One Wild Ride
Part 26 (Conclusion)
Cyrene shoved the big kitchen worktable against the door, her boots scrabbling against the floor as Eustace threw her weight against the wood next to her. “Son of a bacchae!” The innkeeper bellowed. “By all the gods.. they’ve gone insane!”
“Ma’am!” The big cook panted. “We’re going to die! They’ll kill us!”
Cyrene allowed for that possibility as she whirled, hearing the chaos in the outer room as her eyes searched for something to use as a weapon.
She was no warrior. She’d be the first to admit that, but she’d given birth to arguably one of the greatest of them and some of that had come from her. Not the skill, no, but the will for it. “Stupid sons of..” She snatched her biggest butcher knife from the wall and turned, glaring at the door which shook under the weight of heavy fists.
“You’ve got em in there, Cyrene! We know it! We want em!” A loud, male voice yelled.
“Gods.” Cyrene wiped the sweat off her brow. “it’s madness.” She lifted her voice. “I’ve got nothing in here but a blade for your trouble, Alric! Get your scrabble out of here!”
The door shuddered under the pounding.
Cyrene checked the heavy brace holding shut the outer door to the kitchen, and frantically sorted through her options.
After a moment she realized she had so few the exercise wasn’t worth the energy, and she looked around for a place to make a last stand instead.
How had it come to this? “Stase, get over there against the wall.” She ordered, picking up a heavy cast iron skillet, and handing it to her long time cook. “Hold that. If the bastards get in here, just start swinging at anything that moves.”
Eustace blinked unhappily at her.
“Except me.” Cyrene clarified, putting her back to the big hearth and taking a two handed grip on her cleaver. The sounds outside were getting louder, and she could hear the sharp whacks of an ax against wood and smell the scent of burning.
“Oh, ma’am.” Eustace half sighed, half sobbed. “I’m glad at least the little one’s safe.”
Safe. Cyrene felt an ache in her chest. For now. She had no illusions that the Amazons, hardy thought they were, could stop the flood of mercenaries now arriving in the town. Two score more of them had arrived today, and now that the militia had been run out of the region, they had nothing left to stand up to them with .
Unreasoning. Mindless. Just the insane need for the jewels that little Dori had unthinkingly shown in the inn, proud as always of her pretty rocks.
Balanced on edge, the merchants fuming over their losses, it was just enough to send them into a downward spiral of singleminded desire and the suddenness of it all had taken them by total surprise.
Cyrene turned. “Yes?”
The cook shifted the skillet from one hand to the other, and wiped her palm on her skirt. “Thank you.”
“For what?” The innkeeper asked, sharply.
“You’ve been real good to me.” Eustace replied. “So however this ends, I’m all right with that.”
Cyrene looked at her. “Well.” She tightened her grip, as the door started to bow inward. “Thanks, but I’m not.” She turned her attention back to the sounds. “And so help me, when those little bastards come in here, I’m going to remind them who’s mother I am!”
The door cracked inwards, and she heard a yell of triumph from outside, as the table she’d slid against it rolled back, it’s legs scraping against the floor.
Eustace’s eyes widened, and she stared at the door. Cyrene made herself ready, thinking a thousand things, and wishing she could say a few goodbyes not the least of which was to her husband.
“Argh!” A hole opened as the door split, and a arm appeared, holding a mace. Without really thinking about it, Cyrene rushed forward and chopped at it, whacking her cleaver into the man’s wrist and twisting as the blade entered bone.
A scream. Hoarse yells from outside, indistinguishable. Loud bangs. Another loud scream.
She wasn’t sure if it was Eustace or the man. “Bastard!” Cyrene yelled, at the top of her lungs. “Take that!” She chopped again, and the hand with the mace fell off, as the arm jerked backwards, and disappeared.
“Why, you bitch!”
“ Bust up my place, will ya?” Cyrene felt a sense of rage taking over the fear, and she yanked at the table. “I’ll come out there and chop you all to bits you two faced pieces of horse dung!” She pulled at the door, hauling it open in a rush of mindless fury.
One man was kneeling on the floor holding his arm, spurting blood. The rest of the inn, shockingly, was empty, and the front door was wide open, sounds of hoofbeats, and movement flooding in.
Outside, she could see many bodies, moving fast. She ran for the door, the cleaver still in her hand, and stopped when she reached it and stared into the town square, filled now with armed, leather clad bodies.
Stinking. More of the mercenaries. Cyrene felt a sense of despair take her, as she watched the merchant leader scramble up the short slope that lead to the path to Xena’s home, and hold his hands up.
The mercenaries shook their weapons at him.
“Let’s go! Now we’ll get what we want!” The merchant yelled. “We’ll run right over those damn women!”
Cyrene stared at them. There had to be at least a hundred mercenaries, and as she looked around, she saw her fellow townsfolk hiding themselves behind doors, behind windows – refusing to meet her eyes as she half turned and knew herself to be alone.
No one would stop them.
Cyrene turned back again, and watched all the merchants cluster behind the mercenaries, the musk of greed making her nose wrinkle as she gripped the railing of the inn porch in frustration, knowing she had no chance of stopping them either.
“Let’s go!” The man turned and started up the path, the crowd surging eagerly behind him, almost running him down when he stopped abruptly only a few steps later.
Men pushed and shoved forward, yelling angrily, brandishing weapons as they shoved the merchant forward, despite his suddenly thrown out arms and hoarse shout of warning, a scuffle of impatient bodies and chaos that abruptly went very, very still. “Whoa whoa whoa.. something’s comin!”
The leaves rustled, and branches shifted, as though the wind were moving them deferentially from the path, and motion became evident against their pattern in shifts of dark leather and tan skin.
Xena stepped out of the shadows and into the dappled sunlight, gold reflections glinting off the sword clasped lightly in one hand, blade held in ready position. She stopped on a small rise just in front of them and waited, her eyes slowly moving over the shoving mass of men.
Cyrene felt the cleaver drop from her now shaking fingers, and she blinked away a few tears, her body sagging against the railing in a rush of relief. “Whichever one of you was watching over her.. thank you.” She whispered, almost hearing a soft, deep chuckle she might have once known. “Even you.”
The chuckle sounded softly again, then faded into the wind.
Xena stood her ground, her fingers shifting restlessly on the hilt of her sword. “What is this?” She barked out the question. “Where in the Hades do you think you’re going?’
The merchant took courage from the numbers behind him and stepped forward. “You can’t stop us, Xena. We’re gonna get those jewels, so just move out of the way, and you won’t get hurt.”
Xena put her free hand on her hip and looked at him. “*I* won’t get hurt?”
Behind her, Gabrielle appeared, alone. She walked forward and stood just behind Xena, her staff balanced in both hands and her feet spread at shoulder width in a ready stance. “*We* won’t get hurt?” She amended loudly. “Boy, are you going down the wrong path, buddy.”
“That’s right. Now c’mon!” He waved the mob of merchants and mercenaries forward, and started towards her himself, a look of almost manic determination on his face. “We’ve waited long enough!”
The branches moved again and the Amazons appeared, blocking the path and raising bows.
“That won’t stop us either!” The merchant yelled. “I”ll have them! I’ll have those stones!” He rushed at Xena, an ax in his hands as he lifted his arms to swing at her. “I’ll have them, Xena! You’ve been keeping them from us, from the town.. they’re ours! They’re mine!”
Xena hardly seemed to move. She tossed her sword from her right hand to her left, and shifted as he reached her, backhanding her weapon past the clumsy ax as she kicked it from his hands and her stroke took his head off with no more effort than swatting a fly might have.
Her second kick tossed his body back at the mercenaries, blood spurting from the neck as the arms twitched and jerked, and the head rolled crazily back down the slope.
The mob pulled up short, stumbling and jumping out of the way of the bloody mess tumbling through them.
“They’re not.” Xena said, after a moment of shocked silence. She hopped off the rock she was standing on and stalked forward towards them. “They’re mine.” She pointed at her chest with her thumb. She reached the first of the mercenaries, without hesitating a beat and gutted him before he could bolt out of the way.
She kicked the body off her sword and swung it, the red blade glistening in the sun. “Everybody clear on that?”
The mob stirred uneasily, fear rising. “Xena, you can’t..” One of the merchants yelled.
“I CAN.” Xena bellowed back without restraint. She leaped over two of the stumbling mercenaries and landed near him, putting the point of her sword in his face. “This is MY place, not yours.”
The merchant was braver than he was smart. “I”ll… “ His voice cracked, but he kept on. “I”ll have the law on you!”
Xena pressed her sword point against his throat. “I am the law here.” She said, quietly, into a suddenly windswept silence. “That mountain’s mine. What’s in it’s mine.”
The man took a step back. Xena stepped with him. She stared through him, then swept her eyes around the mob. “How soon you forget.”
Gabrielle stood ready, her heart balanced between despair and elation, between the promise of darkness and the certainty of the light.
Between the truth of what was, and the wistful wish of what might have been.
It’s all right be bad, Xena. Her youthful earnestness floated in her minds eye. So long as you’re bad in a good cause. “Maybe I was a prophet, and just never knew it.” She murmured softly, then half turned her head. “Solari, get ready.”
“More than.” Solari stepped up next to her, bow cocked, head up, shoulders back. “More than ready, my queen.”
“Xena’s right.” Gabrielle pulled a breath in, deep into her gut and let her voice carry, the mature, rounded tones breaking through the rustling of weapons. “This is our place, and we’re ready to die to keep it that way. Are you?” Behind her, in the tree just over her shoulder, she knew Dori was perched, watching. “Because I guarantee more of you will die than we will.”
“Bu..” The merchant stared at his dead companion. He looked back up at Xena.
Xena stared levelly at him. “My home.” She said. “My mountain. My town.” With a flickering motion, she sliced through the skin of his throat and sent him reeling backwards. “Mine.” She took a step towards the mob, the wind riffling through her dark hair, and exposing the starkly planed cheekbones.
“Take aim.” Gabrielle ordered quietly, both hands on her staff as she grounded it between her boots.
The Amazons raised their bows and nocked arrows, muscular arms drawing gut strings back in a whisper of stolid finality.
One of the mercenaries let out a yell. “They’re just women! Kill em!” A surge of motion started, as the fighters scrambled forward.
“Fire.” Gabrielle said, never stirring as shafts sped from all around her forward, ending in searing thunks as the entered the bodies of the men coming towards them. “Ready.”
The surge forward stopped, and became a ramble backwards, as Xena leaped in the direction of the attack and let out a battle yell, and the Amazons started forward, echoing the cry as Gabrielle jumped and landed near her partner, her staff coming up as she prepared to defend Xena’s flank.
The mercenaries held their nerve for one more moment, then the first men broke, and turned, and ran, shoving the merchants to the ground in their haste and it became a swarm of sweating, blood spattered leather and musky stench ringing to the sound of fierce cries that echoed, and echoed and echoed.
And then it was quiet, as Xena, Gabrielle, and the Amazons reached the edge of the path and came into view of the village, the mob dissolving before them and scattering down the road towards the river.
The destruction made them stop dead in their tracks, eyes moving over the burned buildings, and the broken fences. Smoke trailed faintly up from a pile of debris that might have been a wagon, and after a shocked moment, Gabrielle let her staff end fall to the ground and exhaled.
“Mama!” Dori wriggled between the Amazons and squeezed between her mother and her Boo, her eyes widening as she grabbed hold of Gabrielle’s leg and stared into the destruction. “Oh!”
Xena let her stained blade rest against her shoulder armor. “I should have killed them all.” She remarked, in a almost ordinary tone. “Bastards.”
Gabrielle reached down and took Dori’s hand. “All right.” She said. “Let’s go. We’ve got work to do.”
“Bastards.” Xena repeated, in an undertone.
Sad destruction. Gabrielle felt the bulk of Cyrene’s inn, thankfully whole, behind her as she faced the central square and the ruins of her home. Though they’d assured themselves off the innkeeper’s safety, she had yet to talk to Cyrene beyond an initial heartfelt bear hug.
The stable stood with doors open, a hollow darkness inside and a huge rent in one wall that showed empty stalls and a spill of hay to her shocked eyes.
Thank the gods, they’d left Argo and her son on the plateau above their new cabin. If Xena had come back and found evil done to them the bard doubted any of the merchants would have left the town in one piece, and she was almost in a place where she could understand that.
The sturdy wooden railings were in pieces, scattered on the ground. The well built shops that shared the square with Cyrene’s inn were smouldering, empty windows and broken walls making her heart ache.
Why? Because the merchants up here, the ones that lived in the town and were part of it – hadn’t suffered the flood as they had?
Revenge. Jealousy. Petty spitefulness, driving them to take away from someone what they had taken away from them.
Peh. The bard felt depressed, with the reality of all the destruction in front of her and the knowledge that, at some level, they’d be blamed for it. Especially since the inn had been left intact, and so, she’d noted, had the cabin they’d first lived in.
Why? Gabrielle gazed down at her scratched and bruised hands, aching quietly on the wood they were resting on. Had Xena’s reputation, even now, kept them whole when all the rest were razed? Perhaps the merchants, if not the mercenaries, had realized at some gut level that no matter the riches, no matter the reward – it was no trade off for being gutted on the end of Xena’s sword if she sought vengeance for the destruction of what was hers.
Maybe they hadn’t forgotten quite as much as her partner had accused them of, after all.
Easier to take frustration out on simple villagers, and fellow merchants, wasn’t it? Easier to rationalize that they were just making things equal, in a twisted way having suffered so much loss and then to have been faced with the sudden vision of impossible wealth before them…
Dori’s pretty rocks. Gabrielle sighed. “I should have let her collect lizards instead. Worst that would have got me was a nibble now and then.” She’d known Xena’s dream of keeping it all a secret was an unlikely wish – in fact, they had argued about it not a sevenday before the flood.
Pragmatic as her partner was, there was still a slice of her that had a blind spot when it came to getting what she wanted. Xena often felt that if she simply willed it hard enough, that’s the way things were going to be.
She had, Gabrielle had to admit, a decent track record of that. But in this case, the bard’s heart and her knowledge of people told her that it was only a matter of time.
Well. Here they were. She felt sad at the thought, and wondered what would happen now – since she knew word would leak out and then what? How long could Xena’s reputation scare people off – and what if they weren’t around?
Gabrielle sighed. “Damn it.”
Around the central well, some of the villagers had collected, looking around in dismay as they clustered together, shaking their heads as they peered down the path. One looked up and saw her, and for a long moment Gabrielle thought the woman was going to turn away.
She was human. The idea hurt. But the woman’s face tensed into a smile, and she lifted a hand in a weary wave, nudging her companion and indicating the bard’s presence. The man pushed away from the well and came over to the inn steps, his eyes warming as he neared her.
“Hello, Bren.” Gabrielle greeted him quietly.
“Gabrielle.” The village blacksmith stopped by the porch, wiping his hands on his trousers before he extended an arm to her. “Glad to see you safe.”
The bard smiled, and clasped his arm. “I’m glad we made it back.. but I..” She glanced past him, and just shook her head. “Damn. It hurts to see this.”
The blacksmith reached over with his other hand and patted her shoulder. “A mess, surely, lass.” He agreed. “But it’s over now and I’m glad you’re back. We’ve seen worse, and likely will again.”
It gave her a brief pang in her chest, the raw truth of his words that no platitudes could soften. Life was, she knew better than most, really rotten at times and only occasionally did really great things happen to balance that off. “It’s a mess.” She murmured. “But we’ll make it right again.” Her eyes met his. “You can count on it”
“Aye.” Bren released her arm. “Xena made it clear of that. No mistaking.” He turned and went back to the well, pausing to talk to the people around it, most of whom glanced over his shoulder to where the bard was quietly standing and waved in greeting.
Well. Gabrielle leaned on the inn’s porch railing, watching as the group turned to the task of pulling up water, her shoulders twitching in sympathy at the sight. She turned at the creak of footsteps behind her, only to be gently enveloped in Cyrene’s arms as her mother in law hugged her. “Oh, mom.” A gasp escaped her.
“Gabrielle.” Cyrene released her and held her at arm’s distance. “It’s like waking from a night mare to see you both.” She studied the bard’s face. “Thank the gods you’re safe.”
“Same for you.” Gabrielle managed a smile, before she turned to look out over the town. “Wish we’d made it back earlier.” She watched two men carry a bucket from the well to dump it’s contents into the still smoundering ruins. “Damn.”
Cyrene leaned next to her. “Yeah.”
The bard slowly shook her head. “Why?” She asked. “There’s no sense to this.”
The innkeeper sighed. “It was too much.” She said. “The flood, the losses… they weren’t getting what they wanted out of us, and then.. Maybe it was desperation. Maybe we should have helped them.. given them.. I don’t know.”
Gabrielle pondered quietly. “You had nothing to give them, Cyrene. What were you going to do.. sell the crops?” She said. “What they were looking for wasn’t here.”
Cyrene exhaled. “We could have scraped up something.” She said. “I have a few coins put by.
The bard gazed out over the village. “It wouldn’t have been enough.” She told her mother in law. “They lost everything down there, in the flood.”
“But they’re still bastards and I’m glad we stopped them.” Gabrielle continued, in a firmer tone. “And I’m glad you didn’t get hurt.” She turned to face Cyrene. “We can rebuild houses. We can’t replace people.”
Cyrene smiled at her. “Some are more replaceable than others.” She remarked dryly. “Sorry, Gabrielle. I know you don’t feel this way, but some here got what they deserved.”
The bard blinked at her.
“They were ready to throw me to the wolves.” The innkeeper said. “Only ones who stood by me were your Amazons, and a few neighbors.” She nodded slowly. “So the Hades with them. I learned a lesson this past time, let me tell you.” Her eyes dropped briefly, then returned to the bard’s face. “I lost sight of who my family really is.”
Gabrielle felt the breath come out of her, as the words penetrated. She reached out and took the innkeeper’s hands. “We were all kind of mad at each other before we..”
“Before you nearly gave your life up for us, again?” Cyrene squeezed her fingers. “The sheep weren’t worth that, daughter. Nor the hucksters running after them.”
Gabrielle’s lips tensed into a faint smile. “We didn’t mean get you angry, mom.”
“I know.” The innkeeper said. “I didn’t mean to keep harping on you either.”
They looked at each other, and then, without really any warning, Cyrene released her hands and enveloped her in a hug again instead. The bard returned it, feeling her heart ease a little as she felt Cyrene pat her back.
“By the gods, Gabrielle.. you feel like nothing but bones!?” The innkeeper exclaimed, as she separated from her and took a good look at the bard. “What have you been doing?”
How to answer that? The bard exhaled silently. “Well.. we had a lot of ..it was tough.. we traveled a lot and.. there was some fighting but...” She hesitated. “Mom.. this is going to be a crazy question.. but how long have we been gone?”
Cyrene released her and stepped back, cocking her head slightly. “Well.” She frowned. “A sevenday, just.” She said. “Seemed like a lifetime but really…”
A sevenday. Gabrielle felt a sense of shock, even though she’d expected to hear something like it. “Ah.” She murmured, leaning back against the porch railing. “Felt like a lot l.. like a lifetime.”
“I know.” Cyrene mistook her reaction. “Seems so short a time for all this to have happened… and I admit, it came so fast.. I mean, I knew they were angry, but…”
A sevenday. Gabrielle half shook her head. “What.. um..” She put her thoughts aside. “What happened to the militia, mom? Eph said they were run off? I can’t believe that.” She shifted the conversation to a different topic hastily.
“Well.” Cyrene hesitated.
“Mama.” Dori emerged from the inn and came over to them. “Peoples did bad things.”
The bard looked down at her. “I know, honey.” She said, with a sigh. “C’mere. “ She picked Dori up and hugged her, pitifully glad of the scent of clean, sun warmed fabric and the feel of her daughter’s arms around her as she got a hug back. “People did. But we stopped them, and now everyone can have fun again, right?”
Dori put her head on her mother’s shoulder. “Love mama.” She replied briefly. “No more bad peoples.”
“The militia didn’t run off.” Cyrene quietly put a hand on Gabrielle’s arm. “The council disbanded them.”
Gabrielle stared at her. The innkeeper shrugged slightly.
“Xena wasn’t here. What can I tell you?” Cyrene sighed. “And then after the mercenaries came in, it was too late. The soldiers.. Xena’s boys, had gone off in disgust and all were left were farmers and plowmen who needed a leader.”
The bard slowly shook her head. “Well, you’ve got one now.” She said.
“Got two.” Cyrene replied, patting her shoulder.
“Mm.” Gabrielle mused thoughtfully. “We’ll see.”
Xena stood at the edge of the river and looked over it. On the far side, past the ford and the still swollen waters lay the remnants of what had been the lower town and was no longer.
The buildings, the market, the homes… piles of thatch rubble and broken bits of wood, mostly washed away in the flood that had tumbled the debris from the edge of the river down across the plateau as far as her eye could see.
The warrior sighed, letting sore hands rest on her thighs as the cool spring breeze tickled across her skin. Footsteps scuffed behind her, and she half turned to find Johan at her back, the retired merchant’s face a study in craggy, pensive acceptance. “Johan.”
“Ah, Xena.” The man came over and clasped her shoulder with one hand, a mixture of respect and familiarity he’d earned. “You’re a sight for sore eyes, for sure.” He shook his head. “Another day, and we’ll all have been washed down the river, I’m thinking.”
Xena thought about that moment, when she and Gabrielle had decided in what they thought was mere caprice, to push on through the night and get home. “Yeah.” She turned and gave Johan a hug. “Thanks for watching after mom.”
Johan snorted softly. “Xena, I’d do anything for the woman, but she watches after herself a sight better than I ever could and you know it.” He returned the hug, giving her a pat on the side. “Twas frustration sending them in there today, since your feathered friends up the line was keeping em from what they wanted.”
Amazons. Xena exhaled. Defending her home out of a sense of… loyalty?
The warrior acknowledged privately that she, too, had some reassessment to do in how she looked at things and people. Pony and Gran’s truthful reaction to them had been disturbing, and uncomfortable but really, when she looked hard at how she treated them…
Justified? “Well.” The warrior sighed again, and looked across the river. “Got a lot of cleaning up to do, I guess. “ She murmured. “Though I’m not sure how many of them’ll be back.”
Johan studied the scene, his thumbs hooked into his belt. “Don’t think they will, Xena.” He said. “I think we had our moment, and it’s gone now. Unless them bastards bring back Athen’s army, that is.”
Xena went to the edge of the river, to the ford she’d been crossing since she was barely old enough to walk. Losing the growth of the lower town meant going backwards for Amphipolis but wasn’t that exactly what she’d wanted?
“Not that I think you’d mind it.” Johan said, in an almost apologetic tone.
“No.” Xena replied honestly. “But I wouldn’t have willed it this way.”
Johan was silent for a bit as they stood there together. In the far distance, the hunting party of Amazons were returning, their wiry, muscular figures outlined in the late afternoon’s sun. As they came closer, their good mood was evident and they lifted hands in greeting when they spotted the two of them watching. “Likely lasses.” Johan commented.
“Don’t let them hear you say that.” Xena warned, with a wry expression.
Johan chuckled and slapped her on the back, then he turned and started back up towards the inn, past the wrecks of wagons, and the debris, and the destruction.
Xena decided to wait for the Amazons, and so she sat herself down on an upturned barrel and hitched one booted foot up onto her knee, glad enough of the chance to rest a few minutes. Now that all the challenges were momentarily at least put to the side, she allowed herself to feel as exhausted as she was, and spared a mournful, wishful thought for the warmth of a bath and the softness of her own bed.
She turned her hands over and looked at the palms, so crossed with gouges and scrapes it was hard to see skin between them. It hurt to flex her fingers, but she did it anyway, studying the bruise that covered most of the base of her right hand.
There was a dark smudge on the skin, and on the pad below the base of her fingers, and again on the first and second joints as though she’d taken hold of a hot coal and it had left it’s mark on her. A faint, wry smile appeared on her face as she realized the cause.
Then a splash made her look up, as Solari led the Amazons back across the river, holding her bow up over her head as the water came up to her neck at the ford. The squad of warriors followed her, and in a minute or two they were sloshing ashore and heading her way.
Solari stopped in front of her, and shook herself. “Typical men.” She remarked. “Kick them in the crotch and they run like washerwomen.”
The mixed metaphors made Xena’s nose wrinkle. “Thanks.” She answered. “How many got off?”
“About half.” Solari responded readily. “We kept shooting them from behind.”
The warrior nodded, after a moment. “Good.” She said. “Maybe that’s enough to keep them running.” Killing all of them would have been one solution, she knew – but she’d also been doing this long enough to know the value of the tall tales men told when explaining why they ran from women.
By the time they finished, Xena figured she’d be twenty body lengths tall and have fangs the size of Argo’s left foreleg.
“And convince em not to come back?” Solari grinned, then her expression shifted. “Word’ll get out. Maybe it’ll bring your soldier boys back.” Her tone was offhand, but there was a touch of spice to it, that Xena’s newly sensitive ears heard.
The warrior shrugged. “If they do, they do.” She said. “But I figure we’ve got enough Amazons to handle anything that comes back this way.”
Solari stopped in mid motion and looked at her, then glanced over her shoulder to where the rest of the Amazons were waiting and listening. After a second, she looked back at Xena. “Say what?”
The pale blue eyes blinked mildly at her. “Got water in your ears?” She asked. “Or did I pick up an accent or something?”
Solari grinned. “Nope.” Her shoulders straightened. “Y’know, that’s’s the nicest damn thing you ever said to us, Xena. Very cool.” She half turned to her companions. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” Several of them replied, nodding. “Feels more like the war. Not like we’re an afterthought.” The short woman closest to Xena said. “Those guys ran off sure fast enough.. but we didn’t.”
“No.” Xena folded her hands together. “Amazons never run.”
They all straightened at that, and unconscious motion she caught from the corner of her eye. It made her smile, a little. “You know, I once told Melosa I’d rather fight a Cyclops than an Amazon. She laughed.”
Solari cocked her head, and then, warily, lifted her hand up and put it’s palm brazenly on Xena’s forehead. “You need a drink?”
“Yeah.” Xena had to chuckle at the reaction. “I probably do. Been a long damn day.”
“Been a long damn seven days with you two gone.” Solari agreed. She shook the water off her hands and looked back up towards the inn. “Wanna?”
Seven days? Even though she’d half expected it, it still surprised her. Xena collected herself with an effort and stood, her mind whirling. “Yeah, sure.” She gestured towards the path. “Let’s go.” She flexed her hands and followed the Amazons, as they dripped muddy river water onto the already churned up ground before them.
Gabrielle sat in a chair near the wall, watching the residents of the town slowly file in. She had Dori sitting in her lap, and she was leaning back against the wall, an empty mug in front of her. Dori had a hunk of break in her hands, and she was methodically ripping it to pieces and alternately eating and tossing it around.
The bard felt a sense of disconnection, from the exhaustion she knew was almost conquering her. The sounds around her were just so much buzzing, and now that she’d eaten some of the bread and cheese Cyrene had scavenged from the larder it was getting harder and harder to keep her head up.
“Mama.” Dori offered her a bit of bread. “You want?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle opened her mouth and waited for her daughter to deposit the offering. She chewed it and swallowed without really tasting it, and wished she had another mug of ale to wash it down with. But Cyrene had been pulled aside by some of the town elders in the corner, and she felt bringing attention to herself was probably not the best idea at the moment. ‘Thank you, sweetie.”
“Good you back.” Dori remarked. “You go Boo too long, you have fun?”
“Not really, honey.” Gabrielle admitted. “Boo and I had a very tough time, and we had to do a lot of bad things.”
“No fun?” Dori looked up.
“Well.” The bard studied the round, innocent face. “We had some fun. I met some new friends, and I know you’d love them if you met them. Boo sang to them. Wasn’t that nice of her?”
Dori grinned. “Love Boo.”
“Yeah, me too.” Gabrielle smiled back at her. “Boo made all the bad men run away, didn’t she?”
“Mama too.” The bard agreed.
“Go mama.” Dori leaned back against her and squiggled contentedly. “Eff an dose others we go to the mountain place and have fun.” She related. “Gots lots of fishies.”
“Would you get me lots of fishes, Dor?” The bard asked. “I’d like that.”
“Yes.” Her precocious offspring replied in a positive tone. “Let’s get Boo, and go get fishies, mama.” She ordered. “Go now.”
And, as if by some magic, the door opened and through the fog that surrounded her, Gabrielle felt the emotional equivalent of a fierce, fresh breeze and she looked up to find Xena in the opening, the setting sun outlining her body and yet doing nothing to blunt the force of those bright blue eyes watching her.
The low murmur faded. The crowd turned, as they felt the warrior’s presence. “Xena.” One of the elders said her name, in a quiet tone.
The warrior closed the door, and her features became vivid in the light of the candles within. “Yes.” She put her hands on her hips and waited.
The elder glanced at Cyrene, then faced her daughter. “Where do we go from here now?”
Xena looked around, finding every eye on her. “Thought you all would want us out of here.” She said.
The elder looked tired, and sounded it. “I thought I knew what we all wanted.” He replied. “I thought we all did, we saw all the opportunity coming to us and I thought, yes. It’s time.”
Cyrene sighed, and looked away.
“But we lost control of ourselves.” The elder concluded, in a soft tone.
Xena walked over to where Gabrielle was sitting and joined her, holding out her arms as Dori scrambled over and leaped into them. “Hey, shortie.” She gave her daughter a hug. “I missed ya.” She let one hand rest on the chair arm and felt Gabrielle’s fingers curl over hers immediately. “Are you keeping your mama company for me?”
“Mama’s toast.” Gabrielle uttered.
Xena nodded. “Tell you what.” She addressed the still waiting crowd. “Everyone go get a good night’s sleep somewhere. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
She sensed relief in the atmosphere, as the villagers dispersed into smaller groups and turned away from them. She waited a moment, then she turned back to her partner and knew the danger, for the moment, was on hold. “Ready to head home?”
Gabrielle’s head was resting against the wall, and there was a quiet sadness about her that made Xena reach out instinctively and touch her cheek. “You okay?”
The bard’s pale lashes fluttered a few times. “Yeah, I’m… um.” She hesitated, then lowered her voice. “I’m bleeding.”
Xena eyed her quickly. “W.. did someone here..” She leaned forward. “Where..” Her words cut off when she caught Gabrielle’s expression, and she paused, her heart sinking. “Oh.”
Gabrielle held her eyes for a moment, then glanced away, with a slight shrug. Then she looked back at the warrior, seeing a disappointment there that fully matched her own. “Hey.” She squeezed Xena’s hand. “After everything that happened… Xena, if that’s the worst thing that came out of that valley, I’ll take it. I mean that, with all my heart.”
And Xena knew she did mean it. “Cmon.” She stood, cradling Dori against her with one arm and offered the bard a hand up. “Let’s go home.”
Gabrielle leaned against her and closed her eyes. “I never left home.” She said. “But I’ll take a bath and a bed and you and be very, very grateful right now.”
They walked slowly to the door, aware of the eyes that followed them curiously as they left the inn, and headed into the russet glow beyond.
Gabrielle sat in the chair behind her writing desk, her elbows resting on her knees as she gazed slowly around the inside of their cabin.
Still unfinished, still a little strange in her eyes, but so very welcome nonetheless. She remained still, reveling in the feel of clean skin and warm clothes, and the soft fur rug under her bare feet, the heat of the fire in the fireplace gently toasting her skin and the scent of fresh raspberry tea drifting by.
The window showed the fading purple of twilight and if she looked out from where she was sitting, she could just see a sprinkling of stars between the leaves blinking placidly down at her.
It was a little hard to believe she was here, after what they’d just gone through and Gabrielle found herself more than content to simply sit and enjoy the peace. She picked up her mug and sipped the tea inside, rolling the sweet, honey laced warmth around the inside of her mouth before she swallowed it.
Life could be savored again.
“Ugh.” Xena emerged from the bathing room draped in a square of linen, Dori pattering along cheerfully wet and naked behind her. “C’mere, ya little frog. Let me dry you off.”
“Toss it here.” Gabrielle set her cup down and caught the towel, just as Dori reached her. “Look at you, Dori. You’re all wet.”
“Yes.” Dori allowed herself to be tousled dry. “Good, mama!”
Gabrielle pulled Dori closer and gave her a kiss on her damp head. “Go over and let Boo put a shirt on you, okay?”
“Otay.” Dori scooted over to the clothing press, where Xena had just finished draping her own long form with a mostly threadbare shift. “Boo, you gots the red one?”
“Sure.” Xena provided the requested item, a little rough linen shirt in a rust color that she got over Dori’s head and pulled down over her body. “That what you want?”
Dori looked up at her, and grinned wholeheartedly. “Want Boo!”
Xena picked her up and cradled her in her arms. “You got me.” She said, walking over to the low slung couch and dropping into it. “Now what?” She asked the child. “You going to tell us what you did while we were gone?”
Dori kicked her bare feet out. “Draw a pitcher.” She decided, squirming off Xena’s lap and heading for her toy box. “Boo, boo boo..”
Xena leaned her head back and looked over at Gabrielle. She patted the couch. “Nice of those guys to bring our stuff up.”
“It was.” The bard agreed softly. “I thanked Eph so many times I think she thought I had a fever. She kept asking where your herb box was.”
“Ah. Yeah.” Xena studied the weary lines on her partner’s face. “I complimented the Amazons. They probably think I’m drunk.” She tapped the edge of the couch, and when Gabrielle looked up, she crooked a finger at her. “C’mere.”
Gabrielle got up slowly, taking her cup with her as she circled the couch and settled down at Xena’s side, leaning against her with a long, heartfelt sigh. “Damn I’m tired.”
Xena wiggled her toes, blinking a little. “Me too.” She agreed. “I’m so damn tired I can’t even think straight.” She rested her head against Gabrielle’s and they sat together in silence, watching Dori sprawled on the floor, making marks on a piece of tattered parchment with a stick of charcoal from the fire.
“Didn’t she just take a bath?” Gabrielle asked mournfully, as the black soot traveled further up her child’s arms.
“Mm.” Xena nodded.
“She’s so much like you.” The bard said, then fell silent again.
Xena could feel the pain in her. She slipped her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders and reached over to cup the side of her head with her other hand, cradling the bard against her as gently as she could. There was no resistance at all to her, Gabrielle went with the motion and put both arms around her, burying her face against Xena’s chest.
Words were meaningless, and so Xena didn’t bother with them. She used touch instead, a soft, gentle massage along the back of Gabrielle’s neck and steady kisses across the top of her head, saying with every motion, every breath, every beat of her heart how much she loved her.
She felt Gabrielle take a breath in, and release it, then she felt the pressure of the bard’s lips against her skin as she shifted and snuggled closer, sliding one leg up over Xena’s as she relaxed again.
“Know something.” Gabrielle murmured, her breath warm against Xena’s neck. “I’m too tired to even cry.”
“So don’t.” Xena rocked her a little.
Gabrielle could feel some of the ache fading away, and she had the sensation that Xena was cradling her soul in ethereal security in the palms of her hands. It was an odd feeling, but she knew it was as real as the heartbeat under her cheek and she set herself free to float in it.
Life happened. If you were lucky, you had someone to share the beauty of that, and the ugliness of it and by that gauge Gabrielle knew herself to be a very lucky woman. She gave Xena a hug, and breathed in the scent of her clean shift and the spicy soap they’d both sorely missed in the valley.
Maybe what she’d felt, what they’d sensed in the valley was as much of a dream as everything else seemed to have turned out to be. Gabrielle was willing to go that route, willing to give up the pain of what might have beens to focus instead of what was, and what could become now that their world had shifted to yet another path.
The bard turned her head and shifted so she could look up at Xena, studying the angular planes now outlined in the gentle glow of their fire. She could see the warrior’s eyes looking back at her and the weariness she was feeling was reflected in them, full measure. “Was it all a dream, Xe?”
The warrior thought in silence briefly, then shook her head.
“If we were only gone a sevenday…”
“They think.” Xena interrupted her. “I know what happened to us. If anyone was dreaming, it was everyone else.”
Gabrielle blinked a few times. “That’s really arrogant, you know?”
“Yeah.” Xena agreed. “But I am that.” She paused. “Sometimes.”
The bard’s face moved into a faint smile. “Sometimes.” She agreed. “But you know, I think I like that about you.”
One of the dark brows lifted.
“You are who you are, Xena.” Gabrielle said. “Just like you told me, I am who I am.”
Xena leaned over and kissed her on the lips, her eyes fluttering closed as the contact lengthened and their mingled breathing shortened. She paused and lifted her head a little, touching the tip of her nose to the bard’s. “I love who you are.”
Gabrielle’s eyes opened, revealing shadowed green eyes. “Likewise.”
Considering who she was, Xena accepted that as the profound compliment it was. She kissed Gabrielle again, and smiled, as the bard hugged her, the sadness she’d felt through their link easing and fading away. It relieved her, and that in turn apparently relieved Gabrielle because they both melted into a comfortable snuggle bordering on the verge of sleep.
“Mama, look.” Dori came over, dragging her parchment behind her. She tugged on Gabrielle’s shift and held it up. “See?”
Ah well. Gabrielle turned and peered at the parchment. Then she slowly reversed her position and tilted her head to look at the item upside down. “Oh.” She murmured. “Xe, look!”
Xena took the parchment and turned it right side up, tilting it towards the fire to let the light show it’s details. There was a round blob in the middle, with what looked like a snake emerging from it, and short lines around it all. “Gorgeous.”
“You like? Aminal came and scared Guff.” Dori told her. “Make friends and then go play. Fun!”
Gabrielle squirmed upright again and looked at the parchment. “What kind of animal, Dor? Was it a pig?” She guessed. “Oh, Xe.. don’t tell me mom’s wild pigs are getting up here. They scare the poo out of me.”
Dori clapped her hands together, which were now covered in charcoal. She held them up for Xena’s inspection, then reached for her mother. “Mmmmamama…”
“Bah bah… whoa.” Gabrielle managed to disentangle her hands from Xena’s shirt fast enough to catch her child’s black smudged ones before they could mark her. “Hold on there young lady.” She struggled to sit up. “Ugh.”
“Hang on.” Xena squirmed around and got an arm under her, lifting her to a sitting position. “There.”
“Thanks.” The bard sighed. “Boy, I’m stiffening up.” She got to her feet and started to walk towards the bathing room with Dori. “C’mon, punkie. Let’s get you clean again.”
Dori giggled and danced around, both hands being held firmly over her head. “Mama… go fly!”
“Oh no.” Gabrielle’s voice drifted back. “No flying tonight, Doriana.”
Xena sat quietly for a moment, then she got up and followed her family into the back room. She went over to where Gabrielle was kneeling next to the bath, scrubbing Dori’s hands and dropped to her knees behind the bard, sliding her arms around her and taking the soap from her fingers.
“What are you doing?”
“Helping.” Xena splashed water over all of them.
The warrior chuckled. “Sorry.”
“Wench.” Gabrielle rested her forearms on the tub and resigned herself to watching, finding it hard to even keep her eyes open. “But thanks.”
She didn’t remember Xena finishing, or the warrior drying Dori’s hands. The next thing she knew, the world was turning upside down and air was rushing past her head, a disorienting motion that made her yelp in surprise. “Yow!”
“Easy.” Xena cradled her and stood. “Bedtime, my love.”
Unexpectedly, Gabrielle’s eyes stung with tears and she blinked, lifting a hand to clear them. “I am tired.. I think I’m losing my mind.” She muttered, a little embarrassed as Xena carried her back into the main room of the cabin. “You can let me down. Xe.”
“I will.” The warrior agreed, going over to the bed and doing just that. She glanced across the room to where Dori was already tucked in her own bed, and then she leaned over and blew the candle out.
Only the fire lit the cabin, a low, murmuring crackle that sounded loud as the night noises faded in from the window. Xena listened for a moment, then she swung her legs up and lay down, releasing a heartfelt sigh as the softness of the mattress enfolded her.
“Say that again.” Gabrielle snuggled up along one side and put her head on Xena’s shoulder. “Boy this feels good.”
Xena let out a small groan of agreement. She slowly let her body relax, hardly daring to believe they were finally here, and the long nightmare was over. She felt Gabrielle’s body losing tension next to her, and she let her fingers start a slow tracing along the bard’s back.
It had been an impossibly long day, at the end of an impossibly long.. Xena blinked into the darkness. Impossibly long whatever. She felt her eyes close, and a sense of dislocation came over her with surprising suddenness, the exhaustion finally claiming her a few heartbeats before Gabrielle.
A sweet hint of jasmine floated in on the breeze, the rustling leaves and the sound of a solitary nightbird singing all that broke the peace.
For a change.
It was late the next morning when Gabrielle’s eyes slowly opened, and she drew in a breath of the fresh spring air coming in the window. She flexed her fingers against the soft bedding and rolled over, appreciating the utter luxury of waking at her own pace in her own bed.
Only thing missing was her partner. Gabrielle rolled her head around and peered at the quiet emptiness of the cabin, spotting the warrior’s shift draped over a nearby chair, and noting the distinct lack of rambunctious little girls that meant her soulmate had considerately taken her daughter off to give Gabrielle a chance to sleep in.
“Mm.” The bard let her eyes close again, as she slowly stretched out her body, easing the stiffness from a long night’s stillness after far too much use. The worst ache was in her shoulders and she winced as she spread her arms out to either side, pushing cautiously through the tightness. “Whoa.”
“Groo?” A clatter of toenails sounded and then Ares stood up on his hind legs, peering at her.
“Hey, boy.” Gabrielle held a hand to his mouth, smiling as he licked her fingers. She scratched the underside of his jaw and exhaled. “How are you doing, huh? We missed you in that ratty place, let me tell you.”
“Agroo.” Ares chewed her fingers contentedly, until Gabrielle removed her hand from his mouth and slowly sat up, biting her lip as she swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood. “Oh, sheep tails.”
Ares hopped off the bed and trotted around to meet her as she limped over to the fireplace, suppressing a grin when she saw their travel worn water pot already near it’s warmer, her cup sitting patiently nearby. “Thanks, Xena.”
Ares sat down and watched her, his bushy tail slowly brushing back and forth on the floor.
She set the water to heat and took a seat near the neatly made fire, holding her hands out to absorb the welcome warmth. “Boy, am I glad to be home.” She told the wolf. “I know I go on and on about how I love to travel, Ares, but you know what?”
“I think I want to stay home now.” Gabrielle sighed, resting her elbows on her knees. “I think it’s time to do a little traditional family life thing, you know?”
Ares pink tongue lolled from one side of his mouth, almost as though he was laughing at her.
“Yeah, right.” The bard had to smile. “Here I am talking to a wolf named for the God of War while I wait for my child of two mothers and my legendary partner the ex Destroyer of Nations to get back to start this traditional family thing.” She sat back in the leather seat of the fireside chair and extended her bare legs, wiggling her toes. “Sometimes, Ares, I really wonder what it would be like to be the boring old shepherd’s wife I was always afraid I’d become.”
Ares licked his chops. Gabrielle chuckled wryly to herself and looked around the cabin with a faintly pensive expression. Even the scattering of Dori’s toys in the corner was a welcome sight and she felt a new appreciation for the material things in her life.
Shallow, maybe. The bard acknowledged. She let her hand rest on the arm of the comfortable chair she was sitting in, it’s back and seat made from supple, soft leather. After so many days of sitting on the hard ground, it felt impossibly decadent.
Gabrielle drummed her fingertips light on the arm. “Decadence is good.” She decided. “You know all that self sacrificing poor and holy stuff? Pooh.”
“Groo.” She rested her elbow on the chair arm and propped her head up with her hand, as the fingers of her other played with the hem of her shift as she let herself get lost in thought for brief time.
Then the sound of the water rattling in the pot made her stir, and she lifted it off the fire just as a knock came at the door.
Gabrielle looked quickly at Ares, but aside from swinging his big head around, he remained where he was, tongue lolling. “Cmon in.”
The door opened, and Ephiny’s curly head appeared. “You up?”
“Just.” Gabrielle poured the water over a cupful of already prepared herbs. “Come on in and join me.”
Ephiny readily entered, letting the door swing shut behind her as she crossed the cabin and took the chair across from her friend and queen. “Y’know, I used to kid you about all the plush stuff in your place, but you know something?”
“What?” Gabrielle set another cup down, glancing at her visitor as she dipped tea herbs from the clay jar on the hearth.
“It’s real easy to get used to it.” Ephiny crossed her ankles. “How you feeling?”
Gabrielle handed her a steaming cup, then picked up her own and sipped from it. After a moment, she licked her lips, catching a hint of a unfamiliar taste in the herbs. “A little stiff.” She admitted, suspecting it wouldn’t be for long. “Still tired. But all in all, I’ve had way worse mornings. You?”
“All in all, I’ve had way worse mornings.” Ephiny produced a grin. “You’re back, Big X’s back, jackasses are gone.. and it’s not even raining. I like it.” She set the cup down and laced her fingers behind her head, her expression going more serious. “Lot of things changed down below. Those bastards wrecked what little was left across the river.”
“I know.” Gabrielle leaned back. “Some of the people there.. they were good people, Eph.”
The regent nodded.
“One of them.. gods, I’d forgotten about this but just before we left Xena got some cakes from one of them that I about died for.” Faint memories flooded into her mind’s eye. “They weren’t all bad.”
“Just like all the nobs up at the upper town weren’t that good.” Ephiny remarked, in a practical tone. “I have to admit I enjoyed being an Amazon bitch to them while you were gone.”
Mild, green eyes studied her. “Amazon bitch?” Gabrielle’s eyebrows lifted.
“Yeah.” Ephiny said, after a brief silence. “Bitch to them, bitch to Cyrene… they were all on my last nerve so I told em.” She gazed into the cup she’d picked up off the table. “I was pissed off at how they take you guys for granted.”
The bard’s eyebrows lowered, then contracted. “Huh?”
Ephiny looked up at her. “Then I realized.. so do we..”
Gabrielle blinked, struck speechless.
“Maybe it’s bad time.” Ephiny lifted one hand. “I just wanted to get this out before we just went on with those busy lives of ours.” She watched Gabrielle’s face. “Because it hit me really hard, here you were swept down a damn river to who knows what end saving people’s asses, and all I heard was bitching.”
Gabrielle slid down a little, feeling the herbs Xena had left in her cup kicking in and relaxing her muscles. “I guess… “ She started, then paused. “You know something, I don’t even think about why I do the stuff we do anymore. There used to be a reason.. I mean, the right thing to do, or Xena’s redemption.. “ She half shrugged. “Or whatever.”
“Made a good story.” Ephiny suggested.
The bard nodded. “But I realized… when we were fighting so hard in that damn valley, that I do what I do now just because it’s become a part of who I am.”
The regent nodded somberly. “I was talking to someone yesterday, and they were saying something about.. well, anyway, we got around to talking about you and I realized the only time we.. the tribe I mean, thinks about you is when we need something.”
Gabrielle looked at the floor. “And the same for me.”
Ephiny shook her head. “That’s not true, Gabrielle. You never come to us for anything. The one time you needed our help we couldn’t give it to you.” She said. “Even in the war, you didn’t expect anything from us. You just did what you did and said following was up to us.”
“So.” The regent exhaled. “I’m here to say I’m sorry.” She paused. “As a representative of our tribe, I mean. Because you know I’d die for you, right?”
Gabrielle felt her throat close up. “Eph.”
Ephiny leaned forward, and put her hand on the bard’s. “We owe you better.”
The bard met her eyes, steadily. “Don’t I owe you better, Ephiny? I’m no Amazon and I’m definitely no queen.”
“You never asked to be queen, and you never asked to be made an Amazon, Gabrielle.” Ephiny said, with a tiny smile. “And because you are our queen, and you aren’t an Amazon, you’ve made us into a better nation than we’d ever have been.”
Gabrielle remained silent, though her conscience was shockingly abashed when her inner voice readily agreed with what Ephiny had said. She slowly sipped her tea, watching Ephiny fidget with her own cup across from her.
“I wanna be you when I grow up, Gabrielle.” Ephiny finally said, with a rakish grin.
“You’re nuts.” The bard responded. “But thank you.” She propped her head up on one hand. “Sometimes I feel like a fraud around you guys. Like everyone rolls their eyes when they see me and wishes Melosa were back.”
She’d come a long way with Ephiny, to be able to say that. Gabrielle watched her friend’s face, seeing the shifting emotions there. She remembered suddenly all the things they had between them, from the moment she’d taken the right, to Xenon’s birth, to Xena’s death and beyond and she knew in truth that Ephiny had seen both the worst and the best of her.
The Amazon regent gazed at her cup, then she set it down on the low table before she got to her feet and crossed to where Gabrielle was sitting, crouching down next to her and putting her lips close to the bard’s ear. “Me, too.” She whispered. “But don’t say anything to anyone.. it’ll screw my image.”
Gabrielle chuckled, and reached up to cup Ephiny’s head and pressed it against her own. The uneasiness she’d been feeling eased, and she turned her head to look the Amazon in the eye and found a truth of friendship there she’d only half expected. “I think together, we make a pretty good Queen of the Amazons.” She responded.
“We do all right.” Ephiny didn’t reject the statement. “And we’ve got good help along.”
Gabrielle nodded. “We do.” She thought about the valley, and the anger, and, as Xena had often taught her – she let it go for a present reality that was far more palatable.
Life happened. “We’re a lucky pair of sheeps tails, Eph. Y’know?”
“Um.. speaking of tails.. “ Ephiny took a seat next to her on the floor. “Now that we got that out of the way.. I’ve got a problem.” She said.
The bard leaned on her chair arm. “Do you?”
“Yeah. I need your advice.” The regent admitted. “If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Sure.” Gabrielle answered readily. “You can always ask me anything, Eph.”
“It’s about sex.”
Xena stood quietly in the crossroads, where a lifetime ago she’d had traffic halted to let her load of thatch pass through. She thought about that day, and the animosity she’d felt for what she’d seen as oppressive crowds came sharply to mind as she stood and absorbed the now empty lanes.
Most of the town was off in the nearby woods, felling trees to start the rebuilding process. Xena walked over to the well and sat down on the edge of it, watching Dori run along the broken fences, eyes vivid as she searched for something in the underbrush.
The muddy ground of her birthplace scuffed under her boots, and she crossed her arms over her cloth covered chest as she absorbed the vacant silence around her.
“Boo!” Dori picked up something and came running over to her. “Look!”
Xena spread her boots and held her arms out, as Dori clambered up her, sprawling heedlessly into her lap as she thrust a muddy fist in the warrior’s face. “Whatcha got there?”
“Gots a pitty rock, Boo.” Dori displayed her find.
“Yeah?” Xena took the bit of stone and examined it. “You’re right, Dori. That’s real pretty.” The warrior confirmed. “Bet you can find a lot more up where we live now, huh?”
Dori turned and regarded the empty square. “No people, Boo.” She observed. “Shh. Like that.”
Xena looked around, then gave her daughter a wry smile. “You’re definitely my kid, Dori.” She told the child. “What do you think about that, huh?”
“Good.” Dori kicked her feet out, narrowly missing her beloved buddy’s knees. “Boo, c’n we go gets fishes? No body like fishes, and I say to go, and go, and no go.”
“Sure.” The warrior said. “How about you and me and your mama go out tomorrow and spend all day getting fishes. That work for you?”
There was a scuff of footsteps, and Xena turned, spotting two small figures running towards them. “Look Dor.. I think your friends are coming.” She released her daughter as Dori scrambled off her lap and bolted for her cousins.
The two little boys were visibly happy to see Dori. They all met near the steps to the inn, and then with giggles audible to Xena they dropped to their knees and squirmed under the porch and out of sight just as Granella appeared after them, pausing and changing direction as she recognized Xena near the well.
The warrior took a moment to school her expression into one of mild welcome and folded her arms over her chest as her sister in law neared. “Morning.”
“Morning.” The smaller woman peered around. “You see where those munchkins ran off to?”
Xena indicated the inn with a casual wave. “Under the porch.” She replied. “Dori’s with em.”
“Ah.” Granella nodded. “They were missing her this morning. I think they think of her as a sister, of sorts.”
The double meaning was not lost on Xena. “They’ll grow out of that.” She said. “Toris and I fought like cats and dogs.”
“So he’s said.” Granella lifted her hand and set a bucket down near the well. “The cistern back of our place got knocked in.” She explained. “Toris is trying to fix it.”
Xena scratched her jaw, knowing too well her brother’s skill with his hands. Or lack thereof. “That’s a tough job.” She brushed her hands over the heavy, well fitted stone of the main village well. “Especially with the ground so wet still.”
“Mm.” Granella sat down on the edge of the well next to her. “Well, I’m sure he knows who he can go to for help.” She remarked. “Since your name’s all over this one.” She turned and released the catch on the well bucket, lowering it down into the depths.
Xena remembered those long days spent chiseling the rock just so, fitting it into the broad circle under the warm sun in a time that seemed so far distant from where she was now it was hard to comprehend. One of the many tasks she’d taken on herself during that long month when Gabrielle had gone to the Amazons. “Yeah.” She said, after a brief silence. “Had some time on my hands back then.”
“We’re not going to have much of that now.” Granella said. “The gods only know how we’ll get the fields back under plow before spring ends.. it’s like we’re back to the beginning again.”
Xena nodded. “We are.”
The bucket reached the top and Granella hoisted it to the edge of the well. “Happy about that?” She asked, glancing at the warrior. “I know you didn’t much like the new town.”
Truth? Xena felt a deep desire stirring in her, a reclaiming of who she was that had started on the previous day. “Yes.” She answered quietly. “I’m sorry people died in the flood, but I’m not sorry that’s gone.” She met Granella’s eyes evenly. “And it’s not going to happen again.”
Granella balanced the bucket and let her fingers dabble in the water. “Is that really fair, Xena?” She asked, in serious tone. “This place… the people in it aren’t your personal property.”
Xena smiled humorlessly. “As long as I live.” She said. “This will be my hometown. And as long as it’s my hometown, the fate of it’s in my hands.”
Granella peered at her in surprise. “Xena, I don’t think…”
“So I don’t care what people think.” The warrior continued, with a half shrug. “People want to think I’m still a bloodthirsty killer? Maybe I am.” Her eyes searched the area. “I’m tired of trying to avoid the consequences of being who and what I am.”
“Ares’ Chosen?” A tinge of skepticism colored Granella’s voice.
“Ares’ blood.” Xena replied mildly, her tongue tasting the words and finding them stingingly potent. For so long she’d fought the merest notion of it, and now, through the touch of the Sword – she’d come to a curious, unexpected peace with the idea.
Life was damned ironic sometimes. Especially hers.
There was an absolute, dead silence for a long moment, then with a clatter, the bucket fell back down the well as Granella lost her grip on it and she stepped back, holding her hands up to ward off the splashing water.
Xena remained where she was, and allowed the sweet liquid to dampen her skin, licking her lips and relishing the taste of it. She turned her head as she heard childish laughter, and saw Dori squirming out from under the porch with something clutched in her hand. “Ah.”
Granella turned and looked.
Dori got up and bolted for the well, her small, compact body moving with a peculiar grace and easy rhythm that even now was easily recognizable. Xena opened her arms and stood up, releasing a tiny whistle as the child closed in.
“Eeee!” Dori launched herself with total abandon through the air at Xena, tumbling over as the warrior caught her and she landed squarely in her arms. “Boo! Look!” She held her hand out, which was full of something long and squiggly. “Aminal!”
“ Yeah? Where’d you get that? Tell me.” Xena smiled, then looked up at Granella, her expression shifting instantly from doting to something else. “You can stop wondering.” She said, in a quiet tone. “She’s mine.”
Granella looked like she’d been hit by a cart. “Wow. Okay, sorry. Give me a minute here I.. “ She lifted a slightly shaking hand up and pushed her hair back. “Xena, I never thought you were lying.”
“No.” The warrior said, softly. “You never thought I was.”
The former Amazon looked away.
“Boo, aminal likes you.” Dori observed, as the lizard in her grip opened his mouth and attempted to chomp the warrior’s lower jaw. “See?”
Xena lowered her eyes to her daughter’s face, which was lit with glee. “He’s gonna bite me, shortie. That’s owie.” She reminded the child. “What’s his name?”
“Izaard.” Dori supplied. “He was under dere, Boo. He was making a house, and an aminal chased him, and then he…” She opened her hand and giggled as the lizard made his escape, running right up Xena’s face and into her hair. “Go go go, Izzard!”
Xena reached up and caught the intruder, then held her hand out and let him jump off to the well.
“Boo!” Dori climbed up and over the warrior’s shoulder, almost taking off after the lizard with very little regard for her own safety. “Izzard! C’mere!” She grabbed Xena’s extended arm and hung from it, then leaped off and chased after the escaping creature. “C’mon! Lolo! Get’im!”
A little silence fell around them, as the children ran off. Finally Granella turned, and leaned on one side of the stonework, watching Xena with somber eyes. “I thought I had that all settled.” She admitted, her gaze dropping and studying the wooden bucket haul. “I told everyone it didn’t matter to me.”
“So did I.” Xena sat down across from her. “So we both lied.” She removed a bit of mud from her knee, deposited there by Dori’s boots.
Granella remained quiet for a few moments. “I was so angry.” She said. “At him, at Gabrielle… and then all those months to sit and stew over it.” A sigh. “I hated them. About the only person I didn’t hate over it was you.” She looked up at Xena. “How did you get through that, Xena? Didn’t it kill you?”
The warrior looked up at the sky, watching the fluffy white puffs drift over her. “Tell you something.” She said. “One thing I’ve learned in this barrel ride down the River Styx my life has been.”
Xena turned her head. “If love doesn’t kill you, it makes you whole.”
Granella blinked at her in silence.
“Gabrielle’s need for this child meant more to me than how I felt about how she did it.” The warrior said, after a brief silence. “And after Dori was born, it didn’t matter.”
“Wish I could say that.” Granella admitted, in a quiet voice.
Xena found herself understanding far more than her sister in law would have imagined. “My brother is many things.” She met Granella’s eyes. “But one thing he has is a true heart, and once he gave it, it stayed.”
The ex Amazon merely stared at her for a bit, then she shook her head. “Funny.” She said. “He says pretty much the same thing about you.” She reached out and briefly touched Xena’s arm, then turned and picked up her bucket. “Gotta get the kids in for lunch. Nice talking to you, Xena.”
“Anytime.” Xena murmured, with a half shake of her own head. “We’re all such clueless idiots sometimes.” She started off in the other direction, towards where she’d seen Dori disappear. “Hope Gabrielle’s having a better morning than I am so far.”
“Xena!” Cyrene appeared on the porch of the inn. “Here.. quickly!”
Oh boy. The warrior altered her path. Boy, oh boy.
Xena heard the yelling as her hands hit the door to the inn, and she pushed the wooden surface inward without hesitation, sending it flying back to hit against the wall with a satisfying bang.
It achieved it’s purpose. The rest of the inhabitants of the big room froze, and then turned, several backing away a step as the warrior strode into the room and claimed the center of it, balling her fists and planting them on her hips.
The room was full of what she thought of as oldtimers- the original citizens of the Amphipolis she’d come back to years ago, the men and women who had, against her expectations, accepted her into their lives again even despite the history between them.
“Xena.” Johan had been standing before the kitchen door, both hands lifted in defense. Now he dropped them and relaxed a little. “We were just talking about you.”
“I know.” Xena said. “Gabrielle probably heard you from our cabin.”
Johan blinked. “Aye, well.”
The oldest of the women walked over to her. “Xena. Just listen a minute…”
Xena lifted both hands up, palms outmost. “No.” She said, firmly. “You all listen to me, for a change.” She walked around the center of the inn. “I’ve had about enough of all the damned opinions around here lately.”
“Xena.” The woman interrupted.
“Granted, my being around isn’t always a picnic, but it sure as Hades doesn’t mean you’ve got a right to give up what’s ours to a pack of scroungy outsiders.”
“But,, Xena..” Johan eased around to one side of her. “Now listen, girl…”
“Not to mention you all thought you’d gotten what you could out of us, then decided to take us out of the picture while you built your dream city there.”
“Xena, that’s not what…”
Xena rounded on the woman. “Isn’t it? Why kick Gabrielle out otherwise?”
“Ah.. isn’t that between us and Gabrielle?” One of the older men bravely spoke up, then turned brick red as everyone in the room turned around and looked at him with remarkably uniform withering stares. “Well, she is a grown woman.”
Everyone looked back over at Xena. The warrior put her hands back on her hips and exhaled. “She’s given me permission to speak in her behalf.” She said, quietly. “So on her behalf, I’m asking what the Hades she ever did to deserve that from you?”
“Xena.” The woman, one of the shopkeepers who had a cloth store near the inn, made another attempt. She bravely reached out and took hold of Xena’s wrists, her fingers only going halfway round them. “Xena, we’re sorry.”
The warrior eyed her warily.
“It’s like this.” The older man said. “We worked like dogs, we did, for a real long time.”
“I know.” Xena said.
“See a chance to make good, you gotta grab it.” The old man said, practically. “Had all those merchants coming to us, wanting things, wanting angles.. you weren’t here.”
“No.” Xena said. “I was busy having your taxes remanded and your levy dropped.” She reminded them. “We both paid for that.”
There was a moment of silence, then the older woman sighed. “As did we, Xena.” She said. “We lost a good friend, as well.” She added. “But.. I know.. and I think it was because you were gone for so long.. we never really said thank you.”
Xena instinctively wanted to disregard the offer, a dozen further accusations ready on the tip of her tongue she’d been holding in for weeks.
“Them folks just don’t think women should run things.” The man shrugged. “We wanted their business. You know how it is.” He added. “Cyrene, you went along with them!”
“Now.. “ Johan stepped forward, his voice angry. “Just hold on there.”
Cyrene put her hand on his shoulder. “No, it’s true.” She looked over at Xena. “To a point.” Her face twitched a little. “But you told me.. “ Now she turned back to look at the man, pointing at him. “You told me Gabrielle asked to step away from the council.”
“Yes, you did say that!” The older woman said. “You mean she didn’t?”
A squabble of voices rose, each more strident than the one before. Xena suddenly felt a headache coming on, and her patience slipped, the acrimony causing her body to tense uncomfortably.
It occurred to her, that she might just possibly be getting crabbier in her old age. “Hey!” She let out a yell, causing the pottery near the kitchen to rattle.
The noise stopped, and everyone shifted uneasily. Eyes went to Xena, a mixture of fear, resentment, and in a few cases, regret. Story of her life, sometimes. “Let’s just drop it.” The warrior said, after a brief pause. “If we keep this up we’ll be pointing fingers until they’re all bones.”
A distinct silence followed that. Finally, Johan cleared his throat. “Not so easy to do that, Xena.”
Xena walked over to the nearest table and sat down in a chair she’d made with her own hands. She rested her elbows on a table she’d also made, and propped her chin up on her fists as she regarded them. “If we want to move forward, we’ve got to.”
“Well, but listen!” The man raised his voice. “We can’t just forget everything! We came so close.. “
“Dennas, you’re a fool!” Cyrene yelled back.
“You’re the one’s said we should bring them all in!” Dennas shouted. “Everyone was yah, yah.. bring it on.. now we’re taken to task? To Hades with you all!”
“HEY!” Xena let out another yell. “SHUT UP!”
The crowd fell silent again.
“Maybe we should just leave.” Xena spoke into it, with a quiet resignation, then she fell silent, and the silence lengthened to an uncomfortable degree as the villagers all exchanged looks with each other and tried not to stare at the warrior in their midst.
At last, Cyrene broke the stillness. She walked over and took the seat next to her daughter, and clasped her hands together. “I had a dream.” She said. “Before the floods, I had a dream that you and Gabrielle left us, moved away from here, and you were in terrible trouble.”
“Mom.” Gabrielle entered from the inner hall, making everyone turn at her lighter voice. “That pretty much describes our life most of the time. Being in serious trouble, I mean.”
Cyrene turned to look at her. “You were both dying.”
Gabrielle came over and sat down on the other side of Xena. “We do that a lot.” She said. “I think that’s why we always hold this place to be special – because for us it’s a place of healing, and home.” Her voice gentled. “We don’t want that to change. So please – let’s stop the yelling, and just move on.”
The older man studied her, then he reached up to scratch his jaw. “I guess I could go with just starting fresh, yeah?”
“Yeah.” The older woman nodded. “We really are sorry, Xena. And you too, Gabrielle.”
“Yeah.” One of the other men agreed. “Let’s top an ale, and put it all behind us.”
Xena glanced over at her partner. “How do you do that?”
“Do what?” The bard’s mild, green eyes blinked at her.
The warrior ran her fingers through her hair and straightened up. “Nevermind. Just the next time – you do all the talking.”
Gabrielle looked around at the crowd, who were now milling around, the atmosphere lightening. “Don’t I always do all the talking?” She asked, in a puzzled tone. “Anyway.. we can’t leave.” She lowered her voice. “You’re not going to believe what Eph just told me.”
Xena looked at her warily, but before she could ask, the chairs next to them scraped and they were surrounded by what was left of the village council of elders. “Hi.”
One of the men plunked down two mugs of ale in front of them, and sat down. “Let’s talk about the future, then.”
Gabrielle leaned on her chair arm, watching their faces. “Why do I get the feeling this is going to be one of those ‘be careful what you ask for’ moments of my life?” She muttered under her breath.
“Mm.” Xena sighed. “I think I’ll go hunt lizards with Dori.”
“Better a hen than a..mpf.”
“My head hurts.” Gabrielle nestled her cheek against Xena’s shoulder, as the warrior obligingly massaged the back of her neck. “I don’t know if I can handle all this change at once.”
“Mmph.” Xena grunted softly. They were in front of the fire in their new cabin, it was after dusk, and the end of what had turned out to be a very long day.
“Why is it, whenever I think I want something, it turns out to be not really what I wanted?” The bard asked, in an aggrieved tone.
“Do I count?”
Gabrielle was briefly silent, then she chuckled. “Boy, did you just get me.” She admitted. “No, you don’t count. You’re the silver lining to my life.”
“I think that’s my line.” Xena demurred. “Cause of the two of us, I’m undoubtedly the black cloud.”
“People haven’t heard me sing.” Gabrielle said. “That opinion could change, y’know?”
Xena bit her gently on the edge of her ear. “Punk.”
“Sometimes.” The bard agreed, closing her eyes and exhaling. “Xena, I can be the reeve of the village, or I can be the queen of the Amazons. I can’t be both at the same time.”
The warrior snuggled a bit closer, reaching over to pick up a goblet and taking a sip of it’s contents before setting it back down again. “Damned bad timing.” She agreed. “Eph surprised me.”
“You knew they wanted a kid.” Gabrielle objected.
“Mm.” Xena grunted softly again. “Don’t know that I would have gone about it like she did.”
The bard picked up the goblet and sipped from it. “You mean, while Pony was gone?”
Gabrielle slowly rolled the sweet honey wine in her mouth, before she swallowed it. “I can see both sides of that.” She said, after a bit. “It’s hard for me to think about doing what Eph did, but I can understand her not wanting to…” She paused. “I know she didn’t want to hurt Pony.”
“True.” The warrior studied the fire. “Might have been easier on me if you’d gone that route.”
The bard lifted her hand and kissed her palm. “I’m sorry, Xena.”
“I’m not.” Xena replied in a mild tone. “It would have been easier, but I’d have hated you not telling me.” She took the cup from her partner and drank from it. “She’s screwed either way.” She leaned over and gave Gabrielle a kiss on the lips. “Don’t you dare offer to tell Pony for her.”
“I wouldn’t do that.” Gabrielle licked her lower lip. “Besides, I think Eph made a good choice, because Pony knows what role Mikah was playing in Athens.” She said. “So I think that would make a difference.”
“Might.” The warrior agreed. She set the cup down and put her arms back around Gabrielle, letting her cheek rest against the bard’s head. “What the Hades – maybe they’ll all adopt him and use him as the nation’s stud.”
Gabrielle rolled her head around and peered up at her partner.
“He’s cute.” Xena’s dark lashes fluttered at her.
“So are lambs.” The bard finally said. “Doesn’t mean everyone should make out with them.”
Xena chuckled softly. “Just go with it, Gabrielle. Let Eph figure a way to tell her. They’ll be fine – I think once Pony gets over the shock she’ll be all right with it. Especially since it’s not her.”
They were both quiet for a while, resting together on the low, padded couch as the scent of cinnamon floated gently through the air.
“You think we’ll ever find out what was up in that valley?” Gabrielle asked, after a while. “Was it real, Xe? I get further and further from believing that every minute.”
Xena sighed. “Truly, I don’t know.” She admitted. “I want to believe my senses, but most of that was.. it was too fantastic, Gabrielle. Maybe it was a dream, from the gods to test us.”
“Test us.” The bard pondered. “You know, that’s a lot easier to believe than singing elephants.”
“Mm. Sure is.”
Finally Gabrielle shifted, and slid down onto her back, resting her head on Xena’s leg. She folded her hands over her stomach and regarded the thatch ceiling. “I was thinking just this morning, about how I’d like to spend some time here, and just live life with you, and with Dori.”
“So .. now that I’m lying here thinking of asking you to run away with me someplace, does that mean I’m just going nuts?”
Xena laughed, and ran her fingers through her partner’s pale hair.
“Damn it, Xena… I’m serious. I feel like I’m going crazy.” The bard complained. “I don’t want to be in charge of all those people and tell them what to do.”
Gabrielle sighed. “I don’t want them telling me what to do either.”
“You’re not crazy.” Xena extended her long legs out and crossed her ankles. “That’s how I ended up running an army. I hated listening to anyone else.”
“Mm.” The bard rolled over and draped her arm over Xena’s legs. “I guess.” She exhaled. “Maybe I’m just still tired.”
“Maybe.” Xena traced the edge of her jawline, then ran her fingertip over and across her ear. “We’ll work it out.” She watched the bard’s lashes flutter shut. “Once the trading wagons get back.. we can start figuring out what we want this to be.”
“They’re gonna be surprised.” Gabrielle said. “Specially Bennu. He’s not going to forgive those guys for splitting on us.” She felt her skin tingle at the gentle touch and she returned it, sliding her hand up along Xena’s thigh and feeling the shift of tensing muscle under her fingers.
“Mmm.. probably not.” Xena rumbled softly, as her hands slowly wandered over Gabrielle’s body. “But I’m sure it’ll all work out.” She leaned back as the bard lifted herself up and they slid together into a tangle of arms and legs and full body contact whispering across the sturdy leather surface.
Gabrielle chucked the worries of the day aside as she concentrated on unlacing the neckline ties of the shift covering her partner’s body. The scent of their soap tickled her nose as she succeeded, putting a line of tiny kisses across the curve of Xena’s breast.
Xena’s hands moved down her sides, and along her hips, and returned, a leisurely, knowing tracing of her that made Gabrielle’s breathing shorten as their bodies brushed together and Xena’s leg slid between hers and tension in her guts erupted into a irresistible craving.
She lost track of what she was doing as Xena’s lips nibbled down her neck, and they rolled together to one side as she felt her partner take control and nip relentlessly at her.
A touch along her side, fingertips tracking down across her belly and down her inner thigh and all she could do was hang on, her breath coming too fast for her to do much else. She felt Xena’s teeth close gently on a nipple, and knew a moment of erotic danger that quickly passed as the touch went from teasing to intense and she let out a low groan.
“Mine.” A low growl answered her, warm breath leaving a trail of goosebumps across her skin, as the touch slid up the inside of her thigh and became very intimate.
“Yes.” Gabrielle managed to get out, just before she grabbed hold of Xena’s body as her own started to convulse , wave after wave of sensation as Xena just kept nipping up and down and…
Gods. Gabrielle felt her whole body shaking in response to it, as the touch gentled and the nips evolved into gentle kisses she barely had the strength to return.
She was glad enough to just wrap her arms around Xena’s body and let the shivers fade, until she gathered up enough energy to return the favor.
Xena’s body was warm, and a little damp, and she could taste a hint of salt on her tongue as she tasted a spot just between her breasts. Then she felt herself pulled around and over, and she was laying sprawled over Xena, her body pressing against the warrior’s as she felt the heat ignite in her all over again.
“Tired?” Xena’s voice in her ear, teasing and so very welcome.
“I never get tired of you.” The bard did some nipping of her own, rewarded by a sharp intake of breath from her partner. “I’m gonna make you…”
A loud noise stopped them both in their tracks, and Xena’s body tensed as she sat up while Gabrielle rolled off her and went from her knees to her feet in one smooth motion.
“Mama!” Dori came pattering out of her room, Flameball tucked under her arm. “Come see! Come see my friend!” Her eyes were lit with excitement. “Come see, and we can go get fishes!
Caught in a cross of sexual and protective instincts, Gabrielle responded by sneezing ferociously, the force knocking her backwards to sit down again next to Xena. “Sheeptails.”
Xena collected her scattered wits and stood up. “What are you talking about, shortie? Nobody’s in that room are they?” Her eyes went to her sword. “Or do you mean Oogy or something?”
“Friend.” Dori took hold of her half on/half off shift and started pulling her along. “Come!”
The warrior paused to grab the sword as she was hauled unceremoniously across the room, and after a moment of indecision, Gabrielle got up and followed her.
They entered the small room that now held Dori’s bed, and the vast majority of her toys after a reorganization effort earlier in the day. It was comfortable, and there was lantern nailed near the door that held a candle to light the inside.
“Okay, now..” Gabrielle eased past her partner, who was standing in the middle of the room, looking around. “There’s no one here, honey. That wasn’t nice. You scared Boo.”
“Look.” Dori put Flameball down and went over to the window, pulling herself up onto the sill and sending both her parents into a sudden lunge to keep her from toppling over. They landed on their knees near the opening with both legs held in two sets of very strong hands. “Mama!”
“Dori, you’re going to fall out the window and get owie!” Gabrielle yelped. “What in..”
Gabrielle fell silent. Xena made a noncommittal noise deep in her throat.
The baby animal squealed and made a headlong rush for the wall, waving it’s nose in the air and bugling as it spotted them.
“Look, mama! My friend!” Dori yodeled happily.
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged looks. “Oh boy.” The bard sighed. “How are we going to explain that?”
Xena propped her head up on the sill and extended her hand to the baby animal. “Guess we’ll think of something.”
“Guess we will.”
The End. (for now)