A Matter of Pride
The road widened slowly as they rode along it, not an obvious thing, but a gradual creep as the cleared surface ate up more space to either side of them. The horses ambled forward together side by side, heads bobbling lightly; close enough so that their rider’s calves almost brushed each other.
It was midday, and the sun arced directly overhead in a cloudless sky, pouring down a drying heat on everything. Xena spared it a glance, then cocked her head to listen to Gabrielle’s latest version of one of their tales. "How many?" She interrupted the recitation.
Green eyes flicked briefly towards her. "Five hundred."
"Gabrielle." The warrior gave her a dire look. "There were not five hundred people in that army."
"Sure there were." The bard objected. "Besides, it’s a nice round number." She went on. "So there Xena was, holding the gates of the city against the army of five hundred crack mercenaries, aided only by a few loyal soldiers."
"And a herd of cows." Xena interjected.
The bard cleared her throat.
"And you." The warrior added. "There I was, holding the gates by myself like an idiot when my backside was saved by Gabrielle the battling bard of Potadeia, and a herd of cattle."
"C’mon, that’s how it happened and you know it." Xena chuckled.
"Xena, have I ever discussed dramatic license with you?" Gabrielle sighed.
"Ah. that’s where you lie to make me look better, right?" Her partner kidded her, giving the bard’s knee a poke.
"Hey, they’re not lies." Gabrielle protested. "They’re just... enhancements of the truth, that’s all. You know, a story isn’t always just about the events that’s in it. It can have a broader meaning.. like, the meaning of this story is really how you can find a hero in the unlikeliest places."
"So, if you get that message across, the details aren’t really that critical." Gabrielle concluded. "Though I do try to stick to the facts."
Xena’s eyebrows both arched up to her hairline.
"C’mon now, you know I do." Gabrielle said. "I only change little things, to make sure people understand the point of the story." She reached over and tugged on a strip of Xena's leather skirting. "You don’t really require much embellishment, tiger."
Xena crossed her wrists and let her arms rest on her saddlebow. "I think you make me more heroic than I am." She remarked.
"No I don't." Gabrielle disagreed amiably, responding to a very familiar argument. "You just never think of the things you do as heroic, that's all. "
The warrior mock sighed, and shook her head. "I dunno, Gabrielle…I just think of Dori hearing some of this stuff twenty years from now and wondering who in Hades they're talking about."
Gabrielle rolled her head to one side, and peered at her soulmate, an expression of amused exasperation on her face. "Xena."
"Yeeesss?" The warrior drawled. "Gabrrrielle."
"I wouldn't worry about it. By then, she'll be telling her own stories about you, and I bet my very last dinar they're gonna be so much more outrageous than mine are." The bard said. "Wonder what she's up to, speaking of. Think she's still mad at us?"
"Mm." Xena leaned on her elbows. "I’m sure mom's gotten her out of her funk by now... probably fed her half a barrel of cookies."
"Probably." Gabrielle wryly agreed, as she pulled her diary out of her saddlebag and balanced it on her saddlebow, drawing out a quill with it. "You think we'll hit Athens tomorrow?"
"If we keep moving, yeah." Xena spotted a sizable town approaching. They'd been seeing more and more of them, the closer they got to Athens, and the bustle and traffic had been increasing as well. "I think I can smell it already."
"Oh, you can not." Gabrielle bent over the page, then stopped, and peered at her. "Can you?"
Xena simply chuckled.
Today we crossed the border into what Xena calls the lived in area of Greece. I know the towns have been getting bigger, and we've seen more of them. Now, instead of long stretches of just nothing, the towns sort of reach out towards each other so that you go from one to the other with just a little gap in between.
I'm starting to remember the first time we came here, when I decided to apply for the Academy of Bards. Athens seemed so huge to me, and I'm wondering if it will look the same way now that I've seen so much of the world. Will it still impress me, or will it be like what Potadeia looked like when I went home after seeing all those cities overseas? Like Chin?
Everything was so beautiful there. I remember that now, but then, I think I all remember is the tension, and the misery of waiting for Xena to show up. I think I remember a lot of silk, and gorgeous tapestries, and so much color...so different than anything I'd seen before.
But I think of Xena in that dungeon, and no matter how beautiful Ming Tien's palace was, I always remember the smell, and the stench of that part of it, and how I came down those stairs and saw Xena.
Even now, I can feel tears forming, and my chest hurts, thinking about it. How horrible it was walking through that water and facing her, and how small I felt standing there knowing all I could do was apologize.
And I think about what a blessed gift it was, looking up at her and seeing forgiveness there. How unexpected. Xena told me later, a lot later after we'd gone through all the horrible times, and were friends again, that it was such an easy decision for her to make. I thought that was really incredible, because betrayal has always been such a pivotal thing in her life.
What would I have done? If I had done something, and she had prevented me from doing it, and gotten me tossed in a dungeon by one of my worst enemies and faced death like that.. would I have been that forgiving?
I hope so.
So here we are, heading to Athens again. I wonder if the Academy will still be the same? I wonder if anyone there will remember me. That's a funny thing to wonder about, isn't it? I mean, I know my stories are out there, and I know Xena had them added to the archives in Athens, but it's one thing for people around Amphipolis to know about them, and something else entirely in the capital.
Even the Amazons still, in their hearts, think of me as a bumpkin. I can just imagine how all those starched togas in Athens will feel.
I know that's a stupid thing to worry about. We're here to solve a problem for Amphipolis, and whether or not people know about my stories doesn't really matter, does it?
"Hey, Xena?" Gabrielle nibbled on the edge of her quill. "What are our real chances getting those taxes reduced, you think?"
Xena had, in fact, been pondering just that very question herself. She was saved from answering it by a commotion just ahead of them, at the gates of the town they were about to ride through. She glanced at Gabrielle as the bard quickly tucked her diary away, and urged Argo a little faster towards the now growing crowd.
As they rode closer, they could see sticks and staves raised, and hear the angry voices, as the townsfolk clustered around something, pressing in towards the side of a small building.
Xena stood in her stirrups, looking over the heads of the crowd to see what their target was. For a moment, there were too many people too close together, but then they all shifted a little as though pushed back, and she caught sight of a tall, unkempt woman with shaggy copper colored hair in the center of the mob.
Two of the men closest had grips on her clothing, which was partially ripped, and one shook a pitchfork in her face as he yelled. A woman behind him threw a rock at the hapless captive, and the crowd shouted, pressing in.
Xena reacted on pure instinct, as she kneed Argo forward into a canter, and approached the crowd, raising her body up and letting out a yell to attract the mob's attention. Gabrielle stuck at her side, one hand dropping down to loosen the fastenings holding her staff to Iolaus' saddle.
The outer ring of townsfolk turned at the sudden noise, and started pushing and shoving, but the inner group was too intent on their victim, who started struggling to get free. Xena dropped her reins and vaulted from the saddle, flipping over the heads of the crowd twisting in mid air to land next to the scruffy woman. "Get back!"
One man made the mistake of ignoring the call, and swung on her. She caught his arm and swung him into two others, then ducked a pike and slugged the bigger man nearest to her who still had a grip on the copper haired woman.
"Hey! You've got no right to interfere!" A middle aged woman screamed at her. "This is our business!"
Rocks were raised. Xena squared her shoulders and drew her sword, the steel making an audible sound as it cleared her scabbard. As she put herself between the crowd and the victim, Gabrielle appeared as though by magic on the other side of the woman, her staff held cross her body in a ready position.
"Okay." The bard broke the sudden tableau. "Let's just all calm down before someone really gets hurt."
Yelling went up, and Gabrielle rapped her staff against the wall sharply. "The someone's not going to be me or Xena, if you catch my drift!" She raised her voice. "So let's settle down."
They really didn't want to. Gabrielle could see it, in their angry bodies and shifting motion. But the reality of the armored warrior with a naked blade in their midst cooled even the most hot headed and they broke apart a bit and moved back.
"Elle's right." The nearest man, a grizzled elder with furious eyes said. "This ain't your business. "
"Suppose you let me be the judge of that." Xena slid her sword home, and glanced at the scruffy woman, who still had her back firmly pressed against the wall, and was staring at Xena guardedly. "What's this all about?"
The crowd pressed forward at that angrily, but stopped when a solid, wooden pole blocked their way. "Ah ah." Gabrielle gave them a gentle push backwards. "You'll get your chance."
Xena spared them a look, then returned her attention to their victim. "Well?"
The woman had interesting pale hazel eyes, almost golden in color. They flicked to the crowd, then fastened back on the warrior's face. "I did not do anything." She rasped, in a deep, slightly accented voice. "I am just looking to work for food."
"Liar!" The older woman yelled. "You're nothing but a thief! You stole three apples from my yard!"
"They were on the ground rotten. You were doing nothing with them!" The woman answered.
"They were mine!" Elle jabbed a thumb at her chest. "And you took them. Thief!!"
The crowd started yelling again. Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other. Gabrielle lifted both eyebrows. Xena shrugged one shoulder. "Okay." The bard cut off the yelling. "So, how much are they worth?"
"What?" Elle stared at her.
"How much are they worth?" Gabrielle repeated patiently. "If you steal something, by definition, that something has to have worth, right? So, what were the apples, which were on the ground and rotten, worth to you?"
"Weren't worth a damn thing!"
"Okay..so then you must have wanted to do something with them, that would have been worth something, right?"
"Rotten apples? No!" Elle told her.
"Hm." Gabrielle nodded sagely. "So they weren't worth anything, and you weren't going to use them, but you are furious about a hungry person eating them because… " Here she paused and lifted her eyebrows, waiting.
"Cause they were mine! Whaddaya think!" The woman snapped back.
"I think you're very selfish." The bard responded. "And I hope you never go hungry and are in desperate need of food."
A mutter rose up, and several people gave Gabrielle distinctly unfriendly looks. "That's not all." A man spoke up suddenly. "She tried to steal my horse!"
Xena glanced at their rescuee in question.
"I was just patting it." The woman scoffed. "What would I be doing with a great ugly beast like that at any part?"
The man turned red.
"Hm. She's as diplomatic as you are, sweetie." Gabrielle muttered under her breath. "All right, look." Her voice got louder. "Back off. There' s no reason to attack this woman, she's just looking to get by."
"Reason enough!" Elle insisted obstinately. "She's got a witches tongue on her!"
Xena got fed up, and straightened, pinning everyone in her immediate vicinity with an icy glare as she allowed her hands to curl into fists. "Clear out!" She yelled. "Or I'll clear you out of here." A shocked pause. "Move!!!"
It was a chancy thing, for a moment. There were a lot of them there, at least two score, and they felt their weight of numbers. But they were lightly armed, and Xena's tall form was starkly imposing, and after a moment of wavering, the back ranks gave way and the crowd started to disperse.
Not without angry looks, and vicious whispering, and glares at bard, warrior, and their erstwhile victim.
"You'd better get out of here!" Elle turned suddenly, and pointed. "We'll be back!"
Xena waited for most of them to straggle off, before she turned and regarded the tall woman behind her, whose head almost came even with the warrior's own. "So what really happened?" She drawled.
Now that the immediate danger was over, the stranger leaned back against the wall of the building and exhaled, rubbing her fingers through her curly russet hair. "Didn’t buy me story, ay?" She remarked, with the tiniest hint of a smile as she looked up at them.
Gabrielle scratched her jaw. "Well, it's sorta hard to believe they'd get that worked up over a couple of wormy apples and you touching a horse." She said. "You're not from these parts, are you.. what's your name?"
The woman seemed to relax a little, and folded her arms over her chest. She was tough and very muscular, with a liberal scattering of freckles across her skin and face. "Not from around here.. so it shows, does it? I'd say the same about yourselves." She remarked. "But in fact, I'm not, and my name is Bran." Her eyes flicked back and forth between her two rescuers. "And who might you two be?"
Gabrielle shifted her staff to one hand and held out the other. "I'm Gabrielle, and this is Xena." She returned the woman's wary arm clasp, then released it as Xena extended a bracered arm as well. "Now, what about that story?" She hinted, as the warrior stepped back.
"Ah, the story." Bran glanced around. "Suppose I tell you while we stroll our way along, eh? I think this cot's bad for me health." She pushed away from the wall as they headed to where Argo and Iolaus were stolidly standing. "Now that's a nice pair of ponies…"
What, Gabrielle wondered to herself, have we gotten ourselves into this time?
"Don’t suppose you’ve got an apple yourself going begging have you?" Bran asked her hopefully.
The bard tried not to hear Xena snickering.
They left the town rapidly behind them, aware of the hostile eyes on their backs as they gained a bend in the road and escaped from view. As a courtesy to their new acquaintance, both Xena and Gabrielle were walking, leading Argo and Iolaus along behind them.
"So." Gabrielle had surrendered, not an apple but one of their trail bars, and allowed Bran two chews. "What happened?"
"Ah." Bran sighed around a mouthful. "Wasn't much really.. no sense of humor those lot had, that's all."
"Uh huh." The bard nodded. "Did you insult their looks, their cattle, or the ale in the inn?" She asked, with perfect seriousness. "We could probably have gotten round the first two, but if it's the last one, you're toast."
Bran stopped in mid swallow and looked at her, not sure if the bard was joking.
"Of course, if it was the innkeeper's daughter you insulted, better start running." Gabrielle concluded. "They're a vicious breed in these parts."
"Hey." Xena objected mildly. "Watch it, shepherd."
The copper haired woman was caught offguard, and she chuckled a little. "Uh.. right. Well, it was like this." She went on. "I came into the town, not looking for trouble, mind you, just taking a bit of water from the trough and seeing if they could use a pair o hands round the place." Bran held out her hands, which were large and very strong looking, with square palms and long fingers. "Went to the inn, I did, and there outside was a pair of cows, and a pair of women, and for the life of me, tweren't half a difference between em."
"Uh oh." Gabrielle shook her head sadly. "Let me guess here… the little short woman with the bad attitude is the innkeeper?"
"I hardly know…" Bran protested. "I just asked for some work, and she asked me to muck the place out, and I just wanted to know for two or for four, is all." She lifted her hands. "Had to set me price, didn't I?"
Gentle green eyes regarded her. "That wasn't nice. I don't blame them for being mad."
Bran scowled. "It was just a joke… as I said, they'd lost their sense of humor, they did."
"Well." Xena spoke up for the first time. She'd been strolling along next to them, her eyes searching the surroundings with automatic alertness. "If I was trying to get food out of someone, that wouldn't be the way I do it." She glanced at Bran. "What else did you do?"
The hazel eyes opened wide in innocence. "Not a thing,." Bran assured her. "Blameless as a babe, I am.."
Bard and warrior exchanged looks, but neither said anything. They continued to walk along.
Bran fidgeted. "So.. where are you lot headed, then?" She finally asked.
"Athens." Gabrielle replied promptly, surprised when that caused Bran to stop dead in her tracks, turn and begin walking back the way they came. "Hey!"
"Been nice to meet you.. have a grand trip.. me thanks for giving a hand back there." Bran waved at them cheerfully, now walking backwards.
"Wait a minute!" Gabrielle called, in exasperation. "You can't go back that way.. those people will bury you in that manure you were going to muck!"
"I'll take me chances… never fear. Ta ta!"
Xena had turned and now put her hands on her hips. "They'll toss you in jail for swindling them." She let her voice rise. "And you'll end up pulling those damn cow's plow."
The tall woman stopped, and her expression changed, becoming serious. She stalked back over and planted herself in front of Xena. "Who are you calling a thief, you hot bag of wind in cow's leather?"
Only Gabrielle recognized the twinkle of both triumph and amusement in her partner's otherwise stone cold expression. She leaned on her staff, content to watch for a moment, seeing in Xena's body language that their rude new friend wasn't in any immediate danger.
"If it smells like manure… " The warrior left the thought hanging, a grin briefly appearing.
"You'd better be taking that back." Bran warned. "Or I'll be forced to be defending my honor, right here, in this roadway."
Xena looked her over. "And?" She drawled. "What are you going to do, sweat on me?"
Bran dropped back into a pugilists's stand, and brought her fists up. "That'll be enough outta you. Put them up or be apologizing."
Gabrielle saw the hint of devilment starting to show and she sighed, shifting her weight off her staff and stepping between them. "You really don’t' want to do that." She told Bran, kindly. "Honest."
"Ah.. you let the little lady fight your battles as well, do you?" Bran taunted Xena over Gabrielle's head. "C'mere, ye coward… I'll take you on!"
Xena merely shook her head. "Let's go, Gabrielle." She tapped her soulmate on the back and turned. "I've heard enough empty air for one day." She took Argo's bridle and started walking off, with Iolaus trailing along behind them.
Bran went to dodge around Gabrielle, but found herself trapped in place by the bard's staff as Gabrielle slid to one side to block her path. "Out of the way, little lass.. I've got me a bone to pick with your big, ugly friend." She dodged around the bard and pelted after Xena.
Gabrielle turned and trotted after her. "Bran.. Bran.. you don't.."
Too late. The tall woman had reached the slowly ambling warrior, and with a wild yell, leaped on her back.
Or, what she thought should be Xena's back, if Xena had been standing where she was supposed to have been standing, that is. The warrior ducked out of the way and allowed Bran to plow headfirst into the road, tumbling over and landing on her ear.
She bounced up and put her fists in front of her face again. "All right. Now we're at it.. Put them up! " Bran challenged. "I bet you can't fight.. all that's just window dressing then, isn't it?"
"Bet?" Xena dropped Argo's reins and grinned. "How much?"
"Ten coins against that whacker you got no use for." Bran pointed at Xena's sword. "You on?"
Gabrielle opened her mouth to interject, then subsided after a moment's thought.
"All right." Xena stepped clear of Argo and approached Bran, her motion altering from it's former casualness to a smooth, catlike grace as she circled the other woman. "You're on."
"You've got no idea what you've just let yourself in for friend." Bran stated, then launched into a determined attack. She was powerful, and after the first motion, it became apparent that she was an extremely skilled boxer, with balanced moves and a fighter's instincts totally at odds with her previous attitude.
Xena took the first few hits, absorbing them against her leathers with relative ease as she formulated a strategy and moved in. She got inside the tall woman's reach and made her come up short, then delivered a body blow that sent a visible shock through Bran's frame. Then she ducked out and slid to one side, waiting.
Bran winced, and rubbed her ribs, then came on , and they traded punches. Bran got in a solid hit to Xena's midsection, but paid for it as the warrior slammed an elbow into her jaw, knocking her head back and causing her to stagger a bit to one side.
She battled back, though, with a rapidfire round of swift, agile punches, and surprise kick that almost caught Xena on the side, her face tensing in fierce effort as she realized her opponent was a bit more than she was used to.
Xena proved the point by lashing out with a kick herself, that caught Bran right in the gut and threw her back at least a bodylength. Then the warrior bounded forward, ducking Bran's counterattack and scoring with a two handed combination that rocked the copper haired woman back and set her offbalance.
She recovered, though, and whipped a roundhouse right across Xena's defenses, targeting the warrior's head with unerring aim.
With a lazy swipe of her arm, though, Xena merely caught the fist and held it, stopping Bran in mid motion. She paused to let the other woman absorb the fact, then she whirled and slammed her body against Bran's, grabbing hold of her and lifting her up over her head before dumping her back onto the road in a cloud of white dust.
"Tell ya what." Xena stood over her, hands lightly clenching and unclenchng. "It's too damn hot for this. Stay down, or I’m gonna have to put you down and you wont' like what it's gonna feel like when you wake up."
Bran looked up at her, the freckled face tensing into a scowl as her eyes narrowed and she let Xena wait to see what she was going to do. Then her shoulders relaxed and she held both hands up, palms outward. "Grabbed a creature by the tail I wasn't expecting, methinks." She admitted, with grudging cheerfulness. "Though I could be making a point about that armor."
Xena extended a hand to her. "Don’t bother. And after you almost got brained for wagering those dinars out of that town, you might as well keep em."
Bran slowly took the grip and allowed herself to be hauled to her feet. "Figured me out then, did you?" Now she did grin, a touch ruefully. "Did a better job than I did, for sure. I figured you two for traveling buskers and all that metal just props, and tricking the locals for your dinner as was I."
"Buskers?" Gabrielle walked over and handed Xena their waterskin. "Is that why you're running from Athens? Did you do the same thing there?"
"No." Bran wiped her face. "I'd be running from that place because that's where I was tossed, bound like a pig off the slaver ship that raided my homeland." Now her face was grim, and thoughtful. "Me and the rest of the lot meant as fodder for the prize ring, that would be, brought here to give you lot a bit of a show as we get pounded."
Xena regarded her in silence, for a moment. "For the games." She eventually stated flatly, as Gabrielle came to stand at her side, facing Bran.
"You're a clever one." Bran replied. "That would be right. A shipload of us dumped in a pit, it was, but I got out and didn't look back."
"Xena, that's wrong." Gabrielle said at once. "How could they do that? I thought the games were just to win prizes.. why would they need slaves?"
"Good question." The warrior replied. "Guess we'll find out once we get there." Her eyes locked with the bard's.
Bran watched them, as she dusted the last of the road off her already tattered and filthy clothing. "Aren't you going to watch the fun, then?"
Gabrielle gathered up Iolaus' reins as they got ready to move off. "No, we're going to complain about our taxes." She explained. "And find an old friend of mine who's missing." The bard added after a moment, as her eyes tracked up to Xena's face. "And now, I guess, we're going to free some slaves."
Xena muffled a smile.
"Don't you start with me, Xena. This is NOT my fault." Gabrielle told her sternly. Then she looked up at Bran. "I’m sorry that happened to you. I hope you get back home soon." She put a hand on Xena's shoulder as the warrior turned, and they started off, leaving Bran standing there in the middle of the road.
For a few moments, they walked alone in silence, only their own footsteps and those of the horses breaking the windless calm of the road. Then they heard rapid bootsteps behind them.
"Hold up. Hold up… " Bran puffed. "Did you just say you were going to go and get the rest of our lot out of there?"
Xena and Gabrielle kept walking. "Sure." The bard glanced over her shoulder.
"What.. just the two of you?" The woman's voice rose incredulously.
"Mmhm." Gabrielle nodded, rubbing the back of her neck a little to ease a budding headache.
"You're crackers, the both of you."
Well, they'd been thought worse. Gabrielle smiled to herself, and wiggled her fingers a little, thinking that fishing and what she was doing had definite things in common. "Oh, not really." She replied, with a shrug. "We just have a lot of confidence in ourselves and the things we can accomplish when we really put our minds to it. Right Xena?"
"Right." The warrior agreed.
"I mean, there was the time you saved most of Greece from the Persians by defeating their army." The bard went on. "That was pretty much by yourself.. but then we managed to defeat Bacchus… "
"After you got bitten by one of his Bacchae." Xena interjected. "And became a Bacchae yourself.
"Well, then you let me bite you, and you became one too." Gabrielle went on, unperturbed. "Good thing that worked out."
"Anyway." Gabrielle turned her head, enjoying the slack jawed expression on Bran's face. "I think we can handle it. You'd better get going on back down the road.. I think if you wait until dark, you can get past that town and move on." She waggled her fingers. "Bye."
At that, Xena pulled herself up on Argo, and Gabrielle joined her on Iolaus' back. They urged the horses into a trot, and left Bran in the dust, keeping up the pace until they'd reached the next bend in the road and were out of site.
Twilight found them in a spare, if moderately comfortable campsite just short of the outer fringes of Athens. They'd passed through a bustling market town not long before, and had decided on smelling the stench of sewage and rotten food in the summer heat that the forest was a far better place to spend the night.
Here, still, an occasional puff of wind brought the smell of civilization to them, but it was remote and really only discernible to Xena's very sensitive nose. The warrior was sprawled on top of their furs, dressed in only her leathers with one bare foot propped up on a nearby rock. She had her eyes closed, and she was listening to Gabrielle hum as she put up a pot of simple soup for them, using some supplies they'd picked up in their hasty path through the last town.
No hunting tonight, since they were so close to civilization, most of the animals were long gone, and Xena was leery of the river heading downstream from the city. She'd gone up into the hinterlands above their campsite, in fact, to find a small spring to fill their waterskins with and Gabrielle's soup pot as well.
So now her sword was sharpened, her armor was cleaned, and she could spend the darkening moments in idle peace, already detecting the rich scent of the vegetable soup the bard was making, a favorite of hers that they both enjoyed. After a moment, she heard the bard's soft footsteps coming closer, and opened her eyes as Gabrielle curled up on the furs at her side, relaxing and stifling a yawn. "What a day."
"Yeah." Xena folded her hands over her stomach. A motion caught her eye though, and she turned her head to watch Gabrielle rub the back of her neck and wince. "Headache?"
A nod. "Yeah…I think it's the darn heat." Gabrielle admitted. "That or the riding.. gods, I don't know what my problem is, but my back's just driving me nuts this trip."
Xena rolled over onto her side and studied the bard. "Lay on your stomach." She instructed. "Put your hands up over your head."
Gabrielle willingly complied, exhaling as she felt Xena's healer's touch on her back. The warrior eased her half shirt up, then ran her hands down Gabrielle's skin, probing very gently on either side of her spine. Despite the care, Gabrielle tensed and let out a soft sound as she hit the lower part of her back, where the ache had been bothering her since almost the day they left Amphipolis.
"Roll onto your side, and pull your leg up." Xena asked quietly.
Gabrielle did so, wrapping her arm around her knee and sighing a little as the pain eased. "That feels better."
"Mm." The warrior replied. "Hang on."
Gabrielle put her head down, and waited, feeling the motion as Xena's hands shifted her hips a little, then twisted. She felt a soft pop, which sent a spike of sensation up her spine, then a gentle easing of the pan as she let out a long breath. "Ohh."
"Much, thank you." Gabrielle whispered.
"Don’t thank me just yet." Xena replied. "You must have twisted something in there, because two of the bones right here.. " She wiggled her fingertips against Gabrielle's back. "Are out of place and they were pressing together."
"Yeah?" Gabrielle absorbed this information. "Well, okay, but you fixed it right?" She looked back over her shoulder at her soulmate. "No?"
"No." Xena confirmed. "Time might, but you've got to keep them straightened out, and that means… " She paused, and sighed.
Gabrielle grinned wholeheartedly. "No riding?" She rolled over onto her back and slapped Xena's leg playfully. "Aw… darn." A finger wagged. "I told you it was the riding.. I walked from one end of Greece to the other and didn't have problem, until you put me up in that saddle."
Xena gazed at her in wry affection, reaching down and giving her exposed belly a tickle. "So we'll end up getting to Athens tomorrow night instead of tomorrow morning… I guess we'll live." She commented. "It's going to take us forever to get home, though."
"Let it." The words came out before she could think about them. They were true, though, so she just kept quiet and watched Xena's face, outlined in the light from the fire as the warrior knelt over her. After a moment, the angular planes shifted into a slight smile, and Xena nodded just a tiny bit.
"I’m glad you understand that completely selfish statement." Gabrielle returned the smile.
"I do." Xena said. "I was thinking that today, when we were going past those big trees and you started reciting your poem to me… about how much I've loved being out here, doing this again."
Gabrielle felt a thrill of delight at the unexpected admission. "Even more than running the army back home?"
The warrior nodded. "We're just missing one thing."
"Yeah." Gabrielle smiled as she thought of her daughter. "You know, Xena.. I think she'd love it out here too." She lifted a hand and traced the beadwork on her partner's leathers with an idle finger. "It sounds insane, doesn't it?"
"Yes." The warrior agreed, easing down and stretching out along side Gabrielle, propping her head up on one hand. "But we can talk about it after we get back."
"After we fix our taxes, find Homer, free the slaves, and generally set Athens on it's ear."
Gabrielle reached over and brushed Xena's lips with her fingers. "All right. We'll talk about it." She found herself smiling broadly, and seeing the reflection of that in the blue eyes watching her and she was struck once again with a sense of just how deep their connection ran now.
She stretched her body out, and was relieved to feel only the smallest ache around her lower back as she wriggled into a more comfortable position and looked straight up. The sky above them was deepening to black and a scattering of stars appeared, winking in and out from behind the layer of clouds drifting past. Now, with the sun down, the breeze held a touch of coolness at last and she took a deep breath of it. "Mm." There was jasmine on the wind, and the scent of wheat fields ripening nearby that mixed with the smell of her soup cooking and she let herself feel the utter perfectness of the moment.
"Hey Xe?" She opened her eyes after a pause and looked at her partner, who had put her chin down on her forearm and was just resting there next to her, eyes half closed in contentment. "This walking thing's going to circumvent your shortcut, isn't it?"
Xena shrugged one shoulder. "It might. We'll worry about that if it happens." She lifted her head and scanned the surroundings, listening intently. After a moment, she put her head back down and exhaled.
Gabrielle, however, had caught the motion and she studied the warrior's face curiously. 'What's up?" She murmured. "Something out there?"
Xena's lips quirked. "Maybe." She'd thought she'd detected just the faintest bit of sound out of the natural rhythm, and briefly wished again that they'd brought Ares with them. They'd left the wolf behind because of their destination, where surely a wolf would not have been welcome but she found she missed his keen senses to back up hers on the road.
"Think it's our red haired friend?"
"Mm… " Xena considered the question. Bran hadn't seemed a stealthy type to her, she'd have figured on the woman coming right up to their campfire if she'd followed them. Whatever and whoever was out there seemed to be content to hide and watch. "Let's wait a few minutes and find out."
"She was interesting." Gabrielle commented. "I think I liked her, except when she was insulting you."
The warrior chuckled. "Nice scam.. she walks into town, finds a likely young kid all ready to defend his town's honor and gets a good wager in."
"Yeah, she was pretty good." Gabrielle mused. "But so out of her league against you, the poor thing."
"You flattering me, bard?" Xena inquired, tracing the edge of Gabrielle's ear with a curious fingertip.
"No, not particularly." Gabrielle yawned, and rubbed the back of her hand across her forehead. "Boy, I'm wiped.. let me go get that soup before I fall asleep here." She rolled onto her side then got up and walked to the campfire, retrieving their bowls as she did so. The soup was bubbling nicely, and smelled great as she ladled two portions out, chock full of diced vegetables floating in clear broth that smelled of spices and lemon.
It was a perfect thing, at the end of a long day of unending heat and throat clogging dust, and Gabrielle settled back down on the furs cross legged to enjoy it as she handed Xena her bowl. They had some fresh fruit to follow it, since she'd managed to scarf a couple of ripe pears and a handful of black grapes at the market along with the vegetables she'd used for the soup.
Very different from the fare they usually had in Amphipolis, unless she deliberately circumvented Cyrene's kitchen and made them meals in their cabin. Not that she was complaining - not at all, since her mother in law was a great cook, and the inn was noted for it's food.
But her body seemed to like this type of food better, Gabrielle had noticed. Despite the hardships of the road, she felt more energetic and more in balance with herself after the past two weeks. She took a sip of the broth, and savored the spices, then spooned up some of the vegetables and chewed them. "Our friend still out there?"
"Yep." Xena was drinking right from the edge of her bowl, cradled in the fingers of one hand. "Moved over to that large clump of underbrush while you were getting dinner."
"Hm. You going to flush her out?"
"Not going to have to." Xena replied placidly. "It's a sumac bush."
Gabrielle stopped in mid gulp and looked at her. "Oh, no." She winced. "Xena, that's not nice."
Innocent blue eyes looked at her. "Gabrielle, I didn't tell her to go hide in them. It's not my fault." She chuckled a little. "I still remember the time.."
"Shh." Gabrielle threatened her with her spoon. "I keep trying to forget that little incident. It took me a week to stop itching."
Another chuckle. "Watched where you sat after that, though, didn't you?" Xena drained her bowl, then got up. "More?"
"Sure." Gabrielle handed over her bowl and watched as the warrior went first to her saddlebags, rooting through them for a moment before she angled her steps to the fire and retrieved two more portions of soup. Xena reached up to put her hair back behind her ear before she picked up the dipper, and the firelight displayed the smooth ripple of muscle across her shoulder, catching Gabrielle's eye as the light also revealed the circular tattoo just visible above the edge of her leathers.
She was struck again at just how beautiful Xena really was, even dressed as she was, here in the bush around a rough campfire. There was something just so perfectly balanced about her, about the way she moved, and the way her body was put together so that even the most ordinary motion was poetic and effortless.
The bard jerked in reaction, pulled out of her thoughts to find a bowl near her eyes. "Oh. Sorry." She took it and set it in her lap as Xena resumed her place next to her.
"Do I want to know what you were just thinking about?" The warrior teased.
"You." Gabrielle leaned back against Iolaus' saddle, and extended her bare legs, crossing them at the ankles. "Do you think we can do a little shopping before we beard the Athenian council in it's chambers, Xe?"
A little confused, the warrior's brow creased as she apparently tried to reconcile the first statement with the second question. "What are we shopping for?" She hazarded cautiously.
"Clothes." Gabrielle replied. "Don't get me wrong, I love you in those leathers, honey.. but I think we should also have something nice to barge into the Atheneum in." She glanced down. "Not to mention, I think I'd make a better impression if I wasn't dressed like an Amazon. Don't you?"
"Mm." Xena considered the question. "Better impression on who? I like that outfit." She said. "But, yeah, that's not a bad idea." She stuck her nose in her bowl and swallowed a few mouthfuls, then used her spoon to retrieve the solid items left in the bottom.
They each had a third bowl of soup, and shared the fruit Gabrielle had gotten between them, then Xena readied the campsite and bedded the fire down. She listened at the edge of the darkness for a little while, then shrugged and joined the already drowsy Gabrielle under the light cloth cover they used when it was too warm for furs.
Gabrielle snuggled up against her, and Xena allowed her body to slowly relax completely, readying herself for long hours of the half sleep, half wakefulness their relatively exposed position required of her. She was also curious about their silent watcher, having not heard a single peep out of them for a least two candlemarks. Could they have crept away, without her hearing it?
Xena listened to the softly muted crackle of the fire, and acknowledged they could have, while she and Gabrielle were talking. She knew she was just a little less careful these days, just a little less on the edge, a legacy of the long year spent at home where that kind of alertness just wasn't needed, and something it would take more time out here to regain.
At one time in her life, in fact, at one time in her life with Gabrielle, this would have sent her nearly over the edge from both anger and guilt. So wrapped up in protecting herself and Gabrielle had she been that any hint of letting down even just a small amount had driven her into hours of drills and almost obsessive honing of her instincts.
Almost obsessive? Xena felt Gabrielle tuck her head a little further up against her collarbone and release a sleepy sigh. Somewhere along the line this past year she'd come to terms with the changes her life was going through and it was as though she'd finally crossed one last line between what she'd been before, and what she was now.
Or, as Gabrielle had put it, she'd finally learned to chill out. At least about some things. Xena gazed into the red heart of the fire, aware of the night sounds descending on them, flooding her senses with information she had to sort and interpret before deciding to ignore it or not.
Well, at least she had plenty of time to think, at any rate. Think about what they'd find in Athens, and if she still had any enemies there, and just how much trouble they might get into.
Hm. And if that got too boring, she could always spend some time trying to figure out how she fathered Dori, so they could do it again.
There. That was enough to keep anyone busy until sunrise.
It was cloudy the next morning, with a low, muttering rumble of thunder in the distance that meant to Xena’s ears at least, nothing good. However, even the hot, sticky weather couldn’t dampen the cheerful mood Gabrielle was in, the bard was even whistling a little as she strolled along in front of Iolaus.
"You’re in good spirits." Xena commented, having decided to walk alongside her, despite the fact that she’d blithely ridden while the bard walked for years during their partnership. "Don’t tell me not being on that horse’s back made that much difference."
Gabrielle turned and walked backwards for a few steps. "Well, I like walking, so yeah, a little, but I just woke up happy this morning, I guess." She grinned sheepishly, unable to really explain or articulate the bubbly, wonderful sensation in her guts. "Something wrong with that?"
"Nope." Xena shook her head. ‘Try to keep a little of it for later, though, when we’re drenched, okay?"
The bard tipped her head back, and stuck her tongue out at the clouds, then turned and kept walking while her eyes took in the surrounding countryside. It wasn’t as though she never got to see anything, or that Iolaus moved so fast she missed something. They usually rode at a walk, sometimes a canter. But somehow, it was just so different when you were doing it yourself, putting your boots down on the stone filled road, or feeling the grass crunch under your footsteps.
They’d been walking for several candlemarks already, and she could feel a little strain in muscles she hadn’t used that much in the past year. It felt good, and familiar, and she was actually looking forward to the moment when they stopped that night when she could sit down and extend her legs and know she’d used them to good purpose the whole day.
Her back also felt a lot better, and that helped her mood too. The ache was mostly gone, and she didn’t have the little pains going down the backs of her thighs anymore.
So what if it rained? Gabrielle turned her head and watched a squirrel race across the leafy ground to their right, scampering out of sight quickly on their approach. Behind her, she could hear Argo’s footfalls, and the soft crunch and scrape that was Xena’s steady stride, less frequent than her own due to the warrior’s longer legs. If she turned, she knew she’d see a familiar look of introspection on her partner’s face, and the rhythmic motion of her head as her body fell into a slightly rolling gait. Part of that was just how Xena walked in armor, because she had to carry the weight of it and part of that was because she was so much a horsewoman and her legs were just built up a little differently than Gabrielle’s were.
It was cute, that little strut, but the bard knew better than to comment on it, remembering her own reaction to being compared with a badger. What would she imagine Xena as? Gabrielle peeked over her shoulder and watched the warrior unobserved for a few moments. A bear, maybe? She peeked again. No, not really, because a bear walking on it’s hind legs always looked a little unbalanced, and Xena never looked even slightly unbalanced. Hm. The bard thought about all the animals she’d seen. Something regal, something furry….something…ah. She had it. Gabrielle looked over her shoulder one more time. She’d only see one a single time, in a tawdry zoo she and Xena had come upon not long after they’d come back from Chin.
Seeing the animals in cages had done something to the both of them, and despite the distance between them and how horrible things still were, they’d acted as a team almost without thought and certainly without discussing what they were going to do.
Swooping down with weapons drawn, driving off the scrubby looking men and breaking open the cages as the beasts inside them went frantic with excitement.
Watching them go, standing side by side in a moment so bittersweet Gabrielle could almost taste it again on the back of her tongue, and feel again the ache as a hand pressed so briefly on the bare skin of her shoulder she almost thought she’d imagined it.
She remembered crying so long that night she’d just run out of tears.
But the last animal out, the last one Xena had freed hadn’t run like the others. He’d just paced out of his cage and looked at them, wild and unafraid, before he turned his back and stalked off into the underbrush with powerful, unhurried strides.
Just like Xena’s. "Hey, Xe?" Gabrielle slowed her steps until she was side by side with her partner. "Remember that zoo we let go, a while back?"
Xena didn’t answer for a moment, she just inhaled, then let the breath slowly out, as her head nodded once or twice. "Yeah. I remember."
"That last animal, that big one, with the shaggy head. Remember that one?"
Xena stared off into the distance then glanced over at her. "Sure." She paused. "Why?"
"What was that?" Gabrielle asked. "I meant to ask, but…"
Blue eyes regarded her quietly. "But we weren’t really talking then." The warrior supplied. They exhanged looks. "It was a lion." She went on. "It’s from Africa."
"A lion." Gabrielle shaped her lips around the word, rolling it over on her tongue. "Lion. That’s an interesting name."
"They live in groups… families." Xena supplied. "One or two males, and a bunch of females, the males think they’re in charge, but the females really run things."
"Ah." Gabrielle smiled. "Like humans, a little."
That got a smile from the warrior. "A little." She conceded. "What makes you ask now?"
The corner’s of the bard’s eyes crinkled up a little as she held back a smirk. "Oh.. no reason, really.. I was just comparing things, and I thought I remembered something being like something else that I’d seen before, and it was that animal, and I just thought I’d ask you what it was called."
One dark eyebrow lifted. "Uh huh."
"So." Gabrielle flexed her hands, then lifted them a little, an old habit to keep the blood flowing. "What do you want to play? What am I?"
Another advantage to walking. She got to be a lot closer to Xena, and they could talk much more easily. The horses put a necessary distance between them just because of their size, and they often had to raise their voices over the sound of eight hooves hitting the ground.
"Okay." Xena agreed. "You start."
"I knew you were going to say that." Gabrielle bumped her with a hip. "Okay… give me a second… " She chewed her lip. "Okay, I’m ready."
"All right. Are you animal, plant, or thing?" Xena asked, falling into their old game easily. A louder rumble of thunder rolled over head, and she glanced up. "No cheating. It’s my turn to ask." She addressed the sky.
"Animal." Gabrielle replied, with a satisfied sigh. "You’ll never guess this one, Xena."
"Uh huh. Four legs or two."
"Fur or feathers."
"Fur." A pause. "Hair." Another pause. "Whatever."
Xena looked at her. "It’s not a lion, is it?"
Green eyes rolled. "Xena. C’mon, would I be that obvious?"
"Hooves or feet?"
The bard thought about that. "Um.. a little of both."
Xena paced on a few more steps in silence. "Does it have horns?"
"Um.." Gabrielle thought about that. "Yes."
"Big or little?"
"Sort of little." A raindrop hit Gabrielle on the back of the neck, and she flinched. "Uh oh, that was a big one."
Xena reached up and unbuckled her saddlebag without looking, her mind busy pondering the puzzle Gabrielle had set her onto. She pulled out the bard’s cloak, and handed it to her as a fitful spattering of drops made surprisingly dark splotches in the road ahead of them. The rich, musty smell of rain descended, tickling the warrior’s nose as she took her own cloak out and shook it’s folds open. "Does it have teeth?"
"I… " Gabrielle finished fastening the clasp around her neck. "Yes, I’m sure it does."
"Eats grass?" The warrior asked immediately.
"Yes." Gabrielle held back a smile. "Among other things."
"Gabrielle, if it has half hooves, fur, eats grass, and has four legs, it has to be camel." Xena told her.
"Nope." The bard smirked. "Give up?"
Xena only snorted. The rain started coming down, and Argo snorted also, as if in mimicry. "Long ears?"
"Um.. not really.. not particularly."
"They stand up?"
It started really pouring. Gabrielle moved a little closer to Xena, and they got between the two horses. She tugged the hood over her face and was glad it was, at least, a warm rain. Though, the summer after Dori had been born, that hadn’t helped her any. She’d gotten caught out in a long spring rain when they’d been on their way back from helping her mother and Lila move back to Potadeia.
And she’d insisted on helping, of course. They’d returned, and Xena had headed out to pick up traps she’d left out, and while the warrior had been gone, the little cold she’d picked up turned very ugly very fast.
Poor Xena. Gabrielle felt a warm weight land on her shoulders, and she was glad of the protection as the wind and rain lashed at them.
Xena kept silent, though, and the bard worked hard to hold back a giggle. It was very seldom that she stumped her partner for this long, and she wasn’t above enjoying it a little. She’d picked a good one this time, an animal she’d seen once on her way to Chin.
They reached a bend in the road and started through it, then paused as it dipped down and they could see ahead of them. The roadway broadened and broadened as it spilled forward, terminating in the huge, marbled sprawl in the distance that was Athens.
They both stared at it for a moment. "Wow.’ Gabrielle finally said. "I think I forgot how big it was."
The city spread out from horizon to horizon, it seemed, with clusters of smaller buildings spreading out from it’s walls on all sides. Even from here, a good distance away and in the rain, they could see a blur of motion as the five or six roads leading in from all directions came together. The roads were full of travelers, and everyone, it seemed, was heading in the same direction they were save that they were coming from more populated areas, where Xena and Gabrielle were heading in from relatively sparse country.
"Yeah." Xena murmured, almost sure she could hear the rumble of carts and animals, and smell the stench of too much humanity in close quarters already. Ahead of them, a straggle of travelers were moving in a slow procession, slogging through the rain and churning the road into a mire of mud and rocks. "Well, let’s get going."
Gabrielle pulled her cloak a little tighter, and squared her shoulders as they topped the rise and started on the long, sloping path down. "Xena, what are we going to do if they don’t listen to us?" She asked suddenly, turning to look up at the warrior pacing steadily at her side. "Will we have to pay all that money? How are we going to do it?"
A hint of a wicked smile appeared on Xena’s face, visible despite the dark, wet hair plastered down from the rain. "We’ll find a way, Gabrielle." She hugged the bard a little closer. "You and me."
Good enough. Gabrielle exhaled, and twitched her cloak a little. "You’re right." She stated. "There’s nothing you and I can’t do."
A bolt of lightning flashed, cracking into a nearby tree and setting it on fire. Both warrior and bard, along with the horses jumped, and ducked, hurrying by the sparking hulk. Gabrielle turned and looked at it, then shook her head and strode determinedly on.
The mud deepened, as they made their way down onto the main road, and followed the slowly growing straggle of fellow travelers. Gabrielle found herself having to work a bit to pull her boots up out of the stuff, which was fine and tended to suck at her feet.
Oh well. She leaned forward a little and let her thighs do most of the work. Won’t hurt me any. Her sparring with Xena, and the sessions of staff class had kept her in pretty good shape, but the two weeks of traveling had reminded her forcefully that she’d been spending the balance of her time in the council chamber lately and there was no way around the fact that she’d let herself get softer than she had been in a long time.
She took a deep breath and ruefully acknowledged the burn in her legs and her stomach as she fought her way through the sticky stuff. Suck it up, Gabrielle. You wanted to walk, right? Just keep moving. The rain pelted her hard, and she kept one hand at the neck of her cloak, snugging the fabric closer around her and keeping the hood firmly around her head. The horses plodded to either side of them, their hooves splashing up little jets of mud that coated her from the knees down in a gray sludge, and as they got further, it became apparent the road wasn’t getting any better. "Hey."
Xena turned her head, dark hair plastered down almost in her eyes and peered at her. "You okay?"
"What’s going to happen when we get in over my head?" The bard pointed at the road, into which she was now sinking almost to her ankles.
"You can swim." Xena remarked dryly, having her own problems to deal with since she was heavier than her partner, and therefore sank deeper into the mud on each stride. "I hear mud’s great for your skin."
"Ah." Gabrielle nodded. "That explains your flawless complexion, I guess."
The warrior chuckled. "Once we get past this section we can move off the road." She pointed ahead, where the row of thick hedges that bounded the road broke off into fields on either side. "You doing all right?" She asked again, cocking her head to one side and laying a hand on the bard’s back.
Gabrielle steadfastly ignored her increasing heartbeat and breathing, and just nodded.
The sounds of people and animals started to drift down the road, men cursing and the creak of wooden wheels protesting the mud as much as her boots were dominating. She glanced ahead, studying the group ahead of them to take her mind off her muscles. It was a family, she thought. A wagon filled to the very edges with stock, with canvas strapped tightly over them pulled by four large oxen. A medium sized man was driving, while a woman, and two children struggled along side, holding on to the edge of the wagon to help them walk. Gabrielle wondered why they were going to Athens. To sell their wares, maybe? The games would be attracting vendors of all sorts looking to make a few dinars off the attendees. As she watched the man reached back and retrieved a long, thin whip and lashed at the animals, who lowed in protest. "Oh, that’s helpful." She snorted softly.
Xena sighed. "Not as bad as that one." She lifted her arm and pointed to the source of a tie up further up the road. A wagon had overturned, and now traffic was starting to back up.
"Great." Gabrielle blew out a breath and squinted, raising a hand to wipe the hair out of her eyes. She could hear the shouts starting already, and the screams of nervous horses. "What happened?"
"Tried to take that fork too fast." Xena muttered. "Must have gotten the wheels stuck.. would you look at these idiots? What in Hades do they think yelling is going to do to fix that mess?" She tugged her cloak tighter and increased her pace. "C’mon."
"Easy for you to say." Gabrielle answered subvocally, forcing herself to keep up. The burning was getting to be almost painful, and she leaned forward a little more, letting the long muscles in her back and torso get into the effort. They passed a few single travelers with irritated looking mules, and after a little while, the bard felt her body adjust as she caught her second wind and the discomfort subsided a bit. She followed Xena as the warrior led Argo up onto the road’s embankment just past the hedges, relieved to feel reasonably solid ground under her boots as they detoured around a string of backed up wagons and approached the fork in the road. The rain and mud obscured both rank and gender of the people they passed, and she realized she and Xena were probably just as anonymous. She did note eyes glancing at Argo and Iolaus, though, the two golden horses were undeniably well bred and she saw speculative looks in their direction as well. Thunder rolled loudly overhead as they reached the fork, and she had a good view of the accident that was blocking the way.
It was a mess. The wagon that had overturned had been carrying many heavy boxes, and now the contents of the overturned vehicle were blocking the road just as much as the cart itself was. In addition, the traces had tangled around the bodies of the two horses drawing the cart, and they were down in the mud, struggling frantically every few moments to free themselves.
The carter, a young man with a very muscular build and thick, dark beard that matched his hair, was hauling on the traces, yelling at the animals at the top of his lungs. Xena handed Argo’s reins to Gabrielle and patted her back. "Stay here and catch your breath. I’ll see what I can do with this guy."
"B.." Gabrielle didn’t get to finish the word before the warrior had hopped off the embankment and into the mud, plowing her way through it towards the trapped horses. "I can breathe just fine, thanks!" She yelled after her soulmate, who lifted a hand in acknowledgment and waved it. Gabrielle sighed, and leaned against Iolaus’ shoulder, a touch annoyed at herself but shamefully glad they were standing still for the moment.
Xena let her cloak ease open as she reached the side of the wagon, evading the carter’s wild gestures as she studied the problem. "Hey!" She reached forward and grabbed the man’s arm, holding it still. He turned, giving her a furious look. "Want some help?" She asked.
"What the Hades do ya think?" The man hollered. "Got half the world back there screaming their fool heads off at me!"
Xena glanced at the crowd gathering. "So I noticed." She cautiously approached the horses, careful to stay clear of their huge, flailing hooves that could easily break something they hit her. "Easy… "
"You there! Out of our way!" A man’s stentorian tones shattered the scene, louder than the rest of the crowd, and louder than the persistent thunder. Xena looked quickly over her shoulder, as a huge, ornate wagon shoved it’s way to the front of the crowd. It was drawn by six absolutely gorgeous, explicitly well bred horses that even covered in mud sent a jolt of appreciation up her spine. The wagon itself was fine, carved wood with beautiful detail and gilded edging, and it’s driver was a man who would have easily topped Xena by a head dressed in fine silks covered with an embroidered cape of very good quality. He had a finely shaped, very arrogant face, closely shaven, with pale, fine hair cropped close to his skull.
He pointed at Xena. "Move that thing."
Xena idly wondered what he would do if she chucked the chakram at him and removed his cape the hard way. Die, probably. She sighed, and shook her head, then returned her attention to the horses. "Only one way this is going to happen." She told the carter, who was now looking nervously at the noble behind them. "Sorry about the tack." She drew her dagger from her boot and approached the horses carefully. "Easy… " She caught the eye of the nearest animal, who stared at her fearfully. "Easy, boy." Xena kept her voice low and reassuring as she came within the reach of it’s legs. "I’m not gonna hurt cha."
The animal stirred, and she paused, holding her free hand out to it’s nose, and hiding the blade with her other hand. "Just relax."
The big nostrils flared, covered in foam and mud, and caught her scent. A soft snort emerged. "That’s it, big boy." Xena injected a certain warmth into her tone. "Just take it easy.. we’ll get you out of here." She was close to the animal now, almost close enough to reach the harness cutting into the horses’ skin.
Gabrielle pushed her hood back, ignoring the rain as she watched Xena’s cautious approach, keeping one eye on her soulmate and one on the crowd now pressing closer. After a moment, she freed her staff from it’s holders and hopped down the embankment, easing her boots through the mud to avoid the loud sucking noises that might startle the animals.
"All right… I’m just gonna cut you loose here.. " Xena extended her hand slowly towards the beast’s neck.
Gabrielle saw the motion, and whirled, lunging forward but the mud had trapped her and made her just miss her blow.
"I said move!" The man driving the ornate cart had pulled out a huge bullwhip and with a powerful moment of his arm snapped the end viciously forward, lashing the whip over Xena’s head and striking the horse on the neck.
With a scream, the horse convulsed, plunging frantically in the mud and flailing it’s huge legs. Xena dodged with almost ethereal speed, but the mud fouled her just as surely and she was unable to free her left leg in time to avoid being slammed in the knee with a powerful kick.
"Xena!" Gabrielle pulled herself free and swung her staff, whacking the man in the hand with a loud crack and making him drop the whip. She turned as she heard a hollow, horrible crunching sound, and saw the warrior’s whole body jerk and almost go down. For a second she froze, then she turned her head towards the now screaming driver. "You centaur’s butt hair!" She bellowed at the top of her voice, as the man grabbed his hand. "Jerk!" Then she bolted towards the downed wagon, churning through the mud and shoving boxes out of her way as she reached Xena’s side.
The pain was incredible. It was like someone had shoved a fire hot poker right through her leg, and Xena had all she could do just to remain standing. She shifted her weight to her other leg and reached out to grab hold of the wagon, hoping the horse would just settle down and not kick her again. Her ears picked up the cracking sound she immediately recognized as a staff hit, then she heard her partner cursing, and seconds later a hand gripped her upper arm, the touch not triggering even her most rudimentary reflexes. "Borrow your staff?" Xena managed to say, through very gritted teeth.
"Here." Gabrielle curled her hand around it, getting a supporting arm around her as the warrior used the staff to take her remaining weight off her injured leg. "Son of a bacchae."
"Yeah." Xena agreed shortly. "Okay.. give me a minute here, and I"ll get that damn horse loose." She steeled herself and flexed her leg, then stopped that immediately when she felt the blood drain out of her face as the pain almost made her pass out. "Okay, bad idea."
The carter approached her timidly. "I… I’m sorry… "
"Not your fault." Xena drew in a breath, then turned her head as she heard someone approaching. Sure enough, it was the whip handler, who was heading towards Gabrielle with a furious look on his face. "I’ll have the law on you… I’ll have you arrested you little…!"
"Me?" Gabrielle shot back. "You’re the idiot with the whip, remember? I should have you arrested for being that stupid!"
Xena’s eyes narrowed, and she shifted the staff to her left hand, unclasping her cape with her right hand and letting it fall open as the man approached. She reached over her head and drew her sword out as he came within reach, and she swung the weapon, turning it flat on just at the last moment and smacking him across the face with it.
He stumbled backwards, and now all the noise seemed to stop except for the ceaseless patter of the rain and the rumble of thunder.
The wind blew Xena’s hood and cape back in a flutter of fabric and exposed her armor, and the chisled, angry features. "Shut up." She told the man, in a low, raspy voice. "Or I’ll cut your tongue out and force the issue."
Gabrielle took a breath, recognizing a note seldom heard recently in her partner’s tone. She put a hand on the warrior’s arm, feeling the muscles like iron bands under her touch.
The man stared at her, one hand going up to his face in reflex, where a huge red welt was rising on his shaven cheek.
"Now." Xena went on. "You’re gonna go back to that wagon of yours and sit there, and wait for me to finish getting these damn horses out of the damn mud, so we can all get the Hades out of here. Is that understood?"
"I have to get to Athens." The man muttered.
"We all have to get to Athens." Gabrielle said, calmly. "But we can’t until we get this out of the way. You’re just making it take longer."
Xena slowly sheathed her sword and turned back towards the horses. She glanced at Gabrielle, then handed her the staff. "Here. Anyone gets close, clobber them."
"Don’t you.. " The bard watched as her partner walked towards the horse, all outward signs of injury well hidden. "I guess you don’t." She turned and faced the crowd. "Okay. When Xena finishes with the horses, we’re going to have to move these boxes. Why don’t we start doing that, so we can move as soon as the wagon’s out of the way?"
Sullen faces looked back at her, and she briefly wished she were just about anywhere else. "Now?" She looked right at the closest man, who threw up his hands, but trudged over to the stack of boxes and took the first one, walking to the side of the road and throwing it up onto the embankment.
"Hey!" The carter rushed forward anxiously. "Be careful!"
Pain was relative. Xena steadfastly pushed the agony out of her mind as she slowly lowered herself into the mud next to the now exhausted horses, and started cutting the leather holding them in place. She swallowed a few times, as her stomach threatened to convulse in reaction to her injury, but kept cutting, until all the traces fell free of the animals. Then she shifted her weight to her good leg and straightened it, holding on to the wagon as she let her bad leg extend and the resulting pain brought tears to her eyes.
Oh gods. She drew in a breath, then released it. This was a bad one.
The pain steadied after a moment, and she moved slowly back out of the horses’ way. "Okay, boy. C’mon now." She coaxed, ignoring the activity she could feel at her back. "Get on up there."
The horse lifted his head from where it was resting in the mud and whickered a little, then rolled over, apparently realizing he was no longer tied in place. He staggered up first on his forelegs, then hind legs, and stumbled forward through the mud, away from the wagon. His trace mate followed after a moment, clearing the road halfway. Xena glanced at the overturned wagon, then she whistled softly, reaching up a hand as Argo plunged through the mud to her side. "Hey girl."
Argo whickered anxiously, and nuzzled her.
"Yeah, I’m not doing too good." Xena shifted her grip from the wagon to the mare’s saddle, then she gathered her strength and, taking a deep breath, pulled herself up and into the saddle, swinging her good leg over Argo’s back and almost passing out from sheer relief as she took her weight off her injured knee.
Gabrielle had organized the unwilling crowd and most of the boxes were moved, some of the smaller carts already ignoring the pleas for aid and moving around the workers, forcing their way through the gap. Gabrielle broke off what she was doing and came quickly to Argo’s side, laying a very gentle hand on her leg and peering up at her anxiously. "Good job." Xena indicated the boxes.
"Can we get out of here?" Gabrielle asked softly. "Let them sort the rest of this out, Xena. We need to get you to a healer."
The warrior could feel her leg swelling under her armor, and had to reluctantly agree. "Yeah." She nodded. "Good idea.. I don’t think I’ve got the stuff to handle this one."
Gabrielle turned pale at the words, and whistled for Iolaus, who came to her side after threading his impatient way through the rudely pushing stream of travelers. Without a sound, the bard hauled herself up into the stallion’s saddle and they joined the trickle heading through the gap they made.
"Wait! We can’t get through there!" The outraged driver of the big wagon yelled.
"That’s your problem." Gabrielle yelled back. "Jerk!" She felt her temper very close to snapping, as she followed Xena’s tense form, seeing the warrior’s knuckles whiten as she gripped the saddlebow ahead of her.
It started to rain even harder.
They got past the narrow point and the crowd spread out. Xena edged Argo over to one side of the road and Gabrielle stayed close by her, her mind so wrapped up in worry she didn’t even see the cloaked figure that fell in behind them and settled in at the same pace.
The road was getting more and more crowded, and Gabrielle was spending most of her time making sure she was between Xena and the rest of the people jostling their way into the city of Athens. Given a choice, she’d have gotten off the road all together, but a long history of attacks had driven the Athenians to build fortifications up around the road as it approached the gates, forcing anyone wanting to enter the city to travel down it.
It also made for an excellent route for rain to travel, and the mud was now up to the horses knees. Gabrielle was in some discomfort from the pain in her back, but it wasn’t nearly the discomfort she’d be in if she was trying to pull her boots out of the muck at every step.
Up here, she could keep an eye on Xena, at any rate. Gabrielle uncapped the waterskin at her knee and sucked on it, then she slowly leaned over and offered it to her partner, being careful not to move too fast and startle the obviously suffering warrior. "Hey, sweetie?"
Xena glanced at her, and straightened up, then reached out and took the bag, taking a sip from the water silently.
Gabrielle hurt just looking at her. Xena’s face was stark white under her tan, and her eyes blinked frequently, scattering the raindrops accumulating and dripping down from her hair. The bard could see her partner’s jaw muscles clenching repeatedly, and she hadn’t said more than a word or two since they’d started moving.
The rain didn’t help. The animals and carts surrounding them, filling the air with various stenches didn’t help. The yelling people certainly didn’t help. If she’d had a choice and the sheer physical ability, Gabrielle would have lifted them both up and over the wall they were traveling next to, and escaped out over the green grass to somewhere quiet, where Xena could lie down, and she could do her best to take care her.
Gabrielle glanced around, then she reached out and put a hand on Xena’s side, feeling the tension under her fingers as the warrior shifted slightly. "I think we’ve got some of those herbs left, Xe. The ones you gave me when I had that stomachache the other day… why don’t you take some?"
Xena drew a breath with obvious effort. "Not until we stop." She replied hoarsely. "Stuff knocks me out."
"So?" Gabrielle cautiously edged closer, very careful not to jostle her soulmate’s injured leg. "I’ll get up behind you and hang on to you, Xena. Gods know how long it’s going to take us to get up to those gates.. we’re hardly moving here."
For a moment, she thought Xena was considering it, and that scared her. Then the warrior straightened and pushed her hood back, exposing her head to the rain and scrubbing her fingers through her disheveled hair. "Nah. I’ll be all right." She handed Gabrielle back the waterskin.
Gabrielle nodded, and her lips tensed very briefly into a smile. "You want me to try and get the armor off at least? Must be killing you."
"Mmph." Xena glanced down at her leg, covered by a fold of her cloak. "I’m afraid to look, but yeah, maybe that’s not a bad idea." They had stopped dead for the moment, and she slowly eased her boot out of the stirrup, regretting it a moment later as a white hot dagger of pure agony lanced through her body and right up into her spine.
She uttered only the softest of grunts, and closed her eyes tightly, as Gabrielle maneuvered closer and slid off Iolaus, cradling her leg in one arm and easing it gently back into the stirrup. "Okay.. okay.. bad idea." The bard murmured, feeling a little sick to her stomach. "Sorry, honey."
Ow. "Yeah, me too." Xena said, as the pain slowly subsided, leaving red streaks on the backs of her eyeballs. She pulled her cloak to one side and studied her leg, the knee joint already swollen so badly the straps of her armor were cutting into her skin. "Nice."
Gabrielle swallowed, seeing the purpling bruise and the dried blood. "Let me cut those, okay?" She drew out the small dagger she carried at her waist, and carefully eased it under the strap, cutting in tiny motions so as not to jar Xena more than she had to. About halfway through the process, she felt a gentle touch against her head, and looked up, peering through a curtain of rain and her own tears, to see a face tense with pain looking back at her. "I’m trying to be careful."
"I know." Xena managed a smile. "Traffic’s moving again… just leave it."
Gabrielle looked behind her, then back at her task. "Just a few more seconds, Xe. I know it’ll make you feel better not to have this on there." She went back to her careful sawing, easing the very sharp blade through the worn leather until she felt it part beneath her fingers and come free. "There." She eased the knee armor back, and froze, as she saw the destruction underneath. "Oh… Xena."
The warrior stared bleakly at the injury. "Explains why it hurts so damn much." She remarked. There were bits of shattered bone extending through her skin, which was purple and black around the entire front of her knee.
"Wh.. what can I do?" Gabrielle whispered.
"Nothing, for now." The warrior sighed, a little at a loss. The pain was almost overwhelming, even the raindrops hitting her skin hurt. She felt like throwing up from it, and just the thought of what she’d have to go through to clean the injury and bind her own leg….
"Xe." Gabrielle grabbed her and held her upright. "Easy." She glanced around, glad they were in at least a tiny alcove, out of the main flow of the traffic. It moved by them obliviously, everyone intent on getting into the city before the sun set.
"Sorry." The warrior shook her head to clear it, then focused down tight and drove the knowledge of the pain out of her mind for the moment. "Let’s just get moving. We can’t stop here, and if I.. " She paused, as a jolt of pain worked it’s way up her leg. "Stop to take care of this, I’m not gonna make it."
Gabrielle turned and vaulted up onto Iolaus’ back, edging him into the traffic flow as Xena followed. "Okay." She agreed reluctantly. "But when we get someplace safe, you’re going to lie down and let me take care of that, whatever it is you need me to do."
That might help. Xena cautiously eased the edge of her cloak back over her leg, glad at least that the throbbing from the tightly strapped armor had dissipated. She couldn’t move the limb at all, though, and it worried her. She’d never had an injury to either of her knees, and she’d taken care to protect them because of how critical the joints were to a fighter.
Wouldn’t it just figure, she mused in disgust, that it wouldn’t be some hack warlord after all, but a damn horse that got her there? One she was trying to help?
How long would it take to heal?
Xena gazed out between Argo’s ears.
What if it didn’t? The warrior scowled at herself. C’mon, Xena. Cut that crap out and just suck it in and keep moving, willya? She looked up as a hand appeared in her peripheral vision, holding something curled in it’s fingers. Instinctively, she reached out her own hand, palm up, and found a small, golden orb dropped into it. Her eyes lifted to see mist green ones looking back at her through the rain, and she popped the honey candy into her mouth and smiled. "Wher’d you get that?"
Gabrielle smiled back. "My secret." She slowed Iolaus down so they were side by side again. "I've had to learn to hide them from Dori."
Xena sucked on the honey ball, it's familiar, sweet taste comforting all out of proportion to what it was. It didn't take any of the pain away, nor did it make it stop raining, but it did waken in her a memory of home, and Dori's childish squeals that put a smile on her face anyway.
For a moment. Then Argo lurched as she tried to free her hooves from the exhausting mud, and Xena had all she could do to remain in the saddle as her legs clamped down in unconscious reaction and she almost passed out from the pain.
Gabrielle grasped her elbow, and looked ahead of them, at the sea of slow moving carts and irritated people. "Gods." She exhaled, "Is this ever going to end?"
But it did, finally, and she was leading Argo up through the gates of Athens, where guards watched alertly and two of them crossed in front of them, holding up a hand in officious arrogance.
Gabrielle pushed her hood back and edged Iolaus forward, more than ready to do the talking. "Yes?"
"Your business here?"
The bard gazed at him. "What would you like my business to be here?" She asked, fishing out her pouch full of seals. "I can be a visiting Queen of the Amazons, the Chief Arbiter of Amphipolis, or a traveling bard whose scrolls are being archived in the Academy. Pick one."
The soldier blinked at her. Then his eyes went to the silent, dark figure at her side.
"That's Xena." Gabrielle stated simply.
The guard captain walked over. "Xena of Amphipolis?" He sounded mildly surprised.
"That's me." Xena agreed, gazing at him with quiet impassiveness, her hands resting on her saddlebow.
The two men backed up and got out of their way, in a very satisfying manner. Gabrielle counted her blessings and moved through the gates, glad when the guards attention was turned to the large, noisy wagon rolling in right behind them. "Okay. Now where." She glanced around. The city was…
Loud. Noise assailed her ears from all sides, and the streets seemed overly full of people and animals. Buildings rose to either side, stretching off into the distance. They passed a square, filled with market stalls and the sounds and smells that came with that, almost overwhelming Gabrielle with the pungency. "Whoa." She rubbed her nose. "I don't think I’m used to this."
"Mm." Xena leaned forward, taking her weight onto her shoulders for a few moments. "Too crowded. We probably need to go down hill." She indicated the lower section of town, with it's shabbier buildings and narrower streets.
Gabrielle scowled a little. "They should put you in the best room in that stupid palace up there." She stated.
Xena's eyes closed. "I'd settle for a haybale right now." She admitted. "Whatever you can get, Gabrielle. It doesn't matter."
Down the hill it was then, as they got through the bustling crowd, busy about the market despite the rain. Even the more obscure inns, Gabrielle discovered, were full to the rafters for the games, and it was only sheer luck and the fact that she found a woman with a soft spot for cute, desperate young blond girls that got them any space at all.
The inn was a very old one, it's walls well patched and shabby. Gabrielle dismounted and stretched her back out, then captured Argo's bridle as they came to a halt in the tiny yard outside the even tinier stable. She watched Xena glance down at her hands for a few moments, visibly gathering herself, then she slid her legs out of the stirrups and swung her body down off Argo's back, landing with her weight on her good leg. A grubby looking boy came out and looked at them curiously.
"Do you work here?" Gabrielle asked, one hand resting on Xena's back as the warrior simply stood there, hanging on to Argo's saddle. "We've got two horses here who really need to be cleaned and fed."
The boy nodded, and came to take the reins of the two animals. Gabrielle detached both of their saddlebags and slung them over her shoulders, then turned, offering Xena her staff. "Want to use this?"
A short nod.
Gabrielle led the way inside, one arm wrapped around her partner's waist, and they found the dusty, moth eaten room thankfully on the ground floor. She kicked the door shut behind them as she felt Xena start to collapse, then got her shoulder under the warrior's and helped her over to one of the two small pallets. "Here… sit down."
She eased her partner down onto the pallet, then very gently pushed her onto her back and carefully lifted the injured leg up onto the bed's surface. Xena wasn't resisting at all, and Gabrielle felt herself getting a little nervous, knowing the only time Xena accepted this kind of manhandling, or bardhandling as it were without question was when she was very sick, or badly hurt. "Easy, tiger." She murmured. "Just relax, and let me get this wet stuff off you."
It felt incredibly good just to be lying down flat. Xena felt an uncomfortable buzzing in her ears, and it felt much better just to close her eyes and let Gabrielle do whatever she wanted. She trusted the bard completely, of course, and besides, she could feel her wet, muddy clothing being stripped off her body, trading damp clamminess for a dusty warmth as the air in the room brushed against her bare skin.
Gabrielle managed to get Xena's heavy cloak off, then worked quickly to remove her metal armor, and the leather bracers that protected her upper and forearms. Then she knelt and untied the laces on her boots and slid them off, trying not to look at the horror of the injury now shockingly evident against her partner's skin.
She took a piece of linen from her pack and dried the rain off Xena's skin, watching the chest still inside the heavy leathers moving steadily under her touch. "Okay, tiger." She picked up one slack hand and kissed the back of it. "You need to tell me what to do now. Should I go get a healer? I don’t' think I’m really qualified to mess with this, Xe."
The dark head rolled towards her, and pain wracked, weary, bloodshot blue eyes appeared.
"I know it hurts." Gabrielle stroked her cheek with gentle fingers. "Do you want me to get you a healer?"
Xena gazed at her in silence for a few moments, then shook her head. "No." The warrior said. "Won't get one easily with that crowd… need to get this taken care of before it gets bad." She lifted her body up a little and propped herself up on one elbow. "Get water… my kit." A pause. "You'll need some sticks… bandages"
Gabrielle got Xena's kit, and put it in her hand, then took their largest waterskin and went out of the room and into the main area of the inn, searching for water. The patrons glanced at her muddy visiage, then looked away uninterested, which was more than fine with Gabrielle. She found the well just outside the door and sniffed the dipper, pouring the water into the palm of her hand and tasting it cautiously.
Yeah, it was Athens, but it never paid to take chances. The water tasted all right, so she filled the big skin with it, and made her way back to their room. Inside, she stripped off her cloak and left it in a sodden heap, then she ran her hand through her wet hair to get it out of her eyes and crossed to where Xena was waiting. "Okay." She studied the still, quiet figure on the pallet and knelt, putting her hand on the warrior's blood and mud stained ankle.
With an effort, Xena rolled onto her side, so that the injured knee extended over the edge of the pallet. "Wash it out good." She said calmly, curling her hands around the edge of the bed. "Especially where that bone's sticking out."
She knew it was going to hurt. She set her jaw firmly as Gabrielle uncapped the water skin and did as she asked, the cold water hitting her skin and entering the wound with a shock of pain so intense it almost broke her.
Breathe. Xena concentrated on not passing out. "Make sure all the dirt's out." She managed to say. "It's really im.. important."
"I know." Gabrielle answered softly. "I will, Xena, "
It was like someone was driving a dagger into her again, and again and again. Xena just held onto the bed and felt her muscles contract in agony. Iron will, however, kept her jaw clamped shut and her face impassive as she waited out the long, and excruciating process.
She felt an odd touch of warmth against the chill water and she forced her eyes open, worried that she'd started bleeding again.
Only to find warm tears falling instead, as Gabrielle's slightly shaking hands finished their work. The bard sniffled a little, and let out a breath, then turned her head and their eyes met.
"Sorry." Gabrielle whispered.
"It's all right." Xena could hear the strain in her voice, and knew the bard could too. "Now comes the hard part."
A breath. "I don't think I… "
"You can." Xena steeled herself and slowly straightened her injured leg, enduring the incredible pain that scraped along every bone in her body and made her want to scream. "Put that bone back in place." She held Gabrielle's eyes, knowing there were tears in her own. It was part of her kneecap, cracked and protruding from the gash in her skin. "Go on, sweetheart. It's all right."
Gabrielle forced herself to focus on the injury, pretending as hard as she could that the leg in front of her wasn't Xena's. Pretending she couldn’t feel what Xena was feeling, this close to her. Finally, she just took a deep breath and did it, fitting her fingers around the slippery, hard surface and acting on pure instinct, set it into place beneath the ragged skin that was seeping blood all over her hands. She could feel the faintest click when it fit, then she looked up, feeling her heart almost rip in two at the expression on her soulmate's face. "I.. it's done."
Xena collapsed back onto the pallet, her eyes shut tight, and her hands clenching and unclenching in helpless reaction. Gabrielle dropped what she had in her hands and reached for her, a tiny whimper emerging from her throat as she grabbed the warrior's shoulders and pulled her close, hugging her in an attempt at comfort.
It took a long time before the pain subsided enough for Xena to breathe normally, and she lay cradled in Gabrielle's arms, her eyes closed as her heartbeat settled down and she started the weary process of dealing with that level of damage to her body.
It had been a while. More than a year since she'd really had more than a scratch, and she'd gotten into the habit of not having to deal with pain like this. Her cheek was nestled against Gabrielle's stomach, and she could feel the still uneven jerkiness of the bard's breathing as her hands gently stroked Xena's hair. "Thanks." She murmured.
"Gods, Xena." The bard sniffled, hugging her a little closer.
"S'okay." The warrior said. "Jus put some herbs on it… cover it… take care of the rest later."
"All right." Gabrielle sounded very, very glad of that. "Okay, I can do that.. what else?"
Xena felt the pain rolling over her, and knew she had to surrender to it, at least for a while. She tangled her fingers in Gabrielle's skirt and nuzzled her a little. "Be here."
"Don't you worry about that." Gabrielle's voice filled her. "I'll be here."
Xena nodded a little, and relaxed, slumping into unconsciousness with only the tiniest of sighs.
Gabrielle sat there quietly for a few minutes, stroking Xena’s hair with shaking fingers. Then she eased the warrior down onto the pallet and sat down on the wooden floor, resting her elbows on her knees and her head on her forearm.
When you’re cut, I bleed.
She almost started crying again. But there was too much to do, so she put that off until later, and lifted her head, thinking about what supplies she’d need and what to do next.
"Well." She glanced down at herself. "Dry clothes probably would be a good idea." With a sigh, she got up, wincing at the soreness in her legs, and crossed to their bags, removing a clean, dry tunic from hers and stripping out of her traveling gear. She sat down on the unevenly legged chair and pulled her boots off, tossing them over with Xena’s for later cleaning. What else did Xena tell her to do? Oh.. right. She dug in their gear and found a bundle of arrow shafts Xena had been working on. She took them, and two long strips of cloth and went back to her soulmate’s side, sitting down on the ground next to her and studying the ugly wound in her leg. "I’m glad you’re out, honey." She murmured, then very gently eased the warrior’s leg straight.
It wasn’t easy. Xena had very muscular legs, and years of riding tended to turn them slightly outward. But Gabrielle persevered, placing one of the arrow shafts on either side of the joint and securing them with the strips of cloth to keep the limb in place.
Once she was satisfied, she then took more water and cleaned the wound again, making painfully sure she got out every speck of dirt she could see before she got out her needle and the thin gut she’d learned to dislike and stitched the ragged skin over the shattered bone beneath it.
Not all the way, though. Xena had taught her that last time. She left a small space open and dusted everything with the powdered herb from the warrior’s kit.
There. Gabrielle felt better once that was done, and she put the kit away. Then she studied Xena’s pale face, and noted the mud smudging her skin everywhere. She took the remaining water and some clean clothes, and knelt beside the bed again, this time to clean as much of her partner as she could reach without moving her. She started by wiping around her face and ears, then unhooked the shoulder straps on Xena’s leathers and rinsed the gray mud off her collarbone. "And you always yell at me for getting dirty behind the ears, huh?" She murmured softly. "Look at you, Xena. Covered in gunk."
She loosened the laces that held the leathers closed, but knew she couldn’t get them off without lifting Xena, or cutting them. So she wiped the long arms, then switched to a different piece of cloth to work on the even longer legs, which were coated in gray, dried muck.
Xena would, Gabrielle acknowledged, probably be upset at her for taking the time to do this. Cleaning the wound, yes, that was necessary. But Gabrielle was sure her partner would have rathered she made herself comfortable and got something to eat, and relaxed instead of spending all this time on her knees cleaning her off.
Gabrielle examined her handiwork. Serve her right for getting hurt. She decided, much happier with her now mostly clean, relatively comfortable looking patient. She got to her feet and put the soiled clothes by the other wet stuff. Now she just had to start a fire in the small firepit, boil some water for infusions, and.. Gabrielle grabbed for the back of the chair as a wave of dizziness swept over her unexpectedly. She held on until the world stopped spinning, then sat down in the chair and reached for her bag. "And eat something, you jerk." She rummaged out one of their trail bars and bit into it, resting her head on a hand propped against her knee as she chewed. Ever since she’d been pregnant with Dori, she’d been more prone to these spells, usually held at bay by her regular meals and schedule.
Today had been anything but regular, though, and she should have expected this. She swallowed and glanced at the still figure on the pallet. Xena would have reminded me. She realized wryly. She always remembers.
Almost as though she’d heard the thought, Xena stirred, her eyes fluttering open and blinking in confusion. Gabrielle scrambled over to the pallet and put a hand on her arm quickly
"Wh.. " The warrior lifted a hand to her head and rubbed her eyes. "Damn… did I pass out?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle rubbed the edge of her thumb over the Xena’s skin. "I’m sort of glad."
Pale blue eyes flicked to her face, then down the length of the bed, studying the splint. "Ah." Xena put her head back down and exhaled. "Good work."
"Feel any better?"
"C’mon, sweetheart. You don’t need to do the warrior princess routine with me, remember?" Gabrielle gently moved a bit of dark hair out of Xena’s eyes. "I’m going to make some soup for us, how does that sound?"
"Not hungry." Xena uttered.
"Ah ah ah." Gabrielle leaned on her elbows. "Would you let me get away with that?"
Xena’s lips twitched a little.
Gabrielle leaned over and kissed her on the shoulder. "I love you." She stated simply. "You know how much I hate when you’re hurting."
A hand traveled up and captured hers, and their fingers twined. "Yeah, I know." The warrior told her. "I’d love some soup."
With an amused twinkle, Gabrielle brushed her lips across the fingers clasping hers, and got up to retrieve her cooking things, aware of the eyes following her.
Xena shifted a little, then slumped back onto the pallet, tentatively taking stock of her condition. The pain, thank the gods, had subsided from truly horrific to something she could almost bear. There was a sharp ache in the joint itself, and trails of pain extended up and down her leg, but she realized that part of that was from the stitching Gabrielle had done, and the swelling constrained in the splint.
She lifted her head and studied it again, then cocked her head as she gazed down at her own bootless feet. "You cleaned me up."
"Mmhm." Gabrielle was busy at the fire.
"You didn’t have to do that, Gabrielle."
Xena rolled her head to one side to watch the bard. "Did you get something to eat?"
The smile was very evident. "Yeeesss."
"Before or after it was too late?"
Gabrielle turned and looked over her shoulder, a wry grin on her face. "It was a long day."
"I had a lot on my mind. You, for instance."
The bard stuck her tongue out, then turned back to her task.
Xena closed her eyes, wishing at least the pounding headache she had would ease. She tried to keep her mind off it by figuring out how their plan had to change now, tossing in this unexpected complication. Well, she considered. This really needed a good talker, and Gabrielle was better than she was at that anyway. Maybe the bard could handle this without her, and they could just hang around Athens until her damn leg healed enough to travel.
And how long was that going to take? Xena tried flexing her leg muscles, and immediately regretted it. Damn. What the Hades did I think I was doing anyway? Mucking around like that.. my damn mind is slipping along with everything else..
A hand cupped her cheek, and Xena opened her eyes. "That was fast."
Gabrielle sat on the edge of the pallet, and swirled a cup she held in her hand. "Soup’s not ready yet, but I think you’re ready for some help."
"Gabrielle, I’m not a child." Xena frowned. "I can handle this."
"I can’t." The bard looked her right in the eye. "And you’re making my guts ache, Xena. Please." She held out the cup, then got an arm around Xena to help her sit up when she took it. Gabrielle let her chin rest on the warrior’s shoulder as she drank the draught down, waiting for her to finish.
"There." Xena handed her back the cup and eased back down on the pallet. "Satisfied?"
Gabrielle laid the back of her hand against the warrior’s cheek, gazing at her compassionately. After a moment, Xena’s eyes flicked up to hers. "Sorry."
"And here I thought I’d have at least one day before you started going nuts." Gabrielle replied, with a smile to take any edge off the words.
She got a grudging smile back. "Getting impatient in my old age." Xena said.
The bard leaned over and kissed her on the nose. "Xena." She gazed into her eyes. "You were impatient as a toddler." She got up and went to stir the soup, which was sending wisps of nice smelling steam into the air. A ladle portioned some into a bowl, and she took a spoon with her as she returned to the pallet, to find her recalcitrant patient attempting to sit up. "Xena."
"Pouring soup over my head isn’t very effective." The warrior gritted her teeth. "Gotta sit up."
Stubborn. Gods help me if Dori inherited this in full measure. Gabrielle put the bowl down on the floor, then she slid in behind her suffering partner and settled back against the wall, pulling the warrior back down to rest against her. "C’mere."
"Gabrielle!" Xena protested, but between the pain and the herbs, it was just too much. She gave in and allowed the bard to cradle her, then relaxed as she realized just how much better that made her feel. She wasn’t sure whether it was just the angle, or the warmth of Gabrielle’s body, or… She let her head rest back against Gabrielle’s chest and accepted a spoonful of soup.
Why am I fighting this? The question occurred to her, as she swallowed the soup and felt the herbs starting to kick in and take the edge off the pain. "Gabrielle?"
"Mm?" The bard’s soft response was almost right in her ear.
"For what?" Gabrielle offered her another spoonful.
And Xena really had no answer for that. Thanking her partner for caring about her seemed so… obvious. Of course Gabrielle cared about her, and if their positions were reversed, she’d be doing exactly what the bard was doing.
So what was her problem, exactly?
Xena swallowed another tasty mouthful. Just a matter of her pride, that was all. She acknowledged wryly. Exactly where that damn horse had kicked her.
A wave of sleepiness hit her. The pain was fading fast now, as the world seemed to get farther away. She was vaguely aware of Gabrielle shifting, and the sound of the bowl being put in the floor. Past that, she could hear the thunder of rain on the roof, a soothing sound now that they were inside, and dry. Her eyes closed.
Guess I’ll worry about that damn pride thing later. She muzzily considered, feeling her body succumb to the herbs and relax completely.
Gabrielle waited until she sensed Xena’s breathing deepen, and even out. Then she settled herself more comfortably, letting her cheek rest against Xena’s hair.
It was very dark, when Gabrielle opened her eyes back up and blinked, a little disoriented at first. Gradually, her vision adjusted, and she shifted a little, turning her head to look out the small window.
It was still raining. She could see the sheets of water falling past, and a roll of thunder shivered the floor briefly.
The fire was burning low in the firepit, giving off a hint of smoky comfort into the room and a pinch of light for her to see by. Xena was sound asleep, slumped against her, and she could feel the slow, even breathing that indicated she was likely to stay that way.
Good. Gabrielle felt a sense of relief. Even the strongest herbs wouldn’t have kept her asleep if the pain had been bad enough, and the bard was hoping to give her partner’s body a chance to start healing.
It wasn’t exactly comfortable for her, of course. Xena was a good deal larger and heavier than she was, and she suspected her legs would be painfully asleep before morning.
But that was okay. Gabrielle pulled the dark head a little closer, and kissed it, feeling the slightest hitch as Xena’s breathing caught, then went on. "Did you feel that, honey?" She whispered. "Can you feel how much I love you, even when you’re sleeping so deep?"
The warrior moved a little, then reached out instinctively, curling a hand around the arm Gabrielle had clasped around her. "You can, can’t you?" The bard murmured, charmed, remembering a time much earlier in their partnership, when things had been so different….
It had been the first time, really, that she’d been consciously aware of herself as growing up. Growing past that little kid stage where she was willing to accept Xena’s lead in everything, and she’d started to question the warrior insistently, wanting to share in the choices the older woman made for them.
It had all started with a fork in the road, and they’d been arguing over the path Xena had chosen for two days. She’d noticed that the warrior seemed to be getting shorter and shorter tempered, but by this time Gabrielle had traveling with her long enough to have lost her fear of that, and she’d just pressed her point until Xena had simply stopped responding at all.
Which, of course, had been even more aggravating.
They’d stopped in a sandy dell surrounded by pine trees, by a tiny spring that gave her enough water to put up a pot of soup, and wash the grime off her face while she marshaled her arguments for her next attempt. She’d decided on a plan, then stood up and brushed her hands off, looking around for her target. Xena had seated herself against a tree a little ways off, and that made her frown, thinking the warrior was really trying to avoid her this time.
Had she gone too far?
Gabrielle had wrestled with her conscience for a few moments, then decided she wasn’t going to let Xena win this round. "Okay." She held up her hands. "Now look, I realize you’ve got a lot more experience than I do, Xena, but we’ve been at this for a couple years now, and it’s not like I’m still this wet behind the ears kid anymore, okay?"
No response. There had just been a cool, remote look on the warrior’s face, and that ticked her off even further. She started to walk towards her. "Xena? Do you even listen to me anymore? Do you have any idea what I’m saying to you? Do you care?"
Several body lengths away, Gabrielle had just had it. She stopped and put her hands on her hips and glared. "Xena!" That, at least, had got a response, as the pale eyes tracked to her face. "You want to just tell me what little infraction of the warrior princess code I broke this time, so I can write it down?"
"Gabrielle." Xena had finally answered, in a hesitant, slightly husky tone. "Please stop yelling at me." She’d asked the stunned bard. "My head hurts."
Gabrielle never remembered crossing those last few steps and dropping to her knees among the pine needles. She’d put a hand out and touched Xena’s forehead, only then, only that close seeing the glazed look in her eyes, and the gray pallor under her outdoor tan. "Gods, Xena." She’d whispered. "You’re burning up.. why didn’t you say something?"
"I don’t get sick."
Gabrielle had gently pushed the dark hair back off her forehead, meeting no resistance to her touch and realized just how long this had probably been going on.
But she’d been too busy arguing to notice. For a moment, Gabrielle had only looked down at the sand, then she exhaled and gave Xena’s arm a squeeze. "Wait here. I’ll be right back." She’d gotten Xena’s cloak from her pack, and shook it open, then walked back over and tucked it around the already shivering woman with careful hands. "Is there something I can get you, some herbs, that you can take to make you feel better, Xena?"
She’d gotten a completely unexpected answer.
"Feel a lot better if you’d get under here with me." Xena had murmured, her eyes fluttering closed.
Gabrielle had frozen absolutely still for a long moment, just staring at her, unable to believe what she’d heard. It was the fever talking, she immediately dismissed the thought. Xena had no idea what she was saying.
Cautiously, she put a hand out and touched Xena’s face, as though she were checking for fever, and felt the warrior lean into the touch, and sigh.
Gabrielle had sat back a little, trying to figure out what to do. She’d realized a few things in the last few minutes, one of the most important of which was that she was making the decisions at the moment, and Xena was trusting her to do the right things.
The other most important thing was that Xena might just have entrusted something she hadn’t really intended to the bard, with her normal emotional barriers down like they were. So Gabrielle had two choices, really. Pretend she hadn’t heard, or remember she had.
With a quiet sense of unreality, she’d gotten up and gone to the campfire, spreading out their bedrolls together. Then she went back to the tree, and gently helped Xena stand up and walk back over.
She’d sat down, and settled Xena against her, and put hesitant arms around her, feeling a quiet thrill as the warrior not only accepted her touch, but nestled closer, seeking comfort in a way Gabrielle had never, ever expected to see, much less have the opportunity to respond to.
"It’s okay." She murmured softly to her sick friend. "I’ve got you, Xena. I’ll take care of you, I promise." She felt the warmth of Xena’s breath as she exhaled, and tucked the edge of her cloak more closely around her shivering shoulders.
They’d stayed like that for a while, until she felt the chills stop, and Xena seemed to fall asleep.
In her arms.
Gabrielle allowed herself a few simple moments of wistful, sweet peace as she stroked the dark hair spilling over her chest. Xena’s head was nestled against her shoulder, so close, she could, if she wanted, lay her cheek down on it.
Would she ever have this chance again? Gabrielle slowly lowered her head, and felt the silky texture of Xena’s hair against her skin. She let out a held breath very slowly, and closed her eyes."I’m sorry I yelled at you, Xena." The bard murmured. "I don’t know why we always do that. Fight all the time, I mean." She’d stayed quiet for a few moments. "You were saying yesterday the reason you don’t listen to me all the time is because I don’t think about things enough. I don’t see enough about what’s going on to make the right choices." A sigh. "Well, I guess you were right, weren’t you? I was so busy fighting with you over that I didn’t even notice you were sick."
Xena had started shivering again, and Gabrielle had hugged her closer, giving her whatever warmth she could. "You’re not going to remember any of this, are you?" The bard said. "That’s really too bad, Xena.. it would make me feel good to know you knew you could count on me." She managed a tiny smile. "And that I’m not really a little kid anymore."
Held in her fever, Xena let out an almost subvocal moan, and several words, which Gabrielle could not decipher.
"I know." She sighed. "You’re probably saying shut up, Gabrielle, right?" Gabrielle put her head back down against her friends. "Well, at least you’ll know that someone cares… that I care about you." Pause. "A lot." Another pause. "Even if we fight all the time, don’t forget that, Xena, okay?"
An owl hooted overhead, and the fire crackled, sending a spark up towards the stars.
"I do care." Gabrielle had repeated, letting herself feel the intensity of the emotion Xena hadbeen stirring in her lately, nameless and powerful.
At least, it had been nameless.
Gabrielle gazed into the flames, her thoughts wrapped in a poetry she knew she’d never write. "I love you." She’d whispered, very, very softly, into all that night silence.
Fingers curling around hers sent a jolt all the way through her, and she lifted her head to peer at Xena. Her eyes were closed, her breathing hoarse, but even, she seemed deeply asleep.
And yet. Gabrielle's eyes went to her hand, now enveloped in Xena's, and pulled close to Xena's heart.
Had she heard?
It was a moment of timeless magic, even if it was the only one ever, and she owned it.
Gabrielle put her head back against the wall, letting the sound of the rain outside lull her back into a drowsy state. She was really glad they were inside, that was for sure. Around her, she could hear the soft creaks of the building, and realized it was very late by the absence of other sounds such as talking, or the clink of serving from the hall.
She closed her eyes. Sounds got louder as her other senses compensated, and she found herself listening to one particular set of creaks.
Just like the others, except these were softer. More persistent.
Coming towards them.
Gabrielle cocked her head and concentrated. Was she imagining it? The noises stopped, and she held her breath, waiting. Then she heard a very soft scuffing sound, just outside the door, and was in a dilemma. Should she wake Xena up, or just slip out and handle this? She could probably handle just about anything that was creeping outside her door this late a night in an inn in Athens, but…
A pressure on her wrist interrupted her thoughts, and she leaned forward a little. "Xe?" She uttered, in a bare whisper.
"I hear it." The softly burring answer came back. "Thief, maybe. He’s listening, deciding whether or not to come in."
Gabrielle cast a wry look at the ceiling. "What color are his boots?" She murmured into the warrior’s ear.
Xena’s frame moved slightly under her arms, as a chuckle silently shook her.
"Let me go check it out." Gabrielle carefully slid out from under Xena’s body and settled her down on the pallet, then she picked up her staff and, barefoot, walked in total silence to the door.
It was, she later remembered, the oddest of feelings, being the one to face danger, knowing Xena was watching her. She gripped her staff and paused next to the door, listening intently.
Was that breathing? Gabrielle’s brows creased.
Another creak. She slipped to one side of the door and raised her staff, waiting, her eyes on the edge of the wood. Her body tensed, fingers curling around the leather wrappings as she came over her center of balance, ready for anything.
She waited. Nothing happened. After a few moments, she tore her eyes from the door and glanced over her shoulder, to where Xena was lying, the warrior's eyes just the barest glints in the firelight. She knew Xena could see her, though, so she shrugged in question.
A soft grunt answered her. Gabrielle turned her head and exhaled, leaning closer and trying to focus her hearing as she'd been taught. She thought she still could hear breathing outside, but the other noises had stopped completely. Then a soft scuff alerted her and she stiffened, her jaw muscles clenching and her heart picking up in anticipation.
Creaks. Now moving away. The bard's brow creased again, but there was no denying it. The sounds got softer and softer, and eventually faded off into nothing. "Hmph." Gabrielle straightened up and curled a hand around her staff, feeling vaguely disappointed. "Well, Hades."
A soft chuckle came from the pallet.
Gabrielle sighed and turned around, making her way back over to the other side of the room. She rummaged in their pack and removed two candles with their holders and lit them, then stirred the fire a little to provide a bit more light. She left one candle on the table and brought the other back with her to the pallet. "What was that all about, I wonder?"
Xena had pushed herself upright, and was raking her fingers through her hair. "Ugh." She sighed. "Probably decided on an easier target. This room's at the end of the corridor.. easier to get trapped."
"Mm." Gabrielle gave the warrior's leathers a tug. "If you sit up a little more, I can get these off you."
"Got a better idea." Xena slowly eased her injured leg off the pallet, then swiveled, and got her good leg under her. Gabrielle realized what her intent was and got a shoulder under her arm as she stood shakily up. "Wh… hold on.. where the Hades do you think you're going?"
Xena grasped the bard's staff, and managed to remain upright as the pain of the blood rushing down to her leg hit her. "Nowhere." She gasped. "Just want you to throw the furs on that thing… straw's driving me nuts."
The bard quickly did so, spreading not only Xena's but her own sleeping furs on the pallet. Then she tugged the laces free on Xena's armor and eased it up over her head, careful not to upset her balance. "Hang on." She grabbed a clean shift and got it over her partner's head, it's soft folds releasing the familiar scent of home to both of them. "There." She helped Xena sit back down on the pallet, the warrior's face dead white, and her jaw rigidly set. "Okay… lie down, and … yeah." She eased the splinted limb back up onto the bed and knelt down.
Xena had her arm thrown over her eyes, and her fingers were flexing. Gabrielle knew better than to distract her when she was attempting to get control over herself, so she just took the warrior's other hand in hers and held it, remembering an echo of her earlier daydream and letting a faint smile cross her face.
A moment later, she felt her arm move, and looked up to see Xena pulling their joined hands upward, to rest gently against her chest right above her heart. Surprised, her eyes lifted and met weary blue ones looking back at her.
Xena managed a smile. "I love you, too."
A flash of lightning lit the room, sealing the scene in Gabrielle's mind's eye in silver and shadows, as a moment in her life beyond words and full of that same magic.
There would be a poem in it. Tomorrow.
The crowds were out early. Gabrielle slipped through them, glad at least that the rain had stopped, at least for the moment. Gray clouds were still lurking moodily overhead, but the weather had cleared enough to bring everyone out from under crowded roofs.
She paused in a crossroads, trying to stir her memories of being here years past. The city had certainly changed, had grown and spread out to twice the size it had been on her last visit. It was also a lot more full of people, most of whom seemed to be there to enjoy the games and whatever other entertainment they could find themselves.
That included drinking a lot, even this early, and looking for amorous adventures with the nearest good looking or sometimes not so good looking neighbor in the streets. Gabrielle evaded a couple of outstretched hands, though second looks in her direction tended to make the reaching fingers back off.
Gabrielle only hoped it was her businesslike air and Amazon war staff that caused the reaction. She ducked past a rolling delivery wagon and headed down a side street, following her ears towards the sound of the marketplace. She had a list of things she wanted to get, and by the looks of things it was a good thing she'd gotten out early. Some of the herbs Xena had asked her for were on the rare side, and she was hoping to get to the market stalls before either the weather or the crowd emptied them.
The one bright spot of the morning had been the reassuringly healthy look of the wound on Xena's leg. Though the swelling was still horrific, and the warrior was in very obvious pain, there was no reddening of the skin around the break, and the edges where she'd stitched were closed and already starting to heal.
Of course, there was a down side to that. Gabrielle exited the side street she'd taken and arrived in the market square. The large space was full of trader's booths, and there were already a number of people browsing among them. Not too many, though, the bard was glad to see. She started down the first row. The down side to Xena's injury was that the more quickly it started to heal, the faster the warrior wanted to have it be over and done with. The broken bone needed time to knit, but Gabrielle knew how restless her partner got when she was confined to bedrest, especially since they were in a strange place.
At home, maybe, she'd have a chance to keep Xena still for a few days. In Athens? In a ratty old inn with nothing really to keep her attention occupied?
Forget it. Gabrielle paused as she spotted a herbal stall, and changed direction towards it. The wizened woman inside it studied her as she approached, her thin hands sorting among the herbs idly. "Good day to you, citizen." She greeted Gabrielle politely.
"Morning." The bard replied, with a smile. "I've got a list here… "She named off six herbs, and got a raised eyebrow in return. "Do you have them?"
The woman chewed her lip. "Are you a healer?" She asked.
"Why?" Gabrielle asked, leaning on her staff. "Do you need to be to buy herbs here?"
"Most healers won't buy from the market." The woman explained. "So I wondered.. not that I won't sell to you, m'dear, but if it's your fortune you're looking to make here, best not be seen buying in the common stalls."
Gabrielle laughed in pure reflex, the sound drawing curious looks from the stall's neighbors. "Gods, no." She shook her head. "That's the least of my worries."
She dickered with the woman for a few moments, then paid her dinars, and tucked the precious herbs in her carrybag with a sense of relief. There, now her most important errand was done, and she could relax a little and maybe find some fresh fruit, and something to keep her soulmate busy for a day or two.
A hand touched her arm, and Gabrielle whirled, her staff shifting automatically into a defensive position. She found herself looking at a young man with curly brown hair and a snub nose, who was studying her with puzzled, fascinated eyes. Something about him struck a chord of memory, and she studied him in return for a long moment.
"Gabrielle?" He hazarded. "It is you, isn't it?"
A moment of blankness, then she exhaled. "Euripides?"
He smiled. "Yes."
One of the young friends she'd made during her very brief stay at the Academy, who had struggled with her through the bard's competition. Euripides had stayed on after she'd left, to learn the bard's trade. "Wow. It's been a long time." She murmured. He was dressed in a thick, very good quality white toga, with golden braids, and he'd grown a little over the years.
"It sure has." He agreed softly. "I almost didn't recognize you… but I’m glad I did, because we were all talking about you the other day, and we wondered… "
Gabrielle gently pulled him out of the flow of traffic as a cart almost ran them over without regard. "I wondered a lot about you guys too." She said. "I was going to drop by the Academy while I was here…. See if any of you were still around. I guess so, huh?"
"We're still here." Euripides seemed fascinated by her, his eyes studying her over and over again. "I can't believe you're here.. you've changed so much."
Gabrielle felt a little self conscious. "Have I?" She shrugged slightly. "Well, it's been a while.. you look pretty different yourself."
Euripides abruptly realized he was making her uncomfortable. "Gods, I am sorry, Gabrielle. You must think me a complete boor for standing her staring like a rank neo." He glanced down the row. "Can I buy you a cup of wine? I'd love to hear what you've been doing.. I mean.. " He laughed a little. "We all know what you've been doing, with your scrolls and, all but…"
Gabrielle hesitated, then recalled their second mission in the city, and judged she could spare a few moments to catch up and maybe get some information. Euripides at least seemed to know what was going on in the city. "Sure." She shifted her staff to her other hand, and joined him as they walked down the narrow way. "City sure looks different."
"Oh, yeah." Her old friend nodded. "It's growing like anything. We've got so much new building going on.. the new theatre, and all that." He looked pensively at the ground, unaware of the sharp, green eyes studying his profile. "It's great."
"It's strange to come back here, after all this time." The bard commented. "I remember how I felt coming here way back when, and how incredible I thought it all was." She paused, seeing something in a stall. "Hold on a minute.. I need those." She crossed the path and entered a small tent, it's roof a glorious patchwork of every old cloth it's owner apparently had ever come across.
Scattered over the uneven, old wooden table were eclectic piles of carved items, in varying shades of wood. Gabrielle picked up three intricately interlocked puzzle balls and gave the man behind the table a look." How much?"
"Ah.. them's just the thing for the little ones, eh?" The man cackled, and rubbed his hands. "Keep em busy round the clock, those will."
Gabrielle held back a grin. "Oh, I hope so." She agreed.
Eurpides stepped closer. "Did you.. I mean, you've got kids?" He sounded a little surprised.
Gabrielle paid the vendor for his puzzles, and tucked them in her bag before she took her friend's arm and led him back out onto the path. "I have a daughter. Her name is Doriana."
"Oh." He ran a hand through his brown curls. "So.. who's the lucky guy?"
The bard's eyes twinkled. "Xena." She kept walking.
Gabrielle continued along the row, knowing he'd eventually catch up to her. She got all the way to the first fruit and vegetable stall before he finally did, slowing his pace and approaching her uncertainly as she browsed amongst the summer melons.
"G.. gabrielle, I don't… um… I'm kind of trying to…"
"Don’t." Gabrielle replied, selecting some gorgeous pears. "C'mon, help me carry these, and I'll try to explain."
They moved off to the next cluster.
The sound of a goat's bell came clearly in the window, along with a humid breeze that stirred the dark hair on Xena's head as she lay quietly on the room's pallet. Her eyes were closed, but she wasn't sleeping. The pain had taken to coming and going, and it was in it's coming phase, the ache building to a sharp lancing that traveled up her leg and into her groin.
She took a deep breath, trying to will it away, suspecting that the swelling around the joint was what was causing her the most agony.
"Ow." Xena muttered. "Stupid son of a bacchae." After a few minutes of crescendo, the pain started to lessen and she let her eyes open, gazing listlessly across the room, indulging in a childish wish that Gabrielle would get back and at least help take her mind off the damn thing.
An idea struck her then, and she eyed their saddlebags across the room, weighing the effort she knew it would take to get to them against the mind numbing boredom she was suffering under, even though the bard had only been gone for less than two candlemarks. She decided it was worth it, and slowly eased her leg off the pallet, letting it rest on the floor while she swung herself upright and got her good leg under her.
Getting up was a little tough, but she managed it, using her innate sense of balance to shift her weight. Carefully, she planned her route, reaching out first to the chair Gabrielle had left nearby and using it to steady her progress as she hopped over to the bags.
Gods, it hurt. Xena felt her aggravation rising. But she had the bag now, and she turned slowly and started to make her way back to the pallet. She found herself sweating bullets as she reached it, dropping down on the narrow surface and leaning back against the wall for a moment to let the waves of pain fade.
Damn it. She gazed in disgust at her leg. Of all the stupid, idiotic ways to get hurt. Xena plucked at the sturdy bandage holding the splint in place. It had been a long time since she'd broken anything like this, and she'd forgotten just how much it handicapped her.
Pain wasn't something that generally bothered Xena. She was used to it, after a lifetime of fighting, she'd had her share, and more than her share of injuries of all types. Cuts, bruises, the odd cracked rib here and there, arrows in the gut.. she'd seen it all, and carried on doing what she had to do despite dripping blood over everything.
It was one thing to ignore the pain of a four inch gash in her side, but an injury like this, where the limb would not bear her weight was something else, and she knew until the swelling went down and the joint started to heal, walking was going to be a problem.
So. Xena folded her arms over her stomach. She'd need a crutch. For a crutch, she'd need sticks. For sticks… Her eyes wandered over the room, to where the window let in gray light. Ah. Outside the window there was an olive tree. She dug their wood ax from her pack and hauled herself up again, hopping over to the window and almost crashing headlong into the wall.
The sill was at her shoulder level, and she put the ax on the sill before she curled her hands around the wood and pulled herself up, laying on the sill on her belly and peering out at the tree. She studied the branches with a critical eye, then reached out and grabbed one, picking up the ax with her other hand after looping the thick gut cord tied to it's haft around her wrist. Trusting her balance, she swung the ax, chopping through the springy wood with the muscular power of her upper body without the benefit of leverage.
The branch suddenly cracked, and she tensed, shifting her body weight back and pulling the branch back with her. Another cut and it was free. She jerked it inside and dropped it, then scanned the tree for her next victim. The best choice was just out of her grasp, though, and she frowned at it for a moment.
Then she loosened her grasp on the ax and swung it around her wrist, leaning forward and aiming carefully. The ax whirled over the branch and fell on the other side of it. She drew it back and it caught it's edge on the wood, pulling the branch back towards her. She grabbed it with her other hand, and, with a smirk, set about chopping it's base.
This one broke unexpectedly under the strain, and Xena had to slam her good knee up against the wall under the window sill to keep herself from toppling out, but she succeeded in keeping her balance and pulled herself back inside the room, lowering herself gingerly to the ground with her prize.
Her body was not happy with her. The throbbing in her bad knee was now sending intense jolts of pain straight up her spine, and her ribs hurt from the contact with the sill. Ignoring this, Xena grabbed the other branch and hopped back to the bed, collapsing on it with a heartfelt groan she'd never have let pass her lips had anyone else been present.
Not even Gabrielle.
Xena eased back against the wall and got her leg propped up, wincing at the now seeping blood rolling down from the gap the bard had left. She took a piece of linen from her kit and held it over the gash, then she picked up the cup of herbs Gabrielle had left at her bedside and swirled them around before she put it to her lips and took a healthy swallow.
They left a bitter taste in the back of her mouth, but she welcomed the taste, willing the painkillers to start working on her mostly empty stomach. She closed her eyes and waited, breathing slowly and evenly until the waves of agony began to subside.
She put the cup down, and shifted, getting as comfortable as she could, then resolutely pushed the rest of the pain out of her mind and started working on her branches. The scent of bruised leaves filled the small room as she trimmed the wood carefully, littering herself and the pallet with smaller branches, leaves, and curls of bark.
When Xena was done, she had two long branches of even length. She studied them intently, then laid the end of both on the edge of the pallet and chopped at them with pinpoint accuracy, shaping the bottoms into slanted points. After she had them how she wanted them, she fitted the ends to each other and lashed them together with a piece of tough gut from her armor repair kit.
Then she had to stop and rub her eyes, as the herbs took a stronger hold on her, putting a hazy layer between her and the room. She let the joined sticks rest across her hips and fished in her saddlebag, finding a pear and a piece of dried venison inside. She set the pear on her stomach and chewed the venison, her eyes half closed as she listened idly to the sounds outside.
She heard angry voices, and the sound of a door slamming, then a series of loud whacks as though a filled sack was being hit.
Then a child's scream.
Xena's eyes popped wide open and she was on her feet before she had time to think about it, heading for the window in a series of powerful hops. She grabbed the sill again and hauled herself up, her head snapping one way then the other as she searched for the source of the noises.
A wagon stood outside, with two muddy mules hitched to it. The back was loaded high with anonymous boxes and as she watched, a man came from around the back of it, dragging a young boy by the arm. The boy was crying, and even from where she was, Xena could see a red welt on the side of his face from being struck. The man threw the boy up into the front of the wagon, then grabbed the lead mule's cheekpiece and cuffed the animal in the face, causing it to start and plunge ahead, pulling the wagon after it.
The warrior's eyes narrowed., and her jaw clenched, but she faced reality and realized that now that the scene was over, there wasn't much she could do about it. Then she paused, and her sense of humor lifted it's head. "Oh, and what were you going to do before that, Xena? Jump out the window and fall on the bastard?" She slid back down inside the room and hopped back to the bed.
At least the excitement had offset the somnolence of the herbs, she reasoned, as she sat back down and picked up her crutch, raiding her supply of arrow shafts to finish it. She whittled out notches in the two sides and fit three bound shafts into them to form a place for her hand, then she lashed another three across the top to support her under her arm.
When she was finished, she regarded her handiwork critically. "Well, it's crude.. but it'll work." Xena finished off the crutch by wrapping the top in a bit of leather and attaching a piece of old copper plate from her armor over the tip so it wouldn't splinter, securing it with a few of Argo's extra nails tapped in with the back of her ax.
Then she sat back and glanced around the room. "Now what?" Her eyes fell on her pear, which had rolled off her and bumped against the far wall. With a grunt, she hauled herself up once again, and fitted her crutch under her arm, easing her weight onto it as she tried a step.
It was awkward, but she'd judged right and made the support tall enough to keep her injured leg off the floor as she hobbled carefully across the room to retrieve her errant fruit. She made her way back and bit into the pear, holding it in her teeth while she shook out the top sleeping fur, sending leaves and twigs scattering all over the floor. Then she laid down and relaxed, glad the herbs had the pain under control, and she'd done something useful with her morning.
She dug in her bag again, and this time fished out a small, leather bound volume, opening it to a page at random and studying the words inside it.
The sun felt very warm on Gabrielle's back, and she briefly wished she'd forgone her sedate, rust colored knee length tunic for her Amazon style garb. She and Euripedes were seated just off the plaza in a small courtyard, nibbling on a tray of fruit and cheese and sharing a flagon of chilled wine.
"I know it seems pretty strange… ." Gabrielle sipped her wine. "But it's true. We really have settled down in Amphipolis. That's why I'm here, to talk to the council about our taxes."
Euripedes fiddled with a grape. "But… what about your stories?" He glanced at her, then away. "I thought you told us that's where your destiny was.. out there on the road, doing things.. helping people…"
It stung a little. "We still help people." Gabrielle retorted. "What do you call defeating Andreas and his army? We certainly saved your Athenian butts."
Her old friend looked abashed. "Oh, you know what I mean, Gabrielle." His tone was concilatory. "After all, YOU were the one who said all that stuff. So what happened?"
What happened. Gabrielle sighed. "What didn't happen?" Her lips tensed into a slight smile. "I grew up, for one thing." She lifted her eyes to meet his. "And I learned a lot of hard lessons."
"I'm not the kid who faked her way into the Academy anymore." Gabrielle went on. "I haven't been for a while… but I still have a lot of stories left to tell, Eurpides. She paused, eyeing him with quiet speculation. "What about you?"
Gabrielle nodded. "What have you been doing? What's going on at the Academy… you know, that kind of thing. How's everyone else?"
"Oh." Unaccountably, he looked at his hands. "Well, things are great, you know?" He said. "We've all done pretty good… getting our stories read at the theatre.. and hey, one of mine's being done as a play."
The bard smiled. "Congratulations."
"Yeah." Euripedes murmured. "Then, of course, there's the big competition.. but you know all about that I guess.. matter of fact, I sort of thought maybe you'd come to Athens to join in."
Gabrielle's pale head inclined towards him. "Competition? No, I hadn't heard about it. What's it for?"
"Well, for everything… whoever wins will be the Great Bard of Athens… they'll get to administer the new theater, get the council stipend, you know, the works." He leaned forward. "They're set for life… the council decided to have the competition during the games, that way they're guaranteed the best audience."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle bit into a slice of pear thoughtfully. "Competition must be pretty fierce."
"Oh yeah." Her friend looked vaguely unhappy. "It's kind of put us all against each other… I mean, I know that's natural, but we'd…." He searched her face. "It's been a long time since we all stuck together for you, that's for sure."
"I guess we've all changed, then." Gabrielle said, watching his face thoughtfully. "How's Homer doing?"
Euripedes frowned immediately. "He finally gave up." He shook his head. "Picked up his scrolls and left.. a few sevendays ago. Can't say I blame him much."
Could it be really that simple? "Wow."
A scuffed step made them both look up, only to find a pair of shapely hands appear on the table, attached to a beautiful woman now leaning over them. "Well, well, Euro. Who's your friend?" The woman asked, in a low, throaty voice. She was tall, and had intricately braided chestnut hair that framed an oval shaped face with deepset dark brown eyes.
Gabrielle noted several things at once. One, the woman's presence made her old friend tense and wary. Two, that he was afraid of her. And three, that she was being studied hungrily like a bug under review by crow.
Her nape hairs prickled in pure reflex, and she resisted the urge to stand up and move out of the looming woman's shadow.
Euripedes looked at Gabrielle and spoke quickly, almost stumbling over his words. "Oh, she's just a friend, Celesta. From the provinces. Up to see the games, you know." He put a hand on Gabrielle's arm and squeezed almost imperceptibly. "You're out early."
The bard's eyebrows lifted, but she remained silent.
Celesta settled a hip on the edge of the table. "Not to see the plays? You're not importing ringers to vote for you now, are you, Euro?"
"No, sorry." Gabrielle cut in smoothly. "I didn't even know you were having a competition… are you in it, too?" She kept her tone politely interested and her expression friendly.
Celesta chuckled, a very melodic sound. "In a manner of speaking, yes." She agreed, focusing almost completely on Gabrielle now. "Maybe you could come and see a rehearsal.. I’m sure it's something you don't get to see a lot of out in the .. provinces."
"Very true." Gabrielle smiled. "Thanks for the invitation."
"Anytime." The woman stood up, and returned the smile meaningfully. "Noon, at the theatre. Be there." She sauntered off, the soft, drapy white fabric of her toga outlining a slim, but muscular form with just a hint of a swagger to it.
Gabrielle watched her go, then turned and pinned Euripides with direct, intense eyes. "Okay." Her voice took on a sterner note. "What the Hades is going on here?"
Her old friend hesitated.
"You didn't tell her who I was for a reason." Gabrielle went on. "So what was it? Who is that?"
He looked around, then leaned closer to her and lowered his voice. "That's Celesta."
"Thanks, I'd gotten that far myself."
"She's a native of Athens… her family's one of the richest, most important ones in the city." He continued on.
"What a surprise."
Euripides blinked at her. "You've gotten a lot more cynical."
"I've lived a lot more." Gabrielle said. "Go on."
He fiddled with his cup, then nodded. "She came to the Academy about a year ago.. her father bought her a spot there." Euripedes said. "She's sort of …" He paused. "I mean, she's come up with some okay stories, but…" Another pause. "What she actually does is kinda… well, she just runs over anyone who tries to compete with her."
The bard rested her chin on her fist. "Uh huh."
"So, she's going all out to win the Bard of Athen's title." He sighed. "She probably will, too."
"But not because she has the best stories." Gabrielle guessed. "Is that why Homer left?"
He shrugged. "I guess… he didn't talk to anyone before he took off. He was the one we'd all figured to win before that though - some of his stuff is so good, Gabrielle. " Euripides gave her an unhappy look. "She just got too much for him, I think. She stole all the best players because she could pay them, and had the best rehearsal times.. she bought great costumes… he just couldn't compete with that."
"Uh huh." The bard murmured.
"So, I figured telling her who you were wasn't a good idea." He said. "She'd figure you were here to mess her up, and you probably don't want that kind of trouble, right?" His eyes traveled over her face, which had gone still and thoughtful. "I mean, it's bad enough she noticed you.. and she did notice you, Gabrielle. She's got a thing for..um.. "
"Hicks from the provinces?" Gabrielle asked wryly.
"Good looking blonds." Euripides answered, with an apologetic grin. "She's got quite a reputation."
Gabrielle acknowledged the compliment with a smile.
"Well… speaking of, I'd better get back." He sighed. "It's almost time for my rehearsal." They both stood up, and Gabrielle shouldered her carrybag, now full of purchases. "Listen, Gabrielle…"
"I'll stop by." The bard interrupted him. "But um… I think it should be a surprise, don't you?" Her green eyes twinkled a little.
He grinned back. "Absolutely." Euripedes put a hand on her shoulder. "See you later, okay?"
"Okay." Gabrielle watched him walk off. Then she cast a speculative eye around the square, mulling over her options before she nodded, and took a determined path back the way she originally had come.
A warm wind blew into the room, stirring numerous half curled leaves on the floor before it reached the still figure lying on the pallet. Xena's eyes were closed, and her hands folded over the small volume she'd been reading. Her breathing was slow, and very even.
Across the room, the door inched open cautiously. Eyes peered in, watching for a long moment, before the door opened wider and slim figure slipped in, dressed in dark, nondescript clothing. The figure's gaze roamed over the room, and settled finally on the saddlebag next to the pallet.
A smile creased the thin face, and the figure crept silently across the floor, placing each sandalled foot with sure caution, not making even the slightest sound. Halfway there, the intruder stopped and waited, studying the sleeping figure on the bed intently. Reassured, they continued forward, until the bag was within reach.
The figure knelt and reached a hand out, touching the worn leather and slipping fingers along it until they curled around the strap, gathering in the slack with expert skill. Then they straightened up, lifting the bag without the slightest scuff, and turned, starting towards the door with a look of triumph.
Until they found themselves held in place by an iron grip around the ankle.
The thief glanced back, to see sparkling blue eyes and a ferocious grin, and panicked. He lunged forward despearately, pulling with all his strength against the hold on his leg.
"Oh no." Xena growled, launching herself out of bed and grappling with him. Her weight threw him off balance, and they both crashed to the floor, knocking over the table in the room and sending the pitcher of water and the bowl on it flying in separate directions to shatter against the wood.
"Leggo!" He yelped. "Help!" He threw the bag he'd taken away and now just struggled for his life, kicking out and striking at the long arms that pinned him in place.
Xena rolled to one side and pulled him with her, then she grabbed his tunic and yanked him right over her body and onto the floor on the other side of her, almost knocking him senseless. He squealed and fought off her hands frantically, finally ripping himself loose of her by untying his tunic and wriggling out of it.
Then he scrambled to his feet and bolted out the door, leaving it open behind him.
Xena gazed a the tattered fabric in her hands, then tossed it into the corner and rolled up to a sitting position, wincing at the jolts of pain in her leg from the abuse of it hitting the floor. "Son of a bacchae." She grumbled. "Shoulda just chakramed him."
Footsteps sounded again, and this time her head jerked up and tilted, as she recognized the distinctive pattern. With a grunt, she pushed herself to her feet and hopped back to bed, lying down quickly and picking her bound scrolls back up and opening them as the footsteps reached the door and stopped.
For a moment it was silent.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's voice entered the room.
Xena peeked over the top of her book. "Hi."
"What on earth have you been doing?"
Innocent blue eyes widened as Xena put the scrolls down and pointed at her own chest. "Me?" She asked. "Nothing.. why?"
Gabrielle stood in the open doorway and surveyed the room. The wooden floor was almost obscured by leaves, branches, and bits of bark. The table was overturned. Shards of pottery were scattered across a bodylength size water stain, and the chair was upside down and missing a leg.
She looked at Xena. Then she just shook her head and closed the door behind her as she carefully stepped around all the debris and took a seat on the edge of Xena's pallet. "Xena, a naked screaming man just came out of this room." She remarked conversationally. "Are you sure you didn't have anything to do with that?"
One dark eyebrow lifted. "Just what are you suggesting here, Gabrielle?" Xena drawled. "He definitely wasn't my type."
Xena chuckled. "Our thief decided to have a second try." She admitted. "That's all."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle scooped up a handful of leaves. "What about these?"
Xena held up her crutch. "Thought I'd probably need this."
The bard examined it. "Oh." She touched the neatly made tip with a respectful finger. "Wow.. that's great, Xena. But I th.. " She looked at the crutch, then glanced out the window, then looked her soulmate.
Xena shrugged modestly.
Gabrielle just decided not to ask. Instead, she set her bag down and took Xena's hand in hers. "How are you feeling?" Her eyes flicked to the cup of herbs, which was now very empty. "Need more of that?"
"I’m okay for now." The warrior replied. "How'd the shopping go? Get everything you needed?"
"Got more than I bargained for." The bard told her, wryly. "That Homer thing is going to be more complicated than we thought."
"Gee." Xena poked inside her bag and fished out the lamb pocket sandwich her nose had already identified. "What a surprise." She took a bite and winked.
Gabrielle stuck her tongue out in response.
Continued in Part 5