Xena set everything aside except for the foe in front of her. Promises to Gabrielle notwithstanding, she was in grave danger and she knew it.
Rufus was good, he was young, he was strong, and most importantly, he wasn’t sick. He circled her with the air of a skilled swordsman, and they traded rapid, testing blows as they mapped out the area they had to fight in.
It wasn’t a big space. Xena leaped over a gap between two sections of rock and parried a powerful swipe, swiveling as she took the weight of it on her wrists and deflecting it to one side. She set the limits of the area in her mind, then turned her attention to the fight, trusting her innate sense of space to keep her on solid rock.
It was tough. She could feel her illness weighing her down, and slowing her responses, her body straining to keep up with the urging her warrior’s mind insisted on. She edged to one side as Rufus locked his arms and swung at her, using his height to her advantage as she ducked under it.
It wasn’t what she was used to. Even when she was fighting men, there weren’t many who were much taller than she was. In this case, she was almost in the position that Gabrielle usually was in sparring with her.
Xena jumped past Rufus’ extended leg and tumbled in mid air, evading a backhanded blow of his by a hair’s breadth before she landed and slashed out in her own attack, slicing a bit of skin, and a hank of hair off his thigh.
First blood. Xena could smell it, the copper tang cutting through her stuffiness and waking up her senses as few other things could. She followed up her advantage by reversing her course and surprising Rufus, as he expected her to keep going around his other side. She came back almost into his face and clashed her sword hilt against his, shoving him back and slamming the hilt into his breastbone before he lashed out with a fist and clouted her on the side of the head.
Ow. Xena didn’t even stop to think. She swiveled and booted him in the side with a swift, vicious kick and used the momentum to spin herself out of his reach as he clawed after her.
A single claw caught her arm and broke the skin, stinging her with a brief jolt of pain but nothing more. Xena whipped her arm backwards, and the tip of her sword got past his guard and cut his chin, taking away another tuft of hair and a thick flap of skin that exposed the bone.
“Bitch.” He finally spoke, engaging her sword with his, in a flurry of clashes.
Xena felt the sting of them in her wrists and forearms, and she flexed her hands at the discomfort. The blade moved where she wanted it to, though, her grip slanting the metal with exquisite precision.
Skill. Skill, skill skill. Xena felt all those years of experience coming home with a vengeance as she sidestepped and turned, sliding under his swipe and using his momentum against him to send his blade flying off at an angle.
Opening up another angle, this one more deadly as she took advantage of his position and continued her motion around. He leaped back, but not before she sliced through the skin on his chest, drawing blood yet again. “Loser.”
He didn’t get mad, that she had to give him credit for. His muzzle crinkled into a snarl, but he kept his temper and balance, changing his strategy and working to back her off the small platform with a series of powerful, short strokes.
Xena could sense the crowd moving in closer, watching with hungry, avid eyes. She let Rufus force her back a step, her blade cutting and slicing just enough to keep his from touching her body.
For a little while, she let the reason she was doing this slip past her, concentrating on the now, and the need to know, to feel what his next move was. He was a good swordsman, his technique was a little unusual, but there were some definite solid skills there and Xena knew she had her work cut out for her to make a show good enough to captivate, and still stay alive.
The challenge sent a bolt of dark energy through her guts. It pushed back the exhaustion, and as she parried yet another determined attack, her body seemed to shift a gear. Even her breathing eased.
He caught his hilt against hers, and shoved her backwards.
Xena’s legs took the strain, shifting and recoiling, her boots scuffling lightly on the stone as she held her ground – and for a moment they balanced there, strength against strength. Xena looked him right in the eye and smiled. Then she gathered herself up and pushed him back, unlocking her knees and releasing him as she dove under his outstretched arms to the ground.
Xena rolled to her feet and took a step forward, extending her blade and engaging his, tensing her forearm muscles and twisting the sword just enough to break the rhythm of his attack.
A touch frustrated, he whacked the end of his sword against hers, then shifted and raised his arms, chopping down at her from his much taller angle as well as from her offhand side.
Xena neatly turned, raising her arms and blocking the cut with her blade held over head, then pushing upwards, freeing her sword and sliding past him in a ripple of quicksilver motion.
She chuckled softly, letting her eyes flick to the crowd. As though mesmerized, they took a step towards her, focusing on the fight.
Her eyes tipped past, to where the guards still stood, stalwart and upright, not budging an inch.
How long could she keep this up? Xena took a deep breath and spread her boots a little, getting a better balance as Rufus renewed his assault, pouring a little more strength and a little less finesse into his motions. He began a series of chopping blows, almost a whipping of his sword, relying on powerful arm and shoulder muscles to try and overwhelm her with the ferocity of it all.
Grimly, Xena set to work deflecting them all. For every stroke of his arm, she had a counter, for every cut, she had a parry. It was using what little energy she had, though, and she felt sweat starting to gather under her leathers.
Despite all that, it occurred to her suddenly that regardless of where she got her energy from, the skills it drove were, after all, hers, won by nothing other than long, hard effort. “Amateur.” She taunted, neatly ducking his last attack, then launching one of her own, stepping forward with small, but powerful steps as her hands moved her sword almost faster than he could deflect it.
Now he was breathing harder. “You won’t defeat me.”
“I already have.” Xena shot back. “I spilled your little game to Lestan’s village. You can’t charm your way in there anymore.”
“I don’t need to charm anyone.” Rufus paused, shifting his sword from his right hand to his left, and began his attack anew, from this completely different angle.
Child’s play for Xena. She tossed her own blade to her off hand and met his downstroke with an upstroke, using her momentum to pull the deflection around and throwing him off to one side. “All right. Charm’s a bad choice. Threaten. Con. Trick…”
“No tricks.” Rufus shook his head.
Instinct warned her, a prickle of sensation just outside her peripheral vision that came just before a jolt down the link she had with Gabrielle. Pulling her sword back, narrowly avoiding a savage cut as his weapon suddenly met no resisstance, she half turned and swiped an arrow out of mid-air, sending it flying across the cavern to clatter against the wall. “No tricks.” Xena repeated, in a sarcastic tone.
“Hold your fire!” Rufus ordered. “Next one to do that will get his hands cut off!” He said. “This is *my* battle.” As if to bring home that point, he twirled his sword into a reverse grip, then slugged Xena across the face with it.
Or, that was his intention. His knuckles did in fact graze the warrior’s jaw, but it was a moving target, as Xena ducked and spun into a roundhouse kick that nailed him in the ribs, forcing a grunt out of him. He grabbed for her leg, his claws leaving long, red marks as they cut through the knitted cloth as she moved past him.
She planted an elbow in his gut, and got both feet on the ground, pushing off from it aware of the risk of being within his easy reach this way. She felt his arms close around her and shoved free, but not before he got a hit in, his closed fist slamming against her shoulder.
Xena went with the force of it, her knees relaxing to take her body back and rob the blow of her resistance to it.
She was sweating in earnest now, and she felt her nostrils flaring as her lungs fought to give her body the air it needed through the congestion in them. She fought the desire to stop and rest, and just kept moving, whirling around and dropping to her knees to cut savagely at Rufus’ legs.
He tried to block her, but only partially succeeded, his height now a disadvantage he hadn’t expected.
Xena felt the blow connect, and she put everything she had into it, hearing the crunch of bone as her blade struck his knee.
He howled. It surprised Xena, who surged backward, out of the reach of his long claws and longer sword as he lashed out in his first spate of pure anger.
He jumped after her, hacking and slashing in an unbalanced lurch as they teetered on the edge of the platform.
Xena caught her balance by some miracle, and batted his hands back, reeling backwards as she got out of his way and circled him towards the safer center of the rock.
He turned and followed her, sensing his advantage and keeping his forward motion, despite his injury. The rage lent him strength, and he let out a bellow as he raised his sword up and swept it down in an arc aimed right at her neck.
Out of room, Xena did the only thing she could and dropped flat to the ground, letting his attack rush over her as she pushed herself into tumble and came up on the other side of him.
He whirled to meet her, but not quite in time to stop the blow that cut deeply into his arm. It evoked another bellow of rage, and another furious, wild rush that threatened to batter her before she could escape it.
Ironic. Xena dodged again, suffering a cut on the forearm as she didn’t quite get out of the way fast enough. By anyone’s lights she was winning this fight, and yet, in the winning she was driving herself towards the danger of being killed doing it. “Bastard.” She uttered, just under her breath.
“Gowrrr.” Rufus rumbled, flexing his claws. That seemed to mesmerize the others, and they drew in closer again, clustering around the platform and flexing their own jagged weapons.
Xena darted a look around her, now seeing the eyes of the guards on her as well. Past the last one in her view, she saw a shadow rise up, and between her, and that shadow, the column now began to pulse, licks of energy washing against her with an almost uncomfortable heat.
Xena turned and got to business. She shifted her weight just as Rufus came at her, and let out a yell of her own, calling up all her reserves, calling up what darkness remained in her, and taking the fight to her opponent as she willed the guards forward towards her. “Cowards!” She bellowed. “I’ll kill you all! You can’t stop me!”
With an overhand blow, she drove Rufus back, smashing through his defenses and sending his own sword slamming down on his shoulder to cut deep into his flesh. Without pause, she pulled her arms back and hit him again, and again, blows he only barely deflected, unable to move fast enough to get out of her way.
“Die, ya coward! That’s for Gabrielle!” Xena yelled, kicking him in the head as she swept another roundhouse kick, ducking his counter blow and leaping into the air to kick him again, this time from the front, with a force that sent him sprawling backwards perilously close to the edge of the rock.
The guards rushed forward towards them.
“Die!” Xena repeated, pursuing him relentlessly, riding the edge of nervous energy that threatened to evaporate at any second.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Gabrielle bolt for the column, moving so quickly she was only a blur in the darkness.
Go, baby go. She urged the bard, shoving Rufus to the ground and crouching over him, beating his raised sword back and going in for the kill.
His sword went flying, almost gutting one of the guards. Xena landed on her knees over him, and lifted her sword.
Rufus stared up at her, and she saw his death reflected back to her in his eyes.
Then she heard the wild roar of the surrounding crowd and before she could take another breath, they jumped onto the platform and rushed her.
Damn it, I’ll take him first. Xena arched her body and sent the sword downward, past his reaching hands and deep into his chest, so hard the point hit the rock as it came out the back of him, and jarred her with a harsh, tingling shock.
He convulsed under her.
She felt the crowd close on her, and knew she didn’t even have time to pull her sword out. Her eyes closed
She felt the heat.
She heard a sound like the earth splitting open. As the first claws touched her back, a wind like nothing she’d ever felt blasted through the cavern and blew them all off the platform, carrying her across the cavern as though she were only a child.
She hit the wall, and for a moment, everything went totally dark.
Gabrielle almost went insane. Every instinct in her body was shoving her hard towards the ring of rock her partner was fighting on, her hands were twitching so badly the rock they rested on had long since drew blood from the pressure.
Her legs were shaking. Her heart was beating so fast and hard it was making her lightheaded. Dori was clutching her around the neck, but she barely felt the grip, so focused was she on Xena’s moving figure.
“Mama.” Dori called. “Mama, we go help Boo? Bad mens!”
A noise escaped from Gabrielle’s throat, half gasp and half moan. “Honey, Boo needs us to do something else first.”
“No.” Her daughter insisted. “Mama look!”
Gabrielle rose, as she saw the fight suddenly take on new intensity, and before she could stop herself, she was over the rock ledge and landing on the ground in front of it. Xena reeled backwards, and as Gabrielle gathered herself to move, she suddenly saw the guards finally shift, and turn away from her.
Now was her chance.
Xena’s battle yell rang out, and after a heartbeat’s worth of indecision, Gabrielle turned herself and bolted for the column.
She raced across the uneven rock, barely feeling the impact as her boots touched, leaping over two big gaps on her way towards the glowing stone ahead of her.
Gabrielle focused on the ax, heading for a large rock between it and her. She reached it and laid her hands on it, vaulting her body over the obstacle and landing only to jump again, this time over a bundle of spears.
Her blood ran cold, as she heard Xena’s voice, raising up over the sound of the crowd.
I’ll kill you all!
“Boo!” Dori screamed.
Gabrielle’s hands touched the ax hilt, and she lifted it from it’s cradle and whirled, using all her momentum and all the strength of her arms and body to slam the weapon into the crystal surface.
Against her expectations, it shattered, showering her with sharp, violent shards she dared not turn away from, least she expose Dori to them.
Then everything exploded around her.
The shock was amazing. She felt as though every inch of skin was covered in ants, and the numbness quickly was followed by pain as the ax was ripped from her grasp. She spun away from the sensation, staggering backwards and throwing her hands up in front of her face in a meager attempt at protection.
The column blew apart, and a white hot energy flowed out, blasting forward and roiling over the forest dwellers and Xena like an ocean wave. Gabrielle felt the marginal force hit her, and she stumbled and fell, landing half on her side on the rocks, almost blinding her.
“Mamaamamama!” Dori was screaming in real terror now.
“S’okay!” Gabrielle reached back to her with one shaking, blood covered hand, blinking her eyes furiously to clear them as she looked anxiously for Xena. “Xena!!!”
The energy she’d released swirled suddenly into a wild force, and as Gabrielle watched in horror, an arm of it reached out and took hold of a forest dweller, ripping through him and sending his body to the corners of the cavern in many pieces.
Anger. Gabrielle could feel it, an unthinking rage released at last to take it’s revenge after all these years.
“Gods… what did I do?” The bard whispered, reaching for the nearest rock to pull herself up. Halfway there, she became aware of a presence, and she looked up to see the amorphous, snarling image in the energy cloud staring right at her.
Before she could even take a breath, it was rushing at her, writhing tendrils of fire arcing towards her body and Gabrielle realized after all that fear she’d just gone through, it wasn’t Xena’s death hanging over her like a cloud – it was her own.
“Elevown!” She yelled desperately. “No!”
The cloud didn’t even slow down. Gabrielle felt the pressure building and she could only stand there for the seconds she had left, knowing there was no way for her to outrun the entity filling half the cavern.
“Dori, I love you.” Gabrielle whispered. “Don’t be scared.”
“She’ll be here with us soon. Just hold on.” Gabrielle felt every hair on her body stand up, and she lifted her eyes, looking the onrushing force straight in the eye and remembering all over again what innate courage felt like.
So she had her vision focused on just the right spot when a dark force ripped through it, hurtling past the ravening tendrils and enveloping her in a rush of blood and brass and leather.
She tumbled through the air in Xena’s arms, and they came to rest together on their knees facing the cloud.
“Hey!” Xena let out a angry bellow, throwing her sword forward to point right at the cloud. “Not a nice way to say thank you, Viking!”
The cloud reared up, collecting itself after it’s unexpected dispersal and swirled together, arching over them in a threatening display. A tendril rushed towards them.
Xena sliced at it fearlessly. “Back off!” She snarled. “We’re not your enemy!”
Another tendril came at them, licking at the warrior’s arm. Gabrielle finally got her breath back. “Elevown!” She got out in a hoarse gasp.
The cloud spread over them and began to contract, a malevolent force intent on obliterating them. Xena got as much of her body between it and her family and waited, her sword sweeping in a trembling pattern before them.
“Go home!” Gabrielle called out desperately. “Go home.. she’s waiting for you!”
The tendrils paused within a handspan of her face.
“Hasn’t it been long enough?” The bard asked. “Go!”
Then there was a tremendous ripping sound, and wind buffeted them fiercely for a long, endless moment.
And then it was gone, both light and sound disappearing with a popping noise leaving them in somber, firelit darkness.
It took heartbeats to register it. Then Xena’s sword hit the rock with a clang, and she exhaled, letting her head rest against Gabrielle’s shoulder with a soft, heartfelt groan.
“Gods.” Gabrielle lifted a shaking hand and wiped her face. “You all right?” She asked Xena, in a soft voice.
“Great.” The warrior lied. “You?”
“Perfect.” Gabrielle lied back. “Where’s Rufus?”
“Good.” The bard tasted the bitter truth of the word. “Dori, you okay?”
“Mama.” Dori appeared unhurt. She pulled herself up past her mother’s ear and clutched at Xena. “You tell good. Boo comes, fix evrtying.”
Xena wearily lifted her head, as the sound of rattling rocks drew her attention. “Almost.” She whispered, seeing the ring of approaching forest dwellers, bristling with sticks and rocks in their claws. “Least we did what we came for.” She shifted her grip on her sword, and prepared to rise, to face off against the approaching warriors.
Gabrielle leaned over and tugged a spear free from the bundle she’d jumped over, hefting it. All fear had left her for now, her mind so on overload all she could feel was a dry sense of purpose that drove her motions.
“Hold!” A new voice interrupted, from the cavern entrance. “Or you’ll all be shot in the back where you stand like the cowards you are.”
The forest dwellers halted, and turned. Framed against an outline of stars, a line of mounted furry warriors stood, the one in front both familiar and very, very, welcome. Crossbows were aimed at the cavern dwellers, and after a moment of indecision, they dropped their weapons and meekly sat down.
Gabrielle let the spear fall. “Jessan.” She rested her head against Xena’s. “Thank the gods.”
Xena sheathed her sword and let her body finally relax. There would be time later to feel the pain of her injuries, and time later to think about what she’d done. Right now, there was only time to sit, and rest, and savor the knowledge that she’d beaten the odds one more time.
With or without that little something extra, she’d worn that primal mantle of the warrior she was at her core and fulfilled her word to the forest dwellers despite so many reasons excusing her.
She’d been their champion.
Xena gazed down at her bloodstained hands and took a moment to study them before she looked up at Jessan’s approach. He scrambled over to them and thumped down on both knees, his fur covered face writhing in dismay. “Nice timing.”
“Dear Ares and all the gods, Xena, I’m sorry.” Jessan held his hands out to them. “I’m so sorry.”
“For what?” Gabrielle took hold of him. “It’s over, Jess. Let’s just get out of here.”
Visibly shaken, he nodded. “Will you come back to the village? It’s different there now.” He asked. “My mother’s frantic.”
Xena slowly got up, her hand grasping Gabrielle’s as the bard struggled upright next to her. “Yeah.” The warrior exhaled. “I think a lot of things are gonna be different now.”
Jessan clasped her arm briefly. “Wait here. Lemme take care of the trash.” He turned and bounded back towards the opening, where the warriors he’d brought with him were busy tying up the cavern dwellers.
“Here.” Xena loosened the straps holding Dori and lifted her off her partner’s back. “Might as well sit down.” She grimaced at the cuts visible on Gabrielle’s skin. They walked together to a nearby rock and sat down on it, as Xena cradled Dori in her arms.
Having the weight off her back was almost unthinkably blissful. Gabrielle leaned against Xena’s shoulder, feeling every ounce of energy draining from her now that it was over.
Over and done. The bard looked across the cavern and flexed her hands, still feeling the pain from the shock of the blow she’d delivered. “Mm.”
Xena turned her head and regarded the shattered column, its crystal shards lying scattered over the rocks winking back the firelight at her.
Then she turned and looked into Gabrielle’s eyes, where she found a fire far more potent reflected. “Good work.” She pointed at the column. “I was pretty close to losing it.”
Gabrielle reached over and smoothed down Dori’s hair. The child was resting in Xena’s arms, unusually quiet, seemingly content to simply suck her thumb and gaze up at the warrior. “Thanks for coming flying through the scariest thing I’ve seen for a long time and saving me.” Her voice was hoarse, and she could feel the strain. Had she been screaming again? “Saving us.”
“Damned ungrateful harpie.” Xena muttered.
“Damned ungrateful forest dwellers.” Gabrielle countered. “No one appreciates us, Xe.”
The warrior chuckled softly. After a moment, Gabrielle joined her. Then she released a long sigh. “I’m so tired.”
“Me, too.” Xena admitted. “But I think we did the right thing here. Feels…” She lifted her head and gazed around. “Cleaner.”
Gabrielle studied a gash across her hand. “That’s how I feel too.” She said. “Cleaner.” Her fingers curled around Xena’s. “We did the right thing.”
They both fell silent, simply sitting together and watching the cavern slowly clear, losing any sense of menace and becoming instead a simple cave dwelling with evidence of long, hard use.
There would be peace here now, Gabrielle sensed, as she felt her face crease into a faint smile.
There was peace, too, in the village. By the light of a newly lit fire in the cottage they’d been given, Xena and Gabrielle sat quietly on the rug before the hearth, tending to each other’s many and varied small injuries.
A tray sat next to them, with pots of soup and fresh bread on it, and a pitcher of rich, sweet ale. Dori was asleep in her crib nearby, and Ares was curled up next to her, tail tucked around his nose.
They were both so tired. Gabrielle could feel it in herself, and see it in her partner’s slumped shoulders. But even so, it felt so amazingly wonderful to have won out, and earned this peace neither of them really felt like going to sleep.
“Oh, sweetie.. look at those bruises.” The bard grimaced, putting a gentle finger on Xena’s bare shoulderblade. The entire surface of her back was darkened with it.
“Hit the wall.” Xena murmured, as she dabbed salve on yet another cut from the crystal shards near her soulmate’s jaw. “Hold still.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes, as the skilled fingers stroked her skin and brought their healing touch. They were both dressed in simple cotton night shirts, and their hair was still damp for the showers that had taken the blood stains from their bodies.
The warrior finished, and Gabrielle leaned back against the side of the hearth, absorbing the warmth through her battered bones gratefully. She picked up one of the soup bowls and drank from it, watching idly as Xena put aside her healer’s kit at last, and slowly lowered herself to lay flat on the rug, extending her long legs out and groaning as she straightened out her body and settled her head in Gabrielle’s lap.
Gabrielle reached down and stroked her partner’s face, watching the pale eyes flicker and lift to look up at her. She fished a piece of meat from her soup bowl and offered it, smiling a little as Xena opened her mouth to receive it. “Xena.” She spoke the name with almost reverence.
The warrior chewed and swallowed. “That’s me.” She agreed, then waited. When no other words were forthcoming, she shifted her head a little and studied the bard’s face, finding a weary serenity there. “Dinar for your thoughts?”
Gabrielle took another long swallow of the soup, and fished out a second piece of meat, handing it over to Xena before she answered. “What am I thinking?” She mused. “I don’t know if I’m thinking anything. I just keep looking at you, and loving you, and being happy, that’s all.”
“Mm.” The warrior accepted that. “I can’t…” She paused, and pursed her lips. “I know that whole plan scared you.”
“It did.” The bard confirmed softly. “But it’s something that had to be done, Xe. I knew that.”
Xena leaned her cheek against Gabrielle’s belly. “I’ve felt like I’ve been under a cloud since we left Athens.” She said, with a tiny shake of her head. “I felt like I failed there. I ran.”
Gabrielle’s brows knit. “Xena, we didn’t fail there.” She objected, then paused, and thought. “Hm.” She went on after a bit. “Maybe we did.”
The warrior’s lashes fluttered. “I didn’t want to feel that way again.” Her voice dropped. “But I didn’t want to see you hurting either.”
At last, the admission pinpointed what had been bothering her, and Gabrielle contemplated that for a while. “You know what?”
“I can’t run from us being heroes.”
Pale blue eyes flicked to hers, and held.
Gabrielle let her fingers slide into Xena’s hair, feeling it’s silken touch against her skin. “Somewhere in all that terror in there, I found my way out of that dark, scary place and back to the person I know I am.”
Xena smiled. She reached around and stroked Gabrielle’s back, giving her a friendly little scratch with the tips of her fingers, careful to avoid the long scratches down the bard’s spine. “I still want to head home.”
The bard nodded. “Me too.” She let her hand rest on Xena’s stomach. “But there’s someplace we need to stop first.”
“The cave?” The warrior asked, with a knowing look.
Another nod. “I can’t leave and not know if it worked.”
Xena exhaled, and snuggled closer. “Me either.”
Gabrielle leaned over and gave her a kiss on the forehead, then paused, and moved a touch lower, kissing her on the lips with gentle passion. “That was an amazing fight.” She said, after a while.
Xena’s face tensed into a faint grin. “Feels like it was.” She joked, opening and closing one bruised hand. “He was pretty good.”
“He was extremely outclassed.” Gabrielle disagreed. “They all knew it. I think he knew it – after the first few minutes. I could see his face.”
The warrior’s grin became more pronounced. “Until I got him mad.”
“Yeah.” A nod. “That’s when I almost lost it and came running.” Gabrielle admitted. “But then the guards left, so…” She paused, a fingertip tracing one of Xena’s planed cheekbones.
Xena took hold of her hand and turned it over, looking at the gashes in her palm. She kissed them gently, then clasped the bard’s fingers. “Know what?”
“Much as I’m loving lying here, I’d love it a lot more if we were both over in that bed.”
Gabrielle’s pale eyebrows lifted. “You haven’t had dinner.”
The firelight didn’t quite hide the blush that appeared on the bard’s face. “Ah.” She murmured. “Don’t you want….”
The blue eyes took on a hint of the flames. “I want you.”
It had been a long while since she’d been this flustered. Gabrielle felt a sense of pleasant confusion wash through her that pushed aside the weariness, replacing it with tingling expectation. “You do?”
Xena rolled over and got to her feet with a smooth motion, gently pulling Gabrielle up with her. She put her arms around the bard and pulled her close, nuzzling her hair as their bodies connected. “You can’t be surprised at that, can ya?”
“Um.” Gabrielle found herself breathing in Xena’s scent, combined with the lingering traces of soap, and sun warmed cloth, and the pungent salve they’d spread over each other. She tilted her head up and slid a hand around her partner’s neck, kissing the patiently waiting lips. “Not surprised…” She tasted the soft skin, and nibbled the spot right above her partner’s pulse point.
It jumped under the touch. Gabrielle exhaled as Xena returned the attemtion, her hands slipping under the night shirt the bard wore and exploring.
“But?” Xena whispered in her ear.
“Happy.” Gabrielle forgot all about the recent past, choosing to focus instead on the beautiful, warm body wrapped in her arms, and the light touch running up and down her sides igniting a burn deep in her guts.
She didn’t remember walking to the bed, but she knew it when she tumbled into its soft depths, her bare skin warming the cool fabric an instant before Xena enveloped her.
It was amazing. She closed her eyes and savored the sensation. Xena settled gently over her, the warrior’s dark hair spreading over Gabrielle’s shoulders as her lips nipped along the curve of her breast.
Instinctively, the bard threaded her fingers through the silken strands, and then she let them wander lower. Down the slope of her shoulders, and forward, tickling her collarbone as a soft chuckle warmed the bare skin being targeted by Xena’s lips.
“You make me feel so special.” Gabrielle uttered.
“You are.” The warrior replied, lifting her head and kissing her way up the bard’s throat, up to her lips again. “You’re cute.” Another kiss. “You’re sexy.” Another kiss, and a nip on the nose. “And you’re mine.”
Gabrielle gazed up at her. “Well.” She felt her face crease into a helpless grin. “I’ll give you the last one, that’s for sure.”
She had no idea what had stirred her partner’s ardor after a day like the one they’d shared, but as Xena abandoned the idle chit chat and returned to seductive nibbling around her throat, Gabrielle was long past caring.
They knew each other so well. She felt Xena’s touch on her hitting just the right spot, as she let her hands explore the powerful body above her, the suddenly deepened breathing a testimony to her own knowing skills.
Xena loved being touched just like…
Yeah, like that. Gabrielle lowered all her defenses and opened her heart to it’s fullest, taking in the love she could feel pouring from Xena’s every motion and reflecting it back at her, knowing without a doubt that if it were possible to drown in affection, they were both in real trouble.
The pressure built slowly, as they slid together and traded touches and nips, their bodies dancing together until she felt a shiver work through her, followed by a sensation of being filled to overwhelming as Xena swept her over the top, their bodies tangling together in mutual shudders that seemed to go on forever.
She managed to catch her breath some time later, all cuddled up in Xena’s arms and blissfully content to lie there and do little else. Her fingers stroked gentle patterns along the warrior’s warm, sweat dampened skin, while Xena’s hand rubbed soothing circles along her spine. “Xe?”
“Yyyeeeesss?” The answer was a lazy, deep rumble.
“Tough as our life sometimes is?”
“Living it with you makes it all worth the risks.”
Xena pulled her into a tighter hug, gently kissing the top of her head. “Likewise.”
Xena propped one booted foot up against the window sill, her gaze wandering lazily out the open shutters, watching the sun pour through the leaves outside the cottage. It was cold outside, but bright and sunny, and the wind brought the smell of woodsmoke and pine to wash over her.
Far off, she could hear the village stirring, and behind her, there was a low murmur from her partner as Gabrielle dressed Dori, the toddler chattering happily at her near the hearth inside.
She could almost feel the peace around her, a radical change from what her life had been like for the past few weeks. It was a very strange sensation, almost as though her heart was so light it was starting to float – a halfway giddy feeling she last remembered feeling a long while ago.
“Yeah?” Xena folded her hands over her stomach and reveled in the blissful sensation of well being, and a sense of satisfaction with herself, and her life.
“How’s your cold?”
“What cold?” The warrior answered, with a touch of smugness. “You burned it out of me last night.”
“Xena.” Gabrielle snickered. “Cut that out.”
Xena lifted her hands up. “No cough, no fever, no sniffles. You explain it.” She returned her hands to their former position and cocked her head, watching a pair of red birds flit in the tree nearby. “I feel great.” She paused. “How about you?”
“C’mere, honey.” Gabrielle captured one of Dori’s arms and got it through the sleeve on her jumper. “Hmm.. how do I feel?”
“Mama good.” Dori examined the pull on her jumper hood with serious absorbtion. “Mama happy.”
Gabrielle gently combed her daughter’s unruly locks. “You think so, Dori? How do you know that?” She grinned, though, even as she said it. “But you’re right. Mama feels wonderful.”
“Good. Go Boo now.” Dori squirmed out of her reach and hopped down to the floor, pattering over to where Xena was sitting. She reached up and tugged on the warrior’s sleeve imperiously. “Boo! Gup!”
Gabrielle followed her over, smiling indulgently as Xena picked Dori up and set her on her lap, wrapping her long arms around their daughter. Other than the cuts she’d suffered from the crystal, which were still a bit stiff and achy, she did in fact, feel great and one look at Xena told her the warrior wasn’t lying when she said she did also.
They’d shared their forgotten dinner for breakfast. In bed. Then they’d shared a shower. Now they were dressed in comfortable tunics and warm leggings, and for the first time in a while she was looking forward to the day.
Gabrielle settled her hands on Xena’s shoulders and leaned against the back of her chair. “What a gorgeous morning.” She leaned over and gave the warrior a kiss on the head.
Xena looked up from playing patacake with Dori. “Sure is.” She agreed. “Whadda you say we go see if the attitudes are any better around here today?”
“Okay.” The bard said. “But if last night was any indication, I don’t think it’s in question. You heard Jessan.”
“True.” The warrior clasped Dori and stood up, swinging her over her head accompanied by a squeal of delight. “But I think it’s time we find out what they really know, and let them in on what we found.” She tucked Dori against one hip and headed for the door. “C’mon munchkin. Let’s go find some fun.”
“Fun!” Dori clutched at her buddy’s shoulder. “Boo, c’n we go fly?”
“Sure.” Xena walked outside the cottage and waited for Gabrielle to join her. “Soon as we’re done seeing our friends, how about that?”
“Oo.. listen to that bossy baby.” Gabrielle tweaked Dori’s foot. “You cut that out, madame, and be nice to your Boo, or else.” She warned. “Didn’t you fly with me yesterday?”
Dori giggled. “Yes! Mama go fly over dere, over dere, over dere.” She moved her hand in a series of hops. “Den Mama and Boo scared a monster out of the mountain.”
“Were you scared of the monster, Dori?” Xena asked. “That was a big, mean, monster, huh?”
“Mama said no be scared.” Dori shook her head. “Wait for Boo.”
Xena looked over at Gabrielle who smiled back at her. “One way or another, I knew you’d be there for us.” The bard answered, simply.
For a moment, her partner gazed intently at her, and then she lifted her hand up to cup Gabrielle’s cheek.“You were right.” Xena gave her a gentle pat, and then settled her free arm over her partner’s shoulders and they headed off towards the village center.
There was a difference this morning. Gabrielle looked around as they headed across towards the meeting hall, and noticed first off that the eyes of all she came across met hers, and muzzled faces creased into a smile.
The other thing she noticed was the absence of most of the youngsters, and the presence of the warriors Jessan had brought with him working on various projects all around. It reminded her more of the way the village had been on their last visit, and Gabrielle felt her already heady sense of well being buoyed up even further by it.
As they approached the meeting hall, they were spotted and Wennid broke off her conversation with one of the cooks to stride over and meet them. “Morning.” Xena greeted her.
“A very good morning to you too.” Wennid answered. “Thank you for coming back here… I knew you both were very upset when you left, for good reason.” She gave Dori a little grin. “I hear you had quite an adventure?”
“You could say that.” Gabrielle agreed. “Can we go inside and talk?” She indicated the meeting hall. “I think we have some news everyone should hear.”
“And perhaps we can now enlighten you to some things that were hidden before.” Wennid nodded. “Come.” She took a step, then paused and put a hand on Xena’s arm. “Tell me one thing before – what of Rufus? Jessan said it was your tale to tell.”
Xena met her eyes evenly. “He’s dead.” She replied.
“Good.” Wennid nodded briskly. “There are some who will regret that, but I am not one of them.”
“After they hear what he had in mind, I’m not sure that anyone would disagree with you.” Gabrielle said. “Even I don’t.”
The bard gave a half shrug. “He tried to kill me. He tried to kill Lestan. He tried to kill Xena. He was going to attack your village again.” Gabrielle paused to take a deep breath. “Violence isn’t always the answer, Wennid – but sometimes it’s the only answer that keeps other people from being hurt.”
The forest dweller nodded. “That is a hard lesson, for those of us who do not live by the sword.” She wrinkled her muzzle. “The village is still gathering – will you come in an speak with Lestan? He is chewing the bedpost not being able to get up and see for himself what is going on.”
Gabrielle fit her hand into Xena’s. “Sure.” She answered. “I was worried about him.”
Wennid gave her a look. “Not nearly as much as we were worried about the two of you, I believe.” She turned and lead the way towards her home.
Xena and Gabirelle followed her, walking hand in hand as they passed forest dwellers going in the opposite direction towards the hall. After a briefly awkward moment, shy hellos and good mornings started to be directed towards them.
By the time they reached Wennid and Lestan’s cottage the sun had topped the trees and was pouring down into the village and warming their shoulders as they walked. Gabrielle smiled in delight at the rich beams painting the path, reaching out with her hand to intercept them, her fingers curling around the light as though it had substance. “Oh.. Xena, look!”
Xena’s eyes followed the bard’s pointing finger, through the brush to a nearby tree. The sun splashed it’s bark, revealing a spot of white. “Wh..” Xena looked closer. “A white squirrel!”
“Mama!” Dori was already squirming, trying to get out of Xena’s arms as she spotted the small animal as well. “Boo, leggo!”
“Ah, ah ah.” The warrior took a stronger hold on her. “You stay right here, shortie.”
Gabrielle eased off the path towards the creature, who watched her warily. “Oh, it’s so pretty!” She breathed, turning her head towards her partner. “Xena, do you have an… thanks.” She caught the piece of trail bar and turned, slowly easing her hand out with the tidbit in it. “Here you go..”
Wennid had stopped, apparently realizing she no longer had an entourage. She was leaning against a nearby tree, watching Gabrielle with a bemused expression on her face.
The bard crept a little closer, expecting the squirrel to dash off. It didn’t, however, and she got close enough to extend her hand all the way.
The squirrel’s nose twitched. One small paw hesitantly stretched forward and snatched at the bit of trail bar, catching hold of it and pulling it out of Gabrielle’s fingers.
“You’re a pretty boy.” Gabrielle complimented him, watching with a charmed expression as the animal nibbled at the treat. “Xena, isn’t he gorgeous?”
The bard looked over her shoulder. “I think I’m being condescended to.”
Xena had her hands full, however, and was busy trying to prevent her daughter from getting loose and going on an impromptu squirrel hunt. “Not at all.. just a little…occupied here…”
“Mama! Go get pitty aminal!” Dori protested.
The squirrel decided he’d had enough of the show, and he scampered down the tree, leaping to the ground and dashing past Gabrielle right towards Xena and her rambunctious charge. Without a pause, he bolted up the warrior’s leg, coming very close to being kicked into somewhere in the next lunar cycle.
“Hey!” Xena let out a yell.
“Gots!” Dori’s eyes widened in delight as the squirrel landed on her buddy’s arm and she was almost nose to nose with it. “C”mere!”
Intelligently, the squirrel scrambled out of Dori’s reach and up onto Xena’s shoulder, where he perched for a moment, chittering into the warrior’s ear.
Xena’s blue eyes were startlingly bright in the sunlight as she glared at the trespasser. They nearly popped out of their sockets when the squirrel patted her cheek, then leaped to the ground and dashed off into the underbrush, disappearing with a scattering of brown, dead leaves. “What in the Hades was that?” The warrior blurted.
Even Wennid was standing there slack jawed.
Gabrielle walked over and put a hand on her partner’s shoulder, then peered past her to where the animal had vanished. “That was amazing.” She murmured. “It’s almost like… Xena, it looked like he was talking to you!”
“Pitty!” Dori craned her neck to look, hoping to catch another glimpse of the squirrel. “Mama, dat aminal love Boo!”
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. “That was not normal squirrel behavior.” The warrior stated, looking over at Wennid. “Unless you’re training them. Are you?”
The forest dweller shook her head rapidly back and forth. “Ares’ truth, Xena. I’ve never seen a one like that before, nor less one that acted that way.”
Another mystery. Gabrielle tucked her hand inside Xena’s elbow, and they slowly started to walk again. Only this one held more wonder than dread, and she found herself imagining what story there must be behind that small, curious animal.
For instance, did animals have names for each other? Not the ones that humans gave them, but between themselves? The bard relied on Xena’s instincts to keep them on the path, as she pondered. Did they think? This one seemed to understand she meant it no harm, and certainly it had shown curiosity if nothing else about Xena.
Or was there something else behind it? Someone else? Gabrielle clearly remembered praying, in those last few moments before the battle. Could it have been her answer?
Would she ever know?
She looked up at Xena, the warrior’s profile outlined in sunlight, and remembered that dark figure shredding through the whirlwind horror that had been Elevown’s soul, the brilliant energy that had ripped apart the first forest dweller it had touched.
With a smile, Gabrielle took a firmer hold of her soulmate’s arm, as they mounted the steps to their friend’s home. “Hey, Xena?”
“Hm?” The warrior looked over at her.
“Know what I think?”
“I’m about to.” Xena responded dryly. “But if I hear the words ‘animal attraction’ you’re going into the creek.”
“Aminal!” Dori warbled. “Boo, you go catch me pitty aminal? Or a buppit?”
Gabrielle decided to table the conversation in the interests of remaining dry, and merely chuckled as they entered Wennid and Lestan’s home.
The meeting hall was full, the air warmed by the presence of a large quantity of big, furry bodies. Gabrielle was standing near the front, leaning back against the heavy table while she waited for the noise to settle down.
She’d just finished her tale of recent events, and now the chattering was going up all around the room as the forest dwellers discussed the results.
“Gabrielle…” Wennid was seated in front, and she now straightened and rubbed her forehead. “Let me make sure I understand… this… force… you released in the cavern – you knew it?”
In the back of the room, Xena was seated near the window, with Dori on her lap, deferring to her partner when it came to relating their adventures. Jessan was seated next to her, providing a convenient plaything for Dori.
Now, the bard glanced back at her and raised an eyebrow, offering Xena the opportunity to elaborate. More than fair, Xena acknowledged, given that she really hadn’t provided any proof of her instincts to the bard. Accordingly, she stood up. “We discovered a couple of things in those old caverns.” She said, waiting for the shuffle of motion to stop as everyone turned to look at her.
“The caverns where we found the old scrolls?” Wennid queried.
Xena nodded. “They’re not entirely… abandoned.” She tilted her head, considering her words carefully. “The spirits of their former occupants are still around.”
Silence. Lots of round, golden eyes looking back at her. Xena realized if it had been anyone else, they’d probably have been laughed at.
“You…” Wennid paused. “Do you mean there are ghosts there?” She asked, delicately.
“Ardwyn’s ghost, yes.” Gabrielle confirmed. “The writer of the scrolls.”
“Huh.” Jessan folded his arms across his chest. “Y’know, I always thought ghosts were…ah…”
“Make believe.” Xena said. “Yeah, well… there’s an old saying that goes something like.. you find enough manure around, there’s got to be a horse somewhere?”
“Uh.” Jessan blinked at her. “Yeah, I’ve heard it.”
“What Xena means, is that most legends usually have a kernel of truth at their hearts.”
Heads swiveled again towards Gabrielle. The bard crossed her own arms. “And I’ve learned never to say something’s impossible.”
“Anyway.” Xena forged on. “We found out that many years ago, Ardwyn had been separated from her partner Elevown the Viking. I discovered a really angry spirit up on the mountain with a Viking ax, and decided it was her. I distracted the guards and Gabrielle let her loose. End of story.”
Gabrielle scratched her jaw, and glanced at the ground, muffling a smile. She looked up to find everyone’s attention focused back on her. “So, now you know why I’m the bard in the family.” She remarked dryly, eliciting a round of somewhat nervous chuckles.
“Xena, you said you decided the angry… spirit… was Elevown. What if you were wrong?” Wennid asked curiously.
Xena regarded her. “I wasn’t.” The warrior shrugged.
More nervous chuckles.
“Our question is, how’d she get that way?” Gabrielle interjected. “Wennid, obviously those forest dwellers up there knew she was there. Xena thinks that energy was what was making people more warlike and angry, the closer they were to her.”
Everyone looked back at Xena. It was, the warrior decided, sort of like watching Amazon catchball, only with more fur and less squabbling. “Yeah. She’s been there a long, long time.”
Now everyone looked up at Wennid. The older woman raised both arms and let them fall. “Xena, I have no idea. We have nothing to do with these humans. I was surprised as any to find those caves and scrolls so close to our kind.”
Gabrielle gazed at her. “You’re wrong, Wennid.” She said. “You have everything to do with those humans. Ardwyn was the woman your people found in the forest, injured, long ago.”
Wennid stared at her.
“She was the one who changed you.” The bard went on, softly.
“Is it truly so?” Wennid breathed, glancing aside as Cessi joined her. “How can it be? How can you know?”
The forest dwellers all began to murmur to each other. These were, Gabrielle noticed, the elders of the tribe, with only a few younger faces scattered around. She wondered what had happened to the kids. “She told me.” The bard answered simply. “It wasn’t easy for her. She was kind, and taught you even though she knew your people had been responsible for her losing her partner.”
The crowd shifted uneasily. “Gods.” Wennid sat down. “This is all so much to understand.”
Jessan stood. “Xena, I’ve questioned those we brought back from the cavern.” He hesitated, then gave her a half shrug. “They were clueless.”
“Mm.” Xena let her hand drop to Dori’s head, ruffling the dark hair.
“They knew there was a power there, but… “ The big forest dweller sighed. “Rufus told them it was a promise from Ares, if they took over the valley, that it would give them his favor.”
Xena rolled her eyes. “He would never hide himself in a cave in the back end of nowhere, let me tell ya.”
Cessi shook her head. “Wennid’s right. This is too much to take in.” She said. “If this thing has been there all this time..”
“Person.” Gabrielle interrupted her. “There was a person in there.”
Cessi lifted her hand in acknowledgement. “Why now?” She asked. “We’ve been at peace for so long, then why…”
“Have we?” Jessan asked. “Maybe that.. person.. whatever… has been drawing in those of us who seek to walk a different route for a long time. Who knows how long those throwbacks have been out there?”
“Mm.” Cessi grunted acknowledgement.
“Maybe they were content to live alone, until Rufus came.” Wennid commented wisely. “My heart tells me it was he who prodded them into action.”
The wind coming in the open windows was cool and brisk – at a signal from Wennid, several of the forest dwellers near the corners of the big room started passing around trays of mulled cider.
“He believed he was doing right.” Cessi suggested. “I truly believe that.”
Xena turned to face her. “I don’t.” She said. “Not unless murdering people is right.”
Cessi regarded her. “But you are…”
“It doesn’t matter.” Wennid said, firmly. “Xena’s right. We have always looked for a way to put ourselves above our human neighbors. What this whole thing has taught me, if nothing else, is how little we are truly different.”
“But…” Cessi hesitated.
“He was your kin.” Wennid cut her off. “I understand that.”
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged looks. The bard left her spot at the front and eased to her partner’s side, removing two mugs of cider from a tray as she moved through the crowd and handing one to Xena. “Xena and I wanted to talk to him, you know.” She spoke directly to the older forest dweller. “But the closer we got to the truth, the more he tried to destroy us.”
“If he just could have stayed in the hills.” Cessi sighed.
“But he wasn’t going to.” Xena spoke up. “He was going to lead those fighters in the cavern down on the village again. Last night.”
“True.” Jessan joined her. “They said it.” His eyes shifted to the warrior. “They were going to destroy everything here, and wipe it from the earth.”
Everyone’s eyes now turned to Xena, as the warrior stood in their midst, for once not towering over the crowd.
“Cessi.” Jessan turned to her. “Even if Rufus were right, and humans were beneath our law, these two would not be. You know that.” His voice was faintly accusing. “They are part of our tribe, by law.”
She nodded. “I know it. I spoke with Rufus of it. It came to nothing.” She looked at Xena. “He said it would come down to a battle between the new and the old, the right and the wrong. You and he.”
Gabrielle held her breath, but her partner merely smiled. “He was right.” Xena replied.
“He just had no clue which of em was which.” Jessan said frankly. “But my father knew.” He laid a hand on Xena’s shoulder. “He knew who he could trust to protect us.”
The warrior didn’t move, but to Gabrielle’s eyes, without stirring still she stood taller, and through the link that bound them the bard felt a surge of emotion. She reached out to take Xena’s hand, moving closer to her as Dori scrambled off the chair she’d been perched on and ran between her taller parent’s legs.
The crowd spoke a unified sound of agreement.
Jessan turned to face the crowd. “My father will live.” He announced. “So, this night our family would like a gathering, to celebrate this, and to bring us all back together after the trials just past.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle leaned closer to her partner. “A party.”
“Learning from the Amazons.” The warrior muttered back, just loud enough for Jessan to hear her.
“They have a lot in common.” The bard replied, her eyes twinkling gently at Jessan’s expression.
“And.” Jessan added. “To celebrate the birthday of our friend, Gabrielle the bard.”
Caught offguard, Gabrielle could only issue a squeak. Then she turned and wagged her finger at a silently snickering Xena.
The crowd relaxed, and started laughing. The ones nearest to Xena and Gabrielle edged even closer, tilting their heads to make eye contact with them.
“We’re sorry about what happened.” A woman said, with quiet sincerity. “We should have shut the kids up before when you were here. We were wrong to let them talk like they were.”
“It’s true.” A younger man agreed.
“Why didn’t you?” Gabrielle asked, curiously.
The woman who had spoken first chewed her lower lip for a bit, then lifted both hands, palms up. “I can speak only for myself. I was afraid.” She admitted. “Afraid that Rufus would be here, long after you left and would remember it. I have a young son.”
“Ah.” The bard nodded. “He had a lot of influence.”
“Not only that.” The man edged closer. “His way was the way of force, of strength. To go against him meant having to fight him. Defeat him. There would be no mercy.”
“So….” Xena lifted Dori up and cradled her in her arms. “You figured you’d wait to see which one of us came out on top, then go with whoever won.”
They looked abashed.
Jessan sighed. “My mother was right.” He grimaced slightly. “We are just like you.”
Gabrielle gave him a gentle pat on the side. “Well.” She said. “It’s not all bad, y’know. We have some good points.” She reminded him, with a smile to take the sting off the words.
“I know.” Jessan nudged them towards the door. “C’mon.”
They walked outside, back into the sunlight now brightly shining over the village. Jessan stopped just inside the great square and gazed around, shaking his head slightly before he turned to face them. Xena had set Dori on her shoulders, and they both waited for him to speak.
“I bet you can guess how crappy I feel.” Jessan started. “You guys come here and save my father, and to say thank you we nearly get you killed.” He paused. “More than once.”
“Boo, look!” Dori pointed. “Aminal!”
Half expecting their friend the white squirrel, Xena turned, only to see Ares chasing a fox past them. “Hey!’ She shook a finger at the wolf. “No chasing foxes!”
Ares pulled up at her voice, regretfully letting the fox go free, and trotted over to her. He sneezed and sat down at her boots, his tongue lolling out.
“Go gots aminal, Boo! Hurry!” Dori wriggled and bounced on her buddy’s shoulders. “Want a buppit!”
“You hold still, shortie. No buppits.” Xena patted her leg. “Not until we get home. Okay?”
Jessan cocked his head, distracted from his self thrashing. “What does she want?”
“A bup… “ Gabrielle cleared her throat. “I mean, a pet.” She amended. “She calls puppies buppits, and she was really disappointed we didn’t go see Ares puppies after we left Athens.”
“Ah.” Jessan looked down. “Doesn’t she have a pet?” He pointed at Ares. “You mean she wants more of them?”
“Boo, c’n you let me down now?” Dori pleaded.
Xena gave Gabrielle a look. The bard nodded, and got a gentle cuff on the side of her face in response before the warrior swung their daughter down and set her on the ground. “Okay, shortie. Let’s go see what we can find. You ready to race?”
With a squeal, Dori took off across the grass, with her parent loping behind her in lazy pursuit.
That left Jessan and Gabrielle alone. “Want to sit down?” Gabrielle pointed to an overturned trough nearby. She took a seat herself, and extended her legs, crossing them at the ankles as she watched Xena and Dori romp across the square.
“They’re so cute together.” Jessan remarked, as he sat down next to her.
“Yeah, they really are.” Gabrielle agreed, then paused. “Well?”
The forest dweller sighed, and plucked at the sleeve of his thick,blue battlecoat.
“Jess, it’s not your fault what happened.” The bard told him. “We were glad to come here to help your father, help the village recover… neither of us regret that.”
“Sure.” He looked directly at her. “Now, you can say that.”
Gabrielle’s eyes dropped.
“Gabrielle, I felt you.” Jessan lowered his voice, even though they were alone. “Even as far away as I was.”
The bard stared off into the distance, drawing up one knee to rest her elbow on it. “It was a truly sucky moment.” She eventually responded. “But you know what? Xena made it all right. That’s what matters.” Her eyes shifted to find his again. “It didn’t have to be here. It didn’t have to be for your people, Jessan. It could have happened anywhere. You know us.”
Jessan was silent for a bit. Then he put one big hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. “One of my kind who was trapped in the cavern with her spoke with me last night.” He said. “He’s convinced Xena blew the mountain out over their heads.”
Gabrielle thought about it. “Well.” She rested her chin on her arm. “They were inside a tunnel of solid rock. Maybe it had a crack in it.”
Jessan looked at her.
“Or maybe Xena blew the mountain out.” The bard went on. “If anyone on earth could, it would be her.” Her eyes wandered to where Xena had just caught up Dori, and then tumbled to the earth, where she was rolling on the grass with the toddler. “I was just really angry with all of them, Jessan. It was all so blasted senseless.” She turned to him. “They knew who she was. Even if they hated humans, they still had to know what would happen if they started attacking her. Why?”
Jessan shook his head. “I asked the one who was stuck in there with her that. He said Rufus had them convinced they could beat her. All they had to do was stick with his teachings.”
“Most of them were too young when you first visited us… they weren’t allowed on the mountain, or at the fight.” Her friend explained. “And they did not come to the war. How would they know, Gabrielle? Yes, we have stories. You more than anyone know we have stories, and that most of us who know you, and know Xena love you both as sisters.”
“I know.” Gabrielle leaned against him. “I guess it hurt all the more because I remember being welcomed here.”
“But before I knew you, I might have thought the same as they.” Jessan concluded.
Gabrielle sighed again. “So, where are they?” She asked. “The kids, I mean?”
“We took them to the valley.” Jessan replied quietly. “Some of my warriors took them, so they could bring back the bodies and understand what war truly means.” He said. “That it’s not a game. That it’s not a grand adventure. I wanted them to understand what death is.”
It made a great deal of sense to her. Gabrielle recalled how childish the dwellers of the valley had seemed to her, despite the fact that many of them were her age or perhaps a touch more. It was easy to find romance in the thought of battle, if you didn’t know the reality of it firsthand.
She did. And yet, if she was honest with herself, she would admit that still, in Xena’s battles, she found a measure of romance and honor. Else, why tell stories about them?
Life was full of paradoxes. Gabrielle watched the chief one of her life leap across the grass, with Dori perched on her back getting an impromptu ride. She turned to Jessan. “I’m glad we came, Jess. I’m glad we helped your parents, and the rest of the tribe… and I’m glad we maybe helped two very, very old friends.”
Jessan nodded. “Much as I hate what happened, I’m glad too.” He admitted. “I’m gonna try my best to make it up to you two before you leave, though.”
Enough seriousness, the bard decided. “So, I get to get birthday’d.” Now she crossed her arms and lightened her tone. “I do all that, and what do I get for it?”
“Presents?” The forest dweller responded, in an ingenious tone. “Lots of food and drink and people singing your praises?”
“Sounded good riiiigght up to the last one.”
“C’mon, Gabrielle. Let the tribe get over their guilt.” Jessan smiled at her. “Everyone feels like pig butts. Give us a break, huh?”
“Mm.” Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed. “On one condition.”
The bard grinned, charmingly.
It was afternoon by the time they started up the mountain. Xena tugged her sheath a little tighter and glanced at the bard pacing quietly at her side as they walked up the path. Outlined in the burnished golden sunlight, Gabrielle’s profile seemed relaxed, if somewhat introspective. “Nervous?”
Gabrielle turned her way. “Hm? Oh, no. I was just thinking.”
“About what?” Xena asked.
For a moment, the bard didn’t answer. Then she eased a step closer. “I was just trying to imagine what it would be like… to be Ardwyn, and have all this happen after all this time.”
Xena considered that seriously. “You know.” She remarked. “We never said we were going to reunite them.” Her eyes studied Gabrielle’s face. “We just said we’d find out what happened.”
“Huh.” The bard’s eyebrows jerked up. “Wow. You’re right.” She kicked a small stone out of her path. “I bet it was really unexpected.” A frown. “I hope it worked out… just… something Ardwyn said that last time made me think she was kind of angry.”
“Mm.” Xena ducked under a branch, and angled her steps to the steep path leading up to the cave. “Wonder if the Viking worried about that.”
“Would you have?”
“No.” Xena smiled, knowing the answer was different than it might have been in earlier times of their life together. “But I wouldn’t have let a bunch of fuzzbutts put me in a column, either.”
“And if they had, I wouldn’t have let you stay there for long.” Gabrielle confirmed, with an equal smile. “You know what this whole thing has made me realize, Xena?”
The warrior was silent for a few paces. “It’s made me realize all over again how damned lucky I am.” She answered, in a slightly husky voice. “Made me stop and appreciate all the great things I have in my life.”
Gabrielle moved closer again and slipped her arm around Xena’s waist. “Yeah.”
They walked along together for a few minutes in silence. “Xena?”
“Were you disappointed by the forest dwellers?” The bard asked. “I mean, I sort of expected them to be a little more… um…”
Xena lifted her free hand and waggled it from side to side.
“Do you think they are becoming just like us?” Gabrielle persisted.
The warrior shrugged. “Gabrielle, I’ve dealt with giants, Amazons, centaurs, gods.. haven’t found any kind yet that don’t act like selfish bastards most of the time. Why should the forest dwellers be any different?”
“Hm.” The bard reached out and let her hands run through a low hanging pine bough, releasing it’s fragrance. “I guess I just expect more of people.”
Xena shrugged again.
“But I guess I shouldn’t.” Gabrielle’s voice changed. “I mean, after all, I was ready to walk out on everyone and go home, wasn’t I?”
“Were you?” Xena asked, in a mild tone.
Her partner’s gaze turned inward for a long moment. Then she lifted her hand and waggled it, mirroring Xena.
Xena’s eyebrow lifted, and the corner of her lip jerked up, as eloquent as anything Gabrielle could have produced in speech.
“Anyway.” The bard accepted the rebuke, booting the debate out and over the ridge as one of the ‘what if’ kind that weren’t really worth going after. Xena had taught her that – because sometimes you just needed to let things go.
Granted, both of them believed that more in theory than practice sometimes, but… “Anyway…I’m glad things worked out for them. Jess really has a handle on how to bring those kids around I think.”
“Yep.” Xena agreed. “I think they’ll be all right. Even some of the ones with Rufus… the two that were trapped with me, they turned out to be okay.” She added.
“After they tried really hard to kill you and couldn’t, right?” Gabrielle said, dryly.
“After I kicked their asses.” Xena conceded. “Didn’t see them in the cave last night.”
They had reached the level of the cave, and the path opened up a little and evened out, making it easier to climb. Gabrielle paused and stretched her body out, feeling a pleasant ache in her thighs from the hike. “Well, Jessan talked to one of them, so I think they’re okay.” She informed her partner.
“Mm?” Xena’s eyes lit up, then took on a mischevious sparkle. “Hey, maybe they’ll be at the party tonight.”
“Oh yeah.” The bard put her fists on her hips. “You are so busted for that.”
The warrior merely whistled, and strolled on by, deftly booting the bard in the butt as she moved past, just fast enough to avoid the return slap. Gabrielle recovered her balance and jogged to catch up, as they covered the last bit of distance to the cave entrance.
They stopped just inside, and paused as if by common consent. Xena took a step ahead of her partner and moved in front of her in an unconscious motion, one hand drifting back to rest on her sword hilt.
“Yeesh, tiger.” Gabrielle bumped her with a hip as she dodged around the warrior. “It’s just an empty cave.”
Xena swept her eyes over the interior once, then twice, before she let her hand drop to her side, reluctantly admitting the bard was actually correct. It was just an empty cave.
But what was she really expecting? Xena reasoned, as she followed Gabrielle across the larger, open outer room towards the crevice that lead to the inner. She glanced at the floor, seeing only their footsteps leading outward as evidence of habitation.
Of course, ghosts didn’t leave footprints. The warrior ducked to enter the inner chamber, stepping around Gabrielle’s halted figure to head for the cap over the entryway.
One hand on the rock, Xena turned.
“I think…” Gabrielle’s face crinkled into a sheepish smile. “I think we should knock.”
Xena looked at her, then she looked down at the stone. “Knock?”
Xena rapped her knuckles on the rock, then she shook her head and drew her sword from it’s sheath, reversing it before she smacked the hilt down three times, making three loud, resonating knocks. Then she got up and put the weapon away, walking over to join Gabrielle. “Okay. I knocked.” She rested her forearm on the bard’s shoulder. “Now what?”
“Shh.” Gabrielle tugged her arm, pulling her back to the opposite wall where a bit of a shelf gave them a place to sit down. “Let’s just wait and see what happens.”
With a sigh, the warrior perched next to her, sliding her boots out a little and regarding them. “Think they’ll come out?”
Xena wiggled her toes. “If they don’t, I’m gonna start kissing you.”
“Xena!” Gabrielle uttered, in a whisper.
“Or I’ll start singing.”
The bard stood up and turned to face her, putting her hands on her partner’s shoulders and peering at her in the gloom. “What’s gotten into you today?”
Xena let her head rest against the rock, as a frankly seductive grin formed across her face. “Beats me.” She let her hands rest on the bard’s thighs, her thumbs tracing light circles. “But I’m liking it. You?”
Almost against her will, Gabrielle leaned forward, giving in to the appeal of that smile as she gave her partner a kiss. Then she let her forehead rest against Xena’s, her arms circling the warrior’s neck. “Yeah.” She peeked behind them at the still empty cave. “I guess we could go down instead of waiting, huh?”
Xena’s grin widened. She stood as Gabrielle turned and they started to walk towards the stone cap, only to pull up short when the space before them filled with a thick, white fog.
“Then again…” The bard exhaled. “Maybe not.”
Slowly, they backed up and took a seat together again, as the fog swirled and pulsed, expanding and contracting, until finally it coalesced into an almost transparent Ardwyn.
Gabrielle inhaled as her face solidified, and she could see the ghost’s expression. Aside from the fact that Ardwyn was dead, the difference was amazing. There was such a brilliance in her eyes, they sparkled in the fog.
In reflex, the bard grinned at her. Their gazes met, and Gabrielle rose impulsively, bounding across the rock floor and enveloping the fog in a big hug.
It was cold. It was warm, and then it was closing around her and hugging her back. “Thank you.” Ardwyn’s voice whispered in her ear. “By the goddess, and all that I worship, thank you.”
Gabrielle released her, and they stood back, to look at each other again. Ardwyn shook her head faintly, and seemed to sigh. “Never would I have thought it. Never did I expect it. To have her come so, to me… “ her voice trailed off.
“I know.” The bard murmured, still smiling broadly. “I know.” She repeated, even more softly. “I’m so glad.” She could see, even with the mist, how Ardwyn’s face had changed, losing the tense lines of pain that had been so evident. “Did she tell you what happened?”
Xena sat back against the wall, drawing one knee up and leaning against it as she watched the two of them. Ardwyn was clasping Gabrielle’s hands, the two much of a height. The ghost’s eyes were locked on her partner’s face, and the joy there was achingly visible, almost brilliant in the dim cavern.
It made Xena smile. I did that. A quiet voice inside her marveled. Gabrielle and I made that happen. She looked up again, and this time found Ardwyn looking back at her.
“Dark one.” The ghost whispered. “Indeed, a marvel you are.”
Xena stayed where she was, circling her knee with both arms and simply gazing back at the ghost. “My name’s Xena.” She commented. “Glad things worked out.”
Ardwyn walked over with Gabrielle to her, then settled at arms reach away on the rock while the bard continued on to join her partner. “Tell me then your tale, and I will tell you hers, for come here she will not while the dark one is present.”
Xena’s eyebrow hiked sharply up.
Gabrielle’s lips twitched slightly. “Warriors.” She muttered under her breath, as she stood back up again and considered how to start her story. Then she laid a hand on her partner’s shoulder, and simply started at the start, knowing she didn’t quite have the ending.
About halfway through Gabrielle’s telling, Xena became aware of an almost indistinguishable smudge of light near the back corner of the small cavern. She kept her eyes on the bard and affected not to notice, but watched in her excellent peripheral vision as the smudge very slowly, very grudgingly coalesced into a watching face, with pale, diamond chip eyes.
Hello, Viking. Xena draped an arm casually over the knee Gabrielle had propped up against the rock shelf. With her index finger, she tapped lightly on skin just inside the joint, then with her thumb, she drew an inconspicuous line towards the manifestation.
There wasn’t even a hitch in Gabrielle’s voice, but Xena could hear the warmth enter it, and the hand resting on her shoulder contracted just a little. The warrior turned her head and planted a kiss on the back of her partner’s knuckles, this time getting a slight break as Gabrielle felt the touch.
She was acting unusual. Xena knew that. She put it down to finally being able to relax after what had happened to them, and being in a good mood over having things turn out the way they did. Gabrielle would forgive her, wouldn’t she?
Xena felt the bard lean against her, the warmth of her body penetrating the thick linen shirt she had on, and Gabrielle’s hand shifted a little, it’s fingers scratching Xena lightly across the back of her neck. Mm. Xena liked that feeling. A motion caught her attention, though, and she shifted focus to watch their furtive visitor come a little closer.
Now the head was drifting over what might to someone with an imagination be a body, a shifting mass of silver grays that seemed to outline a slim form draped in cloths. Xena turned her head slightly and made eye contact, not surprised when the figure dissolved immediately, save those sharp glints that remained, but faded back into the shadows.
Angry? Xena reflected on how her temper might have been after an eon in Elevown’s condition, and concluded she’d probably be a little ticked off herself, still. Angry, yes – but unable to stray far from the dark haired Celt seated across from Gabrielle, listening intently.
There, they were different. No visitors, no stories, no nothing would have kept her from wrapping herself around Gabrielle and not budging, regardless of the venue. Hades, she’d have let the two of them keep knocking on the stone cap for a millennium for that matter.
“So, after we rested, and spoke with you, Ardwyn, Xena decided she wanted to take a last look around the valley before we started home.
“Aye.” Ardwyn nodded. “Hard pressed, were ye. I could see it, and no wonder for such a tale.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle agreed. “Xena found a cave. She said she knew the key to what was wrong in the valley was up there, so we decided to go and see if we could find out what it was.”
“How knew you?” Ardwyn, for the first time, addressed Xena directly.
Hm. Good question. Even Gabrielle hadn’t gotten around to asking her that yet. “I just knew.” The warrior replied. “Something up there was madder than Hades, and I wanted to know why. Figured maybe the forest dwellers were buying into it.”
“Angry.” The ghost repeated softly. “Aye.”
“So we went up there.” The bard went on. “And..”
“And I distr..” Xena found her mouth covered promptly.
“Ah ah. My turn to tell this.” Gabrielle scolded her. “You just sit there and take it like a hero.”
Xena licked the palm of her hand, watching her partner muffle a hasty laugh. She nodded in agreement, however, and the bard removed her hold, and returned her attention to Ardwyn. “As I was saying, and when we got to the cave, what we found was a large force of the forest dwellers, surrounding a huge crystal pillar.”
The ghostly face returned behind Ardwyn again, watching Xena warily.
“Pillar? I know not that word.”
Gabrielle circled her arms as though she were hugging a tree. “A column like this, only of clear crystal, not stone.” She explained. “There was light in it. Xena told me the anger was coming from there, and then we saw the ax.”
Ardwyn’s eyes closed. “That, yes, that I know.”
The bard nodded. “Xena recognized it too. So.. there were guards around the column. Xena decided if she could draw them all off, then I’d be able to get to the ax, and break the crystal.”
Ardwyn’s eyes popped open and stared at Gabrielle. “You?”
Gabrielle paused in mid breath, and returned the look. “Yeah, me.” She answered, slightly nettled. “Hey, I may be short…” She rolled up a sleeve and displayed her biceps. “But I’m not a wimp, y’know.”
The head edged a bit closer.
“That’s what we did.” Gabrielle went on, a little more quietly. “Xena challenged Rufus – he’d really been waiting for it, I think. He was itching to face off against her – until he figured out he was in over his head.” The bard sat down next to her partner. “Xena drew the fight out, and got him angry. He lost his temper, and that brought the guards over. When they left, I ran.”
“Terrible creatures, they are.” Ardwyn said. “Relentless and cruel.” She sighed. “Was them who took all from us.”
“But you taught them differently.” Gabrielle said. “You changed them. You gave them a great gift, Ardwyn.”
“I care not.” The ghost told her. “Twas they who stole my heart.” Slowly, the ghost turned and held a hand out. “Come, cariad. Tell of your story, that which you will not yet tell me even.”
Now acknowledged, the floating image stayed where it was, glaring at them dourly.
Gabrielle let her eyes focus on it at last, studying the lean face with a sense of fascination. She’d always wondered what they looked like – Ardwyn’s scrolls had never really drawn as clear a picture of them as her mind craved. To see them here, in front of her after all the months she’d spent pouring over their scrolls was amazing. “It’s okay.” She spoke directly to Elevown. “We won’t hurt you.”
The pale eyes widened in outrage.
“Really.” Gabrielle let a twinkle enter her own eyes. “Xena just looks scary. She’s really a creampuff.” She patted her soulmate on the shoulder.
It happened so quickly. Elevown exploded from a sulking head to a full size white storm and surged toward her with outstretched arms.
And then she was sitting down, and she couldn’t see anything except for Xena’s back as the warrior got between her and the oncoming ghost, soundless save for the whisper of steel on leather as she drew her sword and extended it in silent warning.
“Elevown!” Ardwyn surged up herself. “What think you!”
Xena kept her eyes steady, her gaze boring into the ghosts. The Viking had pulled up just short of her and was hovering, arms still extended.
The warrior’s lids slitted, and she let out a low growl.
Elevown backed off, and settled next to where Ardwyn was standing, becoming almost solid as she folded up her legs and put her arms around them, staring back at Xena with dignified insolence.
With a lazy motion, Xena flipped her sword over her hand an sheathed it, then stepped aside and sat back down next to Gabrielle. She turned her head and lifted an eyebrow at the bard, who gave her a quiet smile.
“Okay.” Gabrielle broke the silence. “A very grumpy creampuff with lethal combat skills.”
Xena chuckled dryly, and leaned back against the rock wall, never taking her eyes off the glowering Viking. “Y’know.” She commented. “When Gabrielle and I first read your scrolls… I said the Viking and I would probably get along once we stopped trying to kill each other.”
Ardwyn settled next to her partner. “So strange that sounds.” She murmured.
“Yah.” Elevown’s voice was low, and harsher than anyone anticipated. “But true.” Her pale eyes studied Xena slowly from head to foot. “Odin’s own eternity I spent in that rock.”
Their language was different than in the scrolls, and Gabrielle realized they must have grown more used to speaking the common tongue of Greece. “How did you get in there?” She asked.
For a long moment, the Viking didn’t answer. Ardwyn put her arm around her shoulders. “Cariad, was a hard time, I know it.”
“No one knows it.” The Viking responded gruffly. “You were not there.”
“Na, but here I was.” Ardwyn said. “Never knowing.”
“Yah.” Elevown looked away.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged looks. “I think this is your area.” Xena uttered, a little surprised when Gabrielle shook her head. “Gab?”
“This is one of those times your ‘it’s over, deal with it’ thing is more appropriate, sweetheart.” The bard whispered back at her. “Honest.”
Xena doubtfully turned to regard the two ghosts, giving Gabrielle one last look in question. The bard pointed surreptitiously at their counterparts, so the warrior shrugged, and cleared her throat. “Hey.”
Both looked at her.
“Listen.” Xena said. “I didn’t risk my life and hers to get you out of that damn place so you could fight. Got it?” She said sternly. “It doesn’t make a jack’s ass worth of difference who did what. It’s over.”
Elevown stared at her.
“She’s right.” Gabrielle added quietly. “You’ve both been in a very bad place for a long time. Now you’re not. The joy of that’s more important than the blame.”
Ardwyn smiled sadly. “Know you much, for mortals.” She said, taking Elevown’s hand in her own. “So long it’s been since my heart has been but a dead thing, hard it is to wake to.”
“Yah.” The Viking grunted assent. “Mad I was for all time.” She added, looking back up at Xena and Gabrielle with a less icy expression. “They came for us always.”
“The forest dwellers?” The bard asked.
“So you call them.” Elevown said, with a snarl. “Animals I call them. Beasts of the earth.” She muttered. “We did na to stir them. Just lived. Just came to the cave, took our food from the ground. Nothing.”
“But you were different than they were.” Gabrielle sighed.
“Thank Odin.” The Viking said. “Came a time I’d eaten my fill of it.”
“I wanted to go to a new place.” Ardwyn murmured. “Leave them, leave this.”
“Twas ours!” Elevown said, in a fierce tone. “Let them have it? No! Not I.” Her eyes slid to Xena’s face. “None take what is mine.” She found unexpected sympathy in the mortal, blue eyes looking back at her, and a sense of understanding.
“Twas nothing. I cared for not but you.” The dark haired ghost replied.
“Mad I was.” The Viking repeated. “I went for them, and let the madness take me.”
Ah. So that’s what Ardwyn had meant, about Elevown going into the darkness. Gabrielle blinked at them, feeling a little surprised.
“Death called me.” Elevown stated. “I came to it, and killed them till the rock was black with their blood.” She lifted her eyes to Gabrielle in near defiance. “It was good.”
“Afraid I was.” Ardwyn murmured. “Twas a night that never ended.”
The Viking looked at her, and the pale eyes softened. “Ah, Ardy.” She lifted an almost transparent hand, and touched the dark haired woman’s cheek.
Gabrielle watched them, so familiar with love she knew when she was truly looking at it. She leaned over a little and rested her cheek against Xena’s shoulder. “How did they catch you?”
Elevown frowned. “The curse of Loki. Tricked me. An arrow, here!” She touched a spot on her throat. “Fell, I did, and never moved again.”
“It killed you?” Gabrielle blurted.
But the Viking shook her head slowly. “Nah.” She faded out a little, then solidified again. “They took me.”
Ardwyn inhaled sharply, soundless, but the motion was there. “Cariad, no.”
“Yah.” Elevown seemed sad. “Twas late for understanding of you, Ardy.”
Xena’s hands twitched. Gabrielle took the nearer one into hers and chafed it, clasping the fingers and lifting it to her lips.
“The gods showed me a path out of that dead place.” Elevown finally said. “Loki’s trick again. Heard him laugh.” A short puff of bitter humor. “No life. No death. Just a forever watching those animals come and go.”
“Oh, wow.” Gabrielle murmured. “I’m sorry.”
“They worshipped you.” Xena remarked, in an ironic tone. “They thought you were giving them the guidance to go back to their roots.”
Elevown stared at her. “You lie.”
“Sometimes.” The warrior agreed. “But not about this.”
They all fell silent, separating for a moment into their own thoughts. Then Elevown slowly drifted up and came nearer to where Xena and Gabrielle were sitting, floating at head level and regarding them seriously. She extended one nearly transparent arm out towards the warrior, palm up.
Without hesitation, Xena covered it with her own, and they clasped wrists.
“There is a chair at Odin’s table for you in Valhalla.” Elevown said.
It was a compliment, and Xena knew it. “Thanks.” She released the ghost, and watched as she turned to Gabrielle. The bard also solemnly clasped the Viking’s extended hand.
“In my moment of freedom, again the madness took me.” Elevown said. “You turned that madness and sent me home.”
Gabrielle met her eyes with gentle compassion. “I know what it feels like to come home. I’m glad we could help.”
Elevown released her and drifted back, taking Ardwyn’s hand as she floated up to meet her. Together they gazed across the small cavern at their two mortal visitors and smiled. “May the Blessed ones look to you.” Ardwyn said.
“Thanks.” Gabrielle replied. “You too.”
Elevown’s lips quirked. “Glory and battle to you, Brightsword.”
“Have fun.” Xena replied, with a half grin of her own.
The two of them waved, then slowly, gently faded away until only a the hint of a wisp of fog gave away where they’d been.
Xena and Gabrielle stood with their arms around each other for several minutes, in silence.
“Mmm..” The bard sighed happily. “Now that’s my kind of story ending.”
Xena hugged her tightly and made a low noise of agreement deep in her throat. “Except for one thing.”
“You’re not getting out of your birthday party.”
“Especially after calling me a cream puff.”
Laughing, they turned and left the cavern, feeling the joy behind them like sunshine at their backs.
Xena strolled through the village, nodding her head in acknowledgment at the quiet greetings she received. In the center of the square, a huge fire was being stoked, and several large carcasses were already roasting. The scent of the meat brushed across her face, and she was mildly embarrassed to find her mouth watering from it.
As she walked past the fire, her eyes fell unexpectedly on Tucker, who was carrying wood towards the fire pit.
He spotted her at the same time, and they both paused and looked at each other.
Slowly, he knelt and put the wood down, and then he walked over to her, coming within arms reach and stopping. “They say you killed Rufus.”
“That’s right.” Xena agreed.
The young forest dweller seemed to have aged over the past few days. His air of brash arrogance had evaporated, and he seemed more lost, and tired than anything. “Does it make you happy?”
The warrior considered the question. “That he won’t hurt anyone else? Yeah.” She nodded. “It makes me happy to know he won’t be attacking the village again, or trying to kill people.”
“No… I meant, did you enjoy killing him?” Tucker persisted, in a quiet voice.
Xena looked at him. “I enjoyed defeating him.” She replied honestly. “I was too busy worrying about my partner and daughter surviving to care about killing him.”
Tucker nodded. He was silent for a moment. “My cousin was trapped in the cavern with you.”
Xena’s eyebrows lifted in surprise.
With a shake of his head, Tucker turned and walked away, leaving her behind and not looking back once until he disappeared behind the half rebuilt stable.
The warrior continued on her way, walking around the firepit and finding herself distracted again by a small commotion on the other side. Curiously, she approached the group of forest dwellers, all clustered around boxes and hand made crates standing near the one wagon that remained.
“Is it even worth it?” One of the men closest to her said. “We’ve barely got enough to trade for winter salt.”
Xena let her hand rest on a box, and waited as her presence was noted. “What’s the problem?”
There was an awkward moment, as the mixture of forest dwellers exchanged glances and searched for someone to be a spokesman for them.
“It’s trade.” Cessi finally said, pushing between two taller men. “Most of our trade goods were destroyed. This is all that’s left.”
It was a pitifully small group of barrels and boxes. “What’s in it” Xena finally asked.
No one answered for a few long heartbeats, and then finally Cessi shook her head and pulled a box open. “See for yourself.”
Gabrielle was sitting in front of their cottage, her arms wrapped around Dori as she quietly watched the sun start to go down. She had her cloak on, since the wind had chilled down again, and she was listening to Dori relate her day’s adventures. “How many bugs did you find, Dor?”
“Lots.” Dori told her with childish satisfaction. “Gots lots a bugs, Mama, but Yamma made a big boom, and they all got away.”
“A big boom, huh?” Gabrielle bounced her daughter on her knee just a little. “Why did she do that?”
Dori blinked big, innocent eyes at her. “Dunno.”
“Mmmhmm…” The bard riffled her fingers through her child’s thick hair, which was windblown and shaggy. “You didn’t scare our friend Wennid with your bugs, did you?” She asked. “You know some of our friends don’t like bugs, honey.”
“Bugs.” Dori agreed, placidly. “Big red ones, Mama. Pretty! I showed Yamma, and the big, big one went an played, but Yamma made a boom, and it ran away!” The child pouted. “Wanted to show you.” She leaned against Gabrielle’s chest and played with the catch of her cloak. “H’come nobody likes bugs?”
“Well, it’s not that everybody doesn’t like them, sweetie, it’s just that most people like to look at bugs..um..well, from far away.” Gabrielle explained. “Not touch them or pick them up like you do.”
Interesting question. Gabrielle admitted she had no particular love of bugs, and aside from the odd firefly or ladybug, stayed as far away from them as she could get. “Did you know mama was bitten by a bug once?”
Gabrielle settled Dori into her lap and put her arms around her. “That’s right. Mama got bitten by a big black bug, and got really sick.” She told her. “The bug made a big owie, and that hurt for a very long time.”
“Oh! Bad bug!” Dori warbled.
“Yeah, so Mama doesn’t really like bugs too much, honey. Little ones are okay, and just looking at them is okay, but I don’t like to pick them up like you do.”
Dori stuck her thumb into her mouth and thought hard about that. Gabrielle used the silence to simply enjoy the sunset. Then her eyes drifted over to a thick patch of green dappled shadow where the path from the woods came close to their cottage.
She could already sense the presence headed her way, and as she watched the space, the thick shadows slowly resolved into a smoothly gliding figure that stepped out from between the trees.
Xena grinned when she spotted her welcoming committee and broke into a jog, tucking a package wrapped in cloth under her arm. “Well, well.What have we here?”
“Boo!” Dori scrambled off her mother’s lap and bolted for the warrior, opening her arms wide and closing them around Xena’s leg when she reached her side. “Booboobooboobooboo…..”
“Hey shortie.” Xena reached down and scooped her up, carrying her under one arm as she joined Gabrielle on the front step of the cottage. “You keeping an eye on your mama for me?”
Both of the bard’s fair eyebrows shot up. “Excuse me?” She glanced at the warrior’s burden. “What’s that?”
Xena neatly lowered herself to the step, settling Dori on her lap while she put the package on her other knee. “This?” She indicated the bundle.
“Well, I know what the other thing you’re holding is, so yeah.” Gabrielle studied her partner’s face, which was relaxed, and lit from within by good natured mischief. The high spirits lit a warm spot inside her, and she found herself responding to them with a sense of giddiness. “Whatcha got?”
“Presents for my family.” Xena admitted readily. “The village was salvaging what they had left to take to Cirron to market.” She undid the bundle and laid it open. Inside were beautifully made hide overshirts, with a delicate fur lining.
“Oh. Wow.” Gabrielle laid her hand on the top one, feeling the softness of it. “They’re gorgeous.” She lifted the shirt up, and spotted the small one underneath it. “Look, Dori. Boo got you a present!’
“Pesant?” Dori peered into the bundle with interest. “Dere?”
Xena picked up the tiny shirt and showed it to her. “Here.” She touched the carved bone button that held the neck closed. “See?”
Dori looked at her. “Cookie?”
“Dori!” Gabrielle gave her a pat on the leg. “What did I teach you to say when someone gives you a present, you bandit baby?”
Xena just laughed.
“Dankoo, Boo.” Dori drummed her boots on her parent’s leg. “C’n we go get cookies now?”
“Bandit. Tch.” The bard stood up and shucked off her cloak, then slid her new shirt over her head and let it settle over her body. It was large enough to go on easily over her shirt and leggings, and it fell to her mid thigh for protection. Around the waist, there were ties to draw it in, and she tugged them, grinning as the growing chill in the air was easily blocked out. “Oh, I really like this.” She touched the dyed pelt, a rich indigo with contrasting pale blue stitching.
“Good.” Xena said. “You look great in it.” She added. “I figured we’d hit some bad weather, snow probably, before we get home. Besides, they’re pretty.”
“Pitty.” Dori now took an interest in her shirt. “Boo, gimme.”
Xena obligingly worked the new garment around the toddler’s body, the hide a lighter, softer type that conformed to Dori’s form. The color was the same as the one she’d gotten for Gabrielle, but the stitching was butter gold instead of blue. “There.”
“Mm.” Dori approved of her new shirt. “Like that. Love you, Boo.”
“Where’s yours?” Gabrielle asked. “Xena, who has spent the last two weeks sick?” She leaned over and gave her partner a kiss “Who I love more than I have words to describe it?”
“Not finished.” Xena’s reply was surprising. “Ready to go to the party?”
“Potty?” Dori’s ears perked up. “Cookies?”
“More than ready. I’m starving.” Gabrielle announced. “I can smell that roast from here.” She held a hand out to the still seated warrior. “C”mon. If I have to have a birthday party, I might as well enjoy it.”
Xena allowed herself to be pulled upright. She lifted Dori up and put her on her shoulders, then turned, pausing as the setting sun painted them, and the cottage with a rich, golden light. “Gabrielle?”
“Yeees?” The bard produced a reasonable facimile of Xena’s usual answer.
The warrior turned, putting a hand on her partner’s shoulder. “Is there anything you… um.. want, for your birthday?”
Gabrielle’s lips quirked a little, then relaxed into a smile. “You know, no one’s ever asked me that before.” She clasped Dori’s foot in one hand, and let her other settle on Xena’s forearm. “What in the world could I possibly ask for that could beat what I already have?”
The warrior’s eyes twinkled in response with a quiet, understated joy that required no words to go along with it.
“But thank you for the shirt.” The bard added, lightening the moment. “You can get me this kind of stuff any time you want.” Her eyes lifted to Dori’s form, perched on Xena’s shoulders. “And I know Dori’ll appreciate hers a little more when she gets older.”
Dori looked up from where she was playing with the little bone button on her sleeve, designed to hold it close to her wrist to keep the wind out. “Pitty!” She held it up to show her mother. “Gogo!”
Gabrielle looked closer. The button was, indeed, carved into the shape of a horse’s head. She lifted her own sleeve and examined it, finding identical carvings there. “You’re right, that is pretty, sweetie.” She slipped her arm around Xena as they started walking.
The sunset lit the path before them, painting the village in brilliant colors. They angled their steps across the great square, returning the greetings of the cooks around the firepit as they neared the big meeting hall.
“Sure is nicer here now.” Gabrielle commented wryly. “Was it just Rufus’ ideas, or do you think Elevown was affecting them, even out here?”
Xena booted a rock ahead of her with a rhythmic motion. “Couple things.” She replied after a few kicks. “Kids were restless, Rufus picked a good time, and maybe a little of what you said.” Her eyes flicked around them out of long habit, but found nothing out of place.
“You know what? I think a lot of them knew who attacked them.” The bard said. “They just didn’t want to admit it because if they did, they’d have to do something about him.”
“I think they were scared because of what happened to Lestan. That showed those guys were willing to hurt people. The people here… they came back because they didn’t want change, and they didn’t want conflict.”
“I think we really put them on the spot, because the older ones, they know us, and we represent a total contradiction to everything Rufus was saying, but if they started saying that, they put themselves sin danger.”
“You’ve already figured all this out, haven’t you??”
The sunset outlined Xena’s profile, and the smile that appeared across her face. “Yeah, but I like the way you lay it out better. My thoughts went along the lines of ‘they all needed their asses kicked.’”
Gabrielle laughed under her breath, and set her thoughts aside for later as they walked up the steps to the meeting hall, and through the propped open doors.
The hall was full. The tables had chairs squeezed in everywhere, and Gabrielle and Xena had to pause a moment before they spotted Jessan, and were waved over to the table near the front where places were being saved for them.
Xena took the seat closest to the wall, and cradled Dori in her lap as Gabrielle sat down next to her, across from Jessan and Wennid. The room was noisy, and full of the scents of both roasting food and a rich ale. No sooner had they sat down then one of the halls servers appeared with a tray of mugs, offering it to them with a fanged grin.
“Thanks.” Xena took two mugs in one hand and set them down. “Got any cider?” She indicated Dori. “Hasn’t started on the hard stuff yet.”
Dori grabbed for the mug handle, and started tugging it towards her.
“Sure about that, Chosen?” The server laughed, as the warrior deftly saved the mug and swung it out of her daughter’s reach. “Be right back.”
“Boo!” Dori yodeled in outrage, getting up to stand on the warrior’s lap and reaching for the mug again. “Gots!”
“No, no no.” Xena scolded her. “You don’t like this, so siddown, shortie.”
Wennid leaned closer to Gabrielle. “She’s really adorable, Gabrielle. Just so.. um..”
“Active?” Gabrielle reached over and took Dori into her own lap. “C’mere, bandit. Stop terrorizing everyone.” She arranged her daughter on her lap and took a sip of her own ale. “Sorry about the bugs, by the way.”
Wennid chuckled. “How did you know? She told you?”
“She most certainly did.” The bard bounced Dori on her knee. “She loves telling me stories about all the terrible things she does.”
Dori giggled and patted her hands together.
“Like mother like child.” Jessan commented, with a grin. “By the time she grows up, she’ll have such a collection of tales she’ll be able to walk from one end of the world to the other and never repeat em.”
Xena leaned back in her oversized chair and took a sip of her ale, watching as the servers started moving among the overcrowded tables and delivering platters of steaming meat, grains, and bowls of soup with loaves of hot bread. “So, what’s your plan?” She asked Jessan. “Staying here?”
The big forest dweller hesitated, then shook his shaggy head once. “Going to try and convince them to come back with me.” He said, glancing over at his mother’s heavy sigh. “Yeah, I know – uphill battle.” He said apologetically. “But we’ve made a good place in the new valley. Give it a chance.” His eyes shifted back to Xena. “What about you? Gonna keep wandering?”
“No.” The warrior swirled her cup and took another swallow. “Going home.”
Jessan’s attitude perked up. “Want to travel together?”
Xena’s eyebrows arched. “Think we need protection?” She asked.
“No, but we could use some.” He shot right back, deadpan. “It can be dangerous out there, y’know.”
The table erupted in chuckles. Xena lifted her mug and toasted Jessan. Then her nape hairs lifted, and she slowly put the mug down, stiffening and turning her head to search the room.
Gabrielle caught the motion instantly, and tucked an arm around Dori to keep her still. “What is it?” She uttered, under her breath.
“Unwelcome visitor.” Xena muttered back, just as the center of the hall, the only clear space in it, was filled with a blue fire that resolved itself in an instant into a tall, bearded figure in black leather.
The entire room went silent in shock, as everyone froze.
Ares dusted his hands off and put his fists on his hips, looking around with an expression of wry bemusement. “Thought I heard my name being tossed around this place.” His pale eyes raked the tables full of forest dwellers. “Well?” He lifted his hands. “Here I am. You gonna bow? Scrape? Roll over and kick your hind legs out? What?”
Slowly, the occupants of the room got out of their chairs and knelt, their golden eyes round and fixed on the god in the center of the hall. After a second, as if by common consent, they all bowed forward and touched their heads to the ground.
“Eh.” Ares waggled his hand, then glanced across the room to the one table still seated. His eyes met Xena’s and a smile shaped his bearded lips. “Hello, beautiful.”
With the tiniest shake of her head, and an even smaller tensing of her lips, Xena lifted her mug and tipped it towards him. Despite how they’d left each other in Athens, she felt a tiny fragment of her almost glad to see him again.
Ares walked through the crowd, ignoring the bowing forest dwellers completely as he walked to the table and put his boot up on the chair next to Xena, leaning his elbow on his knee and regarding her. “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a kennel like this?”
“Nasty way to greet your worshippers, Ares.” Xena responded mildly. “Be nice.”
The crowd started to straighten uncertainly, heads turning to watch in silence.
“Never.” The god of war grinned unrepentantly. “Not my style. Or yours… hey.” Ares looked down to find Dori tugging at his leather surcoat. “Let go of me, you rugrat.” He lifted a threatening hand, then jerked as Dori scowled at him and smacked his leg. “Hey!”
“Dori.” Gabrielle pulled her precocious toddler back and secured her. “Stop that.. you’re hurting the poor guy.”
Xena smirked. “What brings you here, Ares? Passing through on your way to Sparta?”
The God of War tugged his surcoat straight again and snapped his fingers. A piece of parchment appeared. “Remember that little.. disagreement.. we had in Athens?” He asked. “You tried so hard to mess me up Xena… just wanted to tell you no hard feelings.”
“Uh huh.” The warrior took the parchment from his fingers. “So what’s the scam this time?” She glanced the words, then looked up at him. “Where’d you get this?”
“Tch tch tch. Xena.” Ares chucked her under the chin. “I’m a god, remember? I tell mortals what to do, they do it. That’s how that works.” His lips quirked as he looked at her. “With a few exceptions.”
The warrior flicked her eyes to the parchment, then slowly, she raised them to his again. “Thanks.”
He smirked. “Call it even for you winning my bet for me.” He reached out again and ruffled her hair, letting his fingers rest still for a bare moment.
Xnea’s eyes blinked.
Gabrielle only just kept herself from pulling the parchment out of Xena’s hands in curiosity, wrapping her arms around Dori to hold her in place and glancing around at the room instead. The forest dwellers were in utter shock, still as statues with their eyes glued to Ares’ tall form.
That he was up to something again – she had no doubt. They would find out eventually what.
Ares turned towards Gabrielle. His pale eyes met hers, and almost twinkled. “I hear it’s your birthday, bl… Gabrielle.”
Xena’s eyebrows shot up.
“That’s right.” The bard answered, one of her own eyebrows lifting at actually being addressed by name.
“You forgot this.” Ares snapped his fingers again, and lowered his hand, which now dripped with golden chains. He dropped the item on the table before Gabrielle and grinned at her reaction. “I know you two are into that noble poverty thing, but you don’t need to get stupid about it.”
“Mama, pitty.” Dori examined the gaudy thing, a handsome linked gold and silver plated necklace with her mother’s earned title from Athens on it.
“Thanks.” Gabrielle murmured. “We sort of left in a rush.”
“All right. Nice stuff’s over. Time to go find some bloodshed.” Ares looked around at the crowd. “Who told you to get up?”
They all bowed hastily back down and touched the floor.
With a slight chuckle, Ares shook his head. Then he regarded Xena with a touch more seriousness. “We need to stop being on opposite sides, Xena.”
The warrior met his gaze squarely. “C’mon over to my side then, Ares. Weather’s great here.”
The god of war snorted, and rolled his eyes. “Xena, Xena, Xena.” He sighed melodramatically. “Well, I’m outta here.” He stood and lifted a hand to snap, then paused, studying Gabrielle for a moment. “Y’know what?”
“What?” Gabrielle asked, warily.
Ares pointed at her. “You’re growing on me.” He stepped forward, ducking his head and giving her a kiss on the forehead. “Happy Birthday.” His low voice almost whispered in her ear.
Then in a flash of blue, he was gone, leaving behind the scent of leather and musk.
Gabrielle’s jaw dropped and she stared at her partner in shock. Xena’s own eyes were rather wider and rounder than usual, and she blinked several times before she cleared her throat and spoke to the still bowing crowd. “You can get up now. He’s gone.”
With a hesitant rustling, the forest dwellers straightened up, looking cautiously around before focusing their gazes on Xena and Gabrielle.
There was a moment of profound silence. Then Tucker sighed audibly. “You really are his Chosen.”
Xena studied the opposite wall briefly, then she nodded. “Yes, I am.” Her eyes met Gabrielle’s, and they looked at each other as the room slowly started to stir, bodies settling back in seats and whispered conversations rising up.
“What.. was that?” Gabrielle leaned closer.
The warrior shrugged and shook her head. “Can I see your necklace?”
“Sure, if I can see the parchment.”
They traded. Gabrielle read for a minute, then whistled. “Tax remission, and exemption from conscription in perpetuity. Nice.”
“Mm.” Xena admired the golden collar Gabrielle had earned. “Nice.”
Jessan cleared his throat. “I think you just made my convincing job a lot easier.” He patted Xena’s shoulder. “I’m gonna go calm people down before they start shedding fur all over the room and ruin dinner.”
“Me too.” Wennid got up and joined her son. “Lestan’s going to be so mad he missed it.”
Xena waited for them to leave, then she put her hand on Gabrielle’s wrist. “You all right?”
The bard released a held breath. “Yeah.” She said. “That was just so unexpected.” She reviewed the event. “But sorta nice.”
“Mm.” Xena ran her fingers through her hair, disordered by Ares’ touch. “Yeah. For a change.”
Gabrielle picked up her mug, and held it out. “Well, anyway. Here’s to a peaceful trip home.”
“You’re on.” Xena touched her mug to the bard’s without hesitation. “Here’s to us.”
They linked arms, and leaned towards each other, drinking from the other’s cup and then kissing lightly.
“Gush.” Dori sighed. “Gush, gush gush.”
Xena and Gabrielle looked at her, then chuckled. Gabrielle got up, with Dori in her arms and found herself pulled down into Xena’s lap. The warrior wrapped her arms around both of them and leaned back in the chair, watching the last rays of sun pour through the windows to dust them with crimson warmth.
The day that had seen the completion of a journey far older than theirs was coming to an end. Xena looked into the sunset and found something she had very scant experience of nestling inside her.
Peace. Today, she’d done good.
“Hey, Xe?” Gabrielle leaned back and rested her head against the warrior’s collarbone. “Let’s talk to Wennid later, okay?”
“Sure.” The warrior agreed. “About what?”
“Children of the spirit.” The bard said. “Long as you feel up to it, that is.”
“Oh, yeah.” Xena let a soft laugh escape. “I’m up to it.”
“Gush!” Dori kicked her bootie covered feet out. “Gush gush gush!”
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