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|Standard Disclaimer - These characters, most of them, belong to Universal, and Renaissance Pictures, and whoever else has a stake in Xena: Warrior Princess. This is written just in fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.|
Specific Story Disclaimers:
Violence ĖItís a Xena story. There are forest dwellers, bad guys, pregnant bards, sly Amazons, several troublemakers, and one very persistent mincemeat pie. Of course there is violence. Not too much though. Maybe one head, maybe two.. it depends on how it goes.
Subtext - Iím not disclaiming subtext anymore. If youíve gotten this far in the series, you know what itís about. I donít personally think thereís anything in their relationship that needs disclaiming. Itís not like theyíre vegetarians, or something.
This is, of course, PG13 level involvement here, no more. That never changes.. for those of you who are waiting for me to stick in a rip roaring, no holds barred graphic orgy scene, make sure you have plenty of coffee and doughnuts handy. And a comfortable chair. And a good book. I can recommend some excellent altfic bards for you if you drop me a note.
If you read this story, and are offended by the love portrayed within, too bad. No raspberry brownies for you.
Any and all comments are always welcome. You can email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Circle of Life
By Melissa Good
Cyrene nibbled on her fingernail, as she listened to the stocky, bearded man tell his somewhat confusing story. She glanced up as she heard a set of familiar, heavy bootsteps hit the porch, and was unsurprised as the door shoved open, and her daughter strode in, sweaty and imposing in her buff colored gambeson.
"Xena!" The stocky man crowed in delight. "How are ya?"
The warrior stopped short, and regarded him in a puzzled fashion. "Salmoneus?" She looked at Cyrene. "I heard there was trouble?"
Cyrene nodded at the stocky man. "He says Toris and Jess are being held by some kind of a... " She looked at Sal. "What did you say it was?" A shifting of a chair was Elaini, leaning close to listen, her face a tense mask.
"Oh Xena.. itís this crazy cult." Salmoneus exhaled. "Theyíre driving me nuts."
Xena had stiffened, her nostrils flaring as she caught the word cult. She brushed her mother out of the way, and sat down on the table next to where Salmoneus was, leaning on her thigh and pinning him with intent eyes. "What kind of cult?" Her voice lowered dangerously.
"Oh.. well, itís just your everyday ordinary cult kind of cult, Xena.. you know, robes, funny customs, that kind of thing... a little more conservative, shall we say, than the usual, but... "
The warrior reached forward and grabbed his lapels, shaking him. "Salmoneus, start talking. Who are these people? " She asked sharply. "What do they worship?"
"Xena..Xena...Xena..." The bearded man patted her chest. "Take it easy, okay? Just relax.. Iíll tell you everything I know, just donít tear the threads...it took me forever to find this pattern." He cleared his throat. "Itís some kind of cult who worships a strange god... not like ours arenít strange, but this oneís... well, anyway... theyíre harmless enough.. though they have very very odd customs regarding women."
The warriorís face had gone very still. "Whatís their godís name?" The room had gone very quiet too.
Salmoneus glanced from one face to another, puzzled. "He doesnít have one.. not that they admit to anyway...just a burning leaf or something like that... he talks to them in echoes or whatever." He hesitated. "They really are harmless, Xena... theyíre just nuts...they wonít eat this, they wonít eat that, you have to have milk at this time, lamb at that time...just crazy."
Xena relaxed a little and let go of the older manís lapels. "Sorry, Sal.. but what do they want with my brother.. and Jess?"
"Well,.. " He broke off as the door opened, and Gabrielle entered, with Johan, Ares, and the rest of the Amazons. His eyes blinked several times. "Great Hera, Gabrielle.. youíre pregnant!"
The bard walked over and patted his shoulder. "I know, Sal.. but thanks.. whatís up?"
"Xena, sheís pregnant!" Salmoneus turned to the warrior plaintively. "How did you do that?" He leaned closer. "Whatever it is, I can sell it, you know, Xena.. we can make a lot of dinars, here."
The warrior rubbed her head. "Sal, what do these people want with Toris and Jess? Why did they capture them?" She shot a reassuring look at Elaini. "Looks like theyíre okay, for now."
"I know." Elaini folded her arms across her chest unhappily. "Heís just scared."
Xena shared a look of complete sympathy with her. "Know the feeling." She turned back to Sal. "Talk."
The bearded man cleared his throat. "Well... I stopped by there, figuring I could at least get rid of some extra parchment and stuff.. and they practically kidnapped me!" He lifted his hands. "Can you imagine? Me? Anyway... I went along with them, and listened to their crazy rhetoric about some kind of ceremonies that they do that they need special herbs for, and about a cleansing.. anyway, I didnít have anything they needed, but they took me through this cave system they have in the back of their little compound, and I saw they had a... well, a series of cages, sort of."
"Go on." Xena put her hands on her thigh, and drummed her fingers impatiently.
"Right.. right.. say, do you have anything to drink around here? Iím kinda dry." He looked expectantly at Cyrene who reached over and tapped a serving girl on the shoulder. "Thanks... where was I? Oh yes... cages.. right, so there were some men in one, and some women in the other...the guy in the robes I was with explained that they were Ďsalvaging lost souls.í "
"From what?" Xena asked, sharply.
"Like I would know?" Salmoneus waved a hand at her. "They go out and find people who are not leading what they called Ďrighteous livesí and they bring them there, and brainwash them, then match them up, I guess... "
"What quarrel did they have with Toris?" Gabrielle asked, studying Salmoneusí face intently.
"You know, Gabrielle, pregnancy really becomes you... you look wonderful." The bearded man beamed at her. "As to what quarrel.. er... it seems they came upon him and the furry guy.."
"Hey.. thatís my husband." Elaini growled.
Salmoneus glanced at her, then smiled weakly. "Yes... I guessed that.. " He turned back to Gabrielle. "They were wrestling." He said, in a low voice.
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged glances. "So what?" Xena asked for both of them. "Thatís not immoral."
"Ah.. well, they thought they were doing something.. you know... else." Sal replied, with an embarrassed look. "Something less... martial and more marital, if you catch my drift."
Xenaís dark brows contracted. "You mean to tell me they thought Jess and my brother were lovers?"
"Dead animalsí balls on fire." Elaini put her face in her hands. "Heís got better taste than that."
"Hey!" Xena gave her a look. "Thatís my brother youíre talking about." She turned to Salmoneus again. "Again.. so what? Thatís not immoral either."
"To them it is." Sal sighed, shaking his head. "Bunch of unimaginative little... they think sex is evil."
Gabrielle giggled. "No wonder theyíre unhappy."
Everyone in the room laughed, and Xena circled her soulmate with a long arm and kissed her head. "Youíre not serious, right?"
Sal nodded. "Unfortunately, I am.. they think the only thing you should use it for is to have children.. so.. theyíre trying to convince the people they capture of the error of their ways, and pray for them to return to righteousness." He cleared his throat. "They also think women are just property of their men." He let a smile briefly twist his mobile lips. "I hate to admit this, Xena.. but I really, really wanted to be the one to introduce them to you."
"Mm." Xena agreed sardonically. "What happens, though.. I mean, didnít Toris explain what the truth was?"
He shook his head. "I couldnít tell... but they were talking about having to go to Ďdrastic measuresí .. and Iím not sure if they were talking about him or his fuzzy friend, or both, or what." Salmoneus shrugged. "I only got to talk to him for a minute.. and only because the robed guy was distracted, and he looked so familiar." He sighed. "Once he did, I made it my business to get the Hades out of there, and head here."
"Thank you, Sal." Gabrielle put a hand on his knee, and squeezed it. "It was great that you did that.. when did it happen?"
"Early this morning.. " He looked up as the server handed him a tall mug. "Thank you! Very, very early this morning.. " He added, giving the kitchen an oblique look. " I ran nearly all the way here." He added virtuously.
Xena stood up, pushing her hair back off her forehead and pacing back and forth beside the hearth. "Iíll have to go down there and straighten them out." She said, with an annoyed sigh. "Shouldnít take long."
"Wait a minute, Xena... I mean, Iíd be the last person to tell you what to do, but these guys are very into protecting themselves, you know... " Salmoneus protested. "I donít think theyíre going to take very well to you just going in there and doing your usual thing."
The warrior regarded him in silence for a moment. My usual thing. She grimly repeated. "I wasnít going to... " She started, then stopped, with a little shrug, letting her words fall into an awkward silence.
Gabrielle took the opportunity to pat Salmoneusí hand. "Thank you for bringing us the news, Salmoneus...would you like some lunch?" She gave her brooding soulmate a glance.
"Iíd love some." The bearded face broke into a fond smile. "And, say... since youíre in a family way, Iíve got some fantastic bargains in my wagon I bet youíd just die for."
Everybody flinched at that.
"What?" Sal felt the looks. "Itís just a figure of speech people, come on now!"
"Sorry, Sal... " The bard apologized. "Iíve had some extreme adventures lately." She stood and wandered over to Xenaís side, absently straightening the warriorís buckles. "Letís all have some lunch, and weíll think about what to do, okay?" This was mostly for her partnerís benefit. "Theyíre not in an immediate danger, are they?"
Salmoneus sipped at his mug. "No.. I donít think they are....these people are harsh, and conservative, but they didnít seem overly violent to me." His eyes went to Xenaís imposing form. "Just stubborn, and very self righteous."
Xena made a face. "Thatís not against the law, unfortunately." She advised the traveling opportunist. "But I donít get it...I can understand my brother, but what do they think theyíre accomplishing with Jessan? In case they didnít notice, he isnít human."
"Oh..oh.. right.. well, theyíre using him as evidence to support their doctrine... theyíve been displaying him as an example of what happens to you when you donít live a moral life."
Elaini leaned forward. "You become seven foot tall, fur covered people with fangs and claws? Get out of here.. if that were true, Greece would be overrun with us." She snorted. "If we laid down, youíd be able to walk over a fur carpet from the Mediterranean to the Aegean."
Even Xena chuckled a little at that.
"Theyíve got three guys in tablecloths bowing around him praying all the time." Salmoneus added, as a plate was put down in front of him. "Thank you!"
"Oh Ares in boots... " Elaini winced. "Poor Jessie.. heís probably spitting claws."
"I wonder how they captured them?" Gabrielle mused.
"They didnít say, and I didnít ask, if you know what I mean." Salmoneus responded as he stuffed his mouth. "Thf if wfndrfl!"
"All right.. " Xena sighed. "Iím going to go clean up, and weíll meet back here in a quarter candlemark.. figure out what weíre gonna do." She started to leave, only to find she had a bard attached to her. "Hey." She glanced down at her accompanying soulmate. "I can handle that by myself if you want to start lunch."
"Hmm.. " The bard didnít let go. "Depends on what you consider lunch." She ignored the grins of the Amazons and Cyrene. "Besides... someone has to make sure you clean in back of your neck."
Chuckles and Ares followed them out.
"I got a little nervous about that cult talk. " Xena admitted, as she sat quietly and allowed Gabrielle to rub her back down with a piece of soft, wet sea sponge. "I was afraid it was something else for a minute."
The bard leaned forward and kissed the back of her neck. "I know." She replied softly. "I could see it in your face... thank the gods it doesnít look like itís connected...do you think this is a cult of the one god, like Iacusí people?"
Xena inhaled. "Maybe... itís hard to tell... they were kinda stubborn and self righteous, huh?" She felt Gabrielleís arm slide around her neck and she nibbled the soft skin with pleasure. "They pretty much kept to themselves, though.. they didnít go out and try to Ďfixí people."
"Maybe itís a splinter group.. they got tired of just telling themselves what to do.. and decided to go out and tell everyone else what to do?"
The warrior smiled. "They hurt either of them and Iím going to teach them what a splinter is." She informed her soulmate dryly. "Up close and personal." She closed her eyes and sighed in pleasure as the bard continued her task. "I guess weíre going to have to sneak in there... I donít suppose my just going up and asking for them to be released is gonna work, huh?"
"Mm... probably not." The bard recalled the patriarchal authority of Iacusí father. "Maybe Johan could...we could go with him, and say we were his daughters." She paused, then picked up a brush and started to sort out her soulmateís disordered hair. "I mean, we are... so... and then, once we were in, we could sort of play it by ear."
Xena yawned. "Mm.... Yeah, we could do that." She agreed mildly. "Use our brains instead of my fists for a change."
Gabrielle studied her, a tiny crease appearing in the very center of her green eyes. "Hey... your fists get us out of a lot of trouble sometimes, partner." She folded her hand around the warriorís arm. "We may need them to beat through the clouds of dogma."
"Yeah, I know." Xena replied, resting her chin on one fist and studying the waterís surface. Then she changed the subject. "I have so hard a time understanding people like that... like Iacusí mother.. she watched as her husband was going to sacrifice her son.. and she acted like she didnít have the right to protest."
The bard sighed. "Xena, there are lots of places where women are treated like that... we forget that sometimes because itís so different here, and with the Amazons... Iacusí people arenít unique in believing women arenít anything but property, in fact... from what Iíve seen, theyíre the rule, and weíre the exception."
Long, dark lashes flickered. "A damned good exception. " The warrior growled. "Like anyone could ever own me."
Gabrielle peeked over her shoulder, and twirled a dark swatch of hair in her fingers, gazing at her soulmate with impish affection.
"Well... unless I wanted them to." Xena relented, allowing a grudging smile to shape her lips. "But thatís different." She half turned, and slipped her arms around the smaller woman, resting her cheek against Gabrielleís belly. "Sure youíre up to this? We can get any of those damn Amazons to play along in your place.. maybe the little one?"
"Címon, Xena... this is an easy one." Gabrielle reassured her with a gentle smile. "I should ask you if youíre up to it... are you going to let me do the talking, and keep your temper under control with those idiots until we figure out whatís happening?" She put a fingertip on the warriorís nose. "Maybe you should let me take one of the Amazons, instead, hmm?"
Blue eyes took on a stubborn tint. "Youíre not going in there without me."
"And youíre not going in there without me. So I guess thatís settled then." The bard replied. "Now weíve just got to keep the rest of the Amphipolian militia from peeking over our shoulders the entire time." She playfully braided Xenaís hair, and fluffed her bangs. "Besides... youíll get to dress up for a change... and you look so pretty in that embroidered outfit."
"Hmm.. then weíll have to find you something other than my old shirts.. " Xena mused. "Well, mother will have something, I bet.. címon, letís go break the news to everyone and get all the objections out of the way."
"You have my royal permission to tell the Amazons to shut up, by the way." Gabrielle muttered, as she watched her partner change into a clean shirt. "Thank you for arranging that little session this morning.. Cesta is so obnoxious... you think itís the hair color?"
"Mmm... " Xena ran her fingers through the bardís fair hair judiciously. "Careful, love.. youíve got a touch of that in yours too, yíknow." She tweaked the straight nose playfully. "You did a great job.. I think you picked up an admirer of your own."
"Uh huh.. an Amazon shorter than I am... awesome." Gabrielle laughed. "Sheís kinda cute, isnít she?" She picked up her scroll case as they headed out the door. "Do you think Cestaís pretty?"
Xena cocked her head in thought as the walked across the wind swept courtyard, the trees chillingly bereft of leaves, and the ground hard and sterile looking. Ares trotted along side, and made a small foray under the porch of the inn, returning with a stuffed rag ball. The warrior stooped and retrieved it, then sent it flying. "She thinks sheís pretty." She commented wryly. "Sheís not ugly."
"Sheís hot for you." Gabrielle responded. "Does that bother you?"
Xena gazed down at her. "Not really.. does it bother you?" She stopped as Ares returned, and stood up, placing his big paws against her chest, thrusting the sodden rag ball in her face. "Thanks, boy..." She took it, and threw it again.
"I guess I could lie and say no, of course not. " Gabrielle admitted. "But yeah, it does." She mounted the steps, and watched as Xena sent the rag ball flying a third time, as Ares bounded after it, his dark fur rippling in the pallid winter sunlight.
"Alright." Xena stepped up onto the porch. "Iíll take care of it." She grabbed the door handle, and pulled it open. "Gíwan."
Now, Gabrielle wondered, as she entered the inn, greeted by the scent of a rich lamb stew and fresh bread. What does she mean by that?"
Xena picked up several of the emptied platters, and steeled herself, then entered the kitchen with them, seeing her motherís back stiffen as her steps were recognized. She put the platters into the clean up basin, and started in on them, running the pitcher of water over the wooden plates and adding a little soap to it. She waited.
Cyrene stubbornly stirred her stew, ignoring the presence of her tall daughter.
Xena continued cleaning.
The innkeeper grabbed a few herbs, and added them, then continued stirring.
The warrior scrubbed, relying on a patience honed from a lifetime of battlefields.
Cyrene studied the surface of the stew, divining interesting things from the languid bubbles, testing a patience developed from bearing three children.
Including the incredibly frustrating, stubborn, maddening one standing across the kitchen from her.
"Why canít you let other people go in there?" She finally asked, to the broad, muscular back turned to her. "You tell me there is no real danger to Toris, or to your friend.. why not let those Amazons go? They offered, Xena... must you go.. must you take Gabrielle in there?"
Xena finished the platter she was working on and put it on the rack to dry, turning and leaning back against the washing table and folding her arms across her chest. "We donít know what the situation is in there, mother... I canít put my trust in other people to know what to do."
The innkeeper put her hands on her hips. "Thatís pretty arrogant, isnít it?" She eyed her daughter. "You donít always make the right decisions either, Xena."
A duck of the dark head. "Maybe... and no, I donít.. but the fact remains that of us all, only Gabrielle and I have dealt with people of the type we suspect these people to be... and the fact remains that of all the people here, only Gabrielle and I have the experience to go into an unknown situation, and develop an ongoing plan based on the circumstances.. would you have me put untested women in there, who have never been in this kind of thing before?"
Cyrene sighed. "Must you take Gabrielle then?" She asked. "Leave her here, Xena.. sheís more than halfway through her term.. it canít be comfortable for her."
"I canít." Xena replied softly. "I promised her I wouldnít leave her behind." She gazed at her mother. "Sheíll be fine... she thinks on her feet, and she can talk her way out of situations you wouldnít believe." She paused. "Would you feel better if I took someone other than Johan? I can get one of the other men to play the part."
"No." Cyrene threw up her hands. "The crazy man has this notion that heís been inducted as a full fledged member of the Xena, Warrior Princess clandestine infiltration club." She walked over, and laid her hands flat on her daughterís chest. "Honey...youíre making me nuts."
Xena dropped her eyes to her boots, then lifted them again. "Iím sorry."
Cyrene gave her a wry look. "Thatís all right.. youíve been making me nuts since you were two." She exhaled, and gave the taller woman an affectionate pat on the side. "Please... just be careful?"
Xena smiled at her. "I will be... Iíll bring everyone back safe, mother... I promise." She exhaled. "I need to go talk to Granella... sheís pretty upset about the whole thing." The warrior grimaced. "She wants to go with us."
The innkeeper shook her head. "Crazy girl."
The warrior turned and went to the door, then paused, and glanced back. "Only since I was two?" A dark brow edged up.
Cyrene put her hands on her hips, and gave her daughter a look. "Honey, have you ever heard the saying ĎI hope you have children just like you?" She smiled.
Xena chuckled. "No chance...not with Gabrielle involved." She grinned, and ducked out of the kitchen. Then she paused just outside the door, and ran her fingers through her hair. "One down... " She sighed, and headed off towards her brotherís cabin, knowing sheíd find Gabrielle already there.
Xena took a moment to marshal her arguments, and take a few deep breaths, before she mounted the porch steps, and knocked lightly on the door.
"Gran, just listen to me for a minute, okay?" Gabrielle sat down, and leaned on the arm of the chair next to her friend. "Youíre not making sense here."
"Donít tell me Iím not making sense." The dark haired Amazon snapped back. "If you can go, I can go, and thatís final, Gabrielle.. I do still have the right to make my own decisions, remember?"
The bard drew in a breath. "Gran... no one said you didnít.. thatís not the issue."
"Isnít it? I have everyone here telling me what I should do.. what I shouldnít do...Iíve had enough!" Granella answered, her face tense and angry.
Gabrielle bit her lip, considering her next words. It was hard, because just about anything she said would be construed as a little hypocritical, given her own condition. "Gran..."
"Go on..tell me itís for my own good." The Amazon spat. "Tell me I have to be responsible for the baby...babies, damn it...right? Youíre not!" Her voice rose. "Damn it, Gabrielle, donít you come in here and lecture me about responsibility, or I swear Iíll..."
The door nudged open, and a dark head poked itself in, featuring pale blue eyes that fastened themselves on Granellaís face, a dangerous glint in them. "Youíll what?" Xena asked, pushing the wooden panels in and entering. "The fact is, sheís physically capable of going, and youíre not. End of conversation."
An uneasy silence fell. "Well, that was tactful, sweetheart." Gabrielle finally murmured, making a little face at her soulmate and scratching the side of her nose.
Xena spread her arms, then let them fall to her sides. "If I had a broken leg, I wouldnít be going either." She replied simply.
"Yes you would." Granella and Gabrielle both answered together.
The warrior scowled at them, then walked over and perched on the arm of the chair her partner was seated in.
Gabrielle scratched her jaw, then turned her head and gave Granella a wry look. "Sheís right."
The dark haired Amazon dropped her gaze to her folded hands. "I know." She admitted, in a discouraged tone. "I hate this."
Bard and warrior exchanged glances. "Gran... " Gabrielle put a hand on her arm. "Look.. itís going to be fine... Iím sure itís just a misunderstanding.. weíll get it cleared up."
"No." Granella finally looked up, setting her jaw. "I mean, I hate this." Her hands indicated her body. "I hate being so helpless.. I hate the way the other Amazons look at me.. like Iím not even one of them anymore." She let her voice trail off. "Maybe Iím not."
Xena shifted uncomfortably. "Granella... thatís not true... Amazons have babies all the time." She stated gently. "I know itís uncomfortable...but it wonít last forever."
Granella fiddled with a bit of trim on her shirt. "Itís different when youíre with them..." She replied. "Here... itís like Iím losing that part of who I am." She looked miserable. "And I donít want to do that."
The warrior got up, and seated herself cross legged on the floor next to the younger woman. "Ephiny felt like that too." She remembered quietly. "She felt very guilty that Phantes died protecting her.. and she wasnít able to help him."
Soft brown eyes looked at her. "She did?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Yes, she did.. I remember her saying that.. when we first found her in the forest outside Thessaly...she said she felt very ashamed... that she couldnít protect herself." She looked up at her partner. "And I remember Xena here telling her that her responsibility was to do everything she could to give her child a chance to be born., and that Phantes would have told her to do the same thing." Her steady green eyes met Granellaís. "If I thought my going was going to hurt my baby, or endanger my partner, I wouldnít do it, Gran... or if Xena really thought it was a bad idea, Iíd listen to her, because I trust her judgment." She ignored the raised eyebrow this brought on. "But itís just going to be a bit of play acting... and actually, itís going to be a lot easier for me, than for the Warrior Tactless Princess, here."
"Hey!" Xena protested.
"Címon, Xena.. itís true... Iíd have a better chance of pulling this off if I took Argo in there with me." Gabrielle laughed, ruffling her partnerís dark hair. "You know I love you, but getting you to be a sweet, innocent, demure country gal is gonna be a stretch."
Granella had been watching the two of them, then she finally gave a rueful chuckle. "Now youíre pissing me off because I wonít get to see this little act."
Xena lifted an insulted eyebrow. "Hey.. Iím not the one who almost clobbered the innkeeper at the last place we stayed because they didnít like the color shirt you were wearing, my tempestuous friend."
The bard blushed, and nibbled a fingernail. "I was in a bad mood?" She offered hopefully, giving Xena her best innocent look. "Címon.. I was very sensitive that day.. Iíd just started showing.. you know that." She exhaled, and turned back to Granella. "Anyway...someone has to be here to meet Pony, and keep this fair under control...donít let the merchants take advantage of those guys, Gran."
"Hmm." She regarded Gabrielle thoughtfully. ĎThat means I get first crack at their stuff.. doesnít it..." Her eyes narrowed, then she made a face. "All right... but let me just tell you both this.. after these kids are born, daddyís gonna be stuck with dirty nappies for at least a fortnight while I go and be a wild child, all right?"
Gabrielle grinned. "Deal." She stood up. "I gotta go see if momís got something I can borrow..." She waited for Xena to join her, then lead the way out of the cabin and down the stairs. "That went better than I expected. "She commented to the silent warrior.
"You want to see if mother has something for Argo to wear too?" Xena inquired dryly.
Uh oh. Gabrielle tucked her hand inside the warriorís belt and slowed down, pulling her to a halt. "Whoa."
Xena just stopped and stood quietly.
"I bumped the tease threshold, huh?" Gabrielle came around to face her, and put a hand on her stomach, gazing up at the hooded blue eyes.
The warrior shrugged a little. "I didnít know you thought of me as such a crude person."
"Xena... you know thatís not... " Gabrielle started, then stopped. "Thatís not what I ...címon now...I was just teasing you."
Another shrug. "Itís all right." Xena started moving again. "Címon.. weíve got a lot to do." Privately, she chastised herself for being so damned sensitive. But the words had stung, there was no denying it. "Guess Iím just a little off today.. but listen, if youíd really rather take someone else...itís okay."
Gabrielle pulled her to a halt again. "Hold on.. letís talk about this a minute." She made for their porch, where she sat down on the padded bench, and tugged her soulmate down with her. "Listen.. Iím sorry.. I went a little too far with the joke...I was just trying to get Gran to loosen up, not get you mad at me."
Xena faced her squarely, her jaw tensing a bit. "I donít like being made fun of." She stated very softly. "Not even by you."
It was like being hit in the face with a mud brick. Gabrielle hadnít expected the admission, and now she cast around for a way to respond to it. "I... " She stopped, then took a breath. "Iím sorry." One hand reached out to gently stroke Xenaís arm. "You know thatís not how I think of you."
"Itís like Salmoneus assuming Iím just going to ride in there with a drawn sword." Xena responded. "I thought I was moving just a little closer to leaving that in the past, Gabrielle."
"Hey... " The bard looked troubled. "Xena... listen, Iím really sorry... I was honestly just kidding with you." She gently took Xenaís unresisting hand, and kissed it. "I didnít mean it to sting like that."
Something melted in the back of the blue eyes facing her, and Xena shifted a little, glancing out at the wind swept yard then back at her with a tiny, rueful smile. "With both of us being affected by this baby, this is going to be a Hades of a thing to pull off." A wry admission. "I overreacted... Gabrielle.. Iím sorry. "
The bard felt weak with relief, and she rested her head against her partnerís shoulder and sighed. "No.. that really was a little too much...and youíre right - if it comes right down to it, Iím a lot more likely to fly off the handle than you are." She looked up wistfully. "I donít think youíre crude." She issued a hopeful smile. "Iím the one they had to give lessons to so I wouldnít trip over my gown, remember?" She lowered her voice. "Good peasant stock." She mimicked.
Xena poked her lower lip out, and glanced sideways at her. "Well.. I am crude sometimes.. Iím not sure there is a refined and graceful way to kick someoneís head in." She scuffed her boots against the wooden planks. "But I think, if I dredge up some old memories, I might be able to recall what it was like to be just a simple village girl."
"We could pretend what it would have been like if weíd actually met when we were kids." Gabrielle responded, with a smile. "Or grown up together."
Xena considered that. "I donít think you would have liked me much." She finally confessed. "I was a mess growing up."
"Mm.." The bard chewed her lip. ĎWere you in trouble all the time?"
Xena nodded. "Uh huh."
Anther nod. "Was I ever."
"Always in fights?"
"I would have loved you." Gabrielle told her. "You would have been the kind of person I would have followed around like a puppy dog, and made stories about."
Xena had to smile. "Imagine that."
"Imagine that." Her partner responded. "I guess some things were just meant to be."
The warrior put a long arm around her and hugged her close, but didnít say anything. They sat like that for a few minutes, then Gabrielle patted her leg. "We should go get our stuff ready.. I guess we canít avoid taking that Amazon guard, huh?"
Xena sighed. "Solari is having kittens as it is... she cornered me and told me if she let you go off into danger without at least a token attempt at protecting you, Pony would kick her butt from here to the high country and back." She explained. "So no... we get an escort."
Gabrielle considered this thoughtfully. "We could dress them as Hestian virgins."
Xena covered her eyes, and made a small choking noise.
"Okay..okay... milkmaids?" The bard offered. "I know...theyíre an assortment of younger daughters looking for husbands?"
The warrior allowed a curse to escape, in an unknown language.
"Ooo.. what was that one?" Gabrielle inquired. "I liked the sound of it."
"Donít say it in a room full of shepherds." Her soulmate informed her.
Gabrielle made a face. "Baaa." She started laughing, and was glad when Xena started laughing too. "Hey.. I got a smile." She reached up and gently stroked the warriorís cheek, gazing into her eyes and letting the love she felt come bubbling to the surface. "Itís going to be so hard to remember not to do this in there."
A wry hint of humor warmed Xenaís blue eyes. "Hey.. sisters do that to each other all the time, remember?" She reminded her soulmate innocently. "This is Greece." She bent her head and tasted the bardís lips, then went back for another sample, pulling Gabrielle gently onto her lap and persisting until her partner breathing was soft and ragged.
Gabrielle sucked in a breath unsteadily. "I donít think sisters do that, honey."
"Sure they do." Xena disagreed. "Common household safety... you have to know how to do mouth to mouth breathing, right?" She demonstrated again, and felt Gabrielleís hands slip under her tunic, sending jolts down her spine. "Or what if I had no arms.. and I had to feed you when you were a child.. like a little bird."
Gabrielle giggled softly, and abandoned herself to the insistently seductive touch, not even caring that they were in broad daylight on the porch of their cabin.
Johan finished buckling the tack on to the four cart horses, who would be pulling the open bedded wooden wagon theyíd be taking to the cultís settlement. He rested his arms on the back of the near horse, and leaned against it. "Ye gods, me laddies... if those are suppose to be village gals, Iíll be eating my hoof cleaner. " His eyes were on a group of women clustered on the porch in an assortment of colorful outfits, ranging from the tiny Frendan in a bodice and peasant skirt, to the tall Cesta in what must have been an old outfit of Xenaís which didnít fit quite right.
They all looked very, very annoyed.
The door to the inn opened, though, and Gabrielle came out, in a simple peasant blouse over a knee length skirt, the outfit gently flattering to her swelling body. She also had a shawl draped over her shoulders, and had pinned her fair hair back in a youthful style, adding to the picture of a young, innocent village lass. She turned as the door opened, and a smile appeared on her face as Xena joined them, the tall, dark haired woman putting a hand on the bardís back as she spoke to the agitating Amazons.
Johan shook his head in bemusement, hardly recognizing his foster daughter. Xena was wearing a neatly fitted blue dress with white trim, the neckline exposing a good amount of her collarbone, and the length covering her long, muscular legs. She had her hair in neatly done braids on either side of her face, which were gathered in the back in a clasp, and if Johan hadnít known better, he never would have guessed that this beautiful young woman was also one of the deadliest fighters in Greece.
"This might work." He muttered to the horse, who snorted. "Long as they keep the rest of that lot from blowing the deal."
"All right, look." Xena said, for the fourth time. "You guys wanted to come along, so youíve got to play the part... quit your whining."
"Xeeennaaa... " Solari protested, plucking at the frilly, flowered blouse that had replaced her leathers. "Címon.. I feel like an Athenian flower seller."
The warrior leaned forward, regarding her. "Dunno.. I think it suits you. " She gave Solari a wicked grin. "What do you think, Gabrielle?"
The bard regarded the fidgeting Amazons, then turned and surveyed her soulmate. "I... think I need to go talk to Johan." She patted her partner on the side, then slipped down the steps, neatly sidestepping the issue.
Solari glared at her, and scratched her arm. "It itches." She complained. "All these little frilly things... "
Xena twitched her own skirt into place and gave her a look totally devoid of sympathy. "Hey. If I can do it, you can do it." She lifted her hands, and let them fall. "Get your stuff ready... we need to get going." She left the Amazons to gather their kits, and walked down the stairs, feeling the unfamiliar flow of fabric around her legs and the strangeness of not wearing a single weapon. Not that she wasnít bringing them, of course... her sword and chakram, and her leathers in fact, were stowed in a hidden panel under the wagonís bed in case their little act didnít go over very well. Salmoneusí never-ending wagon had provided them with outfits for the Amazons, along with several other items theyíd needed, and the opportunist had been delighted to Ďdonateí them to the effort, in return for free board and lodging while the little party was gone. Heíd also talked his way into the merchantsí fair, and was now happily holding court inside the inn, regaling the villagers with various tall tales, including several of hers told from a slightly different perspective.
She sighed, and joined Gabrielle at Johanís side, as the bard arranged their bags in the back of the cart. She put her hands on her partnerís back and gently rubbed it, feeling the muscles shift under her touch. "We ready?"
"Just about." Gabrielle closed her eyes and leaned back against her partnerís hands. "We should get there before nightfall.. you think theyíll let us in?"
"Oh.. letís see... weíve got a sturdy respectable man, with seven fertile daughters... " Xena watched Johan almost choke on a piece of apple. "Iíd say weíve got a good shot at it."
Gabrielle glanced behind her, to where the Amazons were mincing across the grass, tripping over their skirts, then turned her eyes on her beautiful, assured soulmate. "Do you remember what I said about taking someone else in there instead of you?" She murmured.
Xena nodded quietly.
"Forget I said that, okay?" Gabrielle rested her head against the warriorís chest. "Do you suppose I can just hog tie them and leave them in the wagon?"
"Shh.. theyíll be fine." Xena kissed her head. "Give em a chance to get used to the stuff...by the way, you look great." She arranged the shawl around Gabrielleís neck and fluffed her pale bangs.
The bard absorbed the compliment with a smile, then backed off a step, and regarded her fondly. "Speaking of which.. you really look pretty yourself.. and I love your hair." She reached up and touched a braid.
Xena pulled a neat curtsy, and winked. "Why thank you, kindly maíam... " She drawled.
"All right.. are you two finished billing and cooing at each other?" Solari got the Amazons gear stowed. "Great Artemis..you guys are a walking advertisement for Aphrodite, I swear. " She surveyed her troops. "Cesta, put that dagger away... Lista, you need to keep those shoes on.. and Frendan...oh never mind." Solari hitched her skirt up and fastened the hem up under her belt. "There.. thatíll do until weíre near the damn place..." She braced a muscular leg against the step of the cart, and heaved a canvas bag of weapons on board. "Hide these under those mats."
Oh boy. Xena exhaled, then turned and gave her soulmate a hand up to the seat of the wagon. "All right... letís get started." Johan mounted the steps and settled in the driverís seat and took the reins while the rest of them climbed into the back, seating themselves on the rough sacks and blankets that had been put down in the bed. It wouldnít be a comfortable ride, but it would be faster than walking. Xena stretched her legs out and leaned against the back wall, on hand wrapped around the seat post. She waved to Cyrene, who had come out onto the porch to see them off, along with Granella and Elaini, as the wagon lurched into movement and they headed down the road.
The sun was setting as they plodded up the long, sloping road that lead to the small town of Elebar. The weather had remained clear though, and the Amazons managed to pass the time playing a dicing game, while Xena looked on, her eyes half closed. Gabrielle had traded her padded seat to Frendan some time before, and had settled down in the straw and blankets, cuddled up next to her soulmate, where the bard had spent a little while trying out a new story on her, then wrapped her arms around the warriorís body and used her as a pillow.
Xena hadnít minded. Sheíd tucked the ends of Gabrielleís shawl around her, and stretched out her legs, letting the bardís peaceful breathing and warm body soothe her despite the rumbling of the wheels and the annoyingly persistent looks from Cesta.
Deliberately, the warrior let her chin rest against Gabrielleís fair head, pulling the bard a little closer against the cold wind that had sprung up as night neared.
"Mm." Gabrielle murmured sleepily, burrowing into her partnerís shoulder. "Love you." The soft whisper barely reached Xenaís ears, but brought a smile to her face. Just two words, and if theyíd been said by anyone else it wouldnít have mattered. "Love you too." She muttered back, feeling the gentle squeeze as Gabrielle heard them.
The wagon slowed, and Johan half turned. "Bout there, lassie."
Xena glanced up, and nodded. "Just go in... Salmoneus said there was a main gate. Tell them your village was burned out, and youíre looking for shelter."
Johan nodded. "Aye...yeíre no serious about all of ye being my children, are ye?"
A faint twinkle showed in the blue eyes that regarded him. "Címon, Jo...youíre up to it." The Amazons snickered at her sly joke, and she felt Gabrielle tickle her gently. The ex trader blushed.
"And here yeíre an innocent pure little thing." He gave her an exasperated look. "Iím liking to have reputation as much as the next man, but Hadesí left ankle, Xena..."
A soft chuckle. "Oh, all right....the rest of this lot can be your nieces...tell em your brothers were killed in a raid." Xena relented.
"Why would we be hanging around with him?" Solari asked, grumpily.
Blue eyes gazed innocently at her. "He protects us... where else would we go?" Xena purred pleasantly.
"Iím gonna throw up all over this wagon."
A dark brow quirked. "Oh, thatís ladylike."
The wagon creaked on, and Xena half turned to watch the road, noting the walled enclave that surrounded the village. It wasnít like something they would see in Greece, more like a fortress than a homestead, and she studied the well built wall with a sense of vague foreboding. You put up a wall, people wanted to know what was behind it...and they assumed whatever it is, it was worth a lot. If I were planning the conquest of an area... thatíd be the first place Iíd hit. Xena mused.
As Johan skillfully drove the horses forward, watchers on either side of the gate spotted him, and came forward, holding long staves. "Hold!"
"íEre we go." Johan muttered, as he pulled the horses to a stop, and waited for the two men to come to meet him. They were both of middling height, and bearded, with thick woven tunics and leggings tucked into well made boots. They looked tolerably prosperous, and had the arrogant attitude that usually carried. "Fine day to you."
The closer one stepped up to him, while his companion circled the wagon, regarding its contents. "And you.. what business have you here?"
Johan gave him a tentative smile. "Iíd heard this be a good place for those seeking a new way." He half turned, looking at the wagon, then swiveled back around. "My home village was burned out... two warlords fighting over the sheep, they were.. and my brothers killed. I took away my daughters and theirs.. and went out from there."
The man gave him a friendlier look. "Oh? And what steered you to here?" He peered at the wagon, and the sturdy, muscular horses with an almost proprietary air.
Xena watched out of the corner of her eye as the other man peered in at them, glad that the darkness masked the ill hidden scowls on the Amazonís faces. Gabrielle was awake, and she removed her stranglehold on the warrior, but was still huddled against her, blinking out at the watcher with plainly innocent eyes.
Which was all right for the bard. Xena kept her gaze down at the straw, figuring rightly that it would be a better idea than returning the manís look. He leaned against the buckboard, though and peered at her curiously.
"Hello." Gabrielle said, softly, giving him a smile. Xena let out a tiny sigh of relief as the manís attention was drawn to her soulmate, and paid attention to what Johan was saying.
"As I say... weíre tired of the old ways... do us no good.. look at what happened? All the prayers to our gods did nothing... nothing, I say... and Iím hearing you teach a different path." It was a good line, Johan decided. "Iíve got only whatís in tíwagon.. but the girls are good workers, and fair." He paused. "And my little one, sheís wíchild."
The manís eyes went to his face, then he slowly and deliberately circled the wagon, examining its contents. The Amazons wisely kept their eyes on the straw, and Xena did the same, as the eyes raked them. Judged them.
Only Gabrielle lifted her head, and regarded the two men with intent, mist green eyes. She watched them examine her partner, their eyes flicking over her in an almost dismissive gesture, then fasten on the Amazons, especially on Cestaís striking face. They nudged each other, then walked around to the front of the cart.
"All right... come on inside. Letís discuss things there, out of this wind." The taller of the two decided. "And weíll send for our leader, so that he might speak with you, and explain our ways." He patted the sturdy lead horseís shoulder. "Be welcome here."
"I thank you." Johan muttered, as he took up the reins, and waited for the gates to open, then guided the horses inside, with the taller guard following him in. As the gates closed behind them, he pulled to a halt again, and glanced around.
So did Xena, her eyes flicking over the compound in a rapid analyzation. It was a village built on a series of squares, not very different from Amphipolis. In the entryway here, a large open space fronted buildings that looked like stables and storerooms, and there was a broad dirt avenue that lead up between the center buildings towards another open space. Off to one side a dust cloud and the small sounds of bleats attested to the presence of sheep, and the odd chicken or two scuttled across the road. A number of men and women were moving about, the men dressed in tunics and trousers, most of them also wearing the striped wool overlay of a shepherd tied around them. This was used, Xena knew, as a blanket and a dozen other things out in the fields. The women all wore long skirts and long sleeved blouses, soft and shapeless, and shawls wrapped around their heads.
The two didnít mix, the watching warrior noted. The men clustered in groups, talking, complaining, gesticulating, and the women moved in their own circles, heads bent towards each other, hands full of bowls or other domestic items. It seemed a peaceful scene, and the people appeared happy, and content. Xena shot a glance at Gabrielleís watching face, and saw the muscles shift as her eyes moved about, absorbing her surroundings.
The tall guard gestured him to move the wagon closer to what appeared to be a stable. "Wait here." He trotted off, and they were left alone for a moment, though the eyes of the inhabitants curiously watched them.
"Did I do all right then?" Johan whispered over his shoulder.
"Just fine." Xena burred, pitching her voice low. "All right, everyone listen up. This is going to get ugly for all of us, so put a lid on your tempers, and remember why weíre here." She caught and held the Amazonsí eyes, especially Solariís. "Youíre gonna get insulted, and looked down on, and generally not be respected. Cope with it." The warrior felt a gentle hand rub her back, and she consciously relaxed some of the tension there. "Just stay calm, and listen to what they say, and donít argue with them."
"Poop." Solari gave her a disgusted look.
"You insisted on coming." Xena shot back. "I didnít ask you to be here."
Hazel eyes regarded her, then dropped. "All right... sheís right, you guys... I got us in to this, you can beat me up later. But while weíre in here, make like sheep."
Cesta regarded her thoughtfully, then let her eyes wander back to Xenaís shadowed face.
The guard came back, with a burly older man with thick, bushy eyebrows and almost a lions mane of hair. He gave the wagon and its contents a brief glance, then leaned his elbow on the traces, and gazed up at Johan. "Welcome." His voice was very deep, and compelling. "Matthias tells me you wish to join us."
The ex-trader nodded and wrapped his reins around a seat post before he hopped down and faced the man directly. "Aye.. thatís true." He turned. "I havenít much save these." His indicated his hands. "And tíwagon... we got some small stuff in there."
The man regarded the scene. "The women all yours?" One bushy eyebrow lifted at him, but more in amusement than surprise.
"My two girls, aye." He gestured to the two shadowy figures in the flickering torchlight, huddled in one corner. "Tírest are my nieces... theyíre all thatís left."
"Mmph." The man nodded. "Brave and kindly of you to take responsibility for all of them.. youíre a good man.. ah... " His voice rose in question.
"Johan." The ex trader extended an arm.
The burly leader took it. "Isaac." He glanced around. "Letís get your stuff taken care of... and weíll find you a place to sleep." His eyes went to the silently waiting women. "Theyíre all in right minds, eh?"
"Eh?" Johan spun to regard them. "Of course they are." He gave Isaac a puzzled look. "Let me.. "
Isaac waved him off. "Just being sure... such terrors often affect a womanís sensibilities.. theyíre delicate, I know.. glad thatís not the case here." He considered. "Have them move your stuff out, and you can put the horses in there... Matthias tells me one of them is with child?"
Does he mean the horses? Johan wondered for a moment, then realized what the question was. "Oh.. aye..aye.. my little one here." He put a hand on Gabrielleís arm, feeling the tension under the fabric of her sleeve.
Isaac grunted. "Very well.. you and she can stay with my family... Matthias will take the others and split them up in a few other homes nearby."
Gabrielle didnít like that. Being separated from her soulmate was not in her plans, but she glanced back, to see a quiet, almost still face above hers. "You okay?" She barely aspirated the sounds.
"Mmhmm." Xena murmured back. "Iím imagining what it would feel like to pull every hair in his body out." A pause. "Slowly." Another pause. "While holding him upside down." Yet another pause. "With his head in a bucket of sheep dung."
"Really." The bard bit the inside of her lip to keep from smiling.
"Mm.. I donít much like being separated.. but letís see what happens." Xenaís eyes flicked around, so fast it was almost undetectable. "Doesnít look like much security once youíre inside."
"All right, children." Johan cleared his throat. "Ye heard the man... out ye go."
The warrior waited for the Amazons to exit, then she slid out, and turned to help Gabrielle as she followed, taking the bardís arm as she got down from the wagon. She took out both of their bags, then put a hand on the smaller womanís shoulder as Johan moved closer.
"These are yours, then?" Isaac eyed the two of them.
"Aye." Johan agreed.
"Comely looking, they are.. pity though, you have no son." Isaac clapped him on the shoulder. "Come on then, Iíll take you to my home." He turned. "Matthias, take two of them by you, and put the rest in the communal hall... weíll sort things out better on the morrow." He exhaled. "Be easy, my friend... " He gave Johan a smile. "Weíve got a good crop of younger sons ready for wives... weíll find them all places. They look like good, strong girls."
"Xena?" Gabrielle leaned back against her soulmate.
"Hmm?" The warrior ducked her head a little to listen.
"If you end up stuffing him into a potato sack and sending him down the river, Iíll forgive you."
"Mm." Xena gave her shoulder a squeeze. "Letís just find Toris and Jess, and get the Hades out of here."
Matthias stepped up in front of them, and regarded the cluster of women. "You, and you.í He pointed at Cesta and Xena. "Will come with me. The rest of you will go to the shop. Bring your things." He turned and started walking, obviously expecting them to obey.
Xena sighed inwardly. Just who she wanted to be stuck with. Sheíd felt the twitch go through Gabrielleís body when heíd spoken as well. She took advantage of the darkness and gave her soulmate a kiss on the head. "Iíll be by shortly." She handed Gabrielle her bag and shouldered her own. "Letís go." She gave the Amazons a look, and they started after the striding man.
Gabrielle watched them go, then she turned her attention to Johan, and walked over to him. He put an arm around her shoulders. "Isaac, this is Gabrielle."
The man hardly looked at her. "Fine... letís go then." He patted the horse next to him. "Iíll give you a hand untracing these beauties."
The bard felt a burn of anger, but hid it by walking around to the other side of the horses and starting to unbuckle the tack, a task she knew at least as well as Johan did. Her fingers worked automatically, as she ignored the startled look from the village leader.
"Plucky lass.. has she any skills?" Isaac inquired, glancing at Johan.
The ex trader watched the fair head bend itself into her task. "Oh, aye... sheís a fair, fair cook.. and a wondrous storyteller." He replied. "And a great one for getting the bargains." Xena had coached him on what to say, and he said it, but ached at the short shrift it gave the young bard.
The village leader grunted. "Donít have much call for tale telling, but a cook is always welcome." He acknowledged, as he watched Gabrielle lift the heavy tack up and sling it into the wagon. "Strong un, she is. We can work something out, Iím sure...if she bears a son, sheíll be a welcome addition in the bargain." He sighed, as they walked the horses into the stable, and gave them feed and water. "Her husband die in the raid?"
Gabrielle turned and looked right at him. "My husband was killed by a bloodthirsty lunatic." She stated flatly. "But I donít like to talk about it." She also hated being talked about like she wasnít there. "But thanks for asking."
The man grunted, then gestured. "Come... my home waits." He started off, taking Johanís arm, and glancing at Gabrielle, dismissing her to follow behind.
The bardís palms itched, as she tagged along, and she realized what her body was desperately wanting was the familiar feel of her staff. And to do what with, Gabrielle? Clobber that guy? She sighed inwardly, at the desire. And you were worried about Xena.
Matthiasí house was a low, one story dwelling with an attached stockyard to one side holding what smelled to Xena like chickens and geese. She had pulled Solari aside as they walked, and given her some terse instructions, then grimly followed an openly smirking Cesta and a stomping Matthias back to the house. He walked in first, and looked behind him, obviously waiting for them to come in.
Xena slipped in ahead of Cesta, ducking her head slightly to clear the doorframe. Inside was a square room, with a roughly built table on one side, and a small food preparation area nearby. Through a doorway in the back, she could see a further room with pallets, obviously for the three children who were clustered around a fair, thin woman of middling height in an apron and long dress.
"Sarah... we have two visitors." Matthias called over. "Isaac has asked me to shelter them until he can find a permanent place for them. " He gestured. "She will make you comfortable.. I have work to attend to." He stalked out, leaving the three women alone with the children.
The woman looked up from her pot, gazing at the two newcomers with gentle interest. "You are welcome in our home." She put the spoon down and walked over, holding a hand out to Xena, who was a pace ahead of Cesta. "Pay no heed to my husbandís shortness... he has so much on his mind.."
Xena took her hand in a gentle grasp and released it. "Itís nice of you to put us up." She stated quietly. "My name is Xena, and this is Cesta... our village was burned out by a raider band."
Sarah pursed her lips, as she nodded a greeting to the silent Amazon. "That is truly horrible... Iím so sorry for you. Itís a grace of the Lordís that you made it here." She glanced around. "These are our children... my eldest son Jacob.. " She put her hand on the dark head of a small boy of perhaps six or seven, who gazed up at them with truculent eyes. He had a snub nose, and a slightly pointed chin. "And his younger brother Ruben." A lad of three or four looked up at his name from the wooden toy he was playing with on the floor. He put a finger in his mouth as he looked at them with big, brown eyes. "And their sister Rebekah." A girl of nine or so peeked at them from behind a spinning wheel, and gave them a tentative smile.
"Theyíre lovely children." Cesta stated, with a toothy smile. "And you have a very nice home."
Sarah smiled back at her. "Thank you... we have a small room in the back where my parents are coming to stay in... you can stay there. " She motioned for them to follow her. "Come.. you can put your things down, and get settled." She started walking, with them following but little Jacob picked up a stick heíd been waving around and stepped in their path, poking it in Xenaís direction at the level of her knees.
"Halt!" He put up a hand self importantly. "You canít pass."
The warrior glanced down, aware of a smirking Cesta at her back. "I canít?"
"No." He waved the stick at her.
Xena knelt down, so that her head was on a level with is, and peered at him, resting her forearms on her knee. "Why not?"
He blinked. "Cause I said so.... My daddy isnít here, so Iím in charge."
The warrior nodded sagely. "I see." She considered. "Well, my mother taught me that itís not polite to boss around people who are your guests." She commented. "You donít want to be rude, do you?"
He stared at her, caught in the deep blue gaze. "Um... no."
"Thought so.. tell you what.. why donít you let us go through, and Iíll find some way to make it up to you later, okay?"
Jacob turned shy, melting before Xenaís magnetic personality like so many before him. "Okay." He smiled impishly at her, from under long, pale lashes. "Youíre pretty nice, for a girl."
The greatest warrior in Greece gave him a tolerant smile. "Thanks." She stood up and moved past him, ignoring Cestaís sniggering.
Sarah gave her a timid smile. "Youíre very good with children."
Xena glanced at the Amazon, then back at her. "I get a lot of practice." She replied, giving Sarah a wry look.
"Oh.. did you have a big family?" The slim woman inquired kindly.
"Getting larger all the time." Xena deadpanned, ignoring the bug eyed look of outrage on the Amazonís face.
"How nice." Sarah looked a bit confused, but she shook her head. "Please.. come this way." She moved towards the back of the dwelling, and indicated a thin door. "You can settle in there...
It was a small room, and Xena felt her instincts shudder slightly as she forced herself through the door, edging to one side to allow Cesta to enter behind her. One dresser, a small window, and a barely double size bed. The warrior uttered a short curse, switching to a different language as a precaution.
"Oh.. was that Aramaic?" Sarah was just behind her, and her voice sounded surprised and delighted.
"Turkish." Xena replied, with as pleasant a smile as she could muster.
"I so miss hearing Aramaic...I canít say Iíve ever heard that language... I donít.. " Her eyes went over Xenaís tall form doubtfully. "Do they speak that here?"
Ah. "We... um.. come from a trading village." Xena lied. "Lot of merchants.. you know.. you pick up a word or two here and there." She clasped her hands in front of her. "Well, weíll get settled in.. out of your way here."
"Weíre serving a dairy meal tonight.. I hope youíll join us." Sarah peered at them. "Perhaps you can teach my son a word or two of.. Turkish, was it?"
Not that word..."Yes." Xena plastered a polite look on her face. "Sure.. weíd be glad to join you."
Sarah turned around and edged out the door, leaving them to the grand solitude of the small space. "Well." Cesta gave the bed a smirk. ĎThatís cozy."
Xena gave her a look then went to the window, opening the shutters and letting a draft of cool air in. "Donít worry.. youíll have it all to yourself." She murmured, peering out. The back of the house faced a small wooded area, and she could see a path running up, presumably towards the center of the village. It was fairly secluded, and at night would be very dark. Perfect. Everyone goes to sleep, I go find Toris and Jess, we figure out how to get the outta here, we do it, we leave, end of story. She glanced around the peaceful village. This place gives me the creeps.
"Címon, Xena.. " Cesta closed in behind her, and put a hand out, clasping the warriorís arm. "Donít.. ow!"
Xena whirled, and grabbed her, as her already edgy reflexes reacted. With an exasperated look, she shoved her back. "Donít do that." She rasped. "Youíre gonna get hurt."
"Hey.. take it easy champ... " Cesta rubbed her wrist. "Just looking for a little fun here, okay?"
Pale blue eyes glared at her. "I donít like people touching me."
Cesta raised innocent eyebrows. "You canít tell that by the way you and Gabrielle carry on."
"Thatís different." Xena growled, returning her attention to the window.
"Tch tch.. " The tall redhead eyed her appreciatively. "Youíre not gonna tell me one little pregnant blond bard can keep you satisfied, Xena... not from what I heard."
Xena counted to twenty. Then she counted to twenty again. Then she turned around, and leaned against the windowsill in a seductive pose. "So. You want a little fun, huh?"
A big grin creased Cestaís face. "Now youíve got the idea."
Xena slipped past her, closing the door with a negligent foot, then circled Cesta, stalking her like a large, hungry cat. "Oh yeah.. Iíve got the idea."
"Heh... " Cesta watched, a touch nervously as the ice blue eyes focused on her. " Right." She took a step back as Xena closed in, suddenly aware of the magnetic presence of the warrior, which became more intense the closer she got. Her throat went dry.
"Well you know.. you might have a point there." Xena purred, forcing her back another step, and letting her personality off itís leash. "Because I do love to have fun... " Her voice dropped an octave, rumbling in her chest. She reached out, slipping past Cestaís defenses and gave her a little shove towards the bed. "I really do."
"Uh." The redhead stuttered.
"This what you had in mind, Cesta?" The warrior gave her another shove, which put her on her back on the bed. Xena leaned over her, and stared down, her eyes half lidded. "Hmm? Think you can handle me?"
Wide, overwhelmed gray eyes stared back at her. "Uh."
"Nice big girl like you? Hmm???" A grin found its way onto Xenaís face. "I can think of lots of things that would make you scream." She chuckled softly.
"Uh...well.. you know.. maybe with that family in the other room.. uh... that um... " Cesta squirmed, realizing she was trapped by a large, very strong, very aggressive, very sexual animal. "Maybe itís not such a good idea."
"No?" Innocent blue eyes widened.
"Uh..." Cesta felt like crying.
Abruptly Xena stood up and smiled. "Maybe youíre right... not everyone can take me like Gabrielle does... I donít want you getting... hurt." She took a step away, her eyes never leaving Cestaís.
"Ah.. good thought.. I mean.. uh.. " Cesta launched herself off the bed and got to the door in record time. "Iíll.. go get the bags. Yeah.. thatís a good idea.. Iíll be right back." She whisked out the exit at a near run.
"No problem." Xena commented to the hastily closed door. "Take your time." She leaned against the wall and chuckled to herself, shaking her head in pure amusement. "Oh... Gabrielle... you did wonders for my reputation.. I think I just returned the favor." She sighed to her absent soulmate, then she chewed her lip thoughtfully. "I hope you donít kill me for that."
Gabrielle followed Johan towards Isaacís house, checking out the village as they passed through it. The village leader was talking about a series of raids theyíd been suffering in the area, but he seemed quite proud of their ability to fend the brigands off. The bard padded along after them, half listening, and half wishing the adventure over. She wasnít really in the mood for this... the religious undertones of the village rubbed sense so recently faced with a different sort raw, and she fought her tendency to find familiarities between this set of zealots and that other set.
She sighed and wondered if they were really part of the One God faith, and if so, why were they settling here, so deep into Greece? The gods of Olympus were as entrenched as a herd of sows in these parts. They entered a small yard fenced in with wooden posts, which held a garden and several chickens. To one side was a small storage shed, and directly in front of them was a well built home, with a neatly thatched roof and well made doors and windows. As they walked towards the door, it opened inward, pulled out of their way by a petite woman with gray hair, and a quiet smile.
"Leah, weíve got some guests here." Isaac stated gruffly, turning to Johan. "This is a traveler gone on hard times, name of Johan.. heís got eight good strong girls with him.. looking to settle down."
The woman peeked out at them, and nodded. "Welcome to our home." Her eyes slid past Johan to find Gabrielleís watchful eyes. "Please, come in."
"Johanís daughter here is with child... theyíll be staying with us until we can get them placed." Isaac informed her. "Take them to the back room, and then weíll have some dinner." He slapped Johanís shoulder. "You must have tales of the road then, good sir...we havenít heard much these last few weeks."
Leah sidled over to Gabrielle and put a tiny hand on her arm. "Come... let them talk... letís get you comfortable."
The bard sighed inwardly. "Iím fine, thanks.. what a nice home you have." She glanced around, seeing the spotless cleanliness, and the few, but well made items of furniture proudly displayed. On one side of the house was a sturdy table, with a set of dressers behind it, and in the opposite corner a bookshelf with leather bound volumes tucked into it. "Are those books?"
Leah glanced over. "The holy writings.. yes.. Isaac keeps them, for when the quorum comes over to discuss the meanings of them." She peeked at the bard. "How far along are you..um... "
"Gabrielle." The bard took her hesitantly offered hand and squeezed it. "Five moons, actually." She put a hand on her belly. "Have you any children?"
Leah pulled her further into the house, away from the two men. "I have not been so blessed." She admitted softly. "It has been a great disappointment for us.. was your husband killed in the raid? How sad... "
"No.. he died a l... a few months ago." Gabrielle corrected herself hastily. "Right after.. um.." She hesitated. "You know."
"Yes. Yes.. " Leah blushed, and half turned away. "Well, let me take you to where you can rest...you must be exhausted." She led Gabrielle towards a curtained off doorway. "I have some warm goats milk... let me get you some."
The bard winced. "No.. no really.. Iím fine... " She followed the older woman into the small room, which held two pallets, and a dresser made of a pale wood. "I got some sleep in the wagon on the way here."
"Really?" Leah turned and looked at her with interest, now that they were alone. "Could you really sleep in that thing? I tried once, and it jarred me black and blue." Her eyes blinked. "How old are you, child?"
A faint smile edged Gabrielleís lips. "Old enough not to be called a child, actually." Her voice took on a kind tone, though, to take the sting out of her words. "Iíve just finished my twentieth year." Gods... she suddenly mused. It seems impossible...timeís going by so fast.
"Goodness.. is this your first?" Leah sounded surprised.
Such simple question, with such complex answers. "Yes." Gabrielle replied, after a slight pause.
"Well... " The older woman considered that. "We usually start having children much younger than that... but perhaps... " She laughed a touch nervously. "And here I am going on about it, when I havenít even a one... you can rest here, Gabrielle.."
"Actually.. " The bard ran a hand through her hair. "Iíd rather help you prepare dinner.. if thatís all right.. I like to keep busy." She paused. "To keep my ...um.. mind off of things, you know?"
A look of contrition covered the tiny womanís face. "Oh my goodness.. of course.. how foolish of me... please, at the very least, you can keep me company at the fire." She fluttered around the bard, who gave her a kindly smile. "Come.. come... perhaps we can share a recipe or two."
Thank the gods itís me here. Gabrielle felt an almost helpless laugh coming on. I can imagine Xena dealing with her.. wonder how sheís getting along? She followed Leah dutifully into the main room, and stopped to wash her hands in the hand basin, careful to scrub off the evidence of a long afternoonís traveling. Her poor practical, no nonsense soulmate... but when she had to be subtle...
Theyíd been traveling all day down some of the dustiest roads sheíd ever seen. Finally, about twilight, theyíd come upon a small, drab looking village on the edge of a dark blue lake. It hadnít been much of a place, just a tiny market, a tinier inn, six or seven houses, and a decrepit barn.
Gabrielle had stretched out her back, stiff from walking all day, and started to trudge towards the inn, surprised when she heard the thump of Xena dismounting, and the soft crunch as the warrior caught up to her.
"How about we trade?" Xena had said, clearing her throat and glancing at the inn. "You take Argo, and Iíll get us a room."
Gabrielleís brows had knit. "Um... " She exchanged looks with Argo. "Sure... sure.. no problem." She put a hand on the mareís bridle, as Xena gave her a brief grin, then watched as the warrior strode off towards the tiny hostel. "Thatís weirder than albino crickets, Argo."
The mare had snorted, and bumped her in the side, and sheíd shook her head as she led Argo into the barn, finding the most sheltered and sturdiest stall for her. "Letís see... Iím glad Xenaís been letting me help with this lately.. " She carefully pulled their bags off, then unbuckled the girth strap on the mareís saddle, pulling it off with a grunt, and laying it over the edge of the stall. "Wow.. thatís heavy."
The bridle came next, and the saddle blanket, which she laid over the stall as well. Then she went and dipped Argo some water, and pulled down a thick, fragrant clump of hay for her to munch on. "There you go, girl..." She took out a soft piece of linen and rubbed the horse down, then she cleared off most of the traveling dust from the worn, but well maintained leather of her tack. "We can finish that up tomorrow, like Xena usually does." She told the busily chewing mare. "Okay?"
Argo snorted, then raised her head, as the door opened and Xena came ambling in, resting her forearms on edge of the stall. "Nice job." She complimented Gabrielle.
Pale green eyes had gazed at her. "Do we have a room?" She asked, putting a hand on her hip and doing her best to imitate her companionís gruff manner.
Unaccountably, Xena had glanced down, then back up, peeking at her from under dark, sexy lashes. "Probably paid more than you would have, but yeah." She commented. "Címon... smells pretty good in there, even though itís half the size of this stall."
Gabrielle had knelt by her bag. "Okay.. let me grab some dinars."
"No.. no... " Xenaís hand on her shoulder had stopped her. "Um... my treat."
Slowly, Gabrielle had straightened, and looked closely at the taller woman. "Excuse me?"
A shrug. "Itís um... well, you paid last time.. itís my turn." Xena explained offhandedly. "No big deal."
"Uh huh." The bard had walked up and peered at Xena. "Are you feeling all right?"
The big warriorís face scowled. "Of course I am... Hades, Gabrielle.. canít I pay for dinner without being accused of having a fever? Iím sorry you donít think I... " Sheíd fallen silent, almost sullenly so.
"No.. itís fine.. I was just.. " Gabrielle had paused, trying to figure out what was bothering her friend. "Itís just that usually, when you change the way weíve been doing things for over two years, you have a reason." She patted the warrior on the arm. "I didnít mean to get you mad... come on... " Sheíd tucked her hand around the muscular surface. "Itís almost like weíre having a date or something."
Silence, and a flash of a guilty look from very blue eyes.
Gabrielle felt a little foolish. "Oh." Sheíd found herself blushing, and studying her feet. "Put my foot in that, didnít I?" Sheíd murmured.
Xena had sighed, and kicked a cast off horseshoe. "Iím not really good at this." She admitted. "I..um... every other time.. I... " Sheíd paused, then went on. "Iím just not... Iíve never had to.. observe the conventions, so to speak." Sheíd cleared her throat, then took a breath and gave the bard a sideways glance. "So.. how about it? You want to have dinner with me, or what?"
Gabrielle could have pointed out, of course, that they had dinner, and lunch, and breakfast with each other every single day, and had done the same for over two years, with very few exceptions. "Iíd really like that." Sheíd answered softly. "Iíve never been... um... " Sheíd fallen silent for a moment. "No one ever asked me before and I... Iím not really sure... "
Xena had held her hand out, waiting until the bard had taken it, then sheíd closed her fingers, wrapping them around Gabrielleís in a warm grip. "Weíll improvise." She reassured her. "Címon.. letís go have some fun."
Theyíd walked across that courtyard hand in hand, and Gabrielle had felt her heart soaring up to meet the stars. "Hey... you think theyíve got some cake or something?"
"Theyíd better." Xena mused.
"You didnít let them con you out of a ton of dinars, did you?" The bard had laughed.
Xena had smirked back. "Nope.. that reputationís good for something, though."
Theyíd both laughed, and kept going.
Running footsteps made them both look up, and Gabrielle blinked in surprise as Cesta popped her head inside the door, and spotted her.
"Gabrielle." The tall redhead oozed into the room, and crossed to her, wiping her hands nervously together. "Listen.. I was just thinking.. "
"Dangerous." The bard murmured.
"Um.. you know, that Matthias is a swell guy.. and heís got a nice place.. and three really cute kids... those kids would just love to hear stories.. and.. well, we all know how great you are at that so.. I think we should change places." Cesta got it out in a huge breath, and stared at her. "Please?"
What in Hades is this all about? Gabrielleís green eyes widened a little. "Hold on.. slow down." She put a hand out. "I can just go there to tell stories... is there a problem?"
"Uh." Cesta licked her lips nervously. "Your sister misses you." She nodded fiercely. "A lot."
Gabrielle had to turn away, and half cover her face, which was twitching into a helpless grin. She got herself under control and turned back around, then cleared her throat, and glanced at Leah apologetically. "She was traumatized by the attack... you have to forgive her."
Leah cooed, and patted Cestaís arm. "Now now.. take it easy.... " She peered at Gabrielle. "Is your sister very upset too? Maybe it would be better if you saw to her.. since you seem so assured."
"Um." Gabrielle scratched her jaw. "My sister tends to react in...mm.. unexpected ways... maybe Iíd better go see whatís going on." What in the world is that troublemaker up to now? "Cesta.. you.. why donít you stay here for now, okay?"
"Absolutely." The redhead agreed immediately.
Isaac and Johan came back over, hearing the raised voices. "What happens here?" Isaac demanded, glancing at Cesta. "You were to go with Matthias."
Gabrielle gently folded her hands. "It.. um.. apparently thereís a problem with my sister... Iíd like Cesta to stay here, and Iíll go there to see if I can help."
Isaac eyed Cesta for a long moment, then gave a brief nod. "Johan, does that suit you?"
The ex traderís eyes twinkled as he ruffled Gabrielleís hair. "Whatever suits my little one here suits me."
The bard gave him a hug. "Thanks dad."
"You take care of your sister now, hear?" Johan advised her solemnly.
"I will.. " Gabrielle shouldered her bag, and wiped the grin off her face before she turned, and gave them all a brief nod. "Bye."
It was a short walk to Matthiasí house, after she stopped and asked directions from a young boy who told her impatiently then stalked off. She tapped on the door, and smiled when a young woman answered it. "Hello."
"Hello." The woman looked taken aback. "Iím sorry, I was expecting..."
"I know." Gabrielle stuck her hand out. "My name is Gabrielle.. Cesta and I are going to be switching places... the other woman staying her is my sister."
"Ah!" The woman smiled. "I see.. I see.. how nice." She backed up to allow Gabrielle to enter. "My name is Sarah.. Matthias went out to talk to a friend, but you are welcome here, Iím sure." She lead the way inside. "So you two are sisters? Forgive me.. you donít look much alike."
Gabrielle bit her lip, realizing that no one else had even questioned it. "I know. Everyone tells us that." She replied politely. "Itís just one of those things, I guess.. she looks like mom, I look like dad." Sort of, she mused. Johan shared her relatively short stature, and lighter features, enough to get away with.
"Well, thatís lovely.. your sister seems very smart." Sarah mentioned, lowering her voice. "Did you know she speaks Turkish?"
Uh oh. "Some words of it, yes." Gabrielle nodded. "And she is very smart."
"Let me introduce you..." She motioned to the small boy sitting on the floor. "Thatís my son, and his brother Ruben." She glanced over. "And Rebekah, my girl." She smiled at the bard. "Jacob was quite taken with your sister."
Gabrielle smiled. I bet. "She has that effect on people... " Her eyes found Jacobís, and warmed. "Especially handsome little boys."
Sarah beamed with pride. "Why, thank you." She took Gabrielleís arm, and steered her towards the back room. "I hate to say this, but youíre much more pleasant than that other woman.. she ran out of here like wolves were chasing her."
"Sheís been through a lot." The bard bit her lip. "Is that.. " She pointed at the door.
"Yes.. your sister is in there... please join us for dinner as soon as my husband gets home."
"Thanks." Gabrielle smiled at her, then at the children, then slipped through the door and closed it behind her. Her eyes found the tall, silent figure at once, her head outlined against a canopy of stars seen out the window. As she watched, Xena turned, and leaned lazily on the windowsill, a faint smile playing about her lips. "Okay, what in the name of Hades did you do to Cesta?"
Oh so innocent blue eyes. "ME?" Xena pointed at her chest in mock surprise. "Why Gabrielle... I havenít the faintest idea of what youíre talking about."
Gabrielle put her hands on her hips, and gave her beloved soulmate a wry look. "Uh uh... save that Ďbutter wouldnít melt in my mouthí attitude for someone who hasnít lived with you for over three years, Madam Warrior Scheming Princess."
That got a little, surprised chuckle out of Xena. "Not buying it, huh?" She teased. "She um... was being very persistent in wanting my attentions, so I gave them to her."
Gabrielle blinked. "What?"
Xena pushed off from the sill and crossed to her partner, leaning an arm on either shoulder and touching her forehead to the smaller womanís. "I chased her butt around this room and told her I was going to make her scream like a cat in heat."
The bardís eyes closed. "Oh gods."
"Mmhm.... She decided it probably wasnít a good idea." Xena purred, with a sly chuckle. "But now has a lot more respect for you, my love."
Gabrielle snorted a helpless laugh, and buried her face into Xenaís chest. "Not exactly how I like to earn respect, but Iíll take it." She managed to mumble, feeling the warmth of Xenaís breath against her neck. "So she sent me over here.. said it would be better if I .. um.. handled you."
"Well." Xena smiled, and released her. "Sheís not so stupid after all." She exhaled, and indicated the bed. "That certainly looks a lot better now."
"Mmm." Gabrielle regarded it, then eyed her soulmate. "Were you going to share that with her?"
Xena just snorted.
"Okay.. just asking." The bard smiled, then looked around. "Well, hopefully, it wonít be long... this place... " She searched around for a word for it. "Ew."
The warrior nodded. "Not exactly how Iíd put it, but yeah." She went to the window and peered out. "I figure I can hunt around after everyone goes to sleep... find them, and then we can figure out how to get them out of here."
Gabrielle nodded. "The sooner the better..." She heard a low, male voice outside. "I think thatís our cue for dinner."
"Oh.. you mean the lord of the manor returned?" Xenaís sarcasm was biting. Then she took a breath, and wrestled a smile onto her face. "I just keep telling myself this is good practice developing patience for when our child is born."
The bard sighed, and tucked an arm in hers. "Youíre doing better than I am, tiger... címon." She led the way towards the door, feeling a lot better just being with her soulmate. This might, she reflected, even be kinda fun.
Matthias looked up as the entered, then went back to his conversation with a tall, thin young man who was seated to his right. Gabrielle decided she didnít much like him, and tried to convince herself it wasnít just because he ignored them as though they were insignificant house dressing. That bugged her, and as she looked up at Xenaís still, quiet face, she saw indisputable signs that it bugged her tall soulmate as well.
Sarah was putting bread on the table, and she looked up, wiping her brow a little. "Welcome....could I ask for a hand for a moment? Iíve got a heavy pot and I canít lift it by myself."
Xena allowed her blue eyes to rest on the two chatting men, then she gently guided her soulmate to a seat next to the children. "Iíll help." She murmured, waiting for the bard to sit down before she continued on, following Sarah into the kitchen.
It was a small space, but neatly kept, one side bearing what appeared to be a food preparation area, the other a storage cupboard, stacked with parcels and boxes. On a trivet next to the fireplace was a cast iron pot, almost full with a bubbling substance. Xena paced over, and examined it. "Soup?" She hazarded a guess.
"Yes... mushroom and barley." Sarah smiled. "I made a good amount.. I hope youíre hungry."
Xena tried not to breath in the steam coming off the gray liquid. "Where do you want it?"
Sarah brought a cloth over. "Here.. Iíll take this side, if youíll grab that handle there, I could take it over onto the table there and put it in smaller bowls for serving."
The warrior took the cloth from her, and wrapped it around the thick swinging wire the pot was depending on. "Move over." She lifted the pot off the trivet, and walked with it over to the table, setting it on the wooden surface and stepping back. "That what you had in mind?" She stated shortly.
"Goodness." Sarah murmured, staring at her. "Youíre very strong... Matthias has trouble lifting that."
Xena sighed inwardly. Whoops. "I.. um... work with horses a lot." She temporized. "And um... help harvest.. you know, in the fields?" She swept her arm in a scything motion.
"Ah.. " Sarah smiled in understanding. "I see... of course... well, you wonít have to worry about that here." She hesitantly patted Xenaís arm. "Weíre not expected to do that."
The warrior studied the piece of linen. "What are you expected to do?" She inquired curiously. "Thereís nothing wrong with what I did there.. I enjoyed it."
The slim woman sighed. "Itís such a different culture... my work here is my home, and my family.. how could I spend time outside working with animals.. thatís a manís work." She patted Xenaís shoulder again. "Tomorrow, Iíll take you over to the womenís work center...we can explain it all to you there. I know youíll get used to it.. you seem intelligent."
"Iíll do my best." Xena replied, with a forced grimace that might have been taken for a smile. In the dark. If you didnít know her well. "Do you want this inside?" Anything to get this dinner moving, and get the night in progress. "I can just bring it in."
Gabrielle watched her partner disappear, then turned her attention to her tablemates. The two men continued their discussion, pointedly excluding her, so she turned her attention to the children. The eldest boy was scowling, listening to his father and their guest with an absurdly serious expression. The younger boy just sat quietly, playing with a cup on the table, and plucking at his lower lip. Gabrielle caught his eye as he looked up. "Hello."
He blinked at her. ""lo."
"Whatís your name?" The bard asked gently.
He didnít answer, preferring to continue playing with his lip and rocking back and forth instead.
"His name is Ruben." The girl to her left said softly. "He doesnít talk much."
Gabrielle gazed at her, then held out a hand. "My nameís Gabrielle... whatís yours?"
"Rebekah." The girl smiled shyly, then tentatively gripped the bardís outstretched hand. "Are you going to have a baby?"
The bard studied her, noting the thin, almost translucent skin. "Yes I am... in a little while." She told her. "Whatís your other brotherís name?"
"Thatís Jacob." Rebekah answered readily. "Are you glad youíre going to have a baby?"
What a strange question. "Very much so.." Gabrielle told her. "Iím looking forward to it.. .why?"
She shrugged. "I donít know...Iíve had to take care of my younger brother since he was a baby.. itís not much fun." She glanced at the boys, then back at Gabrielle. "Whoís going to take care of you? Papa said your husbands all got killed."
Remember who youíre supposed to be, Gabrielle.. not who you are, okay? "Well, honey... thatís why my father brought us here... heíll make sure Iím okay. And I still have him, and my sister...itís not like Iím all alone." The bard explained. "Theyíll help too."
"Mm." The girl kicked her chair a little. "Your sisterís pretty."
Gabrielle felt a smile cross her face. "Yes she is."
"You are too.. but you donít look alike. How come?" Rebekah seemed to be edging out of her shell, obviously entranced with talking to someone other than her family.
"Well, Xena looks like our mother, and I take after our father... so thatís how that works." Gabrielle explained easily. She glanced up to see her soulmate returning and reflected on how nice she looked in the soft fabric. The light from the candles bathed her, and gentled her powerful features, and the bard got a quick, flickering smile from her as she set down a large pot on the table. She waited for bowls of the stuff to be passed around, noting that Sarah was careful to serve Matthias and his guest first, then she and Xena got theirs, then the children.
Seeing that they were still going to be ignored, she turned to Rebekah. "Would you like to hear a story?"
The girlís eyes lit up. "Do you know any? Iíve heard all the ones from the holy book."
"I know some, yes." Gabrielle assured her, now noting she had the two boysí attention as well. "Do you have any kind you like to hear?"
"Ones with lots of fights.... " Jacob interjected. "And soljers... you know those kind?"
"Ah, now... " Matthias finally glanced their way. "Be still, Jacob.. these little girls know not of that kind of thing.. probably never been past them mountains, then, have you ?" He turned his eyes pointedly to Gabrielle.
"Well.. " The bard held her temper. "Since fatherís a trader... yes, actually.. Iíve been a little further than that... tell you what, how about the story of David and Goliath.. would you like to hear that?"
Three heads nodded, and the bard took a bite of her bread after taking a taste of the soup and understanding the wry look from her soulmate. "Okay... this is what happened... "
Xena maintained her silence, swallowing her soup while trying not to taste it as she listened to Gabrielle relate the familiar story.
Leaving out their parts in it, of course, which would have been a little hard to explain. She noticed that partway through, Matthias stopped his conversation and started listening, and by the time the talented bard was done, was glued to her every bit as much as the children were.
"Gabrielle, that was wonderful.. it was almost like you were there." Sarah smiled, as she put down her spoon. "Youíre going to be terrific with the children.. donít you think, Matthias?"
The man grunted, giving the young bard an appraising look. "Might be.. might be... Johan said youíd the talent for that." He admitted. "What happened to that other one.. Isaac said she went crazed?"
"She.. um.... " Gabrielle pursed her lips. "She was pretty traumatized by the whole thing.. you know." She glanced around, then exhaled. "Well... I.. um... itís getting pretty late.. I think Iíd better go rest." She patted her stomach and gave them all an apologetic look when the children chorused a protest. "Tomorrow Iíll tell you about the Trojan War, okay?"
"Oh of course... you must be exhausted." Sarah stood up, nervously wiping her hands. "That bed in there is so small.. will it be all right for you?"
"Fine." They both answered together, then glanced at each other. "We. .um.. weíve been sleeping in the same bed for a long time." Xena stated blithely. "Weíre used to it."
"Isnít that nice?" Sarah looked at her children. "I hope you all get along together like that when you get older."
Xena draped an arm over Gabrielleís shoulders. "Címon, sis... letís get you settled... " She stated innocently, as the bard rose and they both retreated to their small room. The door closed behind them and Gabrielle stuck her tongue out and made a horrible face. "All right, Ms. Warrior Princess of intestinal fortitude.. how in the seven levels of Hades did you manage to eat that stuff?"
Xena grinned. "I thought you added a few extra parts onto that story.. were you waiting for your soup to evaporate?"
"Ugh... Xena.... Gross. Ick." The bard complained. "What was in that? No.. no... please.. on second thought, donít tell me."
The warrior chuckled, and crossed to her pack, digging out a small package and tossing it to her soulmate. "Here... "
Gabrielle pounced on it, and uncovered the contents, letting out a soft squeal of delight. "My hero."
Xena relaxed on the small bed, leaning on an elbow and gazing at her in some amusement. "So glad I could be of service." She drawled. "Save a piece for me, okay? I need to get this taste out of my mouth." She muttered, getting up and going back to her pack, then digging out a small sack. "Ah.. nevermind." She tugged a small honey colored ball from the sack and popped it into her mouth. "Mm... thatís better." She sat back on her heels and regarded the small room. "So.. what do you think?"
Gabrielle was busy munching on the small cakes and fruit rolls "About what?"
"These people." Xena sat down and leaned against the wall, circling her upraised knee with both arms. "This... religion."
"Well." Gabrielle walked over, and carefully sat down next to her, leaning against the wall as well and passing over a bit of cake. "I think itís unfair of us to judge them....we come from such a different way of life, Xena." She chewed and swallowed. "I mean... would I put up with that for one minute? No.. but then, Iíve lived with you for more than three years, and I know a different life. " She took a bite of fruit roll. "If I didnít know anything else.. maybe Iíd just accept it, like they do."
"Mm." Xena shook her head "It just seems so... I mean, I know thatís what our culture is like at the villager level... like your family is, Gabrielle.. .but it still... putting people in such restrictive roles seems to me to be a waste of resources."
Gabrielle thought about that for a while. "I donít think they look at it that way.. I think... just from listening to them talk, itís more like they think bearing and raising children is the most important thing of all.. so they want the women to concentrate on that, and not get involved in anything else." She replied slowly.
"Yeah, Iíd buy that if they valued the children equally.. but itís obvious the boys are the ones they want." Xena objected with a dour look. "And that blows that theory out of the water, Gabrielle... itís more like theyíre using the women as breeding stock."
The bard winced. "Ouch... well, I donít know... " She thought. "They donít show much respect for women, thatís true." She fell silent. "They have a right to their beliefs, though." She shook her head. "Sarah seems to be happy."
"Mm.." Xena shrugged. "I donít think her daughter is."
"No." Gabrielle mused. "Thereís something a little familiar there." She gave Xena a wry look. "I was thinking, before, about what my life would have been like if I hadnít met you, and if the slavers hadnít attacked us." She nibbled on a bit of pastry. "Would I be like Sarah? Working all day to take care of kids, and trying to make Perdicus happy?"
Xena remained silent.
"Would I have been happy doing that?" The bard wondered softly, letting her eyes wander and rest on her soulmateís face, seeing the tense lines of her jaw muscles clamped tight, the only sign of inner distress. She watched the movement as Xena swallowed, but didnít speak. "I donít think I would have been." Gabrielle concluded gently. "But I wouldnít have known any different, so maybe I would have thought I was." She leaned against Xenaís warm body, resting her cheek on the tense shoulder, and brushing the skin there with her lips. "Lucky for me, I do know different, so I know that I really am happy."
Xena didnít move or speak, but the bard could feel the tension slowly drain out of her, and she started to roll the candy around in her mouth again. "What about you? Do you ever wonder?" She asked the warrior curiously.
Long silence. "I try not to entertain what ifs like that, Gabrielle." Her partner finally said quietly. "Thereís no point to it." She let her chin rest on her forearm.
Gabrielle waited, patiently.
"I donít know." Xena went on, after a pause. "Itís so impossible for me to imagine... the closest I came to thinking about it was at the Fates temple....when they sent me into that alternative possibility.. and then..." She slowly shook her head. "I still knew who I was....if I hadnít.... " Xena closed her eyes, and forced her imagination to put herself in Sarahís place. She was quiet a long moment, then let her eyes drift open and turned her head, resting her cheek on her forearm. "I think I would have turned out like Menelda... angry at the world and hardly understanding why."
Gabrielle studied her face. "Youíre too smart." She reached over and pushed the dark hair out of Xenaís eyes. "I worry about keeping you occupied for a few months at home... I think youíre right." The restless, impatient intelligence... and the aggressiveness that was as much a part of Xena as her blue eyes... no, she wouldnít have been happy and content as some merchantís wife. "Iím glad."
"What?" The warriorís brows creased.
"Iím glad.. I like you the way you are." Gabrielle replied, simply. "Iíll be exploring different facets of you for the rest of my life, and never uncover all of them." She smiled. "Itís great."
Finally, that brought a grudging smile to Xenaís face. "You know, Gabrielle.. that might be the single nicest thing youíve ever said to me." The warrior commented, giving her partner an affectionate look. "Címon... letís get off this hard floor." She stood and offered a hand up to the bard. "We have time to relax a little and let everyone get to sleep before I go out snooping."
She changed into a dark tunic and boots, and helped Gabrielle get into one of her sleeping shirts, then laid down on the small bed and waited as the bard snuggled up to her contentedly. They could hear the low tones of discussion droning on in the next room, and Xena felt herself relaxing, as the candle fluttered on the bedside table, sending a hint of tallow to them on the night breeze. Outside, only the small sounds of animals, and the occasional door opening and closing broke the silence.
"Oh." Gabrielle twitched a little.
"Kicking?" The warrior inquired, putting a hand on the bulge under her partnerís ribcage. "Wow.. yeah... " A bit of a chuckle entered her voice. "Time to start talking about names?" She asked, kissing the bardís head. "Looks like he or she is going to have a feisty personality... not that Iím surprised."
"Hah hah... like Iím the only feisty one in this partnership." Gabrielle retorted. She waited for Xena to correct her, and was pleasantly surprised when the warrior didnít. "Okay... well... you thought it might be a girl... right?"
"Mm.." Xena agreed, pulling her a little closer. "I donít know why... but yeah."
The baby moved again, and she patted her belly. "Easy there.. no backflips just yet, okay? " She told it, peeking a look at Xenaís face. Hmm.. no protest to that, either.... Interesting. "We could name her Argo." She mused seriously.
Xena squeaked in startlement, then laughed. "Gabrielle!!"
"Well, you like that name." The bard objected mildly. "I know you do... okay, okay.. what about...Minya."
Another laugh. "Gab-re-ielle"
The bard giggled softly. "Iíd love to name her for you, but you wonít let me get away with that, will you?"
A sad look. "Iím not saddling a child with that kind of legacy, my love." Xena quietly objected. "Thatís not fair and you know it... but what about naming her for you?" She played with the bardís hair idly.
"No... " Gabrielle shook her head. "I donít want that... I guess weíll have to think about it. I mean.. do you give children names because of your dreams.. or let them find their own?"
Xena thought about the last name Gabrielle had given a child and kissed the bardís head again. "Maybe something will occur to us... thatís what happened to me with Argo." She felt her soulmate giggle. "Iím not kidding."
"Maybe." Gabrielle let her eyes close, and allowed the comfort of Xenaís warm presence to surround her, suddenly very glad Cesta had decided to chicken out. "Thanks." She mumbled.
"For what?" The low voice answered.
For a reply, Gabrielle simply squeezed her.
At last, the silence extended everywhere. Xena lifted her head a bit, and concentrated, hearing nothing but the faint creak of boards settling, and a soft clank as the lantern outside the dwelling hit against itís post. Gently, she disengaged herself from Gabrielleís tenacious grip, and settled the bardís limp body down onto the bedís cover. She stood up and went to their bags, tugging out her light cloak and returning to tuck it around her sleeping partner.
The bard let out a soft sound of protest, and reached for her, and she knelt beside the bed. "No.. itís okay, Gabrielle.. Iíll be right back."
A fluttering of golden eyelashes, then a hint of silvered reflection as pale green eyes slipped into the faint candlelight. A hand curled around her arm. "Xena?"
"Shh...itís okay." The warrior soothed her. "Iím just going to find Tor and Jess... and Iíll be right back.. you go to sleep." She chafed the bardís hand. "If someone sees me, itís a lot easier to explain one person out wandering than two."
"Like someoneís going to see you." The bard retorted grumpily.
Half- hidden blue eyes peered at her. "You want to come with me? Okay." Xena had learned something in the past three years. Tell Gabrielle she couldnít do something, and you might as well just pack it in right then and there.
Gabrielleís nostrils flared a bit, then she lowered her chin to rest on her arm. "No.. go on.. youíre right... itís safer for you to go alone." She admitted grudgingly. "But donít take long, or Iím coming out after you."
Xena chuckled, and ruffled her hair. "Be right back." She stood and moved to the window, peering out for a long silent moment before she put her hands on the sill, and vaulted over it, landing soundlessly on the earthen ground.
Her boots made no sound as she padded along in the darkness, her eyes soaking in even the barest light revealing shadows and shapes invisible to most others. She cast the web of her senses around her also, drinking in the slight sounds of the trees and brush around her, and smelling the earthy scents of horses, and goats, and the small herb gardens she was passing. The wind was cold, and somewhat damp, and she sucked it into her lungs with a sense of relief from the almost claustrophobic closeness of the cottage.
She circled the village once, to get her bearings, and then investigated the large buildings towards the back of the village, which butted right up against a crook in the mountain.
One was apparently a gathering place. Xena poked her head in, and caught the scent of parchment and dust, and she padded inside, looking around with curious blue eyes at the wooden benches and the sturdy cabinets at one end. The room was divided in two, with a tall wooden wall down the center, and she peeked around it, to see another series of benches, apparently the same as the ones on nearer side of the wall. It smelled of oil, too, and a hint of herbs which made her nose itch. She roamed to the cabinet in the front and peeked inside, seeing a set of scrolls tucked neatly within it. Curiously, she lifted one out, and unrolled part of it, leaning close to see the text.
It was illegible to her, characters unlike any she was familiar with, and she rolled it back up and put it carefully back in place, then closed the door before leaving the building and moving around the rear of it.
Soft footfalls alerted her, and she pressed against the wood, stilling herself completely.
A stocky, muscular figure moved right past her, almost brushing her arm as it continued down the beaten path towards what she could see was a wooden doorway built into the mountainside itself. A dark brow edged up, and she slipped after the man, pacing silently after him like a darkling shadow.
He was carrying a sack, and he unlocked the door, pushing it inward with a rusty creak and moving inside. Lantern light poured out, and threw his shadow back behind him, for a bare moment duplicated, then he pushed the door closed behind him and moved on, never seeing the tall, dark haired figure that slipped in behind him.
The cavern was large, and part of it was given over to a storeroom, musty scents of grain and old cheese filled the air. Along one side were alcoves which had been partitioned off with woven branches, and inside those were prisoners.
"Ah." Xena said to herself. "I think I found it." She slipped along behind the jailer, who was tossing bread to the men behind bars, along with rough wooden mugs of what smelled to Xena like sour ale. The men were too busy with their dinner to look up, so they missed the tall shadow following their benefactor along the rocky path.
"Thatís good for ye." The man told them. "Starve yer body, and feed yer soul." He dug in his bag and tossed each man a bit of fruit. "You break the Lordís law, you bow to his justice."
You think heís got more pedantic platitudes, or is he out of them? Xena wondered sourly. She watched him pick up another bag, and head towards the shadows in the back of the cavern, and she followed. He passed three empty chambers before he reached a final one, standing in front of it and peering in. "Hey... fuzzlover."
A pair of familiar blue eyes glared back at him.
"Hereís your food. You cín have it if you beg me." The man laughed.
"Kiss my left nut." Toris growled. "You piece of horseís crap."
"Another day without then, pig." The man stated, then turned and found his face connecting with something very fast, and very hard. He slumped to the floor in a soundless pile.
Toris blinked, then smiled as the shadows parted to reveal a very welcome face. "Zeus, am I ever glad to see you."
Xena grinned back, and relieved the guard of his food bag, tossing it to her brother. "Likewise." She moved closer and put her hands on the bars, peering in at him. "You okay?"
"Get me the Hades out of here, and Iíll be a lot better." Toris told her. "These people are nuts, Xena... totally fruitcake, out of their minds, wacko, kooks.. "
"I get the picture." His sister told him wryly. "Just relax.. Iím checking the place out tonight.. so we can figure out how to get you and Jess... where is he, by the way?"
Toris pointed. "Down that way.. I havenít seen him since they threw me in here, but Iíve heard them talking. "
"Right.. how to get you two out of here without causing a riot." Xena hunted around the area, and retrieved a belt knife, another loaf of bread, and what looked to be the guardís private stock of wine. She sniffed it. "At least itís not bad." She shrugged and handed all three to him. "Just relax, and let me handle this."
"Xena, no offense, but why not just cause a riot?" Toris asked around a mouthful of bread. "Itís not like youíre not good at riots."
It was a good question, Xena mused. The odd reluctance she was feeling towards using force was puzzling her, but so far sheíd put it down to the feeling of mental exhaustion sheíd had since Gabrielle had...come back. His sister sighed. "I know.. but these people arenít breaking any laws.. they just are following their beliefs.. I canít just start kicking them around." Her eyes flicked around the cavern. "Not if thereís another way." She muttered. "Hey.. slow down and chew that."
"First thing Iíve had for three days.. gimme a break." Her brother answered. "Howís Gran? She okay?"
Xena glared at him. "Now youíre asking me?"
Toris stopped chewing, and blinked at her. "I figured if it wasnít youíd have told me right off." He commented plaintively. "Damn, Xena... what are you so prickly for? Iím the one in jail."
"Save it.. weíll talk later." Xena told him. "Sheís fine. Iím going to go find Jess, then Iíll see what weíre going to do in the morning." She peered into the cell. "What all that?" She pointed to piles of parchment.
"Scriptures. " Toris glanced at them. "Explaining why I shouldnít have been rolling around in the bushes with Jessan."
"Were you?" Xena inquired mildly.
"Xena." Toris gave her a look. "Heís not my type, for one thing. Heís not my species, for another."
"That didnít stop Ephiny." Xena grinned. "I always thought Jess was kind of cute, myself."
Her brother stopped chewing, and stared at her, his eyes widening.
"Just kidding." Xena patted his arm. "Donít go anywhere." She dragged the guard over to his pallet, and lifted him up onto it, tucking him neatly into the bunk and dusting her hands off. "No sense in raising suspicions." She muttered, as she continued down the darkened hallway. She could see a faint light ahead, and slowed her steps, also hearing the murmuring of voices.
There was a bend before her, and she went to the edge of it, peering around and into a larger, open area filled with torchlight. In the very center was a large cage, and inside the cage stood Jessan, his seven foot stature sending frightening shadows against the wall. Surrounding him were a group of six men, and they were muttering, reading from parchment, and bobbing up and down. The lead man stepped closer, and sprinkled the forest dweller with a liquid.
"Stop that." Jessan barked. "That stuff smells like weasel piss. "
The man bobbed at him, and went on muttering.
Xena stepped around the edge of the corridor, and stood silently, waiting. After a moment, the liquid gold eyes turned her way, and a large, delighted, toothy grin spread across Jessanís face.
Xena put her finger up to her lips, and tapped her wrist, turning her thumb upmost to indicate he would have to wait a bit. She grinned as he stuck his tongue out, and spread his hands out in a pathetic gesture. She patted the air in a conciliatory gesture, and he sighed visibly.
"Hey guys.. let me clue you in on something, okay?" He increased the volume on his growly voice. "Iím not going to turn into a human, no matter how much of that stuff you spray on me, and how much junk you babble....hello? Hello? Ares, youíre the dumbest humans Iíve ever met." He finished in disgust.
"My son... as long as you call upon the heathen gods, we cannot help you." The man in front intoned seriously. "You must learn that they are nothing but myths... that your true god is the One God."
"They are NOT myths.." Jessan retorted. "You ever met your god?" His eyes widened at them. "Iíve met mine."
They sprinkled him with water again and he groaned, rolling his eyes and staring at Xena over their heads in beseechment. The warrior gave him a sympathetic look, then clasped her hands together, and slipped back into the shadows, heading back towards the front of the cavern. She stopped to say good night to Toris, who was busy chewing the other loaf of bread, then she moved along the row, where the other penitents were quartered. She stopped outside one cavern, and glanced inside, as the inhabitant stared back at her. "What are you in here for?" She asked shortly.
He came to the bars and peered through them, trying to see her better. "I thought lustful thoughts against my neighborís wife." He said faintly.
"Did you do anything about it?" Xena inquired curiously.
He shook his head.
"And thatís a crime here?" She leaned closer, watching his eyes flicker over her.
"Yes." He replied faintly.
She reached through the bars and patted his cheek. "Find another religion, kid." She advised him, before she slipped off towards the door and let herself out.
Minutes later, she vaulted back into the window, and shed her boots, rejoining a sleepy Gabrielle who snuggled up against her immediately. "Hey.. watch it.. Iím kinda chilly." The warrior warned.
"Mm... " The bard wound arms and legs around her. "Not for long." She buried her face into Xenaís chest and sighed happily. "You found them." It wasnít a question.
"Mmhmm.. theyíre okay, just real, real frustrated." Xena wrapped her arms around the bard, and allowed herself the luxury of taking a long breath of air full of her soulmateís scent. It occurred to her that if anyone walked in on them, they might well find themselves in a similar situation.
Well, she decided. They could try putting her in a cage.
Lips tensed into a feral grin.
Continued in Part 3
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