A Matter of Pride
The candles were guttering low by the time they’d both cleaned up, again, and gotten Dori to sleep. The party outside however was going on full force, and the sounds of the revelry were drifting in the window as well as echoing faintly through the stonewalls of the chamber.
Gabrielle stood up from tucking Dori’s blanket in around her and turned to find Xena perched in the windowsill, her tanned skin collecting the moonlight in a very pleasant way. “Well.” The bard sauntered over and draped an arm over Xena’s shoulders. “Going to be a little hard to sleep with all that going on.”
Ghostly blue eyes gone gray fastened on her. “You were planning on sleeping?”
Oo. Gabrielle felt her nape hairs lift at the darkly seductive tone in her partner’s voice. “Not really, no.” She admitted, hitching up her shift and perching on the sill next to Xena. “I figured I’d update my diary, find something to wear for tomorrow, check my…” Xena’s lips lazily worked their way across her palm, now held in the warrior’s hand. “Inhibitions at the door.” A breath. “You know.”
“Mmm.” Xena nibbled at the sensitive spot between Gabrielle’s thumb and the curve of her fingers. “Do I?”
“Know?” Gabrielle closed her eyes, savoring the touch. “Well, you know me, that’s for sure.”
A soft chuckle floated over the noise outside. “C’mere.” Xena tugged her closer, sliding her other arm around Gabrielle’s waist as the bard slipped willingly between her legs and wound her arms around Xena’s neck. “Do you know something?” She whispered in a conveniently close ear, just before she took the edges of it between her teeth and bit down gently.
Gabrielle considered the question. “I know I really like what you’re doing.” Her voice broke a little on the last word as Xena’s breath warmed the side of her face. She turned her head slightly and met Xena’s lips, tasting the faint residue of honey as she explored them. It felt very good to be alone, and safe, and the recipient of Xena’s sensual attentions. “I know there’s no other place I’d rather be, and no other person I’d rather be with.”
“You do know a lot, don’cha.” Xena complimented her, as she found a gap in the front of Gabrielle’s shirt and took advantage of it, her fingers lightly stroking the soft skin underneath.
“Ungh.” Gabrielle’s answer was a wordless, guttural sound, and an insistent nibble on the warrior’s lower lip.
Music drifted in the window from the party outside, pipes and gentle harps in an light melody.
Xena nipped her nose, and gazed into her eyes. “Dance with me?” She grinned, invitingly.
Gabrielle eased to her feet as she felt Xena’s body shift, and they both managed to stand without letting go of each other. She snuggled closer as they started moving to the music, reflecting once again just how well the two of them fit together. The Amazons sometimes had a problem, she remembered from their last festival at the village. If two of them were the same height, and they tried to do what she and Xena were doing, part of their anatomies…well, they bumped a lot.
“What are you thinking about?” Xena asked, as they moved in a circle, swaying to the strands of soaring pipes outside.
“Breasts.” Gabrielle answered promptly, laying a few kisses on the curve of Xena’s, which was pressed against her cheek.
“Oh, really.” Xena chuckled, then slid her hand slowly up her partner’s side and cupped her palm around the bard’s breast, her thumb exploring its surface teasingly. She felt Gabrielle’s hold on her tighten, and their bodies pressed together, skin’s warmth erupting through the cloth that separated them. Her fingers found the ties holding the bard’s tunic closed and she tugged one.
Gabrielle caught on to the game and as they swayed to the music she started her own assault on Xena’s shirt. She caught a tie between her teeth and pulled her head back, releasing the fabric and exposing a patch of tan skin. A second rewarded her with even more, as she felt Xena’s touch tickle her now bare belly. The warrior’s scent surrounded her as she got the last tie loose and their bare skin brushed together, the warmth counter pointed by the breeze that entered the window and fluttered the candles around them.
Heat and chill. Xena stripped the shirt of Gabrielle’s body and shrugged her own off, letting her hands wander over her partner’s compact frame, as the bard’s lips tasted achingly sensitive areas within her reach. She felt Gabrielle’s ribs expand under her fingertips, and heard the soft rasp of her indrawn breath as she moved against her.
Xena tipped her head closer to the soft whisper. “Mm?”
Funny, how she never got tired of hearing that. Xena cupped the back of her soulmate’s neck and their lips met, and as they did – Xena felt their connection surge. It was always a faintly odd sensation, in this case like being bathed unexpectedly in pleasantly warm water. As she prolonged the kiss, though, the feeling intensified.
The music, the oak scented breeze, and the golden candlelight echoed and intensified, almost like she was experiencing it all through two sets of senses, hers and Gabrielle’s. She could feel the loving emotion inside her soulmate and it filled her, as they tumbled into the bed.
It was incredible. It triggered in her a response she hadn’t expected, an eruption of everything she felt for Gabrielle- all the love, the joy she’d brought Xena, and the sweetness their relationship was that built up inside her and cascaded back through their link.
Her hands claimed Gabrielle’s body. She felt the motion as the bard inhaled, and heard the soft, wondering gasp of surprise as the combination of physical and emotional attention descended over her.
“I love you too.” Xena uttered into Gabrielle’s ear, just before she let the intensity overwhelm them both, as she strove to touch every part of her – inside and out, blending everything she’d learned about Gabrielle with everything she felt about her.
Gabrielle wrapped her arms and legs around her, and their bodies arched together, their souls joining and becoming one bright flame, one that eclipsed any possibility of darkness.
The powerful surge seemed to last forever, but when it did fade, and Xena could breathe again, she found her entire body shaking in pure reaction. Gabrielle was curled as tightly against her as possible, her breathing still labored.
They were both covered in sweat she didn’t remember feeling, and the breeze blew across them, raising bumps on both their skins. Xena pulled a bit of the linen covering the bed over them, then just let her self sink into sated wonder. Gabrielle had her eyes closed, but as she looked closer she could see the bard’s lips moving faintly, reciting soundless words she couldn’t quite decipher.
Oh well. Time enough to ask her later.
Xena’s eyes drifted shut, and even the charged sounds of the night outside faded, leaving them both in a ball of conjoined, peaceful bliss.
Gabrielle woke to full sunlight painting her; it’s warmth making her blink as she lifted a hand to shade her eyes. The sounds of the city were unmistakably audible outside, and she watched the dust motes drift in the golden light for a few breaths before she turned her head slightly and looked up. “It’s late.”
Xena didn’t move an inch, her half open eyes sleepily regarding Gabrielle. “Disgraceful.” She drawled softly. “Just a pair of hedonistic sloths.”
“Hmm.” Gabrielle lifted a hand and curled it into a hook. “You showed me a sloth once.” She turned and squirmed closer to Xena, hooking her fingers behind the warrior’s neck. “There... now the sloth is hanging on her tree in the forest.”
Xena’s blue eyes twinkled, picking up the sunlight and shining with it.
A thought occurred to Gabrielle. “Dori’s still asleep?”
“Nah.” Xena answered peacefully. “She’s been up, been changed, had a snack, and she’s busy playing with Bittiboo over there near our bags.”
“You do that?”
“She’s a little young for me to have taught her to cook.” Xena remarked dryly.
“Mm.” Gabrielle stretched her body out to its full length, then recurled it around Xena’s. “Thanks. Feels really good to be a sloth for one morning.” She arched her neck as Xena’s fingers scratched it.
“Mmhm.” Xena’s eyes were closed.
“Uh... we were supposed to meet everyone for breakfast.”
“They’re gonna tease us.”
“Not if they know what’s good for em.” Xena growled, extending her arms and curling them around Gabrielle’s body. “They show up here and I’ll…urg.” She paused, as Gabrielle’s teeth closed on a very sensitive part of her anatomy.
“You’re not so tough, are ya?” The bard burred saucily. “All I gotta do is… Ooo.” She released Xena’s nipple quickly, as a long finger tapped against her most ticklish spot. “Okay, on second thought, if they show up, toss em on their butts out the window.”
Xena chuckled deep in her throat. “Hey, Dori!”
A dark, shaggy head popped up. “Boo?”
“Bring mama a cookie.”
Gabrielle heard the sound of something moderately heavy being dragged across the floor, and she opened her eyes, lifting her body up as Dori came over to the bed, pulling herself along it with one hand. “Hey, sweetie.”
Dori abruptly disappeared, startling her mother, then she got up and toddled up to her, holding out one of Xena’s trail bars. “Good!”
Gabrielle beamed at her. “Oh, sweetheart, thank you!” She accepted the offering. “What are you doing over there?”
“Bittiboo makes pictures.” Dori told her. “Draw mama.”
Gabrielle reached out and combed through the baby’s unruly hair with her fingers. “You drew a picture of me?”
“Yes.” Dori ambled over to where she’d been sitting and retrieved something, then came back over and offered it to her mother.
The bard regarded the smeared inkblot fondly. “That’s very pretty, honey.” She reached behind her and gave Xena a pinch, to stop the warrior from laughing.
“Mama.” Dori sounded very satisfied with herself.
“Why don’t you go draw a picture of Boo?” Gabrielle suggested. “I bet she’d like that.”
“Make Boo.” Dori seemed to like that idea. She headed back over to the bags and sat down. “Boo go fly.”
“Oo... a flying Boo… I bet that’s going to be pretty.” Gabrielle rolled her head back and gave her partner a teasing look. “I like flying Boos.” She took a bite of trail bar then held it out to Xena, watching as she lifted her head up and neatly chomped off a bit for herself.
“Breakfast in bed. What could be better?” The bard exhaled happily, memories of the night before drifting lazily in her mind’s eye. “Wow, I feel great.”
Xena’s chin rested against her shoulder. “Me, too.” She spotted a crumb that had fallen on Gabrielle’s neck and licked it up with a snap of her tongue, eliciting a snorting giggle from her impromptu table. With a smile, she wrapped an arm more snugly around Gabrielle and relaxed, content to watch a few leaves drift by the window, flickering in the warm light.
“How’s your leg feeling?” Gabrielle’s voice interrupted her idle daydreaming.
Leg? Xena’s brow creased, then she grunted, and slid the linen off her, lifting the injured limb into the sunlight for inspection. Only smooth skin over rippling muscles met their eyes, as she flexed the joint with obvious ease. “Great.”
“Mmph.” Gabrielle tickled her above the knee. “Guess we’d better get up, and face the music, partner.” She said, with a touch of regret.
“Yeah.” Xena agreed, returning her chin to rest on Gabrielle’s shoulder, her gaze pensive.
Gabrielle studied the profile so close to hers. “Plaster heroes?” She hazarded, wryly, knowing the lauds of the Athenian elite would now grate on both of them.
Xena nodded, just a little.
The warrior shook her head firmly. “I’ve always tried to suck it up and take responsibility for what I did.” She said. “But Athens allows... no, encourages slavery, and Athens is thirsting for war. I’m not gonna sit here and say that’s my fault.” A pause. “Or yours.”
Gabrielle rolled onto her back and gazed at her. “Even though you could have prevented some of it?”
The bard traced her partner’s jaw line affectionately. “I think we’ve both learned a lot this trip.” She said, softly. “About being responsible for… to… each other.”
A tiny smirk twitched around Xena’s lips. “New trick for an old dog.” She drawled. “Just goes to show you.”
Gabrielle hugged her, then paused as a thought occurred to her. “Xe?”
“What are we going to do if they ask you to lead the Athenian army?”
“Same thing we’re gonna do if they beg you to stay the Bard of Athens.” Xena replied, in a calm voice. “Just say no.”
“Just like that?”
Gabrielle pondered the idea, wondering if it was going to just be that easy. “Can we at least say – ‘No, thank you?’”
A snort. “That’s my bard.”
Gabrielle strode through the streets of Athens, bound for the Academy of Bards. Flanking her were Eponin and Ephiny, providing a sturdy Amazon presence as they made their way towards their goal.
A messenger had arrived at the stadium almost at the same time the Amazons had, conveniently circumventing the teasing she and Xena would have received given that she had still been in her shift, sitting in the window updating her diary while Xena sat on the floor playing with Dori.
The bardic elders, it seemed, wanted Gabrielle’s presence.
“Hey, Gabrielle?” Ephiny spoke up.
She tore her attention from a very colorful merchant’s wagon, which had beautifully woven mats displayed all over it. “Hm?”
The regent caught up a step to her. “Is this summons a problem?”
Two richly dressed men caught her eye, smiling and waving as they past. Gabrielle returned the wave. “I don’t think so.” She answered Ephiny. “Probably just want to square things away for the ceremony.”
“You don’t think they’re going to ask you to stick around?” Pony asked. “I mean, you did win their thing, right?”
“We had a deal.” Gabrielle told her. “They knew I wasn’t staying. I said I’d try to help them out, but that was it.” She paused on their way through the upper part of the market to dig a coin from her belt pouch and purchase one of the green and red apples in a nearby stall. “Want one?” She offered.
Ephiny and Eponin exchanged glances. “Uh... sure.” Pony blurted. “I like apples.” She selected one. “Wanna share?” She eyed Ephiny.
“Um.” The Amazon regent gazed doubtfully at the fruit.
Gabrielle paid the vendor. “Guys, they’re just apples. Would you relax?” She bit into hers, enjoying the crisp flesh. “C’mon.”
They continued up the street, climbing the hill towards the richer areas of town. As Gabrielle was recognized, finely dressed men and women nodded politely at her, smiles plastered on their faces. Gabrielle wondered if, despite their outward enthusiasm, their bias against her provincial background was putting their silk, certainly hand fitted under wraps into a huge knot.
Oh well. She shrugged off the thought, and angled her steps towards the Academy. She was dressed in her common Amazon style traveling garb, complete with her well made, but equally well-worn boots. The heat was becoming oppressive, and she was glad to feel what breeze there was against her exposed skin.
Getting out of this city, and into the forest was looking better and better. Gabrielle led the way up the stone steps, to the large wooden doors that stood open to the air. She paused a moment, looking at the carved stone panel outside which spelled out the name of the place, then she shook her head in some amusement and walked inside.
It was cool. The buzz of the street outside faded into the peace of the stone halls, the air permeated with a mixture of sandalwood oil and the musky scent of parchment. Gabrielle walked confidently through, aware of the wary eyes of the Amazons following behind her.
Out of their element. Gabrielle let her fingers trail against the wall, pondering the multifaceted nature of her life. This place was, in a very real sense, part of who she was just as the Amazons were also a part of who she was.
Gabrielle reached the archway that led into the elder’s council chambers and walked through it into the space beyond, her Amazon escort hard on her heels. The fountains were doing their usual thing; though she noticed someone had added some of the big, fat goldfish to one of them that she’d last seen in Chin.
As she entered, the Bard’s council, clustered around the comfortable seating area, looked up. “You wanted to see me?”
Eldereon looked relieved. “Ah, good Bard. Yes, please. We would like your council, on a matter which has just been brought to us, one that disturbs us greatly.” His eyes slipped past her to her escort, then returned to her face in question.
Uh oh. “Sure.” Gabrielle stepped carefully around the pillows and walked towards the council chamber. “This is Ephiny, who is my Amazon regent, and Eponin, our weapons master.”
“Ah. Excellent.” The answer was surprising. “Considering the circumstances, their experience will be welcome.”
Double uh oh. “What’s going on?”
“Well.” Eleneus clasped his hands. “We’ve been drafted, as it were. By the council.”
“Conscripted into the service of the city, to help lead us into war.”
They don’t waste any time, do they?” Gabrielle exhaled, putting her hands on her hips. “What do they have in mind?”
“A festival.” Eleneus answered promptly, as the rest of the nodded. “They want every bard in the city to present a story about the ferocity and triumph of Athens’ soldiers, or about how the Athenian people won the day in some conquest or other.”
Ephiny peered cautiously around Gabrielle’s sturdy shoulder. “There haven’t been that many wars and you’ve lost most of them.” She mentioned. “What if there aren’t that many stories?”
“We shall make them up, of course.” The response came back. “Won’t we, Gabrielle?”
“You know.” Gabrielle spoke in the silence that followed. “I really should have just stayed in bed with Xena today.” She shook her head, circling the council and heading for the pitcher of cider sitting prominently on the table.
“Well.” Eleneus murmured, as they all looked at each other awkwardly. “That was surprisingly pithy.”
“You have no idea.” Ephiny smothered a wry smirk.
“Ain’t that the truth.” Pony covered her eyes.
“Boo, go patty patty.” Dori scrambled over and seated herself between her playmate’s spread legs.
Xena was occupied with packing their things, carefully folding and tucking the items into bags that always seemed far too small to hold them. She had always kept her kit to a minimum – her weapons, an extra set of leathers, boots, and a few shifts, along with her healer’s kit was about it.
Not Gabrielle. The warrior smiled, and shook her head. Even from the start, the bard had the then maddening habit of picking up anything she could get her hands on, and stashing it away in their gear. Rocks. Pieces of petrified wood. Trinkets. Knickknacks from across half of Greece…
No wonder Argo had taken so long to warm up to her. “Patty, huh?” Xena put the bag aside for a moment, and held her hands out. “Okay, pat me.”
Dori whacked at her hands with her own, much smaller ones, giggling furiously. “Boo, go home now?”
“Yep.” Xena clapped her hands together, and watched her daughter copy her, then held her hands out again to be hit. “We’re gonna go soon, Dori. We’ll get outta this place, and head home.”
“Good.” Dori abandoned her game, and her stuffed toy and crawled into Xena’s lap instead, giving her a hug. “I like.”
Xena considered the long trip. “Me, too.” She scooped the child up and cradled her in her arms. “I hear we’ve got puppies at home. You wanna go see the puppies?”
“Buppits.” Dori pulled at a bit of unraveled embroidery on Xena’s shift. “Good buppits.”
“Did you know I found Ares when he was a puppy?” Xena asked her.
“Guff is a buppit?”
“Want Guff.” Dori rested her head against Xena’s chest and looked up at her. “Boo, you go get Guff? Come here?”
“Nah.” The warrior wiggled a finger at her, pleased when the child clutched it with strong hands. “Guff would be sad here, Dori. He might get owie.” She told her daughter. “When we leave, we’ll go far away, then Guff will show up, I promise.”
“Otay.” Dori inspected her buddy’s hand. “We go, we go, we go now.”
“Soon.” Xena leaned over and gave her a kiss on the head, then surged upright, her arms closing around Dori instinctively as she heard a knock on the door. “Yeah?”
Cautiously, the edge of the door moved inward, and the silvered head of her friend, the Athenian guard commander appeared. He blinked as his eyes took in Xena’s state of disheveled undress, but gave her a respectful nod anyway. “May I come in?”
“Sure.” Xena seated Dori on her lap and crossed her ankles, seeing no need to move from her spot on the floor. “What brings you here?”
The man settled cautiously on a nearby chair and studied Dori for a moment. “A lot’s happened the last few days.” He remarked. “But you know that.”
“Hm.” Xena watched him with wary eyes. “You telling me the council still wants my hide?”
He chuckled. “No.” A pause. “Well, actually, yes, but not in the same way.” The tall man leaned forward, and rested his elbows on his knees. “I’ve got an offer for you.”
“You haven’t heard it yet.”
“If it involves me staying anywhere near this city past tonight, I’m not interested.”
“Xena, hear me out.” He coaxed. “It’s not what you think. Now, c’mon – you’ve got a long history with a lot of people. What I’m offering wipes that clean, as far as our influence runs.”
Pale blue eyes glinted softly. “How far is that?”
The guard captain smiled, his hands folding in front of him. “That’ll depend on you.”
Here they were, back in the stadium. Gabrielle sat quietly on a handy, short column, her boot heels drumming lightly against its stone surface as she waited for everything to start. It was hot, it was very, very crowded, and bards, the city council, and a lot of big, husky looking guards surrounded her.
To one side of the platform they’d constructed in the center of the stadium she could see her Amazons, milling around with the Amphipolitan militia, and the rest of the elders from her village.
Around the rest of the platform, there were just lots and lots and lots of people. Citizens, and visitors, and athletes – the latter seeming now to accept their fates, joking and laughing as they waited to be recognized. The wine merchants were doing a brisk business.
Gabrielle twitched at her snowy white, full-length toga, and sighed.
“What’s wrong, old friend?” Homer appeared, and knelt down next to her, most of the marks of privation gone from his face.
“I feel like a Hestian virgin in this thing.” The bard muttered.
“Ah. Really?” Homer scratched his jaw. “So, tell me, Gabrielle.” He continued mildly. “What does a Hestian virgin feel like?”
Gabrielle opened her mouth to answer, then abruptly shut it with a click of her teeth. She gave her friend a wry look, and slapped him lightly on the shoulder. “Almost got me.” She admitted, with a grin.
“Least I got you to smile.” Homer grinned back. “C’mon, Gabrielle. You come to Athens to talk about taxes, and end up running the Academy of Bards. Why the long face?” He held a hand out towards a nearing wine seller, and secured two cups, one of which he passed to Gabrielle. “You’d think you’d gotten sentenced to hard labor, or something.”
“What would you consider running the Academy?” Gabrielle countered, with an arched brow. “Thanks.” She took the cup, then she hitched one knee up and circled it with an arm. “It’s just not something I ever wanted, and I don’t really know what to do with.” She said. “I’ve got a life, back home. I don’t want this one.”
“Really?” Homer looked curiously at her. “Not even a little tempting?”
The bard shook her head.
“Wow.” Homer murmured. He remained silent for a moment, then exhaled. “Yes.”
“Yes, what?” Gabrielle looked at him, distracted.
“I’d consider running the Academy.”
Gabrielle was honestly surprised. “Really?”
Homer chuckled softly. “Gabrielle, we can’t all be like you.” He said. “I could never wander out in the world, sleeping in trees and fighting monsters. Athens is the place I want to be, and if I want to be here, then I want to get somewhere in life doing what I do.”
The bard exhaled. “What about Celesta?”
Homer lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “I’ll know better how to beat her the next time.” He said. “If you leave, it’ll be up for grabs again.”
Gabrielle smiled gently, and put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m leaving.” She leaned forward and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Good luck.”
Homer looked her in the eye, a faint blush visible on his skin. “Thanks.” He murmured. “And, thanks for getting me out of jail in one piece.” A wry look crossed his face. “Bet you never expected to see me there, huh?”
“Well, actually.” Gabrielle studied him. “I wasn’t that surprised. Your family came looking for me after you vanished. Asked me to help find you.”
Homer appeared stunned. “M... my family?”
The bard nodded. “Your cousin found us on the way here.” She smiled at her old friend. “Before you take over Athens, you might want to go see them. I think they miss you.”
A buzz of noise caught their attention. They looked up to see the crowd stirring, and Gabrielle both spotted and sensed her soulmate’s presence near the edge of the stadium. “Ah.” She got up and took a sip of her wine. “I think we’re getting started.” She watched the winning athletes gathering under the arch, bodies glistening in their very scant coverings.
Xena appeared from the shadows Gabrielle knew she’d been in, standing a little apart even in the press of the crowd around her. The warrior’s head slowly turned as she scanned her surroundings, stopping when the pale blue eyes met hers.
Gabrielle inhaled at the almost shocking power of their connection, surprised she couldn’t actually see it arcing between them. Even at this distance, she could see/sense Xena’s eyes narrow slightly as she allowed a tiny grin to appear, before she continued her study of the terrain.
On her back, Gabrielle could see Dori clinging, her head resting on Xena’s shoulder as she gazed around her. She wished, again, that she’d been able to talk to her partner before the ceremony. Given what had happened….
Gabrielle scrubbed her face with one hand, and took another sip of wine, wondering not for the first time how she managed to get herself into the stuff she did.
Xena was not happy. She could sense threats all around her, she had no weapons on, and she had Dori strapped to her back. Cautiously, she edged out through the arch and paused just inside it, her eyes flicking over it’s crowded interior with savage intensity.
Until halfway across, when a pair of misty green ones intercepted her, gathering in her attention with an effortless surge of nape hair prickling power.
“Mama.” Dori burbled softly.
“Oh, yeah.” Xena uttered back, giving her partner a smirk. “And she’s gonna have a fit when I tell her what we did, Dori.”
Xena ripped her eyes off Gabrielle’s shimmering, white form and continued her dour study of the stadium, but after a second, her look sneaked back, to watch the now distracted bard as she talked to several of the people around her.
The long toga draped over her body, and gave her an older, more sophisticated appearance, enhanced by the slim band of gold that crossed her forehead and threaded it’s way through her pale hair.
For just a moment, she stepped out her present and wondered if this was where Gabrielle would have ended up, if she’d stayed here all those years ago instead of returned to the road. Would she have risen through the ranks, against people like Celesta and Homer?
Xena studied Gabrielle’s expressive posture. To her eyes, the bard’s somewhat frustrated impatience was very obvious, and while she gracefully joined in the conversation around her, Xena suspected it would not take much of the hyper political clap trap to have her partner pulling her neatly groomed hair right out of her head.
She’d lived too long with Xena, was too used to her no nonsense, straightforward style, and though she could and did play the delicate give and take games that a skilled negotiator must – her maturing nature had somehow grown past that a little.
She might, Xena allowed, have ended up on that platform, but she’d have become a different person and the warrior was egotistical enough to truly believe that person would not have been as good as the one she was watching now.
Gabrielle must have sensed her watching, because the bard peeked over her shoulder and met Xena’s eyes. She smiled and waggled her fingers at the warrior, then gave her platform compatriots a look of wry exasperation.
“Mama.” Dori pointed. “Boo, look! Mama!”
“Yeah, I see her, shortie.” Xena waved back at her. “C’mere, wave to mama.” She took Dori’s hand and waggled it, causing the recipient of the wave to chuckle.
The men and women around her were staring, Xena realized. She gave them all an evil look. “What’s the matter, never seen a kid before?” She growled, making them all shift nervously and edge away from her. She regarded the increased space around with a contented grunt, and exhaled, wishing the whole damn thing were over.
The crowd of athletes around her started to move, and Xena allowed herself to be herded along with them, through the crowd, which started cheering unrestrainedly. She felt Dori drum her feet against her back, as the child grunted. “What’s wrong, Dori?”
“Owie. Too big.” Dori had a hand over her ear.
Xena glanced at her daughter, and realized she’d put a fist over the side of her own head, the noise of the crowd making her inner ear buzz uncomfortably. “Got that from me.” She admitted, with a sense of wry enjoyment. “Sorry.”
“Yeah, well remind me later to tell you why I taught your mama to sing, okay?” Xena advised her. “Here, you stay with grandma.” She unfastened the backpack Dori was tucked in and swung her around as they came even with a group of familiar faces. “Mother, can you...”
“Sure.” Cyrene stepped forward. “You look… ah…”
“Lovely.” Johan stated.
“Practical.” Her mother decided.
“Naked.” Eponin spoke up succinctly. “Better hurry up. You’re gonna get burned in places even Gab won’t be able to reach.”
Xena gave them all a look, and then stalked on by, disdaining the low steps up to the platform and simply leaping upward as all the winners gathered together and responded to the cheers.
The bards had gathered on one side, with Gabrielle at their center, and the games judges and officials next to them. Xena slipped between some really large, somewhat hairy, sweating bodies and ducked behind a guard, finding a spot she could stand in and actually breathe.
After a moment, her peripheral vision picked up a familiar figure edging close to her, and as the speeches started, Gabrielle removed the last sticky fingers from her forearm and joined her.
“We’ve got trouble.” They both stated at the same time.
Xena’s eyebrow lifted. “What’s your problem?”
“They’re trying to coerce me into leading them in a festival devoted to War.”
The warrior sidled closer. “I can top that.” She said. “They’re trying to coerce me into leading them into War.”
“You expected that.” Gabrielle murmured.
“I didn’t expect them to offer me complete amnesty, and perpetual relief from taxes for Amphipolis for it.” The warrior replied shortly.
Mist green eyes popped open. “Centaur farts. Here I thought them offering me the best villa up on the hill and twenty slaves was impressive.”
They were both quiet, as the head judge praised the merits of all the competitors.
“So, what’d you say?” Gabrielle finally ventured to ask.
“I told them to kiss my ass.” Xena muttered.
Gabrielle could not, quite, managed not to let her eyes drift across her partner’s very scantily clad form. “Hm.” Her shoulders relaxed, though. “So did I.” She said. “And boy, are the bards pissed.”
“So’s the council.” Xena agreed. “See over there?”
Gabrielle peered past her, to where a group of older men were gathering. “Uh oh.” She whispered. “What are we going to do?”
“Get out of here.”
“How?” The bard looked around at the crushing crowd. “Xena, we’ve got our whole family here…wh.. “
Xena exhaled, as the judges started calling up the winners. “I’ll figure something out.” She said. “Just get ready to run.”
Run. Gabrielle forced a smile on her face as Eleneus motioned her forward to present the laurel wreaths. The crowd was so thick; she doubted even Goliath the giant could have run over them.
But. The bard straightened her shoulders as she appeared to the sea of faces. Xena would have a plan. She was sure it would be a good one. A motion caught her eye, and she suddenly saw the Athenian guard forming a ring around the back of the stadium.
“Hey, Gabrielle!” Homer’s whisper reached her. “This’ll make a great story, won’t it?”
“Oh yeah.” She answered, just before she let Eleneus weigh her arms down with laurel leaves. “As long as you like surprise endings.”
Xena waited her turn, outwardly bored, but inwardly working very hard to figure out a way to get them all out of Athens before things got even more complicated. There was no easy way out of the stadium for her, much less everyone else.
Her eyes scanned the guards gathering at the entrances, and she reviewed the dark faces of the council members, bound on getting their own way. She could tell by their expressions they thought they had the situation covered, and well in hand. Surely Xena would not try to break out by force, not with all those relatively helpless, innocent Amphipolitans standing by.
Well, Xena sorted out her options. They were right. She wasn’t about to endanger her friends and family. On the other hand, she wasn’t about to let them all be forcibly detained either.
“And of course, the winner of our games...”
Ah. My cue. Xena flexed her hands.
“From the fair… city... of Amphipolis.”
Xena’s eyes narrowed.
The roar really did surprise her, a little. It made her eyebrows twitch, and as she stepped forward a sudden impulse grabbed her. With a grin, she lifted her arms and accepted the accolade of the crowd, feeling the thrum of noise beat against her mostly bare skin.
Not many times in her life she’d ever have this chance, right? Xena let the more savage part of her nature surface, responding to the raw energy and echoing it back to them. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the council members watching her, the anger in their faces warring with a flickering unease.
“Sure you want me, boys?” Hm. Xena considered. Maybe she should just take command of the whole place. The army’d follow her; the citizens loved her… the gods knew anything would be better than the pack of jackals currently running the city. Maybe if she…
“Are you done preening?” Gabrielle’s mildly amused sub-vocal whisper reached her.
Okay, maybe not. Xena relaxed her body, and then she turned and approached her partner. Gabrielle was holding a crown of laurel leaves and she centered it between her hands, ready to put the thing on Xena’s head. She never much liked togas, and what would she do with a stone palace anyway?
The crowd’s noise increased, and she put aside her thoughts of Grecian conquest as she studied the woman waiting for her.
The rest of the athletes had ducked to receive the accolade from the fair haired woman, and the bard evidently expected Xena to do the same, since hopping up and down like a bunny to reach her head would hardly suit the occasion.
With the roar of the audience still making her ears buzz, Xena solved the problem for her in her own, inimitable way. Gracefully, she lowered herself to kneel in front of Gabrielle, bringing her head even with the bard’s chest. She tilted her head back a little, suppressing a smile when she saw the moment of unrestrained surprise on her partner’s face.
There had been times, in her life, when she’d been forced to bow her head to others, and somewhere along the way she’d decided that just wasn’t ever going to happen to her ever again.
Doing it voluntarily, however, was a different thing.
Curiously, the sound muted around them as Gabrielle shook her head a bit and stepped forward, settling the ring of leaves around Xena’s head. She adjusted it just a little, and then stepped back, hesitating, before she extended a hand to her partner in an offer of help to stand.
Surprisingly, Xena took it, gracefully standing and bringing the bard’s hand to her lips before she released it. She watched Gabrielle’s eyes dart to the huge, watching crowd, and predictably, a blush slowly worked its way up the bard’s throat.
“Well.” Gabrielle said. “Congratulations.”
“You too.” Xena replied, reaching out and giving her silken robes a twitch.
The sound came back then, a low chant that started in the back of the stadium and worked it’s way forward.
Gabrielle took a step forward, and ducked her head towards her partner’s mostly naked body. “Do we have a plan yet?”
“Sure.” Xena gave up, gave in, and got over it. “Start a riot and run like Hades.”
“That’s not funny.”
“I wasn’t joking.” Xena turned and reached behind her, into the crowd of strutting, milling athletes. She gave the nearest buttocks a savage pinch, then turned swiftly back to her partner, and issued Gabrielle a grim smile. “We need a distraction.”
“Hey! Get your hands off me you...” A loud, very male voice thundered.
“Didn’t touch ya, Mustard breath!” An even louder voice yelled back.
“You pinched my ass, sissy boy!”
“Think I’d touch something that smells that bad? Move it, pig face!”
The big men started shoving each other, and in a moment it was pandemonium as the other athletes either joined in, or scrambled to get out of the way. The crowd roared it’s approval, and clapped, thinking it was a new show being put on for their benefit.
Xena ducked under one somewhat drunken man’s beefy arm and tugged Gabrielle with her, ignoring the cries of protest from the other bards. They got to the edge of the platform just as Xena spotted a squad of the city police, the council’s private force, heading their way. Quickly, she knelt as the Amazons and her family clustered around them. “Listen to me. We’re in a lot of trouble.”
“Trouble?” Cyrene queried. “Xena, for once, everything’s going your way – what do you mean?”
“Mom, she’s right. We’ve got to get out of here. There’s no time to explain.” Gabrielle put a hand on Xena’s shoulder.
“What’s the plan?” Ephiny picked up on the urgency.
Ah. Good question. Xena let her eyes rake across the crowd, the only thing keeping the guards away from them. The council members were conferring with more guards, and behind them… The warrior growled softly. Her old friend from the road, the man she’d knocked out.
There was no way to get past them all out the main gates to the road, and the other, smaller entrance only lead towards the water, where they’d be trapped on the waterfront and…
“Quick.” She grabbed Ephiny’ shoulder. “Get everyone out that smaller gate, and down to the ships. Amphipolis has a big merchantmen berthed down there.”
“Aye, genr’l! We do be berthed there, but... “ The militia ship captain edged over to her, hearing her words. “What’s going on?”
“Breston, we need to get everyone out of here. Fast.” Gabrielle told him. “The city council wants Xena and I do to something we’re not going to do, and they’ll use you all as a bargaining chip.”
“Right.” Breston signaled his mates. “Down the hatch, you lot. Everyone to the ship!”
“Great.” Xena started to stand. “Now...” She looked around.
“What about you?” Ephiny asked, grabbing hold of her leg, as Gabrielle took Dori from Cyrene, who was attempting to explain to the very confused Amphipolitan elders. “You’re coming with us, right?”
“Eventually.” The warrior removed the grip. “We’ll distract them, then meet up with you down there. Now MOVE!” She felt Gabrielle putting Dori’s backpack around her shoulders, and she tied the straps around her stomach firmly.
Ephiny hopped onto the platform with her and pursued the matter. “Xena, you can’t fight off the entire city of Athens. Let us help!”
The guards were pushing their way through the crowd. Xena knew they were running out of time. She took a breath to rebuff the Amazon, then Gabrielle slipped between them and neatly pulled rank for her.
“Eph, don’t make us worry about all of them being safe. We need you to guard them, and get to the ship. Xena and I can take care of ourselves.” She told her regent firmly. “Please go – we’re out of time.”
Reluctantly, Ephiny leaped down and took charge, and they started to shove their way around the backside of the platform towards the lower, smaller entryway, which was far more sparsely guarded.
Gabrielle exhaled. “What about your weapons, Xe?” She asked, as they moved back into the center of the squabbling athletes. The two biggest men were tussling near the front, to the enormously pleased cheers of the crowd.
“Hey! Whichever one of you guys win gets to fight Xena!” A man in the front row yelled. “I got a hundred dinars on ‘er!”
“Feel like the village prize mare.” Xena muttered.
Gabrielle found a moment to give her a head to foot look, unable to prevent a smirk from appearing; despite the dire situation they were in. “Well, honey…”
Xena grabbed her arm. “We’ve got to get to that tunnel there. Our gear’s just inside.”
Gabrielle started easing her way through the jostling bodies, leading Xena back towards the way she’d come in. “And then?”
“We play it by ear.”
“Nifty.” Gabrielle exhaled. “Dori, hold on tight, okay?” She glanced to her right, and between two women’s breasts, spotted the guard almost up to the platform. The lead guard spotted her, and pointed, then shouted to his comrades. “Uh oh.”
“Run.” Xena pushed her towards the tunnel. “Grab the bags, and just keep running.”
Gabrielle leaped off the platform and stumbled, then caught her balance and bolted for the tunnels, dodging the lighter throngs of people. She reached the tunnel just before the guard did and kept going, blinking her eyes to try and adjust to the darkness. “Xena, where…yeow!” Her boot caught on their bags and sent her sprawling. “Son of a bacchae!”
She heard Xena’s boot steps behind her, and she scrambled over to their gear, scraping her knees on the stone floor before her hands touched the familiar cloth and leather. She got the straps wrapped around her arms just in time to brace herself as Xena’s grip caught her up and yanked her to her feet, the warrior’s momentum taking both of them rapidly into the darkness.
“Halt!” A male voice echoed after them “Halt, or we’ll shoot!”
“Just keep running.” Xena responded. “It’s dark, we’re moving away from them, they’ll probably hit themselves in the ass if they try.”
“Remember what you have on your back.” Gabrielle replied. “She can’t catch arrows.” A pause. “Yet.”
“After them! Hurry!”
A thwacking sound made Gabrielle jump, and she felt a faint sting as a bit of chipped stone hit her in the arm. “Do we know where we’re going?” She asked, tensely.
“That way.” Xena headed down a hallway that started to slant up.
“That way? That leads right back up into the…”
“Just keep running.” Xena overrode her. “Trust me.”
The sound of the crowd was increasing again, and the sound of the footsteps behind them was also. Gabrielle just crossed her fingers, and hoped for the best
They burst out into the open, and Xena veered close to the stadium walls. Her longer stride took her ahead of Gabrielle, and the one guard who swerved to stop them was straight-armed with very little ceremony.
In the press of all those people, and all that confusion, no one even noticed. Xena kept going, slowed by the crowd, but making good headway towards the upper entrance.
“Now the time to ask what we’re doing?” Gabrielle latched on to her elbow.
“Fun.” Dori announced, enjoying herself at last. “Go, Boo, Go!”
“Xena.” Gabrielle’s nerves were taking a pounding. “Where the Hades are we going?”
A shout behind them. “To get the horses.” The warrior growled, as she bowled over two citizens who were just in her way and grabbed the bard by the wrist. “C’mon.” She leaped up onto the small ledge on the inside of the wall and pulled Gabrielle up after her.
“The horses. Of course. Just what we need on a boat.” Well, at least it got her above all the breasts. Gabrielle caught her balance and bolted after her partner, racing along the smooth pathway. Yells began to go up, though they weren’t hostile, and she realized the crowd was recognizing them.
“Rats, they think this is some damned show, Xena.”
“Start singing.” The warrior called back over her shoulder.
“I can’t sing.” The bard reached forward and slapped her on the butt. “You sing, Warrior Princess Nightingale.”
Three guards were angling towards them, intending on cutting them off from the exit. Xena spread her arms out wide, and let out a bloodcurdling yell, rattling the stone around them. It froze the three men in their tracks, and gave the warrior just enough time to leap over them, tumbling in mid air and lashing back with both legs as she righted herself.
She got two of them in the back, and they sprawled forward, one of them slamming his head into the ledge just under Gabrielle’s feet as the bard jumped neatly over him. The third man grabbed at her, but Gabrielle forestalled him by clamping down on his arm with both hands, and throwing her weight against him.
He didn’t expect either the motion, or the surprisingly powerful body that turned him completely around and off balance. Gabrielle followed up her advantage by elbowing him in the side, and getting one leg tangled in his as he flipped neatly to the ground behind her.
She didn’t waste time catching up to Xena, who had just reached the opening and paused to wait for her.
“Limited vocabulary, huh?” Xena grabbed her arm and started off again, and they raced through the arch as the main body of guards arrived to block them from it.
The streets were mostly empty, but those people who were around turned as they heard the commotion. Xena dodged a few vendors, and then lead the way down a side street that narrowed as it extended forward. Behind them, Gabrielle could hear the guards approaching, and as she looked ahead, the end of the alley filled with large, armored bodies. “Uh oh.”
Xena didn’t hesitate. “C’mon.” She pointed at a low wall. “Up there.”
“Up where?” Gabrielle frowned, but followed as the warrior as she hoisted herself up onto the wall. She scrambled up after her, then felt her eyes widen as Xena grabbed the edge of the building’s roof and pulled herself and Dori up onto its surface. “Xe, I don’t….”
Xena got up and turned around, kneeling and extending a hand to her. “Grab.”
Gabrielle glanced down, and saw the two sets of guards bearing down on them, then she steeled herself and released the building wall, reaching up and grabbing Xena’s hand. She bent her legs and shoved off as the warrior pulled, trusting Xena to get her up onto the roof and not let her fall to the road below.
She felt a jerk, and then she was being tossed forward, as Xena suddenly lunged and released her, letting out a snarl as she jumped perilously close to the edge. Gabrielle reached out from pure instinct and grabbed the scant cloth covering her soulmate’s bottom, tangling her fingers in it and holding on as Xena’s arm moved almost too fast for her to see.
An arrow appeared between the long fingers, snatched out of mid air just short of puncturing Xena’s shoulder. She snapped the shaft and let the pieces fall. “Bastards.” With a oath, Xena turned and pulled Gabrielle half around, grabbing at the bag the bard had slung over her shoulder.
“Come on.” Gabrielle pulled her further up the roof, away from the street. “Before they shoot more of those things at us.
Xena pulled her sword from the bag and flipped it in her hand before she allowed herself to be lead forward. “Damn thing almost hit you.”
“I wasn’t worried.” Gabrielle responded. “Okay, so we’re up here now. Where do we go?”
Xena glared down at the street, where the guards were attempting to scramble up onto the wall after them. Her hand flexed on her sword hilt, and her eyes narrowed.
“Xe, those are city guards.” Gabrielle told her. “Don’t give them an excuse.”
Like they needed one? Xena exhaled, then turned and started up the slope, clasping her sword in one hand and clenching her other into a fist. “This is the fastest route. Those bastards won’t be able to follow us we’re I’m leading.”
Great. Gabrielle glanced behind her; to see the first guard’s head pop over the edge of the roof. She hoped she’d be able to follow, since Xena did sometimes forget not everyone could…
“Boo.” Dori wriggled, pointing. “Go fly?”
Yeah. Exactly. The bard strapped their bags down more securely. Then, as she tucked her fingers inside the scrap of linen wrapped around Xena’s waist, her sense of adventure kicked in full force again.
You wanted to live your stories, Gabrielle. It’s a challenge. Embrace it. “Okay, tiger. Lead on.”
Xena did just that, climbing over the edging and across the mildly slanted roof, quickly crossing to the next building over an almost negligible space. She guided Gabrielle between two stone slabs, quickly hopping over to the next roof. Then she pulled the bard down behind a pile of crates, and waited.
It was hot, and smelled like dirty chickens. Gabrielle reached up and tickled Dori’s back, distracting her hopefully from making a fuss, as she heard the ring of boots on the next building’s roof.
“Son of a Bacchae, where’d they go?” A frustrated, male voice rang out. “They were just here... I saw em.”
“Down there... look... there’s a way down. Musta headed that way.”
“Good. Too hot up here. C’mon.”
“You bet yer ass. I’m not missing out on that reward.”
Gabrielle let out a soft, frustrated, yet endearingly cute growl of her own. “Does it always have to be about dinars?” She complained. “Can’t they just want to catch us out of misguided civic duty?” Her hand shoved back the excess of silky fabric she was wearing.
Xena rested her chin on her sword hilt, and regarded her out of the corner of her eye. “Wanna lend me some of your extra?” She reached out and tugged the hem.
“For what, a hat?” The bard held out a triangular piece. “Sorry honey, it’s really not you.” Gabrielle peeked around the corner of the wall. “Are they gone?”
Xena cocked her head. “Yep.” She stood up. “Let’s go.” She led the way forward, climbing over stacks of household refuse and edging her way along a thin ledge. “Stay close.”
Gabrielle obligingly did so; putting a hand out and catching Dori’s carry pack to steady herself as they balanced on the slim surface. The child was clasping Xena around the neck and looking around her, unfazed by their distance above the ground.
Dori peeked over her shoulder, unused to hearing her full name. “Can we go play with fishes?”
Hm. Gabrielle mentally judged just how far they’d have to sail from the city that she’d feel safe going in the water. “We can, but not right now.” She told her daughter. “There’ll be a lot of fishes soon, I promise. Okay?”
“All right... now… we need to get across that roof, and just one more hop, then we’re over the stables.” Xena said. “You ready?”
“Yeah.” Xena held her hand out. “C’mon. We’ll do it together.”
Gabrielle took it, and they moved out over the flat surface, the sun spilling over them in all its blazing glory. She could see the far edge of the roof, and empty space beyond it, and her heart nervously edged its way up into her throat.
“We’re gonna need to, um… “
“Run.” Gabrielle concluded. The thought echoed in her mind, as she felt Xena’s pace increase, and she broke into a run to keep up with her. Their boots scuffed against the stone and Dori squealed in delight as the breeze now brushed over them.
It was insanity, and she knew it. But if she was going insane, at least she had excellent company. She clenched the fingers wrapped around hers and threw all her energy into the run, trying to match her strides with Xena’s.
“When I yell jump, JUMP!” Xena said.
Sure! Gabrielle firmly closed her eyes and put her fate in Xena’s hands. She sensed the edge of the roof coming closer, and closer, and as the risk increased, she threw her caution to the winds and just lived the moment.
Jump. Jump. Jump. Jump. Jump… Gabrielle chanted to herself.
Gabrielle gathered herself up, sensing Xena’s lengthening strides next to her. She knew her partner would need the extra energy to send her heavier body into space.
Her front foot hit the edge of the roof and she shoved off with it into the air. With a lurch, her stomach dropped, and all she could feel was the wind around her. Against her best wishes, one eye opened as her curiosity betrayed her, and she saw a flash of faces, and the road, and something moving before a white surface was coming up way too fast.
“Easy!” Xena yelled just before they hit.
Gabrielle just barely remembered to bend her knees and go with the force of her landing, and she almost sprawled face first onto the lower roof of the stables before Xena’s pull yanked her back upright.
“Ow.” She felt the sting in her legs at the fierce jolt, but after a hop, and a slight stagger, she remained standing. “Whoa.” Gabrielle turned and grinned. “That wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”
“FUN!” Dori chortled. “Again! Boo, go fly!”
Xena put her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders and guided her towards the edge of the stable roof. “Knew you could do it.” She grinned at her partner; careful not to let her turn all the way around and see the distance she’d just leapt over. “Let me get down and I’ll catch ya.”
Gabrielle felt… a surge of confident joy filled her, and she felt like she could do anything. She watched Xena leap off the roof and tumble in mid air, landing near the back door to the large structure.
Well, she wasn’t quite up to that, but… She spotted a lower piece of the roof and stepped off, jumping onto it, then turning and leaping to catch the edge of the upper rafter, feeling the strain in her arms as they took her weight. She swung a little, then released her hold and dropped to the ground, as her partner watched in some bemusement. “You need to teach me that more.”
“What have I stirred up?” Xena chuckled, before she peered around a corner, then led Gabrielle over to the back door to the stables and opened it. They slipped inside, greeted by a rich, straw scented gloom and a soft whicker of recognition.
“Atta girl.” Xena stroked Argo’s smooth coat, running her hands over the mare’s sturdy form. “They been treating you okay here, huh?”
Argo whickered, and gave her a nudge in the belly with her nose.
“Go go!” Dori reached over Xena’s shoulder, clutching after the horse.
Gabrielle glanced over Iolaus’ back, her hands busy adjusting his gear. “They look okay.”
“Mm.” Xena cast a critical eye over the two horses. “Too much grain, too little exercise.” She loosened Dori’s straps, and swung her up onto Argo’s back. “Hold on, shortie.”
Dori immediately tangled her hands into Argo’s blond mane and tugged. “Gogo! Go fast!”
Argo gave Xena a look, as the warrior removed her leathers and armor from their bags and shook them out. “Better hurry.” She advised the bard.
“I know.” Gabrielle was stuffing the silken toga into her own bags, having donned her sturdy traveling gear. “You think they’re still after us?”
Xena slid into her leathers, and adjusted the straps over her shoulders. “Bet on it.” She drew the laces in the front in, glancing at Gabrielle as she came over to lend a hand. The bard tightened the leather strips, shaking her head a little.
“Not enough grain, and too much exercise for you, I think.” She gave her partner an experimental poke.
“Look who’s talking?” Xena replied mildly, looping a finger inside the bard’s belt, and tugging it. “Besides, I hate grain.” She lifted her armor plates over her head and settled them, lifting an arm for Gabrielle to get at the buckle underneath.
Then her head came up, a sound out of place even in the noisy city catching her sensitive ears. She clipped her sword to her back quickly. “Trouble.”
Gabrielle looked up, her eyes sweeping over the interior of the peaceful stable. “Where?” She asked, and then had her answer as she heard the thunder of approaching footsteps. “Never mind.” She ducked under Argo’s head and threw open the stall rope. “Want me to take Dori?”
“Yeah.” Xena slipped the child off Argo’s neck and handed her over. “This could be a real problem.”
Gabrielle shrugged the pack onto her shoulders and jerked the buckles taut before she scrambled onto Iolaus’ back. “We could try to talk to someone.” She suggested.
“I don’t think they’re in the mood for talking.” Xena replied as she vaulted up onto Argo.
“How can you be sure?”
The stable doors were abruptly jerked open, and a band of city guards poured into the opening, weapons drawn. “Get em!” The stocky man in the lead yelled.
“Okay, no talk.” Gabrielle looked frantically around her, then kneed Iolaus over to the stable wall, pulling down a hay bale pole, it’s end a small, powerful hook but its length enough for her to use as a staff.
“Yeeeeaagggh!” Xena clamped down with her knees and urged Argo forward, drawing her sword as she met the first of the guards. She had the advantage, being mounted, but it also left her lower body vulnerable to the long pikes the guard was carrying.
One of the men ducked under his mate’s uplifted arms that were countering Xena’s sword stroke. He drove in, aiming for her leg, only discovering his mistake too late when the warrior easily shifted her weight and lashed out, booting aside his spear before whipping in a tight circle to slam him in the side of the head.
Gabrielle rode forward, knocking two of the men backwards with a double strike of her erstwhile staff, but a glance at the door made her realize getting out that way wasn’t going to be easy. The outer courtyard was full of guards, and they all looked big, well armed, and pissed off.
“Mama, bad mens.”
“Yes, honey. I know.” The bard thrust the end of the stick into an oncoming forehead. She cast an anxious eye towards Xena, who was surrounded, and fighting her way around in a tight circle, using her sword, and a thick pike she’d snatched from someone, and her powerful legs to hold her own.
A crossbow twanged, and Gabrielle gasped, as its tip just grazed Xena’s head, a snakelike motion just managing to evade the shaft. The warrior kicked the man trying to drag her off Argo back into the straw and the mare reared, striking out with her fore hooves.
Gabrielle found the throng around her thickening as well, though they gave her longer reach a healthy respect. She was in a better spot than Xena was – two sides of the stalls protected her from attack and it was obvious even to her that the guard was far more interested in getting to her partner in any case.
Her eyes searched the stable frantically, looking for anything that might help them out of here.
A hand grabbed her saddle horn, and she brought her pole down onto it in swift motion, hearing bone crack as the wood trapped flesh between itself and the saddle. She put a boot against the shoulder of the man and shoved hard, then caught her breath again as Xena just barely deflected yet another crossbow quarrel from outside the door.
Well. Gabrielle lifted the pole and clamped her knees down on Iolaus, readying herself to simply charge to Xena’s side and fight there with her until they won, or they stopped fighting or...
“Yeahhhhhgggh!” Gabrielle let out a yell and swept the pole up and over her head, urging Iolaus forward. For a moment, the staff caught on something, almost overbalancing her. She looked up quickly, and spotted a rope that had caught on its end.
Hands grabbed her and she fought with the hook, pulling fiercely on it as she kicked out against her adversaries.
“Mama!” Dori’s voice was, for once, frightened, and it went through her like hot lead, giving her a surge of strength that translated into a truly savage yank on the end of that pole.
With a surprising crack, the staff came loose, and she swung it down immediately, laying two men out as they tried to pull her off Iolaus.
Then another crack sounded, much louder, and she sensed movement to her right.
“Gabrielle!” Xena’s voice made her jerk. “MOVE!”
There was as swirl of air, and light, and a crackling of wood. Something fell on Iolaus’ hindquarters, and he leaped forward, taking them out of the stall area and into the melee. Gabrielle swept around her with mad energy, clearing out a small space.
Then Xena and Argo were next to her, and Xena was grabbing Iolaus’ bridle and setting Argo almost onto her haunches, the mare scrambling back the other way as they crashed into the crowd of soldiers all now sensing their target within their reach.
Then a huge creak behind them translated into a thunderous roar, and bits of wood went flying everywhere, stinging Gabrielle’s mostly exposed skin painfully. Light poured into the stable, almost blinding them, and she threw her arm up to shade her eyes as she tried to see what had happened.
One entire wall of the stable seemed to be missing.
For a moment, everyone just froze. Then Xena let out a wild bellow, and kneed Argo forward, lunging past the few defenders left who hadn’t gotten caught under the wood as it collapsed. She pulled Iolaus after them, and they rode up onto the pile of debris before as much as one hand was raised to stop them.
Gabrielle got her senses back and urged Iolaus towards freedom, sending the stallion into a leap over the remaining edge of the wall with a clench of her knees. She followed Xena’s lead out the small yard beyond, past a hill of stinking garbage, and out through a small alleyway that ran behind the stables.
They raced together to a crossroads, and then Xena pointed down towards another smaller street, one that headed in the general direction of the waterfront. “Great work!” She yelled, giving the bard a wry grin. “It was getting a little close in there.”
“Thanks.” Gabrielle brought Iolaus even with Argo, as they cantered quickly forward. “But I didn’t do that on purpose.” She admitted. “I didn’t even know that was… what was that?”
“Hatch to load hay and grain in.” Xena kept her eyes scanning for trouble, wincing as she shook blood from a gash in one forearm. “You cut the line that held it up.”
Gabrielle hefted her pole, with it’s sharpened hook. “So I did.” She tucked it against her thigh. “You okay, Dori?”
“Mama, go fast!” Dori tugged her hair. “Go fast, gogogogogogogogo…”
Her feelings exactly. Gabrielle exhaled, wishing them on the boat and long gone from this damn stinking city. “Xena?”
“What?” The warrior selected another street, as they came to a smaller intersection and led the way down it.
“Next time I mention going to Athens?”
Xena chuckled dryly. “Tell you what. Next time you say the damn name, I’m gonna kiss you until you forget how to even spell it.”
Gabrielle was very quiet for a moment, her face a study in bemused intrigue. “Oo.” She finally murmured to herself. “I think I like the sound of that.”
A shout made them both look to their left, to see a squadron of guards coming towards them down a side street.
Xena cursed, then pointed. “That way. Quick.” She urged Argo into a gallop, and they thundered into a dark, winding alleyway.
“C’mon!” Ephiny kept shoving backs past her, counting under her breath. They had managed to get out of the stadium, and were working their way down towards the waterfront.
Pony had taken the lead, and was finding a route that used back streets and avoided the squads of city guards that were thundering past from one road to another. So far, they’d been spotted twice, but either the size of their group, or contrary orders had kept the soldiers from coming after them.
Still, it didn’t pay to take chances. Ephiny was glad the militia at least was armed – with the score of them, plus her Amazons, they presented a formidable front as they surrounded the very confused, very upset Amphipolitians they were guarding.
“Someone.” Cyrene stated flatly. “Is going to tell me what the Hades is going on before long.” She wiped the back of her hand across her forehead. “I just don’t understand. Why are we having to do this?”
“It’s…” Ephiny had reassured herself that she wasn’t missing anyone, and she took up the rear, walking behind Cyrene as they proceeded forward. “Complicated.”
Cyrene sighed expressively, visibly upset.
“I’m sure Gabrielle... and Xena, will fill us in when we get on board the ship, and we’re underway.” The Amazon regent said. “At least we don’t have to walk back, right?”
“I hate boats.” Cyrene growled. “Can’t abide them, and that rapscallion daughter of mine knows it.” She tugged her light shawl around her. “I just don’t see why this is all necessary.”
“Well.” Cait spoke up. “You see, they quite want Xena to lead their army and she doesn’t want to.” The young Amazon paused reflectively. “I can’t understand why not. It sounds like awful fun.”
Cyrene stared at her, then looked quickly at Ephiny. “Is that true?”
The regent nodded. “When they figured out they weren’t going to be able to beat her, they joined her, I guess.” She said. “Made Xena an offer they thought she couldn’t refuse. She did.”
“Ah.” The innkeeper mused. “Good girl.”
“Hm. You said a mouthful.” Ephiny looked up at a signal from Eponin. The weapons master was at a crossroads, and was holding up a hand. “Uh oh.” Ephiny recognized the sign for impending trouble.
“Shall we go this way?” Cait tugged on Ephiny’s arm. “Look!”
A small, crooked pathway lead to their right. Ephiny peered down it, seeing a perceptible dip in its level. “Going down, and that’s the right way. PONY!” She lifted her voice, then pointed when her lover turned. She waited for Pony to nod, then motioned Cait forward. “Scout us, Cait.”
“Right.” Cait seemed quite pleased with the request, and headed immediately into the dark, dank space. “C’mon, Pally.”
Paladia, who’d been loitering nearby, gave Ephiny a long suffering look, then shook her head and followed Cait, making a face at the smell coming up on the breeze. Ephiny grinned to herself as she followed, with Cyrene a step or two behind her.
“Did we lose them?” Gabrielle murmured softly, her cheek pressed up against Xena’s bare shoulder.
“For the moment.” The warrior replied. They were tucked behind a huge delivery wagon that had once held casks of beer. They’d been out in the sun for days, and Xena was getting lightheaded just from the smell emanating from them. “Had a couple of guys in my army that used to smell like that.”
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose. “Ew.”
They watched two squadrons of guards run by, sweating in the heat. “We keep out of their hands long enough, maybe they’ll just keel over.” Xena speculated.
“I think I’m going to keel over first.” Gabrielle held her breath as a warm wash of old beer hit her in the face.
“Bck.” Dori had her nose buried in the back of the bard’s neck.
“Everyone’s a critic.” Xena eased Argo out from behind the cart and sidled her off towards an alleyway that ran behind the market. Gabrielle caught up to her and they picked their way through the garbage. Halfway through, Xena felt her nape hairs prickle, and she drew up, putting a hand out as she looked around.
After a second, a flash of light obscured the shadows, and Ares stepped out of it, his boots splashing in something dark brown and anything but fragrant. “Xena.” He greeted her cheerfully. “Everyone’s looking for you. Where do you think you’re going?”
Xena gazed at him. “Out of here.”
“And miss your big party?” The God of War inquired archly. “Tch tch. Getting anti social in your old age, aren’t you?”
“I was anti social in diapers.” Xena said. “There’s nothing here for me, Ares.”
The tall, bearded figure stepped over and put a hand on Argo’s bridle, removing it a moment later as the mare snapped at him viciously. “Oo… nasty, nasty.” He frowned at the horse, then dismissed her and focused his attention back on his target. “You walked right in to my trap, Xena. How’d it feel to have me pull one over on you?”
“For a change?” Gabrielle drawled softly.
“Did I ask you to comment?” Ares gave the bard a look. “And, speaking of, you did a great job in helping me get what I wanted, blondie.” He snapped his fingers. “Played you like a harp.”
Xena affected a profoundly bored expression. “Are you done gloating yet?”
“Nope.” Ares returned his grin to her. “I won’t be done until I see you driving an army down on the walls of Sparta.” He spread his arms out. “Give me my due, Xena. Wasn’t it a great plan? I get what I want, you get what you want, everyone wins.”
Xena gazed at him, with a touch of bemused sadness. “I’m not leading any army, Ares. I’m going home.”
The god cupped his hand around one ear. “What was that? I know I didn’t hear you right.”
“You heard me.” Xena backed Argo, and prepared to leave.
“Whoa...whoa.” Ares got into her way. “You can’t fool me, Xena.” He said. “I knew if I just set you up right, gave you the chance, the right motivation, you’d come through. You won, remember? You didn’t pull any of that namby pamby greater good garbage I’ve been hearing from you for years... that was the real you in there.” He pointed. “ You wanted to win.”
Xena’s hands played with Argo’s reins. Gabrielle sat quietly, just watching both of them. “I did.” The warrior admitted. “I always want to win, Ares.”
“So... what’s the problem?” The god said. “Get back there, and get going!” He came closer and his voice rose, becoming stark and commanding... “No more niceness, Xena. You showed that. You didn’t give a crap about those slaves, or that poor mindless chunk of meat you slaughtered.”
Xena remembered that one moment of truth in that pit. “You’re right.”
Ares tipped his head back, and savored the moment. “You’re mine.”
With a mild shake of her head, Xena unstirrupped her left boot and kicked out, catching the completely unsuspecting god right in the chest and sending him sprawling into the brown, glutinous muck. “No.” The warrior gathered Argo’s reins and resumed her stirrup. “I’m not. Not any more, Ares.”
Furious, the god got to his feet. “You little bitch.” He lifted his hands and shaped the air, then snapped them towards Xena. Fireballs blazed towards the warrior’s head, which at the last moment snaked to the right and left, evading them in a flickering motion. The balls exploded against the wall behind them, sending chunks of stone everywhere.
“Don’t do that again.” Xena advised him. “Go back to Olympus and enjoy your victory, Ares. You won. You beat me. You got what you wanted.” She turned Argo’s head and started the mare moving. “You and I are through.”
After a moment, Gabrielle joined her, guiding Iolaus carefully around the gob smacked God of War. She leaned over as she passed, and caught his gaze. “Mine.” She said, softly, her eyes glittering. “You may have won your bet, but I got the prize.”
Then she straightened in her saddle and clucked to Iolaus, urging him to catch up to Argo.
“You can’t change who you are, Xena!” Ares voice rang out.
Xena just kept moving, refusing to look back.
“You’re only fooling yourself!”
Gabrielle caught up to her and they walked along side by side. After a moment, Xena released one hand off Argo’s reins and reached over to take Gabrielle’s. They looked at each other soberly
“Xena!!!” Ares’ frustrated tones followed them. “Get back here! I mean it!”
Xena half turned in her saddle, meeting his eyes one last time. “Goodbye, Ares.” Her lips tensed, then she resolutely faced forward again, feeling an odd mixture of relief and regret.
“Sounds kinda pathetic, doesn’t he?” Gabrielle asked, in a very quiet voice.
“Yeah.” Xena agreed. “You know I really used to worship him.” She glanced ahead of them, noting the patch of open sky at the end of the long, dark alleyway. “He was everything to me. Nothing else mattered, except devoting myself to death, and killing, and sucking up his bloodlust.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle made a small, ‘I’m listening’ noise. She felt Dori clutch her shoulder, and glanced back to see the toddler reaching past her towards Xena. “Boo, you’re wanted.”
That brought a smile to Xena’s face, and she shrugged off her pensiveness. “Am I?” She snuck a glance behind them, relieved to find the alleyway empty. She released Argo’s reins and reached her other hand over, catching Dori’s clutching fingers. “Okay, shortie. You got me.”
“Boobooboo… we go now?”
Xena exhaled, then nodded. “We go now.” She motioned towards the end of the street with a jerk of her jaw. “That’s the waterfront. Let’s get going. I want to make sure everyone else made it over there all right.”
Gabrielle settled her knees more firmly around Iolaus, and glanced behind them as the horses started to speed up. “You think he’ll really just walk out of your life like that?” She asked, unexpectedly.
Xena considered the question. “I hope so.” She finally said, as they moved into a canter. “No point in a god pestering someone who doesn’t believe in him anymore.”
The sound of seagulls rang suddenly through the alley, raucous cries that sent a chill down Gabrielle’s back. A gust of wind brought the strong scent of the water to them, and riding on it’s back, the sound of fighting. “Uh oh. Do you...”
“Yeah.” Xena drew her sword, and checked her armor. “Gods be damned. Can’t anything ever just work right the first time?”
Gabrielle prudently remained silent.
Cait peered around the corner of the building, carefully scanning to both sides before she pulled her head back in and lifted her hand in signal. She eased out onto the dock front street, and cocked her ears, uneasy at the uncharacteristic silence around her.
Oh, the water sounds were there, of course, and the ships – the hollow thunks as rigging hit the wooden hulls, and the soft hiss of ropes, but the place she’d seen as a chaotically busy one the last time she’d been here was almost ghostly in it’s silence now.
Paladia caught up and looked around. “Okay. We’re here. Now what?”
“Hush.” Cait studied the docks. “It’s too quiet.”
“Sheesh.” Paladia rubbed her ears. “Y’d think after all that crap, you’d be glad.”
“I’d be quite glad, if it didn’t mean something was wrong.”
“Something’s wrong? What?” Paladia put both hands on Cait’s shoulders and peered past her. “I don’t see nothing.”
“Yes. Quite.” Cait frowned. “That’s it exactly, Pally.”
Slowly, the entire group emerged behind her. The militia leader trotted up to where Ephiny was standing, and drew in a breath. “She’s down thataway.” He indicated the docks. “Our cargo’s been sold to the last load of nutmeats – we’ve got plenty of room.”
“What about supplies?” Ephiny asked.
“We started taking provisions on, don’t know how far that got.” The ship captain said, apologetically. “We’ve been a tad busy.”
“Right. Well.” Ephiny sighed, and then paused as running footsteps caught her attention. They turned to see Mikah coming towards them at full speed, his hands balled into fists, and his pale hair blown back from the wind. “Hm. He’s either practicing for the next Games, or we’ve got trouble.”
“Gabrielle’s here. Has to be trouble.” Pony commented. “Hold up! Easy!” She stepped forward and caught hold of Mikah as he skidded literally to a halt, breathing very hard.
“They’re coming for you.” Mikah got out, reaching a hand out towards Cyrene. “The guards. They know who you are.”
“Great.” Ephiny started plotting a course. “All right everyone – get to the boat! Move it!” She pointed down the docks. “We’re outta time!” She glanced back at Mikah. “Thanks.”
Mikah pressed his lips into a wry smile. “Once I’m bought, I stay bought.”
“Quite right. So you’re coming with us.” Cait latched onto him as they started to move after the now hurrying Amphipolitians. “Right, you lot?”
“Right.” Ephiny agreed, glancing around as she heard a low roar approaching. “Hades. Now what? What else could go wrong?”
It was Mikah who answered, unexpectedly. “The slaves are revolting.”
“Ah, they’re not that bad.” Pony objected. “Those wrestlers smelled worse.”
“No… I mean…” The loud roar suddenly broke into a sea of angry voices, as they approached the main avenue coming down to the waterfront and saw a huge crowd, carrying torches and moving fast heading towards them.
“Oh crap!” Pony started shoving. “RUN! We’ve gotta get past them before they….”
The end of the docks suddenly went black with soldiers, as the guard poured towards them, yelling in triumph as they came into sight.
Paladia grabbed Cait by the arm. “What the Hades is going on?”
Cait drew both her daggers. “The slaves are quite angry and attempting a revolt. The guards are trying to capture us to hold us for ransom. We’re about to get squashed, so take out that knife of yours and please try to be useful.”
Paladia started to run, glancing behind her. “Hey!” She barked suddenly. “It’s that big jerk leading them!” She recognized the redheaded foreigner they’d met on the road.
Cait looked. “Oh, bother. I knew I should have killed her.” She sounded peeved. “Teach me to be nice.”
“TAKE THE SHIPS!” The big redhead bellowed. “FREEDOM!!!!”
Ephiny put on a burst of speed and got in front of her group. “Militia – form up around the noncombatants!” She yelled. “Stay close! We’ve got to get through to the ship!” She pulled her sword from its sheath and took the vanguard, aware of Pony taking up a position on her left hand side. “Cait!”
“Right!!” Cait yelled, sticking like glue to Cyrene and Johan.
Ephiny felt her battle instincts waking up as the first of the guards reached them, and she engaged him with her sword. Pony caught the second, and the two militia on either side of them let out credible imitations of Xena’s familiar bellow as they met opponents of their own.
The guard fought them fiercely, evidently knowing what their target was. Ephiny heard twice the guard captain pointing out Cyrene’s distinctive form in their midst.
“That’s the one!” The man yelled again. “The old one, the woman, in the center! Get her!”
“She hears you calling her that, you’re gonna find out where Xena got her temper, jerkface!” Pony grunted, as she dodged past a spear and thumped the captain in the ribs with her chobos. “Keep moving!!!” She urged the militiamen around them.
She spotted a weakness in the guards’ formation, and bolted for it, taking out two of the guards with well-placed kicks, and a third with one of her chobos cracked neatly down on his head. Then she hooked her chobo and drew her sword, in time to meet a nasty, ugly looking brute intent on taking her scalp off.
Her sword clashed against his, and she moved inside his reach, twisting her body so that the force of his stroke rolled of her, his steel sliding down the length of hers and off. He swung awkwardly downward, not expecting the sudden release and she whipped her hands around, using a wrist motion she’d painstakingly learned from Xena the previous winter. Her sword rotated in her grip and then she was plunging the blade into his guts, cleaving his breastbone as a gasp of shock came out of his throat.
Pony almost chuckled, as she got a boot up against his body and shoved him off her blade. It left a small, very small alleyway open right on the edge of the docks, but it was enough to get through. She turned and grabbed a militiaman and pointed, then shoved him through it. “Go!”
Ephiny joined her and they protected the escape route shoulder to shoulder, holding off the frustrated guards with well-timed moves developed over years of fighting together. After a moment, Paladia joined them unexpectedly, and stolidly battered at a persistent pikeman with her favorite weapon, a long chobo cut for her extensive reach that she wielded in both hands somewhat like a sword.
“Okay!” Ephiny caught sight of the last militiaman going past her back. “Rearguard!” She nudged Pony, who started to move after them, fighting as she went. The guard was now caught between going after them, and noticing the slaves that were now pouring onto the docks.
Ephiny fought off her current opponent, lashing out and catching him between the legs with a hearty kick, then smashing him in the jaw with the hilt of her sword. She turned her head, checking the progress towards the ship, then swiveled back when her peripheral vision caught a flickering motion.
The unexpectedly fast, young guard who had almost just gutted her slumped to the ground, a victim of Paladia’s heavy wooden bat.
For a second, in all that maelstrom, she and Paladia looked at each other, hard pressed to decide which one of them was the more surprised.
Then Ephiny smiled wryly, and pointed over her shoulder with a thumb. “G’wan.” She ordered quietly. “Nice hit.”
Paladia didn’t waste any time in complying, ducking past Eponin and heading off towards the ship.
“Hey!” A voice rang out.
Ephiny looked past the last of the guard, who were now turning to meet the rampaging slaves. She saw their redheaded friend pointing towards them. “Oh, great.” She turned and shoved Eponin towards the ship. “Move...move...move…” There were too many slaves, and not nearly enough ships, and the Amphipolitan merchantmen was one of the larger ones. “Get on board!” She yelled.
“Eph, we’re gonna have to cut the lines, or they’ll swamp us.” Pony said, urgently, as they reached the ship. “Gimme a hand!” She drew her sword, but Ephiny grabbed her before she could set the edge to hemp.
“You forgetting we’re three short?” Ephiny growled.
Pony grabbed her, and turned her around to face the docks. The slaves were pouring over them like angry ants, heading their way, and filling every available space. “They can’t get to us, and if we’re taken, what’s the point?”
Ephiny desperately searched the chaos for Xena and Gabrielle for a long moment, then she turned, and cursed vividly. “All right.” She finally said, drawing her sword and slicing through the first of the ropes holding the ship to the docks. “Tell them to get sail up.”
Pony raced up the gangway and yelled the orders. Ephiny cut through the second line, then scrambled up the now swaying and creaking rope bridge, the only thing holding the ship to the dock. She felt the bridge jerk and pull behind her, and she turned as she got over the railing to see the redhead powering up after her, a big grin on her face.
“Duck.” Pony ordered. Ephiny took a dive for the deck as she heard Pony’s sword slice through the ropes, then the strangled yell of rage as the ship broke free and floated out of reach of the desperate slaves.
“Bastards!” The redhead hollered, as she plunged into the water. “You bastards!” She went under, thrashing wildly.
Ephiny pulled herself up and hung on to the railing, watching the figure flailing helplessly.
“Can’t swim.” Paladia commented, as she came to stand next to Ephiny. “Sucky way to die.”
Ephiny turned and gazed at the taller woman for a moment with shadowed eyes. Then she smiled a little, to herself, before she turned and pointed. “Cait! Bring that rope over here and tie it off.” She ordered. “Throw the other end over the side.”
Cait trotted over with the coils, then glanced over the railing. “Oh, gosh. You are quite kidding me, aren’t you?”
Ephiny took the rope from her and threw it, the hemp end expertly traveling through the air and landing in the water next to the struggling woman.
Startled, the redhead grabbed at it, then looked up.
“Climb or croak. Your choice.” Ephiny yelled. “Better make it quick… I hear there are flesh eating fish in this channel.”
“Eph, have you lost your mind?” Pony spluttered. “You’re not bringing that damned…”
“I am.” Ephiny stated. “Train her right, and maybe she can stand your watches while you have our baby.” She patted Pony on the belly, then turned and strode towards the forecastle of the ship. “Cait, make sure she gets on board.”
Cait and Eponin stared at each other. Paladia chortled softly behind them.
Xena threaded her way through the noisesome alley, glad beyond measure when Argo’s shoulders cleared the last building and they were out and on the docks. The mare had, however, only taken three or four strides before Xena was pulling her up, throwing out a hand to signal Gabrielle to do the same.
The bard thundered up next to her and they paused at the head of the long, sloping ramp down to the waterfront, just looking at the scene before them.
“Holy Athena’s breastplate, Xena. What the…” Gabrielle ran out of words. “Who... wh…”
The nearest ships to them were rocking violently, overloaded by the swarms of human bodies. The docks themselves were packed, with people shoving and yelling, and on one side, fighting with what Xena recognized as part of the city guard. Then she leaned forward and took a better look at the frenzied men closest to her. “Slaves.”
Gabrielle’s jaw dropped a little. “All of them? What are they doing?”
From the broad avenue to their right, came the marching footsteps of yet more people, and Xena could see the glints of sunlight off orderly held weapons. “They think they’re escaping. But soon they’ll be dying – that’s the army headed this way.”
The bard stood in her stirrups. “Xena, isn’t that our ship?” She pointed to a large merchantmen floating free out from the shore.
“Yes.” Xena exhaled in relief. “They got out. Good.”
Gabrielle turned her head and regarded the warrior. “What about us?” She gestured towards the docks. “What can we do here, Xena? What can we do to stop this?”
Xena watched the army fan out, bringing their shield wall up and raising their bows. Then she looked at the ships, some of them down at the bow from the weight of all the slaves frantically clambering on board. She reviewed all her options, even the suicidal ones.
Then she gathered Argo’s reins, and shifted her weight forward a little. “Nothing.” She told her partner. “We can’t stop this. We can only use it to get out of here.” One long hand pointed. “We’ll take that route, go right through the smaller bunch there, after the soldiers start firing. Keep your head down, and just ride through. Up that ramp, and out the back gate on the other side of the dock.”
Gabrielle glanced uncertainly at her. “Nothing?”
The army commander’s voice came tinnily to them, ranging his troops.
“If I try to stop the army, the slaves will attack them, they’re too far gone. If I try to protect the slaves, the army’s gonna attack me.” Xena stated. “If I thought they could get those ships off, maybe I’d hold the army off of em for a while, but they’re not. They’re gonna sink em.”
Gabrielle sighed. “Ick.”
“Let’s go.” Xena lead the way, increasing her speed as they reached the first sprinkling of slaves. Hands reached out to grab them, and she reached behind her, grabbing Iolaus’ bridle and urging Argo faster.
It wasn’t fair. Gabrielle pulled her makeshift staff out, hoping she didn’t have to use it. She knew the wild, angry faces turning their way meant her harm, but she also understood their desperation.
Gabrielle heard the twang of bowstrings releasing, and then the screams of those who were hit. She did what Xena said, though, kept her head down, and kept an arm curled around Dori. She’d moved the toddler’s harness around so that she was clasped to her chest, more protected than her perch on Gabrielle’s back would have been.
“You okay?” Xena asked, as Argo shoved her way through the crowd.
“Yeah.” Gabrielle felt her arm grabbed, and she jerked it free, reluctantly freeing her boot from its stirrup and as gently as possible pushing the man trying to unseat her away. She held on grimly as Iolaus suddenly bucked, then leaped, following Argo.
More screams to her right. The scent of blood.
A dark form hurtled into her peripheral vision, knocking her off to one side. She grabbed for the saddle horn and let out a yell, as the man lunged up and pulled at her, trying to get her off Iolaus’ back.
There was no disobeying that tone. Gabrielle flattened herself as low as she could, covering Dori’s body with her own. She felt motion above her, and the sound of steel slicing through air, and then something denser.
A scream, cut short. Hot blood spattering over her arm, then she straightened up as the weight came off her and she was free.
“Mama!” Dori whimpered.
“It’s okay, honey.” Gabrielle hung on to her saddle as the horses sped up. “Just stay there, and we’ll be all right.”
“Mama, go. Go go go..” Dori clutched at her.
Gabrielle could feel the child’s heartbeat against her chest; a frantic pattering that scared her more than the hundreds of people around her. “Dori, it’s okay…” She told her daughter. “Boo will get us out of here.”
Yeah. Gabrielle chanced a look up, into a scene from the very depths of chaos. The army was decimating the slaves, carving their way through towards the ships and driving the now panicked men and women towards the water.
A surge of humanity caught up to them, reaching and grabbing, frantic with fear. One woman clawed at Io’s leg.
“Stop it!” Gabrielle found herself yelling, as her body straightened up and her lungs sucked air in down deep. “All of you! Listen to me!”
Shockingly, they did. For a breathless moment, all eyes around them turned to her. “Just get down.” She told them. “Lie down on the ground, and stop fighting.”
In brief silence that followed, Gabrielle was suddenly aware of just how vulnerable she was, having called attention t herself in the crowd. She heard just the faintest hint of a resigned sigh behind her, and sensed Xena’s body shifting itself, ready for battle.
“You can’t win.” She went on. “You messed up. There’s not enough ships here, and you can’t sail them. Lay down.” A pause. “Don’t die.”
Eyes went to the ships, foundering at the docks, then flicked to the soldiers, still slaughtering slaves closer to the main streets. Then slowly, exhaustedly, the slaves nearest them moved away, sitting down on the ground and huddling together.
Gabrielle exhaled, and peeked behind her, to find Xena watching her with a half smile on her face. She shrugged modestly, and then glanced again towards their goal. “C’mon... before something goes wrong.”
“Else?” Xena sheathed her sword, and started Argo forward, as waves of bodies started to drop down around them, a wave that moved out around them in a rough circle. “Gab?”
“Yeah?” Gabrielle felt her guts settle, and she looked over at her partner in question.
“Good job.” Xena complimented her quietly.
“Yes. Mama good.” Dori agreed, glad the noise had died down a little. “Go.”
“You know, she’s getting really bossy.” Gabrielle muttered, pressing Iolaus to keep up with Argo. “She must get that from you.”
“Me?” Xena snorted. “Hey, Queen of the Amazons... check the mirror sometime.”
Gabrielle stuck her tongue out.
They cleared the densest part of the crowd, and had a clear path to the back gate. Xena urged Argo faster and they broke into a canter. The Amphipolitan ship was drifting towards the harbor entrance, and Xena calculated they could just reach the far point of the back docks in time to yell a message to it before it passed beyond reach.
They rounded the corner, past the last docking slot, and Xena exhaled, glad to be out of the melee behind her. She just barely had time to stretch a kink out of her neck when her battle instincts suddenly flared, danger making every hair on her forearms stand up straight.
She didn’t question it – just let her body react as she hauled Argo back and to her right, throwing her body in front of Gabrielle’s and reaching out blindly with her free hand. She felt her wrist tendons rotate, and her arm muscles clench hard, her fingers closing around a wooden shaft whose head was pointed right for Gabrielle’s heart.
In the next instant, she dropped the arrow and drew her sword in one smooth motion, now slicing through the air with it to knock away a second, then a third crossbow bolt. “Get down!” She snapped, but Gabrielle was already in motion, sliding off Iolaus and landing behind his sturdy form.
Then she turned Argo’s head and faced their attackers, her sword up and ready, eyes sweeping across the rubble and boxes stacked everywhere in what apparently was the dock’s junkyard.
Another arrow. She deflected it with a flick of her wrist.
Two more. She caught one, and evaded the other, allowing it to drop into the water behind her. Xena could hear yells from the ship, and she lifted a hand in reassurance. “Just a bunch of scumbag cowards.”
That got them. Slowly, at least a score of rough-hewn, half armored figures emerged from the junk piles, forming a ring that had her, and Gabrielle at its center.
“End of the road, Xena.” Draco edged out from behind a pile of crates. “You screwed me over, and now I’m going to collect for it.” He glanced behind her. “Right?”
Xena didn’t turn, her peripheral vision already acknowledging the squadron of city guards, and hearing her enemy from the road’s voice didn’t surprise her.
A dozen guards and a score of hired fighters. Xena ducked her head and studied her hands, one wrapped around the hilt of her sword. She could take them all, and she knew it.
She wondered if they did. Slowly, she lifted her eyes and looked at them, one after another, holding their gaze just long enough for their own eyes to drop, and their hands to start fidgeting. Last, she stared at Draco, turning her head and spitting very deliberately onto the wooden dock then dismissing him. “What is it you want?” She asked Aleki, aware of Gabrielle and Dori easing between Iolaus and Argo, close enough for Gabrielle to put a hand on her back.
“You, hanging in the city square.” The noble stated.
“Why?” Gabrielle interrupted, ducking under Argo’s head and facing him. “To thank her for saving your worthless life?”
“Don’t let her talk.” Draco advised. “Just give me my money and take your catch.”
“I have filed charges with the city council. You attacked me, and injured my daughter.” Aleki said. “The council was glad to accept my suit, and even now, a cell is being prepared for you.” He pointed to his guard. “Take her.”
Xena leveled her gaze at the guard. Gabrielle turned and put a hand on her knee, cradling Dori with her other arm. “If he’s really filed charges, and you fight the guard, you’ll be outlawed, Xe.”
“Does that mean they won’t ask me to lead them to war?” Xena asked, in a mild tone. She lifted her arm to one side and twirled her sword. “C’mon, boys. What are ya waiting for?”
“I’m not going into a cell.” Xena uttered, almost sub vocally.
Gabrielle’s fingers closed on her knee, and squeezed a little in understanding. She could hear the yells from the boat, helpless since they were unable to bring the vessel any closer to shore, and she got Dori’s pack onto her back to free her hands. “This’ll make some story.” She said, in disgust.
“Won’t it?” Draco mocked her.
“TAKE HER!” Aleki bellowed. “What are you waiting for, you cretins?”
“Go on, you too!” Draco ordered his men. “All of you get her!”
Xena reached down and grabbed Gabrielle’s arm, pulling her up behind her on Argo, as she got ready to meet the assault. She lifted her sword as the men advanced, her back to the craggy rocks and surf, with nowhere to go but into the worst kind of trouble.
“HALT!” A very loud voice caught them all by surprise. The men stopped, and looked around, as did Draco and Aleki.
Surrounding the hired men, and the guard, was a very large body of men, in the armor and surcoats of the Athenian army. They all had weapons drawn, and crossbows aimed.
But not at Xena.
“What do you think you’re doing” Aleki sputtered. “Get back! I order it!”
The army captain ignored him, his eyes meeting Xena’s. With gentle courtesy, he put his fist over his breast, then saluted her, sweeping his arm out to indicate the battered rear gate she’d been heading for.
“Son of a….” Gabrielle breathed, into the warm leather she was leaning against.
Xena inclined her head towards him, then sheathed her sword and turned Argo, signaling Iolaus to follow them.
“You can’t do this!” Aleki howled. “I’ll have you arrested!”
Xena maintained a dignified pace, pausing as she passed Draco to look at him. “If I were you, I’d sail. Far away.” She told him, before she continued on.
“Xena!” The army captain suddenly called out.
The warrior turned, pulling up and eyeing him.
“We’d have followed you.”
Xena held his gaze for a long moment. “I know.” She said, and then she turned and kneed Argo into a canter, threading her way through the shabby debris, towards a small, ill regarded gate that followed the coastline.
Behind her, she heard the snap of sails, as the wind caught them, and the crash of the ship’s wake as it headed out towards the harbor. “Guess we’re taking the long road home.”
“That could take months.” Gabrielle hugged her mindlessly
The bard sniffled a little, as relief flowed over her. “Good.”
They cleared the gate, and were gone from Athens, galloping down a dirt path with the thunder of the waves washing the sound of the crowd’s yells from their ears.
They rode the rest of the day, sticking close to the wild seacoast rather than move inland to the populated areas. Gabrielle found herself reveling in the sheer emptiness of the terrain, but after hours of riding horseback she was ready to take a break. Dori had been peacefully napping on her back for some time, but Gabrielle knew that wouldn’t last much longer.
Xena seemed to sense it. Her head scanned the horizon, and then she slowed Argo and waited for Gabrielle to come up even with her. They came to a halt facing the water, the onshore breeze blowing against them. “Think we’re far enough.”
Gabrielle glanced around them, seeing nothing as far as the eye could see save huge swards of sea grass, waving in the wind, and steep craggy rocks. She faced forward and took in the rolling, beautiful blue green of the sea, ruffled with whitecaps that chased each other to the shore in rhythmic thunder.
She took a very deep breath, tasting only nature, and wildness on the back of her tongue. “Gods, it’s nice to be able to hear myself think.”
Xena stretched in the saddle, then relaxed, her eyes closing briefly as she absorbed the lowering sunlight. “Yeah...” She said. “Let’s stop for the night.”
“You don’t have to ask me twice.” Gabrielle agreed readily. “But hm…” She surveyed their surroundings. “Hope it doesn’t rain.”
Xena grinned, then dismounted, and started to remove the bags Argo carried on her. “Trust me.” She unbuckled the mare’s tack and pulled it off, then slapped her lightly. “G’wan, enjoy the space.”
Argo tossed her head up, then bucked once before she galloped off through the grass.
Curious, Gabrielle slid off Iolaus, wincing slightly as her feet touched the earth for the first time in hours. She leaned against him and stretched her back out, feeling Dori stir in her pack.
“Mama?” Dori burred sleepily. “You gots fishes?”
“We got more fishes than you can count out there, Dori.” Gabrielle told her, pointing at the sea. She shouldered her bags then unbuckled Io’s saddle and tugged it off him.
Only to have it taken from her hands by Xena. “Hey, I’ve got it.”
“No you don’t.” Xena lifted it, then carried it over to where she’d put Argo’s, stashed neatly under the side of a rock. She straightened and held a hand out to the bard. “Follow me, your majesty, and I’ll take you to your castle.”
Dori giggled. Gabrielle smothered a grin and took the outstretched fingers. “Castle?”
Xena led the way to the edge of the cliff, then stepped into an overgrown path hidden by the grass. It made it’s way down, winding between the rocks. Gabrielle could smell the sea, and the rich lichen and she felt the tensions of the day slowly sliding from her.
The path ended up on a rocky outcropping above a small, neat beach. Behind the outcropping, she spotted an opening, and wasn’t surprised when Xena moved towards it, easily able to pass inside without ducking her head.
“Ahh… a cave.” Gabrielle chuckled. “I should have guessed... Dori, look what Boo found us.”
“Guck.” Dori looked around with interest.
The cave was a rough half circle, and not that deep, but it was obvious it had been used as a shelter for a very long time. A fire pit was carved into one side, and towards the back, a stone trough had been roughly chipped, holding a trickle of water that filled it, then spilled over and ran out the front of the cave towards the sea.
In the rear, an uneven ledge rose up about knee height, providing ample space for their sleeping furs. Gabrielle grinned, and gave the place an approving nod. “Very cool.”
Xena chuckled, setting down her bags and looking around. “Haven’t been here in years… not much, but it’s got the basics.” She dusted her hands off. “I’m gonna go get some driftwood for the fire.”
Gabrielle unbuckled Dori’s pack and let her down, watching her toddle around exploring the cave. She took her bags over and set them down on the ledge, then took a moment to sit and relax.
Gods, they hadn’t been near the ocean in such a long time. Her eyes took in the roaring surf not far from the cave’s entrance. Not since that brief visit after they’d escaped from Cecrops ship, in fact.
Bemusedly, she remembered lying on the beach that night, wistfully counting the stars and wondering if she’d ever have the courage to act on her feelings for Xena.
“Mama, look!” Dori had found a rock, and brought it over to her. “Good!”
“Guess I found that answer out.” Gabrielle had to chuckle. “Thank you, honey.”
It hit her suddenly. They were out here, on their own. Gabrielle blinked at her daughter, taking the small stone from her and examining it. When they’d gone on short trips with Dori from him, they’d stayed in inns, or only been out for a day.
Now they were here, and everything would be new and different. “Hey, Dori?”
“Mama.” Dori was balancing herself by hanging on to Gabrielle’s leg.
“How would you like to be with me and Boo and go all over, before we go home?”
Dori’s misty green eyes studied her seriously. “Go Boo?”
“You, and me, and Boo. All together, going places. Would you like that?”
“Go fly? Get fishes?” The toddler inquired.
“Oh, I’m sure Boo will fly with you, and we’ll get lots of fishes, I promise.” Gabrielle smiled, as she watched her daughter’s round face cock slightly to one side as she considered, a motion so very much Xena’s it almost took her breath away. “I’ll teach you to make stories, and we can find lots of rocks.”
Dori grinned happily. “Good!”
“What’s good?” Xena entered with an armload, and went to the firepit, arranging the wood with skilled hands. Dori pattered over to her and slammed into her back. “Hey!”
“Boo, Mama says go fly!”
Xena eyed her soulmate, one eyebrow lifting.
“That’s not what I said.” Gabrielle chuckled, as she got up and started to spread their furs out, tucking the edges under neatly. “I asked her if she was happy we were going to be out here by ourselves, having adventures for a while.”
Xena struck sparks at the dried seaweed tinder she’d collected, blowing softly on it before she set it under the driftwood. The newborn fire crackled cheerfully, and she smiled at it before she turned around and put her arms around Dori. “Oh yeah? I bet you said yes, right, munchkin?”
“Yes.” Dori hugged her. “Fun!”
Xena gazed over her head and met Gabrielle’s eyes. “Well, doesn’t pay to go right back home at any rate. Let things cool off.” She watched the bard nod in easy agreement. “I’m sure we can find something to do out here.”
Gabrielle grinned wholeheartedly.
“Tell you what.” The warrior addressed her daughter. “How about you and I go get some fishies.”
“Good!” Dori approved. “Go now?”
Xena stood up and unclasped her armor, taking it off one handed and dropping it to the ground. She winked at Gabrielle and sauntered out the cave entrance, Dori tucked in the crook of her arm.
Gabrielle sat quietly for a moment, then she got up and finished arranging their bed, before she took out the rest of their outdoor gear, setting her cooking things down by the firepit and taking their water pot over to the small rock well. She set it down and dipped her hands in first, bringing up a mouthful and sipping it with hard earned caution.
It was sweet and cold, and she tipped her head back, drinking it all down before she scrubbed her face with her damp hands. “Well.” She turned and addressed the empty space. “Got a nice cave, decent bed, good fire, great water, a fantastic view, and my family.” She spread both arms out then let them drop. “Life just doesn’t get any better than this.”
Grabbing one of their linen towels, she dipped more water into their washing basin and rid herself of the dust of the day’s riding. When she finished, she pulled out her diary and sprawled across their furs. She opened to an empty page and removed a quill from its case, running its point across the sharpener and dipping it into her ink.
Boy, do I have a lot of catching up to do. We just left Athens, more or less in one piece, and now we’re laying low in a cave right on the water a days ride from there. I’m going to have to go back and put down all the stuff that happened, because there was a lot of it. Xena won the Games, I won the Bard’s challenge, Amphipolis got it’s taxes remanded, we don’t have to send a levy, but somehow in all that, we managed to get in the worst trouble you can think of.
How do we do that? It started out so simple, and ended up practically with us running Greece. I just don’t get it. You’d think we meant to do this stuff or something.
So, here we are, just the three of us, on our own. Xena figures we should stay away from Amphipolis for a while, just in case anyone in Athens gets any dumb ideas. I think that’s a good idea, but to be honest, I’d have taken any excuse to stay out on the road with her.
I wonder why that is? I love Amphipolis. I love our home, and our family, and all our friends – we’ve got a great life there. So why is the thought of us spending time living rough and getting into scrapes making me so happy?
I don’t know. I just know I am.
Maybe I’m just really a wanderer at heart. I’ve noticed lately that too much officious stuff and timetables has started to drive me crazy. As much as I love our home life, I think I need change and adventure, too.
I wonder if Xena feels that way?
Gabrielle put her quill down and blew softly on the letters, watching them change from vivid darkness to a soft purple as they dried. Then she got up and walked to the opening in the cave wall, putting one hand on the rough surface as she leaned out and looked around.
She spotted Xena immediately. The warrior was racing down the beach, her boots discarded as the sand flew from under her bare feet. Dori was on her shoulders, shrieking in delight as they leaped over incoming waves that threatened to chase them down.
They were both drenched.
Gabrielle spotted a familiar bag near the slope that led up to the cave, and she started towards it. But Xena saw her and changed her direction, reaching the cache before she was halfway there. “Here ya go.” She held up the bag.
The bard playfully put her hands on her hips. “You better not have crabs in that bag.”
“Me?” Xena blinked innocently. “Would I bring you crabs for dinner?” She padded over to where Gabrielle was standing, and draped a damp arm over her. “We gots fishies, right Dori?”
“Yes! Big!” Dori told her mother. “Boo gots fishies, fishies go swim, fast fast, Boo fly, boom! Catch!”
“Oh yeah?” Gabrielle said, plucking a bit of Xena’s drenched leathers. “With this thing on? I’m surprised you didn’t sink.”
“Sink?” Xena said. “You think I would sink?” She put down the bag.
Gabrielle untangled herself from Xena’s other arm. “Now, hold on…” She started to back off, but only got two steps before she was grabbed and lifted. “Xeeeeennnnaaaaa!!!!!!”
“Haha!” Xena turned and bolted for the surf. “We’ll see who sinks!”
“Fly!!!” Dori burbled happily. “Go get the fishes!”
“Yeeeeaaaaaahhhhh!!!!” Gabrielle found herself half upside down, heading a bumpy route towards the water. She only barely had time to steel herself before she felt the spray of the sea against her skin, as Xena plunged into the water. The warrior crouched, then leaped forward, crashing into an oncoming wave with her double armful.
The salty surf engulfed them, then Gabrielle wriggled free and swam to the surface, shaking her hair out of her eyes as she poked her head back into free air. “Xena.”
The aggravating warrior was floating like an otter on her back, with Dori sitting on her stomach, splashing the water with both hands. “Yeeees?” She regarded Gabrielle, her face half obscured with dark, damp hair.
Gabrielle stood in the waist high water and splashed her, swamping the two of them.
“Whoa... .I think we’d better get mama for that.” Xena spluttered. “Right Dori?”
Dori wiped her eyes, and stuck her tongue out. “Bck!”
The bard was already heading for the shore, fast as she could, keeping just ahead of the thundering splashing behind her.
Xena chased her out of the surf, and they ran down the beach, until Gabrielle got into some soft sand and it slowed her down. She turned and headed back the other way, but a long arm snaked out and snagged her. “Nnnnooo… Xena, please. Don’t dump me in the sand…” She got out, trying to catch her breath.
With a chuckle, the warrior relented, wrapping an arm around her as they started back to where Dori was waiting for them. The toddler ran towards them as they approached, tossing handfuls of sand that neatly stuck to their wet skin.
“Ahh… I can see another bath is in your future, Madame Doriana.” Gabrielle scolded the tot. “Look at you!”
“Mama!” Dori flung a handful of the stuff, catching her mother in the bare midriff.
Xena glanced at her, with a grin.
“Don’t say it.” Gabrielle wound her arm around Xena’s waist as they walked back to the cave, the setting sun warming her every step. “Everyone gets a bath!”
It was late. The stars outside winked brightly, and the moon carved a silver path across the surface of the sea. The waves had settled down, and their hypnotic rhythm invaded the cave and soothed it’s occupants.
Dori was sleeping in her folding cradle, tired out at last.
The fire crackled low, providing light that spilled gently across the two naked figures in front of it, a scent of sweet berries and roasted fish still drifting in the air.
“It’s gonna sting a little.” Xena’s voice broke the silence. “You’re sure you…”
“Yep.” Gabrielle was sprawled across her soulmate’s lap, the small of her back under Xena’s skilled hands. “I really am sure.”
“Okay.” Xena took a bit of cleanser and rubbed a small spot near Gabrielle’s spine, smiling when she felt the bard chuckle a bit. “Ticklish?”
“You know it.” Gabrielle otherwise didn’t feel like stirring an inch. “Anyway, I’ll never feel it – I’m too stuffed to move.” She squirmed just a little into a more comfortable position. “Those fish were great.”
Xena grunted in agreement, then gently started to work with her sharpened bone needle and ink. She drew the outline of a tiny bird, very mindful of the owner of the soft skin under her fingertips.
The ribs just above where she was working kept their steady rhythm, even when the sharp instrument punctured the tanned surface. She lightly pressed the tips of her fingers into the bard’s flesh, feeling the solid power of her body under them.
With a quiet intake of breath, she started to sing, seeing the smile appear on Gabrielle’s face as her eyes slid shut.
Watch for the sun, the dawn arising
Painting the earth in pinks and gold.
Watch for the moon, the silver princess
Lighting the shadows the true night brings.
You and I,
We stand in the dawn of time,
And the dusky twilight,
Journeying onward for all of our days.
You and I,
Never to sunder,
Two hearts, two minds, one soul.
Watch for the sun, the dawn arising,
Painting the earth in pinks and golds.
Chased by the moon, eternal companions,
Away through the stars they sail forever on.
The bard sighed contentedly as she finished, the last notes of the song fading away against the faint echo from the cave’s walls. “You know.” Gabrielle murmured. “Whenever I hear you sing that, I have to really stop and remember that I wrote it.”
“Why?” The warrior asked, her hands continuing their task.
“I don’t know.” Gabrielle admitted. “Maybe it’s just the beauty of your voice. It lends something to it... like a magic.”
“Well.” Xena smiled a little. “I have to stop and remember that it’s partly about me, so I guess we’re even.”
It was quiet then, for a while. Gabrielle had her head pillowed on their furs, one hand idly playing with a fold of them as she gazed out into the night.
“You okay?” Xena asked in low voice.
“Hm? Oh, yeah.” The bard said. “I hardly feel it. Not like the last time.”
Xena cleared her throat a bit. “I meant about everything else.”
A mischievous grin appeared on Gabrielle’s face. “You mean about our whole life being tossed upside down?”
“I love it.”
Xena chuckled softly. “Ya do, huh?”
“Yeap.” Gabrielle exhaled contentedly. “Can we stay here a day or two? We haven’t been at the shore for a long time.”
“Sure.” Xena finished filling in the small design, and critically reviewed her handiwork. She’d used a berry stain ink, and in fading, it would become a soft reddish brown color, matching the birthmark she and Dori both carried. “All done.”
“Already?” Gabrielle looked over her shoulder in surprise. “Wow.” She craned her neck further. “I can’t see it.”
“Nope. That means it’s in the right place, cause I can’t see mine either.” Xena informed her, running tickling fingers down the bard’s back and ending with a playful squeeze on her bare butt.
“Hm. That’s true.” Gabrielle rolled over, and found herself wrapped up in Xena’s arms. She put her head down on the warrior’s shoulder and exhaled. “Thanks.” She said. “I know you think it was a weird request.”
“Not... weird.” Xena replied.
“Yes, weird.” The bard disagreed. “It’s like this. I have this one.” She regarded her shoulder, which held Xena’s hawk’s head crest. “That means I’m a part of you. And you have that one...” Her fingers traced the symbol above Xena’s heart. “That means you’re a part of me. Well, Dori’s too young to get something that means she’s a part of both of us, so I figured this was the next best thing.”
Xena was silent for a bit, her brow furrowed in thought. “Wow.” She finally said. “That’s pretty damned profound, mama.”
Gabrielle snickered a little. “Thanks, Boo.”
For a while, they simple rested in each other’s arms, watching the stars twinkle outside as the fire burned down.
“Gods.” Gabrielle’s voice broke the peaceful silence. “It’s been such a bizarre time we’ve had.”
“I’m sure it’ll be a lot more boring on the way home, right?”
Xena snorted, then a chuckle escaped.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Gabrielle chuckled as well. “If there’s trouble, we’ll find it.”
The warrior leaned her head closer to her partner’s. “Or bring it with us.” She tweaked her nose gently, then tilted her jaw and kissed her, feeling Gabrielle’s breath come out of her in a tiny puff that trickled through her lips.
Gabrielle gazed at her from half closed eyes as they parted. “Know what?”
Xena smiled in quiet acknowledgment. “It sure does.”
They kissed again, as the moon broke out from behind thin clouds, spilling gentle silver light over them as the twinkling stars kept watch above.
Waiting to see what the future would hold, for a pair of extraordinary mortals cradled in an immortal love destined to span the ages.