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|Standard Disclaimer - These characters, most of them, belong to Universal, and Renaissance Pictures, and whoever else has a stake in Xena: Warrior Princess. This is written just in fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.|
Specific Story Disclaimers:
Violence ĖItís a Xena story. There are forest dwellers, bad guys, pregnant bards, sly Amazons, several troublemakers, and one very persistent mincemeat pie. Of course there is violence. Not too much though. Maybe one head, maybe two.. it depends on how it goes.
Subtext - Iím not disclaiming subtext anymore. If youíve gotten this far in the series, you know what itís about. I donít personally think thereís anything in their relationship that needs disclaiming. Itís not like theyíre vegetarians, or something.
This is, of course, PG13 level involvement here, no more. That never changes.. for those of you who are waiting for me to stick in a rip roaring, no holds barred graphic orgy scene, make sure you have plenty of coffee and doughnuts handy. And a comfortable chair. And a good book. I can recommend some excellent altfic bards for you if you drop me a note.
If you read this story, and are offended by the love portrayed within, too bad. No raspberry brownies for you.
Any and all comments are always welcome. You can email them to: email@example.com
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Circle of Life
By Melissa Good
It was very dark when Gabrielle felt herself nudged up to consciousness, only a few of the torches guttering fitfully in their wall sconces, the air mostly clear of the cloying smoke. She nuzzled her head into the comfort of Xenaís shoulder, breathing in a lungful of the familiar scents that clung to her, of leather and warm skin, and the sweat that covered both of them. Her body was curled into the security of the warriorís arms and she felt a pleasant moment of utter peace as she shifted her head to regard her sleeping partner.
The disheveled hair brought a wry smile to her face, and she lifted a hand to push it back, exposing the well-shaped forehead. Then the pale blue eyes fluttered and gazed at her, with a complete openness she hadnít seen there in the months since her return.
How many chances at this am I going to get? Gabrielle asked herself silently, as she brushed her fingertips over the high cheekbones. Sheís always so worried about hurting me.. how many times is she going to put herself right out there in the open for me to rip her apart? "Hi." She let her lips curve into a smile. "We now have a true, honest to goodness mess, right?" She indicated the cavern over her shoulder with a glance.
"Mmmhmm." Xena agreed, wrapping a curl of pale hair around one finger and playing with it. "We sure do.. weíve got bacchae bats, who are going to wake up hungry, possibly penetrated sheep, upright folks who certainly ended up in a non upright position, and my brother who very possibly just joined the Amazon Nation to deal with."
Gabrielle gently suckled on a nearby earlobe. "Coflf fibe wofs." She mumbled.
Xena disengaged her ear and applied her lips. "Shh." She silenced her partner for a very long moment. "Donít tempt the Fates, okay?"
"Okay." The bard conceded. "I wasnít in the mood to be giving birth right now anyway." She gave Xena an impish grin as the warrior lifted both brows at her. "I love when you do that."
"That eyebrow thing." Gabrielle ran a finger along the dark hairs. "Your face is so expressive...you say things just by moving a muscle here. " She touched the side of Xenaís mouth. "Or here.. " Her finger drifted to the edge of one blue eye, which crinkled as Xena smiled. "See?" She chuckled. "Howís your back feeling?"
Xenaís gazed went inward for a moment, then she flexed her shoulders. "Fine." She shrugged, burrowing into the furs and stretching her body out. "Just needed a little rest."
The bard hitched herself up and pulled one of the warriorís shoulders towards her. "Roll this way."
Xena did so, finding a very tasty bit of skin to nibble.
Gabrielle muffled a giggle as she peered at her partnerís smooth skin. The cuts were closed, and scabbed over, even the big one. A feeling of quiet relief flooded through her, and she gently kissed the shoulder she was tugging on. "Looks good." She patted Xenaís side, and the warrior reluctantly rolled back over. "So. Whatís the plan?"
Xena lifted both hands and shrugged her shoulders. "I dunno." She grinned. "Itís not like thereís a section on being trapped in a cave under water with a herd of sheep and a village full of religious fanatics while under the influence of henbane in the Warlordís Guide to Conquering Greater Greece, Gabrielle." She remarked reasonably.
The bard burst out laughing, burying her face into her soulmateís chest. "Oh gods that was funny." She finally sighed. "Okay.. so we kind of play it by ear.. or..??"
The warrior stretched and yawned, then pawed into their bags for a shirt. "Well.. first things first.. lemme go check out that damned cavern they found... who knows.. maybe weíll get lucky." She peeked at her soulmate. "See if you can find the Amazons, huh?"
"Oh sure." Gabrielle crossed her arms over her bare chest. "Leave me to do the squirmy stuff."
"Tch.. you are the Queen, kiddo." Xena reminded her. "Theyíre YOUR Amazons."
"YOU are one of my Amazons too, love." The bard replied, with a faint smirk. "Or did ja forget that?"
An eyebrow lifted. "No.. but you know where I am." The warrior answered practically, as she pulled on a boot. "Besides.. youíre a lot more diplomatic than me." She poked the very tip of her tongue out at her partner, then stood up and tied the belt on her tunic.
Gabrielle leaned back on her hands and studied the taller woman. "Youíre in a good mood." She complimented her. "I like that."
Xena stopped in mid motion, considering, then smiled. "Yeah.. I am." She remarked, with a tinge of surprise in her voice. She bent down and picked up her present, and tucked it inside her belt. "See ya in a bit."
The bard watched her pace off, staying close to the wall to avoid bodies she could hardly see in the dimness. "Okay." Gabrielle sighed, pulling a fresh shirt out for herself and pulling it over her head. The linen smelled of home, and... she pressed it up against her face and breathed in. That faint tinge of leather and musk that came from close contact with Xena.
Of course... She sniffed her skin. She also carried that tinge. A grin crossed her face at just how appealing that thought was, and she hugged herself briefly before she stood, pulling herself up by a cleft in the rock face. A groan caught her attention, and she turned to see Solari stumble into the circle of boxes, and collapse, holding her head in her hands. "Hey."
Bleary brown eyes glared up at her resentfully. "Shh."
The bard cocked her head, and ran a comb through her hair. "You okay?" She asked, a little concerned at the moan she got in response.
"Mígonna killer." Solari mumbled.
Gabrielle perched on the box next to her. "Kill who?"
"Your blasted, Artemis be damned, centaur butted, pig headed partner." The Amazon moaned. "Mígonna kill her.. where is she?"
The bard neatly brushed her hair, and braided it to keep it off her neck. "Solari, you canít kill Xena." She told the Amazon. "And besides.. she didnít do anything.. so why do you want to?"
"Didnít do... wherintheHades were you?" Solari wailed. "Do you know who I ended up... oh wait.. let me guess... you two lovebirds had a grand old time, didníja?" She glared at Gabrielle accusingly. "Figures."
She got a kind smile in return. "Now, Solari... " Gabrielle patted her hand. "Xena just did what she could to fix our bat problem.. she didnít make everyone go goofy on purpose." The bard glanced around. "In fact... sheís out looking for a way out of here right now."
A moan. "Why are you so damn cheerful?" Solari grabbed her head. "I feel like a centaur is dropping two stone poops on my noggin."
"Hm.. " The bard considered. "Well, Xena didnít seem to be feeling bad before she left.. and I donít.. maybe we were further away from the smoke or something... you guys were pretty close." She looked up to see Aileen trudge in, holding a small ewe in her arms. "Uh..."
The younger Amazon plopped down. "Sheís cute, huh?"
Solari looked at Gabrielle, who looked right back at her. "Adorable." The both said in unison.
"Yeah.. I rescued her from that shepherd... " Aileen sighed. "I donít remember much after that.. gods.. my head is killing me."
"Whew." Gabrielle silently wiped her brow. "Well, Xena went to go check out that cave.. and see if thereís another way out of here." A low wail made her look up. "Now what?"
Matthias staggered up, his clothing only minimally attached to his body. "You... are ... demons!" He accused. "Isaac has been grossly tricked... you are of the darkness... all of you." He pointed a shaking hand at them, then keeled over, and thumped to a halt on the ground, squashing a bat flat.
"Hmm... " Gabrielle scratched her jaw. "Wonder who he ended up with?" She peered off into the dim air, started to see Sarahís face anxiously appear. "Sarah?"
"Yes, have you.. oh. " She found her husband and sighed in relief. "Thank the Lord.. I was afraid he would do something foolish... he went off so angrily." She sighed, and knelt by Matthias, putting a hand on his head.
"Um... " The bard hesitated. "That was um... sort of unexpected, I mean... the bats, and then that smoke.. did you... uh..."
Sarah glanced up. "Very disturbing, yes." She sighed. "When Matthias came to me, I hardly knew what... well.. " She blushed delicately. "It was quite a surprise."
"Ah.. so you two.. um.. " Gabrielle waved a hand. "Ended up together?"
"Yes of course.. are we not husband and wife?" Sarah seemed slightly insulted, then her eyes drifted, and fell on some of the still sleeping bodies entangled around them. "Oh... good Lord..." Her eyes widened. "Wh..."
Gabrielle rubbed her temples. "Not everyone was in the.. um.. right place at the right time, so to speak." She muttered. "But.. if you two.. then why was he so angry?"
Sarah tore her eyes from the unlikely pairing nearest them, and blinked. "Oh...well, he... Matthias feels an evil force came over us, because he enjoyed it." She informed the bard seriously. "The writings tell us this act was given to us by the Lord to allow us to be gifted with children, and so should be honored as a sacred obligation."
Solari goggled at her. "And... you think because of that you shouldnít enjoy doing it?" The Amazonís voice was thick with disbelief.
The woman gazed at her. "If there is enjoyment, the temptation would be too great to use this act for oneís own pleasure, and not for the glory of the Lord." She paused. "That would be evil."
Mist green eyes blinked at her. "You really believe that, donít you?"
"With all my heart, yes." Sarah answered seriously. "I know you think weíre...backwards.. I can see it in your face... but the word of the Lord gives our lives structure, and stability, and I am at peace living under his guiding hand." She hesitated. "Even if I cannot read, as you can.. and I have never traveled outside the confines of my people.. as you have. I am happy. Can you say the same?"
Solari was silent, her eyes flicking from Gabrielleís face to Sarahís and back, curious as to what the bard would answer. There were so many layers to the complex person the young bard from Potadeia had become, she really had no idea what exactly Gabrielle would say to that.
But Gabrielle merely smiled. "Yes." Her eyes crinkled up around the corners. "I had a choice, Sarah.. I could have been like you." She thought back in memory. "But Iíve been all over the world.. Iíve seen beauty, and horror... Iíve seen war, and peace, and life and death... Iíve met people whose lives have changed the world, and some who have just changed my own life... Iíve made good friends.. " Here, she put a hand on Solariís shoulder. "And collected a few enemies...and Iíve suffered pain, and sorrow.. and been gifted with the kind of love the poets only dream about." She exhaled. "So, Sarah.. yes. I am happy.. I wouldnít have it any other way."
The woman studied her. "I do not understand you."
The bard gave a little shrug. "Thatís okay. .I donít much understand you, either." She sighed. "You want a hand waking him up?" She indicated Matthias. "Honestly, we didnít do this on purpose.. Xena was just trying to pacify the bats." Now she glanced uneasily around, as the small creatures were stirring. "And I hope they stay pacified." She peered at a nearby leathery ball, and the animal hissed at her, baring its tiny fangs. "Yikes."
"Guess he didnít like who he ended up with." Aileen commented, petting her ewe complacently.
"Yuck." Jessan yawned, showing his huge fangs as he ambled into the circle, cleaning out bits of dead bat from under his claws. "Well, that was a nice nap.. remind me to thank Xena." He gave Gabrielle a look.
"Just be glad you missed it." Solari grumbled. "It got kinda squirrelly in here."
Jessan glanced around. "Arenít they a little small for this?" He asked, puzzled. "Gosh."
The bard covered her eyes for a moment, then cleared her throat. "Jess, can you take Matthias over to his family? " Gabrielle asked him. "Iím going to try to find the rest of our group.. Xena went out to explore your cave."
"Oh sure.. she gets to do the fun stuff." The forest dweller grumbled. "Great Ares, heís about the size of that pig I had to wrestle down for dinner last year." But he stooped down next to Matthias as Sarah backed off, and lifted him in his arms. "Okay.. where to?"
Sarah made a face. "You eat swine?"
Jessan blinked his golden eyes at her. "We cook them first." He assured her hastily. "Honest."
"They are unclean animals." The woman shook her head. "We do not touch them."
"Lady, Iíve got news for you." Jessan chuckled. "All animals are dirty.. you gotta wash em first." He stepped over a young man sprawled in happy abandon over a young woman. "My mother scrubs em with soap."
Sarah averted her eyes. "Dear Lord... what will their parents say?" She murmured, then her eyes fell on two slightly older men, curled into a happy ball. "Oh my." Her voice was shocked. "Matthais was right.. this is the worst of evil."
"No it isnít." Jessan disagreed. "If you believe that. you donít know what real evil is." He dodged a stumbling ram.
Sarah looked up at his seven foot furred height. "You cannot presume to tell me that." She answered. "The Lord has told us what evil is...his words are clear." She paused. "But you are not human... you cannot understand."
"No, Iím not." Jessan agreed, showing his fangs in a smile. "And boy, am I ever glad... you humans live in such tiny minds.. itís a wonder your heads donít explode." He set Matthias down on the pile of skins tucked in one corner of where his family had put their belongings. "Donít worry.. you can always fall back on the comfort of knowing it was the smoke that caused all of this... right?" He straightened, and looked directly at her, one furry eyebrow lifted in wry knowledge.
She looked away from him, and stared off into the dim light.
Jessan sighed and shook his head, stepping out from their area and heading towards the back of the cave. "Humans." He rolled his eyes. "Only species on earth who thinks theyíre going to get punished for enjoying life." He hopped over a couple of huddled figures, then stopped, and peered closer. "Oh boy.. thatís gonna be a shock when they wake up." His fangs glinted in a grin, then he moved on.
The smell was... Xena sighed. Well, she should have been used to it, right? What was a little bat poop after what sheíd just been through in that other cavern? Her stomach roiled anyway, and she took a moment just to swallow a few times, before she poked her torch inside the cave the rockslide had opened up into.
Flapping wings, startled into motion rewarded her action, and she ducked instinctively, feeling the unpleasant sensation as a bat passed over her head and into the other cave. "Great." She muttered, glancing down as she placed her boots carefully, not wanting to slip in any of the stuff.
A pair of eyes reflected her light, and scurried away, joined by several others. "Terrific. Bats and rats." The warrior sighed. "Two of my favorite things." A rat trotted over her boot and she jerked her leg in pure reflex, sending it flying into what seemed to be another group of them, judging by the outraged squeaks which followed. "Whoops." A brief flash of white as Xena smiled. "Sorry about that."
She walked further in, relieved when the roof of the cavern lifted, and she could sense clear air around her. She held the torch up, and saw the barest reflection of the light against the rocks above, and numerous glinting eyes peering back at her. "Relax, fellas.. hopefully Iím just passing through."
A large splat of poop fell just in front of her, and she grimaced. "Thanks." She circled around it, then headed towards the rear of the cave, which narrowed back down again. If there were bats, she knew, there had to be a way out for them to hunt, she just had to find it. The walls came in closer, and she paused a moment, breathing evenly, then went ahead until it became obvious that she was close to the mouth of a tunnel.
She sighed. "Itís just not my year, is it?" A fingertip against the rock came away with years of slick oil from the batsí wings as they went through the opening, and she knelt, peering forward into the dark hole with the torch held back a little to throw its light ahead of her.
Wide enough for her to pass, if she crouched. Barely wide enough for Jessan, if he squeezed, she reckoned, then with a deep breath, she edged forward. Her shoulders rubbed up against the slimy surface and she grimly ignored that, as she kept going three or four bodylengths into the tunnel.
A strong flashback jolted her, and she tightened her jaw, forcing the memories of the rockslide that had buried her back, sucking in deep breaths and inching forward with her eyes closed tightly, until she felt a soft breath of fresher air stir her bangs. She blinked her eyes open, and detected a lightening of the gloom ahead of her, and expelled a sigh of relief.
It was another six or seven bodylengths, then the passage turned to the left, and she could see a definite hint of light, pouring through and catching glints off the stone she could now see around her. The breeze blew in again, bringing a hint of earth, and very strongly, water, which the warrior could now also hear, a restless sound that pulled her forward, until the passage opened into a much larger space.
Xena dropped out of the tunnel into an open cavern, whose walls rose up around her, and sloped down to a rushing stream that emerged from the rock, and exited through a chasm into a waterfall. Through the opening she could see the sky, and she threw back her head, pulling in a delicious lungful of fresh air. "Damn, that feels good." She sighed, and scrambled down the embankment, towards where the stream left the cave.
She jumped up to one small ledge, and then another, putting her boots carefully on the moss covered rocks, until she was at the lip of the stream, and one hand was on the rock edge. Xena peered out, drinking in the sunlight with a feeling of utter relief, and examined their possible escape route.
It would be tough, she realized, and they wouldnít be able to take much of their belongings. The waterfall covered most of the rock face, but just where she was, a small, barely navigable path led down the side of the mountain. Tough, but doable, especially by her own people, who could go ahead and string ropes along to help the others.
Xena grinned, and put her hands on her hips, taking an extra moment just to enjoy being outside before she had to start the stifling journey back into the mountain. She peered down at herself, seeing the dirt and mud and worse that covered most of her body, and eyed the water speculatively, then shrugged, and padded back inside, sitting down and pulling off her boots before standing up and removing her tunic.
The water was icy cold, and itís impact sent shock waves through her, making her breathing almost stop until she got used to it. She braced her legs against a rock outcropping, and lowered herself into the rushing water, allowing the cold stream to pour over her in a refreshing wave.
It felt wonderful, and she laughed a little, ducking her head back and rinsing her hair out before she spread her arms and just enjoyed the massage of the water. The sharp scent of the moss tickled her nose, and she closed her eyes, breathing it in for a long moment.
Then a soft curse made her eyes open, and she listened, a wry grin edging her face as she recognized the intruder. "Hey, Jess." She called out.
"Aw, Xena... you would have to find just the nastiest, grubbiest way out of here, huh?" The forest dweller complained. "I have things in my fur so awful my mother would shave me if she saw me."
Xena heard the scrabbled of his claws on the rock, and she eased to a sitting position, then pushed herself up, dripping and naked into the light streaming into the cavern. "Sorry.. if itís any consolation, I felt the same way."
"Well, I wo... Xena!" Jessan clapped his hands over his eyes. "For Aresí sake."
"Címon.. Iím not that bad looking." The warrior grinned, as she made her way back towards him. "Am I?"
One golden eye peeked out from between furry fingers. "You know perfectly well thatís not what I meant." The forest dweller scolded, pretending not to enjoy the smooth combination of beauty and strength that so totally characterized his friend. Human or not, she was sure good to look at, he sighed inwardly.
Xena chuckled, and pulled her tunic on, then sat down on a rock outcropping and shook her boots out, before she started tugging them on. "Found a way down.. itís tricky, but if we rig up some ropes, itís manageable."
Jessan ambled over to look, and peered out and down. "Nice." He complimented the view. "Great to get out of that place."
"Yeah.. " Xena agreed. "And weíd better get everyone else out of there before those bats start really waking up.. I have no intention of slicing my way through them."
The forest dweller turned his head, eyeing the vision of her sitting there in the sunlight, water glistening off her tanned skin, and cascading around her in a shower as she shook her head and pulled her hair back. "Those people are pretty ticked off in there." He offered, watching the light catch glints from her pale blue eyes as she looked at him. "Maybe you should just leave them."
The warrior shook her head. "No can do, Jess... I canít help what happened, all I can do is get them outta here, then let them get on with their lives." She stood up and walked over to him. "And I know you want to get back to Elaini and the kids."
"Oh.. you bet." Jessan sighed. "Listen.. I havenít taken the time to say thank you... for coming after us, that is." He put a furred hand on her shoulder, feeling the shift of muscle and bone under his fingers. "I really appreciated that."
A warm smile creased the angular planes of Xenaís face. "Címon, Jess... of course we came after you.. what are friends for, if not that?" She patted his side. "Letís go... I want to see the last of that damn cave sooner than later."
He nodded agreement. "Right...." Then his furry head cocked. "Youíre in a good mood."
Pale blue eyes flicked to his. "Is that a crime?"
"No no.. no.. " Jessan waved a hand. "I..." His brows creased, as he focused his Sight on her, seeing a burnished fire heíd mostly seen dampened since the bard had returned. "No crime... itís just nice to see."
Xena dropped her gaze to the rocks for a moment, then lifted her head again. "Been one Hades of a year." She admitted quietly. "I think Iím just glad itís over." A tiny shake of the head. "I realized last night that the nightmares werenít ever going to go away unless I made the choice to move on... and I did."
"I think you made the right choice." Jessan replied.
The warrior nodded a little, then her head jerked up, and she started for the tunnel, as a deep, frightening jolt of fear hit her in the gut. "Gabrielleís in trouble." She yelled back as an explanation, as she dove headfirst into the darkness without hesitation.
"And thatís what you live for, isnít it, my friend?" Jessan replied softly, as he trotted after her.
"All right, now look." Gabrielle put a hand up, edging back to keep the angry crowd in her vision. "Thereís been a misunderstanding."
"No misunderstanding.. " The man closest to her shot back. "Itís pretty clear to me... first you trap us in here, then you seduce us all with your tricks...now your so called sister and that creature are missing.. it seems very clear to me!"
A mutter of agreement traveled around the crowd. "Did you think weíd give up our faith so easily?" A woman challenged. "Our Lord is a stronger shepherd of our hearts than that."
"Look.. weíre not trying to get anyone to give up anything." Gabrielle argued. "Weíre trapped in here too, remember? Xena and Jessan just went to try and find a way out." She felt Solari and Aileen move up next to her, the Amazons putting themselves into a position to protect her if things got ugly.
Uglier, that is. "Letís just calm down, and wait for them to come back."
"Theyíre not coming back here.. surely you donít expect us to believe that?" The first man shook his head. "Except with that warlord maybe... now that weíre helpless in here.. weíll be sitting ducks... and theyíll get everything." He lifted a scythe. "I say we take ourselves some hostages so we have bargaining chips when they get here."
"Thatís not a good idea." Gabrielle felt her heart start to pound. "They didnít go anywhere, and theyíll be back here any minute.. letís just stay calm, all right?" A glance behind her showed Torisí towering form now just to her left with Johan behind him and Frendanís tiny pugnaciousness next to her. "Weíre not your enemies."
"Arenít you?" Sarah asked. "Do you think we didnít realize what you were trying to do with our children?" She pointed at the bard. "Undermining the words of the Lord? You all have been mistaken.. itís not Xena who is the danger to us.. it is this one."
Gabrielleís nostrils flared. "Danger? Because I told them a few stories?"
"Stories which turned their minds away from God, yes." Matthias shot back. "Sarah is right... you seek to poison us with your lies."
"Iíve told no lies." The bard responded softly. "But who are you to talk? You kidnapped my brother and my friend... because you thought they didnít follow YOUR teachings?" She took a step forward, and was aware of the Amazons and Toris shifting with her. "If you hadnít done that, we wouldnít ever have come here.. what gives you the right to try and ĎcureĎ them?"
A moment of silence. "The Lord has tasked us with spreading his teachings." Matthias said seriously. "We sought only to instruct them in the ways of the Lord."
"Oh.. so your lies are okay to tell.. but mine arenít right?" Gabrielle felt her temper snapping. "What makes your stories any more real than mine?"
"Our teachings come from God... yours come from the devil." Sarah accused. "We donít want our children having their minds twisted... our traditions distorted in them, because you think they need teaching... your thoughts.. your ways are evil to us." She pointed at Gabrielle again. "Look at you ...all of you are like animals... and you.. that poor child in you.. born with no proper father, because no man would accept anyone like you."
Green eyes narrowed, and the bard took a deep breath, but hands dropped on her shoulders and she halted, as Toris took a step past her and faced Sarah down, his pale eyes fierce, and his hands clenching into fists.
"You will not speak to my sister that way, you piece of sanctimonious horse crap." His voice pitched down to a deep growl, so like to Xenaís it was truly uncanny. "Or Iíll take your Lordís teachings, and beat you over the head with them." He turned and faced the assembled men. "That goes for any of you.. one step further, one hand raised to her, and Iíll take you all on, and you better pray to your god after that."
Solari stepped up next to him, and drew her sword, catching firelight along its silver length. "The Amazon Nation doesnít take kindly to threats against its queen... so if youíre gonna do it, youíd better get ready to die." She told them firmly.
Johan put his arms around Gabrielleís shoulders. "What they said." He growled.
Gabrielle almost had to laugh, and she would have, if she hadnít been so mad. She wondered if Xenaís over protectiveness was contagious. "Youíre outclassed, Matthias." She stated quietly. "And where is Isaac? Doesnít he have a say in all this? Xena saved his life.. .doesnít that count for anything?"
"A trick." Matthias shot back. "He was found, cold and dead after your drug had done its work... messiah, he said? What a fool he was."
The bard winced. "Iím sorry." She said, softly. "But it really wasnít a trick."
"Lies." The man raised a hand. "Come forward... there are but six of them... with the power of the Lord behind us, we will take them."
"No you wonít." The calm voice echoed across the cavern, accompanied by a low, rumbling growl.
Heads turned, to see Xena perched on a rock, with Jessan standing next to her, the forest dwellerís fur almost standing on end, and his golden eyes on fire.
"I found a way out." The warrior continued quietly. "And weíd better take it, before either those bats recover, or that door gives way." She gestured behind her. "Through that cave, and down a small tunnel... thereís a rock face we can climb down."
Frozen silence, then all eyes turned to Matthias. He stared at Xena, who was outlined in torchlight up on her rock, the shadows painting a threatening mask across her still features. "We will settle this on the outside." He finally decided. "Gather your things.. but this had better not be a trap."
Xena didnít even dignify that with an answer. She hopped off her rock and strode across the cavern, expecting people to get out of her way.
She gave Toris a smile as she got closer, and clapped her brother on the back. "Nice.. I donít think I could have done a better threat than that."
Toris groaned. "Not so loud, sis... my headís about to explode." He leaned against her. "And I am in one Hades of a bad mood... what happened last night?"
The warrior circled Gabrielleís shoulders with one long arm and sighed. "You donít remember?" She glanced around for Cesta, to no avail.
Toris shook his head. "No.. I remember the bats, then it getting all thick and smokey.. then I woke up with what feels a lot like a hangover."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. "Well, everyoneís in the same boat." The warrior brushed him off lightly. "Donít worry about it."
"Youíre wet." Gabrielle commented, touching her hair. "Does this escape plan involve swimming?" She looked over at the milling crowd. "Because I think thatís gonna be tough with those sheep."
"No.." Xena gazed at her. "You okay?"
Gabrielle sighed. "Knocked down a peg or two, but otherwise fine... I guess you were right, Xena.. they really donít want our help."
The warrior kissed her gently on the head. "Just our being here changes things, Gabrielle... they can talk all they want, but those kids have seen us... talked to us... theyíll remember that someday."
"I guess." Gabrielle exhaled. "You know, I think sometimes people donít want to know the truth, Xena... itís much easier to believe a lie, if your comfortable with it."
They glanced at each other in joint understanding. "Thatís true." The warrior acknowledged. "Or sometimes itís just much less painful to cling to a belief instead of facing the truth."
A faint nod. "Do you think a lot of people will follow their way?"
Xena sighed. "I hope not." She moved to their gear, and exchanged linen for leathers, adding her armor in quick, practiced motions. "But the notion that there is someone up there.. taking care of you, and telling you what to do.. how to live your life.. thatís very comforting to some people, Gabrielle... itís much easier to believe that, then to live with decisions you make that cause pain to yourself, and to people you love."
Gabrielle thought about that, as they made their way across the cavern, studiously avoided by the villagers who stared at them with frightened suspicion. Then her eyes fell on a small face, peeking out from behind Sarahís back.
Rebekah smiled at her, and put a finger to her lips, then ducked back behind her family.
Gabrielle smiled to herself.
The bats were starting to wake up and become active, and the sheep were restive, the shepherds having trouble forcing the nervous animals through the tunnel until Jessan got behind them, and let out a bass roar. Then they popped through quickly, and the rest of the people followed, letting out sounds of disgust as they headed through the now firelit batsí cave.
Gabrielle was glad of her partnerís steadying hand on her back as they went through the dark, enclosed space, and she reached back to pat a muscular thigh in comfort. "Bet you loved this part."
"Oh yeah." Xena replied wryly.
They exited out into the outer cavern, where several men were already up near the mouth of the waterfall, peering down the path. They appeared to be working on setting up a rope guide down themselves, so the warrior led her soulmate over to the water and sat down on a rock outcropping, helping Gabrielle as she joined her.
"Feels great just to breathe fresh air." The bard commented, as she leaned over, and dabbled her fingers in the water. "Whoa.. thatís cold."
Xena cupped her hands and drew up some water, offering it to her.
Gabrielle sipped the icy fluid carefully, kissing the steady fingertips as she did so, watching the blue eyes gazing at her soften and narrow slightly as a smile crinkled their edges. She let her mind drift ahead, to home, and she realized she was looking forward to the peace of it.
Now, more than ever. "This has been one of the weird ones, huh?" She asked her soulmate wryly.
Xena snorted, then ran a hand through her dark hair, pushing it back from her forehead. "To put it mildly." She remarked. "We need to find a wagon or something for the ride home."
"Why?" The bard asked, giving her a look. "Are you that tired?"
"Gabrielle." Xenaís voice dropped low.
"Come on, Xena.. I just dealt with a flood, a sheep stampede, an attack by bacchae bats, and a near lynching... I can walk to Amphipolis, for Artemisí sake." Gabrielle retorted. "Get a grip, will you? Iím pregnant, not disabled."
The warrior sighed. "What am I going to do with you?"
A cheeky smile. "Anything you like."
"All right.. .then we have to find a wagon for Johan." The warrior thought fast. "Heís getting on.. not fair to have him walking all the way home, is it?"
"Lemme go ask him." The bard countered, with a wicked grin. "See what he says about it."
"Gabrielle." The warrior sighed again.
"Youíre not going to win on this one, tiger." Gabrielle shook her head. "Címon.. this is really my last chance to get some solid walking in... weíll take it easy." She reached over and scratched the skin on Xenaís knee lightly. "Humor me?"
"One condition." The pale blue eyes regarded her wryly. "You gotta promise first."
Gabrielle nibbled her lip. Promising first was always risky, but she knew in her heart that whatever the darling overprotective stuffed leather pillow was asking, was probably for her own good. "Okay.. I promise." She folded her hands on one knee and raised her eyebrows. "What is it?"
A diabolical grin was her answer. "I donít know.. I havenít come up with it yet.. but donít worry, I will."
"Xena!" The bard protested. "Thatís not fair!"
"Remember, you promised." The blue eyes twinkled merrily. "Címon.. theyíve got that rope strung.. letís get this parade moving." She got to her feet, and held a hand out to her soulmate.
"You rat." Gabrielle took the offered fingers, and allowed Xena to haul her to her feet. Then she jumped a little, as a rat ran between her boots. "Hey!"
Xena blinked. "Damn... " She watched the animal scurry away, then looked back over at the tunnel. "What on.. " A stream of rats were pouring from the opening, and heading out along the rock shelf. Then she realized. "Everybody hang on!!!" She yelled, at the top of her voice. "The door collapsed!!" She grabbed Gabrielle and pulled her towards the rock wall, kicking running rats out of the way as she picked up speed.
They reached the stone face just as a savage roar permeated the chamber, and a solid pipe of water exploded out of the tunnel, sweeping a wave of rats in front of it, and racing with lethal speed along the shelf they were standing on. "Hang on !!!!" Xena hollered, grabbing onto Gabrielle with one powerful arm, and the rocks with the other. The bard wrapped herself around her partner firmly, and nestled her head against the warriorís armor.
Screams told of others, not as fortunate as she, swept off the shelf. She felt the water hit her like a sledge hammer, tugging fiercely at her body, but Xenaís hold was like iron, and the warrior never wavered an instant.
Bodies went flying by, caught by others closer to the waterfall, then she felt Xena start to move as she worked her way along the rocks, bracing against the waterís flow. Gabrielle simply concentrated on keeping her balance, trusting Xenaís strength to protect her.
Sheep werenít so lucky. They flew over the edge of the falls, driven by the pressure of the water, and bawling. One shepherd went with them, his arms and legs flailing in the racing waves.
"Start moving down the path!" Xena yelled, her chest pumping powerfully, as Gabrielle ducked to avoid being deafened. "Get out of the water.. .hurry!"
Then Jessan was there, his long arms braced to either side of her soulmate, his body between them and the water. "The Zonnies are all up top already." The forest dweller bellowed over the crashing. "Your brother and Johan had gone down first... with the group running the rope.. trying to talk to them."
"Thanks." Gabrielle yelled back, since Xena was busy yelling instructions of her own."
A scream echoed, and past Jessanís arm she saw a small body go tumbling by. "Xena!" The bard caught her soulmateís attention "Look!"
The blue eyes flashed, following the tiny form. "Damn.. "
Time stopped. Xena felt it slow, as it always did for her... she raised her eyes, and met Jessanís gold ones, in a searing moment passing an understanding to him. Then she unclasped her arms from around her partner, and watched him take hold. She brushed her lips over the damp, pale head. "Be right back. " She whispered, then ducked under Jessanís muscular wrist, and dove after the child, kicking away from the wall and extending her body, reaching out a hand for an ankle that was almost... within.. reach...
"No!" Gabrielle twisted in Jessanís grip and lunged, struggling against his hold.
Xena got him.. she felt her fingers close around living flesh, and she pulled back, but the surge of the water crested against her, and the rock she was holding pulled loose from its perch.
Then the water took her, and she grabbed hold of the child as they both shot over the edge of the waterfall, and began the long journey downward.
"NO!" The rawness in the bardís voice sliced pieces out of Jessanís heart. He hung onto her with all his strength, barely able to keep her in his grasp. "NOOOO!!!!!" The agony resonated through his skull and he came close to letting go.
To letting her go.
Understanding what she was feeling, like none of these other blindlings could ever, ever do.
"Let me go." The whisper was so low, he almost missed it. "Oh gods please... let me go."
His sight followed her down, feeling the power of her, so unique among her kind, breathing in its fierce light. "Sheís still with us.. hang in there, little sister." He whispered back to the now limp, quiet figure in his arms. "Donít give up."
Fingers closed in his fur, and far off, he could feel the sudden, vivid presence of Elaini, no doubt responding to his distress.
A yell from the top of the path. He lifted his head, to see Solariís dark head.
Their eyes met.
The Amazon smiled, and shook her head, then gave him a thumbs up.
"Sheís all right." He whispered to his silent charge. "Gabrielle?"
Slowly, green eyes lifted to his. "I know." She patted his fur. "Sorry I got all crazy on you... it just happened so fast."
"Itís all right." He relaxed his hold a little. "Iím glad I was here for you....that one of us was."
"Iím glad you were too." Gabrielle answered, as her heart began to slow itís pounding. "You understand." She looked to the top of the path, where a cluster of people were working their way down, out of the racing water. She could see Solari still standing there, to one side, watching her with a concerned expression, and she lifted a hand to wave.
The Amazon lifted a fist in return salute.
"Címon... " The bard carefully began edging through the racing water. "I want to see what happened." And get my hands on a certain tall, blue eyed hero I know.
The water pummeled both of them, as Xena briefly became disoriented not knowing which way was up until she twisted in mid air, bringing the child close into her, and wrapping an arm around him.
They were falling, and she knew she had only seconds to make a decision, sensing the hard rock of the mountainside just behind her, and remembering the craggy boulders below.
Instinctively, she tucked her body in, then kicked outward, feeling the impact as her boots hit the rocks, and the sudden shock as they exploded out of the falling water and into misty air, traveling sideways for a long, arching moment.
A tree limb ripped by, and she grabbed at it, pulling them both into a tangle of hard branches that slammed into her, as she turned her body to protect the child tucked under one arm. "Donít move." She got out, as they bounced off a springy limb that almost knocked her unconscious as it smacked her in the head.
She gripped at the bark desperately, then felt a stunning shock as her boots hit a lower branch, stopping their motion momentarily. It was enough for her to grab on to a thicker limb as the ones they hit splintered under her, and she slammed against the tree bole with a gasp, wrapping her free arm around it and holding tight.
For a long moment, all she heard was her own heart beating, hammering in her ears with a force that felt like it was lifting her hair straight up with each thump. Her whole body was shaking and she took the precaution of locking her knees, her boots braced against a lightly bending branch that swayed in the wind caused by the waterfall.
Then the child sucked in a breath that was half sob and half cry, and she looked down, to see Rubenís terrified eyes fastened on her. "Hey... you okay?" She managed to mutter.
He clung to her desperately, wrapping his arms and legs around her body and shivering violently.
"Itís okay.. youíre all right." She reassured him, with a shaky breath, then she looked up, to see a line of shocked faces looking down at her from far, far above. "See? Wave hello at everyone, cause I canít, okay?"
The boy held tight for a moment, then he peeked upward, and slowly pried one of hands loose, to wave weakly for a very brief instant, before he reattached his hold on the warriorís neck.
Xena heard the shout from above, and she leaned against the tree bark, wanting to throw up more than anything else. Worse than the fall had been the sickening sensation of Gabrielleís terror, which had ripped through her with unexpected force, bringing back stark memories of her own emotions on seeing her soulmateís body disappearing down Dahokís pit.
Well, no sense in dwelling on that. She decided, concentrating on breathing and getting her body to stop shaking instead. They were all right, and thatís what mattered. "You doing okay?" She asked Ruben.
The boy sniffled, then rubbed his face with the back of one hand and peered at her. "Scared."
Xena gave him a lopsided grin. "Yeah, me too." She glanced up. "That was some jump, huh?" She stretched a little, testing her limbs for damage, and was relieved to find only minor twinges. Lucky, again. How many times was that luck going to hold, she wondered briefly, as she carefully shifted her boots and flexed her knees, not wanting any surprises as they made their way downward. One of these days, she knew, her body was just going to throw itís hands up in disgust at all the abuse, and fall apart in pieces.
That would be ugly. Xena sighed. But for now, they were both intact. "Okay.. look, weíre gonna get down from here, and go sit on that big rock." She told Ruben. "And wait for everyone else to take the slow route."
He sucked his thumb thoughtfully. "Okay." He agreed amiably.
Xena smiled at him. "Hang on now." She gently hopped down to the next branch, and waited for itís swaying to steady before she continued down the tree, working around the bole in a circle until she was low enough to simply drop the remaining short distance to the ground.
It felt very good to have solid earth under her boots and she walked over to the rock sheíd spotted, and set Ruben down, then she eased herself down onto its sun warmed surface as well, and leaned back, listening to the rush of the water, and the soft rustle of the trees in the cool wind. Her eyes drifted up the steep path, and she spotted Jessan and Gabrielle immediately, working their way downward, the forest dweller sticking close by her soulmateís side.
"Fuzzy." Ruben stated, also peering up where she was. "Bear." He looked at Xena. "Talkie bear."
"No.. heís not a bear." The warrior shook her head. "Heís a people."
The small brow scrunched. "Bear."
"Nope." Xena assured him. "People."
Ruben poked his lower lip out, then he crawled over and into Xenaís lap, and started playing with her armor. "Bang." He tapped on the shoulder piece, then his eyes drifted over and fastened on the sword hilt visible just behind her head. "You fight?"
Xena studied him thoughtfully. Sheíd never known Solon at this age, and suddenly wished she had. "Yep." She answered quietly. "I fight."
He picked up her hand, and moved it, then flexed her arm and watched the biceps form with a serious, intent expression. "Pow." He concluded, examining her loosely curled fist and tapping his palm against her knuckles. "Pow pow."
"Yeah." Xena agreed, with a wry chuckle. "I do that, too."
He scooted down onto the rock, and snuggled up against her side, laying his head on her thigh and closing his eyes. "You nice."
Xena ruffled his damp hair lightly. "Sometimes." She acknowledged, leaning back and absorbing the sunlight that dusted both of them. The cool breeze blew her hair back, drying it and the heat got a start on drying her leathers, which always took forever.
She made a mental bet with herself that Gabrielle would insist on her changing when she got down here. And that sheíd have to argue the bard out of it, because there was still dangers out there. Gabrielle would grudgingly give in, but would get out her cloak, and make the warrior wear it.
Xena smiled at the puffy white clouds drifting across the sky. The predictability was as comforting as warm soup on a cold night. She exhaled, reviewing what was likely to be their last adventure for a while.
Certainly an interesting one, and sheíd actually gotten out of it without fighting.
Well, except for those bats, but that didnít count. She mused. And a few threats, but those didnít count either. She glanced up as the first few people reached the bottom of the path, and recognized Torisí familiar form barreling towards her. Sheíd been so damn proud of him, earlier, when heíd stood up for Gabrielle. "Hey."
"Xena! Are you all right?" He skidded to a halt, and knelt on the rock "You scared the crap out of me." He glanced behind him. "Not to mention Gabrielle.. great Hera!"
"Relax.. Iím fine." The warrior assured him calmly. "Didnít really have the patience to pick my way down that path anyhow."
He shook his head. "Xe..."
She chuckled wryly. "Toris, I didnít jump over the falls on purpose, okay?" She looked down at the snoozing boy. "Itís become a sort of habit."
Toris sat down next to her, and propped a booted foot up on the rocks. "Does it feel strange?"
Pale blue eyes regarded the waterfall with a distant edge to them. "When I think about how many people Iíve killed, and how many lives Iíve ruined? You bet it feels strange." She answered softly.
Her brother regarded her. "Life has a way of maintaining a balance.. maybe itís part of that." He commented.
"Maybe." Xena replied peacefully. "Being evil gained me nothing... everything I strove for either disappeared, or fell short.. it was never enough.. never satisfying... " She exhaled gently. "Turning the other way has been a lot more painful, but in four years, itís brought me a more moments of pure joy than the all the years before it." Her eyes flicked to Torisí. "Not the least of which has been regaining my family."
Toris settled an arm over her shoulders. "Love you too, sis." He grinned at her scowl. "Donít hit me, okay?"
They both chuckled wryly, as footsteps caught their attention.
Matthias was stumbling over the rocks, his clothing covered with mud and stained by the moss which liberally covered the stones edging the waterfall. His eyes were on his son, curled up peacefully in the warriorís lap, with one of Xenaís hands draped protectively over him. He stopped a few feet away, and regarded her warily.
Xena returned his stare evenly, then gently shook Rubenís shoulder. "Hey... címon... your pappaís here."
The boy reluctantly opened his eyes, and rubbed them with one grubby fist, then peered up at his father. "Abba."
"Come here, Ruben." Matthas said, gruffly.
"Okay." The child got to his feet, then turned, and toddled forward, carefully putting his arms around Xenaís neck, and kissing her cheek. "Good." He uttered solemnly, looking her right in the eye.
Xena felt a blush warm her neck, and she managed a half grin back at him. "Thanks."
He patted her on the side of the head, then he turned and sat down on the edge of the rock, pushing off it and hopping onto the path that led to where his father was standing.
Toris waited a beat, then turned to regard his sister. Ice blue eyes slid to his own.
"Not a word." Xena warned, lifting an eyebrow. "Or youíre gonna be wet." She turned her attention to Matthias, who had picked up his son and was hugging him. "Youíre welcome." She put a tiny, sarcastic bite in her tone.
He looked at her, his dark eyes haggard, the strain of the last few days evident in his face. "You are not the messiah."
Xena smiled wryly. "I never said I was."
Matthias was silent a moment. "And yet, you are somehow touched by the Lord... he has used you as his tool to save our scriptures, to guide us, and now to save my son." A tiny shake of his head. "He does surely act in mysterious ways." A pause. "May he always hold such a hand of mercy over you." With that, he turned and started to make his way back up to where Sarah and the two other children were waiting.
"Blind." Toris sighed. "Didnít it ever occur to them you might not need any help to do that stuff?"
Xena rested her head against the rock, her eyes fastened on a fair haired form almost at the bottom of the rocks, a line of villagers between herself and the bard preventing her from simply plowing her way up there. "Toris, if you didnít know me.. would it occur to you?" She folded her arms across her chest.
Toris remained silent for a long moment. "Interesting question." He finally muttered. "Listen.. " he changed the subject awkwardly. "Did I do.. anything... last night?"
Xena gazed at him "I have no idea, Toris.. I was busy." She told him, bluntly. "When I saw you last, you were being led off by Cesta, and then... let me tell ya, bro.. that cavern could have come down on top of my head for all I would have noticed." She replied honestly. "Where were you when you woke up?"
He paused thoughtfully. "In a corner... by myself."
Xena absorbed this. "Remember anything?"
He shook his head. "No.. not at all.. not even a glimmer.. just... I thought I... I remember kind of.. getting a little silly, and..I um.. seem to remember saying something stupid about someoneís kneecaps."
The warrior chuckled softly. "That was me you were fooling around with." She reassured him.
"You????" Her brother squeaked. "Oh gods...youíre kidding.. we didnít.. um... " He waved his hands vaguely.
"No." Xena snorted. "Gimme a break, will ya?"
He sighed. "Well... anyway, thatís all I remember, so... I donít have to tell Gran that, do I?"
"What.. that you were coming on to your sister?" The warriorís eyes twinkled a bit. "Oh.. Iíd say probably not... but I donít think it would hurt anything if you did... Iím kinda taken."
"Oh gods.. thatís too embarrassing to even think about." Toris groaned. "First I Jessan, then you... my reputationís in tatters."
"Youíll survive." Xena pushed herself up from her rock and jumped off it onto the ground. "Excuse me." Gabrielle had reached the bottom of the trail, and she made her way quickly towards the bard, catching up with her just as she cleared the small break between the rocks that led to solid ground. "Hey.. sorry about that I.. "
Gabrielle just threw her arms around her partner, stopping her speech, and let out a shuddering sigh. "Gods."
Xena rubbed her back. "Yeah.. that was a toughie." She joked faintly. "Another one I owe to a tree." She released her partner and cupped her cheek. ĎSorry.. " She sighed regretfully. "I know that scared you."
The bard nodded a few times. "Yeah, it sure did..." She patted the warriorís chest. "I should have known better though... youíre pretty well stocked in the impossible department." Now her brows quirked. "Youíre wet."
"Yeah." Xena agreed. "Itís a waterfall. I fell through it."
"You should change." Gabrielle commented seriously.
"Too dangerous." Xena replied, just as seriously.
"Iíll get your cloak." A tiny twinkle appeared in the green eyes. "Weíve got that one cut right down to essentials, donít we?"
It got a wry smile from her companion, which quickly faded. "You all right?" Xena asked, in a lower voice, as she felt the tremors running through Gabrielleís body and pulled her closer again. "Hey.. "
The bard took a shaky breath, and stroked the damp leathers. "Iíd.. kind of purposely forgotten what it felt like to almost lose you." She whispered. "I wasnít ready for that."
Xena rested her chin against her soulmateís fair hair. "Yeah.. I know exactly what you mean." She murmured. "Címon...letís get out of here." She glanced up at Jessan, who had picked his way carefully down to them. "Thanks, Jess."
He nodded quietly at her. "Quite a jump."
She shrugged. "Had to give you a story to tell the kids, right?"
They turned and headed down the narrow, rocky slope towards a small clearing, where the village was gathered, taking stock.
The entire village was gone. Xena stood on the ridge overlooking where it had been and surveyed the lapping water, now being siphoned from the river through the cavern system and out the waterfall. The cool wind, growing steadily colder blew her hair back, and ruffled the edges of her light cloak, and she gratefully tugged the edges closed over her still damp leathers. "Damn."
Matthias and two of the other village elders stood nearby, their faces resigned. "It is Godís will." Matthias stated. "We were not meant to be there." He turned and surveyed the sad train of his people, with boxes and bags strapped on their backs, and a few on the backs of the sheep. "We will find another home, somewhere down the road."
Xena glanced at him. "This part of the country is not highly populated... itís pretty empty the further inland you go for a while here, until you hit the mountains, and Amazon country."
Matthias gave her a sour look, peering to his left at the group of Amazons standing around a seated Gabrielle, as they waited quietly. Their leathers gleamed a warm golden in the sunlight, against tanned skin and lithe bodies adorned with feathers and weapons. "No. We do not wish to go that way."
"Theyíre not bad people, Matthias... they just have their own ways, like you do." The warrior commented. "Like all of us do... but further to the west youíll find a bunch of smaller villages..I think their traditions will come little closer to yours."
He nodded briefly. "And you? Where do you come from?"
"Trading town called Amphipolis, about half a dayís ride from here." Xena answered. "My motherís the innkeeper... Johan there is her husband. My brother Torisí wife is expecting her first child in a few months." She exhaled. "Weíve got a winter fair going on in a few days.. youíre welcome to stop by.. see if you can trade for some of the stuff you lost."
"Tis not a bad idea, Matthias... weíre sorely lacking in gear." The older of the other two commented.
Matthias jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Gabrielle "What of her?" He asked. "Who tells tales to our children the like to give them nightmares?"
Xena let him wait a bit, while she stared at him. "Gabrielle is a queen of the Amazons... our townís chief negotiator... a talented bard... and my partner. " She stated blandly. "Which of those were you asking about?" She crossed her arms over her chest. "And those stories werenít any worse than what theyíve just been through."
Silence, as they looked at her. "Come." Matthias finally said, with a disgusted snort. "We must find shelter... tomorrow we will move on." He turned and stalked off, with the other two men following in his footsteps.
Xenaís lip curled. "Bite me." She muttered, turning on her heel and heading downslope, to where her friends and family were waiting. Canít win em all, she realized, as she watched the remaining villagers group themselves around Matthias, and pointedly turn their backs on her. She felt the wind tug her cloak, and she straightened, facing into it, and letting it whip her hair back as she strode away from them, and towards a pair of patiently waiting green eyes. "Well... I guess weíre outta here."
"Not even a thank you, huh?" Johan snorted. "Pigís butts.. half of em be dead or worse if it werenít fer us."
"What about all the gold, and the gems in there, Xena?" Gabrielle asked, as she got to her feet, and twitched her tunic straight. "Are they buried under all that water, for good?"
Xena glanced over her shoulder. "Pretty much... theyíre convinced their god doesnít want em around here, and Iím sure not going to tell anyone about whatís in that cavern... and the riverbedís changed course enough so that maybe most of that goldíll get covered up again." She settled an arm around the bardís shoulders. "You got your little bit, right?"
"Mm." Gabrielle nodded. "I think Iím going to have it made into a little charm.. maybe a bear or a horse or something." She glanced up at her soulmate and smiled. "With a place for a birthdate on it."
Xena smiled back. "Fair enough." She shouldered her pack, and got a hold of Gabrielleís before the bard could lift it, slinging over her shoulder as well.
"Yeeess?" The warrior purred an answer, lifting both eyebrows. "You said you were going to walk.. not that you were going to walk while carrying all our junk." She took a breath. "All right... if we get going now, and keep to the road, and we get lucky with the weather, we might make home by dark."
"Weíll make it." Gabrielleís eyes twinkled. "I promised someone I know breakfast in bed on her birthday, and Iíll be darned if Iím not going to keep that promise."
"Oh.. hey.. thatís right!" Solari crowed. "Tomorrow is Solstice, isnít it!" She socked Xena in the arm. "What a great excuse for a party!"
"Oh no." Xena started off, shaking her head. "No parties.. and since when did Amazons need a damn excuse?" She glanced down at her soulmate. "Sorry things didnít work out too well with those folks."
A shrug. "Oh.. I donít know, Xena... I had a visit from Rebekah before they chased all the children back over... " She slid an arm around the warriorís waist. "I sent some scrolls with her."
She got an unrepentant look back. "You were right.. those people donít want our help.. but that girl does." She lifted her chin. "I gave her a basic instruction on our letters.. and the sounds.. and a few easy stories to read when she can."
Xena sighed, then laughed. "Thatís my Gabrielle."
"And directions to Amphipolis." The bard muttered, peeking up at her. "Just in case."
"I wonder what Baracus is going to think when he finally shows up, and thereís no village there." Toris mused. "Think heíll come looking for them?" He asked his sister. "That could be trouble."
"Cross that bridge when we come to it." Xena answered shortly. "Letís just get home."
It was just twilight when the road started angling up, leading into the main entrance to Amphipolis.
Gabrielle was direly grateful for this, since she figured if she had to hear her beloved soulmate ask her if she was okay just one more tiny little time, she was going to go completely out of control. Okay, so the walk had been taxing, and she had been out of breath a lot, but that didnít mean she was about to keel over.
The village had plenty of warning of their approach, and as they entered the main square, a flood of bodies headed towards them, ranging from Cyrene, to Elaini, to a very anxious looking Granella.
"Hey cutie." Cyrene hugged her. "Everything come out okay?"
Letís see. Bats, rats, floods, fanatics, warlords, and sheep. "Everythingís great, mom... it all worked out fine." The bard assured her. "Weíre just glad to be back."
"Weíre glad youíre back too.. and nice timing." Cyrene teased, tweaking her hair. "Howís the old grump doing?"
Gabrielle peeked over at her soulmate, who was busy saying hello to Eponin. "Sheís fine...we had one or two little incidents.. but nothing major." She exchanged glances with Cyrene. "In fact, I think I have to go get her to change.. those leathers are probably still a little damp from this morning.. we had a little accident."
For once, the innkeeper didnít ask any questions. "Sounds like a good idea, cutie... you get changed, then címon back over... I think youíll like whatís for dinner."
Green eyes twinkled into amber in the twilight. "I bet I will." She eased over, and took Xenaís elbow, grinning a hello to Eponin. "Hi Pony... glad you could make it.. how was the trip?"
"Just great... " Eponin rocked on her heels. "How about you?"
"Fine..fine.. listen, I need to borrow Xena here.. sheís got an appointment with some dry clothes." Gabrielle smiled at her partner. "Donít you?"
The warrior gave her a look.
"And Iíll tell you all about our adventure when we get back." The bard added, directing this to Eponin. "Okay?"
"Sounds great." Pony agreed amiably. "Iíve got notes from Eph... and some stuff to tell too."
"Wasnít Cait supposed to be coming down with you?" Xena queried, glancing around for the girl.
"Oh.. yeah.. sheís here.. she and Pal are down where theyíre.. uh.. setting up the fair, I think.. thatís what she said." Pony scratched her jaw. "Sheíll be back here for dinner, mísure."
"Speaking of which.. " Gabrielle tugged on her soulmate. "Címon.. Iím hungry."
Xena amiably allowed herself to be led across the familiar confines of Amphipolis, past the open courtyard, and the front of the inn, their boots kicking up a light cloud of dust as they moved through the now cold air. Through the archway beside the inn and into the area behind it, where her brotherís home was tucked into one corner, and to the left, nestled between two large oak trees, stood their cabin.
Home. Xena smiled, as their footsteps rang with familiar weight on the low, wooden porch, then she half turned as she heard the scrabble of running paws. "Hang on..." She warned Gabrielle as Ares hurled himself onto the porch and jumped up against her jubilantly. "Hey boy.. whoa!"
"Rooo!!!!" The wolf threw his head back and yodeled. "Arggrroooo... " He shoved his head into Xenaís chest, and snorted, as she ruffled his fur, and hugged him. "Grrrr... ."
"Hey.. Iím glad to see you too." The warrior laughed. "But you should be so grateful to us that you got left here this time, boy... youíd have hated this one."
"Grrrrroooo... " He panted at her, then glanced at the amusedly watching Gabrielle, and changed targets, aiming for her more readily accessible face.
"Hooold on there.. " Gabrielle staggered under his weight, as his paws hit her shoulders, and his head came even with her own. "Take it easy there, Ares... youíre going to knock me over.. Iím not a tree like your mommy here."
"Roo?" The wolf delicately licked her face.
"Yes, I love you." Gabrielle kissed his nose. "Come on.. weíve got to get your mommy into some dry clothes." Ares trotted ahead of them into the cabin and ran around sniffing interestedly. "Wow.. good to be home."
"I was just thinking that." Xena replied, as she hung her cloak up, and unbuckled her armor, lifting it over her head and letting it drop with a sigh of relief. "Thatís gonna take an entire afternoon to bang back into shape." She glared at the plates. "Damn trees."
"Excuse me.. " Gabrielle lifted a bit, examining a healthy dent. "Iíd much rather this dent be in here then on you." She waved the armor at the warrior. "Besides, you always fuss with this stuff.. even when it doesnít need it."
Xena unlaced her bracers, and chuckled ruefully. "Yeah.. I guess thatís true.. itís habit, more than anything." She rubbed her wrists, where the leather armor marked her. "Wonder where those folks ended up tonight?"
Gabrielle sat down, and braced her foot on the low table near the fireplace to remove her boots, since leaning all the way over wasnít a comfortable option. "Are they bothering you too? I donít know, Xena.. I.. I just feel like this whole thing is... unfinished."
"Mm." The warrior sat down to remove her leg armor, unstrapping the worn iron buckles behind her knees and lifting the heavy plates off. "Yeah... it bothered me just leaving them like that.. but I didnít see what else we could do... they decided to move in a different direction, and didnít want an escort.. I... " She exhaled. "I know they didnít like us, but... " She unlaced her boots and slid out of them, wincing at the filth caked all over them. "Ugh."
"Yeah... " Gabrielle regarded her own mud stained feet. "Gross... I think a bath is an option here, donít you?"
Xena didnít even think twice, she just headed for the small bathing room, and almost groaned in grateful relief when she spotted the full buckets already resting against the back of the fireplace wall on one side. "Oh ho.. remind me to give my mother a big hug for this." She called inside, as she emptied the buckets into the tub.
Gabrielle leaned back in her chair, folding her hands across her belly and gazing at the ceiling with a grin. She wiggled her feet contentedly, glad to be off them. "Oh. I will.. " She assured the wooden supports.
The warrior finished filling up the wooden tub, then padded back into the main room and collected a bag of bath salts theyíd picked up someplace or other. "Shall we?" She offered a hand to her soulmate.
The warm water felt wonderful, and Gabrielle groaned as she let it envelope her, then she almost groaned again for a different reason when soap wielding hands started rubbing her all over, scrubbing the sticky, nasty mud off her body in time with some gentle nibbling that progressed along her neck and ear. She kept her eyes closed, but reached for some soap herself, and started an exploration of her own. "Gods, this feels good." She muttered.
"Mmhnmm." Xena agreed readily, smiling as she felt a kick against her hand. "Baby thinks so too."
"Babyís glad to be out of that nasty, dank, disgusting cavern just like I am." Gabrielle informed her. "Hey.. roll over.. let me see your back." She inspected the cuts, and ran a gentle finger over the deepest one, still tender and visible. "That one was kinda scary."
"Yeah." Xena rested her chin on the edge of the tub. "A little too close." She reflected soberly. "Maybe I need to work on getting more armored back there."
Gabrielle blinked at her. "Thatís a great idea." She complimented her partner, then kissed her lightly on the nose. "I think weíll have some time now... sounds like a good project."
"Oh yeah." Xena curled her arms around her soulmate protectively. "Itís now my turn to spoil you rotten."
Gabrielle realized how bone deep tired she was, and surrendered to her bodyís warning signals gracefully. "Okay.. I think I did pretty good, holding you off for six months." She acknowledged. "Iíll start taking it easier." She promised, stifling a yawn. "Gods... okay, letís get out of here, and get some dinner.. or Iíll fall asleep right where I am."
Xena regarded her fondly. "Iíll go pick something up from the kitchen for you.. I mean, weíll have a couple of days to get together with the whole crowd... youíve got an excuse to be a bum tonight."
Mist green eyes ruefully traced her face. "No... Iíd really like to see Cait.. and spend a few minutes with Mom and Gran... we can make it an early night."
"You sure?" The warrior inquired. "You know theyíll forgive you."
Oh.. no they wonít. "Yeah.. Iím sure... " She tickled her partnerís ribs. "Címon... now that we donít look and smell like mudpuppies."
They dressed casually, then donned cloaks for the short walk over to the inn, where streams of light were pouring out the mostly closed window shutters and spilling across the hard, cold ground.
Xena guided the bard up the stairs, and onto the low platform outside the inn door, reaching for the door handle only to be beaten to it by her smaller companion. "Hey."
"Please.. Iím capable of opening a door." Gabrielle told her, pleasantly, tugging it open and standing to one side. "After you." She gestured inside.
Xena had her eyes on her partner, and caught the faint smirk just before she ducked inside the inn.
To be greeted by a thunderous "SURPRISE!"
And get hit by a cascade of colorful, tiny, paper birds, that floated down from the rafters, and lodged in her cloak and hair, as she stood, too stunned to move, in the doorway.
"Heh." Gabrielle closed the door, and patted her behind. "Paybacks are a bitch, huh?"
Xena found her eyes looking at just about every friend she had in the world, who were now grinning at her, and slapping themselves on the back for a successful surprise. Autolycus, Salmoneus, half the Amazon nation.. she spotted Tyldus in the back there, along with Palimonís scarred face. Toris was grinning at her, his arm around Granella, as Jessan and his family laughed behind them.
She couldnít even speak, not even to respond when Autolycus strutted up, and chucked her on the chin.
"Happy birthday there, Xena... I was going to steal you the crown jewels of Egypt, but um.. " He straightened his moustache, and leaned closer. "They tell me you and Cleo are like this." He crossed his fingers. "And I didnít want to end up a mummy, if you know what I mean."
"I know what you mean." The warrior responded faintly, then she had to chuckle, and lift her hands up, to let them fall. "All right.. all right.. you got me."
Ephiny sauntered over gave her a hug. "You bet your ass we did." The Amazon Regent laughed. "You should have seen your face." She handed Xena a large mug of something which smelled like it would take the hair right off a centaurís butt. "Try that... Pony made it."
"Xena... Xena.. listen.. remember that soap?" Salmoneus broke in, his bearded face all smiles. "Weíre a franchise!" He tugged her arm. "Címover here and see this... "
Hands pulled her forward, towards a table filled with gifts, and her motherís small cakes. She found the presence of mind to turn her head and find Gabrielleís eyes, though, to see the bard gazing at her with a big grin on her face. Xena held a hand out to her, and beckoned her forward with a jerk of her head. "Iím gonna get you for this." She whispered, as Gabrielle snuggled in against her right side.
"Promises, promises.. youíll never top this." The bard grinned triumphantly, not seeing the instantly arched eyebrow, or the swiftly hidden, diabolical grin.
Together they joined their friends, as the party began.
Much later that night, two slowly walking figures made their way back towards a snug, candlelit cabin.
"So.. you going to forgive me any time soon?" Gabrielle inquired, bumping her tall soulmate gently.
"Donít keep doing that unless you want to be picking me up off the ground, Gab." The warrior drawled. "That was two cups of ale way too many."
"Sorry." The bard muffled a giggle, having kept to apple juice the entire night, thoroughly enjoying watching her partner get bombarded with well wishes, and the teasing of their friends, and gifts.
And ale, of course, and whatever the Hades it was that Ephiny had brought with her, which had knocked even Autolycus for a loop. Watching him and Sal try to develop a fake sugar crystal jewelry scam had been quite the experience. "You okay?" She tucked a hand around Xenaís elbow just in case.
The warrior exhaled heavily. "Yeah... I have a feeling Iím gonna regret this in the morning, though... " She peered down at her partner. "How long didja plan that?"
"Since we were at the Amazons." The bard confessed. "Well... I mean, actually.. since last year, but....I got things moving then... sent runners out with messages, that sorta thing."
"Mmph." Xena considered this. "Well, I was surprised." She carefully negotiated the few steps up to their porch and padded to the door, reaching out for the handle, then stopping and peering at Gabrielle. "Any more síprises?"
"No." The bard smiled fondly at her. "Well... I have a few things wrapped up for you for tomorrow morning, but that doesnít count."
The warrior nodded solemnly, and pulled the door open. "Good... I got a síprise for you, then." She followed Gabrielle inside, then walked over to where her weapons were laid neatly on the garment press, and gazed at them. With utter seriousness, she picked up the sword and chakram, and walked to the large, locked chest on one side of the bed, lifting the lid and putting the weapons inside.
Then she closed it, and locked the top, studying the key for a long moment before she stood unsteadily and went back to where Gabrielle was standing. "Here." She handed her the key. "And before you ask.. Iím not too drunk to know what Iím doing."
Gabrielle looked at the brass key in her palm. "Youíre really serious about this."
Xenaís hand dropped lightly to her partnerís belly, and rested there. "I want to know this child." She paused, as though considering the words. "I have three months to see if I can be something other than a killer...to see if I can leave the fighting, and the dying behind for a while."
The bard took a deep breath, and closed her hand over the key. "What if you canít?" She asked, honestly. "You have a dark side, Xena... but we both know that dark side has brought light to a lot of people."
"And brought pain and grief to the people I love most in the world." The warrior responded softly. "I donít want this child to know the Destroyer of Nations, Gabrielle." She dropped her head, and exhaled wearily. "I know I canít ever leave that behind, but just for a little while, Iíd like to try."
The bard studied her partnerís shadowed face for a long space before she nodded quietly. "All right.. Iíll keep this for you." She felt the coldness of the brass warm against her skin, an odd, dark trust. "Címon..." She patted the wool covered chest with her free hand. "Itís been a really long day, and you know weíll be busy tomorrow."
Xena smiled, and circled her with both arms, kissing the top of her head affectionately. "Thank you, Gabrielle." She mumbled. "I loved the party."
The bard grinned quietly, her face buried in warm fabric.
Amphipolis, two months later.
The cabin was quiet, only the dry rustling of the winter dead branches outside stirred the air, matching the gentle scratch of a quill on parchment inside. Candles lit the interior with a warm glow, outlining Gabrielleís pensive profile as she sat at her writing desk, her head propped up on one hand, and her quill idly being twirled by the other as she reviewed her writing.
The last fair we had was so successful, weíve decided to have another, and itís going to be in about three weeks. Iím trying to get some things arranged now, because Iíve got a feeling that in three weeks. Iíll be way too busy to be worrying about merchant space.
Not that I have a lot of energy to spare right now, of course...sometimes I sit here, exhausted, and think about what Xena must have gone through when she was pregnant... I mean, she was leading an army in the field, for Zeusí sake...how did she do it? I can barely do my chores these days, and there she was, probably riding and fighting right up until the very last minute.
Gabrielle shook her head, and put a hand on her stomach, as the baby shifted, and a cramp rippled through her. "Ow." She winced, shifting a little and grimacing until the cramp relaxed. "Ugh... are you unhappy in there tonight, honey?" She asked her unborn child, rubbing the swollen surface gently. "Or do you just miss Xena, huh? Like I do?"
She returned her attention to her diary. Xena had reluctantly, very reluctantly, taken a three day trip to pick up some Ďthingsí she said sheíd ordered earlier in the year, and had promised to bring back some fresh parchment as well. Go. Gabrielle had told her nervous soulmate. Go now, because weíre in the home stretch here. Sheíd said, gently shoving the warrior on her way.
Not that she wanted to get rid of her, of course... but as the bard had started moving closer and closer to giving birth, her partnerís pervasive overprotectiveness had gotten progressively worse, until Gabrielle was seriously considering drugging her morning tea just to get some respite from the solicitous attention.
I feel like a glass ornament. And itís not that it isnít nice to be pampered, a little, but sometimes she acts like Iím going to break into a million pieces, when actually, I really feel pretty strong, and surprisingly energetic most of the time.
Well, not late at night, like now.. or if Iíve had to run around a lot, but in general, I feel great. Which has gotten Granella really pissed off at me, but I canít help that.. sheís been sent to bed for the last two weeks, because the healerís worried about her delivering early, and she fainted twice at the inn before that. Every time I go in to bring her something she gives me that really irritated look, even though I know sheís just wishing it was all over.
I guess Iím getting to that point, too.. itís been almost eight months, after all, and Iím kinda tired of not being able to do simple stuff, like put my boots on. And my back hurts, though not nearly as much as Granís does, but then, Xena gives much better massages than Toris does, so I guess that kind of figures into it.
And would you believe it.. we still havenít picked a name for the baby yet. Oh, weíve talked about lots of them.. .but itís like we havenít found something we both really like yet. I guess we could just call the baby ĎHey you.í Until we figure it out, but Iím pretty sure Mom and everyone arenít going to put up with that for more than a quarter candlemark.
Itís been a very quiet two months... Xena.. I really had my doubts, but she held to her promise, and she hasnít picked up a weapon since Solstice, except her staff to keep the Amazons and militia amused. They all think itís so strange, but...and I have to admit I didnít think she could do it but I was wrong, and itís made a change in her I hadnít really expected.
She says she doesnít miss it. I wonder. Sheís kept up her running, and the staff practice, mostly she says because it makes her feel good, or maybe itís because sheís too proud to let herself get out of shape, especially with the Amazons around.. Iím not sure. Maybe a little of both.
She told me a joke the other day.. just out of the blue, and almost made me snort apple juice out my nose it was so funny. That funny, mischievous streak is coming out again, and I think Iím getting an idea of what she would have been like if Cortese had never happened. It hurts to think how many layers thatís buried under...and how quickly it disappears when she has to fall back on her dark side.
I think we both know this wonít last forever.. I see it in her eyes sometimes, a kind of..oh, itís weird, but a sad kind of happiness, like how you feel when you see the beautiful leaves of fall, and know the winterís coming.
The darkness is too much a part of her to give her peace forever. I think Iíve come to accept that, and I know there will be a time when I hand her back that key, and take up my staff, and face that darkness again. Itís sort of inevitable...I think. But for now, and for as long as this lasts, Iíll accept this as a magical time in my life, and just enjoy it. You canít worry about what might have been, or what might be coming... you just have to take whatís now, and make it the best now you can.
Wow.. that was a profound tangent, wasnít it? Anyway, I was really uncomfortable earlier, because the baby was moving around a lot, almost like she was practicing backflips, but sheís settled down now, and kind of shifted lower.. itís a lot more comfortable, but it feels kind of weird. And the cramps Iíve been having on and off for the last week or so are back.. theyíre driving me crazy tonight. I wish Xena were here.. she distracts me and I forget about them.
Names.. names... part of me wants to name her after someone we know.. but...I donít know.. Iím not sure I want to gift our child with anyone expectations.. Xena says itís going to be tough enough as it is, since weíre both pretty well known, at least in these parts.
The bard paused, and listened to the first rattle of a frozen rain on the roof, and she tugged her fluffy shawl closer around her body. She hoped Xena was tucked away in some inn, not roughing it in this weather, though since the warrior had worn brand new clothes out on her trip chances were she was knee deep in mud by now.
It never failed.
Another cramp, and she leaned on the desk, closing her eyes until it passed, leaving her slightly nauseous. She picked up a chunk of dried apricot, and nibbled it, letting the fragrant scent sooth her stomach.
At the motion, Ares glanced up at her from his place curled up on the soft bearskin under her feet.
"No, no fruit.. remember how sick you got last time, when your other mommy gave you those cherries?" She warned the hopeful wolf, then looked up as the hail rattled against the window, and a low moan eased through the trees from the rising wind. "Great." She flicked a glance at the firewood, which Xena had stocked before she left. "At least weíve got lots of that." She put her quill down and rubbed her eyes. "Ares, Iím really tired... I think Iím just going to sit by the fire for a while.. what do you think?"
"Roo?" The wolf gazed at her inquiringly.
"Yeah, you too." Gabrielle answered, as she carefully got to her feet, waiting for her shifting balance to settle before she walked over to her newest gift, a nice, comfortable chair Xena had built, with padded cushions, and rounded runners on the bottom of it that allowed it to rock back and forth soothingly.
Gabrielle loved it, and now she settled into its soft plushness with a smile, tucking a colorful quilt around her knees, and rocking a little. "Now.. watch your tail." She warned Ares, who curled up next to her. "Remember the other night." Sheíd accidentally come down on the wolfís dark, bushy appendage and suffered his resulting howl of outrage. She let her head rest to one side, observing the small, low table tucked in the corner, near the fireplace that held small wooden toys of various shapes, in various stages of becoming.
Xenaís projects, ranging from tiny soldiers, to bears, to a tiny rocking horse. Gabrielle found a smile forming as she gazed at them. To one side stood a stuffed purple and blue dragon with button eyes, a teasing gift from Cyrene to replace the threadbare Flameball, Xenaís childhood toy that Gabrielle refused to give up possession of.
The bard sucked in a breath, as another cramp tensed her body, this time going on a bit longer, and making her ache from the tension. "Wow." She sighed. "Maybe I should make some of that tea Xena showed me how to brew the other day." Her mind reviewed the ingredients. "I think Iíve got everything here... " She started to get up, but paused, as hoofbeats overshadowed the hail, coming down the main road.
Hoofbeats coming fast, and accompanied by a familiar warmth that made her blink in startled surprise. Xena wasnít due home for another three days at the very least.. unless something had happened. Anxiously she listened, as the barn door opened and closed, and silence fell, then what seemed only moments later, she heard the door again and then bootsteps headed her way at a steady lope.
Ares scrambled for the door, and reached it just as it powered open, a gust of cold air and blowing hail revealing the tall, dark haired form of her partner. "Xena.. " The bard put her hands on the chair arms. "Whatís wrong?"
The warrior stepped inside, her chest heaving, and closed the door behind her, one hand ruffling Aresí head absently. "Are you all right?"
Dumbfounded, Gabrielle glanced around the cabin. "Yeah.. Iím fine... " She peered at her soulmate. "What in Hades is up with you?" She gazed at the drenched and muddy warrior. "Good grief, get those clothes off before you catch cold.. and what are you doing here?"
Xena stepped further into the cabin, stripping off her cloak and hanging it on the hooks near the door. She was dressed in heavy wool riding leggings in burgundy with a matching wool tunic that covered her to mid thigh, and her new boots, which were liberally covered with muck.
Her armor and leathers hung quietly in the garment press, unused for two months, and she bore no weapon save her belt knife. "I.. um.. " Xena ran a hand through her wet hair and came closer, settling in the chair opposite her soulmate. "Crazy, I guess.. I just had a feeling I needed to be here." She confessed. "Must just be nerves." She paused. "You sure youíre all right?"
Mist green eyes rolled wryly. "Xena... yes, Iím just fine.. with the exception of a few cramps, and an aching back, that is." She admitted. "I was just going to make some of that tea you showed me the other night." She sighed, then grimaced as another cramp hit. "Unless youíve got something better in mind."
Xena slowly stood, then moved over to her, and knelt, putting a warm hand on her wrist. "Cramps?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah.. like Iíve been having.. only these are a little more persistent... theyíre driving me a little crazy tonight.. so Iím really kind of glad you did come back."
Her soulmate put a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Sit back." She carefully felt the bardís belly, probing cautiously, then letting a long, steady breath escape. "Iíve got something for this, yeah.. but youíre not gonna like it."
"No?" The bard played with a lock of her dark hair restlessly.
"No.. it involves a lot of pushing ." Xena rested a hand on her knee and gazed up at her.
"Pushing? I donít.... " Gabrielle stopped, and stared at her. "What exactly did you mean by that, Xena?"
"Those arenít cramps.. theyíre contractions.. the babyís coming." Xena told her, with a faint, rueful grin. "Guess my instincts were right on the dinar this time."
Gabrielle felt chiefly shock, mixed with a shiver of fear and anticipation. "Oh my gods...youíre serious?" She put her hands on her stomach. "But itís... " Her eyes flicked to Xenaís intently. "Isnít it early?"
Xenaís lips twitched. "Babies have a mind of their own sometimes.. and since this is your child... " She teased lightly. "I know it surely will have that."
A hand eased through her dark, damp hair. "Our child." The bard corrected gently. "Youíre sure?"
The warriorís fingers traced a path around the lower curve of her partnerís stomach. "See how the babyís shifted? Down and forward"
"Yeah.. I felt that earlier today." Gabrielle gazed at herself in fascination, then she tensed, as the pain gripped her. "Ow." She sucked in a breath when it was over, and eyed her soulmate. "Nowís the hard part, huh?" Memories flashed in her mind, of a foreign stable, and an overwhelming fear that had gripped her body and soul. "Iím a little scared."
Xena put a hand on her shoulder. "Itís gonna hurt for a while.. if I block the pain too early, everything might just stop."
"Like with Aileen." The bard remembered.
"Yes... so you just sit here, and let me get things ready, okay?" Xena half turned. "Iíll get the healer, and.. " A hand on her arm stopped her, and she turned to see serious green eyes fastened on her face. "What?"
"Just you." Gabrielle whispered softly. "I donít want anyone here but you." She tightened her grip on Xenaís arm when the warrior opened her mouth to protest. "Please... Xena, youíre the best healer Iíve ever known... and.. I donít want anyone else here."
Xena stroked her face. "Gabrielle, Renas is a very good healer.. and you know itís not always the best idea for someone so close to be involved..."
"You wonít choke." A small, sad smile edged Gabrielleís face. "We both know better." Her eyes searched Xenaís face. "Please?"
Perplexed, the warrior sat back on her heels, and rested her hands on the chair arm. "If... if thatís what you really want, Gabrielle.. all right.. but... " A tiny shake of her head. "I thought we...I mean I thought we had discussed this."
"I know." Her partner replied softly. "But Iíve been thinking about it, and itís what I really want, Xena...I want it to be just us.. just you, and me." Her eyes lifted, and found Xenaís firmly. "I want you to be the one...to bring her into the world."
Xenaís jaw muscles clenched suddenly, as the meaning of the words hit her.
A trust she hadnít earned, and knew in her heart she didnít deserve, and all she could do was accept it. "All right." She managed to get out. "If thatís what you really want."
Gabrielle felt the confusion in her, and the pain, and she lifted a strong hand up and pressed her lips against the knuckles. "Thatís what I want." She affirmed. "Now.. where do we start?"
Xena bowed her head for a long moment, then lifted it. "I get some water heated up, and prepare my kit... get you some tea to drink thatíll help you relax. " She glanced around. "You might be best off walking around a little bit... youíre starting to open up."
"Sounds like a plan." Gabrielle agreed softly. "Okay.. if you help me up, Iíll give you a hand sorting some herbs.. howís that?"
The walking did, in a curious way, help, Gabrielle realized, as she paced very carefully around the cabin for what seemed like a dozen candlemarks, but was probably less than three.. She helped Xena get everything ready, then watched as her partner braced a chair into a small alcove, then put a footstool against the opposite wall. "Whatís that for?"
"You." Xena turned just as the bard gasped, and doubled over, and she jumped across the room to grab her. "Hey.." A spreading dampness alerted her. "Water break?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle hissed, startled. "Oh.. that felt so weird."
"Okay.. okay.. címover here and siddown." The warrior led her to the chair, which sheíd spread with soft linens, and sat her down, gently lifting her feet so that they were braced against the footrest. She let Gabrielle grip her arm as a contraction hit, and the bardís fingers tightened against her skin. "Now.. when you feel that, bear down." She patted the smaller womanís thighs. "Use these."
"Oh gods.. " Gabrielle did as she was told, and her strong legs almost lifted her up out of the chair. "Like that?"
"Whoa.. try not to go flying across the cabin, love." Xena coached her gently.
"It hurts." The bardís faced contracted in pain. "Canít you make it stop?"
"Soon." Xenaís voice was low, and soothing. She checked the babyís progress. "Okay.. youíre opening up real good here, Gabrielle.. I can... oh... "
"You can what?" The bard snapped, nervously. "Donít stop talking like that."
"See the very top of the babyís head." Her partner reassured her hastily. "Thatís good.. the babyís in the right position to be born.. not upside down, or backwards." She got a long basin of water, and put it under her partner, then carefully arranged several long, painfully clean strips of linen across the table nearby. "Okay.. when it hurts, push."
"Easy for you to say." The bard growled, as her body seemed to want to rip itself into two parts. "Oh gods... " She latched onto Xenaís arm, and squeezed hard. "Aughhh.."
Xena winced herself, at the strong fingers. "Thatís it... good job." More of the head had appeared, inside its protective sac, enough to reassure Xena that the baby was, indeed, right side up. "Okay.. again." She almost swallowed her tongue as a grip far more powerful that sheíd realized clamped down on her wrist. "Oh.. good.. good girl." She breathed, seeing the tops of tiny eyes appear. "Gab, let go of my arm."
"What?" The bard almost hollered. "Oh no... if I gotta go through this, you do to.."
"Gabrielle.. I need that hand to give you the pressure points." The warrior reminded her. "For the pain, remember?"
"Oh." Gabrielle released her, then felt a jab, then two more, and suddenly she could breath. "Sorry.. yes.. thank you.. I love you... you are a goddess... oh.. " It still hurt, and she could feel the compulsion to push getting stronger and stronger, but it no longer felt like she was fracturing apart. "Oh... " She bored down.
"Thatís it.. " Xena watched in barely contained excitement as the tiny head edged out, and she slipped a hand under it for support. The silvery protective sac was tearing, and she helped it, clearing the sticky stuff off the babyís face. "One more good push,.. címon.. "
"Iíll push you." The bard gritted her teeth, and felt the contraction coming, and she arced her body, using muscles made powerful from four years of hard use. The tension built and built, and she pushed until her head felt like exploding. Then in one sudden instant, the pressure released, and her body relaxed, and it was done. She sank back against the cushions, and tried to catch her breath.
"Whoa!" Xena got her other hand down just in time to catch the tiny form as it slid free, and squirmed in her grasp. "Whoa there... " She gently let it into the warm water, rising off the blood and birth fluids, then she lifted the tiny form up and reached for a piece of linen to dry it. "Oh... Gabrielle.. itís a girl.."
The bard opened an eye, then hissed as a final contraction worked through her, and she felt the babyís protective sac leave her. "A girl?" She whispered softly.
Xena carefully separated the sac. "Yeah, I .."
A lusty, bold yell almost made her drop the infant, as the baby took stock of its surroundings, and decided she didnít like being held up head downward.
"Whoa... thatís quite a set of lungs there, young lady." The warrior managed to get out, her eyes widening. She righted the angry infant, then tucked a sheet of linen around her. "Okay.. okay... just hold on there..." The baby squirmed, and let out another yell. "Good grief... youíve got your mommaís lungs, huh?" She cradled the infant in her arms and peered down at her, feeling an ache in her chest that brought a solid lump to her throat and cut off her speech.
Gabrielle struggled to sit up, then she peered at the noisy bundle. "Is she okay?"
Xena cleaned the last of the fluids off the babyís face and brought her close to her mother. "Here... " She handed the infant to Gabrielle. "Say hello to your daughter." She couldnít help the catch in her voice as she went back to her task, cleaning up and gently caring for her soulmate. "Donít even need a stitch there.. good job." She tucked a soft blanket around the bardís knees, then gazed up at the squirming infant. "Sheís beautiful, Gabrielle." A thousand memories haunted her, making her eyes drop to the floor in pensive silence.
Gabrielle felt the slight weight and she curled her arms around the infant as she gazed at her in wonder. She gently touched the babyís face, and she calmed, though her fists kept waving. "Yes, she is... hello, sweetheart..." She whispered incredulously, as she smoothed a finger over the soft cap of dark hair on the babyís head. "I know where this came from.. " She laughed softly, then glanced up at her soulmate.
The blue eyes were almost gray with a mixture of emotions, chiefly a quiet, gentle sadness, which faded as Xena realized she was being watched. "Sheís perfect." The warrior agreed quietly. "Sheís long, for coming so early." One finger reached out and touched a tiny foot.
Gabrielle nodded gently. "I bet she grows up nice and tall." She picked up a small fist, and watched the fingers curl around her own in a sturdy grip. The babyís body was covered in red wrinkles, and her eyes were shut tightly. "Sheís so cute."
Xena rested her arm on the chair arm, and propped her chin on her wrist, gazing at the infant. "Yeah.... " Her finger traced a spot on the babyís back. "Sheís got your butt."
"Tch.. Xena.." The bard muffled a laugh, glad of the gentle attempt at humor. She carefully turned the baby over and examined the body part in question. "Oh.. I donít think so.. " Then her eyes fell on the infantís back and she went very quiet.
"Oh yeah.. " Xena disagreed. "Same little round.. "
"Xena... is that a birthmark?" Gabrielleís voice had taken on a strange tone.
"Um.. yes..I noticed it." Xena peered at the babyís spine. "Kind of interesting...like a bird.. see, there are the wings there... Iíve never seen any one like that before."
Gabrielle was silent for a few heartbeats, savoring the moment as she had few before in her life. "I have." Her voice cracked.
Blue eyes glanced up, a touch interested, but mostly surprised. "You have?"
A solemn nod. "Yes.. I know someone whom I love very much who has one just... exactly.. .like it.. in the very same spot." Gabrielle felt the smile stretch her face as she watched the slow dawn of realization come over Xenaís expressive features.
"You donít mean...." In a purely human reflex, Xena reached for her own back with one shaking hand. "I donít.."
"Yes you do.. and yes, I do mean just that." Gabrielle reached out a hand to cup her soulmateís face. "I donít think this babyís early at all.... I think sheís right on time."
The warrior slumped bonelessly onto the floor, swallowing hard. Her mouth moved several times, but no sound emerged. She suddenly realized that talking about something and being hit in the face with proof were two very different things. "I.."
"Here." Gabrielle handed over the tiny bundle, watching her soulmateís eyes grow round. "Say hello to your daughter." She whispered, in exultant triumph. "Go on..."
Xena curled her hands around the infant, feeling its live weight in her hands and gazed at her, so dumfounded she found it hard to even breathe. The baby wriggled, and she instinctively cradled her, studying the sturdy form intently.
Gabrielle was right. The baby was in no way premature, right down to her full head of silky, dark hair. The hands and feet were fully formed, with neat, tiny toe and fingernails, and the baby was of very good size, with a long body, and round, well shaped limbs.
Tiny hands that already showed long fingers, and a sure grip. And a birthmark she knew neither her brother nor her mother possessed.
Part of her wanted to dissolve in hysteria on the wooden cabin floor. Part of her wanted to run outside and wake the entire village. A big part of her was just shaking. Her daughter. "Gabrielle. I think you better take her back." Xena handed the bundle over, feeling the blood drain from her face.
"Why?" The bard glanced at her, concerned. "Is she okay? I.."
"Sheís fine." Xena felt the room start to fade out. "But I think Iím gonna.. "
"Good gods!" Gabrielle stared in shock as her soulmate slumped to the floor, out cold. She gazed at her daughter, who waved a fist at her. "Sweetie, you just did what half of Greece has only dreamed about." She sighed gently, leaning over to rub her nose against the infantís. "Not an auspicious way to be starting out, huh?"
The first thing she was aware of was something cold, and wet draped across her forehead. A trickle of cold water dripped down her cheek, and she slowly became aware of the thick, soft carpet under her ear, and the friendly sound of the fire nearby.
"Xe?" Gabrielleís voice was a mixture of amusement, worry, and impatience. "Sweetheart.. you gotta get up...If I have to call your brother over here to lift you up into bed, neither of us is ever going to here the end of it."
Up. Xenaís brow furrowed. What in Hades am I doing on the floor? Puzzled, she tried to remember what was going on, then her eyes popped open like twin blue marbles and she jerked upright, scaring her soulmate half to death.
"Yow!" Gabrielle tucked a protective hand around the gently moving bundle and blinked. "Didnít mean that fast... take it easy, there, tiger."
"Um." Xena rubbed her head, still feeling dizzy. "Sorry.. I... I donít think Iíve ever done that before." She picked up the damp linen her partner had helpfully tossed across her face and examined it, then turned her attention to the now murmuring baby. She slid closer and smiled. "Wow."
Gabrielle reached over and stroked her hair back into some semblance of order. "You okay? Youíre still really pale."
"How long was I.. um.. " Xena rubbed her eyes. "Damn... "
"Just a few minutes.. thatís all." Gabrielle reassured her. "Hey..look.. sheís opening her eyes."
They both peered at the infant, who was indeed blinking open tiny, bewildered bluish green eyes.
"Hey sweetie." Gabrielle whispered. "Howíre you doing?"
The baby poked a tiny tongue out a little and made a soft noise, her eyes watching Gabrielleís face in fascination.
"What does that mean, I wonder?" The bard mused.
"Well." Xenaís deep rumble caught the infantís attention, and the eyes turned her way, opening wider. "Seeing as itís your daughter, Iíd guess it means sheís hungry."
"Ha hah." The bard rolled her eyes. "Is that right, honey? Are you hungry?" She felt a little nervous. With Hope sheíd never.... Xena had said it was because her body just wasnít ready for childbirth that time, so she never had any milk to give. This time was different, though. She unlaced her tunic, and with Xenaís help, gently positioned the baby, guiding her head towards her first meal. "Thatís it... come on, you can...whoa!"
The baby clutched enthusiastically at her, and found the spot, all right, making Gabrielleís mist green eyes pop wide open at the powerful suction. "Good grief.... " She peered down at the happily suckling infant, then up at her soulmate, who was struggling to keep a smirk off her face. "Well.. I certainly know where she got that trait from."
Xena glanced at the baby, then blushed slightly, but grinned. "Sheís so cute." She rested her chin on the chair arm and watched the infant swallow.
The bard lifted her free hand, and gently traced her partnerís cheekbone. "So.. what are we going to call her? I know we said we were going to decide when you got back, but.. um... calling her snookums until we get our act together is probably not the best idea in the world."
"Well..." Xena reached out and played with the tiny foot that was kicking gently in time with the babyís suckling. "Sheís pretty feisty..."
"How about Doriana?" Gabrielle smoothed a finger over the dark hair that crowned the babyís small head.
"A gift?" The warrior smiled gently. "She is that, isnít she?"
"Mm... " Her soulmate agreed softly. "Dori, for short...it sounds so cute." She made a startled face as the baby sucked harder. "Guess I donít have to worry about her starving to death, huh? I hope I can keep up."
The warrior laughed gently. "The more she wants, the more you produce, Gabrielle.. youíll be fine. Trust me." Her face went a little pensive. "I didnít get much of a chance... just a little while, but.."
"Feels so strange." Her soulmate breathed, studying the infant seriously. "I can hardly believe Iím seeing this."
The baby slowed her efforts, and blinked, blowing a tiny, milky bubble as she moved her head back and poked her tongue out a bit. One small fist curled up, and she hiccuped, her eyes opening a little wider in surprise.
"Hey... " Gabrielle shifted her into the crook of her arm. "You finished?"
Another tiny hiccup. "I guess you are." The bard murmured, then she glanced up at her avidly watching partner. "Here... would you take her for a little bit?"
"Sure." Xena replied instantly, taking the linen wrapped bundle and tucking it in the crook of one elbow. "You okay?"
Gabrielle retied her tunic, then she sighed, and stretched her body, curling her legs up and resting an arm on one knee. "You have absolutely no idea how good it feels to be able to do this."
Blue eyes tore themselves away from the tiny, milky smile and gazed at her. "Um.. yeah, I do." She informed her soulmate wryly. "You feeling okay?"
"Yes.. in fact, I am." The bard replied, putting her feet down on the floor and carefully standing up. Her body tried to adjust for a balance that was no longer front heavy, and she had to grab onto the chair for a quick support. "Whoa.... " She stood for a moment, just getting used to the sensation. She ached all over, and she was very tender where the baby had come out, but all in all, she really didnít feel too bad.
"Nice to be able to see my knees." She remarked wryly, glancing down. "I feel a lot lighter, thatís for sure." Now she looked at Xena. "Could you put her in her cradle for a minute?"
"Sure." Xena stood without effort, and watched the babyís eyes widen, as she peered fuzzily around. "Hang on there.." She moved over to where the wooden cradle rested near the fireplace, already lined with clean linen. The warrior very gently placed the baby down, and tucked a fold of the covers in loosely around her. "Bet youíre tired, huh?"
As if on cue, the baby yawned, making Xena laugh, and she tickled a tiny palm with one finger before she stood and faced her soulmate, who was patiently standing there. "Whatís up?"
Gabrielle walked slowly forward, wincing a little, and put her arms around her partner fully for the first time in months. "Oh gods.. Iíve missed being able to do this."
Xena wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and hugged her tightly, then carefully lifted her up, and felt Gabrielleís spine crack all the way down its length, accompanied by a sincere moan of appreciation. "Did that feel good??"
"Have I told you lately just how much I love you?" Gabrielle responded, with a contented sigh. "That felt awesome." She simply leaned against the warriorís body for a short while, then she lifted her head and peered up. "Xena, we have a daughter."
The warriorís eyes were on the occupied cradle. "I know...itís so hard to believe." She held Gabrielle close to her, and pressed her lips against the bardís head. "Itís incredible." She ran her hands down Gabrielleís back, giving her a light massage, which produced mostly incoherent sounds of pleasure from her. "Bet youíre tired, too, huh?"
Gabrielle thought about that. She lifted her head, and rested her chin on Xenaís breastbone, gazing up at the angular profile. "Actually. Iím hungry." She replied, a touch sheepishly. "With all the cramps.. excuse me, contractions, and all, I wasnít feeling great all day, and I didnít eat much."
"No problem." Xena replied at once. "I can go raid the kitchen... you go sit down, and Iíll be right back." She gave the bard a last hug, then released her, turning to see a pair of dark, furry ears poking out from under the bed. "Oh ho.. I wondered where you were hiding."
A nose sniffed the air. "Roo?"
"Címon, Ares.. come meet a new friend." Gabrielle laughed, patting her thigh. "Come out here."
One paw at a time, the wolf edged out, peering suspiciously at both of them.
"I think heís upset because you were yelling at me." Xena remarked, as she swung her cloak over her shoulders.
Gabrielle gave her a puzzled look. "When was this?"
"When I told you to let go of my arm, and you told me what I was going to die of." Xena replied dryly, her eyes twinkling. "And you said if you were going to have to go through all that pain, so was I."
Shocked, green eyes blinked at her. "No way."
Xena chuckled, and reached for the door. "Donít worry about it... Iíll be right back." She left, not without one last look at the peacefully sleeping infant, however.
"I said that?" Gabrielle put her hands on her hips, and regarded the wolf. "Really?"
"Roo." The yellow eyes blinked at her reproachfully.
"Wow." The bard hobbled over to her rocking chair, and sat very gingerly down in it, glad of the soft pads as she leaned on the chair arm, and watched the baby sleep. "See, Ares? Itís a new friend for you..címere."
The wolf had tip toed over, sniffing at the cradle tentatively. He poked his nose inside, and smelled the tiny fist outside the covers, then his tail wagged. "Agrrooo." The baby moved in sleep, and he jumped back with a snort.
"Youíre such a chicken." The bard rolled her eyes, then she propped her chin on one hand and just watched her newborn child sleep, a sense of peace settling over her.
Continued in Part 6
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