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Standard Disclaimer- These characters, most of them, belong to Universal, and Renaissance Pictures, and whoever else has a stake in Xena: Warrior Princess. This is written just in fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.
Specific Story Disclaimers:
Violence – Where there is Xena, there will be violence. It’s just one of those things. But this kind is not too graphic, and we avoid mentions of limbs being chopped off and used for kindling, or any description of eyeballs being gouged out by an errant chakram or anything like that.
Subtext – Subtext R Us. This story, as was the last one, and the one before that which flowed like a sargassum monster from my terminal, based on the supposition that it’s about two women who love each other a whole lot. Once again, there is nothing graphic, but the theme does wrap itself throughout the story, and if you can’t take this, go read some other nice piece of fan fiction. I will make my usual statement – if love offends you, drop me a note with your snail mail address, and I will send you some authentic, found in Southernmost Florida only, key lime pie. (Just the thing for hot summers.) Because I really do feel bad for you.
Any and all comments are always welcome. You can email them to:
Bound – Part 4
By Melissa Good
Xena watched the sun creep lower and lower in the sky, spreading broad bands of reddening light across the small clearing they were sitting in. She looked up as Gabrielle returned from a trip to the creek, bearing a folded scrap of linen, and a full waterskin.
"Give me your hands." The bard said quietly, as she resumed her seat, and poured some water on the linen.
"You don’t..." Xena started, then stopped, and moved her blood-stained hands off her lap and over the grass towards her partner. She watched in silence as Gabrielle carefully cleaned all the blood off, making sure she got between all the warrior’s long fingers, and all the way up her muscular forearms. "Thanks." She murmured, when the bard was finished, giving her a little smile. "That feels a lot better."
"No problem." Gabrielle responded, handing her the waterskin. "You look thirsty." She waited for and got the amused look from the warrior. "Yeah, yeah, I know. Drink anyway."
Xena chuckled, and pulling the stopper out of the waterskin, did so. "Glad you thought to bring this with you on the way back." She commented, after a long drink.
The bard grinned. "Injuries required the medical kit and water. You drilled that into me, remember?" she settled back, pressing her shoulder against Xena’s and regarded the scene in front of her with a quiet sigh. "Wasn’t the ending I’d hoped for."
Elani had straightened out Ereth’s crumpled limbs, and made the unconscious boy more comfortable. She had coaxed Gennen into changing his cramped position, for one with his lifemates head cradled in his lap. Gennen had his eyes closed, and seemed to be whispering to his fallen companion. "Is he..." The bard whispered, knowing only Xena’s acute hearing would pick her voice up.
The warrior sighed, and settled a long arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders. "I don’t know." She muttered, bringing their heads closer together. "He lost a lot of blood." She glanced up and over the bard’s head. "Here comes the stretcher." Suddenly she laughed. "Gods... look at that."
The forest dwellers were fording the creek, carrying the litter, and perched on top, small paws braced against the movement was Ares.
"Roo!!" He snorted, when his eyes fell on them. "Roo!!!" He scrambled down off the stretcher, and lolloped over to them, tripping over his paws in haste.
"Hello, boy." Xena said, ruffling his fur. "Did we leave you back there all alone? Sorry bout that." He crawled up her chest, and put his fuzzy muzzle up next to her mouth. "Hey.. cut that out."
"Grr." The wolf protested, and proceeded to lick her face.
"Ares." Xena sighed, rolling her eyes, very much aware of the snickering bard at her side. "Enough." She scowled at him, and started to get to her feet, aware of the sudden pressure of Gabrielle’s firm grasp on her arm in support.
Was really glad of it when the world around her abruptly dimmed as she stood and only that grip kept her from crashing back to the ground. "Damn." She muttered under her breath, closing her eyes and willing her head to stop spinning. After a minute it did, and she reopened her eyes and let them focus on Gabrielle’s very concerned face. "OK." She gave her head a slight shake, feeling a twinge in the back of her neck that worried her. "Better."
"You’re going back to bed when we get to the village." The bard said, giving her a direct stare.
Xena grinned. "Ok.. as long as you join me." With a twinkle, that got a grudging return smile from Gabrielle. "That’s better." As she patted the bard’s cheek.
The forest dwellers made fast work of loading Ereth carefully onto the litter, and, Xena was interested to note settled Gennen next to him.
"They did that for us, too." Gabrielle whispered in her ear, as they followed the procession back towards the village.
"I don’t.." Xena started to say, then fell silent for a moment. "Oh, wait. Yes I do. I remember waking up at one point." She smiled. "I remember you being there."
Gabrielle grinned. "Yep.. I sure was." She gave Xena a sideways look. "I guess It was my turn to take care of you for a change."
Xena raised an eyebrow at her, and lifted a hand to brush the errant strands of red gold hair from her eyes. "You always do a good job of that, love."
"Do I?" Gabrielle sighed. "Never seems that way." Her brows furrowed.
Xena stopped, right in the middle of the path, and took hold of Gabrielle’s upper arm, causing the bard to swing around and face her. "What?" The warrior said bluntly, giving her a very direct stare. "What is that supposed to mean?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes. Damn, you and your big mouth, Gabrielle. Why can’t you learn to think before you talk? "Nothing.. never mind. I wasn’t... just forget it." Knowing full well that wasn’t going to happen. "Just... forget it."
Xena didn’t answer, just kept looking at her, with a gentle sadness in her eyes.
"I wasn’t.." Gabrielle sighed, having no defenses left against that look. "Sorry.. that trip up the mountain after you got hurt that last time still... " She hesitated. "There should have been something more I could have done." And that was a demon she’d never quite exorcised, having gone so far, given so much effort, to no good end.
Xena glanced over the bard’s shoulder, at the retreating forest dwellers, and dismissed them from her thoughts. "Look, Gabrielle – that wasn’t your fault. None of it was.. gods, you spent days, injured yourself, getting up that mountain. It’s not your fault I decided..." Now here, she stopped. "Gods. " Not your fault I decided to just give up. Not your fault at all.
"You would have found a way to make things right. " Gabrielle whispered, staring sightlessly over the warrior’s tall shoulder. "You always do. I just can’t measure up to that." She lifted her sea green eyes up, and flinchingly made contact with Xena’s intense look. "I’m so scared I’m going to fail you again."
The warrior wrapped her hands around Gabrielle’s face, and just looked at her for a very long moment. "Gabrielle.." she breathed, letting a faint smile twitch her lips. "Don’t you know that’s my biggest fear too?" She took a breath. "That one day there’ll be an arrow I can’t stop, a fall I can’t catch.. that I’ll fall short in your eyes?" She moved closer, and felt Gabrielle’s arms come up on reflex, settling about her waist. "I think we’re both in pretty good hands."
Long silence, while Gabrielle chewed on that, and finally ducked her head against Xena’s chest and breathed in the scent of the sun-dried fabric. "You think so, huh?"
"Yep, I do." Xena replied. "I feel very safe in yours.’
Green eyes blinked up at her with a tiny smile. "Really?"
Xena nodded, and kissed her forehead. "Really. You’re a very resourceful person, my bard. I would trust my fate to you anytime."
"Roo!" Ares sighed, from his seated position at Xena’s left boot. He nuzzled her calf, and tugged on a bit of the leather. "Roo?"
They both looked down, and laughed. "Boring you, Ares?" Xena asked, not letting go of Gabrielle.
"Roo." The puppy grumbled, settling down on his haunches and chewing a bootlace of Xena’s.
"Yeah.." Gabrielle softly agreed, feeling a surprising warmth flood through her. I know I was being a little insecure.. funny, after all this time, I thought I was over that.. but it was really nice to hear her say.. "Sorry I got all goofy on you. This whole thing kind of threw me for a loop."
Xena chuckled wryly. "Me too." She let her forearms drop to Gabrielle’s shoulders, and laced her fingers neatly behind the bard’s head. "Let’s go.. I don’t know about you, but it’s been a pretty long day for me." Admitting finally, grudgingly, that she was no where near up to her usual physical condition.
Gabrielle sobered immediately, knowing the admission for what it was. "OK – they moved us over to a quiet spot near Jessan’s place. Unless you need to go back to the healer’s.." A question in her voice.
"Nah." Came the reply. "Just need a warm bed, and you."
"Oh really?’ Gabrielle giggled. "Is that an invitation?"
"Uh huh." Xena responded, then ducked her head and captured Gabrielle’s lips in a long kiss. "Interested?" She asked, when they paused, and she felt the bard’s hands starting to wander across her body. "Guess so." She laughed lightly, tracing a finger down Gabrielle’s neck, and feeling her swallow hard. Feeling the racing pulse against her sensitive fingertips as they paused above her jugular.
Then her own breathing caught, as Gabrielle’s warm hands slid under her tunic, and began to move up her ribcage, her thumbs sliding gently over the taut muscles. "Gabrielle.."
"Mmm?" The bard responded, moving closer.
"In a forest surrounded by potential enemies is not the best place I could think of for doing this." The warrior reminded her with a quirky grin.
"Hey." Gabrielle giggled. "You started it." But she removed her hands reluctantly, and settled an arm around Xena’s waist. "But I guess you’re right."
"He’s sure it was Secan’s patrol?" Lestan asked, with a sigh. "Ares’ boots." He glanced at his son, who was perched on a corner of the table, arms crossed on his golden furred chest.
Jessan nodded, and shook his head. "Poor kids." He turned as Wennid entered the conference room, bearing a tray with large mugs on it. "Thanks mom." He said, as he took a steaming mug from her.
Wennid handed Lestan a mug, and took the third. "Elaini says he’s got a chance." She looked at them both. "Not a good one, but a chance." She stretched wearily. "I’m going to spend some time over there, in case." She turned to Jessan. "Elaini says he wouldn’t even have this chance if it wasn’t for Xena. Is that true?"
Jessan smiled, and ducked his head. "You doubt Elaini’s word?" He countered, raising one bushy eyebrow. "Of course it’s true."
Wennid sat down in the end chair, and propped her chin up on her pale furred hands, glowering at him over the tops of her eyes. "Look I am very sorry I have a problem reconciling the butcher I remember torching a village in the next valley with this person you seem to have such a fondness for, Jessan." She took a long sip of mulled cider, and stared broodingly into the remaining depths. "But I’m adjusting. Now I have to somehow picture her as a healer. It’s a bit much, dear."
Lestan snorted, and dropped his hands on her shoulders. "Life is just an endless series of adjustments, my love." He looked up at his son. "So, is Elaini another convert to the Xena cult?"
Jessan grinned. "I think so." He blushed a little. "I taught her how to swim today."
Lestan and Wennid exchanged glances. "That was nice of you, dear." Wennid remarked, taking a long sip of cider. "We’d heard you were all out on a picnic."
The forest dweller leader grunted. "And a good thing, too, for Ereth." He reminded his lifemate.
Wennid sighed. "I know. I know." She glanced up at both of them. "All right.." She took a breath, and looked inside her heart. Can I forget what I saw?
A cold and misty morning, and she was hidden in the trees, watching the activity going on around the human village. It was primarily a herding community, rich in livestock and crops, but not much else, and no commerce to speak of.
Of a sudden, there was the thunder of hooves, and then the raiders were on them, kicking and clubbing, setting torch to the thatched roofs, and scattering the frantic herds of both people and animals. It had started as an attempt at intimidation, but the stubborn resistance of the villagers had angered the raiders, and blows and kicks had degenerated into the ruthless and irreversible biting of naked steel.
The blood had been terrible, Wennid remembered, as she peered through the thick black haze of the smoking huts, and saw the running, screaming forms that passed in and out of sight, followed by laughing raiders, who ran them down like animals.
Wennid had gagged in disgust, and turned away, but not before she spotted the galloping figure approaching the village, and found her eye drawn to it. A female human, on a golden horse, but armored and weaponed as well as any of the raiders. She rode down to join them with a ringing laugh, that still sounded in Wennid’s ears, even after time had passed.
She’d never forgotten that laugh, or that form, or the hiss of live steel as she’d drawn her sword and disappeared into the clouds of black smoke. But Wennid had heard the screaming that followed, and had seen the ruins of the village, after.
A long walk down to the silent, death fogged town, safe, because she was sure she was the only living thing within miles. Her Sight had told her so. The raiders had long gone.. she’d only stayed for a moment, just long enough to imprint in her mind the impression she knew would last her all her life.
And then.. in the midst of the remembering, details long fogged in her memory surfaced, and cleared. Dead bodies, there’d been, yes - but raiders as well as villagers, and the raiders had been butchered as thoroughly as their victims had been.
She wondered. Would villagers have been able to take perhaps a captured sword from a fallen raider and cause that kind of damage? Did the raiders turn on each other?
Or, her mind logically, and ruthlessly presented. Was that laughing female human she’d assumed was their leader actually nothing of the sort? What if.. instead.. she was an avenger, riding in with the joyous laughter that warriors of her own kind exhibited when they went to war.. which was a mentality she had never understood.
What if I’ve been wrong all this time.. though all of her atrocities cannot have been mistakes. She did evil things. She’s said so. But they say she’s changed. What if she really, truly has?
"I think I want to talk to this paragon of yours." Wennid mused, startling the both of them. I think I want to look into those odd, pale eyes you all seem to find so mesmerizing, and see what kind of person she really is. See why the gods seem to mock our gift in bestowing it there.. "Yes, I do."
Lestan shrugged, and lightly massaged her shoulders. "Wanted to go ask her about Secan myself.. why not come along?"
Jessan stood up, and put a hand out. "No."
They both looked at him like he had sprouted a tail. "What?" Lestan spluttered, "You.. this morning.. I thought.."
His son quickly moved around the table and put a hand on his arm. "Not yet. "
"Whyever not?" Lestan asked, reasonably. "Jessan, you’re not making sense."
"I know her." Jessan responded quietly. "She’s still hurting, bad, father - and if you talk to her about Secan, she’ll want to do something about it. And.. You said we had a few days yet. Wait."
Lestan studied him in silence for a moment. "I’m just asking for advice from her, son. She can’t get involved in this, and you know that well. Not shouldn’t. Can’t." Can’t for three reasons, his mind detailed. She wasn’t of his people. She wasn’t of his clan, and she was, deny it though many would, one half of a lifebond. "But... if you think I should, I’ll wait until tomorrow or so.. I know those were wicked wounds she took."
But part of him knew Jessan was right. Part of him knew that once he involved her, things might happen that he’d have no control over. Because he had no control over her, and she hunted by her own rules, stalked her own prey without regard to anyone’s traditions. Part of him was scared of that. But a greater part felt the under the skin thrill, that stood his fur partially on end and made him think things.. were possible. She did that. And it was an intoxicating feeling.
Xena liked the little cot they’d been offered a lot. It was in an alcove just off the main square, with open space around it, but still sheltered from most of the village’s bustle by a ring of peaceful oak trees that rustled pleasantly in the evening breeze. Inside, the cot was simply provided, but had wide windows, and the weave mats on the walls were dyed a soothing blue color that matched the fabrics of the bed, and the wide, low couch that faced the main window of the living area.
"I like blue." Xena commented, stripping out of her blood spattered and now once again damp tunic and donning a soft sleep shirt. She folded the tunic for later cleaning, and sat down on the wide couch, letting her head drop and rest against its back. Damn. She sighed inwardly. The dizzy spells hadn’t abated, and she was starting to get worried about it. Blood should have been replaced before now and... her hand reached back and touched the sore spot on her neck, where she could feel a faint uneasy pressure that she’d noticed this morning.
That hadn’t gone away, and now she wondered, as a cold chill traveled down her, if she hadn’t done more permanent damage to herself than she’d first thought. Injuries to her back frightened her –she’d only had one once, and that... had taken many moons to heal, and even more to regain full use of her body. This.. was not a good time for a repeat.
The fabric moved, as Gabrielle settled next to her and she looked up. "Hi." The bard announced. "I’m back." From the communal kitchen, where she’d gone to rustle up some dinner. "You look wiped. Wanna just sit back and let me feed you?"
Xena’s eyebrow rose. "That’s pretty decadent. Isn’t it?" But she was smiling, and dismissed her worries for a while, as she relaxed and allowed the bard to settled a trencher between them, holding a huge bowl of gently steaming stew, and a pile of fresh baked bread.
Ares trotted over, and scrambled up onto her lap, seating himself and looking from one face to the other expectantly.
"See what you created?" Gabrielle teased gently, as she went to work with alternating forkfuls delivered to herself and the warrior. "A monster."
"Mmm Hmm." Xena nodded, chewing thoughtfully on a chunk of venison. "Terrible." She swallowed, and took a sip of the fragrant cider the bard had brought. "That’s not bad." She complimented the mug, and held it up to Gabrielle’s mouth for a try.
"Ooo.." The bard sipped appreciatively. "Not bad at all." She speared another large piece of meat, and offered it to her partner. "Come on.. lots more to go here."
"Uh huh." Xena mumbled, biting the piece in half, and giving the other half to Ares. "Glad you brought plenty." She grinned at the bard’s expression. "Hey.. he’s gotta eat too, you know."
"Roo." Ares agreed, and flopped down on Xena’s lap, clutching his prize between his growing paws and chewing, looking up every so often to see if more was forthcoming.
Gabrielle kept up a steady stream of chatter while they ate, including the village gossip she’d picked up while getting dinner. "Rumors about Jess and Elaini already." She snickered, as she buttered the last slab of bread and took a bite, then offered the slice to Xena.
The warrior chuckled, and chewed her bread, noting with surprise that they’d about finished that huge portion of stew between them. "That was pretty good." She commented, then took the bowl from the trencher, and offered the remainder to Ares. "Here you go, boy."
The wolf stood up on Xena’s lap, and stuck his head in the bowl, tail waving enthusiastically, finishing the contents, licking out the bowl, then transferring his rough tongue to Xena’s hand, which was still holding the container. "Hey..." The warrior protested. "Cut that out."
Gabrielle finished off the bread, and sighed happily, moving the trencher out of the way, and snuggling close into Xena’s welcoming arms. "I feel much better now." She admitted, sliding her arms around the warrior’s body and putting her head down on the convenient shoulder.
"Me too." Xena agreed, and reflected that it was mostly true, anyway. Other than the soreness in her neck, everything else seemed to have worked itself out, and she wasn’t even suffering any stiffness from the day’s activities. So that was sort of OK. And as long as she didn’t stand up... her mouth quirked a little. Well... that could be arranged... "Now.." She said, leaning over and removing the last few breadcrumbs from Gabrielle’s lips with expert skill. "Where were we?"
A low, throaty laugh from the bard, who shifted her hands over Xena’s form. "Well, I was right here..." She grinned as she felt Xena react to her touch. "And I think you were... " A long pause as Xena’s lips found her place. "Oh yeah." Gabrielle breathed. "bullseye." She closed her eyes as she felt the sensual jolt caused by the pressure of the warrior’s fingertips against her sensitive skin. "Definitely nicer than standing out in a forest." She mumbled, then let the warm wave of passion take her.
Long habit brought Xena awake before dawn, and she spent some minutes just quietly listening to the gentle sounds of the sleeping village that wafted in the wide windows, along with the sweet scent of wild flowers and the distinctive smell of a light pre dawn rain.
I wish I felt as peaceful as this village sounds. Her mind mused. She glanced down as Gabrielle stirred, and tightened her hold, burrowing her head more securely into the hollow of Xena’s shoulder. In the darkness, she could just make out the bard’s profile, and she lifted a hand up to smooth the hair off her face, her touch bringing a faint smile to her sleeping partner.
The warrior sighed, and leaned her head back against the soft fabric cushions of the wide couch, where they’d decided just to snuggle into last night after they’d spent.. Xena grinned to herself. Quite some time relieving the stresses of the day. She winced as she felt the pressure still gnawing at her spine, though, and tried gently rotating her neck, stopping when a sharp pain jerked through her.
Damn. She turned her eyes to the dark ceiling, and blew out a long breath. That meant nothing but trouble, though in one sense it might make her decision easier. Based on her last experience with a back injury, this was definitely something that would require quite a bit of time off to recuperate from, and no question that home would be a good place to do it.
It’s not like you weren’t thinking of doing that anyway. She told herself. But to have the decision forced on her... that, she didn’t much like.
Ares raised a sleepy head, and yawned, blinking up at her. "Shh." She whispered to him. "No one’s awake." She let a hand rest on his back, and the puppy obediently tucked his muzzle back down between his paws, and closed his eyes. "Lazy thing." Xena chuckled under her breath.
Isn’t that what I’m afraid will happen to me if this forces me home? An honest appraisal. It would be so, so easy to go back there, and recover.. but the last time, she’d had bleak necessity driving her hard to push through the injury, and regain her conditioning. What about now?
Xena sighed. Now, she knew, she’d go home all right, and fall right back into the daily routine, and she’d let herself lose it all.. her sharpness, her skills.. because there would be no urgent reason for her to force herself to go through the pain it would take to recover them.
She just didn’t seem to have the self-discipline to do that anymore, she had known that after a fortnight spent lazing around with Gabrielle at home. She hadn’t done a single drill the whole time, and what was scarier.. she hadn’t missed them. At all. And that was a hard truth to take. Toris had teased her the last day she’d been there, about her losing her edge; and she’d dumped him in a mud hole, then thrown him in the spring to prove him wrong. But he hadn’t been. And she damn well knew it.
Question was, did she care?’
Xena laid her head back, and thought about that for a long time, listening as the balance started to shift between night and day, darkness and daylight. A long still moment, when the whole world seemed to be holding its breath, waiting for the first faint tint of color on the horizon.
She thought about how she felt about what she did. And who she was. And knew that her abilities were woven so tightly into her image of herself, she wasn’t sure what would be left if she let that unravel.
Yeah, I’d care. Xena admitted to herself. So. I guess I have to figure out just how bad this is, and what kind of limitations it’s gonna put on me. Maybe if I keep reminding myself just how much I hate being sick, I can get motivated to get past this.
"When you’re ready to talk about whatever’s bothering you," A quiet voice startled her. "You know where to find me, right? I’m the short, light haired one that talks a lot."
Xena felt a smile pulling at her lips against her will, and she glanced down to meet the sleepy green eyes that were peering up at her. The bard’s words echoed her own, not so long ago, in a clearing not far from Potadeia. "Hi." She temporized, reaching up and stroking Gabrielle’s soft hair. "I was just thinking."
"Bout what?" Gabrielle asked softly, as she snuggled closer, and molded her body against the warrior’s. "Please." Her eyes searched Xena’s and she put a hand up to touch her chest. "Don’t lock me out of there."
"Never." Xena said, taking a deep breath. "You know better." She paused for a moment. "One of those rocks apparently hit me in the wrong spot." She stopped, and watched Gabrielle’s face tense.
"Those dizzy spells." The bard realized, her hands clenching unconsciously in the fabric of Xena’s shirt.
The warrior nodded a little. "I think so." She shifted her shoulders uncomfortably. "I can feel this pressure in my neck." She lifted a hand and indicated the spot. "Hurts."
Gabrielle chewed on her lip for a short time. "What does that mean? Are you going to be OK?"
Xena laid her head back against the padded surface, and closed her eyes. "I don’t know." And that was one of the hardest things she’d ever had to say to her partner. "Depends on just how bad it is, and how hard I need to work to get it fixed."
The bard was silent for a moment. "You’re scared." She finally whispered.
"Yeah." Came the quiet answer out of the darkness.
Gabrielle let her hands start a gentle movement over the tense body she was wrapped around. "Why?" She asked, hearing the racing heartbeat under her ear. "You’ve been hurt before... gods, Xena, I hate it when you are, but you always..." She shrugged, and knew the warrior felt that. "just work through it." She glanced back up.
"I know." Xena sighed. "Maybe it was what we were talking about earlier. About going home.. this kind of hurt.. Hades, Gabrielle, the last time I got one like this it took nearly half a year for me to get over it."
The bard shrugged. "So.. we go home, for a while. You were talking about that anyway, right?" Her brow furrowed. "I don’t see..." Then she got a good look at Xena’s face. "You hadn’t made up your mind yet. Right?"
A slow shake of the head in response. "I don’t want this to make up my mind for me."
"What makes you think it would?" Gabrielle asked, reasonably.
"It just would." Xena answered, tangling her fingers idly in the bard’s hair, which was spilling gently across the warrior’s chest. "I don’t know if I can...get it all back this time." She paused and shrugged. "Or if I’d even want to."
The bard pulled herself up on her elbows, and moved up until she could look directly into Xena’s eyes. "What is going on with you?" She shook her head in confusion. "All the time I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you doubt yourself. Fate, life, other people, me.. but never yourself. What’s up?"
Xena let out a long held breath, and scrubbed her face with one hand. "I don’t know." She admitted wearily, leaving her hand over her eyes. "I.. really don’t know what’s wrong with me." She raked her fingers through her dark hair. "Sorry. I must be driving you crazy."
Gabrielle moved one hand up and gently stroked her partner’s cheek. "After you went through with me in Potadeia, don’t you dare think anything you could do would drive me anywhere, Xena." She paused. "Look... I think you.. went through a really bad thing.. something that nobody else I know could have gotten through." Her eyes glistened. "And I want you to know just how very very grateful I am that you had the strength and the will to keep going even when anybody else would have given up."
"I promised, remember?" Xena’s tone caressed the bard’s hearing, and it brought a smile to her face. ‘Damned if I was going to let a puny mountain make me break that promise."
Gabrielle nodded, and brought the warrior’s fingers up to her lips, and kissed them. "I know." She whispered. "But, " in a slightly louder tone. "I think it took a lot out of you." She lifted a hand and gently touched Xena’s forehead. "Here too." Saw Xena close her eyes in tacit confirmation. "And you need to just let yourself replenish all that."
"Think so?" Xena mused. She could be right. Took her eyes to see it, though.
"I think so." The bard confirmed, putting her head back down on Xena’s chest, and winding her arms around the warrior’s body for a fierce hug. "Look..." Her head came back up, and their eyes met. "I can’t pretend I don’t get knots inside when I watch you do some of the things you do.. but you get such joy out of them, Xena.. don’t give up on that."
"I don’t get...." Xena started to protest, then stopped, and fell silent. A long pause. "Yeah, I guess I do." She finished quietly, letting her gaze search Gabrielle’s watching face. "Pretty sad. Huh?"
The bard shook her head. "No." And her smile turned a bit sheepish. "Because I’ve discovered that I love watching you do them."
"Hmm." Xena grunted, then laughed a little. "Well, in that case, I’d better go find out just how bad whatever this is wrong with my back is."
Gabrielle cocked her head. "By doing...what?"
"Using it." Came the short, practical response. "I need to know what my limits are."
And Gabrielle, capturing her partner’s face firmly in her hands, locked eyes with her, green to blue. "You don’t have limits." She declared. "That much, I do know."
In her eyes, I don’t. Xena mused quietly. Maybe I can just close my own eyes for awhile, and see through hers. Bound to be a more pleasant view. "Gabrielle?"
"Hmm?" The bard responded, giving her a smile.
"Thanks." Xena said in a soft voice.
They looked at each other in silence, then Xena gathered the bard into her arms, and just hugged her for a long time, savoring the feel of her body, and the her familiar scent, and the warmth that just poured over her, taking away the fear, and the uncertainty, and leaving her for the first time since the accident at peace with herself.
"Are you sure you.." Gabrielle asked later, when they were both standing on the porch, looking out at the early morning light glance off the thatch cot roofs across from them. She hesitated, and gave her partner a sideways glance, taking in the quiet expression on her face. "Never mind. Just be careful, OK?"
Xena gave her a look. "C’mon, Gabrielle - give me a break. I’m just going for a walk." She laughed a bit. "Don’t think I could do much more than that. So... relax, all right?"
"Uh huh." The bard snorted. "You go for walks, and the course of history changes. Frequently. You forget I’ve lived with you for over two years."
Xena just shook her head, and stepped off the porch, giving Gabrielle a wave. "See you in a bit." She called over her shoulder, as her steps took her past the first ring of trees and onto a dimly seen path cut into the dense forest, aware of the faint pattering of Ares footsteps as he ambled along in her wake.
"Yeah." Gabrielle sighed, watching her until she vanished. Wish there was something more... Hades, Gabrielle. That’s one of the more complex puzzles in Greece you’re trying to unravel there. She straightened her tunic out, and hopped off the porch, taking determined steps towards the healer’s cot.
Admit it, you’re worried. She accused herself. You’ve gotten so used to her being able to deal with anything and everything, that this is spooking you good. Gabrielle’s eyes closed briefly, then opened again. I never thought about.. well, I mean, she does what she does, right? Right. But.. I never thought about whether or not she liked doing it - or if she ever thought about not being able to do some of the things she does.
Her brow furrowed. Maybe it’s like how I feel about storytelling. How would I feel if all of a sudden, I just couldn’t do any of that?
The bard stopped in her tracks, and gazed unseeing at the ground. "Wow." She muttered aloud. I always thought of the stuff she does as just hard work, and practice.. but the way she does it, it’s almost like an art, isn’t it? She gets pleasure out of it, just like I do when I write poetry. I never looked at it...
Then gave herself a very honest appraisal. That’s not true, Gabrielle. And you damn well know it. You told her that - when she moves, it’s poetry, remember? You’ve always known that, even if you never wanted to admit it to yourself. The bard resumed her walk, still deep in thought. But.. she thinks that’s all there is to her. How can I get her to see that’s not true... there’s so much more..
Remembering one warm morning when they’d been in Amphipolis about a week, and she’d just finished helping Johan unload some supplies they’d bought. She had dusted her hands off, and gone in search of Xena, whom she’d seen going into the main part of the stables earlier.
Heard voices as she cleared the door, and paused, hidden in the shadows beside the entrance, to observe.
Xena had been sprawled out on a haybale, leaning back against a second, with her long legs stretched out in front of her, and her dark head bent intently on the task in her hands. Next to her, watching in fascination, was one of the small boys that seemed to be forever running around the town, all of them looking pretty much alike.
The warrior was speaking in a low tone, and indicating something that was hidden by the curve of her left hand, using a small knife and tiny precise motions of her right hand to go along with her instruction.
"Wow!" Gabrielle had heard the boy mutter. "C’n you show me if I get a piece like that?" His high voice held more than a hint of excitement.
"Sure." Xena had said, with a low easy laugh, that sent a wave of warmth through the watching bard. "See if you can find one."
"OK." The boy had grinned, and hopped off the bale, making a beeline for the door and almost bowling Gabrielle over. "Sorry!" He called back, but was already out the door and running down the path.
Gabrielle had sauntered forward, and taken his still warm place on the haybale, peering over Xena’s arm. "What’s that?" She asked, giving the warrior a curious look, as she had closed her hand over the object when the bard had approached.
"Oh." Xena said, clearing her throat a little. "Well, nothing really... just.. " She stopped when she saw the look in Gabrielle’s eyes, and just opened her hand in silence, exposing a small, neatly carved wooden turtle in her palm. The wood had been cleverly worked around its natural dark and light spots, creating a realistic pattern of patches on the creature’s back.
Gabrielle gently picked it up and examined it, running one fingertip lightly over it’s ridged shell, then raised wondering eyes to Xena’s face which had gone quite still. "You did this??"
A slight nod.
"You never said you were a carver." The bard said, with a note of delight in her tone. "This is beautiful."
Xena had shrugged. "Just a little something. I don’t... it’s not something I do a lot."
"Why on earth not?" Gabrielle asked, peering closely at the carving, then up into her eyes. "Xena, that’s a real gift you have here."
The warrior had taken a breath, and looked away. "Not much use for that in the middle of a skirmish." She’d given Gabrielle a wry look. "And anyway.. I have to be really.. " she stopped. " I have to be in a certain mood to do it at all. Doesn’t come to me very often."
And Gabrielle had studied her face, seeing the gentle, introspective look about her eyes, and the relaxation of the usual sharp tension that always characterized her partner, and had smiled. "Then I gotta get you into this kind of mood more often." She had teased gently, and had started to hand the turtle back to its creator.
But Xena had shook her head, and smiled, and folded the bard’s fingers over the wooden creature. "Yours." Had been her only comment.
Gabrielle had given her a hug. "You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you." She sighed happily. "Maybe if I try really hard, I can get an entire Athenian circus out of you." And she had glanced up, catching a look of wistfulness in those blue eyes.
And once again she’d gotten a glimpse of the person her partner was, under all that blood, and the self-torment, and the memories of evil. The person who was gentle, and funny, and full of wonder, who only got let out for very few, very isolated moments. I want to get to know that person better. She’d thought at the time, and still did.
"Maybe you can." Xena had said, slowly, touching a fingertip to her nose. "Because just looking at you puts me in that kind of mood." And the expression in her eyes had warmed the bard all over.
And still did, even now, even weeks later. Gabrielle felt a little better, and mounted the steps to the healer’s cot with a confident grin. Xena would work through it. She would find a way to get around whatever problem it was she was having, even though it might take a while. That’s ok. The bard smiled inwardly. I don’t care if it takes a lifetime, as long as I get to spend that lifetime right alongside her.
She pushed the door open, and stuck her head inside, struck by the atmosphere of tense silence inside the building. Several pairs of golden eyes turned her way, and most turned back again.
"Hi." She said softly, moving all the way into the room, and finding Elaini’s bloodshot eyes still looking her way. The healer stood, and walked stiffly over to her, and patted her shoulder. "How is he? " The bard whispered to her, gazing around at the assembled forest dwellers in confusion.
"Holding his own." Elaini said with a smile. "It was touch and go most of the night, but he’s a little stronger this morning." She glanced behind her. "Support for Gennen." She continued, in a lower tone. "It’s traditional - when there’s a possibility.."
"Elaini." A cool voice interrupted her, and they both turned. One of the older forest dwellers, with mottled brown and gold fur was gazing at them. "No need to explain what can’t be explained, cubling."
"But.." Elaini started, holding up a hand. "You don’t.."
"No no.." The woman said clearly. "The humans are fortunate that they never have to worry about what the breaking feels like, so don’t distress Gennen by trying to explain." She spared a glance at Gabrielle, who was regarding her with a serious expression. "No offense to you, storyteller."
"What are you talking about?" Gabrielle asked, moving further into the room.
They all looked at her, with a strange remoteness in their glances.
Elaini sighed. "You don’t understand." She said to the woman who had spoken. "Gabrielle, they’re talking about what happens when you.. lose.. your lifepartner."
Gabrielle slowly moved her head in a circle, meeting all their eyes. "Has that happened to anyone here?"
A startled response. "No." The woman said, shaking her head.
The bard nodded slowly. "Then I understand it a lot better than any of you do."
Dead silence followed, and now even Gennen, curled up on the double pallet with his lifebond was watching her in fascination.
Eyelids fluttered, then opened again on shocked golden eyes. "Ares tongue." The woman gasped. She turned to Elaini with an angry look. "You never said.."
The healer raised an eyebrow at her. "I tried." She responded briefly, then turned to Gabrielle. "Would you like to sit down?"
The older woman waved a hand at her. "My name is Cessi." She held out a forearm to Gabrielle. "And I apologize, storyteller. I had no idea... but what did you mean you understood better than we about this?"
Gabrielle took the proffered arm, and seated herself on a low bench. "It’s a long story, and one best not told.. here." She glanced around, and gave Cessi brief smile. "I’m trying to learn more about this whole thing - everyone either assumes I know, or doesn’t think I need to know, and both of those things drive me crazy. "She paused. "My name is Gabrielle, by the way."
"Welcome, Gabrielle." Cessi said, with a smile, showing her canines. "And this is Berrat, and Legres, and Tobias." She indicated her three companions. "Elaini, you already know."
"We owe your partner a grateful thanks for helping out Ereth there, ay?" The small, very dark man Cessi had called Tobias spoke up.
The bard nodded. "We heard them calling for help. Right place, right time, right person, I guess." They were still ill at ease, and she was casting about for a way to relax them, when Gennen called over softly from his perch.
"Gabrielle?" The boy gave her a smile, which she returned. "Will you tell us a story?"
The bard grinned. "Sure. Any particular one you like?"
His eyes glinted. "Something with Ares?"
Oh boy. Gabrielle quailed.. then smiled. "Sure... have you heard of the one where he lost his sword, and became mortal for a little while?"
Now she had all of their rapt attention. "No.. did that really happen?" Cessi asked, cocking her head.
Gabrielle nodded. "Yep.. I was there." Now she couldn’t have shaken their rounded eyes with an earthquake.
"You know him???" Gennen breathed, and a low murmur went through the other forest dwellers.
"Yep." The bard confirmed offhandedly. "So, this is what happened.. we were traveling through several small towns, and we’d noticed how angry everyone was..."
The leaves had closed around her just a short way down the path, and Xena had stopped for moment, and glanced back through the leaves, watching Gabrielle take a deep breath, then head off towards the healer’s cot. A smile reluctantly crossed her face, and she shook her head before turning back around and heading down the path.
It was her balance that was off, she realized, which was above and beyond the pain causing her the biggest problem. The pain she could work through, in fact, had, more times than she was interested in counting. But the sense of being off balance.. that was something she had very little way of compensating for.
Because it tied into everything. It made walking, as she was now, uncomfortable, and would render just about anything else she did with a bladed weapon difficult at best. Impossible at worst.
Might as well find out. She thought grimly, and broke into a loping run, which sent jolts of pain up her back, but after a short while, that subsided and became almost bearable. Ares scrambled at her heels, tongue hanging out.
But it felt all wrong, and the ground didn’t seem to be in the right place, and she felt a distinct sinking sensation as she realized she might be in real trouble here. "Damn, Ares." She sighed.
"Roo?" The puppy answered, glancing up on hearing his name.
"Yeah, roo." Xena answered.
Then her head jerked as she saw movement out of the corner of her eye, and a rabbit, frightened out of it wits from Ares’ smell darted across her path, and the wolf bounded after it, tangling himself between Xena’s boots with a startled yelp.
She was moving too fast to stop, and suddenly saw the path dogleg sharply to the left. Managed to dodge the helplessly rolling wolf, but the last step threw her balance completely off, and she knew there was no way she was going to recover. This is gonna hurt. She sighed, as her momentum took her off the path and down the steep embankment.
And she lost all sense of direction, and just tucked in tight, and hoped she’d get lucky. She had no idea where the ground was until she crashed into it, and went bounding of and slammed her back into the tall, unforgiving bulk of an old forest tree.
The world went gray, then black for an endless moment, but she held onto consciousness with grim determination. Finally, her vision cleared, and she blinked slowly until the blurred outline of the dark green ferns in front of her sharpened into focus.
It was definitely one of the more depressing moments of her life, and for a long minute, she just let a dark wave of hopelessness wash over her as she was lying there in the musty smelling leaf litter, with the gloomy half light of the clouded sky filtering weakly through the heavy leaf canopy, and dappling her in dark shadows.
Gods be damned. Her mind cursed. Is this worth it? What in Hades am I doing out here, anyway... I gotta get my head examined. Get a grip, Xena – so you have a back injury. Been there, done that, get over it. Knock off this self pitying garbage and just get moving, go back to that damned village, and stay in bed for as long as this takes to heal up. Worry about getting back into condition later, and listen to Gabrielle for a change.
Finally, she rolled her head back a little and gazed up at the path, the edge curving away high over her head, and spotted Ares’ frantic form, dancing from foot to foot.
"Roo!!!’ He yelled, spotting her. He bounded to the edge, then back, then to the edge, and before she could open her mouth to stop him, leaped off the edge and came tumbling down the embankment.
Rolled to stop not an arms length from her, and sneezed. "Rrrr." He protested, stumbling forward and bumping his nose against her jaw
He sat down, and gazed at her, blinking, then leaned forward and started licking her face, cleaning the traces of mud she’d picked up on the way down, then moving up and scraping his rough tongue over her cheekbones.
Xena closed her eyes and swallowed. "Thanks, Ares." She cleared her throat. "Damned if I know why but that helps." Great. I wonder if I can even make it home. She thought in self disgust. Falling off a path in broad daylight.
Her eyes closed again. It would be easier just to stay here. She mused, forcing back a wave of self-pity. But I never did take the easy way out of anything, right? Right. So get moving.
Slowly, cautiously, she shifted her position, and flexed her body, relieved, at least, that everything seemed to be in relatively good working order. Lucky. She snorted, then raised her head and flexed her shoulders, and froze.
Uncertainly, she raised a hand to her neck, and flexed her shoulders again.
One eyebrow rose. No pressure. No pain. "Nobody gets that lucky." She muttered aloud. "Not even me. Not even on a good day." She gazed speculatively at Ares, who gazed back. "Right?"
"Roo." The baby wolf solemnly agreed.
Gingerly, she sat up and rocked forward, and paused. The other eyebrow raised. So far, so good. Gritting her teeth, she rolled up into a crouch, then stood, putting a cautious hand out toward the nearby tree and held her breath.
Nothing. Not a twinge, not a touch of dizziness.
"You gotta be kidding." The plaintive snort escaped her, and Ares growled in response. "I don’t believe this." Experimentally, she hopped gently up and down, once, startling the puppy. "Sorry." She muttered.
She put her hands on her hips, and lovingly studied the tree. "Can I take you home?"
No answer from the tree.
"Well, Ares, there is only one real way to test this." She addressed the puppy, who sat down, and cocked his head at her. "Right." The warrior added, and cast her gaze around here. "Here.. that looks nice and soft." She knelt, and patted the turf a short distance away from the tree, which was dense with moss. Cause if this doesn’t work, I’m gonna hit that ground real hard. Then she stood up, with pointed swiftness.
Xena closed her eyes, then opened them, and gave a little nod. "Wish me luck." She said to no one in particular, and dropped into a crouch, then shot skyward, waiting until the reached the high point of her jump, and lazily curled her body into a flip.
The world stayed exactly where she expected it to stay, and she landed lightly on her feet. And stood there, quietly staring at the ground for a long time. Then she sat down cross-legged on the mossy turf, and put her forearms on her knees, knitting her fingers together.
I will never. Ever take this for granted again. She promised herself. Gabrielle is right. I need to stop pushing myself so damn hard, and take the damage I’ve been doing to my body more seriously. Or one of these days I’m going to do something that’s going to really be irreversible.
She stood back up, taking a sensuous pleasure in the rock steadiness of the motion, and smiled. "Come on, Ares." She walked over to where the embankment rose above her head and chuckled. "Wanna ride?"
"Roo?" The puppy answered, standing up and putting his paws against her thigh.
She picked him up, and settled him across her shoulders, feeling his tail whipping against her ear. "Cut that out." She said, giving him a look. He licked her other ear in response. "Hey.. only Gabrielle gets to do that, so knock it off."
Feeling a fit of giddiness coming on, she shook her head, and backed off several paces, bouncing a little in place, then moving, four long strides and a very deep crouch and then she shot skyward, feeling a laugh bubbling up as she twisted in mid air, and landed neatly in the path, not far from where she’d left it originally.
"Did that feel good, Ares?" She chuckled. "It sure did to me." Oh yeah.. that sure did. My gods you don’t value something until you don’t have it anymore, isn’t that the truth? Ares panted a little, and blinked at her. "Oh..did I get you dizzy?" She started laughing at the expression on the wolf’s face. "Sorry."
She glanced down the path. "Now, let’s see. I was in the middle of a little run.. wasn’t I???"
And she took off, feeling the difference in the first steps, as her body settled into a familiar rhythm, and it all just felt.. right, for the first time in days. She sucked air down deep into her lungs, and just abandoned herself to an overwhelming sense of relief at the comfortable feeling of being in total control of her body.
The cool wet air slid across her body she felt her muscles loosen up, and her speed increased, causing the damp wind to whip her hair back and brush away the laughter that bubbled up in pure reflex. Been a while since I just did this for the fun of it... maybe I should do it more often... make this less of a chore than I have been.
After a few minutes of mindless running, punctuated by the occasional flip for no reason, she started paying attention to her surroundings again. "Better start heading back, Ares," She remarked conversationally to the puppy, who was still slung over her shoulders. "I think I want to see your other mommy, OK?" Gods.. did she ever. "I wanna pick her up, and toss her in the air, and she’s gonna be furious with me, you watch." For a minute, anyway. Xena grinned to herself.
The path sloped down, towards the end of Lestan’s territory, and fairly close to the area where she’d found Ereth and Gennen the previous day.
And her defensive reflexes came up, as she slowed her pace, and extended her senses, and heard the faint rasp of voices from not far ahead.
Now pacing in silence, she slid from tree to tree, and moved around a rock outcropping, freezing into stillness at what she saw there.
Two strange forest dwellers, armed, and standing with an unmistakably menacing posture. Facing a battered looking Jessan, who had both hands up in a gesture of defenselessness