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Standard Disclaimers -
These characters, and boy, are they ever characters, are mostly the property of Renaissance Pictures, Universal MCA, and whoever else owns stock and interest in Xena: Warrior Princess. This fiction was written for my amusement only, and not in any way, shape or form for profit - and it is not intended to infringe on the copyright holders of the characters.
Some of the characters are mine, and the story ideas.. well, who knows where they come from? Must be one weird place, that's for sure.
Specific Story Disclaimers:
Violence - this is a Xena:Warrior Princess story. This is not Teletubbies. Even though there are some rumors of similarities. Some of the violence is graphic, but we try not to dwell on it.
Subtext - Considering that the TV Series just aired an episode establishing Xena and Gabrielle as eternal soulmates, any disclaimer of subtext on my part is really kind of goofy in the extreme. The two characters are in love with each other, and have been for years. You can choose to see them as just friends, but then you might not want to read this fanfic, in case it changes your mind or anything like that.
Emotional Content - this is not one my more comedic efforts. There are moments of humor, however.
Dark Comes the Morning - Part 2
By Melissa Good†††††††††††
The wagon ahead of them was throwing up a tiny cloud of dust, and Gabrielle willingly slowed Hercules down as they let the caravan get ahead of them. It was well after lunch, and her legs were beginning to feel the strain, but she kept her mouth shut, determined not to let a word of complaint pass her lips.
Any amount of aches were worth it, she decided as she pulled another apple out of her bag, and passed it to the quiet woman next to her. Xena was apparently enjoying the ride, a faint flush on her skin from the sun bringing out the dusky highlights in her tan, and the stiff breeze blowing her dark hair back, exposing her sharp profile to Gabrielle's appreciative eyes.
"Thanks." Xena half turned her head, and gave the bard a grin. "Ooh you're gonna need the aloe tonight, my bard." She glanced at her soulmate's light, pale blue shirt and the soft riding leggings she wore. "Good thing you decided not to wear that traveling gear of yours."
Gabrielle grinned, feeling the skin tighten painfully around her eyes. "Yeah.. it feels like it do I look like a lobster?"
Xena set her apple down between her thighs, and reached behind her, pulling out her healer's kit. She rummaged inside it, then came out with a packet of something, which she opened and smeared on her fingers. "C'mere."
The bard nudged her stallion closer, feeling the heat between the two horses as she closed in, and leaned over to let her partner spread the sharply scented lotion on her face. "Mm I love the way that smells."
Xena gently traced her cheekbones, with a fingertip. "I know and you're just a little pink, that's all." She informed her. "But it's hot out here in the open.. I'm glad we made Ares stay home."
"Mm.. I bet he isn't Dori's probably chewed half his tail off by now." Gabrielle straightened, and moved her horse away a little, patting his damp neck. "They're being really good I'm surprised."
A dark eyebrow lifted. "You are? Even knowing I trained them? Gabrielle, I'm crushed." She retrieved her apple and crunched into it, letting a spray of juices fly into the air, then straightened, allowing the tightly woven fabric of her tan shirt to strain across her shoulders and relaxed, resettling her boots into Iolaus' stirrups. The snug leggings she'd chosen to wear kept the stallion's new tack from rubbing, and she felt a surge of animal well being, as she looked around the rolling countryside. "We've made good time."
"Mm." Gabrielle agreed. They'd passed through six towns so far, on the road northwest, all of which seemed peaceful, and untroubled. They'd heard rumors of trouble far to the north, but most people were focusing on the here and now, and letting the future worry about itself. Which was silly, she thought No trouble ever cured itself if you just left it fester.
"You want to detour to Potadeia?" Xena asked quietly.
Gabrielle considered the question soberly. Though her mother and sister had visited a few months back, things were still a little prickly between them since they'd gotten a first hand view of the complications in her life. Not that she could blame them, really people and animals around her hometown had suffered, and there was no way for her to not take responsibility for that. "On the way home." She finally decided, glancing at her soulmate. "I got a letter from Lila last moon things are okay."
"Okay." Xena responded mildly. "I thought you might just want say hello give them a chance to wish you a happy birthday." She cleared her throat gently. "Since it is today."
The bard let out a short, surprised breath. "How do you always remember that so accurately? I have to think about it, and count days six times, and take a star reading." She complained, more to give her a moment to think than anything else. "But thank you, for reminding me."†
Xena shrugged. "Anytime." She let the silence rest between them for a moment. "So you want anything special for your birthday, since you nixed a party this year?"
"Oh . " Gabrielle exhaled. "Let's see salmon would be nice." She waggled an eyebrow at her now grinning soulmate. "And if you find fresh berries, I'll stuff the salmon with them and if you're really, really good I'll get out the raspberry pastries mom gave me before we left."
"Is this a present for you, or for me?" Xena laughed.
A yell up ahead drew their attention, and they glanced up the road, spotting the caravan that they'd been following at a halt. "Uh oh." Gabrielle murmured. "Looks like they broke down.. let's go see if we can help."
Xena guided her horse after her soulmate's. "You know, most people would just go around them, Gabrielle wagons break down every day."
The green eyes peered back at her. "Yes, but we're not most people, Xena in fact, I think you could consider us um . "
"Busy bodies." The warrior completed her sentence wryly. "C'mon." She kneed Iolaus into a trot, as they approached the stopped caravan, aiming for a group of men standing in a semicircle yelling angrily at each other.
"Listen you idiot.. I told you that wagon was too heavy.. now look! You've broken the axel.. what are we going to do?"
"Shut up, you moron it's not my fault..it's all your crap in that wagon, and you can start taking it out, and carrying it yourself!"
"Excuse me." Xena relaxed in her saddle. †††††††††††
Both men glanced at her. "Mind yer own business, lady." The first one snapped, then turned back to his partner. "You can kiss my hairy butt, Ellis I'm not moving a gods be damned thing off that cart.. it's your fault for buying the thing from that tart of yours in Potadeia."
"Excuse me." Xena tried again.
The second man, who was closer to her, turned. "Look, lady.. he told you.. mind your business, and get out of here!"
Xena booted him hard in the shoulder, and sent him flying against the wagon. She waited for the birds to stop flying over his head, then cleared her throat. "Number one, you don't have a broken axle, you've just lost the wheel on one side. And number two " She leaned over and gave them both a steely eyed look. "I'm not a lady."†
Gabrielle had taken the opportunity to dismount, holding onto Hercules' saddle while she slowly straightened her back and legs out. "Oof." She muttered, wincing. "How did you let her talk you into this, Gabrielle? You're supposed to be the talker, remember?" She limped around the side of the horse, holding onto his bridle, to find her soulmate kicking the daylights out of one of traders. "Well some things never change, do they?"
She quickly walked forward, and handed Xena the reins to her horse. "Hi." She got between her glowering partner and the men. "My name's Gabrielle is there something we can do to help?" She asked, calmly. "I heard you mention Potadeia.. I'm from there."
The man who'd been kicked stood up and brushed his clothes off, giving Xena a dark look. "Only if you can tell us a direction to go that doesn't lead towards those thieves on horseback." He told her, gruffly, then looked up. "Unless you're one of em, that is."
A dark brow lifted. "I'm not." Xena drawled. "They don't usually travel in packs of one."
"Hey." The bard gave her a look.
"One and a half." The warrior replied, with a faint grin. "Sorry."
The other trader relaxed a little. "Where are you from.. Potadeia, you said? I donít' remember seeing you in the village." He watched Gabrielle's face suspiciously.
"No.. well, I'm from there originally" Gabrielle explained. "But I live in Amphipolis now has there been trouble on the roads? That would explain the problems some of the merchants at the festival were talking about, Xena.. " She turned to look at her soulmate, and missed the looks from the two men.
"Xena?" The second man started, backing up a step. "Not the Xena?"
Blue and green eyes met in puzzlement, then the warrior glanced at him "Well, I'm the only one I know." Xena replied, slowly. "Why?"
"Great Hera we thought you were just a legend you mean you're actually real?" The first man stated, in disbelief.
Xena's dark brows knit fully. "Of course I'm what in the Hades are you talking about? What legend?" She glared at Gabrielle, who lifted both hands in utter bewilderment.
"Don't look at me.. I've been home in Amphipolis the last year.. not out spreading tales about you, partner." The bard protested. "I admit I did my share before that, but.. "
The two men came closer. "It's all we've been hearing, in the areas where those damn bastards are killing things out the folks there say one day, Xena'll come riding out of the sun, and drive them all back out of the land, and into the sea." He turned to his companion. "Right?"
"Right" The man agreed. "And look.. here you are.. heading that way!"
Xena stared at them, then expelled a breath, shifting in her saddle as she tried to figure out a way to scream without actually making a sound. "Son of a bacchae." She finally muttered. "They've turned me into some kind of.. of.. "
"Hero." Gabrielle supplied, biting back a grin. "Imagine that."
"Don't start." Xena pointed a finger at her. "I am not some kind of half assed folk hero." She glared at the men. "Where did you hear all this ?"
The two men glanced at each other. "It's.. " One started.
"Everywhere.. really.. all over the northwest we didn't stop hearing it until we hit these parts." The second finished. "We thought it was I mean it seemed so "
"Yeah." Xena exhaled, obviously troubled. "Well, you want help putting your wheel back on or not?" She asked, brusquely. "And you can head on back southeast.. it's quieter there."† She kicked her feet free of her stirrups and slung a leg over Iolaus' neck, sliding down his tall side and landing on the ground with an audible thump.
They helped the two traders fix their wagon, or to be more precise, Xena got her shoulders under the axle, and braced her legs, taking the weight of the cart long enough for Gabrielle to help them wrestle the wheel back on, then tap the hub cap into place. "There." The bard told them. "Xena's right.. if you head off back towards Amphipolis, I think you'll steer clear of the worst trouble."
"Thanks, lass.. " The older of the two nodded at her. "And thank you, ma'am." He gave Xena a respectful nod. "We'll take your advice.. c'mon, Adric."
The wagon creaked off, leaving the two women standing in the roadway. Xena put both fists on her hips and let out an aggrieved sigh. "Ma'am?" She gave Gabrielle a plaintive look. "Tell me this isn't happening."
Gabrielle rubbed her jaw, and leaned against her soulmate. "Honey " She patted the warrior's belly gently. "Look.. people make stories up when they're in the worst problems maybe it's all they have.. this notion that someone's going to come swooping down and save them."† She hesitated, seeing the storm of emotion swirling around Xena's face. "That's what I did."
Slowly, ice blue eyes fastened on her face.
"It's what kept me going just imagining something better." The bard said, quietly. "And what do you know? " She lifted a hand and stroked the angular cheek. "My dream came true."
Xena blinked, and her lips tensed. "I can't make theirs come true, Gabrielle.. I'm not that person they think I am." Her voice was faintly hoarse.
The bard put both hands flat against her partner's stomach, and leaned against her. "I think †the person you are is more than capable of figuring out what to do about the whole thing."
Xena's gaze turned inward for a long moment, then she put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders. "Think so?" There was a touching note of insecurity in her voice, one which the bard knew she was the only person who would ever hear.
"I know it." Gabrielle smiled warmly up at her. "C'mon, hero we've got a lake to find.. and maybe they were just exaggerating.. you know how that stuff starts." Privately, she didn't think so, but saw no reason to further rattle her soulmate. She gave Xena a swat on the behind. "Besides.. you owe me a massage big time.. my legs are killing me."
Nothing like a little nudge for sympathy to snap Xena out of her anxiety, and it worked. The warrior scowled at her. "Why didn't you say something?"
Gabrielle smiled sheepishly. "I didn't want to get yelled at." She admitted. "Can we walk for a little while? I think it'll help get the kinks out."
Xena gave her a speculative look, then she sighed, and nodded, grabbing her horse's reins and starting down the road at a slow amble. "You and your kinks." She muttered. "Gabrielle, after all this time, you should know better than to sit there, and suffer for no good reason."
The bard winced silently, as her thighs protested the motion, and she watched the ground, avoiding her soulmate's eyes. "You know, for a minute there, I kind of felt like that kid you hooked up with outside Potadeia." She commented quietly. "Remember that time "
"Going up the mountain in the storm." Xena finished for her. "Yeah I was so mad at you I could have spit Argo's shoe nails halfway across Greece." She unconcoiously eased closer to her partner, so that they were between the horses, side by side, and slowed her steps, to a familiar rhythm.
"Why?" Gabrielle felt the ache start to lessen a little, as the muscles stretched out.
"Why?" Xena repeated, gazing ahead thoughtfully. "I was angry that you hurt yourself angry that you felt you couldn't tell me if something was really bothering you." She paused. "Angry at myself really for being such a bastard that you couldn't even talk to me."
The bard sighed. "Xena.. it wasn't that not really.. it was just that I so wanted to be like you.. I wanted to prove to you that I wasn't a burden.. that I deserved to be able to stay with you, I guess." She shrugged. "But you know all that I was so desperate to not give you a reason to send me home."
Xena kicked a pebble down the road. "I know.. I realized that when I sat there watching you sleep, after I bandgaged your hands all up." She replied. "I.. um.. I'd never had anyone who wanted to stay with me before it was scary."
"Scary?" Gabrielle took a breath, and relaxed, enjoying the sun again. "Why scary?"
Xena let the silence go on a bit, as she considered. "As long as you " She stopped, and rethought her words. "As long as I thought of you as something that was temporary.. it was easy to excuse treating you like " She paused. "Like I did." Her voice trailed off, lamely. "But that night I realized you really wanted to be there despite me."
"Because of you." The bard corrected, gently. "You weren't horrible.. just.. practical, Xena."
Blue eyes looked directly at her. "You talk in your sleep, Gabrielle." Xena told her, with a little tensing of her lips. "And you did, that night."
A journey of revelations. Gabrielle marveled. "I did? What did I say?"
"You pleaded with me.. not to send you away." Xena reached out and put a hand on her partner's shoulder. "And you said you really didn't mind be being so nasty, honest."
A gentle blush colored Gabrielle's skin. "Oh." She exhaled. "Well I know I didn't mean it that. way and besides, I was sleeping."
The warrior chuckled a bit. "It's all right it was true, and I knew it I just had to find the guts to let you be the friend you wanted to be." She glanced at the thoughtful bard. "We've come a long way, you and I."
Gabrielle felt an irrational sting of tears. "Yes, we have."† She welcomed the warm arm around her shoulders, and wrapped her free arm around Xena's waist as they walked along, kicking up tiny clouds of dust. "And there's no one else I"d rather have made the journey with."
Xena kissed her head. "Same here.. best friend."
They continued down the road, in peaceful silence.
Gabrielle curled up on her side, and rested her head on her hand, chewing the end of a quill with a sense of utter contentment. Their furs were spread on a patch of soft, springy grass, and a small, but powerful fire was crackling, shedding warm, golden light across the twilight lit campsite.
Nearby, the two stallions were cropping grass, and just beyond them, the sparkling surface of the small lake Xena had promised glittered, catching the very last rays of red sunset across it's rippling surface.
The breeze was cool, and rich with the green smell of the forest, and the tang of the lake, and she put her pen down, to roll onto her back, and simply revel in the sensations that bombarded her from every side. "Mm." She closed her eyes and spread her arms out, feeling the warmth of the sun that the ground held, and indulging in a lazy yawn that made her jaw crack. She let herself lie like that for a moment, then she rolled back over and took up her quill, studying the blank page of her diary in front of her.
It's nice to have something interesting to record for a change.
Wow. I just went back and read that.. it sounds so awful, but really, outside of the bad storms, and little things, there hasn't been much to record lately. Just my thoughts, and observations, like how Dori's growing, and a new trick Xena taught the colts that day.
Now we're out on the road again, and it feels wonderful. I"d forgotten how much I really enjoy the end of the day, when we've stopped for the night, and are just relaxing. I feel like a little weight's been lifted off my shoulders, and I'm not sure if I should feel good, or just guilty about that.
A little of both, I guess.
Today was nice. We rode for a long time, and we just talked, like we used to.. it was strange, how fast things sort of shifted back into that pattern, but I liked it. I've missed just having the time to chatter on about whatever I felt like, though I'm sure Xena doesn't quite feel the same way, since she's never been much for idle chatter.
Mostly she just listens. I remember the days when I was sure she didn't even do that, until she turned around and quoted me on something I'd said weeks earlier, and I realized, yes, she most certainly did listen. It was a weird feeling, it was almost like realizing I mattered to her beyond just being something she was responsible for.
She's a good listener, though. She has these little sounds she makes, which I've come to know mean things like, really and go on, and boy that's a toughie.. she doesn't even really have to say anything to communicate with me, just that and her expressions.
It took me so long to be able to read those, and now I'm so used to them, talking is almost an afterthought. And she has this one expression, where she sort of almost smiles, and tilts her head a little, and looks at me, that I know means I love you.
It's my favorite one. I know I must have one back, because when she does it, and I look at her, whatever my face is doing makes her start smiling all the time. It's like a dance we do with our bodies, that sometimes we don't even realize we're doing.
We were talking about fish later on during the day, I guess because I was getting hungry, and it was on my mind, and I was asking why fish can hold their breaths so long. Xena said, she didn't think they did.. she thought they breathed in the water. That is so amazing.. because water is so thick, not like air at all. I thought it would be like when I was sick and the air felt like I was breathing in honey.
Then she told me not all fish breathed water.. there were some that actually breathed air like we do, and if they stayed underwater too long, they'd drown.
I thought that was incredibly dumb, since they lived in the water. Like it would be if we could only breathe water, and lived on the ground. But she said she'd show me one the next time we got to the coast.
I miss Dori. I do, I miss her, and I know Xena does, but I have to put this down too, even though it makes me seem like such a selfish person.
It feels really good to have Xena all to myself. I feel like a greedy child with candy saying that, but it's true, and I'm honest enough with myself to admit it. It's not just Dori, either, it's everything. We're so busy at home, we just donít' spend a lot of time with each other, not like we do when we're traveling. I know for some people, that would be terrible, but that's how we got to know each other, and I miss it.
It's not that she doesn't pay attention to me at home, she does, and even after all this time, all it takes is one look from her, and
But I guess I was spoiled, living like we did for so long, and now part of me looks back and wants that again, even though other parts of me love our new life a lot more.
You always want what you can't have, I guess.
She thoughtfully chewed her quill, and reread the entry.
The water was cool, but not freezing, and Xena simply floated in it, her nose barely above the surface. She could feel the current in the lake, which was really more of a widening in a stream, and it rippled by her bare body, washing off the dust of the trail.
In a moment, she'd attend to her task, that of finding dinner, but for right now, she allowed herself a few moments just to sit, and enjoy the peaceful water, and watch her soulmate scribe industriously into her diary.
How many times have I sat and just watched her? Xena rested her chin on a smooth, mossy branch hanging half in and half out of the water. It smelled of the lake, a rich, pungent scent that made her nostrils flare. How many nights, how many campfires.. how many potluck dinners, for the two of us?
The purpling light warred with the warm gold of the campfire in outlining Gabrielle's gentle features, her jaw moving a little as she concentrated and the very tip of her pink tongue showing from between her lips.
For someone who had been through all that Gabrielle had, she still appeared to be barely an adult, her face only lightly touched with the lines of experience that Xena knew her own had in plenty. With her pale hair pulled back, only the firm set of her jaw, and the confident pose betrayed a knowledge beyond her physical years that very few people living had.
Every day, I fall more and more in love with her. Xena reflected, in quiet amazement. I wonder if she realizes that? With a sigh, the warrior turned, going still in the water as she sensed the life around her.
Hearing tiny trickles, as liquid's passage was broken by a fin, or a slim, muscular body. Feeling them.
Sensing their presence, as they got used to hers, and flowed past her unafraid of the large, warm body that stood so still in the water.
Xena closed her eyes and listened, bending forward a little as she caught a hint of a larger movement, waiting for it to come closer.
Without conscious thought, she moved, striking through the water with both hands, towards targets she could sense were within range. Her fingers caught against smooth scales, then tensed, grabbing powerfully around two wriggling bodies, that threshed frantically, trying to get away.
With a soft chuckle she straightened, bringing two gleaming fish with her, struggling against her grip to no avail. "Gotcha." She warbled softly at them, wading out of the water and climbing up onto the soft, muddy bank.
The fish gasped, and she smacked them both against a tree, before she ambled up the short slope that lead to their campsite. As she approached, Gabrielle sensed her presence and looked up, her grin and appreciative eyes making Xena straighten a little in pure, human reflex. "Dinner" She held up the fish. "How do they look?"
Green orbs almost cinnamon colored in the firelight took on a glint. "Gorgeous." Gabrielle drawled, looking her right in the eye.
The warrior smirked, accepting the compliment with a faint, gracious nod, before she knelt and laid the fish down on a flat rock, and turned them over to her soulmate. Gabrielle leaned on the rock with both hands, then gently kissed Xena's shoulder, closing her eyes and rubbing her cheek against the warrior's skin with a soft sound of pleasure. Xena felt a warm flush of shivery excitement travel through her and she nuzzled her partner, breathing in the hickory tinge in her pale hair with a sigh.
The bard turned her head slightly and brushed her lips against Xena's, then slid a hand down her bare side and made a serious, more insistent contact.
Xena's touch found it's way up along the bard's shoulders, and cupped her face, pulling her closer until the soft fabric warmed her water cooled skin and Gabrielle's hands were moving, sliding across sensitive spots as familiar to her as her own breathing.
Whoa. Xena's alarm system weakly warned her, and she broke off reluctantly, hearing the bard's quickened breathing and feeling the soft, warm air against her neck. "Easy " She stroked the bard's back.
"Mmm donít wanna go easy." The bard murmured, nibbling her collarbone. "Whooo.." She tilted her head and gazed up into the crimson tinged blue eyes. "You have my toe hairs curling, hon."
"Oh, really?" Xena murmured, playfully sucking on a tasty earlobe. "Been a long time since I've had you all to myself I think I like it."
"Ungh. " The bard answered incoherently. "Really?"
Xena circled her waist with one arm, then straightened fluidly and leaped for their bedroll, setting the bard down gently, and crouching over her, grinning at the surprise on her face. "Oh yeah."† She flexed her arms and lowered her head, grasping one of the laces holding her soulmate's shirt closed in her teeth and tugging at it playfully. She felt a hand wrap itself in her damp hair and chuckled softly.
"Isn't this a little dangerous?" Gabrielle murmured, rasing her head and capturing a pair of warm lips.
"Yes " Xena answered, deep in her throat. "Very dangerous ." She pulled the last lace free and peeled the shirt down off one shoulder. "You wanna stop?"
Gabrielle's hands slid across the muscular body suspended over her, tracing the familiar contours, then pulling her down and closer. "No."† A prickle of excitement shuddered all down her body.
"Good answer."† Xena grasped the other sleeve and pulled it down, then lowered her head and started nibbling every inch of exposed skin with gentle, teasing nips, murmuring softly as she heard the soft sound forced from her soulmate's guts.
The fire crackled cheerfully, as it cast idle sparks up towards the brightening stars, painting shadows over a celebration of two souls.
Gabrielle reached out lazily and turned the fish on their stick, then leaned back into her very warm, and very comfortable nest of warrior. Xena was wrapped around her with her eyes half closed, and she resettled an arm across the bard's stomach as she resumed her spot. "That was pretty crazy, Xena." She slung am arm across the warrior's hip, wriggling a little closer in the process.
"Mm yeah.. a little.. but we got away with it." The warrior answered, a touch smugly "That smells great, by the way."
Gabrielle grinned. "Thanks those were very tasty berries you found.. I almost felt bad about putting them in the fish instead of eating them. "
"There's more we can have those for dessert." Her soulmate offered..
"We have pastries for dessert." The bard reminded her.
"We can have these as dessert for the pastries." Xena drawled.
'Xena." Gabrielle gave her a look.
"Hey, it's your birthday we can celebrate." The warrior protested. "C'mon.. you know you want to." She settled her arms more snugly around her partner's body, and nuzzled the back of her neck, eliciting a soft sound of pleasure from the bard.
"Mmm." Gabrielle let her eyes close in sensual bliss. "You are in a mood tonight, aren't you?"
A tanned chin rested itself on her shoulder, and she could feel the soft warmth of Xena's breathing brushing against her ear. "Is that all right?" The low, sexy rumble was so interesting, she almost didn't register what Xena had said.
"It's wonderful." The bard murmured, turning her head a bit so she could see the soft blue eyes regarding her. "It makes me feel wonderful just to look into your eyes and see how you feel about me."
Xena simply watched her, letting her gaze roam over the firelit face with quiet intent. Something was bothering her soulmate, she could see it just behind the pretty, green eyes, and knew enough quiet would usually coax it out of her.
"When I was over at the inn the other day, I was listening to some of the women talk.. you know how they are." Gabrielle smiled wryly.
The warrior lifted an eyebrow in agreement.
"And they were all complaining about their partners.. about how they never felt like being close, or that they were ignored. It was kind of sad." Gabrielle paused, leaning her head over and resting it against her soulmate. "And it's never been like that with us I never feel like you do this out of obligation, or because you think I expect it."
Both dark eyebrows lifted, almost out of sight into Xena's hairline, and her blue eyes opened up wide. "Gabrielle I never knew how incredible it felt just to hold someone.. just like this.. until I met you. " She paused, searching for words. "This close I can feel how you feel about me."†
Gabrielle lifted a hand and covered her soulmate's rubbing the fingers gently, visibly pleased with the words.
"Most of my life, I spent in a very dark very cold place." The warrior continued quietly. "Being with you now " She shook her head slowly. "Every moment is a gift."
The bard nodded. "Yes, it is." She agreed softly. "For both of us."† Their eyes met in complete understanding. Gabrielle swallowed a little, and shifted, a touch awkward. "I.. I feel very close to you tonight." She murmured softly.
Xena half grinned, then let her eyes skim over both of them. "If we were any closer, we'd be inside each other's skin, Gabrielle." She reminded her partner, sensing the sudden change in her mood.
"Hmm.. that's an appealing thought." Her soulmate answered. "But.. you know what I mean." She fell silent.
The warrior waited, then realized further prodding was going to have to come from her side. Xena blinked slowly, the firelight catching in her dark lashes. "Yes, I do." She agreed quietly. "Maybe because we haven't been as close lately." Her eyes met Gabrielle's squarely. "Is that what's bothering you?"
The bard didn't answer for a long moment, but Xena could see the emotions flashing across her expressive face, and hear the faint sounds as she swallowed a few times. Ah.
"That's not " Gabrielle started, then stopped. "Xena, I " The bard stopped again, then shook her head, and buried her face into her soulmate's shoulder, with a little groan.
The warrior raised a hand and stroked her hair in mute comfort and waited, knowing the smaller woman was struggling to express herself. . Finally she heard a soft sniffle, and felt the pressure as Gabrielle turned her head to one side.
"It feels so selfish to think that way." She murmured softly. "I mean gods I have everything.. I have a beautiful home.. and a wonderful partner.. and the most adorable child what in Hades is wrong with me, Xena?" The bard sounded miserable. "Why do I feel like I'm losing part of myself? Like something precious is trickling out from between my fingers and I can't stop it?"
Oh boy.† Xena felt herself truly at a loss. Mother was right... and I missed it. She remained silent for a bit, thinking hard, her hands unconsciously gentling her soulmate as though she were a nervous filly. "I I didn't know you felt that way." She admitted softly. "I thought you were happy, Gabrielle I swear it." The warrior sighed. "I should have known I know† you better than that." She felt the shift, and knew Gabrielle was looking up at her. "You ran away from that life."
"And I know you . " The fair haired woman responded, in a whisper. "You really are happy there, aren't you?" She studied the warrior's face intently.
A moment of quiet, then Xena closed her eyes. "Yes." A breath. "Yes, I am."
They were both silent, as fragile shards of truth dusted them. Then blue eyes slid open, and met pale green gazing back, and two souls exchanged a simple understanding.
"You would give that up for me." Gabrielle stated softly. "Wouldn't you?"
"You would give up your dreams for me."† Her soulmate replied, just as softly. "So of course I would."
They both smiled, in sad knowledge, of each other, and the realities of life. Gabrielle put her head back down, and they simply sat for a while, letting their connection wrap them in a net of warmth. "I'm sorry." She finally murmured sadly.
"Don't be." Xena answered ."I don't want you to ever feel like you can't tell me something, my bard."
"Even if it hurts you?" Pale green eyes studied her.
"Especially then." The warrior confirmed. "Because the truth usually does hurt, and you and I learned the hard way what happens when we try to protect each other from that."
Gabrielle nodded slowly. "Yes, we did.. but Xena, I want you to know that you were mostly right." She traced an idle pattern on the soft skin under her hands. "Most of the time I'm very, very happy."
Xena's lips tensed into a brief, regretful smile. "Most of the time, so am I." She admitted. "But there are times when... " She paused, reluctant to admit it, even to herself. "I don't think I miss the killing... Gabrielle.. at least, I hope I don't.. but.."
The bard curled her fingers around one of Xena's hands. "You miss the fighting." She felt the warrior's whole body slump in defeat. "I think you dream about it."
"It's all right." Gabrielle rubbed the arm circling her. "You do.. I can feel your body twitching at night.. all up in here.. " She smoothed a touch over the strong shoulders. "And here." Her hand dropped to Xena's thigh, giving it a pat. "Xena, it's what you spent most of your adult life doing... I think that's natural."
The warrior sighed. "I tell myself that." She confessed. "But it's like you said.. I ask myself what's wrong with me? I've got everything...why do I need that?"
Gabrielle turned the fish a few times, then exhaled. "So.. what do we do?" She felt better, curiously, just for having said something, as though that had relieved a tension she'd hardly been aware of.
Xena considered the question. "We compromise." She answered thoughtfully. "We're out here looking for trouble now, aren't we?"
"Mm." Gabrielle agreed."That we are.... do you mean to say we've got to do that more often?"
"Mm... something like that." Xena replied. "And when we get home I'll give up that afternoon session.. you give up that late class, and we make that time for just us." The ex warlord mapped a plan. "How about it?"
The bard fluttered her lashes, tickling Xena under the chin. "My brilliant general."
"Stop that." The warrior scowled engagingly. "I was serious."
"So was I." Gabrielle replied mildly, as she removed the fish from the fire, and neatly placed them on two plates, to which she added roasted vegetables before handing one to her partner. "Xena, you are brilliant, you are a general, and you certainly are mine." She lifted her soulmate's hand up and kissed the fingers, then rubbed them against her cheek. "Thank you for listening to me.. and not thinking I was some selfish, ungrateful shrew."
Xena tousled her hair, then tugged her closer† and kissed her. "I'm glad we got that out." She admitted, gently removing the last traces of tears from her soulmate's skin. "Thank you for not thinking I was some half crazed fighter that's been hit in the head one too many times."
Gabrielle snuggled closer, tangling her fingers in her partner's shirt.† "Mm... we make quite a team." She felt a smile twitch at her lips."How's your fish?"
Xena ignored the fish and stole a kiss instead. She broke off after a few moments, and looked Gabrielle in the eye, their noses almost touching. "I do miss this." She said. "I miss spending hours and hours and hours just with you."
The bard felt like a warm blanket had settled over her, and her world had spun firmly back into it's proper place. She curled up against Xena's body and broke off a piece of the warrior's fish, offering it to her. "Me too... now, c'mon.. finish... there's a lot of stars up there waiting."
And after a while, the fire burned low, sending up the occasional crackling spark, as two low voices blended together, peacefully shaping dreams in the canopy of stars overhead. .
It took five days of traveling, before they left the pastoral, rolling hills and started up into the harsher lands further up into the range of craggy mountains that surrounded their part of the world. The morning sun slanted down onto the rock strewn road they were traveling on the sixth day, casting their shadows behind them, and giving welcome warmth after the chilly night.
"Are you vegetable, mineral, or animal." Gabrielle was asking, idly kicking a pebble out of her way. They were walking side by side, their horses ambling after them, as Xena didn't like to ride on roads with so many small, sharp rocks. She took a deep breath as she waited for her partner to answer, and let it out, watching the frosty puffs of fog form in the cool air.†† After five days her body had reacclimated itself to traveling, faster in fact than she'd dared hope, and she felt great, despite a week of sleeping on the hard ground, and the vagaries of the weather. "Hmm?"
Xena had been studying the ground, and now she took two steps, hopping up and snagging a branchful of nuts and pulling them down. She offered several to the bard and munched on one herself thoughtfully. "I'm an animal." She announced.
"Hmm.." Gabrielle opened a nut with neat white teeth. "With a tail, or without?"
"With." The warrior replied.
"Long or short."
"Furry or not."
Silence. "What?" Xena laughed.
"Furry or not..c'mon, Warrior Princess of sneaky tricks.. I remember when you got around me with that aardvark." Gabrielle poked her in the side.
"Oh... all right. Furry." Blue eyes glinted at her in mischevious amusement.
"Nice and soft and furry.. or that nasty, almost hairy kind of furry?" Gabrielle persisted.
One perfectly shaped dark eyebrow lifted. "Gabrielle, what is with this sudden fascination with my tail?"
Gabrielle let the words percolate through her mind, then almost snorted her nutmeats out her nose as she convulsed in laughter. "Oh gods.. Xena.. don't do that when I'm swallowing." She gasped, as the warrior took her arm in a firm hold and smacked her between the shoulderblades, dislodging a bit of the stuff that had gotten caught in her throat. "You know.. ." She composed herself, and studied her soulmate, who was watching her warily. "You'd look so good with a tail."
Xena stopped walking, and got bumped in the butt by Iolaus, who didn't see her stop. "Wh.. yow Iolaus, cut that out."† She put a hand on her hip. "What?"
"No no.. you would." Gabrielle took her arm, and lead her forward. "Really.. I mean, think about it you could use it kind of like whip " She lashed her hand from side to side. "Or even like monkeys do.. you could hang upside down by it swinging from tree to tree "
"It would be nice and furry.. dark, of course " She went on, fully engaged in her imagination. "Or maybe with stripes yeah.. rings "
Xena watched her face, seeing a faint disassociation that rang a sweet, familiar bell. "What would I do with it?" She asked. "Wouldn't it get cut off pretty quick?"
"No way " Gabrielle shook her head. "No I think you'd " Her head tilted to one side. "Hey..yeah.. that's it you could use it to grab wrists hold them or I bet you could figure out how to " Her eyes flickered with interest. "Just think, Xena there could be stories about how you used your tail to unlock doors.. or let it dangle down to rescue a baby stuck in a hole or "
"Those would make pretty good stories." The warrior agreed. "Almost makes me wish I had one."
"Yeah " Gabrielle nodded, absorbed in her thoughts. "I'd start off with two feuding families both of them donít' like each other because they have just.. little differences..let me see okay, one has dark hair, and one has light hair they think that's what's important, not the inside, but the outside and then one of the light haired people's child falls down a well they can't help them, and they' won't ask the dark haired people for help " She started ticking off points. "That's conflict.. and I can see a moral okay, then we have you show up "
"Mm." Xena murmured encouragingly. "With my tail."
"Right..right..and you have dark hair, too but you insist on helping them, and you do you let your tail down and the child is able to climb up it." The bard went on.
"I hope it's a strong tail." The warrior commented mildly.
"It's your tail.. how could it be anything but?" Gabrielle smiled. "So then, you show the light haired people that it's what's inside a person that counts not what they look like." She glanced up. "What do you think?"
"I think it's a great story." Xena smiled at her. "As long as you put you in it and I get to kiss you at least once."
"Tch Xena." The bard laughed easily. "Yeah.. okay that just reinforces the story.. because I have light hair . Hey.. that's not bad.. " She turned and dug in a saddlebag, pulling out a folded parchment and her quill case. "What should I call it?"
"How about . 'A Warrior's Tail." Xena supplied, holding her partner's horse's reins while she scribbled furiously, stopping suddenly as the words penetrated.
"Oh. Xena that's perfect." She gave her soulmate a big, wholehearted grin. "Let me just get the details down so I can .."
Her words stopped, as her steps slowed, and she came to a halt, staring at her quill and parchment for a long, wondering moment before she lifted her head, and regarded a quiet, smiling Xena, who had halted next to her. "Wow."
"What's wrong?" The warrior asked, knowing perfectly well what was putting the stunned look on her partner's face. "Did you forget how to write?"
"No . "† Gabrielle savored the moment, listening to the crickets that surrounded them in chorus. "I remembered how to dream."† Slowly, she let her hands drop to her sides, as she turned in a circle, drinking in the world with newly reopened eyes. "Gods.. I'd forgotten how wonderful that felt." †She came full circle and let her gaze fall on the tall, dark haired woman at her side. The sun formed a golden halo behind the warrior's head, throwing her face in a half shadow, only her sparkling eyes, and the flash of her grinning teeth standing out. "A Warrior's Tail, huh?"
Xena's smile broadened. "I bet if I did have a tail it'd spend most of it's time wrapped right around a certain fair haired bard I know." She settled her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders instead, and touched her head to her partner's. "Doncha think?"
Gabrielle exhaled happily, and allowed herself to be gently guided back down the road, scribbling as she walked, and trusting Xena to make sure she didn't trip. A tail. Hmm..† If she really concentrated, she could almost feel it's pressure,† wrapped around her waist.
They heard the fight long before they saw it. Xena's hearing caught the faint sound of angry yells, and she turned her head, to catch the breeze, almost visibly cupping the air with her sensitive ears. "Hmm."
"What's up?" Gabrielle finished taking a drink from one of their water bags.
The warrior shook her head. "Trouble up ahead." She vaulted aboard Iolaus, who shifted a little, but was quickly taken back under control by Xena's experienced touch. "I guess we'd " She stopped, forcing herself not to hold out a hand to Gabrielle to pull the smaller woman aboard. "Um "
Gabrielle patted Hercules' neck. "I know it's busybody time." She efficiently mounted the stallion, gathering her reins up and nodded. "Okay.. .let's go."
They cantered down the road, cresting the long, banked turn to see a group of mounted men scuffling with what looked like either travelers or traders, two wagons packed with bundles and boxes, pulled by bleating oxen.
Xena urged her horse into a gallop, and felt the wind pick her hair up and blow it back, aware of Gabrielle's presence not far behind her. A faint, familiar tickle of excitement traveled up her spine, and before she could stop herself, a smile followed, baring her teeth as a soft chuckle forced its way through them.
It took the raiders a moment to realize they weren't alone, and the closest to them, a tall, rangy man with a† beard turned towards them and pointed. Two more looked up, then dismissed them, concentrating on dragging the two older men down from the wagon.
Xena dropped her boots out of her stirrups and clamped a good hold down on Iolaus' sides, letting one hand go free to unstrap her long whip from her saddle ring.† As she got closer, the tall man waved her off, yelling something unintelligible. He turned and thrust a hand back into the wagon, pulling out a shovel and hefting it.
The warrior didn't hesitate. She uncoiled the whip and sent it snaking out, wrapping it's end about the man's arm and jerking back hard. He stumbled forward, then swept the shovel sideways, towards the hard charging stallion.
"Oh.. you wanna play rough?" Xena released the reins and leaped from the saddle, letting her momentum take her crashing into taller man, and relying on sheer weight to take them both away from the still running horse. They rolled up against the wagon and she bounced off the wheel, getting to her feet and ducking his clumsy blow.† Her smile widened.
Gabrielle pulled Hercules up to a halt and flung herself off the tall back, untying her staff as she did so and letting it fall into her hands. Two women and several children were dodging behind the wagon, and she got between them and the raiders. "Get back!"† She yelled, ducking a piece of flying wood. One of the raiders came at her, and she felt her body respond in pure instinct, her booted feet sliding wider for balance, and her shoulders shifting as she swiveled to meet his attack, slapping aside his club and swinging her staff around to catch him at the knees, dumping him to the ground. "If you're smart, you'll stay there." She advised him, a little unsettled at the eager thrill of excitement brought on by the fight. By old habit, her eyes flicked over his scrambling body to find her soulmate, and she winced as the warrior nailed one of her five opponents with a savage elbow to the jaw. "Ow."
Xena grinned, as two men rushed her, crouching and sending herself skyward and slamming a boot into each man's chest, the impact flipping her backwards and knocking them both down. She rotated in mid air then landed, ducking under a wild blow from the third man's pike then catching it and twisting hard, flipping him over onto his side.
Damn, it felt good. Xena felt a little guilty, but not enough to ignore the wild pump of blood moving through her, from her toes to the tips of her fingers, and the surge of almost shameful joy that came with it. She grabbed the now recovered kick victims and slammed them together, then ducked under their flailing arms and dove for a hand stand, kicking back and sending them flying forward. Then she rolled forward and got to her feet, facing her last opponent.
Uh oh. Cold eyes, and cold steel faced her, a double handed broadsword that made her teeth itch just to look at. She sucked in a breath and settled her shoulders, spreading her arms out a little as he circled warily towards her.† Her palms twitched, and she just barely kept herself from closing her hands on a phantom hilt, half of her regretting it's absence, and half of her knowing that after a year, it would probably be worse than useless.
A pang of regret hit her in the gut, as she circled with her opponent, her eyes taking in his stance, and the steadiness of his eyes, and knowing she was possibly in trouble. A sharp crack caught her attention's fringes, and she saw another man go down,† two others being held at bay by her soulmate.
The fourth, however, was aiming a crossbow at her.
He raised it, and Xena felt a cold hand of fear grab her, as she realized she had no confidence at all that she could even make an attempt at deflecting the bolt, much less catch it.
Damn. She dove for the ground as he fired, glad beyond measure that at least no one had been behind her. The bolt tore over her shoulder, ripping away a bit of dark hair, but she rolled with the impact and came up onto her feet, only to see the bowman collapse under a wicked reverse sweep from Gabrielle.
It made her angry. Here she was, facing a pack of mangy rats who couldnít have even tied her bootlaces a year ago, and her partner was protecting her. She turned her attention to the swordsman, who was now circling closer, the sun reflecting off the long blade. †
The rage built, and she let it, slipping forward and dodging his slicing blow, and ducking inside his guard. He slammed back the other direction, and caught her in the side, then shoved her back, and stabbed upwards, missing her only because she dropped to a knee, twisting as she went and letting the blade slip past her ribcage inches from her heart.
She caught his arm, then simply shoved off against the ground, crashing into him and sending them both sprawling. His sword caught under the wagon wheel, and she pounced on him, slamming a fist into his jaw as he tried to sit up.
He tried to grab her hand, but she slugged him again, and again, enjoying the feel of her fist crunching bone, and at last he slumped under her and went still. Footsteps closed, and she glanced up, to see the last of the raiders coming at her, and a rattled looking Gabrielle climbing to her feet. Alarmed she scrambled off the prone man and picked up his dropped sword without thinking, swinging it to meet the oncoming pike and shearing the tip off with an awkward stroke.
The man stumbled forward, and she nailed him in the side of the head with a kick, slamming him against the wagon and knocking him out.
Then, for a few breaths, it was quiet. She unclenched her hand and let the heavy sword fall to the dirt, as Gabrielle came up beside her. "You all right?" †She turned and studied her soulmate anxiously, lifting a hand to brush bits of straw from her shoulder
"Fine." The bard exhaled, glancing around. "Just lost my footing for a minute.. it's muddy there." The wagon had been overturned, and the travelers were hiding behind it, the older man's head now peering up and over at them timidly. "It's okay." She reassured them, then glanced at her soulmate. "Are you okay?" She asked, in a low voice.
"Yeah." Xena tasted the word unpleasantly. "Iím fine." She kicked one of the groaning men. "You've got sixty seconds to get your stinking self out of here."
Two of them picked up her tall opponent, and started dragging him off. The remaining two glared at her. "Lady, you donít' know what you just started." One spat, wiping a trail of blood off face. "We'll be back." He grabbed his mate, who had a hand cradling what looked like a broken jaw and stalked off.
Gabrielle sighed, as she leaned against her staff. "Okay.. you can come out now." She called, giving the small group of people who emerged hesitantly a smile. "It's safe." The bard added, giving her partner a little pat on the back. "Right?"
Xena nodded, her guts still in turmoil. She watched as the family timidly came out, the older man bleeding a little from a cut on his shoulder, and the younger man limping, his ragged trousers torn and stained crimson. "Everyone all right?"
The man nodded shakily. "Thanks to you two " He answered. "That was a very brave thing you did we're very grateful."
"Glad we could help." Gabrielle smiled at him, then she glanced behind him to the women and grubby children watching them with wide eyes. "Hi there " Her eyes twinkled a bit. "My name is Gabrielle " She held a hand out. "Has there been a lot of trouble like that on the roads?"
The man took it, and gripped it gingerly. "Nice to meet you.. and er .. " He glanced up at the silent warrior. "My name is Reynald "
Xena held a hand out. "Xena." She supplied quietly.
She was used to reactions to her name. Most often they were not good ones, though lately that had modified to at least a grudging acceptance. Occasionally, perhaps with someone who had heard of her recent good deeds, or been in a village she'd helped.. the reaction was more positive.
Round eyed, slack jawed, awestruck wonder was not a reaction in her mental catalog. She only just barely kept herself from patting her head, to see if she'd grown a pair of horns.
Or patting somewhere else to see if she'd grown a tail. Instead, she drew her hand back and let it rest on her hip, as she regarded the man warily. "You get hit in the head or something?"
The younger man sidled up and blinked at her. "Great Hera I can't believe it you are real."
Xena darted an alarmed glance at her soulmate, who studiously avoided her eyes, as she scratched her jaw and fiddled with a bit of the wrapping on her staff. "Of course I am what kind of nutball remark is that?" She asked testily.
The woman and two children peeked from around the wagon, edging closer and watching her in fascination, and the smaller of the two youngsters worked his hand free and came trotting over, standing at Xena's knees and staring up at her in awe. "Wow, mama .it's like the stories say ain't it?" He turned and peered back at his mother.
Gabrielle sensed that her soulmate was close to the boiling point, and she mercifully broke in, giving the boy a pleasant smile. "What stories are those? We've been off the road for a while I don't think we've heard them."
Reynald cleared his throat. "Never thought I'd . " He stopped. "We was running out of the highlands.. it's been bad there, very bad raiders like this lot roaming at will.. we thought we'd gotten clear of them, but they spotted us as we come down out from the pass there." He pointed.
Xena nodded. "You've seen this bunch before, then?"
"This bunch.. or ones so like em it's no mind." The man shook his head. "We came through Brecias a week past a whole pile of them there. They'd finally caught up with that storyteller.. what's been telling everyone about you um " He peeked up at the warrior's intimidating blue eyes. "He got away, though."
"Storyteller?" Gabrielle's ears visibly pricked. "Who is he?"
"Dunno." The younger man winced, as he examined a long scrape down his side. "Bit of a thing, he is.. but he sure could tell a tale I'd say they were the only thing what's been keeping a bit of spirit up through the whole thing." He paused, awkwardly. "Everyone wanted to believe there might be someone out there like he told stories about a lot of us just "
"Thought they were stories." The bard finished quietly. "Right?"† She was aware of the unsettled feeling in her guts, that she knew was coming through her connection to Xena, and she stepped sideways, letting their shoulders brush in silent comfort. A warm hand settled into the small of her back in response, and she exhaled. Someone else telling stories about her partner? The sudden jolt of possessive jealousy stung, and she swallowed an unpleasant taste in her mouth.
"Well yeah." The man admitted, in a mutter. "But here ye are." He stared up at Xena. "Ye're real, cept you don't got no weapons nor armor." He paused, as Xena's face went quiet and still. "You sure didn't need none, though." He concluded, with a sheepish grin. "I never saw nobody pick up and smack people together like that before."
Gabrielle saw the stormy look, and she interrupted smoothly. "Listen where are you headed? Isn't there a town just down the road here.. we've been traveling for a while."
Distracted, the men turned and regarded the sadly upended wagon, and their goods spread out across the road. "We were headed on to Dumae, yeah I guess we'll just take what we can carry." Reynald sighed. "C'mon, Elly let's pick the stuff up, before it ruins."
"Xena, can you do anything with the wagon?" Gabrielle gave her sullen soulmate a nudge. "Reynald, if you're headed that way, maybe we can travel with you how about it?"
They turned in surprise. "Oh we couldnít ask ye to.. " Reynald started back as Xena brushed by him, kneeling to examine the wagon in silence. "Er I'm sure we kin "
The warrior ran a practiced eye over the wood, using the time to settle her composure. Right now, she knew, she didn't have time to think about what might have happened, or bemoan a decision she herself had made a year past. There would be time later for that, and time to figure out what to do about her sudden, startling notoriety. "All right, listen this is just bent if we can get the wagon back up, it should last until we get to town." She told them, resting a forearm on her knee, then sucking in a breath as she put pressure on ribs sore from the blow she'd gotten, which would have normally been partially deflected by her leather armor.
Idiot. She mentally cursed herself.
"Well " The man cautiously edged over, and peered at the axle. "Sure.. but.. how can we oh, you can just pick it up right?"
Pale blue eyes fastened on him. "No." Xena answered crisply, as she stood and pulled a coil of rope from the tumbled supplies. "I let my horse do the heavy work."
She fastened the rope to Hercules' saddle rings, then backed the fidgety stallion up, urging him with a soft voice as he pressed his weight against the straining rope, his nostrils flaring in protest. "C'mon, Herc " She muttered into a flattened ear. "If those cattle can pull it, you can just roll it upright."
The stallion snorted, then bucked a little, but managed to right the wagon, to the cheers of the watching family. They helped pick up the supplies, and get everyone settled, then they all started off down the road, with Xena riding a little apart, and Gabrielle walking alongside the wagon, with the younger man, and the woman. The children rode in the wagon, and Reynald drove the oxen, who stirred the dusty ground with their slow, even steps.
The town was sad looking, Gabrielle decided. It was ragged, and beaten even the wood of the building walls looked dog eared. The people watched them come in with furtive, wary eyes, which lingered on the wagon, then on her partner's angular, distinctive face as Xena studied the surroundings with a cool gaze.
The village was set in a rough square, with a small, decrepit looking inn on one side, and a half collapsed stable on the other. The huts that made up the rest of the place had patches in their walls, and one was merely a burnt out shell, with a scent of scorched straw still lingering over it.
The bard fingered her staff, and watched as an older man came towards them, a worn leather apron tied around his waist, and his gnarled hands picking at the knot nervously. "Hello." She kept her voice low, and pleasant.
The man gave her a nod, after glancing at the rest of the party, and letting his eyes skitter over Xena's icy visage. "Afternoon you folks coming from the north?"
"Well yes and no." Gabrielle answered, after no one else did, apparently content to leave her as a spokesperson. "These people here were they were attacked on the road." She leaned on her staff. "My partner and I were coming up from the south." She held out a hand. "My name is Gabrielle."
The man clasped her hand in reflex, then he nodded. "I'm Estefas m'wife runs the inn, what's left of it there. You're welcome to what little hospitality we have. They haven't left us† much."
Reynald climbed down, and dusted his hands off, then extended one. "Greetings, sir my family and I left the highlands .we were hoping to find more peace down here, but it seems you've seen the same treatment as we have."
"Aye." Estefas agreed, with a sigh. "Been a half dozen raids in the last month donít know what they expect us to have left by now last time they just burned the old widow's hut, and didn't take a thing." He nodded at the women, and gave the children a tired smile. "Ye're lucky you got past them."
"Well.. we didn't." Elly could barely keep a grin off his face. "They found us on t'road.. but they didn't get to t'finish us up we had Xena here come t'rescue us." †Now he did beam, and turn his eyes towards the warrior, who had dismounted and was fiddling with Hercules' bridle. "They saved us."
"I'm going to go take care of these two." Xena broke through the rising buzz of excited comment, her eyes meeting Gabrielle's. " You want to get us a room?" She took the bard's brief nod as an answer, and captured Iolaus' reins, leading the two stallions away from the gathering crowd towards the sad looking barn.
"She.. um.. " Gabrielle found herself the center of very interested attention. "Doesnít like a fuss.. you know."
"That's really Xena?" The elder asked in wonder. "Are you Gabrielle the Bard, then?"
It felt † Gabrielle pursed her lips and exhaled. "Yes.. that's me." She murmured, letting the title settle over her like an unexpectedly warm cape. She'd been so busy being other things, like a mother, and a reeve, and an Amazon Queen in residence, that it felt strange, but good to resume an identity that had captured so much of her spirit.
"The gods preserve us I can hardly believe it." Estefas shook his head. "You are welcome, aye, more than welcome here for all the stories we've heard, I never did think to see you with my own eyes." He cleared his throat. "All right back up a little there.. let the lady breathe.. " He wiped his hands on his apron. "M'daugther here will show you over to the inn we've not got much, but you're welcome to all we can muster." †A murmur of enthusiastic agreement rose around him, and Gabrielle could hear her name being whispered across the crowd's noise.
"Thanks um.. " First, however, there was a very upset, and very unsettled warrior to attend to. "We've been traveling for a week.. let me go get things arranged, then maybe we can all sit down and talk.. I'd like to hear about what's been going on."
"Gabrielle " A middle aged woman put a hand on her arm. "If it's I mean, later could you.. um maybe tell us one of your stories?"
Definite surge of excitement. "Ah sure " The bard was taken aback by the reaction, but felt flattered nevertheless. "Sure I'd be glad to maybe after dinner?"
"That would be great.. we've heard so much about you from Devon, it'll be grand to hear it from the source, so to speak." Estefas clapped his hands. "G'wan with ye let the lady be meet back at t'inn tonight, and we'll have a treat."
Gabrielle found herself being led gently towards the inn by a tall, auburn haired girl, not much younger than she was. After a moment, she looked up at her. "Who's Devon?"
The girl smiled. "He's well, most people say he's a troublemaker, but what he does is tell stories he was just here last week.. he's going to be so wild when he finds out you were here, and he didn't see you."
The bard nodded. "What kind of stories?"† She asked. "And what's your name?"
"Anabela" The girl replied promptly. "What kind of stories? Well all kinds of tales about Xena, for one thing amazing things we knew weren't true.... about giants, and centaurs, and defeating armies fantastic."
"Ah." Gabrielle replied. "Well, we've met giants, and centaurs, and armies, so " She pulled open the ragged door and entered, wincing at the smell of old, stale bread and musty wood. "Where is this Devon?"
Anabela eased past her. "Mama!" She called, then smiled. "He's out and about.. always keeping out of the hands of the raiders..."
An older woman limped into the room, peering at Gabrielle through the dim light. "Hello."
"Hello.. " Gabrielle put her curiosity aside for the moment. "We'd like a room for the night my partner and I."
"Mama, this is Gabrielle the bard." Anabela broke in, excitedly. "And she's here with Xena!"
Old, tired eyes regarded her. "Gwan with you." She told the girl. "Take your stories outside, and let me tend to business." She shooed Anabela out, then turned back to Gabrielle. "Now a room is it?"
The bard smiled. "Yes we've been sleeping rough the last week."†
The wrinkled face moved and shifted, as the old woman chewed that over. "Only gots one room, only gots one bed." She finally stated gruffly. "Two dinars, and gets ye dinner, w'bread and ale for breakfast."
Ordinarily, the bard would have dickered furiously at that.. given the state of the inn, and what she smelled of the food, but she could see the pall of hopeless exhaustion in the older woman's eyes, and she merely smiled. "That sounds fine." She removed her pouch from her belt and handed over the two coins. "Here and.. " She counted out a third. "If we can get use of a tub and some towels."
The innkeeper stared at the coins, then flipped them over, studying the distinctive stamp on one side. "Amphipolis." She looked up at Gabrielle. "Ye're from there, then?"
The bard nodded. "Yes .we both are."
"They be saying it's safe there what's† your business in going to these wastelands?" The woman asked, curiously. "Tis dangerous times, lassie."
Gabrielle smiled. "I know .thanks for the warning." She gave the woman a nod. "I've got to go get our stuff settled .be back in a while." The intense gnawing in her guts was getting to much for her to ignore, and she slipped out of the inn, heading for the stable with purposeful strides. Damn, Xena.. what are you doing to yourself in there? She wondered. The warrior had been very quiet.. too quiet, she realized, after the short fight, and had been very withdrawn on the ride in to the village.
Maybe she was hurt, Gabrielle mused, recalling her partner's obstinate tendency to 'forget' to mention things like that. But no.. the bard didn't remember seeing anything dangerous, in fact, for someone who hadn't had practically any battle experience in a few months, Xena had seemed fairly sharp, easily overcoming most of her opponents, and bouncing around like a child's ball with her trademark grin.
Or, Gabrielle mused, that's how I saw it. Wonder how she did?
The barn was almost as decrepit on the inside as on the outside. Xena nudged the door aside with her boot, and peered around, assessing the structure's relative safety before she proceeded.
†One side of the barn had partially collapsed, but the other side seemed fairly secure, and a small cart horse was in one of the stalls, his head half turned to watch the intruders.
"C'mon, boys." Xena eased through the door, and led the stallions inside, their golden ears flicking back and forth with evident interest.† She commandeered two large stalls and housed the horses, then set about removing their saddlebags which she set into a relatively clean corner.
The well known, repetitious task did a little to calm her nerves, and she got out her grooming brushes, slowly running them down Iolaus' sides as she let her body relax.
Only to be reminded of the fight by a sharp twinge down her right side, that brought her up short, and made her lean against the horse for a long, aching moment. "Oh, damn you Xena.." She whispered, furious at herself. "What in Hades did you think you were doing coming out here? Were you gonna put a damned halter on the bad guys when you met up with them?"
Iolaus nickered, arching his head around and nudging her, much like his mother loved to do. The warrior scratched his ears and sighed, then switched hands and started brushing him down with her left hand, smoothing the gleaming golden hairs with a practiced touch.
She'd gotten mostly through with him, her mood worsening with every jolt to her bruised ribs, and was checking his feet when she heard footsteps coming closer. Very familiar ones, and for once, she was almost sorry to hear them, knowing her soulmate would gently nudge and poke her until she got out what was bothering her and that
Xena stood, resting her hands on Iolaus' back as the door opened, and Gabrielle looked inside, spotting her and moving all the way in, closing the door behind her.
"Hey." The bard crossed the hay strewn floor and entered the stall, perching on the wooden water trough nailed to one side. "Got us a room, and a bathtub."
Uh oh.† "Great." The warrior muttered. "Thanks." She gave Iolaus a pat, then gathered her tools, giving the low wall that separated the stalls a look, then going out the gate and walking around it. "Any trouble?"
Gabrielle regarded the floor, then looked up at her, watching the warrior's movements around Hercules's restive body. "With the room? No I found out the name of the person who's been telling stories about you.. .and I.. um " The soft sound of the brush against horsehair sounded loud as she paused. "Some of them sound familiar."
Pale blue eyes glanced at her over Hercules's back. "Familiar?"
"Mm." Gabrielle nodded. "But that was a pretty amazing reception, huh? I know you really didn't expect that, Xena, but.. "
"No." The warrior responded quietly. "And Iím certainly not the person in those stories anymore." The words came out before she could think, and she bit off a curse as she saw the look on Gabrielle's face.
"Xena " The bard slipped off her perch and came into the other stall, circling the stallion and closing with her, bringing a familiar touch that warmed her back as the smaller woman rubbed it.
"Don't 'Xena' me, Gabrielle it's true and we both know it." The warrior stared at a small, swirling pattern of hairs between Hercules' shoulders.† "It was my choice.. I know that.. but here we are, and I.." She stopped, and just shook her head.
The bard regarded her. "And you what?" She asked, softly. "Xena, what's wrong?† C'mon.. level with me here... I know it's upsetting to see all this destruction, but I mean, at least that family is safe."
The warrior looked at her hands, for a long moment, then shrugged. "Yeah, you're right." No sense in dragging Gabrielle through my nightmares. "Listen.. you want to help me with this?"† She turned her head, just in time to see the quiet hurt, quickly masked as Gabrielle ducked her head and nodded.
"Sure." The bard picked up a brush, and started running it gently through the thick, black mane. "You .. might want to leave our bags out dinner was included, but the way that place smelled.. it might be safer to eat in here." She remarked, with forced casualness. "I'd rather give it a miss.. but I sort of promised to give them a story or two that's gonna be weird."
Xena had her head down, as she worked the brush over the horse's upper legs. "Weird?" She asked, more to keep the conversation going than anything.
"Yeah it's been a long time since I had to do that in front of people.. that I didn't know, I mean.. I hope I didnít forget how." The bard responded. "That would be pretty embarrassing.. they've got some pretty heavy expectations Iím a little nervous."
Xena peered at her over the tall back for a moment. "Yeah." She answered softly, then cleared her throat. "Listen.. you'll do fine you don't forget that stuff, not as good as you are at it." She reassured her partner.
Gabrielle moved around so that she was standing next to her soulmate, and briefly leaned her head against the tall shoulder. "Thanks I know I can always count on you for support." She told the warrior. "I know I can always put my stupid insecurities out there, and you make me feel better about them."
Xena straightened and put her brushes aside, turning her full attention to her soulmate. "They're not stupid, Gabrielle they're perfectly natural I'm glad I could help."
The bard took in a breath, then looked up, right into Xena's eyes. "I wish you'd let me do that for you."
It was liking getting gut kicked by a centaur. The warrior backed off, putting a hand out on Hercules' neck to steady herself, as she caught her breath. "I don't "
Gabrielle gave her no mercy. She laid her palm against her partner's chest and pinned her with relentless eyes. "You think I don't know how you feel? Xena, my guts are in knots that have knots who have cousins that are knots from you." She pushed the warrior back gently. "Iím asking you to level with me." A pause. "Please."
For a long stretch of time, they just looked at each other, two strong wills facing off in the dim light. Then Xena exhaled, and let her head drop in concession, holding out a hand and motioning towards a thick pile of hay in the far corner. "Siddown."
Thank you. Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief, as she settled down in the straw, watching Xena pick up a† piece and start to shred it. The warrior seemed perplexed as to how to go forward, however, and Gabrielle realized she was going to have to do a little more work. "Are you upset about what's going on?" She ventured softly. "Or about those stories I mean, I know it must be weird for you, honey but.. "
"No.. it's not that." Xena shook her head, then considered. "Well, maybe part of it is I'm just Gabrielle, those stories I donít think I can no, I know I can't live up to them."† She got the last words out as though they were physically painful. "I didnít' realize how how much I'd hate that until I came right up against it today."
"Mm." The bard rested a hand on Xena's knee, stroking it a little. "I didn't think it was that bad if you mean the fight, that is.. I mean sure it's been a while, and I slipped like a lunk head and fell on my butt, but " She gave Xena an honest look. "You didn't seem to be having much of a problem."
The warrior let out a soft snort. "That last one almost had me." She admitted wearily. "And if you hadn't clobbered the other one I donít know, Gabrielle.. I just.. "
Ah. Gabrielle reviewed her options, then squared her shoulders, as she chose the least pleasant of them. "Hey.. you know what I think?"
Xena looked up, blue eyes questioning. "What?"
"I think that you.. took a lot of pride in the skills you had." Gabrielle kept her voice gentle, seeing the barely visible flinch at her words. "You were very accustomed to being the best there was, Xena and now you have to face the fact that your decision to stop doing that make that no longer the case. . and that hurts."
"I don't regret that decision." The warrior enunciated the words precisely, in a low voice.
"I know neither do I." Her soulmate responded. "But I also know how much a part of you those abilities were." She paused. "And how proud you were of them."
The warrior's face didn't change expression, but Gabrielle could feel the reaction through their link, and she swallowed. I hope she meant what she said before, that she wanted to hear what I had to say.. even if it hurt.† Tentatively, she gave the leg under her hand a squeeze, and got no reaction. Her heart sank a little. "Went too far, huh? Xe, I'm sorry.. I didn't ."
"No."† The warrior finally said, blinking slowly. "You're absolutely right, Gabrielle it's my pride my damn ego just got kicked in the teeth, and it's killing me." She admitted softly, with a tired sigh. "Pathetic, huh?"
"Don't be goofy." The bard relaxed a tiny bit. "Of course it's not and you're not going to tell me that you'd have given the last year up to retain those skills, are you?"
Xena's expression softened. "No you know that." She shifted a little, then glanced up at the bard. "But what if it had been worse? What if something had happened to you then what? "
"There's always that risk we've both accepted that." The bard replied. "And Xena, I donít think for a minute you couldnít do a damn good job of defending both of us." She took the warrior's hand. "I mean.. c'mon after fifteen years of fighting? What's one year, Xena? If I couldnít forget how to spin a tale in that time, and I've only been doing it for a few, what does that say for you?"
"I don't know." Her partner answered. "And Iím afraid to find out." She gave Gabrielle an honest look. "I can't face taking that sword out and making a fool of myself."
My turn. "You won't." The bard smiled at her. "It's what you do in your dreams, Xena your body hasn't forgotten, even though you think you have." She squeezed the leg again, and this time the warrior shifted, and covered her hand with one of her own. "You can prove that to yourself.. just try it."
A long breath. "Maybe after we leave ..I'll see."† Xena answered grudgingly, but she looked a little happier. "Thanks I think I needed a good kick in the butt."
Gabrielle rolled over, putting her head in the warrior's lap and gazing up at her peacefully. "That's what friends are for." She hesitated, then went on. "Xena.. I know you made a tough decision.. and I honor you for that.. but I've never believed your abilities were evil.. especially if you use them for good, and to help people like this, who can't defend themselves."
"You believe that?" Xena felt a sad smile cross her face, having her own doubts.
Mist green eyes regarded her. "Yes, I do." Gabrielle brushed a bit of straw out of the dark hair. "I believe in you with all my heart, Xena and I donít even care if you can so much as lift a sword or not."† She traced a cheekbone. "I love you.. all of you all that you are."
Slowly, a tiny twinkle appeared in the pale eyes above her. "You do huh? "
"I do." Gabrielle solemnly assented.
"Even the parts that tickle you?" Xena asked, demonstrating by slipping a hand under the bard's shirt and running her fingers over Gabrielle's ribs.
"Yeeooow!" The bard squirmed, trying to roll out of range. "You.. you " The tickle turned into a warm hug, and she let the words trickle out to nothing, as she was pulled into a very nice place. "Mmmm."
Xena could feel the bones creak under her arms and she squeezed, and rocked her partner a bit. "Thanks I don't know what I'd do without you, my bard."
Gabrielle blinked slowly against the soft fabric of the warrior's shirt. "Don't worry you'll never have to find out." †She replied, as she played with a lace, hearing the skipped heartbeat with a faint smile. †
They rested in each other's company for a quarter candlemark, then Xena sighed. "Lot of stuff needs to be done around this place . Maybe we could give them a hand."
"Great idea." Gabrielle agreed. "Where do we start?"
The roof overhead creaked, then dust collapsed down on them as a hole opened up, admitting a very surprised pair of chickens, who fluttered downward, squawking in outrage.
They both looked up, blinking into the golden sunlight than now bathed their bodies. "Well." Gabrielle ran a hand through her hair, scattering bits of wood over the hay. "Guess that answers that."
Xena sat quietly in the back of the inn, near a large window which let in a cool breeze across the packed space. It was dark in her corner, though the rest of the room was lit by torches and the big fireplace, whose flames snapped in the draft and sent spirals of smoke rising towards the soot stained roof.
A wave of laughter made her smile, as she watched a matching smile spread across Gabrielle's face, the bard perching on the one empty table near the front of the room and the very center of attention.
The warrior raised a mug of ale to her lips and took a swallow, stretching out muscles a little stiff from the hard work they'd done the rest of the day, trying to bring† some level of comfort back to the beaten village. They'd repaired the barn, helped fix doors, and furniture, and wagons throughout the town, and Xena had spent a few hours with her healer's kit patching up minor wounds and some long festering ailments.
As Gabrielle spoke, the warrior could feel eyes flicking to her from time to time, but they no longer held the wide eyed awe of the morning. Instead, there was a mixture of respect, and friendliness, along with sincere gratitude that touched Xena in a deep place, bringing back warm memories of towns in their not so recent past that had also been given a helping hand.
She'd forgotten how much she'd secretly come to like that feeling. In Amphipolis, they were pretty much taken for granted Gabrielle's opinion was taken as a matter of course, and it wasn't unusual for any of the residents at home to come find Xena if a wagon had to be moved, or if someone had decided to make trouble in the bar.
This felt nice. And as she watched her partner's face light up at the enthusiastic response to her story, she realized it must feel pretty nice to Gabrielle, too. She gave her soulmate a wink, and lifted her glass, and received a sincere grin in return as the bard gave in to another round of coaxing for just one more story.
"Excuse me." A quiet, timid voice interrupted her musing, and the warrior turned, to see the young woman from the wagon standing there, her hands resting on the shoulders of the younger child. "I hate to bother you, Xena, but.. "
The warrior propped a boot up on a table run and clasped her hands around it. "No bother what can I do for you?" She grinned at the boy, who was clutching a ragged, totally nondescript stuffed toy to his chest, and felt a pang of regret as she missed Dori's cute presence.
The woman edged closer, encouraged. "Well, I know it's silly but the boy here.. " She indicated the child. "He's been pestering me all the day long.. he's set on about how you saved his little bit of a thing from the road scum, and he just wanted to be saying thank you."
Xena set her boot down and leaned forward, with her elbows on her knees, consciously gentling her intense personality down a little. "Hey. C'mere." She captured the boy's eyes, and drew him towards her with a lazy smile.
His face rapt, he toddled forward, clutching the toy and gazing up at her. "Fank you you save Bobo."
Xena cocked her head at him. "Is that Bobo?" She laid a long finger against the stuffed toy, watching him nod vigorously. "If you promise not to tell anyone.. I'll tell you I had a toy a lot like him when I was little."
The boy's hazel eyes widened as he stared at her, very obviously not being able to associated little, and the warrior in the same sentence. "Nu uh."
"Yep." Xena assured him seriously. "Named Flameball." She unclasped her hands, and spread them a little. "C'mere " She picked the boy up as he edged closer, and hugged him, then set him back down and heard a surprised giggle. "You hang on to that Bobo, okay?"
The child nodded, clutching the toy to him. "Mine."
"Poor thing." The woman sighed, ruffling his short, fair hair. "It's all he's got he lost his family and everything else in the raid."
Xena looked up at her. "He has no parents?"
The woman shook her head, and pushed her chestnut hair back. "No.. we took him in twas the only thing we could do, really couldnít leave the child to starve in the streets, though we didn't have hardly any better. He's a good lad."† She gave Xena a tiny smile. "Do do you have children? You're so good with them."
Xena lifted her eyes from the tiny orphan, and exhaled. "What? Oh yes I um.. I have a daughter."† She imagined Dori in the circumstances her little friend was in and her heart clenched. "She's not quite a year old."
The woman nodded. "She's a lucky girl, then to have someone like you for a mother, who can protect her from these bastards."† She stroked the boy's head. "C'mon, Lese.. it's time to go sleep."
The child poked his lower lip out unhappily. "Don wanna." He hugged the toy. "Bad."
"He has nightmares." The woman explained to the watching warrior. "I guess he will for a while."
Xena felt like something was going to explode inside her. It was a mixture of anger, grief, and regret tha threatened to run roughshod over her usual cool composure, and she had to swallow a few times before she could speak. "You listen." She leaned forward and tapped the boy on the nose gently. "Think about good things before you fall asleep, okay? That'll help keep the bad stuff out."
He looked at her doubtfully.
"I promise." Xena added, softly. "Okay?"
A tiny, thoughtful scowl took over the child's face, then he finally nodded. "Otay."
She ruffled his hair, then watched as the woman led him away by the hand, not without a few looks back in her direction. As the darkness closed in around her, she leaned back in her seat and let her hands fall to her thighs, her thoughts in turmoil.
Little boys shouldn't have to grow up without their parents. It echoed through her mind, calling up the image of another little boy who had. Not if someone can stop the bad guys.
Question is, can I still be that someone? Tanned nostrils flared, and Xena's jaw set, as she picked up her mug, slowly sipping it as her eyes flicked across the room.
"If this room were any smaller, I'd have picked the barn." Gabrielle joked faintly, as she traded her clothing for a shift, and tucked her things away in the saddlebag Xena had lugged from the stable. Between the full day's hard labor, and a night's storytelling, her body was protesting loudly, though, and she was glad she was going to allow it a night's rest on some semblance of a bed. "Ugh."
Xena came up behind her, already dressed for sleep, and wrapped long arms around her shoulders. "Tired?"
Gabrielle allowed herself to relax against the comforting presence behind her. "Mm yeah." She admitted. "But it's the nice kind of tired, you know?" She tilted her head up. "It felt good to help these people."
Xena nodded, her chin brushing the bard's head. "They've had a rough time." She agreed, rubbing her partner's shoulders, then starting a light massage. "Those are pretty tight."
The bard let out a tiny sound of pleasure and closed her eyes. "Tell me about it " She gave Xena's leg a swat. "I haven't been keeping in shape like you have.. .and boy, am I feeling it tonight." She sighed. "I think my aches have aches at this point."
The warrior chuckled a little, then gave her a gentle shove towards the bed. "Lay down."
Gabrielle did so willingly, ignoring the dusty smell of the linens as she felt Xena's weight bear down the mattress to either side of her, and the warrior's hands started a slow, powerful kneading down her body. The tension and soreness eased out of her and she felt a wave of sleepiness wash across her senses. "Oh you are so good." She murmured, hearing the laugh from a point over her head.† "Thank you ."
"Those were great stories, by the way." Xena remarked, working out a particularly tight kink in her soulmate's shoulder. "I think you were a hit."
Gabrielle smiled, her eyes half closed. "Yeah that felt really good.. my throat's killing me, but it was worth it." She reflected a moment. "That food was pretty awful though, wasn't it?"
"Didn't notice." The warrior answered absently. "Ale wasn't bad."
"You didn't notice because you didnít eat any of it." Gabrielle accused. "I saw you pass those roots off to that little dog under the table."
Xena chuckled. "You got me." She worked the back of the bard's neck, hearing the faint pops as her spine moved back into place. "Besides, I saw you pushing it around.. and I figured if you weren't eating it, that was bad news."
"Oh, gee thanks." The bard rotated one green eyeball and looked at her. "They were all talking about you, you know."
The warrior nodded quietly. "I heard." She moved her hands down Gabrielle's back.
Gabrielle rested her chin n her wrist and traced a pattern on the sheets with her other hand. "Kinda like old times."† She felt the movement stop, then start again, and heard the faint sigh from her soulmate.
"You picked some interesting stories to tell." Xena commented. "I'm not surprised they were talking considering." She leaned forward. "If I didn't know better.. I might have thought that was on purpose."
Unrepentant mist green eyes peeked back at her as Gabrielle turned her head. "Maybe it was." She replied slowly. "Maybe I saw a need to give these people hope, that the bad guys donít always win." She was half expecting an angry response, but the warrior merely nodded, and continued her work. Gabrielle let her head drop forward as the strong hands loosened knots in her lower back, and accepted Xena's silence for tacit agreement. "Ungh that's really sore."
"Uh huh " The taller woman muttered. "I saw you lifting those boxes the wrong way not smart, Gabrielle." She paused as the bard flinched, then went on more gently, feeling an angry knot at the base of her spine. It took a few minutes, but she finally felt the muscles relax under her probing fingers , as Gabrielle sighed in utter relief. "Better?"
"Mmhmm " The bard murmured. "Am I in trouble?" She put a touch of wistfulness in her voice.
"For moving boxes?" The low, vibrant voice tickled the back of her neck. "No."
"Oh." Gabrielle felt the shift as Xena stretched out next to her, and a pair of pale blue eyes appeared, dusky in the candlelight, regarding her with benign affection. "For any other reason?"
Xena propped her head up on one hand and reached over to flick the fair hair out of her partner's eyes with the other. "No." She replied, simply. "C'mere."
Gabrielle crawled into the welcome embrace and snuggled up against her partner's warm body, as Xena closed her arms around her, and she was surrounded by her familiar scent, missing only the hint of leather and brass that had always come from her armor. She relaxed, reveling in the closeness, and admitted to herself that despite the looming problems, she was really enjoying their journey. "Xena?"
The warrior had doused the candle and rewrapped her arms around her partner. "Hm?"
"Where are we going next?"
Xena considered the question thoughtfully. "Village elder told me it gets worse as you get further north there's a good size town.. a city really, about five days travel from here that he thinks they've taken over as a base." She paused. "Sounds like a good bet if we want to find out what's going on."
Gabrielle put her head against her partner's chest, listening to the steady heartbeat and gentle breathing. "Sounds like a plan." She murmured softly. "What then?"
Xena didnít' answer for a bit, and the bard had almost let sleep take her before the low voice continued. "I don't know." The warrior burred quietly. "We'll have to wait and see what happens."
"Okay."† Exhaustion overtook her, and she let it, curled into the safe haven of Xena's arms.
But it was a long time into the night, as the peacefully sleeping bard was watched over by pale, blue eyes that stared off into the gloom, blinking occasionally as the intelligent mind behind them worked at a difficult puzzle.
Finally, a soft sigh broke the silence, and Xena carefully untangled herself from her partner's embrace, tucking the blankets around her and easing out of the bed. The bard was plainly exhausted, and didn't stir, even when the warrior gently brushed a few tendrils of hair off her forehead.
Gabrielle always looked so young when she was sleeping, as her face relaxed into an almost childlike openness, reminding Xena irresistibly of their tiny daughter. Dori had the same habit of tucking a fist under her chin just like her mother, and her face bore the same look of absorbed peace that put a smile on the watching warrior's face.
The bard was a very strong, very self assured woman, but she depended on Xena to provide the physical security that her skills, though formidable, couldnít. Dori depended on that too, and so would Amphipolis if the threat closed in on them, as right or wrong, all eyes would turn to her, trusting her judgement, and her skills in what was a very harsh, and very dangerous world.
It really just came down to this, she mused. The greater good. No matter what she thought about herself, these people believed she could make a difference, and regardless of how hard it might be, or if it were even possible, she had to try. She owed Gabrielle that, at the very least, and now her decision to put her skills aside seemed hauntingly selfish.
Now, it just remained for her to find out how bad things were. Slowly, she moved across the room and knelt by their saddlebags, pulling on her boots, then untying the flap on her pack and digging inside it until her fingers touched familiar, ribbed fabric. She pulled it out, then unfolded her old, padded workout gear, the smell of home caught in it's creases.
It too more effort than she'd imagined to remove her shirt, and slip into the tunic, buckling the worn, leather straps with slightly shaking fingers.† Then she laid a hand on the wrapped bundle underneath the saddlebag and paused in quiet reflection.
A year. A year of being a person she'd never dared hope to ever be, living a life that had at times seemed so much like a dream she'd expected it to be gone every time she woke up.† A year without killing, without fighting. Without hurting .a chance to be part of her family again, and have a family of her own in a home filled with love, and laughter
Xena closed her eyes. Forget it, Xena. You knew it was on borrowed time. Just be glad you got that much, it was more than you ever deserved, and you know it. She let the truth of that soak through her, putting aside the fluffy dreams, and accepting the harsh responsibility that she knew in her heart was justly hers.
It stung for a minute, and she spared those few, brief seconds for quiet regret, letting go of a future she believed she had no right to, tasting the bitter knowledge of who and what she was in silent grief.
Then she exhaled, and lifted her head, as with a brief nod, she picked up the bundle and tucked it under her arm, then slipped out the window and padded off into the darkness.
Not seeing the soft, green eyes that watched her go, filled with sad understanding, or the tears that silently tracked down the bard's face, as she curled up near the end of the bed, to wait.
It was a very quiet night, Xena reflected, as she eased away from the village, and took a half covered path towards a thick growth of forest nearby.† The air was thick with cold moisture, and she hugged her arms a little, rubbing them for warmth and wistfully thinking of the peaceful nest she'd just abandoned. The moon rode high overhead, it's full face shining down on the landscape, and making the silver and sable shadows very sharp, almost like daggers which scuttled across her body as she walked.† There were soft night sounds present, and the low rustle of the penned animals shuffling, but little else save the rustle of the leaves brushing against each other.
She kept walking until she found a spot, ringed in with trees and private, with a clear enough space for her to try a few drills. Well.† Xena sighed, then walked over to a flat rock, seating herself and letting the bundle rest on her knees. She stared at it for a few moments, then untied the gut strings holding it closed and let them fall, unwrapping the linen covering to expose the worn, leather sheath and dully gleaming brass hilt of her sword.
For a few breaths, she simply looked at it, then she ran a finger across the sheath's surface, feeling the uneven texture, before she let her hand fall on the hilt, and wrap itself around the burnished grip.
The metal was cold, but warmed to her touch almost instantly, as her fingers shifted, and felt the familiar curves. A shiver traveled up her arm, and she released the weapon, sucking in a breath of the cold, damp air and letting it out. "Well, first things first." She stood and let the linen drop to the ground, then reached behind her and fastened the sheath into it's clips, where it hung with the hilt comfortably settled just over her right shoulder.†
She stood for a moment, then walked in a small circle, letting her body get used to the weight of the weapon, and feeling the small adjustments in balance as her muscles compensated. Then she stood quietly, with her hands on her hips, and regarded the ground. "Where in Hades do I start?" She wondered, hating the awkward feeling that flooded over her. "From the beginning, I guess."
Wiping her hands off, she took a deep breath, then reached over her shoulder and grasped the sword hilt firmly, drawing it out of the sheath with a steady motion, and holding it up in front of her, trying not to feel the thrill that chased it's way up and down her spine. †
"Least I didn't cut my own ear off." She muttered, shifting her grip a little and letting her arms get used to the once familiar weight. "Now.. baby steps, Xena remember when you were first learning how to do this?"† She slowly moved the weapon in the first of five basic motions, attack and defense, the cornerstone of handling a longsword.†
She let the weapon drop to her thigh when she was finished and swallowed, feeling awkward and hesitant, even in that little bit. After a moment's indecision, she went back to the rock and sat down, holding the hilt of the sword between her hands and letting the point rest on the ground.
All right. She told herself firmly. Let's get some focus here . It's mind over matter or in this case, mind over your body. †Easy enough to say, she realized, but
Frustrated, she leaned on the sword. "Look, Xena.. you made the choice.. now just get your butt in gear, and move on it." She spoke aloud, her words echoing off the hard ground, and stilling the faint, furtive animal noises nearby.
Focus. She closed her eyes, and considered her breathing, timing the motions in, and out, in and out.. until she felt her body settle and calm. She became aware of the soft sounds of life around her, and when she stood and opened her eyes, the glade seemed different. "Okay. Let's try this again." She felt a calm wave of reassurance sooth her nerves.
She went through the basic moves again, then switched to a slightly more advanced set, finding tentative hesitation melting into confidently smooth motions as she repeated the exercises. It was as though her body, startled at first to find itself in these positions, suddenly remembered the moves and shook off some of the cobwebs as she kept at it.
Rusty? Xena rolled her eyes. That didn't come close to describing it. She felt like she had when she'd finally gotten back on her feet after that back injury.. all clumsy and overbalanced, but Just for laughs, she tried a tougher drill, one she commonly used to keep her self limber with lots of over head motions and two small tuck and rolls.
Hmm. She found herself on the far end of the clearing, having both tucked and rolled, and come back up onto her feet with life and limb intact, and her spirits rose a little. Hey that wasn't that bad.
Encouraged, she pushed further, speeding up the drills a little, and finding the point where she was almost out of control a lot more advanced than she'd dared hope.
Hey. A tiny grin formed, and she felt a surge of optimism, which drove her to a new experiment, a prolonged set of swipes and passes at an inoffensive tree, which left her breathing hard, but in control, the sword hilt warm in her hands as she watched her breath form clouds in front of her.
It was going to take a lot of work, she realized soberly. Her timing was way off, and there was† a lot of hesitation in movements that should be pure reflex, but
With a sudden bound, she bolted across the clearing, gathering herself up and launching into space, feeling the cold air whip against her as she moved the sword in a figure eight and flipped neatly in mid air, landing on her feet and starting into a set of relatively medium difficulty drills, which taxed her, but she kept at it, pushing herself with a fierce determination and finishing them, leaving her wrists aching, but her heart much lighter as she took back a little missing part of herself, soothing the ache inside her from giving up a different dream entirely.
So.† She threw herself into a backflip,† twisting in mid air and landing neatly. The warrior princess was coming back.
Xena glanced down at her hands, and flipped the sword over once or twice, then neatly slid it into her scabbard, walking over to her rock and sitting down on it, with her hands resting on her knees and her eyes on the full moon above her, lost in thought until she heard a faint rustling in the brush nearby. A gentle warmth alerted her to it's source and she gazed at the bushes, allowing† a quiet smile to cross her face as they parted, and Gabrielle padded out into the silvery light.
The bard stopped a few feet away from her and crossed her arms, her face in shadow. "Hi."
Xena rested her elbows on her knees and regarded her. "Hi."
A booted foot kicked a bit of grass. "You okay?" Gabrielle inquired, softly.
"Yeah." The warrior replied. "I'm all right."
Gabrielle nodded a few times. "I'm sorry I just couldnít um I know you wanted to be by yourself, but I couldn't keep away."
Xena patted the rock next to her. "Siddown."† She waited for the bard to comply, then she pursed her lips. "Gabrielle, I love you, but you never could stay away from trouble, and we both know that."
The bard was vastly reassured by the wry humor and she visibly relaxed. "Yeah, I know " She rubbed her arms in the chill. "But you just draw me like a bee to honey, so.. what can I say?" She paused. "So.. how'd it go?"
The warrior studied her hands thoughtfully. "Rough." She admitted.
"But?" Silvered green eyes watched her.
A shrug. "Got a lot of work to do." Xena exhaled. "But you were right it's still in there."
"Mm." Gabrielle leaned against her, and regarded the sky. "I thought of a poem while I was waiting for you." She smiled a little. "It's about you, of course because I looked out the window and I spotted you in the sky."† She pointed. "See?"
Xena gazed at the pattern. "Gabrielle, you had too much ale at dinner. That looks like a cow."† She joked, wryly. "Unless that's your point."
"Tch Xena!" The bard gave her a look. "No.. no, I'm serious now look.. there's the head see, and the arms.. with a sword, there right.. and the legs.. jumping. That has to be you."
The warrior tilted her head, then looked down. "If you say so."
Gabrielle drew in a quiet breath.
When dark comes the morning,
No light to relieve us, no peace to offer,
Then look to the sky, where the warrior stands,
Dusted in starlight, and hearing our cries,
Comes down to defend us, armored in courage.
And leaving the peace of the heavens, to stand in the battle,
To bring dawn to the world.
Silence fell, as her words ended, until Xena lifted her head, and smiled faintly. "Thank you." She said in a barely audible tone. "You do wonderful things with words, my love."
Gabrielle acknowledged the compliment with a warm grin. "I'm a bard. It's my job." She tucked her hand into Xena's elbow. "But I'm glad you liked it.."
Xena leaned her head against her partner's. "You think that one looks like a chicken?" She inquired lazily, pointing.
"No way." Gabrielle forgot it was the middle of the night, in a cold, foggy glade. "It's a wagon."
"Mm.. but that one must be a bard." The long arm pointed. "See? There are the hands and the feet and the head "
"Uh.. if you say so, tiger " Gabrielle giggled gently. "But what's that big star in the middle of it's chest?"
†Blue eyes turned, and enveloped her. "That's the brightest star up there, so it must be the bard's heart." A solemn twinkle made the light dance in Xena's gaze. "Doncha think?"
They made their way back to the inn, as the stars twinkled back at them.
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