A Matter of Pride
knew it couldn't last forever. Gabrielle sucked on the end of a quill, aware of
the slow movement of Xena's hand over her thigh. The warrior had figured out one
of her new puzzles, had some breakfast, taken a short nap - all while Gabrielle
had worked on her diary.
Now, Xena was awake and the bard could almost feel the restlessness coming from her. Not a lot, just yet, but definite, distinctive shifts of the warrior's long body, which was curled around Gabrielle's as the bard sat there writing.
Dori was the same way, Gabrielle acknowledged in amused silence. The baby would allow things to occupy her for only so long, before her attention would wander and she would be off to find something more interesting to do.
It was funny, in a way. Usually she didn't think too much about Dori's unusual parentage. But at times like this, when she saw Xena so clearly in her daughter, it brought the miracle of it home to her all over again. She leaned back, enjoying the comfortable warmth of her living backrest and draped an arm over Xena's hip. One of the warrior's long legs was hitched forward, the other was extended due to its splint. "Want me to change that bandage, hon?"
"Mm." Xena had her head propped up on one fist. "Yeah." Her body shifted slightly. "I was thinking of going over there and working things out a little."
Uh huh. Gabrielle supressed a grin. "Over where.. near the wall there?"
Xena nodded. "Yeah. Just warm up my body a bit. I'm... "
Gabrielle chuckled. "Okay, restless."
"Mmph. Maybe it's the weather."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle closed her diary and set the quill down. "C'mere, Let me look at you... .eek." The bard found herself unexpectedly turned up side down, her limbs tangling with Xenas, ending up with the both of them nose to nose and wrapped in linen. "Ah."
"So." Xena nibbled the soft skin just under Gabrielle's jaw. "Here I am." She caught the bard's earlobe between her teeth. "How do I look?"
Well. Gabrielle pulled a lace free and peeled back the linen covering the warrior's shoulder. It was one way to keep her in bed. "Gorgeous." She breathed, sending eager fingers under the shift to explore the warm skin beneath it. Her body, rested and relaxed, now woke up in a hurry, responding to the jolt of desire Xena's lips were igniting inside her.
Somehow, her shift dissappeared. The cool, moist air coming in the window felt good against her heated skin, and she felt goosebumps raise all up and down her back as Xena rolled her over and leaned on both arms above her for a moment, gazing down at her with a seductive, predatory look.
"I think I'm in trouble." Gabrielle murmured, as the long body sank to brush against hers.
"Yes, you are." Xena purred in one ear.
The bard gave her hands permission to wander, and pressed her fingers lightly against the warrior's frame before she stroked gently downward. Xena's ribs expanded towards her, and she felt the chill breath of the air tickle her bare belly just before the heat of the warrior's skin banished it explosively.
Soft growls distracted her, and she left her hands to continue their wandering as she concentrated on the lips that were moving down her collarbone in a series of licks and gentle kisses, pausing to pay special attention to her most sensitive places and wringing an inarticulate sound from her throat.
Xena chuckled, her breath warming the skin under her and continued her efforts, rewarded with a lower, deeper sound, and the sudden clenching of Gabrielle's fingers against her side. "Like that, huh?"
"Oh yeah." The bard answered, on a very uneven breath. "Do it again."
Another laugh, this one rich with affection. "Whatever you say, my queen." Xena did as she was asked, feeling Gabrielle's body lift and arch against hers as the bard gripped her and pulled her closer.
The warrior nipped a little harder, and was glad, for Gabrielle's sake, that the walls were very thick stone.
She only wished, for a moment, that her ears weren't quite so close or so
Xena lifted her head at the soft knock on the door, resenting the need for her to stir from the lazily tumbled nest she and Gabrielle had burrowed into after they'd tired each other out. She really didn't feel like moving – her body was sated and very comfortable. The restlessness that had started to make her itchy was completely gone, replaced by a sleepy sensuality that made her want to just close her eyes again, and put her head back down on
Gabrielle's belly while her fingers traced slow, lazy patterns across the bard's soft inner thigh.
Another knock. Xena glared at the door, and took in a breath. "What?" She projected a dangerous growl towards the door, sounding echoes of a certain warlord in days not that long past. "Better be worth your life if you knock again." She added for good measure.
Xena waited, then grinned as she heard footsteps retreating into muffled obscurity. With a contented sigh, she resumed her spot. Her eyes closed as she felt Gabrielle's fingers touch her neck, scratching it and kneading the muscles at the top of her spine. "Mm."
"That could have been someone with something important to tell us, y'know." The bard murmured.
"Don't care." Xena responded. "Whatever it is, can wait."
Gabrielle only wished she could stir up the energy to continue the protest. Instead, she started tracing the powerful ridge than ran down either side of her partner's spine. It wasn't often in their busy lives that they took a day out like this, and indulged each other. In Amphipolis, certainly, it would be fairly impossible given their responsibilities.
And, while a games compound in Athens wasn't exactly the most relaxed, romantic place she could imagine, still, it was raining, and it was quiet. Mostly. They had an acceptably comfortable bed, and each other. What more, really could she ask for? Gabrielle benignly eyed the still driving rain outside. "Hey. Maybe it'll keep raining, and they'll have to postpone the games."
A pale blue eye appeared as Xena turned her head and peered up over the curve of the bard's breasts. "You want to stay in Athens longer?" The warrior asked, in an incredulous tone.
"No." Gabrielle riffled her fingers through the warrior's bangs. "But I do want to see you go out there and kick the attitudes off some of those.... of those... " She paused.
"Walking fertilizer piles?"
"No. Fertilizer is useful." Gabrielle frowned. "I'll think of something later."
Xena seemed satisfied with that. Her eye closed again, though she squirmed around so she was now facing the bard. "Split nostrils?"
"What?" Gabrielle said.
"That animal you were describing. Split nostrils?"
"What animal?" The bard asked, then almost slapped her head in memory. "Oh... that animal." She truly had forgotten the game for a minute. "Split nostrils? Xena, I have no idea. I never got that close to it."
"Ah." The eye appeared again, sparkling with mischief. "So it's something you personally have seen."
"Before or after?"
"Where would I have seen something like that in Potadeia, Xena?" Gabrielle admitted, acknowledging the fact that giving that up meant she'd told Xena that Xena had, in all probability, seen the thing too.
"Ah." Xena wiggled her fingers, coincidentally tickling Gabrielle's belly.
"Was it cute?"
"In whose opinion?"
"Damn. That opens up the possibilities."
Gabrielle started laughing.
“We’ve got to find real shelter.” Ephiny yelled, keeping her grip on the lead horse’s headstall with difficulty. The animal was afraid, plowing through muddy, racing water up to his knees, and only the fact that he, and his partner in harness had an Amazon latched onto either side of them was keeping them from bolting.
“I know. But where?” Pony yelled back, wrestling with the other horse. “Eph, we’re losing ground here.”
They’d been caught by a rush of water, a flash flood that came down the road leading up to Athens, overrunning the edges of the stone lined way as the walls started to slope upwards forcing people to keep to it.
It was chaos. They’d already been struck by debris washing down from further up the road, and seen bodies floating by. The wagon was half adrift already, despite the weight of the frightened elders, and their supplies. Ephiny was seriously afraid now that they’d lose it all – and she knew if they lost their footing, no one’s safety was guaranteed.
Cyrene was perched over the driver’s seat, Dori lashed to her back, a grim, desperate look on her face as she balanced with difficulty, trying to keep the other villagers calm. Johan had joined them by the horses, his sturdy form just in back of Cait’s stubborn lightness, keeping the girl from tearing loose in the flood.
“Can we back down the road? Follow the flow?” Pony asked.
Ephiny looked back that way. The road had disappeared, replaced by a churning, brown nightmare full of anonymous, tumbling debris. They were huddled by one of the sloping banks where the flow was less, and she was afraid moving out into the current would be a disaster.
Staying where they were, being battered by everything that came at them was a disaster.
Moving forward was damn near impossible.
Ephiny freed a hand to swipe her drenched, curly hair out of her eyes. Being in charge really sucked sometimes. “All right.” She yelled. “Let’s see if we can turn the team around.” She pointed. “And Cait – get the Hades up into that wagon!”
Cait was already losing the battle with the water. “Bother that!” She glared at the flow, which was lifting her off her feet. “It’s not fair.”
Paladia edged around in back of her and grabbed her around the waist. “Wouldja get up there? You’re gonna float your butt away and end up getting your head cracked.”
“Hah.” Cait squirmed around. “Rather close on your getting yours cracked for grabbing at me without warning first.”
Paladia rolled her eyes.
“Oh, all right.” Cait grabbed the harness lying across the second horse on the driver’s side, and pulled herself up, slinging one leg over the animal’s back and taking a tight hold. “There. Now go do something useful, won’t you?” She gave Paladia sudden shove. “Jump!”
“What? Ow!” Paladia yelped, as an uprooted trunk slammed into her legs. “Sonofa…”
“Bother.” Cait gave her an exasperated look. “You never do listen.”
“C’mon.” Ephiny and Eponin turned into the current, side by side. They both moved cautiously, feeling for the road’s surface as they pulled the unwilling horses around and edged cautiously into the flood.
Ephiny felt her boot slip, and she cursed, then found her arm being gripped and her balance steadied. “Thanks.” She gave Pony a grateful look. The weapons master had slipped between the two front horses, along with Johan. Paladia was hanging grimly on to the other front horse, her height and weight denying the water and allowing her to gain headway against the flow.
The horses didn’t want to cooperate. The water frightened them, and the roaring sound was making them shy repeatedly, pulling against the Amazons and Johan and becoming almost uncontrollable. Ephiny hung grimly on to the cheekpiece and pulled with all her strength, using her weight to turn the animal’s head, and force him around. “Cmon, you..”
The horse reared, taking her up with it. She felt her feet leave the ground, and she wrenched herself in mid air, throwing her body towards the middle of the road and slamming into the horses neck. With a scream, the animal dropped back down and lunged into the middle of the road, taking his partner with him.
Ephiny lost her footing and hung on, feeling debris slam painfully against her legs. One hand slipped free of it’s grip and she took a deep breath, judging her chances in the now increasing flood. The rain obscured the wagon, and she thought she heard a yell, then a high pitched noise, then suddenly the back of her leathers was grabbed and she was pulled sharply against the horses side.
Ow. It knocked the breath out of her, but she got a chance to regain her grip and by a sheer force of will, shoved her boots down and found footing. Only then did she turn her head to find Cait leaning over the lead horses neck, still gripping her tightly. “Good catch.” She complimented the young Amazon.
“Rather.” Cait replied calmly. “Can’t be losing you, your majesty. I’d hate to have to explain that to the Queen.”
Ephiny almost laughed. Then she shook her head and inched back through the quickening water, and started leading the horse forward again. “C’mon, you blockhead.. you can’t stay here!”
Slowly, they moved forward, feeling the frightening sway as the wagon was dragged into the deepest part of the water, and almost lifted up. The horses struggled, slipping and lunging sideways, and for a moment Ephiny thought they’d lost.
Then the wagon turned all the way, and they were facing downstream, feeling the shove against their backs as the water surged around them.
Then they heard a scream. Ephiny whipped her head around and looked back, over the shuddering wagon. Through the driving rain she could just see something very large heading right for them.
She barely had enough time to yell. “HANG ON!!!!”
The impact struck them. Ephiny heard a splintering, and felt a huge jolt as her grip was torn loose and she was sent flying, aware of the overwhelming scent of earth just before her body crashed into the slope.
She reached out blindly and grabbed hold of the first thing she felt, sharp branches cutting into her palms as the water swept her past it. The branch held, and she pulled her head up, shaking her hair out of her eyes as she stared down the road, seeing nothing but a tangle of wreckage and flailing limbs moving slowly away from her.
With a curse, she flung herself into the water and plunged after them, fighting to keep her balance against the current. The rain lashed against her scraped and battered body, but that meant nothing to her as she focused on the dimly seen bodies bobbing downstream.
Just then, the overturned wagon caught in a narrow point in the road and stuck – the roar of the water redoubled as it raged against the blockade, but it gave Ephiny precious time to reach the wreck.
She pulled herself up on top of it, crouching as she leaped to the front and stood crouching in the rain, shading her eyes from the worst of it. “Pony!!!!”
“Here!” A very welcome yell came back. “Ware left!”
Ephiny glanced behind her, to see the water rapidly backing up behind the wagon. She jumped to the right side of the cart and leaped down, stumbling through the now only ankle high flow to where a huddle of bodies were.
Pony was standing spraddle legged over two of the elders, apparently either winded or injured. Johan had pulled Cyrene up onto the slim embankment, and was holding her there in safety, both of them pale and shaken. The rest of the elders were huddled next to them.
There was no sign of Cait or Paladia. Or the team of horses.
Ephiny’s heart sank. “Lost a couple.” She exhaled, her eyes going briefly to Cyrene’s backpouch, where Dori’s head was visible, the baby seemingly oblivious to the rain. “Dori okay?”
“She’s fine.” Cyrene said. “I saw Cait and Paladia go with the horses.” She hesitated. “I’m sure they’re okay.”
The Amazon regent felt the rain redouble, pelting her back with stinging force. She put a hand out against the wagon to steady herself as she took stock of the situation. The dam woudn’t hold forever, that was one thing.
Her eyes met Pony’s. They had injured people now to tend to, that was another.
They had no wagon, no supplies, no horses, had two missing Amazons, injured elders, and it was still raining. Ephiny rubbed her temples with one hand. “You know what?” She commented to the driving rain. “I wish Gabrielle were here. Then I’d at least have someone to blame this all on.”
“What was that?” Pony yelled. “Can’t hear you, Eph!”
A sigh. “I said, let’s take advantage of this damn wagon being stuck, and get everyone off the road and up onto the embankment. We’ll assess the injured, then make some shelter.” She saw grim understanding in her partner’s eyes. “Then we’ll look for Cait and Paladia.”
“C’mon.” Ephiny ordered, with quiet inflexibility. “This wagon’s going to give, and we’ve got to get these people clear.” She dropped to her knees next to the injured elder, drawing in a breath when she realized it was Josclyn.
A piece of debris had run him through his right shoulder, and as she turned him over, his blood splashed over her legs, turning the muddied water dirty crimson.
She had only time to meet his eyes, before they fluttered closed, and the body in her hands went limp, slumping against her with a weary finality that shocked even her experienced mind.
Into the utter, shocked silence around her, Ephiny released a quiet, shaky sigh, her fingers merely confirming what her instincts already had told her. “He’s dead.” She stated. “Eponin, help me pull his body clear.”
It was dark outside, and still raining.
Gabrielle had lit the candles inside the room, and they provided a warm, golden light that turned the stone walls cream toned and gave her enough illumination for her current task.
Xena was lying on her back with her eyes closed and her hands folded over her stomach allowing the bard to fuss over her injured knee. The warrior’s breathing was slow and even, and if Gabrielle didn’t know better, she’d almost think Xena asleep.
Carefully, the bard cut loose the linen bandages holding the splint in place, and removed the three arrow shafts, setting them aside for reuse. Then she unwrapped the limb, which was propped up in her lap so she could reach around it. “Mm.” Gabrielle murmured in a pleased tone, as she uncovered the ugly gash on the top of her partner’s knee and found it well on the way to healing.
The skin was closed, and knit together, with no sign of infection or redness. Also, the swelling around the joint had gone down drastically, returning the warrior’s leg to a more customary profile. Gabrielle could see the lines of bone and muscle now under skin no longer so puffed and bruised and it appeared to her that the broken cap seemed to be still in place and healing.
Xena’s magic. Gabrielle traced the skin with gentle fingers, as she glanced up the length of her partner’s body. No, Gabrielle. Her conscience corrected her quietly. Call it what it is. The blood of the gods that runs in her. The immortal touch that lets her do the impossible things she does, and keeps her whole, and allows her to bend the rules of the mortal world for herself, and for you.
Not too much, she acknowledged. Not enough to turn away pain, or keep her blood from shedding. Not enough to hold back the years, or prevent the tiny lines from lining the tanned skin of her face.
Just enough to put her back together, to let her continue the long fight, that let her keep hold of life beyond the grip of the rest of humanity.
Just enough to give them Dori.
“Well?” Xena’s voice interrupted her musing. “Is it about to fall off or something?”
Gabrielle chuckled softly. “Not hardly.” She squeezed the extra water out of the piece of linen in her right hand, then started washing off the dried blood. “It actually looks like your leg now, not like something from Dedre’s butcher shop back home.”
“Ah.” Xena smiled, keeping her eyes closed. “Yeah, it feels a lot better.” She flexed the leg a bit, the muscles bunching and rolling under the skin. “Good.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle wiped the skin clean, removing the old herbs and dried salve. “How about I finish up and have Mikah scrounge us up some dinner?”
“Good idea.” Xena replied promptly. “He’s been out there all day, should have a wagonload of news and gossip for us.”
“Assuming he hasn’t run for the hills when you yelled before.” Gabrielle countered.
Xena snorted softly.
“Big bad Xena.”
A pink tongue appeared, pointed in the bard’s direction.
“Oh yeah, remind me of that the next time Dori’s jumping all over me.” Xena reminded her. “I’ve had my reputation torn to such tatters…. “ A melodramatic sigh. “It’s Xena, Warrior Creampuff now.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and snorted. “Tell me another one, you poor old thing.” She drawled. “Wait… is this where I get to hear how it used to be back in the days where you had to milk cows one teat at a time?”
“Listen, lambchop…” Xena growled. “Watch it, or I’ll show you what we used to do with cow’s…mmph.” She suddenly found the light blocked out and Gabrielle’s slim form looming over her as the bard leaned forward to kiss her.
“Who’re you calling lambchop?” Gabrielle asked lazily, rubbing noses with the warrior as they paused for breath. “You making fun of me being a shepherd’s kid?”
“Naaaaa.” Xena baa’ed softly. “Would I do that?”
“Uh huh.” The bard grinned at her. “I still remember that ‘short enough to milk a sheep’ joke you told last time.”
Xena started laughing in pure reflex.
“I’ll have you know I was the best sheep milker in Potadeia, as a matter of fact.” Gabrielle went on, enjoying the expression of simple happiness on her partner’s face. “The trick is, you turn them over.”
Xena just laughed harder.
“Then you hop up and down on them.” Gabrielle hopped, just a little. The effect was, given her position, structurally hilarious. Parts of her anatomy bounced off Xena’s, and nearly made the warrior choke. “The tough part…” She leaned closer to Xena’s ear. “Is putting the buckets in just the right places.”
“Gods.” Xena covered her eyes with one hand, her entire body shaking. “Stop it… you’re making my stomach hurt from laughing.”
Gabrielle chuckled a little herself, then exhaled, and let her forehead rest against Xena’s. “Xe?”
Her laughter winding down, the warrior released a breath, and opened her eyes. “Yeah?”
“I do now. How to milk a sheep.” Xena joked, making them both chuckle again. “No, what?” She added, after a minute.
Gabrielle gazed down into her eyes, seeing past the god’s blood, and the ultimate warrior, and the merciless killer down through to the simple innkeeper’s daughter who was her partner, her soulmate, and her best friend. “I love you.”
Xena’s expression softened. “I love you, too.” She replied, with a tiny, charmed smile. “What brought that on?”
“Nothing.” Gabrielle leaned over and kissed her. “Everything.” She added, with a satisfied sigh. “Life rocks.”
Xena studied the look of contented joy on Gabrielle’s face, and found herself smiling in reaction to it, knowing she’d played a large part in putting it there. She thought about the statement for a moment, then surprised herself by finding she was in complete agreement with it, at least for the moment. “Yeah. It does.”
“Well.” Cait wrung her hair out, giving the muddy bank they’d climbed up a dirty look. “That certainly wasn’t a terribly wonderful way to spend that bit of time.”
“No.” Paladia was sitting on the ground, examining a long, ragged gash in her leg. “It sucked.” She looked back over her shoulder to where the road swept up around a bend, out of their sight. “Figures the rest of em are taking their time.”
Cait sighed, and climbed up onto a nearby boulder, shading her eyes and peering off into the distance. Then she cocked her head and listened intently. “Rats.” She finally muttered. “Pally, I don’t think they’re coming.”
“No?” Paladia scrambled awkwardly to her feet and limped over to lean on the rock. “Hey. Great.”
“Great?” The blond girl frowned. “Whatever do you mean by that? It’s not in the slightest bit great. They’re probably stuck back in that water somewhere, waiting for us to rescue them. “ Cait said. “So, come on then, let’s get at it.” She hopped off the rock and picked her way across the stony embankment towards the water.
Paladia gazed plaintively at the sky, then shook her head. “Yo! Dipwad!” She sat down on the rock. “You can’t go back that way.”
Cait paused, about to enter the water. She turned and put her hands on her narrow hips. “Whyever not?”
Paladia pointed. “That water was knocking you on your ass up there with four horses and a scad of people hanging onto you.” She snorted. “You’re just gonna get blasted right back here.”
Cait reviewed the rushing water, whose force seemed to have lessened, but which was still formidable. “You could go first.”
“Why should I?” The taller Amazon protested. “So the damn rocks can crack me in the head? No thanks.”
Cait turned around and made her way back, ending up right next to her friend. “Now, you look here.” She stated firmly. “Stop being such a sissy at once, or I shall have to thump you.”
Paladia sighed. It was goofy. Here she was, three times Cait’s size, and that little brat thought she could just run right over her like a runaway mule. She glowered up at her, as the blond girl folded her slim, but muscular arms across her chest. Problem was Cait could probably drag her butt down into the water size or no size, and they both knew it. Goofy. “Why not go up there?” Paladia pointed towards the ridge. “Unless you gotta do everything the hard way.”
Cait turned her head and reviewed the suggested alternate seriously. “All right.” She nodded. “Splendid idea. Let’s go.” She tangled one hand in Paladia’s leathers and started off, giving the taller woman a choice of following her or remaining seated in perfect nakedness.
She hated that. With a groan, Paladia got up and trudged after her smaller companion, trying not to limp, or bleed too much. “Allright.. cut it out. I’m coming.”
“Right.” Cait slowed her pace, and found a relatively smooth path up onto the ridge. “Is that leg of yours awful?”
“Right.” Cait turned around and gave her a push, landing Paladia neatly on the short, tufted grass of the embankment. “Give it here.” She flopped down on the turf with little ceremony, yanking the bigger woman’s calf towards her.
“Hey!” Paladia objected, pulling her foot back. “Cut that out! I said it was fine!”
“Yes, but you lie all the time.” Cait ignored her protest and trapped the limb between her ankles, holding it down. “Now, be still or I’ll cut the silly thing right off.”
Paladia leaned back on her elbows and tried to ignore the driving rain pelting her from all sides. It washed the mud off at least, and it even sort of got Cait’s hair back to it’s normal color, more or less like Paladia’s own.
They had little things like that in common. Their eyes were sort of the same color too.
“I’ll have to stitch this.”
Paladia groaned. “Not those frigging square knots again, okay?” She had a rather odd looking scar on one arm from Cait’s experimentation with needles.
“It’s not my fault you can’t keep out of the way of things.” Cait stated placidly, as she drew out her needle and a bit of gut. “I get bored doing just those straight ones all the time.”
“You’re so weird.”
“I am certainly not.”
“Yes you are.”
“No, I’m not. Now be quiet, or I’ll stitch my name across your kneecap.”
Paladia laid down on the slope and closed her eyes, glad of a chance to rest at least. The day had totally sucked so far, and if she had to put up with Cait jamming a sharp needle into her leg at least she could relax during it. Besides, there were worse people she could have doing it, like Eponin. “Hey.”
“Yeah, yeah.” The big Amazon waved a hand. “I know, but listen… you figure those guys got out of this stupid flood and took cover?”
Cait bent her head, keeping the rain off the skin she was working on. “How on earth should I know?” She answered, taking careful, small stitches in the handsbreadth long gash leaking tendrils of her friend’s blood over both of them.
“Yeah, like they have the sense to get out of the rain.” Paladia muttered.
“Hello, Lady Kettle? Seen what’s pouring on your head lately?” Cait snickered. “Good gosh, Pally. What’s put you in such a bother today?”
It’s raining. My leg’s hurt. You’re jabbing me with a needle. We’re lying in mud. It’s lightning. The idiots we’re with are probably inside a cave with a fire already. “I’m thirsty.” Paladia answered dourly, then yelped when a finger hooked itself between her teeth and yanked her mouth open. Rain immediately entered it.
“There.” Cait went back to her task. “Anything else, then?”
Paladia swallowed her mouthful of water and considered the question. “A dry bed?” She felt a single, last, sharp pinch against her skin, then felt the pressure as Cait sprawled on the wet grass next to her. She hazarded a peek, to see those strange, often cold eyes watching her. “What?”
“You know, I’ve quite decided having all those elders with us is a bother.” Cait said. “Puts a damper on things.”
Paladia smirked a little. “Yeah.. don’t want to shock the old goats, though. Might send those Amphlifishies into a tiz.”
A twinkle entered Cait’s eyes. “Actually.” She drawled softly. “I was talking about the regent and Eponin.” She gave the edge of Paladia’s leathers a tug. “Do you know they’ve never tried having fun in a tree?”
A sigh. “Most normal people haven’t, doofball.” The big Amazon snorted, visibly pleased nonetheless. “They’re like, not into breaking their necks.”
“Or taking unnecessary risks.” Cait added, leaning over and biting a fold of her friend’s skin. “I can’t imagine why not.” She looked up from under very blond lashes. “I’m glad you’re not normal.”
Paladia’s nostrils flared. “Thanks.” She remarked. “Glad being nutty as a fruitcake gets points.”
Cait chuckled, then pushed herself off the grass and held a hand out to her. “C”mon then. Let’s go find those slackards.” She hauled her friend up and they started up the slope again. The rain beat against them, but it’s force wasn’t nearly that of the raging water below, and they made good time across the ridge.
“Where in Hades did you get the idea of trees anyway?” Paladia suddenly asked.
“Where do you think?” Cait replied, smugly.
Rolled eyes. “Figures.”
“Never catch them being boring, what?” Cait giggled. “After all, that’s how they managed Dori.” She kept walking a few steps, then turned as she realized Paladia was no longer at her side. “Do get on, Pally. What are you standing there for?”
“A tree caused that?” Paladia had her hands on her hips. “A freaking tree, and we’ve been.. “ She spluttered to a halt. “Are you nuts? You want to end up preggers?”
“Me?” Cait pointed at her own chest. “Goodness no.”
Paladia walked up to her. “ Damn good thing.”
“I figured you’d’ be much better at that sort of thing.” Cait replied calmly, giving her a prod in the belly. “You’ve got quite a lot more room, for starts.” She turned and ambled off, leaving the taller Amazon rooted in place, staring after her slack jawed.
“Why you little bacchae.” Paladia managed to get out. “Don’t you even… hey! Hey!” Ignoring the ache in her leg, she broke into a run after Cait. “Hey! Get back here you… you…. “
It wasn’t perfect, but it was shelter. Ephiny rose up from a crouch near the half unhinged door and looked around her. The old shrine was so weatherbeaten and worn, it was impossible to tell which god it had once honored. The roof was sound, though, and the walls kept out most of the rain, and the building was on a rise above the road.
It was the best they could have hoped for.
Who was in charge? Ephiny wryly mused, as she held her water wrinkled hands to the fire, and hoped this meant the worst was over.
It was still raining. Xena burrowed out from under the covers and rested her chin on her forearm, regarding the sheeted silver passing by the window. Gabrielle had gotten dressed and gone out exploring, with the goal of getting them some dinner and seeing what was going on in mind.
Xena considered her options. She could remain where she was, adhereing to her promise to Gabrielle of staying in bed and relaxing, or she could get up and work off some of the energy that was starting to once again make her twitch.
Well. With a sigh, the warrior rolled over and shed her fur covering, then sat up and rested her feet on the floor. She’d been good, after all, almost all day. Gabrielle would forgive her, right? With a soft grunt, she pushed herself up onto her good leg and waited for her balance to settle, then leaned against the wall with one hand as she very cautiously rested her bad leg on the ground.
Hm. So far so good. She tensed her thigh muscles and slowly, carefully let a bit of weight down.
Ow. She paused and waited. After a moment, the pain subsided and she continued her experiment, until the ache jacked up again and steadied.
Hm. The warrior frowned. Not good, but not entirely bad either. If she did the sensible thing and kept off her feet for another night, it might be all right. On the other hand, ignoring the restlessness for much longer wasn’t going to be easy. Xena chewed her lower lip and regarded the room.
Ah. She limped over to where the rocks and slabs were, and studied them. There was one waist high piece, obviously meant to practice vaulting over. She sat on it and looked right and left. There were two more posts on either side, markers for warming up to pitch either spears or discus. The top of the posts was curved, mean to fit… Xena’s eyes flicked to the ground. Ah hah. She got up and limped over to the long, very heavy looking stone post lying on the ground.
Her fingers drummed on her thigh. Kneeling to pick the thing up properly wasn’t an option, with her splint. Xena frowned. She could wait for Gabrielle to get back to help her but..
With a sigh, the warrior leaned over and got her hands around the post, then straightened, feeling the fierce strain in her back as she lifted the heavy stone, just barely balancing it as she turned and dropped it into place on the supports with a heartfelt groan.
Xena, Warrior Imbecile. She eased between the post and the vaulting block and sat down again, bracing her upper thighs under the heavy stone. Hm. “That might work.” She very slowly and carefully leaned back, letting the post counterweight her body.
She could feel the pull against her stomach muscles, and she spread her arms out to either side, intensifying the exertion. She extended all the way back until she was almost parallel with the floor, then paused, holding the position.
There was no strain on her lower legs at all, just on her thighs, and her body. With a grunt, she reversed the motion and pulled herself upright. “All right.” Xena thought for a moment, then decided on a routine. She repeated the lean she’d just done, then rolled her body around in a slow circle, warming her muscles up and stretching out areas she hadn’t had to use in a while.
Once she’d done that to her satisfaction, she leaned over and scooped up one of the stones and repeated her exercise with that, using the extra weight to get a little more stretch out of her body.
It was awkward, certainly. Using just her upper body was tough, and it put a lot of strain on the long muscles on either side of her back and torso. She was used to being able to leverage with the powerful muscles in her legs, and she found herself quickly getting a little sore across her back and midriff from the exercise.
With a faint scowl, she pulled herself upright and regarded the far wall, tossing the stone up and down in her hands. Then she let it drop to the ground and eased out from under the post, regarding the red, angry marks across the tops of her thighs dourly.
Then she spotted the stack of discus, half hidden in an alcove near the window. She hopped over to them and retrieved a couple, then went back to her stone seat. “Might as well get a little practice in.” Xena fit her fingers around the edge of one of the disks and hefted it, then studied the wall across from her.
With a twist of her body, she wound up, then lashed her arm in reverse, sending the disc flying from her to smash against the wall with a very satisfying crunch. “Hm.” Xena studied the mark on the stone, then picked up another disc. “Where’d you get that aim, huh? Broad side of a barn? Bet you couldn’t hit the broad side of Argo standing right next to ya.”
Another disc spun, smacking into the wall at a higher angle. A chunk of rock trickled out in it’s wake. “Gotta do better than that.” Her sense of competition woke up, as she saw marks much higher up, and deeper in the wall’s surface. It wasn’t easy. The length of the room was a challenge, and she couldn’t use her entire body weight to get behind her throws. In fact, matching the upper marks might be darn near impossible.
The toga felt odd, draped over her body. Gabrielle twitched at it for the nth time, as she meandered around the long, echoing corridors in search of Mikah, in search of food and drink, in search of…
Gabrielle rounded a corner and found herself entering a large, stuffy room full of muscular men and women exercising. Mostly nude. Eyes immediately fell on her.
In search of trouble, apparently, and as usual she’d found it. “Hi.” Gabrielle gave the nearest man a polite smile. He was lifting two huge sacks, one on each shoulder, squatting down with them and standing up again in grunting rhythm.
He glared at her and turned his head, pointedly ignoring her presence. Sweat dripped off his face and onto the straw covered floor.
“Nice.” Gabrielle exhaled, then squared her shoulders and decided on a path through the sycophants. She could see a large, arched doorway on the far side of the enclosure, and brief flickers of dim forms in serving clothes indicated it probably was at least one of her goals.
She started through the room, edging past men wrestling, women wrestling, a pit where several bodies clashed with swords, and many individuals concentrating in silence, practicing jumping, leaping, throwing…
It was exhausting just watching them. Gabrielle eyed the exquisitely chisled young bodies and had to seriously wonder about their chances. Everyone she saw looked well trained and athletic, and certainly skilled at whatever it was they were doing.
Gabrielle stopped, as a tall, sleekly muscled woman stepped in front of her, a challenging expression on her face. “Yes?” She replied mildly. “Can I help you?”
The woman was dressed in an off the shoulder, sweat covered tunic, belted, with a well made quiver strapped across her back. She carried a longbow competently gripped in one hand, and now she rested it’s end on the straw as she regarded Gabrielle. “So you’re one of the ringers, huh?”
Ringer? Gabrielle frowned. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.” She replied honestly, aware of the small group gathering around them. “I’m just here for the same reason you are.” She said. “To compete for my home town.”
A few people laughed. “Yeah?” The woman eyed her. “Well, don’t think you being famous cuts any slack with any of us.” A murmur of agreement rose up.
“Okay.” Gabrielle agreed amiably. “I didn’t really expect it to, so that’s no great loss.” She edged to her right a little, clearing some space. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Mikah peeking around the archway, then saw him disappear quickly.
“Then why wait until the last minute?” The woman countered. “Sneaking in like that?”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle’s sack lifting friend had joined them.
‘Well you know… “ The bard deliberately found a barrel and perched on it. “We didn’t actually come to Athens for the games. We just came to talk to the council about our taxes, only..”
“Council’s out of session.” The man stated.
“Right.” Gabrielle agreed. “So, we heard maybe the games were one way to do something about our assessments, so.. “ A shrug. “We entered.”
The woman laughed. “So you just showed up, and figured you’d have a chance? Do you know how long most of us have been getting ready for this?”
Gabrielle could well imagine. “Guess you’ve got no problem then, right?” She smiled, folding her hands in her lap.
“My problem is, I’ve been working my butt off to get here, practicing all day long for a year, and only barely qualifying. Then you show up.” The woman stated. “And they just let you right in.”
The bard stood and walked over to her. “Well, you know… I’ve spent the last year rebuilding my birthplace, which was totally destroyed.” She paused. “And helping hundreds of refugees find new homes.. and the year before that, I spent fighting for survival and watching my friends and family murdered.” Pause. “Want to trade?”
The woman took a breath, then stepped back a little.
Gabrielle followed her, tilting her head up and meeting the woman’s gaze. “Get over yourself.” She suggested, before she simply pushed by her, and continued on her way, ignoring the silence and the watching eyes.
Mikah was waiting for her when she reached the exit, his still bruised face tense as she rounded the corner. “Mistress!”
“There you are.” The bard greeted him. “Okay, listen..”
“Shh.” Mikah pulled her arm anxiously. “Over here, quickly.” He took her into a darkened corner, eyeing the passing servants. “Celesta’s looking for you.”
Gabrielle cocked her head. “So?”
“She’s put the word out… she’s personally challenging you.” The boy said. “She said you’re a fraud, and those stories in the library either are stolen, or copied from somewhere.”
Gabrielle stared at him for a moment, then burst into laughter. “Oh gods..” She covered her eyes with one hand. “I only wish some of those stories were about someone else.” Her body sagged back against the cool, stone wall. “What a clueless dipwad.”
Mikah leaned against the wall next to her. “She’s lying, huh?”
The bard was quiet for a moment, then she looked at him. “You believed her?”
His eyes studied her face intently. “I hardly know you.” He said, after a moment. “And I wondered.. because you’re so… “
A blond eyebrow lifted.
“Young.” Mikah said, with a smile. “Odd, coming from a kid like me, I guess.” He stared at his boots for a moment. “But, no – I didn’t believe her.”
Gabrielle gazed quietly off into the distance, trying to decide whether she should feel amused, or insulted, or just disgusted. “Well… tomorrow I guess we’ll…”
A loud banging cut off her speech, and she turned, to see four men entering the large room, and mounting a small dias she hadn’t noticed towards the front of it. The oldest of them beat a long, capped staff on the ground and waited for everyone to turn and look at him. Gabrielle pulled Mikah with her as they slipped into the exercise room and pressed against the wall.
“My dear atheletes!” The man boomed. He was large, and had salt and pepper hair with a long, almost silver beard. “The gods have played us a trick, it seems.” He cleared his throat importantly. “Due to the weather, we will have to postpone the opening of the Games. Our soothsayer.. “ He turned and indicated a slim, almost bald man behind him. “Tells me the weather should clear by sundown on the morrow, hence, we will begin the games at dawn the next.”
A low murmur rose up. “What of the tax deadline?” Gabrielle’s erstwhile challenger spoke up. “That will bring the end of the games past it!”
The bearded man held up a hand. “Fear not. I’m sure we can work out something with the city council.. I have sent word to the prefect.”
Gabrielle took note of the low comments around her. “Okay.. well, that helps.” She murmured to Mikah. “Xena needs all the time she can get… listen, do they have sandwiches or something I can grab?”
Mikah lead her back into the servants area. “I was going to bring you both something.” He told her. “I tried before but.. .um.. “
“Xena scared you off.” Gabrielle suppressed a grin. “Yeah, she was ah.. practicing some moves.”
“Oh.” He picked up a basket from a small alcove. “Well, I’m glad she’s not like the rest of these people. I’ve had to listen to them all day long. What a bunch of egotists.”
Hm. Gabrielle led the way back through the big room, which now held clumps of people gathered together, evidently teams discussing the news. They all gave her quick, suspicious looks as they passed, and one or two snide comments about Mikah reached her ears.
She glanced at the boy, whose eyes were on the ground, but the reddened tips of his ears indicated that he’d heard them. “Sorry.”
He glanced at her quickly. “Why? They’re saying I’m your hired bedmate… it’s what I do. You owe me no apology, rather, I owe one to you for making them think so.” He took a torch from a wall sconce and lead the way through the halls.
Gabrielle thought about that as she followed him. “Well, I’ve had worse things thought about me.” She commented.
“Have you?” Mikah gave her a curious look.
Gabrielle merely nodded silently. “Anyway.” She exhaled, raking her hair back out of her eyes. “At least this gives us another day.”
They turned the corner and started down the winding back passage where their rooms were. “Is she feeling better?” The boy asked.
“Yeah… but that leg’s worrying me.” Gabrielle shook her head. “I’m glad she’s resting, giving it a chance to heal.”
“Mistress, it’s a broken bone.” Mikah stated. “It will take far longer than the one day.” He paused outside their door. “When they started saying there was some trick.. I thought maybe she was entering the games to find out t… you don’t mean to say she’s really.. that you are going to truly enter the contests, are you?”
Gabrielle smiled briefly. “C’mon inside. I know Xena wanted to talk to you.” She turned and pushed the door open. “Be quiet, though, she might have gone back to sleep and I..” The bard was facing him as he entered, and she saw his face as they cleared the door. His jaw dropped and his eyes widened, and somehow, Gabrielle figured out that whatever her beloved soulmate was doing, it probably wasn’t involving sleep.
And sighed. “Fishturds.”
In the practice area, outlined in the torches fluttering glare, her partner was standing.
Completely naked. Drenched in sweat. Her hands cupped around the hilt of her sword as she went through the advanced drills that blurred the silver blade around her so quickly the eye couldn’t follow it.
It was magnetic. It was hypnotic, and Gabrielle found herself caught up in the swiftly moving image, her eyes captured by the burnished skin, and the wildly flying dark hair and that feral grin flashing towards them.
A final twist, and leap, and then Xena was turning, moving towards them with her sword resting on her shoulder, a limp barely evident despite her bandaged leg. Completely oblivious to Mikah’s goggle eyed stare. “Hey.” The warrior drawled. “What took you so long?”
Gabrielle licked her lips, and managed to tear her eyes from her partner’s glistening body. “Um… Xe?”
“Yeah?” The warrior walked over to the table and picked up her sheath, sliding the sword home with a snick. The torchlight fluttered shadows over her back, outlining the move and shift of her muscles.
“Mikah, would you.. “
“I’ll be outside.” The boy said at the same time, shoving the basket into Gabrielle’s hands and escaping quickly out the door.
Xena turned as it slammed behind him. “Damn. Wanted to talk to him.” She frowned. “What’s going on?”
Gabrielle forced herself to merely reach out one fingertip and remove a droplet of sweat from between her soulmate’s breasts. “Honey?”
“Mm?” Xena leaned closer and sniffed. “Hungry?”
“Yeah. I’m starving.” Gabrielle put the basket down and moved in. “C’mere.”
Xena gazed in bemusement at her partner’s flushed skin. She’d figured Gabrielle would be upset at her for catching her at her drills, and she was pleased, if a little surprised, to find just the opposite. “Want to see what’s in the basket?” She asked.
“No.” Gabrielle lazily reached over and pulled the stopper from the bath. “Not until I get you all nice and clean.”
“Yeah?” Xena allowed herself to be led over to the tub.
“Yeah.” Gabrielle pulled her head down and kissed her, unable to resist any longer.
“Did you find out what’s going on?”
“But Gabrie… “
“Okay” Xena chewed and swallowed, then peered down at the naked blond woman curled up in her arms. “Are we ready to talk about what the Hades is going on now?”
“Mm.” Gabrielle gave her another cube of lamb. “Don’t’ look at me like that. It’s your fault.”
“Xena, now really.” Gabrielle gave her a severe look. “You can’t honestly expect to be doing what you were doing how you were doing it when I came in here, and have me just think about stupid political piggy wonks.”
Xena snickered a little. “You sure aren’t as shy and innocent as you used to be, you know that?”
Mist green eyes peered up at her uncertainly from under blond lashes. “Is that good or bad?” The bard asked softly. “I didn’t think you… “ She stopped, a little confused, and a little stung by the warrior’s offhand comment. She shifted a bit, moving away from Xena’s embrace. “Sorry.”
“Ah ah ah.” Xena recaptured her and tugged her back closer, despite the resistance. “Get back here.” She waited for the stiffness she could feel in the bard’s body to relax. “I’m flattered I cause that kind of response, Gabrielle. There’s nothing wrong with it, so take it easy, willya?”
Gabrielle remained huddled against her in silence.
“Gab?” Xena repeated softly, gazing down and tipping the bard’s chin up just a little. “Hey?”
She was very surprised to see tears. “Gabrielle.” Xena’s voice dropped lower and she cupped the bard’s cheek with one hand. “Sweetheart, c’mon now.”
Gabrielle sniffled, and shook her head a little. “Sorry.” She exhaled. “I don’t know where that came from. I know you didn’t mean anything by that, I just…” There was an awkward pause. Xena just remained still, one hand gently stroking the bard’s cheek. “I miss that innocent, feckless kid sometimes, and I wonder if you ever do.”
Unseen, Xena’s eyes closed, in a moment of quiet pain. She slowly released a breath, and gathered her thoughts. “Gabrielle.. I didn’t mean to.. “
“I know.” Gabrielle sagged against her and rested one hand on the warrior’s bare belly. “I must sound like a total doofball.”
“No.” Relieved, the warrior cuddled her closer. “I just meant that you’re a lot more… um.. aggressive.. about making love than you were when we first became lovers, and I like that.”
Another shy look. “You do?”
“Yeah.” Xena reassured her. “It makes me feel good.” She gently traced a circle across the bard’s breastbone. “I was always so afraid I’d.. I mean, I never wanted to scare you.”
“Mmph. You never scared me.”
“I know.. but I was afraid I would if I… “ Xena stopped. “Anyway, I’m glad you think I’m worth going to bed with.”
Now it was Gabrielle’s turn to shift and turn and study the angular face above her. “Worth going to bed with?” She asked, incredulously. “Xena, you’re not going to sit here and seriously say to me that you don’t know just how attractive you are.”
The warrior accepted the compliment with a smile. “It’s not that.” She gently moved a bit of Gabrielle’s bangs back away from her eyes. “I know I am.” She said. “It’s just that I’ve seen so much… done so much… before I met you, making love meant so little to me.”
Gabrielle gazed at her in trusting silence.
“I never wanted you to become jaded, like I was.” Xena said.
“Is that what you think, that I…” The bard hesitated. “That I’m getting like that?” She watched Xena’s face intently. “Or that I take you for granted?”
“I hope not.” The warrior replied softly. “Being with you is very special for me. .and I hope it’s always that way for you, too.”
Gabrielle nodded slightly. “Every moment I spend with you is special, Xena.” She rested her cheek against the soft skin over the warrior’s breast. “So no, I don’t’ take this for granted.”
They were both very quiet for a few minutes, then Xena released a breath. “So. What brought all that on?”
“I dunno.” Gabrielle admitted. “Could it be the pickled ducks eggs?” She held one up. “I’m sorry.. I have no clue why I just went south on you there, honey bear.”
Xena’s blue eyes twinkled with wry amusement. She ducked her head and spent a few leisurely moments exploring the bard’s lips. “You will…” She said, as they broke off. “Always be that innocent, feckless kid to me, my love.”
“Always?” Gabrielle had to smile. “Even when I’m old and gray?”
“Always.” Xena told her. “Even when you throw me into a bathtub and scrub me within an inch of my life, before you drag me into bed and ravish me.”
Gabrielle turned a shade of crimson usually reserved for cherries.
“See?” Xena chucked her on the chin.
“Urmf.” The bard gave up and buried her face into Xena’s shoulder.
“So.” After a quiet moment, Xena reviewed the information Gabrielle had given her. “We get another day’s reprieve, which might cause it’s own problems, and you’ve got some half witted ham out there who thinks you’re not the real deal, right?”
“Mhm.” Gabrielle nodded.
“Tell ya what.” Xena decided. “How about you circulate around the place tomorrow and tell a few stories so these lunkheads get intmidated by my reputation, and I’ll go find your ham and make a sandwich out of her.”
Gabrielle found herself grinning at the very thought. “Sounds good to me.” With a turn of her head, she inspected Xena’s injured knee, which was propped comfortably up across her thigh. She thought about what Mikah had said, then shook her head a little as her eyes followed the thin, already fading scar. She was so used to Xena’s healing abilities, she sometimes forgot people who didn’t know here might find them unusual. “How are you feeling?” She asked curiously, touching the smooth skin.
“Not bad.” Xena offered her a slice of fruit, then bit into one of her own. “I was trying to see what kind of handicap this damn leg’s going to be in the fighting competitions.”
Xena was silent for a moment. “I can work around it.” It hadn’t been easy, but after she’d adjusted to the difference in balance, and figured out how to compensate for her lack of mobility, she’d been satisfied with the results. “Not going to be pretty, though.”
“Huh.” Gabrielle nibbled another piece of fruit. “I don’t know, Xe. Most of those guys look really..um… prepared. I don’t know what good I can do in my events.” She went on before Xena could protest. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ll go in there and do my best, but I have to tell you I think the whole things going to be resting on your shoulders.”
“Don’t sell yourself short.” Xena had to grin at the last word, which she got a poke for. “You’ll do fine. Just don’t let them intimidate you, okay?”
“Okay.” Gabrielle settled back and opened a walnut with a tensing of her strong fingers. She picked out the meat and offered half of it to Xena. “Can I tell them you’ll kick their butts?”
“I’m set, then.” Gabrielle said. “Now, if you’d like to throw a toga on, I’ll go see if I can coax Mikah back into the room.” She got up, shrugging together her own clothing as she moved towards the door. She turned as she got to it and looked back over her shoulder, to see her partner impudently reclining on the bed, making not a single move to get dressed. “Xena.”
The bard shook her head, going to their bags and pulling out a tunic, then tossing it in a ball towards the bed.
Dori was bored, again. Everything was icky. It was wet, and people were mad, and Cat was gone, and she couldn’t find Guff. Even Gramma was mad. Something bad had happened, she knew, because some of the olders were crying, and she knew crying was bad.
She didn’t like it when Mama cried. Mama got mad sometimes, and mama started crying, and Dori didn’t like that at all, except she knew soon Boo would come and make it better.
She liked that. Mama would be mad, and then Boo would come, real soon, and make mama feel better, and bring Dori cookies.
She really liked that. Boo always had cookies. Boo gave good hugs, and Boo was the only one who could fly.
Boo was good.
Dori looked around, wishing Boo were there right now. And Mama. Even if things were icky, it would be okay because Mama would tell her stories, and Boo would make her fly. Then she spotted a pair of familiar ears poking up near the door. “Guff!” Dori scrambled to her feet and bolted for the opening. Someone called her name, but she was near her goal and kept going, flinging her arms around the very wet and muddy wolf as he escaped from the rain outside.
“Guff!” Dori was glad to see her friend. Guff was fun, and she liked to play with him. He had lots of things for her to hold onto, and she liked the way his fur felt when she sat on him.
“Good… Guff here, now play.” Dori hugged the wolf. But Guff cried, so Dori let him go. Her hand were red. That was bad. “Gramma!!!!”
Poopoo was there. Poopoo took Guff away. Dori didn’t like that. Gramma came and got her, though, so that was okay. Gramma usually had cookies, too. “Gramma, get Guff!”
“In a minute, sweetie.” Gramma said. “He’s got an owie. Let them take care of him, okay?”
Dori frowned. “Bad.”
“I know. C’mon, sweetie. Let’s go over there and sit down, okay? Gramma’s tired.”
Dori didn’t want to. But Gramma gave her some cookies, so she decided to sit down next to Gramma for a while. “Get Cat.”
“Cait’s gone away for a while, honey.”
“Bad.” Dori decided things were getting ickier. She didn’t like that. Gramma cleaned her hands off, so they weren’t red anymore. That was good, because they smelled bad and she didn’t like it. “Gramma?”
“Go bad. No like.”
Gramma picked her up. “I know, sweetie. Just be good for one more day, okay? Then we’ll be with your mama and Xena.”
“Boo!” Dori got excited. “Mama!”
“One more day, okay? We just have to wait for it to stop raining, and then you and me, and Ephiny and Eponin are going to go and find them.” Gramma told her. “We’ll take Ares, too.”
“Guff.” Dori liked that. “Go find Mama.. want mama now.”
“Me too, Dori.” Gramma sounded sad. “But I have some bad news to tell your mama, and she’s not going to like it.”
Dori ate her cookie. Gramma was sad. Guff came over. Guff had a hat. Dori thought it was funny.
Eponin sat down next to Cyrene, and wiped her hands off. “Just a cut.” She indicated the bandaged wolf. “He got lucky.”
“I know.” Cyrene sorted out Dori’s disheveled hair while the toddler munched on her cookies. “It’s funny. Here we are, coming all this way to try and help, and we’re going to end up giving them more problems.”
“Yeah.” Eponin agreed softly. “Listen, now that everyone’s settled down, me and Eph are gonna go out and see if we can find Cait and Paladia.”
“You think you can, in this weather?” Cyrene asked, noting Dori’s interested eyes watching them. “Gods, I hope they’re all right.”
Eponin shifted a bit. “I’m sure they are… both of em are tougher than three day old smoked beef.. I’m sure we’ll find em ot there, and bring em in.” She said. “Leave em here to watch the elders while we go on to Athens. Good plan.”
Cyrene wasn’t so sure. Yes, trying to force her fellow villagers to make the last, hard day’s march into the city would be close to impossible, but… Her eyes went to the still, silent figure wrapped in sacking near the entrance. The god’s willing, it would stop raining soon and they could give Josc a pyre.
Bring his ashes home. There would be no bringing his body back in this weather.
“Mm?” She looked up to find Ephiny kneeling next to her. “I know, you’re going out to hunt for the kids.” She studied the Amazon, noting the dark circles under her eyes. “Why not take a break until the rain lets up.. if they’re out there, chances are they’re holed up waiting for the same thing.”
Hazel eyes went to the door way. “Maybe.” Ephiny agreed. “But maybe they’re lying somewhere downstream. I need to find out.” She pushed herself to her feet. “You’ll be safe here until we get back.”
Cyrene watched Dori squiggle over to hug Ares, and give him part of her cookie. “We’ll be fine, yeah.”
“She’s being pretty good.” Ephiny remarked mildly. “It’s almost like she knows something’s not right.”
They watched the toddler snuggle up to her furry buddy and start to talk to him, rambling into his ear while the wolf put his head down on his paws. “She knows.” Cyrene stated quietly. “She’s a very smart little girl.”
“Yeah. Too smart.” Eponin grunted. “Took apart my crossbow.”
Ephiny chuckled softly. “C’mon, Pon… let’s go find those kids.” She held a hand out and waited for Eponin to grab it, then pulled her friend to her feet. They both settled their cloaks over their shoulders and headed for the doorway.
Cyrene watched them leave, then she exhaled and sorted among the few provisions they managed to salvage. A few of their packs, thankfully Dori’s among them, and some dried foods. A few blankets, which were drenched and drying, thrown over the old, long unused altar.
“What a dump, huh?”
Cyrene jumped and turned at the voice, which had come out of apparently nowhere. She blinked hard, as wisp of what appeared to be fog suddenly solidified and morphed into a blond woman of medium height, with curly hair and a diaphanous, completely unpractical gown. She quickly looked across to the elders, who showed no sign of seeing anything unusual. “Ah.”
“Relax.” The woman took a seat next to her, fluffing out o her draping, and crossing elegantly strapped ankles. “They can’t see me.”
Cyrene seriously wondered if the strain had just gotten a bit too much for her. Then she realized that Dori had sat up, and was watching their visitor with interested eyes. “She can, so I’m probably not hallucinating.”
The woman laughed, a light, happy sound. “Well, you hang out in a place like this, like, you can expect to see one of us once in a while. I used to like this joint.” The woman sighed. “Bad news they trashed it.”
Cyrene eyed her. “You’re a god.”
“Dess.” The woman shook a finger at her. “No chest hair, got it?” She opened her gown.
Cyrene cleared her throat, and glanced elsewhere. “Let me guess, Aphrodite?”
“What clued you?” The goddess laughed.
“Little details.” The innkeeper answered. “I’m sorry, was this one of your temples? We didn’t mean to intrude.”
Aphrodite fluffed her gown. “Me?Here? You must be, like seriously joking, right?” She looked around. “I mean, look at this place. It’s… boring.”
Cyrene glanced up. “It’s dry.” She exhaled. “That’s all we really cared about.”
Dori got up and toddled over, putting an arm around Cyrene’s knee to steady herself while she examined their visitor.
“Yeah, bummer about the flood.” Aphrodite looked down at Dori. “Hi there, you cute little thing you!” She extended a hand, which Dori grabbed immediately and tugged. “Whoo… you’re strong, huh? C’mere.” She picked Dori up and sat her on her lap. “Hi there.”
Dori gave her a cute little smile.
“Oo.. baby. Are you gonna be a hottie when you grow up.” Aphrodite told her. “You’re not afraid of me at all, are you?”
Dori studied her. “Good.” She pointed at Aphrodite’s chest. “Make nice.”
“Smart, too.” The goddess said, her voice taking on a softer, more gentle tone. “Just like your moms.”
Cyrene looked at her. “You know?”
The Goddess of Love gave her a look. “Duh.”
“Did you do it?” The innkeeper asked suddenly. “Did you give them this gift?”
For a long moment, Aphrodite didn’t answer. She played with Dori’s hands, and bounced her on one knee, as the baby giggled. Finally, she looked at Cyrene, with a shrewed, honest expression. “I woulda, y’know?” She said. “If the little one had asked me. I’da done it in a snap.” She snapped her fingers.
“But you didn’t?”
A faint shake of the goddesses head. “Oh, well, like, I can claim a few dinars, cause if you think about it, Love did it, and I am… “ Another snap. “The Goddess of Love.” She let Dori capture her hand and explore it. “And that’s all this kid’s about.”
Dori looked up at her, big green eyes wide and interested.
“I wanted to meet you, kiddo.” Aphrodite told her. “Your mom’s are friends of mine, didja know that?”
“Mama.” Dori’s expression lit up. “Go get mama, get Boo!”
The goddess glanced at Cyrene. “Boo?”
“Xena.” Cyrene couldn’t help but smile.
“Oh.. that’s wicked.” Aphrodite giggled. “I bet she wigged!”
“No.” The innkeeper ruffled Dori’s hair lightly. “This little girl’s got her wrapped around her fingers, that’s a fact.”
“Awwww… “ The goddess grinned. “This I gotta see. Where are the dangerous duo, anyway? Thought they’d be here with ya.”
Cyrene glanced around again. The elders were still huddled together, sleeping. Johan had gone outside to collect wood and herbs for her, and the Amazons were still out hunting for their friends. No one seemed to be able to see the goddess except for her and Dori, but she could only imagine what the scene might look like to anyone coming in the abandoned temple. “They’re in Athens. We’re on our way there to join them.. but it’s been a very tough road.”
Aphrodite studied the room. “Ew. Yeah… what a bummer! You guys are like, dumpsville! Here.” She snapped her fingers, and with a flash of light, a pile of supplies appeared in the center of the floor. “That’ll help ya…hey, wait.” She stopped, and looked at Cyrene. “They’re not gonna be in the Games, are they?”
Cyrene frowned. “No, I don’t think so.. we’re going to speak to them about our taxes…”
“Oh man… “ Aphrodite cut her off. “This could really rock things up! I bet I could.. “ Her voice trailed off. “Oh, this is just too sweet. Listen, I gotta go… “ She handed Dori back to Cyrene. “I’ll be back… hang tight, you dig?”
A poof, a flash of light, and the scent of roses.
Cyrene drew in a breath. “So.” She addressed Dori. “THAT’s the Goddess of Love?” A slight snort. “Does that ever explain a few things.”
“Any sign of them?” Paladia managed to stick her head under a set of leaves, and stay out of the worst of the rain.
“Not a jot.” Cait sighed, peering over the edge of the embankment. Below her, the road was once more raging with water, pieces of debris washing past them with churning rapidity. “Pally, we can’t even see a bit of a track in this blasted weather.”
“No, really?” Paladia muttered. “Didn’t I say that all the way back.. ouch!” She rubbed the back of her head. “So now what? Can we find a place to duck out of this rain?”
Cait glanced up, and saw no impending break in the clouds. “Bother.” Her instincts were egging her on, driving her to find the rest of their party. But there was no way to cross the flood at this point, and she could see the embankment on their side as far as the horizon was empty of any living thing. She was about to give in and go hunting for a hiding spot, when she heard a horse’s scream. “Hello!” Cait popped her head up and peered into the mists. “Look, there! The horses!” She scrambled to her feet and bolted along the slope, spotting the mud covered heads as they emerged from the water. “Gosh!”
“Hey!” Paladia stumbled after her.
Cait took two strides then reached the edge of the embankment and leaped off, heading feet first towards the raging flood below.
“Son of a.. “ Paladia let out a heartfelt groan. “You stupid piece of Amazon makes no… “ With a frustrated yell, she reached the top of the rise and jumped off herself, hoping she landed in the water and not on a pile of rocks. “DIPWAD!!!!”
She plummeted through the rain and hit hard, lunging forward into the water and almost landing on her face before she put her hands out quickly to stop her fall. The waters surge was strong, but not strong enough to move her back and she looked around to see where the Hades that damn kid had…
Oh, crap. “Cait!”
A horse was plunging through the water, with a determined, muddy pair of arms clutched around it’s neck. “Stupid git…” Paladia lunged towards the animal, which tried to escape her, but the water pushing it was too strong. She grabbed it, and by extention got an arm around Cait as well, then yelped as the flood swept her, Cait, and the horse off their feet and sent them tumbling downstream again.
Gabrielle paused in front of the small mirror and adjusted her toga again. The fabric was soft, and draped gently over her body, but she had the oddest feeling it was almost on the verge of falling off.
Wasn’t the image she was looking to project. With a sigh, the bard fluffed her hair and straightened the silver necklace around her neck. It was early, but they’d wakened at dawn and Xena was already out, roaming the city in search of trouble.
No. Gabrielle met her own eyes in the mirror, noting the wry sparkle in them. Really, Xena was trying to put a stop to Celesta’s plans, while she herself spent the day infiltrating the games contestants, and told a few stories. “So. Do I look like a famous bard?” She asked her reflection.
Gabrielle’s eyes widened, then she caught the second reflection in the mirror and whirled, blinking at the visitor. “Aphrodite!”
The goddess sashayed over, a warm, genuine smile on her face. “Hey there, little one. How are ya?”
Gabrielle leaned back against the storage table, caught by surprise, and not really sure what to say. “Wow… I’m great. How are you? It’s been a long time.” She murmured. “How’s your family?”
“That’s what I’ve always liked about you, Gabrielle.” Aphrodite hitched up her lacy fringes and perched on the table next to the bard. “You really are just like, not intimidated by that whole god thing.”
“Well.” Gabrielle folded her arms across her chest. “We’ve known you guys for a while now.” She explained, giving the goddess a smile. “Some of you are more intimidating than others, if you know what I mean.”
“You bet.” Aphrodite cocked her curly, blond head. “You look great. Love the threads.” She plucked the light cotton of the toga. “Definitely a cute change from all that Amazonian pig hide.”
“Hey.” Gabrielle chided her “It’s comfortable, and practical for the work I do. What’s wrong with that?”
Aphrodite picked up a bit of her pink lacy fabric and glanced at herself, then gave Gabrielle a smug look. “We need to get you a different job, babycakes. Spruce up your wardrobe a little.”
“I like what I do.” Gabrielle disagreed. “Besides, you forget I have to walk everywhere, I can’t just snap my fingers like you can.”
“I know. What a drag.” Aprhodite grinned, then looked around. “Where’s old grumpy puss?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “I just saw your bambino… what a little sweetpea!”
Gabrielle straightened. “Dori?” She moved a bit closer. “Were you in Amphipolis? How is she?” The bard asked. “She’s not causing trouble, is she?”
The goddess laughed. “Oo… you know your kiddo, huh? No, babe, I didn’t visit the sticks..” She gave Gabrielle an apologetic look. “Sorry, but you know how I feel about rustic.”
“She’s about a day from here, hanging with Xena’s mom and a bunch of other guys. They’re headed here.”
“Here?” Gabrielle exhaled, sinking back against the dresser. “Oh.. fishturds.” She muttered. “By themselves? Have they lost the.. and in this weather?”
Aphrodite smiled at her, and ruffled her hair. “You’re like.. such a cool mom.” She chuckled. “Look at you, all concerned over the little cutie.”
Green eyes flicked to her. “I’m not worried about Dori. I’m worried about Cyrene and Johan.. they’re getting up there. Did they take an escort at least?”
“Relax.” Aphrodite reassured her. “They’ve got a couple of those feather wearers of yours hanging with them, and I gave em some, like, extra stuff. They’ll be fine.” She put an arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders. “So. Like.. what’s the scoop here, babycakes? What’s your scam?”
“Scam?” Gabrielle’s mind was still focused on her family. The rain outside that had given her and Xena such a peaceful, much needed day of rest now presented another face to her. “What scam?”
The goddess leaned closer. “You’re in the games, right?”
“Sure.” The bard replied absently.
“Yess!” Aphrodite chortled. “I knew it! This is going to be sooo wicked.” She gave Gabrielle a kiss on the head, then popped out, making the bard jump in reaction.
“What in Hades was that all about?” Gabrielle asked the now empty room. A soft knock on the door distracted her. “Yes?”
It slowly opened, and Mikah very carefully eased his head in, his eyes firmly closed.
“It’s okay.” Gabrielle told him.
The boy’s eyes cautiously opened, and he looked around. “Oh.” He straightened and entered, closing the door behind him. “I heard you speaking with someone. I thought Xena was still here.”
“Uh.” Gabrielle scrubbed her eyes with the back of one hand. “No..no.. I was..um.. rehearsing.” She told him. “A story. You know, for the competition.”
“Oh.” Mikah peered at her uncertainly. “Well, I found out the information you wanted.” He walked over and showed her a piece of parchment. “The contestants for the races practice here.. in the stadium itself. That’s closed because of the weather.”
“The quarterstaff place is around the corner from here. It’s a pretty high room, and it’s usually pretty crowded. Did you want to see what that’s like? I’m not sure I..”
“I’m competing in the quarterstaff.” Gabrielle murmured absently, as she reviewed the rest of the information. “What’s this here?” She pointed. After a moment’s silence, she looked up to see Mikah gazing at her with wide eyes. “Mikah? What is this?”
“Oh..sorry.” He shook his head, then bent it to the parchment. “That’s the fighter’s pit. The gladiators.” A flick of his eyes. “You’re not competing in that, are you?”
The bard chuckled softly. “No.” She walked over to the corner, and lightly booted her staff up to her hand, hefting it before she headed towards the door. “C’mon.. .let’s see what trouble we can stir up.”
Mikah followed her meekly out the door. “Now I know what she meant.”
“Who?” Gabrielle asked, glancing back at him over her shoulder.
Xena pulled her cloak around her and paused, casting a quiet eye around the streets before she started forward again. She walked slowly, testing the new brace she’d put on after she’d gotten up that morning. It was strapped tightly above and below her knee, and took most of the strain off the joint as she walked.
It felt pretty good. The warrior carefully tried a slightly faster pace. It still hurt a little, but the support allowed her to walk normally so long as she didn’t try to do anything fancy. With a little grunt of approval, she started down the broad avenue heading towards the Bard’s Academy.
The streets were much emptier today, she noticed. Most of the city’s residents had retreated inside, to escape the rain and the increasingly flooded and muddy roads. If she glanced down the hills towards the river, she could see the water rising, and she was glad they’d decided to move uptown. The markets had mostly closed, only a few stalls were still manned by miserable looking vendors, desperate for the least dinar.
Xena, on the other hand, found her spirits rising. She took her time walking, studying the city she hadn’t seen in years and noting the changes in it. It wasn’t long before she was in front of the Academy, though, and she paused a moment on the steps before she approached the huge, ornate door.
Remembering the day she had almost felt like burning it to the ground.
Angry because it had, she’d thought, stolen something very unexpectedly precious from her. Part of her still remembered, if very dimly, the sting of watching Gabrielle walk away from her, turning her back on their sometimes uncertain friendship as she moved towards a different life.
Xena leaned an arm on the white statue in front of the door. She’d been ashamed of feeling that, ashamed of herself for even entertaining a thought of stopping Gabrielle from something that meant so much to her. Bewildered at how unhappy the girl’s leaving had made her.
She wondered, sometimes, what she would have done if Gabrielle had continued on her path, gone to the Academy, and stayed there. Would she have continued on her path to redemption?
With a tiny, bitter smile of self knowledge, Xena pushed off from the statue and climbed the remaining stairs, laying a hand against the warm, damp wood of the door and pushing it inward.
It was dark inside. She let the door close and allowed her eyes to adjust before she continued forward, extending her senses past the immediate circle of torch light. It was quiet; Xena pushed the hood off her head and riffled her hair loose from it, then turned right and paced down the rush covered floor.
In the distance, she could hear speaking, and if she concentrated, wisps of song. Her eyes flicked curiously to the doors as she passed, reading the glyphs in this world so very strange to her.
One caught her, though, and she paused, then turned and pushed the door inward and entered.
Several pairs of eyes turned towards her curiously, but she ignored them, studying the tall racks in front of her instead. She turned as footsteps approached, to see a short, round man coming towards her.
“Ah… may I help you… madame?”
Madame? Xena’s eyebrows lifted and she straightened to her full height, which just plain towered over the little man. “I don’t need any help.” She growled.
His eyes widened. “All righty then. I’ll just be on my way.” He backed off, leaving her to prowl the aisles in peace.
Y’know, Xena.. She sighed to herself, as she started hunting, having figured out the indexing order of the names. She counted the shelves, then cut across two aisles and made a left turn, arriving in front of a cabinet and tipping her head back.
A quiet smile crossed her face.
Gabrielle’s choice, she understood now, had been the right one, no matter how hard their lives had been in the interim between the kid she’d been then, and where they were now. Living the stories had been the better path for Gabrielle.
And for you. Her conscience quietly reminded her. With a tiny sigh, she lifted a hand and lifted one of the few scrolls on the shelf, bringing it down and half unrolling it, reading the first few lines with a sense of honest satisfaction.
Her little friend was back. Xena heard him scuttling with what he thought was utter silence into the aisle beyond her, and she took her time in rolling up the scroll and putting it back before she turned to look directly at him.
He stared right back at her. “You’re Xena.” He said, in a tone of utter sureness.
“Yes, I am.” The warrior said quietly. “Who are you?”
“Radulf.” The man answered simply. “I am the Archivist.”
Xena nodded a bit. “Did you need something, or did you just want to stare at me?”
Radulf released an embarrassed laugh, and dropped his eyes, rubbing his temples with one hand. “I beg your pardon.” He said. “I’ve read so much of you in Gabrielle’s scrolls, it’s a very strange experience to actually meet you.”
Xena supposed that was so, given her beloved partner’s penchant for exaggeration. Guy probably thought she was twelve feet tall and glowed before now.
“You were the one who had her scrolls sent here, weren’t you? The letter that came with them was signed by your name.”
Xena nodded again.
“I suppose you wanted to make sure your side of things was recorded, eh?” Radulf ventured. “Makes sense.”
The warrior glanced at the scrolls, and then back at him. “No.” Xena almost laughed at the thought. “I don’t give a damn what people think about my side of anything. It meant something to Gabrielle to have them here.” She turned and faced him squarely. “Anything else you want to ask?”
He seemed about to say something, then shook his head. “No.” He backed off and out of her way.
Xena moved past him and headed for the door. She was aware of furtive glances in her direction, but she ignored them as she left the library, and continued her trek further inside the Academy.
At a cross corridor, she paused and cocked her head, listening. Beyond the thunder of rain on the roof, and the sound of far off china rattling, she detected human voices. One in particular, a piercing, higher range female voice stuck out and she could tell by the tone the speaker was angry.
Sounded like a good place to start as any. Xena turned and moved towards the sound, passing a few isolated residents in the halls, most of whom gave her curious looks, but didn’t stop her. As she traveled further and further inward, though, the looks became more speculative, and twice, she thought the older, more richly dressed men were going to block her path.
Celesta faced the assembled group and put her hands on her hips. “I won’t have it.” She stated simply. “You will not denegrate the entire Academy by allowing some… some rank little provincial imposter to compete against any of us.”
“Don’t reproach me, Eleneus.” Celesta cut him off. “I’m right, and you all know it. How can you sit there and allow.. nay, promote a stain like this on the Academy?” Her voice dripped with incredularity. “It’s things like this that merely support what I’ve been saying all along. “
“She’s not an im..”
“Nonsense!” The flamboyant bard shouted. “You know it’s all a fallacy! You’ve been fawning over this little fake for years, and I’m sick of it. She has no talent, she has no skill, no panache… she’s just a little taleteller from the backwoods who’s made a name for herself telling lies about a figment of the provinces collective imagination!!!”
There was utter silence after this prounouncment. Celesta allowed the echoes of her voice to die away, pleased with the resonance. She noticed the looks of fear, and astonishment on the councils faces, and reveled in them.
Until she realized they weren’t precisely looking at her. Their eyes were fixed behind her, in fact.
Frowning, she turned, and only barely kept herself from leaping back. Not a arms length from her stood a tall, cloaked figure, whose outline seemed to gather in the light from the room and concentrate it in sharp, fierce reflection from a pair of the coldest, palest eyes she’d ever seen.
Ice chips set in a planed, angular face, surrounded by disheveled hair the color of the night sky, topping a form that topped hers by a handspan and by it’s very stillness, advertised a danger even she could feel.
“W.. who are you?” Celesta managed to ask.
The thin, well shaped lips twitched. “Call me Figment.” Xena growled, stalking towards the woman with evident, feral intent. “Cause all that’s going to be left of you is fragments, when I finish showing you just how MUCH” Xena’s voice rose. “I hate when do nothing bags of hot air say mean things about my PARTNER.” The last word was a punctuated shout, short and harsh, and it rang off the walls with almost deafening volume.
Celesta backed hurriedly away, holding her hands out before her to ward the warrior off. When she got far enough away to where she felt safe, she paused. “My mistake.” She said, in a shaky, but silken tone.
“Better hope it’s your last.” Xena rasped. “Because if you ever say anything like that again and I hear about it, I”ll cut your tongue out and beat you to death with it.”
To her credit, Celesta didn’t break. She merely inclined her head in a regal fashion, then turned and left, not making eye contact with anyone else in the room.
But that was all right. Their eyes weren’t on her anyway. They were too busy looking at the legend turned very irritated flesh in their midst, who now brushed back her cloak off one shoulder and put a hand on her hip to regard them right back.
Eleneus pulled his beard, just a little. “Xena, I presume?” He asked, in a wry, mild voice.
The warrior smiled faintly. “Sorry about the noise.”
“Actually, it was a marvelous performance.” An older woman got to her feet and warily approached. “I am Selena.” She held a brave hand out, which Xena gripped after a moment. “Celesta has retreated for now, but she’ll be back. “
“Not if she knows what’s good for her.” Xena replied calmly. “I wasn’t joking.”
Eleneus got stiffly to his feet and also came over to her. “Anyone familiar with Gabrielle’s scrolls would know that.” He said. “But I fear Celesta is not.” He paused. “It is good for her to know not everyone can be intimidated by her.”
“Unlike yourself, of course.” Selena murmured.
Eleneus rubbed his chin. “We’re very.. grateful to Gabrielle for agreeing to participate in our little contest.” He gave Xena his most charming smile.
Xena turned and gazed at him intently. “One thing I want to get straight before she does that.” The warrior said.
“And that is?” Eleneus asked. “You will have front row seats, of course.”
“Of course.” Selena added quickly. “As our honored guest… “ The other Academy council members murmured and nodded. “If there’s anything else we can…”
The warrior nailed them with a fierce glance. “You don’t’ get to keep her after she wins.”
They blinked at her in silence.
Xena pointed at her own chest. “Mine.” She stated flatly. “So don’t get any ideas.”
Xena stopped outside and let the heavy door close behind her. She leaned against the stone wall for a moment, under the thick overhang that protected her from the rain, collecting her thoughts and wondering a little at the streak of savage anger she’d felt inside.
Well, the damn bitch had been saying nasty things about Gabrielle, after all, so she had a right to be pissed off, didn’t she?
She let her head rest against the wall, thinking about that. Then she released a sigh as one hand lifted and rubbed her temple. The place rubbed her raw, she privately acknowledged. No matter how much she rationalized it to herself, and no matter how she knew, in her heart, that Gabrielle’s choices were willing, and honestly not regretted, still…
It had been a quiet night, under a wide open blanket of stars. Xena had taken her time bathing in the lake, floating for long moments on the surface as she took in the quiet, soft sounds from around the campfire.
Normal sounds, to her now. The sounds of companionship.
The light scrape of a wooden spoon as Gabrielle stirred something. The rustle of the girl’s long, often travel stained skirt. The low, almost melodious humming that still held a note of childhood in it.
Such a contrast to the night before, which had been dark, and silent, and brought her utter aloneness in the world crashing down on Xena’s shoulders with a weight she hadn’t expected. With a frown, Xena had tossed off this thought, and waded ashore, slinging her leathers over her shoulder as she climbed up the small rise to where they’d set up camp.
There, in the darkness that ringed the small campfire, she paused, resting her hand against the bark of a tree as she’d watched Gabrielle, unseen by her young companion.
The girl had been kneeling next to the fire, stirring a pot of soup with one hand, as the other had lifted to push a lock of burnished hair back behind one ear. She’d had a relaxed, cheerful expression on her face, and watching Gabrielle’s lips curve up into a smile had brought a similar response to Xena’s mouth.
What a cute kid. Xena had allowed the affection she’d developed for Gabrielle to surface, warming her from the inside out and chasing off the night chill. She’d thought about how much she’d found herself missing the girl’s presence, and how, despite Gabrielle’s annoying persistence and penchant for getting into trouble that charming smile and those warm green eyes had wormed themselves right into Xena’s heart.
Not good. The warrior had sighed. Don’t get attached to her, fool. You just saw what could happen.. the little squirt could up and take off at any time. Her good mood had vanished, and she’d pushed away from the tree, heading up towards the camp.
“Oh, hi.” Gabrielle’s clear voice had greeted her. “Hey, listen.. I got this really great basket of herbs and those round gourd things you like.. I made soup. Doesn’t it smell great?”
Xena had almost, almost ignored that familiar chatter. Then the silence of the preceding night blossomed into her memory, and she turned her head as she knelt by her bags. “Sure does.”
Her eyes had met Gabrielle’s, and she’d had to acknowledge the visible brightening of the girl’s face at the comment. It occurred to her, in that moment, that she’d given Gabrielle damn little reason to stick around, and the fact that the kid had decided to take off shouldn’t have surprised her at all.
So she should just keep doing that, right? Eventually she’d just drive the kid off, and that would be the best thing for both of them, wouldn’t it?
“I knew you’d like it.” Gabrielle had grinned suddenly. “Nobody knows you like I do.”
Xena wondered if the kid knew just how true that statement really was.
She’d put her gamebeson back into her pack and slipped on a rough woven shirt instead, laying her newly cleaned leathers out to dry before she walked over and joined Gabrielle at the fire. She’d sat down crossed legged right next to the girl, conscious of the muted delight her action caused. “So.” Xena had fiddled with a bit of grass, ripping it up and tossing it into the flames, which gobbled it greedily and sent it up in sparks. “What that you’re writing?”
Gabrielle had abruptly sat down, half falling, surprised at the question and scrabbling for her parchment and quills with uncertain hands. “Me? You mean here?” She’d drawn the stiff surface over. “Oh.. I was.. it’s nothing, Xena, I was.. it was just some… “ Her voice had trailed off, then she’d lifted her eyes again, this time with a gentle shyness that reached out and captured Xena with surprising strength. “It’s a poem.”
A poem Xena hated poetry. She had little use for words with hidden meanings and flowery trappings. “Well.” She’d heard herself saying. “What’s it say?”
The sound of the flames was abruptly loud, as Gabrielle had sat there staring at her in patent wonder. “You.. “ The girl had started, then looked down at the page. “You want to hear it?” Her eyes had crept up slowly. “Really?”
No. Xena had shrugged. “Sure.” After all, it was only a page long. How bad could it be?
“It’s not really good.”
Xena had raised an eyebrow at her, and waited.
And so Gabrielle had slowly lowered her gaze to the parchment, straightening it on her knees as she visibly squared her shoulders and took a deep breath.
There had always been a chasm between them. Xena had known their travels had grudgingly built a bridge over it, but she’d always stood firmly on her side, demanding that Gabrielle make the entire journey across. Now, she felt herself for the first time putting a boot on that shaky surface, going out over that gap and moving just a bit closer to this grubby little fair haired kid whose trembling voice now broke the silence.
I had a dream.
Of tall buildings, and upturned faces.
Of cheering crowds and parchments.
Finding others like me, tellers of tales and brothers of my heart.
Who welcomed me with open arms.
Yesterday, I found my dream.
A place I belonged, people who cared.
It had my tall buildings, it had upturned faces.
They welcomed my stories, my brothers embraced me.
My journey had ended
But in that ending I’d found a new dream.
Of wide open spaces, of long dusty roads.
No cheering crowds, no rustling parchments.
Just quiet nights and a canopy of stars,
Lighting my heart anew.
It hadn’t even rhymed. Xena had found herself staring at Gabrielle after the girl had finished, her mind rolling the words around and tasting their meaning with wary interest. Surprised that she’d understood it.
More surprised at something else. “I like it.”
Gabrielle’s eyes had grown round as an owl’s, and the look of amazed delight on her face would have been comical, if she hadn’t been the one to have caused it. “Really?” The girl had blurted. “I mean, you’re not just saying that? Did you really like it?”
And Xena had deliberately stepped forward on that bridge, ignoring the sway of it, and looked Gabrielle right in the eye as she’d answered. “Yeah, I really did. Good work.”
For a long string of heartbeats, Gabrielle had simply looked at her, then she dropped the parchment and impulsively launched herself across the short distance between them, throwing her arms around Xena and hugging her exuberantly. “Thanks, Xena!” She’d warbled in the startled warrior’s ear. “You’re the best!”
She’d had her doubts. But the real affection in those young arms now squeezing her had brushed them off for another day, and another time, and made the night once again a friendly place. For now.
Xena pushed off the wall and started down the steps to the street. Now that her task was completed, she took her time walking back through the city, finding her steps leading her once again down towards the river.
The few citizens she passed along the way changed character as she went, going from harried merchants to ragged urchins, then to darkly cloaked figures like she herself was, whose eyes followed her with less than benign intent.
The steep slope was tough on her leg, but she made it down to the docks, and walked along them, pausing to study the large galleons tied to the ports, their empty holds making them ride light in the water. The smell of the water was very strong, despite the offshore wind and Xena winced a little as she ran her hand along a thick, knotted tie rope securing the ship she’d seen offloaded the other day.
As she reached the first gangplank, a hatch slammed on board the vessel, and heavy boots sounded on the wooden deck. She glanced up to see a stocky figure leap to the top of the gangplank and start down, and her breath caught in her chest as a spark of recognition flashed before her.
He stopped halfway, seeing her there, and their eyes met.
“Well, well.” A thousand images of her past entered her mind. “Never knew you to like the sea, Draco.”
The muscular, dark skinned man seemed frozen for a breath, then he gathered himself and continued his saunter down the plank until he was even with Xena. “Hello, Xena.” He said. “Didn’t expect to see you here. I thought Athens would be poison for you.”
The warrior studied her onetime friend, and then enemy. He’d grown a beard, she noted, and gained the rounded belly of a man who spent all his time cooped up on board a vessel, but otherwise he hadn’t changed that much, to her surprise. “Not anymore.” She replied. “Traded raping towns for selling slaves?”
Draco glanced past her, then shrugged. “Money’s good. Decent crew, three squares a day.. what more could you ask for?” His sharp eyes darted back to her face. ‘Sure beats being a broke vagabond like you.” A pause. “But what the Hades, I can afford it – let’s go have a drink for old time’s sake. What do you say, Xena? Let bygones be bygones?”
Xena let him wait for her decision, then she inclined her head. “Sure.” She stepped back from the gangplank, allowing him to walk off it. “Why not?” A long arm extended. “After you.”
Mikah followed Gabrielle’s slim form through the crowd, his eyes nervously moving between the hulking men and lithe, graceful women as they eased their way past the battling sword wielders through a narrow hallway.
He watched them watch her, not meeting her eyes, yet turning to study her as she walked away from them, her simple toga draped over a body far slighter than most others in the room, and yet holding a confidence that almost shone as she threaded her way through.
He wasn’t really sure about Gabrielle. Not the way he was about Xena. Xena was just…
Wow. Mikah honestly acknowledged himself to be in serious lust with Xena. She was gorgeous, and sexy and just being around her made him overheat. Her magnetic personality affected him into almost speechlessness, and seeing her naked the day before…
Whew. He wiped his brow in pure reaction. He’d seen naked people by the hundreds, and with the games participants in town, plenty of good looking bodies – but Xena was something else entirely. She was all primal power and he knew, practice as they might – the fighters in this room had no chance at all against her.
But Gabrielle now.. He hastened around a column, and caught up to the bard. She was different. “Are you sure… “ His voice was cut off by a sudden thunder of sound, rapidfire clacks that spilled out of the alcove they were just outside of.
“Ah.” Gabrielle poked her head around the entryway and regarded the scene. Perhaps a dozen men and women were going at each other with quarterstaves, while a ring of onlookers watched and waited their turn. Around them, servants puttered, wiping a brow here, adjusting a loincloth there. Gabrielle realized she was, in fact, grossly overdressed for the activity.
The men were in brief loin covers, and the women in something less than what the Amazons usually wore. Both sexes had their hair tied back by thin, linen bands, and everyone was very serious – grunts of effort and cries of anger interspersed with the sound of the wooden staves hitting each other.
“Well.” Gabrielle exhaled. “Gotta start somewhere.” She slid into the room and walked along the wall, joining the watching crowd as Mikah settled to the ground behind her. The bard curled her arm around her staff and leaned on it, studying the fighters with a knowledgeable eye.
They were good. Gabrielle could see that. She watched the nearest pair closely, two men of medium height and very muscular build who were trading cross strokes so quickly their staves almost blurred.
After a quarter candlemark, a loud bell clanged, and the fighters slowed, then stopped, chests heaving and bodies covered in sweat from the exertion. They broke apart and moved away from the fighting ground, where each was attended by a solicitous servant.
“Hey.” An overly loud voice jarred her. “Look, it’s the ringer.”
Gabrielle slowly turned, to find a tall, rakishly handsome man standing there, holding a staff loosely in one hand. He had dark hair, and hazel eyes, and a hook to his nose as though it had once been broken. “I’m not a ringer.” She replied, with a gentle smile.
“Let’s find out.”
Far from being upset with this, Gabrielle welcomed it. The man was about her soulmate’s size, and she could tell from the way he held the staff, knew what to do with it. However. “I’m not here to make trouble.” She demurred. “I’ll wait my turn.”
“Please. Take mine.” One of the women, one she recognized from the previous day, handed her a chit.
Gabrielle accepted the copper token and examined it, aware she was the center of quite a bit of not very nice attention. After a moment, she shrugged and tucked it into her belt, then met the man’s eyes with gentle honestly. “All right. If you really want… let’s go.”
The crowd parted as she followed her opponent’s lithe form onto the practice ground. Here, an area had been cleared and filled with fine sand covered in straw to give a solid footing and prevent scrapes and bruises from falling on bare stone. Gabrielle found the surface pleasant, it had a faint springiness reminding her of the outdoors, and she flexed her feet inside her boots as she bounced a little in place. She pinned her opponent with a sharp glance. “What’s your name?”
It surprised him. “Telen.” He answered, almost before he thought about it.
Gabrielle nodded, as she stretched her arms out across the staff she’d swung up over her shoulders. “I’m Gabrielle.”
The crowd snickered. “No, really?” Telen sniped at her.
“Really.” The bard answered, with perfect seriousness. She finished stretching her body out and brought her staff down to rest it’s end by her left boot.
“We all know that.” Telen finished his own warm up, then approached her, shifting his staff in his hands.
It was such an odd feeling. Gabrielle could feel a deep, almost sensual tickling in her guts as she anticipated his attack. She’d developed over the years a well hidden.. not love, but appreciation of Xena’s intensely competitive nature. It was quite a surprise to find a little kernal of that inside herself, though, and while she didn’t often let that surface, in this case she knew it was and she welcomed it.
She’d learned to love winning, she’d told Xena, and that had been true. She’d also learned to understand her own skills and had found a deep seated and to her surprising pride in them. Gabrielle took a breath, and centered her balance, feeling the energy rising inside her in anticipation. She would never approach Xena’s warrior talents, but…
“Gabrielle the famous bard.” Telen taunted her. “Gabrielle the storyteller.”
“That would be me, yes.” The bard agreed amiably.
He surged towards her and moved his staff in a combination attack. Gabrielle deflected it and slid past him, forcing him to turn and follow her motion. “There’s no place here for bards.”
“You’re right.” Gabrielle released her almost trembling body and launched her own attack, ducking past his defenses and catching his staff on hers with a sharp crack. He quickly parried her, but it moved his weapon out of perfect position and she took savage advantage of that, powering in and slamming him back, then shifting her grip on her staff to a close one and rotating the weapon in the complete opposite direction.
The motion caught him by surprise and he scrambled to compensate, but her short, digging strokes were took quick, too powerful, and he started to backpeddle as Gabrielle drove him towards the edge of the grounds.
She watched him intently, catching his weapon out of position now again, and again, and slapping out of the way, the end of her own staff ringing in to clip his knees, his arms, his shoulder. Never stopping, she sped up her pace, feeling a wild surge of energy as she executed a perfect reverse, slipping to a knee as she swept backwards with all the power of her compact torso.
He missed the parry. Xena would have merely leaped over the staff. But she felt the impact as it hit his knees, and she powered through it, taking his feet out from under him and dumping him on his butt in the sand.
She followed up immediately, rising and getting a boot on the end of his staff as she settled the end of hers just to one side of his neck with a sharp thump, the wood resting against the skin of his neck with ominous intent.
“This is no place for bards.” Gabrielle spoke quietly, into a silence she could almost feel beating against her skin. “But then, I’m not here to tell stories.”
Telen stared up at her in honest, blank surprise. He released his staff and turned his hands upmost in surrender, blinking at the bard in amazement. “By the gods.” He spluttered.
Gabrielle relaxed, and curled a hand over her staff as she moved it away from his head. She extended her other hand to him with a friendly grin. “Okay. Glad that’s over with.”
He took her hand and allowed her to pull him up. “Me too.” All his arrogant pretense had dropped, and he rested his hands on his hips as he regarded her. “My ego isn’t, but it’s to my own fault then, isn’t it?”
The bard could feel the atmosphere around her altering, the whispers shifting and changing from angry to speculative and the eyes of the crowd taking on a more moderate tone. Funny. She’d always yelled at Xena for using her fists before words, and the warrior had tried to tell her over and over again that sometimes, it was just easier to prove yourself, than to convince stubborn minds.
Damn it. She hated when Xena turned out right.
Not always. Talking was still a better course in a lot of situations. But she had come to understand that sometimes the warrior did have a point.
“It’s okay.” Gabrielle reassured him. “I can see how coming in here at the last minute would have ticked you all off. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cause such a stir.” This she addressed to the watchers, letting her eyes roam over the crowd with honest regret. “I didn’t plan it this way.”
And then, sometimes, words did work better. The crowd gentled and relaxed as the heard her quiet speech. The woman who had given her the chit eased forward, her expression now curious rather than antagonistic. “Where did you study? You have such a different technique.”
Low murmurs of agreement, as the crowd closed in a little.
Gotcha. “Xena taught me.” Gabrielle allowed a touch of pride to enter her voice “And the technique was honed from a lot of time spent trying not to be killed.” A pause. “It puts an edge on it, if you know what I mean.”
“Show me that reverse move?” The woman asked.