A Matter of Pride
“Mama, Gramma gots good cookies.” Dori informed her mother seriously. “Big.”
“Oh, really?” Gabrielle replied, stroking the toddler’s hair. She was lying in bed, ostensibly relaxing while Xena checked on the progress of the pallet and greeted her troops. It was full dark out, but as Xena had reminded her – she’d have time to wait while the other bards were performing.
Staying where she was, quietly resting, was a very appealing idea to Gabrielle. “How come you didn’t bring me one, huh?” She asked her daughter, who was dressed in a little red outfit that looked adorable on her, a nice contrast to her dark hair. Dori had Bittyboo encircled by one arm, the tattered doll resting mutely next to her.
“Howcome?” Dori warbled. “Mama gets cookies.”
“Not unless you get them for me. Mama can’t get up and get any.” Gabrielle explained. “Should we call Gramma?”
“You think she’ll bring cookies?”
A soft knock came at the door. Gabrielle glanced around, then exhaled as she remembered she no longer had her staff. Her eyes searched for a substitute, then better sense intervened and reminded her that bad guys probably would not be politely knocking. “Yes?”
The door cracked open, and Mikah slowly poked his head inside.
“Hey.” Gabrielle greeted him. “C’mon in. We don’t bite.” She glanced at her daughter. “Well, most of us don’t.”
Mikah slid inside, then came over and knelt at the bedside. His face bore bruises, the old one, and newer, but he seemed relatively unharmed otherwise. “I came to thank you.” He said. “And to say how sorry I am that you got hurt, and I couldn’t warn you.”
Gabrielle put a hand on his arm. “It’s okay.” She told him. “I wish they hadn’t decided to get you involved in this… you were only trying to help us.”
Mikah bowed his head a moment. “I know.” He said. “But the shame of it is..” He looked at her. “I was too frightened to defy them.”
Gabrielle gazed at him compassionately. “Would it have made a difference if you’d tried?” She asked. Dori mouthed her stuffed toy, watching in curious silence.
Mikah paused, then half shrugged. “I don’t know.” He answered in a low voice. “I never will know. I watched them beat you, and I should have tried to do something.”
A flash of memory suddenly flooded Gabrielle’s mind’s eye, of a much younger self having the same second thoughts.
She’d watched, helpless, as they’d overwhelmed the furiously fighting warrior and borne her to the ground, only to be tossed off as Xena’s body arched and rolled.
They had come right back, though, and the dust had risen, hiding the fighting from Gabrielle’s eyes until it disappeared – along with the men, and Xena, over a ledged embankment she didn’t know the bottom of.
“Xena!” Gabrielle yelled desperately, as she reached the edge and fell to her knees, peering fearfully over and hoping her friend was all right. Below her, she couldn’t see anything, except for a fast moving brown river and a lot of broken branches where bodies had fallen through.
“Xe…” Gabrielle looked downstream, standing up and shading her eyes. She could see bobbing figures moving away from her, and panic struck her. “Xena!!!!!” With her heart pumping, she started to run down the bank.
The voice brought her up sharply, and she stopped, whirling around and looking for the source. “Xena?”
Gabrielle ran back to the embankment and flopped down onto her belly, inching over to peer over the edge. She jumped when a muddy face popped up in front of hers and yelled in pure reaction. “Yahhh!!”
“Hush!” Xena glared at her, as she hauled herself up over the ledge and slumped down next to Gabrielle, her drenched body covered in cuts and scratches. “Bastards.”
“You’re hurt.” Gabrielle dabbed at a bleeding cut on Xena’s leg with a bit of her skirt.
“Leave it alone. I’m fine.”
“No you’re not, you’re dripping blood all over the place, Xena!” Gabrielle protested. “I’ll go get some bandages, or your herbs, or..”
Gabrielle had, for once, ignored the warning and pressed her hands down over the cut, stopping the blood with wads of fabric. “You could hold this here, but it’s attached to me.. maybe you could cut off a piece.”
“Xena! You can’t pretend you’re not gushing blood! It’s all over me!”
“Shh.” Xena had put a hand over her mouth. “I am, okay? Thanks for stopping it. Now wouldja just relax?”
Gabrielle lowered her head, and bit the inside of her lip. “It’s the least I could do.” She said. “It’s not like I can do anything else, but hang around like a bump on a log.”
“Yeah, well, I fight, you talk remember?” Xena said.
“Xena, that’s not…” Gabrielle kept her hands pressed against the cut. “I should do more to help you. It’s not fair. Maybe I could learn to throw rocks or something.”
A hand had fallen unexpectedly on her shoulder. “Gabrielle, you don’t need to do that.” Xena said. “The minute you pick up a weapon, you become a target. You don’t want that to happen, do you?”
Gabrielle sighed heavily. “I don’t know.” She admitted. “I hate not being able to do anything.”
“Well, I don’t want that to happen.” Xena said. “So you let me do the fighting.”
Gabrielle had looked at her, unsure if she was willing to keep to their arrangement. She found unexpected compassion in Xena’s eyes, as the warrior wiped a bit of mud with the back of her hand, and removed a water plant hanging on her shoulder.
“Trust me.” Xena said, in a quiet, knowing voice. “You don’t want to be a fighter, Gabrielle. It only gets you hurt.”
Gabrielle lifted her hands carefully, making sure the cut had stopped bleeding. “I guess.” She had to admit, seeing the bruises on her friend’s skin. “Want me to go get Argo?”
Xena drew in a breath and started to speak, then paused. “N…Yeah.” She said. “That’d be great.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle had gotten to her knees. “Where are we going next?”
“Up into the mountains.”
“The villagers said there were Amazons there. Is that true?”
“There used to be.”
“Do you think we’ll see them?” Gabrielle had been sidetracked. “I’ve heard so many stories about them, I’d love to meet some!”
“They avoid strangers, Gabrielle. Don’t get your hopes up.”
Gabrielle got to her feet, and brushed her now bloodstained skirt off. “Okay.” She pushed down her disappointment. “Will you tell me everything you know about them then? It’d be the next best thing.”
A wistful, faint smile appeared on Gabrielle’s face. Xena had, of course, been right about taking up arms, and the consequences of that.
And wrong, as it happened, about them meeting Amazons.
But she wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“Not everyone’s cut out for this kind of thing, Mikah.” She told the boy. “If you did try to stop them, they might have hurt you, or even killed you, and I still would have gotten beat up.”
Mikah exhaled. “I know.” He looked at her. “Xena would have stopped them.”
“Oh yes.” Gabrielle agreed readily. “In a heartbeat.”
“Boo?” Dori heard a favorite name. “Mama, get Boo, come back, get cookies, go fly.” The toddler demanded. “Go now!”
“Oh, you’re such a little tyrant.” The bard chuckled. “Listen to you giving me orders. Who do you think you are, huh?”
Dori grinned, and stuck a finger in her mouth, then pointed at her mother. “Mama!”
That surprised a laugh out of Gabrielle, brief due to the pain in her gut. “I do not sound like that!” She scolded her child, then glanced at Mikah. He was watching Dori with a curious expression.
“She’s adorable.” He offered.
“She thinks so.” Gabrielle put a finger on Dori’s nose, and watched the toddler swipe at it with both hands. “Don’t you?”
“Mama.” Dori crawled over and snuggled up against Gabrielle’s side, kicking her feet out against the covers to make a comfortable spot for herself.
Gabrielle curled an arm around her and hugged her, giving her a kiss on the top of her head. “I thought she’d be knocked out after what she went through today, but she’s had her nap, and now she’s raring to go again.”
Gabrielle looked up, a trifle puzzled. “Sure.”
Mikah blinked, and studied the child. “She… ah.. looks a bit like Xena.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle smiled, completely declining to elaborate. “She sure does.” Time for a change of subject. “So, tell me about what happened to you? I hear you got rescued by two friends of ours?”
Mikah tore his eyes from Dori and scrubbed his face with one hand. “Um, yes. The Amazons.” He hesitated. “Are they all like that?”
Oh boy. “Um.. some are, some aren’t.” Gabrielle temporized. “What’d they do?”
Might as well know the worst, right?
“You are my Elysia.”
Xena tucked the words inside her and savored them. Guess it pays to have a poet as a partner, huh? She let her thoughts float for a bit, reasoning she was due a little mental rest after the day they’d had.
Already, as most of her adventures did, the details were fading a little, losing the vibrant emotional impact she’d felt while they were trapped and replacing it with a deep sense of relief that the ordeal was past, and they were safe. It was behind them, after all, and they still had a long road to walk before they could leave Athens behind and head back home.
It had made her think about something she’d consciously blocked out of her mind for a while, though. The year at home had allowed her to let thoughts of death, hers or Gabrielle’s, fade, and coming into the marketplace and knowing the bard had been taken….
Had brought that fear home with a vengeance.
When they’d been trapped in the storage room, though, Xena had found herself facing the death of all of them with a cross between fear at what would come next, and an almost shameful sense of relief. Relief that neither she, nor the bard would have to face the loss, and the empty loneliness of living without half of their souls. Relief that Dori wouldn’t be left an orphan, though she knew her family would take care of the child, to wonder always why her parents had gone without her.
Death was something that came to everyone. Xena knew that. It was part of what made them all human, and she knew that someday she’d have to face the death of everyone close to her, unless she died first.
The warrior exhaled. She was glad they’d escaped fate this time. But if they hadn’t, she acknowledged silently, it might have been the best of the worst of possibilities.
“You are my Elysia.”
Xena smiled, and shook her head. “You’ve always been mine.” She spoke silently to her partner. “And who knows? Maybe between the two of us we’ll end up creating an afterlife for ourselves that matches what we have in this one?”
She knew she was crossing a line.
She didn’t care.
It was time to start looking forward again.
The warrior had been leaning against a tree in the courtyard, arms crossed over her chest, her angular face outlined in the fluttering torchlight they were working by, and she hadn’t heard anyone approach.
“XENA?” Pony waved a hand in front of the unusually inattentive blue eyes. “Hello? Athens to the Royal Consort? Anyone in the hut?”
With a tiny shake of her head, Xena straightened, and turned her gaze on Eponin. “Yeah?”
“What’s up with you?” Pony asked, conversationally. She walked over and leaned against the tree next to the warrior. “You’ve been acting like a goat in heat since you came out here.”
“I was thinking.” Xena gave her an evil look.
“About what, the next festival of Dionysus? You were grinning like a cat.” Pony snorted.
“Just something Gabrielle and I were talking about, all right?” Xena gazed over her head. “Aren’t you done with that damn thing yet?”
Pony turned to regard the project. “Almost.” She said. “Gotta make sure it looks good.”
Xena’s eyebrow lifted. “What are those things hanging off it?”
“Yeah.” Pony handed her one. “We found them in the market. Eph figured, since we didn’t have our usual stuff, these’d look nice, and make lots of good noise.”
Xena examined the snail, which was large, and brightly colored. “Nice.” She peered inside it.
“We took the snail out.” Pony gave her a look. “Give us a break.”
“Yeah? Where’d you put them all?”
The Amazon weapons master eyed her warily. “In that pail over there, why?”
Xena started walking towards the spot. “I’ll give em to Gabrielle.”
Pony stood rooted in one spot for a moment, then hurried to catch up to Xena’s longer strides. “What the Hades is she going to do with them?”
The warrior picked up the bucket and examined the contents. “Snail stew.” Xena said, briskly. “Now, did I see grubs for sale in that little cart…” She rubbed her jaw thoughtfully. “Or were those dried bees?”
Pony’s jaw dropped.
“Wanna come by our room for dinner after the show?” The warrior asked. “I’m sure there’ll be enough.”
“B..” Pony flushed as her voice broke. “You…. Eat…. Those?”
“Sure.” Xena plucked one from the bucket and popped it into her mouth, giving it a couple of chews and swallowing. “Yum.” She watched the Amazons’ face, intrigued by the shade of green it was turning. “Want one?”
Pony’s eyes went big and very round. “Uuugghhh!!!” She couldn’t prevent her face from twisting into a grimace of horror.
Xena held her politely interested look for a moment, more, then let her face relax into a wicked grin, as she held up the not quite dead snail she’d palmed in her hand. “Gotcha.”
A blink. “You son of a…” Pony snatched the bucket from her and went to dump it’s contents all over the warrior’s leather covered chest. “I’ll give you a snail, you…”
Xena leaped nimbly out of the way, and laughed, as Pony almost overbalanced in her efforts to dump the unhappy animals on her.
“Arrrghh.” Pony bumped into a tree and bounced off, then just started laughing as well. “Damn it, Xena.. what got into you?” She complained, tossing the bucket down and putting her hands on her hips as the warrior reached up and grasped an overhead branch, hanging from it and swinging just a little.
“I dunno.” Xena watched the other Amazons finish their work on her partner’s royal couch. “Just glad everything turned out all right today, I guess.” She admitted, giving Pony a sideways look. “We were in a pretty tight place a few times in there.” She had no real idea why she was confiding this to Pony, except that she harbored a liking for the tough, blunt Amazon and the words seemed to want to escape from her.
Pony blinked a little, seeming a bit startled, then she leaned back against the tree and considered. “How tight?” She asked, cautiously.
Xena exhaled. “We were stuck in a dead end corridor. In a storage room we found after I got Gabrielle out of her cell. The fire came down the hall, we couldn’t get out.”
“Ungh.” Eponin pursed her lips. “Boy, that sucks. I hate when that happens.”
“Mm.” Xena nodded. “Sure does. Burning to death’s never been a favorite of mine.”
They were both silent for a few moments. “What’d Gab say about it?” Pony ventured. “Did she know what was going on?”
“Yeah. She knew.” Xena found herself smiling again. “She said as long as we were together, it didn’t matter to her.”
The sound of torches fluttering in the wind was very loud in the silence. They both watched the other Amazons lift the pallet, apparently satisfied with their work, and carry it over to the front of the inn.
Finally the Amazon stirred, releasing a breath. “What does it feel like?” Pony turned and looked curiously at her. “Having someone believe in you that much?”
“Again.” Xena answered softly, after a pause. Her eyes gazed off into the distance, seeing something far outside an inn courtyard in Athens. She shook her head a little. “It’s…” The words came slowly, and with difficulty. “Incredible.” She stopped there, finding nothing else to say about it.
The Amazon reached up and put a hand on Xena’s shoulder. “Xena.” Her face was quiet and serious. “I know lousy stuff’s happened, but you guys came out on top of it.”
Xena’s eyes twinkled gently, and she nodded in agreement.
“Couldn’t have happened to two better people.” Pony finished, blushing a little at the sentimentality of it.
“Thanks.” Xena replied. “I’m glad things worked out for you and Eph, too.”
Pony rolled her eyes. “With the help of her majesty’s ever so gentle poke in the butt, yeah.” She muttered.
They exchanged looks, and very quick, almost embarrassed grins.
“Hey!” Ephiny wiped the sweat off her brow. “Are you two just gonna stand there lazing around, or can we get some help here?”
“Uh oh.” Pony pushed off from the tree. “Here comes trouble.”
Xena released her branch and dusted her hands off. “Nah, Gabrielle’s still inside. I’ll go get her.”
“Did you say thank you to Gramma, for bringing cookies?” Gabrielle asked her daughter.
“Mmm… mama!” Dori reached for the cake. “Gimme!”
“Ah ah.. what do you say?” The bard held it just out of her reach.
“Mama.” Dori seemed frustrated, perhaps tired from her long, active day. “No good!”
“Say please.” Gabrielle gently insisted. “C’mon.”
“Pweease.” Dori lolled against her mother’s side and begged. “Want cake!”
“Good girl.” Gabrielle handed her a chunk. “Now say thank you to gramma.”
Dori stuffed the cake into her mouth and gave her grandmother a round eyed look. “Fmffp!” She pointed at Cyrene.
Cyrene chuckled wearily, and took a seat on the edge of the bed. “How are you feeling, cutie pie?” She asked the bard, who was dividing the edible booty between her self and her child. “You look a little ragged round the edges.”
Gabrielle watched Dori launch into a piece of fragrant spice cake, before she glanced up at the innkeeper. “I am.” She admitted, with a wry smile, breaking off a piece of cake for herself and tasting it. “Xena won’t give me anything for the pain because of my head bump.”
“Smart girl.” Cyrene nodded briskly. “You do what she says.”
“Don’t I always?” Gabrielle asked innocently, taking another bite of cake.
Cyrene’s eyebrows lifted. “Do you? Where was I when this happened?” She teased. “I must have missed it.”
Gabrielle grinned, then she tucked a slice of cold lamb onto a piece of the bread Cyrene had provided and nibbled it. Her head still ached, and her body had stiffened up to the point that even breathing wasn’t entirely comfortable, but she was determined to make the best of it. “You make me sound like such a renegade, mom.”
“It’s a family tradition, dear.” Xena’s mother smiled at her warmly. “You’re just carrying it on in grand style.”
“Mama, want Oogy.” Dori squiggled closer. “Want Guff. Make Guff come.”
Gabrielle reached over and scratched the toddler’s back. “We’ll find Guff when we leave to go home, honey. He doesn’t like big cities.” She said. “And we didn’t bring Oogy with us, but if you ask Gramma, she might get you Flameball.”
Dori sat up and scowled. Then she squirmed out of her mother’s grasp and crawled to the edge of the bed.
“Hey! Dori!” Gabrielle started to go after her, then doubled over as her sorely abused body protested. “Ugh.”
“Stay there.” Cyrene put a hand on her knee, then got up as Dori reached the edge of the bed and climbed off it, holding onto the covers as she slid to the ground. “Dori, get back here. Where are you… Dori!”
“It’s… okay.” Gabrielle rolled back upright, swallowing down the jolts of pain and trying to catch her breath. “I think she just wants a toy.”
Torn between chasing her grandchild, and worrying about Gabrielle, Cyrene finally compromised by sitting down in a chair between the two of them, and keeping an eye on Dori. “Are you sure you want to do this tonight, Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them. “I’m sure.” She replied quietly, her eyes on Dori.
Determinedly, the toddler ambled over the wooden floor, eluding her grandmother’s hands as she headed for the pile of saddlebags in the corner. She reached the nearest one and took hold of it, tugging it towards her and spilling the contents. “Gogogogoggogogogogogo….” She sat down in the pile and started to root through it, getting tangled in one of Xena’s shirts which distracted her for a moment. “Booboboooobobboooo…”
Cyrene rested her chin on her fist. “She knows that’s Xena’s?”
Gabrielle nodded. “Yeah. She can tell. Maybe it’s the scent or something.” They watched the baby disappear inside the volume of fabric, tumbling over onto her back and kicking out inside the shirt. The bard chuckled in reflex. “She’s so funny.”
Cyrene smiled, as much at the doting fondness in Gabrielle’s voice as at the baby’s antics. “She seems to have taken everything in stride.” She commented. “Your horrible time today, I mean.”
“Gods, yes.” Gabrielle willingly let herself be distracted. “I was scared, Xena was scared, but her? No way. She had the time of her life, riding on Xena’s back, getting to go into long, dark tunnels, flying through the air…” The bard gazed at her daughter. “Just one big adventure for her.”
“Go bad!” Dori’s head popped through the neck opening in Xena’s shirt and she blinked at them in surprise. “Mama!” She got up and waggled her arms, still inside the shirt, then tripped in the long fabric and tumbled back onto the floor. “Mamammma!!!!”
“Hush.. .Dori.” Cyrene got up, but only got a step towards the child when the door opened and Xena’s dark head appeared, followed by her leather-clad body.
“What’s going on here?” The warrior demanded.
“Boo!” Dori scrabbled around on the floor and attempted crawling towards her. “Mama no get Guff, no get Oogy, go bad. Got Boo!”
Xena crossed over to her and picked her up. “Oh yeah? What’s this? Are you taking up after your mama already, wearing my shirts?” She asked the toddler. “I’m not gonna have any clothes left at this rate.”
Dori giggled. “Boo, go fly!” She tugged at a bit of Xena’s leathers. “Go fly, get Oogy, get Guff, have cookies, go now!”
“Hey! You just had cookies!” Gabrielle tried not to laugh, because it hurt, but it was hard because not only was Dori being impossibly cute, Xena had a whole hearted grin on her face that made her want to laugh in sheer delight. “You spoiled rotten baby, you.”
“She’s not spoiled.” Xena cradled her daughter, tossing her up and catching her. “And where are my cookies, huh?” She gave her mother and her partner a speculative glare.
“Was I talking about her?” Gabrielle teased. “Get over here if you want cookies, Moocher Princess. I’m not bringing them over there.”
Xena walked over and eased onto the bed, laying down on her side and extended her long legs out. She plopped Dori next to her mother, still wrapped in the shirt, and propped her head up on one hand. “All right. Here I am.” She winked at Cyrene. “Thanks for bringing in a snack, mother.”
The innkeeper resumed her seat, and leaned both hands on her knees. “No trouble, honey. I needed a break. My poor friend was having a nervous breakdown before your troops showed up. Now she’s hiding under the kitchen workbench, chanting prayers to Hera.” She gave her daughter a wry look. “I can’t believe those men took their militia uniforms to sea with them.”
“I can.” Gabrielle spoke up before Xena could, mostly because she’d stuffed the warrior’s mouth with a piece of spice cake. “They’re very proud of those uniforms.” She popped a bit of the cake into Dori’s mouth as well, before the toddler could demand it.
“Yes they are.” Cyrene agreed quietly, watching Xena’s face. The warrior had snuggled up to Gabrielle’s shoulder and seemed content to lay there, accepting tidbits. There was a sense of peace about her daughter that Cyrene hadn’t seen for a long time – since before the dark times that had befallen the two of them in the recent years past. She wondered if it was simply relief at Gabrielle’s recovery, and the escape from the day’s dangers, or something deeper. “Xena?”
“Mm?” The warrior looked over at her, a dark brow lifting in question. “Tell your friend we’ll be long gone in a day or so, mother. The militia won’t break anything, I promise.”
Cyrene smiled. “I’m sure they won’t, honey. They’re all good boys.” She said. “Have you decided what you’re going to do tomorrow? I heard some of the people in the inn wondering.”
“Sure.” Xena lifted a hand and felt Gabrielle’s forehead, then ruffled her hair. “Hate to disappoint them, but I’m gonna take all their damn laurel branches home with me and
make Dori a treehouse.”
Cyrene looked thoughtful. “I had a feeling you’d say that.” She stood up and dusted her hands off. “Though I’m not sure they’ll all be disappointed, exactly.” She added. “Let me go talk to them.” The older woman exited and shut the door behind her.
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged glances. “What apples have you shaken down from THAT tree, hm?” The bard wondered bemusedly.
Dori looked up. “Tree?” She recognized the name of a favored climbing surface.
“Yeah.” Xena poked her tongue out a little at the baby. “Wouldja like a treehouse, shortie?”
“Yes.” The response was very positive. “Go now?”
Gabrielle handed her a piece of cheese. “Soon, sweetie.” She promised. “You have to let me and Boo take care of all these nasty, stuck up people, then we’ll go home, okay?”
Dori studied the piece of cheese with a very serious expression, then she pulled it into two pieces, ate one, and threw the other one at Gabrielle. It bounced off the bard’s chest and settled on her stomach. Xena leaned over and captured it in her teeth. “You ready to go?” She asked Gabrielle, chewing the mouthful and swallowing it.
Gabrielle exhaled, then nodded. “I’m as ready as I’m gonna be today, so let’s do it.” She decided. “Are they ready outside?”
“Heh. Yeah.” Xena grinned wickedly.
One blond eyebrow lifted as Gabrielle regarded her warily. “Uh oh. What’s that supposed to mean?” She asked. “What trouble have you gotten me into, Xena?”
“Me?” Big, round, woundedly innocent eyes faced her. “Get you into trouble? Would I do that?” Xena watched her partner’s eyes narrow in mock suspicion. “Nah – relax. Just make sure you give the Amazons a pat on the back for creativity, wouldja?”
“Creativity.” Gabrielle put the remains of their snack away, and dusted her shirt front off. “Oh boy.” She sighed, then attempted to remove the shirt from around Dori’s body. “C’mere, sweetie, let me get this off you.”
“No!” Dori clutched the fabric. “Mine!”
“Dori! C’mon, now.” Gabrielle scolded her. “That’s not yours.” She frowned. “Stop laughing, Xena, it’s not funny.”
Xena snickered softly.
“Mine!” Dori protested fiercely, pulling the sleeve in Gabrielle’s grasp with both hands. “Mama, give!”
Xena took hold of the baby’s hands and freed them from the fabric. “Dori, stop it.” She lowered her voice meaningfully. “Be nice to your mama. She doesn’t feel good.” The warrior had recognized the note of masked frustration in her soulmate’s tone.
“Boo! Mine!” Dori turned her protests to this new venue.
“Oh yeah? What are you gonna do with it?” Xena asked. “Huh?”
Wide, green eyes studied her in perplexity. “Mine.”
“For what?” The warrior persisted. “You can’t wear it, it’s too big.” She held up the sleeve. “How about I keep it for you till you get older, okay?”
Gabrielle let out a soft laugh, shaking her head.
“What are you laughing at?” Xena asked. “Your royal majesty, who has an entire press full of my stolen shirts at home?” She pulled the garment off Dori and slung it over her shoulder. “Hmm?”
Gabrielle mustered a look of martyred dignity. “I do it for a completely different reason.” She stated loftily.
Xena got up and headed for her armor, turning and giving the bard a raised eyebrow, meaningful look as she did so. “Oh really?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle smoothed Dori’s disheveled hair down with one hand, and watched the child capture her arm and start exploring it. “I do it because I love you so much sometimes I just want to wrap myself up in any piece of you I can get.”
“Mama loves Boo.” Dori stated, tugging on a thumb.
“That’s right, I sure do.” Gabrielle agreed. “And so do you, right?”
“Good girl.” The bard smiled at her, then glanced up, watching Xena settle her armor over her shoulders and strap it down. As she turned her head, the candelight in the room caught on the faint glisten of tears on her cheek. The bard felt a surge of warmth through their connection, seeming uncannily like the gentlest of hugs.
Xena remained quiet, however, simply working on lacing up her bracers, her face still and unemotional. She picked up her leg armor and walked over to the bed, sitting down on the edge of it to buckle the heavy metal on over her knees and strap it firmly around her boots. Her fingers worked the well worn leather into brass buckles shiny from long use and after she finished, she flexed her hands around the part protecting her knee, and slapped it. “Sure wish I’d been wearing this on the road here.”
Gabrielle gazed affectionately at her profile. “Xena, I wish I’d been wearing that getup yesterday.” She admitted. “Instead of just jumping headlong into a major fight with just a big stick. Which I lost.”
The warrior got up and shook herself to settle the armor. “I promise I’ll make you another one on the way home.” She walked over and picked up her sword in it’s sheath, attaching it to the catches in her armor before she turned and faced her partner. “Ready?”
A sigh. “No.” Gabrielle slowly pulled herself upright. “But we’re going, I guess.” She looked at Dori. “You want to come hear me tell a story, honey?”
Dori’s eyes lit up. “Mama go story yes!” She burbled enthusiastically “Tell Cow!”
Gabrielle winced as she leaned over, but worked to straighten out the child’s bright crimson jumper. “Not tonight, Dori. I’ll tell you a new story tonight, okay?”
“It’s a good story. You’re in the story. Don’t you want to hear a story about you?”
Dori eyed her doubtfully.
“You know, Xena, she looks just like you when she does that.” Gabrielle commented, as her partner walked over and knelt next to the bed, pulling the covers back.
“Feels the same way as I do, I guess.” Xena demurred. “She’s saying ‘you want to tell a story about ME? What’s up with that?” She slipped her arms under Gabrielle’s knees, and around her shoulders, and stood, lifting the bard easily. “Dori, stay right here. I’ll be right back for you.”
“Boo!” Dori squealed in outrage, as the warrior started to walk towards the door. She rustled out of the covers and tumbled off the edge of the bed to the floor, getting up and toddling after her two mothers. “Booboobobobobbobboooooo”
“Never listens.” Xena sighed, glancing at Gabrielle’s face, which was nestled against her shoulder. One green eye rolled up and looked at her as the baby crashed into her legs from behind, grabbing on to her armor and tugging on it.
“I guess she’s my kid, eh?” There was a definite twinkle in that eye.
“Our kid.” Xena replied, with a smile. She nudged the door open and walked out, with Dori pattering happily after her. “And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The Amphitheatre was a study in darkling elegance. The stage was lit by a ring of torches, and there were oil pots stretching up the ramped stone seats that outlined the richly dressed patrons in the lower, closer places and the more tightly packed ordinary citizens in the rear.
The night breeze brought some relief from the heat, but faces were shiny with sweat and even the sweetest perfumes couldn’t entire mask the scent of too much humanity and too much warmth in close proximity
On the stage, a half dozen players were emoting, to the strains of loud music being played by a band of musicians. Two huge, muscular men stood on either end of the stage, with swords in both hands, twirling them in unison in a very impressive display of skill, the flashing blades capturing the attention of the crowd, some of whom were nodding and tapping to the music.
Celesta stepped forward, dressed in robes of shimmering gold. Her hair picked up the light of the torches and seemed to ignite, suffusing her with glittering sparkles as she forcefully orated a peon to the glory of Athena, speaking of the founding of the great city of Athens. Her voice was full and rounded, and very melodious. Behind her, a group of dark clad, masked, almost animalistic men clad in furs crept up behind her, raising weapons in over emphasized threat.
The crowd gasped.
“Peh.” Cyrene whispered to Johan. “Nothing but hot air and godish smarming.”
Johan stifled a yawn, glancing around at the crowd. “Folks seem to like it.” He muttered back.
“Some folks.” His wife noted cannily. “Not so much the ones from out of town.”
The play built to it’s finale, another dozen players rushing onstage in full armor, with weapons drawn. The music took on a martial tone, and the warriors attacked the fur clad men furiously. A thunder of hooves was heard, and suddenly, through the crowd, a man on horseback appeared, riding up the stairs and clattering across the stage. He raced between the fighting warriors and reached Celesta, scooping her up behind him and galloping away, leaping off the stage and almost landing on several rows of watchers. He let Celesta down onto the shoulders of two burly, waiting men and turned around.
Gasps and screams followed him, as the battle on stage escalated. The man on horseback jumped the stallion back onto the platform and drew his sword, brandishing it grandly and leading the soldiers forward against the dark clad rabble.
Horns blared, torches flared, the stallion screamed as the music built to a crescendo The leader of the fur clad men attacked the man on horseback and they took center stage, battling back and forth bellowing loudly. Then the fur clad leader tripped up the warrior and stood above him, ready to spit him with a particularily huge spear.
The music stopped, everyone on stage froze. Celesta let out a pure, clear note that would have shattered glass if there had been any in the place.
The fur clad man was stricken. He grasped his breast. The warrior jumped up and tackled him, then the music took up, and the torches were doused, and everything rose to a triumphant final, very loud ending.
Then the torches were relit, and the audience saw the fur clad men collapsed on the stage, and the warriors triumphant. They marched over to where Celesta was and lifted her up on their shoulders, parading around with her as the audience cheered and clapped.
Celesta lifted her arms and accepted the accolades her smug smile apparent even from the back of the amphitheatre. Roses and other flowers rained towards her, as the patrons in the front stood and clapped furiously.
Johan rubbed his ear. “Hard to top that loud bit of mess.” He murmured to Cyrene. “I’d hate to have the little one be disappointed in the crowd, her being hurt and all. Maybe it’s best if they let it be?”
Cyrene nibbled her lower lip. “I don’t know.” She finally said, then stopped as the older Bard who had been introducing the contestants stepped to the small podium stone to the right. The applause tapered off, and the actors trooped off the stage, clustering in a small area just to the left of it. The older Bard lifted his hands, and waited until the crowd settled down.
“You can just give me the badge now, Eleneus.” Celesta called over, with a rich chuckle. The crowd around her laughed. “No one topped my show.”
“That’s as may be, Lady Celesta.” The Bard acknowledged her with a graceful bow of his head. “Surely it was magnificent.”
She accepted the compliment with a smirk.
“Be that as it may be, we have yet one further entrant.” The elder Bard said.
“What?” Celesta seemed very surprised. “Surely, you’re jesting. I was the last.”
“No.” Eleneus folded his hands before him. “You only thought you were.” He gazed out over the crowd, which was a touch restless, looking around curiously and wondering what was going on. A soft buzz started. “Be at rest, my friends. Take your seats.” A pause. “Open your minds, and your hearts, for this bard is not like the others you’ve seen here tonight.” With that, he simply stepped down, and walked to one side, cocking his head patiently and waiting.
The crowd settled down, to expectant whispers and interested eyes.
A drum started. It was soft, with a distinct rhythm of knowledgeable fingertips against tightly pulled skin. The sound floated out over the crowd, quieting them just as it took hold of the imagination.
From between two pillars, there was motion. Heads turned.
Two women emerged, dressed in Amazon leathers in dark russet and gold, baring muscular bodies dripping in colorful feathers and serviceable weapons. On their shoulders rested poles, and between the poles was a woven platform. It was stained in rich earth tones, and as they walked, brightly colored dangling shells clashed softly against each other as they swung from the bottom of the platform.
Behind them, two other Amazons held up the rear of the platform, one smaller, one much larger, both with serious, expressionless faces.
“Who’s playing the drum?” Johan whispered curiously to Cyrene.
“Xena.” Cyrene answered, with a smile.
“Got quite the talent there.” Johan grunted, as the intricate beat wound it’s way through the air, a little daunting, a little seductive.
On the platform, seated quietly crosslegged, was Gabrielle. In startling contrast to her fiercely wild looking escort, the bard seemed plain and almost unremarkable. Though dressed in a well fitted tunic, in a color that brought out her fair good looks, Gabrielle presented the appearance of a young rustic.
Until you looked closely, and saw the strength and maturity in the set of her face, and the depth of experience in her mist green eyes.
The torchlight outlined her form, displaying both the whip mark on her face and the softly glowing tattoo on her bare, muscular shoulder, along with the laurel branches pinned neatly on the left side of her tunic.
A definite, excited buzz rose. Everyone’s attention was focused on the approaching platform and it’s occupant. Several murmurs of “Amphipolis” went up, but Cyrene got the sense that they really weren’t entire sure of who Gabrielle was.
They knew she was the upstart from the games, and where she was from, but…
“It’s the girl from the provinces!” A man next to Cyrene blurted in surprise. “The one who won the running yesterday!”
“It is!” His companion replied. “Surely she’s no bard, as well?”
The Amazons walked up onto the stage and slowly knelt, letting the platform come to rest on it’s four sturdy legs, stolen from an inn table and fastened securely by Xena’s careful hands. As the drum continued, the Amazons settled to the ground to sit cross legged, watching the crowd with alert eyes. The drum rolled, then fell into silence.
Gabrielle straightened a little, and let her gaze wander over the audience, as the buzz settled and attention focused on her. She was aware of Celesta’s surprised, unhappy, and hostile face off to her left, but she put the woman out of her mind and gathered her focus, bearing down and concentrating like she’d been taught.
She let the silence go on a minute, the anticipation building as the crowd waited. “Thank you for welcoming me here.” Her voice was low, and as projected as she could manage given her injuries. “My name is Gabrielle and I’m an itinerant bard from a small town named Potadeia.”
It was like a cold water shock had gone through the crowd. Gabrielle could feel it, the sudden surge of energy as the people recognized her name and responded.
Interesting. The bard exhaled. She wished she felt better, so she could enjoy it more. “I don’t have any fancy musicians or costumes.” Gabrielle went on. “But I do have a story I’d like to tell you, one I don’t think you’ve heard before.”
There was no restlessness now, just an intent concentration on her, and Gabrielle ordered her thoughts, gathered her own energy and put herself in that place she went to when she was exposing the vision of her dream eye to others.
“I’ll tell you a story of Athens.” The bard began, her voice lifting over the crowd with gentle power. “And of a little town called Amphipolis.”
A curious whisper traveled over the crowd, drifting off into the starlit sky. “And what brought a bard, and a warrior from there, to here and why.”
Xena leaned against the rough surface of a stone pillar and listened, the Amazon drum clasped lightly in one hand and the other resting on Dori’s foot. The toddler was sitting on her shoulders with an excellent view of the stage and a sometimes painful grip on the warrior’s ears.
“Mama.” Dori burbled. “Dere’s Mama!”
“That’s your mama, all right. Now ssh… listen to the story.” Xena whispered. Her eyes roamed across the crowd as they listened, watching everything and everyone, taking no chances despite the four Amazon warriors surrounding her soulmate.
Her gaze drifted up over the higher levels, stopping when she recognized a face.
The firewood seller.
Xena’s nostrils flared gently, as though she could scent him. She could see the whip coiled at his waist, and watched as he pointed at Gabrielle, then said something to a neighbor, as he smirked.
The warrior’s hands flexed.
Xena took a breath, and released it. Time enough to deal with him later. “Hm?” She tweaked Dori’s foot.
Hm? Xena wrenched her thoughts back to the stage, and concentrated on Gabrielle’s words, which were now shaping their journey in colorful terms. “Yeah, it sure is.” She was aware of the crowd leaning forward a little, to catch the bard’s voice, and also aware of Celesta’s set, angry face.
The other bard had one of the elders by the toga, arguing with him. The man just kept shrugging and lifting his hands.
Xena watched Celesta’s expression twist into an ugly hatred.
Her own lips edged into a smile.
Gabrielle felt the sweat gather under her tunic and she forced herself to focus all the more tightly. It was hard, especially when she had to raise her voice and use her hands to describe their adventures in Athens, and her injuries protested harshly.
She was making the wealthy patrons in the front uncomfortable, and she knew it. With a steady voice she described what they’d seen, and how they’d seen it, the child slaves in the stone yards and the way they’d been treated both on the road and in the city.
Behind the rich, well dressed faces, though, she could see the masses, whose eyes met hers as she gazed out at them, who knew what she knew, and connected with her as she spoke. She could see heads nodding as she described the docks and the market – smiles as she pointed out the dark side of the long streets and the squalor and filth of the bottom of the hills.
Celesta was standing to her right. Gabrielle caught a glimpse of her as she turned her head, seeing the sneer on her face as the woman watched her. Her players were gathering around her, also staring at the bard, doing their best to be intimidating. They whispered among themselves, and pointed, and laughed behind their hands, trying to rattle her as they caught her eye.
It might have worked, Gabrielle reflected, since she was hurting and tired, and it had been a damn long day. She was not immune to her own self doubts, after all, and Celesta’s show had been well done and really kinda entertaining.
It had been calculated to appeal to the rich men and women in the front rows, and impress the provincials in the back. Gabrielle had thought it had done both, and knew what she had to offer would have no beautiful costumes or striking music.
All she had was the truth, and sometimes that just wasn’t nearly enough. Gabrielle sucked in a breath and tried to muster some energy, feeling the sarcastic eyes boring through her. From the corner of her vision she spotted the motion as her adversary took hold of one of the players, whispered, then shoved him off towards the exit. With an unpleasant smile, he went.
Now what? Gabrielle wondered. She shot a glance to her right, and her eyes met Celesta’s. The other bard stared at her, no, through her.
Then behind Celesta and her group, a tall figure stepped out slid silently into view. Hidden from most of the audience by a stone pillar but very visible to Gabrielle, seeming larger than life yet familiar to her as her own heart. The bard found herself smiling, and she straightened up a little as she got ready to draw her audience in to the next part of her story.
“And so, on this hot morning, I walked through the marketplace and found not peace, but anger.” Gabrielle steeled herself and slowly stood up, hoping her legs would hold her. “Instead of good merchants free to sell their wares, the center of the market was blocked. “ A breath. “Blocked by a man with hatred in his heart, and trouble in his hand who was beating a lad hardly more than a child, there in that marketplace before my very eyes.”
“A slave!” A voice rang out anonymously and unexpected.
“A boy.” Gabrielle’s voice rose and took on more strength. “Who had done nothing to be beaten for, and lay there unresisting as people looked on, or walked by.” She spread her arms out. “So should I have done the same?”
There was an awkward silence.
“Would you have done the same?” Gabrielle’s tone dropped a bit, floating out across the stillness.
“Our laws are clear. You broke them!” The same voice interjected. The bard realized it was coming from, unsurprisingly, Celesta’s corner.
“Laws are meant to protect us, not enslave us.” Gabrielle replied. “And if the laws of Athens, the great capital Athens, say that boys can be beaten for no cause, then those laws are unjust, and it was my priveledge to break them.”
Xena smiled visibly.
“In my life, I have seen so much unjustness.” The bard went on. “So many times when what was law, and what was right diverged, and made me choose to either follow the law or follow my heart.” Her eyes roamed the crowd, sensing the tendrils of contact between her, and them as her words caught their consciences and tightened their focus on her. “I learned to follow my heart, even when doing that broke it sometimes.”
She felt the jolt of her words through her link with Xena.
“But I never regretted it.” Gabrielle spoke into the now charged silence. “So I don’t regret putting myself between that boy, and the bully whipping him.” She took a slow step forward, not feigning the effort.
Xena’s fingers twitched, curling in towards her palms as she just barely kept herself from going to her soulmates’ side. She could see what the performance was costing Gabrielle and it occurred to her more than once that the rows of stuck up snitwads weren’t nearly worth it.
“Should have just killed her.” Celesta whispered, not two bodylengths in front of her. “I can’t believe they’re sucking this up! Look at them!”
Soundlessly, Xena moved, gliding a few steps closer, glad she’d left Dori in her mother’s arms.
“Well… it is sorta interesting.” The young man, one of the sword wielders said.
Celesta backhanded him. “Moron.”
“But then the crowd decided to take out their frustration, and there was all of them, and only one of me.” Gabrielle’s voice drifted over. “All I remember from that is a lot of hard fists, and heavy sticks, and how much it hurt.”
The crowd shifted a little, uncomfortable.
“And then it got dark.”
“Gullible fools.” Celesta hissed, unaware of the shadow now just behind her.
“I woke up in a horrible place.” Gabrielle told them. “There was no light, just the sound of suffering all around me, and the smell of death.” The bard was visibly trembling, and she slowly sat down on the pallet. “Bugs were everywhere. I could hear rats coming closer.”
“Ugh.” One of the players winced. “That sounds gross.”
“Shut up!” Celesta snarled at him. “She’s lying, you fool. It never happened.”
“I knew if I passed out again, maybe they’d think I was dead.” Gabrielle said. “Maybe I’d be dinner.”
The crowd cringed visibly, but seemed wholly absorbed.
“But then, someone called out to me.” The bard went on. “It was amazing, hearing the voice of a friend in that dark place, and I called back to my friend Homer, who was in the cell right next to mine.”
A whisper went over the front of the crowd, Homer’s name being traded back and forth.
“I was glad to hear him.” Gabrielle spoke quietly. “Though, I did wonder just why a bard like Homer was in an awful place like that.” She let the question penetrate for a moment. “Does anyone here know why?”
“Bitch.” The Athenian bard spoke almost under her breath.
“Poor Homer.” Gabrielle said. “He’d been there so long, in that horrible cell. I felt bad about being there, but I felt worse for him because I knew that even though I was in the darkest, deepest cell in the lowest, most horrible prison.. “ She took a breath and let the anticipation build, watching the bodies facing her lean forward slightly. “Someone was coming for me.”
The bridge of Xena’s nose wrinkled a little.
“And I knew there was no prison tough enough, no bars thick enough, no army bold enough to stop that someone.” The bard smiled gently. “They would find me.”
The crowd’s attention was now completely focused on Gabrielle, waiting for next bit of story.
“Sheep.” Celesta muttered.
Gabrielle rested her elbows on her knees, and leaned forward. “And they did.” She said. “Out of the darkness, I heard the sound of fighting far over our heads. Clashes of steel, and the noise of bodies hitting stone, and wood, and each other.” Her hands shaped themselves around a sword hilt. “I heard a swordfight, loud and fierce, and the yells of people as they battled each other, and their boots making scuffing noises on the floor as they kicked stuff down through the trap door over my head.”
Xena blinked, barely remembering that fight herself as she’d plowed through the defenders almost without pausing.
“There were so many guards.”
A dozen at least, though in the dark it had been hard to tell. She’d just kept punching and kicking and pulling limbs and throwing bodies and…
“And only one hero, but that hero was my hero, and before I knew it the top of my cell was open and two bodies were falling inside it, all the way to the stone floor not very far from where I was lying.”
“Hero? Give me a break.” Celesta said. “Murdering whore.”
Long fingers twitched again, closing into fists.
“Two fell, but only one got up.” Gabrielle said, glancing to her right and meeting Xena’s eyes. “And I knew I was safe.” She shifted her attention back to the audience. “Now we just had to find a way out of a deep cell, in a dark prison, with lots of angry guards in it.” A snap of her fingers, a reflection of smiles from the crowd. “Piece of cake.”
“What’s the damn fascination?” Celesta said in a disgusted whisper.
Truth? Xena almost said it aloud.
“There was a little complication.” Gabrielle went on. “In the fight, a fire got started.” She inhaled. “So now we had an enemy that was worse than the guards, and lots more dangerous.”
“Edgas, get around in back there, and start up a loud argument with Belea.” Celesta ordered. “Distract the crowd.”
“We’ve got to stir this up. Break their concentration. They’re getting too involved in this dreck and I don’t want any of them to even think this is worth of being in this challenge, understand me?” The woman gave him a shove.
“Celesta, you can’t just…”
Celesta tangled her hands in the throat of his toga, pulling him upwards a little and snarling into his face. “Do it, or I”ll make sure the next job you have is on the docks where you came from, you little maggot!” She released him, and gave him another push.
The man hesitated.
A very low voice cut through their argument. “Do it, and I’ll make sure the next job you have is taking tokens for Charon on a River Styx boat ride.”
Gabrielle’s voice rose a little “So, there was a rope hanging from the cell trap, and Xena leaped up and caught it, with me on her back, and…” A soft gasp came from the crowd. “They tried to throw us back down into the fire, but… “
Xena leaned against the pillar and crossed her arms over her chest.
“You have no right to interfere.” Celesta hissed. “I’ll call the guards!”
“No, you won’t.” The warrior said. “Unless you want them to hear about your abduction and imprisonment of Homer.” Xena’s eyes frosted over. “You little piece of scum.”
“Just as we got clear, the fire flared up and we had no where to go but a little store room, so we got inside there, but there was no way out.”
“So we were trapped, the three of us.”
“Three?” A woman in the front uttered.
“Xena, and me, and our little daughter, Dori.” The bard gently explained. “She’s just two. She was with Xena when I was attacked and beaten, and taken to jail.”
“Mama!” A piping voice suddenly rang out. Everyone’s head turned, then swiveled back to Gabrielle. A ripple of sound settled to silence as everyone waited.
“I thought we were going to die there, all of us.” Gabrielle said. “The smoke was coming in, and it was getting so hot.” She gazed quietly at her clasped hands. “You know, I’ve been in dangerous places many times in my life, and I’m no stranger to death.”
You could hardly hear a breath, as the bard paused, and the sounds of the streets outside the ampitheatre floated gently in on the warm breeze.
“But it was hard to look at my little girl, and know she would never grow up.” A pause. “Hard to think of all the friends I’d be leaving behind.” Now Gabrielle glanced to her right, and left, where Ephiny and Eponin were sitting like stone images on either side of her. “And all for what? A few bets?” Gabrielle lifted her head and looked across the crowd. “A contest?” A slight shake of her fair head. “Someone’s pride?”
There was a soft rustle of motion as Gabrielle slowly stood up again, and straightened painfully. “It seemed so little to die for.” She said. “But I was with those I love most in the world, and so many people die alone so I was, at least, glad that my last moments would be filled with more love than most people know in all their lives.” She gazed out at them with quiet honesty, seeing the glint of torchlight on tear stained cheeks.
Celesta stared at Xena, who stared stonily back at her. The players watched them uneasily for a moment, then turned their attention back to the stage, irresistibly drawn to Gabrielle’s tale.
“I’m not going to let some two bit provincial from the sticks take what’s mine.” The Athenian bard said, in a low voice. “I don’t care what it takes, and I don’t care who or what you think you are. You don’t frighten me.”
“But you know… “ Now a touch of faint, amused self deprecation entered Gabrielle’s voice, gathering in the crowd effortlessly. “The Fates can surprise you sometimes.” She cupped her hands. “As we took our last, faint chances on that hard floor, covered with a wet blanket, one of the rats I had been fearing not so long before ran over my leg, and away.”
A faint, surprised chuckle floated from the audience.
“It’s not me you need to worry about.” Xena smiled unpleasantly. “All I can do is break every bone in your body.” The warrior indicated her partner with a jerk of her chin. “She can steal every heart out there and you can’t do anything about it.”
Celesta ripped her gaze from the warrior’s face, and turned to look at the crowd.
“My daughter thought it was a toy.” Gabrielle lifted her hands a little. “So she went after it, and Xena went after her, and they chased the rat through the straw and over the stone and behind a big crate… and I heard the Fates laugh as they chased that rat right into a hidden tunnel.”
Now a louder chuckle, surprised and mutedly delighted.
“The fire was coming, the smoke was filling the room, we could hear the walls collapsing around us, but Xena got us all inside the tunnel and blocked the end back up. We knew it wouldn’t hold the fire off forever, but that’s how life is sometimes. You’re a tiny step ahead of disaster and you learn to just keep walking.”
Another laugh. Gabrielle visibly relaxed a little. She could sense interest, admiration, and intense curiosity from her audience now, and she knew she had them in her hands. The stars overhead twinkled brightly, and a cool breeze ruffled the torches around the perimeter, and all eyes were fastened on the stage.
They were hers for the taking. “Now the hard part started.” She drew in a breath, and pushed the discomfort aside, spreading her arms out to gather them in. “We could hear the roar of the fire through the walls, and in front of us, through a grate, flames appeared…. “
Xena stood quietly to one side, now visible to the crowd, allowing the bard’s words to paint her in a brilliant wash of heroism. The breeze stirred her dark hair and made shadows dance from the torches light across her brass armor, and standing there against the white stone she seemed, indeed, the larger than life figure shaped from Gabrielle’s imagination.
“And there we were, all in that room. The fire behind us, and a locked door in front of us.” Gabrielle drew in a breath. “We’d just been keeping one step ahead of the flames, and now we were in one last dead end, with the guards and the other prisoners.”
She took a step forward. “The guards were angry.” The bard’s voice dropped a little. “They were angry at us, at Xena, because the people outside had locked them in.”
“Why?” A woman in the front row asked, followed by others. “Senseless!”
“Why?” Gabrielle paused, seeming to reflect on the question. “Because they wanted to make sure we didn’t get out, to join the games.” She let the words drop into the sudden quiet. “They didn’t realize about the fire.” A pause. “I hope they didn’t realize.”
A low murmur rose.
“But I wasn’t worried, because I knew Xena wouldn’t let all those people get hurt.” The bard went on. “First, though, she had to convince the guards to listen to her, and that wasn’t easy. They were very angry, and like angry people do, sometimes, they weren’t thinking of what was best for them, they were thinking about relieving the hurt they felt inside.” A pause. “So that’s what they did.”
Xena felt eyes track to her.
“Xena knew we didn’t have time for that though, and she convinced them to stop, and to look, and to listen to the fire that was coming up from the depths of the prison after us. We had to find a way out of there, or the flames would fill the hall, and we’d all die there.”
The crowd sucked in a group breath.
“The door was wood, and very stout. All the beating we could do on it would never even crack it. The guards had been trying, but they hadn’t made a dent.” Gabrielle told them. “Wood clubs were useless, hands even more so, but there was, in that hall, something Xena knew that she could use.”
“Columns of stone.” The bard looked up, as though seeing them. “Big enough, and heavy enough to knock those doors right down. The trick was, how do you use it?”
Xena found herself experiencing a wholly guilty, though completely enjoyable sense of pleasure as she listened to her partner describe her cleverness in getting all of them out of the prison trap. After all, the solution had not only been effective, it had been visually striking and she’d accomplished her part in… well, in quite a bit of style.
They’d been in grave danger, sure, but that backward flip off the column hadn’t been in the cause of efficiency, now had it? She half turned as someone stepped up behind her, then relaxed as she recognized Homer. The bard had gotten cleaned up and shorn, and was dressed in a simple toga not unlike many of the other Bards from the Academy who were now clustering all around the stage listening to Gabrielle.
Celesta was sitting in a wooden chair placed nearby for her by her servants, her face stony and cold. Xena reflected that watching the obnoxious woman get beaten mercilessly by Gabrielle’s raw talent was almost as satisfying as slugging her in the mouth would be.
“You know.” Homer’s voice caused her to turn and regard him. “Gabrielle once told me that as a bard, she had the easiest place on earth.” He said. “Stories just fell into her lap.”
“Yeah.” Xena replied quietly. “But the downside is, she also has to live through them.”
Homer considered that in silence for a moment, then nodded. “Having lived through one myself now, I have a new appreciation of that.” He studied Gabrielle’s visibly battered form. “Of her.” His eyes lifted to Xena’s face. “And of you.”
“And with everyone helping, the stone column started to swing.” Gabrielle was saying. “It hit the door with an incredible sound, and parts of the wood started to come off.” She told them, then turned and looked behind herself. “But the fire was coming up the stairs and filling the room behind us.” She faced them again. “It was so loud, I almost couldn’t hear the ram hitting the door, and it was a horrible, hungry sound.”
Xena felt the hairs on her arms lift, at the memories the words evoked.
“How awful would it have been, to have come this far, and done so much, only to fail at the end?” Gabrielle asked them, lifting her hands slightly. “I could feel it getting a lot hotter, and parts of the roof over us started to fall down as they got burnt, and now we wondered if the wood the stone was hanging from would collapse before we could get the door open.”
The bard let her eyes roam over the crowd, meeting their gaze unflinchingly. “I almost felt like everything was against us, wanted us to be trapped there, wanted to destroy all of us.” She lifted her hands and curled them into fists. “And just when I thought that, the stone hit that door one last time, boomed one last time, and while the wood support was cracking it broke the door open in front of us.”
Everyone let out a breath, as though they’d been holding it in while she spoke. Maybe they had.
“The fire wanted that air as much as we did, though, and it rushed after us as we ran outside.” Gabrielle said. “I almost felt like it was angry, because it lost us.” A smile. “But it did, and the feeling of the wind on my face was the sweetest thing on earth.” The bard slowly walked forward, coming to the very edge of the platform. “Life won. Death lost, and in losing, has to gnash it’s teeth and listen to me tell of it’s defeat.” She looked out at the crowed. “Can you hear Death’s frustration? It’s out there. Among you.”
There was a dead silence for a moment.
“The world holds still when you realize someone has placed a value on your life.” Gabrielle whispered into it. “Because it’s then that you realize what value you place on it.”
She held her position for a few heartbeats, then stepped back, and indicated the end of the tale with a simple duck of her head.
A few more heartbeats of peace were left to her, before she felt the change in air pressure as a thunder of sound blasted her senses. Gabrielle’s mind recognized the sound as applause, but the volume was like nothing else she’d ever heard and she lifted her eyes to gaze in startled surprise at the mass of people clapping and cheering as they stood.
It was nice.
But the pain she’d held at bay during her tale started catching up with her, and she turned and went back to her pallet on shaking legs, sitting down on it and resting her elbows on her knees.
“You okay?” Ephiny whispered anxiously. “Gab?”
‘Yeah.” The bard “I just… “ She lifted her head and looked back out at the still cheering crowd. “Guess I did okay, huh?” Gabrielle felt the sweat drench her body, and drip into her eyes. She blinked, and rubbed the back of her hand over them.
A small, snorting laugh escaped the Amazon regent.
The crowd surged forward, along with a thick cluster of the other bards she’d seen gathering near the edge of the stage. But before they could reach her, Gabrielle felt a welcome presence at her back and she turned her head as Xena’s hands fell on her shoulders. “Hi.”
“That was gorgeous.” Xena told her, reaching over to push a bit of sweat dampened hair out of her eyes. “I loved every minute of it.” She unhooked a waterskin at her belt and offered it to her partner. “Here.”
Gabrielle’s eyes brightened perceptibly, and a grin appeared. She sucked at the waterskin thirstily as she watched Xena regard their surroundings.
“Think you won it?” Eponin asked idly, eyeing the oncoming crowd with a bemused expression.
“Couldn’t care less.” Gabrielle responded. “Said what I had to, that’s what mattered.” She let the skin drop, and leaned back against Xena’s body, drained and hurting. An arm circled her waist and she let her eyes close, holding the memory of the night tightly to her as one of the special times of her life.
Xena strode through the softly candle lit hallway, shifting the strap of her carrybag as she evaded two excitedly whispering bards and ducked into the room in the Bard’s Academy they’d urged her to take Gabrielle to after the show.
She’d been caught in a mild dilemma, wanting to get her partner to someplace quiet so she could tend to her, and the knowledge that Gabrielle surely must want to savor the praise and adulation that surrounded her.
So, they’d compromised. Xena threaded her way through the cluster of elder Bards and into the cool, curtained off area she’d left Gabrielle in, it’s entrance guarded by a somber looking Cait and a bemusedly interested Paladia.
“Hello, Xena?” Cait hissed, as she went by. “Is Gabrielle going to be all right?”
The warrior paused, with a hand on the curtain. “I’m working on it.” She told her young friend. “I think she needs rest more than anything.”
“Not a great lot of that here.” Cait commented, giving the bards in the outer room a skeptical look.
Xena nodded in agreement, before she went through the curtain and into the alcove. Inside there was a padded, comfortable looking couch, and the stone floor was covered in a thick woolen rug. Three separate fountains graced the walls, and the water’s gentle tinkle was pervasively relaxing.
It immediately got on Xena’s nerves. She walked over to the couch and set her bag down, then knelt and put a gentle hand on the wrist of it’s occupant.
Bloodshot green eyes flickered into view. “You’re back.” Gabrielle commented in a whisper.
“Yep.” The warrior agreed. “How are you doing?”
Xena patted her arm. “Hang in there. I’ve got something that’ll make you feel better.”
Gabrielle rolled her head slightly to one side and attempted a grin. “You are something that makes me feel better.” She glanced around the room. “This is nice, isn’t it?”
“Mm.” Xena had seated herself on the floor and was arranging the herbs she’d taken out of her bag. “You’re not gonna make me put one of those things in our cabin, are ya?” She indicated a fountain.
“Are you kidding? Dori would live in it.” Gabrielle reached out and tangled her fingers in the warrior’s dark hair. “I’d never get her out of there, and we’d end up taking a dozen showers a day every time we walked by.”
Xena chuckled softly. “You got a point there.” She carefully combined three different herbs in the bottom of one of their traveling cups, then took a slim, glass bottle from the bag and uncorked it.
“Uh oh.” Gabrielle joked faintly. “How bad are they?”
With a slight smile, Xena removed two glasses from the bag, and set the cup of herbs down, filling the glasses with amber liquid and handing Gabrielle one. “They’re not bad at all, but I won’t ruin the honey mead on them. Here.”
Gabrielle hitched herself up a little and took the glass, sipping it hesitantly. “Oh.” She licked her lips. “Wow. That’s good.” She took a bigger mouthful and let it permeate her senses, before she swallowed it. “Mmm.”
Xena waited for her to swallow, as she swirled the wine in her own glass. Then she lifted it and touched it to Gabrielle’s. “Here’s to the greatest bard in Athens.”
Gabrielle went very still, only her eyelashes blinking as she stared at Xena. A blush worked it’s way up her neck and colored her cheeks. “T… thank you.” She finally stuttered softly. “Did you… “
“Heard them talking outside.” Xena said, taking a sip of the mead. “They just finished taking the votes.” She’d hoarded the news to herself, and hoped she’d gotten back in time to be the one to tell Gabrielle, wanting to see the look in her partner’s eyes when she did.
After a moment of shock, a grin appeared on the bard’s face as she contemplated the golden liquid in her glass. She tipped it forward and clinked it against Xena’s, then took another sip, a look of delight suffusing her face and lighting up her eyes.
Xena stretched her legs out and crossed them, leaning an elbow on the couch as she finished off her mead. “C’mon, you can’t be that surprised.” She eventually kidded her younger partner. “You heard that crowd when you finished.” Her free hand was busy, pouring water into the cup of herbs and stirring it.
Gabrielle rolled a little onto her side, and settled her head closer to Xena. “Well…” She thought about the question a little bit. “It’s not that, it’s just…” The bard went silent for a bit. “You’re the greatest warrior on earth.”
Both of Xena’s eyebrows jerked up almost to her hairline. “Gabrielle..”
“Oh, shut up, Xena. You know you are, so knock it off.” The bard forestalled her.
“Okay, fine, I am then. But what does that have to do with…”
“Oo.” Gabrielle tugged the dark locks. “Got you to admit it. Cool.”
Xena looked at her. “Just for that, here. Drink this.” She handed over the cup of herbs, which Gabrielle accepted, then resolutely drained.
“Ugh.” The bard winced, as she handed the cup back and took a last sip of the mead to wash the taste down. “Anyway, what I meant before was…”
“You’re not used to being the greatest at something.” Xena put the cup down, then leaned over and gave her soulmate a kiss on the lips. “Right?”
Gabrielle absorbed the tingle, which traveled down into her gut and loosened the aching tightness in her muscles. She leaned back and gazed at the warrior. “What was the question?”
Xena merely shook her head, and laughed under her breath. “Feeling better?”
Gabrielle stretched cautiously, feeling the herbs start to kick in along with the bellyful of strong mead. The ache was subsiding and it was easier to breathe, though exactly which of the warrior’s varied remedies was contributing to all that was hard to say at this point. Maybe all of them were, she decided. “Yeah.” She exhaled. “I think I could use a good night’s sleep, though.”
Xena spared a moment’s wish that they were leagues away from Athens. “Soon. I think… “ She looked up as footsteps approached outside, and the curtain moved, revealing Eleneus and the rest of the elders. “Look surprised.” She muttered under her breath, getting a tweak on her hair from the bard.
“Bard Gabrielle.” Eleneus came forward, his bearded face barely suppressing a triumphant smile. “May we enter and speak with you?”
Gabrielle glanced at the curtain, then at him, and one eyebrow lifted slightly. “Sure.” She rested her hand on Xena’s shoulder, watching her partner strike her sexy intimidation pose out of the corner of her eye.
The elder bards entered and gathered behind Eleneus. Gabrielle examined their faces as they got settled, seeing a mixture of relief, elation, a touch of amazement, and best of all, respect as they looked back at her.
Suddenly, she wished her other family, her birth family were here to see this.
“The citizen’s votes have been counted.” The senior bard told her. “And they have chosen you.”
The elders all applauded, while Gabrielle didn’t quite repress a blush.
“Even though she pretty much told them their city stinks and they’ve got crooks running it?” Xena put in a wry question.
Eleneus lifted his shoulders slightly in an urbane shrug. “Given a brilliant enough presentation, one could be coaxed into swallowing a pebble and thinking it delicious.” He replied, with an easy smile. “And, Gabrielle, that was indeed brilliantly done. You truly do understand what it is to be a bard, which is so much more than merely to entertain.”
“Thanks.” Gabrielle answered softly. Her fingers curled around Xena’s upper arm, in an almost unconscious gesture. “So what happens now?”
The older man walked over to a low settee near the bed and sat down on it, clasping his hands together as he regarded her. “Right now? I think right now all of us, at least are going to have a flagon of wine, and take to our beds. It’s been a long day.” He shifted. “Tomorrow night, after the games are finished, we will bring you up, and present you to the city.”
Gabrielle bit the inside of her lip to restrain a sarcastic comment.
“Then, you will, of course, present the prize to the overall winner of the games.”
Hm. “All right.” The bard nodded thoughtfully, glancing sidelong at Xena. “How’s Celesta taking it?”
Eleneus winced, and rubbed his chin. The other bards shifted uncomfortably. “It was not.. the most pleasant of scenes.” He admitted. “I’m glad you weren’t there to hear it.”
“She should be glad I wasn’t there to hear it.” Xena broke in, her voice low and growly. “I’ve had about enough of her.”
“Yes, well.. “
“She had Homer put in jail.” Gabrielle broke in unexpectedly. “Aren’t you going to do something about that?”
There was a momentary silence. “Homer said he couldn’t prove…”
“She tried to force me to withdraw by threatening to have him beaten.” The bard overrode his speech. “I was supposed to meet her at noontime, because I said I wouldn’t deal unless I knew he was okay.”
Xena turned her head fully and stared at her partner.
“Sorry, honey. We’ve been a little busy.” The bard apologized. “I forgot to tell you about that.” She wrinkled her nose at the outraged blue eyes. “I was on my way to get you when I bumped into those creeps in the market.”
Xena sighed, and shook her head.
“Anyway, that should be enough for you to do something about her, right?” Gabrielle returned her attention to the senior bards, who were exchanging looks of consternation. “Right?”
Eleneus covered his eyes. “We need to retire, and discuss this.” He told the rest of them. “It’s an unexpected complication.” His eyes flicked to Gabrielle. “Have a good evening’s rest, Bard Gabrielle. We’ll talk again in the morning.”
Gabrielle watched them leave, the curtain falling into place behind them before she turned and met Xena’s eyes. “Can we go home now?”
“You mean you’ve caused enough trouble, now?” Xena rested her arm on the couch and her chin on her arm.
“Just kidding.” The warrior could sense the frayed edges of Gabrielle’s temper, unusual since it was normally her who objected to extended teasing. “How about I carry you back to the inn? I’ve got some more mead there, and a couple of other treats.”
“Treats?” Gabrielle hated being grumpy, and hated even more the knowledge that Xena was humoring her about it after the day they’d been through. She knew her partner must, at the least, be almost as sore as she was and she had a long, tough trial to go through tomorrow before the whole thing was over. “I think I owe you some treats.” She touched Xena’s nose with one fingertip, tracing the bridge of it. “But I’d settle for a snuggle.”
The herbs, she realized, were really hitting her, putting a layer of vagueness between her and the discomfort and making the thought of sleep almost irresistible. “Let’s go.”
It was very late that night before the noise receded, and allowed some kind of peace into the inn’s small room. Xena was lying on her back in the bed, with Gabrielle sprawled bonelessly over her, so deeply asleep the warrior doubted an entire carnival outside the window would have stirred her at all.
Xena, of course, wasn’t so lucky. Ordinary night noises triggered her senses, and though she had the ability to focus her concentration through almost anything, horns outside the window defeated even her best efforts.
But that was alright. She needed some time alone to just sit and think, to absorb the day’s trials and order her thoughts for what was coming in the morning. She reached out with one hand and captured a mug on the small stool next to her, taking a sip of the herb infused wine and letting it slide down her throat. The aches of the day were starting to catch up, and she hoped, by relaxing her body as much as possible, she could stave off the worst consequences of her actions.
Her shoulders ached the worst, having taken the strain of both of them on their climb to freedom. They bothered her more than her knee, in fact, which seemed to have held up pretty well and was only throbbing dully, hardly more than it had been the day before. She wished she were home, where a long soak in the spring would have been her choice of therapy, but she did the best she could with the herbs, and the knowledge that her room was well and truly guarded by both Amphipolitans and Amazons and she could sleep if she wanted to.
A prickle of her arm hairs alerted her, but she remained still as Aphrodite popped into the room, dressed in a long, white, flowing toga that complimented her curly blond hair. The goddess floated over and held up both thumbs. “That so rocked.” Aphrodite chortled. “She is just so the babe.”
Xena regarded the fair head tucked against her shoulder. “Do you know how pissed off I am that she had to go through what she had to today because of your lousy brother?”
“Oo.” Aphrodite relaxed in mid air, laying down on her side and crossing her golden strapped ankles. “Hey, listen. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.” Her face was uncharacteristically serious. “It got way out of hand, like you know? It was only supposed to lock you guys in there for a little while.”
Xena stared at her. “We almost died.” Her voice was low, and almost calm.
The goddess shrugged. “Well, yeah, but you didn’t, so no biggie, right?” She sat up cross legged, arranging her toga. “After all, you guys almost die, like all the time, you know?”
“Not recently.” Xena said flatly. “And I have a problem with you bastards putting us in that position for a damn bet.”
“Hey!” Aphrodite frowned. “Watch the language, okay? I’m not the bad guy here.”
“Aren’t you?” The warrior glowered at her. “Looks like you’re ready to do anything to save precious little Ares ego.”
“You know, you can really piss me off.” The goddess responded. “And that is so uncool, specially since I nearly singed my buns pulling her out of that lava pit.” She pointed at Gabrielle’s sleeping form.
There was total silence as they both stared at each other.
“Oh, peach pits.” Aphrodite made a disgusted face. “I was so never going to tell you that.” She lifted her hand to snap out. “Forget this scene, I’m outta here.”
Xena found her voice a split second later. “Wait.” She managed to get out hoarsely.
For a moment, she thought Aphrodite was going to pop out just from pique. Then the goddess slowly lowered her hand, and floated there, waiting. “You?”
“C’mon, you didn’t think it was Ares, didja?” The Goddess of Love asked.
Xena slowly shook her head, trying to absorb the thought. “He’d have called in that favor already.” She murmured, then looked up, searching the goddesses face, her mind calling up all unbidden that nightmarish time in her life.
Her eyes closed as she felt that ache all over again, and in doing that, she missed the sudden shift in Aphrodite’s expression, as the goddess watched her.
“Listen.” Aphrodite said, in a gentle voice. “I know you’ve been messed with a lot, but it’s not like we all, like, hate you, Xena.”
Xena blinked her eyes open and gazed past the floating goddess with a faraway look.
“We had a big blowout after I did it.” The goddess continued. “We’re talking, serious pissed off parental city, and me and Ares got totally grounded after that for messing with both of you so much, so we had to sit up there and watch.. that was kinda tough.” Aphrodite considered a moment. “We were so bitching with each other. We really lucked out when that braindrain Alti messed up big time and spilled that Gab was still alive.”
Xena nodded slowly, in silence. Then she lifted her eyes to meet Aphrodite’s. “Thank you.” Her voice was husky with held emotion.
The goddess didn’t seem to know how to really react to that. She scowled engagingly for a bit. “Hey, I mean – let’s face it. You love her enough to have given her that little bambino. I had to do it, you know? I had my rep to think of.”
The warrior took a little tighter hold on her soulmate, her composure still way off balance in trying to deal with this new information. If there was one of the Olympians she’d accept owing a favor to, she realized, Aphrodite would be the one, no question about it. “Thanks.” She said again, gazing gratefully at the floating woman. “From all of us.”
“Ew. Don’t get all emotional on me, okay? I can’t deal, Xena.” Aphrodite complained. “Its like when Ares gets all mopey. I just can’t handle it.” She regarded the two mortals. “I’m sorry it got so radical for you guys today, and that the little one got hurt.”
Xena stroked Gabrielle’s hair with a protective hand. “Me too.”
Aphrodite mulled this over. “You going to go for it tomorrow?”
“Can’t talk you out of it?”
The warrior shook her head.
The goddess sighed. “Okay. You take care, all right?” She lifted her hand and snapped her fingers, popping out in the blink of an eye.
Xena tucked the light blanket around Gabrielle’s shoulders, and relaxed, as she let her mind loose to ponder.
Gabrielle woke up the next morning pretty much in the same position she’d fallen asleep in the night before. Since that involved using Xena as a body pillow, there was nothing really wrong with that, and in fact she had no real desire to budge now that she was awake.
It was still dark and quiet outside, and mostly dark inside the room save a dim glow from the oil lamp set by the bed. Xena’s arms were wrapped around her, and the warrior was sound asleep, her breathing slow and even and her heart beating with even regularity beneath Gabrielle’s ear.
It was a really nice feeling. Gabrielle had always thought so, from the very first time she’d experienced it, all those years ago on that very cold night. Then, it had been a treasured, thought to be one time happening. Now?
Gabrielle drew in a contented breath full of Xena’s scent and reveled in the security of the powerful body wrapped around hers. Now it was hers. All hers. She’d decided a while back that she really enjoyed being in love, and more, she really enjoyed being in love with Xena. Sure, it meant getting into scrapes sometimes, but so what?
It was worth it. Gabrielle cautiously stretched her body out, feeling stiff, but not nearly as bad as she had the night before. Her head no longer hurt, and she felt rested and her thoughts were clear.
She blinked her eyes a few times, gazing past Xena’s shoulder at the flickering lamp, as her mind went over the night prior, reliving the bard’s contest all over again.
I did it. She remembered the crowd, and the flickering torchlight, and the incredible rush at the reaction when she’d finished. More precious to her, though, was Xena’s heartfelt praise, and that shared bottle of mead in the private moment before she’d found out officially.
Wow, that had felt so wonderful. Gabrielle felt a warm surge of joy spill over her, and her face creased into a happy grin. Under her ear, she was abruptly aware of Xena’s heart rhythm picking up and the warrior shifted position, tightening her hug. Agreeably, Gabrielle returned the pressure, circling Xena’s belly with her arm and squeezing. She felt Xena’s hand move, giving her back a light scratch and she tilted her head up, to see her grin reflected in Xena’s pale eyes. “Morning.”
“Morning.” Xena agreed, her voice slightly husky with sleep. “Feeling better?”
For an answer, Gabrielle squeezed her again, wrapping her legs around her partner’s and getting her whole body into the effort. “Erguh.”
Xena chuckled softly, rubbing her hands up and down over Gabrielle’s back in light massage.
The bard squiggled in pleasure. “Yeah, I feel better.” She said, with a satisfied sigh. After a moment’s reflection, she shifted a little. “A lot better, as a matter of fact.”
“Good.” Xena riffled her fingers through the bard’s light hair. “Hey.” She tilted Gabrielle’s head up a little. “C’mere.”
“Hm?” Gabrielle squirmed around and got up on an elbow, as Xena reached over for the lamp and brought it closer. “What?” She remained still as her partner’s long fingers touched her face, watching her faint reflection in Xena’s eyes. “What’s wrong?”
“That whip mark.” Xena murmured, her brow creasing.
Gabrielle frowned. “Did it turn purple overnight or something? What is it?”
In reflex, Gabrielle reached up and touched her face. “Really?” She asked, incredulously. “That’s so weird. It was really sore last night.” Her fingers felt nothing but smooth skin, though, and pressure against it’s surface brought no pain. “Wow.”
“Yeah.” Xena agreed softly.
Gabrielle shrugged. “Well, I knew it was just a matter of time.” She said, matter-of-factly.
“Matter of time for what?” Xena asked, setting the oil lamp down.
“For me to catch your magic.” The bard answered, settling back down into her favorite spot. She fitted herself to Xena’s body and relaxed, draping her arm back over the warrior’s belly. She felt the surface lift as Xena took a deep breath, then sink as she exhaled. “No wonder I feel so much better.”
“You really think you got it from me?” Xena pondered curiously.
“Well, honeybear, you’re kinda the obvious source, y’know?” Gabrielle mumbled. “It’s not like they sell that, even in this city’s marketplace.” She gave Xena’s ribs a friendly scratch.
“Mm.” Xena curled herself around her partner again and closed her eyes, holding both Gabrielle and the thought of the gift close to her heart.
She’d been dreaming, one of her rare, remembered fun dreams of her childhood. Before Cortese, before the army, before even the time when she’d become aware of herself as an individual.
Just a dream of a sunny day, just after harvest, when she and Ly and Toris had raced through the stubbled wheat fields, chasing butterflies with wild abandon. They’d been barefoot and without a single care, a suddenly remembered innocence that Xena had long since thought buried in her memories forever.
She called back that fragment of a dream and remembered… remembered what it was like to be that child for the first time since Lyceus died. She could almost feel the laughter erupting from her stomach as she outraced Toris and got that big red one…
“What are you doing?”
“Just thinking.” Xena replied. “Remembering something I did as a kid. Why?”
“Just wondering.” Gabrielle savored the sense of well being coming to her from their bond. “Was it fun?”
“Yeah.” The warrior murmured thoughtfully. “Just kid stuff… chasing around in the fields, that kind of thing. Me and my brothers.”
Brothers. Gabrielle pondered that. “Wish I’d gotten to meet both of them.”
Xena was silent for a few breaths, then she chuckled soundlessly. “I’m glad you didn’t.”
Now, that was unexpected. Gabrielle lifted her head up and shifted, rolling over onto her side so she could gaze up at Xena’s shadowed profile. “Huh?”
The warrior turned her head, and the faint light reflected off her open eyes in the barest glints. “Remember when I told you about the Fates? How they showed me what my life would have been like if I hadn’t become… what I did?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle whispered.
“Lyceus was still alive. You two met.”
It was very weird, hearing something like that and knowing Xena remembered it so clearly when she didn’t. “We did?”
“Mm. He fell for you like a rock off a cliff.” Xena remarked mildly.
“Oh.” Gabrielle said, after a moment’s thought.
“That could have gotten icky.” The bard mused.
“Did I feel the same way he did?”
“Um… “ Xena scratched the bridge of her nose. “I don’t think so, no.”
“Head over heels for you, huh?”
The warrior smiled into the darkness. “Something like that, yeah. We were definitely attracted to each other.”
Gabrielle digested that. “Did you know you were the first person I was sexually attracted to?” She glanced up to see those barely seen blue eyes widen in something like astonished bemusement. “I won’t embarrass myself totally by telling you how long it took me to figure out just what it was I was feeling.” She rolled back over and put her head down, exhaling in satisfaction.
They were both very quiet for a few minutes. Then Xena drew in a breath to speak.
“Don’t even think about asking me that.” Gabrielle lifted a hand and covered the warrior’s mouth. “Oo.” She felt a nibble on her palm, and the memories of a few very confused and perplexing nights by the fire came flooding back to her unexpectedly, causing an abrupt giggle.
“What’s so funny?” Xena evaded her fingers and half sat up, cupping Gabrielle’s chin in one hand as she kissed her.
“Mm.” Gabrielle enjoyed the barrage of sensation. One thing was for sure – the reality was a Hades of a lot better than anything she’d fantasized about. She slid her hands under Xena’s shift and touched the silky skin underneath, tracing a line up from her indented navel. Her fingertips brushed over a faint scar, then across the arched, steadily moving ribs.
Xena’s powerful thigh slid between hers, and her nape hairs prickled as the warrior’s hand fitted itself around her hip. The lips that had been exploring hers shifted, moving across her jawline around to her ear, where Xena’s breath warmed her skin.
“Hey.” The warrior purred softly. “Wanna hear a secret?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle continued her touch, circling Xena’s breast as she felt the warrior shift a little, rolling her onto her back and sliding their bodies together. Xena suckled her earlobe, biting down softly on it and sending jolts up and down her spine.
“It didn’t take me any time at all to figure out what I was feeling.” Xena uttered, right into her ear, just before she nibbled the interior. “Those were some very long nights.”
Gabrielle chuckled softly under her breath as she felt her shirt eased off her body, exposing her skin to the light breeze from the window. She had no time to be chilled, though, because Xena engulfed her in a wash of insistent sensuality as their bodies fit together and their lips met again.
The intensity built slowly, matching the very slow lightening of the sky outside as dawn approached. Gabrielle opened all her senses to the experience, absorbing the surge of pleasure coming through their connection and reflecting it back, adding the pure joy she was feeling as she did so.
They ended up tangled together in the rose light of dawn, blissfully satiated and full of drowsy peace. Gabrielle watched a mote of dust float through the soft light burnishing Xena’s bare skin, her half open eyes tracking it’s progress dreamily.
“Here you go, Dori.” Gabrielle took a bite of bread, and handed a piece to her daughter. Dori was seated on the table, accompanied by a muddy looking Flameball whom she was attempting to share her breakfast with. “No, sweetie, I don’t think he likes that.”
“Guff.” Dori smashed a handful of crumbs into the stuffed toy’s mouth. “Mama, Guff likes.”
“I know. Ares will eat anything.” Gabrielle brushed a few crumbs off her bare shoulders, tucking the end of the linen her body was wrapped in a little more firmly into place. She’d just gotten out of her bath, and her hair was still damp. So was Dori’s, in fact, as the toddler had joined her in the water while the city around them woke up and prepared to head off to the Games. “But I don’t think Flameball likes bread.”
Dori studied her toy. “No.” She picked up the dragon and tossed him off the table. “Bad.” Then she looked around for a new source of amusement. “Mama, go Boo.”
“Boo will be back in a minute.” The bard told her. “She’s getting us some fruit and eggs. You like that, right?”
“Good.” Dori agreed happily. She was in a blue jumper today, a new one Cyrene had made for her on the trip up from Amphipolis so the arms and legs actually fit her. It was stoutly sewn, and had dark blue cuffs and buttons. She also had on tiny boots, a first, made from leather Gabrielle recognized as cast off scraps from Xena’s latest set of armor.
“What do you think of these, Dori?” Gabrielle touched the boot, wiggling the foot inside it. “Do you like your boots? They’re just like Boo’s.”
Dori studied her appendages seriously. “Good.” She finally decided . “No owie.”
“Oh, that’s right. I bet the floors around here hurt your toes, huh?” Gabrielle sympathized. “Not like home.”
Speaking of boots. The bard tilted her head, catching Xena’s very distinctive footsteps on the wood of the hallway outside. The door latch worked, then was pushed open by the warrior’s shoulder as she ducked inside.
“Boo!” Dori started to scramble down off the table, only to be caught by her mother. “No!”
“Ah ah.” Gabrielle plunked her back down. “You stay right there. Boo’s coming over.”
The warrior did just that, setting down a basket and ruffling Dori’s hair. “Hey, shortie. You’re not giving your mama a hard time, are ya?”
“Yes.” Dori stood up, balancing carefully and holding onto Xena’s leathers. She toddled over to the basket and investigated it’s contents.
“Well, she’s honest.” Gabrielle chuckled, pulling on the baby’s jumper and capturing her. “Get over here, you little sneaky kid.” She picked Dori up and cradled her in her arms, rocking her gently. “What kind of trouble do you think you’re going to get into?”
“Hmmmhmm…” Xena snickered, as she unpacked the basket, setting an apple, a fragrant slice of cheese, and a thick, dark loaf of bread down near Gabrielle’s elbow. “Soon as we finish this, we’d better head over. They’re getting ready to start the first event.” She pulled out a skin that gurgled softly.
“You going to change?” Gabrielle picked up a piece of the cheese and shared it with Dori.
“No.” Xena sliced off a piece of the dark bread and took a bite. “They’ll have to live with it.” She was wearing her leathers, though she hadn’t put on her metal armor. “Eponin and Ephiny went out there to check the place out where you’re going to be sitting.”
“Erf.” Gabrielle choked on her mouthful, then swallowed it hastily. “What?”
“They’re your honor guard.” Xena went on blithely.
“My what?” Gabrielle covered her eyes. “Good grief, wasn’t last night enough?”
“I won’t be there, I told them to make sure you were safe.” The warrior plowed through a mouthful stolidly.
“Xena, I can… “
One dark eyebrow lifted, as Xena peered at her.
“I can take care of myself. We both know that.” The bard insisted, a little nettled. “I don’t need people marching around waving knives around me.”
“Damn it, Xena, no.” Gabrielle cut her off. “I put up with it last night because I didn’t have a choice. Now I do.”
The warrior sighed.
“No.” Dori mimicked her mother, throwing a piece of cheese at her. “Nononononononno!”
Xena folded her arms over her chest, and regarded her contrary family somberly.
Gabrielle removed the cheese bits from her cleavage and juggled them, then peeked up at her partner. She evaluated the warrior’s expression, judging whether this spurt of protectiveness was an overreaction, or something Xena really wanted.
It would be a big crowd, and she’d be sitting with the rest of the bards, and knew she’d probably be safe. After all, she did, in fact, know how to take care of herself and staff or no staff, she could competently handle herself in most scraps if she had to.
Xena exhaled silently, the faintest of unconscious furrows wrinkling her brow.
However. Gabrielle drummed the fingers of one hand on the table, then lifted the hand and pointed at the waiting warrior. “Only because I’m going to have Dori with me.”
An eyebrow quirked, along with the corner of Xena’s expressive mouth.
“And only because I know it’ll make you feel better.”
Xena bestowed a dazzling smile on her. “I love you.”
Erf. Gabrielle knew herself to be defeated with that. She had absolutely no defense against that smile, that sentiment, or the genuine, though amused warmth in Xena’s eyes. “Piggy wonks.” She muttered, giving Dori a hug. “Your Boo takes shameless advantage of me, Dori. Did you know that?”
“Good.” Dori started tugging at the linen wrapping her mother’s body.
Xena chuckled. “That’s my girl.”
“I’m being ganged up on.” Gabrielle attempted divesting herself of Dori’s exploring fingers. “It’s so unfair.”
Xena eased around the table and started tugging at the wrapping herself.
Dori giggled and pulled harder. “Mama! Funny!”
“Stop it!!! Auggh!!!” Gabrielle tried to bat both sets of hands and still keep hold of her covering. “Ahhh!! Xena! Stop it!!!!” She squirmed, as the exploratory fingers turned to tickling her exposed skin. “Eeee!!!!”
“Wheee!!! Go mama!” Dori found this delightful. She wriggled around and clapped her hands.
“Aaaaa!!!!” Gabrielle let out a wild yell, then turned and grabbed her partner’s hand in her teeth, biting down lightly on the skin, just enough for Xena to know she meant business. The warrior cheerfully stopped her attack, but leaned over and caught the bard’s ear in her own teeth, using the same amount of pressure.
There was a moment of stillness, as even Dori stopped moving.
“Ofkay. Nowf whaf?” Gabrielle mumbled.
“Wifh any fufk, my mufer’ll walk inf.” Xena replied.
The bard started giggling, and released her, laughter shaking her body helplessly. Xena also let go, then gave her a kiss on the cheek before she straightened up and riffled the bard’s drying hair.
“Guff.” Dori took advantage of this and wriggled loose from Gabrielle’s hold, pulling herself up onto the table and heading for the basket.
“Hey..” Xena made a grab for her, but the toddler scrambled forward and clutched the basket, which slid on the table surface and headed off the other end. “Hey!” The warrior yelled, as Gabrielle slid out of her chair and bolted for the other side of the table.
No time. Xena crouched and leaped, somersaulting with a half twist in mid air to land on the other side of the table, just in time to catch Dori’s body as she rambled off the table after the basket.
Gabrielle pulled up, but not quite in time and she piled into her partner, knocking her off balance and tangling their legs together. “Whoooaaaa!!!” She yelped, as her linen unwrapped.
Thump. Gabrielle landed on top of Xena who landed on her back, her arms holding Dori up out of the way. Dori wiggled her arms and legs in ecstasy. “Boo! Go fly!”
“Not with your mama sitting on me, Shortie.” Xena grunted, regarding the pretty much naked bard sprawled on top of her.
Gabrielle looked up at her from under very disheveled blond hair and blew a lock of it out of her eyes. She met Xena’s gaze with a wry, helplessly plaintive expression.
They both started laughing again.
Xena lowered Dori down and hugged her, then hugged Gabrielle, still laughing.
“Gods.” The bard groaned, rolling off her and standing up, tugging up the shreds of her linen and dignity and pathetically grateful that no one had taken it into their head to just come waltzing in the room. She gazed down at her soulmate, who was lying comfortably, playing with Dori’s hands as the baby sat on her stomach. “Good. Keep her occupied while I get dressed.”
“You should go like that.” Xena commented.
Gabrielle threw a look at her over one shoulder. “I will if you will.. oh, wait, scratch that. You would.”
Xena stuck her tongue out. Gabrielle responded in kind. Dori reached out and grabbed at this invitingly pink object. Laughter erupted again, and Xena rocked up into a sitting position, then rose to her feet in one smooth motion with Dori in her arms. “We’re on the silly side today.” She set Dori down on the chair, and handed her Flameball.
“Mm.” Gabrielle pulled out a clean outfit. “Yeah, we are, huh?” She studied the fabric. “I feel sort of gid… aho!” Her voice cracked as Xena nibbled the back of her neck. “Xe, you start that up again and we can forget those Games.”
“Hmm..” The warrior sounded like she was seriously considering it.
Gabrielle looked back over her shoulder as the warrior rested her chin on it, making their noses almost brush. Before she knew what was happening, they were kissing, and she was turning to slip her arms around Xena’s tall frame as the warrior’s hands slid down her still mostly bare body.
They both heard footsteps approaching outside, and after a rebellious moment, they broke off, and Gabrielle stepped back, trying to control her ragged breathing. “Wow.” She pulled her fresh tunic over her head and smoothed the fabric down, then ran her hands through her hair. “What’s up with us today?”
“I don’t know.” Xena answered quietly, reaching out to brush her fingertips across the bard’s cheek. “But I like it.”
It was almost too much. Gabrielle stepped forward, leaning into the warrior’s touch and only just barely keeping her hands still at her sides.
A light knock came at the door. “Gabrielle” Ephiny’s voice penetrated the wood. “You ready?”
“Oh yeah.” The bard whispered, her gaze still locked with Xena’s. After a moment she cleared her throat and deliberately looked aside. “Just about.” She called out, in a louder tone.
Xena reached out and captured her hand, simply lacing their fingers together. “C’mon.” She said. “I’ll walk you over to your spot, then get moving over to the marathon.” She adjusted Gabrielle’s clothing with her other hand, then ruffled her shortened hair into a semblance of order.
“Okay.” Gabrielle just didn’t want to let her go. She ran a comb through her hair and glanced in the silvered metal mirror in the room, brushing her now unmarked cheek. Then she had to release the warrior so she could sit down and put her boots on, tugging the leather up and fastening the laces around her calves.
Xena collected Dori, settling her in her backpack and adjusting the straps over her shoulders. “Ready?”
Gabrielle stood up and brushed herself off, then held her hand out again. Xena took it, and they walked together to the door. “Xe?” The bard asked, suddenly, as they reached it.
“Mm?” Xena paused with her hand on the latch.
“No matter what happens today, I’ll be proud of you.”
Xena gazed affectionately at her. “Thanks.” She said. “But no matter what happens today, I’ll be the one you’re putting that laurel crown on tonight.” She winked at her soulmate. “Promise.” With that, she leaned over and gave her one last kiss.