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Standard Disclaimers -
These characters, and boy, are they ever characters, are mostly the property of Renaissance Pictures, Universal MCA, and whoever else owns stock and interest in Xena: Warrior Princess. This fiction was written for my amusement only, and not in any way, shape or form for profit - and it is not intended to infringe on the copyright holders of the characters.
Some of the characters are mine, and the story ideas... well, who knows where they come from? Must be one weird place, that's for sure.
Specific Story Disclaimers:
Violence - this is a Xena:Warrior Princess story. This is not Teletubbies. Even though there are some rumors of similarities. Some of the violence is graphic, but we try not to dwell on it.
Subtext - Considering that the TV Series just aired an episode establishing Xena and Gabrielle as eternal soulmates, any disclaimer of subtext on my part is really kind of goofy in the extreme. The two characters are in love with each other, and have been for years. You can choose to see them as just friends, but then you might not want to read this fanfic, in case it changes your mind or anything like that.
Emotional Content - this is not one my more comedic efforts. There are moments of humor, however.
Dark Comes the Morning - Part 16
By Melissa Good
They were spotted as they came down out of the trees. The travelers paused, talked among themselves, then remained still, waiting for Xena and her group to arrive, sitting quietly on their horses with wary eyes.
Xena tucked her reins in one hand and freed the other, letting it rest lightly on her thigh as she lead the way, aware of the others closely following her. She lifted her head and fixed her gaze on the group's leader as she came closer, and watched the distinctive motion as he swallowed a few times, and his hands flexed, rubbing themselves on his leggings.
Interesting The warrior squeezed her legs very lightly around Argo's barrel and the mare obediently stopped, tossing her head and snorting. "Well, well." Xena rumbled. "What do we have here?"
The man in the lead took a very obvious deep breath and reluctantly met her sharp gaze. "I'm looking for someone named Xena."
"Congratulations. You've found what you're looking for. What do you want?"
The man cleared his throat. "We’re from the town down there."
"We want to surrender."
Both of Xena's eyebrows lifted up, almost into her hairline. She heard a soft snort of laughter from Aslanta, but ignored it. "You do, huh? Why? And who are you?"
"My name is Alcenius." He replied. "I'm the highest ranking officer left."
Xena felt a chill go down her back.
"We lost twenty percent of our men this morning we took a vote.. we don't see any point in sitting and dying, in this damn backwater halfway to nowhere."
Twenty percent. She'd killed twenty people? Surely she hadn't had time had she? "Good choice." The warrior finally managed to respond, in a gruff mutter. "What were your orders here?"
Alcinius seemed, if anything, relieved. "To hold the town to do to get supplies any way we could you know." He half turned and looked at the men with him, who were staring at Xena in something like awe. "Villagers.. peasants are one thing.. I didn't bargain on getting split like a pig."
Did I do that? Vaguely, she remembered a moment of exultance, and a downstroke that had felt like she was driving her sword through splintering wood. "All right." She drew a breath in, and steadied herself. Wasn't that what her whole drive was? To get people afraid of her? Well, it had worked. "Here's the terms. You've got till sundown to be out of the area. You leave behind anything but travel rations, and your skins. Got me?"
Alcenius nodded slowly.
"We'll be coming in there right at sunset and you'd better not be around." She warned. "And you better not leave any messes, or I'll ride after you and cut you down like rats."
He nodded again, this time more rapidly.
"Get out of here." This in a snarl.
The men turned and started back, turning in their saddles nervously.
"Wait.!" Xena called out, urging Argo into a trot as they halted. For a moment, she thought they were going to bolt, and their mounts shifted anxiously. "There were some kids injured.. that escaped from you bastards not long ago."
Uneasy looks. Alcenious lowered his gaze. "Yes."
Xena leaned on her saddlebow. "Who was responsible for that?"
Dead silence. Then the soldier looked up, his brown eyes bleak. "Mellos." He exhaled. "But you don’t' have to worry about him getting away with it. You took his head off a couple candlemarks ago."
Ah. "Good." Xena rasped, letting her voice drop dangerously. "Now leave."
And they did, kicking their horses into a gallop as they cleared her presence, and sending splashes of water up behind their horses hooves.
Xena sat quietly on Argo's back, the damp wind blowing her hair back, and ruffling her cloak as she simply watched them go.
Cait held onto the rock, squinting against the sting of the water as she inched along the passageway, her arms tensing and forcing her forward. Her lungs were already hurting, but she grimly kept going, the sharp surface cutting into her fingers as she dragged her body over it.
Bother it was hard. She got her toe into a crevice, and that helped her take the pressure off her arms for a moment, so she gathered her strength, then inched forward again. The heaviness in her chest was growing though, and as she peered through the darkness, she could barely see the faint light ahead that marked the entrance into the other cavern.
Determindly, she shoved her body forward, anxiety now taking hold as she knew she was running out of time, and out of air, and a strange darkness started to edge around her vision. She freed one hand and reached forward, clawing for a hold and finding one, then releasing her other hand.
The rock she was holding came free, and she tried to catch the edge, but her fingers slipped off and she was torn off the wall and sent flying into the opposite surface.
Her head cracked against the stone, and she saw stars, then felt a sharp pain as the jagged rock cut against her shoulders. Then, disoriented, she hit again, and things went all the way dark.
"Gods be damned it you little.." Paladia struggled with the angry infant. "Sit still! Don'cha see she's.. " The Amazon searched the water's surface. "Dumbass piece of would you lookit all the trouble you caused!"
Dori stopped yelling, and hiccupped, then stared at the yelling woman.
Then she giggled.
"Don’t' you laugh at me, you.. you " Paladia stopped. "Aww.. whatinthe hades am I doing? You don't understand a damn word." Disgusted, she turned and watched the water. "Idiot.. idiot "
Ares suddenly scrambled to his feet and growled, then rushed at the water's surface, and pawed at it, snapping his jaws as though demented. Dori found her attention diverted, and she crawled towards him, getting to her feet and wobbling over curiously.
"Aww " Paladia hauled herself up and followed. "Get back here ya little "
Then she looked down into the dark, but clear water, and saw the faint pale form. "Son of a Bacchae get the Hades outta my way!" She took a step and leaped over Ares, going headfirst into the water and almost knocking herself unconscious as she impacted the pool's sandy bottom. She pushed off and scrambled down, scrabbling for holds in the sand as she clawed her way over to the still form caught under a rock.
She grabbed an arm, and pulled, putting her feet against the bottom and shoving up with all her might, sending both her, and Cait to the surface with a splash. Gasping, she jerked Cait out of the water and slung her up onto the beach, crawling out onto the sand after her and examining the smaller Amazon anxiously. "Oh no." She felt the still chest, and saw the blue lips. "Oh no.. you ain't leaving me here by myself with this little spawn of Ares.. no way.. "
Gettting to her feet she bodily picked Cait up and held her upside down, watching as water gushed from her mouth, then she clasped her around the stomach and squeezed, then released. Squeezed, then released.
Dori watched in astonishment, sucking on her thumb.
Squeeze, and release. "C'mon, you stubborn little piece of.. " Squeeze, and release. "I swear to Hades I'll.. " Squeeze and release.
And then, very faintly, a cough.
Another squeeze, and now, more strongly, a cough, and she could feel resistance start to come back into the limp body she held. "Damn straight." She let out a breath against the back of Cait's neck. "Breathe, you pissant."
She felt the motion of ribs against her fingers, at first hesitant, then stronger, then Cait started to cough in earnest, clawing weakly at her arm. "Hey."
"You're such a pain in my ass."
Cait coughed. "Thank you.. I'm quite.. f. fond of .. you .. too."
Weak kneed, Paladia released her, and stepped back as she dropped to the sand, and concentrated on sucking in air. "You're bleeding like a stuck pig." She looked around in frustration. There wasn't anything to help staunch it.
"Oh.. " The slim Amazon felt her head. "Is that what that is? Lovely."
"Crap" Paladia came over and went to one knee, examining the cut. It was at least a fingerspan, and showed no signs of slowing it's flow of blood. "Gods be damned to Hades in blue boots."
"Mm that's quite bad." Cait remarked weakly. "Perhaps you'd better off have left me in the water."
Her friend stood and paced over to where Cait had left her leathers, then came back. "Here." She put a piece of the fabric in her hand, then pressed it against her head. "Hold that there."
"Right.. but that's not going to.. "
"And shut up." Paladia added. "And watch that damn kid." She turned, and stomped toward the water's edge, shaking her head and muttering as her body broke the water and she sloshed towards the tunnel.
"B.. " Cait started to yell after her.
Paladia turned and pointed. "Shut up!"
Then she ducked under the surface, and disappeared.
Cait stared at the space she'd been in and groaned, as Dori toddled over, and touched her face in innocent curiosity.
"They what?" Gabrielle stared at her partner in surprise.
Xena shrugged uncomfortably, and moved a little bit away from the milling Amazons, who were getting the story from her companions. "They decided it wasn't worth fighting over." She looked around. "We can settle here for a while.. I want to make sure they actually get out of town."
"Xena, that's great." The bard smiled in relief. "Here we thought we'd have to have this big fight wow." She considered. "Maybe they're so far out from Andreas influence, they've gotten a chance to think about things."
Her tall friend was quiet, and the bard noted the small muscles in her jaw twitching. Uh oh. She got a hand on a bit of armor and tugged, moving away until they were secluded under a large tree. "What is it?" She asked, in a low voice.
Guilty blue eyes dropped to hers, peeking out from under long, dark lashes. "It was me." Xena murmured. "I killed so many of them this morning, they just.. " She rubbed her face, visibly upset. "We were only in there for a few minutes, Gabrielle.. how could I have.."
Gabrielle felt caught in a moral dilemma. Half of her was horrified, and had been at the carnage, the other half felt a cold knowledge of the people who wouldn't die today because of it. Neither half was helping her deal with her distraught partner, however. She moved closer, getting inside the circle of Xena's damp cloak.
"You told me yourself " She started, choosing her words. "That this is war, and not a game . And that this was going to require you using that part of you that really likes the fighting." Gabrielle paused, waiting for a comment, and got none, only a tense silence. "I don't think you can have it both ways, Xena."
The warrior exhaled.
"Look at the good things that came from that, though those women were saved, and a lot of people who would have gotten hurt.. or killed if we had to fight them didn't." Gabrielle moved even closer, until she could feel the warmth coming off Xena's body, and put a comforting hand on her side, just under her ribs. "Ask yourself this would the old Xena have felt what you're feeling right now?"
The surface under her fingers stilled for a double handful of heartbeats, then slowly resumed it's motion. "No." The answer came with surprising conviction.
The bard felt a touch on her back, then a solid warmth and a pressure that drew her closer, coupled with what she knew was Xena kissing her head, rain and all. She relaxed a little, ruefully comparing this sort of thing with making her way through a swamp, never knowing what pocket of nastiness she was going to expose with an errant bootstep. Sometimes, though, she got lucky.
'Thanks." Xena murmured. "One of the guys I offed this morning was responsible for those kids."
It was a shock. Gabrielle blinked a little, stunned at the amount of satisfaction that knowledge gave her. "Oh." She took a breath and let it out. "I spent some time with them last night.. telling a few stories."
"I know. I heard you."
"Yeah.. you were telling one of my favorites." The warrior told her. "You actually had quite an audience listening in."
Gabrielle tilted her head up. "I did? Funny.. I didn't hear anyone."
Xena smiled. "And have you know all the Amazons were sitting there like kids? Get out of here, Gabrielle."
"Oh.. right. The image." She patted Xena's chest, almost irrationally pleased at the subtle compliment. "I forgot.. sorry."
The warrior reviewed the small encampment thoughtfully. The Amazons had clustered to one side, the militia to the other, and the Hestians well, they'd claimed the wagon as their territory and were sitting in it, softly singing hymns to Hestia.
Xena winced as an errant note caught her sensitive ears.
"So.. what's the plan?" The bard asked, after a moment of quiet.
"I'm going to leave the Amazons in the town." Her partner replied crisply. "We'll send out another group to reinforce them, and establish signal outposts between here, and there, just like we have between the valley and Amphipolis. Those are the only two approaches large enough to bring considerable forces through."
"You're sure he'll come after you? What if he doesn't? What if he just lets us sit out here?" Gabrielle questioned. "I mean, think about it, Xena we're pretty remote. .why should he worry about it?"
A smile, not entirely pleasant, creased the warrior's lips. "He'll be here." She replied. "For two reasons, one to crush what he's going to see as a rising resistance, and two " Xena chuckled softly. "Two, because I kicked him in his pride so hard, he's probably still having trouble standing up straight."
"In his pr " Gabrielle started to make a puzzled inquiry, then stopped short and clamped her lips shut. "Oh.. I didn't realize he'd let you get that close to him I thought.."
"He was kissing me at the time." The warrior remarked blandly.
Green eyes pinned her immediately, and one golden eyebrow arched. "You didn't mention that part."
A faint grin. "A good warrior uses all the weapons at their disposal, Gabrielle.. and you know I always do that."
"Yeah? How long was he kissing you?" Gabrielle scowled.
"Long enough for him to get.. um " The dark head rocked back and forth. "Fully involved."
"W.. " The bard started an indignant protest, then stopped, when a hand cupped her chin.
"To get you out of there, I'd have done a lot worse." Xena told her, very seriously. "And in this case, it did what I needed it to do which was take him out long enough to give me time to get to that kitchen, you got me, Gabrielle??"
"Okay. I got you." The bard relented, giving her an apologetic look. "Sorry but how would you feel if I told you I let some psycho creep put his hands all over me?"
Xena was silent for a moment. "I'd hope I'd trust you enough to realize there must be a reason for you to have allowed it."
Gabrielle digested that. "Ow." Her face tensed into a grimace.
They looked at each other, then the warrior ruffled her soulmate's hair. "Actually.. I'd probably cut his hands off." She admitted, with a smile. "And ask questions later."
Gabrielle sighed, and leaned against her. "Xena, what if he decides to head here right now? We can't fight thousands of men with the forces we have." She looked up. "Aren't we taking a big risk.. provoking him before we're ready like this?"
"Maybe." Her partner acknowledged, in a low voice. "But we need to keep him off balance, Gabrielle.. if we waited until we were ready, he'd be too powerful, and we wouldn't have a chance."
Xena gave her a pat on the back, then walked over to where Toris was standing with the militia, near the Hestian's wagon. "All right I want you to take the acolytes and escort them back to the valley.. if it's clear past Amphipolis, we can send them out that way."
Xena turned, to see the leader of the Hestians standing there. She spiked an eyebrow at her. "Yes?"
"We are perfectly capable of deciding our own direction, thank you." The woman announced firmly. "We want to go into the town, also."
"No you don't." Xena replied flatly.
"Yes, we do." The woman insisted. "Now look here, we've got a mandate from Hestia, and we intend on fulfilling it."
"You know.. " Gabrielle slid smoothly between her bristling best friend and the virgin. "There's not really much to see in the village.. after all, the soldiers are leaving, and.. well, Xena just wants to make sure they leave then we're all going back to our camp you do want to see our camp, right? It's where all of Xena's army is, waiting to fight against Andreas."
"Really?" The woman hesitated.
"Yeah.. we've got Amazons there and centaurs "
"Centaurs! No, really?"
"Sure and you know, I'm sure you all could do a lot of good there." The bard reassured her. "I mean.. all those Amazons.. all those soldiers all those centaurs " She paused. "Sorry I didn't get your name?"
"Delectia." The woman answered faintly. "You don't mean to.. say "
"Mm you know my regent, Ephiny, has a centaur son." Gabrielle advised her.
Delectia's jaw moved twice, then her eyes rolled up into her head and she dropped like a rock, landing in a crumpled splat in the mud.
Toris scratched his neck. "You know something, sis you're dangerous." He tapped one of the milita on the shoulder. "C'mon let's get her up there."
Gabrielle moved out of the way. "He's just now figuring that out?" She asked Xena quizzically.
"He was talking about you." The warrior responded, as she followed Toris. "Ladies, these soldiers are going to escort you back to our camp then if it's safe, you'll be free to go wherever you want."
The Hestians huddled together, watching their sister be loaded gently into the back of the wagon. Toris dusted his hands off then stepped back and pulled his sister to one side. "Hey are you sure we're the right ones to be escorting them? "
Xena looked at him, then turned her eyes to the group of Amazons standing nearby, then returned her eyes to Toris. "Move out." She gave a jerk of her head.
"Right." Toris muttered, and motioned for the militia to get started.
I must be nuts. Paladia merely repeated the words over and over again, as she clawed at the rock. I must be nuts I must be nuts I must be nuts. The water rushed over her, tugging her backwards, but she got a good hold and pushed her body forward, using her strength to good advantage.
Something whipped by her, and she closed her eyes, fighting down the urge to breath water in. Instead, she wondered what she'd sketch if she could sketch the really, incredibly, absolutely stupid thing she was doing right now.
Would she look like a spider?
Would she look like a crab?
One hand moved, and she got a hold, then pushed with her legs against the pressure.
A crab, probably. A crab clinging to this stupid rock, just waiting to get knocked off by some dumb wave.
Her chest hurt.
She felt like an idiot.
The pressure lessened for a moment, and she lunged ahead, getting almost a body length down the tunnel before the rush returned, but now she had better handholds, and she moved grimly on, starting to feel lightheaded.
Another hold, and the knowledge that she could now see a little light reflecting off the skin on her hands.
They looked like crabs, in fact. Big old white crabs clinging to the rock.
Her chest really hurt now, and she was starting to get an irresisitable urge to breathe. She clamped her jaws shut and crept on. Cait couldn't do this, it suddenly occurred to her. Wouldn't it just twist her leathers if I could?
She coiled her body and shoved forward, forcing her way forward against the water and finally..
The crabs crept around the edge of the tunnel, and she was pulling herself out of the damn thing, and paddling in panic for the surface she could now see as silver haze, shot through with black, and red as her heart reflected on the inside of her eyes with the need for air.
Her head broke the surface and she reached for a hold in the rock side, clinging weakly against the current that was still sucking at her, while she hauled air into her lungs with an audible rasp.
She pressed her cheek against the cold stone, and waited for the pounding in her head to stop.
Son of a Bacchae. Paladia pulled herself fully out of the tunnel and into the main part of the pool. I did it.
Can't wait to make Cait suck that up.
Slowly, she made her way across the water and pulled herself out, getting to her feet and trudging through the cavern, dripping cold water from her leathers and squishing with every step.
"Cyrene.. " Ephiny ran her hands through her curly hair for the nth time. "We've looked everywhere.. I .."
The innkeeper was sitting on a crate, her hands clasped tightly together. "We haven't looked everywhere." She replied shortly. "Because we haven't found her, and I am not.. I AM NOT, do you HEAR ME? AM NOT going to tell my daughters that child is GONE."
The tones rang through the cavern, which was mostly quiet otherwise. Thirty or forty mud covered, dirt covered, scratched and dinged people were standing there, having combed the catacombs within an inch of their lives.
"What if she was kidnapped?" Elaini finally said, her fur completely obscured by mud.
"No one's been in our out of here." Gillen stated flatly, relatively unscathed since she'd been responsible for searching the Amazon's quarters. "I've checked the guard at both gates, and there hasn't been a peep.. besides, they didn't have time.. I doubt the kid was alone for more than a quarter candlemark."
"Do you have any idea how much damn trouble that child can get into in a quarter candlemark?" Eponin growled.
"I knew I shouldn't have left her.. I .." Cyrene moaned.
"Now look.. it wasn't your fault.." Ephiny started.
"Yeah.. she's right.. you know that kid's.." Eponin chimed in.
"Maybe she's with the horses?" Elani suddenly suggested. "She's got Xena's love of them that's a spot we haven't checked "
"Yeah, where's that Dani woman.. "Ephiny snapped her fingers. "Good idea, Elani.."
"All right.. "Cyrene stood up. "Let's try that the gods know it's something Xena would have done.. "
"HEY!!!!" Paladia leaned back against the wall, and opened her lungs up, yelling at the very top of them in utter frustration.
They all turned to see a tall, drenched, scuffed up, exhausted Amazon standing in the opening. "Yes??" Cyrene inquired, hesitantly. "We wondered where you two went."
Paladia exhaled. "We went to Hades, and found that damn kid there." She managed to get out, wincing at how her throat hurt. "So if you'd all stop running around and yelling like fools "
"W.. " Cyrene abruptly sat down, covering her eyes with one hand. Johan got behind her and circled her with his arms. "Thank the gods." She whispered.
"Where is she, Paladia?" Ephiny asked quietly, the first to recover her wits.
"Come on." Paladia turned and started trudging back, fairly sure they'd follow. "And bring some damn rope."
Xena surveyed the town from Argo's back, as they waited on the ridge for the last soldier to leave. As they trickled out, she nudged Argo's sides, and started down, a double line of mounted Amazons behind her. Gabrielle rode a smaller gelding just to her right, one of the militia having given up his mount to drive the Hestian's wagon. "Keep your eyes open." The warrior warned. "They could have left an ambush behind."
The town's gates were open, and as they approached cautiously, a few brave residents peeked out, staring at them with nervous eyes. Xena let Argo proceed until they were between the openings, then pulled her to a halt and held a hand up, stopping the columns progress.
It was a mess inside. Not burned, or totally destructed, but the town had the look of disarray and neglect one might expect from someplace under siege for as long as they'd been. Eyes watched from darkened doorways, and only a few, sullen men came out into the street, evidently assuming they were trading one evil for perhaps a worse.
Gabrielle collected her reins and tapped her patient gelding with her heels, moving ahead of her partner, who twitched visibly as she exposed herself to any potential archers. They'd argued about this, but the bard had successfully made the point that she'd be a lot more reassuring, and why wear all the damn armor if it didn't at least protect her from the odd arrow?
Certainly, the villagers watched her approach with less trepidation, and as Gabrielle came even with the first buildings, one of the older men eased away from the wall he'd been tucked behind and walked slowly out to meet her. The bard halted, then swung her leg over her mount's neck and slid down, her boots splashing a little on the soaked ground. She twitched her cloak a little straighter, then tilted her head to meet the man's eyes. "You've had a tough time here."
It wasn't what he'd expected. "Yes." He muttered. "You here to make it worse, or better?"
"Better, I hope." Gabrielle replied. She stepped forward and held a hand out. "My name's Gabrielle... and I'm from Amphipolis."
He took her hand warily, clasping her forearm and releasing it. His eyes lifted and looked over her shoulder at the silently waiting force, then returned to her face. "Is that Xena?"
The bard smiled. "Yes is it."
He released a breath. "Then you're Gabrielle the Bard?"
Another smile. "Yes, I am." Around her, Gabrielle could hear, and sense movement, and she caught a glimpse of white faces easing out of the damp gloom to peer at her. "It's all right.. you can come out. You're safe now."
He seemed at a loss. "It's true then." He murmured. "We heard... stories."
"Is it okay for me to tell them to come in?" Gabrielle asked gently. "They don't want to scare anyone."
"Uh... sure.. sure.. we.. sure."
The bard turned and lifted a hand, more to allow her visibly tense and figeting soulmate to relax than anything else. Xena immediately rode forward, then dismounted, her damp cloak sweeping around her legs as she strode over to join them. "What's your name?" She asked the townsman as the warrior arrived, distracting him from the warrior's intimidating presence.
"El." His voice was hoarse.
"All right, El... this is Xena, and she's really here to make sure everyone here is okay.. and we'd like to know what help you need to get things back together."
His eyes inched slowly up Xena's tall form, flinching as they touched the pale blue eyes. Rather than the expected fear, however, his face eased into an expression of awe and wonder. "Wow."
Xena's eyebrows hiked up a little. "They leave anyone behind?" She asked, her low voice echoing slightly.
He seemed tongue tied for a moment, then blinked. "Uh...no.. no, ma'am, they didn't."
Xena's eyes closed and her nostrils flared a little. "Good... now this is what we're gonna do.. I'm gonna leave most of these warriors here, and they've got instructions to help you get this place back together. They'll also stick around and make sure those guys don't come back. Is that okay?"
"Is that okay?" Xena asked again.
"Huh?" El was still gazing up at her in somewhat of a haze. "Oh... uh..." He tore his eyes from her face and looked at the waiting Amazons. "Sure.. sure.. um...are those.. um...we had some other women through here a few days ago.. from Hestia.. are they.."
"Virgins?" Gabrielle smiled kindly at him. "No... those are Amazons. Definitely not the same thing."
"Amazons... well.. " El smiled hesitantly. "Sure.. gods, we've got so much to do... we've been trying to hold back from those bastards, but it's been hard.. and... when they caught us.. it was a bad thing."
"We know." The bard gave him a sympathetic look. "Some of their victims ended up in our camp.. that's how we knew what was going on."
There was a little silence, then a battered looking woman came forward. "The children?"
"Yes." Xena answered her. "They're all alive... we're taking care of them."
"Right.. if you want, we could bring them back, or you could.. " Gabrielle stopped speaking as the woman crept up to Xena and dropped to her knees, hugging the warrior's cloak to her face. "Send someone there to see them." She concluded softly.
Xena handled it better than she'd expected her to, though. She knelt and took the townswoman's hands, detaching them from the wet fabric. "You're thanking the wrong person." The warrior told her mildly. "The man who got them out of here almost made it on his own, and when they caught up to him, Gabrielle here held them off."
Everyone. *everyone* turned and looked right at the bard, who was standing there, looking particularly damp and relatively small and inoffensive next to Xena's dark menace, and the Amazons feathered grandeur. Gabrielle cleared her throat, feeling her skin heat in unconscious response. "Anyway, they’re safe." She amended, into all that quiet.
Xena stood, pulling the bedraggled woman up with her and set her on her feet with a little pat on the shoulder. "These warriors know how to live off the land they won’t be taking anything from you." She looked around, at the gathering crowd and soaked in the almost palpable wave of gratitude and relief flowing her way.
"In fact, we’ll go the other way." Aslanta stated, stepping up quietly. "We’ll put hunters and collectors out.. see what we can replenish for you."
Whispers started, as more and more townsfolk came out and started clustering around them, older men and women now, and children, peering at the fighters with wide eyes. Aslanta leaned closer to Xena and lowered her voice. "This what you do all the time?"
Xena didn’t answer for a long while, her eyes on a young boy who had come up and reached a hand out, touching her armor in timid fascination. "Yeah." She finally responded briefly. "Now."
"Huh." The Amazon gave two admirers of her own a polite smile. "Nice."
Yeah. Xena allowed herself to bask in it for a minute. It was something she’d sort of gotten used to over the past few years, until now the reverse reaction surprised her more than this one did. You could forget anything, given enough time, and enough new experiences, she supposed. "All right. Let’s get started there’s a lot of work to be done."
Everyone hesitated. Xena turned and unclasped her cloak, swinging it off her shoulders and over Argo’s back. Then she riffled her fingers through her dark hair and looked up at the still cloudy, but no longer dripping skies. Gabrielle understood the motion and mirrored it, moving off and pulling aside two or three of the villagers and asking them low questions.
The Amazons got the message too, and spread out, starting to right boxes, and move debris. Xena watched for a moment, then looked down as a tug pulled on her leathers. "Hey."
Her little friend looked up with bashful eyes. "Kin you help me?"
"Sure." The warrior replied. "What do you need?"
For an answer, he turned and started walking, tugging her along after him. Xena followed, dodging two men and an Amazon moving a huge barrel, and ducking her head as the boy entered a small, half fallen down hovel.
"Mama, I got someone to ‘elp." His piping voice broke through the gloom.
"Jere, I told you not to.. " The tired voice stopped, as Xena’s body was outlined against the light and entered. "Gods protect us the boy meant no harm."
"Naw.. it’s okay, ma she broughts all these nice ladies here to help us."
Xena let her eyes adjust and walked forward, putting a hand up on the roof beam just over her head. Part of the ceiling had collapsed and fallen over the woman, trapping her. "Just hold on." She examined the structure, running her hands over the wood. "All right can you move your legs at all?"
"A little." The woman replied, very softly. "But it hurts . Who are you?"
"Relax." The warrior crouched, and fit her shoulders under the beams, then took a breath and slowly straightened her legs. The wood creaked a protest, but gave under her strength, and lifted off the trapped woman. "Okay.. can you slide out?"
The boy helpfully grabbed his mother’s arm, and together they squirmed out from under the thatch and wood splinters, getting clear as Xena lowered the rafters back down.
"See? I told ya." The boy grinned at his new friend. "There’s a lot of em out there, but I brought the best one back."
The woman sat up, and rubbed her shins, giving Xena an apologetic look. "Thank you it’s true then, the soldiers have gone?"
The warrior knelt, letting her arms rest on her knees as she examined the woman’s legs. "It’s true.. you all right, there?"
The woman tested her limbs and nodded. "Yes they made a last sweep through on their way out, and I guess a rope caught on the timber there pulled it down as I was trying to get out. " She held out a slim, well formed hand. "My name is Levas, by the way."
Xena took it. "You don’t sound like you’re from these parts." She commented. "Want a hand up?"
Levas accepted the help, and dusted herself off. She was young, the warrior realized, about Gabrielle’s age, and pretty, with long, dark hair and a pleasant smile. "I’m not from around here, that is you’ve got a good ear." She laughed softly. "I can’t believe it.. it’s been horrible here for months.. I can’t believe they’re gone. Did you chase them out, is that it?"
"Something like that." Xena agreed.
"Sure she’s Xena, did you know that, ma?" Jere piped up, seemingly having recovered his spirits.
"Are you?" Levas asked, in surprise. "I’ve heard of you . Let me see, when was it oh, yes, of course. I spent a little while in Athens, at the Bard’s Academy there. I remember a young girl came in, and tried out she was very good.. they accepted her, but she left.. anyway, she told stories about you."
"Gabrielle." Xena supplied.
"Why.. yes! Yes, it was you’re right.. she said she was a friend of yours.. I wonder what ever happened to her. Do you know?"
"Yes yes, I do." Xena smiled, her mind briefly visiting that moment of bittersweet hurt when her newfound friend had gone, albeit briefly down a far different path. "She’s here, as a matter of fact." The warrior stood aside to let them pass out the door.
"Is she? Gods.. that’s incredible." Levas shook her head as she moved by. "I wonder if she ever found what she was looking for " The woman half turned. "How did she put it.. her tree in the forest?"
The flora in question produced a brief quirk of the lips. "You’ll have to ask her that."
They went outside, under dark clouds that rumbled warningly, threatening yet more rain.
Paladia pointed. "There's a tunnel" She was sitting down on the edge of the pool, trying to resist the urge just to go to sleep. "Under the water."
"Centaur poop." Ephiny cursed.
"Hey watch it." Tyldus shuffled his hooves, and gave the Amazon a look.
"Sorry." The regent apologized. "All right so.. " She walked to the edge of the water and peered down. Eponin had followed her in, and behind them were Cyrene, Johan, Elaini, three or four other Amazons with ropes, and some bystanders. "Guess one of us has to go in.. " She turned and motioned. "Here.. gimme the end of that.. I'll.."
"Excuse me." Elaini took the rope neatly. "Why don't you let me do that? "
Ephiny scowled at her. "That's one of my Amazons in there."
"Uh huh.. and that means, what?" The forest dweller looped the rope around her stomach and tied it off. "I'm bigger, I'm stronger, I've got a nice warm fur coat, and I'm a healer, which Paladia there tells me is needed." She paused. "So move, okay?"
"Huh." Paladia drew a knee up and circled it with one long arm. "She's pushy enough to be an Amazon.. she is." She heard Cyrene muffle a laugh, and glanced up at the innkeeper, developing a new appreciation for Xena's mother.
Elaini dove into the water, clamping her fanged jaws shut on a muted scream at the chill, and swam competently over to where the current was disappearing into the rock face. Sure enough, she could feel the pull of the water, and she briefly thanked Ares that she'd been practicing her swimming with Jessan in the cold spring near Amphipolis.
Well, okay.. they were actually practicing drying, with a little snuggling in the sun thrown in, but they did get to swim a little, and he had been teaching the triplets to swim, so
She took in a deep breath, and ducked under the water, fluttering her eyelids and getting an almost clear view of the crack in the wall. It would, she realized, be a tight fit. She turned sideways, and pulled herself forward, her chest getting lightly scraped by the rock on either side. The water pushed her through, though, and she released her hold and let it carry her into the next cavern, kicking back and heading for the surface. As her head popped out she shook it, and blinked the water out of her eyes.
Dori was seated next to a quiet, pale figure pressing a bit of leather to her head, and Ares was curled up next to her. The wolf jumped up as Elaini surfaced, and rushed to the edge of the water, growling.
"Oh, shut up." Elaini stroked over and hauled her wet body out of the water, dripping huge amounts of it from her fur. She unhooked the healer's kit she'd carefully wrapped in waterproof hide from around her neck and ambled over to where Cait was sitting. "Well well "
"Bck." Dori looked up in displeasure as large droplets of cold water fell on her.
"Shh." Elaini knelt next to the young Amazon and pulled her hand away from her head, examining the cut carefully. "Not too bad, Cait.. how are you feeling otherwise?"
"Quite nasty." Cait admitted softly. "Pally got out then, did she? I'm ever so glad."
"Yes, she did." Elaini noticed the girl's paleness, and felt her cheek. "Where does it hurt, Cait, other than here?"
Cait coughed a little. "My chest aches.. and my throat I'm afraid I was quite full of water before Pally got me out of here."
Elaini smoothed the human's fair hair from her pale, odd eyes. "Did you stop breathing?"
"I think so." Cait nodded. "She was squeezing me ever so hard, and yelling it was nasty."
"Bck." Dori had stood up and was investigating Cait's hand. "Oo."
Elaini removed bandages and a small, thin ivory needle from her pack, then uncorked a bottle of cleanser and carefully cleaned the jagged cut on Cait’s head. "I’m going to have to stitch this." She told the girl regretfully. "It’s gonna hurt."
"Too right." Cait sighed. "But it’s better than dripping all over things, isn’t it? Go on." She curled a hand around an edge of the rock she was sitting on and sat, very still and silent as Elaini closed the wound, the only sign of the pain she was in a slight flaring of her nostrils every time the needle broke skin.
"There." The forest dweller tied off the end of her piece of gut, and sat back on her heels. "Okay now, let me look at you, little scamp." She picked up Dori and cradled her, tickling the baby on her rounded belly. "What a trouble maker you are."
"Bck." Dori waved her feet, and grabbed a handful of Elaini’s fur, tugging it and giggling. She evaded the healer’s hands and squirmed, intent on climbing her way up with such an excellent gripping surface.
"Ow." Elaini winced. "Dori, cut that out." She examined the infant carefully. "Just a few scrapes, hmm?" She felt Dori’s skull, then tweaked a tiny ear. "Just like your mom.. indestructible."
Cait drew in a long breath, wondering if the forest dweller realized what she was saying, knowing instinctively that it wasn’t Gabrielle she was referring to, the bard being quite a sturdy person, but hardly indestructible. "I can’t ever believe she got in here and with Ares, too."
"Mm.." Elaini was busy wrapping Dori in a clean diaper, tucking the ends in expertly. "Problem is.. how’re we gonna get you all out." The forest dweller looked up, then stood, dragging her rope behind her as she studied the walls. "Maybe she held her breath by instinct coming in here.. but.. I don’t know if I want to risk that on the longer trip back, or with you either with that head wound." Her head tipped upward and she studied the break in the rock above her. "Hmm."
Cait also looked up, shading her eyes. "It's ever so far up there."
"How are the Amazons at mountain climbing?" Elaini countered. "You going to be okay if I go back and give them the news?"
Dori sat down and sucked on her finger, looking around with a displeased expression. "Mmm." She pouted.
"I don't suppose you have anything to eat in that bit of a pouch." Cait murmured. "Or I could be in quite a lot of trouble."
Elaini eyed the scowling infant, then rubbed her furry jaw. "I'll try to hurry>"
It took them until well after sunset to get things straightened up, and by then, the rain had finally stopped, and the stars poked tentative faces out over the central village square. A bonfire had been built, and the villagers were sharing what little they had with each other, and with the Amazons. Hunters had added a good portion of meat to the communal pot, and a group of very tired, but almost desperately relieved townspeople were mingling with the leather clad warriors finding more in common than either group would have believed possible.
Xena kept herself a little apart, sitting on a pile of folded sacking to one side of the main group, and spending her time observing, rather than participating. The villagers seemed to expect that, and she found herself the recipient of many a respectful, awed glance.
Gabrielle was sitting with Levas, catching up over the past several years from the young woman, and the two were laughing as Gabrielle related something or other. The bard had removed her armor so she could work more comfortably, and was dressed in her quilted vest and leggings, a cute combination to the appreciatively watching warrior's eyes.
Aslanta came over and leaned against the barn wall at her side, silently observing for a few minutes. "These people are all right." She finally stated.
"Most people are all right, in little places like this." Xena allowed. "They don't want much don't need much just to be left alone in peace."
"Mm." The Amazon grunted. "Your hometown isn't much bigger than this."
"Nope." Xena agreed.
"I was born in Thebes." Aslanta rubbed her nose. "My mother was a slave there all I remember was dirt, and noise the townspeople there treated us all like garbage. "
Xena cocked her head and watched the Amazons interesting profile.
"Finally my mother had it she was a silversmith, and one night, after the guy who owned us came after me for some bed sports, she gutted him and cut his body open six ways.. left it to rot on the bedroom floor."
"And ran, I take it." The warrior spoke.
"Oh yeah she grabbed me and took off we went feral for gods four.. five moons before we happened on a tribe of Amazons out in the forest." Aslanta exhaled. "What a difference that was.. it was like learning to live again." She looked up. "I've always had a cold spot in me for townsfolk since then.. all proper, all absorbed in themselves.. and letting crap like that go on around them. But these people are all right."
Xena absorbed the information, then nodded twice. "Glad to hear it I think you'll be here for a while. I'll send another column up to bolster the force here..and Toris was going to start a sentry group up to set up watchfires when he got to the village."
Aslanta nodded in silence, her eyes falling on Gabrielle who had just switched into what was, to Xena's eyes, obvious storytelling mode. They both watched for a moment. "Y'know.. I don't get her.. is she a fighter, or is she a cleric, or what is she?"
"She's Gabrielle." The warrior let her head rest against the wood, holding back a smile. "She doesn't fit into anyone's expectations."
"Not even yours?" Aslanta added a grin to take the sting off the question.
"Especially not mine." Came the dry response.
"Wow.. I can hardly believe it.. that sound so exciting. Gabrielle.. you were right, when you left. You said we could all stay in Athens and tell stories.. you were going to go out and live them! And you did!"
"I guess I did." Gabrielle grinned, lacing her hands behind her head and leaning back. True, some had been tougher to live through than others, but still and all "It's been an amazing couple of years what about you? I thought you were going to stay at the Academy?"
Levas sighed. "It was the usual I was stupid, and got involved with another one of the students.. and had Jere." Her face showed mild regret. "The Academy convinced me I couldn't continue with my studies, not with a new baby, so.. "
Gabrielle blinked. "Wow.. did the baby's father come with you?"
"No." Levas shook her head.
"That's so sad, Levas you're a really good storyteller.. I'm sure they could have worked something out " The bard was upset.
The dark haired woman shrugged. "It's all right it's not that bad, or at least it wasn't, until those soldiers came. Jere and I came here and made ourselves a home. I teach the village children, and he has lots and lots of friends."
Gabrielle's brow was still furrowed, and Levas laughed gently. "Gabrielle you're such a crusader that's what I so liked about you. You were always ready to stand up for anyone."
The bard relaxed a little, and chuckled. "Yeah.. I guess that's true " She admitted. "That was the most amazing thing about meeting Xena, that first time.. because she had no idea who I was.. who any of us were.. she just got in there and stood up for us for no reason at all." She paused. "Up until that moment.. I thought I was the only person in the world who ever did that."
Levas glanced over towards the barn. "She's really sort of nice.. I mean, I was surprised. Not that I well, you know what I mean. She's pretty well known for being a ferocious warrior."
Gabrielle tilted her head to one side, and regarded her partner. Xena was in one of her grumpy moods, sitting over by herself in a corner, and sucking on a wineskin, her cloak tucked around her armored body. Aslanta was over there chatting with her, but the warrior's body language spoke of little but minor annoyance and boredom.
"She's a very unique person." The bard remarked. "I don't think there's anyone else like her."
Levas sighed. "No. I suppose not.. hey, listen so you never settled down, huh?"
"I remember you saying you were out there looking for your tree in the forest, remember? You said you'd never find that in Potadeia remember that?"
"Funny thing." Gabrielle eyed her with a wry twinkle. "Because you know what? I did find that tree.. and you won't believe it, but it was in Potadeia." She smiled at the look of astonishment on Levas' face. "Took me a while to realize it though."
"Really? But I thought " Levas looked at her, then at the Amazons, then at Xena, then back at her. Then her eyes slowly tracked back to Xena, and held for a few beats before they drifted finally back to Gabrielle's face. "Wow." She looked troubled. "I didn't that's so strange."
"Why is it strange?" The bard asked, with a puzzled frown.
"Well.. you're so different." She answered hesitantly. "I just can't picture you.. um " She shook her head. "Anyway I guess you aren't in to settling down and having kids, so "
Gabrielle half turned and circled her knees with both arms. "Maybe that's your problem, Levas.. you seem to think experiencing things like motherhood, and love, means you can't also have adventures, and make a difference in the world." She paused. "It's not true I have settled down, and I have a daughter named Doriana.."
"Excuse me, your Majesty." A soft voice interrupted them, and they turned to find an Amazon standing there, waiting politely.
"Yes?" Gabrielle tilted her head up in inquiry.
The woman knelt, and rested her hands on her knee. "Your majesty I know it's been a long day.. but these children could you maybe tell them a story? Just a short one? Maybe that one with the sheep those kids in the hospice loved it."
A sunny grin appeared immediately on Gabrielle's face. "Sure." She started to get up, when Levas grabbed her arm. "Hm?"
"Your majesty?" The dark haired woman whispered.
"Oh, well, yeah.. I'm also an Amazon queen." The bard gave her hand a pat. "Like I said.. it's been a busy couple of years."
Levas watched her go, walking across the firelit space with a powerful, rolling step and an air of confident good nature. Still puzzled, she shook her head, then sneaked a peek at the shadowy figure watching from the barn. Xena too, was watching the fair haired bard's progress, the firelight glinting off her pale, hooded eyes.
And just for a moment, the stoic mask fell, as Gabrielle turned and smiled and the warrior smiled back, lifting her hand and returning a small gesture which caused the bard to laugh, and shake her head, before she turned back and started her story.
It was one of her favorites, Xena settled back in her nest of sacks and let the familiar words trickle past her ears. She felt the edgy irritation that had been bothering her since before sundown slip slowly away and she consciously shoved aside the disturbing images haunting her as she allowed Gabrielle’s talented weaving replace them.
She’d always done that. Especially during those long, cold nights when she’d been taking her first, unsteady steps along the path to redemption, listening to the sometimes ridiculous words of the chatty girl she’d somehow let herself become attached to.
A clear picture formed in her memory, of a night deep in the forest, surrounded by tall, old trees hanging with quiet moss, the scent of green, and water, and earth all around them. A fire had separated her from Gabrielle, who was lying on her belly on her blankets, talking.
Babbling, really, she remembered. About their day, and the things they’d seen, and the people they’d encountered, her stream of words broken here and there by a question thrown out at Xena like an unexpected grasshopper. "And what did you think about that guy, Xena? Wasn’t he strange? He had these really weird eyes "
"He was blind."
"And he had this stick, you know, that he was what?"
"He was blind, Gabrielle. He was using the stick to find his way."
Gabrielle had digested this information thoughtfully. "Wow.. I didn’t even realize that no wonder he had to ask that merchant about the colors of the fabric.. I just thought he was having trouble with the shade how did you know that, Xena? That’s amazing he didn’t say a word.. I thought he.." She’d suddenly bent her head, peering at the ground. "Oh, wow check this out, Xena look at this caterpillar. I’ve never seen anything like it."
Xena had sighed. "It’s just a bug."
"No.. no.. I mean it.. look at this.. it’s so colorful.. Xena, c’mere "
She’d rolled her eyes, but she’d also sat up, then sprawled down in the other direction, so her head was much closer to the girl’s and she could see whatever the Hades it was that had her so interested. "Yeah. It’s a bug."
"Well yeah, but it’s so pretty." Gabrielle had gotten close to the insect, peering at it in fascination. "Look at those stripes and the tiny hairs.." She’d reached out a finger to touch it and Xena had only just barely stopped her. "Oh!"
"Really?" The girl had taken back her now released hand and tucked it under her chin. "But it’s so beautiful how could it be.. " Her open, green eyes had lifted and met Xena’s, only inches from her. "Dangerous." The last word had come out in a soft murmur, then the girl’s eyes had dropped, in evident confusion.
She’d been honestly surprised at that. "Birds eat them the colors are the bug’s way of telling them to back off it says.. "I’m dangerous. Stay away from me."
Gabrielle had reached over and gotten a small branch she’d stripped off the firewood and maneuvered the caterpiller onto it, then carefully stood up and walked over to a nearby tree, allowing the bug to squirm onto the bark of the lowest branch. Then she came back over, and sat back down cross legged, a look of intent concentration on her expressive face.
Xena had rolled over and settled down, glad of the peace and quiet. She’d gazed up at the stars as the fire crackled, and burned lower, hearing the soft rustling as Gabrielle laid down and tucked herself into her blankets.
Just as she’d thought the girl was drifting off, the clear, vibrant voice shattered the quiet again. "Hey, Xena?"
"Do the birds listen? I mean.. do they pay attention to the warning, and leave the caterpiller alone?"
She’d sighed. "Yeah they do, Gabrielle.. because they know if they go after that bug, they might get hurt.. they might even die. So it’s in their best interest to find a safer lunch."
"Mm yeah, I guess it is." Gabrielle had answered. "I guess that would be the smart thing to do, huh?"
The dark sky had seemed to fold down over her as Xena gazed up into it, even the stars appeared faded, and old. She’d had one of those moments, when the weight of her past had settled on her, pressing her down into the earth and making her question, again, what possible value this path could gain her. "That would be the smart thing to do, Gabrielle."
The fire crackled and popped in the silence.
"Hey, Xena?" That voice again.
"You know what I just realized?"
A sigh. "What?"
"I’d make a really, really lousy bird."
Xena had turned her head at her second surprise of the night and peered through the crimson shadows at Gabrielle, who was curled up on her side, one arm tucked under her cheek. "You would, huh?"
"Yep.. I’d go right after that caterpillar." Gabrielle had cheerfully acknowledged. "G’night, Xena." She’d closed her eyes and snuggled deeper into her blankets, leaving the warrior to the fire and her stars.
Laughter and applause drew her attention from her memories, and Xena lifted her eyes, to see Gabrielle backing off from the crowd with a light word, and turning to move in her direction. She tried to reconcile her memory of that young girl with the intense, self assured woman coming towards her, and sighed.
What if? It was a question she could never seem to stop asking herself. What if she could go back, to that quiet night before they knew what they would become to each other. Before all the horror, and the anguish, and the pain, before she'd lead Gabrielle down a dark path whose scars were still there, just under the surface of her partner's bright smile.
Would she change this? If she could go back, knowing what she did Would she?
"Ugh." The bard dropped down into the sacks next to her and tucked her hands under her arms. "I'm about talked out for one night." She studied her friend's face. "Hey you all right?"
"Yeah. Just thinking." Xena replied, putting the question away in it's sad cupboard for now. "Those kids really liked that story." She leaned back and spread an arm invitingly, returning Gabrielle's smile as the bard settled against her and gave her a quick hug. "So did I."
"Did you? I thought you were drifting there a little." The bard teased her, as Xena tucked her cloak around both of them, and shut out the damp cold.
"I was thinking about caterpillars."
A delighted laugh made her grin in response. "Oh..gods I remember that!" Gabrielle nodded. "Me and my curiosity I'm surprised you didn't let me just grab the stupid thing.. it would have served me right to get sick from it."
"Nah I'd have had to clean up after you." Xena put a finger on her nose and winked.
The bard groaned. "Do you know how embarrassing it is for me to look back to those days, and realize what an annoying little oh." Gabrielle licked her just kissed lips. "Mm sorry.. what was I saying? Oh yeah how on earth did you ever put up with me?"
"You weren't that bad." Xena reassured her.
"Yes, I was." Her soulmate chuckled. "I'm glad you gave me the chance to grow up, Xe. In case I never said it.. thanks." She found a comfortable spot and snuggled into it, yawning a little and pulling the edge of Xena's cloak closer.
The warrior rested her chin against the bard's head and blinked at the now dim fire, and the figures slumped around it, her eyes roaming over the village in watchful silence. She looked down at Gabrielle's blissful smile, and found, to her surprise, the answer to her question.
She would not change this.
More importantly, she truly believed, deep down, that Gabrielle wouldn't change it either. She tickled the bard's ear affectionately, and got a half lidded, green orb looking back at her in reproach. "I love you." She whispered.
Gabrielle's breathing caught, then she reached up and wound a lock of Xena's dark hair around her fingers, closing her hand over it. "I love you too."
Xena let her head rest against the wood, feeling the peace of their connection steal over her as she let it chase away the darkness.
"Son of a Bacchae." Eponin paused, and let her arms rest, holding on to the piece of granite she'd been scaling. "I can't wait for that kid to get old enough to start learning to spar, because when she does ."
"When she does, she's going to kick your ass just like Xena does." Solari poked her in the butt. "G'wan, grandma. Get moving."
Pony glared at her, but turned, and continued her climb upward, heading for the spot they'd marked as the crack in the cavern's ceiling. "Ouch." She pulled her hand back from a nest of briars, which waved evilly at her. "Watch out for that."
"Yeah, yeah." Solari grumbled, looping her climbing rope up and over another crack in the rock face. "I thought we've been good this month." The smell of wet granite rose strongly around her, and she lifted a hand to wipe the damp hair off her forehead.
"We have." Eponin grunted, sliding across the almost vertical rockface but finding a handhold. "Why?"
"What'd we do to get this little assignment, then?"
Eponin saved her breath for a moment, shifting the heavy pack she was carrying on her back that contained ropes and harness. "It's not punishmen ow!" She reached back and pulled a briar from her leg, glaring at it before tossing it down the cliff face. "Ep just wanted people she trusted up here."
"Great." Solari watched the briar bounce down, then shook her head. "We should be preparing for war, y'know."
Pony gave her a look. "Shut up, and just climb, okay?" She shook her head and looked over at the granite surface "We're almost there then we pull the kid out, and we're done."
"Except we gotta climb back down." The younger woman stated dryly. "With the kid."
It was quiet for a while after that, as they made their way up, finally reaching the gap in the rock face and looking down into it.
"Hey guys." Eponin leaned over the edge, and waved.
Dori spotted her, and immediately got up off her wolf rug and toddled over to the edge of the water, pointing up at Eponin with a tiny finger. "Bck!" The baby was streaked with mud, but looked otherwise unharmed.
Next to her, Elaini was seated, a little the worse for wear next to a pale looking Cait whose head was graced with a neat bandage.
"We can get Dori and Cait.. and Ares." Pony called down. "But we're gonna have a tough time with you, Lani.. no offense."
The forest dweller gave her a look, bushy golden eyebrows shifting over honey colored eyes. "Like I'd trust my furry butt to you guys and that rope." She snorted. "I'll swim out. You just get the rig down here, okay? This kid's hungry, and Cait needs some rest." She watched Dori dash back over to Ares, and maul him. The wolf looked over with a piteous whine. "You'd better hurry, before this damn dog loses all it's fur."
"Amazing, how that animal puts up with her." Solari muttered, as she found a place to wedge her supplies into, then rummaged in Eponin's backpack. She pulled out the long, coiled rope and the knit bag they'd rigged up, then dropped it slowly into the crevice.
Elaini waded into the water and reached one long arm up, snagging the harness, then walked back to the shore with it, to be met by a curious infant dragging a hapless wolf along by the tail. "Dori, no. Don't do that. It’s not nice."
"Mine." Dori piped, reaching for a bit of the forest dweller's fur to tug. "Grrr."
"Ah ah.. " Elaini reached down and snagged her target, lifting Dori up and cradling her. "You're gonna go for a ride.. .how bout that?"
Dori pulled a bit of her chest hair then smiled, gazing up at Elaini and batting her eyelashes.
"You know." The forest dweller glanced up. "I figured out why they made human babies so damned cute." She stuffed Dori in the knit bag, closing it carefully and making sure it didn't bind any infant arms or legs. "You'd kill em otherwise." She gave the rope a tug. "G'wan.. take er up."
Eponin braced herself, and started pulling, watching the small package come towards her swinging gently. She could hear Dori giggling and was briefly glad she didn't seem to share her mother's known fear of heights. "Hey, Dori . "
"Mama!" The baby gurgled, kicking and making the rope swing more vigorously.
"No no.. cut that out." Solari warned. "You're gonna smack your head on that rock, you crazy thing." She reached down and snagged the bundle as it came near, and pulled Dori's wriggling body up next to her on the rock. The bright, verdant eyes peered out at her with interest. "Okay hey, Pon.. you wanna keep her in this thing? Might be easier."
Dori scowled, then let out a yell, as she got tangled in the webbing.
Both Amazons looked at each other, and sighed. Eponin turned around and braced herself, then took the squirming bundle and unlaced the ties, stripping the rough twisted rope bag off of the unhappy infant. "There. Better?"
Dori hiccuped, then looked around with interest, spotting a hawk flying overhead and watching it in fascination. "Boo!" She pointed at it.
Eponin's jaw dropped. "No feathered way." She looked at Solari. "Coincidence, right?"
The younger Amazon held up both hands, distancing herself from the question. "I'm not going there." She turned around and started plotting a way down. "We'd better get her down before we start trying to get the rest of them up here."
"Good idea." Eponin turned and yelled their intentions down to Elaini, then she studied her armful of trouble. "Damn, she's getting big, listen, can you grab that sack of Xena's I brought.?"
"Mm." Solari fished through the pack, and pulled out the little fur carrier the warrior used when she was out and about with her daughter. "Here . Y'know, I heard Cyrene telling someone the other day she's the image of Xena when she was growing up I can't picture it."
Pony struggled to get the active infant into the sack. "I can." She grabbed a stubbornly flailing arm and stuffed it inside, only to be kicked by a surprisingly strong leg. "Boy.. can I ever."
"Bck." Dori protested, fighting her all the way.
"Well." Solari watched, muffling a grin. "She's got Gab's smile, that's for sure and her attitude."
"Yeah." Eponin growled. "C'mon.. Dori.. gimme a break here, huh?" She stood up and arranged the straps. "Now hold still ." She suspended the baby from the leather buckles, trying to guess the best way to get them on her, then swung Dori up over her head, preparing to settle the bagged baby onto her shoulders.
Dori loved swinging. She recognized the motion as well, and she got an arm out of her bag, grabbing hold of the strap and flinging her body into an arc that collided forcefully with the back of Eponin's head.
"Hey!" The Amazon yelped, feeling her balance shift forward. She moved a foot to recover, but her boot caught in the rock, and she found herself falling forward, her hands tangled in the straps. "Oh crap!"
Solari lunged for her, gettting a hand on her leathers as she tumbled, but unable to stop her fall. "Pon!"
Eponin knew she was going down, and she managed to get a hand free, fending herself off from the rocks as she fell, tucking Dori tight against her body to protect the baby from the impact. "Help!!!" She yelled, wincing as she bounced off a wet boulder. Her hands grabbed a hold of a piece of rock, but it broke under her weight and she continued to roll down. She got her feet under her though, and started using them to slow her descent, taking vicious shocks against her joints as she plowed down the mountainside.
One last bounce, and she twisted, sensing a landing spot just beneath her. She tucked her head down, and wrapped her arms around Dori just before she hit, seeing green and breathing a sigh of relief.
Just before she realized it was the briar patch.
"Pon?" Solari scrambled down with reckless haste, sending pebbles scuttling down from her path. "Pon?" She could see the dun colored form against the green, and cursed softly under her breath. "Eponin!"
A baby's cry made her go faster, and she almost pitched off the mountainside herself as she jumped the last bit, and got down to where Eponin had fallen. "Pony? Hey!!!"
"Shut the Hades up." A voice drifted to her. "Just shut, the Hades up, and go get Ephiny."
Solari stopped, and caught her breath, sitting down on a rock and holding it. "You all right?"
"I'm in the middle of a gods be cursed centaur stinking briar patch with a ton of Hades pretending to be a baby sitting on my chest pooping." Eponin bit out, in tiny, vicious sentences. "Now. Go. Get . EPHINY."
Solari bit her tongue really hard. "I'm gone." She promised, picking herself up and choosing a path down the rocks. She could already see the rain misted figure of her regent standing at the base of the cliff, along with several others. "I'll have her.. um.. " She edged out of Eponin's sight. "bring tweezers."
The sound of horses hooves clattered softly over the wet ground, making an almost subaudible drumming pattern that Xena found soothing. She glanced behind her, approving the neat formation of the two hundred mounted soldiers that were following them home.
That had been the surprise of the morning. A warning from the Amazon sentries had brought them up and in arms, mustering at the front of the village and expecting the return of Andreas troops.
Instead, who should come riding up but her old friend Palaemon
. "Hey, Xena!" He'd yelled to her, as she'd ridden out on Argo. "Hear you're looking for a few good men!"
"Oh yeah?" Xena had answered. "You here to help me look?"
But they'd both laughed, and exchanged clasps, as the soldiers gathered around them. Xena had introduced everyone, including a delighted Vidalus who had latched to Gabrielle and was busy talking her ear off several paces to Xena's rear.
They were almost back to the valley, and the rain had finally stopped, leaving everything a sodden green mess that sent a rich scent into the air. Palaemon's bay gelding ambled next to Argo, and Xena spent a moment to mentally count.
With the Amazons, the centaurs, the militia, Bennu's troops, and now Palaemon, she had close to eight hundred fighters under her command. Eight hundred, against four thousand. Xena exhaled, not liking the odds. What were the chances of getting more than that? The forest dwellers and Cirron were her biggest hope, but they were halfway across Greece, and Andreas forces now stood between where they were, and where she was. They could make their way around, sure.. but would they?
"Word's out, Xena." Palaeomon commented, resting his scarred hands on his saddlebow. "All over the damn place..the further south I came, the more I heard it, how you were raising an army to challenge Andreas."
"Well, it's true." The warrior remarked simply.
"Yeah I was in a small place just east of here and some of his guys came in.. posted that reward notice for you. Ten thousand dinars." He whistled. "That's a lot of money."
Xena just nodded.
"There was a bounty hunter there.. name of Bathscenius.. you know him?"
Xena felt a chill go down her back. "I've heard of him, sure." The man was notorious across the land, in fact.. he'd chased down some tough bounties, and had a reputation of smart swordplay, tough tactics, and an utter lack of fear.
"Know what he said to those guys?"
Blue eyes met blue. "What?"
Palaemon grinned. "Ten thousand dinars ain't no good to a dead man." He watched Xena's face for a reaction. "He told them if they knew what was good for em, they'd find some other bacchae in armor to hunt."
Xena chuckled, and shook her head. "Stories get out of hand sometimes."
"Ehhh.. not these kind. I kept on hearing whispers, off in the corners when his troops were around, about how you'd gotten right into his headquarters, and taken all his horses right out from under his nose true?"
The warrior waggled a hand. "Partly.'
Palaemon mulled that over as they walked along. "You've met him, face to face though?"
"Yep." Xena took a swig of water from her waterskin and washed her mouth around with it, then spat it neatly and accurately at a sunflower. "He's your typical monomaniacal military hot head, with delusions of being king of the world." She considered. "He's got a good organization, though.. his troops are disciplined, and know what they're doing."
"So I heard." The man commented. "I also heard he brands them that he's into the absolute loyalty thing."
The warrior nodded. "Yeap."
"And that he kills people who try to desert."
"I got that impression, yeah." Xena replied.
"Oh yeah." Xena looked ahead, to where the valley's entrance was waiting. She could see the tiny figures on the gate from here, and she lifted a hand, standing in her stirrups and waving it. She saw an answering wave back, then a high, ringing call. "That's the place."
Palaemon laughed. "You took over a whole freaking valley? Man, that's what I always liked about you, Xena.. you never do things halfway."
With a chuckle, Xena lifted a hand and motioned the troops forward at a canter, anxious to get inside the gates, and out of her drenched leathers.
Gabrielle dismounted, giving her gray mare a pat on the shoulder. "Good girl." She nodded approvingly at the horse, then straightened with a wince, using one hand to ease the knot tha that had formed in her lower spine. "You know what the problem is, Spooky?" She complained to the mare. "You don’t have nice, big, soft, leather covered cushions for me to lean against."
"Soft?" The voice tickled up her ear suddenly, and the bard yelped, jumping a little.
"Xena." She turned and glared at her soulmate, who was giving her one of those toothy, snarky grins. "Gods.. you haven't been able to do that to me in a while teach me to get distracted." She put her hands on her hips. "But it's true I wasn't nearly as sore on the way there."
"Oh." Xena was in a teasing mood. "So.. that's what I'm good for, huh? Pillow service?" She gave the bard's cloak a tug. "C'mon I'm in the mood for something dry and warm." She pushed her own, sodden hood back. "Wonder how much trouble Dori's gotten into?"
"Good grief.. we've only been gone overnight " Gabrielle laughed. "How much trouble can a ten month old baby get into, anyway?"
They left the new soldiers getting unpacked, safely in Bennu's capable hands and went inside the cavern, which was fully of busy people. They walked across the main area, and back towards the kitchen, exchanging greetings as they went.
"Xena?" Gabrielle finally said, as they were about to enter the food prep area. "Are we getting weird looks, or is it just me?"
Blue eyes darted furtively around the cavern. "No. .it's not just you. Wonder what's up?" She lifted a hand towards Cyrene, who spotted her coming and headed over. "We're back "
"Good." Cyrene put a hand on each elbow. "Listen.. we had a little situation while you were gone " She gave both pairs of alarmed eyes a grim smile. "It's all right now but.."
Xena felt a tug on her cloak, and she glanced over her mother's shoulder, to the entranceway. "What in Hades happened to you?" She asked, as Eponin limped in. The Amazon was covered, head to foot, in lurid red antiseptic stain, with a tormented look on her face. Ephiny came in after her sucking on her thumb, with her other hand bandaged.
"What happened to me?" Pony glared at her, getting redder by the minute.
"Hey.. siddown." Ephiny pushed her down on a bench, then ducked as her lover yelped and popped back up. "Whoops.. sorry.. forgot about that."
"Mama!!!!" Dori's voice interrupted, and Gabrielle turned to see the infant toddling towards her, in one of her soft, cotton tunics.
"Hey, sweetheart!" The bard scooped her daughter up and hugged her. "How are you?"
"Mama.." Dori flung her arms around her mother's neck and returned the hug, making little grunting noises of pleasure as she squirmed around in Gabrielle's grasp. "Bad nogo.. mama.. mama "
"Shh.. I'm here." The bard stroked her hair, and rocked her. "It's okay. "
Dori crawled up onto her shoulder and turned her head, blinking as she recognized who was standing there. "Boo " She reached out a grasping hand and Xena offered her a finger, feeling the strength of the baby's grip as she latched on. "Good.."
Xena smiled fondly at her daughter, rubbing the tiny fingers as she met the soft green eyes gazing up at her. "Hey.. were you a good girl?"
"No, huh?" The warrior chuckled wryly. "What chaos did you cause this time, hmm?"
Cyrene folded her arms, giving the watching Amazons a look that dared them to say a word. "Tell you what.. why don't we go back to your place.. and I'll fill you in." She suggested. "And get those wet clothes off."
"Everything go all right?" Ephiny asked. "The advance scouts said you left a force there?"
Xena looked up. "They surrendered." She stated flatly. "The soldiers vacated the place, and we took over.. I'll need to send a group of reinforcments up there."
"Surrendered wow. That kinda battle I like." Ephiny nodded. "I heard from Toris something about that, but we've been a little.. um.. busy most of the day."
"Did he get back all right?" Gabrielle asked Cyrene.
"You mean, what in the world did we do with the virgins?" The innkeeper shot right back. "They're in the hospice right now. I thought that'd be the safest place for them."
Gabrielle gave her an innocenter than thou bard look. "Gosh, mom.. you make us sound so..corrupted."
"Yeah." Xena had curled both arms around her partner's neck, and was resting her chin on the bard's head. "You did notice I sent them back here with the safest person I could think of."
"Come on." Her mother shook her head. "Let's get things straightened out.. now that you've added another two hundred mouths to feed.. I've got things to do." She headed out of the kitchen area, and they followed, stepping into their small chamber.
Xena stopped and looked around. The ground was still drenched. "What happened in here?" She looked at Ares, who was curled in a wet, resentful ball near the bed. "What happened to him?"
"Sit." Cyrene chose the chair for herself and waited for her daughters to take a seat on the bed. "Dori.. dissapeared, right after you left."
Blue and green eyes met, then went to the baby.
"We had the entire place looking for her not a scrap of luck until Cait and Paladia figured out she must have went somewhere from here and they found an underwater tunnel through that wall." Cyrene pointed.
The eyes went to the wall, then back to the baby.
"She got through there, and so did Ares the kids found them, but Cait got hurt trying to get back in here."
The eyes met, and dropped.
"Paladia managed to get out and get help.. Elaini went in there and put a bandage on Cait.. but there was no way to get the kids out, so Eponin and Solari climbed up on the outside of the mountain.
Both sets of eyes widened.
"And they pulled Dori out that way.. but something happened, and Eponin fell, and ended up in a briar patch."
Identical winces on two very different faces.
"Cait's in the infirmary with Paladia glued to her, Ephiny managed to get all the briars out of Eponin, but she's not going to be able to sit for while, and Elaini's lost some fur from the climb out, but she's going to be okay."
Gabrielle and Xena looked at each other for a long moment, then Xena got up and removed her cloak, draping it over a wooden crate and padding out. Gabrielle sighed.
"Have you two completely given up talking?" Cyrene complained. "I expected you to make her chattier.. not the other way around, Gabrielle."
The bard gave her a sheepish look. "I know.. but we've been together so long, and we just know each other so well, we don't need words a lot." She shifted Dori. "I know she's going to go see Cait, apologize to Eponin, make sure Ephiny's all set, check on Elaini, and get some lunch.. she knows I'm going to apologize to you, make sure Dori's okay, see what the status of the caverns is, and change my clothes so I don't get yelled at."
"So I'm sorry she got into so much trouble." Gabrielle stroked her daughter's hair, and the baby yawned, snuggling down on her shoulder contentedly. "I'm really sorry Cait got hurt I feel awful about that."
"I was just glad they found her." The innkeeper murmured. "I don't know what I would have done if they hadn't. I don’t' think I could have faced you both."
"You wouldn't do that to us, huh?" Gabrielle touched a tiny nose, and it twitched. "How in the world did you get into that tunnel, sweetie?" The bard looked up and sighed. "I guess this wasn't the best choice of places I just.. when I saw how open it was, I.."
"Wanted it for Xena." Her partner's mother finished for her. "It's all right, cutie. She just gave us a real scare." She cocked her head. "I didn't know Dori could swim."
"Oh yeah." Gabrielle rocked her daughter. "She loves it Xena taught her when she was I don't know.. two.. three months? You should see her in the big bathtub at our place.. she's like a fish." A pause. "Mom.. do you think she does it because she's mad we're gone so much? I mean.. she's active when we're around, but nothing like what just happened.. or what seems to happen everytime we leave her."
Cyrene sighed, and rested her chin in her hands. "Honey, I don't know. That could be a reason children are more sensitive than we give them credit for and you know she loves both of you an awful lot."
"We love her." Gabrielle whispered. She stood and went to the sturdy cradle, laying Dori down and tucking the blankets in around the baby's sleeping form. "She got lunch, right?"
"Of course." Cyrene laughed. "She's her mother's daughter you won't catch her missing a meal." That got a wistful smile from Gabrielle. "She's gotten spoiled, having both of you around so much most kids aren't that lucky." She thought about her own children, and the hours.. sometimes days they'd spent alone. Not because Cyrene wasn't a coscientious parent.. by anyone's judge she was, but life's demands sometimes forced you to make choices you didn't really agree with. Feeding her kids had taken precedence over playing with them.
Dori, she sighed, didn't realize just how lucky she really was. She had two very loving, very doting parents who cherished her, who played with and taught her things .and who occasionally had to leave her in the care of an entire platoon of anxious aunts, so they could go off and save the world.
Get a grip, kid. You got it better than most. "When she gets older, and figures out who her parents are, I think she'll apologize to all of us." Cyrene smiled "Especially when she realizes just what she has to live up to."
Gabrielle studied the peacefully sleeping form a moment, then rested her elbows on her thighs and gave Cyrene a look over her shoulder. "Funny you say that when we first found out I was pregnant we were discussing whether it would be better to have a boy, or a girl.. and I told Xena I hoped, for it's sake, that it was a boy." She smiled faintly in memory. "Because a girl would have so much to live up to poor kid."
"Maybe it would be better for her if she had a little brother or sister." Cyrene remarked, with devastating innocence. "I know they fight, but I always felt that Xena and Toris "
"Mom." Gabrielle got up and went over to her, putting her hands on Cyrene's shoulders. "How many miracles can I ask for in one lifetime?" A pause. "I think I've had my share, now." She hesitated, then walked over to the linen press, stripping off her cloak and laying it down next to Xena's as she unlaced her armor.
"Honey " Cyrene stood, and stretched out stiffened legs. "Sometimes the most incredible things happen when you don't even ask." She made her way out of the cavern, aware of the absolute stillness behind her.
Continued in Part 16
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