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 17
By Melissa Good
Xena padded through the main chamber, her boots making only the tiniest of scrapes against the rock as she slipped between working Amazons and soldiers, her silent presence bringing sideways looks and hesitant smiles as she passed.
Yeah, yeah. Warrior mystique. Xena grumbled inwardly. I'd feel a lot more intimidating if I wasn't squishing so damn much.. I can feel my damn armor rusting as I walk. She poked her head in the Amazons quarters, then went on to the hospice, smelling the sharp scent of the cleansing solution she'd come up with before she entered the room's craggy entrance.
Cait was on the last pallet, determinedly pushing herself up to a seated posture as the Hestian taking care of her was just as determinedly trying to get her to lie back down. Paladia crouched nearby, her long arms wrapped around her knees, a look of bored disgust on her wide face.
"Now, you look here." The young Amazon was saying. "I've got lots of things I have to be doing.. I can't be lying down the entire day."
"Now, child.. the healer said you should stay, so stay you will." The Hestian, a tall, healthy looking woman scolded her cheerfully. "Would you like me to bring you a toy?"
Cait gave her a perfectly murderous look. "Yes, quite." She got through clenched teeth. "It's on my pallet.. would you mind?"
"Is it a doll?" The woman smiled kindly at her.
"It's a dagger." Her recalcitrant patient answered. "A nice sharp one, perfect for stabbing right up between the ribs."
The Hestian laughed. "Oh.. what a funny joke!" She patted Cait, and shoved her down. "Now, lie down, child."
Gray eyes narrowed, especially when Paladia started to snicker. "I'm afraid I'm going to simply have to get angry in a minute."
"Cait." Xena made it to the bedside before the bloodshed started, and knelt, putting a hand on the suddenly docile Amazon's shoulder. "Relax."
"All right." Cait agreed mildly. "Now that you're back, and you can take charge again."
"Excuse me." The Hestian nurse interrupted. "Shouldn't you at least wash before you come in here?"
Xena slowly raised her head, lifting one perfectly arched eyebrow up and giving the woman a signature Warrior Princess icy cold stare. "I'd like some privacy."
"Then why don’t' you leave? There isn't much in here." The Hestian replied smugly.
"All right." Xena decided, slipping both arms under Cait's body and standing. "C'mon." She gave Paladia a jerk of the head, and started walking, heading towards the Amazon's quarters. Paladia scrambled to her feet and caught up, glancing behind her at the puzzled looking Hestian.
"She's a virgin." Xena remarked. "I think it has to do with the flow of blood to the brain."
Paladia snorted in amusement, giving Xena a furtive look.
"Well." Cait commented, appearing perfectly content to be right where she was. "Not to put ever too fine a point on it.. but I'm a virgin, and I don't act like that."
Xena chuckled. "Gabrielle didn't either.. maybe it's all those fermented offerings to Hestia." She ducked inside the opening to the Amazon's quarters and moved towards Cait's pallet, set to one side and near the back. "Sorry I'm a little damp."
Cait sighed blissfully. "It's perfectly all right." She waited, while Xena let her down onto her pallet, then rolled a little onto her side as the warrior knelt again. "I do owe you an apology, though."
"For what?" Xena examined the cut with skilled hands, aware of Paladia settling on the bunk next to Cait's.
"I rather mucked up my job." The girl answered softly. "I feel awful."
Xena sat back, satisfied with the wound. "Don't." She glanced at the rock floor. "You risked your lives to go after Dori… and I owe you both for that."
Paladia had her eyes fixed on the ground, refusing to look up. Cait was simply speechless, drinking in her hero's gratitude in wonder.
"Thank you." Xena added, with sober sincerity. Then she stood and backed off. "Get some rest." And the shadows swallowed her tall form, leaving them in almost breathless silence.
It took several breaths, before Cait sighed into all that quiet. "Gosh."
Paladia let her chin rest on her balled fists, which were propped on her knees. "Yeah." She muttered.
They looked at each other seriously. "I rather think I owe you a thank you as well." Cait stated.
"No you don't.. " The burly Amazon scowled. "For what?"
Cait's sober expression didn't change. "For saving my life."
"Aww.. " Paladia made a face. "Don't start with that…" She stopped talking as Cait leaned over and took one of her hands in a firm grip, and intense gray eyes caught her own with startling power. "Wh.."
Cait brought the hand closer, ducking her head and hesitantly, then with more assurance kissed Paladia's knuckles. Her eyes slowly drifted back up, meeting stunned surprise as she produced a heartfelt smile. "Thank you."
Paladia was so shocked, she didn't move. Didn't breathe. Didn't take her hand back, or even so much as blink. All she was aware of were those eyes, and the warmth enveloping her fingers, and the sense of falling that made every inch of her tingle.
"Anytime." She finally whispered hoarsely, knowing something had changed, but unable to figure out exactly what it was.
One down… The warrior ambled through the catacombs, towards the second Amazon cavern, where she knew Eph and Pony kept joint bunks. She poked her head around the corner of the entrance, and sucked a deep breath in, as she spotted her quarry against the back wall. Okay, Xena, Humble Princess… go make nice.
They looked up as she approached, Ephiny giving her a wry, studied look while Eponin merely growled.
Oh boy. Xena crouched down, and let her forearms rest on her thighs. "You wanna slug me?" She faced Eponin directly. "Would it make you feel better?"
Eponin scowled. "Yes."
A shrug. "Go ahead."
"You mean it?"
Xena nodded soberly. "My kid did this to you… you can't hit her, so yeah."
Pony stared fiercely at her, thoughts mulling behind stormy golden eyes. Then she sat up, and set her body, then whipped a hand forward, fully expecting Xena to move.
She didn't. The loud crack echoed through the chamber, throwing the warrior back against the next bunk and slamming her head painfully against the rock wall. "Ow." Xena sighed, and unlocked her muscles, screaming at her forceful clamping down on honed instincts.
Pony froze, in utter shock. Her jaw fell open, and she stared at Xena with a look of total bewilderment. "Aw.. Hades, Xena.. " She started to get up, but Ephiny shook off her own paralysis and pushed her back down, scrambling off her bunk and kneeling at Xena's side.
"That was the stupidest thing I've ever seen you do." The regent reached out a hesitant hand towards the seated warrior. 'Here.. are you all right?"
"Sure." Xena refused to even rub her aching jaw. "Feel better?" She asked Eponin, lifting an eyebrow.
Eponin gave her a dour look, flexing her hand and wincing. "Sure. Now my hand hurts so much, I forgot about the damn briars." Her expression shifted and softened. "Sorry, Xena… I didn't think you'd just stand there."
The warrior exhaled, and circled her knees with both arms, ignoring her now throbbing headache. "Sorry you landed in the wrong place." She told her friend. "I'm pretty sure Dori didn't mean it."
A sigh. "Hades… it's not like it's your fault… " The Amazon leaned back.
Xena glanced around at the empty sleeping chamber, then returned Eponin's look. "Well… " She shifted a little. "That's only partly true."
They were silent for a moment, then Ephiny cocked her head. "Partly?"
A nod. "The trouble… that, I think, she gets from Gabrielle." Xena stated evenly. "The gymnastics, on the other hand, I'm pretty sure comes from me."
Eponin turned her head and stared at Ephiny, who stared back, then they both looked at the quietly waiting woman sitting in front of them. "F… from .. um… from you?" Ephiny tentatively tasted the words, nudging them out into the suddenly tense air.
'Yeah." Xena merely waited.
"Um." Eponin cleared her throat self consciously. "No offense, Xena… you and I are friends, right?"
The warrior nodded. "I like to think so."
Pony bit her lip. "I've seen you naked. You're not equipped to make a kid." She got the words out in a rush of bluntness, then blushed, startlingly.
"Wait..wait..wait.." Ephiny shook a hand, at the same time. "Hold on.. you're not speaking literally, I know, Xena.. but.."
Xena rested her chin on her forearm. "No, I'm not." She glanced at Pony. "And yes, I am." A sigh. "Look… we don’t spend a lot of time wondering how it happened anymore. We've… I've.. just accepted that it did, and that Dori's my daughter, as much as she is Gabrielle's." A pause. "Since you're her potential foster parents.. I thought you should know that." She hesitated, as Ephiny eased closer and shook her head in wonder. "I … think… what happened was that it was something Gabrielle wanted… wanted with all her heart, and someone… something… gave her that gift."
"Gods.. that explains so much about her." Ephiny rubbed a hand over her eyes.
"Damn." Pony finally blurted.
Ephiny was frowning, and muttering softly to herself, then she looked up, right into Xena's eyes. "That day we left Amphipolis." She murmured. "After you two stayed out all night… was that it???"
The warrior's head tilted in surprise. "We think so, yes.. but… "
"Damn." The regent whispered. "I remember thinking.. when I saw her that morning… that she looked…happier than she had in… as though she'd been touched by the gods." She stared at the warrior seriously. "Xena, are you a demigod?"
No one. No one had ever asked her that. Not like that. Not flat out, and open. She'd never even asked herself that, even after the Furies.
But that was all right, because simply put, she had no real answer. "I… don't know." Uncomfortable, she got to her feet. "I've got to get going… talk to you two later." She was rattled, and she knew it, and she knew her retreat for what it was. That question wasn't something she wanted to wonder about.
Gabrielle stretched her body out, exulting in the feel of dry, warm clothing after two days of damp drizzle. She had put on a pair of warm leggings, and her favorite old shirt of Xena's, and was now sprawled across the bed updating her diary.
With one foot, she rocked Dori's cradle, and nibbled the end of her quill as she regarded her mostly finished page. A familiar presence washed over her, and she looked up towards the entrance as her partner's dark form appeared, passing through the shadows of the corridor into the glow of the fire she'd started. "Hey.. what too…." She squinted, then got up and chased after the suspiciously quiet warrior. "Xena?"
Xena paused, with her hands on the box they were using to store their clothes. "Yeah?"
Gabrielle put a hand on the taller woman's cheek and turned her face towards the fire. "What in the world happened to you?" She touched the angry looking bruise across Xena's flat, planed jawbone.
Her partner gave a short, self deprecating chuckle. "Nothing much… I just went to visit Pony and Eph… I don't have your way with words, so I tried to make it up to Pony another way."
The bard stared at her. "You let her hit you?"
"Yeah." Xena shrugged. "No big deal." She unclasped her armor and lifted it off, setting it down next to the box. "Could you give me a hand with this?" She held out a bracered arm, which Gabrielle took and started unlacing with mechanical motions. The ache in her skull had stared working it's way down, and she wanted nothing more than to get out of her damp leathers, into dry cloth, and sit for a few minutes by the fire. "Dori asleep?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle murmured, stripping off one bracer and starting on the other. "Why did you let her hit you?"
"Well… " The warrior unhooked the shoulder straps on her body armor and peeled it off, wincing at the red, angry marks where it chafed her skin. "It was the fastest way I could think of to get her out that mood… and it worked." She pulled a soft, woven shirt over her head, smiling a little as Gabrielle fussed with it, settling it around her body. "Bennu told me another thirty soldiers came in yesterday… I've gotta start drilling them tomorrow with the Amazons… I want to work on a rapid strike force."
Gabrielle tugged the taller woman's leggings up and fastened then around her waist, lacing the ties with neat, efficient fingers. "Did it make her feel better?"
Xena chuckled ruefully. "Not really… her hand, my jaw.. I think she got the worst of it." She gave the bard a rakish grin. "I'll go grab some sandwiches… mother was working on them when I was headed in here."
"No." The bard took her hands and tugged her over to the chair, gently pushing her down into it. "Sit." She knelt as Xena complied, and started unlacing her boots. "I'm dry, and warm, and I don't have a bruise the size of a coconut on my face. I'll go get them." She worked a boot off, and sucked in a breath. "Xena… " A long, reddened gash moved down her partner's lower leg, a blow taken below her armor, and through the leather of her boots.
"Mm." Xena gazed at her leg. "Forgot about that."
Green eyes under raised eyebrows faced her. "Warriors" The bard rolled her eyes and got up, trudging over to retrieve the healer's kit from Xena's pack. She came back over and knelt, resting a hand on one of Xena's knees as she set the kit out, and pulled out some cleanser and a piece of linen. "When did you get this… yesterday morning?"
"Yeah." Now that she was sitting down, it all seemed to hit her. The pain of various small injuries and minor annoyances she'd been holding at bay for two days surfaced, and added to the aches she was suffering from Pony. She closed her eyes. "That one guy with the pike.. as he was going down he took a swipe at me."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle sat down cross legged and worked first with the water she'd brought over, cleaning the dirt and bits of debris out of the long, angry looking cut, and then, while she was at it, off Xena's long lower leg, running her hands lightly over the skin and cupping one over the warrior's thickly corded ankle. "You know something?"
"Mm?" Xena leaned her head against the chair back. "No, what?"
"I am really pissed off at Pony for hitting you." Gabrielle rested her other hand on her partner's knee. 'Almost as pissed off as I am at you for letting her." She leaned on the warrior's thigh and pointed at her sternly. "Next time, you let me do the sensitive chats, okay?"
Mild blue eyes blinked at her. "Sure." Xena lifted a hand and ruffled the bard's hair. "I.. told them about Dori."
"Told them what about Dori?" Gabrielle asked, puzzled.
Xena cocked her head, and lifted an eyebrow.
"Oh. That." A pause. "Why? I mean… I don't really mind, or anything, but.. you usually.."
"Didn't want them to keep on blaming her antics on you." A twitch of the lips. "Besides.. I just wanted to do it." Blue eyes tracked to the cradle. "Let em think what they want to."
Now it was Gabrielle's turn to blink. "You're full of surprises today, aren't you? " She murmured "All right.. but, honey… blame or no blame, we need to do something about Dori - she can't keep holding an entire armed camp hostage whenever we're gone."
"Hm." Xena chewed the inside of her lip. "Yeah… maybe we can tie her with vines to the ceiling or something." She looked at the stunned face. "Just kidding."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle looked up, and her voice toned down a few notches, becoming warm and concerned. "You look really tired.. you didn't sleep last night, did you?" She shook her head and worked on unlacing Xena's other boot, tugging it off and checking for further cuts.
"Someone had to keep watch." Xena remarked, stretching her body out to relieve the oncoming stiffness.
"Oh.. fifty Amazons weren’t enough?’ Came the retort, as Gabrielle slid between her legs and leaned on the muscular thighs.
"Not with your safety at stake, no." Unrepentant blue eyes winked at her, as Xena squeezed her between her knees, locking her ankles behind the bard’s legs and smiling. "I used to be able to go without sleep for a week."
"Oh.. I can just imagine how grumpy you’d have been then." Gabrielle snorted. ‘Here.. let me go, and just sit quiet, okay? I’ll grab us some pockets."
A lip poked out.
"Xena, stop that."
Long, dark lashes batted at her.
With a chuckle, the warrior released her, then slid lower in the chair, resting her head against the back and closing her eyes. . She felt the weight as Gabrielle pushed herself to her feet, then a brush of warm fingers against her scalp as she received a friendly hair tousle. "Mm." The noise elicited a further rub, and Gabrielle moved closer, the fabric of her shirt draping over Xena’s left arm which the warrior shifted, circling the sturdy legs next to her with it.
"You have a bump back here." Gabrielle commented, parting the dark hair and examining it. "It’s scraped."
"Pony hit me, I hit the wall."
A sigh. "I hate that… I hate that.. .Xena, if you ever do that again, I’m going to…to…"
Xena turned her head and nuzzled her partner’s belly. "Don’t yell." She kept her eyes closed. "My head hurts enough as it is."
Another sigh. "You just do that because you know I’m a total sucker when it comes to you."
A blue eyeball appeared, and rotated up, peering past the curve of Gabrielle’s breast with a look very reminiscent of a certain small infant sleeping not far away.
Unable to help herself, Gabrielle stroked the tanned cheek affectionately, feeling the ache in her chest she sometimes got when she looked at Xena, the one that squeezed her heart and made her smile. Always had, the only difference was now when Xena looked back at her, she let the love she felt in return show openly. She reached around and slid her fingers under Xena’s dark hair, kneading her neck as the eye closed, and she felt a long, warm exhale against her belly.
It was moments like this. Moments when her hands gentled and soothed the wild spirit she knew ran just under her partner’s skin, that she came near to understanding just how powerful a force love really was.
In a strange way, Xena mused, it felt good to hurt. The myriad of small cuts and bruises, aches and pains that were now settling over her brought home, more than anything else, her essential humanity. It reminded her that all actions had a price, and laid out the sacrifice she made for her skills.
She drew in a breath of air filled with Gabrielle's scent, and listened to the heartbeat under her ear, feeling for the moment very mortal. The thought made her smile, as she gave the bard a one armed hug, and leaned back.
"Don't go away." Gabrielle put a finger on her nose, then smiled, and strolled out, ruffling her hair out from under her shirt collar as she did so.
Xena hitched one leg over the chair arm, and wiggled her bare toes, absorbing the fire's warmth contentedly.
Gabrielle paused for a moment, letting her hand rest on the rock wall before she continued on into the main cavern. It wasn't that busy, most of the activity were people fixing armor, and doing other small chores, using the trestle tables they ate on as workspaces.
An interesting development, she noticed, was that the strict segregation was starting to break down. Before, she was used to seeing Amazons in one clump, militia in another, their volunteer fighters in several large groups, and the centaurs rumbling around in the back where three or for taller tables had been set up for their use.
Now, it was more of a mix. Some of the Amazons, the heavy fighters, had started up conversations with Bennu's men, and as she passed, she heard snatches of speech mostly having to do with thrusts and impact. She was almost sure they were talking about fighting, too.
The militia had also made Amazon friends, but were hanging out mostly with the centaurs, who were trading building tips with them and the talk there was mostly of crop rotation, and threshing. Everyone seemed more relaxed.
That was good. It didn't do anyone any favors if they fought with each other… the bard knew, and she was really sort of pleased that even the sometimes prickly Amazons were settling down, and joining the common cause.
Gabrielle headed into Xena's battle planning room, intent on retrieving a bag she'd left there, and jerked to a halt when she almost crashed into someone coming out. "Whoa!" She rocked back and put a hand out, surprised to find her mother standing there blinking at her. "Hi."
"Ah.. Gabrielle." Hecuba gave her a relieved look. "I was looking for you… Lila was unpacking some things we'd brought with us, and we found this." She held up a very ragged, almost unrecognizable item. "Do you remember it?" Her mother's voice sounded a touch wistful.
"Remember it?" The bard took the item, holding it carefully. "Of course I do… it's my old toy doll." She touched the face of it with a finger. "Been a long time since I've seen this… I thought I lost it years and years ago."
Hecuba was silent for a moment, then she sighed. "I remember when your father made that for you." She studied her daughter's still, introspective face, as the pale green eyes examined the toy. "I know.. it's falling apart, but I thought you might want to have it… Dori has a lot of toys, but I didn't think she had a doll."
"No..she doesn't." Gabrielle murmured thoughtfully. "She has a couple of stuffed things, but…." A horse. A pig, and a thing the Amazons had sent whose anatomy defied even Xena's encyclopedic knowledge of fauna. "She doesn’t have a doll."
"Well. There you are… all little girls should have a doll." Hecuba pronounced. "You know, dear.. some of those new women are quite handy.. perhaps you could get them to put together one or two.. those poor children in the hospice don't have any toys either."
Gabrielle nodded slowly. "That's a good idea, mother… thank you." She finally looked up. "Thank you for saving this for me, too." She felt a pang of conscience then, at how little she'd seen her family since they'd come to the caverns. "Um… we were going to get together with Cyrene and Toris and everyone tonight.. will you and Lila and Lennat come over, and join us?"
Hecuba blinked, but her face took on a pleased expression. "I would like that.. I know how busy you are here.. we hardly get to see you." She hesitated. "We'd heard that Dori got into some mischief.. did that turn out all right?"
"Um..yes, yes, it did.. we didn't find out until we…. Well, we just got back a little while ago. She's fine.. she just got into a little trouble, that's all."
Her mother nodded. "So Cyrene said… I was going to get the whole story from her later… well, I must go finish my tasks… we'll see you for dinner then, Gabrielle." She patted her daughter's arm, and walked away, disappearing into the cavern's gloom.
"Yeah." Gabrielle leaned against the wall, and chewed her inner lip. Then she tucked the doll under her arm and went on, grabbing her bag from the planning room and returning to the large cavern. A pair of familiar golden eyes met hers, then dropped and she watched in wry understanding as Eponin ducked out of the room, not wanting to meet up with her.
Shaking her head, she entered the food area, and picked up a small basket, rummaging around in the fruit bin and selecting a few pieces of it, her mind still on her family. That was the trouble, she knew, they were still her family, just as much as Xena's family was, and she hadn't had to deal with that in several years because of the distance between them. She'd gotten used to thinking of Cyrene as mom, and Johan as dad, and had realized some time past that she was more comfortable by far with her adopted family than her natural one.
That wasn't fair to her mother and Lila. She knew that. But she couldn’t help it, and even now when her family dealt with her, it was always as though they were trying to take up where they'd left off, with her as a barely competent adolescent who'd run off and finally come home.
The bard put a piece of cheese in her basket and turned, to find Ephiny there. "Oh.. hi." The Amazon regent had traded her leathers for a warm shirt and thigh high boots, and looked like she could easily fit in with any of the small groups of Amphipolitans and other villagers who were moving through the cavern. "Sorry.. I was a little distracted."
"Sokay." Ephiny leaned a hip on one of the worktables. "Got a minute?"
Erg, erg, erg. "Sure." Gabrielle finished her selections and pointed towards a quiet corner. "Let's go." She lead the way to the table and dropped into one of the rough hewn benches, watching Ephiny do the same across from her. "What's up?"
Ephiny leaned back against the wall and drew one booted foot up onto her bench, circling with a long, leanly muscled arm. "I wanted to talk to you about what happened between Pony and Xena… Pony's really upset about it."
Gabrielle idly picked a grape up and ate it. "Xena isn't." She looked up frankly. "Far as she was concerned, it was the fastest solution to a problem she really didn't want to deal with." She chewed and swallowed. "I'm not really happy with her about that."
"Ah." Ephiny grunted.
"I'm not really happy with Pony either."
"Mm. Yeah, she sort of figured you wouldn't be." Her regent admitted. "I sure wasn't."
Gabrielle considered the shiny skin of an apple, then looked up. "It just occurred to me.. why are we talking about this?"
Ephiny blinked. "Excuse me?"
"Why are we.. you and I, talking about this? It's not our problem, Eph." The bard handed her an apple. "Let the two of them work it out… if Pony feels bad, tell her to come over and talk to Xena about it.. she doesn't have to be nervous.. Xena's not going to do anything to her."
"Um." Ephiny scratched her ear, and ducked her head closer. "Gab.. I… um… " She looked around. "She wasn't worried about Xena." She watched the queen's head cock to one side in puzzlement. "She was afraid of what you'd do to her."
Mist green eyes grew round. "Me?" Gabrielle pointed at her own chest. "What did she think I was going to do to her… take out my staff and knock her silly?"
Ephiny cleared her throat. "Well, yes, actually."
Hades be damned… "Is that the kind of reputation I really have with you?" Gabrielle felt a sting of hurt.
The hazel eyes blinked. "When it comes to Xena, yes." Ephiny responded, in a puzzled tone. "Gabrielle… have you ever seen yourself when you're defending her? You'd scare the tail of a centaur, my friend.. let me tell ya." Then she realized why the bard looked so hurt. "Oh… gods, no.. that's… no, Gabrielle, in general, that's not what people think of you at all. That's why it's always so shocking when you get your feathers and fur up over her."
"Oh." Gabrielle rested her chin on her hand. "Okay… yeah, I guess I do get a little.. um.. "
"Fierce?" The bard sighed. "If you say so… but she means so much to me, Eph."
"No, really?" Her friend replied wryly. "Anyway… I'll tell Pony to g'wan and make nice…now that I know I'm not going to have to remove even more splinters from her butt when she comes out of there."
Gabrielle stood up and rested her basket against her waist. "Fierce, huh?" She shook her head. "Listen.. I know I said it before.. but thank you for everything you did with Dori.. I really appreciate that."
Ephiny sighed, and rested her chin on her fist. "Do you know what I realized today?"
A head shake no.
"I'll be an Elder when she's old enough to take her right of caste."
The bard leaned against the wall and let that thought absorb. "Hm." She murmured. "That's quite a concept."
Ephiny nodded slowly.
"Could be worse, though." Green eyes twinkled a little. "You could be the weapons master for novices."
The regent chuckled as she stood. "Gabrielle… my heart tells me.. when Dori comes to the Amazons.. she'll teach us more than we'll teach her." Ephiny turned and made her way out, towards a pair of peeking honey gold eyes watching from behind a rock pillar.
Gabrielle stood lost in thought for a long moment. "Yeah." She finally murmured, tucking her ragged doll under her arm before she continued on.
Xena wasn't sure if it was the headache, or what, but she found herself content to sit and gaze at the light coming in the from the rocks above, and dancing over the water that had caused so many people so much trouble not very long ago. She felt tired, but not really sleepy. The light was bothering her eyes, though, so she closed them and allowed her mind to drift, allowing herself the rare luxury of daydreaming. A smile lazily formed as the images flicked against the inside of her closed eyelids.
Standing on a hillside, a brisk wind blowing in their faces as they looked down a long, grassy slope. At the bottom was a short plain, which Xena had last seen covered in blood and bodies during a battle in which she'd personally slaughtered countless men as her army had ploughed through the makeshift defenses of the valley. Now, wildflowers waved there, giving off a heady, spicy scent even up that high on the hill.
A group of children were playing in the grass, their laughter echoing in the wind, as Gabrielle had impulsively put her arms around her and given her a hug. And Xena had realized for perhaps the first time that some things could heal, if she'd let them.
The first time she'd woken up, and looked across a campfire to find someone else there, a small, grubby half grown kid, all scrunched up in her old blanket, one hand tucked under her head and the other curled loosely on
the ground, looking so young, and so helpless, it had made Xena doubt her own sanity for a very long moment, in letting Gabrielle stay.
Wondering, for those same moments, if she shouldn't just sneak away, and leave the kid here, near home, where she'd have a better chance of living another year.
And having those green eyes open, and meet hers, and understanding in a moment of exceptional clarity that she was never going to leave Gabrielle anywhere. Anytime.
Remembering the personal courage it had taken to stand, heart locked up tight, and let Gabrielle walk away from her not once, but three times, putting someone else's dreams ahead of her own for the first time in what seemed like forever.
Remembering the personal courage it had taken to finally. finally understand and accept that her dreams, and Gabrielle's were coming together, and to give up her fear of them and take the joy she could sense just beyond the reach of her fingertips.
Seeing the look in Gabrielle's eyes after she'd fought Melosa and won, becoming Gabrielle's personal champion, subtly changing both of them without their realizing it
Waking at home, in a sun speckled hayloft with the smell of grass, and wood, and horses rising around them and Gabrielle's naked body tangled with hers, realizing they'd let their physical natures acknowledge what their hearts had long before.
And thinking, about damn time.
Standing on a pile of rocks, and seeing Gabrielle headed down a long, dusty road.
Leaping off a crumbling cliff side, towards a river of lava, stretching out hands in split second timing and feeling warm flesh hit them.
Seeing Gabrielle's look of trust and amazement, as she looked up, having been snatched from a horrible death at yet again, the last moment.
Watching through ghostly eyes as Gabrielle claimed the Amazon mask as her own, putting aside a very visible grief to fight for the greater good, and standing up to Velaska in her own right, knowing she had no champion beside her.
Seeing that visible grief dissolve into heartfelt delight as their souls rejoined in that gray and misty place she'd been trapped in, and knowing she had the power to do that.
Waking in the darkest, lowest moment of her life, expecting to find an empty cave, and being cradled in Gabrielle's arms instead.
Holding a long thought lost crystal in her hand, representing the greatest gift of her life being returned to her.
The night of Dori's birth.
Xena's eyes fluttered open, and she blinked to clear them, focusing on Gabrielle's amused face. "Oh. Hi."
"Taking a nap?"
"Nah." Xena smiled. "Just thinking." A pause. "What's for lunch?"
"Mm. " Gabrielle perched on the chair arm, and inspected her basket. "Pockets, cheese, fruit, if you're good, a pastry, and Pony'll be in here shortly to apologize, so.. do me a favor, honey.. just let her, hmm?"
Xena liberated a grape and ate it. "What kind of pastry?" She arched an eyebrow. "Is she worth it?"
Gabrielle leaned over and kissed her, almost losing her basket and balance when the light touch rapidly became something more serious. She steadied herself with a hand on Xena's shoulder, then pulled her head back a little, breathing hard. "Um."
A hesitant throat clearing broke the moment, and Gabrielle looked up to see a very embarrassed looking Eponin standing in the opening to the cavern. "Hi."
Xena regarded the precariously balanced body hovering over her, and a wicked little gleam entered her eyes. She tapped Gabrielle on the arm, and when the bard looked back, she slid a hand behind her neck and pulled her down, stifling her gasp of surprise by continuing their kiss, and keeping it up until she felt Gabrielle's skin start to heat against her.
Then she released her willing captive, who moved a few inches, just enough to open beseeching green eyes and give her a pathetically frustrated look.
Xena winked, and licked her nose. "So. What was this about me being good?"
"Good? No no.. you don't' have to be good." Gabrielle muttered, pushing herself upright. "Not at all."
"Do I still get my pastry?" The cheerful warrior inquired.
Gabrielle handed her the entire basket, then got up and rubbed her face, trying to pretend a bug eyed Eponin wasn't standing there rooted to her spot like a tree. "I'm going to go take a bath." She walked right over to the pool and without so much as a pause, sloshed into it, clothes and all.
Xena smiled, and turned to Eponin, lifting the basket towards her. "Grape?"
The Amazon held up a finger, then disappeared. Xena shrugged. "No? More for me." And ate one, with a little chuckle.
"All right." Xena stood in her stirrups, feeling the leather shift under her weight as she reviewed the troops arrayed in the grass. "Remember… when you start moving.. remember where in Hades you are, and don't get in the way of the cavalry." She surveyed the formation, which featured mounted troops on both sides, fencing in the armored foot soldiers.
They'd been practicing hit and run maneuvers all day, and only now, when the sun was setting over the hills and painting the valley in stripes of gold and russet did she assemble all of them, thirteen hundred strong, for a mass drill she hoped she'd never have to use.
She lifted a hand, and watched the reaction across the valley floor, as centaurs shifted hooves, and Amazons gathered a closer hold on lances and scimitars they'd spent the last half moon learning to wield from horseback. The troops between them settled shields firmly on their arms, save the group of soldiers who had proven best with two handed weapons, and stood ready to be a shock force.
This was just to get them used to moving together, and not cutting their own arms off, Xena sighed, as she nudged Iolaus and he turned neatly, gathering his hooves under him. She faced the other end of the valley, where bales of hay, wooden blockades, and pells had been set up. Not like attacking a real army, but if they could make it to the other side, and not get anyone trampled or killed by a friendly axe stroke, she'd consider it a success. "All right! Move it!!"
Xena started Iolaus forward at a trot, hearing the slow building of thunder behind her as thirteen hundred troops moved, sending a thrum of boots, and hooves against the grassy earth. Instinctively, she shivered, as the wind gusted against her, and the scent of animals and sweat, mixed with leather and oil came forward with it. She increased her pace, and heard the drumming hasten behind her, and she turned her head, to see the formation moving, a little tentatively as group leaders fought to keep their lines straight, and Amazons clamped legs down on anxious chargers.
Shaking her head, she turned back around. I don't remember leading an army being this hard. She grumbled to herself. Of course.. I never had one that was quite like this. A hand lifted and reached over her shoulder, pulling her sword in an easy, familiar motion as she settled her boots into her stirrups, and lowered herself into the saddle, gripping with her knees and freeing her hands up. A loud yell reverberated behind her as the posture was recognized, and she lifted her other fist, nudging Iolaus into an all out gallop.
The wind blew her hair back as she drove forward, leading the attack on the haybales, her fingers shifting on her sword hilt as she reached the first row of straw dummies, emulating an entrenched line of defenders.
A touch of her heels, and Iolaus leaped over them, and she heard the shuffle and whinny as the Amazons followed her lead, leaving the line to the ground troops as she leaned in and cut the stuffed arm off a mounted defender.
Then she got out of the way. She pulled Iolaus around and bolted off the field, whirling as she reached the edge of it to watch the attack. The first line did well. The mounted troops had bypassed the initial ranks as she'd taught them, concentrating on the heavier defenses behind them. The foot soldiers fell too on the haybales with gusto, piercing their sad little golden hearts with thrusting swords and clobbering the wooden weapons with pikes and maces.
Then it started getting messy. Soldiers piled up behind the first ranks, and the centaurs had gotten in behind them, sending men sprawling forward an into the Amazon's horses, who shied and bolted when sharp weapons came into contact with their sensitive flanks. "Hold it!!" Xena yelled, over the clash of weaponry.
Too late. A group of the soldiers had pushed over a large, wood and straw defensive post. It fell with a crash, and bits flew everywhere, hitting the horses and the other fighters. One horse screamed and kicked out, smashing dangerous hooves into a second.
"Damn." Xena urged Iolaus forward. "C'mon, boy… " The horse leaped a low straw embankment and she threaded her way through the confusion, as the sounds grew louder and yells of pain and outrage came from a knot of horses and men. "Hold it.. HOLD IT!!!" She dodged an errant pike and cursed as Iolaus bucked, getting a spear point in the shoulder.
She freed her boots from her stirrups and launched herself off the stallion's back, landing in the chaos and starting to pull men back. "Stand down.. damn it!" A spear slammed against her back armor. She reached around and grabbed it, pulling it's owner around with it, then shoving him away. "Put that down before you kill someone."
"I thought that was the idea, ma'am." The very young soldier, one of Bennu's gulped. "Sorry."
Xena glared at him then waded into the confusion of horses and men, getting bounced around by the animal's hindquarters and feeling a little like a salmon battling it's way upstream. One of the horses screamed and reared, it's large hooves inches from her head, and she pulled an arm up, taking a sharp blow on her biceps before the animal calmed and lowered itself. "All right… now everyone just HOLD IT!!"
Somehow.. they did, and she was standing in the center of a group of hot, bleeding, sweating fighters and horses. The Amazons dropped off their mounts backs and held their bridles, and slowly, a quiet settled over the muddy field.
Xena put her hands on her hips and exhaled. "Okay… ya did what I said.. get past the first ranks.. but then, you gotta KEEP GOING." She yelled, hearing her voice echo off the rocks. "You can't stop, because everyone piles up behind ya, and you get into a MESS."
Ephiny ran a hand through sweat dampened hair. "So… go by the second group too?"
"Don’t' stop to fight the second group. Sweep by them, hit and run, like we've been practicing." Xena replied. "Cut and run… just keep moving, keep them off balance.. then let the weight of the troops behind you push them back. If you stop…" The warrior indicated with her hand. "They've got nowhere to go, unless it's into you."
Wearily, the Amazons nodded. "Okay.. " Pony rubbed her face, which was covered in dark river mud. "That makes sense… we just saw targets, and went for them."
Xena glanced around, then up at the sun, gauging it's progress. She'd been up since well before sunrise, woken by Dori's screams of discomfort. Her daughter was teething, a new development that had both her, and Gabrielle driven to almost distraction. Her head hurt, her arm hurt… she was hungry, and she desperately wanted a bath and some clean clothes, and she was pretty damn sure everyone else here wanted exactly what she did, here at the end of a very long, exhausting day. Logic dictated she call a halt to the exercise, and send the troops to a well deserved meal.
"All right. " She sucked air in, pushing her voice out to carry. "One more time. We're gonna do this till we get it right." Xena turned and pushed her way back towards where Iolaus was standing, putting a hand on his saddle and vaulting her way aboard. "Let's go… back to where we started."
Ephiny had followed her. "Xena… "
"Yes?" The warrior turned, pulling Iolaus' head around and facing the Amazon regent, giving Ephiny a level, neutral stare.
"It's getting dark."
"We'll light torches." Xena responded steadily.
"That could get dangerous."
"Guess we'd better do it right this time then, huh? Otherwise I'll send a note to the hospice." Xena turned Iolaus and started him back towards the staging area, passing the quietly walking troops who glanced up at her as she passed.
Eponin urged her horse up next to her lover's. "Nice try."
Ephiny scratched her head, then exhaled. "I feel like this horse has been riding me, rather than the other way around." She rubbed the inside of her knees, encased in worn, woven fabric. A horse came up on her other side, and she nodded at Gillen. "Maybe if we join up and take that large central target, then go past, that'll open up some space."
"Good idea." Gillen agreed. "Anything to get out of this damn saddle… I have bruises in places that make me seriously wonder about how men do this."
Eponin and Ephiny both chuckled wearily. "Padding, I bet." Ephiny hazarded a guess. "Wrap them up in soft wool, I've got five dinars that says they do."
"I'll take that." Gillen shifted her shoulders, and glanced ahead. "And raise you five dinars. I bet they tie em up out of the way." She raised one hand, and lifted an imaginary string. "Up.. down.. up down.. "
"Ew.. what a visual." Ephiny shook her head, and kneed her horse into a canter, towards where they Amazon cavalry was reassembling.
Gabrielle paused, and took a sip of her tankard, then let her head rest against one hand as she studied a records scroll. "Okay." She put one aside, and pulled another over. "This is the supply train that came through yesterday.. what did they donate?"
"Three of these.. and twelve casks of salted fish." Cyrene pointed. "Artemis only knows what I'm going to do with that.. but they said it was from a coastal village you'd done something or other for.. and they'd sent it along for us."
"Mm." The bard nibbled the end of her quill, and tried to figure out which village. She eventually shook her head. "Could have been a couple… we spent half a year on the coast…did a lot of stuff out there."
A fitful cry distracted her. "Oh boy.. here we go again." Gabrielle gave Cyrene a wry look. "Poor Xena.. I don't think she slept more than a quarter candlemark last night." She got up and went to the cradle near the big hearth fire, where Dori was wriggling, an unhappy look on her face. "What's the matter, honey… you hurting again."
"Mama.." Dori pouted.
"I know.. I know.. " The bard knelt and lifted her daughter, cradling her and rocking her gently. "I don't know, mom… the last set that came in weren't nearly this bad." She put a hand on the toddler's forehead. "I think she's a little warm, too."
Cyrene came over and felt the baby's head. "A little.. that happens sometimes." She sighed. "Does Xena have anything for you to give her?"
"Yeah.. " Gabrielle retrieved a bit of leather, and gave it to her fussing child, who started chewing on it irritatedly. "But she can't have it too often… actually, how we got her to sleep last night is Xena gave her some of that cold stuff she made… Dori loves it, and it make her feel better, I think."
Dori's ears perked up at a familiar name. "Boo?"
Gabrielle turned around, and gazed out the cavern entrance, where the full dark made it impossible to see any detail of the valley, save the proliferation of torches burning out there. Yells and the thunder of hooves still floated back to her, and she sighed. "Not yet, honey."
"They're out late tonight." Cyrene murmured.
"Boo!" Dori had decided on what she wanted. "Booboobooboobooboo!"
I know how she feels. Gabrielle mused inwardly, having seen very little of her partner over the last few days. Of course, she'd been busy also, with the seemingly neverending train of traders marching out to the wilds, sent by friends, by allies… by their own avarice… planning the supplies for the ever increasing, and ever more involved troops, keeping the peace, handling the inevitable arguments and controversies… While Xena shaped the volunteers into some kind of fighting force, she kept the logistics of it running behind the scenes.
It was taking a toll on both of them.
"Boo!!!" Dori wailed.
"Right there with you." Gabrielle pursed her lips, then made a decision. "Be right back." She carried Dori, now intrigued with the moving ceiling into the planning room, where she picked up one of the baby's carry sacks, and stuffed her inside. Then she slung it over her shoulder and headed for the stables.
Argo was munching her hay quietly, but she looked up as Gabrielle entered, recognizing a familiar smell and sounds.
"Hey, girl." Gabrielle scratched her behind one ear, and got a nose butt in her belly. "Wanna to me a favor? I just need a little lift.. okay? " She slipped Argo's bridle on, and buckled it, then unhooked the rope that sketched out a rough stall for her and lead her to the main entrance.
Where there was, conveniently enough, a rock big enough for her to stand on and hop onto the mare's broad back. "There… that was easy." She wrapped her legs around Argo's warm body and exhaled. "Okay, Dori.. you ready?" The baby had been tugging on her hair, and now she felt a small hand grasping her shirt. "Let's go."
It was very dark, the moon having slid behind the clouds, and she picked her way carefully through the rocks and obstacles, guiding her steps by the sound of fighting not far away. She could see where the torches were set up, and shadows flicked against their ruddy glare, crimson flashing off weapons, and the sweat streaked skin of the horses.
Her soulmate's voice rose suddenly over the din. "Hold it!!! God's be damned, stop where you are or you'll be fighting ME in a minute!"
"Sounds cranky, huh?" Gabrielle asked her daughter, who was finding the scene fascinating, enough so that she'd forgotten about her teeth for a moment.
"Boo." Dori responded.
The mock battle had stopped, and now exhausted men and women were standing, weapons drooping at their side as Xena hopped up onto a haybale, and put her hands on her hips. The warrior opened her mouth to continue her tirade, but stopped in mid breath as her eyes fell on Gabrielle.
Heads turned, and bodies moved to clear a path for her, and the regally pacing Argo, who snorted at the other horses as she neatly picked her way around the haybales. Finally, Gabrielle pulled her to a halt next to her partner. "Hi."
"Gabrielle, we're in the middle of a fight here." Xena protested.
"BOOO!!!!" Dori had seen her playmate and squealed, nearly taking Gabrielle's ear off.
"Well." The bard rubbed her ear. "Dori thinks it's time for you guys to take a break."
"She does, huh?" Xena looked like she wanted to be annoyed, but was finding it hard, seeing as how Dori was scrambling all over Gabrielle's back trying to get loose and get to her.
"Yep." Gabrielle nodded. "I tried to talk her out of coming out here to find you.. but she wasn't having any of that." She lifted her hands in innocent appeal. "What could I do?"
The blue eyes narrowed, and Xena's lips pursed in wry understanding. "Well, I was about to pack it in anyway.. we're not getting anywhere here." She lifted both arms. "Take off… we pick up with this tomorrow morning at sunrise."
Not a sound of protest, just a slow whisper and shift of motion, the soft clank of weapons, the grunt of tired horses, as the army dissolved off into the darkness, leaving only a ring of torches, and a golden mare alone with two tired soulmates, and one very squirmy toddler.
Xena slowly seated herself on her haybale, and let her bracered arms rest on her thighs. "She still fussing?"
Gabrielle guided Argo closer, until she was knee to knee with the taller woman. "Yeah.. "She reached over her shoulder and pulled the sack off. "Okay, honey.. here's your Boo."
"No.. no.. Gabrielle.. " Xena protested. "I'm filthy… all this mud, and worse." She held up a grime covered hand. "See?"
Dori wriggled out of her mother's grasp and almost landed in Xena's lap. The warrior caught her and sighed. "Dori stop that." She held the baby gingerly.
The bard smiled at the sudden gentleness in her face. "Tell you what… we took those huge casks they shipped those hides in and cut them in half so we could make tubs. I've got one with your name on it… how about it?" She reached out and touched a bruise on her partner's temple.
A hot bath. Xena's inner self groaned just at the thought. "All right… and I can give Dori some more of that stuff."
"Hah. You just want some yourself." Gabrielle inched forward on Argo's back and held a hand out. "Want a lift?" She paused. "Looks like it was a long day."
Xena stood and eased herself onto the mare, cradling Dori and curling an arm around Gabrielle. "Very.. they're just not getting this." The warrior exhaled. "Maybe I'm losing my touch."
Green eyes rolled in mild exasperation, out if Xena's line of sight. "Maybe we can find it in some hot water, a meal, and a nap." She patted the armored thigh. "C'mon, tiger… "
Yeah. Xena was glad just to be quiet. "Certainly can't hurt."
They moved out of the ring of light, and into the darkness, as the sounds of crickets rose up to replace the all too human noises of battle and chase them towards the caves.
The main cavern was starting to fill as they made their way through it, tired voices rising and falling around them in a subdued wave. A conspicuous bubble of quiet followed their progress, and Xena suspected she was the main course of the subject menu. Unconsciously she straightened her shoulders put a little more energy into her steps. She wrinkled her nose, though, at the scent in the room. "What is that?'
"Turnips and salted fish." Gabrielle replied, dodging a couple of half asleep Amazons.
"Oh gods." Xena made a face. "Maybe I'll pass." She angled her steps towards the room they'd set aside for cleaning, only to be pulled up short as a strong hand tangled itself in her armor strapping and pulled her in a different direction. "Hey.. I thought… "
"C'mon." Gabrielle plowed through the chaos, tugging her past the food area, and back into their own private space.
"Look…I need a chance to get all this muck off me, Gabrielle… I'll be right back.. why don’t' you take Dori and I'll…" A pause, as they entered the cavern, which was well lit by complacently burning torches. "Oh." Xena felt a tired grin creasing her face, at the sight of her very own, private half cask sitting squatly near the fire, which sported a ring of buckets full of warming water. "I see."
"Mm." The bard took Dori from her and wiped a bit of mud off the baby's face. "I figured you rate a bathtub.. since you collect by far the most crud on you of anyone I've seen out there yet."
"No I don't."
Gabrielle stepped back and regarded her. It was hard to tell where her leathers stopped and her skin started, dark mud stains so covered the tall, armored body. Her metal plates were caked with dirt and grass, and odd stalks of hay poked out from incongruous places. "If you say so, general." The bard remarked, her facial expression indicating what she thought of the subject. "I'd be curious to know how you managed to get that.." She plucked a mudball from under Xena's breastplate. "There." Her eyes twinkled a little as she looked up into the grimy face, which scowled back at her.
"Fighting's hard work." A grumble. "You should know that." Xena moved off and dropped down onto a crate, leaning over to start unstrapping her armor. "I can remember times when I had to practically hold you down and scrub your.."
"Xena." Gabrielle covered Dori's ears.
Blue eyes narrowed evilly at her. "Round, perky little butt." She finished. "Like she knows what that is, yet." The warrior snorted, and went back to working on her left leg strap, which had gotten caked with hardened mud. "Damn."
Gabrielle finished wiping Dori off, then set her down on the rug, watching as she took off in a determined amble only to crash into Xena's still armored kneecap. "Bck!" She protested, whacking the offending surface.
"Hey… gimme a chance to get it off." Her victim complained, as the armor plate received a hefty tug. "Dori! Cut that out!"
The baby sat down with a thump on her padded bottom, and pouted. "Mama!"
With a mock sigh, Gabrielle seated herself and leaned back against the crate, slapping Xena's hands away from the stubborn buckle. "You know exactly who to call if there's trouble, huh sweetie?" Dori crawled around to see what she was doing, helpfully pulling on the end of the strap.
"I.. am.. perfectly… capable.. of removing.. my.. own.. armor." Xena got out through clenched teeth.
"Mmhmm." The bard nodded gravely, getting the strap loose and removing the plates, which sent a scattering of muddy hay over her. "Oh. Nice." She brushed her shoulders off, then turned and got up onto her knees, reaching for the buckle under Xena's right arm. "This one's fraying through, Xe." She remarked, as she released it, glancing down as her elbow brushed an inquisitive Dori's head. "Careful, honey."
"Great… just great." Xena muttered, unlatching the other side and waiting for Gabrielle to get the strap around her waist that held the newly crafted back plates down, and stabilized her sword sheath. She lifted the armor up. "Hey.. let go, Dori."
Dori tugged on the hanging strap and giggled. "Na!"
"Dori." Xena's voice dropped, and she gave her daughter a look.
The baby giggled harder and pulled, almost overbalancing. "Na! Na!"
"Sorry." Gabrielle chuckled and managed to free the tiny hands from the leather. "This is the best mood she's been in all day."
Xena set the armor down and let her elbows rest on her knees. "It's okay." She started unlacing a bracer. "Glad to see there's still someone who isn't intimidated by me." A shift of air and skin beside her brought her eyes up to Gabrielle's face. "Other than you, that is." She amended hastily, then paused. "Right?"
Gabrielle heard the note of uncertainty, well masked though it was. "You bet your.. um.. " She let her eyes run over the tall form, and waggled her brows. "Kneecaps." She had been working on Xena's right boot, and now peeled the leather back. "There is a kneecap under all that crud.. isn't there?"
Xena smiled, a startling flash of white against her muddy face. "Somewhere."
Dori found the left boot's laces and started to pull them. "Mama!" Her eyes grew wide and round as something squiggled out and fell to the floor. Immediately, she stooped and grabbed for it. "Bck!"
"Hey.. no no.. " Gabrielle lunged for her. "Dori.. leave the froggy.."
Too late. Tiny fingers clutched the squirming animal, which was a baby itself, barely an inch long. "Na." Dori stared in fascination at it.
"Ah ah.. " Xena got her fingers around her daughter's before the frog was pureed. She removed the pollywog and examined it. "Huh."
"Mine." Dori clawed at her hand, which was over the tot's head. "Boo!"
"No." The warrior replied, gazing sternly at her, and tapping the reaching fingers lightly. "Now stop!" She locked eyes with the baby, and didn't smile.
Dori blinked, and stuck a finger in her mouth uncertainly. Then she reached back up for the frog.
"No." Xena repeated.
A tiny lip poked out as Dori sat down hard, her face wrinkling into an unhappy expression. "Mama." She looked beseechingly at Gabrielle.
Oh boy. The bard felt herself torn, between knowing her child had to learn some kind of discipline, and the almost irresistible maternal urge to comfort her. She leaned her head against Xena's knee. "Oh, this sucks.. no, honey… Boo's right. You can't squish the froggy." Hard as it was for her, she knew it was three times that for Xena, who usually caved in with one bat of those tiny dark lashes. "Here.. play with this while I get Boo undressed." She reached over and snagged a tiny stuffed toy, and handed it to the baby.
Dori examined the toy, then sighed, and started chewing it.
"Whew." Xena muttered. "That's the toughest thing I had to do all day." She tossed the frog over her shoulder, and into the pool nearby.
"Mm." Her partner agreed, untangling a lace. "No kidding." She stood up and started lifting the buckets to pour the warmed water into the tub. The cavern looked a little different now, since they'd taken Dori's adventures seriously, and used the edge of the water as a storage area for large, heavy crates. A wall of them prevented toddler's access, much to Dori's frustration, and her parent's relief.
The warm water released a scent of minerals, and the wood from the cask to her, and she tossed in a small cake of the bath soap Salmoneus had cooked up, which had a very pleasant, herbal smell. She could hear the soft rasp as Xena pulled off her leathers, then the slapping sound as she dropped them on the crate. Then her awareness moved from audible to that other sense, as she felt Xena move closer on silent feet, the presence at her back becoming more and more distinctive until fingertips touched her skin, and warm hands folded over her shoulders.
"Got some knots back here." Xena's voice brushed over her, as the warrior started a gentle kneading.
Gabrielle let her head drop forward. "Yeah… I got involved in that dispute between Gillen's people and those two men of Bennu's… I honestly don’t think they meant any harm, Xena… but they were all so angry." She released a sigh. "And then, sorting out all those trains… figuring out what to do with that stuff… my brain hurts."
"Know what kept me going?"
"Knowing the day was going to end, and I'd see you." The hands stilled for a very long moment, then continued.
"Sorry I made it longer than it had to be." A light nibble on the back of her neck, then the hands slid around and undid her belt, and she felt the fabric of her shirt lift off, as a cool draft brushed against her skin and made it prickle.
Gabrielle spread her hands out along the edge of the tub as the seductive, relentless touch moved up and down her spine, then out across her shoulders and down her outstretched arms.
"Worth the wait." She whispered, reveling in it.
A soft chuckle stirred her nape hairs, then the hands slipped down her sides, pausing to trace her ribcage, and settled on her waist. "Join me?"
She was boosted up and over the tub's edge, and felt the warm water travel up her skin. She turned to face her companion, who slid into place right next to her. "Look at you." Gabrielle murmured, getting a scrap of linen, and the soap, and starting right at those dark eyebrows. She cleaned Xena's face, and then kissed her, allowing her hands and the soap to go about their business without much direction from her.
"Think those are definitely clean." A teasing growl made her smile.
"Can't be too careful. Infections there are nasty." She felt Xena laugh soundlessly, just a motion of her ribs, and a contraction of the muscles across her waistline. "Well, they are.. remember that Amazon.. what was her name… "
"Edisa." Came the prompt reply. "But she had..an unusual situation."
"She had breasts the size of muskmelons."
"That was her problem." Xena's fingers traced a pattern around the bard's own, smaller endowment. "Only Amazon I ever saw who knocked herself unconscious when she ran."
Gabrielle snickered, burying her face against Xena's neck for a long, warm moment. Then she pulled back and they kissed, ending up with their foreheads touching, and their eyes gazing into each other's.
"Think I'm pushing them too hard?" Xena asked seriously.
"I don't know. You're the expert on fighting.. you know what they need." Her partner answered, just as seriously. "They were really tired tonight."
"War doesn't stop just because the sun goes down." The warrior reminded her.
"I know… and that's a point.. but I also know the more tired you are.. the more likely you are to make mistakes. And when you're trying something new, that's tough." Gabrielle spoke from long, weary personal knowledge. "I remember how I used to feel at the end of a long day.. trying to keep up with you. And I didn't have to fight.. not at first."
Xena didn't answer.
"Xe… I know you'd never ask them to do something you wouldn't do yourself, right?"
The dark head solemnly nodded.
"Well.. try to keep in mind that you push yourself a lot harder than any of them could possibly match." She kissed the tanned nose inches from her. "This is not an army of Xenas."
"Mmph." The low grunt sounded thoughtful.
The eyebrows rose, tickling her forehead.
"I've got enough on my hands keeping up with one."
A thump. "Mama!"
"And a half."
Another thump, and a scrabbling. "Mama!!!"
Xena kissed her. "Let's get her settled, then how about you.. " A kiss. "And me…" Another one. "Go climb into bed."
"Mmmm…. For a nap?" Gabrielle tasted an earlobe close by.
"No." Solid, and definite.
"Just checking." The bard bit down gently. "Let's go."
Xena leaned back, flexing her leg a little to bounce Dori up and down. The baby giggled and clapped her hands, enjoying the ride and the quiet time as well. "Like that, huh?" It felt good, she admitted privately, just to be lying down in the quiet of the cavern, after the long day fighting.
"Bck." Dori leaned forward, and tugged at her soft, fabric belt, examining it with an absorbed look on her face.
"You feeling better, Dori?" The warrior put a hand on the baby's head, relieved to find it cool after the fever she'd been running earlier. "Good job… your mama'll be happy."
Green eyes blinked up at her. "Mama?" Dori looked around, then back. "Mama?" A worried frown wrinkled her face.
"She'll be right back." Xena soothed her daughter. "She went to go scare up some dinner." She tickled the baby's fingers, and they grabbed on to her hand. "You hungry?" She smiled as Dori plopped forward onto her belly, and crawled up her body, ending up grabbing curiously at the warrior's nose. "Hey…. "
"Mmm…" Dori explored the strong profile, batting at Xena's eyelashes as the warrior closed her eyes to protect them from tiny fingers. "Boo!" She protested, patting Xena's planed cheek until the blue eyes reappeared cautiously. "Good!"
"Yeah? Well don't poke em." Xena growled a warning, getting a giggle in return. "I need tho.. hef!"
Dori tugged on the lip she'd captured. "Bck."
"Ah ah.." Xena gently freed her skin. "Careful… that hurts." She ran her own fingertip over Dori's lips, and the baby suckled at it, grabbing her hand and pulling it closer. "Oh… I guess you are hungry, mm?"
"Of course she is." Gabrielle's voice preceded her, echoing from the darkness as she entered the cavern, carrying a folded bundle of cloth and a small pot.
"Mama." Dori rolled over, kicking her feet as she saw her mother.
Xena tucked her arms around the baby to keep her from falling off her chest, enjoying the feel of the living, squirming child against her. "Easy there, Dori." She traded smiles with Gabrielle who stood for a moment, gazing down at them fondly.
"C'mon.. I've got dinner." The bard nudged her.
Xena gave her a little pout. "Do I have to get up?" She allowed a moments sliding into whinedom. "It's so nice and comfortable here." She glanced at the pot. "Specially if I'm going to have to suffer through fish and turnips."
Her soulmate settled on the other side of the bed and stretched out on one side. "Xena, how long have I known you?"
"Is that a rhetorical question?"
"Do you really think I'd force you to eat fish and turnips?"
A shake of the head. "It's what the rest of the troops are eating, Gabrielle.. I don't rate special treatment."
Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest, then shut it, scratching her nose reflectively. "You're right." She told her somewhat surprised partner. "You're absolutely right Xena.. it is what the rest of the army is eating, and… as their leader, you don't rate anything special."
The blue eyes blinked at her, looking faintly hurt.
"However, I, on the other hand, am a Queen of the Amazons, and I do." Gabrielle went on. "So.. I guess you'll just have to put up with it." She uncovered the pot, and the scent of a thick, meaty stew escaped. "Tough luck, general." She removed the linen wrapping from her parcel and pulled out a loaf of bread, breaking off an end and dipping it into the stew. Then she offered it to her still silent companion.
Xena took a bite and chewed it, tasting the familiar spices immediately. "You made this."
Gabrielle nodded, then smiled as Dori crawled over and made a grab for the bread. "Yes, I did." She broke off a piece and handed it to her daughter. "Hey… take it easy honey… there's plenty here."
Dori stuffed the bread into her mouth, making small contented noises.
Xena settled back and spread an arm out invitingly, sighing as the bard crawled over and curled up against her, selecting a piece of soft meat and presenting it with a smile. "Thanks." The warrior emulated the sounds Dori was making. "I appreciate you doing that."
Gabrielle exhaled, selecting a piece of meat for herself, then giving a bit of carrot to Dori, as her mind drifted back to a very different night.
She'd left. Gone home, because she'd come to the conclusion somehow that her presence was endangering Xena, and it would be better… for the warrior… if she just left her alone.
And then, had found a part of her refused to accept that, driving her back to find Xena, hoping she could. Hoping Xena wouldn't see her first, and simply disappear, having the ability to avoid her young tagalong if she so desired.
It had been a long walk, with a surprise ending, and a greeting that even muted, even being Xena.. she recognized as something less than reluctant.
But the warrior had withdrawn after that, retreating back further into her taciturn shell as they'd traveled on, cutting back on even her short, gruff attempts at conversation over their evening campfire.
They'd stopped one night fairly early, in a small grove with thick, old oak trees dripping with moss, that released a strong, musky scent into the air. Xena had gotten lucky hunting, and caught a wild boar, but it had been a fight between them, and the warrior was sitting to one side of the fire, repairing a tusk gash in one leather boot while Gabrielle turned the ornery beast into something edible.
As usual, she'd tried to find something to talk about, that would at least get a grunt in response. "That village we went through today had a really unusual market, don't you think, Xena?"
Ice blue eyes flicked briefly her way, and the warrior inclined her head briefly. "Coastal traders."
Ah. "Really? What does that mean?" Gabrielle stirred her bubbling concoction.
"It means they trade with ships that come in from other places." Xena produced an entire sentence, a cause for mild celebration.
"Oh.. wow… that's amazing." Gabrielle half turned, to keep her companion's profile in view. "Some of that stuff was incredible… did you see those dried things? And what about those brass vases.. the decorations were so pretty… do you know where they came from?"
"Really? Have you been there?"
"Oh." Gabrielle added some spices, purchased in the very same market. "Well, I couldn't believe what they were charging for that soft stuff… you'd think it was made from gold."
"Silk." Gabrielle tasted the word, rolling it around her mouth with interest. "It was so fine… I'd like to see the loom that made that."
"Worms make it." Xena finished stitching up her boot and circled her knees with both arms, staring morosely into the fire.
"Worms???? Are you kidding, Xena???" A look. "You must be kidding… how could a worm make that pretty kerchief?" Another look. "Okay..okay.. so, where's that from, then?"
"Have you been there?" Gabrielle finished her mixing and got two pieces of the rich bread she'd saved from the market and put it in their bowls, then ladled the pretty darn nice smelling stewy thing over it. She turned and extended her hand towards Xena, who hadn't answered. "Have you?"
"Yes." Her companion took the offered bowl.
Gabrielle got her own dish and scrambled over, sitting down on the log near, but not too close to Xena. She knew how much the warrior hated to be hemmed in. "Wow." She stirred her portion. "What was it like?"
Xena had slowly taken a mouthful, after blowing on it to cool. She chewed and swallowed before she answered. "Just a place." Her voice had been low, and even. "Different language, different clothes, that's all."
"Oh, c'mon, Xena… it's all the way across the world!" Gabrielle had stopped eating. "It can't be the same…I bet it was full of incredible sights, and different kinds of things, and places, and…"
She'd sighed. "I know, shut up, right?" She'd made a little face, and looked over to see Xena looking back at her with an odd expression. "I'm babbling again, aren't I?"
Xena's dark lashes had flickered, in an almost nervous gesture. "S'allright.. I just wanted to um.. " She'd stopped, and taken a breath. "Thank you."
Gabrielle had been completely confused. "For what?"
That had been even more puzzling. "Huh? Xena, I always cook dinner… well, unless we're in a fight or something, or we're in some old inn, or whatever."
"I know." The warrior had shifted uncomfortably. "But.. it's ..um.. it's very good, and I… just, thank you, Gabrielle."
"Uh… you're welcome." Gabrielle had answered, poking around in her bowl for a minute. "You know, Xena.. if you wanted me to stop asking about stuff.. you could have just said.. I can be quiet if I need to be." She'd looked at the warrior uncertainly. "Does it really bother you?"
Xena's face had creased into a strange, almost wistful smile. "Nah. I've gotten used to it."
"Oh." Gabrielle had considered the words. "So.. you… really just wanted to thank me.. for this?" A tiny shake of her head. "I don't understand, Xena."
Xena had sighed. "It doesn’t' matter."
"But.. I want to understand." She'd persisted.
The warrior had glowered at her dish, stabbing at the meat uncomfortably. "Just.. " She'd started to snap, then closed her jaws, making an audible clicking noise as her teeth hit. She'd stared ahead of her for a long, pensive moment, then turned her head very slowly, and simply captured Gabrielle wholly, with a look so intense it burned. "It was too damn quiet while you were gone."
"Oh." The green eyes had grown thoughtful, then brightened. "Did you miss me?"
Xena's intimidating eyebrows had lowered, giving her a dangerous air. Then the expression melded into a sheepish half smile. "Yes." She'd replied gruffly. "As a matter of fact, I did."
Wow. Gabrielle knew her eyes had opened up wide. It was like having Solstice, and her birthday all happen at once. She'd grinned happily, seeing a shadow of her own glee glinting very softly off the clear blue eyes watching her. "I missed you, too."
They'd both eaten in contented quiet for a while after that, sitting side by side, shoulders just brushing, in a perceptible companionship that colored the peace in warm tones.
"Hey, Xena?" Gabrielle finally asked, scooping up the last of her stew.
"You were joking about those worms, right?"
"Nope." Xena had wiped her mouth and stood, heading to the fire for another portion.
"Weird." Gabrielle had sighed, watching the tall form. Then she'd gotten up and washed her dish, tucking it away in her things and lying down on her bedroll. It had been a little rocky, so she'd taken her bag and used it as an extra pillow, slipping her hand inside and halting, as her fingers touched an unfamiliar softness. Puzzled, she'd pulled her hand out, and found, glistening in the firelight, a small bag of the silky fabric, with something hard inside. She'd opened the small bag, and out had tumbled a tiny figure, carved in some kind of stone. A bear, she realized.
A soft rasping had drawn her eyes up, to where Xena had seated herself, and was sharpening her sword with even, steady strokes. For just a moment, her eyes had been met, and a hint of a smile had crossed that stern, serious face. Then Gabrielle had been left to tuck the tiny bear inside his silk bag, and close it inside her fist, before she pulled her fur blankets up and dropped off into a blissfully comfortable sleep.
"Was she really cranky today/" Xena asked as they finished their dinner, and Gabrielle put her pot on the table. Dori was sucking on her thumb, blinking up at her from her comfortable position sitting on Xena's stomach.
"Gods, yes." Gabrielle observed her daughter. "She was crying for hours… I tried everything… mom even tried some of that root, but nothing worked. She didn't even get her nap, she was so miserable." She reached over and smoothed the baby's dark hair back. "Right, honey?"
A soft grunt answered her, then Dori flopped forward, squirming around and getting comfortable on her warrior mattress. She yawned, then put her head down, and closed her eyes.
"Hey… " Xena protested. "C'mon, Dori.. I've got stuff to.." A hand covered her mouth. "Mmfph."
"Don’t you move." The bard warned. "Shhh."
Blue eyes glared at her. "Gprfofh!"
"Sshhh!" Her partner put a finger to her lips. "She's being quiet…. C'mon, Xe… it's the first sleep she's gotten in two days." She slowly released her hand.
"Gabrielle!" The warrior hissed, but very softly. Then she scowled at the warm lump lying on her. "What am I supposed to do while she's sleeping?"
Gabrielle tucked the sleeping furs around her and brushed a bit of dark hair back. "Join her." She suggested. "You didn't sleep last night either." She saw the argument erupting from flashing eyes. "Xena… c'mon now. You know she'll only be out for a little while.. take a nap, then when she gets up, you can do what you need to do."
The stormy attitude subsided, as Xena's natural good sense mulled the idea over and decided it had merit. "I'm not sleepy." She protested, more by rote than anything else.
"All right." Gabrielle slid under the furs herself, entering the comforting warmth surrounding the warrior. "I'll just stay here and keep you company… how about a story?" She kept her voice very low.
"Mmph." Xena exhaled, stretching her body out to get a little more comfortable. She turned her face towards Gabrielle and allowed herself to relax. "All right."
The bard's soft voice commenced, as she chose a story she knew Xena liked, a gentle funny tale and watched as the blue eyes first blinked, then disappeared under slowly lowering eyelids, her breathing evening out under Gabrielle's stroking fingertips against her skin.
She let her voice trail off and simply lay there for a while, gazing at the two most important things in her life. Her own eyes were growing heavy, and she gave into the desire, nestling her head down on Xena's shoulder and listening to the steady, even heartbeat under her ear. She was almost out when a soft scuffing made her look up, lifting her head a little to see Cait's slim, silent form in the entrance. Gabrielle put a finger to her lips, and saw the girl nod.
Darn. The bard eased away from her warm nest cautiously, but Xena was deeply asleep, her features relaxed as they seldom were, and her body motionless. Gabrielle stood, and padded over to the entrance, motioning Cait to move down the corridor before her, and waiting until she was a good distance away before stopping. "What is it, Cait?"
"I'm ever so sorry to bother you." Cait kept her voice soft. "But I heard from the watch that there's a wagon train coming this way, heading out from Amphipolis. They think it's quite odd to be this late."
Odd, definitely. "How far out are they?"
"Hard to say… four or five candlemarks, I believe." Cait answered. "They sent me here to get Xena… is she all right?"
"Yes, she's fine." Gabrielle murmured. "She's just… is there anything we can do before they get here?"
"All right… I'm going to wait a while before I tell her… let her get some rest."
Cait appeared troubled. "Do you think that's a good idea? That captain of the guard seemed to quite want her up at the gate."
"So she can sit and worry with him?" Gabrielle asked, a little more sharply than she'd intended. "You go back there and tell him that I said there'll be plenty of time in a candlemark or two for pacing the ramparts."
"All right." Cait responded, in a subdued voice. "They told me to keep things quiet… didn't want to start things, you see."
"Good." The bard agreed with that. "I think that's a great idea… then after they get here, we have plenty of time to overreact." She put a hand on the young Amazon's shoulder. "It's all right, Cait…maybe the wagon leaders just didn't want to stop overnight."
Cait nodded, then moved away, gaining a tall, silent shadow as she crossed back into the main cavern.
Gabrielle sighed, easing back into their chamber with a troubled expression. Now what? She paused by a box, and rested her hands on it, as her eyes fell on the two sleeping figures tucked into the bed. Xena was, undoubtedly, going to be ticked off at her for not waking her up.
But sometimes, the bard exhaled, resigning herself to her partner's ire, sometimes you had to do what your heart told you was right. She returned to the bed and slid carefully back under the covers, stilling as Xena stirred, and her face twitched, the movement of her eyes betraying a dream disturbing the warrior's sleep. A tiny sound of distress broke the cave's silence and Gabrielle immediately put both hands on her partner's body. "Easy… " She whispered into a nearby ear. "Easy.. I'm here… it's okay."
The nervous twitching stilled, the fears never admitted to during the light of day slipped back into their hiding places, and Xena's sleep returned to a peaceful quiet. Gabrielle brushed her lips lightly over the high forehead. "I'm sorry." She murmured, knowing where the scars were.
The ones she'd inflicted with her own choices and decisions.
The ones Xena never blamed her for… never told her about.. and only revealed in half broken whispers during dreams that pulled sounds of pain from her that in waking would never have past her lips.
That was all right. Gabrielle pulled the dark head closer, and buried her face in Xena's hair. . Because then she could cry the tears she didn't want her partner to see.
The soft scratch of a quill on parchment eventually tickled her senses enough to drag her back from a dark well of sleep. Xena took her time about it though, allowing the room's scents and sounds to color her perceptions slowly, until she could pinpoint every droplet of water, and tinkle of rock, and movement of air.
She imagined Gabrielle, who was curled up next to her, and let a picture form of her partner's face, tensed in concentration, brows slightly contracted. The scratching stopped, and she imagined the quill lifting, and the end finding it's way between neat, white teeth as the golden lashed eyes flicked over the words, considering what to write next.
Then she let her lids drift open, and found the solid, exact reality next to her, right down to the furrows, and the faint bunching of Gabrielle's jaw as she chewed her quill. Then the motion stopped, and the bard turned her head, sensing the observation.
Xena yawned, her jaw cracking and making them both wince. "Nice nap." She glanced down at the still dozing Dori, who was busy drooling on her shirt.
"I was about to wake you up." Gabrielle took a breath, and girded her imaginary loins. "The gate spotted a group coming in from Amphipolis' direction a few candlemarks ago."
Xena studied her soberly. "And you didn't wake me up then?"
Another deep breath. "No."
An eyebrow quirked. "Good decision." The blue eyes twinkled, and Xena winked one of them at her. "Nothing like hanging around worrying the whole night to ruin a good nap."
It was one of those little surprise nuggets, the around the corner and whack you in the face ones that she somehow thought she was past getting, after all these years. Amazing how unexpected praise from Xena could still get inside her, and make her feel like a million dinars. "Thanks." Gabrielle knew her face must have shown it, because the warrior started chuckling. She laughed too, a little. "Thought you were going to yell at me for that." She admitted.
Xena shook her head. "No..wonder what's up though." Her eyes flicked to Gabrielle's. "Trouble?"
"What else?" The bard answered wryly. "Guess we'll find out shortly… let me take Dori.. she's drenching you."
"I've had worse things all over me." But the warrior gently lifted the sleeping baby up and handed her to her mother. "Lemme go see what I can find out." She rolled up out of bed and strode to the crates, stripping off the soft linen she'd worn and trading it for her leathers, which she pulled up and fastened in one smooth motion, then sat down and pulled on her spare pair of boots. "Could be anything… word from the south, problems in Amphipolis… more troops… once you get Dori settled, come find me."
"I will." Gabrielle had knelt by the cradle, and was tucking the baby in. She glanced up as Xena stood and ran both hands through her hair, then headed for the entrance, energy almost visibly extruding from her tall form. "Hope it's just impatient traders." She murmured, trying to ignore the uneasy clenching in her guts.
Continued in Part 18