It was the end of another long day. Xena looked around this time, though, and got a very solid sense of achievement in what she saw. The wellhouse had been rebuilt, and most of the burned out huts had new frames already standing. They’d lit the central firepit, which she’d seen redug and relined after the attack, and now the village was starting to gather around it as the sun started dropping behind the trees.
Xena studied them as they clustered around a thick, wooden keg newly tapped for the occasion. She could smell the sharp scent of hops, and heard the low, growly voices that held far more hope today than they had the day before. Youngsters, and older forest dwellers made up the village, evident now that they were all together. The men and women of prime fighting age had all gone with Jessan, to the deep valley near Amphipolis.
It explained a lot. Xena dusted her hands off and started towards the firepit, picking her cloak up from where she’d hung it and settling it over her shoulders as she walked. Her boots kicked up a bit of crushed rock, and she stretched her back out, feeling the ache of well used muscles. The air was growing chilly, and she welcomed the heat of the fire as she joined the crowd.
“Xena!” Tucker spotted her and trotted over.
The others turned and noted her presence. Murmurs of greeting went up, and the warrior was surrounded slowly by furred but friendly faces. A mug was handed to her. Xena grasped it and took a sip, returning the words with a nod and a brief smile.
“Boy, a lot got done today.” Tucker noted. “It’s starting to look almost normal around here.”
A round of low chuckles went up. “Not that you got your fur dirty, Tuck.” One of the youngsters snorted. “Oh, that’s right. You were ‘guarding’.”
“Hey! I was!” Tucker protested. “Someone’s gotta!”
Xena listened quietly, judging the mood around her. “He’s right.” She let her voice lift a little. “There’s no guarantee those guys won’t come back.” In a few moments, she was the center of attention, the fire catching glints off golden eyes as they watched her. “Now that we’re putting the pieces back together, we need to make sure we don’t have to do it again any time soon.”
A low murmur lifted up. “Xena… how can we protect against something we don’t understand?” Cessi eased her way forward. “In all our history, we never have been attacked like this. Not by our own folk.”
“Yeah.” Tucker agreed, sticking his thumbs into his blue britches. “Rufus was right about that. Only humans attack for no reason.”
Xena cocked her head to one side. “Humans attack for all sorts of reasons.” She disagreed. “Either they want something, or they just enjoy killing, or they’re threatened. So if your people did this, they had a reason too. Just because you don’t understand what the reason was doesn’t mean there wasn’t one.” She hopped up onto the stone ring that surrounded the firepit, and booted a chunk of burned wood up to her hand.
The firepit had a stone backing, and she scratched the wood against it, satisfied with the mark it made. “Your village looks like this.” Quick motions sketched out the river, the village, and the surrounding forest. “You’ve let the river be your guard for a long time.”
“That’s where the danger was. Humans.” Tucker stated. “Hectator’s troops.”
“Yes.” Xena gave him a direct look. “I remember. I’m the one who dragged him in here on the back of my horse to change his mind about you.”
Tucker’s ears flattened a little, and he appeared abashed.
Xena went back to her drawing. “The problem with that is that it leaves the village open on the rest of these three sides.” She said. “Now here, the steep cliff protects most of that section, but there’s two places where climbs have been marked.”
“Climbs?” Cessi asked.
“Places where handholds have been cut into the rock.” Xena said. “But here, and here – it’s wide open.” She felt a warm presence nearby, and held back a smile. “Without some serious construction, there’s no way to secure it.”
The forest dwellers exchanged glances. “What are you saying, Xena?” Cessi asked. “That we should move? Leave? Like the others did? Most of us chose not to do that. We chose to stay in our homeland, and live our lives the way we always have.” She looked around at her friends and companions. “Is that what the attackers want? Us to leave?”
Xena tossed her wood chunk up and caught it. “I don’t know.” She said. “But it’s a good question. Why.” She turned and wrote the word near the sketch. “What did they take? Horses and weapons – your means of defense.” She made a mark. “What did they destroy? Your ability to feed yourselves, and supplies.” A thoughtful pause. “So. Either they’re just a bunch of marauding jackasses or they want you at their mercy.”
“For what?” Tucker asked.
“Good question.” Xena answered. “The answer depends on who these guys were.” She turned and studied the crowd. “No one knows them? No one recognized any of them? Not from markets, not from trading.. not from being out there hunting.. nothing?”
Silence. Xena studied them, sensing there was something she wasn’t being told. The golden eyes shifted to either side, none meeting hers. Then Tucker shuffled and leaned against one of the rocks and exposed a pair of pale green orbs that had no problem locking with hers.
“All right. Then I guess I’ll have to go find out who they are.” Xena concluded. She tossed the bit of wood to the ground and brushed her hands off, then stepped off the rocks, launching herself into a flip that landed her at Gabrielle’s side with a jaunty bounce.
“We tracked them.. but no one could find where they went.” Tucker spoke up quickly. “You don’t want to waste your time.”
Xena looked at him, as she stood there with the fire backlighting her. “No. I never do.” She told him.
There was an uncomfortable silence for a moment. Then Cessi clapped her hands together with determined cheerfulness. “I’m sure it’ll all get figured out. I think I hear the cook’s bell.” She cupped a hand over her ear, and sure enough, a soft chiming could be heard. “We can talk about it over dinner. Xena, Gabrielle.. will you join us?”
“We’d love to.” Gabrielle answered for them, after a few heartbeats of unspoken communication with her partner. “But we’ve got a toddler to take care of, so we’ll be a little late.” She tucked a hand inside Xena’s elbow.
“Perhaps you’ve got a new story to tell us, Gabrielle?” Cessi suggested, as furry, round ears perked up around her. “After what we’ve been through, it would be welcome.”
“Sure.” The bard agreed, with a smile. “See you all in a little while.”
Xena maintained her dark silence as she allowed Gabrielle to steer her away from the fire, towards their cabin. She waited until they were clear of the firelight, then she opened her cloak and tucked it solicitously around the blond woman, who was dressed in just a light tunic.
“So.” Gabrielle took advantage of the situation and snuggled close. “What the heck is going on here, Xe?” She asked. “I’ve been working over near the stockyard all day, and all I’ve been hearing from the youngsters is how Rufus said this would happen, and that he said if they’d go back ..”
“Shh.” Xena uttered, almost sublingually.
Gabrielle’s teeth clicked shut.
“Wait.” The warrior murmured. “Dori back at the cabin?” She asked, in a more normal tone.
“Just dropped her off there, then I went to find you.” The bard agreed. “Apparently she had quite a day. She’s full of stories.”
Xena chuckled softly.
Gabrielle knew what the laugh was. Whenever either of them found a bit of their daughter they could identify as coming from one of them, it was always a reason to stop and appreciate the fact. And the fact was, Dori liked to tell stories, even if they were rambling little baby stories.
She was damn proud of that. Dori had a good imagination, and she liked to play games that let her use it. Gabrielle remembered playing some of the same games as a small child and as she watched her daughter make stories with her dolls, it brought her own memories flooding back.
“I went to visit Lestan before I picked Dori up.” Gabrielle said. “He opened his eyes and winked at me.” She gave her partner a hug. “I think he’s really fighting.”
Xena remembered a time when she hadn’t. “I think so too. When I changed his bandages today, I could see some real healing going on under there.”
They walked up the steps to the cabin. Xena tugged the door open, and they entered, to be greeted with squeals of delight.
“Booooooo!!!” Dori picked herself up from the floor, where she’d been sitting and playing with her stuffed toy. She rambled across the floor and slammed into Xena’s legs, hugging them fiercely. “Boo, I gots rocks. I saw big pipples!”
“Yeah?” Xena picked her up, and got a sloppy baby kiss for her efforts. “I can see you were in the pine trees. You smell like em.”
“Big pipples come, make fun.” Dori told her. “Play catch. No catch me, I go fly.”
Xena stopped halfway to the couch, where she’d been headed to listen to her daughter’s chatter. She looked over her shoulder at Gabrielle, who put down her cloak and joined her partner. “Does that sound a little…”
They sat down on the couch together. “Okay, Dori. Now tell me all about it.” Xena told the toddler. “You said big people came?”
Dori nodded, busy playing with the front of Xena’s armor. “Lots big pipples, make noise.” She explained. “E’verybody go run. Play catch. Big pipples go catch me, I fly.”
Xena frowned. “Did they say anything had happened today?” She asked Gabrielle.
“Not to me, no.” The bard answered, with a puzzled look. “I just asked if she’d been good, and they said yes.” She took hold of Dori’s bare foot. “Dori, were they chasing you?” She asked. “Like when you play with Ares?”
“Guff make bite.” Dori recognized her friend’s name. “Make noise, bite pipples, they go chase Guff, guff run fast, me chase.” She tugged at a brass catch. “Pipples chase me, I go up on rocks, go fly. Pipples all make big noise, all run around. Go fast, go away.”
Gabrielle looked over at Ares, who was curled up near the fireplace asleep. “Okay, wait.” The bard tugged the child’s toes. “Dori, are you saying that forest dwellers, people, who you didn’t know came to where you all were, and chased you around?”
Dori thought about the question. “Yes.” She nodded confidently.
“And they chased Ares?”
“And Ares bit them?”
“Uh oh.” Xena muttered. “I’m getting a bad feeling here.”
“So they chased Ares, and you chased Ares, and then they chased you, but you went up on a rock and jumped off, and that got them very upset?”
Dori nodded. “Mama make good story.”
“So then they ran away?” Gabrielle persisted. “And left you alone?”
“Yes.” Dori squirmed around and got a better hold on Xena’s armor clasp. “Fun!”
Her parents regarded each other. “I think we need to have a chat with the nursery minder.” Xena said quietly. “Now.”
Gabrielle stroked Xena’s arm lightly. “Let’s wait until after dinner. No matter what happened, it obviously turned out okay, because she’s here, and she doesn’t have a scratch on her, Xe.” The bard said. “Maybe it was just a bunch of the older kids, fooling around.”
The warrior’s blue eyes were almost gray with irritation. “Fooling around with my kid?” She growled. “I’ll make sure they never become adults in that case.”
“Xe.” Gabrielle gave her an affectionate look.
“I mean it, Gabrielle. She’s just a little girl.” Xena stated flatly. “What if she got hurt?”
“Got hurt.” Dori pulled herself up and investigated a leaf caught in Xena’s dark hair. “Pipples make hurt, Boo fix.”
Xena studied her, their eyes on a level. Her temper settled as she realized the meaning behind Dori’s innocent words, and she felt the warmth as Gabrielle’s hand closed around hers. “I’ll fix, huh?”
“Yes.” Dori agreed. “Boo make fix good. Eve’ry body all better. Like mama.”
Oh. Xena exhaled. That kind of fix.
“Mm.” Gabrielle leaned against Xena’s shoulder. “Boo fixes everything. You’re right, Dori.” She said. “She fixed mama when I was sick, didn’t she? And she fixed your owies?”
“Yes!” The child produced a sunny grin. “Boo fix!”
Xena put an arm around Dori and hugged her. “I still want to talk to the minders. You may be right, Gabrielle, it may have just been some of the kids goofing around.”
“Especially if they got scared off by Dori’s jumping off a rock, Xena. Now, c’mon.” The bard stated practically. “It sounds like something the minder was embarrassed to tell us about – not something that dangerous.”
“Mm.” The warrior conceded the point. “Tomorrow, I want to track the raiders trail, though. See what I can find.”
Gabrielle stretched out on the couch, sliding down and resting her head on Xena’s thigh. “I got the feeling that wasn’t a popular idea.”
“Exactly why I’m gonna do it.”
“I knew you were going to say that.” Gabrielle folded her hands over her stomach. “There’s something odd going on here. I kind of got the feeling that a lot of the people here really want Rufus to take over.”
“But it’s the olders, and the soulbonds that don’t want him.”
“So, are they being prudent, or just stubborn?”
“That’s what I’m gonna find out.” Xena stretched her legs out towards the fire and sighed. “And I need to start by finding out what was behind the attack.” She flicked a bit of pale hair out of Gabrielle’s eyes. “Maybe you can find out what Rufus has been telling these kids.”
Gabrielle gazed up at her, a serious expression on her face. “All right.” She agreed. “But only if you promise me you’ll be very careful.”
“Cawful.” Dori patted her mother’s head.
“Always.” Xena assured her.
Gabrielle’s lips quirked. Xena was almost never careful, and they both knew that. When she did something, she did it full out and didn’t pull any punches. That was why she was often as effective as she was. But Gabrielle also knew that her partner valued, if not her own life, the effect her life had on her family. She would not be careful for her own sake, but she would protect herself to the utmost for Gabrielle’s.
And that was nice to know, but accidents could, and did happen sometimes.
“Wanna get cleaned up and go see what trouble we can get into?” Xena asked. “I’m in the mood for a good story.”
Gabrielle smiled up at her. “You could ask me for one, sometimes you know.” She chided her partner. “It’s not just Dori’s prerogative.”
“I know.” Xena said. “C’mon.”
Gabrielle rolled to her feet, stretching and offering Xena a hand up. They walked together to the bathing room, each quiet with their own thoughts.
The vibe was strange in the dining hut, and Gabrielle could feel it. She eased her way through the crowd, taking her time and absorbing the different flavors of strange as she decided what story she wanted to tell. There was definitely a tension in the village, and she wasn’t sure it had to do with the attack.
As she neared the front door, where an open space afforded her a place to stand and talk, she turned and leaned against the sill briefly. Her eyes traveled over the forest dwellers, noting the distinct ‘camps’ scattered among them.
On one side, the soulbonded were gathered. Most of them were older, and it was evident they were very comfortable with each other.
On the other side of the dining hall were the youngsters, with roving, restless eyes and an impatience she could almost feel. Most of them were eyeing Xena, who was sitting in the back with Dori on her knee. The looks were a mixture of fascination and uneasy suspicion and Gabrielle reasoned that Rufus had planned his audience carefully.
So. The bard pushed off the doorway and took a few steps forward, stopping and waiting with her hands resting lightly on her thighs.
Xena had taught her, on their long journeys together, some of her secrets; what she called the mystique of leadership. That included how to hold yourself when you knew people were watching you and how to watch them, letting your eyes travel slowly and making contact with quiet deliberation.
The most important thing in getting people to believe in you… is making them believe that you believe in yourself. Words of wisdom from a natural leader who had certainly captured Gabrielle’s rapt belief from the very start.
The room quieted swiftly and she gathered eyes both young and old to her as she cocked her head slightly to one side and took a breath in deep, readying herself to reach out and touch hearts and minds. “It’s been a long time since Xena and I came this way.” She told them. “You welcomed us, and we’ve traveled a long, and sometimes difficult road together.”
She had them. Gabrielle could sense the attention focused on her. “I often wondered, in the beginning, why it was that even from the start, I felt a sense of kindred between us. After all, we’re not very much like you on the surface, are we?”
A soft, rumbling chuckle. Gabrielle held her hands out and looked down at herself, looking up again with a sunny grin. “But then I remembered that when I first met Xena, I thought we were really different from each other, too.”
Eyes shifted to the warrior, who responded with a sexy smile.
“After all, I was a shepherd’s kid from a little farming village, and she.. whoo. The stories I’d heard about Xena.” Gabrielle said, pausing to let the chuckles fade. “Should have sent me running for my life.”
“But it didn’t.” Cessi remarked from her spot near the fire.
“No.” Gabrielle shook her head. “I felt a sense of kinship with her from the start too. In fact… it was like meeting my best friend the first time we looked into each other’s eyes.” Instinctively, she looked at her partner, returning the smile she found on Xena’s face. “Now, because I met your people, I know why.”
She took another breath. “So let me tell you what it’s like, through the eyes of someone so different than you are, to find the other half of your soul.”
Xena was surprised at her partner. Gabrielle only seldomly told stories from her own point of view, preferring to relate tales from a more neutral perspective. Not only that, it was extremely rare for the bard to delve into something so very personal to both of them, but Xena had learned over the years that if Gabrielle did something out of the ordinary like this, it was usually for a reason.
So, despite the fact that she herself wasn’t too keen on having her inner feelings exposed in a story, she sat back and put her arms around Dori, ready to listen.
“Mm?” Xena looked down at her daughter
“Mama go tell story.”
“Shh.” Xena hugged her. “You gotta be quiet for mama.”
“Good story?” Dori looked up at her with innocent, misty green eyes.
“The best story.” Xena whispered in her ear. “My favorite one.”
“Good.” Dori snuggled up against her chest as they turned to listen. “Got Boo?”
“Oh yeah.” The warrior smiled.
Xena braced her booted foot against the table trestle and leaned back, feeling the wall of the dining hut solid behind her. She rested her head against the wood, taking a moment out to look down at Dori’s dark head and revel silently in the child’s solid presence.
It was hard to fathom, sometimes. Hard to absorb the fact that this child, this person existed because of the power of her love for Gabrielle. It was awesome, in the full sense of the word, and one of the things in her life she was proudest of.
She hugged Dori
Her eyes tracked to Gabrielle, who was standing in the doorway lit by firelight, her clear voice weaving magic around the room.
Xena wiggled her toes inside her boots, and produced a smirk of utter satisfaction.
Gabrielle accepted the hoots and claps as she finished, along with a cup of ale to sooth her well used throat. She’d taken a chance with the story, she knew, because many of the soulbonded were wary of them, and many of the youngers didn’t seem to approve of bonding. But she’d never been one to play things all that safely and her gamble had paid off. “Thanks.” She grinned at Cessi, who had handed her the ale.
“But.. “ Tucker stood up, despite the grabs at his trousers. “I gotta ask a question.”
“Sure.” Gabrielle glanced at him with casual good humor.
“We..” He pointed at his own chest. “We’re fighters.”
The soulbonded glared at him, but the rest of the youngers watched with wary alertness as Gabrielle turned fully to face him.
“Sure.” The bard said. “So are Xena and I.”
Tucker scowled, his muzzle wrinkling up. “How can you be a good warrior, if you’re afraid to die?”
Gabrielle was caught by surprise.
“Only idiots aren’t afraid to die.” Xena answered for her, the warrior’s powerful voice cutting through the air with ease. “Don’t believe anyone who says otherwise.”
The forest dwellers shifted to look at Xena. The warrior was leaning against the wall, with Dori’s sleeping form cradled in her arms.
“Dying’s easy.” Xena continued, in a quieter tone. “Living’s what takes true courage, most times.”
Tucker stared at her.
“Think about it.” The warrior said. “What warrior wouldn’t want the most gut level drive inside them to never lose? Never give up? To always prevail because that’s what you need to do.” Xena gave him a direct look. “There is nothing I wouldn’t do to protect us.” A dangerous pause. “Nothing.”
Tucker blinked his golden eyes, his nostrils flaring. “Oh.” He scrunched up his muzzle, managing to look extraordinarily sheepish for a being his size. “I never thought about it like that.”
The other youngsters looked at each other uncertainly.
“Xena’s right.” Gabrielle said. “Secan thought that. He thought love weakened you.” She made her way back to the table to stand at Xena’s side, resting her hand on her partner’s shoulder. “He couldn’t be more wrong.”
Tucker sat down, his face thoughtful.
Gabrielle looked around, still sensing the turmoil, but now recognizing a difference in it. Satisfied, she glanced down at Xena, then unexpectedly leaned over and captured her partner’s lips, indulging herself in the sweetness of the contact and letting the passion that surged up resonate through her.
Through their link.
After a long, but very pleasurable moment, she lifted her head, her eyes meeting a roomful of very round golden ones.
A frozen second later, Cessi coughed and stood up. “Ah.. I think we’re done here..”
The entire room joined her, rambling hastily for the door and bumping into each other.
Xena had to laugh. “You’re just a walking clump of trouble, aren’t you?” She muttered.
The bard folded her arms and smirked. “I’ve finally gotten over blushing about that, and darn it, I’ve been waiting long enough to enjoy it.” She said. “Think we did some good?”
Xena stood, careful not to wake Dori. “Yeah.” She watched the departing forest dwellers. “I think we did.” A moment’s consideration. “Least we gave them something to think about.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle agreed. “One step at a time.”
Xena stepped out onto the porch into a misty dawn, this time alone. Instead of her cloak, she wore a heavy knitted hunting shirt over her leathers, and close fitting leggings that tucked into her boots. The village was still quiet, and she paused a moment to absorb the slight sounds around her before she continued down the steps and onto the path.
The rocks scuffed lightly under her feet and she felt her body shift, muscles in her legs tensing slightly to change the way she was walking and eliminate the sound. After a lifetime of being who and what she was, it wasn’t even a conscious choice anymore but it did bring a faint smile to her face when she realized she was doing it.
She passed through the fringe of trees on the outer side of the village and found the path the raiders had taken without difficultly. Driving that many horses through the undergrowth left a gap a blind person could have followed and certainly it presented Xena with scant challenge.
For the first while, she simply walked along, observing. The trees bore broken branches on either side, and the leaves were ripped and torn, still emitting a green, rich scent she could smell as she neared them.
She stopped briefly to examine a scuff, running her fingers over the bark and lifting a few thick tufts of fur from it. The color was dark, an almost chocolate brown and she edged around the tree looking for more.
She found some, but she also found something else, that made her eyebrows lift. On the surface it wasn’t that unusual, just a waterskin, but as she picked it up and studied it, she recognized the distinctive glyph of the forest dweller village burned lightly into the leather surface.
A chance drop? Xena leaned closer to the bag, and captured a few strands of hair from the bottom of it. She compared it to the clump she’d removed from the tree, and her eyebrow lifted again.
With a frown, she put the fur into her belt pouch, and slung the waterskin over her shoulder. Then she continued on the path, her boots stirring the thin layer of fog drifting over it.
Gabrielle tugged her boot lace back from Dori’s fingers and made another try at completing her dressing. “Honey, I need to put this on.”
The toddler was sitting spraddle legged around her feet, busy trying to undo Gabrielle’s best attempts at tying her laces. “Mama, c’n we go play?”
“Soon as you let me put my boots on.” The bard told her. “Then we can go find your friends, okay?”
“Otay.” Dori sighed, her fingers still plucking at her mother’s boots.
Gabrielle watched her, a faint smile crossing her face. “Are you mad, Dori?”
The bard held back a chuckle. “Are you mad at Boo?”
Xena had, of course, left before dawn and that meant no morning run and no flying for her little wild one. “Well, you shouldn’t be mad, Dori. You know Boo has to go and do things sometimes.”
“Honey, you need to be nice to Boo. You know she plays with you because she loves you, and she likes it, but sometimes Boo has things that she has to take care of, and those things are very important.” Gabrielle told her daughter. “You can’t get mad at her if she doesn’t play with you, because that makes her feel bad. You don’t want Boo to feel bad, do you?”
Dori kicked her booties out. “Want Boo.”
“Ah ah.. you didn’t answer my question. “Gabrielle finished lacing. “Do you want Boo to feel bad?”
“Okay.” Gabrielle ruffled Dori’s dark hair. “So let’s go find you someone to play with. Boo will be back later.” She stood up and held her hand down to Dori. “C’mon.”
Dori got to her feet and took her mother’s hand. They walked out together into the early morning sunshine, to find the village already stirring busily. She returned the wave of a few of the forest dwellers as they walked across to the children’s area, and she held back a chuckle as Dori studiously waved as well. “Good girl.” She praised her daughter. “You’re being very nice.”
Dori kicked a rock, then released Gabrielle’s hand and chased after it, picking it up and rambling back to her mother with it. “Nice wrock. Mama, look.. gots sparkles.”
“Yep, it sure does.” Gabrielle admired the mica bits. “That’s very pretty. Why don’t you save that one, and give it to Boo for a present later. I bet she’d like that.”
Dori peered at the rock interestedly. “Boo like?”
“You know Boo loves when you give her presents, honey.” Gabrielle assured her, as they skirted the firepit. “Just like you love it when she gives you presents. Remember what she gave you the last time?”
“Cookies.” Dori responded immediately.
“Special cookies, right?”
They walked along for a few steps. “Mama?”
“Hm?” Gabrielle swung their rejoined hands. “What, Dori?”
“Give Boo wrock, Boo give cookies?”
Ah. Gabrielle sighed inward. “No..no.. that’s not how that works, Dori. We don’t give people presents so we get presents back.” She said. “Boo gives you cookies because she wants to, not because she has to.”
“Oh.” Dori trudged along. “Good!”
“You should give Boo presents because you want to, because you love her, not because you want to get something back.” Gabrielle went on.
“Mama give Boo peasants?”
Gabrielle had to grin at the piping voice’s question. “Oh, Dori, mama gave Boo so many presents… mama loves giving Boo presents. Boo probably thinks Mama gives her too many presents.”
“You know what the first present was that I gave Boo?” Gabrielle reminisced as they walked. She had to keep her steps short for Dori’s to keep up with her, and their progress was slow. “I used to think the first present was a cup, this wooden cup I bought her at the market when we first starting traveling together.”
“Cup. Gup. Cup.” Dori bounced a few steps.
“It was pretty, and it had these little birds carved all over it.” Her mother related. “And after I gave it to her, I never saw it anymore, so I figured she probably thought it was silly, and threw it away, but you know what Dori?”
“She didn’t. I found that cup in our cabin before we left for Athens.” Gabrielle said. “She took very good care of it, this whole time.”
“Gup.” Dori humored her.
“But then.. I figured out that the first gift I ever gave her was my heart.” The bard steered their steps towards the leafy path leading to the nursery. “And you know, she took pretty good care of that, too.”
Gabrielle glanced down. “I’m boring you, huh? You don’t like mushy stuff, do you Dor?”
“Uh huh.” The bard leaned over and picked Dori up, hitching her onto her hip and wrapping her arms around her. The toddler was getting to be heavier than was really comfortable for her to carry, but for short distances it didn’t bother her much. “C’mon.. let’s see what they’re having for breakfast in there.”
She elbowed open the door to the nursery, already hearing piping, childish voices inside. Her entrance was greeted with trills of delight, and three of the small fuzzballs in residents bolted for her. “Hey guys.”
“Mama! Down!” Dori ordered imperiously. “Go play!”
“Ah ah. What do you say?” Gabrielle frowned at her daughter. “Is that how I taught you to act, Doriana?”
Dori stuck her index finger in her mouth and gazed at her mother from under her long, dark lashes. “Sowwy.” She burbled. “Pwese?”
“Good girl.” Gabrielle gave her a kiss on the forehead, and set her down. Dori immediately joined the three forest dweller children in a tumble of arms, legs and giggles. Her mother watched them for a moment, then she turned her attention to the two minders. “Hi, Jeren.”
The one nearest her grinned. “Hi, Gabrielle. Brought the tiny terror back, huh? She’s really something.”
“Mm.” The bard ruefully agreed, as she crossed the room and perched on one of the padded stools the minders used. Fortunately for her, they were low to the ground, so the minders could tend the children. “I was wondering if you could fill me in what happened yesterday.”
The two minders exchanged glances. “Happened?” Jeren asked. “When?”
Gabrielle cocked her head. “Yesterday. Dori told me something happened… the kids got chased around, something like that.” She sensed the awkwardness immediately. “So… what happened?”
“Uh.” Jeren tugged at one of her furry ears. “Well, you know.. kids tell all kinds of stories, Gabrielle.”
The bard crossed her arms. “Are you saying nothing happened?”
Jeren shrugged. “The kids say stuff.. you know.”
“Not my kid.” Gabrielle replied quietly. “She may get her bug to tell stories from me, but she gets her knack for observation from Xena. Xena doesn’t see things that aren’t there. Neither does Dori. So.” The bard got up and put her hands on her hips, giving Jeren a direct stare. “What happened?”
The other minder sat down on the floor, and started playing with one of the other fuzzballs. She made a point of not looking at Jeren, apparently abandoning her workmate to this diminutive yet threatening blond human.
Gabrielle cocked an eyebrow at her.
“It wasn’t anything.. really.” Jeren sighed. “It all ended up okay.”
Ah. Gabrielle sat down again. “Great. Then you can tell me all the details.” She smiled at the minder. “Because from what Dori was telling me, it sounded like someone attacked the kids, and ran off when my daughter, all this high of her..” Gabrielle held a hand near her hip. “Jumped off a rock at them, and I know for sure that can’t be what really happened. Right?”
Jeren scratched her ear, then folded her arms across her chest. “Um…”
“Hm?” Gabrielle prodded her.
“Well, not really.” Jeren muttered. “I mean, they didn’t really attack us… it was just sort of a joke. Kind of.” She said, giving Gabrielle a wary look. “Rufus was working with some of the older kids on stuff… showing them I guess that we were kind of out there in the open and vulnerable.”
“Uh huh.” Gabrielle made an encouraging sound.
“So… they jumped us.” Jeren said. “It was a little scary… they started grabbing at the kids and stuff got out of hand.” She explained. “I was yelling, Brac was yelling..”
“Yeah.” Brac muttered, still on the floor. “Jerks.”
“So then one of them grabbed me, and the next thing we knew your little one let out a holler and jumped off this… um…”
“Rock?” Gabrielle suggested.
“More like the river embankment.” Brac noted. “It’s over my head.”
Gabrielle’s green eyes widened.
“Anyway, she jumped on the kid who had hold of me, and started beating on him. He freaked.”
“Gods.” Gabrielle covered her eyes.
“Well, wouldn’t you? Having something that size screaming and jumping on your head?” Brac asked, reasonably.
“He tripped and fell down, and Dori started whomping on him.”
“Gods.” Gabrielle muttered again.
“So the rest of them ran off, and left this guy behind.. I got hold of Dori, and then Brac…”
“Kicked his adolescent furry butt.” Brac grunted. “Jerk.”
“Uh, right.” Jeren glanced cautiously at Gabrielle. “So that’s what happened.” She glanced at the tumbling kids on the floor, who were wrestling to see who got possession of a stuffed rag doll. Dori was holding her own, delighted to have kids to play with who could stand her roughhousing. “She’s a scrappy little thing, isn’t she?”
Gabrielle sighed, and sat down. “Yeah, she is.” The bard admitted. “Unfortunately, I think she gets that from both of us.”
“Really?” Jeren asked.
“Yeah.” Gabrielle propped her head against one of her hands. “I used to pretend I was the quiet, reflective writer, who cruised along just documenting Xena’s warrior prowess, but I’ve had to come to grips with the reality that I like a good fight almost as much as she does.”
“Oh.” Jeren studied Dori’s half hidden form. “Boy.”
Gabrielle frowned, her brow creasing. “So, why was Rufus telling a bunch of half grown kids about that? Why not just put a guard into place, or do something about it? What’s he trying to prove?”
Gabrielle looked up at the two forest dwellers. They refused to meet her eyes. “He’s trying to prove his way’s better.” She answered her own question. “And in order to do that, he’s got to prove the current way doesn’t work.”
Her heart skipped, and she thought about Xena out there, tracking the unknown. Would Rufus use her to further his plans?
Would he try? “Well.” Gabrielle folded her arms again. “He better be careful of what he picks to test his theory on.”
Dori captured the doll, and bolted with it, rambling across the mat covered floor and dashing under the table. The other three fuzzballs chased her. Dori skidded to a halt near the other side of the room and turned, waving the doll and letting out a fierce yell. The fuzzballs all screeched to a halt, and yammered at her.
Dori grinned and tossed the doll to them. They grabbed it, scuffled, then the tallest, a silver hued little boy snatched it and ran off. The others ran after him, and Dori followed, content to let the game progress.
Gabrielle glanced out the window, and sent a quiet wish flying out it, down the leafy paths, towards the other half of her soul.
Xena loped along the path, her eyes picking up trail markers with automatic ease. The track lead deeper and deeper into the forest, and now the overgrowth blocked out the sun and colored the leaves and dirt under her boots with dappled shadows.
It was beautiful country. The hilly terrain was covered in mossy rocks, and long, ivy covered vines draped over the trees. Trickling down the boulders on either side of the path were tiny waterfalls, lending a melodic tinkling to the air and bringing a pleasant wet scent to her nose.
The trail she was following was old. Xena knew time had passed enough to dull the scents, and she suspected she might find a dead end before she was through. In the meantime, she had this lovely landscape to travel through and she’d been with Gabrielle long enough to have developed the ability to appreciate that.
It was cold, but she was comfortable in her leathers, having put on one of the long, woven tunics Gabrielle had gotten made for her, cut specifically to fit over her gear with slits for her sword and chakram. The hem hit her at mid thigh, and the sleeves were cut to allow her to fully swing her sword without impediment and Xena was quite fond of the garments. This one was a rich, forest green and it blended in very well with her surroundings. With her traveling tan, and that, Xena felt quite camouflaged as she ran along.
The path was sloping up at an angle to the next ridge, and Xena could see there was a dip between two sets of granite outcroppings that made a natural pass over into the valley beyond. She headed for it, and reviewed what she knew in the meantime.
There had been an attack on the village. Nothing had been taken save horses. No provisions, no captives… the attack hadn’t seemed to be motivated by profit, or to chase the forest dwellers off the land. To Xena’s eyes, the attack had been focused mainly on intimidation, and the destruction of the forest dweller’s security.
So, the question was – why?
As Xena hit the steeper part of the slope, she leaned forward and threw her weight upward, using her sense of balance to glide up the path from outcropping to outcropping. Near the top, her sense prickled. With the gap within a body length she slowed, dropping to a crouch instead of topping the crest and waited.
Up here, more exposed than in the forest, she could hear the world moving around her. The wind rustled the tree leaves behind her, and set a few pebbles rattling down the path. Nearby, water was trickling, a steady burble that almost sounded like birdsong.
She could hear nothing out of place in the sounds that were audible, but Xena hadn’t spent as much time developing all her senses for nothing. She could feel slight, subtle vibrations under the fingers she had pressed against the moss covered granite, and her skin detected pressure changes in the air that meant to her something moving at her back.
And then they faded off. For a moment, everything was still, then a robin called in a tree behind her and Xena relaxed. The motions hadn’t been that close to her. She remained where she was for a few minutes, simply extending her senses to see what she could find before she stood and deftly picked her way up the rocks to the summit.
The pass interested her. It was the only reasonable sized gap in the range that she could see, and as she rested her hand on the rocks the signs of use were evident. The moss on either side of the lower part of the granite was worn off, and just about at her shoulder level there was a smoother patch on the rock where many hands had touched where hers was.
Xena leaned close to the granite, sniffing a rusty dark stain. Blood, as she’d thought. She turned and put her back to the boulder, letting her eyes run carefully over the ground behind her for a long moment before she turned back and slipped through the pass, it’s edges easily clearing her body.
She watched the ground as she traveled through the gap, noting the wear scuffs on the muddy surface. Pausing, she knelt, touching a finger to a long mark, then she stood and continued through until she reached the other side.
Xena stopped just outside the pass, finding herself on a small ledge overlooking a wild, steep valley. Across from here was a granite cliff complete with a gorgeous waterfall, and the only path down that she could detect involved fragile hand holds and a lot of luck.
Xena was no mean climber, and she generally considered herself pretty lucky. However, her problem with the valley was that the marks on the rock indicated horses had been driven through the pass and no matter how lucky those equines were, they lacked opposable thumbs or a mountain goat’s hooves, and there was no way they climbed down.
The warrior leaned against the stone and let her eyes slowly track around her surroundings. To one side, the ledge simply fell off to nothing. To the other side, the path broke off, then continued again further down on the cliff after perhaps three bodylengths of open space.
Xena’s eyes studied the edge of the path. Curiously, she walked over and knelt, resting her hands on her knees and gazing at the rock. On the outside and very inside of the path were gouged in the stone, their edges scraped from recent contact. The warrior peered over the edge, to the next section of stone.
“Hm.” Xena stood and took a step back, then paced forward and crouched, leaping away from the edge of the broken path and out into space. Lazily, she completed a roll in mid air before she got her feet back under her and landed on the lower section, her boots scuffing lightly on the stone.
She turned and looked back, her eyes measuring the angle. Could she get back up it? “Guess I’ll find out later.” She commented, acknowledging at least that if anyone was following her, they’d also be faced with the same problem and perhaps would not have had her particular leaping skills to fall back on.
Satisfied, she turned and continued on her way, stopping first to examine some grooves in the stone at the edge of this new section of path. With a grunt, she stepped around a patch of slick moss and kept going downward.
It was a reasonable slope. Xena looked around at the wildness, enjoying her surroundings even despite the mystery she was investigating. She was moving around towards the waterfall, and already she could smell the moisture rising up, along with a waft of heavy mud and rich green foliage so thick she could almost taste it on the back her tongue.
The enjoyment was short lived, however, when she sensed something ahead of her, past the rapidly approaching first canopy of trees. Danger. It was her battle instincts flaring and her nostrils twitched, picking up a spicy muskiness in the air.
Not unexpected. Xena reasoned. She was tracking rogue forest dwellers. Finding some wouldn’t be a total surprise, given her skills. She flexed her hands and continued on, placing her boots carefully on the rocky path to avoid surprises.
The soft sounds that had alerted her faded as she approached, and Xena could almost feel the watchfulness. She felt her breathing settle into a certain rhythm and the muscles of her torso tensed as she reached an area that was overhung with branches she couldn’t see past.
With a flickering motion, she drew her sword from it’s sheath and whipped it through the leaves, slicing a path through them and returning the blade before the cut foliage hit the ground.
A darker world awaited her. She ducked beneath the branches and paused, looking around at the still gloom under the canopy. Here, huge, old trees with twisted branches stood, hanging with moss and heavy with thick leaves. The floor lengths below her was covered in dead leaf litter, with no paths or other signs of habitation visible.
Xena turned her head and regarded the sloping path that widened and ended in the floor of the valley. At it’s end stood two huge boulders making almost a gateway she couldn’t see past.
One eyebrow cocked.
From her crouch, Xena leaped off the path, and simply fell through the air, landing on the valley floor and recoiling up with a small hop before her boots settled again into the thick loam. She felt the aura of danger rise the moment she touched the soil and the thrill brought a wry smile to her lips.
You still love a good scrap, don’cha? She accused herself silently, acknowledging the surge of energy as her darker side pricked up it’s pointed little ears. Xena found herself gaining a bit of a bounce to her step as she carefully crossed the springy ground. Now that she was closer, she could spot the faint signs of other creatures passage, patterns in the litter and scuff marks on the low, flat rocks that dotted the valley floor..
The trees directed her one way, it seemed, lines of them that lead more or less towards the boulders. Xena regarded the tall rocks, then she decided that she might as well get it over with. Changing direction subtly she headed directly for the end of the ridge, where the path dropped off into a small dell ringed with thick underbrush.
It was a perfect place for a trap. Accordingly, Xena took two long strides before she reached it and leaped, catching the side of the tall rock and kicking off, propelling herself into the center of the dell from a very unexpected direction.
She landed, and sensed the moment of faint shock around her, and then the attack happened.
It was fast, and very fierce, and if Xena hadn’t been who she was, she understood that she would have died in the first few seconds of it. At least six forest dwellers descended on her, in perfect silence, with claws and teeth their weapons.
Xena, of course, did not limit herself. Fair play wasn’t a concept she particularily subscribed too when she was being attacked. One the first change in air pressure she felt, she drew her sword and wove a net of steel around her body, swinging and ducking in a tight circle as the forest dwellers charged her.
Her yell rang out over the glade, shattering the silence as she released the killer that rested quietly just behind her smile and blue eyes. She sheered off an outstretched hand, sending it spinning away then she ducked under the arm that was left behind it and plunged her sword directly into a fur covered ribcage, yanking it out and stepping away in the same motion as the body fell past her.
She never stopped moving, knowing to do so would be fatal. But she didn’t wait for the attack, she pressed her own using offense to short circuit the pattern of the forest dweller’s strategy and refusing to give them time to adjust to hers.
Another yell, and she jumped, spinning into a kick in mid air that impacted a fur covered skull, as she dipped her upper body down and around, slicing with her sword as she fell through the air and meeting flesh at every motion.
None of it was hers. Xena felt a set of claws catch on her tunic and she continued the arc her sword was in with one hand, releasing the hilt with the other and unhooking her chakram. She slashed backwards, hearing a gasp as she buried the chakram almost up to her hand in flesh, then she yanked it back out and turned, catching one of her attackers right across the face with the edge of the curved blade as she whirled.
And then, just as quickly as it started, it stopped.
In a flicker of brown motion, the forest dwellers vanished, taking their fallen comrade with them, so quickly Xena barely had time to see them go. They morphed into the thick undergrowth too fast for even her to spot which way they went and all that was left was scattered leaves, blood, and a blackened hand, it’s fingers still eerily twitching at her feet.
Xena put her back to the stone and stood, letting her breathing settle as she waited to see if the attack would resume. She didn’t take anything for granted, and she let her senses extend outward to catch even a hint of anything close by.
Not even a squirrel, which she would have expected after the fierce battle.
With a tiny, satisfied grunt, she pulled a handful of leaves from the nearest tree and walked to the trickle of water coming down from the granite wall in a tiny offshoot of the waterfall. She washed her blades, then dried them with the leaves, resheathing the sword and reseating the chakram with distinctly satisfied snicks.
And that, Xena brushed her hands off. Is how we do that.
She flexed her fingers, and decided on a course. Next?
Gabrielle knocked lightly on the door to Lestan and Wennid’s home, pushing the door open when she heard Wennid’s low reply.
The outer room was empty, but comfortably neat, and a tray of lunch was sitting on the table waiting for attention. Gabrielle padded past the table and stuck her head through the door to the bedroom, meeting Wennid’s eyes as she sat with her soulmate on the bed, knitting while he slept.
“Good morning, Gabrielle.” Wennid greeted her with a smile. “Come in.”
“Thanks.” The bard entered and took one of the stools near the bed. “How are things?”
Wennid put her needlework down and gazed at Lestan. “It’s hard to say.” She admitted. “Just when I think everything is just… never going to change, he blinks or he wakes up for a minute… and I realized today that was happening more now.” She said. “Xena has instructed me on how to change the bandages.. I hadn’t realized just what a thing of caring that was.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle hitched one knee up on the stool rungs and circled it with both arms. “I know what you mean there. I hate when Xena’s hurt more than anything, but I know I always feel very close when she is, and she lets me take care of her.”
The bard smiled. “Xena’s a very.. um… self reliant person. It was one big clue to me that we were getting closer to each other when she started letting me do things for her.”
“Ah.. yes. It’s that big, tough, warrior thing.” Wennid said, wisely.
“Uh huh.” Gabrielle agreed.
“I am sure if he was in his right senses, he’d been griping up a storm.” Wennid smoothed the thick, russet fur out of Lestan’s eyes. “I look forward to hearing it.”
Gabrielle watched her face, seeing now a calm, sweet acceptance on it rather than the pensive questioning of the days prior. “Wennid… what’s going on here?” She asked, in a straightforward tone. “What’s really going on? I’ve seen so many contradictions in the last few days, I hardly know what to think.”
Wennid pursed her lips, wrinkling the skin on her muzzle. She sighed. “It’s complicated.”
Gabrielle almost chuckled. She released one arm and rubbed her face with her hand instead. “People usually are complicated, and I’ve got a feeling people are involved in this.”
The older forest dweller leaned back and looked around her. “You know, I think I’m just too damn old for all this.” She lifted one hand and let it drop on her thigh. “A lot of those who came back here from the valley came back for two reasons, Gabrielle.” She told the bard. “One, those like me, just felt a connection to this place and wanted to end our days here. We were comfortable, we liked our homes…we just weren’t ready to uproot and move so far, change so much.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle nodded. “I understand.”
“Do you?” Wennid asked. “Your life has been nothing but change, Gabrielle.”
The bard considered that. “True.” She admitted. “But it makes me value stability, those small patches of it I’ve had in my life, all the more.”
Now it was Wennid’s turn to think. She sighed again. “Perhaps. At any rate, there was that group of us, and then there was another.” She eyed Gabrielle speculatively. “There were those who do not like your kind.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “My kind.” She exhaled. “Like we’re all the same. My kind what? They don’t like short blond Amazons in love with the land’s greatest warrior?”
Wennid’s lips twitched. “Humans.”
Blond brows contracted. “Wennid, *I* don’t like a really annoying percentage of ‘my kind’” Gabrielle told her. “I bet there’s a number of your kind *you* don’t like.”
Wennid sighed. “Gabrielle, that’s not what I mean, and you know it.” She gave the bard a stern look. “These people… they feel that contact with humans changes us in ways they don’t want.” She said. “Before humans came to this area, our people lived a very….different life.”
“Really?” Gabrielle circled her knee again. “That must have been a long time ago, because we know from Ardrwyn’s scrolls that humans have been around here for quite a while.”
“Long ago, it was different.” Wennid said. “We did not live in such a places as this…” She indicated the hut. “Or wear clothes as we do now, or pattern ourselves after your kind as we have come to do.”
Gabrielle got up and paced, a habit she realized she’d started to pick up from her restless partner. “But you don’t, not really.” She argued. “Your culture is very different from ours. Very different from most that I’ve seen, as a matter of fact.”
“Did Xena ever tell you that you talk too much?” Wennid sighed.
“Constantly, but it never stopped me. I’m a bard. It’s what I do.” Gabrielle answered without missing a beat. “But it’s true, Wennid. I’ve just been to Athens. I know what I’m talking about.”
The forest dweller watched her with a wry expression. “Gabrielle, we are not humans.” She said. “And once, we lived more like animals. That’s what I am trying to tell you. There are some who feel our nature has been altered by becoming more like you, and they don’t like that.”
“So.. they think it’s better to live without shelter in the woods?”
“Yes.” Wennid said, seriously. “Hunting their food and living in a totally natural way. Without fire, without tools, without anything. Just as the beasts do.”
Gabrielle looked at her.
“I did not say *I* believed that.” Wennid told her, a trifle tartly. “I like my comfortable home, and my conveniences, thank you. Porridge in a pot suits me far more than raw deer meat.”
The bard sat back down on the stool. “Are those the people who Rufus is courting?”
“Rufus is one of those people.” Wennid said. “He is one who believes we are becoming too much like you. He wishes for the old days.” She shifted, and adjusted one of the bandages on Lestan’s shoulder. “He thinks the salvation of our people lies in returning to our roots.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle exhaled. “Well, you know… I think that proves more than anything that we’re not as different as either of us would like to think. I have heard that sentiment from ‘my kind’ from one end of the earth to the other.” She said. “I can even feel it myself, when I look at Amphipolis, at what it’s becoming after the war, and there’s a part of me that wishes it could go back to being a simple crossroads village.”
“It’s not quite the same thing.” Wennid said. “You wouldn’t live in a cave, and eat bugs, would you?”
Gabrielle rested her chin on her knee and thought about it, her fair lashes blinking slowly. “You want an honest answer?” She gazed up at Wennid, a faint twinkle in her eyes.
“Let me guess.” Wennid covered her eyes with her hand in a melodramatic fashion. “If that’s where Xena wanted to live, I’d do it.” She opened one eye. “Right?”
The bard chuckled. “Yes, that’s very true, and I would.” She said. “But Xena, who’s about as down to earth as anyone I have ever known would never put up with that. She believes in making life easier for herself, for me… if she can use a tool to do that, she will.”
And as she said it, she felt the wash of seductive power she’d come to associate with Xena’s fighting passion. It crashed over her, washing across her skin like water and she closed her eyes and let it pass. There was no fear attached to it, just a sense of sheer pleasure, and she waited until it faded a little before she opened her eyes again.
“What is it?” Wennid asked.
“Xena went looking for trouble.. I think she found it.” Gabrielle probed their connection, searching for any hint of distress. But there was none, and after a few minutes the feeling faded, and their link settled back into it’s normal, background warmth she was just barely aware of. “Seems like everything worked out though.”
“What do you feel?” The forest dweller asked curiously.
It was hard to answer. Gabrielle nibbled the inside of her lip for a minute before she tried. “Xena… when she fights, she really enjoys it.”
“Ah.” Wennid nodded. “She is, after all, Ares’ Chosen.”
“It’s not like that.” Gabrielle objected automatically. “It’s just something she is really good at, and she loves doing.”
Wennid tilted her head a little. “Gabrielle, I did not mean that as an insult.”
“I know.” Gabrielle pursed her lips in a mute apology. “It’s just how she… how we both feel about that is kind of ambivalent.” She got up again and paced, responding to her own fidgetiness and to the energy coming down from Xena across their bond. “Xena and Ares have a very… complicated relationship. It’s hard to explain.” She said. “He’s done a lot of things to hurt her. He wants her to go back to being his warlord, and he’s not really into taking no for an answer. So we sometimes get caught up in things because of that.”
“Oh.” Wennid blinked at her. “You talk about him like he’s a pony. It’s very odd.”
“I know.” The bard repeated. “It’s odd to me now, to talk to people who worship him.”
Lestan stirred, and his eyes slowly opened, blinking a few times before he turned his head to look for Wennid.
“Right here, my love.” Wennid soothed him, putting a hand on his forehead. “Thirsty?”
Gabrielle smiled in quiet memory.
“Ugh.” Lestan surprised them both by making a low grunt. He clicked his teeth a few times, and lifted his head a little, squinting as he looked over at Gabrielle. “Ah.”
Gabrielle went back to her stool and moved it closer, then sat on it. “Hi there.”
“Wh…” Lestan cleared his throat. “Xena?”
“She’s out looking for trouble.” Gabrielle told him. “She’s tracking the people who attacked your village.”
“Need to talk t’her.”
“Now?” Gabrielle asked.
Gabrielle almost smiled. “I’ll go get her.”
“I’ll make sure someone’s looking after your little one.” Wennid offered. “I heard there was a little ruckus in the nursery yesterday.”
The bard was already getting up, giving in to the pull she could feel. “I’ll check on her before I go. I think the minders have a clearer idea of how to handle Dori now.” She patted Lestan on the knee. “Hang in there.”
Wennid watched their human friend leave, her steps quickening as she reached the door and headed outside. “Do you really need to speak with Xena, Les?”
“Uh.” Her soulmate nodded weakly. “Dangerous.”
Wennid gazed at the now empty door. “Dangerous to her, or dangerous to us, my love?”
“Wild.” Lestan whispered. “Want her.”
“Well.” His soulmate murmured back. “They may have already gotten what they wanted. The question will be…what will happen next?”
“Mm. You may have said it quite precisely.” Wennid exhaled. “Have a care, little sister. Have a care.”
Xena stood at the base of the waterfall, taking a moment to stand and marvel at it’s beauty. It gushed over a series of moss covered shelves, pitching down from level to level before it dropped off the last and plunged into a crystalline pool.
She knelt beside it and scooped up a double handful, taking a taste of it’s sweet chill before she drank the rest of it down. The water held a hint of the granite beneath it, and she licked the droplets off her lips as she held her hands in the weakly filtered sun to watch the bit remaining on her skin catch the light.
It felt very wild. Xena had been in many places, in many parts of the world but there had been very few where she’s felt the touch of her kind so lightly.
Thinking about that, she took a seat on a rock near the base of the falls and extended her legs, crossing them at the ankles as she absorbed the stillness around her. She decided she liked it. It reminded her a bit of being far out at sea, where you could sit on a boat’s bow and be surrounded by nothing but the soft murmur of the waves.
A memory unexpectedly assailed her, bringing a faint smile to her face.
“Xena.. I don’t think I can take much more of this.”
Xena regarded the miserable looking bard. Gabrielle’s face came close to matching the color of her eyes, and her travel stained top, and even Xena’s pressure points didn’t seem to be working. “We’re almost there.”
“Ugh.” Gabrielle put her head against the wall of the small ship’s cabin, her face tensing. “Can I just swim the rest of the way?”
The sea had been rocking a little more than usual the past bit, and Xena was afraid it was only going to get worse before it got better. What to do? “C’mon. Let’s go up on deck.” She suggested. “It’s cooler up there, at least.”
“Ugh.” Gabrielle didn’t move.
Xena hesitated, then she took Gabrielle’s hand and tugged it, feeling the skin under her fingers chilled and clammy. “Gab?”
One green eye opened and gazed piteously at her. “If I move, you may regret it.”
“I’ll take the chance.” Xena tugged again. “I know a spot up on the deck I think you might like.”
It occurred to her that what she was saying and how she was feeling wasn’t normal. She knew her attention to her friend’s comfort wasn’t typical. She wondered when the same thing would occur to Gabrielle.
The hand she was holding tensed, and clasped around hers. Xena looked through the gloom of the cabin and found Gabrielle looking back at her, head tilted just a bit to one side in gentle question. “C’mon.” Xena said again, and this time her friend pushed away from the wall and stood and they walked together out of the tiny space and up the creaking wooden steps to the deck.
“Where?” Gabrielle asked.
Xena led her up past the mast, past the sailors sprawled on the deck mending sail, past the cook scraping salt off a few stiff, dried fish, and past the captain standing at the wheel. They climbed up onto the forecastle, edged past the rigging, and arrived on the very bow of the ship.
“Uh.” Gabrielle grabbed for one of the sheets as the boat rocked. “Xena, I don’t think this was a good idea.”
“Sure it is.” Xena took a seat and patted the deck next to her. “Trust me.”
Gabrielle involuntarily joined her as the ship rolled and she fell to the deck with a yelp. Xena grabbed her before she could roll away, and held her until she got her balance.
“Okay, I..” Gabrielle yelped again and grabbed for the deck as the boat pitched and almost sent her sprawling. “Yeesh! Xena! Did you pick this spot just to take my mind off my stomach?”
“Overkill!” Gabrielle’s eyes widened as the bow rose up and the boat crested a wave. “Yow!”
Xena grabbed her again before she could roll away, then found her subconscious making a decision for her without consultation. She put an arm around Gabrielle’s waist and lifted her up, plopping the bard down between her legs, braced against the railing. “There.”
“Urk.” Gabrielle squeaked. “You didn’t…”
Xena put her other arm around Gabrielle. She felt the motion as the bard inhaled sharply, but for a moment neither of them spoke. Then the lean, muscular surface under her forearms relaxed as Gabrielle exhaled. “Yes, I did.” Xena said “If you fell overboard, I’d just have to go get you, and I’m not in the mood to swim right now.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle said. “Well…thanks.”
The breeze from behind and one side cooled them. The sun splashed down over them, it’s rays broken by the slowly gathering clouds. Xena took a deep breath as the ship crested another swell and tightened her hold, trying not to react when Gabrielle responded by leaning back against her.
She felt something of a coward, using the specious excuse of the weather to forgive her desire. The warmth of the contact certainly made her feel better, though she had a doubt as to whether it would do anything for the bard’s seasickness.
Gabrielle’s head came to rest against her collarbone. They sat together in silence for a space, riding the waves in a natural rhythm as Xena’s powerful legs kept them neatly in place.
“Wow. You know Xena? This really works.” Gabrielle said, suddenly.
Huh? Startled out of a daydream, Xena looked at her companion in surprise. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle casually draped her arms along Xena’s thighs. “It really does. I feel much better now.”
Sometimes, you just got lucky. Xena grinned. “Great. See? I told you it’d work.” She told the bard. “Stomach back to normal?”
Gabrielle put a hand over her belly, and her profile crinkled into a curious smile. “Well… not exactly. But I don’t feel sick anymore.”
Xena felt a touch on her knee, and realized Gabrielle was stroking the skin there with her thumb. She looked at her friend. Gabrielle looked back at her.
A wave crashed into the bow and the spray washed over both of them.
“Mmph.” Xena smiled, and shook her head, glancing idly to one side into the pool of crystalline water. She spotted a flash of sunlight at the bottom and leaned closer, shading her eyes with one hand. “Ah.” She got up and dropped to knee next to the water, reaching down into it and retrieving the item causing the glint. A bit of golden amber lay in her palm, and on impulse she stuck it into her pouch for safekeeping.
“Never know what that might come in handy.” Xena stood and dried her hands on the edge of her tunic. She looked across the pool into the dense green, and spotted a darker area just behind it. It looked like as good an area as any to investigate, so she found a convenient rock and stepped on it, then leaped across the pool to the other side.
The leaves closed in around her and she held them back lightly with one hand as she made her way through the trees. The smell of earth came to her strongly, and she knelt, brushing aside the covering of dead foliage to expose the ground underneath. Her finger traced a half moon shaped mark, and she nodded, her nose also capturing a hint of horse manure.
She continued forward, touching the recently bruised leaves and broken branches that cleared a path more than large enough for her to pass through. Forest dwellers could hide, but one thing Xena had learned when she’d commanded an army – it was damned difficult to make horses invisible to anyone’s senses, much less hers.
Horses were large animals, with big, hard feet, and a distinctive scent. They also, unless very well trained, were noisy and skittish. Forest dweller horses were bigger than most, animals that size were usually used as draft animals by humans, and Xena felt very confident that she could track the stolen beasts wherever it was they’d taken them.
She moved on, putting her boots carefully down on the ground and letting the branches slide slowly off her body as she followed faint signs still visible to her eyes. The path led to a narrow cleft in the rocks, beyond which she could see a more open area. She plucked a bit of dun colored hair off the granite and examined it, then she entered the cleft.
Immediately, she sensed trouble. Her eyes went up quickly, then to either side, then behind her, but the ceiling was bare, the rock walls blank, and the green leaves in back of her were untouched save by a light breeze.
Alert now, she padded forward, the wind bringing her the scent of horses and sunlight.. and the muskier smell of the forest dwellers. Xena stopped just inside the edge of the rocks and looked out into a bowl surrounded by sheer walls. The floor of the bowl was covered in long grass, and cropping the grass was a herd of forest dweller sized horses.
Okay. So that was easy. Xena remained still and let her eyes move around the space. She could smell the other inhabitants, but they were nowhere to be seen and she got the distinct impression that she, herself was being watched.
She could feel a sense of waiting, of anticipation, and prompted by her instincts she lifted her eyes from the grasses and looked up past the lip of the rock.
Wild eyes, and a woven net full of heavy rocks met her gaze.
Xena felt motion behind her and she reacted, understanding the consequences as she jumped forward into the sunlight, diving for the grass and rolling forward as she heard a snapping sound and the rumble of rocks moving.
Bits of granite pelted her in the back as she continued on up onto her feet and whirled, in time to see the last of the rocks settle into place blocking the entrance.
The forest dwellers who had released them let go of their grips on the rock and landed gracefully, holding their ground as Xena braced her legs and put her back against the nearest stone wall. She kept her hands at her sides and just watched the two of them, both a deep golden in color and about the same size.
They were, as her earlier attackers had been, naked. They bore no weapons, but the claws she could see extended on their hands were sharpened, and colored with an ochre that glinted in the sun. They separated and took up positions across from her, watchful but not immediately threatening.
Of course… Xena returned their gaze with a cold stare of her own. Which one of them was the more dangerous was a matter of opinion.
One of them slitted his eyes at her. “Take away that armor and steel, and you’d be meat for dinner.” He growled.
Xena chuckled at him. “Take away the armor and steel and I’d be a real angry naked fighter in a very bad mood. You don’t wanna try it.” She cocked her head, hearing the soft rustle of grass as more bodies approached.
Bodies rose out of the grass in a semi circle around her, and she pressed her shoulders more firmly against the rocks. There were now six of them, but instead of attacking, they just stood and waited, arms held slightly out from their bodies, claws exposed.
Gabrielle was, Xena noted mournfully, going to be upset at her. She’d promised to stay out of trouble, hadn’t she?
Ah well. “Now what?” She addressed her adversaries. “Someone going to start playing dance music?” Deliberately, she turned her back on them and walked to the rock pile, taking hold of a likely looking one and tossing it over her shoulder. “Waste of granite.” She muttered, picking up another rock and chucking it to one side.
Xena chucked another rock. She sensed a body closing on her, and chose her next stone carefully, setting her boots in the ground with a slight twist before she swung around and released it, whipping her arms forward and sending the rock slamming against her gold coated adversary’s chest.
She flexed her hands, facing the tightening circle with baleful eyes.
“Hold.” A deeper voice behind them stopped the circle’s motion.
Xena looked past the now still forest dwellers to see another approaching, this one with almost black fur, taller, and definitely older. He gazed dispassionately at her, then clicked his claws together causing the others to back off. “You will come with us.” He addressed Xena.
“No.” Xena replied. “I don’t pal around with people who try to bury me in rocks. Just a quirk of mine.”
The newcomer flexed his hands. Xena merely put her fists on her hips and waited, one eyebrow hiked. “We just want to talk to you, human. Nothing more.”
Xena turned and looked at the rocks, then at him. She snorted.
“A way to get you to stay long enough to listen.” The forest dweller said. “There are things you do not understand, and you should, before you meddle in them.” He stepped forward and held a hand out, palm up. “Come and gain a greater knowledge.”
Xena regarded him for a moment, then shrugged and walked towards him, reaching out and laying her hand on top of his and tipping her head back to meet his eyes squarely. “All right.” She said. “But if your idea of giving knowledge is a blind attack, you’ll get what you deserve in return.”
The forest dweller’s dark eyes glinted for a moment. “Leave your weapons here.” He said.
“Sure.” Xena shot right back. “If you cut your hands off and pull your eyeteeth and leave em next to them.” She said. “Wanna?”
His muzzle wrinkled faintly, into an almost grimace. “We could just kill you.”
“You could try.” Xena acknowledged. “But if you’re gonna, do it now, because I want to get back to the village before sundown and I’ve got all these rocks to move first.” She kept her hand steady on his and waited, her senses trained on his body language in acute alertness, knowing at this distance she’d only have a bare second to react.
He closed his fingers around her hand, then released it and dropped his. “Maybe you will leave this valley with less pride and more grace than you entered it with.”
Xena let her own arm drop to her side. “Maybe pigs’ll fly, but you’ll have to take em up to the top of that ridge to see it.” She let her voice toughen. “Get moving. If you’ve got something to say, let’s get it over with.”
He was grinding his teeth. Xena could hear it.
The forest dweller turned without another word and started to walk, curtly gesturing the others to walk before him. Xena dusted a fragment of granite off her sleeve and followed, hoping she wasn’t getting herself into something she was going to live to regret.
Continued in Part 4