A Matter of Pride
Xena adjusted a catch on her armor as she stood for a moment on the porch, letting the early morning sun warm her skin. The town was already bustling with activity despite the early hour, and she let her hands rest on the porch railing as she watched a group of Amazons walk by, mixed with a couple of her militia men deep in a discussion of arrow tips.
"Morning, Xena." The last Amazon looked up to see her watching, and gave a wave. "How's the Queen doing?" Solari detoured away from the group and walked over, leaning against the railing as she faced the warrior. "Heard everyone was looking for her yesterday." She pushed a lock of her long, dark hair back behind an ear, and shifted a few feathers.
Xena raised an eyebrow. "Everyone? Not everyone. I knew where she was." She replied. "So did Dori."
Solari looked at her. "No, really?" She remarked wryly. "Anyway, I just wanted to let her know that Eph's due here in a day or so, for the summer conclave. She's bringing Pony, and, um… " The Amazon hesitated.
"And?" Xena cocked her head. "Everything all right with them?"
Solari twisted a lock of dark hair around one finger. "Um… well, yeah, sure."
Xena looked right, then looked left, then leaned on the railing, pinning Solari with a very intimidating icy blue stare. "Spill it."
Solari’s brown eyes widened. "B… ah…"
"Solari." Xena’s voice dropped a full octave.
"Okay." The Amazon peered furtively around, then lowered her voice. "Listen, if they found out I told you guys before they tell you, I’m creamed chipped centaur on a piece of rye toast, okay?"
"Appetizing thought." Xena remarked dryly. "C’mon, Solari. I don’t have all day."
"All right.. all right… Zeus, you sure haven’t gotten any more patient, huh? Okay – " Solari held a hand up as the warrior shifted. "They’re having this big argument over having a kid."
A ripple of different emotions crossed Xena’s expressive face. "Argument?"
"Yeah, you know. That’s when you like, have an opinion, and another person has a different opinion and ..fmopf."
Xena removed her hand. "Lemme guess. Eph doesn’t want a kid?"
"Oh, no, she does."
"She does too."
Xena put her hands on her hips. "Then what’s the problem?"
A shrug. "They can't decide which one of em should have it." Solari said. "They want to talk to you about it."
"Me?" Xena snorted. "What in the name of Hades would make them think I had an opinion on that?"
Solari glanced at the door to the cabin, then up at Xena's face, with a puzzled expression on her own. "Didn't you…"
"No." Xena cut her off quietly. "It was Gabrielle's decision. I had nothing to do with it." Which wasn't, honestly, the total truth, but it was close enough. "Tell Eph to talk to her." She went on. "Or tell em to flip a half dinar coin. What's the big debate? They're both healthy." Xena finished adjusting her bracer and stepped down off the porch, heading down the path that would lead her to the militia barracks.
"Xena." Solari called after her, hesitantly.
The warrior turned. "Yes?"
The dark haired Amazon gazed at her. "Sorry, I didn't mean to… "
"Don’t' worry about it." Xena waved her off and continued on down the path.
Solari sighed. "Great. Good job, Sol. While you have your boot stuck all the way inside your mouth, why not try tying the laces with your tongue?"
A lighter, warmer voice with a hint of a chuckle in it almost made her jump. Solari turned quickly to see Gabrielle leaning against the doorjamb of the cabin, her pale hair tousled, and her arms clasped across the roughly woven linen tunic that fell to her knees. "Oh, sorry." She gave her friend and Queen a rueful grin. "I was just talking to myself. You know how it is."
"C'mon up." Gabrielle invited her, easing out of the door way and taking a seat in one of the two comfortable chairs on the porch.
Solari climbed up to join her, taking the chair next to her and extended her booted legs out.
Gabrielle braced her bare feet against the lower railing and stretched, stifling a half yawn as she blinked amiably at the stirring village. "Beautiful day, isn't it?" She mused.
Solari peered around at the muggy scene, and waved at fly buzzing around her head. "Uh.. yeah."
The bard rolled her head to one side, and regarded her. "So. What were you arguing with Xena about?" She asked. "Anything I can help with?"
How had Gabrielle known? Solari frowned. They hadn't been talking that loud, and it had only last a few seconds…" Uhm .. we weren't arguing, really. I was just telling her to tell you that Eph's coming up in a day or two with Pony."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle nodded gravely. "I was expecting them. I've got a lot to discuss with Eph.. I think I want to see if she's ready to move the village down here. Xena found a spot about five miles upriver she thinks would be good for the tribe to settle in."
Solari picked at a splinter. "Yeah. I think she's ready." She said. "She and Pony want to have a kid."
Somehow, this didn't seem to surprise Gabrielle. "Cool." She nodded. "I’m really glad their experiences with my child didn't convince them otherwise." She grinned. "Which one's going to get dibs?"
"Ah." Solari sighed. "That's what we were talking about.. they're squabbling like hyperactive ducks in a puddle about it. Eph says she's already had a kid, and besides, she's the regent. Pony says at least Eph know she can do it, and besides, she's the weaponsmaster."
Gabrielle folded her arms. "Immovable object, irresistible force, huh?"
"What?" Solari cocked her head.
"Never mind. I'll see what I can do to break the impass." The bard told her. "I know it's a kinda touchy subject.. both Pony and Eph are so into the warrior thing."
"Yeah." Came the soft answer, as the dark haired Amazon gazed at the floor. "Guess it was an easier choice for you, huh?" She glanced furtively at Gabrielle. "Not that.. I mean, not that you're not a warrior, Gabrielle, I didn't mean to.."
But the bard merely smiled. "Compared to Xena? No, I'm not a warrior." She traced a scar on one tanned knee. "I tried to talk to Xena about her having another child… I never got anywhere with her, though. I think she was surprised when I decided to."
Solari was out of her depth and she knew it, but she hadn't been hanging around Amphipolis for the last year for nothing. "Mm." She dug into her stock of noncommittal responses, then decided to take the plunge and ask the question the whole town was buzzing about and had been for months. "Hey, Gabrielle?"
"Mm?" The intense green eyes turned her way, one blond eyebrow lifting slightly in just the faintest echo of her soulmate's typical look.
"It's true that Dori is you and Xena's kid, like together, right?"
Oh, that question. "That's right." Gabrielle agreed.
There was a little silence as they regarded each other. Then Solari leaned on the arm of her chair and lowered her voice. "How in Hades did you do that?"
Eh. Gabrielle managed a smile. Now that was the question they never really knew how to answer, so she generally just stuck to the truth. "We exchanged apples seeds while making love." She stated calmly. "In a tree."
"No, really." The bard smiled.
Solari blinked again.
Xena put her hands on Argo's saddlebow and vaulted onto the horse's back, settling her knees into place just behind the mare's shoulders as her hands gathered the reins with automatic and casual precision. Around her, the militia was swirling with business like efficiency, loading wagons full of newly made weapons, and grouping off in small clumps for hand to hand and sword practice.
"Genr'l!" Bennu loped over to her, and put a hand on her stirrup. "Far outpost just signalled in. There's a passel of armed riders on t'way inbound."
Mm. Xena's ears perked up, and Argo moved restlessly under her, sensing the tensing of the warrior's thigh muscles. "All right. I'll check it out." Xena told him. "Send word up to the inn." She guided Argo around the milling soldiers and set her on the road out of town, a path that would lead her up and over the ridge Amphipolis was built on and then to slope down slowly to the river valley.
It felt good to be out and riding. Xena urged Argo into a canter, and shook her head as the wind blew the sweat dampened hair out of her eyes and cooled her skin. She felt Argo settle into a smooth pace and she relaxed, her body moving with the horse's in an instinctive rhythm.
She rode past burgeoning homesteads, the residents outside lifting a hand to wave at her as she went past. Xena returned the wave, then ducked under an overhanging branch as the path lead into a more wooded area.
It was quieter here, the sounds of wood being chopped faded behind her, and only Argo's footfalls echoed in the still summer air. Xena shifted her armor a bit, and made a mental note to adjust the plates later on to better conform to the new leathers she wore underneath.
A gift from Gabrielle, in fact, when the bard had refused to allow her to put one more patch into the old ones she loved. This new set was a slightly lighter shade of brown, and was cut very comfortably but still needed to be broken in a little.
They were sort of snazzy though. Xena glanced down and ran a finger over the swirling dark brown beadwork Gabrielle had patiently worked into the leather with her own hands. Given her soulmate's innate distaste for needlework, Xena did indeed appreciate the gift as the loving sacrifice it was.
Besides. Xena drew in a deep breath and released it, her senses taking in the surrounding forest automatically. She could actually breathe in these, something that was getting a little tough in the old set, since being at home didn't pare her to the skin and bones living on the road did.
The path curved upward, and she slowed Argo as they came to the top, and she had a view of the river basin that stretched off into the horizon. The long road that went along side the river had become wider recently, from hundreds of wagons and animals traveling it and down this wide and dusty path came riding a party that set all Xena's instincts right on fire.
"Whoa, girl." Xena gentled Argo absently. "I see em."
There were an even dozen of them. Ten what were obviously soldiers, and two in the center in the robes and silks of rich men. The soldiers bore heavy weapons, spears resting in stirrups that bobbed as they rode, longswords strapped to their backs, and crossbows lashed to their saddlebows.
"Well well." The warrior's eyes narrowed, as the breeze pulled at the banner of the leadmost soldier and fluttered it open. "What brings such a gaudy group all the way from Athens, Argo?"
"Yeah, I agree." Xena's mind started clicking. "Bet they're not here for the market, huh, girl? Let's go find out what they want." She gathered Argo underneath her and made for the road, taking a course calculated to intercept the visitors just short of the entrance to town.
That they outnumbered her never even crossed her mind.
The standard bearer wiped his forehead with the back of his gloved hand, and peered ahead. "Town's just up there, sir."
"So I see." The man dressed in expensive robes replied. "Hard to believe a place halfway out to nowhere is actually big enough to warrant our presence, but here we are." He gestured lazily towards the outlines of Amphipolis. "And there it is."
They were riding slowly down the road, in deference to the heat. "Bigger than the last place we stopped." The captain of the guard commented. "What a little pisshole that was."
They all chuckled. "Now, Allas, be kind." The nobleman chided. "These people were through a rough time a year back. They can't help only being grubby peasants."
The captain snorted, and adjusted his epaulet. "All due respect, sir, but I’m thinking those stories were mostly exaggeration. No group of ignorant dirt grubbers could pull themselves together to fight off an army. It's not credible."
"Mm." The official shrugged. "Perhaps." He shifted in his sedate horses saddle. "Well, I hope at least this place has some decent baths."
"Sir?" The point guard's voice was sharp. "There's someone up ahead."
The noble and the Allas looked forward. In the shimmering haze of the summer heat, a golden horse stood squarely in their path, it's rider waiting quietly for them to approach.
"What the Hades?" The captain squinted. There was an unmistakable glint of brass armor in the sun, and the rider sat erect in the saddle, the hilt of a sword clearly visible strapped across her back. "It's a woman."
"Certainly is." The noble gazed with interest at the figure. As they got closer, he could see the beautiful, but stern features, framed in dark hair that whipped in the wind and catch a glimpse of surprisingly pale eyes which watched them alertly.
"Clear the road." The guard captain ordered, riding ahead of them.
Xena merely looked at the man, and lifted an eyebrow. "Or?" She inquired, deriving a completely guilty enjoyment from the confrontation. "You gonna try to move me?"
The man hesitated, clearly not expecting a challenge to his authority. But not for long. " I'll move you." He drew his sword and rode towards her.
The look Xena gave him was almost affectionate. She waited for him to come even with her, then lazily slipped her boot from her stirrup and lashed out in a ripple of bare, muscular thigh as she caught him in the ribcage and knocked him right off his horse. "Tch." She admonished the startled man. "What are they teaching in the Athenian army these days?"
Allas scrambled to his feet and advanced on her. Xena merely sidestepped Argo around him, keeping out of his reach with skillful ease. "You don't want to do that." She warned, as he took a swipe at Argo's hindquarters. She signaled the mare, who kicked viciously out, slamming a hoof into the man's kneecap with an audible crunch. "She's got metal on hers."
The guard captain dropped to the ground and grabbed his leg. The rest of the soldiers immediately drew their weapons. Xena stopped Argo's circling and faced them head on, eyes glinting, an almost mischievously sexy grin on her face.
"Hold it." The nobleman raised on hand.
"But sir.. " The standard bearer protested.
The nobleman rode out from between them, and crossed the space between the group and Xena. He stopped in front of her. "I am Delethan, official tax master of the government at Athens."
Xena's ears twitched. She leaned on Argo's saddlebow and eyed him. "Congratulations." She remarked dryly. "What do you want with Amphipolis?"
The man patted a pouch at his belt. "To do my job. Collect the taxes you owe, bring the new laws, and deliver the order for conscripts for the army." He edged his horse closer. "So, my.. ah.. dear lady… please take yourself out of our way, and let me proceed."
The warrior didn't budge an inch. "Athens has never bothered with us before. Why now?"
Delethan smiled. "You've got something worth bothering for." He started past Xena. "I'll forget your little argument with my dear captain, since he did start something he wasn't capable of finishing. Perhaps I will only fine you a few dinars."
"You could try that" Xena stopped him. "But don’t' ride into that town thinking your being from Athens means three ticks on my horse's tail, cause it doesn't."
Delethan looked at her in bemusement. "Doesn't it? I guess this far out in the boondocks people have forgotten what the Athenian army does to lawbreakers." He said mildly, aware of the watching, smirking guard. "It's not pretty."
Xena sidestepped closer, until they were nose to nose. "I guess Athens' forgotten what I do to people who try to take advantage of my friends an family." She met his eyes levelly. "That's not pretty either."
The soldiers looked at each other. Delethan looked around at the fields of wheat gently waving. "You?" He asked, with a small chuckle. "Who are you? Captain of the cows?"
Before the guard could even twitch, or move, or even so much as breathe, there was a sword point tucked neatly under Delethan's chin, held rock steady in a strong grip across the length of a sinewy, outstretched forearm.
"Just someone who looks out for Amphipolis." Xena stated softly. "My name is Xena."
No one moved an inch. "Interesting." Delethan finally said, in a forced tone. "Rumors had you quite dead."
Xena smiled broadly. "Slight exaggerations." She twirled the sword over her arm and sheathed it in a smooth motion. "G'wan into town, but behave yourselves. The council'll meet with you and we can talk about your.. requests."
Delethan almost answered, then thought better of it and merely inclined his head, gathering his horses' reins together and easing the animal away from the warrior.
Allas had limped over and gotten on his horse, and now they all filed past Xena, who sat easily on Argo's back and watched them go. She waited until they were out of earshot, then let out a few choice curses, making Argo turn her ears back at their viciousness.
"C'mon, girl." The warrior turned the mare and urged her up a little used path that would lead her back to the town ahead of the longer route of the main road. "This ain't nothing good."
Gabrielle twitched her tunic straight as she left the school, having dropped Dori off safely into the teacher's hands. She strode down the path to the council chamber, bypassing the inn until a familiar voice called out to her as she went by. She looked up to see Cyrene waving in the kitchen door, and angled her steps to bring her over to her mother in law. "Morning, mom."
"Hey, cutie." Cyrene greeted her warmly. "You two get some rest last night?"
Rest. Gabrielle smiled at her. "Absolutely." She replied. "And you know what? I really feel great this morning. What gorgeous day, isn't it?"
"A bit dewy." Cyrene wiped the sweat from her forehead. "But not bad.. you off to council?"
"Had breakfast?" The innkeeper asked, knowingly. "Other than one of those chicken feed bars my daughter scrapes together?" She took Gabrielle's arm and led her inside the kitchen. "Come in here and sit down. Those stuffed tunics will wait another quarter candlemark for you."
Gabrielle sat down and accepted a fragrant many grained muffin and a slice of cold lamb, watching while Cyrene ladled them both a cup of cold cider. The innkeeper set the drinks down and took a seat next to her, pushing back a bit of her silvered dark hair as she did so. "I had a little talk with Josclyn."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Mom." She sighed. "Come on now. I can handle my own battles, okay?"
"Shh. I know that." Cyrene frowned. "But he's a stubborn old goat."
"Oh." Gabrielle half turned, and leaned on one elbow, giving her mother in law a very dry look. "And I have absolutely NO experience dealing with stubborn people." The edges of her lips quirked upward though. "Besides, he was right. I should have sent word, or gone to the meeting or.."
"Gabrielle." Cyrene sounded, for a moment, uncannily like her daughter.
"Mom." The bard deliberately pitched her voice lower in mimicry. "He was right." She took a bite of the muffin. "And I know better than to just toss off responsibility like that. So I’m going to go find him, and apologize, and see if we can reschedule that meeting."
Cyrene leaned towards her, a serious look on her face. "Gabrielle, there are responsibilities, and there are responsibilities. Yes, you're responsible for helping administer this gods forsaken, growing out of control excuse for a town, but you're also responsible for yourself, and your family." She put a hand on the bard's arm. "Did Xena ask you for time out?"
Silently, Gabrielle nodded.
"Then you don't owe anyone an apology." Cyrene said quietly. "And that's what I told Josclyn. It's a miracle of the gods she's been here, and at peace for so long. I don't want anything to jeopardize that, understand me?"
The bard studied her face. "She's doing fine."
Cyrene nodded. "I know."
Mist green eyes narrowed slightly. "That surprises you." Gabrielle said.
"Yes, it does."
"Why?" The bard inquired softly.
The door opened, startling them both. Gabrielle turned to see one of the younger militia standing there, breathing hard. "What's wrong?"
"Armed men coming up the road. Xena said to tell ya."
Gabrielle stuffed the rest of her muffin into her mouth and got up, sliding around the table and heading for the door. "Graph." She swallowed quickly. "I knew I jinxed it by saying it was too quiet around here." She nudged the militiaman "C"mon.. let's get to the gates."
Cyrene watched her go. Then she picked up her cup and sipped it, staring pensively at the fire.
Xena leaped off Argo's back, landing lightly on her feet as they arrived near the stable. One of the stablehands hurried towards her, and she held the mare's reins out willingly. "Thanks, Galen. Take her inside, willya?"
"Sure thing, Xena." The boy smiled at her, as she gave him a pat on the shoulder and slipped past.
Tax collectors. Xena shook her head as she headed towards the inn, her eyes roving restlessly over the courtyard in search of her soulmate. The Hades if she was going to let those stuck up Athenian elitists take what they'd worked so hard to build up.
It wasn't as though Amphipolis was a well established city, after all. This was the first season, the first real harvest they'd have a good chance at really profiting by, after the long, stagnant years they'd suffered through and the destruction of the war. So now, now that they'd finally managed to get above water, now Athens shows up and wants a cut?
Like Hades. Xena felt her skin prickle with excitement as her body recognized the signals that for her had always meant battle. Her heart picked up a little, and sent a warm flush of blood to her skin, and she felt her hands flex, the long fingers of her right hand extending and curling as though cupping a sword hilt.
That, however, made her pause and think. Just how are you going to stop them, Xena? Her mind sifted over that as she sensed a familiar presence ahead and circled the end of the inn, heading towards the gates of the upper town.
Sure enough, she spotted Gabrielle's sturdy form in a group of villagers standing near the entrance, and headed directly for her. She got about ten more paces when Gabrielle stiffened and turned, her eyes meeting Xena's with vivid relief.
"There you are." The bard trotted over to her. "The guard says we have company."
"I know. I met them on the road." Xena replied. "Bad news."
"Raiders?" Gabrielle guessed, with a grimace.
"Worse." The warrior said. "Tax men from Athens." She glanced down the road, where the small party could now be seen advancing towards the river gates, and the lower city. "Raiders would b a lot more welcome. I could just kick their butts."
"Tax men? What do they want from us?" Gabrielle asked. "We haven't made a profit yet."
"And if it's up to them, we won't." Xena growled. "Greedy bastards."
Gabrielle watched her soulmate in bemusement, as Xena craned her neck to watch the approaching me. "Sweetie." She lowered her voice, and stepped closer, patting the warrior's ribs under their covering of leather. "I’m sure we can work something out with them. Just relax, okay?"
Xena growled again wordlessly.
"Tell you what." Gabrielle nudged her. "Let me handle this. I"ll go meet with them, and see what I can arrange. I’m sure it won't be as bad as you think, after all, we're barely a city, remember?" She could see the tension in Xena's body, the strong form shifting under her touch like a restless horse's. "Xena?"
Sharp blue eyes darted to her face.
"Will you relax? You're making me neck hurt just looking at you."
The warrior scowled, but made an effort to stop twitching. "Sorry." She rested her forearms on Gabrielle's shoulders. "But after what we went through, keeping Andreas off their backs, for them to show up looking for a handout gets my goat."
Gabrielle glanced towards the road, then back at her. She butted Xena gently in the breasts. "You don't have a goat." She muttered. "But I know what you're saying. I’m sure they can be reasoned with."
"Not to mention looking for conscripts." Xena's eyes narrowed.
Blond eyebrows lifted. "Conscripts?"
"For the army."
"To go fight their fights?" Gabrielle's voice lifted. "Not from my town." She snorted. "Who do those rats think they are?"
Xena grinned suddenly. "Glad we're in agreement." She turned Gabrielle around and put an arm over her shoulders. "C'mon. Let's go get em."
"Absolutely." Gabrielle put her arm around Xena's waist as they walked in easy rhythm through the upper gates and down the path towards the river.
The inside of the council chamber was, undeniably, stuffy. Xena leaned against the wall a little closer to the window, and blinked the sweat out of her eyes as she watched Gabrielle and Joscyln negotiate with the men from Athens.
It wasn't going well.
"All right. But let me understand." Gabrielle stood up and paced slowly behind the table, aware of the faintly amused looks following her from Delethan and his mostly silent partner Gregas. "You say you're assessing a percentage of the total worth of the town, is that right?"
Delethan exhaled in mild impatience. "Listen, young miss, we really don't have the time to.." He stopped as Gabrielle circled the table and perched right next to him, holding a hand out invitingly. Cautiously he took it.
"Hi." Gabrielle smiled at him. "Sorry, I guess it got lost in the shuffle, but my name's Gabrielle." She clasped his hand in a firm grip. "And as the chief arbiter of Amphipolis, and a Queen of the united Amazon nations, I think I'm entitled to ask a few questions about the assessment of a value that hasn't been established yet."
Delethan blinked at her.
"How can you assess us for something we haven't earned yet?" The bard persisted. "We won't know how well the year will end until the harvest."
"We run an estimate." Delethan released her hand and rubbed his fingers, a mildly distasteful look on his face. "So many acres, so many people.. it's a mathematical algorithm."
"Ah." Gabrielle folded her arms. "What if it's wrong?"
"Wrong?" A laugh.
"Wrong. What if you assess more than we make." Gabrielle persisted. "What if storms drown the crops, or the river floods, or.."
Delethan shrugged. "We'll make it up to you next year." He tossed a scroll on the table. "You have two fortnights to deliver the tax to Athens. After that, you'll be in arrears." He stood up. "I think we're done with this conversation. It's hot, and it stinks in here." His nose wrinkled, as he glanced around the small room.
Gabrielle fingered the scroll, very aware of the smouldering warrior several body lengths from her. "All right. What about the conscripts. What's the point of that?"
Another shrug. "The defense of the common good. We maintain the army that protects Greece, in case you haven't heard." He smiled at her. "Your taxes buy you protection as well, you know."
"We can protect ourselves." Xena spoke for the first time.
"Xena's right." Gabrielle quickly agreed. "We maintain our own militia. So I guess we can drop those conscripts, and take a credit on the protection, right?"
"Wrong." Delethan shook his head. "Two fortnights, in Athens. You can bring your conscripts to the military barracks, and the money to the tax collectors' office in the main square. " He paused. "Failure to comply will result in censure, penalties, and a visit from the military garrison to forcibly collect what is due to us. Good day."
And then, he just turned and left, fanning himself as he walked out the door and slammed it behind him.
The gathered councillors all looked at each other, then at Gabrielle, who was still leaning against the council chamber, arms folded, one pale eyebrow lifted to her hairline. Very slowly the bard turned her head and looked at Xena. "You know something? In five years of traveling with you, I don't think we've ever met a bigger jerk than that."
Xena pushed herself away from the wall and stalked over. She picked up the scroll and untied it, pale blue eyes flicking over the contents with an expressionless look. Then she very deliberately smoothed the folds out, lifting the parchment in her fingers and launching it up into the air.
And with a move as smooth and powerful as a waterfall, she drew her sword and whipped it into a tight, exquisite pattern, the steel moving so fast it was impossible to distinguish the strokes.
Straw like confetti drifted slowly to the floor as she sheathed the sword, the parchment cut into so many strips they looked like a pile of Cyrene's noodles when they finally came to rest.
There was a definite moment of very respectful silence after her display, which Xena herself broke. "Looks like we're going to Athens." She remarked to Gabrielle. "No sense in bothering talking to lackeys. Let's just take it to the top."
Josclyn cleared his throat. "Um… Xena, not that any of us doubt your abilities.. or Gabrielle's, but wouldn’t it be more prudent just to pay them?"
"No." Xena and Gabrielle answered in perfect unison. "Besides.. "Gabrielle went on. "We're not sending anyone to be part of their army, Josc. I won't ask that, and you can't either."
The reeve hesitated, then nodded in agreement. "All right. Yes, I can see your point." He levered himself to his feet. "We'll all go." He looked around at the council. "We can talk to them, make them see how unfair this is."
Xena and Gabrielle's eyes met, and in a flickering exchange of minute facial shifts, complete agreement was met. "Why don't we recess, and come back later this afternoon to talk about it." Gabrielle said. "When it's cooler." She smiled at the council, mostly elders, who were all sweating like pigs. "Sound like a good idea?"
Nods. Everyone filed out gratefully, a buzz of concerned conversation trailing back into the room. That left only Xena, Gabrielle, and Josclyn. The reeve sighed. "What a mess." He glanced at the other two. "Price of success, eh?" With a shake of his grizzled head, he made his way out of the room after the others, leaving the two soulmates alone.
Gabrielle drummed her fingers lightly on her thigh. "They all have a stake in this. I guess it's natural they want to go and try to fix it."
"Think we can pack and be out of here before dinner?"
The bard sighed. "I'll break the news to Granella, you get the gear ready?"
"I'll drop by the inn and warn mother." Xena agreed, as they ducked out the back door to the council chamber and parted ways, heading in opposite directions across the dirt ground.
They rode out just before lunchtime, cantering along the outbound road for several miles in silence before they slowed down to an easier pace, and eyed each other. "Do you feel as rotten as I do?" Gabrielle asked, after a moment.
A warrior eyebrow twitched, then Xena sighed.
"That's what I thought." The bard fiddled with one of her reins. "You think we should…"
Xena nudged Argo closer to her. "Look." She glanced at the sky. "Weather's chancy. We don't know what we're in for on the road. It's a long trip. Gabrielle, it's honestly too dangerous to risk it."
Heavy sigh. "I know." The bard muttered. "I just keep seeing those eyes.. she looked so betrayed." In fact, if she concentrated, Gabrielle could almost convince herself that she could still hear Dori's wails from where she was.
They rode on in silence for a few lengths. "Yeah, she was pretty upset." Xena admitted.
"I think we spoiled her the last couple times, taking her with us, over to Potadeia and up to the Amazons."
"That's true." Gabrielle acknowledged. "We haven't been away from her in almost a year." She said. "Those trips were kind of fun, but you're right. They were all short."
"Right." Xena nodded.
Another few moments of silence. "Boy, we'd better bring some good toys back from Athens." Gabrielle suddenly stated. "Or we're toast."
A rueful sigh.
"Is she ready for a pony, you think?"
Sharp blue eyes glanced at her. "A pony? Gabrielle, she's only two years old!" Xena protested, but relaxed a little into her saddle.
"And how old were you when you rode down Sparky on the back of that plow horse?" Gabrielle replied unrepentantly. "Don't give me that 'she's only two' Gabrielle bit, Ms. I was doing backflips off the inn roof at age three."
Xena snorted, fidgeting with the reins. "That's different." She grumbled. "That was me. I’m sure Dori won't be like that."
Gabrielle just started laughing. "Xena.. Xena.. c'mon!" She covered her face with one hand. "Good grief, did you not see her actually up in the hayloft last week? How do you think she got there, by me lifting her?"
Xena eyed her. "Well, sure, I… you mean she climbed up there? By herself?" The warrior's eyes widened in alarm. "Gabrielle, she could have fallen out of there and killed herself!" She protested. "How could you let her do that?"
"Let her?" Gabrielle shot right back. "You're kidding, right? Like I would stand there and watch? Give me a break, Xena. I came in to get a blanket I'd left in there and she threw a rock at me."
The warrior collected Argo and guided her around a large depression in the road, as Gabrielle went around the other side. They joined each other once again and continued on. "Anything else you'd like to accuse me of while you're at it?" The bard asked, visibly annoyed.
Xena leaned on her saddlebow. "Sorry." She murmured, then fell silent, hit by the bittersweet irony of their argument. She wondered if Gabrielle was thinking about that too, about how, of all people, she was the last to have a right to judge the bard's fitness as a parent.
Sometimes she managed to push the knowledge of their past together back for a while, but then, like now, the reality would swing around and confront her with mocking vividness.
Ah well. Xena straightened and released a heavy sigh, then braced herself and turned to meet the eyes she knew were looking at her.
Expecting righteous anger.
Finding starkly knowing compassion instead.
Wordlessly, Gabrielle extended her hand, and clasped the one Xena held out. They rode that way for miles down the road, fingers and hearts intertwined.
Thunder rumbled loudly overhead, rattling the clouds that obscured the late afternoon sun as they left the river valley and started up through the foothills on the other side. "Uh oh." Gabrielle glanced up. "That doesn't sound too good." She wiped the sweat off her brow with the back of her hand. "Though it's making it cooler at least."
"Mm." The warrior agreed. "And there's no town anywhere within range.. better find a place to hole up." She stood in her stirrups and reviewed the countryside they were riding through. It was mostly scrub and brush, very little in the way of shelter, and as she sat back down she felt the first light sting of rain against her skin.
"Great.' Gabrielle pulled her cloak out and shook it's folds free of her saddle bag, settling it over her shoulders with a grimace. "Ugh.. nice and warm and sweaty… and wet." The temperature had risen as they'd ridden on, and there had been precious little shade. She'd been glad of the gathering clouds until now, in fact.
Xena ran a hand through her damp hair and sighed. "Yeah." She juggled her options, deciding against adding her cloak's extra layer to her already overly warm garments. Leather was great protection in a fight, but not so wonderful when riding in the hot sun, and wearing brass armor over it didn't help matters one single bit.
It started raining harder. Xena found herself caught between relief and annoyance, as her body cooled down, but Argo shook her head vigorously, not liking the stinging drops. "I know, girl. Just hang on.. we'll find some place to keep dry."
Would they? Gabrielle shaded her eyes from the rain and peered forward, seeing little but underbrush around them.
A sudden crack made them both jump, and Iolaus shied, almost unseating her. A bolt of lighting had hit a nearby tree, and now it smouldered, emitting a sharp, burning smell into the air. Xena grabbed instinctively for Iolaus' bridle, and urged Argo in the other direction, towards a small thicket.
A hedge. Gabrielle exhaled, as she pulled her cloak up over her head. The rain started coming down in torrents, and she was quickly wet through. Well, any port in a storm, right? She felt Iolaus come to a halt and she peeked out, to see Xena sliding off Argo and pulling their bags down with her.
Another roll of thunder, and a bolt that lit up the sky ominously. Gabrielle scrambled off her restless horses back and was glad not to be the tallest object around at the moment. She unclipped the bags off her saddle rings and threw herself after Xena, who was barely visible in the downpour. "Xena!"
"Over here!" The warrior yelled. "Let the horses go.. they'll find shelter on their own!"
Gabrielle did as she was told, and heard Argo and Iolaus's hooves rumble as they dashed away, a gust of wind almost blowing her cape right off. She clutched it with one hand, and slung their gear forward with the other, relieved when a hand gripped her arm and pulled her down. "Good gods!"
"Yeah." Xena agreed, uncharacteristically frazzled looking. "Storm came on too fast." She was pawing at the bushes in front of her, yanking on branches with powerful impatience. "Damn it…. " One branch resisted her, and she unhooked the chakram, using it as an effective hatchet as she cut her way into the hedge with short, vicious strokes. "Ah."
"Ah?" Gabrielle huddled closer, peering past her shoulder. "Oh. " She said in surprise, ducking as a sharp crack of thunder sounded right over them. "It's… "
"Yeah." Xena shoved her packs inside the hollow space, then ducked back and gestured towards the bard. "In ya go."
Any port? Gabrielle moved gingerly forward, scraping past the broken branches with their sharp green scent and into the center of the bush, a surprisingly large, mostly hollow space. She curled up against the far lacing of branches, giving Xena room to join her, though it was going to be a tight squeeze for both of them.
"Good thing we're close friends, huh?" The bard remarked wanly, as the space next to her was filled with warm, drenched warrior. The branches overhead were definitely not waterproof, and the place was leaking like a sieve, but at least the fury of the storm was being kept at bay. Gabrielle could feel the winds rising, and tugging at the branches, but inside it was relatively calm.
And full of dirt, and sweat, and the two of them, and all their gear.
Xena settled down and let out a disgusted sigh, then removed her cloak from her pack and started fashioning at least a partial roof to their lair. It took her a few minutes, but at last she sat back, satisfied for the moment there was nothing more she could do.
Gabrielle reflected that life certainly was a series of contrasts. She regarded her companion thoughtfully, Xena's sharp profile outlined as a series of lightning flashes lit up their hiding spot. The warrior was drenched, and her skin was smeared with mud and dirt, which also caked her boots liberally. As the bard watched, she lifted a filthy hand and scrubbed her hair with it, glaring as the wind blew in a wash of rain through the side of the hedge.
"Ah." Gabrielle had to smile. "The romance of the road… gotta love it." She leaned her head against one of Xena's muddy shoulders and closed her eyes, laughing just a little.
Xena cleared her throat lightly. "What's so funny?" She asked, as the thunder almost obscured her voice. "We're dripping wet and covered in muck inside a bush in a thunderstorm, Gabrielle."
"True." The bard agreed. "But you know what?" She lifted her head and met Xena's eyes, pale flashes in the semi darkness .
"The 'we' makes it okay." Gabrielle said. "You know something else?"
A smile appeared, despite the circumstances. "No, what?"
Gabrielle slid an arm around her partner's neck and drew her head down, kissing her gently but throughly on the lips. "You're really cute when you're covered in muck and drenched." She said, as a warm hand brushed her cheek. "I love you."
Xena leaned over and returned the kiss, then rested her forehead against Gabrielle's. "I love you, too."
They gazed into each other's eyes, letting the storm roll violently overhead. Finally, Gabrielle glanced around their rude little nest. "It's a good thing Dori's not here." She remarked wryly. "We'll just have to tell her about it when she's older."
Xena kissed her again. "Okay." She traced a bit of mud across Gabrielle's cheek. "Maybe we could leave out a few details."
A smile started to tug at the bard's lips. "Maybe." She tilted her head and let the discomfort fade, finding a nugget of quiet joy inside the maelstrom whirling around them Well, she reasoned. She had called it the romance of the road, now hadn't she?
Xena prided herself, really, in having achieved a mastery of her physical body to the extent that she could, when needed, block out almost any discomfort.
A blue eye opened and regarded it's surroundings dourly.
Sleeping in full armor, inside a bush, in a mud puddle, with branches sticking into her back and sides and a slug on her arm was really asking a bit much of even her. She lifted a hand and removed the slug, tossing it into the underbrush then wiping her fingers on her damp cloak.
It was still raining outside, which explained the puddle she was sitting in, though the thunder seemed to have tapered off now, here in the quiet hours just after what she calculated was midnight.
And it wasn't like she could move, either, since Gabrielle was curled up against her sound asleep, the bard having little or none of the difficulties her partner was in ignoring her surroundings. Of course Gabrielle, unlike Xena, was not having to deal with prickly branches, only the slightly rough surface of Xena's leather covered body she was using as a pillow.
Just like in the old days. Xena smiled slightly, her night adjusted vision taking in Gabrielle's dimly seen features. At least, after they'd gotten to know each other, that is. If she cast her mind back, she could just barely remember before that, to the awkward shyness that had characterized their first days together.
In her sleep, Gabrielle shifted, her brows contracting slightly as she got caught up in a dream, tiny twitches tensing the muscles in her face, pulling her lips up in grin that betrayed the images she was seeing as happy ones.
Xena watched contentedly, nodding once or twice to herself. Good dreams. That's what she wanted for Gabrielle. The past year had given back to her partner some of the youthful wonder their travels had stolen from her, and restored to her a sense of vivid curiosity at the world that Xena had thought might be gone forever.
She'd actually asked one of 'those' questions the other day, in fact. "Xena, why are horses so fast?" Gabrielle had inquired, after they'd spent some time watching the Amphipolis stud herd race around in it's paddock. "Look at them. Other animals, like the cows, they run when they have to, but not horses. They run because they love to, don't they?"
"It's their nature." Xena had responded. "Yeah, they love it."
"Yeah." Gabrielle had chewed a stalk of grass as she watched. "That's so cool."
Xena tilted her head, moving to get away from some of the more prickly branches, and resettled her shoulders with a sigh, wondering if she could manage to get a little bit more sleep. The patter of rain against the makeshift roof was soothing, but it was hard to ignore the rest of the discomforts now that she was fully awake.
One good thing, at least. She didn't have to worry about raiders tonight. Not even the scruffiest back alley starvelings would be out here in the badlands in the rain searching the center of bushes.
A rustle, and her eyes darted to her right, searching the patterns of meager light and shadows. Was it just wind?
Her nostrils twitched and extended, sucking in a lungful of the wet air, detecting and discarding the green scent of the leaves, and the damp earth… ah. An animal, nearby. Xena listened intently as a soft rustle came to her again. The wind shifted slightly, and now she could smell it, a heavy, musky scent she didn't really recognize.
Her senses pinpointed the location, though, and she stared at the spot, willing the dimness to resolve into the shape of the creature. The rustling stopped, and Xena had the distinct feeling she was being watched. Her heartbeat picked up and she felt any thoughts of sleep fall away. Her fingers curled quietly around the chakram as she waited.
More rustling. Xena was concentrating so hard, the sudden warmth of Gabrielle's fingers curling around her hand almost make her levitate thorough the hedge. Only a quick clamping of her jaw kept a yelp from emitting, and she glanced quickly down to see a pair of glistening eyes peering up at her. They widened slightly, and the brows over them lifted in question. Xena cocked her head. Gabrielle nodded in understanding and very slowly turned over, her body tensing with anticipation.
They both froze as a louder rustle indicated the animal was moving closer, then Xena lifted her other hand, cocking her wrist just a little as the muscles in her arm tensed as they took on the weight of the chakram.
Gabrielle got her knees under her and lifted her body off her soulmate’s, one hand sliding out to curl it’s fingers around the long, well used staff she’d tucked near the edge of the bush.
The leaves trembled. Xena’s body stiffened. For a long second, everything held it’s breath.
Then, with a thump, the intruder broke through into the center and shook itself, stopping in shock when it saw what was waiting for it.
There was a second’s utter silence.
"Good grief." Gabrielle finally spluttered. "What is THAT?"
Xena sighed, and released her tense body, letting the chakram come to rest on her thigh. "That’s a badger."
The animal stared at her, then decided sharing space wasn’t in his best interests and bolted, scurrying out through the hole Xena had made earlier.
Gabrielle watched it leave, then she turned slowly and put her hands on her hips. "THAT is a badger? The animal you always say I remind you of???"
Oh boy. "That’s not what I said." Xena shook her head.
"Yes, it is." Gabrielle pointed after it. "You always say I look like that thing." She glared at her soulmate. "Xena, that is the ugliest animal I’ve ever seen!"
"Don’t you Gabrielle me." The bard actually sounded close to tears. "How would you like it if I said you looked just like a warthog?"
The warrior glanced down at herself, then back up at her angry partner. "I’d say that was a damn accurate observation, sweetheart." She remarked mildly. "But I never said you looked like a badger."
"I just said you walked like one."
"Oh, that’s just so much better." Gabrielle snapped. "That thing waddled like a duck, Xena!!!!" Tossing her staff aside in disgust, the bard got as far from the warrior as she could in the small space and started to rummage in their gear.
For a moment, Xena was bemused. Then a sudden, bleak memory erupted in her mind, and she felt a sting of fear grab her as she thought about how it had all started to go wrong the last time.
Just like this. Only it had been her snapping at everything Gabrielle said.
A thousand doubts took her over, and she straightened, her mind churning over hateful memories that had lead her straight to her own personal Tartarus.
No. Xena put the chakram down and ran a hand through her hair. No, I have to stop this now. She heard a virulent curse from the darkness and reached out in unconscious reflex. "Gabrielle?"
Unexpectedly, her call was answered as a compact body hit the muddy ground next to her making her flinch. "Listen, Gabrielle, I..mfof." Something covered her mouth and inserted something inside it, setting her reflexes almost into a panic mode.
Xena bit down as her jaw clenched in pure instinct, and she froze, unable to force her mind to reconcile the churning in her guts with the sweet taste in her mouth.
"Stupid… " Gabrielle was doing something with her hands. "I should have known the first time."
Xena heard the sound of water gurgling. She turned her head, able through the shadows to see her soulmate put the waterskin down and swirl liquid in one of their traveling cups, before she grimaced and swallowed the contents. "Ugh. Gods. That sucks."
There was a momentary, awkward silence before the bard turned her head and regarded her partner. "Sorry. I should have realized when I went off on you earlier. I’m a couple days early."
Couple days… wh… Then, finally, Xena put the taste of raspberries, the cup, and Gabrielle’s temper together, and almost passed out from pure relief. "Oh." She muttered. "No problem." She lifted a shaking hand and rested her head on it, the panic dissolving out of her and leaving a trembling peace behind it.
Gabrielle leaned a little closer. "You okay?"
The bard put her cup down and rested a hand on her shoulder. "What’s wrong?" She got close enough to see her partner’s face, and the solitary tear tracking it’s way down her cheek. "Xena?" Gabrielle’s voice dropped to a gentleness she seldom used. "Honey, I didn’t mean it.. you don’t really look like a warthog. I was just really out of it there."
A faint smile crossed the warrior’s face. "It’s okay." She replied. "It just… " Xena hesitated. "Stirred up some bad memories.. made me realize how you must have felt when I kept doing that to you.. for no reason."
Gabrielle went very still, only her eyes moved as she let the words sink in, and realized what Xena meant. Her gaze softened, and she exhaled in a long sigh.
"I think the rain’s overstressing my imagination." Xena went on, with a deprecating chuckle, casually wiping the back of her hand across her eyes as she straightened up, resting her elbows on her knees and assuming a more normal attitude. "Or maybe it was waking up with a slug on me. You know how much I hate that."
"Yeah, I know." Gabrielle answered softly.
They looked at each other. The bard linked their arms and leaned against her, regardless of sweat and mud. "Well, it could be worse." She allowed a grin to cross her face. "You could have compared me to a goat."
"Nah." Xena smiled, the relief almost making her sleepy.
"Naaaaahhhhh." The bard repeated, making a stuttering, goatlike sound, nudging her until she felt the muscles in the warrior’s shoulders and back relax. "Besides… you know when I get mad, that’s not how I show it." She reminded Xena.
That was true. Gabrielle held it inside until it boiled over. "Yeah, I know that." Xena smiled. "Just my mind going sideways for a second, that’s all.. they say that’s what happens to ya when you get old."
The green eyes rolled. "Oh, gods… not again." Gabrielle lifted a lock of her pale hair and addressed the shadowed warrior. "Which one of us has gray? Hmm?"
"You don’t have gray hair." Xena stated.
"Yes, I do." Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled. "Just because it’s very light gray, doesn’t count. It’s still gray, and we both know it." She reached up and tugged a bit of the dark, damp hair laying along her partner’s shoulders. "Haven’t found your first one yet."
"Yet." An old, familiar, comfortable argument. Xena realized what the bard was doing, and couldn’t find it in herself to object. "I’ll probably get all mine at once.. wake up one morning looking like a damn skunk." She pointed at the bard’s head. "And you do not have gray hair, you little punk. It’s blond."
"It’s gray, I’m sure of it." Gabrielle grinned, though, a sudden mischievous look that belied all her pretensions. "With all the worrying I do about you, and our daughter, it should be white as a ducks butt."
That got a laugh out of Xena, finally, which was what the bard was after. Gabrielle extended her legs in front of her, and patted her lap. "C’mon… I slept on you all night.. your turn for a nap."
Normally, she wouldn’t have even considered it. The surge of emotion, though, had left her wrung out, and she squirmed around and curled up on her side, ignoring the squelching mud under her as she rested her head in the bard’s lap, feeling strong fingers tangle themselves immediately in her hair, gently rubbing her scalp. She surrendered to the touch, exhaling as she felt the muscles under her cheek shift a bit. Her eyes drifted shut, and she curled one hand around Gabrielle’s knee, running the edge of her thumb over the tiny scar there absently.
Gabrielle kept up the gentle stroking until she could feel Xena's body start to really relax. She watched the warrior's breathing even out, and spent a few moments simply looking at her mud spattered, grubby, sweaty yet intrinsically gorgeous partner.
Then she exhaled, and wished the raspberry infusion would start working and untie her now knotted guts, belatedly realizing it was her imminent cycling that had set her on edge all day, and made her parting with Dori so full of angst.
Poor Xena. The bard looked down in silent apology. Usually she knew, sometimes before Gabrielle did that her time was close, but they'd been so busy this week….and with the excitement of the tax men, it had slipped both of their minds.
And, of course, it had to happen while she was here of all places. Gabrielle spared a wry glance for her surroundings. Well, maybe tomorrow would be better
Abruptly thunder rolled, and the rain started coming down again in torrents.
Gabrielle released a truly heartfelt sigh as a draft of cold rain hit her in the back of the neck.
"Hey, Gab?" Xena murmured.
"Mm?" The bard tucked a corner of her cloak over Xena's curled up body.
"Look at it this way. No way in Hades this trip could get any worse than this."
The warrior turned her head and looked up. "Yeah?"
For once, Gabrielle was glad of being on horseback. She leaned over the front of the saddle, taking the weight off her back and stifled a groan as a spasm worked it’s painful way through her gut.
It was still raining. They’d found Argo and Iolaus sheltered nearby, and Xena had concluded it would be better if they pushed on to the nearest village rather than tried to find another insufficient place to hole up in.
Part of her certainly agreed with that, since she’d only just gotten the mud stains off most of her body utilizing the clean rain that was drenching both of them. The other part of her, unfortunately, wanted nothing more than to curl up in a ball and remain still, even a second dose of raspberry leaves doing little to ease the cramps.
She kept her complaints to herself, though, knowing Xena did, actually sympathize with her. The warrior didn’t have regular cycles, but when she did, it was always bad and had in fact been just the month prior when they’d timed it together. For someone who could stand pain like few others Gabrielle had ever known, Xena didn’t take cycling well at all. She treated it halfway between embarrassing and infuriating and acted like a cornered weasel, all snappish and irritated.
However, this time Gabrielle had discovered something that worked on her surly friend and she’d made a note to see if she could get hold of more of the sweet, rich fruit wine that had soothed the warrior’s frazzled nerves without being strong enough to get her even mildly tipsy.
Ow. The bard winced, and bit the inside of her lip. Maybe it would work on her too. She tugged her cloak closer around her and tried to ignore the ceaseless pounding of the rain, which plastered her fair hair down and darkened Iolaus’ pale coat to almost bay.
"How’re you doing?" Xena’s voice made her almost jump, and she lifted her head to see the warrior now almost knee to knee with her.
Gabrielle sighed. "Bck." She commented, imitating their daughter. "No good, Boo."
Xena’s eyes twinkled gently in reaction. "You look miserable." The warrior said. "Another hour or two and we should be up to Ethos, though. We can stay overnight there."
"It’s only lunchtime." The bard protested.
"The next town’s a day and a half out. You want a hot bath and a dry bed, or not?" Xena asked, in a reasonable tone.
Another sigh. "I’m trying to be responsible. We’ve got a job to do in Athens."
Xena stood in her stirrups and viewed the sodden countryside. "Athen’s has stood for hundreds of years. It’ll last a couple more days." She said. "Besides, we’ve got a month before they’re expecting their blood money… plenty of time to get there." She looked over at Gabrielle. "And you’re making my back hurt just watching you, so we’re stopping, got me?"
The bard waited for a spasm to ease, the let up on biting her lip to answer. "Okay." She nodded. "You know, that was one of the nicest things about being pregnant with Dori. No cycles."
Xena considered the statement. "Yeah." She said. "Has to be some kinda trade off, doesn’t it?"
Another nod. "Yes. Makes me want to give that another go." Gabrielle chuckled wearily. "Another hour, huh? Can we ride faster? Maybe that’ll take my mind off my guts." She glanced over at Xena, surprised by the expression on her face. "No? Oh, right.. riding in this weather when we can’t see the road clearly is a bad idea.. sorry. Forgot about that.. it’s been a while."
They rode together in silence for a few moments. "Would you?" Xena finally asked quietly.
"Would I what?" Gabrielle answered, a little confused.
"Want another child?"
"Sure." Gabrielle answered easily. "I’d love one." She watched Xena’s expression with pleasure. "The only catch is, I only want yours, so if you can figure out how we did it the last time, and do it again, I’m all for it."
The rain plastered Xena’s dark hair over her head, as she gazed forward between Argo’s knees, the muscles moving repeatedly along her cheek and in her throat.
Gabrielle smiled and gazed at Iolaus’ neck, moving some of the drenched hair from one side to the other. "Knocked you for a loop, didn’t I?" She listened to the fabric and leather shift as Xena fidgeted in Argo’s saddle next to her.
"Yeah." The warrior finally admitted, clearing her throat as her voice broke a little on the word. "I know you love Dori, but I didn’t think… I guess I just didn’t think."
Gabrielle chuckled a little. "That’s okay, honey. I didn’t think I was much for maternity myself to be honest… but you know what? I’m really starting to get into it. I like being Dori’s mom." She peeked at her partner. "And I know you do. You’re so good at it."
Blue eyes met hers. "Did that surprise you?"
"No." The bard shook her head. "Not at all.. I knew you would be.. I was glad, because I knew one of us had to have that skill, and I knew you did, so if I totally fell down on the job, it’d still be okay."
"How did you.."
"You took care of me." Gabrielle correctly interpreted the question. "You taught me, and watched out for me, and made me the person I am. Of course I knew, Xena. I knew you could be this child’s mother even if I totally tanked at it." She reached over and curled her hand around her soulmate’s. "Even if it didn’t seem that way to you at the start."
Xena looked… it was an odd cross between flattered and a little puzzled. "Thanks." She finally looked over and smiled, returning the warm grip on her hand. "I’ll…um… " A slow nod. "Have a talk with Jessan when we get back." She said. "He might have some idea of how we did it."
Gabrielle glanced up as a renewed blast of thunder shook the air. "Great." She gave Xena a wry look. "Now can we ride faster?"
Ethos was a small village, about the size Amphipolis had been before the war, in fact. Xena guided Argo’s paces through the muddy streets of the mostly deserted streets, the few residents she did see hurrying along to get out of the downpour.
They stopped in front of what was obviously the inn, a sign with a rooster outside waved in the gusts of wind, slamming against the pole that supported it. Xena kicked her boots free of Argo’s stirrups and swung her leg over the mare’s neck, sliding down to land in a moderate sized puddle. She ducked around the horse to grab hold of Iolaus’ reins, and extend a hand out to steady Gabrielle as she got down. "Easy."
"Ugh." Gabrielle hung onto the saddle and slowly stretched her aching back out. It was actually a bit later than they’d figured, as they’d had to find shelter a few times from the blasts of lightning that lit up the sky, and it was near sundown. The bard was hoping for, at best, a bed and a bowl of soup, and at worst, a bit of straw in the corner of the stable and her trail rations. She didn’t really care, just so long as it was quiet, dry, and she could lay down. The cramps had gotten worse throughout the day, and now she’d progressed from being annoyed to being truly miserable. She let her head rest against Iolaus’ side for a moment, and sighed. "You’d better negotiate for the room, tiger, and let me take the horses. The way I feel, I"ll get us both thrown out of here."
"All right." Xena patted her back, and shouldered her saddlebag. "Gwan over to the stable… I’ll get us squared away, then come get you."
"Right." Gabrielle straightened and took Argo’s reins, then started slogging through the mud towards the stable with the two horses trailing behind her.
Xena watched them for a moment, then turned and made her way to the inn’s door, pushing it open and slipping inside. The room was mostly full, townsfolk and travelers crammed together at trestle tables, a couple of serving wenches threading between them carryiny bowls of something that smelled like soup and platters of roast meat. Xena let her eyes flick around the room quickly, not identifying anyone she knew, before she made her way down a small hallway to where a somewhat uneven stairwell lead up to a darkened second floor.
At a table near the back of the stairs, an older man sat, sipping at a mug and watching her. Xena set her saddlebags down on the wood floor and straightened, cocking her head and regarding him. "Got a room?"
The man, dressed in a worn tunic and leather breeches, regarded her with stolid seriousness. "Got coin?"
Xena held up a small bag and shook it, producing a muted jingle.
"One?" The man asked. Xena held up two fingers. "Bed’sr small."
"No problem." Xena almost smiled. "Stabling and feed for two horses, too."
"Four dinars. In advance." The man held a hand out. "You break anything, you pay double."
Being treated like a common traveler was interesting. Xena opened her pouch and removed four coins, then swept her cloak back to return it to it’s place on her belt. That exposed her armor and weapons, and she was quick enough to see the sharp reaction on the innkeeper’s face before she turned and handed him the money. "No problem. We’re just looking for a dry place to sleep."
The man fingered the coins, watching her warily. Then he glanced at his hand, examining the dinars in the dim light, bending close to see the stamp on the reverse. His eyes lifted, regarding her with a touch more respect. "Amphipolis, eh? Been there lately?"
"Just come from. I live there." Xena told him. "Got a problem with that?"
"Nope." The man pocketed the coins with a good deal more cheerfulness. "Sure beats the highbrow scum we had through here t’other day up from Athens. Didn’t bother to pay, even." He pointed up the stairs. "Last one, on the top. Dinner’s up till a candlemark after dark and included. After that, you pay separate."
Xena nodded. "Thanks." She lifted the bags and glanced towards the rear of the inn. "Door out to the stables?"
Xena edged down the hallway, passing one of the servers as she did so. The woman gave her a tired smile, then continued on towards the main room as Xena found the back door and eased back outside into the rain, almost colliding with Gabrielle who was coming in the other direction. "Hey."
"Hey." The bard looked exhausted. "They actually had nice stableboys, and I felt safe leaving the kids with them." She slung her own saddlebag over her shoulder. "Please tell me we’ve got a room."
"We’ve got a room." The warrior turned and held the door open, following Gabrielle inside. "And what smells like something decent for dinner."
"Pass." Gabrielle murmured, as they reached the stairs and started up. She glanced down to see the innkeeper watching her with curious interest, and dredged up a smile for him, which he returned. "Gods, Xe.. I haven’t felt like this in years." She felt a comforting hand rest on her shoulder. "I think I’m going to throw up."
"Let’s get upstairs." The warrior replied, in a low voice. "I’ve got something that might help, but it’ll knock you out."
"Perfect." Gabrielle sighed. "I’ll take it."
The room was small, but acceptably clean. It had one wooden window, now firmly closed on the far wall, and a bed that just might possibly hold both of them in the center. To one side, a small table held a basin and pitcher, and some strips of clean linen. The walls were bare, and so was the floor, but it had been swept recently, and was blessedly, wonderfully dry. Gabrielle exhaled in relief as she set her bag down, and just stood, glad to be out of the rain at last. "Know what this reminds me of?"
Xena had stripped off her cloak and hung in over a nail pounded in the wall, then walked over to remove the bard’s as well. "That time we got caught in the spring floods in Thrace?"
"Ugh. Yeah." Gabrielle snorted, as she untied the laces at her throat, and felt Xena lift the heavy, sodden fabric off her. Then she trudged over to the plain chair near the wall and sat down on it, leaning her elbows on her knees as another spasm hit. "Gods."
Xena pulled of her left bracer and let it drop on the armor pile she’d created, then she walked to the table with her smaller bag and set it down, rooting inside it and pulling out her healer’s kit. "Give me a minute." She muttered, sorting through the herbs with careful fingers. Selecting three, she put them in the small mortar she carried for this purpose, and crushed them into almost a powder, then poured them into one of their traveling cups. A light sniff, and she bypassed the water in the pitcher and rooted out a small wineskin from her bag, unstopping it and pouring a cupful over the herbs.
"Uh oh." Gabrielle had been watching from her seat. "I can just imagine what that tastes like if you have to put that fig wine over it."
Xena smiled, unseen because her back was turned. "I could just be making it pleasant for you to take." She commented. "Well, which do you want, this, or your stomach ache?"
Gabrielle pushed herself to her feet and came over. "What a choice." She rested her cheek against Xena’s shoulder. "This place hasn’t changed much since the last time we came through here."
"Mhm." Xena finished mixing her concoction, and handed it over. "Bottom’s up, my friend." She pushed Gabrielle’s very disheveled hair back from her eyes, frowning a little at the visible shadows under them, and the pallor under her normal healthy tan. She laid her palm against the bard’s forehead, and grimaced, as she confirmed her suspicions. "Little more than cycling, love."
Gabrielle quietly sipped the tisane, ignoring the bitter undertaste of the herbs in the sweet, rich liquid. "Fever?"
"Yeah." Xena agreed. "Maybe you picked up a bug or something along with it."
"Maybe." Gabrielle drained her cup, then handed it over. "How soon will this stuff…" Her knees buckled, and she slumped into Xena’s waiting arms, as a wave of lethargy swamped her. "Buh…"
"On an empty stomach?" Xena lifted her in her arms and carried her over to the bed, laying her down and taking a seat next to her as she removed the bard’s damp clothing. "Oh, I’d say not long."
"Ya coulda warned me." Gabrielle mumbled, her eyes closed. "Wow."
Xena chuckled. "Feel better?" She finished undressing the compliant woman and moved down to strip off her boots.
Xena rose and retrieved one of the thick sleeping furs they carried, and shook it out, having kept it dry inside the larger of their saddlebags. She settled it’s folds over the slim figure on the bed and sat down again, brushing her fingers across the bard’s cheek. Mist green eyes fluttered open and regarded her sleepily, but with a look of quiet gratitude. "Thanks."
"Get some rest." Xena told her. "I’ll grab some dinner.. maybe you’ll feel more like it when you wake up." She watched Gabrielle nod, then roll onto her side as her eyes closed again. She pulled the furs up over the bard’s shoulder, and tucked the end in, then spent a few moments simply sitting beside her as Gabrielle fell asleep.
Then she got up and wandered over to the window, opening the wooden panel and peering out as she started to unfasten the shoulder straps on her leathers, preparing to change them for a dry set. Outside, the rain continued, but she could see through it’s mist a party of five or six men in front of the inn, talking to her friend the innkeeper.
They were armed, and boisterous, one reached out and gave the innkeeper a shove as she watched.
Xena’s fingers stopped moving, and she grinned, as she leaped lightly up onto the windowsill, and stepped off into the storm.
'I told you, there's no rooms." The innkeeper repeated, brushing the rough hands off his arm. "G'wan down to the blacksmith.. maybe he's got some space he can rent ya."
"Like Hades!" The leader of the men shot back, grabbing him by the front of the shirt. "I don't give a crap where you get em, but we're gonna take two of them rooms, and get out of this damn rain or you'll know what's what!"
"Hey!" The innkeeper struggled, but now two more of the men grabbed him, kicking and slapping at his chest. "Hey! Help!!!"
"Shut up, you pig!" The leader lifted his hand and aimed a slap at him, swinging his arm in a short, vicious arc toward the man's head. He got halfway there, then abruptly his motion stopped as his arm was grabbed by a powerful hand. "What the…"
"Not nice." A low voice told him. He turned his head to see a tall, dark haired woman standing in the rain at his side, dressed in dark leather armor and little else. "The man said, there's no room at the inn, so beat it."
The ruffian ripped his arm loose, or tried to, surprised when the iron grip didn't budge an inch. "Let me go, you bitch!" He growled. "Or I'll knife your guts!" He held up his other hand, curled around a thick knife hilt.
Xena grinned at him, tossing her head to take the dark hair out of her eyes. "You can try, pig breath."
And so he did, swiveling towards her and jabbing swiftly at her kidneys, only to find himself lifted fair off his feet by a knee that caught him between the legs. A high pitched curse squeaked from his throat, and the rest of the brigands shook off their paralysis and attacked, leaping on the two combatants with wild yells.
Xena dodged the first of them, and ducked under a swinging pike as she dug her boots into the mud and took hold of a third, using her body weight to swing him around her and take out the fourth.
The rain helped, of course. They were bigger and clumsier than she was, and Xena wasn’t weighted down by supplies or weapons. She was all quicksilver motion and laughter, evading their grasp and using kicks and punches to disarm them.
"Bitch!" One of them grabbed her leathers.
"Ah ah.. " Xena slammed her elbow backwards and nailed him in the jaw. "Hands off the merchandise, boys." She laughed, as she grabbed hold of the man closest to her and lifted him up, hurling him across her body and dumping him into the overflowing water trough next to him. "You’re outta your league."
The slither of steel being drawn. Xena’s instincts warned her even as the sound touched her ears and she ducked, sending the movement of a blade over her head with frightening speed. She turned and lashed out with a booted foot, the kick impacting against a heavy body and moving it backwards, accompanied by a cough. She wiped the back of her hand across her eyes to clear the rain from them, and straightened just in time to meet the man’s next swipe. Xena brought her hands up and half curled her hands into fists, dodging the clumsy sword blow and knocking it aside. She watched the man’s motions, then jabbed quickly in with her left hand, snapping his head back as her fist impacted his jaw. He stumbled backwards, and she whirled, sensing the motion behind her, sweeping her leg around and nailing the brigand leader in the throat and cutting of his wild yell mid sound.
He dropped, his hands scrabbling at his crushed windpipe.
Two of the men lurched to their feet, and stumbled away from her. A third lay in the mud, slowly getting covered with rivulets of water. The last one standing stared at her as she straightened, letting the rain course down her body. "Beat it." Xena repeated. "Or you’ll be eating that sword for lunch."
The man slowly backed off, then turned and ran, leaving his two injured comrades without a backwards glance. Xena watched him go, then idly rolled over one of her victims, who appeared only stunned. She left him and went to the brigand leader, crouching down and listening to his tortured breathing.
After a moment, wet footsteps approached and the innkeeper crouched down next to her, resting his elbows on his knees. "He worth fixing?"
Xena considered the point. "Maybe."
The innkeeper nodded. "Eldon… go get the healer." He ordered a young stableboy nearby, then stood.
Xena stood as well.
Their eyes met. The innkeeper smiled, and held a hand out. "You can only be Xena."
The warrior took his hand and returned the grip. "Think so, eh?" But she smiled.
"Oh yes." The man laughed. "I thought you were, when you got the room from me, and I saw the little one with you, but now, yes, now I’m sure of it." He exhaled. "My name is Geseral, and my brother fought with you against Andreas, Xena. By his description alone, I should have known you."
The warrior released his hand and ran her fingers through her rain drenched hair, shaking her head to clear it’s long length from her eyes. "Had much trouble of this kind?" She indicated the figures in the mud, her body tingling from the aftereffects of the fight. It wasn’t often anymore she got to scrap like this, and a very feral part of her had thoroughly enjoyed it.
"A little." The innkeeper lifted a hand as the healer arrived. "Jerre, see what you can do w’this one. Seems he didn’t want to take no for an answer."
The healer glanced at Xena’s tall form, then knelt next to the brigand leader, examining him in silence.
"Had enough of the weather, Xena?" The innkeeper asked. "Got some new ale in, and you’re welcome to it, on the house."
Xena noted the reaction of the healer, who looked up at her for a long moment before he went back to his work. She flexed her hands a little, then nodded. "Sure." She gestured. "I was about to come down and collect our dinner.. my partner’s a little under the um.. " Xena chuckled as the rain came down harder, drenching them. She held her hands out a little, cupping her palms. "Weather."
Geseral chuckled and lead the way through the front door of the inn, holding it open for Xena to follow him.
"Not many of that kind left around here." The innkeeper told her, as he walked with Xena into the main room. "Not since the war, at any rate. Once in a while, sure, but mostly they stay clear of these parts."
"We’ve seen the same." Xena agreed, glancing around the room at the other patrons. She was attracting attention now, eyes watching her curiously, and in some cases, with mildly flattering lechery. "It’s been quiet."
"Mm." The innkeeper agreed, leaning on the bar next to her, and indicating his barman to pour them both mugs of ale. "S’why we didn’t take to those Athenians coming round. Said they were headed up your way.. left a tax bill behind. Bastards."
Xena sipped from her mug. "We’re headed to Athens to negotiate that." She told him. "They’re asking for a lot."
"Too much." Geseral nodded. "Asking for ten percent of the harvest.. and worse, our boys for their damn army. What need of we for their army?" He slapped the bar top. "Did we see an arrow tip of theirs while Andreas rampaged? Not a damn one of them gave a brass dinar for us. Him we had to take care of ourselves… they’s the ones who owe us, if you ask me."
Xena nodded slowly.
"And thinking they’re better’n us." The man went on. "Stuck up little bastards.. said we weren’t nothing more than backwoods pig farmers, with no class, and less worth.. laughed at us, they did. Said we didn’t know more of culture than a brass hog."
"Mm." The warrior grunted.
"Told em about Amphipolis, we did.. about the new market there, and the new theatre.. they just laughed at us and called us bumpkins."
One dark eyebrow lifted.
"Said we’d never get more than illiterate tale tellers there."
Xena’s other eyebrow lifted. "We’ve already got better than that." She remarked. "But yeah, I didn’t like their attitude either." Her lips twitched. "That’s why we’re going out there.. see what we can do about changing it."
The innkeeper chuckled softly. "If anyone can, it’ll be you, Xena." He cleared his throat a little. "Speaking of culture… I don’t suppose… "
"Not tonight." Xena correctly interpreted the request. "If we’re still around tomorrow, though."
Xena made her way up the stairs a short while later, laden down with a pot of decently succulent lamb shanks nestled in noodles, a thick loaf of wheat bread and a pot of goats cheese to spread on it, and a flagon of cold ale that smelled almost as good as her mother’s.
She was still drenched, but the fight had jacked her spirits up, and she almost whistled as she ambled along the hallway and nudged open the door to their room. Once inside, she set the food and drink down, then walked over to the bed to study it’s occupant.
Gabrielle apparently hadn’t heard even a bit of the fight, her face completely relaxed in sleep. Xena felt a rueful smile tug at her lips, knowing her soulmate would be grumpy at missing the action, but glad she was getting the rest she needed to. She knelt, and laid a hand over the bard’s forehead, and the still figure stirred at her touch, not quite waking up, but aware at some level of Xena’s presence. "Shh." The warrior murmured softly. "It’s okay, sweetheart… I’m here. You’re okay."
Gabrielle mumbled something in her sleep, but reached out instinctively and found Xena’s arm, curling her fingers around it and pulling it close to her. "Need you." The whisper emerged, almost subvocally.
Xena reached over and smoothed the pale hair back. "Yeah, I need you too, honey." She whispered back. "Just hold on for a few minutes, and I’ll come back and keep you company, okay? Let me get this wet stuff off."
The grip on her arm tightened. "Xe."
With a sigh, the warrior sat down, and started removing her boots with her free hand, tugging the laces out and yanking the sodden leather off her feet, followed by the socks she wore under them. Then she got back up on to her knees and unfastened her leathers, still without removing her arm from the bard’s grip. It wasn’t easy, but then, sometimes life just wasn’t.
She got her leathers off over her head, then paused, regarding her damp skin ruefully. "Sweetheart, I love you, but you’re not going to love me if I get under those covers like this." She told her partner, regretfully easing her arm free of the bard’s grip. "Let me dry off, okay?" Xena got up and walked over to their bags, removing a piece of linen and running it over her body briskly, not seeing the sleepy green orbs watching her from under half open lids, or the faint, mischevious grin tugging at Gabrielle’s lips.
The fireplace held a stack of firewood, and she knelt beside it, using her flint and striker to get a small fire going, setting the pot of lamb above it to keep warm. Then she set out their things neatly, and turned, stopping short when she found herself face to face with a drowsy, if smirking bard. "Hey."
"Hey." Gabrielle replied, in a husky tone. "That stuff you gave me is great… it makes me dream of naked warrior princesses. Awesome."
Xena put her hands on her hips and smirked. "How long have you been awake?"
White teeth flashed as Gabrielle smiled. "Long enough to really enjoy the view. You’ve got a very cute butt, you know that?"
"Think so, huh?" Xena chuckled, and walked back over, gazing down at the bard with a complete lack of self consciousness. "How do you feel?"
A faint shrug. "Like I’ve been run over by a supply wagon." Gabrielle admitted softly. "My whole body aches."
The warrior knelt and felt her head again. "Yeah.. you’re warm." She sighed. "My stupidity for keeping us out there in this blasted weather." Xena watched the bard’s eyes blink closed. "Hungry?"
Gabrielle shook her head.
"Not even for lamb?" Xena persisted gently. "C’mon, Gab.. you haven’t eaten since yesterday."
Another head shake. "I’ll just chuck it back up." Gabrielle said. "Water would be okay, though."
Xena got up and went to their gear, retrieving the waterskin she always kept with it. She unstopped it and sniffed at the contents, then nodded and returned to the bed, sitting down on it and curling a hand around Gabrielle’s neck as she helped her sit up a little. "Here." She supported the bard while she sucked on the water, listening to the soft, gulping noises as Gabrielle swallowed. "Good girl."
"Mm." Gabrielle smiled a little, and put her head back down. "Am I?"
"Absolutely." Xena assured her. "In a little while, I’ve got something else I can give you for fever, all right?"
"Know what I think?" Gabrielle ran her fingers over the strong hands still resting on her shoulders. "I think I’d feel much better if you’d just get under the covers with me."
"Is that a hint?"
"No, it’s a royal decree."
Xena chuckled softly. "All right, your majesty. Move over." She helped the bard slide over in the small bed and slid under the furs with her, carefully slipping her arms around Gabrielle’s warm body. "How’s that?"
Gabrielle repressed a shiver and huddled closer, craving the body heat and the skin on skin contact. She felt lousy, and while she appreciated the herbs, and the dry blankets, that all paled in comparison to Xena’s presence. "D’ja find out anything downstairs?" She murmured into the warrior’s ear.
"Athenians suck." Xena replied.
"We knew that already."
"Uh huh. We’re not the only ones." Xena murmured. "They’re not making friends in these parts."
"Guess we’ll have to go kick their butts." Gabrielle sighed. "Jerks."
Xena felt the bard’s body relax against hers, and she resigned herself to a long afternoon of napping, deciding to use the time to consider their options, and maybe plan their route. She regarded the pale head tucked against her shoulder, wondering how the bard’s illness might complicate things. Maybe it would just a be a short fever. Gabrielle hadn’t been coughing, and..Xena listened carefully to the light breathing. No, her lungs sounded clear, so maybe they’d get lucky this time.
"Did you say lamb?"
Xena grinned. Yeah, they’d get lucky this time.
Lightning lit up the town outside the window, but it's harsh silver flare didn't penetrate far into the warm candle and firelight inside. Gabrielle was curled up in bed, the furs tucked around her body but awake, one hand twirling a quill while she studied a page in her diary. On the small table nearby, a gently steaming mug rested, and after a moment, she put the quill down and picked the mug up, sipping it's contents carefully.
"Feeling any better?" Xena asked, from her spot near the fire. She was cleaning her armor, wiping each piece meticulously with a linen cloth. "Want more of that stuff for your gut?"
Gabrielle pondered that, still feeling a dull ache, a nagging cramping that was crawling up one of her few last nerves and preventing her from fully concentrating on her writing. "I do, and I don't." She told her partner. "I'd like these damn cramps to stop, but I don’t want to pass out again." The bard sipped from her cup. "I'll stick with the raspberry tea for now, thanks."
Xena nodded. "Okay." She was dressed in a simple shift, her leathers out to dry in the fire's cast off heat.
"Least my fever's gone." Gabrielle said. "Not sure what that was about."
They both looked up as a knock sounded on the door. Xena rose and set her armor down, then crossed the wooden floor and pulled the latch back, standing back as she pulled the door open. A middle aged man stood there, his cap in his hands, looking quite intimidated. "Yeah?" The warrior asked, glowering at him.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, and scratched the back of her ear with her quill. "Never changes." She murmured to herself.
"Um… pardon.. but.. I was looking for..um.. Xena?" The man said, timorously.
"Yeah?" Xena repeated, putting one hand on her hip. "What do you want?"
"Are you Xena?"
Xena just looked at him.
"Okay.. right." The man stepped inside, obviously not really sure where he should be looking, his choices being the disheveled and obviously bare shouldered bard in bed, or the gorgeous, but wild looking woman in her underwear. "I've uum… come to ask a favor."
"Yeah?" Xena walked over and poured herself a mug of ale, swirling it around before taking a sip. "What kind of favor?" She leaned against the wall, watching him with hooded eyes.
Gabrielle exhaled. "Xena, sit down." She scolded her soulmate, then turned her attention to their visitor. "Hi. What's your name?"
Gratefully, the man faced the bed. "Orestes." He watched Gabrielle exchange startled looks with Xena. "No, not that one. My mother had a very strange sense of humor."
"Ah." The bard smiled. "Okay, Orestes. My name is Gabrielle. What can we do for you?"
His reaction was very surprising. "You're Gabrielle?" He asked, focusing fascinated eyes on her. "You're the one I’m looking for, then." He glanced back at Xena. "They said you'd know where I could find her."
One dark brow lifted. "They were right." Xena commented, mildly intrigued. "Pretty easy guess, though, since we're married to each other."
Orestes blinked at her, then looked at Gabrielle, then scratched his head. "Well.. " He turned back to the bard. "I need your help."
Gabrielle folded her hands over the open pages of her diary and gazed at him. "Okay… if I can, sure. What's the problem?" She caught sight of Xena leaning forward to listen in her peripheral vision.
"It's this." Orestes said. "They said you were heading to Athens. Is that true?"
"Yes." The bard agreed.
"My cousin lives there…. Lived there.. we don't know. We can't find him."
Gabrielle blinked. "Um… okay. I’m really sorry to hear that, but what makes you think I can find him? Athens is a pretty big place."
"He knows you." Orestes said. "He talks about you all the time.. how you guys met, and all that.. an no one else cares about where he is."
"Uh huh." The bard said, encouragingly. "And.. his name is…?"
Gabrielle felt a sense of shock at the name, and she blinked back a flash of memories from what seemed like several lifetimes ago. "Homer. Wow. I haven't heard that name in a long time." She murmured. "Yes, I do know him… but… you said he's disappeared?"
Orestes fidgeted, then nodded. "He was supposed to have a reading, of his new play. We went to go see it, but.. when we got there, someone else was being read, and no one knew where Homer was. We're really scared for him…but they don't care!" He glanced down, a little embarrassed. "They just think we're a bunch of bumpkins."
Gabrielle nodded a little. "I remember Homer very well. He was a friend when he didn't have to be for me." She said. "Of course we'll try to find him." She stole a glance at Xena, but the warrior was merely polishing an armor bit, her expression quietly interested. "No one remembers the last time they saw him?"
Orestes shook his head sadly.
"All right. Just leave it to us." The bard told him. "When we get to Athens, we'll find him, or at least, find out where he went. Okay?"
Orestes looked at her with utter gratitude. "Thank you." He exhaled heavily. "Homer was right. He said you were the kind of person who would help people if you could."
Gabrielle gave him a brief smile. "I think he and I will have some interesting stories to trade when we find him." She allowed. "And we will."
"Thanks." The man smiled back at her, then glanced behind him, before he backed towards the door, giving Xena a nervous nod before he ducked out and closed the door.
Warrior and bard regarded each other quietly. "Wow." Gabrielle finally exhaled. "That was unexpected."
Xena walked over and sat down on the edge of the bed, her armor bit still in her hands. "Yeah." She agreed softly. "Guess we'll have to find him.. gotta meet this guy who was so nice to you." She looked up and gave the bard a warm smile. "Musta been exciting, that whole thing, huh?"
Gabrielle let her memories wander back to the last time she'd seen Homer, back to the days of a much younger iteration of herself. "Yeah." She murmured. "Being accepted to the academy… that was special. I never thought in a million years I'd…" She paused, and shook her head. "It was everything I'd dreamed of."
The warrior studied her hands.
"And yet, once it happened… I realized my dreams had changed." Gabrielle put her head down on the furs, gazing at the candle by her bedside. "It was so hard for Homer to understand that."
Xena set the armor down, and shifted, facing her partner. "It was hard for me to understand that. So I’m not surprised." She said. "I thought you'd stay."
The mist green eyes studied the candle, then lifted to search Xena's. "I know you did." She replied. "I tried to convince myself you wanted me to stay, but there was something… " Her lips twiched, and she reached out to cover Xena's hand with her own. "Y'know, that was the first time I think I realized you didn't hate my guts."
Xena spared a moment for that night when she'd left Gabrielle to what she thought was her future, remembering the unexpected, and to her, outrageous pain in her gut at leaving her new little friend behind.
She remembered sitting on a rock outside Athens, just listening to the silence. Angry with herself because she'd slipped, and let herself care a little, about this kid.
Angry because she'd realized she missed her, and might go on missing her.
"Mm?" Xena dismissed the memories, and focused on the present.
"We have to find him." Gabrielle rolled over onto her back. "Because I have to introduce the two of you. I think he always thought I was making you up."
Xena glanced down the length of her body, and spread her arms out. "You've got a good imagination, sweetheart, but that's stretching it, don't you think?"
Gabrielle just chuckled, and rolled back onto her side, curling her body up a little.
"Athens is a big place." Xena went on, a little more seriously. "What if he doesn't want to be found? Maybe he got cold feet.. took off before his stuff was going to be shown." She casually reached over and rubbed the bard's back, finding a knot at the base of her spine and working at it with strong fingers.
"Homer?" Gabrielle closed her eyes blissfully in relief as the massage eased her cramping. "No way. If there was attention, he wanted it." She opened one eye. "I mean that in the nicest way, but still.. he'd never have passed up a reading of his work."
"Hm." Xena considered that. "So we've got a mystery to solve along with some bureaucrats to tame. Gonna be an interesting trip."
"Mm." Gabrielle agreed. "Probably make for some great stories."
The warrior grinned silently.
The sun, creeping across the furs and hitting her in the face woke Gabrielle up the next morning. She opened one resentful sea green eye and peered at the window, then calculated the time and rotated the eyeball up in surprise to study the somnolent body still curled up against hers in bed.
It was late. Really late. Even after all this time, getting Xena to sleep in was always a struggle for her. The warrior woke like clockwork before dawn, and was a very restless, light sleeper. Gabrielle had given up trying to coax her into staying in bed later than sunrise, and she'd just reconciled herself to meeting the warrior for breakfast after Xena had gotten her morning run or indoor drills out of her system.
So, seeing her partner sound asleep here, in a strange inn, long after dawn shocked her. Anxiously, she studied Xena's face, searching for signs of illness.
No, the tan skin seemed to have it's normal healthy tint, and the warrior seemed to be sleeping comfortably, her body relaxed under the light fur. No sign of sickness, no rasp to her breathing… Gabrielle gently felt the skin of the arm curled around her. No hint of fever.
She felt a lot better herself, for that matter. The cramps were gone, and her head felt clear. The fever she'd been shivering with was gone too. Gabrielle put her head down, and thought about something Elaini had told her, way back when.
Years ago, when she and Xena had first visited the forest dwellers, and Xena had been trapped under a rockslide, almost ending her life. The forest dwellers had encouraged Gabrielle to sleep with her injured soulmate, intimating somehow that it would help Xena to heal.
"Morning." Xena's voice interrupted her thoughts.
"Hey, sleepyhead." Gabrielle murmured, rubbing her hand over the warrior's belly. "Kinda late."
"Uh huh." Xena agreed, taking a snugger hold around Gabrielle's body. "Got a problem with that?"
"Nnoo…" Gabrielle replied. "It's just not like you, when we're on the road." She paused. "Or at home, for that matter." She felt Xena exhale. "Not that I mind."
"I was tired." Xena answered. "It's nice to be out here on our own, doing what we want, when we want. I decided staying in bed was a good idea."
Gabrielle glanced up. "Okay, honey." She replied mildly. "I’m not complaining… I feel a lot better for it, and you know I love sleeping late." But she thought about Xena's remark, and wondered, just a little.
"Mmph." The warrior grunted contentedly.
The bard smiled to herself, then frowned, as she spotted a bruise on Xena's chest, just in the center of her breastbone. "Hey, sweetie?"
"Where'd you get this?" Gabrielle traced the bruise, which looked very fresh. "I wasn't fevered enough to hit you last night, was I?" The surface under her fingers moved as Xena took a breath, then released it, and she was momentarily distracted by the interesting pattern of sunlight that burnished her partner's skin and the soft, fine hairs on it.
"Ah… " Xena mumbled. "Just some guys making trouble last night. Had to kick their butts."
The bard's brow creased. "When was this? I don't remember that happening."
"You were sleeping."
"They were in here?"
"Nu uh. Outside."
"I thought you just went downstairs to get dinner."
"Took a detour."
Gabrielle peered over Xena's side. "Through the window?" She glanced up to see the warrior nod sleepily. "Hm." The bard eyed the bruise, then did a quick visual check for more, sliding her hand up across her partner's neck and running her fingers lightly through the dark hair as she felt for telltale lumps or bumps.
"Mm." Xena's lips quirked. "I should find scum to bash more often, if it gets me this kind of attention."
Gabrielle paused, and just looked at her, stung a little by the comment. Was Xena saying she didn't pay attention to her? That wasn't true, was it? She paid attention to her all the time, didn't she? Her brows knit. Of course, it wasn't like they'd done anything lately at home for her to have to worry about that kind of thing, but…
Slowly, Gabrielle tilted her head back and studied Xena's face.
'Hey, wasn't that great, Xena?" Gabrielle had skipped alongside her dour companion. "Didja see those guys faces? They were so glad to see you! Wasn't that great?"
Xena had glanced at her, consternation and bewilderment clear on her face. "What are you talking about? We just moved a damn wagon, Gabrielle."
"Well, sure.. but we didn't have to, right?" Gabrielle had argued. "We could have just kept walking, or gone the other way, or even just sat there and laughed at them. But you'd never do that, right?"
Blue eyes had studied her with evident pity. "Sure I would have."
"No way." Gabrielle had shaken her head positively. "You do good stuff now, and everyone knows it Didn't you hear them thank you?"
A shout behind them had brought them up short. Xena had put a hand on her sword, and turned, by instinct putting her body between Gabrielle and whatever was coming towards them.
But it just had been the wagoneer, jogging up and panting, a packet in his hands. "Hey.. wouldja.. I mean, we just wanted to say thanks. You saved our load, and that's all we had this season. Here."
He'd shoved the packet into Xena's hands before she could protest, and backed off, then turned and left.
"See?" Gabrielle had grinned in triumph. "Doesn’t' that feel great?"
Xena had stared at the packet, then at the retreating man. Then her eyes had turned to her young companion, reflecting a look of surprised realization. "Yeah." A faint smile had crossed the warrior's face. "Ya know, it does."
Gabrielle pressed her cheek against Xena's shoulder, listening to the powerful heartbeat, and thinking about all the facets that made up her very complex partner. "Glad you found some trouble to get into.. save some for me next time, okay?" She commented lightly.
"You snooze, you lose." Xena chuckled, giving her a friendly scratch on the back. "Wasn't that much.. just some losers pushing the innkeeper around. Just knocked em around a little."
The bard nodded to herself, and traced light circles with her fingertips, listening to the heartbeat under her ear slow as she did so.
"Thought you said it was late." Xena murmured.
"Nah.. not that late." Gabrielle eyed the window. "Just after dawn…it’s just late for you. It’s early for everyone else but the chickens." She felt the light line of a scar under her touch, and cast her mind back, trying to remember it’s source. A moment, then a smile appeared. Ah. Yes, I remember that cut. She’d sewn it up, as a matter of fact. Nice, neat tiny stitches in an old barn somewhere down south. "At least the weather cleared up."
Xena made a small noise of assent, then sighed. "Guess we’d better get going then."
"Guess we’d better." Gabrielle agreed, continuing her gentle patterns. "You know something, tiger?"
A fingertip tickled her ear. "What?"
"We’re out here, we’re on a long road to Athens… maybe it’d be nice if we sorta helped some people out on the way.. like we used to." Gabrielle tilted her head back a little. "What do you think?"
A tiny, charmed smile appeared on Xena’s face. "Now that’s an interesting idea."
"Yeah?" Gabrielle grinned back. "I thought so… just sort of get back to basics, that kind of thing." She paused, watching the sparkle grow in her partner’s eyes. "Maybe even get into some trouble."
One brow elevated "With you, that’s afoff…"
"Ah ah." Gabrielle scolded her. "Don’t you start that, Ms. I never cause trouble Warrior Princess."
Xena eased up on an elbow and stretched her body out, uncoiling herself from Gabrielle’s embrace then curling up around her again. She wrapped her arms around the bard’s shoulders and rolled over, pulling Gabrielle with her as the bard started giggling. "Grrrrrrrr….."
Gabrielle was delighted with the playfulness. She tickled the skin within her reach, as she was rocked back and forth in a tangle of arms and legs and bare skin sliding over bare skin. "Oo.. I’m going to get you… "
"You wish." Xena trapped her arms and legs, holding her wriggling body still. "Hey, Gab?"
The bard rested her chin on her partner’s collarbone, and gently licked her pulse point. "Yum?"
Gabrielle crawled forward and looked down at her. "For what?"
Xena smiled. "Just thanks."
Their eyes searched each other. "You're not going to tell me what I did?" Gabrielle asked, lightly. "I'd like to do it again."
Gabrielle sighed. "Okay… c'mon. Let's go find some breakfast.. I'm starving."
Xena chuckled. "Now that sounds like old times."
Continued in Part 3