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Complications part 5
Patches of sunlight filtering through the trees mottled the well beaten path they were traveling. Xena found it too hard to concentrate on the road and look at Gabrielle's peaceful face so she gave up trying to do both. Slacking off on the reins to give Argo her head, she concentrated fully on the woman cradled in her arms. The others trailed far enough behind that she was able to imagine they were alone on the road. Xena loved this feeling and used the quiet time to simply look at the Amazon's serene face.
"Are you just going to look at me all day or are you going to kiss me?" Gabrielle smiled but kept her eyes peacefully closed.
"Faker." Xena's retort only widened the Amazon's smile.
"Me?" Her tone was mocking and amused. "I'd say you were the one doing the faking." Finally opening her eyes she grinned at Xena's confused look. "Pretending to be leader of our little band when all along it's Argo who says when we move ...." She looked around. "...and when we stop."
Xena groaned. She had been totally absorbed in Gabrielle and now realized that Argo was standing, stock still, smack in the center of the road.
"Don't get me wrong this is a beautiful place." She patted Argo's neck affectionately "I thank you for stopping to let me see it, but we really need to get moving." Gabrielle lightly touched the horse's sides with her heels and the obedient mare moved a few steps before counter orders were offered.
"No." Xena's quiet refusal and subtle pressure with her knees were enough for Argo and she again stood patiently in the center of the sun-dappled road. "We are nearly there and we need to talk."
They had been sitting still for a while now and Gabrielle knew that the guards would be getting nervous. In an effort to forestall the inevitable story she had to tell, she started to gesture to them. Xena grabbed her hand to stop the motion. The Amazon, knowing her guards better than Xena did, gasped. "Kiss me, quickly." Naturally, Xena complied. Bending her head forward to capture the waiting woman's lips she felt a breeze at her back. The wind blew her dark hair forward and the edges of her black traveling cape also surrendered to the whim of nature.
The guards looked at each other nervously then settled their gazes back on the couple. All of them were uneasy at the sight of the darkness surrounding Xena enveloping their Queen. It did seem though that Gabrielle was quite comfortable with the situation. Karis afforded them a small nod of approval at their quick response and signaled them to lower their weapons.
Xena broke off the kiss and nuzzled Gabrielle's ear. "How's that?"
Gabrielle closed her eyes at the feel of Xena's warm breath on her ear. "Mmmmm nice but .... over and above I think.... I just didn't want you to get seven arrows in the back for grabbing me."
Startled, Xena craned her neck and sure enough all six of the new guards had a bow in her hand. Several of them still had arrows nocked in them. "Seven?" She looked back at Gabrielle. "Karis doesn't have a bow."
The Amazon rolled her eyes. "Like she would shoot you anyway...." Gabrielle laughed. "...Solari would have shot two." Green eyes twinkled at the disbelief in Xena's face. "It's her trademark. One shot, two arrows." She patted Xena's arm. "Let me down." She groaned as Xena gently lowered her to the ground. Standing gingerly on legs used to horseback she grinned wickedly at Xena and patted Argo's neck. "Is it OK if we take a little break here?" She smiled when the golden mare snorted and tossed her head. "I'll take that as a yes." She signaled the others to break.
Breaks were longer than rests so the horses got the burden of their saddles removed for a little while. Gabrielle wished that her burdens could be as easily lifted as the removal of a saddle was for the horses. She sat in the shade on a large boulder next to the road and hugged her knees as the guards and Xena tended their individual mounts.
A subtle signal from Xena informed Karis to keep the guards back. She wanted to talk to Gabrielle or more acurately she wanted Gabrielle to talk to her. Argo accepted a final rub on the nose from her dark haired friend before ambling off into the woods to find a snack. Xena watched the other horses following not too far behind and thought. 'Maybe Argo IS the real leader.' She looked over at Gabrielle to tell her she was right but the sight took her breath away.
A single shaft of sunlight broke through the tree cover and unerringly found it's way to Gabrielle. The Empress spent a brief moment contemplating several dire consequences for Apollo to suffer for such a brazen kiss. She knew, however, that she would gladly endure any of them for the same opportunity and suspected he would too. Xena watched the Sun God's touch play with the red highlights in the seated woman's hair and although she expected it was quietly disappointed when the light faded slowly at her approach. "Hey there." She sat next to the brooding Amazon. The rock was still warm from Apollo's contact and a wave of regret and doubt swept through her. 'I only bring darkness and shadows to her life.' She thought. 'Why does she love me? She deserves to live in the light.'
"Hey." Gabrielle tried to stall for time with some small talk. "Warm today." She squinted up at the tree cover. "I thought this rock would be in the shade. I like it better when it's shady and cool." She looked suspiciously at the guards who were disappearing into the trees and then questioningly at Xena. "What's up with that?"
Xena was amazed at the woman's comment. 'She likes it shady?' It baffled the warrior to no end wondering how the very embodiment of light could like it shady. Gabrielle's question forced her to look up. The guards were all fading into the trees. "Hunting of course. We have been traveling all day and not stopped to eat once. I'm not sure eight of them will be enough." She frowned slightly as the pack went off one way and Karis and Solan walked hand in hand out of sight in the other direction. 'Those two better bring back a lot of food.' She thought, even though she knew it was highly unlikely. Gabrielle's quiet admission startled her out of her thoughts. "What did you say?"
"I said. I'm not hungry." The sadness in Gabrielle's voice gripped tightly at Xena's heart.
Comforting people had never been easy for Xena but as she looked into the liquid green eyes of her love all she wanted to do was take away the pain she saw there. Trying levity first, hoping to hear the Queen's musical laughter, she placed her hand on Gabrielle's forehead. "Hmmm.. no fever but not hungry." Narrowing her eyes at the silent woman she jokingly questioned. "Who are you?"
Gabrielle hugged her knees tighter and whispered. "I don't know."
Xena quietly berated herself for making things worse. She shifted her body and pulled Gabrielle so that the smaller woman was nestled snugly in front of her. Circling her arms gently around the Amazon she nuzzled her ear and whispered. "Talk to me."
Gabrielle took a deep breath, leaned back into Xena's warmth, glad the warrior had opted to remove her armor for the long trip. "What did Salla tell you?"
Xena gasped. "How did you know I talked to Salla about you?"
The smiling Spider Queen let go of her knees and hugged the arms around her. "I didn't." She grinned at the exasperated sound Xena made. "What did she say?"
"You tell me." Xena challenged. "You know everything anyway."
Gabrielle tilted her head thoughtfully. "True." She grinned and accepted the challenge. "All right... I can do this." Taking a deep breath she closed her eyes. She had seen a palm reader at a festival once when she was young. The woman was covered in flimsy robes and bracelets and necklaces that chimed and tinkled when she moved. A gypsy she called herself and she spoke with a definate accent. Gabrielle hoped she could still roll her r's and borrowed the speech pattern for a moment, lowering her voice a register. "The princess was havink nightmares. They were all about her family. There was a man... Her father....yeas that's it her father.... he says NO! If you go with the Amazons, do not come back. You are not my daughter anymore." A quiet catch of breath told Xena the game was over. She held the shaking woman in her arms and barely heard the whisper in her normal voice. "You are not my daughter anymore."
Xena felt the warm tears on her arm and not knowing what to say simply held the sobbing Amazon until she cried herself out. She held her breath and forced herself to remain silent as Gabrielle began speaking quietly.
"I never fit in at home. Whenever a bard passed through I would con a few lessons out of them, hoping they would take me with them. I would pester philosophers to death about visions and destiny. I studied maps for hours on end plotting the best way to get out of Potidea..." She continued the thought silently.' ... the best way to get to you.' She felt the tears spilling over her cheeks again. "I knew they would never let me go. I knew I would be trapped in a loveless marriage, in a dismal town, forever." Wiping the tears from her eyes she looked into Xena's searching face and thought. 'Prepare to be shocked my love but you deserve the truth.' Taking a deep breath she spoke with more calm than she thought she could muster. "What I told Perdicus was true. I would have chosen the slavers over him." Another deep breath allowed her to continue. "I wanted to be taken by the slavers."
Xena's gasp was followed quickly by denial. "You don't mean that!"
"Shhh..." Delicate fingers combed through Xena's hair. "I wanted
out so badly that I welcomed
the opportunity, any opportunity, to get away." She smiled at the distressed warrior. Combing her own hair back and scrubbing her face with her hands Gabrielle tried to erase the memory of that desperate time from her mind.
"When the slavers took us..." Gabrielle began slowly. "....the men of
the village came after us."
She swallowed at the memory of the slave cages. "We were packed in the cages for days
before the men caught up with the wagons." Hugging the strong arms around her she
continued. "When they did... finally catch up... Gods Xena it was awful. None of the men were fighters. Some of them had never picked up a weapon in their life. The slavers beat them.... badly." Gabrielle took a deep breath. "I always wondered why none of them were killed."
"Hmmm... were the slavers men?" Xena was curious and thought she
could answer Gabrielle's
"What? Of course. What woman would.... " Gabrielle's
voice trailed off at the sudden stillness
in the form behind her. "Oh." She knew Xena's past was sordid and at some points evil but
when specific incidents came up it was always a shock. Knowing that Xena had inflicted on
someone the same treatment she had recieved was almost enough to bring on more tears.
"Yeah..... Oh." Xena's rough voice was distant. "Most male slavers are greedy but they aren't killers. They are just looking to make a quick profit. Once the girls are marked they are slaves for life anyway and killing their family in front of them tends to reduce them to tears." Her voice dripped with sarcasm. "Most slave owners like the defiant ones. They like to break them in themselves."
"What?" Gabrielle didn't understand that logic. "Why would they
be defiant with the family still
alive? Wouldn't they be angrier if the men were dead?"
"You were there Gabrielle. When you saw the men go down but knew
they were still alive, how
did you feel?" At Gabrielle's silence she continued her own logic. "If the rescuers aren't killed the
captives have hope that they will try again." Xena slowly finished. "If the rescuers were killed,
the captives wouldn't have had any hope of rescue." Xena was drifting through the past. "Their
spirit will be broken and the slavers won't get as much for them at the market."
"So you're saying, I was lucky because the people that took us were
greedy?" Gabrielle thought
about the nature of luck.
"I'd say the men were lucky too. Greedy slavers that don't kill the
rescuers and don't sample the
merchandise are few and far between." Xena didn't want Gabrielle to ask the next question but
knew it was coming.
"When you captured slaves....You killed their rescuers didn't you?" Gabrielle thought she knew the answer but still closed her eyes at the confirmation.
"Yes." It was painful admitting the harsh things she had done and she wanted to get off the subject. "So what happened after the men went down?"
"The Amazons showed up." Gabrielle's voice conveyed the awe she
felt. "It was amazing Xena
they came out of ... well at the time I thought... nowhere. Of course they had been following us
for a while, keeping to the trees and watching for the right moment to attack." It was a good
memory. One of the few during that day. "They fought like harpies in a bad mood and the
slavers went down quickly but not before one of them got an arrow into Terreis." She felt the
tears filling her eyes and didn't fight them. "I tried to shield her. I covered her body with my own
and frankly expected an arrow in the back at any moment." 'In fact ' She thought. 'I wished for one.' "I did get wounded. Look." She offered her arm to the warrior and pointed out a thin pale scar on her bicep. "The arrow grazed me."
Xena examined the scar she had kissed more times than she could count, added another kiss to the tally and commented "Nice."
Gabrielle drifted back into her memory. "Terreis was impressed with my selfless act." She poured as much sarcasm in her voice as she could. "She said what I did. Only one Amazon would do for another Amazon. She said I was a true Amazon at heart and gave me her rite of caste before she died."
"She was right." Xena's warm purr and briefly tightened embrace
emphasized her words. "Not
many people would risk their lives for a complete stranger." She tried not to think about how lost
she would be without Gabrielle.
"She was wrong." Gabrielle's whisper was barely audible.
"What?" Xena couldn't believe what she thought she had heard.
Gabrielle leaned back into the warmth of Xena's embrace and taking a
deep breath, repeated
her statement. "She was wrong. I didn't care."
"You had to care. You risked your life for her." Xena didn't understand
and was becoming
concerned at Gabrielle's distant expression.
"Oh I didn't want her to die." Gabrielle was shocked by the bitterness
in her own voice. "But I
didn't care if I died or not."
Xena cluched at the slight form in front of her. "Don't ever say
that again!" The thought of
Gabrielle's death was enough to make her heart pound frantically. It was difficult not to give in to the mindblanking terror the thought of losing the other half of her soul caused.
"I would rather have died than go back." She snorted laughter. "The
ironic thing is I thought
maybe if I saved Terreis the Amazons would let me stay with them."
Xena managed to control her racing heart, smiled and softly teased. "I guess they did."
"Yeah but at a price." Gabrielle pursed her lips and continued. "Father was already angry because Perdicus had found my journal..... my PRIVATE journal." She gave Xena a significant look, enough to let the warrior know she was featured prominently in those writings. "And showed it to him."
Gabrielle knew that Perdicus had known for a long time she wasn't in love with him. He didn't know however who she was in love with until he found the journals. His rage was nothing compared to the silent disappointment and revulsion Gabrielle had seen when her father read the work. Fresh tears welled up in her eyes as she remembered the cold brown eyes of her father staring at her, through her. She had ran out of the house that day in shame and now wished she had endured the stare longer as it was the last time he actually looked at her.
"It was more than he could take to find out that I wasn't the little girl he wanted me to be." Gabrielle sniffed and wiped her tears away. "I spent the next three days trying in vain to catch my father's eye. He simply wouldn't look at me and I was nearing the breaking point myself..... Gods Xena.." She looked up into loving blue eyes. "I nearly apologized...." She reached up to brush dark hair back and grimiced. "I nearly told him I was wrong. What a mistake that would have been!"
"What stopped you?" Xena wanted to know and she wanted Gabrielle to keep talking. Holding Gabrielle so closely Xena felt the storyteller beginning to relax as she told about the past events.
"My sister, Lila. She knew I didn't love Perdicus and, although I think she was shocked at my journal too, she didn't want to see me trapped in a loveless marriage." Taking a deep breath Gabrielle continued. "I think she loved Perdicus....." Smiling up at the woman holding her she confessed. "I saw them kissing once." She thought wryly. 'I guess they did more than that 'cause the children would be a little over three now.'
"Loved?" Xena was confused a the past tense of the word.
"He doesn't treat her well. I think she realizes now what I knew all along." Gabrielle didn't like to think of Lila trapped by her own naiveté. "Perdicus was always very gentle in public but when defied in private he became anything but gentle." Gabrielle reflected on the changes the years had made in the man. Before she left he never would have threatened to hit her in public, and in the last two days he had done just that, twice. The scouts had never reported physical abuse so Gabrielle hoped none had occured.... otherwise she wouldn't be responsible......
"He hit you?" Xena's voice was dangerously low.
"No...Not really." Gabrielle smiled. Even though at the time it was scary, now it was kind of funny. She turned sideways in Xena's lap and wrapped her arms around the warrior's neck. Laying her head on the broad shoulder she continued. "You stopped him."
"Me??" The warrior had not expected that at all. "I didn't even know you then."
"Ahhh... but I knew you. I have always remembered the day you babysat for me and gave me that staff to play with." Gabrielle smiled at the memory.
"It was supposed to be a sword." Xena tapped the end of Gabrielle's nose with her finger. "You were all hyped up 'cause I had a sword on my wall."
"Yeah, well, whatever, it was a big stick OK?" She grinned and took a deep breath. "Anyway... I would go for walks and find sticks to practice with." She narrowed her eyes and nodded. "There were several trees in the area that would shake in their roots at my approach......" A gentle tapping on her shoulder stopped her narrative. "What?"
"I was just wondering what all this has to do with Perdicus not really hitting you." Xena didn't really want to interrupt the story. She loved to hear Gabrielle's voice no matter what she was saying but the pack would be back soon and she wanted to be sure and get the whole story before they were overrun with hungry Amazons.
"I was just getting to that." She took another breath and resisting the urge to kiss the soft skin on Xena's exposed neck she continued the story. "I was out walking with my favorite stick, like normal. I was nearly to one of my best practice trees when Perdicus joined me. He asked if he could walk with me. I told him I wanted to be alone. When his requests for more than a walk became ....persistent and when I firmly refused he became angry. Since we were alone he raised his fist to hit me."
The Conqueror's voice echoed in her head.'I knew we should have killed him.' It took Xena a minute to control the surge of anger toward the man. "What did you do?" Xena, although battling her own inner turmoil, was curious about the fighting technique Gabrielle used then.
"I hit him in the groin. Then when he doubled over I hit him in the head." Warm green eyes regarded her love. "Just like you did when you protected me from that uggy man."
Xena thought about that for a moment. "No elbow to the nose?"
Gabrielle grimaced "Too much blood."
That pulled a grim smile from Xena. 'Too much blood?' She thought. 'There are far bloodier things than that, my love.' She heard an evil chuckle in her head as examples of various killing techniques flashed behind her eyes, all of which featured Perdicus as the example. "Well, lucky for him he didn't hit you." Xena knew if he had laid one finger on Gabrielle he would be dead the next time she saw him.
"You would kill someone for me, wouldn't you." Gabrielle was not going to kid herself. It had not been a question but The Conqueror's answer shook her to the core.
"If anyone ever hurts you, Gabrielle." Her arms became steel to match the tone of her voice and the look in her eyes. "There's not a word for what I'll do to them."
"Oh Xena.." The Spider Queen suddenly found herself at a loss for words. The mixture of emotions she was experiencing was unexpected. She didn't like the idea of Xena taking someone's life for her.... of being so protective of her... and.... she really liked the idea of Xena being so protective of her. A distant bird whistle brought her out of her thoughts and she tried to pull herself together.
Xena also heard the returning Amazon pack and summarized the story knowing it was a cold way to put it but continuing anyway. "So your sister married your fiance and your father disowned you." She looked thoughtful for a moment and asked. "What about your mother?"
Gabrielle reluctantly climbed out of Xena's lap. She stood in front of the seated warrior and stretched her unused muscles. "Mother loves me, but she won't go against father's wishes."
"Anything else I should know before we get there?" Xena didn't want any surprises. An overreaction in front of Gabrielle's family could be disastrous for everyone.
"Lila has two children but I think I've covered the basics." Gabrielle was feeling quite a bit better about everything now. She realized that she wasn't the same girl that left home to live with the Amazons, now she was Queen and she wasn't going to hide that from her family. "I really need to change clothes."
"Oh..hoho....The formals?" Xena's eyebrows waggled in anticipation. "That'll show 'em."
"HA! Now whose reading whose mind." Gabrielle smiled at the astonished warrior.
"Wow I did didn't I?" Xena was amazed at her newly aquired ability and puzzled because she had no idea how she did it or if she could do it again. Her thoughts were interrupted by the return of the pack.
Lila sat for a few more moments enjoying the sisterly camaraderie then patted Brenin's hands and released them. "My parents are coming over for dinner." She stood and turned back to the stove. "They often do when Perdicus is gone." Her husband's absence was the main reason Hecuba would visit her daughter.
Lila's mother had made her feelings about Perdicus quite clear to her. Oh how she wished she had listened. Closing her eyes, she remembered that conversation vividly. Her father and Perdicus had just left to celebrate the wedding, and both women hoped the men would be able to recover from their hangovers in time for the ceremony the next day.
"I don't like him." Hecuba's usually gentle voice was firm. She wrung the cleaning rag in her hand and scanned the room for something to use it on. Since Gabrielle had left, and now Lila was gone most of the time, working on what would soon be her own home, Hecuba kept her place practically spotless. Finding nothing to clean she simply sat at the table and stared into the fire.-------
Sitting next to the woman, Lila pleaded with her mother. "Mother please try to be happy for me." She had been so close to Gabrielle, she didn't want to lose her mother too.
"All I have ever wanted for my children is their happiness." She saw the glimmer in her daughter's eye as she confirmed the existence of Gabrielle. It was an acknowledgement she would never make in Herotodus' presence. "But what if this doesn't make you happy?" King Silvas was a fair ruler but he did not, ever, dissolve marriages. She knew, all too well, once her daughter committed to the man she chose, happy or not, she would have to live with her decision for the rest of her life.
"It will." She gently patted her mother's cheek. "You'll see."
Giving in to the moment Hecuba hugged her daughter tightly and sighed. "I hope so."
Lila felt the tight squeeze and knew her mother was still upset. She tried to think of something to ease the older woman's mind. "I'm sure that we will be just as happy as you and father are."
'That's what I'm afraid of.' Hecuba thought. She released the hold on her youngest daughter reluctantly. "Whatever you decided to do... always remember that I love you."
"I love you too, mother." Lila whispered.
"What?" Brenin looked up from the half peeled potato in her hand. When Lila became lost in her thoughts, Brenin had simply looked around the kitchen saw the pile of vegetables and started peeling.
Lila smiled at her new friend. "Nothing... Just thinking."
"Oh." The former Amazon continued peeling the vegetables. She thought for a moment about the preparations Lila was making for dinner and teased. "Your parents sure do get the royal treatment... It's a wonder they don't come over more often." She couldn't tell if it was the heat from the stove or not but Lila's face was a deeper color when she turned to face Brenin.
"This isn't for them." She confessed. "It's for you." Lila had not wanted to tell Brenin but thought it might be better than surprising her. Things might get a little awkward in front of her parents and Lila would rather not have to deal with her father's attitude.
"For...me?" Brenin was actually stunned. No one, ever, had cooked specially for her.
"Well yeah." Lila put down her stirring spoon and knelt in front of the surprised woman. "You saved my children." She layed aside the knife and vegetable and held the stunned woman's hands squeezing them for emphasis whispered. "I will never forget that." She could tell that Brenin had no idea how to respond so she simply patted her hands again and stood to resume her meal preparations.
Solari approached the couple and knelt in front of her Queen. "The hunt was successful, my Queen." She rattled off an impressive list of the hunt results not the least of which was several wild sweet potatoes.
The Queen rolled her eyes. "Rise." She had always hated that kneeling thing. It just seemed so degrading. Gabrielle regretted that Rayna was still in Amphipolis. 'I love how she prepares those little sweet potatoes.' She thought about it a little more. 'It is almost the way Mother used to.'
Karis and Solan returned, to Xena's relief, with a large amount of firewood in a makeshift travois that was also combustable.
It was only after the fire was started that the guards looked at each other in dismay. They were all perfectly capable of feeding themselves on a mission but none of them were willing to subject the others to their own version of what was edible. Gabrielle smiled and quickly eased their minds.
"Since you all went to the trouble to hunt." She smiled and sighed wearily. "I suppose it's the least I can do to cook the stuff."
All the guards started to protest their Queen performing such a task when Xena chuckled. "I'd take her up on it if I were you." She smiled at their startled faces. "I can assure you none of you want to try MY cooking."
During the time it took Gabrielle to season the meat and prepare the gathered vegetables, Apollo finished his daily journey and slowly began to paint the sky. Gabrielle rejoined Xena on their rock to wait for the meat to cook and watched the slowly forming sunset, contentedly nestled in Xena's arms.
"Wow! I have never seen that shade of red before." Gabrielle was in awe of the breathtaking sunset. She thought it was because such a weight had been lifted from her and she felt happier than she had felt in a long time but Xena had other ideas.
"I have." Xena spoke softly into the bard's ear. "I see it everytime I look at you." The warrior's low chuckle and warm breath on her ear made the smaller woman shudder. "It's the color of your hair." She smiled at her love's astonished look and pointed back to the sunset. "That is the gold flecks in your eyes. " She moved her hand slightly. "That is the pink of your perfect lips." Indicating the deep color now spreading through the display she glanced at Gabrielle and smiled. "And that, my love, is the shade you're blushing right now."
"You can't be serious." Gabrielle could feel her heart pounding. When Xena was in a romantic mood it always took her breath away.
"The first time I saw you I thought that Apollo took his inspirations for sunsets from you. Then I decided that he hadn't seen you yet because he would have just given up trying to paint anything as beautiful." She leaned closer and whispered. "You were right about the rock. It should have been in the shade. That was Apollo checking out the competition. I guess he's going to keep trying after all." She sighed at the futility of it.
"Competition?" Gabrielle wasn't sure she wanted to compete with a God at anything.
"Well I'm certainly looking at you and not the sunset so yeah.... competition." Xena settled the Amazon Queen in her arms and would have stayed lost in this moment forever if she could have.
Low mumbling from the pack distracted Gabrielle from her thoughts and she noticed Solan and Karis copying her and Xena's embrace. The looks the guard's were giving each other were pensive and she spoke up. "Solan." She grinned as her son ripped his gaze from the woman in his arms. "How does it feel to be sixteen?" Her green eyes regarded him thoughtfully and glancing at the pack she raised her eyebrows questioningly.
He suddenly understood the looks he and Karis had been getting and smiled. "Was my birthday only yesterday? Wow." He smiled at his mother and hugged Karis tighter. "It feels great." He settled back against the log he was using for support and smiled at the belated congratulations from the pack. Solari was the bravest among them and decided to ask the burning question in everyone's mind.
"How do you know your sixteen?" She knew the last birthday they celebrated in the village had been for his eleventh.
He glanced uncertainly at his mothers and at their nod he replied. "Xena told me."
Solari glanced at the dark warrior and unable to bring herself to speak directly with Xena turned back to Solan. "How does she know?"
"I was there." Xena's chuckle forced all eyes on her.
Solari was still curious and surprised herself by asking the warrior directly. "You knew Solan's mother?"
Although for years every member of the pack would swear Xena was looking directly at them, Xena returned Solari's direct gaze, took a deep breath and spoke. "I am his mother." She felt Gabrielle's quiet gasp and quickly bent to her ear. "Karis and I have a plan. We don't have to hide your identities anymore."
Gabrielle nodded. "I suppose it is only a matter of time before someone realizes that I was the one who signed the Amazon treaty." She looked up a Xena's astonished face and continued matter-of-factly. "Gabrielle is not that common a name."
"You are amazing." Xena couldn't help being impressed.
Gabrielle tilted her head to accept the praise and Xena immediately took advantage of the newly exposed area of the Queen's neck, managing several light kisses before Gabrielle reluctantly pulled away. The dark warrior held tightly to the Amazon's hands and tried to coax her back. Gabrielle laughed.
"If you don't let me go we will be wishing for your cooking." She indicated the spitted meat and boiling vegetables. "It's going to burn."
Grimicing at the thought of her own cooking, Xena reluctantly released Gabrielle. She thought about all the Queen's she had known in her life and inwardly laughed at the notion of any of them knowing where their kitchens were, much less what to do when they got there.
Lila and Brenin both smiled when they heard two pairs of tiny feet hit the floor and run through the house. It only took a moment for the twin terrors to appear in the kitchen. Lila smiled at the sleepy children and noticed their hair was mussed up. 'Father will have a fit if he sees them like that.' She looked at Brenin and rolled her eyes. Momentarily forgetting about her cooking she scooped the children up in her arms. "Hey you two, Grandma and Grandpa are going to be here soon." She eyed the hair-style sleep had given them. Their hair was sticking up looking for all the world like little red pan horns. 'Appropriate.' She thought. 'Pan is probably the one that gives them the inspiration for all their mischief.' A slight hiss from the stove drew her attention and she jumped to stir the boiling pot, only to find her arms full of squirming children.
Brenin saw the dilemma and quickly stirred the mixture. "You go ahead and get them cleaned up. I'll watch the stove 'til you get back."
"I can't ask you to do that." Lila was torn. It would be a great help and she did need to get the children cleaned up but... "This dinner is supposed to be for you, not by you."
Brenin chuckled. "It's really not a problem." She waved the spoon, making small circles in the air. "Go on."
With a grateful smile, Lila took the children out to the creek. She had expected to get complaints about the cold water. Instead she got solemn looks and a quiet inquiry from Gabe.
"Is Brenin gonna stay with us forever?" His tone indicated that was exactly what he wanted her to do.
"I don't know honey. She might have other things she needs to do." Lila was surprised at the flare of hope that shot through her. It would be so nice to have a sister again.
"Maybe if we ask her really nice, she'll stay." Brie too wanted their savior to stay. She remembered when she had been scared of her Daddy, Brenin protected her then too. She felt very safe when she sat on the woman's lap.
"Maybe... but we can do that later. Right now we need to get ready for dinner." She saw the groans before she heard them. "Com'on now. This is a special dinner just for Brenin to say thanks for saving you." She smiled at both pairs of twinkling green eyes. 'So much like Gabrielle' She thought.
"To say thank you?" Brie was thinking of something.
"Yeah. 'Cause she could have gotten hurt but she didn't think about that and saved you." Lila was sure the children wouldn't understand how terrified she had been at the sight of them surrounded by the raging floodwater.
"I want to draw her a picture..." Brie loved to draw.
"I want to make her somethin'" Gabe was no artist but he loved to try and build things out of different stuff around the house.
Lila smiled and smoothed down the last of the pan horns. "I think that would be nice." She also thought it would be a good way to keep them out of trouble 'til her parents arrived.
Despite massive protests from the pack, Gabrielle not only cooked the meal but served it as well. They all enthusiastically complimented her on the flavor and she modestly denied most of it claiming the seasoning of hunger had more to do with it's edibility than her meager efforts.
"You are too modest, my love." She grinned at the blushing Queen and unable to resist teasing the guards added. "If you can cook like this... you would be a welcome addition to my kitchen any day."
Gabrielle laughed. Glancing at the hard looks the guards were giving Xena, she lowered her voice to a sultry register and walked slowly toward the warrior. "Is the kitchen really where you would want me?"
Xena quickly dismissed the guards from her mind and moved to meet the not so modest after all woman. "It depends on how many tips you have gotten from Rayna."
"Mmmmm.." They were standing close enough to each other that Gabrielle reached out with her index finger and traced a path up Xena's arm. "I would love to show you some of them." She sighed regretfully. "But I really need to get changed and we need to go." She looked at the stars that were beginning to shine in the sky. "It will be late when we get there but not that late." She went to Argo's saddlebags and pulled out a small package. Heading for a small clearing a short distance from the campsite, she called over her shoulder. "I'll be right back."
Karis looked inquiringly at Xena. "What's up with that?"
Xena was slightly taken back by the phrase that was so commonly used by Gabrielle and Solan coming from Karis. She shrugged and grinned. "Formals." She turned toward the place she had last seen Argo and putting two fingers to her lips whistled loudly.
Karis' eyes flew open and she jumped to her feet. She addressed the other guards as she looked through her own saddlebag. "You heard her... formals." She smiled in satisfaction as they all moved quickly.
Gabrielle was appalled at her wish for attendants. Formal leathers
were a lot easier to put on when someone helped you ...she thought. 'Gods
above you'd think I could at least dress myself.'
Finally getting everything in place she was reaching awkwardly behind her for the last fastener when strong warm hands gently tightened the loop. She turned to see shining blue eyes and a dazzling smile.
"You look beautiful." Xena leaned forward and rested her forehead on Gabrielle's.
"You are prejudiced." Gabrielle teased.
"I suppose love can do that." She cupped the side of Gabrielle's face, sliding her hand around to the back of the Queen's neck and bending her knees, captured the waiting lips. The Amazons would need more time to complete their surprise and Xena was happy to find a way to keep the Queen busy for a few moments.
It was very hard to pull away from the caressing hands. "Xena.... we need to go." Gabrielle protested weakly and gasped for air as Xena dropped to her knees and attacked the exposed area around the Amazon's navel. Her resolve to get to Potidea that evening was beginning to weaken. Feeling her knees buckle she relied on Xena's strong arms to lower her slowly to the soft mossy ground. "Gods Xena... I...."
"Shhhhh..." The warrior's caress became more insistent as she felt delicate hands begin to explore on their own. She worked her way slowly up to the Amazon's neck. Nibbling on the tender flesh she found there illicited incoherent moans from the smaller woman.
When Xena heard the soft moans she knew that the Amazons were going to have all the time they needed and quickly put them out of her mind as she concentrated fully on the woman below her.
Gabrielle found Xena's ear and whispered desperately. "Xena... I need you." She closed her eyes as a low chuckle reached inside her.
"Gabrielle.... I'm here." The warrior's whisper only emphasized her soft caresses. She was very aware of the emotional drain the earlier story had been on the Amazon. So it was with exquisite tenderness that Xena filled her lover's need.
Gabrielle lay in Xena's arms for several long lovely moments, basking in the afterglow, before she spoke quietly. "Xena...."
"Hmmmm....." Xena reached out to stroke the silken honey-red hair.
"Gods.... " Gabrielle closed her eyes to savor the feel of long fingers running through her hair. The warm ripple of love that washed through her when Xena laughed quietly was enough to make her want to stay right were she was. Unfortunately they really did need to go. She turned to find herself captured in passion blue eyes. "Xena....." Two fingers on her lips quieted her attempt to speak.
"I know it's time to leave." Helping the regretful Amazon to her feet she smiled at the once again dark green eyes. "Go ahead.... I'll be there in a minute."
Gabrielle nodded and, checking the fasteners on her outfit, made her way back to the fire, calming the pounding of her heart on the way. The scene that greeted her was not what she expected. All of the Amazons had changed into formal leathers and masks. Mounted, each on their own dark horses it was an imposing sight to say the least. Even Solan had changed into a deep burgandy tunic with dark leggings, matching boots and headband. She thought it may have been the proud mother in her but he looked to her very royal, and every bit the Prince. When Karis approached and knelt in front of her she was momentarily confused because the woman held her hands behind her back. "Karis?"
Reaching up with one hand she pushed her own mask up to rest on top of her head and with the other she offered a package. "This is yours, my Queen."
A surge of hope flashed through her when she saw the package. 'It's the right size.' She thought. 'Only one way to find out.' She took the offering, opened it gently and smiled when she saw her own familiar mask staring back at her. "Thank you." Her eyes were threatening to spill over. "Thank all of you."
Even through the masks anyone watching could tell that the guards were embarrassed by the gratitude of their Queen. Gabrielle heard a chuckle and low voice from behind her and turned to a sight worth taking another look at.
"Potidea is going to be scared out of their minds when they see you." Xena stepped into the fire's circle of light and everyone gasped, including Solan. She had changed too. The outfit she now wore was not exactly formal but definately far more intimidating than her usual leathers.
Deep black leather only served to make the polished metal strips in her skirt and gleaming breastplate armor brighter. Her dark hair brushed claw like shoulder guards as she adjusted the fasteners on her black cape. The gold chakram hanging at her waist and the shining hilt of the sword on her back completed the picture.
"I think, my dear, that you are all it would take for that!" Gabrielle was certainly glad she didn't have to meet this Xena anywhere close to a battlefield. She closed the distance between them and examined the new outfit in detail.
"What are you doing?" Xena had a good idea but wanted to hear it from Gabrielle.
"Just checking out the competition." Gabrielle continued her examination.
"Competition?" Xena wasn't sure that was the right word.
"Of course," Lowering her voice to it's most sultry. "Anything that keeps you from me is competition." She found the last fastener and touched gently. She smiled at Xena and quickly touched every fastener on the armor, not unclipping it but letting Xena know she knew where they were.
"Ahhh.... I see." Xena grinned and returned the show of knowledge by doing the same thing to Gabrielle's outfit.
The grinning Queen rolled her eyes and when she heard the fire being doused behind her sighed. "Ready?"
Xena nodded and mounted Argo, leaning down to offer Gabrielle a hand up. The new armor took some getting used to but a few minutes of riding was all it took Gabrielle to settle into a comfortable spot. 'Gods...' Gabrielle thought. 'I hope everything works out.' It was the first time she had time to truly think about her plans and wondered if she would get the chance to carry them out. Her father's reaction and Lila's response would be the determining factor. 'I guess we will know soon enough.' She sighed and felt the immediate tightening of Xena's arm around her. 'I guess I could always just go and live with Xena.' Suddenly she wasn't sure if she wanted her plans to work or not. Being with Xena all the time was a very tempting idea.
"The children are being awfully quiet." Brenin was concerned at the lack of yelling. Silent children were not the norm and she knew it. She sat at the kitchen table and watched Lila finishing the dinner. There was nothing left for her to do but she didn't want to go into the other room. It seemed perfectly natural for her to stay in the kitchen and talk with Lila so she did.
"They are fine." Lila replied. "They are just getting ready for my parents. They know their grandpa doesn't like it when they run around crazy so they practice being quiet before he gets here." It wasn't quite the truth but it would do. She didn't want to ruin the children's surprise. She tasted the stew and satisfied pulled it off of the heat. "I need to change clothes." She indicated the large number of stains that had accumulated during the cooking process.
Brenin looked down at her own not so clean clothing and nodded. "Me too." She walked back to the spare room and suddenly realized that she was beginning to think of this as 'her room'. 'That is crazy.' She thought. 'I've only been here two days!' But no matter how she tried to fight it she couldn't overcome the sense of peace she had here. Voices from the main room broke through her thoughts and she finished buckling the thin belt Lila had given her. She looked in the mirror and was surprised by the result. Clothes borrowed from Perdicus' closet were a little large on her but the sleeves of the white shirt billowed out nicely past the edges of the dark green vest. Green leggings and her own dark boots completed the outfit satisfactorily. She ran her fingers through her brown hair and berated her reflection. "What are you waiting for?" She was nervous about meeting Lila's parents and she couldn't for the life of her figure out why.
Lila quickly rose from her seat and met Brenin at the door of the main room. She guided the woman to a seat next to the fire and introduced her to her parents.
"Mom, Dad, This is Brenin." She smiled at the nervous smile Brenin gave her parents. "Brenin this is my mother, Hecuba and my father, Herotodus."
Brenin studied the couple closely. He was typical man as far as she could see. His suspicious eyes, frowning mouth and thinning hair made him look very grumpy. She was quite pretty, nothing less than what a person would expect from Lila and Gabrielle's mother. It struck Brenin that if the red highlights were gone from the children's hair then it would be the same color as their grandmother's. That thought made her smile a little less nervously.
Hecuba returned the hesitant smile but Herotodus looked suspicious. "Why are you wearing Perdicus' clothes?" The green vest had taken Hecuba two days to make and a woman dressed in such masculine clothing made him uncomfortable.
"Father...please." Lila was upset at her father's rudeness. "Brenin's clothes got dirty and torn when she saved the children from the flood. These were the only one's I could find to fit her."
"What!" Hecuba stood up and frantically looked around for the children.
"They are fine, Mother." Lila rushed to Hecuba's side to calm the frantic woman. "You know how they love to play in the river after a rain?" At the acknowleding nod she continued. "Well I didn't realize the storm was so bad in the north. They were caught on the large boulder in the middle of the river and...." She glanced at Brenin. "Brenin swam out to get them." Lila looked at the floor. "I shouldn't have let them go, but I was busy trying to get the cattle back in the corral and mend the fence. If Brenin hadn't been there....." There was a tear in her eye when she looked up at her mother. "I don't know what I would have done."
Hecuba hugged her daughter tightly. She looked over at Brenin in gratitude and releasing her hold on the guilty feeling woman asked. "Where are they?"
Lila called to the children. "Brie, Gabe, Your grandparents are here." She turned to her mother. "They will be here in a minute." She looked at Brenin apologetically. "I'll be right back."
Brenin spent an uncomfortable moment, enduring Herotodus' still suspicious glare and Hecuba's grateful look before the whirlwind that was the twin terrors ran into the main room to greet their older relatives. "Hi Grandma." They stopped for a hug at the woman's seat and moved on.. "Hi Grandpa." They stopped in front of the man he gave Gabe a hug and gave Brie a tap on the cheek with his fingertips. They looked around and not seeing their mother moved on, to Brenin's surprise right to her lap.
They each claimed a side, snuggled in and looked at their grandparents with awe. "Brenin saved us." Gabe said. He looked up at his hero. "She was wonderful."
"Yeah." Brie chimed in. "She didn't even care if she got hurt or wet or dirty or anything.."
Brenin dropped her arms around each child's shoulder and gave them a little squeeze.
"She was very brave." Lila reappeared in the doorway. "That is why we are having a special dinner tonight." She grinned at the children seated with Brenin. "I lit the brush your father has been clearing from the treeline." She saw their eyes sparkle. "Tonight we have a bonfire."
"Yeah." They quickly squirmed to get out of Brenin's embrace and ran out the door.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Hecuba wanted to do something for the woman who saved her grandchildren and was silently berating her daughter for not telling her beforehand. 'I could have brought something.' She thought.
Lila laughed. "No everything is done and it's all outside, so com'on."
The group of Amazons rode down the main road and as they neared the outskirts of the village, Gabrielle called a halt to their progress. "We need to go left here." She pointed to a spot in the distance. "You see that bonfire?" She heard their acknowledgements and continued. "That is my sister, Lila's house. We will go there first."
Xena turned Argo toward the marker and quietly asked. "How do you know that is where Lila lives?"
If there had been enough light and she wasn't wearing the Queen's Mask, Xena would have seen her grim smile. Instead she heard it. "Because it's the house Perdicus built for me."
Xena didn't know what to say to that so she simply went forward guiding them through the darkness literally like moths to a flame.
Lila found herself wishing that her father had stayed home. She wanted the dinner to be nice. Her father's presence and distrust of Brenin didn't make things as easygoing as she had hoped. It was by silent mutual accord that he took the chair on one end of the bench Lila and her mother shared and Brenin took the chair on the other end. The seats were the farthest apart, nearly on opposite sides of the fire, but they were also facing each other. They all sipped their drinks and Lila hoped, now that they were finished eating, some conversation would lighten the mood. She watched the children dancing around the fire and was glad she had fixed their hair. Small horned creatures dancing around a fire never boded well for an evenings festivities. 'Unless you're Hades or Baccus.' She thought wryly.
Brenin had been staring at Hecuba for some time and Herotodus couldn't stand it anymore. "Why are you staring at my wife?" His suspicious look returned. "You're not one of them are you?"
Brenin had a good idea what he meant by that but chose to ignore it and answer his first question. "I was just thinking that with the fire highlighting her hair it was the same color as the twins." Before she could stop herself she added. "Gabrielle's too."
Even in the darkness at the edge of the fire they could all see his face growing darker. "I KNEW IT! YOU'RE AN AMAZON."
Hecuba looked at Brenin with a flare of hope. A glance at Lila's shaking head dashed it quickly.
Brenin quietly replied to the angy accusation. "No I'm not an Amazon."
Advancing on her he raised his fist. "YOU'RE LYING!"
A new voice from the darkness startled them all. "No She's Not!"
They all stood and whirled at the sound. Herotodus' arm and his jaw dropped at the same time. Both Lila and Hecuba covered their mouths with their hands to stop their gasp and Brenin simply stared at a scene straight from her dreams.
From out of the darkness an Amazon appeared, then two more, then two more, then two more. They were in a V shaped formation with the point in front. The point guard looked around and at her silent signal the V inverted itself. She stepped aside to reveal another Amazon. This one it was obvious was an important person. The others masks were detailed but this one was ornate and intricate in it's design. She stepped forward and raising her mask, Gabrielle smiled at the speechless man. "Hello Father."
The crackling fire and the soft hissing of night insects were all that could be heard for a long moment. Finally Herotodus found his voice.
"What are you doing here?" His angry voice carried clearly in the night air.
Pushing aside the hurt she felt at his words, Gabrielle took a deep
breath, squared her
shoulders and fully entered Queen mode. "Well it's nice to see you too, Father."
"Stop calling me that! You are not my daughter anymore." He deliberately mimicked the phrase he used so long ago. He knew it would strike a nerve with her and he was angry enough to want to inflict his pain on others. "And you are not welcome here." He smiled grimly when he saw her close her eyes. It was short lived satisfaction, however when he heard his other daughter's words.
Lila saw the pain in Gabrielle's eyes before she closed them. "That's enough!" Everyone turned to look at the now angry Lila. Even the children, peeking out from behind Brenin's legs, tore their frightened eyes from the line of Amazons to look wide-eyed at their mother. She was glaring at her father. "You may be too stubborn to admit when you are wrong, FATHER, but this is MY home. I say who is welcome here." She took a deep breath, knowing he may disown her too, looked at Gabrielle and continued softly. "And my sister is always welcome."
"When Perdicus gets back...." Herotodus' threat was cut off by Lila's angry retort.
"Perdicus will be gone for as long as he can....." Her tone was mocking. "He has to finish his delivery..." She continued with a sneer. "...and will want to stay and 'talk' with the sorry little barmaid in Amphipolis." She narrowed her eyes at his reaction to that. 'By the Gods, he knows Perdicus is cheating.' She glanced at her mother's face, felt her heart break just a little and thought. 'Oh mother.... How have you lived with him for so long?'
Herotodus was shocked and dismayed at the rebellion of his youngest daughter. In his mind blamed the Amazons for her attitude. "I guess Amazons take all my children." He looked at his wife and gestured. "Com'on. We're leaving."
After a moments hesitation Hecuba gave Lila a long hug good-bye and deliberately walked slowly past Gabrielle toward her husband. She wanted so badly to talk to her daughter but for the moment was satisfied with seeing what great shape she was in. The formal leathers didn't leave much doubt as to the fitness of the woman wearing them. Sleek muscles were highlighted by the fire and she knew even in the daylight the exposed skin would have a golden glow. Her outcast daughter's soft whisper was enough to strengthen her resolve and continue toward her home with the angry man. She had always loved to listen to Gabrielle tell stories but she had never heard two sweeter words pass through her daughters lips. "I understand."
Gabrielle watched her parents walk off into the darkness and when they were nearly out of sight made a subtle gesture. Immediately Karis pointed to the two guards standing farthest from the Queen, who broke formation and quietly followed the angry man and his wife.
Everyone was silent a moment longer, until Lila asked. "Where are they going?" She had been amazed at the instant action at Gabrielle's gesture.
"They will make sure Mother is all right." Gabrielle smiled at Lila's concerned frown. "Don't worry. Father will never even know they are there." She continued her thought to herself. 'Unless he tries to hurt mother.' She winked at her sister. "Royal guards are the best."
"Brenin told me you were Queen." Lila said matter-of-factly.
"Really." Gabrielle drawled and leveled her royal green gaze on Brenin but continued speaking to Lila. "What else did Brenin tell you?"
Brenin felt her mouth go dry when Gabrielle spoke her name. She couldn't help admire the way the fire highlighted the muscles in her legs and abs as the Queen moved gracefully to sit in the middle of the bench. Her thoughts of Gabrielle were cut off when the children began to tremble. Squatting down between them she circled each of their waists and as they clung tightly to her, tighter than when she pulled them from the river, stood up again, one child on each hip. She looked back at the Amazons. Karis stood to the right of Gabrielle while the others arranged themselves one on each end and the other two behind. Anyone who was watching would know without a doubt that the seated person was royalty.
Lila, however, saw only her long lost sister and plopped down next to her. "She told me you were Queen but she didn't tell me how great you looked!" Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at that but had no more time to think about it as she bobbed her head and tried to follow the rapid fire words her sister was spouting. Lila it seemed was determined to catch her up on three years of gossip as quickly as possible.
Gabrielle glanced at the guards who seemed amazed that anyone could talk so long without taking a breath and suppressed a chuckle.
At the end of her spiel Lila couldn't contain herself any longer and gave her long absent sister an enthusiastic, somewhat rough, hug. It wasn't Gabrielle's huge smile that eased the guard's concerns about the manhandling of their Queen though, Karis' smile and amused comment did that.
"Princess Lila seems happy to see you, my Queen." The head guard smiled at Lila's expression. The shock of hearing her title was evident.
"Princess?" The woman looked at her older sister quizzically.
"Of course, " Gabrielle put her fingers under Lila's chin to gently hold her gaze. "You're my sister." She returned Lila's smile and paused thoughtfully for a moment before she continued. "That's something I wanted to talk to you about...." She narrowed and then softened her eyes at Brenin and the frightened children. "After I deal with......" Her voice trailed off when one of the guards that followed her parents returned and knelt before her.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, grinned at Lila and sighed. "Report."
"Your mother got home without incident. Your father went to the tavern. We weren't sure if you wanted us to but we approached your mother and she said as soon as he returns and she knows he has passed out for the night, she will come back. Lucinda stayed to guard her." Bekka sighed at her Queen's response.
"Rise, Bekka." She offered her hands to help the guard up. "You did the right thing. Thank you."
Xena barely held her anger in check when Herotodus verbally attacked Gabrielle. She quietly applauded Lila and from the darkness, narrow blue eyes glanced jealously at Karis standing next to Gabrielle. 'That's where I should be.' Xena thought then quietly sighed. 'It is an Amazon matter.... Gabrielle has to handle it her way.'
Ruling the world was a difficult task for one person. Xena left certain Kings in charge of certain areas and only interfered when circumstances got out of hand. Kings had the power to rule over the land but Xena could overrule any of them at anytime. Amazons were different though, Xena couldn't overrule Gabrielle's decisions. 'Not that I'd ever want to' She thought.
Her patience was beginning to wear thin and watching Brenin admire Gabrielle, scared children or not, was not helping matters. She held her cloak tightly around her and heard Solan's feet shuffle slightly behind her. Unless she dropped the cloak or moved no one near the fire would see her or Solan. When she heard Bekka's report, however, a slow feral smile crossed her face. Slowly and quietly she backed up. Pushing Solan back until they were far enough away from the fire for him to be hidden without her dark form in front of him, she turned and spoke quietly.
"I've got something to do." She smiled at his confusion and chuckled. "You can move closer but don't come out until Gabrielle calls for you. Tell her I'll be back soon." She walked a little farther into the trees and retrieved a flask from Argo's saddle. She watched Solan stop just outside the circle of light before she headed off on her self appointed mission. 'This is gonna be fun.' The Conqueror's evil chuckle to escaped into the night.
Gabrielle waited for Bekka to position herself behind the bench before returning her gaze to Brenin. She was sure she heard Karis gasp when Brenin, using the hand gestures designed for Rayna, silently begged. 'Please.... not in front of the children.'
Quickly shifting her plans to accommodate the request, she turned to Lila. "I need to talk to Brenin alone. Will you take the children in the house for a while?"
Lila shook her head. "Not before I introduce you." She called for the children and gestured for them to come to the bench. "Come and meet your Aunt Gabrielle."
Gabrielle watched as the scribe put the children down and they immediately clutched to Brenin's legs. Intense green eyes missed nothing as the former Amazon knelt to hug them. The scribe whispered to them and her nod at their query garnered her a kiss on the cheek from each of them. Gabrielle added this to the list she had started in her mind and watched as, with a little push from Brenin, they approached the bench.
"Children this is my sister, your Aunt Gabrielle. She is an Amazon Queen." She smiled at their wide green eyes. "Gabrielle this is...." Before Lila could speak their names, Gabrielle held up her hand. "Wait." She smiled at the children. "Let me guess." She pointed to the boy. "You're Gabe." Then turned her finger toward the girl. "So you must be Brie."
"Wow!" Brie was delighted that this woman knew her name. "Are you really a Queen?"
Gabrielle chuckled. "Yes."
"And Mama is a princess?" Brie was not quite believing her ears.
Gabrielle nodded. "Yes." She added. "So are you."
Now it was Gabe's turn to speak up. "What am I?"
"That would make you a prince." She smiled at the boy and turned to Lila at her exclamation.
"Gabrielle! There aren't any Amazon Princes." She didn't want her son to be teased by the other children and she knew he would be, if he went around saying he was an Amazon Prince.
"You're wrong Lila." She shot a grin up at Karis. "My son is an Amazon Prince." Her grin turned to a full fledged smile at Lila's shocked face. "Would you like to meet him?" She chuckled as Lila simply nodded her head. Gabrielle called over her shoulder to her quiet son. "Solan. You can come out now."
Herotodus hugged his mug as he hunched over the bar. This was only his third and he knew with the meal he had recently eaten it was going to take several more before he could sufficiently forget his problems. He lifted his drink for a nice long swallow when someone bumped into him roughly, spilling almost the entire contents of the mug down his front. "You clumsy fool... Now look what you've done." He didn't care about his clothes, Hecuba would wash them, but his drink was now empty. He looked suspiciously at the cloaked figure.
"Sorry 'bout that." The deep voice rumbled. Herotodus was slightly mollified when he heard the stranger talking to the barkeep. "Two more of whatever he was having."
Herotodus tried to see the stranger's face but dark hair and the cloak's hood obscured it. "You from around here?" He sipped the drink the barkeep handed him.
"No." Xena grinned to herself and growled. "My wife is visiting her relatives. I don't want any of them to know I'm here drinking." She leaned closer to the not quite drunk man. "I hate her bastard father and he hates me." She took a sip of her drink, immediately spraying it all over the bar. "Auughh... you call this a drink?" She produced the flask from her cloak pocket and waving it at Herotodus claimed. "Now here's a man's drink!" Grabbing his mug, she added a portion of the liquid to it. She watched with quiet satisfaction as he tasted the mixture and then smiled when he drained it quickly.
"Another round." He called to the barkeep. He held out his quickly delivered drink to the cloaked stranger and was happy to see another portion of the flask being added to his mug.
Xena punched him in the arm. "There you go, pal." She smiled at his wince and picked up her own drink to sip.
After several rounds his arm was quite sore, he wished the drink addition didn't come with a punch every time. The stranger's constant chuckling was starting to bug him too. He tried to focus on the hand pouring the last of the liquid from the flask into his mug. He was drunk enough now not to be able to see clearly but could still make out the calluses. "You..... s'ordsm'n?" He watched the fingers wiggle and the torchlight sparkle off of the ring the stranger wore.
"I can hold my own." Xena kept her voice low and deep. "I protect my family when I need to." She didn't want any drunken challengers. The rounds that had been served were beginning to take their toll on her too, mostly because she had to add some of the flask to her drinks as well. She knew if she got into a fight now, her reflexes would take over and someone would get killed. 'Not the best way to start a visit with Gabrielle's family.' She thought.
Herotodus nodded. His speech slurring badly. " Tha'sw'at a man should do. Al'ays shhhhould pr'tekt women.... weak."
Xena smiled as she watched his head fall forward and hit the bar. "Right."
Gabrielle was torn between watching Solan appear out of the darkness, and seeing the expression on Lila's face when it happened. She decided to watch her son and only heard her sister's gasp of astonishment.
"But... You... He..." Lila wasn't sure how to ask what she wanted to ask.
Gabrielle laughed. "I adopted Solan about three years ago." She looked at her dark-haired sister's questioning eyes. "He was sixteen yesterday."
"Hello." Solan bowed to Lila and knelt on one knee in front of the children. "Nice to meet you." He held out his hand to greet the boy.
"Hi." Gabe shook the offered hand.
When Brie started to shake her cousin's hand too Solan smiled at her and kissed the back of it very formally. She couldn't keep quiet any longer. "Mama he looks like the prince from the story!"
Both Gabrielle and Solan looked expectantly at Lila who took another look at Solan. She smiled at her excited daughter. "I think you're right." Turning back to the confused pair she explained. "Several days ago a traveling bard came through here. He was from Britannia and told the children a lovely story about a sword in a stone and a young prince that would one day be king." She looked at Solan. "From the description he gave, he could have been talking about you."
Gabrielle smiled and looked at the children. "I love stories... maybe you could tell it to me?" They looked at each other for a moment then turned back to her and nodded simultaneously. "Good." She glanced up at Brenin, nervously waiting. "Right now though I need to talk to Brenin. Will you wait for me in the house?"
"You won't hurt her will you?" Both children asked in perfect unison.
Gabrielle shot a startled glance at the nervous scribe. "You've accumulated some champions."
Gabrielle was almost as amazed at the unison of the twin's voices as she was at the words they spoke. "She saved us."
Again Gabrielle looked to Lila for an explanation.
"The children were playing in the river bed this morning when a flash flood came through." She was not a storyteller and she didn't know how to express the terror of that experience so she simply said. "Brenin saved them." She shuddered at the memory of going back to the river's edge later and seeing the rock completely covered with water. Reaching one hand to each child, she stood to go inside. "Com'on it's time for bed."
The children took their mother's hand but as they started walking toward the house they both pulled away and ran to hug Brenin. She saw them coming and bent down to scoop them up, one in each arm. They both kissed her and she returned them in kind, grateful their cheeks weren't covered with sticky pie filling. Returning them to the ground she gave them each a little push toward Lila and watched them enter the house. Turning back to Gabrielle, she waited for the Queen to finish talking to Solan and signal for her approach.
Gabrielle saw the children say goodnight to Brenin and added another note to her mental list before she spoke to Solan. "Where is Xena?"
Solan shrugged. "She said she had something to do and would be back soon."
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. "When did she leave?"
"Right after Bekka came back." He sighed at the look on his mother's face. 'She knows what Xena is doing.' He thought. 'Gods I wish I could figure things out like they can."
Gabrielle smiled slightly and chuckled. "I need to talk to Brenin." She gave Karis a significant look. "Alone."
The head guard started to protest then sighed and gestured for Solan to precede her back toward the horses. They were a few feet behind Gabrielle when at Karis' signal they all drew arrows from their quivers and nocked them in readiness for any sign of danger to the Queen. Gabrielle didn't see it but Brenin did.
When Brenin saw the signal to approach she did so slowly, hoping not to get six arrows buried in her chest before she could apologize. Suddenly she wasn't sure what she could possibly say or do to apologize for the things she had done. 'I can at least show her the respect she deserves.' Brenin thought and knelt before her former Queen. Gabrielle's annoyance at the posture only lasted until she realized it was not a degrading act of supplication but rather a genuine gesture of respect. Another note was added to the list.
Xena shifted her grip on the unconscious man, glad she had managed to drink only a few mugs of the potent mixture. Her meal had been longer ago than his and she fought a wave of dizziness. 'Whoa... Now I remember why I don't actually drink that stuff.' She hoped she didn't have a need for it before returning to the palace. She chuckled. 'The brewmaster is gonna think I set the whole world on fire.' This particular supply of 200 proof had been in Argo's saddlebag for several months. 'I just don't breath fire as much as I used to.' She sighed.
She looked around for the house the barkeep had described. "Great." She mumbled. "They all look the same." A bit of Bekka's report floated through her mind and sighing at her own stupidity, she whistled the code for 'report'. It didn't take long before Lucinda's warbling response had her standing in the correct doorway and Hecuba was guiding her to the bedroom.
With Lucinda's help Xena navigated the hallway and dumped the man on his back. She watched as the devoted if not loving wife pulled the covers over him. Shaking her head Xena turned to the guard. "Stay here and watch him." She looked at the man with open disgust. Reminding herself that he was Gabrielle's father and remembering the remains of the meal near the bonfire, regretfully added. "If he starts throwing up...." She sighed and made little circles in the air with her hands. "Turn him over."
Hecuba watched the new arrival give orders to the Amazon. She was amazed at the response because there wasn't one, the guard simply sat in the chair in the corner of the room and watched the sleeping man. Hecuba touched the cloaked figure's arm. "Are you an Amazon?"
Xena smiled. "No." She patted the hand on her arm. "But I'll take you to Gabrielle now if you like." She saw the hesitant look toward the bed and reassured the woman. "He will be out for the rest of the night."
"It usually takes him much longer to get even half this drunk." Hecuba had been resigned to the brief encounter she had with her daughter being the only one she would get. Now she desperately wanted to believe it was safe for her to see Gabrielle.
"He was drinking stronger stuff tonight." Xena looked into Hecuba's eyes. Blue to blue she promised. "He won't wake up 'til morning."
The intense gaze stole her voice for a moment. When she was able to speak she managed get out two words. "Let's go." Hecuba had no idea who this woman was or why she trusted her but still she followed the perfect stranger into the darkness.
"You don't have to kneel Brenin." She gently reminded the woman. "I'm not your Queen anymore."
"Amazon or not, you will always be my Queen." Brenin countered. She saw Gabrielle's eyes narrow but she was determined to stick to the truth.
"I have something for you." Gabrielle produced a folded parchment and handed it to the kneeling woman. She saw a tear in Brenin's eye when she opened it and read the first line. Another note got tacked onto the mental list.
Brenin felt like she had been kicked in the gut when she read her daughter's words.
I'm not mad at you for deciding to leave me. Ephiny says you did it 'cause you love me. I believe her 'cause she promised and she doesn't break her promises.
Ephiny helps me with my lessons and Poni says I'm really good with a bow. It's kinda nice to have a brother too. Phantes is great and we eat lunch together almost every day.
I hope you are OK. I just wanted you to know that you don't have to worry about me 'cause Ephiny and Eponin love me too.
Brenin read the note several times before she folded it neatly and tucked it under her belt. As she wiped the tears from her face and cleared her throat, she asked. "How did she know where to send it?"
"Ephiny knew you were tracking me." Gabrielle saw the startled look on the woman's face. "She also knew I would eventually be in Amphipolis. She sent the message along with Bekka just in case you had tracked me to there." She paused for a moment and then asked. "Why did you come to Potidea?"
"I thought if I could get your family to like me then you would like me too." Brenin couldn't believe how dumb that sounded now, when only a few days ago it was the most logical idea in the world.
"You thought wrong on that one!" Gabrielle snorted. "The only reason I'm here now is because I heard you were here." At Brenin's questioning look Gabrielle supplied. "We ran into Perdicus in Amphipolis." She didn't want to mention Xena's mother just yet. The expression on the scribe's face at the mention of the man earned her another note on Gabrielle's mental list.
"Oh." Brenin asked tentatively. "You heard I was here and came to see if I was going to hurt your family?" She sighed deeply at the solemn nod. "A few weeks ago if I had heard anyone talking to you like your father did tonight, I would have killed them." She took a deep breath and shook her head. "But now I just don't know, I feel different." She looked at Gabrielle and felt a distant longing she was surprised she could suppress. "I still love you....but....I don't ONLY love you." She wrinkled her nose. "Does that make sense?"
"Yes." Gabrielle almost felt sorry for what she was going to ask the woman next. "It makes perfect sense." She produced another parchment. This time it was an official document and she saw Brenin swallow hard when she recognized the declaration of adoption.
If a child's mother was killed in an accident or in battle the paper only required that the Queen sign it, but in Micha's case Brenin was still alive and the document needed the parent's consent to be legal.
"This is a decision you need to make." Gabrielle handed her the document. "It's why I gave you Micha's note first. I wanted you to know that she is happy with Ephiny and Eponin."
Brenin took the parchment and nodded. "I'll think about it." The spark of maternal instinct Gabe and Brie had fanned in her was beginning to glow for Micha as well.
"That's all I'm asking." A slight breeze made Gabrielle shiver. The bonfire had nearly burned itself out and it was getting chilly. "Let's go in." She stood and pausing only a moment offered her hands to help Brenin up.
Brenin took the offered hands and when she was standing easily released them. 'No tingling.' She thought. 'Odd.'
As they were walking in Brenin fell back and talked to Bekka. "Bekka, How's Micha? I know what her note said but.... tell me."
Bekka took a deep breath. She had never liked Brenin that much and it was difficult to keep the sneer out of her voice. "Micha is happier now than I have ever seen her."
Brenin sighed and made her decision.
Only two guards stayed outside, one stood by the door and the other went to patrol the perimeter and set up camp.
Xena began walking down a road in the general direction of Lila's house. When they came to a T in the road, to her surprise, Hecuba continued walking straight. 'No wonder it didn't take long before Bekka returned.' Driving a cart on this path would be impossible, but walking afforded many opportunities for shortcuts.
"I didn't see you before." Hecuba finally got the courage to speak to the woman again. The authority the stranger seemed to have over the Amazons and the ornate armor she was wearing slightly intimidated the older woman for a while.
"No, I stayed back." Xena wasn't sure why she just didn't tell the woman who she was but something held her tongue. She would like to think her silence was due to her automatic survival instinct but a small portion of her thoughts insisted it was because she was scared of Gabrielle's mother, of the possible reaction to who she was and the relationship she had with her daughter.
"Then you went drinking with my husband?" She wasn't sure she liked that particular aspect of the stranger and she let her disapproval seep into her voice.
"I wanted to get him drunker faster so you could see Gabrielle sooner." Xena's teeth gleamed in the moonlight.
"Because Gabrielle loves you and wants to see you." Xena's flat statement carried clearly through the darkness.
Hecuba considered the quality in the stranger's voice when she spoke Gabrielle's name "You love her?" It was an odd concept for her to grasp but Xena's reply started her mind wrapping slowly around it.
"With all my heart." Xena heard rustling in the shadows and whistled the code for 'two women, no danger.' Upon hearing the response she trilled out a few more whistles and smiled when they were answered affirmative. Satisfied her surprise would be ready she moved on silently past the dying bonfire toward the house.
Gabrielle chuckled at Lila's reaction when she entered the main room. It had taken awhile to get the children to bed and the Amazon invasion of her home was a shock. She looked around and marveled at the scene. The guards each stood in a corner of the room leaving only one corner empty. Brenin reclaimed the seat she had earlier and the small couch was filled with Gabrielle in the middle, Solan on one side and the leader of the guard on the other. Only one chair remained empty. Lila quickly lit the lanterns and candles around the room. Stopping with the candle on the small table next to Karis' end of the couch. She was about to offer them some drinks when Brenin spoke.
"Lila. Do you have a quill and ink?" The scribe looked at Gabrielle. "I have an agreement to sign."
"Uhh... I think so." Lila moved some stuff off of a trunk in the unoccupied corner and dug through it efficiently. "Yes." She handed the box to Brenin. "I don't know if it's still good...." She dusted off her hands. ".... I haven't used it since...." She realized when and dove for the box, too late, Brenin was already unfolding the parchment she found inside.
"Gods Lila...." Brenin's eyes went wide as she looked at the document.
Gabrielle didn't hide her curiosity. "What is it?"
Lila was too embarrassed to protest when Brenin handed Gabrielle the parchment. While the Queen was absorbing the words she read, the scribe found the small bottle of ink and a quill. She wrote her name quickly on the adoption paper knowing it was the best thing for her daughter. She sat the ink bottle on the stand next to her chair and blew on the signature to dry it quicker. 'It's the right thing to do.' She thought. It broke her heart just a little to know that Micha was no longer her daughter. Gabrielle's quiet voice pulled her out of her thoughts.
"I had no idea....." The scouts had reported that Perdicus didn't treat her well but Gabrielle was surprised Lila had taken things this far. She looked again at the parchment in her hands and reread the top. Declaration for Dissolution of Marriage. She took a second look at the date as well. 'It's old too.' She thought. The signature lines were even signed by both Perdicus and Lila... the only thing left unfinished was... "Have you taken this to Silvas?"
All eyes were on Lila, waiting for her response. "Dissolution of Marriage is something King Silvas doesn't do."
"Silvas is a bitter old fool." Xena's voice forced them all to look quickly at the door. "His wife left him years ago and now he wants everyone to suffer." She removed her cloak and hung it on a peg by the door. Striding across the room to meet Gabrielle on her way to greet her mother, she took the parchment and a quick tender kiss from her love.
Gabrielle tasted the alcohol on Xena's lips and looked into her slightly unfocused eyes. "You OK?"
"I'm fine, Gabrielle." She grinned and raised an eyebrow suggestively. "I'll show you just how fine I feel...." She looked around the room and chuckled. "...Later." Regretfully she parted from her partner and moved with only a slight sway toward the couch.
Gabrielle watched Karis quickly suppress her smile as Xena gestured her to move over next to Solan. The warrior princess sat, moved the candle closer and held the document up to the light to read.
When Xena began reading, Gabrielle turned to her mother. "I'm glad you could come back." She hugged the older woman, tentatively at first and then tighter when the embrace was fully returned.
"She brought him home." Hecuba whispered. "Drunker than I have ever seen him in such a short time."
Gabrielle chuckled. "She knew I wanted to see you." Gabrielle looked over at the couch and smiled.
Hecuba had been struck by the gentleness of the kiss and now the look on Gabrielle's face when she gazed at the seated woman forced the question. "You love her?" She was trying to understand the relationship.
Gabrielle never took her eyes off Xena. "With all my heart." With a deep breath, she tore her eyes away from Xena and looked at her mother. The rapt expression on Hecuba's face forced Gabrielle to ask. "What?"
"When we were coming here. I asked her if she loved you." Hecuba was embarrassed that she had pried into her absent daughter's life.
"And?" Gabrielle didn't understand and thought. 'Surely Xena said she did.' To think otherwise was impossible.
"She said 'With all my heart.' " Hecuba's eyes went wide with awe. "Exactly like you just did."
"Oh." Gabrielle looked over at Xena and couldn't quite suppress a smile, especially when the cool blue eyes twinkled up from the parchment.
Hecuba saw the smile on her daughter's face an thought in wonder. 'What does that feel like?....' She looked from Gabrielle to the dark stranger and back. ' To love and be loved in return.' At one time she thought she knew but now, seeing the look passing between them, she wasn't sure.
Gabrielle linked elbows with her mother and they walked to the last empty chair in the room. Hecuba began to protest and Gabrielle's response...."I can sit in the floor..." was countered by Xena's low rumble.
"No need for that." Xena patted her lap for Gabrielle to sit and was dismayed at the Amazon Queen's refusal.
"Uh uh...." She indicated the intricate armor and laughed. "The floor would be softer."
Dropping the parchment she could only half concentrate on, Xena stood quickly, held her arms out to her side and smiled. "Do you want the practice?"
Gabrielle smiled nervously at the room in general and her mother in particular before she grabbed Xena's arm and hauled her over to the door. When they were out of earshot she whispered to the warrior. "If you think I'm going to undress you in front of my mother and our son you are drunker than I thought."
Xena seemed to consider this for a minute then winked and pointed her index finger at the little strawberry blonde. "Right..." She didn't see Gabrielle's smile at her agreement vanish when she continued her thought. "... let's go outside." Xena grabbed her cloak and headed out the door.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and thought. 'Ye Gods...' She smiled again at the room, laughed nervously and apologized. "We'll be right back." She saw the guards shaking to suppress grins and sighed before she followed the warrior out the door.
As soon as the door closed, Karis spoke sternly to the guards. "Not one word when they come back." She looked at each one of them in turn. "If I hear so much as a snicker, whisper or smirk, it will be NORTHERN border patrol for a month... you got me?" She nodded satisfactorily when they all solemnly acknowledged her order. She noticed several glances at Brenin and only then did she realize the threat she had made. It was common rumor around the barracks that a month of border patrol in the North was what had caused Brenin to snap and start stalking Gabrielle.
Hecuba looked warily at the head guard. "What...." She thought about the right question to ask grateful, sort of, for Karis' answer to her unspoken, half formed question.
"Ma'am, I would not even speculate what they are doing out there." The work it took Karis to keep the grin off her own face made her voice deep and almost jealous sounding. 'Gods.' She thought. 'I'm gonna have to send myself North.'
Solari wondered about the tone of Karis' voice and mumbled. "Whatever it is.... I'll bet she comes back without her armor." She wanted to get her comment out of her system before the couple returned. The border patrol threat didn't scare her but she really didn't want to upset Xena. Several of her own rules of survival came to mind. 'Never blow in a snake's face. Never poke a bear with a stick. And never, ever taunt a warrior when she's drunk.' She thought about that and added. 'Especially that one.'
Lila was becoming uncomfortable with the insinuations even though, considering the kiss, she couldn't help making a few of her own. Solari's comment was loud enough for her, if not her mother, to hear and it reminded her a little too much of the snide remarks Perdicus was fond of making. "Mother will you check on the children for me?" She smiled when Hecuba practically jumped out of her seat. "I put them in my room." Hecuba nodded and headed out of the crowded room. Lila turned to her new friend. "Brenin will you help me with the drinks?" She didn't like the looks some of the Amazons were giving her children's savior and thought she might appreciate a little time away from the glares. Heading for the kitchen she smiled, as Brenin followed quickly behind her.
Gabrielle nodded only briefly to the guard at the door before peering into the darkness for Xena. When she didn't see her immediately, Gabrielle turned back to the guard. "Did you see where she went?"
"She went into the barn, my Queen." The darkness hid the smile on her face. Although she didn't have anything to do with the preparations she had heard Xena's whistled orders to Jana.
"Thanks." Gabrielle absently gestured to the guard as she made her way to the barn. By the time she got there she was shivering. Pushing the door open only wide enough to allow her entry, she was grateful that the animal body heat warmed the interior of the building slightly. "Xena? Are you in here?"
"Up here Gabrielle." The low voice purred out of the shadows and Gabrielle looked up at the hayloft.
"Xena come down here." Gabrielle was exasperated at the warrior's antics. This wasn't the time. 'Of course...' She grinned at the thought. 'It wasn't the time when I was changing clothes either.' She looked around and noticed a shadow moving outside the door.
After considering the wording of the request for a moment, Xena smiled and replied. "Maybe later.... first I want you to come up here...." Gabrielle could almost see the sultry smile and half lidded eyes just from the tone in her voice. "I've got something to show you."
Gabrielle took a deep breath. "I'll bet you do." She grinned and then furrowed her brow as her senses caught up with her. She took another deep breath and thought .... nahh.. it couldn't be... wrong season. She climbed the ladder to the hayloft and nearly missed the top step at the sight.
Xena had spread out her cloak in the patch of moonlight shining through the loft door. She was reclining on her elbows sans armor which was a sight in itself but by the Gods if she wasn't surrounded by more lilacs than Gabrielle ever remembered seeing.
"Xena! How....." Gabrielle was overwhelmed. "When...."
Effortlessly Xena rose and crossing the loft linked arms with the speechless woman. Leading her to the door, she pointed to an odd shaped building not far away. "You see that... that's a greenhouse." She released the hold she had on Gabrielle's arm and circled her shoulders lovingly. "Lilacs are all he grows." She smiled down at the woman in her arms, marveling at the effect moonlight had on her. "You must have grown up smelling lilacs in the air all the time... I wondered why you loved them so much..... " She paused to see if Gabrielle would catch it, of course she did.
She gasped. "They reminded me of home." It was a realization that brought tears to her eyes. She had never thought she was homesick but now she realized she was and just didn't know it. "Gods Xena.." Circling her arms around Xena's waist, she laid her head on Xena's shoulder and felt a tiny kiss on the top of her head. She had dreamed this so often in her youth.... to be standing in the moonlight, in Xena's arms. She stared out into the night and whispered. "Thank you."
"Gabrielle.. It's just a few flowers." Xena was at a loss. She had hoped Gabrielle would like her surprise but this reaction was over the top.
"Not for the flowers." She smiled up at her dark warrior. "Although those are good too." Gabrielle took a deep breath and smiled. "I meant...." She looked down for a moment, embarrassed, then back up into the liquid blue eyes that threatened to drown her. "..... for making my dreams come true."
Xena chuckled. "Well I got lucky on this one." She dropped her chin to her chest and tapped Gabrielle's nose with her finger. "You're gonna have to tell me the rest of them or I won't know what to do."
Gabrielle smiled. "OK." They both heard the soft shuffle of feet outside the barn door. "I think Norin is listening." She looked speculatively at the warrior. "You wanna give her an earful too." Gabrielle wished she could have seen Perdicus' face when Xena started her little game back in Amphipolis.
Xena thought about that and looked at the pulley hanging outside the loft door. "Nah... I got a better idea." She smiled at Gabrielle, held her arms out to her side and said. "Hold on tight."
Naturally, Gabrielle complied and Xena grabbed the ropes, normally used for lifting haybales up, to quietly lower them down out of the loft. Suppressing giggles they snuck up behind Norin who was crouched down next to the barn door and Xena whispered. "What are we doing in there?"
Without turning around, Norin waved them off whispering. "Shhhh.. I'm trying to hear....." The explanation of her actions trailed off when she realized what had been asked. Slowly she turned around to see Xena and Gabrielle standing with their arms crossed in front of them. Both of them had very grim expressions on their faces. "Oh Gods...."
Xena would have tormented the woman for much longer but Gabrielle relented and grinned at the extremely embarrassed guard. "I'd say you'd better get back to your post before Karis finds you missing." Her grin turned to a smile as the guard made deep tracks in the dirt to get back to the door.
Xena laughed at the hasty retreat and found herself being poked in the ribs. "Now who's the faker." Green eyes twinkled up at the laughing woman. "You're not drunk at all!"
Xena wiped a tear of laughter from her eye and took a deep breath. "Actually I could use a little exercise to get rid of the residual buzz." She gave Gabrielle a deep kiss knowing what kind of exercise she would choose given the opportunity. Regretfully she took another option. "I'm going for a run." She headed inside the barn to get Argo.
Gabrielle stayed at the door and advised needlessly. "Keep to the open road. I don't want you running over unfamiliar ground at night."
"To the crossroads and back." She tested the extent of her intoxication. "Maybe twice." Pausing only for another quick kiss, Xena began jogging toward the road, with Argo keeping pace beside her.
Gabrielle watched the golden horse and her dark shadow disappear down the moonlit road before she chuckled and headed back toward the house. Shifting her path she went around to the kitchen door instead of the main entrance.
Lila and Brenin entered the kitchen and Brenin couldn't suppress a sigh. Lila kept her back toward her new friend. "Can you get a tray please." Her choked words made Brenin pause and then move closer, seeing tears in Lila's eyes.
"Hey. Lila? What's wrong? Why are you crying?" Brenin gasped. "Is it because I showed Gabrielle the Dissolution decree?"
"No." Lila wiped her eyes and thought. 'I would have shown her that anyway.' She looked into Brenin's eyes and said. "I'm crying because you lied to me." During the short time it took to get to the kitchen she had realized the reason for the guards stares at her friend.
Now Brenin was speechless and could only shake her head in denial.
Lila gave her a hard look and continued. "Everyone of those guards know you. I saw the looks you were getting. You said you weren't an Amazon but you are."
Now the scribe understood and took Lila's hands. She sat down at the table and tried to make the younger woman understand. "I didn't lie. I'm not an Amazon....." She looked directly into Lila's now drying eyes and continued. ".... not anymore." Holding Lila's hands tightly enough to gain strength from the contact but not so tightly that the woman couldn't pull away if she wanted, Brenin began to tell the story of her and her obsession with Gabrielle. She was quietly amazed when not only did Lila not pull away but actually increased her hold on the handclasp. When the story was over Brenin asked. "Do you have questions?"
"You loved her?" Lila was surprised at the slight jealousy in her voice.
"I thought about her every waking moment and dreamed about her every night." Brenin said.
"Do you still?" Lila looked into the deep brown eyes across from her. "Dream about her I mean."
Brenin released the hold she had on Lila's hands, ran her fingers through her medium brown hair and sighed. "Not every night." Truth is best.
"Glad to hear it." Gabrielle's quiet voice from the doorway startled them both. When Gabrielle saw shadows moving in the kitchen she stood by the door and listened to the last part of Brenin's story. In her heart Gabrielle had never really thought the woman would actually hurt her and now hearing the story in Brenin's own words only reinforced that belief. She looked at Lila. "Are you Ok?"
"I'm not sure yet." Lila looked from Gabrielle to Brenin. "I may need some time to sort this out." She started arranging mugs on the tray. "We better get back out there, those women are probably thirsty by now."
Karis saw Lila returning from the kitchen with a large tray of mugs and Brenin close behind with two pitchers of wine. When she saw Gabrielle carry in another pitcher, Karis jumped to her feet. "Where's Xena?" Her first instinct was to protect the Queen. 'Gabrielle should never be left alone.' She thought.
Luckily the mugs on the tray were empty because, Lila nearly dropped it. "X..X...Xena? THE Xena?" Gabrielle and Karis' affirmative nods sent her stomach into knots. Knowing that the ruler of the known world had been sitting in her living room just a short time before was enough to set her shaking. She put the mugs down on the small table, covering the forgotten parchment with the tray.
Gabrielle smiled at Lila's surprise. "She wanted to work some of the alcohol out of her system. She went for a run with Argo... down to the crossroads and back."
"She did seem a little tipsy." Karis commented casually.
Solari snorted. "Horseback riding is not going to do her much good." She didn't like Karis' concern for The Conqueror, it was Gabrielle they should be worried about.
Gabrielle smiled wryly. "I said she was running with, not riding on." She waited for them to catch on and smiled wider at their gasps.
"Gods... Can she keep up?" Bekka couldn't imagine anyone running as fast as a horse.
"Oh sure..." Gabrielle picked up a mug and calmly poured herself a drink. Deliberately misinterpreting Bekka's comment she responded. "Argo is a very fast horse."
Hecuba pushed open the door to her daughter's room slowly. She didn't want to wake the children. She found her caution wasted as they were both laying wide awake in the bed. "Hey you two. You should be asleep." She sat down on the edge of the bed and rubbed their stomachs through the blankets.
"We can't sleep." Gabe answered for both of them.
"Yeah, Grandma, we're to.... " She looked at her brother. "What did mom call it? Buggy?"
Gabe rolled his eyes. "Antsy."
Brie smiled and nodded. "Yeah that's it we're antsy."
Hecuba thought about that for a moment. "Sometimes when your antsy it means your worried about something. Are you worried about something?" She watched them look at each other and then back at her before solemnly nodding. "Sometimes talking helps. You wanna tell me about it?" Hecuba could never quite get over the shock of her grandchildren's voices speaking in unison but this time it was the words that left her speechless.
"We are afraid Aunt Gabrielle is going to hurt Brenin." They looked at their grandmother sadly. "She never said she wouldn't."
"Gabrielle wouldn't hurt Brenin." Hecuba reassured them. "Is that all?"
Another long mutual look and unison response. "We're afraid Brenin won't like our presents."
"Presents?" Now Hecuba was confused.
"Yeah...." Both children scrambled out of bed and went to the table in the corner.
"See." Brie held out a drawing.
"This is what I made her." Gabe handed over his handiwork.
Hecuba was nearly in tears at the gifts and sat for a while just examining them before she hugged the children tightly, stood, tucked the presents under her arm and offered them her hands. "Let's go give them to her."
By the time Xena got back everyone was sipping their drinks quietly, chairs had been brought for the guards but they remained in the corners seated instead of standing. Hecuba's chair was empty and she noticed Lila was standing farther away from Brenin. She also noticed the quizzical look Lila was giving her.
Gabrielle had risen at Xena's entrance and remembering the reason for her run, poured her a drink of water instead of wine. She waited for Xena to sit before making herself comfortable on the warrior's pleasantly warm now armor free lap, leaving the chair free for her mother's return.
Xena lifted her chin to indicate Lila's expression. "What's up with that?" Her eyes widened as Gabrielle whispered the explanation in her ear. Xena glanced at Brenin and whispered back to Gabrielle. Nodding at Gabrielle's response she glanced at Karis, then Brenin. Movement from the hallway entrance caught her eye as Hecuba and the children appeared in the doorway.
All the Amazons remembered the terror in the children's eyes when they first arrived so each guard remained perfectly still so as not to frighten the children again.
Hecuba cleared her throat and said. "The children wanted to say goodnight to Brenin." She released the little hands and watched her grandchildren as they went straight to Brenin and climbed into their hero's lap.
The guards found it very difficult to keep quiet at the children's words. "We wanted to make sure Aunt Gabrielle didn't hurt you."
Brenin draped one arm around each of them and squeezed the adoring children. "Gabrielle would never hurt me." She looked at each of them with narrowed eyes. "You should be in bed."
They climbed down and when they reached their grandmother Brie took a parchment from her. All eyes were on the little girl as she walked back to Brenin, this time shyly. "I drew this for you."
Brenin shot a startled glance at Lila and took the offering. She pursed her lips together when she saw the picture. "It's lovely." She smiled at the little girl. "It's the best picture ever."
Lila saw her new friends effort to hold back tears and moved to sit on the arm of the chair. She looked at the drawing and reached down to hold Brenin's hand in support. It was obvious that the figure in the center of the picture was Brenin holding hands with Brie and Gabe. There was a house in the background with Lila standing in the doorway.
Gabe approached the chair. "I made this for you." Gabe handed his hero a small bracelet. It was made of feathers and small odd shaped stones that glittered in the candlelight. "I tried to make it like your necklace."
Brenin dropped Lila's hand to accept the gift but was grateful that she didn't move away from the chair.
Gabe's eyes twinkled when Brenin examined the gift and smiled. "This is wonderful. You did a good job. Thank you." She looked at Brie. "Thank you both." She leaned forward in the chair and hugged them both. It was an unconscious gesture but as she leaned back, she reached back for Lila's hand, the fact that it was there threatened a flood of tears again.
Hecuba cleared her throat. "OK children you've seen she's fine and given her your gifts. Com'on now it's really time for bed."
They reached for Brenin for one last hug. "G'night Brenin. We love you."
Letting go of Lila's hand and allowing her tears to fall freely she leaned forward and hugged them both. Kissing each of them on the cheek she whispered. "I love you too." It took a small push on the back to get them moving in their grandmother's direction but once started they only looked back once before heading down the hallway to Lila's room.
When Gabrielle heard Brenin tell the children she loved them her plans shifted slightly and she was super glad there had been so many witnesses to this scene or she would never get away with it. She watched Lila closely and noticed her sister didn't move away from Brenin even after the children left. "Lila.." She smiled at the small jump her sister made. "Can I talk to you for a minute?" She picked the tray up off the table. "In the kitchen."
Lila followed her sister into the kitchen. Brenin was trying to get her own emotions under control and each guard was trying to reconcile the scene they had just witnessed with the rumors and gossip that had been spread about Brenin. Karis was watching Brenin closely. Even Solan had a lot to think about.
Xena watched Gabrielle disappear into the kitchen and thought. 'Well this will make things easier. We need something to fight over.' Casually, she picked the parchment up off the table and began reading it again. 'This was written before the children were born.' She raised an eyebrow at one clause. 'I wonder if Lila still wants this?' Xena continued to read the yellowing parchment.
As soon as they entered the kitchen, Gabrielle whirled on Lila. "Are you OK with Brenin?"
Lila took a deep breath and sat at the table. "Gabe and Brie love her." She smiled as Gabrielle sat next to her. "She is my friend." Taking her sister's hand she continued. "I know what she did to you was bad but she is over that now and...." Lila swallowed hard. "... She saved the children." That was the one fact Lila couldn't ignore or forget. " ......I don't.... I can't.... blame her for her past. Do you understand?"
Gabrielle patted Lila's hand and chuckled. "Lila... I'm in love with Xena for crying out loud... you don't think I know about forgiving someone's past?"
"Oh.." Lila's eyes grew huge and round. "OH!"
"Yeah... Oh." Gabrielle patted her hand.
"But I don't love Brenin...." Lila protested.
"Of course you do. You hold her hand just like you're holding mine now." Gabrielle held their hands up in front of Lila's blushing face. "I can't stay.. and you need a sister." The Amazon continued her thought in her head. 'Whether it develops into more is up to you two.'
Lila nodded. "I do like having someone around to talk to."
Gabrielle nodded. "Thought so. OK. This is what I have in mind...." As she explained, it was obvious Lila was going to go along with it and for that Gabrielle was extremely grateful.
Continued in Part 6