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For complete disclaimers see Precursors part 1.
If you haven't read The Peloponnesian War Book I: Precursors, you're in the wrong place.
EXTRA SPECIAL DISCLAIMER:
This is a long, four-book monster and as such stands to be an intense roller coaster. It's a serious and sometimes disturbing story. Our heroes will undergo difficult tests, the action and psychology of which may prove difficult to read to some. There will be violence aimed at one or both of our heroes and sexual abuse. If you normally choose to avoid such subject matter, please do not read this story. I don't want to upset people, just walk that fine line to make the long read worthwhile.
General Phormion returned to his men and gave the order. The siege had begun. The Athenian troops positioned themselves around the entire wall of Poteidaia, there would be no means of escape unless it was through a blockade of well-armed men, lying in wait for just one such idiot to try it.
Next came the wagons. They off-loaded spears, bows and arrows, and piles and piles of rocks. Small catapults could propel the rocks into the city, probably not killing anyone, but inflicting a bloody bruise on any unfortunate skin it collided with.
But what had Xena most worried were the gastraphetes, or the belly bow as her men used to call it. It was mounted on wooden stock, employed in a horizontal mode, and could be cocked, aimed, and then fired with a trigger. Larger and much more powerful than a conventional bow, it took both hands to cock fully, using the belly to support the stock of the weapon. With two hands and all the might of a man to empower it, a heavier arrow could travel well over the walls of the besieged city, a third again as far as a conventional bow. It was a deadly weapon and the Athenians were well supplied with them.
It also meant the Athenians could set up their defenses just out of range of the Poteidaian's conventional bows and still wreak havoc with the gastraphetes. It was an advantage Xena hadn't counted on the Athenians having.
"Demosthenes," she called to the Poteidaian leader, "we'll need to fortify these screens. Your men can still be injured by the gastraphetes, even behind these." She patted one of the straw barriers erected along the wall to protect the lookout guards. "Either that, or we can't afford to have anyone up here on the rim."
"How much time do we have, Xena?" Demosthenes was one of the few seasoned fighters among the Poteidaians. He knew which were the important questions.
She gauged their enemy's progress from her vantage on the rim. "Not much. Looks like they'll have everything ready before sundown. Sorry."
"I'll have Thermenes build wooden barriers. We'll slap up every bit of scrap metal we have onto them. If we add them to the straw, it should be enough." He started to climb down the ladder.
"Oh, and Demosthenes, make sure the whole perimeter stays clear. We need to find out just how far the throw is on those things. I don't want anyone getting in the way."
"Right, Xena." Demosthenes jumped the last few rungs and ran out of sight between buildings.
Xena sighed. This was day one of how many? A few, dozens, hundreds? And all because of who? Pericles? Athena? Who knew. She rubbed her temples, a dull ache that had been throbbing deeply behind them since morning was demanding attention. Here she was with a town chock full of farmers, craftsmen, and merchants up against the elite of the Athenian Army. This was insanity. Still, sieges always worked in the favor of those being sieged. All they had to do was hold out -- ration their food and protect the water supply -- until the siege got too expensive for the Athenian treasury, one of the richest in the known world. Oh this could be bad. Best see how everyone was faring.
She found Demosthenes and Thermenes wielding hammers with four other men, building fortifications for the rim. Next she went to the town meeting hall, soon to be the infirmary though there were many who didn't quite understand the full implication of that yet. Several people were moving palettes in, collecting rags and buckets, resupply the wood piles. She spotted Gabrielle talking with her mother.
"How goes it?" Xena asked standing right at the bard's ear.
"Yikes, Xena. Don't sneak up on me like that!" snarled Gabrielle. She saw her mother was chuckling. "Fine. I'm glad you two enjoyed it."
"I was just trying to convince my daughter to come home for the evening meal," the slightly frustrated Hecuba told Xena. "She said she didn't have time. Of all things, not time to come home for a spell? She hasn't even been here a whole day."
"Mother, please." Gabrielle tried once again, "I need to make sure everything here is ready... just in case," she glanced over at Xena who nodded almost imperceptibly.
Though it hardly seemed necessary to Xena, she did try to soften her tone for Gabrielle's sake. "Hecuba, Gabrielle's right. We may have wounded coming in soon."
"Wounded? I still don't believe that. We're all just going to sit tight until this gets worked out. You'll see." She scuttled off, her long skirt almost tangling in a stack of chairs until she deftly pulled it out from the rungs.
"I'm not looking forward to this," sighed Gabrielle.
"No one is. She'll get used to it." Xena watched as Hecuba passed through the doorway on her way out. "All too soon, I'm afraid."
"Bad out there?" Gabrielle reached for Xena's arm, just above her elbow.
"Bad out there." She let her other hand cover the bard's grasp on her arm.
"We're as ready as we'll ever be here. Though if we get too many, I'll need your help." Gabrielle's green eyes locked with Xena's. "I know these people, Xena."
Xena steered the bard to a chair and sat by her. "I understand. It's always harder when you have a connection with them. You'll be fine."
"Thanks," mumbled the bard, wiping away a patch of dust that clung to her skirt.
"I've got to go, sorry."
"I know." She looked up, "Be careful."
"Got a good reason to be." Xena winked at her, then followed Hecuba's path out the door.
Gabrielle took one last tour of their supplies and trotted off to speak with each of the helpers one-by-one beginning with Pasio whom she remembered mostly as just being a boy but who now surprised her as a young man. The limp he carried since childhood was so integrated into his whole being that she hardly noticed it anymore.
He was folding stacks of cloth, soon to become bandages. Gabrielle offered, "Here, let me help."
"Oh, thanks Gabrielle." He continued folding as Gabrielle reached around him for several pieces of cloth.
"Well it looks like things are almost ready in here, how are you feeling about all this?"
He stopped his movements and looked at her, gentle eyes seemed out of place on his stern face. "I've seen this sort of thing before."
"Yeah, so have I," Gabrielle told him, her mind flashing back to similar scenes from her recent past.
"I've heard." He motioned toward a pair arranging the palettes, "You should be more worried about Hippas and Cassandra. They have no idea what's about to happen."
Gabrielle quirked up one corner of her mouth, "Thanks, Pasio, I'll go chat with them." She patted his hand and left him, happy to have at least one person around who had an inkling of the gravity of their situation. Hippas and Cassandra, twin brother and sister, were three years older than Gabrielle and still as inseparable as she remembered them from childhood. "So, you two, I see you have many skills: palette-straighteners among them."
They laughed, a little embarrassed. "You tell us what to do, Gabrielle. You seem to know how this all works." Hippas spoke for them, an old habit.
"You're doing fine. Why don't you take a break, have something to eat, then come back in the early evening. If you get back a little early, I'll tell you a story about when Xena and Hercules unchained Prometheus."
The twins exchanged an incredulous glance. "Sure, Gabrielle. And thanks, we'll be back in a little while."
As they ambled out together, Hecuba returned, basket in tow. "Now, look Gabrielle. You need to have something to eat, so I've brought dinner. Where did that friend of yours get off to? Oh, never mind, we'll just share this with Pasio. Pasio, dear, come join us. I've brought some food for us. Here, bring me that little table, and the torch. And fetch the water skin while you're up. Gabrielle, why don't you put something warmer on, don't you feel that draft?..."
Gabrielle suddenly felt an odd mix of compassion and pity for Xena. Am I like this, she thought. Still, there was a reassuring comfort about having her mother near. As her mother talked on and on about Poteidaian gossip, Gabrielle studied her face, new lines etched near her eyes, at her mouth. She's human after all, she does age. It suits her, though, those traces of gray sneaking in. I wonder if that's what I'll look like when I'm... if I ever make it that long...
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle? You haven't heard anything I've said, have you?"
"Sorry, Mother. I was just thinking."
"About what? Goodness, Gabrielle, we're sitting here having a nice meal with friends and..."
"Hecuba," Pasio came to the rescue, "This bread is
Are you still using the same recipe? I don't remember it being so light."
His eyes danced briefly to Gabrielle's and she acknowledged his mighty feat.
Neither heard Hecuba's detailed list of ingredients.
"Xena?" Demosthenes waved her over. They stood on the rim along the top of the wall overlooking the troops massed below them. The sun was just setting and the orange glow in the sky melded into the light of the fires near the Athenian tents. "They're ready."
"Phormion is a smart man and a good tactician. He won't play all his cards tonight but I'm sure he'll send a few surprises our way. Let's not get caught off guard." Xena spoke without looking at Demosthenes, her eyes continuously scanning the soldiers surrounding them. Then she heard it, the cocking of the gastraphetes. "Get down!" she yelled as her hand grabbed for Demosthenes and forced him down onto his belly. A huge arrow shot over their heads and embedded itself in a rooftop fifty feet inside the wall.
"Uh oh," moaned Demosthenes. They both knew what that meant. Their perimeter wasn't nearly wide enough, they'd have to move everything and everyone farther back, out of the range of the gastraphetes' arrows. More arrows flew, then the sky was darkened with them, hundreds hurtling in at once. There was nothing to do but lay huddled at the wall, hope the barriers would hold, and wait for the onslaught to lessen at least.
Xena uncurled her body a little, checked that Demosthenes was unscathed, and peered over the wall. After one round, the Athenians had ceased firing. Their point had been made. "Keep lookouts posted," she yelled to the men up there with her. She turned and spoke with Demosthenes, "It's getting dark, keep the torches out up here and they won't be able to see to aim at anyone." Then she grabbed the sides of the ladder and slid down, her feet skimming along the two wooden posts as she plunged down, bypassing the more conventional albeit slower method of climbing down via the rungs. A dozen men and women lay wounded. "You. Come here," she instructed a man near her. "Help me with this." She bent over a woman who had taken an arrow in the side of her leg. The man stood frozen in his tracks, too scared, too horrified to move.
"His wife," came a familiar voice. Gabrielle's father stood at her shoulder.
Xena asked him, "Can you carry her?" Herodotus nodded. "Try not to bump her into anything." She broke off most of the length of the shaft. "That should help. Gabrielle will know what to do." Xena lifted the woman into Herodotus' arms, his eyes widening for a moment when he saw the ease with which this warrior lifted dead weight. The woman in his arms moaned and he took off toward the infirmary.
She turned to another of the wounded, a man. The oversized arrow protruded from his throat, blood gushing in waves. He was dead. Without a second thought she continued on, leaving him to lie in his own pool of life's fluids.
The next sight sickened her. A young girl squirmed, skewered to the man under her by a massive arrow puncturing her fleshy upper arm and traveling through to embed itself deeply in the man's hip. The girl was screaming, her flesh ripping open more and more as she writhed. Contortions wrought of pain and fright were killing the man behind her, his own bright red blood soaking up his shirt and down his pants.
"It's okay," Xena murmured reaching for the girl to quiet her. "Please don't struggle. If you move it'll make it worse." The girl tried to pull away, howling as she did and working an even larger hole in the man behind her, triggering a gurgling sound from the wiggling shaft whirling inside him. It hit an artery, squirting a fountain of blood, soaking them. The girl screamed once more and mercifully passed out.
Herodotus came back from the infirmary to help her, running in and sliding in beside them. When the arrow hit the artery, he had to turn away, had to try to keep the contents of his stomach in place as he felt the blood shower splattering his back. Xena flattened her hand and jammed it between the two bodies, searching for the artery and pinching it off inside the man near his hip bone.
"Herodotus, grab their legs and help me." Xena eased her other hand under the man's back and together they lifted the pair, still attached by the arrow.
"Take cover!" came a voice from above on the rim of the wall.
More arrows flew overhead. These, however, were alit: flaming projectiles soaring into the wooden structures. The Athenians' aim was not true, most arrows fell harmlessly around the cleared perimeter, but three found purchase in the dry tinder of roofs, one in a shack, the other two in a nearby house. The dry roofs caught fire, spreading it quickly through the structures. One muffled scream made it to Xena's ears. "Someone's in there. I can take these two," she barked at Herodotus.
"I'll go." Herodotus transferred all of the weight of the two limp bodies to Xena and ran for the house. To balance them, Xena shifted her free hand lower on the man's back, the other, thrust between the two, still held tight to the severed artery. She jutted her wrist into the man's hip bone and pulled him securely to her body, the girl held fast on top by the arrow shaft.
Though some villagers may have reacted slowly to the horrors of war wounded, they all knew exactly what to do with a fire. Quickly, Demosthenes organized a chain, preparing buckets of water to pass between them. Xena waited for a moment to see if Herodotus needed her help. She also didn't want to try to get the two she held to the infirmary without a backup nearby.
Inside the house, smoke had filled the room almost halfway down from the ceiling. A little boy, wide-eyed with fear, cowered by the hearth. Herodotus scooped him into his arms. "Prodicus, don't worry. You're fine. I'm going to take you to the meeting hall, you can talk to Gabrielle for awhile, okay?" Prodicus seemed to perk up a little, saw his rescuer covered in blood, then fell back into a stupor with a whimper. Herodotus ran from the house coughing the thick smoke from his lungs, Prodicus secure in his arms.
He caught up with Xena and they both dashed to the infirmary as Demosthenes led a water bucket brigade to douse the flames. The muscles in Xena's arms burned with the weight of the two she carried though that minor annoyance wasn't going to stop her. She glanced over at the frightened child, something about him slightly familiar...
"Gabrielle, over here!" She put the double bundle on a palette. "Bring compresses then you'll have to push the arrow through, I can't let go."
Herodotus handed Prodicus to Cassandra and came to Xena's side, mesmerized by her. He wondered how she could be so unaffected by the blood, how she could know so much about the weapons of war and their effects on human flesh. He realized how much she must have seen in her life, inflicted on others. It was a mind-numbing dichotomy to watch her help his friends, family, neighbors, and think about where the extraordinary knowledge came from.
Gabrielle lay a pile of linens by the man's head and cringed, seeing the full horror. "Yeah, okay. I'm ready Xena," her voice was less sure than usual.
"Hang in there, Gabrielle. I need you," Xena said. It was none too soothing, but it had the desirable effect.
"Gotcha. I'm here. Compresses." She wadded up several pieces of cloth and fashioned them into a bundle.
"Good. Now push the arrow through the arm. I'll lift him up, you reach under and break the tip off. Then get those compresses on the arm. Ready?"
Gabrielle nodded, trying to remember the order everything had to go in.
"I'll help." Pasio rested a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "I'll do the arrow."
Xena looked up at the scrawny kid. This had to be done right or it could make everything much worse, "Sure you know how?"
A single line imbued with a litany of implications answered her, "I studied with Hippocrates."
A knowing, electric, glance passed between Xena, Gabrielle, and Pasio.
Xena swallowed hard, trying not to think how much this whole scene reminded her of the temple in Thessaly, "Okay. You push the arrow through when I lift. Let's just get the girl free first, then we'll worry about him. Ready?"
Xena hoisted the man up, Pasio pushed with all his might, Gabrielle applied the compress, blood spewed everywhere, and Herodotus watched in awe.
Xena shouted orders. "Move the girl to that palette." With Gabrielle still applying pressure, Hippas lifted her away from the injured man. Pasio reached around the man, grabbed the tip of the arrow, and flicked his wrist. The shaft didn't break. "Try again," said Xena. "Thick shaft." Pasio used both hands and still he couldn't crack it.
"Herodotus," Xena's call broke his trance, "come here and hold him up." Herodotus took the weight from Xena and she broke the arrow easily with one hand and pushed the rest through with a great heave. Pasio plunged a compress of bandages under the wound while Xena settled the man back down onto the palette. "I need a needle and thread. Then I'll need you to pinch this artery for me." For the first time, everyone standing around could see Xena's red, sticky hand buried in the man's gaping wound. Those who had been watching in fascination, turned away in disgust at the sight of raw, torn flesh and protruding bone. Still, Herodotus watched in wonder and in fear of this woman.
"Switch," she said, letting go of the artery.
Before Pasio got hold of it, the great fountain began again, pulsing a course of blood into the air over his body. Two people fainted and Herodotus turned white as a sheet. But Pasio grabbed hold, shutting of the flow of blood. "Gabrielle, I need you here."
Gabrielle pressed Cassandra's palm over the compress she held to the girl's arm. "What do you need, Xena?"
"Try to dab away the blood. I have to be able to see in there." Xena rubbed her cheek on her upper arm, trying to get a matted length of hair off her face.
Gabrielle blotted the wound, soaking several rags in rapid succession and plopping them down on the palette, the air heavy and oppressive from the smell of copious blood. Finally, Gabrielle cleaned away enough of the blood for Xena to work. The warrior stitched as much as she could then instructed Pasio to let go. They all held their breath to see if the stitching was sufficient. There was some more seepage, but clearly the patchwork was holding.
Gabrielle noticed Xena's shoulders fall ever so slightly. "You're exhausted. Take a break," she said softly.
"I'll finish with him and then stitch up the girl, Xena," Pasio offered.
"What's your name?" She asked him.
"Thanks, Pasio. You did well." Xena let Gabrielle walk her to a corner where she washed her hands and drank deeply from a water skin.
"You okay?" Gabrielle asked her.
She thought about using the usual flip answer, but when she looked into those green eyes, she knew better than to try. "It's hard when they're children."
"Yes. It is." Gabrielle reached for her hand. "You're going back out?"
Xena nodded. "In a minute."
"I'm going to make sure you sleep tonight. At least some, Xena," she said with a hint of sympathy and a good dose of stubbornness.
"We'll see." She felt Gabrielle's hand clasp hers more firmly. "I'll try... but only if you promise you'll sleep, too."
They both heard a child cry out in the throes of a bad dream. Xena looked over to him, "You're father saved him from a burning building."
"My father?" Gabrielle asked incredulously, until her eyes followed Xena's and she saw who it was. "Prodicus..."
Comprehension at last, no wonder he had a familiar look, he had a familiar-sounding name. "Perdicus' brother?" Xena ventured.
Gabrielle knelt by the boy's palette, smoothing his hair. He squirmed around a little more and settled down under Gabrielle's touch. Xena put a hand on her shoulder, got her attention and smiled at her. "Take care of him, he's family."
Gabrielle smiled through watery eyes and shook a finger at her, "Don't do that to me now."
"Sorry," she said under her breath. "I'll check on you later."
Xena left Gabrielle at Prodicus' side, stopped to examine the expert
stitches Pasio had sewn, threw a curt nod his way, and walked out into the
night to return to the perimeter.
Eupatrids was in position at the wall, trying to boss around several men near him. They'd tired of his antics and long since stopped listening to him. His eyes peeled, he kept careful watch on the enemies out there. Even though everyone else was either asleep or relaxing around a fire, Eupatrids was ever vigilant, ready to make his mark early in this war.
Demosthenes made the rounds, ensuring everyone knew the orders. Namely, stay out of harm's way, don't do anything foolish, and when in doubt, yell for help. Troops, he thought. What a joke. Still he knew the will of his people, the stamina and confidence they carried. They could outlast this siege and send the Athenian army home tail tucked between their legs.
Most of the men treated Demosthenes as a friend, a respected friend, but certainly not a military leader. His experiences in the military were from long ago, his days now ruled by council meetings and civil matters. Eupatrids, however, still insisted on addressing him as a military man. As he strode toward Eupatrids, Demosthenes was greeted by a crisp, "Sir!"
"Relax Eupatrids, everyone else has," Demosthenes said kindly.
"It is a mistake to do so. Especially when on duty, sir!" Eupatrids held his body taut in respect for his commander.
"You're a lookout. That's all. Now ease off before you get too worked up." Demosthenes saw Eupatrids' face fall and thought he'd gone too far in his admonition. "Eupatrids, though your heart is in the right place, you can't maintain this pace. Find one that's a good compromise between vigilance and comfort. You can be ready for anything only if you're rested."
A little more naturally, Eupatrids replied, "Yes sir."
"Thanks. Now you take care of yourself and watch out for the men up here."
Eupatrids observed Demosthenes as he continued down the wall, stopping to speak with everyone he passed until he spotted Xena moving across the perimeter and went down to talk with her. Eupatrids scrutinized their movements, guessing what was said. No doubt she was planting some foolhardy idea into Demosthenes' head. I'll watch out for the men up here, all right. And I'll watch your back too Demosthenes, thought Eupatrids.
Demosthenes was talking with Xena about the injuries from the first Athenian attack. He hadn't seen her carry the pair impaled by a single arrow, but he had heard a great deal about it. It was all some people wanted to talk about if they weren't relaying how she saved the pair's lives in the infirmary. He wondered how many Poteidaians had actually been there, from the tales he'd heard, it was half the town.
"I'm glad you're here, Xena," he finally said. "I know this can't have been an easy decision for you."
"No Demosthenes, the decision was easy because it was the right one." She lent him a weary smile.
"Why do I get the feeling there's something you're not telling me? Oh, never mind." This was a very private woman. He shifted uncomfortably until a new subject came to mind. "It looks like the Athenians have shut down for the night. They just wanted to let us know they were serious."
"That's no surprise." Xena, ever thinking ahead, saw everything as an opportunity, "We should collect all the arrows they shot over. We don't have an endless supply of weapons in here."
"I'll ask some of the men to do it. Thanks. Good advice."
"I should get back and give Gabrielle a hand." Xena, as usual, had difficulty accepting compliments.
"You should both get some sleep," chided Demosthenes.
"Yeah, so I've heard." The warrior ambled back through the darkened and silent streets of Poteidaia, the walls that held her, streets that confined her steps. For a split second her wanderlust reared its powerful head, castigating her for being caught in such a place. She fought it down and tucked it away knowing she would see it again eventually, but for know she could master it quickly.
Gabrielle was in mid-story, telling a recuperating woman the tale of Endymion, a young shepherd, when her mother came in. Hecuba took a seat and listened, getting caught up in it. "He guarded his flocks prudently, running with them in play, learning each animal's habits and inclinations. Selene, the moon, watched his kind heart and gentle face and fell deeply in love with him. She came to the earth and sat beside him one night as he slept, raining kisses upon his face. To make sure she could do this always, she cast him into a never-ending sleep. It was a kind slumber, no nightmares, no tossing and turning. And forever more, Selene came to him each night to caress and kiss him before returning to the sky."
The bard patted the arm of the woman set sat with, and took a chair by her mother. "It's late, why are you here?" she asked keeping her voice low.
"I should ask you the same. You're exhausted. Why don't you come home. The house is full, all our cousins and their neighbors from the country are staying with us, but your sister said she'd share her bed with you."
Gabrielle gulped. Was it time for this already? "I can't leave the infirmary just yet, Mother. And besides, what about Xena?"
"What about Xena? She can find some place to bed down, I'm sure" Gabrielle caught the implication easily.
"No, Mother. She's my best friend. I'm not going to send her off somewhere alone," she stressed, "when we've spent the last two years traveling together. She gave up a lot to come here, you know."
An eyebrow inched up. Hecuba debated about just how far to go. "And we've already given up a lot to her. You come home, Gabrielle." There she'd said it. Sort of.
It was clear enough. "No." That was clear enough as well.
A silent battle of wills took place between them. Finally, Hecuba realized the stakes were too high. "You know where your home is, Gabrielle. I won't force you."
"Mother, look, it's not like that. I am home. I'm just not going to abandon Xena to a place where I know everyone and she only knows a handful. You said it yourself, you've got a full house."
"It will always be empty without you." Hecuba rose quickly and left her without giving Gabrielle a chance to say anything in return. As if there was anything to say to that. Gabrielle lowered her head into her hands and replayed the conversation. Nothing she should have changed, she tried to convince herself.
Gabrielle looked up to see Xena standing by her, her arms crossed, head crooked to the side. "Hi."
"You're tired," said Gabrielle.
"You're tired," she threw back at the bard. Xena scanned the room. "Things look good in here."
"I think everyone's as comfortable as they're going to be."
"Come on, my bard, let's get you out of here." The night air had a late-fall chill, Xena instinctively wrapped her arms around Gabrielle an instant before she shivered.
"How do you do that?" Gabrielle asked, relaxing back into Xena. No answer was necessary between them, they continued to saunter along slowly. "We're not staying with my parents," Gabrielle blurted out.
Xena stopped and asked carefully, "How did that come about?" and realized she was very relieved at the news.
"Mother made it clear there was room for only one."
"And she didn't mean me?" Xena asked, teasing slightly, but mostly resigned. "Sorry, Gabrielle. How'd it go?"
"Okay, I guess. I told her I wasn't going to leave you all alone here. She gave in."
Xena, wishing she was more skilled with words, offered, "Gabrielle, you do what you need to do. I'll be fine," then felt the bard's fingers digging into her arm.
"Hey, you listen to me. What I need is you. My family... my parents," she corrected herself, "will never change that. There comes a time for every mother and father, even for mine, when they have to let go a little." Do I really believe that? "They just have to learn who I am again. And that means getting to know you."
Xena regarded her closely. "You are amazing." She leaned in for a kiss and stopped, "Sorry, someone's coming." They pulled apart and waited as footsteps came around a corner. "Hi Demosthenes."
"Xena? I thought I sent you off to get some sleep."
"Well, we were discussing that very subject," said Xena.
Demosthenes ventured a guess, "Do you have a place to stay?"
Gabrielle laughed, "We were just going over that."
"Well, I can't offer much. My wife is pregnant and her sister is living with us. But if you don't mind it, I have a room out in back. A shack, really. But it's warm," he added, "and private."
Xena took his hand, "Thank you, my friend."
He helped them gather their gear from Argo, gave them an extra blanket and left them in peace with a small meal to share.
"Lucky he came along," said Gabrielle chewing on a piece of bread dipped in olive oil. "I was beginning to wonder where we'd go." She looked around their new home. It was small, but bigger than the closet they'd shared on Phormion's ship, it had a private entrance so they didn't have to go in and out through the house. A hastily arranged palette, a small table and two chairs and miscellaneous tools piled into a corner. It was perfect.
Xena moved beside the bard and wrapped an arm around her. "This is hard, I know."
"No, actually it's not as bad as I thought it would be," Gabrielle said seriously. "When you know what you do is right, it kinda smoothes out the kinks in everything. My parents will live and we've established a few ground rules. They don't hate me." She sensed Xena's reaction though the warrior did her best to bury it deep inside. "And they don't hate you, either. They may be a little wary of you, but they love me and I love you. It's a chain that can't be broken."
When Xena ducked her head for a kiss this time, there were no interruptions. Gabrielle dove right into the power of Xena's touch, opening herself to Xena's searching tongue, concentrating on the sensation of it gliding over hers, each pass depositing more goose bumps down her back. She crawled onto Xena's lap, wrapped her legs around Xena's waist, pulled herself into... "Take off the damned breastplate, would ya?"
Xena lay her long hands on Gabrielle's cheeks. "Gabrielle," no flinching, "I don't want to push you."
"You're not pushing me, Xena," though she dropped her eyes when she spoke. "I need you tonight."
"First things first," she got those green eyes back in her sight. "Let's take out the stitches."
"First you take off that breastplate."
Xena acquiesced, surprised that Gabrielle made no move to unbuckle it until she realized Gabrielle made no move to get off her lap either. "You're not going to help at all, are you?"
Xena chuckled as she extricated herself from her armor, making no effort to keeping from bumping into the woman on her lap. When at last it all lay on the floor, she stopped, unsure of what Gabrielle wanted next.
Purposefully, Xena reached for the laces holding Gabrielle's top. When she opened it, Gabrielle shrugged out of it easily. There they sat, the "X" carved into Gabrielle's sensitive flesh between her breasts by Alcibiades staring back at Xena. Gabrielle saw the guilt in her partner's face and taking Xena's hand she slowly brought it to her breast and pressed it there.
"She's not going to win." And in an explosion of recognition between them: Athena.
Xena stretched down and took a dagger from her boot. In slow motion, she gently slipped the tip between each knot, the ultra-sharp blade making quick work of the bindings. She tossed the dagger over by her armor then removed the small bits of thread sticking up from Gabrielle's skin with her adroit fingers. When she was done, she ran a finger along both lengths of the scars and touched her lips to them.
Then she heard a very soft voice, "I don't really mind." She looked up at Gabrielle. "Alcibiades can call it whatever he wants, but when I say I'm yours I know it's mutual."
Their mouths met again, this time fueled by a ravenous bard who was intent on doing her best to bring Xena to her knees, then to melt her right into the palette, knowing it would be reciprocated. She tucked her legs around Xena's back and locked on tight, captured the warrior's arms in a ferocious hug daring Xena to break it -- which she didn't -- and funneled every pore of passion through her lips and tongue to her partner, her soul-mate, her other half, her reason for living, and her soon-to-be-mass-of-jelly.
Gabrielle knew she was on the right track when Xena broke their kiss to breathe, it was usually the other way around. "What's the matter, my love?" the bard teased in a dark, husky whisper, "Don't have the stamina for me?"
Perhaps she had taken it just a little too far, for the next thing Gabrielle knew she was stripped naked, on her back with a very aroused and quite naked warrior princess staring her down on all fours towering above her. Oh well, she surmised, it could be worse. In fact, it really couldn't be much better, not that she could put her finger on right now... or could she...
Gabrielle reached up and with the barest of touches, passed her fingers over Xena's breast, the nipple becoming erect immediately. Again, she passed softly over Xena's skin, this time running a feather-light stroke down Xena's stomach. Gabrielle looked up at blue eyes, closed, and a smile growing on Xena's face, waiting for the next caress.
It came at the neck, then another down her arm. The warrior trembled, holding back her burgeoning excitement to savor the woman's gentle trust. But it was difficult to hold back.
Gabrielle lifted slightly, reaching for those lips again, just grazing by them. She heard Xena moan softly and finally took pity on her, pulling her down, spreading her legs for those magnificent hips to nestle between her thighs. Bliss.
Now the blue eyes were open, and the voracious glare sent a jolt through her body to Gabrielle's core, and sent it again and again, pulsing and driving her hips to rock against the lithe body pressed to her. Then a smile broke out and that's the last thing she saw because Gabrielle couldn't keep her eyes open through the onslaught.
Xena's hands roamed everywhere, slipping between their bodies, down her thighs, behind her neck. Xena's lips concentrated on her mouth, but took exquisite side trips to her breasts and her neck. All the while, the weight of Xena's hips held fast against Gabrielle's bucking and begging, drawing out into the distant future any hope for release.
Gabrielle pushed on Xena's shoulder's guiding her lower, but the warrior wouldn't budge. The exquisite torture played out on the bard's upper body was almost too much, almost, and again very close to too much, and at last she felt Xena slide lower, exploring her stomach, her navel, her curls.
"Xena, please..." she heard herself say, again pushing and
pushing against her lover. With one touch of the tip of Xena's tongue,
was emancipated, sweet torture replaced by an explosion that brought her
hips off the bed, her head curling over her chest, and a guttural cry from
her throat. One breath, two, she lay back and smiled as Xena renewed her
exploration, this time with her tongue then and adding fingers that pounded
in rhythm with the bard's soft grunts. As Xena's fingers moved more quickly
and deeper into the bard, she settled her lips around the hard bud and swirled
her tongue over it, listening to the moist sounds between them, losing herself
in the intimacy of her lover. The second release came harder, slamming into
the bard unexpectedly. But Xena was there, embracing her, wiping away the
tears, murmuring softly until Gabrielle fell into a deep and well earned
slumber, the warrior not far behind her.
Demosthenes invited them for breakfast in the house and introduced them to Atossa, his pregnant wife and her sister, Ismene.
"How far are you from delivering," said Xena, taking a seat by the bard at a large wooden table.
Atossa rubbed her hands over her large belly. "Less than four moons, but I don't remember being this big last time."
Xena let her face register the slightest surprise. She didn't know Demosthenes had another child. He noted the expression then answered it. "We had a son many years ago. He died as an infant."
Gabrielle let an old empty ache penetrate the air for a moment, memories of that child, though painful, deserved to be respected. Then to cast them away and brighten everyone's mood she asked, "Do you have a name picked out for this one?"
Ismene laughed, "I keep telling her she'd best have two names. There be twins in there, I know it!"
"Hush, sister. If you say that often enough, it will come true." Atossa tried to look horrified at the prospect of twins but the twinkle in her eye gave her away.
"Then it'll be twins," said Demosthenes, sharing his wife's covert wish.
"And if so," chimed in Atossa, "they'll be Castor and Pollux and no one will talk me out of it."
With promises of more shared breakfasts to come, Xena and Gabrielle visited with the wounded in the infirmary. The man who took the arrow in his hip was resting comfortably and the girl who'd stepped in front of it was sitting up, talking with her parents. They were from the country, the girl had never been to Poteidaia before. The man, Xena learned, was named Callistratus, and owned the tannery. It would be a long recovery for him, but there were plenty of people, especially those displaced from their homes, who were willing to help him and to take over for him in his shop.
"It's really different this time," Xena let slip.
"What?" said Gabrielle absentmindedly as she changed the bandage on a man's calf. She peeked up at Xena and saw a distant look on her features, the kind she got when she had withdrawn to ponder something deep inside herself. It was unsettling.
"There, that should do it for awhile. Make sure you tell Pasio I changed that for you." Gabrielle patted the man's hand then dragged Xena to the storeroom in back. "What's wrong?"
Xena shrugged, as if it was nothing, then said, "These people are at war, but they're still at home."
Gabrielle pulled herself up onto a pile of crates and sat at eye-level with Xena. "What do you mean by that?"
"I don't know. Just rambling, I guess. But whenever I've fought like this, I've been on a battle field. Not with people who can still go to their shops or sleep in their own beds. It's just a little strange."
"It will give them hope," and as clearly as she said, she surely meant it.
Xena didn't respond. She was wondering if it wouldn't cloud their vision, keep them from making the best choices because they could still go home at night. "I'm going to see Argo, wanna come?"
Gabrielle knew the abrupt change of subject was Xena's way of saying they'd talk about it later when she understood more of it herself. She followed the warrior out and to the east side of town where the animals were kept.
The ambient noise level was up. Way up. Chickens, goats, pigs, and sheep were penned up and complaining about it to each other and to whoever passed by, and complaining about it loudly. Gabrielle giggled, "It reminds me of a faire."
"I'm just glad we don't have to sleep on this side of town." Between the pens and the stables was the storage area. Critias was holding a wooden board with parchment tacked to it, doling out sacks of grain to a young couple. Xena had met him only at the council meeting when she first arrived. He was the one Demosthenes put in charge of food and weapons.
"Gabrielle!" He called. "Hello Xena. Come for a handout?" he grinned broadly.
"Going to the stables," said Gabrielle. She leaned in and pretended to speak so no one else would hear, "Xena needs to talk to her horse for awhile."
Xena lifted an eyebrow then left them to chat while she had a look around. The weapons supply might have seemed impressive to the inexperienced, but Xena cringed when she saw it. A few solid days of shooting and they could go through all of their arrows. They'd have to be prudent. They'd also have to build some of their own gastraphetes. She saw the pile of oversized arrows Demosthenes had collected from the Athenian offensive of the evening before. Conventional bows couldn't handle those arrows and they could be put to good use it they had the weapon to launch them. She'd speak with Demosthenes about having gastraphetes built right after seeing to Argo.
The food supplies were better, there was a lot of grain, barley for the most part, barrels of olive oil and wine, and root vegetables in neat rows of shelving. The diet would be monotonous, but would hold much out longer than the weapons might. The real problem was the Athenian's supplies. They could be replenished and with the Athenian treasury and Pericles behind them... Xena knew then that it would be a hopeless battle.
As she was running her hands down Argo's flanks she added more items to the list of things she'd discuss with Demosthenes. They'd need a place to run the horses. Perhaps they could use the perimeter...
"Xena? You okay?"
"Huh? Yeah, fine. Just thinking I guess."
Gabrielle rested a hand on Xena's stomach. "Want to tell me about it?"
A little too roughly, "No."
"Sorry," Xena finally said. "Just thinking, nothing to tell. Really."
The bard wasn't so sure and laid plans to ambush the recalcitrant warrior later. So she changed the subject, instead, "I was thinking of telling stories tonight. Starting with some for the kids, maybe telling one or two more after that. Everyone is a little antsy."
Xena smiled. "It's a good idea. Though something tells me if you do, they'll start demanding it every night." She forgot herself for a moment and snatched a quick kiss. "Just don't forget who gets the last story every time."
They laughed and didn't hear Lila turn and walk away from the stable door, her footsteps softened in the dust, her face reddening with too many emotions to pin down. She kissed her, thought Lila. She kissed her...
"And so," finished Gabrielle, "the dragonfly dances over still waters, ever searching for her mate swimming below." Children and parents applauded. The tavern was full beyond capacity, kids were sitting on parents laps, a few courageous ones had gathered at Gabrielle's feet and were rewarded by winks from the bard. Gabrielle spoke with every family, taking the time to thank them for coming, blushing when they complimented her on her storytelling.
Xena watched from the back of the room, leaning against a wall, arms crossed, and a huge possessive smile on her face. She'd wait. Gabrielle would get back there when she could. Some of the men started to file into the tavern. They'd waited until the children's hour was over before arriving to hear one of their own tell tales of wild adventures. As they passed by Xena most nodded, some ignored her, others let their eyes linger on her in a mixture of awe and disgust. Not bad, Xena thought. At least it's only a handful that hate me.
"They love you," Xena told Gabrielle when the bard slipped past the last group waiting to congratulate her.
"I think they're just glad for the diversion." Gabrielle stood toe-to-toe with Xena.
Yeah, right, thought Xena. "What are you going to tell the big people?"
"I thought I'd start with Prometheus. A bit of Hercules to warm them up to you." Gabrielle peered over her shoulder. "Lots of people."
"More than ever." Her gaze fell on a table near the front. Too close to where she'd be standing for her taste.
"You didn't think for a moment they'd miss this do you?" Xena asked her.
"No. Father loves my stories. He'd make me tell one out on the porch every summers eve. Lila would crawl on his lap, even when she got too big for it, and Mother would open the kitchen window while she worked or she'd come out, too."
Xena pictured the young Gabrielle, or rather tried to. She wasn't sure she could imagine her any younger than the day they first met. Right here in Poteidaia. "Where's Lila?" asked Xena, scanning the room.
"Oh, I don't know. She'll be here. Probably waylaid by some handsome young man. I should start. Wish me luck."
Prometheus was a big hit so Gabrielle launched into another one, this time about Pandora and Gregor. Baby saving ought to be good for these people and would ensure everyone started softening a spot in their heart for Xena. Gabrielle didn't usually worry quite so much about converting everyone to her view of Xena. But this was home and they'd be there for awhile. It was important this time.
And later that night Xena personally thanked her, for when the patrons filed out of the tavern a few stopped to say hello to her and mention something about Xena's heroics saving the man and girl that first night, or commenting on the baby Gabriel.
As they lay in each other's arms, Gabrielle snoozing lightly, Xena just about to join her, a thunderous noise jolted both of them.
"What was that?" shouted Gabrielle.
"Catapults." Xena was half dressed before Gabrielle could get herself up. Another one hit, they could feel the repercussion in the air. "I'll go see, you stay here."
"No way. I'm with you," Gabrielle said pulling on her skirt.
They ran to the perimeter and spied Eupatrids on the rim. Scaling the ladder nearest him, Xena reached him first. "What's going on?"
He savored the opportunity to tell Xena something he knew and she didn't know. "They've been laying out their catapults over the last few days, didn't you notice?"
Gabrielle got there just in time to hear the end of the sentence.
"Yeah, I noticed," replied Xena letting her words carry the edge she felt around him. "Do you know what they're doing now?" implying he wasn't able to handle to duty of night watchdog.
"They're tossing rocks at us," was all he said.
"Eupatrids," started Gabrielle, trying to deflect the tension by drawing him out "what's their strategy, why are they doing this?"
"The rocks they're tossing are too small to do any real damage," he reported, Gabrielle's question doing the trick. "They're really just like throwing pebbles on this wall. I can't see any strategy behind it at all."
Xena's lips turned up in a smirk, "Except to wake up the town and keep us awake all night. Not good for the nerves, Eupatrids," almost in an apology but also an explanation for the Athenians' actions. "You let me know if they start loading up anything bigger or shift their aim higher to hurtle those things in here."
And it was true. The rest of the night as Gabrielle drifted off to sleep, another hit awakened her. Each time she instinctively grabbed for Xena and each time Xena eased her back into sleep. By dawn they were both exhausted.
The next three nights told the same story. At odd intervals through the hours of darkness, catapults launched projectiles against the city walls, thudding, reverberating and awakening all but the very heaviest of sleepers. The results were dramatic. Tempers were short, the odd fist fight broke out, chores were completed half-heartedly or even ignored.
One of the workers whose job it was to feed the pigs left the pen's gate ajar and seventeen squealing porkers got loose onto the streets. Their first stop was storage, running through the aisles, knocking down shelves, tossing precious food supplies to the ground where they were eaten or trampled. Breaking through the back wall en masse, they ran freely in separate directions.
The whole town came after the pigs with netting, ropes, and bare hands. Most were caught, cornered by groups of men and women not far from the pen, but three managed to secure a long and destructive freedom. One got into the potter's work area smashing vases and water urns drying in the sun, another lost itself in a maze of hanging laundry. It tore down clothes, ripping them to shreds, getting tangled in the ribbons of tattered cloth. They put that one down, its hind legs broken, and took it to slaughter and smoke.
The last pig, the ornery mean king of the porkers, squealed its way into the middle of town. It galloped in circles, thick, stubby legs taking it around the statute of Aphrodite blind-siding anyone who got in his way. When one man tried to run it down from behind, the pig kicked up with its enormous body, sending the surprised hunter through the air to land on his behind.
Xena watched, more amused than she cared to admit. Gabrielle had run out of the infirmary at her heels and she was now more worried about the safety of the pig than anything else. Then the giant killer came: Prodicus, small and lean in all his seven years of life. Prodicus sauntered up to the pig, stood far enough away for the crazed animal to complete its rounds without injuring the boy, and whistled. It wasn't an ear-piercing sort of sound, more like a whistle best used to carry a tune while sitting on a river bank. It was soft and peaceful, full of random notes that all made sense as part of a larger whole. The pig slowed, kicking into high gear for a few more steps, then it trotted, walked, and came to a stop in front of Prodicus. He reached out and scratched the back of the pig's thin little ears, got oinked at, and slipped a rope around the fat neck. They walked back to the pen together, boy and pig, friends.
Gabrielle's first story that night was again one for the children but Xena noticed a few more of the grown-ups were there than had been the first few nights. She told about how Prodicus bravely tamed the savage pig. In her bardly way, she gussied up the details, fashioning them into a sparkling new tale of a hero, yet recognizable to everyone who had witnessed it as the truth.
And later, when she told the story of a young woman freeing the titans and instructing them to do good deeds for the villagers only to have them turn against each other and the humans, they began to see that her stories might have more of a ring of truth to them than she'd let on earlier. This Xena person, who found a way to return the titans to their stone prison, may be something rather extraordinary. Of course, Gabrielle left out the fact that she was one of the characters in her tale. They didn't realize it was she who read the chant to release the titans, and she who read the chant to put them back. That was just fine with her. They thought it astounding enough that she just might have been there to witness Xena's exploits.
Finally, for her last story of the night, Gabrielle told about a young woman who tried to save the life of an amazon princess only to become one herself, and how Xena stopped a war between the amazons and centaurs. No one suspected who that amazon princess really was, many of them didn't believe that amazons and centaurs truly existed. But they all understood the message.
Over the next few days and weeks as skirmishes occupied their days and their nights were disrupted by Athenian catapults, friends and neighbors planned to meet at storytime, they talked about what was shared the night before on guard duty or doing chores the next day, they came to understand themselves through the inheritance of tradition, of allegory and symbols, and Xena saw her guiding light become the beacon of hope for her people, reminding them to believe in themselves and to trust each other.
After a particularly bad day, when the food supplies were dwindling to only a few choices and six fights broke out among those wanting the last of the garlic, Gabrielle ran into Lila on her way to the tavern.
"Wait up," she called to her sister who had noticed her too late to flee. "I haven't seen much of you lately. What's up?"
"Nothing," came the curt answer. "I should go."
"Hey, is there something you're not telling me?" Gabrielle inched closer, a big smile on her face, "Maybe you're seeing someone?"
"Ah, yeah. I wasn't going to tell you," Lila lied, grateful for Gabrielle reading the situation wrong. She kissed her... "But I can't tell you anything."
Now Gabrielle was excited and wanted to dig for information. "Oh sure you can I won't say a thing. Look if it's Mother and Father you're worried about..."
"No, it's not them. Not them at all."
"Not them. Hmmm, then it must be his parents." Gabrielle tried to deduce just what was going on, her creative mind conjuring secret midnight meetings and love notes hidden around the city.
"Look Gabrielle, I can't say. Really. Don't ask me, please. I'll tell you when I can." The pleading behind her eyes was genuine and Gabrielle agreed.
"You promise you'll tell me. Oh I can't wait. This is going to be great, I just know it. I'm so happy for you, Lila," and she gave her sister a kiss before going into the tavern for another evening as town bard.
Later that night as she and Xena walked back to their place at Demosthenes' house, Gabrielle told Xena what she'd learned about Lila. Xena, ever the cynic, wasn't as certain as Gabrielle that the reason for Lila's reclusive habits was a boy. Still, there was no need to alarm her. Perhaps Gabrielle was right after all.
They stepped into their shack and fell into each others arms, a nightly ritual to be carried out at the first moment they found themselves behind closed doors. Until they were interrupted by a voice saying, "Tsk, tsk, ladies. Shouldn't you do that when you're alone."
Xena stepped in front of Gabrielle, an instinctive response the bard appreciated this time. "Hello, Ares," she said coldly.
"Hello, Xena. I've missed you."
"Ares," Xena half growled, half purred. "To what do we owe this interruption?"
"Come now, can't an old friend just pop in for a visit?" Ares scooted to the side to get a look at Gabrielle, Xena stayed between them. "What'cha hiding back there, Xena?"
"Leave her out of this," came the warrior's stern reply.
Ares held up his hands in mock submission, "Sorry, but that's not really an option."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Xena demanded. She could feel Gabrielle's hands on her waist in a reassuring rather than frightened grip.
"Ask Athena," said Ares, suddenly interested in his fingernails.
"Ares! Don't play games with me." Taking a step forward Xena added darkly, "Don't play games with us."
"I'm not! After all this time, you still don't trust me..." he broke into a feral grin. "Athena just mentioned a few things, that's all. What did you do to get her so mad at you, anyway?"
"She's meddling in affairs where her nose doesn't belong. And I'm getting the idea that you are, too." Xena slipped an arm behind her, scooping Gabrielle up close to her.
"Lot of good that's going to do," remarked Ares seeing Xena's protective stance. "Athena is pretty mad at that friend of yours."
"What did I do?" Gabrielle asked peeking around Xena. The god of war always made her edgy even when Xena was right there.
"You'll have to take that up with her," replied Ares in a condescending tone.
Xena rolled her eyes. Going up against Athena was not what she wanted to be doing again. "Out with it, Ares. Why are you here?"
He sat on their bed, crossed his legs, and propped his chin in his hand, elbow on one knee. "I wanted to see how you were. Stuck in this tiny village, nowhere to go, nothing to do... I could get you out of here."
"Not interested," Xena said curtly.
"You can't tell me this isn't driving you crazy. You're sleeping inside, stuck with a backward population in a hopeless situation."
"It's not hopeless," cried Gabrielle.
"Oh shut her up, would you?" Ares muttered. "Xena, you know you hate it here. You could come with me, help me end this war."
"Ah, I'm beginning to understand," said Xena. "And just what side would you be on?"
"The side of justice. I'm surprised at you. I'm fighting for the end of a tyrannical rule, just as you are. Think of how quickly it'd be over if you'd come with me," Ares offered his hand to Xena.
Xena stood her ground, the bard pinned behind her, "Get out, Ares. And don't come back."
"Fine, Xena. But don't say I didn't warn you. Best to keep an eye on that brat there." And he was gone.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked hesitantly, wanting and yet not wanting to know what Xena said she'd understood.
Xena turned and wrapped her arms around the bard, lingering longer than she'd planned to. She let go long enough to led Gabrielle to the bed, sitting on the edge and patting the blanket next to her. Gabrielle sat beside her and took Xena's hand in hers.
Slowly Xena said, "I think Ares and Athena are responsible for this war."
"You can't say that someone like Pericles isn't to blame," said Gabrielle.
"Yes, you're right, but Pericles' hatred is nurtured by the gods." Gabrielle waited for Xena to continue. "Ares and Athena are on opposite sides of the war, Ares' allegiance is with Sparta."
"I guess that's not a surprise. There's no love lost between the two of them, they're the warrior gods." Xena regarded her sadly and squeezed the hand she held. Gabrielle asked, "What is it, Xena? Are you worried that Ares wants you?"
"No. Ares doesn't want me per se, he just wants what Athena wants. His interest in me is solely because... Athena wants you." She added quietly, "And Ares knows the only way to get you is to get me as well."
Gabrielle remained silent for a time, digesting what Xena had just said. "Athena wants me?" she finally asked.
"I think you hold the key to all of this, Gabrielle. That's what Athena's been trying to say."
"But... me? I don't believe you Xena." Gabrielle felt very small. "And besides, Demeter and Persephone said it was the both of us that would shoulder this burden. And I think I know better now what they meant by it being a burden..."
"Gabrielle. It'll be okay. Ares won't do anything to us and Athena hasn't shown herself since we got here." Xena hugged the bard tightly, trying to make herself believe what she'd just said.
They were awakened several times in the night by the Athenian torture of bouncing rocks off the walls. With nerves already frazzled from Ares' visit, neither woman had the stamina to fight back the wave of fear with each new hit of a boulder. Xena's jolt lasted half a second, Gabrielle's considerably longer. Just before dawn when they were startled once more by the deep reverberations of rocks against the exterior wall, Xena cocked her head.
"What is it?" whispered Gabrielle.
"Shhh." She listened intently. "They've changed their aim. Some of those rocks are coming in."
"I guess that means we have to go... see... Xena, wait up!" Gabrielle tried to throw on clothes as fast as she could, but it was impossible to keep up with Xena when that woman had a mind to move quickly. She followed Xena out the door and to the east side of town, tying her top as she went, inwardly hoping no one chose that moment to peek out into the streets.
Rocks were flying in over the walls, landing randomly among the pigs and chickens. Occasionally, a boulder made its way over, and if it happened to land on something fragile or alive, the stone won the battle instantly. The stable door lay demolished on the ground, ripped off its hinges by a boulder, the last of the frightened horses kicking their heels to get out of the building.
Xena ran headlong into her worst nightmare. Standing over the downed and still form of Argo was Eupatrids, posed with an axe over her neck ready to swing it.
"Stop!" Xena yelled as she drove her body into Eupatrids flinging him away from Argo. "What are you doing?" She screamed, oblivious to the rocks and boulders raining all around her. Without waiting for an answer she went to Argo, her trembling hands running along her coat, searching for injuries. Gabrielle stayed with her but out of her way until Eupatrids recovered his wits and ran up to Xena.
"Don't you ever do that again," he yelled at her. "You can't just go throwing your weight around. Don't you know who I am?"
Gabrielle stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Don't. Not now." She walked him a few paces back away from Xena and Argo. As calmly as she could she asked, "What were you doing?"
"I was going to put her down. The horse is injured!" he replied defensively, rubbing the back of his head where he felt the beginnings of a healthy bump.
"That's Xena's horse. It's her decision," Gabrielle explained. She glanced back at Xena to see if she could tell how Argo was. She couldn't.
"Come on, little girl, when a horse is hurt, you put 'em down. Everyone knows that." Eupatrids backed off a little on his defensive posture as he watched the grizzled warrior's gentle ministrations to her steed.
Gabrielle knew she had diffused the situation for now. At least until Xena decided to have a chat with him about it, guessing it would be anything but sensitive. "Not that horse. You don't just put down that horse," she said. "And you should always ask, no matter whose animal it is, Eupatrids. And I'll just tell you once more, I'm not a little girl."
"Yeah, well... sorry." He started toward Xena, Gabrielle held him back.
"Not now. Later," she said. He understood and shuffled off to retrieve the horses that had run out with Argo.
Still amidst the shower of rocks, Xena finished her examination of Argo and then started another one just in case she'd missed anything. When Gabrielle came beside her again, the warrior sat back on her heels. "She'll be okay. Just a sprain, nothing broken."
Gabrielle lay a warm hand on Xena's cheek, "Let's get her out of this." She looked up to see a rock descending toward her head, then in the blink of an eye Xena's boot was in the air deflecting it.
"Sure," said Xena as if nothing had happened. She stood by Argo's head and whistled the command for her to stand. The horse did, albeit not gracefully as she had only three strong legs to propel her giant body upright. "Good girl." Stroking her neck, Xena walked Argo slowly back into the stable.
"What do you need, Xena. I'll go get it for you," Gabrielle offered, knowing Xena wouldn't want to stray from Argo's side.
Xena surprised her, "I'll go, you stay with her." She laughed. "I don't want any of those rocks landing on your cute little head."
"Oh, thanks." Gabrielle said sheepishly, recalling for an instant the vision of the rock heading straight for her. "We won't go anywhere!" she called to Xena's back as the warrior had already broken into a dead run. "So Argo, a little sore?" The horse shifted uncomfortably. "Don't worry, girl. Xena'll be right back and she'll fix you up as good as new. I should know, she does it for me all the time." Gabrielle rubbed Argo's nose, slid her hand up softly to scratch just above the eyes, then behind each ear. "See, I can be nice, too. We don't often get the chance to talk like this. Xena usually steals all that time, you know." Argo snorted. "You don't say? Well, I'll just tell her you want her to share. It might be hard to convince her, though. She's rather protective of her time with you."
"Gods, you got back fast, Xena. I was just... ah..." Gabrielle stammered.
"I know what you were doing." She slung a bag off her shoulder and pulled some herbs and a salve from deep within it. Next to them she lay out long pieces of cloth. "I do it all the time," she finished in a quiet voice.
Gabrielle watched Xena work, admiring her hands. Hands can tell you a lot about a person, Gabrielle mused. And those hands were very complicated. They had seen so much, done so much she reminded herself, and yet they looked untouched by the passage of time. Long fingers shape with powerful strength tempered with a gentle femininity. Surprisingly small fists, at least in terms of their width, that could land full force on a hard head and not even earn a bruise for the force of the contact. Hands that could coax the most delicious sensations out of her body, wield a chakram with deadly precision, hone the edge of a blade in ceremonial veneration... Ancient recondite acts of violence long since washed away by a vulnerable heart pumping a now filtered, taintless blood. Complicated hands.
Xena finished wrapping Argo's leg from knee joint to hoof and lowered herself from one knee to sitting cross-legged on the straw-covered floor. Gabrielle patted Argo once more and scooted herself in next to Xena. "You okay?" she asked her.
Without looking at her, Xena replied, "Yeah. But a horse can't tell you where it hurts and you can't tell her that she'll be fine."
"Xena, Argo knows. See, she's relaxed, she's well taken care of. And you always do know where it hurts." Gabrielle used the tip of her index finger to guide Xena's chin up. "I know it's scary, but everything's okay now." She planted a gentle kiss on Xena's lips. "I explained everything to her."
Xena quirked a half-smile and let her eyes roll. "Ah, yes. I'm sure she understood."
"She did! She snorted at me." Gabrielle's sparkling laugh warmed Xena to her core.
"Thanks." Xena lifted her hand to Gabrielle's cheek, letting it fall softly across it.
"You're welcome." Gabrielle got up and extended her hand down to Xena who shook her head once then took it, accepting the help up.
"Nothing like another night of interrupted sleep, eh? Well at least you arranged for a break from storytelling tonight. We can go to bed early for a change." Xena talked as they started back to their room.
"Ah, well... about that."
Xena stopped letting the glare form completely before turning it to the bard.
"Dinner at my parents?" She watched the warrior's shoulders sag. "We haven't seen them much at all. I hardly ever run into Lila."
Xena tossed the idea around for a second, "Sure. I'd love to."
What Xena hadn't figured on was all the cousins and miscellaneous house guests joining them. Several tables had been dragged together in what was once a family living room and now was the dining room, extra bedroom, study, catch-all room. Blankets were piled in the corner, crates of household treasures, whatever small amount the refugees could carry with them, stacked in stair-step piles along the walls.
Introductions went by in a flash, children dashing about, so Xena really had no idea who any of them was when she finally sat down at the table by Gabrielle. The slightly wild-eyed look on Xena's face made the bard reach for her hand under the table, but when little cousin Deinias dove under the table to escape the torment of his older brother Euphro, Gabrielle let go and knew that would probably be the last contact they could manage until the evening ended.
Herodotus heaped the simple meal onto their plates, foregoing any sense of propriety in rationing their goods. Gabrielle simply picked up a few extra plates and divided their portions among them, passing them out to children flying by. Herodotus said nothing but did stick out his tongue briefly at his elder daughter. Xena stifled her guffaw before it had a chance to escape.
Hecuba, as always at Herodotus' right, chatted amiably about every inconsequential matter she could. "Do you realize it took six of us two days to clean out that shack. You wouldn't believe what we found in there. Women's clothing! Now why your great uncle would have women's clothing in his possession was beyond me. He never did re-marry after his young bride died. Not that he would have wanted any children. He never did much like them. When I was little he would ignore us until he couldn't stand it anymore then he'd breathe fire at us, or so we'd say, and chase us out. Even into the rain. We ran into the barn soaking wet more than once I can tell you..."
Even Gabrielle only half-listened to her mother. She let her concentration wander about the room, amazed at how some of these people had grown and how others had never aged. Her eyes rested on Lila, quiet Lila, who seemed to be off in her own world again. Probably just thinking about... whoever it was. Gabrielle knew that look, that sort of far-away gaze. She'd worn it many times herself. Every so often Lila's eyes darted about the room, slowing as she passed over Xena's, meeting Gabrielle's briefly then boring holes in her half-eaten dinner. He must have blue eyes, Gabrielle thought to herself, and patted herself on the back for her cleverness. Such tiny clues, yet I'm going to have that identity soon, she vowed.
Hecuba was still in mid-stream when Herodotus decided everyone had heard enough. "Wife!" he yelled with an entirely unbelievable gruffness. She stopped talking. She knew the routine. Then he spoke to her with the gleam back in his voice. "A wonderful meal. It never ceases to amaze me how you can do so much with so little."
"Oh, you..." Hecuba stammered and the conversation dissolved into a more normal one, everyone contributing.
Gabrielle found herself talking about the infirmary, "I learned it all from Xena, of course. She's a great healer."
"You didn't learn your bedside manner from me," Xena said in a whisper only the bard could hear.
Gabrielle ignored it, inquiring of Lila, "Why don't you come and visit? I've never seen you there. We could use your help." And perhaps I could clandestinely badger you with a few more questions...
Lila's spoon ground to a halt halfway to her mouth. Hecuba knew why and decided the truth was best, "She's not walking into that infirmary, Gabrielle," she said confusing the bard. "Can't take it. Doesn't sit right with her stomach."
"Oh, sorry, Lila. I understand. It gets to me, too, sometimes," Gabrielle admitted.
Meekly, Lila said, "It gets to me just thinking about it. Can't even go near it." She started to get white around the edges.
"Well," interrupted Xena wanting to get away from the subject entirely before Lila passed out, "I think we'd better call it an early night."
"So soon?" asked Herodotus and Hecuba simultaneously.
Gabrielle took over, knowing it was ultimately her responsibility to extricate them from her parents' stronghold. "She's only thinking of me. I'm tired. We got up pretty early this morning."
Herodotus stood up from the table. "Thank you both for coming. Now that you're so close, it seems like it should be easy to have you over all the time, but I know it's not. I do hope we can do it again soon, though."
"Thanks, Father," she said standing on her toes to give him a kiss. "Good-night Mother, Lila." Hecuba gave Gabrielle a big hug and didn't dare do the same for Xena. Lila stayed seated, though, keeping a distance from the two of them.
On their walk back, Xena asked about Lila. "I told you, she's got it for some mystery man. And, Xena, I'm going to find out who it is. It's driving me crazy!"
"That's not hard to imagine," said Xena with that dangerous
lilt in her voice. But she was beginning to wonder if that was the problem
"Go get Xena," cried Demosthenes to the guard nearest him. He was off, kicking up his heels in the dust and before the fleet came fully into view, Xena and Gabrielle joined Demosthenes along the rim.
"I see them," said Xena. "Forty, maybe fifty ships." Gabrielle squinted against the sun's reflection, strong off the water in the early morning, trying to make out the ships. "I wondered if they'd ever show up."
"Who?" asked Gabrielle, again dumbfounded that she and Xena could be presented with the same information and while she knew nothing more that what was said or seen, Xena had everything figured out.
"Those are our reinforcements, Gabrielle," Demosthenes answered her. "That's the Corinthian fleet, sent by Sparta." And they spent the rest of that short morning watching it slaughtered, quickly and efficiently by the vastly superior Athenian navy. Almost everyone in the town crawled up the ladders for a look at one time or another, and with each additional ship sunk by the Athenians, the morale fell one notch lower. By mid-day, there was a palpable air of defeat among the Poteidaians, one that everyone felt and contributed to.
As the Athenian fleet returned to the docks of Poteidaia, securing the harbor and their hold over the Chalcedician city, the Poteidaians gathered for a town meeting in the tavern. It was crowded, but everyone who wanted to be there found a spot inside. Demosthenes stepped up onto the small stage where Gabrielle held court on most nights entertaining the villagers. This occasion was far from that type of experience.
"Can I have your attention? Please, everybody quiet down." Demosthenes demanded their concentration. "Thanks for crowding in here, I know it's not comfortable but there are some things we should talk about. First, no one should be thinking about giving up." A huge roar of approval broke out. The majority's sentiments were made clear.
"Good, I'm glad we got that straight," said Demosthenes with a grin when it quieted down enough to be heard. "But we should be honest with ourselves. This could take awhile." Murmurs broke out around him, grumblings about being patient. "That's okay, we're ready for it so long as we remember some basic principles. We must conserve everything we have. Eat only the bare minimum, be careful even with the water... I know, we have three wells, but you never know what might happen." Now the room erupted once again in protests.
"Quiet down, please," Demosthenes tried to get their attention again, failing miserably. Gabrielle took her cue, strode up to the stage, and let out a deafening shriek, then smiled and said to a stunned audience, "I thought that would come in handy someday. Now, if you've got something to say, do it one at a time. Who's first?"
A man at the back of the room asked, "How long is this going to take? I'm getting tired of the whole thing." Again murmurs arose. Gabrielle held up her hands and hushed them then said, "Demosthenes, you care to answer that?"
"Thanks," he was clearly surprised at the spunky bard. "Well, I don't have an answer for that. A long time. We have to wait it out."
Another voice from the crowd asked, "What does she think?" Gabrielle looked at him quizzically as if to say 'me?' He said, "No, that Xena woman."
Xena stepped out from the shadows and gave Demosthenes a long look, she had obviously thought carefully about this. She spoke slowly, "If you want to know how long it will take, I don't have an answer, but I will tell you this. Our supplies are limited. The Athenian's are not. It's only going to get worse. We'll go hungry and run out of weapons. The Athenians are going to sit tight out there until that happens, badgering us with attacks, killing and wounding people as they go." She sighed. "If you want my opinion, I think you should stop this now. Before more people get hurt."
Gabrielle couldn't believe her ears. "You think we should give up?" she asked incredulously.
Any attempt to answer her was drowned out by the people in the room. She had managed to unite them in their darkest hour, unfortunately for Xena they were all of the opposite opinion from her. Now the Poteidaians were ready to dig in their heels and wait it out, with a fierce determination she could only admire, even if she thought it was foolish and misguided.
The meeting broke up shortly after Xena's speech. As far as Demosthenes was concerned, it had gone very well. Xena slipped out quietly, not interested in talking to anyone. Damn fools, she thought.
"Xena?" Gabrielle caught up with her. "Xena, listen to me, please." The warrior stopped and turned on her heels. "Did you really mean it?"
"Come on, Gabrielle. You can see it, this is hopeless." She flipped around and continued walking, not really knowing where to go but heading in the general direction of their room.
"It's not hopeless!" the bard said with a barely disguised fury. "You're just saying that because that's what Ares said."
The hitch in Xena's step was momentary, she slipped back into her purposeful stride without a retort.
"Xena..." Gabrielle followed her as best she could.
Xena threw open the door to their room, thumped in and turned on Gabrielle just as the bard walked in behind her. "You don't know anything about war, Gabrielle. You don't know anything." Gabrielle gulped, Xena was actually mad. Really mad. "These people are ignorant, just like you, and it's going to cost them dearly. Talk them into giving up. Do your bardly thing."
"I can't do that." Gabrielle answered plainly. "They're doing what they believe in, Xena. They're fighting for who they are and where they live, their families and children to come, their way of life. You can't just give up on that."
"Then they're going to die. Idiots. They don't understand, and neither do you." Xena shoved past her and out the door.
Gabrielle fought the urge to follow her, then thought better of it. Let her calm down first, she told herself. Let us both calm down and then we'll talk about it. Gabrielle sat on the bed, pulled her knees up, set her chin on them, and waited for Xena to come back. Which didn't happen that night for the Athenians launched a massive offensive keeping Xena at the perimeter and Gabrielle busy in the infirmary all night.
At least this time, the Poteidaians had a weapon with which to fight back. They hauled three new gastraphetes up to the rim and shot from there, as precarious as it was. The wooden scaffolding wasn't built to hold that kind of weight but with some extra shoring up, it held through the night. The belly bow was a dangerous weapon to man, whoever cocked and aimed it was left open to whatever the Athenians could hurl their way. But the Poteidaians had the advantage from that height for their oversized arrows could carry farther than the Athenian's launched up from the ground, and by dawn they had the Athenian firing line pushed back far enough to keep them from doing any more damage. Another uneasy truce was earned but at the cost of five lives and seventeen injuries.
Xena made the rounds at the wall, along the rim, and throughout the perimeter all night. At dawn when the shooting stopped, she made sure every barrier still held, that the gastraphetes were in good condition, that the Athenian weapons were all collected and sorted into those that could be flung back at them and those that needed to be thrown away. She knew she was stalling, however, rather than being conscientious for any noble reason. She didn't want to face Gabrielle yet, not when even with such formidable evidence in her favor, for she knew the bard hadn't changed her mind.
There was nothing left to do, Demosthenes had sent her away ostensibly to get some rest, she had already checked on a recovering Argo twice, so she strolled along the tiny, bland, stifling, oppressive streets of Poteidaia, her bad mood worsening with every step she took.
"Pst, Xena. In here!"
The hair on her neck crackled but she acquiesced and ducked through the alley and into an old, empty warehouse. "What do you want?" she asked nonchalantly.
"Don't you think it's special that the God of War would bestow two visits on you in two days?" Ares' black leather outfit blended with the dark surroundings while his voice rang clear in the hollow air.
"Special?" Xena laughed, "Hardly. More like bothersome."
"Ooo, you're in a foul temper, whatever got you that way?" he taunted her.
"Drop it, Ares." Xena crossed her arms and sat back on one leg.
"Must be that irritating little friend of yours. Nothing seems to get to you like she does. Why do you let her get under your skin like that, Xena? She's in way over her head with you." Ares moved toward her, she straightened herself as he cupped her chin in his powerful hand. "Now I, on the other hand, would be your equal in such matters. I know all about wars, when to fight them, when to walk away..." he rubbed his thumb against her chin, "Hmmm, no acerbic retort?"
"Just tell me what you want, let me say no, and leave." Xena pulled his hand away from her. "Or just leave, take your pick."
"It's so sad you can't value our friendship as much as I do. I'm
not here because I want something from you, I'm just here to see how you
are and I can see that you're miserable, Xena. You're stuck in some podunk
town on the losing side of a battle and there's nothing you can do about
it." Ares waited for Xena to respond and was happily surprised when
she didn't. "But to show you how much I care about you, I'll leave.
No questions asked." Giving her a respectful berth, he walked past
her and out the door. Xena kicked a bootful of loose dirt after him than
sat down in the middle of the floor.
Gabrielle stole a quiet minute to close her eyes. Worry about Xena drove her to ask anyone who walked in if they'd seen her or had news of her, so at least she knew the warrior was all right. But she kept expecting her to waltz in and at least have a quick look at all the injuries that flooded in the night before. She never imagined that their argument would keep her away, but apparently it did.
It had been a long night and the culmination came when someone died in her arms. She didn't know them, they were one of the many people who'd sought refuge in Poteidaia from their homes in the country. It didn't make it any easier, though. She'd washed off what blood she could and snuck off to the storeroom to take a break.
"Hi. Sorry, am I disturbing you?"
Gabrielle's eyes flew open, "What? Oh, hi Pasio. No, you're not disturbing me. I was just taking a break. What can I get you?" Gabrielle got to her feet and started collecting clean cloths for bandages. She felt Pasio's hand on her shoulder.
"Relax. Everything's under control. You should go get some sleep. It sure helped me, even if it was only a little rest for the weary. Besides, Hippas and Cassandra are here now. We can call for you if we need you."
She sat down again. "Thanks, but I'll stay a little while longer."
"Don't think I can handle it?" he teased.
"No, not at all. You're a better healer than I am. In fact you're really good." She thought for a moment, "Pasio, here we've spent all this time together working in the infirmary and we haven't really had a chance to talk. And, well, I was wondering about how you came to study with Hippocrates."
"That's a short and simple story, Gabrielle. I went to see him for my leg and ended up staying as a pupil. He said there wasn't anything to be done about it, I'd have this limp for the rest of my life, but he told me that I didn't have to be a farmer and I could still help everyone back home. He was right, too. Knowing about medicine is a gift. You have it, too, Gabrielle."
"I'd hardly call it a gift as far as I'm concerned. Everything I've learned, I've learned from Xena."
"Hippocrates once said the same thing."
Gabrielle looked up at him and was met with an intense gaze staring back at her. She asked, "Did Hippocrates ever tell you about... tell you about, ah..."
Pasio scooted closer to Gabrielle. "Yes. He told me that Xena brought you back from the dead. It was the turning point in his career, when he figured out that Asclepius had neither the time nor the inclination to heal everyone laid on his altar but that skilled healers could do it without his help. At least most of the time."
"Did you ever... mention it to anyone?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
"No, Gabrielle. You're the bard. You choose what stories to tell to your town and to your family."
"Thank you." She smiled for him but he saw the sadness behind it.
"I should get back. Why don't you take a few more minutes in here." Pasio slipped out quietly while Gabrielle considered what her family would do if they knew about Thessaly, what they would do if they ever realized the roles she played in the actual events she told stories about. They'd never be able to accept it.
"Gabrielle? Dear, are you feeling all right?"
"Hello Mother." Gabrielle gave up on her hope for a short nap and hugged her mother. "Why are you here?"
"To see to you, of course. Did you get a wink of sleep last night? Have you had even a crumb to eat?" Hecuba took Gabrielle's hand in hers.
"No and no. I was busy."
"You're tired. Why don't you go home and get some sleep?" genuine concern was behind her words.
"No. I have to stay close by them," she gestured to the door leading to the infirmary's main ward.
"Nonsense. Pasio told me he had everything under control and that you'd refuse to go to bed so I was to take you home and feed you before you dropped dead on your feet." She hauled up her daughter and led her out by the hand.
"Wait. No, Pasio needs help." Gabrielle tried to wrest her hand from her mother's firm grip but it took more exertion than she could manage. She realized she really was exhausted. "Oh, all right. I'm coming."
Hecuba let a wicked grin appear on her face before it softened under her daughter's gaze. "I don't get you to give in to me very often." But before Gabrielle could say anything, her mother was pulling her by the hand muttering something about what to fix for a meal and who would be there to join them and if they had anything left over from dinner.
Only a handful of people were about and they left mother and daughter alone to chat in the kitchen. Gabrielle dutifully allowed her mother to sit her in a chair while she worked, the bard content to rest her feet and have someone else to do the cooking. Once again, Hecuba was off on a laundry list of town gossip, it flowed over Gabrielle like some warm childhood memory, close enough to sense, too far away to touch.
As Hecuba was setting plates on the small table in the kitchen, Lila came barging though the door carrying a loaf of bread, then stopped dead, staring at Gabrielle.
The bard winked at her, "Hi Lila. Mother's spoiling me. Care to join us?"
"Lila, good, you're just in time." She took the bread from Lila's grasp and steered her toward the table. "Sit here by me and let your old mother feast on both her daughters' beautiful faces."
And before she knew it, Lila was sucked in and Gabrielle was off telling stories about the Warrior Princess. Gabrielle re-told some of the tales she'd performed at the tavern, every once in a while her mother stopping her to ask a question. For some reason which befuddled the bard, Hecuba wanted to know more about Joxer, where he was from, how he got to be so brave.
"Mother, he's a kind soul, but not terribly brave," Gabrielle tried to explain. "Not like Xena, at least."
"He sounds brave to me. How did you meet him, anyway?" Hecuba asked innocently.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and said, "Callisto." And again her mother was pestering her for more and before she knew it, Gabrielle began to tell the story of Callisto from Cirra to Perdicus. Lila sat, enraptured by the tale. Gabrielle spoke of Xena's past, her dark side from which she now seeks redemption. She told of Xena saving Joxer and a girl -- not mentioning it was she -- from the clutches of Callisto and turning the evil warrior and her band over to the authorities. Then it got more difficult.
"Perdicus showed up at camp one night and asked me to marry him." Gabrielle glanced up briefly at her family, her audience, "But you know most of that story. What you don't know is that it was Callisto who killed him. Xena came, but even she was too late to save him." Not mentioning that it was Xena's adamant protection of her that may have cost Perdicus his life.
Lila stopped her, "Too late? Xena?"
"To save Perdicus, yes," Gabrielle said barely above a whisper.
"Then what happened," asked Lila, her tone matching her sister's.
"She hunted her down and Callisto was killed. They both fell into quicksand but Xena managed to get out."
And her mother surprised them both, "And what happened to Joxer?"
Gabrielle laughed. "He was brave that day. He took an arrow here," she explained, pointing to just below her collar. "Still has a scar to prove it."
"And it all ended well because of Joxer," Hecuba murmured.
Gabrielle and Lila's eyes caught and in that instant, the bard knew Lila understood. It always ends well because of Xena. "Yeah, Mother." Gabrielle said as she shared a private moment with her sister.
The sisters stayed home together, Lila asking more about Xena, Gabrielle happy to oblige for such a willing listener. A wonderful, quiet afternoon past until Lila asked why Xena wasn't there with them.
Gabrielle started to answer with the usual 'she's busy,' but this was her sister, her childhood confidant. "We had a fight," she found herself saying before she could really stop the words from coming out.
Lila's eyes flickered briefly, "About what?"
Thinking before she answered, she realized it sounded so simple, "We're of a different mind about the war. I think we should fight for our right to live the life we choose and Xena thinks we should surrender now because we're probably not going to win."
"Really?" Lila knew she was to the juicy stuff now. She rolled over onto her stomach and propped her head up with her hand. Lying on the bed with Gabrielle talking the day away was an old habit that came back very easily. "Are we going to lose?" But this talk was like none they'd ever had before. Who kissed whom by the well was inconsequential compared with whether or not Poteidaia could win this battle.
"I don't know if we're going to lose or not, Lila, but Xena is usually right about those things. Anyway, it's the principal. For some reason, Xena can't see that this time."
"So you fought about it?" Lila asked, her heart pounding a little faster.
"Fighting with Xena isn't like arguing with most. She doesn't say much, she's more a woman of action."
Lila forced herself to ask through a dry mouth, "Actions? What did she do?"
"This time she talked. Wow, it's like we're turning into each other. She wants to stop fighting and she talks about it, I want to keep fighting and I can't think of anything to say to her." Gabrielle reached down and pulled up the edge of the spread, running the tassels through her fingers. "She's hard to fight with, Lila. She's pretty stubborn."
"But she loves you." Lila's heart stopped beating. How did that get out? Oh gods, she's going to kill me.
But Gabrielle's face warmed and softened like it hadn't all day. "Yes, she does. She's my best friend."
Her heart resumed its pounding, "Your best friend."
"Can you imagine that? Me?" Gabrielle went off on her usual speech, "A little girl from Poteidaia hanging out with the Warrior Princess. I still have to pinch myself every now and then to make sure I'm awake."
"Are you two still in here?" Hecuba stood in the door frame. "Gabrielle, it's late and there's already a crowd waiting for you. You don't want to keep the children up too much longer."
"The children?" Gabrielle grounded herself. "Oh, story time. I'm on my way." Hecuba scuttled back into the kitchen. Leaning forward, Gabrielle kissed Lila on the forehead. "Thanks. It was really good to talk with you. Except there were a few things I was going to ask you about..." that teasing, menacing tone said with a smirk. "But I've got to go. We'll do this again, promise?"
Lila shook the cobwebs out of her head. "Promise." And watched her sister fly out the door.
The floor of the empty warehouse shared it's enervating cold with Xena, it seeped through her bones and muscles slowly but she made no attempt to extricate herself from it's grip. It suited her. Was Ares right? Was she stuck here in this little town with no hope? It surely felt that way. Trapped in a place which cared for her very little, trusted her only as far as a few key people demanded they do. And they were going to lose. Poteidaians were going to die because she strengthened their defenses. They'll hold out longer because of her and more will die because of her. Why couldn't Gabrielle see that? Ah, Gabrielle. And a warmth flushed the chill away. Legs flexed and took her across that floor, pounding sure-footed steps away from the dusty tundra, away from Ares' taunts, and toward the tavern where a town was united in spirit by a young woman's voice.
It was long past the children's hour when Xena arrived and planted herself along the back wall. The warrior studied the faces she saw, the profiles, the backs of heads she could read by their subtle movements alone. They were all under some kind of spell but of a kind wholly of this earth, a real, human spell cast by the bard and willingly accepted by her townsfolk.
Then Xena heard which story Gabrielle chose for this night. A poisoned
dart, a frightened little village with no one to protect them against an
angry warlord but a young girl who knew the fight she fought was right and
no matter the consequences she would choose to do it again and again. And
when green eyes found the blue, even in the darkened recesses of that crowded
tavern, two souls touched across a distance, each comforting the other with
the truth of understanding and forgiveness.
continued in part 2