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 15
Mostly, she listened. Gabrielle went from group to group, watching their progress, and concentrating on her soulmate's teaching.
Some people got it, some people didn't, but the bard knew that wasn't her soulmate's fault. As a teacher, Xena was really pretty good. Gabrielle had found that out over the years as she'd been patiently tutored, developing a range of skills that still, even now, surprised her when she thought about it.
It was near nightfall, and they'd been out there all day, working on the drills Xena had devised, and learning to work more as a group than as individuals.
That was the tough part. Amazons, especially, were individualists, and found it difficult to coordinate in large groups. But one word from Xena, and they tried their hardest.
Gabrielle exhaled, and leaned against a convenient rock, propping her still sore leg up to get her weight off it. A moment later, Eponin came up and leaned next to her, taking a long sip from a well used waterskin. "Hey."
"Your majesty." The Amazon gave her a gracious nod.
The bard lifted an eyebrow. "What's that for?"
Eponin played with the waterskin stopper for a moment, then looked up. "Xena made a point today." She cleared her throat. "We know her. We know you."
"But in order to pull this crap off, she's got to be more than the Xena we know… and we've got to start treating you like the Queen you are." Eponin dropped her gaze and studied a pebble.
Gabrielle folded her arms over her chest. "Did she scare you today, Pony?"
The Amazon was very still for a heartbeat, then she pursed her lips. "Yeah." The golden eyes lifted to Gabrielle's. "I've always…um…sort of know what she was about, you know? I just never…um…" She hesitated, obviously uncomfortable.
"Never saw it like that?" The bard suggested, gently.
"Yeah." Pony gave a short nod. "Even with Melosa… it wasn't… like that." She searched Gabrielle's face. "That's the real nasty part, right?"
Gabrielle felt profoundly sad. "It can be." She admitted. "She doesn't let that happen very often."
They stood in silence for a bit, watching the drills. Most of the log drills were over, and the Amazons were gathering, sparring a little with each other as they waited for everything to finish.
"She let that happen the night she came back for you." Pony said, suddenly. "Didn't she?"
Gabrielle's eyes found the tall, lone figure striding across the grass, heading for a group of horsemen. "Yes."
Pony fell silent for a while, as a group of Aslanta's Amazons formed near them, and started practicing with swords and chobos.
"Whole damn field full of featherheads, and if you went and gathered all their guts up in a bag, it wouldn't come close to being the size of yours, you know that, your Majesty?" Pony turned her head and gave Gabrielle a respectful look.
Gabrielle sighed. "Not that time, Pony." She straightened up and twitched her leathers into place. "I was in the darkest place of my life… and deciding I'd rather die at her hand, than die alone didn't take guts." She blinked, and a tear rolled down her face. "Sorry." A hand wiped the moisture away.
Pony looked stricken. "Gabrielle.. damn.. I'm sorry.. I didn't meant to… oh, crap."
A tiny voice, thankfully, interrupted them.
Gabrielle turned, to see Dori toddling out of the cavern towards her. "Hey, honey.. what are you doing here?" She held out her arms to her daughter, and the baby made straight for her, colliding with her legs with an impressive thump. "Oof." She picked the baby up and cuddled her. "Did you get out of the nursery?"
"Mama..mama.." Dori chanted, sucking on a finger, then pointing it at Pony. "Rugrug."
Pony rolled her eyes. "Aw, don’t you start with that again."
Gabrielle felt her sadness fade, as she studied her little daughter. "Rugrug, huh?" She gave Pony a mischevious look. "Wonder if Xe's heard that one."
Pony's eyes widened. "Oh…. No…. your majesty…puhhleeeeezz.." She whined pathetically.
Dori was fascinated with the sound and she squealed, trying to imitate it, making her mother wince at the close proximity to her ear.
"Dori.. cut that out." Gabrielle scolded her, surprised when she saw Dori's eyes widen, then realizing the baby was looking over her shoulder. "Uh oh.. I sense a Boo coming."
"Booo!!!!!" Dori squealed in an impossibly loud tone. She started squirming, trying to wrench herself out of her mother's grasp with infant determination. "Boobooboobooboboo…"
"Dori… " Gabrielle scrambled to keep hold of her. "Now, c'mon.. you can't go out there… "
"It's all right." A familiar voice sounded just behind her. "Here.. let me take her."
The bard relinquished her squirming charge to her soulmate, who immediately became a climbing obstacle. "There. You suffer."
Dori found the straps on Xena's gambeson excellent handholds, and she started industriously scaling the warrior's tall form. "Boo."
"Yep.. that's me." Xena agreed, as the baby got to a comfortable position against her shoulder and commenced chewing one of her leather fasteners.
"Um.." Pony ducked away. "See you guys later." She headed towards a group of her fellow Amazons who were headed towards the large cavern.
Gabrielle watched her go, then turned. "So… how are things going?"
"Not bad." Xena looked tired, but satisfied. "They've got some really good sword handlers in Gillen's group… and Aslanta's people impressed me with crossbows." She nodded twice. "We've got a decent cavalry core in Bennu's soldiers, and if we can get a the Amazons a little experience riding, we'll do all right." She paused and thought, letting Dori play with a lock of her sweat dampened hair. "Tomorrow, we do the logs again, then.."
"Um." Gabrielle sidled over and cupped her hand around the warrior's biceps. "Sweetheart, I need to talk to you about that."
Pale blue eyes blinked at her. "You do?"
"Eyah… um.. honey, those logs have bark on them." Gabrielle stated.
"And?" The warrior replied a little more sharply than she'd intended. "They're trees, Gabrielle. They're supposed to have bark.. what's the problem?"
"Xena." Gabrielle folded her hands around the powerful arm. "Amazons don’t wear pants."
Both dark brows shot together. "What kind of …." Xena stopped. The angular profile twitched. "Oh."
"Yeah. Oh." The bard patted her partner's belly gently. "You know they won't let one word of complaint out to you, so…"
Xena was silent for a moment, then she nodded. "Okay. Sorry.. I really didn't think about it.. when my army had to do that, it was up north and…"
"And you wore pants." Her soulmate agreed.
"Yeah… " The warrior's head tilted. "In fact… it wasn't a bad set of armor, really… knee high leather boots, lined.. quilted leggings, and a set of scaled body armor…" She tugged at the gambeson. "Sort of fit like this.. " She thought a minute. "Think it's in one of those damn boxes, as a matter of fact.. I should get it out.. someone might be able to use it.. the gods know it won't fit me anymore."
Bennu ambled up at that moment, giving Gabrielle a respectful nod, and touching his chest in Xena's direction. "Genr'l."
He held out a short, scabbarded blade. "Ye asked fer this… Argus just finished it."
The warrior stared at it for a moment, then reached out a hand and accepted the weapon. "Thanks, Bennu… that's all for today - we'll muster out at sunrise tomorrow."
"Aye." He sketched a salute, then turned on his heel smartly and left.
Gabrielle peered at the short sword. "That's new.. I thought you didn't use that size?"
"I don't." Xena answered very quietly, handing the sword to her. "But I made you a promise.. I designed something I thought you could handle."
It was a shock. Gabrielle almost dropped the weapon before she got a grip on it, and drew it closer. It was only two thirds the length of her soulmates, and much lighter, with a neatly leather wrapped wooden hilt that fit her smaller hand with eerie precision. After a moment, she looked up at her partner, meeting the shadowed blue eyes and seeing a deep sadness there. "I don't know what to say."
Xena didn't answer immediately. She played with one of Dori's hands, allowing the baby to tug at her fingers. "I'd… rather we do our sessions in private.. I don't want…" She stopped, with a little shake of her head.
"Would it be easier on you if I asked someone else to show me?"
There was a long silence.
"No." Xena finally replied n a steady voice. "I want to make sure it's done right."
Gabrielle tucked the sword under her arm, and straightened. "Am I being an idiot for even wanting to try this, Xena? Be up front with me." She heard the intake of breath. "You've spent half your life learning… what can I expect in a few weeks?"
Xena swallowed, then spoke quietly. "You're a fast learner, Gabrielle. You've got damn good reflexes, you're strong, and you've been through a lot of hand to hand experience."
The bard was honestly surprised, and it showed in her face. "You make me sound like such a fighter." She remarked wryly.
Xena sighed. "You are." She stated simply. "You always have been…there's never been any physical reason why I couldn't teach you this." Her lips tensed. "But I think you know that."
"Boo." Dori tugged on the warrior's ear, investigating a leaf that had lodged itself impudently in the dark hair.
"Let's go inside." Xena gestured. "I know I could use a bath." She moved past her partner and headed into the cavern.
Gabrielle watched her go, studying the tall figure as she walked away.
She could feel the difference. Xena kept her eyes forward as she crossed the main chamber, not acknowledging the eyes that fastened on her. But it was almost a physical change, and she knew if she looked around, the glances would drop and none would meet hers.
They'd all seen it, even the Amphipolitians, to whom, she was sure her actions this morning had brought back dark memories. The Amazons now deferred quietly to her, treating her like Bennu's men did, and as she walked through the milling warriors, they cleared a path for her without comment.
"Boo." Dori tugged on an ear, then pointed to where the kitchen staff had set up camp.
Xena glanced at her daughter's cute face, and smiled wistfully. At least one thing hadn't changed. "You hungry?" She altered her path, heading for the busy area, where she could see her mother standing, arguing.
"You talking to her, or me?" Xena inquired, giving the two women standing next to her mother a polite nod. "Got something I can give her? I think she's hungry."
The innkeeper chuckled. "Talk about inherited traits." She turned her head. "All right.. well, we can continue this debate later..it's not like anything's going to happen right away."
The two women nodded, and left, and Cyrene pulled a tray over to her on the rough hewn table she was using as a workspace and chose some items off it. "So." She looked up to see Xena's blue eyes fastened on her. "Heard you had quite a day."
A quiet reserve closed down over Xena's face, and she was silent for a long moment. "Giving everyone nightmares, aren't I?"
"You don't have to. I can see it in their faces." The warrior replied quietly. "I can't help that, mother. I need to tap that side of myself in order to have a chance at this, and that's what matters. Not what… everyone thinks of me."
"Gramma." Dori objected to this delay in her gratification. "Mm."
They both looked at the infant. "Hey." Xena growled at her.
Dori scowled right back, and pulled on a lock of dark hair. "Bck."
Xena opened her mouth to protest, and got a tiny fist inside it, as Dori investigated her tongue. "Fmpf!" She pulled her head back, then took the dish and stalked off, muttering.
"Quite t'pair, huh?" Johan remarked.
"Mm." His wife sighed. "It's like watching Xena grow up all over again. Only this time, thank the gods, someone else has to chase after her."
Johan was silent for a bit, thinking. "She does favor Xena, doesn't she?" He inquired. "Ah…her ways, her eyes.. are the little one's but.."
Her husband shifted a little. "How long have ye known?' He finally whispered.
"Since the day she was born."
Johan whistled softly under his breath.
Gabrielle decided to watch the sunset. She found a comfortable perch on a rock just outside the cavern entrance, and simply leaned back, the sword resting on her thighs, as her eyes followed the shadows chasing themselves across the valley walls.
Her fingers played with the leather scabbard idly, tracing out the plain, workmanlike details. Occasionally, her hand strayed to the hilt, fitting itself around the leather wrapped surface as her thumb brushed lightly across the crosspiece.
She thought about a lot of things.
About how a journey through life was really a journey to find your place in it.
And how, sometimes, it wasn't where you expected it to be.
She thought about the greater good, and what that really meant, and how she knew about it in ways most people would never dream of.
She thought about Hope. And about Solon.
The crimson rays painted the rock she was on, dusting her in warmth as the sun slipped down behind the mountain wall, catching the golden highlights on the fine hairs of her arms as she sat with them braced against her knees.
Ephiny found her there. She walked slowly out into the valley, lit in shades of purple and blue, studying the strong profile before Gabrielle heard her, and turned her head. The bard's green eyes seemed unusually vibrant, even in the low light, and Ephiny hesitated before she came over, putting her hands on the rock next to where Gabrielle was sitting. "It's getting late."
"I know." Gabrielle replied softly.
"You all right?"
The bard nodded. "I'm glad you came out here. I was just going to come look for you."
Hazel eyes studied her intently. "Good timing then."
"Eph… " Gabrielle paused, taking and releasing a breath. "I want you to lead the Amazons during this."
Ephiny blinked in shock. "W..what?" She stuttered, it being the last thing she'd expected to hear. "Don’t' get me wrong, I'm not unwilling, but I thought…"
Gabrielle smiled, and meant it. "I thought I could to… but that's not where I belong." Her eyes met Ephiny's. "I'm going to be wherever Xena is." She rested her chin on her forearm. "She needs me there."
Ephiny absorbed the words in silence. Then she slowly nodded, reaching over to gently ruffle Gabrielle's hair. "You're right… you're her heart and soul, Gabrielle… having you with her makes it safer for all of us."
She didn't even try to deny it. "Thanks for understanding." A hand lifted and captured Ephiny's, and squeezed. "I'll call a meeting tomorrow, and tell everyone."
The Amazon regent nodded. "You won't get any argument, Gabrielle.. they're ready to do whatever you tell them to." She gave the surprised bard a smile. "You have the Destroyer of Nations bending her knee to you, my friend…some of them are wondering if you aren't a physical manifestation of Artemis."
Gabrielle's jaw dropped, and she stared at Ephiny for a minute, then shook her head. "Good grief… you're joking, right?"
"No." Her regent told her. "I'm not."
The bard sighed, then got up off her rock. "Well, I'm not anything of the kind." She muttered, brushing her skirt off. "That's the craziest thing I ever heard, Ephiny… " She paused, and looked at the Amazon. "Like Xena would listen to god anyway, you know?"
Ephiny chuckled and put an arm around her. "C'mon… I was going to ask you to tell a story or two at dinner tonight… anything to keep Aslanta from monopolizing the conversation."
Gabrielle smiled. "Sure… I'll meet you in the main cave.. I've.. um.. " She smiled a little. "Gotta go see a woman about a sword."
She parted from Ephiny, and headed towards her quarters, feeling as though half the weight of the world had been lifted off her shoulders.
Xena sat quietly, her legs sprawled out on the rock floor, a wolf curled up under her thighs, and watched Dori devour her dinner. The infant was seated in her lap, and she was holding the baby's dish in her hand, allowing Dori to grab what she wanted.
It was quiet in the cavern, a soft trickle of water and Dori's messy feeding really the only sounds, save the distant rumble and murmur of the rest of the group eating in the large chamber.
"That good?" Xena inquired.
Dori looked up, holding a handful of her minced meat and blew a bubble. "Bck."
"Have some of this." Xena offered her the side of the dish with the vegetables, and Dori very carefully reached over them to get more meat. "C'mon Dori.. you're not gonna be like me, okay?"
The layers of meaning in the statement struck the warrior, and she swallowed an unexpected lump. "Not at all." A finger moved and she got some of the mashed greens on it, and held it out. "Be good, Dori… c'mon now."
The infant stopped chewing, as she stared at the stuff seriously, then just as seriously reached out and grabbed them.
"Good girl." The warrior encouraged softly.
Dori studied her hand, then she looked up at Xena, and launched the glob of them at the warrior's face.
Fortunately, Xena's reflexes, even after the long day, were up to the task and she intercepted the mashed greens before she wore them. "Dori.."
The baby giggled.
"You think that's funny, huh?"
"Booo!" Dori pointed at her with a hand covered in goop.
"Mm.. I wonder where your mama is." Xena eyed the entrance to the chamber, a little concerned. She knew Gabrielle had been a little upset about the sword, but she'd thought she'd at least want to come talk about it.
To you? A voice mocked her. Why? She sure isn't looking at you for moral advice.
But she asked me to do this. Xena argued with herself. She asked.. no, she insisted she wanted to do it… I just have to make sure she…
Make sure she what, Xena, can kill efficiently? The voice laughed.
No. I'm going to teach her to defend herself. That's all.
Xena looked down, to see clear green eyes gazing up at her in loving trust.
She moved the dish closer and watched the infant resume her feeding. "Are you the only one who doesn't see the monster, Dori?" She asked quietly, running the fingers of her free hand over the baby's dark hair. "You don't, do you?"
Dori looked up again.
"Your mama does…she just has a way of seeing past it." Xena touched the small chin, gently tracing the baby's face. "But you don't."
Dark lashes blinked over Dori's eyes and she smiled, evoking the image of her mother so strongly it brought an answering smile to Xena's face.
Gabrielle stood completely still in the entrance, treasuring the scene in front of her. Then she deliberately shifted, making a small sound that got pale blue eyes fastened on her in a flickering instant. She continued into the chamber as though she'd just arrived and gave her soulmate a smile of greeting. "Hey, you two."
"Mama!" Dori bounced up and down in delight.
The bard crossed to the box they'd commandeered as a cabinet and laid the sword down on top of it, then returned to where her partner was sitting and crouched down next to her. "You're a mess!" She gave Xena a nudge. "And Dori is too."
The warrior chuckled sheepishly. "She was too hungry to let me take time to wash off… I figured I could do it after she ate." Gabrielle's evident good mood surprised her a little, but she felt herself responding to it gratefully. "I can't get her to eat these damn vegetables, though."
"Gee." Gabrielle propped her elbow on the chair arm and regarded her daughter. "I wonder where in the world she got that habit from?" She brushed a little minced meat off Dori's face. "Hmm? Are you being a bad girl?"
Dori poked her lower lip out, and looked back at her mother from under her dark lashes, smiling adorably.
"Oh… that's disgustingly cute." Gabrielle spluttered glancing up at her partner. Xena paused a moment, then with a gentle twinkle in her eyes, duplicated the baby's pout in uncanny mimicry. The bard had to sit down she started laughing so hard.
Finally she sighed, and rested her arm against the chair's. "Thanks."
Xena merely smiled.
They both fell quiet, then Gabrielle looked up, her face serious. "I've been doing some thinking."
Gabrielle looked into the deep shadows in the pale eyes above her, even here, even now feeling the resonance between them like a living thing.
Two halves of a whole.
"I'm not going to carry a sword." She could feel the change immediately. "So you don't have to teach me to use one."
Xena's head tilted in question, but her eyes brightened
The bard simply shrugged. "It's not part of who I am." She saw the faint shift of muscles as a smile slowly tugged at Xena's mouth. "I asked Ephiny to lead the Amazons."
Dark lashes blinked in astonishment.
"Don't look so surprised. " Gabrielle stated quietly. "Where you go, I go."
Xena's jaw dropped a little, the motion evident even in the low light.
"That is part of who I am."
The warrior finally found her voice. "I think you made the right choice."
Gabrielle smiled. "I know I did." The bard climbed to her feet, and retrieved her messy offspring. "C'mon, Dori.. let's get you washed off.. and give your Boo a chance to do the same thing." She bounced her daughter in her arms and headed for the wash basin, aware of her soulmate rising behind her.
She stopped, and turned, seeing the tall form just watching her. "Xena?"
"Yes." The warrior replied softly.
'I don’t see the monster either." Gabrielle rolled the words off her tongue, tasting them. "I never have." Then she turned and took Dori to the water, setting the infant down and starting to clean her off.
Not even needing to see Xena's face to feel the joy in her words.
Xena looked up as she heard footsteps, then motioned Aslanta and Toris to approach. She was in a small cavern she’d chosen as a workroom, and had her maps spread out on a table made from crate parts and branches.
Four days had passed. Through hard work, and sheer stubbornness, the Amazons had wrestled themselves into a basic ability to fight on horseback, and were now busy practicing their riding. Eponin had decided to turn the entire project into a challenge, and had even gotten Aslanta, Gillen, and Third to cough up some winners tokens for various contests she and a few others invented.
Now, Xena was ready to move on to her next goal. “All right.” She spread her hand out, indicating a spot with one finger. “This is the town about a days ride from here. “ She traced a line. “It blocks the river – no one can come through her to the valley from this direction without passing it.”
Aslanta peered at the spot. “So?”
“So, Andreas holds it.” The warrior told her. “We need to take it back.”
Aslanta and Toris exchanged glances. “Okay.” Toris leaned on his fingertips, his shoulder almost brushing his sister’s. “What do you want us to do?”
Xena inhaled. “First thing, we need to find out how many men are in there, and what their layout is.” She put a hand on Toris’ arm. “I want you to take a dozen of the militia, and two columns of Amazons, and check it out. Have the militia travel in that cart we unloaded, like they were merchants, and Aslanta, have your people go along as a mounted strike force.” She eyed the tall Amazon. “Have them follow the wagon unseen.”
“You figure they’ll attack the wagon?” Aslanta stated flatly.
Xena nodded. “Yep.. I’m guessing the total force there is minimal.. if we can draw most of them out, and eliminate them, we can get in and retake the town.”
There was a small silence. “You’re not going along?” Aslanta hazarded.
Xena’s long fingers drummed on the surface of the map. “Sure I am.” The warrior smiled coldly. “Me and a few others are going to get into the town before you get there… just to make sure we don’t get any surprises.” Her eyes pierced them. “We leave before dawn tomorrow.”
Toris hesitated. “Okay…I’ll go get people ready.”
He left, with Aslanta following him in silence, leaving Xena to her maps. The warrior made a few marks on a scrap piece of parchment, then straightened, lifting her arms over her head and stretching luxuriously. “Well, Ares… it’s getting there.”
The wolf looked up from his spot curled up in the corner and wagged his tail.
Xena took a sip from a mug resting on the table, letting the mulled cider slide down her throat with a distinct sense of well being. She’d half expected slipping back into the pace of an armed camp would be a tough transition, but instead, she’d found the opposite to be true – her energy seemed to be rising with every day of hard fighting and practice as her body dropped into it’s old pattern with surprisingly little complaint.
In fact… She glanced around, then stepped in front of her table and took a long stride, launching herself towards the uneven roof of the cave and tumbling twice in mid air before she bounced to landing, then reversed into a backflip. “Hm.” She hopped twice, and gave the alertly watching Ares a smirk. “Yeah.”
“Argroo.” The dark head lowered to outthrust paws, the wolf long used to his bouncy companion’s odd habits. As long as the warrior remembered not to land on his tail, of course.
Gabrielle’s deputizing Ephiny to lead the Amazon warriors had been accepted readily, and the bard had spent the past few days smoothing down the relations between the groups, and providing a welcome buffer between their leaders, and Xena.
Xena was grateful for that, but truthfully, she was so relieved her soulmate had decided against sword training, Gabrielle could have sat and made mud cakes for four days, and the warrior wouldn’t have minded in the least.
And speaking of the little Bacchae…
“Hey.” Gabrielle strolled in, carrying an armful of dusty leather. “The centaurs are giving an archery demonstration, and we’ve about gotten all those bits of tack done.”
“Good.” Xena snared the bard with a hand to the back of her neck, and kissed her, almost making Gabrielle drop what she was carrying.
“Uh… don’t take this the wrong way, but what was that for?”
A shrug. “Nothing.. just felt like doing it.” Xena took the leather bits from her and examined them. “Good enough.. we can cut out breastplates for the militia. She turned. “Has the foraging group come back in yet?”
“Yes… they found a big bunch of those saplings, and brought some back.” Gabrielle reported briskly. “And they got about half of the things on that list you wrote out… I had them put all of that stuff in the storage cavern.”
White teeth flashed as the warrior grinned. “ Good job. “
“I saw Toris gathering people.. what’s up?’
Xena set the leather down. “We’re gonna take that town tomorrow…I want to make sure we’ve got our approaches tied down before Andreas gets too close.”
“Mm. You think he’ll send reinforcements?”
The warrior crossed her arms, and considered the question. “He’ll look at it one of two ways. Either I’m setting up my boundaries, or… “ That grin again. “I’ve started expanding out towards him.. either way, it’s not worth his while to send a small force. He knows I can take them.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle regarded her partner. She could sense the heightened energy, and the vibrant, almost sensual edge to Xena’s movements. “Did I hear right.. you’re going to go in first?”
“Yeah… just to be sure. I don’t want anyone walking into a trap.” Xena reviewed her lists. “We can’t afford casualties.” She sorted out a few leaves of parchment. “And I want to keep Andreas off balance.”
The bard clasped her hands behind her back and walked over. “Could you use an extra pair of eyes?” She asked. “I’d like to go with you.”
Xena’s hands stopped, then she turned, tilting her head. “I’d..um… ” A shrug. “Taken that for granted.”
Fair eyelashes fluttered in surprise. “Oh.”
“Eyah…” The warrior moved over to a large crate, sitting with it’s top askew nearby. “Matter of fact, I was digging around in here for something and I found this damn thing.” She pulled out a bundle and held it, then looked over. “I’d feel better if you were wearing something a little more protective than that.” She walked over and poked the bard in her bare ribs. “Though I do like how you look in it.”
Gabrielle looked down, slightly confused. “Um.. thanks.” She put a hand on the package. “What’s this?”
“That old stuff I told you about.” Xena unwrapped the linen strips holding the bundle closed and let it unroll on her worktable, with a soft clinking sound. The scent of old, but well cared for leather drifted up. “It’s leather scale.” She prodded the armor with a long finger. “You… cut out these small pieces, and overlap them… it’s light, and flexible, and not too hard to move around in.”
The bard laid a hand on the armor, stroking it with curious fingers. “Did you make it?”
“Mmhm.” Xena lifted the armor up, shaking it out and examining the leather scales. “Not too bad… I outgrew it before I got a chance to use it that much.” She turned. “Put your arms through here.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle did as she was asked, allowing the warrior to settle the leather over her head. It slid over her body, fitting with only a bit of slack around her ribs, and laying over her hips to mid thigh. “Hm.”
“Hold still.” Xena adjusted the armor with quick, professional touches, straightening the shoulder pieces and bringing the carved leather belt around to buckle in front, tightening it a little to make the garment fit snugly around the bard's slim waist. Then she stepped back and regarded the result.
The scale armor was designed to protect the vitals, and on Gabrielle it did that, the heaviest layering over her chest, rippling down past her stomach and falling halfway to her knees. The sides were lighter, and smaller, and the rear thicker again, protecting her spine and her lower back. It lacked sleeves, allowing the bard's muscular arms free rein, but had a sturdy collar which protected the back of her neck.
Golden leather aged to a near mahogany, with a faint sheen still on it, the only ornate note the belt buckle.
It brought memories nudging forward, but Xena pushed them aside, concentrating on the now. "Whadda ya think?"
Gabrielle took a few steps, walking around in a circle, and ran her hands down the armor. "It's light." She sounded surprised. "I can hardly tell I'm wearing it."
Xena nodded, padding over. "It's meant to carry the weight here." She clapped both hands on the bard's shoulders. "And to be flexible…that was important."
"For you? Oh yeah." Gabrielle smiled. "I guess I can get used to it… maybe we can spar a little later, just to see." She lifted her hands, holding an imaginary staff, and moved them, twisting her body as she did so, then straightening. "It's different..but.." She paused, then hopped up and down a few times.
Xena's eyebrow lifted, but she kept her thoughts regarding bouncing bards to herself. "Give you a light shirt under that… so you don't get rubbed raw."
"Okay." Gabrielle put a hand on the buckle, and examined it. "This is really nice."
Xena turned back to her worktable and gathered her parchments up in silence. Then she tucked them under her arm, and regarded Gabrielle. "Yeah… " The blue eyes dropped. "Lyceus made it."
The bard inhaled sharply. "Oh, Xe… don't you want to… "
"No." The warrior stepped over and put a hand on her shoulder, steering her towards the entrance. "He'd…. approve of you wearing it." She changed the subject. "C'mon… let's see if we can get some dinner before those damn singing contests start."
They escaped dinner after only a few rounds of a Hundred bottles of Ale on the Shelf, and settled Dori into her crib, then Xena changed into her gambeson, and got their staves from the shadowy corner they were resting in.
She tossed Gabrielle hers. "Saw you talking to Eph."
"She asked me where I got this." Gabrielle patted her chest. "She was really impressed… so was Aslanta, by the way… and that was before I told them you actually made it." She lifted her staff over her head, stretching her shoulders out. "Did Gillen make up with you?"
"Mm." Xena rocked her head back and forth. "We talked."
"You got her drunk."
"She talks more that way."
The bard rolled her eyes.
"She's got a big problem." Xena whipped her own staff around in a circle, loosening up. "Can't really hate her for it, though."
"Oh?" Gabrielle moved forward as they edged to a large, open space near the water. "I kinda got the idea she was sorta jealous of a certain Warrior Princess I know." She grinned at her partner.
Blue eyes twinkled at her. "Nope."
"No?" Gabrielle started circling to her left, as Xena fell into their usual pattern. "Umm…. she really wants to be in charge?"
"Nope." Xena evaded a low attack and deflected the bard's staff."
"She's still mad about the sleeping quarters??" The bard's voice rose. "Good grief!" She ducked and brought her staff around at waist level, almost catching her partner napping.
"Nope." Xena hopped backwards just in time.
"All right." Whack. "I give.. what's her problem?" The bard's staff skimmed the ground, evading her soulmate's defense and slamming into the warrior's unprotected knees. "Oh.. centaur poop.. sorry."
"No no.. " Xena winced. "My fault… " She flexed her left leg, which had taken the brunt of the blow. "I was distracted." She blew her hair back and circled again, whipping her staff end forward and catching the bard offguard.
"Yeeoowch." Gabrielle almost dropped her staff. "Distracted by what?" She blocked the next try, and whirled, allowing Xena to move past her.
"You were? What is her problem?" Hop.
"You." Xena saw the low sweep coming this time, and she simply dove over hit, rolling into a somersault and coming back up onto her feet, just in time to block an overhand blow.
"Me? What in Hades did I do?" Gabrielle drove in close, trading hard, solid impacts and grunting a little as she tried to hold back her soulmate's greater weight and strength. "What does she want from me?".
The warrior reversed her staff suddenly, catching the lower part of Gabrielle's and bringing her a little off balance. She caught herself on Xena's staff as they faced off, almost nose to nose. "This." Xena tilted her head and kissed her, exchanging slightly heightened breaths.
Gabrielle wasn't sure if it was just the energy, or what, but…. "Gods, that felt good." She leaned back in for more, feeling her skin start to tingle. "Sorry.. did you say something about Gillen?" It took a lot of self control to keep her fingers firmly wrapped around her staff when they really wanted to be wandering over those interesting buckles and…
"I said… she's got a thing for you." Xena nipped her nose, then pushed back and continued her circling.
"A thing." Gabrielle tried a double combination, and got a hit, and a miss. "For me?"
"Uh huh." The warrior's staff slipped in and just tapped her ribs. "Focus, Gabrielle."
"Focus." The bard sighed. "Yeah.. sure. Okay." She knocked Xena's staff back and almost got her in the knees again. "A thing… gods, Xena…why would she have a thing for me.. Yipes!" Gabrielle ducked as her staff was taken neatly out of her hands, and sent ceilingward, smacking against the rock and bouncing back. She caught it and glared at her partner, who was standing, leaning against her own weapon with a disbelieving look on her face. "Weeell…. It's not nice to be vain." She poked her tongue out.
Xena smiled, and started circling again.
"Besides… I have a 'thing' for you." The bard commented, attacking efficiently.
"Oh, you do?" Xena countered the rapid blows, and backed a few steps, moving to her right as she watched her partner's body movements intently. Over their years of sparring, Gabrielle had gotten pretty damn good at figuring her out, and if she wasn't very careful, the bard could counter most of her tricks and get past her defenses.
And, of course, while she could do the same, when she did, she was able to pull her blows, but Gabrielle wasn't, and the bard was more than strong enough to do considerable damage when she was swinging full force. She'd had a couple of cracked ribs to attest to that, though she'd never told Gabrielle about them.
"Yep, I sure do." Gabrielle drove forward, slamming her staff down, then bringing it up and reversing her body unexpectedly, sweeping the weapon across and almost catching Xena. The warrior deflected the move at the last second, then ducked and turned, keeping their staves together as she brought them both around. "Ooo…. Close."
"Nah." A merry smile. "So, how's the armor feel?"
"Pretty good." Gabrielle tried another combination, dropping to one knee and sweeping her staff in reverse, forcing Xena to hop over it. "Damn it, Xena.. most people can't do that."
"I'm not most people." The warrior countered, launching herself over Gabrielle's head and tucking her body into a flip, then landing on the other side and turning, bringing her staff up. "Thought you liked a challenge."
"You.. are not a challenge." Gabrielle threw herself into her next attack, focusing hard like she'd been taught, and moving her staff in quick, solid arcs that gave her an advantage over her partner's longer reach. "You are like trying to stop the Styx with a bucket and a sea sponge."
“Ooh… that’s catchy. I like it.” Xena laughed, as she backed up, fending off the bard’s strokes. She noticed the little wrinkle forming over Gabrielle’s nose, and the tiny pink tip of her tongue showing, and knew her partner was really getting down to business.
They both stopped talking, and Xena leaned forward, matching the bard’s swift, hard blows and feeling her competitive spirit edge up a notch. The staves hit together in a rapid staccato, bringing a flush to her skin as her heart responded, pumping energy through her.
Gabrielle broke off and crouched, swinging her staff around then continuing the motion as she stood, ducking under Xena’s return swipe and getting in a solid hit on her partner’s side. “Ah hah!”
Ow. Xena caught a breath and brought her staff up, knocking Gabrielle’s back, then she started a methodical campaign, taking short, digging steps as they engaged again. Her focus narrowed, and she drove the bard back, a fierce grin appearing on her opponents face.
Gabrielle could feel the energy full force now, and she knew, in an odd, and far off way, that she was playing with a fire that no one else would have dared to. She could sense Xena walking the fine edge as she pushed the warrior hard, carefully tracing a path between this competitive sparring, and the unleashing of the tiger she could see so clearly lurking behind those blue eyes.
Xena loved winning. She couldn’t stand coming in second place to anyone, and Gabrielle knew that, knew her soulmate’s aggressiveness when faced with a challenge… but the bard knew that occasionally, when she was very, very, good, and very very persistent…
And that was okay with Xena, but only because it was Gabrielle.
The bard studied her swiftly moving target, then she swung around and tried to get inside Xena’s defenses, ducking in very close and surprising the taller woman, who pulled up short with a little bounce. Gabrielle blocked the staff headed towards her then put a hand on it, swinging her own one handed in a new move she’d just started working on.
Xena’s eyes widened, and she ducked, the staff missing her head by a sliver, brushing by her dark hair and skimming over. “Sneaky.” She whipped her staff around and hooked Gabrielle's with it, then levered the other end and sent the bard stumbling off.
"Hey!" Gabrielle caught her balance, then found herself on the defense. A wicked twinkle in the blue eyes facing her sent a shiver up her back, but she settled down, and parried the smooth, incredibly powerful hits that took all her strength to turn back. Her already quickened breathing sped up, and her pulse jumped. "Um.."
She had to step back, and Xena kept on coming, lashing at first one side, then the other. She somehow managed to duck and scoot under the warrior's arm, but then found herself being driven backwards again, towards the front of the cavern. "You better watch out.." She warned breathlessly. "Or I'll have to spring my new, special move on you."
"Oh yeah?" Xena purred, almost taking her staff out of her hands with a quick motion. "C'mon.. I"d love to see it."
"Um…well.." Gabrielle was finding it hard to keep up with her partner, her arms tiring. "Okay…but… " With one last surge of effort, she stood her ground, then crouched, and lunged right at her partner, who almost didn't get out of the way fast enough. "Yaaaa!"
Gabrielle recovered, but overbalanced, and found herself suddenly with nowhere to go but straight into her partner’s arms. Xena dropped the staff and caught her, with a surprised chuckle. “That part of the move?”
The bard caught her breath. “Only with you.” She admitted. “Needs a little work.” Her heart was pounding from the exertion and she suddenly had no desire to move. “Whew.” Her skin felt flushed, and there was a distinct tingle running up and down her torso.
Maybe it was Xena’s nearness. Or the warmth she could feel coming off the warrior’s body.
Or the barely veiled, seductive darkening of the blue eyes gazing at her from under lowered lids. The tiger extending a paw, all soft and furry, with that hint of steel claws just at it’s fringes. The dark side a part of her had always… always been fascinated with.
She forgot about her staff, and reached up, brushing back a disorderly lock of dark hair, her fingers bringing back the drops of sweat that had formed at Xena’s temple, very aware of the powerful arms that held her still, and the dangerous little smile that had started to tug at the warrior’s lips.
“Um… the armor’s great.”
“Really?” Xena rumbled.
“I think it’s time to take it off.” Sharp teeth nibbled her ear, then blew a short breath across the back of her neck. “Don’t you?”
The energy rolled over her. “Oh yeah.” Gabrielle whispered. “Would you do that?" She could feel the edge of the bed behind her knees, then the world tilted and she found herself laid out flat on it, with a sweaty, hungry looking, purring warrior crouched over her.
She lifted her hands.
"Ah ah…" A warning rumble. "You asked me to do it, remember?"
She could almost smell the danger. Gabrielle slowly put her hands back down, then turned them over, palms up and laid them back on the bed in an attitude of total surrender, reveling in the wash of anticipation. "Yes, I did."
She let her eyes meet her partner's, with a sense of total trust that she knew Xena felt all the way down, as the baby blues gentled, and her lips curved into a smile. "Hey.. I'm all yours." The bard whispered, really meaning it.
Xena lowered her head, and licked a drop of sweat off her neck. "I know." She purred into a suddenly very warm ear. "C'mere."
It was well before dawn as the group assembled outside the cavern, a very light rain falling, just enough to dampen everything and make the horses shake their heads in annoyance.
Gabrielle pulled the hood up on her cloak and was glad of the thick covering, along with her new quilted shirt and leather armor. She'd pulled on a pair of woven leggings too, and her knee high boots, and she leaned on her staff as she waited for Xena to arrive.
She felt strange. Being in armor was strange. Just when she thought she was getting used to it, she moved a certain way, and it just felt…
Argo nickered, and she stroked the mare's neck gently. "Easy girl… she'll be here soon." Xena had made a last minute decision, instead of a 'small group' going in ahead, she'd cut it down to a group of two, plus one mare. So Gabrielle would be riding double until they had to dismount and walk, and she found herself quite, quite satisfied with that.
Boots scuffed, and she turned her head to see Xena's tall form emerging from the cavern, backlit by the wall torches fluttering in the wind. "Ready?"
A hand clasp on her shoulder, warm and reassuring. "Just about… I told Toris to start the wagons out just at dawn.. that'll give us enough time to get in and check things out."
"Sounds like a plan." Gabrielle stepped back as her partner pulled herself up on Argo, settling her boots in the stirrups and turning the mare slightly. An arm reached down and she clasped it, boosting herself up and swinging a leg over the horse's hindquarters to settle into place behind her soulmate in the sturdy saddle.
Mm. Warrior squish. The bard wriggled until she was comfortably plastered against Xena's body and wrapped one arm around her waist, giving it a little squeeze.
A blue eye turned her way. "You comfortable?"
Gabrielle hefted her staff and grinned. "Oh yeah."
The warrior shook her head in mock disgust and urged Argo towards the gate. It was dark, and still drizzling, and they met no one until they reached the guardpost, as the wooden blockades parted slowly before them. Toris stepped out from one side, rubbing his face and put a hand on his sister's leg. "You going to be ready at dawn?"
"Yeah." The dark haired man nodded. "Be careful sis… and we'll see you guys later on today."
Xena patted him on the head and continued through the gate, leaving the torches behind and slipping into a moonless dark that seemed to whisper around them, broken only by Argo's soft footfalls.
"Boy, it's quiet out here."
"That rain's getting louder."
"Is it bothering you?"
"Eh." A shrug.
"Would you rather hear a story?"
A smile, hidden in the gloom. "Sure.. but wouldn't you rather take a nap?"
"I'm not tired.. c'mon now, Xena.. we just got out of bed."
"Uhh.. huuhh…. That's true."
"Not that we got much sleep." The bard muttered wryly.
"No no. I'm fine, really." Gabrielle patted her soulmate's shoulder. "I feel very.. um… well rested."
"All right.. suit yourself." Xena relaxed her body into Argo's motion and let the silence drape over them again. She reached up and pulled her hood a little more over her head, wiping the tickling droplets off her nose. She felt Gabrielle's body lean against hers, and could almost picture the bard resting her cheek against Xena's sword sheath and closing her eyes.
It had been just after the whole mess with Velaska, really not long after at all, and they'd been traveling down the coast towards a fishing village that had asked for help against a monster.
They'd been traveling all day, and hit a boggy stretch, where the stench, and the uneven footing were wearing on all three of them, Argo included.
"You should ride." Gabrielle had fussed over her. "You look a little pale, Xena are you sure you're.. "
"I'm fine." The warrior had growled, having had about enough of being coddled.
Gabrielle had fallen silent and kept her eyes on the ground, watching for gullies, and Xena had found herself feeling bad about yelling at her friend.
Or maybe she'd just been mad at herself, for being as tired as the bard had accused her of being… her body not yet recovered from it's mortal injuries not long prior. They'd gotten closer after that, but there were times, like now, when she was just who she was, and Gabrielle was who she was, and they rubbed each other the wrong way.
Oh well. She remembered thinking. Maybe I can make it up to her sometime. She'd watched the bard's shoulders slump and sighed, then mustered up some energy and plodded on.
Finally, the ground had hardened, and they were walking on dry soil instead of in clinging mud. Xena had paused to check Argo's legs, and found the mare had done much better than her human counterparts, by virtue of her slender hooves and better distributed weight.
Xena had gotten on the mare, and held a hand out. "C'mon."
Grumpy green eyes had faced her. "No thanks…. I'll walk."
"Let's go… we've got a ways, yet." The bard had turned her back and started walking.
Some choice oaths had sounded inside Xena's head, but she kept them prisoner, reminding herself again that Gabrielle was a person, who had feelings, and who had a perfect right to be pissed off at a nasty, mud covered ex warlord with more guts than sense.
But even grumpy ex warlords could learn a trick or two, if they really had to. Xena had nudged Argo forward until she was next to her friend. "Hey.."
Gabrielle had given her a resentful look. "Yes?"
Xena had tried her new trick. She'd extended her arm again and leaned slightly forward, catching Gabrielle's eyes. "Please?"
It had been like a tiny, magic moment, as she'd watched the frosty look dissolve, and Gabrielle's face shift into a softer expression. "Well.." The bard had stepped over and took her arm. "Since you're asking so nicely."
It had felt so warm and nice, Xena remembered, as Gabrielle had settled in behind her, and the bard's strong arms had circled her waist. She'd looked over her shoulder, and found those green eyes looking right back at her, so recently cleansed of the grief she'd seen there. "Thank you."
And Gabrielle had very softly, kissed her shoulder, and given her a squeeze. "Thank you… sorry I've been so broody."
"S'allright.. I've been too tired to notice." Xena had replied, with a very wry grin. "C'mon.. let's go find a bed."
And they had.
"Why did you decide not to take anyone else?"
Argo's hoofbeats sounded quietly for a few minutes.
"Less people, less chance of mistakes."
"Mm. .. that's true, but… "
"I wanted you here with me… I left the other person I trust totally to watch Dori."
Gabrielle stiffened and sat up . "What? You make it sound like there's someone in the…." She paused. "Do you think that?"
"Maybe." Xena replied. "Something keeps setting off my instincts…. Didn't want to take a chance.. figured Cait could keep an eye on her."
"Cait?" Gabrielle spluttered. "You're playing with me, right? You left Dori with Cait?"
"No." Xena responded. "I left Dori with my mother… I just told Cait to guard her."
The bard considered that. "Oh." She put her head back down. "That's okay…I guess."
"Mm." Xena tucked her hands under her cloak. "Hope she forgives me sometime."
Argo made her way down the sodden path and across the slope leading down from the valley, as the rain continued to fall.
"Look here, it's only for a day." Cait strode along the passageway, avoiding the slowly moving Amazons around her. "You don't have to come with me."
"You, a babysitter? Nah.. this, I gotta see." Paladia ambled along behind her. "Maybe I'll draw a picture of it."
"You most certainly will not." The slim blond gave her a look over one shoulder. "This is a special assignment, and it's quite serious."
"Oh.. yah… a baby is serious… you gonna have to change it's diapers?"
"If you don't be quiet at once, I'll wrap your face in them." Cait retorted. "And don't think I can't, either. "
"You gonna stand on a box to do it? Can't reach my head otherwise." Her tall friend responded smugly. "And you can't bounce like ol leather and attitude can."
"Hey." Cait turned and walked right into her, poking her with a slim finger. " You be respectful to Xena, or else, you got me? I won't stand for that."
Colorless eyes peered down at her. "All right.. don't get your skirt in a wad."
Cait eyed her suspiciously, then turned and continued on towards the food area, where Cyrene and her assignment were. "That's better."
"Y'know.. I should tell her you've got a crush on her."
Cait stopped dead, and only turned her head, giving the taller Amazon a chillingly murderous look. "I will put your boots right up your nose if you utter one single word of that to anyone." A pause. "Besides, you're quite wrong." She turned and stalked off, leaving a bemused Paladia to follow.
They rounded the bend into the big cavern, and found utter chaos. "Uh oh." Paladia muttered. "Now what? "
Cait found Cyrene's familiar form in the middle of things, and she nudged her way through the crowd to the innkeeper's side. "Whatever's the matter?"
Cyrene gave her a harried look, then grasped her arm. "Another pair of eyes.. good."
Cait blinked the mentioned bodyparts. "Well, yes.. but what am I looking for?"
The older woman groaned. "Dori. We can't find her. She's gone."
Cait stared at her in utter shock.
"Oh brother." Paladia covered her eyes.
By the time the sun rose, they'd gone a good distance, carving a path through the rain into a lowland mostly used for raising goats and sheep.
Xena had been alone with her thoughts for quite a while, when she felt a stirring against her back and she reached a hand down to pat the bard's thigh, tucked neatly against her own. "Hey sleepyhead."
"Mmphgh." Gabrielle mumbled. "Haven't heard that in a while." She lifted her head from it's comfortable spot on Xena's back and yawned, glad of her heavy cloak against the chill. "Where are we?"
"Halfway there." Xena dug in her saddlebag and came up with an apple, which she handed back to her soulmate.
"Thanks." The bard accepted the fruit and sniffed it. "Mm." She took a bite and crunched the crisp flesh appreciatively, then bit off a piece and took a hold of it, passing it forward and offering it up to her partner.
Xena closed her teeth on the bit and chewed it. "Thanks."
"It's so empty here."
The warrior regarded the surrounding countryside. "Yeah… too empty." She shook her head, seeing the ruins of a tiny village overgrown in the tall grass. Andreas work? Or another warlord? Did it matter to the inhabitants?
Maybe it was even one she'd ridden through, all those years ago.
"Xena, look." Gabrielle rested her chin on the warrior's shoulder, peering over it. "Are they coming this way?"
"Yeah." Xena focused her vision on the road ahead, where a small group were slowly emerging from the rain. A wagon, pulled by two horses, with one figure driving and two walking alongside. "Can't tell who or what, though."
The two traveling groups grew closer and closer, and Xena noted that the wagon driver made an effort to pull his team to one side to let them pass. As they drew abreast, she pulled Argo to a halt and lifted a hand.
Glad she had a moment later when her reflexes surged and she found herself catching a crossbow bolt sent from the back of the wagon. "Hey!" She barked angrily.
The two walkers had taken cover behind the wagon.
"Next one who shoots one of those things is gonna lose an arm." The warrior warned, dropping the arrow and sweeping her cloak aside, fingers folding around the chakram and unhooking it.
The driver straightened, displaying a loaded crossbow under his ragged cloak, then slowly lifted his hands off the mechanism. "Awright." His head turned. "Claris, stand down."
Xena let the chakram fall back into it's clip, but kept her hand near. "You always shoot at passerbys?"
"Don like to take chances." The man stated, tipping his hood back a little and staring at her. "Been attacked a dozen times, and I'm damned tired of it.. we all are." The two walkers had edged back around and were watching Xena closely. "Road riff raff, wanna be soldiers, thugs… we've about had enough."
"Ah." Xena let her hand drop to her thigh. "I was just going to ask you if you'd seen any trouble on the road ahead.. guess I've got my answer."
"Mpmh." The driver grunted.
"Where are you headed?" Gabrielle asked.
"Where're you comin from?" The man countered, his jaw firming obstinately.
"Amphipolis." Xena rested her hands on her saddlebow.
The other travelers exchanged glances. "Yeah?" The driver wiped his face. "Prove it."
"Ah ah." Gabrielle slapped her partner's hand, which had started reaching for her sword. She pushed her hood back, exposing her fair hair to the rain and smiled at the driver. "My name is Gabrielle. I'm the deputy reeve of Amphipolis.. are you headed there?"
Xena gave her a grumpy glare but remained silent, pale blue eyes glowering inside their framing of fabric.
"Mebbe." One of the walkers leaned on the near side horses back. "We heard a rumor there might be some folks round those parts willing to fight back against them who want to run over everything."
Gabrielle shifted her grip on her silent soulmate. "There might be some truth to that." She allowed. "I think I've heard the same rumor… are you interested in joining up?"
"We might just be." The driver drawled. "Rumor has it that those folks might, or might not be headed up by a warrior by the name of Xena.. heard about that?"
The bard felt the jerk of muscles as Xena laughed silently. "You know.. I think I've heard that too."
They whispered among themselves.
Xena started humming, mostly to block out the words, causing her soulmate to peek up at her. "We gotta go."
The driver stood, stamping his boots against the wood of the wagon. "Ye're headed inta trouble, there, ladies… you wanta be careful. Usn' are gonna go offer up our fighten skillls to Xena."
"Yeah." Xena lifted a hand. "Thanks."
"I hear the force is assembling in a valley a half day's ride down the road here." Gabrielle gave her partner a poke. "When you get to the gate, tell them I told you where it was."
"Thank ye, ma'am." The driver touched his hood respectfully. "There'll be more like us, coming."
"Yippee." The warrior muttered, subvocally.
"We need every sword." Gabrielle assured him. "I mean. .that's what I hear, anyway."
They smiled at her, and started to move on, then the man riding in the wagon jumped down and scurried over to collect the crossbow bolt he'd fired at Xena. "Nice catch." His eyes lifted and found ice blue pinpoints staring back at him. "Arent'cha headed in the wrong direction?"
"We'll be back." Gabrielle smiled at him. "Don’t worry."
Argo started moving, and she turned, giving the small group a wave as they slogged on into the mud.
"Oof." Cait stopped, as she backed into a solid object. "Look, you're blocking my light."
"There is no light in here." Paladia objected, from her position lying flat on the ground with her head propped up on one hand. "Whatinthehades are you doing, anyway?"
"What do you mean, what am I doing?" Cait hissed. "I'm looking for a lost baby, you.. you… "
"Yeah yeah." Paladia rolled over then sat up. The cavern was, to put it very mildly, in complete and utter chaos. Men and women were everywhere, crawling around in their hands and knees in an obvious searching effort, and there were calls and flickering torches in the surrounding passageways as the seeking moved outwards. "If I was her, I'd be long gone from this mess."
Cait pulled herself out from under a storage crate, her body covered in dust. "Would you?"
"Heck yeah." The burly woman snorted.
"Mm.. and where would you have gone?" Cait pounced on her, and got nose to nose, making Paladia cross her eyes painfully. "You must tell me."
"Yow.. get offa me!" Paladia pulled her head back. "I dunno… how about that cave place they picked out… anyone looked in there yet?"
Cait nibbled a fingernail. "Gosh. " She stood abruptly and jerked at Paladia's leathers. "Come along… she was in the kitchen area, so everyone's been looking there… " Cait lead the way into Xena and Gabrielle's chamber and stopped just inside, looking around. "Gosh.. it's quite nice in here."
"Figures." Paladia pushed past her and walked around, ending up at the water's edge and peering up. "Huh." Then she looked down at the water. "Hey.. what if she fell in?"
Cait was at the edge immediately. "Oh gosh.. you don't suppose? " Her voice held a horrified note. "No.."
Paladia crouched down and gazed at the water. "Well.. babies float, don't they?"
The slim blond put her hand in the water, and drew it out, then turned her head to gaze at her friend. "Pally, please don’t joke about this. If something's happened to Dori… that's quite, quite horrid."
The colorless eyes dropped to the rock floor. "I know." She looked around, then put an awkward hand on Cait's shoulder. "Sorry."
Cait sighed, then peered into the dark liquid. "Well, one way to find out." She sat down and started unlacing her boots. "Come along now. I need your help."
With a muttered curse, the taller woman plunked down and started removing her own footware. When they finished, Cait jumped into the water and muffled a squawk.
"What's the problem?" Paladia stuck her foot in, then yelped. "Hades! I ain't going in there."
Cait ignored her and started swimming, investigating the dark waters carefully. "Gosh. This water has to go somewhere.. " She felt along the walls, then turned a corner, and felt the current grab her. "Oh bother."
"It's going somewhere."
No answer. Paladia got up and trotted down the edge of the rock, peering at the water. "Hey! Hey!!! Yo! Cait!"
"Gods beblasted pain in the neck piece of.. " She put her hands on her hips and regarded the water. "Son of a bacchae. " With a shake of her head, she finally gave up and jumped in, then swam across the water with powerful strokes. She found the crevice where she'd last seen her friend, and felt carefully along the wall.
"Goatpoop." There was an opening roughly two bodylengths in size, and the water was flowing down through it with perceptible force. "I shoulda shipped overseas as a sailor, so help me." She muttered, then took a few deep breaths, and ducked below the surface.
One strong kick and she was in the passage, and the water took her.
Cait let the water move her along, and hoped she could hold her breath long enough. She could see a faint glimmer of light ahead of her, and that made her feel better, but she kicked her legs to go faster as the pressure started building in her lungs.
A long scrape against the rock as it angled upward, then she was thrown roughly into the air, taking in a breath as her head broke the surface. "Whoa."
The cavern she'd emerged into was large, and mostly full of water, save a small beach that led up comprised of very fine silt. Above, the ceiling was fractured even more than the one in Xena's cave, and it let in a great deal of light. Cait swam over and examined it, then paused, as she spotted something familiar.
Wolf tracks. "Oh gosh." She traced one with a fingertip. "Oh gosh, oh gosh… " She scrambled out of the water and ran up the beach, dripping cold liquid from her drenched leathers. "Dori!"
A large splash behind her made her stop, and look back. "Bother."
Paladia broke the surface and started coughing, wiping the pale hair out of her eyes as she spotted Cait on the short. "Whatinthehades did you think you were doing?"
Cait sighed. "Finding Dori. Now come on, or stay there.. we've got to find her. " She turned and followed wolftracks, hearing a splooshing sound as Paladia emerged from the water behind her. "Here.. here we go, now look here.. see that?"
"Those are dog, not baby."
"Wolf. And who is the only one with a wolf around here?"
"And don't you think Ares would be where Dori is?"
"Not in a million dinar wagontrain. I seen how that kid treats him." Paladia snorted.
Cait shook her head and kept walking. "You're impossible… Dori.. Ares!"
"C'mon.. don't tell me you.." Paladia found a hand covering her mouth. "Mmpff!"
They were both quiet, only the sound of water dripping of their bodies plinking on the rock. "Did you hear that?"
Cait cocked her head, and listened again, hearing the annoyed whine. "Ares!!!"
"That's him!" The slim blond released her friend and started running, ducking through an irregular opening and coming skidding to a halt, making Paladia plow into her and send them both stumbling across the sandy floor. "Bacchae!"
Paladia spit a mouthful of sand out and looked up.
Cait rubbed her head and also looked up.
Yellow and green eyes looked back at them. Ares was lying on his side, being bounced on by a very wet, very naked, very scruffy looking baby girl.
"Bck!" Dori gurgled happily, pointing at them.
"Roo." The wolf amended sadly, his wet fur plastered all over his body.
"Thank you, Artemis." Cait put her head down on the rock, and exhaled.
"Yeah. Great." Paladia was trying to clean her tongue off. "Now how in Hades are we gonna get back?"
Cait drummed her fingers on the sand.
"Bogoabo!" Dori bounced up and down, pulling a pair of very wet ears. "Guff!"
Gabrielle crept up to the ridge, keeping her body low, and found spot next to her partner. “Well?”
“Mm.” Xena leaned her weight on her elbows and flexed her hands. “Looks quiet…but see there?” She pointed.
“That’s an outpost.. they’ve got about a half dozen soldiers in there.. and there’s another one there, and over there.. it looks like the main bunch of them is camped out.”
Gabrielle considered the information. “Why not just live inside the village?”
“These guys aren’t as stupid… they know they need the village at least partly functional to support them.” The warrior replied. “My guess is, they bunk outside, but use the inn, and the merchants to supply food and materials.”
“Mm. Is that what you did?”
Xena was quiet for a moment, then she nodded.
They lay side by side, watching, for about a quarter candlemark, then Xena sighed, and pushed off from the ground. "C’mon…let’s see if we can get closer, without rousing any suspicions.”
It was still raining, which did a lot to hide them, but Gabrielle found herself tucked behind Xena’s taller form as they made their way closer, using the heavy trees and foliage to disguise their presence. The warrior’s steps grew slower, and softer as they proceded, and the bard was careful not to do something dumb like step on a stick, or break passing branches.
It was interesting to watch Xena when she was like this. Gabrielle had her hand on her partner’s back, and she could feel the warrior’s breathing slowing down, almost becoming rhythmic as she slunk from tree to tree, her senses expanding outward to drink in the air.
Closer, and now the bard felt her heartbeat start to pick up, as Xena’s path took them right towards the main group of soldiers, and past the first outpost. She watched the guards nervously, but they didn’t so much as turn their heads.
Then Xena was turning, and putting both hands on her shoulders, signing the signal for ‘stay’. Gabrielle nodded silently, and pressed herself against the closest tree, letting her green cloak, muddied and dark, blend into it’s surface.
Xena paused, then crouched slightly, leaping up and catching the tree’s lowest branch and pulling herself up onto it. She got her footing, then shrugged her cloak around her and started out through the canopy, stepping surefootedly along the sturdy branches.
The trees extended over the soldier’s campsite, and, in fact, were providing some shelter for three or four of them as they tried to recover a tent soaked in the rain. Xena paused over their heads and stood listening.
Nothing. Just standard complaints, about the weather, the mud, the food, the bathrooms… she shook her head and moved on, carefully wrapping her cloak around her to keep it from catching on the branches. She leaped from one tree to the other, then climbed a little higher, before she edged out over two men with horses and went still, her body swaying with the motion of the tree.
Again, nothing. Xena exhaled, pushing some leaves away and peering out over the encampment. Well run, neat, orderly.. the hallmarks she’d seen so far of Andreas troops. She bounced across to another tree and moved closer to the bole, sitting down on a branch and eyeing a caterpiller crawling by.
She waited. Activity went on in the camp, two sets of guards rotated in and out of the outposts, and a wagon came in, full of supplies. Soldiers surrounded it, and started pulling things out, laughing.
Xena ducked her head and squinted, then her jaw tensed. One of the things being dragged out were obviously people, frightened women and older girls who wore torn dresses that they clutched to themselves as they were tossed in a pile, to be picked over.
She felt her body come alive, as hunting instincts surged, and she only just kept herself from hurtling out of the tree at the soldiers. C’mon, Xena… that’s not what you’re here for.
But as she watched, a soldier picked up one of the women and dragged her, screaming towards a muddy tent, and Xena was moving before she realized it. The branch bowed under her weight as she came to the end of it, and she used that to launch herself sky ward, somersaulting three or four times before she landed smack in the center of the group, picking up an oxen yoke they’d just unloaded and swinging it around with a ferocious yell.
“Be quiet, Gabrielle.. this is a clandestine operation.” The bard muttered to herself as she bolted towards her battling soulmate. “Just get in, get the info, get out.. no problem… you just stay nice and quiet here.. excuse me. “ The bard whipped her staff around and pulled the legs out from under running guard. “Sorry.. I just.. “ Thwack. “Whoops.. no, you see.” Whack, whack. “Well, if you’d just have stopped when I asked you to..”
Xena pulled her sword out and ducked an incoming mace, then disarmed her nearest adversary and gutted him, sending a spurt of blood high in the air.
She laughed, exulting in the sheer power she could feel rolling down from her shoulders to her arms as she whirled and took a head off, then swept her sword up, and cleaved a charging pikeman right through the crown of his head.
Gabrielle thwacked a few of the guards, then realized what her partner’s aim was, and bolted for the pile of women, pulling her dagger from her belt as she ran. “Hold on!” She yelled, diving to her knees in the mud as she reached them, and slashing at the ropes holding their arms. She could hear the sounds of battle behind her, and Xena’s wicked chuckle, and she redoubled her efforts, getting the women loose and yanking the closest to her feet. “C’mon! Get in the wagon!!”
A guard charged her and she released the woman, getting her staff up and catching him in the chest with the end of it, then shoving back hard and knocking him off his feet. ‘Get moving! We don’t have all day!”
She got between the women and the milling, confused, attacking guards, some of whom were coming after her, most of the others after her partner, who had her back to a water barrel and was holding them off with deadly precision. An arm flew past her and she ducked, then caught a sword on her staff, and twisted her body, deflecting the force of the hit and sending it skittering off the wood. “C’mon!” She brought the other end up and whacked the man across the head, and he sprawled at her feet, then she ducked and whipped around in a circle, catching a soldier behind her square in the groin.
He dropped with a sound like a pig being gutted and she hustled the last of the women up onto the wagon. “Xena!”
She had captured the water barrel as her high point, and she grinned, as the height it gave her enabled her to lay about her with her sword, sending weapons flying, and soldiers stumbling. She jumped down after a moment, then leaped and kicked, connecting with a jaw that snapped back with lethal force, then she locked her elbows, and swept in a circle, an exultant yell erupting as she felt the blade sever skin, and bone, and drench itself in blood.
The copper smell overwhelmed her and she swung again, now hearing screams of terror as she carved her way through the men.
And she heard her name.
Through the blood, and the fury, and the seductive lure of her dark side.
She kicked a last adversary and whirled, to see the women loaded in the wagon, and Gabrielle headed her way, motioning with one hand for her to hurry.
Hurry? Xena turned again, in the weird silence her senses built for her that seemed to slow time itself, and saw the soldiers all running away. What’s the rush?
A hand on her arm. “Xena.. c’mon… those poor women are petrified… let’s get them out of here…”
The women. “Good job!” She yelled at her soulmate, as they turned and made for the wagon. She smacked an arrow out of mid air, then grabbed Gabrielle around the waist and boosted her up onto the driver’s seat, turning and intercepting two more bolts before she grabbed hold of the seat and pulled herself up. “Grab the reins.”
Gabrielle did. “Now what?”
“Hold on.” Xena pulled the whip from the sconce next to her elbow and flicked it over the two horses with a hard stinging sound, sending the animals into a snorting gallop that pulled them out of the encampment in a thunder of wood and hooves.
“Yeoow!” Gabrielle tried to keep her balance, and the reins all at once. “Would you take these!”
“In a minute.. “ Xena reached over and knocked an arrow away from her partner’s head. “I’m kinda busy….”
“Ooo… “ Gabrielle wrapped her powerful legs around the seat supports and held on, keeping her head low and urging the horses forward. The path led through the bottom part of the village and she watched people dive out of the way, as she pointed the horses towards the gate and let out a yell.
For a moment, they were thinking of trying to close the portal, then bodies went flying and they were through, with spears and arrows clattering down around them. The women screamed, until finally the missiles stopped falling, and Xena turned, holding out a hand.
“Okay..I’ll take em now.”
“Sure.” Gabrielle handed the reins over, examining her hands where the leather had cut into them. “Now’s the easy part.” She pulled her hood back and wiped the sweat, and rain out of her eyes. “Are they following us?”
Xena looked back. “Nah.” She remarked, cheerfully.
The green eyes peered at her. “Thanks for the warning.” She eyed her soulmate’s blood and gore spattered form. The warrior’s eyes were still glinting, and her hands were shifting on the reins in nervous motion. “You all right?”
“Huh?” Xena turned and looked at her in puzzlement, the dark head cocking to one side in question. “Oh.. yeah.. yeah.. sure.. I got a few nicks, that’s all.” She smiled at her soulmate, then half turned in her seat. “All of you doing okay?”
The frightened huddle of women in the wagon bed stared at her.
“We’ll have to head out that way.. pick Argo up.. then meet the wagons coming from the valley.” Xena sighed. “So much for a sneak attack… we’ll have to regroup when we meet up with Toris and the others.. have someone take these people to safety.”
“They’ll probably be pretty nervous now.” Gabrielle gave the women a reassuring smile. “Hi… rough day, huh?”
The oldest of them sat up and stared at her. “Who are you people?”
“Oh.. sorry.. we really didn’t have time for introductions.” The bard admitted. “My name is Gabrielle, and this is Xena, and we…oh, I guess you’ve heard of us.”
The women had all edged back. “Hestia protect us.”
Gabrielle blinked. “I’m sorry? You’re in no danger from us, really.. Xena here just looks sca… wait. Hestia? You’re not… “
“Yes. We are Hestian Virgins.” The woman announced proudly. “And I think you’re in need of our prayers.”
It was well past midday before they saw another living being. Xena, on Argo, had trotted ahead a bit as she'd seen another wagon approaching. She stood in Argo's stirrups and peered through the ever-present misty rain, then sat down. "Now what?" Her hands flexed on the reins, the cold and wet starting to make her uncomfortable.
Well, at least it'd washed the blood off. Xena gazed at the oncoming wagon dourly. She hadn't realized she'd been quite so…A slow breath emerged. All right. She'd been pretty far gone, and loving every minute of it. The warrior looked quietly down at her hands, tanned and clean, now, from the rain.
Just like old times.
She turned her head, as Gabrielle clambered down from her perch on the wagon, and trotted over, her hood slipping back and exposing her damp, pale hair, a wry smile on her face.
Her soul's lifeline. "Hmm? What's up?"
"That's what I was going to ask you.. is that our wagon?"
"Mm.. looks like it… I think we'd better find a place to hole up in for a bit, though.. figure out what we're gonna do."
Gabrielle laid a casual hand on Xena's knee, rubbing it through her leggings with her thumb. "Yeah.. and get dry for a while. I'm wrinkling."
Instinctively, Xena lifted a hand and cupped the bard's damp cheek. "Couldn’t tell by me." She murmured. "Thanks for sticking by me today, by the way. "
A smile, moving the skin her fingers were touching. "That's my job." Gabrielle spared a glance behind her, where they'd set up a rough canvas tent to cover the Hestians, who were huddled together. "I think they'd appreciate some dry time too… you saved them from something really horrible, Xena.. not just being assaulted physically."
Xena tensed her lips. Had she? She reflected back on that moment, when her body's reactions had overrode her better judgment, and something inside her relaxed. Yeah. Damned if she hadn't. No matter what it had turned into, justice had triggered it. "Hope they appreciate it." She finally answered. "And not try to convert me."
Gabrielle snorted. "I'll kick their… um." She blushed. "Excuse me.. I think we'd better get going."
Xena chuckled, and nudged Argo forward, as they rode to meet their oncoming allies. Toris pulled the wagon over as she approached, and stood in the seat, putting his hands on his hips.
"Hi." The warrior ambled up. "Have a nice trip up?"
"Xena, what the Hades is going on? Who are those people? Where did that wagon come from. .and what are you doing out here on the road?" Her brother inquired bewilderedly.
"Nothing, virgins, the town, and we rescued them." The warrior replied. "Let's get off the road, and rework the plan."
"Virgins?" Toris asked, lowering his voice.
"Figures you'd pick that one thing out." His sister replied testily. "Siddown before you join them."
"Dori, come over here." Cait tried, for the fourth time to get the baby to sit still. "Paladia.. she's going to catch cold."
"Yeah?" The taller Amazon was wringing out her leathers. "Sokay.. we are too. We can all be sick together."
"Bother." Cait finally grabbed Dori with both hands, and lifted her off poor Ares, who scrambled up and shook himself violently. "Stop that!" She sat down on the damp sand and sat Dori more or less in her lap. "There.. gosh, you're a mess."
"Bck." Dori stood up and made a grab for Cait's leathers, tugging the laces on them and giving one a good chew. "Mama."
Gray eyes snapped wide open. "Gosh no. Not in a million years." She examined the baby, seeing raw scrapes on her back and legs, though otherwise she seemed unhurt. "Isn't it grand, that she managed to get through that tunnel? I think that's quite amazing."
Paladia roamed around the chamber, examining it. "Yeah.. stupendous… there's only one problem… it's the only damn way in here."
"Can't be." Cait shook her head. "The water's got to go somewhere.. follow it, Pally.. and see where it goes. We can go with it."
Paladia made a face at her, but stomped over to the edge of the water, and eyed it. The sun came in from above, mockingly displaying freedom, but there was no visible means of exit for the dark, cold water. "Crap." She looked around, then picked up a piece of dried branch, evidently blown or brought there, and tossed it into the water. The current carried it to the far wall, where it bumped up against the rock unhelpfully. She turned and trudged back over to where Cait was, and sat down next to her. "We're stuck here."
"Come on now." Cait tried to untangle her hair from Dori's fist. "There has to be a way out."
"Sure." Paladia agreed. "Fly." She pointed up at the breaks in the rock. "Or swim." She pointed back to the tunnel. "Or chip our way out with axes we don't have."
"You are not being helpful."
"It's not my fault that kid escaped! I wasn't the one who was supposed to be watching her."
"Bck." Dori toddled over to Cait's leg, and leaned on it, then started investigating her new victim. "Mmm."
"Hey." Paladia edged back. "Cut that out."
"She's awfully cute, isn't she?" Cait examined her charge.
"No.. she's a scraped up, muddy little runt who's pawing at my leg." Her companion growled. "She causes more trouble than red ants in a bedroll, and it's just goofy the way you all drool over her like a piece of honeycake."
Cait looked up. "Been working on expressing your feelings, have you? Good job." She took hold of Dori's hand, and let the small fingers close around hers. "Gosh, she's strong."
"She's a baby."
Cait lifted her other hand and let Dori grab that, then slowly raised her arms until they were over the baby's head. The grip remained tight, and she kept going, until she'd lifted Dori quite off her feet at least an inch. Then she let her back down, as the infant giggled "What did you think of that then? I bet she's going to be as strong as Xena when she gets bigger."
Paladia snorted. "Not with her father.. he's a wuss."
"He most certainly is not."
"Yes, he is… he's whining, whiddly little wuss."
"You're awful. Besides, she doesn't look at all like him."
There was a small silence, as Paladia studied the active infant, who was now attempting to crawl into her lap. "Huh." She picked Dori up and looked at her objectively. "Damn… she doesn't.. she's got that all angle thing going.. not like that horse face of his."
"Rbu!" Dori objected to being dangled, and kicked out, making Paladia almost drop her. "Bad!"
"Cut that out, you runt!"
Dori's face scrunched, and she scowled at her captor angrily.
"Gosh.. you'd better let her down." Cait reached out and took the infant nervously. "She's getting quite mad." She settled Dori down in her lap again, and the baby burped. "I think she looks just like Xena."
At that moment, Dori chose to look up, her face tensing into a hopeful expression. "Boo?"
"Goodness.. she knows who I meant." Cait laughed. "It's so positively cute hearing her call Xena that."
"Bet Xena doesn't think so." Her friend muttered. "Stupidest thing I ever heard."
"It's not stupid, so you hush". Cait lifted the infant and cradled her, which Dori seemed to enjoy. She gazed up at Cait with wide, innocent green eyes and sucked on her thumb. "I promised Xena I'd take care of you, Dori, and I will. Don’t' you worry, all right?"
Paladia rolled her eyes. "Yeah? Well… little mommy… here's your first problem. We ain't got no diapers."
Cait looked at Dori, then at her friend, then back at Dori. "Oh… poop."
With a giggle, Dori obliged.
"All right." Xena ran her fingers through her hair, and studied the small map she'd laid out on rock. "Here's the town.. they're camped here, and here, and have two outposts here and here."
"Mm." Aslanta crossed her arms. The Amazons had caught up to them just a candlemark past, and they all were now tucked into a small, densely wooded area just off the main road. "They're probably on the alert now."
"Probably." Xena agreed. "I'm not sure they'd come out to attack the wagons, and if we let them get inside, it's too risky."
A shrug. "Let's go home then. To Hades with it."
Toris nudged a little closer. "Is that where you got close?"
His sister nodded. "Yeah.. I was able to get right above them…didn't hear much but griping… the weather, the mud.. the usual." She traced a line down the map. "As long as they hold this point though… it's the narrowest part here." She displayed the squiggles of mountains and trees. "With this rockslide here, we could almost hold this point against a force three times our size."
They studied the drawing. "Well, sis… " Toris sighed., scratching his bearded jaw. "You had to go stir them up… "
"We.. " Gabrielle spoke up softly. "Weren't going to let them rape those women in front of us, Toris." She gave her brother in law a look.
"No.. no, that.. of course not." He hastily agreed. "Of course not."
Aslanta peered over his shoulder at the small group of rescued women, who were huddled together near the wagon, talking with some of the militia. "So those are virgins, huh?"
"You make it sound like such a novelty." Gabrielle commented.
Aslanta smirked, then turned her attention back to the map. "So.. what's the plan? You could just go up to the gates and demand their surrender, y'know."
They all looked at her, and the tall blond shrugged. "They're pretty far from their home base, and they ain't got any idea of how many of us there are." She folded her arms. "I be they don't want another taste of you, either."
Xena's eyebrow lifted.
Gabrielle put her hands behind her back and assumed a studious expression. "They might also decide to use Xena as a pincushion, just to be sure of that."
Another shrug. "You can catch arrows."
"Not fifty of them at once." Xena retorted. "I run out of hands at two." She straightened, and let her eyes unfocus, concentrating her thoughts on strategy.
"Xena." One of the militia called softly. "Someone's coming down the road."
The warrior sighed, and dismissed several nebulous plans, as she walked over to where the man was perched on a low limb, and peered out. Sure enough, headed their way was a small group of mounted riders, soldiers from the outline. As she watched, the one in front called to one of his followers, and the man hefted a lance and seated the butt in his stirrup.
"What in .." Xena leaned forward and shaded her eyes, convinced the misty rain was playing tricks on her vision. "A pennant?"
Aslanta had come over and was standing just behind her, and she leaned forward as well. "Looks like it, yeah."
Gabrielle slipped around the tree trunk and got a better angle to view them, and she blinked. "Um… I don't think that's a pennant." She glanced at her partner. "It's a white flag."
"A white flag?" Xena, Aslanta, the guard and Toris all said at once.
"Mm." The bard agreed. "That's what it looks like."
There was a momentary thoughtful silence, then Xena shrugged her cloak over her shoulders and walked over to where Argo was patiently standing with the rest of the horses. "Aslanta, Toris, you four, mount up and come with me." She turned and didn't miss a beat as she put an accurate fingertip on a pair of bardic lips just within reach. "Please stay here.. I don't want to be riding double if we've got to run."
The soft, warm breath blew past her hand as Gabrielle sighed, but restrained her reaction to a frown. Xena patted her cheek. "Thanks." She turned and vaulted up into Argo's damp saddle and set her feet in the stirrups. "All right.. let's go see what this is all about. The rest of you.. stay hidden, unless we signal. If we do, it'll be because it's a trap, and you need to move, and move fast. "
"What about them?" One of the Amazon shrugged a shoulder at the Hestians.
"Get them in the wagon… someone with some sense and experience get up there and drive." The warrior responded crisply, then she turned the mare and started down the fairly steep incline towards the road.
"I guess that would be me." Gabrielle commented to thin air, as she watched the group ride away.
Paladia circled the chamber for the fourth time, and once again didn't find any way for them to get out. She glanced over her shoulder to where Cait was sitting, dangling her bare legs in the water as she soaked her soiled leathers. The smaller woman's back was to her and she found herself, as she was won't to do, studying her friend's slim body.
She'd drawn Cait - several times, though those sketches stayed safely tucked in the bottom of her personal chest. She was interesting to draw.. all line and angles, where the other Amazons were a lot of curves and dips. Cait was thin, and very small boned, but all of it was covered up with muscles and when she moved, she almost bounced.
No, she did bounce, like she was just about to take flight. Sometimes Xena did too, but it was different. With Xena, you got the idea if she bounced, whatever she hit would be obliterated, there was just all that force and power behind her. Cait, on the other hand, if she were to take off, would sort of hover, like a kind of hummingbird maybe… yeah…
"PALADIA!!!!" The yell scared the crap out of her, and she leaped, leaving dry ground and ending up splashing into the water.
"What did you do that for!" Paladia turned and glared at her friend.
Cait was sitting, quite naked, with her legs crossed and facing her, with Dori crawling around nearby. "I called you and called you… I thought you'd fallen asleep standing up again."
The tall Amazon splashed ashore and gave her a disgusted look. "I was thinking."
"Gosh.. that's new." Pale gray eyes blinked. "What ever about?"
Paladia felt like her tongue was suddenly two sizes too big for her mouth, and an unfamiliar heat inched up her neck. "Nothin." She muttered. "So, how are we getting out of here? That kid's gonna get hungry pretty soon, and start screaming her fool head off."
"Hm." Cait studied the crawling baby, who was picking up bits of rock and putting them investigatively in her mouth "Oh gosh.. stop that!"
Dori looked at her in surprise, and waved a wet bit of stone at her. "Bck.!" She sat down, and looked unhappy. "Mm.."
"You had to say something, did you?" The slim blond sighed. She pushed herself to her feet and circled the small area, stepping over Ares who was stretched out near the water, panting. "I suppose there really is only one way." She stated, then without warning took a step and leaped into the water, cutting through it cleanly and starting to swim towards the wall they'd entered from.
"Hey!" Paladia yelled. "Whereihades d'ya think you're going??? Hey! Hey!!! You can't get through there, you little manic!!!"
Cait could feel the current pushing against her, and she paused, clinging to the rock, then looked back. "Look, you just stay here with her, all right? I'll try to get through, and bring help." She didn't wait for an answer, and ducked her head under the water, already being buffeted by the water.
"Bck!" Dori crawled after her, heading for the pool.
"No …oh no..no no.. ." Paladia scrambled towards her and lunged, landing on her belly in the sand and catching the baby by the leg. "Hold on.. you just hold on you little… "
Dori let out a bloodcurdling scream of outrage.
"I'm gonna kill her."