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 23
By Melissa Good
They gathered near the trees, crouched in their saddles. Ahead of them, a group of Andreas troops were advancing, mounted warriors some two hundred in number.
"Advance guard." Xena murmured, stroking Argo's neck gently. Her eyes flicked over them, and past, to where a second unit of her cavalry was waiting her signal.
"They must know exposing themselves like that is asking to be attacked." Gillen stood slightly in her own stirrups. "What's their game?"
"Xena hunting." The warrior laughed quietly. "Let's make sure they have a fruitful hunt." She turned her head. "Everyone ready?" Her voice was low, but penetrating. "Watch out for arrows. We don't know if they're putting anything on the tips. Keep your body covered if you can."
Heads nodded, as flaps of chain mail were settled down over hands and helmets thumped into place.
The Amazons on foot shifted, lifting bow tips in a wavering line down the grass.
Xena stood in her stirrups, and lifted her chakram, catching the fitful sun in a brilliant flash . Across the space between them, slowly filling with enemy soldiers, an answering flash came.
"Fire." Xena stated calmly, reseating herself. "Get ready."
A hail of arrows exploded from both sides of the trees, then a second, then a third as the longbowyers aimed for heads and the unprotected flanks of the horses. The orderly columns shifted, and shouts rang out. Crossbow bolts answered their arrows, hissing lightly against the grass, their dappled cloaks providing a scant target.
"Fire." Xena leaned forward and loosened her sword, sensing the bodies shift around her. Andreas forces were rallying, moving shields forward to guard against the arrows, and moving into an attack phalanx. "Easy…. Easy…" Argo snorted.
Andrea's captains organized their troops, and started a charge towards the forest, intent on overrunning the snipers nests that were peppering them with shafts. They couched shields and the rumble of hooves over the turf got louder and louder.
"Archers, with draw." Xena pulled her sword out. "On my mark…. Ready…. " A low growl started in her throat, and rapidly built into a battle yell that shook the leaves around them. "Yeahhh!!!!"
Amazon archers dove out of the way as the cavalry charged, thundering out of the trees in a startling wave to meet the oncoming soldiers.
Gabrielle stuck determinedly by her partner's side, urging Iolaus forward to keep up with his mother as they plowed through the underbrush and met Andrea's fighters. Her focus was small, she let her world narrow down to a circle that contained herself, Iolaus, Xena, and Argo, and she worked aggressively to exclude anyone and anything else from that circle.
It was easier that way. Her staff gave her a reach beyond most of the other mounted soldiers, and Iolaus was well trained and feisty as he bit and kicked anyone who tried to get close to her.
She had a new trick, too. She'd let her staff rest right at her hips, across her body, and simply ride through the closely packed soldiers, shoving forward with her arms as the ends of the wood struck them. It startled the warriors, because no one had ever really taught them to defend against one, slight, half crazed Amazon with no sword, no knife.. just a big stick and a strong horse.
She felt a sharp pain against her shoulder, and rolled with it, and a mace slipped past to thump against Iolaus' rump. The stallion took exception to this, and kicked out violently with both back hooves, smashing the windpipe of her attacker's horse. The mare went down with a gurgle, as her rider pitched from the saddle and grabbed for Gabrielle's stirrup on the way down.
His hand was cut off by an almost casual swipe of Xena's sword, which then circled up and deflected an arrow whose feathers brushed lightly across the bard's nose.
In that moment's quiet, with blood and shifting hooves, and the screams of women and men around them, she lifted her eyes, and saw Xena, her Xena, looking back at her, from under unruly, gore spattered bangs, her proudly uncovered head making her identity starkly evident.
A blue eye winked.
Then the tide of battle rushed over both of them, and she was fighting to keep her staff out of the hands of a determined man on foot, trying to pull her down.
"Stop that!" She snapped, poking him in the chest violently, the copper shod end of her staff clanging against his chest armor. His head jerked, and he stared up at her, seeing the determined face and flashing green eyes.
He was a young boy, she realized, younger than she was, and his big, gray eyes widened as she raised her staff to knock him down. He ducked, and bolted, leaving her startled and a little bemused.
Andreas riders, caught between Xena's two lines of cavalry and the Amazon forces on foot, slowly began to retreat, circling their remaining soldiers in a tight cluster as they battled with crossbows and spears. Their numbers had been cut in half, though they'd taken their own toll on Xena's forces, and they started working a rear guard action as they sought to escape back to the main army.
"Let them go." Xena stood in her stirrups, brashly attracting the crossbow bolts that skimmed past her, deflected by flickering motions of her hands. "There's more where they came from."
A yell went up from her forces, as they shook their weapons at the retreating men.
Gillen rode up, wiping blood off an ugly gash in her arm. "What about the injured, Xena?"
"Get them double up and back to the camp." Xena responded, brushing her hair back from a dirt smudged forehead.
"I mean theirs." The Amazon lifted her helmet, and blew her own sweat dampened locks back. "There's about two score of em."
Xena cocked her head, and considered, as she used a bit of linen to clean off her sword blade. "We have any healer trained fighters? Have them check the wounded. If they're savable, we take them. If they're dying, give them into Hade's hands."
Gabrielle felt a protest rising in her throat, and she carefully clamped her jaw shut on it. Her instinct would be to bring them all back regardless. However… "I'll check them, Xena." She offered quietly, getting a quick look of wry understanding in return.
"Good." The warrior patted her knee. "I want this area cleaned up.. we'll keep an advance force here, since it's narrow, and we can try and slow his advance from here. " She shifted and turned. "Ephiny, send a runner back to bring up reinforcements, and supplies to bolster the outposts."
"Right." The Amazon regent nodded, moving off towards a clump of other Amazons.
Gabrielle unhitched her straps and clipped her staff to it's holder, then slid down off Iolaus' back and leaned against his warm side for a long moment. Then she collected two of Bennu's men and one of her Amazons, and started sorting out the wounded.
Xena stretched, then moved Argo a little away from the battle scene, scanning the far horizon for any signs of a counter attack. A hand touched her boot, and she glanced down to see Cait there, the young Amazon fairly covered in battle gore and looking quite cheerful. "Hey, Cait."
"That was absolutely splendid." Cait grinned. "Do you need someone to go and check up there? I'd be quite happy to." She glanced behind her. "Pally doesn't want to, but I gather I could rope her into it."
Xena looked over her shoulder, to where Paladia had stolidly started assisting Gillen in moving the wounded. "Might be a good idea." She agreed thoughtfully. "Tell ya what, let's wait for the first set of replacements to get up here, then you can take off… see what they're up to."
Cait's face absolutely lit up. "Gosh." She breathed in delight, reveling in the trust of her idol. "I certainly will."
Gabrielle dropped to a knee, and reviewed yet another moaning form. She gently pulled on the soldier's shoulder, rolling him over and exhaling, as she recognized her young attacker. He had blood pumping from a spear thrust just under his ribcage, the red fluid covering the hands he had cupped against his body trying to stop the flow. With a sigh, the bard tugged a folded bit of linen from her pocket, and pressed it against the wound.
"D..don't.. h…hurt me." The boy whispered. "I don.. don't got no knife no more."
"I won't." Gabrielle reassured him, pulling her protective headgear off and setting it down. "Just hold still… what's a little kid like you doing fighting in an army, huh?"
"N.. not a kid." The boy protested. "Just.. wanted to see..A..athens."
"You're not missing much." Gabrielle gently separated his armor, and studied the wound. The blood was already coming through her makeshift bandage, and she could see how erratic his breathing was. "It's dirty, and it smells… they do have good stuffed apples there, though. With honey."
Distracted, he studied her. "Really?"
She smiled. "Yep."
"Lass.." One of Bennu's healer soldiers put a hand on her shoulder. "Not much chance there."
No. Gabrielle exhaled. Not much of a chance for him, or for them to save him… but…
Gabrielle lifted her head, and turned her body, searching the crowd. She spotted the tall, commanding figure seated on Argo not that far away, lifted half out of her saddle as she yelled instructions and directed the army. The bard gathered her strength, and sucked air into her lungs, then projected a yell towards her partner. "Xena!"
Instantly, the dark head turned, focusing pale eyes on her with frightening intensity.
"C'mere a minute."
Gabrielle was aware of the soldiers watching and listening, with something close to wonder as their leader dropped down off Argo's tall back and strode towards the kneeling bard with long, rhythmic strides. Gabrielle tilted her head back as the warrior loomed over her, boots covered in muck and worse. "Can you help him?"
Xena knelt, and examined the boy, her head tilting in a fierce, almost hawk-like way. The enemy soldier was plainly terrified, but unable to move away from the warrior's threatening figure. "He'd die by the time we got him back to the hospice." She pronounced crisply.
Gabrielle gazed down at the mud between her boots, acknowledging the logic of her partner's statement. "Okay." She murmured. "Thanks." Her eyes lifted to the boy's, in gentle compassion. "I'm sorry."
His fear was so evident, it hurt. Xena cursed softly in a language Gabrielle recognized but didn't understand, and shifted next to her.
"Gillen get your people to make a fire, off by the trees there so we can treat our wounded. Cait, bring Argo over here, I'll need my saddlebags." The warrior stripped off her gauntlets, exposing long, powerful hands and eased forward, pulling aside the boy's slashed armor to expose the gaping wound. "We aren't using barbed spears." She directed her attention to the soldier. "Did one of your own people do this?"
His teeth were chattering in fear, but he nodded.
Xena leaned over him, her eyes boring into his with fiery intent. "Was there anything on their blades?"
The boy just stared. "Answer me." Xena snapped impatiently. "Or there's no point in my even trying to save your damned life."
His head finally jerked from side to side. "N…no… not… ours."
One of the other fighters grunted. "Good t'hear."
Xena pulled aside the bandage Gabrielle had pressed to the wound, and made a quick decision, as Cait thumped to her knees with the warrior's saddlebags. She rooted in one without looking and tugged out her healer's kit, which Gabrielle took and opened. "Gut, bone needle, hurry."
Gabrielle was aware of the eyes around them, their men and the captured wounded of Andreas, as they watched her douse the gut in Xena's clensing liquid and hand the threaded needle to her partner. She took her waterskin and uncapped it, pressuring the bag to squirt water out over the wound, and washed away as much of the grime as she could.
Xena worked quickly, stitching up the gash from the inside out with skillful hands, closing the wound and cutting off the horrible flow of blood. She ignored the boy's moaning, relying on the two soldiers to hold him down and still, as she finished tying off the gut and nodded to Gabrielle as the bard washed the spot off again. "Probably will get bad inside there anyway." She muttered. "All right. Add him to the batch going back." She tossed a fresh piece of linen on the boy's chest, then folded up her kit.
Gabrielle reached out and captured one of her partner's hands, feeling the warmth as she lifted it and brushed her lips against the skin. "Thank you."
The hand twisted gently free and patted her cheek, the ruffled her sweaty hair, but Xena remained silent. She stood up and twitched her armor straight, then strode off to continue ordering the troops.
Gabrielle allowed two of the soldiers to lift the fainting boy up and take him towards the trees, then she stood, and felt a sense of renewed strength filling her. She squared her shoulders. "Next?"
As she looked around, seeing death in piles around her, it was amazing just how much one single life could mean. She could see that in the eyes of the captured soldiers, and in the looks from their own fighters as they regarded her with something very close to awe. She shouldered her saddlebag and followed the healers over to the next pathetic huddle of armor and leather.
They settled into an alert, edgy camp, after the wounded had been sent back to the river, two hundred of Xena's troops coming up to bolster their forces. Far sentries were set, in case Andreas chose to try and surprise them in the night, and the rest of the fighters curled up near the small, tidy fires to rest and eat the travel rations they carried.
Stories were spreading, Gabrielle realized, as she walked through the camp, as the newcomers were told by the fighters that had come with Xena about the battles they'd fought. The toll so far hadn't been overwhelming, they'd lost twenty men and women all told, of the hundred mounted forces Xena had brought with her, and the Amazons of the outposts, two of which had been from her own Amazon nation.
Footsteps approached, and she turned her head to see Ephiny trotting to catch up with her. "Hey.."
"Hey, Gabrielle." The regent sighed, as she dropped into step beside her. "Did you get dinner?"
"Heading there now." The bard replied. "Then I need to go find Xena…I haven't seen her for a candlemark or two."
"I think she commandeered a little clearing past those two outcroppings for herself." Ephiny pointed. "Thought I saw Argo over there before."
Gabrielle nodded. "Thanks… boy, it's been a long day. You think we'll have trouble tonight?"
"I wouldn't be surprised." Ephiny answered darkly. "We've stung him three times now - the other boot's gotta fall from the tree sooner or later." She motioned off into the darkness. "I've set a guard in the general area of that clearing - please don’t tell the tall dark and deadly one, okay?"
Gabrielle snorted. "Like she won't know? Please." She broke off her steps, and angled towards the area Ephiny had mentioned. "I'm going to see if she's over there. Maybe we'll stop by the main fire for dinner." She waved a hand at Ephiny, and headed towards the outcroppings. Sure enough, Argo was there, patiently cropping grass next to Iolaus, whose coat was brushed to a shine. Next to where the horses were, Xena had rigged a protective flap, which covered a smooth rock she had spread her maps out on, and was poring over them.
Her armor was stacked neatly next to her, cleaned and ready, and she was wearing her second set of leathers with the heavier protection across her thighs and back, the surface showing a spattering of water still dripping from the dark hair.
She looked up as Gabrielle entered the clearing, the firelight revealing the smile that appeared, frank and unapologetic as she spotted her soulmate. Gabrielle found herself smiling back, responding to the wild, feral energy Xena was exuding. "Hi."
Xena got to her feet, and extended a hand. "C'mere." She took the bard's fingers and pulled her down to a seat on the rock, settling an arm over her shoulders. "Did Gillen talk to you?"
"No." Gabrielle replied, giving her a curious look. "Why?"
"Fifty of Andreas men came in about a quarter candlemark, and surrendered." The warrior replied, with a grin. "Sure, it's a drop in the bucket, but…"
"Are you keeping them as part of our army?" The bard inquired. "That would be kind of weird."
"Mm… I'd love the numbers, but no." Xena replied, finding a tasty bard ear to nibble. "We're disarming them, putting them in tunics, and sending them on their way past the river."
"Oo. That tickles." Gabrielle muffled a laugh. "Are they okay with that?"
"Yeah. One of them told Gillen he was just glad to be out of there. Apparently we've been putting bees in Andreas britches the last fortnight or so." Xena nipped a little further, reaching the slope where Gabrielle's neck met her shoulders.
"Are you hungry, by any chance?"
"What makes you ask?" The warrior rumbled into her ear. "Maybe I'm just wildly attracted to you."
"Hmm." Gabrielle tilted her head back and gladly surrendered to the kiss that took over her lips. Her aches, and exhaustion dropped away for the moment, and she slowly released a breath as they parted. "Lucky me."
Xena chuckled, then spread out her maps a little, and muffled a yawn. "You did one Hades of a job today, my bard. Every time I turned around, there you were."
"Ugh.. yeah, I know. I'm feeling it. Those straps are great, Xe.. but I think even my bruises have bruises." Gabrielle admitted. "And we've just started."
"Hm?" Xena rolled the parchments up and tucked them in their case, then pulled Gabrielle back and cradled her shoulders. "Let me see." She untied the bard's cloak and exposed her ribcage. "Mm… yeah." She traced the dark marks with a fingertip. "Gotta do a padded belt for you there…I think I've got something that might work." She patted Gabrielle on the belly and tied her shirt back up. "Your armor need tending?"
"I cleaned most of it… I wanted to ask you if you could adjust a few things on it." Gabrielle found herself very content just to be lying in Xena's arms, reluctant to move. "Ephiny thinks there's gonna be trouble tonight, though. What do you think?"
The torchlight played across the sharply planed features. "I won't disagree." Xena quietly replied. "It's been enough time for the men we defeated today to get back to the main force, and report… I'd say we can expect some kind of retaliation, yes."
Gabrielle took a breath, then let it out. "I'm not sure I like being on this side of the surprise." She nibbled on a fingernail. "What are we going to do?"
"Get as much rest as we can." Xena gave her a light kiss on the lips. "And have some dinner. C'mon." She left an arm draped over Gabrielle's shoulders as they walked through the darkness, past dimly torchlit clusters of fighters and equipment as they headed towards where the quartermasters were distributing rough rations to the troops.
A low mutter rustled around them, Xena's name mostly, and the warrior lifted her free hand in return of the greetings. "Two, Hereicus." Xena told the hard working quartermaster.
"Genr'l… surely we can.." The man glanced around.
"Don't even try it." Gabrielle shook a finger at him. "Believe me, we've both had worse. Hand it over." She shrugged the cloak off one shoulder and extended her hand to receive the rations, the orange light showing her tattoo in sudden relief.
"Right you are, little hawk." The man chuckled, ducking his head as he surrendered the portions.
Gabrielle tucked them under her arm as they walked over to join the large fire, where Bennu was seated, with Gillen and Ephiny. A wineskin was being passed, though the conversation paused as Xena's tall figure entered the ring of light. "Ah. Here's someone who can settle the argument."
"Who, me?" Xena seated herself with a flourish of her cape. "What's the argument?"
"You?" Ephiny laughed. "Gods, no, Xena… I meant Gabrielle. When did you ever settle an argument?"
The laughter had a nervous tinge, until Xena herself joined in. "That's the truth." The warrior agreed wryly, as she stretched long legs towards the fire.
"No it's not." Gabrielle sat down cross legged next to her, unwrapping their meal. "You settled an argument between those two guys with that cow, just north of Athens. Remember?" She handed Xena a meatroll, and a somewhat withered apple. "When they couldn't decide whose cow it was?"
"Hm." Xena took a bite of the apple. "I seem to remember punching the cow, and saying whichever one of them could carry it home could have it."
"It did settle the argument." Gabrielle grinned and shrugged, as she felt the atmosphere relax. "And we got some of that nice cheese you like out of it." She cut a slice off the block of cheese in her packet and offered it to her partner, who accepted it with a gracious flash of white teeth. "Though I think the cow held a grudge."
Gillen chuckled. "How long did the two of you wander the countryside?"
"Over three years." Xena replied, munching on her meatroll. "Seemed longer at the time."
Gabrielle poked her in the ribs. "Is that a crack about my chattering?"
"No." The warrior nudged her back. "About your talent for trouble."
"You always say that." Gabrielle accepted the wineskin being passed, and took a tentative sip. "Yow." She quickly handed it back to her partner. "And it's not true." She went on, shaking her meatroll at the slowly increasing crowd around the fire.
"You saying you'd never have gotten into one bit of trouble if you hadn't met Xena?" Ephiny chuckled. "Y'know, Gab… "
"Actually." Gabrielle drew a knee up, and circled it with one arm. "I would have been captured by slavers, and probably been sold a half dozen times, or be dead by now if I hadn't met Xena."
Eyes were drawn to her curiously. "I don't think I ever heard about that." Ephiny murmured. "I just knew you two met outside Potadeia."
Xena stayed quiet, consuming her rations as she watch her soulmate's' profile. Gabrielle didn't usually talk about herself in her stories, preferring to relate things from an outside viewpoint. She wondered if the bard was going to make an exception tonight.
"Well… it was a summer day in Potadeia." The bard began. "A pretty ordinary day, really. I'd gotten up, and done my chores, and I was headed over to the washing area in the river with my sister Lila, and ten or twelve other kids."
"Kids?" Gillen queried. "How long ago was this?"
"Five years." Xena supplied succinctly.
"Oh great Artemis.. you are that young. Aren't you?" The elder Amazon moaned.
Gabrielle laughed. "Not my fault." She shook her head. "Anyway… we were on the path to the river, when we were surrounded by slavers, who shoved us together and pretty much had us at their mercy." Gabrielle took a bite and swallowed. "Then, when they were about to take us away.."
"Ah ah ah!" Xena tapped her on the shoulder. "Whoa."
"Aren't we forgetting something?" Dark eyebrows lifted. "A few little details?"
"Is this my story, or your story?" Gabrielle shot back.
"Gabrielle forgets to mention that she very quickly offered herself to the slavers if they'd let the rest of the group go." Xena related smugly.
The bard sighed, and untied Xena's boot. The warrior shook the flaps at her and grinned. "That's true." Gabrielle admitted, to the smiling crowd. "I didn't have a really great home life.. and I wasn't sure how much of a future I really wanted to have."
Everyone went quiet.
"So I thought I could at least try and get everyone else off the hook. But it didn't work. So there we were, about to be rounded up and sold down the river, when this crazy looking wild woman showed up and beat the daylights out of all of them."
Xena laughed. "I'm surprised you didn't run for your life after that." She admitted. "I must have looked pretty scary, all right."
Gabrielle thought about that for a minute. "No." She shook her head, and chuckled ruefully. "I looked you in the eye and got so lost, I wouldn't have run if the Gorgon herself had whacked me in the head."
"Aww." Ephiny reached over and slapped her on the leg.
"Yeah…." The bard smiled, feeling a little silly for saying it in front of all the grizzled warriors around the fire. "Sappy, I know."
"That's all right." Xena reached over and tugged a lock of her hair. "I took one look at you, and got so lost I did get whacked in the head and it was almost a moot point." She crossed her booted feet at the ankles.
No one really knew what to say about that, Xena realized, as they worked on trying to reconcile what they knew of her as a warrior, with what Gabrielle was trying to tell them about her as a person. She wasn't sure if it was a good thing, or a bad thing, or whether it was even worth the effort.
"That's right. I forgot that." Gabrielle scooted back, and leaned back into the circle of Xena's arm. "But you got up, and kicked butt, and we didn't end up in slavery." She finished her apple. "Then we took off."
"Then you followed me to Amphipolis and saved my life." Xena corrected promptly, noting the growing look of wonder, and respect the bard was getting from the surrounding fighters. "You always leave that part out."
Gabrielle sighed. "*Then* we took off."
"Then I let you talk me into letting you come with me." The warrior took a swig of the strong wine in the skin, and cocked her head to one side, thinking. "Five years ago today, as a matter of fact."
The bard looked up at her in surprise. "Really?"
Gabrielle grunted in mild surprise, and stifled a yawn. "How do you keep track of the days like that? I know it was the same season we're in, but down to the day?"
"I." Xena wiggled her boot. "Have many skills."
A low laugh now rose. "Ain't that the truth." Bennu chuckled. "Did you see that pair o them riders the genr'l took out right as we were charging…"
Gabrielle let the words go past her. Battle stories were, she knew, a way for the fighters to reassure themselves, and share skills and experience. But she had no desire to listen to them, since the feats they spoke about were not ones she shared. It was much more satisfying to snuggle closer to Xena's warm body, and lay her head against one leather covered shoulder so she could hear her partner's powerful heartbeat in the rhythm they both shared.
In that moment, she felt supremely lucky, in a raw, human way. The rest of the camp would be on edge, listening for the first hints of attack. Rest would not come easily to them, while she… Gabrielle closed her eyes. She was warm, and dry, and relatively comfortable, despite the hard ground, and she was curled within the protective embrace of the person who would know long before anyone else if something was wrong. Gabrielle stifled another yawn as she started to drift off. She felt Xena tuck the cloak she was wearing around the bard's body and she relaxed, welcoming the needed sleep.
The fire burned low, after the talking stopped, and warriors turned to cloth covered, silent lumps under the stars, which watched, and waited.
"Why do you gotta volunteer for this crap all the time?" Paladia grumbled, as she crept along after Cait's slim form. "Ain't whacking up on people all the damn day long enough for you?"
"Hush." Cait glared over her shoulder. "Don't be stupid, Pally.. we're sneaking up on an army, all right?"
"Yeah, yeah." The taller woman rolled her eyes. "Be glad when this stupid thing's over.. too much work."
Cait stopped and waited for her to come up even. "Paladia.. this is not work." Her face was unusually serious. "This is war."
Her friend promptly sat down on a nearby rock. "Work, war, you still gotta move things, carry things, get your hands dirty, and sleep on the ground." She advised. "Only difference is, now you can get dead easier, though hanging out with you ain't real safe even when there ain't no wars."
Cait sighed, and rested a casual hand on one of Paladia's shoulders. "You're just grumpy because you didn't get to draw for the last bit."
"Naw." Paladia smirked. "Got a good sketch in while we were waiting this morning..sun was coming through the leaves and doing weird stuff all over whatshisface, the big lumpy guy who slobbers over Xena worsen' you."
"Bennu." Cait supplied. "He's quite nice."
"Yeah.. whatever." Paladia glanced through the darkness. "He was listening to Xena go on and on, and it made a sort of cool picture." She paused. "We just gonna sit here?"
Cait impulsively leaned over and kissed her, then tugged her onward. "C'mon then… I want to see what this lot's up to." She lead the way through the grass, and they continued on for over a candlemark in silence.
Finally, even Paladia could smell a hint of smoke in the air, and she grunted. "Still burning."
"Mm." Cait slowed her steps, and angled towards a rock outcropping, which dipped down and followed the land's rolling profile. "Let's see if we can see something from up there." They crept closer, through the tall, winter dried grass, glad that the wind was coming towards them, and carrying the soft whispering away to their backs.
As she got within leaping range of the rocks, Cait paused, and cocked her head, touching her ear and glancing at her companion in question. Paladia also listened, then frowned, and made a motion with her fingers and thumb, moving them together in the sign for speech.
Cait nodded in agreement, and touched her lips with a finger. She got down on her belly and started to creep forward, silently imagining the look of disgust on Paladia's face as the larger Amazon joined her. Pally hated creeping, she really did, and Cait supposed if she were that big, she'd probably hate it as well, though Xena seemed to tolerate it just fine.
Xena had, in fact, once confided to Cait that she used to play with Gabrielle that way, hiding in the long grass and creeping up on her, hopping out at the very last moment and making the bard squeal. Cait hardly could stop giggling just imagining it, but she'd decided no one would believe her if she told them.
It made an excellent image, though, and she enjoyed thinking about it.
Now, she did her best Xena imitation, and slid through the grass, pretending she was a great cat hunting it's prey. The harsh grass stalks poked her, but she ignored them, flattening them gently as she slipped forward until she reached the first rock, and pondered. Over? Around? Which side? She listened to the still audible murmur of words, and decided they were to the left. So she crept around that way, hugging the rock.
A worm wiggled against her hand, and she forced herself not to jerk. Xena had told her, once, that worms could be quite tasty if cooked properly, and that she'd even eaten them raw, but this was one area Cait could not quite bring herself to emulate her hero in.
Ew. She removed the worm carefully, and set it aside, then squirmed on. She edged her nose around the side of the granite, aware that her blond hair and pale skin blended into the grass, and blinked, as she spotted large items that did not blend just ahead of her.
A horse. Two, actually, with riders standing next to them, heads bent together. One was an enemy soldier, she thought, the other was cloaked, and harder to identify. She settled her breathing, and strained her ears.
"…about two candlemarks due north, we think." The soldier muttered. "We don't know the size."
"Two hundred." The answer came back, lifting Cait's nape hairs. "Xena's there, and so's Gabrielle.. if you attack, go for the blond, because if you take her out, you're halfway home."
"Hard." The soldier shook his head. "Stays too close to Xena.. we tried. Can't you just take care of that?"
Son of a Bacchae. Cait's eyes almost popped right out and went rolling over the grass. That was Gillen's voice. Instinctively, her hand dropped to her sheath, and she pulled her dagger out, fingers moving the hilt into place against her skin automatically.
"I could try." Gillen answered. "But trust me, it'd be easier in the heat of battle, because they stay together like two peas otherwise."
"What'r you doing?" Paladia's bare murmur reached her, as the taller woman crawled up practically on top of Cait. "Wh…hey… isn't that.."
"Yes." Cait's teeth ground on the word. "And if you'd get off me, I'm quite going to kill her."
"Damn." Paladia pressed herself to the ground. "What a scumbag.. Xena saved her butt this morning, too."
"Excuse me a minute." Cait started to crawl forward, clamping her dagger between her white teeth. "Ilf brf bck."
"Wait." Paladia put a hand on her back.
Murderous gray eyes glared at her.
"Like.. I'm not this strategy type, but if you kill her, how're you gonna know who she's got with her back there?"
Cait drummed her fingers against the ground, then removed her knife from her mouth. "That's quite brilliant, Pally. Good job."
A shout made them both jerk, and flatten themselves to the ground, and they watched as two more horses rode up, to join the two they were watching. These were definitely Andreas men, well armored and armed, on horses obviously wearing battle armor themselves.
"The advance is starting." The first of them stated. "We've got two divisions set to sweep down over the ridge there and attack that forward camp of theirs."
"That'll work." Gillen nodded. "I drugged the outposts on that side."
Cait's fingers twitched on her knife, and she and Paladia exchanged looks. Paladia made a face, and chewed her lip. "Ooo.. I really want to kill her." The younger girl gurgled. "I do so want to… "
"We'd better warn people." Paladia mouthed back. "Then I'll help ya squish her.. she's a worm."
Cait sighed in deep aggravation. "Right." They watched Gillen mount up and leave, along with her initial companion, and the two other riders lingered, sipping water from dark leather waterskins. "We'd go lots faster with horses."
"I knew you were going to say that." Paladia sighed.
Cait smiled, then readied her dagger, pausing a split second before she whipped her arm forward, nailing the first man in the neck squarely. He jerked, and slumped in his saddle, making his companion spit a mouthful of water over his horses withers as he reached over to grab him.
"Hey.. what's up with you? Hey???"
Cait leaped to the top of the rock she'd been crouched near, then hurled herself through the air and slammed into him, burying her second dagger into his side just where his armor joined. He screamed, a sound that slid from a hoarse cry to a gurgle as she twisted the blade into his lungs and wrenched it out, the drove it in again ruthlessly.
She rode his body down off the horse and rolled free, wiping her blade neatly on the grass as she stood, to see Paladia already grabbing for the startled horses reins. The taller woman gingerly removed the already dead first rider from his saddle with a shove, and sidestepped his body as it slumped to the ground. "Ugh." She peered at the blood running liberally over the saddle.
"A bit messy, sorry." Cait took one of the sets of reins from her and scrambled up into the saddle. "C'mon… we've got to do some serious moving." She urged her horse down the path they'd crept up.
Paladia got up on her horse, and followed, glancing behind her into the darkness, jumping when she saw red, predator eyes already circling the bodies. Wolves? She blinked, and saw white fangs snapping. Yeah.
The moon slipped behind the clouds then, leaving them in muted shadows.
Gabrielle stood in the darkness, wishing the moon would come back out. She'd slept for candlemarks, then woken at Xena's light touch and gone to retrieve her armor for the start of another long day. It was still very quiet out, and there'd been no word from the outposts of trouble, but Xena's sense of trouble had gone off, and they'd both learned over the years not to ignore that.
She bent to the cistern, and splashed water over her face, grumpy and sore from the previous day's fighting, and wanting more than anything a hot bath.
No. Wanting more than anything for this damn war to be over. Gabrielle exhaled, and scrubbed at her skin. "I want my life back." She stated to the rude, wooden support that held the basin. "I want my kid, and my home, and honey buns in the morning back." She turned as footsteps approached, and smiled as she recognized their source. "Morning."
Ephiny padded in, yawning. "If you turn into a cheerful before the dawn person too, I'm gonna chuck up right here."
Gabrielle snickered a little. "No.. not much chance of that. Believe me, there's several places I'd rather be than here right now." She sighed. "I'm afraid the truth is, I really wouldn't make a good Amazon, Eph."
The regent dipped a bucket of water from the basin and dumped it over her head, plastering her dark blond curls to her head. "I got news for you, oh my queen…all those stories about Amazons loving the rough woods life, and spending years in the wild?"
"Lies. All damned lies." Ephiny assured her. "So if you're wishing you were back home in Amphipolis right now, or better yet, curled up with the tall dark and snuggly one, you fit right in with the rest of your Nation, trust me."
Gabrielle laughed out loud in reaction, leaning back and letting the sound bubble up from her insides. It was, she realized, probably a very odd sound in an army camp, so she bottled it back up again, but it made her feel better just to have done it. She pulled her tunic off and washed, scrubbing the mud marks from her arms and upper thighs. "Ugh."
"Wow." Ephiny wandered over. "What did you hit?"
"My own staff." Gabirelle lowered her arms, as though grasping her weapon. "I keep it down here.. and bam." She made a sudden move. "But on the rebound, it hits me right there." She smoothed a hand over the bruise right at her hipline. "Xe said she'd make a padded belt or something for me."
"Which I did." Xena's deep voice answered from the doorway. The warrior entered, already in her armor, and carrying a piece of leather. "Morning, Eph.. I'd like to send a group out towards the outposts when you get a chance. The runners haven't come in from them yet."
"Sure." The regent agreed. "I'll see if Gillen's group is done arming yet.. speaking of which, I wonder where she ended up last night?" Ephiny chuckled. "Didn't see her around our fire." She toweled her head off, and shook herself.
Xena shrugged, as she approached her partner, and laid the leather piece over her shoulder as she took the piece of linen Gabrielle had and dried her off. "Here.. hold still."
Gabrielle did so, while Xena settled the soft leather around her waist, and adjusted it. The armor piece had two thickly padded sections that extended above and below her waistline, even protecting the tops of her thighs, and a wide section in back covered her lower spine. It was warm, with it's lambswool padding, and smelled of well cured hide and the faintly earthy scent of the gut Xena had used to sew it together. "Mm." She nodded in approval, as Xena helped her on with her padded underlayer, then lifted the scaled armor over her head and dropped it into place. "Yeah… that feels good."
Xena fussed with the armor, then drew her sword and smacked the bard across the hips with the flat of the blade. Gabrielle hopped backwards, and yelped, but more in surprise than pain. "How's that?"
"Pretty good." The bard pulled her damp hair back and wrung it out. "I'm going to get Iolaus packed up." She ambled towards their area, shifting her shoulders a little to settle the armor into place. It had warmed from her body heat, and was getting more comfortable. She patted the new piece, and grunted in approval, as she circled Iolaus and Argo and started to pack up their gear.
"Ready for another fight, guys?"
Argo whickered, and lifted her head, giving Gabrielle a wry look that the bard swore she'd copied from her rider. "Oh yeah, sure, Argo.. go ahead and laugh at me." She poked the mare in the butt, and got a tail lash across her arm. "Oo.. bet that hurt, huh?" Gabrielle traced a thin gash along the mare's flank, which had been neatly sewn the day before. Xena had even clipped the hair near the wound very short, as always meticulous in her care for her equine favorite. Argo was already saddled, only her bridle was unfastened, the bit swinging loose as the horse whiled away the moments tugging up dried grass.
"You take good care of Xena, okay?" Gabrielle stroked the soft, golden shoulder. "I know I try to keep an eye on her too, but she really depends on you."
Iolaus nibbled her leather leggings jealously. Gabrielle scrubbed his ears. "Oh.. sorry, Io. Am I ignoring you?" Her hands messed with his mane, moving it to the correct side. "You know, I think I'm really getting to like horses, Io… who'd have thought it?"
She gave the stallion a hug around his neck, enjoying the rich, earthy scent of his skin, and the soft prickling of his mane against her face. He whickered softly, lifting his head, and his ears pricked, alerting Gabrielle to another presence. She turned. "Hi there. Ephiny was looking for you."
Gillen strolled forward, flipping her cloak around her against the cold breeze. "Was she? I didn't see her." The older Amazon paused by Argo's shoulder, giving the mare a pat. Argo shifted and peered at her, stamping a hoof in the moist earth. "Where's Xena?"
"Rousting the camp." Gabrielle tightened a buckle on Iolaus' saddle, and strapped her saddlebag in place. "I think she wanted you to send a runner out to the outposts… we haven't heard from them in a while."
Gillen circled Argo, and slid a hand down Iolaus' leg. "He's a nice animal." She commented. "I'll send someone to see what's up with those outposts.. probably nothing."
"He's a good boy." Gabrielle smiled at her, then turned to tuck her saddlebag strap in.
The blow drove her against Iolaus, and an explosion of pain seared up her back as she let out a gasp in reflex. Gillen clapped a hand over her mouth and twisted, and Gabrielle felt her knees buckle as she held onto the horse in a desperate attempt to stay on her feet. She wrenched her head to one side, freeing her mouth. "Why?"
Gillen was behind her, and a voice growled in her ear. "It's not a personal thing, Gabrielle.. I do like you, y'know? But you're the key to Xena, and without you, Andreas can take her." She glanced behind her as a yell rang out, and the sound of hooves approaching stirred the night. "There's the army… just in time."
Gabrielle sucked in a breath. "What's in it for you? He'll kill you too, Gillen.. don't be stupid." Her knees gave out, and she slid to the floor.
Gillen jerked her blade free and tucked it in a boot sheath as she slid down with her victim. "He's promised me a lot more than you could ever give me, Gabrielle… I'll take the Amazons with me, and we won't end up battle fodder."
The bard held onto one of Iolaus' legs weakly. "He'll destroy you… can't you see that? He won't tolerate any competition, Gillen.. look at what he wants with Xena.. not to beat her…he wants to own her."
Gillen grabbed the bard's shirt armor and tugged her closer. "It's so ironic… that she'd let someone so naieve be the one weakness she couldn't protect."
Gabrielle gazed at her, with a tiny, faint smile. "You know… Gillen.. a lot of people have thought that." She whispered. "They just forget two things about me."
The older Amazon leaned closer. "What's that?"
"I'm a bard." Gabrielle's body suddenly convulsed, and sturdy, booted feet thumped against the earth, bucking Gillen up and off the bard's body. Gabrielle rolled free and surged to her feet, ducking the older woman's wild grab. "Acting comes with the territory."
"You bitch." Gillen yanked her blade out again and leaped. "No matter."
Gabrielle dove out of the way and rolled again, coming up right next to Iolaus and pulling her own dagger from it's sheath. "Well, that's the other thing they forget." She stopped, in mid motion, surprising Gillen who was swinging towards her. She set her body, and balled one fist, then snapped her torso around and clocked Gillen right in the nose with a solid blow. "I'm also an Amazon." She glanced to her right, and saw flames rising, and felt a wild surge in her guts that confirmed her suspicions. Xena was very, very occupied, and it was up to her to get herself out of this. The gods only knew how many of their own people would be fighting against them.
As she circled Gillen, watching the Amazon's knife hand, she called up everything she could remember about what Xena had taught her, willing her panic to recede. She dodged a feint, then moved a little to her left, ducking an overhand blow and returning it with an upper cut that skimmed Gillen's jaw. They both jumped as Argo neighed, then bolted, thundering off between the trees in response to an unheard signal. "Your surprise is over, Gillen." Gabrielle warned her, dodging to one side and wincing as a kick nailed her in the thigh.
"It's just beginning." The Amazon got serious, and went for her, slashing her blade against Gabrielle's armor as the bard jumped backwards. "You thought you were so clever… so good to beat back those forces… it was all a trap, Gabrielle… he knows everything. Your numbers, your supplies…"
"He thinks he knows." Gabrielle stood her ground, then lunged forward, getting a hold on Gillen's arm and whirling, dumping the Amazon on her ground with an unexpected flip. She turned, and hurled herself on top of her opponent, pinning her to the ground and slamming her knee down on Gillen's knife arm. "He knows, what you know, right?"
Gillen was breathing hard, and twisting, against Gabrielle's surprisingly greater strength. "Hades take you."
"You know what we wanted you to know. " Gabrielle twisted the knife from Gillen's grasp, and tossed it from her, then grunted as Gillen managed to toss her off, and their positions were violently reversed. She found herself on her back, with the older woman's hands tightening around her neck, and she took a deep breath as the strong fingers closed off her windpipe. "I don't care. I don't care, and you know why?" Gillen rasped furiously. "Because at least I'm going to get to kill you, Gabrielle. I hate you… I hate everything about you. " She slammed the bards' head against the ground. "I hate your niceness, I hate your weakness.. I hate how you control Xena.. I hate you."
Gabrielle struggled against the hold, her animal instincts rising to the fore as her brain started to clamor for oxygen. She lunged under Gillen, and twisted, one boot catching on a rock and giving her leverage to use her powerful thighs to lift both of them off the ground as she fought.
She couldn't talk. She couldn't breathe. She could hear the thunder of her own heartbeat in her ears, over the screams, and the clash of battle that was steadily growing closer. She closed her eyes, and reached down deep, gathering as much strength as she could as she tried one last move, whipping her body up and to one side, and surprising Gillen just enough for her grip to loosen for an instant.
Half a breath. It was all she needed. Gabrielle got out a weak whistle, and ducked, pressing her head agianst the ground as Iolaus responded, kicking out backwards with both hooves.
They impacted Gillen's skull, sending her flying and releasing Gabrielle's throat to suck in a blessedly needed lungful of air. She rolled dazedly over, and looked up to see a bleeding, murderous Gillen launching herself into the air, and as though in a dream, she brought her arms around in front of her, bracing the dagger that had been Xenas, marked with her sigil, as the older woman landed sprawled over her.
Heat spread over her hands.
Gillen's grip on her relaxed.
Gabrielle slowly, weakly, pushed the slumped body off her and simply sat there for a long moment, covered in blood. Iolaus whickered, and edged around, nudging her with his nose. The bard reached up and clasped him above the knee, pulling herself up and getting very shakily to her feet.
Her hands left red stains on his glistening, golden coat.
She leaned her head against his neck, then turned as a clash of weaponry came much closer. She looked up at the granite boulder just to one side and drew in a breath as the stars were suddenly blotted out by a huge, caped form, which launched itself off the rock and hurtled towards her with frightening speed.
She didn't even move a hair, as the figure landed, and leaped forward, and engulfed her in a rush of brass and leather and bloodscent, immaterial against the solid, true warmth of the connection she could feel pulsing between them.
There was nothing she could say. Xena knew. And the long arms enfolded her, as she felt the chill of the warrior's blade rest against the backs of her legs. "You hurt?"
"A little." Gabrielle breathed. "I think I was just stabbed in the soul, Xena." She felt the expected cupping of her head, and buried her face into the skin above Xena's armor.
"Cait and Paladia warned us in time… we repulsed the first wave." The warrior whispered. "We're pulling back… they'll be on us any minute." A breath. "Gillen must have slipped in.. I was watching for her, but.. "
"She's not alone."
"I know." Another breath. "Come ride with me."
Gabrielle finally straightened, and looked up at the worried profile above her. "She was an Amazon, Xena. How could she have done that?" She asked the gravely searching blue eyes watching her. "I don't understand."
"Good." Xena gently kissed her forehead, then whistled for Argo. More hoofbeats answered, and Ephiny thundered up. "They coming back?"
"Looks like it.. we'd better ri… Gabrielle.. you okay? Wh.." Ephiny's eyes fell on the slumped figure in the shadows.
"Gillen." Xena stated succinctly. "I'd consider all her people suspect until we find out otherwise."
"Right." Ephiny pushed her hair back. "Gab?"
"I'm fine." The bard straightened up, lifting her head. "You can tell Gillen's people that she decided to challenge me, and she lost."
Ephiny looked at Gabrielle, her eyes slipping down to note the blood stains on the bard's arms, then she glanced at Xena. "I'll do that."
"Damn." Xena peered through the brush. They'd had to circle through the woods to evade Andreas patrols, and now they were faced with a dilemma.
His army had gotten in front of them, and they were now clustered in the narrows that separated the uplands from the low river valley that lead down to the water. Xena exhaled, and played with Argo's mane, examining her options. They could climb up the escarpment, and go around that way, but it meant leaving the horses, and she wasn't thrilled about that idea.
She could also try ramming her way through the entire western part of Andreas army, and crossing her fingers. She wasn't too thrilled about that, either.
They could go back the way they came, and find another path through the hills, but that would take a lot of time, and that she didn't have much of. She studied the troops. Being outthought stung. "I should have figured on that." She muttered, not for the first time, feeling a very gentle squeeze around her belly as she did. Seeing Cait's face as she thundered in had rang so many alarm bells…they'd been lucky there. They'd been a little to the north of where Andreas had expected, and had just time to come to arms before the advance party was on them.
They'd lost thirty warriors. Seven had been Gillen's, and Xena had to wonder whether they'd been killed by the enemy, or by her own people, or….
The warrior ground her teeth. The defection had shaken her, even though she knew, at some level, that they had to have at least a few of the enemy in their camp. To have it be an Amazon Queen, though… it made her wonder, if that small bit of her past was finally catching up with her again. Amazons had long memories, after all. Gabrielle's Amazons had only just, and grudgingly at that, started to accept her due to the familiarity, and their genuine affection for the bard.
By any rights, though, the others had no reason to trust Xena. She glanced to one side as Ephiny came up next to her, the regent nursing a badly cut forearm. "Trouble." The warrior nodded at the army.
"So I see." Ephiny's eyes went to Argo's other passenger. "How are you doing?"
Gabrielle had her cheek pressed against her partner's back. "Okay." She answered, not very accurately. Her back was aching, a burning sensation that was reaching further and further both up her spine, and down into her thighs. She felt like throwing up, but she knew it wasn't the time, and certainly wasn't the place. A hand dropped unexpectedly to her thigh, and warmed it, and she gave the torso she was cuddled up against another squeeze in return.
She could hear Xena's voice rumbling through her leathers, armor and the fabric of her cloak.
"We're going to have to wait until they clear this pass, then sneak in behind them and go around to the west."
Ephiny nodded. "I was thinking that." She pushed her curls back. "It's going to be very tight."
"That it is." Xena agreed. "But I figure once he gets through the pass, he'll deploy through the basin, and we can slip through the ranks." She shifted and turned. "Dismount. Get some rest and patch yourselves up. We're going to hold here until they clear the narrows."
Stolid, armored forms dismounted obediently, and Xena waited a few beats before she swung her leg over Argo's neck and slid down, turning to give Gabrielle a hand reflexively. The bard hesitated, then followed suit, grabbing onto Argo's saddle as her feet hit the ground and bolt of pain almost sent her sprawling.
"Hey." Xena grabbed her. "Gab? You all right?"
Truth? Lie? No way. "No." Gabrielle said, in a small voice. "I think… ow.. it's my back.. I.." She straightened, then gasped. "Oh."
"Damn it." Xena clasped her shoulders and turned her carefully. "Put your arms around my neck." She ordered, feeling her partner's back cautiously under her cloak. A gasp gusted against her chest as she touched area just above the bard's tailbone. "Okay… easy." Xena looked up at Ephiny. "I need some shelter."
"Right." Ephiny dissapeared into the thick underbrush.
"Gotta get this armor off you, Gabrielle." Xena unhooked the bard's cloak one handed, keeping hold of her with the other. "Why didn't you tell me you were hurting?"
"Mmp.. " Gabrielle bit her lip almost through. "Xe, please don't yell at me right now." Her voice was barely a whisper.
"Okay." The warrior unclasped the armor, and started to lift it off, feeling the bard's body almost convulse under her touch. "Easy… easy.. " She managed to get the leather off, and laid it over Argo's back, then she loosened the padded belt and removed it. The leather was stained dark with blood, and the coppery scent rose to Xena's sensitive nose. "Did you get cut?" She asked.
"Yes." Gabrielle shifted her grip to Argo's saddle as Xena moved around behind her and dropped to one knee, probing carefully. She flinched, and knew her partner felt it, by the comforting pat she got on her leg. "It… really hurts."
"It came very close to your spine." Xena's voice was very somber. "It's a bad cut." She touched a spot. "Does it hurt here?"
"What about here?"
Long sigh. "All right."
Ephiny appeared suddenly. "There's an outcropping right over there, Xena. It's big enough to fit under… we're tying the horses off near there."
"Okay." Xena stood and released her saddlebag, then slung it over her shoulder. "Take Argo." She handed Ephiny the reins, then carefully fit her arms around Gabrielle. "Around my neck."
"I can walk over there."
"Gabrielle, don't argue with me. Just do what I tell you." Xena snapped. "Now."
Arms slid around her neck, and she lifted Gabrielle up, cradling her cautiously as she made her way through the rough brush towards the rock. Cait anxiously caught up to her. "Cait.. get the saddle blanket from Argo's kit, and spread it down there."
Xena waited until the girl had done so, then she carefully laid Gabrielle down on her side. "Roll this way." The bard did, in silence, resting on her belly and drawing one knee up to relieve the pain a little. Xena paused, and took several steadying breaths before she eased down to sit cross legged behind her partner. "Gabrielle… I'm going to have to clean this, then sew it up. It's going to hurt." A nod. "A lot."
Gabrielle looked over her shoulder. "Okay."
Her soulmate handed her a bit of leather from her armor kit. "You can't scream." She watched the bard take the piece and slowly bite down on it, then curled an arm and set her head down on it. Xena gripped Gabrielle's upper arm for a long moment, before she started to work. Despite the aching tension, and the agonizing flinches Xena could plainly feel as she worked, no sound came from her partner as she cleaned the wound out very carefully, flushing it repeatedly to make sure nothing was left in it, washing out the clots of blood, and the tiny bone fragments from the bard's spinal column that the blade had fractured away. She dusted the deep, triangular gash with herbs, then sewed the wound up. "Almost done." Xena placed a pad of linen against the cut, then bound it into place with a strip around the bard's slim waist. "Okay." She laid a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder, and pulled her back a little, stopping when she saw the tear streaked face.
Dealing with her own pain was one thing. She'd been doing that most of her life. Seeing Gabrielle in agony like this cut her far more deeply. She was aware of the soldiers clustered all around her, and the dangerous situation they were in, but she tucked that knowledge away, and pulled her armor off one handed, setting it down next to her as she gently cradled the bard's body in her arms, stroking her hair in helpless comfort as sobs racked her.
Gabrielle's hands clutched at her leathers as the bard pulled herself closer, letting out a trembling sigh as she spit the leather bit out, the marks of her teeth starkly evident in it's surface. "There's no pressure point for that area." Xena murmured. "I'm sorry, sweetheart."
A second. "Didn't even realize… "Gabrielle rasped. "Must have been so out of it after.. "
"Shh." Xena braced her back against the rock, and exhaled. "Just rest. " This put a new complication into an already dire situation. She also wanted to kick herself for not making sure Gabrielle hadn't been hurt in the attack, and for the fact that surely the bard had been suffering during their ride, and she hadn't noticed.
Yes, she was responsible for the troops. Yes, she had to make sure they all got out alive. But damn it!
Something poked her in the belly, and she looked down, her brows knit fiercely. Swollen and tear reddened eyes peered up at her.
"I was just trying to be a good soldier." Gabrielle uttered.
Xena wiped a tear off her cheek. "I don't want you to be a good soldier." She told the bard. "I just want you to be you."
"Okay." Somewhere, Gabrielle found a smile. "Stop beating yourself up, then." She received a brief tensing of Xena's lips in response, and she accepted that, letting her head rest against the warrior's stomach and curling one arm around her loosely. The incredibly vicious pain that had gripped her had subsided to a dull agony, and she was very grateful to simply be able to lie still and be with Xena. "Wow… that really hurt."
Xena idly ordered her sweaty hair. "It's very close to your spine… very sensitive there. You had bone chips… might have touched some nerves."
"Oh." Gabrielle absorbed that. "Good thing you made that belt, huh?"
"Mmhmm." Xena nodded, then glanced up. "How's it going?"
Bennu shook his head. "Something's slowing them up." He lifted his big body up over the rock they were crouched behind, and shaded his eyes. "Can't tell what." The battered troops around him seemed to let out sighs of relief, huddling down in small clusters around the boulder. Several were tending wounds, most pulled dried beef sticks or trail bars and munched quietly.
Xena rummaged in her saddlebag and removed one of their trail bars, breaking it in half and offering a piece to Gabrielle.
Cait crawled over, resting on her elbows. "I can just get to the top of that tree.. would you like me to see if I can see what's going on?"
"Go on." Xena murmured. "Be careful."
"Right." Cait beamed, and crawled off, skirting the boulder and heading for her target vantage point.
"Your trust means so much to her." Gabrielle commented. "She's so proud of that."
"She earned it." The reply was brief, and simple, but it raised a bittersweet tang in the back of Gabrielle's throat, as an echo of memory in a far off land surfaced.
I wonder. She blinked, her lashes brushing against the leather surface lying on. If I'll ever hear that word again, and not think of what I did in Chin. She closed her eyes, so Xena would not see the tears.
"Still hurting?" The warrior's voice rumbled softly.
Gabrielle nodded, sighing and letting her bit of rations to fall slackly against Xena's armor. A heaviness settled on her chest, and she just lay there limply.
Xena flicked her eyes to where Cait was making her way steadily, but slowly up the trunk, then returned her attention to her soulmate. The warrior's brow creased, and she chewed on her lip, worried about the uneasy sense she was getting from the bard. "Hey." She used a fingertip to tickle the edge of Gabrielle's ear.
A bloodshot eye slitted open, glinting with moisture.
Xena smiled. "I remember the last time you had to sleep like this… do you?"
A breath. "No."
One dark brow lifted. "You don't? Tch… c'mon, Gabrielle.. it took me three candlemarks to get those quills out of your behind."
A spurt of laughter was forced, unexpectedly from the bard. "Oh gods." Gabrielle replied, hoarsely. "I think I deliberately blocked that memory out."
'Well.. if I'd fallen on porcupine trying to get away from an angry mother goat who was chasing me because she thought I stole her kid… I'd probably forget it too." Xena allowed.
Gabrielle set the dark thoughts aside. "I wasn't trying to steal it..I just wanted to get it away from it's mamma's milk so I could.."
"Make me some cheese" Xena finished, with a fond smile. "I know.. I felt so rotten about you going through all that just… " She hesitated. "Just for me."
"Mm.. I remember… you brought me so many honey nut pastries, I almost got sick." The bard's nose twitched, as she edged into a smile of her own. She moved her head a little, and peered up. "Are we going to make it back okay?"
Xena chucked her on the chin. "We'll make it back."
Gabrielle nodded, and relaxed, moving her hand down and finding her partner's, whose fingers tangled around hers, soothing the dark edges still clinging to her thoughts. "How bad is that cut?"
The warrior smoothed her partner's hair back. "Bad enough for you not to be fighting for a while." She warned.
"Xena.. " Gabrielle protested. "C'mon.. I rode half the morning with it."
"And now you're lying here because of it." Her partner snapped. "What's with you, Gabrielle? Getting stubborn in your old age?"
A green eye glared at her. "If you think I've just started getting stubborn now, you're getting forgetful in yours."
Xena snorted. "Stop acting like me."
"Annoying, isn't it?" Gabrielle exhaled against her leather pillow. "You're not sending me back to the valley." She looked up when her partner didn't answer, and found quiet, serious eyes looking back at her. 'You're not."
"Xena, I'm telling you.." Fingers covered her lips, and she stilled, but her expression darkened.
"Listen to me." The warrior insisted. "There is no one, no one in the world that I would rather have guarding my back than you."
"But." Fingers stroked her face. "You fighting hurt makes it a lot more dangerous for both of us, Gabrielle.. for you, because you can't react like you usually do, and for me, because I'll be so worried about you I'll probably get my head lopped off."
Damn it. Gabrielle sighed, finding herself caught in between two very strong emotions.
"We'll talk about it later." Xena continued. "Let's wait until we get back to the river, and see how you feel, okay?"
"Okay." Gabrielle agreed.
Xena kept one arm over Argo's neck, and she walked forward, edging her way around a large oak to peer cautiously at the straits ahead. It was quiet, though the brush, the ground, and the trees showed vast evidence of the huge army that had just passed. "All right." She uttered. "Let's see how far we can get." She turned and pulled herself up on Argo behind the already mounted Gabrielle, winding a protective arm around her as they made their way out of the trees and down towards the pass.
Sitting in the saddle, pressed against Xena wasn't comfortable, but Gabrielle gritted her teeth and bore it, knowing if Xena had to draw her sword and fight, she'd be safer where she was than behind her soulmate.
The troops spread out behind them, with Ephiny and Eponin riding along one side and Bennu and some of his soldiers riding along the other.
It was very quiet, and Xena kept all her senses extended, hoping the lack of birds and animals reflected the fear of the army just past. They were riding into the wind, but it brought her only what she knew, that a large force had come this way, and were not too very far ahead of them.
Xena paused, as they cleared the outcropping of rock that formed the pass, and slowed Argo's pace, her warning senses coming alert as she stopped just short of the opening, and got down. "Stay here." She held a hand up and slipped forward, touching the sun warmed rock and cocking her head, listening intently.
Tiny rocks, dislodged by wind and vibration, rattling down.
The stench of horses, and men blew over her, along with the smell of bruised foliage, and very far off, a hint of water. Her nape hairs prickled.
Slowly, lazily, she reached over her shoulder and slid her sword out of it's leather sheath with the barest whisper of steel and made a signal behind her. She took a step forward, and suddenly, without warning, thumped her hilts against the rock, making a loud bang.
A snort behind the rock.
Xena yelled at the top of her lungs and heard a surge of motion. "Trap!" She bellowed. "Move!"
Her troops rushed forward, and suddenly there was a wall of men and animals swinging around the pass edge, weapons out and almost on top of them.
Xena leaped partway up the rock and caught hold of a small ledge, slamming her sword blade down and taking off the head of the first soldier through the pass. She kept up a continual battle yell as she swung again and again, using one booted foot to knock back the leading edge of the attack until her troops caught up with her, and dove into the fray. She glanced down to see Argo's familiar golden form and dropped off the rock onto the mare's back, behind her ducking partner. "Hang on."
"Like there's a choice?" Gabrielle answered grimly.
Horses were all around them, and the clash of swords and the fighter's yells filled the air. "We have to get out of here." Ephiny slammed her sword hilt into a helmed head. "We're gonna have the whole damn army on top of us, Xena!"
Gabrielle felt the hesitation behind her. "Over there!" She pointed suddenly, spotting an opening between the trees. "If we can make it through there… I think we can get over the creek!"
Bennu wheeled his big stallion around, slashing a space around him. "G'wan, Genr'l! We'll hold em!"
It went against everything she was. Xena saw the shield forming before her, and she fought against her instinct to spearhead it.
"GO!" Eponin slapped Argo on the rump. "For Artemis' sake, Xena… without you, we've got no chance!"
More enemy soldiers surged forward, and arrows flew, peppering the air as Xena reluctantly pulled Argo around, every fiber resisting the action. "All you in the rear.. follow me!" She finally yelled, aiming for the break in the trees, and urging the mare forward.
Gabrielle just held on, hearing the agony in her partner's voice. She tried not to think about the friends she was leaving behind, as they bolted for the woods, seeing a line of riders splitting off the attacking force and heading their way.
Xena saw them too, and switched her sword from her left hand to her right, swerving Argo to the right in pure instinct, to protect the rest of the fighters from the oncoming horses. She tangled her fingers in Argo's mane, and tucked as much of her body as she could around Gabrielle's, as the first of the interceptors reached them.
"Yeah!!!!" Xena met the sword blow, and deflected it, then angled her return stroke in and clipped the rider just under the chin, opening up his neck and sending a torrent of blood over his horse's head. The animal screamed, his eyes rolling, and reared, allowing Xena to thunder past and engage the second rider, who thrust a spear past her defenses. She released Argo's mane and caught the end, fighting to retain her balance as she and her opponent rode side by side, wrestling for control of the weapon.
Xena lifted up in the stirrups and brought her sword in from the other side, puncturing his armor just under his arm and jerking her blade out as he toppled over, leaving her with the spear.
She tossed it to the ground, and urged Argo faster, seeing the first of their troops reach the gap. "Go! Go!!!!" They thundered through, and she half turned, intending on pulling Argo up to guard their retreat. But four of her people forestalled her, forming a block in the gap and battling off the riders. All she could do was ride on, threading her way through the rushing horses until she was at the fore.
Behind them, they could hear the ongoing clash of battle, and the sounds of horns, as Andreas troops called for reinforcements. The sounds fell behind them, as they rushed along the narrow forest path, though, and slowly, the screams, and the clash of metal faded into a thrumming of hooves against moss covered ground, and the whipping rush of leaves that slapped against them leaving a trail of dark, green scent behind.
They slowed to a fast canter after their pursuit ceased, the tension almost palpable in the dim daylight of the forest.
Xena glanced around her, hoping the path would stay clear up to where they'd have to exit, and head across the large open area leading down to the river. Then, they'd be in the open, but she judged they'd be well ahead of Andreas' troops, with time enough to get behind the battlements.
She tried not to think of the people she'd left behind.
"You okay?" She asked the still, quiet form in front of her. Gabrielle nodded, but didn't answer, keeping her head down to keep out of the way of the branches whipping around them.
They rode, the horses lathering up and breathing hard, until they approached the thinning edge of the forest, and Xena slowed her pace, to give Argo a little relief. "Once we get into the plain, keep low, and keep to the edge of the woods." She called behind her, seeing weary nods. "You keep down too." She put a hand on the bard's shoulder. "How's the back?"
"Hurts." Gabrielle murmured. "But I'll live."
Xena inhaled, and settled her knees, then aimed Argo's head towards the open spaces.
And then, all at once, the light was blocked by armed, and mounted bodies.
Waiting for them.
Xena blinked, then drew her sword, and just drove on, spinning the in her hand, and letting out a wild, fierce yell.
A frantic hawk's cry rang out, and the riders in the gap scattered, bolting out of the way as though Hades himself were coming out of the trees at them.
The troops thundered out into the sun, through a milling force in familiar colors. Xena's eyes focused, then she exhaled, recognizing the faces around her. "Toris! What are you doing out here! Get them back!"
"Coming to help you!" Her brother yelled back. "We've got two raiding parties harassing their main force… c'mon!! They've been burning out the plains."
Toris edged his tall gelding over next to his sister, as Xena pulled up, motioning for the riders to slow. "What happened?"
Xena patted Argo's sweating shoulder. "What didn't?"
"You okay?" Toris asked Gabrielle, who was grimly holding on.
"Fine for now." The bard replied. "How are things back there?"
Toris glanced behind them. "Not great… we got a big flood of refugees in yesterday, Xena… you wouldn't believe what these bastards were doing to them."
"Sure I would." Came Xena's quietly chilling answer. "The more you terrorize people, the less they fight you."
"Branding people with hot irons? Putting their eyes out? Skinning them alive, and leaving them to die?" Toris shot back. "Would you do that?"
Xena sat quietly on Argo's back for a long moment, considering the question. Her troops milled around uneasily, waiting for the answer. Even Gabrielle was silent.
"No." The answer was almost thoughtful. "I would just have killed them." She looked up. "Let's get moving… I want time to map his order of battle before they hit the low area." She turned Argo's head, and threaded her way through the fighters. "It just gets harder from here on."
Gabrielle waited until they were a few lengths out before she turned her head to look up at Xena. "What about the people we left behind?"
"They'll either catch up, or they won't."
The bard's lips pressed together into a thin line.
Xena's eyes remained cool for a moment, then her expression softened a trifle. "I think they'll catch up, Gabrielle.. those were some damn good warriors back there."
"Some of them were damn good friends of ours." Gabrielle stated, very softly.
A sigh. "I know… that's why they stayed." Xena gave her a pat on the leg. "Don't start their pyres yet, Gabrielle. Anything can happen in war. "
The bard turned, and looked ahead, between Argo's golden ears.
The mood was grim, now. Xena strode through the camp, as soldiers rushed to bring last minute supplies up to the walls, and struggled to move heavy boxes through the muddy ground. They'd had a thankfully peaceful ride back, and now she was anxiously moving from point to point, getting things as ready as they were going to get, given the fact that by her count, Andreas army outnumbered hers three to one.
Xena looked up towards the lookout.
"Got another group walking in."
Xena spared a glance towards the gates. "Let em in and send them over the river."
The lookout saluted, and turned back, shouting out her orders to the gatesmen.
Bennu caught up to her as she continued on, and he paced at her side for several steps before he spoke. "Gonna be a bad one, Genr'l."
"That it is, Bennu."
They walked along for a bit. "Fighter's gotta go sometime." The tall soldier finally said. "Good cause, good leader… can't really ask for more'n that." Xena stopped and put her hands on her hips. "I didn't assemble an army for the purpose of getting it slaughtered, Bennu."
"No." Bennu replied. "But we all knew we'd be heading into a mess of trouble, Xena." His dirt smudged face wrinkled into a smile. "Whatever happens, it was a good thing in any case."
The warrior exhaled, then patted Bennu on the arm as she walked off.
The healer's tent was a busy, anxious place. Warriors that had come in with Xena were getting patched up, and those who had been in the earlier skirmishes were huddled on pallets, faces drawn in pain. The several battle healers roamed among them, but Xena's eyes flicked past them to find Elani's distinctive form, kneeling next to a pallet at the back of the tent, a torch lighting her work.
She could feel the attention on her as she moved through the crowded area, and she took the time to make eye contact, giving her injured men and women a quiet smile, and the touch of a hand on a shoulder, or head. A wave of nervous excitement trickled around her in reaction, and even the healers looked up to see what the disturbance was.
Elaini's head turned, and a brief flash of long fangs followed. "Might have known it was you." The forest dweller rumbled. "Would you come here, please, Xena? This entire tent full of fighters aren't giving me as much trouble as one little bitty human here."
Xena ambled over and gazed over Elaini's shoulder, to see grumpy green eyes glaring up at her. "Funny… my mother always says that about Dori.. you think they're related?"
"Hmm." Elaini deferred comment. "I'm sure I wouldn't trade my three for either of them." She carefully changed the bandage on the bard's back. "This is a very bad cut, Xena."
"It doesn't hurt that bad." Gabrielle rested her chin on her arm.
"You said it hurt you to walk." Xena disagreed. "And that you felt numb down to your knees."
Elaini frowned. "You didn't tell me that." She scowled at the bard. "Gabrielle, please… don't act like one of these ax heads, huh? You've got lots more sense than that, I know you do."
Gabrielle gazed up at her unhappily, reaching out with one hand to pluck at Xena's knee armor. "Sense has nothing to do with this." Her voice held a slightly hoarse note. The truth was, every move made a jolt go down her legs, and up her back, and she knew her soulmate knew that.
She also knew what Xena was thinking, and though her mind told her the warrior was right, her heart objected to the thought of leaving her partner at the very eve of the battle. She looked up into Xena's face, and saw the confirmation there, in the furrowed brow, and the pensive, thin smile. "Centaur farts."
Elaini reviewed that, then peered at Xena. "How do you do that?"
"Feed them beans." The warrior deadpanned. "G'wan, Elaini.. I'll take care of things here."
The forest dweller stood, and pressed Xena's shoulder, then went to her next patient, kneeling down next to a young man from the cavalry who'd had half his leg sliced off.
"Mom's agreed to take Dori, and a group of the worst wounded over the river, back to the valley." Xena stated. "You're going with them."
The protest died on her lips, as an inadvertent motion made her clamp her jaw shut, and bite the side of her tongue. Xena patted her head very gently, and she exhaled in weary frustration. "I don't want to leave you."
"I don't want you to go." The warrior replied honestly. "But knowing you're safe over there… will be a big weight off my shoulders."
Xena glanced outside. "Candlemark… maybe two." She answered. "They're packing the wagon now."
Gabrielle hitched herself up on an elbow. "Can you spare a few minutes before then?"
A nod. "For you? Always."
Cyrene turned at the sound of boots, to see a familiar figure fill the gap in the tent walls. "Ah." She pushed her hair back. "We're almost ready."
"Boo!" Dori craned her head around her grandmother, and spotted the newcomer. Her arms went out in an eager, grasping motion. "Booo!!! Booo!!" She wriggled on the crate Cyrene had sat her on, and almost toppled off.
"Easy there, kiddo." Xena caught her, lifting her up and tucking her small body into the crook of an arm. "Whatcha been up to, huh?"
Dori flung her arms around Xena's neck and squeezed, making little grunts of approval and happiness. "Bobobobobobobobobooo…." She hiccuped, then blinked. "Mama?"
"Yeah… we'll go see mama." Xena promised, giving her mother a glance. "We wanted to spend a little while together before you leave."
Cyrene rubbed her daughter's arm, but said nothing.
"C'mon, Dori.. wanna go find mama?" Xena rocked the baby as she walked out of the nearly empty tent. She was dressed in her gambeson, having washed the day's battle stains off before changing her leathers, and her hair was still damp from her bath. "Gods, you're getting so big."
Dori grasped the front of the padded fabric, and gave it a healthy tug. "Go go go!!!" She gave Xena a tiny scowl. "Go now!"
Xena gazed at her somberly. "I did promise you, didn't I, little one?" She murmured, as the trusting green eyes blinked up at her. "Okay… c'mon." It wouldn't take long, and the few minutes of play would take an honest weight off her shoulders. She looked around, frowning as the rough, drab camp spread to either side of her down the river banks. "No room back here…" She exhaled. "Guess we're going over to the other side, Dori. Hang on."
It was a surreal feeling, to be walking through a camp of war, on the eve of what she knew would be horrible bloodshed, cradling Dori in her arms as they passed through the tents, and past the boxes, letting the yells and sounds fall behind them as she reached the bridge and crossed it.
Her boots shook the planks of the footbridge, the smell of the river coming up and brushing her, as the wind shifted and came around. The sounds of the camp faded, replaced by crickets, and the rush of the water.
It was like stepping back into another world. Here there was no churned mud, no smell of men and horses, no blood. No cries of the wounded, or the stench of death. Far up the path she could see the gates of the town, and as she watched, a solitary chicken bobbed across the road, finding insects, and Xena took a deep breath of the clean, cold air as she walked. Her boots scuffed up a bit of dust, and for a brief moment, she wished it was just another morning, one that would end with her and Dori rambling back to the cabin, to wake Gabrielle and enjoy biscuits and fruit together.
"You know something, Dori?"
Xena's lips twitched. "I've grown out of enjoying war." She admitted to the child, with a feeling of faint surprise. "Isn't that something?"
Dori didn't seem perturbed. She chewed on a buckle industriously and explored the simple crystal hanging around her beloved playmate's neck.
Oh well. Xena resolved to enjoy the moment. She took the right hand path, which circled Amphipolis, and broke into a jog as Dori squealed, wriggling in delight as she recognized the motion.
"Go go go!"
Xena picked up her pace, adjusting her balance for the baby in her arms, since she'd left all of Dori's carry sacks back in the camp. "Like that, huh?"
Dori giggled, seemingly enjoying her front view. "Go!"
They raced up the slope, completely alone in the forest around the abandoned town, small animals scurrying out of Xena's way in surprise. She dodged through the trees, leaping over rocks and stumps, and laughing along with Dori's delighted chortles. "Ready?"
She took a step, then launched herself upward into a flip, getting a squeal almost in her ear. After she landed, she vaulted right back up, turning twice and twisting, then she raced off towards a slight rise, leaping off the top with out the slightest hesitation.
"Booo!!!!" Dori yelled in excitement as they flew through the air, the wind rushing against their faces. The slope let them stay aloft longer, and Xena arched her back and turned onto her side, then tumbled over, getting her feet under her just in time to land. "Whoo… that was a nice one, huh, Dori?"
"Good!" The baby approved. "More!"
"All right." Xena spotted a boulder nearby, roughly half again her height. She bolted towards it and jumped, reaching the top of the rock and standing for a moment as the wind gusted. From here, she could just barely see the roof of her mother's inn through the trees. Dori thrust her hands out and waved them, her feet kicking industriously. "Okay, hold on."
She crouched, then leaped upward towards the sun, tucking her knees up and spinning rapidly through the air as Dori giggled in delight. Xena laughed with her, flipping over and over, the brief sunlight that had broken through the overcast pouring over them. She landed, then jumped straight up, reveling in her own strength as she turned and twisted, bouncing as the earth came back up to her, then simply letting herself fall back into the thick grass, as a cloud of dusty pollen exploded around them.
Dori sneezed, and waved her small hands, making a surprised face as she sat on Xena's chest. "Good!" She crawled over and gave her buddy a kiss. "Love Boo."
Xena hugged her, cherishing the moment without reservation. They rocked back and forth for a moment in the grass, then the warrior glanced up, sighing as she bounced to her feet. "We gotta go find mama now… okay?"
"Mama." Dori agreed. "Mama good."
They reached the bridge, and started over. "Be good, Dori." Xena sighed. "Keep your mama company for me, all right?"
"Mama." Dori repeated obediently.
The warrior slowed as she entered the camp, and paused in a patch of sunlight, gazing seriously at her daughter. "Dori?"
The baby looked up at her inqisitively. "Boo?"
"I love you." Xena touched her face with a fingertip. "I want you to promise me something." Dori clutched at her finger, and sucked the end of it. "Listen.. if something happens to me, Dori.. I want you to promise me you'll take care of your mama, okay?"
"It's going to be so hard for her… " Xena paused to swallow. "But I know she'll stay with you, because you're our daughter, and you need her." She kissed the baby's head. "And she loves you very much."
Dori stuck her tongue out, and scowled.
Xena sighed. "What in Hades am I doing? You don't understand a word of this, do you?" She shook her head, and headed towards the command tent, where Gabrielle was resting before starting the wagon ride out to the valley.
They still had a little time left.
Xena ducked into the tent and smiled, as Dori squirmed at the sight of her mother and tried to wriggle free. "Hang on.. easy now. Remember what I told you."
Gabrielle was curled up in the rough chair, leaning on one arm to keep the pressure off her back. "Hey honey!" She produced a real smile as Dori hit the ground toddling and ambled over, crashing into the chair with infant abandon. "Ooh… careful." She gingerly helped the baby climb up, then winced as Dori threw her arms around her neck with a squeal. "Shh… shh.. I'm glad to see you too.. what took you so long?"
"I had a promise to keep."
Gabrielle looked up at her in surprise, then at Dori. "A promise?"
"Goosh!" Dori waved her arms.
The bard gazed at her daughter. "You took her for a run?" She murmured, wonderingly.
"Mm." The warrior didn't look at her. "Just for a few minutes… over the bridge and back.. I.." A faint shrug. "I did promise."
Gabrielle touched a fingertip to Dori's button nose, making the baby slightly crosseyed as she tried to follow the motion. "Yes, you did." She acknowledged. "Boo always keeps her promises, Dori… remember that, okay?"
"Bck." A small hand swiped at hers, and clutched it.
Xena picked up the bard's already packed saddlebags, then she set them to one side, and sat down on the ground cross legged. "They're about ready."
Gabrielle nodded, as she straightened Dori's unruly hair. "I figured. " She put a hand on Xena's arm, resting nearby. "Please be careful."
Xena looked up. "You too." She let Dori play with her thumb. "Got a feeling they'll start the attack tonight."
Another nod. "Any sign of… "
They both quietly watched Dori play, as the baby explored the limits of the chair, and tried to climb over the arm of it. Xena moved her head into the way, and butted her back, making her sit down abruptly.
"Bck!" She objected, pointing at Xena. "Gaboo!"
Outside, they heard the creak of the wagon, and shouts as the horses were hitched to it. Xena quietly stood up and lifted Dori into her arms, then offered Gabrielle a hand up. The bard took it, and very carefully stood, taking a breath and obviously waiting for pain to recede. "Lean on me if you need to."
Gabrielle did, winding an arm around her. They walked together out through the flap, and across the churned, pungent ground to where the last of the non combatants were climbing up into the wooden cart. Xena gave Dori a kiss on the head, then handed her to a very reluctant Cyrene, turning to help Gabrielle up into the wagon.
Gabrielle rested her hands on the wooden side, resisting the urge to turn, and simply walk away, walk back to the command tent and refuse to go. She could see the soldiers watching her, and she felt like such a traitor to be leaving now, when the darkness was so clearly closing on them.
Over something so stupid, too. The bard cursed internally Gillen's aborted attack, to cause such a small cut which yet disabled her as surely as if the damned Amazon had cut her hamstrings.
With a sigh, she allowed Xena to lift her up into the wagon, and settled gingerly on top of the furs, resting partly on her side and getting as comfortable as she could. The wall of the wagon was at her back, and she felt Xena's fingers ruffle her hair as she leaned her shoulders against it. She reached up in reflex and caught the hand, winding their fingers together as the rest of the passengers climbed aboard.
She looked up, to see Xena looking back at her. "Will you promise me something?"
The blue eyes flickered. "Sure… if I can."
Gabrielle reached up and laid her palm against the warrior's cheek. "Be good." She asked, simply.
Their eyes locked, all the history between them suddenly vivid and present in that one, single request.
"I will be." Xena finally answered. "I promise." She leaned over and they kissed, dismissing the uneasily watching crowd. Nose to nose, they took one last look, one last breath of each other. "Stay out of trouble." Xena uttered.
Just the hint of a smile answered her. "I will… I promise."
Then the wagon shifted, and they parted, Xena stepping back and resuming her mantle of cool leadership as the driver settled himself on the front board, gathering his reins. He turned and glanced at Xena, who gave him a brief nod of acknowledgement, before he set his feet and clucked to the two big animals pulling the wagon.
They surged forward, and the wheels creaked, squishing through the mud as they moved away towards the bridge, leaving behind a few watchers who stood in silence until they passed beyond the trees and out of sight.
Xena watched a moment longer, then turned as footsteps approached. "Yes?"
Toris ran a hand through his thick hair. "The lookouts report they smell pitch on the wind, Xena… we think they're going to firebomb us."
Cold blue eyes reviewed the camp. "Get everyone to grab the buckets, and douse everything with water. " She decided. "Let's go!"
The wagon moved along slowly, the horse's rhythmic strides rocking the wooden cart and almost lulling it's occupants to sleep.
Or, at least that was the theory. Gabrielle sighed and tried to get more comfortable. They had hay in the bottom of the wagon, thank the gods, and she was resting against two stuffed sacks of grain, her cloak tucked around her closely. Cyrene sat next to her, with Dori snoozing blissfully in her arms, and the innkeeper glanced up as she felt Gabrielle's eyes on her.
"I'm surprised.. I thought she'd be all over the place. "
The bard lifted her hand and touched Dori's, examining the tiny fingers with a half smile. "Xe took her out to play just before we left." She responded, watching the baby's grip close about her thumb even in sleep. "She seems to know how to tire her out"
"Takes one to know one." Cyrene remarked placidly. "Tch.. look at those sleeves.. time for a new outfit, I think."
"Mm." Gabrielle agreed, touching the fabric which was creeping up her daughter's arm, halfway to her elbow. The green suit was snug across her body as well. "Yeah… she's outgrowing this one for sure." The bard sighed. "I think I've got a bigger one back in the caves…that blue one Ephiny.." Her voice simply stopped, and she let out the rest of the breath she'd been using to speak with, and fell silent.
Cyrene took her hand and chafed it, her face tensing in sympathy.
"This is so senseless." Gabrielle whispered.
"War always is." Her mother in law answered. "No matter how they justify it.. no matter who wins, or who loses… it all boils down to people killing each other for no purpose." She looked at Gabrielle. "But sometimes, Gabrielle… it comes to you and you can't stop it."
Dori woke, stretching her arms and legs, and yawning. "Brwp." She poked a lip out at her grandmother, then frowned, and turned her head, spotting Gabrielle. "Mama!" Her eyes lit up in delight, which brought a smile to Gabrielle's face.
"Here.. give her to me." The bard shifted, and leaned back against the sacks. "Keep my mind off my back anyway." She took her daughter's squirming form and tucked her in the crook of an arm, tickling her belly with her other hand. "Hey, cutie."
Dori smiled, her green eyes almost dissapearing into her chubby cheeks. "Bck."
"Ooo.. you're so cute." Gabrielle glanced around the wagon, where the six other badly injured fighters were laid, some watching her with tired, pained eyes.
Elaini was braced against the back wall, watching the worst off of them, a young Amazon who'd had most of one arm ripped off, and taken an arrow through her upper chest. The forest dweller was constantly changing the herb soaked bandage over the woman's wound, but her eyes roamed over the rest of them, and she smiled as they fell on Dori. "Uh oh." One furry eyebrow lifted. "I knew it was too peaceful to last."
"Hey.. she's being really good." Gabrielle protested. "She hasn't caused one bit of trouble in weeks."
Dori grunted, and squirmed over onto her belly, then pushed herself upright. "Mm." She stuck a finger in her mouth and looked up at her mother in question. "Cookie."
Tired chuckles lifted from the wagon.
"That's from you." Gabrielle gave Cyrene a dire look. "I try to make her eat good things like carrots, and what do you do?"
"I know my audience." Cyrene blithly responded, removing a nut stuffed pastry from her pocket and handing it to her granddaughter. "Here you go, sweet pea."
"Mom." The bard sighed.
"Oh, all right. Here." Cyrene removed another cookie, and handed it to Gabrielle. "You don't think I know where she gets it from?"
"Hm." Gabrielle sniffed the pastry appreciatively, then took a bite. The sweet normality of the taste triggered a wistful ache in her chest, and she was surprised to realize she was looking forward to reaching the valley, part of her very glad she was out of the battle.
Thoughtfully, she finished the pastry. Was that cowardly? She thought about that for a while, as Dori crawled over her, searching for more goodies. If she hadn't gotten hurt, she definitely would have stayed at Xena's side, there was no doubt in her mind about that. But the fact was, she was hurt.
She just thought she should be feeling worse about that than she was. "What did you find, Dori?" The baby was tugging at one of her pockets with childish absorbetion. "Hmm?" Gabrielle unhooked the flap and let Dori dig inside, laughing when she came up with a somewhat dusty, slightly battered honey drop. "How did you know that was in there?"
"Mm." Dori stuffed the treasured sweet into her mouth.
"You know who put that in there, don't you?" Gabrielle ruffled her hair. "I'll give you two guesses."
"Xena put that in there."
"Boo!" Dori looked around eagerly. "Go Boo!"
"No, sweetie." Gabrielle sighed. "Not right now."
The wagon slowed, and the bard looked up, watching the driver stiffen, and raise himself off the seat slightly. His head turned, and he looked directly at her. "Ma'am?"
They never did quite know what to call her, did they? "Just Gabrielle." The bard lifted herself up slightly. "What is it?"
The man lowered his voice. "Looks like we've got company." He told her. "Been a lot of travel through here."
"What?" Gabrielle gently eased Dori down into the straw, then carefully pulled herself up onto her knees so she could see over the backs of the horses. The road was empty, as was the swale on either side, but even she could see the flattened grass stalks, and the broken branches leading into the foliage that bespoke the passage of many bodies. "Hm."
"Not enough of us to make that."
"No." Gabrielle leaned her arms on the seat, taking the painful weight off her knees. "Go a little closer."
The horses moved towards the forest, easing over onto the left side of the road to allow the bard a better look. She shifted over and leaned against the side wall, absorbing the disarray, and seeing the now visible marks of many horses hooves in the earth.
"Bo." Dori had clambered to her feet, and pulled herself up next to her mother, tiny green eyes peeking up just over the wood. She pointed up at a bird. "Zom!" A hop. "Go!"
"Shh." Gabrielle released one hand and curled it around her child. "No flying now… quiet, Dori."
Dori leaned her face against the wood, mouthing a sturdy peg that held the boards on.
Gabrielle chewed her lip. "Keep moving down the road." She decided. "Let's see what we find."
The driver glanced at her. "Ma'am… we've got injured here, and we don't know what's down that path.. could be trouble."
"Could be." Gabrielle agreed. "But we can't go back, and if it's that much trouble, they've probably spotted us already." She turned her head. "Everyone get down as much as you can… Elaini.."
"Make like a rug, I know." The forest dweller put her kit down and started helping the wounded get under cover.
"Start going." Gabrielle ordered. "Keep it nice and slow, and steady." The wagon lurched forward, and she caught the board, closing her eyes against the jolt of pain that seized her, stopping her breathing for a long, agonizing moment. "Whoa." She let her muscles slowly unclench, and released a breath.
"Mama?" Dori tugged on her cloak. "Go Boo."
"Not right now, honey." Gabrielle pushed her gently down. "Sit down now…so you don't get hurt."
Stubbornly, the baby resisted the motion, grabbing onto the seat back and squirming under her mother's hand to remain standing, peering about the cart with interest.
Gabrielle sighed, and tucked the edge of her cloak around Dori's body, and turned her attention to the area as well.
It was quiet, and wild here, far past even the furthest fields of Amphipolis, where old growth forest crept up to the edges of the road and winter sparse branches rustled and clicked to themselves in the wind. A gust of the same breeze stirred Gabrielle's hair, and she turned her face into it, listening and sniffing the air as Xena had taught her to do.
Not like she could detect one tenth of what her partner could, of course, but over the years, she'd begun to get a sense of the world around her, of what belonged, and what didn't. Though her recent sojourn in Amphipolis had dulled her edge a bit, still, the wind brought to her a scent she knew had no place in the quiet forests to either side.
Lots of them.
"Bck." Dori wrinkled her nose up. "Horsie."
Gabrielle tilted her head and blinked at her daughter, then looked up at the driver. "She's right." The bard muttered. "There's a big herd around here."
"Could it be wild? Was a lot of them beasts left to run up past the valley." Cyrene had now eased up next to them. "Something Xena could use, I know."
"Well.. they're close enough so that if they have riders, the riders know we're here." Gabrielle stated seriously. "Let's keep going, and see what happens. If they're wild, we can send a note back as soon as we get to the valley."
The wagon creaked on, and the entered a deeper patch of trees, which blocked the wind and brought a little silence around them, and the sound of their horses hooves and the jingle of their tack suddenly amplified. They kept moving, watching the sides of the road with cautious eyes, but the wheels turned uneventfully for long minutes, which became a half candlemark, then a whole one, and finally they started to relax. Gabrielle lowered herself into the straw with a gasp of relief, half curling onto her side as the pain she'd held at bay clenched her muscles.
"Gabrielle." Cyrene put a concerned hand on her shoulder.
"I'll be all right." The bard held a slightly shaking hand up. "Dori, sit down, honey." She felt the creak and shift as the wagon started around a curve in the road, which would take them between granite outcroppings as they headed up towards the valley.
"Gabrielle." The driver suddenly said, his voice urgent. "We've got visitors."
With a muttered curse under her breath, Gabrielle straightened, and looked over the edge of the wagon. Her heart fluttered, then bounded, as she saw a cluster of cloaked riders ahead, squarely in their path, spreading out across the road and blocking it entirely.
"Ah." Gabrielle murmured.
"What do we do?" The driver hissed.
"Keep moving." The bard replied. "Straight for them."
Everyone looked at her uneasily. "Gabrielle…" Cyrene objected.
"Just do it." The bard fixed her eyes on the group ahead, ignoring the silence beating her skin.
The wagon rolled closer, and the cloaked figures waited for them, sevaral of the mounted riders spreading out to surround them as they came even with the small rise in the road they were perched on. The wagon driver pulled the horses to a halt uncertainly, and glanced at Gabrielle.
The bard inhaled. "Are you blocking the road for a reason?" She met the eyes of the closest rider coolly.
"We are waiting for Gabrielle the bard." The man answered promptly. "Would that be you?"
A momentary silence rippled over the road.
"That's me." The bard admitted. "What do you want?" She was aware of everyone's looking at her, and unconsciously she straightened her shoulders, and let a hand drop around Dori.
"Come with us." The lead rider urged his horse forward a few paces, and swept his hood down, revealing a handsome, chisled profile with a close cropped auburn beard and rusty brown hair.
"Like Hades." Cyrene barked. "Take your friends and move along, mister."
Gabrielle cleared her throat. "It's okay, mom." Slowly, she stood up and eased a leg over the edge of the wagon, using her arms to support her weight as she slid down to the ground.
"Gabrielle, you just hold on." The innkeeper scrambled across the straw and grabbed her hands. "You're not going anywhere."
"I have to." Gabrielle uttered.
"You do not.. Gabrielle, if you go… don't you understand how important your safety is?" The innkeeper hissed, furiously.
"Take care of Dori, okay?" The bard gently removed her fingers. "I'll be all right."
"Gabrielle!" Cyrene's eyes bored through her.
"Mama?" Dori toddled anxiously over and reached for her. "Mama?"
"Shh.. it's okay honey." Gabrielle leaned forward and kissed her on the head. "Stay here with grandma." She backed off stiffly, and limped around the horses, heading towards the mounted riders. "Let them go." She ordered firmly, watching as the lead rider made a signal, and his men clustered off the road, clearing the way. "Head to the valley." She told the driver. "Go on."
Clearly upset, the man hesitated, then urged the horses forward, his eyes on Gabrielle as the wagon creaked by. Cyrene looked halfway between outraged and horrifed and the bard could see the protests rising to her lips.
Only to die there when the bard gave her head a tiny shake.
Dori scrambled to the other side of the wagon, stumbling in the hay and thumping against the wood. She gripped the edge of the wood and peered over. "Mama!"
Gabrielle felt her heartrate double, and she closed her eyes for a brief moment, before reopening them. "Be a good girl, honey."
The tiny forehead crinkled, and Dori let out a wail. "Mamamamammmmaaa!" She started to scramble over the boards, intent on her mother, who was slowly falling to the wayside.
"Dori!" Cyrene lunged for her, but she just wasn't fast enough. Dori went over the side, and would have crashed to ground if Gabrielle hadn't jumped forward and caught her, grabbing onto the side of the cart in agony as she scooped the baby up with her other hand. "Augh."
"Mama." Dori squirmed up her body, clinging to her desperately. "No go. NO go."
"Shh." Gabrielle released the cart and battled the pain, standing upright and cradling her daughter. "Shh.. it's okay, honey. It's okay."
"Ungh." Dori got her arms around Gabrielle's neck and held on.
Oh boy. The bard exhaled, then lifted her eyes, to see Cyrene's accusing ones looking back at her. "Dori, you can't stay with me." She untangled the small arms. "Stay here with grandma."
The lead rider chuckled dryly behind her, and she paused, taking a deep breath before she took firm hold of her daughter. "Doriana, now you stop."
Dori sucked on a finger, turning big, green, pathetically wistful eyes on her.
Gabrielle bit the inside of her lip, recognizing the look, having seen it in the mirror on more than one occasion. "Honey, you can't come with me, I'm sorry."
A tiny lip poked out.
Resolutely, Gabrielle closed her eyes and lifted Dori's body over the edge of the wagon, setting her down in the straw and releasing her. Then she turned, and walked away, keeping her back to them as the driver slapped the reins and the wheels creaked across the rocky ground. She didn't even turn at Dori's wail.
Which hurt more? She wondered dully, as the sound faded behind her. That cry, or the pain her injury was causing her? Finally, the wagon was gone, and she looked up at the horseman.
"That's a beautiful child." The man remarked.
"Thanks." Gabrielle answered softly. "She's a little stubborn."
A smile creased the bearded face. "Like both her mothers, I hear."
The bard studied him, then inclined her head briefly.
"We've got places to go, Bard Gabrielle. Shall we?" The man briskly went on.
Gabrielle stiffly moved over to him, laying a hand on the smooth shoulder of his horse. "I'm ready." She confirmed. "Let's get started."
Xena stood on the ramparts, the thickly mudded surface soft beneath her boots. Across the plain, she could now see the advancing line of troops, and the black line that marked the burned grass before them. The wind brushed the hair from her eyes, and she sniffed it, catching the scent of fire, and battle, and damned all the gods, no rain.
She glanced to her right, and then to her left, checking the ramparts full of soldiers busy fletching arrows, and sharpening weapons, counting the positions for the hundredth time. She'd donned her full armor, and felt it's solid weight around her as she breathed in deeply.
Xena turned and leaped off the top of the walls, tucking her body into a lazy tumble before landing on her feet, knees half bent to absorb her weight. Striding across the puddle ridden ground, she considered options, which weren't many, and her resources, which were also not infinite. She entered her command tent, and went to the worktable, leaning over it and reviewing the lists of supplies, and the troops she had left.
A soft tap came at the door flap, and she looked up. "Come."
Bennu entered, giving her a reflex salute as he strode over. "Genr'l.. they've got them balls you asked for over by t'tent.. you want to check them out? "
"Yes." The warrior straightened. "Did they spread the mixture I gave them over the nail spikes?"
"Y'smam.. they were damn careful too, not to touch the stuff."
Xena nodded. "Good." Something she really hadn't wanted Gabrielle to see, those missiles with their coating of poison, calculated to blow apart on impact and send metal shards into the soldiers opposing them. "Are the pits covered?"
"All right." Xena's eyes roamed over the inside of the tent. "I figure they'll hold outside crossbow range… then give us an ultimatum." She folded her arms. "Then they'll bombard us with whatever they've got.. I figure firebombs, but this place isn't burning, so the next thing they'll do is throw a force against the walls.. see how tough we are."
Bennu nodded, scratching his jaw. "You figuring to still foul the water down t'them?"
"Yes." Xena folded up her documents, and tucked them in a pouch she fastened around her waist. "C'mon, Ares." She patted her leg, and the wolf curled up on her pallet willingly jumped down to join her. "They want war." She flexed her hands. "They'll get it."
Another light tap at the flap. "Yes?"
A head poked itself in, making Xena's eyebrows lift slightly. "Hecuba." She acknowledged the woman. "Bennu, excuse us. I'll meet you by the slope in a few minutes."
The soldier left, giving Hecuba a brief nod, leaving the two women alone in the spartanly furnished tent. "Something I can do for you?"
Gabrielle's mother folded her hands before her. She was wearing a rough, linen apron stained with blood from the healer's area, and seemed older than Xena had remembered her. "You have sent Gabrielle away to safety, they tell me?"
Xena considered the question carefully. "I've sent her out towards the valley, yes." She replied. "You could have gone with them, Hecuba.. no one expects you to stay here."
"I know." Hecuba answered. "But I have such trouble understanding my daughter, Xena.. doing this, doing what I'm doing, makes me appreciate what she's gone through somewhat." She paused. "I'm glad she's not part of what's going to happen here, however."
Xena had no answer for that, so she gave none.
"I would guess that she herself, isn't happy about it, however."
The warrior thought about that for a bit. "I don't think she's happy about having left..here. Us." A pause. "Me." Xena stood in a tiny bubble of self revelation for a second. "But I don't think she regrets being out of the battles.. she fights because she has to, not because she wants to."
Hecuba nodded. "I used to resent how much of a fighter she has become. Then I realized that in the horrible world we live in, at least you've given her a chance to survive." The older woman exhaled. "That's more than most get."
Xena came around the side of her worktable, up to where Hecuba was standing. She gazed down at her soulmate's mother somberly. "Maybe if we're lucky, our children won't have to know how to fight."
Finally, Hecuba smiled, a wry, stiff expression that for the barest instant recalled her daughter. "Xena… one way or the other, your children will always be warriors."
Eh. Xena allowed a return smile to flit across her lips. "Time for you to get under cover. They have everything they need over at the healer's area?"
"I have no idea." Hecuba answered honestly. "I'm sure we'll do the best we can."
"I'm sure you will." Xena started to move past her, but paused when the older woman reached out and took a hold of her arm. Her eyebrows lifted.
There was plainly a struggle going on behind the almost colorlessly grayish hazel eyes across from her. "Good luck, Xena."
"Thanks." The warrior murmured.
"Please be careful. If anything were to happen to you, I know Gabrielle would be devastated." Hecuba went on, very seriously. "And I really think she's going to need your help with little Doriana. She's quite an active child." A breath. "So, please. Do take care." Very stiffly, Hecuba inched forward, and, girding her loins, bravely put her arms around her intimidating daughter in law, and hugged her.
Xena felt like laughing at the absurdity of it, but she restrained herself to a smile, as she returned the hug, careful not to press Hecuba's thin form too hard against her armor.
One of her very few, now, loose ends neatly tied up, and set to rest.
It felt nice.
Without speech, they parted, and walked side by side out of the tent, moving in different directions as they reached the lone, gnarled tree crouched in the mud of the camp.
"I only have horseback available." The soldier gave Gabrielle an apologetic look. "I can see you're hurting."
"Part of the job." Gabrielle gritted her teeth, and hauled herself up into the saddle. "Is it far? " She held her breath, watching shooting stars cross her vision as she settled into the saddle. "What's your name, anyway?"
He edged closer. "Justin." A cock of his head. "Currently captain of the guard of Cirron… you know, I've heard so much about you, Gabrielle.. it's amazing."
"Mm." The bard exhaled, and nodded. "Let's go.. you guys know you trampled everything to the west of here.. I though we were keeping this secret."
"You think it's easy keeping that many men.. and women.. and.. well, anyway." Justin started off through a slash cut path in the underbrush. "And those Amazons are picky!"
A flick of green eyes. "Really?"
"Yeah!" The young soldier sidled closer. "Gotta have their tents just so, water just so… you put too much salt in the stew, it gets tossed at ya… unbelievable." He shook his head. "Don't know why women want to be fighting all the time anyhow… ain't natural."
Both blond eyebrows lifted into Gabrielle's fair hairline. "How do you explain Xena, then?"
"Oh." The dark haired man smiled. "She's not a woman, she's a warrior."
"Ah." Gabrielle leaned her weight forward onto the saddlebow of her horse. "Have you met her? I don’t' remember you from the war."
"No.. I wasn't in the guard then." Justin confided. "My father ran a woolen merchant's shop on the edge of the city.. I enlisted after the war… but I"ve heard all the stories.. is it true you sat on the castle ramparts and wrote a poem during the worst of it?"
"No." Gabrielle ducked her head as winter dried branches brushed over her, catching strands of her pale hair and scraping over her shoulders. "I sat on the ramparts and worried myself sick." The horses headed down the narrow path, stepping carefully as the foliage became denser and denser. "Good grief."
"Shh.. we're trying to keep this secret." Justin placidly remarked, drawing his longsword and slicing at the branches, showering her with twigs and a desiccated birds nest. "Whoops.. sorry."
"Uck.. I don't.. " Gabrielle felt the horse lurch under her, and she grabbed for his neck as the path suddenly plunged down in a steep slope, passing near a thick granite wall that exuded a cold moisture. "I guess this is…. Oh."
She was standing on a plateau of granite, which overlooked a deeply carved chasm between the rock walls, mossy growth covering the sides and looming above the sedate trickle left on the very bottom.
Camped on either side of the water, stretching out as far as the ravine traveled, were troops. The bard eyes found clusters of Amazons, neat, orderly regiments of men, and on the other side of the water, a sea of fur in shades from sand to black.
"How many?" Gabrielle turned, as Justin guided his mount over to her.
"Little over fifteen hundred, all told." The man answered, waving as they were spotted, and pointing at Gabrielle
"Wahhooo!" A russet figure broke away from a small group near the water and bounded towards them.
Gabrielle found herself smiling in pure reaction, and she carefully slid off her horses back, getting to the ground just in time to greet the oncoming charge, and become enveloped in a wall of warm, furry, excited Jessan. "Careful.." She warned quietly, as the forest dweller hugged her. "I got knicked."
"Boy, I'm glad to see you." Jess was warbling. "You've got no ide… hm? What happened?" The forest dweller backed off, and studied her anxiously.
"What hasen't?" The bard sighed, feeling like it had been years since she'd last seen her friend, instead of the few months it was in reality. "I.. um.. .got cut across my back… it's more just painful than anything, but… " She forced a smile. "It was a good excuse for me to leave and come out here.. Xe and I were starting to think we were going to have to fake a fight with each other."
"Yeah." Gabrielle grimaced. "I wasn't looking forward to that… but I'm not sure I like the alternative much either." She admitted. "Now I have to worry if Dori and Cyrene are going to forgive me for just going off with the first good looking soldier I found along the way."
"Aw." Jessan enfolded her in a hug again. "C'mon… we've got a nice, warm, secure, important people's tent over there, with hot tea and prickly humans. You'll be right at home."
Gabrielle laughed softly into his fur. "It's nice not to have to be one of only two people in an entire camp who knows the truth." She uttered. "Xena's taking such a chance, here."
"It's a good chance." Jessan circled her shoulders with a long, powerful arm, and led her down the path carefully. "We're still outnumbered two to one, but if this works…."
"I know." The bard nodded. "I didn't say I didn't agree.. just that I'm worried… I feel like we're betting everything on a quirk."
They passed between ranks of neatly encamped soldiers, who glanced up as she passed, and some lifted hands in obvious recognition. Gabrielle smiled at them. "Cirron sent a lot of troops.. is Hectator here?"
"Like he'd miss this." Jessan chuckled. "And.. don't think of it as betting on a quirk, Gabrielle… one of Xena's great strengths is her understanding of human nature." He cleared his throat. "Something my people are in wide eyed, unabashed, rocking awe of her for after this little caper, let me tell ya."
"Mm… that's true." The bard admitted. "She understand everyone except herself, sometimes."
Jessan scratched his jaw. "Interesting point… anyway, that mind stuff is the important part of war. Everyone thinks it's how strong you are, or how many arrows you got.. that's not true at all. To beat someone, you need to make their minds surrender.. once that happens, nothing else matters."
Gabrielle thought of that as she ducked her head to enter the command tent, which puffed a welcome warmth over her. There was a camp stove inside the large structure, built to accommodate the forest dweller's inches as well as their allies, and a sturdy table went along one wall covered in parchment maps much like the ones in Xena's camp. The floor had woven mat covers, though, and there were well built couches along the other walls to provide sitting space. It smelled of cinnamon and the brass tang of armor, and Gabrielle just wanted to curl up in the corner and sink down into it.
"Greetings, little sister." Lestan turned as she entered, his mahogany eyes glinting in the firelight. "It is good to see you… it means perhaps we will have things to do very shortly."
"Sit down." Jessan guided her to a bench. "She got hurt." He glanced over at his father. "Where's…ah."
The flap opened, and Hectator entered, stepping aside to allow Aslanta to come in behind him. "Ah!" The prince of Cirron smiled. "We have a welcome visitor, I see."
"Queen Gabrielle… it's good to see you." Aslanta's face creased into an ironic smile. "The waiting was getting kind of…"
"Long." Hectator supplied. "I just had to nix a boxing competition between us, the Amazons, and the forest dwellers."
"Aw." Jessan sat next to Gabrielle, and extended his long legs along the floor. He was dressed in a battlecoat, layered armor that protected his body, but left his arms and legs bare. He flexed his toes and watched the mud bits drop off his claws.
"Well, in one sense, I'm glad I'm here too." Gabrielle sighed. "Because it means this whole thing is starting to be over." She rested her weight on her hands, and ignored the shooting pains up and down her back. "Andreas' army is within view of the main camp.. Xena figures he'll start some testing attacks tonight, but won't really come at us until tomorrow dawn."
"Sounds about right." Lestan rumbled. "We can start moving forward shortly, then, and clear the gorge." He looked up at Hectator and Aslanta. "About time, eh?"
Both chuckled wryly. "They're just serving chow… we'll start packing after that." Aslanta commented. "Queen Gabrielle, join us for some lunch?"
Gabrielle's stomach didn't agree. She took a small breath, and swallowed hard. "No.. thanks." She managed to get out. "I think I'll just sit quietly here.. come and get me when we're ready to move, okay?" She felt Jessan's hands on her as she started to sway, the pain overcoming her defenses suddenly.
"Gab… easy." The forest dweller went to one knee, and helped her lie down. "Wow… I think you better get a healer, dad.. wish Elaini'd come with her." He tugged his cloak off and settled it over the bard's body as Aslanta hurried over, and Lestan strode to tent opening, and yelled an order outside. Gabrielle's eyes were blinking slowly, and her face was tense with pain as her fingers curled over the edge of the couch and tightened. "Gab? You're really warm."
Funny. She felt really cold. Gabrielle shivered a little, under the cloak. "Fever." She realized, whispering the word. "Xe worried about that…." Her eyes fluttered closed. "Think I better rest for a while."
Jessan chewed the fur on his lower lip, and gave the Amazon a worried look. "Oh boy… that's one thing we didn't count on… " He murmured. "She's the key to this whole thing."
"In more ways than one." Aslanta agreed seriously.
Continued in Part 24