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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 –It’s a Xena story. There are forest dwellers, bad guys, pregnant bards, sly Amazons, several troublemakers, and one very persistent mincemeat pie. Of course there is violence. Not too much though. Maybe one head, maybe two.. it depends on how it goes.
Subtext - I’m not disclaiming subtext anymore. If you’ve gotten this far in the series, you know what it’s about. I don’t personally think there’s anything in their relationship that needs disclaiming. It’s not like they’re vegetarians, or something.
This is, of course, PG13 level involvement here, no more. That never changes.. for those of you who are waiting for me to stick in a rip roaring, no holds barred graphic orgy scene, make sure you have plenty of coffee and doughnuts handy. And a comfortable chair. And a good book. I can recommend some excellent altfic bards for you if you drop me a note.
If you read this story, and are offended by the love portrayed within, too bad. No raspberry brownies for you.
Any and all comments are always welcome. You can email them to: email@example.com
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Circle of Life
By Melissa Good
"Well, that was interesting." Cesta remarked sarcastically, as they escaped into the cool night air. "The most fun I had was watching that one woman get attacked by that beetle two rows up from us."
"Hey.. how was I supposed to know it was going to be held in a different language?" Gabrielle protested. "The chanting was sort of.. um... " She waved her hands. "And Isaac’s singing was.. um.. "
Atonal, was what Xena considered it, her perfect pitch having gotten a severe beating about the head and neck. "Consider it a learning experience." The warrior told them, giving the Amazons a glare over her soulmate’s head. "Besides, we didn’t really have anything better to do."
"I coulda thought of... " Cesta stopped in mid word, and clamped her mouth shut, having been the recipient of a Warrior Princess special direct look. "So.. what’s for dinner?" She glanced behind them "Think the guys are going to join us?"
"Their part goes on longer." Gabrielle advised her. "They talk about important stuff." The sarcasm in her voice was very evident. "The women get to go home and take care of the kids and the house, and put out a nice dinner for them when they get back."
"That’s a bad thing?" Solari quipped. "Hades, I can tell ya I’m glad to be out of that stuffy place... they can flap their jaws all night if they want"
Gabrielle merely shook her head, and sighed, as they reached the barn and Xena opened the door. "Well, I guess we pool our supplies.. let’s see what we’ve got."
It wasn’t much. Some jerky, some dried fruit, several nutballs, and a couple of trail bars. Gabrielle studied the small pile. "Better than that damn soup last night, and I’m hungry enough to start munching on the hay in here, so.."
Xena was rooting around in the corner, and now she stepped back. "Got a small brazier back here." She pointed. "Solari, start a fire in there."
"Why?" The Amazon inquired. "It’s not that cold out."
Xena counted to ten. "Because I said so." She replied evenly, before she muttered something under her breath and stalked out, slamming the door behind her.
The Amazons all stared. "What is up with her?" Solari asked, putting her hands on her hips and turning to look at Gabrielle. "She’s been acting like a b.."
The bard held up a hand. "Hold it." Now her face was serious. "Xena always has a reason she does things.. and if she asks you to do something, it’s because there is a reason behind it. Not because she just felt like telling you to do something, okay? In this case, she probably wanted a fire started because we’re going to end up having fish, or rabbit, or something for dinner."
"Oh." Solari scowled. "Why didn’t she just say so?"
Gabrielle sighed. "She hates when people question her. She really hates when everyone questions her, which is basically what’s been going on all day. I mean... she didn’t ask everyone to get involved in this, and now we are, and she’s responsible for all of us." She walked over and settled herself down at the makeshift table. "So.. do what she asked, and start a damn fire in there.. okay?"
"Okay." Solari meekly agreed, giving Cesta and Frendan a look as she regarded the small stove. "I’ll go get some firewood."
"I’ll go with you." Cesta said, hastily, as she met Solari at the door.
A little silence fell over the room then, as Frendan trudged over and settled herself on the bench near where Gabrielle was writing. Aileen knelt and examined the stove, while Ellis and Lista moved around, clearing space for bedrolls and arranging their stuff.
"Is Xena really mad, your majesty?" Frendan asked quietly.
The bard looked up at her, chewing on the end of her quill thoughtfully. "Well...aggravated, yeah... not mad as in really angry, no." She replied. "It takes a lot to get her really mad."
"Oh." The smaller woman said. "You seem to be really good at dealing with that."
Gabrielle paused, and cocked her head. "Dealing with her, you mean? Well... we’ve been through a lot.. I’ve learned a thing or two." She smiled ruefully. "We’ve had our moments... I think what I realized finally is that it’s just better to be honest... we used to get mad at each other, and then wait for the other one to say something.. and with Xena, you can wait well into the next year, you know?"
Frendan laughed, and ducked her head.
"So what I do now is just be really honest, and ask her what I want to know.. and it works out." The bard finished, as she turned back to her journal.
"Do you ever get scared of her?" The Amazons asked softly.
Gabrielle leaned on her elbows and twirled her quill between her fingers. "That’s a hard question...because sure, there have been times when I’ve been scared half to death by things that have happened, and, yes, things she’s done." She paused, considering the question seriously. "I think I can say I’ve been scared by her a number of times, but I’ve never been scared of her, if that makes any sense."
"Yeah." Frendan answered quietly. "I think you’re a really brave person, though."
Gabrielle gave her a tiny smile. "Thanks." She sighed, and reread her entry, then scribbled a note on the bottom.
Cesta and Solari came back with neatly split firewood and went to the stove, stocking it expertly and adding tinder. The dark haired Amazon struck a spark, and the fire started to burn steadily. "They think we’re heathens for doing this, by the way." She called over her shoulder to the steadily scribing Queen.
"Fine.. I’ll be a full heathen." Gabrielle muttered. "You can tell them my religion dictates not going hungry after we’ve been working on saving their butts all day." She glanced up several heartbeats before the door swung open, to reveal her soulmate’s dripping, mud covered body. "Um..hi."
Xena edged in the door, tossing her head back to clear the damp hair from her eyes, and swinging around to reveal a string of fish. "Someone wanna take these?"
A scramble of bodies almost overwhelmed the warrior, and she blinked as hands took the still twitching fish from her, as she glanced over the Amazons heads to where her soulmate was closing up her diary and standing. Green eyes met blue, and Gabrielle smiled warmly, rolling her eyes a little at the other women. "Found something interesting in the stream."
"Other than those?" The bard inquired, glancing appreciatively at the trout.
Xena nodded, and walked over, dripping water and mud on the straw covered floor. She closed with the bard, and held out a hand. Gabrielle obligingly turned hers palm up, and blinked as a small rock the size of an acorn was dropped into it.
Then she looked closer, and noticed the candelight was reflecting back in an intense, rich, buttery golden shade. "Good grief.. this isn’t what I think it is, is it?" She looked up at her partner. "A gold nugget?"
The muddy warrior nodded. "Yep." She glanced at Solari. "Explains those heavy sacks and baskets."
The Amazons clustered around, and stared at Gabrielle’s outstretched hand. "Artemis’ Headpiece." Cesta breathed. "There must be enough gold around here to buy Athens."
Xena snorted. "Try Rome, if that’s any indication." She moved over to a corner of the barn, and started stripping off her armor, draping it over a stall divider.
Gabrielle grimaced, then glanced at the still goggling Amazons. "Let’s get those cleaned and on the fire.. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m starving." She watched them scatter, before she closed her hand over the nugget, and walked over to where her partner was standing. "Here.." She tried to hand the nugget back.
Xena looked at her, then peeked over towards the Amazons, who were clustered around the stove. "No..it’s for you." She muttered softly. "You could get the merchants at the winterfair to make it into a necklace, if you want."
"Tch tch." The bard clucked, moving closer. "You’re going to ruin your grumpy image that way, Xena." She smiled, and patted the damp, leather clad side. "Thank you very much for getting something for dinner, by the way."
The blue eyes warmed, and a wry grin found its way across the warrior’s face. "Gave me a chance to relax a little." She admitted in a low tone, as she unlaced and pulled off her boots. "I’m gonna go rinse this muck off."
Gabrielle carefully knelt, and retrieved a soft, blue tunic from their pack, handing it to her with a smile. "I’ll go make sure they don’t burn those." She stood, then grabbed the stall divider as a wave of dizziness almost made her knees buckle. "Whoa."
Xena’s arms were around her instantly, holding her up and taking the weight off her legs as she blinked. "Easy."
The bard waited a moment, then nodded. "Okay... I’m all right. Wow.. haven’t had one of those in a while." She muttered. "Guess that’s from not eating all day."
"Good guess." The warrior gave her a stern look. "Go over there and siddown..." She walked over to where they’d put their communal food stockpile and retrieved two of their trail bars, which she handed to the bard. "Here... munch on that."
For once, Gabrielle didn’t argue. She took a bite of the sweet, fruity snack and chewed it, then went quietly to the bench Xena had indicated and seated herself, keeping an eye on the busy Amazons. Cesta, she noted, apparently knew how to clean and cook fish, and seemed to be doing a good job at it. With a sigh of relief, the bard settled back to wait.
Xena watched her, then wiped the worried look off her face and ambled outside, heading for the trough of water. She was glad she’d gotten the fish, and more than a little surprised and discomfited to find the nugget resting in the bottom of the stream winking at her.
It meant trouble, that was for sure, and not just with Baracus. If word got out of ample gold in the area, there’d be a stampede to get it, Greeks and others, and she knew that while her own little militia could handle the odd warlord or two, an army was a different matter.
She picked up a bucket of the cold water and dumped it over her head, rubbing her hair to get the gritty grains of sand from the bottom of the stream out of it. She followed that with another couple of splashes, scrubbing the black mud from the banks off her arms and legs.
Footsteps made her look up, and she tossed her head back, flinging dark, wet hair out of her eyes and focusing into the dim, murky light. A pause, then. "Rebekah?"
"Yes." The girl’s voice sounded nervous, and unsure. "I brought this from my mother." She moved a little closer, and held up her hands, which contained what looked like a loaf of bread. "She said she felt bad, with you doing all the moving for us, and not having supper." Her eyes stared at Xena’s damp form, covered only by her brief leathers and grew round and huge.
The warrior put her bucket down and walked over, kneeling down to put her eyes at the girl’s level. "That’s really nice of her." She glanced over her shoulder. "You want to bring it inside? My hands are pretty wet."
Rebekah nodded, a little uncertainly. "I’ve never seen someone take a bath like that." She mentioned, curiosity getting the better of her. "Wasn’t it cold?"
Xena smiled. "Yeah.. a little.. but I just went fishing in the stream.. and I was pretty muddy.. we don’t have a bathtub in there."
"You went fishing at night?" The girl asked, incredulous. "Did you catch anything?"
The warrior nodded. "Sure did." She stood and motioned towards the barn door. "Come on.. I need to go dry off." She opened the door and watched the girl enter cautiously, peering around at the now strange surroundings, then she followed. Her eyes caught Gabrielle’s, and she indicated the girl. "Sarah sent over some bread."
The Amazons looked up, and smiled, as Gabrielle untucked her legs and stood, walking over to Rebekah. "That was really nice, Rebekah... thank you for bringing it over."
The girl handed her the loaf, which was covered with a linen cloth. The bard removed it, exposing a shiny brown surface of what appeared to be braided twists of bread. "Oh.. how pretty." She complimented the girl. "I’ve never seen bread like that."
Rebekah smiled and relaxed a little. "The mothers make it... it’s got eggs, and raisins in it.. it’s my favorite."
"Oh yeah?" Gabrielle set the loaf down on her table, aware of the sizzling scent of cooking fish that now comfortably permeated the barn. "Well, it must be good then." She picked up the small knife she’d been using to sharpen her quills, and sliced off a small end, taking a gingerly taste. "Mm." She made a surprised sound, delighted by the rich, sweet taste. "That is good."
A warmth at her back revealed a curious Xena, who peered over her shoulder. "Here." The bard sliced off another small bit, and offered it to her soulmate who took it in her teeth with a wary expression. "Go on.. it’s good. You’ll like it."
Xena gave her a look, but chewed the bit and blinked. "It sure is." The warrior had changed into her dry tunic and fluffed her dark hair out to dry in the candlelight. "Wanna join us for dinner?" She asked Rebekah.
The girl looked very startled "Oh.. I...um... " She looked around. "I’ve never... " Then she stopped and thought. "Is this what you do when you’re out in the woods alone?" She asked Xena, looking up at her with open curiosity.
"Sort of." The warrior replied. "We’re usually outside, and not in a barn, but we just catch things, and cook them, yes - if that’s what you mean." She gently nudged her soulmate towards the low, makeshift table the Amazons had created, and were clustered around. "C’mon... it won’t hurt you." She smiled at Rebekah.
The girl surrendered, and moved timidly towards the table. "All right... " She seated herself down at one end, staring wide eyed at the Amazons, who smiled back at her. "Goodness, you’re all naked."
Gabrielle laughed gently, as she eased down next to her, very aware of the warm hand steadying her back. "Not quite." She put the bread down on the table, next to the wooden planks containing the grilled fish, and the assortment of other edibles they’d dug up.
"Do you say a prayer, thanking the Lord for the food before you eat?" Rebekah asked.
"We’d have to say one to Xena." Solari chuckled. "She got the fish." She reached over and neatly sliced the bread up with her belt knife. "And she’d probably kick our.. "
"Solari." Gabrielle gave her a look.
"Uh... kneecaps." The Amazon grinned at her Queen, taking a slice of the bread and adding a side of trout to her trencher, along with some dried fruit.
"Here." Feldan put a smooth travel plate down for Rebekah, and portioned some fish onto it for her. "Your house is that big one on the corner, isn’t it?"
The girl nodded, and picked up a bit of fish, tasting it cautiously. "Oh..." She nibbled it more eagerly. "That’s really good.. mother always boils our fish."
Everyone winced. "Well.. " Gabrielle mused. "If you eat it cold, and have a sauce on it, that’s not bad."
"No.. we have it warm." Rebekah told her. "With dill."
Xena tasted her fish, then gave Cesta an approving nod. "Nice job."
"Thanks." The redhead preened. "Our village is coastal, so we take a lot of pride in our fish...and we have the best summer clam bakes." The conversation turned to the differences in their villages, and Rebekah merely listened, nibbling on her fish and watching the faces in fascination until the door opened, and deep, male voices were heard. She stiffened, her eyes widening.
"Bout time you guys made it back here." Xena glanced over her shoulder, spotting her brother, Johan and a very disgruntled looking Jessan. "What in Hades did you do... marry one of them?"
"Ha ha." Toris glared at her. "No.. we got stuck in a debate." The three of them ambled over, and collapsed on the other side of the table. "Hey.. where’d the fish.... " Blue eyes flicked and met their twins across the table. "Oh.. dumb question...thanks, sis."
Xena leaned back against a stall support and gave him a gracious nod. "Anytime." She noticed that Rebekah was staring at Jessan open mouthed, and she smiled quietly. "Beats being in that cage, huh Jess?"
"Oh please." The forest dweller mumbled, around a mouthful of trout. "That was worse than the time our training group got stuck in a peat bog, and had to be rescued." His golden eyes flicked up, finding Rebekah’s and blinking. "Hey.. it’s a kid." Jessan remarked. "You’re not going to ask me to show you my fangs, are you?"
The girl shook her head emphatically.
Jessan smiled, showing all of his impressive white teeth. "Great."
"Rebekah brought us over that bread." Gabrielle hid a grin, and indicated the half eaten loaf. "Try some.. it’s really good." She stretched a little. "Long day. "
"I’ll second that." Johan sighed wearily, munching on a slice topped with some fish. "Lassie, this has been more adventure than these bones have seen in a dogs age."
"And it’s not over yet." Solari sighed. "I shoulda known that... I figured, hey.. two days, get the guys loose, we’re outta here." She shook her head. "I forgot who we had with us."
"Hey!" Gabrielle protested. "It’s not my fault things got so complicated!"
They all looked at her.
The bard poked out her lower lip, and gazed up at her soulmate. "Is it?"
Xena let her wait a moment, then she smiled, and circled the bard’s body with her arms, pulling her back to rest against her chest. "No." She told her. "It’s my fault." She told her, then gave everyone a look. "Got that?"
Everyone laughed, and resumed eating. When they finished. Xena glanced across the table. "Aileen, would you walk Rebekah back to her house, please.. and tell her mother thank you for the bread?"
"Please?" A soft whisper tickled her ears, and she felt a gentle nudge in the ribs.
"Sure.." Aileen smiled at the girl. "C’mon..." She led Rebekah to the door, and opened it. and the girl turned to face them.
"Thank you." She said carefully.
They waved at her, and watched as the door closed.
Gabrielle nestled closer and poked her again. "That was very subversive."
Blue eyes batted innocently at her. "Subversive? But Gabrielle.. all I did was ask her to eat with us." Then the warrior grinned, and glanced around. "So... interesting accommodations." The barn was tall, and well made, with hay lofts in either corner, and strongly built stalls around the perimeter. The area in the center was open, and had posts with thick, iron rings inset to allow animals to be hitched to them. Most of the stalls were occupied by placidly chewing beasts, not a few of whom were giving Jessan sideways looks.
"Relax." He told them, burping gently and patting his stomach. "I’ve already eaten."
Everyone chuckled a little, then glanced at each other. "So.. do we draw straws, or what?" Solari finally asked wryly.
Xena let out a low laugh. "Ten years as a warlord taught me one real important thing." She got to one knee, then gently scooped up the startled Gabrielle and stood, cradling her. "When it comes to sleeping.. never draw straws." She stalked across the hay littered ground and mounted the thin ladder to the nearer hay loft, balancing both herself and the bard with effortless grace and strength as she moved upwards. Once at the top she turned, surveyed them all gaping at her, then smiled at them. "Night."
She picked her way carefully across the uneven surface, and settled her burden down in the back corner, on top of a particularly comfy pile of springy hay.
"You know." Gabrielle regarded her fondly. "There are times when I really like that little bit of the warlord that comes shining through."
Xena put her hands on her hips and raised an eyebrow. "Oh really?" She purred.
"C’mere." The bard crooked a finger at her.
The warrior slowly dropped to one knee, then extended out onto one side, stretching her long legs and propping her head up on one hand, close enough to her soulmate to feel the warmth coming off her skin. "Yeeesss?" She drew the word out teasingly.
Gabrielle studied her in the very dim light afforded by the candles flickering below. She reached a hand out, and gently stroked the warrior’s cheek, letting her fingers run back into the dark hair as she pulled herself up on an elbow and leaned forward, kissing her.
Tasting the spices Cesta had used, and the tangy hint of raisin from the bread and feeling the soft, silky hair as it shifted under her fingers as Xena moved closer, sliding a hand up along her hip. She let her eyes drift open as they parted for a moment, and saw the pale blue eyes darken and the faint, teasing smile edge Xena’s lips as the warrior studied her.
She felt so attractive, reflected in those eyes. It was a really good feeling, putting solid patches on the insecurity she’d felt after she’d started showing, and was awkward and unsure of what to expect from her partner. But Xena had never let her down.. never made her feel ugly or unwanted, not even for a second. She loved her for that.
She loved her for a lot of reasons, of course. But that was one of them. "You know I really love you." She murmured, letting her eyes show it.
Xena’s widened a bit, and the lashes fluttered. "Even when I’m being grumpy?" She asked, lightly.
"Yeah." The bard replied, simply, leaning forward again to kiss her, and finding herself unexpectedly enfolded in warm, linen scented warmth as she was picked up and cuddled in a pair of strong arms. She let her fingers search along Xena’s skin, parting the tunic edges and slipping beneath them, as she felt the warmth of their connection soak into her like sunlight.
I wonder... She reflected, as Xena’s hand traced a tingling path down her back. If the baby can feel this.
She hoped so.
She also hoped she remembered not to squeal. Otherwise, it was going to be one Hades of an embarrassing morning.
Xena leaned back against her impromptu mattress, and lazily watched the setting moon’s light stream in the high windows of the barn. It was almost dawn, and she was curled up very comfortably with Gabrielle, enjoying this little bit of peace before the start of what she knew was going to be a hectic day.
Everyone was sleeping. She could count three male snores, and four female ones, and idly considered trying to match snores with owners, then decided she really didn’t care much one way or the other. Only she was awake to hear the soft hoot of an owl up in the rafters, it’s translucent eyes turning ever so often her way and catching the fading moonlight.
Only she was awake to smell the strong hint of rain on the air, and hear the gentle rumble of thunder that could, possibly, buy them a bit more time, depending on if Baracus chose to ride in a storm or not.
Only she was awake to feel the subtle movement under her protective hands, as Gabrielle’s baby also woke, and stirred, tumbling about in lazy somersaults that pressed erratically against the bard’s belly.
It was a beautiful time of the morning. Xena smiled up at the moon, and gently kissed the fair head tucked under her chin. A patter overhead sent her eyes that way, as the rain started, and the breeze brought in a scent rich with water and earth, and the dampness of wood. The baby moved again, and she wondered if it could hear the thunder, and sense the rain as well... no one really knew, though.
No one remembered, at least not when they were awake. Xena remembered a child who had grown up with her in Amphipolis, who was, from an infant, frightened of thunderstorms almost to the point of irrationality. She’d found out later from Cyrene that the child had been a month from birth when one of the worst storms in the village’s history had struck, and half the buildings destroyed including the one her mother was sheltering in.
So.. who knew? Maybe the baby could hear the rumbling.. certainly she seemed to hear singing, and would tumble around if Xena started singing to her.
She. Her. The warrior rolled her eyes. They both tended to do that, as though it wasn’t up to chance, but some knowledge they both had. Wishful thinking, but Xena found herself becoming intensely curious about the baby, wondering what it was thinking, what it was doing.. would it be smart? Cute? The warrior glanced at Gabrielle and smiled. Yeah, it would probably be both.. if it took after it’s mother.
She tried not to get excited, but sometimes she couldn’t help it, wanting the months to go faster so she could, at last, meet this child. So that Gabrielle could meet this child, and at last hold her own infant in her arms, without fear or... Xena’s lips tightened. Without worrying that I want to kill it.
She wondered if Gabrielle thought about that. If the bard would ever be reluctant to let her be a part of the child’s life because of it. Or was Gabrielle scared on her own behalf, given what had happened before?
The warrior sighed soundlessly. This time was different. There was no Dahok, no supernatural influences, just a regular, very ordinary pregnancy that was going along outstandingly well. Even Lila had been envious of that.
"I want you there with me." Gabrielle had stated, almost nervously, as they eased down the road into Potadeia.
"Gabrielle, it’s just your family... I know they’ll be fine with this." Xena had argued. "Come on now."
"Xena.. " The bard had tugged one her shoulder armor, forcing her to turn around in the saddle and peer back. "Please?" She’d softened her voice. "I need you there."
She’d leaned a bit and kissed the bard’s forehead. "Okay." She’d humored her partner. "I’ll stand behind you and do the ‘threatening glare’ number, all right?"
"Okay." Gabrielle had resumed her tight hug, and pressed her face against Xena’s back, leaving it there until they ambled in to Potadeia’s main square, to the cheerful greetings of its inhabitants. Lila had spotted them right away, and hurried over.
"Gabrielle!" She’d squealed, waiting for the bard to slip off Argo’s tall back, and hugging her. "Hey... we weren’t expecting you... but it’s great that you’re here." Then she’d looked up. "Hi, Xena."
"Hi." The warrior had smiled a greeting, as she dismounted. "We were on the way back home, thought we’d drop in."
"It’s great... and believe it or not, we were going to send a note up there, sis... we were hoping you’d help out with a little problem." Lila told her, as she watched Xena turn Argo over to a boy from the stables, and shoulder both of their packs. "So your timing is perfect."
"Really?" Gabrielle had looked flattered. "Sure.. I’ll help if I can.. what’s it about?"
Lila had linked arms with her, as they strolled along towards their parents house. "Remember your friend Serephim? Seems she’s run off to some weird cult or something.. her parents were hoping you could find her, and see what’s going on with that."
"Seraphim... gods.. I haven’t seen her for... " Gabrielle had considered. "Years.. she was off at her aunts when I left..." Her eyes had turned to Xena, who was pacing silently alongside. "Shouldn’t take long to find her... she’s really nice, Xena... I had a lot of fun with her when I was growing up."
"Sure." Xena had said casually. "Sounds like an easy one." Not knowing then how those words would come back to haunt her. "Think she’ll remember you?"
Gabrielle had laughed. "Sure... we used to get into all kinds of trouble together.. she’ll remember me."
They’d gone on to the family homestead, where Hecuba had greeted them warmly, hugging her daughter and giving Xena a look that had convinced the warrior she almost received the same treatment.
"Great Athena...it’s good to see you, daughter. " Hecuba had shooed them inside. "Come.. I was just getting some lunch.. you both look like you could use it." Lila had gone off to retrieve her son, and they settled down in the small living area after Hecuba bustled out with plates of cold, sliced quail and roasted roots for them.
"So." She’d said, seating herself and taking a bite. "How are things with you both?"
Green eyes and blue had exchanged wry glances. "Same as usual. " Xena had answered, after it became apparent her soulmate wasn’t going to. "We were just out west of here... had a little problem to take care of.. then we were headed back home."
"Oh?" The gray haired woman had cocked her head. "Really? We didn’t think we’d see you back this way so soon... are you settling in for the winter?"
Gabrielle had nibbled on a root. "Um... you could say that, yes... we... um... " She’d taken a breath, and released it. "We decided to kind of stick around there for a while.. maybe into the spring.. we’ll see."
Her mother’s eyes had brightened. "That’s great news." She’d smiled. "I mean, I know you do enjoy your adventuring, Gabrielle, but it makes me glad to hear you’re thinking of settling down for a while... you don’t know how I worry about you sometimes." Her eyes had shifted to Xena. "No offense to you, Xena.. I know my daughter’s in safe hands."
Xena had returned the brief smile, and unobtrusively curled an arm around her soulmate’s waist, sensing the tension in the slim body next to her. "No offense taken, Hecuba..." She’d answered mildly. "It gets dangerous out here, and I’m glad we’re heading home, especially now."
Gabrielle had elbowed her in the ribs in outrage, but Xena had figured either she got this started, or they were gonna be trading weather remarks with her mother for the rest of the afternoon, and she’d beamed innocently at her soulmate’s disconcerted look.
"Especially now?" Hecuba had caught on at once. "What’s going on?"
"Um." Gabrielle had cleared her throat, pushing her hair back behind her ears a little nervously. "Well, it’s good news, actually... "
"You finally got proper clothing?" Her mother had asked, delightedly. "Oh Gabrielle.. I’m so happy... I noticed you’re wearing such a pretty shirt, and I thought it was just the weather..."
The bard had glanced down automatically at the soft aqua colored chemise blouse Xena had gotten playfully for her when she’d made one comment too many about wondering when she’d start to show. "Um... well, thanks..it’s nice.. yeah.. but.. um.. "
"I think it really shows off her eyes... don’t you?" Xena had innocently added. "Don’t you think she’s got a really nice glow about her?" She’d gotten another elbow for that, and a patented bardic teeth gritted glare.
"Well, yes.. as a matter of fact.. " Hecuba had stood and walked over, putting a hand on Gabrielle’s chin and turning her face towards the light. "I had noticed...but dear, why are you punching poor Xena? I’m sure that hurts.. has she done something to deserve it?"
Gabrielle had sighed. "She’s trying to be helpful." She’d looked up at the cheekily grinning warrior. "Remind me of this the next time I want you with me on a sensitive chat, okay?"
Her mother had looked very puzzled. "Gabrielle, what is it? Have you decided to take up a trade?"
"Sort of." The bard had glanced out the window, then up at her mother. "I’m pregnant."
Hecuba’s face had been a combination of confusion and delight. "Oh? Really? You mean you’re...oh my." She’d sat down abruptly on the chair next to them. "Oh my."
They’d waited a moment, just to see if she was going to say anything else, then they’d both started talking at once. "We’re really.. ... " Gabrielle got out.
"It’s great.. " Xena had blurted at the same time, then they’d looked at each other and laughed. "You’re the first one in the family to know." The warrior had quietly added. "We haven’t practiced this yet."
Hecuba blinked at that, and took in a breath. "I am?" She’d collected herself, and grabbed Gabrielle’s hand. "That’s wonderful...I didn’t think you... " Then, at last, she seemed to connect the dots, and her eyes lifted to Xena’s face. "Ah..."
That was always the sticky one, Xena had mused. When they got around to figuring out that Warrior Princesses, no matter how skilled, usually didn’t father children. "My brother did us the great honor." She’d answered easily, having practiced that part, at least.
"Oh! Of course... how.. uh.... Uh... " Hecuba had searched in vain for a word.
"Logical?" Gabrielle hazarded. "I mean... " She ran her fingers through Xena’s dark locks, and held them up. "They do look alike, right?"
"Oh.. yes, yes, they do.... " Her mother had nodded vigorously. "Yes, well now.. that makes sense.... This is wonderful, Gabrielle... just wonderful."
"It is wonderful, isn’t it?" Hecuba hesitantly asked.
"Yes, it is." Her daughter had answered, in quiet relief. "I couldn’t be happier." She’d reassured her mother. "I’m very much looking forward to it...and I know he or she’s going to have two really great grandmothers."
"Oh my.. that’s very hard to absorb.. " Hecuba sighed. "I’m still not used to that from your sister." She’d glanced up. "Are you taking care of yourself dear? You look a little thin... would you like some soup? How about some nice fruit pudding... why don’t you put your feet up.. "
"Mother.. " Gabrielle protested.
"Now, you have to take care of yourself.. isn’t that right, Xena?" Hecuba interrupted her.
Big grin from the warrior. "Absolutely, Hecuba.. I couldn’t agree more." Xena had stated with a firm nod. "You tell her."
"Don’t you start in!" The bard had shook a finger at her. "I am not being coddled for nine months!" She told them sternly. "So you just... stop that." Another finger shake. "Stop making that face, Xena." A pause. "Xena.. I’m warning you... "
But at last she’d given in, and nestled against the warrior’s chest with a sigh, regarding her mother wryly. "I think I’m done with adventures for a while, mother."
Hecuba had nodded. "As it should be... and you make sure she stays well, Xena."
The warrior had chuckled. "Yes, mom."
That caused a little startled silence. "Well.. I call Cyrene mom." Gabrielle offered, sensing the prickliness. "So I guess it’s only fair.. right?"
It had taken a moment, then Hecuba had smiled. "Yes, I suppose it is." Her eyes had gentled as she regarded her daughter’s partner. "I suppose it is."
Xena smiled in sad memory, remembering the next time she’d seen Gabrielle’s parents. After Hope had gotten there, and fed into all their nightmares, and convinced them that she...
Well, it’s what they’d always thought, right? Xena swallowed. The parting from Potadeia hadn’t been pleasant, and they hadn’t spoken to Gabrielle’s family since. Maybe now, they’d get a chance to straighten that out a little.
The baby moved again, apparently doing somersaults from the feel, and now Gabrielle stirred a little, disturbed by it. Xena pulled her a little closer, then started singing, a low, soft melody from her childhood. It took a few minutes, but the baby settled down and the warrior smiled.
Definitely different this time. Thunder rolled overhead, and the rain got stronger, the sound outside changing from the drumming of water on earth to a slight splash as puddles formed. Xena let her head rest back against the straw and let herself feel a brief moment of contentment.
Gabrielle blinked sleepily, and edged her head so she could look up at her partner. "Hi." She yawned, making a tiny noise. "Is that rain I hear?"
"Mm hmm." Xena confirmed. "Just started."
"Think that’ll put a damper on things?" The bard inquired.
A shrug. "Dunno...maybe."
"Were you just singing?"
"You know, Xena.. I can remember days when you and I wouldn’t have this much conversation between sun up and sundown."
Xena sighed. "Yeah."
"You’re turning into quite a chatterbox." Gabrielle murmured, giggling a little. "Who’d have thought." She smiled as she felt the chuckle shiver through her tall soulmate’s body. "Mm." She closed her eyes in quiet joy, just loving the feel of the warm skin under her, and the steady sound of Xena’s heartbeat. She was safe here.
This was home.
She almost started laughing again, despite the rain.
Or maybe, because of it. All she knew was that it felt very good to be with Xena, and to feel their relationship, their friendship so solidly around them. Suddenly, she felt an almost irrepressible surge of excitement, and she wished she could make the next two months go faster, just to see Xena’s face when presented with their child.
She could almost see it, if she closed her eyes tightly. The warrior would first kind of give that pleased smirky thing, then, Gabrielle knew, those blue eyes would focus on the baby, and all sorts of interesting things would go on across the warrior’s expressive face. She’d end up with that frank, all out grin that the bard saw so seldomly, and her eyes would light up from it.
Yeah. I want to see that. With a satisfied sigh, she glanced up. "Whatcha thinking about?"
Xena yawned. "How damned slow time is going." She admitted, stroking the bard’s belly. "I wonder if the baby will come out sooner if I offer it some nutbread?" She mused, in a serious, thoughtful tone.
"Ha ha ha.. how about if we offer it some sweet dumplings?" The bard retorted, giving her soulmate a little poke in the ribs. "It could go either way."
A chuckle. "Yeah, that’s true." Xena admitted easily.
They both stopped, and looked at each other, the only sound in the hayloft two sets of breathing. Then Gabrielle simply put her head back down and didn’t say anything at all, afraid that words would bring denials and she wanted none. Silence would do just fine.
The rain rattled down harder, drumming an insistent rhythm.
The owl hooted, watching in contentment.
A cool breeze blew in, heavy with moisture, and possibilities.
Xena stood, leaning against the doorjam as she watched the torrents of water come down, drenching the village and sending racing streams of water across the soaked ground. Behind her, twitching was happening.
The Amazons were pacing, Johan was whittling, and Jessan was working with Toris to pitch hay to the hungry horses.
Only Gabrielle was at peace, ensconced at her table, one hand propping up her fair head as she scribbled into her diary. Every so often she’d lift her eyes, study the restless motion, shake her head, peer at her soulmate’s calm form, and return to her writing.
Xena simply watched the rain, fairly well convinced Baracus wasn’t going to be making the ride in this weather, for one thing, he had two large rivers to cross, and with this heavy a downpour, he was looking at possible flash floods. That could sweep fifty men and fifty horses down in less time than it took to think about it, and from what she knew of the warlord, he wasn’t stupid.
Unfortunately, that left them here, with very little to do unless she started up some drills, which she really wasn’t in the mood for, or some unexpected emergency happened.
Xena held her breath as the words formed in her mind, wincing and glancing around with a pained expression.
Nothing happened. She relaxed again, and returned her eyes to the courtyard. Across the muddy expanse she could see the worship hall, well lit from within, and almost, if she concentrated, hear the rising and falling voices of the people inside it.
It seemed strange to her, spending all day inside, thinking and talking about the gods. Or their one god, in this case. Xena never considered the gods interesting enough for all that, and she put these people in the same category as she did other religious fanatics.
Like the Hestian Virgins. Now that was some kinda devotion. Xena chuckled to herself, and shook her head. But they seemed at peace, as did most of the other devotees she’d ever run into, so maybe there was something to it. She turned as she felt Gabrielle approach, and eyed the bard, who slid in next to her and leaned against her shoulder. "Hey."
"It’s still raining, Xena." Gabrielle commented.
"I know." Her soulmate replied. "Not gonna let up anytime soon...we’ll probably be reprieved until it slows down."
Green eyes slowly tracked to the pacing Amazons then back to you. "And.. you consider this a reprieve, I take it?"
The warrior chuckled wryly. "I could run a few lessons on them, I guess...I just wasn’t really in the mood to." She turned her eyes outward. "Weather maybe.. but I’m just in a lazy mood today."
Gabrielle sighed. "It’s a really good day to be inside, near the fire... roasting a few apples..." Her eyes tracked up Xena’s tall form. "Telling a few stories..."
Their eyes met, and the both smiled. "Mm.... I think I like that idea." Xena replied. "Wish this whole damn thing was over with."
"Jessan... why is your head in that bucket?" Toris’ puzzled voice got their attention. "What are you doing?"
"Corlffrnf ofsf." The words came bubbling out, followed by a dripping wet, furry head. "Ah.. that’s better." He turned, and gave Xena and Gabrielle a pathetic, rueful glare. "I need to talk to you two about.. um... energy.. sometime."
Blue eyes and green met, and both sets of brows creased. "Well... " Xena indicated the weather. "Now’s as good a time as any. Go ahead."
Jessan darted a look at the Amazons, at Toris, at Johan, then back at them. "Uh....now’s not maybe..um... "
"C’mon, Jess.. we’re all friends here." Xena walked over to a water barrel and perched on it, swinging her long legs and crossing her ankles. "We’ve got time... and there’s not much else to do here unless you guys want to give a wrestling exhibition." She kept her face blandly expressionless.
"Squeek." Jessan closed his fanged jaw on the odd sound. "Uh... well... okay.. if you say so." He ran a hand through his wet fur and shook his head. "You.. uh.. you know how my people... we sort of can sense... strong emotions, right?"
Gabrielle had wandered over, and was now leaning on Xena’s thigh, observing him. "Oh yeah.. sure we do." She idly traced a pattern on the tanned skin, and felt the warrior’s hand start a gentle rubbing against her back.
Jessan coughed, then sat down, crossing his legs and clearing his throat. "Let me... try putting this another way." He scratched his jaw, aware of the now interested looks from the Amazons and Toris. "No.. never mind.. just um... "
"No no.. go on. You’re doing fine." Xena protested, moving her gentle massage lower, and feeling the bard’s body press against hers. "Really."
Jessan glanced up at her, and bit his lip. "You’re doing that on purpose. " He barked accusingly.
Xena grinned at him evilly, starting to laugh as Gabrielle looked up at her with a puzzled expression.
"What?" The bard inquired. "What’s he talking about , Xena?"
The warrior just kept on laughing, holding her sides and leaning back against the wall. Finally, she edged forward and whispered into her partner’s ear. It promptly turned beet red, along with the rest of Gabrielle’s face.
"Oh... centaur farts." The bard covered her eyes. "That explains the crack your mother made during our joining." She accused Jessan, whose muzzle was blushing a deep brick red. "About us being good for your population count."
Solari and the Amazons had been shifting their eyes back and forth to follow this confusing speech, and now the dark haired Amazon held up a hand. "Whoa! I’m lost!"
"We make them horny." Xena explained seriously, ignoring the splutter from her soulmate. "It’s an energy thing."
Solari started laughing. "Hera’s tits, Xena... you don’t need to be a fuzzball to feel that... why do you think we’re always so damned glad to see you two?"
"Oh crackers." Gabrielle just hid her face in Xena’s leathers.
"Excuse me.. what’s a fuzzball?" Came a childish voice from the door.
Ten adults and one aforementioned fuzzball cleared their throats. "Uh.. I am." Jessan raised a furry hand. He plucked a bit of his chest hair up. "See, fuzzy."
"Yes.. but where does the ball come in?" Rebekah asked innocently, tugging her younger brother inside the barn with her.
Everybody looked at Xena. Blue eyes looked right back at them. "Oh no." The warrior shook her head. "I did this the last time. " She poked her soulmate. "Your turn."
Gabrielle drew a breath to protest, then she sighed. "It’s just a saying, Rebekah... forget it." She pushed away from Xena’s barrel and went over to the children. "Did you come over here in this weather?"
The girl nodded. "Everyone’s in service... mother left me at the house to get things ready for the Sabbath dinner, but I finished all my chores, and Ruben wanted to see the horses, so I thought it would be all right to bring him over here." She paused. "We ran under the porches, and the wagons, so we didn’t get too wet."
Little Ruben blinked at them owlishly, his eyes taking in the leather clad Amazons and Xena with wide eyed interest.
"And I thought maybe if I asked, you ‘d tell us a story." Rebekah gave Gabrielle a tiny smile. "The ones you told the other day were so interesting."
"Sure. "Gabrielle walked over and held out a hand. "Come on..let’s go sit down over there."
Ruben worked his tiny hand free and trotted over to where Xena was standing, stopping about three feet from her, and tilting his head way, way back to look all the way up her tall body. He put a finger in his mouth and chewed it, blinking at her.
The warrior dropped to one knee, and rested her elbow on it. "Hi."
An almost soundless "Hi" answered her back.
"You like horses?" Xena asked quietly.
The body nodded vigorously.
"C’mon." Xena motioned him towards the stalls. "Wanna sit on one?"
Rebekah smiled, then turned to Gabrielle. "Do you mind if a few of my friends come in too? They sort of sent me on ahead.. kind of.."
"To check things out?" The bard grinned. "Sure... the more the merrier." She watched the girl run to the door and wave her hand, then her eyes widened as a barrage of children pushed through the opening. "Oh boy." She muttered, watching the Amazons slowly backing away as they were surrounded. "Hiya, guys."
The crowd was mostly girls and younger boys, and they stared at the Amazons, Jessan and Xena with goggling eyes. "Wow.. you were right, Bek." One whispered, giving the brown haired girl a nudge. "This is wild."
"Okay... let’s all sit down over here... " Gabrielle seated herself on a bale, and took a breath. "So.. what kind of story do you want to hear... more about David and Goliath?"
The kids looked at each other, then one of the older girls pointed at Solari. "What are they?"
A dark eyebrow lifted and Solari put her hands on her hips. "Hey!"
Gabrielle muffled a smile. "They’re Amazons."
A low whisper went among the children. "You know any stories about them?" The older girl asked, with a rakish grin. Three of the children broke off out of the group and headed back to where Xena was busy showing Ruben a large hoof. "Or about him?" The girl pointed at Jessan.
"Matter of fact, I do." Gabrielle smiled. "How about one of each?" She received an approving chorus, and noticed the Amazons settling down in the straw at the edges of the group. "Okay... well, we can start with the Amazons, and I’ll tell you how I first met them... "
Xena let the familiar, engaging sound of her soulmate’s voice float over her, as she directed her small audience about the tall draft horse, showing them different parts of the animal and trying to get used to the small faces watching her every move. It felt...nice. She lifted Ruben up and set him on the horse’s back.
"Now.. you can hold on, but you really ride here." She tapped his knee. "You grip with your legs, and that way, it leaves your hands free to... um... " She nibbled her lip. "Read a scroll or something."
"Read a scroll.. why’d you want to do that while you were riding?" The little boy on the ground asked. "Wouldn’t your horse bump into something?"
Xena chuckled. "No.. horses know where they’re going...I’ve fallen asleep when I was riding, and my horse made sure I got where I needed to go." She told them. "They’re pretty smart.. you can teach them all kinds of things. My mare Argo comes to me when I whistle, and she knows what to do if I get hurt, or if I need help in getting up on her."
"Wow." The boy answered, impressed. Then he walked forward and touched her knee armor. "Is that heavy?"
"Well.. it is a little.. but I’m used to it." The warrior told him. "It keeps my legs in one piece."
"When you fight?" The boy asked, giving Ruben a glance.
Xena paused. "Yes."
"Do you get scared?" The girl asked, now coming closer herself.
"Sometimes." Xena admitted. "When there’s a lot of fighting, or when one of my friends is in danger."
"I’ve never heard of a girl fighter before." The boy objected. "My father says that’s not right."
Xena knelt down and gazed at him. "Why not?" She asked, reasonably.
He had to think. "Because girls have to take care of the family.. and we have to have mommies."
The warrior sighed, pushing aside a sharp jolt of guilt. "Well, sometimes, you just have to do what you have to do... when I was a girl, bad people attacked where I lived, and I had to help protect my family."
He considered that. "Oh."
"My father went away to war, and he wasn’t there.. but I was." Xena told him. "And so I learned how to fight."
Fair lashes flickered in the low light. "Are you a good fighter?"
Xena hesitated, then gave him a half grin. "Yes."
"Is your family okay?"
Another sigh. "Mostly... my younger brother was killed, but my older brother is the man standing over there... and my mother runs an inn where we live."
He studied her. "Oh. Well, I guess you’re okay then, for a girl."
In an odd way, it was a touching compliment. Xena chuckled. "Thanks." She ruffled his hair and stood up, catching a pair of mist green eyes which found hers over the stall divider. She read Gabrielle’s twinkling amusement and gave her a sheepish shrug in return, then she herded the children out of the stall, lifting Ruben down easily. "G’wan and listen to the story.. I’m going to see if we’re flooded out yet."
She was pacing across the floor when her ears picked up the sound of running footsteps, and her head snapped up as she froze. "Trouble."
The door slammed open wide, and a tall, thin young man fell inside, gasping. "The river." He sucked in breaths of air. "It’s over its banks and headed this way."
Xena whirled, and pointed at Gabrielle. "Stay here." She warned. "Keep the children here, too." She added. "Until I figure out how much trouble we’re really in." She pushed past the panting young man, and stuck her head out the door, peering out into the downpour and shading her eyes with one hand.
Sure enough, she could see the rising edge of the water down the road, and it occurred to her that the village was situated right in a semicircle of high cliffs. "Oh... damn." She bolted out into the rain and ran out towards the road, then whirled, and looked at the village.
There was no where else for the water to go. It would slam up against the rocks, smashing the village apart along with everything in it, and it was too late to escape down the road. People were running back and forth carrying personal items, and animals were frantically bolting here and there. With a curse, Xena dashed back into the barn and faced the small crowd there. "We have to get into the cavern." She paused, and took a breath. "Now!"
Everyone scrambled forward, and Xena rushed past them, to where the horses were restlessly stamping. She unbuckled their leader lines and kicked the stall doors open, hoping they’d back out without trying to bolt. "Jess... Toris... get all our stuff." She yelled over the din. "There might not be much left of this place after that water hits."
Gabrielle was busy tucking everything in their bags, and slinging them both over her shoulder, as she tried to keep the children from panicking. "Okay guys.. you heard her.. let’s go on to that big cave in the back of the village, right?"
"That’s the dungeon!" Rebekah protested. "Only bad people go there."
"Well, right now, we’re going to go there, so the water doesn’t catch us.. okay?" The bard took a few deep breaths, then she gave Rebekah a gentle push. "Go on."
"You got that?" Solari caught up with her, one of the Amazon’s bags thrown over her own shoulder. "I can take that other one."
The bard gave her a grateful smile. "I’m okay, thanks.. let’s just get over there... Xena has that ‘we’re in deep poop’ look." They followed the children outside, and the water hit them. Gabrielle threw her arm over her face, and leaned into the wind, putting her other arm around little Ruben. "Okay.. come on.. this way." She yelled, as the Amazons clustered around her. "Take care of the children...come on.." She spotted several women dashing around. "Hey! Over here!" They looked up, then ignored her, and went on with what they were doing, carrying bags back and forth across the courtyard.
Matthias ran towards them, waving his hands. "We’ve no more room.. go back to the barn."
"What?" Gabrielle stepped up next to him. "You can’t stay in your houses... the water’s going to come all the way in here.. we need to get into the cavern." Her breath was coming hard, and she fought the desire to wipe her eyes.
Toris put his arm around her shoulders. "She’s right.. you’re in a culvert here... the water’s coming in over that ridge... the only safe place is the cavern."
"But.. " Matthias glanced around, his eyes wild. "We can’t... "
"Come on.. we’ve got to go.. we’re out of time." Toris insisted.
"Our homes... we can’t just leave them." The man protested.
"Matthias... man, ye’re gonna die in em if ye don’t." Johan came up, his beard darkened and plastered in the rain. "C’mon now, be sensible.. get a move on."
He hesitated then let out an long breath. "All right. " He turned and raised his arms. "Everyone... everyone... take your things.. go to the cavern!!!"
For a long moment, they stared at him, then they started moving, tripping and stumbling in the mud and rain, dragging boxes and bags back towards the rear of the village.
"You all right?" Toris asked gently, peering at Gabrielle.
She nodded. "Yeah... just out of breath.. come on." The rain came down harder, slamming against her back, and she was glad of Toris’ secure presence as they slipped and skidded across the muddy ground, hearing an ominous rumble at their back. They skidded around the corner of the worship hall, only to stop short.
"What in the bla... " Toris barked.
Three men were desperately trying to herd thirty or so sheep into the small opening, squeezing the animals through one by one. "There’s no time fer that!" Johan yelled.
The shepherds glanced up. "We’re not losing these.. it’ll just be a minute." Another wooly animal jumped through the doorway.
Pounding footsteps behind them advertised Xena’s arrival. "What.. " The warrior skidded to a halt. "Get those sheep out of the way.. that water’s coming down!"
Another sheep popped inside. The shepherds glanced at her stubbornly.
Xena unsheathed her sword and stalked forward lowering her head and balling her free hand into a fist. "The children are more important than these damn sheep." She growled, raising her sword arm threateningly. "Now get out of the way, or there’s going to be little sheep bits all over that mountainside." She brought the flat of the sword down sharply on the rump of a bleating sheep, who jumped to one side, kicking backwards and catching the warrior on her knee armor.
Xena growled at the sheep, and slapped it again, and it moved against its mates, jostling away from the warrior. "C’mon.. follow me." She yelled behind her, then started swatting sheep.
"Hey!" The shepherds ran after the bolting animals.
The children stumbled inside the cavern, and Xena’s group followed, but the warrior paused at the entrance and glanced behind her. "Move it!" She yelled, encouraging stragglers.
The roar of the water was louder now, a deep, angry rumbling that shivered the ground. Men and women ran past Xena, more afraid of the river than of the glowering, dark haired woman. Matthias came stumbling up, a huge sack on his shoulders. "Is that it?" Xena’s eyes scanned the village, seeing no other human forms, only the odd, running sheep and a scattering of boxes and bags.
"Yes." Matthias gasped. "Close the door." He ducked inside.
The warrior hesitated, searching out all the parts of the village she could see, then she reluctantly eased through the door into the noise some darkness of the cavern, and closed the door behind her.
It was... oh gods. Xena almost backed right out the door. The cavern was filled to bursting with goods, people, and sheep, the mixture of children crying, adults yelling, and animals bleating nearly overwhelmed her. She closed her eyes and concentrated, almost missing the sudden impact of a hand against her leathers. Her eyes popped open, to see Leah’s frightened face. "What?"
The older woman backed off. "I can’t find Isaac." She lifted shaking hands. "I can’t find him.. he’s not in here."
Xena looked over her shoulder. "How can you tell? It’s dark in here, Leah...he could be in the back somewhere."
She shook her head and tried to push past the warrior. "No.. no.. he’s not here.. I have to go find him."
Xena grabbed her. "Stay put." She sighed, and shoved the door open, poking her head out. The water’s roar was now so loud, it almost hurt her sensitive ears, and she thought a moment. "Would he have tried to get your scrolls?" She yelled back at Leah. "In the temple?"
"Yes!" The woman pulled at the warrior’s leathers. "Yes.. he would.. "
Xena took a breath, then turned, and grabbed Solari, who was standing next to her. "Listen... you watch that water.. if I’m not back by the time it hits the edge of that building, you shut this door, hear me?" She told the Amazon fiercely.
Solari swallowed. "No." She took a shaky breath, scared, but unrepentant. "You get back here, Xena, because I am not going to tell my damn queen I locked you out."
Xena cursed, then just shook her head and bolted out across the water filled courtyard, where the first, uneasy wash of the river was already racing. Her boots splashed through it, and she felt the sucking draw of the mud, but ignored that as she headed for the worship hall.
She reached the door as the first rumbled of rocks crashed into the outer buildings, and she ducked inside, her heart pounding and her senses racing, eyes flicking everywhere in the building the focusing on the altar in front. She powered up the aisle, her boots slamming against the wooden planks, then she was up on the platform, and spotted Isaac kneeling by the square cabinet. "Isaac, we’re outta time!"
The older man turned and held a hand up. "Get back.. .you must not come into the presence of the holiest of holies."
The warrior didn’t even break step. She hurdled the low table separating them, and grabbed his arm.. "I don’t have time to argue." She pulled him up, and with her other hand, grabbed the intricate wooden case he’d been loading. "Gotta go."
He stared at her in shock.
"Now!" Xena pulled his arm, and headed for the back door. He stumbled after her, and they made their way down the aisle , just as the door burst open under the pressure of the water, and it cascaded down sweeping Isaac off his feet, and throwing Xena against the wall. "Damn."
She scrambled over and got a hold of his arm, pulling him toward her. "Hold still... " She got her other hand on him, and lifted him up, throwing him like a sack of potatoes over her shoulder. "Hang on.. this is gonna be tough."
Xena fought against the water’s pressure, driving forward step by step until she was outside, seeing the water start to lap up against the cavern wall. A glance behind her showed a wall of dirty, cold river headed towards her, and she realized there was no way she was going to make it before it caught her.
Her eyes went to the doorway, and found a pair of green ones, wide with anxiety looking back at her.
Time stood still, as she watched Gabrielle shift her gaze to the oncoming water, then deliberately step outside the cavern.
Xena bolted, throwing every single bit of energy she had into every step, plowing through the water as though it wasn’t even there. The roar grew at her back, and she felt the sting of a rock hit her. Then another. A third, which rippled across the backs of her thighs and almost made her stumble.
She couldn’t feel Isaac’s weight. She couldn’t feel the tug of the water against her legs. All she knew were those eyes, and the lessening distance between herself, and her soulmate.
A limb cracked against her shoulders.
The roar deafened her. She felt a searing pain along her back.
The water surged, and she knew it would take her legs out from under her, so she shoved off against the ground, leaping the last distance with her burden and taking herself, and her soulmate into the darkness beyond.
The door slammed behind her, and she heard a heavy body throw itself against it with a grunt, then the sliding scrape as the solid bar slid into place and held against the water and debris. Xena took a breath, then lifted her head, to see Gabrielle sprawled next to her, blinking a little in surprise "You okay?" The warrior rasped, trying to ignore the pain her back.
Gabrielle nodded shakily. "Yeah.. are you.. gods, Xena.. you’re bleeding.."
The warrior slowly lifted herself up on her elbows, wincing, and peered past the bard into the chaotic mixture of shadows and flickering firelight. Isaac was surrounded by six or seven men, all kneeling next to where he’d fallen when Xena lunged into the cavern.
The cave was full of people and animals, and the sounds and smells assaulted the warrior’s overly sharp senses. Every breath she took pulled against whatever it was that was embedded in her back, and she felt very much like just putting her head down, and trying to block it all out. A gentle hand touched her neck, and she gazed at the concerned bard. "You were going to let them close you out."
Green eyes gone cinnamon colored in the low light glinted. "Us." She gently corrected. "Besides, I knew you could make it.. you just needed a little poke." She reached out and pushed the wet hair out of Xena’s eyes. "The Amazons are over in that corner.. trying to clear a little space for us." Gabrielle looked in that direction. "Better get you over there so I can clean off those cuts... your leathers are drenched, and it’s not with water."
Xena nodded. "Yeah... feels like it." She half rolled over and pulled out the box she’d rescued, running an idle finger over the fine carving. "Nice."
A strange silence suddenly made her look up, aware of only the shifting of hooves and the soft baaing of the sheep. Isaac tottered forward, and she pushed herself up to a sitting position, lifting the box in one hand and extending it to him. "Here... sorry I had to just grab it."
A collective indrawn breath moved the air, and the old man dropped to his knees, bowing his body forward and back in a bobbing motion. He then straightened and peered at her. "The Lord has spoken. He works in mysterious ways, but his prophecy has been fulfilled." He bobbed at her. "Before me, the Lord has placed his messiah."
Xena resisted the urge to look behind her. "Excuse me?" She raised one eyebrow in question.
"You are the one spoken of. The messiah.. who may drink from the cup of life, and hold the holiest of holies without harm." Isaac intoned, in a sing song voice. Then he broke into his own language, bobbing up and down, and the group of men around him joined in.
Oh, this isn’t funny. Xena closed her eyes, and tried to ignore Gabrielle’s twitching face. "Isaac, I’m not any kind of... whatever it is you think I am." She sighed. "Here.. take your box." She stretched her arm out.
Still bobbing, he reverently took the case from her, mumbling over it. "The Lord has spoken.. I serve the Lord." He kissed the box., then turned to the men around him. "You will serve the messiah, and attend to all her wishes."
He motioned two of them. "We must get this under the holy covers.. come."
Xena muttered a curse under her breath, and eased into sitting position "Stop laughing." She growled softly at her partner.
"I can’t help it." Gabrielle whispered back, as she watched the remaining elders edge attentively around them. "Come on.. I think Solari’s ready over there.. let’s just get you taken care of."
"Right." Xena slowly got to her feet, water and trickles of blood running down the backs of her legs in warm streams. She gazed down at the bobbling elders, who were chanting softly under their breath. "Um... we’re fine here.. thanks."
"What are your wishes?" The oldest of them asked, peering at her from under grizzled eyebrows.
"I’m.. " Xena stopped, and exhaled. No sense in pissing them off again. "I’m going to go over there and sit down, okay?" She gave them a forced smile, then turned and studied the door just behind her. The wooden panel was leaking, rivulets of water seeping down from the top and side edges, but it was a slow leak, since the wood had swollen to fill the doorway and effectively sealed it. She put her hand against the surface and felt the chill right through it, hearing the rush and crash of water against the rocks above it and to either side.
They were stuck here for a while... at least until the water subsided. Xena hoped fervently that it wouldn’t be long. She eased past the older men and several sheep, and headed towards the far corner of the cave where a tiny cul de sac afforded some clear floor space. "You.. um... why don’t you take it easy for a while... okay? I’ll be fine." She told the following elders.
"The messiah speaks." The leader of them intoned, bobbing at her. "Amen."
Xena sighed, and shook her head, then gladly followed Gabrielle towards where the Amazons had staked out space.
"You all right, Xena?" Solari asked, as they came up. "That was quite a leap."
"Yeah" The warrior grunted. "Got some splinters, that’s all.. and we’re stuck in here until the water goes down." She looked up as Gabrielle took her arm, and pulled her towards the rock wall, where their bags had been tucked.
"Sit down." The bard urged. "I’ll get your kit out. " She nudged Xena towards a boulder near the wall, then knelt and dug into Xena’s bag. She pulled out her medical kit, then she hauled herself to her feet, and moved around in back of where the warrior was seated, wincing at the raw red wounds she could see through her soulmate’s ripped leathers. "I need to get this armor off, Xena."
"Yeah." The warrior reached under one arm and unbuckled the straps, then started on the other, sucking in a silent breath as the motion pulled against her wounds. The armor plates lifted off her shoulders and she felt the bard’s fingers against her leathers. "Bad?"
Gabrielle didn’t answer for a moment. "Little bits of sharp, thin stone is embedded all over back here, Xena." She murmured. "It’s a mess.. and there’s one big piece right near your spine."
"All right." The warrior bit her lip. "Take my armor tools and pull them out." She paused. "Start with that big one."
Reluctantly, Gabrielle did so, wincing every time she felt her partner’s skin flinch under her touch. She cleaned the small cuts, and put a few stitches in the big ones, including the deep, angry gash that had come very close to Xena’s backbone. When she was done, she spread a bit of herbal salve over the cuts, and put a linen bandage over them, putting her hand on Xena’s shoulder. "So, messiah.. what’s the plan now?"
"What?" Solari had been seated against the wall, peering morosely at the crowd, and now she turned to look at Xena. "What did she call you?"
"They think Xena’s their messiah." The bard informed her. "She grabbed their magic box, and didn’t get zapped from above." She smoothed her fingers over the torn skin, knowing from her soulmate’s silence just how much pain she was in.
Solari snorted. "Well.. their god gets points for knowing when not to mess with someone."
"Mm." The bard agreed, letting her hands slip up Xena’s neck, and probe her skull gently. She was relieved to not feel any telltale bumps, and gave her partner an encouraging look as the blue eyes glanced inquiringly back at her. "That any better? That one big piece was really nasty, love."
"I know." Xena answered quietly. "Things were going a little numb." She admitted softly. "You did a good job getting it out of there."
Gabrielle almost stopped breathing. "Xena, why didn’t you say something?" She murmured fiercely.
Blue eyes studied her. "I didn’t want to make you nervous... you did fine." She flexed her hands and rubbed her fingers. "Tingling’s almost gone."
The bard slowly lowered her head to rest against Xena’s. "Gods."
The warrior reached up and patted her hands. "Relax." She peered around the crowded cavern. Sheep milled around, uneasily bunched into a makeshift corral formed from barrels of water and boxes of supplies. Men were clustered in a large circle, heads bent together, and the women had herded the children over to the other side of the cavern, near the back. They were walking back and forth through the boxes of belongings, collecting food and water and chattering among themselves. The smell, of all those people and all those sheep was almost indescribable.
Xena sighed, and briefly wished she was home. She didn’t feel much like being a messiah today. Or any other day for that matter. "We’re stuck here." She informed them all, nodding at Toris and Jessan who had come back with full waterskins, which they passed around.
"Well, on the bright side, we don’t have to worry about Baracus." Gabrielle commented.
A sheep escaped its corral and dashed by them, baaing frantically as a young shepherd chased her down, The boy’s feet slipped on the wet rock and he went sprawling, knocking into a basket of assorted nuts, which scattered across the floor. Two women carrying baskets of cheese slipped on them, sending bits of crumbling, old cheese across everyone with pungent accuracy.
Xena plucked a bit of it from her partner’s hair, and lifted a brow. "Does the term lesser of two evils have any meaning for you, Gabrielle?"
"Y’know, Gabrielle.. I never really did like sheep." Solari commented, as they edged their way across the close, noisy chamber towards where the village women had set up a food distribution area. "They’re just so... so.. " She nudged an ewe aside with one booted foot. "So.. sheepish."
Gabrielle eyed a ram, who was eyeing her back. "No.. it’s just that they look so cute, but they aren’t. " The bard told her. "Potadeia mostly lives on sheep, you know... and let me tell you, they’re nasty guys and girls."
"Yeah?" Solari encouraged her. "Did you ever ride on one?"
"Ride.. on a sheep?" Gabrielle laughed. "No.. but my parents had one, named Whistler because she’d always make this little whistling sound as she walked. " The bard demonstrated. "Anyway... Whistler used to wait for me to get involved with something.. like pulling up water, or collecting stuff under the porch, when my back was turned, and she’d come up and butt me."
Solari regretfully discarded the first three responses that came to mind and gave her queen a sympathetic look. "Ouch."
"Yeah.. but I got my revenge." Gabrielle chuckled softly. "I sheared her."
Brown eyes blinked at her. "Remind me never to piss you off."
They both laughed, and Gabrielle was still chuckling as she came up to where Sarah was sorting roots. The slim woman glanced up as she approached, and her brows knit. "Hello... how are you doing?"
"Fine, thanks." The bard replied. "We came over to see if we could get a couple of pieces of fruit"
Sarah spread her hand out. "Isaac has said you are to get anything you need.. please.. take what you wish." She half turned. "Wait.. I have some soup here.. would you like some of that?"
"Uh.. " The bard gave her a polite smile. "No.. that’s okay.. just some fruit, and some bread if you have it." She glanced around. "It’s a little too hot for soup." The cavern’s closeness was almost cloying, and the bard could feel a sheen of sweat forming on her skin. So many people and animals together, along with the torches that were sputtering fitfully in their wall sconces made for a very uncomfortable living space. They’d checked out the back part of the cavern, and found, much to Xena’s relief, a tall, crooked chimney that let in air, and sucked a bit of the smoke from the torches out.
The bard suddenly sniffed the air. "What is that smell?"
Solari looked at her like she was crazy. "WHICH smell is that, your majesty?" She inquired wryly. "Sheep, sweat, or wet blankets?"
"Oh.. you must mean the incense." Sarah laughed gently. "Tonight starts our festival of lights...they’re just preparing." She indicated a group of men in the rear of the cavern. "We celebrate for eight days... and even though we’re stuck in here, we’re alive, and we thought it would be very appropriate to keep everyone’s mind off things."
"Oh?" Gabrielle looked interested. "Tell me about it... is that like the harvest festivals we have?"
Sarah wiped her hands off, and looked around. "Matthias tells this usually.. but.. .not exactly." She picked up a bowl of thick, white substance she started mixing with her hands. "A great leader of ours once defeated an enemy, someone who had invaded our homeland and desecrated our temple. After we cleaned the temple out, we found there was only one cask of consecrated oil to light the sacred lamp with.. only enough for one day. But we had to celebrate the Sukkoth, which is the harvest, to insure good crops for the next year."
"Mmhm.. " Gabrielle studied her intently, trying to imagine the scene. "So what did you do?"
"Well, by a miracle, the lamp burned on that one day’s oil for eight days, long enough for a new supply to be obtained, and for us to properly celebrate the harvest... since then, we’ve celebrated that as our festival of lights." She mixed her hands in the bowl. "We tell that story, and the children get little gifts of nuts, and a coin or two, so they’ll remember."
"That’s really nice." The bard smiled at her. "We have our Solstice celebration coming up very soon... and we give little gifts then, too." She glanced at the bowl. "What is that?"
Sarah had relaxed a bit. "We make tiny fried cakes from this.. it’s traditional this time of year." She explained. "I’m sure you’ll like them." She glanced up as another woman called her. "Excuse me." She put the bowl down and moved over to where several other workers were clustered around.
Gabrielle glanced at Solari, then leaned over and took a bit of the mixture on her finger, and tasted it. Her brows creased. It had a mealy texture, but the taste wasn’t bad, a mix of onion and garlic, with a nice, almost nutty under taste. "Mm... sort of like those ground bean cakes Cyrene makes." She commented. "C’mon.. let’s get some bread, and see if we can rest for a while.. my back’s starting to bother me."
Solari took the basket from her hands, and selected a loaf of bread along with some fruit. "Considering what you’ve been doing all day? Artemis’ bright blessings, Gabrielle... you really are something else." She shook her head at the bard in mild amazement. "I mean, I’ve lived with bearing women all my life, but not one in ten dozen stayed as active as you have, even with them being Amazons."
Gabrielle paused a moment, then smiled. "Thank you." She tucked an affectionate arm through Solari’s as they walked back across the crowded cavern, nodding pleasantly at the women who crossed their paths.
"How many will this make?" One asked, standing up and wiping the sweat off her brow. She too, was pregnant, a month or two less than Gabrielle was.
"Just the one." The bard answered quietly.
"Oh.. " The woman dried her hands off and gave the bard a sympathetic look. "I’m sure your husband will make it up to you now that you’ve started."
Gabrielle smiled kindly at her. "Actually... I’ve spent the last four years in the company of a bloodthirsty ex warlord, traveling around the world and fighting evil kings, gods, and monsters to help people.. I kind of just didn’t find the time until now." She commented. "But thanks for asking."
The woman gazed at her, speechless. Then she edged off. "Excuse me."
"Bye." The bard waggled her fingers, and continued on, her green eyes twinkling despite the sheepy atmosphere and the constant yells of playing children.
"You’re bad." Solari solemnly shook her head, then she glanced around, "Speaking of.. where’s tall, dark and deadly?"
Gabrielle sighed. "Last time I saw her, she was coming back from that back section.. I think she’s trying to persuade them to take these blasted sheep back there and get them out of our faces."
"Convince them?" Solari laughed. "Why not just tell em? She’s supposed to be their mucky muck, right?"
The bard winced. "Don’t start with that... she’s not happy about that whole thing." They reached the far wall, where the Amazons had set up camp, and were now clustered around, resting against the wall, smudges of mud, dirt, and sheep crud dusting their skins. "Hi."
"Your majesty." Frendan sighed, resting her hands on her legs, which were extended out before her. "I think we’ve done what we could... gotten things organized as much as possible. It’s just a mess."
Gabrielle settled slowly down on a rock outcropping, and leaned back. "You’re right.. it’s a mess.. you guys did a great job of getting our little space setup here.." She gazed approvingly at the corral of boxes and barrels, blocking out some of the noise, most of the eyes, and all of the sheep, and creating a tiny oasis of almost calm in the chaos. Her gear, and Xena’s, was tucked in the corner around the outcropping she was sitting on and she gave the thick bedrolls that Frendan had rescued a wistful look. They’d been in the bottom of the wagon, and she’d considered them gone before the tiny Amazon had turned up with them. "Okay... Xena says she’s not sure how long the water will be blocking us in here.. though she hopes, and so do I, that it won’t be long."
Cesta nodded tiredly. "Second that." The redhead seemed to have lost a lot of her superior attitude. Perhaps it was the sheep poop liberally smeared on her face.
"They’re having some kind of a celebration.. it’s something from their culture, so if they want you to participate, just go along with them.. I don’t think it’s dangerous." The bard eased her back against the cool stone, and braced one booted foot against the lower part of the rock she was sitting on, taking the pressure off her lower back muscles. They ached, and she was glad to be sitting, as she watched the comings and goings idly across the cavern. "They give kids small gifts... it’s tied into the harvest somehow.. so just go with it."
Aileen rolled over and started rummaging in her pack. "Hey.. I have some little carved acorns I was doing.. we could give them to some of those kids.. they’re kinda cute." She nudged Frendan with a boot. "Didn’t you have some rag dolls you were fiddling with the other day?"
The tiny Amazon nodded. "You’re right.. I think I have those... I was going to put them out on our table at the fair, but it would be fun to give em to the kids here.. let me look."
Gabrielle smiled benignly at the Amazons, lifting an eyebrow at Cesta, who sighed, and shook her head.
"Nope.. not me.. I’ve got a knife, three pairs of leggings, an extra bracer, and some leather lacing."
The bard was about to answer, but a flash of dark leather caught her attention, and she fastened her eyes on the tall, dark haired woman emerging from around the far corner of the cavern accompanied by several men, by their hands arguing. Xena was listening, by her demeanor with at least a minimum amount of patience. Gabrielle could see the faint limp, though, and she studied her partner with worried eyes. As if on cue, the warrior looked up, meeting her gaze and letting a quick smile cross her face. Gabrielle lifted a hand and curled a finger at her, and the smile widened a bit, then Xena held up a hand and turned to her companions.
What was apparently one long sentence, and three sharp hand gestures ended the conversation, and Xena gave them all a nod, then she started to make her way across the cavern towards where the Amazons had set up camp. She evaded collisions smoothly, and dodged several sheep before she made it, entering their small haven with an almost imperceptible sigh. "Hey."
"Hey." Gabrielle patted the rock next to her. "Any luck?"
The warrior sat down next to her, leaning forward a little and resting her weight on her elbows. "Yeah... I have them convinced they have to move those damn sheep back where they had Jessan... they were afraid the things would panic and start crashing into the walls. "
Gabrielle put a tentative hand on her back. "How are you feeling?"
Blue eyes flicked to the pretending to be not watching Amazons. "Fine."
"Mmhmm." Gabrielle picked up a slice of bread and offered it. "Hungry?"
Xena hesitated, then shook her head. "No.. I’m.. not really." She replied offhandedly. "You doing okay?"
One thing she’d learned about her stubborn soulmate... when she was in pain, the first thing that went was her appetite, which was otherwise very healthy. Gabrielle knew the warrior hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and it was, if her reckoning was right, after dark. She sighed, and realized the presence of the Amazons as well as their uneasy allies was forcing the I’m too tough for my leathers attitude past its usual boundaries with her present. And she saw no quick or easy way of getting around that, short of a major confrontation.
Unless... "I think it’s time I change your bandages a little, Xena... but this is really awkward..." She shifted around a bit. "Listen.. if I sit down on our bedrolls, and you get over on your side, I think I can do it."
The warrior hesitated, then sighed. "Well, I can’t change them myself." She commented wryly. "All right.. " She helped Gabrielle settle down on the soft furs, then eased down next to her, resting on a hip and one elbow. "Go ahead."
Gabrielle pulled her kit over, and stretched her legs out, gently unhooking the strap holding her partner’s leathers on and pulling the surface back, exposing the linen bandages she’d put on earlier. They were stained with dried blood and gore, and she eased them away from the cuts gingerly.
Not a sound came from her soulmate, who gazed across the circle of boxes at the Amazons with a quiet, noncommittal expression.
"Um... Xena.. can I ask you a favor?" The bard inquired innocently.
"Sure." The warrior turned her head. "What’s up?"
Gabrielle winced a little, as she turned her body. "It’s kinda tough to do this from this angle.. " She laid a hand on her belly and gave the warrior a rueful look. "Could you put your head down here. " She patted her thigh. "Make it easier for me?"
One dark eyebrow lifted, but Xena did as she was asked, settling her head down on her partner’s leg and rolling mostly onto her stomach.
"Thanks." Gabrielle undid the other strap and went about her task, watching her partner’s shoulders relax and feeling the warmth as a long exhale eased against the skin of her thigh. "You pulled this big one out, I need to restitch it." She told her quietly, stroking a gentle thumb against the raw skin. The blood was oozing from the one cut, and she carefully cleaned it off, and restitched it, feeling the sensitive skin twitch under her needle and wincing herself every time the sharp instrument pierced the wound. A glance up revealed the healthily respectful looks from the Amazons, both at her steady handedness and her soulmate’s stoic and silent suffering.
She dusted the cuts very liberally with a dried herb Xena used for wounds, and made new bandages, pulling the leathers up into place to hold them securely. "There... how’s that?" She sensed her partner’s reluctance to move, and felt the deep breath she drew in before she forced herself to ease back up onto an elbow and flex her shoulders.
"Better.. thanks." Xena admitted, wishing she could simply put her head back down and let herself drift off. The constant ache, and the shooting pains from the large wound near her spine had been wearing on her all day, and the noise, and the smells were making her nauseous. With a sigh, she started to sit up, then she stopped, chewing her lip thoughtfully. What in Hades do I care what those damn Amazons think? "You going anywhere?" She asked the bard quietly.
Gabrielle blinked at her. "Um.. actually, no... I’m really kind of tired.. why?"
"Good." Xena let herself back down, resuming her spot and curling her hand around the bard’s knee, stroking the soft skin with her thumb. After a startled moment, she felt fingers running through her hair and she closed her eyes wearily, simply absorbing the bard’s nearness. The warmth of their connection washed through her, blocking out the discomfort for a long, blissful moment.
A chill wind had blown across their campsite, as they’d stopped outside Potadeia on the way home. Xena had gotten lucky and trapped a rabbit close to camp, and it was stewing on the fire while they went about their quiet, familiar routine.
Except that it was no longer that familiar to Xena, and she had to keep looking up from her task in aching fear, expecting every time not to see the blond figure sprawled on the grass nearby. Finding herself holding her breath every time it was.
She’d had to finally stop trying to fix the armor piece, since her hand were trembling so badly she kept knicking herself with her armor knife. So she’d folded her hands, and simply sat there, waiting for the bubble to burst.
A gentle hand on her arm, and she’d looked up to see worried green eyes peering at her as Gabrielle sat down on the log right next to her, a thumb rubbing her skin in absent reflex. "You look like you’re sick to your stomach...can I make you some tea?"
Pull yourself together, damn it. She’d cursed to herself. "Um... just a little chilled, I guess.. I’m fine." She’d forced herself to respond. "But if there’s tea I’ll take some." She’d added, seeing the wrinkle in her partner’s forehead.
"Mm.. it’s breezy over here.. " Gabrielle had agreed. "Tell you what.. why don’t you come over there by me, and I’ll bring some tea over...okay?"
She’d allowed herself to be led over to a comfortable pile of furs, bought in Potadeia when she’d admitted to Gabrielle that the only bit of their personal gear she’d kept was the bard’s scroll bag, and personal items. That she’d been simply using Argo’s blanket for herself at night, or else nothing. It felt so strange to feel softness under her knees instead of the scratchy wool, and have Gabrielle settle down next to her, pressing her leg against the warrior’s and letting a hand rest casually on her knee.
She’d wrapped her fingers around the mug and sipped the contents, racking her brain for something to say to the newly restored gift at her side. Nothing came to her. Nothing could adequately express the emotions she was feeling, or why she was shaking like a leaf, or why the thought of falling asleep was frightening her almost senseless.
What if she woke up and..
She’d bit down on the edge of the mug, unable to stifle the tiny sound that came out of her throat.
Gabrielle had set her cup down and folded her hands around her partner’s. "Hey... what’s going on in there?"
And she couldn’t tell her. "I’m all right.. just tired." She’d answered quietly.
"Me too." The bard had answered softly. "Here... put that down." She’d taken the mug from Xena’s nerveless hands, and put it away, then she’d leaned back against the rock wall they were sheltering against, and pulled gently on the warrior’s arm. "C’mere..."
She’d been almost frozen in agony, knowing if she allowed Gabrielle to pull her into the warmth she’d been denied since the bard’s disappearance, the wall of fragile composure she’d gathered around her would shatter. An essential part of her resisted that, afraid of the pain. Afraid of the needing.
She’d felt the pulling stop, and she’d found her eyes looking at Gabrielle, watching a pall of hurt confusion cloud the bard’s face as she slowly let her hands drop. And then her pale head dropped, and Xena had seen the pained tensing of her lips. "I.. sorry... I just... " The hands lifted, then dropped to the furs. "I thought you’d..." A painful pause. "Want to be...I..."
It was a choice of pain. Either she bore the crushing fear of loss again, or she bore the knowledge of the look in Gabrielle’s eyes if she didn’t. And really there never was a choice at all, was there? "I... I do..." She’d managed to get out, moving a tiny bit in the bard’s direction. "But.. I think I’m... still kinda in shock...and I.." The emotion came up, and she felt it choke her. That same, small sound of pain escaped her, and it was hard to breathe. It had taken several long, shaking breaths before she could continue. "And I missed you so much I hardly know what to do with myself now."
A soft intake of breath sounded just before the warm hands came back, touching her chilled skin, and oh, so gently pulling at her. And this time she felt her resistance dissolve, as her body curled towards her soulmate’s and settled into the warmth of her arms with a relief so profound, it hurt.
Gabrielle had cradled her and hugged her close, stroking her hair as she wrapped her own arms around the bard’s body, feeling the overwhelming wash of their connection as it surrounded her in a comfort she never thought she’d feel again.
It had made her realize just how precious that was, while she’d rested there with Gabrielle in her arms, as they watched the flames and fed each other the hot rabbit stew and let the magic between them chase away the shadows. Whole again, at last.
Gabrielle felt slightly shocked, but she took a breath, and gently ordered Xena’s hair, peeking up to surprise envious looks on the Amazon’s faces. She watched the warrior close her eyes and felt the tense muscles under her fingers relax. "Hurts, huh?" She murmured.
Xena nodded. "Like hot pokers going down my back and into my legs." She confessed very softly. "That piece of rock must have gotten a little deeper than I thought."
"Ow." The bard winced, a bolt of worry coursing through her. "Anything I can do?"
The warrior considered the question, smiling a little as she felt a gentle movement against the back of her head, which was pressed up against the bard’s belly. "No... I feel better already." She reassured her partner. "Feels good just to be quiet for a bit." Another motion, and she squirmed a little closer, pressing her ear against the rounded surface, and trying to convince herself she could hear a faint heartbeat.
"Felt that, huh?" Gabrielle asked, in a teasing tone. "See? She feels bad too.. she wants to make you feel better."
"Just like her mother." Xena responded wryly. They sat quietly for a bit, just watching the activity in the chamber. The sheep were finally being moved back, and that had cleared a little space around them and lessened the almost ceaseless bawling of the animals. "Jessan and Toris found a rockslide in the back.. they and a bunch of the younger guys are trying to see if it leads anywhere."
"Ah... like a back way out?" The bard inquired hopefully.
"Yep." Her partner agreed. "Better than waiting for that water to go down."
"You bet." Gabrielle snorted. "Besides.. it’s almost Solstice.. and I have no intention of spending it in this cave, partner." She twirled a lock of dark hair around her fingers. "Lot of things to celebrate."
Xena gazed ahead of them. "Mm... you know, I’d pretty much decided...when I was alone.. that I’d spend the whole day so drunk I just wouldn’t remember any of it." A pause. "If I lasted that long."
Gabrielle felt her breathing catch at the words, as she studied the dark head under her hands. "Xena.... " She hesitated, then went on. "If I had... died... I want you to know something, okay?"
The warrior shifted, and glanced up at her, blue eyes violet in the dim light. "Hm?"
The bard ran the backs of her fingers across the soft skin on Xena’s cheek. "There is no way.. no matter what it took, no matter who I had to convince, no matter what price they asked... there is no way I would have let you be alone on that day." Her eyes glistened. "Do you really think something so insignificant as death could keep us apart?"
Insignificant? Xena blinked a few times. "Maybe that should have clued me in to the fact that you weren’t..." She lifted a hand and curled her fingers around the bard’s. "I had... no sense.. of you anywhere...and I thought.. " She remembered standing on a lonely, windswept ledge, and feeling emptier than at any other time of her life. "I guess that’s why I went to find you."
Gabrielle gazed down at her. "Do you know... when I woke up, in that hospice.. the very first thing I thought about was you? Not what happened to me, not where was I... " She stopped, and swallowed. "Then I remembered your face when I was going into that pit, and it was one of the worst moments of my life." Their eyes met. "I’m so sorry...Xena...I knew that was going to hurt you." She uttered softly. "I just couldn’t let you die before my eyes.. not that way."
The warrior sighed. "I know." She laid her cheek on the bard’s thigh. "There were no good ways out of that cave, Gabrielle... and I knew that." Her thumb brushed against the bard’s belly. "I’m glad it’s behind us." She looked up. "We do have a lot to celebrate in a few days, huh?" She wanted to get away from the subject of Gabrielle’s dying. Her stomach hurt enough already, and that was just making it worse.
The bard smiled sadly at her. "Yes, we do... is it okay if I give you an early birthday present?" She was already reaching for her bag, and tugging it over.
Xena chuckled wryly. "Sure."
Gabrielle pulled a linen wrapped object from her bag, and looked at it. "I brought it, because I was kind of finishing it up.. at least for now." She unfolded the linen, revealing a small, leather bound set of neatly cut scroll pages and handed it to Xena. "I know you keep those little... um... the notes and stuff and I.. " She watched the warrior slowly finger the small volume. "I thought maybe you’d like everything in one place. " She said quietly. "So.. that’s a collection of all the poems and notes and... I kind of borrowed the ones you had and copied them over... and put some little notes on the back because of stuff I remembered.. and.. um.. " A pause. "There are some new ones at the end.. and you have to let me take it back once in a while to add things." Another pause. "Okay?"
Xena lifted herself up onto one elbow and studied the book, running her fingers down the leather surface before she opened it up, revealing page after page of a familiar, neat script, forming words that somehow she wasn’t able to read at the moment. "Gabrielle, this is wonderful." She breathed, looked up at the bard with a genuine, open smile. "Thank you."
The bard grinned back. "You’re welcome." She was very happy to see the sparkle of surprised pleasure in her soulmate’s face, worth the effort it had taken to borrow Xena’s carefully hoarded collection of small, many times folded pieces of parchment, a few at a time during the month they’d been at home. Xena was already bending her head over the book, studying the first few pages, and leafing them over to glance at the back, at the wry, sometimes surprising, sometimes humorous notes she’d scribed in, memories of when the poem had been written, or her thoughts as she’d written it. It felt really good to see that. She thought Xena was going to enjoy it very much, and she sighed happily as she stretched her legs out a little.
"This is fant.. " Xena started chuckling, then stopped, as a long, low rumble rattled through the cavern. "Uh oh."
The sound of scrambling, running feet cut through the nervous mutterings, and the rumbling grew louder, now interspersed with a weird, thrumming sound. Xena sat up, and peered around the curve of the chamber wall, to see her brother, and Jessan hauling bare and furry butt across the rocky ground, followed by the small group they’d been exploring with. "Jess.. you find anything?" The warrior yelled, getting to her feet as she saw the pace of the runners.
"Oh yeah." The forest dweller hollered. "Another cavern."
"Yeah?" The warrior started walking toward him. "So.. what’s the rush? You knock down some rocks?"
"Bats." Toris yelled, redoubling his pace, as the thrumming sound got a lot louder, and a high, keening sound was added to it. "Coming after us."
"C’mon, Toris." Xena laughed, putting her hands on her hips. "Bats won’t hurt you.. they eat fruit."
A dark cloud suddenly filled the end of the chamber, and Xena’s senses got a powerful jolt as the scent of old blood filtered to her sensitive nose.
"Not these bats..." Jessan panted, as he ran past her and skidded to a halt. The sheep caught the scent and now started milling around in panic. "They’re bacchae bats."
The dark cloud headed towards them, individual red eyes now seen in a sea of black, flapping wings.
Xena stared at them. "Oh boy..." A wave of sheep headed their way, stampeding in panic. The bats caught the scent of the wooly animals, and dove for the attack, tiny fangs exposed.
They were in trouble.
Big, big trouble.
Xena whipped out her sword, shoving the pain into the back part of her mind reserved for that kind of thing, and neatly sliced three bats headed her way into messy black ribbons. Her eyes searched the interior of the cavern frantically, trying to come up with a plan. She spotted a pile of green branches to one side, and considered. "Jess!"
"What?" The forest dweller was alternating sword swipes with claw swipes next to her. "Ew... I hate when that guck gets under my nails." He shook a hand rapidly, sending globs of gore through the air.
"Get a hold of those branches.. and get them into the fire." The warrior yelled. "The smoke will stun the bats." She ducked a flying mammal, which made a beeline for her soulmate’s unprotected chest, then grinned nervously as Gabrielle neatly whacked it out of mid air with a rolling pin she’d captured.
Men and women were running and screaming across the floor, and the sheep were stampeding back and forth. Jessan cursed, then ducked under a persistent cloud of the beasts and grabbed an Amazon along the way. "Give me a hand!"
Cesta left off slicing bats and followed him, hurdling sheep as she got to the branch pile, and helped the taller Jessan drag the green, fragrant limbs into the cookfire that had been carefully prepared to one side. The leaves began smoking immediately, giving up their moisture into the already close air, rising to envelope the clouds of circling, angry, hungry bats. "Well.." Cesta coughed, as a bat veered off, and headed away from the smoke. "Smells better than those damn sheep."
Jessan sniffed it, then rubbed his nose. "Uh... " He watched a bat fly into the wall, and flutter to the ground. "Hey, Xena??? " He turned, to see the warrior standing on a rock, weaving a net of flashing steel around her, and protecting a group of children who had thrown themselves under the dark haired woman’s considerable shield.
"Yeah?" Xena barked back, ducking and slashing another handful of angry bats from the sky. The smoke was starting to put a gentle blue tint into the already reddish air, and she blinked as she glanced over at him. "What?"
"Did you know what those leaves.. uh... were?" The forest dweller inquired, hopping out of the way of a determinedly charging sheep.
Xena paused in her attack, and sniffed gently at the air. Her shoulders slumped and she breathed out several virulent, half disgusted curses in a language she was fairly sure the children had never heard. "No... but I do now." Of all the things... the leaves were a fairly potent narcotic, though fortunately they weren’t dried, which would have concentrated the strength. As she watched, the bats stopped diving, and started aimlessly flapping around, chirping and banging into other bats. "Oh brother."
"You called?" Toris asked, amiably, as he hopped up on her rock, balancing carefully. "Hey sis... that was one wild idea... get everything breathing crocked, and the problem goes away.. nifty."
Xena sighed ruefully, feeling a certain loosening in her own perceptions. "Wasn’t really my intention." She turned and watched the now smoke filled cavern, which was much less frantic. Bats were settling in small alcoves on the walls, since the roof was fairly smooth, and the sheep were blinking stupidly at her, quiet at last. "Not that I’m complaining." She added, gazing at her brother’s slightly glazed eyes.
Then she remembered the secondary effect of the leaves, and her eyes widened. "Aw... Hades in handbasket..."
"C’mere.. " A shepherd ran by, chasing a frisking eye. "I won’t hurtcha... "
"Hey... " Toris watched amiably, then tugged on his sister’s leather skirting. "Did I ever tell you how cute I think you are?"
A murderous blue glare didn’t even distract him for an instant. "Toris.. cut it out."
"No.. really.. " Her brother answered earnestly. "You’ve got the nicest smile."
Xena picked him up and dropped him off the rock.
"And the sexiest biceps." The man continued without a pause. "I even like your kneecaps."
Xena sighed, and sheathed her sword, the bat danger apparently over. Then she turned as another tug came on her leathers. "Wh.. oh."
Dusky green eyes were devouring her intently, and she felt her knees almost give out. "Uh.. hi." Though she realized the drug was really irrelevant where Gabrielle was concerned, she stepped off her perch at the bard’s gentle tug and rubbed her body against her partner’s, reveling guiltily in the familiar scents and touch. The children she’d been protecting were blinking sleepily, unaffected by the leaves, and she’d forgotten completely about Toris, finding her attention focusing on the smaller woman before her whose eyes were running over her like a hot bath.
"Hi." Gabrielle ran her hands up the smooth leathers, tracing the body under them. "Was that planned?"
Xena enjoyed the subtle chills that chased her partner’s fingers. "Not entirely." She admitted, turning her head and reviewing the cavern. "I think it loosened them up a little, though." Only them? Xena felt a familiar jolt in her guts, as Gabrielle’s touch traced her breasts. Like we need any help in that area... right?
"Mm." The bard agreed, moving closer. "How’s your back?" She leaned forward and nibbled the warrior’s bare neck.
"What back?" Xena asked, in a puzzled tone, as her hands found warm, familiar spots on her partner’s body. Guiltily, she glanced over her shoulder to find her brother, startled to see him being led off by Cesta.
Well, maybe not so startled. She snorted in laughter, and realized the smoke, and the lowering torches obscured most of the other activities going on. She had no idea what this was going to do to the community’s structure, but... well, it wasn’t like it was on purpose, right?
At the very least, they’d figure out she wasn’t no damn messiah. Fingers tickled her neck, and she felt a faint dislocation in her senses, as the drug got into her blood, and her body started to respond to the close proximity of her soulmate. Then a thought occurred to her, and she looked up, over Gabrielle’s head, her eyes searching for Jessan.
Poor guy. Then she spotted him curled in a corner, peacefully asleep.
Whew. One less complication.
Insistently, her body recalled her attention to the distraction at hand, who was easing the laces out of her leathers, and exposing warm skin to the hazy air. She felt the worries and concerns weighing on her slip free, as she focused on the here and now, relaxing tense mental barriers she’d put desperately in place months ago.
She cupped the bard’s face in her hands gently. "You are so beautiful." Xena told her, offering up her heart simply, and totally. Forgetting everything else. "You’re the best thing in my life."
A tear slipped loose, and trickled down Gabrielle’s face, dampening a path across her cheek. "I love you." The bard answered very softly. "And I always will.. now, as long as I live, and as long as my soul lasts in the realms to come after."
The warrior’s lips trembled a moment, then parted. "Forever." And gave herself up in the belief, again, knowing its potential for her destruction.
Gabrielle felt the acceptance glide gently into place, as though something long missing had been given back to her. Lips brushed lightly, teasingly against hers, and she smiled, believing again at last. In herself. In Xena.
In the incredible power their love bestowed on both of them, that no evil could destroy.
They’d proven that.
Xena gently lifted her up, and the next thing she felt under her boots was the softness of the bedrolls. She let her lips explore the warm, musky scented skin as they eased down together, pausing for a fuzzily startled moment as a set of squeaks alerted them to an intruder.
Xena scooped the bats up and flipped them over her shoulder.
Then all they knew was each other. .
Continued in Part 5
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