Standard Disclaimer- These characters, most of them, belong to Universal, and Renaissance Pictures, and whoever else has a stake in Xena: Warrior Princess. This is written just in fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.
Specific Story Disclaimers:
Violence –Why does anyone ever disclaim violence in a Xena story? Of course there's violence. Do you think we'd put out a story that consisted of pages and pages of Xena just.. .fishing.. or something? She is a Warrior Princess, not a Mary Kay consultant. (no insult intended - some of my best co workers are Mary Kay consultants, and I purchase from them regularly) And Gabrielle is no slouch with that staff, either. So, yes - there is violence.
Subtext - C'mon. Even the show has subtext. Heck, sometimes, it's not subtext. Sometimes, it's maintext. But anyway, this is an alternative fan fiction story. That means, it's based on the premise that Xena and Gabrielle are more than just best friends. If that's not your cup of mint tea, there are many, many talented bards out in the Xenaverse who post general fiction, which does not follow this premise. Go find them. Enjoy them.
This is, of course, PG13 level involvement here, no more.
So - having read this lovely disclaimer, if you then read the story and are shocked that Gabrielle and Xena are kissing each other, I can't help ya. If you're offended by it, send me your address, and I'll send you a bushel of citrus. We like to send that from here - we have to get rid of all of it somehow.
Any and all comments are always welcome. You can email them to:
Promises Kept - Part 5
Castles look dismal in the rain, Gabrielle decided. At least on the outside, which was what made being on the inside of one much nicer when it was storming outside. She was lying on her side; one arm tucked up under her head, watching the water lash against the balcony, listening pleasurably to the soft, even breathing behind her.
Xena had both arms wrapped around her, and the warrior's face was nestled against her neck, warming the back of it in a really nice way, still deeply asleep here in the pre dawn hours.
In fact, Gabrielle mused. What am I doing up? She'd woken shortly before, as a flash of lightning illuminated the room, and now found herself unable to drift back off. Her attention turned briefly inward, poking cautiously at the possibility of being nauseous, and faintly disappointed when she wasn't. Though.. .that could be a mixed blessing.. She mused, remembering what it felt like the last time.
Gods. Like she was ejecting her entire guts.. with spasms so hard it had given her a headache and made her throat hurt with the strain. Everything had hurt, and she remembered feeling just.. horrible, like her body was rebelling against her, fighting her at every turn.
She exhaled. It definitely didn't feel like that now. She took a deep breath, aware of every hint of smoky sweetness from the guttered candles, and the damp, misty breeze from the window. She felt…right. Very centered, and peaceful, despite the stressful situation they found themselves in, and the comforting security of Xena's embrace only intensified that.
A movement behind her made her look up, as Xena shifted, and nipped her ear a little. "Hey!" She blurted, surprised. "That's my ear!" She gave her soulmate a playful poke in the ribs.
"Mmm." The low rumble tickled the ear in question. "I know." The warrior took another nibble, then shifted her focus to the window. "Oh. Nice." A sigh. "Good thing I like mud, huh?"
Gabrielle rolled over onto her back, and regarded the taller woman thoughtfully. "You know, Xena… " She lifted a lazy finger, shaking it slowly. "It could be dangerous for you to get sick right now… In fact, I think it would be strategically… unsound."
Blue eyes regarded her in the dim gloom. "Oh yeah? Well, I think you just want me to laze around in bed with you all morning." She countered, with a faint smirk.
The bard grinned. "That's true, but I still think going out in this weather is just dumb." She curled closer, and started a gentle tracing. "What are you going to prove.. that you won't melt?" She grinned when she felt Xena's body react, snuggling closer to her and relaxing. "Hmm?"
"I used to make my army do drills every time it rained." Came the faintly amused answer. "To get them used to different conditions.. if you only practice when it's sunny, what's gonna happen the first time you get caught in a storm while you're in the middle of battle?"
Gabrielle thought about that for a long moment. "Hm." She finally looked up. "That makes a whole lot of sense, Xena."
The warrior's eyes opened innocently. "And that surprises you?" She exhaled. "I don't always do things just because I'm a contrary kinda gal, my bard." She shifted a little and sighed. "Gotta get up anyway.. I knew I shouldn't have had those pepper things last night.. they make me sick to my stomach." She rolled onto her back, and winced. "What in Hades was I thinking." Her brows knitted in discomfort. "Gods."
The bard lifted herself up onto one elbow, and peered at her partner in concern. "You gonna be ok?"
Xena looked like she was concentrating on something for a long moment, then her eyes opened, and she gave a short nod. "Yeah… I just gotta get some of that stuff I gave you a few days ago."
Gabrielle scrambled out of bed. "What is it.. I'll get it for you." She offered, heading for their gear. "It's the yellow and green stuff, right?" She turned to catch her companion's nod. "Hang on." The herbs went into a wooden cup, which she filled with clean, cold water, and stirred with a finger. Then she crossed back over to the bed, and sat on the edge, handing the mug over. "Here…drink up."
Xena drained the container, and let her head drop against the pillow. "Damn." She sounded a trifle surprised. "Haven't had it hit me that bad in a long time."
The bard took the cup from her, and set it down, then eased closer, slipping a hand behind her head and rubbing her soulmate's neck. Weird. I'm expecting to wake up sick, and she does. She puzzled over that, then her brows contracted. Wait a gods be damned minute. "Xena, you were eating asparagus last night." I’m not having those symptoms.. but she is!
"No I wasn't." Xena shook her head. "I hate asparagus." A pause. "You know that."
Long pause. "Gods." Blue eyes popped open in consternation. "I was." The dark head lifted, and she peered at Gabrielle in the gloom, dismayed. "What in Hades is going on with me?" A touch of panic edged its way into her voice. "It's not the Fates again.. is it?"
It took a lot to keep a big grin off her face, but the bard managed. Instead, she crawled closer, and tugged the warrior over, hugging her gently. "C'mere." She ordered softly. Well.. time to get this out in the open… gods know I don’t want to have her going nuts for no reason, and if she thinks about how she's been acting the past couple of days, she sure will. "C'mon.. .over here."
Xena gave her a puzzled look, but complied, letting her head rest against the bard's shoulder. "Ok." She mumbled, a tense look on her face. "I can't take that again, Gabrielle.. that was… gods.. that was the start .. no… I.. "
"Shhh… easy… listen to me, all right? I have a little story to tell you." Gabrielle informed her, gathering up her courage. "Do you remember our joining?"
The warrior arched her body around, and stared at her. "What kind of question is that?" She asked, her entire body stiffening.
"Take it easy..." Gabrielle pulled her back down. "I guess you do… ok, well, I was talking to Elaini the morning before the ceremony, and she was telling me some really funny stories about what it's like when lifebonds have children."
"Gabrielle, what does this have to do with anything?" Xena replied, irritatedly. "I heard em… Jess was telling me about how he'd started munching on pine cones one day and…." She stopped, and breathed. "Um. Sorry…go on." Her voice quieted suddenly. "Please."
The bard cleared her throat. "Well, what she was saying was that she and Jess shared, I mean, really shared all the different parts of the pregnancy… right down to the symptoms." She felt her companion's breathing quicken, and knew her own had as well. Please, gods… don’t let her be too disappointed. Please. "She said that's how it happens with them."
"With them." Xena's voice took on a hint of hoarseness.
"Gabrielle, we're like them." A tense, charged response.
"I know." Please. Please. Please. "We are."
"You're not by any chance late." Almost hesitantly.
"Seven days." And she closed her eyes, and just waited.
A low, wild rumble shivered against her skin, and she felt Xena's whole body convulse, as their positions were abruptly reversed and she was being cradled by strong arms. She crossed every body part she had, and peeked.
Brilliantly sparkling eyes met hers, as a huge smile crossed the warrior's face. "Son of a BACCHAE!!!" The yell almost punctured her eardrums, and Gabrielle barely had a chance to breathe before she was being lifted up, and whirled around, then clasped against Xena's very warm body, where she could hear the wild pounding of her soulmate's heartbeat against her skin, and she was hugged so hard it almost hurt.
I guess it's ok. She felt a warm, sweet wave of relief wash over her. Thank you.
"Why didn't you say so?" Xena breathed, as she took her by the shoulders, and gazed into her eyes. "Gods, Gabrielle… you have no idea how much I'd…"
The bard felt a grin split her face. "Well.. honestly.. I didn’t figure it out myself until yesterday… I was checking my diary for something else, and I saw where I should have started before we left, and I didn't, and…" She let out a happy breath. "But I didn't figure anything would happen so soon… and you said so.. so.. I just… I figured I was late.. that's all… because I wasn't showing any symptoms really." Now she giggled. "But… "
Xena slapped her forehead. "But I was." She rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Gods.. how stupid."
They looked at each other, then Xena let out a wild yell, and picked her up again, jumping out of bed and whirling them both in a circle, taking two long steps and launching into an exuberant flip which landed them near the storm lashed window. She hopped up and down until the bard dissolved into helpless, relieved giggles, then simply stood, hugging her and rocking back and forth. "Whoo." She let out a long, ragged breath. "Gabrielle… Gabrielle… Gabrielle…"
It was, Gabrielle let herself revel in it, a moment of pure joy in a lifetime that sometimes lacked that sadly. "Guess you're feeling better now, huh?" She finally managed to stammer, catching her breath from laughing and crying at once.
"I feel great." Xena beamed at her. "I.. .I didn't want to say anything before because… because I knew you… I mean, I didn't…" The warrior stopped, and took a deep breath. "Lemme start over… I’m damn glad to hear that, Gabreille."
"I never would have guessed." The bard hugged her happily. "So am I… even the thought feels so wonderful., I can hardly stand it."
The warrior swung her around again, and laughed, then wrapped her arms around her soulmate and sighed blissfully. "I can't believe it… Gabrielle do you know what the odds are of… "
"Succeeding in one shot?" The bard replied softly. "Pretty high, huh?"
A lightning bolt flared, illuminating them, and backlighting Xena's dark head. "Very… and when did you say you were due to.. "
Gabrielle disentangled herself and trotted to the desk, bringing her diary back and flipping the pages open. "Here."
They both looked at the page, then at each other. Xena's eyes widened perceptibly. "I don't… " She stopped, then took a breath. "Maybe the gods were watching over you, my love."
The bard let her finger trace the page, and nodded faintly. "Maybe." She answered, in a thoughtful voice. Her hands fluttered the pages back a bit, and she let her eyes rest on one particular day. "Xena… should I even be feeling anything this soon?"
The light from the window was blocked as her soulmate turned to it, and considered the question. "Well.. everyone's different, Gabrielle… but… I'd have to have said no… in fact, I was kinda… I was thinking about that last night."
"Mm." Green eyes studied parchment. "Three or four weeks, you said.. was more the norm, huh?" She replied softly, closing the diary up. "Well, I guess I just got ahead of myself a little, right?" She smiled. "Maybe it's because of our connection."
Xena's eyes brightened again. "You're right.. I forgot about that." A big grin etched her face. "Guess it's too early to start wondering if it's a boy or a girl, huh?"
That got her a laugh back. "A little." The bard put her diary down and went over to her soulmate, throwing her arms around her happily. "And anyway, I don’t care which it is." She let Xena draw her down into the large chair near the window, and she settled contentedly against her as they gazed at the storm. Sitting this close to the taller woman, she could almost feel the waves of delight pouring off her, and as she looked up, she had the pleasure of seeing that normally stern profile lit with a definitely unrestrained glee.
All that worrying for nothing. She sighed inwardly, deeply satisfied. "So.. I guess nothing much happens now for a while, huh?"
Xena chuckled softly. "Well…no.. not for a while… not anything more than has been happening. "She gave the bard a look. "Figures you get to take naps and look radiant while I get to be sick and in a daze half the time." But she was grinning.
"Hey.. not my fault!" Gabrielle held up a hand. "Look what?" She added, snorting softly.
The warrior curled an arm protectively around her. "I thought so last night…you just have this glow about you."
"Xena, I do not." A crack of thunder emphasized her words.
A long finger traced her jawline. "Oh yes you do." The tone was absolute. "It's beautiful." She tilted her head and claimed the bard's lips for a long moment, then they separated a little, and touched noses. "Shoulda known by that…" Then her hand dropped and brushed lightly against the Gabrielle's breast, and she felt the sharp intake of breath. "Sensitive, huh?"
"Whoa." The bard laughed weakly. "Yeah."
Xena clucked at herself, and shook her head. "Blind as a newborn." She sighed. "Some healer I am."
Gabrielle giggled softly. "Don't you start that poop." She nuzzled her soulmate's neck., breathing in her distinctive scent happily. Then her eyes opened, and twinkled. "But.. y'know.. I am a little tired."
Instant Warrior Princess concerned alertness. "Yeah?" Xena studied her. "Back to bed with you then." She ordered. "C'mon.. "
The bard amiably let herself be lead back to the soft mattress, and sat down.
"You gotta make sure you get plenty of rest." Her soulmate sternly told her. "No overstraining yourself, Gabrielle."
"Uh huh." She crossed her arms over her chest. "So… I guess I should stay away from stress, right?"
"Absolutely." Xena agreed with a nod.
"You know what's really stressful?" The bard answered, in a peaceful tone.
Blue eyes studied her. "What?"
A grin. "Nightmares." She held out a hand to the checkmated warrior. "Guess you're staying here, huh?"
Xena put her hands on her hips. "Very sneaky, Gabrielle." But she grinned, and gave in, tumbling into bed alongside her companion, and wrapping her up in an exuberant hug. "In case you didn't get the picture.. " She whispered into the pink ear next to her mouth. "I'm about to pass out from being happy."
Gabrielle smiled broadly against the soft skin surrounding her. "I got the picture." She replied in a satisfied murmur. "Me too."
The storm had gotten worse, Gabrielle realized, as she lay tucked neatly into bed, listening to Xena putter around the room getting things together. It wasn't too much later, since neither of them really were in the mood for sleeping, and she almost giggled when she heard the low, melodious sound of Xena humming as she ambled around.
Good gods. Gabrielle bit her lip and looked up at the frilly canopy. She's giddy. A gentle pang touched her when she remembered the last time she'd seen her soulmate in such a mood. The last time? The only time, Gabrielle…when she suspected it might be possible that she's not going to spend eternity in Tartarus.
And you were afraid she'd be disappointed. Hoo boy. She peeked out at her partner, who had tugged on a loose, pale blue tunic, and had started a small fire in the fireplace for hot water. Outside, almost incessant cracks of thunder punctuated the flashes of lightning, and the drumming of the heavy rain filled the room, and Gabrielle was very glad she was right where she was, with Xena's comfortingly nearby presence.
A soft knock rose above the downpour, and they exchanged glances, as Xena rose to her feet and crossed the room. "I'll get it." She waved a hand in the bard's direction. "Sit tight."
The warrior put her hand on the latch, and drew it back cautiously, revealing the suspicious face of Mestre. "Hi there." Xena drawled, then cleared her throat. "I mean, what do you want?"
The girl gave her a sullen look. "Leaks be in the main hall, so's were given food to yers up here." She thrust a tray at the warrior, and waited for her to take it, then turned on her heel and left.
Xena peered after her. "Have a nice day." She remarked mildly to the empty hallway, before pulling her head back inside and closing the door. "Nice kid." She peered at the tray , distinguishing rolls, and some kind of spread, and a covered bowl that smelled very much like eggs. "Yum." Her eyes twinkled through the gloom at her soulmate.
Gabrielle giggled. The storm outside had canceled out the newly come dawn, and Xena had lit candles in the room, painting it with a warm yellow glow. The air was damp, and chilly, and the bard debated briefly before deciding to squirm out of bed, and join her soulmate near the table. "Whatcha doing?"
The warrior looked up from her work with a sunny grin. "Making men miserable. Wanna help?" She patted the padded bench at her side, and threw an arm over the bard when she seated herself. "Changing the guard here, see… " She pointed. "To three more spots here, and here, and here." A long finger touched three points on what Gabrielle recognized was a map of the castle. "And adding three shifts, so they overlap here, and here."
Green eyes blinked. "Oh." She glanced up at the taller woman, who had started humming again. "And you're doing this because…?"
"Hmmm.. what? " Xena eyed her. "Ah.. well, because anyone approaching the castle from this direction.. or this direction, or under this arch, or behind the millrace here.. would get in undetected otherwise."
"Whoa." The bard answered respectfully. "Yeah.. I can see how that would be a bad thing… so how come no one else saw that?"
Dark lashes batted softly over shining blue eyes. "Because they aren't me." A brilliant grin followed. "Because they don’t think in circles.. " She waved a finger in a three dimensional way. "They just think frontal assault. "She drew a line on the table. "Or defense… I try to put myself in the other guy's boots, and think offense." A shrug. "Like.. how would I take this castle if I had an army.. that kinda thing." A pause. "You feeling ok?" Xena peered concernedly at her.
Gabrielle rubbed her ear, and bit off a grin. "I'm just fine, thanks." She assured her soulmate. "And you're not going to be asking me that for nine months, are you? " She peeked up and got a sheepish look in response. "Uh huh.. I thought so." She patted her companion's arm. "Save it for later, when I'm so huge I can't move, ok?"
Xena put her quill down, and leaned back, studying the smaller woman next to her. "Nah..don't think it'll be that bad for you." She disagreed. "You're too strong…" A hand touched the bard's side judiciously. "The more muscle you have, the easier it is.. because your body can cope with the extra strain… it's when you're not used to activity that you have real problems in carrying."
Gabrielle straightened thoughtfully. "Really?" She laid a hand over her stomach, and considered. "It's gonna be weird."
The warrior, for once, correctly interpreted her younger partner's insecurity. "You're gonna look really cute pregnant." She hugged her.
"Thanks." Gabrielle buried her face into the clean, soft fabric. "Hey.. " She glanced up, a devilish look in her eyes. "Now I've got the perfect excuse to snarf your clothes."
Xena burst into laughter. "I was just thinking that exact thing." She admitted. "Like you needed an excuse before."
A knock on the door interrupted their playful banter, and Xena glanced up. "Come in." She picked up her quill, and twirled it, as the portal edged open, and Bennu poked a damp, disheveled head in. "Hey Bennu… get in here."
Hesitantly, he complied, dripping on the marble and rubbing his hands. "Mornin." He seemed relieved to see her. "Storms somethin awful.. all's quiet for sure now."
Xena gestured to the chair. "Siddown…" She looked up as the pot rattled. "Hang on.. " She'd started to rise when Gabrielle pushed her shoulder down.
"I've got that. You finish up." She gave her partner a look when she thought she was going to get a protest, and wagged a finger. "I said, save it."
A brilliant smile answered her. "That's gonna be tough."
The bard rose, and crossed behind her, patting her back. "That's all right, tiger… so are you."
Bennu watched this by-play with his jaw hanging open, perched on the edge of the plush chair nervously. "Ah…"
Xena looked up at him sharply. "Problem?" Her eyes now held nothing but a businesslike coolness. "I want this patrol routing changed as soon as possible."
He blinked. "No no… of course." Timidly, he got up and joined her at the table, peering at the map. "Ah.. yeah.. Garan said we'd not have to watch that bit there.. "He put a huge finger on the map. "Or there.. cause no one'd try to come in up the middens."
A cool smirk formed on Xena's face. "I would."
"Ye would?" The tall soldier asked, in a surprised tone. "Why?"
"Sure." Came the confident answer. "Because no one in their right mind would be thinking of that, and.. no one would defend against it."
"Oh." He grinned hesitantly. "Sneaky, that."
"Mm." Xena turned her attention back to the map. "Add three more rounds here, and get that started right away.. " She looked up. "Or do I need to encourage that in person?"
He scratched his head. "Well.. some of us… we were hoping to use the back part of the big stable.. not many beasts in there.. to have you show us a bit more of those sword tricks…" A hopeful tone entered his voice. "And then ocourse.. some of em as like to choke themselves before seeing you again."
The warrior chuckled softly. "About what I figured.. you'll get your wish all right… I've got some excess energy I need to burn off.. so if you want to get this started, I'll meet you all down in that stable in a bit." She turned and appraised the window. "I usually would run drills in this, but.. ." A shrug. "What the Hades.. I'll be nice for a change."
"Fer a ch… ah." Bennu put on a more confident grin. "Right.. well, I'll be taken this, then." He touched the changes. "And be looking fer ye shortly."
Xena propped her chin up on one hand and watched him leave, then pulled a biscuit from the tray and scooped a portion of the eggs on top of it before taking a bite. "Mmmm… I think we're still on the favored list.. this isn't too bad." She glanced down at Ares, who was laying at her feet, looking up hopefully. "You think so too, huh?" She portioned part of the eggs into an empty bowl and put it down for the hungry wolf. "There you go."
Gabrielle returned, and put a steaming mug in front of her, and stole a mouthful of her breakfast before seating herself. "You're right." She swallowed, then helped herself to some. "You going to go have fun with the guys?"
Xena finished her biscuit and licked her fingers. "Uh huh.. unless you want me to stay here with you."
The bard almost dropped her mug. "What?" She carefully put it down, and peered up at the taller woman. "Xena, we are on a mission here,"
A shrug. "I don't care." Came the honest answer. "I don't care about Garanimus, or Framna, or either of their stinking armies." Blue eyes looked right at her. "I do care about you." She paused. "There have been many times when I've gotten my priorities screwed up with us, Gabrielle, but this isn't one of those times."
Gabrielle took several breaths before answering. "I know what you're thinking of when you say that, Xena… let's just get one thing straight right now, okay?" She leaned closer. "We are not going to let this change what we do, understand? These people need our help.. and that means they need your help." A long pause, then a smile shaped the bard's lips. "But you have no idea how good you just made me feel."
The smile was returned. "Oh yes I do." She ruffled Gabrielle's fair hair playfully. "Let's get this damn thing over with then, huh? So we can move on.. now I really want to see Jessan's kids." She reflected. "Oh yeah.. and visit those Amazons."
"Urggh." Came the acknowledgment from her soulmate. "That gives me.. what.. at least two months before I have to figure out how to tell my parents?" She grimaced comically. "This is not going to be one of your more straightforward explanations, Xena." A sigh. "I can just imagine the assumptions."
Xena chuckled wryly as she stood and stretched. "Tell em you swallowed an apple seed, and it sprouted." She advised jokingly, giving her a kiss on the top of her head, and missing the sudden, startled look she got from the smaller woman. "Good a story as any, if you run out of explanations."
Gabrielle gazed after her as she crossed the candlelit room and exchanged her tunic for leathers. "Yeah. I guess it is." The bard murmured softly. "Hey Xena?"
"Huh?" The warrior paused, in the middle of hoisting her armor over her head.
"Is that possible?"
Xena blinked, and slowly the plates settle over her shoulders, shrugging to move them into place. "Of course not." She fastened the shoulder catches. "Why?"
"No reason.. just a question.. you know me." The bard smiled. "It would make a great story."
The warrior walked over, and straddled the bench, resting her forearms on her knees and looking at her soulmate in utter seriousness. "What are you thinking?" She edged closer, and took the bard's hands in her own. "You having second thoughts?"
"No." Gabrielle searched her face intently. "I… I just wish… " She felt silent, feeling foolish. "Forget it… momentary goofiness on my part… I..am very much looking forward to this."
"But?" Gentle, inexorable.
"But nothing." Gabrielle shook her head.
"Really." The bard said.
"Are you upset about us being here… about how it happened… is it Toris? Did he… " Xena felt herself babbling. "I know… there's something there, Gabrielle, I can feel it in you."
A deep sigh. "I want the child to be both of ours."
Xena's brow creased. "But it will b… oh." She lifted Gabrielle's hands and kissed them. "As far as I'm concerned, it will be."
"I know that." The bard smiled. "See? I told you it was goofiness." She freed one hand and patted Xena's cheek. "Not like we had a choice."
Xena stood, visibly disturbed, and went to the window. "I could have asked for a favor." She replied quietly. "The gods owe me enough of them." She turned. "You should have said something, love."
A slow shaking of the bard's head. "No… I don't want that… you never ask them for anything. I won't have that on my account." She took a breath, and stood, walking over to where Xena was standing. "Please.. don't feel bad about that, Xena… it was so nice seeing you happy all morning."
Slowly, the warrior smiled. "All right." She pulled the bard into a hug. "It might as well be mine, the way I feel."
Gabrielle felt the pound of her heart through the leathers, and she smiled against them. "I know…it's so cute." She leaned back, and grinned mischievously. "I hope you remember to stop humming when you're beating those guys up."
An eyebrow arched. "Hmph.. and what will you be doing?"
"Trying to pump that princess… something's going on here, you know." The bard answered practically.
"Well, be careful." Xena advised gently, tucking her body close again.
"Me?" The muffled sound leaked out. "You're going out to fight with dozens of nasty, grungy guys carrying sharp weapons, and I get into a battle of wits with a puny half grown princess, and you tell me to be careful?"
The thunder rolled over them, lightning neatly outlining two bodies so closely intertwined they might as well have been one.
Gabrielle allowed herself a long, luxurious bath in the warmed water provided by her soulmate’s fire. She figured that trying to roust the princess royal out just after dawn was probably not a good idea anyway, and besides, how often did she get a chance to indulge in a marble bathtub?
She sighed, and leaned back, splashing her feet a little in the bubbly water, and inhaling the gentle, fragrant steam. Baths were never like this in Potadeia, she recalled. There, they were an evening chore, done by a tired, and distracted Hecuba after her father was either asleep, or at the inn. The tub was old, and splintery, and the water lukewarm at best, and it had been her job to make sure Lila got clean as well, to save time and her mother’s effort.
And of course, with Xena… well, if there was water, that was good enough, no matter what the temperature or surroundings. She’d always assumed the warrior just liked it that way, until that one night…
It had been a long, chilly, rainy day, and they’d slogged through knee deep mud during most of it. Argo’s legs were caked up to her knees, and Gabrielle had long since stopped talking to save her energy for walking and shivering. She’d been traveling with Xena for only about a half a year, and her body was just now starting to adjust to her new lifestyle.
When Xena had finally stopped, near sunset, she’d quietly trudged to a rock and sat down, not even realizing where she was until a hand had touched her shoulder, and she’d looked up into a mud and water stained face. "I'm just resting a minute.. I'll get going." She’d said, not wanting to frustrate the usually impatient ex warlord.
Tired looking blue eyes had studied her, then a faint smile had played around the warrior’s normally stern face. "Not tonight. C’mon."
She’d taken Xena’s outstretched hand, and had been lead numbly into what she now realized was an inn, hearing the faint clatter of serving dishes, and smelling the warm fragrance of beef stew on the air. Xena hadn’t stopped there, though, she’d continued on down a hallway, and into a back suite, where she’d exchanged low words with two women who were working in the chamber, and passed them coins.
Gabrielle had looked around the room, and blinked. It was large, and had a warm fire in one corner, but the center of it was taken up with a huge, wooden tub that had wisps of steam rising above it. Xena had surveyed her achievement, then turned. "You up for a warm bath?"
The bard could only stare at her in blissful silence, which drew a weary chuckle from her taller companion. They’d gotten undressed, and climbed in, and she’d almost passed out from the sheer pleasure of being warm, and clean, for what seemed like the first time in forever. She’d scrubbed herself all over, and at last, just relaxed back, and peered at the silent warrior, who was facing her against the opposite wall of the huge bath. "This was great." She’d sighed.
Xena had smiled, a rare thing at that point, and stretched out her body. "Yeah… I forget sometimes just how much I love a nice hot bath."
Gabrielle had, frankly, goggled at her. "Really? I thought you just loved cold, uncomfortable mud holes." She’d blurted. "And sleeping on rocks."
For a minute, she thought Xena was just going to retreat back into her dour shell, but the warrior finally let a wry chuckled escape. "Nah." She’d admitted. "But it’s what we’re stuck with.. no sense in complaining." She’d finished soaking, and lifted herself up out of the water, rolling her head around to loosen her shoulders as she dried herself off with an almost soundless sigh.
Reluctantly, the bard took one final rinse, and scrambled out of the tub, and, not looking where she was going, slipped in a small puddle of water, crying out a little as she saw the ground coming up far, far too fast.
She never hit. Powerful hands caught her, and swung her upright, setting her on her feet so fast she had to take a minute to catch her breath. "T.. tha.. hank you."
"Can you stay out of trouble for even one candlemark?" Xena had asked in exasperation.
Her shoulders had dropped, and she’d looked at the ground, water dripping from her pale hair. "I guess not." She’d exhaled. "Sorry."
Surprisingly, a hand patted her cheek then, and tilted her head up. "S’allright." The warrior had chuckled. "What would I do without you to keep me busy, huh?" She looked around, then back at the bard. "Besides… you give me a good excuse to spend a night out of the weather."
"Me?" Gabrielle had protested. "I didn’t ask you to stop here."
A dark, well shaped eyebrow curved up.
"Not that I don’t appreciate it." The bard had admitted. "I was pretty tired." A pause. "And wet." Another pause. "And really cold." A sigh. "Thanks, Xena."
She’d actually gotten a genuine laugh out of the aggravating woman.
And later, tucked into her small bed, letting the smell of clean blankets rise around her, she stayed awake long enough to watch, through slitted eyes, as Xena allowed herself the luxury of a clean shift, instead of sleeping in her leathers, and laid down on the room’s other bed with a look of almost pathetic relief, wrapping the warm comforter around her, and curling her arm around the soft pillow.
"Xena?" She’d asked softly.
Eyes so blue even the candelight couldn’t dim them peered back at her. "Yeah?"
"I don’t mind sleeping on rocks, as long as I'm with you." It had been her youthful enthusiasm speaking, but she’d meant it, silly as it had sounded to her even then.
Absolute silence greeted her statement for so long, she’d thought Xena just wasn’t going to answer, so she’d sighed to herself and snuggled down into her covers.
The warmth in that voice had been unmistakable. "Yes?"
‘Thank you." A gentle exhale. "Now go to sleep."
But she’d seen the quiet smile, there in the moonlight that trickled through the glazed windows and bathed her in silver, and for a brief moment, she’d seen her dour, uncommunicative companion in a wholly different light.. Less of a warrior, less of a cold, and heartless killer, and more of a person, like herself, who could appreciate a warm bath on cold, rainy day.
Now, of course, Gabrielle chuckled softly to herself. She knew a lot better just how much of a pleasure hound her soulmate really was, the adorable fraud. She was enjoying that soft, fluffy mattress just as much the bard was, maybe more.
She got out of the tub, and dried herself with one of the nicely scented towels, then padded into the main room, and pulled out a fresh tunic, and settled its folds around her body, examining the effects in the mirror.
A quiet, serious young woman looked back at her, older than she remembered, but also a lot more self assured than she’d ever hoped to be. She put her hands on her hips and regarded her reflection wryly. "Xena, you need those baby blues examined. I am not glowing in any way, shape or form."
"Roo?" Ares trotted over, and looked up at her inquiringly. He poked her in the belly with his nose, and whined, wagging his tail.
She looked at him. "Sure.. sure.. NOW you tell me." She scolded him, laughing when his ears drooped pathetically. "Aw… I know you tried yesterday.. it’s okay." She rubbed his head gently, then walked over to the table, and sat down, pulling her diary over. "Boy oh boy oh boy.. do I ever have an entry to make today." She sharpened her quill, and chuckled, as she composed her thoughts.
A knock prevented her from starting, however, and she glanced up. "Come in."
The door opened, pushed all the way against the wall, and Silvi glided in, impeccably dressed in a long, flowing gown that emphasized her almost painfully thin physique. "Good morning."
Gabrielle hesitated, then decided on a bright smile instead of a stand and a bow. "Good morning… you’re up early."
Silvi swept across the floor, waving her fan at the retainer that was following her. "Shut the door." She ordered. "And leave us."
The door closed, and she turned, regarding the bard quietly.
Gabrielle folded her hands across her diary and gazed back, glad she’d gotten out of the tub, at least.
"You too, are up early, Gabrielle. " The princess observed. "After such a late night, I would have thought you would sleep in this morning." She glanced surreptitiously around the room. "And where is your friend?"
A blond eyebrow rose. "Xena? She doesn’t sleep in much. " The bard answered with a chuckle. "She’s out working with the troops, adjusting the watch, that kinda thing." She twirled her quill in her fingers. "I was going to go see if I could see you after I finished updating my diary."
Silvi drifted over, fanning herself a little. "A diary? How interesting. What do you put in it?"
"My thoughts…mostly." The bard replied. "Things that happen to me… how I feel about them, sometimes little bits of poetry."
The princess eyed the book. "It’s quite large… how long have you been doing it?"
"Oh.. just under three years, I guess. I started it not too long after I started traveling with Xena." Gabrielle took a sip of her now cooled tea. "Wouldn’t you like to sit down?"
The younger woman moved to the window instead. "That was a beautiful dress you wore last night." She looked back at the bard over her shoulder. "I was quite envious.. and I believe I owe you an apology for thinking you barbarian. You are not."
That got her a warm smile. "Thanks… it was kind of a surprise… but I really liked it. " She paused. "I don’t get to dress up like that often.. mostly we stick to practical stuff.. when you wander the landscape like we do, it’s kinda hard on ruffles."
Silvi glanced around. "This is not quite what you’re used to then." Her face took on a faintly amused look, and she crossed back over to the table, seating herself on the edge of the bench gracefully. "Tell me what home is like for you, Gabrielle."
The bard folded her hands, considering. "Well, we live in a town called Amphipolis, and it’s a lot… smaller, I guess, but also more colorful." She looked around. "We have painted mats on the walls, and fur rugs, and pillows scattered everywhere."
"Sounds…lovely." The princess replied, then cleared her throat a little. "Is that where you are from?"
Gabrielle took another sip. "No… but it’s not far. I’m from Potadeia… it’s a really small farming village." She paused, regarding her hands. "Sheep raising, too.. my father works the land, and my mother keeps the household, and has a little herb garden."
"Oh." Silvi murmured. "Have you brothers or sisters?"
The bard nodded. "A younger sister, Lila. She just had a baby." She grinned. "He’s very cute."
The princess, fluffed her dress. "You get to visit, then?"
"Sure." Gabrielle answered, a touch puzzled. ‘We stopped there on the way out here, in fact."
"Ah." Her eyes flicked to the bard’s. "How do your parents feel about what happened to you?"
For a moment, Gabrielle almost lost her composure, as she searched for a response to what was, on the surface, an innocent question. "What do you mean?" She answered slowly, playing for time.
"Well.. with you traveling with that woman, and all." Silvi elaborated.
"OH." The bard breathed a sigh of relief inwardly. "They… weren’t too happy about it, at first… but.. over the last year or so, they’ve kinda reconciled themselves to it.. now I think the even sorta like Xena." She paused. "Why?"
Silvi leaned forward, and bravely covered the bard’s hand with her own. "Look here… you’re a good sort, Gabrielle.. .I think we… maybe we can help each other, all right?" She glanced around. "If you help us, I'll make you a place here… you’ll be safe from her." She held up a hand as the bard started a protest. "No.. now wait, I know you will protest your loyalty… as I say, you are a good sort, but anyone can see how she dominates you.. here’s your chance to be free."
Thank the gods she kept talking long enough for me to get my jaw shut. Gabrielle thought, biting the inside her lip hard. Okay.. okay… think, Gabrielle… don't react, just think. Something is going on here… this might be my best chance to find out what it is. "What do I have to do?" She finally answered, in a cautious voice.
The princess beamed. "I knew you’d agree… once I’d seen how frightened you were last night when those two beasts were fighting… I told Vasi you’d be with us."
I was frightened that Xena was going to pick him up and toss him down the table, ruining the dinner, Silvi… Gabrielle mused internally. "That was scary, all right.. but what’s the plan.. what do you need me to do?"
"Not here." The princess rose, and fanned herself. "Come… Elanora and I will bathe together shortly.. join us, and there, we are sure of privacy."
"My sister and I used to do the very same thing." Gabrielle smiled wryly. "All right… lead on." She tucked her diary away, and stood, straightening her tunic with slightly nervous hands. "Come on, Ares." She patted her leg, comforted by the feel of the warm fur as he pressed against her.
Silvi led the way, not without a backward glance at the wolf. "Does he go everywhere with you?" She peered down. "He’s very large."
"Yes.. he does." Gabrielle answered. ‘Xena told him to." That ought to get her.
The princess gasped. "OH.. you poor thing." She gave Ares a distasteful look. "How horrid." She lowered her voice. "You must tell me everything about Xena."
"Everything?" The bard inquired.
"Yes." Silvi assured her, solemnly. "We must have every advantage…what are her weaknesses?"
Cream filled pastries? Gabrielle giggled inwardly. "She has none, that I’ve ever seen." She told the princess, in a low, serious voice.
"She lifted that ass up last night.. is she so very strong?" Silvi whispered urgently.
"Oh yes." Gabrielle assured her. "She’s incredibly strong… she picks me right up half the time and doesn’t realize it.. and of course, you do know she can pick up Argo."
"No!" Silvi gasped. "Not really!"
"Absolutely." Gabrielle insisted. "I once saw her take on five hundred men.. .all by herself, and she didn’t even get a scratch."
The princesses eyes widened in horror. "My gods… that’s horrible!"
"Mm.." Gabrielle agreed. "Blood was running so thick it looked like a river… and, by the way, she catches fish in her bare hands, and can outrun a panther."
"Yeah… she’s got these scars on her arms… " Gabrielle touched her upper shoulders. "She strangled a panther, with her bare hands once." Now she was really going. "And you know, she can drink barrels and barrels of ale, and it never affects her.. and she can run for days, and day and days.. she never gets tired, and she never gets hurt.. .it’s creepy sometimes."
Silvi was chewing her fingernails by this point. "Oh dear… oh dear.. it’s worse than I’d imagined… thank the gods we’ve gotten you on our side.. what are we do to.. you’re our only chance."
"To do what?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
"Why.. drug her senseless, of course." The princess uttered, in a hushed tone. "It’s what we’re to do to all of them.. before we open the gates and let our good, and kind friends and saviors in." She tugged Gabrielle’s sleeve, and drew her into a small antechamber, where the bard could hear subtle clanks and metallic sounds issuing from the larger room behind it. "Come.. let us plan… you will meet the champions of our cause."
Oh boy. Gabrielle exhaled silently. What have I gotten myself in to now?
It took an enormous amount of effort, Xena mused, not to whistle cheerfully as she ambled through the darkened main hall, and headed for the door which led out to the old stable. She detoured to the glazed window, and peered out, watching the heavy rain pelt the lead lined panes in absent pleasure, as she ran the morning's revelations through her mind again.
It was a curious mix of elation, and vague embarrassment, as she let the thrill of her partner's condition war with her own chagrin at not realizing it before she'd been told. Oh, and how she'd been told… good gods and little fishes boots. It wasn't bad enough she'd been oblivious to the signs on Gabrielle.. but not realizing what was going on with her own body?
Xena lifted both hands, and let them fall against her thighs. I feel like such an idiot… She grinned at her reflection. But I don't much care. Now the odd dreaminess, her lack of attention span, and the weird eating habits she'd fallen into lately made a reasonable kind of sense.. given what she'd been told by Jess after she'd confided in him that Gabrielle was considering having a child.
But… She slowly lifted a finger, and traced the progress of a raindrop on the outer side of the window as it slid slowly down. Nah.. that had to be a coincidence… she couldn’t have felt the effects the day she and Cyrene had gone to the fair.
Her mind pictured back, and she reexamined the night in question, remembering her mother's odd looks at her as she cheerfully consumed a bit of everything the food stalls had to offer.. and the feeling of giddy absentmindedness came back to her as well.
But that was completely impossible.
Coincidence, and the need to take her mind off what was going on at the time was the only logical answer. Besides, Xena reminded herself, she liked most of that fair stuff, always had, even as a kid. She smiled at her skewed reflection, then turned, and trotted towards the outer door again, this time giving in to her urge, and whistling an old chicken plucking tune her mother often hummed.
"Whoa there, lit'l sprout." The gravelly voice halted her, and she turned.
"Morning, Gramma." She gave the old woman a grin. "Great day, huh?"
The cook snorted. "Ye're needing some glasses there, I'm thinking." Her faded, dark eyes studied the warrior, who was bouncing lightly in place on the balls of her feet. "What're you in such a good mood fer this disgusting morning?"
Xena took in a breath, then paused. "Um… " She shrugged. "I just am… is that a crime around these parts?" She asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Weeeeelll… " Gramma tucked her head to one side, and studied the taller woman. "Not so's you look like you'd be the cat what swallowed a songbird, suchlike." She sniffed. "What with all that whistling and all.. though if I remember, ye've got a set of nice pipes on ye."
The warrior chuckled, then took a breath, and sang a verse of the song she'd been whistling, watching in amusement as the old woman's eyes widened. She finished, then winked. "Gotta go." She turned, and bounded out the door, reveling in the feel of the cold rain as it hit her.
Gramma watched her disappear, then shook her head. "Be damned."
A tousled head popped out of the kitchen door, as the steward blinked in the gloom. "Good Artemis.. who was that singing?"
Gramma pushed him out of the way. "No one ye've got any interest in knowing. Outta my way, you sack o bones."
Xena picked up her pace, loping across the courtyard as the storm raged around her. The cold rain invigorated her senses, and she dodged a broken paving stone, then grinned evilly, and changed course, heading towards the very center of the open space. Once she'd reached the small dip in the center, she leaped, then flipped twice, landing with both booted feet in the deepest part of the puddle, and sending a cascade of cold, muddy water outward.
"Hah." Xena stuck her tongue out and caught a few drops, then crouched, and shot skyward, flipping again at the top of her leap, and taking her landing in stride, as she moved back towards the large, half closed door of the castle stables.
Gods.. it felt good to feel good. To feel that for once, at least for a little while, things were going right. She knew better than to think there wouldn’t be trouble from this.. after all, just the act of carrying a child could be dangerous. But… somehow, as hard as she tried, she couldn’t keep her mind from wandering down the speculation road, thinking of a baby.. would it be a boy or a girl? Would it look like her soulmate, or like her brother? Secretly, she had a sneaking hope that her family's dark good looks would favor the child.. though she kinda wished the baby ended up with her partner's unique, misty green eyes.
Enough baby blues in the family, I think. She grinned, and dodged a running chicken, which she chased a few steps, and watched it flap off in disgruntled outrage. Thinking of the kid this early was just…
Stupid, but… Xena sighed, and came to a halt, shaking herself vigorously as she reached the overhang, and put her hand on the door. She raked a hand through her completely wet hair, and flicked her fingers to straighten it a little. Ok..ok.. c'mon, Xena… we have to be a nasty, mean warlord now. Suck it in, and let's just get the act going… c'mon.. think of three day old pig dung left out in the sun.
She took a breath, and waited for a serious look to settle on her face. Then she pulled the door open, and strode inside, giving the group of assembled men there a brisk nod. "Morning."
It was, she realized, almost fully half the men in the army clustered in the room, and the thought cheered her even more, if that were possible. Half? Damn.. guess I've still got that old magic, huh? "I hear you all would like a few lessons."
The closest man, a short, very stocky soldier with very short cut brown hair grinned at her, showing a gap between his front teeth. "Ifn we're gonna be stuck with ye, we might as well larn something." He told her, frankly. "Palton over there been telling stories about how he seen you hold off a whole army by yourself. That true?"
A solid ring was now gathered around her, staring hungrily.
Xena smiled, her biggest, nastiest grin imaginable. "It's true. Wanna see how?"
They grinned back.
"All right." She pushed the damp hair out of her eyes, and backed a step, then drew her sword. "C'mon. " Her free hand lifted and waved them forward lazily. "Come and get me."
"You're serious?" The man squeaked, glancing around at the assembled group.
"I'm serious." Xena assured him, flipping her sword in a neat circle. "C'mon."
"All of us?" Another man asked, in disbelief.
"Uh huh." The warrior assured him. "Unless you all are chicken." She shifted her feet, feeling the delicious surge of energy flash over her, lifting the nape hairs on her neck as her body responded to the challenge, and mixed the part of her that was Ares, with the part of her that was reacting to her partner's condition, and demanding wild, joyous action. "Buck buck… " She clucked. "Buck buck buck…"
They growled, and the scrape of metal on leather filled the large, mostly empty room, then a yell rose, and they surged forward, lunging towards her bouncing, mocking form.
Steel rang on steel, as a dozen blades met hers, and she let them force her arms down, sending her into a crouch. She exploded back up, and the first ring went stumbling, surprised at the violence in her action. She met the second wave's attack, her blade moving with such speed it was a mere flicker, deflecting blow after blow, as she kept constantly moving, shifting, evading their grasp.
O.. gods it felt good. Xena let out a wild, chilling yell, and ducked under a long arm, as she slammed her hilt into an overbalancing soldier, sending him to the ground. Another sword appeared in her peripheral vision and she deflected it, letting her swing go all the way around and catch another blade as it aimed for her knees.
She leaped, and surprised them, jumping over the first rank and landing behind them, then spinning and kicking them in a rapid series of contacts, sending most of them flying as she ducked and dodged the frantic lunges of the second rank. She spun again, bringing her blade up and now just worked herself in a circle, meeting their attacks and defeating them, redirecting blades, and dodging hands, in a display of martial skills the likes of which these men, at least, had never seen in their lives.
And more than likely, never would again. This was Xena at her best, and fueled by the wild energy that her joy was pumping into her, she overreached even her finely honed skills, as she launched herself into another flip, and managed to disarm a round half dozen men as she landed, with powerful flicks of her wrist that sent her blade slinking around theirs, and jerking them out of their grasps. A bound and she was on the other side of them, and now she started working them from the back, lunging forward in classic style, defending her off side with her bracered forearm, while she took her assault on with her sword, moving forward a step at a time as she forced the line of yelling men back, and back, and back, all of their efforts futile against this one, lone, dark haired woman who never, ever stopped grinning as she defeated them, not even for one moment.
"It's like this." She started lecturing, as she forced a group of them against a support, and neatly disarmed them with skillful kicks. "You just gotta keep moving." She jumped over them, and engaged another group, dropping into a crouch, and surprising them as their blows whistled over her head, then leaping up and catching them with a split kick that they were not expecting her to be able to do. "Oh.. and the element of surprise always helps."
She battled the third, and last large group to a standstill, as they ended up with their backs against the haycrib. She grinned even wider and took two long steps forward, then leaped, whipping her sword up and around as she reached her highest point and slicing through the hay net that dumped a cascading stack of the stuff all over them, burying them to their necks. "Use what tools you find." She added, then turned, and bounced to a standstill, peering out at groups of wide eyed men who peeked back at her from behind the stalls. "And ya gotta really enjoy what you're doing."
A moment of dead silence fell.
"Cluck." Bennu issued weakly, as he poked his head up from where he'd been dumped, behind a feed bin. 'Cluck.. cluck…"
A chorus of clucks filled the room, to be overshadowed with Xena's clear, ringing laughter. She hoped her soulmate was having half this much fun.
The bathing room was huge, Gabrielle realized, as she followed the princess inside, where Elanora was already waiting, her face a sullen mask as she recognized who her royal cousin had brought.
There was a large, sunken pool in the center of the room, the edge about seat high, which already had fluffy linens set by for drying. Three female servants edged quietly about the perimeter, bowing to the princess as she swept on by. "Be glad, Elanora… as I predicted, Gabrielle is with us. " The girl announced. "And she will do her part… it is very well that I thought of including her, for I do believe she is the only one who could gain enough closeness to that woman to give her the poison."
The dark haired girl gave her a grudging smile. "That is well, your highness." She inclined her head towards Gabrielle.
Silvi preened. "And my father said I had no head for planning… a pox on his memory." She drifted over to the nearest servant. "Come.. let's bathe…I find this weather most unsettling."
The servants helped them undress, except for Gabrielle, who declined with a smile, as she had only her tunic and boots to remove. She politely waited for them to finish, then joined them at the edge of the pool, aware of their avidly curious eyes.
Ye gods.. She eyed them back. You can practically see through them. The two royals were, indeed, wafer thin, and their skins were pale white, almost translucent in shade. The bard could see the blue veins under their skin, and almost clucked at them in disapproval. Her own tanned, sturdily muscular body was a stark, startling contrast, and she decided she preferred it that way.
"You guys don’t get out much, do you?" She asked, in a wry tone, as she slipped into the very warm water, and stretched her arms out along the sides. Confidence, Xena's voice echoed gently in her head. All comes from inside you. "That's not really healthy."
The two girls looked at each other, then at her. Gabrielle realized the other thing that set them apart was just that, they were girls, and she… her lashes blinked in reaction at the thought. She, on the other hand, was a woman.
Yikes. Her brain blurted. I bet they're looking at me like I used to look at Xena. A flash of memory called to mind the very first time they'd bathed together, and she blushed slightly.
Her sister had been a younger girl. Her mother.. had been her mother. Xena… She remembered that tanned, sleek body moving towards her out of the sunset. Xena, had been a woman, the first she'd ever seen in that kind of close situation, and it had made her aware of parts of herself that she hadn't suspected before.
"Well." Silvi murmured, turning her eyes aside and gently blushing. "You certainly seem healthy."
Elanora just frankly stared. "Great Artemis.. " She snickered. "I believe you've got more muscles than Vasi does."
Gabrielle smiled politely, and balled her fist up, making her arm muscles jump. "They do come in very handy at times." She assured the girl. "Now.. what's all this plan stuff about?"
They both floated closer, flanking her on either side. She resisted the almost uncontrollable urge to escape, and forced herself to remain still, as they crept up. Her nostrils, she realized, did flare, and she had to bite her lip from smiling as that reminded her of her soulmate in just the same situation.
"It's quiet simple, really." Silvi said, in a soft voice. "The night before they attack, our people will serve the soldiers food with herbs in it, that will make them sleep. Then, at night, we'll open the gates and let them in, and that will be that." She exchanged glances with Elanora "They're on their way here now.. a man of theirs is already inside the gates, watching."
So. Gabrielle exhaled silently. Xena was right. As usual. "What do you get out of it?" She asked in a quiet voice. "How is that other warlord any better?"
Silvi smiled. "He is courting me." She preened. "And he has pledged his life to see me free, and set up on my father's throne without this animal. Then.. " She blushed. "He has offered me his heart."
The bard rubbed her ear.
"Isn't that the most romantic thing you've ever heard?" Elanora sighed, clasping her hands. "He's very handsome… just last week, he sent in a single flower for her."
Ay yi yi. Gabrielle nibbled her lip. "That's… lovely." She offered. "So.. after this is all over.. you'll… make him king, is that it?"
"Well." Silvi laughed gently. "As he will be my consort, and I will be made Queen, I suppose.. but that means nothing to him." She sighed, then glanced up. "But perhaps… well, do you believe in romance, Gabrielle? Do you believe in love.. in love at first sight?"
Here I am, caught between a centaur and the hind end of a Sphinx. Gabrielle sighed wryly. "Yes, as a matter of fact, I do, Silvi." She answered gently. A vivid memory of a dusty path outside Potadeia filled her mind's eye, when she'd first seen a wild eyed, fierce woman, gaining a future, a soulmate, and a best friend all in the same, brief moment. "I do.. believe in all those things."
The princess beamed. "Come then.. tell me.. tell us, what do you think romantic? My flower.. the lovely poem he wrote to me… those things touch my heart. What of you?"
A small smile edged the bard's mouth. "What do I think is romantic?" She repeated the question, then tilted her head back and gazed at the ceiling. "Well… different things that that, I guess… fireflies… " She closed her eyes. "Sunsets… the smell of jasmine." Her eyes edged open and regarded the window. "Kissing in the rain." She smiled to herself. "Waking up on a cold morning with the person you love's arms wrapped around you, keeping you warm."
"Oh!" Silvi breathed, clasping her hands. "You've actually been in love, haven't you!"
Gabrielle nodded. "Oh yes." She closed her eyes again and let herself feel it, the warm sure knowledge that wrapped her in gentle gossamer. "The poems don't do it justice." She blinked at the girls, and shook her head a little. "They tell you all that high minded stuff.. about everlasting devotion.. and courtly this.. or that… "
"Yes.. yes.. " Elanora squeaked. "There's more?"
"Mmm." The bard smiled. "They don't prepare you for the … physical side.. of what it's like.. they don't tell you how much loving someone changes how you see them.. how you.. feel.. about how they are. " She sighed. " How you'll learn to know their scent… and their footsteps.. or how you'll feel when they look at you… or how a touch can make your knees weak.. or how just seeing their face can make your heart melt." She looked up at Silvi, who was staring at her with widened eyes. "That's what love is." She told the girl gently. "It binds you together.. it's not about flowers.. or poems.. or words." She put her fist over her heart. "It's this.. and it's the most powerful thing you'll ever feel.. it will change your life forever."
Silvi pressed her hands against her throat. "You take my breath away." She gasped. "What a wonderful bard you are.. to be able to do that." Then her young face grew serious. "Gabrielle… why are you not with your love now? Did Xena take you from that?" Her voice held outraged indignance.
A shake of the head. "No." Gabrielle chose her words very carefully, not wanting to lie, but knowing the truth at this point would destroy the confidence she'd built here, and deprive them of further information. "She didn't."
"Were you married?" Elanora asked, sympathetically, apparently completely over her initial distrust and dislike. "How awful."
"I was." The bard answered. "But he died.. very soon after we were married." Truth.. so far as it went.
"Oh!" The girls exclaimed together, distressed. "Fear not." Silvia assured her. "After we rid ourselves of these horrible men.. and I am in my place, I shall find you someone to care for you, Gabrielle.. in return for your loyalty here."
Silvi, if you're very, very lucky, the person who cares for me more than life will make sure you don't spend the rest of yours chained to an opportunistic warlord. "Thank you." She replied simply. "I have some.. oh, I guess you could call them love poems.. that I wrote.. .would you like to hear them later?"
"From the Bard of Love… how romantic." Elanora sighed. "Oh yes, please."
If you ever repeat that within Xena's range of hearing, which is approximately from here to Athens, the Bard of Cruel Vengeance is going to come visiting your room at night with a mud pie, lady. "Sure." Gabrielle smiled "Did you guys have anything in mind for lunch?"
"Ah.. yes." Silvi looked immensely pleased with herself. "I believe we have bouillon today."
"Bouillon." Gabrielle repeated slowly. "That's soup, right?" She drummed her fingers on the edge of the pool.. "You know ladies… I have to tell you.. love takes a lot of energy."
Startled young eyes fastened on her. She flexed a muscle. "Take it from me… .and bouillon just is not cutting it in the energy department."
They glanced at each other in consternation. "W… w.. well, what do you suggest?" Silvi asked, hesitantly. "I can't abide gruel.. it just lumps up in me like a sack."
Gabrielle scratched her nose. "Well.. if you show me where the kitchen is.. I think I can fix that." She paused. "I can cook."
Wide eyes. "Really?" Silvi asked. "That's amazing."
"Not really." The bard advised her. "I had to keep myself and Xena fed. I learned fast."
"Ugh." Elanora made a face. "I think she's horrible.. doesn't she just suck pigs blood or something?"
It almost.. almost ..almost.. triggered a full out, no holds bard temper tantrum, but somehow, somehow, Gabrielle managed to keep the lid on. "I've.. never seen her do that." She drawled, pretending reluctance. "She's more into raw meat." A pause. "She and the wolf.. they share, you know."
Ares popped his head up, and braced his paws against the stone. "Roo??" He ruined her disgusting effect by kissing her on the head affectionately. "Agrrruoo?"
"Ares.. cut that out." She sighed, rubbing his ears. "He's really a nice guy." Then she looked up at them. "Listen.. this stuff… um.. " She took a breath. "I don't … it's not going to hurt her, right? Just put her to sleep?" She hesitated. "I don't think I could…um.. "
Silvi put a hand out, and patted her arm. "It's just sleeping stuff… my man measured it out, and we tested it last week.. don't worry." A pause. "And after… my beau will take care of her… you'll be safe, Gabrielle, I promise you."
She believes in him. The bard pensively realized. And the thought of taking away that belief someone has in someone else… maybe she's right. Maybe he is… what she says… a good guy. "Thanks." She replied quietly. "Lunch?" And then, a visit to the stable.
"All right… that's enough for today." Xena remarked, crisply, as she tucked her sword neatly into its sheath. "I want those quarters clean when I show up there tonight after dinner, got me?"
Exhausted nods, but the murmur of conversation held no malice, it only reflected chatter on fighting, and techniques, and some of the tricks she'd painstakingly taught them. She leaned back against a support and watched them file out, waving a little to Bennu, who had taken, perhaps unfairly, the brunt of her teaching. He looked cheerful anyway, and he gave her a big smile as he turned, the last to leave.
She smiled back, then pushed off from the support and trudged over to where Argo was comfortably housed, chewing a mouthful of the fragrant hay. "Hello, girl." The warrior plunked herself down on the bale next to the stall, and the mare obligingly sidled over, blowing a mouthful of hay bits all over her rider. "Oh.. thanks." Xena brushed herself off, and chuckled, then reached over to scratch the mare's ears. "I got a secret to tell ya… "
Argo edged closer, and pushed her nose into the warrior's chest.
"Yeah… you're gonna be a aunt." Xena whispered into the horse's ear.
The mare snorted, and shook her head.
"No.. no.. it's true… you're gonna be an aunt." Her rider insisted, twisting a bit of her mane. "Gabrielle's gonna have a baby.. isn't that great?"
She was almost knocked over by a recalcitrant nose. "Okay..okay.. so it's not so great for you… but it's great for me." The soft neck was a comfortable place to rest her cheek for a moment. "I'm gonna get another chance, Argo… and I'm scared, and happy.. I hope I don't screw it up this time."
Xena chuckled softly. "Thanks for the vote of confidence." Footsteps in the muddy hay alerted her, and she glanced up to see Garanimus striding across the stable. Even his presence couldn’t put a damper on her mood, she realized, and she leaned back against the bale, crossing her legs at the ankles and waited for him to arrive.
He stopped a body length away, and surveyed her relaxed pose. "I hear I missed the school of hard knocks."
A dark brow edged up. "You want a private lesson?" She smiled, not one of her nicer ones. "I'm up for it."
He lifted both hands. "One arena I'm not going to compete with you in, Xena. " He answered. "I got a reply from Framna… I think he halfway bought into the deal. He's headed this way.. but he says it's to meet with us.. "He gave Xena a pointed look. "And work something out."
She folded her hands across her belly and surveyed him. "All right… that doesn't sound too bad." She considered. "How long till he gets here?"
A shrug. "Tomorrow night… earliest." He glanced around. " Gotta admit… those damn huts look a sight better then they did." His eyes fastened back on her. "Look.. Xena.. I know there's bad blood between us.. and you're not doing this for old times sake… but this is better for these people."
Xena snorted. "You don't give a centaur's bald butt about these people, Garanimus.. you just don’t want to lose your little meal ticket, and your comfortable spot." She moved a foot, and booted him lightly in the gut. "Don't mouth platitudes at me. I'll do this, but you just keep outta my way, and when it's over… I'd don't wanna hear from you ever again, got it?"
He winced, and rubbed his stomach. "Y'know, Xena.. that's what I always did love about you.. ya never had to wonder where ya stood." He gave her a sardonic grin. "But it wasn't all bad.. we had some good times, you gotta admit that."
She crossed her arms. "Some." She admitted, allowing a grin to crease her face. "But not many, and that last one kinda canceled everything else out." Now her expression hardened. "I'm not a real forgiving person."
He moved a step closer. "Do you even know why I did it?"
Blue eyes pinned him. "They offered you a thousand dinars to sell out."
His breath caught. "You knew."
She nodded. "I knew."
Fascinated, he perched on the edge of her bale. "But you came, anyway… why?"
A faint, wry smile touched her lips. "Just to see if I could do it." She replied quietly. "I never could resist a challenge."
He looked at her. "Damn… you are crazy."
Xena laughed. "Sure I am.. I'm here, aren't I?"
Garanimus shook his head. "I couldn’t turn down a thousand dinars, Xena… that woulda kept me for a long, long time. Maybe gotten me out of this weasel run."
A sigh. "You coulda just asked me. I would have matched it." She gazed at him. "That's why you're fighting to hold on here.. isn't it? You want out?"
"You wouldn't have let me go." He snorted softly, the paused, looking at her uncertainly. "Would you have?"
She leaned back, and exhaled. "I was getting pretty tired of it, even then, Gar… " Her head rolled to one side as she watch him. "Yeah.. I would have.. I woulda called you names.. kicked you around a little.. but yeah."
His eyes closed. "Woulda beens." A shrug. " You like what you're doing now, honest, Xe?"
"Yeah.. honest." She chuckled softly. "Took a while to get used to it.. but.. I do."
Their pale eyes met, and his face gentled, and lost a lot of its hardened cynicism, and Xena was forcibly reminded of why they'd been attracted to each other, all those years ago. "Truce?" She let her own expression relax, in to a quiet smile, and held out a hand.
He took it, clasping her forearm with gentle fingers. "Truce."
They fell silent, then he released his hold, and glanced around. "Those men talk about you like you're the God of War, you know."
She rolled her eyes. "Aw, centaur balls.. don't go THERE." She exclaimed in disgust. "I got enough troubles with him."
Garanimus chuckled. "Well, sure.. ya named yer damn dog after him, Xena.. whatcha expect?" He sketched a wry salute at her, then turned to leave. He got one step away, then turned back. "You're in a good mood.. I'll risk asking. You and the kid… you involved?"
Xena glanced up from adjusting an armor bit. "Involved? No. Involved is not the word for what we are."
He accepted that. "All right… so.. "
"The word for what we are is married." Xena looked back down, and tapped on the bit with the hilt of her dagger.
"Married." He repeated faintly. "You.. and the kid?"
Xena nodded. "Yep." Her eyes lifted. "And she's not a kid."
He blinked at her, then abruptly sat back down on the bale. "Oh." He paused. "I didn't… ah.. I never considered… um… I never thought of you as the marrying kind, Xena."
She gazed at him, amused. "Things change." She paused. "People change… I did."
Garanimus didn't answer, he just sat, chewing on a hay stalk for a long moment, then he stood and grunted, and left, taking his stalk with him.
Xena chuckled to herself, and then laughed, as Argo tickled her leg with the soft whiskers on her muzzle. "Hey… " She sighed, and raked her fingers through the mare's mane. "I didn't think I was the marrying kind either, Argo.. you know that?" Her thumb idly played with the ring circling her finger, and she glanced at it, letting the soft, gray light reflect off the stone. "Not me, huh? Don't let anyone get too close… don’t get involved… that's hilarious.. I'm so involved in her sometimes it's hard to believe." The mare shoved her nose closer, and Xena rewarded her with a hug. "I’d be so lost, Argo… if anything ever happens to her.." She let the words trail off, and rested her cheek against the soft skin. "I feel like wrapping her up in cotton wool.. but I know I can't, right? Especially now, girl… I really want everything to go nice.. and smooth… she deserves that, after last time."
Argo whickered softly, used to the low, murmuring words. She nipped at her rider's leathers, then flicked her ears, as the door creaked open. Xena looked up over the golden neck, and blinked, as the rain disgorged a dripping, but cheerful Gabrielle. "Hey!" She yelped, scrambling off her haybale, and jerking one of Argo's blankets off the divider.
"Whoa.." The bard shook herself violently, scattering drops of water over the hay. "That's some storm."
"Gabrielle!" Xena reached her, and tossed the blanket over her shoulders, tugging it around her and using the top of it to dry her drenched hair. "You're soaking wet!"
The bard exhaled. "Been the story of my life today…. Hey… cut that out." She squirmed out of Xena's solicitous reach. "Here… I brought you lunch."
The warrior took the package, scowling. "I coulda waited for this… " She growled. "You didn't have to come tromping out here in this weather."
Green eyes regarded her with kind benevolence. "I know." Gabrielle moved closer, clutching her blanket to her, and laid her head down on her soulmate's chest. "But I really wanted to be with you." She exhaled slowly as warm arms circled her and drew her closer. "I found out what's going on, and I thought you'd better know."
Xena kissed the top of her damp head gently. "Okay.. okay… c'mon over here.. .let's siddown, and you can tell me all about it." She led her partner over to the corner of Argo's stall, and settled in a clean bundle of hay, with Gabrielle beside her. The bard squirmed around until she could lean against Xena's body, and rested her head against the tall shoulder in quiet satisfaction. "What's this?" The warrior indicated the package.
"Oh." Gabrielle sighed. "That's part of the story.. it's pocket sandwiches.. they're safe. I made them."
"Ah." Xena wasted no more time, and tore into the bundle, her body reminding her forcefully that she'd been using it pretty roughly most of the day without stopping to eat. "Thanks." She mumbled around a mouthful. "I … didn't really.. um… " She waggled a hand.
"Stop to have anything to eat all day, even though it's nearly sunset, and you've been gone since before sunrise." The bard supplied dryly. "What a surprise. You know, you're impossible sometimes."
A crooked grin answered her, as Xena plowed through her snack. Gabrielle just shook her head, and leaned closer. "They're going to wait for that other warlord to get here.. then drug all of Garanimus' men, and open the gates."
Xena stopped chewing, and regarded her in surprised respect. "Wow." She muttered, swallowing hastily. "Good work."
"No effort." Gabrielle replied quietly. "They offered the information, after they recruited me."
An eyebrow quirked. "Recruited you?" Xena looked puzzled, then her face darkened. "Oh." She put her sandwich down, and stared at the hay. "I see."
The bard reached a hand down and curled her fingers around the warrior's longer ones. "It's understandable, Xena.. you are working with him."
Xena's throat worked a few times. "The merchants didn't think so." She replied softly, then sighed. "But I guess you're right." She made an obvious effort to put her thoughts aside. "So.. you're on the inside, huh? Nice job, my bard."
Gabrielle gazed at her, then lifted a hand to push the sweaty locks back off of her face. "Sweetheart, these are just kids, and they don’t know any better." She rubbed a spot of mud off of Xena's nose, causing the warrior to blink a little. "And.. frankly.. I'm really glad they coaxed me into the whole thing… because apparently you are my responsibility to take care of.. that night." A wistful grin creased her lips. "I think that's a much better plan than having one of those poor children try it, and get kicked into next week." A pause. "Or worse."
Xena kissed her fingers, which were still gently stroking her face. "Good point, love. " A smile returned to her lips. "I feel much safer."
"Mm." A relieved look crossed the bard's face. "Silvi, apparently, has a thing for the other warlord."
"Ah." Now, comprehension shaped Xena's tanned features. "He like her, or… ?"
"Eh." A hand waggled. "He pledged all sorts of bodyparts to see her free and clear on her throne.. with the expectation of her marrying him after it's all over."
A pause. "You don't buy it?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "Well, it's not unheard of for a warlord to succumb to falling head over heels in love."
Xena inclined her head, and touched the bard's forehead with her own. "That's very true… and I should know."
A hand reached up and traced her cheek. "I hope she's as lucky as I am." Gabrielle whispered. "What are we going to do?"
Xena circled her arm around the bard's slim body, and exhaled. "Well… I guess we gotta wait for this guy to get here.. and check him out. If he's what she thinks… I'd vote we just let em do it.. except.. " Her eyes took on a troubled look. "Some of these guys aren't so bad."
"Mm.. now that you've beaten up on them, you mean." The bard picked up the bit of sandwich Xena had forgotten and offered it to her. "C'mon." She waited for the warrior to accept the tidbit, and chew it slowly. "We'll think of something… who knows.. maybe you can reason with this guy." A sigh. "It's nice and warm in here." Curling her body closer, she let her head rest against Xena's shoulder.
"Ugh… hey… you don't wanna do that.. I'm really grungy." Xena protested, giving her a wry look. "I smell worse than Argo on a bad day."
The horse snorted in outrage, and stamped.
Gabrielle sniffed her delicately, then grinned. "Hmm…. Actually…you don't."
"Gabrielle." Xena's voice dropped an octave, in remonstrance. "I most certainly do."
"Heh.. maybe being pregnant is affecting my sense of smell.. but… you're sure not bothering me any." The bard cuddled against her, sighing blissfully. "My warrior pillow."
The pillow in question grinned broadly. "They musta thought I was nuts …I was all over the place like some kinda rabid squirrel." She rubbed the bard's belly gently. "You were on my mind all day."
"Likewise." Came the sleepy answer. "They dragged me into the bath with them… that was an experience, then I got them to let me raid the kitchen or I'd have been stuck with a cup of beef soup for lunch." She yawned. "Then we ended up back in our room.. and I read them some of my poetry."
Xena quietly munched on the remaining sandwich. "Oh yeah? What kind?"
"Mushy stuff." The bard reached up, and unlatched Xena's armor catch on her left shoulder, then pulled the armor off, tugging the other catch impatiently. "Off!"
Blue eyes widened. "Yes, ma'am!" She chuckled, removing the plates, and leaning back further, making a more comfortable spot for the bard to lie down on. "Tired?" She asked, sympathetically.
A drowsy nod. "Yeah.. .but it's not like I did anything at all today… gods.. I feel like I've been walking for candlemarks."
A wistful smile crossed the warrior's face. "You're body's busy making a new life.. that takes a lot of work, ya know." She moved her fingers in slow, gentle circles against the bard's soft skin, feeling the movement as Gabrielle's breathing deepened, and the bard wrapped herself more snugly against her partner's leather clad form. With a gentle intake of breath, she eased into a low, vibrant song, a shepherding tune she knew Gabrielle must have heard most of her life.
A slow, sweet smile crossed the bard's face. She soaked in the music, absorbing the warm vibrations in the chest under her ear as Xena's voice climbed through the refrain, of a stalwart shepherd searching for a lost lamb.
Little girl.. little girl…
Wandring far asunder
Little girl.. little girl…
Wither do you wander?
Come to me, I call your name
Mother's milk, to me the same…
Little girl.. little girl..
Wander far no longer.
The rain crashed down, thundering against the stable's thatched roof. But its fury couldn’t breach the warm bubble of golden light that seemed to wrap itself around two still, dreaming figures.
In the rear of the stable, though… dim, ancient eyes peered out, and then disappeared, outrage coloring them.
Continued in Part 6