One Wild Ride
A soft, cool wind blew over the grass, riffling it in gentle waves on the slope leading down to the lake. Birds chirped in nearby trees, and a rabbit sat on a rock near the water, scratching it’s ears with it’s long hind leg.
Nature, in all it’s peaceful glory.
The grass waved again, parting slightly near the base of a tall tree, thin stalks of green and gold easing aside to reveal a pair of sparkling blue human eyes, framed in a tanned, angular face with high cheekbones and a cap of midnight dark hair.
Well shaped lips tensed into a grin, as a target was spotted and marked. “Psst.”
After a moment, a tuft of grass next to it quivered, revealing a much smaller, much rounder face covered with smudges of dirt.
“Look.” Xena indicated a dark brown spot in the grass. “Over there.”
“Whatssat?” Dori craned her neck to see. “Birdie?”
“C’n we play wif it?”
Xena pushed several stalks of tall grass aside and pointed. “See? It’s a Mama duck, and she’s got little babies.” She explained in a whisper. “And when that happens… hey! Dor!”
“Buppits!” Dori started to scramble forward. “Good good good.. no! Boo, leggo!”
“Shh. C’mere.” Xena tucked Dori under one arm. “Listen. That mama doesn’t want you messing with her kids, okay?”
“Buppits!! “Dori protested. “Let’s play with them, Boo! C’mon!”
“Shh.” Xena dropped back down into the grass. “We’re trying to sneak up on em, Dor. Remember?” She patted the grass next to her. “Playing the game, right?”
“Otay.” Dori hunkered back down in the grass. “Boo, dis itches.” She plucked a grass stalk and poked Xena’s arm with it. “Boing boing.”
Xena took the stalk and put it in her mouth, chewing it seriously. “You’re making too much noise.” She warned her child. “The duck’s gonna run away.”
“Okay, now watch. Do like I’m doing.” Xena started to crawl forward, flowing through the grass like a large, leather clad snake. “C’mon.”
Dori hunkered down and crawled after her adored buddy,. “Boo boo boo.”
Xena stopped and laid down on her stomach, waiting for Dori to catch up. “Now, see?” She moved some grass aside, to reveal the ducks at a much closer range. “There they are.”
Dori studied the brown animal, with her cluster of yellow chicks. “Yeeee!!!’ She warbled, scrambling to her feet and bolting for the ducks. “Ayiii!!!!”
“Damn it.” Xena levitated from the grass and swooped after her, as the duck reacted in alarm, spreading it’s wings and honking loudly.
“Buppits!” Dori lunged for the ducklings, who scattered in every direction. “Go go go go!!!”
“Dori!” Xena spotted the mud slope too late, and she cursed as Dori’s tiny boots slipped out from under her and she landed on her butt and headed lakeward. “Oh Hades.” The warrior exploded from the grass and got her feet under her, then started down the slope with swift, powerful strides. “Dori!”
“Wheee!!” Dori waved her arms and forgot the ducks in the joy of her new slide. “Go go go!!!!” She chanted, as she barreled towards the high bank of the river. “C’mon Boo!!!”
Xena raced towards her, then shifted her steps as she realized she wasn’t going to reach the child in time to stop her from catapulting off the bank into the water. With a sigh, she increased her speed instead and leaped off the edge , tumbling with expert precision in the air and grabbing Dori as she flew off the edge right into Xena’s arms.
“Whheee!!! Good!” Dori squealed in delight. “Go fishes!”
Oh yeah. Xena tucked and rolled in mid air, getting her knees under her as they both plunged into the river. We’re going to the fishes, all right.
The cold water closed over her, and she slowed her descent, kicking strongly for the surface as Dori wriggled in her grasp. They broke into the air together spluttering, shaking their heads in an almost identical motion to clear the hair from their eyes.
“Boo! Dat was fun!” Dori splashed the water with both hands. “We go again?”
“Glad you think so.” Xena said. “You scared the ducks away, Dor.”
“Dups?” Dori looked around, and spotted another bird. “Dere!” She pointed. “Boo, c’n we go get that one?” She pleaded. “Pretty!”
“That’s a swan.” Xena started swimming for the bank, kicking against the powerful current. “Yeah, it is pretty, isn’t it?” She got to a half fallen log and held onto it with one hand, the other curling around Dori’s body. “Aren’t those pretty feathers? Mama has some like that, doesn’t she?”
Dori pulled herself up on the log and studied the swan. “Yes.” She decided. “Pretty. Mama likes those.”
“Well, let’s see if we can find her one and bring it back.” Xena pulled them along the log to the shore and boosted first Dori, and then herself up onto the rock ledge. She reviewed her now drenched leathers with a rueful look and decided not to take her boots off to spare her feet the pebbles.
Dori rambled off immediately, searching among the grass for feathers as Xena squeezed some of the cold river water out of her armor and watched. “Find a nice one. Maybe mama will make you a thing for your hair.”
Dori looked up at her with a puzzled expression. “Mama make pictures.” She moved her hand in the air in an imitation more or less of writing. “Make good stories. Boo ride the cow ober the moon!”
Xena sighed. “Yeah, I heard that one the other day.”
Xena chuckled, shaking her head. “Your mama comes up with some crazy stories, Doriana.”
“Good stories.” Dori sat down and ripped up a handful of river grass. “No fezzers, Boo.”
“No, huh?” Xena got up and stamped her boots to knock some of the mud off them before she walked over to where Dori was sitting. “Well, that’s okay. Why don’t we go home and see if there are any around our house.”
“Otay.” Dori got up and reached for Xena’s hand, catching it and holding it as they walked along the grass. “Gramma says we got lots peoples coming.” She confided.
“That’s right.” Xena agreed. “It’s a festival. You know what that is?”
Dori pondered. “No.” She smiled at her buddy. “Cookies?”
“There’ll be cookies there, sure.” Xena agreed. “And lots of our friends are coming, too. Do you like that?”
“No.” The toddler frowned. “Too many. Too loud.”
Xena gave her hand a squeeze. “It’s just for a little while, I promise. Do you like the new place we’re staying? You like it up here?”
They walked through a ring of trees and up a small slope, spotting a half built rooftop as they crested the rise. “Here we go.” Xena released Dori’s hand. “Go find mama, okay? Surprise her.”
With a giggle, Dori rambled off, heading for the building as her taller shadow followed behind, pausing a moment to view the new homestead.
It was definitely nicer up here. Xena nodded to herself. Here on the ridge above Amphipolis, she could hear the sounds of nature around them, and breathe air that was relatively clean. Very different than down in the town, which had grown to twice it’s size during their absence.
Still a small town, sure, but so full of people that both she and Gabrielle had decided after a single day that they couldn’t live there anymore. It was too loud, even in the middle of the night there was so much noise it kept both Xena and Dori up, and small as Amphipolis still was, the crowd of people now living there was just..
It was too much.
So they’d given up their cabin near the inn, and they were about halfway through building themselves a new one up here where it was quieter, and still a little wild. Xena took a deep breath, and headed for the door.
The town was close enough for them to visit every day, and Dori still went down to play with her cousins and friends now that they were back. But there was a separation , definitely, and not everyone was happy about it. “Hey.” She greeted her family.
“Hey.” Gabrielle looked up from where she was lying flat on her back on the floor, with Dori sitting gleefully on top of her. “Good grief, Xena. What the Hades did you do?” She asked. “You’re both soaked!”
“Went swimming.” Xena started to strip off her armor, watching the two of them from the corner of her eye. Gabrielle was dressed in rough work clothes, which were mostly covered in bark stains and mud from her building work and her thick, blond hair was being held back off her face by a colorful strip of cloth. “What have you been up since we’ve been gone?”
“Putting that wall up.” Gabrielle waggled a booted foot to her left. “Did I do a good job?”
Xena glanced that way. Strips of bark had been carefully tacked flat against the inside of the log walls, forming a sturdy surface. “Very.” She complimented her soulmate. “You go down the hill?”
“Mom still ticked off?”
Xena rolled her eyes. “You’d think I’d sold the old place to the Furies the way she’s acting.” She muttered. “Stubborn old woman.” She toweled her bare body off, taking a seat on the bed to remove her boots.
Gabrielle amiably played a game of patty cake with Dori as she perched there on top of her. “I think it was the inference that the town’s too dirty and smelly to live in that pissed her off, Xe.” She remarked. “She’ll get over it, eventually. Everyone will.”
Gabrielle gave her partner a wry look. “Boo’s grumpy, Dori. Go make her a pretty picture to cheer her up, okay?”
“Otay.”Dori got up and headed for her toybox, one of the few things they’d moved up from the old cabin along with a chest of clothes and the bed. Gabrielle rolled onto her side, then got up and crossed over to where Xena was sitting. She picked up a bit of linen and started drying the warrior’s head with it, ruffling her dark hair with deep and simple affection. “We knew it would be different when we came back, this time.”
Gabrielle dried her partner’s well shaped ears. “And, I think they had every reason to suspect we might be different when we came back. We’ve been through a lot ourselves the last few months.” She reminded Xena. “In fact, I heard from a few people who didn’t think we were going to come back at all.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t have.” Xena said, laying down flat on her back on the bed.
“Hon, this is our home.” Gabrielle gently reminded her.
The warrior sighed. “I know.” She took hold of one of the bard’s hands and examined it. “I just don’t know that we fit here anymore. “ She said. “I don’t know if I want to live in a city as big as this is getting.”
“Mama.” Dori held up something. “Look!”
“It’s a leaf, honey.” Gabrielle replied. “It came in from the roof. See up there?” She pointed. “We’ve got sky in our roof right now.”
“Pretty!” Dori agreed. “Gots birds.”
“Give it a little while.” Gabrielle returned her attention to her partner. “I like this spot up here. It’s quiet.”
“We can be by ourselves if we want. I can do my own cooking up here, and you can hunt.” The bard went on. “Give yourself some time to get used to it.. much as I loved being out in the wild, it wasn’t really good for Dori.”
Xena studied the toddler. “She liked it.”
“She needs friends.” The bard reminded her partner. “I mean, people her own age for her to play with. I know we’re her friends otherwise.”
“Mm.” Xena’s nose wrinkled a little. “Yeah, I know. You need someone else to talk to too.”
“No I don’t.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Xena, stop it. That’s not true and you know it.” Gabrielle frowned.
“Yeah, I know. It’s not so bad up here.” The warrior relented. “At least I can hear myself think, and we’ve got clean water, anyway.” She pulled Gabrielle’s hand closer and kissed the back of it. “And I don’t have to worry about people asking me what all that yelling’s about at night.”
“Ahem.” Gabrielle ‘s face colored. “I know you’re not talking about me.”
The bard stuck her tongue out. “Pah.” She patted her naked partner on the belly. “C’mon. We’re expecting Amazon guests tonight and we can’t get out of going down there for dinner.”
“Eh.” The warrior grunted. “Bring em up here. Eph and Pony aren’t into big crowds any more than we are.”
“Tomorrow.” Gabrielle leaned over and gave her a quick kiss on the lips. “Let’s go be social for one night, and get it over with.” She paused, gazing down into Xena’s eyes. “Besides, they’ll probably go to the village after that.”
Xena considered the request for a few minutes, then nodded. “All right.” She said. “You go on ahead. I’ve got to put something dry on, and dig out my other boots.”
Gabrielle gave her another kiss, then she got up and went to the linen press, pulling out a set of fresh clothing for herself and unlacing the sleeves on the work shirt she was wearing. “I’m glad Eph and Pony are here.” She commented. “Now the village’ll start really being a home to them.”
Xena remained on her back, despite her plans to get dressed. “I guess they figured they’d never get you to be their queen if they stayed up in the mountains, so…” She teased her partner. “They came to you instead.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle muffled a grin, the thought having occurred to her more than once. She slipped on a dark blue Amazon style top and a matching skirt and buckled the tooled leather belt with a feeling of mild satisfaction. “Kind of how I got them to accept you, huh?”
Xena snorted softly in amusement.
“Hey, it worked.”
“Mm.” The warrior studied their half thatched roof, which covered the bed and dressing area. The rest of the structure was just bare supports waiting for her to finish construction on it in the morning. “I know what I’ll tell my mother.. I’ll tell her she’s lucky I didn’t just swap the town for living with the Amazons. Now that’d been an insult.”
“Hey!” Gabrielle put her hands on her hips. “Watch it, consort.”
“Oo..” Xena finally smiled, her humor returning. “I’m in big trouble now. I sense a spanking from the Queen in the offing.’
“You’d enjoy it.” The bard accused, with a returning smile.
“I would.” Blue eyes twinkled now. “Sure you want to go down there for dinner?” Xena waggled her brows suggestively as she laced her fingers behind her head.
Urmph. Gabrielle wandered back over to the bed and sat down next to her tormenter, feeling the draw of those eyes as they fastened on her face. “That’s not fair, Xe.” She eased down onto her side and felt Xena’s arm circle her. “You know the answer to that. There’s no place on earth I’d rather be than here with you.”
“Yeesh, that was sappy, wasn’t it?” Gabrielle covered her eyes with one hand. “But anyway, it’s not nice for us to ignore our friends.” She paused. “All the time, I mean.” A sigh. “Gods, you’re being contrary tonight.”
Xena knew that. She tweaked Gabrielle’s hair gently and gave her a nudge. “All right. G’wan.” She sighed, waiting for the bard to get up off the bed and then following her. She pulled a spare set of her leathers from the chest, and tossed over a jumpsuit for Dori. “I’ll meet you two over there.”
“Okay. C’mere, honey.” Gabrielle managed to get the wet shirt off her child and get her into dry clothing in a reasonable time. “Did you go swimming with Boo?” She slipped a light cloak over her shoulders, and tightened the laces on Dori’s jumpsuit.
“Yes.” Dori agreed. “Hungry! We go see gramma now?”
“Absolutely.” Gabrielle ruffled her hair. “Let’s go.”
“I’ll be right there, little terror.” Xena buckled her shoulder strap. “You go on with mama.” She watched her partner and their daughter leave, pushing the newly hung door closed and stepping carefully down the half built porch.
Silence fell, as their footsteps faded into the twilight, and the warrior paused to absorb a little of it before she turned back to her dressing. All her teasing of Gabrielle notwithstanding, she really was looking forward to seeing their Amazon friends and she was glad they’d finished up the task of closing down their former home finally.
“Hm.” Xena tapped her fingers against the chest. “Armor, no armor?” She decided the crowded inn wouldn’t be improved by her wearing metal into it, and therefore she abandoned the armor and dragged her spare pair of boots over to the bed to put them on.
After a moment’s lacing, she stood up and ran her hands through her damp hair, freeing it from the leather straps and riffling it out to dry as she looked around their new home.
It was bigger than the other one, certainly. With unlimited space up here on the hill, Xena had taken advantage of that and the cabin now had three separate rooms instead of the one and a half of the old one. The bathing chamber was completely separate, and over on the other side of the half finished fireplace was a good size room for Dori and all her toys and pets.
Right now it was empty, but Xena had a bed and some chests planned for it, after she finished the worktable for Gabrielle near the big new windows. Sunlight poured in that corner all day long, and she’d already caught her partner sitting on a pile of bags scribbling over there so she knew she’d picked the right spot.
On the other side of the cabin, on the far side of the bed, was another space she’d staked out for herself. She intended on putting all her weapons making tools there, and all the little things she liked to work on all in one spot.
There was space against one wall for the cabinet that stored all of Gabrielle’s scrolls, and there was plenty of room for them to spend time together in the middle.
Much better than the old place. Xena gave the interior an approving nod, and then she went to the door and slipped outside, carrying her cloak draped over her shoulder.
It was quiet and getting dark around the cabin, and she could hear night creatures starting to stir as she stepped down onto the path and started towards town. A light wind stirred the branches as she walked through the trees, the cool earth releasing tiny puffs of scent to her nose as her boots scuffed it.
A quarter candlemark’s walking, and she was at the gorge, running one hand over the sturdy ropes that outlined the footbridge over it. Once, the only way across had been a hanging vine, but Gabrielle had convinced her that teaching Dori to swing over at such an early age was just asking for trouble.
The bridge’s wooden planks thumped softly under Xena’s boots, and she whistled under her breath as she continued down the path between the tall trees. Another few minutes walk took her past the huge birch that marked the entrance to Amazon territory, and she raised a casual hand at the Amazon lookout posted in the branches, who hooted back at her with warbling respect.
Further down, and she reached the stone marker that was the outer boundary of Amphipolis itself. Now, the forest sounds receded and were replaced with the clamor of humanity, as the townsfolk were all going home for the night, putting away tools and animals and readying themselves for the evening.
“Evening, Xena.” One of the carters greeted her. “Beautiful night, eh?”
“Not bad.” Xena agreed.
“How’s the new place coming?” The man asked. “Saw them pulling thatch up for ya.”
“Getting there.” The warrior ducked under a set of water poles with easy grace and lost her questioner in the crowd which pressed around her until they realized who it was – then space materialized like magic and bodies backed off a distinct step.
Yes it was her home, and yes, they were her family, but she was, still, Xena and they all knew it. Times like this, she definitely appreciated that, especially as she approached the main crossroads of the town.
Houses had sprung up all around the central square, and now traffic was a real issue. Xena dodged several carts as she made her way up to the inn, whose windows were already bright with candlelight and spilling over with voices inside.
There was a new inn, now, down in the lower city beyond the river but everyone still preferred to come up here. Her mother’s cooking, probably, or for some just a tradition. Xena pushed the door open and entered, slowing up as she looked around for her family.
Ah. The warrior carefully picked her way through the tables, some of which had been built with her own hands, and returned a tide of greetings as she headed for the table in the back of the room.
Ephiny stood as she approached, and stepped forward for a hug. “Xena. Glad you two are back.” She embraced the warrior with an easy grin. “Thought you’d never get here.” She was still in her traveling leathers, which were stained by leaf and mud, but her curls had been pulled back into respectability in deference to the town’s sensibilities.
Xena released the Amazon regent, and exchanged stolid, warrior-like arm clasps with Eponin. “We took the long road back.” She took a seat next to Gabrielle. “As I’m sure you’ll hear.”
“Boo.. boo boo boo.” Dori climbed up onto her lap and sat there, swinging her legs. “We gots fun now.”
Ephiny chuckled. “Glad you think so, cutie.” She said. “Looks like you got here just in time, though. Our weather people are predicting a very wet spring. Hope we’re ready for it.”
“If that’s the worst that happens to us, I’d welcome it.” Gabrielle handed a piece of bread to her partner. “It was a damn cold winter, and I’m looking forward to some sun for a change.” She said. “I got very tired of breaking ice for morning tea on the way down here.”
“Brr.” Ephiny wryly agreed. “It was a bad winter up in the mountains too. That’s what took us so long to get relocated. We were snowed in for two full moons.”
“Dori liked it.” Xena gave her daughter an indulgent look.
“Oh yeah, especially when she found out what sounds she could get out of you with snowballs in the middle of the night.” Gabrielle teased her. “So a little rain’ll be welcome for a change.”
Xena shared her bread with Dori, and found herself in perfect agreement with her partner. Weather, as usual, was the very least of their worries.
Gabrielle nudged her leg. “Here comes mom.”
Xena sighed. Like she’d said. The least of her worries.
It was late by the time the inn had emptied, the fire burning low in the big hearth as the crowd dwindled down until it was just Xena’s family and friends still seated around their table. Dori had been put to bed with her cousins at Toris’ place, and the adults were leaned back in their chairs digesting Cyrene’s good ale
“So, anyway.” Ephiny had slung one leg over her chair arm and rested her mug on her knee. “It was strange to see the place nothing but a bunch of old sticks and a firepit. Hard to say goodbye, funny enough.”
“Lot of memories there.” Eponin agreed quietly.
“Mm.” Gabrielle watched them over the rim of her mug. “Good and bad.” She remarked evenly. “Like anything else, I guess.”
“True.” Ephiny gave her friend a quiet smile. “But I have to admit, the new place beats the old one raw in terms of resources and comfort. Cait found an entire wild grove of herbs apparently, and the cooks are going wild with them.”
Xena’s eyebrow lifted in wry cynicism, and at the same moment, Gabrielle’s hand settled on her knee with a playful squeeze without either of them even making eye contact. Xena’s opinion of the Amazon’s skill of cooking was well known to her partner, and she’d hinted on more than one occasion that the bard might want to give lessons in that instead of staff sometime.
“Nice to have a new place.” Pony said. “Hear you guys do, too.”
“Halfway up the mountain.” Cyrene remarked dourly. “Idiotic choice, if you ask me.”
Gabrielle felt the heavy muscles under her fingers tense, and she cleared her throat. “I love the new place.” She said firmly. “It’s quiet enough for me to think, and it’s not far from Xena’s tree.”
“Ah. The tree.” Ephiny nodded solemnly. “That’s a pretty area up there, if I remember right.”
“It is. It’s beautiful. Dori loves it too.” The bard said.
“She loves being here with the other little ones.” Cyrene countered her, a stubborn look on her face. “And coming down through those woods is dangerous.”
“Mom.” Gabrielle felt her patience slipping a little. “It’s not nearly as dangerous as traveling here from Athens was.”
“Good idea to move out from around here.” Pony spoke up. “Otherwise that kid’d be stopping traffic every minute and you’d have wagons rolling down into the river every day.” She glanced around. “This place is a circus now.”
“It isn’t.” Cyrene gave her an exasperated look.
“Hate to say it, but she’s right.” Ephiny said. “I couldn’t believe how many people there were when we came up here.. thought I was on my way to Athens again.”
The innkeeper got up and collected the pitcher on the table. “Well, it may seem that way to you.” She shook her head and started for the kitchen. “To me it’s just good business for a change.”
A tiny silence fell, which Xena broke by clearing her throat. “Thanks for covering our back.” She gave the two Amazons a brief grin. “It’s not a popular decision.”
Ephiny shrugged a little. “Don’t think I want to say this too loud, but you two are grown women who can live anywhere you damn well please, if you catch my drift.” She said. “Not to knock your hometown, Xena, but they need you more than you need it.”
The warrior waggled a hand in agreement, then she pushed herself to her feet. “Time to call it a night.”
“Good idea. You guys must be ready to sack out.” Gabrielle got up as well. “We can do more catching up tomorrow.” She waited for the two Amazons to stand and join them, and they headed for the door. “Wait till I tell you all the stuff that’s supposed to happen for the festival.. you won’t believe it.”
“I’m going to get Dori.” Xena touched her partner on the back. “Meet you on the trail.” She took the other fork as they left the inn and started down it, pulling up short as she almost ran into her mother. For a moment, she looked at her, then sidestepped and continued down the path without speaking.
“Xena.” Cyrene called after her. “Just hold on a minute.”
It’s late. The warrior recited internally. And I’m not in the mood. She kept going, brushing past an overhanging branch as she headed for her brother’s house. After all the months alone on the road with Gabrielle and their daughter, she was finding it harder than she’d anticipated readjusting to being home and she knew if she stopped and talked, there’d be a fight.
Not a good way to end the evening. Xena mounted the steps to Toris’ cabin and knocked gently, waiting in silence until the door was opened inward. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Her brother stepped back to let her in. “You could have left her here, sis.”
“And had you cursing me at dawn tomorrow when she turned your place upside down? Thanks, no thanks.” But Xena smiled, to take the sting from the words. She walked silently across the inside of the cabin and knelt next to the small pallet where Dori was sleeping.
“Mom still ragging you?” Toris knelt next to her. “I heard her going on to one of the staff during dinner.”
Xena lifted Dori up and cradled her against one shoulder, murmuring to the child as she half woke up. “So’kay Dor. I’m taking you home.”
“Bbbbbboo.” Dori happily snuggled up against her and resumed her interrupted sleep.
Toris chuckled. “Definitely takes after Gabrielle.”
Xena stood and gave him a wry look. “Mom needs to get over it.” She told him quietly. “Before I’m over it.”
“C’mon, sis.” Toris nudged her. “She just thinks she knows best for everyone.”
Xena leaned closer. “We’re not five years old anymore.” She said.
“You didn’t listen to her when you were.. not sure why she thinks you will now.” Her brother replied reasonably. “Give it time.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Xena turned to leave. “Night.”
The night reclaimed her, settling it’s silky folds over her shoulders as she walked along through the now quieter town and out the back gate.
Gabrielle banked the fire carefully, mindful of the gaps in the cabin that let in fitful cool breezes. She lifted a candle stub and turned, to find Xena sprawled on the bed watching her. The pale blue eyes were almost ochre in the dim light, but the seduction in them was unmistakable.
It made Gabrielle shiver, in an entirely pleasant kind of way. “You know what I like the best about being home?”
“What?” The warrior purred, crooking a finger at her playfully.
“Being able to do something about you looking at me like that without worrying about landing on a rock.” Gabrielle blew the candle out and slid into bed, finding Xena’s embrace waiting for her. “Or bugs.” She sighed happily, as their bodies connected and she was enveloped in warmth. “Or drips of snow.”
Xena laughed softly, rolling over with Gabrielle in her arms. “Or owls hooting.”
“Mmmhm.” Gabrielle nibbled on her partner’s earlobe. “I used to think they were just laughing at me.” She whispered to her. “Cause let me tell you, they had the absolute worst timing.”
“Mm.. nothing like a hooting owl to ruin a mood.” Xena agreed.
“Now they can hoot all they want.” The bard said, as her hands moved up along Xena’s sides, following the contours of her body. “I don’t hear a thing.”
“Ahh.” Xena wriggled her shoulders and exhaled. “Yeah, gotta admit I missed this damn bed.” She let her hands wander over the bard’s body, stroking sensitive points that tensed under her touch. “And you in it.” She added frankly.
“Mm.” Gabrielle exhaled contentedly at both the sentiment and her current position. “Thanks.” She slowly placed a series of kisses down Xena’s breastbone. “I feel the same way.”
“Do you?” Xena ran her fingers through the bard’s hair. “Does it bother you we’re up here alone?”
Gabrielle laughed softly, as she tilted her head up and nuzzled Xena’s breast. “Not a serious question, is it?” She laid her cheek down on the warm, firm surface and watched the moonlight peeking through the windows chase across Xena’s planed features.
A shift of shadow and then a flash of white revealed the expected smile.
“I am glad we’re home.” Gabrielle continued. “But I really like being up here instead of down there. It’s better for us.” She added. “I feel better.. like I have.. like we have more control over our lives.”
Xena nodded silently.
“We’re not.. entirely civilized.” The bard smiled, turning her head and planting another kiss just above Xena’s navel. “And I like that.”
Intrigued, Xena took hold of her partner around the waist and lifted her a little, rolling over and reversing their position so she was leaning over her and staring right down into her eyes. “Oh, really?” She murmured, pressing her body lightly down over Gabrielle’s.
The bard’s nostrils flared a little. “Really.” She absorbed the hunger in the pale blue eyes above her, and welcomed it, acknowledging the subtle changing in the multifaceted shades of their relationship.
Xena grinned lazily. “You like playing with fire, Gabrielle?”
“Only yours.” Gabrielle replied, with a cheeky grin in return, drawing an irregular breath as Xena’s hand dropped casually between her legs. There was a knowing intimacy in the touch that sent a jolt through her guts that went past any defenses and made her body arch up against her partner’s, wanting that heat.
Craving it. Her hands slid over Xena’s body, fingertips tracing over the powerful ribs as they expanded towards her before moving upward to gently encircle the warrior’s breasts. She felt a soft laugh against her lips before Xena claimed them and she surrendered to the needs of her body and her partner’s knowing touch.
The time they’d spent coming back from Athens had been the longest period they’d been out on the road together since they’d re-knit their relationship and somewhere between the forests and the sea, they’d found themselves discovering a new passion that subtly altered how they related to each other.
Gabrielle wasn’t sure what the difference was, whether it was a maturing of their partnership, or her own maturing, or Xena’s changing view of who she was, but she knew whatever it was, she loved it. It was almost as though she’d passed some initiation and now in Xena’s eyes their relationship had come to some new level.
Was it equality? The bard wasn’t sure. She found herself becoming very short of breath as Xena’s touch became very intimate, and then she was past wondering about anything other than how to stay on the bed and keep from making Xena’s ears ring.
Take that, you darn owl.
It was chilly the next morning. Gabrielle donned her heavy cloak and tugged the neck laces closed before she slipped out of the cabin and started down the path. Fog was still clinging to the ground, and her boots kicked it aside as she walked, the air full of the rich scent of wood and moss.
Xena had already gone down the hill, taking Dori to the children’s room to play with her friends and sit for a few lessons with the two village teachers, who had been surprised to find their truant pupil already several levels more advanced than her cousins and older friends.
Gabrielle had been indignant at that, until they’d hastily explained it was only because they thought the hardships of the road might have prevented regular classes, not that Gabrielle wasn’t more than qualified to teach her.
Like Hades. The bard straightened her shoulders. Sometimes they didn’t realize how much time you had, when you didn’t have to worry about having to socialize in a village, and deal with all the day to day trivia of living with others. She’d had plenty of time while they were traveling to teach Dori, and in fact, so had Xena.
The path dropped under her feet, and she sped up a bit, dropping down the slope with an easy stride as her body responded with a surge of energy and sense of well being. They’d altered their schedule since they’d been home – it was mid-morning before they made their way down the slope most days as they spent the early morning hours together instead.
Gabrielle whistled softly under her breath, as she almost danced down the path.
She’d shared breakfast with her family earlier, some duck eggs Xena had collected and a handful of newly emerged berries after they’d come back from their morning run.
Mutual. That was another big change. Out of the blue one morning, when she’d been about to leave from their campsite with Dori, Xena had turned to Gabrielle and simply extended her hand in invitation, eyebrows lifting and a grin playing around her lips.
“Me?” Gabrielle set the pot down and looked at her partner. “What?”
“C’mon, mama.” Xena waggled her fingers.
“Mama!” Dori agreed, waving her arms. “Come fly!”
Gabrielle stood up, feeling a little unsure. “What’s the occasion?” She asked. “Do I look like I need more exercise or something?” The question was rhetorical, they were both in such rawboned condition from the road that even Xena’s need for the morning exercise was seriously in doubt.
Xena shook her head. “Just want you to.” She said. “C’mon.”
The bard put the pot aside and left her tasks behind, walking forward to take Xena’s hand and follow her as they disappeared into the trees, the branches closing behind them. “Xe..”
“Just wanted you to share our time in the morning.” Xena gently cut her off. “Dori’s doing a lot of stuff I thought you’d want to be there for.”
The ground had turned to clouds, and she felt feather light walking on it. “Thanks.”
“Thank me later.” Xena broke into a lope, Dori bouncing happily on her back. “After she nails you with turtle poop.”
Gabrielle started laughing, and ran after them, abandoning herself to the chase, and the damp chill of this morning of change that was bringing her path, and Xena’s path ever more closely into alignment.
She’d never really gotten what Xena had.. well, gotten, out of her morning rambles, but after a few months of it herself Gabrielle had realized she was gaining strength and flexibility she’d never had before. It was very different from her staff workouts, because it was more of a whole body thing.
Her whole body had grown to appreciate it, and now she felt that new sense of power and balance as she made her way downward at a fast clip, her cloak bouncing along around her with a soft rustle as she ran. She reached the footbridge and trotted over it, then continued on until she reached the fork in the path that led to the new Amazon village.
“Your Majesty!” The Amazon lookout greeted her respectfully. “Good morning.”
“Morning.” Gabrielle pulled up near the tree. “Mind if I go on down?”
The lookout blinked, and hurriedly snaked down out of the tree. “My queen?”
The bard pointed towards the path to the village. “I’m headed that way.”
Bewildered eyes focused on her. “Do you wish an.. escort, my queen?” The lookout hazarded. “I can signal ahead.”
You’re the queen, sheephead. Remember? “No, thanks. I’m fine.” Gabrielle gave her a pat on the arm. “Thanks for asking.” She circled the woman and started towards the village. “If you want, you can warn them I’m coming.” She called back over her shoulder.
Gabrielle just waved her hand and kept going, making a mental note to ask Ephiny who had selected the guards recently. She knew they knew they were in friendly territory, but goodness. The bard shook her head and sped up from a walk to a jog, this time going uphill towards the pass that led into the Amazons new valley home.
There were guards at the pass, and as she reached it they came out into view, saluting as they recognized her and ducking quickly back out of the way so she could continue on unhindered. “Morning.” She waved at them.
“Your majesty.” They called back, returning the wave.
There was a thick band of trees now, once she’d dropped over the ridge and started down again. The trees surrounded a small plateau, which then dropped off to a steep, carved river cleft providing a natural barrier that left the path she was on as one of the few ways into the new homestead.
It was wild, and quiet here. The ridge blocked any sounds of civilization from Amphipolis, and there were ample fresh springs and hunting to sustain the small tribe that were Gabrielle’s adopted people. To one side as she ran she spotted the faint path that led up to a cave in the rocks which held a hot spring, one that Xena had found years before and shown her. She suspected the Amazons would put it to good use, and she really hoped the tribe would learn to love the new place as much as they had the old.
Eventually. There were always the nay sayers to deal with, of course. But she was used to that by now, and she was confident that the move from the mountain location to here would be nothing but good for her friends and their families.
“Gabrielle!” Eponin appeared from a side path, and trotted after her. “Hey!”
“Hey.” The bard slowed to a halt and waited for her. “Did you get some rest last night? That was pretty late.. we should have let you guys go earlier.”
The weapons master came to her side. “Nah, we’re fine.” She assured her. “How about you guys? It was pretty late for you too.”
Gabrielle grinned at her.
Pony colored slightly, and cleared her throat. “Eph’s been dealing with a bunch of.. uh.. minor stuff since breakfast. Glad you’re here.”
Uh oh. “Hm. Where is she?” Gabrielle asked. “Let me go see if I can resolve some of the .. little stuff.. for her.”
Pony gave her a mildly grateful look. “Right this way.” She indicated a lower path. “I’ll take you down there.” She turned to lead the way. “I’m sure it’s just getting things settled.”
“Uh huh.” Gabrielle studied her back. “So, how are things?”
Pony glanced back at her. “Oh.. uh..fine.” She smiled. “Just great.”
A large wagon stood in front of the barn, the two huge draft horses attached to it snuffling the ground for a few blades of grass as they patiently waited. The driver stood with his arms resting on the crosspiece, trading casual waves with one of the town militia who wandered by. “Morning.”
“Morning.” The militiaman agreed. “Roof?”
The soldier examined the material with a knowledgeable eye. “Nice.”
“Thanks.” The driver said. “Waiting on a customer to pick it up. Hope they do fore it rains.”
They both looked up at the clouds on the horizon, a slowly building darkness that was creeping across the otherwise blue sky, contemplating it thoughtfully.
“Ahem.” A low pitched, but indefinably female voice interrupted them. They both turned around in surprise, to find a tall, dark haired woman in plain brown leather standing there.
The soldier jumped. “Morning, Genr’l.” He said.
Xena walked forward and inspected the thatch. “Not bad.” She pronounced. “I need you to take it to the other side of the town, near the back gates.”
“You Xena?” The driver guessed.
Xena just looked at him.
“Guess so.” The man muttered. “Ain’t gonna be easy getting through there.” He pointed out, indicating the busy main square of the town. “Had trouble enough getting over to this spot.”
“I know. Just work at it.” The warrior advised him. “It’s not that bad once you’re past the inn.”
“Genr’l, you want me to clear the space?” The soldier asked. “I’ll get a few guys, and we’ll just close down the road for ya.”
It was tempting. Xena knew just how many people she’d piss off if she did it, and what kind of message she’d be sending if she had her troops close down the town on her behalf. Her eyes tipped up, reviewing the sky, and she juggled the knowledge with the real need to get the rest of her cabin roof finished.
The stream of traffic jostled and bumped through the crossroads, it’s confines packed with horses, wagons, and people all intent on getting where they needed to go. Unfortunately, Amphipolis hadn’t been built to be a major thoroughfare, and with the heavy pole fencing pinching in the traffic, it made for a constant, slow moving throng going from the upper town to the lower and back.
Hades with it. “All right.” She told the man. “Bens, grab some of the men and clear me a path. It’ll be faster to get this thing through the crossroads that way anyway.”
“Sure thing.” Bens trotted off, heading for the stable. “Be just a minute, Gen’rl.”
The driver grinned. “Now that’s a leader.” He complimented Xena. “Got your new place back there?”
“No.” Xena unhitched the horses and started leading them forward. “C’mon, boys.” She uttered under her breath. “My place is a couple leagues up the mountain from here.”
The driver walked alongside her. “Horses ain’t going up there.”
“I know that.” Xena could see a small commotion starting ahead of her. She kept the horses moving, and straightened to her full height, spotting a few heads congregating near the crossroads that looked familiar. “I’ll take care of it once we get through this mess.”
“Surely.” The man took hold of the other horses bridle and pressed against the animal as they approached the milling streams of traffic.
As they reached the beginning of the crossroad, the traffic began to slow, amid yells and shouts of outrage. Six militiamen pushed the crowd back, putting their bodies in the way of the carts and people until they were forced to stop. “Clear back, you!” Bens lifted a quarterstaff. “Hold up there! Hold up, I said!”
“What the Hades is going on?” One of the merchants yelled back. “I’ve got a delivery to make!”
“You’ll make it when we’re done.” Bens told him. “Now move back!”
Bens lifted his staff and paused, a set look on his face. “Back off, or else!” He warned. Another militiaman came to his side, holding a short sword drawn against his body.
The merchant slowly backed away, giving the sword a nervous look.
Two more soldiers gently shoved the line of milling people aside to clear the way for Xena, who calmly walked the horses into the now open space.
Everyone fell silent, recognizing the warrior immediately. Xena was aware of the eyes on her, and she caught a brief glimpse of her mother on the porch of the inn just to one side. She kept her head up and walked steadily across the opening.
The militia braced, and thumped their chests with their fists. Xena lifted her free hand casually in acknowledgement of the salute, and repressed a smile as the crowd on the far end of the crossroads edged out of the way without any further prompting. “Thanks, boys.” She called out, as the wagon rolled through the intersection and up the far lane.
“Genr’l.” Bens ducked his head in respect. “Anything we can do for yah.”
Xena smiled and winked at him, as she walked past, and he blushed. She kept the wagon rolling, though, clearing the intersection and moving on up towards the back gate.
“Must be nice.” The driver commented.
Xena looked over at him. “What?”
“Being respected like that.” He said.
Xena patted the near horse’s flat cheek. “I earned it.” She glanced at their old cabin as they went past, it’s windows darkened and an air of desolation that she was half convinced was her own imagination around it. On the ground near the back wall was a broken toy, one of Dori’s, and she stepped aside to pick it up.
It was a half of a boat, the mast broken off and hanging sadly. Xena examined it as she walked, her mind turning from the wagon to fixing the toy. “Kids.” She sighed. “Tough on these damn things.”
The wagon driver looked at her over the backs of the horses, but kept his thoughts to himself.
Gabrielle took in the half finished village as she followed Pony towards the council room. That, at least, had been completed first, a shelter and gathering place for the entire tribe. In a rough ring around it, tucked in the trees were the individual quarters of the partnered Amazons, and the senior warriors.
Most had a sapling structure already, and some had the skeletons of roofs. Only one was pretty much complete and she guessed it was probably Eph’s since she was the Regent, and she did rate it.
The cook area was just an open hearth at the moment, though she could see stacks of logs laid nearby and the beginnings of a ground clearing for them, but for now the only shelter the cooks had was a rough lean to that covered their supplies and tools.
Something was cooking in a big pot, and the bard sniffed delicately at the air, wrinkling her nose slightly as she detected the scent of something soup that didn’t have nearly enough spices in it for her tastes.
Xena had rubbed off on her that way, along with many others. She’d developed a taste for the exotic, coaxed beyond her basic cooking roots by the warrior’s cravings, built up on Xena’s own travels around the world. Wherever they went, Gabrielle made sure she sniffed out spices, dried them if she had to, and packed them away for use in their often makeshift meals on the road.
Nothing fixed up dried rabbit stew like a little sage and saffron, after all, and she’d discovered a mixture of dried, ground peppers that made a cut of venison wonderful enough to get a song out of her partner in return for it.
“So, what’s the Big X up to?” Pony asked. “Working with her soldier guys?”
“Putting up the roof.” Gabrielle muffed a grin. “You’d think she could get oh, two dozen hunky guys to do it for her, just by asking, but no, not my Xena.”
“Nobody else can do it just right.” Gabrielle paused in front of the council hall and cocked her head to listen. “Hm.”
The voices inside sounded angry and frustrated. “Do you think it’s even slightly possible for me to ever show up here and there not be an argument going on?” The bard asked, plaintively.
“Um.. well, this is the first time you’ve been here.” Pony objected. “So does it count?”
Gabrielle gave her a wry look, then shook her head and entered the door way. She swept aside the hanging beaded curtain and walked into the hall, heading directly across the room to the front table. “Hi.”
Ephiny was sitting there, with three other Amazons standing around her. They were all elders, and none of them looked happy. “Hi.” The Regent replied, propping her head up on her fist. “Glad you’re here.”
“Bet you are.” Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled gently. “What seems to be the problem?”
“Your majesty, the problem is this place isn’t suitable for anyone to live in.” The nearest elder, a woman named Sheetha turned to look at her. “That is what the problem is.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle perched on the table, crossing her arms over her chest. “I live here.” She reminded them. “Xena lives here. Lots of people live here.”
“Not Amazons.” Sheetha said, stiffly. “This is too close to civilization.”
Ephiny sighed. “You know, I’ve come to appreciate civilization.” She said. “It grows on you, not always having to shoot your dinner.”
“And how.” Gabrielle agreed.
“That’s because you’ve gotten too soft.” Sheetha accused. “We’re going to become just like them.”
“Like whom?” The bard asked. “Them?” She indicated the general direction of Amphipolis. “Them is us, too.” She patted her own chest. “Remember? Xena and I are part of that town.”
“Uh oh.” Eponin began to inch backwards, clearing a space as Gabrielle stood up.
“So, are you saying Xena and I are soft?” The bard asked, a hint of amusement coming into her tone. “You’re not really going to make me pull a Warrior Princess and start kicking people around to prove otherwise, are you?”
“That’s not the point.” Sheetha came around the table and faced her. “Gabrielle, I respect you as a leader, please believe that. My worry isn’t about you.. it’s about how our younger people might view that town.. might view the lifestyle there.”
Gabrielle considered that seriously. “You mean, they might decide to move there.”
“Yes.” The elder nodded. “We work hard to give our people traditions. Some of those traditions mean that we have to give up certain things.. certain comforts. It’s our way.”
“But Sheetha, we can’t keep ourselves isolated forever.” Ephiny said. “ You know even in the old place, towns were popping up all over around us.”
The elder sighed. “There were other places we could have gone.”
“There were.” Gabrielle agreed quietly. “There are many places in this wide world where you’d be totally isolated, and alone. I’ve been to some of them.”
The women all looked at her.
“I’ve been to places that I was the first human to ever set eyes on.” The bard went on, pacing a little. “So yes, I know there are places like that. But the problem with places like that is that if something bad happens to you, there’s no one around to help.”
“We don’t need help.”
“Sheetha, please.” Ephiny covered her eyes. “This woman’s pulled our asses out of the fire what, three.. four times now? Give me a break.”
“You just don’t understand.” Sheetha shook her head. “Come on, the rest of you. Let’s stop wasting our time talking.” She led her two cohorts from the room, giving the impression of slamming the beads behind her.
Gabrielle went around the table and sat down next to Ephiny, shoulder to shoulder. They looked at each other, and then Ephiny shook her head. “Don’t say it.” She warned the bard. “Because you are one.” She poked Gabrielle in the shoulder with her index finger.
The bard chuckled softly.
Pony came over and sat next to Ephiny. “I’m going to go take the juniors out and scout around.” She said. “Be back after lunchtime.”
“Okay.” Ephiny leaned over and gave her a light kiss on the lips. “Be careful.”
Eponin scowled, blushing a dark crimson as she avoided Gabrielle’s twinkling green eyes. “Yeah. Thanks.” She got up and trotted out, leaving the regent and her queen alone in the council chamber, where a gentle silence briefly fell.
Ephiny studied her friend, noting the subtle changes in the planes of her face, and the new shadows in her eyes. Despite that, there was a sense of stolid peace about her that the regent had long missed. “Glad to be home?”
“I am, yeah.” The bard replied.
“So, how’d it go out there? Must have a lot of stories.” Ephiny fished delicately.
A quirk of a grin. “Oh, I do.” Gabrielle leaned her head on her fist. “But how about you go first?” She pinned Ephiny with a direct gaze. “So I can do my thing, and you can relax.”
Ephiny sighed, but her lips curled into a returning grin. “Let’s go over to our place.” She pushed herself to her feet.
“I have rum punch there.”
“Oh boy.” Gabrielle got up to follow her. “Glad I had breakfast.”
Xena moved the ladder over another space, and tucked a load of thatch onto her shoulder before she started back up it. The roof was almost finished, and she boosted the thatch onto the newly layered part to free her hands once she reached the top.
Between the roof supports, she’d spread a layer of waxed skins, which she’d hammered into place with neatly spaced nails, and now she put down the rows of thatch and fastened them over the skins with a precise and intricate pattern.
Xena hated leaks. She hated leaks almost as much as she hated slugs, and since one tended to attract the other, she was very particular about the surface she put over her head.
Nearby, a bird started singing, and the warrior paused to listen. Then she smiled and continued working, putting down another line of roofing and tacking it into place, putting the nails into position and tapping them lightly in with a sure touch and little fear of smacking her fingers.
She enjoyed her hard won skills, in this arena so different from her fighting one. It felt good to be able to provide this kind of shelter and she was proud of what she’d accomplished in so relatively short a time. After all, the Amazons had been building their village since they’d left and most of their huts weren’t as finished as her cabin was, and she’d only been home a little over a half moon.
The bird decided it didn’t like being ignored, and it fluttered down from the tree and landed near the top of the roofline. It hopped down a few steps and regarded Xena, cocking it’s brilliant red head intelligently at her. “Cheep.”
“Hi there.” Xena continued her task. “What brings a nice bird like you to a place like this?”
“Everyone’s a critic.” The warrior finished her roof section, and started down the ladder, tucking her hammer into the belt she had circling her waist. She flexed her hands as she got to the bottom, detouring over to the bedside where a waterskin rested.
It was cool out, but her mouth was dry and she picked up the skin and opened it, putting the spout to her mouth and sucking down some of the spring water Gabrielle had left in it for her. “Mm.” She swallowed, ,her nose picking up just a trace of her partner’s scent on the skin.
Beside the skin lay an apple, it’s red and green surface picking up the sunlight from outside and winking merrily at her. Xena reached down and picked the fruit up, her lips twitching as she acknowledged the silent message left along with it.
Nice. Xena set the skin down and went back to her task, hoisting another bundle of thatch onto her shoulders. She’d gotten to the fourth step on the ladder, when she heard the door to the cabin open behind her and she stopped to look down.
Her mother entered, closing the door behind her with a click of finality. “Xena?”
Xena sighed silently. “Up here.” She replied, continuing on her way. She got to the top of the ladder and braced her body against a support, putting the thatch down and starting to position it.
“Can you come down here? We need to talk.”
“No.” Xena put a handful of tacks between her lips. “Mumphsy.”
The warrior tapped in a nail.
“Don’t make me come up there.”
Xena kept working. She removed a tack from her mouth and positioned it, hoping her mother wasn’t going to be literal about her last statement. The ladder, though sturdy, wasn’t designed to hold more than one person of her size. She tapped in another tack, and slid over a new line of thatch. “This needs to get done before it rains, mother.”
“Xena.” Cyrene took hold of the ladder and shook it. “Get down here.”
“If you knock me off this thing, I’ll make sure I fall on top of you.” Xena warned. “Siddown and wait till I’m done if you want, but leave the ladder alone.”
Cyrene made a disgusted noise, but the shaking stopped and Xena was left in peace to finish her thatching. In a way, she hoped her mother had taken the hint and left, but given the fact that she had some insight into the woman’s stubbornness, she was ready to bet a dinar she hadn’t.
Oh well. Xena worked her way backwards, closing herself in with the steadily reducing space she had left to cover.
Xena nearly dropped the hammer, juggling it wildly as she glanced over the edge of the roof at the edge of the forest. “Ares!”
“Roo!” The wolf wagged his bushy tail and hopped up and down a few times.
“Don’t do that.” Xena scolded him. “You want me to fall off this damn thing?” She shook her head as several puppies stumbled out of the trees behind Ares and started exploring. The animals were about half grown, with big paws that got in their way, and indeterminate fuzzy gray/brown fur that belied their half dog heritage. “Ah. So you brought the family, huh?” She sighed.
Endearingly cute, and all of the damn things had taken a liking to her in specific, following her around whenever they found her in the village.
Xena’s posse, Toris had named them, delighted with the chance to tease her, both of them keeping in the back of their minds an earlier, simpler time when he’d done the same with Ares, when Xena had first come home.
Memories. Xena backed down a step, and wrapped the last bit of oilskin into place, tacking it down as some thatch fibers drifted loose and lodged in her hair. She’d have to put the final layer into place from the outside, but right now, at least from the inside, the roof was complete.
Which meant she had to get down. The warrior tucked her hammer back in it’s belt and climbed to the ground, taking the opportunity to steal another mouthful of water to keep her back turned to her mother for as long as possible.
“Are you finished?” Cyrene asked.
“No.” Xena turned, capping the waterskin. She set it down, dusting herself off and taking a seat on the clothing press. “But it’ll hold for now.”
Cyrene was seated on the bed, as most of their furniture was still down in the old cabin. Her expression was a mixture of annoyance and exasperation, and she studied Xena a moment before she started speaking. “You know I have a..”
“Mother.” Xena held a hand up. “I don’t want to hear it.”
Cyrene blinked in surprise. “I don’t think you understand the image you’re giving of here.”
“I don’t think you understand that I don’t give a damn what image I’m giving off.” Xena retorted. “Bottom line, mother, is that I’m gonna do what I think’s best.”
“So throwing an attitude with a bunch of soldiers is what you think’s best?”
The warrior shrugged. “I had to cross that road.” She said. “Should I have started picking up people and tossing them into your herb garden instead?”
“What in the Hades is wrong with you?”
Xena picked up the apple and bit into it. “Not a gods be damned thing.”
Cyrene got up and shook her head, making her way to the door. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing.”
“What I want to do.” Xena answered quietly. “What Gabrielle wants. What Dori wants.” She paused. “Not what you and the rest of Amphipolis wants.” She looked evenly at her mother. “What I don’t understand is why you can’t understand that.”
Cyrene paused at the door. “It’s like since you came back, we’re just not good enough for you.” She turned and left, closing the door behind her.
Xena chewed a bit of apple and swallowed it.
Gabrielle untied her cloak and draped it over the short pole near the door designed for that purpose. The inside of Ephiny and Eponin’s quarters was spare, as all Amazon homes were, but with certain blots of color and decoration that caught the eye.
A woven blanket, that covered the big double cot, for instance. Gabrielle had given it to them before they’d left for Athens, and she was charmed to see it put to use. It was the blues, greens, and browns of the forest, something she’d found in the weaver’s stall at the last Amphipolis market.
“I was joking about the rum punch.” Ephiny poured out two mugs. “But I do have some sun tea. Here.” She brought a mug over to Gabrielle as the bard sat down in one of the sturdy, deep chairs near the firepit. “So.”
“So.” Gabrielle took a sip, studying Ephiny over the rim of the mug.
Ephiny sat down next to her. “For a change, my problem isn’t the Amazons.” She said. “Or.. well, to be more specific, it’s one Amazon as opposed to all of them.” She watched the bard lean back in her chair, extending legs covered in buckskin leggings out a little. “If you catch my drift.”
“Pony?” Gabrielle guessed.
Ephiny nodded. “Her promise to you is driving her insane.”
“To me?” The bard’s brows creased. “Oh.. oh, you mean…”
“About the baby.” The regent said.
Gabrielle was quiet for a moment, a reflective expression on her face. “She doesn’t want one, now?” She asked. “I’m sorry.. I know that’s a very personal question.”
Ephiny gazed wryly at her. “Gabrielle, you’re our sister.”
The bard produced a mild grin. “I know. But you know.. having children is not something I’d discuss with my sister.”
“Not the way you did it, no.” The regent shot back, shaking her finger at her queen.
“Not any way.” Gabrielle muttered, blushing a little.
The blush did something to relax Ephiny, making the tanned, mature figure across from her more familiar. “Some things about you never change.” She chuckled softly. “I love that.”
“Hm.” The bard propped her head up on one fist, resting her elbow on the chair arm.
“Anyway.. no, it’s not that.” Ephiny sighed. “She wants a kid. I want one. The problem is, well.. “ She hesitated. “Pon got into some trouble when she was younger. She went with a group of some of the juniors and ended up in some small town down slope from the village.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle watched her friend’s face intently.
“Some jerks got ahold of them. Wasn’t pretty.” Ephiny said. “At any rate, she’s not sure she can go through with the whole thing. She wanted me to talk to you, see if I could get you to release her from that promise.”
Gabrielle set her mug down and leaned forward, reaching out to clasp Ephiny’s hand. “Why in Hades didn’t you tell me that before?” She asked. “For the love of Aphrodite, Eph.. didn’t you think I’d understand? Me? Of all people?”
Caught by surprise by the bard’s intensity, and the anger in her voice, Ephiny’s jaw dropped a little. “Ah..” She resisted the urge to yank her hand free, her warrior’s instincts sensing danger in the queen’s tense muscles. “Gab, don’t hit me.”
Green eyes popped wide open. “Hit you?” Gabrielle’s voice rose almost into a squeak. “Are you nuts? Of course I’m not going to hit you.”
Ah. Mixed signals. Ephiny relaxed herself a little. “Just take it easy.” The regent said. “Of course we knew you’d understand… it wasn’t that.” She explained. “It’s.. Hades, you know what it is. You live with the best example of it. We thought we could handle it.”
“Pon thought she could.”
Gabrielle sighed. “I felt that way once.” She released Ephiny’s hand and leaned back again, her eyes darkening with memory. “Xena got me past it.”
“I know.” Ephiny hesitated, just a bit. “Xena told Pony about it.”
The bard looked honestly surprised. “Did she?”
“When it happened to me. She, um..” Ephiny waved a hand. “How to deal with it, ah..”
“Ah. Okay Yeah.” Gabrielle made the same gesture, and they both put the subject under the bridge by unspoken, yet common consent. “Yeah, okay. I understand. Listen, you guys have to do whatever makes you happy. Whatever that is, I’m for it.”
Ephiny took a long sip from her mug. “You know what the problem is?” She gazed frankly at her queen. “We know what you’ve been through, and we both feel like weenie chickenshits not to just get through it the same way.”
Gabrielle gazed at her boots, an oddly patchworked pair made from leather scraps and stout gut lacing. “Ah.”
“Those are cute.” Ephiny changed the subject as radically as she was capable of. “Like your pants, too. They new?”
“Xena made them.” Gabrielle pulled one boot up to rest on her knee and ran her thumb over the soft leather. “We traded. I made her some gloves.” She related, accepting the change. “Lined with squirrel fur to keep her hands warm.”
Ephiny could well imagine Xena wearing them, clenching her hands lightly inside with pleasure. “So, was it tough out there?”
“Sometimes.” Gabrielle found a smile somewhere and produced it. “The weather sucked, and we had fights, and stuff happen on the road, and Dori acting up.. you know, the usual.” She said. “We solved some problems, helped some people, Xena almost died again, I almost died again..same old, same old.”
The bard shrugged, a little. “We made it back.” She said. “We found something out there… I don’t’ know. It just all worked out.”
Ephiny got up and walked over, kneeling down beside the chair Gabrielle was sitting in and clasping her arm with one hand. Then she impulsively put her arm around the bard’s shoulders and pulled her closer. “Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle responded, returning the hug. “So, this’ll work out too.” She told her friend. “We’ll get through it.” She leaned her head even closer. “And you’re not a chickenshit.” She whispered. “I’ve chased Dori through enough henhouses to know what that looks like intimately.”
Ephiny had to laugh, and so she did, and Gabrielle joined her.
It was all they could do.
“What’s that, Dori?” Gabrielle pointed, ignoring the fitful gusts of wind at her back that heralded the oncoming storm. “Is that a spider?”
“Gots.” Dori reached a hand out for it. “Pretty, mama!”
“No, no.. do you remember how a spider made you owie, before?” Gabrielle steered away from it, her boots digging at the path as she carried Dori up towards the cabin. “Do you remember that?”
“No.” Dori clutched at a handful of leaves instead, using her mother’s forward motion to assist her in denuding the branch. “Look.. gots leaves. You make story?” She showed her mother the tattered green bits. “We going to where Boo is?”
“We sure are, honey.” Gabrielle assured her, climbing the last steep bit of the path before she reached the small plateau their cabin rested on. “Look, there’s our house, right?”
“Yes!” Dori wriggled. “Lemme go, mama. I go find Boo.”
“Go find Boo.” The bard let her daughter down and straightened gratefully as Dori scampered off towards the cabin. “Damn, she’s getting heavy.” She remarked, with a wry grin. “I don’t think a pony can make it up here.. we might have to get her a mountain goat.”
A soft rumble of thunder prodded her, and she started forward, strolling over the thick grasses that covered the ground on the gentle slope leading to their porch. “Ah.” Her eyes studied the building, and she grinned again. “Boo, you rock. We’ve got a roof!”
“Mama! Mama! Buppits!” Dori was sitting on the porch in utter ecstasy, surrounded by Ares’ puppies who were licking her all over.
“Heh.” The bard came up to the porch and propped one booted foot on it, leaning against the sturdy support pole as she watched. “They’re almost as cute as you are, Dor.” She looked up as a raindrop hit her on the head. “Uh oh.. c’mon, guys. Everyone inside.”
“Buppits too?” Dori got to her feet. “C’n we keep them here, mama? I can play with them.”
Oh, yeesh. “Well, they like being outside, honey.” Gabrielle said. “How about you play with them outside, okay?”
“I know, I know.. I’m no fun.” Gabrielle took Dori’s hand and walked with her inside. Ares scooted after them, sneaking in the door before she could close it, and the next thing she knew the puppies had piled in as well. “Hey!”
Dori giggled. “Good buppits!”
“Bad buppits.” Gabrielle scolded them, but shut the door anyway as the rain started coming down. “Oh my gosh, Dori.. what’s Boo going to say?” She asked, looking around for the soulmate she felt the presence of quite strongly.
“Better dry than wet?” Xena spoke up, from where she was sprawled in the corner of the cabin, working on something. “What took you two so long? I was going to send an Amazon after you.”
The puppies spotted their favorite target and gallumped over, crawling over Xena with excitedly wagging tails. The warrior sat up a little and fended them good naturedly off, her expression and attitude one of rare tolerance. “Little rats.. cut that out.”
“Eeeee.. “ Dori ran over and joined them, jumping on Xena and throwing her arms around the warrior’s neck. “Go Boo!”
Gabrielle went towards the hearth, craning her neck to see what was sitting on it. A pot was swinging slightly from the divots, steam emerging from the top. “What’s that?”
“Soup.” Xena curled an arm around Dori and gently shoved the puppies aside.
Gabrielle removed her cloak and draped it over one of the poles set in the wall for it. “Where did that come from.” She asked, warming her hands over the fire.
“Hope you don’t think I made it.” Xena snickered. “Last time I tried that we were both sick for a week.”
Whatever it was, smelled good. Gabrielle felt a distinct rumbling in her belly, and mourned the sacrifice of lunchtime with the Amazons. “What took us so long was a big argument.” She went over to where Xena was seated and found a place among the puppies, letting her head rest against one of her partner’s shoulders.
“Someone was arguing with you?” Xena asked. “Who? I’ll go kick their ass.”
The bard chuckled tiredly. “No, not with me. One of the merchants decided he was being ripped off by that guy who came in yesterday… the one with a wagon full of skins?”
“Anyway, they got into a huge fight, which kind of escalated. Me and the Amazons stopped it.”
“Ah.” Xena tickled Dori’s stomach. “Hey, little one. You hungry? Your mama is. I can hear her.” She turned her head and lightly kissed the bard’s head. “Anyone get hurt?”
“Nah.” Gabrielle listened to the rain outside. “How’d your day go? I see you finished our roof, thank the gods.”
Gabrielle glanced up. “Problems?”
“Ah.” The bard patted her partner’s muscular leg. “Yeah, I bumped into her after I got Dori and got an earful.” She pushed herself to her feet. “She got me at the wrong time.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle sighed, going to a storage box and taking out a set of wooden bowls. “Sometimes I think she forgets how she met me.” She set the bowls on the small table near the fire, then went over to the pot. “So I hope you didn’t get this from her.. I don’t’ think she’d poison it, but I wouldn’t put it past her to put pickle juice in it.”
“I got it from the militia kitchen.” Xena got up, brushing the dog hair off her legs as she lifted Dori up and cradled her in her arms. “Actually, they delivered it up here to me.”
“Really?” Gabrielle sniffed the soup, and ladled a bit of it up to her lips cautiously. “Those guys are so cute around you.”
Xena set Dori down on her heightened chair and took the seat next to her. “Armies aren’t cute, Gabrielle.”
The bard filled three bowls to the brim with the soup, which had big chunks of lamb in it, among other things. She set the bowls down and provide her family with spoons, then sat down across from Xena and gratefully dug in. “No they aren’t.” She swallowed a mouthful. “But those men would collect the dust from the ground you walked on and put it in a bottle for posterity, and you know it.”
Xena ripped a roll in half and tossed a portion to her soulmate, then glanced down as all the puppies, plus Ares gathered at her feet and looked up at her hopefully. “I don’t think so.”
Dori plunked a bit of bread into her soup, looked gravely at it, then pulled it out and threw it on the ground next to the puppies. “Buppets like, Boo.” She watched them scrambled to gobble it up. “Make it good.”
“Eat yours first.” Xena ordered, pointing her spoon at her daughter. “Then if we’ve got some left, we’ll give it to them. Okay?”
“No.” Dori scowled at her.
“Boo, buppits are hungry!” Dori protested. “Not nice!”
Gabrielle hid her eyes, her shoulders shaking as she scarfed down her soup.
“You’re not helping, mama.” Xena growled.
“Leave me out of this.” The bard held her hand up. “Those are your buppits, Boo.”
“You let them in here!” Xena snorted.
“Not on purpose.” Gabrielle patted Dori’s hand. “Dori, you need to have your dinner first, then we’ll take care of the puppies. Come on now, you know that’s how it is with Ares, right?” She said. “Boo always gives him his goodies last.”
Dori pouted, but then she reached for her spoon and started eating her soup.
“There.” Gabrielle smirked at her partner.
Xena waggled her spoon at the bard, then went back to eating herself.
“Thank you for getting this, by the way.” Gabrielle went on. “I had some odds and ends, but it’s raining buckets out there and it would have been a pretty cold dinner otherwise.”
Xena glanced out the window. Due to the way the porch was constructed, it protected the two big openings in the front of the cabin and kept rain from coming in. Eventually, the warrior intended on putting leaded glass in place to close the windows in, but right now they were just square gaps. “Nasty.” She commented, hearing a loud roll of thunder.
“Boom.” Dori slurped up her soup. “Gaboom.. gaboom… make loud, Boo.”
Gaboom. Xena leaned an elbow on the table and worked a bit of lamb onto her spoon, chewing it thoughtfully. Maybe it would rain all night, she pondered. Maybe it would still be raining tomorrow morning, giving them an excuse to stay together in the cabin and relax.
“Know what?” Gabrielle said. “I almost hope the weather’s nasty tomorrow. We’ve been working like crazy since we’ve been home.. time for a day off.”
Could Gabrielle read her mind? Xena wondered. It seemed like it sometimes, at least recently. “Yeah.” She agreed. “I could use a break.” She fished out another bit of lamb. “And maybe it’ll give my mother a day to chill out. I don’t know what the Hades has her up in arms like that.”
Gabrielle wondered that herself. She realized the way Xena had informed everyone they were moving was blunt, but that was Xena, after all, and everyone down there should really have been used to that. Her partner was never one to dance about the facts.
Was it just an insult? The bard had gone back and explained the noise, and how it kept them up, and how Dori was unhappy, but for some reason everyone seemed to still think they’d dissed Amphipolis. Even the council, who informed her they no longer wanted her to be a part of them.
Which was fine, really. As the Queen of the Amazons, she now had a bigger responsibility in arbitrating between her tribe and the city, so that would have been a conflict of interest anyway.
But still. Gabrielle felt a little sad, because she loved her partner’s hometown, and she’d taken it for her own- especially after the destruction of Potadeia. They’d fought for this land, after all. Nearly died for it.
Nearly died. Battled all of Athens, just to protect the town from them. Xena had gotten hurt doing it, she’d gotten hurt, they’d all gotten trapped in a burning jail…
So, who were these people to criticize them if they chose to live apart?
Gabrielle looked up, to find Xena looking back at her. They both spoke at the same time. “To Hades with them.”
Xena smiled, and Gabrielle smiled back, reaching across the table to take Xena’s extended hand and clasp it.
“Gush.” Dori rolled her eyes, grabbing Xena’s bread and giving it to the waiting puppies. “Gush, gush gush.”