A Matter of Pride
Mama, Gramma gots good cookies. Dori informed her mother seriously. Big.
Oh, really? Gabrielle replied, stroking the toddlers hair. She was lying in bed, ostensibly relaxing while Xena checked on the progress of the pallet and greeted her troops. It was full dark out, but as Xena had reminded her shed have time to wait while the other bards were performing.
Staying where she was, quietly resting, was a very appealing idea to Gabrielle. How come you didnt bring me one, huh? She asked her daughter, who was dressed in a little red outfit that looked adorable on her, a nice contrast to her dark hair. Dori had Bittyboo encircled by one arm, the tattered doll resting mutely next to her.
Howcome? Dori warbled. Mama gets cookies.
Not unless you get them for me. Mama cant get up and get any. Gabrielle explained. Should we call Gramma?
You think shell bring cookies?
A soft knock came at the door. Gabrielle glanced around, then exhaled as she remembered she no longer had her staff. Her eyes searched for a substitute, then better sense intervened and reminded her that bad guys probably would not be politely knocking. Yes?
The door cracked open, and Mikah slowly poked his head inside.
Hey. Gabrielle greeted him. Cmon in. We dont bite. She glanced at her daughter. Well, most of us dont.
Mikah slid inside, then came over and knelt at the bedside. His face bore bruises, the old one, and newer, but he seemed relatively unharmed otherwise. I came to thank you. He said. And to say how sorry I am that you got hurt, and I couldnt warn you.
Gabrielle put a hand on his arm. Its okay. She told him. I wish they hadnt decided to get you involved in this you were only trying to help us.
Mikah bowed his head a moment. I know. He said. But the shame of it is.. He looked at her. I was too frightened to defy them.
Gabrielle gazed at him compassionately. Would it have made a difference if youd tried? She asked. Dori mouthed her stuffed toy, watching in curious silence.
Mikah paused, then half shrugged. I dont know. He answered in a low voice. I never will know. I watched them beat you, and I should have tried to do something.
A flash of memory suddenly flooded Gabrielles minds eye, of a much younger self having the same second thoughts.
Shed watched, helpless, as theyd overwhelmed the furiously fighting warrior and borne her to the ground, only to be tossed off as Xenas body arched and rolled.
They had come right back, though, and the dust had risen, hiding the fighting from Gabrielles eyes until it disappeared along with the men, and Xena, over a ledged embankment she didnt know the bottom of.
Xena! Gabrielle yelled desperately, as she reached the edge and fell to her knees, peering fearfully over and hoping her friend was all right. Below her, she couldnt see anything, except for a fast moving brown river and a lot of broken branches where bodies had fallen through.
Xe Gabrielle looked downstream, standing up and shading her eyes. She could see bobbing figures moving away from her, and panic struck her. Xena!!!!! With her heart pumping, she started to run down the bank.
The voice brought her up sharply, and she stopped, whirling around and looking for the source. Xena?
Gabrielle ran back to the embankment and flopped down onto her belly, inching over to peer over the edge. She jumped when a muddy face popped up in front of hers and yelled in pure reaction. Yahhh!!
Hush! Xena glared at her, as she hauled herself up over the ledge and slumped down next to Gabrielle, her drenched body covered in cuts and scratches. Bastards.
Youre hurt. Gabrielle dabbed at a bleeding cut on Xenas leg with a bit of her skirt.
Leave it alone. Im fine.
No youre not, youre dripping blood all over the place, Xena! Gabrielle protested. Ill go get some bandages, or your herbs, or..
Gabrielle had, for once, ignored the warning and pressed her hands down over the cut, stopping the blood with wads of fabric. You could hold this here, but its attached to me.. maybe you could cut off a piece.
Xena! You cant pretend youre not gushing blood! Its all over me!
Shh. Xena had put a hand over her mouth. I am, okay? Thanks for stopping it. Now wouldja just relax?
Gabrielle lowered her head, and bit the inside of her lip. Its the least I could do. She said. Its not like I can do anything else, but hang around like a bump on a log.
Yeah, well, I fight, you talk remember? Xena said.
Xena, thats not Gabrielle kept her hands pressed against the cut. I should do more to help you. Its not fair. Maybe I could learn to throw rocks or something.
A hand had fallen unexpectedly on her shoulder. Gabrielle, you dont need to do that. Xena said. The minute you pick up a weapon, you become a target. You dont want that to happen, do you?
Gabrielle sighed heavily. I dont know. She admitted. I hate not being able to do anything.
Well, I dont want that to happen. Xena said. So you let me do the fighting.
Gabrielle had looked at her, unsure if she was willing to keep to their arrangement. She found unexpected compassion in Xenas eyes, as the warrior wiped a bit of mud with the back of her hand, and removed a water plant hanging on her shoulder.
Trust me. Xena said, in a quiet, knowing voice. You dont want to be a fighter, Gabrielle. It only gets you hurt.
Gabrielle lifted her hands carefully, making sure the cut had stopped bleeding. I guess. She had to admit, seeing the bruises on her friends skin. Want me to go get Argo?
Xena drew in a breath and started to speak, then paused. N Yeah. She said. Thatd be great.
Okay. Gabrielle had gotten to her knees. Where are we going next?
Up into the mountains.
The villagers said there were Amazons there. Is that true?
There used to be.
Do you think well see them? Gabrielle had been sidetracked. Ive heard so many stories about them, Id love to meet some!
They avoid strangers, Gabrielle. Dont get your hopes up.
Gabrielle got to her feet, and brushed her now bloodstained skirt off. Okay. She pushed down her disappointment. Will you tell me everything you know about them then? Itd be the next best thing.
A wistful, faint smile appeared on Gabrielles face. Xena had, of course, been right about taking up arms, and the consequences of that.
And wrong, as it happened, about them meeting Amazons.
But she wouldnt have had it any other way.
Not everyones cut out for this kind of thing, Mikah. She told the boy. If you did try to stop them, they might have hurt you, or even killed you, and I still would have gotten beat up.
Mikah exhaled. I know. He looked at her. Xena would have stopped them.
Oh yes. Gabrielle agreed readily. In a heartbeat.
Boo? Dori heard a favorite name. Mama, get Boo, come back, get cookies, go fly. The toddler demanded. Go now!
Oh, youre such a little tyrant. The bard chuckled. Listen to you giving me orders. Who do you think you are, huh?
Dori grinned, and stuck a finger in her mouth, then pointed at her mother. Mama!
That surprised a laugh out of Gabrielle, brief due to the pain in her gut. I do not sound like that! She scolded her child, then glanced at Mikah. He was watching Dori with a curious expression.
Shes adorable. He offered.
She thinks so. Gabrielle put a finger on Doris nose, and watched the toddler swipe at it with both hands. Dont you?
Mama. Dori crawled over and snuggled up against Gabrielles side, kicking her feet out against the covers to make a comfortable spot for herself.
Gabrielle curled an arm around her and hugged her, giving her a kiss on the top of her head. I thought shed be knocked out after what she went through today, but shes had her nap, and now shes raring to go again.
Gabrielle looked up, a trifle puzzled. Sure.
Mikah blinked, and studied the child. She ah.. looks a bit like Xena.
Yeah. Gabrielle smiled, completely declining to elaborate. She sure does. Time for a change of subject. So, tell me about what happened to you? I hear you got rescued by two friends of ours?
Mikah tore his eyes from Dori and scrubbed his face with one hand. Um, yes. The Amazons. He hesitated. Are they all like that?
Oh boy. Um.. some are, some arent. Gabrielle temporized. Whatd they do?
Might as well know the worst, right?
You are my Elysia.
Xena tucked the words inside her and savored them. Guess it pays to have a poet as a partner, huh? She let her thoughts float for a bit, reasoning she was due a little mental rest after the day theyd had.
Already, as most of her adventures did, the details were fading a little, losing the vibrant emotional impact shed felt while they were trapped and replacing it with a deep sense of relief that the ordeal was past, and they were safe. It was behind them, after all, and they still had a long road to walk before they could leave Athens behind and head back home.
It had made her think about something shed consciously blocked out of her mind for a while, though. The year at home had allowed her to let thoughts of death, hers or Gabrielles, fade, and coming into the marketplace and knowing the bard had been taken .
Had brought that fear home with a vengeance.
When theyd been trapped in the storage room, though, Xena had found herself facing the death of all of them with a cross between fear at what would come next, and an almost shameful sense of relief. Relief that neither she, nor the bard would have to face the loss, and the empty loneliness of living without half of their souls. Relief that Dori wouldnt be left an orphan, though she knew her family would take care of the child, to wonder always why her parents had gone without her.
Death was something that came to everyone. Xena knew that. It was part of what made them all human, and she knew that someday shed have to face the death of everyone close to her, unless she died first.
The warrior exhaled. She was glad theyd escaped fate this time. But if they hadnt, she acknowledged silently, it might have been the best of the worst of possibilities.
You are my Elysia.
Xena smiled, and shook her head. Youve always been mine. She spoke silently to her partner. And who knows? Maybe between the two of us well end up creating an afterlife for ourselves that matches what we have in this one?
She knew she was crossing a line.
She didnt care.
It was time to start looking forward again.
The warrior had been leaning against a tree in the courtyard, arms crossed over her chest, her angular face outlined in the fluttering torchlight they were working by, and she hadnt heard anyone approach.
XENA? Pony waved a hand in front of the unusually inattentive blue eyes. Hello? Athens to the Royal Consort? Anyone in the hut?
With a tiny shake of her head, Xena straightened, and turned her gaze on Eponin. Yeah?
Whats up with you? Pony asked, conversationally. She walked over and leaned against the tree next to the warrior. Youve been acting like a goat in heat since you came out here.
I was thinking. Xena gave her an evil look.
About what, the next festival of Dionysus? You were grinning like a cat. Pony snorted.
Just something Gabrielle and I were talking about, all right? Xena gazed over her head. Arent you done with that damn thing yet?
Pony turned to regard the project. Almost. She said. Gotta make sure it looks good.
Xenas eyebrow lifted. What are those things hanging off it?
Yeah. Pony handed her one. We found them in the market. Eph figured, since we didnt have our usual stuff, thesed look nice, and make lots of good noise.
Xena examined the snail, which was large, and brightly colored. Nice. She peered inside it.
We took the snail out. Pony gave her a look. Give us a break.
Yeah? Whered you put them all?
The Amazon weapons master eyed her warily. In that pail over there, why?
Xena started walking towards the spot. Ill give em to Gabrielle.
Pony stood rooted in one spot for a moment, then hurried to catch up to Xenas longer strides. What the Hades is she going to do with them?
The warrior picked up the bucket and examined the contents. Snail stew. Xena said, briskly. Now, did I see grubs for sale in that little cart She rubbed her jaw thoughtfully. Or were those dried bees?
Ponys jaw dropped.
Wanna come by our room for dinner after the show? The warrior asked. Im sure therell be enough.
B.. Pony flushed as her voice broke. You . Eat . Those?
Sure. Xena plucked one from the bucket and popped it into her mouth, giving it a couple of chews and swallowing. Yum. She watched the Amazons face, intrigued by the shade of green it was turning. Want one?
Ponys eyes went big and very round. Uuugghhh!!! She couldnt prevent her face from twisting into a grimace of horror.
Xena held her politely interested look for a moment, more, then let her face relax into a wicked grin, as she held up the not quite dead snail shed palmed in her hand. Gotcha.
A blink. You son of a Pony snatched the bucket from her and went to dump its contents all over the warriors leather covered chest. Ill give you a snail, you
Xena leaped nimbly out of the way, and laughed, as Pony almost overbalanced in her efforts to dump the unhappy animals on her.
Arrrghh. Pony bumped into a tree and bounced off, then just started laughing as well. Damn it, Xena.. what got into you? She complained, tossing the bucket down and putting her hands on her hips as the warrior reached up and grasped an overhead branch, hanging from it and swinging just a little.
I dunno. Xena watched the other Amazons finish their work on her partners royal couch. Just glad everything turned out all right today, I guess. She admitted, giving Pony a sideways look. We were in a pretty tight place a few times in there. She had no real idea why she was confiding this to Pony, except that she harbored a liking for the tough, blunt Amazon and the words seemed to want to escape from her.
Pony blinked a little, seeming a bit startled, then she leaned back against the tree and considered. How tight? She asked, cautiously.
Xena exhaled. We were stuck in a dead end corridor. In a storage room we found after I got Gabrielle out of her cell. The fire came down the hall, we couldnt get out.
Ungh. Eponin pursed her lips. Boy, that sucks. I hate when that happens.
Mm. Xena nodded. Sure does. Burning to deaths never been a favorite of mine.
They were both silent for a few moments. Whatd Gab say about it? Pony ventured. Did she know what was going on?
Yeah. She knew. Xena found herself smiling again. She said as long as we were together, it didnt matter to her.
The sound of torches fluttering in the wind was very loud in the silence. They both watched the other Amazons lift the pallet, apparently satisfied with their work, and carry it over to the front of the inn.
Finally the Amazon stirred, releasing a breath. What does it feel like? Pony turned and looked curiously at her. Having someone believe in you that much?
Again. Xena answered softly, after a pause. Her eyes gazed off into the distance, seeing something far outside an inn courtyard in Athens. She shook her head a little. Its The words came slowly, and with difficulty. Incredible. She stopped there, finding nothing else to say about it.
The Amazon reached up and put a hand on Xenas shoulder. Xena. Her face was quiet and serious. I know lousy stuffs happened, but you guys came out on top of it.
Xenas eyes twinkled gently, and she nodded in agreement.
Couldnt have happened to two better people. Pony finished, blushing a little at the sentimentality of it.
Thanks. Xena replied. Im glad things worked out for you and Eph, too.
Pony rolled her eyes. With the help of her majestys ever so gentle poke in the butt, yeah. She muttered.
They exchanged looks, and very quick, almost embarrassed grins.
Hey! Ephiny wiped the sweat off her brow. Are you two just gonna stand there lazing around, or can we get some help here?
Uh oh. Pony pushed off from the tree. Here comes trouble.
Xena released her branch and dusted her hands off. Nah, Gabrielles still inside. Ill go get her.
Did you say thank you to Gramma, for bringing cookies? Gabrielle asked her daughter.
Mmm mama! Dori reached for the cake. Gimme!
Ah ah.. what do you say? The bard held it just out of her reach.
Mama. Dori seemed frustrated, perhaps tired from her long, active day. No good!
Say please. Gabrielle gently insisted. Cmon.
Pweease. Dori lolled against her mothers side and begged. Want cake!
Good girl. Gabrielle handed her a chunk. Now say thank you to gramma.
Dori stuffed the cake into her mouth and gave her grandmother a round eyed look. Fmffp! She pointed at Cyrene.
Cyrene chuckled wearily, and took a seat on the edge of the bed. How are you feeling, cutie pie? She asked the bard, who was dividing the edible booty between her self and her child. You look a little ragged round the edges.
Gabrielle watched Dori launch into a piece of fragrant spice cake, before she glanced up at the innkeeper. I am. She admitted, with a wry smile, breaking off a piece of cake for herself and tasting it. Xena wont give me anything for the pain because of my head bump.
Smart girl. Cyrene nodded briskly. You do what she says.
Dont I always? Gabrielle asked innocently, taking another bite of cake.
Cyrenes eyebrows lifted. Do you? Where was I when this happened? She teased. I must have missed it.
Gabrielle grinned, then she tucked a slice of cold lamb onto a piece of the bread Cyrene had provided and nibbled it. Her head still ached, and her body had stiffened up to the point that even breathing wasnt entirely comfortable, but she was determined to make the best of it. You make me sound like such a renegade, mom.
Its a family tradition, dear. Xenas mother smiled at her warmly. Youre just carrying it on in grand style.
Mama, want Oogy. Dori squiggled closer. Want Guff. Make Guff come.
Gabrielle reached over and scratched the toddlers back. Well find Guff when we leave to go home, honey. He doesnt like big cities. She said. And we didnt bring Oogy with us, but if you ask Gramma, she might get you Flameball.
Dori sat up and scowled. Then she squirmed out of her mothers grasp and crawled to the edge of the bed.
Hey! Dori! Gabrielle started to go after her, then doubled over as her sorely abused body protested. Ugh.
Stay there. Cyrene put a hand on her knee, then got up as Dori reached the edge of the bed and climbed off it, holding onto the covers as she slid to the ground. Dori, get back here. Where are you Dori!
Its okay. Gabrielle rolled back upright, swallowing down the jolts of pain and trying to catch her breath. I think she just wants a toy.
Torn between chasing her grandchild, and worrying about Gabrielle, Cyrene finally compromised by sitting down in a chair between the two of them, and keeping an eye on Dori. Are you sure you want to do this tonight, Gabrielle?
Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them. Im sure. She replied quietly, her eyes on Dori.
Determinedly, the toddler ambled over the wooden floor, eluding her grandmothers hands as she headed for the pile of saddlebags in the corner. She reached the nearest one and took hold of it, tugging it towards her and spilling the contents. Gogogogoggogogogogogo . She sat down in the pile and started to root through it, getting tangled in one of Xenas shirts which distracted her for a moment. Booboboooobobboooo
Cyrene rested her chin on her fist. She knows thats Xenas?
Gabrielle nodded. Yeah. She can tell. Maybe its the scent or something. They watched the baby disappear inside the volume of fabric, tumbling over onto her back and kicking out inside the shirt. The bard chuckled in reflex. Shes so funny.
Cyrene smiled, as much at the doting fondness in Gabrielles voice as at the babys antics. She seems to have taken everything in stride. She commented. Your horrible time today, I mean.
Gods, yes. Gabrielle willingly let herself be distracted. I was scared, Xena was scared, but her? No way. She had the time of her life, riding on Xenas back, getting to go into long, dark tunnels, flying through the air The bard gazed at her daughter. Just one big adventure for her.
Go bad! Doris head popped through the neck opening in Xenas shirt and she blinked at them in surprise. Mama! She got up and waggled her arms, still inside the shirt, then tripped in the long fabric and tumbled back onto the floor. Mamammma!!!!
Hush.. .Dori. Cyrene got up, but only got a step towards the child when the door opened and Xenas dark head appeared, followed by her leather-clad body.
Whats going on here? The warrior demanded.
Boo! Dori scrabbled around on the floor and attempted crawling towards her. Mama no get Guff, no get Oogy, go bad. Got Boo!
Xena crossed over to her and picked her up. Oh yeah? Whats this? Are you taking up after your mama already, wearing my shirts? She asked the toddler. Im not gonna have any clothes left at this rate.
Dori giggled. Boo, go fly! She tugged at a bit of Xenas leathers. Go fly, get Oogy, get Guff, have cookies, go now!
Hey! You just had cookies! Gabrielle tried not to laugh, because it hurt, but it was hard because not only was Dori being impossibly cute, Xena had a whole hearted grin on her face that made her want to laugh in sheer delight. You spoiled rotten baby, you.
Shes not spoiled. Xena cradled her daughter, tossing her up and catching her. And where are my cookies, huh? She gave her mother and her partner a speculative glare.
Was I talking about her? Gabrielle teased. Get over here if you want cookies, Moocher Princess. Im not bringing them over there.
Xena walked over and eased onto the bed, laying down on her side and extended her long legs out. She plopped Dori next to her mother, still wrapped in the shirt, and propped her head up on one hand. All right. Here I am. She winked at Cyrene. Thanks for bringing in a snack, mother.
The innkeeper resumed her seat, and leaned both hands on her knees. No trouble, honey. I needed a break. My poor friend was having a nervous breakdown before your troops showed up. Now shes hiding under the kitchen workbench, chanting prayers to Hera. She gave her daughter a wry look. I cant believe those men took their militia uniforms to sea with them.
I can. Gabrielle spoke up before Xena could, mostly because shed stuffed the warriors mouth with a piece of spice cake. Theyre very proud of those uniforms. She popped a bit of the cake into Doris mouth as well, before the toddler could demand it.
Yes they are. Cyrene agreed quietly, watching Xenas face. The warrior had snuggled up to Gabrielles shoulder and seemed content to lay there, accepting tidbits. There was a sense of peace about her daughter that Cyrene hadnt seen for a long time since before the dark times that had befallen the two of them in the recent years past. She wondered if it was simply relief at Gabrielles recovery, and the escape from the days dangers, or something deeper. Xena?
Mm? The warrior looked over at her, a dark brow lifting in question. Tell your friend well be long gone in a day or so, mother. The militia wont break anything, I promise.
Cyrene smiled. Im sure they wont, honey. Theyre all good boys. She said. Have you decided what youre going to do tomorrow? I heard some of the people in the inn wondering.
Sure. Xena lifted a hand and felt Gabrielles forehead, then ruffled her hair. Hate to disappoint them, but Im gonna take all their damn laurel branches home with me and
make Dori a treehouse.
Cyrene looked thoughtful. I had a feeling youd say that. She stood up and dusted her hands off. Though Im not sure theyll all be disappointed, exactly. She added. Let me go talk to them. The older woman exited and shut the door behind her.
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged glances. What apples have you shaken down from THAT tree, hm? The bard wondered bemusedly.
Dori looked up. Tree? She recognized the name of a favored climbing surface.
Yeah. Xena poked her tongue out a little at the baby. Wouldja like a treehouse, shortie?
Yes. The response was very positive. Go now?
Gabrielle handed her a piece of cheese. Soon, sweetie. She promised. You have to let me and Boo take care of all these nasty, stuck up people, then well go home, okay?
Dori studied the piece of cheese with a very serious expression, then she pulled it into two pieces, ate one, and threw the other one at Gabrielle. It bounced off the bards chest and settled on her stomach. Xena leaned over and captured it in her teeth. You ready to go? She asked Gabrielle, chewing the mouthful and swallowing it.
Gabrielle exhaled, then nodded. Im as ready as Im gonna be today, so lets do it. She decided. Are they ready outside?
Heh. Yeah. Xena grinned wickedly.
One blond eyebrow lifted as Gabrielle regarded her warily. Uh oh. Whats that supposed to mean? She asked. What trouble have you gotten me into, Xena?
Me? Big, round, woundedly innocent eyes faced her. Get you into trouble? Would I do that? Xena watched her partners eyes narrow in mock suspicion. Nah relax. Just make sure you give the Amazons a pat on the back for creativity, wouldja?
Creativity. Gabrielle put the remains of their snack away, and dusted her shirt front off. Oh boy. She sighed, then attempted to remove the shirt from around Doris body. Cmere, sweetie, let me get this off you.
No! Dori clutched the fabric. Mine!
Dori! Cmon, now. Gabrielle scolded her. Thats not yours. She frowned. Stop laughing, Xena, its not funny.
Xena snickered softly.
Mine! Dori protested fiercely, pulling the sleeve in Gabrielles grasp with both hands. Mama, give!
Xena took hold of the babys hands and freed them from the fabric. Dori, stop it. She lowered her voice meaningfully. Be nice to your mama. She doesnt feel good. The warrior had recognized the note of masked frustration in her soulmates tone.
Boo! Mine! Dori turned her protests to this new venue.
Oh yeah? What are you gonna do with it? Xena asked. Huh?
Wide, green eyes studied her in perplexity. Mine.
For what? The warrior persisted. You cant wear it, its too big. She held up the sleeve. How about I keep it for you till you get older, okay?
Gabrielle let out a soft laugh, shaking her head.
What are you laughing at? Xena asked. Your royal majesty, who has an entire press full of my stolen shirts at home? She pulled the garment off Dori and slung it over her shoulder. Hmm?
Gabrielle mustered a look of martyred dignity. I do it for a completely different reason. She stated loftily.
Xena got up and headed for her armor, turning and giving the bard a raised eyebrow, meaningful look as she did so. Oh really?
Yes. Gabrielle smoothed Doris disheveled hair down with one hand, and watched the child capture her arm and start exploring it. I do it because I love you so much sometimes I just want to wrap myself up in any piece of you I can get.
Mama loves Boo. Dori stated, tugging on a thumb.
Thats right, I sure do. Gabrielle agreed. And so do you, right?
Good girl. The bard smiled at her, then glanced up, watching Xena settle her armor over her shoulders and strap it down. As she turned her head, the candelight in the room caught on the faint glisten of tears on her cheek. The bard felt a surge of warmth through their connection, seeming uncannily like the gentlest of hugs.
Xena remained quiet, however, simply working on lacing up her bracers, her face still and unemotional. She picked up her leg armor and walked over to the bed, sitting down on the edge of it to buckle the heavy metal on over her knees and strap it firmly around her boots. Her fingers worked the well worn leather into brass buckles shiny from long use and after she finished, she flexed her hands around the part protecting her knee, and slapped it. Sure wish Id been wearing this on the road here.
Gabrielle gazed affectionately at her profile. Xena, I wish Id been wearing that getup yesterday. She admitted. Instead of just jumping headlong into a major fight with just a big stick. Which I lost.
The warrior got up and shook herself to settle the armor. I promise Ill make you another one on the way home. She walked over and picked up her sword in its sheath, attaching it to the catches in her armor before she turned and faced her partner. Ready?
A sigh. No. Gabrielle slowly pulled herself upright. But were going, I guess. She looked at Dori. You want to come hear me tell a story, honey?
Doris eyes lit up. Mama go story yes! She burbled enthusiastically Tell Cow!
Gabrielle winced as she leaned over, but worked to straighten out the childs bright crimson jumper. Not tonight, Dori. Ill tell you a new story tonight, okay?
Its a good story. Youre in the story. Dont you want to hear a story about you?
Dori eyed her doubtfully.
You know, Xena, she looks just like you when she does that. Gabrielle commented, as her partner walked over and knelt next to the bed, pulling the covers back.
Feels the same way as I do, I guess. Xena demurred. Shes saying you want to tell a story about ME? Whats up with that? She slipped her arms under Gabrielles knees, and around her shoulders, and stood, lifting the bard easily. Dori, stay right here. Ill be right back for you.
Boo! Dori squealed in outrage, as the warrior started to walk towards the door. She rustled out of the covers and tumbled off the edge of the bed to the floor, getting up and toddling after her two mothers. Booboobobobobbobboooooo
Never listens. Xena sighed, glancing at Gabrielles face, which was nestled against her shoulder. One green eye rolled up and looked at her as the baby crashed into her legs from behind, grabbing on to her armor and tugging on it.
I guess shes my kid, eh? There was a definite twinkle in that eye.
Our kid. Xena replied, with a smile. She nudged the door open and walked out, with Dori pattering happily after her. And I wouldnt have it any other way.
The Amphitheatre was a study in darkling elegance. The stage was lit by a ring of torches, and there were oil pots stretching up the ramped stone seats that outlined the richly dressed patrons in the lower, closer places and the more tightly packed ordinary citizens in the rear.
The night breeze brought some relief from the heat, but faces were shiny with sweat and even the sweetest perfumes couldnt entire mask the scent of too much humanity and too much warmth in close proximity
On the stage, a half dozen players were emoting, to the strains of loud music being played by a band of musicians. Two huge, muscular men stood on either end of the stage, with swords in both hands, twirling them in unison in a very impressive display of skill, the flashing blades capturing the attention of the crowd, some of whom were nodding and tapping to the music.
Celesta stepped forward, dressed in robes of shimmering gold. Her hair picked up the light of the torches and seemed to ignite, suffusing her with glittering sparkles as she forcefully orated a peon to the glory of Athena, speaking of the founding of the great city of Athens. Her voice was full and rounded, and very melodious. Behind her, a group of dark clad, masked, almost animalistic men clad in furs crept up behind her, raising weapons in over emphasized threat.
The crowd gasped.
Peh. Cyrene whispered to Johan. Nothing but hot air and godish smarming.
Johan stifled a yawn, glancing around at the crowd. Folks seem to like it. He muttered back.
Some folks. His wife noted cannily. Not so much the ones from out of town.
The play built to its finale, another dozen players rushing onstage in full armor, with weapons drawn. The music took on a martial tone, and the warriors attacked the fur clad men furiously. A thunder of hooves was heard, and suddenly, through the crowd, a man on horseback appeared, riding up the stairs and clattering across the stage. He raced between the fighting warriors and reached Celesta, scooping her up behind him and galloping away, leaping off the stage and almost landing on several rows of watchers. He let Celesta down onto the shoulders of two burly, waiting men and turned around.
Gasps and screams followed him, as the battle on stage escalated. The man on horseback jumped the stallion back onto the platform and drew his sword, brandishing it grandly and leading the soldiers forward against the dark clad rabble.
Horns blared, torches flared, the stallion screamed as the music built to a crescendo The leader of the fur clad men attacked the man on horseback and they took center stage, battling back and forth bellowing loudly. Then the fur clad leader tripped up the warrior and stood above him, ready to spit him with a particularily huge spear.
The music stopped, everyone on stage froze. Celesta let out a pure, clear note that would have shattered glass if there had been any in the place.
The fur clad man was stricken. He grasped his breast. The warrior jumped up and tackled him, then the music took up, and the torches were doused, and everything rose to a triumphant final, very loud ending.
Then the torches were relit, and the audience saw the fur clad men collapsed on the stage, and the warriors triumphant. They marched over to where Celesta was and lifted her up on their shoulders, parading around with her as the audience cheered and clapped.
Celesta lifted her arms and accepted the accolades her smug smile apparent even from the back of the amphitheatre. Roses and other flowers rained towards her, as the patrons in the front stood and clapped furiously.
Johan rubbed his ear. Hard to top that loud bit of mess. He murmured to Cyrene. Id hate to have the little one be disappointed in the crowd, her being hurt and all. Maybe its best if they let it be?
Cyrene nibbled her lower lip. I dont know. She finally said, then stopped as the older Bard who had been introducing the contestants stepped to the small podium stone to the right. The applause tapered off, and the actors trooped off the stage, clustering in a small area just to the left of it. The older Bard lifted his hands, and waited until the crowd settled down.
You can just give me the badge now, Eleneus. Celesta called over, with a rich chuckle. The crowd around her laughed. No one topped my show.
Thats as may be, Lady Celesta. The Bard acknowledged her with a graceful bow of his head. Surely it was magnificent.
She accepted the compliment with a smirk.
Be that as it may be, we have yet one further entrant. The elder Bard said.
What? Celesta seemed very surprised. Surely, youre jesting. I was the last.
No. Eleneus folded his hands before him. You only thought you were. He gazed out over the crowd, which was a touch restless, looking around curiously and wondering what was going on. A soft buzz started. Be at rest, my friends. Take your seats. A pause. Open your minds, and your hearts, for this bard is not like the others youve seen here tonight. With that, he simply stepped down, and walked to one side, cocking his head patiently and waiting.
The crowd settled down, to expectant whispers and interested eyes.
A drum started. It was soft, with a distinct rhythm of knowledgeable fingertips against tightly pulled skin. The sound floated out over the crowd, quieting them just as it took hold of the imagination.
From between two pillars, there was motion. Heads turned.
Two women emerged, dressed in Amazon leathers in dark russet and gold, baring muscular bodies dripping in colorful feathers and serviceable weapons. On their shoulders rested poles, and between the poles was a woven platform. It was stained in rich earth tones, and as they walked, brightly colored dangling shells clashed softly against each other as they swung from the bottom of the platform.
Behind them, two other Amazons held up the rear of the platform, one smaller, one much larger, both with serious, expressionless faces.
Whos playing the drum? Johan whispered curiously to Cyrene.
Xena. Cyrene answered, with a smile.
Got quite the talent there. Johan grunted, as the intricate beat wound its way through the air, a little daunting, a little seductive.
On the platform, seated quietly crosslegged, was Gabrielle. In startling contrast to her fiercely wild looking escort, the bard seemed plain and almost unremarkable. Though dressed in a well fitted tunic, in a color that brought out her fair good looks, Gabrielle presented the appearance of a young rustic.
Until you looked closely, and saw the strength and maturity in the set of her face, and the depth of experience in her mist green eyes.
The torchlight outlined her form, displaying both the whip mark on her face and the softly glowing tattoo on her bare, muscular shoulder, along with the laurel branches pinned neatly on the left side of her tunic.
A definite, excited buzz rose. Everyones attention was focused on the approaching platform and its occupant. Several murmurs of Amphipolis went up, but Cyrene got the sense that they really werent entire sure of who Gabrielle was.
They knew she was the upstart from the games, and where she was from, but
Its the girl from the provinces! A man next to Cyrene blurted in surprise. The one who won the running yesterday!
It is! His companion replied. Surely shes no bard, as well?
The Amazons walked up onto the stage and slowly knelt, letting the platform come to rest on its four sturdy legs, stolen from an inn table and fastened securely by Xenas careful hands. As the drum continued, the Amazons settled to the ground to sit cross legged, watching the crowd with alert eyes. The drum rolled, then fell into silence.
Gabrielle straightened a little, and let her gaze wander over the audience, as the buzz settled and attention focused on her. She was aware of Celestas surprised, unhappy, and hostile face off to her left, but she put the woman out of her mind and gathered her focus, bearing down and concentrating like shed been taught.
She let the silence go on a minute, the anticipation building as the crowd waited. Thank you for welcoming me here. Her voice was low, and as projected as she could manage given her injuries. My name is Gabrielle and Im an itinerant bard from a small town named Potadeia.
It was like a cold water shock had gone through the crowd. Gabrielle could feel it, the sudden surge of energy as the people recognized her name and responded.
Interesting. The bard exhaled. She wished she felt better, so she could enjoy it more. I dont have any fancy musicians or costumes. Gabrielle went on. But I do have a story Id like to tell you, one I dont think youve heard before.
There was no restlessness now, just an intent concentration on her, and Gabrielle ordered her thoughts, gathered her own energy and put herself in that place she went to when she was exposing the vision of her dream eye to others.
Ill tell you a story of Athens. The bard began, her voice lifting over the crowd with gentle power. And of a little town called Amphipolis.
A curious whisper traveled over the crowd, drifting off into the starlit sky. And what brought a bard, and a warrior from there, to here and why.
Xena leaned against the rough surface of a stone pillar and listened, the Amazon drum clasped lightly in one hand and the other resting on Doris foot. The toddler was sitting on her shoulders with an excellent view of the stage and a sometimes painful grip on the warriors ears.
Mama. Dori burbled. Deres Mama!
Thats your mama, all right. Now ssh listen to the story. Xena whispered. Her eyes roamed across the crowd as they listened, watching everything and everyone, taking no chances despite the four Amazon warriors surrounding her soulmate.
Her gaze drifted up over the higher levels, stopping when she recognized a face.
The firewood seller.
Xenas nostrils flared gently, as though she could scent him. She could see the whip coiled at his waist, and watched as he pointed at Gabrielle, then said something to a neighbor, as he smirked.
The warriors hands flexed.
Xena took a breath, and released it. Time enough to deal with him later. Hm? She tweaked Doris foot.
Hm? Xena wrenched her thoughts back to the stage, and concentrated on Gabrielles words, which were now shaping their journey in colorful terms. Yeah, it sure is. She was aware of the crowd leaning forward a little, to catch the bards voice, and also aware of Celestas set, angry face.
The other bard had one of the elders by the toga, arguing with him. The man just kept shrugging and lifting his hands.
Xena watched Celestas expression twist into an ugly hatred.
Her own lips edged into a smile.
Gabrielle felt the sweat gather under her tunic and she forced herself to focus all the more tightly. It was hard, especially when she had to raise her voice and use her hands to describe their adventures in Athens, and her injuries protested harshly.
She was making the wealthy patrons in the front uncomfortable, and she knew it. With a steady voice she described what theyd seen, and how theyd seen it, the child slaves in the stone yards and the way theyd been treated both on the road and in the city.
Behind the rich, well dressed faces, though, she could see the masses, whose eyes met hers as she gazed out at them, who knew what she knew, and connected with her as she spoke. She could see heads nodding as she described the docks and the market smiles as she pointed out the dark side of the long streets and the squalor and filth of the bottom of the hills.
Celesta was standing to her right. Gabrielle caught a glimpse of her as she turned her head, seeing the sneer on her face as the woman watched her. Her players were gathering around her, also staring at the bard, doing their best to be intimidating. They whispered among themselves, and pointed, and laughed behind their hands, trying to rattle her as they caught her eye.
It might have worked, Gabrielle reflected, since she was hurting and tired, and it had been a damn long day. She was not immune to her own self doubts, after all, and Celestas show had been well done and really kinda entertaining.
It had been calculated to appeal to the rich men and women in the front rows, and impress the provincials in the back. Gabrielle had thought it had done both, and knew what she had to offer would have no beautiful costumes or striking music.
All she had was the truth, and sometimes that just wasnt nearly enough. Gabrielle sucked in a breath and tried to muster some energy, feeling the sarcastic eyes boring through her. From the corner of her vision she spotted the motion as her adversary took hold of one of the players, whispered, then shoved him off towards the exit. With an unpleasant smile, he went.
Now what? Gabrielle wondered. She shot a glance to her right, and her eyes met Celestas. The other bard stared at her, no, through her.
Then behind Celesta and her group, a tall figure stepped out slid silently into view. Hidden from most of the audience by a stone pillar but very visible to Gabrielle, seeming larger than life yet familiar to her as her own heart. The bard found herself smiling, and she straightened up a little as she got ready to draw her audience in to the next part of her story.
And so, on this hot morning, I walked through the marketplace and found not peace, but anger. Gabrielle steeled herself and slowly stood up, hoping her legs would hold her. Instead of good merchants free to sell their wares, the center of the market was blocked. A breath. Blocked by a man with hatred in his heart, and trouble in his hand who was beating a lad hardly more than a child, there in that marketplace before my very eyes.
A slave! A voice rang out anonymously and unexpected.
A boy. Gabrielles voice rose and took on more strength. Who had done nothing to be beaten for, and lay there unresisting as people looked on, or walked by. She spread her arms out. So should I have done the same?
There was an awkward silence.
Would you have done the same? Gabrielles tone dropped a bit, floating out across the stillness.
Our laws are clear. You broke them! The same voice interjected. The bard realized it was coming from, unsurprisingly, Celestas corner.
Laws are meant to protect us, not enslave us. Gabrielle replied. And if the laws of Athens, the great capital Athens, say that boys can be beaten for no cause, then those laws are unjust, and it was my priveledge to break them.
Xena smiled visibly.
In my life, I have seen so much unjustness. The bard went on. So many times when what was law, and what was right diverged, and made me choose to either follow the law or follow my heart. Her eyes roamed the crowd, sensing the tendrils of contact between her, and them as her words caught their consciences and tightened their focus on her. I learned to follow my heart, even when doing that broke it sometimes.
She felt the jolt of her words through her link with Xena.
But I never regretted it. Gabrielle spoke into the now charged silence. So I dont regret putting myself between that boy, and the bully whipping him. She took a slow step forward, not feigning the effort.
Xenas fingers twitched, curling in towards her palms as she just barely kept herself from going to her soulmates side. She could see what the performance was costing Gabrielle and it occurred to her more than once that the rows of stuck up snitwads werent nearly worth it.
Should have just killed her. Celesta whispered, not two bodylengths in front of her. I cant believe theyre sucking this up! Look at them!
Soundlessly, Xena moved, gliding a few steps closer, glad shed left Dori in her mothers arms.
Well it is sorta interesting. The young man, one of the sword wielders said.
Celesta backhanded him. Moron.
But then the crowd decided to take out their frustration, and there was all of them, and only one of me. Gabrielles voice drifted over. All I remember from that is a lot of hard fists, and heavy sticks, and how much it hurt.
The crowd shifted a little, uncomfortable.
And then it got dark.
Gullible fools. Celesta hissed, unaware of the shadow now just behind her.
I woke up in a horrible place. Gabrielle told them. There was no light, just the sound of suffering all around me, and the smell of death. The bard was visibly trembling, and she slowly sat down on the pallet. Bugs were everywhere. I could hear rats coming closer.
Ugh. One of the players winced. That sounds gross.
Shut up! Celesta snarled at him. Shes lying, you fool. It never happened.
I knew if I passed out again, maybe theyd think I was dead. Gabrielle said. Maybe Id be dinner.
The crowd cringed visibly, but seemed wholly absorbed.
But then, someone called out to me. The bard went on. It was amazing, hearing the voice of a friend in that dark place, and I called back to my friend Homer, who was in the cell right next to mine.
A whisper went over the front of the crowd, Homers name being traded back and forth.
I was glad to hear him. Gabrielle spoke quietly. Though, I did wonder just why a bard like Homer was in an awful place like that. She let the question penetrate for a moment. Does anyone here know why?
Bitch. The Athenian bard spoke almost under her breath.
Poor Homer. Gabrielle said. Hed been there so long, in that horrible cell. I felt bad about being there, but I felt worse for him because I knew that even though I was in the darkest, deepest cell in the lowest, most horrible prison.. She took a breath and let the anticipation build, watching the bodies facing her lean forward slightly. Someone was coming for me.
The bridge of Xenas nose wrinkled a little.
And I knew there was no prison tough enough, no bars thick enough, no army bold enough to stop that someone. The bard smiled gently. They would find me.
The crowds attention was now completely focused on Gabrielle, waiting for next bit of story.
Sheep. Celesta muttered.
Gabrielle rested her elbows on her knees, and leaned forward. And they did. She said. Out of the darkness, I heard the sound of fighting far over our heads. Clashes of steel, and the noise of bodies hitting stone, and wood, and each other. Her hands shaped themselves around a sword hilt. I heard a swordfight, loud and fierce, and the yells of people as they battled each other, and their boots making scuffing noises on the floor as they kicked stuff down through the trap door over my head.
Xena blinked, barely remembering that fight herself as shed plowed through the defenders almost without pausing.
There were so many guards.
A dozen at least, though in the dark it had been hard to tell. Shed just kept punching and kicking and pulling limbs and throwing bodies and
And only one hero, but that hero was my hero, and before I knew it the top of my cell was open and two bodies were falling inside it, all the way to the stone floor not very far from where I was lying.
Hero? Give me a break. Celesta said. Murdering whore.
Long fingers twitched again, closing into fists.
Two fell, but only one got up. Gabrielle said, glancing to her right and meeting Xenas eyes. And I knew I was safe. She shifted her attention back to the audience. Now we just had to find a way out of a deep cell, in a dark prison, with lots of angry guards in it. A snap of her fingers, a reflection of smiles from the crowd. Piece of cake.
Whats the damn fascination? Celesta said in a disgusted whisper.
Truth? Xena almost said it aloud.
There was a little complication. Gabrielle went on. In the fight, a fire got started. She inhaled. So now we had an enemy that was worse than the guards, and lots more dangerous.
Edgas, get around in back there, and start up a loud argument with Belea. Celesta ordered. Distract the crowd.
Weve got to stir this up. Break their concentration. Theyre getting too involved in this dreck and I dont want any of them to even think this is worth of being in this challenge, understand me? The woman gave him a shove.
Celesta, you cant just
Celesta tangled her hands in the throat of his toga, pulling him upwards a little and snarling into his face. Do it, or Ill make sure the next job you have is on the docks where you came from, you little maggot! She released him, and gave him another push.
The man hesitated.
A very low voice cut through their argument. Do it, and Ill make sure the next job you have is taking tokens for Charon on a River Styx boat ride.
Gabrielles voice rose a little So, there was a rope hanging from the cell trap, and Xena leaped up and caught it, with me on her back, and A soft gasp came from the crowd. They tried to throw us back down into the fire, but
Xena leaned against the pillar and crossed her arms over her chest.
You have no right to interfere. Celesta hissed. Ill call the guards!
No, you wont. The warrior said. Unless you want them to hear about your abduction and imprisonment of Homer. Xenas eyes frosted over. You little piece of scum.
Just as we got clear, the fire flared up and we had no where to go but a little store room, so we got inside there, but there was no way out.
So we were trapped, the three of us.
Three? A woman in the front uttered.
Xena, and me, and our little daughter, Dori. The bard gently explained. Shes just two. She was with Xena when I was attacked and beaten, and taken to jail.
Mama! A piping voice suddenly rang out. Everyones head turned, then swiveled back to Gabrielle. A ripple of sound settled to silence as everyone waited.
I thought we were going to die there, all of us. Gabrielle said. The smoke was coming in, and it was getting so hot. She gazed quietly at her clasped hands. You know, Ive been in dangerous places many times in my life, and Im no stranger to death.
You could hardly hear a breath, as the bard paused, and the sounds of the streets outside the ampitheatre floated gently in on the warm breeze.
But it was hard to look at my little girl, and know she would never grow up. A pause. Hard to think of all the friends Id be leaving behind. Now Gabrielle glanced to her right, and left, where Ephiny and Eponin were sitting like stone images on either side of her. And all for what? A few bets? Gabrielle lifted her head and looked across the crowd. A contest? A slight shake of her fair head. Someones pride?
There was a soft rustle of motion as Gabrielle slowly stood up again, and straightened painfully. It seemed so little to die for. She said. But I was with those I love most in the world, and so many people die alone so I was, at least, glad that my last moments would be filled with more love than most people know in all their lives. She gazed out at them with quiet honesty, seeing the glint of torchlight on tear stained cheeks.
Celesta stared at Xena, who stared stonily back at her. The players watched them uneasily for a moment, then turned their attention back to the stage, irresistibly drawn to Gabrielles tale.
Im not going to let some two bit provincial from the sticks take whats mine. The Athenian bard said, in a low voice. I dont care what it takes, and I dont care who or what you think you are. You dont frighten me.
But you know Now a touch of faint, amused self deprecation entered Gabrielles voice, gathering in the crowd effortlessly. The Fates can surprise you sometimes. She cupped her hands. As we took our last, faint chances on that hard floor, covered with a wet blanket, one of the rats I had been fearing not so long before ran over my leg, and away.
A faint, surprised chuckle floated from the audience.
Its not me you need to worry about. Xena smiled unpleasantly. All I can do is break every bone in your body. The warrior indicated her partner with a jerk of her chin. She can steal every heart out there and you cant do anything about it.
Celesta ripped her gaze from the warriors face, and turned to look at the crowd.
My daughter thought it was a toy. Gabrielle lifted her hands a little. So she went after it, and Xena went after her, and they chased the rat through the straw and over the stone and behind a big crate and I heard the Fates laugh as they chased that rat right into a hidden tunnel.
Now a louder chuckle, surprised and mutedly delighted.
The fire was coming, the smoke was filling the room, we could hear the walls collapsing around us, but Xena got us all inside the tunnel and blocked the end back up. We knew it wouldnt hold the fire off forever, but thats how life is sometimes. Youre a tiny step ahead of disaster and you learn to just keep walking.
Another laugh. Gabrielle visibly relaxed a little. She could sense interest, admiration, and intense curiosity from her audience now, and she knew she had them in her hands. The stars overhead twinkled brightly, and a cool breeze ruffled the torches around the perimeter, and all eyes were fastened on the stage.
They were hers for the taking. Now the hard part started. She drew in a breath, and pushed the discomfort aside, spreading her arms out to gather them in. We could hear the roar of the fire through the walls, and in front of us, through a grate, flames appeared .
Xena stood quietly to one side, now visible to the crowd, allowing the bards words to paint her in a brilliant wash of heroism. The breeze stirred her dark hair and made shadows dance from the torches light across her brass armor, and standing there against the white stone she seemed, indeed, the larger than life figure shaped from Gabrielles imagination.
And there we were, all in that room. The fire behind us, and a locked door in front of us. Gabrielle drew in a breath. Wed just been keeping one step ahead of the flames, and now we were in one last dead end, with the guards and the other prisoners.
She took a step forward. The guards were angry. The bards voice dropped a little. They were angry at us, at Xena, because the people outside had locked them in.
Why? A woman in the front row asked, followed by others. Senseless!
Why? Gabrielle paused, seeming to reflect on the question. Because they wanted to make sure we didnt get out, to join the games. She let the words drop into the sudden quiet. They didnt realize about the fire. A pause. I hope they didnt realize.
A low murmur rose.
But I wasnt worried, because I knew Xena wouldnt let all those people get hurt. The bard went on. First, though, she had to convince the guards to listen to her, and that wasnt easy. They were very angry, and like angry people do, sometimes, they werent thinking of what was best for them, they were thinking about relieving the hurt they felt inside. A pause. So thats what they did.
Xena felt eyes track to her.
Xena knew we didnt have time for that though, and she convinced them to stop, and to look, and to listen to the fire that was coming up from the depths of the prison after us. We had to find a way out of there, or the flames would fill the hall, and wed all die there.
The crowd sucked in a group breath.
The door was wood, and very stout. All the beating we could do on it would never even crack it. The guards had been trying, but they hadnt made a dent. Gabrielle told them. Wood clubs were useless, hands even more so, but there was, in that hall, something Xena knew that she could use.
Columns of stone. The bard looked up, as though seeing them. Big enough, and heavy enough to knock those doors right down. The trick was, how do you use it?
Xena found herself experiencing a wholly guilty, though completely enjoyable sense of pleasure as she listened to her partner describe her cleverness in getting all of them out of the prison trap. After all, the solution had not only been effective, it had been visually striking and shed accomplished her part in well, in quite a bit of style.
Theyd been in grave danger, sure, but that backward flip off the column hadnt been in the cause of efficiency, now had it? She half turned as someone stepped up behind her, then relaxed as she recognized Homer. The bard had gotten cleaned up and shorn, and was dressed in a simple toga not unlike many of the other Bards from the Academy who were now clustering all around the stage listening to Gabrielle.
Celesta was sitting in a wooden chair placed nearby for her by her servants, her face stony and cold. Xena reflected that watching the obnoxious woman get beaten mercilessly by Gabrielles raw talent was almost as satisfying as slugging her in the mouth would be.
You know. Homers voice caused her to turn and regard him. Gabrielle once told me that as a bard, she had the easiest place on earth. He said. Stories just fell into her lap.
Yeah. Xena replied quietly. But the downside is, she also has to live through them.
Homer considered that in silence for a moment, then nodded. Having lived through one myself now, I have a new appreciation of that. He studied Gabrielles visibly battered form. Of her. His eyes lifted to Xenas face. And of you.
And with everyone helping, the stone column started to swing. Gabrielle was saying. It hit the door with an incredible sound, and parts of the wood started to come off. She told them, then turned and looked behind herself. But the fire was coming up the stairs and filling the room behind us. She faced them again. It was so loud, I almost couldnt hear the ram hitting the door, and it was a horrible, hungry sound.
Xena felt the hairs on her arms lift, at the memories the words evoked.
How awful would it have been, to have come this far, and done so much, only to fail at the end? Gabrielle asked them, lifting her hands slightly. I could feel it getting a lot hotter, and parts of the roof over us started to fall down as they got burnt, and now we wondered if the wood the stone was hanging from would collapse before we could get the door open.
The bard let her eyes roam over the crowd, meeting their gaze unflinchingly. I almost felt like everything was against us, wanted us to be trapped there, wanted to destroy all of us. She lifted her hands and curled them into fists. And just when I thought that, the stone hit that door one last time, boomed one last time, and while the wood support was cracking it broke the door open in front of us.
Everyone let out a breath, as though theyd been holding it in while she spoke. Maybe they had.
The fire wanted that air as much as we did, though, and it rushed after us as we ran outside. Gabrielle said. I almost felt like it was angry, because it lost us. A smile. But it did, and the feeling of the wind on my face was the sweetest thing on earth. The bard slowly walked forward, coming to the very edge of the platform. Life won. Death lost, and in losing, has to gnash its teeth and listen to me tell of its defeat. She looked out at the crowed. Can you hear Deaths frustration? Its out there. Among you.
There was a dead silence for a moment.
The world holds still when you realize someone has placed a value on your life. Gabrielle whispered into it. Because its then that you realize what value you place on it.
She held her position for a few heartbeats, then stepped back, and indicated the end of the tale with a simple duck of her head.
A few more heartbeats of peace were left to her, before she felt the change in air pressure as a thunder of sound blasted her senses. Gabrielles mind recognized the sound as applause, but the volume was like nothing else shed ever heard and she lifted her eyes to gaze in startled surprise at the mass of people clapping and cheering as they stood.
It was nice.
But the pain shed held at bay during her tale started catching up with her, and she turned and went back to her pallet on shaking legs, sitting down on it and resting her elbows on her knees.
You okay? Ephiny whispered anxiously. Gab?
Yeah. The bard I just She lifted her head and looked back out at the still cheering crowd. Guess I did okay, huh? Gabrielle felt the sweat drench her body, and drip into her eyes. She blinked, and rubbed the back of her hand over them.
A small, snorting laugh escaped the Amazon regent.
The crowd surged forward, along with a thick cluster of the other bards shed seen gathering near the edge of the stage. But before they could reach her, Gabrielle felt a welcome presence at her back and she turned her head as Xenas hands fell on her shoulders. Hi.
That was gorgeous. Xena told her, reaching over to push a bit of sweat dampened hair out of her eyes. I loved every minute of it. She unhooked a waterskin at her belt and offered it to her partner. Here.
Gabrielles eyes brightened perceptibly, and a grin appeared. She sucked at the waterskin thirstily as she watched Xena regard their surroundings.
Think you won it? Eponin asked idly, eyeing the oncoming crowd with a bemused expression.
Couldnt care less. Gabrielle responded. Said what I had to, thats what mattered. She let the skin drop, and leaned back against Xenas body, drained and hurting. An arm circled her waist and she let her eyes close, holding the memory of the night tightly to her as one of the special times of her life.
Xena strode through the softly candle lit hallway, shifting the strap of her carrybag as she evaded two excitedly whispering bards and ducked into the room in the Bards Academy theyd urged her to take Gabrielle to after the show.
Shed been caught in a mild dilemma, wanting to get her partner to someplace quiet so she could tend to her, and the knowledge that Gabrielle surely must want to savor the praise and adulation that surrounded her.
So, theyd compromised. Xena threaded her way through the cluster of elder Bards and into the cool, curtained off area shed left Gabrielle in, its entrance guarded by a somber looking Cait and a bemusedly interested Paladia.
Hello, Xena? Cait hissed, as she went by. Is Gabrielle going to be all right?
The warrior paused, with a hand on the curtain. Im working on it. She told her young friend. I think she needs rest more than anything.
Not a great lot of that here. Cait commented, giving the bards in the outer room a skeptical look.
Xena nodded in agreement, before she went through the curtain and into the alcove. Inside there was a padded, comfortable looking couch, and the stone floor was covered in a thick woolen rug. Three separate fountains graced the walls, and the waters gentle tinkle was pervasively relaxing.
It immediately got on Xenas nerves. She walked over to the couch and set her bag down, then knelt and put a gentle hand on the wrist of its occupant.
Bloodshot green eyes flickered into view. Youre back. Gabrielle commented in a whisper.
Yep. The warrior agreed. How are you doing?
Xena patted her arm. Hang in there. Ive got something thatll make you feel better.
Gabrielle rolled her head slightly to one side and attempted a grin. You are something that makes me feel better. She glanced around the room. This is nice, isnt it?
Mm. Xena had seated herself on the floor and was arranging the herbs shed taken out of her bag. Youre not gonna make me put one of those things in our cabin, are ya? She indicated a fountain.
Are you kidding? Dori would live in it. Gabrielle reached out and tangled her fingers in the warriors dark hair. Id never get her out of there, and wed end up taking a dozen showers a day every time we walked by.
Xena chuckled softly. You got a point there. She carefully combined three different herbs in the bottom of one of their traveling cups, then took a slim, glass bottle from the bag and uncorked it.
Uh oh. Gabrielle joked faintly. How bad are they?
With a slight smile, Xena removed two glasses from the bag, and set the cup of herbs down, filling the glasses with amber liquid and handing Gabrielle one. Theyre not bad at all, but I wont ruin the honey mead on them. Here.
Gabrielle hitched herself up a little and took the glass, sipping it hesitantly. Oh. She licked her lips. Wow. Thats good. She took a bigger mouthful and let it permeate her senses, before she swallowed it. Mmm.
Xena waited for her to swallow, as she swirled the wine in her own glass. Then she lifted it and touched it to Gabrielles. Heres to the greatest bard in Athens.
Gabrielle went very still, only her eyelashes blinking as she stared at Xena. A blush worked its way up her neck and colored her cheeks. T thank you. She finally stuttered softly. Did you
Heard them talking outside. Xena said, taking a sip of the mead. They just finished taking the votes. Shed hoarded the news to herself, and hoped shed gotten back in time to be the one to tell Gabrielle, wanting to see the look in her partners eyes when she did.
After a moment of shock, a grin appeared on the bards face as she contemplated the golden liquid in her glass. She tipped it forward and clinked it against Xenas, then took another sip, a look of delight suffusing her face and lighting up her eyes.
Xena stretched her legs out and crossed them, leaning an elbow on the couch as she finished off her mead. Cmon, you cant be that surprised. She eventually kidded her younger partner. You heard that crowd when you finished. Her free hand was busy, pouring water into the cup of herbs and stirring it.
Gabrielle rolled a little onto her side, and settled her head closer to Xena. Well She thought about the question a little bit. Its not that, its just The bard went silent for a bit. Youre the greatest warrior on earth.
Both of Xenas eyebrows jerked up almost to her hairline. Gabrielle..
Oh, shut up, Xena. You know you are, so knock it off. The bard forestalled her.
Okay, fine, I am then. But what does that have to do with
Oo. Gabrielle tugged the dark locks. Got you to admit it. Cool.
Xena looked at her. Just for that, here. Drink this. She handed over the cup of herbs, which Gabrielle accepted, then resolutely drained.
Ugh. The bard winced, as she handed the cup back and took a last sip of the mead to wash the taste down. Anyway, what I meant before was
Youre not used to being the greatest at something. Xena put the cup down, then leaned over and gave her soulmate a kiss on the lips. Right?
Gabrielle absorbed the tingle, which traveled down into her gut and loosened the aching tightness in her muscles. She leaned back and gazed at the warrior. What was the question?
Xena merely shook her head, and laughed under her breath. Feeling better?
Gabrielle stretched cautiously, feeling the herbs start to kick in along with the bellyful of strong mead. The ache was subsiding and it was easier to breathe, though exactly which of the warriors varied remedies was contributing to all that was hard to say at this point. Maybe all of them were, she decided. Yeah. She exhaled. I think I could use a good nights sleep, though.
Xena spared a moments wish that they were leagues away from Athens. Soon. I think She looked up as footsteps approached outside, and the curtain moved, revealing Eleneus and the rest of the elders. Look surprised. She muttered under her breath, getting a tweak on her hair from the bard.
Bard Gabrielle. Eleneus came forward, his bearded face barely suppressing a triumphant smile. May we enter and speak with you?
Gabrielle glanced at the curtain, then at him, and one eyebrow lifted slightly. Sure. She rested her hand on Xenas shoulder, watching her partner strike her sexy intimidation pose out of the corner of her eye.
The elder bards entered and gathered behind Eleneus. Gabrielle examined their faces as they got settled, seeing a mixture of relief, elation, a touch of amazement, and best of all, respect as they looked back at her.
Suddenly, she wished her other family, her birth family were here to see this.
The citizens votes have been counted. The senior bard told her. And they have chosen you.
The elders all applauded, while Gabrielle didnt quite repress a blush.
Even though she pretty much told them their city stinks and theyve got crooks running it? Xena put in a wry question.
Eleneus lifted his shoulders slightly in an urbane shrug. Given a brilliant enough presentation, one could be coaxed into swallowing a pebble and thinking it delicious. He replied, with an easy smile. And, Gabrielle, that was indeed brilliantly done. You truly do understand what it is to be a bard, which is so much more than merely to entertain.
Thanks. Gabrielle answered softly. Her fingers curled around Xenas upper arm, in an almost unconscious gesture. So what happens now?
The older man walked over to a low settee near the bed and sat down on it, clasping his hands together as he regarded her. Right now? I think right now all of us, at least are going to have a flagon of wine, and take to our beds. Its been a long day. He shifted. Tomorrow night, after the games are finished, we will bring you up, and present you to the city.
Gabrielle bit the inside of her lip to restrain a sarcastic comment.
Then, you will, of course, present the prize to the overall winner of the games.
Hm. All right. The bard nodded thoughtfully, glancing sidelong at Xena. Hows Celesta taking it?
Eleneus winced, and rubbed his chin. The other bards shifted uncomfortably. It was not.. the most pleasant of scenes. He admitted. Im glad you werent there to hear it.
She should be glad I wasnt there to hear it. Xena broke in, her voice low and growly. Ive had about enough of her.
She had Homer put in jail. Gabrielle broke in unexpectedly. Arent you going to do something about that?
There was a momentary silence. Homer said he couldnt prove
She tried to force me to withdraw by threatening to have him beaten. The bard overrode his speech. I was supposed to meet her at noontime, because I said I wouldnt deal unless I knew he was okay.
Xena turned her head fully and stared at her partner.
Sorry, honey. Weve been a little busy. The bard apologized. I forgot to tell you about that. She wrinkled her nose at the outraged blue eyes. I was on my way to get you when I bumped into those creeps in the market.
Xena sighed, and shook her head.
Anyway, that should be enough for you to do something about her, right? Gabrielle returned her attention to the senior bards, who were exchanging looks of consternation. Right?
Eleneus covered his eyes. We need to retire, and discuss this. He told the rest of them. Its an unexpected complication. His eyes flicked to Gabrielle. Have a good evenings rest, Bard Gabrielle. Well talk again in the morning.
Gabrielle watched them leave, the curtain falling into place behind them before she turned and met Xenas eyes. Can we go home now?
You mean youve caused enough trouble, now? Xena rested her arm on the couch and her chin on her arm.
Just kidding. The warrior could sense the frayed edges of Gabrielles temper, unusual since it was normally her who objected to extended teasing. How about I carry you back to the inn? Ive got some more mead there, and a couple of other treats.
Treats? Gabrielle hated being grumpy, and hated even more the knowledge that Xena was humoring her about it after the day theyd been through. She knew her partner must, at the least, be almost as sore as she was and she had a long, tough trial to go through tomorrow before the whole thing was over. I think I owe you some treats. She touched Xenas nose with one fingertip, tracing the bridge of it. But Id settle for a snuggle.
The herbs, she realized, were really hitting her, putting a layer of vagueness between her and the discomfort and making the thought of sleep almost irresistible. Lets go.
It was very late that night before the noise receded, and allowed some kind of peace into the inns small room. Xena was lying on her back in the bed, with Gabrielle sprawled bonelessly over her, so deeply asleep the warrior doubted an entire carnival outside the window would have stirred her at all.
Xena, of course, wasnt so lucky. Ordinary night noises triggered her senses, and though she had the ability to focus her concentration through almost anything, horns outside the window defeated even her best efforts.
But that was alright. She needed some time alone to just sit and think, to absorb the days trials and order her thoughts for what was coming in the morning. She reached out with one hand and captured a mug on the small stool next to her, taking a sip of the herb infused wine and letting it slide down her throat. The aches of the day were starting to catch up, and she hoped, by relaxing her body as much as possible, she could stave off the worst consequences of her actions.
Her shoulders ached the worst, having taken the strain of both of them on their climb to freedom. They bothered her more than her knee, in fact, which seemed to have held up pretty well and was only throbbing dully, hardly more than it had been the day before. She wished she were home, where a long soak in the spring would have been her choice of therapy, but she did the best she could with the herbs, and the knowledge that her room was well and truly guarded by both Amphipolitans and Amazons and she could sleep if she wanted to.
A prickle of her arm hairs alerted her, but she remained still as Aphrodite popped into the room, dressed in a long, white, flowing toga that complimented her curly blond hair. The goddess floated over and held up both thumbs. That so rocked. Aphrodite chortled. She is just so the babe.
Xena regarded the fair head tucked against her shoulder. Do you know how pissed off I am that she had to go through what she had to today because of your lousy brother?
Oo. Aphrodite relaxed in mid air, laying down on her side and crossing her golden strapped ankles. Hey, listen. Thats what I wanted to talk to you about. Her face was uncharacteristically serious. It got way out of hand, like you know? It was only supposed to lock you guys in there for a little while.
Xena stared at her. We almost died. Her voice was low, and almost calm.
The goddess shrugged. Well, yeah, but you didnt, so no biggie, right? She sat up cross legged, arranging her toga. After all, you guys almost die, like all the time, you know?
Not recently. Xena said flatly. And I have a problem with you bastards putting us in that position for a damn bet.
Hey! Aphrodite frowned. Watch the language, okay? Im not the bad guy here.
Arent you? The warrior glowered at her. Looks like youre ready to do anything to save precious little Ares ego.
You know, you can really piss me off. The goddess responded. And that is so uncool, specially since I nearly singed my buns pulling her out of that lava pit. She pointed at Gabrielles sleeping form.
There was total silence as they both stared at each other.
Oh, peach pits. Aphrodite made a disgusted face. I was so never going to tell you that. She lifted her hand to snap out. Forget this scene, Im outta here.
Xena found her voice a split second later. Wait. She managed to get out hoarsely.
For a moment, she thought Aphrodite was going to pop out just from pique. Then the goddess slowly lowered her hand, and floated there, waiting. You?
Cmon, you didnt think it was Ares, didja? The Goddess of Love asked.
Xena slowly shook her head, trying to absorb the thought. Hed have called in that favor already. She murmured, then looked up, searching the goddesses face, her mind calling up all unbidden that nightmarish time in her life.
Her eyes closed as she felt that ache all over again, and in doing that, she missed the sudden shift in Aphrodites expression, as the goddess watched her.
Listen. Aphrodite said, in a gentle voice. I know youve been messed with a lot, but its not like we all, like, hate you, Xena.
Xena blinked her eyes open and gazed past the floating goddess with a faraway look.
We had a big blowout after I did it. The goddess continued. Were talking, serious pissed off parental city, and me and Ares got totally grounded after that for messing with both of you so much, so we had to sit up there and watch.. that was kinda tough. Aphrodite considered a moment. We were so bitching with each other. We really lucked out when that braindrain Alti messed up big time and spilled that Gab was still alive.
Xena nodded slowly, in silence. Then she lifted her eyes to meet Aphrodites. Thank you. Her voice was husky with held emotion.
The goddess didnt seem to know how to really react to that. She scowled engagingly for a bit. Hey, I mean lets face it. You love her enough to have given her that little bambino. I had to do it, you know? I had my rep to think of.
The warrior took a little tighter hold on her soulmate, her composure still way off balance in trying to deal with this new information. If there was one of the Olympians shed accept owing a favor to, she realized, Aphrodite would be the one, no question about it. Thanks. She said again, gazing gratefully at the floating woman. From all of us.
Ew. Dont get all emotional on me, okay? I cant deal, Xena. Aphrodite complained. Its like when Ares gets all mopey. I just cant handle it. She regarded the two mortals. Im sorry it got so radical for you guys today, and that the little one got hurt.
Xena stroked Gabrielles hair with a protective hand. Me too.
Aphrodite mulled this over. You going to go for it tomorrow?
Cant talk you out of it?
The warrior shook her head.
The goddess sighed. Okay. You take care, all right? She lifted her hand and snapped her fingers, popping out in the blink of an eye.
Xena tucked the light blanket around Gabrielles shoulders, and relaxed, as she let her mind loose to ponder.
Gabrielle woke up the next morning pretty much in the same position shed fallen asleep in the night before. Since that involved using Xena as a body pillow, there was nothing really wrong with that, and in fact she had no real desire to budge now that she was awake.
It was still dark and quiet outside, and mostly dark inside the room save a dim glow from the oil lamp set by the bed. Xenas arms were wrapped around her, and the warrior was sound asleep, her breathing slow and even and her heart beating with even regularity beneath Gabrielles ear.
It was a really nice feeling. Gabrielle had always thought so, from the very first time shed experienced it, all those years ago on that very cold night. Then, it had been a treasured, thought to be one time happening. Now?
Gabrielle drew in a contented breath full of Xenas scent and reveled in the security of the powerful body wrapped around hers. Now it was hers. All hers. Shed decided a while back that she really enjoyed being in love, and more, she really enjoyed being in love with Xena. Sure, it meant getting into scrapes sometimes, but so what?
It was worth it. Gabrielle cautiously stretched her body out, feeling stiff, but not nearly as bad as she had the night before. Her head no longer hurt, and she felt rested and her thoughts were clear.
She blinked her eyes a few times, gazing past Xenas shoulder at the flickering lamp, as her mind went over the night prior, reliving the bards contest all over again.
I did it. She remembered the crowd, and the flickering torchlight, and the incredible rush at the reaction when shed finished. More precious to her, though, was Xenas heartfelt praise, and that shared bottle of mead in the private moment before shed found out officially.
Wow, that had felt so wonderful. Gabrielle felt a warm surge of joy spill over her, and her face creased into a happy grin. Under her ear, she was abruptly aware of Xenas heart rhythm picking up and the warrior shifted position, tightening her hug. Agreeably, Gabrielle returned the pressure, circling Xenas belly with her arm and squeezing. She felt Xenas hand move, giving her back a light scratch and she tilted her head up, to see her grin reflected in Xenas pale eyes. Morning.
Morning. Xena agreed, her voice slightly husky with sleep. Feeling better?
For an answer, Gabrielle squeezed her again, wrapping her legs around her partners and getting her whole body into the effort. Erguh.
Xena chuckled softly, rubbing her hands up and down over Gabrielles back in light massage.
The bard squiggled in pleasure. Yeah, I feel better. She said, with a satisfied sigh. After a moments reflection, she shifted a little. A lot better, as a matter of fact.
Good. Xena riffled her fingers through the bards light hair. Hey. She tilted Gabrielles head up a little. Cmere.
Hm? Gabrielle squirmed around and got up on an elbow, as Xena reached over for the lamp and brought it closer. What? She remained still as her partners long fingers touched her face, watching her faint reflection in Xenas eyes. Whats wrong?
That whip mark. Xena murmured, her brow creasing.
Gabrielle frowned. Did it turn purple overnight or something? What is it?
In reflex, Gabrielle reached up and touched her face. Really? She asked, incredulously. Thats so weird. It was really sore last night. Her fingers felt nothing but smooth skin, though, and pressure against its surface brought no pain. Wow.
Yeah. Xena agreed softly.
Gabrielle shrugged. Well, I knew it was just a matter of time. She said, matter-of-factly.
Matter of time for what? Xena asked, setting the oil lamp down.
For me to catch your magic. The bard answered, settling back down into her favorite spot. She fitted herself to Xenas body and relaxed, draping her arm back over the warriors belly. She felt the surface lift as Xena took a deep breath, then sink as she exhaled. No wonder I feel so much better.
You really think you got it from me? Xena pondered curiously.
Well, honeybear, youre kinda the obvious source, yknow? Gabrielle mumbled. Its not like they sell that, even in this citys marketplace. She gave Xenas ribs a friendly scratch.
Mm. Xena curled herself around her partner again and closed her eyes, holding both Gabrielle and the thought of the gift close to her heart.
Shed been dreaming, one of her rare, remembered fun dreams of her childhood. Before Cortese, before the army, before even the time when shed become aware of herself as an individual.
Just a dream of a sunny day, just after harvest, when she and Ly and Toris had raced through the stubbled wheat fields, chasing butterflies with wild abandon. Theyd been barefoot and without a single care, a suddenly remembered innocence that Xena had long since thought buried in her memories forever.
She called back that fragment of a dream and remembered remembered what it was like to be that child for the first time since Lyceus died. She could almost feel the laughter erupting from her stomach as she outraced Toris and got that big red one
What are you doing?
Just thinking. Xena replied. Remembering something I did as a kid. Why?
Just wondering. Gabrielle savored the sense of well being coming to her from their bond. Was it fun?
Yeah. The warrior murmured thoughtfully. Just kid stuff chasing around in the fields, that kind of thing. Me and my brothers.
Brothers. Gabrielle pondered that. Wish Id gotten to meet both of them.
Xena was silent for a few breaths, then she chuckled soundlessly. Im glad you didnt.
Now, that was unexpected. Gabrielle lifted her head up and shifted, rolling over onto her side so she could gaze up at Xenas shadowed profile. Huh?
The warrior turned her head, and the faint light reflected off her open eyes in the barest glints. Remember when I told you about the Fates? How they showed me what my life would have been like if I hadnt become what I did?
Yeah. Gabrielle whispered.
Lyceus was still alive. You two met.
It was very weird, hearing something like that and knowing Xena remembered it so clearly when she didnt. We did?
Mm. He fell for you like a rock off a cliff. Xena remarked mildly.
Oh. Gabrielle said, after a moments thought.
That could have gotten icky. The bard mused.
Did I feel the same way he did?
Um Xena scratched the bridge of her nose. I dont think so, no.
Head over heels for you, huh?
The warrior smiled into the darkness. Something like that, yeah. We were definitely attracted to each other.
Gabrielle digested that. Did you know you were the first person I was sexually attracted to? She glanced up to see those barely seen blue eyes widen in something like astonished bemusement. I wont embarrass myself totally by telling you how long it took me to figure out just what it was I was feeling. She rolled back over and put her head down, exhaling in satisfaction.
They were both very quiet for a few minutes. Then Xena drew in a breath to speak.
Dont even think about asking me that. Gabrielle lifted a hand and covered the warriors mouth. Oo. She felt a nibble on her palm, and the memories of a few very confused and perplexing nights by the fire came flooding back to her unexpectedly, causing an abrupt giggle.
Whats so funny? Xena evaded her fingers and half sat up, cupping Gabrielles chin in one hand as she kissed her.
Mm. Gabrielle enjoyed the barrage of sensation. One thing was for sure the reality was a Hades of a lot better than anything shed fantasized about. She slid her hands under Xenas shift and touched the silky skin underneath, tracing a line up from her indented navel. Her fingertips brushed over a faint scar, then across the arched, steadily moving ribs.
Xenas powerful thigh slid between hers, and her nape hairs prickled as the warriors hand fitted itself around her hip. The lips that had been exploring hers shifted, moving across her jawline around to her ear, where Xenas breath warmed her skin.
Hey. The warrior purred softly. Wanna hear a secret?
Sure. Gabrielle continued her touch, circling Xenas breast as she felt the warrior shift a little, rolling her onto her back and sliding their bodies together. Xena suckled her earlobe, biting down softly on it and sending jolts up and down her spine.
It didnt take me any time at all to figure out what I was feeling. Xena uttered, right into her ear, just before she nibbled the interior. Those were some very long nights.
Gabrielle chuckled softly under her breath as she felt her shirt eased off her body, exposing her skin to the light breeze from the window. She had no time to be chilled, though, because Xena engulfed her in a wash of insistent sensuality as their bodies fit together and their lips met again.
The intensity built slowly, matching the very slow lightening of the sky outside as dawn approached. Gabrielle opened all her senses to the experience, absorbing the surge of pleasure coming through their connection and reflecting it back, adding the pure joy she was feeling as she did so.
They ended up tangled together in the rose light of dawn, blissfully satiated and full of drowsy peace. Gabrielle watched a mote of dust float through the soft light burnishing Xenas bare skin, her half open eyes tracking its progress dreamily.
Here you go, Dori. Gabrielle took a bite of bread, and handed a piece to her daughter. Dori was seated on the table, accompanied by a muddy looking Flameball whom she was attempting to share her breakfast with. No, sweetie, I dont think he likes that.
Guff. Dori smashed a handful of crumbs into the stuffed toys mouth. Mama, Guff likes.
I know. Ares will eat anything. Gabrielle brushed a few crumbs off her bare shoulders, tucking the end of the linen her body was wrapped in a little more firmly into place. Shed just gotten out of her bath, and her hair was still damp. So was Doris, in fact, as the toddler had joined her in the water while the city around them woke up and prepared to head off to the Games. But I dont think Flameball likes bread.
Dori studied her toy. No. She picked up the dragon and tossed him off the table. Bad. Then she looked around for a new source of amusement. Mama, go Boo.
Boo will be back in a minute. The bard told her. Shes getting us some fruit and eggs. You like that, right?
Good. Dori agreed happily. She was in a blue jumper today, a new one Cyrene had made for her on the trip up from Amphipolis so the arms and legs actually fit her. It was stoutly sewn, and had dark blue cuffs and buttons. She also had on tiny boots, a first, made from leather Gabrielle recognized as cast off scraps from Xenas latest set of armor.
What do you think of these, Dori? Gabrielle touched the boot, wiggling the foot inside it. Do you like your boots? Theyre just like Boos.
Dori studied her appendages seriously. Good. She finally decided . No owie.
Oh, thats right. I bet the floors around here hurt your toes, huh? Gabrielle sympathized. Not like home.
Speaking of boots. The bard tilted her head, catching Xenas very distinctive footsteps on the wood of the hallway outside. The door latch worked, then was pushed open by the warriors shoulder as she ducked inside.
Boo! Dori started to scramble down off the table, only to be caught by her mother. No!
Ah ah. Gabrielle plunked her back down. You stay right there. Boos coming over.
The warrior did just that, setting down a basket and ruffling Doris hair. Hey, shortie. Youre not giving your mama a hard time, are ya?
Yes. Dori stood up, balancing carefully and holding onto Xenas leathers. She toddled over to the basket and investigated its contents.
Well, shes honest. Gabrielle chuckled, pulling on the babys jumper and capturing her. Get over here, you little sneaky kid. She picked Dori up and cradled her in her arms, rocking her gently. What kind of trouble do you think youre going to get into?
Hmmmhmm Xena snickered, as she unpacked the basket, setting an apple, a fragrant slice of cheese, and a thick, dark loaf of bread down near Gabrielles elbow. Soon as we finish this, wed better head over. Theyre getting ready to start the first event. She pulled out a skin that gurgled softly.
You going to change? Gabrielle picked up a piece of the cheese and shared it with Dori.
No. Xena sliced off a piece of the dark bread and took a bite. Theyll have to live with it. She was wearing her leathers, though she hadnt put on her metal armor. Eponin and Ephiny went out there to check the place out where youre going to be sitting.
Erf. Gabrielle choked on her mouthful, then swallowed it hastily. What?
Theyre your honor guard. Xena went on blithely.
My what? Gabrielle covered her eyes. Good grief, wasnt last night enough?
I wont be there, I told them to make sure you were safe. The warrior plowed through a mouthful stolidly.
Xena, I can
One dark eyebrow lifted, as Xena peered at her.
I can take care of myself. We both know that. The bard insisted, a little nettled. I dont need people marching around waving knives around me.
Damn it, Xena, no. Gabrielle cut her off. I put up with it last night because I didnt have a choice. Now I do.
The warrior sighed.
No. Dori mimicked her mother, throwing a piece of cheese at her. Nononononononno!
Xena folded her arms over her chest, and regarded her contrary family somberly.
Gabrielle removed the cheese bits from her cleavage and juggled them, then peeked up at her partner. She evaluated the warriors expression, judging whether this spurt of protectiveness was an overreaction, or something Xena really wanted.
It would be a big crowd, and shed be sitting with the rest of the bards, and knew shed probably be safe. After all, she did, in fact, know how to take care of herself and staff or no staff, she could competently handle herself in most scraps if she had to.
Xena exhaled silently, the faintest of unconscious furrows wrinkling her brow.
However. Gabrielle drummed the fingers of one hand on the table, then lifted the hand and pointed at the waiting warrior. Only because Im going to have Dori with me.
An eyebrow quirked, along with the corner of Xenas expressive mouth.
And only because I know itll make you feel better.
Xena bestowed a dazzling smile on her. I love you.
Erf. Gabrielle knew herself to be defeated with that. She had absolutely no defense against that smile, that sentiment, or the genuine, though amused warmth in Xenas eyes. Piggy wonks. She muttered, giving Dori a hug. Your Boo takes shameless advantage of me, Dori. Did you know that?
Good. Dori started tugging at the linen wrapping her mothers body.
Xena chuckled. Thats my girl.
Im being ganged up on. Gabrielle attempted divesting herself of Doris exploring fingers. Its so unfair.
Xena eased around the table and started tugging at the wrapping herself.
Dori giggled and pulled harder. Mama! Funny!
Stop it!!! Auggh!!! Gabrielle tried to bat both sets of hands and still keep hold of her covering. Ahhh!! Xena! Stop it!!!! She squirmed, as the exploratory fingers turned to tickling her exposed skin. Eeee!!!!
Wheee!!! Go mama! Dori found this delightful. She wriggled around and clapped her hands.
Aaaaa!!!! Gabrielle let out a wild yell, then turned and grabbed her partners hand in her teeth, biting down lightly on the skin, just enough for Xena to know she meant business. The warrior cheerfully stopped her attack, but leaned over and caught the bards ear in her own teeth, using the same amount of pressure.
There was a moment of stillness, as even Dori stopped moving.
Ofkay. Nowf whaf? Gabrielle mumbled.
Wifh any fufk, my muferll walk inf. Xena replied.
The bard started giggling, and released her, laughter shaking her body helplessly. Xena also let go, then gave her a kiss on the cheek before she straightened up and riffled the bards drying hair.
Guff. Dori took advantage of this and wriggled loose from Gabrielles hold, pulling herself up onto the table and heading for the basket.
Hey.. Xena made a grab for her, but the toddler scrambled forward and clutched the basket, which slid on the table surface and headed off the other end. Hey! The warrior yelled, as Gabrielle slid out of her chair and bolted for the other side of the table.
No time. Xena crouched and leaped, somersaulting with a half twist in mid air to land on the other side of the table, just in time to catch Doris body as she rambled off the table after the basket.
Gabrielle pulled up, but not quite in time and she piled into her partner, knocking her off balance and tangling their legs together. Whoooaaaa!!! She yelped, as her linen unwrapped.
Thump. Gabrielle landed on top of Xena who landed on her back, her arms holding Dori up out of the way. Dori wiggled her arms and legs in ecstasy. Boo! Go fly!
Not with your mama sitting on me, Shortie. Xena grunted, regarding the pretty much naked bard sprawled on top of her.
Gabrielle looked up at her from under very disheveled blond hair and blew a lock of it out of her eyes. She met Xenas gaze with a wry, helplessly plaintive expression.
They both started laughing again.
Xena lowered Dori down and hugged her, then hugged Gabrielle, still laughing.
Gods. The bard groaned, rolling off her and standing up, tugging up the shreds of her linen and dignity and pathetically grateful that no one had taken it into their head to just come waltzing in the room. She gazed down at her soulmate, who was lying comfortably, playing with Doris hands as the baby sat on her stomach. Good. Keep her occupied while I get dressed.
You should go like that. Xena commented.
Gabrielle threw a look at her over one shoulder. I will if you will.. oh, wait, scratch that. You would.
Xena stuck her tongue out. Gabrielle responded in kind. Dori reached out and grabbed at this invitingly pink object. Laughter erupted again, and Xena rocked up into a sitting position, then rose to her feet in one smooth motion with Dori in her arms. Were on the silly side today. She set Dori down on the chair, and handed her Flameball.
Mm. Gabrielle pulled out a clean outfit. Yeah, we are, huh? She studied the fabric. I feel sort of gid aho! Her voice cracked as Xena nibbled the back of her neck. Xe, you start that up again and we can forget those Games.
Hmm.. The warrior sounded like she was seriously considering it.
Gabrielle looked back over her shoulder as the warrior rested her chin on it, making their noses almost brush. Before she knew what was happening, they were kissing, and she was turning to slip her arms around Xenas tall frame as the warriors hands slid down her still mostly bare body.
They both heard footsteps approaching outside, and after a rebellious moment, they broke off, and Gabrielle stepped back, trying to control her ragged breathing. Wow. She pulled her fresh tunic over her head and smoothed the fabric down, then ran her hands through her hair. Whats up with us today?
I dont know. Xena answered quietly, reaching out to brush her fingertips across the bards cheek. But I like it.
It was almost too much. Gabrielle stepped forward, leaning into the warriors touch and only just barely keeping her hands still at her sides.
A light knock came at the door. Gabrielle Ephinys voice penetrated the wood. You ready?
Oh yeah. The bard whispered, her gaze still locked with Xenas. After a moment she cleared her throat and deliberately looked aside. Just about. She called out, in a louder tone.
Xena reached out and captured her hand, simply lacing their fingers together. Cmon. She said. Ill walk you over to your spot, then get moving over to the marathon. She adjusted Gabrielles clothing with her other hand, then ruffled her shortened hair into a semblance of order.
Okay. Gabrielle just didnt want to let her go. She ran a comb through her hair and glanced in the silvered metal mirror in the room, brushing her now unmarked cheek. Then she had to release the warrior so she could sit down and put her boots on, tugging the leather up and fastening the laces around her calves.
Xena collected Dori, settling her in her backpack and adjusting the straps over her shoulders. Ready?
Gabrielle stood up and brushed herself off, then held her hand out again. Xena took it, and they walked together to the door. Xe? The bard asked, suddenly, as they reached it.
Mm? Xena paused with her hand on the latch.
No matter what happens today, Ill be proud of you.
Xena gazed affectionately at her. Thanks. She said. But no matter what happens today, Ill be the one youre putting that laurel crown on tonight. She winked at her soulmate. Promise. With that, she leaned over and gave her one last kiss.
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