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 21
By Melissa Good
Things had quieted down, finally. Paladia had set her bowl down and wrapped her arms around her knees, glad the damn tent only had one approach she had to watch.
Smart, that Xena, to have put her kit up in a u shaped space surrounded by a natural sort of cove in the river valley, where the rocks and stuff had pushed up and formed a little cup, so no one could get near the damn thing without climbing up it and showing their heads against the sky, or by coming up the path she was sitting in front of.
Frigging lucky thing, because otherwise she’d have to be marching her butt around in a circle watching the place or risk a lecture. As it was, except for the drippy rain, this wasn’t a bad duty to be stuck with, since the big shots shared whatever they got to eat with her, and she got to sit down the whole day.
And didn’t have to carry much.
It was sort of boring though, and the rain kept her from drawing. She had a couple of things in mind she wanted to do, and even the ground was too wet for her to trace in it with a twig. Like watching Xena fight all tied up and blindfolded, kicking people’s butts up one side and down the other.
Or seeing little miss ‘violence is not the answer’ go completely wild animal and gut that blond leathery bitch with that short sword she called a knife. Whoa. Paladia’s eyes had almost popped out, though most of the Amazons hadn’t been surprised at all.
"The Queen is very protective of Xena."
Paladia had looked at them, then looked over at the snarling, feral looking dirt covered, blood covered, vicious warrior, who, now with her hands free as they rode off was grabbing people’s heads and smacking them against trees.
Oh. Yeah. She needed protection, in the worst way.
Weird ass people.
Paladia sniffed the cloak she had wrapped around her and her nose twitched. At least Gabrielle took care of her stuff, and it didn’t smell like three week old dead deer. The garment was well tanned, and very soft, even with it’s waxy coating, and had a lingering trace of mint and spice in it.
They were both pretty tidy, she decided, having spent some time in the camp. Not like some, whose names she’d keep to herself, who thought water and soap were poisonous. Even when these two got dirty and they got dirty a hell of a lot, they dragged their butts off somewhere and washed.
Even saw Xena slog into a half froze stream on a morning so cold it curled Paladia’s butt hairs just to think about it. Like that damn pool inside that stupid cave, that the crazy woman had dove into to find that stupid little hole they’d all gotten stuck in.
Course, she hadn’t had any problem getting back out. Just picked her ass up out of the water and shook herself like a stupid dog, making Cait go all goo goo eyed cause she knew just what a bitch it was to even try to get through that stream.
Stupid kid. She had a bet on with Cait, though, that the little pissant was Xena’s kid, and not just Her High and Mighty Majesty’s. Cait said, no way, but bones are bones, and you only had to take one look at that little brat’s face to see whose bones she had in there. Besides, the fuzzybutt had about said it right there in front of them, so what was Cait’s problem anyhow?
Speaking of. Paladia checked the sky out. Where was Cait? Wasn’t like her to spend a heartbeat less time by her idols than she could have. She looked around to see if there was anyone she could ask, then cursed and hoisted herself to her feet. At least the rain was letting up, so maybe she could get her sketch pad while she was at it.
Cautiously, she poked her head inside the tent and waited for her eyes to adjust to the dim light inside. Huh. Must be nice. Both of them were curled up in bed together, and she thought they were both sleeping until the candlelight glittered off Gabrielle’s eyes as she looked over.
"Gotta go get Cait." Paladia kept her voice down.
Gabrielle nodded in understanding. "Can you see if those refugees are almost here?" She whispered.
Sure. Like they’d tell me. "All right." Maybe they’d tell Cait.
Yeah, they probably would, or she’d cut their toes off. She let the flap down and squished away, pulling her boots from the muddy ground with a sodden sucking sound that reminded her of cows farting.
People were moving around a whole lot, though. Lots and lots of muddy, grubby guys and girls were entering the camp, heading for their tents with little clangs of weapons and armor. She made her way through them and up towards where Cait had picked a spot out to put up the little tent they shared.
Naturally, she’d found the bitchiest, most inconvenient place in the whole damn camp, where you had to practically pull yourself up a damn embankment and climb a tree to get to it. Paladia bit back a yelp as she barked her knuckles on a branch, and glared at it, then gave up in disgust and climbed to the little nook, just large enough for the tent, and a place to stand before it.
She crouched, and carefully moved the tent flap aside, not wanting to have her fingers taken off by a knife. You had to be careful of Cait that way, because she carried a half dozen of the things, and always seemed to have one out and pointed somewhere dangerous.
It was dark inside, though, and very quiet. Paladia eased onto her half of the furs and blinked, until her eyes adjusted. Cait was there, all right, curled up inside her thick blanket asleep, her pale hair loose and disheveled out of it's usual neat braid.
Paladia sighed. Every damn time she looked at Cait lately, she got the weirdest stomachache. It was like she wanted to throw up, but on the other hand, she didn’t, and it was driving her nuts. She folded her hands in front of her and cleared her throat. "Hey."
Usually, Cait snapped awake and started reaching for sharp things. That’s why she kept her distance and made sure she wasn’t within range. But this time the fair lashes lifted slowly, and Cait blinked a few times, lifting a hand to rub her eyes before she looked over.
"Gosh. Is it late?"
"What do you think?" Paladia asked bluntly. "Some of us had to slog over here in the rain."
"Sorry." Cait pulled herself up, sitting cross legged. "I was having the most horrid dream. Good job you woke me." She reached over and captured a waterskin, pushing her hair back and drinking from it thirstily. Then she stopped in mid gulp. "Who’s watching Xena ?" She demanded, wiping her mouth.
"Gabrielle." Paladia answered placidly. "Don’t get all wacky on me. She said I could go get you."
Cait subsided. "Well, that’s all right then." She admitted. "I’ll just wash up, then we can get some supper on the way back over."
"Fine." Paladia started rummaging out her sketching thigns. "Rain’s finally stopping."
"Excellent." Cait shrugged out from under the furs and laid them neatly back down, tucking the edges in with serious precision. She grabbed her small bag of soap and ducked out the back section of the small tent, hitching herself up on a shelf of rock that dipped down just enough to become a small basin like hollow.
Of course, it was filled with rainwater at the moment, exactly what Cait was looking for.
"Y’know, they got washing up barrels down below." Paladia remarked loudly. "You don’t have to scrub up in a freaking puddle."
"It’s quite nice." Cait disagreed sturdily, scooping up a double handful of the icy cold water and scrubbing her face with it. Her gray eyes popped wide open and she sucked in a breath at the shock, but didn’t make a sound otherwise. "It’s .. fresh." She took a sip. "And very clean. You know, Xena always says that’s so important."
Paladia rolled her eyes. "So clean water can’t be warm?"
"Well, we’ve got no fire up here now, do we?" Cait replied, taking out her soap and washing her mostly exposed, mildly shivering body. "Besides, Xena says it’s not a bad thing to get used to cold, then you don’t’ mind it so much when you’re fighting."
"She’s inside a warm tent snuggling up to Gabrielle." Paladia muttered. "Who I betcha woudn’t let her go wash in the rain right now for nothing."
"Sorry… did you say something?" Cait called.
Cait leaned back and let the finely misting rain cover her, rinsing the soap off and leaving her feeling quite clean. She dabbled her feet in the little pool and regarded the clouds, the mossy rocks she was resting on providing a not too uncomfortable spot.
Cait jerked, then turned her head. "What? Don’t do that. You startled the life out of me."
Paladia was standing next to her, hands on her hips. "You’re lying there sleeping in the rain, doofball. I called you six times."
"Was I?" Cait blinked in astonishment, viewing her completely soaked body. "Well. I guess I was." She agreed. "Wasn’t that stupid?" She sat up and swung her legs down over the rock, which was high enough to bring their heads almost on a level. "Must have been that dream - it knocked me right off."
Paladia scowled. "Yeah, well – why don’t you go inside and put some clothes on before you freeze your butt off?"
Cait studied the square, sometimes sullen face. "You all quite died."
The honey colored brows contracted. "What?"
"In my dream." A breath. "We had this big fight, and when it was over, I was walking around with all these bodies lying everywhere." Cait laced her fingers together. "I was the only one left."
Paladia licked her lips. "Why can’t you ever have dreams like normal people?"
"I can’t help it." Cait protested. "I don’t’ do it on purpose." She fell silent for a moment. "It felt awful." Not that she thought it might come true. She had more faith in Xena than that, and she knew surely, that if anyone was going to be dying in the forefront, Cait would be one of the first, and not the single remaining witness.
But still. It made you think, about what was coming, and what could happen, and how short and meaningless life could be if you let it.
Experimentally Cait lifted her hand and extended it towards Paladia’s face. The taller woman jerked back inmmediately.
"Hold still." Cait told her.
"What are you doing?"
"Just hold still. Don’t make me hurt you." Cait continued her movment until her palm was laying flat on Paladia’s jawbone. Nervous, wary eyes watched her, as she slowly moved her thumb across the taut skin, examining it’s surface.
"What are you doing?" Paladia asked again, in a much lower tone.
"Does that bother you?" Cait repeated the gentle stroking, watching the confusion warring with something more earthy on her tall friend’s face.
"Yeah." A murmur. "I mean no." Paladia hastily corrected herself. "Of course it don’t bother me. Why should it bother me?"
Cait slipped her hand through the short, scruffy pale hair and felt the goosebumps rise along the back of Paladia’s neck. She pulled. "Come here."
"Please just shut up immediately and do what I ask." Cait replied seriously.
So Paladia did. She walked the one step that brought her up against the stone, and found her self face to face with her sometimes scary, often homicidal companion, who was, despite all that, the most attractive person Paladia had ever met.
Sometimes, if she tried real hard, and crossed her legs, and squeezed util the blood rushed to her head, she could almost understand crazy Gabrielle. "Now what?" She asked.
"Now this." Cait leaned forward and kissed her, tilting her head slightly and tasting her lips curiously with a warm tongue before she proceeded to increase the contact, feeling the tiny gasp of surprise brush against her skin.
The world seemed to go very quiet for a moment, even the sounds of the camp fading as she eased back, and glanced up to see what the reaction was to her unexpected advance.
Paladia gazed at her in utter shock for a heartbeat, then the pale eyes rolled up into her head and her knees unlocked, dropping her straight to the ground in a dead faint before Cait could move an inch.
A bird warbled impudently, sounding very much like it was laughing.
"Bother." Cait licked her lips, studying the interesting tastes and sensations. "I quite liked that." She got off the rocks and knelt beside her fallen friend and patted her cheek. "I wonder if this is a good sign or a bad one?"
"Bring them in here, please." Gabrielle held the flap open, as the battered, frightened, exhausted men edged past her and entered the tent. They stopped short after a few steps though, until the dark haired woman seated behind the work table glanced over at them.
"C’mon in. You’ve had a rough trip, I hear." Xena’s voice echoed strongly across the space. "Sit down."
The three of them did, awkwardly taking the stools and sitting, their clothing ripped and torn, and covered in mud or worse. The oldest, a tall, very thin man getting on in years with an ugly head wound spoke first. He looked across the desk at the quiet, even stare watching him and licked his lips. "You’re Xena?"
"That’s right." Xena folded her hands on the table. "And you are?"
"Belas." The man answered. "We’re from a small fishing village in the next river valley."
"Were." One of his companions grunted, a small, very stocky man with dark hair and a beard. "Nothing left of it now."
"We’re sorry to hear that." Gabrielle brought over a tray of mulled cider, and offered it to them. "Here… take something warm." She smiled at them.
"Thanks." Belas gave her a weary smile back. "You must be Gabrielle the Bard."
"That’s right." Xena remarked. "They tell me you escaped ahead of Andreas army."
"That’s true." Belas sipped the hot drink. "He came to our village, and told us we could join him, or be forced to join him. Most of us ran, maybe he was expecting that, but who knows? They burned the village, and took everything. Every last animal, every bit of grain, every living body they found there."
Gabrielle shook her head.
"But while we were still hiding around there, we heard some of his men talking. They weren’t happy." Belas went on. "Seems they’ve had raiders sneaking alongside them for about a hundred leagues, coming in on the mist, knocking off a soldier or two, then disappearing."
Xena nodded judiciously. "How many men does he have?"
"Close to four and a half.. maybe five thousand." The shorter man told her. "Had up over five, but he’s had some trouble lately, and lost a few. "
"That’s made him mad, or so the men say." The third man spoke up, and now both Xena and Gabrielle glanced over, at the pleasant alto voice. A slim hand lifted and pulled down a muddy cloak hood, revealing a slim boned, beautiful face under russet curls. "He doesn’t’ take women as soldiers." Her eyes, an odd, golden hue met Xena’s in wry amusement. "Says he doesn’t trust them."
The warrior merely raised an eyebrow.
"Keeps them for everything else, though." Belas grunted. "S’why we had Jere here dress as a man. Didn’t want to take no chances." He thought a minute. "They got word out to slaughter any woman caught in fighter’s togs – we heard they think the stalkers that keep after them are some kind of Amazons."
Gabrielle turned her head and gazed at her partner in mild puzzlement. "But I.."
Xena held a hand up. "They might well be." She allowed. "He’s on his way here, then, I take it?"
"Fast as he can go." Jere agreed. "They got word a day or two back about something that put a fire under them, but we heard afterward that things didn’t work out the way they wanted them to." She studied Xena curiously. "And there are some wild stories going around about you." A pause, and a smile. "No offense."
Xena smiled back. "None taken."
"From what we hear, there’s not a standing village between here, and the far mountains." Belas went on. "Had some scraps of people come through, odds and ends, but most are either dead, or making their way out towards the coasts."
"Except here." The short man interjected. "The last little bit left, and after a few days from now, not even this."
"We’re here to tell you to run, Xena." Jere leaned forward, seriously. "He knows your troop strength, and the layout here – you haven’t got a chance."
The cool blue eyes regarded them carefully. "I disagree." The warrior stated flatly. "But thanks for the advice."
"Xena, what sense is there in dying? " Jere stood and paced forward. "With these troops you can split up and go around him, and get him like those raiders are doing. Where is the logic in making a stand like this here, in a dinky backwater piece of marsh like this?"
The warrior stood, towering over them, backlit by the torches. "Because it’s my home." Xena replied. "I was born here, and my family lives here, and he’s not going to set foot on an inch of Amphipolis dirt." She paused. "Not if I have to stand in the gates myself and hold his entire army off, and kill them all one man at a time."
There was a moment of uneasy silence.
Rain started falling again outside, the thunder fitting it’s shape around her words and lending them a weight beyond even that her own powerful personality did. The water pattered erratically on the tent fabric, and a gust of cold wind puffed inside the loosened tent flap.
"There are some men in that army." Belas stated, very quietly. "Who believe you can do just that."
Xena smiled, showing even, white teeth.
"That’s why he doesn’t want to kill you, Xena." Jere said. "He wants you to join him. He knows that, between the two of you, nothing could stand in your way."
"Except me." Gabrielle spoke up for the first time, from her spot near the brazier
The three refugees looked at her in surprise, and Xena focused a look of wry affection at her.
The bard crossed her arms over her chest and gazed back at them. "To get to Xena, he’s got to go through me first, and let me tell you something. I don’t think he’s got what it takes to do that."
Thunder rolled again, and a flash of lightning outside briefly turned the gold and black shadows to stark silver. "Well." Jere murmured. "I guess we came to the right place then. We’d… " She looked at her companions. "I mean, I’d like to join the warriors. Belas is a healer, and Arne’s a blacksmith."
"Sure." Gabrielle smiled reassuringly at them. "I know it’s been tough on you. I’ll have someone show you where the camps are, and get you settled in." She moved towards the entrance, and they got up to follow her, but Jere paused at the flap and turned.
"Xena, can I have a word with you?" She paused. "In private?"
The warrior seated herself and picked up her mug, propping one booted foot up against a stool and leaning back. "Sure." She replied. "Gabrielle, on your way back, I need to talk to a man by the name of.. " Xena dug a piece of parchment form her pocket and peered at it. "Sacha, in Bennu’s regiment."
The bard cocked her head in question. "Okay – I’ll get him." She left, but not without a final look back, meeting the pale eyes behind the desk, and receiving a tiny wink from one of them.
Xena watched the fabric fall, then turned her attention to her russet haired visitor. "Now." She took a long swallow of cider. "What can I do for you?"
Ephiny snuggled her shoulders back into the furs of her bunk and sighed, glad to be dry, clean, and off a damn horses back after way too long a day. Pony was out scrabbling up some dinner, and she was very content just to lie back in her corner of the Amazons area, with the comforting sound of the tent roof intercepting the rain.
Tomorrow, more than likely, they would start the first stages of battle, with the Amazons riding out to form raiding parties that would circle the oncoming army and try to pick off stragglers. That’s what made these quiet moments all the more precious, knowing it might be a very long time before she’d have a chance to experience them again.
"I beg your pardon."
Ephiny opened one hazel eye, to see Cait standing there, patiently waiting. "Oh. Sorry Cait. Whats up?"
The young Amazon took that as permission to approach, and she did, settling on the crudely cut bench next to the bed. "I’ve got a bit of a dilemma, and I just wanted to talk to you about it."
Oh. Great. Where in Hades was Gabrielle when you really needed her? "Sure… what’s on your mind?" The regent inquired.
"Well." Cait took a breath. "I suppose you could say it has to do with a conflict in loyalties."
Ephiny waved a hand at her. "Cait, Cait, Cait… relax, okay? It’s no problem, we’ve already discussed it."
"Sure." The regent patted her knee. "Gabrielle and I talked about it." She shifted a little, getting more comfortable. "I’m well aware of your personal loyalties, and I’ve got no problem assigning to you be part of Xena’s personal staff during the duration of the war – you follow her instructions, not mine."
"Oh." Cait rubbed her chin. "Well, no, that wasn’t quite what I meant. Though, thank you for making that sort of official." Not that she’d have done any different in any case, but it was nice when the uppers thought you were going along with their plans rather than devising your own. "I was actually talking about Paladia."
Ephiny cocked her head. "What about her?"
Cait fidgeted. "We’ve become quite good friends."
"No, really?" Ephiny drawled. "Yes, Cait. I realized that, and I’m glad, because I think you both needed a friend."
"Right." Cait agreed. "But you see, I think we’re going to become a bit more than friends."
Ephiny regarded her in mild surprise. "You mean you…. " She stopped speaking. "Is that bothering you?"
The slim blond’s face tensed into a frown. "Not… well, you see it’s like this. I was very angry you know, about what happed with you in that awful cavern."
"Mmph." The regent took a breath in. "I wasn’t thrilled, myself."
"Quite." Cait agreed. "And the trouble is, I have this angry bit still in me, you see, and I’m rather afraid that bit will want justice." She scooted a boot forward. "And that I’ll take it out on Paladia, even though I like her quite a lot."
Ephiny let herself go still, as she studied the pale haired girl in a flash of sudden insight. Time had dulled the edges of what she’d gone through, and she’d thought she’d long since released herself of any need to see Paladia punished for it.
After all, the renegade had become a sullen, if productive member of the Nation, slowly gaining the trust, and occasionally, the respect of the tribe for her dogged strength, her ability to put up with Cait, and her truly unique talent at making pictures.
Paladia had rescued Pony, during the occupation of the village, and had fought against their enemies when she could have slipped away and evaded their grasp.
She’d even been instrumental in saving Dori and Cait from the undersea cavern.
Did she, Ephiny, really have a need to see the woman put through any further trials? She regarded Cait’s waiting eyes and wiggled her toes.
Sure she did. "Cait…. It means a lot to me that you thought about what happened, and that you’re concerned about my feelings regarding Paladia, and regarding the two of you."
Cait’s lips pressed into a thin smile.
"But the fact is, I’ve had the justice I need." Ephiny told her, with quiet sincerity. "I think you and Paladia make a good team, and if you want to go further, I’m happy for you both."
"Really?" Cait replied, her voice a touch surprised.
"Absolutely." The regent assured her. "I really mean it."
Cait exhaled, obviously relieved. "Thank you, Ephiny. I mean that."
Ephiny patted her on the knee. "Go get some dinner. You’ve got a long watch tonight."
The blond girl stood and brushed her leggings off. "Right. I’m off then." She turned and slipped through the Amazons’ tent, disappearing out into the misty weather.
Ephiny folded her hand son her stomach and chuckled. "Paybacks are a bitch." She advised the tent fabric above her head. "You just gotta wait long enough."
"What did you have on your mind, Jefe?" Xena took a swallow of cider. "I've already made up my mind on taking a stand here, so don't waste your breath on giving me reasons why I shouldn't."
Jefe took the stool nearest her desk and leaned her forearms on the rough surface, gazing at Xena with unconcealed fascination. "So. You're Xena." Her intelligent eyes studied the warrior's face. "You're not what I expected."
Xena lifted a dark eyebrow. "What'd you expect?"
Jefe smiled. "Heads hanging from your belt." She replied. "A barbarian's tent, complete with shackles and a post for whipping."
The warrior chuckled, and lifted a hand, gesturing around her spartan, almost painfully neat space. "That never was my style, even when I was out raping and pillaging."
Jefe nodded. "This is a soldier's quarters." She glanced out the tent flap. "This is a well disciplined camp, with an obviously well trained force lead by an experienced military commander.. not what Andreas is trying to convince his men."
"He's no slouch at organizing." Xena remarked. "I was impressed with his army. "
"Did you really walk into his camp?"
The warrior nodded. "And fought my way out."
Jefe laughed softly. "You know, he doesn't give a damn about this little pissant backwater, or your army." Her eyes studied the quiet woman behind the desk. "It's you he wants."
"It's you the men talk about. It's you he knows they're laughing about telling stories." Her voice dropped. "You're all he thinks about, Xena. He won't stop until he owns you, body and soul."
"Then he's a fool." Xena toyed with her cup, her eyes going half lidded. "He's not near man enough to own my body, and my soul's spoken for already." She chuckled, low and deep. "He better watch out. If he's not careful, the closer he comes, the more I might get an itch to go… get….. him." Her tone hit it's lowest register on the last word.
Jefe stared at her, then forced a laugh. "Maybe he'd better watch out." She stood and lifted a hand. "I've taken enough of your time. Thanks, and I'll go find a bunk." She walked backwards until she got to the door, then ducked underneath it and disappeared.
Xena sighed, and swished a mouthful of cider around before swallowing it. "Little overdramatic, huh Ares?"
"Agrroo." The wolf sneezed.
"Nah… she loved it." The warrior chuckled wryly, easing her injured leg down and gathering her strength to stand up. A light tap on the tent flap made her halt though. "Yes?"
Cait poked her head in. "There's someone here who says you asked to see him?" She looked down at a piece of paper, and read off a name.
Ah. "Send him in." Xena stretched back out in her chair, watching as a bandy legged man with a close cropped russet moustache and beard entered. He paced forward, his hands clasped on a well worn leather bag, and a diffident look on his face.
"Ye called fer me, Genr'l?" He had a soft, drawling voice.
"Got something I"d like you to do." She held up a scrap of parchment. "Can you do that?"
He took it, and looked at it, regarding it thoughtfully. "Aye." He nodded. "Who'd ye like it done to?"
Xena smiled. "Me."
Gabrielle glanced at the sky, then altered her steps to bring her over to the food tent. A good sized dinner, she decided, was needed, and then she'd go back, take care of her partner's leg, and force her back into bed. Xena had been in a better mood after their nap this afternoon, and besides… Gabrielle stifled a yawn. She hadn't gotten much sleep the night before either.
She almost tripped over the outstretched legs before she saw them, and turned her stride into an awkward hop, bouncing over them and landing with a sodden splat on the earth. "Hey!"
Paladia's pale eyes peered up at her from under a lock of blond hair. "Sorry." She pulled her knees up and rested her arms on them.
Gabrielle crouched next to her. "What are you doing out here?"
Paladia just looked at her, a completely bemused expression on her face.
"Paladia?" The bard waved a hand before her eyes. "Hello? Anyone in there?" She sat down next to the ex renegade. "You okay?"
Paladia turned her head. "How old are you?"
Gabrielle was a little surprised at the question. "Um… twenty two…. Why?"
"I used to think you were the biggest jerk in this place." The taller woman told her bluntly. "All full of that sappy crap and all that stuff."
"Uh… " Gabrielle wasn't sure if she was being insulted or what. "What changed your mind?" She wondered if it was the raid.. she'd noticed a change in the attitudes of a few people around her since then.
A scowl. "I got kissed."
The bard scratched her nose. "Um… that was a good thing, right?"
"By Cait?" She hazarded a guess, based on their prior conversation.
"Hey, that's great." A genuine smile. "I'm really glad." '
Paladia grunted, then thought a minute. "How do you know if it's all crap or not?"
"What do you mean?"
Gabrielle considered. "You mean, how do you know if it's really love?"
Paladia turned red, visible even in the twilight. "Whatever."
"Mm." Communication, she knew as a bard, was a matter of finding a common frame of reference. Flowery poetry wasn't going to cut it here. "Well, I could tell you all the wordy stuff that comes to mind when someone asks me that question, but I figure you don't want to listen to that."
"Okay, so here's the bottom line." Gabrielle told her. "It's the real thing when that kiss can make you forget you're standing in front of two or three hundred other people in a thunderstorm with mud up to your kneecaps."
Paladia shifted, and rubbed her shoulder. "How about if you pass out?"
Gabrielle grinned impishly. "I'd say that's a good sign."
"Hm." The ex renegade scowled. "It feels weird."
A sigh. "I like the way it makes me feel." The bard admitted. "I like knowing I'm a part of someone… I like the look in Xena's eyes when she sees me… and how I feel when I look at her and my whole body tingles."
Paladia blinked. "Whoa. More stuff than I needed to know." She snorted. "I thought you were all into that high and mightly poetry goofy stuff."
Gabrielle laughed. "Oh, Xena inspires my poetry, all right." She agreed. "But we don’t' recite poetry to each other in bed at night."
The younger woman's eyes widened at her.
"You wanted to know the bottom line." Gabrielle reminded her. "Would you rather I go back to talking about flowers and stuff?"
A look. "You are so damn strange."
The bard chuckled. "Thanks. I think." She patted Paladia's arm. "For what it's worth, I think it's the real thing." She told her. "And I'm really glad for both of you." She got up. "See you later."
Paladia rolled her eyes. "Yeah, whatever."
Gabrielle chuckled to herself as she collected some dinner, then weaved her way out of the encampments and headed towards the isolated command tent.
She was pleasantly surprised to find her partner already lying down, sitting half propped and studying a list of supplies by candlelight. "Hey."
Xena looked up over her parchment. "Everything settled?"
"I think so." The bard put her burden down and perched on the edge of the pallet, reaching out to lay a hand on her soulmate's forehead. "Still a little warm." She watched the warrior nod in confirmation. "How's the leg?"
"Hurts." Xena admitted. "Getting on my nerves a little." She shifted. "Had to lay down finally, once I got rid of our redheaded friend."
"Mm." Gabrielle cocked her head to one side, and studied the wry expression. "Another one fell for you, huh?" She chuckled at the wearily rolling eyes. "I swear, Xena. You should get a little charm every time, and make a necklace. It would be really pretty by now." She brushed the backs of her knuckles over one high cheekbone and smiled. "Though, I'm hardly one to talk, I guess."
Xena let her head fall back against the pillow. "I had a visit from Cait."
"I tripped over Paladia."
They both exchanged looks. "I think they're cute." Gabrielle smiled.
"Think so?" A teasing grin. "She was asking me what I did to get those little yips out of you."
Gabrielle's eyes turned into large, round, green saucers. "Ju.." Her jaw worked a few times. "You… " A hand lifted. "Didn't…..uh.."
"Tell her?" Xena blinked innocently at her. "Sure."
The bard's jaw dropped. "You didn't." She spluttered. "Xena, how could you!" She stood up and paced, blushing furiously.
"C'mon, Gabrielle.. it's not like it's a big secret."
The pale haired woman turned, and her nostrils flared out as she stared in shock.
Then she saw the twinkle. "What….exactly…. did you tell her?" She put her hands on her hips and glared at her partner. "Don't you give me that 'who, innocent little me' Warrior Princess look!"
Xena snickered. "I told her I held the nutbread up over your head just out of reach."
"Tcha." Gabrielle lifted her hands and let them drop.
"She believed me." Xena wagged a finger at her.
The pale brows lowered. "I'm going to hurt you."
The warrior sighed. "Okay.. but can you change this bandage first?" She gazed penitentially at the bard.
Gabrielle sighed aggrievedly. "I can't believe you did that to me." She got her kit and wandered back over, sitting down and taking care of the ugly wound with gentle fingers. "Looks a little better." She glanced over her shoulder to see Xena lying with her eyes closed, and a furrow in her brow. "Almost finished." She went back to her work. "Not that I'm yelling at you, but cutting a bit out of yourself in the same spot wasn't the smartest thing you ever did, honey."
"I know." Xena forced out the words from between gritted teeth.
Gabrielle fastened the bandage, and felt Xena relax. "I mean, I understand the point about the sigil, Xena - I know I wouldn’t want it on me, and I'm glad I ended up with something else, but y'know…."
"I could have waited for it to heal." Xena finished. "I know."
"I hate to tell you this." Gabrielle reclined her side, next to her partner. "But you know the fighters are all having hawk's heads put on them."
An eyebrow lifted.
"I asked Bennu about it.. he said, they want to make sure when they get to Hades, he'll know what side they were on." Gabrielle rolled her sleeve up, and regarded her own mark, then nodded. "Yeah." She looked over at Xena. "The right side."
Xena reached over and traced a finger along the bard's jawline. "I think he'd know anyway."
"Maybe… but it also brings them together, and makes them feel like they belong." Gabrielle touched the hawk's head. "I know that's how I felt, walking through the camp and seeing them all do it." A pause. "That I was part of them. That I belonged to something." Her eyelashes fluttered. "Belong to someone."
A faint smile touched the warrior's lips. "I understand." She murmured. "I..um.. " Xena seemed a touch either bashful or embarassed, which made Gabrielle wonder. "I had a visit from one of the guys doing it.. so I decided maybe I should get one too."
Wow. Gabrielle was honestly surprised. "I didn't think…. You got one like this?"
"No." Xena reached up and unlaced her shirt, her eyes never leaving Gabrielle's. Then she pulled the front down on her left side, and watched as the bard's gaze wavered, then dropped to her skin. A moment's total silence, then Gabrielle looked back up.
"It's the snake, from Britannia."
A nod. "It means eternity."
Another look. "That's the glyph I used to sign my name, in the middle."
A faint smile. "Yes, it is."
Gabrielle's eyes filled. The mark was squarely over the skin just above her soulmate's heart. "It must have…" She stopped a second. "Hurt to put it there." She got the last words out in a rush.
Xena's jaw muscles shifted, then she glanced down at the reddened, angry skin around the tattoo. "Didn't feel a thing." She murmured. "Honest."
Gabirelle blinked, and the tears spilled over her eyelids, scattering down her cheek in a startling wash of crystal in the candelight. "You're lying." She whispered.
"Everything worth having in life, Gabrielle." A fingertip touched the bard's nose. "Is worth hurting for."
It was an essential truth for both of them.
Gabrielle smiled through tears, and kissed the warrior's palm.
"So, when we get to Hades, some day." Xena simply chose to believe it. "He'll know what side I was on." She rolled up onto her side and kissed her partner, then nibbled the salty tears off her skin with gentle lips. She rested her forehead against Gabrielle's. "I love you."
The bard felt a profound peace drift over her No matter what happened tomorrow, or the next day, or the next - she had this one, sweet moment to tuck away and savor, that was hers.
No one could take it away.
The horse hooves sounded sodden on the muddy ground as the group gathered in front of the embankments. "All right." Xena moved Argo sideways and shifted shoulders to settle her sword. "Once we pass that outer fringe, everyone stay close, and stay quiet. I don’t want any mistakes."
Two dozen heads nodded at her. A mixture of Amazons interspersed with some of Bennu’s more accomplished horsemen made up the group, armed to the literal teeth and covered in thick leather and metal half armor.
Xena herself was wearing her new black leathers, with extra heavy arm bracers and two new leg pieces that covered her upper thighs. "You ready?" She turned her head towards Gabrielle, who was fiddling with one of the side buckles on her layered breastplate. "Here." She sidestepped Argo over and moved the bard’s hands aside, pulling the strap tight and buckling it. "How’s that?"
Gabrielle wriggled her upper body, then nodded. "Better. Thanks." She checked the strap that held her staff firmly alongside Iolaus’ body and twitched her cloak straight. "Ready." A glance down. "You set with everything. Eph?"
Ephiny leaned on the stallion’s shoulder and plucked a mane hair. "I have everything included a set of very wadded leathers because I’m not going, yes." She tapped the bard on the knee. "Watch out for Pony, willya?"
Gabrielle smiled. "What am I, the designated Warrior babysitter?" She glanced over to where Eponin was waiting next to Gillen, somehow giving the impression she was bouncing up and down while sitting absolutely still. "Don’t worry. Xena’s whole point in this is to shake them up, and make sure everyone gets back here."
Ephiny nodded. "I know… " She stood on tiptoe and peeked over Iolaus’ neck, and lowered her voice. "She okay?"
The warrior had moved off a few paces, and Gabrielle studied the tall form a moment. "Pretty much. That leg wound’s still pretty bad, Eph… it’s worrying me. She’s not getting over it like she usually does."
"Mm." Hazel eyes flicked over Xena. "Something on the knife? He seems the kind to do that."
"Xena thinks so." The bard admitted. "It’s healing, just really slow. I made her promise to stay up on Argo as much as possible, so she doesn’t go breaking it open again." That, and the fever her partner was still suffering from, which was making her a touch cranky.
Well. Gabrielle watched the angular face crease into a frown. Crankier than usual. "Take care, okay? We’ll try to get as much information as we can about his deployment."
"You too." Eph gave her a slap on the leg. "Getting down to the starting line."
Gabrielle rubbed her hands, and slipped them inside a new pair of lined gauntlets she’d received that very morning as a surprise gift. They were very soft deerskin with a rabbit lining and fit her hands perfectly, and she flexed her fingers, enjoying the warmth of them. She kneed Iolaus gently and directed him over to where Xena was waiting, her cloak ruffling lightly in the wind.
"Let’s go." Xena called out, turning Argo and moving into the lead, easing the mare into a canter. She held her breath as the first few strides jarred her leg painfully, then settled down to a dull ache. Damn. Her eyes caught Gabrielle keeping watch on her from a few paces back, and she forced herself to relax into the saddle, working out her balance to ease the pain a bit.
Iolaus’ ears came up next to her.
"Don’t ask." Xena shot her a look.
Gabrielle straightened a little. "I was going to suggest a story." She answered "But if you’d rather just listen to the mud flying, that’s all right with me."
Xena played with a bit of Argo’s mane, then slowed a step, so they were even with each other. She gave the bard a furtive look. "Sorry." There was an awkward pause. "I’m not really at my best this morning."
"So I see." But she added a smile to it, and light pat on the knee. "Wish I could do something more to help."
Xena sighed, and leaned forward against her saddlebow. "Just my luck… I think I’m about to cycle, on top of everything else. " She and the bard exchanged very wry looks. "Talk about timing."
"Mm." Gabrielle grunted in sympathy. "You don’t’ often, but when you do… no wonder you look so miserable." Then she closed her eyes and made a disgusted, clucking sound. "You realize what that means."
Blue eyes peeked at her. "Sorry."
"I knew I was feeling a little off." Gabrielle gave her partner a disgusted look. "And it’s your fault."
They exchanged glances, then started laughing. Xena let her chuckles wind down, then stretched a bit. "By the time we bump into Andreas, we’re both going to be in some kinda mood."
"Mm… let’s not take it out on each other then, huh?" The bard handed over her waterskin. "Here… I had a feeling I was getting close.. I mixed up some raspberry tea."
Xena accepted the bag and took a swig, tasting it then licking her lips. "Is there any raspberry leaves in there? All I taste is honey."
"Hah hah." Gabrielle stuck the tip of her tongue out. "Just for that I’m going to sing."
Xena spit a mouthful of tea over Argo’s ears, startling the mare.
"Okay. Hold up." Xena spoke quietly, lifting a hand as she eased Argo into a small copse of trees. It was almost dark, and they’d been riding hard all day, stopping only twice to water and rest the horses. Now, her senses told her they were closing in on unfriendly territory, and she turned her head into the wind, letting it whip her hair back as she listened intently.
It didn’t need much in the way of hearing. That many people on the move was a distinct rumble, and the wind brought to her nose the smell of humans, and leather, and metal that was distinctive in it’s own right. Xena took a breath, and released it, a quiet sense of inevitability coming over her. "We’re close." She nudged Argo forward. "Let’s get through this, and see if we spot them."
Gillen was at her side, and now she moved ahead, threading her sturdy gelding through the trees towards a break in the foliage. They all came out on a slight ridge, which sloped down towards a flat area bisected by a dusty, uneven road.
For a long moment, there was only silence.
"Great Artemis." Gillen finally breathed.
Xena sat back in her saddle and exhaled. The road was black with men and material, as far as her eyes could see, walking at a steady pace ten abreast. Most carried spears and shields slung over one shoulder, and they were ringed by outriders in heavier armor carrying maces. Oxen rumbled between the regiments, pulling carts of supplies, and at least two siege engines. The entire army had an air of calm discipline, and the sounds of a marching song could just be heard on the wind.
Gabrielle moved up next to her partner and stared. Then she turned her head and looked up at Xena, watching the angular face take on shadows as the muscles shifted around her jaw, and her nostrils flared as she took a deep breath.
The lead ranks slowed, as the outriders yelled out commands, lifting a pennant up and waving it, and the army started to spread out, evidently intent on halting for the night.
"We’ll wait for them to make camp." Xena’s hands rested on her saddlehorn, as she tipped her head back and regarded the darkening sky. "Let them settle in, and start to relax, then we’ll move."
Gillen turned her head and stared. "That bastard must have five thousand men down there."
Xena regarded her steadily. "And?" She arched an eyebrow in question, looking completely unconcerned.
The group was stunned, just looking at the army, and then at her in shock and horror. "They’ll slaughter us." Gillen whispered. "We’ve got no chance."
"Huh." Pony spoke up before Xena could answer her. "Some Amazon you turned out to be." She nudged her horse over to where Xena was and peered at the army. "So they’ve got a couple thousand.. .so what? Half of them probably can’t get out of their own way."
Gabrielle shook herself and shifted a little. "We knew their troop strength." She shrugged. "It’s part of Xena’s plan."
"Yeah." Pony agreed blithely. "Hey, Xena… see those guys there?" She pointed. "Bet that’s the grain stores. Torch in there’d be a good idea."
Xena reached over, almost invisible in the growing twilight, and tweaked one of Pony’s braids. "Since there’s no towns between here and the river, I’d agree." She gave the Amazon a little grin when she turned her head. Pony wrinkled her nose back in response. "All right, everyone get down and relax."
There was a subtle sense of relief as the small group spread out silently, getting down off lathered horses and reaching for waterskins and dry rations. Gabrielle waited for the area to clear, then slid down off Iolaus’ tall back, holding onto the saddle as her boots hit the ground and her legs took her weight. "Ow." She winced, leaning against the stallion. "Ow, ow ow." Cautiously, she straightened cramped legs, and stretched muscles stiff from riding too long."
Xena watched her for a moment, then sighed, and gathered herself up, swinging her good leg over Argo’s neck and dropping to the ground. The jolt nearly forced a gasp from her, but she held on grimly, and clamped her jaw tight until the stars faded. Then she moved around to Argo’s other side and limped over to where Gabrielle was. The bard turned as she came up and moved forward, until their bodies were just touching. "You all right?" Two low voices asked simultaneously, followed by two weary smiles. Xena glanced around, then slid an arm around her partner’s neck and pulled her closer, giving her a kiss on the head and rubbing her back briskly.
"Remind me again how I let you talk me into riding instead of walking?" The bard muttered into a chestful of leather and armor.
"We're attacking on horseback, and you wanted to participate." Xena obediently replied. "Besides, you'd have had to run the whole way to keep up."
"Oh yeah. " Gabrielle answered. "Maybe I'll run on the way back. I could use it." She felt Xena chuckle soundlessly. "Be good inspiration for the Amazons, right?" She reluctantly released her hold and stepped back, studying her companion closely. The strain was apparent to her, at least, in Xena's face and she tensed her lips. "Wanna let me check your leg out?"
A silent nod.
"C'mon." Gabrielle motioned Cait over. "Cait, can you take Iolaus and Argo over for a drink?"
"Absolutely." The girl assured her, taking the reins and clucking softly to the two horses. Gabrielle shouldered the bag she'd taken off her saddlerings and led Xena over to a fallen log, which the warrior seated herself on, stretching her injured leg out gingerly.
"Aren't these new pieces hurting you?" Gabrielle carefully unbuckled the upper thigh piece from behind Xena's leg and released the strap that held it to her leathers.
"No." Xena watched Gabrielle unlace the leather laces that held her leggings closed, and pull them back, exposing her injury. "The bandage keeps them from rubbing, and I really don't want to risk taking another shot there unprotected."
"Mm." Gabrielle changed the bandage and studied the injury. "If this swelling goes down a little more, I think we can put stitches back in, Xe… you'd be more comfortable. I think the herb packs in there must be driving you a little nuts."
A brief sigh. "Yeah. But they're helping. The red's gone down, and I don't feel feverish."
Gabrielle tested that theory, and found it sound. "A few days bed rest would be even better." She remarked, as she rolled a new bandage around the muscular thigh. "How's that for a fruitless wish?"
Xena chuckled, then put a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "You sure you're up to doing this? You don’t' have to, Gabrielle. You can wait here for us to get clear."
The bard shook her head stubbornly. "I'm sure. I've been practicing with my staff on Iolaus - you can do a lot with it from horseback." She tied Xena's leggings back up. "I just wish I could hold onto something at the same time - it's hard to keep my balance." She looked around, then bent over and put a kiss on the injured leg. "Okay.. now, what's the plan?"
Xena wiped the ground before her clear of leaves, and motioned the rest of the group over. She picked up a stick and drew in the dirt. "We split up in twos….."
Oh gods, not again. Gabrielle had closed her eyes, and groaned, seeing the scruffy bunch of men kicking around villagers in the square. They'd been running into these guys all day long, and even she could see her companion was just plain tired after a whole day's fighting. "Maybe I can distract them with a story or something."
Xena had looked at her, then sighed. "Just stay down, and keep out of the way, Gabrielle." She'd shaken her head and squared her shoulders, and headed off towards the melee, clearly expecting the bard to obey her commands.
Reluctantly she had, tucking herself behind a wagon and shifting her grip on her staff. "I don't know why you carry this thing, Gabrielle." She'd muttered to herself. "It's about as useless as a square wheel." Not that she hadn't tried, and not that Xena hadn't tried to teach her. She had.. oh, and she'd gotten the bruises to show for it, whacking herself a lot more frequently than whatever she'd been aiming at. 'I'm useless." She'd said to the warrior just that morning, after they'd broken camp, and she'd considered leaving the big stick behind.
"No you aren't." Xena had replied shortly. "Let's go."
So here she was, leaning on the big old useless thing, watching Xena confront the ruffians and plow into the crowd of them, throwing punches right and left and bowling one of them over with a well placed kick. She didn't even need a weapon, Gabrielle exhaled softly. "I'll never be able to do any of this… I don't know why she puts up with me."
And then it had happened. Gabrielle had no idea how, just one miniute things were fine, the next minute she'd seen Xena go down under a pile of dirty black leather.
And she hadn't gotten up.
Gabrielle hadn't stopped to think, which was pretty normal with her. She'd just found herself running out from behind the wagon, towards the knot of men and the still, dusty figure in their midst. There hadn't been time to get ready, or to talk herself out of it, and as she'd reached the first of the men she'd just swung that staff at him, driven by panic more than anything else.
Who had been more shocked when she'd knocked him back off Xena, dumping him in a pile? Gabrielle hadn't had time to wonder, as she just kept swinging, frantically trying to beat the men back off her friend, thinking of nothing but Xena.. Xena.. Xena….
Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. She'd known she was yelling something, but had no idea what, flailing about her so wildly the men simply gave up and started running, anxious to get out of range of this noisy madwoman in their midst.
And then it had been very quiet, her hoarse breathing so loud it hurt her ears. She'd dropped to her knees in the dirt, throwing her staff to one side as she'd reached for the limp, bruised figure lying slumped in the mud. Her hands had shaken, touching the dusty skin. "X…Xena?"
One blue eye had opened and looked brightly at her, then a flash of white appeared as Xena grinned. "Toldja you could do it." The eye had winked at her.
Gabrielle had simply stared at her in total shock, her jaw hanging open in the warm air. "Buh…"
A hand had patted her thigh. "Good job." Then Xena had rolled over and stretched, crossing her booted feet at the ankles and relaxing on the muddy ground. "I needed a break."
"Buh." Gabrielle had finally managed to get her mouth closed and her tongue to work. "You were faking?"
There had been that annoying, superior chuckle.
"Oh, I'm going to get you for that." The bard had finally spluttered. "Xena, I thought you were…. I thought…."
Then the look had turned serious. "You thought I was in danger."
"So you didn't stop to think, you just reacted."
"And because you really do know what to do, you did it, and did it right."
She'd sat down in the mud at that, realizing it was true. "Yeah." She'd answered softly. "I guess I did." She could remember little bits of it then. "But I didn't care about that, Xena, all I could think about was…" She'd looked up, to see Xena watching her. "You."
Xena hadn't answered. She'd merely sat up, then gotten to her feet. "C'mon." She'd held a hand down to Gabrielle. "Partner."
The bard had felt a smile stretch her face as she put her hand in Xena's, and stood, accepting the staff the warrior handed her after neatly retrieving it with a boot. She'd never expected to hear Xena call her that.
She hadn't known whether to laugh or cry, but then a friendly arm had descended onto her shoulders as they made their way towards a nearby inn. "Let's see if we can find a room and a bath." Xena had suggested. "I think we both deserve it."
"Yeah." Gabrielle had almost stumbled, as she'd walked along in a delighted daze. "That sounds great." Her hand had curled around the wooden staff and she'd glanced at it, seeing it in a whole new light. "Hey, Xena?"
"I really did it."
"Yes, you did."
The bard started, coming back to the present with a jerk, to see Pony at her side. "Oh.. sorry, Pony. I was just thinking. " Gabrielle rubbed her eyes, feeling a wistful echo from that younger version of herself. "We about ready?"
"Yeah.." The Amazon nodded. "Listen, you watch out for the champ there, okay? Make sure she stays outta trouble."
Gabrielle pulled herself up onto Iolaus's back, and unstrapped her staff, the worn wood slipping into her hands with a solid familiarity. "I will." She smiled at Pony. "She knows her back's safe with me watching it."
Pony snorted. "She knows how lucky she is…that's for sure." She gave the bard a pat on the leg. "Wish I were in her boots.. I've got my doubts about old high and mighty I was an Amazon back when Zeus was a kid over there."
"She'll be fine." Gabrielle shifted in the saddle, getting as comfortable as her protesting muscles would allow. "Just remember to keep moving." She put a hand on Pony's shoulder. "Good luck."
"Same t'you." Pony gave her back a brisk nod, as she moved over to her restive horse and climbed on board.
Gabrielle exhaled, then glanced up as Argo appeared from the darkness, carrying her partner. "Time to go?"
Xena edged the mare closer. "Yeah, but hang on.. hold still and let me.." She leaned over and clipped something to Iolaus' saddle then looped a length of leather through Gabrielle's belt and tied it off. "There."
"Huh?" The bard looked down, startled. "What's that?"
Xena repeated the action on the other side and backed off, with a satisfied look. "There."
Gabrielle looked down at herself, then back at the warrior. "Xena, I do not need a seat belt." She gave her soulmate a highly insulted look.
"You said you wanted better leverage."
"Well, yes but.."
"Try a staff move."
Gabrielle gazed doubtfully at her, then lifted her staff and swung it. She found the straps held her firmly to her saddle, and provided a feeling of comforting security. "Oh." She wriggled a little, then swung again. "Hey… that's neat!"
Xena rolled her eyes.
"You're such a genius." The bard smiled, and tapped her lightly on the shoulder with the end of her staff. "No wonder I love you so much."
Xena coughed, and ignored the grins of the soldiers and Amazons around them. "We ready?"
They went very still, as a prickle of excited energy swept over them. Xena pointed to two shadowy figures. "Go."
Gabrielle sat, tensely watching as the first two riders, low in their saddles, approached the posted guards. The horses hooves had been wrapped in fabric, and she could hardly hear even that muted drumming over the wind whipping the trees. She knew it was Cait and Pony, and forced herself to keep looking as the two riders split, and headed towards a guard each, drawing a deadly bead and firing from loaded crossbows as they passed to one side.
The guards both dropped without a sound.
"Go." Xena's voice sounded unnaturally loud next to her.
Two more riders started forward, long, twisted iron hooks dangling from one hand.
"Go." The warrior stated.
Two more, carrying lit torches low by their sides.
Cait and Pony had circled, and now thundered in with the first set of new riders through the gap in the guard. The four split as they reached the outer section of the camp, ripping through the first rank of tents in eerie silence.
Reloaded crossbows fired, and two more men dropped, then the hook bearers launched their barbs into two of the larger supply tents, and tied them off to their saddles as they raced by. The tents promptly collapsed, and only then, did yells start to be heard.
Torches hit two more tents, and the rough fabric ignited, the wind whipping the flames round. One of the tents being dragged lit, and now the racing, silent invaders changed course, and headed out towards the edge of the camp again.
Four riders launched, armed with short bows. They came in firing, nailing running, confused men who had no idea where the attack was even coming from.
Four more riders, with torches. They came in at a different angle, and raced through the now half panicked camp, lighting the huge pavilion set up for getting the soldier's fed ablaze.
A group of eight riders, heavily armored, who cut through the ranks of soldiers, firing short bows and letting out wild yells, the first sounds the attackers had made. They drew the beginnings of the counterattack, and raced to one side, as the rest of the riders made their way out of the camp and started a wide, silent circle back to where Xena was waiting, her forearms resting on her saddlebow.
Watching with intelligent interest, and a pleased half smile. "Nice." She chuckled softly, then glanced at her quiet companion. "Ready?"
Gabrielle swallowed, then released the straps holding her staff in place and nodded. "Whenever you are."
The defense had started chasing down the last attack, firing crossbows and longbows at the riders lit mostly in stark firelight and shadows from the burning tents. Xena shifted her weight in Argo's saddle, and drew her sword, then urged the mare into a gallop as she took aim on the camp.
Aware of Gabrielle behind her, but opening up the wild part of her that welcomed the violence, touching off her darker instincts and bringing a laugh bubbling up to her lips. She reached the outer edges of the camp and barreled through the confused soldiers, taking a deep breath and letting out her battle yell as she leaned to one side and removed a head from it's shoulders in one clean swipe.
She didn't even stop to see the reaction, she just kept moving, cutting and slashing as Argo charged right through the heart of the gathering defense, ignoring the milling numbers and depending on speed and her armor to keep the arrows out of her body.
Right for the center of the camp. She guided the snorting mare through the flames, allowing her to kick out when she felt men closing in. A soldier bravely rushed her and she deflected his battle ax, then suddenly tossed her sword to her other hand, gutted a second attacker with it, then grabbed the ax from it's hapless owner. "Thanks!" She cheerfully whacked him with it, separating an arm and sending him sprawling.
She heard a thud from behind her, and she turned her head, to see Gabrielle stopping a man dead in his tracks with the end of her staff, her momentum and the straps Xena had rigged giving the bard impressive leverage from her seat atop Iolaus.
All right. Let's get this over with. Xena turned and spotted her target, then let out a yell, and changed Argo's direction, bolting through the milling troops at a gallop. Two men tried to intercept her, and she sheathed her sword, using the battle ax to sweep one off his feet, then she switched hands and brought the edge down on the other's head, splitting it open like an egg as she raced by.
Now a mounted soldier came at her, and she waited, shifting both hands onto the axes hilt as she galloped, keeping her seat with an ease borne of many years on horseback. The man lifted a sword and stabbed at her overhand, and she took the impact on her shoulder armor, then she swiveled in the saddle and swung the ax, catching him in the back and side and slicing right through his leather and plate.
He screamed, and died, falling off the horse, and Xena laughed, then let out her yell as she kept on her course.
There it was, the commander's tent, right in the center of the camp. She doubted anyone was in it, staying in side your tent while your camp was being attacked wasn't something she'd expected of Andreas, but he wasn't he goal anyway.
She drove right past the guard, aware of the hundreds of soldiers running towards her, and freed her boots from the stirrups as she closed on her target. The wild flush of energy coursed through her, and she roared a defiant cry as she thundered towards the tent.
They scattered, as she'd expected them to, and she gathered herself up, leaping up to stand on Argo's saddle as the mare approached the pole holding Andrea's standard. As she passed under it, Xena leaped and caught the banner with one hand, and sheared the fabric off it's pole with the ax, then flipped in mid air and landed back on Argo's saddle, dropping down to resume her stirrups as the horses momentum took her right past the entrance to the commander's tent and out towards the edge of the camp again.
And there, outlined in the fire, was Andreas. Xena touched Argo's sides, and the mare reared, both of them lit unmistakably by the orange glow. Andreas stared at her, the crossbow in his hands half forgotten as she looked him right in the eyes, and smiled.
Then she laughed, and he fired, the crossbow bolt snatched neatly out of mid air by a gauntleted fist. Argo came down on all fours, and she leaned forward, urging the mare into a canter that brought her right by him, so close her boot brushed his outstretched hand.
Now, run like Hades. Xena gathered the fabric up and tucked it inside her armor and settled her seat, leaning over Argo's neck and urging her faster. She let out a yell as she directed the mare through the lines of tents, and saw her riders heading towards her as she gained the outskirts of the camp and the friendly darkness, with Gabrielle barreling along barely a nose length in back of her.
She could hear screams as men got caught in the fire, and the sounds of troop leaders yelling commands. Xena cocked her head for the one sound she was hoping not to hear as they raced through the rolling grass back towards the safety of the trees.
She didn't hear it.
A smile stretched her lips, and she flexed her hand on her new weapon, hefting it with a sense of martial pleasure. Every nerve was tingling, and she caught her breath, little thrills of excitement tickling her.
She'd forgotten just how good this could feel. Oh, she'd fought in the last few years, sure, but it had mostly been one on one, or strictly in a defensive mode.
Not this time.
The wind blew against her, and she shook her head, freeing her dark hair to whip around her, cooling her sweat dampened neck, and bringing the scent of earth, and grass, and impending rain, as they gained the forest again, and slowed, gathering in a loose, hard breathing group to look behind them.
Fire danced over the camp, shooting up and outlining the running, shadowed forms now swarming over the grass.
"Wow." Pony exhaled, stowing her crossbow. "Xena, you shoulda seen the look on those guys faces when you took that banner. You'd a thought Ares himself had made an appearance."
A low murmur of agreement, and chuckles greeted that statement.
"Everyone back?" Xena responded quietly, not entirely immune to the waves of admiration oozing her way. Her ego soaked it up contentedly, extremely pleased with itself, escaping as a smirk she could feel tightening the skin around her mouth.
"Noses are counted." Gabrielle told her. "Is everyone okay?"
There were a few cuts, one broken wrist, and several arrow hits, but armor had done what it was supposed to do, and the punctures were minor.
Considering they'd just plowed through a five thousand man army, that was damn good, Xena nodded to herself. Damned impressive, in fact, as she'd mentally resigned herself to at least a couple of losses, despite what she'd told Gabrielle.
"All right. Good job, everyone. I don't think they'll be sending anyone after us - they don’t' have that many mounted troops, and sending them out on a night like this after what we just did would be stupid." The warrior exhaled. "And Andreas isn't stupid."
"No.. but I bet he's madder than a she boar right now." Gillen chuckled. "Haven't had that much fun in a long time."
"Did you see his face when the genr'l caught that arrow?" One of Bennu's men crowed. "Thought he was gonna lose his damn eyeballs."
Another round of agreement. Xena stretched her legs in her stirrups, wincing a little as her injury made itself felt, now that her battle high had worn off. "We got the big supply tent." She nodded. "They'll be a while getting that restocked, and hitting them right as the troops were settling down to dinner plays havoc with morale." She absorbed the respectful looks. "Hungry, tired fighters just aren't as effective."
"Bet I know what they'll be talking about round the campfires tonight." Pony smiled. "Maybe they're wondering about which side they picked."
Xena smiled, a full, frank grin that was visible even in the sparse moonlight. "That was the point." She glanced up. "C'mon. Let's find a place to hole up for the night. I have more surprises for them in the morning."
They slipped off into the trees, their muffled hoofbeats almost inaudible against the breeze, and the beginning pattering of rain striking the earth. Xena allowed Gillen to take the point, trusting the Amazon to find a spot to camp, as she relaxed in her saddle, glancing sideways as Iolaus' head nodded up next to her.
Gabrielle was gazing thoughtfully between the horses ears, her lips moving in a silent dialog.
Xena watched her in fascination. It went on for a minute, then her partner nodded to herself, and looked up, reacting with a little start when she found herself the object of Xena's curiosity.
"Hey… that was really something." Gabrielle smiled. "I didn't know you were going to go for that flag like that."
"What were you just doing?" Xena asked.
"Having a bard attack."
A dark eyebrow lifted. "Excuse me?"
Gabrielle sighed, and shifted her feet. "It's like this. Most of the time, when I'm riding, or walking, or whatever, I make sort of story things in my head, or poems, or whatever, but it's when I have time and I'm not doing anything else."
Xena sorted through that. "Okay." It made sense, once you untangled it.
"But sometimes, the images I see are so strong, and so vivid, I have to stop right then and just sort them out and set them down up here." Gabrielle tapped her head. "And sometimes a poem hits me in the face and I can't ignore it."
"Okay." Xena nodded amiably.
"You do that to me a lot."
"Oh yeah.. ." Gabrielle freed a hand from the reins and waved it. "I mean… there's this army, and.. it's huge, and it's night, and the camp… and just this little group, and the fire… and you.. and that banner.. and.. "
"Okay.. okay..okay.. " Xena reached out and patted her on the leg. "You had a bard attack. Gotcha."
They paced along in silence for a moment. "Gillen was right."
"For that moment, in the firelight, with the banner?"
"You had that whole camp mesmerized.. both sides."
"Mm." Xena eyed her curiously. "Even you?"
The bard laughed, a strange, light sound in the darkness. "Especially me." A breath. "Xena, you have no idea what effect you have on people, do you?"
Xena puzzled over that. "Well, I mean really, Gabrielle.. I was trying to impress them - that was the whole point, remember?" She protested.
A few more steps in the dark. "In that moment.. " Gabrielle's voice had a hint of wonder. "If you had asked me to kneel, and deliver up to you my soul, I would have."
The warrior was stunned speechless.
"Of course.. " Now the bard's voice was more normal. " It's already yours, so that would have been pointless, but you know what I mean, Xena."
"Mm." A firefly zipped past, and she reached out unthinkingly and caught it, feeling the trembling against her skin as the tiny insect tried to escape. Slowly, she opened her fingers and the bug crawled out, pausing to collect itself and lighting Xena's hand in ghostly green.
Then she smiled, and reached over, offering the pretty insect to her partner, who allowed it to crawl over her hand then fly away, dissapearing into the forest gloom.
It was a quiet, very well sheltered little glade tucked into a corner of remote forest, in the late hours of a long day. Mostly dark, with just a tiny, smokeless fire barely glowing under a canopy of guarding leaves, surrounded by a circle of tired, but still exuberant warriors.
Voices were kept down, not whispered, but low, soft tones, and the one approach not cluttered with tough briared hedges was watched by two alert, fur wrapped guards with loaded crossbows. Only that small sound, and the scent of herbs and horses gave their location away to anyone close enough to catch it.
"Gabrielle." Pony looked up from where she was fixing a bit of her leathers.
"Mm?" The bard was sitting cross legged next to Xena, who was leaning against a tree trunk with her heavy cloak tucked around her.
"Wouldja tell that story.. the one about the giants?"
"Pony.. you've heard me tell that a thousand times." Gabrielle protested, with a smile.
"Sure.. but they haven't." The Amazon responded. "I"d ask you to tell one of the champs' there, but I know she hates it when you do."
A mutter of disappointment rustled the quiet.
Gabrielle turned, and looked at her partner, lifting an eyebrow ever so slightly.
Xena returned the motion with the faintest shrug of one shoulder.
"She'll live." The bard grinned, glad of the rare permission. Xena was in a definitely good mood, despite the rain and the exhausting day, and now that the warrior was comfortable, with a cup of mulled wine in one fist and a belly full of meat pastries, she was obviously receptive to a bit of storytelling even if she happened to be the subject.
"Okay… " Gabrielle sat up straight, collecting her thoughts and letting herself settle into what she thought of as her bard mode. "How about if I tell you about how we first met the forest dwellers?"
Murmurs of interest, since they'd all met Elaini and some knew Jessan and the triplets as well. "It's got funny bits, and cute bits.. and .."
"Blood?" Cait asked, hopefully.
Gabrielle sighed, but smiled wryly. "Ah.. yes, that too."
Xena held up a finger. "There were only a hundred."
"Three." Gabrielle immediately countered.
The warrior rolled her eyes, but gave in, and sucked at her mulled wine, which slid down her throat with a warm richness. "You going to tell them the whole thing?" She interrupted again.
Gabrielle looked at her. "What do you mean?"
Xena grinned, a flash of white teeth in the crimson flicker.
"Tch…. No, they don't want to hear that."
"Sure we do." Pony's ears visibly perked up. "What is it?"
"Xena." The bard gave her a warning eye.
The ex warlord blinked innocently. "I though it was cute."
"Xeeeennnaaaa…" Gabrielle's voice dropped a pitch. "You'd better cut that out, or I'll tell them how you reacted to Dori's being born."
The warrior subsided with a pout, but she reached over and got a tickle in, which made her partner jump.
"Xena!" An outraged glare. "I'm going to hurt you!"
Xena chuckled, crossing her booted feet and letting out a long sigh as she ceased tormenting her soulmate.
"Just for that, it's four hundred." Gabrielle stuck the tip of her tongue out at the warrior and turned, gathering the shreds of her dignity around her and clearing her throat. "Now.. where was I?"
Xena relaxed, and let the sound of Gabrielle's voice sooth her, the familiar tones rising and falling as she wove the story. She was tired, but not sleepy, and the wine was allowing tense and aching muscles to ease, despite the hard ground.
What she really wanted to do was pick Gabrielle up and take her to bed, curling up with her in their shared furs. The battle was over, but she had residual of energy left, brought on by the success of the raid, and the reaction of her troops. It was a half remembered feeling, a dark, edgy need that brought her eyes up to study her partner's lithe form, it's shadowy outline making her want to reach out and stroke the nearby arm, it's skin looking soft and very inviting.
As she considered that, she watched Gabrielle drape that very arm over her outstretched legs, and start to play with her boot laces, the familiar touch making her lips twitch into a grin. She shifted, and slid her uninjurd leg over onto the other side of the bard, so she was bracketed between Xena's boots and got a quick, raised eyebrow look back over Gabrielle's shoulder that made her grin even more. She let her calves warm against Gabrielle's hips and settled back, content to bide her time while her partner told her story.
"So that's how we met." Gabrielle concluded, to a round of grins, and soft clapping. "And Xena led the army to victory, with their help." She felt a squeeze on either side of her, and let her hands drop to the sturdy legs she was nestled between.
"They make great allies." Gillen commented. "But, will they come, Xena?"
The warrior shrugged. "Hard to say. It would be difficult for them now - since Andreas has gotten to where he is - it's not like they can march through the countryside in the daylight."
"I'm not counting on them." Xena went on. "If they can come, they will."
"Why would they help us?" The older Amazon questioned. "They might be glad to see us slaughter each other, from what you've said about them."
"There's another part to the story." Gabrielle answered. "Let's just say Xena holds a certain position in Jessan's tribe, so like she said, if they can come, they will."
"But you said there aren't that many of them." Gillen persisted.
"No… but one of them is worth an awful lot of us." The bard shot back. "They're incredible warriors."
"I can believe that." Gillen leaned back on her elbows and nodded thoughfully. "So… what position is this you hold, Xena?"
A faint smile was seen in the darkness. "I'm their champion."
There was a momentary, very respectful silence. "I see." Gillen murmured. "That must be quite a story."
"It is." Gabrielle responded, giving Xena's leg a pat. "But I think we should get some rest now."
Low chuckles answered her, and she gazed across the tiny fire, seeing rawly envious looks peering back. What's that all about, I wonder? Curiously, she glanced over her shoulder, to find Xena watching her, a sexy smile on her face. Ah. That's what that's all about. The warrior crooked a finger playfully at her, and she scrambled over a leg, as Xena opened her cloak invitingly, tucking herself inside the nice smelling, warm nest with lots of her partner to hug.
She felt the chuckle under her hand, and she gave the soft skin there an affectionate rub, ending with a tickle that prolonged the chuckle just a bit.
Envy me. Oh yeah. Gabrielle tilted her head to see those beautiful eyes looking back at her fondly. But you're not jealous of the right thing…. Not at all. Oh - yes, she's gorgeous, and I am so attracted to her, but that's not what the important thing is… that's not what matters to me over everything else. "Hey, Xe?"
"Yes?" The low voice vibrated through her.
"Can you reach the saddlebag?"
"Sure." Xena lifted a long arm and did so, pulling the leather sack over and lifting it over her chest. "There you go, Red."
Gabrielle poked her tongue out. "Just for that, no cookies for you, madam warrior princess."
"Cookies?" Xena sniffed interestedly at the packet she pulled out. "You didn't say you had cookies."
The bard unwrapped the packet, releasing the scent of buttery pastry and nuts into the air. "Well, I do… and no amount of warrior puppy eyes are going to get them from me." She waited to see what ploy her partner would use to coax one.
"May I have one, please?" Xena asked quietly.
Gabrielle scowled. "Xena, that's no fair."
"You're supposed to be sneaky."
"Well… it's been a long day, Gabrielle… and… " The warrior peered past her. "What is that?"
Gabrielle whipped her head around and looked, then turned back, seeing nothing.
Except a cookie sticking out of her partner's mouth, and a twinkle in her eyes.
"You little fink."
Xena bit down and offered her the other half. She leaned over and took it, brushing her lips across the warrior's lightly. Then she chewed her half of the cookie and swallowed it, enjoying the simple pleasure of being in Xena's presence.
This was the important thing. The friendship that bound them together, and made them want to be a part of each other's lives outside any romantic feelings between them.
They were best friends. That's what you should be jealous of . Gabrielle told the rest of them silently, as they bedded down for the night. She took a second cookie and bit into it, then glanced up at her buddy inquiringly. "Wmf smf?"
"Sure." Xena inclined her head and captured her half, then tucked it into her cheek as she explored Gabirelle's lips, tasting the sweetness of the pastry on them. "Mmm…" She felt Gabrielle's fingers flex against her body as she slid a palm up the bard's side, and the slumbering energy still trickling across her awareness woke, reaching hungrily for the object of her desire.
Gabrielle felt a surge of need almost take her over, as her body reacted to her soulmate's close presence, wanting Xena's touch badly, in a wholly unexpected way. She took a deep breath, but that made it worse, since it filled her lungs with her partner's scent and almost pushed her over the edge. She paused, her lips just over the pulse point on Xena's neck, able to feel the powerful beat trembling against her skin. They were isolated on the other side of the fire, true, and it was very dark, but…. Xena's touch slid down her belly and tickled the inside of her thigh, and for a moment, she teetered on the verge of not caring if she was in the middle of an Amazon joining ceremony. Then she remembered just who was potentially watching her, and she sighed, letting her head drop to rest on Xena's collarbone. Okay. So maybe you should be jealous of this too. She amended in wry silence.
Xena responded by putting both arms around her and pulling her into a warm hug, making her back pop and relieving some of the riding agony she'd suffered all day. "Sorry about that."
"No you're not." Gabirelle mumbled into the soft skin of her neck. "And it's your fault.. if you hadn't told me about that yipping.. I might have been able to forget we've got an audience."
Xena shook with silent laughter.
"All of them sitting there, turning as green as my eyeballs."
Xena laughed harder, her legs curling up a little as she fought to keep it quiet.
The warrior finally wound down, relaxing back onto the furs and giving Gabrielle a pat on the back. Her body still wanted to go further, and she knew if she pushed a little harder, the bard would go along with her, but the quiet, innnate respect she had for the bard's sensibilities put a cap on that.
And that, Xena, is how you know you've changed. She mused to herself, as Gabrielle shifted, and got more comfortable against her, both of them snuggled beneath Xena's heavy cloak. In your younger days, you would not have stopped, no matter how Gabrielle would have felt.
She let herself drift for a moment, imagining what would have happened, if she'd met Gabrielle before she'd been in a place in her life where change was her only option.
Would I have killed her?
Would I have loved her?
Xena regarded her slowly relaxing partner, who yawned, and nuzzled her neck.
Would she have loved me?
Would she have changed me?
She remembered that younger self, so full of anger and hatred, and she remembered Gabirelle's younger self, so full of wonder and innocence.
They'd both moved closer to the center, hadn't they? She was no longer that angry kid, and Gabrielle… Xena sighed. Sometimes, secretely, she missed that wondering innocent.
"Hey, tiger?" Gabrielle's sleepy voice burred.
"Why do you suppose stars twinkle?"
Be careful what the Hades you ask for, Xena. "Um."
"No.. I mean really… the moon doesn't twinkle, the sun doesn't.. why do the stars?"
Xena stared up, where only a few of the little buggers were blinking down at her. "To give bards something to write about." She finally said. "And because they're prettier that way."
Gabrielle's brow creased as she thought about that. "Damn. You're absolutely right." She lifted herself up and gave Xena a kiss.
"Thank you." The warrior responded contentedly. "Got any more cookies?"
Gabrielle laughed. "Didn't you have enough pastries for dinner?"
"Nope." Xena secured herself a treat and chewed on it. "I've been using up energy faster than I can take it in lately." Part of that, she knew, was her body's healing itself from her captivity. Part of it was the long hours she was spending in constant drilling and preparing for war. In either case it wasn't a good thing, because fighting took up all the reserves she could muster, and if they weren't there, it made things a lot tougher.
"Mm." Gabrielle ran her fingers over the warrior's ribs. "I've got some nutbread we could share." She offered.
Xena's eyes widened. "You're offering to share your nutbread with me? "
Gabrielle just looked at her.
"Nah.. I'm fine." The warrior chuckled, accepting a kiss instead. "Save it for breakfast." She rested her forehead against the bard's. "Thanks for watching my back out there today."
"You made it easy. You've got eyes in the back of your head, Xe." Gabrielle smiled. "I'm glad it went well… and no one got hurt." A pause. "I wish all of it would be like that."
"I know you do." Her partner replied, in a somber voice. "But look at it this way, Gabrielle…by focusing Andreas on me, how many people.. how many villages did we save because he came this way, not towards Athens?" Xena sighed. "Amphipolis is a backwater… we both know that. But this part of Greece has a quarter of the population he'd have encountered going the other way."
"I know." A pause. "But what it if it doesn't work.. what if we can't stop him, Xena… he'll go back that way anyhow."
"We'll stop him." The blue eyes captured her, and drew her in. "One way or the other, Gabrielle, we'll stop him." She bent her head and whispered in the bard's ear, then pulled back, to see Gabrielle lifted her head and gaze at her in wondering surprise.
Xena just smiled back.
The sun poured over them in a rich, red tinged slant from the west as they walked down a long, dusty road towards one more small village in one more obscure area of Greece.
"Hey Xena." Gabrielle had poked her in the leg with her staff. "Look… a festival."
Xena had looked up and yawned, listening to the noise coming their way on the wind. "Yep… sure is."
"Can we go?"
"Again?" The warrior had given her a wry look. "Didn't you get in enough shopping at the last one?"
"That's not fair, Xena.. you know I didn't get to shop at all.. we got captured by that warlord, and then the river overflowed it's banks and we had to save those cows and…"
"Okay.. okay… okay… " Xena had laughed. "Go on… I"ve got to get a new saddle pad anyway, so I'll meet you in the front of the merchants area, okay?"
Gabrielle had hopped twice, then impulsively threw her arms around Xena's neck and kissed her on the cheek. "Thanks, Xena… " Then she'd spun and dashed off down the road, carrying her staff at her side, her rust colored Amazon gear taking on a richer tint in the sunset's glow.
"Sure, kid." Xena had thrown her arm over Argo's neck as she walked behind her young friend. "Doesn't take much to make her happy, does it girl?"
Argo had snorted.
Xena had made her way into the town, and gotten her saddlepad, choosing one in a sort of subtle striped pattern to replace the worn one Argo had been wearing. Then she'd wandered the festival grounds, glancing at the raffish stalls full of fabric and the odd set of knives, fruits and dried meats, and herbs by the hundreds. She knew she was getting suspicious looks from the vendors, but she ignored them, taking her time and fingering the soft, frilly things under their nervous eyes. "How much?" She'd asked one wary man, holding up a frivolous crimson shirt, with beads trailing along a low neckline.
"Two dinars." He'd said quickly. "But if that's too much…"
Xena had paid him, reflecting that there was bargaining, and there was bargaining, and size sometimes did count. She'd slung the shirt over her armored shoulder and strolled on, picking up some herbs she'd been short of and a couple of other trinkets she stashed in her saddlebags.
Then she'd heard a commotion, and figured Gabrielle was in the center of it. She turned and threaded her way through a curious crowd, to find her young friend by the ink seller, arguing vociferously and half covered in dark, gooey liquid.
Xena had sighed, and shook her head, and bumped her way through the onlookers, until she was standing behind Gabrielle, eyeing the angry tradesman over the girl's shoulder.
"It's not my fault!" Gabrielle had been shouting. "You tripped, and dumped that stuff all over me! I'll never get this clean! You owe me for new clothes!"
"Look, kid, I'm not gonna.." The merchant had waved her off, then lifted his eyes and stopped dead in his tracks. "Uh…"
Xena had lifted a single, elegant eyebrow.
"Ah.. all right..all right…but pick something cheap!" He'd babbled. "I ain't a rich man!"
Gabrielle had cocked her head, obviously confused by his change of attitude. "All right, I will… " Then she'd turned and almost crashed right into Xena. "Oh!" She'd blurted, then backed off a pace, and glanced down at her self, looking back up at the warrior with a woebegone expression. "Hi."
"Hi." Xena had shook her head, muffling the laugh she knew would hurt Gabrielle's feelings. "Had a run in with a rabid parchment worm, I see."
"Yeah." Gabrielle had sighed. "Help me pick a new outfit?" She'd perked up and tugged Xena towards the nearest stall. "Maybe I should do leather, like you."
"No." Xena disagreed. "It's hot, and it itches."
"You wear it."
"I fight. I have to."
"I fight too!"
"Not the way I do. Your staff takes the place of armor in keeping people off you."
Gabrielle had sighed. "Okay… what about this?" She'd held up a sturdy, woolen short gown.
Xena had lifted an eyebrow. "Uhm…."
"No, huh?" The bard had dug back into the pile. "What about this?"
A head shake.
Another head shake.
Two handfuls of cloth, one green, one brown and a questioning look. "It's about all there is."
"Hmm." Xena's lips had quirked. "That has possibilities."
Gabrielle had changed, and observed her new wardrobe doubtfully. "I don't know, Xena… I think this one's smaller than the other one.. there's more of me showing."
And so there was. "Summer's coming." The warrior had shrugged. "It'll be cooler."
"That's true." Gabrielle had tucked her old outfit away for rags, after getting as much ink out as possible. "But I don't see you taking any of your stuff off, even when it does get really hot."
"Fight in it. I know." Gabrielle had sighed. "Hey… they've got cold fruit drinks over there… want one?" She'd looked up, and caught Xena studying her, a mischievous little grin on her face. "What?" She'd looked down. "What's wrong? "
"Not a thing." Xena had remarked, strolling on with Argo, with the faintest hint of a cheerful whistle.
Xena sighed, and leaned her chin against Argo's saddle, waiting in the gray mist for everyone to mount up. In a way, those first few years they'd traveled together had been… not fun, really, because they were constantly in the middle of battles and trouble, but enjoyable in a way that not even their close relationship could change now. She'd been in a period of radical change in her life, and so had Gabrielle, and they'd worked through it together, learning new things about themselves, and about each other almost every day. She chuckled softly, rearranging Argo's pale mane with idle fingers.
"What's so funny?" Gabrielle appeared at her elbow, dressed in her armor and tucked into a thick cloak.
"I was just remembering that day you ran into the ink vendor."
The bard laughed. "Why… do I have a spot somewhere?" She examined herself. "What brought that up?"
"Nothing… it just occurred to me." Xena shifted, keeping her weight off her bad leg.
"You know.. I remember fantasizing about that, imagining you picked that outfit out because you liked the way I looked in it." Gabrielle leaned against Argo's side. "Did you?"
"Oh yeah." The warrior cheerfully informed her. "I was thinking of finding some desert for us to cross so I could push the heat issue."
A snort. "You'd have keeled over in those leathers." Gabrielle slapped her on the butt. "But thank you for the compliment." She stifled a yawn, then tugged Iolaus closer. "I miss traveling with you.. but I sure don't miss being that feckless kid."
Xena cocked her head. "Really?"
"Oh, c'mon, how much fun do you think it was wandering around in a constant state of not knowing what to do?" Her partner protested. "Wondering what goofy thing I did next would get us into trouble, or me stumbling into a trap have you scrambling to pull me out, or… " She ran out of words. "I like being a competent human being, thanks." She glanced up. "I had to work very hard to earn your respect… and I cherish that achievement, Xena."
"Oh." The warrior watched her mount her stallion with muscular grace, and reflected on the statement, as she turned and pulled herself up on Argo, settling her boots carefully in the stirrups and checking the angle of her weapons. "I never thought of it that way." She admitted, as the rest of the group started forming up on them.
"I know." Gabrielle answered softly, watching the angular profile with a wistful smile. It was just before dawn, and the fog rolled around the horse's legs, rising up and sending wisps past the bard's kneecaps. They moved out silently, just the damp leaves brushing against her skin and leaving a wet, green scent behind as they made their way out of the deep forest and split up, going off in sets of two riders, to silently circle the uneasily camped army.
The fog hid them, as they crept closer and closer. Gabrielle minded Iolaus' steps, and kept him precisely behind Argo, conscious of the fact that she was serving no real purpose in this part of the plan. All the other pairs were both armed with cross or long bows, but she only carried her staff.
Xena carried the bows, and right now, she held a hand up, stopping them and got down off Argo to creep over to a large, flat rock and rest her elbows on it. The bard kept very still, peering through the fog and trying to see whatever it was that had alerted her partner.
There. Just a blur of darker gray. Damn, Xena had incredible eyesight.
The warrior cradled the crossbow against her shoulder and paused, allowing a puff of wind to pass. Then she steadily squeezed the trigger and the bolt fired, cleaving the air with an almost audible noise before striking something solid.
A thud, and a rustle, and a patch of fog roiled, then everything settled down again peacefully.
Save that not far off, under that fog, a man was dead. Gabrielle took a quiet breath, watching the look of predatory interest on her partner's face as she reloaded the crossbow with practiced fingers. Xena motioned with her head, and waited, until Gabrielle dismounted and tied the horses off, then crept over to her.
They eased through the grass together, Gabrielle finding the rhythm in her partner's steps and emulating it as the rough stalks brushed against hands clenched firmly around her staff. Then Xena stopped again, and waited, seeming to sense the very movement of the air around her.
She lifted her crossbow up and went still for several heartbeats, then a finger moved slightly, and the mechanism released.
Then silence again, except for the tiny creak of the crossbow being rewound. Xena motioned her forward, and then dropped to her knees, sliding through the grass with only the faintest rustle.
Now, this wasn't easy. Gabrielle cradled her staff and did the best she could, glad when the boots in front of her stopped moving, and she could lean on her elbows a moment. The silence settled around them, a bit of pearly opalescence from the coming dawn lighting the mist. The dew drenched her, chilling her hands and she closed her eyes momentarily, then opened them again.
Xena half turned, and handed her back the crossbow, then made a hand gesture for her to stay put. She watched the tall warrior slide off through the murky air, becoming a dark figure that paused, coiled in tense wariness.
A rustle in the grass resolved itself into a cloaked guard, sweeping the air at waist level with a loaded bow as he peered into the fog. As he turned, Xena leaped, exploding away from the ground and simply engulfing him in a powerful grip that took them both back into the grass. There was a hiss, and a the sound of a knife entering flesh, then the distinct coppery scent of blood lifted over the earth.
Xena reappeared suddenly, almost making her jump. The warrior had a splash of crimson across one arm, and she wiped her dagger off, reseating it in it's leather sheath with a contented scrape of metal. She took her bow back and motioned with her jaw, blue eyes darkened to steel gray and filled with a palpable, edgy energy.
Hunting was a challenge, Xena turned, and moved through the grass, smelling the rich earth under her boots as she searched the air for something else. Grass, water…. Ah. Her lips twitched into a smile, as she detected leather, brass and fear just ahead.
"Mikah!" A hissed whisper. "Hey.. where are you?"
In Hades. Xena answered him silently. Where I left him. She edged around a fallen log, and peered forward, seeing if she could get a clear shot.
Hoping she couldn’t. Her hands itched to draw steel again, and her instincts, overjoyed at being allowed to run rampant, were surging forward and pressing her unmercifully, wanting to feel the hot blood over her skin up close.
He was behind a tree. Xena grinned, and dropped to the ground, knowing Gabrielle was covering her back, and moved smoothly forward, hugging the ground and slipping over rocks and dirt without the slightest sound.
"Hey.. c'mon.. where are you?" A soft crackle as he edged around the tree, holding his crossbow at waist level. He was fairly young, with a thick, light brown beard under her helmet, and a sturdy, competent air. "Stop fooling around."
Xena paused, and melted to the earth, coiling up her legs and waiting, letting him come to her, keeping her eyes glued to his chest. He came closer, stepping over a log, and putting a boot down inches from her hand. She shifted her weight back and closed her fingers over his ankle, then whipped her body around and nailed him in the knee with her elbow, collapsing the joint and dropping him over onto his side with a frightened yell. The crossbow fired up into the air and he rolled over, grabbing for his leg and looking up.
She waited, wanting to see his eyes looking at her before she finished him. He froze, and stared at her face, and they faced off for a long moment, until Xena smiled, and flexed her hands.
And then he lowered himself to the earth and whimpered, covering his head and laying very still.
The tiger snarled, and Xena teetered on the brink, smelling the fear, and wanting the blood, the dark violence calling to her with insistent seduction. It was war, wasn't it? He was an enemy, and he'd have shot her in an instant.
She pounced, landing on him and whipping his body over, straddling him with both hands clasping his neck, knowing how little pressure it would take to snap it like a twig. He was shivering, and she could feel the fear coming from him, and she reveled in the sheer power over life, and death that tingled through every bit of her.
It was so sweet.
Then she took a breath, as she heard her name and turned her head, as the mists cleared, to see Gabrielle looking back at her, a lost, heartsick expression on her face, that reminded her all over of who she was.
What she was.
She looked back down at her victim, and released one hand, touching him on the nose with a long fingertip. "When you're on guard, you can't worry about your buddies."
He stared at her with wide, uncomprehending eyes.
"Stay on your post."
Then she leaped off him, and rolled into the grass, disappearing from view before he could so much as lift his head. She worked her way through the grass and slid up next to Gabrielle, who had resumed her low crouch behind the log, and met the bard's gaze for several heartbeats. "Thanks." She uttered softly.
Gabrielle didn't even ask for what. She pulled Xena's head over to her briefly and kissed it, then pressed her cheek against the warrior's hair for just an instant, letting her guts settle into an understanding of what had just happened. Xena remained still, perhaps absorbing the same thing, then lifted a hand and gave the bard's leg a gentle pat.
"C'mon. Let's finish this up." Xena murmured, turning and easing off into the grasses again. Gabrielle followed her, aware of the thinning fog dispersed by the rising sun, and mindful of the increasing visibility. She crept after Xena towards a small brook, as they approached a larger outpost, with four guards standing alertly behind a stack of bundles, watching the approach.
Then an errant bit of wind blew the fog back, and one shouted, pointing towards them. They dove for the earth as crossbow bolts sang over their heads. "Get ready.": Xena barked back, as the noise increased, and heavy footsteps approached them. "Take these guys out, then run like Hades!"
"You betcha." Gabrielle vowed, as she watched Xena lunge to her feet and bolted after her. The warrior met the first guard with drawn steel and disarmed him with a clash, then kicked him in the chest and ducked under the spear thrust of the second.
The bard got in close and got the edge of her staff in on the spear bearer, stopping him in his tracks and sending him flying backward. Then she moved slightly to one side and drew the attention of another guard, engaging him with a swift, savage motion that deflected his sword, and dodging to let him move past her, then turning as he turned, and bringing her staff up to meet his swing again. He hacked at her, and his blade stuck in the wood. She pulled backwards, and jerked him off balance, then stepped forward and kicked him soundly in the gut, making him release his weapon and reach for his middle.
Gabrielle took advantage of that to shake the sword loose from her staff, and bring the end of it down smartly on his head, sending him sprawling.
She looked up to see Xena engaged with the remaining guard, surprisingly, but one glance at the man's style made her realize he was a good match for her partner in skill. A quick review of Xena's expression gave her the go ahead to step in and get an end of her staff under his elbow, then swivel, pulling the sword from his grasp and making him yell in surprise.
Xena belted him with her sword hilt, then whirled and pointed the way they'd come. "Move it… there's more on the way."
Gabrielle needed no second urging. She tucked her staff into a running position and bolted, racing through the grass as it whipped against her arms. She could sense Xena behind her, aware that the warrior was deliberately keeping back, guarding her as she'd guarded Xena during the fighting. She spotted the small stand of trees they'd left the horses in ahead, and angled towards it, putting all her energy into running as fast as she could without tripping and falling.
It was eerie - running through the fog, her steps scattering it around her like slowly drifting water. All she could hear was yells far behind her, her own steps, and the heavier, steady footfalls as the warrior chased after her. A low whistle sounded, and she heard Argo nicker, then both horses trotted out from the trees and galloped over. Gabrielle tucked her staff under her arm and reached up, catching the saddlehorn and pulling herself up onto Iolaus' back. She gathered her reins as she turned to see Xena vaulting aboard Argo, then they were urging the horses into a full gallop, thundering together over the grass shoulder to shoulder as the sun lifted up over the trees, bathing them in a wan, pink light.
Xena didn't pull up until they regained the safety of the forest, and they slowed to a trot, moving carefully through the trees, then turning and looking behind them. Hooded blue eyes viewed the softly waving grass, and she cocked her head, listening for pursuit.
Gabrielle exhaled. "Wow."
The bard glanced over, seeing the brief clenching of Xena's jaw muscles. She moved Iolaus closer, and touched her partner's arm. "You okay?" She could hear the warrior's breathing, faster and heavier than usual, and felt a jolt of concern. "Xena?"
The warrior shifted in her saddle, then leaned on the front of it. "Yeah… I got kicked in the leg." She winced. "Damn… "
"C'mon." Gabrielle now could see blood coming from where her wound was. "Let's get under cover, and let me take a look at that."
"It's all right. It just stings…" Xena protested, but turned Argo's head, and started her towards the meeting point with the rest of their group. "Broke open the stitches, probably." She straightened with an effort, and exhaled, resettling her boots. "We've got to check the pits, then fall back… we'll have another chance with the second force tonight."
Gabrielle didn't answer. She just kept Iolaus at Argo's shoulder, and her hand resting on Xena's knee, worrying in silence.
It would take them a little time to get moving, Xena reasoned, as they found their slaughtered guards. The group had all met in a small, sheltered dell, and she allowed them a short time to dress injuries gotten in the raid. They dismounted and gathered near the shallow pool at the back of the dell, and she glanced down at a touch on her calf.
Gabrielle crooked a finger at her. "You too."
Part of her resisted. The leg had just gone from a sharp pain to a nagging ache, and she knew the bard's ministrations would reverse that. But she also knew that Gabrielle was right, and she reluctantly eased her boots from the stirrups, and swung her good leg over Argo's neck, sliding down and catching herself on the mare's shoulder. She walked stiffly over to a log and sat down, forcing the pain to the back of her awareness.
Gabrielle sat down next to her, and set her saddlebag on the ground, then worked the buckle that held her upper thigh protector off, and lifted it clear. "Oh boy." She murmured, as she took the small, very sharp knife Xena kept in their healer's kit and cut the blood soaked bandage off, trying to be as gentle as she could.
She heard Xena's breathing increase though, and a glance upward confirmed the closed eyes, and the rigid tension in her soulmate's body. "I'm sorry, honey… " She murmured, watching a pain filled blue eye appear. "All the stitches broke… there's not enough skin here for me to put them back in."
Xena nodded briefly, confirming her diagnosis. "Pack it." She enunciated her words carefully.
"Gabrielle, just do it." The pain made her voice sharp. "We're in the middle of a war zone."
Yeah. The bard put her head down and complied, knowing the pain of the process had to have been terrible. Xena never made a sound, not even an indrawn breath, and her hands remained resting on the log, twitching only slightly as the bandage was wrapped tightly around her leg.
Gabrielle finally looked up, hearing the short, tense breaths, and seeing the withdrawn look on Xena's face. She dug in the pack and pulled out the herbs the warrior kept there, mixing three together as she'd seen her partner do on many occasions. She put them in a cup, then added water from their waterskin, swirled them, and handed it over. "Here."
Xena didn't even utter a word of protest. She drank the mixture down, then handed the cup back with a stiff, precise motion, still maintaining an iron control in the face of the rest of the party nearby. Gabrielle gazed at her in mute respect, wishing she could do something to comfort her suffering friend, but knowing Xena wouldn't accept any obvious mothering.
Not now. Not when the Amazons, and the soldiers were watching them from their nearby circle, sharing whispered stories of the raid amongst themselves. Finally, the bard felt the tension in Xena's leg start to relax, and her breathing deepened, and slowed. "Better?" She subvocalized.
A hand touched her shoulder, and she felt a rub against her neck from Xena's thumb. She turned her head slightly and brushed the hand with her lips, then pressed her cheek against it. Xena returned the caress with a squeeze, in a rich physical language between them that needed no words.
Never had, though it had taken her a long time to understand that, to set aside the anxiety over the warrior's lack of speech, and look to her actions instead which told much more. Xena used touch, Gabrielle had learned, as a way of communicating emotions she wasn't comfortable expressing otherwise. A gentle cheek caress, and a special tilt of her head, that faint smile, and the warmth showing in her eyes that meant I love you just as much as the words ever had.
Xena's soul showed so clearly in those blue depths. Gabrielle had just needed to learn how to see it, and now that she had, speech seemed almost clumsy in comparison. As she looked up, she could clearly see the hurting child behind the warlord's tough façade, and she just wanted to hug it. She pursed her lips, and wrinkled her brow, and Xena ruffled her hair in somber acknowledgement.
"Just doing my job."
"I think you're due a raise."
The bard chuckled softly. "What's next?"
Ears perked up. "We need to make sure the pits are ready, then trade off with Solari's team." Xena decided. "I want to get back to the main camp and make sure everything's ready there." She eyed her team. "And get those cuts patched up."
"Sounds like a great idea to me." Gabrielle stated positively. "When do we start?"
"Everyone done?" Xena asked, in a brisk tone, getting a murmured response. "Let's go then." She got up and walked over to Argo, putting her hand son the saddlebow and vaulting aboard the mare in one smooth, easy motion. There was no trace of a limp. Gabrielle shook her head in mild wonder, and put her things away, then also mounted up. As they rode under a lightening sky, further into the forest that skirted the river valley, she dug in her saddlebags and pulled out a packet, balancing it on her saddlebow and cutting several slices off.
"Here." She handed one over to Xena.
The warrior glanced over, then accepted the offering with a half grin, and took a bite. "Must be my lucky day." She mumbled around the piece of nutbread, glad of the distraction
They'd traveled about a half candlemark, down a long, steep trail Xena had found the week prior, which hid them from view most of the way back to the woodland outposts the Amazons had built. It was quiet in there, the trees softly rustling and far off, the sound of water moving through a tiny spring meandering it's way down to the river, barely more than a trickle. A thunder of hooves split the quiet, however, and they stopped, as Xena lifted her head, and listened. "They're tracking us."
The sound went by them, and they waited, sitting stock still amidst the trees. Then there were several shouts, and a hint of burning tar hit them. "Hades.. " Gillen hissed. "They've got torches."
The sound of fire penetrated, then more shouting. "They're setting the woods on fire." Pony blurted, hearing the faint crackle of leaves igniting.
"Keep moving." Xena urged Argo on, catching the first hint of smoke on the wind.