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 12
The weather had worsened, as they approached the valley. Xena pulled up from her position near the lead of the column and motioned it forward, standing a little to one side as she reviewed the rest of the group. Dori was asleep in her carrysack, the baby's fists clenched warm against the back of her neck and the warrior was hoping she'd stay that way until they got to their destination.
Gabrielle would be grateful… the baby had discovered the hanging nut trees they'd traveled through, and delighted in pulling the hard nuggets off, and tossing them at the bard, bouncing them off unexpected places with uncanny accuracy.
"Almost there." She turned her horse and kneed him in alongside her partner, digging a handful of the nuts from her pouch and offering Gabrielle some.
"Thanks." The bard accepted them. "We've got a lot of work to do when we get there… just to make things livable." She remarked. "Going to be a late night."
"Mmhmm." Xena tightened her fist, and cracked a nut, discarding the shell and chewing on the nutmeat. "Yeah… you want to take the Amazons and set up base camp, and I'll deploy the watch, and get outposts going?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Sounds good…I'll have them unpack that weapons cache you said you stored there.. they can check that stuff out."
"Good." Xena agreed. "They'd know more about it then the militia." She heard hoofbeats behind her and half turned. "Take Gran too… you might want to put her in charge of that."
Gabrielle held her thoughts as Granella caught up to them, and settled down on her other side. "How's it going?" She asked her sister in law.
"Feels great to be out." The ex Amazon admitted, giving them both a lopsided grin. "The kids are with Toris, in the back of the wagon. He's not used to riding long distances."
Xena snorted. "I know…he's been on horseback as long as I have, and he still sits in the saddle like a damn sack of turnips."
"Well." Granella smirked. "He says boys have a natural disadvantage."
They all exchanged looks and chuckled. "Oh yeah." Xena drawled. "Anyone bring the powder?"
Two of the Amazons riding along heard, and laughed. "You hear about the one where a guy goes and buys a saddle with an eight inch long saddlehorn?" Granella inquired, with a saucy grin.
"Is that the one that ends with him thinking it was to dry his socks?" Xena asked, relaxing a little and flexing her shoulders.
"Right…only they sell him a flask of oil with it."
Gabrielle stared at her own saddle with a puzzled look, then glanced at her soulmate. She started to ask something, then closed her eyes, and turned brick red. "Oh.. that's disgusting."
Xena chuckled, then stood a little and peered ahead. "There's the opening into the valley." She carefully unhooked Dori's sack and handed it over to Gabrielle. "Hang onto her for a minute.. I'm gonna go check things out."
"Uh huh…and you'll take Gran with you, right?" Gabrielle checked her daughter's sleeping form. "Just in case?"
Granella chuckled at the warrior's expression, then gathered her reins, nudging her mount into a canter to follow as Xena moved off.
Xena slowed as they approached the entrance and motioned Granella to move off to one side as she went to the other. They stopped, and she turned her ears into the wind, closing her eyes and concentrating on anything out of place.
The subtle gurgle of water.
A soft rattle as rocks settled.
Xena lifted her head and looked over at Granella, who was half standing in her stirrups and watching everything. The ex Amazon looked over and shook her head, giving the warrior the all clear hand sign.
All right. Xena guided Iolaus through the valley's opening, a space about twenty bodylengths in width. She eased past the gap and up the small rise, then paused and peered over it, into the space beyond.
It was a beautiful place. Xena sat for a moment, having forgotten that in the intervening years. The walls sloped up to high peaks on either side, leaving the space in the center clear, and grassy, bisected by a healthy looking stream. Stands of trees moved up the slopes on both sides, and the far end of the valley was full of them as well.
It was lonely, with no signs of habitation, not surprising considering it's remoteness. Beyond the valley rose the high mountains, effective barrier to any warlord's ambition. This was a redoubt, and in her time, in that dark place she'd been in, this would have been her last stand, as close to home as she could manage, when home was no longer open to her.
She waved a hand at Granella, then stood in her stirrups and let loose a yell, waiting a moment till she heard the sounds of horses approaching before she settled back down. Gran trotted up and peered inside the walls.
The rest of the group rode over, and circled her, waiting expectantly.
Xena took a deep breath. Things changed here. Here there was a line, and with steady, deliberate intent, she crossed it. "All right." She pointed. "I need twenty of you to stay here. Take out your saws and axes.. we need a gate." She paused, as they dismounted. "Toris, take ten people, go to the back entrance, and find a way to secure it."
Her brother nodded quietly, and motioned ten of the militia to follow him..
"Gabrielle, take your group in and start getting things set up." The warrior told her partner. "I'm going to stay here and get this gate going." She paused. "There's a cave system on the back side of this wall… be careful. Send a torch in first - I'm not worried about people, I'm more worried about bears." She snapped her fingers. "Ares, go with Gabrielle."
"Right." The bard gathered her reins, and settled Dori securely on her back. The baby had woken up, and was now peering around with absorbed interest. "Let's go, people… we've got a lot of work to do." She patted her leg and glanced down as the wolf joined her, bounding through the grass eagerly.
Xena watched the wagons and Amazons disappear down into the valley, then she turned and surveyed the entrance. "First things first." She kicked her boots free of the stirrups and slid off the stallion's back. "Those trees gotta come down." She unstrapped her ax from her saddlepad, and picked one at random.
"Ugh." Gabrielle sighed, as she lifted the torch in one fist up and looked around the irregular cavern. "I'd forgotten how much I hated the smell of rock dust."
"Bck." Dori complained, tugging on her hair.
"Yeah, I know, honey… it's nasty in here, huh?" The bard expelled a breath, listening to the sound of the wagons being unloaded in the larger cavern behind her. "Water.. I hear water." She explored on, ducking through a crack about twice the width of her body and held the torch out, smelling the dampness ahead of her. "Hold on… what have we here? Is that light, Dori?"
The infant gurgled.
Gabrielle moved through the small corridor in the rock and towards the dim glow ahead of her, finding another, larger opening that she poked her head through. "Ahh…" The next chamber was obviously a rain catch. It featured a huge crack in the rock, reaching all the way up and allowing in a solid slice of sunlight, and a pool that looked deep and cold. As she turned, she saw a bulge in the wall, that curved out and sloped up, leading to almost a platform tucked into the rock. "You know what, Dori?"
"We're gonna pick this one, okay? Will you promise me not to go jumping in the water?"
"No, honey, please.. promise me… I really want to put Boo in here, where we get some light, and it's not so tough on her, okay?"
"Boo!" Dori squealed, pulling on her hair and bouncing in her sack as she recognized the name of her beloved playmate.
"Yeah, sweetie…you want to help your Boo, right?" Gabrielle leaned on her staff thoughtfully, her thumb caressing the well worn wood. "I'm gonna try it… she's gonna be so much happier in here." She planted her torch in a crack in the wall, and made her way back through the opening into the smaller chamber, which now was being explored by Granella. "Okay… I'm gonna take that back room for us."
The ex Amazon looked up and nodded. "Okay… I picked a spot over on the other side…this cavern connects to it by that back opening. " She pointed. "We've got the supplies out in the big room, and they found a place we can put a cook fire, if we're careful about drafting."
"Good." Gabrielle nodded. "On the other side of the big cavern is that smaller one, with all the weapons in it, and just past that is a long narrow thing we can make a hospital in, I guess… there's running water in there."
"Yeah." Gran put her hands on her hips. "It's gonna be tough here, after living in Amphipolis." She admitted, giving the bard a wry look. "I can't believe how sore I am after just that damn ride… it's embarrassing."
"Mm." The bard sighed, and stretched out her back with a wince. "I never did get used to it…and believe me, it took me a few days to stop falling asleep on Xena's shoulder when we started traveling again last month."
"Mm." Granella sounded noncommittal, but she looked happier. "Hey… you looking for a sparring partner?" She nodded towards the bard's staff. "I could use it."
"Sure." Gabrielle smiled. "I think Xena's going to be a little busy." She motioned towards the main chamber. "Let's go.. .sooner we get this stuff started, the better… maybe we can finish the basic setup before dark."
"Is that it?" A tired voice sounded in the torchlit darkness. "I think that's the last one."
Xena stepped back and regarded the sturdy structure, looming dark in the dim light, and let her aching arms drop to her sides. "Yeah." She expelled a breath, and winced, as she felt the bite of yet more splinters in her hands. "That'll do."
A glance up showed her the moon nearly setting, marking the time as well past midnight. But the gate was finished, and she felt she could head for the caverns and some rest, finally.
"All right.. let's go." She walked over and picked up her ax, hoisting it to her shoulder and moving through the gate, where she waited for the rest of her crew to join her, then watched as it swung shut, the doors slanting outward to follow the shape of the walls, and make it hard, if not impossible, to break them inward. "Good job." She spoke quietly, seeing the exhausted faces around her. "Glad we only gotta do this once."
Low murmurs of agreement came back at her, and she lead the way towards the cavern, where torches could be seen burning outside the entrance.
The light flickered, as Xena put a hand on the hard stone, before she took a deep breath and ducked inside, letting her eyes flick around the interior as she edged further, blinking a little in the surprisingly bright cavern.
"Wow." She murmured, honestly impressed. The contents of the wagons had been unloaded, and a working habitat set up, including a cook fire, where a pot was bubbling, and work areas for the craftspeople that would be joining them. A familiar presence made itself known to her right and she turned, glad to see Gabrielle heading towards them.
Gabrielle took one look at her partner, and bit off several choice curses, putting a gentle hand on the warrior's arm instead. Xena was covered in dirt and bits of tree, and she could see several long scrapes half hidden under the sap and mud that turned her soulmate's tan overtunic to a dull shade of rust. "Come on."
"You did a great job here." Xena stated, resisting the tugging and looking around. "Good work, Gabrielle." She complimented the bard.
"Hm?" The warrior leaned closer, as her partner had lowered her voice.
"You're going to come with me, and let me take care of you, right now." The bard whispered. "Okay?"
The dark head cocked at her in puzzlement. "Gabrielle… thanks, but I'm fine. I've just got a couple of splinters… that's all. " She paused, getting that look from her soulmate. "Honest."
Gabrielle smiled, giving the group of militia passing by a little wave. "Humor me." She returned her attention to her tall companion. "Hm?"
Amiably, Xena shrugged. "Sure." She allowed herself to be lead through the large cavern, and through an opening in the rear. "Hey… good idea." She approved the use of the narrow chamber to hold sturdy barrels of food supplies. "Where are we going?"
"Come." Gabrielle lead her through the second entrance, and into the chamber she'd chosen for them.
"I don’t' see wh.. " Xena ducked inside, then straightened, and looked around. "Mm." She made an agreeable sound. Gabrielle had brought their things inside, and had set up a double pallet on a raised slope towards the back of the chamber. Torches fluttered in wall sconces, freshly hammered into the rock, with the smoke traveling up and through a wide crack that admitted a solid stripe of stars into the place.
The view of the open sky calmed her, and she felt the low anxiety she always felt underground dissipate. Her eyes turned towards her soulmate, who was watching he with a gentle smile. "Thanks."
"I thought you'd appreciate that." Gabrielle replied. "Water too. Why don’t you take a look at what you look like."
The blue eyes bestowed a puzzled look on her, but Xena complied, trudging over to the pool and dropping to one knee, looking at her reflection in the surface. For a moment there was total silence, then the warrior cleared her throat. "Ah." Now she understood why Gabrielle had dragged her back here. "Wow… that's scary."
The bard stood up from tucking Dori's blankets in a little snugger, and giving Ares' head a pat. "Why don't you wash off, and I'll get those splinters out, tiger."
"Good idea." Xena admitted, with a tired sigh She stood and stripped off her tunic, then unlaced her leathers and pulled them off over her head. She looked down and held her arms out, almost laughing at the contrast between her dirt covered skin and the rest of her. "Glad we got that done."
"Me too." Gabrielle told her, pulling the healer's kit from their packs.
Xena sat down and unlaced her mud covered boots, tugging them off, then got out of her leggings and trudged to the pool, testing it with a cautious toe. "Oh boy." Steeling herself, she stepped in, feeling a chill that sent a shock through her, but she kept moving until she was mostly submerged in the cold water. Gingerly, she scrubbed her arms and face, then ducked under the water and washed her hair clean of the bark and mud that had fairly plastered it to her head.
She surfaced with a splutter, then got out, to be met at the edge with a piece of warm linen. Gabrielle gently dried her off, and as she bent her head to allow the bard to tousle her hair, she felt a wave of exhaustion almost swamp her. "We all set up here?" She asked, shoving the tiredness aside as she followed Gabrielle back up the slope and accepted a thick shift from her. "Both the gate and the outpost are done… we've got a watch on tonight. Tomorrow I want to check the perimeter, and see what resources we have here."
"We're mostly set up." Gabrielle gently pushed her down onto the pallet. "We need some daylight to finish tomorrow… but we're okay." She sat down on the other side of the bed and pulled her legs up under her, taking Xena's hand and putting it on her knee. "Granella organized the unpacking of those weapons you mentioned.. she said the gut's gone on a lot of them, but otherwise they're not in bad shape."
"Good." Xena nodded. Her eyes drifted closed, and she forced them open. "I want to go see them.. " She started to sit up, then found a strong hand on her shoulder, shoving her back. "Gabrielle."
The bard gave her a direct look. "Look… those guys you sent back today.. at midnight because they couldn’t stand up anymore told me you were doing most of the work there yourself."
Pale blue eyes gazed back at her. "It was important, Gabrielle.. it had to be done."
Gabrielle lifted a hand and laid it on her cheek. "You can't do this alone." She told her gently. "I know you feel responsible for all this, Xena."
"It was important." The warrior repeated insistently.
"*You* are important." Her soulmate replied. "You are what holds this all together.. if something happens to you.. If you get hurt, or you get sick, we're in deep trouble."
Their glances fenced in silence. Finally, Xena's eyes dropped to the bedding in quiet surrender, knowing Gabrielle was right. She exhaled, and studied the hand Gabrielle resumed working on. "I'm going to do it right this time, Gabrielle." She murmured. "I'm not going to let them down. Not again."
The bard's lips tightened in sympathy, as she removed an ugly splinter. "I know you won't." She smoothed the angry skin with a fingertip. "Your job is to get us all through this. My job is to get you through this. " She worked out another piece of wood. "So lay down, and let me do my job."
The warrior lowered herself down until her head hit the pillow, her eyes on the light softened profile bent so intently over her. "Thanks."
Mist green eyes lifted, and met hers, warm and gentle. "You're welcome." She finished with one hand, and started on the other, spending a few moments after she'd gotten all the bits of wood out just stroking the roughened skin, then looking up to see Xena's eyes closed, and her breathing slow and even.
The bard gently put the hand she was holding down, feeling the twitch as Xena's fingers moved to hold on to hers, and the warrior's brow tensed. Eyelashes fluttered, and pale blue eyes peeked out at her fuzzily.
"It's okay.. I'm here." Gabrielle reassured her, gently applying salve to the long scrapes on her partner's neck. "Go on.. close your eyes." She tugged the warrior's shirt up and dabbed at the nasty looking cut on her hip. "Honey, you gotta be more careful."
"Ungh." The warrior muttered. "Was me or the tree.. damned if I was gonna let the tree win."
Oh yeah. Gabrielle shook her head as she gave the cool skin a friendly rub with her fingertips, frowning a little at the prominent ribs under her hands. The last thing her partner took care of, when stuff was going on, was herself, and the bard made a mental note to keep an eye on her, and make sure she didn't forget minor items such as eating and sleeping. "Well, you won, champ."
"Mm." Xena's eyes had closed, and her breathing had started to even out again.
With a sigh, Gabrielle slid under the furs and pulled them up, tucking the edges around herself and her sleeping partner, putting her head down on one broad shoulder and letting the sight of stars take her off to sleep.
Granella slipped through the quiet cavern, glancing outside where a soft gray light indicting the coming dawn. She checked the main fire, then stuck her head out the main entrance, casting an eye at the lowering clouds.
Damn good thing they finished that gate yesterday, she mused, smelling rain heavy on the air. Even if Xena had to drive everyone half to Hades in doing it.. at least they could watch both main gate and secondary from snug wooden shelters, and they had all their things tucked away out of the weather.
The dark haired woman sucked in a deep breath of air, then went back inside and paced into the food storage area, tugging out a few things and stifling a yawn. Toris was still sleeping, as were their sons, and she was glad of the quiet time in the morning for her to think, and count off stuff they had yet to do.
Like unpack those weapons, and start working on them. Granella smiled a little, glad she'd been chosen to oversee that. It had felt good to get back into things, and she'd found herself enjoying the efforts the previous day, and working alongside the determined Gabrielle.
She'd found her respect growing for the bard at the same time.. having never had the chance, really, to watch her perform the organizational and diplomatic duties she had really no call to use in Amphipolis. She got people to work together, and do things, and she did it in a way that made you happy just to be doing her a favor.
Interesting. She'd always liked Gabrielle, and they'd spent quite a bit of time together when they'd both been pregnant, but this was a different side to the woman and she'd begun to see how the unlikely partnership between bard, and warrior really did sort of work. That had always sort of puzzled her. She never doubted that they loved each other, that much was obvious even to a blind and deaf person standing two towns away, but she did often find herself wondering how they worked together without driving each other nuts.
Granella chuckled, then put a loaf of bread and two large pears on a wooden plate, then she slipped through the storage area and poked her head into the chamber Gabrielle had chosen. The light from outside filtered in, reflecting off the rain pool, the granite walls, and two sharp blue eyes that pinned her the moment her body filled the opening.
The warrior was still curled up in bed with Gabrielle, but a brow edged up at her in question, lowering when Granella held up the platter, then set it down on a rock just inside the entrance. She waved silently and Xena responded with a smile, then she ducked out.
Wow. Granella suspected if she'd been an enemy soldier, she'd now be entertaining missing bodyparts. "Gotta remember not to surprise her." She muttered, shaking her head and moving back into the main cavern.
Xena lifted her head and surveyed the platter, then lowered herself back onto the bed's surface and let her body go limp again. Ho boy. She flexed her hands and winced. Ow. She rolled her head to the left and peeked into Dori's crib, grateful that the baby was still sleeping, which gave her time to stretch out a few kinks before she had to get up and take care of her.
Gabrielle's gonna lecture me but good. The warrior sighed. Maybe I can just ease out from…
"If you roll over, I'll give you a back rub." The bard's sleepy voice rumbled through the gray light.
Xena looked plaintively up at the ceiling and sighed.
"C'mon." Gabrielle eased away from her and gave her shoulder a tug. "Over."
The warrior gave up and complied, stifling a groan as she did so. The bard yawned, as she slid her partner's shirt up and started to work. "Good grief, honey." She leaned forward, putting pressure on the painfully tight muscles she could feel across her partner's back and shoulders.
"Ungh." Xena let out a soft complaint. "I didn't even do that much.. I don't know what the Hades is wrong with me."
Fortunately she couldn’t see the face Gabrielle was making at her. "Well.. if you ask me, tiger.. " She tickled the warrior's ribs lightly. "Your body's fine.. it's your memory I'm worried about."
"Huh?" Xena's brows knit violently.
"Apparently you've completely forgotten all the trees you carried last night, along with the gate you apparently raised yourself, and all the dirt for the gate foundation you packed in from the river."
"Didn't seem like that much." Xena grumbled.
Gabrielle made another face, sticking her tongue out at the smooth, tanned back she was rubbing. "Better?"
"Mm." Xena stretched her arms out, coaxing her shoulders into place with a nasty pop.
"Ugh.. you know I hate that sound." Gabrielle winced.
"Sorry." Her partner responded mildly. "And yes.. that feels a lot better.. thanks."
The bard rubbed her fingertips lightly over the area, then bent down and kissed the birthmark on her soulmate's back before pulling her shirt down, and rolling over on her side. "I could get to thinking you just do that for sympathy. " She teased the warrior gently, giving her a poke on the arm.
Xena folded her arms under her head and regarded the fair haired woman thoughtfully. "Maybe I just love your back rubs."
"So… you could just ask." Gabrielle laughed a bit. "I ask you when I want one."
"Mmph." Xena exhaled, and rocked her head back and forth. "I know… old habits, I guess." She admitted. "Remember what it took to get me to ask the first time?"
"Oh.. .my gods, yes." Gabrielle buried her face in one hand and mock shuddered.
It really should have been just a quick thing, go in, take the bad guys out, get out, and be on their way. It had started out well, they'd ridden into the town, and faced off against the raiders, who fought for a little while then spooked, and took off.
Xena had been content to let them go, it had been raining, and cold, and they'd done what they'd come to do. She'd ridden out a ways to make sure they were gone, then came back, and…
Xena herself wasn't sure exactly what happened. Only that one minute they were riding up the sloping path to the village, and the next, Argo's feet were coming out from under her, and the mare was twisting in mid air, startling her rider who just simply didn't have time to get her feet out of the stirrups and jump clear.
Argo had landed hard, and rolled, trapping Xena under her for a fraction of a second, then the mare had gotten her feet under her and scrambled up, leaving the warrior motionless for a frightening moment before she, too, got to her feet.
Gabrielle had bolted towards her, and pulled up a few feet away, her heart beating so fast she was surprised the warrior hadn't heard it. "My gods.. are you all right?"
Xena's face had been white as a sheet, and the warrior's motions had been very hesitant, as she'd walked over to Argo, and checked her with visibly shaking hands. "Yeah.. I'm fine." She'd muttered. "Hey girl.. you okay?"
The bard had come closer, as she'd seen Xena's grip close on Argo's saddle and hang on, the knuckles whitening with effort. "Xena?"
"Just catching my breath." The warrior had insisted, her face tense as she stood still for a few minutes, then finally nodded, and took several deeper inhalations. "She just went down.. " Slowly, Xena had turned, and surveyed the path, her eyes searching it.
"There." Gabrielle had pointed. "There's a hole there.. see? Where the water's going through it."
And the warrior had nodded. "Yeah." She'd fallen silent, as though considering what to do, her hands never leaving the saddle, and Gabrielle had realized by the tensed muscles in her arms that she was holding herself upright.
"Hey.. ." The bard had stroked Argo's shoulder softly. "They offered us room and board overnight… maybe we should stay."
Xena had only nodded, then taken the reins in one hand and turned, walking slowly alongside Argo as they made their way back to the village. "I'll check her out… go see about the room, okay?"
"Sure." Gabrielle had nodded. "Let me get our stuff off her back."
She'd gone ahead, and made the arrangements, then put their things in the room, turning as she heard Xena at the door. One look at Xena's face had told her there were something very wrong, this warrior who could remain impassive while an arrow stuck out of her chest was so obviously in pain, it was all Gabrielle could do to not rush over, and grab her.
"Xena…" She'd said instead, then fallen silent as the warrior had looked at her.
"I need you to do something for me." The warrior had said, very quietly.
"Anything." Gabrielle had responded immediately, setting her feet free and going over to her. "What's wrong?"
"I tensed up when she rolled over me." Xena had seemed half angry, half embarrassed. "My back muscles are all spasmed up… I can't reach them… could you.. if I lay down.."
"Xena…you're white as a sheet.. let me go get the healer." Gabrielle had started past her, only to be stopped by a quiet hand on her arm.
"No.. he can't do anything more than you could.. and I'd rather you do it." Xena had muttered.
And so she had. She'd helped the warrior out of her armor, and taken the pungent smelling salve Xena had told her to take from the healer's kit, and put it on her hands. Xena had lain down and she'd started to work on that strong back, watching the grip her friend's hand had on the headboard slowly relax as she succeeded in easing the painful cramping she could see tensing all along the warrior's long torso. "Wow… that must really hurt."
"Happens sometimes." The warrior had replied gruffly. "Just goes out once in a while."
"Mm." Gabrielle had kept going, acknowledging a guilty enjoyment in this prolonged touching of her usually unapproachable traveling companion. "Am I doing okay?"
"Fine." Xena had replied softly. "You're doing just fine, Gabrielle."
"Well… " The bard had started talking aimlessly. "It's not like I have a lot of experience, I realize… I mean, Potadeia is big on shearing sheep, and baking and… well, lots of ordinary things like that.. but you know, it's not really that hard, I mean it's sort of like..you can see where the problems are, especially on you, so it.."
"Sorry.. I'm babbling, right?"
"Don’t' worry about it… I've never … I don't usually trust people this close to me, so whatever you're doing is fine. It feels great."
"Oh." Gabrielle had thought about that. "So what do you do when it happens, then?"
A faint shrug of one shoulder had spoken volumes. "Live with it."
Live with it? Gabrielle had been shocked, remembering the look of agony on her friend's face. How could someone live with that? Then she'd realized that in the position she was in, Xena was almost completely defenseless. Even Gabrielle, who could barely spear a fish, held the warrior's life in her hands, if she really wanted it.
It had been a very sobering thought.
"Well." She'd finally said. "You won't have to do that as long as I'm around." She'd patted the broad shoulder. "You just ask me anytime, okay?"
And that, at last, had made Xena smile.
That same smile was facing her now, as the warrior stretched out again, and indulged in a yawn. "Granella left some breakfast." Xena commented, cocking her head as thunder sounded. "We can work inside today… get things arranged."
Gabrielle nodded, scrambling out of bed and retrieving the platter, then chuckling. "That's not breakfast." She clucked her tongue and went to their backpacks, digging out some nuts and berries, and a trail bar each and coming back over.
Xena rolled over and sat up, then peered into the cradle, where Dori was just opening sleepy eyes and blinking. "Morning."
Dori pouted, making a face.
"Yeah.. that's exactly how I felt, too." Xena told her, reaching over and picking her up, then standing up and walking over to where Gabrielle had set their wash basin and the baby's diapers. "Not for the same reason, though."
The bard chortled. "Gods..that'd be a picture… but I don’t' know.. you'd look kinda cute in a diaper."
Blue eyes surmounted by dark, lowered brows peered back at her. "Do not go there, Gabrielle." Xena warned, then turned back and finished her task, tickling Dori on her chubby belly and making her kick in outrage. "You hungry?"
"Boo.." Tiny fists reached for her.
"That's me." Xena agreed, picking her up and bringing her back to the bed, where Gabrielle was industriously mashing up some of the pear. "If you add a little honey to that, she'll like it better."
Gabrielle peered up at her through pale lashes. "Uh huh.. and how did we find that out?"
Xena put the baby down and grinned. "Accident… she threw her bowl at me when I was putting some on my biscuits."
Dori crawled over the bed and made a grab for the pears, clutching a handful and stuffing them into her mouth. "Mmm." She took another fistful and tossed it at Gabrielle, who started laughing as she fended the bits off.
"Dori.. cut that out."
A tiny finger pointed. "Um!"
"Can you say please?" The bard held the berries up.
Dori pouted. "Mama…"
"Oh.. gods.. not that look.. if you taught her that I'm going to… " Gabrielle gave her partner a dire look. "Xena, stop laughing. It's not funny."
"Mammmammma… " The tiny lip poked out, and Dori looked at the berries with a woebegone expression.
The warrior lost it, sitting down on the side of the bed and holding her stomach as she laughed.
"You are toast, warrior princess…" Gabrielle gave the berries up and exhaled, shaking a finger at her soulmate. "It's not funny!" She picked up a berry and bounced it off Xena's head.
The warrior caught it in mid air, and let her chuckles wind down. "Sorry.. " She popped the berry into her mouth and chewed it. She split the loaf with the bard and spread some of the butter Granella had left on it, tearing of a tiny, soft chunk and putting it where Dori could reach it.
The baby peered at the offering, then snatched it, and stuffed it into her mouth along with the berries. "Mphf." She went back for more pears and chewed industriously.
"Good grief." The bard watched her daughter, while she plucked a few berries and bit into them. "Where does she put it all?"
Amused blue eyes regarded her. "Whose kid is she?" Xena inquired, in a teasing drawl.
Gabrielle stuck a blue tinted tongue out at her.
"Okay… that looks good." Gabrielle leaned on her elbows, reviewing the list of supplies Granella had brought her. "Wow.. that's a lot of stuff… and you said most of it's good?"
The ex Amazon nodded. "I was kinda surprised…but besides the gut, it's not bad. Those shelters, and the bedding's in real good condition."
"What are these?" The bard traced a line with one fingertip.
"Um." Granella hesitated. "Just…stuff, I guess.. tools…bits of harness… I think I saw an armor making kit there." She looked away, finding something in the rock wall interesting.
Gabrielle regarded her, evaluating the audible words and the inaudible ones. "What else?"
Silence, then finally the dark haired woman replied. "Just.. stuff warlords have, Gabrielle."
The green eyes blinked twice. "What part of Xena's past do you think you're keeping from me?" Gabrielle asked, shrewdly.
Her friend gave her a brief, guilty look. "It's easy to forget about that, y'know."
The bard sighed. "I know… but that doesn't mean I don't understand what that past is, and who Xena was." She reminded Granella gently. "So what is it?"
"Shackles… chains." Granella answered quietly. "Whips… things like that."
Gabrielle rubbed her jaw. "Let's go take a look." She stood up and walked out, heading for the storage cave.
"Son of a bacchae." Granella scrubbed her dark hair with one hand. "I shoulda just had em toss that stuff." She exhaled, then got up and trailed the determinedly striding bard across the stone floor.
The storage area was a little chaotic, filled with people sorting through boxes and trying to get things labeled and counted. Gabrielle spotted a group of crates off to one side, conspicuously isolated, and she made for them, aware of the startled, quickly averted eyes that followed her inside the room.
The first crate had been pried open, and the top was tacked lightly down. Gabrielle pulled it off and peered inside, jerking her head back as a strong smell of iron, rust, old leather, and what her mind identified as blood floated out.
After a moment, she reached inside and pulled the first item out, a set of rusty shackles, complete with a set of keys attached to one link with a twist of metal. She studied them, then dropped them on the floor, and stuck her hand back in the crate. This time, she pulled out a leather harness, stiff with blood, obviously meant to keep a person confined and motionless.
She examined a few more items, then got to a collar, with rusty spikes on the inside, and felt a sick churning in her guts. She kept the piece of leather, and put the rest back, then she closed the crate up and left the cavern, an awkward silence following her.
Xena detoured past the front chamber, and snagged some bread and cheese, then continued on past the busy main cavern and into the smaller area they'd set up as a nursery. In there, two of the older women who had accompanied them were watching over Dori and the twins, and they smiled when they saw her.
"Hey.. mind if I take her off your hands for a few minutes?" Xena inquired, smiling at the, for once quietly, playing babies.
Dori looked up at her voice and dropped the ball she'd been holding, waving a fist at the warrior instead. "Boo!"
"C'mere, honey." The warrior knelt and picked her up and cradled her against her tunic, smiling when Dori clutched at the laces holding her shirt closed. She stepped past the barriers they'd put up to keep the babies inside and walked through the storage space, and into the room their chamber. "Look at that!"
Dori stared, entranced. The rain outside had found it's way down the mountain, and through the crack in their room and was pouring down in a sheet into the pool, shimmering in the light and sending a ghostly mist across the rocks.
Xena sat down on the bed and simply watched it, feeling the breeze blow lightly in and carry the tiniest bit if moisture back to her as the light peeked in, scattering rainbows across the water. "That's pretty, huh?"
"Goo, huh?" Xena cradled her daughter in the crook of her arm and studied her, running fingers through the thick, dark hair that covered Dori's head. "Boy, you're getting so big." She murmured, holding out one tiny arm and watching the fingers of that hand clutch at her wrist.
Dori watched her in absorbed fascination, kicking out her legs a little. Xena took hold of a foot and fit it inside her palm, feeling the child's strength as she pushed against the surface. Already standing a head over her cousins, and a quarter again their weight, Dori had also learned to walk sooner, and her vocabulary, while limited, was more varied than theirs was.
Xena tried not to point that out too often, at least not to her brother, or his wife, but she couldn't prevent other people from commenting about it, and everyone seemed to agree that her daughter was both very bright, and very precocious for her age.
Just like she'd been, according to Cyrene.
She put a fingertip on Dori's snub nose, and the baby clutched at her hand, giving her a little scowl. Xena smiled at her, and the baby smiled back, giggling as the warrior tickled her belly a little.
Her daughter. Xena let out a quiet breath. "You like those rainbows, Dori?"
"You think there's fish in that pool? How about we see if there is.. I bet your mama'd like some fish for dinner, huh?"
"Yeah… she likes fish just like you do." Xena informed the baby, with a grin. "Think we can find some?"
Dori waved her fists enthusiastically.
Gabrielle leaned in the doorway, quietly watching her partner and their daughter. She could see Xena's profile and heard the quiet joy in her voice as she spoke to the infant and played with her.
After a long, pensive moment, she sighed, and continued on into the room. "Hi."
Xena looked up in surprise. "Hey… " A smile crossed her face. "Thought you were busy…I'd have brought lunch for you too." She nodded at Dori, who was industriously chewing a bit of the waybread.
The bard sat down, and gathered her thoughts, glancing over to see her soulmate's face go tense as she picked up Gabrielle's mood. "We were going through those crates."
"Yeah." Xena's response was quiet.
Gabrielle lifted her hand, with the collar in it, and held it in front of her, where Xena could see it. "We found a bunch of this stuff." She studied it for a second, then lifted her eyes to Xena's face.
She had no idea of what she was expecting. Regret… embarrassment… But Xena surprised her by merely cocking her head to one side, and issuing a speculative grunt. "Do you know what it is?"
"Sure." The warrior reached a hand out and touched the leather with one fingertip. "I had no idea we kept it, though.. must have been back with that bunch of supplies no one really knew what to do with."
"Boo.." Dori tugged at her shirt impatiently. "Moo!"
The warrior glanced down, then tore off a bit more of the bread, and smeared a tiny bit of cheese on it. "Sorry, honey.. here you go." She handed the bit to the baby, and watched her chew at it. "Good girl." Then she turned her attention back to the bard. "We'd sacked a fairly large city state east of here about six months before I set this place up."
"Mm." Gabrielle studied her face seriously.
"We picked up all kinds of stuff from them… I got rid of most of it, but there was a bunch of stuff I never got to go through.. that must have been in there." Xena regarded it with a wrinkled nose. "Nasty."
"Ah.. so you… " Gabrielle faltered. "This wasn't…. um… " She became aware, suddenly, of the utter stillness of the body next to her, and she looked over, to see Xena's eyes fixed on the collar. Then the warrior's eyes slowly lifted to her face in stark understanding, the color draining from her skin as she realized what the bard was asking.
Then her eyes dropped to the rock floor. "No." She answered quietly.
Oh boy. Gabrielle winced inwardly. I think I just made a big mistake. She quietly put the collar down and laid a hand on Xena's back instead. "Great.. we can just get rid of them then… most of it's rusty stuff, nothing worth keeping, I don't think."
The warrior nodded silently.
She didn't even have to have the reinforcement of their connection. The pain and disappointment was written across her partner's face so clearly anyone could have seen it, and Gabrielle exhaled softly, before she circled the warrior's upper arm with her free hand. "Honey?"
"I'm sorry. I shouldn’t have made that assumption."
The shoulder under her hand moved in a shrug. "Why not?" Xena's voice took on a bitter taint. "I'm sure everyone else did."
Dori fussed a bit, clutching at Xena's shirt and reaching for the bread. "Bck!" The warrior silently handed her a bit more, gazing at the baby's face with an unreadable expression. "Wonder how much time I've got before she starts hearing stories."
Gabrielle felt like she'd gotten hit in the gut. "Xena.. you know that's not.. "
Blue eyes pinned her. "If the person who knows me best in the whole world thinks that, what more is there to say, Gabrielle?"
The bard took a few moments just to breathe, hurting for both of them.
Xena looked away, and shook her head. "Why the Hades am I yelling at you? It's my past.. it's not your fault have to live with that." She looked down as Dori tugged her sleeve again, imperiously demanding more lunch.
"Because you have the right to expect better from me." Gabrielle told her quietly. "You have the right to expect me to remember who you are now, and not assume absolute crap like I just did."
A lost look took over the warrior's face. "Who knows? If I'd have known those were there, maybe I would have used them." Abruptly the warrior handed Dori off to her mother. "Here." She got up and walked towards the water, sitting down at it's edge and letting the spray hit her.
Dori's face scrunched up unhappily as Gabrielle cradled her, the baby obviously looking for her playmate. "Boo!"
Gabrielle regarded her daughter quietly, then looked over at the silent, seated form. "Xena." She took a breath. "Please come back over here." She waited, seeing the slump in her soulmate's shoulders before she got up and walked back over, to stand quietly waiting.
"Sit down." Gabrielle nodded her head at the spot next to her.
Enigmatic blue eyes regarded her for a long moment, before Xena exhaled, and did as she was asked, sitting down next to her partner and extending her booted legs out along the rock floor.
Gabrielle released the squirming Dori, who immediately clambered over onto her partner's lap and started pulling herself up by tugging on Xena's shirt. The warrior reflexively circled the baby with her arms and watched as Dori cooed contentedly, chewing on her shirt laces.
Gabrielle collected her thoughts carefully. "You've told me a lot about what you were like before we met." She hesitated. "In fact, you've told me a lot worse things about yourself than anything I've heard from anyone else.. isn't that true?"
Xena considered in silence, then nodded.
"Was what I asked a totally out of bounds thought about the person you used to be?"
A single, slow shake of the head.
"Do you think, for one minute, that if I thought you were still that person, that I'd be here right now?" Her eyes went to Dori. "That I would have agreed to spend my life with you… raise a child with you… fight, and if I have to, die at your side?"
Xena just looked at her with wide open eyes, an unfathomable expression on her face.
Gabrielle gently lifted a hand, and pressed it against her soulmate's cheek. "I'm sorry I hurt you by asking that… and I'm very glad it turned out those weren't yours." She felt, at the moment, as though their positions had been reversed, and she was the older, wiser partner, gently counseling a younger.
And, she realized, in some ways, it was that much younger Xena she was seeing a glimpse of, down deep in those pale blue eyes. Maybe it was that Xena she was talking to.
The eyes blinked, and the expression shifted, to one of quiet gratitude. "Thanks." Xena's gazed dropped to the squirming child in her arms, who looked up at her and clutched a lace. "You're right, Gabrielle…I just got caught offguard. " She looked back up. "Knowing I'm going back into this… I think it's made me a little oversensitive."
Hadn't thought of that. Gabrielle realized. All these reminders…must be a little hard on her. "I should have realized… it's tough, I know." She picked up the collar, and examined it. "If I'd have thought it through, I would have realized this wasn't anything you had a hand on."
"Why?" Xena asked softly.
The bard held it up, displaying the inside. "I have known you what… five years now?" She pointed at the rust and stains. " You would never in a zillion years leave a piece of equipment like this."
It was absurdly logical. Xena blinked at the collar. And it was also completely true. She was meticulous in her care of all their gear, and Gabrielle knew that, having teased her more than once about her obsessive cleaning of even the spare pieces of Argo's tack while they were on the road.
"Duh." Gabrielle hit the side of her head.
Xena put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer, kissing the spot, and the bard circled her with both arms, including Dori in the gentle hug.
Dori burbled, then she put her arms around Xena as best she could and hugged her too. "Booboobooboooo.."
Gabrielle looked up, to see a smile forcing it's way onto her soulmate's face. "We love you." She commented softly.
"I love you both, too." Xena spoke quietly, closing her eyes.
They stayed like that for a moment, then the sound of running footsteps made them sit up, and look at each other. "Well.. it's been a whole morning." Xena commented wryly.
"Now what?" Gabrielle sighed, and turned towards the door, standing when Toris appeared in the doorway. "Hey.."
"Raiders at the gates, Xena." The tall man stated, breathing hard. "Demanding we take them down."
So. Xena kissed the tiny head tucked against her chest. It starts. "All right." She stood, cradling Dori in her arms. "I need a dozen militia… with staves and scythes. Nothing professional looking." She rocked the infant, who giggled. "Let's go."
Gabrielle followed her out the door, grabbing her staff on the way.
It was raining steadily as they made their way up to the gates, cloaks snapping fitfully in the wind that blew the cold water into their faces. "Didn't figure them to be out in this." Xena commented, tugging her collar closer.
"Maybe they're into mud." Gabrielle replied, shifting her grip on her staff a little, and swinging it back out of her way.
"Gabrielle, no one's into mud." The warrior replied, a touch testily, as she avoided a small outcropping of rocks and took a route through a series of puddles, sending brown splotches everywhere, including over herself with vigorous abandon.
"Mm." The bard reached up and scratched her nose, but didn't reply.
The gate loomed up, and one of the sentries trotted out to meet them, shielding his face from the rain. "About a dozen of em… they want to know what we think we're doing in here."
"Oh, they do huh?" Xena snorted, as she jumped up onto the watch platform. "All right.. c'mere, Toris." She peeked through the watch slit, and spotted the group, a round dozen warriors on horseback, with serviceable armor, and weapons.
The man in the lead was slouched in the saddle with the air of someone long used to riding, and he held a crossbow cocked negligently against one thigh. The entire group had an attitude of complacency about them.
Her brother climbed up next to her. "Yeah?"
Xena gave him a push. "Talk to them… ask them who they are, and what they want."
"Me?" Toris protested. "Why me?"
His sister just looked at him, the rain plastering her dark hair down and giving her a dour expression.
"Okay..okay.. " He stepped to the edge of the platform and peered down at the raiders. "Who are you, and what do you want?"
Xena rolled her eyes and slapped her head, muttering in an obscure language as Gabrielle crawled up onto the platform with her, resting a hand on her knee and peering through the slot.
"Not your business." A loud, firm voice answered. "We've got business in this valley. Open those gates or we'll tear them down."
"Nice." Gabrielle muttered. "Xena, why do all these guys have to wear black, and smell like old leather?"
The warrior got up and joined her at the slot. "Gabrielle.. I usually wear black and smell like old leather." She reminded her soulmate, as she watched the soldiers shift restively outside.
"Yes, but you look good in black, and you smell like very sexy, kinda spicy leather." Gabrielle murmured in response.
Toris glanced at his sister. "What do I say?" He muttered.
"Say no." Xena murmured back
"No? Just no?" Her brother asked doubtfully.
"Just say it." The warrior clouted his leg. .
"All right.. all right." He stood up and cleared his throat. "No." He pronounced loudly.
An arrow thudded into the wood next to his head, and he ducked in reflex, giving Xena an outraged look. "Hey! I can't catch these.. why don't you get up here and give them some lip?"
"You'll get that one warning." The voice went on. "You've got sixty seconds to open these gates, or we start tearing them down, and when we get inside, we'll kill you."
Sometimes, she sighed, you just gotta do things yourself. Xena shook her head and sucked in a deep breath. "Go to Hades, you pieces of centaur dung!" She yelled derisively. "You couldn’t pull down your own damn pants!"
"Nice." Gabrielle pulled her hood a little closer to her. "Now what? They're going to try and break in, Xena."
"Yep." The warrior agreed, hopping off the platform as it shook under an angry blow. "They sure are." She pushed the militia members, huddled near the walls aside, and laid her hands on the wood, feeling the blows through it, matched with angry yells, and growls from the men on the other side. "You call that pulling down? What a bunch of girls you all are!!"
"Hey!" The bard raised an eyebrow. "You're a girl, remember?" She scrambled off the platform and backed away from it, as a heavy thud shook splinters from the newly joined wood.
Xena's face was intent, and interested, and she cocked it to one side, listening. The impacts redoubled, and she heard the distinct sound of an ax chopping into the wood.
"Are we just going to stand here? They'll be through that in a few minutes, Xena.. and they've got crossbows!" Toris hissed angrily. "We're not all impervious to those, remember??"
"Bring the horses." Xena motioned to two men standing nearby. "And the plow hitch." They ran off, and she pulled two of the militia to one side. "All right… listen up." They gathered around her, with Toris and Gabrielle in the back. Sounds of chopping interspersed her words, but the warrior didn't seem to hear them.
"Two lines, half of you on one side, half on the other.. when we open the gates, I want you to go through, and attack."
Eyes glanced back and forth. "Xena… " Toris looked around. "Those are armed and armored men on horseback out there.. we're in tunics, carrying sticks." He cleared his throat. "You did remember that, right?"
"Sure." The tall ex warlord grinned. "Just be ready." She turned as the men came back with the horses, and she helped them throw the plow harness over them, grabbing two coils of rope and tossing them back to the men. "There are two iron rings in the doors, tie these off to them."
Mystified, they did.
"Oh.. " Gabrielle peered at the ropes. "I see… "
"Ready?" Xena called out softly.
The men lined up on either side, and watched her nervously.
"Gabrielle… stay back on that side." Xena warned, jumping up onto the plow hitch and picking up the reins. "Eeehhaa!!!" She smacked the reins against the two horses rumps, and they bolted, churning through the mud and lunging against the plow harness as they reached the end of the rope.
With a tremendous creak, the gates slammed open, the prow shaped walls arcing out and throwing the raiders against the surrounding granite walls with thundering force.
With a yell, the militia poured through the opening, waving their staves and frightening the horses left standing by their riders on foot at the gates. The two men still mounted took one look at the mud covered, screaming men and whirled their horses, digging in their spurs and sending the animals flying down the road and away from the gates.
Xena pulled the horses to a halt and jumped down, bolting for the gates with long, powerful strides. She reached them just as they were being feebly pushed back by the stunned men and headed for one, leaping up and kicking it back open with a wild yell.
Then she whirled around the edge of it and yanked it towards her, pulling her sword from it's sheath with a low, evil growl.. "Who's gonna die, slugbait???" She grabbed the raider captain, and threw him against the wall, making him drop his ax and stagger backwards. Behind her, she could hear the rattle as the militia engaged the rest of the dazed raiders, so she concentrated on the captain.
The man was tall, and well muscled, with dark hair and well kept armor. Xena bounced forward and boxed him in the ear before he could recover, and he held a hand up, stumbling to one side. She followed her advantage up and grabbed him, evading his hands and slamming him up against the rocks "Now.. you listen to me, dirtbag."
He panted, his hands tugging at her forearms as she held him pinned in place.
"You don't come here. You don't have any business here. You take your scum sucking pieces of horse crap and you get so far away I don't want to smell you on a night breeze less than fifty leagues from here, you got me?"
"You got no.."
"I've got all the right I need right here." Xena released one hand, and drew her sword, pressing it against his neck with a low growl. "And the only reason I don't use your head for a decoration on my gate is because I want you to tell everyone you see that this is my place, and they better steer clear." She pressed the blade home, breaking skin. "Do you understand me, scum?"
Peripherally, she was aware of danger approaching, from behind her and to her right, but she kept her eyes pinned on the captain, watching his eyes narrow at her. "You don't know what you're doing, dirtbag." He snarled at her.
"Don't I?" Xena's manner suddenly chilled, hearing the man behind her, even to the slight whistle as he lifted his weapon, and headed it in her direction. "Really?"
The captain smiled nastily.
Xena heard a soft, very distinctive grunt, then another impact, and a splat. The captain's face sobered. "Now. Get out of here." The warrior told him softly. "Before I have you stripped naked and whipped like a dog." She heaved with both arms, and sent him stumbling down the path, towards the group of fighters being guarded by a ring of muddy militia.
The warrior strode to the center of the doors, and put her hands on her hips, letting the rain lash her cape back and outline her distinctive form. "Don’t' come back, boys… next time we wont' be so friendly." She jerked her jaw towards them. "Escort em out of the valley."
Toris drew his sword and poked the nearest man. "Go on.. you heard the lady. Get moving."
The group started moving, after giving Xena dark, angry stares, and the rain came down harder, blocking their view after a dozen more steps.
Xena sighed, and ran her hand through her dripping wet hair. "Thanks." She half turned her head, to see her soulmate standing there, hands braced on her staff.
"That guy got pretty close, Xena… I didn't think you heard him." The bard stepped closer, and lowered her voice.
The warrior chuckled softly. "No.. I heard him all right.. I just knew you were there." She turned her head and watched the last glimpse of their attackers disappear. "You make the cutest little noises when you fight."
"They're going to be back, Xena.. this isn't the end of that….you really pissed them off."
A cold smile edged Xena's lips. "I know." She turned and put her arm around her partner, nudging her back towards the caverns. "That's what I'm hoping for.. I want their attention focused here, and on me."
Gabrielle took a few more paces, prodding the ground thoughtfully with her staff. "So they'll leave everyone else alone?" She mused softly. "You want Andreas to know where you are, don't you?"
The pale blue eyes glittered softly in the rain. "I want to be the only thing he thinks of. I want him to know I'm out here… planning something… challenging him."
The bard chewed her lip. "But Xena… we've got less than two dozen people here.. if he comes now, we're not going to be able to stop him."
"He doesn't know that." Xena reminded her. "And he won't just come out here not knowing.. he's too smart for that."
Gabrielle exhaled, giving her partner a worried look. "That's a dangerous game, Xe."
Another smile. "That's the best kind."
The sound of hammering rang over the grass, as Gabrielle strode through it, the mid calf length stalks whipping against her boots and the leggings she wore against the chill. She glanced around, evaluating the progress, and had to admit her soulmate certainly knew how to get things done.
Already, six of the caverns had been transformed into storage and living quarters, with rude but serviceable cots built from stripped down branches and tables with chairs constructed from the packing crates the cache had held.
In only five days, the group had fitted out a kitchen area, collected herbs and roots to add to the hunting they'd been doing, rigged up a corral, and put together some training pells and other items that Xena designed, her tireless form striding from location to location as she directed the projects.
Incredible. The bard shook her head. Of course, she hadn't been slacking off either, directing the organization of the supply areas, and stocking the hospital. It was showing her a different side to her partner, though, as Xena took charge, very aware of her responsibilities in setting up the camp.
In Amphipolis, the warrior tended to keep to herself, really. She worked alone, or with one or two others with the horses, and she didn't socialize beyond the family meals, and the occasional market fair they'd go to. Not that she was unfriendly, no… Gabrielle's eyes found the tall form and she angled her steps. But she didn't go out of her way to interact with a lot of people.
That had to change here. She had to instruct, and supervise, evaluate and involve herself with the militia and the supporters who had come to the valley with them, and Gabrielle found herself a little surprised at just how easily her normally taciturn soulmate adjusted to her new role.
It was like seeing a whole new side of Xena, and Gabrielle paused as she closed in on the small group standing near the cave entrance, hearing her partner speaking.
"All right… this is what I want you guys to do." Xena had a piece of chalk in one hand, and she turned to the granite wall. "See where the valley narrows here? " She drew the back side of their new home. "I saw five or six wild horses back there… I'd like to try and capture them." She sketched in a cone. "If you stretch the corral ropes this way, and here.. " She looked at them, then back at the wall. "Then get around behind them and make noise, they'll run right into the nets."
"Aye." One of the militia men nodded. "Shouldn't take long.. and I thought I saw some blackberry bushes back in there… knock off two birds, so they say."
"Good." Xena nodded, and clapped him on the shoulder. "G'wan… if you need a hand, let me know."
"Will do, chief." One of the younger woman grinned, as they turned and headed off.
The warrior juggled her chalk, then turned her eyes to her waiting soulmate. "You're a sight for sore eyes."
Gabrielle blinked in mild surprise. "Well.. thanks." She laughed a bit . "How are things going out here? We're about done inside."
"Pretty good." Xena exhaled in satisfaction. "They finished those pells.. and did I show you the Amazons quarters?"
The bard shook her head. "No… you said you were working on them, but.."
"C'mon." Xena circled her shoulders with a long arm. "I want to get your stamp of approval… last thing we need is them getting their feathers in an uproar."
"Sure." Gabrielle replied amiably, as she allowed herself to be led along the wall, past the opening to the main cavern, on towards the second series of caverns they'd explored the past few days.
Xena paused outside a craggy entry, and stood back, motioning the bard to precede her.
With a smile, Gabrielle did, feeling a warm hand touch her back as her partner followed her inside. She straightened as she cleared the rock, and peered around with interest. "Hmm."
It was a long cavern, of decent width, and moderate height. Xena's workers had built plain, but sturdy looking bunks along both walls, wide enough to accommodate a single occupant and two layers high, to maximize space. It would be cramped, but livable, she decided, but had a concern. "Xe… we can't put all of them in here together."
The warrior nibbled her lip. "No?"
"Uh uh." The bard shook her head. "Not all the nations… you know how they are." She wandered over to an irregular opening and peeked inside. "What's this one for?"
"Storage.. I figured they could keep weapons… do group stuff in there." Xena leaned on the wall next to her and peered in. "There's a path back there down to that cavern with the water…I thought they'd like that."
Gabrielle put her hands on her hips, then sighed. "Honey… I love you, but this isn't going to work." She looked back over her shoulder at her crestfallen soulmate. "Aw." She walked over and leaned against her. "Don't worry.. I'll take care of it… I lived with them for a month.. I can make this happen."
Xena poked a lip out. "This is how I set up the barracks for the rest of the guys… I didn't want to be accused of favoritism."
Gabrielle gave her a friendly belly rub. "Relax… just give me a day or so, and I'll fix it." She eyed the caverns, and mentally started rearranging them. "You can't put the elders in the same place as the kids, for one thing… and the queens'll have to have a separate cave.."
One dark brow lifted. "Gabrielle.. this is a temporary military arrangement." The warrior reminded her testily. "I'm not going to coddle them."
The bard sighed. "Xena…" She straightened the warrior's collar on the dusty work tunic she was wearing. "It's not coddling.. exactly… I just don't want there to be squabbling when we all need to work together."
The warrior scowled engagingly. "Amazons." She muttered. "All right… you fix it."
Gabrielle hugged her gently. "Thanks… what's next on your list?"
They walked slowly back to the entrance and moved back into the cool, bright air. "Well… shoring up the gates, then laying out those weapons and figuring out how much gut we'll need to fix them, then I've got to check out the back outpost, and hopefully by then those horses'll be there.. I'd like to get a start on them… " Xena ticked things off on long fingers.
Gabrielle grabbed one. "Lunch."
"Hm?" The warrior peered at her in confusion.
"Lunch.." The bard repeated. "Have you eaten yet today since I saw you grab that apple in the kitchen this morning?"
Silence, broken by their footsteps crunching lightly against the rock and the sparse grass. "Um…" Xena laid a tentative hand over her stomach, which growled conspicuously.
"That'd be a no." Gabrielle sighed. "C'mon."
"Gabrielle.. I've got a ton of things to do.." The warrior protested. "I can pick something up later.." Her voice trailed off as gentle green eyes fastened on her face. "Bu…"
Fingers folded around hers, holding her securely. "You've been working non stop for five days… I'd like a couple of minutes just to have lunch with you, if that's okay."
She's right. Xena inhaled, acknowledging that other than sleeping in the same bed, she'd hardly seen her partner for days. "Sorry.. I was just …"
"I know." Gabrielle tightened her grip. "But getting yourself sick isn't going to help…and I've missed you."
Xena's eyes dropped for a moment, then lifted. "C'mon… let's grab a couple of sandwiches.. I found a spot I think you'll like."
Gabrielle extended her legs out, enjoying the contrast of warm sun, and the cool breeze as it ruffled the grass around her. She was seated on a small slope, overlooking the pond at the base of the boxed in end of the valley, watching ducks float by.
Xena was sprawled next to her, one fist propping up her head as she finished taking a swallow from the skin the bard had brought out with them. "Nice day."
"Mm." The bard agreed quietly. "I like it here… it's really pretty." She reached over and combed her fingers through her partner's hair, and scratched her gently on the back of her neck. "Is this where you found those horses?"
Xena nodded. "Yeah… " She arched her neck, enjoying the bard's touch. "I've been over the valley a dozen times.. I want to make sure we don't miss anything… or find out there's a way in I didn't account for." She took another swallow of the cider, rolling it around in her mouth before letting it slide down her throat.
Gabrielle eased closer and curled her body around her partner's, smiling a tiny bit when Xena shifted unconsciously, and snuggled up to her. "It's been amazing watching you."
"Hmm? Has it?" The warrior leaned back against her and exhaled.
"Yeah… it's like you're all over everything." The bard told her, continuing her gentle ruffling. "I get tired just trying to keep up with you."
Xena stayed quiet for a bit, tiny muscles in her face twitching visibly as she thought. "I didn't…" She started, then stopped. "There's just so much to do." A slow exhale. "Feels strange to be thinking this way again."
“Doesn’t seem like it’s bothering you.” Gabrielle stated quietly.
Xena regarded the horizon. “When I led armies before, it was for myself.” The warrior’s voice was remote. “The only expectations were mine…if I didn’t live up to them, it was just between my ego and me.”
Gabrielle watched the muscles tense in her partner’s jaw. “This is different.”
“Mm… it sure is.” The corners of the ex warlord’s mouth twitched. “I thought it was bad just around the Amazons… Gabrielle, damn near everything in this depends on me.”
The bard let her hand rest on her partner’s shoulder. “It doesn’t have to. When the Amazons, and everyone else gets here, you’ll have a lot of experienced people around… you can use their knowledge.” She watched the tiny muscles around Xena’s eyes move. “Can’t you?”
The blue eyes swiveled and met hers. “Can I admit something to you?”
Gabrielle blinked in mild puzzlement. “Sure.”
Xena cocked her head a tiny bit. “I don’t play well with others.” She stated flatly. “I can’t run a war by committee.”
“Ah.” The bard absorbed that. “That could be a problem… there are some strong minded people coming here."
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that.” The warrior pulled up a stalk of grass and chewed on it. “Any suggestions?”
Gabrielle looked at her. “You’re asking my opinion?”
A shrug. “You’re my best friend.. who else am I gonna ask?” Came the quiet response. “Besides.. you’re good at making people work together.” She examined the stalk, then chewed it some more, the pungent taste clearing her senses after the large lunch they’d just eaten.
Part of her was worrying about all the things left to do, and nudging her towards doing them, but another part was content to stay where she was, simply enjoying Gabrielle’s presence here in the warm sun. She was admittedly nervous, uncertain of her ability to fully take back the reins of command, so invitingly held out to her, but she was also nervous of the other half of that – falling back into her old patterns completely.
“Hmm? I was just thinking… about what you asked.” The bard replied softly. “I don’t have any solid answers right now.”
Xena nodded. “That’s all right… listen… I..um.” She squirmed around and faced her partner. “There’s some not nice times coming up.” Her eyes met the bard’s squarely. “And I know I’m.. going to be doing some things you’re not gonna like.”
Gabrielle regarded her seriously. “Then you know I’m going to question you.”
The blue eyes dropped, studying the ground for a long moment. “Yeah, I… “ Xena exhaled. “I know.”
Pale brows knit slowly. “You don’t want me to do that?”
“No, that’s… I value that, Gabrielle… you know I trust your heart a lot more than my own.” The warrior hesitated, putting together words for ideas she hardly knew how to articulate. “And I’ll always listen.. but sometimes… I might have to do something anyway.”
They both fell quiet, remembering the long journey to a seaport, when Xena had confessed a piece of her past, and the bard had been….
“There’s nothing noble about war, Gabrielle… there are no good choices… there’s just surviving, and I might have to make some very ugly decisions to make sure we not only survive this, but win.”
Gabrielle was silent.
“There’s a lot at stake here….we both know it.”
“I understand the greater good, and I know you do too.”
Green eyes gazed into hers.
“If there’s even a chance that winning this means losing you, I’m not doing it.” Xena’s voice was quiet, and almost gentle. “I’ll stop right now.”
Gabrielle inhaled slowly. “And doom the rest of this land to his torture?”
“For one person?”
“For the other half of my soul, yes.” Came the whispered answer. “I won’t give that up.”
What do you say, Gabrielle wondered, when you’re told you’re more important than the greater good? She knew Xena meant it… she knew they’d come to that line and faced each other over it, and that if she said she couldn’t live with what she knew might happen, then Xena would simply walk away from it with her.
She remembered the hurt in her partner’s eyes the other day, as her past raised a spectre to haunt her.
She knew it had been this side of Xena that had pushed the wedge between them the last time.
A squirrel ran up the tree behind them, and she watched it scamper across the branches, clutching with strong toes at the bark. Finally, she turned, and regarded her friend, who was waiting patiently, eyes fastened on a point some distance away. "I'm not the same person I was before Chin." She considered her words. "I don't see things in black and white anymore…. " Gabrielle reached out and laid the back of her hand against the warrior's cheek, rubbing the skin gently, and feeling the pressure as Xena leaned into her touch. "And you, my friend… have more shades of gray than any other person I've ever known.. or ever will know."
Xena looked at her.
"Whatever road you end up on, I'll be there." Gabrielle said softly, feeling the shift of the muscles under her fingers. "No matter how far, or how long, or how hard it is to get to, or where we end up, I'll still be right there beside you." A pause. "I promise."
The warrior exhaled, her entire body relaxing as though she'd been holding her breath. Which, Gabrielle realized, she had been.
However… The bard drew in her own nervous lungful. Now seemed a good time to get all the serious stuff out of the way. "Feel better?"
Xena nodded. "Yeah… it was on my mind."
Affectionately, the bard ruffled her hair, then sobered. "Now that we're talking."
The ex warlord's eyes flicked up sharply.
"I have something I need to ask of you."
"Anyth.. " Xena found her lips stilled by two fingers.
"I'm going to lead the Amazons into battle." Gabrielle told her steadily. "And I want you to teach me the basics of how to use a sword."
Gabrielle leaned on her staff for a long moment, regarding the outpost, before she continued towards it, a light pack on her back. She let her boots crunch conspicuously against the gravel, and smiled as the guard stationed there turned to see who was approaching.
"Evening, ma'am." The young man greeted her respectfully, taking a better grip on his own quarterstaff. He was one of Xena's better students, actually, and usually spent his watch evenings on the river outpost outside Amphipolis.
"Hey, Jeris." The bard crossed into the light cast by a shielded torch behind the watch station. "It's a pretty night, isn't it?"
"It sure is." He scrubbed a hand over short blond hair. "You just out looking at the stars? I know you do sometimes.. I seen you out by the bridge."
Gabrielle sighed soundlessly. "Actually.. I'm here to relieve you.. go on in and get some dinner." She patted her staff and gave him a reassuring look. "There's a really big pot of fish stew on."
Jeris blinked at her. "You sure, ma'am?" He looked around. "It's awful lonely out here."
The bard pulled a bound set of parchment from her sack. "I've got a little writing to do.. it's easier for me where it's quiet."
He scratched his head. "Okay…"
Gabrielle took his place near the shielded torch as he waved, and broke into a trot, waiting for his footsteps to fade before she settled down on the wooden seat and peered through the watch slit.
She let her eyes get used to the darkness outside, and spent a few minutes scanning the area, seeing nothing out of the ordinary for a mountain slope in the middle of the night. A bat flew across her field of vision and she watched it, the moonlight reflecting off it's wings as it dodged an unseen obstacle, and settled on a branch nearby.
Then she exhaled, and leaned back, opening her diary and settling it on her knees.
Well. If I'd thought about it, I'd have found a lot better way to bring that subject up. I mean.. what was I thinking of? Here, Xena has just laid it on the line for me, and there I go, throwing a mud ball all in her stuff.
Boy, is she ever mad… but it's the kind of mad I like to see in her. All yelling, and throwing her hands around, and getting loud, and exasperated.
I can live with that kind of mad.
It's the quiet, cold kind I can't take.. not anymore. Where she turns her back on me, and pretends I don't exist… or I get nothing but grunts, if even that. That's the kind I had to face after the Furies messed with her, and I hate it. I just hate it.. I hate what it reminds me of, and I hate knowing what it led to.
But no, it was the good kind of mad this time.. if you can say any kind of mad is good.. the kind where, when I go back there in a little while, she'll be grumpy, and glower at me, and stomp around, but if I go up to her and put my arms around her, I'll get a hug back.
Gabrielle chewed on her quill, sucking the feathers lightly as the taste of mint tickled her tongue. At least I hope so. She sighed inwardly. She was so mad.
I guess she doesn't really understand why I asked her to do help me… but that's okay, because I hardly understand it myself. It's just that I know this fight's coming, and I committed my Amazons to it. I can't stand by and not fight with them, when it's time, and I can't just do that with a staff.
The problem is, and I know this is what's bugging her.. is, can I use a sword for defense… and nothing else? Xena can.. she uses that sword like it's an extension of her arm. If she.. kills anyone with it, it's because she makes that choice to, not because she stumbles into it.
I thought about this a lot.. about just how much I could do.. and I realized there's a line out there that I just won't… can't.. cross.
Xena's point was, in the heat of battle, you can't stop and think of that.
I feel horrible for her… she's so torn by this. Half of her wants to make sure I'm ready to be a part of the battle, half of her wants to hide me away in the deepest cave she can find, and on top of it, there's Dori.
I should have waited to talk to her about this.. until after the Amazons were here, and things were settling down.
Too late now.
Gabrielle closed her diary and leaned on it, remaining still for a while. Then she tucked the book away into her pouch, and set it on the floor, turning her attention back out to the slope.
"Well, I don't know.. I'd better find Xena and ..whoops!" Toris bounced off his sister, who had just ducked into the weapons cavern, a scowl on her face. "Hey.. just who I was looking for."
"You found me." The warrior muttered tersely. "What is it?"
Toris cocked his head. "What crawled up your shirt and nested?"
Identical blue eyes met his coldly. "Toris, what is it?"
Her brother backed up a step, and the two men who were with him quietly escaped, ducking through the door Xena had just come in and leaving the two siblings tactfully alone. "Are you all right?" The dark haired man asked seriously. "Did something happen, that I should know about? You were fine just a while ago."
Xena stared at him for a long moment, then her gaze dropped, and found a pebble on the rock floor. "Yeah.. I'm fine… " She responded quietly. "What is it you needed me for?" Damn it, Xena.. don’t take this out on him. It’s not his fault. She schooled her features to a more patient expression and looked up at Toris.
Once, Toris considered her quietly. I would have snapped back, or backed off. But somehow, in the last two years, she's become my sister again. He squared his shoulders and reclaimed his lost step. "Something bothering you, sis? Anything you need to talk about?"
It threw Xena off balance, that was for sure. The warrior blinked, and her brows snapped inward towards each other. Then she visibly relaxed a little. "Nothing you want to hear, Toris.." She sighed. "But thanks for the offer."
They glanced awkwardly at each other for a minute. "Was there something you wanted?" Xena finally muttered, after clearing her throat. "I um… I was going to go pick up Dori.. and I.. "
"I'll walk with you." Toris offered. "It's not really that important.. I just noticed something in those crates we were unpacking.. I wasn't sure what it was…"
Xena's back stiffened. "Where is it?"
Toris gave her a mildly startled look, but then shrugged and lead the way into the storage cave, moving to a large crate in the corner and prying the top off. "It's this… I was trying to figure out what in the heck you'd use this for.. but I dunno…" He hauled out a large wooden cask, which split in the center, and had a wrought iron crank poking out of the side.
Xena's jaw dropped a little, and she took it, turning it over in her hands and shaking her head. "Damn… I had no idea this was in here.. haven't seen it in… gods, has it been ten years?"
Toris frowned. "Nice.. great… glad you missed it.. what in the Hades is it, Xena?"
The warrior fitted top on, and turned the crank. "It's… um… you can make a kind of.. um..dessert, I guess.. with it." She explained wryly. "You put cream and fruit, and other stuff.. and you mix it.. put it in cold water… " A lost memory resurfaced, of a hot summer's day, and a shade tree, and one of the few times she'd shared something other than death, and blood with her followers. "It's cold, and sweet…"
"Sounds like something Gabrielle'd like." Toris joked, crossing his arms over his chest.
Xena exhaled, and studied the contraption. "Yeah." She acknowledged softly.
Her brother studied her in silence. "You two fighting?"
The warrior's head snapped up, and she stared at Toris in surprise. "Why?"
"Doesn't happen often.. but when it does, you're pricklier than a hedgehog." Her brother responded dryly. "What's up?"
Xena considered, then perched on a corner of the crate. "She wants me to teach her how to use a sword." She gave an exasperated snort. "That's all."
"And?" Toris shrugged.
"What do you mean, and?" His sister snapped. "This is Gabrielle we're talking about, Toris!"
"Uh huh.. the same Gabrielle who spends her time running around in fights watching your butt.. and getting in the way of pikes, and spears.. yeah, I know." Toris answered sharply.
Xena looked at him in surprise.
"I've been meaning to mention that… you spend gods only knows how much time making sure you know damn well how to kick ass, Xe…you're a damn perfectionist, and we all know it."
"I am not."
"Yes, you are." Toris shot back. "You wouldn't put yourself out there otherwise.. but whatever wild and wooly fight you get yourself into, she goes right there with you." He stood and raised his arms, turning in a circle. "A thousand guys? No problem… she's right there.. right in the middle of everything, with a gods be damned stick to defend herself, and you sometimes with." He dropped his arms to his sides. "What's up with that, Xena?"
"What do you mean, what's up with that? She doesn't kill people, Toris! You haven't clued into that yet?" Xena put the device down and stood up, putting her hands on her hips. "And I am not going to teach her to."
Her brother walked over and faced her. "Who said anything about killing? I carried a sword for how many damn years and didn't?" He shook his head. "You think you can't kill someone with a quarterstaff? You know that's not true, Xena…it depends on whose hands it's in."
The warrior remained silent, regarding him warily.
"You can't keep her out of the fight." Her brother stated, more gently. 'If you're there, she's gonna be right there with you, sis.. give her every chance you can to make sure you both come out of this thing we're falling into."
Xena blinked a few times, then sighed softly. "I'd keep her out of it if I could." She admitted. "Maybe you're right… I don't know."
Toris patted her gently on the stomach. "Think about it, huh?" He consciously lightened his tone. "So.. tell me about this dessert stuff, now?"
The warrior smiled a tiny bit. "I'll see if I can get the stuff for it." She remarked quietly, then she looked up. "Thanks."
Toris wrinkled his nose in a grin back at her. "Hey.. what are big brothers for, anyway, huh?"
A shout traveled through the rock, and they both looked up. "Sounded like an alert." Xena headed for the door. "Who's on guard duty?"
If you really watched the outdoors, it surprised you. Gabrielle had been studying a family of field mice on the slope just beneath her, as they scurried around collecting food. The mother mouse.. well, she supposed it was the mother mouse, kept circling her little babies, who nosed around as though bemused, or lost.
The papa mouse was purposefully gathering grains, and dragging them back to the entrance of their hole, stuffing them down there with an air of nervous triumph.
"You know, Gabrielle.. you could be wrong. That could be the pappa mouse taking care of the kids, and the momma mouse doing the rough stuff." She commented softly. "You should know better than most people not to pay attention to traditional roles."
She regarded her own life, for example. Sure, they each had specific tasks… but she'd tended to notice, right from the beginning, that they were divided by skills, rather than by expectations.
Gabrielle cooked because she could. Xena had gruffly explained, in the first few days of their traveling, that she'd never had an interest in learning, and if Gabrielle wanted something more than raw nuts, and half cooked meat to eat, she'd have to do it herself.
Secretly, she'd been delighted… because it was one small way she could contribute to their partnership, and it was something Xena herself admitted she couldn’t do. On the other hand, the first time she'd torn a hole in her skirt, and was at a loss to what to do…
"Give me that." Xena had said, and taken it, stitching it up with such skill you never knew the hole was there in the first place.
It had been interesting, finding out each other's strengths and weaknesses. Interesting, watching their friendship develop, despite their vast differences. She still remembered the tingle of pride she'd felt the first time Xena had introduced her with "This is my friend, Gabrielle." Instead of just her name.
Funny, how, only now when she looked back through the insecurities of her younger self, did she see the hurt in Xena's eyes when she told her she was leaving.. to go to the Academy.. or back home…she'd been so sure the warrior would be glad to be rid of her.
"I was so blind." Gabrielle whispered to the mice, busy with their own lives. 'It was right in front of me the whole time…I just let that act of hers stop me from seeing it." She sighed, suddenly having an intense urge to go and find her soulmate, to work out the anger between them.
Unfortunately, she glanced around. She had come out here to relieve the watch, and leaving the outpost unmanned was something Xena would be very disappointed in her for. A sigh. The watch was four candlemarks, and she'd been here more than one… the relief would come soon enough.
Or… Gabrielle pressed her eye to the slit and smiled a little. Maybe she'd hear bootsteps coming up behind her before then, as Xena sought her out, for the same reason.
It was quiet, and she watched the mice finish their business, and scurry into their hole as the wind died down and brought the sound of rustling grass to her, along with a soft tinkle as a few rock flakes came off the mountain.
The world seemed to hold it's breath for a few heartbeats, and Gabrielle blinked, moving slightly so she could see better. Then she cocked her head and listened, closing her eyes to concentrate as Xena had taught her to do.
Focus. She'd thought she'd heard… no, that was the wind again, and a tree creaking…or was it? Was that her heartbeat, or….
Wheels against dirt.
Far off, a scream.
"Oh boy. " Gabrielle got up and bolted to the ledge, taking a deep breath and putting all her effort into one loud, distinct whistle. She paused, waiting impatiently for what seemed like forever, then an answering whistle came back. "What is it.. what is it… oh yeah.. that's right.. two, then one, then two. " She drew breath again and sent a signal skyward, biting her lip until she heard the reply, then a soft sound of running feet.
She dashed back to the outpost, and jumped on the seat, peering over the wooden partition and shading the moonlight from her eyes. She could hear the horses more clearly now, and as she stood on tiptoe, and blinked, she could make out a cloud in the distance, and hear yells, and the sounds of a whip snapping.
Another scream, this one more distinct, and with a desperate edge. Gabrielle grabbed her staff and tossed it over the wooden structure, then put her hands on the top edge and vaulted over.
Forgetting the height of the wall as she fell through the air far longer than she'd expected, hitting the ground with a painful shock and finding herself rolling downslope, her hands scrabbling for a hold.
"Ow. "She finally grabbed a bush and stopped herself, then got up, wincing as a sharp bolt of pain hit her as she put weight on her left leg. "Boy… that was pretty darn stupid, Gabrielle." She walked a few paces, and felt the pain in her knee subside, then looked around, spotting her staff not far away.
"Lucky." She limped over and grabbed it, then headed towards the oncoming sounds, breaking into a painful trot as they got louder.
"The outpost sent an alert."
Xena nodded, as she swung up on Iolaus' bare back, nudging him forward with a knee. "Get everyone to the gate… who's on watch up there… Jeris?" The warrior stopped, as she spotted the man she'd just named running towards her. A sudden suspicion dropped a cold ball into her gut as he came up, his face warning her. "Who relieved you?"
"Gabrielle did.. she said.." He got out, seeing the look on her face. "She told me.. "
Xena bit off a curse and whirled her horse in place. "Figures." She turned her head, seeing a dozen militia mounting clumsily on the stock and draft horses they'd brought with them. "C'mon.. let's get moving."
She lead the group up towards the main gate, and gave a nod to the watchmen, backing a nervous Iolaus as the wooden barrier opened outwards. Then she urged him on, breaking into a canter as she cleared the entrance and crested the tiny rise, seeing down across the slopes and spotting the disturbance. "There!"
A wagon, it's horses careening desperately was charging ahead of a group of chasing riders, the wagon's driver urging them on in a panicked voice as crossbow bolts fired on either side of him. The only reason he was staying ahead was the team he drove, eight huge animals, who were making a light burden of the wooden cart they were dragging behind him.
He ran out of luck, however, as he came towards the edge of the valley. The wagon wheels hit a log along one side of the path, and the wagon tipped up, the horses plunging and stumbling as the weight dragged them to one side.
The wagon tipped over, and Xena could hear the ribald yells of the chasers, as they closed in, moonlight flickering over drawn swords as the driver jumped clear and ran back, tugging at the doors in the back of the wagon frantically.
The lead rider reached him and drew back an arm to take a swipe, and Xena leaned forward, urging Iolaus faster as she let out a curse, knowing she wasn't going to be there nearly in time. Not even the chakram could stop it.
The sword descended, then jerked to one side as it was deflected off a long wooden staff. He yelled, then ducked, but not fast enough to avoid a clout to the ribs that almost took him cleanly off his horse, and put Xena's efforts into a much higher gear.
Gabrielle leaped up onto the collapsed wagon, and stood in front of the driver, facing the two dozen men with nothing more than guts and her staff.
"Stay down" The bard yelled, as she ducked an incoming spear, and held her staff ready, the riders now heading for her. "There's help coming!"
"You're crazy!" The man she was protecting yelled. "They'll kill you!"
Gabrielle ran out of time to worry about it, as she was nearly ridden down by a raider, only just barely dodging his ax blow and getting in one of her own, which made him drop the weapon.
"Oh boy." She hopped off the wagon and got between two of the men, who were reaching for and made them run into each other, then she scrambled out of the way as one of the horses tripped and fell, spilling it's rider nearly at her feet. She gave him a whack on the back of the head and he went down, and she jumped over him, just in time to miss a spear thrust.
This was more than she could handle. Gabrielle realized quickly, as she ducked and swung her staff at another rider, who slammed her in the back with a club. She rolled with the hit, though, and ended up back near the wagon.
Two of the raiders spotted her, though, and closed in, and she realized she was trapped in place. She lifted her staff as one sped by her, and tried to take him off his horse, but the end of the staff caught in his saddle, and he tipped, but kept going.
Unfortunately, it wrenched the staff out of her hands, and she found herself facing the other raider weaponless, as he lifted his club and spurred his horse at her. She drew in a breath and crouched, her eyes flicking back and forth to find a way out, until he was close enough for he to see the grin on his face as he raised his arm, intent on smashing the life out of her.
Never hearing the approaching horses, or the sound of rasping steel, or the change in air pressure as a large, fast moving body slammed into him with a force great enough to take him right out of the saddle, and send his horse sprawling to the earth with a tortured scream.
He died in mid air, his chest split open from neck to groin in a shower of hot blood, which drenched Gabrielle as she ducked and covered her head, flooded with the tingling nearness of her partner that made the gore insignificant.
After a moment's pause to allow herself to resume breathing, she straightened, and glanced around, finding Xena's savagely fighting form not two body lengths from her. The warrior was engaged in practically dismembering a raider, and as the bard watched, a wild yell erupted from her, sending chills down Gabrielle's spine.
Ah. She exhaled, spotting her staff lying on the ground, and pounced on it. Then she set to work in her long familiar role, defending her partner's back from anyone stupid enough to try and come at her.
Just another fight.
And then it was over, and she'd found the wagon's driver, half buried under a fallen horse and cursing his legs being trapped.
"Here… " Gabrielle gently urged the horse up, and it groggily obeyed her, nostrils flaring at the overwhelming scent of blood in the air. She knelt at the driver's side and exhaled. "You all right?"
A hand on her shoulder made her look up, to see blue eyes gazing back, as Xena also knelt and put an arm around her. She leaned gratefully against the warrior's body as she returned her attention to the driver.
"Who in Hades are you people?" The man asked, with a groan. "I didn't think there was anyone for leagues." He gazed around, seeing bodies piled about. "They all gone?"
"Yes." Xena replied quietly. "Dead or running." She fingered the tunic she'd ripped off one, with it's impudent lion's head on it. "Andreas' boys, eh?"
The man stared at her. "You know his mark then." He let out a shaky sigh. "They took our village last moon's rising… the gods know we tried to pacify them, but it… nothing was ever enough. "
Gabrielle put a comforting hand on his boot. "We know…we've seen a lot of places like that."
"Where were you headed?" Xena asked.
He slowly shook his head. "Anywhere…I've got some… " His eyes drifted to the wagon, where they could now hear whimpers. "Do you have a healer?" His lips trembled. "I don’t know if there's much they can do.. but I had to try.. I had to get them out of there."
"I'm a healer." Xena stood and went to the wagon, pulling aside bits of wood as she went. She unlatched the back section and tugged at it. "Toris.. gimme a hand here.. " The siblings joined forces and lifted the back door off the wagon and peered inside, as Gabrielle stood to join them.
It stank of blood, and worse. Xena found herself looking at what seemed to be seven or eight bodies, with dull, glinting eyes that peered back at her, mouths opened in piteous, soft cries of agony.
In pure reflex, the warrior turned, and grabbed the bard, turning her head. "Don't look." She whispered, hearing the choke which forced itself from Toris' throat. "We need to get this thing up right… get them inside."
Gabrielle was too stunned to protest, finding her head held gently, but inflexibly to one side, and feeling the tremor in Xena's hands. She took a deep breath, then lifted her own fingers and pulled at her soulmate's. "Xena… let me go."
"No." The warrior replied, pulling her close and wrapping both arms around her tightly. "Gabrielle… you don't want to see this."
The bard gave her a hug back. "I know… but you should know by now trying to protect me from this stuff doesn’t work." She told her soulmate quietly, giving her a tiny pat. "C'mon.. let me go."
Slowly the pressure around her relaxed, and she turned, staying close to Xena as she allowed her eyes to focus on the wagon.
And felt the blood drain from her face so fast, she'd have fallen if the warrior hadn't been hanging on to her.
They were children, the youngest perhaps six.. the eldest not much younger than Gabrielle herself. Scourge marks covered their bodies, and worse. One was missing a limb. Another had bandages tied around his head over his eyes, and bloodstains around them. They stared at their rescuers in dumb silence.
"Let's get this up." Xena's voice sounded loud, over the snapping of the torches, as her men looked on in horror. "Get these poor kids some help." Then her eyes flicked to the driver, being held up gently by two militia. "Where's your village?"
He gazed at her tiredly. "A day..little more maybe… " His head jerked in the direction.
The ex warlord slowly nodded. "How many of them are there?" Xena's voice had taken on a cold tone.
The man hesitated. "Three score.. maybe a couple more than that."
Xena turned, and looked down the road in silence, hawk's eyes studying something the rest of them could only wonder about. Then she nodded, and returned her attention to them. "All right.. let's get moving."
The militia gathered around the wagon, those that were uninjured, and after a few anxious moments had righted the wagon, and everyone started moving, leaving the dead raiders bodies lying mutely in the road.
Xena watched them a moment, then exhaled and looked down at the silent figure still tucked under her arm.
Gabrielle looked up at her and they exchanged a soundless understanding. Then the bard exhaled and leaned against the warm body surrounding her, watching the moonlight gild the slowly moving wagon.
The warrior simply whistled for Iolaus, who came trotting over. She boosted Gabrielle up onto the stallion's back, then pulled herself up as well, stopping only to give a long look back the way the travelers had come from.
She knew eyes were out there, watching her, wondering what she'd do next.
Xena smiled, and turned her back on them.
They'd find out soon enough.