One Wild Ride
by Melissa Good
A soft, cool wind blew over the grass, riffling it in gentlewaves on the slope leading down to the lake. Birds chirped in nearby trees, and a rabbit sat on a rocknear the water, scratching it’s ears with it’s long hind leg.
Nature, in all it’s peaceful glory.
The grass waved again, parting slightly near the base of atall tree, thin stalks of green and gold easing aside to reveal a pair ofsparkling blue human eyes, framedin a tanned, angular face with high cheekbones and a cap of midnight dark hair.
Well shaped lips tensed into a grin, as a target was spottedand marked. “Psst.”
After a moment, a tuft of grass next to it quivered,revealing a much smaller, much rounder face covered with smudges of dirt.
“Look.” Xena indicated a dark brown spot in the grass. “Overthere.”
“Whatssat?” Dori craned her neck to see. “Birdie?”
“C’n we play wif it?”
Xena pushed several stalks of tall grass aside and pointed.“See? It’s a Mama duck, and she’s got little babies.” She explained in awhisper. “And when that happens… hey! Dor!”
“Buppits!” Dori started to scramble forward. “Good goodgood.. no! Boo, leggo!”
“Shh. C’mere.” Xena tucked Dori under one arm. “Listen. Thatmama doesn’t want you messing with her kids, okay?”
“Buppits!! “Dori protested. “Let’s play with them, Boo!C’mon!”
“Shh.” Xena dropped back down into the grass. “We’re tryingto sneak up on em, Dor. Remember?” She patted the grass next to her. “Playingthe game, right?”
“Otay.” Dori hunkered back down in the grass. “Boo,
Xena took the stalk and put it in her mouth, chewing itseriously. “You’re making too much noise.” She warned her child. “The duck’s gonnarun away.”
“Okay, now watch. Do like I’m doing.” Xena started to crawl forward, flowing through thegrass like a large, leather clad snake. “C’mon.”
Dori hunkered down and crawled after her adored buddy,. “Booboo boo.”
Xena stopped and laid down on her stomach, waiting for Dori to catch up. “Now, see?” Shemoved some grass aside, to reveal the ducks at a much closer range. “There theyare.”
Dori studied the brown animal, with her cluster of yellowchicks. “Yeeee!!!’ She warbled,scrambling to her feet and bolting for the ducks. “Ayiii!!!!”
“Damn it.” Xena levitated from the grass and swooped afterher, as the duck reacted in alarm, spreading it’s wings and honking loudly.
“Buppits!” Dori lunged for the ducklings, who scattered
“Dori!” Xena spotted the mud slope too late, and she cursedas Dori’s tiny boots slipped out from under her and she landed on her butt andheaded lakeward. “Oh Hades.” The warrior exploded from the grass and got her feet under her, then started downthe slope with swift, powerful strides. “Dori!”
“Wheee!!” Dori waved her arms and forgot the ducks in thejoy of her new slide. “Go go go!!!!” She chanted, as she barreled towards thehigh bank of the river. “C’mon Boo!!!”
Xena raced towards her, then shifted her steps as sherealized she wasn’t going to reach the child in time to stop her fromcatapulting off the bank into the water. With a sigh, she increased her speed instead and leaped off the edge ,tumbling with expert precision in the air and grabbing Dori as she flew off theedge right into Xena’s arms.
“Whheee!!! Good!” Dori squealed in delight.
Oh yeah. Xena tucked and rolled in mid air, getting herknees under her as they both plunged into the river. We’re going to the fishes, all right.
The cold water closed over her, and she slowed her descent,kicking strongly for the surface as Dori wriggled in her grasp.
“Boo! Dat was fun!” Dori splashed the water with both hands.“We go again?”
“Glad you think so.” Xena said. “You scared the ducks away,Dor.”
“Dups?” Dori looked around, and spotted another bird. “Dere!”She pointed. “Boo, c’n we go getthat one?” She pleaded. “Pretty!”
“That’s aswan.” Xena started swimming for the bank, kicking against the powerfulcurrent. “Yeah, it is pretty,isn’t it?” She got to a half fallen log and held onto it with one hand, theother curling around Dori’s body. “Aren’t those pretty feathers? Mama has somelike that, doesn’t she?”
Dori pulled herself up on the log and studied the swan.“Yes.” She decided. “Pretty. Mama likes those.”
“Well, let’s see if we can find her one and bring it back.”Xena pulled them along the log to the shore and boosted first Dori, and thenherself up onto the rock ledge. She reviewed her now drenched leathers with a rueful look and decidednot to take her boots off to spare her feet the pebbles.
Dori rambled off immediately, searching among the grass forfeathers as Xena squeezed some of the cold river water out of her armor andwatched. “Find a nice one. Maybemama will make you a thing for your hair.”
Dori looked up at her with a puzzled expression. “Mama
Xena sighed. “Yeah, I heard that one the other day.”
Xena chuckled, shaking her head. “Your mama comes up with some crazy stories, Doriana.”
“Good stories.” Dori sat down and ripped up a handful ofriver grass. “No fezzers, Boo.”
“No, huh?” Xena got up and stamped her boots to knock someof the mud off them before she walked over to where Dori was sitting. “Well,that’s okay. Why don’t we go home and see if there are any around our house.”
“Otay.” Dori got up and reached forXena’s hand, catching it and holding it as they walked along the grass.
“That’s right.” Xena agreed. “It’s a festival. You know whatthat is?”
Dori pondered. “No.” She smiled at her buddy.
“There’ll becookies there, sure.” Xena agreed. “And lots of our friends are coming, too. Doyou like that?”
“No.” The toddler frowned. “Too many. Too loud.”
Xena gave her hand a squeeze. “It’s just for a little while,I promise. Do you like the new place we’re staying? You like it up here?”
They walked through a ring of trees and up a small slope,spotting a half built rooftop as they crested the rise.
With a giggle, Dori rambled off, heading for the building asher taller shadow followed behind, pausing a moment to view the new homestead.
It was definitely nicer up here. Xena nodded to herself. Here on the ridge above Amphipolis,she could hear the sounds of nature around them, and breathe air that wasrelatively clean. Very different than down in the town, which had grown to twiceit’s size during their absence.
Still a small town, sure, but so full of people that bothshe and Gabrielle had decided after a single day that they couldn’t live thereanymore. It was too loud, even inthe middle of the night there was so much noise it kept both Xena and Dori up,and small as Amphipolis still was, the crowd of people now living there wasjust..
It was too much.
So they’d given up their cabin near the inn, and they wereabout halfway through building themselves a new one up here where it wasquieter, and still a little wild. Xena took a deep breath, and headed for the door.
The town was close enough for them to visit every day, andDori still went down to play with her cousins and friends now that they wereback. But there was a separation , definitely, and not everyone was happy about it.
“Hey.” Gabrielle looked up from where she was lying flat onher back on the floor, with Dori sitting gleefully on top of her. “Good grief,Xena. What the Hades did you do?” She asked. “You’re both soaked!”
“Went swimming.” Xena started to strip off her armor, watching the two of themfrom the corner of her eye. Gabrielle was dressed in rough work clothes, whichwere mostly covered in bark stains and mud from her building work and herthick, blond hair was being held back off her face by a colorful strip ofcloth. “What have you been up since we’ve been gone?”
“Putting that wall up.” Gabrielle waggled a booted foot toher left. “Did I do a good job?”
Xena glanced that way. Strips of bark had been carefullytacked flat against the inside of the log walls, forming a sturdy surface.“Very.” She complimented her soulmate. “You go down the hill?”
“Mom stillticked off?”
Xena rolled her eyes. “You’d think I’d sold the old place tothe Furies the way she’s acting.” She muttered. “Stubborn old woman.” Shetoweled her bare body off, taking a seat on the bed to remove her boots.
Gabrielle amiably played a game of patty cake with Dori asshe perched there on top of her. “I think it was the inference that the town’stoo dirty and smelly to live in that pissed her off, Xe.” She remarked.
Gabrielle gave her partner a wry look. “Boo’s grumpy, Dori.Go make her a pretty picture to cheer her up, okay?”
“Otay.”Dori got up and headed for her toybox, one of the fewthings they’d moved up from the old cabin along with a chest of clothes and thebed. Gabrielle rolled onto herside, then got up and crossed over to where Xena was sitting. She picked up abit of linen and started drying the warrior’s head with it, ruffling her darkhair with deep and simple affection. “We knew it would be different when wecame back, this time.”
Gabrielle dried her partner’s well shaped ears. “And, Ithink they had every reason to suspect we might be different when we came back.We’ve been through a lot ourselves the last few months.” She reminded Xena. “Infact, I heard from a few people who didn’t think we were going to come back atall.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t have.” Xena said, laying down flat on her back on the bed.
“Hon, this is our home.” Gabrielle gently reminded her.
The warrior sighed. “I know.” She took hold of one of thebard’s hands and examined it. “I just don’t know that we fit here anymore. “She said. “I don’t know if I want to live in a city as big as this is getting.”
“Mama.” Dori held up something. “Look!”
“It’s a leaf, honey.” Gabrielle replied. “It came in from the roof. See up there?” Shepointed. “We’ve got sky in our roof right now.”
“Pretty!” Dori agreed. “Gots birds.”
“Give it a little while.” Gabrielle returned her attentionto her partner. “I like this spot up here. It’s quiet.”
“We can be by ourselves if we want. I can do my own cookingup here, and you can hunt.” The bard went on. “Give yourself some time to getused to it.. much as I loved being out in the wild, it wasn’t really good forDori.”
Xena studied the toddler. “She liked it.”
“She needs friends.” The bard reminded her partner. “I mean, people her own age for her toplay with. I know we’re her friends otherwise.”
“Mm.” Xena’s nose wrinkled a little. “Yeah, I know. You needsomeone else to talk to too.”
“No I don’t.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Xena, stop it. That’s not true and you know it.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s not so bad up here.” The warriorrelented. “At least I can hearmyself think, and we’ve got clean water, anyway.” She pulled Gabrielle’s handcloser and kissed the back of it. “And I don’t have to worry about peopleasking me what all that yelling’s about at night.”
“Ahem.” Gabrielle ‘s face colored. “I know you’re nottalking about me.”
The bard stuck her tongue out. “Pah.” She patted her nakedpartner on the belly. “C’mon. We’re expecting Amazon guests tonight and wecan’t get out of going down there for dinner.”
“Eh.” The warrior grunted. “Bring em up here. Eph and Ponyaren’t into big crowds any more than we are.”
“Tomorrow.” Gabrielle leaned over and gave her a quick kisson the lips. “Let’s go be social for one night, and get it over with.” Shepaused, gazing down into Xena’s eyes. “Besides, they’ll probably go to thevillage after that.”
Xena considered the request for a few minutes, then nodded.“All right.” She said. “You go onahead. I’ve got to put something dry on, and dig out my other boots.”
Gabrielle gave her another kiss, then she got up and went tothe linen press, pulling out a set of fresh clothing for herself
Xena remained on her back, despite her plans to get dressed.“I guess they figured they’d never get you to be their queen if they stayed upin the mountains, so…” She teased her partner. “They came to you instead.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle muffled a grin, the thought having occurred to her more than once. She slipped on a dark blue Amazonstyle top and a matching skirt and buckled the tooled leather belt with afeeling of mild satisfaction. “Kind of how I got them to accept you, huh?”
Xena snorted softly in amusement.
“Hey, it worked.”
“Mm.” The warrior studied their half thatched roof, whichcovered the bed and dressing area. The rest of the structure was just baresupports waiting for her to finish construction on it in the morning. “I knowwhat I’ll tell my mother.. I’ll tell her she’s lucky I didn’t just swap thetown for living with the Amazons. Now that’d been an insult.”
“Hey!” Gabrielle put her hands on her hips. “Watch it,consort.”
“Oo..” Xena finally smiled, her humor returning. “I’m in bigtrouble now. I sense a spanking from the Queen in the offing.’
“You’d enjoy it.” The bard accused, with a returning smile.
“I would.” Blue eyes twinkled now. “Sure you want to go down there for dinner?” Xena waggledher brows suggestively as she laced her fingers behind her head.
Urmph. Gabrielle wandered back over to the bed and sat downnext to her tormenter, feeling the draw of those eyes as they fastened on herface. “That’s not fair, Xe.” She eased down onto her side and felt Xena’s armcircle her. “You know the answer to that. There’s no place on earth I’d ratherbe than here with you.”
“Yeesh, that was sappy, wasn’t it?” Gabrielle covered hereyes with one hand. “But anyway, it’s not nice for us to ignore our friends.”She paused. “All the time, I mean.” A sigh. “Gods, you’re being contrary tonight.”
Xena knew that. She tweaked Gabrielle’s hair gently and gaveher a nudge. “All right. G’wan.” She sighed, waiting for the bard to get up offthe bed and then following her. She pulled a spare set of her leathers from the chest, and tossed over ajumpsuit for Dori. “I’ll meet you two over there.”
“Okay. C’mere, honey.” Gabrielle managed to get the wetshirt off her child and get her into dry clothing in a reasonable time. “Didyou go swimming with Boo?” She slipped a light cloak over her shoulders, andtightened the laces on Dori’s jumpsuit.
“Yes.” Dori agreed. “Hungry! We go see gramma now?”
“Absolutely.” Gabrielle ruffled her hair. “Let’s go.”
“I’ll be right there, little terror.”
Silence fell, as their footsteps faded into the twilight,and the warrior paused to absorb a little of it before she turned back to herdressing. All her teasing of Gabrielle notwithstanding, she really was looking forward to seeing their Amazon friendsand she was glad they’d finished up the task of closing down their former homefinally.
“Hm.” Xena tapped her fingers against the chest. “Armor, noarmor?” She decided the crowded inn wouldn’t be improved by her wearing metalinto it, and therefore she abandoned the armor and dragged her spare pair ofboots over to the bed to put them on.
After a moment’s lacing, she stood up and ran her handsthrough her damp hair, freeing it from the leather straps and riffling it outto dry as she looked around their new home.
It was bigger than the other one, certainly. With unlimitedspace up here on the hill, Xena had taken advantage of that and the cabin nowhad three separate rooms instead of the one and a half of the old one. Thebathing chamber was completely separate, and over on the other side of the halffinished fireplace was a good size room for Dori and all her toys andpets.
Right now it was empty, but Xena had a bed and some chestsplanned for it, after she finished the worktable for Gabrielle near the big newwindows. Sunlight poured in that corner all day long, and she’d already caughther partner sitting on a pile of bags scribbling over there so she knew she’dpicked the right spot.
On the other side of the cabin, on the far side of the bed,was another space she’d staked out for herself. She intended on putting all herweapons making tools there, and all the little things she liked to work on allin one spot.
There was space against one wall for the cabinet that storedall of Gabrielle’s scrolls, and there was plenty of room for them to spend timetogether in the middle.
Much better than the old place. Xena gave the interior anapproving nod, and then she went to the door and slipped outside, carrying hercloak draped over her shoulder.
It was quiet and getting dark around the cabin, and shecould hear night creatures starting to stir as she stepped down onto the pathand started towards town. A light wind stirred the branches as she walkedthrough the trees, the cool earth releasing tiny puffs of scent to her nose asher boots scuffed it.
A quarter candlemark’s walking, and she was at the gorge,running one hand over the sturdy ropes that outlined the footbridge overit. Once, the only way across hadbeen a hanging vine, but Gabrielle had convinced her that teaching Dori toswing over at such an early age was just asking for trouble.
The bridge’s wooden planks thumped softly under Xena’sboots, and she whistled under her breath as she continued down the path betweenthe tall trees. Another few minutes walk took her past the huge birch thatmarked the entrance to Amazon territory, and she raised a casual hand at theAmazon lookout posted in the branches, who hooted back at her with warblingrespect.
Further down, and she reached the stone marker that was theouter boundary of Amphipolis itself. Now, the forest sounds receded and werereplaced with the clamor of humanity, as the townsfolk were all going home forthe night, putting away tools and animals and readying themselves for theevening.
“Evening, Xena.” One of the carters greeted her. “Beautifulnight, eh?”
“Not bad.” Xena agreed.
“How’s the new place coming?” The man asked. “Saw thempulling thatch up for ya.”
“Getting there.” The warrior ducked under a set of waterpoles with easy grace and lost her questioner in the crowd which pressed aroundher until they realized who it was – then space materialized like magic andbodies backed off a distinct step.
Yes it was her home, and yes, they were her family, but shewas, still, Xena and they all knew it. Times like this, she definitelyappreciated that, especially as she approached the main crossroads of the town.
Houses had sprung up all around the central square, and nowtraffic was a real issue. Xena dodged several carts as she made her way up tothe inn, whose windows were already bright with candlelight and spilling overwith voices inside.
There was a new inn, now, down in the lower city beyond theriver but everyone still preferred to come up here. Her mother’s cooking,probably, or for some just a tradition. Xena pushed the door open and entered,slowing up as she looked around for her family.
Ah. The warrior carefully picked her way through the tables,some of which had been built with her own hands, and returned a tide of greetingsas she headed for the table in the back of the room.
Ephiny stood as she approached, and stepped forward for ahug. “Xena. Glad you two are back.” She embraced the warrior with an easy grin.“Thought you’d never get here.” She was still in her traveling leathers, whichwere stained by leaf and mud, but her curls had been pulled back intorespectability in deference to thetown’s sensibilities.
Xena released the Amazon regent, and exchanged stolid,warrior-like arm clasps with Eponin. “We took the long road back.” She took aseat next to Gabrielle. “As I’msure you’ll hear.”
“Boo.. boo boo boo.” Dori climbed up onto her lap and satthere, swinging her legs. “We gots fun now.”
Ephiny chuckled. “Glad you think so, cutie.” She said.“Looks like you got here just in time, though. Our weather
“If that’s the worst that happens to us, I’d welcome it.”Gabrielle handed a piece of bread to her partner. “It was a damn cold winter,and I’m looking forward to some sun for a change.” She said. “I got very tiredof breaking ice for morning tea on the way down here.”
“Brr.” Ephiny wryly agreed. “It was a bad winter up in themountains too. That’s what took us so long to get relocated. We were snowed infor two full moons.”
“Dori liked it.” Xena gave her daughter an indulgent look.
“Oh yeah, especially when she found out what sounds shecould get out of you with snowballs in the middle of the night.” Gabrielleteased her. “So a little rain’llbe welcome for a change.”
Xena shared her bread with Dori, and found herself inperfect agreement with her partner. Weather, as usual, was the very least oftheir worries.
Gabrielle nudged her leg. “Here comes mom.”
Xena sighed. Like she’d said. The least of her worries.
It was late by the time the inn had emptied, the fireburning low in the big hearth as the crowd dwindled down until it was justXena’s family and friends still seated around their table.
“So, anyway.” Ephiny had slung one leg over her chair armand rested her mug on her knee. “It was strange to see the place nothing but abunch of old sticks and a firepit. Hard to say goodbye, funny enough.”
“Lot of memories there.” Eponin agreed quietly.
“Mm.” Gabrielle watched them over the rim of her mug. “Good and bad.” She remarkedevenly. “Like anything else, I guess.”
“True.” Ephiny gave her friend a quiet smile. “But I have toadmit, the new place beats the old one raw in terms of resources and comfort.Cait found an entire wild grove of herbs apparently, and the cooks are goingwild with them.”
Xena’s eyebrow lifted in wry cynicism, and at the samemoment, Gabrielle’s hand settled on her knee with a playful squeeze
“Nice to have a new place.” Pony said. “Hear you guys do,too.”
“Halfway up the mountain.” Cyrene remarked dourly. “Idioticchoice, if you ask me.”
Gabrielle felt the heavy muscles under her fingers tense,and she cleared her throat. “I love the new place.” She said firmly. “It’squiet enough for me to think, and it’s not far from Xena’s tree.”
“Ah. The tree.” Ephiny nodded solemnly. “That’s a prettyarea up there, if I remember right.”
“It is. It’s beautiful. Dori loves it too.” The bard said.
“She loves being here with the other little ones.” Cyrenecountered her, a stubborn look on her face. “And coming down through thosewoods is dangerous.”
“Mom.” Gabrielle felt her patience slipping a little. “It’s not nearly as dangerous astraveling here from Athens was.”
“Good idea to move out from around here.” Pony spoke up.“Otherwise that kid’d be stopping traffic every minute and you’d have wagonsrolling down into the river every day.” She glanced around. “This place is acircus now.”
“It isn’t.” Cyrene gave her an exasperated look.
“Hate to say it, but she’s right.” Ephiny said. “I couldn’tbelieve how many people there were when we came up here.. thought I was on myway to Athens again.”
The innkeeper got up and collected the pitcher on the table.“Well, it may seem that way to you.” She shook her head and started for thekitchen. “To me it’s just good business for a change.”
A tiny silence fell, which Xena broke by clearing herthroat. “Thanks for covering our back.” She gave the two Amazons a brief grin.“It’s not a popular decision.”
Ephiny shrugged a little. “Don’t think I want to say thistoo loud, but you two are grown women who can live anywhere you damn wellplease, if you catch my drift.” She said. “Not to knock your hometown, Xena,but they need you more than you need it.”
The warrior waggled a hand in agreement, then she pushedherself to her feet. “Time to call it a night.”
“Good idea. You guys must be ready to sack out.” Gabriellegot up as well. “We can do more catching up tomorrow.” She waited for the twoAmazons to stand and join them, and they headed for the door. “Wait till I tellyou all the stuff that’s supposed to happen for the festival.. you won’tbelieve it.”
“I’m going to get Dori.” Xena touched her partner on theback. “Meet you on the trail.” She took the other fork as they left the inn andstarted down it, pulling up short as she almost ran into her mother. For amoment, she looked at her, then sidestepped and continued down the path withoutspeaking.
“Xena.” Cyrene called after her. “Just hold on a minute.”
It’s late. The warrior recited internally. And I’m not inthe mood. She kept going, brushing past an overhanging branch as she headed forher brother’s house. After all themonths alone on the road with Gabrielle and their daughter, she was finding itharder than she’d anticipated readjusting to being home and she knew if shestopped and talked, there’d be a fight.
Not a good way to end the evening. Xena mounted the steps to Toris’ cabin and knocked gently,waiting in silence until the door was opened inward. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Her brother stepped back to let her in. “You couldhave left her here, sis.”
“And had you cursing me at dawn tomorrow when she turnedyour place upside down? Thanks, no thanks.” But Xena smiled, to take the stingfrom the words. She walkedsilently across the inside of the cabin and knelt next to the small palletwhere Dori was sleeping.
“Mom still ragging you?” Toris knelt next to her. “I heardher going on to one of the staff during dinner.”
Xena lifted Dori up and cradled her against one shoulder,murmuring to the child as she half woke up. “So’kay Dor. I’m taking you home.”
“Bbbbbboo.” Dori happily snuggled up against her and resumedher interrupted sleep.
Toris chuckled. “Definitely takes after Gabrielle.”
Xena stood and gave him a wry look. “Mom needs to get overit.” She told him quietly. “Before I’m over it.”
“C’mon, sis.” Toris nudged her. “She just thinks she knowsbest for everyone.”
Xena leaned closer. “We’re not five years old anymore.” She said.
“You didn’t listen to her when you were.. not sure why shethinks you will now.” Her brother replied reasonably. “Give it time.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Xena turned to leave. “Night.”
The night reclaimed her, settling it’s silky folds over hershoulders as she walked along through the now quieter town and out the backgate.
Gabrielle banked the fire carefully, mindful of the gaps inthe cabin that let in fitful cool breezes. She lifted a candle stub and turned, to find Xena sprawledon the bed watching her. The pale blue eyes were almost ochre in the dim light,but the seduction in them was unmistakable.
It made Gabrielle shiver, in an entirely pleasant kind ofway. “You know what I like the best about being home?”
“What?” Thewarrior purred, crooking a fingerat her playfully.
“Being able to do something about you looking at me likethat without worrying about landing on a rock.” Gabrielle
Xena laughed softly, rolling over with Gabrielle in herarms. “Or owls hooting.”
“Mmmhm.” Gabrielle nibbled on her partner’s earlobe. “I usedto think they were just laughing at me.” She whispered to her. “Cause let metell you, they had the absolute worst timing.”
“Mm.. nothing like a hooting owl to ruin a mood.” Xenaagreed.
“Now they can hoot all they want.” The bard said, as herhands moved up along Xena’s sides, following the contours of her body. “I don’thear a thing.”
“Ahh.” Xena wriggled her shoulders and exhaled. “Yeah, gottaadmit I missed this damn bed.” She let her hands wander over the bard’s body,stroking sensitive points that tensed under her touch. “And you in it.” Sheadded frankly.
“Mm.” Gabrielle exhaled contentedly at both the sentimentand her current position. “Thanks.” She slowly placed a series of kisses downXena’s breastbone. “I feel thesame way.”
“Do you?” Xena ran her fingers through the bard’s hair.“Does it bother you we’re up here alone?”
Gabrielle laughed softly, as she tilted her head up andnuzzled Xena’s breast. “Not a serious question, is it?” She laid her cheek downon the warm, firm surface andwatched the moonlight peeking through the windows chase across Xena’s planedfeatures.
A shift of shadow and then a flash of white revealed theexpected smile.
“I am glad we’re home.” Gabrielle continued. “But I really like being up here instead of downthere. It’s better for us.” She added. “I feel better.. like I have.. like wehave more control over our lives.”
Xena nodded silently.
“We’re not.. entirely civilized.” The bard smiled, turning her head andplanting another kiss just above Xena’s navel. “And I like that.”
Intrigued, Xena took hold of her partner around the waistand lifted her a little, rolling over and reversing their position so she wasleaning over her and staring right down into her eyes. “Oh, really?”
The bard’s nostrils flared a little. “Really.”
Xena grinned lazily. “You like playing with fire,Gabrielle?”
“Only yours.” Gabrielle replied, with a cheeky grin inreturn, drawing an irregular breath as Xena’s hand dropped casually between herlegs. There was a knowing intimacyin the touch that sent a jolt through her guts that went past any defenses
Craving it. Her hands slid over Xena’s body, fingertipstracing over the powerful ribs as they expanded towards her before movingupward to gently encircle the warrior’s breasts. She felt a softlaugh against her lips before Xena claimed them and she surrendered
The time they’d spent coming back from Athens had been thelongest period they’d been out on the road together since they’d re-knit theirrelationship and somewhere betweenthe forests and the sea, they’d found themselves discovering a new passion thatsubtly altered how they related to each other.
Gabrielle wasn’t sure what the difference was, whether itwas a maturing of their partnership, or her own maturing, or Xena’s changingview of who she was, but she knew whatever it was, she loved it. It was almostas though she’d passed some initiation and now in Xena’s eyes their relationshiphad come to some new level.
Was it equality? The bard wasn’t sure. She found herselfbecoming very short of breath as Xena’s touch became very intimate, and thenshe was past wondering about anything other than how to stay on the bed andkeep from making Xena’s ears ring.
Take that, you darn owl.
It was chilly the next morning. Gabrielle donned her heavycloak and tugged the neck laces closed before she slipped out of the cabin andstarted down the path. Fog was still clinging to the ground, and her bootskicked it aside as she walked, the air full of the rich scent of wood and moss.
Xena had already gone down the hill, taking Dori to thechildren’s room to play with her friends and sit for a few lessons with the twovillage teachers, who had been surprised to find their truant pupil alreadyseveral levels more advanced than her cousins and older friends.
Gabrielle had been indignant at that, until they’d hastilyexplained it was only because they thought the hardships of the road might haveprevented regular classes, not that Gabrielle wasn’t more than qualified toteach her.
Like Hades. The bard straightened her shoulders. Sometimesthey didn’t realize how much time you had, when you didn’t have to worry abouthaving to socialize in a village, and deal with all the day to day trivia
The path dropped under her feet, and she sped up a bit,dropping down the slope with an easy stride as her body responded with a surgeof energy and sense of well being. They’d altered their schedule since they’d been home – it wasmid-morning before they made their way down the slope most days as they spentthe early morning hours together instead.
Gabrielle whistled softly under her breath, as she almostdanced down the path.
She’d shared breakfast with her family earlier, some duckeggs Xena had collected and a handful of newly emerged berries after they’dcome back from their morning run.
Mutual. That was another big change. Out of the blue onemorning, when she’d been about to leave from their campsite with Dori, Xena hadturned to Gabrielle and simply extended her hand in invitation, eyebrowslifting and a grin playing around her lips.
“Me?” Gabrielle set the pot down and looked at herpartner. “What?”
“C’mon, mama.” Xena waggled her fingers.
“Mama!” Dori agreed, waving her arms. “Come fly!”
Gabrielle stood up, feeling a little unsure. “What’s theoccasion?” She asked. “Do I look like I need more exercise or something?” Thequestion was rhetorical, they were both in such rawboned condition from theroad that even Xena’s need for the morning exercise was seriously in doubt.
Xena shook her head. “Just want you to.” She said.“C’mon.”
The bard put the pot aside and left her tasks behind,walking forward to take Xena’s hand and follow her as they disappeared into thetrees, the branches closing behind them. “Xe..”
“Just wanted you to share our time in the morning.” Xenagently cut her off. “Dori’s doing a lot of stuff I thought you’d want to bethere for.”
The ground had turned to clouds, and she felt featherlight walking on it. “Thanks.”
“Thank me later.” Xena broke into a lope, Dori bouncinghappily on her back. “After she nails you with turtle poop.”
Gabrielle started laughing, and ran after them,abandoning herself to the chase, and the damp chill of this morning of changethat was bringing her path, and Xena’s path ever more closely into alignment.
She’d never really gotten what Xena had.. well, gotten, outof her morning rambles, but after a few months of it herself Gabrielle hadrealized she was gaining strength and flexibility she’d never had before. Itwas very different from her staff workouts, because it was more of a whole bodything.
Her whole body had grown to appreciate it, and now she feltthat new sense of power and balance as she made her way downward at a fastclip, her cloak bouncing along around her with a soft rustle as she ran. Shereached the footbridge and trotted over it, then continued on until she reachedthe fork in the path that led to the new Amazon village.
“Your Majesty!” The Amazon lookout greeted her respectfully.“Good morning.”
“Morning.” Gabrielle pulled up near the tree. “Mind if I goon down?”
The lookout blinked, and hurriedly snaked down out of thetree. “My queen?”
The bard pointed towards the path to the village. “I’m headed that way.”
Bewildered eyes focused on her. “Do you wish an.. escort, myqueen?” The lookout hazarded. “I can signal ahead.”
You’re the queen, sheephead. Remember? “No, thanks. I’mfine.” Gabrielle gave her a pat onthe arm. “Thanks for asking.” She circled the woman and started towards thevillage. “If you want, you can warn them I’m coming.” She called back over hershoulder.
Gabrielle just waved her hand and kept going, making amental note to ask Ephiny who had selected the guards recently.
There were guards at the pass, and as she reached it theycame out into view, saluting as they recognized her and ducking quickly backout of the way so she could continue on unhindered. “Morning.” She waved atthem.
“Your majesty.” They called back, returning the wave.
There was a thick band of trees now, once she’d dropped overthe ridge and started down again. The trees surrounded a small plateau, whichthen dropped off to a steep, carved river cleft providing a natural barrierthat left the path she was on as one of the few ways into the new homestead.
It was wild, and quiet here. The ridge blocked any sounds ofcivilization from Amphipolis, and there were ample fresh springs and hunting tosustain the small tribe that were Gabrielle’s adopted people.
Eventually. There were always the nay sayers to deal with, of course. But she wasused to that by now, and she was confident that the move from the mountainlocation to here would be nothing but good for her friends and their families.
“Gabrielle!” Eponin appeared from a side path, and trottedafter her. “Hey!”
“Hey.” The bard slowed to a halt and waited for her. “Didyou get some rest last night? That was pretty late.. we should have let youguys go earlier.”
The weapons master came to her side. “Nah, we’re fine.” Sheassured her. “How about you guys? It was pretty late for you too.”
Gabrielle grinned at her.
Pony colored slightly, and cleared her throat. “Eph’s beendealing with a bunch of.. uh.. minor stuff since breakfast. Glad you’re here.”
Uh oh. “Hm. Where is she?” Gabrielle asked. “Let me go seeif I can resolve some of the .. little stuff.. for her.”
Pony gave her a mildly grateful look. “Right this way.” Sheindicated a lower path. “I’ll take you down there.” She turned to lead the way.“I’m sure it’s just getting things settled.”
“Uh huh.” Gabrielle studied her back. “So, how are things?”
Pony glanced back at her. “Oh.. uh..fine.” She smiled. “Justgreat.”
A large wagon stood in front of the barn, the two huge drafthorses attached to it snuffling the ground for a few blades of grass as theypatiently waited. The driver stood with his arms resting on the crosspiece,trading casual waves with one of the town militia who wandered by. “Morning.”
“Morning.” The militiaman agreed. “Roof?”
The soldier examined the material with a knowledgeable eye.“Nice.”
“Thanks.” The driver said. “Waiting on a customer to pick itup. Hope they do fore it rains.”
They both looked up at the clouds on the horizon, a slowlybuilding darkness that was creeping across the otherwise blue sky,contemplating it thoughtfully.
“Ahem.” A low pitched, but indefinably female voiceinterrupted them. They both turned around in surprise, to find a tall, darkhaired woman in plain brown leather standing there.
The soldier jumped. “Morning, Genr’l.” He said.
Xena walked forward and inspected the thatch. “Not bad.” Shepronounced. “I need you to take it to the other side of the town, near the backgates.”
“You Xena?” The driver guessed.
Xena just looked at him.
“Guess so.” The man muttered. “Ain’t gonna be easy gettingthrough there.” He pointed out, indicating the busy main square of the town.“Had trouble enough getting over to this spot.”
“I know. Just work at it.” The warrior advised him. “It’snot that bad once you’re past the inn.”
“Genr’l, you want me to clear the space?” The soldier asked.“I’ll get a few guys, and we’ll just close down the road for ya.”
It was tempting. Xena knew just how many people she’d piss off if she did it, and whatkind of message she’d be sending if she had her troops close down the town onher behalf. Her eyes tipped up, reviewing the sky, and she juggled theknowledge with the real need to get the rest of her cabin roof finished.
The stream of traffic jostled and bumped through thecrossroads, it’s confines packed with horses, wagons, and people all intent ongetting where they needed to go. Unfortunately, Amphipolis hadn’t been built tobe a major thoroughfare, and with the heavy pole fencing pinching in thetraffic, it made for a constant, slow moving throng going from the upper townto the lower and back.
Hades with it. “All right.” She told the man. “Bens, grabsome of the men and clear me a path. It’ll be faster to get this thing throughthe crossroads that way anyway.”
“Sure thing.” Bens trotted off, heading for the stable. “Bejust a minute, Gen’rl.”
The driver grinned. “Now that’s a leader.” He complimentedXena. “Got your new place back there?”
“No.” Xena unhitched the horses and started leading themforward. “C’mon, boys.” She uttered under her breath. “My place is a coupleleagues up the mountain from here.”
The driver walked alongside her. “Horses ain’t going upthere.”
“I know that.” Xena could see a small commotion starting ahead of her. She kept thehorses moving, and straightened to her full height, spotting a few headscongregating near the crossroads that looked familiar. “I’ll take care of itonce we get through this mess.”
“Surely.” The man took hold of the other horses bridle andpressed against the animal as they approached the milling streams of traffic.
As they reached the beginning of the crossroad, the trafficbegan to slow, amid yells and shouts of outrage. Six militiamen pushed thecrowd back, putting their bodies in the way of the carts and people until theywere forced to stop. “Clear back, you!” Bens lifted a quarterstaff. “Hold upthere! Hold up, I said!”
“What the Hades is going on?” One of the merchants yelledback. “I’ve got a delivery tomake!”
“You’ll make it when we’re done.” Bens told him. “Now moveback!”
Bens lifted his staff and paused, a set look on his face.“Back off, or else!” He warned. Another militiaman came to his side, holding a short sword drawn againsthis body.
The merchant slowly backed away, giving the sword a nervouslook.
Two more soldiers gently shoved the line of milling peopleaside to clear the way for Xena, who calmly walked the horses into the now openspace.
Everyone fell silent, recognizing the warriorimmediately. Xena was aware of theeyes on her, and she caught a brief glimpse of her mother on the porch of theinn just to one side. She kept herhead up and walked steadily across the opening.
The militia braced, and thumped their chests with theirfists. Xena lifted her free handcasually in acknowledgement of the salute, and repressed a smile as the crowdon the far end of the crossroads edged out of the way without any furtherprompting. “Thanks, boys.” She called out, as the wagon rolled through theintersection and up the far lane.
“Genr’l.” Bens ducked his head in respect. “Anything we cando for yah.”
Xena smiled and winked at him, as she walked past, and heblushed. She kept the wagon rolling, though, clearing the intersection andmoving on up towards the back gate.
“Must be nice.” The driver commented.
Xena looked over at him. “What?”
“Being respected like that.” He said.
Xena patted the near horse’s flat cheek. “I earned it.”
It was a half of a boat, the mast broken off and hangingsadly. Xena examined it as she walked, her mind turning from the wagon tofixing the toy. “Kids.” She sighed. “Tough on these damn things.”
The wagon driver looked at her over the backs of the horses,but kept his thoughts to himself.
Gabrielle took in the half finished village as she followedPony towards the council room. That, at least, had been completed first, ashelter and gathering place for the entire tribe. In a rough ring around it, tucked in the trees were theindividual quarters of the partnered Amazons, and the senior warriors.
Most had a sapling structure already, and some had theskeletons of roofs. Only one was pretty much complete and she guessed it wasprobably Eph’s since she was the Regent, and she did rate it.
The cook area was just an open hearth at the moment, thoughshe could see stacks of logs laid nearby and the beginnings of a groundclearing for them, but for now the only shelter the cooks had was a rough leanto that covered their supplies and tools.
Something was cooking in a big pot, and the bard sniffeddelicately at the air, wrinkling her nose slightly as she detected the scent ofsomething soup that didn’t have nearly enough spices in it for her tastes.
Xena had rubbed off on her that way, along with many others.She’d developed a taste for the exotic, coaxed beyond her basic cooking rootsby the warrior’s cravings, built up on Xena’s own travels around the world.Wherever they went, Gabrielle made sure she sniffed out spices, dried them ifshe had to, and packed them away for use in their often makeshift meals on theroad.
Nothing fixed up dried rabbit stew like a little sage andsaffron, after all, and she’d discovered a mixture of dried, ground peppersthat made a cut of venison wonderful enough to get a song out of her partner inreturn for it.
“So, what’s the Big X up to?” Pony asked. “Working with hersoldier guys?”
“Putting up the roof.” Gabrielle muffed a grin. “You’d thinkshe could get oh, two dozen hunky guys to do it for her, just by asking, butno, not my Xena.”
“Nobody else can do it just right.” Gabrielle paused infront of the council hall and cocked her head to listen. “Hm.”
The voices inside sounded angry and frustrated. “Do youthink it’s even slightly possible for me to ever show up here and there not bean argument going on?” The bard asked, plaintively.
“Um.. well, this is the first time you’ve been here.” Ponyobjected. “So does it count?”
Gabrielle gave her a wry look, then shook her head andentered the door way. She swept aside the hanging beaded curtain and walkedinto the hall, heading directly across the room to the front table. “Hi.”
Ephiny was sitting there, with three other Amazons standingaround her. They were all elders, and none of them looked happy. “Hi.” TheRegent replied, propping her head up on her fist. “Glad you’re here.”
“Bet you are.” Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled gently. “What seemsto be the problem?”
“Your majesty, the problem is this place isn’t suitable foranyone to live in.” The nearest elder, a woman named Sheetha turned to look ather. “That is what the problem is.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle perched on the table, crossing her arms overher chest. “I live here.” She reminded them. “Xena lives here. Lots of peoplelive here.”
“Not Amazons.” Sheetha said, stiffly. “This is too close tocivilization.”
Ephiny sighed. “You know, I’ve come to appreciatecivilization.” She said. “It grows on you, not always having to shoot yourdinner.”
“And how.” Gabrielle agreed.
“That’s because you’ve gotten too soft.” Sheetha accused.“We’re going to become just like them.”
“Like whom?” The bard asked. “Them?” She indicated thegeneral direction of Amphipolis. “Them is us, too.” She patted her own chest.“Remember? Xena and I are part of that town.”
“Uh oh.” Eponin began to inch backwards, clearing a space asGabrielle stood up.
“So, are you saying Xena and I are soft?” The bard asked, ahint of amusement coming into her tone. “You’re not really going to make mepull a Warrior Princess and start kicking people around to prove otherwise, areyou?”
“That’s not the point.” Sheetha came around the table andfaced her. “Gabrielle, I respect you as a leader, please believe that. My worryisn’t about you.. it’s about how our younger people might view that town..might view the lifestyle there.”
Gabrielle considered that seriously. “You mean, they mightdecide to move there.”
“Yes.” The elder nodded. “We work hard to give our peopletraditions. Some of those traditions mean that we have to give up certainthings.. certain comforts. It’s our way.”
“But Sheetha, we can’t keep ourselves isolated forever.”Ephiny said. “ You know even in the old place, towns were popping up all overaround us.”
The elder sighed. “There were other places we could havegone.”
“There were.” Gabrielle agreed quietly. “There are manyplaces in this wide world where you’d be totally isolated, and alone. I’ve beento some of them.”
The women all looked at her.
“I’ve been to places that I was the first human to ever seteyes on.” The bard went on, pacing a little. “So yes, I know there are placeslike that. But the problem with places like that is that if something badhappens to you, there’s no one around to help.”
“We don’t need help.”
“Sheetha, please.” Ephiny covered her eyes. “This woman’spulled our asses out of the fire what, three.. four times now? Give me abreak.”
“You just don’t understand.” Sheetha shook her head. “Comeon, the rest of you. Let’s stop wasting our time talking.” She led her two
Gabrielle went around the table and sat down next to Ephiny,shoulder to shoulder. They looked at each other, and then Ephiny shook herhead. “Don’t say it.” She warned the bard. “Because you are one.” She pokedGabrielle in the shoulder with her index finger.
The bard chuckled softly.
Pony came over and sat next to Ephiny. “I’m going to go takethe juniors out and scout around.” She said. “Be back after lunchtime.”
“Okay.” Ephiny leaned over and gave her a light kiss on thelips. “Be careful.”
Eponin scowled, blushing a dark crimson as she avoidedGabrielle’s twinkling green eyes. “Yeah. Thanks.” She got up and trotted out,leaving the regent and her queen alone in the council chamber, where a gentlesilence briefly fell.
Ephiny studied her friend, noting the subtle changes in theplanes of her face, and the new shadows in her eyes. Despite that, there was asense of stolid peace about her that the regent had long missed. “Glad to behome?”
“I am, yeah.” The bard replied.
“So, how’d it go out there? Must have a lot of stories.”Ephiny fished delicately.
A quirk of a grin. “Oh, I do.” Gabrielle leaned her head on herfist. “But how about you go first?” She pinned Ephiny with a direct gaze. “So Ican do my thing, and you can relax.”
Ephiny sighed, but her lips curled into a returning grin.“Let’s go over to our place.” She pushed herself to her feet.
“I have rum punch there.”
“Oh boy.”Gabrielle got up to follow her. “Glad I had breakfast.”
Xena moved the ladder over another space, and tucked a loadof thatch onto her shoulder before she started back up it. The roof was almostfinished, and she boosted the thatch onto the newly layered part to free herhands once she reached the top.
Between the roof supports, she’d spread a layer of waxedskins, which she’d hammered into place with neatly spaced nails, and now sheput down the rows of thatch and fastened them over the skins with a precise andintricate pattern.
Xena hated leaks. She hated leaks almost as much as shehated slugs, and since one tended to attract the other, she was very particularabout the surface she put over her head.
Nearby, a bird started singing, and the warrior paused tolisten. Then she smiled and continued working, putting down another line ofroofing and tacking it into place, putting the nails into position and tappingthem lightly in with a sure touch and little fear of smacking her fingers.
She enjoyed her hard won skills, in this arena so differentfrom her fighting one. It felt good to be able to provide this kind of shelterand she was proud of what she’daccomplished in so relatively short a time. After all, the Amazons had beenbuilding their village since they’d left and most of their huts weren’t asfinished as her cabin was, and she’d only been home a little over a half moon.
The bird decided it didn’t like being ignored, and itfluttered down from the tree and landed near the top of the roofline. It hoppeddown a few steps and regarded Xena, cocking it’s brilliant red headintelligently at her. “Cheep.”
“Hi there.” Xena continued her task. “What brings a nicebird like you to a place like this?”
“Everyone’s a critic.” The warrior finished her roofsection, and started down the ladder, tucking her hammer into the belt she hadcircling her waist. She flexed her hands as she got to the bottom, detouringover to the bedside where a waterskin rested.
It was coolout, but her mouth was dry and she picked up the skin and opened it, puttingthe spout to her mouth and sucking down some of the spring water Gabrielle hadleft in it for her. “Mm.” She swallowed, ,her nose picking up just a trace ofher partner’s scent on the skin.
Beside the skin lay an apple, it’s red and green surfacepicking up the sunlight from outside and winking merrily at her. Xena reacheddown and picked the fruit up, her lips twitching as she acknowledged the silentmessage left along with it.
Nice. Xena set the skin down and went back to her task,hoisting another bundle of thatch onto her shoulders. She’d gotten to the fourth step on the ladder, when sheheard the door to the cabin open behind her and she stopped to look down.
Her mother entered, closing the door behind her with a clickof finality. “Xena?”
Xena sighed silently. “Up here.” She replied, continuing onher way. She got to the top of the ladder and braced her body against asupport, putting the thatch down and starting to position it.
“Can you come down here? We need to talk.”
“No.” Xena puta handful of tacks between her lips. “Mumphsy.”
The warrior tapped in a nail.
“Don’t make me come up there.”
Xena kept working. She removed a tack from her mouth andpositioned it, hoping her mother wasn’t going to be literal about her laststatement. The ladder, though sturdy, wasn’t designed to hold more than oneperson of her size. She tapped inanother tack, and slid over a new line of thatch. “This needs to get done beforeit rains, mother.”
“Xena.” Cyrene took hold of the ladder and shook it. “Getdown here.”
“If you knock me off this thing, I’ll make sure I fall ontop of you.” Xena warned. “Siddown and wait till I’m done if you want, butleave the ladder alone.”
Cyrene made a disgusted noise, but the shaking stopped andXena was left in peace to finish her thatching. In a way, she hoped her motherhad taken the hint and left, but given the fact that she had some insight intothe woman’s stubbornness, she was ready to bet a dinar she hadn’t.
Oh well. Xenaworked her way backwards, closing herself in with the steadily reducing spaceshe had left to cover.
Xena nearly dropped the hammer, juggling it wildly as sheglanced over the edge of the roof at the edge of the forest. “Ares!”
“Roo!” The wolf wagged his bushy tail and hopped up and downa few times.
“Don’t do that.” Xena scolded him. “You want me to fall offthis damn thing?” She shook her head as several puppies stumbled out of thetrees behind Ares and started exploring. The animals were about half grown,with big paws that got in their way, and indeterminate fuzzy gray/brown furthat belied their half dog heritage. “Ah. So you brought the family, huh?” Shesighed.
Endearingly cute, and all of the damn things had taken aliking to her in specific, following her around whenever they found her in thevillage.
Xena’s posse, Toris had named them, delighted with thechance to tease her, both of them keeping in the back of their minds anearlier, simpler time when he’d done the same with Ares, when Xena had firstcome home.
Memories. Xena backed down a step, and wrapped the last bitof oilskin into place, tacking it down as some thatch fibers drifted loose andlodged in her hair. She’d have toput the final layer into place from the outside, but right now, at least fromthe inside, the roof was complete.
Which meant she had to get down. The warrior tucked her hammer back in it’s belt and climbedto the ground, taking the opportunity to steal another mouthful of water tokeep her back turned to her mother for as long as possible.
“Are you finished?” Cyrene asked.
“No.” Xena turned, capping the waterskin. She set it down,dusting herself off and taking a seat on the clothing press. “But it’ll holdfor now.”
Cyrene was seated on the bed, as most of their furniture wasstill down in the old cabin. Her expression was a mixture of annoyance andexasperation, and she studied Xena a moment before she started speaking. “Youknow I have a..”
“Mother.” Xena held a hand up. “I don’t want to hear it.”
Cyrene blinked in surprise. “I don’t think you understandthe image you’re giving of here.”
“I don’t think you understand that I don’t give a damn whatimage I’m giving off.” Xena retorted. “Bottom line, mother, is that I’m gonna do what I think’s best.”
“So throwing an attitude with a bunch of soldiers is whatyou think’s best?”
The warrior shrugged. “I had to cross that road.” She said.“Should I have started picking up people and tossing them into your herb gardeninstead?”
“What in the Hades is wrong with you?”
Xena picked up the apple and bit into it. “Not a gods bedamned thing.”
Cyrene got up and shook her head, making her way to thedoor. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing.”
“What I want to do.” Xena answered quietly. “What Gabriellewants. What Dori wants.” She paused. “Not what you and the rest of Amphipoliswants.” She looked evenly at her mother. “What I don’t understand is why youcan’t understand that.”
Cyrene paused at the door. “It’s like since you came back,we’re just not good enough for you.” She turned and left, closing the doorbehind her.
Xena chewed a bit of apple and swallowed it.
Gabrielle untied her cloak and draped it over the short polenear the door designed for that purpose. The inside of Ephiny and Eponin’squarters was spare, as all Amazon homes were, but with certain blots of colorand decoration that caught the eye.
A woven blanket, that covered the big double cot, forinstance. Gabrielle had given it to them before they’d left for Athens, and shewas charmed to see it put to use. It was the blues, greens, and browns of theforest, something she’d found in the weaver’s stall at the last Amphipolismarket.
“I was joking about the rum punch.” Ephiny poured out two mugs.“But I do have some sun tea. Here.” She brought a mug over to Gabrielle as thebard sat down in one of the sturdy, deep chairs near the firepit.
“So.” Gabrielle took a sip, studying Ephiny over the rim ofthe mug.
Ephiny sat down next to her. “For a change, my problem isn’tthe Amazons.” She said. “Or..well, to be more specific, it’s one Amazon as opposed to all of them.” Shewatched the bard lean back in her chair, extending legs covered in buckskinleggings out a little. “If you catch my drift.”
“Pony?” Gabrielle guessed.
Ephiny nodded. “Her promise to you is driving her insane.”
“To me?” The bard’s brows creased. “Oh.. oh, you mean…”
“About the baby.” The regent said.
Gabrielle was quiet for a moment, a reflective expression onher face. “She doesn’t want one, now?” She asked. “I’m sorry.. I know that’s a very personal question.”
Ephiny gazed wryly at her. “Gabrielle, you’re our sister.”
The bard produced a mild grin. “I know. But you know..having children is not something I’d discuss with my
“Not the way you did it, no.” The regent shot back, shakingher finger at her queen.
“Not any way.” Gabrielle muttered, blushing a little.
The blush did something to relax Ephiny, making the tanned,mature figure across from her more familiar. “Some things about you neverchange.” She chuckled softly. “I love that.”
“Hm.” The bard propped her head up on one fist, resting herelbow on the chair arm.
“Anyway.. no, it’s not that.” Ephiny sighed. “She wants akid. I want one. The problem is, well.. “ She hesitated. “Pon got into sometrouble when she was younger. She went with a group of some of the juniors andended up in some small town down slope from the village.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle watched her friend’s face intently.
“Some jerks got ahold of them. Wasn’t pretty.” Ephiny said.“At any rate, she’s not sure she can go through with the whole thing. Shewanted me to talk to you, see if I could get you to release her from thatpromise.”
Gabrielle set her mug down and leaned forward, reaching outto clasp Ephiny’s hand. “Why inHades didn’t you tell me that before?” She asked. “For the love of Aphrodite,Eph.. didn’t you think I’dunderstand? Me? Of all people?”
Caught by surprise by the bard’s intensity, and the anger inher voice, Ephiny’s jaw dropped a little. “Ah..” She resisted the urge to yankher hand free, her warrior’s instincts sensing danger in the queen’s tensemuscles. “Gab, don’t hit me.”
Green eyes popped wide open. “Hit you?” Gabrielle’s voicerose almost into a squeak. “Are you nuts? Of course I’m not going to hit you.”
Ah. Mixed signals. Ephiny relaxed herself a little. “Justtake it easy.” The regent said.“Of course we knew you’d understand… it wasn’t that.” She explained. “It’s.. Hades, you know what it is. You live with the best example of it. Wethought we could handle it.”
“Pon thought she could.”
Gabrielle sighed. “I felt that way once.” She releasedEphiny’s hand and leaned back again, her eyes darkening with memory. “Xena gotme past it.”
“I know.” Ephiny hesitated, just a bit. “Xena told Ponyabout it.”
The bard looked honestly surprised. “Did she?”
“When it happened to me. She, um..” Ephiny waved a hand.“How to deal with it, ah..”
“Ah. Okay Yeah.” Gabrielle made the same gesture, and theyboth put the subject under the bridge by unspoken, yet common consent. “Yeah,okay. I understand. Listen, you guys have to do whatever makes you happy.Whatever that is, I’m for it.”
Ephiny took a long sip from her mug. “You know what theproblem is?” She gazed frankly at her queen. “We know what you’ve been through,and we both feel like weenie chickenshits not to just get through it the sameway.”
Gabrielle gazed at her boots, an oddly patchworked pair madefrom leather scraps and stout gut lacing. “Ah.”
“Those are cute.” Ephiny changed the subject as radically asshe was capable of. “Like yourpants, too. They new?”
“Xena made them.” Gabrielle pulled one boot up to rest onher knee and ran her thumb over the soft leather. “We traded. I made her somegloves.” She related, accepting the change. “Lined with squirrel fur to
Ephiny could well imagine Xena wearing them, clenching herhands lightly inside with pleasure. “So, was it tough out there?”
“Sometimes.” Gabrielle found a smile somewhere and producedit. “The weather sucked, and we had fights, and stuff happen on the road, andDori acting up.. you know, theusual.” She said. “We solved someproblems, helped some people, Xena almost died again, I almost died again..sameold, same old.”
The bard shrugged, a little. “We made it back.” She said.“We found something out there… I don’t’ know. It just all worked out.”
Ephiny got up and walked over, kneeling down beside thechair Gabrielle was sitting in and clasping her arm with one hand. Then sheimpulsively put her arm around the bard’s shoulders and pulled her closer.“Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle responded, returning the hug. “So, this’ll workout too.” She told her friend. “We’ll get through it.” She leaned her head evencloser. “And you’re not a chickenshit.” She whispered. “I’ve chased Dorithrough enough henhouses to know what that looks like intimately
Ephiny had to laugh, and so she did, and Gabrielle joinedher.
It was all they could do.
“What’s that, Dori?” Gabrielle pointed, ignoring the fitfulgusts of wind at her back that heralded the oncoming storm. “Is that a spider?”
“Gots.” Dori reached a hand out for it. “Pretty, mama!”
“No, no.. do you remember how a spider made you owie,before?” Gabrielle steered away from it, her boots digging at the path as shecarried Dori up towards the cabin. “Do you remember that?”
“No.” Dori clutched at a handful of leaves instead, usingher mother’s forward motion to assist her in denuding the branch. “Look.. gotsleaves. You make story?” She showed her mother the tattered green bits. “Wegoing to where Boo is?”
“We sure are, honey.” Gabrielle assured her, climbing thelast steep bit of the path before she reached the small plateau their cabinrested on. “Look, there’s our house, right?”
“Yes!” Dori wriggled. “Lemme go, mama. I go find Boo.”
“Go find Boo.” The bard let her daughter down andstraightened gratefully as Dori scampered off towards the cabin. “Damn, she’sgetting heavy.” She remarked, with a wry grin. “I don’t think a pony can makeit up here.. we might have to get her a mountain goat.”
A soft rumble of thunder prodded her, and she startedforward, strolling over the thick grasses that covered the ground on the gentleslope leading to their porch. “Ah.” Her eyes studied the building, and she grinnedagain. “Boo, you rock. We’ve got a roof!”
“Mama! Mama! Buppits!” Dori was sitting on the porch
“Heh.” The bard came up to the porch and propped one bootedfoot on it, leaning against the sturdy support pole as she watched.
“Buppits too?” Dori got to her feet. “C’n we keep them here,mama? I can play with them.”
Oh, yeesh. “Well, they like being outside, honey.” Gabrielle said. “How about youplay with them outside, okay?”
“I know, I know.. I’m no fun.” Gabrielle took Dori’s handand walked with her inside. Ares scooted after them, sneaking in the doorbefore she could close it, and the next thing she knew the puppies had piled inas well. “Hey!”
Dori giggled. “Good buppits!”
“Bad buppits.” Gabrielle scolded them, but shut the dooranyway as the rain started coming down. “Oh my gosh, Dori.. what’s Boo going tosay?” She asked, looking around for the soulmate she felt the presence of quitestrongly.
“Better dry than wet?” Xena spoke up, from where she wassprawled in the corner of the cabin, working on something. “What took you twoso long? I was going to send an Amazon after you.”
The puppies spotted their favorite target and gallumpedover, crawling over Xena with excitedly wagging tails. The warrior sat up alittle and fended them good naturedly off, her expression and attitude one ofrare tolerance. “Little rats.. cut that out.”
“Eeeee.. “ Dori ran over and joined them, jumping on Xenaand throwing her arms around the warrior’s neck. “Go Boo!”
Gabrielle went towards the hearth, craning her neck to seewhat was sitting on it. A pot was swinging slightly from the divots, steamemerging from the top. “What’s that?”
“Soup.” Xena curled an arm around Dori and gently shoved thepuppies aside.
Gabrielle removed her cloak and draped it over one of thepoles set in the wall for it. “Where did that come from.” She asked, warmingher hands over the fire.
“Hope you don’t think I made it.” Xena snickered. “Last timeI tried that we were both sick for a week.”
Whatever it was, smelled good. Gabrielle felt
“Someone was arguing with you?” Xena asked. “Who? I’ll gokick their ass.”
The bard chuckled tiredly. “No, not with me. One of themerchants decided he was being ripped off by that guy who came in yesterday…the one with a wagon full of skins?”
“Anyway, they got into a huge fight, which kind ofescalated. Me and the Amazons stopped it.”
“Ah.” Xena tickled Dori’s stomach. “Hey, little one. Youhungry? Your mama is. I can hear her.” She turned her head and lightly kissedthe bard’s head. “Anyone get hurt?”
“Nah.” Gabrielle listened to the rain outside. “How’d yourday go? I see you finished our roof, thank the gods.”
Gabrielle glanced up. “Problems?”
“Ah.” The bard patted her partner’s muscular leg. “Yeah, Ibumped into her after I got Dori and got an earful.” She pushed herself to herfeet. “She got me at the wrong time.”
“Yeah.” Gabrielle sighed, going to a storage box and takingout a set of wooden bowls. “Sometimes I think she forgets how she met me.” Sheset the bowls on the small table near the fire, then went over to the pot. “SoI hope you didn’t get this from her.. I don’t’ think she’d poison it, but Iwouldn’t put it past her to put pickle juice in it.”
“I got it from the militia kitchen.” Xena got up, brushingthe dog hair off her legs as she lifted Dori up and cradled her in her arms.“Actually, they delivered it up here to me.”
“Really?” Gabrielle sniffed the soup, and ladled a bit of itup to her lips cautiously. “Those guys are so cute around you.”
Xena set Dori down on her heightened chair and took the seatnext to her. “Armies aren’t cute, Gabrielle.”
The bard filled three bowls to the brim with the soup, whichhad big chunks of lamb in it, among other things. She set the bowls down and provide her family with spoons,then sat down across from Xena and gratefully dug in. “No they aren’t.” She swallowed a mouthful. “But those menwould collect the dust from the ground you walked on and put it in a bottle forposterity, and you know it.”
Xena ripped a roll in half and tossed a portion to hersoulmate, then glanced down as all the puppies, plus Ares gathered at her feetand looked up at her hopefully. “Idon’t think so.”
Dori plunked a bit of bread into her soup, looked gravely atit, then pulled it out and threw it on the ground next to the puppies. “Buppetslike, Boo.” She watched them scrambled to gobble it up. “Make it good.”
“Eat yours first.” Xena ordered, pointing her spoon at herdaughter. “Then if we’ve got some left, we’ll give it to them. Okay?”
“No.” Doriscowled at her.
“Boo, buppits are hungry!” Dori protested. “Not nice!”
Gabrielle hid her eyes, her shoulders shaking as she scarfeddown her soup.
“You’re not helping, mama.” Xena growled.
“Leave me out of this.” The bard held her hand up. “Those areyour buppits, Boo.”
“You let them in here!” Xena snorted.
“Not on purpose.” Gabrielle patted Dori’s hand. “Dori, youneed to have your dinner first, then we’ll take care of the puppies. Come onnow, you know that’s how it is with Ares, right?” She said. “Boo always giveshim his goodies last.”
Dori pouted, but then she reached for her spoon and startedeating her soup.
“There.” Gabrielle smirked at her partner.
Xena waggled her spoon at the bard, then went back to eatingherself.
“Thank you for getting this, by the way.” Gabrielle went on.“I had some odds and ends, but it’s raining buckets out there and it would havebeen a pretty cold dinner otherwise.”
Xena glanced out the window. Due to the way the porch wasconstructed, it protected the two big openings in the front of the cabin andkept rain from coming in. Eventually, the warrior intended on putting leadedglass in place to close the windows in, but right now they were just squaregaps. “Nasty.” She commented, hearing a loud roll of thunder.
“Boom.” Dori slurped up her soup. “Gaboom.. gaboom… makeloud, Boo.”
Gaboom. Xena leaned an elbow on the table and worked a bitof lamb onto her spoon, chewing it thoughtfully. Maybe it would rain all night,she pondered. Maybe it would stillbe raining tomorrow morning, giving them an excuse to stay together in thecabin and relax.
“Know what?” Gabrielle said. “I almost hope the weather’snasty tomorrow. We’ve been working like crazy since we’ve been home.. time fora day off.”
Could Gabrielle read her mind? Xena wondered. It seemed likeit sometimes, at least recently. “Yeah.” She agreed. “I could use a break.” Shefished out another bit of lamb. “And maybe it’ll give my mother a day to chillout. I don’t know what the Hades has her up in arms like that.”
Gabrielle wondered that herself. She realized the way Xenahad informed everyone they were moving was blunt, but that was Xena, after all,and everyone down there should really have been used to that. Her partner wasnever one to dance about the facts.
Was it just an insult? The bard had gone back and explainedthe noise, and how it kept them up, and how Dori was unhappy, but for somereason everyone seemed to still think they’d dissed Amphipolis. Even thecouncil, who informed her they no longer wanted her to be a part of them.
Which was fine, really. As the Queen of the Amazons, she nowhad a bigger responsibility in arbitrating between her tribe and the city, sothat would have been a conflict of interest anyway.
But still. Gabrielle felt a little sad, because she loved her partner’s hometown,and she’d taken it for her own- especially after the destruction of Potadeia.They’d fought for this land, after all. Nearly died for it.
Nearly died. Battled all of Athens, just to protect the townfrom them. Xena had gotten hurt doing it, she’d gotten hurt, they’d all gottentrapped in a burning jail…
So, who were these people to criticize them if they chose tolive apart?
Gabrielle looked up, to find Xena looking back at her. Theyboth spoke at the same time. “To Hades with them.”
Xena smiled, and Gabrielle smiled back, reaching across thetable to take Xena’s extended hand and clasp it.
“Gush.” Dori rolled her eyes, grabbing Xena’s bread andgiving it to the waiting puppies. “Gush, gush gush.”
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