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 22
By Melissa Good
"That way!" Gillen yelled, spotting an open space. "There’s a path there."
The half panicked horses headed in that direction, glad to get away from the approaching flames. Xena started Argo towards the gap, then pulled her up, and stood in her stirrups, studying the terrain despite the closing roar behind her. "Wait!" She yelled suddenly. "All of you! Hold up!"
It was a struggle for them to obey, Xena knew. All their instincts were howling at them to run, but the note in her voice made them turn, and look back at her, hands frantically trying to calm their frightened mounts. "It’s a trap!" The warrior pointed. "They’ll be waiting for us at the clearing….you can only go single file there. They’ll pick us off like sitting ducks."
Everyone stared at the opening, then back at her. "How can you tell?" Gillen shouted. "It looks clear!"
"Because that’s what I’d do." Xena answered calmly. "Everyone get down….get to that little stream.. NOW!!" She slid down off Argo’s shoulder and landed, sending a tiny spray of dirt up into the air. The wind tugged around them, bringing a warning, smoky stench with it. "Everyone douse your clothing…. Get in that water, and get as wet as you can."
"She’s crazy." Gillen muttered, but complied, splashing into the tiny stream and dropping to her knees in the icy water.
"Get the horses in there." Xena led Argo forward, until the water was up to her knees, then tapped the mare’s shoulder and eased her down until she was lying in the downstream channel. This caused the water to back up. "Bring Iolaus over here, Gabrielle." She commanded the stallion to settle next to his mother, and he snorted, clearly unwilling. "C’mon, boy…"
"What are we doing?" Gabrielle asked nervously, keeping her voice way down as she watched the wary glances towards her partner.
"Just relax, and get in the water." Xena replied, finally successful in getting Iolaus to his knees. She stripped her cloak off, and wet it, then wrung it out, keeping one eye on the approaching flames, which were consuming the trees at a frightening pace. She draped the cloak over both horse’s heads, then turned. "Get down… " She pointed to the pool of water now spreading quickly over the ground, dammed by two large animals. "Get your horses down if you can, if you can’t, just let em go. Keep your cloaks over your heads. We’re gonna let the fire pass us by."
Gillen glanced at the pool, then at the small depression they were in, then she looked up at Xena with genuine respect. "Right."
"I hope this works." Gabrielle winced as the cold water chilled her legs, an odd counterpoint to the rising heat of the approaching firestorm. A hot wind puffed over her, and for a single, bleakly frightening moment her memory flashed back to the sickening scent of the lava pit, forcing a tiny utterance from her throat as she froze in place.
"Gabrielle!" Xena’s hand on her shoulder made her head jerk up, to meet the warrior’s eyes. "What’s wrong?"
She shifted her gaze to the flames, then back to her partner’s face. "I d..d…don’t think I c..can do this." She stammered softly, starting to get to her feet to run. "Not…no, Xena I …"
Xena stared bewilderedly at the fire, then at her, reaching out instinctively to hold her in place. "Gabrielle… take it easy… you can’t go anywhere."
"No!" The heat triggered a panic attack, and Gabrielle twisted in her grip, her lungs filling with the scent of burning things. She only knew she had to get away from it, and she fought the hands holding her fiercely, striking out with both fists and connecting in a blind fear so intense she could hardly breathe.
She could feel something stronger than she was pulling her down, again, and she whimpered softly. "No… no.. please….not yet."
Then the heat vanished, and the smell of burning was gone, replaced by the chill of cold water and Xena’s familiar scent, which surrounded her completely as the warrior pressed against her, wrapping Gabrielle’s wet cloak around both of them.
She stopped struggling and tangled her fingers in Xena’s armor laces, unable to see anything but her partner’s dim outline. The roar outside got louder and she shivered, but a low voice gently reassured her.
"It’s okay. I’ve got you."
"I’m…." Gabrielle wet her lips, as the roar began to resolve into loud crackling. "scared."
"I know. It’s okay." Xena’s lips were very near her ear, and the warmth of the warrior’s breath cut the water’s chill. "Trust me." A breath. "Just trust me, Gabrielle.. I won’t let anything happen to you, I promise."
She would have once given up that trust without a second’s thought.
She had once sworn to never trust so wholly again.
Now she found herself having come full circle, as she buried her face into the scent of leather, and sweat and spice and released her fear, believing in Xena with a heartfelt completeness so profound it blocked out everything else.
She felt her heartbeat calm and slow, as Xena pressed a warm cheek against her own. Gabrielle remained still and quiet, ignoring the thunder and crackle now directly overhead. She felt Xena jerk, as something hit her back, then muscles surged as the warrior tossed it off them.
Argo let out a worried nicker, and Xena’s voice sounded again "Easy girl… it’s almost over."
And then it was. Xena stood up quickly and pulled Gabrielle up with her, as the edge of the fire moved past them and towards the edge of the woods, leaving them standing in knee deep, ash covered water. The air was still thick with smoke, and heat, but the flames were hungrily swallowing up fragile leaves high above, being pushed by the wind away from them.
Gabrielle tilted her head up and gazed somberly at her. "Yes." She moved her lips into a slight smile. "Thank you."
Xena cocked her head to one side, looking a trifle puzzled. "Anytime." She patted the bard on the shoulder, then drew a breath. "All right folks.. let’s go. This ain’t over." Eight of the horses had been kept, the rest had fled, besides Argo and Iolaus. "We’ll go out this way. " She pointed. "Circle around, and get past them, then make for the outposts."
"What if they follow us?" Gillen asked, shaking her gray streaked head to dislodge a scattering of ashes.
"Then we’ll fight them." The warrior replied. "Everyone all right?"
Low murmurs responded. There had been some minor burns, and one cut where a branch had fallen on top of one of the soldiers, but otherwise they’d escaped fairly unscathed. They got the remaining horses on their feet and started off, following Xena’s tall form through the smoldering trees.
They paused near the edge of the woods, as Xena held up a hand, and allowed the warrior to advance quietly, slipping through the smoky, burned foliage with careful steps. After a moment, her eyes confirmed what her ears and nose had already told her and she exhaled. "They’re burning the grass." She turned then pointed at a line of fire racing across the plain.
"Burning our cover." Gillen amended, coming up next to her. The Amazon Queen had scorch marks across one cheek, and was covered with smears of ashes and dirt. "They’ll expose the pits that way."
"Mm." Xena reviewed the group of enemy soldiers setting the blazes, then turned, and mounted Argo. "I think they need to be discouraged." She jerked her chin at the horses. "Those of you with rides, follow me. The rest of you, stay here."
"Maybe Queen Gabrielle should stay here." Gillen stated quickly, having been one of the ones who’d lost their horses. "You still look a little upset." This was to Gabrielle directly.
"No." Xena replied before the bard could even get enough air in her lungs to answer. "I want her with me." She dismissed the subject, gathering Argo’s reins in one hand and reaching over her back to loosen her sword in its sheath. "Let’s go."
Gabrielle pulled herself up on Iolaus and checked her staff, caught halfway between a guilty pleasure at her partner’s decision, and a mild irritation at not being part of the decision itself. Not that her choice would have been any different, and Xena knew that perfectly well, but…
One did like to be asked.
A finger caught the edge of her cloak, and she edge Iolaus up next to Argo. "You do wanna come, right?" Xena whispered.
"That’s not a serious question, is it?"
Gabrielle sat back, her ego fully satisfied now. "What are we going to do?"
Xena moved towards the edge of the woods, and re settled her boots carefully, lifting herself partway up out of her saddle and regarding the enemy with hooded eyes. The group doing the burning was small, touching the grasses alight with torches while several waited to one side holding their mounts. Even their small group, she reasoned, could easily take them and her palm itched, wanting to feel the pressure of her sword hilt against it. She let herself feel the seductive thrill, then drew a breath to order them forward.
She turned her head. Gabrielle was looking past her right shoulder, shading her eyes with one hand. "What?"
"Those rabbits are running towards the fire." The bard pointed. "Why?"
The warrior looked. "Everyone get back." She ordered quietly, signaling Argo to move in reverse. Moments later, she heard the soft thundering of hooves, and a group of soldiers rode around the edge of the burned forest, at least fifty strong, and headed across the back end of the burning grasses towards the pass the army had to come through.
They were almost clear, when one of the last outriders happened to turn his head and spot them.
"Oh boy." Xena clamped her legs down. "Get ready…. We’ll hold them off, and the rest of you take off through the woods and get out the other side."
"Xena, don’t be crazy." Gillen was loading her crossbow. "We can fight just fine on foot. We’ve been doing it for hundreds of years."
A shout rang out, and the group changed direction, heading straight for them. "No time to argue." Xena cursed, as she drew her sword. "C’mon!" She sent her battle yell ringing out over the grass, and kneed Argo into a gallop.
These were not casual soldiers, Xena realized, as she met the first of them and was almost unseated. The man hooked an arm into hers, and pulled, and it was only her powerful legs that kept her in Argo's saddle as she clamped down and signaled the mare, who lunged sideways and jerked her free of his grasp.
Her opponent had a light mace, and he used it to good advantage, alert, intelligent eyes flicking over her and aiming the blows towards her off side, away from the deflection of her sword.
He didn't expect her to switch hands, though, and she did, meeting the mace with her blade on a backswing and circling around him as they fought for position.
Around her, Xena was aware of her troops meeting the riders, and a mess of horses and mud and arrows that confused friend and foe equally. Her enemy swung again and caught her in the chest, and she absorbed the blow, then shifted her weight and freed a leg from a stirrup, lashing out sideways and nailing him in the side with a vicious kick.
That surprised him, enough to topple him from the saddle and send him to the mud, and Xena took advantage of that by slapping his horse on the rear and sending it plunging away.
She moved on to the next rider, who was hacking at an Amazon, and lifted her sword, bringing it down on his head and cleaving it like a coconut, then kicking him out of his saddle as well. "Watch out!" She yelled in Gabrielle's direction.
The bard was circling, having just finished a round with a tall, burly man on a big gray gelding. She nodded, then ducked his ax swing and swiveled her body, smacking him in the ribs with her staff, the impact rebounding and putting speed into her reverse which he just barely avoided as he lifted an arm to protect his head.
Xena kneed Argo forward, and got in the middle of three enemy soldiers, drawing their attack and edging a little away from the melee in the center of the plain. She caught a sword blow on her bracer, the metal ringing dully as she swept her own blade in under her raised arm, and cut into the man's armor, jerking her arm back to pull it out then plunging the tip of her sword through his leather overplate and into his heart.
That occupied both hands for a minute, and she felt something approaching. She pulled her sword free just in time to turn and meet a hurtling body, which slammed into her and sent them both tumbling off Argo to the mud.
Xena rolled once then got up and roundhouse kicked her opponent in the jaw, ducking by instinct as a mace came whistling by her head from the third, still mounted fighter. He didn't miss the second time, and she went with the blow on the backswing, hitting her in the side of the head as she dove into a somersault, coming back up onto her feet and blinking the painful stars from her eyes.
The man charged her, and she waited, catching her balance as he closed and lifted his weapon to cut her down, taking advantage of her momentary weakness. T
he world went a little hazy for a second, and Xena went to dive out of the way, but he realized her intention and shifted to meet her, a triumphant look on his face as he struck. Xena heard approaching hoofbeats, and felt a presence, then all of a sudden her enemy was just....
Disappeared off his horse after a sound like a melon splitting.
warrior rolled up standing again, and glanced around, then fixed her eyes on Iolaus' hindquarters, which were bunched up as the stallion was pulled up into a halt and turned.
Gabrielle half stood in her stirrups, her staff couched between her side and arm, it's end wavering just past her horse's head. "You okay?" The bard yelled.
"Yeah." Xena whistled, then pulled herself up on Argo as the mare thundered over. She checked her sword and finally found her opponent, who was lying senseless on the ground in a huddled ball. "What did you do to him?"
"Oh." Gabrielle smiled grimly, shifting her grasp on the staff. "This makes a great battering ram."
The warrior glanced at the tip of the staff, then at the soldier, then her eyebrow lifted, but she had no further time to consider the subject as a crowd of fighters bore down on them. "Thanks!" She saluted the bard with the tip of her now drawn sword and headed Argo straight for them, letting out a thunderous yell as she met the first wave, driving past them and slashing for all she was worth.
"You're welcome." Gabrielle muttered as she followed, glad of the straps which held her firmly to her seat. She chased after Argo's mud spattered tail and rammed another rider, then pulled up and shorted her grip, using the staff sideways to batter a crossbowman in the side, sending his aim wild and missing a dodging Amazon.
Xena had just scared her half to death. She was still shaking inside, from her headlong, frantic rush to intercept the attack on her partner, which had, by only a split tail hair from Argo's butt been in time.
She let her instincts take over momentarily, parrying a soldier's sword as she kept one eye on Argo's rider, who was busy crossing blades with a man at least a half a foot taller and twice as heavy as she was.
The warrior seemed none the worse for wear, and she could see the smile starting to edge across Xena's mud spattered face as she fought, half her body lifting up out of Argo's saddle as she twisted in a powerful sweep, her blade and his hissing and crashing in a rapid exchange of strokes.
Then she couldn't see Xena anymore and she felt her heart speed up, as she angled away from the crowd of horses suddenly in front of her. They crowded her back, and she turned Iolaus, trying to circle around them. The line surged as she moved, and kept between her and her partner, and Gabrielle realized with a cold shock that she was being herded deliberately.
Then she saw the net. "Son of a BACCHAE!!!" She yelled in alarm, clapping both hands on Iolaus' neck and tucking her staff under her arm. "Go!" She turned the stallion's head and kicked him with both heels, sending him careening away from the crowd with his ears pinned back to his golden head.
A yell, then a thunder of hooves after her, and she knew she was in trouble. Some instinct told her to duck, and she did, as an arrow hissed over her shoulder, landing in the dirt Iolaus passed quickly by.
"Oh boy." She molded herself to the stallion's back and urged him faster, angling in a line directly away from the attackers and towards the woods that held their outposts. She had two advantages, one, that Iolaus was young, and fast, and two, that she was lighter by far than most of her followers.
The golden horse sped through the grass, ears back, head down, catching Gabrielle's urgency as she gripped the reins near his neck, and tried to move with him like Xena had taught her. She glanced to her right and saw one soldier closing on her, spurring his horse unmercifully until she could see the blood running down the big animal's flanks.
He had the net, and something else that looked like a blow tube, and she thought fast, trying to come up with something as he came within reach of her and readied himself.
Well, her staff was on that side, but there wasn't' any way to swing it but.... The bard wrenched her head around, and desperately estimated angles, then wrapped the reins about one hand and sat up abruptly, hauling Iolaus to a stop and clutching her staff with a tight, deathlike grip.
There was no way for him to stop, even though he tried. His throat took the impact of the end of her staff, almost knocking her right over Iolaus's head, and his horse crashed into the stallion, who stumbled to one side, and screamed in anger.
Gabrielle didn't wait to see what happened. She kicked Iolaus forward and resumed her flight, her eyes straining forward to see what her imagination persisted in painting as another group of horses coming right at her.
A heavy body caught her from behind, and she lost her grip on her staff, grabbing frantically at the saddlehorn as a burly soldier wrapped his arms around her and tried to pull her off her horse, not realizing she was strapped down. He hurtled off the other side and dragged her with him, pulling Iolaus over as well, and they tumbled the earth helplessly, with Gabrielle half trapped under her frightened mount.
"Damn bitch!" The man roared, yanking a knife from his belt and coming at her. "I don't' care what that bastard said, I'm going to carve your heart out for that!" He landed on her, and lifted the blade.
Gabrielle could barely move, and as she looked up at him, saw her death waiting patiently to one side. She met the soldier's eyes with calm deliberation, lifting her chin a little as she listened, hoping for the sound of help coming at her.
Yells, she heard, and a soft drumming, but her instincts told her it wasn't going to be soon enough, even with the faint hesitation her brave look had earned her from her attacker.
It would hurt, she knew, as the knife blade started to descend in a weird, almost slow motion. But maybe not for long. She closed her eyes, and concentrated on something more important, gathering up as much of the love she felt as she could and projecting it towards her soulmate.
Then the air sliced over her, and the blow that should have been sharp, and painful was a dull thud on her chest, spattering something warm, and coppery all over her face. She opened her eyes, and found the soldier collapsed over her, his hand ending in a bloody, spurting stump laying on her chest, and the hilts of two knives emerging from his lifeless body.
Death shrugged, and walked away, leaving her to take in a deep breath as she was surrounded by friendly, frightened faces and familiar hands touched her face.
"Don't' move." Xena's voice was hoarse, and so strained Gabrielle almost didn't recognize it.
"I don't think I can." She answered softly.
"They retreated... saw the Amazons coming." Xena told her, as hands lifted the dead soldier off her body. The warrior cut the straps holding her to Iolaus off and coaxed the horse up, as the Amazon rescue party came thundering across the grass, circling them protectively.
Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief, and closed her eyes as Xena's hands felt all along her body anxiously, checking for injuries. "I think I just got the wind knocked out of me." She told her partner, as she cautiously moved her hands and toes.
Nearby, she could hear the sound of the flames in the grass, and she turned her head to look. "We'd better get out of here." She started to sit up, but Xena forestalled her, picking her up and cradling her and getting to her feet from her kneeling position.
"Xena, put me down." She murmured, a little embarrassed under all those eyes.
"No." The warrior stubbornly refused. "Let's get back to the outpost, all of you." She moved towards the patiently waiting Argo.
"Xena... honey, it's okay. Put me down." The bard coaxed softly. "I can ride... no sense in.."
"No." A flat, definite word.
Gabrielle put a hand down on the warrior's chest and took a breath to continue the argument, then stopped as she felt the pounding heartbeat under her hand. She looked up, and saw the her partner was a pale, ghostly white color under her coating of mud, and a second touch felt the rapid, short breaths jerking Xena's body with every step.
Somehow, the last few strides towards the mare lengthened, and she felt Xena's body coil under her hands, then release, a wash of air across her and a dizzying movement of the sky ending in a solid thump, and impact, and they were both on Argo's back, with the warrior's legs clamping down over the horse's sides as she balanced the double weight.
Gabrielle put her arms around Xena's neck and laid her head down on the warrior's shoulder, feeling the grip on her tighten convulsively. "It's okay." She whispered, willing the rapid beat under her ear to slow. "It's okay, Xena."
The warrior swallowed a few times as they moved off, the horseless Amazons capturing some of their dead enemies mounts and riding with them. Three of their raiding party woudn't need them, however, having fallen to the enemy attack. Their bodies were being ported back, a silent, cloth wrapped reminder of haunting possibilities.
"What about the fire?" Gillen pointed, as the wind shifted and whipped the flames through the grass.
For an answer, Xena jerked her chin towards the sky, where dark clouds were gathering. A soft roll of thunder echoed eerily as though in answer, as they started off.
"You okay, Xena?" Eponin rode closer, the only one daring to approach the silent warrior.
For a very long moment, there was no answer. Then Xena turned her head slightly. "Fine, thanks." She responded horsely. "You guys did a great job."
"Us guys had a remarkable example to follow." Pony responded, glancing at Gabrielle. "A pair of them, as a matter of fact."
Xena just nodded, hugging the bard a little more closely.
"Those last fighters were pretty good." Pony continued gamely.
"Horse raiders... hired." Xena answered shortly. "If we're lucky, he doesn't' have many of them. If he does, it could be trouble."
Gabrielle felt the rigid body under her start to finally relax, as Xena's heart slowed, and her breathing became deeper, and more regular. She released one hand from around her partner's neck and slid it down Xena's side, stroking her gently through the tough leather armor. At last, the angular face tilted, and haunted blue eyes met hers. "That was too close." Xena told her, very seriously.
The bard simply nodded. "For both of us."
Xena's turn to nod.
Gabrielle waited a few more minutes. "You want to let me at least ride in front of you?"
Reluctantly, Xena's grip loosened, and she helped Gabrielle swing a leg over Argo's neck and settle into place in the saddle. "Sorry.. I just... "
Gabrielle took the now slack hands resting on her thighs and pulled them around her, hugging them to her body. "I know." She murmured.
They walked in silence, as the first raindrops pattered around them, bringing the smell of damp earth and moisture up from their horse's hooves.
"Are we going back to the river tonight?"
Xena thought in silence. "I'm going to give orders for the outpost groups, then yes. We're going back to the river."
Gabrielle blinked against the rain. "Can we go see Dori?" The wind kicked up, brushing grass against their legs.
Xena watched a bird, trying desperately to make headway against it give up, and start flying in the other direction. "Sure." She rested her chin on the bard's shoulder, and exhaled, allowing the tight knot her soul was tied in to loosen just a trifle.
The rain turned the fire behind them to a roil of smoke, and flattened the leaves in the nearby trees, as they made their way home.
Gabrielle made her way across the puddled ground towards the supply tent, pulling her hood around her head to try and keep out the persistent rain. She was tired, and very grumpy, everything hurt, and she was sick to gods be damned tired of this blessed…
Patience. Patience Patience….deep breath. Relax, turn. "Hi." Gabrielle paused, and issued Gillen a smile. "What can I do for you?"
The older Amazon cleared her throat, appearing slightly embarrassed. "Actually… is there anything I can do for you? We've got things settled, and there are runners going out to check the outposts… I know it's been a tough day."
Time for snowball fights in Tartarus. "Ah… thank you, Gillen.. I really appreciate the offer. I'm just going to get cleaned up, then Xena has a list of things she said she wanted to go through." Her partner had gotten quieter and quieter on the ride home, ending the trail in a closed, silent mood that even closed out her soulmate. "We don't have much time… she figures the advance scouts will be in the area by the morning."
"I know." Gillen ran fingers through her salt and pepper hair. "Listen… if you want, I could go and get that list… it's butting in, I know, Gabrielle, but you both look like you could use a little down time."
Gods, how that must be showing. Gabrielle sucked in a breath. "You could try that." She murmured. "Thanks."
Gillen patted her arm, and slipped past, into the rain as she headed towards the command tent. Gabrielle managed a little smile before she continued on her way, ducking under the flap of the supply tent and stopping short at a very familiar voice. "Mom?"
Cyrene was standing there, swaddled in her heavy cloak, hands on her hips. "Hey, cutie pie. I've got a friend over there who'd love to see you."
"Mama!!!!" The squeal was so welcome, it was painful. Gabrielle headed for it, scooping up Dori as she toddled over, her arms held out wide in delight. She snuggled the baby close, and breathed in her scent, as Dori wriggled in happiness, pulling her hair and giving her sloppy, baby kisses.
"Mama." Dori gurgled. "Mama.. mama… good!"
"It's good to see you too." Gabrielle stroked her head, then cradled her. "Oh my gosh…what a pretty outfit.. where did you get this?"
"Your mother made it for her." Cyrene spoke quietly. "Between the two of us, we've managed not to let her wreck the place."
"Oh." Gabrielle ran a finger over the delicate embroidery. "Wow."
Cyrene motioned to the man she'd been talking to, and he slipped outside, leaving them alone. The older woman crossed to the younger, and put a hand on her arm. "You okay, cutie?"
Gabrielle simply looked at her. "It's been a rotten day." She admitted, watching Dori tug industriously at her armor clasp. "We lost some people… and we had to fight… a lot… Xena's leg's still pretty bad… "
Cyrene put an arm around her. "I figured we were getting pretty close to the bad stuff." She told the bard. "I made the decision to bring everyone from the town up here.. who hasn't already gone to the caves." She paused. "Your mother's here."
Gabrielle blinked in surprise.
"Lila and the baby went to the caves… Lennat is with the supply group." Cyrene rubbed her back. "But Hecuba decided she wanted to come with us… do what she could to help."
"I'll have to thank her." The bard murmured. "I came over to get something to eat… Xena hasn't had anything all day, and that's not helping." She rocked Dori, who warbled at her. "This'll help though.. we were going to come down to see you tonight."
"Mama?" The tiny green eyes peered adoringly up at her, and Dori smiled.
"Hey honey… I know someone who'll be so glad to see you." Gabrielle whispered to her. "Guess who that is?"
Dori sucked a finger, then pointed at her. "Boo!" She announced. "Go Boo!"
"That's right.. good girl." A weary smile appeared. "Have you been behaving for grandma?"
"Eh." Cyrene forced a chuckle, as she rummaged in the storage bins. "She's actually been pretty good… for her." A eye went to the squirming baby. "She's sensitive.. she knows something's wrong, I think, and she misses you two terribly. I .." The innkeeper hesitated. "I found her hugging that little doll Xena gave her and crying yesterday."
Gabrielle studied the tiny face seriously, tracing it's outline with gentle fingers. "I'm glad you brought her." She replied. "I've missed my little scamp too." The bard looked up. "Let me go take her over to our tent…she might be better than food at this point."
Cyrene gave her a worried look. "Here… take this too. I'm going to see what I can do here… and I'll come over later to say hello."
"Gabu, mama…go bck." Dori advised her seriously, a bitty pucker in her small brow.
"Absolutely, honey." Her mother assured her, giving her a kiss on the head. "C'mon." She gave Cyrene a one armed hug, then took the basket the woman was holding and exited the tent, feeling half her weight as she headed across the rain soaked ground.
Their tent was quiet as she got there, and she paused, before she ducked her head under the flap, giving the sentry outside a brief smile. Inside, she let her eyes adjust for a minute before glancing over to the brazier, where a dark form was sprawled motionless in a chair nearby. "Hey."
For a long moment, there was no reaction.
"Boo!" Dori had spotted her.
Now the dark head jerked, and Xena turned, gazing through the flickering light in startled surprise. "Dori?"
Gabrielle smiled at this first sign of true life since the morning. "Mom's here." She crossed to her partner, trying to keep hold of her wildly wiggling child. "Dori.. you're going to fall.. now cut that out… argh." She managed to get the baby into Xena's hands before she lost her grip and watched, with quiet satisfaction, as the light and life came back into her partner's face.
Xena had stripped down to just her leathers, and she hugged the baby to her. "Hey, kiddo…"
"Boobooboobooboobooboo." Dori squealed, making her parent wince at the volume. She cliimbed up the warrior and threw her arms around Xena's neck, giving her an enthusiastic kiss. "Good!"
Gabrielle perched on the chair arm, letting her hand rest on the warrior's shoulder, and simply watching. Xena's tactiurn demeanor relaxed, now allowing the weariness to show plainly beneath the control she'd been tightly holding. "I sure was glad to see her."
"Mama?" Dori looked up inquisitively. "Cookie?"
Both her parents eye's widened at the same time, and the bard managed a half strangled laugh. "Oh… no…."
A small chuckle escaped her partner as well. "Thanks, mother." Xena mentioned softly, letting out a breath as she leaned her head against Gabrielle's hip, wordlessly seeking comfort, and receiving it in the form of a draped arm, and nuzzling in her hair.
"She's a little miracle worker." The bard murmured, indicating their restlessly exploring child. "She got you talking, at least."
Xena glanced up at her, and their eyes met. "I've been fighting with myself the whole day, Gabrielle… I don't know if I can go through with this."
The bard felt the shock course thorugh her. "Not g…" She looked around them in pure reflex. "Xena…"
The warrior sighed, looking for a moment very un warriorlike and perplexed. "I realized something about myself today." She gazed at Dori, who was trying to unbuckle her leathers, a serious expression on the tiny face. "I'm afraid of dying." Her eyes lifted to the bard's face. "I'm afraid of you dying."
Gabrielle blinked. "Xena… this is a war… everybody's afraid of that." She whispered. "I certainly am, and always will be."
A slow, definite shake of the head. "I never have been before." Xena replied. "It's how I do what I do… it's how I go all out, the way I do. I never cared about the consequences." She paused. "Now… I'm so scared… I can hardly think about what's going to happen tomorrow. " Another head shake. "I don't know if I can do it."
The bard was truly at a loss. She sat quietly, running her fingers through her partner's hair, deep in thought. "You once told me." She carefully felt her way. "That fear was a good thing… it kept you focused." She watched the sharp profile. "Are you saying it's never affected you before?"
"Not like this." A breath. "Not freezing me in my tracks, and almost costing you your life like it did today."
Gabrielle stifled a shiver. "But it didn't. You got there in time."
"I almost didn't."
"Almost never counts." The bard recited. "You either do it, or you don't." She put a hand under Xena's chin and tilted her face up. "Someone once told me that."
Xena rubbed her eyes. "There are no good choices, Gabrielle… I could ask you to stay here, and something could happen. I could let you fight at my side, and something could happen." A helpless lift of the hand. "I don’t know what to do."
Gabrielle didn't know what to do either. She doubted even Artemis would have any useful suggestions in this case, since so much of the problem was wrapped up in Xena's own mind, and in the history between them. Finally, she sighed. "Xena?"
The warrior had been playing idly with their daughter, making mindless noises at her. Now she looked up. "Mm?"
"We have to do this." She told her partner. "The lives, and the fates of all these people here are counting on it…and there's nothing that can change that at this point." Gabrielle laced her fingers with Xena's. "Whatever happens…. You, and I will get through this together, one way or the other."
"We will find a way." The bard interrupted her, speaking forcefully. "There is no other option." She watched Xena look away, a look of painful confusion on her face. "Xena." Gabrielle gentled her voice, and recaptured the warrior's jaw, coaxing a reluctant eye contact back. "Think about this a minute…maybe the reason you weren't afraid to die before was because you didn't really have any reason to live/"
Xena went still, and her head cocked just slightly to one side as she absorbed the idea. Her eyes unfocused, then, after several moments of silence, cleared and fastened back on her face. "Now I do." She murmured, almost under her breath.
"Now you do." Gabrielle confirmed. "Let that work for you, Xena… take strength from it, instead of thinking of it as a weakness." She could see the idea working it's way through in a fascinating wave of subtle body shifts and tensing muscles that ended with lips twitching into a smile, and blue eyes once more holding their quiet glint as they gazed at her.
"It's worth a try." But there was peace in that voice. "Something to think about, anyway."
"Boo!" Dori, having tired of listening to this drama, decided to focus the attention of her parents on herself. "Gogogogogo." She had both small hands wrapped around Xena's leather straps, and was tugging them fiercely, only the strong material's tough stitching keeping the warrior's clothing on.
"Hey." Xena relaxed, grabbing the baby's hands. "Where do you want to go, short stuff?"
Dori giggled, then jumped up and down on the warrior's thighs. "Boo!"
The warrior winced. "Oof."
"Dori… easy honey." Gabrielle caught her daughter and lifted her up. "Boo's got an owie there… c'mon now, let go." She pried the tiny fingers off the leathers. "Sorry, Xe."
"It's okay." Xena caught one of Dori's flailing feet and held it, examining the little bootie covering the toes. "Where'd she get this stuff?"
Lifted eyebrow. "Nice."
The small talk relaxed the tension in Gabrielle's guts, and she exhaled, fighting off a wave of exhaustion with difficulty. Xena had once told her that dealing with emotions was far more tiring than fighting all day, and right now, she could readily believe it. "How about we all sit down over there on the rug, and have some lunch… how's that?"
Xena pushed herself out of her chair and limped over to the brazier, settling down on the bearskin rug with a tired sigh. She took Dori from Gabrielle, and sat her down between her outstretched legs, pushing aside her doubts and letting her mind clear for the time being.
"You want me to change this?" The bard touched the bandage around her partner's thigh, as she set the basket down next to them.
"After lunch." Xena mumbled, letting Dori hold both of her thumbs, and swaying her back and forth. "It's bearable right now."
"Oo." Dori had spotted the basket, and now she toddled over and gripped the sides, almost overbalancing and ending up head first inside it. "Mm." A finger pointed. "Cookie!" She leaned over and made a grab for a packet.
"Ah ah ah!" Gabrielle warned her. "That's not a cookie.. that's nutbread, and you'll have to fight me for it." She snatched it away and held it up over her head.
Dori pouted, looking at her in outrage. "Mama!" She toddled around the basket and started to climb over the bard's leg, reaching up towards the bundle. "Ma…ma….. ma…"
"C'mon, Dori.. I bet you had lunch already." Her mother protested. "This is my lunch… and I"ve had a rough day!"
Dori sat down abruptly, and poked her lower lip out sadly.
A tiny sigh.
Gabrielle lowered the package and broke a corner off. "Oh, all right." She handed it over, and watched the toddler cram it in her mouth gleefully. "Wench." She glanced up. "What are you smirking at?"
Xena had her hands folded in her lap, as she watched in silence. "Me?" The warrior answered. "I’m not smirking."
"I’m taking notes."
Gabrielle peered over at her, to find a larger, sexier version of Dori's pout in evidence. "Oh gods." The bard moaned. "I'll never get any nutbread at this rate." She threw a piece at her partner, who caught it in neat, white teeth. "Doesn't anyone want sliced venison?"
Xena chuckled, and accepted a waybread sandwich, leaning back against the tent's center pole and munching it while Gabrielle shared her lunch with their ravenous offspring. The headache that had plagued her all day faded slowly as she relaxed, and she was content to take the moment as it was, enjoying the presence of her family, and the spicy, distinctive taste of her mother's venison.
Dori decided to try another victim, and left her mother's side, trailing a series of breadcrumbs across the furs as she ambled up to where Xena was sitting, reaching up and grasping the edge of the warrior's leathers where they curved over her breasts and trying to haul herself up that way.
Gabrielle almost snorted a berry.
"No doubt whose daughter SHE is." Xena remarked dryly. "Here, shorty." She offered Dori a bit of meat.
"Like that, huh?"
"Good." Dori resumed her climbing attempt. "Bck."
Xena leaned back a little, making it a much easier slope, and watched in wry amusement as the baby sprawled on top of her and grunted happily. "Nope. No doubt at all." She curled an arm over Dori and exhaled. "She even grunts like you do."
"Hm." Gabrielle had put away the basket, and now she crawled closer, with her healer's kit. "What a great maternal trait for me to have given her." She sat down and started the task carefully, cutting away the bloodstained and dirty bandage. "Dori…. You hug your Boo real tight now, okay? So she'll feel better."
"B..b..b..ooo." Dori repeated.
Xena looked away, accepting the pain and letting it go past her as she listened to the rapid patter of rain on the tent's roof. That would act in their favor, making it difficult for Andreas to move his army, and giving her, personally, a chance to rest and heal a little before the coming battle. Tomorrow, she figured, around sundown Andreas should be within striking range. Whether he continued on and started the fight, or left it for the dawn….
Well, no sense in worrying about it. The camp was as ready as it could be, the attack parties were out, the pits were dug, supplies were laid in… Bennu had done a good job while they were gone, and all that now remained was…
To wait, and listen to the rain, and enjoy the feel of Dori's tiny heartbeat against her palm. To turn her head and drink in Gabrielle's serious profile, tracing the clean, even lines over and over again as the bard worked in the low light.
Gabrielle was right, she acknowledged silently. There were no longer any options. She curled her other arm around the bard's waist, and was rewarded with a quick flash of warm green eyes, which twinkled at her, then disappeared again as Gabrielle resumed her task.
Reasons to live. Xena looked down as Dori burped, then hiccuped, her eyes drooping shut, bringing a smile to the warrior's face.
Something to think about.
It was very quiet, in this waiting time before the dawn. A gentle fog spread through the camp, dampening fabric with it's passing, and stilling all but the sharpest noises. On the ramparts, the watch crouched silently, wrapped in heavy, waxed cloaks to keep out the cold wind, and the clusters of tents housing the troops were peaceful, where tired bodies were drinking in what rest they could before the coming day.
Through the mist, a dark, cloaked figure walked, the slow, powerful stride sending wavelets of fog rolling to either side, dimly seen in the fluttering torchlight that lined the paths inside the camp. The watch near the river bridge noted the coming presence and straightened to attention, lifting a fist in salute that was answered by a casual wave.
The fog obscured the wooden bridge, but the sound of heavy boots sounded on the planks as the figure crossed the river, disappearing halfway across from the sight of the watch as it headed away from the camp.
Xena stepped off the end of the bridge, and onto the soil of the lands around Amphipolis. She paused, looking around her, then continued on down the silent road. She reached the fork, which on one hand lead up to her home town, and on the other down the riverside towards an eventual rendevous with what used to be Potadeia, a day and a half's walk away.
She walked alone, wrapped in her cloak and her memories, as the town gates appeared, closed and silent. She went up and pushed one open, slipping inside and closing it behind her, then leaning against it as she studied the barely moonlit shadows surrounding familiar buildings.
Xena exhaled, and walked slowly through it, the gravel and rocks underfoot crunching as her boots hit them. She mounted the steps to the inn, and walked inside, letting her eyes scan the quiet interior, every table scraped and empty, chairs put neatly against the walls. She continued on into the kitchen, which was bare of everything useful, it's fires cold and dead.
She pushed the kitchen door open, listening to the creak of it's hammered iron hinges, then went through and crossed the small garden her mother jealously guarded, now gray and empty, it's beds dug up and harvested in their entirety for use in the fight.
Xena sighed, then continued on her way, passing buildings older than she was, and some so new she'd barked knuckles in their building. She walked past the well, and the barn, then paused and went back, sticking her head in the large structure and sparing a wistful smile for it's sturdy interior. Her eyes lifted for an instant to the overhead rafters, not needing any light to see the names engraved in one of them. She closed the door and went on, her feet finding the path to her own home without any conscious direction from her.
She didn't spend much time there, just a moment, taking in the smell,and the sights of the small room and storing them away. Then she left the cabin, closing the door firmly behind her before she walked down a small, neatly stone lined path towards her actual objective.
It wasn't a big place. Just a stone doorway carved into the curve of a sloping hill, with an iron gate she unlocked and pulled open. A set of stone stairs led downward, and she took them, running her fingertips along the wall and feeling it's winter borne chill. She paused at the bottom of the steps, and lit the torch sitting in it's sconce just inside.
The smell of oil mixed with the musty, damp scent of the stone in the crypt as she walked forward, to lay her hands on the stone sepulcher that housed her brother Lyceus' bones.
"So." Xena's voice sounded odd, even to her own ears, echoing slightly off the crypt's walls. 'Here we are again, Ly.. back where it all started." She straightened, and turned her back on the coffin, roaming about the chamber, and touching the niches there for future occupants. "I.. was almost here with you, Ly." She laid her hand flat on the stone. "I wonder if mom would have let me lie here, when I came back the first time, if Gabrielle hadn't followed me…. You think?"
Xena sat down on the slab. "I don't think she would have, Ly. I think they'd have just left me out in the woods… give the wolves something to chew on other than one of the calves." She rested her elbows on her knees. "Now they're asking me to lead them again. Weird how that worked out, isn't it?" She studied her hands, clasped loosely in front of her. "I'm glad you never lived long enough to see what I became."
She got up and went to the coffin, gazing down at it's graven surface. "But I wish you were here now."
Xena remained silent for a moment, leaning on the stone in quiet reflection. "Wish me luck, Ly." She finally whispered, before leaning over and pressing her lips on the stone. Then she straightened up and walked slowly out of the crypt, dousing the torch before climbing up the stone, close fitting stones and shutting the iron gate.
Dawn was closing in on her, Xena realized, as she leaned against the cold metal and looked out at the faintly graying sky. With a sigh, she pushed off from the gate and continued up the now rocky path, walking between thick, old growth trees covered in moss. The fog scattered before her boots, and the wind rustled the crisp, drying leaves over her head and dropped the odd one onto her shoulders. Her leg was painful, but she just put that out of her mind and refused to limp, putting pressure on the limb to take it's full share of her weight as she knew it would have to do in the battle coming very, very soon.
The path lead upward, and she leaned forward as she walked, pulling her cloak more closely around her as the dew settled on it, weighing it down with moisture.
Finally, she broke out into a familiar plateau, where the forest thinned and sloped to a rocky spring, with it's tiny, gurgling waterfall She climbed up onto the rocks and sat down, regarding the water with pensive eyes. "Well." She unhooked her cloak and folded it neatly, setting it to one side and leaving her in just a light linen tunic and her boots. She'd always had a personal habit, before any big battle, and it didn't seem the time to be changing that. Arranging for a heated bath just wasn't an option, not this morning, not when everyone was scrambling to get things organized, but here, she had a nice, big bathtub.
Unfortunately, it was bone chillingly cold, but… Xena propped one boot up and started unlacing it. She tugged it off, along with it's sock, then did the other. Then she stood up and loosened the belt on her tunic, stripping it off and exposing her skin to the damp, cold air.
A deep breath, then she took a step and dove into the spring, her whole body jerking in shocked reaction to the icy temperature. She surfaced with a gasp, and sucked air hard into her lungs, the shivers racking her as her body tried to adapt itself to it's new environment.
Long experience made her force herself into motion, swimming back and forth across the spring with powerful strokes until her heart started pumping warm blood through her, and the biting cold receded, going from unbearable to merely uncomfortable after a few minutes.
Okay. Xena angled back over to where she'd entered the spring and retrieved the bar of soap, then started scrubbing herself all over.
This odd penchant of hers for entering a battle clean, her body scoured of the dirt and sweat that would surely cover every inch of her before the fight was in it's infancy. Xena carefully cleaned her hands, then scrubbed the skin of her forearms and shoulders, raising an herbal scented lather as she washed the back of her neck, then her face, leaning over to rinse the soap from her eyes.
She lathered up a double handful of the soap then and scrubbed her long, dark hair, then rubbed the soap down her body, lifting herself up out of the water to cut free the bandage around her leg, and allowing the water to rinse the ugly wound as she carefully cleaned it.
Ow. Xena sighed, as she lowered her leg back into the water and watched the newly bleeding gash stain the clear liquid. The skin around the cut was swollen and painful to the touch, but the pain eased a bit as the cold water rippled over it.
One more lather over her body, then she sloshed over to the tiny waterfall, a sturdy trickling over the granite that filled the spring, and was the actual headwater of it. She stood under the flow, letting the pristine water wash over her.
Despite the chill, it felt wonderful, the gentle pressure of the water thrumming against her shoulders, drenching her in it's clean, sharp scent. She opened her mouth and drank some, tasting the unique combination of minerals that also filled their well water, and meant home to her in a way few other things did, here in this spring she'd known from childhood.
Xena leaned her head against the rock, and remembered teaching Lyceus to swim here, holding onto his small body as he kicked and spluttered, never as at home in the water as she had been.
As Dori was, who had learned in this very same pool in the summer's heat, her small head breasting the surface as she churned determinedly with tiny arms and legs.
Xena smiled, and drank another mouthful, then opened her eyes and regarded the granite surface, carved over the years into the smooth slopes and rounded curves by the relentless surge of the water.
She ran a thumb over the rock, marveling at how it's impenetrable hardness could be shaped by something as soft and malleable as the spring into the image the spring needed to complete it's course. The rock never really had a chance, she mused. The water was in charge, changing the granite and molding it to it's will. Xena examined that thought.
Like life shapes us, sometimes.
Rosy gray light filtered through the leaves, picking up glints from the water. Xena slowly lowered her eyes, to the patch of fractured glitter on the surface that held her image, in a thousand different ripples. She took a step back, and turned, to a calmer part of the spring, and studied the form reflected back at her in the dawn's light.
A tall, feral figure looked back, naked and wet, it's mane of dark hair straggled around a stern face, and framing cold, remote blue eyes. The body was long, and lean, the muscles firm and evident, with powerful legs and wide, sinewy shoulders that led down to thickly corded wrists and strong hands.
A scattering of scars, in a spider's trace across tanned skin, and the one, tiny bit of warm color, her new tattoo gracing the soft slope of her left breast.
What has life shaped you for, Xena? The images lips twitched. A poet? A merchant? Xena laughed silently at herself, as she spread her arms into the growing light of dawn. No.
Accept what you see. She met the blue eyes in the reflection. Accept what you are.
Be the warrior this army needs to lead it to victory.
Xena let the first rays bathe her, and turned her face into the dawn breeze as she stood there half submerged in the spring. Then she drew in a deep breath, and released it, before she walked to the edge of the spring and pulled herself up and out of the water, shaking her body vigorously, then slipping on her linen tunic and belting it. A moment more to pull on her socks and boots, and she was heading back down the path towards the river at a walk that became a long, loping stride, and then a full out run as the sun rose up and painted the sky with a new dawn.
"Mama." Dori slapped both hands into the water basin, and effectively doused her beloved parent.
"Mm.." Gabrielle wiped the water and hair out of her eyes. "Thanks, honey… now hold still."
"No." Dori squirmed around, trying very hard to swim in her bath. "Bck!" She splashed Gabrielle again, giggling furiously when her mother yelped.
"C’mon, sweetie.. I already had my bath." The bard coaxed. "You better be good, or I’ll tell Boo on you." She warned, jokingly, getting a suddenly wide eyed infant sitting still looking back at her. "Boo wont’ take you flying if you’re not good.. remember?"
"Boo." Dori picked up one of her toys, which was floating in the water and chewed on it, keeping obediently still for Gabrielle as she washed the baby’s soft skin.
"What a good girl." Gabrielle leaned over and kissed her head.
"Bck." Dori reached up and grabbed a lock of the fair hair hanging so invitingly close, pulling on it with a determined look on her face. "Good!"
"Ow." Gabrielle got the tiny fingers loose. "Honey, that hurts." She pushed her hair back behind her ears and finished scrubbing her daughter. "How do you get so dirty? You’re just like Boo, you know that? You attract mud like a dog attracts fleas."
"Growf." Ares’ ears pricked up. He had arrived a few minutes earlier, causing a ruckus when Dori spotted him and scrambled out of her cradle to go catch and greet her furry playmate.
"Boobooboobooboo…" Dori warbled in response, hopping a little in the water and sending it splashing against the sides of her little basin. "Boo!" A tiny hand pointed imperiously.
"Oh… let me guess." Gabrielle had already sensed the presence behind her. "That couldn’t be your Boo, now could it?"
"It could." Xena’s low voice answered, as the warrior padded over, unclasping her cloak. She dabbled a finger in the bath water and splashed her soulmate a little.
Gabrielle scowled. "Now I know where she gets it from." She glanced up, then turned and eyed her partner for a long moment. "You’re all wet." She finally murmured, taking in the aura of edgy energy she could almost feel pouring from Xena’s restlessly moving form.
"I got cleaned up." Xena replied, turning towards their box of supplies and removing her cloak, then stripping off her damp tunic.
Gabrielle gazed at the naked form pensively. "Y’know, honey.. I’m sure they’d have brought you some warm water if you’d asked." She commented, going back to her task. "Must have been freezing in the river."
"Didn’t go to the river." The warrior replied, removing the components to her armor, and setting them down carefully. "I went to our spring."
"Ugh." Gabrielle winced. "That’s worse.. it’s bone chilling even in summer." She pulled Dori out of the water and into a large piece of soft linen, drying the giggling baby off as she squirmed around. "Hey.. stop that, Dori.. you’re gonna fall."
"Wasn’t too bad." Xena settled the padded undergarment she wore beneath her leathers over her head, and smoothed the edges down. "I just wanted a few minutes to think… I took a walk through town." She turned finally, and met Gabrielle’s questioning eyes. "Visited Lyceus."
The bard’s lips tightened in understanding, as she got Dori into one of her heavier playsuits. She put the baby down, and watched her make a beeline for Ares curled body. "Dori… be nice."
"Urgle." Dori reached her objective and flopped down on top of the startled wolf. "Ruff!"
Ares whined, and gave Gabrielle a pathetic look as his ears were pulled.
"Sorry, Ares." The bard chuckled. "Hey… " She turned her attention back to her partner. "Let me put a bandage on for you." She came closer and dropped to one knee, reaching for the kit resting near the box. "Mm… looks a lot better, honey."
Xena glanced down in surprise, blinking at the now mostly closed wound, the swelling gone and the skin returned to it’s normal color. "Yeah…"
Gabrielle patted her leg. "Just took a little time for the magic to kick in, I guess." She smeared some of the clensing salve on the remaining opening, and wrapped a neat bandage around it, before leaning forward and kissing the skin lightly, with a sense of relief. "You must feel better… gods that must have been killing you."
Xena regarded the wound in silence. "It was." She replied finally, in a thoughtful voice. "Maybe more than I realized." Her fingers lightly touched the skin over the white bandage.
"What do you mean?" The bard asked, standing up and putting a hesitant hand against her partner’s stomach. She studied the angular face over her, and tried to pinpoint the difference she could feel, that was at once strange and very familiar.
Xena turned, and picked up her black leathers, stepping into them and pulling them up, tugging the fit straight and adjusting the shoulder straps. "I figured out I’d never be able to fight Andreas if I didn’t stop fighting myself first."
Gabrielle adjusted the back piece to the leathers and fastened the side buckle as she considered the words. "I know you’ve had some second thoughts." She went around to the other side and worked that buckle as well. "And some doubts."
"Mm." Xena fastened her thigh protectors to her upper leathers, and strapped them down, then settled her leg armor in place over her knees and boots. "But I can’t have either of those if I’m to succeed at this, Gabrielle." She turned, and reached for a bracer, facing her partner. "That means making peace with that very dark part of me that I’ve been struggling with the last month."
The bard started lacing. "Accepting it, you mean."
Gabrielle looked up into the shadowed eyes, where a now familiar fire burned. "And you have."
Another nod. "I need it, Gabrielle. It’s what makes me what I am."
Gabrielle smiled, just a little, and patted the leatherclad surface in front of her. "Xena…I know that. I’ve always known that." She collected her thoughts. "Sometimes I think you try to pretend otherwise, because you think that part of you will drive us apart from each other."
"No." The bard’s voice was very serious. "Lies and fear drove us apart." A breath. "Love and believing in each other knitted us back together."
Xena straightened her other bracer and reached for her brass armor, lifting it over her head and settling it onto her shoulders. She worked the extra arm guards into place, and lifted an elbow so Gabrielle could get at the buckle on that side. "I guess that’s true." She acknowledged softly. "Even in the worst of it."
Gabrielle nodded. "Especially in the worst of it." She patted Xena on the side. "I’m going to go grab us some breakfast, then get into my gear… Keep an eye on Dori for a minute, will you?"
"Sure." A faint hint of amusement showed. "Give me the hard stuff to do." She ruffled Gabrielle’s hair. "Get me double of whatever they have.. I’m starving." She watched Gabrielle duck outside the tent, then lifted her sword in its sheath and fastened it to the clips along her back.
"Boo!" Dori gave up trying to drag Ares across the dirt floor, and toddled over, grabbing the edge of Xena’s leg armor and pulling herself up onto the warrior’s boot. "Go fly!"
"Fly, huh." Xena lowered herself to one knee and took the baby’s hands, detaching them from her armor plates. "Not right now, short stuff… I’ve got too many clanky bits on."
Dori frowned, then reached for Xena’s shoulder armor, pulling on it with a little grunt. "Bad."
"No." Xena lifted her up, and cradled her along one arm, surprised when she realized Dori just barely fit along it’s length. "Boy, you’re getting big, huh?" She tickled the child’s foot, which kicked at her as Dori scowled. "My armor’s not bad, Dori… it keeps me from being owie."
"Bck." Dori sucked on a finger. "Go fly!" Her pale green eyes pleaded with Xena.
Oh boy. "Tell you what." The warrior bargained seriously. "After mama comes back with breakfast, you can come outside with me, and we’ll see then, okay?"
A scowl. "Now!"
"Dori." Xena’s voice dropped. "Be good."
The baby pouted, then found an interesting catch on Xena’s metal armor and started trying to unlatch it, fascinated with the shiny object.. The warrior watched her indulgently, then walked over to her weapons case and removed her chakram, settling it in its belt clip before she added three additional daggers.
Then she sat down on the bed, and set Dori on her knee, studying her daughter intently. "What’s life going to shape you for, Dori?" She mused, as the baby bounced a little on her leg. "Hmm? You gonna be a storyteller, like your mama?"
"Mama." Dori grabbed a better hold on her fistful of leather. "Gumph!"
"You’ll have to learn a few more words first, I guess…. But I’d bet you’d be good at it." Xena told her. "Or you could run an inn, like your grandma does. Would you like that?"
"Fug." Dori grabbed a bit of Xena’s leather armor and started to pull on it. "Gogogogogogogo." She kicked her heels into the warrior’s leg as though she were a pony.
"Okay.. maybe a horse trainer." The warrior chuckled. "You like horsies, doncha?"
Dori’s eyes lit up. "More!"
Xena laughed easily, feeling a sense of inner peace she’d been missing since the problems with Andreas had started. She flexed her leg, bouncing Dori up and down and making her shriek in delight. "Like that, huh?" She grinned.
"Boo!" Dori scrambled to her feet and squirmed up Xena’s chest, using her armor for handholds as the warrior leaned back, unable to stop laughing. They ended up nose to nose, the baby’s bright, alert eyes peering in to Xena’s larger ones intently.
"What are you two doing?" Gabrielle’s voice sounded.
Dori turned her head. "Mama!" She pointed at her victim. "Boo!"
The bard examined the pinned warrior and smiled, as she put a wrapped package down. "It sure is, honey… now c’mere." She picked up her daughter. "The outposts were attacked overnight, Xe."
The warrior stood, serious now. "When did they find out?" She reached for her cloak.
"Just now.. but its okay. They fought them off… two Amazons got hurt, but they’re a little shaken up." Gabrielle set Dori down, and took hold of her partner’s arm. "So… hold up a minute, and get something into your system while I change… then we can drop Dori off by mom, and go see what’s up, all right?"
Xena hesitated. "Change fast. We’ll eat on the way over." She compromised. "I want to get the details while they’re fresh." She felt her mind clicking into gear, and a dark thrill chased over her skin. "I want to get a counterattack going, the bloodier the better."
Gabrielle watched the focus change and tighten as even Xena’s speech became more abrupt and controlled. The indecision she’d seen there yesterday was gone, replaced by a single minded determination that rang solemn chords in her memories. "All right." She turned and headed for her neatly laid out scaled armor. "Why don’t you get a roll out while I'm doing this." She slipped of her tunic and pulled on her quilted surcoat, fastening the buckles quickly, then wriggling into the scale armor and settling it with a few tugs. "Xe?"
"Yes?" The word sounded almost in her ear and Gabrielle jumped., then turned as a hand touched her shoulder.
"You know I hate when you do that." She gave her partner a look.
Xena merely smiled, and adjusted the armor, pulling it taut over the bard's shoulders and buckling the belt in front. "There." She tore her pastry in half and offered part to Gabrielle, who took it in her teeth as she tugged her boots on. "Was it all the outposts?"
"Two of them." Gabrielle mumbled around her mouthful, lacing one boot and starting on the other. "The two outermost… but they got so close, it was almost too late by the time the alert went up." She swallowed, then leaned over and picked Dori up. "C'mon, honey… time to go play with grandma."
Dori scowled, and pointed at Xena. "Boo! Fly!"
"Not now." Xena patted her cheek. "Boo's gotta go to work, honey. "
The baby's face fell almost comically, and she pouted, curling up a fist near her chin and leaning against Gabrielle's warm body. "Did you promise her?" The bard asked her partner.
"Gabrielle." Xena finished putting together a sandwich. "I was going to, yes, but that was before you came back. I don’t' have time for that right now." The warrior glanced up to find two serious pairs of green eyes gazing at her. "In case you lost track, we're in a war." She shouldered her cloak. "Now, c'mon."
The bard sighed. "I know… I know.. c'mon Dori. We'll play with you later… okay?" She patted the grumpy infant, and followed her soulmate out of the tent.
Outside, the atmosphere was electric, and she could feel it. She watched Xena straighten, and throw her cloak around her shoulders, the thick fabric outlining her armored body. Cyrene came trotting over, and held her arms out.
"Here.. I'll take her Gabrielle.. I know you've both got a lot of work to do."
Dori clung to her, crying fitfully. "Hey.. hey… it's just grandma." Gabrielle checked her anxiously. "What's the matter?"
"Mama." Dori's hands clutched her. "No go."
"Shh." The bard kissed her head, and stroked the tiny face. "Honey… we'll be back for you in a little while.. it's okay." The watery green eyes peered at her uncertainly. "I promise.. and Boo will fly with you, okay?"
Dori sniffled. "Mama."
Xena had turned in her tracks, several paces away. "Gabrielle.. " She called back, impatiently. "Wh.. " Abruptly the bard joined her. "What's go.."
"Just go." Gabrielle gave her a shove, startling the daylights out of her soulmate. "Go on.. you said you were in a hurry, so move."
"Gab.." Xena caught her balance, and held both hands up. "Whoa." She glanced after her mother's disappearing form. "All right, hold it.. what's the problem?"
Gabrielle went right past her, boots thudding against the muddy ground. "I have no problem., Xena. I understand we're at war. I understand how important every thing we're doing is. I understand all of that." She stopped, and turned, her anger evident in her face. "But she doesn’t'." She pointed back the way they came. "She's just a baby, and babies don’t understand war." She turned and kept walking.
Xena jogged after her, catching up with little trouble. "Look, Gabrielle… "
"Don't look Gabrielle me." Her partner snapped. "I know it's ridiculous, for the gods sake. I am perfectly aware of just how trivial it must seem that I'm mad about my baby being upset. But I can't help it, Xena.. that's the kind of person I am. I feel for people. I feel for you.. for the soldiers, for the gods be damned animals, and for my little girl, who's anxious, and scared, and doesn't know what's happening" She wiped her eyes in irritation. "Poop."
They walked along in uncomfortable silence, as Xena studied her boots, scuffing along in the half dried mud. She had no idea what to say, but after a few paces she broke her sandwich in half, and offered a portion over to the sullen bard. Gabrielle looked at it, then looked up at her. Xena kept her expression open, lifting her eyebrow just a tiny bit in hopeful question.
After a long, tense moment the bard reached up and took the offering, her posture slipping from taut anger as she examined the meat and bread. Finally she nibbled a corner, then glanced back up at the quietly waiting warrior. "I'm not really sure where that all came from."
Xena took a bite of her own breakfast. "You always take up for the underdog, Gabrielle…especially for one who can't speak for herself." She commented softly. "I'll make it up to her. I promise."
Gabrielle exhaled, easing a bit closer. "I shouldn't have gone off at you like that. I'm sorry, Xena." An arm settled around her shoulders. "Not a great way to start the day off." She looked up to see two men running towards them, and heard shouts starting to rise from the battlements.
The wind brought a hint of blood to her nose.
Gabrielle took a deep breath. Not a good way to start the day at all.
They got to the high battlements and Xena bounded up the steplike platforms built into their back, gaining the top level and peering over. A small group of Amazon riders was pelting their way, being chased by a larger formation of mounted soldiers, who were firing crossbows. "First group, mount up!" The warrior yelled. "Get the gates ready."
Fighters were scrambling, adjusting weapons as they ran to the back of the gates, tugging freshly retrieved horses by long reins. A group of twenty formed, and they waited, hands clenching on leather, fingers loosening weapons as they watched Xena's alert form.
She judged the distance, watching the slowly closing space carefully as the Amazons horses tired. Two of them were riding double, and she could see the rest had battle marks on them, blood stains becoming evident. "Ready... " She held a hand up to the four large men on either side of the gates, hands wrapped around thick ropes.
Just a little more... "C'mon... c'mon.. " Xena murmured, then as the pursuers crossed an imaginary line her eyes had drawn, she dropped her arm.
The gates swung open, pivoting on iron clad hinges salvaged from some long off raid and stored in the valley with the rest of her warlording things. The troops surged forward, moving rapidly into a gallop as they cleared the walls and headed down the slope built into the defenses. They came around a hillock and went straight for the oncoming attackers, who didn't see them for long seconds, and only then started to pull up.
Not in time. Xena's troops flew by the tired Amazons and engaged them, swords slicing through the enemies defenses as they tried to turn back.
Xena smiled, then hopped up onto the top of the wall, watching as the outnumbered attackers were cut down. Two broke free and started to run, driving their animals into a hard gallop, and Xena turned, holding her hand out to the nearest archer. "Gimme that."
"They're too far, genr'l" The man handed the weapon over anyway.
Xena selected a long shaft from his quiver and grasped the quills, raising the bow and setting the arrow in place as she drew the long gut string back to her ear. For a moment she was totally still, then her fingers released the arrow.
The lead rider jerked, and fell forward onto his horses neck.
Xena lazily selected a second arrow and took her time in aiming, watching the frantic rider ducking and trying to hide himself as low on his horse as possible. She judged the wind, then picked a spot on him and let fly, almost imagining she could hear the sound of the impact as the thin shaft penetrated the side of his armor, and entered his chest. He sagged sideways, then was chopped down as one of her people caught up to him.
Xena handed the bow back to the awed soldier, then hopped down off the wall and made her way to the next platform, watching as the Amazons trotted wearily inside the gates and were met by some of their sisters, along with a few of the militia. "What happened?"
The foremost glanced up, then straightened. "We were scouting.. .after what happened last night, Gillen wasn't taking any chances. This bunch surprised us on the other side of that forest strip.. just bad luck, I think We came around one side and they came around the other at the same time."
The warrior nodded. "All right." She jerked her head. "G'wan and get patched up." Xena let out a whistle, then leaped down to the ground as Argo came trotting up with out her saddle on. She vaulted to the mare's back and wound long legs around her barrel, then urged her through the gate towards where her troops were mopping things up.
Gabrielle exhaled, her guts still churning, then she went to where the Amazons were dismounting and held two sets of reins. "Anyone hurt?"
"Just scrapes." The group's leader sighed. "And Tereme, here... she got an arrow in the back." The Amazon was crouched over her horses neck, , her face tensed in pain. "Josa, help me get her down."
Gabrielle moved forward. "I'll get her." She helped the injured Amazon get off the horse, and held onto her as her legs buckled, a spurt of warm, coppery scented blood spurting over the bard's steadying hands. "Need a stretcher here!"
"Got it." One of the villagers ran up, and Gabrielle got the wounded woman to lie down on her stomach on the crude device, then watched as they took her off towards where the healers had set up a hospice area.
"Gabrielle.." Ephiny strode up. "I think we should send out reinforcements to the outposts.. sounds like they're taking a beating."
Gabrielle considered that. "Maybe, but let me talk to Xena. It's possible they're attacking those sites just to try and draw us out." She glanced out the open gates, seeing the troops returning at a canter, leading the captured horses. "I'll get back to you on that."
"Okay - but it's a little tough that it's just us taking the casualties." Ephiny reminded her. "Mostly Amazons in those outposts."
The bard looked at her. "Ephiny, you know the battle plan. They're there, because Xena's using them as strike and run troops, and the Queens agreed that was the best purpose for them." She took in a breath. "Don't' worry.. everyone here is going to get ample opportunity to be in danger." Gabrielle turned as Xena rode up. "Everyone okay?"
The warrior nodded. "Fine." She straightened. "Ephiny, no one goes out in groups of less than a dozen. I don't' want any more targets."
The regent nodded. "All right."
"Gabrielle...tell the non combatants to get back by the shelter near the ford. There's protection there if they start lobbing fireballs in on us."
"All right." The bard agreed quietly. "Do you think they'll be here today?"
Xena turned Argo neatly, and stared out the gates. "Tonight." She answered "But there'll be trouble before then." She pointed, and they looked out to see a haze on the far horizon. "They're burning cover."
Ephiny cocked her head. "Should we call in the outposts?"
Cold blue eyes regarded her. "No. They have their instructions." Xena nudged Argo's sides, and headed her towards the horse billeting area, where her tack awaited, leaving Ephiny and Gabrielle behind.
The bard took a deep breath, then released it. "I knew this was coming." She hesitated. "But I still wasn't ready for it." She felt Ephiny's hand clasp her shoulder. "I forgot what that side of her was like."
The regent gave her a compassionate look. "The situation needs it."
"I know." Gabrielle lifted her head. "But that doesn't mean I have to like it." She tugged her armor straight. "I'm going to go pick up my staff, and tell Cyrene to move her people back.. then we can start moving arms up to the wall from the supply area." She turned and headed towards the command tent, returning the hurried greetings as she slipped past running soldiers, and ducked back under the fabric into the dark, quiet interior.
Then she just stood for a minute, letting her nerves settle. "Okay, Gabrielle." She held both hands out in a calming gesture to herself. "This has to happen, so just remember that it wont' last forever, and she wont' be like this all the time." She drew a breath in, and released it, but was unable to prevent an echo of the grief she'd felt, as they'd slipped further and further apart the last time, color her memories in deep shades of gray and black. "Oh gods."
It was a horrible moment. She covered her face with both hands and just shut the world out, concentrating on forcing the scary thoughts out, knowing they served no purpose other than to hurt her. "It's okay... " She whispered to herself. "Be strong, Gabrielle... you can't lose it now." She felt the panic slowly, very slowly recede. Her shoulders relaxed, and she dropped her hands and straightened up, then reached for her staff and turned to leave the tent.
A tall, silent form blocked her way, making her pull up short and just stare, words catching in her throat as she met Xena's pale eyes. "Urk."
"Hey." The warrior uttered, in a husky voice. She lifted a hand and cradled the side of Gabrielle's neck, rubbing her thumb along the bard's soft cheek. "I'm still in here."
Gabrielle bit the inside of her lip until she tasted blood, gazing up into eyes now warmly familiar. "I knew that." She whispered. "It was just such a... it happened so fast, I.." She looked away, her fingers clenching the wood of her staff. "Didn't have time to adjust."
Xena pulled her closer, and wrapped both arms around her, kissing her head tenderly. "We've been through too much, Gabrielle... you and I both know how fragile what we have is." She tilted the bard's chin up and studied her seriously, feeling Gabrielle's body slowly relaxing and seeing her tense expression clear. "It's hard for me to balance what I know I have to do, with how I know it looks to people I love very, very much, but I'm going to do my best to try not to hurt you."
Why couldn't we have talked like this the last time? Gabrielle sighed inwardly. "I love you." She replied simply. "Thank you for saying that." She flattened her hand against Xena's stomach, feeling the warmth of her under the leathers. "I don't know why I got so shook up. .I've been telling you all along it was all right to use any advantage we have against Andreas..then you go and do it, and I fall apart. It doesn't make much sense."
Xena kissed her head again. "You may understand it, Gabrielle.. but that doesn't mean you like it."
The bard managed a faint chuckle. "You know me."
"I know you."
The world righted itself. "Ephiny's worried about the outposts... she wanted me to send reinforcements out there."
Xena was quiet for a few breaths. "What did you tell her?" She asked, warily.
"That I'd talk to you about it... that Andreas may be attacking them because he wants to draw us out, and that would put more people in danger."
"Good girl.. right answer." Xena gave her a proud look. "Even if you didn't like giving it."
Gabrielle sighed. "Xena, I follow my heart, most of the time. You know that."
"But over the years, you've taught me that sometimes you have to force this.." She tapped her forehead. "To overrule this." She touched her chest. "For the greater good."
Xena shifted an arm over her shoulders, and lead her back outside. They could see the pall of smoke now edging for the clouds, and a wind shift brought a smell of acrid burning to them. "That's true, Gabrielle." She finally answered, as they passed the gates heading toward the strategic tent, where the battle leaders were gathering outside. "You know, sometimes though, following your heart turns out to be the right decision in the end, even though it didn't make much sense at the time."
They both looked at each other. "Sometimes your heart knows the truth, even when your mind tells you otherwise." Gabrielle smiled.
Xena didn't release her, as they closed in on the waiting crowd. "Tell ya what... let's use my mind, and your heart.. and I think we got this licked." She paused. "I need nets brought out." This to the soldiers waiting nearby. "Spread em in front of the embattlements, about waist high."
"Nets?" Bennu asked puzzled
"Nets." Xena confirmed. "Get moving... I want them up before the end of this half candlemark." She pointed at the battle leaders. "Inside. We've got work
Far off on the wind, they heard the crackle of fire.
"C"mon." Gabrielle picked up another armful of arrows, and started for the battlements. Two of the villagers, and three militia followed suit, and they made their way up to the front of the walls, stacking the weapons neatly near the bottom platform.
The sturdy defenses had been made wide on the bottom, and tapering to the top, leaning slightly outward as though ready to topple over. The backs had platform like steps where archers could stand, and gaps staggered through them for the arrows to emerge from. Wood and stone based, packed with round river stones and mud, they presented a considerable blockade to shelter Xena's forces with . The two huge gates in the center slanted outward, so that closed, they formed a beak that when pushed against, merely closed the portal tighter and tighter.
The battlements spread from one bend of the river to the other, so that the water itself formed it's own protection, and behind the walls were the troops, the horses, the supply areas, and the two critical sections of the river, the ford and the bridge.
Gabrielle had been working with her group for about a candlemark now, and they'd moved most of the arrows, spears, and miscellaneous small swords and knives up to the storage areas below the lowest platforms. Around them swords were being sharpened, bows restrung, and armor adjusted as the army geared itself up for the coming storm. It was noisy, and electric, and the bard felt her throat going dry as the messages were relayed in from the outposts.
"I need one hundred cavalry saddled up." Xena yelled, from where she'd been instructing two of the wall captains. "They'll send testing attacks first, to see what we've got. Keep the gates open."
"Xena, we've got the nets up. "Toris shouted from the open space. "Now what?"
Xena hopped to the top platform, and looked over. Across the huge plain, dark smoke was rolling, and her sharp eyes could detect the very edge of the burning area, outlined in lurid red orange against the pale wheat colored river grass. "Leave em be." She jumped down. "Josc… are the field men here?"
The reeve paused, and nodded. "Aye… in t'back, stacking the provisions."
"Have them get their scythes, and go to the gate." Xena ordered, then turned. "Toris, get a regiment, and have them bring all the buckets in the stocks up here."
Gabrielle peered out the opening, and studied the ground. "You're going to cut the grass down, and wet the earth?" She guessed, eyeing her soulmate.
"You got it." Xena patted her back, giving it a little scratch with her fingertips. "Cavalry - get outside the gates, and form up past that stand of trees." She whistled for Argo, and leaped aboard, then looked down as Gabrielle tugged on her leg armor. "What's up?"
"Here." The bard handed her a meat roll. "You hardly got breakfast." She exhaled, and rubbed her hands together in the cold wind. "What's next?"
"All the waterskins filled?"
"Yes." Gabrielle nodded. "And I had dried rations packaged and sent to the walls - they're stored in those boxes lashed under the platforms." She paused. "The healer's area is ready.. we had all the extra cloth boiled and set aside, the foraging group just came in over the river with as many herbs as we could find, and I had a squad of Amazons ride over to the westward wall just to see if everything's quiet. It is."
Xena rested her hands on Argo's saddlebow. "Good work, Gabrielle.. thank you." She glanced over her shoulder, then fiddled with the reins. "One more thing."
Gabrielle stepped closer and looked up. "What is it?"
"I want you to instruct the healers… when they have bodies… to put them in the river, and let the current carry them off. We don't have the space in here to keep them, and they spread sickness."
The bard took a breath, then a second. "I already told them that." She answered quietly. "But I also told them to take as much record of the names as they could.. so we know who we lose."
Xena released the rains, and put a gentle hand on her cheek. "I'm going to lead the front line troops, make sure we turn back their testing raids. Do you want to stay here, or come with me?"
"I'll get my staff." Gabrielle turned and jogged towards the horse corral, snagging her staff she'd left leaning against a case of dried beef and collecting Iolaus' reins. She climbed aboard the stallion, who snorted and shuffled his feet as she got herself arranged, then sent him towards the tall, patiently waiting figure near the gate.
They rode out into the grass together, past the group that was gathering with scythes and buckets. "We'll need to clear at least a league." Xena pointed. "Then douse the ground with water… get a bucket line going back to the river, and get everything good and wet." She nudged Argo past the busy workers and headed towards where the troops were gathered, exercising their restive mounts and circling in tight, nervous arcs.
"Hey, Xe?" Gabrielle carefully guided Iolaus around a net line. "What are these for?"
Xena glanced behind her. "That fire keeps coming.. everything in front of it's gotta come too." She nodded towards the far off fireline. "We might as well take advantage of that." She clicked her tongue and Argo responded with a canter. "All right… we're going out to the last stand of trees there… let's see what we can find."
Gabrielle surreptitiously buckled what she'd come to think of as her safety belts, as she sent Iolaus trotting after his mother. The cavalry formed up around Xena, in two large rolling squares, and they headed off across the grass. She tucked her staff into it's holding rings and flexed her hands on the reins, feeling the leather against her palms.
It was quiet, really. Most of the soldiers kept silent, and aside from the drumming of horses hooves, and the sound of the wind, nothing stirred. Gabrielle leaned forward a little, and urged Iolaus up next to Argo, settling into a nice canter knee to knee with her partner. Xena was chewing on the meatroll she'd given her, the tall warrior's head swiveling as she surveyed the surrounding area.
It was almost exciting, Gabrielle had to admit. Riding there in the center of a hundred warriors, armor clashing lightly, faces serious. Some Amazons, the largest of them, who preferred to fight in heavy armor and carry the longswords she could barely lift, mixed with Bennu's fighters, and Palaemon's, veteran soldiers with scarred faces, and easy, well trained seats that bespoke years of experience on horseback.
And Xena in their midst, sitting relaxed in her saddle as always, moving with Argo's rolling gait with a flexible ease that demonstrated her own lifetime of riding. The warrior had her cloak tucked back behind her, and as the bard watched, she half stood in her stirrups, her alert senses taking in everything.
They rounded the curve where the rolling hills sloped down, then headed towards the patch of forest Xena had indicated, getting closer and closer to the smudge on the horizon that was the burning area. Gabrielle imagined that the wind that shifted unpredictably back and forth brought her the fire's scent.
A candlemark went by, and now they were much closer, with the long line of forest running to their right that held the outposts.
A yell echoed weirdly, and Xena's head snapped up. She urged Argo to the front of the troops and lifted her body up, turning her ears to catch the slightest noise. Another yell, and the ring of metal on metal, and she lifted a hand, then pointed towards the last patch of forest near the end of where the outposts were. "C'mon!"
They gathered themselves up and sorted out a formation, a double arrowhead with Xena on one tip and Bennu on the other, and let their speed build as they aproached the end of the trees. "Around that side!" The warrior directed. "Look sharp! If they number more than we do, split up and start a cross attack!"
"Will do, genr'l.. and ifn' they aren't?" Bennu yelled back.
Xena drew a breath and let the solid charge of dark excitement take her. "If they aren't… kill them all!"
A yell went up from the troops, and they drew weapons, settling boots more firmly in stirrups as they leaned to one side, the horses curving around the last of the trees and allowing them to see the clearing beyond.
Xena let out a wild yell and urged Argo into a full gallop, the mare's strides lengthening as she spotted the carnage ahead. The attacking force spotted them and whirled, heading in their direction and leaving the scattered Amazons, who had built a hasty wooden palisade they were defending fiercely.
Their numbers were evenly matched, Xena realized, and she pulled her sword from her sheath as she marked her first target. Another yell erupted from her throat, then the two sides impacted, and she was in the melee, driving her weapon into the chest of the leading rider and yanking it back out again as his horse took him past her.
She swiveled on instinct and slashed back the other way, intercepting an ax from a well built soldier who reached out of her with his other hand. She cut it off with a negligent swipe, then drew her dagger and cut his throat, driving Argo on past him and into a thicker patch of enemies.
The fire was building in her, and she let it, welcoming the fierce strength it brought that redoubled her blows, and sent her sword cutting through bone and muscle as if they were paper and fabric alone. "Eyah!" She whirled in her saddle, slamming her hilt against an armored head then freeing her boot from a stirrup and kicking the fighter right off his horse.
Gabrielle was fighting to stay close, using her staff to fend off wildly careening enemy riders, and stubbornly getting between Xena and whoever was closest to her. She slammed the end of her staff into a man's chest, and he rocked backwards, startled, then dodged her next blow and came in swinging his mace at her chest. She managed to get the staff back down and deflect it, then she shoved him back wards, and nudged Iolaus in the ribs, making him jump sideways and adding power and weight to her motion. The man dropped sideways, but he tangled in his stirrups and couldn't get quite free. His head dangled down and before Gabrielle could move, Bennu swept by and took it off with a swipe of his broadsword.
No time to think. Gabrielle whirled her mount and charged after Xena, who was now battling with three enemy soldiers, two of whom had her pinned between them and the third who was coming at her with a sword. The warrior ducked one blow, delivered a dagger in the ribs to the man behind her, and as Gabrielle watched, launched hersself up to stand in the saddle, then leaped at the oncoming soldier with a wild battle yell, her weight and impact taking both him, and his horse to the ground.
"Die!" Xena rolled off him and grabbed his helmet, kicking him in the face with a savage knee. He dropped to the ground and she straddled him, lifting her dagger high and bringing it down to plunge to the hilts in his chest. Then she surged to her feet and yanked the knife free, only to send it whipping across a man's face, catching a second in the throat as he was about to gut one of Xena's troops.
The tiger was out now. Xena hardly realized how many enemy there were, or what the odds were, she just let the fire take her over with a sense of almost relief, abandoning her questions, and the doubts that plagued her, using her sword and daggers, her hands and body skills to carve a path through the troops without regard for her own safely.
She leaped for Argo, and pulled herself on board, then sent the mare towards a group of enemy and her own troops, holding her sword in both hands and simply hacking her way forward with savage, powerful strikes that carved flesh from bone, and sent blood flying for several feet.
She took the head off one of them.
She spit one on her sword, driving it deep in to his body, then kicked him backwards and twirled the weapon in her hand, shoving backwards to catch the rider who had leaped on her back. He slid off with a grunt, and she laughed.
Gabrielle stuck with her, focusing on Xena, and Xena alone as she threaded Iolaus through the melee, her small size, and quick movements protecting her from the charging soldiers, who spotted her face and hesitated just for an instant, long enough for her to take them out with a solid hit from her staff, or brush by them, grimly determined not to let her partner out of her site.
A hand grabbed her leg, and she reversed her staff, slamming it down on her assailants head. He hung on though, yanking a knife from his belt and stabbing upwards, but catching the point in the leather of her saddle. She hit him again, and this time he let go, and slid downward.
Then another man leaped for her, and she turned, but he landed half over Iolaus' neck and threw his arms around her before she could stop him. She struggled fiercely, then realized he had yanked the neck of her armor down, pulling her with it, and was moving towards her throat with a sharp, small knife.
Panic gave her strength, and she pulled herself up right by sheer will, away from the blade and half lifting his body up off the horses neck. He clawed for her, but she gave Iolaus a reluctant signal, and the stallion reared, making him arc sideways and dislodging him from the horses neck. He fell, and Iolaus snorted, coming down on him with sharp hooves and stiffened forelegs.
Then another body came at her, and she whirled, anger sending the staff in a vicious arc that caught the soldier right between the eyes and snapped his head back with a sickening crunch.
The enemy struggled to retreat, as a ram's horn was sounded, pelting through the trees as Xena's troops gave chase to ride them down.
Then for just a moment, it was quiet. Gabrielle let the pounding in her ears recede, as she turned in her saddle, her anxious eyes finding Xena's still, composed figure seated on Argo's back in the center of a field of battle gore and bodies. There was no emotion, save perhaps satisfaction on her face, as she reviewed the field, where three score enemy soldiers now lay injured or dying, among a few of their own.
Gabrielle took a shaky breath and urge Iolaus over to her, watching the cold blue eyes sweep the area, then slowly, with butterfly lightness, settle on her face.
"You okay?" Xena's voice was low.
Gabrielle nodded. "You?"
A smile. Xena flexed her hands, and stretched like a cat. "Never been better."
The bard moved closer, feeling the swirl of dark energy around her that threatened to sweep her in. "Guess we won this round." She tried not to think about the carnage she was standing in the middle of, having truly seen worse in her short lifetime.
"Oh yeah." Xena turned, to see the Amazons from the outpost threading their way forward, Gillen foremost among them. The Amazon Queen had a bloody cut over one eye, but looked proudly triumphant. "Good job."
"They thought they'd roll right over us, Xena." Gillen told her, resting a bloodstained hand on Argo's shoulder. "Gave me a damned ultimatum.. said if we surrendered, they'd let us go." She spat. "Nothing I hate more than a stuck up horses ass who thinks I'm brainless." She looked up at the warrior with undisguised awe and admiration. "But I will tell you, I have never in my years seen anything the likes of you, Xena. They say you were Ares Chosen." Her eyes met the warrior's. "I believe it."
Xena smiled easily, absorbing the admiration, and the looks from her troops who were gathering back around her. "I'm hoping that reputation's gonna be worth something pretty soon." She straightened. "All right.. let's clean this place up.. start a fire, and get patched up. We'll circle around to the north next."
Gabrielle watched her partner casually flick a bone chip off her forearm, then turned towards her. The tiger showed plainly to the bard's eyes, but… behind the wildness there was something familiar as well, and a warm sensation came to her through the connection they shared.
Fire and ice.
Sunlight and shadows.
Continued in Part 23