A Matter of Pride
Gabrielle paused, as they reached the edge of the stadium, just to gaze at the huge crowd now gathered. The place had been full the previous day she’d been there, but this time, every inch of space seemed taken by both toga’d citizens and visitors to the city, and there was an air of excitement that seemed much greater than what had been before. “Wow.”
“Mm.” Xena agreed. “C’mon.”
They walked up the steps to where the Bard’s council was seated, in a space set off a bit by small stone walls much like that the rich patrons were using just below them. Gabrielle was aware of attention fastening itself on her, and she lifted her chin a little, very conscious of the dark leather clad warrior pacing quietly along at her side. She tightened her fingers, and felt Xena do the same, and they exchanged quick, amused looks.
As they approached, the Bards stood, obviously paying respect to their newly chosen star. Gabrielle felt a blush rising across her skin, and she heard Xena chuckle, but she managed to keep a half grin on her face as they walked the last few steps up to the seating area. “Hi.” She greeted the Athenian bards. “Great weather, huh?”
Eleneus seemed to appreciate the humor. He stepped forward and gestured for her to enter, pointing out a seat in the center of their area already set with silken pillows. “Bard Gabrielle, I’m glad you joined us. You are feeling well, I take it?”
“Much better, thanks.” Gabrielle agreed, giving Xena’s hand one last squeeze. “Okay, hand her over, and go give them Hades, partner.”
“Your majesty’s wish is my command.” Xena replied, with a teasing note in her tone. She unstrapped Dori and gave her to her mother, then stepped back and let the Amazons trailing them enter and stake out guard corners. “Take care of her.” She told Eponin.
“You bet your boots, Champ.” Pony said under her breath, giving the warrior a light backslap in the midriff as she passed. “You take care too, huh?”
“No problem.” Xena lifted her hand in a slight salute, then turned and started back down the steps, gliding around latecomers struggling up them to find a spot.
Gabrielle watched her until the warrior disappeared around the corner of the stone tunnel where the athletes were standing, then she sat back and looked around the stadium. She realized she was being stared at curiously, and pondered a moment as to what reaction she should give to that. None? A gracious nod of the head? A wave? Sticking out her tongue? The bard sighed, and arranged Dori so that she was seated on her lap. The toddler was watching everything with brightly alert eyes, her head turning back and forth as though she was studying the crowd just at they were studying the two of them.
Eleneus had taken a seat next to her, and now he cleared his throat a bit. “You do appear to be feeling much better this morning.”
Hm. “A little good sleep does wonders.” Gabrielle replied, mindful of his eyes on her face. “And Xena’s really great at knowing what to do for me.”
The other bard’s eyebrows lifted.
“When I’m sick, or hurt.” Gabrielle amended hastily. “You know, like with herbs, and things.”
“Of course.” Eleneus agreed. “That is your daughter, I take it? How old is she?”
Glad of the subject change, Gabrielle smoothed Dori’s jumper down with one hand. “It sure is. Her name’s Doriana, and she’s two years old.”
“Two.” Dori turned her head and looked up at her mother.
Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the toddler’s middle and hugged her . “That’s right, sweetie. You’re two, right?”
“Yes.” Dori squiggled in place, then relaxed, seemingly content to be in her mother’s embrace.
Eleneus leaned closer, and regarded the child. “She’s delightfully well favored.” He remarked. “I believe she has your eyes, does she not?”
Gabrielle grinned. “Yep, she does.” She agreed. “And my talent..”
“For storytelling?” Eleneus’ eyes twinkled. “So young?”
The bard cleared her throat. “For getting into trouble.” She amended dryly. “According to all my friends.” She heard Ephiny snicker softly, and watched the regent fiddle with a feather.
“Mama, Boo!” Dori pointed suddenly, as a group of moving forms cleared the tunnel entrance. “Go Boo!”
“Not right now, Dori.” Gabrielle said, her eyes drinking in the sight of her soulmate’s graceful stride.
“Boo?” Eleneus inquired curiously.
The bard sighed. “That’s what Dori calls Xena.” She explained. “We’re not really sure why.”
“Ah.” The older man nodded sagely. “That does seem to make sense.” He patted Gabrielle on the knee and stood, circling the seats and moving to the back of the enclosure to speak to some of the other bards.
Gabrielle leaned back on her pillows and watched Xena arrive at the starting place, standing at ease with her hands just brushing her thighs. The rest of the runners were moving around nervously, their white, brief outfits in stark contrast to Xena’s leathers just as their thin, wiry bodies were so different than her partner’s heavier, more muscular form.
The warrior seemed to acknowledge that, her eyes flicking to her opponents, then down her long body, as a faint self deprecating grin appeared. She reached up and twisted her hair back into a knot, then tensed her muscles and relaxed them, flexing her hands into loose fists several times.
Given that, however, Xena was the very picture of self confidence. Gabrielle couldn’t help but contrast how her soulmate looked with how she would have felt in her place. She’d have been smaller by at least a half head than anyone else out there, and though she was lighter than Xena, her body shape had, she’d realized lately, much of the same general composition as her partners.
Oh, her legs were shorter, sure, and she was more compact, but they had the same sturdy, rounded shoulders and muscular trunks, a legacy of years of traveling and fighting out on the road together.
Really different from the other women in Amphipolis. Different even from the Amazons.
“Should I feel guilty, Dori?” The bard mused. “That should have been me out there, not her. That was the plan.”
“Bck.” Dori kicked her booted feet out a little.
“She’s got a much better chance at winning than I would have, though.” Gabrielle admitted. “Remember the story I told you about Boo running and running and running up the mountain to save me?”
“That’s right.” The bard smiled. “It was the best story ever, Dori, because after your Boo climbed up over mountains, and beat nasty Amazons, and ran all the way from Amphipolis, you know what I did to her?”
Dori’s green eyes were fastened on her. “Doh.”
Gabrielle leaned over and whispered. “I kissed her.”
Dori giggled, and reached up a hand to rub at her ear. “Mama… itch!”
“Ah.” Ephiny turned, and paced over, dropping to a knee next to her queen. “You know, with everything else, I forgot to tell you something.”
Gabrielle cocked her head inquisitively. “What’s that?”
“You’re a grandmother.”
Of all the statements the regent could have made, this was possibly the very last one Gabrielle had expected. Both of the bard’s eyebrows lifted up almost to her hairline, and she blinked at her friend disbelievingly. “Excuse me?”
“Gramma.” Dori stuck her thumb into her mouth and rocked a little.
“You’re a grandmother.” Ephiny repeated. “You have six grandchildren.”
Gabrielle disentangled one hand from Dori’s clutches and reached out to lay her palm against Ephiny’s forehead. “What on earth did you have for breakfast?”
“Smoked venison and porridge.” Ephiny deadpanned. “And herbal tea. Why?”
Gabrielle stared at her as though Ephiny had grown a third eye right in the middle of her forehead.
Ephiny chuckled. “Relax. Ares became a daddy right after you left.” She said. “That scruffy little stable dog that lives behind Cyrene’s shed gave birth – all little black things with pointy ears.”
“OH.” Gabrielle rubbed her eyes with one hand. “You have no idea what I just thought…” She let the thought trail off. “Anyway.”
Ephiny nibbled her lower lip, watching the shadows chase themselves across her queen’s expressive face. “Sorry.” She murmured. “I didn’t think…” She paused awkwardly. “I guess I didn’t think.” The regent amended, remembering far too late Gabrielle’s trial with a son of her first daughter, Hope.
“It’s okay.” Gabrielle dismissed the old history, and produced a grin. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Mama?” Dori found a nice piece of hair to pull very hard.
“Ow.” The bard untangled the small fingers. “How do you like that, Dori? You’ll have some puppies to play with at home. You’ll like that, huh? Ares’ puppies?”
“Guff?” Dori asked.
“Little ones.” Gabrielle explained. “Bittyboos.” She glanced up at Ephiny. “I didn’t even know…”
“It’s okay.” Ephiny put a hand on her knee. “Apparently no one did – one of the stablehands found the litter inside Argo’s feed bin. They were all in there looking at them when I got there.” She reflected. “Cute little suckers. Noisy though.”
“I bet.” Gabrielle relaxed again, hugging Dori towards her. “New friends for you, sweetie.”
“Hey, you can keep them all.” Eponin drawled. “Dori’s little Horde.”
Gabrielle gave her a look.
“Puppy Posse.” Ephiny agreed.
“Can’t you just picture it, Dori surrounded by all those wagging tails listening to Gab telling stories?” Pony added.
“Ahem.” Gabrielle cleared her throat.
“All of em sleeping all over Xena..”
Xena gazed ahead , ignoring the fussing runners on either side of her. She studied the track, which wound through the stadium then out the far arch towards the center of the city.
The race would take them all the way through Athens, out the front gates of the city, around the perimeter, and back in the sea gates, ending back in the stadium. The warrior regarded the sky, then exhaled. It was hot, and promised to get hotter, and she was very conscious of the fact that in order for her to take the games, she had to start by winning this race.
Could she? The starter waved his arm importantly, and she leaned forward, shoving aside the self doubts she really didn’t have time for. She took in a deep breath, then released it, triggering an automatic response in her body as her senses picked up the challenge she was facing.
The other runners lined up next to her, their thin, lithe bodies twitching and flexing. Eyes glanced uneasily at her, with attitudes ranging from fascination to outright fear.
Xena reveled in both of them. She kept her gaze confidently forward, save one quick flick of her eyes up the staggered stone terraces full of people. She could just see Gabrielle’s smile, and Dori’s waving fists before she focused her attention on the dusty ground before her.
The starter’s arm dropped, and she left the starting line, glad of the wind against her face as she fixed her eyes on the far arch and made for it, wanting more than anything to be out of that stadium and out from under the eyes of everyone inside it.
She cleared the arch first, passing out into streets where bright ribbons of fabric lined the race way. Her boots scuffed lightly against the cobbled stones and she headed off down the lane, aware of the light thunder of footsteps behind her. The crowd lining the beginning of the route spotted her and cheered unexpectedly, despite the fact that Xena was fairly sure she’d been recognized.
Strategy. Should she fall back, and let someone else set the pace, or keep going as long as she could? Her body felt comfortable, her breathing low and deep, and she was already falling into a powerful rhythm without a twinge from her knee. The sun was hot, but the speed she was going was keeping a nice breeze in her face and for the moment she decided to just keep going and not look back.
So she did. The road wound it’s way down the hill and she followed it, leaving the trailing bunch of runners far behind her. Another large clump of watchers was at the crossroads, and as she came even with them, she spotted several of her own militia among them. A grin and a wave met their hearty cheers, but Xena was surprised when the people around them tossed flowers at her.
Flowers? Curiously, she caught one from mid air and examined it. It was one of the bright yellow flowers that commonly grew around Athens, with black seeds clustered in the center. Interesting, Xena mused, twirling the flower’s stem between her fingers idly.
She’d never been much for flowers, naturally. So the first time Gabrielle had given them to her, with an intention other than just childish good nature had been a shock.
“Damn stupid piece of…” Xena spat out a mouthful of blood, having incautiously bitten her own tongue during the fight. She wiped the sweat off her forehead with a grimy forearm and continued her climb up the slope. “Gabrielle!”
“Here!” The bard circled a tree and waved, already at the summit of the small hill they were camping on. She started to run down, but stopped when Xena waved her back. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” The warrior answered disgustedly. “Bastards.” She plodded the last few steps, feeling the exhaustion of a very long day catching up with her. The sundown fight had taken the last of her strength, and she found a spot near a log, not far from their fire to simply drop down into. She unstrapped her sword and set it down, then started to unclasp her armor.
Surprised to find it already being done, by a pair of gentle hands that undid the buckles and lifted the breastplate clear.
It was a little disorienting. She’d been self sufficient for so long her instincts were to bat Gabrielle’s fingers away, despite the steadily growing relationship between them. But she was tired, and hurting, and she decided letting someone else drag the heavy armor off her wasn’t really a bad thing at all. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” Gabrielle replied, laying a hand on her shoulder and giving it a squeeze.
Xena rested her elbows on her knees and regarded her dirt and blood covered skin dourly. They’d fought in river mud, and the stench of it rose to her nostrils. She felt grubby, disgusting and disgusted with herself for the nagging lack of energy she’d suffered from ever since her brief sojourn with death not that long ago.
With a groan, she started to straighten up, intending on changing out of her less than fragrant leathers and washing the mud off. As she lifted her head, she found herself watching Gabrielle as the bard knelt beside her, hands behind her back, mist green eyes softened and gentled with a heartfelt emotion that held her spellbound. “Uh…”
Gabrielle removed her hands from behind her back and brought them forward, holding them out towards her. Held in her fingers was a collection of fragrant color, wildflowers from the surrounding grass whose golden pollen lightly dusted the bard’s tanned skin.
Xena stared at them uncomprehendingly. Maybe it was just too long a day. “What are those?”
“Flowers.” Gabrielle told her.
“What are they for?”
Numbly, Xena reached a hand out and took the green stalks, their fresh, spicy scent making her blink as she brought the bunch closer, and the sweet smell of the blooms themselves rose. “Me?”
Gabrielle sat down next to her, and wrapped her arms around her knees. “Well, yeah.” She said. “Argo hates the taste of them, so I figured I’d give them to you instead.”
Rarely in her life had she ever felt so off balance. Xena studied the blooms clutched in her grimy hand as she pondered what to do with them. She’d never in her life been given flowers, so despite her jaded history, she had no idea what the right response should be.
In fact, the last time she’d held a bouquet was the one Gabrielle had tossed her at the bard’s wedding to Perdicus. Xena resisted the urge to chuck the handful and folded her fingers around the stalks instead. “Thanks.” She snuck a look at Gabrielle, catching a sheepishly embarrassed expression on her face.
“That was dumb, huh?” The bard guessed.
“Yes it was.” Gabrielle sighed. “Here you are, covered in muck, hungry, tired, and I give you a handful of flowers.” She laced her fingers together and rested her chin on them, letting out a brief little sigh. “I think a cup of hot tea would have been a lot more useful.”
“Maybe.” Xena sniffed her surprising gift appreciatively. “But I’ve had a thousand mugs of tea in my life, and only one handful of flowers, so don’t worry about it.”
She glanced at Gabrielle. Gabrielle glanced at her. They both looked away, and Xena was surprised to feel herself blushing.
Flowers. The scent tickled her nostrils, and more, erasing her fatigue and filling her with a sense of wondering confusion. What would Gabrielle think of next? Silk wraps? Honey bars? Those little stuffed things she loved…
“How about a bath?” The bard interrupted her reverie. “You look like a wagon rolled over you.”
Well. Xena set her flowers down and started to unlace her muddy boots. I guess romance takes practice like anything else, right?
With a slight grin, Xena tucked the flower into the strap on her leathers and picked her pace up, traveling now out of the more crowded area into lower streets whose blank windows observed the streets with anonymous coolness, hidden behind porticoed courtyards.
Her senses prickled as she passed a cross street, and without looking, Xena knew suddenly she was being watched by something more than an idle citizen. A quick glance around showed nothing but empty pavement around her, but as she passed the largest residence on the street, she could almost feel the eyes on her back.
She kept going, expecting every moment to hear the ratcheting sound of a crossbow cocking. But the silence around her persisted, and she passed through the area without incident, turning the next marked corner and continuing on her way.
“Now what?” Eponin folded her arms. “What do we do, just hang out here in the sun until they get back?”
Gabrielle noticed a vendor coming up the stairs, selling cold cider, and now others were making their way through the crowd taking advantage of the lack of anything to look at to sell various edible items. “Well, we could…” She paused, spotting a bit of a disturbance at the edge of the bard’s area. “Hang on.” The bard got up and handed Dori to the startled Amazon before she jumped lightly up onto the stone benches and headed for the trouble.
“Hey!” Eponin turned to watch her. “That’s not how this works, Gabrielle! You’re supposed to stay here, and I’m supposed to go take care of problems!” She called plaintively after her.
A brief grin, and a flash of mist green eyes answered her before the bard threaded her way past the clustered bards towards the entrance.
“Damn it.” Pony let out an aggravated sigh, giving a snickering Ephiny a dour glare. “Is she ever going to act like a proper Amazon queen?”
“No.” Ephiny leaned back on her hands, and regarded the swirl of color as a dancing group entered the stadium. “She’s going to be Gabrielle forever, Pony. Get used to it.”
“Great.” Pony sat down and put Dori on her lap. “What a thing to look forward to.”
“No.” Her lover said again, casting a mischevious look at her. “That’s nothing. Just wait until it’s time for Gabrielle to bestow her right of caste.” Her eyes dropped to the dark haired toddler exploring Eponin’s feathers. “And you have to keep up with HER.”
Eponin whined, attracting Dori’s curious attention. “Eph, I can’t keep up with her NOW.” She leaned back a little as Dori stood up and reached for her necklace. “Hey.. cut that out. That’s sharp.”
“Yes.” Dori agreed, grabbing the boar’s tooth. “Go get Guff!” She waved it. “Guff make good bite!”
“Guff, Boo.. can’t she ever just want to sit down and relax?” Eponin sighed.
“Boo.” Dori looked around, then scrambled off Pony’s lap and ambled off down the stone seating. “Go get Boo. Get Boo NOW!”
“Dori!” Cait spotted her coming and moved to intercept her. “Shall we play a game?”
“Hold it.” Gabrielle approached the two guards at the entrance to the bard’s area. “What’s going on here?”
The two men glanced around, startled at the quiet authority in her voice. “Ah, Bard Gabrielle.. we just found this slave, and he’s..”
“It’s all right.” Gabrielle smiled at Mikah, who was being held by one arm in a meaty fist. “He’s with me.” She extended a hand to their young friend. “Let him go.”
They gazed doubtfully at her, then the larger of the two released Mikah and stepped back as the boy edged around him and joined Gabrielle. The bard slipped an arm over his shoulders as she turned to head back, pulling up in amused silence as she watched Cait and Eponin chasing her daughter back and forth between the stone rows of seats. “Would you look at those guys?”
Mikah dutifully did so. “Your daughter is very active.” He remarked diplomatically. “Thank you for letting me up here. I did the errand you asked of me.”
“Good.” Gabrielle nodded. “Watch this.” She put two fingers between her teeth and whistled. “Dori!”
The dark head whipped around just like Xena’s would have, and the toddler’s eyes lit up as she spotted her mother. With a gurgle she abandoned her Amazon playmates and bolted for the spot Gabrielle was standing on, evading sets of hands and hastily raised boots with equal skill. “Mama!”
“C”mere!” Gabrielle held her arms out, as the toddler crawled up onto the nearest bench and ran for her, leaping off the end and into Gabrielle’s grasp with a shriek of delight. “At’s my girl.” She cuddled the child, hugging her tightly. “Are you causing trouble?”
“Yes.” Dori burbled. “Mama, Cat and Poopoo too slow!”
Gabrielle bit her lip, spotting outraged looks turned in her direction as she walked back to her seat. “Sorry, guys.” She apologized, sitting down and motioning Mikah to take a seat next to her. “I’ll try to keep her occupied for a while.”
The crowd around them was watching her with ill-isguised interest, and Gabrielle could see the looks of speculation as Mikah sat down next to her. One woman nearby whispered to her neighbor behind a hand, and they both smiled knowingly at them.
Mikah straightened his brief tunic with quiet dignity, smoothing the fabric over the tops of his thighs. “Perhaps I’d better… “
“Relax.” Gabrielle fixed a strap on Dori’s jumper. “Let them think what they want to. It doesn’t bother me.”
“Would it bother Xena?” Mikah countered. “To have them think what they’re thinking?”
A brief smile crossed the bard’s face. “Xena…. Well… “
“Let me guess.. she doesn’t get jealous, right?” The boy managed a half grin.
“Oh, she does.” Gabrielle countered. “She does.” She put her arms around Dori as memories stirred, bringing back to her that first moment when she’d seen that dark emotion stirred…
On her behalf.
Small town, smaller inn. Gabrielle wandered across the dusty ground and found herself a seat on the outside porch of the building, where a light breeze promised a more comfortable place to be than the stuffiness inside.
She stretched, propping a leather boot up against the table strut as she watched the sunlight slowly dim, glancing up when she heard unfamiliar footsteps approaching.
“Hi.” A young man, perhaps a year or so older than she was sauntered up. He was tall, broad shouldered and good looking, and he settled himself opposite her with an easy, friendly air.
“Hi.” Gabrielle returned the greeting amiably. Sometimes in small places like this, she and Xena were greeted with suspicion and it was nice to find the opposite for a change. “What’s your name?” She asked out of habit.
“Zev.” The man extended a an arm, which she clasped, then released. “Haven’t seen you around here before.”
“That’s because I just got here.” Gabrielle said. “Do you live here?”
“Sure do.” Zev told her. “My dad owns the inn. You staying there?”
‘Yes.” The bard replied.
“Great.” The man smiled at her. “Can I buy you a drink?”
It only occurred to her then, much to her mortification much later, that she was being flirted with. “Oh, well, I.. “
“We’ve got great ale. Or do you prefer wine?” Zev leaned on the table, giving her a sexy, inviting grin. “I bet a beautiful girl like you likes a nice, white wine, right?” He reached over and patted her hand.
“Um…” Gabrielle hesitated.
“Tell you what, you can try both. I’ll be right back.” Her new friend got up and circled the table, pulling up short as he almost crashed headlong into a tall, silent figure just behind them. “Whoa… scuse me.”
“No excuse for you.” Xena growled. “So beat it.”
“Hey, relax, willya? I said I was sorry.”
“I already knew that. Get out of my way.” The warrior took a step forward, her entire attitude highly menacing.
“No problem.” Zev held up both hands. “C’mon, sweetie, let’s go inside. The air’s getting smelly out here.” He glanced at Gabrielle.
The bard managed to get her jaw closed from it’s dropped position at Xena’s inexplicable foul mood. “I’m.. fine out here, thanks.” She murmured. “Thanks anyway.”
The man stared at her, then shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He muttered, giving Xena a wary look as he stepped out of her way and walked towards the inn. “Weirdos.”
Xena glared dourly at his back before she circled the table and dropped into a seat across from Gabrielle, resting her elbows on the wood surface and keeping her eyes on her laced fingers. After a moment, she looked up. “Was I interrupting something?”
Gabrielle blinked, not really sure of what was going on. “Yeah.” She admitted. “I think so.”
The look in the pale blue eyes across from her was… indescribable. Somewhere between anger, uncertainty, and hurt, and wholly foreign to Gabrielle’s memory. “Thanks. He was creepy.” She added.
Xena’s face relaxed a little, and she twiddled her thumbs. “Yeah.”
Gabrielle felt awkward. “Um… you okay?” She asked.
“I’m fine.” A pause. “Why?”
“You just seemed really…um… did the stable smell or something? To cause your bad mood, I mean.”
Xena’s nostrils flared a little, and she licked her lips, a flash of light pink against her tan skin. “There’s nothing wrong with my mood.” She answered testily. “I just saw that guy messing with you and I…”
“Got jealous?” Gabrielle blurted the words out without thinking.
Xena didn’t answer. She just studied her hands in pensive silence while Gabrielle watched her, not missing the faintly audible sound as the warrior swallowed a few times. Finally, the dark head lifted, and their eyes met. “Yeah.” Xena said. “I guess I did.” Her brow creased, though, and she lifted a hand to rub her temple, a touch of confusion in her attitude.
It was so strange. Gabrielle thought about everything for a few seconds. All so complicated and awkward as their emotions started coming from totally new directions. Would she have reacted the same way? Recent memory stung her, and she had to smile wryly. Oh yeah. “Wow.” She finally said. “I’m flattered.”
Xena’s lips quirked into a faint grin.
“Can I buy you a drink?” Gabrielle asked, gazing at her. “I bet a beautiful girl like you would like a cup of nice cold ale.” She paused, as the grin widened. “And a roast joint, and a berry pie.”
“Share?” Xena held a hand out, and their fingers interlaced.
“Will she be mad?” Mikah asked, a trifle anxiously.
“No.” Gabrielle shook her head, and chuckled. “She knows me better than that. Right Dori?”
“Yes.” Dori had her thumb in her mouth, and she was peering over her mother’s shoulder, searching for something to hold her interest. “Mama!” She pointed. “Bad!”
Gabrielle turned her head, to see Celesta headed their way, her eyes fixed on the bard’s face. “Nailed that one, sweetheart.” She murmured. “Eleneus? I think we’ve got a problem.”
“Athena’s beautiful bottom.” The elder bard sighed. “So we do.”
Xena felt herself settling into her pace, her heartbeat slowing as her body adjusted to the effort and resigned itself to the long outlay of energy. Now that she was some distance from the stadium, the watchers were much fewer, just a couple of citizens every few lengths leaning against the low, stone walls of nearby houses, or seated on steps a little higher up.
They waved. Xena waved amiably back. The sun was now slanting down on her back, and there was a slight breeze coming up from the docks. She dismissed her feeling of danger as just that – figuring that there were plenty of people in the city who had reason to be mad at her and she’d probably just passed a houseful of them.
The road angled slightly down, and to the right and she followed it, heading around the corner that had a high walled courtyard on her right hand side.
She just cleared the wall, and her senses barely had time to warn her before a dozen men leaped from the other side on top of her, burying her in a pile of half armored weight.
Two things saved her life. One was her reflexes, which responded far more quickly than her thoughts could direct them, and made her tuck her limbs up and go limp. The other was the fact that there were so damn many of them, they started hitting each other before they got to her.
Xena waited for the worst of the weight on her to shift, then she shoved up from the ground with both arms and legs, throwing off two of her attackers and launching herself far enough off the ground to twist and land on one side of the pile.
They were recovering from their mistakes, though, and they attacked her at once, with short swords and maces that were clearly not interested in capturing her.
Killing her was the object.
Xena caught the first one by the throat, reaching past his mace with her longer grip. Her fingers tensed, cracking his windpipe, and she ripped his weapon from his hands as he started to choke. A kick, and he was on the ground behind her as she was whirling to meet the next two, using the mace with a smooth expertise they weren’t expecting.
Long days of teaching her army close quarter fighting paid off as she deflected a sword slash, and whipped the mace backhand to crack against the wielder’s face, obliterating his cheek and eye in an explosion of blood and bone. She ducked under his flailing arms and kicked back into the other man’s gut as he surged forward, stopping him in his tracks and sending him flying backwards.
Part of her was aware of the other runners going by, quickly, faces averted.
Rage built. A low, gutteral roar burst from her throat and she let loose, no longer defending herself. With an arch of her back, she became the predator, and she picked up a fallen sword as she charged the rest of them, sinking it’s length into the nearest body and ripping it out again.
The remainder circled her, wary now. She twirled the sword, tossed the mace, feeling the dark energy rise inside her. Intently, she stalked forward, fastening her eyes on the biggest of them, a hulking giant with a broadsword almost as long as she was. Her gaze met his, behind his leather helmet, and she grinned. “C”mon.” She rasped. “I’m not done killing yet.”
A blink, and she saw it. The intent cruelty in his eyes evaporated, and she saw the fear. “What’s the matter? Not what you bargained for?” She purred. “Figured I’d be an easy target?” She twirled the weapons again and headed for them. Four men lay behind her, three of them dead. “Who’s next?”
One man gathered his courage and rushed her. She kicked his sword from his hand then smashed the mace right across his left ear, ripping it from his head along with most of the flesh under it. His helmet flew off and he stumbled past her. She raised her other arm and swung, cutting his head off with a single, almost offhanded swipe.
Then she looked at the six fighters left and licked her lips, letting a grin emerge.
It was too much for them. They turned and ran. Xena watched them for a moment, then dropped her two borrowed weapons and wiped her hands on her thighs, then dusted them against each other. “Gonna come out of hiding, you little pissant coward?” She raised her voice, letting the disgust she felt color her tone.
Very slowly, a figured emerged from behind the wall, watching her very warily.
“Five dead men. Was it worth it, Draco?” Xena’s lip curled.
“They came cheap.” The ex warlord replied. “And to make you lose this thing, and me win my bets, yeah, it was worth it.”
“You screwed me yesterday.” Draco shot back. “I just need to get mine back, and my dinars sure aren’t on you this time.”
“Wasn’t on purpose.”
“You think that matters?” Draco said. “I’ve got six Athenian moneylenders out after my skin. I don’t give a damn why you did it, I just know what I need to do to make sure you don’t do it again.”
Xena gazed at him, then she smiled. “See you at the finish line.” She turned and headed off, leaping over the still bodies in the road.
“Give it up, Xena! You can’t win it.” Draco called after her.
“You never did learn, didja!” Xena muttered to herself, as she considered her options. The runners were, now, far ahead of her, and she’d have to expend a huge amount of energy to catch up to them.
The Amazons moved towards the oncoming Athenian, their faces grim. Eleneus motioned to the guards, and whispered to the woman next to him.
“Ah ah.” Gabrielle held her hand up. “Pony, Eph, let me handle this.”
“Gabrielle!” Ephiny protested in a low voice. “That woman is dangerous.”
“Shh.” The bard shooed them away. “Sit down.” She added, as she headed towards the entrance.
“Damn it.” Ephiny covered her eyes briefly. “I’m going to retire and become a camp cook.”
“Do that, and I’ll retire and become a centaur.” Pony shot back, as they backed off.
“Hi.” Gabrielle slid quickly between Celesta and the rest of the Elder Bards as she shoved the guards aside and entered their seating area. “I’m glad you’re here. We should talk.”
She caught Celesta with her mouth open, and the other bard could do little except snap it shut with an audible click as Gabrielle’s unexpected words penetrated. “What?”
“C’mon over here.” Gabrielle offered her a seat on her pillows. “Would you like some cider?”
Mikah prudently edged away from them and towards Cait. “Is that really a smart thing to do?” He whispered to the Amazon.
“Certainly not.” Cait answered placidly. “Gabrielle will have her head over tail in quite short order.”
“What are you up to?” Celesta asked, giving Gabrielle a sharp, wary look as she sat down.
“Me?” Gabrielle settled herself next to the woman, and cradled Dori in her arms, rocking the toddler a little. “Nothing much. Just watching the games, playing with my kid, you know.” She gave her adversary an open, interested look. “So, what brings you here?”
“What… “ Celesta paused. “What brings me here? You just don’t get it, do you?”
“Sure I do.” Gabrielle let Dori tangle her fingers in her shirt. “You hate my guts and are trying to find a way to either get me arrested or get me killed, or get me tossed out of Athens disgraced so you can get your way.” She gave Celesta a gentle smile. “I think you just don’t get it.”
“I don’t get it.” Celesta repeated, in a flat tone. Nearby, the elders listened without appearing to.
“No.” The bard said. “You don’t get it that I don’t want what you want. I have no intentions of staying in Athens.”
Gabrielle shook her head. “Nope.” She replied. “This is the last place on earth I want to be.”
Celesta looked around, then stared at Gabrielle. “ You’re insane. That’s your trick, isn’t it?” She asked. “You’ve made my job easy. I can get you sent right to the madhouse.”
“No.” Gabrielle shook her head and chuckled a bit. “I’m not crazy.”
“Then what are you?” Celesta asked. “Why did you enter the contest if you had no intention of staying? What kind of a lie is that?”
“It’s not.” Gabrielle adjusted the sleeve on Dori’s jumper. “I entered because the bard’s council asked me to. They didn’t want you to win.” She looked up and gave her adversary a direct stare. “They figured if anyone had a chance to keep that from happening, it was me.”
Celesta gazed at her with half hooded eyes. “How much did they pay you?”
The Athenian bard got up and paced forward, then turned and looked at Gabrielle. “You’re lying.”
A mild twinkle entered the mist green eyes facing her. “Nope.”
Celesta came back over, her motions sharp and borderline seductive now. She sat back down, this time much closer to Gabrielle. “Then what’s your game? Why do it? If they’re not paying you, I can. I can give you anything you want.”
“I’ve already got everything I could ever need.” Gabrielle answered quietly. “I did it for two reasons. One, I like a challenge.” She smiled, with a touch of self deprecation. “And two, you really, really ticked me off.” As she took a breath to continue, a wash of dark energy almost swamped her, and she had to stop speaking lest a soft growl emerge instead.
“Oh, and that should scare me?” Celesta snorted.
Gabrielle slowly lifted her head, her skin prickling. As her eyes met Celesta’s the other woman pulled back in pure instinct, straightening and lifting a hand in a warding off gesture.
It was such a strange sensation. Gabrielle waded through the layers of fierce fury and intense joy, almost tasting blood in her mouth as she reacted to the flow coming through her link with Xena.
“Mama?” Dori patted her face anxiously.
And that, like dipping her head in a cold pond, settled her nerves and pushed the scary sensations just under her awareness. Gabrielle took a deep breath and released it, then felt the flow lessen and moderate, as whatever stirred her partner’s fighting passion ended. “Let me tell you something.” She told Celesta. “All you people here are just playing stupid games.”
“And because of those stupid games, Xena got hurt, and I got hurt. That wasn’t fair.” Gabrielle overrode her. “So if you think us coming in here and doing what we’re doing isn’t fair, that’s just too damn bad.”
Celesta shut up.
“You’re messing with something that you don’t understand, and let me tell you if you don’t cut it out and just take your lumps, you will get hurt.” The bard stated flatly. “Because not only is Xena capable of hurting you, those Amazons are capable of hurting you, and last, but not least, I am very capable of hurting you. So back off, go home, and just keep your mouth shut until we leave. Then you can go back to playing your stupid games and taking over Athens if that’s what floats your canoe.”
Celesta got up and started to leave, then she turned, and faced Gabrielle. “They picked you last night.” She said. “You can never change that.”
Gabrielle watched her go, winding her arms around Dori and hugging her as her mind turned from her erstwhile adversary to her partner. “Cait?”
“Right here.” Cait seemed to ooze up from right under her knees. “Gosh, that was quite wonderful, scaring off that nasty bit of goods.”
“Thanks. Do you know the route of the race Xena’s in?” The bard asked, in a soft voice.
“Right you are.” Cait stood and grabbed Paladia’s leather straps, hauling her up after her. “Cmon then, Pally. Off we go.”
“Hey!” The hapless Amazon grabbed at her top. “Hey! You loon! Cut that out!”
“Mama.. go Cat!” Dori wriggled to get loose, seeing an opportunity for fun. “Let go!”
“No, honey. You stay here with me. Cat doesn’t need your help” Gabrielle struggled to hold on to her rambunctious offspring. “Yet.”
“Trouble?” Ephiny sat down next to her.
“No. Just a precaution.” The bard answered, shortly.
“That woman’s some piece of work.” The Amazon regent stated quietly. “You really handled her.”
It was interesting, Xena mused, what people would keep on their rooftops. Even the ritziest of the Athenian houses used the space for odd storage, and she’d already leaped over several items that raised even her experienced eyebrows.
Old furniture, sure, but animal skeletons? Xena eyed the pile of bones she’d just circled on her way to the next building. The rounded skull caught her eye and she realized then it wasn’t an animal.
She was moving across the race route, picking up the time she’d lost during the fight. As she leaped across a small lane, she spotted the main body of runners, and changed course slightly to intercept them.
In front of her was a smaller building, with a flat rooftop, and she jumped confidently to it, only to lunge forward a moment later as she felt the surface start to bend under her weight. She landed on her hands on the edge of the wall and pushed off, tucking her body into a neat somersault as she spun towards the ground, hitting the dirt not a length from the road as the startled runners jumped aside on seeing her.
Xena hopped once, then broke into a run, catching up to the leading bunch of her competitors and falling into an easy pace behind them. She could go past, but she figured it would be less attractive for any other attackers to come after her if she was in a group and after all, she had plenty of time.
She came even with a tall, tanned young man with tightly curled dark hair. He glanced warily at her, edging away a little. “Relax.” Xena advised him dryly. “You’re safe unless you trip in front of me and I can’t stop in time.”
The man blinked a little, startled, then glanced around to see if the rest of the runners were watching. They were. “You cheated.” He ventured. “You ran over the buildings. That’s not fair.”
Xena gauged the glances she was getting. “All of you running by me being attacked pretending it wasn’t happing wasn’t very fair either.” She remarked mildly. “Guess we’re even.”
“That had nothing to do with us.” A girl on her other side spoke up. She had tightly pulled back blond hair and reminded Xena a little of Cait. “We’re just here to compete.”
“Great. Then if you’re not intending on shooting me, we’ll get along just fine.” Xena told her.
They all ran along for a minute in silence. “Is someone trying to shoot at you?” The girl asked, hesitantly. “Like, right now?”
Xena shrugged. “Maybe.”
“But… what about us? They could hit one of us, instead!” The curly haired man blurted.
“Yep, they sure could.” Xena agreed.
It shook them all up. “W.. what are we going to do? How … w can’t…”
“If you’re nice to me, and we get shot at, I’ll catch the arrows.” Xena reassured them.
“Yeah. So be nice.” The warrior grinned. She edged up between two other runners, men who looked so much alike she suspected they were twins. One of them, surprisingly, moved a little closer to her. Given that she outweighed the man by half she didn’t figure she was in much danger, but you never knew. She put her senses on alert just in case.
“Can you really? Like Gabrielle says? Catch arrows, I mean.” He asked her, surprisingly.
“Yes, I can.” Xena said.
“Is it weird to have someone tell stories about you like that? The other twin asked her. “Having everyone know everything about you?”
Xena considered the question briefly. The other runners closed in a little, moving easily. She let a few lengths pass before she answered, more to let them all settle down than because she really needed the time to think. “Took me a while to get used to.”
The girl who’d spoken earlier came up on her heels. “Are all her stories true?”
Weell….. “Yes.” Xena found herself answering. “She sometimes leaves out some of the parts she plays in them, but yeah, it all happened.”
“Wow.” The girl murmured, falling back a little.
“Do you run a lot?” One twin recaptured the conversation. “You don’t look like a distance runner.”
“What do I look like?” Xena countered, with a faintest of grins.
“A pit fighter.” The other twin blurted.
“A wrestler.” The girl chimed in.
“A prison guard.”
Xena looked at the other twin, who’d spoken last. One of her eyebrows lifted.
“They wear that leather stuff.” The man explained.
“Well, I’ve done almost all of those things.” Xena said. “I’ve been a fighter almost all my life, and that includes hand to hand and all kinds of weapons.” She mulled that over. “But I like running. I do a lot of it.”
They looked doubtfully. “What’s the longest you ever ran?” The bolder twin challenged her.
“I never measured.” The warrior replied.
“How fast can you run?”
“As fast as I have to.”
Dori was getting a little bored. She was glad she was with Mama, but it was hot. A fly was bothering her again, and Guff wasn’t there.
Boo wasn’t there either. That was bad. Mama had made Cat and Bobo go away. Dori didn’t like that. It meant she only had Eff and Poopoo to play with, and they were busy and not paying attention to her.
Maybe Mama would tell her a story soon. She was sitting in Mama’s lap, and she liked that. Mama was hugging her, and she really liked that because it felt all warm and good when Mama did it.
Not like when Boo hugged her. That was different. She didn’t know why it was different, but it was. When Mama did it, it made her want to be all happy. “Mama!”
Mama’s voice was all tickly on Dori’s head. She liked that. “You make story?”
“Don’t you want to watch the pretty people out there?”
Mama pointed. Dori looked. There were lots of people looking really small. They were doing funny things, but they were not as much fun as Mama’s stories. “No. You make story good!”
Mama hugged her extra long. Dori liked that a lot.
“What story do you want to hear, sweetie?”
“Boo gets the arrow!” Dori liked that story. It had Boo in it, which was always good, and Mama’s voice always got all warm and nice and happy when she said it.
“Ah… my favorite story.”
Good. Mama sounded very happy. Dori liked that. Other people came over. They always did that when Mama told stories, because they made them happy too. Dori didn’t mind sharing Mama like that so long as she got to pick the story, and sit in Mama’s lap.
Nobody else got to sit in Mama’s lap. Nobody else got to sit in Boo’s lap either, except for Mama, sometimes. Sometimes Dori and Mama sat on Boo, and Boo would hug them a lot. Dori liked that. Mama liked that too, she thought. Everyone was happy. That was good.
“Okay, you ready? You know this story. Where do I start?”
“Eff! Eff!” Dori knew.
“That’s right. The first thing is we met auntie Ephiny, right?”
“Turtle.” Dori remembered something. “Mama get turtle!”
Mama laughed. “Forgot I told her about that.”
Everybody thought that was funny.
“I don’t know if Boo wants me to tell everyone about the turtle, Dori.” Mama whispered in her ear, making it itch.
“Oh, okay.” Mama laughed again. “One day, Xena and I…”
Someone asked about Boo. Dori thought they were silly. Everyone knew about Boo. Mama told them anyway. Dori wished they would all go away so she could hear the story. She wanted to hear about the turtle, because Mama’s voice always went all funny during that.
It was special. Dori wanted a turtle. She had asked Boo for one, but Boo said she would have to find a special one for her. She had gotten a lizard, but it squeaked, and Boo said she had to let it go. That was all right, because it had bitten her on the finger, and she didn’t like that.
She really wanted Guff. Mama said Guff would come when they went home. Dori wanted to go home now.
Maybe after Mama finished the story they could go home. But they would wait for Boo, first.
Dori hoped she came back soon.
“Pally, let’s go.” Cait bolted down a side street.
“Wait a minute, you boofhead – that’s the wrong way!” Paladia managed, somehow, to get a handful of Cait’s leathers and by the sheer expedient of being twice her friend’s size, she stopped her.
“It certainly is not. Let me go.” Cait argued.
“Yes, it is.” Paladia said, stubbornly. “Look, I checked it out. They’re going that way.” She pointed towards the waterfront.
“Exactly. This is a short cut.” Cait wreasted her leathers loose. “Now come on. We’ve got to catch up.” She started down her chosen route, pulling Paladia behind her. “Hurry, can’t you?”
Paladia followed, because she really didn’t have much of a choice. “You remember the last time we used one of your shortcuts?”
“What’s the point anyway?”
“Gabrielle wants us to make sure Xena’s safe.” Cait explained, ducking under a hanging basket and almost clocking her much taller companion as she pulled her along.
Paladia snorted. “Oh, right.” She muttered. “Like if she’s in big time centaur dung you and I can do anything about it that she can’t.”
“Like, what are we going to do, hold her sheath for her? You want me to just draw pictures? We gonna sell…mpf.” Paladia found a pomegranate in her mouth.
“Now, shut up before I simply clock you and leave you here.” Cait told her sternly. “We’re going to find Xena, and make sure she’s all right.”
Paladia whipped her head around, searching for the source of her gag. She expected to see a basket of the damn things somewhere within Cait’s reach, but there was nothing on either side of them but walls. She spat the fruit out and jogged after her friend. “Hey! Hey! Where’d you get this damn thing!”
“Had it in my pocket.” Cait answered, distractedly. “Let’s see.. ah, right then. Down that way.” She darted off in another direction.
“In your pocket?” The taller Amazon said, puzzledly. “You nutcase.. you don’t have any pockets.”
“I’ve got a pouch, haven’t I?” Cait answered crossly.
“That’s not a pocket.”
“Look, Pally, don’t make me thump you.” Cait rounded a corner, only to stop abruptly and cause Paladia to crash into her. “Whoa!”
Paladia reacted, for once, in the right way and grabbed Cait, pulling her back behind the corner as a pack of half armored men thundered past them at high speed, raising a cloud of dust behind them.
“Good job!” Cait commented.
As though they’d heard her, the men rambled to a halt, breathing hard and sweating. They spotted the two Amazons in the side passage and stared at them.
“Well then. What’s chasing you lot?” Cait asked, boldly. “Run away donkey, maybe?”
Paladia let out all her breath in a combination groan and sigh. “You are so dumb.”
The men stared at them, then the nearest one let out a yell, and they brandished their weapons, and headed for the two Amazons.
“Ah. Great. A fight.” Cait grinned.
“I thought we were supposed to be rescuing Xena.” Paladia hissed. “So, c’mon, before they cream us!”
Cait hesitated, as the nearest men lifted their swords, snarling with rage. “Rats.” She regretted her own lack of substantial weaponry. “Very well.” She allowed Paladia to start hauling her off, and they broke into a run as the squad of armored men chased them. “Pally, you know I hate being chased.”
“Keep running.” The bigger woman said. “Cause I hate being pounded on worse than you hate being chased.”
They ran faster, keeping just ahead of the yelling men. Cait led the way down a side alley, threading her way past crates that Paladia bounced off of due to her larger size. “Hurry!” She told her friend, as she leaped onto a box and hauled her body up onto the top of the nearby wall, scrambling over and dropping on the other side.
“Son of a…” Paladia glanced behind her, then wished she hadn’t. Breathing down her neck was a really big ugly guy, with a big iron club. He swung it at her, and she ducked, then she dug her heels in and stopped short, letting him fly past her.
His club hit the wall, and took a chunk out of it, then he turned and came at her again. “Hey. Good job. Foothold.” Paladia muttered, as she shoved her hand into his face and pushed him back, then grabbed the wall and used the hole to stick her boot in as she tried to follow Cait.
Someone grabbed her leg. She threw her weight on the top of the wall and kicked out vigorously. “Let me go you rat!” He pulled harder and she yanked back. “Leggo!”
“Get back here, you bitch!” The man took a better hold on her boot and pulled furiously.
“Son of a..” Paladia quickly drew her dagger as the rest of the men crowded up to the wall, reaching for her. She reached down and slashed, and heard the yell as the leathers holding her boot on parted. “Yeyahoo!” The man fell backwards, but Paladia did also, as the tension on her leg released. She tumbled off the wall and fell into the next alleyway, where Cait was already pulling at her. “Hey!”
“Would you hurry! What were you hanging about over there for?” Cait asked. “And where’s your boot?”
A loud growl forestalled Paladia’s answer. They looked up to see the armed men climbing over the wall, and she scrambled to her feet and limped after Cait as they ran off ahead of them.
Cait picked up a wooden bucket as she ran, and half turned, taking aim and throwing the bucket at the nearest of their pursuers. The bucket bounced off his armor and hit the next man in the shins, tripping him up. It didn’t slow the group down that much, though – and they started gaining ground on the two Amazons again as they pelted through the narrow roadway.
“You sure you know where we’re going?!” Paladia yelled, as they seemed to be coming to a dead end. “Cait!?? Hey!!!”
“Yes! C’mon!” Cait yanked her forward and shoved her between the wall they came up against and the one at right angles to it, where there was a tiny space. “Quickly!!”
“I can’t fit through that you loon!!!”
“You’ve got to! Now move!!!!”
Paladia heard the men closing in on them and she glared at the wall, then at the smaller, mud slicked one right angles to it. With a yell, she shoved against the weaker one, and with a creak it collapsed, giving her plenty of space to get through. She hurdled it, and kept going, aware of Cait and the men coming along behind her. “Now what!!”
“Just keep going!” Cait caught up with her and bolted ahead. “Over there!”
“There?” Paladia pointed, out of breath. “That’s a damn main street! They’ll catch us!!!”
The men were getting closer. Paladia felt them behind her, and a hand reached out to pluck her leathers as they reached the street and turned the corner, emerging into broad avenue.
Right into the path of a huge bunch of people, filling the road from one side to the other.
“Oh, crap.” Paladia skidded to a halt.
“Right. Told you I knew what I was about.”
“What?” Paladia whirled, lifting her hands to defend herself against the closing me. “Guess you’re getting your fight!”
The men rounded the corner and looked past them, then at the two Amazons. They stumbled to a halt, then slowly, with wide eyes, started backing up.
Armor rattled. Weapons were dropped. The men turned and bolted, running away from them with frantic haste.
Paladia slowly dropped her hands, and stared at Cait. “What the furk?”
Xena stayed in the middle of the first clump of runners, keeping a comfortable pace The other runners had decided to leave her alone for now, so she was left in peace to order her thoughts as she ran along.
The path they were on would take them down past the docks, then back up through the city and out the gate. Outside, the road wound up and up the fairly steep hill the city was built on, and around to the gate she originally entered through, where they’d travel through the other end of the city before they ended back up at the stadium.
So far, her body seemed to be adapting to it’s unusual task pretty well. She was used to running, often long distances in her early morning jaunts with Dori. But those were different, because she could pick her path and pace, and with her daughter along it was more of a game than anything else.
Then, she’d trade off running with flipping, or sometimes climbing a tree, or swimming – all the things Dori loved doing that she loved doing with her. It was sometimes almost a guilty feeling, like she was revisiting a far off and ill remembered childhood, but Xena found herself reveling in it, up there on her mountain ridges away from Amphipolis where it was usually just her, Dori, the sky, and fields of sweet, green grass.
“Boo!” Dori looked around. “Boo! Go here!”
Xena locked her knees into place and lowered her body upside down from the tree she’d climbed, waggling her fingers at her daughter. “Hey, shortie! Over here!”
Dori’s eyes had gotten so big. “Boo!” She pointed, then ran over, clutching at her playtime buddy’s extended arms. “Go updown!”
Xena picked her up, then flexed her torso and pulled both of them up into the tree. “Now we’re up, right?”
“Good!” Dori giggled in delight. “More!”
“More!” Xena mock frowned at her. “Whadda ya think I am, some kind of fair ride?”
“Yes.” Dori bounced against her, then flung her arms as far around her as she could and squeezed. “Boo, you so good.”
“Think so, huh?” Xena cradled the child in her arms. “Do you really think that, Dori? That I’m good?”
Big green eyes looked up at her with perfect trust. “Yes.” Dori was positive. “Boo good. Mama good. Love you.”
Xena kissed her on the forehead. “Thanks.” She hugged the child. “I’ll do my best to make sure you always think that, okay?”
“Just for that, you know what you’re gonna get?”
Dori squiggled. “Fly?”
Xena slipped off the branch and they dropped to the ground together. “You ready?” She put Dori on her shoulders, and held on to the child’s legs. “Hang on!”
Dori clutched her head. “Gogogogogogogogogogogogogogogogo!!!!”
And, Xena went. She launched herself forward and reached top speed in just a few strides, powering over the grass and causing the breeze to blow her hair back and wrap it around Dori’s legs.
She headed up the long slope to the top of the ridge, racing between the trees as Dori giggled in delight, then she threw herself into a forward flip, landed, then into a backflip without even so much as a pause.
“Wheeeeee!” Dori was loving every minute of it.
Xena took off again, this time heading up across the ridge towards the spring. “You want to get wet, Dori?”
Xena made her way towards the water, diving into flips and half turns, until she reached the rocks above the spring and leaped up them, reaching the very top rock and launching herself off it without pause.
They flew through the sweet, summer air for what seemed like forever, as she lazily turned and twisted her body, before she, and Dori plunged into the cool water sparkling brightly under them.
“Whoo!” Xena exploded through the surface, after pushing off from the bottom. She felt Dori scramble up, and let the child stand on her shoulders. “Dive!”
Dori leaped off her shoulders and splashed into the water, giggling furiously and decimating the water with her arms and legs. “Boo! Look! Like a fishie!”
Xena opened her arms. “C’mere, fishie.” She caught the child’s hands and pulled her through the water with powerful strokes of her own legs. “Do you know what your mama would say if she saw us in here in our clothes?”
“She’d wonder what she was going to do with the both of you.” The answer came from the rocks above.
“Mama!” Dori squealed
Xena looked up, to see Gabrielle seated on the rock, swinging her legs, grinning at her. “It was a spur of the moment plan.”
“Tch.” Gabrielle shook her head.
“Boo.” Dori climbed up on Xena’s shoulder. “Make mama like a fishie!” She burbled in the warrior’s ear.
Pale blue eyes regarded her, then Xena grinned mischieviously. “Yeah?”
Xena ducked under the water, swimming over to the bottom of the rocks, under where her soulmate was sitting. Then she tucked both legs under her, putting her boots firmly on the spring floor. With a huge surge, she kicked away from the bottom and flew out of the water, startling Gabrielle who yelped in surprise.
Then yelped again as Xena grabbed her, pulled her off the rocks, and carried her downward into the spring, tunic and all.
“YaaaaahhhhhH!!!!!!!!” Gabrielle shook the pale hair out of her eyes as they surfaced. “You… you…”
“Mama! Like a fishie!” Dori squealed in delight, splashing over and making sure Gabrielle was very thoroughly wetted. “Boo makes you like a fishie!”
“Yeah? Did you tell her to do that?” Gabrielle held onto Xena with one arm, and her daughter with the other.
Gabrielle looked at Xena. Xena grinned, and shook her head. “You know what?” The bard said, unexpectedly.
“I hope she grows up to be just like you.”
Xena felt like an entire pot of happiness had been dumped over her head, warming her from head to foot despite the chill of the spring. “Right back atcha, partner. Right back atcha.”
“What’s that yelling?” The girl next to her suddenly asked. “It’s coming from over there.. is it those people wanting to attack you?”
Xena glanced to the side, then edged her way through the crowd of runners, who parted before her quickly. She headed towards the noise, almost slowing when she recognized the two figures in the lead. “What the…” She sped up again as she saw them turn to meet whatever the oncoming threat was.
Then a pile of large, angry men came around the corner after them.
Then they saw her. Xena recognized them, and snarled, grunting in satisfaction when they stopped, dropped their weapons, and ran.
“Wow.” The taller twin caught up to her. “That was impressive. But who are they?” He pointed at the two Amazons.
Gabrielle spotted them first, the faint suggestion of motion through the archway that lead out of the stadium. With a deep sigh of relief, she stood up, hoisting Dori to her shoulder. “Guess who’s coming, Dori?”
Dori removed her thumb from her mouth. She’d settled down after Gabrielle had finished her story, despite the growing discomfort of the heat. “Mama?”
“No, I’m here.” Gabrielle craned her neck. “C’mon… c’mon…”
The patrons nearest the entrance now stood, pointing to the archway, and the crowd surged to it’s feet.
“Darn it.” Gabrielle frowned, then glanced behind her before she hopped up onto her seat so she could see again. “Sometimes being short is such a pain.”
“Mama! Boo!” Dori squealed at full volume, flinging her hand out and pointed.
“Ow. Thanks honey, I see her.” Gabrielle winced, resisting the urge to cover her ear. She watched the dark figure now coming through the entry resolve itself through the sunshine and dust, emerging into the stadium.
She held her breath, and steeled herself for the reaction, her eyes already picking a route through the packed stadium that would put her at trackside, to support her partner if it got ugly.
A cheer rose, surprising her. She peered down the track to see Xena approaching, lengths ahead of her nearest competitor, her long legs moving her over the ground with truly impressive speed and power.
The long, dark hair whipped back in the wind, and as the crowd’s enthusiastic response reached her, Gabrielle saw the angular face tilt and look up in startlement.
It really wasn’t the reaction either of them had expected. Gabrielle watched in mild disbelief as flowers rained down on her soulmate, watching the faint twitches in her broad shoulders as she kept herself from deflecting the colorful items with automatic reflexes. The rest of the runners were struggling to speed up and catch her, but it was obvious in Xena’s easy strides that she was going to win.
Gabrielle found herself grinning as she watched the warrior tuck her hands into fists and head for the ending mark, her pace increasing effortlessly as she outdistanced her competition. “Yeah!” She let her voice rise in a shout, and lifted a hand.
Xena whipped past the end and slowed, the sweat coating her body now evident as it shed off her body and caught sparkles of sunlight.
“Mama, go get Boo!” Dori pulled on a lock of Gabrielle’s hair. “Go go go!”
“Gabrielle, maybe you…” Ephiny started to say, reaching out a hand as the bard hopped off her seat and slipped past her. With a sigh, the regent let her hand drop. “Don’t mind me, I’m just the nappy carrier.” She followed Gabrielle as she eased through the crowd, watching the bard’s shoulderblades as she wiggled her way through the mass of people until she reached the track.
Xena had slowed to a walk, and the rest of the runners were now crossing the finish line, two of them stumbling in exhaustion and a third collapsing into the dust. The warrior walked back up through them, extending a hand to her fallen competitor.
The man, one of the twins, looked up, staring at her for a moment before reluctantly taking the offered help. He was pulled to his feet, and he murmured his thanks. Xena released him and gave him a pat on the shoulder before she turned and looked up at the crowd, letting her eyes run over the happy, cheering throngs.
It made no sense. Xena shook her head, then turned her attention to the sturdy figure climbing over the edge of the seating area and dropping to the track. She walked gladly over as Gabrielle trotted to meet her, Dori perched on her shoulders. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Gabrielle gave her a hug, despite the sweat, or, perhaps because of it. “Great job!”
“Yeah.” Xena fended off a veritable blizzard of flowers. She gave Ephiny, who had jumped over the edge of the stands behind Gabrielle a dour look. “Now they’re happy?”
“Now they bet on you.” Ephiny informed her. “Because you guys took off yesterday, the moneylenders figured to make a killing and took any bet on you they could. They’re hurting.” She glanced towards a mass of citizens surrounding several men. “Big time.”
Xena sighed. “I win, they bitch. I lose, they bitch. I win again, they cheer. This city’s nuts.” She glanced around, raising her hand as the race judge waved at her. Across the field, where the city council was, however, she found dark anger facing her. Her shoulders shifted and she instinctively put herself between the cluster of men and her family.
“How much did you make?” Gabrielle asked her regent, missing the motion.
Ephiny cleared her throat modestly, and rocked up and down on her heels.
The judge called out, and Xena put a hand on her partner’s shoulder. “Be right back.” She turned and threaded her way through the milling runners, the heat baking them and bringing a strong scent of hot skin and humans to her.
She’d only gotten three steps, though, when she heard a familiar pattering behind her, accompanied by Gabrielle’s calling their daughter’s name. She turned just as Dori reached her, and grabbed a knee. “Hey, shortie!” She picked the child up and cradled her against one shoulder as she continued towards the judge.
“Boo, you make go fast.” Dori told her. “You make go fast, all good.”
The judge eyed her as she came to a halt beside him. “Twas a good race, I hear.” He said, politely, motioning her towards a small cleared area along with the second and third place runner. The young girl who’d been questioning had come in just after Xena had, and the other twin had come in third.
Xena felt the sweat trickling down her skin, and wished it was all over. “It was all right.” She said, glancing at the other two, wondering if they were going to lodge a protest. For a moment, she thought the girl was, then she merely dropped her eyes, and studied the dusty stone ground.
The judge nodded, then stepped forward and lifted his hands to pin the laurel leaves to Xena’s leathers. Dori forestalled him by grabbing the cluster, looking at them for a brief second before she tried to eat them. “Hey!” The warrior snatched the bundle, leaving a single leaf in Dori’s mouth. “Bad girl.”
Then the brief ceremony was over, and she was free to return to her partner. She had to get through the boxing now, and the discus, and then the final event – the pit fight. Already they were setting up the cleared area for the boxing, and the warrior knew she only had a little while before she had to go over there.
Gabrielle met her. “One down.” The bard glanced at her. “Sure you don’t want me to try the next one? I can box.” She tucked a hand inside Xena’s elbow and guided her off a little to the side, out of the stream of athletes and citizens milling around.
Xena gazed fondly at her.
“Well, I can.” Gabrielle held her fists up. “C’mon, I feel fine, and you look tired.”
Xena’s eyebrow lifted. “I’m not.”
“Xena, you most cer…” Gabrielle covered her eyes, and mock sighed. “After all these years, you’d have though I’d learned by now, huh?” She lamented.
Xena chuckled wryly. “I could use a bucket of water over my head, and a drink.” She admitted. “Any chance of getting out of the sun for a few minutes?”
“C’mon.” Gabrielle urged her towards a small entryway, that lead into the athlete’s housing. “Hey, did you see Cait and Paladia?” She asked, as they passed out of the sun and into the cooler hallway.
“Uh huh.” Xena let out a breath of relief. “Damn, it’s hot out there.”
Gabrielle gave her soulmate a quick, half worried look. Xena’s skin was just a little paler looking than normal, and the sweat had drenched her body, soaking her dark hair and plastering it over her shoulders. “Let’s duck into our room quick, and you can cool down… I think we’ve got a quarter candlemark.”
Xena allowed herself to be led into the stone room. She crossed to the water basin, setting Dori down as she did so. “Tough race.”
Gabrielle took out a simple tunic, and walked over to her. “Want to change into this now? It’ll be cooler.” She offered the garment. “The end didn’t look tough.”
“No.” Xena scooped up a double handful of water and splashed it over her face. “Didn’t start well, though. Ran into Draco and a goon squad who wanted to make sure I didn’t finish.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle watched Dori sitting quietly on the floor, playing with the laurel leaves. “I was kinda wondering what was up. That’s why I sent Cait out after you.”
Xena glanced over her shoulder, one brow lifting in question. “You knew I was fighting?” She asked, a little puzzled.
The bard nodded slowly. “I felt it.” She stated softly. “The… um…” She stopped, not really sure how to say the words. The sounds of splashing had ceased, and she looked at Xena, who had turned and was watching her intently.
“What did you feel?” The warrior asked.
Gabrielle sensed the upset, even before she moved closer. “It was just… you know, Xena. You get all kinda…” She took a breath. “ You were fighting. I could just tell.”
Gently, Xena touched her chin, and tilted her head up, their eyes meeting. “When I fight…” She spoke softly. “I revel in it. You felt that?”
The bard suddenly couldn’t meet her gaze. She blinked, and fiddled with the linen tunic. A hand cupped her cheek, and she found a smile somewhere. “It’s okay.” She reached up instinctively and covered Xena’s hand with her own.
She heard a soft exhale, and put her other hand flat against the warrior’s belly.
“I can’t change that.” Xena said, after a moment.
“I know.” Gabrielle looked up at last, accepting the knowledge fully. “Don’t worry about it, sweetheart. It’s not that bad. It just sort of startled me the first time until I figured out what it was.”
They pondered each other somberly.
“Boo, bad taste. No good. Gimme hoballs!” Dori got up and toddled over, yanking on Xenas’ leathers. She had the now tattered laurel leaves hanging from her other hand.
Gabrielle unhooked Xena’s leathers. “C’mon, Dori. Come over here, and I’ll give you some treats, okay? Let Boo get washed.”
Xena threaded her fingers through the bard’s pale hair and gently drew her head forward, kissing the top of it. “We’ll talk about this later.” She murmured.
Gabrielle tilted her head up and returned the kiss, only on her partner’s lips. “I’ll always be there for us to talk, Xe. Go on, wash up, and cool off a little.” She gave the warrior a tiny shove towards the bath, then she draped the clean tunic over the chair and went to retrieve the honey balls Dori loved from their gear.
Xena studied her for a long moment, then she picked up the big water basin and stepped into the tub with it, lifting it up and dumping it over her head.
“You could have taken those off first.” Gabrielle observed, with a wry grin.
“Had to wash em anyway.” Xena pulled the stopper out and filled the basin again, rinsing the sweat off her body. Then she slipped out of the now sodden leathers and laid them over the edge of the tub before she went back for more water. It was just cool enough to be refreshing, and it felt incredibly good as it scoured her skin.
A hand touched her side. Xena blinked her eyes open, as Gabrielle leaned over and gave her a kiss on the navel, the mist green eyes glinting with hints of seductive darkening. She felt her body relax from a tension she hardly had been aware of, her mind shoving the startling shock of Gabrielle’s revelation somewhere behind her. “You still trying to convince me to let you box?” She teased gently.
Gabrielle balled her fists up again, and stepped into the tub, bumping her knuckles against her partner’s bare body before she slid her arms around Xena, and reveled in the expanse of bare skin she had access to. “I love you.” She said, simply. “Let’s get this damn thing over with, Xena. I want out of here.”
“Do my best.” Xena leaned over and kissed her. “One more day, and we’re gone.”
Gabrielle waited until Xena stepped out of the tub, before she walked over with a spare piece of their linen and, without speaking, began to dry the warrior off. She circled her slowly, and after a startled moment, Xena held her arms out and let her have her way. Dori was taking a nap on the bed, and they had a few moments to spend on just themselves.
“You’ve got a cut back here.” The bard commented softly.
Xena had her eyes closed. “Piece of a guy’s armor plate.” She shifted one shoulderblade. “It’s okay.”
Gabrielle leaned forward and kissed it, then rubbed her cheek against the water cooled skin, while she finished her task. “You know what I like the best about this trip so far?” She put the linen down, and handed Xena the light tunic.
“What?” Xena slipped the fabric down over her head and wiggled a little, settling the folds across her muscular form.
Gabrielle snugged the belt tight, and fastened it. “Us.” She gently steered Xena to the chair and pushed her down into it, handing her a nice sized apple before she picked up their brush and started brushing out the warrior’s dark, wet hair.
“Us?” Xena leaned back, enjoying the attention. She took a bite of the apple and chewed it, glad of the sharp tang.
“Yeah.” Gabrielle ran the comb through, gently untangling a snarl. “You want your hair pulled back? It’s pretty hot out there.”
Gabrielle went to their bags and dug out a leather clasp, then went back to Xena’s side and continued her work. Once she’d straightened out her partner’s dark locks she pulled them through her fingers, gathering them at the nape of Xena’s neck. Then she fastened the clasp in place.
“Us?” Xena tilted her head back once she sensed the task was complete.
The bard rested her forearms on Xena’s shoulders and leaned close, so they were almost nose to nose. “Us.” She confirmed. “Ever since we left, I’ve sort of felt like we were two vines, just curling closer and closer around each other.”
“I like that.” Gabrielle nuzzled her a little. “Despite everything we’ve been through, it just makes me feel wonderful.”
Xena reviewed the past few weeks, her gaze turning inward for a beat. She realized that Gabrielle was right – and maybe that had been the distracting, almost mesmerizing feeling she’d been having for a while now.
If Gabrielle was picking up her fighting lust, then what was she getting from the bard in return? A little of Gabrielle’s spirit? Her joy in life?
Was it a fair trade?
“Yeah.” Xena finally said, letting out a tiny breath. She took another bite of her apple and held it between her teeth, raising her eyebrows invitingly. She felt the gentle puff of Gabrielle’s laughter against her lips as the bard accepted it, biting off part of the piece, then taking the apple inside her mouth and pausing to take a kiss as well. “I like that too.” Xena said, as they parted.
Gabrielle grinned in reaction, and chewed her bite of apple, swallowing it and licking her lips.
They walked outside together, Xena with Dori on her shoulders as they rejoined the other athletes and patrons still milling in the entrance.
“Did Draco say why he was attacking you?” Gabrielle asked, in a low voice. “That doesn’t make sense, Xena.”
“Sure it does.” The warrior replied, returning wary greetings with a slight smile. “He lost his bankroll yesterday and needs to get it back.” She glanced around deliberately. “Can’t say I blame him – after all, we talked him into putting dinars on us.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle frowned. “Well, yeah – but is that a reason for him to try killing you?”
“He knows it’s the only way to stop me.” Xena said, in a mild tone. “Either that, or cut my leg off and he’d have to get close to me to do that.”
“Xena, that’s not funny.”
“Was that a joke?” Her partner teased gently. She draped a long arm over Gabrielle’s shoulders as they walked. The cold bath had made her feel better, but after the trials of the last few days, her body was not exactly thrilled with her over the prospect of continued strife. “Over there.” She indicated the pit where they boxing would take place.
“I still think you should let me do it.” Gabrielle said, organizing her arguments and laying them mentally out. “I mean, c’mon, Xena. I learned from the best. What good was it for you to spend all that time teaching me if I can’t use it when I have to?”
“Are you flattering me?” Xena deflected the request skillfully.
“Xena.” Gabrielle’s voice dropped several notes. “I mean it.”
Xena sighed. “Look.” She gave the bard’s shoulders a little hug. “I’m not saying you’re not a good enough fighter to do this.”
“Yes you are.” Gabrielle nudged her with one hip.
“No I’m not.”
“Sure you are – you’re saying you can do it better than I can.”
A dark eyebrow lifted. “Well, Gabrielle…”
A sigh. “I know. You can.” The bard leaned against her. “But I feel like such a wuss, Xena. C’mon, I would never try the discus, or that pit thing but I can do this.”
They’d reached the edge of the pit, and paused, gazing down at the cluster of boxers already inside, with several more climbing down the rough hewn ladders placed against the side.
Gabrielle blinked. “Good grief.” She spluttered. “Are those men, or cows?”
Xena chuckled softly. “As I was saying, it’s not that you’re not good enough, Red, you’re just…”
“Too short.” The bard exhaled aggrievedly. “And way too skinny. I’d have to take a running leap and kick one of those guys just to get his attention.” She regarded the beefy men, and shook her head at their size and very solid dimensions. “Fishturds, Xe – you might have to do that yourself.”
“Hm.” Xena lifted Dori off her shoulders, much to the toddler’s displeasure, and handed her to her mother. “Well, lemme go find that out.” She walked to the edge of the pit and paused, waiting for an unobtrusive moment until the men in the pit had noticed her and their attention was fixed.
Then she stepped off the edge of the pit, disdaining the ladder, and let her body roll in to a lazy flip before she landed neatly in an empty spot between two of the larger ones. She dusted her hands off and walked past them as though they weren’t there, stepping onto the boxing circle and examining it instead.
“What a brat.” Gabrielle clucked her tongue, glancing back over her shoulder as Ephiny and Eponin joined her. “Did you see her?”
“Who?” Pony peered into the pit. “Xena? How can you see anything in that herd?”
The bard rolled her eyes. “No kidding. I tried to talk Xena into letting me fight, but no way, not with those guys.”
Pony chuckled. “You?” She patted Gabrielle’s back. “I don’t think that’s your style, your Maj.”
A blond eyebrow lifted.
“Uh oh.” Ephiny sighed under her breath.
“What exactly do you mean by that?” Gabrielle asked, cradling the now wriggling Dori.
The Amazon weapons master grinned. “Hand to hand with fists is a lot different than staff work.” She told Gabrielle, in a confident tone.
“Oh, really?” The bard said.
“Sure.” Pony replied. “Takes a while to master.”
Ephiny covered her eyes.
“Hm. Have you?” Gabrielle asked mildly. “Mastered it?”
“Great.” The bard handed Dori off to Ephiny. “There’s a nice quiet spot over there.. show me.”
Pony cocked her head. “Huh?” Then she felt herself being pulled along, and had to start walking or lose her leathers. “Hey! Uh… hey, Gabrielle? Gab? Your majesty…”
Dori sucked her thumb and stared at Ephiny, who gazed down at her in wry amusement. “Honey, every time I decide which one of them I want you take after – they just keep changing my mind.”
“Effy.” Dori grinned at her. “Go Boo?” She pointed.
Ephiny glanced down at the pit, then peered over her shoulder at her hapless lover. “Go Boo.” She answered, and headed for the steps. “Cause that’s just gonna be ugly.”
Xena flexed her hands, testing the tightness of the leather wraps around her knuckles. She was standing with a group of the other boxers, all save herself and one other being male. Xena eyed the other female athlete and reflected silently that it wasn’t often she stood in a crowd and felt dwarfed.
Even in the wrestling event, the wrestlers had relied on speed, and that meant smaller, lither bodies, closer to her own in general build.
But not this crowd. Most of them were her height or greater, and outweighed her by double. They were all about power, and the huge trunks and massive, muscular arms promised that she’d have a tough time getting to the top of this particular heap.
However. Xena rocked up and down on her heels, watching the first pair of fighters warm up. She wasn’t worried. If it was one thing she had confidence in, it was her own skills. The trick was going to be getting through the match without expending too much precious energy she was going to need for the end of the day.
“Hey, you’re Xena.”
Ah. The brainy one of the bunch. Xena glanced to her right. “Yeah. And?”
The other woman boxer sidled over. She was a strapping young woman, with straight, chestnut hair pulled back into a neat braid and a sprinkling of freckles across her face. Her eyes, like Gabrielle’s were a soft green. “We’ve got a bit to go yet, you up for a bit of a roll? There’s a rest area back there.” She pointed behind them.
Xena studied the woman as though she’d just manifested a third eye in the middle of her forehead. “What?”
“C’mon.” The woman was cheerful, and very friendly. “It’s been a great week. I’ve slept with all these guys, you’re the only one left.” She pointed again. “C’mon!”
Xena wasn’t really sure if she should be insulted or pissed off. “You slept with all of them?” She indicated the men with a pointed finger.
“You bet. We’ve had a big old party.” The woman agreed, with a grin. “Not as wild as I heard the javvies got, but we tore down a few rooms, right Hector?”
Big, bearded Hector grinned. He was missing a tooth right in front. “You bet.”
“Hey, let’s go. It’ll take Jojo over there at least a half candlemark to get past Boots.” The woman took hold of Xena’s arm and started tugging her towards the back. “I bet you know lots of …whoa.” She jerked to a halt when the object she had hold of didn’t move an inch. “What’s wrong?”
“Not interested. Sorry.” Xena removed the woman’s hand from her arm.
Instead of being offended, the woman studied her curiously. “Why not?” She asked, in a reasonable tone. “Don’t you like sex?”
“That’s not the point.” Xena gave her a touch of one of her more dangerous looks.
There was a soft sigh as it went right over the woman’s head. “Then you don’t?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Then you do!” The woman said. “Well, c’mon. Time’s a wasting.” She took hold of Xena’s arm again, much to the amusement of the other boxers.
Xena decided words were useless. She grabbed the woman’s wrist and hauled, yanking her body up and over onto her shoulders and then onto the ground. The woman landed with a distinct thump on the clay floor, and a thin cloud of dust puffed up into the air. “Like I said…”
“Oo.. so you like to start with some rough stuff? Awesome!” The woman bounced to her feet. “You’re definitely my kinda good time!”
“No, I’m not.” Xena ducked past her goodnatured lunge gracefully.
“Oh, so you don’t like sex after all!”
“Yes, I do.”
“Then what’s the Hades begotten problem??” The woman put her hands on her hips.
“Fighters, your attention, please!” The judge interrupted, holding his hands up. “First two into the clay.”
“Get your fun later, Linzah.” The bearded man slapped the female boxer on the butt and ambled over to the clay circle, adjusting his loincloth with an important twitch to the center. He faced off against a blond man with almost no body hair, and they both raised their fists and started to edge around each other.
“So.” Linzah sidled up to Xena, completely ignoring the warrior’s dour glare. “What’s the deal? You a virgin or something?”
Xena’s left eyebrow lifted sharply.
“You’re a little old for that, aren’tcha?” Linzah queried. “How long ya been one?”
Xena dropped her imminent plans of divesting Linzah of what few senses she seemed to have and turned as a small body hit her in the kneecaps. “Dori.. what are you doing here?” She hoisted the toddler up into her arms. “Where’s….”
“Awwwww….” Linzah chucked Dori under the chin. “Now I get it. You aint a virgin, you’re just married. Hey there, little thing.”
“Bck.” Dori scowled.
“Is she your mama, huh, pipsqueak?” Linzah persisted. “Is she your mama?”
“No.” Xena caught her eye, giving her a level stare. “I’m her father.” Then she spotted Ephiny headed her way, and turned to meet the harried looking Amazon, without looking back or wondering how many flies the idiotic boxer was going to catch in her open mouth before she got back.
They found a relatively quiet spot. Most of the crowd was now circling the boxing pit, the rich patrons in their beautifully carved chairs set right around the edge, and the rest of the watchers getting any perch they could to get a good view.
That left the runner’s warm up areas empty, and nearby there were several of the discus athletes practicing, and two of the gladiators facing off with swords, so Gabrielle doubted the crowd would notice a couple of smallish Amazons sparring.
She hardly even knew why she was doing this, except that there was an edgy energy coiled in her guts and she wanted rid of it.
Or did she still resent the fact that Xena had talked her out of doing the boxing, no matter what the size of the competitors? Gabrielle watched Pony adjust to the situation and stretch out a little. Was she getting to be as competitive as her partner was? “Okay.”
“Okay.” Pony settled herself into a balanced stance, different than what you’d use with a staff, or an edged weapon. “The big difference is, you ain’t got reach.” She said. “So c’mon in here closer.”
Gabrielle did so, remembering clearly, suddenly that first time Eponin had ever taught her anything, had shown her the Amazon war staff, demonstrated it’s uses.
Pitied her, since Gabrielle was so very unsuited to doing anything useful with it. The bard remembered that half amused, half disgusted look, and wondered very briefly what Eponin saw now when she faced her.
Something in between that seemed to her less threatening than Xena, and yet respectfully competent in her own right? “Eponin?”
“Yeah?” Pony answered guardedly. “Listen, I didn’t mean to make it sound like this is that big of a deal, y’know.”
Gabrielle tilted her head a little. “Do you really think I don’t know how to do this?”
The weapons master gazed at her, then sighed a little. Shrugged her shoulders a little. “Do ya?” She asked. “I mean, I know Xena taught you like crackers how to use that staff, and all that, but… “
“The staff.” Gabrielle agreed quietly. “Yeah, she taught me that.” Slowly she circled the other Amazon, brining her hands up, and feeling her body slip into a familiar stance. “But she also taught me what to do when someone took it away from me.” A hand flicked out, startling Eponin as it brushed a hanging feather near her shoulder. “So, c’mon. Let’s box.”
Pony recovered quickly, and stepped back, lifting her own hands and watching her opponent intently for an opening.
Gabrielle was, she fast discovered, a tough read. Her compact body stayed resolutely over her center of balance – which, being lower than Eponin’s limited her target range. Her shoulders were squared, but her right one advanced just slightly ahead of her left, attesting to her dominant hand.
Experimentally, Eponin threw a combination, not really surprised when it was blocked. Gabrielle was waiting for her to make a move, and reacting to it – something the weapons master had noticed when she fought with her staff as well. It wasn’t a lack of courage or aggression, she knew – it was just that Gabrielle was used to fighting people who were trying to kill her and had the sense to let them make the mistakes.
You did expose yourself a lot more when you attacked, then when you defended. Pony sighed, and just went for it, launching a carefully thought out and rapid attack. She was crouching just slightly, to get her hits in to Gabrielle’s body.
Something occurred to her. “Hey!”
“What?” Gabrielle paused in mid motion, stilling her hands.
“Xena’s not going to come flying out of that pit if she sees us, is she?”
Gabrielle considered the question. “I don’t know.” She resumed her circling. “But if she does, I’m sure I can stop her from whacking you in time.”
“Great.” Pony groaned. “I better make this a fast lesson.” She threw another combination, heartened when they both hit, elicting tiny grunts from her Queen.
“Hey.” Gabrielle suddenly said. “Want to make this a little more interesting?”
“It’s not?” Pony asked, puzzled.
“How about we bet.” The bard offered. “If you win, I’ll grant you a request of your choice, and you can do the same for me.”
Didn’t sound too dangerous. “Okay.” Pony agreed. “You’re on.”
A little too late, she spotted the suddenly look of reckless glee in the green eyes across from her, just as Gabrielle switched from a defensive to an offensive posture, and came after her. “Whoa!”
She ducked the bard’s uppercut, but wasn’t quite ready for the body jab that went with it, and took it in the ribs, feeling the breath come out of her at the impact. It had Gabrielle’s weight behind it, and though the bard was smaller than she was, Eponin knew from experience she was solid and letting her get a few more of those through would put her in a bad place.
She settled down to business and used her experience well, fending off a roundhouse and ducking under Gabrielle’s outstretched arm. Seeing an opening, she nailed her in the side as she turned, then saw stars as the bard continued the motion and turned it into a smoothly delivered kick that nailed her in the side of the head.
Ow. “Xena didn’t teach you that.” Eponin muttered.
“No.” Gabrielle agreed. “And I don’t use it on her because she just grabs my boot and dumps me on my butt.” She feinted with an elbow, then reversed her body direction and slugged Eponin in the jaw, at the last minute realizing she needed to pull the blow.
That knocked her offbalance, and Eponin got in a good one, a gut punch that made her knees shiver a little. Her body reacted instinctively, bringing her hands up and launching a from the shoulder left that caught Pony right on the nose, sending a spray of blood unexpectedly skyward.
They both stopped. “Oh, sheep poop.” Gabrielle winced. “Sorry.”
“It’s nothing.” Pony wiped the red off on a forearm. “Just warming me up.” She told the bard, gamely. “Happens all the time.”
“Ah. Right.” Gabrielle found herself back on the defensive, as her opponent threw new energy into her attack. “You sure you don’t want to stop?”
Gabrielle ducked a very competent attack and traded one of her own. Well, if she won, she reasoned, it would be worth it. She blocked a punch and whipped her leg up in a side kick that caught Pony in the ribcage, moving her over a step.
She only hoped Pony would forgive her for it, someday.