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 10
"Isn't this splendid?" Cait munched happily on a meat sandwich, as she carefully studied the surrounding darkness.
"No." Her companion disagreed predictably. "It sucks… we're out here in the middle of the night, getting eaten by fleas." Paladia crossed her powerful arms over her chest, splaying her long legs out in the leaf litter.
"Those aren't fleas." The young Amazon rolled her eyes. "And if they are, it's your own fault, Pally.. I told you to wash that sleeping fur."
"You saying I got bugs?" Paladia asked, in a low growl.
"Goodness no.. I've often thought you were bugs, but that's it." Cait answered, leaning back against the tree she'd chosen to sit near.
"What're we looking for?"
Paladia rolled her pale gray eyes. "You're cracked if you think any of em are still round here, Pipsqueak…not with your number one supreme warrior in there chasing em down like that."
"You never know." Cait replied, taking another bite. "Smashing sandwiches, Pally.. thanks."
"Oh.. like I made em." The taller girl snorted. "Least you coulda done is picked a spot with some light.. so I could sketch."
Cait gave her an exasperated look. "Really, Paladia…do be sensible… what good would light do me? I'm trying to catch rats sneaking in here.. do you really think they'd head towards the light?"
Paladia grumbled something unintelligible and thumped her heels in the dirt, exhaling in mock disgust. "Are we gonna stay out here all night?"
"Of course." Cait replied, unruffled. "But you can go inside if you like… I'll be quite all right out here by myself."
The larger Amazon rustled around for a minute, then thumped her back against the log without comment. A silence fell, then they looked at each other in the dim starlight. Cait reached over and patted her friend's leg.
Paladia merely scowled.
The morning was chilly, and Gabrielle used one hand to clutch her cloak about her as she ambled across the misty central area towards the bathing room. It wasn't going to be a particularly fun day, and she decided she might as well start it off clean, and as relaxed as the warm water was likely to make her. Ares trotted at her heels, yawning in the early air and sniffed at the scents coming to them from the dining hall with interest.
Gabrielle sighed, as she watched two of the local Amazons cross the space, carrying small children, and briefly wished Dori was there, finding herself missing her daughter more than she'd imagined possible. Especially since she knew Dori had resented their leaving again, a guilty knowledge that nudged impatiently at her, and made her wish the sojourn with the Amazons was done, and over.
The bard glanced up, and smiled. "Morning, Eph…how's it going?" She held the door to the bathing room open for her friend, and let her pass inside before her.
"Ugh." The regent exhaled. "You ever have one of those mornings you wish you could just erase?" She stifled a yawn, and started pouring warmed water from the hearth shelf nearby into one of the four large tubs.
Gabrielle joined her, after removing her cloak and hanging it on a hook near the door. "Sure.. who hasn't?" She dumped a bucket into her selected tub, then tugged her belt pouch free and added a handful of scented crystals to the water. "Listen.. I owe you an apology for last night."
Ephiny kept up her trudging, the expression on her face clearing showing she was reviewing the night before, and trying to figure out what Gabrielle had done. "Uh…okay."
The bard smiled to herself. "I ragged you out about the security.. that wasn't exactly their fault."
"Oh, c'mon now, Gabrielle.. they let not one but two people near that hut.. gimme a break." Ephiny scoffed. "I've got them on a garbage detail so foul, it'll be lucky if their own feathers don’t' run screaming from their bodies when they finish up."
"Ew." Gabrielle winced. "No.. I'm serious, Eph… I told them to back off."
The regent stopped, and stared. "You what?"
"I told them to back off." The bard lifted a bucket, and dumped it in with a grunt. "I mean… look, Eph… it's not like I wasn't well guarded otherwise, you know? I didn't want them just hanging around outside the door." She paused, and grimaced wryly. "It weirds Xena out."
"Mm." Ephiny rocked her head from side to side, then went back for another bucket. "No excuse, my friend.. they made us look bad, even though Aslanta's puppy got her tail whacked by tall, dark and dangerous… and speaking of.. where is she?"
"Fixing a hinge." Gabrielle answered, testing the water with one finger, then nodding. "That'll do it… she'll be along in a bit." The bard stripped her sleep shirt off, draping it over one end of the tub then vaulted over the edge, letting herself down in the warm, fragrant water with a sigh of contentment. "Any word from Aslanta?"
"Nah." Ephiny settled into her own tub with a groan, stretching her legs out along the bottom of it. "Pony said they were a little embarrassed about Chickapoo, or whatever her name was being caught and sent back."
"Bedda." Gabrielle supplied. "That's her name.. she was kinda funny, actually…I could see her face when she was fighting with Xena.. and Xe got behind her and just picked her up like she was a sack of oats or something.. I thought her eyes were going to bug out."
Ephiny grinned. "Mine sure would have…and that kid's no lightweight." The regent spent a few minutes scrubbing at her arms with a bit of sponge. "How's she handling this? Must have been a shock after all this time, huh?"
Gabrielle exhaled, and considered the question. "It's been… yeah, it was tough. Especially when we left the first time.. she was really beating herself up… she had a lot of questions… I had a lot of questions…" The bard slowly shook her head. "Deciding to cross that line again was hard for both of us."
"Damn." The regent murmured. "You know, it's funny… I never thought of that… I guess I never stopped thinking of her as a…" She pulled up awkwardly, realizing what she was a bout to say. "Anyway… I um.."
"It's all right." Gabrielle replied softly. "I never did either." Pale green eyes looked up and met hers. "But she did." The bard paused to swallow the lump in her throat. "Watching her lose that hurt."
Ephiny reached over the edge of the tub, and put a hand on her wrist. "Hey."
Gabrielle blinked, and rubbed her face with her other hand. "Sorry…" She exhaled heavily. "Maybe it's all this stupidity.. after watching that… I swear I just want to slap those women…playing games like that with her….augh."
Ephiny rubbed her wrist with one thumb. "Hey…Gab, you know us." She told the bard gently. "To be an Amazon… you pretty much have to live with being an eternal outsider… we make our own families, and anyone on the outside has to pretty much earn entrance to them."
Gabrielle looked at her dourly.
"I know… I know… Xena's a natural loner, right? She doesn't join groups, she doesn't want to be part of anyone else… the only reason she agreed to be made an Amazon was for you." Ephiny paused, then leaned closer, and peered at her friend. "What in Hades is that on your arm?"
"That's not true.. she fits in just fine in Amphipolis." Gabrielle replied, hotly. "The difference is there, they accept her for who and what she is, and the Amazons never, ever have." She exhaled in aggravation. "And that's a tattoo."
Ephiny's jaw dropped. "A tattoo??? YOU got a tattoo??? " She slapped her head with her other hand. "They must be ice skating in Hades." She scrambled out of the tub and came over, bringing a candle with her to see better. "What's it….." Her voice trailed off.
"Did you hear what I said?" Gabrielle gently grabbed her hand in strong fingers. "Forget the damn tattoo."
Ephiny leaned on the tub edge, and gazed at her. "I heard you." She told the bard quietly. "And I think that at one time, you're right. We refused to accept that. But now is now.. and now is different, Gabrielle. You know that yourself." She lowered her head slightly. "I want you to know the vote, when I had it.. was unanimous."
Gabrielle was silent, absorbing the information. Then she nodded a little. "All right." She murmured, then glanced at her arm. "Andreas brands his people…everyone who serves under him get's his mark."
Ephiny's eyes focused on the smooth, rounded muscles of Gabrielle's upper arm. "That's not his mark."
"No." The bard agreed quietly. "The man doing it… knew Xena, way back when. He saw my ring, and he put this on me instead." She eyed the softly glinting mark, the hawk's eye winking back at her. "I like it… it sort of makes me feel like I joined her tribe."
The regent smiled. "A tribe of two?" But her voice, and her eyes were gentle.
"Three." Gabrielle returned the look. "Ephiny, dry off.. it's chilly in here and you're dripping wet."
Her friend chuckled, and patted her arm. "How could I forget? I still haven't gotten all the green out of my hair." She picked up a folded piece of linen and unfolded it, then tucked it around her body. "She is a beautiful child, though… you know that, right?"
Gabrielle relaxed a little, tipping her head back and rinsing her hair off. "Thanks… I think she is…she made a new face the day before we left… the spitting image of that grumpy scowl of Xena's." She ran fingers through her wet hair. "Sorry about the green dye…the weaver was letting that cool up in the hayloft… he really didn't expect her to knock over the ladder, which caught that haybale, and dumped the bucket on you."
"Yeah, yeah… " Ephiny hesitated, then glanced around, and leaned on the tub edge again. "Gab… I've been meaning to ask you about Dori." She lowered her voice. "I've watched kids grow all my life.. and I've never seen one grow that fast, or learn the way she does."
Gabrielle rubbed one arm with a soapy sponge. "Um.. thanks…yeah, well, you know… I guess she's gonna be tall… and Cyrene said Xena and Toris were like that as kids, so.."
A noise interrupted them, and she looked up, relieved to see her soulmate padding through the door, a piece of linen slung over her shoulder. "Morning." Xena rumbled, giving them a curious look. "You two playing cards or something?" She paced over and stuck a hand in Gabrielle's tub. "Wanna share?"
"As long as you don't jump in and get water over everything." The bard told her, with a shake of one finger. "You taught Dori that.. I was bathing her the other day, and she was standing on the edge of the tub.. then all of sudden… bam!" The bard slapped the water with one hand. "Water everywhere."
Xena grinned, and set her linen down, pulling her light shirt off and depositing it near the bards. Then she very gently got in to the tub, careful not to cause even the lightest ripple. "There." She tangled her legs with the bard's and leaned back. "Pony's outside."
"She is?" Ephiny looked behind her. "Doing what?"
"Guarding your virtue." Xena replied, straight faced.
"My what?" The regent muffled a laugh hastily. "Oh.. boy is she ever out of the meadow."
"I told her I'd be responsible for yours." The warrior added, pointing at the bard.
"Oo.. save me. I feel threatened." Gabrielle scooted across the tub and threw herself into the warrior's arms. "Mm.. that's better."
Xena gazed bemusedly at her armful of bard and leaned back, cradling Gabrielle against her chest. "We'll need to get going as soon as possible, Eph… I don't like that infiltration last night. I pretty much figured out it wasn't any Amazon."
Ephiny wiped the indulgent grin off her face and nodded. "I figured… we've got half our force… it just remains to be seen what Aslanta does.. and if you can cut a deal with Tyldus." She wiped out an ear carefully. "I think he's up for it… the way he was…"
Loud voices drew their attention to the door, which shuddered under some kind of impact, then opened slowly. Eponin poked her head in. "You have a visitor." The weapon's master scowled. "Aslanta."
Three sighs sounded almost simultaneously. "Well, better we know now." Ephiny lifted a hand. "Let her in." She glanced behind her, where Gabrielle had reluctantly disengaged herself from her haven, and was leaning back against the tub wall once again. "Okay?"
Xena nodded. "Might as well."
Pony drew back and opened the door, giving the tall, aristocratic looking Amazon room to enter.
The Amazon queen strode across the room, followed by two of her warriors, her head high, and her manner unbending. "Queen Gabrielle."
"Yes? Good morning." The bard replied mildly. "Thanks for sending your fighter over to test our defenses last night.. it was a good drill."
The woman paused, knocked off her stride by the gentle speech. "Queen Gabrielle.. my warrior's have grave reservations about us joining your cause."
Gabrielle appeared to absorb that, as she scrubbed a knee industriously. "Okay." She replied readily. '"What's your plan then?"
A pause. "Excuse me?"
"I said.. what's your plan?" The bard repeated. "If you don’t' like mine.. you must have one you like better. So.. what is it? Maybe we'll like it better too." She glanced up at the much taller woman and cocked her head in inquiry.
Aslanta stared at her. "We have no such thing."
"Okay..so.. what don't you like about our plan, then?" Gabrielle persisted.
The woman's jaw worked a few times, but no sound came out.
"Must be something.. unless it's just that it's not your plan…but that can't be it, because I know you're all way too smart to let something like egos get in the way of us defeating Andreas… you know how important that is."
"Yes." The woman answered, in a strangled voice. "We know that."
"So.. talk to me." Gabrielle leaned on the edge of the tub and surveyed her. "Since it can't be just that you're not running the show, then it must be something really critical… something you believe is not going to work.. and I'd really appreciate it if you'd let me know what that is.. so we can reevaluate if we need to."
Xena merely sat back, and watched her partner go. Gabrielle's gentle negotiating skills always fascinated her. She was more likely to try and bully her opponents, or use force to get her way.. but her soulmate's careful, reasonable arguments would wear away even the hardest wall of opposition.
"Uh… we… had a concern…about what use our warriors would be put to." The woman supplied, reluctantly. "Amazons are not like regular troops."
Gabrielle glanced over at her soulmate and lifted an eyebrow.
"I intend on using the Amazons as scouts, and in ambushes." Xena replied. "They won't be making any charges on horseback.. or facing heavy armor."
The bard smiled at her and looked back at Aslanta. "Okay?"
The tall Amazon Queen looked at her, then at the warrior, then back at her. "Um… well, yes.. that's a good use of us, but um…"
"So.. you in?" Gabrielle asked interestedly, leaning on her elbows. "We'd love to have your experience in the effort… we've got so many younger warriors, and they need the leadership." Her green eyes gazed sweetly at the other woman. "It would really help."
Aslanta hesitated a long moment, then she lifted both hands, and let them drop to her sides. "I will take your answers back to my council.. but… "
A yell broke the relative silence, and heavy bootsteps sounded, heading towards the bathing hut along with more yells, sounding angry, and frustrated.
Xena grabbed the edge of the tub and vaulted over it, putting her body between the door and Gabrielle as it burst open. Her arms spread out slightly and tensed, as three figures came pouring in the room, pulling up with a sudden jerk as the icy blue eyes blasted them.
"Whoa..whoa… hold on.. " Solari held up a hand, catching her breath. "Take it easy, champ." She looked at Ephiny. "Runners just came in from the pass… two stragglers from a mountain tribe just got here…they were part of an entire nation that got taken."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. "By Andreas?" The warrior asked, straightening a little, and relaxing her aggressive posture.
Solari nodded. "Yeah… he's got them in cages in a holding area, just downrange from the pass… we gotta get them out of there."
"Yes." Aslanta agreed readily, glad of the interruption. "I will send someone immediately.. we have traded with that nation before." She started to turn, when Xena raised her voice.
"Hold it." The warrior's voice was stern.
"Surely you don't mean to keep us from rescuing our sisters." Aslanta glared at the tall warrior in dislike. "That is not the Amazon way.. at least… in our nation." This last was directed at Ephiny and Gabrielle.
"All right." The warrior put her hands on her damp hips, and cocked a dark brow. "G'wan. Go rescue them." She waited for Aslanta to react, then she took a step forward, more intimidating in her naked state than any of them in leathers. "And when you walk into his trap, and that's you in those cages, I won't be coming after you."
The Amazon Queen straightened to her full height, bringing her even with Xena's pale eyes. "You don't know it's a trap."
"If it were me, it sure would be." Xena answered, with a chilling smile.
Aslanta had no answer for that, so she merely glowered.
A silence fell. "All right.. now look." The warrior turned in a circle, regarding them. "Let's pick this up in the council chamber..in one candlemark." She reached behind her and grabbed her linen, wrapping it around her body with a savage gesture "Before someone does something stupid."
Aslanta stared at her for a moment. "Very well." She replied in a clipped voice, then turned and strode out, accompanied by her warriors.
A little silence fell, then Ephiny sighed. "So much for a nice, peaceful bath." She handed Gabrielle her towel as the bard hopped out of the tub. "You really think it's a trap?"
Xena crossed her arms over her chest and exhaled. "I don't know… but we're going to have to go and find out." She glanced at the bard, who was vigorously drying herself. "Nice work."
"Mmph.. " Gabrielle shook her head. "She's a toughie."
They left the hut in silence, walking into a low, rolling fog that covered them in damp, woodsmoke-scented mist.
"So.. what is the plan?" Gabrielle asked, as they changed, watching Xena slip into her blue leathers and fasten the straps. "We are going to go rescue them, right?"
Blue eyes glanced over at her wryly. "Would you let me get away with anything less?"
Gabrielle met her gaze evenly. "Would you let you get away with anything less?"
Xena inclined her head in silent acknowledgment. "Let's talk about the 'we'"
One blond eyebrow crawled up, as the bard put her hand on her now leather bedecked hip. "Xena."
Her partner held up a hand. "Hold on… hear me out." The warrior settled her armor over her head and shrugged it into place. "These Amazons don't trust me." She stated flatly. "Like it or not, they want proof that I'm not going to lead them into disaster.. and to be fair, Gabrielle, it's been a long time since I've had to do any real leading of armies."
The other brow lifted in silence.
"If you go with us… they'll be torn, between listening to me, and playing the political game with you."
The brow lowered, and the bard sighed.
"It won't take long.. I'd like to give them a chance to make up their mind about me, before we write them off." Xena concluded, walking over to her partner and putting a hand on her shoulder.
Gabrielle was silent for a long time, her thoughts flitting visibly across her expressive face. "Fish turds." She finally grumbled.
Now it was Xena's turn to raise a brow.
"Why do you have to make so much sense all the time, Xena." The bard complained. "All right.. so what am I supposed to do while you jaunt off? And what if it's a trap?"
Whew. Xena was honestly surprised that her sometimes stubborn soulmate had given in so easily. "With any luck, only one of them will want to tag along… and you can get the other one, and hammer out an agreement with Tyldus." She paused. "If it's a trap, I'll spring it."
"Hmm…" The bard nibbled her lower lip. "They were pretty close to here." Her eyes found Xena's face. "You think they were following us?"
Xena nodded. "Yeah." A pause. "So.. how about it?"
Gabrielle sighed, then rested her cheek against the warrior's hand, still clasping her shoulder. "I hate it."
"I really, really hate it… my guts are telling me not to stay behind, Xena." Gabrielle answered, very honestly. "But I'm not sure how much of that is premonition, and how much of it is just… " She let her voice trail off, and lifted a hand to cover her partner's. "You know what I mean."
Xena circled her shoulders with one arm. "Yeah."
Another long silence, as the sunlight crept into the hut, painting light green tinted strips across the floor.
"All right." The bard finally said. "But.. please be careful." She lifted her eyes and searched the cool blue ones above her, reassured by the warm affection she found there.
"I will.. I promise." Xena pulled her into a hug, and rubbed her back. "C'mon.. we'd better get going before they start chewing the council table." She released her partner, then straightened her outfit with a few friendly twitches, tickling her ribs a little in passing.
The bard slapped at her hand, but smiled. "I'd be glad to hear they were coming to join us… I felt sort of bad about them." She tucked her hand inside her soulmate's elbow and joined her at the door, with Ares snuffling at their heels. "Some of them were very nice."
Xena nodded, but privately wondered if the highland Amazons were journeying to join them…or tracking them for bounty.
She would, she supposed, find out.
The noisy room quieted as they entered, eyes furtively studying both warrior and bard as they advanced to the front of the room and stepped behind the table, joining Aslanta, Gillen, and a very frustrated looking Ephiny. Gabrielle gave her friend a smile as they arrived, then turned to face the others.
"Please sit down." She waited for them to do so, and they did, with a rustle of leather and feathers. "Thank you." She then sat down herself, and fastened her eyes on her partner, who had remained standing.
Xena waited, letting the silence lengthen. She turned her head, and regarded the two highland Amazons, who were travel worn, and unknown to her. "What happened?"
The younger of the two stood, and exhaled, wiping leaf stained hands on her thighs. "Are you Xena?"
The warrior nodded shortly.
"There were thirty of us." The woman stated softly. "Came down the same route you must have… we ran into a battalion where we least expected it, and they surprised us…had crossbows with some kind of drug on them… we didn't have a chance." She ran a faintly shaking hand through her muddy hair. "Only reason Ren and I escaped is because we were away a bit, hunting down some nuts… we saw what happened and ran."
A low muttering rose around them, but Xena nodded. "Smart." She commented briefly. "All right…there's probably one of two reasons they got captured." The warrior paced behind the table, idly flipping her belt dagger over in her hand. "Either they're neutralizing a prospective enemy, or they're laying a trap."
"A trap?" Gillen asked sharply. "For what?"
"Me." Xena answered, in an unruffled voice. "I think the traps most likely, because if they were just trying to neutralize a potential enemy, they'd have just killed those Amazons, not captured them."
Uneasy glances flickered back and forth. "What if they want to sell them off as slaves?" Aslanta coolly inquired. "That makes as much sense as it being a trap."
"Not really." Xena shook her head, continuing her slow, almost rhythmic pacing. "We're far inland… he's got a huge chunk of territory under his sway already.. he'd have to bring them all the way back through his country, then all the way tot the coast to sell them for any decent amount.. no one from these parts would buy Amazons, not knowing what they were."
Everyone's eyes were on the warrior now, and Xena's voice took on a cold strength, as she felt her way through the strategy, long slumbering instincts nudged awake and starting to sniff around interestedly. The world started to lose it's color a little, as the black and white of battle tactics shunted aside more recent attitudes and she found herself falling back into a mindset she'd thought she'd left long behnd.
It felt… A faint smile pulled at one corner of her lips. Good. "So. If it's a trap, it needs to be defused, and if they are trying to eliminate an enemy, they have to be stopped." The dagger flipped evenly. ""I'm going to take a small group out there, and resolve it, one way or the other."
Now, a thrill of excitement traveled through the room. Xena grinned at them, letting her personality loose a little. "Anyone interested in joining me?"
"Do ducks float?" Pony's voice rasped from the corner.
A nervous chuckle reacted to her tone. Aslanta stood. "I would like to accompany you." She faced Xena, with a cool, reserved expression. "To see for myself the situation."
The warrior gave them both a brief nod. "We'll need ten warriors. Pick em, and be outside the stable in one candlemark." She finished crisply, then half turned and cocked her head at Gabrielle.
The bard stood smoothly and crossed her arms over her chest. "Gillen… the leader of the centaurs will be here about the same time.. I'd love for you to join me in our talks."
The older Amazon studied her for a moment. "All right."
There was an awkward silence, then Ephiny pushed herself to her feet. "Okay.. let's get going then… move it, people… we've got things to do." She watched as the room emptied, voices rising to a dull roar as they got outside, and eventually leaving her, Gabrielle, and Xena alone in the room. The regent studied the floor, then glanced at her friends. Xena was standing near the window, leaning against the sill, and Gabrielle had perched on one corner of the council table. "You're wadding my leathers." Ephiny stated sourly.
Xena turned and gave her a look. "What?"
"Huh?" Gabrielle blurted, at the same time.
"Sure.. sure… make me choose!" Ephiny threw up her hands. "Do I stay here, like a good little regent, or do I indulge my wild side and follow Xena out on the trail?"
Xena cleared her throat and crossed her arms, as her partner laughed gently. "Sorry." The warrior apologized. "We thought it would be better to take the attitude out of here, and let Gabrielle get on with her job."
Ephiny sighed "Okay… sure… but if I go, Pony can't..and you want to here whining? That would be worse then when they ran over Ares tail with that damn wagon last month."
The wolf looked up at her, from his position curled comfortably at Xena's feet. "Roo?"
"Yeah, roo to you too." The regent glowered at him. "Damn you both."
There was a slight, awkward pause. "You have a wild side?" Gabrielle finally asked, ingeniously.
The Amazon regent gave her a profoundly affronted look. "Whadda mean? Of course I have a wild side."
Green eyes and blue met, and Xena's eyebrows crawled up to her hairline, settling there comfortably.
"Oh.. great. I don't need to stand here and be insulted." Ephiny stomped out, leaving a pair of bemused soulmates behind her.
"Mm." Gabrielle scratched her jaw. "Think she's cycling?"
The warrior snorted, and shook her head. "Hope it's not contagious."
"Ready?" Gabrielle asked, peering around her tall partner's body at the small group of waiting Amazons. The women were arranging supplies and weapons around them, watched by the general population at large with a mixture of envy and amusement.
"Just about." Xena replied, adjusting a strap on her backpack.
"Don't just run off and lose them."
The long fingers stilled. "Aw." The warrior winked at her. "They'll have to keep up, though."
"Xena…c'mon now." The bard gave her a pat on the side. "Be good." The group was a varied one, two each from the visiting Nations, and the rest from her own, with a stoically excited Eponin in the fore. She suspected the weapon's master was only just keeping herself from bouncing up and down, an odd contrast to the patiently waiting Cait, who had demanded to be allowed to go, and refused to take no for an answer. Solari and three others rounded out the party, all picks of Eponin's based on tracking or fighting skills.
"Great." The bard sighed. "By my notes.. that makes you the most diplomatic person in the bunch."
Xena glanced over. "Um…yeah, I think so." She answered absently. Bedda and Aslanta represented their group, and two unknown fighters, apparently sisters from their appearance, represesnted Gillen's. "But we're not really counting on talking much."
"That's a relief." Gabrielle remarked dryly.
The warrior halted her fiddling, and peered down at the smaller woman. "Hey! I think I've just been insulted!"
The bard laughed softly and leaned against her, taking in a last, comforting lungful of her soulmate's scent. "You're actually a darn good talker when you decide to be, honey." She tipped her head back and gazed affectionately at Xena. "I can't tell you how many times you've turned me inside out with a few words."
Xena shifted a little, and resettled her sword, then let a hand rest against the bard's cheek. "I love you."
Gabrielle's lips tightened a bit and she sucked in a breath. "See?" They exchanged smiles. "Be careful." She straightened and gave the warrior a kiss.
"You too." Xena answered, clasping her briefly into a hug. Then they parted and the warrior paused, straightened her shoulders, and turned, walking towards the waiting group with a confident stride.
Gabrielle sighed as she leaned back against the wall of her quarters, sparing the approaching Ephiny a wry look. "Don't start with me."
The regent paused, and blinked. "Huh?"
"Don't start whining to me about staying behind.. because I'll have to do something drastic, like force everyone to listen to bad poetry all night." The bard warned her.
Ephiny thought about that. "Oh." Her face wrinkled up in an understanding grimace. "You want to go too, huh?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle answered, very softly.
"C'mon, Gabrielle..they'll only be gone.. what, a day? Two?" Ephiny laughed, and clapped her on the shoulder. "I know you're attached to those baby blues, but…"
The bard scowled. "It's not that."
One of the regent's brows lifted.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Okay, it's not JUST that." She exhaled. "I've just got a bad feeling about this."
"Oh." Ephiny chewed her lip, watching the party move out, with Xena's tall form in the lead. "Great. Now you tell me."
Green eyes shifted, and met hers. "I wanted someone to worry with."
Ephiny sighed, as she thumped back against the wall.
It was a nice day. Xena gazed around appreciatively as she loped along, feeling her body automatically adjust to the occasional unevenness of the path. They'd been traveling for five candlemarks, and she'd started to consider whether she'd continue on after the sun disaapeared, or stop for the evening, and delay their arrival until after first light the day after.
Both options had both advantages and disadvantages, Xena realized, as she unhooked her waterskin and took a mouthful, swirling it around thoughtfully before she swallowed it. Keeping on would mean the matter would be over sooner, and she'd avoid having to have one of those long evenings over a campfire with the awkwardly comprised group.
That was a very appealing thought. On the other hand, however.. Xena hopped over a downed log, and moved on, hearing the soft, muffled curses behind her. On the other hand, she suspected the Amazons were starting to get tired, and approaching an enemy camp in full dark, with tired warriors was a plainly stupid idea.
Xena glanced behind her quickly, glimpsing the shadowed, determined faces following down the path. The sun slanted down from it's westward angle, glistening off the sweat that dotted the bared bodies.
Her objective on this first leg, was to establish that she was physically capable of leading them. The warrior drew in a deep breath and released it, pleased with her body's response. Point made? She increased her pace, and cocked her ears expectantly.
"Great Hera…does she ever damned stop?'
"What does she think we are, warhorses?"
"Shut up, Solari… you pull over, and I'll whup your tail with your own leathers."
Xena grinned, at Eponin's fierce hiss.
"Got a problem with a little run, cupcake?" The weapon's master went on, in a louder tone. "We do this all the time."
"No..no problem." That was Bedda's voice, which had been the first curse she'd heard. "We go twice this far before breakfast."
Xena snickered softly, and shook her head, then glanced to one side, as Cait caught up with her. "Hey." She greeted the young Amazon gravely. "Problems?"
Cait settled down next to her. "Not hardly….though I think you've gotten the rest of this lot into a bit of a snit."
"Have I?" The warrior responded innocently, making a point of looking behind her. "What's up?"
Cait looked around, then leaned closer. "Chafing." She explained, with a serious expression, as though it would be completely clear to Xena what she meant.
The warrior only just kept from clapping a hand over her mouth to cut off a blurt of laughter. "Ah." She replied instead, with a grave nod. "That's a problem."
"Too right." Cait agreed mildly. "Are you going to take pity on them?"
Xena ran on a few paces, then bounced into a flip and landed smoothly without breaking stride. "Think I should?"
Cait considered the question seriously. She nibbled her lip, then reached back and scratched her neck. "If it were just us, I'd keep going."
The warrior accepted that. "But it's not just us."
"No." Cait agreed regretfully. "I can't think why not."
The role of a leader, Xena remembered, was also to teach. "This isn't just about rescuing Amazons, Cait."
Gray eyes studied her from their corners. "Isn't it?"
They ran in silence for a bit. "Trusting is hard." Xena finally said. "When you agree to follow someone, you have to trust them with your life, and more."
Cait nodded slowly as she paced. "Quite right."
"If all these Amazons go along with us… they'll have to do that with me."
The slim, blond girl focused her eyes on the path, her brows contracting. "So.. you're teaching them it's quite all right to that, then?"
"Splendid." Cait gave her a brisk nod. "I'm ever so glad to hear that."
The warrior cocked her head in mute question.
The girl leaned closer again. "I could use a bit of a rest." She whispered. "But don''t you tell them."
Xena smiled, then eyed the sun, which was dipping below the trees. She spotted a small path heading off the main route, and held a hand up, slowing her pace to an amble, then halting.
Eponin arrived first, making a visible show of bouncing up and down a few times before she put her hands on her hips, and regarded Xena. "Problem?"
The warrior waited for the rest of the group to join them, then she pointed off to the path. "We'll make camp up by the springhead tonight… start off again before dawn. I want to get there just as the sun's coming up so I can evaluate the place before we move in."
There was no visible reaction, but ears sharper than a wild beast's caught several sighs of relief, along with other, more personal noises of vague discomfort.
"Well… I hate to lose time like that." Eponin let out an aggrieved sigh. "But you gotta point….c'mon, Solari.. let's scout the place." She yanked on Solari's leathers, tugging her into a brisk run as they disappeared up the path.
Xena worked hard at keeping a smirk off her face, as she turned towards the rest of the group. Aslanta moved closer, lifting her chin as she straightened up to match the warrior's height. "We've got enough supplies to make a small camp, no hunting. I want everyone rested." The warrior stated firmly. "We don't have the luxury of mistakes."
The tall, blond Queen regarded her quietly, her chest still rising and falling rapidly, and her skin covered in sweat.
Xena met her gaze evenly, conscious of her own slow, measured breathing. Slowly, a small, knowing grin pulled up the corner of her lips, and a glint of wry humor appeared in the blue eyes. "Something wrong?"
Aslanta sucked in a lungful of air, then let it out, with a tiny head shake. "Nothing." But her lips pursed in a pensive reaction, as she turned and gestured her warriors forward. "Come." They started up the path, and Gillen's people followed them, glancing back at Xena with looks of mixed respect and doubt.
The warrior let out a soft, almost soundless chuckle, as she clapped Cait on the back, and followed them.
Gabrielle dipped her quill into her inkjar, and wiped the excess off carefully before she put the point to parchment again, and scribed a few more words. Out of long habit, she paused, and chewed on the quill's edge, sucking the feathers which held a hint of ginger in them.
The document was a treaty, and it encompassed the participation of her own Nation, that of the two other Amazon Nations visiting, and the Centaurs, specifiying the length of the term, and the duties to which the various peoples would be assigned to.
Across the room, Gillen was seated, in quiet conversation with the two Amazons from the high country, and Ephiny. Tyldus was across from her, the centaur relaxing in an upright posture, with his arms crossed over his massive chest.
"All right.' The bard cleared her throat. "We're agreed that seventy percent of all our available fighters will be sent to Amphipolis… leaving thirty percent to secure the villages, and provide a means of defense if needed."
Gillen exhaled. "Thirty percent won't do squat if those bastards come after us." She disagreed.
Gabrielle took a sip of the crisp, cold cider they'd just been served and swallowed it, feeling the slight burn down into her guts. "We talked about escape routes, in case that happened, to get out of their way, rather than challenge them." She made a scribble in one margin. "Xena and I have discussed finding a safe place by the coast, as well.. we could send our elders, and the children there."
"I like that idea." Tyldus rumbled. "Less for us to worry over… I don't want the colts and fillies where they can be run down." He shifted his hooves, and moved a little closer to Gabrielle, reaching down and lifting his own cup for a sip.
"Doesn't solve everything… there'll still be able bodies in danger… our craftswomen, and the like." Gillen responded. "I don't like it."
Ephiny and Gabrielle exchanged looks. "Well, we could do the obvious." Ephiny stated. "Combine all three villages… that way the warriors left behind would be equal to a normal force."
Ooo… good idea. Gabrielle hid a grin. "Mm… great thought. Eph… we can send the elders and children to the retreat, then stock the village with able bodied women, and fighters.. if anyone attacks, they'll be in for a fight."
Gillen hesitated, glancing between them. "But which village won't be abandoned?" She asked. "I mean, yes… it does make strategic sense, but none of us is going to want to be the ones to leave our homes."
Ugh. True. Gabrielle chewed her quill, then turned her head, and met Tyldus' watching, patient gaze. They looked at each other for a long moment, then the centaur cleared his throat.
"While it is true no one likes to abandon their territory… logistically, and tactically, it would be best for the defense to be made from here." Tyldus' warm, burring voice stated. "And if so, my remaining warriors will join, to aid in the mutual effort."
"What?" Gillen stood, gesturing explosively. "What you're saying is not only do we all have to give up our homes.. we have to live with centaurs as well?"
Gabrielle stood up and folded her arms, staring the woman down. "It's all right for centaurs to offer up their lives for yours… but not all right to share a village with them? Is that what you're saying?" The bard asked, in a precise, brittle voice, as she held up a hand to still Tyldus' retort. "What kind of sheep poop is that?" She felt her temper rise, and before she knew it, the anger spilled over and past her defenses.
The other Amazon queen took a step forward, lifting a hand to her. "You are asking too much." She protested. "I can't change generations of our traditions.. and I don't want to."
The bard dropped her quill and circled her desk, approaching the other woman with a steady, powerful stride, not stopping until she was well within the Amazon's personal space. "Then leave." She snapped, nose to nose with her. "Because we only need people who understand that living life means change, and refusing to do that only results in disaster."
Gillen's face grew dark with anger, and she bristled, standing up to the shorter woman's aggressive stance. "You think you can just run roughshod over me? Who do you think you are, Gabrielle?"
The green eyes, normally so open and sunny, grayed and went cold, as the bard's body stiffened in reaction, muscles twitching visibly under the tanned skin. A silence fell, and Gabrielle spoke into it.
"I…know….who…I.. am." The rounded, powerful tones stated. "The question is, who are you going to be? The Amazon who ran, or the Amazon who helped me throw over the most dangerous threat our Nations have ever seen?"
Gillen brought her hands up, reaching for the bard's leathers, only to find her wrists grabbed and held, in a potent, powerful grip. "Let me go."
"Choose." Gabrielle responded, tensing her arms. "I'm not going to waste our time working on an agreement with someone who can't see past the trees to find the forest dying."
The Amazon jerked her arms, twisting her muscular body to free herself, but Gabrielle's hold didn't break, and the bard's strong body countered the other woman's pull, holding them both upright and together. "I'll kill you." Gillen ground out, rage coloring her face in reds and purples. "If you don't let me go."
Gabrielle held on grimly, aware of the cast die. "You're not nearly close to what it would take to do that." She responded, shoving her backwards, and kicking the chair out of the way. She caught Ephiny's startled, and worried look as the regent stepped back, but ignored it, as she closed in on the other woman again. "All I've heard from you tonight is reason why we can't do this… why?" She asked sharply.
Gillen stopped struggling, unable to break Gabrielle's powerful grip. She stared into the bard's eyes, breathing in short, sharp pants. "I didn't really think you were an Amazon."
Inwardly, Gabrielle sighed, a melancholy note of sadness sounding clear in her heart. "And now?"
The other woman held her gaze for a moment more, then looked away and down. "Now I do."
The bard released her and stepped back, letting her hands drop to her sides, regretting her temper already. "All right." She responded quietly. "Now maybe we can get somewhere." She turned and made her way back to her desk, settling behind it wearily, very aware of the fact that she'd just done what she'd made her soulmate promise not to.
Damn it. Gabrielle felt sick to her stomach. Why did it always have to come down to violence? "Let's think about acting on Ephiny's idea… combining the villages while the fighters are in the field." She leaned her elbow on the table and propped her head up, regarding the words on the parchment. "Maybe we could form a governing committee… to take charge and make decisions jointly during the war."
Gillen had sat down, stone faced. "You won't be staying then?"
The bard looked up, surprised at the question. "Me?" She murmured. "No…I'll be with the army."
The other Amazon remained silent for a moment. "Leading your warriors in battle, then."
Gabrielle felt like time was slowing down, as the meaning of the words hit her, and questioning eyes turned her way.
Leading the Amazons into battle.
No. She couldn’t do that.
No way. That wasn't who she was, wasn't how she did things. She was the talker. Xena was the one who lead troops into battle.
Not her. The Amazons respected her negotiating skills, but they'd never follow her into a fight…not in a million years.
Gabrielle felt Ephiny's eyes on her, and she couldn’t keep from meeting them, the calm hazel revealing an open knowledge her mind shunned from accepting.
"We'd follow Queen Gabrielle to the gates of Hades itself." The regent stated simply. "If that's where she chose to lead us."
No. I can't do that. I'm not a warrior.
If I'm the Queen… I have to lead them. I can't send them to where I won't go.
Oh gods. Gabrielle felt a certain weight settle on her shoulders, and she blinked twice before she spoke. "If that's what my role calls for… then yes, I will." She stated, wearily trying to deny the faint, but perceptible thrill of dark excitement the thought brought up in her.
Gillen inclined her head a little. "A.. governing committee would seem to me… to be a good idea." She murmured. "I will speak to my council…see how they view such a plan."
"All right." Gabrielle accepted that.
Ephiny stood, adjusting a bracer. "Want to take a short break for dinner? It's getting on sundown." She asked Gabrielle quietly.
A break. Oh gods… yes. "Good idea." The bard answered. "We could all use a break." She watched as the room emptied, Tyldus leaving last, save Ephiny, who turned back at the door and came towards her. "Eph…"
"Give me a little time, okay?" Gabrielle interrupted her softly. "Just go."
Stung, Ephiny pulled up short, and stared at her, then she exhaled softly. "All right." She turned, and left the room, her boots scuffing lightly on the dirt floor, leaving silence behind her.
Gabrielle rested her forehead on her fists, and swallowed against the bile rising in her throat. Losing the battle moments later as her body rebelled, and she grabbed for a nearby water basin, retching helplessly in unthinking reaction.
Oh gods. She sucked in a ragged breath. What's happening to me?
The fire crackled softly, a gentle counterpoint to the rhythmic sounds of crickets, and the rasp of steel against stone as the Amazons settled down to their evening's rest. They had staked out a small clearing near a spring and made a neat camp, with each group separating itself just a little from the others, and most everyone leaving a nice clear space around the spot Xena had chosen for her own.
That was perfectly all right with her, the warrior mused, as she stretched her legs out over the warm sleeping furs and wiggled her toes, breathing in the scent of home that the unfolded blankets released, and the faint hint of her soulmate's distinctive smell that clung to them.
She'd picked a Y shaped patch of grass just to one side of the spring, tucked into a granite outcropping that protected her back from the wind and provided a nice rest to lean on. From where she was she could see the path coming in, and the rest of the camp, and she gave a little, satisfied nod at the orderliness of it.
Of course, one thing was missing. The warrior brushed her fingertips along the empty half of the sleeping furs idly, wondering what her partner was up to. She missed Gabrielle's warm presence, even though it had been her idea for the bard to stay behind and she didn't regret that.
With a sigh, she pulled her pack over and set it between her legs, opening the top section and rummaging around to see what she could find for a cold dinner. A wrapped packet was on top and she tugged it out, examining it curiously. "Hmm.. what have we here?" She unwrapped a corner of it, then grinned as a tasty scent rose up and caught her nostrils. "Mm.. and where did you come from, huh?" She finished unfolding the wrapping, revealing a pair of very plump meat pies in pastry done by a familiar hand, and a dark, scribbled writing on the inside.
"When in Hades did she do this?" Xena wondered softly to herself, as she lifted a pie and took a bite, smiling a little around the familiar taste Gabrielle knew she liked. "Mm.. that's better than mom's." She leaned back and exhaled contentedly, taking a swig of her water skin and munching her pie, as she spread the wrapper out along one leg and savored the words more than the food.
I hope you get to read this someplace other than on the trail, because if you're still pushing those poor kids along, you might want to give them a little break, you know? You can be pretty hard to keep up with if they're not used to the pace you set, like I am.
Xena let out a soft chuckle. "If you only knew." She murmured softly, remembering the months of deliberately slowing down her progress, to give a young girl a chance to stay by her side.
I know you like these… I had to pull rank, unfortunately, and kick Esta out of one of her ovens to make them.. I hope she forgives me. I gave her the recipe as sort of a consolation prize. I think she thinks I'm a little crazy when it comes to you, though.
A little crazy? The blue eyes regarded the fire, and the shadowy forms of the Amazons surrounding it. She pictured her soulmate gently shoving aside the protesting cook, and bit her lip, touched by the small, but loving gesture.
Well, good luck… I hope it's a easy rescue, okay? I know it's kind of silly for me to sit here and worry about you, but I do, and a big part of me wishes I was there with you, because these Amazons can get careless sometimes, and they have something very precious to me with them.
I know. Xena's lips pressed into a smile. I wish you were here, too, Gabrielle.. my back feels very bare without you watching it.
Be good. I love you.
I love you too. Xena carefully folded the wrapper and tucked it inside her armor, then started to work on her second pie, letting her head lean back against the cool rock and directing her eyes to the stars.
A rustle of motion made her glance up as Eponin approached, though, and she raised a brow as the dark haired Amazon settled cross legged next to her. "Hey."
Pony was gnawing on a piece of jerked venison. "Whatcha got?"
Xena held up a fist with it's prisoner pie. "Meat pies."
The weapons master snorted in disgust. "Figures. The rest of us are gnawing on centaur hooves." She edged closer and peered at the pie. "How'd you rate that? Didn't think Esta made those."
"She didn't." Xena took a bite and chewed contentedly. "Gabrielle did."
Eponin sighed. "Must be nice." She nibbled on her jerky.
"It is." The warrior responded softly. "When I was running my army, I got stuff done for me all the time… boots shined, armor cleaned… my tent put up.. but I never had anyone do anything for me and not expect something in return." She paused. "Until I met her."
Pony glanced down, picking at the lace on one boot aimlessly as she considered the words. "You ever do anything back?" She asked, lifting warmly golden eyes to meet Xena's.
"Sure." The warrior admitted, glancing around to make sure no one was listening.
"Like what?" Eponin edged closer, giving her a look of interested curiosity.
Unaccountably, Xena felt herself blushing, and she was glad of the darkness, and the firelight covering that. "I don't know.. just.. things I know she likes." She glanced at Eponin's face. "Why?"
"Mm." The Amazon shrugged. "Just wondering…I do stuff for Eph sometimes.. but it always gets kinda weird."
Xena thought about that, then let a wry grin edge her lips. "That's because you two are so much alike." She advised her friend. "You've both got that Amazon ego to deal with."
The dark brows snapped together immediately. "What? What ego?" She protested indignantly. "I aint' got no ego… you nuts?"
A laugh forced it's way out of Xena's chest, and around her mouthful of meat pie, almost causing her to spit it out onto the ground. "C'mon, Eponin…gimme a break." She wiped her mouth and took a sip of water. "It's that tougher than dried centaur hide crap…the whole damn village has it."
"Oh.. and like you don't?" Pony snorted, ignoring the looks beginning to flash their way.
"Of course I do." Xena lowered her voice, and gave the Amazon a dire look. "But Gabrielle doesn't."
"Oh." Pony chewed a minute.
"Yeah, oh." The warrior repeated. "We're very different from each other." She exhaled. "Fortunately… but it makes it easier to share stuff like that."
"Oh." A pause. "You know, I love having these sensitive chats with you, Xena."
Blue eyes flicked over, and one dark brow lifted sharply. "This was not a sensitive chat." The warrior growled. "It's not my style."
"Right." Pony scuttled over a bit and plucked at the bit of wrapping sticking out of Xena's armor. "Saving this for some reason?"
Xena smacked her hand, and gave her a dour glare. "Watch it, Eponin."
The Amazon grinned, not in the least intimidated. After a moment, the warrior relaxed, and grinned back, noticing the visible relaxing of the other Amazons across the fire as they heard the light banter.
"You did that on purpose." Xena remarked, in a low voice.
A rakish grin and a shrug responded. "Yeah.. I can be subtle, but I gotta really work at it." She muttered back.
Xena regarded the circle of faces thoughtfully, then she broke off half her pie and handed it over. "Here."
Eponin accepted it with a smirk. "Heh… that worked pretty good too.. I think I'm getting better at this political stuff" She nibbled a bit of the pie. "Damn… you get stuff like this all the time?"
"Yeah." Xena replied quietly, a quiet, crystalline memory surfacing, of a playful moment between her, and her soulmate.. a race for fruit stuffed dumplings she'd openly begged for, and the bard laughingly agreed to.
That one, last playful moment before the Furies found them, and her world descended into a pit she'd never thought she'd ever get out of It had been the last time she'd asked Gabrielle for anything for a very, very long while.
"Xena?" The voice had come from behind her, and she'd turned, to see Gabrielle approaching, her, carrying her saddlebag over one shoulder. They were on a short journey from home, just over to Potadeia, and she'd been careful to take it slow, mindful of her soulmate's progressing pregnancy.
"Hmm?" She'd answered, taking in the familiar, sturdy form with a feeling of almost sad affection. Gabrielle had only just started to show and the bard was still a little self conscious about it, wearing one of her partner's shirts to disguise her gently expanding waistline.
The bard had settled down next to her, letting her hands rest on the bag. "I thought I'd make some sandwiches.. we've got that venison left over, and I collected watercress.. sound okay? It's a little hot for cooking."
A round, glistening apple had tumbled out of the bag at that point, and Xena had picked it up, studying it wistfully for a moment before handing it back. "Sure.. sounds fine." She'd replied, pushing down the sudden desire for the roasted apples Gabrielle had made for her at one time, a long time before.
Asking.. was not an option. It touched an area still too sensitive, too raw from her soulmate's recent brush with death, and the memories she still held of their estrangement. Whatever Gabrielle decided to make, was fine. She never complained, never asked, never pushed the bard any more than she had to. "Sure you don't want me to do that?"
Green eyes studied her intently, backed by a soul who knew hers like no other ever had. "Xena."
She'd smiled ruefully. "Yeah, I know.. stop being such a hen."
A hand had touched her chin, making her look up in surprise, to find a quietly compassionate gaze fastened on her. "You know.. if there's something you want.. it's okay to ask me." She'd said softly. "You haven't.. for a long time, and I wasn't sure if…I mean… I wanted you to know it's all right."
Xena had taken a breath, not knowing what to say in response. She'd finally simply nodded. "Thanks.. I'll… remember that."
The hand had retained it's grip. "Is there something you want right now? I thought maybe… um… " Gabrielle's speech had faltered. "Nevermind." She'd finished in a whisper, letting her hand fall to her lap and releasing a breath.
It was, Xena had suddenly realized, as important to Gabrielle as it was to her, that this tiny, outwardly insignificant trust was shattered, and the bard looked on it not as an imposition, but as a mark of their relationship.
One that the bard, apparently, missed.
"Um." Xena had nudged open the bag, and let the apple fall out, catching it in her hand and turning it in her fingers. "I.. don't suppose you could.. ah… do that thing you do with the nuts.. and the um… "
"Sure." Gabrielle had answered quickly. "I've even got some of that honey you collected near the river… if you make a fire.. we could have them for dessert."
And so they had, a rich sweetness that Xena could still taste, in the back of her mouth, having little to do with the honey, and everything to do with the love that had gone into their making.
It had been a long journey home, all right.
"Well, you're one lucky son of a hydra, I'll tell ya that." Eponin had chewed on her meat pie with an exaggerated sigh. "I love Eph, but Artemis knows, I cook better'n she does."
A ring of laughter greeted her words, and Solari stood up, brushing off her leathers. "Hey.. I'm no bard, but you all want to hear about the last boar we had to run down?" A chorus of encouraging murmurs sounded, and she started in, laying her voice over the fire's snapping, and the hooting of a lonely, hunting owl.
An errant spark from the bonfire spiraled upward, and Gabrielle let her eyes follow it, until the ember joined the canopy of stars overhead. They'd ironed out a few more details after the break, then decided nothing more could really be done until Xena and Aslanta returned.
Gillen and Tyldus had signed on, though, and were prepared to send warriors to Amphipolis, to join those Gabrielle had committed to, and that, she supposed was a definite victory. If Aslanta also agreed, then their job here was done, and they could start for home, and the enormous task waiting for them there.
A soft drumming started, and the bard glanced up, to see a ring of dancers forming in the outside arena they'd chosen to eat a late meal in, since the dining hall simply wouldn't hold all the women both resident and visiting. She was seated on a padded platform overlooking the bonfire, with Ares at her side and a platter of mostly untouched fare by her.
The bard exhaled, and took a sip of the cold honey mead in her mug as her fingers riffled slowly through the wolf's fur. She was still unsettled by her violent reaction earlier, and the subtle, but perceptible undercurrent of excitement she could now feel in the Amazons wasn't making her any more comfortable.
They wanted war. Gabrielle had felt a chill, hearing the low, intense voices talking. They wanted this.. it touched them in a deep way she didn't really understand, bringing a vibrant energy to the village that almost frightened her in it's strangeness.
And in it's utter familiarity, coming from a place she so often saw reflected in the pale blue eyes of her soulmate.
You'll never be like them. Xena had once told her, with a duck of her head also including herself in that statement. You feel too much. Gabrielle sighed again and shook her head, viewing the dancing with weary eyes. Maybe Xena had been right after all… certainly she felt no excitement, no anticipation… only the impending sadness of knowing people she knew and loved would be in grave danger…and that surely some would be lost to her.
How could anyone want that? It was a part of Xena she'd truly, honestly never really understood, that she'd only accepted along with the rest of her.
The need, she understood. To sacrifice yourself for your friends… that, she understood more than most. But to take joy in it?
No. She'd seen too much of loss to ever understand that.
Footsteps crunched nearby, and she raised her eyes to find Ephiny looking back at her, the regent's hazel eyes darkened in the firelight. "Hey… what's up?"
Ephiny took at as an invitation and stepped up onto the platform, settling at her side and gazing out over the square. "I came over here to ask you that… you seem pretty quiet." She turned her head and regarded her friend. "I thought the evening session went pretty good."
Gabrielle nodded slowly. "It did…it achieved everything I was hoping for." She replied softly.
The regent studied her. "But you hate this, right?"
Green eyes gone ochre in the light met hers. "I'm in the minority, I think."
Ephiny sighed, dropping her gaze to her hands, twined together as she clasped her arms around her upraised knees. "In a way.. but not really, Gabrielle." She answered. "The younger warriors.. sure… they've never seen war." She turned her head and met the bard's eyes. "Those of us who have….it's a mix between knowing what it's like to see friends… and family die, and the knowledge that to do this, and do it successfully, you need to be confident."
Gabrielle thought about that for a bit. "That's what Xena says, too." She finally admitted. "It's all in the attitude… to lead people, you have to first lead yourself… if you're confident.. if you believe in yourself, they'll pick that up, and follow along."
Ephiny chuckled softly. "She should know."
Fair lashes flicked as the bard blinked. "Yeah.. I've seen her do it dozens of times… but I guess it's different for me, because I know what the truth is… I know her doubts, and her fears…and just how much of that is an act."
A silence fell. "Incredible." The regent finally said, very softly. "I never thought…I always assumed… " She looked at her friend in bemusement. "I always thought if there was anything Xena believed in absolutely, it was herself."
A slow, almost sad smile crossed Gabrielle's face. "No…if there's anything she believes in absolutely.. it's my belief in her." The bard's hands moved through Ares's fur. "It took me such a long time to understand that."
Ephiny was silent.
The drums picked up their tempo, and more dancers joined in, bodies swaying with seductive rhythm.
"Can you teach me that?" Gabrielle lifted her chin, and indicated the dance.
Ephiny slowly released a breath, then nodded, pushing herself to her feet, and holding a hand out. "Sure."
The bard took it, and rose, padding towards the firelight and the drums,
A faint splash of purple dimness reflected off the fingers of a hand resting on the moss covered tree bark. It's owner stood quietly in the pre dawn mist, peering past leaves damp with dew, into a silent, foggy valley.
Not even a bird rustled, as the world waited, watched by colorless eyes that took on a hint of the sky as the sun inched towards the horizon. Xena watched the slowly emerging town with quiet, enigmatic eyes, studying the surrounding space intently.
A dim, pearl gray outlined the building's structure, showing a closed, silent gate, and the still forms of watchers on the walls. Off to one side, a thick stand of trees rustled, tucked between the river's curve and a granite mountain wall.
"Fools to leave woods so close." Aslanta murmured softly. "We can cross the river there.. " She pointed a long finger past Xena's shoulder. "And come up near the sluice gate."
Pale blue eyes flicked over the site intently, then Xena shook her head. "No."
The tall blond lifted an eyebrow at her. "Why? It provides us with perfect cover."
"Provides them with a perfect snare." The warrior burred, in a low tone. "They'll catch us between the walls and the river… it's deep there, and see how fast the water's running?"
Aslanta studied her quietly. "You really do think it is a trap, then."
"Oh yeah." Xena answered. "All right.. Pony, take five others and go this way." She pulled the weapons master off and pointed, murmuring to her in a low voice.
"But.. " Eponin protested.
Xena gave her a look, and she subsided. "Aw… you get all the fun." The Amazon grumbled. "Awright…c'mon, you lot.." She selected her group and moved off, leaving Xena with Aslanta, Cait, one of Gillen's choices, and Solari.
The warrior returned to her post, observing the town in the growing dawn quietly. "Looks like they're expecting trouble." She noted, pointing at the warily pacing guards.
"What do you propose we do?" Aslanta inquired.
A faintly wicked smile appeared on Xena's face. "Give em what they're looking for." She stepped back, then adjusted her cloak over her armor, reaching back and detaching her sword. "Gotta give em a reason to let us in first, though."
'What do you mean?" Solari asked, with a hint of nervousness.
"Get some rope." The warrior ordered, turning towards Cait. "C'mere… let me hang this off your back."
Cait's eyes grew round as she obeyed, feeling the weight of the sword as her idol affixed it to her. "Gosh…whatever for?"
"Here's the rope, but.. "Solari offered it. "What are you up to?"
Xena turned, and held her hands out, crossing them at the wrists. "You're bounty hunters." She let a grim smile cross her face. "You caught me."
Solari's face was utterly shocked. "You've got to be joking." She stated, hesitantly. "Right? You don't really mean you want me to tie you up, and haul you in there."
The warrior nodded solemnly. "That's exactly what I want you to do." She told her calmly. "It'll get us inside."
"You're insane." Aslanta choked out. "They'll never believe it for a minute.. they'll slap us all in chains as well." She shook her head. "Amazons would never turn in each other."
"Wouldn't they?" Xena's reply was sardonic. "We had to fight off a half dozen of them in the mountains… I've got a ten thousand dinar price on my head."
Shocked looks went around. "Ten thousand?" Aslanta breathed. "What's to keep us from doing it for real then? Once we get you trussed up?"
"Me, for one thing." Cait answered placidly. "I'm afraid I'll simply have to cut your heart out if you try it."
The Amazon queen stared at her, then at Xena's calm, slightly amused expression. "Insanity…. What do we do once we're inside?"
"Depends on the layout. You'll just have to follow my lead." The warrior drawled. "My guess is, the majority of the guards aren't in the entrance square…. I figure we can take out the ones that are, then create a diversion and get the rest of the Amazons out. "
"Diversion.. and what makes you think the guards aren't there?" Aslanta wondered. "This'll never work."
Xena's face remained impassive. "If it doesn't… you just take your reward, and leave… I'll take care of getting myself out."
Cait drew in a sharp breath, but remained silent as icy blue eyes pinned her. A tiny scowl appeared on her face, however, and she folded her arms across her slim chest.
"Let's get this over with." Xena held her arms out again. "Move it, Solari.. .we don't have forever."
The warrior stood patiently as ropes bound her wrists, then watched as Solari carefully tied loops around her booted feet, giving her just enough slack to take a shuffling step. To be honest, she was a touch nervous about the whole thing, given what she knew they were walking into, and she winced to think of what Gabrielle would have had to say about it, but she also knew it was the quickest way to get into the town with the least chance of getting any of them killed outright.
Once inside, however… Xena sighed, and tested her bonds, finding them annoyingly tight and restrictive. "All right.. let's get going." She turned carefully, then paused, and lowered her hands, pulling aside her cloak a little. "Cait… take that."
The young Amazon approached, and took the chakram off it's hook reverently, running her fingers over the slightly raised design in it's surface. "I'll take great care of it, Xena." She promised softly.
"I know." The tall warrior replied. "Be careful.. it's very sharp."
"Rather." Cait gingerly looped a bit of leather thong through it, and affixed it to her belt, giving it a pat before she straightened and nodded. "Right…let's go."
Gabrielle woke in semi darkness, her breath coming short, with a gnawing in her guts that made her double over in bed, holding her stomach and trying to control the panic that started her heart fluttering in her chest.
After a moment it subsided, and she could breathe again, as she straightened out and gazed up at the ceiling half shrouded in the dim pre dawn. "Xena, you better not be in trouble." She told the wooden supports. "You promised me." With a sigh, she sat up, a groan escaping as her head pounded, reminding her of the previous nights overindulgence.
"Ugh…. I think I overdid it, Ares." She mumbled, rubbing her face with one hand. The wolf glanced up from his position curled up on the end of the bed and yawned, then put his head back down and closed his eyes. "Gee, thanks."
Gabrielle climbed out of bed and paused, grabbing onto one of the posts for support as her stomach rebelled violently, and she stood there for some minutes simply swallowing, and trying not to throw up. "Oh yeah. That was stupid." She finally muttered, making her way slowly to where Xena's kit was tucked, and rummaging in it.
"I think these are the right ones.. ." She squinted at the packets, trying to remember what her soulmate used for hangovers. "Thank the gods I don't need them often." She shook out a handful then sniffed it, grimacing. "Oh yeah… that's it."
Into a cup they went, along with a good quantity of cold water, which she swirled around until she'd steeled herself for the taste. Two gulps were fortunately enough, and she held her nose as she swallowed, hoping her stomach wouldn't send the mess right back up. "Ugh."
"Yeah.. yeah.. I know.. that was dumb." Gabrielle dropped into the chair nearby and rested her head in her hands. "I didn't think I had that much." She closed her eyes and concentrated, trying to remember. "Two.. three… nope, I'm right.. I didn't."
Three cups of honey mead was all, but on an empty stomach, she realized, which hadn't been a good idea. To her credit, she remembered the whole night, learning the dance, which hadn't been hard, and the candlemarks of practicing it, the movements blurring into the crowd of Amazons in a foggily remembered haze of sweating bodies, and drums, and casual touches which had finally crossed the line.
Gillen's eyes on her, and the older Amazon's hands on her waist, pressing against her suggestively. "C'mon Gabrielle… it's the best part of being an Amazon." Those eyes had gazed knowingly at her, as fingers brushed her bare stomach. "Don’t' tell me it doesn’t feel good."
And it had. Gabrielle knew it was an accepted thing in the tribes as well, casual contact that relieved tension, and.. how did Ephiny put it? Expanded the horizons. Even Xena knew it.. had commented on it several times, giving her the impression that her soulmate would understand if she felt she wanted to try it.. to explore a little outside her admittedly narrow experience.
Certainly, Xena had.
It had felt good, and Gillen was very good looking, and Gabrielle's skin, already sensitized by the mood, and the music tingled in response, urging her to give in and accept the offer, amplified by the brushing of warm bodies against hers, as the rest of them continued their dancing.
"No thanks." She'd taken a step back, moving away from the fire, and the dancers, and the touching. Not wanting that complication in her life, or on her conscience, no matter how much everyone said it was all right.
The drunken Gillen had laughed. "Still a little shepherd inside, eh?"
It had stung, and Gabrielle had replied without thinking. "No… nothing here can match what I'm used to."
Low whistles came from the Amazons around her who heard, and a round of sloppy chuckles. The bard had blushed, but the fire had covered it, and she'd made her way back to her quarters unaided, to crawl into her bed and hug her pillow, half ashamed, and half proud in a mixture of thrumming emotion.
She blushed again now, feeling the heat against her fingertips. "I can't believe I said that." She sighed, blinking in relief as the herbs began working, and her head started to clear. Her stomach was also quieting down, and now she wondered if her waking had been due to her illness, or from their connection.
She hoped it was from the mead. With a sigh, she pushed herself to her feet and drew in a deep breath, glad to feel the nausea receding. Her brows knit in thought, then she grunted softly and walked back to their gear, rooting around in Xena's kit until she found two neatly wrapped trail bars, which released a scent of fruit and honey as she brought them closer. She trudged back to the bed and climbed into it, curling up against her pillows and taking a bite out of one end of a bar. Ares immediately crawled up and stuck his nose up close to her face, his tail wagging against her leg.
"Oh sure." The bard mumbled around her mouthful. "You never share anything with me."
The wolf put his muzzle down on his paws, and gazed up at her plaintively through dark lashes.
"Don’t' even try it… you know that only works with Xena." She warned him, smiling a little at the way Ares tail beat rapidly against her at hearing her soulmate's name. "You know who that is, huh?" She chuckled, then relented and broke off a corner, offering it to him. "Okay.. but just a little. You get sick from this."
White teeth parted and accepted the tidbit, which Ares swallowed with out the benefit of chewing. "Arorrr." He nosed her hand, then licked it, and she ruffled his fur affectionately.
Then she rolled half onto her back and gazed out the window, where the early morning light was beginning to outline the leaves outside, and a fresh breeze brought hints of woodsmoke and the first stirrings of the watch.
What, she wondered curiously, feeling mostly anticipation in her guts, was her soulmate up to now?
The gates got larger and larger, at the slow pace they were forced to keep to allow Xena to walk without tripping. They knew they were under scrutiny as soon as they crossed the river, and the ex warlord obligingly kept her head down, and her shoulders slumped in an attitude of surrender.
Cait, walking alongside her, held one end of a rope that was tied around Xena's neck, and the expression on the girl's face, a combination of fierce pride and caution paid tribute to the trust Cait knew her idol had laid on her. "Are you all right?" The young Amazon hissed softly.
"Never been better." Xena replied, in a low voice. "Just keep moving." Solari and Aslanta were ahead of them, and the two others behind, and she spared a brief wish that the walk, at least, were over. The shortened stride was putting a strain on her back, and she had a fierce itch between her shoulderblades.
Hoots greeted them from the guards, and Xena forced herself to remain still as a packet of lazily thrown mud skimmed past her head, hitting the ground behind her with a sodden thump.
"Hold." A male voice barked, and she heard a creak as the gate opened, then footsteps coming closer. "What have we here?"
"You have a bounty out for Xena of Amphipolis." Solari stated flatly, her voice cold and hard. "I've come to collect it."
There was dead silence for a moment, then the man exhaled. "Son of a bacchae." He stepped cautiously closer, then unsheathed his sword and dug the tip of it into her chin, forcing her head up. Xena kept her eyes unfocused, and appeared dazed. "She drugged?"
"Of course." Solari snorted. "Whaddya think I am, nuts? She's got enough in her to keep her like this for maybe… eight, nine candlemarks. After that, she's your problem."
It felt good just to stand still. Xena let her muscles relax, and tried to prepare herself for the next phase of the plan. If they let them in, she'd have to make a quick decision one way or the other, and Cait was hair triggered next to her, ready to slice through her bonds in an instant.
"Awright… bring her inside." The man chuckled. "I'm gonna get promoted for this… you betcha." He slapped Xena on the cheek with the flat of his sword, then let it drop. "Son of a bacchae."
"You show me the dinars first." Solari shook her head. "Or no deal."
The captain of the guard stared at her in disdain. "What.. you think I carry em around in my pocket? You want your reward… come on then. I'll give you a chit, you'll have to take it to Andreas. He'll give you your dinars… don't you worry about that. He wants her bad…real bad."
Solari paused, appearing to consider the offer. "Best I'll get. " She sighed. "Throw in a nights board and lodging for us, and it's done."
The man's eyes roamed over the women's bodies, and he smiled. "You got it." He turned his head. "Open the gates… and get the big cell ready. Shackles, the works." A cheer went up. "And get me a messenger!"
Xena felt a very gentle tug on her neck rope and she started forward, slowly raising the angle of her head so that her peripheral vision could take in as much as possible. As they cleared the gates her eyes swept the interior, spotting the cages holding the mountain Amazons immediately.
Rapid glances brought pictures into her mind, and she noted the small group of watching soldiers, the guards on the walls, the craftsmen in the background.
The guards jeered in derision at her.
Her mind counted opponents.
A clump of dirt hit her shoulder.
Xena smiled. "Cait."
The gate closed, the sound covering the soft whisper steel parting the rope that held her hands together.
The captain chuckled softly and drew his sword. "Now we've got even more Amazons to sell… take them!"
Xena got a hand on her sword hilt and pulled, then ducked under Aslanta's lunging body and took the man's weapon out of his hands with a single, almost negligent swipe. "Think so, huh?" She tipped back her head, and let out a wild, ringing yell, as the soldiers charged forward.
The captain dove for his sword, then came up in a roll. "Very slick, but we were waiting for you, Xena." He laughed. "Sound the alarm!"
A horn rang out, as the Amazons engaged the guards. Xena took out one with a kick, then cleared some space around her and started to work, drawing her dagger and using both weapons effectively.
Cait let out a laugh and stayed with her, the twin blades she carried flickering in the weak sunlight as she slipped under a fighter's arms and came up behind him, stabbing him viciously in the chest with both hands and sending a double spray of blood outward. He dropped with a gurgle, and she released him, going after a man coming towards Xena with an exultant shout.
Over the clash of weapons, a dull roar sounded, and Xena could hear the yells of many men, along with another sound that set her spine tingling.
"Hear that?" The captain taunted her, dodging a forward thrust and catching her sword on his own in defense. "You're trapped!" He slammed his hilt against hers and pushed her back. "Get the gates open!"
"You don't wanna do that." Xena warned, with a grin, as she crouched, then pushed off the ground, flipping over his head and landing behind him, then slamming a kick off his back and sending him flying. "Trust me."
One man rushed to the gates and lifted the bar, trying to clear it from the holders. "Give me a hand!" He yelled, then screamed, as Cait's blade found it's way between his ribs, and sent him sagging against the wood.
The warrior eyed her companions, who were driving the guards back neatly, then she turned and bolted for the cages, where the occupants were clustered, hands clutching the bars and voices raised in support. "Back off!" She yelled, raising her sword hilt and bringing it down on the first cage's lock.
"They've got an army outside Xena!" That was a familiar voice. "Get outta here!"
The warrior yanked the door open. "I know.. .move it!"
Amazons streamed past her, as the battle moved to the gates, the Amazons keeping the soldiers from opening it. A hammering was heard on the other side, and Xena cast a glance that way, before she went to the next cage and kicked it open. "Move!"
A creak warned her, and she turned, to see the guards tugging at the doors. "Amazons!" She yelled, at the top of her voice. "Over here!"
They ran towards her, and she pointed, "Get up there.. c'mon.. move! Move!!!"
"What?" Aslanta yelled. "Are you nuts?"
Xena shoved her hard. "Just move!" She broke open the last of the cages as a crash sounded behind her, and a dull, overwhelming roar filled the town.
She took off running, pushing the last straggling Amazons before her, and hit the steps up to higher ground just as a wall of water caught her behind the knees, sending her sprawling, unable to catch her balance.
Damn. The wave slammed her against the edge of a low wall, almost knocking her out, and she went under, the muddy, turbulent water getting up her nose and almost choking her. A box slammed over her head, and she was pinned in place, in a rushing darkness that hit a sudden, violent chord of memory.
Strength was relative.
Mind over matter.
Xena got her feet under her and shoved with everything she had, overturning the weight above her and getting her free, as her head broke through the water's surface and she saw a pole flash by.
She grabbed it, and held on, as the water rushed past her body, slamming debris against it, then she slowly inched her way up until she was free of the current.
Only then, did she hear the yells of the Amazons, and see them racing along the rooftops, with Solari in the fore, ready to throw a rope down to her. She held up a hand, then paused a moment, before pulling herself up the rest of the way onto the roof with them, their heads breaking out over the walls to see the forest beyond.
"Xena! Are you okay!" Solari reached her first, and grabbed hold of her without thinking twice, peering at the warrior anxiously.
The ex warlord spat out a mouthful of mud and nodded. "Never been better. "She turned and put her hands on her hips, staring down at the town with a look of quiet satisfaction. "Let's get out of here."
It was chaos below. The entire town was filled with churning, roiling muddy water, which swept people, and wagons, and animals before it, throwing them against walls and houses, and sweeping some out the same gates it was coming in. Muted screams could be heard, and they could see people struggling to stay afloat, all far too busy dying, or trying not to die to spare them even the briefest thought.
Xena walked to the edge of the roof and peered over, observing the flooded woods with a darkly satisfied smile. Men were struggling there, too, though she could see bodies and supplies floating out towards the flooding river's path. "C'mon.. we can reach those trees."
She led the Amazons into the branches, and they made their way through the forest, above struggling men who never even saw them pass. They emerged on the far end and waded through the flooded ford, gaining the opposite side as Eponin's group rejoined them.
Aslanta had come up next to her. "How in Hades did that happen?" The Amazon queen wondered, catching her breath.
Xena pointed to the granite face opposite, which showed fresh score marks in it. "There was an avalanche waiting to happen up there.. I just had Eponin push things along a little. The rocks fell right into the river bed, and diverted it."
The Amazons gathered around her, gazing behind them at the ruined town. "You knew it was a trap. " Aslanta murmured. "You knew everything."
A soft cough interrupted them, and Xena turned. "Jonae."
The highland Queen nodded, running a hand through her short hair. "We were bait for you."
The warrior nodded. "I figured."
Jonae let a tiny smile crease her face. "You came anyway." She exhaled. "Well, I hope you can use us.. because we're all yours." The words were low, and honest, as the woman gazed at her with respectful eyes. "If I wasn't sure before, I am now."
Xena remained silent, aware of the cluster of Amazons all around her, all of them watching her face intently.
"I as well." Aslanta added quietly. "That was brilliantly done."
Huh. Finally, Xena allowed a wary smile to move her lip. And I didn't even have to beat any of them up. "All right." She replied, with a tiny nod of acknowledgment.
A roll of thunder rattled the air, and they all looked up. "Let's find a place to hole up and let that pass." Xena decided. "Come on." She started up the slope, and they followed, falling into line behind her as the first patters of rain dotted the dusty rock.