The rest of the ride to Corinth was uneventful. Gabrielle and Joxer fell into an easy rhythm together, more comfortable than she would have thought. They talked a little during the days, about old friends, or what they had done in the last six years. At night, when they would camp, Joxer would hunt and fetch the water when there was any nearby. I remember why I loved him, Gabrielle thought one night as she snuggled into her blanket. He always took care of me-- he still does.
Usually at night they would make small talk over dinner, talking about the goings on in Treus, or Athens, where Gabrielle had been before Salmoneus had sent his message. They wondered together what the object Salmoneus had given her was, and why it was worth so much, and who wanted it; but neither of them knew.
Gabrielle noticed, as they closed in on Corinth, that Joxerís eyes tended to linger a little longer on her, and that his manner was softer, more gentle, even sweet toward her. Not that he had ever, in recent years, been anything other than wonderful toward her-- but Gabrielle could plainly see that Joxer was still very much in love with her, and he was losing the battle to stay focused on the journey at hand. I donít want to hurt him, Gabrielle thought to herself as they settled into camp the night before they arrived at Corinth. But I donít know if Iím ready to be anything other than friends again-- with anyone.
It was chilly that night. They sat close around the fire, their bodies sharing warmth. For a long time after dinner, neither spoke, their eyes just looking into the flame as it danced. Gabrielle could feel his breathing next to her, the way his body moved and responded to her slightest shifting. Finally, smiling softly to herself, she grabbed his hand.
Joxer looked over at her, surprised, as she held his hand in one of hers and traced the lines on the back of his hand with her other hand, her rough fingers moving gently over his skin.
She looked up at him and smiled. "You still love me, donít you?" she asked him.
His eyes were moist. "Iíll always love you, Gabrielle," he murmured. "Always."
She slid her head against his shoulder and sighed, letting the air pour out of her all at once. She still clutched his hand in both of hers, and she brought it up to her lips and kissed it. "I donít deserve that kind of love," she whispered, "but it still touches me that you feel that way, after all these years."
He put an arm around her, spreading his blanket out so it covered them both. The warmth of being so close to him comforted Gabrielle, and she closed her eyes, pressing against him. I probably shouldnít do this, she thought as she settled against him, sitting very close, but it feels good to be this close to someone.
"Gabrielle," he uttered, his voice a cracked whisper, pulling her closer.
She reached up, opening her eyes, and brought his face to hers.
"Donít talk," she whispered, closing her eyes and kissing him.
He kissed her back with warmth, and passion, and love, and lust, his arms sliding around her and gripping her. Gabrielle felt a stab of warmth course through her; gods, how good it feels to be kissed, to be held... how good it feels to be wanted ...
They parted after a few moments, their eyes meeting.
"So much for being just friends," she breathed, smiling at him.
He pulled her to him, and she could feel the raggedness of the breath he let loose, a deep sigh of pleasure. She buried her face in his chest, savoring the warmth of another body after so many years of being alone, delighting in the feeling of a pair of arms around her, holding her close. I shouldnít... part of her said. I really should not be doing this... to him, or to myself...
"Gabrielle," he said softly, "I..."
She put a hand to his lips once more, gazing up into his eyes. She shook her head no, and smiled, a tear escaping her eye. "Just hold me tonight," she said, her voice breaking, and he nodded, pulling her to him fiercely, almost protectively, and he wrapped the blanket around them both as they settled in toward the fire.
Gabrielle fell asleep almost at once, an arm across his chest, her face buried in the small of his neck, her breath spilling over him, her body relaxed.
Joxer lay on his back, his arm around Gabrielleís shoulders, and gazed up at the stars for a long, long time...
Gabrielle was quiet in the morning as they mounted up and headed toward the city. She knew the area well enough to know that they would reach Corinth by midday, if not sooner, so she allowed Argo an easy gait instead of the swift pace they had been maintaining for days.
So now what? she asked herself as the sun grew warmer. Do I go back to Joxer? Can I do that to him? Do I let him love me again? She closed her eyes, letting the wind blow through her hair, smiling as it tickled her face. I havenít felt this good in years.. not since Xena and I...not since Xena...
Damn, she thought, the smile vanishing. Will I always think of Xena when I think of him? Gabrielle opened her eyes, watching the countryside go by at a leisurely pace. Maybe last night, just holding him, was all I should do... all I can do...
She glanced over at Joxer, who was paying far too much attention to the countryside in a rather obvious effort to not be paying too much attention to her. He is so sweet, she thought, looking away. She sighed, her mind in turmoil. I wish this was easier, she thought as they rode on.
All too soon Corinth loomed up in front of them, lofty towers and the crimson flag with the dark club across it. "The symbol of Hercules," she said as they came close to the city. "The club..."
"I thought he didnít use weapons anymore," Joxer commented as they slowed the horses, nearing the front gates of the city. They fell in line behind a caravan of traders from Athens, their carts marked with a small flag bearing the Athenian alpha, and an owlís head, the symbol of Athena.
"He doesnít," Gabrielle said. "He never did, much," she added, "but he used the club on his twelve labors."
Joxer nodded. "Itís not like he needs weapons, really."
Gabrielle nodded, remembering. Thatís certainly true...
The traders passed into the city; the Corinthian guards looked at the pair of warriors, eyeing them warily, but said nothing as they entered the bustling city.
The main gates spilled into the agora, where a carnival of buying and selling was going on. Street musicians and dancers and jugglers vied for attention; merchants cried out to potential customers; pickpockets and thieves circulated through the crowd; beggars supplicated from any corner where they could find space. And milling about them all were the Corinthian Guard, clad in crimson, their brass helmets and red plumes making them plainly visible through the throng, which was, of course, the intention.
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose. "Iíd forgotten what big cities were like."
Joxer nodded. "This place makes Treus look like a backwater hamlet."
"Letís get to the palace," Gabrielle suggested, nudging Argo around the edge of the agora. Joxer followed suit, gazing out over the crowd with a guardsmanís trained eye. He spotted a pickpocket at work, a young girl whose brother was distracting the mark. He also saw a merchant stealthily accept a package from a passer-by, secreting it under his long robe. Crime, he thought. What city would be complete without it?
No one bothered them. Joxer noted that a few of the Corinthian Guard watched them as they passed by, but there were other more suspicious scoundrels in the crowd, who soon received more of the Guardsí attention. They eased out of the agora and into a wide street that led toward the docks. They traveled this for a few blocks, and then cut to the west, heading toward the palace.
Itís been a long time since Iíve been to Corinth, Gabrielle thought as she guided Argo down the narrow lane. Not since Herculesí coronation... The narrow alley emptied out into a huge open area, on the far side of which was the palace, a tall, round cylinder festooned with flags and decorated with colorful glass windows.
Directly in front of them was a grassy park, with three paved walkways and two rows of trees lining the outer edges of the two outside pathways. Gabrielle saw that the border of the park was decorated with several statues on either side; they looked new.
Joxer rode up next to her. "Iíve heard of this," he said, gesturing to the statues. "Hercules had the park built in honor of Iphicles, his half brother. The statues are all of heroes that have made their reputations defending the weak, or slaying monsters, or fighting evil."
Gabrielle nodded, her eyes far away. When I was a bard, I would have thought that was the most noble and sentimental gesture a king could make-- to celebrate the good deeds of others by immortalizing them in marble. I would have written about it... She shook her head, her long mane swishing about her shoulders. So long ago... another lifetime.
"So whoís here?" Gabrielle asked him as they rode around one side of the park.
"Iím not sure who Hercules commissioned," Joxer said. "Look, thereís Jason," he added, pointing to the first statue. The former king of Corinth and leader of the Argonauts stood with his sword half out of his sheath, the Golden Fleece draped about his shoulders, and his firm jaw set. Gabrielle had met the man once; it was a striking likeness.
Next was a statue of a man clad only in a robe, his sword held low, and dripping wet. In his other hand he held on oversized bullís head, the eyes still open in surprise. "Theseus," Gabrielle supplied, remembering the story of the minotaur. Joxer nodded, admiring the craft of the artist.
The next man was a soldier, in full armor, his helmet cradled beneath his arm. He had long, flowing locks and a proud face; but he was very handsome. His shield was emblazoned with a stylish trident, and his eyes were set in determination. Gabrielle shrugged; she didnít know who he was. Joxer was likewise stumped, until they read the plaque on the obsidian base: ACHILLES. They nodded in silence, moving on to the fourth statue.
This was a big, well built man, and his sword was raised over his head; he wore no armor, and carried no shield, but his long hair was thrown back, and his free hand was clenched in a fist. It was a very stirring portrait of the man, whoever he was. Gabrielle smiled slightly and said, "Iphicles. Of course." Joxer peered up at the manís face, trying to remember if they had ever met; but he didnít remember.
Suddenly, Gabrielle stopped Argo. Joxerís horse rode on for a few steps, and then he noticed he had continued alone. He tugged on the reins and turned to Gabrielle, about to ask her why she had stopped. But before he could say anything, he noticed the look on her face; one of quiet respect, of love, or remembrance. He frowned slightly and followed her gaze.
She held the chakram high, a grey marble disc in the sky; the flaps of her skirt swirled about her. A slight grin was on her face, and she even had one eyebrow raised. Joxer nodded, noting the details of the armor, the boots, the pommel of the sword. Whoever this artist was, he was damned skilled.
Gabrielle whispered, "Xena..."
They sat there for a spell, just gazing at the statue, remembering her, until at last Gabrielle nudged Argo ahead, toward the palace.