A Matter of Pride
Xena strode through the marketplace with quiet confidence, evading the slower shoppers and ignoring the looks she was getting from those who recognized her. She edged around several small groups of citizens, everyone spending some time browsing before heading to the games stadia to watch the day’s events.
“Boo! Cookie!” An imperious warble made her turn her head, to see where Dori was pointing. Sure enough, a small stall nearby was selling fresh rolls and small honey cakes, along with cups of sweet wine to an eager crowd.
“Sh.” Xena reached up and clasped the baby’s hand. “I see em. Just relax, wouldja?” She made her way through the crowd and waited behind a rotund, sweating man in a stained toga. He was arguing with the stall’s owner, much to the surrounding crowd’s annoyance.
“C’mon, get on with it, already.” A woman next to Xena muttered, then glanced up.
Xena returned her gaze stolidly.
“How adorable!” The woman beamed at her. “Stanis, isn’t she just precious?”
Xena sincerely hoped they were talking about Dori. She followed the small man’s eyes, and exhaled in relief as they fastened on the small head peering over her right shoulder.
“What a beautiful child.” The man commented. “Yours, surely. She’s your image.” He waggled his fingers at Dori, who grinned back at him. “What a sweetheart.”
Xena’s head tilted a little in bemusement, having never had this particular experience before. She was used to being with Dori, of course, but in Amphipolis and it’s surrounding areas, both she and the child were well known, and little commented on. She glanced back at her daughter and smiled at the baby’s bright eyed, intelligent look. “Yeah, she’s mine.” She said without really thinking about it. “Thanks.”
“Thieves! The lot of you!” The man in front of Xena finally cursed in exasperation, and slapped a coin on the boards. He was given his order and edged away, leaving Xena to face the vendor.
“Gimme two of those.” She pointed at the cakes.
“Cookie!” Dori gurgled approvingly, as those watching chuckled.
“Ah, the young lady knows what she likes, I see.” The stall owner laughed. “Excellent taste, I may say.” He selected two of the larger specimens and handed them over. “There you go, my dear.”
“You know what you like?” Xena broke one of the cakes in half and handed it over. “Let’s see if you’re right.”
Dori immediately ripped part of the outside of the cake off and mouthed it, a serious expression on her face. “Mm.” She looked up at Xena. “Goof!”
Xena had to laugh, both at the baby’s expression, and the forest of crumbs now trickling down her shoulder. “All right. C’mon.” She collected the rest of the cakes and paid the vendor, peripherally aware that the attitudes of the people surrounding her were definitely more friendly than she’d experienced the day prior. She edged out of the crowd and continued through the market, munching on her own cake as her eyes traveled idly over the stalls.
“Boo! More!” Dori reached a grubby fist past her jawbone.
“Ah ah… “ Xena scolded her. “What do you say?”
Dori pulled a bit of Xena’s hair. The warrior stopped walking and gave the baby a stern look, raising an eyebrow at her. Dori giggled, putting a sticky finger in her mouth. “Dori.” Xena waited for her hair to be released, then continued on. “What do you say?”
Dori grunted and squiggled around. “Feeze.”
“Good girl.” Xena handed over the rest of the cake. “Trust me, shortie – you’ll get a lot more a lot easier if you learn about that word now.” She reached out a hand and lightly touched a colorful, softly draping bit of fabric, hearing Dori gurgle in reaction. “No, you’d tear this right up, Dori. But I can think of someone else who’d really look good in it.” She grinned to herself. “Your mama.”
“Mama.” Dori agreed.
Xena smiled and continued on, cutting through the lower end of the marketplace on her way towards where the rest of their family was staying. Halfway across, she felt her instincts prickle and her defenses come up, validated immediately when two large men stepped into her path. Their attitude was more officious than threatening, but it was obvious they expected compliance with whatever it was they wanted.
Xena stopped, giving herself plenty of space to react without hurting any bystanders. There weren’t many, though – she noticed they all moved away when her two big friends showed up. “Yeah?” She eyed them sourly.
“The council wishes to speak with you.”
About damn time. “I thought they weren’t in session.” Xena replied.
“You will come with us.” The bigger of the two men responded. “With no arguments.”
Xena put her hands on her hips. “I’ll go talk to the council.” She said. “But let’s just get something very straight first. I’ve got my kid with me, and if anyone looks at me the wrong way I’m going to start cutting limbs off. Understand?”
The man’s eyes flicked to Dori’s innocent little face, then back to Xena’s
“That’s not a threat.” The warrior said mildly. “It’s just a fact. Her safety is worth a lot more to me than your lives are.”
The two looked at each other. “Understood.” The bigger man said. “Follow us.”
Xena amiably nodded, and strolled after them, aware of the furtive glances she was getting from the people they passed. They traveled through the market and up a long, sloping side street, arriving on a long, broad avenue that was noticibly sparse in population. Here, the white stone building facades were hidden behind portcullises thick with trained ivy and shaded by trees, and the smell of the city was much reduced. A quick look between buildings showed her the reason – stone aqueducts trickled water down the hill, taking human and other refuse to the lower levels. Xena’s lips twitched into a sardonic expression, but she kept her opinions to herself as she turned to follow her two guides up a set of broad, finely chiseled steps to a set of hammered bronze covered doors. A guard reviewed them expressionlessly, then opened the portal and allowed them inside.
Incense tickled Xena’s nose as she crossed the threshold. Dori sneezed abruptly, causing the warrior to smile a moment later. “You like that?” She murmured to the child.
“Me, either.” Now the warrior could smell the distinctive scent of wool, and the sharp tang of brass as they moved along a corridor. Her guides stopped before an arched doorway, and motioned her inside. She stepped neatly around them and entered, pausing just inside the door and looking around. It was a large room, the walls draped in beautiful woven rugs, with a softly tinkling fountain in the center of it. In the rear was a dias, and on the dias were six men dressed in silk so rich Xena could smell it from where she was. They were all impeccably groomed and more or less of the same age.
Xena made a point of studying them as they were studying her, before she glided towards them, very aware of the picture she made in her brief athlete’s outfit. She felt Dori rest her chin on her shoulder as she peered around with interest, and knew by the sudden exchanged glances that her little passenger was definitely an unexpected complication in their plans.
Xena grinned. Good. “What can I do for you… gentlemen?” She drawled, pausing before the dias and putting one booted foot on it.
There was a moment’s awkward silence, then the men all looked at the tall man in the center of the dias. He cleared his throat. “I thought it was time we talked.” He said. “My name is Minyos, and I lead the council here.”
Xena continued up the steps and sat down in the one remaining chair, leaning on one arm of it and regarding him. “And?” She extended her long legs out and crossed them at the ankles.
Another awkward silence. Minyos leaned forward. “Why are you here?”
“Me?” Xena pointed at her chest, her eyes widening in mock surprise.
“Yes. We have had these games planned for the better part of a year, and now you come here, and upset everything. Why?”
Xena had to wonder if the heat hadn’t gotten to him. “You sent your tax collector to my neck of the woods and threatened to send the army down if we didn’t give up most of what we earned for the year, for no good reason I could see. “ She stated. “That’s why I’m here.”
Two of the council members leaned over and whispered to Minyos. He spoke under his breath to them, and they spread their hands out.
“Well.” Minyos said. “Everyone must pay taxes.”
“Why?” Xena asked.
“Because it’s the law.”
The warrior shrugged. “Fine. Then I’m obeying the law and using my rights under it to attempt to relieve us of these taxes. So what’s your problem?” She asked, then grinned. “Other than the fact that we’re winning.”
Minyos got up and paced around behind the stone table on the dias. “Do you realize how much money you’re costing us?” He asked finally.
“I couldn’t care less.” Xena said. “You couldn’t care less how your taxes are raping Amphipolis, why should I care if Athens gets the same treatment?”
They all stared at her.
”Good!” Dori burbled in approval. “Bad mens go to fishes!”
Xena chuckled. “No, we’ll save that fun for later, shortie.”
Minyos sighed. “All right. What deal do you want?” He asked at last. “Name your price.”
Xena wiggled a booted foot at him. “I don’t want a deal. You’ve got nothing I want. I figure me and Gabrielle’ll win this thing, get our taxes relieved, stop you from going to war with Sparta, spread some wealth out to the provinces who’ve caught a clue and started betting on us, then we can go home and leave you to clean up the mess this damn thing’s gonna leave.”
“You are that confident?” Minyos asked.
“Yes.” Xena replied quietly. “You can’t stop me. No one can.” She let a little of the darkness into her eyes and felt the prickle of energy lift the fine hairs on her arms.
“There are legal options…” The man replied, meaningfully. “They could have… severe.. consequences to you.”
Xena shrugged one shoulder. “Maybe. If you can prove anything.” A chill settled in her belly despite her casual speech. She’d been wracking her memory to find anything major that Athens could have against her, but the receding details of time were eluding her.
“You’re going against the god’s wishes.” Another man spoke up. “We won’t have to do anything, Minyos. The avatar said…”
“Hush!” The senior council member glared at him. Then he returned his attention to Xena. “There must be some agreement we can come to. If winning this means nothing to you but your taxes, we can negotiate, surely.”
Talking. Xena didn’t like talking. However, she knew someone who did. “You never know.” She said, watching their ears perk up. “But that’s not my arena. I could ask our chief negotiator to meet with you.”
Minyos squared his shoulders, obviously relieved. “Excellent. Yes, that would be for the best. I’m sure we can work this out.” His eyes went to Dori’s face. “We don’t want anyone getting hurt, after all.”
“Bad.” Dori pointed at him, with a scowl. “Boo, go to fishes!”
“Yeah.” Xena agreed musingly. “All right. After the archery, I’ll be back. We can talk.”
Minyos smiled. “I knew we could come to an.. understanding.”
Xena got up and dusted herself off. Then she turned and walked out, her mind turning over the options now presenting themselves to her.
On the one hand, she didn’t think Athens had anything capital against her, so she doubted her life was in danger from any legal action. However, spending time in Athens notorious prisons wasn’t her idea of any kind of good thing.
Leaving her family wasn’t any kind of good thing, either. “Yes?”
“Yeah.” Xena agreed, as they emerged into the warming day outside. “Bad mens, bad city, bad smells… wish we could just go home.”
For herself, Xena was always ready to accept responsibility for her past actions. But.. She reached up and let Dori grab one of her fingers. She wasn’t ready to sacrifice the happiness of her family, and leaving them would do that and more.
Would it come down to a choice between their greater good and Athens?
Xena pursed her lips in a gently rueful expression.
Gabrielle heard the raised voices as she trotted down a side street on her way back to their quarters. She had Dori’s bag slung over one shoulder, and her own bag stuffed full of goodies for her usually voracious family. The yells, however, had a strident tone to them that caught her attention, and she altered her path towards the sound.
As she emerged from the narrow alleyway, she caught sight of a crowd of people, clustered around a wagon. A tall, heavily built man was standing on the back of it, pointing and making the noises she’d heard. He had a whip in one hand, and Gabrielle suddenly recognized the firewood drover from down the hill. He’d gotten a new pony, she saw, as she eased through the crowd, this one even more hapless looking than the last.
“You lazy bastard! Move!” The drover yelled, uncoiling his whip with a sinuous motion and sending it forward, to smack against something with a wicked crack.
Gabrielle managed to duck between two women and get a view of his target. Her whole body jerked in recognition as her eyes tracked to the victim’s face. “Mikah!” She pushed forward more aggressively. “Hey! Cut that out!” The bard directed her voice towards the drover. “What do you think you’re doing?”
The man turned, and with a savage motion, flicked the whip backwards and caught Gabrielle right across the face with it. “Shut up, scumbag.”
The pain was intense, but Gabrielle reacted from long years of training, dropping the bags she was carrying and swinging her staff around to block the second lash. She could feel blood running down her face, but the shock was wearing off and as the man took a step towards her, she drew in a breath and squared her balance, bringing her weapon down and around at a much faster pace to crack against his knees with enough force to jar her arms.
The man yelped in pain, and stumbled backwards. Gabrielle pursued him, jabbing at his groin with the end of her staff and forcing him back, until he reached the back end of the wagon. She let out a yell and did a reverse, whacking him on the side with the end of her weapon and sending him over the side to fall heavily on the floor.
She was aware of the low grumbling around her, but she ignored it as she hopped over the fallen wood and went to Mikah’s side. He was lying on the ground, lash marks painfully visible on his body. “What on earth are you doing here?” The bard asked, as she knelt.
“I got sold.” Mikah explained simply. “I didn’t think they could do that, but.. “ He glanced around. “You shouldn’t have interfered. It was his right .”
Gabrielle looked up and around, to find very hostile faces surrounding her. “It was his right to beat you?” She asked. Two of the others were helping her antagonist up.
“Who asked yer to interfere?” One man shouted. “Little busybody.. “
“Hey! It’s that one from Amphipolis.”
“Yeah! Lost me two months wages!”
Gabrielle felt a chill settle down her back. Slowly, she stood up and braced her legs, bringing her staff up as she protected Mikah’s prone form.
The crowd closed in. “Let’s get two fer one, then.” One man laughed. “C’mon, lads. We’ll have some fun.”
“Gabrielle, get out of here.”
“Little too late for that.” The bard told him quietly, as she crouched a little, her eyes flicking across the oncoming crowd. Her staff wasn’t the best weapon in this kind of mass melee, since it tended to get grabbed.
And there were a lot of them grabbing.
And they were all bigger than she was.
Gabrielle closed her eyes for a brief instant, and let out a mental yell for help, then she met the first man with a stick, determined to stay on her feet as long as she could. She knocked the wood out of the man’s hand and knocked him to one side with her staff, then brought the weapon back across her body and took out a second.
They kept coming. She used short, savage cutting blows, keeping her staff close to her body and making it move faster than they could grab.
“Son of a bacchae!”
A stick bounced off her body, and Gabrielle ducked, as a box followed. The crowd was wild now, yelling and surging, afraid to come within the reach of her staff, but determined to take her down. Two rushed her, and she turned her staff flat and met them, catching them just below the shoulder and shoving forwards with all her strength, enough to off balance them and send them sprawling.
Another box came her way and she only just turned in time, letting it hit her back. A jolt of pain followed, sending a numb shock down her arms and she stumbled forward. Another stick hit her. She brought her staff up as she shook the stars out of her eyes, but three of them came at her at once and she only got two of them. The third crashed into her, and they both went to the ground.
Gabrielle felt her staff ripped out of her hands, and a suffocating weight of humanity drop on her. Then something hit the back of her head very hard, and it all just went dark.
“She will have to wait and be tried.” The officer stated, for the third time. “It’s the law. The council must judge her.”
Xena tried very hard to keep the lid on her temper. The urge to simply rip the man’s arms off and use them as levers to get inside the formidable prison was almost too great.
She’d arrived minutes after the fight had ended, just after the Athenian guard had taken Gabrielle into their custody, having had warrants sworn by all the men there that she’d attacked them for no cause. One look at the smug, self satisfied faces had come very close to triggering her temper, and maybe her expression had shown it.
“That’ll end their messing with us.”
She’d heard the muttering, as she’d left the square and headed for the prison. It was probably, she granted, very true, but the significance of that put against the fact that her soulmate was locked inside those horrible stone walls was exactly nothing.
Athens could rot in war and be slaughtered to a man for all she cared. “She’s innocent.”
The officer rolled his eyes, having heard it all before.
“She was protecting an innocent man.” Xena tried another tack.
“She was interfering with the discipline of a slave.” The man replied, bored. “That is also against the law.”
Xena paced, aware of the superior, amused looks on the guards around her.
“The law is the law.” The officer stated blandly.
The warrior stopped, and reflected on that. “All right.” She turned, moving forward and resting her fists on his desk, leaning on them and fixing him with an icy stare. “He obtained that slave illegally.”
“Impossible.” The man pushed piece of parchment over. “Here is the contract.”
“The slave was under contract to me.” Xena overrode the speech. “And I didn’t release him.”
The officer considered that, rubbing his jaw with one hand. The men around the room shifted a little. “She still attacked our citizens.”
“Gabrielle has never attacked anyone in her life unless she was defending herself.” Xena objected. “Who says they didn’t start it?”
“They said they did not.”
“What did Gabrielle say?” Xena asked.
The man shrugged. “We couldn’t ask her.”
The situation suddenly changed. “Why?”
“She was unconscious. We took statements of those around, and they assured us she’d started the fight, they were just urk!”
Xena had reached across his desk and grabbed him by the throat, pulling him upright and jerking his body clear across the table. “An entire crowd of men with sticks, and one, little, unconscious woman, and you think it was all her fault?”
The man shrugged uncomfortably.
“You’re going to open that door and let me in there.” Xena stated.
“The law says she must be held for the council.”
“I don’t care about the law.” The warrior told him. “Either you open that door, or I’ll start cutting body parts off every stupid son of a bacchae in this room and leave you with mortal legal problems you won’t be able to sort out unless Hades helps you.”
Dori chose that moment to hiccup, her eyes wide as she watched everything.
The man stared at the baby, then at Xena’s set, feral, furious face. “Brantus, open the door.”
Xena released him, watching him slide to the floor. Then she stepped around him and walked to the huge, metal strapped wooden door and waited while the nearest guard opened it. “I’m going to be knocking on this to come out. If you’re smart, you’ll open it up again.”
The guard gazed impassivly at her for a moment, then his eyes dropped and he stepped back, opening the door and letting her go past.
“Bck.” Dori was sucking her thumb, one hand clutching Xena’s neck.
They passed through the entrance and into a nightmare.
Gabrielle was chiefly aware of everything pretty much hurting, as she slowly crawled her way back towards consciousness. She felt bruised from head to foot, and several places had sharper pains, including her head, her belly, and her face, where the whip had struck her.
It was dark where she was, and it stank horribly. Under her fingers, she could feel greasy straw and hard stone, and she had to stifle a groan as she forced her head to lift away from it.
The voice was vaguely familiar. The bard’s brow creased, and she rolled over, squinting in the gloomy darkness towards the sound. “Yes?”
“Blessed be the gods, it is you!” The voice gasped. “”I had but the one glimpse as they opened your cell.. it’s me, it’s Homer!”
Ah. “Homer? What’r you doin here?” Gabrielle could feel her words slurring as the pain made her short of breath.
“Oh, you wouldn’t believe it.” Her old friend groaned.
“Bet I would.” Gabrielle let her eyes close. “Lemme guess.. some nasty old wanna be bard wench got you tossed in here because you were gonna mess up her plans to take over the Academy.”
There was utter, absolute silence for a very long time.
“Did I leave somethin out?” Gabrielle mumbled.
“Great Athena. You truly are an oracle.” Homer responded, in a hushed tone.
Gabrielle just snorted faintly.
“Are you hurt?”
Gabrielle took a silent inventory. “Everything.” She admitted weakly. Even breathing hurt, though she was pretty sure she hadn’t broken anything. Her head hurt the worst, a deep throbbing that made it hard to think and upset her stomach. Carefully, she lifted a hand and touched the welt from the whip, which cross her face from just above her right eye to her jawline. “Ow.”
“I wish I could help you.” Homer fretted. “These damn cells.. I’ve been around and around every inch for the last two moons and they’re tighter than one of Athena’s drums.”
“Ugh.” Gabrielle put her head down on her outstretched arm, then sucked in a breath as she heard a rustling nearby, and soft squeaking. It made her struggle upright, pushing her head away from the source of the noise and the gods only knew what else that lay in the straw under her.
Just the thought made her itch. She got to a sitting position and pulled her legs in, crossing them under her and letting her head rest against her hands.
It was hard to think. Every time she tried, her focus went on how much she was hurting, and the struggle to control her twisting stomach. “W.. “ Her voice broke, and she waited for her guts to settle. “Where’s the door?”
Dumbly, Gabrielle lifted her head and looked up. Barely seen in the shadows, there was a darker square in the ceiling, so far over her head she wondered if even her soulmate could reach it with one of her leaps. “B… “ She rubbed her face. “How do you get out?”
“You don’t.” Homer told her, grimly. “I haven’t left this cell since they dropped me in it. I’ve seen.. “ He hesitated. “Some find other ways out.” He finished, awkwardly.
Gabrielle thought about that. “They killed themselves, you mean?”
“Mmph.” The bard closed her eyes again. Now she’d wished she’d taken Ephiny up on her offer to accompany her back to the games quarters. She’d brushed the regent’s concern off lightly, convinced she was more than capable of taking care of herself.
Yeah, right. Gabrielle sighed heavily. Now what? She couldn’t depend on anyone coming in here to get her out, could she? Her brow creased and she clamped her jaw shut on a wave of nausea. Oh, yeah, like Xena wouldn’t, right?
“Just like the old days.” Gabrielle muttered under her breath. “I get myself into trouble, she has to come haul my butt out of it.”
“What was that, Gabrielle? Did you say something?” Homer asked.
“Nothing important.” The bard said.
“Did that she-whore get you too?” Her old friend asked. “Is that why you’re here?”
“No.” Gabrielle winced, as the pain started to build, making it hard to breathe. “I got into a fight.”
“A fight? You? I thought you always talked your way out of things!”
Gabrielle considered that in quiet reflection. Could she have talked her way out of this? Had she even thought about doing that?
No. She’d just reacted to him hitting her. She felt a sense of disappointment in herself that only intensified the pain.
At least, she considered miserably, there was no way for it to get any worse than this.
A loud rumble broke the eerie silence, sounds of wood cracking, and steel scraping against stone. Gabrielle lifted her head and peered up, seeing the barest shadows over her head. There was a huge bang, then the sound of a rope being parted, then all of a sudden the trap in the top of her cell swung down far too quickly, banging against the top of the stone roof and sending a shower of things she really didn’t want to think about all around her.
Most of them scurried off.
Then the light was blocked by two falling bodies intertwined, and they hit with a crack of breaking bone. One figure bounced up and lifted a sword, but the other didn’t move, and after a moment, the heavily breathing survivor turned her way.
Even in the darkness, she knew that body’s profile, and a soft cry of relief escaped her.
“You all right?” Xena asked.
Gabrielle realized she was crying. “No.” She managed to get out, lifting a hand as a moment later Xena’s presence surrounded her and she was cradled in gentle arms.
The bard inhaled. “Dori! WH.. Xe, how.. “
“I couldn’t check her at the door. Lay down, here against me.”
“B.. “ Gabrielle tried to calm her rapid breathing. “Xe, we’re.. “
“I know. Lay still, sweetheart. Please.” Xena lifted her and cuddled her against her chest. “Easy now.”
”Yeah, I know.” Xena’s voice was worried. “Just try to relax.”
“Hold me.” The bard whispered. “Don’t leave me.”
“Never.” Xena reassured her gently. “We’ll get out of this, I promise you.”
Gabrielle’s eyes fluttered closed, and her body slumped against Xena’s.
“Boo? Mama owie.” Dori warbled.
“Yeah, I know, sweetie. Just be quiet, okay?” Xena exhaled. “I gotta figure out a way to get us out of here.”
Homer cleared his throat gently. “Um.. .when you do.. mind taking me, too?”
The warrior glared at the latticework separating them from the next cell. “Who are you?” She asked sharply.
Xena rolled her eyes invisibly. “Figures.”
There was an awkward silence, as the warrior shifted a little, and tried to make Gabrielle a little more comfortable.
“How’d you guess?”
“That’s what Gabrielle was calling you.” Homer murmured. “Is that really a baby you have with you?”
“Yes.” The warrior answered, in a clipped tone.
Homer digested this. “Wow.” He muttered. “Bet that would make a good story.”
Xena ignored him, concentrating on gently feeling the pulse fluttering at Gabrielle’s throat, and listening to her slightly labored breathing. “Me leave you?” She whispered softly into the bard’s ear. “You don’t even think about leaving me, okay?”
A rat scuttled by them. “Boo.” Dori pointed. “Guff!”
“No.” Xena kicked the rat across the cell. “Bad.” She tipped her head back and looked up, where the portal gate they’d fought over swung slightly, it’s hinges creaking in the gloom. “Very bad.”
Xena sat back for a moment and took stock of her situation. It wasn’t good. She hadn’t expected things to be this bad, or Gabrielle to be so severely injured. In fact.. The warrior focused her vision in the gloom, and studied the still face. She could see a red welt across her partner’s cheek, and she brushed her fingers over it tenderly, knowing how much it must have hurt her.
Anger warred with anxiety in her chest, making her heartbeat erratic. Xena felt her hands shake in reaction, and she had to pause, forcing herself to take deep breaths to regain control over raging emotions that were making muscles inside her twitch and seize.
She wanted to kill whoever had done this. Whoever had hurt her gentle soulmate, who had only been defending the life of an innocent, with the honest courage that was as much a part of her as her green eyes, and sunny smile.
Above her, she heard sounds approaching, though, and realized she was running out of time. She needed to get Gabrielle out of this stinking pit for starters, and then find a way out of the prison. With a soft sigh, she stood, lifting Gabrielle in her arms as she moved across the floor and gazed up at the still swinging trap.
“Hurry up!” A man’s voice floated down. “Get that hook over here! Close the door!”
The warrior’s eyes widened as she realized the intent. With a soft oath, she knelt and set the bard down, reaching around and grabbing Dori’s sack and unstrapping it.
“Boo? Go Mama!” Dori wriggled in her hands.
“No.” The warrior carefully rebuckled the straps, this time around her neck so the baby was just under her chin. “Dori, just be still. Please.”
The sound of footsteps approaching got louder, and several male voices cursed. A loud bang made Xena look up, to see a hook extending down to grab the latticed trap cover. Her heartbeat surged, as she turned and carefully picked Gabrielle up.
She stood, and looked up, then surged into motion, lifting the bard’s slumped form up and settling her across her broad shoulders before she bounded over and underneath the trap.
“Hey!” Homer yelled. “What about me?”
Xena crouched. “You couldn’t follow me anyway.” She told him.
The hook found it’s purchase, with a scrape of metal against wood. “Hurry up! Pull! Quick now!”
“Sure I can!” Homer argued desperately, as a torch flared, and the cells were lit with eerie light from above.
“Sorry!” Xena gathered all her strength, deepened her crouch, then shoved away from the ground with all the force of her powerful legs. She soared upward, her hands brushing, then taking hold of the rope dangling form the trap. The hook pulled backwards, and she was jerked in mid air as her arms and shoulders took not only her weight, but Gabrielle’s as well.
For a second, her hands slipped on the rope.
Then she clamped down, gritting her teeth as her body swung through the air and put almost unbearable strain on her shoulders.
“Throw it! Knock her down!” The voice above her shouted.
“Better hope you do.” Xena growled back, as she inched her way up the rope. “Cause if I get up there, you’re dead men.” She sensed something coming at her, and she ducked in pure instinct, feeling heat as a torch just missed her, plunging down into the cell and clattering on the floor. She heard the crackle of the flame eagerly feeding on the filthy straw, and cursed. “Idiot!”
The swinging door was making it hard to keep her grip. She could feel them trying to tug the wood up, and throw her off, and she looked up, getting a glimpse of ugly, scarred faces and angry eyes. Another missile came down, this one smacking her on the side of the head. She butted it away, and heard it fall, as she reached the top of the rope.
Now, the hard part. She had to let go of the rope and grab the lattice, while it was moving, while she was under attack, while she had Gabrielle on her shoulders and Dori hanging from her neck.
She sucked in a deep breath, and pulled her legs up, getting a hold with both boots on the very end of the rope. With a surge of effort, she released the rope with her hands and threw herself upward, reaching out with both hands extended towards the wooden gridwork of the trap door.
A stick slammed into one wrist, numbing it.
Xena felt splinters against her palms, and she clamped her hands down tight, her weight sending the trap swinging wildly and pulling the metal hook right out of the hands of the men holding it. She held on for dear life, praying to the gods that her strength would hold.
“Bbbbooo… fun.” Dori burbled, completely unconcerned. “Good! Go fly!”
Xena bit the inside of her lip, then made a decision and let her weight swing the trap back, gaining momentum as she swung. Now a pole smashed against her shoulder, but she ignored it, waiting for the door to swing it’s furthest extent, to give her every bit of momentum, so that when she released her hands…
And kicked outwards against the door’s surface…
And willed herself upwards, through the roughly square opening and into the angry crowd above her.
“Throw her back down!”
Xena grabbed the edge of the opening as she cleared it and pressed herself up and over it’s lip, getting her boots under her and leaping up over the heads of the four men closing in on a now empty space. She half flipped over, her hands securing Gabrielle’s still slumped body, and landed on the other side of them.
Whirling, she roundhouse kicked the first two and sent them tumbling down into the now firelit cell. They screamed in reaction, as the flames licked at them, but she was busy taking care of the other two with additional well placed kicks.
A half dozen others charged her from a corridor, as the firelight threw shadows everywhere from below. Freeing her sword was out of the question. Xena quickly scanned the area and decided, bolting for a nearby dark hallway and turning as she reached it, skidding to a halt and catching the first of her pursuers in the chest. She shoved him backwards, sending him piling into the rest of the guards and knocking them down. Then she whirled and took off, scraping a shoulder on the wall as she ducked down the first side corridor and headed for a door at the far end.
Xena heard the sound of pursuit as she reached the door, and she pulled the latch up, throwing herself against it only to find it locked. With a savage oath, she stepped back, feeling the vibration of feet running behind her. Something came at her back and she ducked instinctively, as an ax whirled over her head and hit the door.
Out of time again. She faced the door and took two steps forward, launching her body into space and slamming the surface with both feet. With a crack, the door gave way and she stumbled inside, turning and slamming it closed as a volley of crossbow bolts hit the other side.
It was quieter inside, and lit with four torches. The straw in this room was clean, and boxes were piled everywhere.
Storeroom. Xena got behind a stack of heavy looking wooden crates and shoved against them, digging her boots into the floor and straining her entire body as they creaked into motion. With a heavy scrape of wood against stone, they slid laboriously against the door just as bodies piled into it from the other side.
Xena paused, with her hands against the boxes, until she heard frustrated banging on the other side. Then she exhaled in relief and turned, dropping to her knees in the straw and carefully lifting Gabrielle’s body off her aching shoulders.
She set the bard down as she heard a soft moan from her. “Hey.”
Pale green eyes fluttered open, dazedly tracking to her face. “Ufm.”
Xena stripped Dori’s bag off her and set the toddler down. “Dori, stay here.”
Dori crawled over to where her mother was and sat down, patting the bard’s leg with a small hand. “Mama?”
“Um.” Gabrielle rolled her head to one side. “Hey, honey.” She rasped hoarsely. “You okay?”
“Mama.. Boo go fly!”
“I know, sweetie. Mama’s seasick from it.” Gabrielle joked wanly, one hand reaching out for her soulmate’s. “Are we okay now?”
Xena looked up from her task of checking her partner’s injuries, and reviewed their situation. “Not really.” She admitted. “We’re in a dead end. But at least it’s clean, light, and dry here.” She gently unbuckled the bard’s tooled leather belt, and winced at the dark bruise that extended down to her groin.
“What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Gabrielle gazed up at the profile gilded in torch light, seeing the deep worry in the warrior’s furrowed brow, and feeling the faint trembling in her hands. “Xe?”
“Hm?” After a moment, the pale blue eyes lifted and met hers.
“Thanks for comin after me.” Gabrielle whispered.
Xena’s lips twitched a little. “Wish I’d been just a little sooner.” She carefully smoothed the bard’s pale hair back off her forehead. “Gabrielle…”
“I’m hurt pretty bad, huh?”
Xena studied her in unhappy silence.
“It hurts a lot.” The bard uttered. “And my vision keeps going all blurry.” Her fingers tightened on Xena’s. “And it’s kind of hard to breathe.”
“Mama?” Dori inched closer. “Mama owie.”
“Yes, sweetie.” Gabrielle turned her head to watch her daughter. “I sure am.”
“C’mere.” Gabrielle held her free hand out, and guided the toddler into the circle of her arm. “Let me hug you.. maybe that’ll make me feel better, okay?”
Xena felt an iron hand clench around her heart as she gazed at them, seeing the glitter of unshed tears in Gabrielle’s eyes as Dori cuddled with her. “You’re going to be fine.” She stated firmly. “Let me see if they’ve got anything useful in here.” She stood up and started her search, pulling aside boxes roughly and dumping their contents in the straw.
Gabrielle watched her with quiet compassion and a bone deep understanding of the emotions that rippled across her partner’s tall form and robbed her of composure. “If you’ve got anything to say about it, I know I will be.” She murmured, then tilted her head as the sound of pounding slacked off from the door. “Maybe they gave up?”
Xena had turned, and was listening, swiping a grubby hand across her eyes impatiently as she did so. “Doubt it, after all, this… “ Her words trailed off as she heard another sound behind the wood.
Flames. Her nose twitched, as the first hint of smoke reached her.
Her eyes went to the door, then to the four corners of the room. Then they dropped and met Gabrielle’s.
Her soulmate lifted a hand towards her, and she walked over and sat down, taking it. They studied each other seriously for a long stretch of heartbeats before Xena spoke. “Think we’ve got a real problem here.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Looks like it, partner.” She agreed hoarsely.
They searched each other’s eyes for a while longer, then a faint smile pulled at the bard’s lips. “Y’know.. I think I’d feel a lot better if you hugged me.”
“Think so, huh?” The warrior replied softly.
Gabrielle nodded, and got her wish as Xena gently lifted her up and slid under her back, cradling her against her chest and circling Dori with her other arm. Gabrielle laid her head against her partner’s collarbone and spent a moment simply loving her. She felt the light brush of Xena’s lips against her head, then the pressure as the warrior rested her cheek in the same spot.
“Are we going to make it out of here?”
Xena was silent for a long while. “I’m going to do my best to get us out of here.” She finally stated.
“All or nothing.” The warrior stated flatly.
“Dori’s just a baby.” Gabrielle whispered. “You could get her out of here.”
“I am not leaving you.” Xena replied.
“Do you think I could ever look her in the eye again, if I left her mother in here?”
Gabrielle fell silent, having no answer for that except the truth they both knew. She laced her fingers with Xena’s and lifted their linked hands up, pressing her lips against the scraped knuckles and closing her eyes in silent wishing.
Xena listened to the flames outside the door, a growing roar that had already started sending tendrils of smoke past the crates blocking it. There was no way out that way, no matter how fast she could run. Her eyes roamed over the storeroom from corner to corner, seeing the solid stone joinings that sealed them in as effectively as a tomb.
As a tomb. Xena glanced down, to find Dori watching her with bright, interested eyes. Her jaw muscles bunched and she squared her shoulders. Not if I have anything to say about it.
Gabrielle lay quietly, Dori encircled in her arms as she watched Xena work. The pain inside her had reached a leveling point, and she was able to simply concentrate on breathing, knowing she couldn’t help her soulmate any other way.
It had started to get very warm inside the room, and if she looked up, her muzzy vision showed her a film of smoke near the roof, wisps already starting to lower towards Xena’s dark head as the warrior moved around the room.
It was hard to concentrate her thoughts on what Xena was doing. The warrior had scraped all the straw to one side of the room, hard against the wall, and, breaking open barrels shoved against the other side of the room had disclosed vegetables packed in brine.
Xena had taken the brine and doused everything with it. The smell was odd, but not completely unpleasant, more like a breathless day at the seaside than anything else. She’d also found a bale of linen blankets, and set those aside near where Gabrielle was lying.
“Hm?” Gabrielle regarded her daughter, who was being unusually quiet.
“Don’t like.” Dori complained. “No good here.”
“I know, honey.” She answered.
“Go fly. Boo go find fishes, go out.”
“I wish we were outside, too.” Gabrielle told her. “I wish we were by our lake, at home, and you and I were swimming.”
“Go fishies!” Dori agreed.
“I wish we could watch the rocks, and see Boo jump off them.”
“Fun!” The toddler pulled a bit of straw up and regarded it. “We go now? Go home. Go fly.” She looked around. “No fun.”
Far off, Gabrielle heard a crash, and a dull roar. The smoke seemed to get denser, filled the ceiling faster, and she quietly faced the knowledge that none of might be going home.
Was she ready to die? Gabrielle hugged her daughter a little closer, and exhaled. How could anyone ever be ready, really? You never thought it was the right time. “Honey, you just stay quiet for a while, okay? We’ll go somewhere soon, I promise.” She was aware of Xena’s back stiffening in reaction. “It’ll be some place nice, I promise. There’ll be grass there, and cool ponds, and pretty flowers.”
Dori seemed agreeable to this. “We go.” She said.
“All of us, yes.” Gabrielle managed to get out. “You, and me, and Xena. We’ll all go together, okay?”
The bard couldn’t look up, couldn’t meet the blue eyes she knew were looking back at her. “Then we can play games, and I’ll tell you stories, how about that?”
“Mama tell good stories.” Dori informed her seriously. “Go now?”
“Not yet, sweetie.” Gabrielle stroked the baby’s hair gently. Her eyes finally lifted and met her soulmate’s. “Soon.”
“Boo go too.”
“Absolutely.” Gabrielle pronounced the word carefully, her gaze locked with Xena’s. “We don’t go anywhere without Boo, right?”
“Yes.” Dori put her arms around Gabrielle’s neck and gave her a sloppy kiss. “Love Boo. Love Mama.”
Xena turned and walked to the bundle of blankets, trying not to let her entire body shiver. She picked them up and opened the ties, then removed several and dropped them in the last barrel of brine, soaking them. It was a marginal plan at best, and she knew it. Dousing everything with the water would hopefully keep it from igniting when the firestorm consumed the door, and wrapping themselves in the soaked blankets might give them a few moments, but then what?
Then you’re going to die, Xena. Her mind confirmed quietly. You, and Gabrielle, and Dori. She swallowed hard, trying to get the lump to go down in her throat. It wasn’t the fear of dying that bothered her – after all, she’d lived with that her entire life.
Nor did the idea of all of them being in danger of that scare her. She knew she’d do what she could, then put her partner, and their child out when the end was overtaking them, and the gods knew, it would probably be over quickly.
It was after that happened that was scaring her senseless, making her knees shake and her heart thunder in her ears even as she worked in silence at what was probably a futile task.
She remembered Tartarus. Remembered the pain, and the unending agony.
Remembered being so starkly alone in a place where hatred and her own past’s horrors surrounded her.
With a shaky breath, she pulled the blankets from the barrel and let them drip a moment, then she returned to her partner’s side and knelt next to her. Squaring her shoulders slightly, she put the wet fabric down, then reached over and put a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder, steeling herself for what she had to say next. “Gabrielle… “
“All or nothing.” The bard met her gaze steadfastly. ‘We all go together.”
Xena’s eyes shifted to Dori. “You promised her flowers and sweet grass.”
“You think I could ever look her in the eyes if I let you go alone to someplace worse?” Gabrielle managed a tiny smile, as their hands clasped. “Hoisted on your own petard, Warrior Princess.”
Xena merely shook her head a little, but returned the smile with a small one of her own.
“We’re going to be all right, Xena.” Gabrielle whispered. “As long as we’re together.” A breath. “And we will be.”
The warrior cupped her cheek gently, then brushed her fingers over Dori’s hair. “All right.” She murmured. “We get under these blankets, and let the first rush of fire go over us.”
“Then we take it from there.” Xena said. “If the fire runs out of things to burn, I’ll get you both out down the corridor, same way we came in.”
“All right.” Gabrielle drew in a breath. “We’re in your hands”
Xena leaned gracefully over and kissed her, allowing herself a long, lingering moment of quiet passion, before she lifted her head and looked Gabrielle right in the eye. “If it doesn’t work, I’m in yours.”
Tears silently appeared, and trickled down the bard’s cheeks, as she nodded mutely. Then she pulled Dori towards her as Xena spread the wet blankets out, and laid them down over their bodies, fitting herself over both of them in a slight crouch.
A low, muted crackling grew.
Suddenly, in the straw around Gabrielle’s body a rustling startled them, then the bard yelped as a small body raced across her leg and out from under the blanket.
“Guff!” Dori squirmed out of her grasp and took off after it.
“Dori!” Xena cursed, then threw the blankets off and lunged after her daughter, who had caught up to the rat just as it reached some boxes shoved up against the far wall. “Get back here!”
“Guff!” Dori grabbed a disappearing tail and hung on, tugging backwards. “Guff! Come!”
Xena hastily freed the animal from Dori’s clutches, then picked her up. “Bad girl.” She started to scold her, then paused, cocking her head at the boxes. The rat had disappeared, but where had it gone?
“Xe?” Gabrielle cast an anxious eye at the door, which was beginning to crumble.
“Hang on.” Xena put Dori down and started tugging at the boxes, jerking them to one side. The bottom one refused to move and she frowned, then grabbed the edge of it and hauled backwards with all her strength, throwing her weight into the pull.
With a sudden crack, the box moved, then tumbled backwards almost causing the warrior to fall. She regained her balance, however, and peered over it, her nose twitching as s damp, musty scent filtered to it. “Son of a Bacchae… “
“What?” Gabrielle struggled to roll over and sit up. “What is it?”
“A tunnel.” Xena found herself grinning. “A way out of here.” She watched the rat scamper down the tunnel, then turned and raced over to her soulmate, gathering blankets as she went.
Xena got the blankets, and her family into the tunnel, and fastened the end of a wrapped piece of linen around the crosspiece of the big crate she’d pulled aside. Her fingers fumbled in haste as she felt the rumble in the walls from the fire, very aware of Dori’s head tucked under her chin. She backed up as she felt a blast of heat and pulled, straining her shoulders as she tugged the crate over the end of the tunnel. It creaked, resisting her strength for a second.
“Bck.” Dori took hold of the end of the linen and pulled on it, as the warrior redoubled her efforts, bracing her feet against the sides of the tunnel and arching her back as she hauled.
After a breathless moment, a sharp crack sounded, and the crate moved, slamming closed over the tunnel opening. Xena fell back onto the floor of it, with Dori on her chest, as total darkness descended on them. “Whoa.” The warrior grunted.
“She helped you pull it, huh Xe?” Gabrielle murmured weakly, from where she was lying on a hastily constructed litter made from a crate side and two spears.
“Sure did.” Xena flipped over and scrambled past her soulmate, the tight confines of the tunnel already pressing on her nerves. She wriggled by where Gabrielle was slumped, sucking in her breath in surprise as she felt warm fingers touch her belly. She stopped in mid motion and reached out, stroking the bard’s arm gently. “You okay?”
“Mm.” Gabrielle continued the contact. “Just wanted to touch you.”
Xena sat down in the tunnel, setting Dori down next to her as she folded her long legs awkwardly up. “All right. Here’s the plan.” She spoke into the darkness. “I’m gonna tie off the end of those spears around my waist. I’ll crawl down the tunnel, and just pull you after me.”
“Gods, you poor thing.” Gabrielle’s voice, though weak, held a hint of wry humor in it. “Bet you’re glad I got to walk off some of the weight I put on this last year before we got here.”
“Remind me of that tomorrow when I wake up stiff as a board.” Xena chuckled softly. “You’re gonna owe me one Hades of a backrub.”
“You’re on.” The bard replied. “Give you the best one ever, I promise.”
Xena put a gentle hand on her partner’s head, feeling Gabrielle shift a little under her fingers. “Sore?”
“Yeah.” The brief answer held it’s own warning.
Xena leaned closer. “I’m going to hold you to that promise. “ She said. “So you just relax, and let your warrior pony do her job, okay?” She eased ahead of where Gabrielle was lying and used what little faint light there was, coming around the edges of the crate, to get Dori into her backpack and tie the rope from Gabrielle’s litter around her waist.
“Boo, go hossie!” Dori was delighted, and completely unfazed by the darkness around them.
Xena wrapped a thick piece of blanket around both of her knees, then started forward, feeling her way carefully with one hand. She got to the end of the rope and leaned against it, hearing a soft scrape as the litter started moving after her. “Let me know if it gets too bumpy back there.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle closed her eyes and wrapped her hand around one of the spears, glad of the remaining blankets cushioning her aching body from the hard crate wood. She’d set her mind earlier to deal with the utter crisis of what they’d been going through, but now that the crisis had modified her injuries were starting to overwhelm her again.
Her head hurt badly. It was throbbing, and sending jolts that were causing eerily pulsing red flashes across her vision. The pain in her guts had also intensified, and she was beginning to feel chilled, despite the warmth of the walls around her.
It was hard to bear. But she knew she had a responsibility, to work through it and live, because Xena was giving everything she had to make it possible for all of them. From getting her out of the cell, to getting them out of that storeroom, the warrior was doing what she always did, never sparing herself for an instant in pursuit of her all important goal.
She would be sore, Gabrielle smiled faintly to herself. After it was all over, and her body remembered that she’d spent all this time going beyond her own limits and the bumps and scrapes and the overextension of her tough muscles.
She’d never complain. But Gabrielle had come to know the little signs and signals, the furrowed brow and hesitant, yet restless movements. Over the years she’d learned what to do to ease her partner’s aches and pains. Xena had slowly accepted, then come to appreciate that, until now she’d even occasionally ask for it.
The cold wind battered Gabrielle’s body as she pulled her cloak around her and headed across the courtyard. It was damp, and the storm that had threatened Amphipolis since the dawn had now hit, spreading at first sleet, and now snow across the ground.
Dori was playing with her cousins, and Gabrielle had decided to leave the warm security of the inn to search out Xena. The warrior had returned from a hunting trip just before lunch, and Gabrielle was carrying a pot of thick venison soup she suspected her partner would appreciate after the long, cold trek.
The militia quarters had been empty. So had their cabin. Gabrielle moved towards the one place she hadn’t checked yet, and as she pushed open the door to the barn her senses told her she’d found what she was looking for. She entered the barn and shoved the door closed on the wind, pausing inside to shake the snow off her cloak while she looked around.
She half expected to find Xena tending the horses, or working on one of her many projects, or practicing with her sword. But instead of all that, she spotted a cloaked figure curled up in the hayloft, blue eyes peeking guiltily down at her as she looked up in surprise.
“Hey.” Gabrielle set the pot down by the brazier, the small iron stove that squatted in a cleared space, wood crackling softly inside it. She climbed up the ladder into the loft and perched on the edge, studying it’s unusual occupant. Xena had a familiar, small bound volume tucked in her hand, and she stirred around in the straw as the bard seated herself.
“No, stay there.” She put a hand on Xena’s shoulder.
Xena cleared her throat. “I was, um…”
“Lazing around in the hayloft reading.” Gabrielle supplied, with a teasing grin. “Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me.” She ruffled Xena’s hair with quiet affection, then bent a little closer. There was a tension to Xena’s body that she’d learned over the years to recognize, and her thumb rubbed lightly over the furrow she found in the center of her partner’s forehead. “So, what’s bothering you?”
For a long time after they met, she wouldn’t have dared ask. For a longer time Xena wouldn’t have deigned to answer. Now, the warrior visibly put aside her natural impulse to brush the question off and released a sigh instead, along with a resigned shrug.
“Cold got to me a little out there.” Xena admitted. “Thought I’d come in here and get away from it for a while.”
The damp cold, Gabrielle realized, which played havoc with the warrior’s joints after a lifetime of fighting, and the toll that took on her otherwise sturdy form. If Xena was saying it was bothering her, Gabrielle could only imagine how bad it was. “Let me see if I can do something for that.” She said, ruffling Xena’s hair once more before she climbed down and walked to the wooden trunk near the back of the stable.
Opening the top, she removed a stack of neatly folded cloth, and a small tin, then returned to the loft. “Roll over.” The warrior did, rustling around in the straw. Gabrielle gently pulled aside the edge of Xena’s heavy cloak, then unlaced the thick leggings underneath it. She spread some of the herbal liniment on her hands and carefully worked it around the warrior’s powerful knees, wrapping each one up neatly in warm flannel when she was done, before she snugged the leggings back around them.
“Mm. That feels great.” Xena murmured.
Yeah, it does. Gabrielle found herself silently agreeing, as she moved up to uncover Xena’s shoulders, completely enjoying this total acceptance of her solicitous attention. “Well, when I’m done with this, I’ve got some nice, hot stew to warm you up from the inside.” She informed her patient. “How does that sound?”
“Sounds like I’m in the best of hands.” Xena sighed in relief as the liniment, and the warm cloth took effect. “Thanks.”
Gabrielle gazed fondly at her. “You know what I think?”
“I think you could have done this yourself, but you really just love me coddling you.”
For a moment, Xena didn’t react, then an eyebrow quirked, and a very mischievous grin appeared “You could be right.” She drawled softly. “Is that a problem?”
Gabrielle tenderly laced up the front of Xena’s shirt, then leaned over and kissed her on the lips. “Anything but.”
She would need Gabrielle’s touch this time. The bard kept her eyes closed. That meant Gabrielle had to be up for it, right? Right. How often had she told Xena she did things just because she thought she could? Well, now it’s your turn, shepherd. You will survive this and you will be there for her, and that’s all there is to that story.
Curiously, the decision made her feel a little better. She convinced herself that her headache was easing, and she concentrated on relaxing her body, taking long, slow breaths that seemed to ease the pain in her guts.
The forward motion had steadied to an even vibration, as the warrior crawled forward, and she could hear Dori burbling as she rode along on Xena’s back. Her child’s amazing resilience provided something else for her to focus on, and she marveled silently at Dori’s cheerful fearlessness, the entire crisis seeming like just a big adventure to her toddler’s sensibilities.
Her trust in her parents was, naturally, absolute.
“Right here, honey.” Gabrielle whispered.
“Boo is good hossie!”
“She is, huh?” The bard smiled in the darkness.
“Nneeigghh.” Xena made a whickering sound.
Gabrielle snorted in soft laughter.
“First pony in the history of the world with lethal combat skills.” The warrior muttered.
“Hey.. I could make stories about that.” The bard murmured. “Fangtooth, Warrior Pony. Out making the world safe for cart horses everywhere.”
Now it was Xena’s turn to snicker.
“Mama, story?” Dori apparently found this interesting.
It was going to be a long, slow crawl, Gabrielle realized. “Sure, honey. Which one do you want to hear?” She shifted a little, finding a slightly more comfortable position.
“No, I’m okay.” The bard correctly interpreted that deepening in tone. “You want to hear one about Boo, Dori?”
“You have good taste. Okay… “ Gabrielle considered. “How about I tell you how Boo beat a giant. You want to hear that?”
“Boom!” Dori wriggled around in her backpack. “Go go go!”
“I’ll take that as a yes.” Gabrielle composed herself, then started in on the tale.
Xena smiled, as she plowed stolidly on down the tunnel, glad beyond measure for the familiar comfort of her partner’s voice surrounding her and distracting her from the close, stone walls. The tunnel was about the size of a regular building block, which meant it was just broad enough to clear Xena’s shoulders, and high enough for her to crouch upright, giving enough room for Dori to ride on her back.
She noticed a number of things about the tunnel. One, it wasn’t that dusty, nor was it filled with debris, which indicated to her that it was fairly regularly used. That was a good thing because, to her mind, it meant it lead somewhere useful. She could feel the walls warming slightly on either side of her, and she figured she was getting close to where the fire was raging inside. If she listened, she could hear the creak of stone moving, and far off, timbers collapsing in another part of the prison.
If enough timbers came down, it could pull the walls with it, but she tried not to think about that because it meant tons of rock coming down on top of them, and Xena firmly believed once for that experience was way more than enough for a lifetime.
Crawling forward wasn’t too uncomfortable, and the smooth stone allowed Gabrielle’s pallet to slide relatively easily. Things could be worse. Xena started constructing a mental map of the prison, based on her rapid entry, as she tried to figure out where the tunnel might lead them.
So far, it paralleled the cells, she roughly figured, inside the wall just opposite…
Curiously, Xena lifted her left hand up and felt along the wall to the side. The stone was solid for several feet, then she felt a crack in it.
“Hey, Xe?” Gabrielle interrupted her tale. “Those cells are down far enough to be okay, right?” She asked. “I mean, Homer is going to be okay, isn’t he? We can come back and get him once we’re out of here?”
Hm. The cells had been mostly stone walls, with small wooden lattices between them. The fire had started in Gabrielle’s, and spread upward. “I don’t know.” She answered honestly, then waited, hearing volumes in the utter silence from her soulmate.
Gabrielle knew what Xena’s priorities were.
Mentally, Xena counted, and used her excellent sense of structure to pinpoint her location within the large stone building. “See what I can do.” She finally said, crawling a little faster, towards the faint lessening in the darkness she could detect far ahead.
It was now getting a lot warmer. Xena could feel the heat against her palms, and she’d broken out in a sweat, her eyes blinked droplets of it that stung as they hit. Through the stone, she could hear the crackling roar of the flames.
Ahead of her, she could see a metal grill in the side of the tunnel, through which firelight was flickering, sending shadows down the inside and across the floor. As she watched, licks of fire itself emerged between the grill, tasting the air in the tunnel and bringing with it a sharp, harsh scent.
“Gonna get warm.” Xena warned Gabrielle.
“I know.” The bard replied, drawing in an audibly shaky breath. She shifted on the pallet, and painfully rolled over onto her other side, putting as much space between her and the fire as possible.
Xena paused, feeling the heat increase rapidly. She eyed the floor of the tunnel, and realized it was darkening from the fire already around the grate. “Hang on.” She called back over her shoulder. “Need to speed up here.. it’s too hot.”
“Faster the better.” Gabrielle gripped the two poles resolutely, and closed her eyes. Old nightmares surfaced, and she shunted aside the conviction that she could hear, still, Dahok’s laughter in the raging fire. Stop it. Just forget that.
The flames leaped up through the grate, blocking their path.
“Never easy.” The warrior sighed under her breath. She turned and pulled up the hood on Dori’s backpack, much to the toddler’s displeasure. “Dori, stop that.” She evaded the tiny hands that resisted her actions. “Dori!”
“No!” Dori wailed. “Mama!”
“Do what Boo says, Dori.” Gabrielle gritted her teeth. “Don’t argue with her.” She could hear the flames getting closer, the roar filling the tunnel. Chills chased up and down her spine, and she clamped her jaws shut to keep her teeth from chattering.
“Don’t say it.” The bard growled. “Just get us out of here, okay?” Her temper spilled over. “Fast.”
Xena glanced behind her, then she rose up off her knees into a crouch, and lunged forward, propelling herself with a shove of her boots against the ground, and reaching out with both hands. She impacted the hot stone and felt the jolt of pain, but it was only momentary as she got her boots under her and shot forward again, straight for the flames. She steeled herself and hit the grate just before the flames with her palms, then leaped again, plunging straight through the fire.
It flowed over her body with a sensation of almost pain, her motion too fast for it to catch her clothing on fire. She drew her knees up quickly as she landed past the grate, and shot forward as fast as she could, pulling Gabrielle’s pallet behind her. For a split second, the light vanished as the crate bottom covered the grate, then it flared up again as they flashed past and on down the tunnel.
Xena kept moving, until the surface under her had cooled again, before she paused and sat down to catch her breath. “Damn.”
“Go go go!” Dori wriggled. “Boo, too hot!” She started to tug her flap loose.
“Shh.. in a minute.” The warrior told her. “You all right, Gabrielle?”
The bard was clutching the spears on either side, her eyes tightly shut.
“Gab?” Xena put a hand on her shoulder, her voice deepening in concern. She felt the shivering under her touch and scrambled closer, taking hold of her and pulling her over. “Hey!”
Gabrielle’s hands captured hers, and slowly, the mist green eyes opened, reflecting the firelight just past. “I’m all right.” She got out hoarsely. “I just… “ She took a steadying breath. “The fire, I just don’t… um.. ”
The fire? The warrior frowned in confusion, then realization hit her, and Xena simply gathered Gabrielle up into her arms and hugged her silently, pulling her body off the pallet and into her lap.
“Mama?” Dori got the flap off her head and peered over Xena’s shoulder.
“Sshh.” Xena touched the baby’s head with her own. “Mama’s okay. I got her.”
Maybe it was all the bare skin. Gabrielle felt her body relax as her limbs tangled with her partners, and she was surrounded by Xena’s distinctive presence. Under her fingers, her partner’s ribs expanded strongly, and she burrowed into the embrace with a sense of utter relief.
Safe. As long as she was in Xena’s arms, nothing could hurt her.
“I got you.” Xena whispered again, stroking her cheek with her thumb. “It’s okay.”
Gabrielle rested there until her heartbeat slowed, then she sniffled a little and released a long breath. “Sorry.” She started to push away. “We have to get going.. I didn’t’ mean to…”
“Hey.” Xena refused to release her. “You’re starting to sound like me. Stop it.”
The bard fell back against Xena’s chest, wishing she could just stay there. She waited for the chills to subside, and she felt her composure steady again after a few minutes. “Thanks.” She tilted her head up. “I’m all right.”
Grave blue eyes studied her. “Sure?”
Gabrielle shrugged one shoulder, and bestowed a tiny, wry smile on her partner. “Considering everything, yeah.” She said. “Are you okay?”
Xena examined the edge of her skimpy wrap, now sadly soiled and singed. “A little toasty, but other than that, I think I’m fine.” She peered over her shoulder. “You okay, shortie?”
“Want cookies.” Dori frowned. “Too hot, bad smell.”
“Anything else?” The warrior inquired.
“I think that means get moving.” Gabrielle let her eyes fall to the dimly seen tattoo just above Xena’s heart. The sight of the symbol made her smile and she lifted a finger to trace it. “Xena, would you do something for me when we get out of here?”
“Sure.” The warrior gazed down at the hand moving over her skin. “What?”
“I want you to put a tattoo on me.” The bard said, dreamily. “I want a little bird, like you and Dori have. On my back.”
Xena studied her in concern, seeing the glazed look to her partner’s eyes. “Sure.” She agreed slowly. “If you want me to.”
“Okay.” Xena gently helped her back onto her pallet, wincing at the tenderness in the palms of her hands from the hot stone. “Just lay down, and we’ll be out of here before you know it.”
Gabrielle settled down on the blankets, and let her eyes close as she felt Xena tuck the edges of the fabric around her. She was exhausted after the racking fear, and it was hard to think straight. Easier just to lay quietly, and get some rest. The sounds around her faded out a little, though did not disappear entirely, and she was vaguely aware of motion starting again, pulling her further from the heat and the sound of the flames and closer to safety.
The next grate Xena could see was dark, and her nose already detected a foul smell from it. She came even to it and peered through, seeing the tops of cells extending before her. As she watched, several guards ran through the dungeon, their voices strained as they shouted orders about the fire. Two of them carried buckets, the third a sack of sand, and all three were soot covered. Xena leaned over and checked the dozing Gabrielle, putting her fingers over the bard’s pulse point as she watched the rise and fall of her chest.
The bard’s skin was heated, and her heart was beating a little faster than normal. Xena chewed her lip, then untied the rope around her belly and faced the grid. She examined the edges, then set her boots against it and with a double kick, knocked it halfway out of the wall.
A rattle of broken stone from the edge fell on the other side, followed by a huge clang as a second kick knocked the grate completely out. Xena slipped out of the tunnel and stood, sparing a bare instant to stretch her long frame out from it’s cramping before she raced over to the last cell in the room, dropping to her knees to peer inside. “Homer!”
She heard a gasp. “Listen.. you’ve got one chance here, so don’t foul it up.” With that, Xena stood and unhooked the big trap door, letting it swing inside. Then she lifted the roughly made ladder hung on wooden pegs nearby and lowered it inside, until it hit bottom. “Get moving.”
She waited to feel the vibration of someone climbing up, then she turned and raced back towards the tunnel.
“Hey! You there! If you’re letting a body loose, how about us then?”
Xena paused, recognizing the voice. She peered down through the nearest trap door to see their friend from the road looking up at her. “Only one ladder.” She unhooked the trap. “But maybe you’ll get lucky. She let the door swing open, then continued on, slipping halfway back into the tunnel and pulling Gabrielle’s pallet over.
Would it be faster to stay inside, or try her luck breaking out through the guards? She put a hand on Gabrielle’s head, and decided she’d had enough crawling. “Okay, Dori. You get to ride in front now.” She shifted the toddler around to rest below her chin, then she carefully lifted Gabrielle up and settled her across her shoulders again.
That, at least, freed her sword arm. Xena drew her weapon and started towards the door with determined purpose. . She put her free hand on the latch and set her boot next to the door, ready to pit her strength against the lock.
To her surprise, though, when she worked the mechanism the door opened willingly, with a creak of it’s hinges. “Don’t look that gift centaur in the ass.” She muttered under her breath, as she left the dungeon room and started up the stone steps two at a time despite her burden. All the bard’s joking aside, Xena found it easy to handle her weight, and always had despite the fact that Gabrielle’s compactly muscular form was definitely heavier than it looked.
She got to the top of the stairs and glanced around, surprised to find the upper guardroom empty. When she’d plowed through here the first time, it had been full of armed men, most of whom had leaped to their feet in an attempt to stop her.
She hadn’t let them.
But now it was empty, chairs overturned and tables in scattered disarray, and what seemed strangest to Xena – weapons left lying by bunks and on the floor. Her brow creasing, she made her way through the room and out the open front door, where a wide corridor lead to the large, guarded entryway she’d first come in by.
Here was where she expected the most trouble. Xena shifted her grip on her sword, and curled an arm over Gabrielle’s limp body, gathering both her strength and her ferociousness, intent on powering her way through whatever opposition she found at the end of the hall.
She made her way along the corridor, then cocked her head as she heard a roar of sound, bits and pieces of which resolved into curses and oaths, along with the sound of metal striking wood.
The door at the end of the corridor was, again, open, and she warily peeked through it, ready to repulse any attack. There were ten wide steps that lead up to the entry, and she made her way silently up them, her fingers flexing on the leather wrapped sword hilt as her head topped the rise and she could see into the room.
She stopped, dumbfounded.
The room was in total chaos – all of the guards were on the far end, beating fruitlessly against the huge, outer doors with anything they could find. Frustration fairly oozed from them, and the atmosphere in the room was seething with anger.
Xena climbed into the room and started across it. She was halfway there before one of the men spotted her, and turned, pointing a spear right at her head.
“There she is! There’s the bastard! Let’s kill her and throw her out the window!”
Xena stopped short. Her eyes flicked over the room, counting her adversaries. There were a round two dozen men, and as her presence registered, they all broke off their attack on the door and headed in her direction.
Xena knew she didn’t have a chance carrying her family. She had to make a choice of putting them down, putting them both at the mercy of the soldiers, or doing something that came very unnaturally to her.
The first man reached her, and she twirled her sword in her hand, then she met his furious thrust with a neat parry, and kicked him backwards, right into a half dozen of his peers. “All right. Hold it!” She let out a fierce bellow. “Unless you’re all looking to die here.”
A ring of faces, red and angry surrounded her. “Gonna do that anyway, thanks t’you!” A tall, red haired man said. “So what’s the difference!” He rushed at her, lifting a mace and swinging it at her head.
Xena eased to one side in a fluid motion, then got him with a backswing as he passed, slamming him in the back of the head with her sword flat. He lunged forward and went headlong into the wall, which he slid down limply. “You’ll die sooner if I do it.” She turned and caught the next closest man to her with a short, chopping jab, her fist wrapped around her hilt and lending her blow weight enough to snap his head back and drop him in his tracks.
Then she attacked them. She danced closer, using only her sword and her sense of balance to engage the closest ring of faces, disarming three of their weapons in one moment, and whirling to roundhouse kick two more back over into their mates. “You ready to listen now?” She taunted them. “Or should I keep going?”
It was a close thing. They were all still angry, but the oldest one, a man in the uniform of an Athenian officer stepped forward and held his hand up. He had close cropped dark hair, with a light silvering of gray, and a neatly trimmed beard that outlined an intelligent, rugged face. “Hold.” He spoke firmly. “By the gods, we’ve got enough troubles.”
Xena remained alert, her sword held slightly out from her body and her stance balanced. The ring rustled for a moment, then shoulders dropped and the men turned, muttering in disgust as they faced the door again. “What happened?” The warrior asked the older man, who’d remained facing her.
“We’re locked in here, and the damn place is on fire.” The man told her in clipped tones. “All of us sacrificed to make sure you never came out.”
Xena stared at the door, then at him. “Locked?”
“From the outside, and blockaded, probably with a loaded wagon.” The man agreed grimly. “We can’t get water to put the fire out, can’t get supplies, can’t get out of here. We’re dead already.” He told her. “And so are you.”
Xena slowly released a breath, aware of footsteps behind her. She half turned to see Homer and some of the other prisoners piling up the stairs, then turned back to the guard captain. “Tell you what.” She said. “Let’s work together, and maybe none of us has to die.”
The man’s dark brown eyes studied her for a long instant. Then he nodded briefly. “These youngsters only know what they’ve seen of you here, Xena.” He said. “But I was in Thessaly, during the civil war.” A faint, if grudging smile crossed his lips. “And I know a bit different.”
Xena let her lips tense in return. “All right.” She exhaled. “Homer, c’mere.”
The bard limped over to her, his ragged, filthy clothing in tatters. “Thanks for getting us out.” His eyes flicked to the door. “I think.”
Xena led him over to the side of the room, and knelt, easing Gabrielle off her shoulders and onto a padding of straw near the wall. “Watch her.” She said, simply. “I don’t’ know how badly she’s hurt.”
“I will.” Homer winced as he got a good look at the welt across the bard’s face. “Can you get us out of here?”
Xena let her knuckles lightly brush her soulmate’s cheek. “She needs to get out of here. I’ll find a way.” She said, then stood and walked away, shifting Dori’s backpack once again.
Homer watched her go, the warrior’s tall, half naked form covered in cuts and bruises and yet noble in it’s classic lines. “So that’s Xena.” He mused.
“Cute, huh?” Gabrielle’s muzzy voice drifted up. “C’n I pick em, or what?”
Homer glanced down, to see half open green eyes regarding him. “She’s incredible.” He said. “Just like you are.” He reached over and took the bard’s hand in his own. “It’s been a long time, and not near the way I’d hoped to meet you again, old friend.”
“Don’t worry.” Gabrielle whispered. “It’s all gonna be fine.”
Homer glanced behind them, where the first wisps of smoke were spiraling up the steps. Then he looked at the firmly barred door, built to withstand the fiercest of attacks. Then his eyes dropped to Gabrielle’s face, which was half turned, and the pale eyes that had found Xena and were watching the warrior with utter belief. “I bet we are.” He replied, with a sigh of wonder. “And what a tale it will make.”
Xena paced over to the door and examined it. It opened outward, she noticed, and the inside surfaced was already chipped and battered by the trapped guards. They gave her glowering looks, but she ignored them as she studied first the stone archway the door was set in, then turned and regarded the rest of the chamber.
It was tall, and windowless. She tilted her head back. Guttering torches sent spirals of rich, black smoke up to the ceiling, which was stained black with it. Heavy wooden timbers stretched across overhead and she studied these, putting her hands on her hips as she thought about what to do.
After a moment, she nodded. “Right.” She muttered, before she did a half turn and faced the crowd of angry guards. “Want to get out of here?” She asked loudly, her voice lifting over the cursing.
“What do you think, ya…” One of the nearest men yelled back, his bearded face roiling in frustration.
“Be still, Egar.” The captain faced Xena. “You have an idea?”
“Yeah.” Xena said. “We’ll need all the chains and ropes you can get, as long as you can find them.”
The captain’s brow creased, but he turned to his men. “You heard the lady. Go to the stores, you can still get in them, and bring the shackles.”
They stared at him.
“MOVE!” He roared.
With muttered curses, they left off beating on the door and jostled each other as they headed for a small room just off the entryway. The captain stepped next to Xena and folded his arms. “Mind sharing your plan?”
“Bck.” Dori scrabbled at Xena’s shoulder, trying to get a better look at what was going on. “Boo, want cookies!”
Xena gave her daughter a wry look. “I don’t have any cookies, shortie.” She told her. “You’re gonna have to wait.”
A tiny scowl. “No!”
The guard captain chuckled softly. “She certainly wrecks your image.” He commented.
“She’s adorable, though.” He added. “What’s her name?”
“Doriana.” Xena said, briefly. “She thinks this is just one big party arranged for her benefit, doncha, Dori?”
“Fun.” Dori agreed. “Want cookies!”
The first men emerged from the storeroom, dragging armfuls of chains with them, and carrying coils of rope. Xena took a big coil of thick hemp from one of them, and slung it over her shoulder, then she walked over to one of the stately columns that bisected the room. There were six of them, and she picked the last one on the left hand side, aware of the men clustering behind her. “Dori?”
“Hang on, okay?”
“We’re gonna fly.”
“Thought you’d like that.” Xena took two steps towards the column, then leaped upward, catching hold of it with both hands and wrapping her legs around it.
“Gogogogogogogo…” Dori wriggled, bouncing against her back.
With an unseen grin, Xena climbed upwards, releasing her hold then surging upwards for another hold, pulling her body up with sinuous ease. She got to the top of the column in short order, and, locking her legs around the stone to hold her in place, she looped the rope around the column, and secured it carefully.
Then she turned, seeing the eyes on her. “Think we should climb down?” She asked Dori.
“Fly!” Dori grabbed a fistful of her hair and tugged. “Boo, fly!”
Xena took hold of the column, then released her legs, and braced them against the surface. “Okay, hold on.” She warned her daughter, before she simply kicked free and soared outward in a backwards arc, twisting in mid air, then rolling forward into a somersault as she flew towards the ground, scattering the crowd in frantic haste.
Another half twist, and she was landing lightly, legs half bent, body straightening into a little hop.
“Gogoggogoggoogoooooooooo!” Dori squealed in utter delight.
But there was a job to do. Xena took hold of the rope and motioned the men closer. “Everyone grab on, and pull.” She indicated an arc. “Pull the column down, , that way.”
“For what?” The man standing next to her asked. “You’re nuts!”
Xena turned and in the same motion, brought her right hand over and slugged him in the jaw. He dropped without a further sound. “Better move. It’s getting hot in here.” She told the rest of them. “C’mon! We don’t have time!”
Sidestepping the downed guard, they took hold of the rope, even the captain, and started to pull.
“What’s she doing?” Homer asked, in a low voice. His eyes kept flicking to the oncoming smoke, which was now drifting visibly into the room from the stairs.
Good question. Gabrielle watched her soulmate climb up the column, muzzily admiring the shift of Xena’s powerful muscles which were very much on display. She realized what the warrior was doing at the moment, tying the rope to the top of the stone column, but as to why?
“Great Hera!” Homer yelped, as Xena leaped off into mid air.
“Show off.” Gabrielle chuckled wanly. “Would you look at her?” Her eyes traced her partner’s graceful body as she flipped and turned, landing with a muscular bounce and a little, cocky strut. Despite the ragged, mud covered, stained little outfit, and the bruised, scraped skin, there was a primal nobility to her, a self awareness, a confidence that rendered dirt and tattered clothing irrelevant.
She watched as the warrior took charge.
Winced as Xena’s fist took out the guard.
Wondered, as the men grabbed the rope and started pulling, booted feet skidding on the stone floor, voices raising in confusion. Xena grabbed the rope also, and lent her weight to it, yelling out a rhythm for them to pull with.
Gabrielle watched with a sense of dislocation, as the top of the pillar slowly, grudgingly, started to rock a little.
“They’re pulling the pillar down?” Homer asked, in a whisper.
“Yeah.” The bard murmured fuzzily. “That’s my Xena. Always getting in there, and taking the house down around her.”
“Why?” Gabrielle knew she wasn’t thinking straight, and suspected the fever was responsible. “Cause she can.” She said. “Gotta have the pillar come down, cause that’s the plan, see?”
“Uh? What plan?”
“Xena’s plan. Xena always has a plan.” Gabrielle explained earnestly. “Even when you think there’s noooo way she could have a plan, she does. And it works. Her plans always work.”
They both watched as the pillar creaked, bits of it’s edge crumbling off the top as it scraped out from under the wooden support.
“Pull!” Xena’s voice echoed strongly. “When I say jump, JUMP!”
“See? A plan.” Gabrielle watched in contentment.
With a thundering rattle, the column tottered, then started down.
“JUMP!” Xena yelled, leaping out of the way herself. The men scattered like ants, and the stone pillar crashed to the floor, cracking into two big pieces, and throwing smaller ones all around in sharp chunks.
“See? It worked.” The bard said, smugly.
“Okay.” Homer leaned on an elbow next to her, his scruffy, bearded face haggard. “ It’s now a broken pillar. Now what?”
Gabrielle regarded it. “I dunno.” She admitted. “But I’m sure it’s a good plan.”
Homer eyed her skeptically.
“Perfect.” Xena pronounced, as she studied the results. “Get me a crossbow.” She ignored the resentful looks, and waited until one of them men reluctantly handed her the weapon she requested. Then she peered up, measuring angles. “Damn.” The ceiling was tall, but short enough for her to be reasonably sure a fired bolt would stick in the wood. That wasn’t what she wanted. She handed the weapon back and walked over to the now loosened rope, untangling it from the rubble and coiling it in her hands.
It would be tough. She walked over to the pile of chains and found a loose link, picking it up and tying it off on the end of the rope as she moved back over to the center of the room. Slowly, she let out the rope and started swinging it in a circle.
A sudden rumble made them all look. The rubble on the floor jumped and rattled, then a booming roar sounded, and a ball of fire and smoke exploded up the stairs and into the room. The force of it knocked everyone off their feet, even Xena, who landed on her side near the pilons. “Gabrielle!”
“I’m fine!” The bard yelled back, from her relatively protected space. “You? Dori?”
“Fine!” The warrior leaped to her feet and started swinging the link, urgency now making her motions rapid. She took aim and let the rope loose, watching it fly up and wrap itself around the biggest of the support beams. A shake, and the weighted end dropped down.
Xena laced the other end of the rope through the link and pulled it back up, leaving the rope dangling from the timber. She raced over to the pile of chains and pawed through them, finding the two longest ones and pulling them out.
“Wh.. “ The guard captain staggered to his feet and came to her side. “What are you doing? Xena, we don’t have..”
“Out of my way.” Xena slung the chains over her shoulder, careful not to hit Dori with them. She went to the rope and leaped for it, climbing hand over hand up it’s surface.
“Gogogogoggogo..” Dori burbled happily. “Boo, we fly again now?”
“Soon.” The warrior grunted, as she reached the top, pulling herself up onto the timber hastily. The air was fouling up here, and she assembled her chains as fast as she could, draping them over the timber before her, and behind her. Then she dropped off the timber and back onto the rope, sliding down it with a stifled wince as the hemp rubbed against her skin.
“All right.” She yelled, above the roar of the approaching fire. “Roll that piece over here. Move it!!” She pointed. “We need to get it up into these chains, fast!”
A moment’s frozen silence, then the captain exhaled sharply. “A battering ram!” He bellowed. “It’ll take the door down.. quickly!” He raced over to the pilon, and shoved men into place, and they bent their backs to it, all resistance dissolved.
The pillar piece rolled reluctantly over the ground, crushing bits of itself into dust as the ten men pushed against it, cursing and sweating. They got it under the timber, then stopped. “Ho’wn the Hades do we lift it?” One asked, with a groan. “Didn’t think of that, didja?”
“Wait.” The captain studied the pillar. “Get me the shackle poles.” A man ran to get them, and handed one over. He took one end of it and slid it under the chunk of stone, then levered upward. The pillar shifted, but rolled back in the other direction. “Hades.”
“Hold on.” Xena got behind the pillar and knelt, picking up a chunk of shattered rock and wedging it into place. “Now try.”
Again, he levered upward, the iron bar bending in his grip as he strained. Two men joined him, until, with a lurch, the pillar lifted up. Two others grabbed one of the chains and slipped it quickly underneath. Xena snatched the end and pulled it up, taking the hook at the end. “Lift higher!” She ordered.
The three men threw their weight on the bar, and the end of the pillar lifted, as flames started licking up at the roof. Xena hooked the end into one of the links, then backed off, as the captain grabbed the other chain and slid it under the half propped pillar.
Several of the men grabbed the stone, and, with serious grunts, got their hands under the edge and lifted, allowing him to slide it far enough under for Xena to grab it. She pulled the other end up. “Get under there, all of you, and lift!”
The rest of the guard did so, and the end lifted slowly, until she could hook that end too. She stepped back, and nodded. The pillar was suspended by the chains from the timbers, it’s end only a bodylength or so from the door’s surface.
“We can take it from here.” The guard captain stated. “C’mon, boys, make her swing.” They all put hands on the stone, and started pushing, the tallest of them starting a low chant.
Xena backed off, as the pillar started moving, back, and then forward, hitting the door with a solid, booming thump. She watched the edges of the door frame shiver, and nodded, then turned and raced over to where Gabrielle was lying. “Should be outta here in a minute.”
“See?” Gabrielle slurred softly. “Tolja it was a good plan. She’s the best.” She could hardly keep her eyes open, though the pain seemed to have subsided for a while. It was getting hard to breathe though, and she wished they were out in the fresh air. “That’s m’Xena.”
The warrior took a worried breath, laying a hand on her partner’s fevered cheek. “Hang in there, love. It’ll be better soon, I promise.”
Gabrielle latched on to the hand, and pressed it to her lips. “Trust you.” She murmured. “With e’vrything.”
Xena carefully gathered her up in her arms, and stood. “C’mon.” She told Homer. “We don’t have much time.”
Homer followed her as they moved towards the door.
The captain had the battering ram swinging, and with each hit of it against the wood more stone crumbled around the doorway. The door itself was becoming bowed as well, and Xena let out a tiny, concerned breath as she watched it, very aware of the flames now licking at the roof timbers behind her.
If the fire burnt through the support timber before they broke the door down…. Resolutely, the warrior put that out of her mind, and edged a little closer to the entrance. She felt Gabrielle shift in her arms and looked down, as the bard reached up and wrapped her arms around her neck. “You don’t have to do that.” Xena told her gently.
“I know.” Gabrielle peeked behind Xena, where Dori had now latched onto her arm and was mouthing her wrist. “But I want to.” She rested her cheek against Xena’s breastbone. “Always made me feel so good to hug you.”
Xena watched a section of the door crack. “Yeah.” She murmured in reply. “How damn long it was that I told myself I let you do it just for you.”
Gabrielle smiled faintly.
“Hurry, men!” The captain yelled, urgently. The flames had reached the ceiling behind them, and now the roar was almost a force against their skins. Xena could feel the heat building and she pressed against the stone, blinking as a shower tiny rocks rained over her.
“Mama!” Dori yelled, unhappily.
“It’s okay, honey.” Gabrielle released one arm and circled the child with it.
The pillar swung back, shoved by two dozen sooty hands, and then forward, with several of the men hanging onto it, lending their weight to it’s force. It struck the doors dead center, and with a splintering crack, they parted.
“Yeahh!!!!!” Voices rose excitedly. “One more!”
Another swing, this time the ram hit the left hand side door, and it burst from it’s jam, and hurled itself outward, revealing a flash of bright sun, and startling blue sky.
Then it was bedlam, as everyone scrambled for the opening. The fire sucked eagerly at this new source of fresh air and surged forward, licking at their heels. Xena bolted from her spot near the wall and ducked as the pillar swung crazily around, knocking several men off balance. The crowd jammed the opening, pushing and shoving, and glancing behind her, she knew she didn’t’ have much time to clear the jam.
Her hands twitched, and she almost released Gabrielle so that she could grab her sword and just start cutting their way out.
Then the other door was abruptly yanked outwards, it’s smouldering surface already starting to catch embers from the fire behind them. The warrior raced for the opening as they all poured outside, and down the long, stone steps towards the street.
“Xena!” A familiar voice made the warrior pull up, to see Ephiny and Eponin releasing the rope they’d tied to the other door to yank it open.
“Glad to see you two.” Xena yelled. “Get moving.. I think…. “
A low, rumbling roar cut her words off, and the warrior shoved the two Amazons down the steps and around the low wall that separated the jail from the street. Just as they turned the corner, a ball of fire exploded from the jail, filling the doorway with hot orange light, and obliterating the place they’d stood just moments before.
Xena paused and looked behind her, taking in the wall of flames. “Close.”
“Too close.” Ephiny latched onto her arm. “Great Athena, what happened to the two of you? Are you all right?” This she directed to the groggy Gabrielle.
“Been better.” The bard admitted. “Long story.”
“Let’s get out of here.” Eponin urged. “C’mon, this place is nuts!” She glanced around. “When we found out they had you guys in there…”
“Found out?” Xena asked. “How?”
Ephiny and Pony exchanged looks. “Long story.” The Amazon regent said. “We’re closer to our inn, let’s get you over there.”
Sounded like a great idea. “Good.” Xena shifted her burden a little. “I need to take care of Gabrielle.” She glanced over her shoulder. “I think Dori’s fine. You okay, shortie?”
Dori tugged on her hair. “Cookie!”
“Hey.. “ Homer ducked around the corner just at that moment, and almost crashed into them. “Take me with you. I don’t know how they’re feeling about escaped prisoners around here, and I don’t want to find out.”
“S’okay.” Gabrielle gave Homer a wan smile. “He’s a friend.”
“Right.” Ephiny pointed. “That way.”
Cyrene was standing outside the inn, talking to her old friend the innkeeper when they heard footsteps approaching. “Now what.” The innkeeper muttered. “Fire, flood, what’s next, famine? Not good news for the likes of me.”
“Maybe it’s.. “ Cyrene stopped in mid word as a small cluster of people entered the small, walled courtyard of the inn. “Gods of Olympus.. “She stared in shock at her daughter, whose tanned body was almost completely bare, and covered in cuts, burns and bruises. Xena’s dark hair was wild and disheveled, and her pale eyes were stark and intent. In her arms she carried an obviously injured Gabrielle, who clung to her with weary strength.
Cyrene dropped the handful of thatch she’d been looking at and ran hastily to meet them. “Xena!”
“Mother.” Xena looked grim. “Can you take Dori?” She half turned, and ducked down so her mother could unstrap the baby’s carrysack and remove her off her back. “She hasn’t been fed or.. “
“I can tell.” Cyrene interrupted. “I’ll take care of her.. you two get inside.” She put a hand on Gabrielle’s arm. “By the gods..”
“Hi, mom.” Gabrielle grimaced. “Kind of a bad day, y’know?” She hung onto Xena as they made their way inside the inn, with the innkeeper fluttering after them in agitation. Now that it was over, or almost, Gabrielle wanted nothing more than to be still and quiet.
“We need an empty room.” Cyrene’s voice carried.
“But, the law!”
“A plague on the law.” Xena’s mother snapped. “Just open it, or by the gods I’ll knock that door down myself.”
A clink. A creaking. Then Gabrielle was aware of being carried into a room that smelled of apples, clean linen and sunlight. She felt the fever start making her shiver as she was let down onto the bed gently, her body achingly able to relax at last.
She kept her eyes closed. The sounds faded in and out, but she focused on Xena’s low voice very near by, and the warrior’s touch as she examined her wounds. A gentle thumb brushed her cheek near the whip welt, and she heard Xena sigh heavily, the end of the sound descending into almost a growl.
She heard water tinkling nearby, then the sensation of coolness as a cloth wiped her skin, leaving behind a stark chill that made her shiver.
“Easy.” Xena’s hands continued their touch.
“Cold.” Gabrielle protested faintly.
“I know. I need to get you cleaned off, though. Hang in there.”
Hang in there. Gabrielle thought about that. Her head seemed to hurt less, and so did her guts, but the fever was making her muscles clench painfully as she fought against the chills and her mouth felt totally parched inside. “Water?”
She felt Xena’s hand curl behind her neck and very gently lift her up a little, enough for her to suck weakly at the spout of a waterskin. The taste of the water inside almost brought tears to her eyes, and she wished, at that moment, that she was home in Amphipolis, in their cabin. “Dori?”
“She’s fine. Mom has her. She’s getting her cookies.”
‘She getting you some cookies?” Gabrielle murmured. “You didn’t get breakfast either.”
“Don’t worry about me.”
“I have to worry about you. It’s m’job.” The bard protested. “Y’re not gonna take it away from me, are ya?”
“Never.” Xena replied softly.
“Good.” Gabrielle felt things slipping away from her. “Gotta do a good job.. don’t want you to just leave me someplace, huh?” She was aware of a sort of silence around her, kind of weird, like everyone as holding their breaths and not moving. But that would be stupid. Right?
Xena’s voice was very warm, rich with the affection Gabrielle remembered gobbling up greedily every time she heard it. A hand touched her face, and she sensed Xena leaning closer to her.
“Gabrielle, look at me.”
Ooo.. easy request. The bard pried one eyelid open and was surprised, a little, at the serious intensity of her partner’s expression. “Mm?” She opened the other eye for good measure.
Xena cupped her face with one hand. “Listen to me.”
Xena got closer, until her eyes filled the bard’s field of vision. “I will never leave you.” The warrior pronounced the words very carefully. “Never.” She waited a beat, then backed off a little, watching the fevered expression looking back at her. After a moment’s utter stillness, Gabrielle’s head tilted, just a bit, to one side, and a subtle, but to Xena profound ‘something’ changed, deep in the golden flecked green eyes.
Gabrielle blinked slowly, then her gaze drifted off, taking in the room before it returned to Xena’s face. After a few moments, a tiny grin appeared.
Xena patted her cheek gently, then shook out a soft, quilted blanket and settled it over her partner’s battered frame. “You need to get some rest.” She told her. “You’re gonna be fine, sweetheart, but it’s going to take a while.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle finally allowed her eyes to close, as a blanket of peace drifted over her. She reached out and captured Xena’s hand, twining their fingers together, then relaxed completely.
The warrior watched her for a few heartbeats, then her own shoulders slumped and she glanced around, taking in the solemn, watching eyes. She felt a little embarrassed, unused to having to display this private a side of herself in so very public a place. In front of her mother, well… or the Amazons, she’d given up trying to..
Oh, Hades. Forget it. Xena just picked up the wet cloth an wrung it out, then set the small bowl of water aside. She was aware of Ephiny coming to kneel next to her, and Pony showing up on the other side. “She’ll be all right.” The warrior said. “Bruises look bad, but she’s smart. She covered up. That bump on her head is what I’m most worried about.”
A touch on her shoulder made her turn her head sharply, to find Eponin cleaning her skin. Their eyes met, and Xena’s eyebrows hiked up.
“You’re bleeding all over the floor.” The weapons master commented, unruffled. “And you look like you went through a rabid wild centaur stampede.”
“Yeah.” Ephiny was laying out a bit of thread and a bone needle. “I don’t think the Queen would approve if we let you drip all over her. So humor us.”
“Let’s go see if we can get some dinner together.” Cyrene hoisted a now contented Dori up. She motioned her friend to leave before her, then paused and regarded Homer. “You too.” She pointed towards the door. They all trouped out, leaving the four of them in peace.
Xena rocked back a little on her heels, and let her hands rest on her thighs as she accepted the Amazon’s aid in silence. The worst cuts, she knew, were on her back and relatively inconvenient for her to try and take care of herself.
“So.” Ephiny had started to work on the worst one, a long gash that started just below Xena’s shoulderblade. “What.. um.. happened in there?”
A dozen images flashed through Xena’s memory. “Not that much.” She replied. “I went in, found Gabrielle, got out.”
Pony started chuckling.
“Well.” Ephiny took a careful stitch. “After Cait and Paladia broke your friend Mikah out of his little slave prison, and brought him back here, we heard you two were inside that prison.”
Xena’s eyebrow lifted. “Broke him out?”
“Gabrielle asked Cait to make sure he was okay.” Ephiny told her. “Cait followed her instructions.. to the glyph.”
“Wayoverfollowed.” Pony muttered, as she rinsed out her cloth. “Pick your arm up.”
Xena did, resting her elbow on Eponin’s head. The Amazon gave her a dire look.
“According to Mikah, you were set up.”
Xena turned and looked at Ephiny. “Set up?”
The regent nodded. “He said he overheard the owner of the bordello you were staying at making a deal with the guy he got sold to. A lot of dinars were involved.”
“Bordello?” Pony peeked up at Xena, with a smirk.
Xena ignored her, turning her gaze on Gabrielle’s still form. “They knew she’d defend him.”
“Yeah.” Ephiny agreed, softly. “They didn’t know they didn’t have to go to so much damn trouble to put that kid in there. She’d have defended anyone.”
The warrior let out a long breath. “Yeah.” She reached forward and brushed her knuckles against the bard’s cheek. “But she wasn’t the real target.” Xena said. “They knew I’d come after her.”
“Thus proving their stupidity.” Ephiny remarked matter-of-factly. She put another stitch in the tan skin under her fingers, feeling only the barest twitch of the muscles underneath it as the needle punctured.
Xena remained silent, her face still and unemotional. “They hurt her, put my daughter at risk, and almost killed a dozen of their own citizens. For what?” She asked, in a flat voice. “For the glory of War?”
Pony snorted. “For the glory of their own purses, too.” The Amazon winced, at the long burn across Xena’s shoulder. “Bastards.” She cursed. “To Hades with all of them. Let em kill each other.”
Ephiny leaned close and tied the last stitch off, cutting the thread with her teeth. Then she glanced up at Xena. “Hate to say it, but Pony’s right. These people aren’t worth your suffering, Xena. Or hers.” The regent gazed at the bard. “They’ll be to busy to worry about the levy from Amphipolis – let’s just get the Hades out of here, and go home.” She examined a cut on the warrior’s arm. “Bunch of useless stuck up jerkwads.”
Xena regarded the dried blood on her skin. “Did you say Cait knew where the guy who was keeping Mikah was?” She asked softly.
“Yeah.” Pony dabbed some thick, creamy salve on the burns that were liberally scattered all over Xena’s back. “Damn, champ. What did you do, just walk through the flames?”
“I did what I had to do.” Xena answered, in a distant voice.
Ephiny studied her, a frown of concern crossing her face. “Why don’t you sit down for a while, Xena. We’ll go grab something edible and bring it back here.”
Pony picked up the bowl and the linen and moved away. “Yeah.”
Xena thoughtfully sat down on the floor next to the bed and leaned back against the wall. “Not a bad idea.” She agreed. “It’s been a long day.” Her eyes went to the window, which showed a late afternoon’s golden light. “Guess everyone won their bets today, huh?”
Ephiny felt a deep sense of worry erupt in her guts as she noted the quiet, resolute, far off look to Xena’s eyes. “Yeah.” She said. “We got worried about you guys when you didn’t show for the first event, and we beat it out of the arena and started looking for you.”
Xena nodded. “Thanks.” She said. “Getting that door open made a difference.” She rested her elbow on the bed, and reached over to take Gabrielle’s hand, folding it into her own.
“Damn frustrating.” Pony groused. “Jerks outside were more worried about escaping prisoners than the damn place being on fire.. blocking that door what that damn cart. What were they thinking?”
“They were thinking if that fire happened to kill us, it’d be a good thing.” Xena replied calmly. “Maybe they’d even get a reward for it.” She chafed the bard’s fingers gently.
“Right.” Ephiny got up, the unease growing. “Well, we’ll be right back.” She attempted a smile. “Don’t go anywhere, okay?”
A tiny shake of Xena’s head was all the answer she got. Worried, she ducked out the door with Pony following her, her mind swarming with warning signals.
“Getting outta here’s a great idea.” Pony exhaled, shaking her head.
“Yeah.” Ephiny ran her hand through her curly blond hair. “The sooner the better.”
“Glad this is over.”
An echo of those words played mockingly inside Ephiny’s conscience. “That would be the simple answer.” She told her lover. “And we both know with our Queen, and her consort – life is never simple.”
At last, it was quiet. Xena let her thoughts settle for a few moments, while she simply watched Gabrielle sleep, studying the faint flare of her nostrils as her eyes traced the whip mark over and over again.
Of course, it wasn’t the first time Gabrielle had been hurt by someone trying to get at her. Xena sighed, resting her chin on her arm. It probably wasn’t the last time either, but even though they’d both accepted the risk, it never got any easier when it happened.
Now that the danger, for the moment, was over, the energy from her battle nerves was fading, allowing her to feel the damage she’d done to herself over the course of the day. Her hands hurt from the burns, and the cuts the Amazons had sewn up smarted annoyingly. She moved a little, and her shoulders reminded her sharply of the abuse she’d put them through, the ache causing her to clench her jaw.
With a soft curse, she closed her eyes and concentrated, letting the pain go past her. There was really just no time for her to sit here and baby herself, there was too much to be done for Gabrielle.
She lifted her head and turned, to see her mother in the doorway. “Yeah? Dori okay?”
Cyrene had what Xena recognized as her personal kit bag in her hand, and she walked over to set it down next to the warrior before she answered. “She’s fine.” The innkeeper said, putting a gentle hand on Xena’s arm. “How are you?”
“Fine.” Xena replied, shortly.
“Xena.” Cyrene looked at her with wry affection. “That didn’t work with me when you were six, and it doesn’t work now. I’m your mother, remember?”
First the Amazons, now this. Xena grumbled soundlessly.
“Would you like a little cold wine?” Cyrene asked. “I had some meat stew left over, I brought it with me.” She nudged a covered pot near her foot towards Xena. “How about I leave this, and you take some if you want it.” She put a skin down next to the pot, then leaned over and kissed Xena on the top of the head before she turned and left.
Xena waited for the footsteps to fade before she lifted the top off the stew pot and sniffed it appreciatively, her body reminding her sharply that she hadn’t put anything in it other than some honeycake all day. She eased her limbs into a cross-legged position and set the still warm pot into her lap, working one handed since the other was caught firmly in Gabrielle’s grip.
She considered the wineskin for a moment, then uncorked it and sucked down several mouthfuls of the rich, spiced red wine, the chill of the liquid rapidly turning into a potent warmth as it hit her empty stomach. She waited a moment, then exhaled as she felt her tense muscles relax, easing the ache somewhat.
Better. She set the skin down and drew out her smaller bootknife, spearing a chunk of meat out of the stew and putting it into her mouth. She chewed it slowly, savoring the unexpected taste of home. It helped, in a way, giving her something to focus on and the real, tangible benefit of giving her body the energy it needed to deal with the damage she’d taken.
She finished the stew, setting the pot aside and shifting a little to make herself a more comfortable. She extended her legs out and leaned back against the wall, laying her sword across her lap. A few more sips of the wine washed the stew down and she settled herself to keep watch, her hand still clasped within the bard’s.
Gabrielle was aware, in a far off sort of way, that she was dreaming. It didn’t really trouble her, though, because it was such a wonderful, peaceful kind of dream, so much so that she had the feeling she was loitering lazily in sleepdom, just watching the fluffy white clouds drift by.
She was in a field of rich, green river grass, lying down with her feet crossed and her hands folded over her stomach. Across her, a sweet, cool breeze blew, ruffling her hair and bringing to her nose the scent of sunlight and growing things.
Her head was pillowed on a soft, gently moving surface – and she could feel Xena’s hearbeat thrumming gently against the back of her neck.
They had nothing to do, and no where they had to be. Ahead of her, she knew she had a walk, and dinner, and a night of counting stars to look forward to.
Her life, at this moment, was perfect.
A butterfly entered her field of vision and she watched it, the wings painted in a riot of rich reds and yellows blurring by as it danced from stalk to stalk, in search of some dinner of it’s own. Gabrielle wondered if the butterfly was as happy as she was. She lifted a hand towards it, and it flew over, landing on her fingers with tickling little feet.
It seemed like it had been such a long time since she’d felt a peace of the spirit like this. She brought the butterfly closer and watched it’s antenna waggle at her. Then she lowered her hand to rest on the arm Xena had draped over her, and watched the butterfly climb down onto it. The wings slowly stopped their motion. The butterfly seemed content to rest on Xena’s tanned knuckles.
Gabrielle smiled at it, understanding it’s perspective completely.
She closed her eyes, and let the dream slowly fade out, as the reality of her surroundings faded back in. It wasn’t nearly as nice, of course. For one thing, she hurt.
A lot. Her head ached, and her body felt like she’d fallen off a roof. She knew it would be a lot more pleasant if she just went back to sleep, but the discomfort was making it hard to find a place for herself. She exhaled, and concentrated on absorbing her surroundings instead, having a vague memory of being carried into a room but not much more than that.
It smelled clean, and it was quiet in the room, but she knew if she turned her head and opened her eyes, Xena would be there. Seeing her soulmate seemed an appealing idea, so she did just that – turned her head and let her eyes drift open, blinking them a little to clear the fuzziness of sleep from them.
She was rewarded with an excellent view of Xena’s profile, very close to her as the warrior sat next to the bed, her back resting against the wall and her eyes closed in light sleep.
Gabrielle wondered why the doofy thing hadn’t just gotten into bed, then glanced down to see the burnished sword resting across Xena’s lap, it’s hilt hidden inside the curl of the warrior’s hand.
My protector. The bard felt a surge of affection for her soulmate. She was still wearing the burned and tattered remains of the athletic costume, revealing most of her skin. Gabrielle could see the burn marks on her arms and legs, one long angry mark crossing her muscular thigh from hip almost to knee.
Under all that, though, still she was beautiful in Gabrielle’s eyes.
The room was empty otherwise, save a covered tray on the table nearby, and a pile of stuff in the corner Gabrielle recognized as theirs. Very late afternoon sunlight was peeking through the shuttered windows, and she realized she’d been asleep for quite some time.
Back to Xena’s profile. The bard studied it idly, admiring the clean lines, and the way Xena’s dark lashes and brows framed her expressive eyes. With a faint smirk, Gabrielle pursed her lips up and gently blew a stream of air at the warrior’s ear, which twitched lightly, a motion that translated to her entire face as Xena woke up and straightened, muscles surging under her skin in alarm.
A very quick look around the room, then the blue eyes were turning to meet hers. A vaguely sheepish look crossed Xena’s face, as she relaxed back against the wall. “You caught me.”
Gabrielle nodded a little.
“Thirsty?” Xena asked.
The warrior set her sword aside and got to her knees, lifting the waterskin and reaching over to help Gabrielle to sit up a little. “C’mon.”
Gabrielle nestled against her partner’s chest and sucked at the waterskin, swallowing steadfastly until the skin was emptied. Then she nuzzled Xena’s skin and exhaled, reveling in the skin on skin contact. “Mmm.”
“Good girl.” Xena told her. “How are you feeling?”
Gabrielle kissed the surface she was resting her cheek against. “Lucky.”
Wasn’t quite the response Xena had been expecting. She ran her fingers through the bard’s hair, it’s strands holding a strong hint of smoke from the fire. “I meant physically.”
“Ugh.” Gabrielle shifted a little, wincing. “Stiff.”
“Ah.” The warrior gently let her down, then started a light massage along her neck and shoulders. “Fever’s down.”
“Funny.” Gabrielle had her eyes closed, as the knowledgeable hands worked their way down her chest. “I still have chills.” Her lips quirked into a rakish grin.
“Really.” Xena drawled wryly, as she kneaded the muscles at the bard’s waistline, leaning forward a little and reaching around to work on her lower back.
“Yeah.” Gabrielle stretched her body out cautiously. Xena’s hands were leaving behind a wonderful warmth, and though the pain remained, her body relaxed and lost it’s aching stiffness. She took a deep breath as the warrior finished, then let her eyes drift open as Xena leaned on the bed with both elbows, studying her intently. “I do feel better.” Gabrielle said. “Things aren’t as fuzzy up here.” She touched her head.
Xena observed the returning clarity to her partner’s gaze, and felt a sense of relief flow through her. In truth, the bump on her head was what had scared the warrior the most. Gabrielle’s growing confusion, and her wavering consciousness had indicated pressure inside her head, and that kind of injury was something she could do very little about, except hope. With a sigh, she touched the whip mark, which had come very close to Gabrielle’s eye. “Glad to hear it.” She murmured. “But I don’t think you’re going to make it to the Bard’s Challenge tonight, sweetheart.”
Gabrielle thought about that. “No.” She admitted, then fell silent.
Xena watched her for a moment. “Disappointed?” She hazarded a guess.
Green eyes flicked up to meet hers. “A little.” The bard smiled sheepishly. “Is that bad? My ego was kinda looking forward to it.” Her fingers tangled themselves idly in Xena’s hair. “But I guess everything is pretty much a moot point now, isn’t it?”
“Mm.” Xena grunted softly, her eyes focused on the lurid bruise covering most of Gabrielle’s abdomen.
The bard studied her partner’s face, watching the tension ripple across it in tiny motions that wrinkled the skin on the sides of her eyes, and furrowed her brow. Losing wasn’t something Xena did easily, especially losing in this way, to these kind of people. “Stings, huh?” She stroked the warrior’s cheek in sympathy. “But you know what, Xe? I’m just glad the three of us made it through the end of the day in one piece today.”
Xena sighed. “Yeah, I know.” She ran a fingertip over Gabrielle’s ribcage. “But I’m not sure I can forget so easily, or forgive them this.”
“This?” Gabrielle indicated her torso.
“This.” Xena flicked her hand in a vague circle, taking in their surroundings, and by inference, the city around them. “But that, too.” She amended softly, touching a burn on the bard’s arm. “Because those people were waiting for you, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle felt a faint sense of shock. “Waiting for me?” She repeated. “You mean it was a trap?”
The breath came out of Gabrielle’s chest with a soft snort. “Bastards.”
Xena’s eyes lifted curiously. Her partner’s expression had taken on an internal fire, adding a fierceness totally at odds with her rakishly disheveled hair, and smoke stained skin. Gabrielle was, she’d once privately admitted, a little too cute to really pull off a true warrior attitude, but she came close sometimes. This was one of those times.
They looked at each other, two souls in synergy.
“Can you be my warrior pony and get me to that challenge?” The bard asked. “Because, by the gods, I’ve got a story to tell them.”
“I can do that.” Xena agreed, with a nod of her head. “If you don’t mind watching me wreak havoc at those damn games tomorrow.”
“Will that help?”
“If I win them all.”
Gabrielle held a hand up, and Xena laced their fingers together. “Then let’s take this town.” She said. “Partner.”
A rakish grin appeared on the warrior’s face. She drew their joined hands over and kissed Gabrielle’s knuckles. “Deal.”
The bard rubbed the side of her index finger over Xena’s lips and returned the grin. “Hey.” She studied Xena’s face. “We made it out of there, didn’t we?”
Xena nodded slightly.
“You owe me a tattoo.” Gabrielle reminded her. “A little bird.”
Xena had wondered if the bard would remember asking. “All right.” She agreed. “You want it now, or when the rest of you stops hurting?” Her eyes twinkled just a little. “Good and bad either way.”
Gabrielle considered. “Later.” She decided, her touch tracing the lines of Xena’s face as the warrior’s eyes followed them. “When we’re out of Athens, and in some pretty meadow all by ourselves.”
“Ah… where I can put you over my knee, and have my way with you?”
“Yeah.” The bard smiled. “Speaking of having your way… did you get taken care of? I see those cuts.”
Xena glanced down at her battered body. “Your Amazons made sure I got sewn up, yeah, but I think I need a bath.” She glanced up at Gabrielle, not missing the hopeful look on her face. “Wanna join me?”
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
The room now seemed very crowded. Gabrielle folded her hands over her stomach and let her eyes drift closed, listening to the various arguments going on around her. She was feeling a bit better now, having had a nice Warrior Princess provided bath and hair washing, more water, and a little snack from the tray on the table.
She also had her daughter curled up next to her, blissfully asleep with her thumb in her mouth and the bard’s hand caught in her grip. Dori hadn’t gotten so much as a scrape in the entire adventure, unlike her two parents, in fact the toddler seemed to think it had been just one big playtime. Gabrielle only hoped she wasn’t expecting frequent repeats of the experience.
The sun was setting outside, and she knew she didn’t have that much time left to prepare before the Bard’s Challenge. There were a few butterflies starting to rustle around in her stomach, but before she’d have to face the crowd, she’d have to face…
“It’s no problem. We can just carry the pallet in. There’s four of us, right?” Pony was arguing. “We put in every blasted weapon we’ve got and take the head off anyone who gets within a spear length!”
“Pony, that’s just gonna get you in jail.” Ephiny sighed.
“No it won’t.” Her lover disagreed. “Xena burned the jail down.”
“Good point.” Xena was near the window, pulling things out of their bags. “I think it’s a good idea.”
Gabrielle groaned, softly.
“See?” Pony threw up her hands.
“Gabrielle? What do you think?” Ephiny appealed to her Queen.
“What do I think?” Gabrielle opened an eye and regarded them. “I think I’ve got two choices, since I don’t think I can make it up on stage myself. I can either let you guys.. gods.. carry me on that darn pallet, or I can let Xena carry me up there.”
She’d tried standing, while Xena had cleaned her off. It hadn’t been a good idea, and she’d doubled over from the pain in her guts and almost collapsed before the warrior had grabbed her. She was wondering, in fact, if she was actually capable of even sitting on the stage.
“Now, which would be more impressive?” Pony asked. “I mean, four Amazons in full duds, or..” She glanced at Xena, whose eyebrows were touching her hairline. “Okay, scratch that question. Listen…”
“Okay..okay!” Ephiny raised both hands, and laughed. “Consider me overruled. I was just thinking about how Athens is going to react to a horde of Amazons in it’s midst.”
“We’re a horde?” Pony seemed bemused. “Whoa. Never been a horde before.”
“And frankly, I didn’t think Gabrielle would let us do it.” Ephiny continued, glancing at the supine figure on the bed. “But if we’re going to, then let’s do it right.” She said. “Go collect Cait and Paladia, and I’ll get a properly decorated royal pallet started.”
Pony grinned, and trooped out after her lover, giving Gabrielle an approving thumbs up as she closed the door.
“Gods.” Gabrielle pulled the covers up over her head.
Xena chuckled. “Well, I don’t know. I think you being carried by four loyal Amazon warriors kinda..”
“You can lay down on the pallet, wave at the crowd..”
The warrior took pity on her and relented, as she pulled her leathers out of their kit bags and shook them out. “Time to get dressed.” She remarked, shedding the remnants of her tattered white linen number and slipping into the well crafted body armor. It felt good to resume it’s protection, despite the sting as the leather rubbed against her burns and scrapes. She snugged the laces tighter and settled the armor, wishing she’d been wearing it inside the jail. “Ah.”
“Feel better now?” Gabrielle remarked, watching her with a fond smile.
“Me too.” The bard said. “There was way too much of you showing before.”
Xena paused and looked up at her in mild bemusement. One dark brow lifted up in eloquent question.
“Mine.” Gabrielle stuck her tongue out at her partner.
The warrior’s other eyebrow hiked up, but she grinned, before walking over to the bed and sitting down on the edge of it. “You ready to go through with this?”
“No.” The bard admitted. “But I’ll manage, somehow.” She eased herself upright. “Want to help me get dressed?”
“As an Amazon?” Xena teased. “Talk about me letting skin show.”
Gabrielle gave her a wry look. “Not.” She sighed, as the pain made her pause. “Just thinking about getting into all that leather and metal is making my eyes cross. No, I figured I’d just wear something nice and simple.”
Xena got an arm behind her and helped her sit up. “I just saw that sleeveless blue tunic in your bag.. how about that?”
Gabrielle considered. “I like that one.”
“Me too. You look really good in it.” Xena complimented her quietly.
A pleased grin crossed Gabrielle’s face. “Okay – that’ll work. It’ll be comfortable at least.” She agreed. “That and my boots, and I’m all set.”
Xena peeled the covers back off her and got an arm under her knees, standing up as she cradled the bard. She walked over to the sturdy table near the window and set her down gently on it. “Don’t go away.”
“Ha ha.” Gabrielle joked weakly, enjoying the light breeze coming in the slatted surface behind her. She turned her head and looked outside, then blinked, and reached over to pull the shutter open to get a better view. “Hey.. uh.. Xe?”
“Mm?” Xena was shaking out the blue tunic, and brushing off a few specks of traveling dust. “What?”
Xena laid the shirt over her arm and complied, leaning against the table to see what the bard was looking at. Her jaw dropped slightly. Outside the inn were soldiers. Lots of soldiers, with very visible weapons. They were surrounding the inn, and by their stern faces, and sturdy stances, they meant business.
They all had matching, well cared for body half armor, metal links and leather scales, and laying over that, identical leather overtunics.
One man half turned, and the setting sun splashed over his chest, bringing out the design on the front in bold relief.
Gabrielle glanced in reflex at her own shoulder, which bore the same design. Then she looked up at Xena’s face. “You didn’t know about this.” She stated, seeing the startled disbelief.
“Son of a… “ Xena blurted. “No, I didn’t. What are they doing here?” Seeing a cluster of her own militia standing outside was about the last thing she’d expected.
“Guarding us, apparently.” Gabrielle put an arm around Xena’s neck and pulled her closer, kissing her on the cheek. “Making sure no one messes with their Genr’l.”
Xena snorted softly. “Oh, that’s gonna go over real well.” She exhaled, but found herself smiling anyway. Those were her troops outside, and to pretend that didn’t feel good was just lying to herself. She tipped the window closed again and returned her attention to her soulmate, carefully easing the light shift she was wearing off over her head, leaving her in just her brief underwraps.
“You know…” Gabrielle paused, as the blue garment was put over her head, and gently fitted to her body. “I can’t remember the last time someone dressed me.”
Xena straightened the collar of the tunic. The vibrant fabric really contrasted well with Gabrielle’s golden skin, and her fair hair, and brought out the green in her eyes. Despite the lurid whip mark across her face, and the red rimmed tiredness evident in those eyes, her internal beauty shone through like very few people Xena had ever known.
“Something wrong?” The bard poked her.
“What are you staring at then, did I grow a horn while I was sleeping?”
Xena leaned over and kissed her, exploring her lips with gentle licks and nibbles, tasting a hint of mint and apple from the tea she’d just had. She felt Gabrielle draw in an unsteady breath, then a gentle tug on her leathers pulled her closer. Willingly, she complied, easing between the bard’s knees and sliding both hands up her thighs.
Gabrielle’s hands circled her neck and she let out a soft murmur. “If Eph and Pony come back in here, we’ll never hear the end of it.”
“Good.” Xena nibbled the tip of her nose. “Hope they get all the details right.” She captured the bard’s lips again, as Gabrielle’s palm cupped her jawline, stroking her skin gently. The warmth felt good, and the reaction of her body served to remind her all over again of the mutual attraction they both felt for each other. She took a final nibble, then eased back a little, watching Gabrielle’s face as the bard’s hands continued to explore her skin.
“You know…” Gabrielle traced Xena’s dark eyebrows. “We could have all died in there.”
Xena had consciously decided not to think about that. “But we didn’t.” She shrugged.
The fair head cocked to one side a little. “Can you kiss people in the Elysian Fields, Xena?”
Xena frowned. “Damn poor excuse for Elysia if you can’t, don’t you think?” She leaned forward and touched her forehead to Gabrielle’s.
“You better be able to.” Gabrielle brushed her partner’s lips with her thumb. “Or we’re outta there.” She tilted her head and went in for one more kiss. “Know what I realized, while you were down there pulling us out?”
“What?” Xena asked.
Gabrielle looked up and met her eyes. “You’re my Elysia.” She said, cupping Xena’s cheek again when as she absorbed the stunned look in those very blue orbs. “I don’t need the Fields as long as I have you.”
Xena drew in a breath, and felt a smile pulling at the muscles in her face. She really had no answer for that, so she just pulled Gabrielle into a hug and welcomed the bard’s arms around her. They stayed that way, in happy silence as the last of the sun disappeared, and twilight sent purple light to peek through the shutters at them.