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 19
By Melissa Good
Xena shook her head a bit, moving the damp, dark hair from her eyes as she crossed the already busy courtyard, full of quiet, purposeful bodies moving in a steady stream towards the gates. She shifted her shoulders, with their unaccustomed burden of armor and returned the brisk nods, pausing to watch a wagon being drawn out the gates full of arms as she was about to mount the stairs to the inn.
Hesitating, she shifted her gaze from the toiling soldiers, urging the horses on through the mud, to the door she was about to enter, seriously considering going to help them instead of facing what she knew waited inside.
Then she signed. When you're the boss, you gotta do the tough stuff. She twitched her cloak straight and shouldered the door open. So, c'mon tough stuff, get moving. Inside, clusters of people were making yet more preparations, all with the same, quiet purposefulness. Xena glanced around, then headed back through the tables to the narrow doorway that lead into the inn's large kitchen. She pushed the door open and stepped into the scent of baking bread and cinnamon, meeting the eyes of her mother as Cyrene looked up.
"Eustace, would you excuse us for a moment." The innkeeper murmured softly. "I need to speak with my daughter."
"Certainly, ma'am." Eustace gave Xena a shy smile, then ducked out the garden door, wiping her hands on her apron.
Cyrene settled on the edge of the worktable, and regarded the tall, menacing figure Xena had her black leathers on, with her full set of well worn, but meticulously maintained armor, the dully gleaming plates catching the kitchen's firelight warmly. The long, lined cloak draped neatly over her shoulders, it's cowl framing the dark head with somber dignity. "So."
Xena leaned against the wall. "So." She repeated steadily. "A wagon train's heading back to the caverns today… I"d like you to be on it."
Xena sighed. "Mother…"
"No, so don’t' waste your energy." Cyrene replied. "I'm too old to run, Xena. This is my home, this is where I'm staying." She wiped her hands. "How's Gabrielle?"
"A little better." Xena pushed away from the wall and wandered over to the fire. "A few more days… she should be all right."
Xena merely looked at her over one shoulder.
"What about Dori?"
The warrior took a wooden bowl and ladled some cereal into it, dusting it liberally with cinnamon and stirring it with a spoon. "Battlefield's no place for a baby." She sucked a spoonful down and chewed it. "But I can't send her out of here.. it's too risky. She's going to have to stay. I figured to leave a vanguard in town, just in case."
"Xena, that's insane." Her mother spoke sharply. "You can't keep her here.. she'll get hurt."
A sigh. "I don't have a choice, mother. Fate's handed me far, far too many weaknesses, and she's a big one." Xena told her. "You, Johan, the people who live her, Gabrielle.. Dori… and it's not like it's a secret." She took another mouthful. "Besides, I want that cavern to be a safe place.. put her, or Gabrielle there, and it becomes a target."
"They'll be a target here, too." Cyrene argued. "What's the difference?"
"Amphipolis already is a target, mother." Xena replied. "It's my line in the grass… Andreas knows that. He knows I'll fight very hard to protect it."
The innkeeper shook her head. "I don't understand this, Xena…it's almost like you're using it as bait… to draw him here…" She looked up to see blue eyes regarding her stolidly. "Why?"
Xena scraped the last of her cereal up and licked the spoon off, then went back for more. "Because I want him here on my terms." She replied offhandedly. "On my turf." She missed the concerned look Cyrene was giving her. "It's where it all started, mother."
Cyrene took a breath. "This isn't Cortese, Xena." She warned. "He's no petty warlord."
The tall form turned, and the eyes glinted. "And I'm not a half grown kid with more guts than sense." A smile. "I've finally got a chance to go back and do it right."
"Xena." Cyrene hesitated, then moved forward, putting a hand on her daughter's arm. "This isn't a competition… this man's a killer."
"So am I." Blunt, but true. Xena's face was almost still, only the eyes flickered around, a nervous, tense motion. "Sure you don't want to leave, mother? It could get real ugly around here."
Cyrene felt a distinct chill, hearing the cold tone just behind Xena's casual words. This side of her daughter, she thought she'd never have to see again. She'd been watching the preparations for war for the last few days, watching people she'd known for years, children she'd seen grow up, friends… neighbors taking on the hardness, the grimness of knowing what the coming battle meant.
Some of them would die.
She knew she could see her home, everything she'd worked for, everything she had burned around her. She could lose her family, her children… Cyrene tilted her head up and looked her daughter in the eye. "I'm sure." She put a finger firmly into the leather covering Xena's stomach and pushed. "Because this is my turf, Xena. It's all of ours, and don't you forget that." Her voice rose. "This is not a game, you understand me? I lost everything once, and I'll be damned to Hades if I'm going to do it again."
Xena stared impassively at her, then put the bowl down and walked out.
Cyrene folded her arms, listening to the heavy footsteps receding, echoing oddly at the very edge of her hearing.
"Okay." Gabrielle pulled her cloak closer, and studied the parchments laid out on the barn's worktable. "We have to leave enough stuff here for the rear guard, and the two outposts on this side of the river."
Ephiny nodded. "Right… listen, why don't you let me carry these over to your place, Gab? You look like crap."
"Thanks." The bard replied wryly. "I'm fine, Eph… after you guys leave, all I'll do is snooze for a day or two, so.. let me be useful while I can, okay?" She'd tried, for about six heartbeats, to talk Xena into letting her go with the army today, but one look at the storm clouds in those blue eyes made her just shut up, and accept defeat gracefully. She'd woken up feeling a little better, and her fever had gone down, but getting up had been a very shaky experiment, and she'd had to spend a while sitting quietly by the fire before she'd gathered up enough energy to make her way over to the nearby stable. "Now, do we have enough dried meat?"
"Mm… I hope we can supplement that a little." Ephiny leaned over the table and pushed curly blond hair out of her eyes. She was dressed in her winter leathers, and had adapted thick leggings and heavy, lined boots. "Most of our part of the defense force for here is from our Nation, you do realize, right? Along with one of our best hunters? Must be good to be the Queen."
Gabrielle smiled. "Yeah.. I saw the list. Sorry about that… I didn't ask them to volunteer." Having Cait around would help, along with her ever-present shadow, Paladia. "Of course, it's really not enough for Xena… I get the feeling she wouldn't be happy if the entire Athenian army was camped around in the wheat fields."
"Well… I think she'd feel better if she were here… but someone has to lead this bunch."
"I don't know." Gabrielle sighed. "I'm worried about her, Eph…I mean, I know she knows what she's doing…but I can't help but wonder if she's letting old memories drive some of this stuff."
Ephiny was shocked. It was the last thing she'd expected to hear from her friend's mouth, and it sent her into a feathred tail spin. "Wh… what are you saying?"
"I.. " The bard glanced around and lowered her voice. "She's really torn, Eph… between being the way she knows she has to be, in order to do this, and knowing by doing that she's going to push people away from her."
"Of course not." A smile. "But you know, Eph… there's a part of her that likes that darkness. She knows she's got to stir that up to be successful against Andreas, but she's afraid of losing some of the things we've both come to take for granted." A sigh. "It wasn't that long ago when she stood in the middle of that very inn, there, and the people around us were stoning her to death."
"Gab, she's not that person anymore."
"That's just it, Eph… she is." The bard murmured. "She's changed how she does things, and why she does them… of course. But she is, who she is.. and what she is, and she knows how close to the surface that runs." Gabrielle gave Ephiny a pointed look. "You know that, too."
Ephiny exhaled, rubbing her face in confusion. "Gabrielle.. why bring this up now? On the eve of us going into the field? Are you saying we shouldn't be doing this? Shouldn't be following her?"
"No." Gabrielle lowered her voice further. "Listen…. Xena's scared of Andreas. He's got… " She looked around. "He's got these necklaces.. like the one that caught Hercules a few years back.. you remember?"
"She doesn't know what would happen if she came into contact with one of those… and she thinks Andreas is going to try just that in battle."
":Right… and it's not like I can keep her out of the fight, you know?" Gabrielle gave her a worried look. "We just have to keep him away from her… no matter what."
The regent nodded, relieved. "Okay.. I understand… makes sense she hasn't said anything… if that got out..damn."
Gabrielle clasped her shoulder. "Thanks for listening, Eph… I'm sure it'll be okay. I just wish I was going up there with you guys today."
"Me too." The hazel eyes twinkled gravely. "Frankly, I'd rather babysit Dori than Xena… but we'll manage until you feel better. Hurry up though, okay?"
"I will. I promise…mom's agreed to handle Dori while we're across the river.. she said there's no one in Greece with more experience handling difficult children than her, so…" Gabrielle folded up the parchments, and tucked them in their waterproof cases. " She looked up as the door opened, and revealed a damp, dark head. "Hey."
Xena eased the door open and glared at her in accusatory silence.
"Oh oh… that's my cue to make a hole in the rain." Ephiny took the cases and clapped Gabrielle on the shoulder. "Be safe, my friend. I'll see you in a day or two." She gave Xena a faintly amused look, then slipped past her into the weather.
"Gabrielle." Xena sounded exasperated. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Reading." The bard crossed her arms. "I was just going over the supplies… I feel fine, Xena.. would you please relax?" She watched her partner shake droplets off her cloak and pace forward. "You about ready to leave?"
"Okay… you got everything you need?"
The head shook back and forth, and Xena laid her forearms over the bard's shoulders. "I'll cope, though, if you promise to be good, and stay inside our nice, warm cabin, in our nice warm bed for at least a day longer." She parted the hair on one side of the bard's head, and brushed her fingers against the swollen lump there, still discolored a lurid blue and purple. "How's your arm feel?"
Gabrielle shifted it. "Stiff… sore… but okay."
"Okay." Xena met her gaze. "Please, be careful, Gabrielle. Don't give the guards a hard time.. let them fuss over you, hmm?"
"Please? For me?"
"Tch…. Xena, that's not fair." Gabrielle complained. "I hate them hanging all over me…you know that."
"Please?" The warrior asked again, running a fingertip along her partner's jawline. "Put my mind at peace?"
A sigh. "Oh, all right." She lifted her head and felt a feather light touch agaisnt her lips. Her eyes closed, and the touch deepened, sliding past her defenses and curling around her like a warm blanket.
She got lost in it.
Lost in the heady scent of leather and musk, and brass tang.
Lost in the need, and the desire her body was suddenly overwhelmed with, making her hands reach for the skin under the leather armor, and brought her pressing against the cool, rough surface. Her breathing went erratic, and she felt Xena's hands slowly roam down her back, under her cloak, slipping around her ribs and pausing in teasing, seductive touches. A thrill chased down her spine, her outer mind knowing the door could open at any moment, and her inner mind not caring in the slightest as soft, incoherent sounds escaped from her throat.
Xena's ribs moved sharply under her searching fingers, and then the world turned upside down, and she was no longer on her feet, no longer near the table, but on her back in a nice, warm pile of springy hay, with a prowling, coiled warrior crouched over her, trading touches for nibbles as she lost track of the present for just a little while.
Then she was nestled, very contentedly in a warm well of sweet smelling hay, and leather and skin as strong arms cradled her , Xena's quiet breathing brushing her ear in somnolent rhythm. "Well. " She burred softly. "That was pretty darn irresponsible."
"Yeaaah." Xena replied. "It was, but we had a little time, and I'd rather spend it with you, then pacing around out in the rain."
A blond brow twitched. "How romantic, honey." She remarked drolly. "What if someone had come in?"
"They'd have seen me living up to my incredibly lusty reputation?"
Gabrielle giggled in pure reaction. "What does that say for me?"
"You've got good taste?"
The giggle devolved into a burst of laughter.
Xena sighed. "So much for my ego." She grumbled.
"Aww…. " Gabrielle rubbed her belly gently. "You're ego's safe, Xe…. Trust me, you're the sexiest person I know."
"Mm…" The warrior purred, not convinced. "And just how many other people am I being judged against?"
A comforting pat. "If I was an Athenian tavern wench in the middle of celebrating Dionysus' festival, you'd still be the sexiest. Honest." She looked up to see one of those half grins on her partner's face, particularly charming in light of her mussed hair, and barely twinkling blue eyes. "And in case you're taking votes, I really like the lace up the front leathers." She flicked a finger against the mostly open fastenings, then slipped her hand inside to rub the soft skin. "Much, much more convenient than the other ones. At least for me." A grin. "And for you too, I think."
Xena nodded. "Much... lays better with the armor, too" She played with a loose lock of Gabrielle's hair. "Better get going… I want to make sure camp gets set up early tonight. Toris has a building team out there working on the ramparts, but they're gonna be damned cold, and need a warm place to sleep."
"Mm." Gabrielle kept up her tracing. "You know, Xena… I really don't feel bad at all.. especially now.. " She gave her partner a wishing look. "Can't I just come with you..I'll bundle up really good, I promise."
A fingertip on her nose. "Gabrielle, to risk you getting the coughing sickness is just stupid. Spend one more night dry and warm, with the herbs I gave you… and you can come on out tomorrow afternoon, okay?"
A sigh. "Okay." The bard grumbled.
Xena smiled, and rested her chin against the bard's hair, surrendering for a guilty moment to the pleasant lassitude that had stolen over her unexpectedly. She was a little surprised to find her body craving a nap, but put it down to the weather and the company, and firmly opened her eyes, giving Gabrielle a little kiss on the head before she pushed herself upright. "Here… you like the laces so much…. Gimme a hand with them."
They were, fortunately, dressed and standing back on the hay strewn ground when the door pushed unexpectedly open, and Ephiny came back in, brushing the cold droplets off her cloaked shoulders. "Okay.. we're ready to go… the vanguard is in place, outposts are manned… the wagons have crossed the river… we're just waiting on you, General."
"All right." Xena twitched her cloak collar "Let's go." She settled her weapons with an experienced hand, and headed for the stable door.
Ephiny cocked her head and regarded her young Queen, who was standing very innocently near the table with her hands behind her back. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah." The bard smiled contentedly. "Why?"
Ephiny reached over and delicately removed a stalk of hay from the bard's pale hair and twirled it before her eyes, both eyebrows edging up coyly. "You guys have a nice chat?"
Gabrielle turned a very charming pink, as she cleared her throat and studied the floor. "We were just discussing logistics." She protested mildly. "Really."
"Uh huh." Ephiny put the stalk of hay between her teeth and chewed it. "Gabrielle, can I ask you a very personal question?"
Uh oh. "Uh.. sure." The bard agreed. "You can ask me anything, you know that, Eph."
"Okay.. well, you know how we had Xena give sparring lessons, during last winter?" The regent guided her out the door.
"You don't suppose you'd let her…"
"Even if we.."
"Right. We're clear on that, chief." Ephiny almost bit her lip through to keep from laughing. "Gotcha.
"Get the troops started." Xena ordered crisply. "The last wagons should be moving by the time the riders start out - I want everyone clearing the outer road by the time I catch up."
"Catch up?" Ephiny queried, pulling her horse up sharply.
"I've got a piece of equipment I have to go get." Cool blue eyes regarded her. "I'll be right back." She turned Hercules head and nudged him back towards the village.
The dark head turned, and the warrior eyed her sternly. "Yes?"
"Give Dori a kiss for me too, okay." The regent smiled.
A patented Warrior Princess glare pinned her for a long moment, then the corner of Xena's mouth twitched and she nodded before she kicked her horse into a gallop and headed towards the cabin.
Ephiny sighed, then chuckled. "Mushball."
Xena kicked her boots free of the stirrups as she reached her destination, and vaulted lightly off Hercules back, landing on the muddy ground and taking the stairs quickly. She paused, cocking her head to listen, then caught Gabrielle's voice very faintly from the direction of the inn. Good. She put a hand on the door and pushed it open, ducking inside and letting it close behind her as she approached the cradle near the fire. Dori had been lying down for a nap, and now the baby stirred, yawning sleepily and blinking as she knelt beside the wooden bed.
"Hey, sweetie." Xena crooned. "C'mere for a minute." She carefully picked her daughter up and cradled her in the crook of one arm, smoothing the soft linen of her jumper down with the other hand. "Didn't meant to wake you up.. I just wanted to… "
Dori yawned, and clutched at her hand. "Booooo.."
"Yeah.. that's me." Xena sat down on the floor, and let the baby maul her hand. "That's me… listen up now." She paused, well aware of the fact that Dori wasn't going to understand what she said, but it didn't really matter. "I want to tell you something, okay?"
"Look.. I know you're really attached to your mama and me."
"Mama?" Innocent green eyes fastened on her face.
"Your mama.. yeah, and you know, Dori, I'm pretty attached to her too." Xena exhaled. "I know you don't like us to leave you.. but there's something that we have to do, and that means we're going to have to go away for a while."
Dori started sucking on her thumb, her other hand clutching Xena's contentedly. "Boo."
"So… I just wanted you to know, it's not because we don't want to be with you, okay? It's just there's this guy out there, and he's doing bad things… and someone has to stop him, Dori."
"And I guess I'm that person."
"We'll take care of that bad guy, then we'll come back for you, okay?"
Dori kicked her feet and wriggled closer, making contented little grunts. "Wuv."
Xena smoothed the tangled, dark hair. "You need a haircut, little one." She sighed. "I was gonna do that the other day, but then things….I just ran out of time, I guess."
"Sometimes that happens, Dori."
The green eyes peered at her curiously, as though the baby caught her shifting mood.
"Sometimes you just run out of time to do the things you really want to." A finger traced the baby's round cheek. "Sometimes you have to leave people you really don't want to leave."
"Boo?" A tiny pout appeared.
"Sometimes… even when you do everything right, Dori.. even when you're very smart, and very good… bad things happen." Xena whispered, drinking in the tiny features. "You know, sweetie… before you were born, when your mama and I were talking about how we'd like to have a little baby like you, I made a promise to your mama."
"Yeah." The warrior traced the soft down on the baby's cheek. "I promised your mama that I would love you.. with all my heart." She blinked, surprised to feel a tear track down her face, leaving a trail of coolness after the warmth of it. "And I kept that promise… because I do love you."
"Wuv you." The baby murmured in imitation, then clutched the finger with a tiny hand. "Good."
"Dori, listen to me." Xena leaned closer. "I also promised your mama I'd protect you, and that's what I've gotta go do now, okay? " She took a breath. "And if something bad happens, and I don't come back here, I want you to know… that wherever I go, it won't be far."
"Bck." A tiny furrow appeared in the baby's brow.
"I'll always be there watching over you, sweetheart…. I promise, okay?"
"Otay." Dori yawned, and curled up against her, despite the armor and leathers, exhaling as she snuggled close, her eyes drooping and her small fingers tightening on the lacing that ran down the front of Xena's chest. "Boo..boo…boo…. " She repeated sleepily.
Xena exhaled, then got carefully to her feet and walked to the small chest they'd left in the cabin, kneeling down next to the wooden box and opening it, removing something then crossing back over to the cradle and tucking Dori into it. The baby fussed, upset at losing her favored nap spot.
"Here." The warrior put a stuffed toy in the cradle along with her daughter. "I think you'll like this…I know the person who made it wouldn't mind me giving it to you." She leaned over and kissed the baby's head.
Dori clutched at the doll, and wriggled, closing her eyes as Xena carefully tucked the soft quilt around her. Then the warrior sat down on the floor and wrapped her arms around her knees, resting her chin on her forearm and simply watching her daughter sleep for a little while.
It was very quiet in the cabin, and her sharp ears told her the rest of the soldiers had left the village. A cold, wet wind trickled in the window, then faded, and she was left in a moment of pensive stillness.
"Goodbye, Dori." Her voice rasped softly, falling on sleeping ears. "Don't forget me, okay?" She heard the wistful tone as she gave the tiny form a last stroke, feeling the soft skin warm against her calloused fingertips.
Then she stood up and let her armor settle, taking a moment to slowly sweep her eyes around the cabin one last time, taking in the familiar space with sad, aching eyes.
The only one, really, she'd ever had, since she'd left her mother's in all those years past. Only a building, really, wooden walls and floors with a sturdy roof, but through her efforts, and Gabrielle's, and the joining of their lives it had become something far more to her. She walked over and touched one of the painted mats on the walls, tracing Gabrielle's novice brushstrokes with a fingertip.
She turned, letting her hand drop to her side, then walked to the door, pausing as she opened it to glance back for one last look at Dori's sleeping form.
Then she stepped through, and let the wooden panel close behind her, and faced the gray, dismal weather that waited to wrap itself around her.
"C'mon, Hercules." She moved down the steps and mounted the horse, then headed towards the village entrance, urging the horse into a canter as she passed through the gates and down the road.
Gabrielle made her way across the courtyard, and escaped from the weather into their cabin, pushing her hood back as she entered and feeling the warmth from the fire with a sense of utter relief. Her head felt like it was going to explode, and she ached all over, wanting nothing more than to snuggle into her bed and suck down a tankard full of hot, pungent tea.
"Hey, honey." She smiled as Dori pulled herself up against the side of the cradle, one hand clutching a stuffed doll. "Whatcha got there?" She took off her cloak and hung it up, then walked over and crouched down. "Let mama see…oh."
Gabrielle sat down on the floor and slowly took the doll from her daughter in shaking hands, staring at it.
"Dori, where did you get this? Did you take this from Boo's things?"
"Boo!" Dori reached for her new toy, with a scowl. "Mama!"
Gabrielle turned, to see the tall chest firmly closed. "Did Boo give this to you?"
"Boo!" Dori was now leaning out of the cradle, her fingers clutching for the stuffed doll, a battered, but dimly recognizable figure covered in scraps of leather. "Mine!" Her face moved into a definite pout. "Mama…"
Gabrielle handed it to her, watching as Dori hugged it, sitting down hard in her cradle and then sucking her thumb. She took a careful breath, getting over the shock of seeing Dori holding one of the few things she knew Xena had that were Solon's.
Surely, Dori hadn't gotten it from the chest.
That meant Xena had given it to her, and the bard felt herself having mixed emotions about that. Half of her was touched, that her partner had given something so precious to her over to their daughter. The other half of her had to wonder why now, of all times, would Xena choose to give up that significant a part of her past.
Well, she'd darn well ask her tomorrow. Gabrielle felt her hands twitching, as she fought the desire to jump on the nearest horse and take off after her soulmate. Calm down, Gabrielle.. she probably feels bad about leaving the kid again, and wanted her to have something to make her feel better.
Yeah, that made sense. She knew Xena felt anxious about leaving their daughter behind, and this was surely the warrior's way of leaving a little something in her place. "You take care of that, Dori… Boo was very nice to give it to you."
"Boo." Dori hugged her new toy.
"Mm.. yeah, I think that is supposed to be Boo, as a matter of fact." The bard smiled sadly. "Okay, I've got some nice fish stew here, Dori…I'm going to heat it up, then you and me are going to have some early dinner. How about that?"
Gabrielle stood up and walked towards the table where she'd left her stew pot, then turned as the door opened unexpectedly, her hand reaching in pure instinct for her staff. "Oh. Hi."
It was the young Amazon who'd been caught in their cabin. "Hi."
Gabrielle let her hand drop. "You know, it's really a lot better manners to knock before you come in someone's house."
"It's a lot better manners to shut up unless you're spoken to." The girl lifted hand, revealing a small crossbow, and triggered it with a smile.
Gabrielle's body reacted instinctively as the threat registered, and she threw her body sideways, feeling the scrape and sting as the bolt rasped by her. Her hands reached for the nearest object, and she swung her arm in a powerful motion, sending the stew pot flying across the room and striking the woman full in the chest. "Son of a Bacchae!" The bard yelled at the top of her voice.
"Bitch." The Amazon threw the pot from her and drew her sword, heading towards Gabrielle with a grim look on her face. "I'm going to cut your breasts off for that." She attacked the smaller woman, expecting Gabrielle to run and try to get away.
Instead, she found herself facing an enraged bard, whose touch had fallen on her long, solid staff and brought it forward, and who leaped towards her with a roar of anger and a well placed, sweeping blow that caught her right in the ribs. "Cut me up?" Gabrielle went after her, feeling the rage take her over. "You won't touch me you little.." She evaded the sword cut and thwacked her staff into the woman's hand, hearing a crunch and a solid clatter as the weapon was sent flying. "Stupid.." She slammed the butt of her staff into the Amazon's middriff, and she doubled over. "Piece of…" Her staff reversed and she drove the end of it against the woman's shoulders. "Centaur dung!"
The Amazon rolled away from her and started to climb to her feet.
"Oh no.. I don't think so." Gabrielle charged after her, throwing her body across the cabin and swinging her staff, catching the woman behind the knees and sending her sprawling again. "I am sick.." Thwack. "And tired.." Crack. "Of being messed with!!!" She dropped her staff and grabbed the woman's leathers, so angry she could hardly think straight. She took hold of her and pulled, yanking her right off the floor, then threw her against the wall with a sudden, shocking crunch.
Then it was quiet, save for the creaking of the runners on Dori's cradle as the baby rocked, and the tiny grunts of excitement as she watched her beloved mother with wide, facinated eyes.
Gabrielle waited for the thunder of her own heartbeat to receded a little, then she crossed to the Amazon and knelt, grabbing the front of the stunned woman's leathers and slamming her back against the wood. "Catch a clue, feathers for brains. " She glared at her erstwhile attacker. "I'm not a helpless ditzball wimp." A pause. "And I haven't needed a bodyguard for a long, long time."
The woman stared at her, then spat in her face.
Gabrielle merely met her eyes, her expression stolid. She turned her head as the door opened, and two of her own Amazons bolted in, stopping as they spotted her. "I want this person tied up, and put in the cellar" She spoke quietly. "I want every person in the village who isn't a resident, or a member of my Nation gathered in the inn's main room in a candlemark."
"Yes, your Majesty." The older of the two Amazons crossed over and took hold of her captive. "Shall we send word to the river camp?"
Cold, green eyes met hers. "No." Gabrielle answered precisely. "I'll be the judge of this."
They left, and she heard the soft sounds as a guard took up position around her cabin. Light footfalls resulted in a blond head edging cautiously through the door. "Gosh."
Gabrielle felt very, very tired. "Hello, Cait. "
"We were just putting up the watch… she didn't take ever so long, did she?"
The bard sighed. "No."
"We're here now.. I'll make perfectly sure that won't happen again." Cait told her, seriously.
"Thanks." Gabrielle watched her leave, then stood wearily, and walked over to the chair next to Dori's cradle, sitting down heavily in it. Her arm stung, and she looked at it, seeing the faint scrapes of the bolt reddening her skin. "You know something, Dori?"
"Mama!" She held up both hands.
"Life sucks sometimes."
"Bck." The baby solemnly blinked at her.She leaned over and lifted Dori out of her cradle, cuddling her in her lap and willing her body to stop shaking. The attack had scared her, once she'd stopped reacting, and now she realized the hard part was only just beginning.
The entrenchments were going well. Xena rested her forearms on Hercules' saddlebow and nodded to herself as she surveyed the efforts. They'd dug out a defensive position along the riverbank, and their troops now neatly blocked the way across, covering the bridge to the ford. In back of the battlements a campsite was being set up - with low, rough tents big enough for one or two soldiers scattered around in legion sized areas. All around there was a bustle of orderly movement, and Xena pronounced herself pleased with the results.
She reined Hercules around and sent him into a canter across the front of the defenses, her eyes searching them for weak points and areas that needed to be shored up. The thick sod walls needed to be able to hold up under the first, fierce charge she knew Andreas would throw against them, and give them time to use their archers and cavalry to it's best advantage.
The river would draw his fire, and allow her to get troops around him and attack from three sides, hopefully driving his first assault back and making him regroup.
Xena turned her horses' head and started out in a long, slow circle away from the river. Then, would depend on what he did. It was always good to have alternative plans, but you had to be ready to react to what your enemy did first.
Hoofbeats behind her made her turn, to see Ephiny and Pony trotting up. She gave them both a nod. "Looks good."
Ephiny leaned back in her saddle. "For a mud pile, sure." She gave Xena a wry look. "I'm glad you have us doing hit and run, though. I think I'd go nuts stuck behind there."
"Your folks ready?"
Pony nodded. "We split up in two groups. One's on that side." She pointed. "The other's over there. We set up camps in the trees , and sentries all along the forest line."
"I've got everyone who isn't building tree platforms making arrows." Ephiny chimed in. "How's Gabrielle?"
Xena felt her mind shift gears. "She's doing all right. Probably be up here tomorrow ." She scanned the horizon. "If we get everything set up today, I'd like to run some drills, especially close order. We're gonna get tangled up in our own armor if we don't get that right."
Both Amazons winced.
"All right. I'm going to go scout around a little. Meet you guys back at the camp." Xena turned Hercules' head and nudged him into a canter, heading out ward towards the hills.
"Xena.." Ephiny called after her. "Don't you think you should.."
A sigh. "Take an escort..no, of course you don't." The regent exchanged looks with her weapon's master. "C'mon, Pony… let's go fletch something."
Xena rode on, enjoying the breeze that pushed her hair back and ruffled her cloak. She moved quickly past where the snakes had appeared, pulling Hercules up and jumping off to examine the grass carefully in a couple of places. She knelt and brushed the stalks back, touching the damp earth and releasing a rich, slightly pungent scent to her sensitive nose.
"Mm." Xena straightened up and wiped her hands on her leggings, then walked forward, leading Hercules by his reins. "Wonder what the deal was with those snakes, Herc… were they just to scare us, or worse?" She approached the small ring of trees in the hollow below the attack site, and noted the skins flapping in the wind.
Then her nose twitched, and she stiffened, her hand halfway to her sword even as she turned her head to locate what had triggered her reflexes.
But there was nothing. It was still, only the grasses brushing by each other in the wind, and the slight patter of leaves falling off the trees and onto the wet ground. Her nape hairs prickled, though, and she took two steps, launching up onto Hercules' back in a smooth motion and settling her legs as she turned the horse in a circle, using his height to good advantage.
She turned her head into the wind, lifting her chin and cocking her ears as she searched, sucking in lungfuls of the damp air trying to detect the hidden presence her instincts told her was there.
Grass, wind, Hercules's breathing.. the soft stamp of his hooves, her own heartbeat….
Ah. A winding creak, so soft it could have been two branches rubbing together. Xena released her reins and let her hands drop to her thighs, waiting. Her senses screamed, raising the hair on her arms.
An ear twitched as she heard another creak, from a different direction. Uh oh. Without hesitation she dropped low over the horses neck and kneed him forward explosively, digging her heels into his sides and sending him plunging through the grass as several arrows passed over her head.
Then a hand reached up and grabbed his bridle and she shifted her weight back, giving him a signal and making him rear as his holder was given the choice of letting go, or being dragged upward. The hand let go, then a swarm of bodies attacked her in eerie silence, faces hidden behind masks and hands and knives making their way towards her.
Xena guided the stallion in a circle, clearing a small path and drew her sword, keeping the horse moving and her weapon between her and as many of them as she could. She felt a burning pain along her thigh and glanced down to see a dagger sticking out of it, then slammed the hilt of her sword down on the head of the person who'd put it there.
Her anger rose, and she kicked a second, slashing down and taking the arm off a third. She whirled Hercules around in a tight spin and caught two more scrambling, plunging her sword into flesh and throwing her head to one side as a gush of blood exploded upward.
The stallion kicked out at her command, and sent a thug flying, then the grass rustled as the remaining attackers bolted. Xena raced after them grimly, catching one with a downward swipe of her sword and beheading him. She shoved the next one into a tree, and watched his face disintegrate as it hit against the bark, then she was at the tree line, and faced with dismounting or letting the rest go.
Her fingers flexed on her sword, and she exhaled, but realized chasing them on foot wasn't the best idea. She backed Hercules up and glanced down, to see a spreading stain against her leggings. The dagger she'd tucked in a fold of her saddle, and now she drew it out and examined it.
Lion's crest. Xena's lip twitched into a snarl, then she leaned closer, and examined the blade. It was stained with more than her blood, and she cursed softly under her breath as she sniffed it. Nothing she knew, and now the pain in her leg was starting to spread, taking on a numb, burning sensation that made her realize she could be in trouble.
She quickly sheathed her sword and gathered her reins, then urged Hercules back towards the camp, swallowing down the nausea that had started to grip her guts. Past the little hollow, she was about to move into a gallop when the grass exploded into motion, and she was overwhelmed.
Hands pulled her down off the horse, and a growing dizziness kept her from responding, as she struggled to fight them off.
Something long and hard hit her in the back of the head with a sickening, hollow sound, and she dropped into darkness, the last sound she heard being a light, mocking laughter.
She woke bound tightly, and unable to move. Her throat was parched and painful, and she could feel rope rubbing against her skin, and the damp wetness of the ground.
"Well well." A boot kicked her hard in the side, and she rolled over, peering up at the face of her tormentor. "Look at the great warrior princess now."
Xena remained silent, studying the sharp, youthful features in a strange face she was fairly sure she'd never seen before. The woman was roughly half her age, and slim, taller than Gabrielle but with the calm assurance of a warrior in her movements. She had light hair, and a curious shade of golden eyes, giving her an almost catlike appearance.
"How's it feel?" The woman kicked her again, then again, when Xena refused to reward her with a reaction. "Ho.. you are a tough one, aren't you?" She sauntered over to a small brazier one of her hooded companions was heating some water over and picked up a slim metal rod, gazing at it before she walked back over. "Let's see how tough."
Xena focused straight ahead of her, mentally preparing herself for the worst. An explosion of fire seared through her, jolting from the already painful spot on her leg.
She let it roll past, taking inventory of herself instead. The ropes were tight enough to cut off her circulation, and she felt an unpleasant tingling in her lower legs and arms.
The burning pain disappeared, leaving behind a pounding throb, which echoed through her body matching the throbbing in her head.
Screaming was never an option.
"Okay, so you are tough." The woman regarded her prisoner, then crouched down. "Maybe I'll just kill you."
Xena regarded her in silence. The poker came closer and closer to her face.
"Or maybe I'll make you ugly." A chuckle. "How'd you like to be called One eye, hmm?"
She could feel the heat against her skin, making her right eye sting and causing her to blink against the sensation. She kept her gaze steady though, giving away nothing to this unknown attacker.
A thought entered her mind, gently nudging aside the cold practicality of the moment. She let her eyelids close, and allowed the familiar image form, filling her awareness with gentle warmth, and sad green eyes.
Gabrielle paused a moment, taking a few breaths to collect herself before she approached the inn. She'd put on a set of her winter Amazon leathers, which were nice and warm at least, and her thick cloak with it's trim of soft, fluffy rabbit that brushed against her chin.
At her waist, she'd bound her dagger in it's worn leather sheath, the hilt gleaming dully with Xena's crest on it. It was her one edged weapon, and though she'd probably never use it, she felt better with it on, almost as though she had a little bit of her partner there. She caressed the hilt absently with her thumb as she squared her shoulders, and gave a little nod. Okay, Gabrielle. Amazon Queen time. Suck in the gut, and throw on the attitude. She took a last breath, then started forward with a determined stride.
The inn was full, between Gabrielle's grim Amazons, and the nervous others, and the uneasy murmurs fell to silence as the door opened and Gabrielle entered, flanked by Cait and Johan.
She walked to the table they'd set up for her and stood behind it, letting her hands rest on it's surface. "All right." The bard kept her voice low, and even. "I have a prisoner in the cellar. An Amazon, who tried to attack me in my cabin."
"I've got two choices. Either I find out who that Amazon was working for, or I put all of you who aren't part of my Nation in there with her."
"That's a tiny room." One of the women protested.
"Not my problem." Gabrielle answered immediately. "So if anyone here knows anything, you'd better speak up now." A pause. "Otherwise, I hope you're very friendly with each other."
There was a sullen silence.
"Okay. Well then, take them over." The bard spoke. "Tie them up and gag them, then put them inside."
"You can't do that." One blurted.
"Of course I can." Cold green eyes pinned her. "I could just have you killed."
"You wouldn't… " A short, tow headed woman started. "They said…"
"Oh, they did, did they?" Gabrielle advanced on her . "And who would they be?" She came even with the woman, tilting her head slightly to meet her gaze.
The tow headed Amazon clamped her jaw shut. A disgusted murmur drifted over from Gabrielle's Amazons, who shifted and gripped weapons, exchanging angry looks.
"How much did they offer?" The bard asked quietly. "Must have been a lot." She was aware of Cyrene's eyes on her, from the corner of the inn. "All right. Take them." She turned and walked back to the table, allowing the shuffle of moving bodies to start behind her before she turned to watch.
"Excuse me, your Majesty." Cait piped up. "You might want to bind their eyes as well, to keep those burrowing weevils we've had such trouble with out."
Gabrielle turned her head and lifted a golden eyebrow, then turned back to her prisoners, who were staring at her in horror. "Nah." She remarked cheerfully. "Better if they see them coming." A smile. "Don't you think?"
Even her own Amazons exchanged glances at that, looking at her a little round eyed.
"All right" The tow headed woman whispered, swallowing. "If they were wrong about you, maybe they were wrong about other things." Another woman cuffed her, and she twisted out of the way. "Let go of me. I'm not gonna lie in my own filth with the lot of you."
"Bring her in here." Gabrielle jerked her jaw at the woman, then turned and stalked into the kitchen, letting the wooden door swing closed behind her. She heard a scuffle, then the door swung back open and Cait shoved her target through, drawing her knife and giving the woman a poke. Paladia followed her inside, letting the door close and standing with her back against it.
"Get on there." Cait ordered. "Or I'll put a hole in you."
"Hey, you little punk. Cut it out."
Cait had the knife at her throat in an instant, pressing her body up against the taller woman's and knicking the skin, exposing a single, round bead of blood. "I don't rather like that." She warned softly. "Stop it at once."
"All right.. all right." The woman gave her a look. "I said I'd talk, didn't I?" Cait released her, and she tucked her hands under her arms as she faced Gabrielle, unable to meet the intense green eyes. "So you got it right."
"What did I get right?" The bard asked. "What deal did they offer?"
"A hundred thousand dinars." The Amazon stated softly. "To get you, and bring you out to a spot near the hills. That was all."
"Mm." Gabrielle folded her arms. "Why?"
The bard sighed. "I care - what's your name?"
"Hanna, did you really think they were going to pay you that hundred thousand dinars?"
The tow headed woman snorted. "Hades no. That's why I turned em down flat." Her expression was disdainful. "He's nuts - only that stupid kid was dumb enough to give it a try."
Gabrielle shook her head sadly. "And you didn't think about telling someone she was going to try?"
An uncomfortable shrug. "Figured you knew - not like it takes a genius to guess he'd love to get his paws on Xena's partner."
"Is that why you stayed here, then? To see if your buddy was successful, and maybe share in the loot?"
Hanna laughed humorlessly. "No. I stayed here because I don't want to spend my day digging mud, and being a target."
Gabrielle absorbed this, then nodded. "Fine." She motioned. "Take her out." She watched Cait shove the Amazon out the door, then closed her eyes, sinking down onto the work table and rubbing her temples.
Her stomach hurt. She put a hand down and rubbed it gently, feeling a gnawing in her guts that woke stark, frightening memories, but surely it was the tension of the moment. Xena could hardly have gotten into trouble yet, right?
"You look like crap." Paladia stated succinctly, with typical bluntness.
"Thanks. I feel that way." The bard murmured. "What in the heck do I do with these people?"
Paladia considered the question seriously. "Make em babysit your kid?"
Gabrielle sighed, and pushed herself towards the door.
It was dark.
Xena could feel the pressure of a bandage around her eyes, and a throbbing in her head that was almost audible to her. Her body was cramping from the long period spent in the same position, and she'd lost most of the feeling in her hands and feet.
The sound around her were of a camp at night, the flutter of a campfire, and the soft footsteps and rustles of people moving around. She could smell people, horses, and food, and the rich scent of the earth she was lying on.
A sound of ribald laughter came closer, and she tensed in reaction just before a booted foot crashed into her face, slamming her back against the log she was lying near.
For a moment, she balanced between despair, and anger.
"Cut that out, Stark." The woman's voice rang over. "Get over here."
The laughter faded, and she was alone again. Slowly, she ran numb fingers along the ropes holding her arms behind her back, searching until she found a knot. It was snugged painfully tight, and there was no real way for her to loosen it, but very carefully, she put the edge of one finger against the coil and pushed.
Just a little.
It creaked, just a little.
Xena put her fingers on the other side of the coil and pulled it back. It moved, the tiniest amount. She settled down grimly, ignoring the ache in her shoulders and the pain in her head, and kept up the small, almost futile motions. Her thoughts felt fuzzy, she realized, and she suspected they'd given her something to keep her quiet, which added to the sense of heaviness she felt laying over her like a blanket.
Okay. She patiently ordered her thoughts. This isn't good. The bandage around her eyes was very tight, and she could feel a sharp pain underneath it, bringing up an image of the young boy she'd treated back in the caverns. Her body stilled as a wash of horror came over her, and she let her head rest on the wet ground with a tiny groan. No.
Dear gods, no. She felt sick. Footsteps approached and she didn’t' even have the energy to care. A boot kicked her shoulder, rolling her over onto her back and she simply lay there, listening to the sound of breathing and the soft rasp of skin against leather.
"So." A soft creak and the sensation of a body approaching hers. "Bet you're wondering what we did to you, hmm?"
Xena didn't answer.
"Maybe not." A chuckle. "Maybe we knocked the brains right out of you.. who knows?"
A hand slapped her cheek, and she kept herself from reacting, though she could feel her shoulder muscles tense unconsciously. A sharp point jabbed her in the arm suddenly, making her jerk, then another one, this time a searing line that she knew drew blood. A dark, dangerous energy stirred in her guts as the laughter followed, along with several more jabs.
"Hey, you are alive in there… what do you know."
Fingers grabbed her throat and she felt her air cut off, and her body reacted as she hurled herself up off the ground by sheer strength, curling herself up in an arc and slamming her bound knees into her tormentor with surprising force. She heard a thump, and a scuffle, and a loud curse and she laid back down, returning to a still silence.
"Son of a Bacchae." The voice snarled, then Xena heard the mud squelch as the woman got to her feet and she braced herself, guessing what was coming. The boot caught her in the stomach and she went with the blow, taking the force of it and letting it curl her body around the woman's leg, trapping it. She slammed her head into the lower calf, then wrenched herself in the opposite direction, feeling and hearing the curse as her adversary was tossed across her and into the log.
Her blood was pumping now, and it brought tingles of pure pain to her legs, and made her head throb almost unbearably, but she had enough energy to curl up into a ball as the expected retaliation came, in the form of a branch that slammed against her back, sending shivers of bark all over her.
"Bitch!" The woman cursed, beating her over and over again. "I'll kill you!"
Xena rolled back over and kicked out with both bound legs, hearing a satisfying crunch as she found her mark by instinct and body language alone. The branch disappeared, then something large, and heavy hit her in the head, and she felt the dark rush over her again in an explosion of pain.
Cyrene wiped her hands, and glanced out the window. Then she walked over and peered out, seeing a familiar form on the porch. "Gabrielle?" She opened the door and walked out, coming up behind the still figure near the railing. "Sweetie?"
The bard had her hands on the wood and was staring off towards the river. "Something's wrong." She whispered. "Xena's in trouble."
Cyrene stared at the remote profile. "Are you sure?"
"Why are you standing here then?"
Gabrielle turned her head, her green eyes lustrous in the torchlight. "I was about to leave." She indicated a pack resting on the wooden floor. "Do you have a piece of bread or something I could take with me."
"Sure." Cyrene lead her inside and took a loaf of bread, slicing it down it's length and putting a selection of cheeses and meats inside it. "How are you feeling?"
The innkeeper looked up quickly, catching the look of anguish on her daughter in law's face. "Is it that bad?"
Bad? The twisting in her guts had grown every moment since she'd locked up the out Nation Amazons, in an unused hut instead of the cellar. She'd thrown up twice, then simply gotten dressed and packed. "It's bad." She confirmed, feeling the fist slowly tightening over her heart. "I’m just going to say goodbye to Dori, okay?"
She didn’t wait for an answer, she just pushed through the inner door and went down the back hallway into the room that used to be Toris's, and was used as the nursery. Right now, the usually cheerful room was echoingly empty, since the twins and the triplets were all back in the caverns. Only Dori's cradle rested by the fireplace, with Ares curled up next to it. "Hey boy."
The yellow eyes peered up at her.
Gabrielle knelt beside the cradle, resting her arm on her knee as she gazed at her sleeping daughter. "Honey?" She picked the baby up and cradled her in her arms, getting a grumpy look from half opened eyes. "Hey, sweetie pie."
She bent her head and kissed the child on her small forehead. "Dori, I know you hate when I go away - " She felt her throat close, and had to wait a minute. "But I have to go find your Boo."
"That's right." The bard whispered. "I have to go find her, and help her, and I might not see you for a while." Another pause. "It's not because I don't love you too, Dori, please believe me."
"Bck." The baby caught her thumb and sucked on it. "Mama."
"But your Boo and I have to go together, okay?" She kissed Dori's head again. "Be a good girl for me, honey, please?" She felt the tears start, and couldn’t stop them for a minute, letting them drop down into the soft cotton folds of the jumper Dori was wearing. "Be good."
The echo of those words slammed her hard, as she faced the reality of leaving behind a child yet again, though for direly different reasons. Slowly, she bowed her head over Dori and let the grief out in soft, choking sobs.
The baby anxiously touched her face, wriggling in distress and gurgling. "Mama!"
She calmed, and tucked the tiny form to her, stroking the soft, silky hair with one hand. "I'm sorry, honey." She rocked Dori, kissing her hair and hugging her. Then she tucked the baby back into her cradle, and settled her new doll with her. She studied the child for a minute, thinking, then she reached up and unclasped the silver necklace she wore around her neck and looked at it, watching the green stone wink back at her. "You should have something from both of us, right?"
She carefully fastened the necklace around Dori's neck, shortening it so it didn't hang down. "There you go, honey." Then she pulled a piece of parchment from her vest and tucked it under the edge of the soft furs that lined the cradle. "That's from me and Boo also, just in case." She touched the baby's cheek, tracing it's line gently. "I love you."
"Wuv." Dori burbled. "Wuv Mama."
Gabrielle smiled through her tears.
She caught her lip. "Oh… honey, did you tell her that?"
Dori just sucked on her thumb and snuggled closer to her doll. She moved a little, rocking her own cradle back and forth. Gabrielle leaned over and gave her a last kiss, then stood and wiped her eyes, squaring her shoulders before she left the nursery and headed back to the kitchen.
Cyrene was waiting, and she handed her a packet, tactfully not mentioning Gabrielle's tear stained face. Instead, she pulled the younger woman into a hug. "Take care of yourself, cutie pie."
"I will." The bard tucked her package under her arm. "You too, mom."
"I will." The innkeeper cupped her cheek, giving her a compassionate look. "I'll try to keep tabs on the little one, but you two hurry back, okay?"
Gabrielle didn't answer. Her gaze lowered to the floor, then lifted slowly as she raised her head up. "We'll do our best." Then she put her arms around Cyrene again and hugged her. "Thanks for everything, mom." It came out in a whisper. "I love you."
Cyrene felt a jolt of fear hit her chest, but she merely patted the bard's back. "I love you too, Gabrielle." Then she released the younger woman, who backed and smiled, before turning and leaving the kitchen, letting the door swing closed with a softly final echo.
The cold woke her, eventually penetrating even the haze of pain that had kept her unaware of where she was. She could feel rough wood at he back, and knew she was upright, strapped by her arms and legs to some kind of support.
She was also naked, and the fitful, cold rain brushed across her body, raising goosebumps that prickled unpleasantly.
Well. Xena tried to dredge up some coherence out of the fog that had settled on her mind. At least her arms weren't behind her anymore, and the tight bindings around her knees were gone, allowing some blood flow to her legs.
Every movement of her head hurt, though, and her body was starting to scream for water. Experimentally, she opened her mouth and caught some rain, it's sparse moisture almost more agonizing than a total lack. But if she kept at it long enough - her ears told her that most of the camp was asleep, and she was grateful for that, though a soft shifting of skin against leather nearby told her she had a guard.
"You'll never get enough to drink that way. " A soft, male voice murmured. She ignored it and persisted in her attempt, shifting a little and sending an agonizing jolt of pain through her leg.
"Don't worry." The voice reassured her. "As soon as Andreas gets here, you wont' have to do that." A rustle, and the sound of motion. "He'll either kill you, or give you that stuff that makes you like him, but he wont' do something like this. Nellis is just mad at you."
Xena tilted her head towards his voice.
"She's mad because you mussed her up." The voice was much lower. "We all thought it was kinda funny, though.. there she was, all high and mighty, and there you were all tied up like a hog, and you tossed her ass over heels into the mud."
The warrior cocked her head a little in a shrugging motion.
"So you're Xena, huh?"
"Jarvy - leave her alone!" Nellis' voice rang out. "Get away from her before I cut your cock off."
The body retreated, and she was left in quiet. So. She had a name now, which meant nothing to her, and a potential friend, if not ally. Very useful for a naked, injured woman tied to a tree. The rain pelted her again and she shivered, starting to feel the ache of the cold entering her bones. She opened her mouth, and let her thoughts drift, deliberately calling up a warmer, more pleasant time.
"Xena!" A frustrated young bard had stood in the middle of a field, her hands on her hips. "Where in the Hades are you?"
Xena had watched from the grass, her damp body coiled up and waiting, as her friend wandered closer and closer. Gabrielle had just purchased her new outfit, a green cut off top and wraparound skirt, and the sun gilded her newly tan body, glistening off the droplets of water from their bath.
The warrior had crept closer, parting the sun warmed grass with careful fingers, watching the irritation grow on her young friend's face. C'mon, Gabrielle.. she'd thought silently. You can find me.. I know you can.
"Bacchae butts." The bard had scratched her jaw, then moved slowly in a circle, poking the grass with her staff. "C'mere, Xena Xena… here… " She clucked softly. "I know you're out there… I can almost… smell you… "
Xena had muffled a laugh, since she was well downwind of the bard, and could, in fact, smell her. She lifted her head a little and sniffed, smiling as she caught the scent of the river water and the herbal soap from Gabrielle's skin. Nice. She'd thought, lazily regarding the searching woman. Nice outfit too. She'd decided, indulging for a guilty moment her usually well hidden animal attraction to her traveling companion.
"Xena.. c'mon now.. I'm getting hun.. yow!" Gabrielle's prodding had startled a rabbit, who jumped out and dashed past her heading straight for the warrior.
Never, Xena always had told herself, look a gift rabbit in the mouth. She captured the furry beast as it came within reach and stood up casually, brushing her leathers off. "Great. You found dinner, then."
Gabrielle had blinked. "You were there all along?" She squealed. "No way." The bard had trotted over, running fingers through her drying hair and examining the grass around her feet. "Centaur poop.. I can't believe it." She sighed, looking up at her friend with an adorably cute expression.
Xena had smiled at her. "Better luck next time - c'mon, let's get this rabbit on the firel" She'd glanced down at the struggling bunny. "Bet you're gonna be tasty, huh?"
"Aw." Gabrielle's lip had poked out in a pout. "He's so cute."
"Oh, don’t you start that. I had to eat raw apples last night because you thought the fish was too cute. No way, Gabrielle. I'm hungry." Xena had started off, shaking her head.
Momentary silence, then bounding footsteps. "But Xena… fruit is healthy for you." Gabrielle had insisted. "Fruits and grains.. they're much better for you, honest - there was this trader at Potadeia who told us all about that kind of thing and he was right!"
"Was he selling anything?"
"Um… well, grain cakes, sure, but.."
Xena had given her a look. "And you don't think him selling grains had anything to do with that? Besides, I've always eaten meat, and it hasn't stunted my growth." She'd reminded her smaller companion pointedly.
"Was that a short joke?" Gabrielle had asked, with a mock glare.
"Me, make a joke?" Xena had opened her eyes wide in feigned innocence. "Never."
"Mm." Gabrielle had bounced along beside her. "So, I guess asking if I could keep the bunny is right out."
"Even if I told you I made those little dumplings you love for dinner instead?" Mischievously sparkling green eyes had watched her.
Xena had stopped, and faced her, putting her free hand on her hip as she'd tried to come up with a snappy answer. Finally, she'd just shaken her finger at her young friend and laughed. "You are getting too smart for your britches, little bard."
"Put the bunny where your mouth is, warrior princess." Gabrielle had held out a hand in triumph, treating her to a big grin and a wrinkle of her nose.
She'd turned the bunny over, watching Gabrielle coo over it for a bit, then set it free. As they'd both stood and watched it bound away, she'd rested a hand on the bard's shoulder, driven by an unspoken need for contact, one that had been stealing over her more frequently lately. "Probably a tough old thing anyway."
"Take one to know one." Gabrielle had teased, returning the touch with a casual pat on the side, standing so close Xena could almost have felt her heartbeat if she'd moved just a bit nearer.
And then she had, and Xena had pulled in a breath of sun warmed skin and flowers, before she'd cleared her throat, and given the shoulder she'd grasped a squeeze. "Better get going."
"Sure." The bard had shifted her staff to her outside hand and turned to walk along side her. "Thanks for letting the rabbit go, Xena." Her voice had been serious, and a tentative, hesitant hand had crept back over and warmed her back. "I know it's silly of me."
"It's all right." Xena had succumbed, and draped an arm over Gabrielle's bare shoulders. "I wasn't really in the mood for rabbit anyway."
They'd both laughed and walked off into the setting sun, kicking the long stalks of grass out of their way as the cool breeze washed over them.
A sting of pain in her chest brought her back to the present, and she refocused her senses, her nose picking up the scent of leather and sweat, and whatever it was that Nellis cleaned her armor with.
"Little cold out here, isn't it, Xena?" Nellis asked, drawing a sharp point down the front of Xena's chest, from her breastbone to her belly. "See, I'd like to just start carving… " She moved the point up to a rib. "But Andreas made me promise to leave you in one piece." She pressed a little, and drew blood. "He didn't say I couldn’t make a few holes though."
Xena kept her head forward, extending her senses past her tormentor. She could hear rustlings of people moving beyond the fire, and knew they had an audience.
"Wonder what he sees in you?" Nellis mused, stepping back and eyeing the naked form. "You're a pretty beat up old thing."
Xena heard the soft sound of motion, and had time to tense her abdominal muscles just before Nellis hit her. There was a solid thunk, then silence. Xena merely took another breath and listened intently.
Jarvy poked his neighbor as they sat near the fire, watching the show. "See?" He murmured "Look at that." The man grunted in assent. It was an almost surreal scene, the tree with it's dark, damp bark and Xena's naked form spreadeagled across it, with ropes binding her ankles, wrists, and hips. The warrior's body was battered, but even through the mud and grime, and her own bloodstains, the image of confident strength wasn't lost.
"She's really something, huh?"
"Tough." His neighbor agreed. "Kicked Nellis' ass back there… damn, that was funny."
"Yeah." Jarvy watched their leader deliberately stick her knife into the skin just under their captive's ribs. "Not a sound… and she's gorgeous."
"Oh yeah - no wonder Andreas wants her."
"Get her on our side, for sure, no one'll stop us." The older man commented, watching the battered, but proud head lift in an almost arrogant motion as Nellis' jibes were dismissed. "Now that's a warrior."
"Yeah." Jarvy watched the long arms tense, holding the woman's weight up off her injured leg, showing strong, tempered muscles in a sturdy upper body that tapered through a trim waist, then flared through her hips to powerful thighs and long, muscular legs. She was well proportioned, and despite a few scars, and the dirt, he found her incredibly attractive. "Makes Nellis look like a furking kid."
"In more ways than one." His companion snorted. "I hope Andreas does whatever he has to and gets her on our side."
"It'll just take one of those neck things - but yeah." Jarvy agreed enthusiastically. "I"d follow her anywhere." He leaned forward. "Hey.. think she can hear us?"
"From here? You're nuts." The older man chuckled.
"Bet she can… hey, Xena.. you hear me?" Jarvy stared intently at the bruised face, and saw just one corner of a lip twitch into a hint of a smile. "You can, can'tcha?" Another twitch. "Son of a Bacchae!"
"Wow." His friend was honestly impressed. "Y'know.. it's too bad she's gotta stay tied up like that - I'd like to hear what she has to say."
A low murmur agreed with him, from the scruffy group around the fire. "That's a leader." One whispered. "And she don't use no herbs or nothin."
"You know, Xena.. " Nellis was getting tired of her games. The woman was just plain boring to taunt, and showed no reaction to her poking at all. "I'm beginning to think we really did knock your brains out."
The dark head turned and tilted slightly, and if there weren't bandages around them, Nellis knew the pale, eerie eyes would be staring right at her. The silence was spooking her, along with the air of feral, almost malevolent intelligence that seemed to exude from her captive, and she remembered the incredible power she'd felt coming in contact with that battered form for just those brief, few moments.
This was a caged animal. She was glad she couldn’t see the eyes anymore. "You won't be so cocky after Andreas gets here. He's going to make a nice, collared pet out of you."
Xena smiled, and the suddenness of it made Nellis step back. The warrior arched her back, moving forward a bit despite her bounds, and her captor backed again, staring nervously at the ropes. "I'm not sure who's crazier. You or him." She muttered, then turned her back and left the tree, allowing her captive some peace.
Xena exhaled carefully, and eased herself back down, biting the inside of her lip against the pain. The strain against her arms was getting intolerable, and she shifted, trying to find a position that didn't send jolts of agony through her.
The quiet settled, as the fire burned down and the rain slowed to a mere drizzle, just enough to drive her crazy as it dripped down the leaves and onto her skin. Her sensitive ears told her the rest of the camp was rolling up in their warm, dry bedrolls, and she spared a moment to get mad at herself for being in such a stupid position in the first place.
That out of the way, she let her head rest against the tree, and tried to think of something else. Other than being cold, wet, hungry, thirsty, in terrible pain, and missing Gabrielle, of course. She strained her arms against her bonds, keeping pressure on the wet ropes to stretch them out a little, and wiggled her fingers, at least glad she had feeling back in them.
Something tickled her arm. She went still and waited, senses as alert as she could get them as the tickle continued, then turned into a touch that crawled up her skin. Snake? No. She could feel tiny feet, scraping against her arm hairs.
It crawled up her arm, and she could feel tiny hairs tickling her all the way up her shoulder. She extended her nostrils, sucking in the air to catch a hint of the insect, opening her mouth a little to aid in the process.
Ah. Caterpillar. The faintly spicy, faintly mushroomy scent reassured her. Not a centipede, whose bite was poisonous. It crept closer and closer, up over the point of her shoulder and along her collarbone.
With a quick motion, Xena turned her head to one side and captured the bug in her teeth, ignoring the squirming and biting down on it briskly. The juices exploded in her mouth, and she ignored the mildly moldy taste as she swallowed the remains, licking her lips as she sent this little bit of sustenance into her complaining stomach. It wasn't much, but it was something, and it had moisture in it too.
She cocked her head and listened, hoping for more.
Unaware of her silent, awed audience.
Gabrielle felt herself relaxing just a little into Iolaus' rolling stride. She concentrated on what was before her, hearing the soft drum of the two sets of hoofbeats behind her. Cait, of course, who had caught her saddling the stallion, and her ever-present shadow Paladia who insisted stubbornly on coming along.
The sound got louder, and she glanced over as Cait pulled up even with her, at ease on her feisty gray filly who eyed Iolaus with nervous speculation. "Hello."
"Mind if I talk a bit?"
"Please." The bard turned her head gratefully. "It'll take my mind off worrying." The gnawing ache had settled down to a dull throb, and she wasn't sure if that was a good sign or a bad one. Silently she cursed herself for not insisting on going along in the first place, not heeding the instincts that were nudging her hard as she'd watched her partner leave alone. "What's on your mind?"
Gabrielle experienced a mental whiplash that almost made her fall off her horse. "Excuse me?"
Cait eyed her. "Surely you know what that is."
"Ah… " The bard coughed, giving herself a minute. "Um.. well, sure." She knew she was blushing. "I mean, yes - yes I do.. why?"
Cait nudged her filly closer. "I've been thinking about it a lot."
You wanted a distraction. Congratulations, Gabrielle, you got one. "Ah.. well, that's kind of natural at your age, Cait." She gingerly counted the number of years between them. "I know it was for me."
"Really?" The girl asked with deep interest.
"Uh.. sure." Well, kind of. When she wasn't thinking about her father, or life, or stories, or… "It's natural. My sister and I used to talk about it all the time." Well, okay, once.
"Excellent." Cait nodded. "How do you know when it's all right to do sex?"
They cantered down the road, heading towards the bridge that would bring them into the army encampment. Gabrielle found herself wanting to gallop, but she restrained the urge. "Well." She cleared her throat. "I think you know it's okay when you feel really strongly about the person you want to do it with."
"Hm." Cait appeared to consider the words. "I didn't quite mean it like that." She murmured. "I suppose what I want to know is, how are you to know when it's all right to trust a person quite like that?"
A clue smacked Gabrielle square in the forehead. "Oh." She nodded. "Are you asking me if it's okay for you to get involved with Paladia?"
The gray eyes peered at her through the cloud scattered moonlight. "Well, yes." She admitted. "I quite like her, but I've got that whole thing with Ephiny stuck in my brain, you see, and it just won't get out."
"Ah." Gabrielle slowed Iolaus' progress to guide him over the bridge. "That’s a hard question."
"Quite." Cait followed her onto the bridge, and glanced behind her at the trailing Paladia. "Come on then."
"I guess you came to the right person to ask, though." Gabrielle admitted softly. "Let me think about it, Cait - we'll talk later, okay?"
"Right." Cait answered briskly as Paladia caught up and they urged their horses towards the camp. Already, guards had spotted them, and a familiar form was running towards her, dark hair flowing out behind her as Pony raced with deadly earnest along the ground.
Gabrielle urged Iolaus into a gallop to meet her, pulling up as they met and jumping off the horses back to grab hold of the Amazon as she plowed to a halt. "Pony.."
"Just.. " The woman held up a hand, catching her breath. "Look.. "
"Tell me." Short, sharp. A command.
"I know. What happened?"
"She… you know?"
"She went out to do a little scouting, and she didn't come back. We went after her, and found Hercules… he's dead, Gabrielle. They cut him in pieces."
She went ice cold, and swayed, reaching out and touching Iolaus's shoulder to steady herself. "Gods."
"There was a scuffle.. I saw blood, and a lot of dead bodies." Pony went on rapidly, her breathing short and labored. "No sign of Xena. We tried tracking.. the prints just disappeared near the rocks."
Act. Don’t' react. Xena's quiet words steadied her. Take the information, and make a plan. Worry about the emotions later. "Okay." She took a breath. "Let's meet. I've got some other news to tell you . Then we'll decide what to do, and how we're going to find her."
Pony nodded, then took in the slightly accusatory stares from Cait and Paladia. "We wanted to go with her, Gabrielle. I swear. Eph tried to convince her."
But the bard merely shook her head. "I know better, and so do you." She turned and got up onto Iolaus, holding an arm down. "C'mon.. let's ride." Eponin hesitated, then took hold of her forearm. Gabrielle set her body then pulled, leaning to her right and hauling Pony up behind her.
Damn. That was a heck of a lot harder than it looked. She tucked that away for later, and started Iolaus on his way. They headed through the camp, and Gabrielle could feel a sense of tension around her, getting worried looks from the men and women she passed who recognized her.
"Your majesty…" Pony started to say from behind her.
"Pony, it's okay." The bard half turned her head. "It's not your fault. Xena is a big girl, who makes her own decisions. You couldn’t have stopped her, and you probably couldn't have helped that much if the problem was big enough to have gotten to her." It was blunt, but true, and even without seeing her, Gabrielle felt Pony's shoulders slump as she remained quiet. No sense in getting mad at the hapless Amazons.
Her partner, on the other hand. Gabrielle cursed silently at the stubborn streak that sometimes put her own to shame. When I get my hands on you, Xena, boy.. are you gonna be sorry. She pictured herself scolding the warrior, firmly believing in the picture and expecting the contrite, sheepish look from under dark brows that always made her wind right down and secure a hug instead.
It would be just like that. Xena would be fine.
Ephiny spotted them and started over, accompanied by Gillen and Bennu. The regent looked heartsick as she put a hand on Iolaus' bridle. "My Queen…"
Gabrielle threw her leg over the stallion's neck and slid down. "C'mon - let's get started. We don't have time to sit around figuring out whose fault it is." She moved past them and walked towards the largest tent in the near cluster, where she'd recognized a familiar pennant.
Ephiny and Pony exchanged looks, then followed, the rest of them trailing after.
They cut her down after dawn. A messenger had come in, Xena had heard him, and apparently brought some news because the camp began to stir with sounds she recognized as those of a group getting ready to move. Before they touched her bonds she felt several pricks against her skin, and a sudden wave of sickening lethargy followed them.
It disoriented her, and the numbing drugs made it impossible to move even when the ropes were cut and she dropped helplessly to the ground. Rough hands threw some kind of rough cloth over her and then bound her again, this time with her hands in front of her.
Something cold, and sharp fit itself around her throat, and tightened, and she had to work to breathe, then a boot caught her in the side and sent her against a bundle of something before the voices and footsteps faded away .
It felt good to be lying down, at least. She took advantage of the lull to relax her body as much as she could, glad of the light cloth which covered her as well. She listened to the activity, catching words here and there as she lay motionless.
"Gotta move the whole camp? Damn.. it was nice here!"
"Drag our butts two days just to meet up with him - why can't he just come here?"
Ah. Xena's ear twitched. Four days.
"Guess he wants to get his paws on her."
"Runner made it - he could have."
"Not with his whole advance group - take too long. Anyhow - if we meet up, maybe we don't have to fight these guys at all."
"Yeah. He'll get her with us, then we can get the hell out of this backwater."
"Head to Athens - yeah."
It would take them, Xena figured foggily, about a candlemark to get going. There was nothing she could do while the herbs were so strong, so she coaxed her pained and stiffened muscles to loosen, and allowed herself to slip into an uneasy sleep.
"Gabrielle, damn it, we can't risk you."
"Ephiny, this is not an option." Gabrielle turned, as she fastened the buckles on her scaled armor. "You can't track her."
"We've got more people, and good daylight now. We can find her"
"No, you can't." The bard reached up and tied her hair back into a knot. "Besides, this is not a democracy. I'm going."
"Look." The bard closed on her, putting a finger against her chest. "It's my plan, it's my responsibility, it's my choice, and it's my soulmate. So just back off, and get used to it, Ephiny." Her voice was very serious. "I mean it."
The regent dropped her gaze and shook her head, putting her hands on her hips. "Is it going to do any good if we lose both of you?" She pulled her last big arrow out.
Gabrielle reached up and touched her chin, meeting her eyes with almost frightning directness. "If something happens to her, you've lost us both anyway." She told her friend softly. "Ephiny, I can find her. No one else can."
Ephiny studied the determined face, and sighed. "I had to try." She murmured. "Even though I knew it wouldn’t do any more good than it did with Xena." A shake of her head. "Gods, you two are so alike sometimes."
Unexpectedly, Gabrielle smiled, warming her green eyes and bringing a touch of forgotten youth to her expression. "Thanks."
"That wasn't supposed to be a compliment." But Ephiny smiled back.
The nose wrinkled up into a further grin. "I know." Then Gabrielle picked up her cloak and slung it over her shoulders. They'd planned most of the night, and now, at first light she felt herself anxious and ready to move out and towards the knot of anxiety that represented her soulmate to her. "Let's go."
She strode outside, to find a small group waiting, all Amazons and the best of Bennu's men, including the tall captain himself. She'd only just convinced Toris to stay behind, and she took a deep breath before she walked over and mounted Iolaus, taking a moment to stroke the rough mane and spare a sad, quiet thought for his lost brother.
Poor guy. He must have tried to help Xena. Gabrielle felt irrational tears sting her eyes, as she remembered watching the young stallion grow from a frisky colt.
Xena was going to be devastated.
Ephiny handed her up her staff, and she hefted it, then strapped it down alongside Iolaus' saddle and settled her dagger, shifting a little to settle the still unfamiliar armor now covering her upper body. She smoothed the fabric of her thick leather leggings, and gave Bennu a nod. "Move out."
And they did.
Continued in Part 20