A table had been set up, and the head of the council stood to begin the session. Gabrielle had pointedly left her seat at the table empty, sitting beside James. In fact, with the Regent, and the Queenís Champion also with him, the table was only half occupied, an occurrence that Danielle, the head elder of the council, acknowledged right away.
"As can be seen by the governing table, the emotions of the Nation are divided by this trial." she said. "No one here will deny that many of us wish we were not here to pass judgment on the act of this man. But our laws are our nation, and we are directed to follow them.
There was a flurry of whistles in support as James stood. "I am."
"My Queen, you wish to speak for this man?"
"Xena of Amphipolis, this tribe acknowledges your outdoor skills and abilities. Have you had the opportunity to evaluate James the traveler in this respect?"
Xena caught the stone tossed by Gabrielle and flicked into the fire. "Though he had certain basic abilities before coming to us, through my instruction and in the course of traveling with us, I would say that he is now as skilled in outdoor survival as any I have trained, and that would include tracking, and hunting."
Gabrielle nodded. Another stone was thrown. "Robin of Montreal, would you describe the actions of the accused in thwarting the recent rebellion, and evaluate his actions."
Robin stood, and in her nervousness bobbled her catch of the stone, but Xena batted it into the fire with a slight move of her boot. Clearly coached, Robin told of their night ride, how James had remained behind, going behind the enemy lines to signal the opposing force. She concluded "I consider this to be a clear act of valour on behalf of the Nation." and resumed her seat. Gabrielle reached over to give her shoulder a squeeze in congratulation. Robin just sighed her relief and became occupied with looking anywhere but in Jamesí direction.
"Eponin," Gabrielle continued. "Would you describe the events concerning the attempt on the life of a member of the tribe?"
Eponin almost casually told of Jamesí leap to take the arrow intended for Robin, concluding, "I consider this an act of sacrifice on behalf of the Amazon Nation."
Gabrielle now came to the hard question. "As Weaponís Master, have you had the opportunity to judge this individual, and how would you judge his abilities in the warrior Arts?"
Eponin looked to James and sighed. This was gonna hurt. " I wouldnít want a command filled with warriors of his... inclinations..."
Gods, was she really going to be forced to say this? "And IacknowledgehisskillsintheWarriorArts." Eponin glared at James, daring him to comment, and squatted down on the ground.
James hardly noticed, he was furiously running through the laws and regulations in his head, and still had not a clue as to where this was leading.
Gabrielle turned to the head table. "Danielle," she said addressing the head table. "Please describe the ceremony at which James the Traveler received his pendant of free passage."
Puzzled, the older Amazon stood. "He received it during the initiation of last years trainees, as was your wish."
"In fact," Gabrielle tossed in another of her stones, "Did he not also take the oath of fealty and loyalty to the royal mask with those trainees?"
"And what is required of these trainees before they may be full members of this tribe?"
"There are so many requirements..."
"Yes, but, this is foolish. He is not a woman, and as merit-worthy as his actions are, he cannot be a member of this tribe."
Gabrielle continued. "The laws have allowed that there are many whose physical appearance and gender are not easily classified. There is no mention of what sorts of sexual organs are necessary to be an Amazon."
Xena whispered, "oh, well," in a dispirited tone. James tried not to let out the breath he had been holding too loudly.
"What the laws do, is describe the attributes of a man. They are quite long and detailed. I quote. ĎTheyí referring to men, Ďare deceitful, can never be trusted. Will never fully keep to Amazon Law, be a true friend or feel the pain of childbirth. Their sensitivity is of dust compared to that of a sisterí" She paused, and tossed another stone. "It goes on in this vein ..."
The queen then transformed into the bard, her tone and manner drawing her audience under her spell as she described the birth of her child. Then once she was satisfied the audience was hers, she moved onto the first meeting with James, the only interruption being the periodic toss of the peat stones into the crackling bonfire.
The campfire had been silent. As had all the campfires since Britannia. Though Illusia had made them both recommit to the friendship, there were too many apologies for inconsequential acts, too many long pauses that were no longer comfortable. Gabrielle looked over at Xena, alone sharpening her sword in the moonlight, and felt such a sense of loss, that she thought her heart would break open.
At that moment, there was a popping sound and Xena collapsed with the weight of a body dropping on her from the skies.
There was an instant that Gabrielle had never seen before, where Xena actually froze, but then quickly the intruder was lying on his back with Xenaís sword at his throat.
"Xena?" Gabrielle gasped at her actions. Xena didnít even glance her way but answered "Just need to see if he bleeds and how fast it heals."
The man on the ground said "Iím not immortal. Keep that up and Iíll die like a regular person. I promise!"
"How did you get here and who are you?" she demanded, still holding him at the point of the blade.
"My name is James, Iím a traveler. Somewhat like you, I journey to help those in need. As to how I travel, thatís something Iíve never been able to work out. But Iím no magician, I have no spells or magic potions."
"So, why are you here?" Gabrielle had stood up, and was examining their guest. Not yet middle-aged, older than Xena but not by much. Short hair, colour similar to hers, mustache, average build, and brown eyes that seemed to be looking to her for help.
"Yes, youíre both in pain...you need help. Thatís sort of what I do."
The man swallowed, seeming to consult something, and began to recite. "Xena, Warrior Princess. The Lion of Amphipolis, Destroyer of Nations." Seeing this had no impact, he swallowed again, "Mother of Solon..." The sword was suddenly back and touching his throat, "He gasped out, "Lifebond of Gabrielle..." and his eyes rolled back to catch the bardís.
Gabrielle reached out to hold Xenaís sword hand. "And me?"
"Gabrielle, the great Bard of Potadiea, Holder of the Queenís rite of caste, Princess of the Amazon Nation... Victim of Dahok... Mother of Hope," at this his voice had died to a whisper, and Gabrielleís hand shook for a moment. Gabrielle looked directly into his eyes, held them for a long moment, and then said to her partner, "Let him up, he canít hurt us."
Gabrielle gave a weak smile. "Strange, isnít it? I felt a sort of echo of...what I was feeling, and I realized you were hurting because of me."
Xena stomped around feeding the fire. "We donít need help, we only need time."
"I agree," said James. "Just like you needed time after your death. But then there was Valasca, wasnít there? And Callisto, and so on and so on. Your life together doesnít seem to allow you to have the time you need to heal alone, so some kindly force in the cosmos sent me."
"Would this kindly force answer to the name of Ares?" Xenaís smile did not reach her eyes.
"I travel all over the world, and to different times. Iím not sure where my abilities come from, but I know where they donít. This is my first visit to this Greece, all I know of Ares is a few lines in a book Iíve hardly read."
So, How Do You Know Of My Son?" Xenaís demand was clearly emphasized.
"Part of my job. I get what I call a case file on the people Iím supposed to help."
Xena merely snorted in disbelief. She noticed Gabrielle evaluating the stranger. "You canít be seriously considering listening to this?"
Gabrielle ignored her. "What does this Ďhelpí entail?"
"We sit. We talk. I go away and you two talk some more. Then we start over." James looked to the stew on the fire. "Ah...is there enough for three? Because I got pulled away from my breakfast to come here."
Xenaís eyes grew wider at this, and she threw up her hands when Gabrielle moved to get a bowl.
"This is really good," James said after the first mouthful. "I mean, I understood that you were a good cook, but I figured that it meant considering the conditions. But this is really good."
Xena had just about enough of this. But Gabrielle sat down and waited for him to finish.
" So we just talk, right?"
"Absolutely, and I donít come with guarantees. But, if ever I saw two people who needed some misunderstandings cleared up, itís you guys."
James took his last piece of bread and wiped the bowl clean, popping it in his mouth." Really good." Both women stared at him stupefied.
" You should know, Gabrielle, that if Xena died, youíd survive. You have too strong a sense of responsibility. You have the Amazons and your family to keep you here. Of course, youíd be a shell of yourself, but youíd survive a while. Xena, on the other hand, would be dead in a week." He held out his bowl, "Is there any more?"
"What in Tarterus are you?" Xena growled, "Are you just amusing yourself? Or is there a point to this?"
"Of course thereís a point. You have all these incredible reasons to be apart, every force on earth seeming to drive you away, and here you are together. In pain, but still together.
"Thatís the mountain. Thatís your love for each other. You two need to spend some time looking at the mountain instead of the damned superfluous junk lying around it."
He looked at the women, both frozen on either side of the flickering fire, and stood up.
"Now, this is where I go for a short walk over to that rise, maybe catch a nap, and you two talk about mountains. And only the mountain."
And he left. And after some silence, as the shock wore off, they did. For many hours. At first Xena kept a watchful eye on the sleeping figure on the hill, but she soon almost forgot his presence. There were no angry words, or silences. Each time a guilt would surface, one of them would say, "only the mountain." And they slept beside each other for the first time in a moon.
To her own amazement, Gabrielle was up before Xena the next day. She looked over at the warrior beside her, and lovingly brushed the bangs away from her face. Xena had talked nearly all night! Her silent warrior had blurted out her feelings, and Gabrielle wanted to shout them out to the world. She looked up to the rise and saw James lying on his back, but awake, his face towards her. She slid out of her bedroll and grabbing her staff, went up to meet him.
Gabrielle sat down cross-legged beside him, and with a grin replied "Great day!" wondering all the time why it was that she instinctively trusted this stranger.
Gabrielle started to pump him about what he knew about his abilities, and James answered as best he could, both of them knowing that Xena was listening while pretending to be asleep. After a while, though, James lowered his voice, and speaking directly to the Bard said "I meant what I said about the easy part. Today, Iíve got a harder story to tell. And itís going to hurt. I need to apologize to you now, because, itís not something I want to do..."
"But it will help us?"
It was after breakfast that the mood changed. Both James and Gabrielle watched Xena expectantly, until she stopped ignoring their stares and sat down across from them.
James took a deep breath and looked directly at the warrior.
Xenaís face was impassive, Gabrielle reached across and held her partners hand, but there was no change in her expression.
"Xena," James began, "there have been times when you have seen injuries or wounds that by the nature of how they were inflicted, filled you with rage or guilt; but you knew that as a healer, you had to focus on the job, and not let your emotions keep you from dealing with the injuries." He took another breath.
"Now, thereís been a wound that you have not treated properly, and when you realize that, you will feel even more guilt and anger. But you cannot. We need the healer, we need the cool assessment that confirms the symptoms, and evaluates the different treatments. You have to be able to do this."
Glancing quickly at Gabrielle, who gave him a nod of encouragement, he began.
The word seemed so loud, James could have sworn that the woods fell completely silent. He saw in Xenaís eyes shock, and then a thousand differing suffering emotions, each combating the next. He saw his own death there for a moment, but he spoke again.
They broke camp the next day. As they packed up, James was just in the way of the efficient rituals that the two had created. Each job long ago delegated and swiftly achieved, and he stood aside and watched in admiration. When all traces of their camp had been erased, Xena faced him and asked "Can you hunt?"
Gabrielle smiled and with a flick of her head indicated he walk with her, and they set out.
It rained most of the next two days as the three made their way back to the Amazonís.
Gabrielle had forgotten where James was, she was too occupied by two of the raiders when she realized that she was out of position and a third was behind her. She began to force her two forward in hopes of giving Xena room to help her, when she heard a loud clunking sort of noise, and senses told her that the danger was gone. But when the last of the brigands had run off, she turned to see James still holding her frying pad, now badly dented, she nearly exploded and advanced towards him. Only to be stopped by the sound of her loveís laughter, and she stopped as Xena, helpless now, pointed to her outraged face and the frypan. She wanted to keep her anger intact, but the warriorís laughter was something she had missed, more than even her touch. Xena continued to laugh and moved to stand protectively between her and James. "Iím sorry Gabrielle, but we never explained to James that if it came to a choice between your life and the frypan..."
From that point on, James might have still been a third wheel, but one that took some weight, and the warrior was more relaxed, less resentful of the prying he was forced to do at night. Then there was a finally a clear day, with no clouds in the sky, when Xena was attacked underwater by a laughing bard who had somehow gotten right beside her without her being aware of it. And one night, a half days ride outside of the village, the two soulmates made love. And when they awoke the next morning, James had gone.
Gabrielle stood before the assembled nation. "This is my friend," she said standing behind him and gripping his shoulders. "On each of his subsequent visits he has placed his honour and his life in our hands, and committed himself to the survival of us as individuals, and as a nation.
"Are these the acts of one of the males described in our scrolls? He sits here, waiting for our judgment of an act most of us applaud; is this someone who would never keep to Amazon Law? Is this the male described as having no sensitivity, and incapable of being a friend? Will you call for the execution of this person, when our law clearly states that no male is capable of such sacrifices?" The transformation from storyteller to Queen of the Nation was complete. She threw her last stone into the fire with intentional emphasis.
"My Amazons, "and the pronoun was as deliberate, " do you find that this person, my friend and our comrade, is a male as described by these laws?"
This was not a rational request for judgment. This was an emotional demand from their rightful ruler, and the Amazonís responded to it.
Shouting above the calls and cheers, Gabrielle turned to the council table and pronounced, "Then as Queen, I accept the decision of this assembly that no crime has been committed according to the definition of our laws, and I close this session of judgment."
For a moment, Gabrielle thought she might have overestimated her authority, as she saw Daniellle struggle to get the attention of the delirious crowd. Failing that, she called to Gabrielle directly.
Robin had reached from behind and placed her arm around Jamesí neck, and above all the hoorahs whispered in his ear "Sounds like you better get measured for the leather."
James turned to face her and said whispered back, "I have many fantasies, Robin, but none of them include wearing a leather bra."
There, at the very centre of the chaos that had begun the moment Gabrielle had demanded the vote, Robin looked into the eyes of her bond mate for the first time...but saw fear, and James quickly broke away to congratulate the Queen.
In fact, as the evening wore on, the pattern became clear, as James seemed to thrust people between them and evade any attempt by her to be alone with him. During one escape, he nearly collided with Solari, and as the two watched him slip away, the Amazon raised her eyebrows to Robin. "Whatís with that? I thought you too were...?"
"Maybe I should have the Queen arrest him again?"
"You think so? "
"Nah. You going after him?"
"Eventually. Maybe. First things...." And she hoisted her glass.
"Yes. Xeí" A sultry but grinning Queen answered.
"If you donít stop playing with fire, Iíll make you look down."
Gabrielle smirked and didnít remove her wandering hand.
Somewhat desperate now "Gabrielle! You bet every dinar we have...that we would make it until after the ceremony..."
"Three to One ODDS... ĎRií!!!"
Gabrielle eyes settled on James and Robin, separated by half the clearing. "Weíre going to have to talk to them..."
The Bard heard a strange strangled muttering above her head. it seemed to run along the lines of "itíll be great, Xena, weíll invite everyone and itíll be just a big party, nothing complicated..."
Taiko's Scrolls of the Xenaverse