Xena woke to a sense of disorientation. She opened her eyes, wincing at the sting of the air against them as she looked across the room.
A stark, hazy dream had taken her to a far off place and it took her more than a moment to reconcile that memory with the warm, deeply colored vision before her and she went blank for an equal time in realizing where she was.
Disturbed, she curled her fingers around the pillow. It was quiet in the cabin and she knew she was alone, but the fabric still held hints of her partner’s scent and as she scanned the room, her eyes fell on Gabrielle’s bag and her scrolls resting on the table.
A blob of color caught her attention and she tipped her head back, finding herself abruptly eye to eye with Flameball, apparently left to keep her company. “Ah.” Xena murmured hoarsely. “It’s you.” She reached up and fingered the tattered toes of the well loved and used toy, seeing signs of toddler teeth everywhere. “Damn.” The warrior spared some energy to laugh, just a little. “I used to do the same thing, ya know that?”
She let her hand fall to the pillow, feeling sick to her stomach from her dream, and the herbs she’d taken before sleeping. Wistfully, she glanced at the door, wondering where her family was. It wasn’t really like Gabrielle to leave her asleep like that, though Xena acknowledged she’d done almost the same thing to her partner not that long before.
A cough racked her, and she decided lying down flat on her stomach wasn’t a good idea. With a groan, she rolled over and pushed herself up to a sitting position, leaning on one elbow on her pillow. Flameball tumbled down and thumped against her belly, and she picked it up, giving it a pat before she set him to one side.
The covers were all in a tangle, and Xena took a moment to straightened out the thick fabric, pulling herself up further and tucking the blanket around her outstretched legs. Then she ran her fingers through her hair, frowning at it’s disarray.
In fact. The warrior laid the back of her hand against her own forehead, grunting when she didn’t detect any heat. She decided she’d feel much better for being clean, and pulled the blanket off her as she rolled carefully out of the bed.
A wave of dizziness, not unexpected, hit her as she stood, and she patiently waited for it to fade before she trudged in the direction of the bathing room, picking up Gabrielle’s discarded, but dry towel.
Slinging the fabric around her neck casually, she entered the bath area, her stuffed nose getting a hint of their herbal soap as she walked over to the reservoir of water. With a sigh, she put the towel down and stripped out of her shift, draping it over the wooden table before she picked up the small cake of soap and stood under the basin.
A pull of the rope sent a shower of sun warmed water over her. Xena leaned against the wall and closed her eyes, scrubbing her skin with the soap and repeating the rinsing. She’d been submersed in water for days, but this felt so different. She lathered up a handful of soap and washed her hair, tipping her head back as she let the warm water run over her head and down her body.
Ahh. Xena set the soap down and rinsed a final time, squeezing the excess liquid out of her hair as she stepped away from the basin. Much better. She picked up the towel and dried herself off. Just the act of getting herself clean made her feel more herself, and she rooted out a fresh pair of lettings and a tunic from her bag and changed into them.
Instead of going back to bed, she settled on the couch, putting her bare feet up on the low table. Sitting up felt marginally better, and her head started to clear a little as well. She decided some tea would help, and once again pushed herself to her feet and headed for the table Gabrielle’s scrolls were resting on.
She picked up the healer’s kit sitting next to them and started to remove some herbs from it, then paused when a bit of the writing on the scrolls caught her eye.
Normally, reading something in her partner’s writings without her knowledge wasn’t something Xena did. However… She sat down at the table and rested her forearms on it, lifting the parchment and turning it towards the candle slightly for a better view.
Xena felt comfortable in assuming the note was, in fact, addressed to her and therefore more than safe to read.
I really hope you’re reading this before I get back, because if you are, it means you’re feeling better, right?
Eh. Xena propped her chin up against her fist.
Listen, I’m sorry you’re alone right now, but Dori and I went out to see what kind of trouble we could get ourselves into.
Xena sat right up and both eyebrows hiked.
No, wait. That came out wrong. Erase it.
The warrior relaxed, but only slightly.
What I want to do is find out who our friends are, and who our enemies are here. I think Wennid is right, and Rufus will be back. If that happens, maybe I don’t want us to be in the middle of it Xena.
Slowly. Xena sat up and frowned.
Before you get mad, think about it. You never fight for fighting’s sake, when the stakes are life and death. You taught me the lesson of living to fight another day, remember?
I know you hate that. I wanted to put the idea in front of you in a way that you could think about it before we talked. I’ll find out whatever I can, but if it looks like most of the people here want what Rufus is selling – Xena, we need to talk.
“After he tried to kill you?” Xena remarked to the empty room. “I don’t think so.”
I know he tried to kill me.
“How does she do that”
But in his mind, he was doing the right thing, Xena.
“Bull.” The warrior snapped. “Now you’re telling me that killing’s the right thing? Bite me, Gabrielle.”
Yeah, I know you’re pissed. Anyway, just think about it, okay? I’ll try to bring you back something nice for lunch, okay? A treat.
“Like that’s gonna make me feel better about this.” Xena snorted.
I love you.
Xena plucked at the edge of the parchment, exhaling a little as she reread the words.
I love you so much it’s like holding a bolt of lightning inside me. I’m like the sky, when the lightning hits, and everything is outlined in gilded silver.
Think about what the sky looks like after the bolt ends.
It’s all darkness.
So that’s where this question is coming from, Xena. All I ask is that you think about it.
Xena swallowed, surprised by the unexpected ferocity in the statement. If Gabrielle’s aim had been to make her take a step back, and look at the issue closely… well… Xena got up and retrieved a cup, putting the herbs into it and going to the small fire. Gabrielle had left their water pot near the coals, and she picked it up and poured steaming water over the herbs to let them steep.
She paused to drizzle some honey from the jar on the table into the cup, then she went back to the couch and sat down, raising the cup so she could inhale the steam coming off of it.
She understood what Gabrielle was saying. She understood the evocation of the love that she felt in full measure in return for her soulmate. She understood that sometimes survival was your best option, pride be damned.
But for Gabrielle to say that – something must have happened inside the bard that Xena was only seeing tiny shadows of. Something had broken inside there, something Gabrielle was trying hard to hide as she fought to do her part to keep them both on an even keel.
To hold up her end of their partnership, something the bard took very, very seriously. She’d been the junior member of their duo for a long time, had fought hard to make Xena realize she was a powerful, grown woman, and cherished the trust the warrior placed in her.
So for Gabrielle to write what she’d written meant that young, blond kid was peeking through the grown up façade and Xena was glad to realize she had grown sensitive enough to know that.
There had been a time when she hadn’t been and they had both suffered for it.
Xena took a sip of her tea, exhaling in relief as the warmth soothed her throat. A creak outside brought her head around, though, and she tensed as she waited for a knock. The intruder was not Gabrielle. The warrior’s eyes flicked across the cabin, finding her weapons in case she should need them.
She only hoped she wouldn’t cut herself with her balance being so off.
A knock. Xena exhaled in mild relief. “C’mon in.” She rasped, wincing at the sound of her own voice. The intruder could still be trouble, but in her long experience she’d found generally trouble didn’t knock first.
Hades only knew, she never had.
The door opened, and Tucker stuck his big, furry head in. He looked around, then entered and closed the door behind him. Xena watched him as he approached, noting that he took care to sit in the chair outside her easy reach. Or what he assumed was her easy reach.
His face was troubled.
Xena decided to cut the preambles, since she was tired, and felt like three day old horse droppings. “Yes, I did.”
Tucker blinked at her in startled shock. His rounded jaw sagged slightly.
“Every little bastard who came after me, no matter whose cousin, or son, or little brother he was. I killed them.” The warrior elaborated precisely. “Next?” She added. “Sorry if you knew any of em.”
The forest dweller got up and paced to the window. He stopped and turned, looking at her with wide eyes.
Xena extended her legs and crossed them at the ankle. She held Tucker’s gaze with placid coldness, showing no signs of regret, or guilt, or sorrow.
“You really mean that.” Tucker said. “You killed all of them?”
The warrior shrugged one shoulder. “I didn’t count.” She replied. “They knew who I was, and they chose to ignore that and attack me.”
“You went to the sacred valley.”
“Doesn’t change the facts.” The warrior said. “I chose my risks, they chose theirs.”
Tucker sat down on the windowsill. “Why did they attack you?”
“Damn good question.” Xena said. “They never really gave me a chance to ask them. One minute I was minding my own business, walking along, the next minute I had six of em jumping on me trying to tear me to pieces. You got any ideas?”
The forest dweller seemed to get over his shock. He crossed his arms over his chest and studied the floor, kicking at its wooden surface with one clawed bare foot. “My cousin was out there.” He said. “He said he went because if he stayed here he’d never be anything.”
“How old was he?”
Kids were kids. Xena exhaled wearily. “When I was fifteen, I felt the same way.”
Tucker stole a quick look at her.
Xena took a long swallow of her tea, swirling it around in her mouth before she swallowed it. “Where were his parents?”
“Here.” Tucker said. “They’re soulbonds. He just could never get into that.”
So they’d let a child go off into the forest to follow a rabble rouser? Xena shook her head. “I guess I can’t say much. My mother didn’t stop me either.” She remarked. “What’d he look like?”
Xena lifted her eyebrows at him. “I look before I kill.”
Abruptly, the forest dweller pushed himself to his feet, walked to the door, and left without a word.
The silence descended on her again, and Xena turned a bit, swinging her legs up onto the couch and settling in to rest; and to wait for Gabrielle to return with whatever trouble she managed to get into.
Gabrielle decided to visit Lestan first. She walked together with Dori across the village, feeling the damp coldness in the wind against her skin. As she reached the edge of the path that led to the leader’s cabin she noticed a basket almost hidden under the low hanging foliage and detoured to check it out. “Someone left their picnic out here Dori. Let’s bring it inside for them.”
Dori ambled amiably along with her, crouching down next to the wicker container as Gabrielle knelt and opened it.
The contents were not at all what she’d expected to find. “Good gods!”
“Mama, is it a buppit?” Dori peered inside with interest.
Gabrielle reached a fingertip in to the basket’s inhabitant, watching it grasp her hand with tiny fingers. “No, sweetie.” She whispered. “It’s a baby that’s like our friends.”
“Gaby?” Dori asked.
“Baby. Like you were.” The bard replied absently. “A long time ago, right? When you were really little? Do you remember that, Dor?”
“No.” Dori plucked at the wicker.
Gabrielle chuckled a bit. “Well, you didn’t stay that way very long.” She wiggled her hand and cooed at the baby. “Hey there.”
So tiny, she was sure the little forest dweller had surely been only recently born, the baby stared back up at her with wide, round gold eyes that didn’t quite seem to focus. “Oh, my gosh, you little cutie.” She felt a smile pull at her face. “What the heck are you doing out here?”
“Gabble.” The baby gurgled at her.
“Mama, c’n I play with the baby?” Dori stuck a hand into the basket.
“No, Dori, that’s not a toy.” Gabrielle looked closer. “She’s not a toy. Come on, let’s take her in to see our friends Wennid and Lestan, okay?” She carefully picked up the basket and stood, keeping the top open as she stepped back onto the path and headed for the cabin.
Taking the steps two at a time, she strode across the porch and tapped lightly on the door. “Wennid?”
“Eh?” The forest dweller came to the opening, carrying a piece of linen. “Oh, hello there, Gabrielle. Wh…” She backed up as the bard entered, frowning as Gabrielle set the basket on the table and pointed at it. “What do you have there? Bad bread?”
“Gabble!” The baby squeaked.
Wennid’s eyes popped open. “Gods, that’s no bread.” She dropped the towel and raced to the table, peering inside the basket. “Great Hera. Where did you find this?”
Gabrielle was obscurely relieved at the response. “Outside on the path, just near the bushes. What is this, Wennid? Don’t tell me someone accidentally left a kid in a basket outside. I know your people better. They cherish babies.”
“Baby.” Dori climbed up onto the chair, determined not to be left out. “Go play? Take baby wif us to see horsies, mama.”
“We do cherish them, Gabrielle.” Wennid lifted the baby up and cradled it, studying it with anxious curiousity. “I can’t understand it. I have no explanation. We didn’t have any women due… not this moon, at any rate…unless…”
Gabrielle’s ears pricked at the tone. “Unless?” She circled Dori with one arm.
Wennid examined the infant. “She is very small.” The forest dweller sighed. “There was one girl here in the village, a silly, mindless child who found Rufus’ ideas romantic.”
“Romantic?” Gabrielle questioned. “Wennid, I saw how they were living. No offense, but not even my wolf would have found that romantic.”
“I know.” Wennid cooed at the baby. “She was a… well, at any rate, she ran off to the valley and paid the consequences for it.” She glanced towards the inner door. “Lestan? Are you awake?”
A soft grunt answered her.
Gabrielle put a hand out. “What do you mean paid the consequences? Did she get hurt?”
Wennid looked at her. “She got raped by the lot of them.” She replied softly, giving Dori a quick look. “She was almost due… I can only believe she had the child early, and just…”
“Left her.” Gabrielle finished for her, a momentary look of pensive memory on her face.
“Yes.” Wennid said. “Let me go show Lestan. He won’t believe it.” She carried the infant into the inner room, rocking her a little. “Lestie, open your eyes.”
Gabrielle sat down in the chair, very quietly gathering Dori into her arms. She hugged her tightly, without speaking a word.
“Mama?” Dori sounded puzzled. She didn’t object to the hug, and put her arms around her mother to give her a return squeeze. “Mama good?”
After a moment, Gabrielle exhaled, sniffling a little and giving Dori a rub on her back. “Everything’s fine, Dori. I’m good, you’re good – we’re doing great.” She hugged her again, then she released the toddler and sat her down on her lap instead.
A moment where memory sideslipped her, and at the same time brought home with heart stopping intensity how life’s choices could come so stunningly full circle. “Okay, honey.” Gabrielle felt oddly exhausted. “Let’s wait for Wennid to bring the baby back, then we can go see the horsies, okay?”
“Go see Boo.” Dori objected. “Mama owie, we go get Boo, Boo make mama good.”
And didn’t that just describe her life to perfection? Gabrielle ruffled her daughters hair. Then she ruffled it again, watching the thick, dark locks move, and feeling the texture of them against her fingers. It was so like Xena’s. “How about we go see the horses, visit Argo, and then go tell Boo how Argo is. You think she’d like that?”
“Yes!” Dori nodded. “Bring Gogo back to Boo!”
“No, honey. Gogo can’t go through the door. We’ll bring Gogo a carrot, and tell her that it’s from Boo.” Gabrielle looked up as Wennid returned with the baby, and found a smile for her somewhere. “Well?”
“He’s speechless.” Wennid sighed, taking the seat across from her. “I’m going to have to call a meeting of the elder council to figure out what to do with her.”
“Do?” Gabrielle asked warily. “Aren’t you going to take her?”
Wennid blinked. “Me? Good gracious, Gabrielle. I’m too old for a baby.” She objected. “No, one of the younger women will surely volunteer.”
The bard opened her mouth to object, then she changed her mind. “Okay.” She said. “Well, I’ll leave her in good hands then. I don’t dare take her back to our cabin.”
The forest dweller looked up from the child, who was busy sucking on her fingertip.
“Xena’s a real sucker for a cute face.” Gabrielle smiled. “Besides, I don’t want her to catch Xe’s cold. So you’ll keep her here, right?”
“Ah… w… sure.” Wennid said. “Of course.”
“Where’s her mother? Is she staying nearby? I’d like to talk to her.” The bard continued.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
Gabrielle nodded. “All the more reason for me doing it.” Her eyes searched Wennid’s face. “I want to understand these people, Wennid. I want to understand why they hate me… why they tried to kill us, and why they hunted Xena and forced her to do something she really didn’t want to have to do.”
The forest dweller sighed. “She was staying in one of the old hunter’s cabins, on the far side of the village. Most of them were destroyed in the raid, but a few still held up. I don’t think she’s still there, though.”
Gabrielle got up. “Thanks.” She said. “First I need to see about a friend, though. Take care of the little one there, okay?” She tweaked the infant’s foot. “You be good, honey.”
“Gabble.” The baby wriggled. “Goo.”
The bard smiled at her, admiring the tiny snub nose and the pretty fur. “She’s a gorgeous color.” She touched the soft, light golden coat.
“Yes, she is.” Wennid agreed. “Her hair’s much as yours is.” She noted. “Did you wish so for your little one, Gabrielle?”
“No.” The bard answered, almost without thought. “I wanted her to look like Xe. I watch her watching Dori sometimes, and it’s amazing how much alike they are.” She looked at her daughter. “But I see me in her too.”
“Yes.” Wennid said, again. “She is well named.”
Gabrielle took Dori’s hand as she climbed down. “Speaking of, what are you going to call her?” She asked casually, pointing at the baby.
“Call her?” The forest dweller looked down at her now kicking bundle. “Ah..well… um… I should let the one who will care for her choose that.”
“Uh huh.” The bard patted her arm. “Well, if you need any ideas, come find me, okay?” She gave the baby one last look, then she guided Dori to the door, leaving Wennid with a very thoughtful look on her face.
Outside, Gabrielle squared her shoulders and let out a breath. Emotion was still churning her guts, and she decided a visit to Argo was a good idea to settle things down before she continued down this new, and very unexpected path.
The bard glanced down. “Hmm?”
Dori looked up at her, with big, trusting green eyes. “Dat baby no gots Boo.”
Gabrielle found herself smiling again. She started down the steps, holding Dori’s hand. “Nope. Only special babies like you gots Boo.” She told the toddler. “Let’s go get Argo some carrots.”
Was she putting off seeing the baby’s mother? Gabrielle gently booted aside a rock in her path. What would she say to her?
Thoughtfully, she studied the path as they walked along.
“Hey guys.” Gabrielle greeted Argo and Iolaus as they entered the stable. Both horses nickered at the sight of her, and cocked their ears as Dori squealed and headed for their knees. The bard followed her over, and scratched both golden heads, smiling as Io shoved his nose into her side and snorted.
“Ah, you know I’ve got something for you, huh?” Gabrielle fished a bit of carrot from her belt pouch and gave it to the stallion, giving him a hug around his neck as he chewed it.
Argo stamped a hoof in outrage.
“Oh, I’m sorry madame.” The bard handed over the other half of her treat. Being with the big animals made her feel better somehow, and as she stroked Io’s soft coat a few gentle memories of Xena being similarly comforted flashed into her mind.
Argo had, after all, been Xena’s only friend for a long time, Gabrielle knew. She’d first seen a glimmer of the warrior’s kinder, gentler side early in their travels when she’d taken care of the mare, in fact, and it had been that glimmer that had given her hope that someday she would see the softening of those blue eyes turned on her.
“Gogo, move!” Dori was tugging on the gold knee nearest her.
Argo dipped her head and nibbled at the child’s dark hair in equine indulgence, shifting her big hooves to one side as Dori walked fearlessly between them to get to Gabrielle. “Dori, where’s your present for Argo? You didn’t lose it, did you?”
“Cowot.” Dori held up a tattered bit of almost orange. “Gogo, look!”
Argo arched her neck and examined the offering, then lipped it up carefully from the child’s fingers.
“Tell Argo who that’s from.” The bard prompted.
“From Boo!” Dori hopped up and down. “Gogo, Boo sent a cowot!”
Iolaus nuzzled her, looking for his share of the booty. Dori found a bit of root left and put it on her palm for the stallion to eat. Then she held her hands up. “Mama, go up on Gogo!”
Gabrielle knelt next to her and took her in her arms, then carefully stood up, trying to use her legs and not her back to lift with. It almost worked. She grimaced as she got Dori up to Argo’s neck, relieved when the toddler grabbed an enthusiastic hold of the mare’s mane and hauled herself up onto her back. “Ow.” The bard muttered under her breath. “I’m not sure that was smart.”
“Gogo Gogo.” Dori chanted happily, squiggling into a more comfortable position on the horse’s back. Her legs clamped into a secure hold and she sat up in a natural posture that promised future skills as a rider that somehow didn’t surprise her mother in the least.
Gabrielle slipped her arm over Argo’s back behind where Dori was sitting and leaned against her, still more comfortable on the ground then she ever would be mounted. “You having fun, Dori?”
“Yes.” Dori patted Argo’s neck. “Love Gogo.”
The bard put her other arm around Iolaus “I love the horsies too, honey.” She said. “Did you know that Io’s daddy is here? Did Boo show you?”
“Yes.” The child nodded. “Boo take Gogo out and play with the other hossies, they ran real fast.” She told her mother. “Mama, c’n we go make Gogo run fast?”
Gabrielle sighed. “Not right now, honey. Mama’s not feeling too good.” She said. “Matter of fact, I…” She had to stop and lean against Argo, resting her head against the big mare’s neck. “Yeesh.”
“Mama.” Dori patted her head anxiously.
Gabrielle eased her shoulders straight and felt a soft pop in her back as something slid back into place and brought her blessed relief. “Ah.” She sighed. “I’m okay, Dori. Your mama’s just getting old, that’s all.” She rested her forearm against Argo’s back and leaned her chin on it. “How about we walk Argo around outside a little, hm?”
“Otay!’ Dori agreed enthusiastically. “Go fast!”
“No go fast.” Gabrielle unhooked Argo’s halter from the stall and led the mare outside, aware of Iolaus’ indignant nicker at being left behind. “You next, Io.” She called back over her shoulder.
They emerged into the cool air, and Gabrielle strolled casually along the path around the back of the stable into the grassy area beyond. Several of the younger forest dwellers were standing by the far side of the grass, watching two of the remaining horses run in the field.
Argo snorted on seeing them, and tossed her head. “Ah ah ah.” Gabrielle warned the mare. “Don’t you even think about it, madame.”
“Mama, go fast!” Dori pleaded. “Gogo wants to go fast!”
“No.” The bard continued her amble, glad of the sun drenching her. She walked along the side of the rough hewn fence, watching the youngsters out of the corner of her eye. There were three of them, and she judged them late adolescents. They watched her approach and Gabrielle’s finely honed sense of body language didn’t particularly like what she saw.
She suspected they were some of Rufus’ disciples. A moment after the thought occurred to her, she found herself wondering a bit about her choice of descriptions for them. Disciples in her experience had become something she found profoundly disturbing. Was that fair to the youngsters? “Hi.” She greeted them, as Argo drew even with the spot they had chosen to stand in.
The one closest to her, a girl with rust colored fur answered. “There isn’t much grass. It belongs to them.” She pointed at the horses, still chasing each other not that far off.
“Well.” Gabrielle gave Argo a pat on the neck. “She’s not eating any, so I guess that leaves it all for them, doesn’t it?” She remarked. “And besides, Argo’s always been welcome here. Why would that change now?”
She loosened her hold on the halter, and the mare continued to amble on, taking Dori for a short ride in the circle the tether Gabrielle held allowed her. Gabrielle watched indulgently for a moment, then she turned her attention to the kids. “Well?”
The girl gave her a dour look. “We don’t like your kind.”
“My kind of what?” The bard kept a mild, interested look on her face.
“What do you mean, why?” The girl asked.
“Why don’t you like me?” Gabrielle leaned on the fence, one ear cocked back to listen for Dori sized trouble. “I don’t think I ever met you, did I? What’s your name?”
The girl frowned. “You’re making us into wishy washy weaklings, like you.”
“Uh huh.” Gabrielle leaned her chin on one fist. “How?”
“How am I doing that? You’ve never met me before.”
The forest dweller exhaled in adolescent exasperation. “Not just you.” She said. “Your kind.”
“My kind.” The bard shifted slightly. “Okay, so let me get this straight. Short, blond women from backwater Potadeia are making you into weaklings?”
“You’re stupid.” The girl turned and walked off, shaking her head. After a moment’s hesitation, the two boys followed her, but they kept watching Gabrielle over their shoulder as they walked.
Gabrielle waggled her fingers at them and gave them a friendly smile. “Want some advice?” She projected her voice. “Make up your own mind. Don’t let anyone make it up for you.”
“Mama.” Dori arrived on Argo’s back just behind her. “Will you make Gogo fast, please?”
With a sigh, the bard turned. “Okay, but just a little.” She guided the mare closer. “C’mere, Argo. Make this easy on me since Dori’s too small to pull me up there. Yet.” Gingerly, she climbed up onto the fence rail, then slid onto the mare’s back behind her daughter. “Okay, where do you want to go?”
“Ahh… what a surprise.” Gabrielle chuckled. “No, honey – let’s ride around in here, then we’ll let Argo rest and we’ll go see Boo, okay?” She tightened her knees and made the small noise with her tongue that Xena had taught her, and was rewarded by Argo’s amble progressing into a gentle canter.
“Wooeeee!’ Dori approved. “Go fast! Gogogogogogogogogogogo!!!”
Gabrielle wrapped an arm securely around her daughter and allowed herself to enjoy the moment, as the warm sun and the cool air battled each other all around her. They cantered towards the two other horses, and with tossing heads they joined in the chase, their hooves beating out a soft thunder as the three of them raced around inside the paddock.
Riding Argo was always a little different for her than riding any other horse. Gabrielle thought that was because Argo was very definitely a part of her soulmate and she could remember the sense of joy and awe she’d felt when Xena had first let her start helping her care for the horse.
Not to mention ride her.
“Xena.” Gabrielle finished washing out their cooking pot carefully, drying it so the metal would not rust and putting her supplies inside it.
“Yes?” The warrior sat across the fire, sharpening her sword. The rhythmic sound of the steel rasping against the stone was becoming a daily feature of their evening camp, as they settled into to an odd routine and got used to each other.
“Why do horses run?”
The rasping stopped. Xena leaned her elbows on her knees and looked at Gabrielle, one of her dark eyebrows cocking up in a sardonic tilt. “What?”
Gabrielle put the pot away and walked over, sitting down at Xena’s feet. Not too close, but not too far away that she couldn’t see the warrior’s expression either. “Well, you know, I noticed as we walk.. well, I mean I walk, and you ride, that most of the other animals we see don’t really run a lot.”
“What kind of animals?”
“Oh, you know, like cows and pigs and…and…well, sheep. They sorta just sit around.”
“Like we’re doing right now?” Xena asked.
Gabrielle looked around her. “Um… yeah. Sorta.”
“If something were attacking us, would we be sitting here?” The warrior said.
“Uh.. no, probably not.”
“So the animals do the same thing. They don’t run unless they have to. Like if something is chasing them to eat them.” The warrior went back to sharpening her sword, evidently considering the matter closed.
Gabrielle squirmed around and got a little bit closer. “But that’s what I mean.” She examined the armor on Xena’s knee, noticing for the first time the little intricate whirls in the brass. “Oh, that’s pretty!”
“That’s what you mean..what?” Xena put the sword down again, her voice sounding a touch annoyed and slightly confused. “Gabrielle, what are you babbling about?”
Forget the armor, go for the horse. Gabrielle got her thoughts straight. “Horses.” She looked up at Xena. “They run when they don’t have to. How come?”
“Ah.” Xena made a deep sound inside her throat, and scratched her jaw a little. She paused and took a deep breath, a habit before making a pronouncement as Gabrielle had begun to notice. “Beats me.”
Gabrielle blinked at her. “Beats you? Xena, you know everything. What do you mean, beats you? I think you can even talk to horses.”
The warrior folded her hands on her sword hilt and regarded her young charge. “C’mon.” She put the sword down and got up, walking off and fully expecting Gabrielle to follow her.
“B… a…b…okay.” Gabrielle scrambled to her feet and went after the fast moving woman, catching up to her just as they got to where Argo was munching contented mouthfuls of grass. “What ar…ah… ek… Xena!” Faster than that, she was lifted and found herself sitting on Argo’s back. “Hey!” She grabbed hold of the wiry mane in a death grip.
Argo lifted her head and looked around, blowing grass out of her mouth as if to echo the sentiment.
“Girl, show her.” Xena gave the mare a hefty slap on the rump and stepped back as she bolted, cantering across the long grassy slope that led down to the river they’d camped by. “Yhahh!” She yelled out, watching Argo bend into a turn. “Sha!”
The mare increased her speed, unheeding the wildly bellowing bit of humanity just barely on her back, making a huge circle and thundering back towards Xena’s laughing form.
“Help! Help!” Gabrielle squealed, only just maintaining her hold as she slipped around on the horse’s bare back. “Ahhhggg!!!!’
Xena let out a whistle, and Argo came right too her, sliding to a stop and sending Gabrielle sailing off her back. For a split second, Xena almost let her hit the ground, then an insidious, slowly growing instinct intervened and she caught the kid, setting her on her feet with a thump. “There. Answer your question?”
Gabrielle struggled to catch her breath. “Tha… that wasn’t nice!” She exhaled, her hand on her belly, and then she looked right up into Xena’s eyes, too shaken and tired to dissemble. “That was mean.”
Xena chuckled. “C’mon, Gabrielle… you better get used to…” Unaccountably, the warrior halted, and her smile faded.
“I’m sorry I asked.” The girl turned and walked away, going to her little pile of ragged blankets and sitting down on them. Her eyes went to the fire and stayed there.
Argo wandered over and nudged Xena in the back.
“What?” The warrior asked, gruffly.
“Cut that out.”
Argo turned her back and wandered off, leaving Xena standing in the last of the sunlight. She frowned, and after a moment kicked a rock out of her path and went back to her log. She sat down and picked up her sword, scowling at it. “Well, I am mean.” She finally said. “You knew that.”
Gabrielle didn’t answer. She merely sighed, and regarded the fire.
Xena fiddled with the sword. “Hey, how bad could I be if I let you ride my horse?” She said.
The girl thought about that for a bit, then she turned her head and gazed at Xena. “You did let me ride her.” She said, in slight surprise.
“Yeah. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
They looked at each other in pensive silence. Gabrielle at last took a deep breath. “Well, if you figure it out, will you tell me?”
“Figure what out?”
“What you were thinking?”
Xena laid her sword across her knees and rested her forearms on the blade. “Gabrielle.” She spoke with uncommon seriousness. “If I ever figure that out, you’ll be the first one I’ll tell.”
The girl smiled, at last. “You know, you’re really not so mean on the inside.” She got up and rummaged in her bag. “I’m going to give Argo some of the apple I saved from the road today.” Her voice paused, and she glanced over her shoulder. “Is that okay?”
Xena just shook her head and sighed. “G’wan.” She said. “She loves em.”
Gabrielle stood and trotted after the mare, leaving behind a quiet campfire and a thoughtful pair of very blue eyes.
“Remember those apples, Argo?” Gabrielle asked the mare. “And that first ride?”
“Apple, mama?” Dori looked up. “You gots?”
Gabrielle laid the halter rein to one side of Argo’s neck and directed her to the far side of the paddock. They slowed beside a large, old tree whose branches dripped with the fruit within easy reach of the mare’s riders. “I gots.” The bard examined her choices and selected several large, round apples, handing one to Dori to hold. “Let’s bring one to Boo. I think she’d like that, don’t you?”
Argo had picked up a fallen apple and was crunching it appreciatively. The sound drew the other two horses over and they found their own booty in the grass as well. Watching them, Gabrielle caught from the corner of her eye a straggle of forest dwellers heading for the big communal hut. Something about their attitude pricked her senses.
Gabrielle tucked the apples into her belt pouch and turned the mare. “But let’s go to the meeting hall first.” She clucked at the mare. “Maybe we can find out a little more about what’s going on.” She directed Argo towards the hall. “Hang on, Dori – we’re gonna fly.”
Yeah. Gabrielle tightened her hold grimly, as the mare cantered towards the fence and gathered herself to jump it. Real fun.
Xena gave up her vain attempt at resting and dressed, trying not to cough too much as she bent over to lace up her boots. The effort was dangerously exhausting, and she let her elbows rest on her knees and cradled her head in her hands until some of her strength returned.
Not good. With a stubborn sigh, she slowly rose to her feet, keeping hold of the back of the couch until she was sure she wasn’t going to get dizzy, then making her way to the door and slipping through it. The air outside was cold, and felt raw on her throat, and she almost turned back around and thought better of venturing out.
But then, she reasoned, she’d never done anything with caution in her life, why start now? So instead, she pulled her cloak around her and walked down the steps, glancing up as Ares bounded over to her and frisked around her legs. “No jumping.” She warned huskily. “You thought me stepping on your tail was bad? See if you like me falling on you.”
Ares followed her as she negotiated the steps and started down the path, her senses reaching out to determine where her missing partner was. She knew Gabrielle wasn’t in trouble, at least. But she just had a general sense of something not being right that wouldn’t let her rest until she’d ferreted out what the bard was up to and made sure everything was all right herself.
She angled her steps towards Wennid and Lestan’s hut, reasoning that Gabrielle might have gone there first, and she thought letting the village leaders in on what she’d told Tucker was probably a prudent idea. It had been the truth, but Xena had reviewed her words several times and she was beginning to worry that truth in that instance might not have been her wisest course of action.
Damn kids. The warrior sniffled, and felt a chill ripple over her. Two forest dwellers appeared from another path and crossed in front of her, and she straightened instinctively as they glanced her way. They were older women, and after a moment’s brief surprise they approached her.
“Xena, should you not be resting?” One of the asked, with a look of what appeared to be genuine concern. “Wennid said you had the chest illness.”
“I was resting.” Xena told them. “But I need to find Gabrielle. Have you seen her?”
Both shook their heads. “Not this morning. Can we help you look? We could find her, and send her back to your cabin.”
Stubborn pride reared it’s head. “No, thanks.” The warrior edged around them. “I’ll find her.” She continued on her path. One thing she could always do was find Gabrielle. When all else failed, when everything she was doing fell apart, that at least, she could count on.
Xena frowned, beginning to suspect the fever was playing a little havoc with her mind. It wasn’t as if she was thinking unclearly – but the random rambling going on inside her was starting to worry her. Was she becoming irrational? Did running around out in the cold searching for Gabrielle really make sense?
The warrior sighed. Probably not. Her feet kept moving, though. Her ears, clogged as they were, picked up familiar hoofbeats a few steps later and she looked up, swiveling her head around towards the barn as she spotted Argo’s outline headed towards the paddock fence.
She had to blink twice as she took in the two figures perched on the mare’s back. Gabrielle? Riding bareback? Jumping? A thousand things went off in her head, and for a second she just froze in place as mental and physical instincts all fired at the same time.
She took a breath to yell a warning, and found herself caught helpless as a cough robbed her of breath. She could only watch as Argo reached the fence and leaped over it, landing neatly on the other side with her precious cargo.
The landing jarred Gabrielle. Xena could see it in her body posture, and she flinched right along with the bard in automatic sympathy. But her partner kept her seat, and from where she was Xena could hear Dori’s squeal of pure delight at the stunt.
She leaned against the nearest tree and just watched them. Gabrielle brought Argo to a gentle amble, smiling at their daughter’s happiness despite her own discomfort. Xena smiled along with her, and also at the picture they made, not entirely surprised when the bard lifted her head from speaking to Dori and turned to look right at her.
The expression on her face was priceless. If Xena had caught her sneaking cookies from Cyrene’s kitchen back in Amphipolis the bard could not have looked more chagrined. Doing her best to look gruff, the warrior put two fingers between her teeth and let out a whistle, drawing Argo’s attention and her hooves towards her immediately.
Dori spotted her as she stepped out from between the trees to meet them and let out a squeal. Xena leaned against Argo and let the child capture her hand as she gazed past her at her mother. “Did I just see you do what I think I just saw you do?”
Gabrielle actually blushed. “Yeah.” She admitted. “That was pretty stupid, and it hurt, and I’m sorry.” She reached over and ran her fingers through Xena’s hair. “Do I get to yell at you now for being out of bed?”
“Gabrielle.” Xena found herself having to force the sternness. “I have a stupid head cold. You don’t.” She cleared her throat. “You really want to risk spending your life not able to move?”
“Boo, no yell.” Dori frowned at her parent.
“Xena, I’m fine.” Gabrielle overrode her. “And it’s not just a head cold, we both know that.”
“Don’t give me that. I saw you when she landed.” The warrior argued hoarsely. “Damn it, Gabrielle…”
“Booooo….” Dori scrambled forward and reached for her. “No no no no no…”
“Dori!” Gabrielle grabbed for the toddler at the same moment Xena did and they ended up almost nose to nose with Dori between them. Gabrielle winced as her neck protested the posture as she watched her partner slump for a moment against Argo’s shoulder. “Xena, go lie down.”
“No.” The warrior replied stubbornly. “YOU go lie down.”
“Mama!” Dori squealed in frustration, unable to move. “Booo!!!!”
Gabrielle pushed herself upright and tucked Dori firmly under one hand. “Dori, hush.” She said. “Boo is going to go rest.”
“Boo is not going anywhere, and neither are you.” Xena glared up at her. “Except right back to that damn cabin, where my horse is going to take you just like I tell her to.” She pulled Argo’s head around and looked the mare in the eye. “You’re gonna listen to me, aren’t you?”
Argo nuzzled her, the horses soft lips tickling Xena’s skin.
Gabrielle felt an aching tension seize her body, almost constricting her breathing. She closed her eyes and tried to relax, but an anxiety she hadn’t expected made her start shivering and she was shocked to find herself on the verge of tears.
“Yeah, well, at least someone does.” Xena sighed, giving the mare a hug before she turned to face her partner, readying herself to continue the argument.
One look at Gabrielle chased that thought right out of her head. “Gab?” She put a hand on the bard’s thigh, then moved closer and slid one arm behind her back. “Gabrielle??”
“Mama?” Dori wrestled herself around to face her mother. “Mama?” She frowned and turned towards Xena. “Boo, you make mama owie. No good!”
Xena went still, the accusation hitting her deep in a place she hadn’t expected. She let her hands drop to her sides. “You’re right, Dori. That’s not good.” She eased away from Argo and started trudging back towards the cabin.
Stopping when the pain in her heart tightened like a fist. She stood motionless for a few breaths, then she turned and walked back over to where Argo was still standing, coming up on Gabrielle’s other side and putting her arms around her waist.
Gabrielle’s body actually shuddered in relief. Her free hand dropped to grip Xena’s shoulder and she pulled the warrior closer.
Xena didn’t resist the pull. She rested her cheek against the bard’s belly and looked at Dori, who was sitting uncertainly in front of her mother, not really sure what was going on. The warrior felt a certain sympathy with that, since she really wasn’t that sure either. She just knew they both were hurting, and it made no real sense to hurt each other any more. “Sorry.”
Gabrielle felt the gray haze around her fade out, replaced by the solid reality of Xena’s touch. “Me, too.” She whispered, rubbing the back of the warrior’s neck with slightly shaking fingers. “Dori, Boo never makes me owie. Don’t you ever say that.”
Dori stuck her thumb into her mouth, watching her parents with wide eyes. “Otay.”
“Wow.” The bard lifted her hand and wiped the tears from her eyes. “I don’t know what’s going on with me. That’s the second time today I lost it.” She returned her arm to it’s former position draped over Xena’s shoulders.
“I think we better both go back to the cabin.” Xena said. “And I think we’d better get out of here, Gabrielle. Now. Before I get any sicker, or we get into something I can’t get us out of.”
The more she touched Xena, the more the panic faded, Gabrielle realized. “Is that a good idea? I don’t think everyone here hates us, Xena, I just… well, I guess it depends on if they find out what happened in the valley, and that…”
“They know.” Xena interrupted her.
“They know? Wennid told them?”
“I told them. I told Tucker.” The warrior said. She tentatively reached her hand out to Dori, and was relieved when the toddler seized it and started tugging at her fingers.
“You told him? Why?” Gabrielle asked, in a soft voice.
“He asked me.” Xena admitted. “I’m…. not really thinking clearly, Gabrielle. Fever, maybe.”
“Mm.” The bard felt the last of her panic ease. “I’m not sure I am either. But that might explain why those kids were so hostile towards me.” She rubbed the back of Xena’s shoulder with her fingertips. “You really think we should r… just leave?”
Xena didn’t answer.
“They’re having a village meeting. That’s where I was going.” Gabrielle gently changed the subject. “I thought maybe I could just face them all and get things settled or at least come to a head.” The bard exhaled. “Now, I don’t’ know.”
The warrior thought for a bit. “Good idea.” She finally said. “Let’s go.”
“Both of us?”
“All three of us.” Xena straightened wearily. “Let’s just go and get the damn thing over with. I’m too damn tired to let it fester any more.” She looked up at Gabrielle. “No more damned fences.”
“No more damned fences.” Gabrielle agreed. “Want a ride?”
Xena took hold of Argo’s halter and started walking. “Doubt I could climb up there. Just hang on tight.”
Gabrielle put her arm around Dori and did just that. The further they got, the more she became convinced that Xena might have had the right idea after all.
The only problem was, running didn’t come naturally to either of them. Gabrielle looked down at Dori, who was scowling unhappily, upset at what was going on.
Pig farts. Sometimes life just really sucked.
Xena was now so worried, she was almost numb. The pressure to get them all out of what her senses were insisting was danger was close to overwhelming her, and she used the long walk across the village center to try and force some calm over herself.
Gabrielle needed her protection. Xena concentrated on that. As much as she wanted to settle the score with Rufus, Hades, as much as she wanted to just crawl into a bed and stay there, she knew she had to get her family to safety.
Xena had thought she’d heard Gabrielle whispering to Dori.
They were almost to the meeting hall. Xena glanced ahead of her, then she paused and allowed Argo to walk past, bringing her even with her daughter. ‘Yeah?”
Dori reached out to clutch a handful of her hair. “Sowwy.”
Xena felt Gabrielle’s knee press against her shoulder as they walked. “Did your mama tell you to say that?” She asked the toddler.
The warrior looked up at her partner. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“I know.” Grave, green eyes watched her. “But a few extra sorrys never hurt anyone.”
Xena pulled Argo to a halt as they reached the edge of the path that led up to the hall. She could hear a soft murmur of voices inside, but she paused and put her hand on Gabrielle’s thigh, wrapping the other one around Dori’s stomach. “That’s true.” She said. “Dori, I’m sorry you thought I hurt your mama.”
“Boo owie.” Dori looked sadly at her buddy. “No fun. C’n we go find fishies, Boo?” She scrambled off Argo’s neck and threw her arms around Xena’s instead. “No hurt no more. All bad.”
Xena glanced up at Gabrielle as she clasped Dori to her, seeing dark echoes in her partner’s eyes that brought everything into a clear, colorless focus. “Why don’t you stay here, with her. I’ll go and tell them we’re leaving.”
The bard hesitated, then the faintest hint of a smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. “How did you know exactly what I was going to say?” She stroked Xena’s hair gently. “Let’s all go.”
Xena stepped back with Dori tucked in the circle of one arm, her other hand clasping Gabrielle’s arm as she swung her leg over Argo’s neck and slipped down to the ground. She waited for the bard to catch her balance, then she put her arm around her and led the way towards the hall.
Gabrielle wrapped her arm around Xena’s waist. They walked up the steps together, and since Xena’s hands were occupied, the bard booted the doors open, putting as much attitude into that bit of physical action as she could on such short notice.
All talking stopped when they entered. Tucker and two others were standing up front, obviously cut off in mid argument. Wennid was standing up facing them, her posture indicating frustrated anger.
Xena and Gabrielle walked up the center aisle together, until they were opposite Wennid, where they stopped. Xena met her eyes as the forest dweller turned.
“Xena…we were just…”
“Bitching about me.” The warrior finished, in a dry, clipped tone. “Save it. We’re leaving.” She gave the rest of the crowd a bare glance. “Keep Lestan’s wounds clean and dry. Maybe you could get someone here to give a damn about him, and give you a hand.”
“Xe.” Gabrielle cleared her throat gently.
“What?” Tucker spoke up. “What do you mean, you’re leaving?”
“Deaf as well as stupid?” Xena asked him tartly.
“Xena, please… it’s not… we were just talking about what happened… I was trying to explain…” Wennid held a furred hand up.
“Explain why she killed those kids? Sure.” Tucker said. “Go on, tell us.”
“Tucker, shut up.” Wennid snapped. “Those kids tried to kill them.”
“They were just kids!” Tucker yelled.
“HEY!” Gabrielle’s voice picked up volume so quickly, and so explosively it even startled Xena, who jumped slightly. The bard’s roar brought a shocked silence as it faded, and everyone turned to stare at her.
“Mama loud.” Dori put one small hand over her ear.
Gabrielle disengaged herself from her partner and walked over to Tucker. She stopped just short of him and lifted a hand to point at his chest. “I saw those kids.” She spoke clearly and forcefully. “I talked to them, and listened to them tell me how they were going to kill Xena slowly and let me watch.” Her voice rose again. “Don’t you TELL ME about those poor little children.”
“They are seven feet tall, and they have fangs and claws. In case you missed it, or hadn’t checked lately. I DON”T” Gabrielle yelled at the top of her lungs. “AND NEITHER DOES SHE.” She turned and pointed to her soulmate.
Another silence fell. The forest dwellers looked uneasily at each other, then at Gabrielle.
“SO CUT THE PIG TURDS!” Gabrielle finished her harangue. “I’m OVER IT.”
Xena lifted her eyebrow, impressed at the ferocity. She was also glad it was Gabrielle doing the yelling, and not her, since her throat was sore just listening.
“Go mama.” Dori burbled in her ear. “Bart ting.”
The warrior almost laughed. She took a better hold on Dori and stalked forward to join her soulmate, dropping a hand to her shoulder as she stood there facing off against the forest dwellers. “Gabrielle is right.” She kept her voice steady by sheer will. “I won’t apologize for defending my life. Or hers. Those kids were doing their best to kill me.” She turned to sweep her eyes over the crowd.
Most of the gazes refused to meet hers.
“You asked me to come here.” The warrior said.
“She asked you.” Tucker muttered.
“To save a life.” Gabrielle said. “To help you. For that we got chased, and harassed and almost killed.”
Tucker stared sullenly at his feet.
“Xena, Gabrielle… please.” Wennid walked over to them, putting a hand on Xena’s arm with unusual boldness. “You can’t just go off. Please. You both need care and rest.”
“We’d get more of that out in the bush.” Xena told her. “Not here. I keep wondering when one more of these jerks..” She sent a glance Tucker’s way. “Jumps in my window with a spear.”
“She’s right.” Gabrielle returned the support. “I’m more nervous here than I was out in the valley. Wennid, I’m sorry. We can’t stay here.”
The forest dweller looked honestly distressed. One of the other, older women also came over. “Xena.. “ the newcomer spoke gently. “Not all of us feel as he does.”
“More than you think do.” Tucker said. “Rufus was right…”
“Was he right when he tried to kill me?” Gabrielle interrupted him.
Tucker stared at her. “Yes.” He said. “He was right.”
Wennid’s jaw dropped in shock. “Tucker, do you know what you’re saying?”
“Yeah, I do.” He said. “He should have killed her, then they could have killed Xena, no problem. He was right.”
No one expected the violence. At least, they expected it from Xena – they didn’t expect Gabrielle to pick up a wooden chair and bash Tucker over the head with it, the forest dweller so unprepared he didn’t even lift an arm to defend himself.
Even Xena was caught flatfooted. She broke out of her shock in an instant though, and grabbed hold of Gabrielle as she staggered back from the force of her action, almost falling until Xena caught her. “That was really stupid.”
“Sorry, I..” Gabrielle stammered, shocked herself.
“I was talking to him.” Xena muttered. “I woulda gone for his crotch first. Head’s made of rock.” She looked at Wennid. “One thing I did find out in that valley.” The details suddenly came clear to her. “The attack here wasn’t some marauder band. They had your horses.”
Tucker staggered to his feet. “Liar!”
The crowd started to mutter. Wennid exhaled. “Did they truly, Xena?” Her voice was sad.
The warrior nodded. “That’s how I found them. I tracked the horses.” She started to move backwards, drawing Gabrielle with her. “So ask yourselves… who knew your weaknesses? Who had a motive for wanting you scared, and feeling helpless? Who’s looking to take over, and how much of a coincidence was it that it was your leader who got hurt the worst?”
“Wait.” One of the younger males stopped her. “Are you saying Rufus attacked us?”
“LIAR!!!” Tucker screamed.
Dori clutched her around her neck, her eyes wide at all the yelling. “Think about it.” Xena felt her strength ebbing, and she tapped into her reserves.
“Xena.” Wennid held her hand out entreatingly. “Please. Don’t go. We need the truth you found if we’re to stamp out this madness.”
“Leave.” Tucker said. “Run like the cowards you are.” He wiped the blood off his face and stared at the back of his hand, stained with it. “We don’t want you here.”
The warrior kept moving slowly. “Sorry, Wennid.” She gathered Gabrielle closer to her, feeling the tremors in the bard’s body. “My family matters most. I’m not risking them here.”
The forest dweller followed her, as the rest started talking in low, disturbed tones. “Xena… I didn’t mean for it to be this way. Please. Can we go back to my home and speak, just for a little while?”
“There’s nothing left for me to say.” Xena turned her back on them, and walked out, hoping her strength would carry her until they got to Argo. She kicked the door shut behind them as they left the hall, and returned to the clean, pine scented air outside.
Where they were going, and what it would take to get there, she didn’t yet know.
Io liked that. He didn’t really like being cooped up in a stable, and he pulled against her hold as he arched his neck towards the door. Gabrielle eased his blanket over his back and tightened the belly strap, then she leaned against his solid form for a moment.
Then she pushed off and started to lead him out, the thoughts she’d paused to ponder too chaotic for her nerves at the moment. The stallion snorted, eyeing the corner of the stable. Gabrielle glanced in that direction, for a moment not seeing anything that might alarm the horse.
In the shadows, though, she thought she caught a whisper of motion. She stopped and listened, cocking her head to one side, and the soft sound she’d thought she’d heard was repeated. “Is someone there?” She called out, with a touch of uncertainty.
There was another rustle, and the bard thought the sound was moving away from her. Instinctively, she followed, leading Iolaus behind her as she approached the far side of the barn. A stack of hay blocked her path, and she stepped around one side of it, catching sight of a bit of dirty gray fur. “Hey!”
The stranger scuttled further back into the shadows.
“Hey, don’t run. Why are you hiding?” Gabrielle asked, persisting in her attempt to see who it was. She moved further, the straw crunching under her boots. “Come out.. I won’t hurt you.”
She really couldn’t explain what was driving her. If someone wanted to hide in a barn, was it really her business to find out why? Gabrielle sighed, and went a step further, putting her hand on the haystack and peering around the corner of it.
In the dark cubby behind the prickly stack she could see a forest dweller, a little smaller than most, and covered in matted, filthy fur that might have once been silver. A pair of bloodshot eyes watched Gabrielle with sullen resentment, but the figure didn’t make any further moves to escape.
“Hi.” The bard murmured. “Are you okay?”
There was no answer. The forest dweller just curled up in a ball and ignored her.
Gabrielle hesitated, thinking about Xena, who she’d left in the cabin packing up their things. The warrior was waiting for her to come back so they could leave, to find the peace they both so badly needed.
And yet. Through all the confusion and the unexpected rage she’d found herself being swamped by Gabrielle could still feel the pull of another creature in need. It was reassuring in a way she hadn’t expected, and that led her to creep slowly forward, and kneel beside the huddled form. “Easy.”
Io nickered, peering over her shoulder curiously.
The forest dweller watched her from under slitted eyelids.
Gabrielle studied her, seeing even on the stocky, thickly furred body the signs of a recent pregnancy. Tentatively, she put her hand out and touched her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
Warily, the head moved. “For what?”
“For what happened to you.” The bard said. “I saw your baby.”
The eyes closed and the woman pushed her hand away. “Shut up.”
Gabrielle rested her elbow on her thigh. “Listen, I know what you’re feeling right now, and I…”
“You?” The woman turned her head and glared at you. “Don’t you say nothing. You don’t know anything about this.”
With a sigh, Gabrielle weighed her options, and leaned a little closer. “You’re wrong. I do know.” She lowered her voice, keeping eye contact. “Maybe nobody else here knows, maybe everyone else is just pitying you, or thinking you’re a stupid kid, but you know what? I know.” She put her hand out again, clasping the woman’s wrist. “I”ve been there.”
The forest dweller stared at her.
“I know what it’s like to trust, and have that trust betrayed.” Gabrielle said. “I know what it’s like to be violated. To be raped… to be lost.”
She had to wait a bit, for the lump to subside in the throat before she continued. The forest dweller waited with her, this time not throwing off her hand.
“Didn’t want that kid.” The woman rasped softly. “It’s just ugly. I just hated it. I hate everything.” She looked up at Gabrielle. “How could that happen to you with her around? Thought you had it made.”
Gabrielle fell silent for a few breaths. “Well.” She murmured. “Sometimes things just happen.” Memories clustered around her, and she jerked her head to one side, as though throwing them off. “Don’t let that make you hate your baby. It’s not her fault.”
The forest dweller covered her eyes with one filthy hand. “Don’t want it.”
“It.” The woman repeated. “Any part of them is part of it. I can’t even look at it.”
The bard didn’t know what to say. She sat down in the straw and glanced at the far wall, understanding now at a very base level something about herself that she hadn’t really believed before.
Though Xena had.
“What’s your name?” Gabrielle asked softly.
The woman exhaled. “Ros.”
“Ros, you’re not going to believe me right now, and that’s okay.” The bard said. “I won’t lie to you and tell you I know how you feel about that, because it’s not true. I didn’t. “ Her hands were shaking, she noticed. “I loved my baby. I loved her with all my heart, and it broke my heart to lose her.”
Ros snorted softly.
“It might have been better if I felt like you did.”
The woman was surprised. She rolled over and looked at the bard, blinking as she saw the scattering of outside light catch in the tears on Gabrielle’s cheeks.
“But… here’s the part you won’t believe me on.” Gabrielle sniffled impatiently. “Someday, you’re going to really, really regret leaving her. Don’t do it.” She looked the woman in the eye. “Take it from someone who’s been there, and done that. She’s your daughter. Love her – she’s worth it.”
Gathering herself, Gabrielle got up and headed for the door. Iolaus followed her eagerly, butting her in the back with his head to push her along. She gained the cool, fresh air of the outdoors and turned in the direction of the cabin, glad no one was around to stop or challenge her.
She had no idea if the kid would listen. After a moment, she wondered if she would have. “Damn it, Gabrielle, let it go.” She spoke aloud. “Just let it go.”
Iolaus snorted, lifting his head and nickering as he spotted Argo near the cabin. As she watched, the door opened and Xena came out, their packs slung over one shoulder and Dori pattering ahead of her. The warrior looked out and caught her eyes immediately.
Gabrielle saw a lot of exhausted worry there. She set aside her thoughts and slowed as Dori ran towards her, arms outstretched and a big smile on her face. “Hey, munchkin – where are you going?”
“Mama!” Dori wrapped her arms around her mother’s knees. “We go find fishes now! Boo take us real fast!” She warbled. “Go gogogogogogogo!!!”
“That’s right, sweetie.” Gabrielle took her hand as she joined Xena next to Argo. “We need to go, and find a nice spot with lots of fishes and berries and good things, and have fun.” She rested her cheek against Xena’s upper arm. “Xe, we’re doing the right thing.”
“We’re doing it.” Xena’s voice was hoarser than it had been. “I don’t give a rats ass if it’s right or not.” She took Argo’s reins and took a deep breath before she bent down to lift Dori up and put her on the mare’s neck. “Hang on, shortie.”
Gabrielle walked along next to her as they took the path around the back of the cabin, leading out of the village through the trees instead of across the central square. She felt eyes at her back, but decided not to turn to look. It was quiet as they passed under the leaves, and the path took on a layer of leaves that muffled their footsteps.
Xena coughed, the harsh sound making Gabrielle wince in reflex memory. She put an arm around the warrior, and felt the weight as Xena returned the gesture, once again the warrior’s touch chasing the ghosts away. “Where are we going?” She murmured.
“I don’t know.” Xena answered honestly. “I…” She paused, fighting down another cough. “We need to find a safe place. Rest up.”
They passed into denser forest. As the trees closed around her, Gabrielle found herself relaxing, wanting the solitude more than she’d reckoned. She pressed closer against her partner, recognizing the sense of fragility she felt threaded through her thoughts.
She hadn’t felt like this in a very long time.
“Mm?” The warrior was plodding along, not bothering to hide the effort it took her.
“Think we can make it up the north slope there?”
Xena kept walking for a moment in silence. “Maybe. Why?”
“The cave we found up there.” The bard said. “With the scrolls. Remember?”
The warrior glanced up towards the side of the mountain. “Yeah.” She murmured. “I do remember. That damn place that caved in on me, and you almost got us trapped in.”
Gabrielle chuckled wearily. “Would that be a safe place?” She asked. “If I didn’t trip the traps again, I mean.”
Xena’s eyes searched the treeline, a hint of relief softening the gaunt lines of her profile. “Yeah.” She nodded. “If we can make it up there. Good… thought.”
“I get them once in a while.” Gabrielle smiled.
They continued in silence, saving their strength for a tough climb, with promised peace and safety at it’s end.