to try, to see if there IS one." Xena looked at Gabriel with respect. He had been able to move her with his words. She thought only Gabrielle had that ability.
"Xena understands," Gabrielle thought, looking down to her friend who had no idea how much her words helped the bard. "NOW can I have that nutbread?" Gabrielle asked Esther with a smile.
Leo finally came to town and was overjoyed to find Gabriel there and interested in becoming a Sunmoon. As expected, Leo and Portus invited Gabriel to a dinner. Leo, considering the Great Hall's dining facilities would be a bit overwhelming, selected the tavern. He didn't want to scare off someone like Gabriel. Leo suspected Gabriel might be someone the Sunmoon need now, someone who would strengthen the brethren's beliefs of the core values.
When Leo, Portus and Gabrielle entered the tavern, Gabrielle noticed that Xena, Esther and Esther's father were there as planned. Even though Esther's father knew and respected the man Sunal, he never supported the Sunmoon, especially after they started to recruit for an army. As a result, the Sunmoon had kept their eye on him as a potential troublemaker. Xena thought it would help his standing in the Sunmoon community if he was seen out and being sociable with the Sunmoon. Gabrielle also knew Xena wanted to keep and eye on Gabriel without drawing too much attention by coming alone to a Tavern.
"Looks like you've got two women interested in you Brother Gabriel," Portus spoke softly, nudging Gabrielle in the stomach, as they sat down at their table.
"Their eyes give them away." Leon also noticed.
"You must tell us your secrets. Two BEAUTIFUL women." Portus grinned looking back at Leon.
"That's two too many," Gabrielle blurted without thinking.
"You have a sweetheart back home too? You know Brother Gabriel, you must be careful not to hurt a young woman while...exploring ...your options." Leon seemed concerned.
"Its not THAT trust me." Gabrielle half laughed. Now Portus seemed concerned.
"Gabriel...you're not more fond of..." Gabrielle felt like she couldn't win.
"What EXACTLY are you implying!" She quickly responded louder than intended, causing the a number of eyes to look their way. Portus laughed nervously, seeing both Leo and Gabriel were annoyed at his comment.
"Sorry Brother Gabriel...obviously you are not one of those Unnaturals." Gabrielle shook her head, hiding her relief Portus backed off. If she ever considered herself an "unnatural" - now would certainly be the time.
Xena glanced around the room seeing no armed Sunmoon, enabling her to relax somewhat. She glanced over at Gabriel's table and found to her chagrin that the noise in the Tavern made it impossible to hear their conversation. So, with that minor setback, she focused on finding more about Gabriel. Despite getting to know and even respect Gabriel through his actions, something still seemed odd to Xena. He was very quiet about himself considering he was supposed to be a bard and moreover, a relative of Gabrielle's.
"So, how did you and Gabriel meet?" Xena asked nonchalantly to compare her version with the story Alletus told her.
"He saved me from slavers," she said coolly, still not completely trusting this woman who attacked Gabriel. Her father looked at her with a questioning eye.
"You were bursting to tell me all the details the other day. Why don't you tell her the story? It is quite amusing actually." Her father added with a grin, annoying his daughter.
"Do tell," Xena said flatly, forcing a smile.
"Well," Esther acquiesced and started the story with how she was captured. "Then this handsome young man comes from the forest after hearing my scream." Both Esther and Xena look over at Gabriel.
"Handsome" Xena thought, assessing that for herself and not disagreeing.
"He seemed surprised to see so many slavers, there were at least ten. I could tell he wanted to help and I was afraid he would get himself killed trying, but THEN he spoke." Esther laughed. "He told them he didn't want any trouble and that he saw they had enough with me. He then said I hope you don't catch it." Esther's father also started to laugh at the story. "Gabriel had drawn them into believing that I had this horrible disease that affected men's ...ability in the bedroom...and they believed him! I've never seen so many men flee so quickly!"
Tears were coming down Esther's father's eyes.
"Thank the Gods they were stupid." He added wiping his eyes. "Oh tell her what he called it." He squeezed his daughter's hand.
"Placebocondria!" They both laughed loudly.
Xena was not laughing, she found it mildly amusing the first time she heard it. Her eyes darted over to Gabriel's table and found Gabriel looking their way due to the laughter. Gabriel met her gaze with a familiar look, which disturbed Xena. Esther noticed two looking at each other.
"I guess you had to be there..." Esther responded coldly, causing Xena to break her gaze with Gabriel.
Having no idea what the stare contest was about, Gabrielle wished she could read what was on Xena's mind.
"Ugh oh." Gabrielle thought, fearing action from Hermes "I didn't mean that Hermes. No need to teach me that's a bad idea." She added in case if he was aware of her thoughts. Things were complicated enough already.
Gabrielle tried to now dwell on her godly worries as they discussed the Sunmoon beliefs. The conversation helped. While discussing the virtues of resolving conflict with reason vice aggression, Gabrielle found herself liking Leo and many of his beliefs despite the present situation. He seemed a good man and she was not surprised that Leo was the grandson of the founder. What did surprise her was that the very aggressive Boean was his brother.
"That's another reason why we believe in the family so much," Leo continued his impassioned discussion of the fundamental Sunmoon beliefs. "The stronger the family, the stronger its influence on the moral upbringing of the children. How many of the crooks and murderers have come from weak or no families at all?" Leo asked.
"I've known a few murderers who have had a strong family," Gabrielle responded thinking of a few. Even Xena could be included in that category. Her family did not stop her from becoming a warlord. Leo looked a little annoyed at the comment. They were interrupted by Rachel, who brought them their food and drinks.
"There you go," she said brightly smiling at Gabriel who smiled back warmly. Leo and Portus looked at their plates, which had significantly smaller portions than what was on Gabriel's plate.
"How does he do it?" Portus asks with disbelief and envy.
"What?" Gabrielle asked at first oblivious, but then caught on to the differing portions. "OH," Gabrielle looked up then averted her eyes down to avoid staring directly at her deliberately placed attributes.
Rachel placed her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.
"Gabriel, If YOU need ANYTHING honey, just let me know." She thought the young man's continuing shyness was sweet.
"Water would be nice, Rachel," Gabrielle informed her. Rachel squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder and leaned to speak into her ear.
"Needless to say, I am disappointed, but I'll get you that water. Perhaps you can think of something else you might want, later." Gabrielle knew Rachel wasn't talking nutbread. Hermes this is NOT funny, she thought to herself.
"Look at that!" Esther commented with great annoyance from the next table. "God's doesn't she have any respect for herself!?!" Xena had watched a couple of armed men enter who didn't seem to be looking for anyone in particular.
"What?" Xena looked over at Esther and her father.
"Esther is jealous of that waitress." Her father spoke with a mouthful.
"Father! I..." Esther was flustered.
"I guess I'm in trouble now..." He laughed softly. "She is some waitress though. I wouldn't mind the attention she's showering on Gabriel.." He eyed her appreciatively. Xena rolled her eyes.
After the waitress left them, Gabrielle continued their discussion.
"Leo, I agree with the value of the family but that is not THE answer. I also don't think that the Sunmoon should try to force people to conform to their vision of what the right way to live is."
Leo shook his head. "That is not what we do Gabriel, we're pacifists. We don't FORCE anyone to do anything. That is not our way..." Leo countered but was interrupted.
"Oh Really? Why then is this Pacifist group assembling an army? Why does that Sunmoon carry a sword?" Gabrielle asked, not so subtly pointing to the Sunmoon who just entered.
Leo shifted in his seat, apparently uncomfortable with the subject.
"Brother Gabriel, we still believe in resolving conflicts without resorting to aggression or violence. But what you see is a sad realization that for us to survive, we need to be able to defend ourselves against those who hate us and do harm to us," Portus responded with conviction, looking Gabrielle in the eye. He believed what he was saying.
"The Unnaturals?" Gabrielle asked.
"Exactly." Portus though he had convinced Gabriel.
"So you've been attacked by these Unnaturals?" Gabrielle asked cautiously.
"Oh yes, just ask Leo! Recently, his poor brother Boean was beaten within a breath of his life by a group of Amazons!" The story definitely got her attention.
"Amazons? Why would they attack a pacifist?" Gabrielle elected to subtly continue her interrogation instead of showing her unnaturally aggressive nature and whacking him with the closest piece of furniture. This took more effort than trying to convince Xena she was cousin Gabriel.
"The territory Boean was passing through was not Amazon, but they still claimed it as theirs," Portus explained.
"Where was that?" Gabrielle asked. Portus eyed her.
"The Rickas pass," he responded. Gabrielle knew that was definitely in Amazon territory.
"Well I'll guess we ought not to go through there then." She looked at him.
"NO, we should not have our actions dictated to us by a group that disagrees in our beliefs," Portus responded righteously.
"I couldn't agree with you more Portus," Gabrielle blurted, making Portus pleased. How many of these Sunmoon are this blind to the truth, she wondered.
"Amazons. Truly unbelievable. So have there been other attacks?" Gabrielle asked, sipping her water, noticing Leo wasn't touching his food.
"Sadly yes. They have been occurring more frequently. Two gentle brothers, and Leo's very close friends, were brutally murdered by Amazons," Portus informed her.
Gabrielle almost dropped her cup. If the Sunmoon actually believe this, the Amazons were in incredible danger.
"There must be a peaceful way to coexist. Isn't there anyway to open a dialogue with them, reason with them?." Gabrielle asked peaking Leo's interest.
"I have asked my grandfather to do that. However, Boean has convinced him that wouldn't work. I must respect my grandfather's and Boean' positions."
"I hope this talk of aggression doesn't scare you off Gabriel." Leo said honestly. "We need people like you in the brethren." He smiled warmly. Gabrielle agreed for different reasons, believing the only way she could get information on their plans was to be on the inside.
"I must admit, I do not agree violence is the answer to violence. But I do think someone should be able to defend themselves." She looks over to the Sunmoon with the swords. The answer seemed to satisfy both Sunmoon dining companions. "If you still want someone like me, I would be honored to become a Sunmoon."
Leo and Portus made an enthusiastic announcement.
The Sunmoon in the tavern were quick to come over and congratulate Gabriel. One of the few armed Sunmoon came over and eyed the new addition to the brethren.
"What are you good at boy?" He asked, grasping the hilt of his sword and gulped down a large goblet of ale. Xena tensed up watching the armed man with Gabriel and two others entering the tavern.
"Brother Lerus, he is a bard." Leo stood up next to Gabrielle placing his hand on her shoulder.
"Really? Perhaps you can protect us all by putting the Unnaturals to sleep with one of your stories," Lerus smirked.
Xena noted only the armed Sunmoon laughed at Brother Lerus' joke.
"A story." A few Sunmoon in the back called out. "Tell a story." A few other Sunmoon called out. Leo thought that was an excellent idea.
"Yes brother Gabriel, tell us a story!" Leo smiled. Gabrielle looked over at Xena who sat quietly, watching.
"All right." Gabrielle cleared out a corner of the tavern for herself. "A story it is. I just hope I don't forget and tell you one of my DAAANGEROUS stories and put YOU ALL to sleep." The unarmed Sunmoon laughed.
"We'll take our chances," Leo called out. Gabrielle nodded.
"You heard him! You have been warned!" Gabrielle announced grandly. "Oh, and if you don't like it, it was written by my friend Aesop. All complaints should be forwarded to him," Gabrielle quickly added. The room laughed, including some of the armed Sunmoon. The young bard had the room's undivided attention, except for Xena, who watched as another armed Sunmoon, Boean, quietly entered the Tavern.
The bard began.
"A dispute once arose between the wind and the sun over which was the stronger of the two."
When the story started, Xena's attention was finally draw to the bard.
"There seemed to be no way of settling the issue. But suddenly, they saw a traveler coming down the road. 'This is our chance,' said the sun, 'to prove who is right, whichever of us can make that man take off his coat shall be the stronger. And just to show you how sure I am, I'll let you have the first chance."
Noting every gesture, every change in intonation, every subtle nuance, Xena's gaze was transfixed on the bard. She didn't realize how much she missed Gabrielle until... Xena's pulse raced.
Esther sighed at Xena's undivided attention to her hero.
"So the sun hid behind a cloud, and the wind blew an icy blast. But the harder he blew, the more closely did the traveler wrap his coat around him."
Gabrielle looked over to Rachel then to Boean by the door.
"At last, the wind had to give up in disgust. Then the sun came out from behind the cloud and began to gently shine down upon the traveler with his power. The traveler felt the sun's genial warmth, and as he grew warmer and warmer, he began to loosen his coat." Gabrielle glanced over to Leo.
"Finally the traveler took his coat off altogether, and sat down in the shade of a tree to fan himself. With that, through persuasion, NOT force, the sun had proven he was stronger."
Though Xena's mind could not explain her absurd realization, her pounding heart knew it was true.
With the end of Gabrielle's story, the room exploded with enthusiastic clapping and cheering for the bard. All participated in the active appreciation except for Leo, Boean and Xena, each preoccupied with their own discoveries.
Leo found an ally.
Boean found another obstacle.
Xena found Gabrielle.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 |