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Complications part 3
The sound of gentle rain falling and the whoosh of steel cutting the air woke her. Gabrielle looked up from the bed to see Xena in the middle of the tent. She was dressed in a set of well worn fighting leathers. Weaving her sword against an invisible opponent, she moved silently through the shadows. Gabrielle watched fascinated as the polished steel blade flickered and danced in the torchlight. Flashes of light briefly illuminated various parts of her graceful lover as she twisted and wove around the empty space. Glimpses of tawny skin and flashing eyes heightened the dreamlike scene she was witnessing. Finishing the routine, Xena stood in the darkness of the tent with a single strip of light highlighting her eyes. Unable to stand the silence any longer Gabrielle whispered. "By the Gods.... You are beautiful."
Turning her gaze toward the bed, Xena spoke softly. "I didn't mean to wake you. " Blue eyes filled with concern. She had actually melted an entire candle simply watching Gabrielle sleep before deciding to do some drills.
"Xena. If you ever do that again without waking me, I'll be upset." Grinning at Xena's rolling eyes she continued. "I mean it. It's not often I get to watch poetry in motion."
Xena put away her sword and knelt by the side of the bed. "I do." She reached out to brush Gabrielle's cheek with the tips of her fingers. "Every time you walk across a room."
"Xena. I'm just....." Gabrielle's verbal protest was cut short by the warrior's questing lips, but her thought continued. 'a bard from Potidea.'
Pulling away long enough to stand and remove her leathers, Xena joined her love on the bed. "You are not 'just' anything." She gathered the younger woman in her arms and closed her eyes at the sensation. "You're not that little girl from Potidea anymore. You're Queen to the amazons. You're mother to Solan." She tightened her embrace and whispered. "You're everything to me." The slight body shaking in her arms opened her eyes. She saw a tear escape it's green prison. Capturing the fugitive with her lips, she focused on her love. Relying on the bard's ability to read her thoughts, her blue eyes asked what her tightening throat no longer could. 'What's wrong?'
It took a moment for Gabrielle to regain her voice. It still came out in a whisper. "I didn't think you remembered." She knew she had never mentioned her home village's name in Xena's presence.
"I have spies of my own you know, but I remember where a certain little blonde kid I had to babysit came from." She tried to be playful but holding Gabrielle in her arms, just as she had done so long ago, returned her voice to a whisper. "I remember everything."
"Oh..Xena." Gabrielle returned the embrace and allowed herself to fall asleep, just as she had done so long ago, content in the warmth of Xena's arms.
Rayna woke, startled for a moment. She looked at the forms sleeping next to her and smiled. She had watched the pair closely during their travels and recognized Karis' intense feelings for Solan. Any other amazon would have accounted for the guard's actions as her duty. Rayna knew better. She could read people's body language better than anyone. It was a necessary skill she acquired to compensate for her inability to hear a spoken command. Looking around at the bustling kitchen she caught bits and pieces of conversations people were having. It was the phrase forming on the head cooks lips that made her understand what had awakened her.
Rayna shook Karis awake and waited as the guard disentangled herself from Solan's unconscious embrace, she signed quickly. "A messenger came in earlier. Iolaus woke Xena." Her smile disappeared. "There are a lot of wagons coming." Seeing Karis' confused expression she continued. "I can feel them." She placed her hand on the ground for emphasis.
Karis imitated her action and widened her eyes as even the busy kitchen workers couldn't mask the vibrations in the ground. 'Gods... How many wagons does it take to shake the ground like that.' She thought. Waking Solan quickly, they helped in the preparation for what could only be called a small army that was headed their way.
"Gabrielle.... Gabrielle wake up." Xena tapped the sleeping amazon's cheek, brushing the her bare shoulder with, black silk in the process. "Gabrielle it's time for your breakfast." She laughed when the green eyes flew open.
Lifting her head from the pillow, Gabrielle looked around. "So where is it." Her eyes narrowed suspiciously, "Wait...'My' breakfast?"
"It's not here yet and, yes, I'm afraid you're going to have to eat by yourself." Xena's apology was sincere. She would like nothing better than to spend every moment with Gabrielle but matters of the Realm had to be dealt with sometime. "A messenger came in this morning." She gritted her teeth and growled the name. "Cortese is on his way."
Gabrielle understood that she would be alone for most, if not all, of the day. She rose and found her robe. She really didn't want to stay by herself. "What kind of reception do you think I'd get in the kitchen?"
"No." The warrior shook her head. "I don't want you at risk." There were too many variables in the camp to take into account. She had no idea how many members of the resistance had infiltrated her entourage. If any of them suspected the true extent of her feelings toward Gabrielle they would capture her in a heartbeat.
Hugging her protective warrior, she spoke quietly. "I want to see Solan." She looked up and tightened her grip. "And I am always at risk." She smiled as Xena tried to pull away only to find herself caught in the amazon's steel embrace. "Xena. No one knows who I am. I'll be fine."
Listening to the strategist in her, Xena sighed and relaxed into the embrace. "It would be normal to send you to help in the kitchen." She searched her lover's face intently. "You understand that I don't want to be without you for a moment don't you?" She bent to steal a kiss, that turned out to be freely given.
Breathless from the kiss, Gabrielle managed to speak aloud. "You're never without me, Xena. I am always right here." She put her hand over Xena's heart. "And here." She reached to touch the warrior's temple when her motion was stopped by a gentle hand.
"You may be more comfortable staying in my heart." Xena moved the hand back to her chest. Her smile didn't touch her eyes. "It's not as crowded."
Gabrielle forced herself to keep walking toward the kitchen tent. It took all the willpower she had not to turn and run back to the lonely looking warrior she had left sitting, still in her robe, on the bed in their tent. 'Her tent.' She corrected her thought. 'I'm only a ..... ' She knew what the entourage thought she was but supplied herself with a much nicer euphemism. '.....servant.'
Immediately upon entering the tent the head cook grabbed her and directed her toward her sisters. "Karis." She yelled across the noisy kitchen. "Get your sister some decent clothes." She looked in disdain at the hideous green top and short brown skirt. "You canna serve the Empress dressed like that." Several snickers at her wording were silenced by the large woman's glare.
The amazon ignored the snickers and sly looks, as she did what she could to help with the meal preparation. She gave a quick encouraging smile to Rayna and was able to hug Solan briefly before being reprimanded. The large purpling bruise on Karis' face, raised her eyebrow but there was no time to talk. She was told to change into the servant dress she had been given. It reminded her of her village days and was actually very similar to the outfit she had been wearing when the slavers had attacked her village. The breakfast was loaded onto two trays and now it was time to present it to the Empress.
Gabrielle didn't know if the cook was trying to please or distract Xena by sending both herself and Karis to serve the meal. It was fortunate for them however as the short walk to the negotiation tent allowed them an opportunity to talk briefly.
"Who did that to you." Gabrielle indicated the large bruise on the guard's jaw.
Karis tossed her head to settle her hair behind her shoulder. "I don't know his name yet. It was the stocky guard with the scar across his cheek."
They stopped at the door to knock and only had to wait a minute before Iolaus pulled back the cloth cover to allow their admittance. Gabrielle only dimly registered the formal uniform he and the rest of the guards were wearing, as her entire focus was immediately on Xena.
When she left the tent earlier Xena had yet to dress so Gabrielle was totally unprepared for the sight before her. Sitting on the raised platform, Xena was dressed in a Chinese style robe. The robes flame pattern increased the sense of danger The Empress was radiating. Her hair was up in a bun and her regal face was framed with a golden headpiece that resembled feathers or maybe leaves, from this distance Gabrielle wasn't sure which. There was one thing she was absolutely sure of though and she smiled when Karis' breathless whisper echoed her thought.
"By the Gods....She's beautiful." Karis' eyes widened as she realized she had spoken aloud. She glanced quickly at Gabrielle.
"Yes she is." The Amazon Queen's smile quickly eased any fears the guard had about offending her Queen. "Come on." Gabrielle walked to the small table and deposited her tray. Taking the smaller plates from their carrying tray both amazons arranged the dishes on the table. Winking at Karis, Gabrielle took a small plate of sliced fruit and approached the waiting ruler. She bowed low and offering the plate with both hands, asked. "Do you wish to break your fast now, my Queen or will you wait for your guest to arrive?"
"My guest." She sneered. "Can fend for himself." Xena affected her most royal demeanor and gestured to the woman before her. "Attend me."
Following the gesture, Gabrielle walked up the two steps and knelt next to the throne. She again held out the plate and almost smiled at the raised eyebrow. Choosing a bite size piece of melon, she quietly held it up for Xena to take from her fingers. Shuddering at the sensation of Xena's lips brushing her fingertips, Gabrielle could feel her heart flutter with each bite.
Xena had felt her heart lurch when she saw Gabrielle enter with the tray. 'Gods... I don't want her to see me kill Cortese.' The Conqueror knew there was an easy enough solution. 'Send her away.' The thought of ordering Gabrielle away was not only unacceptable but as far as The Warrior Princess was concerned impossible. Even The Conqueror couldn't bring herself to give the order when she began to eat from the delicate hands. The other occupants of the tent began to fade out of her consciousness as Xena focused on the woman kneeling beside her.
Karis tore her eyes away from the scene on the platform to observe the others reactions. Most of the guards lined up along the tent wall were oblivious to the display. Iolaus on the other hand was watching intently and Karis could almost see the wheels in his head turning. 'Trouble in the making.' She thought. A loud gong, announcing the arrival of Cortese, brought her out of her observations.
The plate was only half empty but Gabrielle prepared to rise and return to the table. Xena's quiet command stopped her. "Don't go." Blue eyes finished the request. 'Please.'
"As you wish." She grinned. "My Queen." Gabrielle watched and was rewarded with a grin when Xena remembered saying those exact words to her. Warm memories were replaced with cold rage when Cortese entered the tent.
Despite the refusal of his invitation, Cortese was confident as he strolled into the tent. His confidence came from his unwavering belief in man's superiority over women and his own history as a warlord. 'I was raiding villages before this... woman... was born.' He thought as he appraised her age. 'I probably raided her village at some point.' He looked at the woman on the throne. He had heard the stories but didn't believe half of them. 'No one could be as ruthless as the stories say...especially a woman.' He appraised the Empress' soft silk outfit and fine features. 'She does make a beautiful Queen.... Now all she needs is a strong King at her side.'
Gabrielle was the only person close enough to hear the low growl emanating from Xena's throat. "I am told you 'wish' to speak with me." Her sneer made him think twice about his appraisal of her softness.
"Yes." His confidence returned. "I understand that the Chinese spice traders will no longer be using my waterways....." He stopped talking at her upraised hand.
"Your informants are correct." She began. 'And quick.' She thought. 'I knew the caravan was moving slower than usual. I wonder if that was planned.' Several faces of possible saboteurs ran through her mind. "But you are mistaken..." She smiled grimly at his confusion. "....all the waterways around here, and everywhere else, belong to me." She narrowed her steel blue eyes at his calculating gaze. "What have you done with the fees you collected."
His face became dark with angry thoughts. 'Your waterways!?' He had wanted to wait before pulling his hero card but anger took control of his tongue. "I contributed the bulk of the fees to the Temple of Ares. It was his wish that the fees be so high." Cortese had served Ares nearly all his life. He firmly believed that the God of War would protect him.
Gabrielle was watching Xena closely. She had seen the initial anger at the man's presence and knew it was barely held in check. The invocation of Ares name, however, made the danger flowing from the warrior nearly palatable. It was evident in her next statement and Gabrielle saw the man shudder.
"What would the God of War want with money?" Xena's voice was low and her tone was one Iolaus had identified long ago as the soft velvet sound of death.
"It was His wish." Cortese shrugged in an attempt to be casual and to try and ease the growing tension in his shoulders.
"Really." For the first time since his entrance she glanced down at Gabrielle. The tension she had felt when she saw her lover enter the tent drained away. She wouldn't have to kill the man in front of Gabrielle after all. The soft death in her voice was replaced with subtle amusement. "You speak often do you?"
"Of course. I worship at His temple regularly." He was confused at the sudden turn the conversation had taken. She was supposed to be awed at the mention of Ares. She didn't act like a proper woman at all.
"And he answers your prayers, of course." Her amused sarcasm was lost on Cortese.
"He gives me signs." He was becoming impatient. 'Why doesn't she get back to the point. If I can get her to agree to taking a portion of the high fees then I can blame them on her.' That's why he didn't believe all the stories he had heard. Most of them, he knew were probably just warlords like him making up stuff to justify their own actions.
"Signs." Xena smiled. She glanced at the row of guards by the wall and noticed their discomfort. She knew their little saying about her smiles and they were right, it was too late for Cortese. At his affirmative nod, she continued conversationally. "When a God takes an interest in a mortal they usually keep tabs on them. Did you know that?"
Cortese sighed inwardly at the question. "Of course. That's why he sends me signs." His confidence was returning. 'She must be impressed that I communicate with Ares after all.'
"When a God takes such an interest sometimes the mortal becomes their Chosen, or if the mortal is important enough to them, the God will appear when that mortal calls out their name." Xena's expression became challenging. "Say His name Cortese. Call out for the God of War. Let's see if he comes."
Gabrielle knew what was going to happen and was a little frightened at the absolute certainty in her lover's voice. She prepared herself, just in case.
"Say it. Say His name Cortese." Xena's challenge became louder and more demanding, as she leaned forward on the throne. "say it.........., Say It..........., SAY IT!...."
"ARES!" The name was ripped from his chest. He looked around at the unchanged occupants of the tent and back at her, challenge clearly in his eyes. "You say it." He was confident in his challenge, if he couldn't do it then certainly this woman couldn't either.
She could feel Gabrielle watching her intently as she leaned back into the throne and took a deep breath. Closing her eyes, Xena spoke softly, almost a whisper, "Ares." Opening her eyes just in time to see the flash of light in front of her, she smiled and drawled. "Hello Ares."
"Xena! I was right in the middle of.." He stopped at her raised hand.
"They will be fighting over that island forever. You're not missing much." Xena indicated her awed guest. "Cortese and I were having a discussion and I needed your point of view."
"Who?" Ares turned toward the shaking man.
Cortese was not at all pleased that the God of War turned his attention toward him. It was all he could do not to faint. He decided to cover his weakness with an act of supplication and dropped to one knee. "I am at your service mighty Ares."
Ares glanced back at Xena with a look of disgust on his face. Xena returned the look and sneered. "Pathetic, isn't it?"
The God answered the rhetorical question. "Pretty much." He regarded the kneeling man again. "Hey I remember him now." He almost laughed when Cortese looked up and smiled with satisfaction. "This is the pawn I used to..."
"... create me." Xena finished. Only her eyes turned sideways at Gabrielle's quiet gasp. She settled into her seat and continued. "He claims you as his guiding force." She raised her eyebrows. "Have you been receiving the tribute he has been paying you Ares? He claims the high waterway fees he charges are all for you."
Ares snorted. "What would I do with money?"
"That's what I said." She dropped her voice low. "But when Cortese said you 'asked' for the money, I thought the fastest way to find out would be to simply ask you." She knew that 'asking' was the term Ares had long used to refer to gaining favors with mortals. Granting what they 'ask' garnered him favors in return. For a mortal to claim that He had 'asked' for something from them was totally unacceptable to the War God, and Xena knew it.
"He said I ..... 'asked'...." He moved toward the kneeling man. "What else were you going to claim I 'asked' for?" Ares outrage was growing. How dare this man, this nothing, claim to speak directly with Him. Cortese was shaking so hard now he couldn't have spoken even if he tried. "ANSWER ME, PAWN!" He raised his hand at the shaking man and threw a ball of light toward him.
The Conqueror watched with crossed arms and a satisfied smile, as Cortese flew backward across the tent. She noted the angle of his neck and couldn't hide the amusement in her voice. "I don't think he's going to be answering anything now."
He looked at the crumpled body in disgust. "Are mortals so fragile?" Turning back to Xena with a smarmy smile, he stroked his beard thoughtfully. "I don't recall you being that fragile."
Uncrossing her arms, Xena leaned forward on the throne. "Don't even go there." This was the only snag in her plan. Getting rid of Ares was not as easy as calling him. She felt Gabrielle's warm breath on her arm and before she could turn to the kneeling amazon, a flash of light illuminated the tent.
"ARES." The Goddess' bellow was just loud enough to convey her irritation.
The object of her annoyance rolled his eyes. "What now Artemis?"
"Your little fighters scared off my game." The Goddess dressed for hunting, as always, brandished her bow in his face. "If you don't do something about that, I'm gonna start hunting more than animals." She smirked at his stricken face. "How many fighters do I have to kill before your temples start to decay?" She nocked an arrow and aimed at the first guard by the wall, Iolaus. "Let's find out shall we?"
Ares put his hand on the arrow tip and pushed it down. He didn't care about the man but once Artemis started she wouldn't stop. "I'll take care of my fighters. Why don't you just hunt on Amazon land and keep out of my business." With that said, he flashed away.
Artemis remained long enough to reply to the space where Ares had been. "Because Amazons mean too much to me." Flashing a wink and a smile in the direction of the throne, she continued. "And with their Queen's appetite they need all the food they can get." Her laughter lingered in the air longer than the light she disappeared into.
"Well." Xena rose and gestured for Gabrielle to do the same. "That was certainly exciting." She took the two steps down and looked at Cortese's lifeless body. "Somebody get this trash out of my sight." She gestured to Iolaus. "Come here." She waited for him to approach and when he was close enough spoke quietly. "Leave a contingent of guards here to make sure no more unreasonable fees are collected from travelers."
"That will leave the caravan fairly unguarded." It was almost a question of the order but not quite.
Blue anger flashed in her narrowing eyes. "Are you questioning my orders?"
"No. I just meant that.... " He wasn't really sure what he meant. He was warring with his own emotions now. Cortese's vaults would be his for the taking if he stayed and if the wagons he brought were any indication, the wealth he had amassed was considerable. But this was also the perfect opportunity to get rid of the last of the guards loyal to Xena.
"Just choose the ones to stay. I can take care of myself." Xena seemed to consider that for a moment. "Yes. I think a vacation is in order. I've been traveling, surrounded by fools, for too many weeks." Watching Iolaus' reaction to that she continued. "There is a small village a not far from here. I think I'll spend some time at their inn." She crossed the room and stood next to the table where her breakfast still waited. A tid bit of fruit was examined and consumed.
"I'll give the order to break camp immediately. We can set out for the village by mid-afternoon." Iolaus had made up his mind to leave the loyals here. Fifteen resistance sympathetic guards under his command was too good an opportunity to pass up. 'Money will come later.' He thought.
His thoughts were once again interrupted by Xena's angry response. "You weren't listening. I said I was tired of traveling with you people." She glared at his confused expression. "I will go to the inn on my own."
"But you need guards and attendants and ...." His blustering protest stopped at her upraised hand.
"I can take care of myself, but if you insist. I'll take a healer, a cook..." She considered that and looked at the amazons standing next to the table. "your sister." Her eyes narrowed at the bruise on Karis' jaw. "That means you come too." She turned her gaze to Gabrielle and raised an eyebrow. "You definitely will be there." Her laughter was lecherous at Gabrielle's angry glare.
"You will need someone to take care of the chores and the horses." He was offering himself for the job and he knew it. Hopefully she wouldn't take him up on it. He wanted to stay at camp and figure out their next move.
"You need to stay with the caravan." She found another piece of acceptable fruit. "I don't want the remaining guard's going soft in my absence." She knew that most of them were slower than tree sap in winter anyway but it was a good excuse. "You should continue back to the Palace. I'll join you after my rest."
"But the danger...." He was pushing his luck but he wanted to seem as concerned as possible.
"I TOLD YOU I CAN TAKE CARE OF MYSELF!" She felt Gabrielle's light touch on her back and calmed instantly. "Besides no one will believe it's me if I'm only traveling with five other people."
"Five?" He ran through the list in his head. Healer, Cook, Translator, Plaything, who was the fifth?
"I'll bring the boy to do the chores." She glanced at the relieved amazons. "I wouldn't want to break up a happy family." She put as much sarcasm in her voice as she could, for Iolaus' benefit.
He decided not to protest again and simply nodded to accept the situation. "When do you want to leave?"
"Tell Kima to be ready to go after the noon meal." She gestured for him to leave. "Tell her she shouldn't bother with supplies too much. If anyone does attack us, they won't require her attention." A feral smile crossed her face. "Tell the boy to be sure and pack a shovel though, even shallow graves are hard to dig with your bare hands." Her cold laughter followed Iolaus out of the tent. She gestured for the rest of the guards to follow him. "Leave me. I want to eat what's left of my breakfast in peace." She pulled the chair out from the table and watching the guards stop to pick up the body, prepared to sit.
The last two guards barely had Cortese's body out the entrance when she turned on Gabrielle, sweeping the Amazon Queen up in her arms and twirling her around the empty tent. Her laughter was carefree and she planted a kiss on the surprised woman before setting her down in her original position. "That was brilliant." She looked a Karis. "You have a genius for a Queen."
"Xena. I..." Gabrielle was trying to suppress a grin and failing. She lost herself in the silk folds of the robe's sleeves.
The happy Empress interrupted her. "You." She hugged the grinning amazon tighter. "You called Her." She released the hug and tapped the end of Gabrielle's nose with her finger. "Don't try to deny it."
Gabrielle glanced at Karis. "All right." Her grin widened. "I won't."
Karis felt her knees beginning to buckle and gripped the edge of the table. 'She called Artemis.' It was a breathtaking revelation about her Queen's importance to her people. Gabrielle's safety was always top priority but somehow, for Karis, this ability raised the stakes. 'I can't ever let anything hurt Gabrielle.' She couldn't believe she had allowed the Brenin thing to go on for so long.
Gabrielle recognized the guards weakness and helped her sit. She smiled at the bruised woman and patted her unhurt cheek. "It's OK Karis. Really." She chuckled at the guard's expression. "Your actually taking this quite well. When Ephiny found out I could call our patron Goddess, I thought she was going to have a centaur." She thought about that saying and how it applied to Ephiny and added. "Full grown this time."
They all laughed at that. Xena gestured for them to sit and share the breakfast which they did gladly. The mornings activities had not allowed them time to eat before coming to the tent. Xena noticed that Karis was not as easy going around Gabrielle as she used to be. 'Gabrielle being Artemis' Chosen really got to her.' She reached up to rub her neck and realized she was still wearing the headpiece. She took it off quickly and tossing it aside shook her hair free from the pins that were holding it up. She looked at Karis again. She had seen the tension in the guard's muscles when she had moved too quickly to remove the headpiece. 'It's time to remove the hypnotic fear. It will only get in the way when we are traveling.' Standing quickly she circled the table and looked deeply into Karis' eyes. "Karis." She waited for the slight nod before uttering the spell breaking phrase. "You love Solan." She waited until the woman's muscles relaxed then continued conversationally. "Solan loves you too." She knew Karis didn't understand the softening in her eyes. 'But she will.' Xena thought. 'Soon.'
Brenin added another small stick to her campfire. She looked across the hills to the town in the distance. 'Potidea.' She thought. 'Gabrielle's hometown.' It had been her intention to go East to China and find her love but, even through her fantasy filled brain, logic prevailed. 'It would be so easy to miss her if she was going one way and I was going another.' Brenin looked again at the small village. 'But she will surely stop at her hometown on the way back.' She imagined the look of love Gabrielle would give her when she saw her waiting for her arrival along with her family. 'If I can get her family to like me then Gabrielle will have to love me.' The logic of that statement seemed fool proof to her. She curled up on her thin blanket and smiled. Sleep was her friend. When she slept she always dreamed of Gabrielle and their loving reunion. 'Tomorrow.' She thought as Morpheus took her. 'Tomorrow I will meet Gabrielle's family.'
Xena led her tiny group toward Amphipolis until the darkness made further travel unsafe. They stopped to setup camp and quietly went about their duties. Karis and the healer gathered firewood, Rayna began to prepare a small meal. Solan brushed down all the horses except Argo, Xena brushed her. Gabrielle unpacked the bedrolls and arranged them around the fire.
When she was done brushing Argo, Xena went to examine Solan's work. "Good job." She circled his shoulders with one arm and squeezed. She could feel the beginnings of his father's stature.
He grinned up at her. "Thanks M... mother often sends me to help out in the stables." He put his hand up to hide the next words from Gabrielle, even though he spoke loud enough for her to hear. "I think she just doesn't want me to be afraid of horses." At this he laughed and dropped all pretense of hiding the conversation. "She forgets that I was raised in a 'Centaur' village."
"Centaurs are 'not' horses." Gabrielle protested. "You can't talk to horses."
"Sure you can." Xena and Solan spoke in unison.
Gabrielle regarded them for a moment. Seeing Xena standing with her arm around Solan was enought to take her breath away. 'The two people I love most in the world.' She took a conciliatory breath and continued the friendly banter. "OK fine but horses can't talk back." At that moment Argo chose to nicker and pop her lips at the group. They all laughed and Gabrielle saw Xena take the opportunity to ruffle Solan's hair. 'We are going to tell him tonight.' She thought. 'Good.'
Rayna interrupted them with a few sharp claps of her hands. "Anyone want to eat?" She signed and grinned as they all moved toward the fire eagerly.
Gabrielle watched as Karis and Rayna cleaned the dishes. Kima had gone to search for some herbs that grew in the area, saying night was the best time to find them. She had noticed Xena's glances at Solan and to her surprise Solan sneaking a look or two at Xena. She wasn't sure what was up with that. It was obvious to her that Xena had no idea where to start, so she went to sit next to the warrior. 'I can at least move the conversation to the right subject.' She thought. Catching Rayna's eye and making sure her hands were illuminated by the firelight, she signed. "That was the best meal I've ever had on a camping trip. Where did you learn to cook like that?"
Rayna looked puzzled at the question but repeated the information Gabrielle already knew. "From my mother."
"Well my mother never cooked like that." Gabrielle smiled at Xena's chuckle. "What?"
"If your mother cooked like that." Xena indicated the previous meal. "Argo would refuse to carry us both." She grinned and accepted the amazon's playful backhanded slap.
"My mother taught me a lot of things." Karis' voice was quiet. She she looked at Gabrielle. "Cooking was not one of them."
Solan couldn't stand to see Karis so sad. He went to sit next to her. Putting his arm around her he spoke quietly. "I wish I had gotten the chance to know my mother." He kept his arm around Karis and continued. "Sometimes I can feel her... watching me." He looked directly at Xena and heard Gabrielle's gasp when he finished his thought. "Even in the dark."
Xena was sure her whisper would be drowned out by her heartbeat. "How long have you known?" She felt Gabrielle's hand take hers.
Gabrielle thought back over the past months and answered for her son. "Since the night Karis arrested Brenin." She looked at the boy. "Right?"
He nodded. "The scroll your journal is written on, it is right next to the little Gabrielle story."
"My journal has a treaty endcap on it." Her tone was playfully accusing. She saw a blush rising on his face.
"Well, I was sort of ....." He glanced at Karis." ..... distracted and grabbed the wrong one." He looked back at Xena. "Are you disappointed?"
"Disa.... Why would you say that?" Xena wanted to go to him and hold him but she held back.
He had removed his arm from Karis' shoulder but kept hold of her hand. "Well.. I've always been kinda small and I'm not a warrior..."
It only took a gentle pressure from Gabrielle to propel Xena across the campsite. She knelt in front of the boy and cupped his face in her hands. "Are you disappointed that I'm your mother?"
He looked confused. "Why would I be?"
Tears had began to run down her face. "I'm not a nice person, I've done terrible things to a lot of people. I've killed so many men, I will never wash the blood from my hands." She released him and bowed her head. "Why would you want the likes of me for a mother?"
Gabrielle held her breath. Karis was speechless. Rayna having read the confession on the warrior's lips dropped her hands to her side. Solan reached out one hand, tilted Xena's face up to meet his own and whispered. "I am the likes of you."
Xena's ragged sob as she gathered Solan in her arms turned to joyous laughter when she stood and twirled him around the campfire. They ended up next to Gabrielle. Solan looked at the only mother he had ever known. "Now I have two mothers."
Gabrielle hugged him fiercely. "I was hoping you wouldn't be mad at me." She looked into his eyes. "For not telling you sooner."
He looked at the ground and sighed. "It's a good thing you didn't." He paused. "At least not before I met her." He smiled. "And saw how happy she makes you." Gabrielle's worry did bring up a curious thought for him though. "Why are you telling me now?" He hadn't actually said it out loud and they didn't have to confirm that Xena was his mother. He felt a moments panic and began to examine Gabrielle's face earnestly. "Are you OK?" He immediately felt Gabrielle's comforting arms around him.
"I'm fine." She looked at Xena over his shoulder and at her affirmative nod continued. "We are going to see your grandmother. She is sick, Solan. We hope we will get there in time."
His eyes glistened in the firelight. "We're going to Potidea?"
"NO!" Gabrielle took a deep breath and calmed down. "No. It's Xena's mother who is ill. We are going to Amphipolis."
Xena knew that emotions had been running high but Gabrielle's reaction to the thought of returning to Potidea was too intense. She made a mental note to ask her about it later. They were after all fairly close to Potidea. "That's why I brought Kima along. She is the best healer I have."
"Why thank you." The healer walked into the camp. Her arms were loaded with all kinds of plants. She looked around at the women's and even the boy's red eyes. "You know if you use good dry wood you won't get so much smoke in your eyes."
They all laughed at that, even Kima, although she didn't know why. Xena cleared her throat and announced that it was time for sleep. Everyone agreed, except Kima. "I need to sort these." Seeing the look on Xena's face she continued. "It won't take long."
Xena nodded and stretched out on her bedroll then turned on her side. Gabrielle fit perfectly into the curve created and to Kima's surprise, the boy laid down just the same way next to Gabrielle. Kima's eyes softened. 'Gods... they look like a family.'
Kima sorted the plants and noticed the boy tossing and turning until his sister whispered in his ear and gave him a little shove. The healer noted the grateful smile and watched as he made his way over to Karis. 'That must be the one he is most used to.' She thought as he was asleep immediately after laying down. 'But she seems a little apprehensive.' Kima watched the exchange and thought. 'I think I missed something."
Rayna and Karis had curled up each on their own bedrolls. Karis rolled onto her back and searched the stars. She was reeling at the implications of Solan's parentage. 'But Xena and Gabrielle both know that I love him. Gods.. and Xena said Solan loved me!' She started to drift off when she felt the familiar warmth of Solan's arm drape over her stomach. She looked down at the sleeping face and raised her head to look across the fire. Two pairs of eyes one blue and one green twinkled with smiles. She returned a grateful smile and settled back to sleep almost instantly.
'Tomorrow.' Xena thought. 'Tomorrow, I will see my mother.' She fervently hoped she would get the chance. 'She should at least meet her grandson.' She didn't know what part of her mind finished the thought. 'Before she dies.'
Gabrielle felt one warm tear drop on her shoulder before Xena's breathing became slow and regular. She whispered. "Sweet dreams, my love." She felt Xena's instinctively tightened embrace and as she snuggled closer, heard a low mumble from the sleeping warrior. "Sweet dreams."
They had traveled the better part of the day when Gabrielle felt the warrior tense. Xena had been in such a hurry to get to Amphipolis when she reigned Argo to a halt the Amazon was confused. "Xena.." Gabrielle began to question the sudden stop but fell silent at Xena's gentle touch.
"Shhh... Listen." Xena closed her eyes and let the familiar sound of home wash over her.
Listening closely, Gabrielle heard it. Voices in the distance. 'Singing?' She thought. Her questioning green eyes examined Xena's almost peaceful face. "What is it?"
Keeping her eyes closed Xena replied. "It's the women in the fields. They sing to make the work go faster." She tried not to hear the sadness in the voices or remember that it was a traditional song often sung at funerals. She opened her glistening blue eyes and took a deep breath almost as if she could smell the music in the air. "It's the sound of home." She urged Argo onward, glancing back to make sure the others knew which path to take at the fork then continuing faster at Karis' 'got it' signal.
As the singing became louder, Gabrielle sent a silent prayer to Artemis. 'Let us get there in time.' She had no contact with Ephiny between the preliminary report and her arrival home to deal with the Brenin issue but based on the 'I think she might be sick' line in the scout's first report, she had sent their best healer along with the recall notice. Ephiny's report when she had returned to the village was not good news and now Gabrielle could only hope that the heart behind her, beating nearly in time with the horses hooves, wouldn't be broken by what met them when they arrived.
The town market was a pleasant but unusual experience for Brenin. In the Amazon Nation markets were unnecessary. The only thing close was festival time. Amazons did barter with each other for items not found in the communal storage huts but that was usually a one on one type of arrangement whenever the need arose. She watched as the busy villagers bargained with each other for their wares, a large piece of leather was exchanged for a bolt of cloth, three chickens was apparently the going price for a smoked ham, and if the sticky faces of the playing children were anything to go by, it seemed the baker had a sweet deal going on some small handheld pies. She watched as a young woman presented two children with one pie each. It was obvious to Brenin that they were twins but not identical, one was a boy and the other a girl. They looked about three, with rosy cheeked faces, big green eyes, and reddish blonde hair she had only seen once before in her life. A picture of Gabrielle floated through her mind. 'They have to be related.' She thought.
They were the picture of sweetness, sitting on the bench contentedly munching their treats. Suddenly the boy grinned. Brenin frowned when he smushed the last of his pastry in the girls face but then smiled when she simply wiped it off with her fingers and then licked her fingers clean. 'Definately related.' She thought. 'Gabrielle would never allow good food to go to waste either.' Brenin tried to figure out how to meet them when their mother called to them. They looked at each other and were in motion at the same instant, not toward the call but exactly away from it, straight toward her! The mother's call was plaintive now and on instinct Brenin reached down to capture one child in each arm. She tucked her squirming bundles securely under her arms, trying to avoid staining the only cloth tunic she owned and walked over to the distressed woman.
"Thank you!" She reached to relieve the stranger of her children. Placing them on their feet, she gave each of them a stern look. "You two stay here." Looking back at Brenin she smiled. "Sometimes I just don't know what to do with them." A large man passed by and laughed.
"You could just feed them to the Amazons, Lila." He laughed louder as he walked away. "It worked for your parents."
Lila glared at the man as she knelt to comfort her now crying children. She tried to hug them both and reassure them that the Amazons weren't going to get either of them but the boy pushed the girl away, totally dominating their mothers attention.
Brenin frowned at the treatment and tried to reassure the girl. "Amazons don't eat children."
Lila surprised herself with the anger in her voice. "What do you know about Amazons?" She looked at the stranger again. Her tunic was an older style but well made. She noticed the berry stains her children had caused during their attempted escape but it was the jewelry that caught her eye. The beaded and feathered necklace just visible under the neckline of the top was unmistakeable. 'Amazon.' Her eyes widened. She looked around for someone then whirled to scoop up the children. Glancing nervously at the growing morning-market crowd, she looked back at Brenin and whispered. "Come with me."
Gabrielle felt Xena take her hand as they entered the tavern. It should have been time for the dinner rush but the place was deserted except for one barmaid sitting at a table, crying. She felt Xena's grip tighten. 'No.. please no' Gabrielle chanted in her mind as she cleared her throat to get the girl's attention. "Hello."
The girl looked up startled. "I'm sorry. I didn't hear you come in." She jumped up and ran around the bar. "What can I get for you?" She tried to keep the tears from spilling down her cheeks but was unable to manage it.
Gabrielle spoke softly to the girl. "What's wrong?" Keeping their fingers entwined, she leaned closer to Xena and linked elbows with the distressed warrior.
The barmaid tried to smile. "I'm sorry. It's just that there has been a death in the village."
Gabrielle bit her lip to prevent the yelp at Xena's grip on her hand. The problem with doing that however was it made speech impossible. The sound of Xena's strangled voice nearly broke her heart.
"Who?" Grief was poised to overtake her and her shaking grip was only the beginning. She prepared herself to run out the door, unwilling to subject Gabrielle to the rage that would follow the answer.
"His name was Johnathan. He had lived here for almost ten years." She burst into tears. "Everyone loved him."
Xena felt her stomach do a flip and her knees turn to jelly at the girls first word. 'His' was all she needed to hear. Gabrielle's solid grip and sheer force of will kept her standing. Her patience, however, was now gone and she wanted answers. "Where can I find Cyrene?"
The commanding tone in Xena's voice stopped the girl's tears but she sniffled as she spoke. "You can't see her. She is sick. The healer won't let anyone in to see her." She didn't know who the woman thought she was but she didn't like the tone in her voice one bit. "The only people Salla let's in are family."
Gabrielle kept a firm grip on the warrior's hand, partially for support and partially to keep her from attacking the girl. She gave her lover a significant look and turned back to the girl. "Can we see the healer please."
The look on Xena's face startled the red-eyed young woman but she sniffled again and nodded at Gabrielle's quiet request. It only took a moment after she disappeared through the door behind the bar to return with a much older but still spry woman.
It was the healer's turn for her stomach to flip. She never expected to see her Queen here. 'She should never leave the Territory. It isn't safe.' The healer's thoughts took a darker turn. 'Especially around this area.' She nodded to the women and gestured. "This way."
Much to the amazon healer's dismay, Xena nearly dragged Gabrielle down the hall, directly to the door she knew was her mothers. She waited for the healer to open the door and make sure Cyrene was awake before she let go of Gabrielle's hand and entered the room. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the faint light filtering through the small window. All she could hear in the darkened room was her mother's ragged breathing. It was a crazy thought but she was so relieved she felt like laughing. 'Breathing.... By the Gods.... She's breathing.' It was a terrible rasping breath but it was something. She approached the bed slowly so as not to scare the sick woman. Barely holding back her tears as she looked at the sunken eyes and pale, gaunt face. She sat close but didn't touch the sick woman. She didn't want to hurt her. "Hey there." It was barely a whisper but it was all Xena could manage at the moment.
The healer started to speak to her Queen but stopped at the upraised hand. Gabrielle wanted her full attention on Xena, the report could wait a few minutes. She felt her own tears begin when she saw the weakened woman reach toward Xena and try to speak.
"Xena......" Her incredulous tone penetrated even the heavy rasping every breath produced. Cyrene couldn't believe her eyes. She had to touch the woman sitting next to her. She had to know if she was real this time. Silently cursing her weakness, Cyrene felt her arm begin to shake and lower, unable to make it all the way to the face of her dreams.
Gently, Xena lifted the lowering hand and held it in place on her cheek. "It's me mother. I'm here." Two hearts stopped when Cyrene's eyes closed and the rasping sound was silenced.
The healer jumped forward at Xena's anguished sob to quickly explain. "She's just sleeping. Look." She pointed to the woman's chest still rising and falling in an almost regular rhythm. The warrior and the Amazon felt their hearts begin beating again. "When she sleeps her muscles relax and she doesn't have as much trouble breathing." She gestured them out of the room. "Let's talk in the hall."
Xena didn't want to leave her mother's side but recognized the healing power of sleep. She replaced her arm at her side and brushed her hand against the now peaceful face. Assuring herself there was no fever, she rose to follow the healer.
Once out in the hall the healer spoke in more normal tones. "She has pneumonia. It was very close for a while... " She glanced at Xena. "..I think she actually died once..." Her tone was wistful. "I have no idea how she came back from that." Seeing the question in Gabrielle's eyes she continued. "We aren't out of the woods yet..." She paused and smiled. "But the treeline is in sight."
Xena was not as up on Amazon speak as they were and at the moment wasn't worried who knew it. "Out of the woods?" She looked to Gabrielle for the explanation.
"If an Amazon is out, scouting, hunting, or on patrol and gets sick it can be bad. The only way to get better is to get to the healer in a village. Our healers..." She glanced at the woman. "...well they're the best. You will always be OK if you make it 'Out of the woods.' "
"But we aren't out of the woods yet?" Xena now looked to the healer.
"No. She was improving. For a while she was even able to get up a little. She liked to stay on the cot in the backroom, so she could hear the activity in the tavern, not that there was much but locals. One day I left her sleeping and went to gather some herbs. When I returned, I found her collapsed on the floor behind the bar. There was a glass on the counter and a small coin beside it. I assumed a customer came in and she tried to serve them. If not for the coin, I may have thought she went delusional again." The healer's eyes turned sad and doubtful. "Since then she hasn't gotten out of bed." The silence that followed that statement was broken by the barmaid's voice, shuffling feet and a cry of pain.
They had found the town but Karis wasn't sure which building was the tavern/inn until she saw Argo standing patiently in front of the largest one. The group walking into the empty tavern startled the barmaid even more than the two previous visitors, still she tried to do her job. Wiping her eyes on her sleeve she spoke politely. "I'm sorry. Can I help you?"
Karis opened her mouth to speak but Solan beat her to it. "Where's my Mother?" At the moment he wasn't sure which woman he was talking about and he wasn't sure he cared. Where one was the other was anyway. He saw the girl's involuntary glance at the door to the back and headed that way.
The first two strangers were bad enough. The waitress had thought the tall one was going to kill her for a minute but now for this boy to push her around too..... Well it was just too much to take. She reached out to grab Solan's arm and prevent him from going into the back. "Hey! You can't go back there."
Rayna and Kima both felt their jaws hit the floor as Karis moved, fast. Nearly the same instant the girl grabbed Solan, her grip was broken by the protective guard. It took a only took a moment for Karis to control her breathing but when she looked up Xena and Gabrielle were standing in the doorway assessing the scene.
Solan saw them too. "I want to see her." It was as near a command as he had ever attempted. The corners of both womens mouths twitched despite the seriousness of the situtation.
Gabrielle began. "She is sleeping right now..." She thought her words would be enough to reassure him. Xena had other ideas.
"Come on." She gestured and smiled as the boy followed her immediately to the last door in the hallway. She held up one finger and pointed it at his nose. "Don't go in. I don't want to wake her..." She opened the door quietly and they both looked into the room. "See she's sleeping and when she wakes up I'll take you in. OK?"
Solan looked into the room and saw the sleeping woman's form on the bed. He was disappointed that he couldn't see her face from here. Vaugely aware when Gabrielle came up behind him, he took in the rooms layout, noting that it was a corner room and there was a small window across from the empty fireplace. He smiled at Xena and nodded. "OK."
Narrowing her eyes at the sweetness of the compliance, Xena thought. 'Uh huh.' She had seen his appraisal of the room and the lingering of his eyes on the window. A glimpse into Gabrielle's twinkling eyes confirmed that she had seen it too.
Holding the warrior's gaze for a moment, Gabrielle smiled and tapped Solan on the shoulder. "It will be chilly tonight. Do you think you can gather some wood for her fire?" The brightening of his face was all it took to know his plans.
"Sure. I'll do it right now." His enthusiastic turn to leave was stopped by Xena. He hadn't expected it but was quite pleased to find himself wrapped in the strong arms. After three years with Gabrielle as his mother Solan had quite a bit of experience with hugs. It was Xena's cheek against his temple that let him know, this one was the kind that you were supposed to say something to break, so he said what was in his heart. "I love you, mother."
Breaking the embrace she cupped his face in her hands. "I love you, Solan." A genuine smile crossed her face and she released him with mock gruffness. "Go on now. Your grandmother will be cold tonight if you don't get to work." Xena gave Gabrielle a significant look and when he had disappeared through the entry to the main room, they grinned and put their ears to the door.
"Forty-five." Xena said quietly.
Gabrielle shook her head thinking. 'Less than that.' "Thirty." She whispered.
She counted twenty-nine heartbeats before the soft sound of a body hitting the floor and quiet footsteps could be heard in the room. Gabrielle chuckled and looked at the arched eyebrow of the raven haired beauty beside her. "He's my son too." She glanced at the door to the main room. "Come on."
Xena wanted to stay by the door and was able to peep through the keyhole long enough to see Solan standing motionless next to the bed before allowing Gabrielle to drag her back to the main room. To resist would cause too much noise. 'And besides.' She thought to herself. 'When Gabrielle is determined to get what she wants, resistance is pretty much futile.'
Solan crept quietly up to the bed. He looked at the sleeping woman with a quiet reverence. 'My grandmother.' He thought. For so much of his life he had seen families all around him. He had always thought of his uncle like a father but never did he dream that he would actually be able to meet his parents, much less his grandparents. He examined her face closer and reached up to feel his own cheekbones. A flash of Xena's angular face appeared in his mind and he knew they were all the same. 'Wow.' The blood connection he had with the women was awesome. His eyes closed at the thought and Gabrielle's face floated in the darkness. He smiled and opened his eyes. His bond with Xena was growing stronger everyday, but he doubted it could ever reach the love that he felt for Gabrielle, his first Mother. He heard footsteps stop outside the door and quickly went back out the window.
When Kima and Salla entered the room the only movement they saw was the sleeping woman and the gentle waving of curtains in the breeze.
Karis saw Solan practically run through the main room. The only thing that stopped her from following immediately was his wink as he exited the tavern. She looked at the two healers, both trying to examine the waitress' wrist, and rose to follow the boy. She was stopped again, this time by Rayna demanding her attention.
"I can fix dinner. If you think that would be all right." Rayna was a little uncomfortable around all the sad people and thought cooking would be a good excuse for her to leave. "I don't know if I should use this kitchen though."
Karis understood and looked at the barmaid. "How does the owner feel about strangers in her kitchen?" A deep chuckle from the back doorway halted the girls response.
"What she doesn't know won't hurt her." The warrior's glistening blue eyes locked on Rayna. "I would appreciate a good meal." She turned to the little waitress. "Show her the way."
That was too much. She flexed her wrist and hopped off the barstool. She may not have been very old but she wasn't intimidated very easily. She was used to dealing with large drunken farmers and traders, now to top it off she was angry. "Now you see here. This is Cyrene's place. You can't just come in here and start giving orders. Who do you think you are?" Her anger quickly dissapated when she saw the effect her words were having on the woman. Nothing in her experience had prepared her for The Look.
The blue eyes that had been softened with emotion were now ice hard. She gritted her teeth and growled at the girl. "I'm Xena."
Gabrielle watched the girl's eyes widen slightly before she fainted. She chuckled and patted Xena's shocked face. "You do have that effect on people, dear." Both healers rushed to attend the collapsed girl. Gabrielle grinned and turned her attention back to the girl and the healers. "Salla why don't you take Kima back to see Cyrene." It was a polite request from the Queen of the Amazons to one of her subjects.
Salla almost bowed then nodded and gestured for Kima to follow her. Kima remained by the unconcious girl. 'I don't take orders from slaves.' She thought. 'No matter how attached Xena seems to be to them.'
It was as much the tone in Xena's voice as it was the words that got her moving toward the back. "Kima. Cyrene is my mother."
The healer swallowed hard at the narrow eyed gaze. Kima could hear Xena's voice as clearly in her head as if the Empress had actually spoken. 'If she dies, you die.' She quickly went to join Salla.
Xena watched Gabrielle gently tending to the now rousing waitress for a moment before announcing. "I'm going for a walk."
Brenin followed Lila and her young charges to a small house on the edge of town. They hadn't spoken since the marketplace. Finally arriving in front of her home she put the children down and turned on Brenin. "You're an Amazon." It was an accusation tinged with hope.
Her response was cut off by the children. The word Amazon had turned their heads to each other then back to Brenin for a brief moment before screaming and running full pelt into the house. Seeing that Lila wasn't going to go after the children, Brenin responded truthfully. "I'm not an Amazon."
"But your necklace." Lila looked at the jewelry as her hand reached up to feel her own bare neck.
'Oh.' She thought and conceded with a smile. "That is Amazon." At Lila's confused look she continued. "It was a gift." It was, in fact, the only thing her mother had ever given her.
"So you know some Amazons?" Lila was excited now. Her father may still be angry but, despite everything, she loved her sister and wanted to know if she was all right. At Brenin's nod, Lila continued. "How?"
Still being as truthful as she could, Brenin began. "I am a scribe. I have copied several of their treaties and proclamations." She smiled. "Their Queen has been busy the last few years." She held out her hand. "My name is Brenin, by the way."
Lila blushed and brushed her thick black hair away from her eyes. "I'm Lila. The two terrors.." She indicated the house. "....are Gabe and Brie." She smiled wistfully. "I named them after my sister. She went to live with the Amazons a few years ago." It was too much to hope for but she continued. "I was hoping you could tell me if she was all right." She knew Gabrielle had been upset and angry when she left. 'I can't really blame her.' She thought. 'Maybe this woman can help me get a message to her. I know she probably hates me but she is my sister after all.'
Brenin held her breath when she heard the children's names. 'Her sister?' The scribe looked at the woman in front of her. A mane of thick black hair framed her round blue eyed face. 'She doesn't look anything like Gabrielle.' Torturing herself with maybes was getting nowhere so Brenin took a deep breath. "What is her name?"
Lila smiled. "Gabrielle."
"Yes I know her." Brenin studied Lila's eager face and chuckled to herself, thinking. 'This is just too easy. She likes me already!'
Solan dropped to the ground outside his grandmother's window. He looked around and seeing nobody started around the corner of the building, toward the woodpile he had seen earlier. Turning quickly, he bounced off a leather wall that hadn't been there until a few moments before. He looked up from his sudden sitting position to see Xena, standing with her arms crossed, leaning against the building.
"You didn't wake her did you?" She said it with a smile because she already knew he hadn't. Uncrossing her arms, she offered her hand to help him up.
"I just wanted to see her." His tone was plaintive and a little defiant.
She smiled wider. "We know." At his groan, she laughed out loud.
His eyes twinkled up at the laughing woman. "Is there anything you guys don't know?" Solan wondered if he would ever be able to know what everyone was thinking and what was going on the way Gabrielle and Xena seemed to be able to do.
She brushed his hair off his shoulders. "Not much." She looked into his smiling face and realized there was something she really did know and wondered if he did too. "When is your birthday?" When they were back in camp, he had told her he was twelve. She hadn't thought about it much at the time, but now, being back here forced her to think about exactly how much time had actually passed since Cortese had attacked.
He looked at her with questioning eyes. "I'm not sure. Uncle always celebrated my birthday on Winter Solstice. That's only a month or so away and then I'll be thirteen."
Xena listened to his answer and looked at his compact frame. 'Lyceus was small for his age too.' She did some quick math in her head and checked the turning leaves on the trees. 'This is one to talk to Gabrielle about, first.' She traced his jawline with her index finger, feeling the beginnings of a soft beard. She reached up to ruffle his hair and push him in the direction of the woodpile. "Come on. Let's get some of this brought in. Rayna will need wood for the kitchen fire too." She widened her eyes at the young man in mock fright. "I heard Gabrielle's stomach growling a little while ago."
"Uh Oh. We had better hurry then." He happily played along with the joke. It was nice to be able to talk to someone who loved Gabrielle as much as he did.
"You're telling me Gabrielle is Queen?" Lila stirred the pot on the stove, handed Brenin a glass of juice and sat down at the kitchen table.
"Yes." Brenin sipped the juice. "She has been now for three years."
"How do you know all this? Are you sure you're not an Amazon?" Lila's suspicious look was not very convincing. She was too excited about getting news of her sister to let anything dampen her spirits.
"I told you, I'm a scribe. I work with her to copy treaties and such." Brenin was determined to stick to the truth. It was easy to lie but then you had to keep track of what you had told who and eventually you get caught. Truth is simply easier to remember.
"So you've seen her? How is she? How does she look? When was the last time you saw her?" Lila had about a million questions for her new information source.
Brenin thought about how Gabrielle looked and smiled. Then she thought about the last time she saw her. The one and only visit the Queen had made to the jail. The cold look she remembered in the normally warm green eyes stopped her answers from forming. There was no further chance to speak anyway because of the stomping footsteps at the door. She looked up at the opening door to see a man entering the house. He didn't look happy to Brenin.
"Lila. I...." His eyes narrowed at Brenin. "Who's this?" He sat at the table and began to relace one of his boots.
Lila had jumped up at his entrace and was spooning the contents of the pot into a storage container. "This is Brenin. The children ran away from me this morning and she caught them before they got too far." She packed the container along with a loaf of bread and a waterskin into a basket.
Flexing his ankle to test the knots he had just made, he looked at Lila and growled. "I told you how to solve that problem."
Slamming the basket down on the table in front of him, she smiled sweetly. "I will NOT put my children on leashes like dogs!" They had been through this whole discussion before and Lila wasn't in the mood to go around again, especially in front of Brenin.
Brenin was sure, Amazon training or not, she didn't like this man. His whole attitude toward Lila was irritating but when the children entered the kitchen Brenin's dislike turned to active hatred.
"Daddy. Daddy." The children were in perfect chorus as they launched themselves at the seated man.
He smiled and held the boy on his lap, totally ignoring the girl. "I heard you were a bad boy today at the market." He smiled indulgently at the child in his arms.
"It was Brie's fault, Daddy. She made me." His father followed his pointing finger to the stricken little girl's face.
"Is that true Brie." The tone in his voice let Brenin know that even if it wasn't the little girl's word didn't mean much in the face of the boy's accuasations. Still she tried to deny it.
Brenin saw the terror in the child as she backed away from the glaring man, pressing her back into Brenin's knees. The very real danger of her father's wrath was enough to make the child forget the imagined danger of the stranger. Brenin picked her up and held the terrified girl on her lap. 'Don't worry Gabrielle. I'll protect you.' Brenin thought.
Lila took a deep breath and set a bowl of stew in front of the glaring man. "Eat something before you leave." She didn't want him to know anything about Brenin's association with Amazons. Her husband hated them almost as much as her father did. 'Stupid male pride.' She thought. She picked up the basket and sparing a brief glance a Brenin said. "I'll go hitch up the team."
Brenin rose from her seat shifting the child from her lap to her hip. "We'll help."
"She can do it." His flat refusal of help on Lila's behalf was ignored by Brenin.
"I didn't say she couldn't." She returned his glare. "I just said I would help." Brie squirmed in her arms and as soon as Brenin put her down she was out the door to play. The boy jumped off his fathers lap and the chase was on. Brenin noticed the man's slight smile at the boy.
Lila gestured for Brenin to follow her quickly. She stopped at
a fully loaded wagon and placed the basket on the seat before continuing
the short walk to the barn. She whispered to her
new friend. "Don't mention the Amazons around him. He hates them."
"Why?" Brenin could understand the children being afraid if the
adults threatened them with
scary Amazon stories but she couldn't possibly imagine why an adult would hate Amazons. She
took the reins Lila handed her and let the younger woman lead her to the wagon.
"When the slavers took us..." She began. "The men of the village came
after us." Lila stopped to
calm down her horse. "They aren't warriors or even hunters really so all they did was get beat
up." She patted the horse Brenin was hitching up. "When most of them were down, the
Amazons showed up and ... well ... " Lila wasn't sure how to say it.
"The Amazons kicked a little slaver butt?" Brenin supplied the phrase and Lila laughed.
"They kicked A LOT of slaver butt." She sighed. "The men think
the Amazons waited just so
they could show them up." Lila had never understood that attitude because one of the Amazons
had actually died. It wasn't the only reason but it was enough to satisfy the woman's curiosity.
The rest was too personal to share with a stranger. She saw her husband approaching and quickly double checked the rigging. 'No sense in asking for trouble.' She thought.
Brenin saw his approach as well. "Hey. I'm gonna go check on Brie." She gave Lila a little smile. "I haven't heard any screaming or yelling in a few minutes." She winked at Lila's grateful smile and walked back toward the house.
"Listen Lila." He walked up behind her and crossed his arms. "I'm sorry. I'm just upset."
She turned to look up at him. "Upset?"
He sniffed and nodded at her concern. "A trader came through this morning. He said he passed by Amazon land a few weeks ago and the drums were going crazy." He sighed. "I don't know what they are up to." He looked her in the eye. "I'm going to take the shipment to Amphipolis and then try to find out what the Amazons are doing." Squinting up at the sun, he took a deep breath. "I have to." He rewarded her affirmative nod with a little smile before climbing up to the wagon seat. His faint smile turned into a smirk. "I don't know how long I'll be gone."
She thought he had seen Brenin's parting wink, so she knew what he was implying and hated it. Perversely, she wanted to torture him and hear the jealousy in his voice so she waited for him to ask the question.
"Is your new friend going to be here when I get back?" His sneer was more derogatory than jealous.
"Maybe." She inwardly cheered at his wince. She watched as the wagon rolled down the road and breathed a sigh of relief. She hated his continuous snide remarks and was glad to get a break from them. She had endured them for months until she discovered that if she vaugely confirmed his little comments it irritated him enough to stop making them for a while. 'Just because he hasn't touched me in months he thinks I'll turn to the first warm body I find.' She thought. 'And if he thinks I don't know about the sorry little barmaid in Amphipolis, he is even stupider than Gabrielle thought he was.' She was really beginning to hate his accusations. She could feel the tears forming in her eyes. She was really beginning to hate him.
Xena and Solan stocked the kitchen hearth with enough wood to cook for an army which in their estimation was almost equal to a hungry Amazon Queen. She left Solan and Karis to arrange the wood in piles by the hearth and went to find Gabrielle.
Finding herself alone in the main room, Gabrielle had looked at the layout and rearranged some of the tables. The new arrangement accommodated a small space, clearly visible from all parts of the room. Sitting on a single stool in the middle of the space, Gabrielle began to recite a story to the non-existent audience. She had missed storytime during their journey and had jumped on the opportunity to practice.
Standing in the shadows, Xena watched as Gabrielle addressed the empty room. The Amazon Queen's soft voice floated through the air and wrapped itself around her. It was a beautiful story about two people who were so much in love that when they died the Gods turned them into trees with intertwining branches.
When Gabrielle dropped her arms to her sides and bowed her head, Xena moved out of the shadows. "That was beautiful." She smiled at the beaming bard. "I think I have a story for you too. What do you think about this..."
Gabrielle's eyes nearly popped out of her head when Xena finished the narrative. "Oh Xena. Are you sure?" She didn't want to believe it almost as much as she wanted it to be true.
"Uhh.. I don't think I would forget that." Xena rolled her eyes at the memory, suddenly feeling very old.
Gabrielle was excited now. "When can I tell it?"
"Tonight." She reached to brush a strand of blonde hair from Gabrielle's eyes and smiled. "After dinner, I think I'll request a story, my bard."
"Tonight, my warrior." Gabrielle smiled seductively. "You will get anything you request." She smiled at the arched eyebrow.
"Anything?" The soft purr and passionate kiss only hinted at the possible request list.
Breathless between kisses, Gabrielle managed to mumble two of the sweetest words Xena ever heard. "Yes. Anything."
Brenin moved away from the window quickly when she saw Lila returning to the house.
"Are you all right?" Trying to comfort the red-eyed woman, Brenin wrapped one arm around her shoulders.
Lila accepted the embrace and turning suddenly fully returned it. She sobbed on Brenin's shoulder long enough to thoroughly wet the material.
Pulling away from the comforting arms Lila gasped in dismay. "Look
what we've done to your
outfit!" She indicated the tear stained shoulder and the berry stained sides compliments of her children's escapade. "You can change in the spare room." She grabbed Brenin's hand. "Come on."
"I don't have anything to change into." Brenin resisted the pull on her hand.
Lila smiled. "I'll find you something." She dragged Brenin the rest of the way to the room before releasing her hold and snapping her fingers. "I know. I have some stuff stored out in the barn that will fit you." She looked appraisingly at Brenin. "Wait here. I know just the thing." It didn't take long to find the dress she wanted and return to the house. "I think this should fit you....." Her voice trailed off when she saw her new friend, naked.
Brenin had taken off the stained outfit and was waiting for Lila's return. Modesty was not an issue for Amazons so the scribe was confused when Lila gasped and averted her eyes. "Hey? What's wrong?" Brenin moved closer to Lila. "Lila? What is it?"
She blushed and handed Brenin the dress. "Nothing." Keeping her eyes averted she cleared her throat and spoke quietly. "I .... I need to .... tend to the livestock. Will you watch the children?"
Brenin noticed as soon as she had put on the dress Lila looked at her. "Sure. I'll watch them." From the blush on Lila's face and the fact that her husband hadn't touched her once when he was here, even to say goodbye, it wasn't hard to figure out why she didn't want them with her in the barn. Brenin grinned at the blushing woman and dropped her voice to a near sultry register. "Take your time." The woman's deepening blush and quick departure confirmed her suspicion. Brenin chuckled to herself. 'It's been a long time for me too. Maybe later I will....uh.. tend the livestock.'
Lila barely had time to reach the barn before Brenin had engrossed the children in a story. Especially Brie, since this one was about a little village girl named Gabrielle and her sworn protector for the day, Brenin.
Thunder rumbled in the twilight. It was not in season but the storm was welcomed by the farmers, who needed the rain. It was also a stroke of luck for a certain pair of mothers. A bit of privacy was exactly what they required for a story that needed told. The tavern was empty. Locals didn't want to get out in the storm so it was just Xena and Gabrielle, Solan, Karis, and Rayna. The healers had opted to stay in Cyrene's room to watch her reaction to the treatment they started. Xena sent the barmaid home saying there weren't any customers so there was no reason to stay. The grateful girl had left quickly.
After the excellent dinner, that consisted of as many of Solan's favorites as Rayna could manage, the little cook excused herself and went back to the kitchen. Xena waited a few minutes and when she heard three taps on the back of a pan, she gave Gabrielle a grin. Looking at Solan, she began to speak. "Solan." She smiled at the effort it took him to tear his eyes from Karis. "Remember this afternoon when I asked about your birthday?" She waited for his nod before continuing. "Well it isn't on Winter Solstice." She paused and grinned at his confusion. She waited long enough for Rayna to reappear with a large cake. "It's today. Today is your birthday Solan."
His face lit up with the idea of not having to wait to be a year older. He glanced quickly at Karis. "Wow. Did you know?" When Karis shook her head negative they both looked back at his mothers.
Gabrielle continued where Xena had left off. "In honor of your birthday. We have agreed to give you ..."
Xena jumped in. "..One wish...."
Gabrielle finished. " ...And one gift."
He didn't know what to say to that. But he was certain that his true wish could not be granted by anyone. He let his gaze linger briefly on Karis, before looking at Xena. "I don't think even you can grant my wish."
Xena smiled at his sad statement. "You will find, my son, that I can do a great many things." She turned to Gabrielle. "You heard him. The wish part is mine, so you get the gift portion of the evening."
Gabrielle nodded and rose, gesturing for Solan to take her vacated place next to Xena as she moved to the recently created performance area. Karis remained where she was and Rayna sat behind her but still close enough to see Gabrielle's lips as she spoke. "My gift to you, is a story." She smiled at the enchanted look on his face. Glancing once at Karis, she focused on Solan and began.
"This story starts out with my first trip to Amphipolis. I was four years old and my parents brought me with them on a trading caravan. We stopped here for a festival. While my parents were at their booth, Xena, the innkeeper's daughter.." Gabrielle smiled at Xena. "..had the privilege of watching me." She saw Xena's arched eyebrow and returned the gesture. "Naturally the next day my parents took me home. And now we switch the story to Xena. She spent the next year doing all the things teenagers do until one day the village was attacked by the warlord Cortese. Young Xena rallied the town. They all fought bravely and battled back the warlord but he escaped into the countryside. The battle was not without it's casualties. Xena's brother, Lyceus had been mortally wounded in the fight." Gabrielle watched a tear make it's way down Xena's cheek but the warrior's eyes begged her to continue. "Her grief at the loss of her brother pushed Xena to do more than protect her town. She gathered her army and swept across the land. For the next two years she fought warlords and gained control of thier armies, toppled kingdoms and looted their treasuries, no one was safe from Xena's wrath. The entire known world trembled at her feet. On her way back from Chin she discovered that she was going to have a child." Gabrielle paused to gather her thoughts. Xena had told her about this part of her life but they had decided that was a darkness Solan didn't need to know about. "When the child was born, his father, Borias, took him from Xena, to protect him from the evil people she was associated with at the time." She saw Xena close her eyes and with one arm around her son's shoulder squeeze him tightly. "Xena did look for him but his father had hidden him well. When the evil people killed Borias, Xena knew that the child would be better off living without her. There was too much danger in her life and the boy would probably be killed because of her. So the boy lived happily with his adopted father until his village was attacked. He was rescued by a group of Amazons. One of which loved him very much and adopted him as her own son." She looked at her son with a smile. "That would bring the story back to me. I could adopt him because I had been made Queen not too long before. At twenty one, I was the youngest Queen ever. That was three years ago." She paused and saw Xena lick her lips. "Now if you have been paying attention you will know that the child I'm talking about is Solan. And if you have been paying very close attention you will be able to figure out..." She watched Xena lean to Solan's ear and could see the words forming on her lips. 'Wish granted.' Gabrielle simultaneously finished with a smile. "That he is sixteen years old."
Solan was thrilled with the story. He always loved Gabrielle's voice but to know why he had been given up was worth more to him than anything. It had always hurt a little to think she didn't love him enough to keep him. To know that she was concerned for his safety even in the beginning was an incredible feeling. He heard Xena's soft voice in his ear. 'Wish granted.' He started to look at her when Gabrielle's final words cut through his confusion. 'What!' He knew he had to have heard wrong. Shaking his head to clear his confusion he looked up at Xena's smiling face.
"Your mother tells a good story, huh." She saw her eyes reflected in his.
He swallowed hard and whispered. "Is it true?" He saw Xena glance at Gabrielle and turned to her. "Is it true?"
Gabrielle stood in front of her son. "It's true......" She pulled him to his feet, hugged him and smiled. "....I promise."
Disbelief was rapidly being replaced with sheer joy. It would only take one more reassurance to convince him. He held her at arms length and studied her face intently. "The Queen of the Amazons always keeps her promises?" He didn't breathe as he waited for the answer, closing his eyes at the perfect harmony of his mother's voices. "Always." Suddenly a vision floated in the darkness before him. His eyes flew open and immediately focused on his best friend. As fast as his heart had been beating from the news, it nearly stopped when he saw Karis. 'She's crying!'
Karis had been thrilled at the news that today was Solan's birthday. 'One less year to wait.' She thought. She divided her attention between the story Gabrielle was telling and his smiling face. That was almost a mistake. The shocked and confused look on Solan's face nearly made her miss the ending of the story. She had been around Rayna long enough for the little cook to teach her a few things about reading lips so when she saw Xena whisper to Solan.'Wish granted.' She was a little confused. 'He didn't make a wish did he?' Gabrielle's words penetrated her thoughts. 'Sixteen?' She thought. 'What?!?' She quickly went back over the story in her head. 'Gabrielle is twenty-four now. She was four when she was here the first time. That's twenty years difference. One year before Cortese attacked, that's nineteen years. Two years to pillage and plunder through Chin, that's seventeen years and one year to have him. God's .... he is sixteen!' She felt one tear of joy sliding down her cheek and closed her eyes thinking. 'I don't even have a present for him.'
A quiet smile was shared between blue and green as Solan knelt in front of Karis. He reached up to gently wipe the tear from her face. "Hey there." He smiled when her eyes flew open. "What's wrong?"
The concern in his eyes nearly broke her heart. "Nothing's wrong." She assured him, knowing he wasn't convinced.
"But you are crying..." He reached up to catch another falling tear and tilting his head, turned on his most charming smile. "...What's up with that?"
Her short bark of near hysterical laughter was followed by a deep breath. Having kept her feelings in check for so long it was almost automatic for her to grasp the most innocent thought in her head. "I don't have a gift for you."
He glanced at his mothers. Seeing only love and encouraging smiles, he turned back to Karis. Rising to his feet, he took her hands and pulled her up with him, pleased that he was as tall as she was. Gently brushing her hair from her eyes, he traced her jaw with his fingertips and whispered. "You are a gift to me." He slid his hand behind her neck and with the gentlest of pressure closed the distance between their nearly even lips.
When Rayna saw Solan kiss Karis she glanced at the proud parents. Xena had moved to stand next to Gabrielle and they were now locked in as passionate a kiss as their son was. Rayna decided it was time for her to leave. She moved quietly toward the door to the kitchen. To her surprise, as she rounded the corner she ran into Kima. The healer held up a cup and mouthed 'For Cyrene' as an explanation of her presence but even in the shadows, Rayna could see the blush on her face. 'I wonder how much she heard?' The little cook took a deep breath. She smelled the chicken broth, the herbs the healers had been treating Cyrene with and something else she couldn't identify at the moment. Making a mental note to tell Karis about the eavesdropper, she smiled, nodded, and continued toward the kitchen.
Kima had been mortified that the little cook had found her spying. Luckily, she covered well. 'Simple girl. She doesn't suspect a thing.' The healer was too busy thinking about what she had found out to see that Rayna had turned to watch her go down the hall. 'So the little slave is actually Queen of the Amazons and the boy is Xena's son. I guess this news will change a few of Iolaus' plans.' She chuckled to herself until she realized the seriousness of her situation. 'Assuming I can pull the old woman through and get back to the palace to tell him.'
Rayna returned to the main room with enough cups for everyone and a large pitcher of wine. She was about to fill the glasses when she saw everyone look toward the door. Looking up, she saw a man standing in the doorway. He was soaked to the skin by the storm. To her surprise he was staring past her and when she turned to follow the gaze she saw her Queen's wide green eyes staring back at him.
When the figure appeared in the doorway, Xena felt Gabrielle tense. She looked to see her love's wide green eyes focused on the soggy stranger and gave her a little squeeze. "Do you know him?" Gabrielle's stunned reaction to the man was beginning to frighten her.
Gabrielle swallowed and nodded. "Yes." She couldn't believe her eyes. 'Why here? Why now?' She thought. She looked up at the concern in Xena's eyes and hoped the warrior wouldn't overreact. "We were to be married." She held Xena firmly around the waist, feeling the growl that was not yet audible. Looking back toward the doorway she heard him speak.
"Hello Gabrielle." His strangled voice echoed in the large room.
Willing her voice to be normal she replied. "Hello Perdicus."
Continued in Part 4