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 6
Gabrielle settled her staff across her knees, and gazed off into the dark shadows as the fire burned low, aware of the soft, night sounds that swirled around them, friendly in their normal pattern. To one side of her, Devon was huddled, resting his head against one arm in pensive silence.
Next to her, one hand gently clasped around the bard's wrist, her soulmate dozed, tucked into their bedding snugly. From time to time, Gabrielle released her other hand and touched her fingers to the warrior's head, checking her fever and arranging the cloak that covered her.
"What are you doing?" Devon finally asked, obviously unable to fall asleep.
Gabrielle regarded him curiously. "What do you mean?"
"You're awake." He replied. "Aren't you tired?"
The bard exhaled. "Well.. sure." She shifted her staff a little. "But we're out here, and there could be people looking for us, so I'm keeping watch." She told him. "Aren't you tired?"
"Um…" He squirmed around and sat up. "To be honest.. yeah.. but I'm not used to sleeping on the ground. It's driving me nuts."
Gabrielle laughed softly. "Oh."
"You must be used to it, huh? Do you always watch?"
"No." The bard glanced at her sleeping soulmate. "I don’t have to, usually… Xena takes care of that." She moved a bit of dark hair from the warrior's closed eyes. "Even when she's asleep… it's really sort of incredible. She still knows what's going on, and if anything happens, she reacts."
"Oh." Devon peeked at the warrior. "So.. why are you staying up?"
"Because she's not feeling well." Gabrielle explained softly. "That cut was really bad, and she's got a fever.. I gave her some herbs that made her sleep, and hopefully that will make her feel better in the morning."
"Oh." He repeated, with a different inflection. "Somehow, I didn't think… um… what I mean is, you never hear stuff like that in the stories."
"No." The bard mused. "Most people don't know what it costs to do what she does…to be a hero, and fight the good fight. They hear the brave parts, but they don't have to patch up the wounds, or see the bruises, or feel the pain." She looked down as Xena shifted a little, reaching a hand out instinctively for her, which she captured and pulled close against her body. The tanned face twitched a little, then relaxed back into sleep as she gently chafed the long fingers tucked into hers.
"Is that the only weapon you use?" Devon asked softly.
Gabrielle returned her attention to him. "This?" She hefted the staff. "Yes… I don't… " A pause. "I choose not to kill people."
"Mm." He thought about that. "Have you.. um… "
"Yes." Gabrielle answered, with a note of quiet finality.
An awkward silence fell, and Gabrielle exhaled softly into it, then realized it was far too quiet a silence. Her head came up, and she held her breath, listening for the night sounds as Xena had painstakingly taught her to.
Except that there were none. No crickets, no soft sounds of birds in the trees, no gentle munching of small animals. Gabrielle felt a chill roll down her back, and she tensed, glancing over at the two stallions, who were standing with their heads up, and ears pricked towards the darkest part of the forest. "Uh oh."
Devon jumped. "Wh… what do you mean, uh oh? I don’t' think I like the sound of that.. what's going on?"
"Shh." Gabrielle gently disengaged her hand from her soulmate's grip, and stood, turning her face into the wind and trying to detect anything that might give her a clue as to what was out there. "Stay here."
Xena would have known… Xena could smell fear, or sweat, or anger on the air, and hear a living creature's very heartbeat.
But she wasn't Xena, and she had only her own senses to rely on, and she stepped away from the fire, gripping her staff with steady hands and stretching her muscles out a little as she walked. She got to the edge of the firelight and stopped, half her body in shadow, half lit from behind by the dull red glow.
Her eyes slowly adjusted, and she blinked, then blinked again as shadows resolved themselves into bodies, and her heart started pounding in pure reaction, sending blood surging to her limbs. "Who's there?" She challenged.
The closest stepped a pace closer, enough for her to recognize the tall Amazon from the village, and see the dull crimson reflect off a drawn sword. 'What do you want?"
"Ten thousand dinars." The Amazon answered, as she leaped forward and struck. "Out of my way, little queen."
Gabrielle parried the blow, taking the blade on her staff and twisting, deflecting its force to one side as she whipped the other end of her weapon around and smacked the woman across the shoulder with it. "Don’t' do this."
"You can't stop me." The Amazon swung again, and she slammed her staff into the woman's knees, then ducked as her sword whistled over her head.
Five other shadows closed in, and she was fighting for her life, backing with each blow and struggling to keep the weapons from her body. She heard a scramble as Devon got up and came to her assistance, but it was too late.
Hands grabbed her, and she fought fiercely, batting them away and ducking the chobos that whistled suddenly as she whisked her staff around, and knocked down two of them.
Then a shock crashed into her from behind, and she fell into darkness.
At first, she was chiefly aware of the pain. A dull throbbing in her head that seemed to extend down her body, going down even into her legs with each beat of her heart. Then slowly, very slowly, she began to notice little things, like the cool air , and the smell of wood smoke, and the softness of the furs she was resting on.
Then she noticed the warm surface under her head, and the gentle brush of fingers against her cheek, and fuzzily let her eyes crack open, blinking them several times to clear the blurriness, and was profoundly relieved to see pale blue eyes gazing back at her anxiously. "Ow." She whispered. "Wha happen?"
Xena let out a long, relieved breath, closing her eyes briefly and allowing her head to rest against the log behind her. "Welcome back." She replied softly, gazing out at the now early hours of a new day. Gabrielle had been unconscious since before midnight.
"Ungh." The bard rolled a little over onto her side and peered blearily out at the camp, where Devon was curled up next to Xena's watchful presence, and five trussed figures lay limply across the campfire. "Ow." She repeated wanly.
"Shh." Xena gently pulled her back over onto her back and resettled the thick fabric of her cloak over the bard's body. "Easy… you've been out for a while."
Gabrielle rubbed her temples with one hand, then looked up. "What happened? "
Steady blue eyes regarded her. "What's the last thing you remember?"
It was hard to think. Gabrielle tried, then shook her head. "Can't…"
"Okay.. take it easy." The warrior patted her arm. "It's not important."
The bard closed her eyes, soaking in the warmth from Xena's body. "Tired."
"You can sleep.. I'm here." Xena reassured her. "Easy now." She felt Gabrielle nestle closer, and she put an arm around her, shoving aside her own discomfort fiercely. She'd woken from a sound sleep to see her soulmate fighting frantically, and had hurled herself at the Amazons, but not before a well meaning Devon had picked up a large rock and thrown it with all his strength.
Clobbering Gabrielle. Xena had almost backhanded him before she'd put a halt on her instincts, and sent them after the Amazons instead, two of whom were already out for the count after meeting up with her soulmate's staff.
Cold or no cold, cut or no cut no damn measly handful of Amazons were gonna take her down, that was for damn sure. Xena reviewed her five captives with a fiercely piratical air. Featherheads.
Of course, now they were stuck with what to do with the damn wenches, since she'd left them all alive. Xena sighed, and glanced down at the very dazed bard. "Hey."
Slowly, the green eyes blinked. "Love you."
That brought a smile to Xena's face. "I love you too, sweetheart." She responded.
"Wanted you to know." Gabrielle whispered. "Kept quiet too long."
The warrior looked at her in deep concern. Gabrielle was obviously not fully aware of what was going on or where she was. "It's all right."
"Don't… take me h.. home.. please?" The soft voice warbled gently, pleading. "M..m not use.. useless.. hon.. honest."
Oh.. gods.. Xena felt a deep pang. Is that still in there, deep down? "No… you're staying with me, Gabrielle, I promise."
"Stay?" A smile twitched at the bard's lips.
"Always." The warrior told her. "Forever and ever, okay?"
The bard's eyes blinked open and looked up at her in a perfect trust she hadn't seen since before Britannia. "Okay." Then her lashes fluttered closed, leaving a dying fire, and a very worried warrior behind.
Devon paced around nervously, the morning fog scattering before his steps as he watched Xena carefully tucking the still sleeping Gabrielle back into their furs. "I'm so sorry." He muttered, for the hundredth time, causing the warrior to glance up. "I feel like such a…"
"Devon." Xena let her elbows rest on her knees. "Shut up." She stood, and walked over to the fire, retrieving the hot water she'd put up and spilling it over a cupful of dark, pungent herbs. "You meant well..she just moved at the wrong time." The warrior patiently stirred the herbs, sniffing at the rising steam appraisingly. A soft noise nearby snapped her head up, though, and she put the cup down, then reached behind her and drew her sword, moving quickly to put herself between the grotto's opening and it's other occupants.
The noise stopped, then a single, leathered figure stepped forward gingerly, clasping her hands over her head. "We come in peace, Xena."
The warrior didn't drop her aggressive stance. "This time, maybe."
Jonae paused, lowering her arms slowly. "I feared that." She exhaled. "I did not want this to happen."
Icy blue eyes regarded her for a long, hostile moment before the warrior lowered her weapon, then sheathed it. "Hope you brought litters with you." Xena jerked her head towards the pile of Amazons trussed up near the grotto's edge. "Some of them aren't walking out of here." She deliberately turned her back on them and went back to the fire, retrieving her cup and adding several spoons of honey to it.
Jonae gave several low orders to the followers she had with her, and there was a rustle of motion as they entered the grotto, and crossed to where the other Amazons were lying, whispering among themselves in soft voices.
Devon stood behind the fire and just watched them nervously, while Xena went over to her injured soulmate and knelt down , patting her cheek very gently. "Hey.."
"Mm." The eyes remained closed.
"Gabrielle?" Xena called. "C'mon… time to get up."
The bard's brows knit, then slowly her eyes opened, peering up at Xena dazedly. "Hey." She fumbled a hand out from under the cover and reached for her head. "Ow."
"Easy." Xena captured the hand and very gently pulled her into a half seated, half reclining posture. "You need to drink this." She supported the bard with one arm, and offered her the cup with the other. "C'mon now."
Gabrielle sniffed at the contents suspiciously, then gave her companion a look, before she took a sip. "Mm." She reached up and captured the cup with a warm hand and took another mouthful, swallowing it before she glanced back up at Xena. "I got hit in the head."
"Mmhmm." The warrior agreed. "Yes, you did… how's it feel?"
"Fuzzy." The bard admitted. "I don't remember anything." Her eyes drifted past Xena to where Devon was watching anxiously. "Who's he?"
Oh boy. Xena exhaled. "What's the last thing you do remember?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "It hurts when I try to think…" She rested her head against the warrior's shoulder. "Um…we were home… weather was awful." She looked up. "And um… where are we? Who are those… are those Amazons? What's going on, Xena?"
"Easy." The warrior offered her the cup again, throwing a glance over her shoulder to where Jonae's Amazons were arranging their sisters for transport. "It's a while after you remember, Gabrielle… there's… it's a lot to explain, but um.. we're out here checking out some trouble, and we got attacked last night. You got hit."
"Oh." The bard absorbed this, taking a swallow of the tea. "By Amazons?"
Xena sighed. "It's a long story."
"You said it's a while.. how much of a while?" Gabrielle asked, suddenly.
"Xena." Jonae padded over, giving her an apologetic look, and ducking her head towards Gabrielle. "Queen Gabrielle.. I deeply apologize that you were hurt… it was not my intention to stir this degree of ill feelings against you, or your partner."
Gabrielle blinked dazedly at her, then looked at Xena in appeal. "I'm sorry.. I don’t…"
"Thank you, Jonae… I guess the money was too big a temptation." Xena replied, laying a comforting hand on the bard's arm. "Gabrielle is missing a few pieces right now.. I'll fill her in later. It wasn't your fault." She glanced across the fire.
Jonae nodded. "My head knows you are telling the truth.. my heart, though….." The Amazon looked very uncomfortable, and she hesitated, then knelt at the warrior's side. "You have caused a deep division in our village… there are those who wish to follow you, and join in your army."
"Army?" Gabrielle's green eyes opened wider. "What army?"
The warrior petted her gently. "Shh… later." She turned her attention to the Amazon queen as the bard subsided, curling her fingers around Xena's arm. "Jonae… I'm not looking to force anyone into this.. it's something that has to be done, that's all."
"I know." The auburn haired woman sighed. "And there are those… who think that reward is a thing that could take us out of here, and buy us a new home, somewhere out of his reach." She studied her hands. "I’m not sure what I’m going to do."
Gabrielle watched her partner's face, the gray light reflecting off her skin as she considered. Army? Reward? What in the world had they gotten themselves into this time? And strange Amazons? She closed her eyes, and let her head rest against Xena's thigh, her partner's familiar scent filling her nostrils. Her head was killing her , and her stomach felt queasy, and she had only the fuzziest recollections of what was going on. It was easier just to let Xena deal with it.
She was good at that, after all.
"We'll be assembling forces near Amphipolis.. probably west of there if anyone wants to join up." Xena was saying. "We've got a lot to do before then."
Jonae nodded, then stood, brushing her hands off against her russet leathers. "Is there anything we can do for you? I brought a party out when we realized you'd been followed."
Gabrielle inched up a little and curled her arm around Xena's thigh, putting her head down and wishing the nausea would go away. It felt better half sprawled across the warrior like this, and she exhaled, murmuring softly as a warm arm tucked itself around her shoulders. She halfway heard Xena talking to the Amazons, her tones reluctant, then quietly grateful.
The were sounds of rustling, and making camp, and low, chopping noises, then it was relatively quiet.
"Gabrielle?" Xena's voice nudged her.
"Hm?" The bard replied, unwilling to move from her comfortable spot.
"It's starting to rain.. I need to get a shelter up over us… okay?" Xena's tone was gentle, but had a touch of urgency in it.
Ah. That was what she felt hitting her. "Okay." Gabrielle reluctantly let her pillow loose and rolled over, then regretted it as her stomach violently rebelled. She somehow managed not to throw up, but it was close, and the strain made her head pound violently. Then the rain stopped hitting her, and she heard the patter of it against a flat surface as Xena's warmth returned. "Ungh."
"Okay… take it easy… I've got you."
Gabrielle felt herself cradled against her partner's chest, and sighed as the furs were pulled up over her, tucking her inside a nice, warm well of comfort that somehow even eased the throbbing in her skull. "Mm.. thanks."
Xena allowed her head to rest against the tree's rough bark, glad of the furs and of Gabrielle's warmth, which took the edge of the chills that were shaking her body. It was dull and gray out, and the rain was cold, but fortunately not hard enough to drive it's way into her meager shelter. "How are you doing?"
Gabrielle looked up, blinking a little. "My head hurts.. my stomach hurts… I've had better days."
The warrior glanced out across the grotto, where the Amazons had made camp, offering their escort until they'd cleared the forest, as a sort of apology. Ordinarily she'd have refused, but with the way she felt, and how Gabrielle was… well, it was better than nothing. "Yeah. Me too."
The bard patted her gently. "On the other hand, you're here…that makes up for a lot."
Xena gazed quietly at her. "Yeah?"
Gabrielle smiled up at her. "Sure." She let her head rest against Xena's arm and gave the warrior an adoring look. " You're the one constant good thing in my life, you know that."
It hurt. Xena felt like she was taking daggers to her chest, as the words penetrated, and she remembered a time when that was, indeed, true. "Thought that's supposed to be my line." She managed to get out, reaching down to brush a bit of the younger woman's hair back.
The green eyes readily gave back a warmly loving look. "So what are we into this time?"
Xena let out a pensive breath. "There's a man… he's… raising an army to go out and conquer everything. "
"Oh.. not another one." The bard burred fuzzily. "Good grief."
"Mm." Xena pulled her a little closer. "You remember the necklaces, and Hercules?"
Gabrielle thought a minute. "Sure… wasn't that long ag…ago, right?" Her voice rose in question. "Or was it?"
"Its been a little while…but um… this guy's got one." Xena admitted.
"Oh." The fair brows knit. "So.. we're gonna stop him?"
"Just us two?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes, unable to keep them open any longer. "Sounds about right." She mumbled, into the soft skin of Xena's neck. "Guy wont' know what hit em." She slowly slid her arms around the warrior's body and hugged her. "My hero."
Sad blue eyes gazed at her, filling with soundless tears.
Footsteps crunching closer made her swipe at her face with one hand, before she looked up to see Jonae kneel at their side. "Xena, we've made some trail soup… would you take some?" She asked, a trifle awkwardly, her motions stiff and hesitant.
Xena considered, then figured at the moment, if the Amazons wanted to do her harm, she could realistically have little hope of stopping them, given her health, and the injured woman resting in her arms. "Sure." She agreed quietly, lifting a hand to take the offered bowl and spoon. "Thanks."
"Well." Jonae studied her bracelets, neatly made, intricately woven strands of brass and copper. "I did offer hospitality yesterday, and didn't quite deliver." She pulled her hood closer, letting the rain roll off it. "I sent a party back with the two most severely injured… that fractured shoulder… " The Amazon Queen glanced at the dozing bard. "They said that was her."
"Probably." Xena replied softly. "That staff's a dangerous weapon in the hands of an expert." She told the Amazon. "And she is that."
Jonae exhaled heavily. "So it seems." Her eyes lifted to Xena's. "I misjudged her." She concluded. "And you as well…I feel this whole thing is my fault."
Well… Xena had to wrestle down a sharp retort, driven by her fever, and the anxiety she was feeling over her soulmate. "Go get dry, Jonae… there's nothing you can do about it now… we'll talk about it later." She hesitated. "Thanks for sticking around… we appreciate it."
The Amazon Queen nodded. "Call if you're in need." She stood up, arranging her cloak to cover her body from the stinging rain, then walked off towards the main group of Amazons, who were clustered around a small, protected fire.
Xena watched her, mildly intrigued by the woman, then took a sip of the soup. Hmm. She swirled it around a little before swallowing it. Not bad, but not nearly as good as Gabrielle's. "Hey…" She gently patted her partner's back. "Gabrielle?"
Green eyes fluttered open. "Hmm? Oh… " She sighed. "Sorry.. I'm just so wiped…" The bard stifled a yawn, and put a hand on her partner's belly. "Hey… " She moved the hand up, then freed it from the furs and touched Xena's head hesitantly. "Are you sick?"
"A little." Xena admitted. "Here.. see if you can drink a little of this.. okay?"
Gabrielle sighed, then dragged herself up a little, resting in the curve of Xena's arm. "I'm not hungry." She objected, but took the bowl and sipped at it, more to please her watching partner than anything else. "Here.. why don't you drink some?" She settled back down, and her eyes drifted shut. "Sorry… so tired."
Xena took a swallow, and set the bowl down, then arranged the furs around the smaller woman. "It's okay.. get some rest. I'll be right here. "
A faint smile shaped the bard's lips. "I know… you always are." She murmured softly. "Always there when I need you." A gentle pat. "Always." Gabrielle's voice trailed off as she let sleep take her.
No. Xena felt the quiet grief well up again. Not always, Gabrielle. If it was always, the darkness would have never gotten you.. never taken your innocence… never sundered us.
The warm tears trickled down. I should have been there. No matter how many time I go back over it.. no matter how many times I try to make it work differently… it comes out the same.
I should have been there.
She let her head fall back in bleak, empty knowledge. Nothing will ever change that. Her eyes dropped to study Gabrielle's comfortably curled body, and the faint, peaceful smile on her face. She doesn’t remember.
Another tear escaped. She doesn't remember Dahok, or Hope.. or what we did to each other…or Solon….she still thinks I'm her…
Xena's jaw clamped, as she relived the loss of that innocent trust, and between the fever, and the exhaustion, and the grief, lost herself.
It wasn't the pain that woke her. Gabrielle could have dealt with that, a low throbbing that was less than earlier, and just on the edge of really uncomfortable. No, it was the clenching in her guts that nudged her into a foggy half wakefulness, edging her eyes open to see a dull, dismal scene of soft rain over the dark green and stone gray grotto.
She could feel Xena behind her, the warrior's arms loosely wrapped around her body, and she turned her head to look up, searching for a reason for her anxiety.
Oh gods. Xena's eyes were half closed, and what she could see of them were a bloodshot blue, so lost, and glazed she hardly recognized them. Alarmed, she twisted around, reaching up and cupping the pale cheek. "Xe?"
Slowly, the reddened eyes tracked to her, a battered soul so apparent in them Gabrielle stopped breathing. "Honey.. what's wrong?" She whispered, lifting her other hand to join it's mate and stroking Xena's skin with her thumbs. "Xena?" She could hear the sharp edge of nervousness in her own voice. "C'mon, now… talk to me."
The dark lashes fluttered, and touch of life came back into the dull blue eyes. "Gab…"
"Yeah, that's me." The bard murmured gently, smoothing a touch over her soulmate's forehead. "Is it the fever? Damn, Xena… you should have woken me… let me get you something for that…" Gabrielle reached out and snagged a waterskin they'd left sitting by the furs and uncapped it, then she offered it to her soulmate. "C'mon… take a sip of this… it's got those herbs in it." For a long moment, she didn’t' think Xena was going to cooperate, then the warrior drew in a shaky breath and covered the bard's hand on the waterskin, pulling it towards her and taking a long swallow.
Then she licked her lips and gave the bard a quietly apologetic look. "Sorry.. I.." Xena's voice was hoarse, and she cleared her throat impatiently. "Fever must have gotten to me."
Gabrielle allowed herself to relax, and take a breath against the now agonizing pounding in her head, brought on by her panic. "Wow." She commented softly. "When you start to slip away from me like that… I just get so scared." Her mind called up memories of a long, lonely trek up a snowy mountainside, as she'd watched her friend slide further and further from her, a vision standing out sharp and clear amidst the uncomfortable fuzziness she was wading through. "Bad memories."
Xena dropped her gaze to the furs, remember a time when those had been the worst memories Gabrielle had. "Yeah.. I know.. I'm sorry." She felt the dark depression settle back over her, almost making it hard to even lift her head. "I'm sorry." She muttered again.
Gabrielle settled against her, offering the waterskin again. "For what, Xe? It's not your fault you're sick." She asked gently. "Is it?" She tried to put a little humor in her voice, at a loss as to what was affecting her soulmate so profoundly.
"Probably." Xena released a tense breath. "Everything else is."
The bard felt a jolt of nervous fear hit her in the gut, and she had to take a moment to steady herself, before she put the skin down, and took her partner's face in her hands. "Hey." She peered into the withdrawn eyes. "That must be some fever… is there something else I can get you? My head feels better… can I make you some hot tea?" She asked hesitantly. "Or… something?"
Looking into those anxious green eyes was hard… seeing the loving concern battered against Xena's already fairly well shredded defenses, and she had to force herself to not pull away. "Gabrielle…I never meant to hurt you." She finally murmured. "I swear it."
Gabrielle's lips tensed, then she shook her head a bit. "C'mere." She moved closer and slid an arm around the taller woman's shoulders, pulling her into a hug. There was stiff resistance for a second, then she felt Xena's whole body relax against her as the warrior circled her body with both arms. She stroked the soft, dark hair gently, laying her cheek against it and letting out a long, shaky breath. "Hey honey bear... I got you."
The warrior was silent, her hold tight but not strangling, and the bard could feel her steady, warm breathing against the skin of her belly. "It's going to be okay…..you're just not feeling well, Xena… I'm fine, and I'm here… I'm not going to let you go, all right?"
With her ear pressed against the bard's chest, Xena could feel the rapid heartbeat, and the short, nervous breaths that belied her calm voice. The need to calm her soulmate broke through the ache, and she pulled herself together Okay. You need to get a grip on yourself, Xena…you're scaring her to death, and she's hurt. So just swallow it, and ease up. With an effort, she released one hand and patted the bard's hip, giving her a squeeze with her other arm. "Thanks." She was rewarded by a sharp exhale, and a slowing of the pounding under her ear. "Sorry… " She rubbed Gabrielle's side. "Didn't meant to do that to you."
She eased away and straightened, but still kept her arms around Gabrielle, who gazed at her with a worried expression. Regardless of how you feel, Xena… she's here, and you're here, and you need to deal with this right now. She lifted a hand and stroked the bard's soft cheek with her knuckles. "I don’t know what came over me…my head's all stuffed up probably." She paused. "And I was worried about you."
Gabrielle visibly relaxed. "It's just a bump on the head… you've had lots worse." She settled down next to the warrior and offered her the waterskin again. "Here…take another sip."
Xena did so, tasting the bitterness of the herbs on the back of her tongue as she swallowed the mixture, turning the skin over in her hands and regarding it quietly. "How's your head feeling?"
"It hurts." The bard admitted softly. "But not as much as before.. and things are less fuzzy." She saw the almost hidden flinch in Xena's face as she heard the words, and her own eyes closed as she felt the clenching in her gut. "Hey…"
"Mm." The warrior moved abruptly. "Let me go get some of that…stuff." Xena stood and pulled her cloak around her, then ducked out from under the shelter she'd rigged and trudged towards the horses, where she'd sheltered the rest of their gear.
It was still raining, the soft patter of the drops against the leaves battering her hearing, along with the rolling thunder overhead. She glanced towards where the Amazons were camped, their still, seated forms moving slightly as they watched her pass. She lifted a hand in reassurance as she reached the horses and knelt, then found herself grabbing Iolaus' leg to keep from keeling over.
Damn. She rested her head against the stallion's knee and waited for the world to stop spinning, then she opened their gear and sorted through it, pulling out not only her back up healer's kit, but a package of trail bars for her soulmate.
Xena rocked back on her heels as the word formed in her mind, gazing across the rainy air towards the huddled figure whose eyes, she knew, were fastened on her. My soulmate… how can I reconcile that with knowing what I did to her?
With a sigh, she pulled herself upright, and stood, stroking Iolaus' side for a moment. The stallion nibbled her boot top and snorted, bringing a tiny smile to her face, which disappeared when she squared her shoulders, and headed back across the wet ground.
Gabrielle locked eyes with her when she got closer, and she almost stumbled over a loose rock before she caught herself on the edge of the twisted, fallen tree she'd built their shelter under and entered it, fussing around with the supplies to avoid her partner's gentle gaze. Then she looked down, to see a toned arm circling her booted leg. "Um…"
"C'mere." Gabrielle tugged at her leathers. "Sit down… please?".
"Okay…sure.. yeah." Xena sat down on the furs, training her eyes mostly on the dappled pattern. "Here.. I..got something for your head, and I thought maybe you were hungry…" She handed over the bars, and started pulling a second waterskin over. "I.. um.."
Gabrielle caught her hand and cradled it, bringing the knuckles to her lips and brushing them lightly. "Whatever it is that's chewing you up.. I hope it's not my fault." The bard said. "Because I'm hurting just looking at you, and if I knew I caused that, it would kill me."
Xena sat, stunned. "No… I.."
"What did I do?" The bard asked softly. "It's not because of this bump, is it? Xena.. I didn't even see who hit me… I didn't mean to.."
Xena shook her head wearily. "No… it's not you." She admitted. "It's me."
Gabrielle looked at her. "You?" She squirmed a little closer, and touched the warrior's knee. "Xena… are you mad because you were sick? Honey…" She stroked the soft, tanned skin. "That's not your fault…honest… don't beat yourself up for that."
"I'm not." Xena inhaled. "I just got hit in the face with something I'd been trying not to accept."
The bard chafed her fingers. "What do you mean?" She waited a bit, but Xena didn't answer. "C'mon…tell me… please?"
"I…" The dark cloud settled over her again, taunting her with the knowledge that telling her partner the truth could shatter something beyond fixing between them. She could keep it inside, right? "Maybe it's just the fever, Gabrielle.. I don't know."
"Hey." Now the bard's voice took on a strength based on the bond they had. "We decided, Xena.. no more secrets, remember?" A hand on her wrist. "Not between us… never again…so tell me."
That was true. The warrior was silent for a long series of heartbeats. Then she swallowed audibly. "I broke a promise." Her voice was a bare whisper, and she refused to meet the bard's eyes.
"A promise?" Came the gentle response. "What promise was that, honey?"
"I promised you…that I'd always be there for you." An almost whispered answer.
The words resonated through Gabrielle, as she remembered hearing them in the sweetest of dreams. "Yes you did.. and you always have been, Xena."
"No I wasn't." Now the blue eyes lifted and met hers. "I could have been….I could have stopped what happened to you in Britannia, and I didn't."
"Xena, you had no way of knowing.." The bard protested.
"I did." The hoarse answer came back. "I knew… I felt it.. I felt you…my heart knew…but I didn't follow it." Xena tasted the bitterness of the words. "I was too busy taking vengeance."
They looked at each other from across a sudden gulf
A thousand possibilities churned before Gabrielle's eyes, as she regarded the look of bitter grief on her partner's face. Could she have stopped it?
For one silent, crystal moment, Gabrielle allowed herself the that vision of the altar, with Xena's powerful form disrupting the service.
And the logic reasserted itself. "You couldn't have stopped it, Xena." The bard sighed. "It happened too fast."
"You don't know that." The warrior rasped, one hand tangled in midnight dark hair.
"My heart does." Gabrielle replied, simply. "And that's all that matters to me."
Xena pulled her hand loose, and dropped her eyes. "Gabrielle… if there is one thing in my life… one… single moment I can point to and say. 'that is what damns me to Tartarus.'.. " She dropped her head into her hands. "It's that moment." A long pause. Your not remembering any of that brought it all home I guess…I.." Silence fell as the warrior's voice trailed off, leaving a pattering of sad rain it it's wake. "I realized all over again what I'd taken from you."
Gabrielle looked at the bowed head. Then she reached over and reclaimed her soulmate's fingers, feeling the tremor in them as she did so. "Xena… I never forgot any of that." She stated, quietly. "Things were jumbled, and out of place, but I remembered that the whole time." Now it was her turn to study the ground. "So whatever I said… whatever I was feeling… came right from my heart." She paused, seeing the stillness across from her. "And it's how I feel now."
Blue eyes half obscured by dark, disheveled hair peered across the gulf between them.
"No matter how hard it's been for us, I wouldn't give up one minute of my life with you." The bard continued softly. "We both have things we'll never forgive ourselves for… there are memories I have that make me cry every single time I think about them… and I wonder, when I do, how you could forgive me." She let out a breath. "But you do… and it makes me realize that you… and I… are living, breathing examples of something I've believed in all my life."
Xena inhaled a shaky breath. "Breaking the cycle?"
Gabrielle slowly nodded. "If going through what we did brought us to this place.. how we are.. " She folded her hands around Xena's. "Who we are… and what we've done… then I accept that price." She pulled the warrior a little closer. "Because you are priceless to me, Xena."
It took a long time, while blue eyes searched her face in utter silence, until the dark lashes fluttered closed, and Xena nodded faintly. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle." She murmured, with quiet sincerity.
Gabrielle lifted their linked hands and kissed her fingertips. "I accept your apology.. and I forgive you, Xena… for being human." A sad look entered her eyes. "Just as you've forgiven me that, for what I did."
Xena pulled back, tugging her soulmate into her arms and wrapping her in a gentle, heartfelt hug that banished the darkness, and returned to her a meager sense of peace. "You know something?" She uttered softly.
"Mm?" Gabrielle was stroking her hair with a sweet gentleness.
"You.. are my hero." The soft voice told her.
The bard blinked, scattering crystal tears that disappeared against the dark leathers.
The path was narrow, a dirt track mostly through very rocky soil, and slick with the day's rain. The Amazons moved down it carefully, surrounding their quiet guests, who lead their horses and made polite conversation.
Well, Gabrielle did, anyway. The bard had recovered, and insisted on them moving along after the rain stopped, more concerned over her partner than herself. Xena, of course, assumed her truculently tough stance, and pretended she was fine, only the long, heavy cloak she kept tucked around her long frame any indication of her continuing illness.
"This is pretty country." The bard murmured to Jonae, who was pacing quietly beside her.
"Yes, it is." The Amazon agreed, glancing around. "A lot of resources.. all we need, really. There's a good stock of fish in the streams, decent game… good soil for growing berries.." She sighed. "We thought we'd found paradise."
"Mm." Gabrielle picked her way carefully around a set of rocks, glancing behind her to see her soulmate doing the same, blue eyes flicking over the surrounding areas with pensive attention. Behind Xena, in front of the two Amazons bringing up the rear was Devon, who had kept prudently away from both the warrior and herself, his embarrassed devastation apparent on his expressive face. "Well… you never know, Jonae… maybe things will pass you by."
The taller woman adjusted one of her arm bands and sighed. "Maybe…but I don’t' think we can take the chance. We've got children to move…elders, a few of them, to get under shelter.. I don’t know."
"Looked like a pretty safe village." Gabrielle commented. "I've never seen one in the trees before.. I was impressed."
Jonae straightened a little, accepting a compliment with a slight nod. "Tell me of your village, Gabrielle."
They'd gotten past the Queen this and that a few candlemarks earlier, thank the gods, Gabrielle thought. "Well.. it's in a mountain valley…good hunting.. fishing… a lot of half fields for harvesting a wheat crop, though they have trading agreements with the surrounding settlements."
"They?" The auburn haired woman murmured, giving Gabrielle a curious look.
Ah. "Well.. I don’t' spend a whole lot of time there." The bard explained. "It's… complicated." She glanced at the furrow browed expression on the woman's face. "I wasn't born into the Amazons… I sort of um…" She waggled her free hand. "Fell into them, so to speak."
"I don't understand." Jonae shook her head.
"Well.. it's kind of like… " Gabrielle sighed. "We were walking through the forest one day, and we came upon some Amazons." She paused. "And we were talking to them, when they got attacked by Centaurs."
"Ah.. yes.. I've heard of this." The Amazon leader nodded.
"Mm.. well, I sort of… ah..I got involved in that, and I .."
"She threw herself between the arrows, and the then current Amazon princess." Xena supplied dryly, from her spot several paces back. "Terreis died.. but before she did, she passed her right of caste on to Gabrielle."
"Thank you." Gabrielle gave her partner a look. "Is this my story, or what?"
The warrior snorted softly. "You never tell your story, Gabrielle."
Jonae hid a smile behind her hand, and cleared her throat. "I see… well, that explains your right.. but.. " She gave the bard a much more interested look. "What happened after that?" She glanced behind her. "Or should I ask you?"
"I missed parts of it." Xena answered, in a dry, bland tone.
Gabrielle sighed. "Yes, you did." She replied softly. "Anyway.. after we stopped the war between the Amazons and Centaurs, and got through the challenge and all, we.."
"What?" Jonae held up a hand. "Wait…what challenge? I thought you were only an heir?"
"Um… well, I had to challenge Melosa.. so she'd stop the fighting." Gabrielle told her, in an apologetic tone. "We couldn’t let the war go on.. it was mostly a misunderstanding."
The Amazon Queen's eyes widened. "So you… won the challenge, and that's how you gained the Queen ship?" She looked deeply impressed. "I've heard of Melosa…that's incredible."
"Uh.. " Gabrielle scratched her jaw. "No.. not quite." She sighed. "I didn't fight her.. Xena did." Now her eyes went to her quietly pacing soulmate. "She's my champion." She explained gently. "She always has been." The warrior's ear tips reddened, and Gabrielle smiled. "But we had things we had to do… so we turned things back over to Melosa, and went on our way."
"Ah." Jonae murmured. "I see… but.. "
"Melosa was challenged by her foster daughter, Velaska, and she lost." The bard continued in a reserved voice. "And about that time, I was passing through their lands again and they asked me to get involved.. I did…and we got things worked out." To go through the rest… Gabrielle still felt emotionally exhausted from the morning, and she just wasn't up to it. "So.. I did accept the mask, but I have a regent, who rules the village for me."
"Really?" Jonae looked halfway between confused, and disapproving. "That's very strange."
"Not really… even in Amphipolis, we're pretty closely in touch.. one of the Amazons moved there, and married Xena's brother, and we've got a rotating group of guards who live there too… we're only about three days travel apart, so we see a lot of them, and they spend a lot of time around the village." Gabrielle explained. "We trade back and forth… they play a big part in our merchant's market.. that sort of thing." She could tell the other Amazons were listening too. "Both villages are prospering from it.. we're a ready source for trading both ways, and we have shelter and support that they can't duplicate up range."
"But… it's almost like they're not Amazons.. if they're living in villages, and all that.. it goes against what the purpose of our kind are, Gabrielle.. " Jonae objected. "A society of woman.. not dependent on anyone." A murmur of agreement met her words, from the surrounding warriors.
Gabrielle shrugged. "I'm not dependent on anyone… " She hesitated, then smiled quietly. "Well, I mean, except for Xena, of course.. but.. "
"That’s a mutual thing, and we're both women, last time I checked." Xena added dryly, tugging her cloak closer around her body, garnering her furtive looks from the Amazons. She fell silent again, as Gabrielle started to explain further, subsiding back into her reserved aloofness. Her fever had leveled off, and was more of a nagging annoyance than anything else, but it wore on her, and added to the mental fatigue she'd been carrying around since the morning.
She'd accepted what Gabrielle had said. Maybe because she so desperately wanted to, since believing that finally.. finally put a small patch on the dark chasms she still had left in there, which she'd been skirting for over two years. She'd known they were there, but her will was able to simply run over them, or pretend they didn't exist, as she focused firmly on the present, and pushed aside the past.
It was kept down very deep, after all, and hardly ever surfaced, save when she was very tired, or otherwise vulnerable, and this morning… Xena sighed. This morning she'd been as vulnerable as she had been in a long time, and that was bothering her because she really didn't know why.
Sure, she was sick. As though the thought triggered it, the warrior stifled a cough, which gained her a green orb in her direction. And she'd been worried about Gabrielle…no doubt about that, but even so…falling apart like that scared her a little.
Okay. Xena exhaled carefully, trying not to trigger another cough. It scared her a lot. She cleared her throat, hating the scratchy ache in it, and rubbed a hand across her eyes, wishing briefly she was in a dry bed somewhere.
C'mon, Xena. She wryly nudged herself. You've been living soft too long, huh? Listen to you…a couple of sniffles, and you want to be coddled like a damn baby…you oughta be ashamed. She straightened her shoulders and picked her pace up, closing in on her partner's cloaked form, as they, and the Amazons reach a small, level plateau.
Jonae halted, and peered at them. "We've got at least another days' travel… this is a good place to stop for the night if you prefer."
Xena scanned the area cautiously. It was fairly flat, with a sheer rock face on both sides, and openings where they were, and directly opposite. To one side, an overgrown path lead down between a split in the rocks, and she could smell water, and there was an old, but well kept firepit just under the rock overhang that would provide some shelter. "All right." She agreed, reluctantly, preferring to keep moving away from Andrea's troops, but knowing the falling dusk would make it a difficult trek on the narrow path down.
Besides.. She surveyed her soulmate intently, seeing the lines of strain against her pale skin, and the tired set of her shoulders. Time to stop, for her sake. Xena put a friendly hand on the bard's shoulder, holding back a smile when Gabrielle instinctively covered it with her own, fingers rubbing against her skin in absent pleasure as the bard spoke.
"Thanks, Jonae… this looks fine.. do you use it for camp? It looks like it."
"Yes." The Amazon queen nodded. "We used to keep a sentry out here.. but it's been a long time since anyone's used it.. the path up from the other side is overgrown, and covered in thorn scrub." She spoke briefly to the other warriors. "There's not much shelter.. but I think we'll all fit under there."
They moved across the open space, and started setting up camp. Gabrielle untied their saddlebags, then paused as Devon tried to slink by her. She reached out with one hand and caught his shirt, bringing him to an abrupt halt. "Hey."
He peeked at her. "Uh.. hi."
Gabrielle pulled her bag down, then tugged him towards a set of fairly flat rocks nearby. "Come over here a minute and sit down, okay?"
They sat, and he put his hands between his knees, tangling his fingers together in apparent tension.
"Look." The bard put her hand on his shoulder. "Devon… it's okay."
His brown eyes jerked guiltily up at her. "No it's not.. I conked you over the head."
"You didn't mean to." Gabrielle told him. "Did you?"
He stared at her. "N..no! of course not!"
"Well, okay then." The bard patted his arm "So relax, all right? I know you meant well.. and stuff like that.. well, it happens sometimes."
He sighed, and leaned on his elbows. "My big chance at getting to help out my…ah.. to help out two heroes, and what do I do? I clobber one of them… I can't believe I did that." Devon looked up at her guiltily. "I bet you never did that."
Gabrielle rubbed her jaw. "Mm… did I ever clobber Xena…" she nibbled her lip. "I don’t' think I ever dropped a rock on her.. but. Um.. " She let a grin appear. "I have gotten her into more messes than you could possibly imagine."
He gave her a doubtful look. "Really?"
The bard nodded. "Yeah… I can remember sitting at the fire at night, and wondering why she didn't just pack my village bumpkin butt back to Potadeia for some of the stunts I pulled."
"Mm." Devon appeared thoughtful. "So.. why didn't she?"
"Well, different reasons, I guess… we had become friends, and she needed help.. and.." Gabrielle hesitated.
"Because I fell in love with her instead." Xena's deeper voice answered out of the growing dusk, as the warrior appeared from apparently the fog, or thin air, and ruffled the bard's hair before she disappeared into the mist again.
The bard sighed, and rubbed her blushing cheeks. "And.. um… that, too." She murmured, surprised her soulmate had made such a bold statement in front of veritable strangers. "So.. anyway… don’t' worry, Devon.. I'm not mad… I don't want you to feel bad about trying to do the right thing, okay?"
He nodded shyly. "Thanks, Gabrielle."
She patted his arm, and stood. "Let's get camp going… it's been a really long day." Gabrielle walked him over to the busy Amazons, and nudged him towards some firewood, then she walked over to where her partner was tending the horses in the gentle purple twilight. She slipped up next to the warrior and looked up at her. "Hey there."
Xena looked tired, but relatively all right, and she paused, letting her arms rest on Hercules' back. "You two make up?"
Gabrielle nodded, patting the stallion's side. "He was just a little mad at himself… I've kinda been there, so I told him not to worry about it." She traced an idle pattern on the smooth blue leathers. "He really wanted to help."
"I know." The warrior replied. "If I thought otherwise, I'd have put him through a tree headfirst." She advised her partner. "How's the head?"
The bard rubbed the spot. "Sore.. " She exhaled. "Hurts if I bend over… but not too bad other than that." She put a hand against Xena's cheek. "What about you?"
"I'm fine." Xena told her, mindful of the covertly watching Amazons. "I'm going to see if I can pick up something for dinner."
Gabrielle considered arguing, then realized it probably wouldn't do much good. Her soulmate was firmly in her too tough for her leathers routine, and would strenuously resist any of her attempts at coddling. "Okay." She agreed mildly. "I'll get things settled here."
She watched the warrior pad off, then she took down their bags, and the sleeping furs, and smiled wryly. She couldn’t stop Xena, no.. but there was more than one way to sheer a sheep.
The fire licked lazily at the dried wood, throwing gold and crimson shadows against the ring of people surrounding it.
Gabrielle was sitting cross legged on their sleeping furs, nibbling at the last of her grilled venison, provided by the deer a casually offhanded Xena offered up when she'd come back from her hunting trip. The Amazons had been suitably impressed, and they'd all enjoyed the steaks, dusted with the bard's jealously guarded herb mixture.
Jonae had even unbent and allowed her warriors to uncork a wineskin, which they'd passed around to their guests as two of the younger ones traded hunting stories in the cool, still damp air.
Xena was seated behind her partner, meticulously cleaning her weapons and armor, one ear on the conversation, the other on the surrounding area. Her eyes were quietly alert, and if you didn't know her, you'd have been absolutely convinced that here sat a perfectly healthy, well rested warrior just relaxing on the edges of the firelight.
Gabrielle, of course, having lived with the warrior in question for as long as she had, knew better. She'd managed to get a dose of the fever herbs into the recalcitrant woman, but all gentle suggestions that she rest were greeting with stubbornly alert blue eyes and just a hint of a pout.
You know, Gabrielle… The bard mused to herself. If Dori really does take after her, you're toasted nutbread. She drummed her fingers on a knee lightly, then mentally snapped her fingers. She lowered her weight onto her elbows, then lightly rubbed her head, allowing her eyes to close for a long moment before she straightened up to focus her attention again on the Amazons.
Then she counted under her breath. On twenty, a soft tug came on her tunic. She waited another five counts, and got another tug, this time more insistent. Her head turned to see a steady gaze and one lifted brow facing her. "Hey… what's up?" She glanced at the warrior's plate, pleased to see it was cleared.
"Your head okay?" Xena asked, a touch gruffly.
Gabrielle half lifted a hand. "Oh.. yeah.. I.. " She rubbed her neck. "It's a little sore.. nothing much."
"C'mere." The warrior set her last bit of armor down, and patted the furs next to her, ignoring the looks from the Amazons.
The bard scooted over and settled down next to her partner, tucking herself against Xena's left side and stifling a yawn. "Long day."
Jonae shifted. "That it was… I think we could all use some sleep.. Centas will take first watch." She nodded at the oldest of the warriors, a woman with long, straight silvered black hair, and a medium build.
"You can get me for second." Xena commented casually, crossing her booted legs.
Gabrielle sighed silently.
"Please, Xena… we feel terrible about last night.. let us at least provide you with one evening's rest to replace that." Jonae objected stolidly. "It's only fair." She casually glanced at the bard, and gave her a ghost of a wink.
Ooo. I like her. The bard knew a sparkle must have entered her own eyes, because Jonae had to clear her throat and glance off.
Xena merely shrugged. "It's no bother to me.. but have it your way." She stretched out her legs a little, then lifted her cloak, and tucked it around Gabrielle's body as the bard curled up against her and slid an arm across her stomach as she rested her head against Xena's shoulder.
The Amazons arranged themselves for the night, keeping Devon against the stone wall, where he was tangled up in his borrowed furs, listening in silence. The fire crackled down, and left them in peaceful silence.
Xena leaned back against the rocks, glad of the quiet at last.. She felt a gentle movement against her and looked down, to see a pair of sleepy green eyes blinking up at her, and she smiled in reaction, glancing around before she put a fingertip on the bard's cute nose.
Gabrielle yawned, then nestled closer, making a small, contented noise deep in her throat. "Thanks for dinner." She murmured. "That really hit the spot."
"Yeah?" The warrior's voice burred in response. "Ahh.. I got lucky.. he got caught in a downed tree, and broke his leg. I just ended it."
"Don’t' care… it tasted great…I was starving." The bard replied, yawning again, and feeling the catch in her partner's breathing as she did the same. Her ear pressed against the leather covered shoulder, listening to the heartbeat that steadied, and slowed, coming down to match her own, as the breathing under her right hand did as well, a mute testimony to the profound bond that linked them. She started a light tracing with the hand she had draped over he warrior's stomach, and felt the body under hers start to relax perceptibly.
The low pitch tickled her eardrums, and almost made her laugh, but she bit her lip and tilted her head up, peering at her partner with as much innocence as she could muster. "Hmm?"
"What are you doing?"
Gabrielle opened her eyes wider, and pointed a thumb at her own chest. "Me?" She inquired. "Going to sleep, Xena.. why?"
A dark brow lifted.
"Okay.. so I'm trying to get you to go there with me.. satisfied?" The bard admitted, lowering her voice. "C'mon.. they're keeping watch, so you can drop the iron warrior routine for a few candlemarks."
Now the lashes batted at her. "The what routine?"
"Gabrielle, I feel fine." The low voice stated. "Really…I think the fever broke, and my leg's a lot better." She protested, having changed the bandage earlier, pleased to find the wound healing.
"Mm… " The bard lifted a hand and touched her forehead, finding it cool. "Okay…" She replied simply, putting her head back down and resuming her position, but omitting her gentle tracing. "I’m too tired to argue with you."
Xena blinked at the capitulation, finding herself tongue tied.
"And I'm not too proud to admit it, either." The bard continued, firmly closing her eyes.
Her soulmate made a noise halfway between a cluck and a snort, but drew no further response. It was very quiet for a moment, then Xena started gently stroking the bard's soft hair. "I didn't say I wasn't enjoying what you were doing." She muttered.
Gabrielle chuckled soundlessly, then gave her partner a squeeze.
"You're getting pretty damn good at that." Xena grumbled.
"Getting?" Gabrielle mouthed silently to herself. "C'mon… close those baby blues." She resumed her tracing, loosening the laces that held the warrior's leathers closed, and slipping her hand inside to touch soft, silky skin.
"Hmph." Xena exhaled, moving her hand up to scratch the bard's neck in her favorite spot. Her eyes had closed of their own accord, as she surrendered to the exhaustion she'd been holding at bay for hours, and she let her chin rest against Gabrielle's head.
Not that she really had any intention of sleeping of course… Amazons or no Amazons, they were in a strange area, and now that she felt better, she'd just let her eyes rest here a minute, then….
Gabrielle felt the breathing under her deepen, and she smiled quietly, sliding her hand further under the heavy armor and leaving it there, letting herself drift off to sleep surrounded by the scent of woodsmoke and leather.
A soft trill of birdsong slowly nudged her awake, and Xena spent a moment listening to it before she allowed her eyes to drift open into the foggy gray mist of a new day. A thick blanket lay over the ground, with the tips of rocks and the odd branch poking out of it eerily. To one side she could see the sentry, crouched in the lee of a large boulder, and noted the motion as the woman slowly turned her head, surveying the area with commendable alertness.
The other Amazons were curled into their blankets, unrolled from the efficient trail packs they carried. The fire had burned down, and was mere ghostly crimson embers, but warm enough for Xena to feel a gentle heat if she poked a hand out from under her heavy cloak.
She, of course, was comfortably warm, and thankfully free from fever. The cloak was well insulated, and the combination of her own and Gabrielle's body heat had kept them both quite cozy through the dark hours, and that had let her sleep in relative peace all through the night.
Which, she acknowledged wryly, was probably a good thing. The heavy feeling in her head was gone, and other than an expected ache in her leg, she felt pretty good, even the sore throat she'd had was gone and if she took a deep breath, the tight sensation was completely cleared up.
Hmm. Guess the old body still has a little of that healing stuff in there yet. Xena drew in a pleased breath and studied their Amazon companions. Besides the guard, who was the shorter redhead who'd brought up the rear the previous day, there were Jonae, their guard from last night, and two twin sisters, tall, thin women with short brown hair who seldom smiled. They were an interesting bunch, especially when they chatted among themselves and thought a sharp eared warrior wasn't listening or paying attention.
The redhead thought Gabrielle was too cute for words. Xena had stifled a grin on hearing that, and on hearing the two sisters analyzing the skills the bard had used on the renegade Amazons. They had a healthy respect now for her younger partner, and that was a good thing, because Gabrielle would need that if she hoped to knit together all the groups Xena knew they'd need to make a run at this.
She felt the form snuggled under her arm shift, then a breath warmed her neck.
"Mmfph." A feather light brush of lips against her skin brought a smile to the warrior's face, as she reflected on how the simplest things took on new color under love's brushstrokes.
A dark brow lifted sharply. "I did not think that." Xena muttered, audibly, focusing her mind on the difficulties ahead instead.
"Think what?" Gabrielle murmured, stretching her body out then curling it up against her partner's again. "Mm…. You are so nice and warm." She snuggled closer and rubbed her cheek against the warrior's shoulder.
Xena, Warrior Teddy Bear. The dark haired woman sighed. "I think it's time to get up." She murmured into the pink ear near her chin. "I'd like to get going early."
"Uh huh… I guess we're feeling a lot spunkier this morning, huh?" Gabrielle commented, with a teasing grin. "Isn't it great what a good night's sleep will do?" She tickled the soft skin under her fingertips, and felt her partner squirm.
Xena gave her a slap on the butt. "Well, my spunky bardic friend, get moving." The Amazons were starting to stir, woken by the light and their low voices.
Gabrielle ducked her head under the cloak, and chuckled evilly, having access to her soulmate's half bared body. She found a very sensitive spot and nibbled it, feeling Xena's ribs expand sharply as she reacted. She peeked out to see outraged blue eyes devouring her, and a small, very mischevious smile starting to shape Xena's lips.
"Gabrrriieeellle." The drawn out word hit the lowest register of her partner's voice,.
"Oo.. I love it when you do that." The bard whispered, as she gently licked the warrior's breastbone, breathing in the rich, musky scent of her body with a little chuckle of pleasure.
Xena's eyes flicked to their companions, then fastened back on her tormentor. "You… are a troublemaker."
"Takes one to know one." The bard poked her tongue out, then ducked her head and nuzzled the soft skin, nibbling and nipping subtly until she felt the motion as Xena's swallowed, and her heartbeat picked up along with her breathing. She peeked up again and almost giggled at the look of fierce frustration on her soulmate's face.
"I'm going to get you for this." The warrior growled, very softly.
"Promises, promises." Gabrielle answered, relenting with a sigh, and carefully lacing her partner back up, tying the leather strings at the top and resting her chin on them.
And felt her head captured by a strong hand behind her neck, and pale blue eyes coming closer with a wicked twinkle in them. She found her lips captured, with an intense passion that sent a jolt all the way down to her feet, making her body shift and react so fast she could hardly stop it.
It was a seductive craving, that wrapped itself around her and sent tingles up and down her spine, as the warrior explored with expert persistence.
Then Xena gently withdrew, and gave her another slap on the butt. "Now, move."
One very out of breath, outraged bard looked back at her. "Oooo… paybacks are a bitch." She let out a frustrated breath and her head dropped to Xena's chest, then she sighed, and eased away from the chuckling warrior.
The Amazons were sitting up, and the sisters had risen to grab folding buckets, nods being directed towards their guests.
"Good morning." Jonae yawned, rubbing her eyes.
"Oh yeah." Gabrielle got to her feet and shook herself, giving her still chuckling soulmate a dire look. "Are you going for water?" She asked the twins, who nodded. The bard grabbed a waterskin and followed them. "I'll help." She ran a hand through her hair and hoped the water wasn't part of a darn hot spring.
They traveled throughout the day in a cool, damp, almost rain that clung to the skin and drenched their cloaks in condensation. Xena took charge of both horses, allowing her partner to walk at her ease before them and chat with Jonae.
The tall Amazon had loosened up a lot, and seemed to be enjoying her time with the bard, and both women had frequently broken into chuckles, once glancing back in her direction, which indicated to Xena that she was probably a topic of conversation.
The warrior sighed, and shook her head, then ambled on, watching the surrounding countryside with interest. The mountain trek was tough, but it cut at least a week, maybe more from the route they'd have to have taken to get back home, and she could see a good advantage in knowing the way back. A column of soldiers could slip through here, and be on the city before they'd know it.
If she needed them to. And if the Amazons would allow it, of course. Xena amused herself for a good candlemark going over how she'd bring a force through here, then jogged her brain into an exercise that bring the same force through without the Amazons cooperation. It was interesting, and she pulled a honey drop out of her saddlebag, sucking on it contentedly as she judged the relative merits of her warrior companions. The Amazons were competent fighters, she could tell by their reactions, and the alertness with which they carried themselves. More so than Gabrielle's Amazons, she reflected wryly, though that had been improving under her tutelage. They were all sinewy, and their eyes moved with every rustle as they made their way silently along the path.
A small archer force could, though, force them back into their village, and allow passage, Xena concluded, knowing they had things they had to protect. She hoped, however, that if it should be needed, Gabrielle could secure them a clear path, even if the Amazons declined to join the effort.
The mountain route also guaranteed they couldn’t be attacked in force, she continued her musing, as they started downward, and she picked her path carefully to make sure the horses had sure footing. There were a lot of places to hide up here, and no way for any larger group to come at them without getting nailed by crossbows, or other weapons.
Xena nodded a little to herself. She'd have to have a gathering area, where the troops could be collected and trained, and which would draw Andreas attention. It would have to be large enough to hold the forces, and small enough to be defensible…. The warrior retrieved another honey drop and popped it into her mouth, enjoying the mental exercise very much.
And then she stopped and thought about that. Thought about just how excited she'd been getting, and how much she was looking forward to pitting her wits against Andreas, regardless of the odds.
Well. She sucked on the honey drop. Confidence was an important part of leadership, right? And she was too honest with herself not to realize that there was a part of her that sorely missed using those skills, that was eager to throw itself into the seductive swirl of war, soaking up the blood and the violence that came with the legacy of who she'd once been.
And was becoming again?
A gentle laugh traveled back to her, and she glanced forward to see Gabrielle walking carefully backwards, motioning her to come closer.
No. That was her safety system, the light, warm web that contained her violence, directing it towards a sober, noble goal rather than releasing it to run rampant again. Gabrielle was there, to remind her of the stakes, and why she was doing this, and what she had to lose.
It had been after a fierce, wild fight, her against she couldn’t think how many others, and she'd just let her instincts go, killing with the wild abandon that had brought a laugh to her lips, and a fierce, exultant gladness to her heart.
She'd wiped her blade on dead bodies, and stepped over them without a single glance of remorse, as the survivors ran, dropping their weapons in their haste to escape her. With a grin, she'd picked up a war ax, hefting it, then she'd taken aim at one of the runners, setting her body for the throw and already feeling the seductive satisfaction of the blade sinking into the shoulderblades of her victim.
A hair from release, she'd glanced over to see Gabrielle watching her, the young girl trying very hard to remain calm, her newly given staff clutched in hands so white with tension, they almost shone.
Staring at her, with a look of mixed horror and fear, and something close to disappointment that struck her in an unexpectedly tender spot.
She'd never cared what anyone else thought of her. Never apologized for what she was… for who she was.
But that look….
She'd dropped the ax, and walked over to where Gabrielle was standing, watching the girl swallow a few times, before she'd looked back up and met Xena's eyes, the struggle to accept clear and stark in her own.
Gabrielle had been very quiet for a long time after that, even after they'd left the battleground far behind, and had found a quiet spot to rest in, near a deep lake that Xena had used to scrub the stains of war of her skin.
She'd watched the girl while she was bathing, her brow furrowed as she went about her chores, obviously thinking hard. They'd eaten a very quiet meal, then Xena had settled down to clean and sharpen her sword, and Gabrielle had taken out her diary.
And had sat there, for a long time, staring at the blank page before her, until she finally sighed, and looked up. "Xena?"
"Mmm?" The warrior had answered, intent on her task.
"You enjoy it, don't you? What you were doing today" The soft, hesitant voice had held a hint of sadness.
She'd stared at her hands, curled around the sword's hilt. "It's part of fighting, Gabrielle. You get used to it." She'd finally said, hearing the silence. Unable to keep from looking up and into that pensive face. Who was she to judge anyway?
Gabrielle had simply looked at her.
"Yes." Xena had finally admitted, shortly.
And Gabrielle had looked…. Had looked as though that answer hurt her. She'd gotten up and simply walked away, leaving her scrolls, and the furs, and Xena behind her.
She'd finished her cleaning in the silence of the fire, and put her weapons away, then settled down to sleep, determined not to go after the little fool this time. And sure enough, after a bit, soft footsteps approached, and the rustle of parchment against leather told her Gabrielle was putting her things away.
Then the girl rolled herself up into her sleeping blanket and turned her back.
Xena had stared at the cloth covered shoulderblades until the words forced themselves from her. "Gabrielle.. it's what I am."
"I know." Came the soft answer. "I just. I didn't think…" A long pause, and a barely audible sigh. "I guess I should have realized…anyway.. good night, Xena."
She'd stared up at the stars for a long time, surprised by the warm tears that rolled silently down her face, coming from a source she barely understood. Not for herself.. she'd long ago reconciled herself to what she was, but instead… for Gabrielle, who had lost something that day, a something that probably should have never been there in the first place.
Guess she'll be headed back to Potadeia. Xena had mused, wiping the tears way with an impatient hand. Better for both of us, probably.
"Xena?" The girl's voice, husky with tears broke the stillness.
"Yeah." Xena had replied.
A soft rustle as Gabrielle had gotten up and walked over, sitting down cross legged at Xena's side, and pushing a lock of pale hair from her eyes. "I think I figured something out."
Stupid kid. Xena had tried to shove the hurt away somewhere. "Yeah? What?" She'd answered gruffly, calculating the time back to the backwater she'd found Gabrielle in.
And a hand had touched her arm, in that annoying way Gabrielle had, making her look over and into those gentle, green eyes.
"Friends don't judge each other." Gabrielle had stated, simply. "And I'm your friend."
It had been an unexpected grace, and in that moment, it changed something in her forever, reclaiming a part of her soul she'd thought long gone and destroyed.
"Thanks." Had been all she'd said, but she'd meant it, and Gabrielle had known that, understanding what they were, after all.
Xena lengthened her strides, bringing her even with her soulmate, and Jonae as they broke out onto a small level area. "What's up?"
"We’re at the edge of our territory." Jonae explained. "We thought we could share a trail meal with you before you go on your way."
The warrior checked the sun's hidden progress, then nodded. "Good idea… we won't find shelter before dark. Might as well."
They scattered into the open area and sat down, pulling out packs and waterskins. Gabrielle offered around pieces of their trail rations, and the Amazons reciprocated, even graciously including Devon in their generosity. Gabrielle chose to sit on the same rock as her partner, squishing the warrior a little, but she figured Xena probably wouldn't mind.
A long arm settled over her shoulders and pulled her closer, validating her guess, and she smiled, as she took a bite of her bar, chewing it in silent enjoyment as she felt Xena gently kiss the top of her head.
She looked up at her soulmate in surprise, not expecting the public display. "What was that for?" She inquired softly, giving the taller woman a poke in the ribs.
Xena merely shook her head, and smiled.
"Well, it is time we part ways." Jonae stood easily with her arms resting at her side as they reached the long slope down to the valley. "Have a good journey, and I wish you much success with your task."
"Thanks for the company, Jonae." Gabrielle answered graciously. "We really appreciate it." She gave her partner a sideways look. "Especially after all that happened in the city… it was nice to have an escort."
"Mm." The Amazon Queen nodded thoughtfully. "You were very lucky…we've heard some horror stories of those who tried to defy Andreas.. and that witches brew they fight with. "She glanced at Xena. "Or perhaps luck isn't the reason.. " A respectful nod at the warrior. "Your skills held them away, rather."
Green and blue eyes met, then flicked to the Amazon. "What brew?" Gabrielle asked, curiously. "I know they were giving the men something.. they put it on the meat, and it stunk like crazy.. but.. "
The Amazons gathered around. "Some stuff they put on arrows and their swords.." The redhead stated quietly. "Gets people sick.. and then, they die.. all of them." She shook her head. "Bastards.. not good enough to kill firsthand.. but they've got to spread their evil that way? Be glad you got away without a scratch, the two of you."
Xena felt Gabrielle's eyes on her, and she let a breath slowly escape. That… explained a few things. "Yeah.. guess we just got lucky." She replied casually. "How long does it take to act?"
Jonae sniffed reflectively. "A day.. two at the most.. I saw three of my fighters die from it.. never again." She gave them a fierce look. "I don't mind battle… but not at those odds. That's not a fair fight."
"Right.. well, thanks for the warning." Gabrielle murmured, stunned. "Guess we'll be going.. c'mon, Devon.. we'll go with you to the crossroads."
They left their escort behind, and started down a widening path that lead into the open valley, enjoying the cool breeze that came up slope and blew their hair and cloaks back. Gabrielle found herself walking next to a very quiet Xena, who kept her eyes mostly on the soft waving grasses, ocher with fall's chill. Devon paced along on the other side of Iolaus, a thoughtful look on his face.
"Hey." The bard moved a step closer to her soulmate, and dropped her voice.
"Hmm?" Xena looked up, one brow lifting.
"That was.. um.. interesting.. about the poison." Gabrielle replied tentatively.
The warrior didn't answer for a moment, she simply paced on deep in thought. "Musta just nicked me." She finally stated. "Or maybe there wasn't much on that guy's blade, and I got lucky." Xena's expression was serious. "But that adds one Hades of a complication in to this whole thing, Gabrielle… you count on a certain percentage of casualties, sure, but not this."
"Mm." The bard exhaled. "Yeah.. I was thinking of that." She went silent, and for a bit, only the soft crunch of their boots marring the quiet. Finally, Gabrielle cleared her throat. "So.. do we change our plan?"
The taller woman at her side looked off into the distance, one hand playing a bit with the fringe of her leathers, lying across the bandage on her thigh. "I don't know." Xena stated, at last. "I have to think about it."
They walked quietly on.
Dark had closed in around them, before they reached the crossroads and parted ways. Devon took a gentle clasp of their arms, and thanked them shyly, not meeting their eyes as he stammered a little speech.
"Be careful." Gabrielle had told him, giving him a sack with some of their trail rations. "Don't get caught again, okay?"
They'd watched him leave, then continued on down the dark road, under a cloudy sky that allowed no starlight, and no moonlight, and magnified the sounds around them eerily.
"Think we should have kept him with us?" Gabrielle finally asked, reaching a hand out in the gloom to find her soulmate's and entwining their fingers. "It's really dark out here, Xena."
"He'll be fine." The warrior told her. "He's headed in a different direction than we are, and it's so dark, no one'll be out looking for him." She tightened her grasp around the bard's hand, and exhaled. "Or us, for that matter."
"I guess." Gabrielle focused on the living warmth of the hand clasped her own, the skin dry, and slightly rough as she rubbed her thumb against it. "You have some place to stop in mind tonight?" She held back a yawn at the very thought of stopping.
Even in the dark, she could swear she could see the faint grin on the warrior's face. "Let me guess.. you're tired and hungry, right?"
"Tch." The bard sniffed. "I didn't say that."
Xena chuckled. "You didn't have to.. I am too." She admitted. "There's a small trading town about a candlemarks ride from here.. I figured we could stop there." She didn't feel feverish, but she also didn't feel completely up to par, and she wasn't sure if it was a residue or merely the knowledge that she'd been poisoned that was doing it. "They've got a decent inn, or at least they did, and it's a quiet place."
"Sounds great." Gabrielle agreed firmly.
"It does, huh?" Xena inquired.
"Yep… I'm all for it." Her companion stated positively.
"Great.. get your butt up on the horse, then." The warrior grinned into the darkness. "Because it's three or four candlemarks if we walk."
Gabrielle sighed. "You're wicked." She grumbled, but stopped, and released the hand she still held, so she could get herself aboard the restless stallion, aware of the close presence behind her, as Xena held Hercules' bridle, and made sure she was on safely. "Okay.. thanks."
"Good girl." Xena gave her a friendly pat on the knee, then turned and lifted herself up into Iolaus' saddle, settling her knees securely before she sidestepped him over, and put a hand out. "You want me to lead you?"
"No.. I'm okay." The bard put the reins between her fingers and exhaled. "Go on.. let's get moving." She nudged her mount into a faster pace as Xena started off, and resigned herself to a long, bumpy ride.
The silence was broken by their hoofbeats as they approached the town, small pools of torchlight stark in the cool, damp night marking it's presence. The outbuildings looked fairly intact, Gabrielle was glad to note, and as they entered the central area, the few inhabitants they saw seemed wary, but courteous.
A bandy legged man with a leather apron met them near the inn, and held a hand up. "Ho.. travelers."
They pulled up, and Xena turned her cowled head towards him. "We're looking for a place to stay overnight.. and stabling."
The man nodded. "Aye.. we've got both, the gods only know we're emptier than a goose as laid er eggs." He eyed Xena speculatively "Mind.. they're only taking coin at the inn, no barter."
Meaning they were on very hard times, Xena realized. "No problem." She replied quietly, as she swung her leg over Iolaus' neck, and slid down, resettling her cloak around her body with a twitch. "We can handle that." She turned and held Hercules' bridle as Gabrielle dismounted. "Which way?"
The man nodded down a faintly crooked pathway. "Over there." He studied the horses. "Fine beasts.. ye can leave em with me, if you have a mind to.. I'm the smith."
Gabrielle moved forward, swiping the hood of her cloak back as she approached him. "All right… " She tugged Hercules' reins. "Why don't I go with you.. they can be kind of skittish.. and they're used to me." She gave her partner a look. "You want to grab a room?'
It was an odd reversal to their usual order, but Xena couldn’t find a reason to object. "Sure." She murmured, unstrapping her saddlebags and throwing them over her shoulder, then reaching for Gabrielle's. "Meet you inside." She checked her belt to make sure she had her money pouch with her, then headed down the small path, listening idly to her soulmate's gentle speech as she helped the smith guide their horses into the stable.
The path was packed earth, and her boots made little noise as she came to the door of the inn, a well scraped wooden portal with worn leather hinges. She pushed it aside and entered, into a small, ill lit room that held a few uneven tables, two or three silent occupants, and a dubious looking pair of doors leading out. It smelled of old wood and older ale, and had a sad look of wear to it, reminding her suddenly of what her mother's inn had been like when she'd first come home.
A lifetime ago.
As she entered, one of the inner doors opened and a woman came out, perhaps twice the warrior's age, with iron gray hair and tired eyes. She studied Xena for a moment, then came forward, wiping her hands on a ragged apron. "Welcome." Her voice was soft, and gentle. "We're past dinner, but I've got some soup as still on, if you're wanting some."
Xena reached up and removed her hood, acknowledging the tiny start of surprise with a wry nod. "I need a room. " Her voice echoed softly in the silence of the inn. "There are two of us."
"Rooms I have, warrior." The woman stated simply. "But I'm not looking for trouble, no matter how I need the coin."
Xena smiled slightly. "And I'm not here to give you any.. I'm just looking to stay the night." She reassured the woman.
The elderly, dark eyes studied her for a long moment, then finally the innkeeper nodded. "Two dinars, in coin. " She almost kept the shaking from her voice. "Gets you soup tonight, and your breakfast tomorrow."
Xena loosened her pouch, and opened it, poking two fingers inside, and finding the coins by touch. She drew them out and handed them over. "There you go."
The woman took them, clenching her hands around them a moment before she peered at the round objects, turning them over. Then she moved over to a torch and bent her head, studying them. Her eyes lifted to Xena's. "Haven't seen that stamp in a while." She came closer again. "You come from those parts?"
The warrior nodded quietly, turning as the door opened and Gabrielle came in. "That's right." She replied. "Why?"
But the innkeeper merely shook her head. "Just asking… that's all. Room's the second one down the corridor, door's open."
"All right." Xena said, slowly, still watching her, suspicions making her hackles lift.
The woman must have felt it, she realized, because she looked up sharply and studied Xena in return for a long moment. Then she turned and retreated, disappearing behind the leather door strip and leaving the warrior and bard in the almost empty room.
"Xena.. this place is giving me the creeps." Gabrielle stated softly. "Is this that 'uh oh' feeling you get?"
"Mm." Her partner murmured. "I don't know. It could just be the problems that have been going on… she didn't like my being armed, that's for sure. Maybe they've had attacks here." She nudged the bard down the hallway. "C'mon… we're here now, and it seems all right… but I'm not going to relax much tonight, I guess."
They made their way down the hall and into their assigned room, which was a square, very plain chamber with a shuttered window and a bed barely large enough for two people against one wall. An ill built chair was placed firmly against one wall, and there was a chipped basin and water pitcher on a patched table against the other wall.
Bare, very plain, but it was clean, Xena noted, freshly swept, and if the linen was old and patched, it had obviously been washed in the recent past. The pillows were grain sacks stuffed with straw, but she'd slept on worse, and she began to feel a little better about the place. "I think they're just having a lot of hard luck, Gabrielle.. they make an attempt at keeping the place up."
The bard nodded. "Yeah..I can see that." She set her bags down, then crossed over and opened the window, letting in a cool, damp breeze. "Well, it's too early for Andreas to have spread his word out… maybe she just doesn't like fighters." She went over and patted her soulmate on the chest. "Or people with blue eyes."
"Or people from Amphipolis." The warrior mused. "Remind me to get some different coinage next market we go through.. that is pretty conspicuous." She removed her cloak and folded it neatly, then started taking off her brass armor.
Gabrielle came over and helped, unbuckling the pieces with the ease of long practice. "Well.. if they try anything, I think we can handle them." She handed Xena a bracer then knelt beside her bags, tugging out some of their trail rations. "And I can certainly survive on this stuff another day."
The warrior put the armor down, then retrieved a pair of mugs from their gear. "As a matter of fact..we're due soup for our dinars.. I'll go get some. That'll tide us over." She ruffled the bard's hair and headed outside in her leathers, carrying the mugs loosely in one fist by their handles.
The room outside was empty now, but she heard muffled noises from the right hand door, so she headed towards it, pushing it open and sticking her head inside. It was, as she suspected, the kitchen, but now it was empty. Xena eased her body through the door and let it flap shut behind her, then paced slowly across the floor, her senses coming alert as a prickling of hair lifting across her body.
The slow drift of air brought a whiff of fear to her, and she stopped, focusing her hearing around the room, suddenly picking up the distinctive whine of a crossbow being cocked. He muscles tensed and she turned her head towards the spot, the darkest shadows of the kitchen. "Just looking for soup." She drawled softly, holding the mugs up.
"Found something else then, did you, warrior?" The old woman's voice answered. "Curiosity killed the cat, then eh?" She lifted the crossbow, and fired.
Gabrielle pulled the clean shirt over her head after using the reasonably fresh water in the bowl to take off the worst of the road dust. She smoothed the fabric over her sturdy frame with tired fingers, and exhaled a little, glad they were under a roof, even so dubious a one for the night.
She stifled a yawn, then paused, as an uneasy feeling hit her in the gut. "Uh oh." She reached for her staff in pure reflex, and sighed. "Gods be damned to Hades, Xena.. I can't leave you alone for one blessed minute, can I?"
The bard ducked out of their room and pelted down the hall, glad she'd left her boots on. She reached the outer room and found it empty, then dove unerringly for the right hand door, where she could sense the close presence of her ever so troublemaking partner. One arm pulled the leather door aside and revealed the room, and she bounded inside, lifting her staff and heading for the innkeeper who was presently throwing kitchen implements at her hapless soulmate. "Hey!!!! Cut that out!"
Xena dropped the skillet she'd just caught, and gave her partner a look, glad for the interruption. She'd caught the crossbow bolt, and the woman had lost it, throwing anything she could get her hands on and yelling about she wasn't going to be a victim this time, no sir. "Glad you're here."
"What did you do to her?" Gabrielle asked, seeing the shadowy figure behind the work area, and hearing her heavy breathing.
"Me? I didn't do anything!" Xena protested. "All I did was come in for some soup.. and she almost shot me!"
Gabrielle glanced from her frustrated partner to the innkeeper and back. "What.. .do you want another dinar for it?" She finally asked, totally puzzled. "I don't get it."
"Not again, damn yer.. " The woman growled. "I'll not have yer come in here again and take it all…enough's enough."
The bard sniffed, then leaned on her staff. "Um….okay. Let's just get this straight… first, we're not here to take anything."
The woman snorted.
"And second… " Gabrielle gave Xena a sideways look. "If we really wanted to, you couldn’t stop us." She eyed the kitchen. "You're about out of frying pans, and colanders won't do much against Xena, here."
There was dead silence for a long moment, then the woman slowly, hesitantly edged out from behind her hiding place, staring at Xena as though the warrior had grown a second head.
Or, perhaps, a tail.
"Yer can't be Xena." The woman mumbled.
The warrior scowled. "Whadda ya mean, I can't be? I certainly am."
Gabrielle felt a sense of the ridiculous floating around her. "Of course she is.. how many six foot tall, black haired, blue eyed fighters who can catch arrows do you think there are running around this part of Greece, anyway?"
"Half dozen at least, I'm sure, if you listen to the stories." Xena muttered under her breath, getting her a dire look.
The innkeeper stared suspiciously at her. "Word was.. Xena went over the mountain."
Warrior and bard exchanged looks. "If you mean that mountain.." Gabrielle poked her thumb in the proper direction. "Well, yes… we just got back.. listen, could you please just tell us what's going on here?"
Another silence. "You're really Xena?" The woman finally asked, moving a little closer to get a better look. "Thought you'd be bigger."
Gabrielle bit the inside of her lip to keep from laughing, as her soulmate's eyebrows lifted, and she put her hands on her hips in mild outrage. "Yes, she really is Xena.. now…what's the problem here?"
"People don't come back from over the mountain." The woman stated stubbornly, getting even closer and studying the irritated warrior from head to foot. "But.. well, you ain't a milkmaid, that's for sure."
"Gee, thanks." Xena muttered.
"Xena." The bard lightly swung her staff and tapped her partner on the butt as she addressed her words to the innkeeper. "What makes you think we're here to take things, anyway? We paid what you asked."
The old woman studied them a moment more, then shook her head. "It's what it's been like here…all the merchants have gone, and the only travelers are running from the mountains, or no good stinkers in armor who come in and take what they like." She exhaled heavily. "Here… gimme those cups…I didn't really think straight when you came in here.. I just couldn’t take losing everything again."
Xena knelt and retrieved the two mugs, which she'd tossed down when utensils started flying at her. "Why would I give you money then take it back? Doesn't make sense." She warily handed the cups over.
"Why not?" The woman muttered wearily. "Be like the tricks they pull… it's a game, you know? Pay for a room, then burn the barn down. That's happened twice. Pay again, and wreck the inn. Pay again… come in, takes all the money back and what else I have too."
Gabrielle leaned on her staff. "We're not going to take anything from you." She told the innkeeper quietly. "We wouldn't do that." Her eyes drifted to Xena's face, which was set, and angry. "Right?"
"Right." The warrior confirmed grimly. "No fighter worth their weapons would do that… you take what you need to survive. You don't torture people." She gave the bard a look. "It's like what we were seeing on the way out here.. senseless."
The innkeeper handed her back the mugs, full of a thick broth. "That's what they calls it.. taking what's needed. Food, drink, people… isn't a body left in the village that isn't either a child still cutting teeth or an old bat like me." She looked back up at them, with a quiet, hunted expression. "Had two of my lads here helping out… now…"
Xena set the mugs down and rested her hands on the back of the rickety chair in the kitchen. "I'm sorry." She told her quietly. "I don’t blame you for trying to shoot me in that case."
The old woman merely nodded shortly. "Aye, well…tis nice of you to say but.. "
"Xena's mom's an innkeeper too." Gabrielle interrupted her quietly. "And she depends on us to help out… I can imagine how tough it must be for you here."
A little silence fell, broken abruptly by a commotion outside, the sound of scuffling, and running boots, and muffled yells. They reached the kitchen doorway just in time to almost collide with an incoming body, a mud and blood covered form in dull gray that scrambled past them and fell at the innkeeper's feet.
"Mama." The form cried, a pool of dark crimson puddling around him.
The flap whipped open and a man entered, bearded, and dressed in half armor. "There ye are ye little bastard… get up offen that floor." He brushed by Xena as if she wasn't there, then paid for his mistake when the warrior grabbed him by the back of the armor and swung him around, slamming him head first into the wall.
Another man came in after him and reached for the warrior, only to find himself pinned to the wall by the hard end of a long quarterstaff. He grabbed the staff, and pulled, but it was taken out of his hands and he had to back up through the door when it slammed into his chest.
"Get offa me!" The first man yelled. "You got no idea who you're messing with!"
Xena jerked him around and half lifted him up, so that he faced her. "That's all right. Neither do you." She leaned closer. "You take this kid from here?"
"He's dog meat." The man spat in her face. "I’m gonna feed him to the pigs."
Xena's hands released, and as he slid down the wall, she reached up and grabbed the back of his head, then slammed her fist into his fore head with savage power, breaking his neck with a heavy, sodden crack.
She let him go, and stepped out of the way, and he slumped to the floor lifeless.
The man grappling with Gabrielle stopped, and stared, and let go of the bard's staff as Xena's pale blue eyes swept up and caught him.
"You next?" The warrior asked, with a chilling smile, her hands flexing a little at her sides.
He slowly raised his hands, and backed up, as the bard lowered her staff, and turned, going to the innkeeper's side. She was seated on the rough wood floor, with the boy's head in her lap, whispering to him in a low, anguished voice.
"I don't like nasty little men who push around kids." Xena growled softly, advancing on the remaining soldier. "It makes me want to find those nasty little men.. " A step closer, and the warrior's voice rose. "And twist their ugly little brainless heads until the POP right OFF." Her last words were thundering yell, barked from her chest with evident rage.
The man stumbled back, trying to get away from her.
"You like being scared witless?" Xena caught him and gave him a shove, sending him flying. "You like it when someone beats the crap out of you?" She lifted him up and slugged him, rocking his head back and breaking something, she wasn't sure what. "Do ya?"
He whimpered, and tried to crawl away from her, scrambling for the door as he wet himself in fear.
Xena leaped over him and got in his way, then she crouched down and grabbed his beard, forcing him to look up at her. "Now. You listen to me, okay?"
He only gasped at her.
"You go back to wherever you came from, and you tell them this. " She pulled head up at a painful angle. "I find you people out here, I'll kill you." A pause. "Got me?"
"Y..yes." A tiny whisper.
"Know who I am?" Xena purred, with a very unpleasant smile.
A moment's pause. "X…Xena."
"Good guess." She let his head drop and stepped over him, stalking back towards the kitchen, and shoving her way past the leather door with an impatient motion, heading for her first victim, intent on ripping him into a few pieces, then tying them off onto his horse, and sending both horse and parts back where the Hades he….
"Xena." Gabrielle's voice stopped her in her tracks, and she turned towards her partner, who was kneeling on the floor. "Can you help him?"
For a moment, her darker side rebelled, wanting to stretch it's claws further, but one look at the bard's stricken face recalled her to where she was, and gentled her like nothing else ever would. She left her target alone and came over to them, dropping to a knee next to the injured boy.
"Damn." Xena peeled back his tattered, mud covered shirt to reveal a back so raw and bloodied it didn't even look human. "That's from a scourge."
The boy was crying softly, saying 'mama' over and over again, and clutching her knees with whitened fingers.
"I'm going to have to clean that.. but I'll have to put him out. It's gonna hurt too much." The warrior shook her head. "Gabrielle, get my stuff.. I'm gonna lift him up and put him on a pallet.. I'm going to need a lot of water, too."
"Right." The bard stood and trotted off towards their room.
"Easy." Xena murmured, applying a pressure point to the boy's neck, and feeling him go limp. "Okay.. let me get him." She gently lifted his body up, awkward because he was on his stomach, and stood, cradling him. "Where can I.."
"Here." The innkeeper staggered to her feet, her apron covered in blood, and stumbled ahead of the laden warrior, moving the door flap aside and leading her to the first room.
Xena laid the boy down and released the block, wincing as he cried out in pain. "Take it easy….I can't leave that in too long, but when I'm done, I'll give you something that'll put you to sleep, okay?"
"Mama?" He sobbed softly.
"I’m here, Evon." The innkeeper sat down near the head of the pallet and clasped a hand which was hanging over the edge of the bed.
Gabrielle entered, carrying a large bowl of water and a bag slung over her shoulder. She set her burden down carefully on the table nearby, and removed the bag, pulling out her soulmate's things and setting them out. She laid a hand on Xena's bare shoulder as she peered at the young patient and bit her lip. "Gods."
"All right." Xena took her sharpest knife and started to gently cut away the fabric of the shirt he was wearing, tatters of which had been whipped completely into his skin. "I'm going to do this as careful as I can, okay? I can't put you under that long, and I need to wait until I've got to do the bad stuff."
A bloodshot gray eyeball looked back at her, starkly evident in the mud covered face. Then he nodded a little and put his head down, holding on to his mother's hand tightly. "Mama… Duvvie's gone."
The innkeeper covered her eyes with her free hand.
"'E tried… gods knows he tried… but they just wouldn't let up on him…" The boy whispered. "We was going to escape.. we had it all planned… but they got to him, mama…and he knew he'd tell them, so he.. he took a spike and he.. " Evon stopped speaking as Xena clipped carefully around his arm. "He looked so peaceful." The boy went on softly. "Fin'ly."
Gabrielle kept her hand on her soulmate's back, a warm touch that comforted her as much as it did her partner. She felt the quiet tears slip down her face, and wiped them, as she watched the innkeeper do the same.
"Okay." Xena reached over and carefully hit the pressure point that would knock the boy out. "Now comes the tough stuff." The warrior took the rag Gabrielle had soaked in the warm water, and started cleaning off the raw skin of his back, in places cut so deep the bones showed through a final, crimson layer. She had to take her knife out and remove shreds of ruined skin, and bits of cloth, and Gabrielle was very glad the boy was unconscious when she saw the new blood run. She kept the linen clean, as best she could, and rinsed it out when Xena gave it to her, then handed the warrior her case of herbs after she'd cleaned the wounds thoroughly.
The dark haired woman mixed several, crushing them in powerful fingers, before she added them to a small bowl, then combined them with some of the cleansing paste she used on their own cuts, then she spread the stuff liberally all over the boy's back. When she was satisfied, she glanced up at the innkeeper. "Hang onto his hand. When he wakes up, it's gonna hurt like crazy."
The old eyes studied her, as the woman complied, and Xena released the pressure point, holding the boy steady as he writhed in agony. "Easy… easy…. Gabrielle, grab his legs."
The bard did, wrapping a strong arm around them and putting a hold on his calf. Finally, he quieted, though whether that was due to the pain diminishing, or pure exhaustion she couldn’t tell. Xena released him, then took her small cup out and mixed another set of herbs, giving the bard a brief smile when she stood and filled the cup with water. "Thanks."
Gabrielle eased over and scratched the back of her partner's neck gently as she helped the sobbing boy to half roll over, and firmly made him drink down the mixture, then she let him lie back down
"Okay.. give that a few minutes, and it should start helping."
The gray eyes blinked at her, then fluttered. "'Mi gonna die?"
Xena leaned on her knee, and studied her cup, then looked back at him. "Nope… but you may wish you had before it's over." She told him honestly.
He seemed to reflect on that for a moment, then he nodded once, and put his head back down, obviously exhausted. In a few breaths he was asleep, and they were left in candlelit silence.
Xena quietly packed her things up, then raised her eyes to the innkeeper's face. "I'm sorry." She knew she'd just given the old woman a burden possibly too heavy to bear. The boy would take a good deal of tending, and even then, it would be a long time before he could be on his own.
The innkeeper slowly stroked the limp hand in her own. "Aye." She looked up at Xena with weary comprehension. "Thank you."
The blue eyes dropped, then Xena stood. "I'll go…clean up in the kitchen." She remarked quietly. "Why don't you keep an eye on him for a few minutes, Gabrielle…I'll meet you back in our room."
The bard let out a tiny breath. "Okay." She watched her partner leave the room, then she lightly shook out a piece of cleaned, and sun dried light cloth and laid it gently over the boy's back. "Keeps things out." She murmured. "Um… sorry.. .I never did get your name…I'm Gabrielle."
The innkeeper clasped her hand. "Rose." She released the bard's hand and pondered her son. "So that be Xena, eh?"
"Mm." Gabrielle nodded. "That's her, all right…I'm really glad you didn't hit her with an arrow.. I hate taking those out."
Rose snorted softly to herself. "Hard to believe…didn't expect her to have death in one fist, and healing in the other." She glanced at the bard. "Odd, that."
"She's… full of contradictions." Gabrielle replied thoughtfully. "It was one of the first things I learned about her… and every time you think you have her figured out, she surprises you." She paused, and reflected. "I'm sorry about your other son."
Rose looked down at the floor. "Aye…thank you…. I'd given them both up, truth to tell..Evon here's the younger." She pushed a bit of hair from the boy's eyes. "Looks like his daddy."
Gabrielle thought about all the years Cyrene had been alone, after Toris had left, and Xena… The bard sighed. How different it must have been for her to have her children come home. Maybe this would turn out all right too, eventually. "Well.. I'll leave this stuff here, Xena will need it when she takes care of him in the morning.. I'd better go get some rest myself."
Rose nodded. "You kin take as much soup as you've a mind to." She told the younger woman wryly. "I'll take what left of that water, and try to get some of the dirt offin him."
"Thanks." Gabrielle smiled, and rose, leaving the two of them alone, padding quietly through the inn in search of Xena.
She found her, as promised, in their room, leaning against the window frame and studying the dark, gloomy night outside. "Here.. brought some back for you." She went to the warrior's side, and handed her a steaming mug. "It's pretty good.. mostly vegetables, but it's tasty."
Xena turned, and accepted the cup, gazing at her soulmate quietly. "Thanks."
They stood, side by side, sipping the broth. "That poor kid." Gabrielle finally murmured. "Good gods, Xena…I've never seen anything as brutal as that."
"I have." The tall warrior murmured. "Reminded me of when I had to run the gauntlet, after my army turned on me."
Gabrielle felt a little shock. She'd never heard Xena discuss that period of her life before, and it startled her. "Really?"
"Mm…that's how armies reward traitors… deserters… that's what they viewed me as." Her soulmate replied. "That's what they viewed these kids as."
"Wow." The bard murmured. "But your army let you go…they kept after these poor boys."
A faint, almost proud smile crossed Xena's face. "They did their worst.. and I walked away from it. They had no choice." She looked at the bard. "I beat them.. in a way." She pushed off from the window and paced across the floor, restless energy very apparent to Gabrielle's watching eyes. "You have to make them understand they're not invincible…you turn fear around on them, and that puts you on top."
Gabrielle thought about that. "You want them to be scared of you." She guessed, hesitantly. "Because it lowers moral, and shakes them up."
A slow nod of the dark head, pale eyes shimmering with candlelight. "Yep…and even though I'm only one person…it's just that bit of doubt. We need that."
The bard felt her body shiver in response to the sheer animal force she could feel coming from her partner. "So we can defeat them."
"Yes." Xena's voice dropped a note and deepened. "They have a tough gauntlet set up for us, Gabrielle… but we're gonna find a way through it." She exhaled and straightened. "Whatever it takes."
Gabrielle put her cup down and crossed the room, taking Xena's hands in her own. "Whatever it takes." She repeated softly. "Because we can't let them win, Xena…the stakes are too high, for all of us."
Xena pulled her into a hug, and wrapped her arms around the bard, letting her chin rest against the soft, pale hair. "I know." She murmured, gazing out at the clouds.