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 18
By Melissa Good
It was bad news.
Xena stood in the gateway, the light rain plastering her dark hair to her head as she stood and listened to the driver, an exhausted militia member huddled in a worn hood and cloak. "Were there many casualties?"
"Yes." The man answered. "They came at us unexpectedly, Xena.. we only barely fought them off, but the worst part was them telling us they'd be back, again, and again and again.. that Amphipolis had been targeted by Andreas to be attacked until nothing was left."
"Because of me." Xena stated quietly.
"He's trying to draw us out.. make us fight on his terms." The warrior stated flatly. "He thinks if he threatens my home, I'll come charging out to protect it."
Her words fell into a sodden silence, as the rain fell over and around cloaked, somber figures. Finally, Xena sighed. "He's not stupid, I'll give him that." She scrubbed the wet hair back out of her eyes. "All right. We've just got to find a way to make this work in our favor… pass the word back. We'll need to move out in the morning."
Dead silence. "Xena." Toris realized the eyes on him, and responded. "You don't mean you're going to do what he expects you to do.. are you? It's just a town… we can rebuild it." He swallowed a little at the dire look Xena turned on him, but straightened, figuring his sister wouldn't kill him just for talking.
"We can't rebuild the approach… that's our only link with the trading routes." Xena answered, in a clipped tone. "If he takes that, he's got us trapped in here, and he knows it. That other route out will be single file - we couldn’t get out fast enough for him to not catch us." She stared off into the dark. "We have to hold him on the far side of the river.. it's our only chance."
"Xena.. we're not.. " Toris started, then stopped, as an icy blue gaze slammed into him, with all his sister's dark energy behind it. "Okay. I'll pass the word." He finished softly, dropping his eyes.
"We'll leave a small volunteer force here… to guard the elders and children." Xena let her voice lift a little. "And all the people from Amphipolis who want to get out." She turned to the villager who'd brought the news. "Sorry about this."
He pulled his hood down, exposing silvered hair, and gazed at her. "We knew what we were getting into." He told her. "We knew what might happen, and that you might have to sacrifice the village if it came to that. No one blames you, Xena."
The torchlight cast stark shadows over her angular face. "No one but me." She turned, and started back towards the caverns.
They watched her leave, the darkness swallowing up her tall form and leaving them in somber quiet. Toris leaned an arm against the wagon and exhaled. "What's in there?" He pointed at the wagon's load.
"They were going for her place, Tor… it was like they knew exactly what to wreck. We got in and got a lot of their stuff.. packed it up and brought it in case the next time they torch it." The man shifted his hands on the reins. "I know it's just little things, but I've lived in Amphipolis all my life, Toris.. and I've seen a lot. I know how much little things can mean."
"Thanks, Jer." Toris patted his shoulder. "I' know my sister'll appreciate that.. in fact, both of them will." He took the horse's bridle. "C'mon.. let's get you under cover.. it's been a long ride."
Xena entered the room she'd chosen as a workroom first, wanting a minute alone before the various troop captains joined her. She walked over and put her hands on the table with the maps, leaning her weight on it, and staring sightlessly at the parchment.
After a moment, a presence made itself felt at her back, and she straightened, looking up to meet steady green eyes looking back at her. "So."
"So." Gabrielle walked over, and traced a line on the map. "We're going to walk right into his trap?"
"Yes." Xena answered carefully. "With our eyes wide open."
The bard absorbed the information. "Xena, there are twelve hundred people here… they're fighting because they believe in you.. in the fact that we have a chance at this. You can't just walk them into the teeth of Andrea's army." She straightened a little, and waited.
The angular face tensed, jaw muscles moving visibly under the skin. "They're just going to have to trust me, Gabrielle." Xena sat down on an edge of the table and folded her arms. "Yes, it's what he wants, but a lot depends on how we give it to him." She watched the open face next to her contort with thought. "I'm not going to get everyone killed just to prove a point."
"Of course not." Gabrielle murmured. She searched her partner's face carefully, watching the muscles shift ever so slightly, and the inclination change just a fraction. "You have a plan."
A slight smile moved the nicely shaped lips. "I always have a plan." Xena remarked, then sighed. "Besides, a lot of people are hurt there… we can't just leave them, Gabrielle."
"I know.. and that's our major trade source." The bard acknowledged. "I can see the reasons, Xena, I just - they have so many more people than we do."
"Then we have to be smarter, and faster, and better." The warrior stated. "And maybe use his numbers against him."
Gabrielle nodded, then reached over and put a friendly hand on the warrior's knee. "Well, if anyone can do that, it's you." She could hear the others approaching, so she leaned closer. "Don't be mad at me for asking."
"I'm not." Xena replied. "I"d be worried if you didn't question me."
They fell silent as the rest of the battle leaders filed in, Amazons and centaurs, militia and regulars. All of them had heard the news already, and now they stood quietly, waiting for her explanation.
"All right." Xena stood up and walked to the back wall, where a large, flat area of dark stone had been serving them as a writing space. She picked up a piece of the soft, white stone she used to diagram with and juggled it. "Andreas has upped the ante on us." She paced a little. "He sent raiding parties to attack Amphipolis, and let them know he was going to wipe it off the face of the earth, so he could draw us out and destroy us before we could finish building up our army."
Quickly, she sketched in the river, and Amphipolis. "If we let them take the village, that traps us in here, with only that mountain route out, and no way to replenish supplies." She paused, regarding her picture. "Besides the fact that he'd be erasing my home." She turned. "I don’t like that idea."
The milita leaders nodded quietly.
"So. We're going to give him what he asked for." She pointed to the river, then sketched in the bridge. "We have to move out, and set up a ditch and wall fortification here, and here… so when they come at us, we'll have a defensible position."
"But.. Xena." Ephiny crossed her arms. "They can just move down the river… go right around us."
"No." Toris shook his head. "This time of year.. with the rain we've been having, the river's only fordable in one place.. where Xe marked there." He pointed. "Or they can cross at the bridge. Anywhere else, even launching rafts is asking for an early grave." He paused. "Unless they come u this way, cross the mountains, and circle around past this valley."
"So.. " Gillen cocked her head. "We're only really defending two points.. that ford, and the bridge.. we could set up ambushes all along that valley road and pick them off as they come at us."
"Exactly." Xena nodded agreement. "What we have to make sure of though.. is that they don't draw us out, and turn the tables on us. If they take the ford, or destroy the bridge, we're stuck in the open, with no cover, and no retreat.. the closest friendly territory is the Amazon's."
"Why not just fall back behind the river.. defend the two positions from there?" Tyldus asked, reasonably. "Use the water as your ditch."
"Two reasons." Xena pointed at the far bank. "This side's higher ground, by a good bit. If they take that bank, they can use that to pretty much dump everything they can on us.. it'll be an ugly siege. " She juggled the rock. "The other reason is. His force is large enough to spread all the way down the reach from Amphipolis to where the river hits that dense forest.. he can prevent us from getting to the water, which removes that, plus a huge food source from us."
"Ah." Tyldus agreed. "Yes."
"In addition… if we take those positions, we can force them to travel far downstream to get water themselves." Gabrielle mentioned, speaking for the first time. "That's a logistical problem for them."
Everyone glanced at her, then back at Xena.
"Good point, Gabrielle." Her partner gave her a graceful nod. "Not to mention, if they have to get water downstream from us, they also have to put up with whatever we give them."
Ephiny chuckled softly, and kicked the rock floor, and Tyldus laughed outright. "A good point, my friend, a very, very good point indeed."
"All right." Xena nodded. "We need to get moving at dawn. We don't have much time to establish our position before they get here, and we've got a lot of work to do. In addition, I'll need a volunteer force to stay here, and guard the people we leave behind, as well as the people we send here from Amphipolis."
"Someone needs to go tell Aslanta what's up." Gillen commented. "She's not gonna want to miss this." She regarded Xena speculatively. "I'll see if there's anyone who wants to stick around here."
"Maybe some of the militia." Gabrielle suggested.
"Maybe." Xena agreed. "Everyone has their jobs, so let's get going."
They all filed out, save Gabrielle, of course, who wandered over and ran a fingertip through the white dust she'd drawn with. "Have you told your mother yet?" She turned her head. "You think she'll stay here?"
Xena was rolling up her maps, and putting them in their waterproof case. "I'm not sure I want her to." She immediately had a surprised bard at her elbow, peering up at her. "I don't trust Andreas. I want to have the people closest to me, with me."
"In a battle?" Gabrielle questioned. "Xena… I'm sorry.. but I don’t' get that."
"Not in a battle.. just with me, with the army." The warrior put both hands on her shoulders. "You'll be there.. that really helps. But there's mom, and Dori… if Andreas knew about Dori, and he got his hands on her.. " Xena paused, leaving the words unspoken.
"She'd kick his butt." Gabrielle answered, seriously.
"She would, and you know it. But I understand, Xena." The bard leaned against her, laying her cheek against her partner's damp shoulder. "I'd be worried about them too. The only thing is.. if we take Dori with us.."
"Who watches her?" Xena asked wryly.
"Um.. no.. how do we keep her out of the fighting?"
Xena sighed, and covered her eyes.
Gabrielle huddled in her cloak, tugging the hood down further over her face to block the rain out. She half turned in her saddle to look behind her, to see a long train of mounted riders, wagons, and soldiers on foot following, and the distinctive form of her partner halfway down the line on Argo's back.
"Mama?" Dori tugged her ear. "Mama, go Boo!" The baby was tucked in her carry sack, or actually, a new carry sack that Xena had made since the child had outgrown her old one. "Mama."
"Not right now, Dori." Gabrielle cleared her throat a little, and sniffled, cursing silently as she recognized a wearily familiar weight on her chest. "This is not the time to get sick, darn it."
"Not you, honey." Gabrielle sighed, turning and digging in her saddlebag and pulling out a honey ball, which she stuck in her mouth. The sweet flavor soothed her throat, and she reviewed the patiently slogging troops. It was well past midday, and they were making slow progress due to the weather, which drove against the sodden bodies with relentless power.
They were most of the way back to Amphipolis, though, only the tricky mountain pass was left to negotiate, then the sloping road down into the village. They'd already sent a runner ahead, who confirmed things were still quiet, and now it remained for them to push on and finish their journey.
They'd spend the night camping around the village, Xena had decided, then start their work on the riverbank at first light.
Good idea, Gabrielle had agreed, secretly wanting nothing more than a hot fire, soup to ease her throat, and her own, warm bed.
Even if the cabin was empty. She'd been surprised, and touched that the villagers had thought to pack up their things and send them, and she and Xena had decided to leave them crated in the caverns, as safe as anything was nowadays. All that was left in their home was the furniture, and a few things.
That was all right. She felt a cough coming on, and stifled it., then pulled her cloak tighter again.
"Bbbbbooooo… " Dori was pointing, her small hand poking out from under the hood.
"She's coming here, honey.. just wait." Sure enough, Xena had finished whatever it was she was doing, and was heading back, her body flexing easily with Argo's rhythmic stride. "Dori.. why can't I be that comfortable on a horse?"
"Mama? Hossie." Dori bounced a little in her sack. "Boo boo boo.."
"Boo boo boo. Yeah." Gabrielle exhaled, as Argo trotted up. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah.. that last wagon got mired.. I had to have them offload some of it." Xena peered behind her. "The'yre moving now. C'mon."
The warrior pulled up. "You want me to take her for a while?"
Dori was a warm lump against her chilled skin, and she really didn't want to give that up. "No.. it's okay… she'll settle down." She tried, but failed to stifle a sneeze.
Xena sidestepped Argo over neatly and reached over, touching her cheek with gentle, warm fingers. Then she pushed the bard's hood back and took hold of her jaw, turning her face to the scant, gray light. Gabrielle's eyes had a definite glaze, and her skin was pale and slightly clammy. "Think we've got a problem, my bard."
"Yeah." Gabrielle blinked. "Sorry."
Xena felt her cloak's fabric, then unfastened her own, heavier one and swung it off her shoulders, settling it around her partner's and pulling it around her snugly. Then she took hold of Hercules reins and started moving forward, matching the army's stolid pace. She reached behind her for her healer's kit as they walked. "Not much longer." She ignored the sting of the rain against her bare shoulders, as she pulled out herbs by touch, and mixed them, then held the cup she'd retrieved up to gather the fresh rainwater.
Gabrielle huddled closer into her saddle, and wondered what was more comforting, the warmth of the extra cloak, or Xena's scent that suddenly was surrounding her. She took the offered cup and drank it down without complaint, feeling a little better just at the taste of the familiar herbs. "Thanks."
Xena patted her knee, and sidled Argo a little closer, turning her face to the weather, and the nearing gap. She was anxious to finish the trek, now for several reasons. To get started on the defense, first and foremost, and put into place the engines of battle. To make sure her home was safe, that was secondary, because Xena had, in her heart, reconciled the possibility that Amphipolis might be overrun at some point.
Now, she had a sick partner to worry about.
Funny, how that snuggled up, and took precedence somehow. Xena had to laugh at herself a little, something she knew at one time wouldn't have been possible. Here she was, leader of an army almost thirteen hundred members strong, heading towards a dire battle against a force three times it's size, with the possible fate of Greece hanging on the outcome… and she was sitting here in this wet saddle thinking of herbs, and hot tea, and getting Gabrielle into warm, dry clothes.
Oh, Xena. What in Hades has happened to you? She tried to connect to the wild, impatient, angry fighter she'd once been, and found the gap so large she could only catch a whisper of that darkness, that hunger for power that had seemed so enticing, and so delicious.
The warrior sighed. "I am getting old." She murmured to Argo, who flicked an ear back towards her. "I'll be knitting booties next."
"Did you say something." Gabrielle asked, poking her head outside her hood a bit.
"Me? No." Xena shook her head, watching droplets of rain scatter from her hair. "Nope.. just thinking of where to start when we get over the mountain." She stretched in the saddle, the leather of her stirrups creaking a complaint. "We're gonna have to do some serious wood cutting to get enough structure for those ramparts."
"Mm." Gabrielle shifted the now dozing Dori's sack a bit. "How do you make them?" She didn't really need to know, but listening to Xena was preferable to moping about how sore her throat was.
"Well… " The warrior launched into the technical details.
Ah. Gabrielle absorbed the data. She talks, and I listen for a change. I like that. "You pack it with mud?"
The army moved on, heading up the long, sloping trail in a cold rain.
Xena trotted up the steps to the inn porch, concious of the very late hour. They'd gotten home around sundown, and she'd been working with the villagers and the troop leaders to get everyone settled for the evening, in the fields now harvested around Amphipolis. The village guard had been seriously supplemented, and she felt comfortable that everyone could get a decent night's sleep before the hard work started in the morning.
She'd actually considered breaking off a group to start cutting wood tonight, but the moon was hidden firmly behind the clouds, and the valley was as dark as the inside of a cave, using torches in all that gloom was a bad idea, to say the least.
So she'd asked one of the Amazons to make sure Gabrielle got back to the cabin, and left the villagers to reorder their homes, and went about her business with damp persistence. Xena reached out to open the door and almost had it thrown back in her face. She hopped backwards, and held up a hand defensively as Ephiny emerged, the Amazon tucked into a cozy looking set of winter leathers, and a hooded cloak. "Hey."
"There you are." The Amazon regent exhaled.
"Here I am." Xena agreed. "What's the problem?"
"What's the problem? I'll tell you what the problem is. YOU are the problem, Xena." Ephiny put her hands on her hips. "You're rubbing off on Gabrielle, and frankly, I don't like it."
The warrior blinked, a touch shocked. A hundred different thoughts ran through her head, most of them guilty, the rest painful. "What do you mean, Ephiny?" She heard a cold, reserved note enter her voice. 'Exactly what are you talking about?"
The hazel eyes narrowed. "Gabrielle is sick."
"I know that." Xena snapped. "I asked Solari to make sure she was comfortable."
"She chased her out." The regent's jaw jutted out pugnaciously. "She chased her out, chased Pony out, and gods be damned, Xena, she chased me out, when I went it to see if I could get her anything. She's pulling that Athena's left butt cheek tougher than thou attitude of yours and it's driving me NUTS!"
"Oh." Xena felt her guts unclench. "That.." She waved the regent aside. "Get outta my way, Eph.. I'll take care of it."
"Xeenna." Ephiny growled.
"Ephiny, it's late, I'm tired, and I'm not in the mood to trade bitches with you." The warrior turned and glared at her. "Now, get outta my way, and just go get some rest. I said I"d take care of it."
Ephiny took a breath, then released it. "All right." She finally sighed. "Sorry.. I was just kidding you a little." She gave Xena's taller, menacing figure a light backslap. "Went over the top, I guess."
Xena shifted awkwardly. "No, it's… sorry, Eph. It's been a long day."
" Yeah, I know." The curly haired woman smiled grimly. "Listen, go take care of that stubborn woman, will you? She's got me a little worried."
Xena nodded. "I will. Get some rest. Tomorrow's going to be a long hard one."
A twinkle of mischief entered Eph's eyes. "And you think that impresses an Amazon? Tch tch, Xena… tell it to the centaurs."
That got a sudden, reluctant grin from the warrior. "Right." She gave Ephiny a slap on the shoulder, then entered the inn, getting an incredible blast of venison stew smell right in the face that started her salivating and reminded her how long it had been since she'd eaten. "Xena." She muttered as she made her way towards the kitchen. "It's not dignified for the general of the army to drool." She pushed the door open and poked her head in. "Glad to be back here?"
Cyrene turned, and smiled. "For the time being, yes." She waved her daughter in. "Stew's just finishing up for tomorrow. Would you like some?"
Xena managed a nonchalant shrug. "If you've got some, sure." She eased into the kitchen and sauntered across the floor. "I actually came to see if you had any of that feverroot I used on Gabrielle the last time she was sick."
"Mm.. I think so. Is she sick again?" Cyrene set a thick slice of bread on an almost flat wooden bowl and ladled a healthy serving of the stew over it. "Here. Let me go get some of it."
Xena took the plate, and waited for her mother to turn towards the cabinet, then ducked her head and captured a large chunk of meat and bolted it, chewing and swallowing the mouthful before Cyrene turned back around. She licked her lips and held a hand out for the herbs. "Thanks."
"Hope she feels better. I sent some dinner over before, but I don't think she ate it. Solari came back and whined."
"I'll take care of it." Xena promised, heading out the door and kicking it closed behind her. Reflexes as sharp as hers, she reflected, really were good for something. She selected another chunk off the top of her platter and flipped it up in the air, catching it neatly and closing her teeth on it.
Ah. A carrot. She sighed. Well, can't win em all. She slipped through the darkness towards the candlelit square that marked their cabin window.
"Okay." Gabrielle propped her head on one hand, and studied the parchment in front of her. "We have to get those under cover, and we’re running out of storage." She lifted her mug with her other hand, and took a sip of the hot tea in it. To one side, Dori was in her cradle, watching with interest as her mother rocked her absently with one booted foot. "The barn’s full, I take it?"
Three people sat quietly waiting for her, dripping on the wooden floor but glad to be out of the rain and letting someone else make the decisions. "That’s right." The closest man answered, a short, stocky man who was one of Gabrielle’s better staff students. "And the two big stores are out, cause they gots the harvest just in em."
"What about those abandoned buildings, out back?" One of his companions asked, a tall, thin woman about twice Gabrielle’s age. "They’re falling down, but they’d be better than nothing."
"Depends." Gabrielle chewed on her quill end. "We’d have to post a guard around them, and would the wagons fit in the doors, or would we have to unload?"
"Unload." The third man answered stolidly. "Waggin aint’ fitten in that opening."
"Doesn’t make sense, then." The bard sighed. "We need to move those supplies right back out again. Okay.. " She took another sip of the hot tea, and tugged her warm, soft, way too large shirt around her. "Let’s just get them under the oak trees on the west end, and put waxed hides over them. Strap them down tight, and we’ll hope for the best."
"Did you have better idea?" Gabrielle asked her daughter wryly. Dori poked her tongue out. "I didn’t think so." She looked up to see her three guests with smiles on their tired faces as they gazed down at the baby. "She’s got a comment for everything."
‘She’s really cute." The tall woman commented. "She’s almost a year, right? Wow.. she’s big for that."
Dori poked her tongue out again and wriggled, her brow creasing. "Mama."
"Ah.. she must be wet." The stocky man stated.
"Tired." The woman shook her head wisely.
"Colic." The third man disagreed.
Gabrielle sighed. "Hungry." She dug in her belt pouch for some of the little crackers Cyrene had invented for her always starved offspring, and gave Dori one. "Chew on that, honey. Maybe B… Xena will bring something for you from grandma, okay?"
Dori looked up from her cracker, which she was mouthing seriously. "Boo?"
The bard stifled a cough, then took a moment to catch her breath. "Yeah." She rocked the cradle a bit then glanced up again. "Is that it?"
"Should do it." The short man stood. "Thanks, Gabrielle. We’ll get those wagons under cover, but the rest of it’s going to be shuffle."
They all looked over as the door opened, and Xena entered bringing a damp, cold draft with her. "Problems?" She gave the three a dour glare, noting the pale tinge to her partner’s normally healthy face. "Anything I can deal with?"
"Uh.. " The short man gathered up his lists and edged around her. "No.. no, just getting some instructions."
"Yeah.. good night, Xena.. Gabrielle, thanks." The woman joined him, with their companion right behind her. "Sorry to bother you." They escaped out the door and closed it, leaving the irritated ex warlord alone with her partner and child.
Xena continued towards the desk and set her plate down, the put her hands on her hips. "Why are you up?"
"I was just.."
"Why do I have Amazons of all shapes and sizes coming to me complaining you won’t let them help you?"
"Get your butt into that bed right now."
"Yes, ma’am.’ Gabrielle meekly untangled herself from her chair and padded over to the bed, getting under the covers and pulling the thick blankets up around her neck. "I really don’t feel that bad."
Xena unclasped her wet cloak and spread it out near the fire to dry. Then she crossed over to the bed and perched on the edge, putting a concerned hand on her partner’s forehead. "You have a fever." She pushed Gabrielle back against the pillow and tucked the cover around her. "Is that soup over there?"
The bard nodded. "Just wasn’t in the mood for it." Her lips twitched a little. "Wasn’t in the mood for people messing with me either." She watched the dark eyebrow lift. "You’re always the exception, though."
"Gabrielle.. that makes no sense." The warrior objected. "Those people were just trying to help.. they weren’t doing anything I wouldn’t have done." A scowl. "I’m going to heat some of that soup up, and you’re gonna drink it, got me?"
"Okay." The bard snuggled down into the comfortable bed and sighed. "If that’s food you brought back, slide some over to the little eating machine down there. She was hungry." Gabrielle let her head rest against the soft pillow. "And getting cranky."
"All right." The warrior retrieved the forlorn pot of soup from the tray and crossed over to the fire, stepping over Ares, who was curled up on the rug . "Don’t you get any ideas." She warned the wolf, who had lifted his head to watch her. "Ouch." She’d grabbed the iron trivet, not realizing how hot it was, and dropped it. "God’s be damned thing… "
"What?" The warrior turned, and glared.
"Maybe you should eat something too." Gabrielle suggested quietly, meeting the irritated blue eyes across the room from her.
"Are you insinuating something?" Xena had set the small pot of soup on the trivet and moved it near the flames to heat.
"Yes, you are." Xena stood and walked over to the desk, dropping into the bard’s vacated chair with a softly uttered oath. "I am not cranky." She pulled the plate over and uncovered it, releasing the scent of venison and vegetables into the air. "I just have a headache."
"Mm." Gabrielle watched as Dori pulled herself up in her cradle, making it rock back and forth. "Careful, Dori."
Xena glanced over to see her daughter attempting to climb out of the moving furniture and made a grab for her just as she toppled. "Dori!"
The baby giggled and clutched at her as she was lifted, then balanced carefully on Xena’s thigh and peered over the tabletop. "Mama!" She pointed at Gabrielle.
Xena sighed, and used one hand to steady her daughter, and the other to retrieve a chunk of meat to pacify her audibly growling stomach. "Hey." She mumbled, as Dori reached towards the plate determindly. "All right.. all right… hold on." She got a carrot out and handed it over. "Here."
Dori investigated the offering, then stuffed it into her mouth and chewed it enthusiastically. "Mmm." An imperious hand extended. "More."
"Didn’t you get dinner already?" Xena complained, but passed over another carrot. "What a little piggy you are."
Gabrielle smiled, and relaxed against the pillow, tucking one hand under her head as she watched the two share the contents of Xena’s plate. Dori ate everything almost as voraciously as her much larger parent, and with a remarkably similar expression on her face to boot. Xena visibly relaxed during the process, the tension in her shoulders releasing as she leaned back, and extended her long legs out over the scatter rugs. Not cranky, huh? The bard let her eyes close, and tried to ignore the pounding in her head and how scratchy her throat felt.
The next thing she knew, the sharp, not unpleasant scent of the rub Xena had invented for her woke her up, and she opened her eyes to gaze sleepily at her partner. "Mm… sorry. Went out on you there." The scent of hot soup drew her attention to the bedside table, where a small crock rested, releasing steam into the air. Xena had changed from her leathers into one of her heavier sleep shirts, and her dark hair was pulled back into a knot. "Still mad at me?"
Xena glanced up from where she was spreading the salve on Gabrielle’s chest. "I wasn’t mad at you." She responded, in a puzzled tone, as she tucked a piece of soft flannel around the bard’s neck. "Here. Drink this first." She handed over a cup, which the bard sucked down with audible swallows. "Good girl." She took the cup back and put it down, then picked up the crock of soup and offered it. "Next."
"Mm." Gabrielle pulled herself upright and cradled the warm bowl, dispensing with the spoon and drinking directly from the edge of it. The liquid felt wonderful going down her sore throat and she inhaled the steam, which eased the stuffed feeling in her head. "I’m sorry about the Amazons.. they were just hovering, and it was making me crazy." She lifted her gaze, to see a faintly amused one facing her. "You’re so different.. all they do is run around and ask what they can do. You don’t. You just.."
"Come in and take over." Came the wry response.
"It’s okay. That’s what I’m good at, or so I’m told." The warrior chuckled.
"You are. And besides, it’s different with them. I’m supposed to be in charge of them, and they act so weird around me sometimes." She took a swallow of soup. "Is Dori asleep?"
"Yup." Xena stood and walked over to the table, dousing the candle and retrieving Dori’s cradle, which she set down beside the bed before climbing into it beside Gabrielle and curling up under the covers on her side. "Toris told me they were targeting this place."
Gabrielle took her time answering, sipping at her soup while she thought. "I know." Her eyes roved the room. "That hurts." A sigh. "I know it’s just a building.. but I’ve got some very sweet memories invested in it."
Xena was quiet for a moment. "Me too." She paused. "It makes me mad to think of someone deliberately trying to destroy that." She rolled over and gazed at the ceiling. "Then I remember how many people’s homes I must have destroyed." Her jaw moved. "How many lives I ruined.. maybe it’s right that I have the tables turned on me." She turned her head. "But I’m sorry you have to be a part of that."
"That’s not fair." Gabrielle put her cup down.
"I know.. you don’t deserve to pay for what I did."
"No.. not for me." The bard turned onto her side. "That’s not fair to you, Xena.. it’s like you’re saying that no matter what you do, no matter how much you try, or what you sacrifice, it can never balance the scales for your past."
Blue eyes looked at her from across a sudden chasm. "That’s exactly what I am saying."
"I don’t believe that."
"I know you don’t." The warrior exhaled, with a tiny smile. "But I think it’s time to be honest between you and me, Gabrielle." Xena looked up. "There are things I’ve done, that I can never atone for." A breath. "No matter how hard or long I try."
"That’s not true." A look just as steadfast met hers. "I will never believe that."
"I’m sorry." Gabrielle told her, sincerely. "But I believe you are a good person, Xena, and nothing on this earth, or past it, or underneath it is going to change that belief, no matter what."
"Don’t you Gabrielle me, okay?" The bard’s voice deepened. "Don’t you lecture me like I was some wet behind the ears kid who doesn’t know any better, Xena. I’ve seen the darkest parts of you, and I’ve seen the brightest, and if I say you’re a good person, then damn it, you are."
Xena dropped her eyes to the bedcovers, then shook her head. "You are so damned stubborn."
"When it comes to you? You bet your butt I am." A poke on the shoulder. "And I have a right to be, Xena.. I have been there, and done that, and gotten a traveler’s token for enough stuff to fill three lifetimes with you, so I think I have the right to tell you how I feel." She paused. "Look. We’re going to war, and I know it’s kind of scary."
Xena merely looked at her.
"Having something happen to you in all this fighting hasn’t exactly been far from my mind lately." Gabrielle admitted. "Neither has what I’d do if something did."
"I have no intentions of becoming the Martyr of Amphipolis." Her partner stated evenly. "Or of forcing you to make a decision like that."
"I know… but sometimes things happen."
"Sometimes, things do happen." Xena agreed. "And I’ve been thinking about it a lot too."
Gabrielle exhaled, her eyes never leaving Xena’s. "And?"
A quiet, resigned smile. " I think I’ve decided I want to have a lot more time here.. with you." The warrior replied. "And with Dori."
The bard moved over, until they were side by side. She reached over and took Xena’s hand, lacing her fingers with the warrior’s and tightening her grip. "Because you think this is the only time you’ll have with us, isn’t it?"
A long silence, and she felt the tremor run through Xena’s fingers as the warrior stared at the blanket. Finally she took a breath. "Yes." She turned and looked Gabrielle in the eye. "I think when I die, Gabrielle, they’re going to send me to some place so deep, and so dark, not even you will ever be able to find me."
Gabrielle didn’t even flinch. "You’re wrong."
"There is no place, no matter how dark, no matter how deep, that any part of you could go where I couldn’t follow you, even if I had to pick up a sword, and start killing everything in sight just so I could go there too."
Xena stopped breathing, and just stared at her.
"So you better just up and decide you’re going someplace nice." Gabrielle’s jaw clenched, a definite movement of muscle under the soft skin of her cheek. "Got me?"
"Gabrielle.. that’s not fair." She managed to get her voice back.
"I know." The bard smiled faintly. "Sometimes, Xena.. life isn’t fair. You taught me that."
Another sigh, but this one was lighter, and filled with something close to awe. "What am I going to do with you?"
Gabrielle felt a wash of utter relief unlock her muscles, and she relaxed against the pillow. "I don’t know.. but a hug would be nice. I feel horrible."
She got one.
And a lot more.
It was still raining. Xena listened to the sound of the water hitting the roof of the cabin, the window's glazed surface showing her a block of complete darkness so long before dawn.
Gabrielle was, as usual, curled up against her, one arm firmly holding her down. She put a hand on the bard's forehead, relieved to feel it cool to the touch. A ear cocked, and she listened for any hint of the coughing sickness Gabrielle was prone to, again relieved to hear the soft rasp of normal, if congested breathing. "Good girl." She murmured, ordering the pale hair with cautious fingers.
The bard would probably be miserable for a few days, but with any luck, she'd avoid anything more seriouis than sniffles and sneezes. Xena hoped so, anyway, reasoning that she'd caught the illness in good time and circumvented the more insidious infection for once.
Not like the last time, when she'd been on a hunting trek for two days, coming back to find her partner already very sick, so much so that she'd dropped everything, and spent days at the bard's bedside, taking care of a fretful Dori, and making sure Gabrielle took in enough water, and herbs to keep her going until her body could work out a way around the coughs.
In the worst moments, she'd sung to her partner, the sounds capturing Gabrielle's fevered, and drifting attention like nothing else would, keeping her firmly attached to life.
The days she'd spent without sleep, afraid if she dared to close her eyes, she'd open them to find the bard gone.
Gone somewhere she couldn't follow.
It had been humbling, for someone who had never known fear, not of death, not of the blade, not of an enemy…but in those long, lonely nights, Xena had lived with a fear so intense it almost unbalanced her. Gabrielle had, of course, finally turned the corner, and with a hoarse voice, and concerned eyes, coaxed her into a snuggle that had turned into a sleep so deep it had felt like drowning.
Xena sighed soundlessly.
"Why are you up?" Gabrielle murmured, her eyes firmly closed.
The bard sniffled, and coughed a bit. "Oh." A pause. "What about?"
Longer pause. "Ah." A careful, soft exhale. "What did I do now?"
Xena smiled into the darkness. "Changed my life."
"Ah.. just some light daydreaming, huh?" Gabrielle squirmed closer and took a tighter hold. "You know, Xena.. most people just worry about stuff like what's for breakfast when they wake up before dawn on a rainy day."
"I'm not most people."
"Isn't that the truth?" The bard sniffled again, and sighed. "Well, I shouldn't talk.. I spend my spare moments writing poems about your eyes."
"You don't like them?"
"I didn't say that."
Gabrielle chuckled softly, and allowed her eyes to close again. "You don't have to. You fidget when I recite them."
"Well… " Xena scowled invisibly. "They're just eyes, Gabrielle.. I just don't see the fascination." She felt the soft snort of warm air through her sleep shirt.
"Check out a mirror sometime, tiger." The bard remarked sleepily, patting the surface under her. "They're windows into your soul."
Xena felt both eyebrows lift into her hairline. She thought about that as she let the soft drumming of rain on the roof lull her into a peaceful dream.
"All right." Xena stood in the stirrups, shading her eyes and peering across the long river valley. Quiet. Her senses pricked. Too quiet. The wind brought only moving grass to her ears, no sounds of animals roaming or birds nearby. "Ephiny."
"Mm?" The Amazon regent was right at her shoulder, curly hair brushed back by the wind.
"Take a column of the Amazons and ride out a ways. Something's not right."
"Right." Ephiny lifted a fist, then pointed, and raised her hand, fingers spread, twice. Ten mounted Amazons split off from the group and trotted towards her, Pony in the lead. "About to the tree line, there?"
"Yeah." Xena watched them ride off, then turned her attention to the strip of smaller trees that bordered the river. "Okay… we need to clear out that whole patch… I want the trunks trimmed, then lay em down in a line right along here." She spread her arms. "One layer of wood, then a cross layer, then another. "
"Okay." Paliomon shouldered a huge ax. "We can do that.. out of the way, Princess."
Xena snorted. "Yeah. Whatever. The next group, start digging. We need a trench in front of that.. dump the stuff you're digging out on top of the wood as they're laying it." She settled back in her saddle as the fighters started to work, taking out axes and scythes, shovels and picks.
Should she help them? Xena flexed her hands inside the lined gauntlets Gabrielle had given her, before she'd braved the cold, damp wind outside. Maybe later. She skillfully turned Argo, and studied the line of Amazons instead, noting Ephiny's caution, and the cocked crossbows resting on muscular thighs of the women who followed her. The warrior's nostrils twitched, her head lifting into the wind and cocking to one side, exposing sensitive ears to the slightest sound.
Nothing. Just the faint scent of horses, leather, and women from the Amazons, and the damp scent of the river grass which spread to the trees.
Xena loosened her sword in it's sheath and pressed her heels against Argo's golden sides, urging the mare forward. Her eyes narrowed as she detected a hint of a strange smell on the wind and she rose up, using the height to peer out over the valley.
Xena looked over, to see the Amazons clustered near the trees, stock still, and pale as ghosts.
"Xena!" Ephiny's voice was tense, as she stared at the ground.
Argo snorted, then stopped abruptly, rearing and letting out a scream.
Xena felt a chill, as she saw what surrounded the women and horses, a ring of swaying, hissing forms her mind rapidly identified as snakes.
Cobras. "Don't move."
"Not a problem." Pony replied, tersely, her eyes watching the snake closest to her, a giant whose hooded head came nearly to her knees.
"Shoot them." Xena ordered, calmly, clamping her knees down and struggling to keep the anxious Argo steady.
Ephiny shifted her hand on her crossbow, then froze, as the cobra next to her rose up further, hissing and spreading it's hood as though understanding her action. "Uh." The snake coiled up and drew back angrily.
Xena saw the movement and reacted by instinct, her hand finding the chakram and releasing it before she was really concious of what she did. The weapon sliced through the air and cut the snake in half, scattering a spray of blood over the green grass before returing to her hand with a satisified whisper. "Everyone cover your eyes."
A soft hissing caught her attention, and she flicked her vision over the grass as she realized the snakes were now headed in her direction. Argo backed up, hopping nervously through the knee high stalks. "Easy girl." She turned her head,. "Everyone stay back!"
Xena slowly backed up, drawing the snakes further. She counted a round dozen of them, and the grass shivered around her with their motion, the soft, slithering sound raising her nape hairs and bringing their distinct smell to her as the wind moved.
Argo reared, frightened beyond her senses. Xena quickly made a decision, then waited for the mare to land and slipped off her back, giving her a slap and sending her back towards the river. "Gwan!!!!"
Argo was only too glad to comply, leaving her there.
In that circle.
She couldn’t see them, but she could hear them, and smell them, and sense them, coming closer, and closer, the rustling getting louder, and louder, almost loud enough to drown out the pounding of her heart. She could see, out of the corner of her eye, the Amazons staring at her, and she slowly let out a breath.
Closer. They were all around her now, being directed by a malevolence she could almost feel. Still invisible in the grass, still close to the ground, but within striking range.
They would kill her. Xena had no illusions about that. She might possibly survive one bite, but not a dozen. Abruptly, the rustling stopped, and she went still, every nerve tingling with the danger around her.
Then the grass in front of her parted, and a cobra rose, it's hood spreading not an arm's length from her.
Tiny, black, lidless eyes caught hers, and she almost choked, at the cold intelligence she saw in them.
A flicking tongue came out.
The grass rustled a final time, and she was surrounded, buff and gray swaying forms now releasing a stench in the air.
They drew back their heads.
The largest swayed seductively, marking it's pray, and releasing it's energy, striking forward with incredible speed at a target still, and silent, so close missing was impossible.
One chance. Xena jerked to one side, then unsheathed her sword in one fluid motion and whirled in a circle, locking her elbows with both hands on her sword hilt, amid a shower of blood, and skin, and hissing that faded into the wind as the threat became nothing more than scraps of meat and bone, their strikes never touching even a bit of her flesh.
The warrior came to a halt and paused, her breathing coming in short jerks.
Nothing moved. She relaxed, and let her arms drop, straightening and letting the wind blow her hair back of a suddenly sweating brow. "Damn."
And then a motion, to one side, a flicker that came at her more felt than seen, and she threw a hand out in automatic defense, her fingers grazing by sharp needles as she fastened a hold on a thick, muscular body.
Her whole body shuddered, to feel the squirming power, which wrapped itself around her arm and lashed a stinging blow against her thigh. Xena forced herself into calm, and raised her fist, bringing the black eyes even with her own. Her hand had closed just behind the small head, in front of the spreading hood, and she stared into it's dark evil, seeing hatred in a beast that should, at worst, have run from her.
She met it's gaze, her own icy cold, for a very long moment.
Then she closed her fist, and tightened her powerful forearm muscles, feeling the bones crunch under her fingers as she broke it's spine. The eyes glazed, and the body went limp, and she released it to fall dead in the grass, with it's companion's severed parts.
For a long moment, the silence reigned, save the sound of the river, and the wind, and the grass. Then, nearby, in a scraggly tree in the fringe, a solitary bird piped up, warbling softly. Ephiny let her head drop forward, then she moved her mount towards where Xena was standing, still watching everything around her very carefully.
Hazel eyes met ice blue. "Not good." The regent commented briefly.
"No." Xena agreed, bending to wipe her sword on the grass before she slid it home in her scabbard, casting a last look around at the dead snakes. "Not good at all." She squared her shoulders, and whistled for Argo. "But it'll take more than that to get to me."
Argo trotted cautiously up, snuffling at the messy bits of snake and nuzzling Xena. The warrior vaulted onto her back and settled her boots in the stirrups. Then she leaned on the saddlebow. "Ephiny… I want you to take the head parts, and skin them."
Ephiny cocked her head in question.
"Then I want you to take an iron spike, and nail the skins on those trees, just where the road dips into them. Make it so they can be seen from the path."
"All right." The regent answered slowly. "Sort of like banners?"
A very cold smile. "Sort of." Xena gathered her reins in one gauntleted hand, and turned Argo back towards the river. "Burn the rest ." She left them un-mounting, and headed back, gathering in the awed looks from the soldiers with a confident nod. "C'mon… let's get moving.. entertainment's over."
Slowly, the sound of chopping wood filled the silence, and the birds sang.
"Ugh." Gabrielle pushed her diary aside, and put her head down on her arm. "I hate being sick." She rolled her head to one side and regarded the crackling fire, then pulled the blanket she had around her shoulders a little closer. Her head felt so full it threatened to explode, and she had a nagging ache behind her eyes. Add that to a sore throat, and a congested nose, and the bard was a lump of miserableness wishing she somewhere else entirely.
Oh well. She closed her eyes. At least she was here, in a dry, comfortable cabin with a nice fire, some tea and honey, a warm blanket and miraculously sleeping baby. It could definitely, definitely have been much worse.
She could be out building ditches with Xena, for instance, out in the damp, cold weather which was making her bones ache despite the fire's warmth. One look at her partner's face this morning, though, and she'd decided to not even ask, else risk the possibility of having Cyrene assigned to her as a constant babysitter.
Wearily, she lifted her head and propped it up on one hand, then retrieved her quill and pulled her diary back over.
Things are pretty unsettled. I know that Andreas is pushing Xena faster than she wanted to go, but I also know there's no way she'd let Andrea's men destroy Amphipolis. Not when she was nearby, and watching. It just wasn't going to happen, that's all.
Even though it might be better strategy to let him, then maybe he'd be convinced she wasn't around, and back off, but damn it, this is our home. This is her home, and this is my home, and I wouldn’t stand back and let it be destroyed, so I know she can't either.
Sometimes, you have to just draw a line, and know that line is something you won't cross, no matter what the odds, or what the cost is.
I used to have a line like that. Or at least, I thought I did. I used to sit around our campfire at night, and think about what I'd do, if it were her life on the line, in stead of, oh, say mine like it usually was, and I was in a position to choose. Would I kill someone? What would it take, before I went across that line?
And you know, I always gauged it against Xena. Even the first time I thought of it, what I said to myself was, Gabrielle, would you kill to save Xena's life? And the answer was, of course, yes.
Always yes. I never had a question about that, not ever.
I always thought that's how it would happen, in my daydreams. It was sort of an offering, a sacrifice for our friendship, for my love for her, for what we were to each other. Yes, Xena, I love you enough to lay down not only my life, but my soul for you.
I thought it was so noble.
Xena and I finally talked about it, just a few months ago. About Meridian, and how I felt, and how she felt. And I found out something really amazing.
She blames herself for that whole thing. Still. Even after everything, after all the talks we've had, and everything we've been through together after that. She says it was her fault.
How do you fight that? I can tell her no, that picking up that knife was my choice, being in that temple was my choice… but all she says was, if it wasn't for her, I'd have never been in Britannia, and it never would have happened.
Well. If it weren't for her, I'd be a slave somewhere, probably either dead or wishing I was, but that's water so far under the bridge it's probably traveled around the world by now.
Somehow, someway, I'm going to find a way to make her understand it's not her fault. I have to, because I think that's at the very core of why she's so damn sure she's headed into the darkness if anything happens to her.
It's such a strange feeling. I can see where her problem is, and sometimes, it's almost like I'm the older one of us, and she's the younger, in just certain places., because she's so strong, but there are these one or two spots where she is so vulnerable, and when I hit them, I know it.
Gabrielle chewed on her quill, and sniffled, then sighed and took a sip of her tea. She glanced over as a rustle sounded from the cradle, and saw inquisitive green eyes peering back at her. "Hey, honey."
"Mama." Dori unwrapped her blanket with a studious expression, and pulled herself up in her cradle. "Go."
"Sweetie, stay in bed, okay? You don't want to get sick, right?"
Dori scowled, then tumbled out of the cradle and stood up, toddling over to where her mother was sitting and stopping, then batting the bard's leg. "Mama!"
"What is it, Dori?" Gabrielle put her quill down and lifted her daughter up, cradling her against her chest and straightening the little blue sleep sack she was wearing.
"So do I." Gabrielle answered seriously. "But you can't always have what you want, you know." She smoothed the dark, thick hair back and brushed a tiny eyelash of Dori's round cheek. "I sure wanted you though, did you know that?"
Dori stuck her finger in her mouth and blinked, then put her small arms as far around Gabrielle's neck as she could and squeezed. "Love you."
Gabrielle's eyes widened in delight, and she forgot about being sick for a minute. "What was that, honey? Did you say what I think you said?"
"Love you." Dori answered. "Love mama."
"Wow." The bard hugged her back, patting her bottom gently. "Good girl, Dori.. and I love you too." What an amazing feeling that was. She released her daughter and smiled at her.
"Love Boo?" Dori asked next.
"Who, me?" Gabrielle laughed softly. "Oh honey, you know I love your Boo… and I know you do, and I know she loves you, very, very much."
"Mm." Dori seemed satisfied with that, and she sucked her thumb peacefully, rocking back and forth a little in Gabrielle's lap. She'd grown in the past month, the bard realized, as she watched a small leg swing down halfway to the ground, grown taller, and heavier, and more active, already showing a healthy dose of intelligent curiosity that was both reassuring and a trifle intimidating.
"How about I tell you a story.. would you like that?" Gabrielle decided to leave her diary for the moment, and spend some time with her child. She grinned as Dori's eyes widened in delight, recognizing a favorite word. "You like stories, don’t you?"
"You want to hear about the flying cow again?"
"Okay." Gabrielle stood up and walked over the bed, sliding under the covers and settling Dori beside her. "Once up on a time there was a bad, bad storm.." The bard paused, as she heard footsteps, then a knock at the door. "C'mon in."
The door opened, and Cyrene entered, carrying a small basket. "Good morning, you two cutie pies."
"Gramma!" Dori crawled across the bed and climbed up Cyrene's shirt as she came closer. "Good!"
"Hi." Gabrielle leaned back. "Still wet out, huh?"
"Just a bit." Cyrene eased around to Gabrielle's side, and put a hand on her forehead. "Mm.. that's not good, honey." She put her basket down and took several packets out of it, using the bard's tea cup to mix one up with. "You look pretty washed out."
"Did a certain Warrior Princess tell you to check up on me." Gabrielle smiled, and took the offered cup, drinking it's contents down.
"No." Cyrene gave her a look. "I'm perfectly capable of acting like a mother all on my own, without any prompting from her." She tucked the neck of the warm shirt closer around the bard's skin. "I've been doing it since before she was born, remember?"
"Oh. Right." Gabrielle pulled her daughter back down. "I was just telling Dori the cow story.. she loves that one." The bard arranged a small sleeve. "And she's good company… you know, she just told me she loved me for the first time." Gabrielle was surprised to find tears rolling down her face, and she felt the motion as Cyrene sat down next to her. "Sorry." She wiped her face.
"It's an amazing thing, isnt' it?" The innkeeper replied. "Children are so honest. At that age, they'll never lie to you, never tell you something just to make you feel good." She sighed. "I remember a time, when Xe was about Dori's age."
"I.. can sort of imagine that, now." Gabrielle murmured, as her daugther curled strong fingers around her own.
"Mm.. well, Xeenie never talked much." A smile. "Guess that hasn't changed. But you could tell she was always thinking about what was going on. She'd sit in her cradle near the fireplace at night in the inn, because that's where I kept her to keep an eye on her while I was working, and she'd listen."
Oh yes. She could picture that quite clearly. "Mmhm."
"One night, we'd closed up and I'd taken her in to my room, and gotten her ready for bed. Tor was already sleeping in the next room, and she was in her cradle, just watching me. It had been a really lousy night, a bunch of roughnecks had cause a lot of problems, and I'd gotten kicked a few times.. anyway." Cyrene sighed. "Xe looked at me with those big blue eyes, and she said. "No hurt mama."
"Just, very seriously, and very deliberately. And I walked over and picked her up.. " Cyrene chuckled a little. "I think of that now and I have to laugh." She murmured. "I picked her up, and she hugged me, and she said 'feel good.. no feel bad."
"Mm." Cyrene put a hand on Dori's head, and moved a bit of dark hair out of the baby's eyes. "When I see her, it's like watching Xe grow up all over again. So strange." She looked at Gabrielle. "And yet, there's so much of you in her too. What a special little girl."
Dori scowled, and pouted. "Bck."
Gabrielle sniffed, then chuckled wryly. "Oh yeah, she's special all right. C"mon, honey.. let me get you changed."
"I'll change her." Cyrene pushed the bard down. "You stay right there and rest." She lifted Dori and carried her into the washing room.
Gabrielle put her head back on the pillow and regarded the ceiling. "Yet another inherited trait."
"What was that, honey?"
"Nothing, mom." Gabrielle rubbed her eyes, then stopped, cocking her head. "Did you hear that/"
Cyrene appeared in the doorway, concerned. "Hear what?"
Outside, above the wind, and the faint clank of the ironsmith's forge, she heard a sound. At first a soft drumming, then a rumble, as it came closer. Gabrielle yanked the covers back and dove for her boots. "Son of a bacchae… I think those are raiders."
She got the laces pulled tight just as the screams started.
She hit the door running, her hand finding her staff on the way by simple instinct. "Stay here, mom." She called back to Cyrene. "Keep your head down."
Cyrene watched the heels of her boots disappear and regarded the startled infant in her arms. "And just who does she think she is, ordering me around?" She asked Dori, half humorously.
"Mama." Dori stated definitely, punctuating that with a burp.
"Uh huh. Well, that never cut ME any slack." The innkeeper found a spot behind the desk where she could peer out the window safely. "Be careful, sweetheart, please?" she wished after the running form.
Gabrielle winced as the cold wind hit her, but kept going, towards the oncoming riders. Already, residents were bolting in the same direction, reversing the obvious result that the raiders would have been used to .Most victims ran from them.
But not in Amphipolis. She spotted two of the larger members of the militia, carrying field scythes half again as tall as themselves and smiled grimly.
The lead rider headed right towards the center of the village, then abruptly swerved, and started towards her, letting the rest move on amidst a thunder of hooves and fluttering of torches. "Burn it!" He yelled, as he spurred his mount forward. "Cut them down like pigs!"
Gabrielle ducked under his mace and swerved around him, whirling and hitting him in the back with her staff as he passed. He cursed and pulled his horse to a halt, then sidestepped and made another go at her, which she caught and deflected, then pulled her staff back, and thrust it forward, catching him in the side and nearly knocking him off his horse.
She glanced over her shoulder, making sure the rest of the attackers were being engaged, then returned her attention to her opponent, who had regained his balance and had now drawn his sword. He kicked his horse towards her, but instead of swinging, threw himself off at the last minute and crashed into her, taking them both to the ground.
"Hey!" Gabrielle struggled to free herself, as he grabbed hold of her. She saw the sword hilt coming and lifted her body up, making him miss her head by a fraction. She got a knee in his stomach as he overbalanced, and shoved up hard, arching her back and moving his heavy body off her enough for her to roll free. She grabbed her staff and started to get up, then dropped to a knee as he lunged at her, and fended him off as he swung his sword again and clouted her on her shoulder.
Ow. Gabrielle saw stars. She dropped her staff and shoved him with both hands, scrambling back and away from him.
"Oh no, blondie. You’re coming with me." The man was determined, and he came after her, reaching for her arm and drawing his fist back. He yanked her closer and slugged her in the head, but she got her legs tangled in his and they both went down again.
Her ears were ringing and she blinked tears from her eyes as she grappled with him, twisting her body as they plowed through the muddy ground. He got ahold of her wrists and held them, and she was flipped over and straddled, and found herself helpless.
Cool, gray eyes studied her. He shifted his weight and pinned her hands in one of his, then drew a long, wicked dagger from a sheath in his boot. There was noise, and yelling around them, and a wagon between where she was and the inn, and Gabrielle realized no one could probably see her or realize she needed help. She drew breath to yell, and found a razor sharp edge pressed to her throat. "Shh."
Green eyes narrowed, but she kept quiet.
"Good girl." He put the knife down on her chest and opened a small pouch, withdrawing a large, oily looking thorn carefully, then dipped it down and pulled it back out covered in a slick, dark red substance. "You won’t remember a thing. I promise you."
Gabrielle arched her body and fought fiercely, trying to twist out from under him as the thorn approached, but he snarled, and leaned over her, bringing the thorn close to her neck and picking his spot. "Just hold still… or you’ll get hurt, and we don’t… hey!"
It was only a momentary distraction, but the clump of mud that hit him was just enough for Gabrielle to work one hand loose, and grab his wrist, then pull him to one side. He grabbed back at her, but she slid sideways, and curled her body up, hooking a leg up and around his biceps and extending with all her strength, slamming him back and off her with a yelp of total surprise.
Angry, she rolled with him, and landed half sprawled on top of his legs, jerking his hand up and sinking her teeth into his wrist, making him release the thorn with a scream. She scrambled up higher and landed astride him, her knee pinning down the arm that had reached for the dagger. One hand reached for her staff, and she found it, fumbling it into her grasp and swinging it up and over him, laying it across his throat and leaning her weight against it.
He froze, feeling the pressure against his vocal cords, and seeing the fiery intent in the eyes boring into his. Then he lunged up off the ground, almost throwing her off him, and grabbed for her again. Gabrielle caught her balance and swung, catching his head with her staff hard and sending him back to the ground, this time in totally limp prostration.
"Gabrielle!" Granella was headed towards her at a dead run, her sword drawn in one hand, blood dripping from it.
"I’m all right!" The bard lifted a weary hand, then jumped as pattering footsteps closed in on her right hand side. She turned, lifting her staff defensively then dropped it as she spotted Dori’s distinctive form. "Dori! What are you doing here!"
The baby toddled forward, her hands covered in black mud, and a fistful of it clenched in small fingers. She released it to splat on her mother’s adversary. "Bad!"
Cyrene came limping up, her hair in disarray. "Gods.. she got away from me… Gabrielle, I was taking her to the inn where it was safer and she just…"
Gabrielle scooped Dori up into her arms and hugged her. "I think she just saved my butt." She eyed the round, grimy mark on the unconscious man’s head. "Something distracted him right as he was about to stick me with something nasty.. it looked like a mudball." Tiny, muddy hands patted her face, leaving an earthy smelling trail. "Was that you, honey?"
Granella dropped to her knees and grabbed the bard’s shoulder. "Are you all right? We got the rest of them, but I didn’t even realize you were over here." She was slightly out of breath, and had a nasty, but shallow slice across her forearm.
"I’m fine." Gabrielle murmured, gazing wonderingly at the unconcerned Dori, who was playing with a bit of her hair, chewing it and humming. "Everyone else okay?"
The Amazon sighed. "They broke off after we put up a fight.. I got the feeling they were trying to distract us more than anything, but I’ve got no idea why."
Gabrielle rose slowly, feeling a little lightheaded. "I do." She kicked the thorn lying on the ground with a toe of her boot. "They were after me." She started to shiver, more from the cold wind against her wet back than from any fear. After all, she’d been pegged as Xena’s weak point for what.. five years now? Definitely an old story.
The adrenaline started to drain from her, and she felt an angry throbbing in her arm and head, as the dizziness increased.. "I think I’d better go sit down." She gave Cyrene a grateful look as the innkeeper took Dori from her. "Thanks… " Then the world went a little fuzzy, as her knees unlocked. "Um.. "
She never felt Granella catch her, or the cold, wet ground, only the sound of fading, anxious voices accompanying her into darkness.
They'd barely gotten back into the cabin, when the courtyard came alive with the thunder of hoofbeats again. Granella stiffened, and reached for her sword, then relaxed as she realized it was a single animal. "Five dinars I know who that is." She remarked to Cyrene.
"No bet." The innkeeper retrieved a clean, dry shirt from the linen press as there was an audible splash outside, then heavy boots hit the porch and the door almost exploded inward, revealing a mud covered, water soaked leather clad figure whose eyes raked the room with scorching speed, only to settle on the slim form on the bed.
Granella moved back to give Xena room as she crossed the floor and dropped to an armored knee beside the bed, pulling her gauntlets off before very gently touching Gabrielle's pale face, turning her head to one side and exposing the large bruise, and the blood seeping from one ear.
Briefly, Xena closed her eyes, then exhaled and opened them. "What happened?"
Granella gathered her wits. "I was in the armory, working on a crossbow and I heard the alarm." She paused. "I ran out, and the militia were already engaging the raiders. There were seven of them, mounted, armed, half armored." She paused again, but Xena made no comment. "The elders were inside the inn, and they started firing with crossbows, and we went for them with swords and scythes. It didn't take long."
"They ran." Cyrene brought the clean shirt over and laid it on the bed. "I was here, with Dori, and decided to get her over to the inn where it was safer. Gabrielle had gone out to join the militia."
Xena sighed, and nodded.
"We drove them off.. no one realized there was one all the way over here, going after Gabrielle." Granella told her. "I heard a whack, you know how distinctive hers are when she fights, and came running. I found her over this guy, him out cold."
"Dori had gotten loose."
Xena looked at her mother.
"Honey, I'm sorry. But she's strong as all get out, and she squirmed free. She took off after her mother, and by the time I got there, it was all over."
Dori toddled over to Xena and pulled at a bit of very muddy armor. "Bck."
"I guess he got in a few whacks before she took him out." Gran commented. "Johan has him locked up in the root cellar. The rest took off down the river." She hesitated. "Gab seemed to think this guy was trying to snatch her."
Xena absorbed this, then nodded. "Okay." Then she inhaled. "Thank you.. I can take care of the rest of this." She looked up at Gran. "Would you mind going out to the river site and telling them I'll be out there later? They've got a good start going, I was just mostly watching and making them nervous."
Granella got up and put a hand on her sister in law's shoulder. "No problem." She ducked in back of Xena and padded quietly to the door.
"You should change too, Xena." Cyrene murmured.
"I will." She waited until her mother left, then licked her lips, and put a hand on Dori's head, and slowly stroked her hair, allowing herself to calm for a moment before she stood up and took her cloak off, tossing it over the chair and stripping her armor off after it. Then she walked over to the water basin and scrubbed her hands, before coming back to the bed and kneeling down again. Dori joined her, clutching the side of the bed and peering over curiously.
"Gabrielle." Xena deliberately pitched her voice low, and reassuring, as she cupped the pale cheek again, and rubbed it with a thumb.
It took a moment, but the bard's throat moved in a swallow, then her face tensed under Xena's touch, and the fair eyelashes fluttered open, revealing very dazed looking mist green eyes that peered foggily over at her.
There was a moment of total incomprehension, then recognition flared, and Gabrielle made a small sound of discomfort and reached for her head.
"Ah ah." Xena caught the hand and held it. "Easy."
"Ow." Gabrielle whispered forlornly.
"I know." The warrior sighed. "Pounding Pauline got pounced, huh?"
A tiny smile forced it's way onto Gabrielle's face. "Hey.. I won." She rasped. "With help from Dangerous Dori."
"Hmm?" Xena carefully pulled her upright, and stripped her still damp shirt off. "What di…oh, Gab." She let the bard down agsint the pillows, and gazed at the huge bruise from the tip of Gabrielle's shoulder almost to her elbow." Wow."
"I forgot to duck." The bard admitted. "This stuffed head just slowed me down so much."
Xena picked up the clean shirt and maneuvered it over the pale head. "All right.. here, get your.. yeah." She got the warm garment around the bard's chilled body and tucked the covers back around her, shifting her over a little to avoid the damp spot from her wet shirt.
"Mama." Dori plucked at the blanket, and held her arms up. "Dup."
"Not right now, Dori." Xena cleaned the blood off her partner's face, watching the green eyes close, and the skin around them tense as the cleanser stung. "Sorry." She finished, and wiped her hands. "I can't give you anything for the hurting, sweetheart, not with that bump on your head."
"Ow." Gabrielle gave her a pathetic look. "Great."
"Boo!." Dori pulled at a warrior finger. "Dup!"
"Dori." Xena's voice dropped and went stern. "I said, no."
A tiny lip poked out. "Love mama." She reached a hand towards Gabrielle's arm.
"Oh yeah. She picked up a new saying." Gabrielle murmured. "Bright spot of my day." She caught Dori's hand and held it. "Xe.. she threw mud in that guys face when he had me down."
Xena stopped in her motion. "She what?"
"Mm." The bard nodded. "Yep… distracted him just enough for me to get loose."
Xena gazed at her daughter, then leaned over and picked her up and hugged her, scratching her back gently which the baby loved. "Good girl." She pulled back and looked at Dori, then rubbed noses with her. "I love you, Dori."
The baby smiled, and clutched at her nose, pulling it and kicking. "Boo!"
"Mmhm." Xena laid her down next to Gabrielle, and watched her crawl over and give her mother a hug. "That's right, Dori… you make your mom feel better, okay?" She leaned over and smoothed Gabrielle's hair back, feeling her forehead and wincing at the warmth. 'Damn."
"Mm." Gabrielle sighed. "Looks like I'm stuck here. Go on… I'll be okay." She looked up at her partner. "Thanks for stopping back here." Her arm slid around Dori, and she let her eyes close again.
Xena stood and brushed her hands off, then walked over to the linen press and exchanged her wet undershift for a dry one. Might as well change the leathers, too. She put her hands on her dry set, then turned, and regarded the still form in the bed. Gabrielle's eyes were half open again, and she tensed her face into a grimace, then exhaled and swallowed.
She considered all they had to do, then regarded the dull, gray weather outside. A half smile creased her face as she released the leathers, and deliberately turned her back on the door, and sat down, pulling her boots and socks off before resuming her feet and moving to the bed. "Hey."
Gabrielle turned her head and glanced up. "Hm?"
The warrior slid into bed and slipped her arms around her partner's shoulders, cradling her body and tugging the covers up. "Mind some company?"
Gabrielle couldn’t quite hide the surprised, incredulous grin. "I thought.."
"They're digging ditches, Gabrielle." Xena brushed the activity off. "When you're in charge, sometimes you just gotta know when to prioritize." She rested her chin against Gabrielle's hair, and felt the bard nestle closer, drawing comfort from her presence. "Besides, I think I twisted my knee. I'd better rest it for a few minutes."
"Absolutely." Gabrielle closed her eyes, and felt the pain recede, replaced by the drowsy security of her soulmate's embrace. 'Just for a few minutes."
Xena exhaled as she felt Gabrielle relax completely, and she idly let Dori play with the fingers of the hand she had laid across the bard's stomach. Dori yawned too, and laid down, and peace descended.
Well. The warrior reasoned. She had to take time out to consider what happened with the snakes, and how to change patrol routings so no more surprise raiders got in, and what to do about the seeping river water getting in the ditches. Wasn't here a good a place as any to think?
Sure it was.
The sound of the returning troops trickling in the window jerked Xena out of sleep, and she lifted her head, staring with uncomprehending eyes at the nearly dark windows. "Son of a… " She dropped back against the pillow and winced from the position she'd fallen asleep in, shifting a little to ease stiffened muscles.
Gabrielle was right where she'd left her, sleeping deeply with just the barest hint of a smile on her face. Dori was also drowsing, though the mussed covers and, incredibly, an unlaced bracer of Xena's laid testimony to the fact that the baby hadn't slept through the afternoon.
She instantly felt horribly guilty, knowing the army had been out there, working their butts off all day while she snoozed. Then she glanced down at the curve of Gabrielle's cheek and sighed. What on earth would she tell her battle leaders? What possible justification could she come up with to explain an entire day's absence? Damn, Xena, what the Hades are you doing? This is a damn army you're in charge of, people's lives are depending on you!
"Mm." Gabrielle exhaled, and half opened her eyes, her fingers finding their way under Xena's shirt and scratching her bare skin very lightly. "Thank you."
And one life above all others rests in your hands, doesn't it? "Anytime." Xena kissed the pale head affectionately. "I was busy strategizing."
"Oh. Good." The bard yawned, and nodded sleepily. "What's Dori up to?"
"Trying on my armor." Xena burred in response.
A green eyeball, round and complete, appeared, and swiveled around, spotting the baby curled up next to her, an entire arm covered in Xena's bracer, with the ends conspicuously chewed. "Good grief.. you didn't give her that to play with, did you?"
"Nope." Xena flexed her fist. "She must have taken it off me..I loosened it before I..um..relaxed.."
"Oh. Right. Relaxed. Yeah, you said you were going to do that." Gabrielle gave her a tiny poke, and felt the soundless chuckle in response. They regarded their daughter. "That is such a cute picture." Gabrielle smiled.
"Mm." Xena mused, unconvinced. "I'd rather she play with your quills."
"And poke us with them? No thanks, Xena.. at least this has blunt edges." The bard ran a finger over the worn leather. "Time for new ones for you, huh?"
"Yeah." The warrior mused. "Thought I was going to be able to retire these for good, so I didn't start working on a new pair." She felt the bard's head. "You're still pretty warm. How are you feeling otherwise?"
Gabrielle thought about that. "Lousy." She admitted softly. "I think it's the combination of everything, the fever, and the hits I took. I'm sick to my stomach, and everything hurts, still." He fingers moved slighty. "The only thing making it bearable is having you here." Eyes lifted. "I'm sorry. That's not fair to you, is it? You've got a thousand things to do, and a lot of people counting on you, and I know it."
Was it fair? Xena felt torn in half. On one hand, she knew the bard's words were true. There was so much to be done, and so much to be organized. They had to move the weapons and encampments over the river, and that all had to be coordinated, along with strategy for the upcoming attack to be gone over with the battle leaders. All of it centered on her.
But. "Tell you what." Xena exhaled. "Let me go check in with everyone, and see what the status is on everything we've got in progress, give some orders, get some dinner, then come back here and stay with you. How's that?"
A faint smile. "Xena, you are not my personal leather stuffed security blanket." Gabrielle protested . "I'm sure I'll survive if you go off and run the army. I should have just kept my mouth shut."
"You told the truth, didn't you?"
"Well, yeah, sure, but the saving of the world comes before patting me on the head, Xena." The bard gazed up at her. "Let's have a little perspective here."
They looked at each other. Xena didn't move. Gabrielle didn't let go of her. The bard sighed. "Could you bring back some berries? I think I could swallow those, if they were sweet enough."
"You got it." Xena gently slid out from behind her, and settled her back against the pillow, tucking the blankets back. "I'll see if we have any honeycomb, how about that?"
"Oo." For a moment, Gabrielle's eyes brightened, as she watched Xena throw on a thick tunic and her cloak, along with her boots, and head out the door. Then she exhaled and chewed her lower lip. "I shouldn't let her do that." She regarded the ceiling with sober intent.
Xena paused outside the door to the inn, momentarily alone in the semi darkness. She ran both hands through her hair and straightened her cloak, mentally reviewing just what it was she was going to tell everyone inside.
Sorry I didn't come back. I was on pillow duty.
Oh yeah, Xena, very inspiring. With a sigh, she pushed the door open and stepped inside, glancing around to see most of the battle leaders around one table, and the rest of the inn occupied almost the rafters.
Think, command. Think, autocracy.
Xena let her eyes run over the room's occupants for a long, cool moment before she gave a brief nod and made her way towards the table containing her lieutenants. No raised eyebrows, and no snickers. So far, so good. "Evening."
Ephiny propped her head on one hand. "How's Gabrielle doing?"
A round robin of concerned glances went to her face. "She took some bad hits." The warrior remarked briefly. 'She'll be all right in a few days."
"Whew." Gillen leaned back. "That's damn good to hear. One of my armorers was working near the smithy, and she saw Queen Gabrielle go after that raider, said she never saw anything half so fierce before."
Fierce. "She is a fighter." Xena allowed. "I needed to wait until she regained consciousness, to find out about the man who went after her."
"Of course." Gillen gave her a slightly puzzled look. "That would be expected at any rate, are you not her Consort?"
"W.. " Xena shut her mouth abruptly.
"We got about half of the initial embankment done, Xena." Toris leaned forward. "It took a good part of that forest, but we got lucky. There was an old wood cut in the center I didn't know about, and we used that, and the dead grasses inside the foliage to pack the wall. They did a good job."
"Right." Xena folded her arms.
"I sent scouts out all the way to the foothills." Ephiny remarked, exchanging glances with Gillen. "We didn't see anything out of the ordinary." She spoke slowly.
"No, but we didn't see any people either. "Gillen shook her head. "Six burnt out villages was all, and scattered signs of people fleeing." She pulled a bag over. "We brought back some of the things we found on the road." She dumped it. "Raiders have taken over most of the land between here and the foothills. We got attacked twice."
"Mm." Ephiny cracked her knuckles. "Good practice… I tried out those nets you designed for us, Xena. They worked fine."
"Yeah, I liked that." Gillen agreed. "The provisioners report they've got most of the gear packed up, but the woodworkers are finishing up the last wagon."
"We've got enough dried supplies to last out about three moons, if we're careful, and we have to keep our heads down." Toris added. "Mom's dried, or salted everything she could get her hands on so it will travel, and they've got most of that packed into individual portions, then stored."
"Good." Xena was silently impressed.
"We explored down towards Potadeia." Tyldus rumbled. "I took a dozen of my warriors and scouted the roads out, seeing if we could flush more of those raiders out. We found signs of several camps, but no live bodies." He cleared his throat and folded his arms over his huge chest. "I staked out guard posts all down the river to the divide, and we have watchfires arranged, along with some of your whistling militia."
"We move the troops out to the river tomorrow then." Xena finally found something intelligent to say. "We have time to finish the escarpments, and set up a camp behind them. We'll bring the craftsmen with us, to stock up on arms while we've got the chance. I've got a feeling we're not going to have much time to wait."
"Sounds good." Gillen agreed. "We set up guard posts all the way to the pass. I stationed groups of mounted riders with instructions to warn us, then break up and hit them on the fringes, to try and shake them up before they get here."
"Fine." Xena nodded, feeling a trifle superfluous. "Any injured or elders should start heading to the valley tomorrow afternoon." She studied them. "We can talk about battle plans after we set up camp."
"Good enough." Gillen nodded. "Gotta hand it to you, Xena. This is one damned efficient army."
"Thanks." The warrior bit back a smile.
"Hello." A voice at her elbow made Xena turn, to see Cait standing patiently with a covered package.
"Your mother sent this out, I expect she thinks you want to take it with you back to Queen Gabrielle." Cait extended the package, which Xena took. "Is she all right?"
"She was resting, when I left."
"Quite good." Cait nodded.
"We know where to find you if anything comes up, Xena." Gillen stood, brushing her hands off. "We'll try not to bother you or Queen Gabrielle unless it's an emergency." She stepped to one side, and murmured to one of her people.
'Yeah, we've got everything covered here, sis." Toris agreed solemnly.
Xena glanced at Ephiny, whose lips tensed in an almost smile. The Amazon regent flicked her fingers at the watching warrior. "G'wan." She mouthed, with a wink, receiving a scowl in return.
The warrior opened her mouth, then shut it. She lifted a hand, then turned and walked out, towards a last night of peace, before the world would turn to ugliness.
The first thing she saw was an empty bed, as she opened the door, and a scowl fitted itself to her face as she paused and looked around. "Gabrielle?"
"Over here." The hoarse voice answered her from near the fire.
Xena altered her direction and walked over, to see her partner seated in her padded rocking chair, with Dori in her arms playing with one of her stuffed toys. "You're supposed to be resting."
"I am." Gabrielle was swathed in a soft quilt. "Lying down flat was bothering me… my head was all stuffed up. I feel better like this." She watched the warrior put her package down and seat herself on the low chair next to her. "That didn't take long."
"Yeah… ah, everything's in order, didn't see any reason to hang around in there. We've got a long day tomorrow." Xena opened the package and removed some blackberries, and a small container of honey, along with some soft pastries Cyrene had sent.
"Uh huh." Gabrielle snuck a berry and put it into her mouth, sucking on it's juicy sweetness gingerly.
"We're sending the injured and elders out to the valley." The warrior kept her eyes on her work, unpacking a rich pastry stuffed with meat and vegetables for herself, and a loaf of heavy, dark bread. "They'll be leaving around midday." She looked up to find Gabrielle looking right back at her, with fierce, unrepentant green eyes. So much for that. "I figured you could stay here until we've got camp set up."
Gabrielle lifted a finger and shook it at her in silence.
Xena tilted her head, and smiled, her eyes warming with affection. "You are sick, my bard." She reminded her, spreading a layer of softened cheese on the bread and taking a bite. "Here." She pushed the bowl of berries over. "But I wasn't seriously thinking of asking you to go."
"Really?" Gabrielle took a handful of the fruit, watching her partner tear into her dinner. "Honey, chew, okay? You're making me nervous."
Xena paused, then shifted a little, and slowed her attack. "Sorry.. I'm really hungry today for some reason." She cut another slice of bread. "And yes, really. The last thing I want is to have to worry about something happening to you out there."
"Mm." Gabrielle offered Dori a berry, and watched the baby gobble it eagerly, then look around and spot her Boo. "Okay..okay… I'll let you down." She set Dori on her feet and the baby toddled over to where Xena was sitting, pulling on her shirt and making little baby grunts. "That's it.. go get some of Xena's dinner."
The warrior obligingly hoisted her daughter up and set her on her knee. "You hungry, little bear?"
"Boo." Dori accepted a meat juice soaked bit of bread and crammed it into her mouth. "Mmm."
"That's a good girl… maybe we can play find later?" Xena straightened the dark hair out with gentle fingers. "Would you like that?"
"What about her, Xe?" Gabrielle dunked a berry into the honey and sucked it off, the sweet substance soothing her throat. "I don't like the idea of sending her away, but… I don't like the idea of her being in the middle of this either."
Xena put a bit of her pie down on a platter next to Dori and watched her clutch at it greedily. "I don't know." She played with a tiny foot. "I think we can leave a few people back here… if Andreas forces get this far, it's a lost cause anyway."
"You don't want to send her to the valley?"
Xena's eyes were on the baby. Dori finished chewing, then looked up adoringly at her playmate, reaching for her with a grubby hand. "No." She captured the baby's hand and watched the fingers clutch hers. "I want you both here, where I know you're okay."
Gabrielle accepted that. "It could be just as dangerous here."
"True. But it's closer." Xena answered quietly. "Honestly, there is no safe place, Gabrielle. But the closer she is to the main army, the less chance someone will try and kidnap her." Blet that lue eyes glanced up. "Or you, like what happened today. If that had worked, Gabrielle, I'd be at a serious disadvantage."
"Don't you think I realized that?" The bard retorted hoarsely. "It's an old story with us."
Xena gazed at her, but didn't answer. Dori reached for a piece of meat and sucked on it.
Gabrielle watched the muscles move across her partner's jaw and let her head rest against the padded chair pillow. "Guess I'm a little cranky tonight."
A dark brow twitched.
"Can I have some of that nasty stuff yet?" Gabrielle pleaded.
The other brow twitched, then Xena moved a discontented Dori off her lap and stood up, going to the cabinet and getting her herbs. She mixed them into a cup and brought it back over, running practiced fingers over Gabrielle's skull before she handed it over. "Here."
"Thanks." The bard took the cup and drained it, then curled her hand around Xena's nearby thigh, leaning forward a little and kissing the soft skin.
Xena ruffled her hair. "Let that start to work, then back to bed for you." She watched the bard sit back, obviously favoring her shoulder. "Aches?"
"Mmph." Gabrielle shrugged, a grumpy look on her face. "I can't believe I didn't duck that one. I saw it coming, Xena."
Xena put both fists on her hips. "You're starting to sound like me, you know."
"No I'm not."
"Yes you are."
"No, I'm not!"
"Yes, you are!" Xena leaned over and put a finger on her irritated soulmate's nose. "So knock it off!"
"Bck!" Dori toddled up and shook her finger at her mother.
Gabrielle pouted. "I'm being ganged up on." She grumbled hoarsely. "No fair."
"C'mere." Xena leaned over and got an arm under her, then lifted her up over Dori, and walked towards the tousled bed.
Gabrielle thought about protesting, then just let her head fall against the taller woman's shoulder, feeling pathetically miserable. "Waa." She was set down, and the covers tucked back around her. "Did you interrogate that guy yet?"
Xena felt herself staring at the wall in shock. "Um… not .. yet, no. I was going get you settled, then… " Actually, she'd completely forgotten about him. "What's he going to say, yeah, he was after you cause Andreas figured to use you against me?" She forced a snort. "Waste of a pinch."
"Mm." Gabrielle sighed. "True."
"There… I'll put up more tea, and in the meantime…. " Xena hopped backward, away from the sturdily climbing Dori who was attempting to scale her leg. "Who wants to play?"
"Boo!" A tiny hand reached for her.
"Catch me.. " Xena hopped further, stopping to put the hot water pot up, then crouching down as Dori ambled towards her. "Bandit baby… "
"Buh!" Dori tagged her knee, then sat down hard as her victim hopped away. "Boo!!" She scrambled to her feet and followed, rambling faster until she caught up with her bunny buddy, near the soft rug. "Go!" She clambered up the long legs now sprawled on the fur. "Go go go!" The knees closed and caught her, lifting her gently up. Dori giggled, clutching the skin surrounding her. "Boooooo!" Hands took her and lifted her higher, and she spread her arms out, waving them in the air.
"Look at the flying baby!" Xena rocked over onto her back and waved her daughter through the air, making her swoop and dive, enjoying the delighted giggling. "Like that?"
"Boom!" Dori thrust her arms out, and kicked. "Go! Go!"
"Oh.. I know what you want. " Xena put her feet down and vaulted upright, watching Dori's eyes widen in wonder as they both moved through the air. "Show me what you want." She peeked at the bed, and saw a pair of fascinated green eyes watching her. "Mommy's never seen this.. so go on, Dori.. show me."
Xena held the baby out a little, and with a look of almost comical concentration, Dori tucked her fist and knees up under her chin. "Whoosh!"
"Good girl. " Xena glanced to her right and left, then crouched, and launched upward, twisting into a flip in mid air. She landed to raucous laughter from her passenger. "Like that?"
"More!" Dori begged, tucking her fists up again.
"See that?" Xena asked her partner. "She's pretty sharp, huh?" She flipped again, then flipped backwards, almost crashing into the table. "Whoops."
Gabrielle watched, utterly entranced, as Xena tossed the baby up and caught her, and Dori wriggled in mid air, loving every moment of it. Then the warrior started hopping up and down, bouncing across the cabin and alternating jumps with flips, each motion making the baby laugh harder and harder. Finally, the warrior leaped over the soft chair near the bed and tucked her head down, doing a mid air somersault that landed her just in front of the seat. Then she dropped back into it, breathing a little hard and flushed a healthy pink as was the infant. "Whoo."
"Woo." Dori clambered up her and threw her arms around her buddy's neck. "Boo… good.!" She planted a sloppy kiss on the warrior's jaw. "More!"
Xena glanced over at Gabrielle, who was smiling broadly, her blankets tucked around her. "Easy for her to say." She rubbed Dori's back. "In a minute, Dori.. I've gotta get your momma's tea."
The baby pouted and tugged the long, dark locks over the warrior's shoulders. "More!"
"C'mon now." Xena freed her hair. "Speaking of which… if I sit down there, will you give this a trim? I'd like to have it shorter for the next while." Her eyes met Gabrielle's, which held a note of wistful understanding. "Easier to manage in the field."
Or tuck back for fighting. Gabrielle nodded quietly. "Sure." She took a breath, realizing that after tonight, it might well be long time before they could all sit together in peace. Tomorrow Xena would move the army over the river, and prepare for Andrea's attack.
Tomorrow she would don her armor, the full set Gabrielle hadn't seen since Cirron.
Tomorrow she would take her place at the head of the troops, and lay her life on the line, gambling on chance, and skill, and her own cunning.
People she knew would surely die. Would Xena be one of them? A lump formed in her throat as she watched the easy smile on her partner's face, as she tickled Dori.
Will I survive?
What will happen to Dori? Her chosen foster parents were in as much danger as they were, so what then? Would Dori be left alone, wondering where her parents went?
Thinking they'd left her again?
Not understanding? She felt her eyes filing with tears, and then, a movement of air, and a warmth of skin touching her face, catching the moisture.
"What's wrong?" Xena's voice, low and gentle.
She sniffled, fixing her eyes on the bed. "I'm just thinking too much." A thumb caught her under the jaw and pressed upward a little, forcing her to look up. "You always taught me not to imagine losing."
Xena had Dori tucked under her other arm, and now she let the baby loose to crawl over to her mother. "I also taught you not to close your eyes to the truth." She moved her hand down to take the bard's. "You and I have faced bad situations so many times, but we never talked about what if the worst happens."
"No." Gabrielle exhaled. "We haven't, because I always knew that somehow… someway, you'd find a way to make things work out right." She looked up honestly. "I'm not afraid for myself, Xena." Her eyes shifted. "I just worry about her."
"Mama." Dori crawled up onto her lap and sat down. "Mm." She'd spotted the honey candy in it's wrapper Gabrielle had put down next to her and grabbed at it.
"Me too." Xena admitted, stroking the baby's soft hair. "She's too young to understand what's going on."
Green eyes looked up at her, then shifted to Gabrielle.
'That's what I'm afraid of. If we leave her, she'll never understand why." Tiny fingers clutched hers. "She loves us." Her voice caught. "We're everything to her, Xena."
The warrior sat, deep in thought for long moments, as the candles fluttered. Then she looked up, her blue eyes shadowed in the low light. "Then you'll have to write a scroll." Xena spoke in a quiet tone. "So she'll understand, when she's older, just how much she was loved." A tense silence. "Just in case."
Oh gods. Gabrielle felt sick to her stomach. "I may need some help." She whispered.
Xena shifted, and put her arms around her soulmate. "If we do it, maybe it'll never be needed."
"Boo?" Dori looked up curiously, her small eyebrows furrowing. "More?"
"Maybe." The bard agreed, feeling oddly relieved. "Maybe if I do a really good job on it, I'll get to watch her carry you into a backflip."
Xena smiled, and leaned her cheek against Gabrielle's hair. "Now, that'd be worth winning a war for."
"Boo?" A tug. "Moremoremoremreomre."
The warrior put a long arm around her daughter and drew her close, watching the firelight dance on bare cabin walls.