Standard Disclaimers -
These characters, and boy, are they ever characters, are mostly the property of Renaissance Pictures, Universal MCA, and whoever else owns stock and interest in Xena: Warrior Princess. This fiction was written for my amusement only, and not in any way, shape or form for profit - and it is not intended to infringe on the copyright holders of the characters.
Some of the characters are mine, and the story ideas.. well, who knows where they come from? Must be one weird place, that's for sure.
Specific Story Disclaimers:
Violence - this is a Xena:Warrior Princess story. This is not Teletubbies. Even though there are some rumors of similarities. Some of the violence is graphic, but we try not to dwell on it.
Subtext - Considering that the TV Series just aired an episode establishing Xena and Gabrielle as eternal soulmates, any disclaimer of subtext on my part is really kind of goofy in the extreme. The two characters are in love with each other, and have been for years. You can choose to see them as just friends, but then you might not want to read this fanfic, in case it changes your mind or anything like that.
Emotional Content - this is not one my more comedic efforts. There are moments of humor, however.
Dark Comes the Morning - Part 1
It was that early hour, just before dawn breaks, when the world is silent. Mostly. No birds sang yet, and the wind had died, leaving the trees still in it's wake, as though everything was holding it's breath and waiting for the first ray of sun to color the eastern sky. It was warm, this fall morning, humid with the promise of a later rain, and the air moved sluggishly aside to admit the passage of a soft, rhythmic drumming.
The sound of boots on soft, dew rich dirt that vibrated gently, and the quiet brush of green leaves against at moving body that slipped through them, barely leaving a trace on the path, which climbed steeply upward towards a high ridge overlooking a fertile river valley. They belonged to a tall, dark haired woman dressed in a sleeveless, brief tan tunic who was running along with steady, purposeful strides, her movements' light, and very powerful, with a sense of barely contained energy that prickled the senses.
The steps changed their rhythm slightly, heading up an even steeper climb, then the quiet, even breathing paused. "Whaddaya say… you wanna race the sun?" Xena half turned her head, and cocked an eyebrow at the alert, round face of a small baby tucked into the pack fastened securely on her back. "Hmm?"
"Bck." Dori replied, tugging on a lock of her hair, poking a tiny lower lip out.
"All right.. let's go then." Xena agreed solemnly, turning her head back towards the path and picking up speed, her legs pumping powerfully up the steep incline and scattering moist clumps of leaf litter in her wake. "We gonna make it?" She called back, feeling the pull on her dark locks, and hearing the giggle. "I don't know.. I think your pony's slowing down here..
"Boo!!" Dori warbled.
"I'll try.. " Xena promised, racing along the ridge, leaning forward and heading toward the summit. Her body responded to the effort pumping blood in a powerful beat as she felt the rush of energy sweep over her. "You ready??" She warned, picking up speed effortlessly despite the steep incline.
"Boo!" Dori bounced a little in her pack, waving a hand.
"Okay… hang on." Xena laughed, as she bolted the remaining distance, her long strides eating up the path and creating a stiff breeze that blew her hair back. She made for the summit, and went the final distance, seeing the clouds break and the sky brighten as she exploded up and over the ridge, launching her body sky ward into the morning air to meet the first wash of sunlight, that bathed her soaring form as the dawn wind whipped by them.
They flew in glorious silence for long seconds, traveling down the other side of the ridge, before Xena twisted her body into a lazy flip and landed running, taking the impact on her knees and bouncing a little before she bounded into the small plateaus of waving grasses that sat just below the peak. "How was that, huh?" She asked her daughter, who was squealing with delight. "You liked that, didncha?"
A fierce tug on her hair. She knew what that meant. "Oh, so you want to upside down, huh?" She launched into a forward flip, eliciting a peal of laughter. "More?" She did another flip, then launched sideways, and twisted, whirling them both in mid air, then landing on the soft earth.
Dori laughed again, and she laughed with her. "Okay… let's watch the birds come." She trotted over to a favorite tree and tossed herself onto the ground next to it, unhooking the pack from her back and swinging it around so she could see her daughter. "Hi there." She greeted the child, unstrapping the harness that held her securely in place and letting her loose.
Dori's snub nose wrinkled up at her in delight as she scrambled free of her nest, and the sun caught her pale eyes in clear detail as she watched Xena's face in absorbed fascination. "Boo." She pointed at the warrior.
"That's me." Xena agreed, reclining on her side and propping her head up on one hand, extending a finger for the baby to grip. "Ooo… you're getting so strong." She told the child, who at eight months already had a decided personality of her own, including a stubborn, willful streak that Xena was convinced she'd gotten from her mother, to go along with the dark hair and golden skin tone contributed by Xena herself.
Of course, Gabrielle insisted the stubborn streak came from her partner, and she was backed up by Xena's mother Cyrene who delighted in telling tales of her offspring's childhood, and how much the infant Dori resembled her at that age despite the tall warrior's vehement protests to the contrary.
And despite the baby's sunny smile, which was all Gabrielle, and her gently mischievous nature which was also her mother's image, Xena did have to admit Dori shared more than a few of her own traits. Some good, like her fascination with horses, and a precociously growing coordination of her tiny body, and some not so wonderful, like her absolutely inexhaustible supply of energy and her tendency to effortlessly get herself into more trouble than an eight month old infant really should be able to.
That, at least, Xena constantly argued, was not inherited from her, as she'd stated last night at dinner, and spent a quarter candlemark listing the situations that Dori's fair haired mother had, with the same effortlessness, gotten them both into. Now she watched indulgently as the infant carefully got to her feet, balancing unsteadily and toddling through the grass. "Hey.. you stay close now." She warned Dori. "Don't make me come chasing after you."
Dori stopped, and looked back over her shoulder, studying her tall caretaker seriously. Then that mischevious grin took over, and she bolted, rambling unsteadily over the ground with her newly developed and much loved skill of walking.
Xena sighed, chuckling. "That's my kid." She grinned in self-acknowledgment and gathered herself up, coiling her legs under her and leaping over the baby's head, to land on all fours before her. "Ah hah!"
The green eyes widened. "Boo!" The baby blurted, stopping and swaying a little, as she pointed accusingly at her. Then she turned and toddled in the other direction, heading for a small outcropping of rocks.
Xena pounced again, landing in front of the rocks, and keeping the infant back from them. "Oh no… not those again.. you got your foot caught the last time." She warned the baby.
Dori stopped again, and scowled, her tiny brow wrinkling in severe displeasure. "Bck." Her tiny tongue stuck out, making her expression so like one of Gabrielle's that Xena started laughing despite herself. Dori decided to play tag instead, and made a rush at Xena, holding her hands out with clutching fingers. "Goo!"
Xena hopped out of the way, grinning.
Dori stopped, and swayed, pouting, then headed in the new direction, after her dark haired bunny buddy.
The warrior hopped out of the way again, leading her daughter slowly back towards the tree. After three or four more hops, Dori had had it. She stopped, and put her tiny hands on her hips. "BOO!!!!" She wailed in frustration.
Xena laughed gently, and sat down, holding her arms out. "Okay, cute stuff.. c'mere."
The baby looked at her suspiciously, then toddled forward, bumping into Xena's body and whapping her on the chest with both hands. "Bck." She clucked, then gurgled when the powerful arms closed around her and picked her up, as Xena rocked onto her back, setting the infant on her stomach and hugging her. "Hmm…" Dori warbled happily, returning the hug as much as her small arms were able, quiet for the moment.
Xena relaxed, and let the warm sun soak into her, enjoying the peace of the early morning as she studied the tiny fist wrapped in her shirt. Dori had long fingers, like hers, and equally long arms and legs, though it was kind of hard to tell against the chubby baby body. "That taste good?" She inquired, as Dori chewed on a button, hiccupping a bit.
"Bck." Her daughter answered, squirming into a more comfortable spot and reaching for the lace that held Xena's tunic closed.
"You been watching your mommy?" The warrior asked, with a faint chuckle, as Dori stopped and regarded her solemnly. "She does that, you know." The baby's eyes, for a long time a murky blue, had recently lightened into a pale shade of green, much to Xena's delight. Now they winked at her as the baby blinked. "You're gonna be so pretty." She murmured, tickling the snub nose.
Dori giggled, her tiny face crinkling up into a familiar smile, and snuggled back down, returning her attention to the button with childish absorption. Xena crossed her legs at the ankles, and lazily enjoyed the sun, after their early morning jaunt.
Back in their cabin, her soulmate was probably just now stirring, as the morning light leaked into their home and spread across the large bed they shared. It had taken a while, but they'd worked out a routine that was good for both of them, and she'd been taking Dori out with her on runs since the weather had turned nice several months' back.
Now that harvest was here, and the weather was getting cooler again, she'd have to come up with something else to occupy the baby's time and energy, but she determined she would, since she'd noticed the hours it gave Gabrielle to pursue her own activities in the morning made the bard a much happier person.
They'd developed a pretty good system, she thought. She woke early, as did Dori, and she'd started taking the infant with her on her runs, or to 'help' her do her indoor exercises in the barn if the weather was bad. That rid both her, and the child of the restless excess energy they were both prone to, and Xena had found herself very much enjoying the private time with her daughter as well. After that, Dori would 'help' her do her chores, and tack up whatever horses she was working with, then near lunchtime Gabrielle would appear, and claim the tot, to give her a bath and make sure she got to eat. After lunch, Dori joined the twins, and the triplets at what they called the Amazon playpen, where they picked her up after dinner and got her settled down for bed.
Usually. Sometimes the playpen wasn't quite active enough, and Xena had to engage in a few rounds of 'catch the warrior', but it generally worked out.
It had been a wonderful, sometimes aggravating, occasionally frustrating eight months, but here she was at the end of it, finding herself surviving, and happy, loving her new daughter and enjoying an unexpected deepening in an already complex relationship with her soulmate. They had known each other a long time now on an emotional level, and a slightly shorter time on a physical one, but lately they'd been exploring a newly found intellectual facet, as Gabrielle hesitantly had started to discuss questions of philosophy and science with her.
Last night they'd talked about the sun, in fact, and Xena had found old dusty, half forgotten questions she'd asked herself as an adolescent stirring around again, brought up by her soulmate's persistent curiosity. Maybe, she sighed, that would distract the growing restlessness she'd been feeling lately, one that she'd masked with taxing herself physically, increasing her morning runs, and adding to the strength and flexibility routines she'd developed to replace her sword work.
Those, at least, had done their job. She acknowledged, glancing down idly and regarding a body that was in better shape than it had been in quite some time. Working with the horses and her training had added additional muscle to her long frame, and she'd recently dropped the extra layer of softness she'd picked up over last winter, when worrying about Dori's baby colds and her soulmate's frightening bout with the coughing sickness had kept her firmly entrenched at home, taking care of what was really important.
She felt really good… healthy, relatively relaxed, and lacking the gnawing at her guts that had plagued her for such long time, compounded from guilt, worry, dark memories, and the need to constantly refresh the stain of blood on her hands. A little restlessness seemed like such a small price to pay for that.. for this sense of quiet peace that allowed her to get a taste of what normal life was.
She found herself cherishing that taste, absorbing the simplest of things like attending the harvest festival with her family, which was tonight, or celebrating her mother's birthday, or learning how to properly mash edible items so Dori could successfully ingest them.
Drinking in the wonder of watching Gabrielle's face light up when Dori's first, stuttered 'mama' reached her ears, and ruefully sharing her bubbling laughter when they both realized the baby's repeated uttering of 'boo' meant, for some reason, Xena herself.
Boo. How in the heck did that kid get boo from Xena? Nothing she was even remotely called came close, not even the most goopy of Gabrielle's pet names for her. The warrior sighed, hoping her beloved soulmate didn't take to calling her that in public, and hoping Dori would gain a larger vocabulary shortly.
"Bck." Dori sat up and bounced on her, causing the warrior to glanced up fondly at her small daughter.
"You ready to go play with the horsies?" She asked, with a grin. Dori knew what horsies were.
"Boo!" Dori threw her hands up and tumbled off her perch, waving her arms and legs as she hit the grass.
"Oh.. you wanna fly some more. " Xena sat up and pulled her pack over, grabbing her active offspring and stuffing her back in her harness. "Okay.. we can do that. C'mon." She shouldered her pack, and headed back along the ridge.
Gabrielle allowed the morning sun to fully cover her body before she opened a lazy eye, and regarded the window benignly. "Pretty." She commented sleepily, as she stretched her body out, enjoying the feel of the clean, soft linens against her skin. There was only one problem with the picture, and that was the empty space next to her, but life, she'd discovered long ago, was a series of tradeoffs.
She got to sleep in, and that meant waking without her soulmate's presence, but also without the morning chore of changing and caring for Dori who was probably halfway across the nearby ridge racing squirrels or something by now.
Sometimes, she reflected, she felt like getting up and joining them, but she knew her partner cherished her time with their daughter, and she was sensitive to the warrior's unspoken need for it.
They both adored their daughter, but while Gabrielle found herself adapting to the changes in her life with relative ease, there was still an aura of wonder about Xena when she held Dori, as though it were some kind of miracle that might disappear like a soap bubble when the warrior least expected it to.
Gabrielle smiled quietly. They were so cute together. Dori was mesmerized by her tall, quiet soulmate and strongly preferred her as a playmate, which irked the bard sometimes. But she'd eventually resigned herself to it, since it was a trait she herself shared. How could she be mad at Dori for that?
Contentedly, she snuggled back under the covers as a cool breeze blew in, ruffling her hair. It was still early, the rays of light were almost flat as they entered the eastern window, filtered as they were by the trees outside, and she closed her eyes for a few minutes quiet reflection.
Had it been almost a year already? It was hard to believe.. but sure enough, Winter Solstice was only two months away, and that marked a year for them at home.
A year. Gabrielle gazed around the familiar cabin, shaking her pale head in disbelief. A year of trials, as they both adjusted to being parents, and arguments, over the best way to do things for Dori, and learning to be part of a stable community. A year of wonder, as they watched their daughter grow, and of peace, where she'd seen her soulmate gain at last a sense of family, and of belonging that had been denied her for so long
A year of healing, for both of them, and for her to finally get a handle on all the things that she'd lived through for the previous three. She'd grown up, she knew. She looked a life in a different way now, conscious of the choices she'd made, and the direction she was going in. It seemed strange, though, that she'd had to go practically to the ends of the earth and beyond, just to end up in a small village, not far from where she was born, living a quiet, peaceful life.
Gabrielle stifled a yawn, and decided it was time to get up. She scooted out from under the quilted covers and padded across the wooden floor, ducking inside the snug bathing area to wash quickly before she slipped into a sleeveless white linen shirt, which tied off below her ribcage, and a knee length skirt in colorful bands of fabric. She set her short boots on the bench nearby, before she grabbed a comb and ran it through her pale hair, glancing at her reflection in the mirror.
Well. She blinked at her image. A little soft around the edges, but not bad. She mused. She hadn't gained a lot of weight with Dori, and what there was had started to come off, when she'd gotten sick after that long spring rain.
That had been two weeks of not eating, and she'd pretty much ended up mostly skin and bones and weak as a kitten. It had been a slow rebuilding process after that, until Xena had eventually allowed her to resume her normal activities
The weather was still awful, though, so Gabrielle managed to coax her soulmate into teaching her some of the concentration forms she used in her own workouts, to rebuild her strength and regain the stamina she'd lost both due to her illness, and from her pregnancy.
Gabrielle discovered she really enjoyed the exercises. In fact, she'd concentrated on those, and on working out the kinks in her body rather than going back to her staff and she was pleased with the results, keeping to them even when she started working with her weapon again.
And though she still participated in the Amazon hand to hand tussles, she reserved her quarterstaff work for Xena alone, enjoying the scientific preciseness of her partner's form, and preferring to learn the subtleties of it from her, rather than whomp on her Amazon cohorts. It had become something comforting, and very relaxing between them, a pleasant way for her to keep fit without the tension of competition that was always present with the other women.
In a way, she realized, it seemed to remind them both of the long days they'd spent alone on the road, just the two of them, relying on each other, and spending their days and nights in constant interaction. Their lives here were busy, and she loved home, and her family, but there were those moments….
Gabrielle sighed, and nibbled on her comb. She wondered if Xena ever felt like that… if she ever looked up at the stars over head and remembered those long nights, as soft voices whispered out of the firelit darkness, naming the shapes as owls hooted overhead.
Then she chuckled at herself. "C'mon, Gabrielle.. you always romanticize that.. you forget to add in the freezing cold, and the heat, and the rocks under those bedrolls, and bugs." She grinned at her reflection, and pulled her hair back, tying it with a thin leather thong to keep it out of her face, then she pulled on her short boots and headed out the door, collecting Ares as she did so. "C'mon, Ares.. let's go get breakfast."
The wolf trotted at her side agreeably, though he'd been hunting earlier, and was still miffed that Xena had told him to stay behind that morning. It wasn't his fault, Gabrielle reached down and scratched his ears. Dori loved to maul the poor animal, and she usually ended up crawling all over him, chewing various parts of his body. Last night it had been his ears, which were looking a bit tattered, and Xena really just wanted to give him a break from their rambunctious daughter.
She was halfway across the courtyard when she heard a familiar voice call her name, and she turned, peering up the road leading into the village. Two figures were approaching, with the unmistakable feathers and swagger of Amazons. One had curly blond hair and a slim build, the other shoulder length dark chestnut locks and a heavier, more muscular physique. "Hey!" She reversed course, and headed towards them. Ephiny and Eponin returned her wave and grinned, as they broke into trots for the last short distance.
"Wow.. I didn't expect you guys until this afternoon.. you made great time." The bard laughed, as she hugged first her regent, then the dark haired weapons master.
"Yeah, we had good weather." Ephiny agreed cheerfully, holding her at arm's length. "Glad we had the excuse to come on down.. it's great to see you." The Amazon regent was dressed in her traveling gear, with a thick, fur covered pack hoisted over one shoulder. Her companion wore a darker set of leathers, and more weapons, but also had a pack strapped across her back. "You know we never miss a party, especially not one around your birthday."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Oh no. I've got a deal on with Xena… I don’t' get surprised, she doesn't get surprised." She slid an arm around each of her friend's waists and steered them towards the inn. "Otherwise, that'd just escalate until it got way out of control."
Ephiny laughed. "Where is tall, dark and dangerous, anyway?"
"Out running with Dori." Gabrielle answered, with a grin. "You interested in some breakfast?"
Ephiny and Eponin exchanged cautious glances. "Wow.. the last time we were here, she was just learning to walk." Eponin muttered, impressed.
Gabrielle stared at her a moment, then burst into laughter. "Oh, come on now… did you think she was… no.. gods… Xena has a backpack she carries her in." She tsked at them. "Good grief, people.. she's eight months old."
"Well.. " Ephiny chuckled. "Considering who her parents are, nothing would surprise me." She gave Gabrielle a friendly squeeze. "You look good…it's great to see you so happy, my friend." She paused. "How's Gran doing?"
The bard sighed. "Better…I assigned one of the younger Amazons to help her out… Toris is sweet, but he so clueless.. I sometimes have to really wonder if he and Xena are related." A warm presence washed over the edges of her senses, and she paused, glancing back towards the slope on the far side of their cabin. "Ah… speaking of which… "
Ephiny turned and looked where her eyes were, spotting a leaf edged path, it's length dappled in sunlight. As she watched, the patterns shifted and moved, covering a large, moving form that picked up the tinted sunlight, and resolved into Xena's distinctive features as she cleared the end of the path and entered the village.
The regent studied the running warrior, then gave the bard a wry look. "She looks great, Gabrielle." She commented quietly.
The green eyes were fastened on the approaching figure, and a tender smile crossed the bard's lips. "She does, doesn't she?" Gabrielle replied contentedly. "It's been so good for her to be home.. for both of us, really." She lifted a hand in greeting. "Hey.. look who showed up?"
Xena slowed to a walk, then paced over, her light, sweat dampened tunic clinging to her body and moving with her steady breathing. "Well well… you guys are early."
"Mama!" Dori had spotted her target, and they all smiled, as Xena unbuckled her pack and removed it, loosening the straps and getting the wriggling, squirming body free.
"Hold on.. hold on, ya little tree frog.. " The warrior laughed, as she extracted a tiny foot from a strap, then handed her over to her mother. "Here you go.. "
"Mama, mama." Dori managed to get both arms mostly around the bard's neck, then kissed her enthusiastically.
"Aww… " Ephiny laughed. "That's so cute."
"Y'know.. " Eponin mused thoughtfully. "They say kids just copy what they see."
Silence, as they all looked at her. Then Gabrielle blushed. "Oh gods…Pony!!" She giggled.
"What?" Eponin looked puzzled, while Xena covered her eyes, and Ephiny just burst out laughing. "Oh!" The weapons master said. "That's not what… oh, Artemis' boots.. " She groaned. "I didn't mean it like that!"
Dori turned in her mother's arms and looked at them, putting a finger in her mouth, then she smiled shyly at them, looking up through long, dark lashes.
"Damn, Gabrielle… she's going to be a heart stealer, you know that?" Ephiny regarded the child affectionately. "Hi, cute stuff." She laughed gently. "She looks just like you when she smiles, Gabrielle."
"Yeah.. so I hear." The bard's eyes twinkled. "C'mon…let's go inside… I'm starving."
"Some things never change. "Xena remarked dryly, her eyebrow lifting. "I'm gonna go wash off… I'll catch up with you guys." She turned and trotted off towards their cabin, with two pairs of green eyes watching.
"Here… let me hold her." Ephiny tickled a tiny foot, which scooted out of the way. Dori gave her a scowl, but didn't object when she lifted her gently out of Gabrielle's arms. "Ooo… you're such a cutie…"
Dori blinked, then clutched a the boar's tooth necklace Ephiny wore, lifting it up and chewing on it.
"Um… " Gabrielle patted her non existent pockets. "Listen.. can you take her inside? I forgot a scroll I need for my meeting."
Ephiny gave her a look, then she smiled and shook her head. "No.. go on.. we'll meet you in a few minutes." She bounced Dori a little. "C'mon, tyke… let's go get some eggs."
"Ggs." Dori sucked on the tooth as they turned to enter the inn. At the door, Ephiny paused and watched Gabrielle break into a jog, catching up with her taller partner quickly and looking up at her. "Some things never change." She remarked to Eponin, who grunted, and shook her head.
************************************************************************Xena heard the footsteps, and she slowed, letting Gabrielle catch up to her. "Thought you were hungry?" She commented, lifting a brow.
"Oh.. yeah, I am.. " The bard responded. "I just forgot something.. I need a scroll… "
"Oh." Xena paced up the steps to the porch and crossed it, pulling the door to their home open and standing back. "G'wan.. I don't want to slow you down." She waited for the bard and Ares to go inside, then she followed them and closed the door. "Good to see Eph and Pony." She remarked, as she set her pack on the table. "I don't.. oh.. hi."
She found herself with an armful of bard, warm and real, that wrapped itself around her with a contented sigh. "Hey.. c'mon.. I smell like a pig." She chuckled wryly. "What's that for?"
"Since when have I needed a reason?" The bard mumbled softly. She breathed in her partner's distinctive scent. "And you don’t smell even remotely like a pig." She tickled her soulmate's belly through the fabric, and felt the soft chuckle. Then she sighed, and released the taller woman, walking over to her desk in the corner and retrieving the scroll that listed their merchant taxes. "I have to fill in today.. Josc is sick."
Xena turned, her tunic off and draped over her hands. "Again?" She asked, concerned. "That's twice this moon."
"Mm." Gabrielle responded softly, her eyes wandering up and lingering on the tanned body moving in front of her. "I know… I'm worried about him." She turned the scroll over in her fingers thoughtfully. "Isn't there something you can do?"
Xena didn't answer for a moment, as she ran a wet cloth over her body to take the sweat off. "It's hard." She finally said, exhaling. "I think it's his heart… and there's not much you can do for that, Gabrielle…really, just rest, and take it easy." She put the cloth down and pulled a clean shift out, settling it over her shoulders before she donned her working gear, with it's padded sections. "Things just wear out, after a while." She added softly. "Happens to everyone."
Gabrielle wandered over and fiddled with a buckle on her soulmate's outerwear. "You can't tell from looking at him, though."
"No." Her partner replied, tightening her belt with brisk, efficient movements. "It's like when bugs attack a tree, I guess… looks fine on the outside, but then you pull a branch, and it just crumbles."
"Ugh. That's a pleasant thought." The bard winced. "Thanks, Xena."
The warrior smiled a bit. "Sorry." She apologized. "At least Josc had the sense to name you deputy reeve…gives him a break, too." She patted the smaller woman on the back. "You do a good job.. and I think you enjoy it."
"Mm." Gabrielle murmured. "I do…yeah… and that's good, I mean, you enjoy what you do here, right?" She glanced up at the angular face.
"Yeah." Xena answered, adjusting a last buckle, and turning to face her. "I do." Her head cocked to one side. "Why?"
Gabrielle hesitated, then smiled. "Just asking… it's just been so different for us here…the days go by so fast, you hardly realize it." She paused. "It'll be a year soon, won't it?"
Pale blue eyes studied her. "Yes." Xena agreed, drawing the word out. "It's hard to believe." She thought about it, then about her pensive soulmate. "You miss being out there." There was no question in her tone, just quiet observation.
The bard laughed it off. "C'mon, Xena.. what's there to miss? Rain? Snow? The hard ground? Being attacked every other day?" She scoffed. "I'd be nuts to miss all that."
A solid, gentle hand cupped her cheek. "I miss it too, sometimes." The warrior replied, honestly. "So I guess I’m nuts too."
The sunlight filtering through the window caught golden sparkles as it dusted Gabrielle's pale eyelashes, which flickered as she peered sheepishly up at Xena through them. "Do you know what I miss the most?"
Xena shook her head. "No.. what?"
"This is going to be strange, coming from a chatterbox like me, but I miss the silence." The bard paused. "We've been to places so quiet I could hear my soul breathing…where all I had to do to concentrate on something was close my eyes." She sighed. "I can't do that here… it's too busy, there are too many people.. so many things I have to do… even without Dori."
"It does get crazy, sometimes." Xena agreed, hesitantly. "But at least it's not Athens, or something."
"No, I know…" Gabrielle put her hands against Xena's stomach, wanting the contact. "But sometimes I feel like…well, like I'm losing touch with part of myself… like I get so busy, I forget all about stuff like… " She let her words trail off, unwilling to speak what she knew was the truth. "Maybe it's all a part of just growing up…you can't look at the world through a child's eyes forever." Her shoulders moved, as she took a breath, then she looked up into Xena's worried eyes. "I guess what I'm saying is that I don’t dream anymore." She paused awkwardly. "Like I used to."
A faint tremor ran through the warrior's body. "What do you mean?"
Gabrielle dropped her eyes. "I don’t really know, myself." She shrugged a little. "I just remember being able to look around me, and have ideas and thoughts just…bubble up… I guess… and now, that just doesn't happen." She plucked idly at a strap. Truth time. "I sat down yesterday and tried to come up with a poem, and I couldn't." She shrugged again. "It's not that I have to have that, Xena…I love living here, I love Dori… the gods know I love you, and that's enough for any human being, isn't it?"
"No." Xena replied seriously. "It's not."
It was as though the words alone worked a magic, as if the mere acknowledgment from her partner that what she was feeling was important made her step back, and see how silly, and how selfish she sounded. "Yes it is." She gave her soulmate a tiny smile. "I probably just wasn't trying hard enough, or I was distracted… that used to happen to me all the time." She laughed a bit. "I'm not even sure why I mentioned it… kinda silly."
Xena lifted a hand and played with a curl of her hair. "Because it bothers you." She replied, her voice a little husky. "And if something bothers you, I wanna know about it." She exhaled. "Maybe we can take some time out… take a trip somewhere for a few days… Dori's old enough to stay with grandma."
"Just you and me, huh?" Gabrielle felt a smile coming on, and she let it.
"Just you and me." Her soulmate confirmed.
The bard leaned forward and hugged her, reveling in the solid warmth of their connection. "I'd love to do that." It felt so good to hug Xena.. there really wasn't anything she could think of that came close to how happy it made her to just feel what she was feeling right now. Even holding Dori, which she adored doing, just wasn't the same.
Her life was getting too busy. She needed to remember to take time out for the really important stuff, like this. "Mm." She let her eyes open, and drift up to Xena's, and felt her breathing catch. The warrior had her own eyes closed, and there was a look of utter contentment on her face, which matched the slow, even beating of her heart against Gabrielle's cheek. It took a moment before the dark lashes fluttered, revealing crystal blue eyes that peered at her in gentle startlement.
"Um.. listen, you've got stuff to do, I.. " Xena released her, and ran a hand through her hair. "Guess we should get going."
A trip with just the two of us. Gabrielle gave her an affectionate pat. That's a damn, damn good idea…. For a lot of reasons. "Okay, tiger… c'mon over and get some breakfast with me."
"You got it." The warrior agreed, pushing the door open and holding it. "C'mon Ares."
The table was noisy, with all the Amazons, plus the six children being passed around. Xena was in her favorite chair, leaning back with one foot braced against the table trestle, watching in amiable bemusement as the fuzzy triplets tried to climb their way up her booted legs. Dori was sitting by Gabrielle, regarding her mother seriously as she consumed everything Gabrielle offered her in the way of edible food.
"Hey honey.. slow down." Gabrielle chastised the baby. "It's not going anywhere… c'mere.." She wiped the baby's face and tried to take back the bit of carrot Dori was chewing.
"Bck!" Dori protested, snatching her hand back, then stuffing the carrot into her mouth.
Gabrielle sighed, then gave her soulmate a sideways look. "Not one word." She warned, out of rote habit.
Xena's eyes twinkled, and she put a comforting hand on the bard's back, rubbing it a little. "Nope" Tiny Xena junior, whom everyone called Butterbean tugged on her hem. "Hey, kiddo."
"Pick" The tot insisted.
Xena chuckled, and picked her up, seating her on her lap. "So.. what are you up to?" She asked the baby, conversationally. The tiny forest dweller blinked soft, golden eyes, and wrinkled her snub nose. "Goo…baba yada."
"Really?" The dark haired woman bounced the tot a bit, getting a giggle. Then Butterbean spotted Ares, resting under Gabrielle's chair, and she scrambled down, heading for the wolf with ill concealed glee. "Uh oh."
Ares's eyes widened, and he huddled behind the bard's legs, whining.
"You big chicken.. she's just a baby." Gabrielle gave the wolf an exasperated look.
"With half inch long fangs, my bard." Xena reminded her, with a wry grin. "Take pity on the poor animal."
"Butterbean…be nice. Nice." Gabrielle patted the wolf's head.
Dori decided she was being ignored, and she looked around, spotting her favorite playmate and gurgling. She twisted out of Gabrielle's grip, and crawled across the table, launching herself into Xena's arms fearlessly. The warrior caught her, then caught the knowing look from her fair haired mother. "Not a word." The warrior growled.
Gabrielle smiled mischeviously. "Nope."
"Boo." Dori settled down in Xena's lap contentedly, and played with the buckles on her shirt, receiving a look of fond adoration from her doting parent.
"She's going to be a terror." Ephiny observed, her arms folded across her chest, and a grin on her face. "Just wait till she gets older.. she's going to run you ragged, Xena."
A wry look from pale blue eyes. "Oh.. I don’t doubt it." Xena agreed. "She already tugs on my hair to get me to go faster when we run in the morning."
They laughed, and the warrior relaxed into a warm smile as Dori curled up on her chest, and started mouthing a button, blinking sleepily. "Mama" She warbled, holding a hand out imperiously.
"Oh, one of us isn't enough?" Gabrielle laughed, as she nibbled a bit of her sandwich. "In a minute, honey."
Xena cocked her head, though, as she heard an alert from the watch outside. "Uh oh." She handed Dori to Cyrene, who was sitting next to her, and stood, listening. "There's a wagon coming in… some kind of trouble." She headed towards the door, getting three or four steps towards it before Gabrielle and the two Amazons joined her, and they headed out onto the large, shaded porch.
"What's up?" Jessan came from around the corner, ambling towards them as the boards creaked under his weight. "Trouble?"
"Dunno." Xena put her hands on the porch railing, and waited, focusing her vision down the long road the lead into the village. Gabriele slid up next to her, folding her arms across her chest and leaning against her partner's shoulder. The bard glanced up at her in question. "There've been a lot of refuges lately."
Xena nodded. "I know… that last bunch… their entire village was burned out."
Pale green eyes studied her face, unnoticed. "Does it sound like things are getting more organized?"
"Hard to say." The taller woman murmured. "The raids have been scattered.. but… " She straightened a little, as she spotted the incoming wagon, pulled by two exhausted nags who dragged at the patched leather traces with an almost desperate plodding. "Damn."
"Wow." Gabrielle ducked behind her soulmate, then trotted down the stairs towards the wagon, with her small entourage following. The driver of the wagon was so tired, he didn't even react to being greeted by a bard, two Amazons, a warrior princess, and a forest dweller.
Neither did the horses.
"Welcome." Gabrielle greeted them ,quietly, noting the huddled figures in the back of the wagon. "My name is Gabrielle."
The man gazed down at her. "Melchek." He answered quietly. "This is what's left of our village." He exhaled. "This is Amphipolis?"
"That’s right." Xena laid a hand on the back of one of the horses. "How far have you come?"
"Fourteen days travel." Melchek answered, glancing at Xena, then back to Gabrielle. "We heard this might be far away enough to keep out of the way of the warlords… is that true?"
Gabrielle exchanged looks with her taller partner. "They don't usually come here, no. I'm the deputy reeve… will you come in side, and tell us what happened?" She noted that Ephiny and Eponin had moved around to the rear of the wagon, and were speaking quietly to the inhabitants. "We have some hot soup… and we can take care of your horses."
"That would be a blessing of the gods." Melchek nodded wearily. "I hate to throw ourselves on your charity, but we've really no option… Edgar back there has two broken legs, and his wife's heavy with child."
"We've got several healers." Gabrielle told him, reaching up and catching his arm as he climbed down. "Come on inside… you look exhausted."
"Aye." He looked up, finally, and blinked, as Jessan loomed over him. "Great Ares!"
"No no… flattery will get you nowhere." Jessan responded, with a wrinkled muzzle. "I'll take the horses." He paused, as the man hesitated. "To the barn.. not to the kitchen. Relax.." The forest dweller added wryly. "I'm housebroken."
"It's okay." Gabrielle told him, pleasantly. "He lives here." She guided the man towards the inn. "Xena will take care of your friends… "
"Xena?" The man repeated, startled, looking behind him. "The warrior?"
"Yeah.. the tall, dark one with the blue eyes to die for." Gabrielle told him, with a smile. "Just take it easy." She put an arm around his shoulders, as they headed up the steps. "She'll make sure your friends get taken care of."
Xena watched her partner lead the driver away, before she joined Eph and Pony at the back of the wagon, leaving Jessan to unbuckle the horses. "All right, folks.. take it easy." She counted silently. The man and his wife, four kids, two older women. "This is it, huh?"
The man grimaced. Both his legs were splinted inexpertly. "Bastards… we didn't have a chance… they didn't even ask us to trade our lives for our goods.. they just rode in and took everything.. killing right and left." He glanced up at Xena, his eyes pain filled. "I got between a lance and my wife."
Xena's lips tightened in sympathy. She signaled some of the villagers, who came over. "All right.. he needs to go to the healer's… how far along are you?" She asked the woman.
"Six moons." The thin, pale haired woman whispered, her eyes sliding curiously to the two Amazons. "Are we safe here?"
Ephiny smiled at her. "Safer here, than just about any place I can think of that's not a walled city." She assured the woman, as three or four more villagers showed up. "Come on.. let's get you and the rest of these folks inside… it's warmer there, and you can rest up while Gabrielle works out where you'll end up." She exchanged grim looks with Xena, as they all started to move out of the wagon, and towards the inn.
Gabrielle wiped her hands off on a piece of linen, exhaling softly as she watched the small group settle down in the rough, but dry cabin near the back part of Amphipolis. The children had been sent to different families, but the two older women and the young man and his wife had elected to remain together. Renas had set the man's legs, and he was resting comfortably, his pain half eased by a healthy dose of herbs, and she had assured them they were welcome to stay, that Amphipolis only asked that they be as productive as their natures allowed.
Whether or not they would… The bard sighed, as she regarded the battered, grim faces, who watched warily as the villagers tried to get them settled in as comfortably as possible.
Xena entered, exchanging a glance with Renas, and crossed to the injured man, kneeling at his side.
The room watched her, avidly, and Gabrielle watched them, seeing the look of spooked awe as her soulmate's low, powerful tones echoed lightly in the room. Even after a year in retirement, love… you're still the warrior princess to them. She mused pensively, her eyes steady on her soulmate as she rose, and brushed her hands against her thighs, then swept the room with a pale blue gaze, to see them all looking back at her.
Xena's eyes dropped, and she hunched her shoulders a little, then stalked out, shutting the door behind her, giving Gabrielle a dark look before she left.
A hand on Gabrielle's arm startled her, and she glanced at the older woman she'd been giving some lunch to. "Are you all right?"
"Yes…" The woman's eyes went to the door. "That was the warlord Xena, wasn't it?"
Oh, what a complicated question. "Not quite." The bard told her. "She was… yes, but she gave that up years ago, and now she lives here, just like everyone else."
"Mmph. Maybe this is a safe place then. " The woman stated gruffly. "With the likes of 'er here."
With a sigh, Gabrielle gave her a pat on the arm, then slipped out the door to find Xena standing near the well outside, one foot braced against a stump as she regarded the surroundings seriously. Gabrielle joined her. "Hey."
The pale blue eyes blinked, then turned to her. "Hey.. they all settled?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle leaned against the well alongside her. "They've had a rough time. "
The warrior nodded. "I know." The refugees had told a horrible story, which had sickened even the battle hardened Amazons and Xena herself. "That makes twelve villages we've heard about destroyed in the last three months." She shook her head. "It doesn't make sense, Gabrielle…raiding, yes, that I understand, but wholesale destruction? What does that get you?"
"Well." The smaller woman folded her arms. "It doesn't get me anywhere.. but if you meant where does it get a warlord.. I don't know.. maybe it makes sure there's no opposition?"
Xena shook her head. "No…villagers aren't opposition unless you make them that way…you cut off your supply if you make it impossible to live."
Gabrielle exhaled quietly, wondering if her soulmate realized just how detached she sounded when she spoke that way. "I don't get it then.. what's the point?"
The tall ex warlord contemplated the horizon. "Unless they're preparing the ground, so to speak."
Green eyes watched her, uneasily. "For what?"
"For something a lot worse than they are." Xena answered quietly, then she shook her head. "Or maybe they're just bastards." She shifted, and brushed her shirt off. "I'm going to go see if those horses got settled in right." She started walking towards the barn, and Gabrielle fell into step beside her.
"What if they aren't?" The bard asked.
"What do you mean?" Her soulmate replied.
"What if they aren't bastards.. what if they really are trouble… if they're starting something really bad?" Gabrielle persisted. "We can't just ignore the warning."
Xena's jaw tensed. "You think I should go do something about it?"
The tone of her voice rang alarm bells in Gabrielle's head, but she also knew she had permission to go places no one else did with her sometimes touchy, often tempestuous partner. "That's not what I said."
"Everyone else does." The warrior bit off her words. "They conveniently forget my hearing." Her jaw muscles clenched.
"Xena." Gabrielle consciously lowered her pitch, and put a hand out, touching the taller woman's arm comfortingly
"I haven't touched a weapon in almost a year, Gabrielle…do they think I'm just looking for an excuse?" Xena stopped, and rounded on her soulmate, her breathing a touch ragged. "Is that what you think?"
"Whoa." Gabrielle held a hand up. "Hold on there, partner…that is not what they think, and that's not what I think, and you know that."
Sullen, resentful blue eyes regarded her.
"What I do think is that everyone knows… and you know, Xena.. that you're the most experienced military mind we've got in this place, and they, and I, are looking to you for good advice on what to do about the problem. No one's saying you have to charge out there and start fighting." She stepped closer, ignoring the prickly signals almost exploding off her soulmate, and very deliberately pressed her palms against Xena's chest. "I think the one who expects that of you, is you."
Xena stopped breathing for a long moment, staring at her, then she expelled a long breath, and dropped her eyes. "That’s.." She felt Gabrielle's fingers move gently against her body, a touch as familiar to her as her own heartbeat. Did she? The warrior sighed, and ran a hand through her dark hair. "I have no desire to go back to killing."
"I know that." Gabrielle gave her a comforting pat. "Xena, don't you think I know how happy you've been the past year? Don’t you think that's made me happy, too?" She studied the troubled face. "But we both know ignoring trouble doesn't make it go away.. and you also know you're the best one to evaluate just how dangerous the situation really is… everyone trusts your judgment implicitly, honey."
She's right. Xena kicked a small rock in an oddly adolescent gesture. "Yeah, I know." She admitted. "Maybe I was just trying to convince myself I'm not capable of that anymore." Her eyes blinked as she looked up at Gabrielle. "And I know it's not true."
Gabrielle gave her a hug.
"I guess I could take a little scouting trip… see what the deal is." Xena sighed, then found herself being regarded by soulful green eyes. "Gabrielle…"
"You said she was old enough." The bard stated evenly.
Xena considered arguing, then realized leaving her soulmate behind was the last thing she wanted to do. "That's true." She agreed. "I guess we get our little trip sooner than expected." She slowly lifted her arms, and rested them on Gabrielle's shoulders, lacing her fingers lightly behind her soulmate's head. "I have one condition."
Gabrielle regarded her warily. "And that is??? "
"We both ride." Xena leaned forward and touched her forehead to the bard's. "You can't give me that story about you being afraid of heights anymore."
The bard scowled. "Xena… well, no.. I'm not afraid of heights, but.. "
"C'mon, my bard… we'll make better time, and if we've got to get out of someplace fast, we can." Xena told her sternly.
Gabrielle gave her an endearingly grumpy look. "All right.. but you have to promise we can walk them sometimes… my knees ache after a while otherwise."
Xena smiled. "You're on." She slipped her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders, and steered her towards the inn. "C'mon.. let's tell everyone, and get the screaming, yelling, ranting and raving over with."
Gabrielle smiled in agreement, and returned the pressure around her partner's waist. An ill wind, she reflected contentedly, that didn't bring someone good luck, and she considered a chance to wander alone with her soulmate quite a piece of that.
She tried not to wonder if Xena felt the same way.
The bonfire in the center of the market square roared, sending showers of sparks up to the stars as the logs in the middle slowly collapsed. A band was playing nearby, accompanied by the solid stomp of dancing, and the smell of roasting meat floated gently through the fall air.
"Wow." Gabrielle tucked her hand inside her partner's elbow, as they strolled along. "There are a lot more people here than last year.. I guess it's a definite success."
"Oh yeah." Xena agreed, as she slowed beside a merchant selling lamb shiskebab. "That it definitely is." She purchased two of the grilled items, and handed one to the bard. "Here…"
"Mm." Gabrielle accepted the offering with pleasure, and nibbled a piece of pepper off the top. "I think you like these festivals just for all the weird junk food they're always selling."
The warrior considered the thought. "Ehh… that's one of the reasons." She admitted frankly. "And you get to see things you don't get to normally… like that." She pointed at the fire eater. "And everyone's usually in a good mood."
They wandered over to the stage, and watched the fire eater swallow a thick wad of burning cotton, holding his mouth shut, then relighting the small torch he was carrying by breathing out.
"That's incredible." Gabrielle murmured.
"Eh." Xena shrugged. "Not really…I can do that." She commented, nibbling on her lamb. "Now, if he really wanted to be original, he'd light that torch from the other end."
Gabrielle's brows knit. "The other end? What would the end of that stick have to do with … " She thought the idea through. "Oh." She made a face. "You mean his other end, don't you?"
"Please don't tell me that's one of your many skills." The bard gave her a wry look. "Xena, that's gross."
The warrior laughed. "Well, to tell you the truth, I've never tried it… I did see a guy do it in Athens once, though… it was pretty damn horrific."
Gabrielle had to agree on that. The laughter rose around them, and rhythmic clapping from the dancing square indicated that the villagers were having a really good time. "Hey… let's go over there." She tugged Xena gently towards the music.
"Okay.. but don't blame me if you get duped into some stories." Xena reminded her, as she followed. Gabrielle was wearing a new, teal colored blouse and a pair of loosely fitting dark blue leggings, which the warrior found appealingly cute on her. She had her pale hair braided back into a cluster of knots at the base of her neck, leading Xena to reach out and tickle her a little.
"Yah.. " The bard jumped a little, then turned. "You punk."
The punk in question smiled, a flash of white against the firelit darkness. "I see that much skin, I've gotta take some action." She drawled, as they reached the dancing square, which was ringed around with trestle tables. It was crowded, and the servers were hurrying around trying to bring out large wooden mugs of ale and wine, and platters of simple foods.
Xena and Gabrielle found a spot near the edge of the square and claimed two seats, as the band started up again, and the empty space quickly filled with dancers, moving in shifting patterns to the upbeat music. The bard's foot started tapping, and she gave her partner a sideways glance.
Xena turned from ordering them both a mug of ale, and saw the look. One eyebrow rose, and a faintly reckless grin crossed her face. "Something you want, my bard?"
"Mmm…. I think I'd like to dance." Gabrielle drawled. "Know anyone that would like to join me?" She got out of her seat, and held a hand out invitingly, her eyes warming in admiration as she studied her soulmate.
Xena stood as well, tugging her soft, golden hued shirt straight. It draped neatly over her body, and contrasted nicely with the snug woven leggings in deep black that outlined her powerful legs. She had her hair free, and it waved around her face, picking up deep highlights from the torches, fluttering in the breeze. "I think I might know someone." She allowed, in a low purr.
They made their way to the open space, and joined the dancers, moving together in an instinctive rhythm, that paid tribute to their years together. The dances were simple, but energetic, and Gabrielle found herself enjoying the activity immensely as she dodged and stepped around her soulmate's taller form.
Xena seemed to guess her every move, and matched them, reaching over to catch her by her waist, and whirl her around, making the firelight swirl around her dizzily. "Whoa!" She laughed, as she was set back onto her feet, and Xena took her hands, pulling her into close contact as they joined the rows of dancers promenading around the square.
The crowd started clapping as they slowed, and broke up, most of the dancers going back to their seats for a breather and a drink of ale. The band started a slower tune, though, and several couples stayed, moving closer.
Gabrielle found her hands captured, and she stepped willingly into Xena's arms, slowing her steps as they kept time to the soft, gentle music. She could smell the warrior's distinctive scent, and it made her smile as she laid her cheek against Xena's shoulder
They finished their slow dance, smiling back at the friendly words from the couples around them, and wound their way back to their seat, where cold mugs of ale were waiting. Xena took a long swallow of hers, and snagged a platter of sweet bread and fragrant butter, which she set down beside her soulmate and offered to share.
"Silly question." Gabrielle cut off a piece and added butter to it. "Where to next?" She glanced across the area. "Oo… they've got some nice looking furs over there.. and we need new ones for the trip."
"Mmm… tell you what.. you go have fun with those, I'm gonna wander over to wrestling pit." The warrior commented. "Meet you over there?"
"Try not to get completely covered in mud, okay? " Gabrielle gave her a poke in the thigh. "We've got to get an early start tomorrow."
"Try not to buy out everything in the market." Xena retorted, returning the poke. "We're only taking two horses." She laughed at the bard's poked out tongue, then leaned over and kissed her, ignoring the looks from around the table.
"We're scandalizing the village." Gabrielle murmured, as they parted, and gazed into each other's eyes. "Deputy reeves are supposed to set a good example."
Xena laughed. "That is a good example." She nibbled the bard's nose. "It'll be great for the population."
Gabrielle stifled a yawn, as she tucked a last few items into her travel bag, soft and worn but very familiar to her touch. The festival had turned out to be a blast, ending with her finally wandering over to a large, packed area, filled with hooting and yelling men, women and children.
Being short, she'd long since realized, could be a pain in the butt, and it had taken her a little while to work her way up to where she could see what they were all looking at. At that point, she was recognized, and pretty much bodily hauled up front, to see her beloved soulmate facing off against what looked like a reincarnation of Goliath, including all the hair.
"What on earth?" She whispered to a neighbor, as Xena dodged neatly out of the way and dropped, spinning and tangling her legs with the behemoth's, causing him to crash down on the earth with an audible rumble.
"Shh…" The woman's eyes twinkled at her. "He raised a challenge…Xena couldn’t turn it down."
Of course. Gabrielle had turned, to watch the tall, dark haired woman gleefully pounce on her larger opponent, mauling him about as though he was a sack of grain. The larger man was strong, and he was determined, but he was outmatched, and the grin on Xena's face told him that.
They ended up with the warrior pinning him in a hold that Ares himself probably wouldn't have been able to get out of, and he slapped the ground in defeat, cursing under his breath. Xena released him, and stood, dusting her hands off.
And then Gabrielle had turned to the woman standing next to her. "So.. what was the challenge over?"
The crowd had started laughing, then. "Who'd go home tonight with the prettiest woman in the festival." Josclyn told her, with a twinkle in his eyes.
Gabrielle had stopped, and thought, and groaned. "Oh." Then she'd put her hands on her hips and regarded her soulmate, who was closing in on her, covered in mud and dirt, with her hair disheveled and her blue eyes sparkling in the torchlight. "Well, you both lost." She'd announced, surprising everyone.
And she'd taken Xena's arm, and stuck her tongue out at all of them. "I won."
She laughed softly now, thinking of it, and shook her head, glancing up as familiar footsteps sounded outside. The door opened, admitting her now clean partner, carrying their daughter, who was sleepily clutching Xena's shirt. "Hey there, sleepy girl."
"Mama." Dori burbled softly, reaching for her.
"Heyy…." Gabrielle gently took the baby, and cuddled her, smiling broadly as Dori giggled, and tugged her hair. "You're getting so big…I bet you're going to be twice the size when we get back, huh?"
"The way my mother feeds people? Probably." Xena remarked wryly, as she went to the low table near the window and closed up her own pack, hesitating a moment as she regarded a locked chest pushed against the far wall. After a moment, she dropped her gaze to her hands, and sighed.
Gabrielle felt the change, and crossed to Dori's cradle, tucking the baby inside it and pulling up the colorful, almost garish tiny quilt that had been a gift from Salmoneus. Then she straightened and went to her partner's side, putting a hand on her back gently. "Hey."
Soulful blue eyes looked down at her. "I was just thinking about…." Xena hesitated, then shrugged. "No sense in taking weapons… I'd probably cut my own arm off after all this time." She attempted a faint laugh.
Oo. Touchy subject…. If I agree, she'll get insulted, if I disagree, she'll argue. Gabrielle mused silently. Finally she released a breath. "Well….to be honest, Xena.. I think it would make you feel better to have them packed, at least." She told her troubled soulmate. "If nothing else, I can use them to scale fish, right?"
That got a sudden, unexpected chuckle. "Yeah." The warrior uttered, softly. "Maybe you're right." She tried to ignore the faint prickling of her skin at the thought of the familiar, sculpted hilt that had been custom crafted for her hand, or the sharp, clean feel of the chakram, it's inner edge nestling between her thumb and palm. "We could find some really tough rabbits out there, after all."
Gabrielle smiled, then reached up and undid the clasp on her necklace, sliding a small, but solid brass key off of the chain and handing it to her partner. "Here."
Xena slowly took the key, and examined it, then closed her fingers around the metal and nodded, her eyes thoughtful. She crossed over to the chest and knelt, hesitating before she firmly inserted the key and turned it, hearing the soft click as the lock released. She lifted the cover and peered inside, breathing in the soft scent of leather and metal that rose to her nostrils.
Inside, on a pair of old, patched furs rested two weapons. A brass hilted sword, it's pommel worn shiny with use, and a round, gleaming chakram. Even resting there, in the dim candelight, they spoke to her, being the defining tools of the person she once had been.
Xena exhaled, and let her hand drop down to the leather sheath, lifting it up and resting the weapon across her knee, then allowing her fingers to return and curl themselves around the chakram. She felt her heartbeat speed up as her body recognized the feel, and she stood, tucking the sword under her arm and closing the chest back up.
Half of her resented the feeling. The other half, the dark half that had been sleeping so peacefully all this time woke, and licked it's lips, urging her to fold her hand around the sword's hilt, and draw it, wanting to feel the familiar weight, and the edgy slice as the metal passed through the air.
What, and cut your damn foot off? You probably couldn’t even lift it. She scoffed at herself, as she determinedly tucked the sword into her gear, fastening it firmly to the back of her bag. The chakram she slid inside a front pocket, hiding the gleaming metal, with it's cobalt blue gems from view. "Okay. " She turned, to find Gabrielle sitting on the edge of their bed, watching her. "All set?"
The bard nodded. "All set… "She stood, and handed the warrior a cloth shift. "Here… let's enjoy one last night in comfort, hmm?"
Xena smiled, gently discarding the shift and capturing her soulmate instead. "I don't need a night shirt for that." She teased, inclining her head and kissing her partner. "And neither do you."
"Oh yeah?" The bard slipped soft hands up her shirt, and tugged the belt free.
"Yeah." Xena slid her grip up to fasten around her soulmate's waist, then lifted her up and laid her down on the bed, amidst a gentle cloud of harvest flowers, and the smell of fresh sheets.
It was a cold dawn, with a damp mist rising from the ground as Xena paced across the courtyard, heading for the kitchen to pick up some supplies. Gabrielle was already there, handing over their irritated daughter, who was grumpy she was missing her morning run, and confused at the activity and bustle around her usually calm home.
Xena flexed her hands, and tugged her cloak a little closer, feeling a little ambivalent about the trip. Not that a change wouldn't be nice. It would. Not that she didn't relish the opportunity to get out, and spend some time with Gabrielle, she did. It was just that…
The warrior sighed. She'd miss the little tyke.
The door opened as she got to it, and she ducked inside, giving her brother a glance. Toris was yawning, and obviously had just gotten up to see his sisters off, and also to pick up the tiny bowls of cereal for his two sons. "Morning."
"Morning." Xena replied, giving him a slap on the side. "How's things?"
"Busy." He bumped her back. "How long will you be gone?"
Xena shrugged. "Three.. maybe four weeks." She told him. "Ten days out to where they're raiding, a couple days to figure out if we need to get ready for them, then ten or so days back." She gave her mother, busy near the work table a wave. Gabrielle was standing nearby, rocking Dori. "All set." The warrior told her soulmate, who smiled back.
"Okay… now, Dori.. you be good, all right?" Gabrielle told her daughter seriously. The pale green eyes peered back innocently at her. "You listen to grandma."
"Grama.." Dori obediently repeated, then she pointed. "Boo!"
Xena smiled, and walked over, tickling a small foot. "Hey, spikey." She ran a hand over the baby's thick, dark hair, which tended to bristle at times. "You be nice to your grandma… or else."
Gabrielle laughed gently. "I can't wait until she's old enough to ask you "or else what?"" She smiled at the warrior. "Here.. say good bye.. I've got to get some parchment." She handed Dori off to her soulmate and picked up her pack, which she slung over one shoulder. "Be right back."
Toris wandered over. "Good luck, sis.. take it easy.. don't take chances, okay?"
Xena was disentangling her dark hair from a curious fist. "I don’t intend to." She gave Toris a nod. "Don't get into trouble while I'm gone, all right?"
Her brother gave her a brief hug. "We'll try." He picked up the bowls and ducked out, leaving Xena and Cyrene alone.
The older woman leaned against the table and regarded her daughter, who was tickling Dori and evading the swipes of the baby's uncoordinated hands. "You all set?"
Xena looked up. "Yeah… just need a few more things… " She paused, regarding her mother. "I'm surprised you didn't give me an argument about this."
Cyrene put out a finger for Dori to clutch. "Actually.. I'm glad the two of you are getting away for a few days. I think Gabrielle needs that."
Xena regarded her in mild surprise. "What are you talking about.. she loves it here. You know that."
"Oh.. she does.. I know.. " Her mother agreed. "But I think she also misses not spending more time with you…I mean, honey.. she was used to having your undivided attention all day, every day, for a couple of years.. I think she feels it."
Xena felt like she'd been hit by a cart. "B…" She looked down at Dori, who peered interestedly up at her. "But I… "
Cyrene put a hand on her shoulder. "I'm not criticizing you for spending time with Dori, honey…any new mother would do that.. and she has two very devoted ones."
"Goo." Dori agreed, mouthing the string that held Xena's cloak closed.
Xena regarded the baby. "I love her." She said softly. "Aren’t I supposed to want to spend time with her?" There was a touch of plaintive bewilderment in the warrior's deep voice.
"Xena, of course you are…" Her mother reassured her. "I'm not saying you're doing anything wrong.. you're not… I'm just saying that it'll be good for Gabrielle to have you all to herself for a few days, that's all."
"Mm." Xena bounced her daughter a few times, getting a giggle. "Yeah.. I was kinda looking forward to that myself." She admitted, with a wry smile. "It's been a while."
Cyrene smiled back and gave her a pat. "Good girl."
Dori pointed. "Boo!"
"Yeah.. yeah… listen, you behave." Xena warned her offspring. "Or no presents."
Dori scowled at her, then threw her arms around the warrior's neck, and nuzzled her, letting out a contented sigh so much like her mother's that both Xena and Cyrene laughed. Xena gave the baby a hug, looking up as Gabrielle returned. "Okay.. say bye bye to your momma… we've got to get outta here."
The bard took her daughter into her arms and gave her a hug, getting a tiny fist tangled in her pale hair. "Hey.. take it easy there.." She kissed the hand, then smoothed Dori's dark bangs back. "Be good." She whispered, peering into eyes the color of her own. "Okay?"
"Opay." Dori whispered back, enjoying the game, and giving her mother a sweet, babyish smile. "Mama."
"I love you, Dori… okay?" The bard told her daughter.
"Wuv." Dori giggled, tugging Gabrielle's hair. "Wuv mama."
A big smile creased the fair haired woman's face. "Oh.. did you hear that? What a good girl." Gabrielle gave her a delighted hug. "Xena, did you hear that?"
The warrior put her arms around her, and gazed over her shoulder. "I sure did. Good girl, Dori.. I'll bring you back something nice just for that."
"Boo." Dori warbled, reaching over her mother's neck to fasten a hold on Xena's shirt.
"Yeah, that's your boo, huh." Gabrielle gave her one last hug before she turned her over to the waiting Cyrene. "Thanks for watching her.. I hope she's not too much of a handful."
"Relax." Cyrene advised her wryly, giving her tall daughter a look. "I've had lots of practice."
"Hey!" Xena protested. "That was a long time ago."
Cyrene and Gabrielle exchanged mock sympathetic looks with each other, causing Xena to snort.
"I'm gonna go get the horses.. " She shook her head and stomped off, muttering, leaving behind a gentle laugh from her partner.
Outside, she was halfway across the courtyard when Ephiny swooped in beside her, the Amazon's short, fur lined half cape putting a gentle hint of herbs in the air. "Morning." Xena greeted her. "Thanks for sticking around while we're gone."
"Xena." Ephiny pushed blond hair back from her forehead as they reached the barn, and went inside. "I've got something I need to discuss with you." Her voice sounded serious.
The warrior was a little surprised, but stopped, and faced her. "What?"
Ephiny poked out one strong finger, and prodded the taller woman in the chest as she spoke, forcing Xena backwards. "You. Listen. To. Me."
Xena blinked, truly startled, as her back hit a support post.
"That kid of yours has got your energy, and Gabrielle's ability to get into trouble." Ephiny told her, fiercely. "And.. if you do something stupid, and I have to raise her, I'm gonna petition Hades, and I will find you, Xena.. I will find you, and I will rip you limb from limb.. you got me??"
Oh. The warrior closed her hand around Ephiny's, and squeezed it. "We'll be careful, Eph. I promise." She told her, solemnly. "I wouldn't do that to Pony." Her eyes twinkled gently. "Honest."
Hazel eyes glared at her. "You promise."
"I promise." Xena agreed.
"I'm gonna hold you to that, Xena." Ephiny warned, sternly. "I mean it."
Xena nodded. "I know.. this is just going to be a quick scouting trip, Eph…that's it. I'll get back here, and then we'll decide what we need to do, if anything."
Ephiny studied her, then nodded. "Okay." She exhaled, then let her hands drop to her sides. "I still think we should go with you." The blond Amazon added, stubbornly. "Pony thinks so too."
Of course Pony did. Xena leaned back against the post and considered. "We'll be all right." She finally said. "I'd feel a lot better knowing you were here, keeping an eye on things."
Ephiny scowled. "I won't feel a lot better, though."
Damn stubborn burr under the saddle Amazons. "And.. um… " Xena played her trump card. "I'd like some time alone with Gabrielle."
"Oh… " Ephiny's entire demeanor changed. "Well.. I um.. yeah, I should have… thought about that.. sorry." She gave the taller woman a sheepish look. "Now, that makes sense." She admitted. "Why didn't you say so in the first place?"
Xena shrugged. "The raiders are reason enough… this is just an added benefit." She cleared her throat. "Now, if you're done yelling at me, I've got some horses to fetch." She moved around Ephiny and secured the bridles of Hercules and Iolaus, the two young horses newly saddled, and ready to go. "C'mon, boys."
Ephiny picked up the small bag Xena had been carrying and trudged after her, in thoughtful silence.
Gabrielle walked out as she heard the soft approach of horse's hooves, and shouldered her bag, trotting down the stairs to meet Xena as she came closer. "Okay… we're all ready." She gave Ephiny a hug. "Bye, Eph… see you in a few weeks."
"Be careful.. and keep an eye on her, all right?" Ephiny whispered.
"I will." The bard promised. "Hope everything's nice and quiet while we're gone."
Ephiny gave her a pat, and released her. "Well, the tornadoes usually follow you, so it should be very peaceful here." She told her friend, with a teasing smile. "Take care."
Xena looked up, to see Gabrielle taking her last farewells from Ephiny, and she gave Jessan a nod. "We wont' be long.."
The forest dweller rocked on his heels. "Take care, my friend… we'll keep things safe here." He leaned forward. "You sure you don't want company?" He added, in a whisper.
Xena shook her head. "Oh no…last time I took a troupe of assorted 'helpers' with me, I ended up regretting it.. no offense." She vaulted up into Iolaus's saddle, and gentled the restive stallion, holding his brother's bridle as Gabrielle gamely mounted. "You all right there, Gabrielle?"
"Let's not go there." The bard firmly wrapped the horse's reins around one hand, and settled her knees. "You couldn't have picked a nice, slow, fat mare for me to ride, couldja?"
"Hey." Xena laughed. "C'mon… it's a great opportunity to get these guys used to the trail… and they're sweethearts, you know that."
Hercules shied, as Ares trotted under his belly, and snorted.
"Oh yeah." Gabrielle gave her soulmate a dour look. "I reserve the right to end up walking." They both waved as they started off, the horse's hooves sounding loud in the quiet dawn, as the village started to wake up around them.
They were both quiet as they moved down the road, until they reached the first turn and by common, unspoken consent, they paused and turned, regarding the gray and brown village tucked into the morning fog. Gabrielle rested her elbows on her saddlebow and glanced at her taller companion. "Well, here we go." A gentle tickle of excitement rose in her, as the first rays of sun peeked over the horizon, and warmed her face.
Xena gave the village a quiet nod, then nudged Iolaus on. "Here we go." She agreed, giving her partner a smile. "Let's see what's out there."
They resumed their outbound ride, as the sun rose over the river valley, and laid stripes of gold and rose across the landscape. The fog trickled through the horse's feet, retreating before the light, and the freshening breeze brought hints of wood smoke, and the river to them as they ambled along.
"Beautiful morning. "Gabrielle commented, looking around in appreciation. Then she glanced at Xena. "Did you remember to put out the fire in the cabin?"
Blue eyes regarded her in mild insult. "What kind of a question is that? Of course I did." The horses walked on a few paces. "Did you remember to give mother Dori's special blanket?"
"You'd hear her screaming by now if I hadn't." Gabrielle replied, smugly. "Though I think she's going to miss her 'boo." She kidded her soulmate gently. "She likes you better than that blanket."
Xena fiddled with her reins, and reset her boots into the stirrups. "She'll be fine." She observed mildly.
They walked on further, starting down the gentle slope towards the bridge, which would take them out of Amphipolis. "I'll miss her." Gabrielle finally said. "She's become so much a part of us." She reached behind her and took out an apple, turning it around a few times before selecting just the perfect place to bite into it, and doing so.
The warrior thought about her mother's parting words, and considered the past year. "That's true.. she is.. and I'll miss her too." She allowed, choosing her words carefully. "But there's a part of us that just you and me.. and it makes me feel good to be visiting that part right now."
Gabrielle stopped in mid chew, regarding her with blinking, pale green eyes. She swallowed hastily. "Really?" She nudged Hercules in the ribs, to get closer to her soulmate.
Xena relaxed into her saddle, and smiled, reaching out to pat the bard's knee. "Yep.. really." She was rewarded by an almost shy smile that lit up Gabrielle's eyes, and mentally chastised herself for being so damned unobservant. Of course they're lives were busy in Amphipolis. Of course Dori took up a lot of time… she was a new baby, and that was a given. Look at what Toris and Granella were going through, for example. But….
But, Xena, you idiot, mother's damn right.. she's been too quiet lately. She'd thought she was doing Gabrielle a favor, disappearing with the baby in the mornings…. Now she wondered if the bard didn't really miss waking up together, when they'd spend just a few moments indulging in nonsense talk and sweet affection.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's concerned voice broke her out of her self chastisement.
"Uh?' She looked up, as the bard's hand touched her wrist. "Oh.. sorry.. I was just… "
"You were muttering to herself and scowling, honey." The bard told her. "What's wrong?" She offered Xena a bite of her apple. "Did we pick the wrong road already? I know we only had two choices so far." A hint of teasing entered her voice.
"Ha ha. "Xena bit off a chunk of apple and chewed it. "No.. I was just mentally reviewing some options." She cleared her throat. "Looks like we'll have good weather today…if we keep moving, that'll bring us up to the big crossroads by nightfall… so we've got two choices."
"Okay." Gabrielle settled back, reassured by an old, familiar game. "What are the choices?'
"We can stop in Spiros… you know the inn there's not bad, though I hope the food's improved, or they're gonna have to start putting up warnings."
"Uck." Gabrielle poked her tongue out. "That's the place that has the goats, right? The one with the little store that sells goat everything? Goat milk, goat cheese, goat hooves, goat coats, goat…"
"Yes." Xena interrupted. "That's the place… you were going to get that ram's horn last time there."
"And you wouldn't let me.. I remember." The bard informed her. "Okay.. so what's my second choice?"
"Well… " Xena mused. "Just north of that is this… little spot I know of… or at least I did.. .it had some nice trees, soft grass, a spring fed lake…" She eyed her soulmate, who had started to grin. "No soft beds, no hot water…and I'll have to catch everything we eat." She warned.
"Sounds perfect." Gabrielle told her happily. "Will there be stars?"
Xena tipped her head back, and regarded the cloudless sky. "Oh yeah."
"Spiros can keep their goats." The bard laughed. "C'mon… let's go faster!" She kneed Hercules into a canter, surprising Xena, who burst out laughing and joined her. The happy sound trailed them as they thundered down the road and over the bridge, leaving home far behind them.