Standard Disclaimers -
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 4
The bard looked up, to see Besthia walking towards her. "Yes?" She pushed away from the wall, and straightened, trying to ease muscles aching from the hard work of wrestling the huge roasts on and off the spits. She was covered in grease, and the bitter sauce they'd been basting the meat with, and she felt disgusting.
"Bring those trays down to the catacombs." The chatelaine told her. "And hurry back.. we start bringing the troops in shortly."
Gabrielle nodded, wiping her hands on the dirty piece of linen she'd captured, and heading towards the bins of meat offal and vegetable and lifting one of them up. Another ragged helper scurried to assist, and she followed the girl down the long, grease strewn stairs, careful to keep her footing.
The smell from the trays was getting her nauseus, but after she went on a few more steps, she forgot about that, in view of the stench that rose to her from the dungeon. Oh gods. Gabrielle almost stopped dead, then she forced herself to continue, biting the inside of her lip and wishing she could get to her wrist.
They got to the bottom of the stairs and the guard there checked them over, then snorted, and opened the door, apparently oblivioius to the smell of decay and waste that floated all around them. They entered into a small rotunda, lit by fluttering, greasy torches that showed six large cells all facing them, circling a wooden platform, where a large guard sat, a long, thick whip curled in one hand. He looked up as they entered.
"Hey…look..it's the trencher wenches." He laughed. "Put the slop down, girls…we'll see who was good enough to rate a meal today."
Gabrielle set her tray down, and straightened, looking around in horror. Each cell had perhaps ten or fifteen occupants, all in rags, most very thin, with straggling beards or the occasional smooth, female face. They stared at the guard with haunted, hungry eyes, hands thrust through the bars in desperate begging.
Xena says.. I have to learn to distance myself from situations like this. Gabrielle recited to herself silently. So that I can step back, and make a clear, logical decision without letting the emotion of the moment get to me.
"Okay… who's gonna sit up and beg for me today, huh?" The guard flicked his whip out, then stood, strutting over to the bars. "Maybe I won't give any to anyone… I'm in a bad mood today."
Six.. seven..eight…. Gabrielle looked up to see the man kick a thin girl in the face, knocking her into the back of the cell.
Screw that. "Here.. let me bring it over for you.. " She helpfully picked the heavy tray up and strode forward, as he turned, grinning at him as she let her boot catch in the wood and pitch her forward, sending the contents of the tray flying into three of the cells. "Oh… oh..gods.. I'm sorry… " She knelt to retrieve the dripping pan. "It's so slick here.. I'm really, really sorry… " Gabrielle watched the intent scramble for food in her peripheral vision, as she looked up at the guard.
"Clumsy bitch." He kicked her, sending her against the wall with shocking violence. Gabrielle just lay there, stunned for a moment, then gathered her arms and legs under her as he came closer, flicking the whip at her and lashing her shoulder. "Get up.. and get out of here before I lock you up to just for being so damned stupid."
A thousand retorts rose to her lips, but she bit them down, remembering her gentle entreaty to her soulmate. I need you… please be safe. That goes double for you, Gabrielle…you know what it would do to her if something happened to you, so just shut up.. and be glad you got those poor people some food, at least. "I'm sorry." She repeated again, keeping her head down, aware of eyes on her from behind, from the cell she'd fallen in front of.
The man muttered, but turned and walked the other way, lashing his whip at the bars nearby, sending the occupants scattering back.
"That was gutsy." A low, very hoarse voice whispered, just behind Gabrielle. She turned her head slowly, peering into the cell curiously.
Bloodshot dark eyes looked back at her, in a battered face no older than her own. He wasn't as thin as the rest of them, and he hardly had a beard started, so Gabrielle took a chance on guessing his identity. "Are you Devon?"
The eyes flicked around, but the guard was across the room. "Yep.. that's me… Devon the incredibly unlucky." He managed a half smile, around the swollen jaw and half shut eye that bore a dark ring. Despite that, he had a gentle, engaging face, with a promise of rakish good looks, and he looked at her with desperate, quiet humor.
"I hear you're a storyteller." The bard whispered, pretending to gather herself together and attempt to stand.
"I was." Devon stated. "Now I'm rat food." He glanced past her to where the guard was making his way back. "But it was worth it.. if even one person like you still has the guts to stand up to them. "
His eyes told her he knew his fate, and was resigned to it, with a stubborn courage that touched a chord deep inside her. Recklessly, she reached through the bars and touched his face, pinning his eyes with her own. "Don't give up so fast, Devon." She murmured, then with drew, standing as the guard came closer, and brushing her clothing off. "I'll just take the tray now."
"You'd better… now get outta here." The guard growled, flicking his whip at her and moving on. " You don't get squat, you little pissant… and if you open your mouth again, I'll break the other side of it."
The bard picked up the discarded tray and turned, then paused as she heard a whisper coming from the cell.
"Hey.. what's your name?"
She stepped closer, leaning towards him and letting a tiny, impish smile cross her face. "Gabrielle." She told him, seeing him start, and his eyes widen before she turned and followed the other server out, clutching her tray with apparent humility.
"I'm not here to join him." Xena kept her voice low, and calm. "Now, get off me."
"We've watched our folk become his slaves… we're not going to take a chance on ye… that'll seal the matter." Gaese shook his head, and pressed harder.
Xena felt her muscles tense, and she coiled the energy within her, letting it rise to the surface with a soft, rumbling little growl. "You know who I am, do you?"
They felt it, she knew, she saw them react. "Now get off me." Her voice took on an edge. "Move." This was a low shout, cracking through the air and making them jump, as they scrambled away from her, even Gaese stumbling back and dropping his pitchfork.
Xena twitched her shirt straight, then glanced at Iolaus, noting that her bags were obviously scattered and had been searched. To one side, her sword was lying, along with her folded leathers, which she hadn't had the guts yet to find out if they still fit. She put her hands on her hips and regarded the huddled villagers, who were blinking at her in some trepidation. "You could have gotten me killed." She told them quietly. "Because if they knew what you know… they'd spit me like a pig."
Gaese sat down in the straw, looking at her with round, surprised eyes. "You really are Xena.. aren't you?" He asked, in a hushed tone.
The warrior sighed. "Yes.. as a matter of fact, I am… what gave it away?"
Slowly, a tiny, bandy legged woman eased out from behind two of the men, and folded her hands across her chest. "My sister's an Amazon." She glanced around, then up at Xena furtively. "Been to her place twice… she's got a picture there.. of you and the Queen."
Oh. Xena was faintly surprised. It never occurred to her that people outside her family would want those pictures of Paladia's. "So you recognized me."
The woman nodded. "t's a good picture."
And here she was, worried about an old hack fighter of hers looking up and seeing his former commander wandering around the compound. "Who's your sister?" Xena asked curiously.
"Solari." The woman grudgingly admitted.
Xena smiled in reflex. "I had no idea she had any siblings… she's a good friend of ours."
The group stared at their colleague in awe.
Gaese cleared his throat self consciously. "Sorry about that." He indicated the pitchfork. "We.. um….it just looked so…"
"It's all right." Xena stated quietly. "You were willing to risk your life to help your people.. that's pretty damn brave." She walked across to her saddle bags and started to repack them, letting her fingers trail over her leather armor. Then she checked the uniform she'd been given, and found it to be a standard belted overtunic, apparently more than large enough to accommodate her body.
The uniform would allow her to move around the compound…but…
With quiet decision she entered Iolaus' stall, and started unlacing her shirt, suddenly aware of an awkward silence. She looked up. Five sets of eyes looked back at her, with varying stages of apprehension and trust.
"Did you really come here to help us?" Gaese asked softly.
Xena leaned on the wooden divider, and regarded them. "We came here to find out what was going on… and to see if we needed to do anything about it." She answered honestly.
They looked at each other. "We?" The tiny woman blinked. "Is… "
"She's up in the kitchen, yeah." Xena replied shortly.
"What did you decide?" Gaese persisted. "About what's going on?"
A little silence settled around them. "I decided that I don’t' like what's happening." Xena answered, slowly. "And that we have to do something." She looked at the door. "But right now… I've got to get me, and Gabrielle out of here.. before someone else figures out who we are, and makes us into fertilizer."
"Wow." Gaese murmured softly. "Can we help? I mean.. we can distract them or something… anything…"
"Yeah.. we're really good at plans." The small woman stated, as they all started walking toward her.
Xena pulled her now loosened tunic off and draped it over the wooden half wall. "Well.. " She glanced up to see two of them walk into each other and Gaese trip and hit a watering trough, as they all avoided looking at her. "Sure.. why don't you start by sitting down for a minute."
They did, and let her dress in peace, as she shook out her leathers and regarded them, then shrugged and stepped into the dark garment, holding her breath as she pulled it up, then realizing she didn't need to, as the armor neatly claimed her body and settled comfortably into place.
Huh. She fastened the straps and let the cool leather warm as it came into contact with her skin. It felt strange.. it felt… she took a deep breath, and felt the comfortingly solid presence around her. Like an old friend. The scent carried hints of brass, and the herbs they used to keep out insects at home, Xena realized, as she patted the front of it in wry affection, feeling her spirits rise.
Then she pulled the tunic on, and settled it's folds over her, buckling the belt and tugging the fabric straight. It was a dark green, with black edging and golden pipes, and bore what she assumed was Andreas' crest on the front, which was a golden lion. It matched what she'd seen the guards wear, though this was a touch more ornate, and it had a beltbuckle which featured a hammered lion's head.
"All right." She dusted the hem off, and ran her fingers through her hair. Her eyes fell on her sword, sitting mutely on the bench, and she hesitated, then reluctantly decided to leave it behind. She did however slip her breast dagger in place, and the two long, slim blades that seated at the top of each boot.
And then she paused, redrawing one dagger, and considering it's cool, hard length.
What was that she'd told Gabrielle? Never carry a weapon you have no intention of using? She drew in a breath, then a second, then seated the knife home in it's scabbard, acknowledging that dark part of her that was awake now, and sniffing interestedly around.
If she'd had a tail, she realized darkly, it would have been twitching.
It was time. There was no way for her to get them out of there before she had to meet with Andreas, and to miss that.. would mean an instant search, and a plummeting of their already tight chances.
All right then. Xena dusted her hands off, and tightened her jaw. He wanted a dinner date? He was gonna get one. Her lips curled into a fierce grin, as she walked to the door of the barn. "Could be I'll need that horse pretty fast."
They blinked at her. "We'll get him packed up." Gaese murmured. "Are you sure there's nothing else we can do?"
The blue eyes took on a faint, wry twinkle. "Cross your fingers."
There was a small courtyard outside, where the huge platters and spits were rinsed off in large water troughs, and Gabrielle edged through the door into the open air with a sense of relief.
First, because she was alone. Second, because there was large quantities of water there, and that was exactly what she was looking for. With a determined look on her face, she strode across the wet ground to the largest trough, and stuck her hand in. "That'll do." She then unhesitatingly took hold of the edge, and valuted over it, landing in the water with a very satisfying, and very chilly splash.
For a peaceful moment, there was silence in the courtyard.
Then Gabrielle surfaced, spluttering, and shook the pale, wet hair out of her eyes, as she scrubbed at her body furiously. "Ugh.. uck… gross.. ew…. Gods be damned, Gabrielle… the next time you want some adventure, tie a can on Xena's tail, okay? Stupid romanticizing piece of…UGH!!!"
She ducked her head under the water and rubbed her hair, then surfaced again, reveling in the simple sensation of being clean.
Well… The bard glanced at the now murky water. Somewhat less than completely filthy, anyway. With a sigh, she climbed out of the trough, and pulled the stopper, letting the muddy water drain off down the cut stone channel. The cool air hit her body and she shivered involuntarily, then she wrung the fabric out as best as she could before she trudged back inside, poking her head in the doorway and looking around before she slipped across the stone floor to the spit area.
At least it was warm there. She pushed faintly trembling fingers through her damp hair and went back to a pile of nuts she'd been tasked with cracking, after she'd gotten back from delivering the food to the prisoners. The tempo was a little slower now, since all the heavy prep work had been done, and the servers were busy carting out pots of meat and vegetables for the troops.
Gabrielle felt the warmth of the fire on her back, drying her shirt and she shifted her shoulders a little to ease their stiffness. Wistfully, she wished Xena were there. She found she missed the warrior's close presence more than usual, and she wondered if it had more to do with the danger, or that she'd become used to having her partner around her all the time the past week.
C'mon, Gabrielle… she's not a walking security blanket, ya know. She cracked her nuts absently, separating the shells from the nutmeats, and putting the latter in a large bowl.
"You're all wet." The short, thin girl she was working with whispered.
"Mm.hmm." Gabrielle agreed. "I had to rinse off all that grease.. it was driving me nuts." She glanced at the girl, who was staring at her like she'd grown a second head. "What?"
"You went outside? Without permission?" The girl squeaked.
Gabrielle riffled her drying hair out. "Yes…actually, I didn't think about that. I just wanted to get clean." She looked around. "Hello, wh…"
Two men had entered, and were putting down some wooden boxes, their eyes glancing towards her in question. Besthia came up behind her.
"Gabrielle… ah.. good. Sit down there, they'll put your tattoo on."
Two blond eyebrows shot up, and the bard turned, putting her hands on still damp hips. "What?"
Besthia rolled up a sleeve and displayed a small lion's head on her shoulder. "Your mark… come now, sit down and be still.. it doesn't take long."
Gabrielle's heart started pounding, and she glanced at the men, surprised to see one of the merchants she'd talked to earlier in the market. "What are they going to do?" She asked, more to buy time than anything else, being well aware of how tattoos were applied.
"Hush now, girl.. just sit, and let them do their work. It's bad enough you'll be idle while things go on… but Andreas has said all his people must wear the mark by the dawn." The older woman glared sternly at Gabrielle, and pointed at the bench.
Slowly, the bard sat down, glancing at the two men in growing dread. One of the men unpacked a sinister looking kit, the other rolled her damp sleeve up and swabbed her skin with a sharp smelling liquid.
"Lass." The man with the swab whispered, as Bethia moved a pace away. "I'm sorry."
The bard nodded, and clenched her other fist, resting her head against it and feeling the cool metal band of her ring giving meager comfort.
She felt his fingers grasp her wrist very gently, then he chuckled. "Ah." He put her hand back down and laid a touch on her back. "This'll sting a bit, lass… grab hold there."
I can't believe this is happening. Gabrielle gritted her teeth and clutched the table edge, trying to ignore the bustle around her. She could feel Besthia's eyes on her, and she felt the blood rising to her neck in embarrassed response.
A cold touch on her shoulder, then pain, and she clamped her jaw down hard, strangling the yell that threatened to force it's way out of her chest. It felt like a firebrand was touching her skin, and she felt her toes curl inside her boots as the pain moved edgily across her skin, sending jolts of agony through her. .
It withdrew momentarily, and she sucked in a breath, before it started up again, relentlessly driving against her sensitive skin over and over again, until she was lightheaded from holding her breath against it.
"All right then.. now the color… won't be long now, lass."
She nodded once, briefly, then held on again as the pain returned, this time slightly different, hitting odd nerves in her body that made her thigh muscles jump in response.
Finally, it was over, and she let out a relieved breath, as the merchant patted her back.
"Brave lass… all over now." He bent closer. "I'll put a cloth over it… it takes days to heal."
Reluctantly, she turned her head, and looked at her arm, reddened and slightly swollen from the abuse. She was startled to see a black outlined, golden hawk head looking back at her, it's dark eye cocked in question, and she felt a curious mixture of emotions, ranging from outrage, to disgust, to a weird little thread of excitement. "But…" She looked up at him in bewilderment.
"Shh.. now… we've all got em." The man stood between her and Besthia, his finger against his lips. "Tis an honor… like a battle scar." He casually rolled up his sleeve, and displayed an ugly, twisted knot in his skin. "Arrow did that…. at Corinth."
Corinth.. Gabrielle tensed her lips in acknowledgement, and saw his faint nod. Well. She watched the merchant cover the picture with soft, white linen. I am hers, right? A tiny, wry bit of amusement worked it's way through her pain and exhaustion. She's gonna have a heart attack when she sees it.
Speaking of… Her eyes went to the window, where the last bit of sunset was showing, and she realized the thick, nervous dread she'd been feeling in her guts had little to do with the tattoo, and everything to do with a certain warrior princess she knew.
Who was unsure of herself, in a way that was almost painful for her soulmate to witness. Who was fighting a darker side that even Gabrielle could sense reemerging, and was going into this conflict as fractured as the bard had ever seen her.
"Be safe." She whispered, sending out a warm thought. . "I love you."
Xena made herself stroll across the grounds, her hands behind her back, stopping to watch.. to look, occasionally to listen as she made her way towards her appointed reporting spot.
She timed her steps to the sun, letting her shadow lengthen before her as the sun sank lower and lower, feeling it's dying rays warming her back and throwing her face into darkness.
Heading from the light, into the darkness… in more ways than one, she admitted to herself. She could feel the wild part of her stirring, pushing it's boundaries, having been somnolent long enough, and for every step she took, it's alertness grew, sending her nostrils flaring, and prickling her skin with the hypersensitive awareness that made every brush of air a kaleidoscope of sensation.
Her steps altered, becoming less of a casual stride and more of a silent stalking, as her knees loosened, and her body leaned slightly forward, over her center of balance.
She mounted the steps as the last rays of the sun disappeared, and the purple twilight colored the stone walls in a dull blue shadow. The adjutant was waiting, obviously waiting, and he regarded her coldly as she came to a halt next to him.
"You walk a thin line, horse trainer."
Xena turned, and glanced behind her, then faced him. "You said sundown. The sun.. is down." She told him, reasonably. "What's the problem?"
His eyes studied her for a long moment, then he moved forward, reaching for her body. "You would do well not to play games."
The warrior caught his hands gently and held them. "What do you think you're doing?"
He tried to pull his arms free, and found himself unable to. "Checking you for weapons."
Xena released him. "Oh." She gave him a seductive grin, reaching for the laces that held her tunic closed. "You shoulda said so.."
He back off uncertainly. "Ah.. no… that…that's fine."
Pale blue eyes glanced at him from under dark lashes. "You sure?" She patted her chest, then her upper thighs. "Not much room in here for catapults or anything like that."
He looked closely. "Ah.. no… just come with me." He answered stiffly, turning towards a large, ornate door.
It was opened as he reached for it, and Andreas pushed the surface outward, leaning on the frame and regarding them. "So." His eyes lazily studied Xena. "Here you are."
"I was being checked for weapons." The warrior drawled.
Andreas laughed thickly. "Ah.. Paladar… the weapons you possess my hound here would have no luck in removing, eh?"
Truer than you can ever know. Xena accepted the compliment with a gracious nod. "Shall we?"
"Please." The tall general gestured for her to precede him, and the entered a long, carpeted hallway that stretched off into the distance, lined with torches at sedate intervals along with armored, serious looking guards. "The uniform becomes you."
Xena paced alongside him, letting her senses absorb their surroundings. "You like the insignia, I see." The lion motif was everywhere, from the wall tapestries, to the blazon on the guard's tunics.
Andreas chuckled softly. "I like to stamp what's mine." He commented. "So there are no.. misunderstandings." He approached a large door, and the guard next to it opened it, bowing his head as the tall general brushed past him. 'It makes me feel so.. secure…"
The door closed behind them, and Xena glanced around the room. It was a large, immaculate, but simply furnished room, with a huge desk on one side, and several bookcases full of bound scrolls behind it. there were two low couches against the wall, and a table with several chairs around it evidently meant for staff meetings. Through a half closed door in the rear, she could see a bedpost, evidently Andreas sleeping quarters. "Nice." She commented softly, grudgingly admiring the clean, austere room, which matched her tastes in lack of ornamentation. She looked up to find Andreas at her elbow, his compelling eyes capturing hers.
"I'm glad you like it." He purred, offering her a seat. "Please… they'll bring dinner in shortly… I'm sure you must be.. hungry."
Oh brother. Xena found time for a tiny bit of amusement, as she crossed to one of the low couches and relaxed on it, stretching out her length and crossing her ankles as she studied Andreas. He chose a perch on the table corner, giving him the advantage of looking down on her.
"It's been a long day." Xena acknowledged.
"Mm.. so it has. Tell me, Paladar… what brings you here?" His eyes grew intent, and focused on her and Xena could feel the power of his potent personality hitting against her defenses.
"I was headed to Athens… thought maybe I could get some work there." The warrior stated quietly. "When I stopped by here, I heard there was an army being gathered, so… " She lifted a hand and let it fall.
"So, here you are." Andreas murmured. "And how fortunate for me.. since my other trainers proved so…inadequate." He stood and walked over to the couch, seating himself on the arm, and playing with her hair. "One might have thought the gods had sent you here… except I don't believe in them."
Interesting. Xena clamped down tight on her instincts, which were screaming for her to bat the general across the room. "You don't" She slowly turned her head to regard him, his leg inches from her jaw.
"No, I don't… does that shock you, Paladar?" He murmured, running a finger across her cheekbone. "I think they're one big scam.. meant to keep us huddling in our places." A smile twitched it's way across his face as he traced her jawline. "I would much rather celebrate our own, human potential… wouldn't you?"
"Some say the gods to exist." Xena replied quietly.
"They are a myth." Andreas replied, his voice deepening, and becoming very compelling. "You must not fall prey to that myth, Paladar…you have far, far too much potential to let yourself be trapped by old superstitions."
"Myths." The warrior mused, thoughtfully.
"Yes… myths." The voice grew soft, and cunning. "You don't want to believe in fairy tales, do you, Paladar?"
"No." Xena answered. "I'd rather believe in things I know are real."
Andreas smiled. "Good girl" He patted her head as though she were a favorite dog. "I teach all of my army to let go of their old beliefs…and concentrate on the goal." He paused. "My goal." He continued stroking her hair, almost hypnotically.
Dark lashes fluttered over pale blue eyes. "What is your goal?" Xena asked softly. "Why are you building this great army?"
He gazed at her. "To conquer, my sweet Paladar… to take all of this land under my banner.. and.. protect it."
"Protect it from what?" The warrior's brows creased a little.
He tipped her chin up. "From anyone who wants to take it away from me." He bent his head and kissed her.
On one level, Xena could feel the immense power of his personality, augmented by whatever it was that necklace was doing. It hammered against her, but that part of her that was part of Gabrielle, which the bard owned utterly, sat back and let the intensity roll off her like water.
Her hand twitched, resting on her calf, as dark instincts rose up, and she considered ending the situation right there. Her thumb touched the dagger hilt in her boot, but he broke off, and smiled at her.
"Does that answer your question?"
"Yes." The warrior let her hand relax. "Where do I fit in?"
A bigger smile. "Ah… " He chuckled richly. "A practical woman.. I like that." He offered her a hand and pulled her up, then walked across to the desk and sat on it's edge. A parchment was sitting there, marked with tiny, iron symbols that were quite famiiar to Xena. "I have a good infantry." Andreas stated flatly. "I can take the Athenian ground troops.. but their cavalry will cause me problems. Mostly because they have horses that are trained to act in concert, in close order. Most of the animals I have were gotten… from other sources."
Xena absorbed the map, her eyes flicking to details she wondered if even Andreas understood. "Okay.. you want them trained to fight." She paused. "How many of them are there?"
"Five hundred… I have perhaps seven hundred soldiers more or less qualified to ride them. " Andreas answered. "And two thousand foot soldiers."
Xena's eyes almost popped. Almost three thousand fighters… great Hera. 'That's quite a force."
He smiled. "And they are all loyal.. I take great stock in.. loyalty." He put a finger on her chin. "Do you understand me, Paladar?"
Xena straightened, and faced him, letting some of the reins loose on her own intense personality. "Oh yes… I understand you." She let her voice drop, and aquire a faint rasp. One hand lifted, and traced the tiny, perfect lion on his chest. "You like to own people… control them… make them do… " Her fingers wandered. "Whatever you want them to." Her eyes lifted, gazing at him. "Isn't that right?"
His nostrils flared. "Yes."
Xena stepped closer, running a single fingertip down the centerline of his chest, stopping at his navel. "You like to take charge." She leaned in and kissed him, letting some of the fire show. "Be the boss… " Her hand went flat on his chest, and stroked downward, and she felt his breathing shift and quicken. "Don'cha?"
A soft uttering came from his chest, as he laced his hands in her hair. "Yes."
Xena let her other hand touch his thigh, sliding between his legs and urging them apart a little. He complied without further prompting, his lips becoming insistent.
"Y'know what?" Xena breathed softly, tickling his skin.
"Wh.. ?" It was barely an answer.
Every single ounce of power coiled in her body, furious at being held at bay so long exploded, in a single, savage motion as she slammed her knee up into his swollen groin.
He screamed without a sound, and dropped like a heartshot hind, his eyes bulging and veins standing out on his neck. Speechless, he stared at her as she knelt.
"So do I." Xena told him quietly. "I'm just a little more subtle about it." With a quick motion, she slugged him, rendering him unconscious. Her hands went for his collar, spreading the fabric there and exposing the necklace.
Just like she remembered. Steeling herself, she reached for it, then drew back in horror as she realized it was no longer freestanding.
It had become part of his skin.
She brushed a fingertip across it, and felt the dark, seductive tendrils reach out eagerly for her, coaxing the tiger in her out of it's cave. With a soft gasp, she pulled her hand away, startled at the necklaces power, much stronger than she remembered from the past.
Cutting it out… wasn't an option.
She sat still for a moment, her fingers on her dagger, staring at him. She drew the blade, feeling the cool hilt warm to her hand as she palmed it, raising it slightly.
She could count the breaths between heartbeats as she balanced on the tightrope, between the darkness and the light, between her past, and her future.
And the knife slid home, into a worn leather scabbared, unblooded.
Xena stood, wiping her hands off. "I'm going to regret this." She murmured quietly. "But I have to get out of here first. " Glancing around, she walked to the door, knowing time now, was critical.
She opened the door, surprising the guard. "He's um… " She gave the big man a wink. "Resting for a few minutes."
His eyes looked her up and down, then he returned the smile, chuckling softly. "Don go far.. 'e doesn't rest long."
"Oh.. don't worry." Xena patted his arm. "You couldn't keep me away." She sauntered down the corridor, stopping to admire the tapestry, until she came to a cross corridor, which she strolled down, hiding herself from the guards view.
Then she took off running.
Xena got to the end of the corridor, then ducked into yet another hallway, pacing down it anxiously, sniffing the air. She finally detected a bit of fresh breeze and headed towards it, finding a small doorway set into an alcove. Cautously, she pushed it open, and peered out, finding herself in a placid garden.
Xena closed the door behind her, and trotted through the sweet smelling blooms, then ducked under a trellis that led towards the barn. She headed towards it, giving the few people she saw a solemn nod. Seeing her tunic, none of them stopped her, and she reached the structure in relatively good order, slipping inside and closing the door behind her.
Gaese was there, cleaing some tack, and he sucked in a breath as he saw her. "'E's ready." He nodded towards Iolaus. "Getting out of here, ar ye?"
The warrior checked the stallion's tack and nodded. "I'll be back." She lead him out carefully. "Thanks." She opened the door, then stepped back, as an armed soldier surged in, aiming a thrust to her throat.
Warrior instincts kicked in automatically, and Xena dropped, letting the sword slide over her right shoulder, then she straightened, grabbing his arm and bringing her elbow up into his chin with a satisifying crack. "Damn."
She shoved his body off against the wall, and gave Gaese a look. "Outta time… wish me luck."
The stablehand gazed at her. "Ares hands protect you, Xena."
Blue eyes regarded him in still silence for a moment. Then the warrior nodded, and left.
She was spotted as she exited, and a yell went up. "Damn..damn..damn.. you better be ready to go, Gabrielle." The warrior muttered, as she vaulted onto Iolaus' back and sent him galloping for the kitchen.
Gabrielle let her elbows rest on the worktable, stealing a few moments rest after finishing up the cleaning task Besthia had set her to. The bard was privately convinced the kitchen supervisor had singled her out, determined to give her the worst, nastiest, dirtiest jobs to do, but she seemed to have vanished for the moment, and Gabrielle took full advantage of that.
Her arm throbbed, sending jolts of pain through her shoulder, and she spared a moment for a wistful wish involving water, sleeping furs, and a certain tall, dark and devastating warrior of her close acquaintance, whose very presence would have chased away the minor annoyances of aches and pains, and dirt.
Not that Xena had been far from her thoughts in the last little while. She could feel the tension in her soulmate, but nothing stronger than that, and she fell to nervously picking at the wooden table, wondering how long Xena would be in there with Andreas.
She wasn't jealous. Gabrielle pushed a dirty lock of hair back behind an ear. Not of Andreas, but…okay, Gabrielle, just admit it.. you hate the thought of her being with anyone else… even though you know he's a crumb, and she wouldn't give him the time of day and…
The sharp jolt of fear rocketed through her, bringing her upright with a sudden intake of breath. Then it was gone, but the bard felt her exhaustion drain away, replaced by a surge of nervous energy coming down that same pathway as she glanced around the almost empty kitchen. Xena was on her way, and they were in trouble.
Like, what else was new?
To one side were the leavings of the dinner, congealing in fetid grease, and she watched a man go by them, tossing in garbage and laughing as he commented to a friend that the prisoners were worth no better.
Those poor guys. The bard chewed her lip. Maybe I could….
"Gabrielle, take that broom, and sweep. What are you just standing there for?" Besthia's whipcrack voice made her turn, and regard the broom leaning against the wall right next to her.
She put a hand out and closed it around the thick wooden handle, hefting the broom experimentally.
You know. She slid her other hand down the broomstick, flexing her hands. I think I've had about enough of this. "This broom?" She asked Besthia. "This one, right here?"
"Yes." The woman stalked over. "Do you need me to show you how to use it?"
Gabrielle swept the broom down, turning to one side and pulling the woman's feet out from under her. "Oh… wow.. sorry…" She murmured, as Besthia's head cracked against the table leg and the woman slumped into a quiet unconscious. "Maybe I do need to practice with it."
She looked around, then lifted her head as she heard a faint slam of a door. Then a yell. "Bet I know what's causing that." More yells, and the an alarm gong, accompanied by running feet. Uh oh. She moved towards the dungeon stairway door, and paused, as she heard heavy steps coming up it. Better make this quick.
The door swung open and the guard charged out, right into a savage upstroke unleashed from nervous muscles, which felled him in his tracks and sent him sprawling back down the stairs. "Sorry." Gabrielle hopped over him and bolted down the stairs, hearing the rest of the kitchen residents scrambling to leave, or to run outside to see what the disturbance was. "She's going to kill me for this…but I can't just leave them."
Gabrielle worked the lock on the door and pulled it open, surprising the inner guard as he was lashing the back of a hapless man sprawled naked on the floor in front of him. "Hi there."
"What d'yer want, yer little piece of nothing?' The man growled, turning towards her.
"Um.. they sent me down here." Gabrielle came closer, with a gentle smile. "To… sweep." She held up the broom. "It could really use it."
"Sweep? Are ye crazy? Get yer ass outta here.." The man bounded over, lifting his whip. "Before I …"
Gabrielle swung the broom at waist level, catching him hard in the ribs. He doubled over, startled and gasping, and she brought the tool down on the back of his head, watching him collapse at her feet with a groan. "Sorry…I hate to do half a job." She grabbed the keys off his belt and went to the cells, unlocking them. " You guys have one chance to get out of here… you might as well take it."
Apathetic, distant eyes gazed back at her, but there was very little movement. "C'mon!" The bard spoke sharply. "Don't you want to get out?"
The one man closest to her simply put his head back down on the rock floor, and she shook her head, leaving them behind until she got to Devon's cell. The storyteller was standing up, gripping the bars. "You want to stay here too?" Gabrielle asked shortly.
"Hades no." Devon shoved his cell door open the moment she turned the key. "Just lead the way." He gazed at her in mild disbelief. "And don't hit me."
"C'mon." Gabrielle grabbed him and hauled him after her, heading for the stairs and bolting up them, jumping over the first guard's body as she did so. "Watch your step."
They entered the kitchen, finding it mostly empty save the few helpers too timid to leave, and Gabrielle stopped, lunging forward as Devon crashed into her from behind. "Whoa!"
"Why are you stopping? Get outta here!" The man yelled, pelting for the door. "C'mon!"
"Hold on." Gabrielle grabbed the back of his tunic, sensing a rapid approach. "There are too many soldiers out there in the hall." She could see bunches of them running by, weapons drawn.
"So what are we going to do.. sit here and let them capture us? Lady.. you're nuts!" He twisted and tried to get out of her grasp. "Listen.. thanks, and all that.. but I gotta go."
"You'll get caught…. " Gabrielle insisted, pulling him back. "Hang on.. wait.. DUCK!!"
"WHAT??" He struggled. "Duck?"
"Gods." Gabrielle tackled him, rolling against the wall under the window as it shattered inward under the weight of a heavy, fast moving body, scattering shards of glazed surface everywhere.
"Gabrielle!!!" A low, powerful voice punctuated the chaos.
"Here!" The bard yelled back, rolling out from under the debris.
"Move it!" Xena grabbed her, and shoved her towards the window. "Out and to the gate."
Gabrielle grabbed Devon and hauled him after her, conscious of the thrumming energy running through her partner as Xena vaulted to the windowsill and followed them out. The courtyard was in chaos, with men running back and forth, bumping into each other and attacking anyone they didn't recognize. "Run for the gate!" Xena hollered, grabbing Iolaus' bridle as she pushed them forward. "Move!! Move!!"
The gate was half open, a small knot of men clustered around it, but otherwise clear, and they bolted for it, dodging the running soldiers, who seemed to be heading towards the long, ornate building just to the left. Gabrielle could see fire licking at a window, and she redoubled her pace, pushing Devon along and trying to keep up with her steadily moving soulmate.
"Hold there!" The guard yelled, as they got to the gate, running forward.
Xena surged ahead, meeting the first of them with a flying kick, then rolling up and catching the second with a savage elbow into his windpipe. Gabrielle followed up, ducking under the third's swing and catching him under the ribcage, then dumping him over her shoulder onto the hard ground. Iolaus reared, pawing at the air, and caught a fourth with a hoof, then Xena took out the fifth with a roundhouse right hand punch, that send him flying against the wooden surface with a clatter.
"All right.. " Xena took a breath, then looked behind them. "Damn."
Gabrielle glanced that way, spotting a crowd of men running towards them. "Oh boy."
The warrior hesitated, then grabbed her partner by the waist and tossed her up onto Iolaus' back. Her eyes fell on Devon, who was huddling in the shadows, then went to Gabrielle's face.
The bard opened her mouth, then closed it.
Xena grabbed the storyteller and hoisted him up next to her soulmate, drawing her sword from it's scabbard in almost the same motion. "Ride! Don't stop!" She yelled, giving Iolaus a sharp smack, then whistling.
"Xena!!" The bard screamed, as the horse bolted, obeying his training, and thundered through the gate. Gabrielle grabbed at the reins, trying to slow him, but the stallion gripped the bit firmly in his teeth, and pulled her arms forward, stretching his neck out and racing away for all he was worth.
Leaving a lone, dark figure to face the oncoming mob. "I guess we find out now.. just how much of this I really have left." Xena whispered to herself, bracing her feet, and taking a deep breath as she tensed, waiting the first of the onrushing men. She briefly thought of her soulmate, and then, even more briefly, of her daughter, knowing there would be no backing away from this challenge, no matter the cost.
Knowing that prevailing was the only way to ensure her partner's survival. And perhaps her own.
She lifted the crystal around her neck up and kissed it, then tucked it inside her shirt.
Then she reached down, deep, where the tiger lived, and set it free, feeling the fire surge up into her, wanting the battle, sending a fierce tingle of energy through her body, which welcomed the fight.
Wanting the blood. Craving it.
And as the first soldier reached her, she let out her battle yell, and surrendered herself to the darkness, sweeping his sword to one side with a single, powerful stroke, and taking his head off with another.
The hot explosion of coppery scent bathed her in it's familiar stench, bringing a laugh to her lips, as she went for her next kill, forgetting peace, and contentment, and the cleansing of her soul.
Ares' Chosen, holding the gates in the flickering torchlight against a surging army, soaked in their blood.
She cut through the next couple, slashing with rapid, powerful strokes and forming a barrier of the bodies, making it a little harder for the next wave to come at her. Xena ducked a pike's blow, then kicked it's owner, sending him flying back and taking out two archers.
The third fired.
She caught the arrow with a flick of her hand, and discarded it, barely paying attention as she buried her sword into a chest almost up to her fist, then pulled it back with a scrape of metal against bone, kicking the lifeless body back and swinging at her next opponent.
Another wave came forward, though, and the warrior knew with three thousand of them, and one of her, this wasn't going to last forever, regardless of how good, or bad, her skills were. Four men surged forward and slammed into her, and she ducked, feeling them pile over her body, and slam heavy blows down.
She pushed off against the earth and threw them off her, but three others got blows in, and she staggered, then twisted obstinately and slashed across their middles, spilling guts on the hard packed earth and hearing their dying screams.
A sword hilt cracked against her skull, and she dodged back, shaking her head to clear it, just in time to miss a slash that should have taken off an arm. She parried it, then parried his neighbors, and leaped, kicking out and nailing them both in the chest and sending them flying, adding to the pile of bodies growing around her.
Another wave. Xena bored down, and clamped her jaw shut, concentrating on keeping them off her, with a combination of kicks and parries, hopping up onto bodies to gain a height advantage over the attacking soldiers.
But they never stopped coming, and she could feel the strain, now, pulling on her reserves and making her stumble slightly as she evaded the latest blow.
Forcing her to contemplate the fact that there was no way for her to win this, and no way to escape, they'd cut her down in minutes if she tried to run.
She put her back against the rough wood and faced the prospect of this being, truly, the end, as she fought on, her one solace being that if it was, then it was in the cause of the light, and to give her soulmate a chance to….
Xena felt her heartbeat, heard it's rush in her ears as time seemed to slow, suddenly conscious of a feeling of weak, pleading terror in her guts. An impending loss that shook her to her very core, with the knowledge of what that would do to Gabrielle.
Dying wasn't a gods be damned option.
She let out a wild yell and redoubled her efforts, driving the closest wave of fighters back with a furious onslaught, and clearing a space around her by sheer determination. There was a pause, then the army surged back, and came close to overrunning her, pausing only when a deep, angry rumble shook the ground.
Xena had an advantage. She could see over their heads, and she did, straining her battered body as she looked, to see a huge, moving wall coming straight for them.
Five hundred of them, in a headlong rush for the gates, their eyes rolling wildly. Xena whirled, and grabbed the larger gate, shoving it open with all the strength she had left, and watching the army scramble to get out of the way, many of them getting trampled in the stampede.
They bore down on her, teeth flashing, hooves glinting, the black monster in the lead.
Xena waited, in utter stillness.
Closer, and closer, the ground was shaking so hard under their hooves it rattled the warrior's teeth. Closer still, and she could smell the sweat flying off them, as the horses thundered through the gates, running her down as though she were a stalk of grass.
They continued out and down the road through the town, yells of alarm already preceding them.
"Damn you.. damn you.. " Gabrielle was exhausted, trying to make the damn stubborn piece of centaur dung stallion stop. "Iolaus!!!"
The horse snorted, but kept going, already outside the city gates, and pounding up the road, his hoofbeats loud in the night stillness. Overhead, clouds obscured most of the stars, but the moon was out, lighting their path as they got further and further from the town.
Devon was clutching her, obviously scared senseless by the stallions' headlong rush, and prudently not saying a word to the cursing, struggling, dirt covered woman who was fighting with him.
"Damn it… bloody gods be cursed centaur hoofed piece of…" Gabrielle grabbed the reins and hauled back, then was pulled forward by the stubborn horse. "You have to stop!"
Devon looked behind him, to the rapidly fading town. "Why?" He yelled. "They'll catch us… let em keep going!"
They thundered up the road, scattering tiny rocks in their path, until Gabrielle managed, somehow, to steer Iolaus towards a rocky climb upwards, convinced this would slow the stallion down. It did, and he finally came to a halt halfway up the mountain, their trail well hidden by the hard, stony ground. They could see the road, but a ledge and outcropping hid them, and Gabrielle stood in her stirrups, peering back down towards the city. "All right.. get down." She turned, and told Devon firmly.
"Sure." He slid off with astonishing rapidity. "No problem, lady… wait.. where are you going?"
Gabrielle let out a breath, seeing the fog form before her in the chill air. "Back there." She answered quietly. "You go on.. get out of here, Devon… " She sat on the horse's back, her head lifted into the wind, listening.
Hearing nothing but silence, and the small creatures of the mountainside around her. She stared at the curve of the road that lead to the city, mentally urging herself to see something that simply wasn't there.
"Are you nuts?" Devon asked. "You just escaped from there."
Gabrielle patted the horse's damp neck. "C'mon, Iolaus… let's go find your friend." She'd go back, she knew. And turn herself in, and hope against hope that she'd find her soulmate in one piece.
And if not.
She nudged the stallion with her knees, like Xena had taught her. "Go on, Devon… take off. I left a friend back there I've got to go back for."
He grabbed hold of her knee. "Wait…" He came closer, and looked up at her. "You said your name was Gabrielle…"
"Yes." The bard told him quietly. "That's me."
He looked down the road, then back up at her, then at the road, then up at her. "That was Xena?"
Gabrielle gave him a tiny smile. "Yes." She gathered her reins in. "I gotta go find her.. you know how it is." Since it's my fault she's down there.
He was in shock, apparently. "Uh… where she goes, you go, right?"
Another tiny smile. "Something like that, yes." She patted him on the cheek. "Take care." She started down the path, then stopped, as a faint rumble reached her ears. "What…"
Devon came up next to her, and peered across the moonlit landscape. "Sounds like an avalanche."
Gabrielle stood in her stirrups. "That's kinda hard without snow." The rumbling was getting louder, and she squinted. "Or rocks.. it's coming from that direction, and the rocks would be coming from our direction."
It took long, aching minutes, before the sound finally resolved itself into a cloud of dust, with dark moving bodies in it. "Horses." Gabrielle murmured, straining her eyes to see through the dust, spotting the huge black horse leading the stampede and blinking, then rubbing her eyes.
"No point in stealing just one horse, huh Xe?" She whispered, as a wave of relief made her grab hold of Iolaus' mane for support. "Steal em all…." She pointed. "Looks like we've got company coming."
Devon stood on his tiptoes and peered over Iolaus' back. "Hey… that's a whole herd of horses… whoa.. is that someone riding that one?"
"Yep." Gabrielle watched as a golden form forced it's way up, closer to her soulmate's clinging form. Iolaus neighed, recognizing his brother, and as they both gazed down the mountainside, Xena neatly jumped off the galloping black horse's back, and onto Hercules', then edged the golden horse off to one side to let the majority of the stampede go by.
"Stay here." Gabrielle urged Iolaus down, and carefully guided him through the sharp rocks until she was on a small path, then letting him break into a canter, as she headed towards her battered partner.
Xena sped up, and waved at her. "Keep on going up there… we gotta get out of sight." She yelled, glancing behind them. "C'mon… we're out not out of trouble yet, Gabrielle."
The bard closed on her. "What was that? Sending this damn horse out of there on a non stop run?"
Xena gazed at her, blue eyes snapping. "I figured you spent enough time rescuing your friend there.. .you might as well make sure he got to safety."
It was like a slap in the head, all the more so, because Gabrielle hadn't expected it. She sucked in a breath, and backed off, unable to respond.
"Get moving." The warrior told her. "We can talk about it later."
The bard gathered her reins and turned Iolaus, urging him back up the path ahead of the oncoming Hercules. They both reached the top of the path roughly at the same time, and Xena dismounted, her blood stained body mottled in the darkness as she searched the mountainside.
"This way." She led Hercules, and they followed, past a bend in the path that kept them from the view of the road, and into a small alcove, where a crack in the mountainside offered welcome shelter.
"We should keep going, right?" Devon asked, nervously. "They'll find us."
"They won't expect us to stop this close." Xena replied quietly. "I need to get a few things sewn up before we go on.. I don't want to leave a trail of blood from here to the north country."
Gabrielle put a hand out, touching torn fabric, then connecting with warm flesh that flinched slightly. "Gods." The bard whispered softly. This close, she could feel the emotional pain her soulmate was in, and she let the mantle of guilt for that fall heavily on her shoulders.
She let her hand fall, and leaned against Iolaus, feeling sick to her stomach, following blindly as Xena led them inside, after lighting a torch she pulled from Hercules' saddle.
"We got lucky… our friend at the inn decided to pack him up and let him go." The warrior murmured. "I wouldn't have wanted to lose him."
Gabrielle sank a little further into a dark place, as she moved away from her partner, and Devon, and found a spot for Iolaus to comfortably stand as she started to unbuckle the bags lashed to his sides. Or at least that's what she'd started to do, but she found herself simply standing there, leaning against the stallion's side in helpless dejection.
How could she been that short sighted? She'd know they only had one horse in the compound.. what did she think they were going to do with three people? Her impulsive rescue of the storyteller had almost…
Oh gods. The bard let her head rest on the saddle, as she heard Xena telling Devon to take a pair of the saddlebags, and got him settled across the small cavern. You wanted to be a hero, huh? At what price? Gods, Gabrielle.. how could you be so stupid? She rested her head against the leather, unaware of the pale blue eyes watching her.
Until a hand gently touched her shoulder, along with a warmth she no longer felt she deserved.
"C'mon…. I hear a little water in the back there.. I could use a hand with this cut." Xena's voice was exhausted, but calm, and Gabrielle merely followed her towards the sound of trickling water, carrying the healer's kit she'd taken out of their saddlebags.
Xena glanced at her. " You all right?"
Gabrielle stopped, and looked at her, finally. "Am I all right?" She asked, hoarsely. "Am I all right? I'm fine… if you don't count knowing I almost just got you killed." Her tone cracked, and she dropped her eyes as they moved into a sloping, shadowy area, where the smell of water was strong, and a soft tinkling gave testament to it's presence.
Xena didn't answer. Instead, she stripped off the remains of her slashed tunic and threw it from her, then unhooked the straps on her leathers and slipped them off. Every inch of her body hurt, and she stifled a groan as she walked into the icy water, needing it's cleansing touch against her battle stained skin. She ducked under the surface and scrubbed the blood and other grime out of her hair, then surfaced, standing and letting the water sheet off her before she turned, and regarded her silent, brooding partner.
Gabrielle was seated on a rock, her elbows resting on her knees, and her head down. She was covered in dirt herself, and looked completely exhausted, and the warrior felt any anger she could have had drain away as she gazed at her devastated soulmate.
I can't hate her for being who she is. Xena exhaled softly. Just like she doesn't hate me… for who I am. She glanced down at her still bloodstained hands, then slowly waded through the water, until she'd come up to where Gabrielle was sitting.
"Hey." She reached out and gently lifted the bard's chin up, exposing a tear stained face that gazed at her in the flickering torchlight. "You did the right thing, Gabrielle.. it's okay….I would have sent you out first anyway." She found smile somewhere deep inside and gave it up. "I'm glad you got him out of there."
Fresh tears spilled from the soft, green eyes. "Xena, it was stupid.. it was.. I didn't think. I didn't…. what if you… "
"But I didn't." Xena cupped her cheek gently. "It's over… we got out… let's just move on." She traced the tears, wiping them off. "C'mere." She tugged the bard up and pulled her into a hug, feeling the sobs run through the slim body now plastered against her.
Forgiveness. Gabrielle had taught her that, after all. She'd never realized how good it could feel, until a very dark moment, in a very dark place in Chin, when that one, sweet instant had hit her, changing her life in subtle ways she hadn't even realized until much, much later.
"Come on.. this water feels good, and it looks like you could use it." She lifted her partner up and lowered her into the water, boots and all. "What happened to your arm?"
Gabrielle sniffled, and rubbed her eyes with one hand, unwilling to let go her hold on the taller woman. "Ow.. this is cold."
"Mmhmm." Xena carried her further into the water, then knelt. "Rinse off." A beat. "What happened to your arm?"
The bard ducked her head under, then came up, dripping water off the ends of her pale hair, facing Xena squarely. "It's not a big deal… " She moved closer. "Where are you hurt?"
The warrior lifted herself out of the water and pointed at her thigh, which was bisected by a thick, angry slice, spilling blood into the water.
"Ow." Gabrielle exhaled, shoving her remaining guilt aside as she moved over to where the healer's kit was. "Where else?" She asked, as she pulled a needle and some gut out, along with a bit of the antiseptic paste Xena kept there, using the familiar motions to pull her mind back to a rational state. .
Xena had seated herself on the wet rock and waited, as the bard came over and settled herself between the warrior's knees.
"Well?" Gabrielle cleared her throat of it's hoarseness, looking up into the shadowy blue eyes.
They dropped. "Just some.. um… bruises." Xena shrugged "Lots of those." .
Gabrielle started the intricate stitching. "Oh." She thought about that. "I guess you um.."
"Oh yeah." Xena's voice was hollow. "It was right there… " She snapped her fingers. "No problem." She fell silent.
The bard continued her task, smoothing her fingers against the soft skin, as she heard the ragged edge to her soulmate's breathing. "I'm glad it kept you safe." She finally said, very softly.
Xena let out a long breath. "I thought I could bury that side of me, Gabrielle.. I was only kidding myself." She replied bitterly. "One big year of self delusion. " She added softly.
Gabrielle kept quiet for a bit, while she carefully closed the slice that was still seeping her soulmate's blood across her fingers. "I don't think you were deluding yourself, Xe." She finally said, as she put the last stitch in, and tied the end of the gut off. "I think the warm, caring, loving person I spent the last year with is sitting here next to me… that's as much a part of you as the side that fights." She gently wiped the last of the blood away, and looked up, to see tired, searching blue eyes looking back at her. "Just like the poet that lives inside me shares space with the halfway decent negotiator, and the total ditzball who goes and gets into trouble and expects you to get her out."
Xena's expression gentled. "You are not a ditzball." She protested. "You just follow your heart."
"I follow my heart right into compound disasters, Xena… don’t change the subject." The bard told her, seriously.
"You followed your heart out of Potadeia." The warrior countered. "And I'd be dead if you hadn't…. dead, Gabrielle.. and in Tartarus, with no chance for anything more." She paused, as the bard sucked in a soft breath. "Don't you ever forget that.. because I never do.. no matter what we get into… and what decisions you make." She put a hand out and captured the bard's chin, lifting it up. "Okay?"
Green eyes hazel in the torchlight gazed at her, faintly bloodshot from crying. "So.. you're not mad at me for letting those prisoners go?" She whispered. "Most of them wouldn't even budge, Xena.. they just lay there.. the only one I got out was Devon."
"No." The warrior leaned forward and kissed her forehead. "We went in there to get him out… and you did. " She contemplated a moment. "I should have worked out a better plan… we got very lucky, Gabrielle… they let the horses loose at the last minute." She circled the bard's shoulders and started to walk out towards the main area of the small cave.
"Mm… so.. what are we going to do?" The bard asked, softly, looking up at her as they rejoined Devon, who was seated near the horses, nervously still.
"I don’t' know that yet." Xena replied.
Damn good question. Xena hoped she'd be able to come up with even the most basic of answers.
Xena had allowed them only the tiniest of fires, just enough to heat up some water, and only that because the bard had been shivering, depleted from her long day, and dunk in the icy water. Xena had fixed her some hot tea, then taken her own mug, and her share of their travel rations and retreated to the wall nearest the opening, focusing her senses outside.
Gabrielle had given the silently intimidated Devon one of their sleeping furs, and he'd curled up near the far wall, obviously exhausted. Maybe, the bard mused, he'd be more sociable tomorrow.. it must be really weird for him.
With a sigh, she trudged over to where Xena was sprawled and joined her, letting her body relax against the rock with an audible groan. "You know something, Xena?"
"Mm?" The warrior had taken a sip of her tea, and was rolling it around in her mouth before swallowing, a curious habit of hers.
"I'm getting too old for this stuff."
"Pfft." Xena ended up spitting her tea up all over the rocks. She wiped her lips and gave the bard a look. "Funny.. very funny, Gabrielle."
"No.. I mean it.. how in the world do you do it?" The bard threw her hand up, since the other one was holding her mug. "You just… keep going and going… "
The warrior moved a little, making a more comfortable spot for her partner to lean against. "It's… just discipline, Gabrielle.. I feel really lousy… I took a lot of hits today.. and I don’t' wanna even think about what's going to be like tomorrow morning.. when it all stiffens up."
"But you'll just get up and deal with it." The bard persisted. "You always do."
"Of course." Xena gave her a puzzled look. "What else am I supposed to do? We have to get out of here… and that means finding a way over the mountain so we don't get caught traveling on the roads."
Gabrielle simply shook her head and rested her cheek against one of her soulmate's broad shoulders. "I just admire you for that." She admitted quietly. "I always have." She turned her head and looked up at the shadowy profile. "There were so many times I wanted to quit… but then I saw you never giving up.. and that gave me the courage.. and the drive to follow your example. Did you know that?"
Xena let her cheek rest against the bard's hair. "No.. I didn't." She murmured. "I thought you were cursing me the whole time for being stubborn pig."
Gabrielle nestled closer. "Only once in a while." She fingered the strap of Xena's leathers thoughtfully. "I almost forgot how much I like how you look in these."
The warrior studied her quietly, pondering the unusual spate of chattiness, given the circumstances. "Do you?"
"Mm…I always did…I like the blue ones though.. they look so nice with your eyes." Gabrielle replied.
"Thanks… it's good to know I'm appreciated." Xena commented. "I was always partial to that cute little brown skirt of yours." She tweaked the bard's knee, and got a soft chuckle back. "I remember the first time you put on that Amazon stuff, I said.. 'whoa.. Xena.. where'd you find her?"
Gabrielle smiled impishly. "You did not."
"Oh yes I did… that brown leather thing that was cut like this?" Xena countered, running a finger across the bard's chest from shoulder to shoulder. "I definitely remember that."
"Heh… the one time I remember you giving me a look was when we were on that ship.. with Ulysses'… I was doing that dance thing and you.. "
"Climbed on board and thought my heart was going to stop." The warrior finished, with a chuckle, which faded. "I wish I'd had the courage to just tell you.. instead of trying to convince myself that could never happen."
"Mm… yeah.. that was a toughie." Gabrielle sighed, snuggling even closer. "I wanted so bad to have you… look at me the way…he was looking at you."
Xena's jaw tightened. "You cried that night."
Gabrielle nodded, a movement against Xena's shoulder. "Yes, I did…but then I remembered what you said to me when I decided to go with Perdicus… and I made up my mind I could be as generous in how I handled that as you were." She paused, as though reflecting. "Did you cry that night.. when I left?"
Xena nodded without hesitation. "Oh yeah."
They both sat quietly for a bit. "We were both too gods be damned noble." Xena finally stated, with a soft snort. "For our own good. "
"Yeah." Gabrielle laughed gently. "You know, you're right."
They looked at each other, and smiled in the dim light. "We're laughing now." Gabrielle commented, wryly.
Xena spread her free arm out, indicating their joined bodies. "It worked out, didn't it?"
"Well.. yeah." The bard admitted. "But you know something Xena.. I don't think I ever said this to you.. but if you'd said you didn't want to leave me behind.. I would have followed you from Potadeia again, Perdicus or no."
"I know." Her soulmate told her. "I knew that then." She paused, and a little, expectant silence fell. "Now, you're waiting for me to say I'd have left Ulyssess if you'd said something, right?"
Pale green eyes peeked up at her.
"Well, the answer there is… there was no chance of my leaving you." The warrior lowered her voice. "I was already yours."
"Were you?" The bard whispered.
"Body, heart and soul." Her partner assured her. "Now.. are you rambling on for a reason?'
Uh oh. Busted. "Me?" Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Oh. .no. I wasn't um… just chit chat, you know Xena.. it.. um.. makes me relax."
Steady blue eyes regarded her. "Gabrielle."
The bard sighed gently, warming Xena's shoulder with her breath. "I guess I could say I just like to talk to you.. because I do." She paused, listening to the heartbeat under her ear. "But the truth is… I always used to use talking as a way to gauge what was going on with you.. and it was one of the ways I could figure out if you were mad at me." She paused again. "You never answered me when you were.. not real answers. Just that grunt thing you do."
Xena gently laid a hand along her cheek. "Honey, I'm not mad at you, honest."
Just the use of the endearment, very rare indeed, would have been enough. Gabrielle felt a wave of relief flow through her, stealing the tension from her muscles, and allow her sore, and battered body to relax at last. She had been almost sure that was the case.
But just that tiny bit had been enough to make her exhausted mind churn over itself, remembering the long, increasingly lonely months that had started their estrangement, when she'd searched desperately for the tiniest hint that things were getting better, instead of worse.
Now, she felt the long arms surround her, and the deep warmth of their connection comforted her as she let out a long breath. "Sorry." She muttered. "I think it's just been too long a day."
"It's all right." The warrior rumbled, kissing her head. "It has for me too.. and tomorrow won't be much better."
"Mmph." The bard acknowledged. "What are we going to do?"
Xena thought about that for a bit, reviewing her possible options. "Well, we can run. Grab Dori, and go overseas." No answer from her soulmate. "Or.. we could try to find some way of appeasing him." Still no answer. "Or we can fight him." The warrior concluded.
"Just one problem with that… we've got you, and me.. and the Amphipolis militia." Gabrielle reflected. "And a handful of Amazons." She paused. "And some forest dwellers."
Xena took a sip of her cooled tea, swallowing it audibly. "Way I look at it.. it's going to take a lot of teamwork." She analyzed. "And I'm not good at alliances… that was always Borias' side of things."
"But you are good at them." The warrior continued. "You can bring people together under a common cause." She held up a hand. "Amphipolis and the surrounding area. Amazons. Forest Dwellers. Centaurs… it's almost impossible, but we can try it."
"Try to bring together a force large enough to stop him." Gabrielle spoke slowly. "From all kinds of sources… for the greater good."
"Yes." Xena stated softly. "You can do that."
The bard gazed off into the darkness for a bit, then looked up. "And you'll lead them."
Xena's eyes closed for long, aching minute, as she fought an inner battle. Finally she sighed. "Yes. I'll lead them."
Gabrielle let a long, relieved sigh escape her. "Now I can sleep." She wrapped an arm around her soulmate and settled down, ignoring the hard rock, and the dampness, and the aches in her body.
Xena nuzzled the soft hair gently, as she squirmed around and got a little more comfortable.
Having someone believe in you, she decided, was the most incredible feeling on earth. It really made all the difference, between what was impossible…
And what she could make possible.
No matter what the odds were.
Xena had allowed herself to slip into a light doze, managing to dismiss the sharp pain from her leg, and the throbbing aches from everywhere else, until a low rumble of thunder woke her.
The scent of rain was coming in the opening of the cave, and she could hear the drumming of the water against the rocks, a low, comforting noise that brought a smile to her face.
Rain was good. It washed away any trace of their passing, and made searchers careless, wanting more to get out of the weather than find a couple of elusive troublemakers. The rumbling strengthened, and the cave lit suddenly with a flash of silver, brightening the dull gray of the coming dawn visible through the opening.
Xena glanced around, spotting Devon still curled up against the far wall, then she peered at her sleeping soulmate, who was wrapped around her like a jungle vine, one hand tucked around her waist, and the other around one shoulder.
The warrior felt a smile crease her face, and she tucked the edge of the furs covering them around Gabrielle's body, scowling a little when the bandage around her arm slipped. She shifted a little, then carefully removed the linen, intending on straightening it out.
Lightning flashed, revealing to her eyes the injury beneath it, and she stared in total lack of comprehension at the familiar, yet strange symbol looking back at her.
What in the world… Xena's heart sank, and a knot formed in her belly, as she brushed a shaking finger over the reddened, swollen flesh around the tattoo.
"Mmm." Gabrielle shifted, and her eyes fluttered open in confusion. "Wh… " She glanced up and saw the look on her soulmate's face, and it jerked her wide awake. "Xena.. what's wrong?" She looked around quickly, seeing nothing but the calm, peaceful cave. "Someone coming?"
"What is that?" The warrior whispered, pointing.
Gabrielle's brows knitted. "What is what…oh." She looked where the long finger indicated. "Damn.. I forgot about that." She craned her head to look. "It's a hawk..or it will be when it's not so red." She patted her soulmate's stomach. "They came around yesterday… I didn't have a choice, Xena… apparently all of Andreas people get branded, I guess."
"With that?" Xena's voice took on an outraged note.
"No.. no… it's.. his is a lion… but the guy who did it. .I guess he knew you.. because that's what he put on there." Gabrielle gazed at it speculatively. "It's not that bad looking, is it?"
The warrior let out a long, aggravated breath. "I know a way to get them off… damn, Gabrielle.. I can start the process later on today.. it'll take a while but.. " She looked sick. "I can't believe he did that… I'll take care of it, though.. don't worry about it."
Gabrielle studied her arm in sleepy silence, then looked up at her partner's shadowy face, half lit from the dull gray storm outside. "I'm not worried… and you.. um.. you don't have to do anything to it, Xena."
"Let's see, I think I have the herbs I.." Xena had been muttering to herself. "What?" She blinked at her soulmate.
Gabrielle captured her nervously moving hands, and brought one up to her lips, tasting the warm skin gently. "I kinda like it."
Xena's jaw dropped. "You're not serious."
The bard smiled a little, a crinkly, impish smile that made her eyes glint softly. "Yeah… I am serious…I don't know.. if it was his, I'd hate it.. but it's not.. it's yours."
"Gabrielle.. you can't… that's like a… I don't want you… " The warrior ran out of words. "It's not…"
"Honey… take a breath, okay?" The bard urged, giving her a friendly belly rub. "Listen… I was pretty upset when it happened… but after I saw what it was, I was okay with it… after all, it's the same thing I've got on my ring, right?"
"It.. is…not… the.. same.. thing.." Xena growled. "Damn it, Gabrielle.. I'm not going to have you branded.. with that… thing.. like you belong to me or something."
Gabrielle considered that. "Don’t I?"
"Bu… not… not like that….I mean… we belong to each other..sure, but.." Xena stammered.
"Well then." The bard let her chin rest against the taller woman's collarbone. "I guess you'll have to get one too, because I'm not giving mine up." She informed her flustered partner. "I like the idea of belonging to you."
Big blue eyes went slightly round, and blinked at her in astonishment. "Wh…"
"So…what's it going to be?" Gabrielle persisted, tracing tiny patterns on the skin above Xena's leathers. "A little scroll… maybe a quill.."
"A nutbread." The warrior managed to get out. "A fruit and nutbread."
Reproachful green eyes leveled at her.
"A big heart, the size of my fist, with your name in the center." Xena amended. "How about that?'
"How about that's tacky." The bard gave her a look. "I'm being serious here."
"You are serious, aren't you… you really want to keep that?" Xena asked, curiously.
Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah."
"Mm." Thunder rolled over head, sending a runbling vibration through the wall. Then a low chuckle from Xena's chest joined it. "All right… I know what I'll get."
"What?" The bard inquired.
"Guess you'll find out when I get it." Xena smirked. "You know, I've always kinda wanted to get one… I almost did when I went overseas the first time."
Gabrielle's nostrils flared. "You're going to make me wait?"
"Mmhmm." Her partner confirmed cheerfully. "It's a surprise."
"Uh huh." The bard drummed her fingers on a leather clad chest. "If I guess it before then.. will you tell me?"
"You won't" The warrior stated positively. "So, yes."
"Is that a challenge?" A mischevious grin flickered around Gabrielle's lips. "I could always tickle you until you tell me." She slid a hand down and around the back of the warrior's knees.
"Oh.. don’t' do that." Gabrielle screwed her eyes closed. "Nononononon… not that look.." She peeked. "All right.. all right.. I'll guess." She sighed, and snuggled closer again, listening to the rain outside. "Nasty." She commented softly.
"Mm… " Xena sighed. "Maybe we can find a way inside this cavern system for a while.. I don't want you out there in this cold rain." She tucked the fur around the bard's head, then she shifted a little. "Ah… I'd better get up." Her body was protesting in outrage at the abuse she'd leveled at it the previous day, after a year of somnolence. "I need to walk a little bit."
Gabrielle reluctantly released her, and watched as the warrior rose slowly, and limped across the storm lit cavern, the stiffness so evident it made the bard wince in sympathetic reaction. She kept an eye on her partner until Xena disappeared around the bend leading towards the water, then she sighed, and stretched her own body out, wincing a little, but not as much as she'd been anticipating.
Mostly it was stiffness from sleeping in one position all night, she realized, so she hauled herself to her feet, and wrapped her fur around her like a cloak as she ambled quietly across the rock littered floor towards their gear.
The water was just as cold as the night before, but it was wet, and after she wedged her torch into a crack in the rocks, Xena forced herself to drink until she gave herself a headache She held her breath against until it faded, then she sat down on the edge of the rocks, and examined the long gash in her leg, which was still neatly closed and healing.
It hurt, but then, so did most everything else, the warrior acknowledged, as she pushed herself to her feet and walked around the chamber, trying to get blood flowing to her muscles. A small opening went further, and she retrieved her torch as she investigated, poking her head cautiously into the crevice which was wide enough to accommodate two of her, but still didn't make the warrior comfortable.
Wow. Her eyes blinked, on seeing the next cavern, where the water trickled incessantly, and which had carved out a fantastic landscape of stalactites and stalagmites, in weird phosphorescent colors that danced back from her torchlight.
It was beautiful and spooky, the smell of the water and the dissolved minerals tickling the back of her nose as she gazed around in wonder, holding a hand up to a formation and touching it's moisture covered surface.
The mountain must channel rainfall down through here, she reasoned, and it filters through the rocks until it gets lower and lower.
And then where? Xena carefully paced along the slippery surface, completely forgetting her discomfort both physical and mental in her curiosity. The water traveled along the cave floor, in gullies carved out over years, and her little pool back there spilled out into it also. The warrior edged along a path near the wall and followed the gathering trickles until she reached a second opening, where the water was pouring through.
She placed her boots carefully in the stream, but it wasn't very strong and continued, moving through the opening and into another long, narrow cavern. This one didn't have the stalactites, but it did have something else which interested her even more.
The scent of fresh air on the wind, tinged with the cold, distinct smell of rain, very different than the water being filtered under her feet. The draft was blowing towards her, which meant somewhere up ahead, there was another way out, one that would allow them to exit the mountain hidden from any prying eyes on the road they'd escaped on. A tiny smile twitched around Xena's lips as she pressed on, finding a way through the twisted rocks in the darkness, and holding her torch behind her, to keep her eyes from being dazzled.
The cavern turned and bent, a crack in the mountain's skin whose ceiling varied from several feet over her head, to unknown, then she turned a final corner almost deafened by the rush of the now considerable water and found herself in gray twilight.
Xena walked to the edge of the cavern and gazed out, to see sheets of thick rain that pelted the granite moutainside, and almost obscured the waterfall that dropped down across layers of rock to a pool below.
If she followed the pool with her eyes, she could see it start to wind it's way down the slopes, gathering into a stream that fed what would surely become the river the city depended on for their water.
Xena crossed her arms over her chest and thought about that. An army ran on water, after all, and though Andreas could move his troops, and undoubtedly would, he considered this place home base.
A smile. Interesting. She eyed the waterfall affectionately. Very interesting.
A roll of thunder made her look out from under her overhang, to see dark clouds roiling, as a brilliant flash of lightning lit the rocks. The rain smelled good, and clean, and impulsively Xena walked out onto the front of the ledge, letting it pelt her, and drenching her skin and leathers.
It was warmer than the cavern water, curiously, though the wind that drove it was chilly, and she spread her arms out, opening her mouth and catching the raindrops that fell in sheets around her.
It was very primal, and it touched that animal part of her still licking it's chops from the day before, which stretched and purred happily as the water rinsed the fatigue and soreness out of her and left behind a clean, energized feeling.
She stepped back inside and shook herself like a wolf, her dark hair sending droplets scattering everywhere.
Andreas. Her mind spoke softly. You don't know what you've just woken, do you? Xena laughed quietly, and surrendered herself to the path they'd chosen. It was Cortese all over again, wasn't it? Only the stakes were much higher, and the threat far more deadly.
But that was all right.
She wasn't fifteen anymore.
And this time, she'd do it right.
Continued in Part 5