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 7
Gabrielle woke to thunder, and the rapid patter of rain on the inn's thatch and wood roof. She kept her eyes closed, allowing herself to enjoy the contrast of the cold draft coming in the window, wet and rich with scent, with the warmth of the embrace she was snuggled into.
Xena's arms were wrapped around her, and the warrior's body was curled around hers, a solid security she truly reveled in, along with the steady movement of Xena's breathing, which brushed lightly against her ear. Thunder rolled again, and she let her eyes open, turning her head a little to peer out the window.
Dull gray light slouched into the room, along with a mist from the rain outside, and Gabrielle felt no inclination to get moving out into it. Reflectively, she glanced up at her partner's face, startled to see the pale blue eyes open, and calmly regarding her back. "Oh.. you're up."
"Mmhmmm." Xena agreed. "Have been for a while."
"Ah." Gabrielle moved her hand and traced a soft pattern on the skin of Xena's neck. "Thanks for not waking me.. I was pretty tired."
"I know." The warrior agreed. "Figured you could use a few extra winks."
The bard continued her idle tracing. "It's raining out."
"You know, Xena… that's an awfully cold rain out there."
"Yeah.. can't you feel it? Listen.. you were just sick.. I think we really need to wait and let the rain stop before we leave."
"You do, huh?" Xena's hold shifted a little, bringing them closer together. "We’ve got a long way to go home, my bard."
"I know… but I worry about you, honey.. I hate when you're sick." Gabrielle coaxed. "C'mon.. a few hours wont' hurt either way.. you can take care of that poor kid.. and maybe we can do a few things around here. They sure could use it."
"Please?" The bard kissed the soft skin on Xena's shoulder gently. "I'll get you some hot tea.. and I bet they have some bread… how about breakfast in bed, huh?"
Xena regarded her for a moment, then sighed. "Oh.. all right." She intercepted Gabrielle's lips on their way down her neck and spent a leisurely few moments exploring their surface.
"Mm… thanks." Gabrielle hugged her, hiding a grin against the blanket's fabric. She rested there quietly for a moment, then she lifted her head, and peered suspiciously at her somnolent partner. "You'd already decided to stick around, didn't you?"
Xena started laughing silently, her body rumbling softly.
"You… you… fink." Gabrielle rolled over and up onto her elbows, then pressed herself up and loomed over the chuckling warrior. "You let me go through all that.. that.. stuff???"
Her soulmate kept laughing, and patted her leg teasingly. "Couldn’t resist…you're so cute when you do that."
"Cute, huh?" The bard growled, leaning closer and biting a hold on her soulmate's neck. "I don’t' know I want to be 'cute' this morning."
Xena gazed up at her, a grin shaping her lips, as she lifted a hand and traced a line down the bard's body, tickling her bare stomach gently. "No, huh?"
Gabrielle bit her lip to keep from giggling. "Stop that." She scolded softly, studying the tanned body under hers.
"Stop what.. " A feather touch slipped down her ribs. "Stop that?"
A giggle forced it's way out. "Yes.. that."
"Ah.. how about this?" Xena ducked head and found a better target, capturing a sensitive bit of skin and feeling the motion as Gabrielle's ribs expanded in a sharp breath. "Hmm? Stop?" She asked with a grin, then returned to her task.
It was hard to breathe. Gabrielle felt her attention center on her body, and what Xena was doing, causing a surge of feeling that hit her right in the groin and made her forget about whatever it was her soulmate was asking. She answered with a slow sideways motion of her head, finding a tasty earlobe ripe for the nibbling.
'Take that as a no." Xena eased her hands up to her soulmate's waist and lifted her, sliding underneath her suspended body then lowering her down just enough to bring her into range of an interested pair of lips that started a slow exploration. She felt the bard's hands, now free to wander, slide across her stomach and inch their way up, brushing over bare skin that tingled in eager reaction.
"Oh yeah." The bard's voice, low and breathy whispered in one ear, just before she captured it in hungry teeth.
Thunder rolled, a friendly sound that promised peace, and time, and an interlude of quiet, in which two souls played with abandon, ending finally in a lazy tangle of limbs, and gentle kisses.
Gabrielle let herself drift, her hands keeping up a slow, gentle stroking against warm skin only lightly touched with sweat. She could feel each rib as her fingers traveled, then the slope down with its ripple of muscle that moved under her touch. Then she ran her hand over the curve of Xena's hip, and down the long, powerful length of her thigh, resting over Gabrielle's own. "Cute, huh?" She asked, on an irregular breath.
Xena's dark hair had fallen half over her eyes, and the deep blue orbs peeked out from mysterious shadows. "Nah." She reached up to stroke her partner's face with gentle fingers. "You're beautiful."
Mist green eyes regarded her with a quiet sparkle. "I love when you tell me that."
It had been during a visit to a fair sized city to the north, Xena had guided them there to fulfill a request from one of the legion of people she'd known in the bad old days, and had found out it was less of a problem than they'd thought. So.. they'd decided to stick around a day, since the city was celebrating it's founding, and take the opportunity to relax, and have a little bit of fun for a change.
Or, at least, that's what Gabrielle had intended. Xena had rolled her eyes, and finally agreed, muttering about going off to find a card game somewhere if the bard was going to do any of her favorite activity, shopping.
She'd almost finished, when the warrior had caught up with her at the fabric shop, catching her as she held up a piece of pretty, sea green fabric and imagined herself wrapped in it.
"Oh, that's practical." Xena had muttered, leaning against the shop's doorway.
And for some reason, though she knew her taciturn traveling companion by now, that stung. Gabrielle had quietly put the fabric down, and walked out, brushing by Xena without a word and walking off, a little tired of the constant sarcasm.
Ok. She'd been a lot tired of it. She'd stopped, then turned, and given Xena a look. "Okay. Go find someone else to have dinner with." And she'd left, just like that, not even looking back for an instant.
She'd wandered the market, and fell in with a group of younger men and women, who were apparently traveling merchants, and they welcomed her with smiles, inviting her to join them for a meal and swapped stories of the road.
Eagerly, she had, going with them to the large open air food tent, where they'd gotten trenchers of food, and sat in a circle, trading adventures and laughing. She'd had a great time, and had even, a little nervously, told some of her own stories, flattered at the applause, and also by the attentions of the tall, shy young man who'd chosen to sit next to her, his gentle gray eyes stealing looks at hers with increasing frequency.
It had felt wonderful. She'd felt like a person again, after so long a time of traveling, and getting into scrapes, and living with someone who treated her like she was at best a nuisance, and at worst, a dangerous hindrance. It was nice to be admired.. nice to be part of this laughing group… nice not to feel like she was in trouble all the time.
They'd stayed out long after the moon rose and marched across the sky, until finally they straggled out, through the empty streets full of good food, and a little ale. Her gray eyed friend was even bold enough to put an arm around her shoulders, and they walked like that towards the inn where they were staying for the night.
"Hey.. we're going south… you could travel with us." The boy said hopefully. "We'd have a great time.. and we'll end up in Athens, don’t' you want to see that?"
They'd stopped near the inn, and she'd hesitated, looking at the bright, interested faces watching her.
"Yeah.. you'd be great… lots of people love to hear stories.. and we have a good caravan." One of the girls urged. "C'mon, Gabrielle…you're a lot of fun.. come with us."
It had been so tempting. They'd reminded her of all the things she'd missed about home, and had offered her a very appealing alternative to the life she was currently leading. "I don't know… let me think about it." She'd finally said. "Let's talk in the morning."
They'd smiled, and bade her goodbye, and she'd continued on towards the place Xena had picked for them to stay, deep in thought.
So much so that she hadn't even seen the thug until he was on top of her, bearing her down to the ground and ripping at her clothing, one hand muffling her mouth as she tried to call out.
Then there was a shock, and the sound of his breath expelling, rancid with ale, then he was just gone.
And it had been quiet, as she'd laid there shaking, until a warm hand touched her shoulder, and a familiar voice touched her ears.
She'd looked up to see pale eyes, almost colorless in the torchlight watching her, in a face bathed in shadow. "Wow. Thanks." She'd whispered, dropping her gaze, unsure of what else to say, after how they'd parted, and what she'd been thinking only moments before.
Whether or not to say goodbye.
"Can you stand up?" Xena's voice had been unusually subdued, almost gentle. "Here. C'mon."
Gabrielle had taken the grasp and felt herself pulled up, and they'd faced each other in the narrow alleyway, awkwardly silent. Communication never was easy between them, she'd reflected sadly, as the warrior had shifted a little, and put her hands on her hips. "Listen.. I'm… um.. " The dark head had dropped. "I'm sorry."
And Gabrielle had breathed a little easier. "Me too." She'd replied softly, looking up to study the face of this complex, frustrating, scary person she'd run away from home to follow. Who drove her crazy, but in whose presence, the merchants she'd spent the evening with seemed shallow, and uninteresting. "Thanks for being here… saving my butt, again."
Xena had nodded, and jerked her head towards the inn. "C"mon.. it's late."
Gabrielle had followed her back, and in to the room they'd rented for the night, where her things were tucked neatly on one bed, and Xena's on the other. The warrior had turned her back as they'd entered, and went to her things, silently rummaging inside them.
Gabrielle had exhaled softly, and gone to her own bed, opening her saddlebag and stopping, as a thick fold of fabric fell out, and covered her hands, soft and cool, shimmering in the candlelight. She'd stared at it, then slowly turned, to see Xena sitting quietly on her bed, unlacing a boot.
Blue eyes had reluctantly lifted to hers. "Yeah?" Xena had looked at the fabric, held up in Gabrielle's hands. "Oh.. yeah, that.. well… " A shrug. "Consider it a peace offering." She'd hesitated, as though considering going on, then stopped, fastening her eyes on her boots.
Gabrielle had crossed to the mirror, and held the fabric up, draping it over one shoulder. "Did you find your card game?" She'd asked, more to break the silence than anything.
"Hmm?" Xena had looked up, puzzled. "Oh..yeah.. no…I…um.. I didn't…I just wandered around.. checked things out.. you know."
And had happened to end up in the same place as she had, at just the right moment? Gabrielle had watched the dark head in the mirror, seeing the curve of her companion's jawline move as she fiddled with her boots. "I had a good time.. I found these merchants, and we went to the market tent, and we told stories.. they were a lot of fun."
"I know." Xena had replied, very quietly. "I checked them out… wanted to make sure they weren't… anyway. Glad you had a good time." She'd stood, and let her boots and armor drop near her saddlebags, then ran a hand through her hair, disordering it's sleek pattern absently.
Gabrielle had looked at her reflection in the mirror. "C'mon, Xena.. what did you think they were going to do? What would they want with me?"
And she'd felt the sudden warmth, and looked up to see pale blue eyes right over her shoulder staring back at her.
"Same thing that guy in the alley did… maybe they saw a beautiful young woman, and decided it was their lucky day."
It had been a shock of another kind. "Who are you talking about?" Gabrielle had asked, in puzzlement, turning and staring at Xena as though the warrior had sprouted antlers.
"You." Had come back the answer, on the heels of a gruff shake of the head. "Listen.. it's late." Xena had turned, and laid down on her bed, folding her hands over her stomach, and firmly closing her eyes.
Leaving Gabrielle to quietly tuck her fabric away, and crawl into her own bunk, curling up onto her side and watching that strong, remote profile. She'd realized, too, that if Xena had been keeping up with her, she'd heard the conversation outside the merchant's inn, and her response.
Xena would never ask her to stay. Never admit to needing her companionship, let alone the friendship that was slowly binding them against their wills. Xena would probably never been fun, never be friendly.. never share stories with her…
Not Xena, no. Gabrielle had exhaled slowly, considering her options. Then she'd smiled. Beautiful young woman, huh?
A blue eyeball appeared, and focused on her, filled with a sudden, unguarded trepidation. "Yes?"
"You think we could take a trip up to Athens? I always wanted to see the Coliseum."
Their eyes had met.
"Sure." Xena had finally said, in a relieved murmur. "Been wanting to head up there anyway." She'd closed her eyes again, but Gabrielle had seen the rise and fall of her chest as she'd let out a long breath, and she put her own head down, contentedly.
This was hard, she'd acknowledged. But someday, Xena.. someday.. you and I are going to be best friends, and that'll make it all worth it.
And it had, of course. Gabrielle smiled, and gave the shoulder under her a kiss. The thunder boomed over head, and the rain increased, almost driving itself into the heavy thatch. "You know.. I still have a thing for rainy days."
Xena only chuckled.
Gabrielle entered the small kitchen, pausing as Rose turned, and lifting an eyebrow at her. "Okay to come in? I can't catch arrows."
The innkeeper snorted, and gave a nod. "Aye, ye're welcome."
The bard continued on her path, straightening the thick, linen tunic she wore with an automatic twitch, glad of it's warmth in the cold, wet breeze that entered the large window across from the hearth. "Nasty out there."
Rose glanced over her shoulder. "Needed the wet, but I think the weather's turning. We'll see chill from now on." She looked at her guest. "Sleep well, did ye?"
Sleep? Hmm… "Oh.. yeah.. definitely." Gabrielle agreed absently. "Xena's taking a look at your son… is there anything I can help with here?"
"And what would a sprout like yourself know about a kitchen eh?" The old woman chuckled. "No offense to you."
Gabrielle put her hands on her hips. "Sprout? You don't think Xena's the cook in this partnership, do you?" Her eyebrows lifted in question. "Besides.. I'm not as young as a look..I have a daughter, and I'm the deputy reeve of Amphipolis." Among other things, the bard reflected, deciding to leave out the Amazons for the time being.
"No. Really?" Rose turned and tapped her mixing spoon on the large pot she'd been stirring. "How old's your chick?"
"Eight months." Gabrielle smiled, as she walked over to the rickety table nearby, and captured a few dried vegetables the innkeeper had been scraping for the soup she was making.
"Tch.. that's a young one… I hardly remember when mine were that size.. little bits of things, all helpless."
The bard dragged a bowl over and started peeling the vegetables. "Mm… she's big for her age, actually.. and I only wish she was helpless.. she runs us ragged chasing after her." She put a bit of peel in her mouth and chewed it as she worked. "The only one who can really keep up with her is Xena."
Rose stirred her soup. "Two of you together, then?"
Well, that was certainly a gentile way of putting it. "Mmmhmm." Gabrielle chewed on another bit of peel.
"Didn't figure her for the motherly type." Rose snorted a little. "That's a wonder."
No, it was hard for me too. Gabrielle reflected, remembering the early days of Dori's life, when she'd been driving herself crazy trying to make sure everything was done.. just… right….
She'd been exhausted. Trying to do things around Amphipolis, keep an eye on the Amazons, and handle her new daughter had taken it's toll, and she'd found herself losing her temper more and more frequently.
Xena had, to give her credit, tried her damnedest to help, but Gabrielle had felt an intense desire to oversee every facet of her baby's life and finally, the warrior had backed off, picking up the slack in other areas and leaving the bard to her obsessiveness.
It had been a horrible day, she remembered. Dori had been cranky all morning, and had woken them both early, and all her rocking, and soothing hadn't done much to help her. She'd finally put the baby in her cradle, and sunk down into the chair next to it, cradling her head in her hands and almost succumbing to an intense desire to cry.
A hand had touched her shoulder after a short while, and she'd looked up, to see shadowed blue eyes looking back at her.
"Mind if I give it a try?" Xena had asked, her hand indicating the squalling Dori.
Gabrielle had sighed, and shook her head. "Be my guest." She'd watched tiredly as the warrior settled down next to the cradle on the floor and studied the crying baby, who paused in her hollering and scowled at her new victim.
"Hi." Xena's voice rumbled softly. "What's your name?"
Dori had stuck a finger in her mouth and sucked on it, staring at Xena with a puzzled look. "Bck."
"Listen." Xena continued. "You're making your mother nuts. That's bad."
A tiny scowl. "Pft."
"When she's mad, she wont' even talk to me, and I don't like that." Pale blue eyes fascinated the child, as Xena leaned forward, and rested an arm on the cradle. "You don’t' want to make me mad, do you?"
"So much for my reputation." Xena drawled wryly, as she extended a finger, and let the baby grab it.
Gabrielle had studied her profile, quietly accepting the realization that Xena's words had been for her, and not for their precocious daughter. She had been lousy to be around lately, and she'd been taking it out on her tall partner, she knew. "Hey… "
"Mm?" Xena hadn't looked up from the baby, who was slowly exploring the tanned hand she was clutching.
"Do me a favor? Take her for a while… just… play with her, or something.. okay?"
Xena's eyes had brightened. "Sure." She'd picked Dori up and tickled her, then tucked her against one arm and stood easily, bouncing the baby a little. "C'mon.. you wanna go meet Argo?"
"Bck?" Wide, round bluish eyes had goggled at the warrior.
"Sure.. it'll be fun.. maybe grandma made some honey cakes.. huh?" Xena had ambled out, the fascinated baby's attention glued to her.
Gabrielle had simply sat back, and reveled in the quiet. Gabrielle. She'd said to herself. "You are such an idiot.. here you have this wonderful, willing, responsible person who wants to help you raise this child, and you… you think if you let her out of your sight, she'd going to grow a horn."
She'd relaxed and put her feet up on the table, and soaked in the peaceful spring sunlight that draped itself across the cabin, catching her body in stripes of it that warmed her skin. Then a though intruded. "Gods.. I hope she isn't teaching her to ride Argo…" Gabrielle had started to get up, then forced herself to sit back down. "No.. c'mon.. you know better. Xena wouldn't do that."
She'd stared at the ceiling rafters. "You have to trust her, Gabrielle…she's that baby's mother just as much as you are, and you're not being fair to her, making it seem like she can't be trusted to take care of her."
She'd firmly closed her eyes, and her exhausted body had taken over, allowing her to enjoy a nice, and much needed nap. She'd woken candlemarks later, feeling much better, but in a cabin conspicuous by it's babyless and warriorless silence.
Okay. Time to go check things out. She'd gotten up and trotted outside, looking around curiously. No Xena. She went to the barn, and peeked inside. No Xena. She went to the inn, and poked her head into the kitchen. "Mom, have you seen Xena?"
Cyrene had glanced up from her slicing. "No, cutie.. haven't seen her in a couple of hours.. why?"
"Mmph… she's got Dori with her." The bard sighed, her brow wrinkling.
"Good." Cyrene replied, giving her a direct look, and turning back to her work.
Gabrielle had withdrawn, accepting the rebuke in silence, then she'd sat down on the porch, letting her head rest against the back of the wooden chair and propping a booted foot up against the railing. Before long, she'd figured out where the warrior had to be, and got up, heading off into the forest.
The spring had always been a favorite place for both of them, and she stepped out into the small clearing that held it with a sense of melancholy enjoyment. Sure enough, a tall, dark haired form was sprawled in the soft grass, it's head resting on a moss covered rock, a tiny, linen swaddled lump cradled on it's chest.
Softly, the sound of singing came to her, and she approached on silent feet, getting close enough to watch her soulmate tickle a smiling Dori on the belly, as she sang, an old song Gabrielle was well familiar with.
The baby laughed, and kicked a little, then clutched at the teasing hand and mouthed one of Xena's fingers, gazing up at her adoringly. The warrior had returned the look, a gentle smile transforming her face into a doting warmth that caused an ache in Gabrielle's chest.
Was she still thinking of Hope, seeing Xena with Dori like this? The bard had felt a little sad, acknowledging the possibility. She took a few steps more, and Xena had looked up,a momentary look of apprehension in her eyes.
Gabrielle had tried to smile, but the tears came instead, and she'd dropped to her knees beside the startled warrior, reaching for her and burying her face in one sun warmed shoulder.
"Hey." Xena had said. "It's okay…she's fine, Gab, really."
Gabrielle had felt her anguish recede a little, and she looked up at her worried soulmate. "I know… Xena, I'm sorry.. I've been such a jerk."
"Bck." Dori poked a lip out, and reached over, to tangle tiny fingers in her mother's pale hair.
Xena hadn't answered. Instead, she'd sighed, and kissed the bard's head, letting her cheek rest there quietly. After a minute, she'd spoken. "I'm sorry too." She'd said. "I've been feeling pretty lousy…I figured you didn't trust me around her."
"I know." Gabrielle had sighed. "Why didn't you say something, Xena?"
A shrug. Of course.
'I do trust you." The bard had looked up at her. "I just wasn't thinking straight.. maybe it's all that screaming."
That had gotten her a faint smile.
Gabrielle turned her head and regarded her daughter, who was now sucking her thumb drowsily, peaceful at last. "Hey.. she's sleeping."
"Mmhmm." Xena agreed. "Yeah.. we went to the stable, and went for a little ride, then we visited Toris and the twins, then we walked around the merchant area down in the big field, then we… "
"Shh.. you're making me tired." The bard put a finger to her partner's lips. "I can't believe you got her to sleep though.. she never sleeps in the afternoon."
Gabrielle had gazed at her dozing daughter. "You've got a new job, tiger."
A sparkle had entered those blue eyes. "I do?"
"Oh yeah… can you do this every day?"
Big grin. "I think we can work something out." Xena had drawled, unable to hide the note of delight in her voice.
"Yeah? Great." Gabrielle had sighed happily, and relaxed.
"Absolutely." Xena had assured her. "And I think she really liked riding Argo."
Startled green eyes looked up "You did get up there with her, right?"
"She's a very good mother, in fact." Gabrielle concluded, giving Rose a smile. "Dori's crazy about her…she thinks Xena's a walking, talking stuffed leather toy strictly here for her convenience."
Rose shook her head. "Hard to fathom."
They both looked up as angry voices approached, a thud reverberating as the door was slammed back, and heavy footsteps pounded towards them.
Xena crouched on the small stool, mixing a new set of herbs up, as the thunder rolled around the small room, and the wind blew her hair back. It was quiet here, and very peaceful, since the boy, young man actually, was still asleep, one arm curled around the burlap pillow.
Rose had cleaned him up a little, and Xena studied him as she mixed the salve, noting the firm, square jaw and curly fair hair, and decided he was a pretty cute looking kid. She found a smile shaping her lips as she gazed at him, and it took her a moment to realize why.
He reminded her of Lyceus. Same wiry frame, same curly hair. Xena sighed, and shook her head a little. Even after all these years, she sometimes found herself missing him, though Gabrielle certainly had filled most of the huge void in her heart his death had caused. Close as she and the bard were, there was still something about being siblings, that added a little extra to a relationship. Even with Toris, with whom she'd never really gotten along well, she felt a bond that went beyond friendship despite their frequent bickering.
And now, this poor kid had lost that, along with everything else. Xena felt a quiet sympathy for him, understanding just how alone life could be sometimes. She wondered, briefly, if Dori would find herself wanting a sibling, someday.
Hmm. Now that she thought about it, the baby was turning out to be a lot more fun than she'd imagined.
She'd woken early, as usual, on a warm summer's day, feeling the faint, light breeze from the window brush against the bare skin of her arm. Dori would wake up in a few minutes, she knew, and the hectic pace of the day would start.
She'd glanced down at Gabrielle, who was nestled comfortably against her shoulder, and regretted the need to wake the bard for their demanding offspring. Gabrielle had just gotten over her bout with coughing sickness, and was still pale, and far too thin to Xena's worried eyes.
Then an idea had hit. She was up. Dori would be up. No need for Gabrielle to have to get up too, right? She'd gently brushed the bard's hair back and kissed her cheek. "Hey.."
Green eyes fluttered open, blinking tiredly at her. "Mm? Oh.. " Gabrielle had sighed. "Morning. Right."
"Shh.." Xena had laid finger on her lips. "I'll take care of Dori… and she can come out running with me.. how about that?"
Gabrielle's eyes had closed. "She's too young for marathons, Xena." The bard had mumbled "She can't even walk yet.." She started to roll over but Xena had stopped her.
"No..no, listen..I've got this little sack, I can take her with me… c'mon, sleep in for a day." Xena had protested gently.
A green eyeball had appeared. "Well…okay. Just be careful… don't like.. flip.. or anything.. and lose her."
Xena had grinned. "Don't worry.. we'll bring you back breakfast."
She'd hopped out of bed and scooped up Dori, who had been starting to rustle around restlessly and changed her, then brought her back for a little snack while she got dressed and got her collection sack ready. Then she gently lifted the milky faced child and got her into the sack, tightening the straps carefully around her shoulders.
Dori immediately grabbed her hair and tugged it. "Bck!"
"Shh." Xena tweaked a tiny toe through the sack's fabric. Then she'd chuckled as Dori started mouthing the back of her neck. "Cut that out."
"What's she doing?" Gabrielle asked sleepily, tugging the covers up further.
"Good girl." The bard praised her daughter.
Xena had laughed, then slipped out the door, heading out into the warm, hazy morning as a rose light spread over the village. She'd started up the long path towards the spring, trying to remember not to bounce around too much as she lengthened her stride, and the breeze picked up. "You okay?"
"Goo!" Dori tugged on the dark hair blowing past her, making small noises of approval as Xena bounded over the uneven ground and the forest closed in around them. She'd felt another tug, and glanced back.
"What's that.. faster?" A giggle, and she sped up, hearing Dori's delighted shriek as they raced through the forest, scattering leaves from under her boots and sending early morning denizens dashing off into the underbrush.
They'd ended up on the small grassy plateau just before the spring, and she'd slowed, coming to a halt in the brilliant sunlight that poured over the ground, releasing the scent of grass, and fresh earth, and sparkling off the spring. "What a great morning, huh, Dori?" She asked, catching her breath.
"Goo…" Dori bounced in her sack, thumping between the warrior's shoulderblades and scrabbling around inside the sack. She poked her tiny face over Xena's shoulders and sucked on a finger. "Ooo." The finger pointed at the ground imperiously.
So Xena had settled to the ground and unhooked her passenger, untying the straps and stripping the soft furry bag from the baby's chubby body. "Hey there."
Dori had tumbled out, rolling in the grass with a squeal of delight, then digging in the dirt with both fists and tossing clods of it everywhere.
"Whoa… cut that out." Xena laughed. "You get muddy, I'll never hear the end of it, got me?" A chunk of dirt hit her. "Hey!" She batted a second out of the air, and captured the squirming child. "I said cut that out."
Dori slapped at her chest, getting streaks of rich brown all over her tunic, then giggled. "Boo!"
"Gee, thanks." The warrior settled her daughter in her lap as she crossed her legs, keeping a hand behind her to support her body. "You think that's funny, huh?"
The baby started pulling up grass stalks industriously and tossing them, scattering the fragrant green fragments all over the warrior and herself. "Bck!" Dori scrambled over the knee she was sitting on and crawled off, investigating the meadow ambitiously.
Xena had relaxed on her side, propping her head up and watching her child indulgently, as Dori found a snail, sitting down and peering at it, then holding it up to show her.
"Snail." Xena nodded. "Don’t eat that."
Dori immediately put it in her mouth.
The warrior launched herself up and bounded over, getting to the baby before she could swallow the tiny animal. She rescued it, then tossed it a safe distance away, much to Dori's displeasure. "You're just like your mother, you know that?"
Dori scowled at her, then crawled off, inching through the grass like an unstoppable, if miniature, battle wagon.
Xena had watched her warily, then settled down again, reclining in the grass and crossing her booted feet as the sunshine spread over her, and the light wind dried the sweat on her skin. She could see Dori's dark head poking up out of the grass, and she lifted a stalk of it herself, chewing on it contentedly. "Don't go far, Dori." She called out.
The tot swiveled her head at the sound, and blinked at her, then giggled, and scrambled off, heading towards the spring at a rambling crawl.
"Hey." Xena rose up onto her knees. "Hey… Dori… whoa… " A giggle floated back and she scrambled to her feet, bolting after the infant in alarm. "Whoa.."
Dori had hit the slope heading for the water and started rolling, giggling with delight as she eluded her protector's out stretched hand and ended up splashing into the spring. Xena's eyes had almost come out of her head as she jumped in after her, heart pounding in terror. "Dori!!!"
The baby surfaced, and slapped the water in amazement, blowing a spray of it outward. Xena caught her up in shaking hands and checked her anxiously. "Hey.. hey… are you okay?"
The tiny, wet head shook a little, then Dori blinked at her. "Boo!" She pointed at the warrior, then giggled, bouncing in her grasp and splashing with both hands.
Xena had almost passed out in relief. "You're gonna kill me." She'd sighed, wiping the cold water out of her eyes. "C'mon.. gotta get you dried off or your mama's gonna have me for lunch."
Dori had other ideas. She'd twisted out of Xena's hands, and splashed through the water, squealing with delight as her uncoordinated strokes pulled her forward.
Xena hesitated, then she moved along side, watching the baby like a hawk. Eventually, Dori circled around and headed for her, smashing a wave of water that drenched the warrior before she could catch her slippery body and lift her out.
They'd splashed ashore and Xena removed her own tunic and the baby's jumper, then laid them in the sun to dry off, as they took advantage of the warm breeze to do the same for themselves.
Xena seated herself in the soft grass and set the baby down next to her, giving Dori a bit of leather to amuse herself with while she dug out a little breakfast. "Apple, or crackers?" She held up the two, a large, tasty looking fruit and the small, dry almost tastless crackers that Gabrielle often gave their daughter, afraid anything more exotic would give her a stomachache.
Dori took one look at the crackers and stuck her tongue out, then reached for the apple. "That's my girl." The warrior praised her, with a grin. "Hang on.." Xena had smashed bits of apple up for the impatient Dori to consume. "We won't tell mama about this, okay?" She informed the tot, who was busy munching. "Cause if she found out I let you fall in the lake, I'm toast, and if she knew I gave you my breakfast, it's all over."
"Bck." Dori commented, reaching for another handful of apple and stuffing it in her mouth, getting most of it in the right place as she sat on Xena's stomach while the bits of apple fell down.
Xena had captured one, nibbling it as Dori watched her in outrage. "Boo!" She'd pointed, snatching another handful of the sweet bits and mouthing them. Then she laid down, on her stomach with a tiny burp, closing her eyes and yawning a little.
Xena had exhaled softly, smoothing the baby's dark hair back. Dori was growing fast, her body lengthening almost as the warrior watched her, and changes happening almost every single day.
She was, freely admitted by others than her doting parents, adorable by any measure, her face an interesting mix of Xena's general shape, and Gabrielle's smile, and facial expressions. She had a tiny, snub nose very much like her mother's, which Xena reached over and tweaked, getting a pucker faced scowl in response.
Xena chuckled, and carefully got the tot back into her diaper and jumper, which had dried nicely in the sun. She put her own tunic back on, then resettled the baby on her stomach and lay back, resting her head on her hands in the peace, and solitude of the morning. A tiny fist had tangled itself in her shirt, and she'd spent a quarter candlemark just watching Dori doze contentedly, glad beyond measure that she'd thought of the entire idea.
Xena smiled to herself, remembering. She'd almost gotten away with it too, except that Gabrielle had changed Dori after they'd gotten back.. and found a minnow nestling in the baby's diaper.
The boy stirred, and shifted his head a little, stifling a gasp as his eyes fluttered open.
"Easy." Xena told him. "Don't move around a lot, okay?"
Pale gray eyes rotated and studied her in puzzlement. "Who're you?" He whispered, then looked around "'Mi home? Oh gods.."
"Shh. Yeah, you're home, kid." Xena finished her mixing and gently removed the soft linen covering his back. "I'm gonna have to put some fresh medicine on your back.. it's gonna hurt."
"Oh." He put his head back down but kept watching her. "It already hurts."
The warrior gave him a wry smile. "Yeah, I know….you got beat up pretty bad." She started to carefully paint the shredded flesh with the mixture. "What did you do?"
He didn’t answer for a bit, then he blinked a few times. "They were beating up Duvvie…I tried to stop em." He swallowed. "They whupped me, then Duvvie took after that spike, and everybody was looking at him, so I started running."
"Mmm." Xena checked a particularly deep gouge under the boy's left shoulderblade. "Right back home, eh?"
Evon nodded his head a fraction. "It was good to see mama." He replied softly. "Thought they were gonna catch me.. thought they almost did." His brow creased. "Didn't they?"
"No." Xena murmured. "We chased em off." She glanced at the boy's face. "Your mama's pretty mean with a bow, you know that?"
He smiled a little. "She's tough." He paused a few beats. "Um… are you the new healer here? I don’t' think I know you."
Xena finished her task. "That's looking pretty good." She put her bowl down, and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees and regarded him seriously. "No.. you don't. We were just passing through, when you got here last night. I helped persuade the guys chasing you to knock it off." She held a hand out within his limited reach. "My name's Xena."
He had grasped her hand in reflex, then froze, and his eyes popped wide open. "Wow." He squeaked. "You're really Xena?"
"Mmhmm." The warrior nodded solemnly.
"Wow." He repeated softly. "They were all talking about you.. from what they was saying, I didn't think you'd be so pretty."
Xena was glad of the dim light, and the candle's glow hid the surprising blush from his words. "Thanks." She remarked dryly, glancing up as she heard loud voices in the hallway outside. "Uh oh." She stood, and dropped her supplies down. "Be right back. "
Gabrielle hastily grabbed a nearby broom, and took up a position in front of the leather door as it was slapped impatiently aside, admitting two men in villagers clothing.
"Rose.. damn you, is it true that kid of yours is here?" The first demanded.
"It's true." The innkeeper replied, guardedly. "He's hurt."
"Well, you get him bundled up and out of here before he gets us all kilt." The man stated. "He'll not bring trouble here again."
"Wait." Gabrielle interrupted. "He lives here.. this is his home."
They looked at her. "Who in Hades are you?" The first man demanded. "And anyhow, it's not your business, girl. He has no home here, not after Andreas took him."
"Ye can't throw him out, he can't even walk." Rose objected angrily. "Not that you'd have helped me keep them from that animal… they kilt his brother."
"Hold on." Gabrielle interrupted again. "She's right… how can you even think about that?"
"I said, keep outta this, girl." The man replied. "And you, Rose.. you know better. Look.. I know he's yer kid, but what's his life against all of ours? You know what'll happen."
"They wont' find im." The innkeeper replied gruffly. "Hurt bad as he was, they'll think he died."
The second man stepped up. "Not what I heard.. I heard two of em chasted him in here last night… and gots run off. "
"That's right." Gabrielle stated quietly.
The men both looked at her. "Great gods.. what fool did that." The first man snapped.
"That'd be me." A low, vibrant voice answered from the doorway.
The two men turned, startled, to find icy blue eyes regarding them with a distinct unfriendliness. "Who are you?"
"That there's Xena." Rose answered for the warrior. "Cracked one of em's head like a walnut, and dragged t'other of em out by his short pants."
The men gave each other uneasy looks. "You killed one of them?" The first one asked, hesitantly.
Xena nodded. "Yep.. tied his body to his horse and sent him out of here.. and told his friend not to come back. She pushed off the doorway and circled them, ending up next to Gabrielle and giving her soulmate a glance. "Nice broom."
Green eyes slid sideways.
Xena put her hands on her hips and looked at the two men, who seemed totally at a loss. "Got a problem with that?"
"They won't leave a building standing for that." The man replied. "Unless we turn you over to his men when they get here."
A dark eyebrow lifted. "No thanks. Been there, done that already." The warrior replied. "You can just tell em it was me."
"They'll burn the village to the ground." The man shook his head. "No…Jonas, call the men in. We'll keep her captive here until they get here. Maybe that will pacify them."
"Wait." Gabrielle held a hand up. "Can I just interject something?" She walked over and put the broom down, leaning on it with one hand. "Listen…first of all, you can't keep us here."
"Sure we can."
"No you can't." The bard shook her head. "Not unless you want a lot of people to get really hurt." She looked him right in the eye. "So why don't we just go outside, and sit down, and talk about it. There has to be a better way."
"Foolish woman." The man went to push her out of the way.
Gabrielle sighed, and swung her broom around expertly, dumping him on his rear. Then she reversed the cleaning utensil and pinned him to the ground with it, leaning on it with part of her weight. Jonas backed up, startled, until he was at the door. "Now you look." The bard told her victim sternly. "I'm just trying to keep people from being hurt, okay? So can we please just go sit down and talk about this?"
Xena had wandered over to the cook stove and stolen a piece of bread, which she dipped into the soup pot and tasted, munching on it thoughtfully as she let her soulmate take the initiative. She was beginning to regret her actions, though she wasn't quite sure if she was regretting killing the one man, or not killing the other one.
"What good's talk going to do? Andreas doesn't talk, he just acts." The man shot back, angrily. "It's all great for you to say, you just leave, and we have to bear the brunt of the punishment."
Gabrielle's brows contracted. "Is it fair for you to turn us over to a certain death just because we helped out one of your people?"
He sucked in a breath and looked at her. "Is it fair to lose a score of lives for two?"
"Why don't we go outside and talk, and maybe no one has to die, okay?" The bard returned his look evenly. "Because I'm not ready to die yet.. I've got too much to do, and I have a little girl waiting for me at home."
A little silence fell, then the man dropped his eyes and gave a curt nod. "All right… we can talk, but I'll tell you.. I'm not sacrificing what we've got left for the likes of ye."
Gabrielle straightened and withdrew her broom, as she offered him a hand up. He ignored her and stood, brushing himself off, then he and Jonas turned and walked through the doorway into the main part of the inn.
"Mmph." The bard exhaled. "Got my work cut out for me, I guess… " She gave Xena a concerned look. "What can we do?"
The warrior considered, chewing on her bread. "Rose, is there anyplace around here that a large group of his men are encamped? Those men last night didn't come from the city, that's for sure."
The innkeeper thought about that. "Aye…ten, twelve leagues distant, I think.. small place called Estokia."
Xena nodded slowly. "Gabrielle, tell them we'll make Andreas forget all about this place." The warrior stated quietly. "He wont' come anywhere near here."
Gabrielle watched the icy film shade her partner's eyes and an involuntary shiver rolled down her spine. "All right." She responded softly. "Like a diversion?"
A cold smile shaped Xena's lips. "It'll be a diversion, all right." She took a mouthful of the bread and chewed it, then chuckled softly. "I just gotta make sure it's one they don' soon forget." She ambled over and gave the bard a nudge. "C'mon… let's see if we can get them to give us some supplies to get this done."
The bard exhaled, putting her broom down and giving Xena a pat on the side. "Okay, tiger…try not to scare them too bad, though, huh?" She looked up at the warrior's face and caught her eye.
Xena cocked her head, and returned the look, realizing it was Gabrielle she was scaring. "Sorry." She let her face relax into a quiet smile. "I wasn't thinking of that kind of distraction, Gabrielle…I just want to cause some havoc."
Gabrielle looked relieved. "Oh.. well.. " She chuckled. "We're good at that, right?"
"We?" Her partner inquired, with an arched brow.
"Hey." Gabrielle gave her a mock scowl. "Did I see you munching on something over there?" She hunted through her partner's fingers, finding a piece of bread. "Share."
Xena neatly deposited the piece into the bard's mouth, then patted her on the back. "Let's go." They made their way out into the main room.
"Look." Gabrielle was pacing back and forth in front of the villagers, who had multiplied from the original two, to a round dozen, mostly older men with stubborn faces and angry eyes. "What Xena's talking about is going to work… Andreas is much more interested in her than he is in you."
"How d' you know that? He's a demon." One elder shot back.
"He's a man." Xena remarked from her corner seat, where she was leaning aback against the wall.
"He's a demon." The man disagreed. "No man does the things he does…there was a village, just south of here, rebelled against him. He slaughtered them all, and stuck their heads on posts as a warning."
Xena looked very thoughtful for a moment, then she shrugged. "Overkill, but that doesn’t make him a demon. He's a man…or it wouldn't have hurt as much as it did when I kicked him where I kicked him." She cleaned a fingernail with her dagger. "He's a good leader, he's smart, he's ruthless, but he's not unbeatable."
"He is evil." The oldest of the elders stated quietly.
Cool, remote blue eyes gazed at him. "Depends on your definition of evil, I guess." Xena remarked quietly. "At any rate, we can draw him away from here, and that's all you need to be concerned with." She stood and paced over to the window, leaning on the sill and looking out. The rain had finally tapered off, and now a cold wind blew in her face, making her glad she was wearing a warm tunic.
Gabrielle felt a pang of concern, watching her, and sensing the darkening of her mood. "Xena's right… if you give us what she asked for, we'll take care of everything." The bard drew their attention back to her. "I know you're all scared… and I understand that, but if you do what Xena says, it'll be all right."
Stony faces looked back at her, and she sighed inwardly, reflecting that so far, her negotiation attempts were failing miserably.
Then the oldest of them stood. "We'll meet in the barn… and we'll decide. You will wait here." He motioned for the rest to join him, and the filed out in silence.
Gabrielle waited for the door to close, then she crossed to the window and slid an arm around her quiet partner. "Tough crowd."
A slow nod. "They're scared."
"I know." The bard acknowledged. "I don't think I got far with them. Maybe you should have done the talking this time."
Xena turned and put an arm around her shoulders. "You did fine, Gabrielle…when there's that much emotion behind things, sometimes the logic gets lost."
"Mm." The bard gazed up at the warrior's pensive face. "You all right?"
Xena didn't answer right away. Her jaw moved, as though she were going to several times, then finally she returned Gabrielle's look. "It's…" A long pause. "It's getting kinda dark in here."
Gabrielle felt a snaking fear clutch at her throat. "You…just did what you had to do, Xena., I.." She curled her fingers around the warrior's. "These are very dangerous people we're up against."
"Stop making excuses for me, Gabrielle….I didn't need to kill that man." The warrior shot back. "I didn't need to… " She hesitated, then grimly went on. "I didn't need to enjoy it… I have to wonder how far I'm going to go? Even you're wondering.. I saw it in your face in there."
Gabrielle sucked a breath in, knowing that for the truth. "I was… a little concerned, sure, Xena… we've had a rough couple of days, you were sick…I'm worried about that stuff you got in that cut.. a thousand things ran through my mind. But it doesn't mean I didn't trust you… or that I thought you were going to go off the deep end or something."
The warrior was silent for a bit, then she exhaled, and wiped her face with her free hand. "I know… I know that, Gabrielle." She muttered "I also know I scared you in there." A pause. "Maybe I scared myself."
Xena lifted her head and faced her partner squarely. "All right…I'm afraid if I keep walking down this path… I won't come back." Her eyes flicked over the room, then returned, to search Gabrielle's face. "I could end up right back where I was…after Cortese."
It was very quiet, as two strong wills faced off against each other. The patter of rain drummed against the thatch, and a soft, irregular clanking broke the stillness as sounds from the kitchen drifted in.
Finally, the bard straightened. "That's not going to happen, Xena." She laid a firm hand on the warrior's cool cheek, and kept her voice and eyes steady. "You belong to me, and I will not allow that to happen."
Xena blinked and started to speak, then gave her head a little shake.
"And if it somehow does." Gabrielle continued, shifting her hold to the warrior's chin and forcing eye contact. "I will come after you and bring you back." Her voice was deadly serious. "There is nothing on this earth that can stop me."
Soulmates. The bard's jaw clenched, a ghost of the pale, determined face that had looked back at Xena in a bedroom in far off Chin tickling the warrior's memory, validating her words with honest truth.
Xena let herself breathe again, sensing the safe harbor of the most consistent love she'd ever known settle securely around her. She reached up and covered Gabrielle's hand with her own, then shifted it, and kissed the palm gently. "I know that." She replied softly. "I know as long as I have you… no matter how dark it gets, I have a light to lead me home."
The bard circled her with both arms and pulled her close, reveling in the strong surge of their connection, which rolled over them like the last vestiges of thunder overhead. "You're so poetic sometimes." She whispered into the nearby ear, as a few tears escaped into the soft fabric of Xena's tunic.
"Mmm…no." Xena disagreed, her arms full of warm bard. "You're the poet.. I just string words together." Her hearing told her the villagers were approaching again. "Here they come… what's the verdict, you think?"
Gabrielle spent a moment more holding on before she reluctantly released her partner, and moved back a little. "Too close to call."
They both faced the door side by side. Xena folded her arms over her chest, and the bard did the same, as the wooden panel swung outward, and the men entered. They filed into the room and came to a halt, a ragged, sullen group facing the two composed, confident women.
Xena lifted an eyebrow in elegant question.
"You’ve got a candlemark to be gone from here." The eldest of them stated. "You can have what you've asked for, but we want no more to do with ye." With that, they turned, and simply left, leaving the inn in utter, damp silence.
Bard and warrior exchanged looks. "Short but sweet." Gabrielle commented wryly.
"Just like you." Her soulmate couldn’t resist answering.
Gabrielle groaned. "C'mon… let's get going." She fastened a hold on the taller woman's sleeve, and started for their quarters.
It was almost sundown as they perched quietly on an overlooking ridge, peering down into a snug valley where troops of men were gathered. Gabrielle leaned forward against her saddlebow and exhaled. "That's a big bunch of soldiers, Xena."
"Mmhmm." Her partner agreed, pulling the leaves a little more over them to make sure they weren't spotted. "Sure is." She backed Iolaus a few steps then dismounted gracefully. "Okay… hang on to these, and I'll go see if I can find the centerpiece of our little plan."
The bard reached over to accept the reins. "Be careful." She warned softly.
Blue eyes sparkled warmly up at her. "I will be… stay quiet.. if you hear anyone coming, whistle."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "The way I whistle, yelling "Hey Xena!" would be more effective.. but I'll try."
The warrior leaned forward and kissed her lightly on the lips. "I love you." She uttered softly, before she turned, and padded into the forest, her dark cloak and hair vanishing almost as quickly as the bard could draw another breath.
The bard fingered the soft leather in her hands and sighed. "I love you too." She murmured, smiling a bit as her lips shaped the words, feeling the tingle of Xena's contact still on them. After a moment, she slid off Hercules' back and gathered the horses reins together, then stood at their heads and peered through the brush.
The encampment was active, all right. Men were running around, and a double column of them were forming. Supplies were piled neatly by the road out of the camp, heading in the direction they'd just come from. Gabrielle strained her eyes and detected torches, and attack weapons among the piles and she shook her head.
It was so senseless. It was almost as if Andreas was on a mission to paint the world in black and white, those who followed him, or those that opposed him. One lived, the other… the other by definition had to die.
A twinge disturbed her, and she straightened, pushing her cloak back off one shoulder and peering at her healing tattoo. Xena had carefully cleaned it, giving the bard looks that made her wonder of her sometimes touchy soulmate completely hated the idea of her having it, or what? She didn't think it looked that bad.
Oh sure, it was sore…and a bit red yet, but.. Gabrielle inspected the tiny, colorful picture. The miniature hawk's head peeked back at her with a round, black eye. "I kinda like it." She confessed to Hercules, who snuffled against her chest in response. "Whoo hoo.. Xena was here, right?" She giggled softly, muffling the sound in the horses mane. "It's better than those little cloth tags my mother used to put in our clothes, so they wouldn't get lost when we went to the creek to wash them."
Hercules fluttered his lips and shook his head, sending his heavy mane tossing. "If found, please return to Xena.. how's that?" Gabrielle countered. The horse stamped. "No, huh?" She chuckled softly to herself, and leaned on her mount's neck, watching the soldiers below start to get their gear loaded. "C'mon, Xena… let's do this before they get started."
She tugged her cloak more closely around her, to keep out the cold wind, glad of the horses warmth next to her, and tried to think of something else to distract her thoughts from her absent partner.
Dori came to mind, since her precocious daughter also tended to get into trouble, but she settled on remembering a summer's day and a warm memory.
Xena had dropped the infant off to her before lunch, and she'd settled her down, giving her a favored treat of mashed apples and finely ground lamb in a sweet sauce that coincidentally Xena also liked.
Coincidentally. Yeah right. Gabrielle remembered thinking as she watched her daughter gobble the contents of her plate, tucked neatly into the curve of her arm as she sat on the couch in their cabin.
She'd just started to feel more like herself after her illness, and she was glad of the quiet moment here in their home, with Dori's cheerful infant babblings interspersed with the smacking of her chewing. "You're such a little piggy." The bard had told her daughter, trying vainly to wipe the apple juice from her round chin. "What am I going to do with you?"
Dori had stopped. "Mama?" She'd held out a handful of minced meat invitingly.
"No thanks, honey… you go ahead." Gabrielle had laughed. "I just had mine."
She'd gotten most of the lunch into her rapidly growing offspring, then set her down on the soft rug near the fireplace while she got a fresh jumper for the baby to wear. "What did Boo do with you this morning, hmm? You're all muddy."
"Boo!" Dori repeated, kicking her feet a little. "Boo!"
Gabrielle had found herself laughing again, enjoying the sound of her daughter's pet name for her partner. Secretly, she liked it… though she never called Xena that herself, knowing her soulmate's dislike for nicknames. Even after all this time, the warrior was most likely to address her by her full name, Gabrielle, but that was okay, since she'd always thought it sounded…
Well, sexy, when Xena said it. All deep and low, and rumbly.. and with a tiny, almost imperceptible rolling of the r that tickled her nicely. "Hmm? What did Boo do with you, honey?"
Dori rolled onto her stomach, and lurched up into crawl mode, stopping and looking around to choose a target. Most of the cabin was tot proof, of course, both of them having learned over the course of the months just how persistent and how inventive their daughter could be given the chance.
That, Gabrielle had acknowledged, she'd gotten from both of them. "Here honey.. " She knelt and gave the restless tot a stuffed cow. "Here's Oogy."
Dori started chewing on the cow's tail enthusiastically. "Mmma."
"Uh huh… you stay here, okay?" Gabrielle had walked over to her desk and settled into her chair, picking up her quill and sharpening it. "I'm going to write a note to your aunt Ephiny."
"Mama." Dori thumped the cow on the floor. "Boo!"
"Boo's not here, honey.. she's out getting you dinner." Gabrielle had replied absently, scribing a few words. Then she paused, and chewed her quill, glancing over and idly watching Dori play.
The toddler had her legs sprawled and she was examining the cow with a look of absorbed seriousness. As Gabrielle watched, she got up on her knees, and put the toy down, then slowly put one tiny foot down, then the other, and pushed up until she was waveringly upright. "Hey.. " The bard encouraged her in delight. "That's a girl…."
Dori held on to the cow, but looked over questioningly. "Mama… " She held out a hand and pointed at her.
Gabrielle had put her quill down and leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees and holding out her own hands. "C'mere, honey."
The tiny brow had puckered. "Bck." Dori had objected.
The bard had smiled at her. "You can do it… c'mon.. " She'd waggled her fingers invitingly. There had been several of these little halting attempts lately, but none had been successful.
Those pale green eyes gazed up at her trustingly, and slowly, hesitatingly, Dori took a step towards her, balancing precariously.
"Good girl.. c'mon.." Gabrielle felt a big grin take over her face. "You can do it…c'mere… I've got a honey ball for you." She'd held one of the golden hued candies up.
Dori's eyes lit up, as she recognized a treat. "Mama!"
Gods. Gabrielle had sighed. Just like Xena. "Yes.. c'mon.."
The baby had let go of the cow, and taken another step, wobbling uncertainly, her arms outstretched for balance, her attention fiercely fixed on her treat. One hand opened and pointed. "Da!"
"Uh huh.. that's for you." Gabrielle bit her lip in delight, at her daughter's first steps. "C'mon honey… come to mommy." She'd held her hands out further, shortening the distance, and watched in proud fascination as Dori toddled uncertainly forward, overbalancing on the last step and falling into Gabrielle's waiting arms. "Gotcha!!"
She'd lifted the baby up and hugged her. "Good girl! Good girl! Wait until Boo hears!" She chanted happily.
"Mama!" Dori tugged her hair, and she'd released the infant, who scowled at her, holding a hand out towards the candy on the table. "Da!"
Gabrielle had laughed, and handed her the sweet, which she'd stuffed in her mouth immediately.
"Mm.." Dori had circled the bard's neck with her arms and sucked happily.
"Should have though of that before." Gabrielle had rubbed her warm back gently. "What a good girl."
"Mama." Dori had warbled softly. "Mama.. mama.."
Gabrielle had kissed her soft, dark head gently. "That's me, honey… and I'm very proud of you."
Xena had, the bard recalled, been so upset she'd missed it.
But, a few honey candies and a couple of kisses had solved that, too.
A soft scuffing sound alerted her, and she looked up, to see Xena's cloaked form emerge from the underbrush. "Hey…"
Blue eyes flicked over, and one winked. "Success." The warrior commented, going to Iolaus' side and arranging her saddle bag. "Just over those trees… and there's a decent path up from the road."
Gabrielle gave her a serious nod. "Okay… we're set then.. we go down there, like we're not expecting to see them, and then when they spot us, we stop, turn around, and start leaving."
"Right." Xena agreed. "Stay close to me, and if anything happens, we fight as little as possible, then escape." She circled her horse and tugged the bard's cloak closed. "I don't want this turning into a full scale battle."
"Sounds good to me." Gabrielle put a hand flat on her partner's chest, and gave her a little scratch with her fingertips. "Are you sure everything's in place?"
Even, white teeth flashed in amusement as Xena smiled. "I'm sure.. c'mon. Let's get this over with. " She mounted Iolaus, and waited for Gabrielle to climb aboard Hercules, then they started down the side of the hill, right towards the assembling troops.
It was weird. It was like making the conscious decision to walk into an anthill, Gabrielle thought, as she forced herself into a pose of casual unconcern. She kept her horse about a pace or two behind Xena's, as they ambled slowly down the slope and joined the road a little distance from the encampment.
"This is so … " The bard hesitated.
"Stupid?" Her soulmate placidly supplied.
"I didn't say that."
Xena chuckled. "Well, on the face of it, riding right into an armed camp does seem a little.. um… " The warrior chewed her lip. "risky."
"Mm." Gabrielle regarded the approaching settlement through pale lashes. "On the other hand, there's what… a hundred of them?"
"About." Xena agreed, straightening a little in the saddle, and shifting her sword under her cloak so it settled better.
"I wonder if they realize just how much trouble they're in?" The bard remarked.
"Probably not." The blue eyes glinted. "Or they wouldn't be looking this way with quite that much eagerness." She watched the stirring men from the corner of her eye. "Okay.. slow down."
Both stallions slowed their pace. "They coming after us?" Gabrielle whispered nervously.
"Not yet." Her soulmate replied. "Keep going." The camp started to stir in earnest, as the lookouts yelled something. "Okay.. stop."
"Phew." Gabrielle pulled her mount to a halt gratefully. "We were getting kinda close." A pause. "Now we take off?"
"Hold on." Xena sat up, and shaded her eyes, as though she were evaluating the group. "Okay.. slowly.. .turn around."
"I hate turning my back on them." The bard muttered darkly.
"Go ahead of me. I'll catch any arrows." Her partner replied, with a faint smile, as they turned their horses, and started back the way they came. "Now remember, when I tell you, we go up the other slope."
"The other slope. Right." Gabrielle replied. "Are they coming?"
"Not yet." Xena firmly seated her boots in her stirrups, and dropped her knees a little, grasping Iolaus's neck with her legs. The stallion picked up the change, and pranced a little, and she patted him. "Easy."
"Now?" Gabrielle could hear the sound of running feet and hooves behind her.
"Hold on." The ex warlord stated soothingly.
"Hey! Hey.. you there. Hold up!" A loud, commanding voice echoed.
Xena stopped, and half turned, pointing at her own chest. "Who.. me?"
Fully half the soldiers were pouring out after them, a squadron of riders in the front. "Yes, you… hold!" The man repeated loudly. "Or we'll fire."
Xena's arm moved with a savage, flicking motion, and her dagger sliced through the air, taking him from his horse as it penetrated to the hilt in his heart. "Sorry. Places to go. . people to see.. c'mon Gabrielle." She turned and smacked the Hercules on the rear, and he bolted, with Iolaus right behind him. "Head for the left ridge!" She yelled, reminding her partner.
A loud roar sounded behind her, and she heard a thunder of hooves and boots as they gave chase.
"Sure.. sure.. easy for you to say, warrior princess of I learned to ride in diapers." Gabrielle muttered under her breath, as she fought her reins, pulling Hercules' head to the left and urging him on. She heard the angry whistle of arrows behind her, but didn't feel any stings, though she saw one go past her on the right.
She hoped Xena knew what she was doing… the sound of the chase was very close behind them, and she ducked instinctively as a spear went wide of it's mark. "They're catching us!"
"Nah." Xena looked behind her, to see a well organized chase, the soldiers pelting after them with powerful strides that bespoke excellent conditioning. "Hey boys!" She grinned at them, and leaned forward as an arrow passed close, reaching out and snatching it from mid air, then putting it between her teeth and waving at them.
They thundered up the slope, leading the soldiers in a race so close, the bard could hear the breathing of the horses behind her. Gabrielle began to wonder if they hadn't miscalculated when Xena yelled, and pointed, and she saw an opening in the trees ahead. "Gotcha." She aimed Hercules right for it, leaning forward over the stallion's neck and trying to move with him, as she'd been taught.
The rough branches whipped against her body, leaving a rich green scent in it's path, and she exploded through the narrow opening, rushing though a thick underbrush at breakneck speed.
She heard Xena come through behind her, and turned to watch, as her partner half stood in the saddle, exposing her tall body for one agonizing moment, then whipping her sword out and slicing through a piece of thick, hemp rope as she passed beneath it.
Gabrielle felt the lash of leaves and net slide over her shoulders as she ducked, and previously tensed branches flicked over her head, almost brushing her from the saddle. "Yow." She yelled, feeling Xena's close presence behind her, along with a savage, angry roaring that made every hair on her neck stand up.
"Keep moving!" The warrior yelled, urging her forward. "C'mon…"
Both stallions scrambled up the slope, as a thundering wave of crashing and shouting ensued from behind them, rapidly escalating into screams of pain, and rage. They crested the ridge and hurtled over it, with Gabrielle now following Xena's path as they headed down into the next valley, aiming for a long, dusty looking road that lead away from the soldiers, and towards home.
Moments passed, then as they reached it, Xena pulled up and turned, giving Iolaus a breather as she scanned the trees for pursuers. Gabrielle gladly stopped next to her, patting Hercules lathered neck with a slightly shaking hand. "That was darn close."
"Shh." Xena held up a hand, and cocked her head in a listening attitude. "Let's just hope it worked."
In the distance, a horse whinnied in pain, and they could hear faint shouts, but the ridge remained empty as they sat side by side in the gusting wind.
"Looks like we got lucky." Xena smiled, and gave her partner a slap on the shoulder. "Nice riding, Gabrielle… you're getting pretty good at it."
Gabrielle preened a little, accepting the unexpected compliment gladly. "Thanks.. of course I knew falling off wasn't an option." She reminded her soulmate. "But yeah.. " She settled her knees and shifted in the saddle. "It felt okay."
Xena gave her thigh a pat. "Good girl."
The bard leaned on her saddlebow and smiled. "You know, it's amazing how wonderful a few nice words from you still makes me feel."
The warrior cocked her head in question.
"Of course, you're a lot easier to get them from nowadays." Gabrielle teased her gently, with a twinkle in her eyes. "But I used to collect them."
"Really?" Xena turned Iolaus' head around and got him moving, with Hercules ambling along beside willingly.
"Mm… " The bard nodded. "Yeah… I recorded them in my diary.. I was reading it the other day, and I came across an entry that said.. " She chewed her lip and looked up, thinking. "Let me see.. it said… 'Today was a great day! We got to go shopping in the biggest market I've ever seen, and Xena said I was the best bargainer in it."
The warrior chuckled softly. "I remember that day." She admitted softly. "You conned that merchant out of that new sleeping fur.. I was going to pay double for it."
"Yeah." Her partner nodded, then fell silent for a bit. "Boy." Gabrielle finally said quietly. "Those bees were sure mad back there."
"Mmhmm." Xena agreed. "I had a time getting them into those parchments sacks…lucky I was wearing my gauntlets." She glanced behind them, to where the ridge was now a distant blur of green, and saw still no pursuit. .
"Even so… they were really mad, Xena… I feel bad for their horses." The bard shook her head. "And a little for the soldiers… I remember when I fell into that hive that one time." She winced. "Ow."
Xena grimaced as well, recalling the days spent removing the myriad of poison spines from her soulmate's body and allowing her to recover from the vicious stings. She had no doubt Andreas' troops would have similar memories, and even less doubt that they'd come after them, though she knew they'd have at least a night's grace before they headed out.
That was all right. At least they'd stay clear of the little village, so Xena's promise would be kept, and she had a pretty sturdy confidence in her own ability to lose their pursuers after a day or two. "Can't blame em" She turned and watched her partner's face. "For being mad, I mean." She blinked innocently.
"Well, no.. not with you stuffing them in….wait.. what do you mean?" Gabrielle peered at her curiously. 'What' s that look for?"
With a grin, Xena stuck her hand in her saddlebag, then withdrew it, her fingers conspicuously coated with a golden substance. She licked a finger and waggled her brows.
"You… wait.. you have fresh honeycomb there?" Gabrielle squealed. "And you didn't give me any?" She kneed Hercules closer. "Get over here."
Iolaus sidestepped away, as the warrior teasingly licked another finger. "Mmm…"
"Xeeeennnnnaaaaaa…." Gabrielle warbled, as she started out after her. "You are such a brat." She cantered up next to her soulmate who had slowed to join her, and opened her mouth, lifting a brow in invitation, then sucking contentedly on the honey covered thumb she was given. "Mmmmm…."
"Like that, huh?" Xena chuckled at the blissful expression. She broke off a bit of the comb with her other hand and offered it to the bard, who relinquished her thumb and munched on it happily. "I got most of the hive…nice stuff, too.. with all those wildflowers blooming up there."
"Oh.. that's wonderful." Gabrielle sucked the honey from the waxy comb "No wonder they were so pissed off.. you raided their nest first."
"Too good an opportunity to pass up." Xena remarked smugly. "I know someone who really likes the stuff." She sidestepped Iolaus over and gave the bard a nudge.
"Oh, and you don't?" The pale haired woman snorted.
Xena shrugged offhandedly.
"Mmhmm.. see if you get any honey roasted apples tonight." Gabrielle gave her a severe look.
Big blue eyes went round immediately, and fastened on her, and the bard was irresistibly reminded of their infant daughter. She burst into laughter, holding onto her saddlehorn to keep from tumbling off the stallion.
"What?" Xena scowled, giving the giggling bard a dour glare, which only set her off worse. "Cut that out.. you're gonna fall off that horse." She eased over and grabbed Gabrielle's arm to steady her. "What's so damn funny?"
"Oh." The bard sighed and wiped her eyes. "Sorry… um… so where are we headed?"
Dark brows knit. "What was so funny?"
"Nothing.. nothing.. something just struck me.. don't worry about it, Xena."
"I'm not worried."
"I'm just curious…. If there's a joke, I wanna hear it."
"No no… really.. it was nothing, honey." The bard soothed her. "Did you say you had a spot in mind to stop tonight?"
Silence, save the soft sounds of eight hooves striking the dirt path, tossing up tiny bursts of sand as they did.
A sigh. "You pout just like Dori."
"I… do….not… pout." Xena enunciated each word with devastating precision.
Green eyes slid her way, and Gabrielle clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle, recognizing a very memorable not pout when she saw one.
"Hmph." Xena urged her horse on ahead.
It was a quiet campsite. Gabrielle finished getting dinner prepared, and watched her soulmate clean her armor in gruff silence. She'd been grumpy since the late afternoon, and the bard had been sitting reflectively, deciding on a plan of attack.
Was a time, she mused. When that attitude of hers would have my stomach in knots.. now… A gentle smile played over her lips. Now, it's just a matter of soothing a few beautiful, but ruffled feathers.
She put a pot of water on to heat, then stood and circled the fire, glancing around the campsite as she did so. Xena had found a wonderful spot, an overhang tucked into the side of a small river that hid them from view of the road even though the path was not that far away. They'd ridden into the stream to lose their tracks, and swum the horses upstream, to the small bank that lead to their secluded little retreat.
The overhang protected them from weather, as well as prying eyes, and Gabrielle could feel herself relaxing a bit, from spending the afternoon imagining eyes watching her back at every moment..
She stepped around the edges of the campsite, ending up just behind her partner, and seating herself on a convenient rock just behind the busy warrior. Xena had gone swimming to catch dinner, and her skin was still damp and glistening in the firelight. Gabrielle quietly circled the tanned neck with her arm sand rested her head against Xena's back, in perfect silence.
The warrior's steady movement slowed, and finally stopped, and she felt the shift as Xena turned her head. "You need something?"
The bard shook her head, knowing her partner could feel the motion. "Nope. I've got everything I need right here." She smiled a little, as she felt the tension dissolve out of the muscles under her arms, and Xena leaned back against her knees.
"Do you?" It wasn't a serious question, and they both knew it.
"Mmhmm….all wrapped up in one nice, strong, beautiful package." Gabrielle peeked over her partner's shoulder to see blue eyes gazing back at her, a hint of a smile playing around their corners. "What was funny before is that when I look at you… I realize just how much Dori is like you."
A brow lifted in surprise, then lowered. "Mm… sometimes. Yeah." Xena admitted softly. "Does that bother you?"
"Nuh uh." Gabrielle shook her head. "I mean.. I can see myself in her…I really can, Xena.. when she smiles, especially. But so much of you is in her." The bard paused. " I like that." She snuggled her chin up onto the warrior's shoulder and gave her a little squeeze.
Xena chewed that over a minute. "Hmm…. " She eyed the bard. "I've seen her pout. Do I really look like that?"
Gabrielle bit her lip. "Erm….a little."
The warrior sighed. "She's so cute."
"So are you." Gabrielle whispered. "I've got some apples over there if you're interested in one."
The dark head turned and pale eyes studied her face intently. "One?" A hint of mischief entered them as the word rolled off Xena's tongue.
The bard grinned back at her, then she tipped her head back and studied the clear, cold sky overhead. "Xena, how is it that we're in the middle of running from an army, we've got more trouble than a flock of geese in fog, and in all that, I still feel so totally wonderful?" She looked back at her soulmate's face, half in shadow, half lit by the fire.
Xena tilted her head and kissed her. "I know what you mean." She murmured, then half turned, slidng her arms around the bard and cradling her neck in one hand, as she dipped her head for a second kiss, this one much longer. Gabrielle's hands wandered, slipping under the fabric of the light tunic Xena had donned after she'd gotten out of the water, and the bard's warm, curious touch sent a jolt straight through her.
Was this a safe place? Xena felt herself almost beyond caring, but she knew if anyplace was in this wilderness, this place was safe. No one could approach them, they were hidden, they were…
Xena felt a pulse point pick up as she nibbled at it.
They were going to be a little late for dinner.
A spark snapped, drifting up to join the stars overhead, watching benignly.
It was a darn good thing, Gabrielle soberly reflected, that Xena had her in a nice, good, tight hold. The bard cracked on eye open, to see a canopy of leaves almost directly overhead, and felt the sway as they hung loosely in mid air. A dawn breeze pushed against them, and they moved a little, as the bard tried to think of something other than how high above the ground they were.
"Morning. " Xena's voice rumbled in one ear. "You sleep okay?"
Gabrielle yawned, and rolled over a little, turning her back on the creepily open hammock edge and preferring the warm solidarity of Xena's body. "Once I convinced myself to forget there was nothing between me and the ground far below me but air, fabric, and you." She mumbled. "Yeah… though I think I dreamed about being a bird."
The warrior chuckled softly. When they'd decided to stop the previous evening, she'd hadn't been happy with the choices she'd had, as the ground was too overgrown, and the clear spaces had too many approaches that she couldn’t monitor. What the glade had provided, however, were these nice, big, tall trees, and she'd managed somehow to convince Gabrielle to allow her to build a hammock for the both of them in one. It had meant a cold dinner, because she didn't want to risk a fire in the underbrush, but they'd been tolerably comfortable all night long.
They'd taken a week to get to where they were, and now, with dawn breaking, they were within a short distance of Potadeia, having decided it would be a good idea to stop by and warn the bard's home village and family of the doings in the south. "Ready to get started?" The warrior asked.
"Ngh." The bard nuzzled her, nipping gently at her neck.
"Careful there, Gabrielle.. remember what happened the last time we spent the night together in a tree." Xena reminded her.
Gabrielle's head lifted and two round, pale green eyes fastened on Xena's face. Then a devilish little grin spread over the bard's face. She lifted a finger and pointed at Xena's nose. "Your turn." She waited for the swift denial, surprised when all she got was a very thoughtful look in return. "But that's probably a once in a lifetime thing, huh?"
Xena paused momentarily, then nodded. "Yeah… once in our lifetimes… never in most anyone else's." She smiled, twirling a lock of the bard's hair around one finger. "Now…we need to get going.. I'd like to be home late tonight… better to come in when it's dark, just in case."
Gabrielle exhaled softly. "Okay.. yeah, I'm sure they miss us there." She agreed, but didn't move anything save a single finger, which was tracing a line down Xena's neck. "Hey, Xena?"
"Mmm?" The warrior shifted, and pulled her closer, as the darkness slowly receded, leaving them in gray twilight.
The bard hesitated. "Ah.. nothing." She laughed a little. "Nevermind."
Xena gazed affectionately down at the pale head burrowed into her shoulder. "I'm really glad we had this time alone too." She prompted, gently, feeling the movement against her skin as the bard smiled. "We won't wait so long next time."
The smile broadened, and she got a squeeze, as the rocked slowly in the cold, morning air.
It was uneasily overcast as they crossed through the outer valley that would eventually lead them into Potadeia. The air was thick, and damp, and the horses kept shaking their heads and sneezing in it, as though it carried an invisible dust. Xena kept her eyes moving, searching the surrounding areas as her instincts nibbled worriedly, hearing animals moving around, but with an almost furtive attitude. "It's quiet." She commented softly.
Gabrielle had moved a little closer, and she was fingering her staff, strapped alongside her leg. "Yeah…one of those kind of quiets that's not a quiet, quiet.. but an uh oh, something's up kinda quiet."
Her partner sorted through the response. "Right." She agreed. A rustle to the right caught her ear and she turned her head, one hand going to her chakram, only to relax when she spotted it's source, a young boy in tattered clothing standing just inside the treeline. "Know him?" She asked the bard, who had also spotted the child.
"No." Gabrielle waved at the boy. "Hi there."
The child stared suspiciously at her, then glanced around, and edged out into the open, stumbling a little on bare, obviously sore feet. The two travelers turned their horses and trotted over to save him the walking and Gabrielle immediately dismounted as they closed in. "Hey… don't be scared."
"Not scared." The boy stated truculently, but his eyes darted to Xena's imposing form as the warrior watched him. "Who're you?" He was thin, and had light brown hair which hung in long locks about his face.
"Well." The bard came closer and offered her hand. "My name's Gabrielle…what's yours?"
"Seve." He hesitantly took her fingers.
"Do you live around here?" Gabrielle asked.
He shrugged. "Sorta… they wrecked our house… so we live in the trees there…it's sorta neat." He pointed behind him to the patch of forest. "I got me a squirrel lives up there."
Gabrielle crouched down, so he didn't have to look up at her. "What happened to your house?" She was aware of Xena dismounting behind her, and heard the soft, but heavy sound of her boots hitting the ground. The boy's eyes left her face and looked up in apprehension as the warrior came closer. "It's okay.. " She reassured him. "She's not as dangerous as she looks."
Xena snorted softly and knelt by her side, running experienced fingers through the grass. "Horses came through here."
That impressed the kid. "Yeah… a bunch of em…there's what wrecked our house." He told the warrior.
"The horses did, or were men riding them?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
"Them men." Seve admitted. "They torched the village… an took the aminals and stuff." He looked behind him, and slightly to the left. "It was over there… beyond them trees."
Gabrielle also looked there. "Yes.. I remember… " She turned towards her soulmate. "It's a small community.. sheepherders. They trade….I mean, they traded with Potadeia a lot." She exhaled. "I hope.."
Xena's hand clasped her shoulder comfortingly. "I know… we'd better get going." She peered at Seve. "How many men?"
The boy shrugged. "Dunno… it was dark… there were lots."
"You know which way they went after?" The warrior persisted, turning to gaze in the direction he pointed. Green and blue eyes met. "Oh gods." Gabrielle breathed.
Xena patted the boys' arm. "Thanks… gotta go. " She stood up and walked to Iolaus' side, fiddling with his tack as Gabrielle stood to join her. "C'mon." She gave the boy a look. "Stay hidden, kid… they could be back."
The bard ruffled the boy's hair, then walked to Hercules' side and rummaged in her saddlebag for a moment. "Here." She tossed him a small sack, which he caught. "Xena's right… stay out of sight, okay?"
He stopped in the act of investigating her gift, and stared at the tall cloaked and armored figure standing quietly nearby. "Wow…are you really Xena?"
The blue eyes warmed briefly. "Yeah."
The boy slowly walked over and stopped a pace or so short of her, then looked up in childish awe. "You're gonna beat em all up, arentcha?" He stepped closer and lifted a hand, catching her cloak and feeling the fabric. "You really are real."
Gabrielle leaned quietly against her horse's shoulder, just watching her partner's face as she gazed down at Seve. It had been, she mused, such an incredible journey they'd been on the past couple years to bring them to this place, and this time, and this awestruck little boy.
The former Destroyer of Nations dropped to one armored knee, and rested her greaved arm on it. "I'm real." Xena answered quietly. "And I'm going to do my best to make sure what happened to you doesn't happen to anyone else." She held out a hand, palm up. "Deal?"
Seve swallowed audibly, but set his much smaller hand atop hers. "Deal."
Xena stood, and vaulted aboard her horse, gathering the reins in and backing Iolaus as Gabrielle mounted, then they turned and started off. "Not good." The warrior gave her partner an uneasy look.
Gabrielle swallowed a lump of worry. "I know… maybe we should hurry." Life was dangerous, few people knew that better than she did, but this was her family. Her quiet, backwater, mundane, boring family, whose only experience with excitement usually came through…
Her. "Let's go."
The horses settled into a canter, and they traveled in silence through the damp air. The road stretched forward, and as they came over a short rise in it, they saw a darkened patch in the soft amber of the wheat fields they were passing. "Damn." Xena stood in her stirrups, spotting burnt out shells, and worse.
"Do we stop?" Gabrielle wrapped the reins of her horse around her hands.
"No point." Her soulmate quietly answered, settling back down. The fires were still smoldering though.. maybe they hadn't gotten to far yet.
No one else was on the roads, she realized, missing the usual cart and foot traffic that generally wound it's way between the scattered villages in this part of the country. They hadn't passed anyone since coming down from the mountains, and that… that was a very bad sign. Her mind skipped forward past Potadeia, to another small village not very far away. She tucked her knees a little further into Iolaus' warm neck and urged him on faster.
Gabrielle felt her heart start to pound, as she followed Xena around a familiar bend, and came on the small stream that bounded her hometown. They splashed through it, the horses swimming as they hit the deeper center, and scrambled out along the upper bank, where a large muddy stretch showed the churning of many hooves. "Oh gods." She whispered, as she saw Xena reach up and unclasp her cloak, allowing the fabric to slip down and freeing her sword arm. She reached back and untied the strap holding her staff in place, and felt it fall down into her palm, her fingers closing on it in nervous instinct. They moved rapidly up the path, and she shivered, as her horse's hooves crossed the very place when she'd first met Xena.
The wind shifted suddenly, and brought sound to their ears, sounds that made her heart sink as the yells, and the screams, and the sickening thuds of wood on flesh came to them. A tiny cry escaped her, and she saw Xena lean forward, releasing the reins on Iolaus and tucking them around her saddlehorn as she readied herself to fight. "Trouble!" The warrior warned, yelling the word back to her.
"I know." Gabrielle answered grimly.
They swept around the last bend in the path, and saw chaos before them. Half of Potadeia was in flames, and the other half was being pulled down by men on horseback, men who were also beating down any resistance with savage efficiency.
Xena rose up in her stirrups and yelled at the top of her lungs, her voice rising over the screams, and the sound of burning thatch. Eyes turned her way and she pulled her sword from its sheath, twirling it in one hand, and driving for the largest group of raiders.
Gabrielle yanked her horse to a halt and slid off, getting her balance before she swung her staff at a rushing raider, taking his feet out from under him. She glanced around frantically, spotting a few familiar faces, most of who were running in terror. She got in front of another raider, and slammed the end of her staff into his chest, knocking him down and herself back a step, as she caught sight of a welcome face not far away. "Lila!" The bard yelled the name as she ducked a club, and smacked her staff into an oncoming soldier.
Xena slashed down, separating an arm from it's owner, and kicked the bloody body from her, as she ploughed through a crowd of raiders, evading pike blows as she stabbed down, using her sword in one hand and her dagger in the other, sending splashes of blood over the ground and herself. She could feel the heat from the burning buildings close by, and she backed a moment, locating Gabrielle with an innate instinct.
A sword flickered near her, and she deflected it with absent skill as she observed her partner battling towards a small group of pinned down villagers. A raider came at her from behind, and Xena pulled a dagger from her boot, sending it flying with a flick of her wrist, and nailing the charging man in the throat. A spray of blood spurted out, and he stumbled, falling and missing the bard's leg with his outstretched fingers by mere inches.
Gabrielle never even saw him. Never knew how close he'd come, how narrowly she'd missed the blow that would have cut her in half.
That was all right. That's what Xena was there for, after all, right?
Xena swept her arm back and took of a head, kicking the crumpling body away from her and slamming an elbow back into a man trying to pull himself up by Iolaus' saddle, breaking his neck. Her sword took out another, slashing through the soldier's defenses and sending the blade plunging into his chest. He gurgled in shock as he slid down Iolaus' leg.
Two men came at her now, mounted, with pikes couched under their arms hoping to spear her before she could reach them. Hastily, she sheathed her sword and grabbed the closer one, bending her body around and forcing the rider to stand in his stirrups. He released the pike to keep from being thrown from the saddle and she swung it back around, slamming him in the head with it. The second rider swerved, and came at her again, and she dropped the pike, ducking to let the other one slip past her, then loosening her boots from the stirrups and lunging at the soldier, taking him from the saddle and onto the muddy, bloody ground. She found her arms around his neck and simply squeezed, wrenching it around and breaking his neck with sodden snap.
A yell, this time to retreat. Xena smiled grimly, and drew her sword again, whistling for Iolaus and pulling herself up into the saddle one handed as he bucked closer, kicking out at two men trying to grab him. The stallion's hooves were deadly, and he reached around, clamping teeth on a third and shaking his head, ripping through skin and bone with a crunch.
"Atta boy." Xena patted his neck, as she directed him towards the village center, where a group of solders was forming, intending on escaping. "Oh no.. I don't think so." She growled, bolting for them, and feeling the blood rise to her nostrils, sending little thrills of lust down her body. A yell forced itself from her guts as she hit them, and they scattered, unable to stand before the ravaging of her sword.
"Stay down!" Gabrielle grabbed running villagers and pulled them into the half burned smithy, shoving them down behind the anvil and ducking a thrown club as it went by her. "Lila.. where's mom and dad?"
Her sister had scrambled closer. "At the house….with Lennat and Gabriel…I was at the market." Lila shouted back. "Thank all the gods, Gabrielle.. it's a miracle you guys showed up."
The bard peered through the carnage as she heard Xena's wild yell go up, just in time to see her soulmate nearly cut a man in half, then spin around and take another soldier's head off. The appendage bounced along the ground and Xena didn't even pause, moving on to cut and slash her way through the now disorganized soldiers. A chilling laugh erupted from her, as she chased one down, grabbing his helmet with one hand, and brining her hilt down hard with the other. Gabrielle swallowed hard, and shoved her queasiness down for another time. "I know.. stay down." She fended off a running raider, who was now more interested in escaping the rampaging warrior than doing any more harm. "I think the worst is over."
Eyes were beginning to peek up over the anvil. 'Not fer them." One man stated, with a note of savage satisfaction in his voice. "Kill em all, Xena!" He shouted, shaking a fist at the soldiers.
Gabrielle closed her eyes for a long moment, then opened them, and exhaled. "C'mon, Lila… let's go make sure everyone's all right at the house."
"Right with you." Her sister murmured, putting a hand on her shoulder. "Hey… " She gave the bard a quick hug. "How are things at home?"
Gabrielle tugged her across the smoldering central square, full of debris and fallen bodies. "We're headed there now." She told her sister, as she caught the triumphant Xena's eye. The warrior was seated firmly on Iolaus' back, her sword still out and dripping, as she surveyed the carnage. A few of the soldiers had escaped, but most of them were dead, or dying, or… Gabrielle winced in pieces on the ground. "I'm going to check out my folks." She yelled to her partner, who lifted her sword in acknowledgement, and headed the horse towards one of the still burning buildings.
Lila gazed at her as they continued on. "You are? I didn't think you'd…. where were you guys, then? We sent word down to Amphipolis a fortnight back.. when we started hearing word of raids out north of here."
The bard stepped gingerly over a severed arm. "Finding
the source of them." She muttered. "It's really bad, Lila.. we were
headed home to try and figure out what to do about it."
"Oh." Her sister murmured. "Right..I should have figured…everyone else is freaking out, naturally you guys would be out there trying to fix it." She followed the bard down the narrow path that led to their parent's home, then almost crashed into her as Gabrielle abruptly stopped. "What…."
She fell silent, looking over a very still Gabrielle's shoulder, too shocked to even breathe.
Their childhood home was gone, burnt to the ground and letting off a thick, noxious smoke, with bits of the dwelling scattered over the clearing. Nearby, Lennat knelt, holding a frightened Gabrielle in his arms, next to Hecuba, as they both simply stared at the still, bloody figure lying lifeless on the ground.
"Da." Gabrielle's voice somehow shaped the word.
Xena scooped up a bucket of water from the well, striding over to the burning barn and throwing it on the flames, while she directed the shell shocked Potadeians to do the same. Tectdus the smith limped over, throwing his own bucket on the blaze, and wiped a soot-covered brow.
"Twas our luck again you showed up, Xena."
The warrior nodded briefly, dodging a frightened sheep and heading back for the well. "Wish it'd been sooner...damn."
"No.. " The smith disagreed, ambling along next her. "We'd have nothing left otherwise… these damn animals… we'd heard they were headed this way, but didn't think they'd bother sommat as small as we."
"I don't think the size was the issue..they were just out for slaughter." Xena sighed, as she hefted the bucket, and nodded encouragingly as several more men and a few women joined them.
"They found it." Tectdus commented softly, as he stepped over a headless body. "Wasn't what they'd wanted, I'm thinking."
No. Xena still felt the chills running down her spine, and the smell of blood was getting in her nose, waking up darker instincts that had almost sent her after the few men who had escaped, to cut them down and scatter their bodies up and down the road. "Probably not." She muttered, flexing her hands a little. Then she straightened, and her breath caught, as a knot formed her her guts. She handed her bucket to a shorter man just running up. "Here… take that."
She broke into a run, and headed towards her partner's old homestead, her boots pounding on the damp sand as she leaped over burning logs and bodies and picked up speed, keeping her arms close to her body, and her hand close to her sword hilt.
Her steps only slowed when she entered the clearing, and saw the devastation, her eyes finding her partner's kneeling body with unerring precision. "Oh… damn." Xena found herself whispering, as she saw the still body. Herodotus had never been a fan of hers, exactly, but…
Gabrielle looked up as she heard the footsteps, and her eyes met Xena's in silent entreaty. The warrior went to her side and knelt, putting a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Hey."
The bard was silent, then she sniffled a little. "They were inside the house." She looked up at the burnt structure. Lila had taken Gabriel from her husband and was cuddling him, kneeling in shock next to her mother. Hecuba's face was a mask. "And they set it on fire, Xena."
The warrior bowed her head. "Gabrielle.."
"They set it on fire.. just to destroy everything and kill everyone." The bard repeated, angrily. "For no reason.. they didn't want food, or supplies, or….for nothing, Xena, for NOTHING!"
"Shh.. I know." Xena gently circled her shoulders with both arms. "I know."
"For nothing." Gabrielle repeated, softly. "And they tried to ride them down when they ran out of the house." She went on, shakily. "Like that wasn't enough." The bard half turned, and buried her face in her partner's shoulder.
Xena hugged her, gazing over her shoulder at a silent Lennat, who was seated on the muddy ground, with one arm wrapped around his knee.
"I had the baby." The man spoke tonelessly. "They hit me from behind, and I went down, and the next thing I knew, Herodotus was over me, and there was blood everywhere." He looked down at his father in law, whose body was sliced almost in half, though they'd covered him with a bit of cloth. "It happened so fast." He looked up at Xena. "Did you see the bastard there? He was a big… had curly black hair, and a red tunic."
Xena stroked the soft pale hair, and exhaled. "I saw him." She acknowledged quietly. "I sent him to Hades."
Hecuba finally looked up. She had been kneeling, with her hands folded on her knees, gazing at her husband as though in puzzled disbelief. Now she looked Xena right in the eye. "I'm glad you did." Her eyes shifted to Gabrielle's face, then they dropped again.
Lila wiped at her eyes. "Come on, mamma… let's… we can go over to our house.. Lennat, can you..I.."
"I'll take care of it." Xena interrupted firmly. "Lennat, take Lila and Hecuba out of here."
Numbly, he stood, guiding Lila as she joined him with the whimpering Gabriel. "Come on, mamma."
Hecuba sighed, outwardly very composed, then she put a hand on Herodotus bloody head, and bent over and kissed him. She got to her feet and folded her hands, following her daughter and son in law without another backward glance.
Silence fell over them. Finally, Xena sucked in a breath. "Gabrielle.. I'm … I'm sorry.. I should have.." Fingers touched her lips, stilling them.
"Don't." The bard whispered. "Because if you start with ifs and coulds, then I have to start thinking about all the minutes I wasted today, and I can' do that right now." Her voice was shaking, and she swallowed hard. "Xena, that was my home." She looked over her soulmate's shoulder. "I was born there."
"I know." The warrior felt horrible.
"And for what?" The bard asked. "For what, Xena? Where is the sense behind any of this?" She gazed sadly down at her father's body. "My da." Her voice broke, and she started crying. "May the gods damn them, Xena… I hope Hades sends every last one of them straight to Tartarus."
The warrior sat down on the ground, and pulled her soulmate into her arms, cradling her as she sobbed, the helpless grief jerking her body.
"And what if it's like this at home?" Suddenly, the bard's head came up, and she stared wildly at her partner. "Xena…"
"Shh." The warrior stroked her cheek. "It's okay… this was an advance group.. they haven't gotten that far yet." She kissed Gabrielle's head gently. "And you know Amphipolis is a lot better prepared for this kind of thing… all your Amazons are there, and the militia, and the forest dwellers."
Gabrielle put her head back down. "That's right." She closed her eyes, and shook her head. "Sorry.. I'm just…."
"I know." Xena replied. "Listen.. why don't you go be with your family… let me take care of this."
The bard looked around them. "They can't stay here." Her eyes went to Xena's face. "Not anymore..not until this is over."
The warrior nodded. "Yeah.. we'll talk about that." She stood up, taking Gabrielle with her. "Go on… they need you."
Gabrielle considered a moment, then she shook her head. "I'll help you."
"You don't have… "
"I know.. I want to." The bard stated, firmly. "It'll give me a chance to say goodbye."
Xena accepted that, and nodded. "Okay."
They set to work amid the ruins of a lifetime.
"There are two score dead." Tectdus was seated on a bit of wreckage, along with the surviving elders of the village, all two of them, and Xena. The warrior was standing, one hand on either side of the ruined doorway to the elder's home staring out at the destruction.
A pyre had been built, largely by her, with the horses help, and a few of the unhurt villagers. She'd managed to keep herself pretty tightly focused, at least until she'd gotten into the ruined barn to salvage any wood, and found a one, last victim.
Poor kid. Xena leaned against the doorway. Probably never knew what hit him. Alain had been one of the few people in the town she'd truly liked, Lennat's half brother, and a good friend to Argo and the other horses left in his simple, but thorough care.
She'd carried his body out last, and laid him next to the rest, then went to find Tectdus, to tell him about his son.
It was one of the most hateful things she'd ever had to do, at the end of one of the more hateful days of her life. She hurt, both her heart, and her body, which she'd strained to it's limits getting things arranged. And she hurt for Gabrielle, whose grief was tying her guts up in knots as the bard struggled with accepting the loss of a parent, and a good part of her childhood.
"Now what?" The older of the two remaining leaders asked softly. "It'll take half a season to get this place even part ways rebuilt.. and we've lost so many people."
Xena turned, and leaned against the charred doorway. "You can't stay here." She stated, flatly. "Chances here, they'll be back again…and you'll be helpless."
They didn't even look surprised, she realized. They simply nodded in weary acceptance.
"I don't know if I could anyway." Tectdus replied softly. "We've lost more than homes and possessions… " His eyes filled with tears, and he wiped his face hurriedly. "And for what?"
It was what they all asked. Xena ducked her head, and studied the stained floor. "I wish I could answer that." She murmured. "I can't…except to wonder of Andreas just thinks burning everything out is the easiest way to conquer." Her eyes lifted. "There are a group of cave systems south of here, nearer to Amphipolis. If you can get everyone there, you'll have shelter, and there's good, running water."
The elder shook his head. "You spend an entire lifetime building up a future… and someone just comes and takes it away from you." He stared at his hands. "It was a good year, too. Would have been a great harvest."
How many people did you do this to, Xena? And you never even thought about it. "I'm sorry." She exhaled.
The elder looked up. "Don't you be, Xena… weren't for you, we'll all of us be dead, every last one, instead of burying the lot of those scum."
And I used to be those scum. Interesting perspective. The warrior felt nauseas. "Yeah… well, if you can get everyone together and moving.. we'll escort you to the caves…just in case." She tapped the doorway. "Think about it.. I'll be back." She had to get out of there, away from the burned smell, and the odor of grief that was overwhelming her.
Or was it guilt?
She walked down the path leading to the river as the setting sun poured across it, breaking through the omnipresent cloud layer that had plagued them all day. As she passed a familiar, if overgrown spot she stopped, and put her hand against the nearest tree.
Good a place as any, right? Xena sighed, and sat down on the ground, leaning back against the wood and running her fingers through the loose sand. She tried to recall her state of mind that day years past, when she'd buried her weapons and armor, and was faintly surprised to find she really didn't have much in common with the person she'd been then.
She let her head rest against the tree, closing her eyes against the pounding ache she'd developed. They'd have to spend the night, of course, which would be a horror, then get the remaining villagers to safety before they could even think about moving on to Amphipolis.
And then, it really started. She had made a mental list of notes that had to go out, to the forest dwellers, to Cirron, other places, the Amazons… the centaurs…fortunately, most of the help she could expect were from far outlying areas, the last places Andreas thugs would have gotten to.
Like here. She looked around herself and sighed. Potadeia. She had a mixed bag of memories about the place, but bottom line, it was her soulmate's birthplace. She didn't regret taking retribution on it's attackers.
Soft footfalls came to her, and she felt a brief smile appear as she recognized the presence, and the distinctive rolling gait. Still walks like a badger. Xena tilted her head and gazed up as Gabrielle stopped next to her, and settled down to the ground cross-legged. "Hey… how're you doing?"
The bard nodded a bit, plucking a grass stem up and twisting it. "They say the dead can hear the thoughts of the living."
Xena's dark lashes blinked a few times. "They can." She replied, very simply.
The green eyes lifted to hers. "The good, and the bad, right?"
The warrior went very still for a long moment. "Yes."
Gabrielle nodded slowly. "He finally got to be the hero, Xena." She uttered. "And you know.. I'd forgiven him…. I wish I'd told him that."
Xena shifted, so that she and her partner were knee to knee. "I think he knew that… and you know, Gabrielle…with everything that happened, in his own way, he really did love you."
The bard's lips tightened, and she turned her head away a little.
Xena put a hand on her leg, rubbing the skin with her thumb. The bard captured her fingers and pulled them up against her lips, pressing them to her and closing her eyes. "I want them to come with us, Xena."
"Your family?" The warrior questioned.
Gabrielle nodded, and sniffled. "Yeah… I… I'd like it if they'd come to Amphipolis… I think it would be better for them there." She gazed up at her soulmate. "They know our family.. it's more…secure… I.."
"Sure." Xena agreed softly. "I think that's a good idea… have you asked them?" Not that Amphipolis was immune, but surely, they had a better chance there.
"I wanted to talk to you first." Gabrielle replied. "But I think they'll say yes… actually, I think they're going to ask us if they can come with us." She paused. "It would make me feel a lot better…at least Id' know my mother would have someone to talk to."
"My mother." Xena agreed. "Sure.. its' a good idea."
Gabrielle folded her hands around her partners, then looked up, searching her face. "You look exhausted." She released one hand and reached up, tracing a bruise across Xena's cheekbone.
"I am." The warrior admitted. "I think I pulled a few things… got hit a few times… " She shook her head. "But I think hurting for you is the worst of it." Her eyes went to her partner's face, as a look of indescribably gentleness came into it. "C'mere." She held out her arms and the bard crawled into them, the warmth of their connection hitting her with a powerful surge.
Gabrielle rested against her. "Xe?"
"I want to stop him." The bard tilted her head and looked steadily up at her. "I want us to stop him." A pause. 'Whatever it takes to do that."
Xena felt a faint, almost puzzled smile cross her face as she realized that this determined, confident young woman really had very little in common with the brash girl she'd first met here. "We will." She promised softly. "I swear it."
We've both changed, the warrior decided, as Gabrielle put her head back down and patted her side comfortingly. We've changed ourselves. We've changed each other.
I'm not the Destroyer of Nations anymore.
I'm not. Xena's eyes widened as the truth of the statement penetrated at last. She let her chin rest thoughtfully against Gabrielle's head.
Considering the possibilities.