The young woman walked the three miles to her home, to the encampment where her people lived. She was slow and deliberate; pondering deep thoughts while she could. Perhaps she was indulgent in her solitude but Gabrielle couldn't help but take time out to really look and feel the nature about her.
If it hadn't been for him she would be hanging from a great height in agony right now, very close to death. Her legs would be broken, dangling from the cross and she would be staring at the abhorrent gates of Xena, the Conqueror's palace. That would have been her last vision before she drew her final breath. The thought of that female demon made Gabrielle's blood chill. The Conqueror was responsible for many thousands of deaths and so much suffering. They had to put a stop to her!
Gabrielle averted her gaze from the road, from the horrid thoughts she was contemplating, when she heard birds chirping. She remembered, as a little girl, how much she loved listening to bird-song. She would write stories about little animals and read them to the other children of Potedia, some of them only babies. Only a few short years ago she had wanted to be a traveling bard ... Oh, but those were the dreams of a much different person. Gabrielle gulped slightly, recalling those innocent times, and looked up into the sky, once again attempting to forget the past.
How clear it was above; not a cloud in the sky and such a vivid blue ... *just like his eyes*.
Gabrielle smiled slightly and turned her attention again to the road. She was not usually a swooning woman. That sort of nonsense had left her long ago. She didn't have time for men and the problems they brought with them. However, thoughts of the generous stranger who saved her life, his kiss still warm and familiar on her lips, made Gabrielle feel unsettled and giddy. But also sad. She was not going to see him again. Gabrielle knew this as she knew the rebellion against Xena was in jeopardy. Still, that brave-handsome warrior, Iolaus by name, had been her savior for the day. Her hero and miracle. She had to be satisfied.
Again, more determined to keep focused, the woman shook her head, causing a ripple of red-gold through her hair, and tried to dispense with the silliness. It was time to get those innocent days and that blond hero out of her system. There was work to do.
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes as she came upon an ordinary, beat up cart in the road. It was empty except for a few dead rabbits and a large bag of potatoes. She recognized it.
The woman turned swiftly, her gray tattered skirt swirling, and saw him.
"I don't believe it!" Perdicus whooped and ran forward, taking her in his arms, lifting the smaller figure with glee, "We heard you were executed! How's this possible?"
When her feet touched ground again Gabrielle smiled, "It's hard to explain, Perdicus, but a friend helped me escape."
"A friend? Who?" he asked, taking both handles of the cart and pulling it as they walked.
"Someone not in the resistance but a friend just the same."
"Well, whoever he was I owe him a world a gratitude for saving my best girl." Perdicus was tall and boyishly handsome. He was a good fighter, using his sword with a precision nearly unequaled. He was also very fond of Gabrielle, admiring her strength of character despite the things she was often forced to do in the name of the rebellion.
Newcomers often thought Gabrielle a bit common, he knew, but others who had been in the group awhile understood just how intelligent and what a great asset she was was to their cause. Perdicus had asked her to marry him more than once, wanting to make an honest woman out of the "soiled dove" as some called her. But she declined, promising to honestly think about it if they ever got closer to destroying The Conqueror.
In truth, Gabrielle was not in love with Perdicus. She wanted to love him deeply, as a wife would her husband, because they were great friends. However, when she considered setting up house with him, possibly even having his children, she involuntarily shuddered. Honestly, Gabrielle wasn't sure if it was the thought of settling down or the thought of being Perdicus spouse that scared her more.
With a mock secretive shiver, and effectively changing the subject, Gabrielle looked over her shoulder into the cart, "A little meager there, Perd. Was that the best you could do?"
"Ever since Xena fenced off the land to the east the game has been really bad."
"It's part of her strategy. She's trying to starve us out of revolt." Gabrielle tried to keep the hatred from her tone.
There was silence between the couple for a few minutes as they both pondered the truth in her declaration. Xena, whether she knew who the rebels were or not, was as intelligent as she was ruthless. The members of the resistance expected, any day now, to hear she had somehow diverted fresh water from the Olympian River to Corinth. If that ever happened, if the gods were truly so cruel as to help Xena with her crimes, the resistance truly would be at an end.
"Dandilus got word from the south region." Perdicus abruptly said, attempting to lighten the mood, "They're sending someone to help us. A warrior and some of his men."
Gabrielle looked up at Perdicus and smiled. Finally, good news. "That's wonderful!" she enthused, "We really need some fresh meat about now, someone who can kick start us and steer us in the right direction. Who is it?"
"He didn't say but Aramis thinks it may be Maleager, the Mighty."
Concerned, Gabrielle's brow furrowed. "From what I hear he's become a loose cannon. Drinks too much and has close ties to Darphus, Xena's lackey. I'd hate to think we'd put our trust in him, give him the location of our camp, just to have him lead us directly into the arms of The Conqueror."
"Eprius has a strict screening policy. If he's coming to us he's already cleared."
"Hope so." Gabrielle commented but knew Perdicus was right. The southern rebels were tough and even more uncompromising than her own people who, to be honest, had become desperate.
Perdicus and Gabrielle smiled sideways at one another and continued their walk.
All thing considered, Gabrielle thought, it was great to be going home.
They entered the camp at nightfall and could see a meeting in progress. They headed straight to the light of their community fire, passing many of the weather worn, self-made tents the rebels kept as their sleeping quarters. Several of Gabrielle's comrades saw she and Perdicus and joined them on their way, calling out, grateful she was better than reported.
"I'll see you at the meeting in a minute." Perdicus told Gabrielle and steered his cart from the crowd to a torch lit mess tent where their resident chef, Puckus, was already preparing tomorrow's midday meal. So many people to feed and so little time.
Gabrielle did not like to be the center of attention. There were others, in her opinion, far more important to the resistance than she. However, when she saw Dandilus she called his name and waved, immediately drawing response from those speaking around the meeting circle.
"Gabrielle!" The heavily bearded man cried and hauled his considerable bulk upward, "Thank the gods!"
Dandilus was like a father to her and his wife, Aramis, a mother. They had seriously taken on the chore of leader and advisor when the resistance against Xena, the Conqueror had begun. Yet, as they continually reminded Gabrielle, the resistance leaders were simple farmers and did not have the political knack of polite conversation. Gabrielle did and they were more than happy to have the young woman, with her talent for firm speech, interpret matters to their people in a simple way they could all understand.
After receiving a bear hug from Dandilus, Gabrielle was given over to a weepy Aramis.
"Child, don't you ever do anything like that again!" the older woman scolded as she embraced Gabrielle, "When we heard Xena had captured you we were certain you were at death's door. How did you escape?"
"It's complicated." Gabrielle's eyebrows narrowed, trying to remember the terror and excitement of she and her hero's escape. Gently, Gabrielle took Aramis thick, long gray braid as it rested on her left shoulder and petted it as she might a kitten, "There was a man. I'd never seen him before but he stood up when the rest were afraid. I was moments from death when he jumped forward in the Conqueror's courtyard and saved my life." Gabrielle, who had been staring at the ground, suddenly looked up at the curious faces around her, "We ran, he brought me to safety then he went away."
"Where was he from?" a teenage boy asked, his hazel eyes wide with curiosity.
"I'm not sure, Stancles. He couldn't tell me much. He seemed to be on a mission of some kind."
"Perhaps he's from the resistance group near Sparta." Perdicus suggested as he approached his comrades.
"Maybe." Gabrielle nodded, uncertain.
"Or maybe she's lying." came another rough call, closer to the fire. "No one escapes the Conqueror ... unless they're working for her."
The crowd split away and Gabrielle saw four men. Three of them she could see very clearly. They were close to the fire, eating what was left of the rebel's rations for what seemed a week. No wonder Predicus, who was more of a weapons trainer than hunter, had been out trying to find food. All three were hulking brutes but - wearing leathers and tattooed appropriately - the men did seem to be warriors and that's what the resistance needed right now.
"Have some respect." Aramis warned, "Gabrielle has been with us for a long time. It was she who ..."
"It's okay." Gabrielle lifted a hand to quiet the older woman.
Slightly away from these men stood another smaller figure. He leaned against a tree and was in the shadows, listening to what was being said.
Gabrielle couldn't see him well so she directed her attention to where the comment came from, "Miracles happen." she proposed and took in the guffaws that followed from the men. She looked up once at Dandilus, who shrugged, then Gabrielle walked closer to their guests. "So, you're the mighty warriors sent to us from Epirus. Can you fight as well as you eat? Do you have skills?"
"Many," commented the warrior to her right, "and not just on the battle field."
Again they laughed, sounding lewd and foolish.
Gabrielle crossed her arms and sighed as she might while observing errant children, "Are you drunk or merely idiots?"
The men quieted and stared at her.
Gabrielle could feel the unease behind her, the barely spoken fear from her people, and wondered briefly if she hadn't gone too far. It didn't matter. She would not be humbled by these brutes and neither should her people feel trepidation from men who were supposed to be here to help them.
"You might want to watch your words, honey." the warrior with long dark hair and missing front teeth warned, "We don't take that type of mouth from anyone, particularly women." He scooped up some beans, watching her steadily.
Gabrielle stepped in a little closer, unsmiling and allowing the firelight to deepen the hollows around her eyes. "You are here because we hired you." she said almost menacingly, "Make no mistake about that. If we didn't want you here, if you hadn't met all our specifications, you would not be here." Gabrielle then gritted her teeth as she concluded, "If you weren't called to us, more than likely, you'd be hanging from one of Xena's crosses."
The three men, obviously having never been spoken to like this from a female, slowly stood and threw their plates into the fire. One of them, a warrior who was completely bald, did not pull an impressive dagger at his waist but he did raise a hand, his fingers twitching, as if he might.
Standing her ground, Gabrielle looked up at all three, her expression never changing, and did not budge.
"And we can leave right now and your little revolution here will die like all of you will." the dark warrior said.
"Yeah, I've eaten and I'm ready to leave." announced the youngest of the three warriors with a lopsided smile that betrayed an odd sort of humor. Of the three he was the most handsome, with a head of unruly auburn hair and a reckless manner.
Behind her Gabrielle heard a murmur of laughter and some female tittering, despite the situation.
"Lepacles, we're not going anywhere. We made a bargain." The figure by the tree unexpectedly moved, walking into the fire light. He patting the ominous dark warrior on a broad shoulder. "And we always keep our word," he added, "especially when we're being paid good denar for it." He spoke with a cocky, self-assured half smile.
Gabrielle nearly gasped .... :"Iolaus?" she at first whispered then, "Iolaus!" she cried and ran to him, throwing her arms around the man she knew as her savior. "You made it! I can't believe it ... How did you get here before me?"
The rebels, as well as the warriors, were so stunned by Gabrielle's action a mutual gasp penetrated the air. The warriors weren't certain if they should be drawing their swords or not.
"Whoa, little girl." He, almost regretfully, pulled her back and chuckled, "Sugar, I think you have me confused with some other guy named Iolaus." He looked down at her grinning, admiring the girl's beauty and the bit of cleavage she displayed, "But maybe ..." he started, taking advantage of an opportunity, "Have you ever been to Skyros?"
Astonished and slightly hurt, Gabrielle pulled back and eyed him closely. By the gods he looked like her rescuer. Same height and smile. But his eyes ... they held nothing. They were a cold blue despite his coarse smile. Physically there were slight differences as well. His golden hair was still curly but longer, tied to the back of his head with a string of dark leather. There was also a lengthy, thin scar marring an otherwise attractive face. It ran from his left ear, across the jaw-line to rest just before his firm chin. The pants he wore were black and silver studded and his tunic, cut low in front to reveal a well muscled physique, was a slightly faded blue.
No. Not the Iolaus who rescued her but if not him, who could he be?
"I'm sorry." Gabrielle spoke in subdued tones, clearing her throat just slightly. "I mistook you for someone else." She glanced over his shoulder at the other warriors, "Are these your men?"
He looked back at the three hulks then again at the woman, "Yeah, these are my friends and we're going to show you what it takes to win a war."
An unsmiling Perdicus, who was not at all pleased with the look this Iolaus was giving Gabrielle, said, "We know what it takes..." but was cut off.
"And we're grateful." Dandilus stepped forward, effectively silencing Perdicus. "We've had some battles but they always end up with us taking cover. The Conqueror's army is just too big, well trained and powerful. We need you." he admitted, seriously.
Looking a little bored, Iolaus concurred: "Yeah, you do. We'll get started first thing in the morning. Right now we're going to sleep. Be prepared to work harder than you ever have in your lives." He soberly told the crowd.
"One more thing," Behind Iolaus, Lepacles spoke. "Tomorrow night we expect to be sleeping in our own tents ... with a woman or two."
There was a pause. The rebels looked at one another, unsure.
"The tents we can supply." Gabrielle's voice grew bargaining, "You'll have women only if they volunteer." And some would, she knew. The battles against Xena's armies had left wives without husbands and lovers forever parted. Some of the women had come to Gabrielle, telling her how desolate the nights were without a warm body next to them in bed. These demanding warriors would be little comfort for the women but still an antidote, even for a short time, against aching loneliness.
"Fair enough." Iolaus watched her steadily, almost appreciatively, but not for the reasons others were thinking. Certainly she was a pretty little thing and he wouldn't mind bedding her, feeling that pale, tender skin next to his, but he was also impressed by Gabrielle's manner. It took quite a woman to not back down from Lepacles when his ire was piqued.
The warriors settled by the fire for the night as the rebels broke up to go to their tents. Gabrielle lagged behind, looking at the men, particularly Iolaus.
Then, with Perdicus verbal urging, she too slowly walked to her own tent.