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 14
Cyrene dusted her hands off on her apron as she peered into the two pots perched on sturdy tripods over the fire. While a lot of things were still in boxes, and scattered over the makeshift tables, she was cautiously pleased with space she'd taken over and was working on organizing.
It was early yet, but the light coming in from outside was still gray with rain, and she could hear the rattle of it on the rocks overhead. "I'll tell you, Eustace.. I'm damned glad we're inside." She muttered to her faithful cook, who was busy peeling dried vegetables. "It's going to take me a moon to dry out those boots I was traveling in."
"Yes, ma'am.. that it's going to." The heavyset woman shook her head. "My wool cloak was so heavy, I could hardly lift it off.. thank the gods Xena was there, or I'd be wearing it still."
Cyrene scratched her jaw, hiding a smile. "She was all over the place last night…wish I had her energy." She went to a box and pulled out her spice jars, setting them on the table, then looked up as gentle footfalls came closer. "Well, good morning, Cait."
"Hello." The slim blond woman padded into the room, putting a piece of leather around her neat braid. "Grand morning, isn't it?"
Cyrene leaned over and peered through the barely visible opening. "I thought it was raining?"
"Oh, it is." Cait agreed. "But it smells so wonderful when it rains."
"I thought it smells like mud when it rains." Eustace gave her a puzzled look. "Nasty stuff."
"Not nearly so nasty a smell as when those vegetables are boiling." Cait commented, glancing at the table. "It's a nice and clean smell mostly, rain is… I was just outside. Lovely."
"Mm.. that's why you're dripping." Cyrene commented. "Is everyone up now?"
"Well.. sort of." Cait straightened her leathers. "They're sort of milling about." She put her hands behind her back. "They're not really sure what to do, you see."
Cyrene ladeled some cereal into a bowl and added a biscuit to it, then gave them both to the girl. "Why not? What's the matter with them?"
"Er.." Cait put her bowl down, and tugged an ear. "They're sort of waiting for Xena."
The innkeeper put her hands on her hips. "For Xena? Why? Isn't she there?"
"Um." Cait chewed her lip. "No.. actually.. that's why I'm here. I'm rather looking for her." She peeked behind her. "Before a hunting party starts in."
"Hm." Cyrene's brow creased. "I haven't seen her…. But I thought she just went out earlier than I get up..she usually does that." A head shake. "All right.. you all stay here. Let me see if I can find her."
"I can go look." Cait offered instantly.
"Goodness, ma'am, let me do that for you." Eustace added, at the same time.
Cyrene looked at them. "Are you silly, or just suicidal? I may have to wake her up." She shook her head at them and headed out, down the small narrow cavern between the kitchen area and the spot the kids had chosen. As she approached the entrance, she saw a familiar black form sprawled across it. "Uh oh." She stopped, pausing to peer down at the wolf, who peered back up at her glumly. "Hey, Ares."
He sighed. Cyrene peeked into the chamber, then stepped over the wolf and walked silently across the rock floor to stand at the foot of the bed, gazing quietly at it's occupants. Gabrielle was in her usual position, half sprawled over her taller bedmate's body with her head nestled into one shoulder.
Xena had both arms wrapped securely around the bard, though, which was unusual, and her normally active at first light daughter was very definitely soundly asleep. She moved to one side and peered into the nearby cradle, relieved to see Dori also snoozing, curled up on her side with one tiny arm under her head. "Incredible." Cyrene murmured, then shook her head as she moved around to Xena's side of the bed, and eased down on one knee.
"Honey?" She touched Xena's arm gently. "Xena?"
It took a moment before the taller woman responded, her face slowly taking on tension, then the dark lashes blinked open, and revealed dazed blue eyes. "Uh…."
"Hey.. " Cyrene, now concerned, put a hand on her daughter's forehead. "Honey, are you sick?" She felt the skin carefully. "You feel cool."
Xena lifted a hand and rubbed her eyes, then swallowed, obviously disoriented. "Yeah.. I.." She carefully untangled herself from her partner's warm embrace and straightened a little. "I was dreaming.. I.." Her eyes went to the opening, then widened a little in shock. "Wh.."
Cyrene bit back a smile. "Easy… you just overslept, honey. It happens to the best of us."
"Mother, I don’t.. " Xena struggled to sit up, forcing back the unnerving desire to curl back up around Gabrielle and go back to sleep. "Damn."
"Here." Cyrene handed over a nearby waterskin. "Take a drink of this and find your wits, Xena… " She put a hand back on the warrior's head. "Are you sure you're all right?"
The water was cold, and it helped her separate herself from the foggy feeling. Xena sucked the skin almost dry, then was able to take a few deeper breaths, and regain a little of her normal alertness. "Wow." She rubbed her face in mild embarrassment. "Not sure what happened… I must have been more tired than I thought."
Her mother snorted softly, then patted the bed. "Well, your Amazons are looking for you so… " She looked behind her. "Tell you what.. I'll take care of Dori.. you get going, okay?"
Xena yawned. "Okay." She accepted the offer gratefully. "Thanks." She watched Cyrene pick up the stirring infant and cradle her, then stroll out, making nonsense noises at the child.
That left the cavern in silence. "Wow." The warrior rubbed her face again, and studied her partner. "Gab?" She smoothed the soft, pale hair back from the bard's eyes. "Hey.."
"Mmmm." Gabrielle protested crankily, reaching out to take a better hold on her soulmate. "No…"
"C'mon… " Xena reluctantly loosened the bard's grasp. "Gabrielle, I gotta get moving."
A resentful green eyeball appeared and glared at her. "You could sleep in for one morning."
The warrior reached out and took hold of her head, turning it so she could see the light.
"Oh." Gabrielle's other eye opened and she blinked, then peered up at her partner in puzzlement. "Wow. It's late."
"No kidding. Mom just woke me up." Xena admitted wryly. "She's got Dori."
"Yikes." Gabrielle pulled herself up to a sitting position and ran a hand through her disheveled hair. "Sorry about that…" She turned to look at her partner. "You okay?"
Xena had drawn one knee up and was resting her chin on it, gazing thoughtfully out over the pool. "Hm? Yeah… how's your leg?"
"Mm." Good question. Gabrielle flexed it a little, then pushed the covers down and regarded her injured knee. "Hey.. it doesn't feel that bad.. better than yesterday, anyway." She poked at the skin, which had lost some of it's tenseness, and bent the joint a bit, pleased at the lack of sharp pain. "A lot better." She smiled at Xena. "Good night sleep helps.. you always say that."
"Yeah." Xena inclined her head, and studied her partner's muscular leg. The swelling had gone down significantly, and she smiled a bit as she ran her fingers lightly over the smooth surface. "Looks good." Her eyes drifted and took in the rest of her soulmate's naked form, and her smile widened.
"Hmm… yeah, it does.." Gabrielle glanced up and caught the look coming her way, and she found herself blushing a little. "Something wrong?"
The blue eyes twinkled. "Nope." Xena winked at her, then she reluctantly scrambled out from under the covers and stood, stretching her long body out before ambling over to the small worktable and retrieving a piece of linen. "You should still stay off it." She advised her soulmate, glancing briefly over her shoulder at the bard.
Appreciative green eyes were fastened lazily on her.
"Something wrong?" The warrior inquired.
"Nope." Gabrielle grinned, the skin around her eyes wrinkling as she showed white teeth.
Xena lifted an eyebrow at her, then shook her head and went to the side of the pool, steeling herself for a moment before she dove in.
All traces of sleep vanished in a heartbeat, as the vibrant chill of the water shocked her almost senseless, before it sent a surge of adrenaline through her. She surfaced and shook her head, then took a deep breath of air. "Whoa.. that's cold."
Gabrielle had the bedfurs wrapped around her shoulders. "You're making me cold just watching." She advised. "Get out of there, Xena.. you're going to get sick."
Xena ignored her, using the bit of soap she'd taken and scrubbing herself industriously. Once you were in the water, it wasn't so bad, she reasoned, as she rinsed her hair. Besides, Gabrielle had mentioned some mud yesterday….. She rubbed an ear, devoting a portion of her mind to what she wanted to accomplish that day, and another part to what wild excuse she was going to give the Amazons for spending half the morning in bed.
A roll of thunder made her look up, past the sheeting rain falling, and she sighed. That meant either drilling them outside, or keeping them inside and occupied.
Well, she could always drill with them. They liked that, and it wouldn't do her any harm at all. Xena walked to the edge of the rainfall and let it spill over her, the fresh water slightly warmer than the pool she was standing in, warm enough to almost feel pleasant as it washed the soap off her skin, and from her hair.
The faint current in the pool took the suds out, through a passage in the rocks, and Xena watched them idly as she finished her bath. Then she hoisted herself out of the water and got a piece of dry linen, drying herself off and feeling much more alert and awake. Gabrielle, she noticed, was scribbling in her diary with a totally absorbed expression on her face. "Whatcha doin'?
The bard finished her writing, then peered up over the parchment, nibbling her quill. "Writing." She informed her watching soulmate brightly. "Just… some poetry.. you know.. spur of the moment kinda stuff."
"Mm.. spurs. Thanks for reminding me." Xena muttered, as she pulled on her blue leathers, shrugging the body armor into place with a practiced motion. "Gonna have to make those…and tack for all those damn horses." Then her eyes brightened. "Hey.. that's a good project for a rainy day, huh?" She grinned to herself. "And they'll need that stuff before we can start…heh."
Her problem solved, Xena finished lacing her leathers up, and paused, regarding her metal armor. If she wasn't sparring, no sense in carrying that around, was there? With a shake of her head, she sat down on a box and pulled on a pair of the socks she'd scoured the seaside markets for then tugged on her dry boots.
Gabrielle had introduced her to the things, having brought several pairs back from Chin with her. The fabric provided a cushion between the boot's leather and her skin, and she'd become very fond of them over the past year. "I'll have mom bring you in something for breakfast." She told her soulmate solicitously, as she crossed over and examined her leg. "If you stay off it today, you should be all right tomorrow."
"Mm." The bard agreed solemnly. "Okay."
Xena gave her a pat, then stood and walked towards the door.
"I'll just relax here and write poetry about you all day… yeah.. then recite it at dinner… how's that?" Gabrielle called after her.
Xena slammed into the rock wall and bounced off as the words penetrated. "Wh.. hey!" She turned and gave her partner an outraged look. 'What?" She put a hand on the rock to steady herself, and rubbed her head with the other one.
Gabrielle clapped a hand over her mouth to contain the giggles. "Oh gods.. that was funny." She chuckled. "Sure… what else is there to do in this cave, Xena?" A pause. "Alone, I mean."
The blue eyes widened. "Gabrielle!" She put her hands on her hips. "I'll be back." She warned. "Be dressed." Then she stalked out, leaving a helplessly laughing soulmate behind her.
"Listen, Xena.. we're not a bunch of damn cobblers."
The warrior bit the inside of her lip, holding back the obvious response that rose to them. "No one said you were.. but we need this stuff, and there's no other way to get it." She gave Gillen a borderline impatient look. "You rather be outside in that?" Xena pointed over the Amazon's shoulder, to where the torrential rain could be seen outside.
"We could be drilling." Gillen disagreed stubbornly. "Not hanging around in here cutting leather."
Xena silently counted to ten. "Gillen, when that weather clears, we're gonna have a lot of work to do with those horses.. you'll be glad of a day or two spent at this."
"You think you're going to get us up on those?" The Amazon queen laughed shortly. "No way… Amazons fight on the ground, or in the trees. We don't ride around on the backs of horses."
Damn stubborn piece of Amazon pinheaded… The warrior felt her temper rise.
"Hi." Gabrielle limped over, and settled on the table next to where her annoyed partner was standing. "Hey.. are you scared of horses too? I sure was." She remarked to Gillen, in a conversational, friendly tone. "Took me the longest time before Xena could coerce me into riding Argo alone."
Xena exhaled, and allowed a faint smile to cross her face. Leave it to Gabrielle.
"Scared?" Gillen snorted. "Not hardly." She glanced outside, to where the herd was clustered, their backs turned to the rain. "What's there to be scared of?"
"Well.. they're huge." Gabrielle ticked off counts on her fingers. "They step on you, the knock you down, they bite you.."
"Hey!" Xena put her hands on her hips. "Argo never bit you."
Green eyes flicked her way. "I was making a general comment." She turned her attention back to Gillen. "Anyway, I was around her so much, I eventually got used to her."
The Amazon queen grunted. "We're not animal handlers."
Gabrielle turned her head. "Xena, would you excuse us, please?"
Outraged blue eyes rounded at her for a long moment, then the warrior made a noise somewhere between a sneeze and snort and stalked off towards a group of fighters, working over a large piece of hide.
Gillen folded her arms, watching the bard warily.
Gabrielle rolled her staff between her fingers, studying the wood for a moment before she looked up. "You know, when I first got this… " She spun the staff a little. "After I got my right of caste, and was accepted into the Amazons, I just carried it for a while."
The older woman leaned against the table in silence.
"I had no idea what to do with it.. they gave me some really basic lessons in the village, but it takes time to… " Gabrielle paused, then sighed. "Anyway… I wasn't really sure what to do… so I just carried it.. used it to poke things.. until one day, I was just tired of carrying the thing, so I sort of asked Xena if she'd show me how to use it."
"And you know what she said?" Gabrielle tilted her head. "She said sure.. that she'd just been waiting for me to ask." She let a little silence fall. "That's how she is… she never volunteers stuff like that. What skills.. what knowledge she has, she's really had to struggle for, and she doesn't give it up easily at all."
Gillen sniffed. "There's a point here, I'm sure."
Gabrielle nodded. "I'm not an expert..but I think Xena's probably one of the best fighters on horseback that I've ever seen. It's really incredible what she can do.. with horses, and with a weapon while she's on a horse… and she's offering to teach that to the Amazons. "
The woman looked at her.
"That's a totally amazing thing." The bard told her, gently. "Even the people in Amphipolis had to come ask her.. and she's here, offering to teach you guys. Don’t throw that away."
Gillen chewed her lip thoughtfully, and gazed after the retreated ex warlord. "You eventually got used to her, eh?"
"Yeah.. and Argo too." Gabrielle concurred, deadpan.
The older woman paused in mid chew, and gave the bard a startled look.
Gabrielle burst into laughter, then let that continue as Gillen stalked off, shaking her head. She waited for the Amazon to join a group of her mates, then hopped off the table and limped over to the cave entrance, peering out at the gray skies as she leaned on her staff.
Xena watched her covertly as she spread the new hide out over the saddle tree. "Look… we got lucky, finding these old frames packed away.. this isn't that hard."
Pony was sucking on a thumb, having hit it with her mallet. "Just painful." She muttered, watching the taller woman stretch the hide. "You ain't gonna make me sew something, are you? Hades, Xena.. you ever see my tunics?"
Blue eyes looked up at her, with a dark brow edging up over them. "Where'd ya think I learned how?" She snorted, then looked back. "Just tuck this edge here, and cut… then stitch it around like that….if you keep the stuff wet, you're fine. Don't let it dry out." She straightened, allowing the reluctant Pony to edge back towards the project, then strode on, going from group to group to check their progress.
Over to one side, the Amphipolis blacksmith was busy, his head down and hammer ringing, with a group of interested villagers and a few Amazons watching him as he pounded out roughly hewn bits and stirrups. The cavern presented an air of damp, slightly resentful productivity, and Xena felt somewhat satisfied with it.
At least they'd stopped bitching. Of course, it'd helped that their raucous ribbing of her had stopped dead at Gabrielle's "But.. she was doing something for me.." comment, complete with those all innocent, all the time wide green eyes.
Xena snickered to herself, as she rubbed an ear which had turned quite pink at her soulmate's demure smile. That's my bard. She looked up as footsteps came closer, and gave the approaching Dani a nod. "They all right out there? I don't want them spooked.. they'll go haring off right into the lake, or into the gate."
"Nah.. they're fine." The former innkeeper stated, folding her large arms across her chest and reviewing the cavern's activities. "They like mud almost as much as you do."
Xena's eyebrow lifted at the casual familiarity. "I'm not fond of it." She remarked coolly.
"Yeah? Coulda fooled me." Dani replied cheerfully. "I figured you for a down and dirty girl all the way."
The warrior's spine stiffened, bringing her pale eyes slightly higher than Dani's. "I don't appreciate the comments."
It didn't phase the younger woman a bit. "You appreciated the horses… I guess you'll put up with it huh?"
Xena simply moved, with an economy and speed of motion that had her behind Dani, and grabbing her arm, forcing it up as she shoved the innkeeper against the rock wall with stunning force.
For a moment, only breathing was heard.
"No, I don't." Xena growled, very softly. "And I'm not going to have you undermining my authority here, you got me, little girl?" She shoved, and felt the bones strain under her fingers, as Dani sucked in an agonized breath. "Do ya?"
"Yes." Dani rasped.
"Good." Xena released her and stepped back a few paces, relaxing against a nearby work table. She folded her arms as the innkeeper recovered, and let her eyes drift around the awkwardly silent cavern.
Slowly, the buzz of voices rose, and everyone went back to their tasks, glancing furtively at the two women near the door.
Dani brushed her shirt off, and gave Xena a wary look, then ducked through the door way and headed towards one of the workbenches. The warrior merely watched her, feeling the tiger lay back down inside her as her breathing returned to a more normal pattern. A soft uneven thunk caused her head to turn, and she saw Gabrielle standing there, leaning on her staff with a speculative look.
"What was that all about?" The bard asked, limping over.
"Nothing much." Her soulmate replied quietly.
"Xena.. you don’t usually body slam people for no reason… that's a little drastic, don't you think? What did she say to you? It couldn’t have been that bad.. she was only over here a minute…"
"She got a little too familiar with me." Xena replied.
Gabrielle pondered that. "Familiar?"
"Hmm." Gabrielle reached up and scratched her nose reflectively. "Guess she got off easy then."
One dark brow edged up. "Because you weren't here?" Xena drawled, a hint of a smile crossing her face. Her sometimes hot tempered soulmate did have a decided possessive streak, she knew.. and she wondered what Gabrielle would have done if she'd have heard the innkeepers comments. "Yeah, she's a lucky woman."
Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Anyway.. um… " She peered around. "This is going pretty good, huh?" The subject change was painfully evident.
The bard missed the quietly affectionate look from her partner. "Yeah… if this damn rain ever stops, we'll be able to get started." Xena sighed, folding her arms over her chest. "I know things are getting done here, but… "
"You want to get going." Gabrielle finished for her.
"Mm." Xena responded. "So damn much to do." She shook her head a bit. "Not to mention getting a late start as it is…. How's the leg?"
Gabrielle flexed it, then bent it at the knee. "Not bad at all, Xena…I.."
"Xena!" An out of breath sentry came in, dripping rainwater off his cloak. "There's a small band of troops approaching."
"Ah." Xena perked up immediately. "It's either friends, or a fight." By her face, it was hard to tell which thought was making her happier. "All right… let's go." She made for the cavern opening, only to be bodily hauled down by her soulmate. "Hey!"
"For Artemis' sake, Xena." Gabrielle grabbed the warrior's cloak from the nearby rack that had been set up for them and slung it over her shoulders, working the clasp around her neck as the impatient warrior shifted restlessly. "Oh, just calm down." The bard lifted her hood and gave her a look. "There."
"Are you done? Or should I go put a muffler around my neck too?" Xena rolled her eyes.
"Mm…" Gabrielle eyed her speculatively.
"Nevermind.." The warrior shook her head and escaped, slipping out into the rain and mud with a definite relish.
The warrior sighed and turned, walking backwards, to see her soulmate in the opening, smiling at her. "What?"
"I love you."
It was damn lucky she had the reflexes she did, Xena cursed, as she almost tripped, and ended up hopping a few paces, scattering mud everywhere. She ended up with her hands on her hips, and her most severe glare on her partner.
The green eyes sparkled with gentle amusement, as the warrior whirled and stalked off, muttering.
But not before the long hands formed the sign that echoed Gabrielle's words.
The bard leaned against the rock, watching the tall figure move thorough the downpour, heading towards the gate with her cloak swirling damply around her. Xena's walk was always very distinctive, she decided, even if she hadn't know who it was, she'd have known… from the way the warrior carried her head and shoulders, shifted just a tiny bit to her left to counteract the weight of her sword, and with a that slight bounce to her stride that was always a little more pronounced when she was wearing her metal armor.
It was a nice walk, Gabrielle decided. Strong, and assured, and .. she smiled a the little swagger. Very sexy.
It had been morning, but a very uncomfortable one. Gabrielle had forced herself awake, blinking nervously into the still unfamiliar grass and dirt she was lying on. Her body was stiff, and she hurt all over, but she kept her lips clamped shut as she rolled over and sat up, trying to ignore the pounding headache that made her a little nauseus.
Of course, the camp was quiet. Xena was out somewhere, doing something.. like she always was, leaving Gabrielle to roust herself out of bed after the warrior roughly shook her to start the process.
So she yawned, and rubbed her eyes, and gazed blearily around, wondering for the hundreth time what had possessed her to go running off from Potadeia, where at least she'd had a comfortable bed, if a boring life to go along with it.
"Well, it was your choice, Gabrielle, so get your butt off the ground, and get moving." She'd told herself, then had gotten up and rolled her sleeping blankets up neatly, tucking them next to Xena's already packed things. Nearby, Argo was grazing, tugging up strands of thick green grass with evident relish.
"Easy for you, huh?" The girl had murmured, digging in her bag for some nuts and berries, saved from the previous day. She munched on them hungrily, then picked up a bit of soap and some linen, and headed for the nearby spring to wash herself.
The day had been warm, the sun beating down on her back as she walked, her shoes scuffing the loose sand a little. Off to one side, a thicket of bushes promised thorns and birds, who danced over them and scolded each other. Gabrielle had leaned closer, and spotted a bunch of berries hiding in there, and paused to retrieve them, having learned over the past month or so not to pass any chance at food by.
She'd only stuck herself twice, before gaining her prize, then she'd continued on, munching on a few of the sweet fruits as she turned the bend in the path and had a view of the water.
"Ah." Xena had been swimming lazily towards her, the warrior's dark hair slicked to her head and accentuating her strong profile. "Morning!" Gabrielle had called out, a little surprised she'd made it down to the water before the warrior had finished her swim, as usually Xena was dressed and waiting for her by the time she'd even started.
"Morning." Xena had answered, moving closer into the shallows, then standing up and letting the water sheet off her body as she splashed forward.
It was, Gabrielle remembered, the weirdest feeling she'd ever had. A combination of lightheadedness, and shortness of breath, a strange rubbery feeling in her knees, and the oddest sensation deep in her guts.
She'd never seen Xena like this..like…just completely naked, her entire body on sleek, powerful display, the light bathing her leaving nothing to the imagination. Even with the subtle tracing of the few scars, a legacy of a life spent fighting, the warrior was, to the watching girl's eyes, beautiful. She'd never seen anyone who looked like Xena did.
She'd realized she really liked that.
"Hey!" Xena had barked. "What's wrong with you?"
"Uh." Gabrielle had swallowed the sudden lump in her throat, and found something else to stare at, other than the sun glided body facing her whose subtle play of skin over muscle was so interesting, and so… Oh, it had been so hard not to look. She'd raised a hand to her neck and rubbed it. "Must have slept wrong.. I've got a crick." She'd mumbled.
"Hmph." Xena had walked over and brushed her hand aside, moving the bard's head around with expert fingers. "Yeah.. hang on."
Gabrielle had felt the coolness of the damp skin behind her and she'd concentrated on staying still, aware of the clean, spicy scent of her companion's body consciously for the first time.
"That better?" A sharp question.
"Yeah." Gabrielle had answered softly. "Um… much. Thanks."
Xena had leaned closer. "You all right?" A hand had touched her head. "I think you've got a fever."
Gabrielle had taken a few deep breaths. "NO…. I mean, no, no. .I'm fine, thanks, Xena.. um.. it's the sun!" She'd pointed up. "The sun.. see? It's all nice and warm, and sunny, and sun like. You know?"
"Sure." The warrior had shrugged, then moved off. "Whatever… hurry up, willya? We've got places to go today."
"Oh. .right.. sure…um.. I'll just go wash, and it'll take a minute.. um.. okay? Here.. " Gabrielle had offered her the berries, thrusting them out. "Have some."
Pale blue eyes had slowly come around to meet hers, as Xena had walked into her line of vision, the long fingers reaching out and taking a single blackberry, rolling it around before popping it into her mouth. "Thanks."
Then she'd shaken her head, and left, disappearing behind the brush and leaving Gabrielle to let out a long breath, and walk down towards the water on faintly unsteady feet.
Ending up in the water herself, with some very interesting thoughts.
Gabrielle smiled in reflex, shaking her head at her younger self. "Oh… Gabrielle.. if you only knew." She murmured, listening to the falling rain.
Xena surreptitiously tugged her cloak closer as she headed across the muddy ground, glad Gabrielle had taken the time to force the garment on her. It was a little game she and the bard played, of course. She would be vocally grumpy about the fussing, Gabrielle would be amusedly patient with her…. It was a warm and comfortable feeling, and one they'd slowly grown into over the years. Xena had come to secretly cherish the moments, and she tended to hoard them, finding herself almost disappointed when, through busyness or inattention Gabrielle let an opportunity go by her.
The guards on the gate half turned as she approached and one climbed down off the ladder and approached her, ducking his head against the driving rain.
"What is it?" The warrior asked crisply
"Not sure." The man admitted. "They're standing out there, just watchin us." He wiped water out of his eyes. "Looks to be three half, four score."
"Mm." The warrior brushed by him and put her hands on the lower platform, boosting herself up onto it and stepping forward, the other guards parting to let her come up to the wooden wall. "Let's see what we got."
Slowly, she let her head surface over the edge of the gate, and peered through the mist, blinking a few times as the rain hit her eyes. The ground was rich with mud, and the opposing force was standing just out of the largest patch of it.
Xena exhaled, letting her chin rest on the rough wood surface. The soldiers were drawn up in disciplined ranks as their captains conferred, dark armor sucking in the light and making the group a large, ominous block. Their weapons were evident, crossbows braced on armored legs, and sword crosshilts visible in dark leather scabbards. Who were they?
The fact that they didn't immediately attack was encouraging, but Xena studied the silent watchers, wondering if they weren't just taking their time to work out a plan of attack.
Well. One way to find out for sure. Xena put her hands on the top of the wooden gate and vaulted onto it, exposing her tall form to the wind and the eyes facing her. Then she leaped out into space, tucking her body into a neat pair of flips before she hit the ground, sending a spray of mud and water flying outward.
The soldiers stiffened, and several crossbow muzzles shifted her way as she faced off against them, her dark outline almost indistinguishable against the rain. Xena flexed her hands, catching the sound of scrambling behind the gate and reflecting that she probably should have warned the guard staff what she was doing.
Her hands tensed, as she hoped all the crossbows didn't fire at once. Then a gust of wind blew her hood back, and exposed her head to the weather, and she saw the soldiers go very still.
She found herself smiling, a part of her reveling in the knowledge that it was who she was they were reacting to. Then the captain stepped forward and threw his own hood down, and she smiled for a totally different reason.
"Genr'l" The word boomed across the muddy ground, as the tall form loped towards her.
Xena put her hands on her hips. "Hello, Bennu." She extended an arm and felt strong fingers grip it. "Didn't expect to see you here."
"Ah, well." Bennu turned, and gestured back towards the group. "King figgered even with the wall, and all of us, no way he'd hold off the bistard… so's when he heard you were hauling up a force in the hinterlands, he kept enough lads about to put a show on, and sent t'rest of us up here…said we'd do better w'you, and he'll just make his best peace "
Xena considered that, as she started a slow walk towards the waiting group. "I don't know that I'd agree with that." The warrior commented. "That's a pretty defensible city."
Bennu rubbed his bearded jaw. "Mebbe with you in it." He told her frankly. "King's a good guy for training, but fer strategy, he's no in yer league."
"Hm." Xena grunted, as they came to a halt next to the troops. She straightened, meeting the eyes under the closely fitted helmets, as they watched her. "All right… let's get inside, then." She turned and lifted her hand in a signal to the gate. "Any swords are welcome.. and these look like good ones."
Backs stiffened in reaction, and Xena could feel the brief, distinct wave of excitement at her words. Bennu lifted a hand "We were hoping you be feeling that way."
A shorter man moved forward, edging through the crowd and working a knotted cord off a thick burlap wrapping off the end of a pike he was carrying. The soldiers broke ranks a little and clustered around them, and Xena found herself in the center of a warm block of bodies as she watched the soldier at his work.
It became very quiet, only the soft rasp of the man's fingers against the heavy twine was heard over the rain He cleared his throat, then dropped the rope, and unwrapped the fabric, carefully exposing a vivid, silky banner in bright yellow, and inky black. Matter of factly, he footed the base of the pike and lifted the pole up, allowing the flag to spread out into the wind.
Xena sucked in a breath of air, full of rain and the scent of leather and brass, and tasted something wonderful, in a rich and seductive way. The snap of the fabric sent a little shiver down her spine and she tipped her head back to gaze up at the banner.
"Hope it's all right we brought it." Bennu remarked placidly. "Figured you'd need one anyhow."
A faint hint of a smile pulled at the corner of Xena's mouth. "Yeah.. that'll do." She reached up and tugged lightly at one corner, feeling the silk warm between her fingers. "C'mon…let's get inside."
Bennu turned and joined her as they walked towards the gates, the solid tramp of booted feet behind them.
"How are things in the city?" The warrior asked politely.
"Doing well, they were, until this bistard Andreas started in." Bennu scratched his jaw. "Our Silvi's just buddin, she is… and we was hoping for a little prince."
Xena smiled. "That's good to hear…she doing all right?"
"Right as can…" The tall man nodded, then brightened. "Ah.. and how's your Gabrielle?"
My Gabrielle. Xena tensed her lips, then inhaled. "She's fine…she had a little girl." She paused. "You'll have to come by and meet our daughter.. she's really something."
Bennu grinned. "Course she is.. given her.." His warbling stopped as he apparently realized what he was saying. His eyes went to Xena's profile, then scanned her body, then went back to her profile, then focused out somewhere over the trees. "Ah.. I mean…"
The warrior refused to bail him out, having found through trial and error that the best way to deal with the question was not to deal with it. Instead, she plowed on through the rain, ignoring the troop captain's blushing.
Xena watched the eyes of the guards focus on her, then lift to the banner flying over her head, and she paused as they cleared the gates. "Hold it." She held out a her hand for the flag, hefting it lightly, then taking a long stride towards the watch platform and leaping up to land lightly on it's wet surface.
"Is that yours, Xena?" The guard to her left asked quietly, a man younger than Gabrielle, who had probably been just a child when it had last flown.
"Yes." The warrior replied, lashing it into place on the battlements.
"It's nice." The man comment. "I like it."
Xena rested her hands on the flagpole and gazed at him, suddenly feeling the years separating them. "Thanks." She commented briefly, then hopped down from the ledge, and rejoined the troops. The gates swung closed as she lead them towards the caverns, aware both of the eyes watching her from there, and the sense, in a very small corner of her soul, that part of her had finally found it's way home.
"Looks like it's friends." Ephiny commented softly, as she came up behind Gabrielle. The bard was standing in the entranceway, watching the group of soldiers move across the valley towards them. "Do you recognize them?"
"Mm." Gabrielle tore her eyes from the gold and black sigil now flying over the gate and turned. "A city southeast of here… we helped them straighten out a mess a while back… I guess it was around a year ago or so…that tall guy next to Xena's their captain of the guard."
"Ah." Ephiny nodded. "You told me about that.. I remember… wonder why they're here?"
The bard turned and looked at her in honest puzzlement. "Eph.. we're here building and army, and soldiers show up… you're wondering why they're here???"
Hazel eyes twinkled soberly. "Sorry… I meant, I expected they'd have to stay with the city."
"Oh." Gabrielle blushed a little. "I don't know…. I guess we'll find out shortly." She turned and regarded the group again, who had fallen into orderly if not regimented step around her partner. Xena's head was slightly turned, and she was talking to the taller Bennu, who was obviously listening intently. The warrior was gesturing with one bracered arm towards a section of the cliff wall, and turned her steps that way, shaking her head to clear the wet hair from her eyes.
Gabrielle silently turned, and took her own cloak off the wall spike, settling it over her shoulders and securing it. "You'd better go let Gillen and Aslanta know we're moving some new fighters in, Eph." She took a more secure grip on her staff and headed out into the rain, angling her steps to intercept her soulmate.
"Bu…" Ephiny blurted, then sighed. "Okay, sure." She lifted her hands a little and let them fall to her thighs, then turned and headed towards the work chamber.
The bard could hear Xena's low speech as she closed in, the familiar tones and cadence audible long before the words were.
"Once we get everyone settled in, we'll work people into the watch rotation." Xena decided, her eyes flicking over the compound restlessly. "Then we can start cross training… you've got the close order tactics down, but the Amazons are hit and run specialists and.."
"Amazons?" Bennu almost stopped short, his boots kicking up a splash of mud. "Naw… really? Got yer a few of them, eh, Genr'l?"
"Three hundred." Xena answered absently. "Your fighters are horse trained, right?" She kept walking, then halted, realizing she was by herself. Slowly she turned to find scores of round eyes and slightly dropped jaws looking back at her. "What?" She put her hands on her hips.
"Th..th…th…" The tall man stuttered, then closed his mouth, as his eyes focused on something just over Xena's shoulder. "Ah."
Startled, the warrior turned, to see a lone, cloaked form making it's way toward her, leaning on a staff and masking a slight limp. "Thought I told you to stay in the cave." She growled at Gabrielle, as the bard neared. "It's wet out here."
Under her hood, a barely visible eyebrow lifted. "Really?" Gabrielle edged past her and held a hand out. "Hello, Bennu… it's really nice to see you."
He gingerly took it. "Same t'you, ma'am."
"All right, let's get moving." Xena gave them all an annoyed look. "That way." She pointed, giving Bennu a nudge in the right direction. They all started moving and Gabrielle fell into step next to her, straining a little to keep up with the warrior's longer strides. "As I was saying….we can start sword drills tomorrow…and I've got to get those horses up to some basic level of training."
"Ah… we've been doing some light horse…" Bennu rumbled. "Mostly run by's and slashes, the like."
"That'll do… at least you won't be falling out of the saddles." Xena replied, with a sigh. She lead the way into the furthest of the caverns, one they hadn't really had time to set up as yet. There were mostly built, and partially lashed together bunks scattered around, and boxes "It's not pretty…" She shook herself as she cleared the entrance and left the rain behind. "But it's dry, and you can put things the way you want them."
"Right." Bennu nodded. "Awright… let's get t'work."
The soldiers started to filter around them and the cavern soon filled with the sound of low, male voices and the smell of wet hide. Xena leaned back against the wall, watching the activity in some contentment. After a moment, she turned her head to find quiet green eyes regarding her. "What?"
A tiny shake of the head. "Nothing." Gabrielle rested her weight on her staff, propping her chin on one wrapped fist.
"That wasn't a nothing look." Xena accused. "That was a 'something's bothering me' look."
Gabrielle turned fully. "Is it?"
"I didn't know I had one of those."
Another nod, this one almost hesitant.
"Mm." The bard eased back and settled against the wall next to her.
They were quiet for a moment. "Is it the battle flag?" Xena finally asked softly. "We have to have one, and I…"
"No…" Gabrielle shook her head. "I like it… I was just wondering…" She let her eyes scan the busy room. "Xena, you're more comfortable with these guys than with the Amazons, aren't you?"
Leather creaked softly as the warrior inhaled deeply, then exhaled. "I don't know.. I.." A beat. "Yeah, I guess I am." Xena seemed to consider this. "My army was mostly men."
"Hm." The shadows on the bard's face shifted as Gabrielle moved her jaw around a little. "They accept you as their leader without questioning that."
Blue eyes shifted back and forth, then the warrior nodded briefly. She remained silent for a bit, then cleared her throat. "In battle… there's no time for debate, Gabrielle."
"I know that." The bard answered instantly. "In the middle of a fight, have I ever questioned you? No matter what was going on?"
"Do you think the Amazons are going to do that?" Now the bard's voice was honestly curious. "They're not stupid, Xena."
"I don't know." The warrior answered, with a sigh. "That's just the trouble, Gabrielle.. I don't know what they're going to do.. I don't know if I can trust them to go and do and be what I need in the middle of a fight." She lifted a hand and gestured. "These men.. they're used to following direction.. if I tell them to attack here, defend here.. they'll listen to me, and do what I want.. even if they don't know the reasons why."
Gabrielle thought about that. "The Amazons want to know why." She acknowledged quietly. "That's true."
"Why can't you just tell them why?"
Xena pushed off the wall and straightened, tugging her cloak a little bit. "Because in battle…you can't show your hand like that, Gabrielle… you have to keep your strategy up here." She tapped her head. "The more people who know the whole plan, the more chances you have for your enemy to find it out."
The bard felt a little dumb. "Well.. sure.. I mean, that makes sense, but…" She paused. "Do you really think the Amazons would reveal that?"
"I think we were attacked twice inside the Amazon village itself." Xena reminded her. "And whoever did it, is still out there…in fact, they could be inside here right now." She gave the cavern one last look. "C'mon." She started out the door, only to be tugged to a gentle halt. "Now what?"
Gabrielle reached up and tugged her hood into place, pushing dark hair back from her eyes. "One thing we definitely don’t' need, is you sick."
Xena scowled at her. "I'm not going to get sick, Gabrielle. It's just a little rain."
Then she sneezed.
IT had been a very quiet dinner. Gabrielle had seated herself with the Amazons, and spent the time diplomatically trying to get across some idea of teamwork, while her soulmate had pulled Bennu, Aslanta, and Gillen over to her table for an impromptu strategy session.
Neither of them, she suspected, had been particularly successful. Gabrielle sighed as she made her way back towards their quarters, and stopped in the entryway, spotting Xena's form slumped in the chair nearest the rudely constructed fireplace.
The tall, dark haired woman had one elbow braced, and her head resting on her fist as she watched the flames, a faraway look evident even from where the bard was standing. Dori's cradle was next to her, and she was rocking it gently with one booted foot.
What was she thinking? Gabrielle allowed herself a moment to wonder, watching the sharp profile outlined in the firelight. Then she continued inside, and crossed to the chair, as the warrior lifted her head and turned. "Hey." She smiled, keeping her voice light.
Xena smiled back. "Hey, yourself….everything get squared away with Eph?"
The bard perched on the chair arm and waggled a hand. "Eh… I think so. The rain's finally stopped outside, so they were able to air some of those old furs out, and it's smelling a lot better in there."
"Good." Xena grunted. "One less thing to complain about." She let her head rest against Gabrielle's hip and closed her eyes as the bard's fingers wound their way through her hair. "Bennu and his guys are set… I told him we'd start some basic drills tomorrow.. I want his cavalry trained guys to give me a hand with those horses."
"Oh. Okay." Gabrielle rubbed the tense neck muscles. "I told the Amazons we really needed their cooperation.. and that it was going to be a tough learning curve for all of us."
"Did Dori get dinner?"
"What'd she get?"
There was no answer for a moment, then the warrior shifted her head. "Fish… and some peas." She murmured, reaching out and circling the bard's leg with her arm. "Peas were a bad idea."
"Why?" Gabrielle traced an ear.
"She was using her spoon as a catapult." Xena remarked idly. "Damn good aim.. she nailed Toris right between the eyes."
Gabrielle studied the almost limp form leaning against her. "So.. did she tire you out or something? You look exhausted."
"Xena?" Gabrielle put a hand against the warrior's cheek, finding it cool to the touch. "What's wrong?"
With a sigh, her partner straightened up and opened her eyes. "Nothing.. I was just thinking." She drew in a breath. "Maybe I was wishing the next few days were over…I'm not looking forward to it."
Gabrielle was a little startled, surprised her partner was being so open. "Oh, maybe it won't be so bad… I think I got them to understand how important this was… they could surprise you, Xena… they know this isn't a game."
The blue eyes blinked, then shifted up to her face. "Well, I guess we'll find out." She smoothed her hand over the bandage covering Gabrielle's knee. "How's this feeling?"
"Pretty good." The bard straightened her leg, then lowered it. "Another good night's sleep'll take care of it, I bet… you game?"
"Yeah.. I'm a little tired.." The warrior stifled a yawn. "Must be the damn weather. " She stood and picked the cradle up, carrying it over to the bed and setting it down with it's sleeping cargo carefully. Then she walked over to the crate they'd turned into a rough linen press and pulled out a shift, trading her loosened leathers for it as Gabrielle did the same.
"If they sent Bennu here… that means Andreas has gotten pretty far, hasn't he?"
Xena shook her armor out carefully, then laid it over the edge of one of the crates. "Yeah."
"Mm." Gabrielle eased herself down onto the double pallet, and regarded the rock ceiling. "Are you worried about that?"
"Of course I am." Xena sat down on an edge of the box. "What kind of question is that, Gabrielle?" She asked irritably. "If he takes control of the whole region across the mountain pass there, it'll block anyone coming from the south to join us." Her voice echoed a little off the granite.
"I'm just asking, because I want to learn, Xena." The bard retorted, as she put her hands behind her head and leaned back. "I don't know.. I've never been involved in planning a war before." She glanced down as Ares trotted in, and leaped up onto the pallet, curling up against her leg.
The warrior was sullenly silent for a moment, then she reached up and rubbed her eyes with one hand. "Yeah… maybe I don't want you to know." She stood and paced over to the water, looking up at the now visible stars overhead.
Gabrielle nibbled her lip as she watched her partner in some concern. Xena had been fine earlier, if annoyed at the sniping between the three groups they were trying to make into an army. What had brought on the moody depression? Ale, maybe… she reflected, having seen the warrior down several cups past her usual dinnertime norm. "Hey.." She watched the broad shoulders slump a little before Xena turned to regard her, and she held a hand out invitingly. "C'mere."
Xena hesitated, then complied, crossing the rock floor and settling down on the pallet as she took the bard's hand, folding her fingers around her partner's.
The bard considered carefully what to say, deciding on a tough, practical stance. "Look." Gabrielle gave her hand a firm squeeze. "You know tomorrow it going to be the worst, Xena… with all of them nattering on at each other… at the very least, you're going to have to kick a few butts." She paused, then drew breath to go on.
The warrior thought about that for a moment, then she smiled suddenly. "Yeah.. you're right." She relaxed onto her side, and gave the bard a friendly tickle, visibly in a much better mood. "Thanks, Gabrielle."
"Uh." The bard felt her mental wagon run off the road at the unintended effect her words had caused. "Sure, honey… anytime." That wasn't what she'd really meant, but…she made the decision to take her victories where she found them, and allowed a return smile to cross her face.
Xena tugged the bard's knee over, and started unwrapping the bandage she'd secured it with, making a pleased sound deep in her throat when the final bit came free, and exposed the joint to the firelight. She smoothed practiced fingers over the skin, and probed gently. "Swelling's down."
Gabrielle looked down at her own leg, moving it a bit and watching the sturdy muscles shift just under the surface as she did. "Remember when I got this?" She asked idly, tracing a thin, curved scar along her calf.
"Sure do." Xena stretched her legs out and crossed them at the ankles. "Never ran so fast in my life… I still can't believe you managed to fall right into a boar's den and got out of it with only that."
"Mm… I remember it smelled really bad." Gabrielle laughed gently. "I wanted to take my skin off to get that stink out….but you took care of that."
A smile. "Yes, I did." The warrior fondly recalled a long session of soap, and warm water, and her insistence in making sure every square inch of her partner received attention after she'd sewn up the long, ragged gash on her leg. Even more memorable was the bard's shy wonder as her new lover had taken complete control, and dominated her in a way neither of them had explored until that moment.
But that had been a long time ago, Xena sighed inwardly. Before they'd both changed, and life had dealt them circumstances which had altered their relationship forever.
And that knowledge had been weighing more and more heavily on her lately, she'd come to realize, bringing on bouts of depression that were getting harder and harder to shove aside. But, she took a breath. This was no time for one of them. "I think I used a month's worth of soap on you." Xena added, with a teasing grin.
Gabrielle laughed. "I know… I had to con that merchant at the next market we went through out of his supply of that nice smelling kind, remember?"
"I remember." Xena rolled over onto her back and chuckled. "Then we found out it didn't agree with either of us." She allowed her body to relax, feeling the stuffed mattress flex under her. "That was a mess."
"Mm… I still itch when I think about it." Her soulmate agreed, with a yawn. "That was a good idea to give it to those traveling salesmen, though."
"Yeah." Gabrielle regarded the ceiling thoughtfully. "Think they've forgiven us yet?"
Xena smiled, feeling the skin tighten around her eyes and mouth. "Nope."
They both laughed, then Gabrielle rolled over and settled into her favorite position, squirming around a little to get a good hold on her soulmate's long body and sliding her knee up over the warrior's thigh. "You know.. it was funny. I was asked to step in and judge a fight between two of Gillen's people tonight."
"Why is that funny?" Xena curled an arm around the warm body sprawled over hers.
"Well, not funny laughing, funny weird." Gabrielle mused. "It was two partners… you know, like we are?"
Xena lifted an eyebrow.
"Well, not just like us, but you know what I mean."
"Anyway… one had gone off to visit another village, and while she was there, she made a deal to help support another woman there, because they were um… " Gabrielle drummed her fingers on Xena's belly. "You know."
An unseen smile faced the granite ceiling. "Yeah, I know."
"Okay.. so.. anyway…the first woman said she was just obeying her sense of honor.. because she'd promised to help out.. but the second woman, the one she'd left behind, said she'd broken her honor, because she got involved with someone else."
"Ooookaayy…" Xena drew the word out. "So.. what was the problem? It's not against Amazon law."
"Well, that's why they called me in." Gabrielle explained. "Because it's not really against written law, no.. but it was sort of a moral question." She paused, thinking. "Gillen seems to think I've got a better handle on that than they do, for some reason."
"Can't imagine why." The warrior remarked mildly, her eyes twinkling as she got the expected startled look. "I'm kidding, Gabrielle."
"I knew that." The bard poked her tongue out. "So, anyway…the question was, should the Amazon in question stay involved with the woman in the other village, or should she keep out of that situation, and stay responsible to her original partner?"
"Tough question. " Xena stated thoughtfully. "What did you decide?"
"What would you have decided?" Gabrielle turned the question around on her.
The warrior remained silent for a bit, thinking. "Hard to say… I probably would have forced her to honor her original commitment."
"She'd have resented that." The bard remarked.
"Shouldn't have gotten her feathers in someone else's leathers." Xena replied, practically. "She made the choice."
"That's true." Gabrielle sighed. "I told her she'd have to choose one or the other. That it wasn't fair to either of her partners to have to share like that…you can't have everything."
"What'd she choose?" Xena asked.
"To go to the new village." Gabrielle replied softly. "I thought that if I forced her to stay where she was… she'd be unhappy, and the original woman would be unhappy, and the new one would too. This way… well, at least two of them were okay."
"Mm… I guess that was the best decision." The warrior admitted. "Tough, though."
Gabrielle nodded slowly. "Gillen asked me if I'd have done the same thing if it'd been you." She felt the surface under her stop moving, and heard the clear, distinct skip of Xena's heart. She looked up to see wide, round eyes looking back at her. "Xena, calm down.. I laughed my head off." She patted the warrior's stomach gently. "She must have thought I was nuts."
A warrior lip poked out. "I'm going to have to tap her for sword instruction tomorrow." Xena muttered darkly.
"Oo." Gabrielle reached out and snuffed the candle. "She's supposed to be really good.. at least, that's what I hear from her people. They were talking about it today.. she's got some award kind of thing from their yearly festival."
The bard could hear the smile in her partner's voice. "Yeah."
The morning dawned bright, and Xena paused as she eased out into it, gazing up and letting it drench her body as the brisk wind blew her hair back. "Mm." She reveled in the clean warmth, glad the rain had stopped, at least for now.
She'd woken up earlier to find herself in a great mood, for a change. Gabrielle's leg had improved again overnight, and the bard had celebrated by treating her bedmate to one of her rare bouncy bouts of silliness, crawling all over her and tickling the warrior until Xena had been practically helpless with laughter.
It had felt great.. and the depression of the night before had vanished, leaving her with a sense of hopefulness that she clung to with both hands, as she played with Dori, and got ready to start the day. "I just need to hold on to that." The warrior murmured, closing her eyes for a moment, and allowing herself to feel that warmth all the way inside. "Do what I need to do not to lose it."
She took a deep breath, and let it trickle out of her lungs, as she nudged her will to life and opened her eyes again. "And I will."
The valley was a rich green, and the horses were clattering down at one end, splashing through the lake's shallows in play. Xena watched them idly as she bounced up and down a few times, and rolled her shoulders to loosen them. She had her padded gambeson on, and the scent of the worn fabric rose to her nostrils as she tightened the straps, feeling surge of well being that started her jogging across the long, waving grass towards the herd.
Slowly her strides lengthened, and she picked up speed, enjoying the rush of air as she forced her way through it. As she closed in on the herd, the stallion snorted, and bolted, running alongside her track.
Xena grinned. "Wanna race, huh?" She called out to the large animal, then leaned into her pace, really throwing some effort into it and making the ground blur by as her heart sped up and her breathing deepened. She felt the energy surge, and she raced the galloping stallion full out, her nostrils flaring as, inch by inch, she gained on him.
It was impossible. It was unthinkable, but she was doing it, and now as the ground sloped slightly downhill towards the lake, she angled towards the horse and shook out her reserves, throwing everything she had into a last, powerful increase of speed that brought her, incredibly, even with the tall back for just…
One last stride, and a leap, and the perfect timing that reflexes honed beyond thought had bought her let her catch the mane and haul herself up onboard, her knees settling behind his shoulders with the ease of long practice. "Yeoooooowww!" Xena let out a yell, as she felt the horse buck under her, and her thighs clamped down automatically, holding her in place. "Gotcha!"
Oh, he didn't like that. Xena chuckled, as the huge muscles under her twisted, and she went with them, refusing to let the horse reverse his motion, and throw her off. His pace slowed to a canter, then a trot as they reached the water, and he plowed into the shallows, the sun warmed water splashing up onto his legs and spattering Xena's. "Easy big guy." The warrior gently scratched the thick neck. "Remember me?"
Xena leaned over and caught his eye. "Yeah.. you remember me, huh?" She held a hand out towards his muzzle and watched as he craned his head around, snuffling at her suspiciously. "Uh huh…. I was the one with the treats, right? Remember these baby blues?"
A dark, liquid eye regarded her.
"C'mon." Xena pressed her left knee against his shoulder, and tapped his neck. "Out you go." She waited, and when he didn't move, she lowered her head, her hair matching his, and pressed her cheek against his neck, pitching her voice a little lower. "C'mon, big boy."
Nostrils flared and he stepped to one side, responding to her powerful will.
"You know you want to." Xena burred, allowing a little of her more seductive side out to play. "Hmm?" She ran tickling fingers down his skin and heard the low rumble of response. "C'mon." She pressed her knee in again, and this time he moved out of the water, and up onto the grass. "Good boy." She gave him a pat, then sat up, and regarded the cliff face, where a line of bodies were gathering, heads mostly turned her way. A smile crossed her face. "Next?"
"Goodness.. what's that?" Cait poked her head around Paladia's tall form inquisitively. "It smells."
"Get your nose outta it." Paladia retorted. "It's supposed ta smell…it's curing solution." She painted a layer on a piece of hide.
"For what?" Cait persisted, examining the project. "Oh.. gosh, is that a sheath?" She picked up a piece of stiff hide, and turned it over. "Not very nice."
Paladia rolled her eyes. "It's not done." She twitched the bit of leather from Cait's hands and put it back down on the table. "Look.. I'm gonna take this bit here, and that, and cut this into these strips, then lace them in there."
Cait looked at the leather, then up at her friend, then back at the leather. "Why?"
"Cause it'll look nice." The taller woman answered, in an exasperated tone.
"Bother.. it's a sheath.. it doesn't need to look nice." The slim blond replied. "It can look like a bit of garbage.. you've seen Xena's, it's nothing special."
Paladia rolled her eyes. "Yeah, yeah, yeah.. I know.. and if Xena wore a potato sack to fight in, would you?"
Cait thought about that. "Well, it would depend on why she was wearing it, now wouldn't it?" She replied, with a sniff. "I'm going to go get some practice in… you should too." She looked over Paladia's shoulder. "Oh.. hello, your Majesty."
"Hi." Gabrielle leaned on the worktable, and regarded it's contents. "Oh… wow… that's going to be nice." She put a finger on the leather interlacing.
Paladia gave her friend a smugly triumphant look, but didn't answer. Cait just rolled her eyes.
"Are you going to the practice, your Majesty?" The smaller woman asked, pointedly. "I do love watching you with your staff."
Pale green eyes under blond lashes flicked up to her face and studied her briefly. "Yeah.. I was going to go by there… I'd like to get in a little sword work."
A stunned silence fell over the two Amazons. Paladia blinked, and shifted the leatherworking tools in her big hands, and Cait simply stared at her queen in blank, unfeigned startement.
"I beg your pardon?" The girl finally spluttered. "Why ever would you want to do that?"
Gabrielle lifted a brow. "Because we're getting ready to fight a war?" She hazarded. "We can't afford anyone to be out there that can't do the job, Cait."
Cait came right around the table and faced her queen, their eyes almost level. "But that's not right for you." She murmured urgently. "Does Xena know about this?"
The bard straightened. "Cait…it's my responsibility to lead us into battle… and on top of that, I guard Xena's back." She gazed into the younger woman's eyes. "I have to be ready for everything that might mean… protecting her is so important."
Cait reached up and clasped her hands. "Gabrielle…what's important to her is you…I simply can't belive she wants you to do this. If I have to… I'll stay right by you, and if someone needs killing, I'll do it. Please let me."
Paladia was staying very still, only her pale gray, almost colorless eyes were shifting between the two faces so close together.
"I can't." Gabrielle freed one hand, and touched Cait's cheek. "I can't order people to do something I won't, Cait." A tiny smile pulled at her lips. "But thank you."
"Can I say something that's not.. like mushy or weird?" Paladia interrupted abruptly.
They both looked at her in some surprise.
"You’re a nutball to try and use a sword now. That staff's just as good, and you kick butt with it." The tall burly woman stated flatly. "So, forget about all this noble crap, and stick to stuff you know."
Gabrielle's eyebrows lifted almost to her hairline.
"Well." Cait rubbed her nose. "She's right, you know."
A muscle jerked in the bard's jaw, and she remained silent for a moment. "We'll see." She finally stated, turning and walking off towards the training grounds.
Cait looked at Paladia. "That was quite rude."
"Yes. I'm quite proud of you. Good job." The slim blond gave her a positive nod, and patted her arm. "She's one of that sort that shouldn't kill, you know… it's not right for her."
"Eh." Paladia went back to her work, pulling another leather lace through it's hole. "She'd do it for your precious Xena… guess it'd just depend on what a life's worth to ya."
Cait leaned on the table, reflecting on that for a bit. "Would you?"
"Would I what?" The taller woman asked, absently, as she worked a bit of leather with her tool.
Paladia finished her task, then made a face. "I dunno… never thought about it…. I guess I might, if it were important enough to me." She glanced up, and froze, as her eyes were captured by the soft gray ones opposite her.
"I hope you never have to find out." Cait stated seriously, holding her gaze for a long moment, before she turned and padded silently after her departed queen.
"Okay." Xena had traded her black friend for Argo, needing to feel the mare's rock steady form under her as she tried to teach her milling, somewhat uncertain students the finer points of fighting on horseback. "Listen up."
The Amazons were clustered in small groups, visibly separate from Bennu's troops, and the stolid, patient forms of the Amphipolitian militia. Xena tied Argo's reins in a light knot and let them lie on the mare's neck, as she used her legs to guide Argo in a neat sidestep. "Let's just get some basics down, all right?"
Slowly, a quiet settled and eyes fastened on her. Xena straightened in the saddle, and drew her sword, flipping it in pure reflex over in her hand and letting it come to rest with the hilt on her thigh. "The reason we're going through this, is because being on horseback is a big advantage, one that Andreas doesn't have."
"Why?" Gillen asked, from the forefront of the Amazons. "What can you do up there that I can't do from here?"
It was almost too easy. Xena smiled. "Good question." She drawled. "Come at me, and I'll show ya."
The older Amazon cocked her head, then smiled back, a fierce challenge in her eyes. "All right." She drew her sword and advanced, sliding around Argo's left side and attacking Xena from there.
The warrior tossed her sword from her right hand to her left, and met the attack, deflecting it easily. "See… all your strokes have to be from a weak position." The warrior explained. "Because you're down there."
Gillen feinted right, and brought her weapon up in a short, sharp stab, intending on getting inside Xena's reach. The warrior nudged with her heels, and Argo reared, hopping forward and allowing her rider to get her blade under the stab, and deflect it outwards. "See?"
"You have a trick horse." Gillen snapped.
"No.. just a trained one." Xena slammed her hilt down on the Amazon queen's, sending the weapon flying. "And all my strikes come from the strongest position possible, so I can use my weight against whoever I'm fighting against."
Gillen rubbed her hand, and gazed speculatively at the warrior, patiently waiting for her to resume. "All right." She conceded. "But you've been doing this forever, Xena… you can't expect us to learn it in a few weeks." She paused. "And what if someone goes for the horse, instead of you?"
Xena sheathed her weapon, and smiled. "Try it." She folded her arms over her chest, and clamped down with her legs, as Gillen obligingly tried to poke Argo with her sword.
The mare took severe exception, immediately rearing and striking out with her hooves, letting out an outraged snort.
"Whoa." Gillen backed off. "But they don't all know how to do that, I bet. " She commented shrewdly.
"No." Xena drew her sword again, and twirled it. "But it's a self protective instinct… horses do that when threatened." She patted Argo's neck. "Anything that comes naturally.. is easy to teach." Xena waited for more objections, pleased when there were none. "Okay."
A nudge, and Argo backed obediently. "The whole trick to it is being strong through here." The warrior rubbed her side, and stomach. "Because you don't have the ground to balance against.. .so you've got to hold your ground using your body." Xena directed Argo towards a pell they'd set up, by burying a log deep in the ground, and covering the top in layers of sacking.
She drove at it, and swept by, leaning to her right and dealing the post a smart blow. Then she neatly turned Argo, and drove past the pell on the other side, waiting until she was just past it, to swing a powerful back stroke at it, carving off bark and sending it flying. "You add your momentum to the strikes… makes them very hard to stop." The warrior brought Argo to neat footed halt, watching the absorbed faces intent on her.
"So the first thing we need to do is develop that strength." Xena tapped her stomach again. "That's what those logs are for." She pointed. "You sit on em, and practice."
Eyes went to the logs, then up to her. "You've got to be kidding." Aslanta snorted. "I left that stage behind years ago, Xena."
"Hurts a lot less when you fall off that, then one of these." Xena replied drolly, patting Argo's neck. "And you will." She heard the muttering. "Enough. Let's get going." Her voice rose, taking on a harder edge. "Bennu, get your handlers out… see if you can tie off those mares, so I can see how much work I gotta do with them."
"Right, Genr'l." Bennu motioned for three of his men to come over. "You lot…get yer mounts, and do what the lady sez." They nodded and loped towards the makeshift stables.
"Have the rest get their horses… we'll do some demonstration." Xena added, with a slight smile.
The tall soldier grinned. "Right!"
The warrior watched them trot off and leaned back a little, aware of the grumbling and milling of the Amazons in front of her. What was that I said to Gabrielle? She sighed inwardly. I'd rather command five thousand men than five hundred Amazons? "Is there a problem?" She pinned them with an icy stare.
Eyes shifted to Gillen, who had been standing next to Aslanta, head bent in speech, and the woman straightened, giving her head a toss and walking over to stand in front of Xena, her hands on her hips.
Here it comes. Xena felt a welcome tickle of anticipation, which surprised her a little. Guess I'm just feeling my oats or something this morning. She lifted one eyebrow at the slim, muscular woman in question.
"Ridings an advantage." The Amazon stated softly. "And you know your stuff up there, all right."
Xena waited, feeling Argo shift under her as the mare picked up her anticipation. "And?" She queried dryly.
"Okay." Gillen swaggered forward a step. "But what happens when you get unhorsed?" She looked around. "Because that's when you have to be a real fighter…eye to eye, in the dirt…so then what?"
Xena leaned on Argo's saddlebow, giving her a sardonic look. There always has to be one, doesn’t there? "I fight on the ground." She answered mildly. "Wanna see?"
"You talk a good game, Xena…but it's been a long time for you, hasn't it?" A slow nod. "Yeah. I want to see what I'm going to be following in to battle."
Ooohhh… the tiger woke up and stretched luxuriously, extending clawed paws out and wiggling them. Xena freed her boots from Argo's stirrups and put her hands on the saddlebow, lifting her body up until she got her feet under her and stood easily on Argo's back, as the mare stood stock still. "Do you?" The warrior's voice dropped to a low rumble, and she stepped up onto the crosspiece, then launched up and off Argo's back, tucking her body into a mid air flip before landing neatly several bodylengths from Gillen. "All right."
With any luck, she reasoned, she'd just have to take on one of them. Gabrielle's Amazons, she noted, were busy in the back taking bets, and out of the corner of her eye, she saw Gabrielle herself appear, taking in the crowd, and the tension, and the scene before her.
Would the bard interfere? Xena watched the supple form stiffen in reaction, then turn her way, green eyes lancing through the milling crowd and meeting hers in pensive question. Gabrielle had stopped them once before, would she do it again?
A blond brow edge up, and Xena smiled tightly, lifting her own in response. Gabrielle sighed, then her fair lashes fluttered as she closed her eyes briefly, then opened them, tilting her head just a bit in concession as she hitched herself up on a boulder nearby, drawing one knee up and resting her chin on it.
So. The warrior turned her attention to her opponent, who was checking around her for space. Good sign. Xena did the same, aware of a rough circle forming around them, of tense, expectant bodies.
Her own steps became smoother, as her body responded to long familiar signals and she felt her muscles loosen, then tense in a totally different way, ready to shift into blurring motion as instinct overrode her conscious control.
Gillen was, she recognized, a tough opponent. She reminded Xena in many ways of Melosa, who had certainly given her a run for her dinars, and that was a couple years in the past. The Amazon was experienced, and by her steady eyes and easy motion, a skilled fighter.
Ah well. Xena paused, standing easily with her weight balanced, and held both empty hands up in mocking question. "Well? Ready when you are." She let a smile cross her face, and saw the faint flicker of reaction dart across Gillen's face.
Mind over matter.
The Amazon drew her sword and attacked, cutting in towards the warrior with a well executed assault. Xena waited until it was almost too late, then slipped out of the way, gliding around the other woman as she went past, focusing her attention wholly on blade she was facing.
It came at her again and she ducked, letting it lunge past her ear, then she bounced backwards and stepped to her right, correctly anticipating Gillen's backswipe.
Then she saw the blade tilt, and go from the flat, to a sharp edge and her arms moved, drawing her own weapon and flipping it to her left hand as she deflected the cut, her heartbeat rising as her body responded to the now, very real, threat.
Xena turned and reversed her direction, switching hands at the same time and stepping forward aggressively, catching Gillen by surprise and making her jump back as she caught the warrior's sword on her own and managed to push the effort to one side.
They exchanged a flurry of counterattacks, testing each other's skills, then Gillen went on the offensive again, bringing her sword up along Xena's side, from a low position she assumed would be a weakness in someone that much taller than she was.
And it would have been, Xena reflected wryly, as she twisted to evade the blow. If she hadn't spent a few years teaching a certain feisty bard of equal short stature that trick. Gabrielle's favorite attack was up and to the left, and Xena had learned the hard way to defend against it, at the cost of some really sore ribs.
On the other hand…. Gillen's head was at just the right level for the warrior to nail her with an elbow and she did, sending the woman staggering back for a moment, shaking her head to clear it. Xena grinned. "You asked for down and dirty."
The Amazon wiped her hand across her face, glancing at the blood on it running freely from her nose. "You don't want to go there, Xena."
A very soft laugh. "Go there? I live there, Gillen...you sure you're up for it?"
Gillen's face darkened, and she wiped her hand down her thigh, leaving a rusty streak before she shifted her grip and circled, a deadly serious expression on her face. "You're going to regret that." She told the warrior very softly, before she attacked in earnest, driving Xena back a few steps with the intensity of her strokes.
Xena took a breath, a little surprised, then settled down and stood her ground, fighting off the rapid blows with efficient skill. Gillen was good all right, and dauntingly fast, an edge the warrior knew she'd lost a little of over the years.
But then she hit her rhythm, and experience kicked in, moving her sword in a flicker of motion that was half instinct and half bone deep learning, compensating for their heights, and Gillen's intensity as she turned the Amazon's strikes back.
And now she saw, for the first time, doubt in Gillen's eyes.
The tiger showed it's fangs, and she went on the offensive, taking tiny, digging steps forward as she wove a steel net in front of her, hearing the harsh scrape and whisper of their swords meeting and two sets of breathing in the suddenly quiet circle.
Faster now, and the sword became an extension of her, no longer a weapon to be held, but an added reach to her arms that was as much a part of her as her skin.
And then it all clicked, and it was there at her fingertips. A solid rush of blood washed excitement through her and she sucked in a breath, letting it out in a yell as she pounced forward, forgetting that Gillen was an ally.
Forgetting it was just a game.
Her sword swept forward and around, smashing against the Amazons with
stunning force and making Gillen's whole body jerk in reaction. Then she pulled the sword down and around, sweeping it up through the other woman's guard, and yanking Gillen's sword right out of her hands.
Gillen reached for her knife in desperation, pulling it from it's sheath and diving towards the warrior, aiming for her midsection in a solid, powerful lunge.
"Oh no." Xena brought both hands down savagely, catching the Amazon on her wrists and hearing the faint clatter as the knife dropped to the ground.
Then she brought a knee up into her ribcage, sheathing her sword in a single fluid gesture as she grabbed the smaller woman and lifted her up bodily, killing instincts on razor's edge.
"Nnno." Gillen gasped, coughing in agony.
It was so close.
Xena felt, and heard a heartbeat she realized was her own hammering in her ears as she fought the intense desire, the craving her dark side was begging her to indulge in., her nostrils already flaring to catch the scent of blood.
She felt a soft growl flutter he lips, the darkness inside her wanting it, demanding it.
Then sanity reasserted itself, and she released the smaller woman, who collapsed on the ground, breathing hard.
Xena stepped back, and let her hands fall to her thighs, curling her fingers slightly to hide their twitching, as instinct slowly released it's hold.
The silence beat against her, and after a breath, she looked up, seeing what she was reflected in the hundreds of eyes there.
Those looks echoed back darkness. Fear. Awe.
Save one beacon of light, and warmth, and acceptance, which gathered her in as Gabrielle pushed her way through the crowd, reaching out and giving her a little pat on the side as she joined her. "You okay?" The bard asked softly.
Am I okay. Xena took a breath. I almost just killed another Amazon in damn near cold blood and she asks me if I'm okay. "Yeah." She glanced down at Gillen, who had gotten to her knees and was holding her midsection, staring up at the two of them with a stunned, shocked look. "Satisfied?"
The Amazon queen swallowed audibly. "Yes."
Gabrielle captured one of her partner's hands and wrapped her fingers around it. "Why don't you give these guys a break for a minute, and come get a drink of water."
"Good idea." Xena responded calmly. "All right." Her voice rose. "In a candlemark, I want to see those logs full of bodies, got me?"
Low murmurs and nods. Everyone started moving, retrieving weapons and keeping mostly quiet as they sorted themselves out. Gillen stood up and gave her a nod, then backed off, stopping to pick up her sword before she joined several of her warriors.
Gabrielle let out a breath very slowly, then tilted her head to look up at her partner. "I guess that had to happen, huh?"
Xena shrugged. "Got a little out of hand." She admitted.
The bard considered that. "She was serious." Green eyes searched her face. "She was really trying to hurt you, Xena."
A nod. "Yeah."
Gabrielle sighed. "Maybe that'll be the end of this stuff." She tugged the warrior's hand gently. "C'mon... I've got a waterskin over there. You look a little warm." The bard could also feel the tremors still running through her partner's fingers, and see the nervous tensing of her facial muscles. "Come on."
Xena allowed herself to be led over to the rock the bard had been perched on, and took the skin Gabrielle handed her, removing the cork and sucking at it's contents . "I didn't think she'd do that." She admitted, as she leaned against the cool stone.
"Mm." The bard slipped a hand under the gambeson and found the sensitive spot along Xena's lower back, scratching it with gentle fingers and feeling the tense muscles relax under her touch. "I bet she never does it again."
Xena didn't answer, as she gazed out over the grass, trying to keep from thinking about that one moment.
When it all clicked.