Dawn broke. The light filtered in through the painted wood shutters and threw gold and pink bars across the round bed. Xena watched them edge forward, her eyes shifting to Lestan’s face as he lay nestled in Wennid’s arms.
Against the odds, he was still with them.
Xena smiled faintly, and shifted her body, cramped from the long night’s watch. Gabrielle was curled up against her asleep, with Dori likewise in her arms, and she didn’t really want to move enough to wake them. She swiveled her head instead, and looked around the room. The atmosphere had lost it’s air of tense, waiting grief, and most of the waiting forest dwellers had dozed off. She could see furry bodies in the room beyond as well, and wondered briefly what this new day would bring them.
At least it wasn’t raining any more. Xena wiggled her nose, twitching a little at the pervasive scent of damp fur and damp wool from the previous day’s weather. She tucked her cloak a little more closely around Gabrielle, and moved a bit of her hair off her face. In her sleep, Gabrielle seemed to sense the touch – she nestled a little closer, and a smile twitched at the corner of her mouth. Xena smiled back, and wasn’t terribly surprised when the bard’s pale lashes flickered open.
First, the green eyes went to her face, reading it. Then they shifted to the bed.
“Same.” Xena murmured.
“Mm.” Gabrielle shifted and straightened. “That’s good, right?” She murmured back.
“Given what might have been? Yes.” Xena confirmed. She’d changed Lestan’s dressings twice more, most recently only a candlemark ago and each time there had been less foul matter to remove. It was touch and go, but she knew in her heart she’d given him the best chance she could. What happened next was up to him.
Gabrielle gave her a pat on the belly, and smiled at her. “I liked what you said to him last night.” She said. “I really did. I liked that you reminded him of how powerful wanting something can be.”
“I don’t know if it made a difference.”
The bard turned to look at the two forest dwellers, then back at her partner. “Do you really believe that?”
“Too soon to tell, my bard.” Xena brushed her lips across her partner’s head. “Think we’d better get ourselves a spot to change, and get Dori fed and taken care of.” She eased herself to her feet, and took hold of Gabrielle’s shoulders as she struggled to stand with Dori in her arms. “Getting too big for you.”
“Ugh.” Gabrielle cradled her daughter, who woke and peered up at her sleepily. “Hey there, Doriboo.” She rocked Dori as she followed Xena out of the room, stepping carefully around the sleeping forest dwellers.
They were met at the door by Cessi, and led outside. The elder soulbond gave them a tired smile, as she reached out to tweak Dori’s foot. “We have a home for you.” She told them. “I’ll take you there. It is quiet, this morning.”
“Thanks.” Gabrielle still felt tired, though she’d gotten some sleep. “I know it’s really tough right now, but I’ve got a good feeling about them.” She shifted Dori, who was rubbing her eyes with one small fist. “I really do.”
Cessi glanced behind them. “It’s in the gods hands.” She said. “But maybe they will be kinder to us, this time.” She put a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “Come. I think this little one’s hungry.”
“Can you really tell that?” Gabrielle asked curiously.
Cessi chuckled as she led the way down the steps. “Not really, no, not with your kind, but I remember when you stayed with us, Gabrielle, and…”
Xena snickered. “Good guess.” She arched her back, glad to be out in the slowly growing sunshine. “Like mama, like…oof.” Xena caught the hand that had just smacked her in the stomach. “Here, let me carry her.” She took Dori from Gabrielle’s arms and set her on her shoulders. “How’s that, better view, Dori?”
“Good!” Dori thumped her heels against Xena’s chest happily.
“What’s really going on, Cessi?” Gabrielle asked. “Tucker said you’d been attacked?”
The elder shook her head. “It’s a bad thing.” She sighed. “We thought things were getting better. After we won the battle with Secan.. after you beat him, Xena, things settled down in these parts. The tribes didn’t go to war that often, and when they did… well, it was more like testing.. sparring.. than anything else.”
“Jessan said that.” Gabrielle agreed. “It sounded good.”
“It was.” Cessi nodded. “That’s why some of us decided to come back here, after the big war.” She said. “The elders, like me.. .that valley was beautiful, but this is home.”
The bard’s lips tensed a little, into a partial smile. “I know what you mean.”
They crossed the battered central square. Gabrielle’s eyes took in the damage, narrowing a bit in a wince as she passed. “This is awful.”
Cessi followed her gaze. “Aye, but it can all be rebuilt.” She paused, and looked past the destruction, towards the newly dug pit. “The dead ones cannot be.” With a shake of her head, she beckoned them forward, down a small, leafy path that sloped downhill.
“Boo… whassat?” Dori pointed at something as they walked in pensive silence.
Xena lifted her head and peered into the leaves. “Bug.”
“No bug.” Xena edged further away from the colorful beetle.
Aware of the listening forest dweller, Xena considered her response. “It’ll bite you.”
“Yes, it will. It’ll bite you, and that hurts.” Xena insisted.
Gabrielle bit her lip to keep from laughing. Xena spoke Dori’s name like that, all deep and growly, exactly like she had once pronounced Gabrielle’s own, in not quite similar circumstances.
“She’s a cutie.” Cessi murmured.
“Who, Xena? Well, I think so.” Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled. “Dori’s not bad either.” She slowed up as they reached the small, round hut she remembered from her last visit. “Wow… feels like it’s been forever since we’ve been here.”
Cessi courteously held the door open for them. “Much water has traveled under the bridge since then, I think.” She said. “For all of us.”
Isn’t that the truth? Gabrielle entered and unslung the bag from her shoulder, letting it drop lightly on the floor. The hut had only two chambers, the front which held a comfortable padded couch and a small fire, and the back, which had one of the big round beds the forest dwellers used. It was decorated in cool colors, and as she had the last time, the bard felt both at home, and at peace in it.
“Rest.” Cessi told them. “I know the elders wish to council with you, Xena. We were fortunate in that Rufus has taken a hunting party out into the hills, and will not return for a few days.”
“Hunting party? With Lestan like that?” Gabrielle’s voice lifted in outrage.
“He is not as we are, little sister.” Cessi told her quietly. “And, in my heart, I believe seeing us as we are discomfits him.”
Xena snorted. She managed to encapsulate disgust, disdain, and condescension into the single sound. “All right, Dori, let’s get you changed.”
“You mean he’s like Secan was?” Gabrielle asked. “He doesn’t like the idea of soulbonds?”
Cessi perched on the corner of the thick, sturdy table near one window. “No, I don’t think it’s that. Secan… he just saw no use for it. He thought the bond weakened us. Rufus is different – he has great respect for the people, and our traditions, but he had a bad experience as a younger and it has made him not trust the bond, I think.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle folded her arms over her chest, listening with one half ear to the sounds of Xena getting their child settled. Dori’s querulous pouting had morphed to delighted laughter. “Tucker said he wanted to take over, though. Is that true?”
“It is.” Cessi said. “He was horrified that the raiders destroyed the village, and he thinks it’s his responsibility to make sure that never happens again. He lost a sister in the attack.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle exhaled. If it was one thing she’d learned the hard way over the years, it was that there was very seldom only one side to a story. “Is he that bad a choice then?” She asked. “Defending yourself is usually a pretty good idea.”
Cessi had to think about that for a minute.
Gabrielle lowered her voice, since her partner was in the other room. “When Xena first went home to Amphipolis a couple of years ago…” She paused. Had it really been that long? “Her home was in pretty bad shape. Things were down, food was short… Xena turned it around and made a difference. She taught the village to take care of itself.”
The elder soulbond scratched her jaw. “Rufus is very young.” She mused. “Xena brought, to her people, the experience of a lifetime and the wisdom to guide them that they respected.”
“True.” Gabrielle had to agree. “But she also had to overcome a very violent history with them.”
“What we fear.. “ Cessi went on. “Is that his judgement is clouded by youth, and by haste, and by grief.” She said. “He has no patience.” She got up off the table. “Perhaps in time, he would not be a bad choice, but… as I am what I am, and there are so many of us who are as we are – having one such who doesn’t share our trust in our bond I don’t know that I would like him to lead us.”
Gabrielle watched the older forest dweller leave. “Well.” She turned to find Xena seated on the couch, with Dori and a handful of trail bars. “Looks like…”
“Things are more complicated than we thought?” Xena inquired dryly. “I’m just as glad to defer messing with Rufus. Lestan comes first. If that kid comes back and starts making trouble, I’ll just kick his butt right out of here again.”
“Bap!” Dori clutched at a trail bar. “Boo, hungry!”
“Sorry, munchkin.” Xena unwrapped a bar and handed it to her.
Gabrielle walked over and sat down next to her partner on the couch. She patted it’s cover, well woven but worn by the years and smiled. “I’m glad we’re here.” She accepted the half bar Xena split with her and put an end in her mouth. “I really am.”
Xena rubbed a bit of blood stain off the back of her hand. “Me too.” She let her head rest against the back of the couch. “I can’t believe their healers didn’t do what I did last night, though. What the Hades were they thinking?”
“Here, honey.” Gabrielle took another bar and portioned it, giving part to Dori. “What do you mean, Xe?”
The warrior lifted her hands and let them fall to her thighs. “Gabrielle, I’m a good healer. I know it, you know it… but I didn’t do anything any healer wouldn’t have.. *shouldn’t* have.” Her voice was perplexed. “It was basic.”
Gabrielle frowned. “Okay.. maybe it wasn’t what you did, Xe. Maybe it was what you said. Maybe that was the difference.”
Xena spread one arm out along the back of the couch, her fingers idly playing with a bit of Gabrielle’s pale hair. “I don’t know.” She looked around the room, dismissing the quandary for the moment. “I’m just glad I’m the healer, not the healee this time.”
Gabrielle smiled. “So am I.” She freed a hand from Dori’s clutches to stroke Xena’s knee. “How’s that feeling? I thought the weather was getting to you a little yesterday.”
“No, it’s fine.” Xena replied absently.
The bard let her hand rest on the joint, feeling the very subtle motion under her fingertips as the warmth of her touch penetrated. “ You know what I’d like to do, once we get things settled here?”
“Visit the cave.” Xena said without hesitation.
“Tch. Can you read my mind?” Gabrielle asked. “Sometimes I think you can.”
Xena put a piece of trail bar into her mouth. She chewed and swallowed before she answered. “No. I just know you.” Her voice warmed. “Better than I know myself, sometimes.”
Gabrielle watched the sunlight pour in the windows, a rich golden splash that ended up coloring her russet boots a fiery red. Having someone know you better than you knew yourself was, she reckoned, the heart of what it meant to be soulbound.
Someone who was afraid of that – could they really govern those who weren’t? Gabrielle didn’t think so. She understood Cessi’s objection, but.. she also wanted to understand what was behind the young challenger’s fierce intent.
Did he think you couldn’t be strong, and also a soulmate? Gabrielle’s eyes fell on her partner, whose eyebrows were twitching up and down as she played a little game of pattycake with Dori. Guess they would have to find out.
Hopefully, Lestan and Wennid would be there to help.
Xena shut the woven door behind her and headed down the path, her hands twitching her cloak about her as she walked. Though the weather had cleared, it was growing cold, and under the leaves the chill was very evident.
After some breakfast, and a little playtime, Dori had been coaxed into a nap with her mother. Gabrielle had gotten very little sleep the night before, and though Xena could see her partner wanted to stick with her and make herself useful, her better sense won out.
Xena was glad of it. She’d tucked Gabrielle into the round bed with Dori, and set Ares on guard just in case. Then she’d changed her travel and bloodstained clothing and ventured off to see what she could find out.
She hadn’t gotten much sleep either, but after the strain of the long night, and the tasks she knew had to be accomplished, she knew falling asleep would have been difficult or impossible for her.
So here she was. Xena slowed her steps and started examining the damage. She flexed her shoulders idly, settling her armor over them and took a deep breath that strained against the well used brown leathers she’d put on.
Two forest dwellers were working on repairing the well cover, which had been smashed by the attack. Xena watched them for a moment, then walked over and picked up the end of the log they were attempting to shift back into place.
“Okay, okay.. wait.. hey!” The larger of the two turned, and spotted their unlikely helper. “Oh! Hey! It’s Xena!”
“That’s right.” Xena agreed amiably. “You wanna get a move on before this thing puts me a foot deep in the mud?” She lifted a booted foot up out of the squelching mire in demonstration.
“Oh! Sorry.” The forest dwellers picked up the other end and heaved it over the stone edifice, then let the end down. “Okay.”
Xena shoved the log into place, then dusted her hands off and examined the well. “They pull this down?”
“Yeah.” The big one sighed. “Fangless sons of hum..uh..”
Xena gave him a look. He shrugged sheepishly. “What’s your name?”
“You?” Xena looked at the smaller one, who had a soft golden fur that reminded her a little of Gabrielle’s thick hair.
They were young, Xena realized. Like the guards at the river. “Tell me about the ones who did this.” She hitched up her cloak and settled on the edge of the well, resting her hands on her knee.
The two of them exchanged looks. “We don’t know.” Breck mumbled, looking more than a little mortified. “We weren’t here. We were out hunting.”
Daris nodded. “All of us. All the guys our age, we were out with Rufus, up on the north slope.”
Xena’s dark head cocked to one side. “Oh yeah?” She mused. “He in charge of you?”
They exchanged looks again. “Not exactly.” Daris said. “But he likes to take us out and talk to us… teach us things. He’s a great hunter.” He explained. “So we were up there, and then we came down, in the morning, and we found…” His voice trailed out. “Rufus kinda lost it.”
“Mm.” Xena nodded. “If I’d been up hunting and come home to find Amphipolis like this, I’da lost it.” She said. “Because I’d have felt guilty for not being here.”
“Yeah.” Daris nodded. “Hey, Xena?”
“We heard in the hall that you… like, fixed Lestan. Is that true?”
“Not really.” Xena folded her arms. “I worked on him a good part of the night, but I think any chance he has is in his hands, not mine.”
“Wow.” Daris murmured. “They were pretty tanked last night. It was like a whole different village this morning.”
Xena got up. “Keep working. There’s a lot to do before this place gets back to where it was.” She eased around the well and sauntered off, looking for a new subject to pin her attention to. Mention of the dining hall gave her an idea, and she headed in that direction.
She passed more destruction. Most of it senseless, she decided. Not meant to achieve anything, but instead to destroy the everyday things the village needed in order to survive. She pushed the door open and stepped inside, out of the cold wind into a warm, bright atmosphere full of the scent of cooking.
Not far different from her mother’s inn, in fact, save this place was built to a bigger scale. Chairs were larger, the tables were higher.. the forest dweller’s village was one of the few places Xena had ever been in that made her feel smaller than her actual inches.
At over six feet, she was taller than most, and being a warrior as she was, she was bigger than most in Amphipolis. But the forest dwellers were on average a foot taller than she was, and twice her weight. Perversely, Xena actually enjoyed being among them because of it.
One of the cooks looked up as she entered, and almost dropped a spoon into a pot. “Xena!”
“Hello, Rese.” Xena greeted the older woman. She took the extended arm and gripped it. “Long time.”
“Too long, Chosen.” The cook agreed. “It’s good to see you here, no matter.” She glanced behind her at the other workers, who were gathering around curiously. They were all young, and not familiar to Xena. “All right, you lot. This is Xena.”
Xena found herself facing a lot of round, golden eyes. “Hi.”
“Xena’s a friend of ours.” Rese smiled. “An old friend.”
One dark eyebrow rose.
“She’s come here to help us. To help Lestan, and Wennid, and to protect us against the raiders.” Rese told them confidently.
The round golden eyes grew rounder. “But she’s human!” One of the young males blurted. He was hushed by one of his larger sisters. “Rufus says..” A hand was clapped over his mouth unceremoniously.
Xena crossed over to him and removed the hand. “Rufus says what?” She asked, in a low rasp, pinning his eyes with her own. “Something about me? That’d be tough. We’ve never met.”
The forest dweller swallowed, caught in her thrall.
Xena leaned a little closer, exerting her considerable charisma. “Make your own judgements. Don’t let someone make em for you.” She tapped his chest with two fingers, making him jerk backwards at the force. “Got me?”
His jaw worked a few times. “Yes, ma’am.” He stammered. “I.. um…”
Xena growled at him.
The youngster snapped his jaw shut with a click. His flat, fur covered nostrils flared out.
If he’d known Xena better, he’d have recognized the twinkle in those very blue eyes. “Still think I can’t protect you?” Xena drawled softly.
“No, ma’am.” He shook his head.
“Good.” Xena patted his cheek. She turned and faced Rese. “I see they missed this place.”
The head cook nodded. “Go on, you lot. Back to work.” She steered Xena towards a nearby table as the youngsters scattered. “We’re far enough back in the trees so that it wasn’t easy to get to, like some of the homes.” She sat down. “Can I get you some bread? You had a long night, I heard.”
“Sure.” Xena agreed.
Rese motioned to one of the kids, who quickly trotted over with a loaf of bread and a crock of something which smelled like it had honey in it. The cook broke the bread in half and handed one portion to Xena, taking the other for herself. She took a flat knife and spread some of the contents of the crock on the end of hers and took a bite. “Tucker said the bonded are convinced you have a god’s powers.”
Xena paused in mid munch, then swallowed her mouthful. “What?” She snorted. “I’ve got nothing of the kind. All I did was what any skilled healer would have – he did the rest, and whether it’s even going to help we don’t know.”
Rese shrugged. “As I said, the bonded are convinced. They are not easy to convince, and once they have made up their minds, it’s like moving the river with a wash basin to change it.”
Xena ripped off a piece of bread and toyed with it. “I remember.” She bit off a piece of the bread and chewed it. “Took them a long time to accept Gabrielle and I.”
“Yes.” Rese nodded. “The fighters… they always took to you. I remember hearing them talk of you even at the very first. But the others… that was hard.”
“Well.” Xena glanced up at the older woman, who had befriended her on her last visit. “It took me a long time to accept it, so I can’t really blame them.” She dusted her fingers off. “At any rate, I don’t’ want anyone thinking I’m something that I’m not.” She stood up. “So let me go correct that impression.”
Rese watched the tall human leave. She propped her chin up on her fist and shook her head.
“But Rese..” One of the youngsters sidled over. “If she healed Lestan, how can she say that?”
“Child.” The elder looked up. “Don’t try to figure that one out. I doubt her soulbond even has.”
“What are you doing, honey?" Gabrielle peered over the edge of the bed.
"Go find." Dori was crawling industriously around under it, picking up something.
Uh oh. "Whatcha got?" Gabrielle knelt down and rested her weight on her elbows. "Dori?"
"Gots rocks." Dori held one up for her inspection. "Good."
Rocks. Gabrielle sighed. Why her daughter couldn't have picked something easier to carry, such as, say, leaves, she didn't know. But she had a saddlebag full of the little buggers. "Okay, why are those good?"
Dori crawled over to her. "Pretty." She plunked the handful down. "See?
Gabrielle examined the pebbles, which looked more or less ordinary to her. "Oh, okay. I see."
Dori sat down spraddle legged, and picked one up. She held it out to her mother. "Dis one far." She explained. "Gots dirt."
Gabrielle sat down on the floor next to her and took the pebble. Part of it was, indeed, covered in brown earth. "Okay, so this came.. from far away... how do you know that, Dori?"
"No dirt." Dori slapped the floor with devastating logic.
Wow. Gabrielle blinked at the toddler. "You're pretty smart, you know that?"
Dori grinned at her. "Mama like?" She held out more rocks invitingly. "Go tell story?"
Gabrielle rose to the challenge. She pulled her boots under her and sat cross legged as she took one of the pebbles. "Okay." She studied it. "This is the little green rock."
"Wrock." Dori agreed.
"The little green rock lived in a little green pond with all his green brothers and sisters." The bard began. "His mama was green, and his papa was green, and everyone around him was green, too."
"Boo." Dori touched the rock. "Wrock gots Boo?"
Gabriellle considered her. "No, because not everyone is lucky enough to have a Boo, right? Only Dori has a Boo."
"Yes!" Dori giggled.
"Okay, so one day, the little green rock got up, and he rolled down the path, just like he did every morning."
"Rolllll....." Dori pushed the other rocks around.
"But this morning was different. This morning, when the little green rock rolled down the path, a scary thing happened!"
"The little green rock got stepped on by a big yellow horse!"'
"Horsie!!!" Dori hopped up and down."Mama, we go see Gogo now?"
"In a little while, honey." Gabrielle chuckled. "Anyway, the little green rock held on to the inside of the horsies's foot, and he was carried far, far away, all the way to the land of the forest people."
"Pipple? Mama, what's pipple?"
"All our friends here are people, honey." Gabrielle told her. "And when the little green rock got to the land of the forest dwellers, he found little rocks like he was, but none of them were green."
"Oh.!" Dori took the pebble and examined it. "Bad! Mama, rock no like!"
"You're right. He didn't like it because there were no little rocks like he was. If you were the little rock, what would you do, Dori? Would you play with the other rocks?"
Dori concentrated, a tiny furrow appearing in her brow as she studied the pebble. She tossed it back in the pile. "Yes."
"Yes? Why?" Gabrielle tweaked her foot.
Dori pointed at the rocks. "All same." She explained. "Good friends."
"Good girl." Gabrielle ruffled her hair affectionately. "That's exactly what the little green rock did. He made friends with all the other rocks, even though they weren't green." She smiled. "And they all went to live together under the bed."
"Good!" Dori clapped.
Gabrielle straightened, when the clapping was echoed from the door. She turned to find Cessi leaning on her cane there, a gentle smile on her face. "Oh, hi."
The elder entered, and walked over to where the bard and child were seated. "It's a shame more don't share your views, Gabrielle." Cessi said. "So many are so quick to make differences the important thing, rather than similarities."
"Ah." The bard gathered Dori into her arms and hugged her. "Well, when you've been where I've been, and done what i've done, you learn to look for what you have in common rather than anything else." She studied Cessi's face. "How's everything?"
"Holding steady." Cessi told her. "Xena's with him again now, so I thought I would take a break and go for a walk."
Gabrielle let out a breath and focused, thinking about her partner and opening herself up to the link between them. She felt no distress, and smiled in relief. "Great." She got up, and patted Dori on the back. "Time for us to go help out, sweetie. Want to help mama clean things?"
"Fun?" Dori asked.
"We can make it fun." Gabrielle told her.
"Uh oh." The toddler put a finger in her mouth and regarded her month. "Bck."
Cessi laughed. "Great Ares, she's a smart one." She reached out a furred hand and watched Dori grab for it. "But then, she has clever parents, so..."
Gabrielle reflected on how nice it was to have someone accept Dori's unusual heritage so naturally. The Amazons and their family all knew, but no one talked about it, and she'd walked into several conversations that cut off abruptly where she knew the subject had been raised. "Sometimes she says things or does things that are just so in Xena's image, I crack up."
Dori scowled, as though she knew she was being spoken about.
"Like that?" Cessi guessed.
"Yes." The bard agreed, laughing. "I just love how she's a part of both of us."
Cessi played with Dori's hand. "Her spirit as well. She shares Xena's fire, and also your great heart. What a wonderful legacy that will be for her." She said. "In fact, the bonded were asking if I would ask you to bring her in to our circle - it has been many a year since a child of the spirit was known to us."
"Sure." Gabrielle nodded. "Now?"
"Yes. We are gathered to speak about Lestan and Wennid, and it would be good for you to join us."
Gabrielle cocked her head, catching the omission. "What about Xena?"
Cessi hesitated. "We would speak with you first." She answered slowly. "There are some things we have heard... we would like to ask you about."
The bard's eyes narrowed. "There are things you might have heard that I won't answer questions on." She spoke quietly, but with force. "And that includes anything involving my partner."
Cessi held a hand up. "Be easy, little sister - we mean no insult to your soulbond. We are just curious."
"Okay." Gabrielle relaxed. "Just setting the record straight first." She put Dori down and took her hand. "Come on, Dori. Let's go find us some friends to talk to."
"Got Boo?" Dori looked up at her. "Got Boo, make friends."
Interesting statement. Gabrielle smiled at her. "We'll get Boo soon." She promised, giving Cessi a wry look. "Boo is what she calls Xena."
"I gathered." The forest dweller chuckled. "Follow me, little sister."
Gabrielle complied, stepping out of the cabin into the cool breeze and bright sunlight. Privately, she still wondered - things they had heard since her last visit could encompass a whole lot of ugly memories she had no intention of dragging back up out into the light. Especially in front of Dori.
Listen, Gabrielle. You're here, and she's here to save their butts at their request. Her better sense cut off the dark thoughts. Xena just possibly saved Lestan's life. They're not about to go pissing you off.
They approached the large, round chamber she remembered from her last visit. As they walked up the steps, she squared her shoulders and lifted her head, meeting the eyes waiting for them inside.
Xena straightened up, wiping her hands on a bit of bloody rag as she examined her handiwork. Lestan's wounds were no better, but on the other hand, they were also no worse. The steady sloughing of his fleash had stopped, and she hadn't had to cut away anymore dead skin around the horrific injuries.
But she'd been faced with the question of, what now? The man coudn't live as he was, she knew that. Half his chest was ripped open, and without skin to cover it, it was really only a matter of time before his body couldn't cope with the distruction anymore.
So, as she had with Ephiny, and as she had so often in her life and her experience as a healer, she improvised.
She'd taken soft, tightly woven cloth and infused it with herbs she knew fought the skin death. She'd sewn up the muscles around the bone left exposed, and then covered the huge wound with the moist fabric. Then she'd covered that with another layer of bandages.
Would it help? Xena honestly had no idea. But at this point, it couldn't hurt.
She sat back and looked at Wennid, who had gone to bathe herself and had returned. The forest dweller was sitting on the edge of the bed watching her quietly. "I can't do much more. "
"Should you?" Wennid asked.
Xena's eyebrows lifted.
"Is it just prolonging the pain, Xena?"
The warrior exhaled. "Maybe." She admitted. "But as long as he's fighting, I will."
Wennid shifted over and stroked her partner's face. "I wonder if he really realizes how badly he's injured." She shook her head in dismay. "Would he want to survive this?" Her eyes shifted to Xena. "Would you?"
Would I? Xena stared at the wreck of her old friend. He would be crippled, no question if he did live. Would she want to live like that? Amidst the pity of everyone around her?
"No." Xena finally said.
"But I would, for Gabrielle." The warrior continued, in a quiet voice.
The forest dweller looked at her for a long moment. "What if Gabrielle didn't want that. What if she knew it was time to let you go, for your sake?"
Xena half smiled. "Then it would be a fight the likes of which you can't imagine." She said. "Because we're both damn stubborn women."
"Because she couldn't go with you... for Dori's sake." Wennid said. "Am I right?"
Xena stared off into the distance. "I don't know if you are." She glanced up at the surprised woman. "Much as it hurts to say that, for Dori's sake."
"Hm." Wennid curled herself around Lestan's body. "You have both changed."
Xena nodded somberly, knowing it for the absolute truth.
It wasn't at all what she'd expected. Gabrielle sat on a pile of cushions, with Dori in her lap, mostly answering questions about her child, and events that had happened during the war. No one asked about before, no one mentioned anything about the dark times between her and Xena.
Frankly, she was a little curious about that. She knew the forest dwellers knew - Jessan had told her he'd talked about it with them. But it was as if that chapter of her life was closed and forgotten.
Which was okay by her.
"No, not from the very first, because actually I was trying to have a child, and we'd asked Toris, Xena's brother, to help us." She explained. "So, when I ended up pregnant, it wasn't really a shock, you know?"
"Of course." Cessi nodded. "Naturally... but..."
"But." Gabrielle nodded. "The timing was wrong, for one thing. I was about to start my cycles the night after we...um... tried."
"Ah!" One of the other bonded exclaimed. "Xena didn't realize? She's a healer!"
"Well.." Gabrielle smiled. "You know, I think she did. She started to say something about it, then just said the gods must have been watching out for me." She bounced Dori on her knee. "But as time went on, I started thinking about it more and more and by the time she was born, I was pretty sure. Right, Dori?"
"Mama?" Dori looked up at her. "C'n we go get Boo now?"
"Soon, honey." Gabrelle promised. "We'd like to see what we can do to help out" She told the forest dwellers. "So much was torn apart."
"Gabrielle... may I ask you something?" Cessi said.
"Sure." The bard smiled easily.
"Did you realize, before now, that Xena is of the gods?"
Zing. Gabrielle snapped her jaws shut before something really inane came out of them. She took a breath before she tried to answer. "We don't..." Know? The bard pursed her lips. "It's not something we talk about, a lot." She said. "Has it occured to us, sure. Xena does things that are sometimes just outside the bounds of what the rest of us can do."
"But she's human. Mortal. I can attest to that, and so can you." Gabrielle went on. "So - if she has a little gods blood in her, i'm grateful for it because it's brought her back to me more than once. But she's not a god, or even a demigod, and she'd be the first one to tell you that."
"That's for damn sure."
Gabrielle turned, as Xena entered the room and stalked over to her, facing the circle of soulbonds with a dour glare.
“Hi honey." Gabrielle murmured, giving the armored leg next to her a pat.
"Boo!" Dori scrambled up and attacked Xena's leg, climbing up it as though the warrior were a tree.
Xena glowered at them, reaching a hand to haul Dori up. "I don't want to hear any more of that kind of talk."
"How's Lestan?" Gabrielle attempted a distraction.
"If I were a god, he'd be walking in here after me." Xena told her. "I did what I could - probably just prolonging the inevitiable."
"Boo, mama made good story about rocks." Dori told her, tugging on the warrior's cloak clasp.
"She did, huh?" Xena glanced at her daughter. "Mama always makes good stories."
"Xena, we meant no insult to you." Cessi broke in. "We're just curious. We've never had a human be like we are, and ..."
"And you'd like god's blood to explain the two of us so it's not so painful to accept you're not the only ones?"
Everyone looked at Gabrielle, who was still seated on her cushions. The bard waited for the echo of her words to dissispate, before she spoke again. "Is that it?"
The forest dwellers all looked at each other, and then back at her. "Well..." Cessi hesitated. "Not exactly."
Xena raised an eyebrow at her. "C'mon, Gabrielle. There's actual work to be done around here." The warrior turned and walked out.
Gabrielle got to her feet and dusted her tunic off. "Like I said- she's a little touchy on the subject. " With a brief smile, she followed her partner out.
“I don’t think they meant…”
“Grr.” Xena growled.
“Honey.” Gabrielle chided her. “C’mon now.”
Xena stalked along in silence for a bit, then she shook her head, snorting slightly. “Sometimes I just don’t…” She stopped, frustrated. “It’s like the Amazons.”
Gabrielle blinked at the mental whiplash the statement caused. “Excuse me?”
“It’s like the Amazons.” Xena repeated, lifting her hands and letting them fall to her sides. “They think I’ve got this magic powder I mix with my breakfast ale that lets me fight the way I do. They refuse to believe it’s just a lot of damned hard work.”
“Mm.” It was an old argument with them. “Yeah… well, it’s easier for them to think that, because then they don’t have to face allllll the hard work they’d have to do to do the same thing. Y’know?”
“And then we come here. All I did was basic healing techniques that any damned battle healer worth the name would do.” Xena continued her complaint. “There’s no magic involved, damn it!”
“Easy, honeybear.” Gabrielle tucked her arm inside Xena’s. “You and I know the truth, and that’s all that really matters, isn’t it?”
Xena watched Dori scamper across the central space. “Yeah.” She exhaled. “I know. It just… “
Gabrielle leaned against her, just a little. “How’s Lestan?”
Xena appeared troubled, and she didn’t answer for a little bit. “About.. the same. Wennid asked me some pretty good questions, though.”
“About?” The bard encouraged her.
“About if he should be kept alive.” Xena admitted. “Given how badly he’s injured.”
Gabrielle almost stopped walking. Dori ran over to her, and held something up. She took it without thinking. “Thank you, swee… yow!” She released the lizard, who jumped free of her hand and scampered off. “Dori, that was bad.”
Innocent green eyes peered up at her. “Why bad, mama? Make nice!” The toddler turned and searched for her erstwhile pet.
Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other. “What d you mean?” Gabrielle asked, softly. “Does Wennid want him to die? Really?”
Xena sat down on a half overturned barrel, and patted the wood next to her. Gabrielle took the offered seat. “I think… she’s trying to think about how he would feel.. having to live if he does survive.” She mused. “I… understand her viewpoint.”
“Xena, that’s hogwash.” Gabrielle stated flatly. “He’s been living with a handicap most of his life. You know that arm’s never been much use.”
Dori pattered back over, this time offering her little friend to Xena. “Boo, take him.”
The warrior gently closed her hand over the animal, allowing it’s head to peek out between her thumb and forefinger. “What am I supposed to do with him, Dori?” She asked the child. “He doesn’t like being all cooped up like this.”
“Make play with him.” Dori instructed.
Xena opened her hand, and watched the lizard climb up onto her arm and bob up and down. “Dori, he’s not a toy.” She told her daughter. “I’m not going to play with him.”
Dori held on to her arm, watching the lizard. “No?” She queried. “H’come?”
“Because it’s not fun for him.” Xena explained seriously. “How would you like it if someone grabbed you and held you down?” She asked. “He doesn’t like it.”
Dori pointed at the lizard, which seemed to have settled down to sun itself on Xena’s forearm. “Gaza have fun, Boo! Like you.” She reasoned. “He come play with me?”
Gabrielle covered her mouth with one hand. After a moment, she cleared her throat. “Dori, Boo’s right. It’s not nice to play with animals who aren’t your pets.”
Dori pouted. “But mama, Gaza likes Boo! Gaza playing nice!”
The lizard had sprawled itself on Xena’s arm, apparently appreciating the warmth of her skin in the cool air. It put it’s head down and extended a lazy tongue.
“Honey, I know, but Boo isn’t playing with the lizard. She’s just letting it sleep on her.” Gabrielle told the toddler. “She’s not playing with him.”
Dori scowled at the animal.
“Did you see those rocks over there?” Gabrielle pointed. “I think there’s some red ones, Dori. You don’t have any red ones, do you?”
The child allowed herself to be distracted, since the lizard wasn’t providing much entertainment for her. She peered at the small, rounded pebbles and headed for them, attracted by the sunlight flashing off their surface. “Okay, mama, I go get rocks.”
Xena propped her elbow on her knee and rested her chin on her fist, dourly eyeing the now sleeping lizard.
“Okay, where were we?” Gabrielle ran her fingers through her hair. “Xena, living with a handicap isn’t something he’s not used to.” She reasoned. “Does she really think he’d rather die?”
“I don’t know.” Xena answered honestly. “She knows him better than we do, Gabrielle. She’s his soulmate. Do you think you could make that choice for me?”
The question shocked her. Gabrielle fully admitted that. It made her breath catch in her chest, and sent an unpleasant chill through her, causing her fingers to twitch involuntarily. “Whoa.” She murmured, taking a deep breath. “I didn’t expect that.”
Xena waited. She knew Gabrielle well enough to give her time to consider an answer, watching her partner’s brow furrow in thought. The wind had picked up again, and it seemed to be getting colder. She looked around the central space, noting the small groups of workers dragging broken wood off and realized how much of the village would have to be rebuilt to stand the coming winter.
“You know, we talked about that.” Gabrielle spoke up unexpectedly. “When Jess told me about spirit children to start with. About that forest dweller who gave his partner a child, when he was paralyzed and I remember… I remember thinking about how horrible that would be.”
“It’s a tough choice.” Xena nodded.
“No.” The bard shook her head. “I mean, how horrible that would be for you.” She said. “I thought…” Gabrielle stopped speaking, as her throat closed, and she had to take a breath. “I thought about how you’d hate it.”
“I would.” The warrior agreed.
They were both silent for a while. “What would you want, Xena?” Gabrielle turned and asked her, in a quiet voice. “If you could choose, what would you choose to do, for yourself?”
“For myself?” Xena watched Dori plop herself down in the rocks and begin to sort through them with childish glee. “For myself, I wouldn’t want to live helpless. Dependent like that.” She said. “I’d die by inches.” She added. “Wennid asked me that.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle rested her chin on her clasped hands. “Yeah, I knew that already.” She looked at Xena. “Is that what you told Wennid.”
“Mm.” The bard murmured deep in her throat again.
“But I also told her I’d do it for you.” The warrior remarked, in an ordinary voice.
Gabrielle turned and stared at her.
“What?” Xena said. “Oh, c’mon, Gabrielle. Don’t act like that shocks you. Give me a break.” She smiled to soften the words. “I became an Amazon for you, remember?”
“Well, no, I…” The bard sat up and smoothed a hand over her tunic, fingering the fabric as she collected herself. Then she sighed. “No, I guess it doesn’t surprise me, but… “ She stopped again. “I just realized how hard it would be to reconcile what I wanted.. and what’s right, if…”
“So.” Xena leaned against her. “You can see Wennid’s predicament, huh?”
Gabrielle’s shoulders relaxed slightly. “Yeah.” She sighed. “But Xena, it’s not the same thing. That forest dweller was completely helpless. If Lestan survives, will he be?”
Xena considered that. “Well, no.” She admitted. “It would be a very long recovery, but.. .no.” She said.
“So, it still falls into being tough, but not impossible.” Gabrielle said. “I mean, no one likes to have to ask for help, Xena. Even I don’t. Even when I was pregnant, I didn’t want to have to ask anyone to do anything for me.”
“Really? I hadn’t noticed.” The warrior drawled.
“And look who’s talking, Ms. Warrior Princess of ‘it’s just a scratches’” Gabrielle shot back. “You don’t either. But you could learn to cope with what he’s got, couldn’t you?”
“Hmmm…. My ego would take a beating, but yes.” Xena smiled wryly in self knowledge. “It would take a lot more than that to make me want to give up my life.. our life.”
“So we’re back to the question of, why did Wennid ask you that?” Gabrielle said. “Is there something else behind it? Maybe I should talk to her.” She watched as Dori ambled back their way, her hands full of colorful rocks. “Ah. I asked for that, didn’t I?”
“More ballast.” Xena plucked the lizard from her arm and set it on the wood, in the sun. “C’mon. Let’s see if we can find Dori some friends to play with, and start getting this place in order. I’m wondering if that random attack was so random.”
Gabrielle picked Dori up and cradled her, following Xena’s tall form as she made her way towards the nursery.
It was dark, long dark, by the time they finished working. The air had turned cold, frosting Gabrielle’s breath as she stood near the ruined stables, her hand resting on one of the newly dug posts. They had made good progress, though, and she was glad to see the forest dweller’s spirits rising as they worked to put their home back into order.
All the burned wood had been taken off, and the buildings in the center of the village propped up, freshly cut timber laying beside them for tomorrow’s tasks. The water troughs had been righted, and things were looking pretty good to Gabrielle’s eyes. She felt pleased with the progress, and thought Xena had been pleased as well.
A whiff of something cooking from the dining hall caught her attention. Time to end her days’ work, and rejoin her family, she reckoned, since Xena had disappeared shortly before her to go retrieve Dori and hopefully their dinner.
Gabrielle wiped the back of her hand across her muddy forehead as she trudged across the village, her shoulders aching from her long day’s tasks. She heard gentle voices coming from Lestan and Wennid’s as she passed, and she paused to listen, then changed direction and headed up the low steps.
Inside, she found four of the soulbonded, seated with Wennid at the round table in the outer chamber. They looked up as she entered and paused, their eyes going a little wider.
For a moment, Gabrielle was puzzled, then she remembered her session that morning. “Hi.” She gave them a reassuring smile. “How is everything?”
Wennid recovered first. “Gabrielle, great stars. You’re covered in mud!” She exclaimed. “For a minute I didn’t recognized you!”
Gabrielle looked down at herself. “Ah. “ Ew. She was covered in more than mud. The soot from the burned out wood had smeared all over her, and she had to admit that she looked more like a bog monster than a bard at the moment. “Yeah, it’s been a day.”
“You two.” Wennid sighed. “Lestan woke for a little while. He asked what you were doing. I’m glad I didn’t know better than to tell him you were planning.”
The bard’s eyebrows lifted invisibly. “He spoke?”
The forest dweller nodded. “Yes, little sister. He did.”
“Wennid, we’ll see to dinner.” One of the soulbonded sitting with her stood hastily, and the other’s followed. “Will you join us, Gabrielle?”
“Oh, no….” The bard indicated her length. “I think a bath is calling my name, and I haven’t seen Xena since she carried off an old manure bin. But thanks.”
The other soulbonded scurried off, leaving her and Wennid alone.
“Sit down, Gabrielle.” Wennid picked up a pitcher, and poured a cupful of the strong ale of the village. She pushed the cup across the table and exhaled. “I think you gave my brothers and sisters a bit of a fur tug this day.”
“Well.” Gabrielle sat down and lifted the cup, sipping carefully at it. “They tugged my fur… or more accurately, Xena’s first. Neither of us appreciated it.”
“Mm.” Wennid sipped at her own cup. She had dressed in a set of the forest dwellers usual tunics and trousers, with an apron tied over her and in sharp contrast to the first time Gabrielle had seen her, seemed rested, though still painfully tense. “I doubt they meant harm.”
”Probably not.” Gabrielle agreed. “But Xena’s really… “
“Sensitive?” Wennid’s lips twitched a bit. “Hard to fathom.”
Green eyes met hers steadily. “She doesn’t like her achievements cheapened.”
Wennid got up, walked to the inner room and studied her injured soulmate for a long moment. Then she turned and leaned against the door. “Is that how she sees it?” The golden haired forest dweller mused. “Most would be honored to claim the blood of the gods. That’s how we view it.”
Gabrielle propped her chin against her mud encrusted fist. “We know the gods.” She said, with a mild, droll grin. “It’s a different perspective. Xena works hard for her skills, and she doesn’t like when people think she’s got some kind of magic.” A pause. “Even though she does.”
Wennid looked surprised. “You say so?”
“Wennid, she fathered my child.” Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled solemnly. “And she came back from Tartarus to live at my side. I’d be an idiot if I didn’t’ know there was something just a little special about my partner.”
“Then I don’t understand.” Wennid crossed back over to her, sitting on her chair and clasping her hands around her cup. “Why get upset when we believe it too? Gabrielle, you’re not making any sense!”
No, well, maybe she wasn’t. Gabrielle sipped the ale thoughtfully as she tried to order her thoughts. “I think it’s because… most of the things she does, she works very hard at. Fighting. Healing… when she works like we did today she hurts, I’ve spent more time than I can tell you easing those muscles.” The bard paused thoughtfully. “She’s mortal. She feels the cold more every year. She’s human like I am… it’s just that when she puts her mind to it, she’s just a little bit more.”
“Mm.” Wennid watched her. “You love her.”
Gabrielle’s brows knit together. “Yes. Of course.”
Wennid played with her cup. “I know that seems odd I should say that.” She said. “But sometimes, Gabrielle, the bonded have to grow into love. It’s not a given.”
The bard blinked at her, truly surprised. “But….”
“Mm.” Wennid went back to the doorway, and stood, watching the bed. Gabrielle got up and joined her. “But it was not that way with you, I’m thinking.”
“No.” Gabrielle observed the still figure on the bed. Lestan’s chest rose and fell regularly, and to her eyes, the breaths seemed deeper than they had been. “I loved her from the moment I saw her.”
They stood together in silence for a few minutes. Finally Wennid sighed. “It was so for me, as well.” She admitted. “It is because I feel this way that I waver, sometimes, and wonder if it good, or bad, to continue this struggle.”
Gabrielle looked up at her.
“So much pain.” Wennid shook her head.
“I understand.” The bard murmured. “It’s always a hard thing to watch, someone you love hurting so badly.” She said. “Someone once asked Xena what it felt like, to die. She said.. it’s like going to sleep when you’re very, very tired and when that happened, she was. She thought it would be for the best.. for the world because of her past, and for me.”
Wennid stared at her.
Even after all this time, Gabrielle had to pause, to let the lump pass in her throat. “I could believe that. She was in so much pain.” She exhaled slowly. “Wanting her to stay, to suffer that, seems selfish, doesn’t it?”
“Yes.” Wennid whispered. “You do understand.”
“I do.” The bard agreed. “But I also understand that someone needing you that much…is in a lot of ways it’s own reward. It’s own justification for life.”
The sound of the other forest dwellers returning made them both turn, and made Gabrielle smile as the tallest of them peeked timidly around the corner of the door. “I think you’re dinner’s here, and mine’s probably waiting for me.” The bard said, in a normal tone.
“After a bath?” Wennid also smiled.
“Ah. Yeah.” Gabrielle winced, feeling the mud dried on her face. “Definitely.”
“Rest well, Gabrielle. We’ll talk again.” Wennid patted her gently on the shoulder. “You have given me, as you always do, much to consider.”
Gabrielle nodded, and edged around the entering forest dwellers, into the crisp chill of the night air. She walked down the steps and across the hard ground, glad of the torches placed near the paths to guide her way.
As she found the one that lead to their little home, a smile appeared on her face as the faint sound of singing drew her closer. She pushed the door to their cabin open and poked her head around it, spotting her partner and her daughter across the room. “Hey, you two.”
Xena’s voice cut off, and she turned her head. “Well well. Look what just came in, Dori. Is that mama?”
Dori splashed in her bath. “Mama! You dirty!”
“Thanks, honey. I love you too.” Gabrielle entered and closed the door behind her, rubbing her arms a little. “Getting chilly out there. I forgot how much colder it is up here in the mountains.” She walked over to Xena, who was dressed in a rough linen tunic, easily as wet as their daughter was from all the splashing. “Which one of you is taking the bath?”
“You’re next.” Xena warned, tweaking her nose.
The warrior seemed to be in a very good humor, Gabrielle noted. They traded off caring for Dori, but Xena enjoyed giving the child her evening’s bath and playing with her before they had dinner, and the bard suspected that in conjunction to the progress of the day had put her partner in a good mood. “Yes, I know. Everyone’s told me I need one.”
“Well..” Xena chuckled wryly. “Your hair’s as dark as mine at the moment.”
Yikes. Gabrielle ambled over to the mirror and took a look. “Oh.. yeesh!” She almost burst out laughing, faced with the image in it. “No wonder everyone was staring at me.” She glanced around, spotting bowls and a large jug already on the table, along with a trencher supporting a loaf of bread. “I’m going to rinse off before I start scaring myself, Xe.”
“I’ll join ya in a minute.”
Gabrielle left the giggling Dori and her tall playmate behind and slipped into the clever showering room the forest dwellers used in all their dwellings. She stripped out of her clothing, suspecting they would stand up without her in them, and grabbed a bit of their soap that Xena had left out. She got under the water basin and pulled the rope, exhaling in relief as warm water cascaded over her. “Hey, Xe?” She yelled out.
“Wennid said Lestan woke up for a bit today.”
“I know.” Xena’s voice was suddenly much closer. Gabrielle turned to find the warrior at her back, her bare body dusky in the low light as she joined the bard under the water. “I stopped by there before I picked up Dori. Didn’t look too bad.”
Gabrielle allowed the soap to be taken from her. “Mm.” She closed her eyes as Xena’s arms slid around her, and the scent of soap rose from the warrior’s scrubbing. “Long day.”
“Uh huh.” Xena nibbled her ear. “Not a bad one, though. We got a lot done.”
Gabrielle leaned back against her. “I know. I feel like it.” She confessed. “Do they have to make everything in this place out of dense hardwood and rock?”
Xena chuckled, moving her hands over Gabrielle’s body and removing the layers of mud from it. “Did you get a chance to talk to Wennid?” She asked softly, rubbing the soap over the strong muscles on the either side of her partner’s neck.
“A little.” Gabrielle turned and slid her arms around Xena, now that the front of her was nice and clean. “What’s for dinner?”
“You.” Xena kissed her. “But I guess we can have that pot of venison stew for an appetizer.”
Gabrielle returned the kiss, her hands sliding up and gently cupping Xena’s breasts. “Dori would probably appreciate that.” She leaned her head forward as Xena’s fingers scrubbed her scalp. “Uerrgh.”
“Did you take a mud bath or something?” Xena laughed. “Haven’t seen you this color since you had to be me that one time.”
Gabrielle shook her head as it was rinsed, sending a spray of water everywhere. “Better?”
The warrior regarded her once again blond soulmate. “Much.” She captured her face in both hands, and they stood under the drizzle, kissing for a very long moment.
“Ahh..” Gabrielle let a breath out as they parted. “Can I hold that spot till after dinner?”
“Sure.” Xena nibbled the tip of her nose. “But only if you eat fast.”
The bard giggled and buried her face into Xena’s chest. Xena wrapped both arms around her and squeezed her, joining her in laughter.
“So.” Gabrielle ripped a chunk of the bread off and set it on her plate. “Do we have a plan here, or are you just playing it by ear?”
They were seated at the small, round table, having divided the stew into their plates. Dori was investigating a likely chunk of venison clutched in one fist, while Ares waited hopefully beneath her chair. Xena had lit a neat fire in the central firepit, making the cabin warm and cozy.
They could have eaten in the large dining hall, Gabrielle mused, but Xena had not even suggested it – preferring to spend her mealtime in just the company of her family.
Being on the road, maybe, triggered that. At home they’d usually gone to the inn, but she found she liked the intimacy of it just being the three of them at the end of the day and Gabrielle suspected they’d be doing more of that once they got back to Amphipolis.
“Depends.” Xena answered, after consuming a few mouthfuls of her stew. “Get the place rebuilt first, yeah, but after that.. a lot’ll depend on Lestan, and what else happens.”
Gabrielle gazed across the table at her partner, who had her head propped up on one fist. Despite the long day, and the lack of sleep the night prior, Xena didn’t appear to be tired. She was, the bard admitted, having only had a short nap, but it was good to see a return to that overabundant energy that she’d always seen in Xena. It had gone missing, for a while. “Hey.”
Xena glanced up from her plate, straightening and pouring herself another cup of the forest dweller’s strong ale. “Hm?”
“I love you.”
“Wuv you.” Dori repeated, with a giggle. “Mama wuvs Boo.” She took a chunk of bread Gabrielle had placed by her plate and threw it into her stew, patting it vigorously.
Xena looked from one to the other. “Thanks.” She smiled, her eyes twinkling. “I love you both too.” Then her eyes fastened on Gabrielle’s face. “What brought that up?”
“Nothing.” Gabrielle shrugged lightly. “I just like saying it. I can remember times when I really wanted to, and didn’t, so now whenever it pops into my head, I do.”
“Ah.” Xena leaned back, sipping her ale. “I remember the first time I said those words.” She mused. “You weren’t there. Wasted effort.”
Gabrielle cocked her head to one side. “Eh?”
A wry look appeared on the warrior’s face. “Night you and Perdicus got married.” She said. “Me out at my campfire, kicking myself for being so pigheaded stubborn and not talking to you.”
It was a bittersweet pang. Gabrielle sighed. “You know, I remember waking up the next morning and going outside, seeing Potadeia in front of me.” She remembered. “I started to cry. I didn’t even know why, then, but I did.” She said. “Perdicus came out and asked me what the matter was… I think I told him I was just…” She paused. “You know, I don’t even remember what I told him. He must have thought I was a little nutty.”
“Mmph.” Xena nodded. “I went out and kicked a rabbit.”
Gabrielle sat up and looked at her in surprise.
“Wasn’t one of my better moments.” The warrior admitted. “Then I decided to go back to Potadeia, to tell you.”
Another nod. “That I loved you. That I’d never forget you. “ Xena said, in a mild voice. “And goodbye.”
Gabrielle gazed at her for a very long moment in silence. “You do realize.” She finally said. “You’d never have gotten out of Potadeia alone after that.”
Xena’s pale blue eyes took on a hint of darkling edge. “Maybe that’s what I was hoping for.”
Wow. Gabrielle sat back and imagined it. It was stark, and honest, and more than a little brutal. Like Xena herself. How unfair to Perdicus it would have been. How unfair to her… for her, to have that choice put in her hands at just that moment.
“Mama… c’n I have dat?”
Gabrielle looked. The child’s finger was pointed at her bread, imperiously. “You haven’t eaten yours yet, Dori.” She observed, seeing the mess of stew soaked crust in the plate. “How about you finish yours, then you can have mine. Okay?”
“Don’t want.” Dori pushed away the plate. “Too icky.” She turned her attention to Xena. “Boo, gimme.”
“Aren’t we being demanding tonight.” Xena tore a piece of her bread off and handed it over. “Bandit baby.”
“She knows what she wants.” Gabrielle rested her chin on her fists, and regarded her soulmate affectionately. “Just like you.”
Xena chuckled softly. “It would have been a damn bastardly thing for me to do, Gabrielle, and we both know it.” She held out a finger for Dori to clutch.
The bard nodded slightly. “If you had to go back to that same moment and make the decision again, to come back to Potadeia, would it be the same?”
“Yup.” Xena replied instantly. She watched Dori climb up on the table and crawl over to her, plopping down into her lap with a contented grunt.
“Good, because if you’d said no, I was going to have to get down and dirty with you.” Gabrielle chuckled, then sighed. “I look back on that and all I can do is shake my head. I wish things had gone differently.” She said. “But you know, sometimes things just have to happen, I guess.”
“Mm.” Xena agreed.
“Boobooboo… “ Dori had found a button to play with. “Gots two new good play t’day.”
One of Xena’s eyebrows lifted. “Yeah?” She looked over at Gabrielle. “Two out of six ain’t bad, I guess. That’s how many furballs are in the nursery.” She informed the bard. “Dori was a novelty for them, wherentcha Dor?”
“Had fun.” Dori mouthed the button. “We play go get, Boo. I tell… I tell we go fly.”
“No go. Too scaredy.”
“Uh oh.” Gabrielle chuckled wryly. “I don’t think I like the sound of that. What were they too scared to do, honey?”
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. “Don’t look at me.” The warrior held a hand up. “I haven’t taught her that.” She paused. “Yet.”
“What do you mean go fly, Dori?” Gabrielle leaned on the table. “I thought you needed Boo to do that.”
Dori crawled over to the table and got up onto it, toddling unsteadily across it’s surface towards her mother. “Go fly.” She announced, then threw herself forward, jumping up and outward to land in the very startled Gabrielle’s quickly outstretched arms.
“Hey!” The bard yelped. “Dori! Don’t do that! If I didn’t catch you, you’d get real owie!”
Dori put her arms around her mother’s neck and gave her a kiss. “Mama good catch.”
“Well, I always thought so.” Xena drawled, lacing her fingers together and resting her thumbs against her nose. Her blue eyes peeked out from behind them. “But mama’s right, Dori. That’s a bad thing to do.”
“Bad?” Dori put her finger in her mouth, one arm still wrapped around Gabrielle’s neck. She gave Xena a plaintive look. “Like to fly.”
“I know you do, sweetie.” Gabrielle bounced her a little. “But you don’t like getting hurt, do you? Go owie?” She smoothed the child’s hair back, then pulled Dori’s head forward and kissed it. “I don’t like when you get owie, y’know.”
Xena watched them, a smile playing over her lips. Gabrielle’s face, caught in the light from the table candle seemed lit from within as well. The bard smiled at their daughter and the glow increased, an almost physical manifestation of the love so evident in her partner’s voice and eyes.
Ah well. Xena stretched her legs out and relaxed. The tense irritation she’d felt earlier that day had eased, and she’d used the hard physical work to relieve her aggravation with the forest dwellers assumptions. By the time she’d picked Dori up from the nursery, after checking on Lestan and finding him holding his own – she’d discovered a good mood to be in.
Add that to a decent dinner, and time with her family… Xena felt an almost absurd contentment. Life didn’t get much better than this, did it? She picked up Dori’s discarded dish and set it on the floor. “There ya go, boy.”
Ares scuttled forward and licked his chops appreciatively. “Roo.”
“Mama!” Dori pointed at Xena, scandalized. “Boo get mine! No give Guff!”
“Ah ah” Gabrielle tweaked her nose. “You said you didn’t want it, remember?”
Dori pouted, then decided it was all right after all. “Otay.” She nestled down against Gabrielle. “Mmm… mama.” A big yawn interrupted her warbling.
“Are you ready to go to bed, Doriboo?” Gabrielle rocked her daughter, hugging her gently. “It’s been a long day, huh?” She almost stifled a yawn herself. “See what you started? You little bandit baby.” She got up, carrying Dori with her, and walked over to the toddler’s folding crib. “Let’s tuck you in.”
Xena got up and collected the dishes, including the now spotless one at her feet, and stacked them together for cleaning. She poured herself another cup of ale and took it with her to the couch near the firepit, settling down in it and waiting for Gabrielle to finish her task.
And she did, after she tucked the toddler into her bed, putting her stuffed toy dragon in there with her. Gabrielle retrieved her own cup from the table and joined her partner on the couch, curling up against her and letting out a long sigh. “Xena.”
“That would be me.” The warrior agreed, shifting and putting an arm around her. She glanced at the bard’s profile, seeing the pensive look written across it. “Dinar for your thoughts.”
“Just something Wennid and I talked about.” Gabrielle admitted. “About whether.. expecting someone to.. sacrifice so much.. .like what Lestan is.. whether or not that’s really fair.” She sipped her ale. “Or is it just selfish? To want someone to live just because it hurts you for them to die?”
Xena stared into the fire, it’s flickering light reflecting off her pale eyes. “Well.” She finally said. “Speaking as someone who has died… your wanting me back never seemed selfish to me.”
No. Gabrielle felt a touch foolish. I suppose it wouldn’t have. “I think it’s kind of a natural feeling.” She concluded. “To not want to let go.”
They both pensively regarded the fire, as a somber silence settled over the room.
Xena cleared her throat. “Can we stop being so morbid? It’s giving me an itch.” She told the bard. “Personally, I’d be damn disappointed if you didn’t want to fight tooth and nail to keep me on this side of Hades. I know I’d be kicking some asses to keep you that way.”
Gabrielle got the hint, and managed a chuckle. “So true.” She lifted her cup and touched Xena’s. “Okay, let’s talk about… “
“Let’s not talk.” Xena kissed her instead.
“Mm.” Gabrielle surrendered to superior strategy. She set her cup down and responded, gently cupping Xena’s face in her hands and letting the emotions running through her shift to the intense love between them.
It really was what mattered, anyway. You couldn’t control the future, so living every moment, she’d learned, was the way to fill your life to bursting.
Xena slowed her steps as she powered up the path towards the village, her body covered in sweat despite the chill air. The sun hadn’t risen yet, and she crossed an empty, quiet forest filled with twilight and shadows. Dori was in her backpack, busily drumming her toes against Xena’s back and tugging on her hair. “How was that, Dor?”
“Boo, like to fly.” Dori burbled. “C’n we go up again? One more?”
“Sure.” Xena angled up the path, stretching her strides out again and leaping upward just as she reached the top of the slope, rotating in mid air in a double flip that she landed neatly on both feet, much to Dori’s delight. “Okay, let’s go wake up mama.” She paused at the top of the hill, gazing down into the forest dweller’s valley now shrouded in fog. They’d been out for a candlemark, and with the steep slopes, she’d really put her body through a kind of workout she hadn’t really bothered with while they were traveling on the road.
After all, they were walking all day, and often sparred at night together, by the campfire under the stars when she was sure the sound of their staves crossing scared small animals for leagues. But being in a village seemed to trigger her need for this kind of exertion and so when Dori had woken early, and she’d done likewise, it had seemed the natural thing to do.
“Boo, goberries.” Dori had spotted a favorite treat.
Xena turned her head, and spotted the blueberries nearby. She ducked through the underbrush and paused, looking around with her hands on her hips. “Well well. I didn’t bring my carry bag, Dori. What are we gonna do?”
“Get.” Dori was attempting to snatch some of the berries, her arms just a tad too short to do so.
The warrior broke off a few bunches, and handed them to the toddler while she searched in the nearby foliage for something to carry the little suckers back in. Both she and Gabrielle were fond of them, and Gabrielle had figured out a way to make a road cake with dough, the berries, honey, ginger and cinnamon that Xena literally pledged to kill for.
“Mmmm.” Dori threw a couple leaves over Xena’s shoulder. “Boo, good goberries.”
“I bet.” Xena found what she was looking for, and chortled softly. She took out her knife and removed a section of soft, flexible bark from a nearby tree, folding it into a basket and tucking it’s ends in with quick slits of the blade. Then she set about some serious berry collecting. After she’d gotten her makeshift basket full, she turned and made her way back to the path. A berry found it’s way into her mouth as she started down, it’s sweet taste putting a grin on her face.
Halfway down, something triggered her senses, and she slowed a little, cocking her ears and focusing on the surrounding forest.
Xena lifted her hand over her shoulder and made a signal. The toddler fell silent at once, and she felt her huddle close to the back of her neck. “Good girl.” Xena murmured, easing to a halt and letting the stillness around her settle over them. Wisps of fog drifted past her boots, and she felt moisture condensing on her skin as she stood still. Slowly, her head turned to the east and she drilled down, filtering out the leaves whispering against each other and a few, falling ones hitting the ground. She filtered out the sounds, far off and subtle of the village and of her own and Dori’s breathing.
The soft rasp of fur against bark came clearly to her ears. Then skin, the scraping sound sharp, and the scuff of weathered soles against the moss covered ground. Her eyes shifted to the right slightly and held, focusing between two trees with an empty space between them.
And then, in less than a blink of her eyes, the spot was filled with a large, russet colored forest dweller, one she’d never seen before. He saw her and stood still, staring at her as she was staring at him. He was taller than most other of his kind that she’d seen, and thickly built, and his rugged shorts and overtunic were mottle shades of the forest around him rather than the usual colors.
He had a longsword strapped across his back, but he left it sheathed as he started forward towards her. Xena merely stood her ground and waited, holding her basket of berries in one hand, and leaving the other open and resting lightly against her thigh.
The stranger stopped several paces from her and cocked his head. He had unusual colored eyes, an almost green shot through with amber and his muzzle twitched as he regarded her in what in a human might be the start of a sneer. “So. You must be Xena.”
Xena didn’t answer right away. She flared her nostrils slightly, and let the corners of her mouth twitch upward. “Hello, Rufus.” She replied. “Interesting place to hunt. Get anything?”
His head cocked to one side, and his ears swiveled a little. “Quite a prize catch, from my view. I didn’t expect to find you out here.” He indicated the forest. “I had heard you came to the village.”
“When a friend calls, I usually try to show up.” The warrior said. “I’m sorry about what happened.”
Rufus relaxed a trifle. “You know, it’s funny. I’ve heard so much about you, I’ve built up an image in my mind that you’re making a total scrap of.” He said. “I’m sorry about what happened as well. I intend to make sure it never happens again.” He added. “Whatever it takes to do that.” His eyes shifted slightly to the right. “Ah.”
Xena turned her head slightly, finding Dori peering over her shoulder at the newcomer. “My daughter, Doriana. Dori, say hello to Rufus.”
“Hi.” Dori obliged, one hand keeping a tight hold on Xena’s collar.
“Hello.” The forest dweller said, then shifted his eyes back to Xena. “Well, it’s been nice meeting you at last, Xena. But my men are waiting for me. Perhaps we can talk another time.” He tilted his head, then backed off, his motions smooth and liquid until he blended into the forest and was gone.
Xena tracked his progress effortlessly, however, turning her head as though she could still see him as he traveled up the ridge, and towards the west. He finally passed out of her sense range, and she exhaled, turning and starting back down the path with a thoughtful look on her face.
“Issat bads mens?”
Dori definitely had a knack for pegging skunks, Xena had to smile. “He might be, munchkin. I don’t know yet.” She passed into the fog, it’s soft, wet touch reaching up her legs to her waist as she reached the valley and crossed into the village proper. Here, the light was still the grayness of predawn and she reveled in the quiet that gave her a chance to think as she headed for their cabin.
Was Rufus bad, or just needing to protect his people? Xena was the last person in this end of Greece to start putting labels on people based on someone elses perceptions. As she’d told Dori, she’d just have to wait and see what his actions proved out to be. There had been, she knew, a definite veiled threat in his words, as though he was warning her not to stand in his way.
Xena smiled to herself as she jumped up the steps to the cabin and strode across the deck. “What would make anyone think I’d stand in their way, Dori? Hm?” She opened the door and peeked inside, glad to see her partner still curled up asleep in the bed. “Little old harmless me.”
Dori giggled. “Go go boo.”
The warrior went inside the cabin and closed the door behind her, crossing to the bed and gazing down at it’s occupant with quiet affection.
A green eye opened and pinned her. “What’dja find?” Gabrielle drawled softly.
“Berries.” Xena held them up.
“That almost had me scooting out in the dark in my nightshirt?” The bard asked, with a knowing grin as she uncurled herself and stretched. “Honey, even you couldn’t find berries that exciting.”
“No. But I met Rufus.” Xena set the basket down and unhitched Dori, swinging her around and letting her down on the bed. “I don’t think either of us was what the other expected.” She released the straps and set Dori loose. “I’m gonna wait and see what he does, but Dori didn’t like him.”
“Uh oh.” Gabrielle sat up and raked a hand through her sleep disordered hair. She stifled a yawn. “Not a good sign.” She looked up at her partner. “You have a nice run? You’re sopping wet.. you must have.”
“Just an excuse to use that shower.” Xena grinned. “Dori kept me in the air most of the time.”
They both turned as a light knock came at the door. Xena walked over and opened it, surprised to find the caretaker from the nursery there. “Morning, Jeren.”
The good natured, heavyset forest dweller grinned back at her. “I knew you’d be up.” She said. “We’re taking the children out to the pond, then over to one of the playgrounds the elders built. Would Dori like to come with us?” She asked. “We’re doing breakfast first.”
Xena turned. “Dori. You want to go play?”
Silly question. “Eeee…” Dori bounced off the bed and landed, eliciting a startled yelp from Ares who’d been the landing site. “Go play now?”
Xena lifted her gaze to Gabrielle’s and cocked an eyebrow in question.
The bard nodded. “Sure.”
Xena turned to the forest dweller. “Mind if she takes a friend along?” She indicated the wolf.
“Nope.” Jeren shook her head. “Any carnivore that’s a friend of yours, is a friend of ours. C’mon, Dori!”
Dori pattered happily out to her, tugging Ares along with her by the ear. “C’mon, Guff. Let’s go make fun!”
Jeren scooped her up. “We’ll take good care of her, Xena.” The forest dweller met the warrior’s eyes. “I found out just how clever she was yesterday. You’ve got our deep admiration.” A pause. “And condolences.”
The warrior laughed shortly. “My mother says we both got what we deserved.” She remarked. “Have fun, and you be careful, Dori. No being bad, got me?” She gave her daughter a serious look. “Be good.”
“Otay.” Dori grinned, her nose wrinkling up. She watched Xena as the forest dweller carried her off, waving her fingers at her in a cheerful goodbye as they moved out of sight.
“Well, that’s one good thing.” Gabrielle had joined her at the door. “At least, being with us so much, she doesn’t mind going to play with someone else all day now.” She leaned her head against Xena’s shoulder. “It’s safe, right?”
“Mmph.” Xena grunted. “As safe as anything ever is. They’re damned protective of their kids here.”
“True.” Her soulmate agreed. She took hold of Xena’s arm and tugged her inside. “Well, I’m glad you and Rufus met.. at least it sounds like he’s going to be willing to talk. I’d like a chance to find out what his side of all of this is.”
“I knew you would.” Xena glanced out the window, where the dawn light was starting to dispel the fog. “If we can get the rest of the cleanup done today, we can start helping rebuild those cabins tomorrow. Then I need to sit down with them and see what the real story is here.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle knelt beside the firepit, stirring it and adding their water pot on it to heat. “Tell you what. You work on that, and I’ll work on the soulbonds. Let me see if I can get inside their heads on this Rufus character. Maybe he’s not as bad as they’re making it sound.”
“Despite Dori’s reaction?” Xena asked, with an amused look.
“She could be wrong, too.” Gabrielle retorted. “Or she could have been picking up on your reaction… I bet you didn’t greet him with open arms, did you?”
“I never greet anyone with open arms.” Xena objected.
“Well, I’d like to keep an open mind.” Gabrielle said. “Because I remember some of these very same people were pretty hostile to *us* when we first came here.”
“Mm.” Xena conceded the point.
“Now.” Gabrielle slid over to the table, and selected a choice berry from the top of the basket. “About these little darlings.” She looked up at the suddenly at her side warrior. “Hm.”
“Maybe you could take them to the dining hall.” Xena suggested helpfully. “They’ve got ovens there.”
Gabrielle picked another berry, then offered it to the warrior. “You’ve gotten so much more subtle over the years, honey.” She patted her on the belly. “But it’s not a bad idea. I can listen to the village talk.”
“Good plan.” Xena said.
“But first… I’d like to share a shower with you.”
“Can I hide a berry in your navel?”
“Last time we tried that, we almost drowned.”
“It’s a shower.”
“All right. Then I’ve got a better place to hide one.” Xena rolled a berry between her fingers, and grinned.
Gabrielle tucked a finger inside her gambeson and lead her towards the bathing room, leaning over to remove the water pot from the heat and set it aside as they passed.