Dawn broke. The light filtered in through the painted wood shutters and threw gold and pink bars across the round bed. Xena watched them edge forward, her eyes shifting to Lestans face as he lay nestled in Wennids arms.
Against the odds, he was still with them.
Xena smiled faintly, and shifted her body, cramped from the long nights watch. Gabrielle was curled up against her asleep, with Dori likewise in her arms, and she didnt really want to move enough to wake them. She swiveled her head instead, and looked around the room. The atmosphere had lost its air of tense, waiting grief, and most of the waiting forest dwellers had dozed off. She could see furry bodies in the room beyond as well, and wondered briefly what this new day would bring them.
At least it wasnt raining any more. Xena wiggled her nose, twitching a little at the pervasive scent of damp fur and damp wool from the previous days weather. She tucked her cloak a little more closely around Gabrielle, and moved a bit of her hair off her face. In her sleep, Gabrielle seemed to sense the touch she nestled a little closer, and a smile twitched at the corner of her mouth. Xena smiled back, and wasnt terribly surprised when the bards pale lashes flickered open.
First, the green eyes went to her face, reading it. Then they shifted to the bed.
Same. Xena murmured.
Mm. Gabrielle shifted and straightened. Thats good, right? She murmured back.
Given what might have been? Yes. Xena confirmed. Shed changed Lestans dressings twice more, most recently only a candlemark ago and each time there had been less foul matter to remove. It was touch and go, but she knew in her heart shed given him the best chance she could. What happened next was up to him.
Gabrielle gave her a pat on the belly, and smiled at her. I liked what you said to him last night. She said. I really did. I liked that you reminded him of how powerful wanting something can be.
I dont know if it made a difference.
The bard turned to look at the two forest dwellers, then back at her partner. Do you really believe that?
Too soon to tell, my bard. Xena brushed her lips across her partners head. Think wed better get ourselves a spot to change, and get Dori fed and taken care of. She eased herself to her feet, and took hold of Gabrielles shoulders as she struggled to stand with Dori in her arms. Getting too big for you.
Ugh. Gabrielle cradled her daughter, who woke and peered up at her sleepily. Hey there, Doriboo. She rocked Dori as she followed Xena out of the room, stepping carefully around the sleeping forest dwellers.
They were met at the door by Cessi, and led outside. The elder soulbond gave them a tired smile, as she reached out to tweak Doris foot. We have a home for you. She told them. Ill take you there. It is quiet, this morning.
Thanks. Gabrielle still felt tired, though shed gotten some sleep. I know its really tough right now, but Ive got a good feeling about them. She shifted Dori, who was rubbing her eyes with one small fist. I really do.
Cessi glanced behind them. Its in the gods hands. She said. But maybe they will be kinder to us, this time. She put a hand on Gabrielles shoulder. Come. I think this little ones hungry.
Can you really tell that? Gabrielle asked curiously.
Cessi chuckled as she led the way down the steps. Not really, no, not with your kind, but I remember when you stayed with us, Gabrielle, and
Xena snickered. Good guess. She arched her back, glad to be out in the slowly growing sunshine. Like mama, like oof. Xena caught the hand that had just smacked her in the stomach. Here, let me carry her. She took Dori from Gabrielles arms and set her on her shoulders. Hows that, better view, Dori?
Good! Dori thumped her heels against Xenas chest happily.
Whats really going on, Cessi? Gabrielle asked. Tucker said youd been attacked?
The elder shook her head. Its a bad thing. She sighed. We thought things were getting better. After we won the battle with Secan.. after you beat him, Xena, things settled down in these parts. The tribes didnt go to war that often, and when they did well, it was more like testing.. sparring.. than anything else.
Jessan said that. Gabrielle agreed. It sounded good.
It was. Cessi nodded. Thats why some of us decided to come back here, after the big war. She said. The elders, like me.. .that valley was beautiful, but this is home.
The bards lips tensed a little, into a partial smile. I know what you mean.
They crossed the battered central square. Gabrielles eyes took in the damage, narrowing a bit in a wince as she passed. This is awful.
Cessi followed her gaze. Aye, but it can all be rebuilt. She paused, and looked past the destruction, towards the newly dug pit. The dead ones cannot be. With a shake of her head, she beckoned them forward, down a small, leafy path that sloped downhill.
Boo whassat? Dori pointed at something as they walked in pensive silence.
Xena lifted her head and peered into the leaves. Bug.
No bug. Xena edged further away from the colorful beetle.
Aware of the listening forest dweller, Xena considered her response. Itll bite you.
Yes, it will. Itll bite you, and that hurts. Xena insisted.
Gabrielle bit her lip to keep from laughing. Xena spoke Doris name like that, all deep and growly, exactly like she had once pronounced Gabrielles own, in not quite similar circumstances.
Shes a cutie. Cessi murmured.
Who, Xena? Well, I think so. Gabrielles eyes twinkled. Doris not bad either. She slowed up as they reached the small, round hut she remembered from her last visit. Wow feels like its been forever since weve been here.
Cessi courteously held the door open for them. Much water has traveled under the bridge since then, I think. She said. For all of us.
Isnt that the truth? Gabrielle entered and unslung the bag from her shoulder, letting it drop lightly on the floor. The hut had only two chambers, the front which held a comfortable padded couch and a small fire, and the back, which had one of the big round beds the forest dwellers used. It was decorated in cool colors, and as she had the last time, the bard felt both at home, and at peace in it.
Rest. Cessi told them. I know the elders wish to council with you, Xena. We were fortunate in that Rufus has taken a hunting party out into the hills, and will not return for a few days.
Hunting party? With Lestan like that? Gabrielles voice lifted in outrage.
He is not as we are, little sister. Cessi told her quietly. And, in my heart, I believe seeing us as we are discomfits him.
Xena snorted. She managed to encapsulate disgust, disdain, and condescension into the single sound. All right, Dori, lets get you changed.
You mean hes like Secan was? Gabrielle asked. He doesnt like the idea of soulbonds?
Cessi perched on the corner of the thick, sturdy table near one window. No, I dont think its that. Secan he just saw no use for it. He thought the bond weakened us. Rufus is different he has great respect for the people, and our traditions, but he had a bad experience as a younger and it has made him not trust the bond, I think.
Hm. Gabrielle folded her arms over her chest, listening with one half ear to the sounds of Xena getting their child settled. Doris querulous pouting had morphed to delighted laughter. Tucker said he wanted to take over, though. Is that true?
It is. Cessi said. He was horrified that the raiders destroyed the village, and he thinks its his responsibility to make sure that never happens again. He lost a sister in the attack.
Ah. Gabrielle exhaled. If it was one thing shed learned the hard way over the years, it was that there was very seldom only one side to a story. Is he that bad a choice then? She asked. Defending yourself is usually a pretty good idea.
Cessi had to think about that for a minute.
Gabrielle lowered her voice, since her partner was in the other room. When Xena first went home to Amphipolis a couple of years ago She paused. Had it really been that long? Her home was in pretty bad shape. Things were down, food was short Xena turned it around and made a difference. She taught the village to take care of itself.
The elder soulbond scratched her jaw. Rufus is very young. She mused. Xena brought, to her people, the experience of a lifetime and the wisdom to guide them that they respected.
True. Gabrielle had to agree. But she also had to overcome a very violent history with them.
What we fear.. Cessi went on. Is that his judgement is clouded by youth, and by haste, and by grief. She said. He has no patience. She got up off the table. Perhaps in time, he would not be a bad choice, but as I am what I am, and there are so many of us who are as we are having one such who doesnt share our trust in our bond I dont know that I would like him to lead us.
Gabrielle watched the older forest dweller leave. Well. She turned to find Xena seated on the couch, with Dori and a handful of trail bars. Looks like
Things are more complicated than we thought? Xena inquired dryly. Im just as glad to defer messing with Rufus. Lestan comes first. If that kid comes back and starts making trouble, Ill just kick his butt right out of here again.
Bap! Dori clutched at a trail bar. Boo, hungry!
Sorry, munchkin. Xena unwrapped a bar and handed it to her.
Gabrielle walked over and sat down next to her partner on the couch. She patted its cover, well woven but worn by the years and smiled. Im glad were here. She accepted the half bar Xena split with her and put an end in her mouth. I really am.
Xena rubbed a bit of blood stain off the back of her hand. Me too. She let her head rest against the back of the couch. I cant believe their healers didnt do what I did last night, though. What the Hades were they thinking?
Here, honey. Gabrielle took another bar and portioned it, giving part to Dori. What do you mean, Xe?
The warrior lifted her hands and let them fall to her thighs. Gabrielle, Im a good healer. I know it, you know it but I didnt do anything any healer wouldnt have.. *shouldnt* have. Her voice was perplexed. It was basic.
Gabrielle frowned. Okay.. maybe it wasnt what you did, Xe. Maybe it was what you said. Maybe that was the difference.
Xena spread one arm out along the back of the couch, her fingers idly playing with a bit of Gabrielles pale hair. I dont know. She looked around the room, dismissing the quandary for the moment. Im just glad Im the healer, not the healee this time.
Gabrielle smiled. So am I. She freed a hand from Doris clutches to stroke Xenas knee. Hows that feeling? I thought the weather was getting to you a little yesterday.
No, its fine. Xena replied absently.
The bard let her hand rest on the joint, feeling the very subtle motion under her fingertips as the warmth of her touch penetrated. You know what Id like to do, once we get things settled here?
Visit the cave. Xena said without hesitation.
Tch. Can you read my mind? Gabrielle asked. Sometimes I think you can.
Xena put a piece of trail bar into her mouth. She chewed and swallowed before she answered. No. I just know you. Her voice warmed. Better than I know myself, sometimes.
Gabrielle watched the sunlight pour in the windows, a rich golden splash that ended up coloring her russet boots a fiery red. Having someone know you better than you knew yourself was, she reckoned, the heart of what it meant to be soulbound.
Someone who was afraid of that could they really govern those who werent? Gabrielle didnt think so. She understood Cessis objection, but.. she also wanted to understand what was behind the young challengers fierce intent.
Did he think you couldnt be strong, and also a soulmate? Gabrielles eyes fell on her partner, whose eyebrows were twitching up and down as she played a little game of pattycake with Dori. Guess they would have to find out.
Hopefully, Lestan and Wennid would be there to help.
Xena shut the woven door behind her and headed down the path, her hands twitching her cloak about her as she walked. Though the weather had cleared, it was growing cold, and under the leaves the chill was very evident.
After some breakfast, and a little playtime, Dori had been coaxed into a nap with her mother. Gabrielle had gotten very little sleep the night before, and though Xena could see her partner wanted to stick with her and make herself useful, her better sense won out.
Xena was glad of it. Shed tucked Gabrielle into the round bed with Dori, and set Ares on guard just in case. Then shed changed her travel and bloodstained clothing and ventured off to see what she could find out.
She hadnt gotten much sleep either, but after the strain of the long night, and the tasks she knew had to be accomplished, she knew falling asleep would have been difficult or impossible for her.
So here she was. Xena slowed her steps and started examining the damage. She flexed her shoulders idly, settling her armor over them and took a deep breath that strained against the well used brown leathers shed put on.
Two forest dwellers were working on repairing the well cover, which had been smashed by the attack. Xena watched them for a moment, then walked over and picked up the end of the log they were attempting to shift back into place.
Okay, okay.. wait.. hey! The larger of the two turned, and spotted their unlikely helper. Oh! Hey! Its Xena!
Thats right. Xena agreed amiably. You wanna get a move on before this thing puts me a foot deep in the mud? She lifted a booted foot up out of the squelching mire in demonstration.
Oh! Sorry. The forest dwellers picked up the other end and heaved it over the stone edifice, then let the end down. Okay.
Xena shoved the log into place, then dusted her hands off and examined the well. They pull this down?
Yeah. The big one sighed. Fangless sons of hum..uh..
Xena gave him a look. He shrugged sheepishly. Whats your name?
You? Xena looked at the smaller one, who had a soft golden fur that reminded her a little of Gabrielles thick hair.
They were young, Xena realized. Like the guards at the river. Tell me about the ones who did this. She hitched up her cloak and settled on the edge of the well, resting her hands on her knee.
The two of them exchanged looks. We dont know. Breck mumbled, looking more than a little mortified. We werent here. We were out hunting.
Daris nodded. All of us. All the guys our age, we were out with Rufus, up on the north slope.
Xenas dark head cocked to one side. Oh yeah? She mused. He in charge of you?
They exchanged looks again. Not exactly. Daris said. But he likes to take us out and talk to us teach us things. Hes a great hunter. He explained. So we were up there, and then we came down, in the morning, and we found His voice trailed out. Rufus kinda lost it.
Mm. Xena nodded. If Id been up hunting and come home to find Amphipolis like this, Ida lost it. She said. Because Id have felt guilty for not being here.
Yeah. Daris nodded. Hey, Xena?
We heard in the hall that you like, fixed Lestan. Is that true?
Not really. Xena folded her arms. I worked on him a good part of the night, but I think any chance he has is in his hands, not mine.
Wow. Daris murmured. They were pretty tanked last night. It was like a whole different village this morning.
Xena got up. Keep working. Theres a lot to do before this place gets back to where it was. She eased around the well and sauntered off, looking for a new subject to pin her attention to. Mention of the dining hall gave her an idea, and she headed in that direction.
She passed more destruction. Most of it senseless, she decided. Not meant to achieve anything, but instead to destroy the everyday things the village needed in order to survive. She pushed the door open and stepped inside, out of the cold wind into a warm, bright atmosphere full of the scent of cooking.
Not far different from her mothers inn, in fact, save this place was built to a bigger scale. Chairs were larger, the tables were higher.. the forest dwellers village was one of the few places Xena had ever been in that made her feel smaller than her actual inches.
At over six feet, she was taller than most, and being a warrior as she was, she was bigger than most in Amphipolis. But the forest dwellers were on average a foot taller than she was, and twice her weight. Perversely, Xena actually enjoyed being among them because of it.
One of the cooks looked up as she entered, and almost dropped a spoon into a pot. Xena!
Hello, Rese. Xena greeted the older woman. She took the extended arm and gripped it. Long time.
Too long, Chosen. The cook agreed. Its good to see you here, no matter. She glanced behind her at the other workers, who were gathering around curiously. They were all young, and not familiar to Xena. All right, you lot. This is Xena.
Xena found herself facing a lot of round, golden eyes. Hi.
Xenas a friend of ours. Rese smiled. An old friend.
One dark eyebrow rose.
Shes come here to help us. To help Lestan, and Wennid, and to protect us against the raiders. Rese told them confidently.
The round golden eyes grew rounder. But shes human! One of the young males blurted. He was hushed by one of his larger sisters. Rufus says.. A hand was clapped over his mouth unceremoniously.
Xena crossed over to him and removed the hand. Rufus says what? She asked, in a low rasp, pinning his eyes with her own. Something about me? Thatd be tough. Weve never met.
The forest dweller swallowed, caught in her thrall.
Xena leaned a little closer, exerting her considerable charisma. Make your own judgements. Dont let someone make em for you. She tapped his chest with two fingers, making him jerk backwards at the force. Got me?
His jaw worked a few times. Yes, maam. He stammered. I.. um
Xena growled at him.
The youngster snapped his jaw shut with a click. His flat, fur covered nostrils flared out.
If hed known Xena better, hed have recognized the twinkle in those very blue eyes. Still think I cant protect you? Xena drawled softly.
No, maam. He shook his head.
Good. Xena patted his cheek. She turned and faced Rese. I see they missed this place.
The head cook nodded. Go on, you lot. Back to work. She steered Xena towards a nearby table as the youngsters scattered. Were far enough back in the trees so that it wasnt easy to get to, like some of the homes. She sat down. Can I get you some bread? You had a long night, I heard.
Sure. Xena agreed.
Rese motioned to one of the kids, who quickly trotted over with a loaf of bread and a crock of something which smelled like it had honey in it. The cook broke the bread in half and handed one portion to Xena, taking the other for herself. She took a flat knife and spread some of the contents of the crock on the end of hers and took a bite. Tucker said the bonded are convinced you have a gods powers.
Xena paused in mid munch, then swallowed her mouthful. What? She snorted. Ive got nothing of the kind. All I did was what any skilled healer would have he did the rest, and whether its even going to help we dont know.
Rese shrugged. As I said, the bonded are convinced. They are not easy to convince, and once they have made up their minds, its like moving the river with a wash basin to change it.
Xena ripped off a piece of bread and toyed with it. I remember. She bit off a piece of the bread and chewed it. Took them a long time to accept Gabrielle and I.
Yes. Rese nodded. The fighters they always took to you. I remember hearing them talk of you even at the very first. But the others that was hard.
Well. Xena glanced up at the older woman, who had befriended her on her last visit. It took me a long time to accept it, so I cant really blame them. She dusted her fingers off. At any rate, I dont want anyone thinking Im something that Im not. She stood up. So let me go correct that impression.
Rese watched the tall human leave. She propped her chin up on her fist and shook her head.
But Rese.. One of the youngsters sidled over. If she healed Lestan, how can she say that?
Child. The elder looked up. Dont try to figure that one out. I doubt her soulbond even has.