Standard Disclaimers -
These characters, and boy, are they ever characters, are mostly the property of Renaissance Pictures, Universal MCA, and whoever else owns stock and interest in Xena: Warrior Princess. This fiction was written for my amusement only, and not in any way, shape or form for profit - and it is not intended to infringe on the copyright holders of the characters.
Some of the characters are mine, and the story ideas.. well, who knows where they come from? Must be one weird place, that's for sure.
Specific Story Disclaimers:
Violence - this is a Xena:Warrior Princess story. This is not Teletubbies. Even though there are some rumors of similarities. Some of the violence is graphic, but we try not to dwell on it.
Subtext - Considering that the TV Series just aired an episode establishing Xena and Gabrielle as eternal soulmates, any disclaimer of subtext on my part is really kind of goofy in the extreme. The two characters are in love with each other, and have been for years. You can choose to see them as just friends, but then you might not want to read this fanfic, in case it changes your mind or anything like that.
Emotional Content - this is not one my more comedic efforts. There are moments of humor, however.
Dark Comes the Morning - Part 5
By Melissa Good
Gabrielle nudged the tiny fire into life, glad Xena had scrounged for a little firewood the previous night, because surely there wasn't anything out there right now that was going to burn worth anything. She settled down next to it, letting the soft glow warm her face and hands, glad of the fur tucked around her shoulders.
A soft sound got her attention, and she glanced up to see Devon sitting up dazedly, his eyes roaming around the cavern and finally settling on her.
They widened. "Oh." He ran a hand through his dark, disordered hair. "It wasn't a dream, was it?" His tone was wondering. "You're really here, aren't you?"
Gabrielle, sitting on a rock with her boots crossed at the ankle, and feeling particularily solid and real at the moment, nodded. "Mmhmm." She pulled her pack over and dug out her water pot, filling it with water from a waterskin and putting it almost right into the fire to heat.
Devon got up and ambled over, sitting down on a rock across from her and watching her in fascination. "You really are Gabrielle the Bard."
A blond brow lifted. "Last time I looked in the mirror, yep." Gabrielle got out her fixing for tea, and scrounged a couple of cups from their cooking gear. She pushed her hair back behind an ear, and blinked at him. "Is that so surprising?"
He tucked his knees up and circled them with his arms. "Well it's sort of like meeting Aphrodite or something." He admitted. "I mean I never expected to..um " He waved a hand. "See you in person."
"Ah." It was the most curious feeling she'd ever had, and now, finally, she understood the bemused, and slightly frustrated reaction Xena often had to her notoriety. "Well, I'm no Aphrodite, and unfortunately, here we are, so " She fixed the contents of the cups. "Try not to be too weirded out, okay?"
Devon rested his chin on his arm. "You talk so much about Xena in the stories.. and hardly ever about yourself.. it's so strange. I've read all your words, and I think I should know you.. but you're so different than I pictured."
The bard's motions slowed, as she finished her task and looked up curiously. "I am?"
He nodded. "Yeah." His fingers moved, a nervous gesture, the bard thought. "You don't even describe yourself."
Gabrielle considered for a moment. "No.. I guess I dont it never occurred to me to do that." She picked up the steaming pot and poured water over the herbs she'd prepared. "It wasn't important to the stories.. not like the things that actually happened were."
"Hmm." He watched her shyly. "You do describe Xena, though."
The bard stirred the cups slowly. "Of course.. she's the hero of the stories." She explained, with a smile. "And it's always easier to describe someone else.. after all, you see them." She continued reasonably, as she handed him over a cup. "Here."
Devon blinked, then edged timidly closer, finally taking it from her hand and backing off. "Thanks." He sat down and sipped the beverage gingerly, then smiled. "Mm."
Gabrielle had cupped her chin on one hand and was gazing at him in mild amusement, the corners of her eyes crinkling up as she stifled a smile. "I don't bite." She remarked casually. "Even Xena doesn't."
He looked doubtful at that, and his eyes flicked around the cave. "Um "
The bard stood, and stretched her body out, rolling her head around a little to pop her neck into place. "She's just..mm. .checking the place out. " She waved a hand towards the back recesses of the cave. "She hates surprises.. and after a couple years with her, I'm not fond of them either." Gabrielle told him, as she walked over to their gear, and rummaged for some trail bars, finding them with a satisfied mutter. She'd decided not to touch anything in the encampment last night save a few stray carrots, and her body was protesting in outrage, only reluctantly quieting as she started chewing on one.
"Here." She gave one to Devon. "It's cold, but it's safe, at least.. and it's gotta be better than what they were giving you in there .do you want a shirt to change into? That one's sorta in shreds."
Devon timidly took the bar and examined it, then nibbled an edge. "Hey.. that's not bad." He gave her a tentative smile. "And I wouldn't know about the stuff inside.. I didn't eat any." He took a bite of the bar and chewed it, visibly relaxing a little. "I was trying to figure out a way to get out of that place when you came in the first time."
Gabrielle had pulled over a saddlebag and was pawing through it's contents. "That would have been tough." She commented, finding what she was looking for and tugging it out. "Here no sense in you catching a cold, after all that." She tossed him a folded linen shirt, then walked back over to her rock and sat down, biting into her own trail bar with enthusiasm.
The man put his breakfast into his mouth and shook the garment out, glancing at it, then at her, his eyes widening perceptibly. "Umf thsf ifn't uh.."
"No.. it's mine." Gabrielle assured him blithely, watching him sigh in relief, and slip the shirt over his head. "I stole it from Xena." She added, with a hint of mischief, as he stopped in midmotion, with the fabric settling over him. She had to giggle at the expression on his face, which was morphing from alarm to apprehension. "Would you relax?"
He pulled the bar out of his mouth and cleared his throat. "You've got a twisted sense of humor, Gabrielle." He told her wryly. "Has anyone ever told you that?"
The bard laughed gently. "I can't help it it's just so funny.. I've never had anyone react to us like this before." Her eyes twinkled. "I mean. .usually they have no idea who I am, and they're scared senseless of Xena." She concluded, taking a swallow of her tea.
"Well " Devon did the same. "She is intimidating, you know."
"Xena? Nah." The bard disagreed. "She's a sweetie she's not at all the wild person everyone thinks she is."
"Hey." The warrior chose that specific moment to pad into the fire's circle of light, her body dripping with cold water. She shook herself vigorously, sending droplets everywhere, then grinned at them, her damp hair plastered over her head and neck like a lion's mane.
Gabrielle sighed, and gave her partner an affectionate look. "And she's got the most unique talent for making me look silly when I say that about her." She shook her head at the warrior. "Xena, what are you doing? You're all wet!"
Devon had scuttled to the back of his rock, and was holding his mug in both hands, his eyes pinned on the wet, leatherclad woman.
"It's raining." Xena explained, plaintively.
"Honey, we're inside a cave. There's no rain here." Gabrielle objected, handing her over a hot cup of tea. "Here you're making me shiver just looking at you."
Xena seated herself on the ground at Gabrielle's feet and took the cup, resting her elbows on her knees and sipping it. The warm taste of chamomile and honey slipped down her throat, and she regarded their young rescueee with an amused eye. "Hey!" She barked the word, and he jumped.
Gabrielle gave her a slap. "Cut that out." She scolded her partner, a little surprised by the obvious good mood she could feel rolling off her.
The blue eyes twinkled mischievously. "Relax." She advised the storyteller. "I found a way outta here." She went on briskly. "It's a little tricky for the horses, but it'll get us out up on the plateau up above, and we should be able to go through that pass and get down into the next lower valley without much problem." She looked up as Gabrielle started drying her off with a bit of linen she'd retrieved from her bag. "We'll wait for the weather to clear a little first, though."
"So you won't get wet?" The bard inquired archly, drying off a tanned warrior ear, which moved as Xena smiled. Gabrielle smiled back, luxuriating in the sense of closeness she could feel between them, almost forgetting about Devon as she traced Xena's dark brows with her cloth.
She half expected Xena to draw back, into her cooler, more remote public persona, but the warrior remained still, her blue eyes wandering over the bard's face as a soft sigh escaped her, seemingly as oblivious to their guest as the bard was. "Go change." She told her partner in a soft voice. "You know you can't stand being sick."
Xena gently butted her head against the bard's knee, then stood in one fluid motion and squished over to their saddlebags, pulling out her other set of leathers and boots, and a clean pair of undergarments and socks. She turned and winked at the bard, then moved off into the darkness of the cavern, the shadows swallowing up her form as though she were part of them.
They decided to explore the caves as they waited for the rain to slow down, and Xena led them carefully into the first of them. "Watch your step." The warrior warned. She was leading Iolaus, in front of Gabrielle leading Hercules, with Devon bringing up the rear. The storyteller had relaxed a little, and was looking around with interest now that he'd gotten over being thrown in with his own personal heroes.
"Wow." Gabrielle placed her boots carefully, peering around at the phosphorescent stalactites, reflecting their torchlight and a ghostly glow all their own in muted beauty. "It's wonderful." She handed Xena her reins, and moved into the cavern, leaving the light of the torches behind and letting herself be surrounded by the cool, ghostly mist.
The water trickled under and over her boots, and she could smell the strong mineral scent of the dissolving rocks as she edged forward, reaching out a hand to touch the slick stalactite with curious fingers.
Xena leaned against the damp wall, watching her soulmate explore with a contented expression. She was in no hurry, since the weather was still awful, and she was glad she'd found something to engage her partner's bardic interest. She wiggled her toes inside her comfortably dry boots, and exhaled in satisfaction.
"What's she doing?" Devon asked, hesitantly, still apparently intimidated by the tall, dark haired warrior.
Xena debated toying with him, then she crossed her legs at the ankles and decided otherwise. "Living." She answered quietly, watching Gabrielle's careful exploration.
Devon's brows knit, as he turned towards the bard. "I don't understand." He admitted, as the bard knelt, and picked something up, examining it then putting it into a pouch she wore at her belt.
"I didn't either, for a long time." Xena told him, as the bard rejoined them. "Nice, huh?"
"It's fantastic." Gabrielle enthused. "Did you see those multicolored ones over there? If you look at it sideways, kinda.. it's like a waterfall." She pointed. "And those ones over there they're all yellow and purple. Look!"
Xena smiled, as she pushed off the wall, and got ready to move on. "What about the one that went here?" She patted the bard's pouch. "That for your collection?"
Gabrielle resumed Hercules' reins and grinned. "MY collection?" She asked in an innocent voice. "Seems to me that somehow ends up as YOUR collection."
They started off, staying close to the wall. "Only because you put them in my pockets." Xena objected mildly, remembering with a smile some of the little surprises, tiny pieces of parchment with notes, and poems her soulmate was prone to tuck into unexpected places.
That made her think about how long it had been since she'd gotten one, and her brow furrowed, as she realized how much she missed them. They'd been a welcome comfort when she'd gone off on trips, or just found them scattered around. Xena exhaled softly. Guess we'd gotten to busy for that too, huh?
Damn. That really hurt. Her boots scuffed against the rocks, as she led the way towards the second chamber. Ah well, Xena suck it up and forget about it.. don't be such a baby. She scolded herself sternly.
Gabrielle felt the change in her partner's mood, and she drew a little closer, wondering what was bothering her. The path was too narrow for them to walk side by side, though, so she had to content herself with keeping her eye on Xena, and trying to puzzle out what the problem was.
She'd been fine, yeah.. they'd just talked about the pretty icicles, and then about the rocks, and then about her collection but
Pale green eyes flicked to a leather covered back in startled speculation. Nah, that couldnt be it, could it? I know I haven't done that in a while but
But. Gabrielle had a sudden memory of a small pouch filled with tiny, folded bits of parchment, and how her soulmate had jealously guarded them, tiny gifts she'd dashed off lightheartedly, that had obviously meant more than she'd imagined to the sometimes enigmatic warrior.
So odd, that a person as logical, and as straightforward as Xena was, would covet her occasionally silly bits of wordplay and poetry. Gabrielle gazed at the strong back in silent apology, then set herself a task of finding some nice, round, pretty pebbles.
They settled down at the exit cave, bathed in the faint spray from the pouring rain outside, and the rushing waterfall, to wait for the weather to calm down. Xena leaned against the rock wall, munching on a handful of nuts while her soulmate busied herself with some parchment, her body curled up against the warrior's as she rested on her side, chewing on her quill with absorbed intent.
Devon sat cross legged next to her, playing with some shale chips and moving his still swollen jaw around pensively. "How much longer, you think?" He asked, hesitantly. "I'd kinda like to get outta this area it gives me the creeps."
Xena gazed out at the weather and considered the question. "Candlemark, maybe two.. and we should be able to move on." She decided. "I've never been through these parts though I'm not sure what we'll find when we go up through the pass." She lifted a hand and idly tangled it's fingers in Gabrielle's hair, which was brushing against her hip.
"Well." Devon crossed his legs and leaned forward. "I've been round here twice first time, I didn't see much of anything, second time, I thought I hear folks moving around, but I never found anyone."
The warrior nodded, absorbing the information. "How'd you get caught?" She inquired curiously.
Gabrielle glanced up as well, nibbling her quill with evident enjoyment. "I knew there was something I wanted to ask you."
He sighed. "Dumb, bad luck." His fingers played with a small stick. "I was in a small village in the foothills.. I'd been there a dozen times before, and I was doing the usual.." Here, he gave Gabrielle a shy look. 'Telling stories, I mean and one of Andreas goon's happened to be home visiting mum." He shrugged. "Next thing I knew, I was being hog tied, and tossed on the back of a horse, then " A hand lifted. "They brought me to another village, where there were three other troublemakers waiting, and loaded us into the nasty wagon." His bushy eyebrows collected together. "How'd you know I was in there?"
"We saw you." Gabrielle explained, leaning back against the warm body behind her. "We were at the inn when the wagon came by, and we heard some of the guards say who you were."
Devon looked even more puzzled. "Why did you care?"
The bard didn't answer for a moment, but Xena chuckled, low and deep behind her, and she reached back to slap the warrior on the knee. "Don't you start." She shifted a little, then composed her thoughts. "Well, we'd heard someone was running around telling stories about Xena here, so we were curious."
"We?" The warrior rumbled softly.
"Xena." A green eye fixed on her, with it's blond brow cocked over it.
The warrior subsided, but not without a twinkle.
"Oh." Devon blushed a little. "I didn't mean any harm.. I was just kind of trying to jazz people up, you know?" He glanced sheepishly at them. "I didn't expect to run into you."
"Why us?" Xena asked bluntly. "Why not Hercules?"
Devon cleared his throat and stared off into the rain for a bit, then he peeked back at the patiently waiting, and rabidly curious pair across the rocky floor from him. "Um " He gave Gabrielle a little grin. "You've got much better stories."
Xena gave the bard a little slap on the behind and shook her head, as Gabrielle cleared her throat in mild embarrassment.
"Besides which.. we haven't seen him in these parts in a long time.. I'd heard he went overseas." Devon added.
Blue eye sand green exchanged glances. "That's true." Xena commented quietly. "But we'll send a note out.. we're gonna need all the help we can get."
The storyteller perked up, edging closer to them in evident curiosity. "So.. you are going to do something.. right?"
"Of course." Gabrielle answered, almost without thinking. "It's not going to be easy but we can't let this guy just run rampant, right Xena?"
The warrior nodded solemnly.
Devon looked from one to the other. "Um he's got a couple thousand guys there."
"Mmhmm." Gabrielle agreed. "We know."
Another look. "There are only..uh.. two of you.. three, if you count me in, which you can, you know, but I can do stuff like throw rocks at them. I'm not much good at swords."
"That's okay. Neither am I." Gabrielle told him, with an unruffled air.
Devon absorbed this information, then his eyes went to Xena's shadowed face, and slowly widened, his thoughts obviously going across his face.
"You know.. that's how this stuff all gets started." Xena complained. "Wait.. in a moon, we'll be going through somewhere, and hear that I'm gonna hold off three thousand guys with you and your staff, and a pile of rocks."
Gabrielle looked over her shoulder at her soulmate. "And?"
"Gabrielle." Dark brows knit in dissaproval.
The bard laughed gently, then turned to Devon. "We won't be doing this alone, Devon but it'll take awhile to get everything together." She sighed, thinking of the scope of it, and what was to come. Knitting together a force of such diversity wasn't going to be easy.
Heck.. it was on the outside edges of impossible.. her negotiating skills notwithstanding. She knew that the only thing she really had going for her was Xena's reputation, and the very real danger Andreas presented.
She could just imagine Ephiny's face when she told her.
Which reminded her. "Xena.. we're going to have to find some place safe to send people."
Xena nodded. "I know." Her eyes went out into the rain, no longer humorous.
It was closer to three candlemarks than two by the time they were working their way down the narrow path, with Xena in the lead, placing her boots carefully and testing the path before allowing either the horses or her two followers to proceed.
The rain had left the rocks very slick, with water runoff and moss, and Xena had no intention of allowing either herself, or her companions to tumble down the mountainside if she could help it. "Easy, boy. " She murmured to Iolaus, watching the ears flick back and forth as the stallion listened to her voice. "Not much longer."
She peered ahead, to where the path leveled off and widened with relief, wincing as she put pressure on her injured leg which nevertheless held up under her weight. The bandage Gabrielle had wrapped around it was secure, but if she looked down, she knew she'd see blood staining it.
Well, they'd have time to take care of that once they were in the forest, and away from the road, she concluded, as she continued cautiously down. A glance behind her showed Gabrielle's intent, serious face as the bard followed as closely in her footsteps as possible, her hand wrapped firmly in Hercules reins. As though sensing Xena's eyes, Gabrielle lifted hers, and a smile twitched it's way across her face in unconscious reaction.
Xena felt herself smiling back, as she turned and resumed her progress, glad when the thin ledge finally leveled out and they could pause, feeling solid, leaf strewn ground under their feet. "Okay." The warrior looked behind her, at the long, steep path behind them, almost impassible looking, and nodded in satisfaction. No one would guess they'd brought themselves, and two horses down that. "Devon, you said you'd been through here.. .any way you recommend?"
The storyteller gaped at her, obviously tongue-tied. "Uh." He looked out over the muddy, drab ground. "I um "
Gabrielle patted his back gently. "Straight ahead looks good, huh?"
Xena rolled her eyes, then started forward, leading the way into the shadowed forest, allowing the cool, friendly leaves to close over them.
It was quiet here, just a soft, fitful breeze blowing through the trees, rustling the foliage and brushing against their skin. Xena pulled her cloak a little closer around her, feeling a light chill she half suspected wasn't the weather, and expelled a short breath. Now, she told herself, was not the damn time to be getting sick.
Gabrielle looked around her, taking in the quiet of the place, and stopping to gaze at a pretty, red bird that was flitting over head. It's color stood out starkly against the green canopy, and it put a quiet smile on her face that remained as she picked up her pace, and joined her soulmate on the path beneath the trees, glad it was wide enough here for her to do so. "Hey."
The pale blue eyes glanced down at her. "Hey."
Gabrielle matched steps with her, and reached out, instinctively tangling her fingers with the warrior as they walked. Xena's hands were warm, as they usually were, and she felt a gentle grip tighten as the warrior felt her touch.
Now, it was no big deal, but she remembered the first time they'd done that in public, and it brought a quiet smile to her face.
It had been in a small trading village, just outside Potadeia as they'd traveled towards Cirron. She'd found a marketplace, as usual, and Xena had rolled her eyes, as usual, and promised to meet her by the inn after she'd had her fill of shopping.
"What are you going to do?" She'd asked, hesitating.
Xena had shrugged. "Find a cold mug of something.. maybe get a buckle for my boot.. why?"
And Gabrielle had almost begged her to stay. Almost because she wanted to wander the market with her new partner, and share what she found with her, sidestepping the knowledge that Xena didn't enjoy that sort of thing.
But she didn't.. she'd just nodded. "Okay." And she'd walked away, heading off into the crowd and leaving the taller woman behind to her own devices. She knew Xena would go about her business, and be waiting when she got back, seated quietly in some corner with her ale mug, idly watching the crowds go by.
Watching the young couples go by, hand in hand, laughing and talking as young lovers tended to, which made Gabrielle realize that there were some things about life she was just probably never going to get to experience.
That sort of bummed her out. Not that she wasn't thrilled speechless that they'd finally admitted their love for one another, and not that she didn't appreciate the limitless facets to her new partner's personality she just had to reconcile herself to the fact that Xena was who Xena was, and skipping lightheartedly through a marketplace was just not something she was ever going to have happen.
Two of the youngsters glanced at her, and the girl had given her a little, almost pitying look as she slipped a hand possessively around her boyfriend's arm, preening at the indulgent look he'd given her in return.
Gabrielle had sighed, then turned her attention to the first shop, fingering the woven belts for sale and opened her mouth to ask their price.
Never expecting a grape to put inside it. She'd bit down in utter reflex, making sweet juice explode , and turned, to see a lazy smile, and pale blue eyes regarding her with a wry look. "Oh." She'd spluttered." Where did you come from?"
A dark brow had lifted. "Amphipolis." Xena had answered archly. " You?"
"Very funny." Gabrielle had answered, wiping her mouth. "I thought you were going to get buckles and drunk."
"Changed my mind." The warrior had replied. "I hear there are wild, vicious sparrows in this marketplace.. gotta make sure you're safe." Xena had glanced around, meeting the eyes of the young couple who were staring at her tall, armored form in uneasy awe. "Got a problem?" She'd growled at them.
They'd edged away quickly, and Xena had turned to her, holding a hand out with almost shy diffidence. "Walk with me?"
No dream could have been sweeter, and Gabrielle had felt almost insanely happy as she'd eagerly complied, fitting her hand into the warrior's and feeling the warm fingers close around hers.
The sunlight of that day had lit her tall partner from behind, and brought out the mahogany highlights in her hair, and Gabrielle had felt her heart almost burst from pride as they'd walked hand in hand through the market.
To this day, she had absolutely no idea on earth what she'd seen there.
She'd been too busy walking on clouds.
Fingers now tightened on hers, and she felt Xena slow, then halt, and go very still. Gabrielle pulled Hercules to a halt and watched the tanned face tense, eyes flicking to the trees and the tips of her ears twitching.
"What's up?" Devon asked, almost bumping into her.
"Shh." The bard held up a hand, waiting. "Trouble?"
Xena's nostrils flared. "We've got company." Her sense of smell picked up tension, and fear ahead, and her sensitive ears caught bowstrings pulling taut. "And they're not friendly."
"Okay." Gabrielle instinctively moved closer to her soulmate, and slightly behind her right arm, clearing space and allowing Xena room to move. She took a better grip on her staff and pushed Devon gently next to Hercules' bulky form. "Stay quiet. "She told him softly.
"Don't worry." Devon answered, in a bare whisper, his eyes pinned on Xena's tense form.
Xena let her eyes skim the surrounding forest, spotting a soft flash of light on an arrowhead, and a flicker of sun that glanced off bare skin. Her nose twitched. Amazons? "Gabrielle. .give the peace sign."
The bard blinked, but obeyed, letting her staff rest against her shoulder as she lifted both arms over her head and clasped her wrists.
Deathly silence now, for long heartbeats, as Xena felt her muscles tense in readiness. Then there was a soft rustle, and a tall, lithe figure dropped out of the nearest tree, shaking itself and stalking forward towards the small party.
She stopped in front of the bard, who lowered her hands, and gazed at her, with a marked lack of friendliness. "Who makes the sign of peace?" The woman asked, in a low, melodic voice. She was about Xena's age, Gabrielle guessed, with long, light brown hair that was braided back, exposing a finely boned face that was strikingly beautiful. "And by what right?"
"My name is Gabrielle." The bard answered quietly. "I'm a member of the Amazon Nation."
One chestnut eyebrow lifted as the woman studied her, then the pale hazel eyes shifted and took in Xena's quiet, watchful form. "Are you? Of which village, then?"
"To the south.. in the greater mountain range." Gabrielle answered.
The woman nodded. "Very well. Do you come from the city?"
The bard exhaled. "Yes we just left there."
"Come with me." The Amazon commanded, shortly. "We will take your horses to safety, and your male friend can wait with them." She turned on her heel and stalked off, her bearing indicting she expected the bard and warrior to follow her.
"Well. " Gabrielle sighed. "We've got to start somewhere, right?" She gave her soulmate a wry look. "Doesn't she remind you of Melosa?"
"Mm." The warrior grunted in agreement, remembering the Amazon queen who had been both friend, and enemy, and one of the finest warriors in the Nation. "I didn't know there were Amazons up here." She turned towards Devon. "Stay with the horses.. they won't hurt you."
"Who.. the horses or the Amazons?" The storyteller asked wryly, as he wrapped his hands in Hercules' reins. "Frankly.. I feel safer with them than with that icicle up there."
"Mm." Xena said again, pulling her cloak a little closer and starting off after their reluctant host, the bard dogging her steps.
They were surrounded by silent, competent warriors as they passed down the leaf strewn path, experienced, grim fighters in excellent condition who carried their weapons with negligent expertise. Gabrielle moved a step closer to her pacing partner and studied them from the corner of her eye, reminded strongly of her reaction when she'd first encountered the Amazons.
They'd seemed so tough, so assured so much like her friend Xena, only a little more open.. a little more understandable.
And then she'd become one of them, in a flurry of ceremony that had left her head spinning, and her heart confused, torn between exploring her new, instant family, and continuing on her journey with Xena. She wondered, sometimes, what it would have been like if she'd stayed with the Amazons for a while.
Would she have become more like them? Absorbed their attitudes.. would Melosa still be alive, if she'd been there to stop the political machinations of Velaska?
Her eyes went to the pensive profile of the woman pacing next to her. She wouldn't be in this place, if she had. Would have never known the joys and sorrows of the past few years. Never known the greatest love of her life, because Xena would have gone on, without her. Would have faced death, without her.
She'd never have seen Xena come back from Tartarus, or faced Dahok's touch, or had to live through Solon's death.
There would have been no last minute rescue in the rain, in a centaur village.
She would never have known Hope.
Or the simple joy of unconditional love, from a heart so large, it could hold all her dreams, and still have room.
Gabrielle reached out and tangled her fingers with Xena's, feeling the blue eyes turn on her in question. She paused a moment, then looked up, and just smiled at her.
The warrior looked a little puzzled, but smiled back, then winked.
They both looked ahead of them, hands still united, heads lifted high.
The woman lead them through a thick, leafy surround and stopped beneath a large tree, striking the bole with the staff she was carrying. After a moment, a rope ladder descended, and she stepped back, jerking her head towards them. "Up."
Neither of them moved for a moment, then Gabrielle released her partner and walked forward, ignoring the ladder and extending a hand. "I'm sorry.. I didn't catch your name?"
The Amazon leader gazed frostily at her. "I didn't give it."
"Well I've got this little problem then.. " The bard leaned on her staff. "See.. I don't climb up into anyone's tree if I don't know their name."
Xena hid a grin. Gabrielle did have a way about her. Granted, it often lead to her having to battle them both out of whatever trouble it got them into, but it certainly was fun watching her work.
The woman studied her slowly, leaning on her own staff as she judged the smallish, fair haired woman facing her. The warriors surrounding them waited in patient discipline, their eyes watching both their guests.
Finally, the Amazon leader shrugged. "I am Jonae."
"Thanks." The bard replied cheerfully, tucking her staff under one arm and reaching for the ladder. Then she changed her mind and tossed the staff to her partner. "Throw that up to me, okay?"
Xena caught the staff, then let her eyes flick to the watching Amazons, noting their slightly arrogant expressions. "No problem." She told her soulmate, waiting until she was halfway up the ladder. Then she studied the surrounding area, and glanced up, judging distances.
"All right.. go on. " Jonae directed brusquely. "Make it quick.. we've got things to do."
"No problem." She repeated, leaning into motion and taking two long strides, then crouching, aware of the startled movement around her. She grinned as she uncoiled from the ground, shooting up past her partner and tucking her body into a neat flip as she came even with the first long branch, then landing on it, just about in time to hand Gabrielle her staff as the bard pulled herself up.
She dusted her sleeve off nonchalantly, and bit down a wince as her leg protested the action. Gabrielle climbed over the mounting point for the ladder and took her staff, giving her partner an amused look. "Show off." She whispered.
"Slowpoke." Xena whispered back. They both turned as two Amazon warriors came up behind them, hands on their belt knives, with closed, suspicious faces. Xena edged in front of the bard, just in case, her defenses prickling as Jonae stepped over the ladder edge and closed in behind them. Aw, c'mon if any of us falls outta here, that's gonna hurt.
But Jonae, after giving Xena a long, speculative look, merely waved them on. They proceeded through the treetop structure, floors made of split branches lashed into place giving them secure footing.
The living branches had been woven into walls, and trees had been joined by vine bridges, which they crossed in silence, the soft breeze blowing past them, and the overgrown foliage squatting over the ground far below. There were no paths down there, only rocky, scrubby ground, so no reason for anyone to be walking and looking up. It made for perfect camouflage, and Xena grudgingly admired the neat dwellings and storage areas they passed. Finally, their escort stopped, before a woven leaf door, and opened it, gesturing them to go forward. Gabrielle ducked past them into the chamber, glancing around at the small, but comfortable room and clearing out of the way so Xena could follow her.
Jonae joined them, closing the door behind her and fastening it. "You have been in the city." She started in, pacing a little.
"Thanks, I'd love to sit down." Gabrielle answered her, selecting a wooden chair and perching on it. She glanced at her partner, who had chosen to amble across the room and peer out the window, patently ignoring the Amazon. Ah. This is my arena, is it, Xe? The bard nibbled her lip and sorted out her possible strategies. "Have you been having problems with Andreas?"
Jonae spared the inattentive Xena an annoyed look, then focused on the bard. "These are my questions." She answered bluntly. "You'll answer them."
"Why?" The bard stood and walked over, circling her. "How do I know you're not working for Andreas?" She countered. "Why should I answer anything?"
Jonae slowly turned, and regarded her. "Because I am a Queen of the Amazons, and I command it." She stated, impressively.
"Dinar a dozen." Gabrielle remarked lightly. " Me too." She heard, from the corner of her hearing, a tiny sound somewhere between a snort and a chuckle coming from the window. "So can we dispense with the interrogation and just talk?"
The taller woman stared at her. "You? You are an Amazon Queen?" Her voice was thick with disbelief.
"Yep." Gabrielle agreed cheerfully. "For about..oh two years now." She leaned on her staff. "You really shouldn't judge a scroll by it's casing, you know." Her green eyes twinkled gently.
Jonae studied her with crossed arms. "You are no warrior." She accused.
"Mm not as such, no." The bard admitted. "But I think you can be a good leader without being a fighter."
The Amazon shook her head. "Not of the Amazons." She regarded Gabrielle with a jaundiced eye. "What do you do in a challenge.. talk them to sleep?"
Gabrielle spared a glance towards the window. "No.. I let my champion handle all that." She remarked casually. "She's not much for talking."
Bard and warrior exchanged wry looks, as Xena turned and leaned against the wall, her cloak falling open casually and exposing her armored form in a flash of dark leather and brass.
Jonae was silent for a moment, absorbing everything. Her intriguing face took on a hint of wry curiosity, though. "I'm sorry.. I didn't catch your name?" She addressed Xena for the first time, consciously mimicking the bard's statement earlier.
The warrior let her face relax into a wolfish grin. "I didn't give it."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Warriors." She sighed. "Jonae, this is my partner, Xena of Amphipolis."
Jonae's initial reaction was a sharply lifted eyebrow, as she glanced from the shorter woman to the lounging form against her wall. "Ah." She finally murmured. "You're that Gabrielle." She sighed. "I should have put two and two together earlier, but it's been a long couple of days."
The bard sat down, glad the posturing was over. "For us too." She admitted.
The Amazon leader slowly sat down on her desk and let her hands rest on her thighs. Her face took on more expression, becoming worried, and a touch fatigued. She focused on Gabrielle, but her eyes kept wandering over to the quietly watching Xena, with a look of almost disbelief. "You said you were in the city? I take it they didn't know who you were?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "I don't think so.. at least, not me." She turned in question. "Xena?"
The warrior pushed off against her wall and ambled over, taking a seat on the arm of the bard's chair. "I gave him the fake name you came up with.. but chances are by now, he's figured it out." She told her soulmate. "If someone else didn't recognize me there."
Jonae stood and paced. "Him you saw Andreas?" She asked sharply.
"Oh yeah." They both answered at once. "He hired me as his horse trainer." Xena continued, with a wry grin. "But it didn't work out."
Gabrielle saw the look of confused horror on Jonae's face and held up a hand. "Xena and I heard he was raising an army.. we decided to check things out, and see if things were as bad as we had heard they were so we had to get inside the city."
Now the look turned to respect. "You did."
The bard nodded. "We did and we found out a lot." Her eyes went to Xena's. "None of it very good."
Jonae sat down behind her desk heavily. "That's what we were afraid of." She murmured. "We haven't been here long maybe a year a little less. We came from the north, where our village was decimated by two warlords. .most of us were out on a hunting expedition at the time, and they were " She paused, and sighed. "They tried, Artemis knows they took a lot of them with them to Hades' care, but.." She let her words trail off, then she looked up at them. "Time to move on again, I suppose."
"Well." Gabrielle folded her hands. "It was pretty discouraging, that's true.. but we're going to find a way to fight him."
The Amazon shook her head. "You can't fight him. He's a demon."
"He's a man." Xena disagreed. "He's under the influence of something " The warrior hesitated. "Something very evil, but he's still a man." She stood and now she paced, her cloak swirling around her in the wind of her motion. "He's raising an army that will scour the land clean, Jonae there won't be anyplace to hide if we don't stop him." Xena turned and regarded them, the filtered sunlight outlining her muscular form into gold lined shadow, and showing a glint of mahogany.
Gabrielle felt herself holding her breath, sensing the emergence of that mostly hidden side of her soulmate, the leader of armies whose charisma had gathered fighters to her like a bee to clover. It was darkly compelling, and she felt herself responding to it, a deep, visceral thrill in her guts that surprised her.
Or maybe it didn't. "Xena's right." She said quietly. "Violence is never my first choice and sometimes not my second. But we have to fight him."
"With what?" The Amazon responded. "There isn't a major force anywhere in the country that can face him not even any regional troops, even if you could get the city states to join together." She rose and paced. "You can't fight with phantom warriors."
"No.. we're going to have to pull together everyone we can." Gabrielle also stood, putting herself in Jonae's path. "My Amazons . Xena's militia in Amphipolis resources we both can call on in other places.. " She faced the taller woman squarely. "Every person counts."
Jonae stared at her for a moment. "Not my people." She rasped. "You're both crazy if you think you can pull together odds and ends and face that army. I'm not putting my people into the firing line for that." She went to the door and stuck her head out. "Prepare a chamber." She came back in. "Eleste will take you to rest. You can have lunch with us, then we'll escort you through our territory. " She paused. "And we'll be following you out of here out of these mountains, and out of this country."
Gabrielle marshaled her arguments, but felt a hand gently clasp her arm, and turned, to see Xena's eyes on her, one brow lifting slightly. She knew the look.
"C'mon, Gabrielle...if they're hearts aren't in it, there's no point." The warrior gave her a gentle shove towards the door. "Dont' waste your breath."
She wanted to argue. All her instincts were to argue to try and convince the Amazon of how important this was, and why they needed to help she was a little annoyed at her soulmate for throwing her off track. But the hand on her back moved to a gentle rubbing, and she held her tongue, allowing the warrior to guide her out of the leader's hut, and onto the vine path again.
The stern amazon outside motioned for them to follow her, and they did, to a small, bare chamber at the end of the arboreal village. They entered and their guide closed the door behind them, leaving them alone in the green stillness.
Gabrielle turned, and put her hands on her hips, giving Xena an irritated, drumming fingertip look.
The warrior smiled slightly, and put a finger on her lips, then lifted her hand and crooked her fingers in the hunter's signal for patience, her head cocking to one side, and her eyes widening in entreaty.
The bard sighed, but let a tiny grin edge her lips, and her hands dropped, then lifted in concession. She wagged a finger at the taller woman, then moved closer and gave her a pat, nuzzling her when Xena wrapped her arms around her and gave her a hug. "What are you up to?" She whispered, barely audible.
"Fishing." The warrior murmured in response.
"You could have let me try to convince her." Gabrielle couldn't keep herself from muttering.
"Shh." Xena nudged her over to the small, bare bed and sat down, leaning against the wall with a sigh. She closed her eyes and resisted the urge to rub her aching temples, a annoyance that had added itself to her throbbing leg in the last little while. "Let's just get through this, and get outta here." This she said a little louder. "They wouldn't be much help anyway."
Gabrielle sat down next to her, peering at the quiet face in the green tinted light. She could see the faint flare of the warrior's nostrils as she breathed, and the small movements of muscles just under her skin as she listened to the world around them. There was, she detected, a faint pallor under her partner's usual tan and she lifted a hand quietly and touched her face, then laid her palm over Xena's forehead as she felt the heat. "Xe?"
A blue eyeball appeared. "Yeah, I know." The warrior muttered in disgust. "When we get back to the gear, I'll take something."
"How's the leg?" The bard asked.
"Hurts." Came the curt response.
Gabrielle sighed, and let her head rest against her partner's shoulder, rubbing her arm in idle comfort. "Next time, no playing in mud puddles for you, my love."
A smile appeared on the warrior's face. "Awww " Xena rested her head against the bard's, glad of her quiet presence. "Wonder how Dori's doing?" She murmured suddenly. "Think she's giving mom any trouble?"
Gabrielle looked around, at the walls of a strange Amazon village, in the mountains over a beleaguered city, to her injured and sick soulmate, and finally, at her own scruffy appearance, complete with her aching arm. "Our child? Causing trouble? Never." She told Xena with a totally serious expression.
Xena looked at her, then she chuckled gently. "Think mom's ever going to forgive us?"
"No." The bard replied, looking up as the door swung open to reveal the enigmatic Eleste.
"Come." The woman instructed, brusquely. "We are ready."
Xena got up and pulled her cloak straight, then sighed as Gabrielle joined her. "Lead on." She stepped to the door, where she towered over their guide, who blocked the way for just an instant too long, with just a touch of insolent attitude.
"They say you're the Warrior Princess." The woman stated.
Xena regarded her coolly. "I've been called that." She replied. "Why?"
But the woman merely nodded, and walked on, motioning them to follow.
"Was that a nibble?" The bard whispered.
"I dunno." Xena replied. "Guess we'll find out."
They followed their silent guide through the trees, with Gabrielle behind her and the warrior bringing up the rear. The path was empty, and the wind had picked up a little, ruffling dark and fair hair as they stepped along, only the leaves and the gentle scuffing of their boots against bark breaking the quiet.
As they walked, they passed several side pathways, where vines led from one tree to another, and small chambers not unlike the one they were in. Gabrielle guessed they were individual quarters, and she found herself charmed by the village, and it's unique setup.
Just ahead, the guide opened a lattice gateway stretched across the path, and stepped back, motioning them inside with a curt gesture. Gabrielle gave her a smile, and edged past, aware of her soulmate's close presence as they entered the round chamber that functioned as a meeting place for these Amazons.
It was a very interesting room, the bard thought, an area in the center of a huge tree, where branches had grown out and around, then interlaced back towards the center of the tree to form an irregular chamber. Wooden benches had been set into the roots to form chairs, and long, roughly shaped planks served as tables.
Right now, however, the chamber was mostly filled with silent, borderline hostile looking Amazons, who stared at them intently, and raised every single hackle Xena possessed straight up, until she was surprised she didn't have a ruff around her head much like Ares would.
Even Gabrielle felt it, she knew, because the bard slowed instinctively and closed the distance between them, until Xena only had to lift her hand and the curve of the bard's shoulderblade fitted into it neatly. She felt the shift as Gabrielle took a deep breath, then they both glanced at Jonae.
"We have guests today." The Amazon queen spoke briefly. "This is Gabrielle, queen of a sister tribe of Amazons, and her partner, Xena."
Gabrielle took a quick glance over her shoulder to check her soulmate's reaction to that. Xena remained alert but expressionless, though she did note a tiny quirk in the corner of one lip, and felt an almost imperceptible squeeze against the skin of her back. "Thank you." She answered Jonae cordially, and moved forward, joining the tall Amazon at her table. She heard casual steps behind her and turned to watch Xena stroll forward, taking her time, the pale blue eyes making a note of every single inch of the room.
And every single occupant. The silent Amazons had meant their display to be intimidating, the bard realized, but her partner was turning the tables on them, as their looks averted, unable to hold the intensity of Xena's gaze as she paused, and swiveled, standing in the dim, green light like a shadowy, caped bird.
Then she chuckled, and shook her head, joining Gabrielle at the table and politely motioning for the bard to seat herself. She took a seat to the her partner's right and hitched a knee up, resting her elbows on it and letting her eyes roam around the chamber.
Gabrielle almost had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing, at the perceptible discomfort her beloved soulmate was causing. Instead, she turned to Jonae. "We appreciate the courtesy." She remarked. "This is a really nice hall I love the birds." She looked at the two Amazons next to the Queen. "Hi.." She extended a hand. "
The two women stared at her, then reluctantly, the closer one took her arm, grasping it quickly then releasing it. "Lenore." She muttered.
"Hello, Leonore." Gabrielle responded courteously, then glanced at her tablemate, a tall, heavyset, older woman with silvered brown hair and cool, gray eyes. "Hello."
The Amazon just stared at her, then turned away, ignoring her outstretched arm.
Gabrielle sighed soundlessly, and was about to try another tack when a shadow draped itself over her shoulder, and poured across the table, throwing the older Amazon into dappled darkness. The woman looked up, startled, to find Xena towering over her in threatening silence, all traces of humor gone from her face, and her body almost humming with tension.
Time seemed to still, as two wills fenced across the table for what seemed an endless moment. Then the Amazon stood, and faced the warrior. Xena felt her muscles tense and she drew a breath in, as her defenses swept up, a little surprised at her own tempestuous reaction to the woman's snubbing of her soulmate, but ready to take whatever the Amazon thought she could dish out.
And then the woman simply turned, and walked away, leaving the table and the chamber, and slamming the latticework door behind her.
Interesting. Gabrielle thought, as Xena resumed her seat, a tiny furrow in her tanned brow. "I think I see what the problem is. " She remarked to Jonae, who had remained expressionless.
"Really? And what is that?" The Amazon Queen questioned her shortly.
"You need to either feed these people more fiber, or figure out how to stop them from cycling all at once." The bard told her seriously. "If one of my people treated a guest like that, I'd have them on a garbage detail so fast their feathers would fall off."
Xena almost bit her lip through inside, as she stifled a smile, watching Jonae's face go through several shades of angry crimson. She unobtrusively slipped her hand up into the small of Gabrielle's back, feeling the tension under her fingertips, and gave her skin a gentle scratch.
"You have to understand that we are not like the Amazons you know." Jonae answered, stiffly. "We have many issues we have to deal with her, and don't like strangers coming through our territory."
"Jonae, we're not strangers." Gabrielle leaned forward. "Look.. you said you didn't want any part of our plans.. that's fine. We're content just to say hello, and be on our way."
The door slammed back open at that point, and the stocky Amazon strode in, weapons bristling. "We'll see who's any good, right now!" She drew her sword and pointed it at Xena. "On your feet, Amazon."
"Watch who you're calling an Amazon, featherhead." Xena stood, throwing her cloak back and exposing her armor and sword, and the round, shining chakram, and freeing her right arm, her cuts and scrapes, and the bandage on her leg showing in sharp relief against her tanned skin. "You want a fight? No problem."
Gabrielle stood and put a hand on her wrist. "Hold it." She turned and faced the angry Amazon. "Just you hold it one god's be damned minute no one's fighting anyone here. What's wrong with you people? We're Amazons, just like you are.. isn't it bad enough you have an army forming down there, that we have to fight amongst each other?"
The Amazon pointed. "She challenged me, and don't you deny it!" The sword aimed for Xena's heart. "She insulted all of us!"
"Hey!" Gabrielle pointed back. "Are you challenging me?" She asked, softly, in the sudden quiet. "Because if you are, this isn't some game." She released Xena, and circled the table, gathering their attention as she moved closer to the burly woman. "I need to know that before I let my champion, who held off three thousand men yesterday while we escaped from Lower Hades down there, get involved in some stupid, asinine, Amazon pissing match." The bard's volume increased as she spoke, until the last words were shouted, with a deep, ringing tone that made Xena's ears itch.
Eyes shifted from her, to Xena, and held there. Jonae stood up and studied the warrior. "You held off his army?" The Amazons tone was incredulous. "For how long?"
"Long enough for us to escape." Gabrielle answered quietly. "So now " She turned and eyed the stocky Amazon standing near her. "You still want to do this? You won't win, believe me." She pointed a finger at her. "You'll end up really hurt, or maybe even dead, and for what?"
"No one person can hold off a damn army.. you're lying." Jonae stated flatly. "And I'm not going to have you in here insulting my people. Guards!"
Xena cursed softly in three languages, then vaulted the table, drawing her sword and closing in on her partner, as she swept the room with dangerous eyes.
"Hold it!" Came a quiet voice, from the doorway. Eyes turned to see a small, disheveled looking woman, with pale blond hair and a thin frame standing there. "It's true they're all talking of it." She looked at Xena. "He's put a price on your head ten thousand dinars."
One eyebrow curved up. "Hmph." Xena muttered. "That's a first."
"He lost a hundred men and five hundred horses." The woman continued. "I think he's more upset about the animals." She sighed and leaned against the wooden post, regarding both warrior and bard with tired, but respectful eyes. "You make a damn lot of trouble for only two people."
Gabrielle gazed at her. "You were working in that kitchen."
She nodded. "Aye I didn't know who you were.. wish I had." A tired smile pulled at her lips. "Though I might have guessed when you took out those guards with a broomstick."
Now the eyes swiveled to Gabrielle, who cleared her throat. "So." She eyed the woman next to her. "What'll it be?" She was achingly aware of the dark, seething presence at her back, and the scent of drawn steel, from the sword which was resting on Xena's shoulder.
The woman slowly studied them, her face a mixture of anger, disbelief, and a tinge of honest fear. For a moment, she hesitated, then she sighed, and her sword hissed home in it's sheath. "Another day."
Gabrielle nodded, then turned her back on the woman and walked back to the high table, gently bumping her soulmate as she resumed her seat. "Can we talk now?" She asked Jonae, pointedly. The hostility around her was making her head ache, and she wished she could narrow down the reason for it.
The Amazon leader gazed at the table, then looked up. "Cinte, come here, and sit down." She told the burly woman. Then she regarded her hands as they twisted against each other. "You have my apologies, Queen Gabrielle .that was.. inappropriate behavior."
Xena waited for the burly Amazon to sit down before she did, grateful to take the strain off her leg and biting off a tiny grin as the bard's hand curled around her knee immediately, the thumb brushing against her skin in aimless circles.
"Listen.. " Gabrielle curled her fingers into a light ball. "I can tell we're not welcome here.. why don't you just give us that escort, and we'll be on our way."
Jonae shook her head slightly, and glanced at the bard. "Do you really think you can make a difference? What are you going to do now..with a price on your head?"
"I've had one before." Xena remarked mildly. "And they have to find me first." She exhaled. "Gabrielle's right we've got to get moving.. you all um " She cleared her throat. "Take care of yourselves."
She stood up and put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders, glancing around and seeing the shifting viewpoints, as the hostility lessened, and became pensive uncertainty. "Come on, Gabrielle."
A light squeeze on one shoulder, that meant 'follow my lead.'. Gabrielle got to her feet and nodded. "Okay."
They got to the door, as the silence beat down around them, and a guide stepped back uncertainly as they approached.
"Queen Gabrielle." Jonae's voice broke the quiet, and they turned. "What could you hope to accomplish?" She lifted a hand. "He has an army."
Gabrielle shrugged, and smiled. "And I have Xena." Her green eyes twinkled gravely. "It's a wash, as far as I'm concerned." The bard felt a little thrill of excitement chase her words around the room, and she sobered a little. "We'll have help. Every person who joins us matters" She scanned the room with evaluating eyes. " Even one person can make all the difference. "
They turned and walked out, treading along the shaded path with their guile following them, until they reached the ladder down. Xena glanced at it, glanced back at the furtive faces watching them from the hall's twisted wall, then held out one arm to her soulmate. "C'mere."
Uh oh. The bard sighed, but complied, tucking herself alongside Xena's cloaked body, and winding an arm around her. The warrior took a firm hold on her, then glanced at the guide.
Gabrielle closed her eyes as powerful legs shoved them off into space, and her stomach dropped as the air whistled by her in a free fall. Which stopped, suddenly, as Xena grabbed onto a vine, and changed their vertical motion into a swinging one, leaves whipping by on either side and leaving a green, raw scent on them as they passed.
Another free fall, as the warrior let go at the end of the arch, and flipped in mid air, taking the bard with her upside down.
"Yaaaaaa!!!" Gabrielle squealed, as she sensed the ground coming up, then her world righted, and they landed with a thump, and a couple of warrior hops that brought them up standing near where they'd left the ground in the first place.
Xena released her, and dusted herself off, straightening her cloak where it had twisted around her body. "Fish for dinner, you think?" She asked her partner.
"Oh yeah." Gabrielle agreed, peeking up and spotting the rows of wide eyed faces. "You nailed that one.." She tucked a hand around her partner's elbow. "C'mon.. let's get out of here, and get your leg taken care of." She paused, to let their guide catch up, a younger woman, with three others trailing her down the ladder. "You had to do the flip, didn't you?" She sighed, rubbing her eyes. "You know that makes me dizzy."
Xena smiled wearily, and leaned over, kissing her head. "Sorry." She winced. "But after that little speech of yours.. "
Another Amazon came walking up leading Hercules and Iolaus, with a timid looking Devon behind them, and in a few moments they were off, headed deeper into the forest amid the lengthening shadows of a early gathering dusk.
It was full dark before they were out of the Amazon's territory, and could find a place to make camp for the night. Xena would have been happier with a cave, or other defensible spot, but she settled for a sheltered grotto, surrounded by thick, almost impenetrable thorny scrub, which had a tiny, mineral smelling spring at it's center.
She got the horses settled, and let her arms rest on Iolaus' back as she watched Gabrielle go about her usual tasks, giving Devon quiet instructions as she set up a small campfire, and got their things put into place.
Xena was grateful for that. Her leg had been bothering her the entire walk, and the low, annoying fever had worsened as night fell, and was making her body ache with a nagging chill. She leaned against the stallion for a moment, then straightened, reviewing what she still had to do.
Hunt. Right a warm dinner was a good idea for all of them, she decided, since they were far enough into the almost jungle like foliage to hide, and she was fairly sure they'd lost any pursuers. "Be right back." She called over to her partner, as she removed a short bow from the saddlebags tucked neatly near the horses.
"Be careful." Gabrielle's eyes took on a faint glint from the newly spawned fire as she looked over.
The warrior nodded, and moved off into the brush, walking away from the camp until the soft sounds of it were invisible to even her hearing. Then she stopped, and stood quietly, listening to the nighttime world around her.
Her head hurt, and it was keeping her senses from picking up their usual wide scope of her surroundings, so Xena closed her eyes, firmly shoving aside the discomfort as she tried to tighten her focus. It took several minutes, far longer than normal, but eventually things settled into place, and she could concentrate on her task.
A soft rustle, just to her right drew her attention and she cocked her head, listening a moment before she identified the maker as a deer, too large a target for her simple needs. Another sound, closer, was an owl rustling over head, not an animal she'd try for in any case.
Her nose twitched, as she scented a boar, and she amused herself briefly with the thought of bringing one of the difficult, dangerous animals in for Gabrielle to deal with, prickly hide and all. No.. not tonight, though the bard did enjoy the occasional pit roast, where she'd stuff the animal with apples, and let it cook for hours.
Usually, Xena sighed, she enjoyed that too, but right now, just the thought was making her queasy. With a little shake of her head, she padded forward, brushing through the leaves soundlessly as she searched on. After a few minutes, she heard a low thump, which froze her in place, then she turned around in a slow circle, until the thump came again and she pinned the location down.
Rabbit. Xena fitted her arrow and waited, watching the shadows under the brush as the moonlight filtered througth the trees. Her arm drew slowly back, and held, motionless as the grasses rustled, then a good sized, fuzzy head poked out. Damn. Xena's brows rose, as she waited for the body to clear the bushes. The rabbit was very large, and it's ears were half the length of her forearms.
Another hop, and she released, the arrow taking the animal cleanly through the heart, and stopping it in it's tracks with a startled sigh. With an echoing noise, Xena knelt at it's side, and removed the shaft, then set to work skinning and dressing her catch with quick, efficient motions. Good. Nice and fast, no long chases, no problems. She'd give this to Gabrielle, then rummage in her healer's kit for something to kill the fever that was making her so damned uncomfortable.
She reached into her belt pouch to get her smaller blade, stopping her motion when her fingers touched a small, round, cool object in the bottom of the bag. Curiously, she pulled it out and peered at it, a tentative smile edging her lips as she recognized what it was. "Hey." The whisper escaped her. "What do we have here?"
With a thump, she sat down on the cool earth, her booted legs straddling the rabbit, and put her knife down, turning her attention to her unexpected treat. Damn. Xena rested her elbows on her knees and unwrapped the parchment, letting a small, black obsidian stone fall into her hand. She juggled it a moment, then tucked it inside her pouch and examined the piece of parchment, which had writing on both sides in deep, distinctive purple black ink, in a hand as familiar to her as her own.
For a moment, she simply savored the feeling it stirred in her, as she flipped the parchment over and over in her fingers, finally setting it on her knee and smoothing it out across her skin.
I know what you're thinking oh no, not those little rocks again, huh? I was sitting under a tree the other day, and I realized how much I missed making them up for you, so I decided it was time to get off my butt and start them, again, I hope you don't mind.
I'm learning a lot on this trip, mostly about all the little things I hardly realized I was missing until I thought about them, and I was wondering if you felt the same way.
I know you say.. don't sweat the little stuff, Gabrielle.. but you know today, I felt like sweating.
Xena regarded the parchment with a tiny, wistful smile, then she turned it over and leaned a little closer, to read the lines on the back.
Sun setting, star rising,
Winds dash across an endless sea.
The world is large, and the sky is larger,
Covering the past, and the future to be.
But my sight turns inward, seeking smallness
Not the light of the sun, but the glow of our fire,
Not the spread of the sky, but the blue of your eyes,
Frames my world in wonder.
Awww. Xena felt a stupid grin take over her face, as she reread the poem. It felt nice, almost ridiculously so, to have found the trinket, because the thought behind it was just so very Gabrielle, and reassured her that her soulmate's dream eye was still firmly focused on her. She leaned back, allowing herself to get lost in the memory of the first poem she'd read of the bard's, under less than ideal circumstances.
She'd been so frustrated. It had been months since she'd left the army, and started off on what had seemed a stupid, senseless course of action, roaming around the countryside thumping bandits accompanied by what must, surely , be the most annoying person this side of Rome.
Gabrielle was constantly getting them into trouble, constantly causing Xena endless amounts of grief, talked far too much, asked way too many questions, had no earthly clue how to take care of herself
She'd taken out her sword, and decided to do drills until she tired herself out, sparing a glance towards the young girl seated across the fire from her. Who was busy, of course, writing, of course, the scribblings she kept hidden in her bag and poured over at every opportunity.
Xena had sighed. Was there a person on earth she had less in common with? She doubted she could find one, even if she spent half her lifetime trying. She hadn't even had anything to say to the girl all day long, and she had no reason to think that was going to change anytime soon.
Why should it? Gabrielle had nothing at all in common with her, and never would.. she didn't understand what it was to be a warrior, and Xena had no intention of letting her in on the secrets of it.
She'd gone through her drills over and over, then finally stopped., to see the girl busily scribbling, her pale eyes intent on the surface, completely absorbed by her writing.
Xena had sighed, and sheathed her sword, then whirled as she heard something coming, and leaped to meet the raiders that decided to attack the camp.
Normally, it would have been easy, but she was exhausted from her drilling, and she'd felt it in the awkwardness of her response, and the slowness with which her body reacted.
At least Gabrielle had ducked under a log, as she'd been taught, and gotten the Hades out of the way, while Xena had battled gamely back, dodging the club blows and swinging her sword.
A flash of movement in her peripheral vision, and she half turned, too late, to see an unexpected body lunging towards her, with a steel mace moving too fast for her to deflect. She'd tensed for the blow, but it had never come, blocked by a small, fair haired form that tripped the raider up, and took the blow for her, smashing her head against a boulder as she was tossed aside.
The rage had lent her strength, and speed, as she'd hurled herself over Gabrielle's slumped form, and ripped into the attackers, sending them running at the ferocity of her defense after she'd broken two arms, and snapped a neck as though it were a twig.
And then it had been silent, as she knelt at the girl's side, and with a gentleness she'd never show Gabrielle when the youngster was awake, examined the bruise and bleeding lump on the side of her head. "You stupid kid." Xena had whispered. "What'd you want to go do that for, huh? "
The warrior had picked her charge up and put her into her sleeping furs, then gently took care of the injury, tucking the bedding around the kid and smoothing the pale hair back out of her eyes, only backing off when Gabrielle stirred, and blinked, peering at her in confusion.
"Hold still.. you got hit on the head." Xena had told her gruffly. "What did you think you were doing?"
The green eyes had looked up at her, golden in the firelight. "B.. I was just.. there was this guy, and he was heading towards you and I.."
"I can take care of myself, Gabrielle." She'd snapped. "Next time, just stay down, okay?"
Crestfallen, the girl hand dropped her eyes. "I'm sorry."
Xena, her conscience had slapped her . You are such a piece of crap, sometimes..give the poor kid a break. She'd shifted a little. "But..um.. thanks."
The girl had looked up at her, timid hope replacing discouragement, and she'd stood abruptly, using action to cover her discomfort as she cleaned the place up.
Including a small bit of parchment, that the girl had been writing on, which had blown across the campsite and was sitting right on Xena's saddlebag. With a sigh, she'd picked it up, and glanced at it cursorily.
And found herself reading a poem, that while rough, was written across the page in strokes of the girl's soul, so vivid was the imagery, describing a scene of beauty, and vibrance, and strength that was surely invented in whole cloth from Gabrielle's fertile imagination.
She'd looked up, to see wide eyes watching her in embarrassed horror. "What is this about?" She'd asked, brusquely, impatience disguising confusion.
Gabrielle had blushed a deep red, making her fair lashes stand out vividly. "You." She'd whispered.
Me??? She'd read it again, then looked at the girl, read it, then looked, then she shook her head and walked over, kneeling down and handing the paper back. "You've got quite the imagination there, Gabrielle."
The girl had settled back, dazed and exhausted, gazing at her in quiet, open appeal. "Just wrote what I saw.." She'd objected huskily. Then slowly, timidly, had handed the paper back, a gift across a gulf so wide, she'd never expected to bridge it.
Xena had taken it, and as the girl slept, she'd read it over and over, trying to reconcile the reality of who she knew she was, with the picture this girl had painted, wondering at the vision behind those clear, green eyes.
Understanding that on some, deep level, Gabrielle did understand her. And as she gazed down at the sleeping girl, who had again risked everything for her, she knew that at some level, she understood Gabrielle.
Maybe there was some hope for them after all.
Xena chuckled softly, then stifling a cough, she wiped her blade off on the grass and stood, with the rabbit's meat tucked inside it's skin and started back, easing along the thick, richly littered pathway between the trees.
And then she stopped, her senses coming alert in pure, animal instinct, and her head swiveled, eyes searching the moonlight as she sought whatever it was that pricked her instincts. She focused hard, cocking her head as her ears picked up the faintest touch of breathing.
Man? Animal? Her heart started to pound. Too low to be a human, unless they were lying on their belly, and that wasn't likely. Xena found herself in the unusual place of being the hunted, and she backed a little, putting a large tree behind her, and dropping her bundle, spreading her hands out and unsheathing her dagger instinctively.
The forest went still, and she could feel the damp movement of air across her suddenly chilled skin, then the world exploded in a rush of teeth and claws, and a spotted form was hurtling toward her, leaping at her throat with sickening speed.
Xena moved to one side, grabbing at the cat with one hand as her arms slid past raking claws that left trails of fire on her skin. She pushed off against the tree and took the animal with her, twisting in mid air and landing on top of it with a crunch and rolling over, it's claws slashing through the skin on her thighs as she fought to get a hold on it.
Then she had an elbow on it's throat and she was bearing down, feeling it convulse under her with a long, hissing growl.
Silence returned as it went limp and she sat there for a long moment, catching her breath., before she got to her knees, and surveyed her attacker. It was a medium sized, spotted cat about the length of her own torso, with tufts on either side of it's face, and long, wickedly curved fangs. Xena surveyed it dourly, then hoisted it onto her shoulders, and got to her feet, shifting the balance of the creature until it draped over her evenly. God's only know what would be attracted if I left this damn thing.. She mused, as she trudged over and retrieved her rabbit bits, then started back for their camp.
She got three steps and then almost collided with a rapidly moving, pale haired object, who pulled up short on seeing her with a gasp of relief.
"Oh gods.. there you are." Gabrielle's eyes searched her face anxiously. "What happened?"
"Here I am." Xena agreed, with a wry smile. "I ran into the new hearth rug you ordered."
The bard's eyes moved from her face to the creature draped over her shoulders and widened, and her jaw dropped. "Centaur farts, Xena are you okay?"
The warrior flexed her hand and nodded. "Yeah.. a few scrapes c'mon, let's get back, though. I dont know what else is out here." She handed the bard her catch. "Here I found a rabbit before he found me or maybe that's what this big guy was hunting."
Gabrielle accepted the blood stained bundle and fell into step next to her. "You scared the boots off me I'm sure Devon thinks I lost my mind, since I was in the middle of getting water for dinner.. and I dumped the pot, water and all over the top of him."
"Sorry." Xena replied, secretly touched that their connection was manifesting so strongly, that even her momentary jolt had brought the bard running. They walked along quietly for a few paces, then Xena glanced at her soulmate and gave her a little nudge. "Hey."
"Mm?" The green eyes peered up at her, warm and inquisitive.
"Thanks for the note." The warrior replied. "Nice surprise."
The moonlight shimmered as Gabrielle ducked her head, hiding an embarrassed smile. "Oh.. I guess you found it then huh?" She murmured, then slapped her had. "Duh, Gabrielle.. of course she did glad you liked it." She looked up and their eyes met. "I have missed giving you little pieces of myself like that even though I know it's kinda silly."
"Silly?" Xena sucked in a breath, then glanced back at her. "Reach in my pouch there down at the very bottom."
Gabrielle hesitated, then did so, carefully untying the pouch and rummaging inside it, until she got all the way down. "Okay."
"Feel a flat folded piece of parchment?" Xena inquired.
Gabrielle carefully pulled it out and examined it, a folded piece perhaps two fingerspans in width. "Okay should I open it?" She looked up at her soulmate. "Xena.. if this is something you want to keep private, I don't have to see it."
The warrior chuckled softly. "It's nothing you haven't seen before." She assured the bard. "G'wan."
Gabrielle unfolded it carefully, it's frayed, stained edges whispering against her skin. There was a faint hint of smoke on the parchment, and she had to hold it up to the moonlight, and peer at it to make out the words, scribed in her own handwriting.
"Oh." She breathed. "Wow I had no idea you kept this." Gabrielle looked up, as she folded the paper again. "It feels like I wrote that another lifetime ago." She exhaled, "But you know something?"
"Hmm?" Xena paced along, watching her step as she balanced the weight on her shoulders.
Gabrielle tucked the piece of tattered parchment away, and left her arm linked through her soulmate's. "Inside me there's still this wide eyed kid that looks at you, and goes.. .wow." She replied. "And that poem still nails that feeling for me."
Silver shadows, shining bright
"It's very romanticized," Xena commented, clearing her throat.
Dancing fire in the night.
"Not at all." The bard objected.
Strength and beauty, equal measure
"Gabrielle, c'mon." Her partner laughed.
Standing tall as battle's treasure.
"It's very factual." Gabrielle insisted.
Eagle's eyes and lion's heart
"Not." The warrior shifted her load. "C'mon, Gabrielle.."
Defending the world from darkness.
Gabrielle merely smiled, and moved a little closer, giving the slumped form of the spotted cat a wry look. "Whatever you say, tiger."
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