A Matter of Pride
Gabrielle gazed idly across the small room, acknowledging the late afternoon somnolence as the warm air drifted over them, and the sunlight gilded the floor creeping past her feet. She was sprawled on Xena’s pallet with the warrior’s head pillowed in her lap, and very content to merely let the moments pass while Xena slept.
They’d discussed what she learned that morning, and decided on a plan of action. Xena wasn’t terribly happy with the plan, since it didn’t have nearly enough action for her, but until her leg mended, they both agreed that a full out frontal assault on the Athenian Council probably wasn’t the best idea. So they’d decided to keep a low profile for a few days and spend their time finding out all the information they could.
Xena had wanted to start tonight, by venturing out and prowling the poorer sections of the city. But Gabrielle had seen the swelling growing around her knee, and the pain crease Xena's forehead, and she convinced her to wait until the morning. With a sigh, she shifted the arm she had laid across Xena's shoulders and cast an eye down towards the warrior's leg.
She had propped it up on some folded blankets, but even from where she was, she could see the worsened bruising. Good sense would dictate that Xena simply stay off the darn thing for a few days, but the warrior seemed incapable of staying still for that long unless Gabrielle dosed her with painkilling herbs and that held it's own dangers.
Xena hated using them. It took extraordinary pain for her to even think about it, and she had explained to Gabrielle once that it sometimes became too easy to rely on them, and that was dangerous and bad.
Well. Gabrielle smoothed the hair back off Xena's forehead. That might be true, but she considered the risk worth it in this case because the more the warrior insisted on moving around, the less chance her leg had to rest and heal. She studied the angular face. Maybe if she stayed with Xena and kept her company, it would be different.
Gabrielle nodded a little to herself as she closed her eyes and leaned back. Yeah, that's what she'd do. She'd stay right here, and tell Xena some of her favorite stories… maybe make up some new poems…or maybe they'd just talk. Or maybe they'd….
She wasn't even conscious of falling asleep.
Her eyes opened back up, and she blinked, her brow furrowing as she tried to reconcile the change in the room's light, and her body's stiffness. "Uh...." Gabrielle looked down, to see Xena peacefully looking back up at her, the warrior's hands folded over her stomach. "Wh…"
Gabrielle stared at the window, then back down at the warrior, acknowledging the stiffness in her back, and the numb feeling in her legs. "Did I… did we sleep all night?" She asked, incredulous. "Ow." She bit her lip as she moved. "Son of a… "
Xena rolled onto her side, and let the bard stand up and stretch. "We sure did." She stifled a yawn. "Pretty damn disgraceful, huh?"
The bard rubbed her face, feeling very dazed. "Uh... yeah." She walked over to the replacement water basin she'd coaxed out of the innkeeper the day before and splashed handfuls of water over her head. "Wow." She turned to find Xena sitting up in bed, having eased her splinted leg off the pallet and onto the floor. "How's it feel?"
Xena examined the limb, touching the bruised skin with a cautious finger. "Swelling's down a little." She said. "Doesn't hurt as much."
"That's good." Gabrielle wiped her face off and walked back over. "Ugh." She sat down next to Xena on the pallet and rested her head in her hands. "How can I feel like a wagon rolled over me after sleeping that long?"
Xena eyed her knee thoughtfully, then turned her head and regarded her partner. "Probably the way you were sleeping." She said. "Sitting up, I mean." One long hand patted the bard's thigh. "Thanks for the pillow, though."
Gabrielle smiled. "Anytime." She leaned against Xena's shoulder. "Gods know, you've been mine often enough." Her voice was warm with affection. "Well, let me go get some fresh water, and I'll make us some tea." With a sigh, she got to her feet and retrieved the larger of their two waterskins on the way to the door.
Xena waited for it to close. Then she retrieved her crutch from under the pallet and hoisted herself to her feet, fitting the device under her arm and trying a few tentative steps. Ah. It hurt, but unlike the day before, it was a manageable hurt that she could handle. She maneuvered over to the window and looked out, watching the early dawn light spill it's way down the tiny, crooked street the inn was located on.
She could already hear the city around them stirring, and the smell of humanity and beasts in close quarters was almost overwhelming. Xena leaned her arm on the sill and let her eyes follow a woodsman's cart, the small pony drawing it struggling to pull the heavy vehicle up the street in the humid air. It stopped in front of the inn and the animal stood, it's sides heaving, as the carter jumped down and strode towards the inn's door, his heavy boots booming on the wooden planks outside.
The pony's head turned and it's solemn brown eyes met Xena's for a brief instant.
Xena turned and moved away from the window, going to her pack and opening the outside flap of it. She let her fingers curl around the contents of the pouch and drew it out, then she hobbled back. A moment for a her eyes to judge angles, then, with a flick of her wrist, she released the chakram into the air.
With a keeining whir, it sliced through one side of the pony's traces, making the animal snort in alarm, then bounced off an iron bound barrel of water standing nearby and riccocheted back over the pony's back, cutting the other side. Feeling the light sting against it's skin, the pony bolted, almost stumbling in shock when the wagon didn't follow him.
Xena caught the chakram as it returned, and watched contentedly as the pony ran off down the road, trailing it's reins behind it. A brief grin crossed her face as she let the chakram rest on the sill, it's inset jewels winking at her in the early morning light. She heard the door open behind her, but her ears had identified the intruder long before they entered and she remained where she was, enjoying the light breeze.
"Anything interesting out there?" Gabrielle's voice drifted across the room, over the faint clanks as she set their small waterpot on the tiny firepit and restarted the fire. "Xena, is it just me... " The bard went on, not waiting for her to answer. "Or are people in big cities just more obnoxious?"
Xena turned and regarded her. "More self centered, maybe. Why?"
Gabrielle riffled her fingers through her hair and leaned against the table. "There was the biggest jerk in the hall just now. What a mouth on him... just nasty and cursing… just because the innkeeper was taking her time about counting out the firewood fee."
"Yeah. Did you know they're not allowed to cut their own wood?" Gabrielle went on, wandering over to join her at the window. "They have to buy it from this guy."
"Maybe that explains his attitude. " Xena remarked. "Doesn't have to compete." She turned and they both glanced out the window as a bellow of rage was heard. "That him?"
"Sure is." Gabrielle lifted herself up a little and peered out. "Oh... what happened?"
"Looks like his horse escaped."
The man held the traces in his hands, and was shaking them at the innkeeper in rage, their cut ends very obvious. Gabrielle looked at them for a moment, then looked at the chakram on the sill. A grin appeared as she regarded Xena. "You are such a troublemaker."
A finely arched dark eyebrow lifted. "Got a problem with that?"
Gabrielle rubbed her cheek along the skin of Xena's upper arm, then placed a kiss there. "No." She replied. "That's one of my favorite things about you."
They both turned and watched the carter storm off down the road, leaving his cart of wood behind him. After a moment, the innkeeper's boy poked his head out, then scampered over and helped himself to several cords of wood, ducking back into the inn with them as a soft laugh traveled back to their spot at the window.
Xena chuckled and turned, making her way back across the room to put the chakram back in it's pouch. The crutch was becoming easier for her to use, as her body adjusted to the restriction, and she experimented with it, edging around the walls while Gabrielle pulled out clean clothes for them.
Gabrielle was, she knew, itching to tell her to sit down and get off her leg. Xena appreciated the fact that the bard held the sentiments in, though, as Xena herself had done while Gabrielle was pregnant.
Well, sort of. The warrior admitted wryly to herself. "Feels pretty good." She announced.
The bard's lips twitched, but she kept silent, mixing the herbs in their cups as she waited for the water to heat.
"Not good enough to wander around the city though." Xena continued. "How about you go chase down your friends at the academy, and I'll find a spot inside the main room here, and see what I can find out about the slaves."
Gabrielle stirred the tea, and added a drizzle of honey to it. She handed Xena hers as the warrior took a seat by the repaired table, and sat down across from her. "What makes you think you can find that out here?" She asked curiously, taking a sip.
"Stands to reason. This place draws fighters." Xena replied.
"It's a... um… " Xena muffled a smile. "House of fellowship." She watched the pale brows knit. "Companions for hire?"
"What… this?" Gabrielle spluttered. "Xena, are you telling me we're staying in a… "
"House of ill repute, yes." The warrior's eyes twinkled. "No wonder they liked your face." She remarked dryly. "Good thing you stayed out of the common room."
Gabrielle slapped her head and groaned. "Okay… I’m finding someplace else for us to stay." She sighed. "Before we get into real trouble."
There were many people on the road to Athens. They were all shapes, all sizes, and represented villages and towns across the entire territory. They'd been traveling in some cases for days, and were covered in dust and mostly overheated.
They all turned, however, and watched as a small group trooped past, leading a wagon pulled by four sturdy roan horses.
In the wagon rode a group of elders, with stern faces, dressed in good, sturdy cloth and leather. Driving the wagon was a bearded man and a dark haired older woman.
But none of that really attracted attention. What did attract it was the group of six Amazon warriors marching along in front of the horses, and the wolf trotting along behind them.
Ephiny wiped her brow, and gave her nearest neighbor a wry look. "Tell me again why we're doing this?"
Eponin had been counting rocks in the road. Now she looked over at her friend and lover, and scowled. "You made me lose count." She grumbled. "We're doing it to help out Xena and Gabrielle."
"Uh huh." Ephiny glanced behind her. "Just so I'm clear on all this, Athens levied a tax on Amphipolis. Our queen, and the rocking, socking Warrior Princess decided it was a touch on the heavy side, so they came here to gripe about it."
Ephiny moved closer. "And since when did either of them need our help in kicking ass or taking names?"
The Amazon weapons master sighed. "Look, Eph... you know as well as I do they'd want us to come along to guard their family." She peered over at the youngest Amazon member, the slim, blond Cait who currently had a familiar backpack strapped to her, with a living cargo. "Especially since Dori's here."
The Amazon regent eyed their bright eyed, dark haired charge, who was busy unraveling Cait's neat braids. Ephiny had been a day late coming down from the mountains, and had caught up with them on the road. She'd been wondering how much ale her friends and relations had consumed before this particular plan had been put together ever since. "Oh. Yeah. Right."
Eponin looked furtively at her. "Well, we couldn't leave her, Eph... c'mon, now."
Ephiny eyed her.
"Okay." Her lover sighed. "It was a choice, either we took her with us, or stayed there and took care of her."
Hazel eyes widened.
"We made the right choice, huh?"
Ephiny felt a shiver of just escaped danger travel down her back. Naturally, she loved her friends little daughter who was, after all, an Amazon princess. But she also loved all her body parts and her personal dignity, and both tended to end up in tatters every time she had to assume responsibility for Dori even for the shortest amount of time. "Uh… yeah."
Eponin exhaled, and went back to counting. "Gimme the heat, gimme the rocks, gimme the crowds of Athens… " She hummed. "Just save me from dangerous Dori…"
"Bck." Dori spoke up, having heard her name. "Poopoo! Come!"
Cait reached up and caught the baby's hand. "Did you run out of things to play with then, Dori?"
Distracted, Dori bounced up and down a little, making Cait's slim form waver noticeably. "Go Boo!"
"Yes." Cait replied. "We're going there ever so fast, so take it easy." She glanced at the tall, glum looking Amazon walking next to her. "Here, Pally... want to carry her for a bit?"
Paladia stared at her. "No. You cracked? Or do you think I am?" She edged away from the baby's grasping hands. "That kid's more trouble than a handful of skunks."
"Nonsense." Cait objected. "She's a lovely little girl. You're just mad at her because she tricked you last night and stole your cakes." She glanced at Dori. "Isn't that right, Dori?"
"Yes." Dori agreed seriously. "Cat go find Boo. Find Mama."
"One track mind." Paladia rolled her eyes. "You two must be related."
"Oh, hush." Cait squared her shoulders and kept marching. "She just wants her family, you can't hardly blame her for that, can you?"
Paladia kept her eyes on the road, kicking debris out of her way in morose silence. After a moment, Cait moved closer and bumped her with an elbow. "Sorry."
The taller woman shrugged. "You ain't got none either." She remarked. "Except them." Paladia indicated the Amazons.
"That's not true." Cait replied. "I've got you, don't I?"
Paladia fell silent for a totally different reason, her skin taking on a deeper tone under the sunburn that covered most of her exposed body.
Cait exhaled, enjoying the silence. They'd been traveling for a week, and it had been quite horrid at times. The elders from Amphipolis were ever so quarrelsome, and the Amazons they'd brought with them bickered all the time at each other. Really, it would have been so much better if she'd just snuck out with Pally, Dori, and Cyrene, but no one listened to you when you were a junior.
And besides, they were all quite upset with Xena and Gabrielle for leaving the way they did. Not that Cait blamed them. Certainly not, and after a week her opinion of her personal heroes had jumped up quite some notches for doing just exactly that.
Clever, they were. Cait cast a look over her shoulder, to where Cyrene was admonishing two of the loudest complainers. But once Cyrene had decided to come along, and Johan, that meant Dori had to come along as well, and she wasn't about to let anything happen to her.
She simply wasn't. It was just too important to both her idols. Even if Dori did tend to get into frightful messes, and did tug one about. Cait looked up at the sky, finding herself relieved to see the sun arcing down towards the horizon.
Ephiny shaded her eyes against the slanting sun, then she slowed up and waited for the wagon to roll up next to her. "Cyrene?"
The innkeeper turned in her seat and glanced down. "Sorry, what?"
The Amazon regent shifted her sword sheath on her back a little and exhaled. "Listen, we've done pretty good today. You think it's time to give it a rest?"
Cyrene looked behind her, where Joscylyn was arguing with his wife. "Oh yeah." Xena's mother agreed grimly. "You got a town in mind, or are we going to have to settle for camping under some tree again?"
Ah. "There's a nice spot near here." Ephiny skirted the question. "It's got a cave… nice little waterfall, too."
Cyrene sighed. "I’m too damn old for this." She groused. "All right. Fine." She turned. "We're stopping off the side of the road for the night."
"What?" Joscylyn half stood. "Come on, Cy! We've got plenty of good time to travel left! At this rate we'll never get there!"
"That's right!" His wife agreed. "Let's wait till we get to the next town! I don't want to sleep outside again!"
The other elders stoutly chimed in, comfortably seated in the padded wagon seats while the rest of them marched in the sun. Ephiny and Cyrene exchanged looks, and the regent made a mental note to bow at Gabrielle's feet for dealing with this and not becoming a homicidal maniac. "You know what?" Ephiny leaned over the edge of the cart. "We're stopping. If you want to go ahead and risk having bandits rob you blind, have at it." She waved a hand at the Amazons. "Hold up! Make for the caves."
Joscyln snorted. "What cheek!"
Cyrene glared at him. "Well, I’m going with them, so if you want to drive this thing, get your ass up here." She got down from the wagon and grabbed her large bag, which contained Dori's things. "I told you to stay in Amphipolis, you old goat." She stormed off after the Amazons.
Johan offered the reins to the reeve.
"Fine." Josc threw up his hands. "We'll stop. "
"Smart move." Johan got down and started to lead the horses off the road.
"I hope you don't mean for us to wash in that cold water again." Josc' wife complained. "Why can't those Amazons ever find a hot spring, if they're so clever?"
Johan just shook his head and kept moving. It was shaping up to be a very long night.
Xena entered the common room of the inn quietly, edging around the periphery of the room and taking a seat near the back window. She leaned her elbows on the chair arms and let her eyes slowly track around the space, taking in the occupants with a flickering glance.
It was a good sized room, used for more than just eating. On one side there was a fireplace with low, comfortable chairs around it. The perimeter of the room had tables, but there was a cleared area in the center whose worn wood planking suggested the space was used for activity of some kind.
Dancing, Xena suspected, as she watched some of the servers enter. They were all either young, or a little older than you'd expect, marking the tavern as one whose patrons could not afford the best and choicest of the paid flesh of Athens.
Still, there were willowy boys, and carefully dressed, comely girls who quickly spread out across the room, greeting the scattering of patrons with ready smiles and warm looks. Xena found herself the target of one of them and she looked her stalker over as the boy approached.
"Hi." He was slim and fair, and had beautiful gray eyes. "Can I get you something?" He leaned casually on the table, exposing a tan, shapely hip through the slit in his toga.
A diaper? Xena managed to keep the quip to herself. "Sure." She purred. "What do you have to offer?"
That got her an immediate, interested look. "Well, about anything you could ask for. " The boy smiled at her. "But we could start with some cold cider, and some of the fresh bread I can smell baking."
"Sounds good." Xena's eyes twinkled. "What's your name?"
"Mikah." He drew a finger down the surface of the table. "I'll be right back. Don't go anywhere." He got up and headed for the small kitchen in the rear, with a gentle swagger that was both deliberate and eye catching.
Xena rested her elbow on the table and her chin on her fist, and chuckled softly to herself. Not a bad start. She let her eyes slowly move around the room again, sizing up her fellow patrons. Three or four were merchants, dressed in rugged broadcloth, and two of those were sitting together, their heads bent close.
Making a deal, she mused. At a table behind the merchants, two men in half armor sat, nursing cups of ale despite the early hour. They had the look of hired mercenaries, and Xena's experience noted their well kept weapons which were never far from their hands.
On the other side of them, a large, round table held a group of four men and two women, all six wearing remnants of the harness she'd last seen in the gladatorial arena. They seemed to know each other, and were having an animated discussion about the previous day's fights. All six were young, and in very good condition, and their talk was loud and cocky.
The mercenaries, Xena noticed, weren't impressed.
"Here you go." Mikah had returned, and set down a cup of cider, and a trencher with a round, slightly steaming loaf balanced on it's very center., with a lump of butter perched to one side of it. "Want me to slice it for you?"
"Sure." Xena nudged the chair next to her with her good foot. "Siddown."
Mikah looked quite pleased at being asked, and Xena had a feeling the pleasure was genuine. She waited for him to start to work on the loaf, then took a sip of the cider. "You from around here?"
He glanced quickly up at her, meeting her eyes for a brief second. "No."
"Didn't think so." Xena chuckled. "Thrace?"
Another quick, almost shy look. "How'd you know? You from there?"
He stopped cutting and cocked his head, looking at her full on now with a curious, intrigued expression. "Really?"
Xena nodded slowly.
"Well, hi, neighbor." Mikah grinned. "What brings you up to the big city?"
"Business." Xena shrugged slightly. "What about you?"
Mikah put the carving knife down, and picked up the spreader, carefully spreading the sweet herb butter on the slice of bread he'd cut off. "Well… I could tell you a sob story about how I was an orphan abandoned after my parents were killed by raiders and I was sold by my fellow villagers into slavery for a couple of dinars."
"But?" Xena found herself intrigued by the boy.
His eyes met hers again. "But the truth is, I didn't want to be shepherd, so I ran away and ended up here." He handed her the bread. "It's not so bad. The money's pretty good, and you get to meet some interesting people sometimes." Mikah smiled at her. "Like right now, for example."
Xena watched him, as she took a bite of the bread and chewed it. "Yeah?" She said. "What made you pick me… I’m just a traveler from the backwoods with a bum leg."
His smile went from shy to dazzling. "Well… since you asked." He replied. "Two reasons. One, you're beautiful. Not many people who come in this place are."
One dark eyebrow lifted slightly.
"And two, there's something about you that's dangerous." Mikah added. "I like that."
Xena's other eyebrow lifted. "You do, huh?" She mused, wondering what to do with this precocious youth, who probably didn't realize just exactly how dangerous his attempted conquest was.
The boy smiled at her, and licked his fingers.
Gabrielle dodged to one side to avoid crashing into two men coming the other direction, neither of whom seemed to see her or cared if they hit her or not. Both men were dressed in fine togas, one a light blue, and the other a buttery yellow, with gold trimmed hems and finely cured leather sandals.
"You’re excused." The bard muttered, as she turned and headed up a wider street, up towards the broader avenues she remembered the Academy being built on. The weather had cleared up nicely, and the sun was shining again, and she was glad she’d picked her lightest colored sleeveless tunic to wear. It was close to the togas the men had been sporting in style, and she didn’t feel too out of place as she joined the stream of bodies moving up the broad thoroughfare.
As she walked, she listened to snippets of conversation going on around her. Everyone seemed to be excited about the games, and there was a lot of betting going on. Gabrielle paused for a moment, stopping at a stand selling fruit and buying two apples, then continuing on her way, munching as she walked.
Athens had definitely grown. The buildings on either side of the street seemed higher, some as much as three stories with staggered marble steps leading down to the road. On either side of the lane ran muck channels, taking waste off down the hill to where, she assumed, it spilled into the river.
Surprisingly, the smell wasn’t too bad, but Gabrielle wondered if that was because it really wasn’t, or if she was just getting used to it. Even Amphipolis made her nose wrinkle after they’d first come in from the road, and it had taken time for her to adjust back to the smells of humanity after all that time with just her and Xena.
Not, she admitted, stepping over a channel and continuing on. That they didn’t have their own smells, the two of them, not to mention Argo, all creatures did after all, and some were better than others, but Xena had taught her from the very start of their travels how to be as neat and clean in her personal matters as possible.
It kept you from getting sick, for one thing, the warrior had told her, and Gabrielle had seen that to be the truth when they’d gone through towns who didn’t keep to the same standards. Besides, she knew just how sharp her companion’s sense of smell was, and the last thing she’d wanted to do, even from the first, is give Xena excuses to get rid of her.
A woman passed her, and the bard held her breath as a wave of perfume almost made her eyes water. She continued on, climbing up the sloping street towards the white buildings beyond. She let herself make casual eye contact, giving brief smiles in return when she got them, and absorbing the many different kinds of people there were packing the city.
Finally, she reached the top of the slope and glanced around, then turned to her left and walked across the wide boulevard, edging between the carriages that moved ceaselessly along it. The Academy was on the right hand side, and she slowed as she approached the steps, pondering on the best course of attack.
There were several young people sitting on the stone stairs, studying scrolls and laughing. Gabrielle doubted any of them would either recognize her or know who she was, so she felt comfortable in approaching them, cocking her ears to listen as their discussions traveled towards her.
"Did you see the toga he was wearing? It was so short, if he leaned over you could see his… " The girl speaking glanced up as Gabrielle's shadow fell over her, then returned to her conversation. "Whole rear end!"
"Ew!" Her companion giggled. "How gross! Did you hear what Celesta said about him the other day? She's so wicked!"
"Excuse me." Gabrielle interrupted their chatter. "Could you tell me where I could find Euripedes?"
The girls glanced at each other, then the older one looked coyly up at her. "Who's asking?"
"A friend." Gabrielle replied, with a smile. "He invited me to watch his rehearsal."
"Oh." The girl cleared her throat, then she carefully got up, arranging her robes with elegant flicks of her hands. "Okay, well, first you go inside, then you take a left, go down the long corridor, then take a right, and you'll be in the main hall. I'm sure he's probably in there, like he usually is, doing… " She paused delicately. "Research."
"Thanks." Gabrielle replied cordially, stepping around her and heading up the stairs. Not fast enough to escape the whispers, however.
"Oo... that's a new one!"
"Yeah... not his usual at all" A snicker. "This one's got a backbone… and did you see those legs?"
"Hmmmmmfmfmfmmmmmm" Gabrielle hummed to herself, blocking out the comments as she escaped into the building. "Okay… now let's hope I remember… ah." She ignored the girl's direction and took the first right hand turn, down a winding corridor that smelled of marble dust and age. It was very quiet inside the building, and she didn't see anyone as she paced over the stone floor, ducking past two open doorways before she reached the end of the corridor and a heavy, wooden door.
She put a hand on the latch and pushed inward, feeling the weight of the door giving way only grudgingly against her strength. As it opened, a gust of air puffed out, bringing with it the scent of parchment with it. She entered, and closed the door behind her, then leaned on it.
The library of scrolls.
Gabrielle knew she had a mission to accomplish, but she'd promised herself that she'd take just a moment when she got here just to satisfy a purely personal, very egotistical need.
She took a breath, then she walked slowly down the towering wooden shelves, all of them packed from top to bottom with heavy, bound scrolls, carefully labeled and ordered in a neat, precise hand.
Off in the rear, she could hear movement, and she knew she wasn't alone, but she kept on walking, until she found the spot she was looking for, and stopped, facing the shelves square on, and tilting her head back just a little, to read the lettering bounding a shelf full of newer scrolls.
She read the card with her name on it over and over again, not even noticing the fact that the handles of the scrolls were well worn, or that a number of them were missing, neatly lettered cards in their places.
"Well, there, my good lady."
A quiet, sweet voice almost made her jump. Gabrielle turned, hastily wiping the back of her hand over her eyes. "Sorry… you startled me."
A stocky, bearded man in a sky blue robe was standing there, his hands clasped over a substantial middle. "Athena's grace, I didn't mean to. Would you like to check one of those out? I can help you."
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder. "Um... no... no, that's okay. I know those." She murmured softly. "By heart."
"As do so many others." The man nodded, and smiled. "Read them a number of times, have you?"
The bard was silent for a moment, then she met his gaze squarely. "No, I wrote them." She paused, as he blinked at her in evident shock. "I always knew they were here, I just… " She looked at the shelf. 'Wanted to see it."
He took a step forward, almost unconsciously. "You… are Gabrielle?"
His eyes went to the scrolls, then to her face. "Great gods." He breathed. "Do the masters know you're here?"
The bard cocked her head. "No... I don't think anyone does." She replied. "Why?"
His face creased into a totally unexpected smile. "Would you do me the honor of accompanying me, Bard Gabrielle?" He asked, courteously. "There are several introductions I would love to make of you." He offered his arm. "And, by the way, it's a great honor to meet you myself. My name is Rudalf. I am the master archivist here."
Gabrielle felt a little offbalance, but in a nice way. She took the offered arm, and smiled. "Lead on, Rudalf." She wondered, briefly, if this wasn't going to stir up a lot of trouble.
The attentive Mikah had vanished briefly to the kitchen. Xena relaxed back in her chair and noted the room filling up. Most of the patrons were lower class, merchants and city workers looking for a plate of the inn's food and some companionship out of the hot sun.
She'd learned a bit, though. Mikah had told her a little about the underbelly of the Athens society he moved through. He was a bound servant, having given over his freedom to the innkeeper in return for his keep, and a percentage of the dinars he eared for his companionship. As such, he was on the top level of slaves, since his indenture was for a finite term, and he could buy himself free if he wished.
He'd seen no reason to want to yet, though, he'd said. The inn, while it was one of the dingier ones down the hill, lacked the sometimes cruel tastes of the more fashionable ones and so far, he'd had a relatively easy time of it. A number of the other boys and girls here were in the same status, but others were true slaves, and the older types all were, fallen into a place where this provided at least a bed and food to eat.
She'd casually asked about the slave market in the city. Mikah had readily answered her, giving her names, and places where she could bid on the newly arrived, but also hinting that his contract might be for sale if she was really interested.
Xena indulged herself for just a few minutes in imagining Gabrielle's reaction to her bringing home Mikah. She almost snorted cider out of her nose when an image of the look on her partner's face materialized in her minds eye, and she hastily put her cup down and wiped her lips as she continued to chuckle. "Look , hon… a babysitter. Think Dori'll like him?"
She could just imagine the reaction.
The outer door opened at that moment, and she glanced up when it slammed against the wall. For a moment, a tall, broad outline showed against the bright sunlight outside, then the door was closed and her vision adjusted, taking in the newcomer.
Ah. One of their friends from the road. Xena's nostrils flared in reflex. The man who'd called her a peasant, as a matter of fact. Up close, he had an arrogant face that went with the attitude, as his eyes roamed around the room, then settled on the table next to hers.
Damn Xena sighed. Figures. She watched him cross the room, pushing people out of the way until he reached the table and sat down, his eyes flicking over her, then away in dismissal. He had a tunic on this time, at least, but he settled his arms and flexed his muscles under it like an eagle preening it's feathers.
Now what... Xena mused. Was a purported participant of the games doing in here? Her attention was distracted briefly by several musicians, who settled down on one side of the fire, and started softly tuning their instruments, and by the time she turned back, the newcomer had claimed one of the servants, and had her sitting on his lap. As she watched, he fondled her openly, then pulled her down to him and kissed her.
Amateur. The warrior rolled her eyes, and shifted a little, so that she was facing the cleared space in the center of the room where, it appeared, there was going to be some kind of a show. Sitting still so long, however, was starting to make her body a little antsy, and she decided to wander down to the slave traders stalls after whatever the entertainment was finished.
The music started up just as Mikah returned, sliding a plate of sliced meats and fruit in front of her, then settling down at her feet to watch.
The first performer to enter the cleared area was a young girl, swathed in linen cloth. She started to dance to the music, revealing a sinuous grace and definite skill. After she worked her way around the square, she started peeling off the layers of cloth, keeping her motions slow and seductive.
Hm. Xena rested her head against the chair back. The musical performers were better than she'd expected, and she felt herself relaxing a little as the music and the dancing melded.
The dancer wasn't bad either. As she continued, she revealed a lithe, slender body with a pale golden tan, and a jewel set right inside her navel. Xena was surprised, in fact, at the sophistication of it all, not what she expected in a joint like this.
The girl made eye contact with her, and smiled. Xena lifted an eyebrow and smiled back.
Maybe she could get Gabrielle to join her for the evening performance. The warrior mused, as the dancer removed the last of her covering, and changed her movements, sliding from sinuous to outright seductive as she started playing to the interested crowd.
A young boy in a loincloth joined her, running his hands over her body as she bent over his knee, grabbing the edge of his loincloth in her teeth.
On second thought. Xena scratched her ear, a faint chuckle working it's way out of her chest. Gabrielle might find it a little too much… um…
The girl moaned.
It certainly was making the audience enthusiastic. Xena could hear the sounds of mingling bodyparts behind her, and as she glanced around the room, the reason for the dancing was immediately apparent. The boys and girls were now doing a brisk business.
Mikah got up and perched on the arm of the chair she was sitting in, hitching his tunic up with a frankly unapologetic grin. "Like the dancing?"
Oh boy. Xena folded her hands over her stomach and exhaled. "Very pretty." She drawled, as a second woman, slightly older and far more exotic joined the duo on the floor. The newcomer was very tall, and had cinnamon colored skin that seemed to collect the light and burnish it with fire. She also had an animal like grace, and the three of them started an intricate dance, which had hands going everywhere and showed off the boy's flexibility to a startling degree.
It was almost impossible not to react. Xena knew herself to be a very sensual person, and she appreciated the beauty and raw sexual energy of the dancers. In her younger years, she'd been no stranger to places like this, and those memories were stirring inside her, reminding her of a different time.
A different place.
Mikah leaned casually closer, very gently brushing his leg against her arm.
When she was a different person. Xena glanced down, acknowledging the fact that there hadn't been many times since she'd become intimate with Gabrielle that she'd even been tempted by anyone or anything else. Emotionally, she wasn't tempted now, but her body was definitely alive to the energy rolling around the room, and she knew she'd better either do something about it, or get the Hades out of the place.
Fortunately, her decision was made for her.
"You little bitch!" Her neighbor roared suddenly, breaking the spell of the dance, and causing the musicians to falter.
Xena turned to see the man backhand the young girl, sending her sprawling over the next table. Her body tensed, and she only just kept herself from intervening, reminding herself she was unarmed, and had a splinted leg to contend with. "Hey!" Nothing was wrong with her throat, though. "What's the problem? Couldn’t keep it up long enough?"
The man jerked around to stare at her, as the nearby patrons erupted into laughter. The music petered down as one of the girls ran over to help their fallen comrade up.
"They say the bigger they are, the easier they fall." Xena went on, in a taunting voice. "Guess it's true." She felt Mikah laughing, his body shaking slightly though he wasn't making any sound.
"Shut up!" The man snarled. "You have no idea who you're talking to!"
"Likewise." Xena purred back, keeping her pose relaxed, and her hands folded over her stomach.
The innkeeper hurried over, washing his hands nervously as he approached the big man. "What's wrong? Did she not please you, m'lord? Let me get someone else… please... sit down… "
"Get out of my way." The man shoved the innkeeper to the floor and stormed out of the inn, throwing a table to one side and slamming the door open.
"Hey!" Xena called after him. "Better buckle your tunic. You're exposing your weak points."
The crowd laughed again, the two mercenaries nearest her giving Xena a grin, and a knowing nod. They each had a girl on their laps, and half their armor undone."
The innkeeper turned, and glared at her. "I didn't need you to cause trouble for me." He lowered his voice. "That's Jason the Bull. He's a very powerful man!"
Mikah shifted a little forward. "Jonas… " He spoke softly, causing the man to lean closer. "This is Xena of Amphipolis. If half the stories I've heard are half true, Jason is lucky he left with his parts intact."
Hm. Xena was impressed. So the kid had known what fire he was playing with. Her estimation of him went up a few notches.
The innkeeper stared at him, then looked at her. "Is that true?" He hissed, mindful of the interested crowd now paying close attention to them.
The man studied her for a long instant. Then he shook his head and turned towards the dancers. "What are you staring at? I pay you to dance! Start the music!" He waited for the sound to resume, then gave Xena one last look before he scurried off towards the back of the room.
Well. Xena now found herself the subject of quite a bit of attention. She sighed and leaned back. "Teach me to try and stay low key." She glanced up at Mikah. "Thanks for the intro. Didn't know I had my name tattooed on my neck."
Mikah grinned. "You don't." He admitted. "I guessed."
Xena's eyebrows rose.
"You're a fighter." He cheekily picked up one of Xena's hands and examined it, turning it over and running a finger across her callusd palm. "You wield a sword… and you have for a long time." He paused. "You're tall, and you have dark hair and beautiful blue eyes, and an attitude right from Hades."
"So I took a chance." Mikah's voice took on a reflective tone. "And I was right. I’m glad you told off that brainless ox. He's been in here before, and he... " The boy paused. "He's never satisfied, and he doesn't care if he hurts people."
Xena studied his profile, his cheeks covered in soft down, not even long enough to shave yet. "You one of those people? " She asked quietly.
He didn't answer for a moment, then he shrugged, and gave her a smile. "Occupational hazard. I’m used to it."
They regarded each other in silence, then Xena looked across the room. "I need to move around a little." She stated, drawing her crutch out from under the table. "Nice day for a walk."
He got to his feet as she did. "Would you like someone to walk with you?" Mikah asked. "To open doors if you need it?"
Xena's lips twitched. "Sure." She nodded towards the exit. "Lead on." She followed him through the crowd, aware of the eyes fastened on her as they left the music behind them, and entered the bustle of Athens outside.
Gabrielle looked from one weathered face to another, in the semicircle seated around her. "You want me to what?" She asked, in a slightly incredulous tone. "I didn't come here to compete in your contest."
"We know that." The oldest of the women held up a hand. "Believe me, I can imagine this is a shock to you."
The bard got up from her chair and paced around it, then leaned her hands on it's back and studied the elders. "Let me see if I understand this." She said. "You decided to hold this competition to raise money for the academy, because you figured you'd get a great turnout because of the games."
"Right." The woman nodded.
"Then Celesta showed up, and bullied her way in."
"Now, if she wins, she'll take over the academy and throw you all out, is that it?"
"Er... something like that yes." An older man agreed. "We were not… how shall I say it… very complimentary to her initial efforts here."
Mist green eyes regarded him. "You told her she wasn't any good?"
"Not exactly." The woman stood also. "We just… we suggested ways for her to make her works better."
"Ah." Gabrielle put her boot up on the chair and leaned on her knee. "So... if she's not that good, why are you worried? Won't the audience just not vote for her?"
"It's not that simple." The woman said. "Celesta is very intelligent, and very well connected here in the city." She paced as she spoke, waving her hands. "Her family is very rich… and she's spared no expense in buying the best talent... the best musicians… and " Here, the woman frowned. "It's not like we have our usual audience here in Athens. Many of the visitors are from the provinces, and they will be tremendously impressed by all the grandeur she has planned."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle murmured. "So, even if her show isn't the best, you think she'll win because it'll be big and loud?"
"Exactly." The woman agreed. "It's not a matter of… "She hesitated. "Of sophistication or quality, you see."
"So, you have a rich kid from the city who's pouring dinars galore into this production, so she can impress the country bumpkins and win your contest, so she can take over the Academy and turn it into her own private playhouse and control all the art in Athens?" Gabrielle concluded. "Is that it?"
"Exactly." The woman let out a sigh, and the men all nodded and muttered. "Very good summation, Gabrielle."
The bard waited a beat for them to settle. "So you're coming to an itinerant shepherd's kid from the provinces to get you out of this mess?" She had to smile. "Pretty wild, don't you think?"
They all looked at each other, then the older man scratched his beard. "Irony is one of the muses, no?" He murmured.
"Look." Gabrielle sighed. "I’m flattered to be asked… honest. But these people have been preparing for moons… I talked to Euripides yesterday.... he's been rehearsing half a year for this."
One of the men, a tall man with a beautiful white beard crossed over to her, his weathered face quiet and very serious. "My name is Eleneus. I am the senior bard here." Gabrielle straightened as he approached and he reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. "Gabrielle… let me tell you something." He paused, then went on. "I am an old man."
Gabrielle's lips twitched, but she remained silent, fascinated by the deep resonance in his tone.
"I've seen it all. Especially, I've seen it all here." The man went on, with a faint smile. "Every year the plays get bigger and bigger, everyone tries to outdo the other, with music.... with dancing.... with exploding firepots… good Zeus, last year we had someone actually construct a Trojan Horse and had it dragged onstage."
The bard chuckled a little in response. "Must have been quite a sight."
"Damn thing collapsed and nearly took out half the stage and a quarter of the audience." The man shook his head in bemusement, the looked up into her eyes. "But all that means so little. There is no heart to it, you see. Only spectacle." He put his other hand on her shoulder. "Your stories need none of that, Gabrielle. They reach out and touch the soul."
Gabrielle had no idea of what she should say to that. She studied his face with quiet intensity. "What if your audience really wants all the frills?"
Elanus shrugged a little. "Then it will be so. At least they will have a choice."
Would it hurt? Gabrielle felt a little incredulous thrill at the thought of getting up in front of all those people. But what would Xena think about the request? The bard thought about that for a moment. Xena would... Gabrielle took a breath. Smirk. That's what Xena would do, she knew it. Her partner would like the idea of watching her up there, in spite of the complication it would add to their already complex mission.
"All right." Gabrielle quietly replied. "I'll do it."
The man smiled broadly at her.
"But I have two conditions." The bard went on. "One, that you keep this under wraps until it's time for me to go up there. I've got stuff I have to do, and I can't have this getting in the way of that."
"And… if I do win… " Gabrielle smiled slightly. "I'm not going to stay here and keep your title."
If anything, they all only looked profoundly relieved on hearing that,and Gabrielle realized that the competition had been, for them, only a sham. They'd expected to be able to control the winner, who would have become, she could see, a figurehead.
And they'd gotten hoisted on their own mast.
"Excellent... we're all completely in agreement." Eleneus sighed. "Thank you, Gabrielle." He glanced around as the other elders approached, with warm words of thanks. "It's time for some refreshment... Gabrielle, please join us."
"Sure." Gabrielle went along with the guiding hands, as they headed down a long, polished corridor towards the brightness of an internal solarium. "Actually, I was coming here looking for a friend. Maybe you could help me find him."
"If we can, surely." Eleneus smiled. "What is his name?"
"Homer." Gabrielle watched for the reactions, and got them, ranging from startled to embarrassed "I heard he left here… can you tell me what happened?"
There was an awkward silence as they kept walking, then Eleneus sighed. "Let's get some wine first." He guided her through a cut stone door into a glorious open space. "The story is a long one."
Well, Gabrielle reasoned. At least her visit was going to be productive. She found herself settled onto some soft pillows, as servants scurried around, pouring out a rich, fruity wine that tickled her nostrils. She only hoped Xena's day was going as well as hers was.
It just felt good to get outside. Xena paused briefly on the corner, and let the light breeze blow over her, giving her body a chance to settle before she decided what direction to head off in. It wasn't comfortable to walk, really, but she figured if she took it slow, and tried to avoid climbing tall hills, she should be okay.
And, conveniently, the harbor was downslope from where they were. Xena planned her route, then started on her way, her body adjusting to the awkward strain of the crutch with rather more grace and ease than she'd expected.
"So." Mikah paced alongside her. "How did you hurt your leg? Some great adventure?"
Xena repressed a smile. "Nope. I got kicked by a horse." She edged around a big hole in the walk
"Yep." The warrior was glad to trade the heated tension of the inn for the sweat of her current struggle. "Tried to help some jackass get a wagon out of the mud. " She sighed. "Teach me to get between a horse and his better instincts."
Mikah was quiet for a few steps. "That must have hurt a lot."
Xena shrugged. "Not really." She said. "Just annoying."
They joined a small stream of people heading down the road. Xena found her neighbors to be roughly clad working men and women, and some stragglers that dragged along belongings, or limped as she did. Her dress didn't stand out, but she was aware of the eyes on her nonetheless.
Feeling her nape hairs prickle, she steered over to a small, rude wine stand and dug into her belt pouch, letting the crowd flow by her. Mikah edged to one side, his expression a little puzzled. "I don't.."
Xena braced herself, and put a hand on his shoulder, pushing him towards the stand and out of the crowd's reach. She felt a jostling against her back, but didn't budge, even when the pressure increased, and she could feel hands reaching around her with feather lightness.
She grabbed a set of fingers and closed her fist, clamping down with all the strength in her hand.
A soft, shocked gasp reached her ears, along with the faint sound of crunching and the sensation of cracking bone under her fingers. She released her grip and turned her head, seeing a small form go stumbling off, slipping through the crowd without looking back. Xena watched the space for a moment, then turned her head back around and tossed a coin at the merchant. "Two cups." She growled.
Mikah licked his lips a little. "Pick pocket?"
Cool, blue eyes regarded him. "Friend of yours?"
Mikah paused in shock, staring at her. "N.. no." He shook his head. "I just figured… " Some of his confident verneer had worn off, as though out here, outside his familiar world of the inn, he was more the youth his looks proclaimed him.
Xena relented, and handed him the second cup she'd purchased. She backed away from the stall and leaned against the tree trunk the stand was perched near, sipping the pungent, fruity liquid as she watched the now thinning crowd move past. "Let's go." She said, as she drained the cup and left it on the stand.
Mikah hurriedly did the same and joined her. "At your service, mistress." He replied softly, missing the wry, raised eyebrowed stare directed at him. "Are you sure you want to go down to the docks? Maybe a cart would be easier."
A cart would definitely be easier. Xena plugged stubbornly on, ignoring the ache in her shoulders from the awkward motion. She'd never been one to let physical handicaps get the best of her, and she wasn't going to pick now to start. The streets were getting narrower, and more crooked, and the fitful breeze that puffed by her brought a very strong, almost acrid scent of the river to her nose.
She heard the sounds of a ship, nearby as well, and she headed in that direction, letting the creaks and soft clanks of rigging guide her. The path downward was getting steeper, and she knew the return journey wouldn’t be comfortable, but her instincts were driving her forward and she followed them without question.
"Xena." The warrior replied. "Since you know my name, use it."
Mikah moved up next to her. "A ship has just come in.. I saw the guards running down towards it. It's not a good time to be down there."
"Why?" Xena eyed him.
"Things happen." Mikah stated, matter of factly. "It's just not a good time."
Xena considered the information. "They don't like witnesses?" She hazarded.
"All the more reason." The warrior edged around a cart left upturned in the road, it's broken shafts blocking the way.
Mikah jumped over the cart and caught up to her. "Do you always just travel around looking for trouble?"
"No." Xena replied. "I usually bring it with me, but Gabrielle's busy today so I'll have to just see what I can find." She glanced down a side street, spotting several rough looking men lounging against the wall, chains draped over their shoulders. "Slavery's legal. What's the problem?"
Mikah had been staring at her. Now he just exhaled, and shook his head a little. "Sure, it's legal." He replied quietly. "But you know how it is up on the hill." He indicated back the way they came. "All noble and all that. I guess the big shots in the white robes don't like to think about what actually makes Athens run."
That made sense. Xena rounded a corner at the end of the street and paused, as the breeze coming off the water blew her hair back and dried the sweat coating her skin.
Before her, the waterfront spread in both directions, the gray-green water stretching out from the harbor to the far seen horizon. The docks were crawling with activity, centered around the dock area just south of where she was standing. A large three masted ship was being pulled in, men scrambling around the docks and shouting as the large vessel neared the wharf.
Ropes creaked, and the ship's tarred timbers rasped against the stone, it's loose sails flapping in the freshening wind that brought a stench of old fish, and unwashed humanity with it.
Xena edged into a small alcove in front of an empty hut where a short wall provided a perch for her to settle on. She was mostly in the shadows here, far enough from the docks to avoid attention, yet close enough for her to absorb every detail of what was going on.
As the ship was secured with thick, woven ropes, men started to gather around it, some pulling hand carts, some obviously dockside workers, some just idly standing by. The group of men with chains sauntered over, leaning against one of the thick upright pilons and trading crude jokes whose subject was obvious to Xena's ears even at this distance.
It felt good to get off her leg, Xena had to admit, as she exhaled, and felt the ache slowly ease from her shoulders. She let her chin rest on the crosspiece of her crutch and allowed her eyes to wander over the scene, aware of Mikah settling at her back, as far into the shadows as he could press himself.
The ship was finally lashed into place, and the landing planks put down. The first man up onto the planks was a tall, bearded fellow in a richly colored sash and high black boots, his bare chest glistening in the hot sun. The captain, Xena reasoned, sparing a brief moment of nostalgia when she herself had mastered a ship not too different from this one.
"Odd bunch, sailors." Mikah commented softly. "They look so much to the gods."
She hadn't. Xena reflected. Maybe that's why none of her voyages had ever done her any good. "Dangerous way of life." She said. "A lot of things can go wrong out there, and it's just you and that water. No place to hide."
It had been a stormy night at sea, on the long voyage back from Britannia. Xena had gone topside, and helped the crew batten the ship down for the storm, then returned to the small chamber they'd been assigned to.
A chamber suddenly far, far too small, to hold the gulf that had opened between her, and Gabrielle. The bard had been silent, and very withdrawn since they'd left the island, spending most of her time gazing out over the water, looking back the way they'd come.
Wrapped in her own silent thoughts.
As she was when Xena reentered their cabin, finding her near the porthole, leaning against the wooden ships wall and gazing out into the darkness.
Or perhaps gazing in at it.
There had been so very few times in her life when Xena had felt so completely helpless as she had in that moment. She'd had no power to change the recent past, no power to comfort her friend, no power to make what Gabrielle was now carrying any better, any lighter.
All she could do was hurt for her. For Gabrielle, and for herself, and for what they'd lost.
So she'd taken a spot as far away from the bard as she could get, settling against the inside wall of the cabin and wrapping her arms around her upraised knee, listening to the lash of the rain against the boat, and the low, close rumble of thunder.
She'd rested her chin against her arm, and watched Gabrielle out of the corner of her peripheral vision. In the reflection from the porthole, she could see the lines of exhaustion on the bard's face, and the dark circles under her eyes, and wondered when the last time Gabrielle had slept had been.
Not any of the nights in recent memory, she realized, having sensed the bard tossing and turning ceaselessly, refusing her comfort with quiet, whispered finality.
Oh gods, that had hurt. Xena had felt the storm of emotion rising in her, at the magnitude of the loss.
How had she let this all go so wrong?
But. With a sigh, the warrior had straightened, turning her head as Gabrielle shifted and started to stand up, freezing in mid motion and biting her lip to hold back a cry. "Gabrielle?" Xena had asked, the concern bubbling up out of her from a deep reflex nothing but death could have stifled.
A breath. "Yeah?" Gabrielle had straightened slowly and turned to face her, obviously in some pain.
The look Gabrielle had given her had been one of such dark irony, it had made Xena flinch. But she'd pushed that all down and gotten up, walking over to Gabrielle and peering closely at her. "I've got something that might help."
Gabrielle hadn't even looked at her. She'd just shaken her head faintly. "I don' t think anything will."
"Might help you sleep, at least." Xena had replied very quietly. "Worth a try, isn't it?"
For a moment, she'd thought Gabrielle was going to refuse. Then the bard had finally lifted her head and met Xena's eyes, and nodded in silent agreement.
Xena had gone to her bags, and taken out her healer's kit, removing the herbs she'd needed and mixing them into a cup she filled with wine. She'd slowly mixed the contents, then brought it to Gabrielle, and put it into her hands. "There."
Very slowly, Gabrielle had lifted the cup and drank from it, swallowing in steady gulps until it was drained dry. Then she handed it back, curling her hands very briefly around Xena's as the warrior took the metal goblet.
Then her eyelashes had fluttered, and she'd stumbled a little, as the drugs took hold faster than Xena had anticipated. The warrior had reached out and steadied her, but Gabrielle's knees had buckled, and she would have fallen if the warrior hadn't simply tossed the cup to one side and caught her, cradling her gently as she eased them both over to the rude bunk the room afforded.
By the time Xena had settled to her knees on the pallet, Gabrielle's hands were twined in the loose shirt the warrior was wearing, and her head was resting against Xena's chest.
It had been just so much easier to simply leave things as they were.
Xena had collapsed back against the inner wall, and pulled Gabrielle to her, letting the bard's body slump against hers as the herbs took her out completely.
She never dreamed it would hurt as much as it did, feeling that old, once familiar warmth cuddled against her and knowing if Gabrielle was awake, and aware, the bard would push her away.
It broke her, and she put her arms around Gabrielle and hugged her, feeling the tears well up helplessly as she sat there in the semi darkness, as the storm ranged around them.
In that one moment, she realized all she'd lost.
"I'm sorry." She'd whispered. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I'm sorry for everything. " Tears had rolled down her face. "Sorry we met. Sorry I let you follow me. Sorry I didn't take you back home and leave you in a safe place." She'd put her cheek down on the fair head, knowing she'd probably never get a chance again to do it. "Gods, I wish I were dead.. I would rather have died a thousand times than to have had this happen to us."
Darkness had settled over her. "I guess I deserved it." She'd whispered, in quiet despair. "But you didn’t'." Her shoulders had slumped, and she'd just given in to her grief, just wishing for an end to the pain gripping her heart.
She'd woken with the pale, wan light of a new day pouring through the porthole, spilling across the weathered boards of the cabin and across her splayed legs and Gabrielle's still cuddling body.
And she'd opened her eyes, only to look down and find Gabrielle looking gravely back at her.
To have Gabrielle lift a hand, and touch her cheek.
To find an old friend behind those green eyes, despite the shadows and the pain etched across them.
"Thanks." Gabrielle had whispered, hoarsely. "Hang in there, Xena. We'll make it."
If there had been any tears left in her, she would have shed them then.
As it was, she could only be grateful that the darkness had lifted an inch, and that was enough.
For the moment.
The warrior turned her head. "Yes?"
Mikah drew his hand back. "Are you all right? You looked a bit out of it."
"I'm fine." Xena told him. "I was just… reviewing some information." She turned her head back to watch the ship, which was now being unloaded. She had a sudden urge to get up and head off, to go find Gabrielle, but she managed to stifle it, and concentrated on watching the groups of slave wranglers now standing around the gangplank, chains at the ready.
First things first.
"So you see, Gabrielle… " Elenus paused, as the woman across from him seemed to freeze, pausing in her motion and gazing off into the distance. "Gabrielle?"
A shiver passed through the bard's slim form, but the green eyes lifted and met his. "Sorry." Gabrielle murmured, taking a deep breath. The sudden jolt of… something had hit her in the guts, and she wasn't sure if it was just the very sweet wine, or… The bard felt sweat start to break out on her skin, under her tunic, and she put her cup down. It was a very odd, almost tickly sensation, not quite unpleasant. "I'm not used to strong drink."
"Ah." Elenus smiled at her. "Of course… Beles, cut our guest's wine with some water, will you ?"
A very young man stepped lightly around the circle and knelt at Gabrielle's side, taking her cup and gracefully pouring crystal clear water into it's depths, then taking a slim stirrer and mixing it. He handed it back to the bard with a sweet smile.
"Thanks." Gabrielle took a sip, finding the drink easier to swallow. It didn't seem to help her body's sudden tingling, however. "So, you're telling me that Homer came to you, and told you he had proof that Celesta was intimidating the other bards, and you… "
"Well.. " The older woman had the grace to look embarrassed. "It would not be an unreasonable thing for a competitor to claim, you see?" She said. "Homer was Celesta's biggest rival.. they fought constantly."
"But… " Gabrielle took a breath, as another wave of tingling crept along her skin, lifting the soft, fine hairs on her arms and making her wish… She blinked. Making her wish Xena was there, or more precisely, making her wish that she and the warrior were together somewhere there weren't an entire roomful of watching Athenian bards.
That was very odd. It wasn't that she didn't often think of Xena, and get… um.. . Gabrielle nibbled the inside of her lip. But not usually when she was sitting in important meetings. With a frown, she forced herself to concentrate. "Didn't you think Homer might have a point? You seem like you don't think too highly of Celesta."
"Oh, we discussed it." Elenus sighed. "The thing is, Homer was always seeing unfairness.. and he was never shy about threatening to leave us over it. You remember, Gabrielle.. don’t' you?"
"Hm." Gabrielle had to admit she did remember exactly that. "I know he was very sensitive.. but I thought it was mostly his father's pressure that caused that. He didn't want to fail in front of him."
"True." The older woman sighed. "At any rate, we tried to play down his suspicions, and he accused us of being purchased by Celesta's money and power. Then he left." She shrugged. "It's very sad, that's true, but it's not out of the realm of what we expected from him."
That bothered Gabrielle. Not only because she remembered Homer fondly, but because she suspected he might have turned out to be a very good bard. She also held, close to her heart, a sense of kinship to Homer and to think he simply walked out in a fit of pique and left the Academy just didn't sit well with her. "Did you try to change his mind?"
"He left before we could." Elenus broke in smoothly. "We sent word to his home, but the messengers won't be back yet for several days."
Uh huh. Gabrielle remembered Atrius' words. "His family didn't contact you?"
"No." Elenus shook his head gravely.
Gabrielle caught his gaze, and looked at him, judging the words. She decided he, at least, believed what he was saying. Now, the older woman… Gabrielle noted her shifting eyes, and the long, elegant fingers plucking at her robe hem. The older woman knew something. "Selena… didn't you think it was odd that Homer would just walk out like that? I know he was upset, but unless he changed a lot, I’m sure he still believed in his work."
Selena steepled her fingers, and rested them against her lips. "Strange you should ask that, Gabrielle."
Strange. I bet. Gabrielle merely waited, relieved that the itchy, heated feeling seemed to be abating a little.
The older woman got up and went to the sideboard, bypassing the attentive slaves and pouring a cup of water for herself. "I spoke with Homer just before he left." She said. "He was upset, yes. That's very true." Her eyes darted to Elenus' back, then drifted to Gabrielle's face. "But he told me something very interesting, and it had to do with you."
"Me?" Gabrielle asked, in a surprised tone.
"Yes." Selena walked back over and sat down on the soft cushions. "He told me that he was fed up with the politics of the Academy, and the only reason he was sticking it out was because of something he'd read in one of your scrolls." She turned the cup in her hands, studying the surface of the water as though trying to divine something from it. "Something about how the sweetness of the journey's end was in direct proportion to the bitterness of the road you take to earn it."
A smile appeared on Gabrielle's face. "In my life, that's been very true." She replied quietly. "It's like climbing a mountain - when you're doing it, it seems like the hardest thing in the world, but once you get to the top, and see the view, it's worth the work."
They didn't really understand, Gabrielle knew. Though Elenus was nodding, she knew these people facing her hadn't gone through a quarter of the trials she had in her short lifetime.
"Well, yes." Selena agreed. "I suppose that's what he meant.. so that's why I was surprised to find him gone the next day. It would seem he changed his mind very quickly."
"You know how flighty he'd been lately." Another man interjected. "Doesn't mean anything, Selena. I told you that after it happened."
"And we all know how much you disliked him, Aanas." Selena sniped. "So naturally you thought that."
"Now, Selena…" Elenus held up a hand. "I know you liked the boy…"
Okay. Gabrielle got gracefully to her feet and set her cup down. That's enough of this. "Well, I've got a lot of things to do today… thanks for the information, and the refreshments." It occurred to her suddenly that she'd become less tolerant of that kind of thing lately, and she wondered if her often tempestuous partner wasn't rubbing off on her just a little. "I'll be back in touch when we've got our tax situation straightened out."
They hastily got to their feet to tender their farewells to her. "Remember, the competition will come soon, Gabrielle." Elenus reminded her anxiously. "The winner will be selected on the feast day of Aphrodite.. mid way through the games."
"Don't worry." Gabrielle smiled at him. "I'll be there." She took his proffered arm and gripped it, then stepped neatly around the piles of pillows and left the room, cocking an ear to catch the rising buzz of speech behind her as she left. With a tiny shake of her head, she found her way out towards the street, and had almost gained her objective when a large body suddenly blocked her way.
Instinct took over, and she fell back a step, her boots moving out to shoulder width and her hands coming up in an automatic defensive posture as her body came over her center of balance.
"Well well." Celesta's low drawl sounded. "What have we here? If it isn't Euripide's friend." She studied Gabrielle with lazy, intent eyes. "Jumpy little thing, aren't you?"
Feeling a touch embarrassed, Gabrielle straightened up and let her hands fall to her sides. "Sorry.. you startled me." She explained, returning the steady stare with one of her own. "How's your rehearsal coming along?"
The tall woman leaned against the doorway, blocking it casually. "Why don't you come see for yourself?" Celesta asked. "I seem to recall inviting you.. not many people stand me up."
Ah. Gabrielle nibbled the inside of her lip. "That's right, you did, didn't you." She said. "Well, you looked pretty busy yesterday… I didn't think you meant right that moment."
"I guess you judged me wrong then." Celesta smiled. "I’m very much an instant gratification kind of gal. So why don't you join me now… ah.. you know, Euri never did say what your name was, now did he, before you dashed off and abandoned us."
Gabrielle forced her body posture to relax. "I had a friend to look after." She said, then had to grab for the door sill as a sudden wave of grief washed over her.
Celesta's eyebrows lifted. "Don't get all dramatic on me now." She slid over and reached for Gabrielle. "C'mere…"
Gabrielle stepped back, feeling her heart racing in a chest that had a sudden, tight band around it. "No.. I’m… fine." She drew a breath. "Excuse me.. I've got something I need to go take care of." She started past Celesta.
"Whoa now, hold on." Celesta grabbed her. "Not so fast, country cousin… hey!"
Gabrielle swiveled, and clamped her hands down on the grip holding her, shoving the bigger woman back and tearing herself free. "Excuse me." She repeated, ducking past and gaining the door, then trotting down the steps into the bright sunlight. She paused at the bottom of them, glancing up and down the street, then picked a direction and broke into a run, driven by the churning in her guts.
Bugs were fun. Dori crawled underneath some thick leaves, hot in pursuit of a pretty bug, a red one with dots. She clambered over a big root and tumbled down the other side, then slapped a hand over the frantically crawling bug and secured it. "Gotcha." She lifted her hand closer to her face and peered cautiously between her fingers.
She heard someone calling her name. But it wasn't Boo or Mama, so it didn't count. She put the bug down, and watched it crawl, the picked it back up again.
She didn't put it into her mouth. Legs tickled, and she didn't like that. She heard a noise, and that made her put the bug down and crawl off to investigate. It was too low for her to walk, but crawling was good too, especially since it was mud. Mud gooshed. She liked that.
Mama didn't like that, but Boo did, Dori knew. Boo made believe she didn't, but Dori knew better. She wished Boo and Mama were here now. Grandma was okay, but she missed Mama's voice, and the nice way Boo smelled.
She missed flying.
Dori scowled, and looked for the noise. She saw a green rope moving away, and climbed after it, reaching out a hand and grabbing the end of the rope as it disappeared.
It moved. Dori's eyes widened, and she pulled back, feeling the rope squiggle and squirm inside her fingers. "Bck!" She yanked her hand back, and the rope came all the way loose, dropping on top of her legs.
Someone called her name again, but it still wasn't Boo or Mama, so it still didn't count.
The rope was now squiggling around on top of her, and she let it go, then grabbed the front end, with the eyes, pulling it closer for her to look at. "Aminal."
The rope's mouth opened up, and it stuck it's tongue out at her, like Mama did. Dori stuck her tongue out back. Mama always laughed when she did that, but the rope didn't. It writhed and wrapped around her hand.
Dori scowled at it. Then she heard another noise, and looked around, surprised to see another something looking back at her. "Aminal!" She pointed at it.
It had a small, nasty face, and a skinny body, and it growled at her.
Dori growled back. Guff never liked that. "Go!" She pointed again, imperiously.
The aminal got mad at her, and showed it's teeth. That wasn't good. Dori didn't like that, because when Guff did that, he was going to bite.
Guff never bit her, but Guff bit other things, and Dori knew what he looked like when he did it. The aminal came closer, showing it's teeth again.
Dori wondered what to do. She could get up and run away. She could stay. She could fight with the aminal.
The aminal growled, and came closer.
What would Boo do?
Dori got to her feet and ran at the aminal, yelling at the top of her voice, waving the rope in her other hand.
The aminal squeaked and ran, dashing off into the bushes and disappearing real fast. That was good. Dori giggled. She wished Boo were here, because she knew Boo would hug her.
Dori turned around. Poopoo was there. "There was aminal!" She told her. "It was mad!"
"I’m mad, you little…" Poopoo was wet, and covered in mud, so Dori didn't understand what her problem was. "Get over here! Give me that.. what do you have in your ha… yeeeeloooowww!!!!!!"
Dori watched Poopoo fall over, making funny faces and throwing the rope around with her hands. It was funny. She giggled, then she looked around, to see what else she could find.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Mikah whispered, as he crept along behind Xena, who was sidling behind the wagon rumbling off away from the boat.
"No." Xena concentrated on staying relatively unseen. She'd watched them unload thirty or forty adult slaves, who were put in chains and shoved down a back street away from the docks and had almost decided to follow, when they'd thrown the next load of cargo off the vessel.
Children. Xena had watched in horror as twelve or thirteen young boys and girls stumbled out into the sunlight, shading their eyes from the brightness as though they'd been held under the decks the entire voyage. They were dressed in filthy rags, and were covered in bruises and it had been all Xena could do to sit still while they were tossed into a rough wagon and driven away.
She didn't want to watch. She wanted, she fully acknowledged, to have her sword in her hand, and to ride down those bastards and break the wagon into tiny pieces of kindling. However, she was unarmed, and unhorsed, and crippled, so there had to be, in this case, a plan B.
Plan B was to follow the wagon and see where it went, so that's what they were doing now. The horses pulled the cart slowly enough, and the driver didn't really seem to care if he were noticed or not, so she kept to the shadows and limped after it until it turned into a gated courtyard.
Two guards opened the gates and let the wagon in, then closed them again and stood with their backs to the wood, hands folded, and knowing eyes scanning the area.
Xena waited behind a terra cotta alcove, just watching.
"Well, guess that's the end of that." Mikah murmured. "Can't do much for them if they're in there, right?"
Pale blue eyes studied the buildings, then Xena pushed off from the wall and started up the sloping street, right past the guarded gates. Uphill was tough on her leg, but she kept on, letting her eyes fall briefly on the guards, and seeing the looks of amused pity on their faces.
That alone almost got them in serious trouble. But the warrior held her temper and struggled on, turning the corner at the top of the street and pausing to rest. Then she angled down the side street, which was bordered by a high, whitewashed wall of stone.
"Perhaps a cart now?" Mikah asked, with gentle sympathy.
Xena stopped again, and leaned against the wall. "All right." She exhaled. "We can get a cart."
"Good." The boy smiled at her, then turned to head off and summon one.
Xena hauled him back. "Just one thing first." She held out the crutch. "Hang on to this for a minute."
Puzzled, Mikah took the crutch from her. "Of course.. b…" He stared at her.
Xena had turned, and was studying the wall. She flexed her hands, then crouched slightly on her good leg, before she surged upward, her body uncoiling like a big cat's as she sprang up over her own height, catching the top of the wall with both hands.
"Great Zeus." Mikah whispered.
Xena waited for her body to settle, then she pulled her body upward using sheer strength alone and gained the top of the wall, balancing on her stomach as she peered over.
Her eyes took in a sight that sickened even her hardened senses. The courtyard inside was ringed with mean cages, each one containing one or two children. As she watched, the wagon was unloaded, and the newcomers were herded into a small, pit like area. Then a few roughly dressed men took buckets of water and dumped them over the frightened waifs, yelling at them and pushing them to the floor, as they tore the rags off their bodies.
Xena felt her body coil. Every muscle tensed as she fought down her instincts, and it occurred to her that she was having to do that more and more often here.
She decided she didn't like it.
"Xena!" Mikah hissed. "Someone's coming!"
The warrior scanned the courtyard, memorizing details. "Fast or slow?"
Mikah peered down the street. "Fast."
"They see us?"
"Yeah." Mikah glanced up, anxiously. "I think you'd better get down.. they're going to be here really soon"
Mikah blinked. "Um.. yes."
"Woman? Good looking? Runs like a badger?"
Another blink. "How did you know that?"
"I have many skills." Xena replied, noticing a small grate near the bottom of the wall on the other side.
"What should I do?" Mikah asked, in a hoarse whisper.
"Get out of her way." Xena replied blithely. "If she runs into you, it's gonna hurt." She lifted herself up off the wall and pushed away, twisting in mid air and only just remembering to land on one leg just as Gabrielle skidded to a halt, scattering shale chips all over both of them. She put out a hand to stop the bard, who was unable to stop sliding, and slammed into her.
Xena's shoulders hit the wall with a thump and she grunted as the air was forced out of her lungs. She looked down at the sweaty, out of breath Amazon Queen in her arms. "Tough day at the Academy?"
A shout interrupted them, and they turned, to see a body of Athenian guards rushing towards them, swords drawn.
"Uh oh." Gabrielle exhaled. "I think we're in trouble."
"Now, just hold on." Xena put herself between the angry guard captain and her soulmate. "What's this all about?" They were alone, since she'd sent Mikah off running as the soldiers approached, figuring it lessened the complications.
"Ma'am, I'll ask you once to move out of the way, and let me take this woman into custody." The captain stated. "What this is about is none of your business."
"He's right.. let me.."
Xena just turned her head and pinned the bard with a glare. "He's right? You're none of my business?"
Prudently, Gabrielle shut up, folding her arms over her chest and wrinkling her nose a little.
"That's what I thought." Xena turned back to the captain. "What'd she do?"
The guard captain had watched this, and his attitude moderated from annoyed to warily thoughtful. "She belong to you?"
"Yes." Xena didn't dare turn around, especially since her sense of hearing easily picked up the sound of steam curling out of her partner's adorable pink ears. "Now, you gonna tell me what happened, or do I have to go lodge a complaint with your boss?" She limped forward and got into the guard's face, making the most of her nearly handspan height advantage.
"Then you're the one we'll be taking in." The man replied cooly. "Cause your slave broke up six market stalls and make the city prelate's cart overturn and dumped him into the midden channel."
Xena turned and looked at Gabrielle, her eyebrows climbing to her hairline.
"I was in a hurry.' Gabrielle told her, through gritted teeth.
"Now, will you be coming with us, ma'am, or will I have to have your bound?" The guard captain inquired.
"Niether." Xena leaned on her crutch. "for one thing, there aren't enough of you to even start the process, and for another, we both know it's all a matter of dinars, so how many is it going to take to get you to walk back down that road and let me get on with my business?"
The guard captain cocked his head and regarded her. Xena returned his look with quiet confidence. Then the man turned to face his waiting troops.
Xena tensed, suspecting her bluff was about to be called.
"Bring the cart." He turned back to her. "You will come with us, or I will have them shoot you. Choose quickly."
Xena felt rather than saw Gabrielle stiffen behind her, and suspected the next thing she'd see was the bard's back as she got in front of her. "All right." She made the decision quickly. "We'll go with you." She held out a hand to block Gabrielle's advance, and found her arm circled with very warm fingers.
"Good choice." The guard captain said. "Bethas, your crossbow, please. Guard them until the cart comes."
"Xena." Gabrielle hissed. "What in Hades are you doing?"
The warrior glanced at her. "Relax." She murmured. "We can straighten this out once we get to the prefects office." She looked up as a covered cart rumbled closer, pulled by two large, gray geldings. "Besides… " Her eyes flicked up the hill. "I wasn't looking forward to getting back up that thing."
"Gods." Gabrielle exhaled, leaning her head against the warrior's shoulder briefly. "You scared the poop out of me Xena.. what happened?" She asked. "I felt like my insides were coming out my ears."
Xena was saved from answering by the guard directing them into the cart. She climbed awkwardly up after Gabrielle and settled in the straw as the door was slammed behind them, leaving them in dark, heated mustiness. The cart started up with a creak, and she let her body relax against the boards, glad to be off her feet at least. The long morning's walk had taken more out of her than she'd figured.
"Xe?" Gabrielle's voice came hesitantly out of the gloom, as the bard's fingers curled around her hand.
"Mm?" Xena turned her head and regarded her partner, finding a look of pained curiousity facing her. "Oh." She drank in the familiar contours. "I didn't… it wasn't anything that happened, Gabrielle… I was just remembering something that wasn't very pleasant."
Gabrielle gazed steadily at her. "You were hurting." She said. "I felt it."
The irony stung, and Xena had to let her eyes drop. "It's in the past.. no sense in bringing it up again." She said.
The bard stayed silent, the lack of sound making a larger statement than any words could have.
Xena felt sweat roll down her temple, and she sighed, knowing her choices in this were so limited as to be nonexistent. They'd learned the hard way that truth between them was the only way, despite the pain it often caused, and she knew refusing to answer would do more damage then just saying what the problem was. "I was down by the docks." She finally murmured. "And I was thinking about the trip back from Britannia."
Gabrielle leaned her head against the warrior's shoulder and circled her biceps with her free hand, nestling closer despite the heat. "Why?"
A shrug. "Just the sight of the sea, maybe. The ships." Xena replied. "I don’t know."
The wagon creaked along, shaking both of them in it's rhythm. "You know." Gabrielle said. "I remember waking up that one night… in the storm."
"With you… holding me." The bard went on, over a slight hitch in her voice. "And I remember looking up, and seeing your face… seeing how you'd been crying ." A long pause. "And I realized that there was still love for me somewhere in your heart."
There was no answer, but Gabrielle could feel the shudder that went through her soulmate's breathing. "What a lifeline that was for me." There was a slight pressure against her head, a warmth that trickled through to her scalp as Xena leaned her cheek against her. "But you're right.. that is in the past, Xena." She lifted the warrior's hand to her lips and kissed the knuckles. "We made it through that, you and I."
"Mm." The low murmur rumbled softly. "We did."
They rested in each other's arms for a bit, listening to the loud sounds of the city penetrate their dark prison. "So." Gabrielle went on, in a more normal tone of voice. "Mistress." Definitely a note of very wry humor now. "How are you and I gonna get through THIS little problem?"
Xena released a relieved, though weary chuckle. "I dunno. I'll figure it out when we get there." She said. "So what'd you find out at the Academy?"
"What didn't I find out? " The bard sighed. "Let's see… the bardic council is a bunch of schemers with more political motivation than a Hestian virgin during the feast of Bacchus, it looks like Homer was involved in something really convoluted, and I agreed to enter the Great Bard of Athens competition."
Xena felt a distinct shock go through her at the words. "I thought… " She began, then halted, not sure what to say next. "I didn't think you were interested in that." She finally went on, in a low mutter.
"Well, I mean.. I’m not." Gabrielle frowned, sensing the change in mood. "They asked me to do it."
"The bardic council." The bard explained. "They think I've got a chance at beating out Celesta, so they asked me to enter so she won't win and take them over."
The dark head cocked to one side, visible even in the darkness. "So.. they want you to take them over?"
"No." Gabrielle felt the cart lurch, and she grabbed Xena in reflex. "They don't want anyone to take them over, and they figure I"ll just take off after that." She said.
"Oh." Xena grimaced, as the cart bounced again, jarring her leg unpleasantly. "Why don't they just call off the competition?" Another bounce and this time, a hot jolt of pain, the first all day, lanced up her spine. "Erf."
Gabrielle quickly squirmed closer, and slid one of her thighs under her partner's injured leg, cushioning it against the hard bottom of the wagon. She stroked the tense skin of Xena's calf, unable in the darkness to see the bandage, or the wound under it. "Easy, tiger." She murmured. "Let's get this over with, and get you somewhere you can rest."
Xena half sighed, half growled. "I’m fine."
The cart jerked to a halt, almost throwing both of them hard against the side. Then they heard boots approaching, and the back of the wagon opened, letting in a brilliant bolt of light, and a welcome draft of fresh air. "Out." The guard captain ordered. "Quickly."
Gabrielle scrambled gladly out of the cart and turned, knowing better than to try and help Xena down, but watching anxiously all the same as the warrior took her time in emerging, pausing in the entrance to survey the surroundings, before she lowered herself to the ground and removed her crutch from the cart.
They were inside a walled courtyard, with all the trappings of a guard house around them. Fighters stood around, or worked in pairs with weapons nearby, most watching them with idle interest.
"Come with me." The guard captain ordered. "The jail is this way."
Xena reached out and grabbed the back of his tunic, yanking him to a halt "Hold it."
The man turned and grabbed the nearest guards crossbow and turned it on her. "I've lost my patience with you."
Xena reacted instinctively, swiveling her body and using the crutch as a staff, sweeping it around and taking the bow out of his hands in a single, rapid motion. It flew over his head and landed on the cobbles, discharging and nearly hitting a nearby soldier.
The man jerked towards her. Xena lifted the crutch and glared at him meaningfully. "Shoot her!" He ordered.
A guard raised his crossbow and aimed. Gabrielle surged into motion, only to be brought up short by Xena's hollering of her name, in a tone that cut through her conscious mind and struck solid chords deep inside her. She obeyed it from pure instinct, stumbling to a halt as the guard raised his arms and fired.
The crossbow mechanism twanged, it's quarrel releasing into the air with an audible buzz, straight towards Xena's unarmored and unprotected body. With an almost lazy motion, though, the warrior swiped the arrow out of midair, catching it before it had a chance to even graze her tunic.
Everything stopped. Even the sparring soldiers froze in motion, all eyes focused on the tall, confident figure standing in their midst.
"Wanna try another one?" Xena asked, in a calm voice, as she tossed the arrow up and caught it, twirling it negligently in her fingers. "Or would you rather try something more interesting?" She dropped the quarrel and flicked her crutch out, snaking it past the guard captains' defenses and hooking it's end on his sword hilt. A twist of her wrist pulled the sword from it's sheath and sent it flying towards her, and she caught it, twirling it with neat skill over her arm before she let the blade rest on her shoulder. "Choose." A grin. "And make it quick."
"Great Zeus." A tall, bearded soldier spoke, his body half hidden behind a storage barrel. "Mithras, what in the name of Olympus do you mean by dragging Xena in her in that wagon?" He emerged and walked towards her. "You could have gotten the entire squad killed that way."
Xena allowed a smile to cross her face. "That's all right." She indicated the crutch. "I needed a lift." She extended a hand. "Long time, Jens."
The tall man took her arm and gripped it. "Too long, Xena. " He turned his head. "Gabrielle, it's good to see you as well." Now his eyes went to the captain. "What's this all about?"
Gabrielle relaxed, recognizing the man as one of the outpost soldiers she and Xena had rescued a lifetime ago from a dangerous, though misunderstood enemy.
Things were looking up. For the moment, anyway.
Jen's quarters were roomy and comfortable. Gabrielle sat back in the leather hide chair and glanced around with interest, half listening to the discussion of battles and war going on right next to her.
It wasn't that she wasn't interested, but she knew the details Xena was relating in painful detail, and she wasn't frankly in the mood for reliving them. The fight with Andreas had given her nightmares for months, even with Xena's relatively constant presence, and she'd pushed that bit of their recent past as far out of her conscious thoughts as possible.
Which was bad, she readily acknowledged. It meant she just wasn't dealing with it. But she'd found over the years that sometimes putting those kinds of things away for a while let you take them back out after some time had passed, and look at them in a different, less painful way.
It was what Xena did, in a way. Though Gabrielle suspected there wasn't much later reflection on her partner's behalf. If there was something bothering her she couldn’t do anything about, couldn’t change, then Xena just dismissed it, and went on.
Which was why Gabrielle was a little concerned over the deep sense of grief she'd sensed coming from her partner earlier in the day, especially when she discovered what had caused it. Idly, she turned her head and regarded Xena's profile, now intent and active as the warrior described the tactics and strategy that had beaten Andrea's army.
The year just past had eased a number the lines of strain that had started to characterize her face, and Gabrielle had thought she'd gained a sense of inner peace, reflected in a certain warmth in her eyes, and the ease of her smile. But every once in a while, the scars would show, and the deep, unhealed places that the bard was beginning to fear would never really disappear.
It saddened her. She so wanted Xena to be whole, and to see life with the joy she herself had rediscovered. What hurt the worst was knowing that she was one of the touchstones of those scars and the cause of much of her beloved partner's pain.
Only the knowledge that she was also one of Xena's greatest sources of joy let her accept that. In blind instinct, Gabrielle reached out across the space between her and the warrior, and curled her hand around Xena's wrist, just wanting the contact. She heard the barely perceptible break in Xena's speech, then felt a returning warmth her hand was covered and held.
"We had heard rumors." Jens stated, leaning back in his seat and steepling his fingers. "Refugees coming into the city.. with what we considered wild stories."
"I only wish they were." Xena remarked grimly. "A lot of people died.. two of the villages closest to here said they'd sent for help, but no one ever answered."
Jens looked uncomfortable. His eyes shifted to the window, then back to Xena’s face, then dropped to his hands. "The city council decided against sending an expeditionary force." He finally said. "They thought it was just another warlord of the moon story."
Xena’s eyebrows rose. "With that kind of destruction? What are they burning in the Athenaum these days?"
He shrugged. "I can’t answer that. I’m a soldier, and I do what I’m told."
Xena snorted, the sound alone conveying more emotion than any words could.
"What if we hadn’t stopped him?" Gabrielle spoke up. "What would you have done if his army ended up on your doorstep… and it was the surrounding villages around Athens that got burned to the ground?"
"Well, obviously…" Jens started.
"Obviously it didn’t matter because it was just us provincials out in the wilderness, right?" The bard’s voice deepened in anger.
"Gabrielle…" He held a hand up. "It wasn’t my choice."
"And now those bastards want us to pay them?" Gabrielle snapped back. "And send our people to be in YOUR army?"
Jens got up and paced back and forth behind his desk. "I agree.. it doesn’t seem fair." He said. "But you have to remember.. it’s the good of the entire area that counts.. not just parts… "
"Out in the sticks." The bard finished. "You people are nuts."
Jens looked plaintively at Xena, who lifted one shoulder in a very eloquent shrug. "She’s right." The warrior stated. "Agreed, we have to have a common defense, but it can’t be a one way street, Jens. Right now, from where I’m sitting, it’s Athens takes, and everyone else gives." Xena shook her head. "That’s why we’re here.. to make that point with the council."
He stared at her. "Then you’ve got a problem."
Gabrielle stood and faced him, the bard’s attitude bristling. "You think they won’t listen to us?" She challenged him.
"I think they can’t listen to you." He replied simply. "They’re not in session. They adjourned two days ago, for the duration of the Games, and the Summer Festival."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged looks. "They left Athens?" The warrior asked incredulously.
"No." Jens shook his head. "But the council only attends council business when they’re in session. They don’t hear pleas, or arguments otherwise."
"But that means they won’t be in session until after the new moon." Gabrielle said. "Xena, that’s after the deadline they gave us."
"Mm." The warrior nodded slowly. "Convenient." She glanced up at Jens. "We’re not paying those taxes, and we’re not sending conscripts."
The soldier frowned. "Xena, I don’t think you know what you’re saying here. This isn’t some backwater wanna be prince you’re dealing with.. I mean, I know what your experience is, but.. they’re serious about this. They’ll send the army after you."
"Let em." Xena replied, with a distinct touch of insolence. "A lot of guys out there wondered what would have happened if I’d gone for Athens way back when."
An uncomfortable silence fell over them. Jens blinked at her, and hesitated, clearly at a loss for words. Finally he sat back down. "Xena, y ou’re not making sense. No provincial militia can face our army. We both know that."
"Maybe." Xena let a slow smile appear. "Maybe not."
"You want to take the chance?" The warrior cut him off. "Does Athens?"
Gabrielle watched both of them in fascination. On the surface, she knew Jens was right, and what Xena had said was crazy, but as she studied the man’s face, she could see the doubt form in furrows over his brow as his military instincts clashed with…
Xena chuckled, low, and deep.
Clashed with his knowledge of who and what Xena was. Still was, Gabrielle acknowledged, as she watched her partner’s body language shift into the mode she used when sparring with a not so tough opponent. All sexy grin and lightly bared claws.
"Well." Jens backed off meekly. "At any rate, it’s a moot point, Xena. The council’s not going to listen to you, so what choices to do you really have? Do you really want to cause a war?"
"There has to be a way to talk to them." Gabrielle interjected. "They can make an exception."
Jens shook his head. "They don’t. Trust me… we’ve been through this a dozen times. This council especially – they’re… " He looked around and lowered his voice. "They’re mostly patricians… all they think about his getting more money, and more power. This whole Games thing, in fact. They put out a notice to all the surrounding provinces that if they sent atheletes to the games, and one turned out to be the overall winner, they’d recind the levies for that province."
Blue and green eyes met.
"But they know it’s all a sham." Jens went on. "The best athletes are already here in Athens – it’s just to give them fodder to compete against, and bring more people into the city to spend money. "
"How come the tax men didn’t tell us that?" Xena asked quietly. "About the games?"
Jens stared puzzedly at her. "They didn’t? Oh, I guess because it took them so long to get out there, they figured you’d never… I mean.. there wouldn’t be time for you to… "
"They didn’t want Xena to come and compete." Gabrielle remarked, placidly. "What a bunch of Centaur’s butt holes."
Jens sighed, and indicated the warrior’s splinted leg. "Well, it’s of no consequence now, I guess." He said. "I don’t know what to tell you, Xena. I understand what you’re saying… but I don’t think there’s any way you can get around this. Why not just pay the levy, and talk to the council afterward?"
Xena’s face was a study in silent, rapid thought, the tiny muscles on either side of her eyes twitching. "Yeah. " She stated. "Maybe you’re right." She turned and met Gabrielle’s eyes, silencing the emerging protest with a flicker of a wink. "Well, Jens.. I think we need to get going.. unless you want to really charge Gabrielle here with something."
Jens relaxed in his chair. "No." He said, in obvious relief. "If we put her in our jail, we’d end up with far more trouble than it would be worth, if I remember you as well as I think I do, Gabrielle."
The bard looked outraged. "Me?" She put her hands on her hips. "I am not a troublemaker."
Jens and Xena both looked at her.
"I’m not." Gabrielle insisted. "It’s not my fault those wagons got in my way.. I was walking. Doesn’t that mean I had right of way over them?"
Jens considered that. "Legally, yes." He agreed solemnly. "But not many citizens have the guts to try enforcing that law."
"There." The bard said. "So I didn’t do anything, and it’s not my fault."
The soldier sighed.
"We’ll see what we can do about making it up to them." Xena promised, as she hoisted herself to her feet and paused a moment to catch her balance before she fit her crutch in place. "Nice talking to you, Jens."
"And you, Xena." The man held out a hand, in a much better mood now. "I’m glad you agree with me. Can we give you a lift somewhere? In something better than a jail wagon?"
"Yes." Gabrielle answered at the same time, seeing the blood drain out of her soulmate’s face as the warrior put pressure on her bad leg. "That would be very nice of you.. I know I sure could use a ride." She took hold of Xena’s upper arm and ignored the baleful glare she was getting. "It’s been a long morning."
They walked out of the barracks and into the hot sunlight, which bounced off the white chalk walls and surrounded them.
Xena scowled as it hit the back of her head and intensified the headache she’d slowly developed, and decided to let the bard win this miniature battle. The arguments she’d mustered to avoid accepting Jens’ offer dissapated, and by the time they brought a light, open cart around she was glad enough to vault into it, and hope the ride down to the inn didn’t upset her stomach more than it was.
Besides, it gave her time to think about their newly changed predicament, and decide on another plan. Trouble was, there weren’t many options left to plan for, and the ones she had…
Xena sighed, and rested her chin on the crosspiece of the crutch. "How many days until the Games start?" She asked the young soldier sitting next to her.
"Two." He replied, with a shy smile. "It’s going to be exciting, don’t you think?"
The blue eyes glinted softly. "Oh yeah." Xena replied, in a mutter. "You can bet on it."
Back at the inn, they had more problems. The innkeeper was waiting for them and held up a hand as they went to enter. "Stop!"
"I’m not in the mood for this." Xena growled.
"Shh. Let me take care of it." Gabrielle stepped to one side and faced the woman. "What’s wrong?"
"That one." She pointed at Xena. "Caused me to lose my best customer this morning, and she stole a boy."
"Excuse me?" Gabrielle replied.
"You heard me." The innkeeper griped. "Stole my best boy, and knocked one of the nibbiest of his nibs into a snit and he said he wont’ be back here." She put her hands on ample hips. "Be gone, both of you."
"Now look." Gabirelle replied, calmly. "I’m sure this is just a misunderstanding. Xena didn’t take anyone.. and if she said something to some guy.. I’m sure there was a good reason for it."
"I don’t care. I want you out!" The innkeeper shouted. "You’re trouble! Nothing but trouble!"
Xena had to smile, despite everything. "C’mon, Gabrielle." She inclined her head. "We can find a better place to say than some fourth rate broken down whorehouse with lousy food."
"And what’s wrong with my food!" The woman objected.
Xena snorted. "Don’t worry, I’ll be glad to tell everyone I see here just how bad it is." She turned and started for the stable. "Stale bread, bad ale… disgusting."
"Hey! I’ll not have you saying that about my place, you….you… " The innkeeper yelled after her.
"Yeah, you’re right, Xena." Gabrielle played along. "Even the water was bad. I think we’d better warn all the people we know coming up for the games.. stay away from here, that’s for sure." She strolled after Xena.
There was silence for a moment, then the innkeeper rushed after them. "All right.. all right.. forget I said it… just forget about it, okay? "
"Nope, nope.. you want us out, we’releaving. "Gabrielle threw a hand up. "I’ll stop by the Academy of Bards and make sure they all know about this place though, that’s for sure."
The woman’s eyes almost popped out. "The b… ah, no.. wait… wait.. hold on.. not those chatterboxes! They’ll have it all over the city… wait…. Uhh… listen. I’m sorry.. I was just… I was upset about… "
Xena turned, and came face to face with her, all pretense dropped, totally serious. "The bastard I yelled at was abusing one of your people. One of your valuable people. You let people like him get away with that, eventually you won’t have any one working for you. That what you want?"
The innkeeper blinked. "Uh… no."
"Then you should be thanking me, right?"
"You’re welcome." Xena turned and limped off. Gabrielle smiled kindly, patted the innkeeper on the arm, and followed.
They made it back to the room, and Xena let Gabrielle enter before her, then she closed the door and leaned against it, closing her eyes as a jolt of pain shot up her spine from the now angrily throbbing knee she could no longer even put the slightest pressure on.
"Easy." Gabrielle’s hands were on her in an instant, a gentle, almost hesitant stroking along her upper arm. "Let me help you over to the bed."
It hurt too much to argue. Xena accepted the support, letting the bard slid an arm around her, and support her weight across her shoulders until they reached the pallet, and she could drop onto it and simply lean back and let Gabrielle lift her injured leg up. "Damn."
"I need to change this bandage, Xe." Gabrielle stated.
"Go ahead." Xena kept her eyes closed, and willed the sharp agony to fade. She could feel the careful pressure and warmth of the bard’s fingers against the skin of her leg and she concentrated on Gabrielle’s nearness to distract her.
With her eyes closed, her other senses surged forward, and she could hear the faintest whisper as Gabrielle shifted, and the cloth covering her moved along her skin. She could hear the rasp of the bard’s souls against the floor, and the soft inhales and exhales of her breathing.
The scent of sun heated skin came to her, along with a hint of the soap they used for their clothes, and the worn leather of Gabrielle’s boots. Underlying that was the distinct smell of Gabrielle herself, as familiar to Xena as the lines on the palm of her hand, and she let the combination of sensations lull her into a quiet state of numbness. "Gab?"
"Hm?" The bard’s vibrant, tones answered.
"Sorry about the whole slave thing." Xena said. "I just said the first thing that crossed my mind." She could feel the bandages holding her splint on loosen, and debated on opening her eyes.
"Hang on." Gabrielle’s voice moved, and shifted as the bard stood up and walked across the room. She busied herself for a moment, then returned, and Xena now heard the distinct sloshing of water, and the soft tinkle as the bard wrung something out. A moment later, she felt a cool touch against her knee, and the harsh sting as the liquid flowed over the wound Gabrielle had sewn up.
"It’s all swollen." Gabrielle murmured. "I need to restitch this, sweetheart."
Xena sighed audibly.
"Well, you know… "
"I know." Xena grumbled. "If I’d stay the Hades off it, it’d heal faster." She opened one eye a crack, and peeked over at Gabrielle, expecting and getting a look of tolerant understanding from her. "Damn thing messed up our whole plan, didn’t it?"
"With the council?" Gabrielle carefully cut the stitches she’d put in and washed away the blood that emerged from the wound. "Yeah, I guess." She winced in reflex as she felt the muscles under Xena’s skin tighten in reaction to the pain she knew she was causing. "What are we going to do now? I don’t think just not paying the tax is a good idea, Xena. As much as I respect our militia, I’d rather not have to use them again."
"On the other hand… " The bard went on, knowing her speech was at least taking Xena’s mind off what she was doing. "I can’t stand the thought of giving them what they asked for without a fight."
"But what choices do we really have?" Gabrielle said. "If the council won’t listen to us, and we can’t extend the deadline… what else is there?" She didn’t really expect Xena to answer, so she was surprised when the low voice spoke up.
"We enter the Games."
Gabrielle stopped in mid motion, one hand holding the ragged skin in place, the other about to put a stitch in to hold it closed. "What?"
Xena shrugged one shoulder. "Winner gets to have their taxes excused, right?"
"So we’ll have to win them."
Gabrielle put her needle and gut thread down and leaned forward, reaching up to lift one of her partner’s eyelids and exposing a clear blue eye, which she peered into intently. "Xena, you’re pulling my leg, right?"
A slight shake of the warrior’s head.
"Xena." The bard rubbed her temples. "You know I love you.. and you know there is no one in the world who believes more in you than I do, right?"
A faint, charmed smile appeared.
"But, honey, even I’d have to doubt you could win all those games with a broken leg." Gabrielle said.
‘That’s true." Xena surprisingly agreed, tilting her head and regarding her soulmate. "Footraces would be tough, and some of the hand to hand."
"Right. Exactly." Gabrielle nodded. "It’s just really bad timing… if this hadn’t happened, then…"
"That’s where you come in." The warrior interrupted her.
Mist green eyes stared at her. "Me?"
"Sure." Xena said.
"Xena, I can’t compete against those… " Gabrielle spluttered.
"Why not?" The warrior asked.
"Well, I mean.. " The bard searched for words. "They’ve been practicing.. that’s all they do around here, and they… Xena, for Artemis’ sake, I’m not an athelete!"
"Neither am I."
"Oh, stop that. It’s different for you, and you know it." Gabrielle replied crossly. She frowned, and went back to her task, visibly upset.
Xena regarded her thoughtfully. "What’s bothering you?" She asked.
For a while, the bard didn’t answer, using the excuse of her meticulous stitching to allow her to gather her thoughts. She was conscious of Xena’s eyes on her, but knew the warrior would wait patiently for her answer until she’d finished what she was doing.
She concentrated on the skin under her fingers, focusing on the tiny wrinkles in it, and avoiding the worst of the angry, red areas as she carefully put the pieces back together. How could Xena even be thinking about entering a competition herself, with this injury? Her mind knew the answer, though – because Xena would do whatever she had to do to achieve her objective. If that meant brutalizing her own body, then she’d do it, if she thought the goal was important enough.
Gabrielle didn’t think the taxes were. That was only coinage, and it wasn’t worth, in her opinion, putting her beloved partner through any kind of agony. The levies were more troubling, though.
But really, what kind of chance did they have anyway? The people she had seen so far who were competing seemed to be well trained, and well conditioned… would entering even be worth it?
Gabrielle heard a soft exhale, and she glanced to her left, to see a look of unguarded, weary pain cross her partner’s face for just an instant. She closed her own eyes, and let her hands rest on Xena’s leg, and acknowledged the feeling of quiet shame that twisted her guts. If Xena thought it was important enough to put herself through the pain she knew she’d have to, then what the Hades was she, Gabrielle, doing griping about helping her?
She gently put the bandage back on Xena’s leg, tightening the bindings to hold the limb straight and arranging the furs to make her partner a little more comfortable. Then she set her things aside and sat down on the ground next to the pallet, resting her elbows on top of it and taking Xena’s hand in her own. She looked at their linked fingers, then lifted her head and met Xena’s patiently waiting gaze.
They looked at each other, in soul to soul understanding. "What is bothering me?" Gabrielle asked.
"The thought of failing." Xena answered, with quiet certainty.
Gabrielle’s lips pursed, and a tiny smile appeared. "You’ve taught me to win, Xena. I don’t like losing anymore." She admitted. "Yeah. I don’t want to go out there and make a jerk of myself."
"You won’t." The warrior replied. "I might, on the other hand." She remarked, glancing wryly at her leg. "But I think we’ve gotta try it at least."
A sigh. "We’re nuts."
"Probably." Xena smiled at her and put a hand on the bard’s shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. "We’ll just give it our best shot."
Gabrielle traced a fingertip over the swollen skin she’d just stitched. "Xena, no one is more aware of your ability to go forward even when you shouldn’t be able to than I am, but is there any real… advantage to you risking your health like this?"
Now it was Xena’s turn to fall into silent reflection.
"I know it could mean us having to pay, and maybe we’d have to work something out about the levies.. but you know something, partner?" Gabrielle went on. "I think I’d rather deal with that, then know you were hurting yourself worse." She paused, her brow creasing a little. "Maybe I’m just getting selfish in my old age."
Xena snorted in laughter, chuckles emerging by pure reflex. "Tell you what." The warrior said. "Let’s sign up for the damn things, and when it’s time, if I think the only thing I’ll be gaining by entering is a permanent limp, I’ll back out."
Gabrielle just looked at her.
"I will." Xena stated. "Honestly."
The mist green eyes kept up their steady stare.
"I promise." Xena’s voice dropped a little, and gentled.
Gabrielle scowled a little, but lifted their hands and kissed Xena’s fingers. She knew in her heart that her partner’s competitive spirit wouldn’t allow her to back down, not in this lifetime or any other, but arguing about it seemed to have no real point.
The heat seemed to get to her then, and she felt suddenly very tired. She closed her eyes and leaned her head against Xena’s side, feeling the warrior shift and slide a hand around the back of her neck to scratch it gently. "Ungh." Gabrielle murmured. "Know what I hate the worst about this room?"
"No, what?" Xena replied.
"Bed’s too small."
Xena eyed the pale head nestled against her hip, then reviewed the problem. With a slight frown, she shifted, and rolled over, letting her body lean against the cool surface of the wall. Then she tugged on a lock of the bard’s hair and indicated the small, but almost adequate space by her side.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest, then decided a little nap wasn’t a bad idea. She crawled up onto the pallet and settled against Xena’s body, winding her limbs carefully around her soulmates and letting out a long, heartfelt sigh. It was very warm, and they were both sweaty, but the comfort of the touch was worth it.
At the edges of her hearing, she thought she heard voices, and yelling, but when she concentrated on it, it faded in and out. "You hear anything?"
"Yeah." Xena mumbled. "Market fight, probably."
"Yeah. Nothing to do with us for a chance."
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