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 9
It was coming on twilight, the purple haze outlining the form of two horses, standing patiently at a crossroads while their riders knelt at the nearby brook, taking a drink of water. The taller of the two riders stood, gazing off into the distance as her companion took a double handful of liquid, and washed her face.
They'd stopped for a break, just short of entering Amazon territory, and to allow Gabrielle to change from her traveling clothes into the martial leathers and adornments of her Amazon rank.
Xena exhaled, as she adjusted her sword clips, straightening the leather armor that covered her body from neck to halfway down her thighs. It was a new set, a solid, inky black that matched her hair, and contrasted starkly against the brass metal pieces settled over her shoulders. She liked the cut, but was still getting used to the differences in the new set, chiefly that it provided more protection to her upper legs and shoulders. "You ready?" She asked her companion, who moved to join her, running damp fingers through her pale hair.
"Yeah… can you help me with these arm bits, though? I can't quite get them." Gabrielle stood still, as her partner neatly buckled the leather decenders and arm bands around her biceps, completing the Amazon garb she wore under a thick, fur lined russet leather cape. "Do I look okay?"
Xena stepped back and viewed her, an appreciative twinkle coming into her blue eyes as she did. "Oh.. you pass." She dusted a bit of grass from the soft leather bodice, which fitted snugly around her soulmate's chest, then tugged the ornate leather belt clasped around her slim waist. From the neatly braided feathers in her hair, to the sturdy leather boots, Gabrielle was a very intriguing picture indeed. "I think I like you in leather."
It was almost three weeks after they'd started their campaign, and two days since they'd left Amphipolis. Toris had returned several days prior, confirming a good site in the valley, and reporting that Xena's cache had survived relatively intact, save some pilfering by small, chewing animals. Now that she knew she had a place to assemble, Xena had scheduled the trek up to visit the Amazons, where hopefully Ephiny had gotten some of the surrounding tribes to join them.
"You sure?" Gabrielle tugged irritatedly at one armband. "It isn't..um.. "
Xena's brow furrowed, as she tried to figure out what was bothering the bard. "Of course I'm sure… here, stop messing with that." She flipped the buckle over, and smoothed it down. "There.." She tucked one braid back and nodded. "All right?"
The bard still looked unsure, and she shifted a little, settling the leather, her blond eyebrows knitting together. She glanced down at herself, then exhaled.
Xena studied her, puzzled. "Gabrielle?"
A sigh. "Yeah?" The bard looked up, straightening her shoulders self consciously.
The warrior lifted both hands and caught her face, stilling her fidgeting. "What's the problem?"
Green eyes peeked at her, with a look halfway between embarrassment and worry. "Nothing… I.. um.. I just want to make a good impression, that's all." She cleared her throat briefly and adjusted her armband.
Both dark eyebrows jerked up into Xena's hairline, then came together over her eyes. One then lifted, effectively communicating her emotions without so much as a word being spoken.
Gabrielle got the message and sighed. "Okay… so, I haven't worn anything like this since before Dori was born, and I just.. " She let the thought trail off. "Nevermind.. I'm just being goofy."
"Oh." A clue smacked Xena in the back of the head. "Right.. I get it." She stepped back and straightened to her full height, reviewing her partner with a soldier's eye, biting back a tiny smile at the look of nervous apprehension on the bard's expressive face. Her gaze made a leisurely scan of her soulmate's form, admiring the subtle shift of the muscles under the skin, made more evident from their weeks of intensive sparring just finished. "Mmm."
Gabrielle's nostrils flared. "What does that mean?" She muttered.
The warrior allowed an appreciative smile to shape her lips. "It means you look fine, Gabrielle…relax." She patted her soulmate's cheek. "You do the outfit justice." More than that, she reflected privately, since the added maturity in her partner's face seemed to make the queen's regalia fit her like a second skin.
Gabrielle relaxed, trusting her partner's opinion without question. "Thanks." She reached out and straightened Xena's dark cloak, lined with even darker fur. "I don't know why I'm worrying.. they're all going to be looking at you anyway." She glanced up as Ares came bounding back through the grass, his fur wet from the creek. "Hey, Ares… "
"Roo!" The wolf shook himself ecstatically, thrilled to be out with his family.
"Yuck." Gabrielle held a hand up, shielding herself from the water. "Thanks." She drew in a more confident breath, and eyed Xena. "Let's get going…it'll be dark soon."
"Mm." The warrior agreed, lifting up the saddle bag she'd taken down and hefting it to one shoulder. "With any luck, we'll miss dinner."
"Xena." The bard slapped her on the butt. "Stop that… it's not that bad."
They made their way back to the horses and mounted, after Xena resecured the saddlebag, then directed their steps down through the crossroads, and into Amazon territory.
"I think Dori was really pissed off with us this time." Gabrielle commented, as they started the long assent up into the mountains. "She knew we were leaving again."
"Yeah." Xena relaxed into Iolaus' comfortable gait, recalling her daughter's intense displeasure, as they'd left her with Cyrene. "Hope she forgives us.. at least it's not that long this time."
"True." Gabrielle agreed. "Three days here, a couple days in the village, hopefully, and three days home… that's not too bad." Their footfalls shifted from packed earth to leaf littered path, and she glanced around, recognizing familiar landmarks. "Wonder how long it'll take them to spot us?"
Xena smiled privately. "Already have." She played with a bit of her mount's mane. "Two Amazons, right hand side, first tree, second major set of branches."
The bard glanced furtively in that direction, unable to see anything but leaves. "Ooo.. you're good." She murmured., as she straightened in the saddle, lifting her head and gazing fixedly at the spot. After a few moments, the leaves rustled, and two lithe, armored bodies dropped out of the tree, landing on the path with catlike grace.
They stood, waiting for the visitors to come closer, then walked forward, and , as Gabrielle pulled Hercules to a halt, dipped a knee to her in respect.
"My Queen." The first said, a tall, rangy Amazon named Eleena, who then ducked her head respectfully in Xena's direction. "Welcome home."
Hmm. Gabrielle's brows lifted a little. That's new. "Thanks." She smiled at the woman, and at her companion. "I think we're expected."
Now the woman smiled back. "Yes, your Majesty, you are indeed." She replied, with friendly courtesy. "Allow me to escort you… Pernepas will stay on guard here."
Xena leaned back in her saddle, content to allow Gabrielle to take charge, which freed her to observe and evaluate as they approached the village, picking up two other escorts along the way. The place was a lot more active than usual, she realized, and there were outlying camps set up, temporary skin tents in place with a large number of strange Amazons walking about.
As they passed through the ranks, she became aware of the multitude of eyes on her and returned the looks, recognizing intrigue, interest, excitement, and wary appraisal there. Well. They're expecting Xena the Warlord, huh? Xena felt her eyes go hooded, and she called up her darker side, letting the energy prickle to the surface. I can do that.
Up ahead, she spotted Ephiny emerging from her quarters, two unfamiliar Amazons with her, and Pony striding along side. She suspected these were the two other Amazon Queens the Regent had spoken of, and she noted their skeptical, wary expressions as they regarded the two newcomers. The Regent lifted a hand in greeting, beckoning them on.
Xena dropped her reins as they came to a halt, then put her hands flat on her saddlebow and pushed off, uncoiling explosively with both powerful arms and launching herself up and off the horse, swinging her leg over Iolaus' neck and landing neatly beside Hercules' shoulder, blithely ignoring the starts of surprise from the strange Amazons.
She strolled over to the bard, and took Gabrielle's reins, gentling the animal as the bard slid down off his high back, twitching her cloak straight as she strode across the dirt ground to meet Ephiny and her guests. With a low word to both horses, Xena followed, pacing after her partner's erect form quietly.
Gabrielle lifted her chin and straightened her shoulders as she got closer, projecting a calm confidence bolstered by the tangible presence of the tall, dark and dangerous shadow at her heels. She met Ephiny's eyes and returned her friend's smile, seeing the hazel orbs widen a little as she passed into the ring of torchlight that surrounded the village.
The anticipation was almost touchable. Ephiny went neatly to a knee, and raised a hand to her chest. "Welcome, my Queen." She rose, and half turned, indicating their guests. "May I present to you Aslanta, and Gillen, queens of the river, and the outlands Nations of the Amazons."
Gabrielle studied the reserved faces, then she held out a hand. "Thank you for coming." They returned her clasp, after a hesitant moment. The bard turned her head to her right. "This is my Consort, and Champion, Xena of Amphipolis."
Eyes all turned to her, and Xena returned the looks impassively, using her height advantage to loom over everyone and present an image of dark, glowering intimidation.
Ephiny let out an almost imperceptible sigh, then folded her arms. "Aslanta and Gillen's territory have been under attack from Andreas' forces.. they've had a number of sisters kidnapped and taken for sale." She told them. "They're interested in any plan to oppose him."
Gabrielle nodded. "Well, we've got a plan." She spoke with quiet intensity, using her bard's voice to carry over the crowd. "Let us get settled, and we'll discuss it."
"Very well." Ephiny agreed, motioning to two waiting Amazons. "Take their horses.. I'll escort them to the Queen's quarters." She regarded Gabrielle. "Shall we meet in a candlemark in the Council room?"
"Sounds good." Gabrielle nodded. "Let's get started."
The crowd parted to let them through in pensive silence, as they passed familiar and non familiar faces on the way to the small center hut, lines of torches leading the way. They left the two visiting Amazons behind as they cleared the square, and followed Ephiny through the door, with Xena closing it behind them.
For a moment, they simply regarded each other, then Ephiny relaxed, lifting a hand and rubbing her temples. "Oh.. Artemis' right butt cheek.. am I ever glad to see you two."
Gabrielle smiled, and crossed over to her, enveloping her in a big hug. "Hey, Eph… we're glad to see you, too." She rubbed the Amazon's back, feeling the tension in it. "Those two look really stuffy."
"Ungh." Ephiny moaned, releasing the bard and perching on a corner of the table. "You have no idea."
Xena snorted softly. "Amazons."
"Hey." Gabrielle pointed at her. "You're married to one." Her green eyes twinkled gently at her soulmate. "So watch it."
"No..no.. this time, I'm right there with her." Ephiny objected, with a sigh. "I hope to Hades you've got your ducks all in a row Gabrielle… because they're not buying my tune." She winced, as she cracked her neck. "They're wanting to get back at Andreas, but gods.. they're prickly as anything… though.. " Her eyes turned to Xena. "You made an impression just by showing up and being you." She studied the warrior. "Nice gear."
The warrior chuckled. "Thanks."
Ephiny turned her eyes to her friend. "You too." She whistled softly under her breath. "You should have seen those two sucking in their guts when they spotted you, Gabrielle.. and where did you get that cape? It's gorgeous."
The bard, predictably, blushed. "Thanks…" She fingered the cape, and glanced at her partner. "It was a gift."
They looked up at a knock. "C'mon in , Pony." Xena drawled, smiling when the door opened and the dark haired Amazon entered, carrying a tray and a jug.
"Thought you maybe could use a snack." Pony stated, putting the tray down, and handing Ephiny the jug. "Thought maybe you could use a snort." She sniffed. "Stuck up pair of featherbound rabbitheads." She glanced at Xena. "Whoa.. new suit? Nice… " She nodded approvingly. "Didn't see it in the light out there."
Gabrielle had wandered over to the tray and was investigating it. "Well… " She munched on a piece of root, crunching it between her teeth. "Things are going okay back at home… that valley worked out, so we're ready to get started sending people out there.. are they up for that?"
Ephiny shrugged. "I think.. you know what I think? I think they want to be convinced, but not by me." The regent told her, with blunt practicality. "They're looking for a leader they can throw their forces behind, and not feel bad about deferring authority to."
"Hm." Gabrielle nibbled a carrot, then glanced at Xena. "I think I may have a candidate for that."
"Yeah… well, I hope you got your sword sharpened." Pony muttered. "Cause they got 'show me' written all over their ugly butts."
"No problem." Gabrielle smiled, remembering the hours watching her soulmate driving herself into razor sharp condition, as she used the Amphipolis militia to hone her skills, sending squads of them against herself at once, driving them back with a ferocity she hadn't seen in her tall partner for a long time. "That's the least of my worries."
Xena accepted the compliment with a cock of her head, and a gracious nod. "How many fighters are we looking at?"
Ephiny considered. "Between the three Nations? About two hundred… " She smiled at the surprised looks. "Yeah.. more than I thought, too… it's been peaceful lately." She glanced at Xena. "And Tyldus said to come get him when you got here.. I sent a runner up when word came down you were headed in."
Gabrielle handed her partner a piece of flat waybread, with a chuck of meat and a conciliatory lettuce leaf wrapped in it. "Mm… that's great if we can get them to buy in on the plan.. but keeping two hundred Amazons out of trouble? Oh boy."
Xena, Ephiny, and Eponin stared at her. "I've never been able to keep one out of trouble." The tall warrior muttered, taking a bite of her meat roll as the two other women stifled laughs.
Gabrielle put her hands on her hips and gave them all a look. "Listen, there is no such thing as the 'Gabrielle effect.'"
"Sure there is." Pony objected, flexing her arm. "And it's hereditary… darndest thing I ever saw."
The bard glowered at her.
"No joke… every damn time I turned around, that kid was into something… opening the chicken coop, letting the goats out, riding on that poor wolf….and all I could think about was all the stuff that happens whenever you're around, Gabrielle."
Xena stopped in mid chew, seeing the sparks start to show in the pale green eyes across from her. "Pony." She interrupted the Amazon. "If you ask my mother, that didn't come from Gabrielle."
The dark haired Amazon paused, and blinked at her. "No?"
"Nope." The warrior finished her snack. "There are double locks on that chicken coop for good reason."
"Oh." Pony mulled that over. "Sorry, Gabrielle."
"No problem." The bard gave her soulmate a quiet, wry look. "Well, we'll just take it easy here for a little while… I'm going to wipe the road dust off."
Ephiny took the hint gracefully. "C'mon, Pony… let's go make sure the council chamber's set up…we'll have a late dinner served in there." She glanced at the bard. "We held them to hold off when we heard you were inbound."
Xena bit her lip to keep from grinning, and turned to lift the saddlebags up onto the large, comfortable bed as the two Amazons took their leave. She pulled out both her kit, and the bard, and set them on the linen surface, then turned as a hand slipped across her back and Gabrielle's warm presence surrounded her. "So."
"So." Gabrielle repeated, in a musing tone. "Are we ready for this?"
The warrior handed her a bit of soap. "Go wash up." She paced over to the mirror and regarded her reflection, running one hand through her dark hair and riffling it into a semblance of order. "We're ready.. you can tell them the basic plan, then I'll fill in the details if they want them."
"I think they'll want them." The bard regarded Xena's powerful back for a moment, then washed her face, drying it with a bit of linen from her pack. The two other Amazon Queens were both much older than she was, she realized, the ginger haired one, laced with silver, was probably quite a bit older than Xena, in fact. They were experienced, skeptical, and would take a lot of convincing, she suspected, before they would agree to entrust the effort with their precious warriors, and sisters.
And in the end, she knew, it would be Xena they would be obeying, despite all her titular authority as the Queen of these Amazons, and her own submission to the tall, charismatic ex warlord would be looked on as a natural consequence of their relationship, rather than a studied decision on her part.
Gabrielle turned, and leaned against the counter, considering the question seriously. Would she, if she had to, choose to throw her Amazons into the battle under Xena's banner? If she couldn't decide that, how could she expect to persuade the visiting Queens?
The bard walked over to the low seat under the window and sat down on it, leaning back and extending her booted feet along the floor, watching Xena as she fiddled with an armor strap. So much of the plan was dependent on her, she realized. Xena's leadership ability, her considerable charisma, and her unmatched fighting skills were the cornerstone of the attempt, and one of the key critical details would be Xena's engineering of the attack and defense, using what would be a much smaller number of fighters against Andreas' three thousand.
Could her soulmate do it? Gabrielle exhaled. She'd seen Xena in battle situations before, certainly. Her martial skills were unquestioned. But as an overall tactician? She knew Xena had done it before, but that had been years ago, and against a different enemy. Andreas was a brilliant general himself, with a disciplined, well conditioned army, and the tactical advantage over them in almost all areas.
Could Xena personally outfight Andreas? There was no question that the answer was yes. But this wouldn't be a one on one fight, Gabrielle realized, and everyone's lives would be resting on her soulmate's intelligence, and her ability to outthink their enemy.
On that brain, behind the baby blues, that so many people forgot to account for, and which she'd gained an ever growing appreciation for over the years of their relationship. The bard smiled, as her partner turned and lifted an eyebrow at her, and knew the answer to her question. She held a hand out, and watched as Xena walked over, taking it and allowing herself to be pulled down onto the bench.
They regarded each other, and Gabrielle lifted a hand, brushing it against the soft, tanned cheekbones. "I remember the morning after the party… after you showed up here…"
"Mm.." Xena smiled quietly. "That was a scary time for me." She mused. "So many things were happening… and I couldn't control any of it."
"Did you know we were going to kiss each other, when that all happened?" The bard asked, curiously. "I mean… did you think about what you were going to do when we saw each other again?"
Xena leaned back, and spread an arm out across the back of the low bench, inviting her partner to snuggle closer. "Did I? " She considered the question. "I remember, when I got your note, thinking that… even though I didn't think I deserved it, I was going to go ahead and just let whatever happen, happen." She paused. "But did I think, as I was running up that hill, that I was going to grab you and kiss you? No."
"Oh. Well, I did." Gabrielle told her, with an impish grin.
"Oh yeah… I missed you so much.. I decided when I set eyes on you the next time, I was just going to grab you, and kiss you, and just see what happened."
Xena studied her, remembering the moment intensely, the two of them meeting in a driving rainstorm, bodies warming each other in a fierce hug. As she recalled them separating and looked at each other, she could almost feel the bard's arms around her neck, pulling her forward with definite intent.
Just like they were now. She surrendered to the tug and pulled the bard into her arms, spending a leisurely few moments renewing her memories. Then she rested her head against her partner's and gazed into her eyes. "Are you all right with all this?"
Pale eyelashes fluttered in confusion. "This? It's a little late to be asking now, honey." The bard chuckled softly. "Don't you think?"
"Tch.. I mean involving the Amazons." Xena replied.
"Ah.." Gabrielle gazed at her partner's pulse point for a long moment. "It's… it feels really strange, Xena… I know it has to be done, I know we're the right people to do it… and actually, Ephiny made the decision. But I feel…it bothers me to know I'm committing people I know.. people I love, to something that might get them hurt." A beat. "Or.. gods prevent this, killed."
The warrior absorbed that. "I can't promise no one will die, Gabrielle."
A slight nod. "I understand that."
"I can promise that no one will die because I was careless, or because they got put into harms way for a bad reason."
"I know." Gabrielle exhaled. "I trust you, Xena." It was such a simple statement, really, that outlined a concept of unlimited complexity. "Come on… let's go over there, and get this started."
They stood, and Xena carefully arranged her partner's cloak, then fluffed her bangs. "After you, my Queen." She gestured towards the door, with a courtly half bow, then followed Gabrielle as she paced out into the fluttering torchlight.
Ephiny let her eyes roam over the council chamber for the tenth time, just making sure everything was in it's proper place. "So." She turned to Eponin, who was playing with the feathers on an Amazon mask hanging nearby. "Whaddaya think?"
"Bout what?" Pony turned her head inquisitively. "I think this mask's got fleas."
The Amazon regent scurried over, and looked anxiously at the mask's surface. "What?" She riffled the feathers, reaching up and jerking a torch free to bring it closer for light. "Damn it, I thought I told those featherheads to dust in here.. "
"That's all I need, have someone put this on and… " Ephiny stopped in mid motion, and gave her lover a sideways look. "You better not be joking."
The dark eyes twinkled at her.
"Pony." Ephiny sighed, and lowered the torch. "Don't get me nuts, okay?"
"C'mon.. you needed a laugh." The weapons master objected. "Those two have you up on edge bad… you're making me twitch." She rubbed Ephiny's back awkwardly.
The blond woman shoved her torch back in it's holder and trudged over to the main table, sitting down on it and swinging her feet. "Y'know, I was thinking.. .remember the last time Gab and Xena were here?"
Pony rolled her eyes. "Who doesn't?" She moaned, joining her lover. "What about it?"
Ephiny scratched her ear. "Gab told me Xena always felt like she was on trial here… like everyone was constantly watching her.. judging her.. ."
Eponin didn't answer, but her eyes dropped to the packed earth floor.
"I know exactly what she meant, now." The regent murmured. "I'm glad they're here." She stood up as they heard footsteps approaching, and moved around the table. "Well, here we go…I hope this works."
Pony sidled around the table to join her as Amazons, both strange and familiar, began filing in, taking seats in the large chamber. Their own nation sat on one side, eyes watching Ephiny and Eponin with interest, and eyeing the visitors warily.
The two visiting nations chose adjoining sections in the round chamber to sit in, and they murmured among themselves, falling silent as their respective leaders came in. They stood as the two Queens crossed the room, making it very evident as to where their loyalties lay, then seated themselves after the two women took comfortable, backed chairs opposite where Ephiny and Eponin were standing.
Tempers were prickly, Ephiny sensed. The constant presence of so many strange warriors in the village was making her own people jittery, especially after overhearing some of the masked, but disparaging statements regarding various things about the place.
A motion at the door caught Ephiny's eye, and she turned her head, only to meet Gabrielle's steady gaze looking back at her. The bard paused in the threshold, easing her cloak back off her shoulders, then entered, with Xena padding silently a pace after her.
Ephiny held back a smile as her people stood respectfully, holding themselves proudly erect as the two passed the ranks and joined them at the large, round table. Xena pulled her partner's chair out for her, and waited while she seated herself, then took the chair next to her and settled into it, her pale blue eyes raking the crowd with quiet intensity.
Gabrielle folded her hands on the table, and took a breath, the torchlight reflecting off her tanned skin as it pressed against the soft leathers she was wearing. "Thank you for coming here." She began, maintaining eye contact with the two visiting Queens. "I know this is sort of irregular, but I think the challenge we have facing us is kind of dictating unique solutions, and that means doing things we don't usually do."
The bard stood, always more comfortable in that position when she was talking. "As you may, or may not know, we've recently returned from a trip to the north, where we investigated reports of an army massing. "
Gillen leaned forward. "You went into his city.. that true?" The older Amazon, with silvered hair and an intelligent face studied her.
"Yes, that's true." Gabrielle acknowledged readily. Her eyes flicked to her soulmate briefly. "Xena and I traveled there, and got inside the army's garrison." She paced back and forth. "It wasn't a pleasant trip… we found a lot of people hurt on the way."
Aslanta held a hand up. "How did you enter his stronghold?" Her voice was hard, and crisp, and her very muscular body shifted in the torchlight as she regarded Gabrielle. She was very tall, and had a commanding air, accentuated by the pale blond hair pulled back from her face in a severe cut.
"Well.. I volunteered as a cook, and Xena here got hired as a horse trainer." The bard informed her mildly.
A murmur ran around the room, and Gabrielle could see a mixture of consternation and disgust on the Amazon's faces.
"You went in as common help?" Gillen asked, in disbelief.
"We thought we'd have a better chance of getting out alive if we didn't announce ourselves as an Amazon Queen and the Destroyer of Nations." The bard gave her a faint smile. "And since the whole point of us going in there was getting information, not getting drawn and quartered, we felt it would be better that way."
"Good point." Ephiny stated, rubbing her chin to hide the smile on her face.
"You can't have found out much, then." Gillen stated flatly. "Not from the middens."
Gabrielle half turned, and cocked her head, and Xena stood up. "Wrong." The warrior paced over as her partner resumed her seat, and rested her hands on the back of Gabrielle's chair. "We found out his troop strength, his battalion makeup, his general strategy, and where he's headed next." The warrior's voice was low, but it traveled over the now silent room. "Gabrielle also determined that he's giving his troops some kind of drug, and she was able to break some of his prisoners out as we were escaping."
"And, of course, Xena managed to remove five hundred horses from his inventory." Gabrielle added. "So we actually didn't do too badly." She folded her hands again. "The important thing we found out is that he intends on conquering everything in his path, and he doesn't care how many people die as he does it."
She waited for a comment from either woman, and got none. "I think he's an evil person. He breaks people's spirits… and he's not happy with just conquering things. He wants to own them, body and soul." She paused. "He has to be stopped."
"Wouldn't it be easier just to get the Hades out of his way?" Gillen lifted a hand. "Artemis knows, I"d love to get my knife into him, but I'm not about to sacrifice every warrior I have for that."
"Sure it would." Gabrielle answered quietly, as Xena resumed her seat. "It's always easier to run away." She observed the flinch at the words. "But I've learned that eventually, you run out of places to go.. and then what?" Her eyes met the other Amazon's ."It's not like he's going to conquer and move on.. he intends on subjugating the entire country."
Gillen and Aslanta exchanged glances. "You know that for sure?" The blond Amazon asked.
"Yes." Xena answered shortly, giving them both a chilling smile as they looked at her. "He told me so."
"You spoke with him?" Gillen asked, slowly.
Xena's eyes glinted in the torchlight. "I wanted him to know who he was up against."
Ephiny swallowed, unable to take her eyes off the warrior. The dark energy seemed to roll out from Xena, more evident than Ephiny had ever seen it.
There was a long silence. Then Aslanta cleared her throat. "So.. what's your plan?"
Gotcha. Gabrielle exhaled softly, and leaned on her elbows. "We know he has approximately three thousand troops."
A loud murmur of dismay drifted around the room.
"We know if we're going to succeed, we need more than just the Amazons to help us." Gabrielle held up a hand, then she stood. "But we have to start somewhere, and I chose to start with the best warriors I know."
Eyes watched her intently.
"We've already sent word out… and we hope those messages eventually bring in enough troops for us to form a force large enough to directly challenge Andreas. Until then, Xena intends on using small groups to disrupt and harass him in the field." Gabrielle stopped with one hand on her partner's shoulder.
"What does that achieve?" Aslanta asked, but her voice was unsure.
"He has no support system." Xena answered quietly. "His raiding parties burn villages to the ground… he has no means of supporting a standing army in the field." She folded her hands on the table and gazed at her interlaced fingers. "If we break up his raids, then he'll have to move his forces out to deal with us."
"How many troops can you hope to gather?" Gillen asked. "What happens when he does come after us, and there are a couple hundred people trying to hold off three thousand? Then what?"
"Then we lead him to where we want him." Xena answered quietly. "And we whittle away at his forces from the sides, from the back.. until it's a number we can deal with head to head."
The older Amazon met her eyes unflinchingly. "With you leading us."
The warrior nodded.
The woman turned her head and looked at Gabrielle. "Amazon Queens lead their own into battle." Her tone was slightly accusatory.
Gabrielle returned her gaze mildly. "Intelligent Amazon Queens know when to delegate responsibility.. and when you have someone like Xena to lead your warriors, you're smart to let them."
Ooo Ephiny bit the inside of her lip, resisting the urge to give the bard a thumbs up. Nice one.
"Besides, I will be there." The bard went on, surprising everyone except her soulmate. "War is not new to me."
Gillen gazed at her for a moment, then she stood, and put her fists on her hips. "You've got a smart mouth on you."
Gabrielle gazed up at her and smiled. "Thank you."
"That wasn't a compliment." The Amazon replied testily.
"Then you don't know me very well." The bard replied. "I don't lead with my fists."
It was obvious, Ephiny realized, that the other two Amazon Queens had no idea of what to do with Gabrielle. The bard was outside their experience, and she'd thrown them both way, way off balance. The regent found herself enjoying the experience very much, after four days of their veiled sarcasm at her expense.
Gabrielle stood and moved around the table, going face to face with Gillen, who topped her by several inches. "Look." She spoke quietly. "This isn't a competition. This guy kills people for no reason. His raiders burn people's homes to the ground." She stepped closer, her jaw muscles clenching a little. "The place I was born in doesn’t exist any more.. and I lost my father to them. So if you want to join us, that's great. If you don't, get the Hades out of here, and let us get on with things."
Ephiny's jaw just dropped. She darted a glance at Xena, who was sitting with her chin resting on her fists, but the warrior didn't interrupt.
The Amazon took a step backwards, and blinked, not expecting the ferocity of the exchange.
"Make your choice." Gabrielle snapped.
There was silence in the room, even the breathing seemed stilled. Finally Gillen's shoulders relaxed, and she exhaled, then gave the bard a tiny nod. "All right." The older woman spoke quietly. "But I want a say in what my warriors do."
Green eyes flicked over and met pale blue, and held for a moment, then she returned her gaze to the Amazons. "I think we can arrange that." Her eyes turned to Aslanta. "And you?"
The tall Amazon stood, towering over Gabrielle, who didn't look the least bit intimidated by that. "I'll let you know in the morning. " She motioned to her people, and strode out, with them following her in silence.
The bard watched them go, then gazed over at Ephiny. "You want to take this a little more private?"
"Um.. sure." Ephiny stood. "Eponin, can you ask them to bring dinner to my quarters… they're big enough for us to meet in.."
"Right." The weapons' master headed for the door, making a note to add a few jugs to the tray.
"All right…let's get moving." Ephiny told her assembled Amazons. "We need to be ready to move out… "She looked at Gabrielle in question.
"Day after tomorrow." The bard supplied. "We want a chance to speak with Tyldus, and Xena needed to harvest some herbs up around here."
The Amazons filed out, and Xena rose, circling her soulmate and putting both hands on her shoulders. Her eyes met Gillen's and one eyebrow rose in inquiry.
"I"d like to hear more about his camp." The older Amazon stated.
Xena regarded her in silence for a moment, then gestured towards the door. "Let's go… time enough for details later."
They all walked out into the dark, cold night.
They were seated in a semicircle, around a crackling fire. Ephiny had passed out mugs, and poured the honey mead Pony had supplied, and they were nibbling off plates as the discussion continued.
"Realistically, how many people do you think you can bring into this?" Gillen asked, leaning back in the woven wood chair. She directed her question to Gabrielle, who was sitting in the seat opposite her.
"That depends." The bard replied, sipping on her mead. "On a lot of things.. on how far Andreas has gotten, on what's going on with the people we're asking… there are a lot of variables. We won't really know for a month or so."
"Mmph." The Amazon brooded over a carrot.
"I figure we'll end up with a third of what he's got." Xena commented, from her spot near the fire. She was sprawled in her seat, with her long legs extended out in front of her and crossed at the ankles.
They all looked at the warrior. "Why bother, then? We can't beat him with that." Gillen commented wryly.
"Sure we can." Xena disagreed. "We just have to make him think we can't." She folded her arms. "Keep his confidence up, and get him into a position where he has to make fast decisions."
Gabrielle flicked a glance at her partner, then leaned over and gave her a piece of flatbread wrapped around some roasted vegetables, giving her a look until she took it and started nibbling. "Xena thinks we can use his tactics against him.. by getting the people he's run roughshod over to cooperate with us."
"That could be dangerous." Ephiny stated, quietly. "They could be playing both sides." She shifted in her seat. "And end up selling us right in to his hands."
Everyone looked uncomfortable. "Some will be." Xena stated flatly. "There'll be times when we are betrayed… but I think it's worth the risk." She took a halfhearted bite out of her meal and chewed it, swallowing it hastily with a mouthful of mead. "I think Andreas plans to beat the countryside down.. then when he's ready to make his move, he'll take along a supply train, and use his base to keep him in food and gear." She nibbled another bite off the bread. "There's a huge stockpile there."
"Speaking of stockpiles…" Ephiny leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. "We can keep a cache up here… not that we're a fortress, but this high up in the mountains is tough for an army to take." She glanced at Gillen. "Your people are welcome to shelter here."
The Amazon leader considered that. "We don't mix well, but I'll see." She turned her gaze on Xena. "Aslanta… she's a skeptic."
The warrior's brow lifted in wry irony.
"She got her position by fighting for it…she doesn’t follow easily." Gillen commented. "Not without some proving."
Gabrielle sighed, and rolled her eyes, watching the wicked grin flicker on and off her partner's face. "Can I ask something?" She broke in. "We're all mature, intelligent women, right?"
Everyone looked at her, then the visiting Amazon muffled a smile. "Some of us more so than others." She remarked dryly, eyeing the young woman across the carpet from her.
"It's not my fault I learned fast." Gabrielle shot back. "But what I was going to say was.. why do mature, intelligent, rational women have to beat the crap out of each other in order to get anything done?" She waved her arms. "I don't get it…can't we just talk about things, instead of going out and whacking at each other with a stick?"
The other women glanced at each other after this outburst.
"Someone, please.. tell me why it always has to come down to who's the strongest?" Gabrielle finished quietly.
Pony cleared her throat. "Ah.. because it's fun?" She supplied earnestly.
The bard sighed, and closed her eyes, holding back a laugh.
The rest didn't, and a chuckle made it's way around the room. "It's a natural thing." Xena finally said, in her shadowed corner. "It's the way of nature, Gabrielle.. you know that. You’ve seen it yourself.. weren't you watching the hens the other day with Dori? They've got a pecking order."
"We…are… not… chickens." Her soulmate stated, pointing a finger at her.
"Well, did you inherit your title, then?" Gillen asked. "I, like Aslanta, had to fight for mine."
"Long story." Ephiny, Eponin, Xena, and Gabrielle all muttered simultaneously, then looked at each other.
"That doesn't matter, anyway." Gabrielle went on. "I was serious.. we have to all work together. What point does it make, if someone can beat another person? That's not going to win this for us." She gazed at them, a furrow appearing in her brow. "Let's say tomorrow… that Aslanta decides she won't join us until every one of her people gets to take shot at.. " She paused. "Well, let's say Xena here. What's that going to prove?"
There was a little silence. "That she can kick their butts?" Pony ventured, hesitantly.
A deep, soulful sigh. "Besides that." Gabrielle groaned. "You're missing the point… why should someone have to be beaten before they'll follow another one of us?" She stood, and paced across the rug. "We're not animals.. we're intelligent people… why can't we just decide that we're going to do this, because it's the right thing to do, and leave all the centaur poop and ego tail waving out of it?" Her voice was quietly sincere. "We should save our fighting for Andreas. We're going to need all the strength we have for that.. it's so senseless to use it against each other."
Xena stood, and walked to the fireplace, leaning against it and gazing into the flames. "Gabrielle… " She exhaled, and paused a moment. "What you're saying is right… we al know that." She turned, and regarded her soulmate quietly. "But it ignores a basic fact of human nature.. and that's the fact that we are animals, deep down."
"I don’t' belive that." The bard snapped.
"I know." Xena replied, with a touch of sadness. "But anyone who is brought up in a warrior society.. like the Amazons are, becomes used to challenging anyone wanting authority, because only people who deserve it, who earn it.. should be given in when you have to lead other people into bloodshed."
Gabrielle paced forward, meeting her eyes. "So.. does that mean you don't trust me to lead?" She put her hands on her hips. "Because I've never faced that kind of challenge."
"Yes you have." Xena objected.
"No.. you have.. in my name." Her soulmate corrected her softly. "And you know I couldn't possibly, in a million years beat you in any kind of combat, Xena… does that mean you wouldn't follow me into battle?"
Ephiny watched, in utter fascination, this dance between two people, two wills so powerful they could only find solace in each other. A sideways glance told her Gillen was equally intent on the two women, her hands wrapped around the chair arms, pulling her forward a bit.
"Does it?" Gabrielle repeated the question, her voice dropping a little.
Xena's face was half in shadow, half in firelight, still save the flickering captured in her pale blue eyes. After a long moment, the well shaped nostrils flared. "There are different kinds of strength, Gabrielle… not all of them physical." Xena replied. "I would follow you to Hades, and back, and you know it.. but that's because I know you.. and I know your heart." She took a step forward, and put a hand on her partner's shoulder. "Given time, everyone would.. and you could lead them that way. "
Gabrielle gave her a stubborn look, and lifted her jaw, tightening it firmly. "Well, then they're going to have to learn fast, because I am not going to sit here and put up with that 'I'm tougher than you are' horse poop."
"You know I'm right." Her soulmate pressed the issue. "We have to learn to work together, Xena… if we can't even work with each other, what chance do we have when we've got not only Amazons, but centaurs, and the gods only know what else to deal with?"
Was she right? Xena blinked, perplexedly. Gabrielle did have a point… the question was, would she be given the time to prove it? The warrior gazed into the stubborn green eyes facing her and gave the shoulder a little squeeze. "We'll try it your way."
Gabrielle's brows lifted slightly in reaction, not quite expecting so ready an agreement. "Okay." She let out a held breath, then nodded, and turned, going back to her chair. "Now.. where were we?"
Gillen sat back in her chair, evidently very intrigued. "You seem very confident in your abilities." She commented, giving Xena a curious look.
The warrior resumed her seat, and picked up a mug, taking a sip before she turned her gaze on the visiting Amazon queen. "I am." She replied simply, reveling privately in the restored truth of that statement.
"Mm." The thoughtful, hooded eyes watched her. "So it seems."
And exactly what, Gabrielle wondered, watching the woman warily, did she mean by that?
The walked across the now relatively quiet courtyard, seeing only the occasional dark form gliding by as they approached the Queen’s quarters. Gabrielle tucked a hand inside her partner’s elbow and stifled a yawn. “That was weird.”
“Mm?” Xena glanced over at her, having been deep in her own thoughts. “What was?”
“That attitude… I’m not sure I can read her.” The bard admitted softly. “But it was giving me the creeps. What about you?”
“What about me?” Xena answered. “I thought she was all right… a little aloof.”
“She didn’t start your cootie net flapping?” The bard inquired.
The warrior stopped short. “My what?”
“Your cootie net.. you know, the feeling you get when things are creepy?” Gabrielle teased her. “Didn’t you call it that when you were a kid?”
Xena simply stared at her.
“Hmm.. different decade, I guess.” The bard backslapped her in the belly, and continued on towards her quarters, with Ares trotting happily at her heels.
“Cootie net?” Xena scratched her ear, then shook her head and ambled after the smaller woman. They paused as they got to the door, and the two Amazons stationed outside straightened to attention. She gave them a look, recognizing two of the more experienced fighters in the village, and wondered what that was all about. “Evening.”
“Hi guys.” Gabrielle paused, as she reached the door. “You need something?”
The older of the two ducked her head respectfully. “Ephiny stationed us here.. to guard you, your Majesty.”
One blond eyebrow perked up. “Um.. “ Gabrielle jerked her head faintly towards Xena. “I think I’m fine… you can go to bed.”
“Um… “ They looked at each other. “But she said….”
Ares sat down and wrapped his tail around his feet, licking his chops. “Roo?” He glanced up at Xena hopefully, and the warrior dug a buscuit from her pouch and gave it to him.
“Look.” Gabrielle took them by the elbow, and drew them aside. “Xena’s a… really light sleeper… and she sometimes sort of reacts to things before she’s really awake… so if there’s any noise.. or talking.. or moving around out here, you could be in trouble, you know?”
“Ah.” The younger one said.
“So.. g’wan, and tell Ephiny I said thanks, but I’m perfectly safe.” The bard gave them a nudge. “Really.” She looked at them, and saw the crestfallen faces, and sighed. “Um…hang on.” She walked back over to where Xena was lounging, a look of wry amusement on her face. “Do you care if they stick around out here?”
The blue eyes twinkled in the dim light. “Do you care if they imitate your giggling if I tickle you later?” Even in the gloom, she could see Gabrielle blush, and she chuckled a little. “Or those cute little noises you make when I mmfph.” Xena found a hand cover her mouth, and she playfully nibbled the palm.
“I get the point.” The bard muttered. "But they're making those disappointed Amazon faces, Xena.. you know I can't cope with those." She paused. "Oo."
Xena left off her interested exploration of her partner's skin. "Okay… okay.. have em stand by the torches.. that'll give us some space, and make em happy."
Gabrielle measured the distance with her eyes, then gave her partner's armor a playful tug. "Thanks." She returned to the two Amazons, and Xena pushed the door open, following Ares inside.
The room was as they left it, but Xena stiffened, her instincts reacting as she sensed something out of place. She turned slowly, cupping her ears and flaring her nostrils, eyes searching through the dim light to find whatever had touched off her warning signals.
Gabrielle entered, and froze as she saw the suddenly raised hand, pressing her body back against the wall quickly, and remaining silent. Her eyes studied her partner, who was standing in the center of the hut, very still, save the flickering motions of her eyes.
Was it a sound?" Xena concentrated, sifting through the soft motion of the wind against the thatch, and the rhythmic creak of the wood that made up the building. No. A smell? She breathed in lungful of air, eliminating the dusty scent of dried leaves, and the packed earth of the floor, and the scent of linen and wax.
Ah. "Someone's been in here." She murmured softly, identifying the fleeting, almost unpleasant smell of musky perspiration whoever it had been had left.
"An Amazon?" Gabrielle asked, seriously.
Xena picked the torch up from it's sconce in the center support and crouched, moving her hand in a circle and studying the ground intently. The dirt was packed very hard, and mostly covered in woven rugs but… a long finger reached out and touched a faint depression. "Wasn't a centaur." Her eyes moved to the bard. "Check your stuff.. be careful. Just look, don’t touch anything."
Gabrielle went quickly to her saddlebag and opened it, scanning the contents with an knowledgable eye. "Doesn't look like anything's missing… you?"
Xena had stopped by her own bag and gazed at it, then she unlatched it and flipped the top open, studying it for a moment, before she carefully grabbed the outside edge, and tipped it over, spilling the contents on the bed. Her face remained impassive as, among the various items, there was movement.
"What is that?" Gabrielle breathed, grabbing her arm, and leaning closer.
"Scorpion." The warrior replied quietly.
"Wow." The bard exhaled. "Are they dangerous? I know some of them are…they always used to warn us off them in Potadeia.. they'd come out of the fields near the river in spring."
"Yes, they are." Xena replied. "They're very poisonous… two, three stings.. probably would have taken me out."
Her soulmate stared at her. "Knocked you unconscious?"
Blue eyes turned towards her. "Killed me." The warrior told her, evenly, as she drew her dagger, and poised it, then stabbed downward in a flickering motion, impaling the creature on her knife point, then lifting it.
"My gods." Gabrielle sounded shaken. "Xena… do you realize.. I mean… could it have gotten in there by accident? Just a coincidence or something?"
The warrior examined the scorpion, now twitching feebly as it died, it's curved, lethal tail arcing in spasms over it's body. "Anything's possible, Gabrielle.. but having it crawl in here, climb up on the bed, and undo my saddlebag to get inside is a little beyond it's talents, I think."
"Wow." The bard bit her lip. "What are we going to do? Should I go get Ephiny?"
"No." Her soulmate answered. "I'll take care of it." She walked to the door and exited, surprising the two Amazon guards who turned and watched her as she paced across the empty, moonlit square, towards a gnarled tree near it's center.
She circled it as she came closer, and picked a smooth, open space in it's trunk, drawing back her arm and pausing, then shifting her body weight and slamming her arm forward, driving her dagger with it's captive deep into the body of the tree.
It stopped, pinning the scorpion against it's hilt, buried that far in heavy bark by her sheer strength.
Xena smiled, then dusted her hands off, and made her way back to the hut, pausing at the two gawking guards. "Anyone come near here all night?"
The older one stared strangely at her. "Of course not."
A slow nod of the warrior's head. "You hear any animals making noise…say, over there?" She pointed towards a thick patch of underbrush about six or eight bodylengths away.
The woman thought. "No.. well, I mean, there was an owl there, and we went over to see it. You don't see them that often around here." She shifted her gaze to Xena's face. "Why?"
The warrior gave a nod to the tree. "Nasty bedbugs. " She gave the woman a grim smile, and returned to the hut, pushing the door open and stepping inside, to see her partner carefully prodding all of their belongings with her staff. "Good idea."
"Mm." Gabrielle answered, grimly. "When I find out who did that, I'm going to have them pinned down in an anthill, and covered in honey."
Xena stopped, and regarded her.
"That was directed at you." The bard spoke sharply, her motions angry.
"Indirectly at you." The warrior remarked, in an unruffled tone. "With me out of the way, maybe they view you as easy pickings."
Gabrielle stopped, and faced her, leaning on her staff. "How can you be so calm about it, Xena? Do you realize what this means? Someone here, an Amazon, did this!"
Xena went over and rested both hands on her angry partner's shoulders. "I know… and it's one of two things. Either someone's in Andreas' pay, or this is a test."
"Test." Gabrielle spat the word, her temper rising. "I find that out and so help me, Xena.. so help me I'll.. I'll.. "She picked her staff up and looked at it. "I'll put this up someone's…"
"Shh." Xena pulled her into a hug, and rubbed her back. "Relax… just take it easy. I'm fine, you're fine…let's just lay down, and relax." She was privately touched by her soulmate's outrage on her behalf, and she tucked the bard's head against her shoulder, kissing the top of it in deep affection. "We don't say anything, and maybe they'll try again."
"But… " Gabrielle objected.
"And then we'll catch them." The warrior whispered in her ear, tickling the surface with her breath. "And we'll know."
The bard exhaled, after considering that. "All right." She capitulated reluctantly. "But I can tell you right now, I'm not sleeping a wink tonight."
Xena rubbed her back, feeling the tension start to relax under her touch. "Okay.. you can tell me stories, all right?" She kissed Gabrielle's head again. "Get undressed." She released the bard, unable to prevent her own, dark anticipation to chase a thrill up her back as she considered the possibility her stalker would try again.
White teeth flashed as Xena smiled, and flexed her hands, welcoming the challenge. Think you're gonna test me, hmm? She chuckled softly, as she removed, and neatly put away her armor, then slipped out of her leathers and boots, and put on a soft, comfortable sleep shirt.
Gabrielle had done the same, and had picked up her diary, carrying it back to the bed and settling on it's surface, curling her body up in a half circle as she pulled her quills out and prepared to start writing.
For a moment, Xena simply watched her, as the firelight slid over the compact form, and gilded the skin across her bare shoulders. Gabrielle's fair hair was tousled, and she reached up, pushing a bit of it behind her ear as she studied her words, which brought a gentle smile to the watching woman's face.
Then she carefully slung her sword over the post near the front of the bed, and lay down, extending her legs out and folding her hands on her stomach, as Gabrielle shifted a little, and moved a muscular calf over the warrior's in absent caress.
Who was it? Xena gazed into the candlelight, considering the question. One of the visitors? One of the residents? She'd hate to think that, but she wasn't stupid enough to believe there weren't hard feelings out there.
Would they try again tonight, she wondered, lifting a hand and tangling it's fingers in the soft, pale hair that spilled over the arm she had curled around Gabrielle's body, and glanced down, to where Ares was curled at the foot of the bed. Would they be that stupid?
She settled back and wiggled her toes, hoping they would.
The moon had set, leaving the hut in utter darkness save a sparse flicker of starlight that entered through the large window. Xena lay curled on her side, one arm tucked under her head, and the other arm draped over Gabrielle. The bard had kept her word, relating one of Xena’s favorite stories, then the warrior had coaxed her into closing her eyes, reasoning that there was no point in both of them suffering through the sleepless night.
So the fair haired woman was snuggled up against her body, her hand resting lightly on Xena’s waist and her breath warming the warrior’s neck, while she watched patiently through the night, her eyes half closed and her senses fully extended.
It had, she realized, been a long time since she’d really had to do that… and she admitted privately that she’d become a little too used to being able to peacefully sleep the night through whenever she wanted to. Gabrielle’s warm presence wasn’t helping, either, since her body wanted to curl more snugly around her partner’s, and join the bard’s dreaming, and she’d had to force her self alert more times than she really wanted to recall.
She sighed, and shifted a little, playing with a lock of the bard’s hair in idle fingers as she scanned the interior of the room for the hundredth time. Maybe they wouldn’t show up… maybe it was all a test, just to see what her reaction would be.
Maybe pigs flew, and danced with chickens in the courtyard. Xena let her lips tense into a brief smile, then relax.
Then her ears cocked, picking up a sound not exactly strange, but out of rhythm with the natural world around them. She focused her attention on the window, watching the almost invisible shadows of the leaves against the frame, moving with the wind’s motion.
A flicker of darkness, out of pattern with the breeze. Xena felt her nostrils flare, and she slowly eased away from her soulmate, tucking the thick quilt around her body and fluffing it. Then she placed her hands on the headboard, and lifted her body over it soundlessly, her bare feet impacting the rug as she let her weight down, slipping to one side and going very still, a hand resting just barely on her sword hilt.
For a moment, it was utterly silent, then, as the breeze blew the leaves back, one set of shadows didn’t move. They grew, and slid, and became a pair of dusky hands, which fastened themselves on the windowsill, and paused for a long moment.
Then they moved, and a tall, lithe figure slipped in the window, straightening and remaining very still, only the long fingers twitching gently in the starlight.
It was an Amazon. Xena could smell the leathers, and a hint of smoke off the tall woman’s skin, but the profile wasn’t familiar to her.
The intruder gazed at the bed for an instant, then glided forward, moving with a perfect silence as she carefully placed her soft boots on the carpet.
Xena released Ares’ muzzle, then touched the side of it in an unseen signal as she moved around in back of the woman, her muscles tensing as the stranger went closer to her sleeping partner. She took a step forward, watching the intruder’s every move, wanting to see what her plans were, but having no intentions on risking a single pale hair on the bard’s head in the effort.
The woman stopped, and regarded the bundle of blankets, then she turned away from the bed, searching a nearby table. Xena relaxed a touch, then simply stood and watched, only her blue eyes moving. The intruder closed her hands on Xena's dagger, which was sitting on the desk's surface, and lifted it.
Xena felt her heartbeat pick up as she watched the Amazon lift the blade into the dim light, then turn towards the bed. Controlling her breathing, she moved, sliding up behind the woman as she took as step closer.
The Amazon must have sensed her, or felt the sudden body heat, because she whirled, lashing out with the knife only to have her wrist grabbed and her body twisted around in eerie silence. They struggled together, the intruder using her height and strength to good advantage, until she came up against an iron band clamping around her chest, and powerful fingers that dug into her wrist and rendered her hand nerveless.
The knife dropped from it, to clatter on the floor, and Xena shoved her sideways, away from the bed as she gained control, feeling the strong body twist in her grip. They slammed into the center post and Xena tightened her grip, gathering her strength and lifting the intruder up off her feet and holding her.
There was silence, save for a harsh breathing, until there was a soft rasp, and a light flared, spawning a golden glow, that outlined Gabrielle's tense features, and reflected off angrily sparking green eyes. "Xena."
"Hmm?" The warrior shifted her grip on the panting woman. "Look what I found."
The bard stepped closer, and lifted her candle, studying the woman's face. "Who are you?"
The woman spat at her, and Xena kicked her in the back of the legs, making her squirm "Be nice." The warrior warned. "Or you're gonna have to be carried outta here." She dug her fingers in further, and the Amazon winced. "Got me?"
"Kiss my Amazon ass." The woman growled at her fiercely.
One dark brow lifted, and Xena released her, whirling her body around to face the warrior, then before she could move, darted a hand up and hit the pressure points on either side of her throat.
The woman dropped to the ground, her chest heaving, her eyes coming out of her head as she tried to breath, and found herself paralyzed.
Xena knelt down and leaned on her knee. "I just cut off the flow of blood to your brain." She commented casually. "And you can either start talking, or die in sixty seconds."
The bard crouched down next to her. "She's right. What's your name?"
They waited, Gabrielle counting silently under her breath.
"Bedda." The woman finally ground out, vainly trying to move her arms. "You won't… get.. away.. with this."
"Sure we will." Xena corrected her. "You were caught trying to kill the Queen of the Amazons… if you die, it'll be justified."
"Kil… " The woman looked at the bard's face. "No.. just… " Her face was getting pale, and slick with sweat. "No.. "
Green eyes lifted and regarded Xena. "Let her go."
The warrior hesitated, then shook her head, and released the hold, letting the woman go limp on the ground in relief. "You try anything, I'm gonna break you in half." She warned her.
Gabrielle regarded their captive seriously. "Why were you here, then?"
The Amazon caught her breath, then paused, staring at Gabrielle for a moment before turning her eyes to the malevolently watching Xena. "To prove you're not so hot."
Bard and warrior regarded each other wryly.
"Why?" Gabrielle inquired.
The woman clammed up sullenly.
"Well, Xena… " The bard exhaled. "I think you should just pick her up and put her over your shoulder.. and deliver her back to her camp."
The Amazon started, and glared at her.
Blue eyes twinkled gently. "Is that a command, my Queen?" Xena drawled.
"Now, wait a minute.. " The woman started to get up, only to find a large, powerful hand on her chest, pressing downward. "Urk.. okay..okay.." She pried at Xena's arm fruitlessly. "All right.. I got put up to it, okay? We've got a big bet going, and I drew the short straw." She yanked desperately at the warrior's hand. "All I was supposed to do was sneak in here, and grab something."
Which meant she wasn't the one with the scorpion, Xena decided, releasing her. If she was telling the truth, and the warrior thought she probably was. She was too young for much else, really, now that she could see the woman in the candlelight.
Hardly more than a kid, in fact.. younger than Gabrielle, despite her size, and in excellent condition. She had a cute, snub nosed face and hair a shade darker than the bards, with eyes a murky, indiscriminant color hard to distinguish in the dark.
And she wasn't a half bad fighter, Xena admitted, recalling the trouble she'd had subduing her. Maybe even give me a run for the money in a few years. "You grabbed a dagger." She observed.
"Yeah.. well.. it was close.. and I knew what it was." The woman mumbled, glancing at her. "Didn't know you were sneaking up on me."
Gabrielle reached over and took her chin, turning her face forward. "Listen." She told her gently. "You're really lucky that Xena really is that hot, because almost anyone else would have just killed you."
The Amazon swallowed, then looked over her shoulder at the watching warrior. "Yeah.. I kinda realized that when you picked me up like some kid." She dropped her eyes, then lifted them again. "Sorry."
Kids. Xena sighed, and shook her head. "Amazons." She gave her partner a look then stood up, dusting herself off with brisk motions.
Then time slowed, as her senses detected danger, and she whirled, instinctively throwing her body sideways and over the prone Amazon, to crash into her soulmate and take them both to the floor as a slim dart skimmed over her head, barely grazing her ear.
"Son of a BACCHAE!" Xena yelled, tumbling over on the ground with Gabrielle in her arms, and shoving the bard behind the bed, out of harm's way. She then uncoiled towards the window, slamming both hand against the sill as she peered out, her instincts twitching violently as she searched for their attacker.
Running feet broke the stillness, and she focused, finally spotting a ghostly form flitting through the trees, disappearing into the foggy foliage. She glanced up as Ephiny entered the doorway, and nodded at her. "Watch her." She pointed at Gabrielle, then dove through the window, bolting for the spot in the forest.
Ephiny moved by instinct, jumping across the room and intercepting the bard as she scrambled to her feet and grabbed her staff. "Whoa.. whoa there."
"Ephiny, let me go." The bard ripped her hands free and tried to dodge around the regent. "She doesn't even have shoes on."
"Neither do you." Ephiny got another hold on her. "Gabrielle, just relax, will you? She'll be right back… you can't go out there in your shift."
Gabrielle exhaled, then reversed her course, grabbing her saddlebag and jerking it open. "Fine." She yanked out a tunic and pulled her shift over her head, replacing in a quick, annoyed motion. "Nice security, Ephiny."
The regent looked stunned, then she realized there was an Amazon lying on the floor. "I…"
Gabrielle sat down on the bed and tugged her boots on. "She's just a kid." She gave the intruder a look, as she slowly sat up. "They dared her to get something out of here.. but that other one… Xena found a scorpion in her bag earlier."
"I am not just a kid." Bedda protested indignantly.
"Yes, you are." Gabrielle told her, pointedly. "And you're a really lucky one, too." She looked up at Ephiny. "What in Hades is going on here, Eph?"
"Now you look." Bedda stood, putting her hands on her hips. "I don't care if you are some Amazon queen, I'm twenty three years old, and I am not going to stand here and wh Yow!"
Gabrielle swept her staff around in a tight arc, and took the girl's legs out from under her, dumping her on the carpet again unceremoniously. "Shut up." She glared at her. "Or you won't like being twenty four."
The Amazon rubbed her backside. "Wow. You swing a mean staff."
"Gabrielle.." Ephiny paced before the fire. "I'll have this kid taken care of… but did you say a scorpion? There aren't any in this area."
"I'm NOT a kid." Bedda growled.
"SHUT UP." Ephiny and Gabrielle barked back, startling Ares, who hid under the bed. The bard finished lacing her boots, and stood, heading for the door with her staff tucked under her arm. "We can talk later." She said over her shoulder, as she opened the wooden panel and charged through it.
Slamming hard into a tall, warm body that coughed in surprise, but grabbed her, and kept her from tumbling backwards. "Oh."
Xena entered, and shut the door. "Jumped in the river." She explained, tersely, her body half drenched in dew, and bearing scrapes of dark mud, along with green stripes from the leaves she'd barreled through. "Where were you going?" She asked Gabrielle, who had just caught her breath.
"To find you." The bard answered, simply. "Did you see who it was?"
"Wait." Ephiny walked over to Bedda. "Get up… I want you out of here, and believe me, kiddo.. I'm going to be paying a visit to your camp right after I get done here." She pushed the girl forward. "Pony!"
Eponin came running up, brushing her hair back from her forehead. " Just checked the perimeters… nothing there. Eph.. did you.. "
"Yeah." The regent remarked, grimly. "Take this featherless beanhead and bring her back to Aslanta's campsite. Tell her I want to talk to her after breakfast."
"Hey!" Bedda objected. "I am not featherless!"
"Move it." Ephiny growled.
"All right.. all right.. " The girl glowered at her. "Don’t' get your leathers all wadded up like a shrinking shield cover in the rain."
The regent shoved her out, then she slammed the door and turned to face Xena and Gabrielle, running her fingers through her pale, curly hair. "Okay."
Xena had walked over to the side of the hut and knelt, examining the thin dart she'd evaded by the thinnest of margins. Delicately, she sniffed the end, then grimaced. "Nasty." She stood and crossed the floor, dropping into one of the chairs and slinging an long, muscular leg over one arm of it. "Didn't recognize whoever it was."
Gabrielle perched on the chair arm, and examined the dart. "Wow." She took it gingerly, and passed it to Ephiny, who had joined them near the fire. "Just someone jealous, or.. "
Ephiny examined the dart. "Not with this." She exchanged knowing glances with Xena. "This stuff paralyzes whatever it hits.. we use it to bring down big game, like large buck, or sometimes wild boar." She twirled it between her fingers. "Stops their breathing."
The bard leaned over and peered at her soulmate's ear intently. "Xena.. that almost hit you." She reached up and rubbed the minute, dark stain from the surface of her partner's skin.
"Mm.. yeah." Xena patted her leg gently. "But it didn’t… or you either." She glanced at Ephiny. "You wanna fill me in on what's going on?"
The regent sat down, and spread her hands, a look of honest bewilderment on her face. "I wish I knew.. I swear it's been quiet as anything.. just the usual squabbles between the groups.. but nothing like this… you're telling me one of these people is an assassin?"
Xena sighed. "I don’t know." She held out one long hand and took back the dart, examining it. "Hard to tell, but I don’t' think this was a killing dose." She mused. "For me, anyway." She amended, giving her soulmate a look. "Glad I got you out of the way."
Ephiny sighed, and scrubbed her face. "Those guards told me you chased them off." She eyed her friends. "Not that I doubt you could handle anything that came at you, Xena.. but…" She peered through the dim light at the bedraggled warrior, who rubbed absently at a smear of mud across her cheek. "You all right?"
The blue eyes flicked over. "Yeah." Xena replied quietly. "Just thinking." She went over the chase in her mind, through the thickest part of the forest, her quarry darting ahead of her and moving with an almost ethereal speed.
She'd almost caught her, though. Only the rapidly running river had saved that, as the escaping woman dove in fearlessly, breaking the water with a clean, athletic arc, and let it carry her swiftly downstream.
Leaving a trial of mocking laughter behind her, along with a faint, nagging sense of familiarity.
"Was it an Amazon, Xena?" Ephiny asked, leaning forward.
The warrior focused on her, as she leaned back and felt Gabrielle's arm slip across her shoulders. "Dunno… maybe." She shrugged. "It was a woman, that I'm sure of, and she had leathers on.. medium height, light color hair.. very thin."
"Mm… describes a hundred women in the general area." Ephiny sighed.
Xena extended her legs and stretched them, then idly removed a slug from one knee. She held it up and grimaced. "Nothing like a nice run in the forest half naked to wake you up."
"Ew." Gabrielle made a face. "I hate those… did you see Dori with one last week?"
"Yeah." Xena chuckled. "I sure did… she got it from under the porch." The warrior smiled in memory, then flicked the slug out the window with a quick motion.
"Yow!" Pony's head appeared in the window, and she pulled the slug off her face. "Whatcha do that for?"
"Sorry." Gabrielle apologized for her soulmate. "What are you doing out there?"
"Guarding." The weapons master leaned on the windowsill. "I've got a couple of.. " She ducked, peering off. "'Scuse me." Voices were approaching, one of them argumentative.
Xena cocked her head. "Sounds like Cait." She found a smile edging her lips. "Wondered where she was."
Ephiny sighed. "You know, Xena… I really, really do like you.. but someday, someday, my dear friend, I'm going to get you for laying her on me."
Round, blue eyes gazed at her in profound hurt. "I thought she was a good Amazon?"
"I will not go to bed." Cait's voice was sharp, and forceful. "Not after what I just heard about people running about the place, I simply won't."
"Sounds like a perfect Amazon to me." The warrior continued, under her breath, earning her a nudge from her soulmate. "What?"
Ephiny sighed, and shoved herself to her feet, going to the door and pulling it open. "What in Artemis' girdle is going on out here?" She leaned on the frame. "Cait.. I thought you were up in the west range."
"Good thing I came back." The girl stated, peeking past her. "Hullo." She spared a charming smile for her idols. "It's grand to see you."
Warrior and bard exchanged looks. "C'mon in, Cait." Xena called, glad to see their young friend.
Cait slipped past Ephiny and trotted over giving them both a smile as Gabrielle stood and hugged her. Xena contented herself with reaching over and giving the younger Amazon an affectionate slap on the leg, as she leaned back to study her.
In the year they'd been home, the girl had grown up, adding inches to her slim height, and a layer of finely honed muscle to her frame. She wore her pale, almost white hair in a typical Amazon braid, with a single earring dangling down. Her leathers were worn, but well taken care of, and she wore not the customary one dagger, but at least three that Xena could see, two at her waist, and one in her boot. "Hello, Cait."
"Hello." The girl smiled shyly at her. "Did you catch them?"
"Nope." Xena shook her head.
"Bother." Cait sighed. "Well, I dare say that wont' happen again." She gave Ephiny a guardedly hopeful look.
Ephiny put her hands on her hips and muffled an exasperated snort. "If I tell you to do something else, you'll just come back anyway, right?"
"Quite." Cait answered agreeably. "I mean, I have done that trapping thing you did ask for, after all." She hesitated. "I would like to make sure my.. friends.. are safe."
Gabrielle put an arm around her shoulders. "I think it's a great idea." She ignored Ephiny's look of pained bemusement. "If you're out there, maybe I can get Xena here to take a nap."
Everyone looked at the warrior, who lifted both eyebrows at her soulmate in outrage.
Gabrielle gave her a sweet smile, then glanced at Ephiny. "I think the excitement's over for tonight."
Ephiny shook her head and lifted both hands. "All right.. all right… I give up.. I'll see you guys at breakfast." She wandered out, shutting the door behind her, and leaving them in a peaceful semi darkness.
"A nap??" Xena growled.
"Grand idea." Cait commented. "I like them, myself… especially in the afternoons." She straightened her leathers a little. "I'll just go outside… Pally was going to scare up some snacks, and join me in a bit.. would you care to have some?"
"No.. we're fine." Gabrielle patted her shoulder. "Go on.. we'll see you in the morning."
"Right." The girl gave them a brisk nod, and padded to the door, slipping through it soundlessly and closing it behind her.
"Some night." Xena sighed, crossing her arms. "Wish I'd caught whoever that was."
"Mm." The bard settled back down on the chair arm. "She had a big head start." Gabrielle reminded her partner, seeing the beginning of a grumpy pout. "And boots."
"Hmph." Xena's brows knit. "I don't much like being laughed at." She muttered.
"Honey.. I wasn't laughing at you." Gabrielle answered, in a vaguely startled voice.
Blue eyes lifted to her face. "No.. not you… our friend out there." The warrior replied. "She knew who was chasing her… and she laughed when the river took her out of my reach."
"Oh." Yikes. Gabrielle mulled that over. Direct hit to the old pride, huh. "Well…she wouldn't have been laughing if that river hadn't been there." She stated firmly. "I can guarantee that." She stroked Xena's hair back, untangling a leaf from it.
Xena's nostrils twitched. "What's her game, I wonder?" She examined the dart, still lightly clenched in her fingers. "This wouldn't have killed me."
"No.. but it would have knocked you out, for while, right?" Gabrielle asked.
The warrior nodded grimly. "Yeah…five, maybe six days… who knows? Varies from person to person."
The bard considered this. "Maybe you weren't the target.. maybe I was."
Startled, Xena looked at her. "What?"
"Maybe someone wanted you in a position where you couldn’t help me." Gabrielle replied seriously. "Without you, I could be open to a lot of things… including a challenge."
"Not to mention, the coalition here won't work without you… we both know that. I can bring them together, but it's you they're all looking at." The bard went on. "And we don't have a lot of time."
"One of Andreas people? Here? An Amazon?" Xena mulled it over. "Maybe….but you know something?" She turned towards the bard. "She was dressed like an Amazon, but I don't think she was one."
The dark head shook back and forth. "No…Amazons aren't horse people. She ran like a lifetime rider." Xena gazed down at her own legs. "They muscles develop differently… a lot more in here." She rubbed the inside of her thigh. "Than usual.. you walk.. run a little strangely."
"Oh…. You.. yeah.. like a little sort of.. "Gabrielle closed her eyes, imagining her soulmate running. Then she rocked her hand back and forth. "Sort of like a bouncy thing."
"Mmhmm." Xena mused.
"Weird." Gabrielle said.
"Yeah." Her soulmate agreed.
There was a moment of quiet, then Gabrielle laughed gently, as she turned and offered her soulmate a hand up. "C'mon… we've got hours till dawn."
Well, they did. Xena stood and followed her, tumbling in to the comfortable bed and allowing the bard to tangle her arms and legs up, drawing her gently into a drowsy peace. Wait a minute…"Bouncy?"
Gabrielle muffled a laugh, and snuggled closer.
Morning, with all it's complications, would come soon enough.