A Matter of Pride
It was a mariners bar, close to the water and smelling of old fish and bad beer. Xena half expected her boots to stick to the floor, and as she followed Dracos stocky form through the early lunch crowd she was already regretting coming inside.
Draco found a table near the back, and started to circle it, but Xena neatly circumvented him and settled into the furthest chair, her back to the wall and her legs sprawled out comfortably. Her old comrade paused in mid step, then gave her a twisted smile as he took the chair across from her. You never did answer me, Xena. He drawled. What are you doing here?
The warrior settled back in her chair, glad to get off her leg for a while. The inn was stuffy, but they were in the shadow of the wall and it was still bearable inside. She was debating how much to tell him when a female server came over, resting a half plank against one slim hip and fixing them with a bored, tired stare.
It distracted Draco. Gimme a tank, a loaf and a bowl. He ordered. And make it fast.
The woman deliberately ignored him and lifted an eyebrow at Xena.
Surprise me. Xena gave her a rakish half grin, getting just the barest twinkle of tired amusement in return The woman turned and left, and Xena steepled her fingers together and rested her lips against them. Im taking care of some business. She told Draco.
Oh? He leaned forward a little. Anything profitable? I knew you couldnt stay on that hokey path of redemption stuff for long.
True. Xenas lips twitched in wry acknowledgement. You havent been around these parts for a while, have you, Draco? She countered When did you start raiding so far for slaves?
He looked a little unsettled at that. Whats it to you?
Xena waited patiently. The inn was filling with dockworkers, and they were getting appraising looks from the men who shuffled in, crowding the room.
I go where the demand is. He finally answered. You get a bonus for exotic merchandise, Xena. You should know that. Draco studied her. Yeah, Ive been overseas for a couple years.. just started trading here again. Didnt realize how much I could get for some of the kids I found.. its a goldmine. He paused again. Want in? Now Draco gave her a rakish grin. I could use a decent first mate.
Xena knew better than to preach morality to someone who knew her as well as Draco once had. No thanks. She said. Ive already got a job. She leaned back a little. Whys the market so big? I thought there were plenty of live bodies around who just want a spot on the floor and a meal.
Draco shrugged, as their server came back and delivered up two cups and a platter. Beats me. He ripped off a piece of bread and scooped up some stew, then shoved it into his mouth. Maybe those sandal wearers up on the hill got bored with the locals theyre the ones who paid a bundle for my cargo.
Xena took a sip of the mug shed been given, which smelled strongly of barley. Yeah? The council you mean?
Yeah. A snort. Oh, yeah, they sent down two guys who pretended to be slave brokers, but what a couple of fakes. Saw right through em. Not a merchants bone in their bodies, just a couple of lackeys.
The courtyard of the townhouse flickered into Xenas mind, and she wondered. Slaves were a commodity in the city. All the upper class citizens had them, and the services that drove the place were run by them. Why would the city council need a special supply? Especially foreign ones, that would have to be trained from the ground up and taught to speak the language?
Something didnt make sense.
Sounds at the doorway caught her attention, and she glanced up, very surprised to see familiar faces entering. Four men had just come in, dressed in serviceable seamans gear. The foremost turned and caught her eye, and tapped his companions. They made their way across the room directly for her.
Draco looked up and saw them, then glanced at Xena. Collecting trouble as usual, Xena?
The lead man reached the table, and with a clumsy grace dropped to a knee and ducked his head. Gday, Genrl. Didnt spect to see you here. He rested a muscular arm on the table, and the light caught the hawks head tattoo prominent on his shoulder.
Hello, Breston. Xena replied quietly. Same here.. you just get in?
Aye. The Amphipolitan trader agreed. Had Hades own time weathering the storms, but we picked up a nice cargo coming on past Thrace. He glanced at the slack jawed Draco, then returned his attention to Xena. Well be unloading anything you be needing?
Nah. Xena smiled. Make em pay your price, though. Weather stopped most of the supply trains up here, thingsll be short pretty soon.
Breston grinned with unrestrained glee. We were hoping. He stood, and casually saluted her, touching a fist to his chest, and nudging his companions to move on to a free table nearby. A good day to you, Genrl.
Xena waited a long beat before she turned her eyes from the retreating men and met Dracos gaze.
He snorted. I should have known leopards never do change their spots. So you gathered a new army, huh? Figures. He took a gulp of ale. So. You in the market for some willing bodies? I remember you used to pay a premium for the nice looking ones.
Xena almost backhanded him. Her shoulder jerked, in fact, and Draco caught the faint motion, his glance becoming alert as he moved back slightly.
It was the truth, though, and she knew it. No fault to Draco for remembering. Xena forced her temper to settle, and curled her fingers around her cup instead. What would the militia commander of Amphipolis need with exotic slaves, Draco? She replied, catching his eyes.
Caught flat footed, her old lieutenant stared at her in confusion. What?
You were wrong. The warrior told him matter of factly. I went home. With a sudden motion, she stood, tossing a couple of dinars on the table. Then she walked out, and never looked back once.
Paladia became groggily conscious of a couple things all at once. One, it stunk. Two, she hurt like Hades all over, and three, she was buried under more crap than she could imagine. Slowly, she felt around her, fingers sinking into a thick, black mud as she sorted out the bits of debris.
A sensation of warmth suddenly flooded her lower body, and she had a moment of earthy worry that she'd lost it and soiled herself. Then the warmth receded, and she realized it was just that damn stupid water. With a muttered curse, she started throwing bits of junk off her, squirming in the mud as she got out from under branches and shattered wood that shed off her shoulders as she dragged herself up into the hazy, gray light.
Finally free, she rolled over and wiped the gunk out of her eyes. "Crap." She sat up and looked around, and immediately wished she hadn't. She was surrounded by debris and mud covered lumps that might, or might not have been once living things, but none of them were either big enough or small enough to be either Cait or the damn horse.
Worse, try as she might, she couldn't seem to remember what had happened, except she did recall a loud noise, and a scream.
Paladia considered her situation. "This sucks." She muttered "This just totally sucks." With a groan, she shoved herself upright and got her feet underneath her, making pained hissing noises as she felt cuts and scrapes all along her body. Then she plodded off in the direction the water was running, yanking her boots free of the clinging, stinking mud with each step.
Of course, the only way she really had to go in was uphill. With a sigh, she started up the slope, attempting to shake the clumps of mud off her as she walked. She got to the top of the rise and paused, looking around to figure out where to go next.
Her eyes took in the waterlogged downslope in front of her, then she blinked. Sprawled motionless near the edge of the water was the horse, it's lifeless body trapping a slim, struggling form. But that wasn't what pissed her off. Standing over Cait was a stranger, apparently trying to steal the pack strapped across the young Amazons back.
Paladia dropped the wad of mud she'd been scraping off her arm. "Hey!" She bellowed, starting down the slope at a clumsy run that nevertheless covered the ground effectively.
The thief looked up in surprise and spotted her.
The reaction wasn't what Paladia had expected.
A piercing yell of alarm came out of the intruder's mouth. Cait's bag was dropped, and the thief took off running, apparently in a state of utter panic. Paladia chased after her and with surprising luck and the fact that the thief got trapped in a patch of thick mud, slammed into the struggling figure without any attempt to slow down.
They both went down into the mud, and Paladia took great glee in bouncing on top of her target, driving the squirming figure deep into the mud. "Take that, you stinking rat!" She pounded the sodden figure with her fists. "Stupid son of a bacchae!"
"Pally!" Cait's voice, laced with urgency caught her attention.
Paladia turned her head and looked at her. "You okay?"
"Not quite." Cait grabbed an upthrust root and pulled herself forward. "Look, I know you're having a lovely time but this does hurt awfully."
Oh crap. Paladia immediately jumped off her foe and headed over. Cait admitting to being in pain meant her leg had probably been ripped clean off or something. She got to her friend's side and grabbed a dead horse limb, hauling at the carcass with stolid strength. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted the thief scrambling up and running off. "Chicken!" She yelled after the retreating form, as she successfully heaved the horse's body over and rolled it off Cait.
"Gosh." Cait exhaled, pulling herself free and slithering through the mud away from the animal. "Thanks ever so much, Pally. That was awful."
Huh. With a frown, the taller Amazon hopped over a log and went to Cait's side, dropping down into the mud on one knee and putting a cautious hand on the younger girl's shoulder. Cait's face was white as a sheet, not that you could see much of it under the mud, and she didn't look too hot. "You okay?"
Cait was fairly covered in mud and worse. I.. was quite under that horse. She stated softly. And it was pushing me into this awful muck and I..
Paladia watched her closely. Why are your teeth chattering? It aint cold.
The younger Amazon lowered her head and didnt answer.
Paladia frowned, trying to figure out what was going on and what she should do next. She realized Cait was still half underneath the dead horses legs, so she decided on a practical course of action and sat down in the muck, taking hold of Cait by her arms and pulling her forward, half into her own lap.
Cait took hold of her leathers and helped, curling up in her friends embrace and burying her face in Paladias chest, much to the taller Amazons confusion. Not knowing what else to do, she wrapped her arms around Cait and hugged her. W.. who the hell was that creep? She asked, more to distract Cait than anything else.
B..bother. I dont care. Cait answered. Good job scaring her off.
Guess my yelling musta done it. Paladia muttered.
Cait was silent for a moment, then she lifted her head and peeked up at Paladias face. Not hardly. She said. You look quite like Hades worst monster spawn let loose.
Oh. Paladia scowled. Well, so do you.
They regarded each other.
Then they heard the yells.
It was close to dinnertime when Gabrielle finally left the practice ground. Several of the other games participants trailed after her, chatting easily about the bouts and the stories shed told. Mikah followed them silently, bemused at how the blond woman had changed so many attitudes as quickly and easily as she had.
Hed been very surprised to see her fight, and as amazed as the rest of the watchers not only at her skill, but at the intense ferocity she displayed when she wielded her chosen weapon. It was as though the gentle, friendly bard had completely vanished, replaced by this grim, intent warrior whose focus and drive simply overwhelmed her opposition.
During the first break, then, Gabrielle had sat down in the courtyard and told a story. It was about Xena, and also about her, and everyone had gathered around to listen. Some people had been curious, some openly skeptical, but none of them had walked away once shed started. Mikah had found himself pulled into the story, and hed clapped like everyone else did after she finished, but he also thought about how Xena and Gabrielles partnership really did seem to work.
So. Gabrielles voice made him jump a little. Any idea what theyve got planned for dinner?
Mikah cleared his throat a little. They were roasting an ox when I went past the kitchen earlier. He said. Is that all right with Xena? I could go out to the market and get something else if not.
No, thats fine. The bard said. We want to go into the big room tonight but now that you mention it, I wonder ah. Gabrielle felt a smile take over her face as she spotted the tall, cloaked figure ducking inside the door. Xena straightened and her eyes swept the crowd, finding Gabrielles at once.
A gentle twinkle appeared in those blue eyes, though the warriors dour mask didnt slip. The bard immediately changed her direction and headed towards her partner, easing past the slower athletes and chattering servants. Hey.
Hey. Xena replied, cocking her head a bit and regarding her. Around, them, people were stopping and staring, apparently deducing who Xena was by her company. Howd things go?
Good. Gabrielle gave a small, assertive nod. You?
Their eyes met. Without a further word, they turned and walked together through the arch, angling towards the hallway that lead to the quarters theyd been assigned. Mikah trailed behind them a little uncertainly.
Gabrielle kept an unobtrusive eye on her soulmate, noting the faint hint of a limp Xena couldnt quite disguise. She could also see the minute signals that the days activities had tired the warrior out a tiny furrow in her brow, and the shift of muscle along her jawline. She waited for them to clear most of the crowd, before she tucked a casual hand around Xenas elbow and eased a bit closer.
Youll never guess who I got a visit from today.
Xena pondered for a bit. Celesta?
Nope, even colder.
Xena frowned. Gabrielle She sighed, testily.
Oo. Definitely short tempered. Aphrodite. Gabrielle replied in a low tone. She reached out and pushed the door open, letting Xena precede her and following the warrior inside. Mikah slipped past to his own little niche as the door closed behind them.
Aphrodite? Xena repeated. Whats she up to?
Good question. Gabrielle casually steered her partner to one of the chairs and waited for her to settle into it. Whats more important is that mom, and a party from Amphipolis is on their way here and theyll be here tomorrow.
Xena grunted, and rubbed her temples. Great.
Doris with them.
Blue eyes lifted in surprise. Damn. The warrior said. What was my mother thinking, bringing her here? She sounded annoyed. What was she thinking bringing anyone here I thought wed agreed theyd let us handle this?
Gabrielle settled on the chair arm and slipped an arm around Xenas shoulders. Well, if she was coming, I can see why shed bring Dori, rather than leave her with someone, but.. yeah. She shook her head. I dont get it.. after all this time, they dont trust us?
Xena scowled. Theyd better have a damn good reason for this. She stated, leaning back a little and letting her head rest against Gabrielles side.
What happened? The bard murmured.
A brief smile. Bumped into someone I.. knew.. down on the docks.
What were you doing down there, again? Gabrielle asked curiously. I thought you were going to go to the Academy.
I did. Xena said, one hand idly curling itself around Gabrielles calf. I found your friend and told her what she was going to die of if she didnt leave you alone, kicked around the Academy a little, then took a walk down the hill.
Yeah? Gabrielle watched the tall body relax, slumping against her slightly. And? Whod you meet?
Gabrielle was honestly shocked. It was the last name shed expected to hear, a name from the very beginning of their joint past together, and one that went far beyond that for Xena. Wow.
They were both quiet, watching the twilight gather in the window, staining the stone bluish gray and bringing a breath of cool, still damp air to waft across them. It had stopped raining outside, but the clouds still covered the sky.
Hes running a slave ship. Xena finally said. Bringing in young kids.. mostly from overseas. He claims the Athenian council is interested in all the product he can bring in.
Gabrielles brow furrowed. Do you think thats true? She sounded skeptical.
Xena shrugged. He does. She shifted closer, extending her boots out onto the stone floor. Doesnt make sense to me though.
Me either. Gabrielle twined her fingers in Xenas hair. Id like to meet up with Draco, though. She said. I have to thank him.
The warrior reacted, straightening and turning to look up at her. What? Thank him? Gabrielle, he never did anything for you except send a couple thugs to kidnap girls from your village.
Gabrielle smiled. Yes, he did. She touched Xenas forehead with a fingertip. And those thugs caught your eye, and you came to rescue us. Her gaze softened. So, in a way, its his fault we met.
Xena blinked, then her thoughts went inward for several heartbeats. Gods, what a silver lining that cloud had. She muttered, with a soft snort of laughter.
Gabrielle chuckled as well, and resumed her position draped over Xenas shoulders. Yeah. She felt Xena take a breath, the motion lifting her entire body and a sudden tension made itself known through the link they had. She frowned and drew breath herself to question her partner, but Xenas speech cut her off.
Long pause. Do you ever regret that day?
The question stunned her into utter silence. After a few breathless moments, Gabrielle sucked in a lungful of air and blinked. You mean meeting you.. leaving home?
Mm. Would you change what happened? Xenas voice was quiet and speculative, almost resigned in tone. Even a little?
Gabrielle gave the question the consideration it truly deserved. She rested her chin on Xenas head, and cleared her throat a bit. If I could go back, to that moment, knowing what I know right now, do you know what Id say to you, Xena?
The warrior hesitated, one hand flexing gently on her knee. What?
The bard slid to one side, so that her lips were right up against Xenas ear. Take me with you.
She couldnt see Xenas face, but she felt the muscles move the ear she was whispering into as the warrior smiled. A wave of warmth and affection swept over her and she found herself smiling back even before Xena spoke.
And, I would. The warrior turned her head and their eyes met. A sly twinkle appeared, removing the graven seriousness of the moment. Except Ida made you take that skirt off first.
Wench. Gabrielle leaned forward and bit her on the nose. Id have gotten something better to sleep on than a horse blanket out of you that first night, in that case.
They both laughed, with a touch of giddiness. Xena sighed, and shook her head. So, Doris coming, huh?
Were in trouble.
It was full dark outside, and the room lit only by fragrant candles and a glow from the firepit as Gabrielle fiddled with the knotted fabric on her shoulder. Behind her, she could hear Xena moving around, the soft scrape of the warriors bare feet against the stone, and the rustle of cloth.
She could smell the spicy scent of their soap, and the smell got stronger as Xena approached her from behind and laid two warm hands on her shoulders. With a faint smile, she looked up into the mirror and met pale blue eyes looking back at her.
They were both dressed in white, the classic, understated togas that most of the other athletes wore when they werent at practice. The fabric of these, slightly more formal, fell below their knees and were knotted across one shoulder only, exposing the other along with most of their necks.
Dont we look festive. Xena drawled. Cmon, lets go run the gauntlet.
Ah ah. I did that already today. The bard protested, shifting slightly. And my shoulders can attest to that.
Mm. Xenas hands probed gently. You didnt have to beat up all of them, yknow.
Gabrielle let her head drop forward, abandoning herself to Xenas expert touch. Oh, like you would have just stopped at one? She muttered. I did four practice bouts.. I can just imagine what those poor people would have gone through if youd been there.
Xenas voice tickled her ear. Didja win em all?
Oh, cmon now, Xena. It wasnt about winning and losing.. you know that. I was just.. Gabrielle inhaled sharply as teeth clamped lightly down on her earlobe.
Well? The warriors deep tone tickled.
Well what? Gabrielle wondered for a moment. Oh.. um.. well, yeah. She admitted. I did.
I dont know about that. The bard disagreed. I think itll just make them all come after me.
Xena rested her chin on the bards shoulder. Not after tonight. She winked, then straightened and dusted a non existent speck o dust off Gabrielles cheek. Lets go. With my luck today, theyll be serving groats for dinner.
Gabrielle was about to answer, when she felt Xena stiffen. She turned, to see the warrior alert, her nostrils twitching and her eyes narrowed. Xe?
What do you want? Xena growled loudly.
The bards eyebrows lifted before she realized her partner wasnt talking to her. A bright blue flash lit the room, and revealed a tall, muscular form when it faded. Ah. She faced the newcomer. Speaking of groats.
Instinctively, Xena turned and placed her body between the bard and the tall, bearded man now swaggering towards her. Whatever it is, were not interested, Ares.
The God of War stopped, and regarded her, putting his hands on his leather clad hips. What? No hello? No.. hey, its good to see you, Ares? No, hows the family? Whats happened to your manners, Xena? He taunted her. Oh, thats right, I forgot. You were brought up in a stable. He waggled his fingers at Gabrielle. Hey, blondie.
What do you want? Xena refused to let the intimidating figure intimidate her.
What do I want? Ares came closer, and flicked a bit of her toga. Do I have to want something, Xena? Cant I just stop by and say hello?
No. The warrior stated flatly. Spill it, or get lost.
All traces of lazy humor vanished from the God of Wars handsome face. You know, Xena, you seem to forget who youre talking to.
Xenas pale blue eyes, a match to his own, didnt flicker. Ares, you ran from the field of battle. If I ever had any respect for you, that erased it. She told him. Youre a gutless coward. Talk or leave.
Gabrielle almost held her breath, feeling the steely tension in her partners back. What Xena said may have been true, but Ares was, after all, still a god. Though, she had her own bone to pick with him, after hed abandoned Xena in the fight against Andreas.
You know, I could.. Ares lifted a hand.
Do it. Xena shot right back, actually taking a step closer. Her eyes bored right into Ares, almost on a level with his own. Gwan, Ares. Prove you have at least half a mans parts.
It was a standoff of wills.
Ares flexed his fingers, and there was a crackle of potent power, sending an acrid scent into the room.
You do it. Gabrielle found herself speaking. And Ill make sure you lose that half.
The God of War was still for a moment. Then he turned his head and regarded her. Did you just say what I think you just said? He asked, incredulous.
Gabrielle nodded. You sold her out, you skunk..
Ares waved both hands, and stepped back. Whoa, whoa. Hold it. Lets just get something straight here. He pointed at his chest. God. He pointed at them. Mortals. Eye brows lifted. Are we understanding me?
The blond woman edged forward, much to Xenas bemusement. Gabrielle pointed at Ares. God, in need of followers. She pointed at her own chest. Bard, in Athens, who can spend the next fortnight telling everyone how you ran from a fight with your tail between your legs. A pause. Are we understanding me?
Xena came very close to doubling over in delighted laughter at the look on Ares face. It was so much more effective than even her own threats would have been, it was hard to believe. The gods jaw had dropped, and he was staring at her partner with such a dumbfounded look that the warrior was very, very close to losing her composure.
You little Ares spluttered. You wouldnt dare.
Gabrielle gave a derisive snort in response.
After a moment of evident frustration, Ares typically changed direction and sailed on, dismissing the recent past. Okay. He held up his hands, this time benignly. I can see sweet talking isnt gonna work. So let me just lay it on the line here.
Thats a first. Xena muttered.
Ares glared at her. I dont know what your game is here, Xena, but whatever it is, just cough it up. Ill take care of it.
It wasnt what shed expected to hear. What? The warrior asked.
You heard me. I know youre in this for something. You, Athens, laurel leaves not in this lifetime, Xena. So whatever it is, just tell me. You lose your bankroll gambling again? Ares said. Or, no, let me guess.. you entered as a good Rolled eyes. Deed for someone.
Neither. Xena replied, cautiously.
Well? He asked. What is it? Im telling you, Xena. Ill give it to you. Call it oh, old times sake, if you want, or.. A shrug of powerful, leather clad shoulders. If you want to consider it an um.. He waved his hands.
Apology? Gabrielle suggested.
Ares glared at her.
Were trying to get our taxes relieved. Xena stated. For Amphipolis. You saying you can fix that?
Ares bearded lips parted in a grin. No sweat. He snapped his fingers. Taxes? Youve really come down in the world, Xena.
So, if we back out of the games, youll take care of that, huh? Xena persisted, trying to ignore Gabrielles startled look.
Sure. The god agreed instantly. I knew youd come around. So, its a done deal, right? Youre out?
Xena.. The bard broke in.
Hush, blondie. We got a deal, right Xena baby? Ares shushed her.
No. Xena replied.
No? Ares repeated. What do you mean, no? I told you Id take care of it, Xena. What do you want, a gold statue as collateral? His voice rose in annoyance.
No. Xena said again. Were in the games.
The God of War put his hands on his hips. Why would you do that???
Because you dont want me to. The warrior replied. And Im having fun frustrating you and whatever little plot youre up to now. Xena smiled viciously. So unless you want to stand here talking to the bathtub, take off.
For a moment, Ares face froze into a mask of anger. Then just as quickly, he relaxed, a most customary look of insolent arrogance taking over. Youll regret this, Xena. He said. I thought Id offer you an easy way out. If youd rather suffer disgrace in front of all of Athens, so be it.
And with a flash, he was gone.
The silence was finally broken by Xenas releasing a breath, and draping an arm over Gabrielles shoulders.
Hes mad. Gabrielle commented.
Oh yeah. The warrior agreed ruefully.
I got him good, though, didnt I?
Xena chuckled ,low and deep in her throat. You sure did. She kissed the bards head with gentle exuberance. Cmon, lets go.
Cyrene looked up as she heard footsteps outside, and exhaled in relief as the door filled to overflowing with damp Amazons. It was almost dark, and shed been toying with the idea of stepping outside into the grudgingly clearing weather. Thank the gods.
Hm. Ephiny swung her cloak off, and riffled her fingers through her curly hair. She stepped aside to let the rest of her group enter, and only then did Cyrene see theyd picked up an extra person. Not sure the gods were really in with us this time. She gave the newcomer a shove towards the wall. Siddown.
Here, now. No need to push. The figure, barely recognizable as a scruffily dressed woman of considerable height and weight. What a temper youve got.
Cyrene regarded her warily, then studied the rest of the Amazons. Cait and Paladia looked a lot the worse for wear, and they circled the fire in silence, stripping off muck covered clothing as they went. What happened? Dori was napping in her folding cradle, but as the women entered, the toddler woke up and peered over the edge of her bed with interest.
What didnt? Ephiny sighed, glancing over to the other wall, where the rest of the elders were huddled and asleep. Cait, you sure youre all right?
Quite. The girl muttered, in a subdued tone.
Cat. Dori burbled, pointing.
Hello, Dori. Cait scrubbed at her face with a bit of cloth as Paladia thumped down next to her, picking at the drenched laces holding her boots on. Glad you ended up all right.
Eponin shouldered past Ephiny, shrugging off her own cloak and exposing torn leathers and a set of lurid bruises. "Like the rain's not bad enough, we had to find slime bugs crawling around in it." She gave the stranger by the wall a dour glare.
"Hey!" The woman protested. "Here I was thinking we'd fixed all that. I was just helping the little wee one to get free, I was."
"Yeah" Ephiny turned mildly disgusted eyes on her. "By cutting her pack loose and taking it. Nice."
Cyrene frowned at the woman, then faced Ephiny. "Why bring her back here?"
The Amazon regent took a seat next to her, evidently exhausted. "Better a rat where you can watch it." She said bluntly.
"Hey!" The woman protested.
"Shut up." Eponin growled. "Or I'll introduce you to that wall the hard way."
"Bit of a snit, aren't you then?" The woman shot back. "T'wast my fault you were in the wrong place at just the wrong time."
"Y'mean to get in the way of you running away in terror?" Pony said. "Yeah. I shoulda ducked." She gave the distinct impression of spitting, though she didn't actually. "Scumbucket."
"That'd be Bran Scumbucket, you ugly heathen." The response was almost cocky.
Dori decided this was just too much excitement for her to miss. She crawled over the top of her cradle and landed on the floor, then got up and ambled over to examine their captive. "Bck." Her brow wrinkled in displeasure.
"And who asked you, little runt." The woman growled. "Get over here and say that, won't you?"
"Like to threaten everyone smaller than you, I guess." Ephiny commented dryly. "Well, be careful with that one. She could end up more than you can handle."
The woman snorted.
Cyrene kept one eye on Dori, and gave the pot of mixed odds and ends she'd been working at a stir. "Well, Im glad you're all back. Thank the gods the weather's clearing."
"Yeah." Ephiny sighed. "We picked up some useful stuff from the wreck. I left it just outside to dry. Blankets." She examined a cut on her arm. "Clothes, other things."
Cait came over and sat down next to Cyrene. "We gave a try at saving the horses." She said, very seriously. "But we didn't. Im terribly sorry."
The innkeeper put an arm around her shoulders. "That's all right, Cait." She told her, knowing why the girl was upset. "Im glad you're okay. That's what matters."
Cait sighed unhappily. "What a rotten day."
Cyrene had to agree with her. Between the rain, the flood, losing all their things, and losing a good friend, she was well and truly ready for the damn day to be long over with. They had a long night on cold, hard ground to look forward to on top of it, and Cyrene found herself fervently wishing she'd just stayed home. "You know what? Im too damn old for this."
"Me too." Ephiny grunted.
Cait looked from one to the other. "I suppose I would get quite thumped if I said me too, wouldn't I?"
"Yes." They both answered at once.
"Right" The youngest Amazon exhaled. "Well, then I could do with less excitement right about now and more dry bedding."
Ephiny studied her. It wasn't like Cait to complain. "You sure you're all right." She asked in a low voice.
Cait was silent for a moment. "Yes."
"You're not just pulling a Xena on me are you?" The regent prodded gently.
That got the tiniest smile from Cait. "I might be, a bit." She admitted. "I dont feel quite right. I think I"ll go have a bit of a rest over by Pally."
"I'll give you some soup for the both of you." Cyrene wrestled one of the old, wooden bowls they'd salvaged out. "Here.." She ladled out the soup while Ephiny half turned to watch their toddling charge.
Dori studied her victim a moment. "Bad." She pronounced. "Ugg."
"Yeah? C'mere, you .." The woman lunged towards her, and reached a hand out, only to recoil violently as a hideous growl erupted. Yahh!"
Ares rushed forward, ;putting his furry body between her and Dori, ruff raised, and teeth bared.
With a frown, Cait got up and walked over, stepping past the furious wolf. "Now look here." She said sternly. "You really are quite an idiot."
Bran glared at her, but backed towards the wall. "It's you lot who're nuts in the head." She muttered. "Wasn't going to hurt the tyke."
"You had better not." Cait told her. "The last person who tried that had their heart pulled right out of their chest." She paused for effect. "While it was till thumping."
"Oh. Right." Bran snorted. "I'd be believing that right after you're showing me a cow jumping over the moon hey!" She yelped, as a handful of muck hit her in the face. "Why you.."
"Bad!" Dori insisted stoutly. "Uggy."
"Great judge of character." Eponin snorted. "Gets that from her mom."
"Wouldnt be you, then." Bran taunted her.
Cait picked Dori up and bounced her a bit. "C'mon, then Dori. Let's go over there and I'll tell you a bit of a story, all right?"
"Story!" The child recognized the word with a squeal of delight. "Go get mama!"
"No." Cait gave her a wry look. "Im certainly not in Gabrielle's league, Dori. But we'll see what we can do." She walked over to where Paladia had settled, and was giving her a dour look, and took a seat next to her with Dori in her lap. "What would you like to hear?"
"Boo." Dori said immediately. "Boo and Mama."
Cait grinned. "Her favorite." She gave Paladia a look as the other Amazon groaned. "Mine too." She leaned back against the wall and settled Dori more comfortably. "Right. Let's here about how Xena saved Gabrielle in the Centaur village, okay?"
Paladia moaned, and stuffed bits of cloth in her ears. Everyone else chuckled tiredly. Ephiny accepted a small bowl of soup from Cyrene and took a sip from its edge before passing it to Eponin. Share?
The weapons master took it gladly, taking a mouthful of soup and tasting it as she listened to Caits young voice start the tale. After a few moments, her eyes flicked instinctively around the stone room, finally settling on their unwelcome guest.
A crafty look had settled on the womans features, as she listened.
It sent prickles up and down Eponins spine. She nudged Ephs leg and tilted her jaw in Brans direction. Ephinys hazel eyes met hers, then went the indicated direction for a long moment before returning to latch onto hers again. Shoulda killed her. Pony muttered under her breath.
Ephinys brow creased sharply as she thought. Cant leave her here.. with them. She uttered subvocally, indicating the elders. Have to take her with us.
Eponin rolled her eyes very expressively.
Yeah. The regent grunted sympathetically. Like we needed more problems. She leaned against Ponys shoulder. Yknow what I think?
Maybe its not Gabrielle. A pause. Maybe its us.
The dining room was different than Gabrielle had expected. It was already busy, full of their fellow competitors, but she'd been anticipating a large, square open area and found something very much else. The space was large, but it was full of many levels of platforms and vine covered columns, making pockets of seating areas separated by half steps and tinkling fountains.
"Mm." Xena regarded the room, one eyebrow lifting. "Nice." She held an arm out, her lips quirking into a smile as the bard accepted the offer. "Let's find us a nice table."
Gabrielle followed her lead willingly, trusting Xena to make sure she didn't trip and fall as she let her eyes wander over the room in frank curiosity. The fountains seemed to be lightly scented - the mist that coated her face as she passed them held the tang of lime and the soft brush of jasmine.
It was cool in the room, despite the crowd. Servers clad in only loincloths brushed by them, with trays that left enticing smells in their wake and Gabrielle was forcibly reminded of the fact that she'd passed up lunch in the excitement of the day.
"Here." Xena's voice caught her attention, and she glanced past the warrior to see a comfortable looking enclave, several levels up and against one of the walls. The seating area was sunken around a stone table, with an oil lamp fluttering in it's center, large fluffy pillows plumped invitingly around the edges.
There was space enough for perhaps eight people, but they were the first ones to have found the spot, and Gabrielle gladly settled down in the crook of one corner with Xena, as they waited to see who would join them. On the table a flagon rested, and the bard nodded as Xena lifted it and poured them both cupfuls of it's contents. She sniffed it then took a sip, rolling the rich, fruity wine around in her mouth before she swallowed it. "Mm.. not bad."
Xena leaned back and tasted the wine, then turned her head to study Gabrielle's profile. "Reminds me of that little seaside town in the west." She said. "Remember that? Some kind of festival, wasn't it?"
"Of Dionysus, yes." Gabrielle smiled a little in remembrance. "I discovered your unexpected romantic streak there." She replied. "It felt like such a dream."
Xena chuckled, then leaned over and offered the bard her cup. Gabrielle set her lips on the edge and allowed a mouthful to be tipped in, while she extended her own arm towards her partner. Xena took a mouthful from her glass, then they closed with each other, and kissed, mingling the wine with a gentle teasing of tongues.
Gabrielle sat back when they parted, enjoying the sweet tingle on her lips. She reached over impulsively and laced her fingers with the warrior's as they sipped in silence, just looking into each other's eyes until the scuff of boots against the stone made them look up to see who was entering.
But it was just a server, who brought over to the table a tray filled to overflowing with edibles. He gave them a quick, abashed bow and knelt, setting bowls of fruit, and platters of steaming flatbread down on the table, along with crocks of thick, spicy smelling cheese. Then he stood. "M'ladies." He had a low, husky voice, and charming brown eyes. "We have roast lamb tonight, and codfish. I will bring them shortly." Then he turned and left.
Gabrielle sat up and reached for the bread, ripping off a chunk and dipping it into the cheese. She also snagged a handful of grapes and returned to her spot, nibbling on the bread hungrily. "Here." She worked loose a grape and offered it to Xena.
"Thanks." Xena accepted the grape, biting down lightly on Gabrielle's fingertips before she started chewing it. "So." She got herself a hunk of bread and some cheese and sat back, leaning on her shoulder so she could face the bard. "What do you figure the game is?"
Gabrielle knew exactly what she was talking about. She licked a finger reflectively and cleared her throat. "Well, it's pretty obvious, right? He's got someone in the games he's wagering on." She nibbled a grape. "So he's trying to talk you out of competing because he figures it messes up his odds."
Xena nodded. "That's about what I figured." She agreed, extending one hand idly and tracing the edge of the bard's ear. "We're going to have to watch out."
"Dont we always?" Gabrielle asked wryly.
scuff of boots, and they looked up, but this time two tall men and three women entered,
pausing as they were spotted, then continuing into the alcove. "Gabrielle..
hello again." The first man said, with a mildy shy look in Xena's direction.
Ah. Her erstwhile opponent in the lists. "Hi." Gabrielle gestured to the pillows. "Join us." She swallowed hastily and sat up a little. "Um.. let's see. Telen, Aleiandra I don't know your friends, but.. um.. this is Xena." She said. "My partner."
Funny. Gabrielle took just a bare moment to acknowledge how it still thrilled her to say that.
"Hello." Telen took a seat prudently far enough from the lazily watching warrior. "Nice to meet you."
Xena cocked an eyebrow at him. "Same here." She drawled.
"So, you're Xena." The other man stated, in a deep, bass voice. He was almost a giant, a head taller than Xena herself, with shoulders that looked like a wagon could rest on them. "I've heard a lot about you."
Blue and green eyes met. Gabrielle fixed him with a warm smile. "Really? From who?"
The man took a seat directly across from them, and spread huge, muscular legs out as he picked up the wine flagon and poured himself a cup. "Just talk on the streets." He replied. "Wild stories."
"Must be yours." Xena replied, giving Gabrielle's hair a little tweak.
The burly man regarded them. "Xena and her famous bard. Who'd a figured I'd be having dinner with such notorious people." He laughed, with a tinge of unpleasantness. "I hear we're competitors tomorrow."
Xena lifted an eyebrow. "You're an archer?"
"I'm everything." The man boasted. "I won the last five Athens regional matches in every thing I entered." He gazed at Xena. "Including archery. What about you?"
The warrior stretched an arm casually out across the pillows, circling Gabrielle's shoulders unobtrusively. "Well.. last time I did any real shooting.. " She thought back. "I killed every one I shot at." The blue eyes narrowed slightly as Xena smiled. "I didn't get any ribbons for it, though."
Xena, Intimidation Princess. Gabrielle rubbed her jaw as she hid a smile, recognizing the half playful, half dangerous tone in her partner's voice. She wondered if someone this doltish and obvious was Ares champion, then reviewed that thought and figured it was good odds he was.
"Well, maybe you won't tomorrow, either." The man rallied. "Not with Sampson in the lists."
"Would that be you?" Gabrielle gently inquired. "Just so I know who to go watch."
Sampson smiled at her broadly, his teeth showing white and even inside his dark beard. "That it would." He replied. "You've heard of me, of course."
"No." Gabrielle answered mildly. "Sorry, I don't get to Athens much." She glanced at her partner. "You?"
Xena shook her head solemnly. "Nope."
Their server returned, putting a pause in the action as he set down platters full of steaming meats and fish on the table. He added cruets of spices and sauce, then bowed deeply. "M'lords.. m'ladies is there anything else you desire?"
"Ale." Sampson cuffed him. "And bring me the biggest pitcher you have I'll drink these lightweights under the table."
Gabrielle leaned over and lowered her voice. "This is like having dinner with your mother's pig." She felt the shudder as Xena laughed silently. "Except the pig has better manners, and he's cuter."
The server left, but his place was taken by two husky youths, stripped to the waist with oiled skin that caught the light from the table torch. They carried two swords each, and they crossed them neatly over their chests as they bowed to the table.
"I suppose hoping for a harpist as entertainment for this crowd was asking too much, huh?" Gabrielle groused good naturedly.
"Hey.. now this in my kind of a show." Xena whispered back, as the two faced off. They were barefoot, and their hair was held tightly back by a thin band of colored fabric. Both made a tiny show of flipping their double swords in their hands as they circled each other, then sprang into combat.
Gabrielle sighed, and leaned forward to grab herself some meats and bread, fitting them together and taking a bite before she handed half to Xena. The room rang with the sounds of clashing steel, and the soft hiss of breaths as the boys fought, their bare feet scuffling and slapping against the hard stone floor. Far off past the room, she could hear the sounds of music, pipes and a low clash of percussion. Her nose wrinkled slightly, too, as she detected strange scents on the air, thick, cloyingly spicy notes that tickled the back of her throat.
Xena glanced up at the ceiling, then down at her. "Incense." She murmured.
"Yeah." Gabrielle rubbed her nose. "Feels weird."
"Don't breath too deeply." The warrior cautioned.
"I won't." Gabrielle went back to nibbling her bread and meat, enjoying the earthy taste of the lamb. She'd always felt a little ambivalent about liking the meat, knowing from a young age that the tiny animals she'd grown up with.. played with would come to her on a plate like this someday.
She remembered the first time she'd seen one slaughtered, one that she'd raised, and cared for, and how much that had hurt.
But she'd gotten over that, as she'd grown older, and she understood that dying was a part of life. That some animals died so she could live, and eat them, and grow up and grow stronger. It had been tough, though. Lambs were such cute animals.
Gabrielle bit into a mouthful and chewed. Until they bit you the first time, that is.
The two boys locked in a hold for a moment, chests heaving, sweat rolling down their bodies. Then they shoved off and circled again, the swords whirling and striking each other in the music of steel that she had little appreciation for.
Xena, on the other hand. Gabrielle watched her partner out of the corner of her eye, feeling the subtle shifts of bone and muscle next to her as the warrior absorbed the fight and her body reacted unconsciously to it. The hand draped over her shoulder twitched, and Xena's fingers curled into a light fist, seeking a sword hilt she didn't have with her. "They're pretty good." The bard hazarded an opinion.
"Yeah." Xena murmured. "A little on the green side.. but did you see that underhanded combination? You do that wrong, you lose a thumb."
"Mm." The bard agreed solemnly.
"Look at that twist you see that? The over the wrist move? It's a cheat." Xena went on, her voice taking on a tinge of intimate interest. "It's meant to distract the other guy's left hand sword, but if he really did take a hit there, he'd break a bone."
"Child's play!" Sampson boomed out. "Why must I watch these little puppies.. why I could brush them off with just a wave of my hand!" He leaped up from his seat in the pit and swiped the nearest boy's swords from his hands, shoving him out to the way and going after his partner. "Here, let me show you!"
Gabrielle felt Xena's hand flexing for a completely different reason, though it was still searching for a hilt. She curled her fingers around the warrior's hand and lifted it to her lips, kissing fingers still lightly scented from their bath.
Sampson was brutal. He went after the confused, and outside his normal fighting style inexperienced boy with quick, savage cuts that had him stumbling backwards within minutes. The bigger man was skilled, and amazingly graceful given his size, and he handled the weapons with consummate grace. That didn't excuse the arrogant savageness of his attack though. With a quick two handed swipe he disarmed the boy, and rather than stopping, let his strokes continue to slice through the bare skin of his chest, sending a fine spray of blood out in a sickening arc.
The boy cried out in pain and fear.
Gabrielle slid to one side, gracefully clearing a path for the sudden movement she felt the genesis of as Xena got up and flowed past her, anger shimmering from every motion.
Sampson flipped the swords, not seeing Xena's approach, and went back for more. He was surprised to find his forward motion halted, and half turned as Xena jerked him backwards, giving him a shove that sent him stumbling slightly to one side. "Ah!" His voice boomed out, not a bit upset. "Proper sword fodder, I'm thinking!" He laughed and stepped back, twirling the swords and waiting.
Xena cocked her head at the bleeding young man and held her hands out. He dropped his swords into them with stunning speed, a look of pathetic gratitude in his eyes. "G'wan, siddown." Xena jerked her jaw towards the table, as she stalked past where he'd been standing and paused, flexing her hands around the sword hilts.
They were lighter than her usual weapon, and she hefted them, getting used to the feel. It had been a while since she'd done double blades, but she ran through the basics in her mind as she fixed her eyes on Sampson, flipping the swords over and curling her index finger at him. "C'mere, straw for brains."
He came forward without hesitation, flexing his arms as he circled her. "A fool, am I? We'll see who the bigger fool is."
Now, Gabrielle's attention was rivited to the fight. She watched her partner anxiously, knowing the warrior's leg was still chancy, and very sore. You couldn't tell, though, in Xena's movement as she responded to Sampson's attack, her eyes fastened on his body, her defenses shifting and ducking under his attack with fluid grace.
He was good. Xena acknowledged that, testing both his reflexes and her own with a few quicksilver moves. She felt her body settling into the rhythm that double swords required, a coordination of mind and body that would let her accept Sampson's skillful slices.
He attacked her with full force. The blades spun towards her head and she parried them by instinct, angling the blades to deflect his greater weight and size. She carried both blades down along hers and let them slide off, then quickly slashed upwards, catching him as he was getting his weapons back into position and sending both of his arms outward as he tried to contain the blow.
It opened his breast up, and with a target that large, Xena took her shot, the razor tips of the blades slicing through the fabric he wore. He threw himself back wards, and angrily shook his hair out of his eyes, glancing down at the neat cuts.
An X, of course. Xena grinned at him.
Now he was serious. All appearances of lazy joking disappeared, and he attacked her in earnest, his swords blurring as he fought to force her backwards with sheer weight. Xena let him, for a few steps, then she ducked under his sweeping thrusts and made him turn to follow her, even with her leg still much faster than he was. She feinted to one side, then, as he savagely slashed where she should have been, the warrior changed direction and crouching, leaped into the air and threw a two handed combination at him, confusing him completely at the odd direction and scope of her attack.
She landed neatly and started forward, swinging the blades in a solid circular rhythm that he tried to parry. He fought her off for a few moments, but Xena's skill and the power behind her attack was like nothing else he'd ever had to deal with and bit by bit, step by step, he started to retreat.
She backed him off the cleared area and towards the table, advancing relentlessly with quick, short strokes that his larger reach couldn't parry. He fended her off, but kept retreating, his face changing expression from determined, to disbelief, and then to fear.
She didn't let up. She didn't say a word, her eyes pinning him mercilessly as she took first one sword, then the other out of his hands with a crash of steel, then, in one blinding motion, she kicked him in the chest, sending him sprawling back onto the seats. One booted foot braced on the table as she leaned forward and pressed the blade against his throat, while the other, seemingly unsupervised, flicked out and severed the top flower on the bouquet that rested on the table. With a flick, the blade turned flat on and batted the flower, sending it in a lazy arc to land in Gabrielle's lap just as Xena leaned forward and pricked Sampson's throat with the edge of the other.
For a moment, the only sound was the harshness of Sampson's breathing. He was frozen in place, staring at the feral warrior crouched over him, finding death so close it was kneeling on his chest.
"I.. " Xena finally spoke, her voice low and potent. "Am everything." She poked him. "You, are a bagful of hot air with no class, and less sense."
With a faint snort, she straightened, flipping the blades around then tossing them lightly towards the archway, sending them across the stone floor with a clatter. Then she turned her back on her adversary and sauntered back around the table, taking her seat next to Gabrielle and putting a possessive arm back around the bard.
Gabrielle merely lifted her flower, and sniffed it appreciatively. "I've got the cushiest job as a bard there is." She remarked. "All I have to do is write the truth." She reached up and tucked the flower behind Xena's ear, then settled into the crook of her arm with a contented grunt. "Piece of cake."
It was very quiet after that.
At least until the belly dancers came in.
It was late, and the oil lamps had burned very low by the time the last dancer had squiggled on up the stairs and the final thumping of the drum skins was heard. Gabrielle found herself strolling through the emptying dining hall alongside Xenas tall form, glad of the warm arm draped over her shoulders providing a bit of support.
She wasnt drunk, but she did feel a little muzzy, and she was aware of a gentle dislocation in her senses that put a distance between her and her surroundings. Know what? She leaned against her partner.
Shouldnt have had that last cup. Gabrielle admitted, stifling a hiccup.
Xena bestowed a knowingly affectionate grin on her. Youre such a lightweight. She kidded her partner.
In that crowd? I sure was. Gabrielle snickered a little. At least I didnt end up in the fountain like whatserface.
Nah. Xena let her eyes roam across the room as they followed several stragglers out through the wide archway. It was dark in the hallways beyond, just a scattering of wall torches lighting isolated pools, and Xena felt her warning senses come alert as she passed from the relatively well lit dining hall into the darker areas beyond. I wouldnt have let you get wet.
What? Xenas brows contracted.
The bard just giggled harder, leaning against her partner and clutching her arm to keep from falling. Good thing you didnt take over the bellydancing then.
Both of the warriors eyebrows lifted almost to her hairline. Gabrielle. She tsked. You did have one cup to many, didntcha.
Gabrielle hid her face in Xenas toga covered shoulder, laughing helplessly.
Finding it difficult to walk with a bard hanging off her, Xena glanced around in amusement, then steeled herself for the effort and picked Gabrielle up, cradling her and pausing a moment to catch her somewhat uneven balance. She looked down at the bard just as Gabrielle unburied her face and looked up. What am I gonna do with you? Xena asked, with a smile.
Anything ya want. Gabrielle cheerfully told her. Im all yours. She gazed adoringly up at Xena for a moment. But ya better put me down. Dont want to strain your leg.
Hm.. you going to be able to walk? Xena teased, but complied, setting the bard neatly onto her feet but keeping hold of her just in case. She knew she probably could have carried Gabrielle back to their quarters, but it was late, and her leg was killing her. No sense in tempting fate. Cmon. She left an arm draped over the bards shoulders as they started back down the hallway.
Gabrielle wound a hold around the warriors waist. She was silent for a little while, concentrating on putting her boots down in the correct order and not knocking Xena offstride. Think that big old dufus was Ares boy?
Really? Seemed like he was the old God of Wars type. Gabrielle stated. Tiny brain, huge ego.
Xena snorted softly, and shook her head. Boy, Id hate to see what you say about me when youre drunk.
Gabrielle considered the question seriously. To you, ya mean? She mused, as Xena pushed the door open and she walked inside their simple quarters.
About me. Xena kissed the back of her neck, then slipped in behind her, heading for their packs tucked neatly against a wall.
The bard wandered over and sat down on a chair, letting her interlaced hands rest between splayed legs. She regarded Xenas moving form with almost painful studiousness for a few minutes. Id say boy, that Xenas one hot number. She finally pronounced. An.. Id say I dunno what she sees in that dumb blond chick.
Pale blue eyes peered over Xenas shoulder. You better be joking, or Im gonna pick your butt up and spank it.
A reluctant, twitching grin took over Gabrielles face. Promise?
Xena straightened and walked over, then dropped to a crouch next to the bards chair. She rested an elbow on Gabrielles thigh and peered into her eyes. I see my soulmate. She paused a little, to let the words sink into the space between them. Then she smiled. Whos a little too drunk, and whos going to swallow this and not give me a hard time. She handed over a cup. Right?
Gabrielle obediently lifted the cup up to her lips and sipped it, enjoying the sight of Xenas face so close to her.
Besides. The warrior leaned closer and tickled her. How dumb could you be if youve kept me damned stumped on a blasted animal for two weeks?
Heh. Gabrielle chuckled softly. Give up?
Never. Xena replied immediately.
Gabrielle gazed at her again. What would you say about me? She asked suddenly.
Xenas brow creased, then relaxed. You mean, if I was drunk?
The bard nodded mutely, sipping on her drink.
The warrior made a point of considering the question, gazing off into the distance for a bit before she focused her eyes back on Gabrielles face. Id say
A loud bang brought Xena whirling to her feet, already in motion as the door slammed open and two dark figures rushed in, bringing a cloud of incense with them. One headed directly for Xena, a sheer whisper cutting the gloom as he drew a long, curved sword out and aimed a slash at the warriors midsection.
Xena ignored him. She grabbed the second chair in the room and turned, exposing her back to her attacker with shocking deliberation as she threw all her energy into slamming the wood into the second man, catching him across the face with a leg and sending a startling explosion of blood to spatter all over her.
She felt the steel at her back. Too close.
Xena drew in a lungful of air and let it out as a yell, the sound freezing her attacker for a split second, more than enough time for her to set and turn, dropping to knee and ducking her head to one side as the blade whistled over her, slicing a lock of dark hair loose and setting it free to float on the thick air. Xena reached up as his fist past her and grabbed it, then stood and turned, twisting his arm under her as she brought the sword around in one powerful sweep.
Burying the blade in his gut, the blow punctuated by another savage yell.
The man dropped to the floor in a sodden heap of black cloth, hiding a spreading crimson stain that quietly soaked the clean stone.
Xena straightened, and glanced at the chair. Gabrielle hadnt moved an inch in the few heartbeats it had taken her to handle their attackers. The bard was seated, quite calmly, her cup cradled in both hands. Thanks. Xena sighed, shaking one hand to rid it of its coating of blood.
One blond eyebrow quirked at her. I knew better than to try anything, the way I feel right now.
Xena grinned. Thats what I meant. She went to the second man and rolled his unconscious body over, kneeling stiffly to perform a rapid if thorough search. The sound of running footsteps, however, made her look up just as the doorway was filled with uniformed soldiers. Nice timing.
Halt! The man in the lead drew his sword. Youre under arrest!
For what? Xena laughed, standing up and brushing her hands off. Getting the floor dirty?
Attacking your fellow citizens. The man advanced on her with a purposeful look. That man is dead! He pointed at the floor, then pulled up short as he found his way impeded by a compact body and a pair of soft, green eyes. Are you a witness?
Yes. Gabrielle put a hand on his chest. I certainly am. But first, you might want to find out a few things. She said reasonably, mindful of the six men at his back. Like, whose room this is?
And if the person youre trying to arrest is armed, unlike the two guys on the floor?
Gabrielle leaned closer and lowered her voice. And why innocent citizens are running around the building with masks on.
The soldier looked at her, then over at Xena. We were told an assassin was in this room. He glanced behind him at his squad. The slave boy told us!
Xena pointed at the two bodies meaningfully.
They are not women. The soldier said, flatly.
Xena shrugged. Im not an assassin. She replied. Unless you force me to be. The warrior added. They came in here and attacked me. I just defended myself, and my partner.
The guard slowly sheathed his sword. Take them. He indicated the two bodies on the floor. My captain will decide what to do with you. He informed Xena. Dont leave this room. He watched the men pick up the two attackers, then followed them out, slamming the door behind him.
Gabrielle regarded the now stained floor, and her blood covered soulmate. She put her hands on her hips and sighed heavily. What in the Hades was that?
Xena shook her head. Then she walked over and put a fingertip on Gabrielles chin, tilting her head up and gracefully bending to kiss her. They parted, and she looked deeply into the bards eyes, studying the soft golden flecks that were just darker shadows in the candelights amber tinge.
She leaned closer, until they were breathing the same air, noses almost brushing. There was a soft sound as Gabrielle swallowed, then her lips parted slightly, the tip of her pink tongue emerging.
Xena spoke first, into all that charged stillness. Llama.
The bards nose twitched, and she blinked as her mental wagon went off the trail and rolled down a nearby hill. W what?
Llama. Her beloved soulmate repeated, a look of smug pleasure on her face. The animal was a llama.
A hand lifted and covered Gabrielles eyes as she rubbed them, and a startled giggle emerged. Gods, Xena that was NOT what I was expecting to hear. She complained, removing her hand and peeking up at her partner.
Xena put a fingertip on her nose. Im right, though.
With a look of mild chagrin, Gabrielle nodded. Yeah. Then she scowled a little. Can I ask you what triggered that memory?
Something I saw.
Both of Gabrielles pale eyebrows shot up. You were looking at me. She replied sharply. Xena, you better not be insinuating that I look like a llama.
Why? Theyre kinda cute. The warrior teased.
The guard captain had a flat, split nose. Reminded me of one I saw once. Xena soothed her, seeing the growing storm clouds in the bards eyes. Then I just realized it fit your description.
Oh. Gabrielle took Xenas hand and examined it, then turned and towed the warrior over to the wash basin. She poured water into it and dunked the blood stained skin, scrubbing it with a bit of soap shed picked up. You took a big chance before. She said quietly. You turned your back on that first guy.
The second one was going for you. Xena replied, draping both arms over the bards shoulders so she could get at all the blood spots. She rested her chin on Gabrielles head, and pressed her body against her. I didnt want you to have to spill your herbs.
She felt Gabrielles body jerk a little as she chuckled It felt good to just stand there, with the room warmed water coursing over her skin and the scent of their soap rising to her nose. The fight had put a final stress on her leg, and the ache was starting to build again. A residual of battle tension was still in her though the muscles in her torso and thighs were slowly flexing and the dark energy her instincts had called up was still flooding through her.
The smell of blood came strongly to her, from the mess on the floor and the crimson stains on her own clothing and she closed her eyes, exhaling slowly against the back of Gabrielles head. She could pretend that she wasnt feeling what she was, but that would mean deliberately ignoring a truth shed come to understand.
She was a bad girl. Xena sucked in a breath full of Gabrielles scent. She wasnt ever going to be anything else but a bad girl, and she was going to be a killer in all the words gory glory until the day she died. Even Gabrielle knew that. The bard had told her, once, something that shed only later realized was the going to have to be the truth she led her life by.
Being bad was all right, as long as you were bad in a good cause.
Mm? Xena grunted, not wanting to budge.
Who were those guys after, you or me?
Gabrielle stood at the window, leaning her chin on it and gazing out at the pre-dawn gloom. The air was warm, but not as moist as it had been, and on it she could already hear the sounds of the city stirring around her.
She was already dressed, wearing the simple, brief bindings the athletes all wore and a light cape over them. The clothing felt a bit strange, but not too different from her Amazon gear and she only felt a little self conscious wearing it.
One hand lifted, and she curled her fingers around the warm handle of her mug, bringing it to her lips and sipping a mouthful of minty tea laced liberally with honey. She felt good, despite the previous late night and outside a stray flutter or two of nerves was looking forward to the day.
For more than the games. Gabrielle savored the taste of the tea. Her family would be here today and she was looking forward to seeing them and being reunited with her daughter.
A light tap came on the door. Gabrielle turned and walked over, cautiously unlatching the wooden panel and pulling it back. Morning. She greeted Mikah, who stood there bearing a laden tray.
Morning. Mikah smiled at her, and edged past as she backed out of the way. You made my talents as a listener unneeded. The whole place talks of nothing but you and Xena this day. He set the tray down on the table and glanced around, detecting the warriors absence.
Xenas in the wardroom, talking to the guard captain. Gabrielle said. We had a little problem last night.
Not to hear the servants speak of it. Mikah advised her, as he broke open a roll and neatly buttered it before handing it politely to Gabrielle.
Thanks. The bard took a seat and fiddled with the edible. What are they saying?
The boy busied himself preparing two plates from the selection of fruits, cheeses, and breads. That a score of Xenas old enemies broke in here, and attacked you.
A score. Gabrielle bit into the roll and chewed it. Xenas enemies, huh?
Thats right. Mikah nodded. And she fought all of them off with her bare hands.
Close. The bard agreed solemnly. This is good. Storys already got a good head start, and it wasnt even my fault. She plucked a grape and popped it into her mouth. All I need to do is add a three headed dog and princess, and Im all set. I can use it for the bardic competition.
Mikah peeked at her in silence for a few seconds.
Gabrielle gave him a charming grin. Yes, Im kidding. She said. There were only two guys, and we didnt know them.
And Xena wasnt exactly bare handed. Gabrielle pointed to the pieces of chair shed neatly stacked in the corner. But then, she never is. She could make a weapon out of anything.
Mikah picked up an apple and examined it. Even one of these? He held the apple out to the bard.
Gabrielle accepted it. Especially one of these. She said. Youd be amazed at what Xena can achieve with an apple. Her lips twitched into a private smile. But anyway.. Ive got a favor to ask you.
Favor? Mikah said. Im your servant. You dont have to ask me favors, you just have to tell me what you want of me.
Gabrielle sighed. Mikah, Im from Potadeia. We dont do servants really well, okay? So youll have to put up with me asking for favors. She stood. My familys coming into the city by the main road sometime today.. Id like you to wait for them, and bring them here.
Okay. Mikah replied. How will I know them?
The bard went to her bags, dropping to crouch next to them and rummage through the smallest. She removed her diary and got up. Well, for one thing, youll probably notice the Amazons.
Mm. Gabrielle riffled her fingers through her hair absently as she set the diary on the table. Two or three of them, probably. She removed a piece of folded parchment and opened it. Theyll have an older woman with them, Cyrene, and shell have this little girl with her.
Mikah took the parchment and studied it. On the surface was drawn the picture of a small child sitting down with a stuffed toy of some kind. Shes cute. He remarked, the babys snub nosed grin making him smile. What pretty eyes.
Thanks. Gabrielle gave him an approving look as she studied the picture also. Thats my daughter, Doriana.
Mikahs gaze shifted from the picture, to Gabrielles face, paused there a moment, then shifted back. Um
Gabrielle turned her head as she felt a familiar presence approaching. Ah, that would be Xena. She nodded as the door opened and her soulmate slipped in. Hey. Howd it go? Shed debated a little when Xena had asked her to stay behind, but after all they were soldiers she was talking to and Xena could, when she needed to be quite a persuasive diplomat.
I had to kick them around a little, but we worked it out. The warrior muttered, walking over to her and peering over her shoulder. Whats up here?
Uh oh. Gabrielle sensed a problem, from the stormy look in Xenas eyes, and the twitchy tension she could feel as she came up behind her. I asked Mikah to wait for mom and the gang. She explained. I was showing him a picture of Dori.
Hmph. Xena sniffed, as she spotted the picture. Hey, when did you get that? She held a hand out and took the drawing as Mikah handed it over. Thats new.
Paladia did it just before we left. Gabrielle agreed. Shes growing so fast I wanted a new one. She studied the picture fondly. She needs a haircut, though. Look at that mop. Doris shaggy, dark hair was thick and straight, just like Xenas, and framed a round baby face that still held hints of the angular structure shed grow into. I miss her.
Xena handed the drawing back. Me too. She stated briefly. Cmon. Theyre starting to get everyone together for the first events. The warrior walked over to the bed and sat down on the edge of it, drawing aside the light cloak shed donned to expose her bandaged knee. She started adjusting the bandage with impatient fingers.
Gabrielle gave Mikah an apologetic look as she passed the drawing over to him. Thanks for doing this. Id hate to have them have to search all over the city for us. She said. Especially with all the commotion going on.
My pleasure. Mikah folded the parchment and tucked it into his belt. Good luck today. He said.
Gabrielle watched him leave, and saw the surreptitious glance towards her partner before he ducked out the door. She waited a moment, then strolled over and sat down next to Xena on the bed, kicking her bare feet a little as she watched the warrior fuss over her injury.
Xena paused after a moment and looked at her. What? She asked, shortly.
Gabrielle bumped her gently with one shoulder, but remained silent.
Dont you have something to do?
Nope. Gabrielle drawled. Im all ready to fall flat on my face and make a fool out of myself. She said. I read the announcement they posted outside in the hallway, figures I get to be in the very first event.
Xena grunted, and went back to her task.
Want me to do that?
Want to tell me what crawled up your tunic and bit you?
Gabrielle sighed, and rested her elbows on her knees. Okay. She subsided into quiet pensiveness, simply waiting for the warrior to finish what she was doing so they could leave. After a few seconds, she felt a light brush against her shoulder, and looked over. Xena was still concentrating on what she was doing, wrapping her leg with steady skill, but her body posture had changed just a trifle, enough to bring her into physical contact with Gabrielle.
Unconsciously? Gabrielle smiled to herself and felt the contact increase, pressing their shoulders together in warm comfort. She watched Xenas neck relax a little, and the clenched jaw muscles release. After a moment more, she let her cheek rest against Xenas shoulder, finding a sense of peace for herself in doing it.
I found out who Ares stooge is. Xena finally spoke.
Gabrielle merely listened quietly.
Hes a Spartan slave. The warrior went on. Hes fighting for Athens hes their champion.
The bard absorbed this news. Hes good, huh?
Very. Xena replied. But thats not the problem. She finally finished her task and glanced at the bard. His life depends on him winning. If he loses, theyll kill him.
Pieces started falling into place. So Athens stacked the deck.
And thats why theyre buying up foreign slaves. The bard exhaled. All for this? Dont tell me this is just for the citys pride, Xena. I cant believe it.
Of course not. Xena said. Its the wagering. She let her arms rest on her knees. They put out the word that theyll forgive taxes to draw in competition from everywhere across the region. Everyone sends competitors its unthinkable not to and they come in droves to watch. She exhaled. And bet on their people. Athens cleans up every way around. They make tons off the games, they rig the lists so an Athenian not only has best chance, but the most pressing reason to win, and they collect all the wagers because theyre buying up the best slaves they can find and training them.
Xena, that sucks. Gabrielle looked annoyed. You found all this out in a half candlemark?
No. Xena plucked at her cape. Ive been figuring it out I just got the final piece of the puzzle when the guard captain told me about the Spartan. She paused. After he tried to pay me off to back out of the games.
Gabrielle turned her head and studied Xenas profile. The guard captain?
Acting for the council. Xena looked like she had a bad taste in her mouth. And that was after he tried to blackmail me with legal charges. She said. Which they say theyll press if we happen to win.
For last night? Gabrielle spluttered. Oh, cmon, Xena!
No. Xena replied quietly. For a lot older things than that.
They both regarded each other in silence. Xena.. Gabrielle finally whispered. Lets stop this. Well find a way around the taxes and.. She stopped as the warrior put a gentle fingertip against her lips.
The taxes, the conscripts, and the games are for a reason, Gabrielle. Xena said. Athens is going to war.
Gabrielles eyes widened in reaction.
Theyre invading Sparta. Thats what all this is for.
And why Ares is involved. The bard let out a disgusted breath.
Son of a bacchae. Gabrielle stared at the floor in consternation. Xena, what the Hades are we going to do?
Xena propped her elbows on her knees and gazed ahead for a moment, then blew out a breath, puffing her dark hair out a bit. Then she turned her head and met Gabrielles eyes, a tiny hint of a smile pulling at her lips. First thingss first. Lets go out there and see what happens. She replied. We have to stop them if we can, Gabrielle.
A sigh. I know. The bard said. But then what?
Xena stood and held a hand out to her, waiting for her to take it before the warrior pulled her to her feet. Worry about then when its time. She said. Lets go.
They walked out of the room hand in hand, and joined a trickle of similarly clad competitors heading for the courtyard. Xena? Gabrielle murmured. How did a trip to the city to talk about taxes end up with the fate of Greece on our shoulders?
Xena gave her hand a squeeze, but didnt answer.
Its not my fault.
The warrior chuckled wryly.
The halls were getting crowded as they walked closer to the grand entrance. Ahead of her, Gabrielle could see the archway, with pearl gray dawn light outlining it. A puff of morning air brushed by her, and brought the scent of earth, stone and masses of humanity with it.
No one was talking much, she noticed, as she followed Xenas lead and they ended up against one of the corridor walls as the crowd gathered in around and behind them. Everyone was dressed like they were, and she could already smell sweat and the distinct, sharp scent of nervous fear around her. The bard took a breath, and released it, closing her eyes briefly as she collected her wits and settled them firmly into place. If it was tough on her, by default the close, tense space must be agonizing to Xena, and though the warrior was standing quietly next to her, to all outward appearances mildly bored Gabrielle could feel the unconscious tightening of Xenas fingers around hers and see the faster than normal rise and fall of her breathing.
You know Gabrielle commented. I always wondered what the sheep felt like, waiting to be sheared.
Xena snorted softly.
Now I know. The bard said. Xena She looked up as her partners head tilted towards her. Im.. ah, not very confident about this race. She tugged her short cloak around her shoulders. Especially not dressed like this. I feel like Im wearing a set of Doris diapers.
That brought a smile to Xenas face, and caused a chuckle to emerge. Just relax. The warrior turned and faced her, laying a hand on one of the bards shoulders. Do your best, and dont worry about it.
After what you said in there, how can you say that? Gabrielle persisted, lowering her voice. What if.. She had to stop, since warm fingers were now covering her lips.
Just do your best. Xena repeated softly. If the Fates mean for this to happen, it will, Gabrielle, and if it doesnt, then we just go to plan b. She removed her hand. Okay?
The bard studied her intently. Okay. She agreed, then paused for a moment. Is this where Im supposed to ask what plan b is?
Not yet. Xena muttered, turning her around and straightening as the crowd shifted.
Thats what I thought. Gabrielle exhaled nervously. They started to move forward, towards the now brightening opening that led into the stadium. Shed poked her head in here the day before and studied the large open space, ringed with stone seating, and she wondered if it would look just as scary as it had then.
They cleared the arch, and she had her answer. The entire stadium was filled with spectators, despite the early hour, and they erupted in cheers as the participants emerged. Gabrielle felt like the sound was beating against her skin, and she only just kept herself from huddling against her soulmate. Everyone around her raised their arms to acknowledge the cheers, and Xena used that excuse to let hers fall down around Gabrielles shoulders once they started moving again.
It was wonderful. It was horrible. It was color and chaos and Gabrielle was hard put to figure out where to look next. There was a cleared area in the center of the stadium, inside where all the events were going to take place. Circling the edge of the seating area was the running track, and inside that were the pits for the spear toss, the discus, an area set aside for archery, a stone ring for wrestling, hand to hand combat, and quarterstaff, and the large sunken square that would hold the fierce no holds barred gladiator matches. All around in the audience were colorful streams of cloth, evidently indicating the different towns that had athletes competing. Gabrielle felt a little sad knowing there was none out there for Amphipolis, and she briefly wished their friends and family would arrive to give them at least a few friendly faces in the crowd.
It was warm, and by the stuffy feel of the air, would only get warmer as the day went on. The bard predicted shed be glad of their scant clothing before the sun touched its midpoint, and wished shed remembered to get more aloe from the market. Xe?
Xena had been scanning the crowd intently, as they moved with the block of athletes. Hm? She answered, but didnt look down.
Ive got a bad feeling about this.
I know. Xena replied gently. So do I. She edged Gabrielle to the right a little, and indicated something with a faint twitch of her chin.
The bards eyes lifted and focused on a draped platform above the audience. Ostensibly, it was to shade the aristocratic rich who lounged under it, but seated grandly atop it were several well know, to her at least, figures. Ah. Can everyone see them?
I doubt it. The warrior said. Or theyd be running and screaming. Her eyes were fixed on the tall, leather clad figure sprawled in a chair nearest them. The arrogant head turned and met her gaze, without a hint of friendliness. Gangs all here, I guess. Ares, Aphrodite, Athena.. is that Artemis back there?
Gabrielle squinted, then rubbed her eyes. The gods seemed a little fuzzy to her, as though a haze obscured them. I cant tell.. its blurry.
Theyre blocking everyone else from seeing them. Xena stated.
Gabrielle gazed thoughtfully at the huge back of the man in front of them for a long instant. So why can we? She asked suddenly.
Xena didnt answer, because they were being shuffled into lines by purple togad officials who held scrolls and were asking questions.
What answer did she really have for Gabrielle anyway? Why did they see the gods? Who knew? Because they knew them, maybe? Xena dismissed the issue and concentrated on the small, wizened man in front of her. Yes?
City? The man asked briskly.
Amphipolis. Xena replied.
Amphipolis? No city here by that name. The man said.
He looked up sharply, to find icy blue eyes looking back at him. Name?
He stared at her for a long instant, then ruffled through his parchments, finally coming upon the very last one in the pile. With a grunt, he scratched a note on it. All right, fine. Where is the rest of your entrants?
Right here. Xena rested an elbow on Gabrielles shoulder.
He looked from one to the other. You have entries in every contest.
And this is it, just you two?
Xena nodded again.
The man shook his head and made another note. Idiots. He walked away muttering.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. What was that all about? Gabrielle wondered. Surely not everyone sent a dozen people to this thing, did they?
Xena looked around her, and judged the different strips of color tied to the contestants arms which indicated their home towns. Only she, and Gabrielle didnt have any. I dont know about that. She had to grin. But we never did anything the easy way, why start now?
Their little friend abruptly came back, towing a young man with strips of cloth draped over his arm. All the popular colors are taken. Youll have to make do with what is left since youre so late in entering. He stated, coming squarely to a halt next to them and pointing. Pick.
Gabrielle cocked her head at the strips. Would you call those colors brown, brown, gray, or mud?
Xena selected one strip that was a dirty mustard color, and another in solid black. She handed a similar set to Gabrielle. There. Matches your tattoo.
The official handed them two slips of parchment. These are the events, thats when they start, this is where you have to be. If you are late, you forfeit. If you are not properly equipped, you forfeit. If you break the rules, you forfeit. If you
I get the idea. Xena accepted the parchment.
Go to the center of the stadium, and wait. The master of the games will open the competition in a short while. After that, you will be responsible for making sure you follow the schedule. Understand? The man tapped his quill on his parchment, giving Xena a severe stare.
Oh, yeah. The warrior drawled.
Good. The official turned and moved on to the next set of athletes, who gathered around him anxiously.
Xena shook her head and threw the bands of fabric over her shoulder, taking Gabrielles from her fingers and fastening them around the bards well defined biceps. All around them, people milled, an air of anticipation becoming almost palpable. Cmon. She handed her own strips to the bard and waited as Gabrielle tied them on her, then led the way towards the center of the stadium.
There were already other competitors grouped there, and Gabrielle felt hostile eyes fasten on them as they approached. She watched as the two nearest, stocky men with dark beards so similar they probably were brothers, lean towards each other and whisper, one of them pointing at Xena.
She felt dwarfed as they entered the holding area, and were surrounded by the others. She was used to Xenas height, but most of the people around them were not only just as tall or taller than her partner, but were perhaps double the warriors weight.
Xena, of course, merely planted her boots on the ground and folded her arms in a confident stance, ignoring the looks and exuding an air of bored indifference. The scant wind puffed through, stirring the black and gold bands around her arm, but otherwise the warrior remained still, only her eyes flicking over everything.
Searching Evaluating. Those watchers who met that gaze turned their heads almost immediately, and in a sea of closely packed bodies there was a distinct body length space between any of them, and the dark menace in their midst.
Intimidation central. Gabrielle exhaled, and resisted the urge to hide behind Xenas tall body. Instead, she braced her legs shoulder width apart, and put her hands behind her back, looking around her with determined interest. She met the dark looks with a smile, and wished like Hades they were done with this, and done with the race that was making her stomach knot, and out of the damned sun.
She wished Dori were here, and Cyrene, and her Amazons. With a sigh, she turned her head and glanced upward, blinking she found Aphrodite looking back at her. As she watched, the beautiful goddess smiled, and winked, then gave her a thumbs up.
Now what, Gabrielle wondered bewilderedly, was that supposed to mean?
A horn blew, its strident tones almost deafening them. As its note faded, the tall, white haired man shed seen inside the night before mounted a pedestal, with the help of several lightly clad, hunky boys. The man held his arms up and faced first the crowd, then the athletes.
My fellow citizens! We welcome you to Athens!
A huge cheer rose, making Gabrielles head vibrate. It wasnt a comfortable feeling. The athletes stomped and yelled, only making it worse. Xena remained still beside her, only the savage working of the warriors jaw muscles betraying the state of her nerves.
Welcome to our Games! The man shouted on. Here, the flower of our youths will put forth their best spirits, and let us say, there can be no losers here at these games, for all who participate are the best!
Another huge yell.
I cant decide if the noise or the hypocrisy is giving me the bigger headache. Gabrielle muttered.
For the glory of Athens, and in the service of the gods of Olympus, let the games begin! The mans voice rose to a roar, and on the last word, chaos erupted. The crowd watching stood and cheered, and threw bits of colorful debris into the air. A thunder of wings crackled overhead, as a flock of doves were released from somewhere nearby. Horns blared.
The sun rose over the edge of the stadium, bathing the scene in golden light.
Soft, white feathers floated down, drifting among the athletes. Gabrielle caught one by reflex, cupping its creamy lightness in the palm of her hand. The down tickled her skin as the sun reached her as well, sending a gilded strip across her arm.
She heard the scream of a hawk. Instinctively, she looked up in time to see a streaking, powerful form angle down out of the sun and strike a laggard dove, driving claws deeply into the birds body as the hawk unfolded its wings and veered off with its prize, struggling faintly in its grip.
Gabrielle looked at the hawk on her own arm, then she turned her head and found Xena watching her somberly. Overly obvious omen? She joked weakly.
A dark brow arched wryly.
Sprint entrants, to the lists! A loud voice interrupted them. Form to the front of the track, please!
Gabrielle tucked her feather into a fold of her clothing and squared her shoulders. There was no more time to think or worry now. Wish me luck. She asked her soulmate.
Xena leaned over and kissed her, then patted her cheek. Youll do fine, Gabrielle. I know it. She gazed into the bards eyes. Go beat em.
And with that confidence draped over her like the finest of silk cloaks, Gabrielle turned and walked towards the starting point, keeping her head up as she found her place near the stone line, fixing her eyes on the finish and the woman who waited there for her.
Xena found her way through the milling crowd towards the end of the racing area, finding it easier as the athletes separated and headed towards the areas they would have to compete in. Those not participating in anything immediate seated themselves under light canopies in a space set to one side where servants circulated with cups and flagons of water.
It was too loud, too hot, and too chaotic for her tastes, and she cast a dour glare around as she staked a place out near the finish line and folded her arms. She could hear the voices all around her, placing petty bets on the race and commenting on the racers who now were lining up in preparation fro the start.
Most of the racers were women, as shed expected, spread out across the short stretch they had to cover. The sprints would happen in two sets, of ten runners each and Gabrielle was in the first set. Xena watched as the bards competition strutted into their places, shaking arms and legs and tucking bits of hair and clothing into order.
Gabrielle stood quietly in their midst, watching them curiously as they prepared for the race. Some paced up and down, some squatted and did odd stretching exercises, and Xena could see the mildly perplexed look on her partners face as she apparently wondered if she shouldnt be doing something like that as well.
Gabrielle was one of the smaller of the competitors, though two of the other women were not much taller, and she looked slight in comparison to the longer limbed and more muscular sprinters to either side of her. The brief linen wraps left little to the imagination, but while the others seemed self conscious of the crowds eyes, the bard stood relaxed, her arms at her sides, accustomed to having most of her body exposed from her years of traveling in Amazon style garb.
But now the man running the race was yelling a warning, and lifting his hand, which held a brightly colored yellow flag in it and the racers got ready. The sound of the crowd increased as the runners all lined up and stood poised, waiting in an agony of anticipation.
Then the mans arm dropped, and ten bodies launched forward. Xena locked her eyes on her partners form and watched the race, seeing the serious, determined look on Gabrielles face even from where she stood.
They were all good, all very fast, almost even, the two women on either side of Gabrielle pulled ahead quickly, throwing all their effort into a tremendous spurt that got them ahead of the crowd.
There was a thunderous roar that vibrated through Xenas sensitive ears, and she grimaced, her teeth clenching as her body sent sympathetic energy towards her oncoming partner, whose shorter but more powerful strides were keeping her just behind the two leaders. Cmon, sweetheart. The warrior muttered under her breath.
Had the race gone on a little longer, Xena calculated, Gabrielles steady outpouring of energy would have caught the two leaders, but she could tell the bard wasnt going to have time unless something happened.
Then the woman in front, a dark haired powerhouse that reminded her of Eponin grinned in triumph as she bore down on the finish, already looking up towards the crowd to accept her accolades.
Bad mistake. Her boot caught on an irregularity in the rock and she stumbled, then lurched sideways across Gabrielles path.
Only the bards reflexes saved a disaster, as she ducked to one side, missing the woman by a hairs breadth, her eyes wide in alarm as the dark haired runners body sprawled into the dust, her outstretched hand catching the heel of the other front runner.
The crowd noise was so intense, and the bard so concerned about what was going on around her, she didnt even realize she crossed the finish first a moment later, the rest of the field at her shoulder in an ending so close it could really have been any of them. Xena ducked quickly around the surging crowd and got to her partners side first, creating a living barrier against the milling confusion.
Wh.. Gabrielle sensed her presence and turned, her breathing coming in gasps. Wh.. I.. Sweat was pouring liberally off her body, and her chest was heaving. Xe?
Easy. Xena got between her and the now upright frontrunner, who was complaining loudly to the officials. Good race.
But I lost. They were just too fast, I Gabrielle stammered out, one hand clutching Xenas arm. What.. happened? I saw something coming at me an..
Shh. The warrior rubbed her back gently. Catch your breath first. You did fine, Gabrielle. She reassured her, feeling the racing heartbeat already slowing as her partners breathing also slowed, and steadied. That one over there She indicated the dark haired girl.
She won.. or.. she should have. Gabrielle drew in a deep breath, and released it, then flexed her shoulders as some of the tension dissipated. She tripped.
No. Xena told her. Well, yeah, she tripped, but what she did was lose focus. The warrior put a finger on the bards nose. You didnt.
The official lifted his hand, and made a chopping gesture towards the dark haired woman. There was no foul. He stated firmly. That is my decision. And with that, he pushed his way through the crowd towards the remaining runners, sorting through small pieces of parchment as a buzz of comment lifted around him. He finally stopped in front of Gabrielle, glanced at her armbands, nodded, then pinned a spring of laurel with three branches onto her wrap. Well done. He gave her a brief nod, then moved on, pinning first one runner, then another with springs of two, and one branches respectively.
Gabrielles brow creased, and she looked down at herself, then up at Xena. Whats this? She became aware, suddenly, of a ring of envious eyes around them.
You won. Xena told her.
No I didnt. The bard protested immediately. I cant have, Xena. Those women were ahead of me, they should have won this. Its not their fault there was a crack in the rocks.
I know. But you crossed the line first. The warrior lowered her voice. Thats what counts.
Predictably, Gabrielles innate sense of fairness objected. Thats not right, Xena. They should have won. She frowned. Cant we just do it over?
No. Xena steered her away from the muttering crowd. Come on. Lets watch the second race. They found a spot to one side, near the pavilions. A water bearer trotted over and offered Gabrielle a cup.
Thanks. The bard took it gratefully, giving him a smile.
The boy smiled back. Congratulations.. that was a great race. He said shyly. And I won five dinars on it. He held up a coin, then disappeared into the crowd, leaving a very bemused bard behind him.
Gabrielle just finally sighed, and took a drink of water, grateful for its cool, sweet taste as it worked its way down into her belly. She glanced up after a moment to see Xena watching her, with a proud little twinkle in her eye. Its not right.
Yes, it is. Her partner told her. Gabrielle, you know better than most of the people in that race that its how you deal with the unexpected that makes the difference. She said. In battle, does fairness count?
The bard thought about that. No, not always. She admitted. You have to take advantage of the other guys mistakes. But this isnt the same thing.
Isnt it? The warrior remarked, watching the second ten runners line up. The three winners from your race will have to race the three from this one. So give your conscience a break, okay? Save your energy for the final run.
Perversely, Gabrielle felt a little better about that. It wasnt that she objected to winning, and she understood Xenas point about the other people making mistakes, and paying for them. Shed learned the hard way about focus, and suffered her share of painful knocks and bruises when shed lost her own in the middle of a fight.
She thought about her race, and how shed kept up with the other two runners. It had been an exhilarating feeling, and that had surprised her. The challenge appealed to her newly developed sense of competition and the more she thought about it, the more she realized that it was her own skill, and her ability to retain that focus that had allowed her to react so quickly to the accident and still win anyway.
Huh. She sipped her water slowly as she watched the starter raise his hand. I guess I did okay.
Xena cast a fondly amused look at her. Toldja.
Gabrielle bumped her with a hip. Whens your first thing.. its the spear throw, right?
Next. Xena acknowledged, casting a wary eye over her shoulder towards the raised platform. We dont have to win everything, yknow. She commented. Just enough to make it a majority.
Oh, so you can slack off on some things, right? Gabrielle remarked dryly.
Xena just looked at her.
Gabrielle smirked, and shook her head, then leaned forward and watched as the race was started. She was startled at how fast it looked. Wow these guys are a lot faster than we were. She murmured. Look at them go!
Xena appeared to be counting under her breath, and she nodded as a tall, very well built girl with fiery red hair crossed the line first, raising her arms in triumph as the crowd now cheered with greater enthusiasm than at the first race. Guess the favorite won. She commented casually.
Yeah. Gabrielle exhaled. No way I can top that. She said, giving Xenas cloak a tug. Onward to the spears?
Xena nodded, and turned to start the short walk to the cleared area she could see nearby.
Gabrielle accompanied her, ducking past a group of wrestlers headed in the other direction. Hows your leg? She asked, in a very low voice. Will it bother you in this?
Xena imagined the solid plant shed have to do in order to properly throw the spear and winced. A little. She admitted, then paused as she spotted a familiar figure making its way through the crowd towards them. Taking a break from the docks? She asked as Draco arrived.
The citys closed down today. The ex warlord said, his eyes running over Gabrielle briefly, then focusing on her. Hey.. its the kid! The little blond kid! You lived to grow up!
Gabrielle put her hands on her hips and regarded him wryly.
Never woulda bet on that. Draco laughed. I like a sure thing.
A thoughtful expression crossed Xenas face, unseen by the other two. Yeah, I remember that. The warrior remarked. Everyone knows Draco goes for the sure thing.
You got that right. Draco agreed readily. So, what are you doing out here, Xena? Dont tell me youre a part of this whole set up? He eyed her outfit. You gotta be kidding.. arent you a little too old for this stuff?
If looks could kill, Draco would, Gabrielle was convinced, have simply exploded into little bits and showered them all with gore in an instant. Wow. She said. You actually survived all these years being that stupid?
Draco glanced at her in startlement.
I never would have bet on that. The bard said. Cmon, Xena.
The warrior put a hand on her arm to stop her. Wait. She fixed Draco with a cool stare. You here to make money?
A shrug. Sure. Why else? Plenty of provincials all fatted for the slaughter, so to speak, ready to take any odds I want to give them.
Gabrielle glared at him in disgust.
Good. Xena wrapped a hand in the leather vest he was wearing and turned, starting off towards the spear pit and dragging him with her. Lets go. Ive got an offer for you.
Hey! Draco grabbed her hand, and tried to free himself. Let go, you Xena, Im not your second anymore, and you cant just Xena!!! He growled in exasperation. What kind of an offer are we talking about here!
One you cant refuse. Xena smiled grimly.
Let me get this straight. Draco held up one hand. You want me to wager a lot of dinars.
Xena nodded, as she peeked at her competitors in the spear throw.
On you. Dracos voice was incredulous. Xena, youve gone over the edge. No way.
The warrior gave him a dour look, then shook her head. Wait here. Well finish this argument when I get back. She unclasped her light cloak and stripped it off, draping it over Gabrielles courteously waiting arm, then stalked off towards where the rest of the athletes were assembling.
Forget it, Xena, I wont be here when you.. Draco started to yell after her, then he paused, blinking.
Gabrielle folded her partners cloak over her arm as she watched Xena make her way through the crowd, the way parting before her as though by magic. Even in this cluster of big, strong bodies her partner still stood out- not by her size, but by the almost indefinable air that surrounded her.
The sunlight flowed over her, marking the distinct contrast between Xenas tanned skin and dark hair and the white garment that barely covered her. Shed taken off the bandage on her knee, and now stood easily by the spear rack, one hand resting on the stone pylon.
Damn. Draco finally recovered his speech.
Something wrong? Gabrielle glanced at him curiously.
Nah, nothing. The ex warlord muttered.
Gabrielle shrugged and turned to watch the competition. Xena had removed a spear from the bin and laid it across her shoulders, using its length to stretch her muscles out as she twisted from side to side. Around her, the other participants were doing the same, waiting for the games official to come over and stealing furtive looks at each other.
Xena felt the sun beating down on her back, and she let the butt of the spear shed picked up rest on the ground as she leaned her weight on it. Her competition looked impressive, eight powerfully built men and two women, in this event that not every city would enter. Running, anyone could do, but using the tools of war was something else entirely.
Xena accepted her marker, which placed her fourth in line to throw. Thanks. She said, stepping back out of the way as the first man got himself ready. It was an easy event on the surface. You grabbed hold of the spear at its balance point or just behind it depending on how strong you were, aimed, and threw.
Except that Xena knew that the heat, and the winds, and the moisture in the air all had a factor to play in the result. She watched carefully as the first man wound up, and taking three long steps before reaching the prominent marker on the stone, released the spear. It launched up quickly, propelled by the mans powerful arm and arced towards the sun, traveling a long, long distance across the stone to land point first in a sand pit designed to catch the spears.
It was a very good throw, and the man knew it. It had passed all but two of the fabric markers, and the cheers of the crowd increased accordingly. He lifted a hand in acknowledgement, and sauntered back over to the rest of the waiting group, a look of proud satisfaction on his face. They would each have three casts, and so far, it was starting out a tough contest.
Shell never beat that. Draco stated, with a snort.
Gabrielle merely leaned against a convenient stone pedestal and watched as the second thrower approached the line. This was a tall, muscular woman with sandy hair and a very no nonsense expression, and she released the spear with an audible grunt. It was a good throw, but not nearly as long as the first. The woman wiped her hands and stepped back, shaking her head and frowning. Oh, I dont know. The bard finally said. Xenas pretty competitive.
Draco stepped up next to her. Yeah, but that guys the best. Hes who Ive got *my* money on. He pointed at the first man. Thats Selenus. Hes been training for these games for years. Hes a captain in the Athenian army.
Gabrielle nodded, as the third entrant had a go. The stocky young man was overanxious, though, and his throw was far off course, and very short. Oh.. thats too bad.
Draco snorted. He knows he doesnt have a chance. They all know it.
Except Xena. Gabrielle interjected gently.
Cmon, get real. He answered. I have no idea what she thinks shes doing, but shes so out of her legion here its pathetic. Draco folded his arms across his chest. See? Watch.
They both did, as Xena hefted her spear and approached the throwing line, her casual attitude very much at odds with the rest of the participants. The warrior paused and regarded the sand pit at the other end of the area, then she flowed into motion, taking two steps forward and launching the spear overhand, with enough force to cause her body to lift a bit off the ground.
The trajectory was flatter than the rest, Gabrielle noticed, but the spear seemed to be traveling faster, and it lacked the tiny wobble shed detected in the last three casts. The point came to rest in the sand just short of Selenus, and dead center in the middle of the pit.
Rather than a roar, a buzz of voices rose around them. Gabrielle glanced at Draco. Sorry, what was that you were saying?
The dark skinned man looked quickly at her. Lucky throw.
A twinkle of mischievous amusement entered Gabrielles eyes. Are you willing to put your dinars where your mouth is on that? She asked. Say, a hundred dinars?
Dracos jaw dropped. Are you crazy?
I thought you said this guy cant be beat.
Draco looked at her, then at Selenus, who was giving Xena the once over. He cant.. hes a lock.
Well then? The bard drawled softly. Its a sure thing, right?
He grabbed her arm and swung her around Kid, youre nuts. Draco stated. But theres no law against taking money from looneys, so sure. Im in. Ill take that bet.
Great. Gabrielle said. Now, let go of me before you end up with a spear between your ears.
Gabrielle was facing away from the field, but she pointed back over her shoulder with absolute certainty.
Dracos dark eyes lifted, then he released her and backed off, snorting slightly. Oh yeah. How could I forget that possessive streak. He studied her for a moment. Shoulda figured there was a reason you stuck around her this long. Cant be the conversation.
A shimmering of memory crossed Gabrielles vision, the tragedy and joy of the last six years of her life. No. She exhaled quietly. It wasnt the conversation. She turned her back on him and leaned on the pylon, not surprised to find Xena watching her with unsmiling alertness.
Gabrielle winked at her.
Xena relaxed visibly, and turned her attention to the competition, where the seventh person was just getting up to the line. She was pleased with her first throw, and suspected she could better it, though getting the distance wasnt going to be easy without putting more pressure on her leg.
She folded her arms and wished they were out of the sun. It was beating down on her back, and she was caught between being glad she had almost no clothing on, and the knowledge that despite her tan shed be feeling the sun after the long day ended.
The seventh man achieved a very good toss, off to the left but long enough to place him third. He acknowledged the yells of the crowd and surrendered the platform to the last competitor, turning and moving away. His eyes were still on the crowd, though, and he bumped into Selenus, who shoved him roughly away and cursed at him.
Stupid bastard.. watch your step.
The smaller man held a hand up in apology. Sorry, friend. My fault.
Damn right! Selenus shoved past him again and went to the spear rack, pawing inside it and turning his back on the rest of them.
Oo.. a little tense, arent we? He wiped his hands on his breechclout and settled himself next to Xena as the last man started his wind up. Oh. Bad luck. He winced, as the spear went off at right angles, almost endangering the judges. The man had misstepped, and his leg had twisted under him after he released the spear, and hed fallen to the ground. Bummer.
Xena eyed him. He was compact and exuded energy, and reminded her almost irresistibly of the human Iolaus.
He seemed to sense her interest, because he turned and held a hand out. Youre Xena, right? Im Hari.
The warrior clasped his forearm and released it. Nice throw. She complimented him.
Not nice enough. Hari agreed cheerfully. But Ive got two shots left to be you and his royal monstrosity over there. He ignored the glower from Selenus. Youve got an interesting technique.. whered you learn it? Overseas? In the South?
Having to hit a soldier between the eyes at two hundred lengths. Xena replied. In battle.
Hari scratched the side of his bearded jaw. Shoulda seen that one coming, huh?
Xena found herself liking the little scamp. Yeah.
Selenus moved up to the line again, and readied himself, flexing his huge shoulders and rocking a little bit in place. Then he wound up and surged into motion, whipping his arm forward and sending the spear into another incredible arc.
Hes such a pig. Hari sighed. Farts every time he lets it go. Dja hear him?
Xena couldnt quite suppress a chuckle at that.
Selenus gave his throw an approving nod, and walked away from the line. The spear had gone at least a length beyond his first one.
Gabrielle almost jumped, before her mind recognized the voice and she forced herself not to react. Mindful of Dracos watching presence, she eased her head to the right and found Aphrodite materializing right next to her, the goddess bringing a scent of roses and honey with her that made the bards nose twitch. Hi. She murmured under her breath.
Congrats! Aphrodite complimented her. I always said youve got a great pair of legs.
The bard blushed a little and glanced away for a second, focusing on Xena as she went to take her turn. Thanks. She said. I know were not the most popular people with some of your family right now.
The Goddess of Love laughed, her musical voice rising above the crowd and the noise. Baby, you are rocking my world, didja know that? I am like, so loving the both of you right now.
Gabrielle had no idea of what to say about that, so she remained silent, her eyes glued on her partners tall from as she paused for a moment, then took two quick strides, planted her legs, and let loose. Gabrielle winced in reaction, seeing the jerk go up Xenas spine as she pulled back, taking the weight off her bad leg, but the spear flew straight and true, seeming to skim over the air forever until it fell to earth at last, its point burying itself the length of Gabrielles outstretched arms past Selenus.
She could sense shock in the watchers, but it went right past her as she ducked under the barrier around the spear pit and headed for Xenas side, barely aware of Aphrodite floating along with her. The official glanced at her and started to say something, but spotted the laurel leaves pinned to her top and subsided, turning instead to another man who showed him a scrap of parchment.
Xe? Gabrielle reached the warriors side and put a hand on her arm as Xena leaned back against the spear bin.
Yes. Xena enunciated the word precisely, giving the hovering Aphrodite a cursory look.
Everyone was looking at them, Gabrielle realized. Not only the crowd, but the other participants, and the officials, and one look at Xenas expression told her there was no way that warrior fašade was going to crack even an inch anytime soon. Want some water? She changed her plan in mid word and handed over the waterskin shed picked up. Nice throw! I think youre winning.
Heck yeah. Nice toss, oh tall, dark and diabolical one. Aphro flicked Xena in the head with a bit of her chiffon. You rock
Tell your brother that. Xena muttered, taking a sip of the water.
Oh yeah, hes pissed. The Goddess agreed. Hes up there chewing the laces off his vest. Its awesome. She smiled at Xena. I love it.
Xena just looked at her.
Listen, like, I love talking to you guys, but Ive gotta get back for the celestial wine serving I just wanted to tell you to watch out. Aphrodite told them. Bros really ticked, and theres this bet.. well, lets just say losings not an option for him, mkay?
What do you mean? Gabrielle asked. I thought this was all about us going to war.
Oh yeah, that. The goddess waved a hand. No, this is really important stuff. He bet daddy he could control this whole big old mess, and if he loses, he, like, really loses if you catch my drift.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. I couldnt catch your drift with a fathom wide fishing net. Xena snapped edgily. What in Hades can he lose, those tight leather pants?
Duh. Aphrodite rolled her eyes. Mortals gotta love em. No, danger chick, hell lose his sword. Daddys going to make him the ex God of War. She poked Xena in the shoulder. So, like, watch your back, huh? She snapped her fingers, and disappeared, leaving behind a soft tinkling sound that faded slowly.
Xena exhaled, rubbing her temple with one hand. Gabrielle, if this gets any more complicated Im gonna lose it.
The bard prudently remained silent for a few moments, as they watched the next couple of throws fall far short of the leaders. Hows your leg?
Lousy. Xena stated shortly. I may have to give this last one a miss need some herbs.
Gabrielle let out a long, heartfelt sigh. I bet Draco a hundred dinars youd win. She almost felt the silence beating against her before she reluctantly turned her head and looked up, meeting those ice blue eyes unflinchingly. Ill go forfeit.. I can make it up to him somehow.
The warrior just looked at her.
Did it again, didnt I?
Xena flexed her leg, and handed the waterskin back. What would I do without you? She ruffled Gabrielles hair affectionately. Ill see what I can do about making sure you dont lose your skirt. She put a finger on Gabrielles chin and smiled, just a little. But you are going to owe me big time tonight.
The bard tried to pretend she didnt see all the smirks in her direction. Body, heart and soul its all yours. She replied.
Last round! The official yelled nearby. Make ready!
Xena squeezed the bards shoulder in silence, then turned and lifted her spear, going to join the group now lining up.
Gabrielle walked back over to where Draco was still standing and joined him in watching as Selenus uncorked a huge one, sending his spear almost to the end of the pit. Draco chuckled in triumph, and gave her a poke
Pay up, kid. She cant beat that.
Gabrielle merely watched, hearing the crowds yelling getting louder and louder as each entrant fell short, until it came up to Xenas turn again. This time, she could see the focus in every line of her partners body, and the hairs n the back of her own neck prickled as she tensed in sympathy, willing Xena all the energy she could muster.
She could almost feel the intensity, see the fire in Xenas eyes, and feel the power as the warrior surged towards the line, picked her target and let fly.
And with a sound like a thundercrack, the spear overshot the pit and slammed into a stone bust on the other side, knocking it off its pedestal and sending it to shatter in chunks on the ground.
For a moment, there was only shocked silence. Then Xena walked over to the official, plucked the laurel cluster from his hand, and kept going.
Xena never loses. You should know that, Draco. Gabrielle said, watching her approach. So, are you going to bet with us, or against us?
The ex warlord put his hands on his hips, and snorted. What choice do I have? He asked, as his eyes met Xenas. I have to bet with you, just to break even now. With a shake of his head, he turned and stalked off, leaving Xena and Gabrielle in a small empty space in all that chaos.
Xena draped an arm over the bards shoulders and handed her the laurel leaves. Youre skirts safe. She announced dryly.
Thanks. Gabrielle replied softly. Weve got a break now, until after noon. Want to go find some shade?
Lead on. Xena sucked in a breath and let the ache go past her as she started walking again. She had the feeling it was going to be a very, very long day.
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