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 11
They'd found a cave up range, far enough from the town so that they felt safe in stopping, and large enough to hold their now three score sized group. Xena let herself sink down against a boulder and wrapped chilled arms around her knees, glad to be out of the cold wind that had been blowing against her wet body.
The rain was falling outside, lashing against the rock with some violence, and she'd thought she'd heard hail more than once. Across from her a group was clustered around some wood they'd found, and she could hear the soft crackles of a fire being born, bringing a welcome warmth as the fire built and grew in the circle they'd constructed.
The rescued Amazons were in pretty good shape…after whatever they'd been given wore off, they'd been left pretty much alone, and aside from a few cuts and scrapes, and one fractured hand, they'd gotten out fairly intact. Likewise, Xena's Amazons had managed to escape major injury in their battle, save a bump on Solari's head, and a bruise on the arm that the Amazon had gotten from an errant blow of a compatriot's.
In fact, Xena mused wryly, she was probably banged up the worst, having suffered a number of painful thumps in her water travels, including a twisted knee that ached in the cold something fierce. With a sigh, she put her chin down on her arm and debated getting up to retrieve some herbs from her pack, as well as a dry shirt to put on.
"Hello." Cait's voice floated near, and the young Amazon seated herself carefully at Xena's feet.
"Hey." The warrior replied quietly.
"You're awfully wet."
Xena nodded. "Uh huh."
"Wouldn't you like something dry to wear? It's a bit chilly." Cait asked. "I could bring your pack over, if you like."
The warrior mulled this over, then decided getting out of wet clothes couldn’t possibly be regarded as a sign of decadent weakness. "Sure.. if you don't mind."
Cait got up and captured her gear, bringing it back with her and setting it down with a thump. She reseated herself and rested her elbows on her knees, watching Xena tug a thick, warm shirt from the pack and start to undo her armor. "You see, Gabrielle isn't here, so someone really aught to make sure you're all right."
Xena's hands stopped and she peered at the younger Amazon. One eyebrow lifted.
Cait gazed right back at her, unabashed, with a cheeky grin on her face.
"Did Gabrielle tell you to keep an eye on me?" The warrior countered, slipping the shirt over her head and tugging it into place.
"Certainly not." The girl solemnly shook her head. "But I know she'd do it if she were here."
The warm fabric felt wonderful against her chilled skin, and Xena felt her body relax, as it's shivering abated. "Yes she would… thanks, Cait." She lowered her voice.
"You're welcome" The girl responded promptly. "Um… Xena?"
"Mm?" The warrior glanced up.
"You've got rather a nasty cut on your head there… may I take care of it for you?" Cait blushed visibly as she asked, the blood very evident against her pale skin.
Ah. So that's what the headache was from. "Um.. sure." She pulled her healer's kit form her pack and opened it. "Do you know.."
"Quite." Cait gently took it from her, and removed the clean linen pads, and cleanser. "If you'd just lean back there so I could reach."
Xena did so, letting her head rest against the rock and closing her eyes as she felt Cait's hesitant touch against the side of her face. She could smell the sharp scent of the cleaner, and feel the slight tremor in the girl's fingers as she carefully wiped the area clean, leaving behind a sore stinging sensation. "Must have happened under water." She murmured.
"Actually… a box quite hit you just before you went under." Cait replied softly. "I was ever so nervous about that." She put a bit of salve on the cut.
"Ah… yeah." Xena nodded faintly. "That's right…brought back some bad memories."
Cait had finished, but she was still sitting quietly at Xena's side. "Really?"
The blue eyes opened, and gazed thoughtfully at the rock ceiling. "Yeah.. Gabrielle and I were heading out to Potadeia once… the river flooded and went over it's banks. Some … wagon got washed down stream, and we helped the people in it out."
"We got caught in it though… somehow we got trapped under a fallen tree, with the water rising."
"Did you? That's horrible.. how did you ever get out?" Cait asked, curiously.
She'd always wondered and now, at last, the memory had returned to her, of those last, anguished moments under the tree.
The water had risen, chilling her and making Gabrielle's teeth chatter as the bard clung to her, refusing to move, refusing to try and make it out the small opening above their heads.
Xena had wanted her to, had desperately wanted her to live, she was so young, and had so much left to do… surely the world would be better off with Gabrielle in it, and her gone…
But the bard had simply refused to go, throwing her arms around Xena's neck, and making her choice. To go where Xena went, even if that meant dying along side her. Better that, Gabrielle had whispered, than living without her.
And so there she'd been, with the water rising, now almost up to the bard's mouth, and Gabrielle had lifted her eyes, determined to keep them fastened on her partner for as long as she was able.
A gentle pressure, and Xena had felt the body in her arms go limp, and she was faced with their impending death alone, to spare her soulmate the horror that was drowning.
"I'm sorry." She'd whispered brokenly. Regretting all the things she'd ever done.. she'd ever said that had hurt Gabrielle. Regretting all the things Gabrielle would never get to do. She could feel the rapid heartbeat against her skin as the water crept higher, and one hand lifted of it's own volition and cradled the bard's head gently against her chest, as she pressed her lips to the damp hair, the grief rising and wringing helpless sobs from her as tears rolled down to join the raging river's waters.
No gods to pray to that would listen to her. No rescue possible… no one would even know they'd died for a very, very long time.. if ever.
And then she'd looked up, at that damned tree, and felt anger replace the grief as she glared at the unmoving wood. The anger had built, and built, until it overran her conscious thought, and she released Gabrielle's unconscious body, and put her hands against it, pitting her strength against it's weight in a fury of unreasoning rage.
She could feel safety barriers in her breaking down, and knew, no matter what happened, she'd never live through this.
But Gabrielle just might, and so with everything she was, and everything she had, she exploded her body outward and upward, daring the tree to deny her.
She'd tasted blood in her mouth, and felt it running down her face as the unmoving surface moved, and the water roared, given a new outlet.
And then there had only been silence, and friendly darkness, as the world faded away, and she never even felt the river take her.
"I did." Xena murmured, one hand lifting to her ear, from where blood had poured, in reflex. "I.. threw the tree over somehow."
"Well." Cait laughed softly. "Of course you did… it must have been awful, though."
A brief memory of a seashore, and a doorway with light surrounding it tantalized her. "Yeah.. it was… um.. " She paused. Maybe.. maybe it had been… her willingness… to sacrifice everything for Gabrielle's sake that had given her that glimpse, at long last. "It was a mess.. but it worked out." Xena exhaled. "Thanks, Cait." She gave the girl a smile, and sat back, regarding the cavern quietly. "We'll wait for the rain to stop.. then get moving."
"Right." Cait answered softly, seeing the new light shining from the pale blue eyes that so intrigued her.
The golden red rays of sunset felt good, Gabrielle decided, as she sat at her desk and scribbled in her diary. It had been an uneventful day, most of the morning spent recovering from the party the night before, and the rest of it occupied in getting things packed, and ready for the warriors to leave.
She paused and reread her entry, then looked up at the sound of approaching footsteps. Running footsteps, actually, and she half stood as Ephiny ducked inside the door. "Hey!"
"Hey!" Her regent grinned. "Guess who's back?"
Gabrielle felt a smile take over her face, without her permission. "Yeah?"
"Yeah." Ephiny nodded. "The outer guard post just relayed a message… looks like the mission was successful." She loved watching the bard's eyes light up like that, it took years off her age, and made the regent remember a feckless kid that used to follow around a grumpy ex warlord. "I've got my folks getting space cleared… it's gonna be crowded around here for a few days."
Gabrielle stood up and closed her diary, stretching her body out into the sunlight with a feeling of pleasant expectation. "How long till they get here?" She asked, pretending she was concerned about the preparations. "Do we have enough supplies?"
The regent chuckled. "About two candlemarks…and we're out of edible underwear, but Esta's going to bake more."
"Oh.. good." Gabrielle nodded absently. "What time is it now.. " She glanced out the window, then jerked, and turned her head back towards Ephiny. "We're out of what???" She put her hands on her hips. "Are you pulling my leg?"
Ephiny put a hand on her shoulder. "A little." She gave the bard a rakish smile. "Some things never do change with you, do they?"
Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest, then closed it, and let her eyes drop to the floor, only to raise them a moment later. "I guess not." She admitted softly. "My heart still skips a beat when I see her.. and I hope that never changes." She exhaled and shook her head. "Damn.. I'm glad that's over.. I was really nervous about this one.. .looks like my jitters were off base for once."
"Mm." Ephiny chewed her lip. "Listen, I'm sorry about last night."
The bard cocked her head. "For what?"
"Oh." A shrug. "It's okay.. it wasn't your fault."
"I know you were uncomfortable.. I should have said something beforehand…it's just that you get so used to it.. I forget sometimes." Ephiny admitted. "You know we're like that.. it doesn't mean anything, Gab…it's just a little fun, relaxation… nobody minds."
"I know." Mist green eyes fixed on her. "I don’t even know if Xena would object… but I didn't feel right about it." She paused, considering. "It's…that's always been something special for me.. I guess because I just don't… I mean… " She paused again. "With Xena, it's…it's more than just the act."
Ephiny cocked her head. "I don't understand."
The bard's face pursed into a faint scowl. "I don't know if I do either.. I just know it didn't feel right." She sighed. "Maybe because I know how I'd have felt if it had been Xena doing it… even though I know she's had a lot more.. um.. experience… since we've been together it's just been…well, you know what I mean."
"Uh huh." Ephiny nodded.
"I know if it had been her, and she had, I'd have been really hurt." Gabrielle admitted. "Even though in my mind, I know it doesn't mean anything." A shrug. "So… I don't know if she'd feel that way, but I have no intention of ever finding out."
"Ah." The regent nodded. "Okay, I get it."
Gabrielle gazed at her. "I'm not making sense, am I?"
"No.. well.. I mean, yeah.. I mean… " Ephiny had to laugh. "It's just so much more complex with you… but I should be used to that."
The bard nibbled a fingernail. "You 're saying you wouldn’t mind, if it were Pony?"
Ephiny shrugged. "Of course not… it's good to get experience elsewhere sometimes.. keeps you fresh." She hesitated. "So things don't get boring." She watched the confusion seep across Gabrielle's face. "Let me guess. You're never bored."
"Uh." Green eyes widened a little.
Ephiny rubbed the side of her head. "Artemis.. how did I get into this conversation." She muttered. "Look.. never mind.. I understand, okay? I'm sorry she hit on you.. but your answer's gonna go down in Nation history."
"Okay." Gabrielle smiled. "Listen, I'm going to go for a walk.. um.. "
"Let me guess… towards the valley." The regent supplied dryly. "I'll join you."
They left the queen's quarters and walked through the busy village, as the red tinged light drenched them from the west.
"What's edible underwear?"
Ephiny's jaw dropped for a few seconds, then she cleared her throat. "Tell you what.. why don't you ask Xena about it?"
"Mm.. think she'll know?" Gabrielle asked seriously.
"Uh… yeah.. I'm sure she will." The regent nodded.
"Okay." The bard agreed mildly. "Do you really bake it?"
Ephiny rubbed her ear, and started whistling.
They had elected not to stop after their lunch break, and by the time the sun was lowering over the trees the land had begun to slope upward towards the Amazon village. Xena was in the lead, with Cait pacing alongside her, and the rest of the troop in single and double file following behind.
Four Amazons were spread out to either side, as well, just to make sure there weren’t any snoopers around, though Xena was fairly sure her senses would have picked that up. However, the trek was almost over, and she was content to maintain a good pace, glancing around her at the rustling leaves of the forest. A low rumble reminded her, though, that it had been a long time since lunch, and she reached behind her into her pack and pulled out a trail bar.
Despite the long day, and the early start, she found herself in an unusually good mood, and she reflected on that as she chewed her snack. Maybe it was because of her morning success… even she had to agree that the plan had worked, for once, without a hitch, and given that it was a last minute choice, and she had almost no one clued into the whole thing, she had reason to be pretty darn proud of herself.
Certainly, the Amazons were impressed… she'd heard snatches of conversation drifting up all day, most of it complimentary, some of it downright embarrassing, and while her ego didn't generally require any stroking, she wasn't beyond admitting it felt nice for a change from this particular group.
They'd gotten out of it with only a few scrapes, with all the captive Amazons intact, and had practically ruined a significant outpost of Andreas. Damn, Xena. She grinned up at a bluebird flitting overhead. You may still have it in you. The strategy of war had always caught her imagination, and she found herself seriously welcoming the chance to shake out the cobwebs, and flex mental muscles long dormant.
It felt great.
A half candlemark and two more bars later, Xena’s eyes picked out the hidden mass of the furthest of the Amazons outposts, and she lifted a hand to wave at it, grinning when the leaves parted, and a brown haired head poked through, responding to her signal. “Well, they know we’re here.” She commented to Eponin, who had ambled up alongside her.
“Huh.” Pony agreed. “Think they’ll hold dinner for us?”
Xena wasn’t sure if an affirmative was a good thing or a bad thing, so she rocked her head noncommittally. “Depends…if they get word back soon enough.” She found herself wondering if the word might also bring a curious Gabrielle out along the trail as well, and she made a bet with herself that it would.
Two lousy days, and she found herself eagerly awaiting the reunion with her partner as though they'd been parted for a month. Xena shook her head ruefully. How was that for pathetic? But she was bringing good news, and new allies, and she could hardly wait to see the look on Gabrielle's face when she told her.
High spirits bubbled up, and she bounced into a flip, startling Cait who jumped in alarm next to her, and causing several snorts to float up from behind them. "Sorry." She apologized to the young Amazon.
"Good grief.. I thought we were being attacked." Cait glanced around nervously. "That was quite sudden."
"Yeah.. what's made you so damn bouncy today?" Eponin asked, giving her a strange look. "Something in those fruit things of yours?"
The sun had dropped almost behind the walls of rock, spilling warm red light through the leaves, and a tired silence had fallen over the Amazons before Xena lifted her head and focused pale blue eyes on a small, roughly hewn path across the last chasm bridge between them and Amazon territory.
“Why does this damn walk always seem longer going this way?” Solari groused. “I swear it only took us a candlemark on the way out.”
“Shut up.” Eponin grunted. “Let’s get over the bridge, then maybe ‘someone’ will think about giving us a break.”
Xena lifted an eyebrow at her. “Tch…getting a little lazy, arentcha?” She drawled. “Weren’t you the one who was telling me last time how you went on for two days once without stopping?”
Eponin glared at her from under rust colored brows.
“Yeah, that was her.” Solari supplied, helpfully. “Or was it three days.. I forget.”
“You both think you’re sooo funny.” Pony growled, as Cait muffled a giggle.
Xena chuckled. “Tell ya what… once we get across the bridge, I’d say a break would be in order.”
“No no.. “ Pony held up a hand. “Forget I mentioned it.” She stomped onto the bridge, causing it to shake.
“Hey… take it easy.. we’ve got other people to get across.” The warrior called, as she put her boots on the wooden surface, pulling the rope supports and bouncing a little, which sent a wave down the bridge and nearly tossed Eponin on her head.
“Yeow!” The weapons master grabbed for the rope railings, then turned and glowered at her.
Xena gave her a charming smile, and waved a hand at her, motioning her forward as she stepped onto the bridge herself and approached the other woman, aware of the other Amazons following her by the shifting weight on the bridge.
“You’re cruising for a bruising, champ.” Eponin snorted, as she approached. “Gabrielle isn’t here to protect you this time.” She turned and shook her head, continuing on across and moving away from the bridge to allow the others to exit.
“So.” Xena strolled up, feeling unusually mischevious. “You think Gabrielle protects me, huh?”
A snort. “You know she does… one wrong look and WHAP!” Pony pantomined being hit in the head with a staff. “You think you’re dangerous? Hades, Xena.. you can’t even compete.” She walked backwards, gesturing with her hands. “I tell you what, I’d never get within range of that stick, no way, no how.. .uh uh.. that's one dangerous woman you've go there, let me tell ya….yeow!” Eponin yelped, finding herself being lifted off the ground by strong arms wrapped around her middle. “Hey!!!”
“So, I’m dangerous, huh?” A gentle voice whispered in her ear.
Eponin froze and rolled her eyes back, to see brilliant green ones peering back at her at very close range. “Oh.” She chuckled wanly. “Hi, Gabrielle.”
The bard released her, and brushed her hands off. “Hi.” Her eyes slid past the flustered Amazon and fell on her partner, who winked at her. Gabrielle’s brows knit on seeing the visible cut on her soulmate’s face, but she kept quiet, walking over to her and giving her a pat on the belly, then moving past and extending an arm to Jonae. “Welcome to our lands.”
The Amazon queen exhaled wearily and met her grasp. "It's good to see you again, Gabrielle… and thank you for sending help."
"No problem.. " Gabrielle motioned Ephiny to come forward. "This is my regent, Ephiny… Eph, this is Jonae, the queen of the highlands Amazons."
"We've met." Ephiny smiled, holding out a hand. "At the river valley market, two seasons ago, I believe."
Jonae's face lightened, and she nodded. "I remember.. yes…you won the archery competition, and stole that bag of gold right out from under the prince's favorite… well done!"
Ephiny's head inclined, accepting the compliment graciously. "So I did… it feels like a long time ago."
Gabrielle smiled quietly. "Looks like everyone could use a break. "She gave her soulmate a wry look, then bit off a chuckle. "Jonae.. why not introduce Ephiny to your people..we've got about another candlemark's walk to get to the village."
"Good idea." Jonae exhaled. "Your champion there sets quite a pace… my feet are killing me." A soft round of laughter went up, and Jonae motioned Ephiny to join her, followed by a curious Eponin.
Xena seated herself on a rock and stretched her legs out, gazing up as her soulmate came over and slid both arms around her neck in a quick hug. "Hey.." She circled Gabrielle's waist and returned it, giving the bard a tiny nibble along the ribs as she did so. She felt her ear tasted in return, and they both chuckled.
"How'd it go?" The bard asked, raking fingers through Xena's dark hair affectionately. "Looks like you got everyone… didn't take you long."
"It went perfectly." The warrior responded, with a frank grin. "We got in, released them, and got out.. in under a quarter candlemark.. and neutralized the outpost on top of it." She gazed up into the bard's sunset painted features. "Aslanta's in… Jonae's in."
Gabrielle smiled back at her. "Gillen and Tyldus as well." She announced proudly. "And we've settled on a way to consolidate the villages, to conserve resources and provide for security while the warriors are gone."
Xena's smile deepened. "Good work, my bard.. not that I had any doubts."
Gabrielle's eyes twinkled, and she wrinkled her nose in a big grin. "Thanks." They regarded each other for a moment, then the bard gently touched the cut on her soulmate's face. "If it went perfectly, what's this from? You and Pony sparring?"
"Ah." Xena exhaled. "Part of the plan required a flood… and I was a little slow getting out of it's way..I bounced off a few things." She shrugged. "It's.."
"Nothing.. just a scratch." Gabrielle finished her sentence effortlessly. "I've had worse." She continued with an impish grin. "Did I leave anything out?"
"Mmhmm.. don't worry about it." Xena supplied. "Cait took good care of me." One dark brow cocked. "She seemed to think someone had to since you weren't there."
"Ahhh… .I see." The bard continued to riffle her hands through the dark hair, watching her partner's eyes flutter closed in contentment at the touch. "That all you got?" The surface under her fingertips moved in a nod. "Mm….did it happen this morning?" Another nod. "Ah."
The liquid blue eyes opened, tinged with the sun's fire and peered at her. "Why?"
Gabrielle exhaled, then looked up as voices approached. "Tell you later." She promised, brushing her fingertips across the warrior's lips, and finding them lightly captured, then released, the strong white teeth leaving tiny chills in their wake that skittered up and down her arm.
Boring? Gabrielle sucked a breath in, and tried to calm her body down, as Jonae and Ephiny, joined by Aslanta and Eponin closed in on them. "Well.. we ready to keep going?"
Ephiny smirked at little, at the flush evident on her friends face despite the sunset's masking and folded her arms, giving the waiting warrior a wry look. Wide, round blue eyes blinked back at her innocently.
She could feel the animal sexuality that oozed from the seated woman even from where she was, and thinking about it, conceded that Gabrielle probably did have about all she could handle or ever need in that respect.
But, she wondered, how did Xena feel about it? Was the far more experienced warrior equally content with her younger partner?
Interesting question. "I think we are…. We can have a light supper when we get back.. and put a few plans together for tomorrow." Ephiny tilted her head at time. "You two planning on taking off?"
Gabrielle considered the question. "We'll stay another day.. just to get things tied down, then head back." She glanced at Xena, who nodded. "We've got so much to do at home… and I know you all do here, too."
"Great." Ephiny nodded briskly. "That gives me another night to get things settled."
"Somehow.. " Xena drawled, with a sly grin. "I smell a party coming."
The regent put her hands on her hips, ignoring the clustering Amazons, most of whom were grinning. "A party? Xena, why is it that every time we mention the words group, Amazons, and night, you assume it's a party?"
"Because it always is." Xena and Gabrielle answered in harmony.
Ephiny gave them both a mock insulted look, then stalked off, with Eponin in tow. "C'mon… let's get moving."
They let most of the Amazons pass before Xena rose and they joined the crowd, the warrior draping an arm over her partner's shoulders as Gabrielle reciprocated with a snug hold around her waist. "Party, or no?" The warrior whispered, as they walked along.
"Are you kidding? That's all she was talking about on the way out here." Her soulmate responded, bumping her with a hip. "It's a good idea, though, Xena… to get all these Amazons to mix around a little…break down some of that us and them stuff."
"Mm." Xena agreed absently. "Yeah… a little wine, a little dancing… that'll work." She glanced down when there was no answer, and saw the tense line of Gabrielle's jaw in the fading light. "Hey."
The bard turned her head and peeked up, a faint apprehension perceptible in the lines of her body. "Yeah?"
Gabrielle took in a breath. "What makes you think anything is?"
Xena gazed at her in worried silence.
A yell caught their attention, and they looked up to see Ephiny waving at them. Gabrielle sighed. "Let's get back… then we'll talk, okay?"
The warrior's good mood vanished, replaced by a dull, gnawing in the pit of her stomach that threatened to expel it's contents. "Okay." She answered quietly, as they threaded their way through the crowd towards the regent.
Her only solace was the firm grip on her hand by the bard's, which never loosened in the slightest.
It was full dark before they got everyone settled, with Jonae's people in the far orchard in already pitched tents, which they crawled into gratefully. The dining hall put out large quantities of cold foods, fruits and breads, cheeses and dried meats for anyone who was hungry, and Xena found a plateful of it shoved in her hands by a harried looking Eponin as she passed by.
"Here… I know Gab's usually hungry… I need to get me out of these leathers I think I got ants in em."
"Thanks." Xena replied quietly, as she took a deep breath and looked around, spotting Gabrielle ducking away from a group of Amazons and heading for her quarters. "I"l be over there if you need anything."
"Sure..sure.. " Pony ruffled her hair. "Hey… you're not off the hook for today, y'know… I'm gonna get you back for that."
"Yeah.. okay." Came the absent response, as the warrior slid away into the darkness, heading in the direction her partner had gone.
Eponin stared after her in puzzlement. "What's up with her?" She asked Ephiny, who was just passing by. "Been quieter than a mouse since we got back.. you say something to her?"
The regent stared after the tall figure. "No…beyond asking her about the outpost's layout… she seemed okay.. a little short on the words, but whenever is Xena not like that?"
They both watched the warrior duck inside the Queen's quarters, then shrugged, and went on towards the dining hall's open door.
Gabrielle was flat on her back, enjoying the blessed silence when she heard the footsteps approaching, and turned her head, to see familiar blue eyes peering at her from the doorway. "Hey… thank that gods that's over."
Xena entered, and put the plate down on Gabrielle's desk, before walking over to the chair and sitting down. "Pony sent that."
The bard hitched herself up on her elbows and looked. "Ah… did you get some?"
Gabrielle studied her friend's quiet composure, to anyone else a picture of peaceful unconcern. To her eyes, though, Xena's tense upset was painfully evident. She sighed, then rolled up and off the bed and padded barefoot over to where the warrior was sitting, nudging her over on the low bench and dropping down next to her, with their thighs and shoulders brushing. She felt Xena lean against her a little, and she looked up, searching the taller woman's face. "It's been a weird day."
"I woke up pretty sick… I overdid it last night, even though I thought three cups were pretty safe."
An eyebrow twitched.
"They had one of those outdoor things last night.. there's not enough room for everyone inside the dining hall." Gabrielle drew in a breath. "Xena… the Amazons have these traditions… "
Xena felt a band tighten around her chest, and she swallowed carefully. "Yes, they do." She forced her voice to a normal register.
"They have this.. whole thing with the dancing, and all that…and how that usually ends up with people just… " Gabrielle paused. "Sort of ending up with each other." Another pause. "You know what I mean."
The warrior carefully took iron control of her body and merely nodded. "Yes, I know." It was hard to breathe, but she managed.
"How do you feel about that?" Gabrielle asked, gently.
Xena was caught speechless, shoving down waves of emotion that threatened to swamp her before she could slam a lid down on that, and answer the question. "Well. " Her voice sounded distant, and she was surprised at it's calm tone. "I guess it has it's uses."
Gabrielle put a hand on her knee, feeling the vibrating tension just under the skin. "That's what Ephiny said… that they did that to help relieve tension.. or to give people experience." She traced a careful pattern on the soft skin. "I had Eph teach me that dance last night." The muscles went very still. "But I couldn’t." She finally looked up at the warrior's face, finding Xena's eyes on her. "It felt so wrong."
The eyes fluttered closed, and Xena licked her lips a few times, her jaw muscles tensing and moving under the skin. "I'm glad you felt that way." Came the very mild response. "Though you are a grown woman, Gabrielle, and you've got the right to choose what you want to do with your own body."
"Mm." Gabrielle acknowledged that. "How would you have felt if I had?"
Xena was quiet so long, the bard had almost decided she wasn't going to answer, and she was about to withdraw the question. But as she opened her lips to speak, the dark head lifted, and Xena looked at her, with a very open expression. "That would have really hurt." She admitted softly.
The rawness of it scraped along her nerves, and made her reach for Xena's hand, folding inside both of hers and feeling the uncharacteristic chill of her skin. The fingers tightened around hers and she saw some of the tension relax around the warrior's eyes. "Ephiny tried really hard to convince me it didn't matter….I don't understand that, Xena.. how could it not matter to them?"
A faint shake of the warrior's head. "Maybe for them it doesn’t." She spoke very quietly. "But when two people have gone through what you and I have… just to be together… just to stay together… little things take on a very deep meaning." She hesitated. "Everything matters."
It made sense, in a way that her heart understood, going past mere logic. "Mm… you're right." She agreed softly. "We've never talked about this before."
Xena exhaled. "No, we haven't."
Gabrielle studied her profile. "I wasn't… sure, I mean…"She fished around for a way to explain. "I guess I could have asked you.. but after that whole thing with Toris.. I don't know.. you seemed okay with it.. I wasn't really sure just how you felt about… that.. sort of thing."
The warrior remained quiet for a few beats, then she looked up. "I wasn't okay with it."
The bard blinked. "Wh.."
"It bothered me a lot." Xena admitted slowly. "It still does."
Gabrielle stared at her, in shock. "Why in Hades didn't you say something?"
Xena expelled a long breath. "How could I? I knew how much you wanted a child…and I knew I couldn't give that to you." Her gaze dropped to the floor. "I was stuck between two very sharp swords."
"Xena…" Gabrielle felt sick.
"And… we hadn't been back together again that long I thought…" Now the warrior's voice was shaking. "And after everything… how could I deny you that?"
"Oh gods." The bard pressed her head against her partner's shoulder.
Xena took in a shaky breath. "So.. yes, it would have mattered to me, Gabrielle." Now the dark head lifted, and she was faced with stark, intense blue eyes. "You're mine, and I don’t' want to share you with anyone."
She'd never felt the bond between them so strongly. It was almost visible to her, as she met that fierce gaze and returned it with one of her own. "I think you know I feel the same way about you." Gabrielle responded. "I'm sorry… gods, I'm so sorry you felt like that about Toris… I wish you would have told me.. Xena, don’t you know yet that you're the most important thing in my life?"
Xena blinked. "I'm sorry. You're right. I should have." She replied, quietly. "It was very hard for me to think straight then."
Gabrielle sighed, and dropped her head. "It was for me too." She admitted. "Or I would have thought about making sure you were okay. " A hesitation. "I think I was trying so hard to give you…back… something I'd taken…" She stopped, and looked up, hoping for understanding, and finding more of it than she'd dare expected. "You knew that."
A hand lifted and cupped her cheek. "Yes." Xena's eyes were sad. "I wanted the same for you." She took a few breaths. "When I saw that birthmark.. I thought maybe both our dreams had come true."
The bard's eyes gentled, and she drank in the words, tasting their sweetness in simple pleasure. She covered Xena's hand with her own, then turned her head a little and kissed the palm lightly. "They have."
Xena reached over and took hold of her, and she was pulled willingly into the warrior's lap, wrapping her arms around her partner's body and hugging her with all her strength. She felt Xena stroke her hair, as she always did when comforting her, and the awful tension that had racked the warrior's body relaxed, as it melded into hers in a tangle of warmth and relief.
The darkness gathered around them, as the last of the twilight faded, leaving only a single candle to cast a golden light across the room. Outside, the sounds of moving warriors surrounded them, but a comfortable silence reigned within, as the soft, cool breeze brushed back dark and pale hair, tangling it in fitful gusts
"Are you okay?" Gabrielle finally asked, in a whisper.
"Yeah." Came the quiet answer. "I'm glad you told me."
The heartbeat under her ear was now slow, and steady. "I remembered what you said about wanting to know." She paused a few moments, closing her eyes.
"I'm a little surprised at Eph." Xena remarked, with a sigh. "I didn't think she… well, anyway."
Gabrielle's brows knit. "Hm?" Then she put two and two together. "Oh.. no.. she… I mean, she showed me the dance, because I asked her to, but she never.. um… gods, Xena.. she's a friend of both of ours…no.."
"I thought… " The blue eyes caught the candlelight, reflecting in the dimness.
"Gods, no.. it was Gillen." The bard shook her head. "I mean, everyone was getting kinda…touchy.. " She flicked a glance at her soulmate. "But then she crossed the line.. and I told her no thanks."
"Ah." Xena felt better about that.
"Yeah.. she called me a bumpkin."
Gabrielle cleared her throat a little. "Well, I.. um.. sort of told her no one there could live up to what I was used to."
That surprised a little clucking noise out of her partner. "You did?"
"Uh, yeah…. Sort of at the top of my voice… "
"In front of the entire crowd."
Xena didn't answer.
Gabrielle smiled into the darkness. "You're blushing. I can feel it."
A soft knock came at the door. "My queen… the other queens and Ephiny are asking for your presence in the council room."
Gabrielle sighed. "They can bite me." She muttered, then took a breath.
"The queen is occupied." Xena answered for her, in a low, but no nonsense voice. "And will be all night."
Silence from the door. Gabrielle expelled the breath she'd taken, and snuggled back down into her warm nest with a satisfied little grunt.
"But.." The voice came back.
"If anyone's got a problem with that.. they can just come and discuss it with me." Xena growled. "Personally."
Silence again. "Yes, ma'am." The voice finally, meekly receded.
Peace descended once again.
Xena didn't often see the sun rise from the comfort of a bed. But this time she watched placidly as the golden bars came across the floor and painted the covers, which were tucked neatly around her and the dozing bard wrapped in her arms.
Outside, she could hear the noises of a beginning day, but she had no intention of stirring until Gabrielle did, to Hades with the Amazons, or anything else.
Emotions, she reflected, drained her more thoroughly and for a longer period of time than fighting entire battles.. after their talk last night she'd been completely exhausted, and this morning she still felt tired, content to let her eyes drift half shut as the sun glistened off the bard's pale hair and turned her skin a golden hue.
Still, she was glad Gabrielle had told her. It said good things about the stability of their relationship that the bard felt she could broach the subject, more as an honestly curious question than as a perceived betrayal..given that both of them had taken a lot of hits in that area not that long ago.
And if she'd stopped to think about it, how was Gabrielle to know how she really felt, huh? Like she ever said one way or the other? The furthest she'd gone was to admit some discomfort when Gabrielle had asked, the day she and Toris…. Xena sighed inwardly. I'm still lousy at handling my own feelings.. even after all these damn years.. and what in Hades would I have done if she'd gone ahead and slept with someone else?
She winced in pure reflex. Gods. I'm glad she didn't.
The sun crept a little higher, outlining dark brows that suddenly twitched, and lifted slightly, as the warrior remembered what the bard had told her erstwhile suitors, and a faint, somewhat embarrassed smile curved into being on Xena's face. That musta stung…if it's one thing the Amazons prided themselves on besides fighting, it was their ability to please each other, and Gabrielle had bluntly announced that none of them could ever measure up to her consort.. chosen conspicuously from outside the Nation.
Oo. The warrior regarded her contentedly sleeping partner in bemusement. Like you'd know one way or the other, huh?
Gabrielle half woke and nestled closer, producing a low mumble of pleasure as her grip tightened and their bodies wound around each other. Xena closed her eyes as the rush of blood in pure reaction sent tingles all over her and she let out a breath, acknowledging something very important.
It had nothing to do with her skill as a lover. It was their bond, the connection between them along with the bone deep friendship that made the difference between Gabrielle, and any other person she'd ever made love to. Every touch, every caress carried layers of meaning that pure physical contact could never duplicate.
She almost felt sorry for the Amazons.
One blue eye lazily opened, as she heard boots approaching. But not too sorry. She detected Ephiny's voice nearing, and recognized the thump of Eponin's accompanying stomping. And if they wanted to believe she was Aphrodite's gift to humanity… An impish smile gathered in the sunlight. Who was she to object? They'd never find out one way or the other either.
Ephiny's curly head poked in the door and Xena stretched her body out luxuriously, draping a protective arm over her bedmate. One eyebrow cocked. "Yeeesss?" She drawled, enjoying the look of consternation on the regent's face.
The Amazon leaned on the doorframe, putting a hand on one hip. "You gonna stay in bed all day?"
"Wouldn't you?" Came the sleepy answer, as pale green eyes opened, and peered towards the door. Gabrielle had her hands pressed against her partner's stomach, and she felt the vibration as Xena laughed silently.
The naked body wrapped around her smelled warm, and nice, and the temptation was definitely there to let herself drift back down into the sensual haze she'd drifted off into last night, after they'd spent hours simply indulging in each other. Her body felt very satiated, and she had no desire whatsoever to move.
However. There was that queen of the Amazons thing to deal with.
Muskrats. Reluctantly, Gabrielle rolled over, pressing herself back against her partner's curled body and propping her head up on one hand. A long arm slid over and clasped her around the middle, and she lifted her brows inquiringly at her regent. "The treaty's signed, we're not going anywhere until after your party tonight, and… " She cocked her head, hearing a low rumble. "It's gonna rain soon."
Ephiny sighed. "True, true, and true…and yes, by the way, I would." She drawled in response, obliquely complimenting the tall warrior, who inclined her head graciously. "But I didn't want you to miss the games… I'd kinda like you to judge some of them."
"If it's not too much trouble." Ephiny added wryly.
Gabrielle let her head drop back to rest against Xena's collarbone, and felt the gentle pressure as the warrior slowly rubbed her belly. It took all her will power not to just close her eyes and give into her body's cravings, and for a long moment, she toyed with the idea of refusing.
Then she sighed. "Okay.. but you gotta give me time to get a roll or something… if I judge those things on an empty stomach, I'll end up disqualifying half the people in them."
Ephiny shook her head in mock despair, then turned and ambled out the door, pausing just past the frame and looking back. "I'll have something sent over." She gave Pony a shove and snorted, as she walked away.
Gabrielle giggled softly. "She's gonna kill us, isn't she?"
"Mm." Xena ducked her head, and nibbled the back of her partner's neck, hearing the sudden intake of her breath, and feeling her body react under the drifting fingers of her other hand. "Maybe."
The bard rolled onto her back and gazed up through half lidded, darkened eyes. "You looking to give me a reputation, partner?"
Xena grinned sexily back. "Just returning the favor, my Queen."
"Ooo…" Gabrielle bit back a laugh. "I'm in deep trouble."
The warrior leaned over her and nibbled her belly, nipping around her navel with gentle, teasing touches. "Yes, you are." She breathed on the soft skin, as the muscles under her tensed, and fingers ran lightly through her hair.
"Mmmm." The bard uttered a soft moan as fire erupted in her guts, and spread out, making her body react, and sending her hands reaching for the solid warmth now brushing up against her. "Xena, we can't…"
The touches grew lighter, then danced up her breastbone, and when she opened her eyes, she was looking straight up into Xena's, which had gentled and were gazing apologetically at her.
"Sorry." The warrior lowered her head and their lips met, tasting each other. Then Xena touched her forehead to her partner's and rubbed noses with her. "We have stuff to do, I know."
Gabrielle let out a long, wistful sigh, lifting a hand to caress her soulmate's face. "Do you know what I wish?"
Xena's mouth eased into a smile. "Yes."
The bard smiled back, as they locked eyes for a long, peaceful moment.
Then Xena rolled over onto her back and sat up, running long fingers through her disheveled hair and rubbing her neck. "I'd get some clothes on before they send one of those juniors in here, and we get made the talk of the village." She eased out of bed and tossed Gabrielle a clean shirt from their pack, then got one for herself and slid it over her head.
"Yeah, yeah." Gabrielle did likewise, then got up and padded over to the water basin, thrusting her hands in an yelping a little, as she splashed the cold water over her head. "Ow.. that's like ice!" She took the piece of linen her partner held out and scrubbed her face, leaving it flushed and tingling. "Okay. I'm awake."
Xena laughed, and took her turn at the basin, then wandered over to the window, leaning against the sill as she regarded the preparations outside. Already, a group of warriors were sparring, the solid sound of swords hitting each other distinctive across the grounds.
Hmm. Xena felt the ends of her fingers tingle in anticipation, and she let a calculating smile appear.
"You thinking of joining in this time?" Gabrielle's voice came at her shoulder, a note of curiosity in it.
"Mmhm." The warrior replied readily. "I could use the practice." She flexed her hands. "I've still got a lot of work to do on that."
Gabreille rubbed her back gently. "I think I'll pass this time." She waited for her soulmate to turn, then she tugged on her shirt hem. "Will you dance with me tonight?"
The tanned face broke into a frank grin that was it's own answer.
"All right.. .we're about ready." Ephiny sighed, and folded her arms, as she came to stand next to the quietly watching Gabrielle. The square was filling with Amazons, the older women dressed in their best feathers and leathers, outdoing each other in beads and finery. The youngers gathered in small groups and talked over the days' competitions, some sporting the odd bang and bruise, and others draped in the ribbons that showed their prowess on the field.
In the center, a fire was carefully tended, and the cook staff knelt nearby, filling wooden platters with roasted meats and fish, and a selection of breads and fruits. The smell was wonderful, a combination of woodsmoke and cooking, and the sounds of laughter rang over the crowd, as the women began settling down on wooden platforms to enjoy the night.
A soft drumming started, as the musicians warmed up, and a wild piper sent a few notes soaring upward, as Ephiny turned to watch her friend's face as the bard studied the crowd. "Thanks for the help today… those two contests really needed some negotiation… you're incredible at that."
Pale green eyes turned her way, and Gabrielle smiled easily. "Thanks… it was kinda tough, with all those fighters… they got really competitive."
Ephiny nodded. "Yes, they did…there were a lot of feathers flying.. and ribbons given…" She noted Eponin was approaching, wearing her own set of colorful trophies, and carrying a wooden box. "Only one left to give."
Gabrielle held out her hands and took the box from the weapon's master, opening it to find a pure white, braided token inside. A tiny smile edged her lips up, then she closed the box quietly. "Okay.. let's do it."
The gathered Amazons, hundreds strong crowded into a space almost too small to hold them quieted as Gabrielle stepped to the front of her platform, elevated over the space, with Ephiny at her side. Gillen, Aslanta and Jonae joined her, ranging themselves around her and making last minute adjustments to leathers fairly dripping with ornaments.
The bard cleared her throat gently, and glanced down at her own, new, fawn colored leathers, with their intricately tooled belt and matching bracers. "Don't we look spiffy." She muttered to Ephiny, in an undertone.
The regent muffled a chuckle, and gave her a nudge. "G'wan.. get it over with.. so we can eat. I'm starving, and if I don't get these stupid arm bands off, they're gonna drive me nuts."
Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders a bit, settling her cloak into place and lifting her head. She took a deep breath, and dropped her diaphragm, projecting her voice across the crowd with practiced ease. "Welcome, Amazons."
A low murmur responded.
"We welcome our friends here, to gather with us, and join us in a great undertaking, to join a force which will turn back a great evil."
Another muted shout.
"Today, Amazons have proven, in every contest, the skills that will achieve this." Gabrielle went on. "Many of you wear the ribbons of success. I congratulate you."
A louder yell this time, and cheers.
The bard took a deep breath, and stood a little taller, if that were possible. She could sense the eyes of the other Queens on her, and Ephiny's supportive presence at her elbow. "And as each contest could only have one winner, so too, can there be only one who stands above all the rest, and claims the field undisputed."
Now, a total silence fell.
"Would the overall champion please come forward."
The quiet sound of rhythmic boots on the wooden platform echoed, as the tall form appeared in the ring of firelight, moving through a crowd that visibly swayed, and parted as she passed, the long, dark cloak dusting shoulders on either side.
Green eyes met pale blue and held, until bard and warrior were face to face and Xena halted, a barely perceptible smile on her face. She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin as Gabrielle removed the ribbon from it's box, and handed the wooden container to the waiting Eponin.
For a moment, Gabrielle merely studied her soulmate, standing there so proud and still, dressed in her black leathers and brass armor, head and shoulders above almost all the Amazons and larger than life with her neatly draped cloak, and full set of weapons.
She hadn't just won, either. The bard couldn’t keep a smile back as she stepped forward and looped the ribbon over her partner's neck. She'd taken the field by storm, defeating Amazon champions in everything from archery to boxing, culminating in a sunset sword battle that had lasted almost a candlemark and ended with Xena shattering her opponents sword in three pieces as the last rays of light backlit her triumphant form.
Then raising her weapon in salute to her queen, who just so happened to be standing there watching.
Protocol required her to give the winner an arm clasp. Instead, the bard reached up and circled Xena's neck, pulling her head down and kissing her soundly, then releasing her to a round of wild cheering.
A pleased smile crossed the warrior's face, then she reached out and touched one of the feather clasps dangling from Gabrielle's outfit. "May I?"
The bard glanced at it, then up at her in puzzlement. "Sure." She unhooked it, then hesitated. "Do you… um.. "
"Yeah." The blue eyes twinkled gently.
Gabrielle attached her token to the strap on Xena's armor, where it swayed gently in the breeze. "There…great job, tiger." She whispered, giving the warrior a proud smile, then offering her a hand, which Xena took, and pulled her to her side as they faced the crowd. Their hands remained clasped as the Amazons acknowledged her with yells of approval. The warrior lifted a hand in acknowledgement, then they moved back, and seated themselves on the leather padding, as the music spiraled up again, and the servers started moving among the crowd.
Xena stretched her legs out along the platform and gazed down at her chest, where the ribbon stood starkly out against her dark leathers.
She hadn't really intended on doing that.
She'd started out by just doing a little sparring, just to loosen up her muscles, and get some badly needed practice in.. then Pony had showed up.
And dinars had started passing.
And then it had become a matter of pride, and the gods only knew, she had more than her share of that. Once she'd started, she knew she had to go all the way, so…she'd sucked it up, and just done it, throwing every bit of energy she could muster into the events, until she'd looked around, and realized she'd won.
"So." Gabrielle broke away from her conversation with Jonae and patted her leg. "How's it feel to be the top featherhead?"
Xena leaned back on her hands and wiggled her booted feet. "I'm gonna regret this in the morning." She warned. "I took a beating in some of those damn lists."
"Tch.. poor old thing." Gabrielle reached over and patted her cheek. "I'll have to give you a rubdown later." She glanced up as a server arrived, and accepted two mugs. "Thanks." She handed one to he warrior. "Here… you earned it."
Xena pulled her boots in and sat cross legged, taking the mug and cradling it between her hands as she rested her elbows on her knees. She was aware of the eyes on her, and she looked up, watching the crowds of Amazons as they talked, and grabbed platters, no longer able to sort out which Nation they belonged to.
That was good. They'd be an effective force, once she got them trained, and for the first time, she began to feel a little better about their chances. If Gabrielle could get four Amazon nations to agree, and toss in the centaurs too…
Everything else should be a snap.
The food platters were starting to come around now, and Xena relaxed, lying down on her side and extending her long legs out towards the edge of the platform, leaning on one elbow and nursing her mug with her other hand.
She felt eyes on her, and she casually looked around, meeting Gillen's hooded stare for a long, speculative moment.
Then a nudge came on her leg, and she broke off the eye contact, half turning her head to see Gabrielle settling in the curve of her body, bearing a platter of goodies, one of which was promptly offered to her.
She accepted it with a delicate snap of white teeth, and smiled in reflex at the look of undisguised affection on the bard's face. Xena glanced around casually as she chewed the tidbit, finding Gillen's eyes on her again.
A dark brow lifted, and a feral grin appeared.
She flexed her very best warrior princess attitude and curled it around the woman leaning against her, fluffing out her cloak a little and tucking it around the bard's legs, wryly aware of just how primitive the attitude really was.
Gabrielle leaned back against her and the firelight caught the tattoo on her arm, reflecting back the hawk's stare to her partner's watching eyes. She reached up and traced the outline of it, watching the goosebumps rise in a trail after her fingertip.
When she looked back, Gillen's eyes were firmly fixed on something else.
"What's that smirk for?" Gabrielle asked, as she offered up a neatly wrapped meatroll.
"Was I smirking?" Xena burred. "Imagine that."
The fire was burning low, before the drums changed their rhythm, becoming insistent patterns that captured the spirit. Without prompting, bodies began to shift and circle, and a low chanting rose, meeting the pipe's music as the tempo increased.
Gabrielle was content to watch, until they were alone on their platform, the other queens having gone down to join the fun, steps swaying a little under the wine's influence. She was leaning back against her partner, who had her chin resting on the bard's shoulder as they both gazed out into the heart of the fire, breathing in gentle unison.
"Hey, Xe?" Gabrielle was aware of a slight slurring in her words, but figured her partner would fill in any missing pieces. She was bright that way.
"Mm?" The low purr was right in the bard's ear, and it almost tickled.
"Eph tol me to ask you bout this… "
"Ebid… evid… " Gabrielle stopped and cleared her throat. "Edible unerware."
Blue eyes grew round and blinked. "Excuse me?" The wine she'd drunk had certainly taken the edge off, but she wasn't in as fuzzy a state as her younger companion.
"Edib…panties you can eat." The bard changed tactics. "What's that about?" She pulled at the warrior's leathers. "Do you have any?"
"Um." Xena cleared her throat. "No.. well, not right now.. um.. it's a…sort of a… um.."
The bard tipped her head back and eyed the warrior. " You're babbling."
"Yeah, I know…it's.. they're something from the far east, Gabrielle.. made of rice paper. " Xena managed to get out. "You um… you can wear them, but they um… dissolve in water."
"Or other fluids."
"Ah." Gabrielle pondered that. "That's pretty stupid, Xena… how.. how long could they last?"
Xena shifted, and leaned back, pulling her partner with her. "They um.. aren't supposed to last long, honey." She murmured in a pink ear. "They come in flavors.. you kind of.. nibble them off."
Dead silence, as blond brows knit into a puzzled frown. Then Gabrielle burst into laughter.. "You've got to be kidding."
Xena laughed too. "Nah… that's nothing…what I haven't seen… well, I'll get you some if ya really want em."
"No thanks." The bard giggled. "What challenge would that be? Getting you out of those leathers is much more fun."
Xena looked at her for a minute, then started chuckling. .
They both watched the dancing for a while, the circling throwing off the occasional pair who wandered off, arms and hands busy as they melted into the darkness. Laughter floated over to them, and they could see heads turned their way, and eyes regarding them with some amusement.
"You know… they really do think I'm a bumpkin." Gabrielle sighed, resting her head on her soulmate's thigh. "I can tell… even after everything." She looked up quietly. "Why?"
Xena cocked her head in thought. "Well…most of these women were brought up in Amazon villages… they're taught to think of… well, not to think much of people who were born…um… in places like we were."
"We?" The bard rolled the word around in her mouth, tasting it.
"Mm..' Xena put a finger on her nose. "Your family were shepherds.. mine were innkeepers… you and I don't come from very different backgrounds, Gabrielle." It was a simple statement of fact. "So.. if you're a bumpkin.. so am I."
Gabrielle blinked a few times in bemusement. "Wow." She looked up in wonder. "I never thought of it that way… we always talk about how different we are… but in some ways, we aren't really, are we?"
"Hmph.. maybe that's why we get along so well."
They were quiet for a bit, then the bard slowly sat up and rolled onto her side, exhaling a little as she listened to the drums. After a minute, she turned her head. "Wanna go show em how bumpkins dance?"
Xena pushed a bit of pale hair from her eyes. "You betcha." She hauled herself to her feet and offered her partner a hand up, then kept hold of it as they walked down towards the fire.
They eased through the first layer of swaying bodies and found a small, clear space. Or maybe the space cleared itself, as they were recognized, Gabrielle wasn't sure. She started in the steps, and found her soulmate doing the same, obviously knowing the dance as well as any Amazon did.
But it was so different than the last time.
The rhythm caught her, and she stepped forward as Xena did, both of them moving together as their eyes met, and they traded smiles. The warrior brushed by her, and she let her fingers trail down a nearby arm, feeling the leatherwork of Xena's bracer under her touch.
They turned and stepped in again, and this time it was Xena's knuckles, brushing lightly against her cheek as she moved by, leaving a hint of a smile behind. "You know.." she murmured as the warrior eased around her, pulling her hair back out of the way as she passed. "This isn't so bad."
"No?" The whisper tickled her now bare ear, and she felt teeth nibble the edge of it.
"Nu uh." Gabrielle could feel the drums inside her now, and her body moved with them, welcoming the touch that slipped around her neck, and brought her closer to her partner, as her hands dropped to catch Xena's waistline.
The drums seemed to fade a little, as they moved in towards each other, and she started to feel the body heat being generated between them. A glance up showed her the grin on Xena's face, and she knew hers was the same as she indulged herself in the animal attraction she could sense coaxing her in.
She could smell the leather and brass now, and the hint of spicy musk that triggered a reaction deep in her guts. Xena's hands ran slowly down her shoulders and a soft sound escaped her. "I think I'm getting this now."
"I think you are too." Came the teasing answer, along with an assault on her sensitive ears, which put her in an excellent position to taste Xena's neck, and find her pulse point, which jumped under her lips, in the same rhythm as the drums.
Their bodies slid together, and she welcomed it, wanting the touch of her partner's skin all over her. They moved in perfect harmony, matching the drum's rhythm, and placing their steps with an ease that paid tribute to their closeness, and the partnership that bound them together.
Gabrielle slid a hand down, and felt the strong curve of muscle along Xena's thigh, then the sudden warmth of an arm sliding around her back and pulling her up. She left her hand where it was but crooked the other one around the tall warrior's neck, as their lips met, and the bard lost track of everything for a little while.
"Xe?" She was breathing hard, and she could feel the sweat.
"We better get outta here, or you're gonna lose that armor."
Xena blinked, then took a quick look around, seeing hastily averted eyeballs skittering all over the campfire circle. "I don’t' think we're gonna have that bumpkin problem anymore." She murmured, as she simply picked Gabrielle up in her arms and felt the bard wrap herself around as much of her partner as she could. "Nope… " Teeth nibbled her ear, as she made her way past gaping Amazons, leaving the drums, and the pipes, and the dancers far behind.
Gabrielle leaned on the railing of the porch around the council chamber, enjoying the sunlight that poured in over her body, and the cool wind that blew her pale hair back off her forehead.
It was very quiet. Only the faintest of popping sounds came from the slumbering bonfire, and the early morning activity she was used to seeing the Amazon village was almost completely absent.
Not even the dining area was stirring, and the bard suspected the camp would be munching on cold leftovers, which was fine by her, since Xena had already collected a tidy trail breakfast, and was packing it along with everything else as they got ready to leave.
A thin, blue haze hung over the village, mostly leftover smoke from the fire, but a little fog from the river too, and she sucked in a deep breath of the air with a feeling of animal well being. She bounced up and down on her toes, and felt a smile break out as she enjoyed the surge of happy energy, waving as she spotted Ephiny trudging across the grounds towards her. "Morning!"
"Shhh!" The regent waved a hand weakly at her. "Would you be quiet?"
The bard cocked a curious head at her. "I wasn't being that noisy, was I?" She peered at her friend. "Isn't it a great morning?"
Ephiny plodded up the stairs and leaned on the railing next to her, raising a hand to shade bloodshot eyes and peering grumpily at her. "You know, if you weren't the queen, I'd kick your ass."
Gabrielle grinned feistily at her, and put her hands on her hips. "I'm not wearing the mask… wanna try it?" Her eyes sparkled. "I'm in the mood for a little sparring this morning."
The regent gave her an evil look. "Do you have any idea what you started last night?"
The bard pointed a thumb at her own chest. "Me?" Her brows contracted. "What did I do? We just did that dance thing like everyone else did… and not for that long, either."
"Uh huh." Ephiny rubbed her head. "Then, you left."
"Uh.. yeah." Gabrielle blushed, and grinned. "It was getting a little..um.. intense."
"No, really?" The regent raised both eyebrows at her.
"Mm.." The bard stepped closer, and shaded her eyes. "Eph.. is that a bite mark?"
"Hm? Oh, this?" Ephiny pointed at her arm. "That's nothing. You should see what my…." She watched the dull red start to go up Gabrielle's neck. "Don't you dare blush, Gabrielle! It's all your fault!" She waved an arm. "Great Artemis, woman… you kicked off the longest orgy in the history of the damn village… do you have any idea how much sleep I got last night? About a quarter candlemark!"
Widened green eyes blinked at her. "I did that?" Gabrielle's voice was completely astonished. "How?"
Soft footfalls caught their attention, and they turned to see Xena headed their way, leading Hercules and Iolaus, the early morning sunlight dappling both horses and warrior with rich warmth, and providing shadows for the energetic Ares to frisk through.
Xena had her hair pulled back, and hadn't put on her armor over her leathers yet. She was covered in glittering droplets of water that shone on her, flying off in a spray when she shook her head vigorously, then looked up, the blue of her eyes contrasting vividly against her tanned skin.
"Morning." The warrior greeted Ephiny cordially. "You the only one up?"
Ephiny growled at her, receiving a startled growl back from the wolf trotting at her heels.
"Apparently.. and it's all our fault." Gabrielle told her soulmate plaintively.
Xena stopped walking, and put her hands on her hips, lifting a brow sharply in question. "Our fault?" She eyed Ephiny. "Nice bite… Pony run out of snacks or something?"
Ephiny just groaned.
The warrior chuckled. "C"mon, Gabrielle.. let's get outta here before everyone wakes up." She shook her head then mounted Iolaus by vaulting into the saddle, collecting the stallion's reins and settling her legs into place snugly around the horse's barrel. She ran fingers through her damp hair and freed it from it's hold, letting it fall down across her shoulders. "Great morning."
Gabrielle went over and gave her friend a hug. "Well. .I'm not sure what we did… but sorry about that… we'll see you guys soon, right?"
Ephiny returned the embrace. "Yeah.. I figure we'll be on the road in a fortnight… " She glanced at Xena. "Depending on how long it takes everyone to recover."
The bard snorted, laughter spilling out. "C'mon, Eph… " She put her hands on the regent's shoulders. "How bad can one night of um…partying… be?"
Ephiny's hazel eyes twinkled soberly. "You really have no clue, d'you?"
Hesitantly, Gabrielle shook her head. "I don't think so, no."
The regent laughed softly. "I tell you.. there were a lot of folks who were wondering if Xena'd display her prowess in that list as well as everything else." She murmured. "Lot of people wanted to be in your boots last night."
Gabrielle scratched her jaw, her eyes catching her partner's over Ephiny's shoulder. She glanced back at her friend with a wicked little grin. "Well, you can tell everyone that I said… um… " The bard paused, then poked a finger at the regent's belly. "She's mine, and I.. don't… share." She leaned forward. "Got me?"
Their eyes met and held for a moment, then Ephiny laughed, and gave a single nod. "I got you." She watched as Gabrielle trotted down the stairs and joined her waiting soulmate, who latched on to Hercules' bridle while the bard mounted competently, if not gracefully. "See you in a while." She lifted her hand in farewell.
Xena nodded, and started out of the village, the horses hooves sounding loud in the still, silent air. They went out through the gates and entered the long, leaf covered path that would lead to the pass down through the mountains.
Gabrielle glanced back as they went around the first bend, to see Ephiny still standing there, leaning on the railing and watching them. She peered at her friend for a moment, then turned to her partner. "That was weird."
"Hmm?" Xena gave her an inquiring look. "What was?" She stretched in the saddle, happy to be on their way home.
"That whole thing." The bard tugged her ear. "Xena, we didn't really do anything, did we?"
The warrior chuckled softly under her breath. "Part of leadership is inspiring your followers, Gabrielle."
"I don't think they meant THAT, Xena."
"Besides, I'm certainly not..um… personally inspiring to anyone."
"Yes, you are."
The soft wind blew through the trees, masking the horses footfalls for a long space of time.
"Mmhm…yes, you are." Blue eyes regarded her in mild amusement. "Certainly in my eyes."
Gabrielle studied her, then nudged Hercules a little closer. "Really?"
Gabrielle strode across the central square of Amphipolis, nodding a hello to the groups of men and women who were assembling there, some packing wagons, others strapping supplies to the backs of horses.
The wind that blew across the space was cold, and damp, and the bard was glad of her warm cloak and the leggings her soulmate had insisted she put on that morning. It was seven days since they'd gotten home, and now, the first group of fighters, and support people were about to move out to the valley.
That would include herself, and her partner, along with their daughter, Toris and his family, and their resident Amazons. The young children and the elders of the village would come next, escorted by the larger group of Amazons, set to arrive in less than a week.
Three more villages nearby had been completely destroyed. Their refuges had arrived a day after they'd gotten home, and Gabrielle had seen the grim set of her soulmate's jaw when the youngest of them, a boy no older than Solon had been, told of watching his father and mother cut down before his eyes.
The bard halted, and turned, to see her mother approaching. She backtracked to meet the older woman. "Morning, mother… you're up early."
Hecuba's face tensed into a wistful smile. "You as well… I'm glad to see you're at least wearing something sensible today." She straightened the bard's cloak collar. "Why, you've gotten a trim, haven't you?"
Her daughter ran a hand through pale hair cropped a little shorter than was usual for her. "Er… Dori got into some of the tar they're using for the horses hooves yesterday… Xena said it was easier to trim it off than try and get it out." She made a face. "It was kind of a mess."
"Goodness… she's a terror." Hecuba smiled. "And you were such a quiet child."
"Mm… so I hear." Gabrielle sighed. "Are you and Lila ready to go when the Amazons get here? I'd feel a lot better knowing you were safe."
Her mother nodded. "Yes…we haven't much to pack." She commented softly. "I've been helping Cyrene get things settled - Gabrielle, she is such a sweet woman."
The bard wasn't sure she'd characterize her sometimes mercurial mother in law quite that way, but she nodded in amiable agreement. "I've always really liked her… even at the very beginning."
Hecuba studied her a moment. "She says much the same of you." She shook her head a tiny bit. "What a strange journey you've been on, Gabrielle." A shout caught their attention, and Hecuba looked up to see Lennat trotting over.
"Morning, sis." The blond man smiled at Gabrielle. "Mom, we've got some kind of weird problem with Gabriel… could you come look?"
"Of course." Hecuba cleared her throat, with a touch of self importance. "Excuse me, Gabrielle… I know you must be busy."
"See you later." The bard smiled at them, then proceeded on her way, pushing open the door to the stables and glancing around, spotting her soulmate near her work table, the warrior's attention on a well folded map. "Hey."
Xena looked up and gave her a quick grin. "Hey… how are things?" She picked up a biscuit from a plate nearby and took a bite.
Gabrielle came around the table and slipped an arm around her. "Thought you just had breakfast." She teased. "And you give me a hard time."
The warrior shrugged. "All that drilling." She munched on her biscuit contentedly. "We're all packed…I figure I'll carry Dori in her backpack, that'll be easiest."
"For everyone." The bard chuckled. "Did you guys get that tar out of here? I don’t want to go through that again, Xena… what a mess."
Xena ruffled her hair affectionately. "Coulda been worse… you could have ended up with one as short as Toris" She advised her soulmate. "I had to pretty much scalp him… he looks ridiculous."
"Mm.." Gabrielle ran her fingers through the dark locks. "You got off easy." She accused.
"Hah.. I was smart enough to keep my head away from her hands." Xena snorted. "All right… let's plan on riding out in about a candlemark then…I've just got to get my armor on." She folded up her map and tucked it inside a saddlebag, then snagged the last biscuit and steered Gabrielle towards the door. "Here." She tore the treat in half and offered it to her partner.
"Thanks." Gabrielle nibbled the offering, as they walked across to the cabin. "Hey… there's honey in this."
Xena studied the birds overhead seriously.
"You're so bad." The bard laughed, bumping against her.
The warrior chuckled, reaching forward to open the door and allow her partner to enter the cabin. "Hey, Ares."
The wolf was crouched in the corner, his ears down. In front of him, Dori was seated, one of Gabrielle's quills clutched tightly in one tiny fist. The baby looked around as they entered.
Gabrielle crossed to her and sat down. "Hey, honey… whatcha doing there?"
Dori blinked, then waved her quill, smacking the wolf in the nose with it. "Doo!"
Ares whined unhappily, and licked his nose.
"Tch.. Dori, no… that's not nice." Gabrielle reached for the quill, which was immediately pulled back. "Dori…"
The baby got carefully to unsteady feet, and looked around for a new victim. "Boo!" She spotted her favorite plaything and cooed with delight.
"Uh oh… look out, honey.. she's heading for your knees." Gabrielle laughed, as the baby toddled over, waving the quill and aiming for the warrior's unprotected legs.
"Hey!" Xena hopped out of the way. "Dori, no."
"Boo!" The infant protested, ambling after her. "Boobooboo.."
"Dori…" Xena's voice dropped a full octave, and rolled the r in the baby's name.
Dori stopped, and looked up in question, then giggled and held up her hands. "Dup!"
The warrior dropped to a knee, and circled the tiny body with both hands, then lifted her up and cradled her in an arm. "Hey.. where did you get one of mommy's quills, huh?" Xena removed the object from her offspring's fist and held it up. "Um… this one's got ink on it."
Dori clutched after her prize, her face scrunching up in displeasure.
"Uh oh." The bard got to her feet and retrieved the quill, examining it. "Where did I have these….hm….I thought I put… oh, centaur poop." Gabrielle went over to an overturned box on the other side of the bed. "How in the world did she get this? Xena, that was up on my desk!"
Xena peered at her daughter, who was sucking her thumb, watching her mother with bright, interested green eyes. "How'd you get up there, hmm?" She walked over to the bard's desk and glanced at the top. "Oo." She picked up a piece of parchment, and held it up. "Gab?"
The bard peered over at her. "What in… " She walked over and took the parchment. "Is that her hand?" In the center of the item was a perfect, tiny print of a palm, and five bitty fingers.
Xena had uncurled her daughters fist and sighed. "Uh huh." She looked around. "I wonder what else she put her stamp on?" The baby's palm was a grayish black color. "Ares, c'mere."
The wolf slunk over and crouched at her feet, his ears drooping. Gabrielle knelt and ran her fingers over his fur, near his head and ears. "Did Dori get ….oh boy." She pulled her hand away, covered in ink.
The warrior sighed, and shook her head. "Dori, you are something else."
"Bck." The baby investigated her playmate's shirt, and found a biscuit crumb, which she immediately stuffed in her mouth. "Mmm."
"Hey.. you had breakfast." Xena scolded her.
"Like that stopped you?" Gabrielle looked up from wiping off their hapless pet. "She is so your kid."
Dori nestled closer to her and looked up blinking dark lashes over her mist green eyes. "Gav." She smiled up at Xena, sucking her thumb contentedly. "Mm."
Xena sighed. "I'll get her hands cleaned off…is all her stuff packed?" She carried the baby into the bathing room and sat her down on the table, taking a piece of linen and some soap and scrubbing the ink of the tiny fist.
"Who's gonna clean me off?" Gabrielle appeared in the doorway, with an ink covered towel and blackened hands. "Xena, Ares is covered in the stuff."
"Mmph.. " The warrior was working on a finger. "He's black, at least." She glanced up, then started chuckling. "Did you have to scratch your nose?"
"Huh?" Gabrielle blinked, then looked in the small mirror. "Oh… rats." She sighed. "Stripes."
"C'mere." Xena reached out and pulled her over, then scrubbed the bard's face with her soap. "There… no more stripes."
"Mama!" Dori giggled, crawling over to where Gabrielle was standing and clutching at her shirt.
"Put your hands here." The warrior then worked on her ink covered hands, while Dori stood and began exploring Gabrielle's face. "Hey… don’t pull mommy's nose, Dori."
The baby scowled, and went for the bard's lips instead. Gabrielle surprised her by opening her mouth and capturing the tiny fingers in her teeth.
Dori tugged back, startled to find her hand stuck. "Bck!"
Xena dried her partner's hands off. "There you go."
The bard released her daughter's hand, then turned her around and circled her with both arms, pointing at the mirror. "See, Dori? There you are."
The warrior smiled at the picture, as the baby peered at her reflection, entranced. Then she put her arms around both mother and child and rested her chin on Gabrielle's shoulder.
"Wow." Gabrielle smiled in reflex at the mirror. "That's a cute picture."
Dori pointed at the surface. "Boo!" Xena stuck her tongue out, and the baby giggled.
"All right.. c'mon." The warrior sighed. "We gotta get going…you ready to take a walk, Dori?"
"Wak." The child repeated obediently. "Wak wak…" She bounced up and down a few times.
Gabrielle laughed softly. "I think she's glad we're back." She kissed Dori's head, and smoothed the thick, dark hair down. "I missed her."
"Even with ink?" Xena smiled. "Hang onto her a minute, while I get my armor and her sack on."
"Mm." Gabrielle played with Dori's hands, and rubbed noses with her as she listened to her soulmate trade her linen tunic for her heavy leathers. "You put on leggings too, okay?" She called in. "And you're not going to wear your sword on your back, are you?"
"No." Xena responded, her voice faintly muffled. "I was afraid Dori might get hurt by it."
"Hmm." Gabrielle regarded her sturdy offspring. "I was afraid she might draw it and cut Iolaus' tail off.." She muffled a laugh. "C'mon, chickpea… let's go terrorize Boo."
"Booooo." Dori gurgled happily.