Standard Disclaimer: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, as well as anyone else who may look or sound even remotely familiar, all belong to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. All others are my creation. No copyright infringements were intended. Please do not change, modify, or mess with except at the express permission of the author. Merci beaucoup.
Violence Disclaimer: The level violence described within this story exceeds that shown in the actual episodes, and reader discretion is strongly advised if any of the episodes have disturbed you. It contains hurt/comfort, torture, and graphic descriptions of mayhem and their aftermath.
Subtext Disclaimer: This story is rated ALT as it contains two women who may like each other more than platonically if they can ever find the time to examine their feelings in the midst of everything else they’re dealing with. If that notion gives you the willies, please read elsewhere, but let me warn you that you’re probably missing out if you do.
Timeline Reference: This story takes places between Miss Amphipolis and Destiny.
Spoiler Disclaimer: Storms of War makes reference to the following episodes: Here She Comes… Miss Amphipolous, Return of Callisto, Callisto, Remember Nothing, Ten Little Warlords, Is There A Doctor In the House?, Cradle of Hope, Intimate Stranger and Sins of the Past.
Language Disclaimer: A) I used Canadian/British English. If that offends you, then you probably don’t want to know about Canada’s plans for world domination either. B) The characters utter the odd ‘Hades’ this, and ‘Tartarus’ that. Oh, and there’s one reference to horse manure, but I’m not going to tell you where it is. You’ll have to go find that one for yourself *g*.
Acknowledgements: I would like to prostrate myself in gratitude to the following individuals who helped deliver this story. To Kamouraskan, Morgane, and Temora, Extra and Spiritfox I offer my heartfelt thanks for the hours spent reading numerous drafts of the story, offering suggestions, and correcting my god-awful grammar. The cheque is in the mail. I swear. To Taleweaver, Roo, Paige, Hawk, Brisbane, Cath, VirgoEngr and the others from the Tavern Wall... thank you for waiting with incredible patience for each new chapter, stroking my ego, and offering encouragement to continue. Plus, your threats were very motivational and I like the shiny new shackles *g*. I hope the story was worth the wait. Thanks to Paige again for the creation of the very cool Storms of War graphic that graces my page. And, finally, to Squishy... thank you for accepting my obsession. You were always at the source of my inspiration.
All constructive and positive comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for taking the time to read this story.
Now prepare yourself, get a drink and settle in, for the story begins…
Gather to me, my dear friends
to hear my tale and how it wends
through forests thick and dark and wild
and through the heart of a woman styled
Warrior Princess, that you might see
what she is and may yet be...
O gather 'round.
The chakram slammed back into her waiting hand and she was already in motion before the last bandit had dropped his axe from nerveless fingers and collapsed to the earth. Her vibrant blue eyes snapped past the corpse to the bard who was kneeling bent over in the mud. The dark blonde was gasping for air, one hand pressed hard against her left side even as the other weakly supported her trembling frame. Closing the distance in rapid strides, Xena flung herself down next to her friend and peeled the bard's hand away looking for wounds.
"No…" Gabrielle wheezed. "Just... got the wind... knocked out of me."
Though outwardly she showed little response beyond her angry countenance, the warrior's heart pounded savagely, having nearly witnessed her best friend get hacked to pieces - again. How long am I going to let her keep doing this to herself? she thought, furious with herself for not having seen the bard go down until it was almost too late. I only looked away for a second. A second! And because of that, she had failed to protect her friend.
"What happened?" she demanded, her voice crisp as she gave a cursory examination to the other woman's side before scanning the area for more danger. Xena gave her attention back to Gabrielle in time to see her wince as the warrior’s long fingers quickly probed her midriff looking for more damage than the bard might be letting on. Bruising for certain, Xena decided, maybe more, but she doesn’t seem too hurt right now. Satisfied for the moment that the injury was not life-threatening, Xena crouched down next to Gabrielle. With one callused hand around the bard's waist she helped the smaller woman to her feet.
Gabrielle, with Xena's help, made her way around the bodies to a convenient rock off the main path. She hid her hurt as she felt the warrior pull away from the contact as quickly as possible, and took a breath before answering. "I slipped in the mud and lost my balance," she responded a little defensively, "then he knocked me down."
Once more Xena saw the downward arc of the axe; its fatal stroke aimed for the back of Gabrielle's head. "Dammit, Gabrielle, be more careful next time!" The harsh tone masked the deep, pervasive worry Xena felt, preventing her from showing the bard just how scared she was for her.
The younger woman ducked her head, her expression tight as she gingerly rubbed her lower ribs. Xena clenched her fists, angry with herself as she read the expression of sudden misery in Gabrielle's face. Frustrated, and not knowing what to say, she shook her head and went back up the road to collect Argo.
Gabrielle brushed the errant red-gold strands from her face, just catching the shake of the warrior's head as she turned away. Gods, she's so angry with me. I'm always getting myself into situations that she has to drag me out of. A wave of frustrated sorrow passed over her, as the pain and fatigue set in. This had been their fifth encounter in three days, and she knew the growing frequency of the attacks had the both of them on edge. She stared off into the bushes, listening to the returning bird song and the distant sound of Argo responding to whatever Xena had said to the mare. No doubt complaining to her about me, Gabrielle thought with morose anger. She continued her examination of the foliage and studiously ignored the sound of approaching horse and rider.
As Argo drew abreast of the bard, Xena smoothly dismounted and looked expectantly at her friend. When she saw that Gabrielle wasn't going to look at her, the warrior sighed in frustration and dropped to a crouch in front of her.
The hand that lifted Gabrielle’s chin was warm and gentle, contrasting sharply with the blood and dirt that covered it. The contact, so long absent after all that had happened between them, was a surprise, and the bard blinked at the warrior, uncertain of what to expect.
Concerned blue eyes met green, and they looked at one another in an emotion-filled silence. In the length of time they had travelled together, Gabrielle had been forced, for both their sake to learn, at least to a degree, to read the warrior in lieu of the words that were rarely spoken. She doubted that they could have lasted so long together otherwise.
"There might be more of them around. Are you ready to go on?" Xena asked flatly. I'm worried - are you okay? Gabrielle translated for herself. She nodded in response. "Do you wanna ride with me?" A peace offering if you'll take it, Gabrielle heard beneath the words. It was a chance to be close, to take comfort. But she couldn't… not yet. She was still angry, and hurt, and frankly miserable from the rigors of the last few days.
"I'll walk," came her brusque reply.
Xena dropped her hand as if burnt and walked back to Argo, and spoke with her back to Gabrielle. "Suit yourself."
"I'm fine, Xena." It was too late; Gabrielle knew she had inadvertently hurt the woman's feelings. Gods, aren't we a pair, she let out a weary breath, but I'm too exhausted to do anything about it.
But Xena heard the pain and weariness in the bard's response and cursed herself for not being able to express herself better. Cursed herself for not being able to tell even her best friend how much she cared about her. Xena prodded Argo into a walk and settled her own tired frame more comfortably into the well-worn saddle. Even as an expressionless mask fell over her face, she kept all her senses engaged on her surroundings and not the least of which were focused on the bard to make certain she was safe.
The early spring evening fell quickly. The day, clear though cool, was rapidly turning cold as the last of the sunlight bled away to the west.
Behind her she could hear Gabrielle stumble in the twilight and a mutter a colourful string of profanity that Xena seemed to recall hearing in the last tavern they had stayed in. The prolonged silence between them fell heavily on the tortured heart of the former warlord. Used to the nearly inexhaustible chatter, she was now bemused to discover herself craving the wild and entertaining meandering of Gabrielle's fertile mind. It preoccupied her for a time, filled her mind with pleasanter thoughts and made light of the darkness in her world.
The danger of the past few days was wearing hard on the other woman, Xena could tell. And certainly the tension between them wasn't helping matters. My fault, Xena blamed herself, but how to fix it? She considered their options, few though they were. She had been in this area a number of years ago, and though there was risk involved, it would be worth it if she could repair things between them. She slowed Argo and waited for Gabrielle to catch up along side of her.
"Hey," Xena called down to her.
"What?" Gabrielle answered grouchily.
"We can stop now if you want," Xena began.
Gabrielle let out a sigh of relief and immediately started looking around for the best spot to set up camp.
"Or, " Xena continued allowing a small smile to grow on her face. "If we keep going for another hour or so we'll be in Neapolis. It's a good-sized town with at least two decent inns. Dinner… a soft bed… maybe even a hot bath. Wouldn’t that be nice," She said as if to herself, appearing to savour the thought. She gave a wry grin as she heard something approaching a whimper from the bard, but made sure not to let the other woman see it.
"Oh, please?" Gabrielle begged pitifully.
"If you ride with me we'll get there faster," Xena pointed out, one eyebrow raised meaningfully.
Gabrielle eyed Xena's outstretched hand and then glanced up at the woman's face. Reading the good intentions there she grasped Xena's hand and reluctantly allowed herself to be hauled up into the saddle behind the warrior. She fidgeted around for a moment as she tried to find a comfortable spot on the back edge of the saddle.
"What are you doing back there?" Xena asked straining to look over her shoulder.
"Do they have to build these things so high off the ground?" Gabrielle grumbled as she took her staff apart and stowed it in one of their saddlebags. She felt rather than heard Xena snort.
"Just think of how nice a real bed will feel; it'll take your mind off it," Xena suggested. She waited for the bard to put her arms around her so they could get moving, but the silent stillness behind her alerted her to yet another downward turn in their relationship of late. Glancing down she saw Gabrielle's hands gripping the edge of the saddle and she tried hard not to feel the hurt that the gesture caused. Though uncomfortable about initiating the contact, she bit her lip as she reached back and drew Gabrielle's hands around her waist. Given how uneasy the bard was on horseback it was too dangerous to let the other woman have such an unstable seat. Her larger hand nearly enveloped the smaller ones as she held them in place against her midsection. Xena could feel Gabrielle behind her, stiff and uneasy in the saddle, unconsciously preparing to fight the movement as the bard so often did when riding with her.
A gentle touch with her heels against the pale horse’s flanks got them underway, and she encouraged Argo into a smooth, gentle gait. They were still quiet, but Xena sensed a slight lessening of tension between them as they travelled towards the town. She felt the bard give a soft sigh behind her and she patted the smaller woman’s hands gently. Ever so slowly the bard relaxed against her and a small core of happiness blossomed in the warrior's chest as she felt the weight of Gabrielle's head fall against her shoulder, and heard the deep, even breathing that signalled sleep. Such trust... how could I have ever become worthy of such trust? After all I've done? Gods, she wanted to weep.
Get a grip, Xena. She mentally shook herself. She, a former warlord who had terrorised half of Greece, had been turned into an emotional basket case by a bard barely into womanhood. I'm losing it, Xena decided in disgust. But, as the bard snuggled closer against the cold, she discovered that for some reason, she didn't feel that badly about it.
Something had changed.
As much as she wanted to ignore it, Gabrielle forced her eyes open anyway. And noticed immediately that Argo had stopped moving and Xena was stiff with directed concentration.
"What is it?" she asked her companion in a whisper as she shook off the last vestiges of sleep.
"Smoke; too much to be a simple campfire."
She inhaled deeply and immediately winced at the sudden discomfort in her side, but she caught the barest hint of wood smoke carried in the cold night air. What I wouldn’t give for a quarter of her ‘many skills’. "We're going to go take a look, right?" Gabrielle asked, already reaching for the bag holding her staff.
"Uh huh." Xena urged the golden horse into a brisk pace, mindful of the darkness and the hazardous road conditions. They were not long in search of the source however; up ahead and through the trees they could see the bright bonfire as it lit up the night. As they approached Gabrielle noticed the sudden clearing of land and a length of fence lining the roadway. The heat of the flames reached them even from this distance, as it became clear that the fire was far more massive than they first supposed. The blaze took on shape and form, revealing the framework of a small house and barn, both burning fiercely, and beyond saving.
Xena helped Gabrielle dismount before she jumped down herself. Argo, stolid as ever, waited calmly by the fence out of harm's way.
"Stay close," Xena ordered as she skirted the fire at a safe distance. Anything caught in the inferno would surely have died by now, Xena realised, as she searched for survivors.
"If you're looking for leftovers, you're too late," a bitter voice told them from the darkness.
Xena whirled and drew her sword in one smooth motion.
"We're here to help, not harm," Gabrielle said from behind Xena's shoulder.
The tall man who moved into the light of the fire was covered in soot. Runnels of perspiration cut through the smoke-blackened face and watery eyes gleamed with reflected fire as he looked passed them to watch the roof of the barn collapse with a mighty crash.
"Then you're really too late."
Xena sheathed her sword and slowly approached the man, noticing that his height was further accentuated by a thin and desiccated body. "What happened here?"
"The scoundrels came and demanded everything. The last of the winter livestock... gone. Grain... supplies... taken. What they didn't steal they burned. By Demeter and Athena, why?" his voice cracked. "It's not like farmers have all that much at this time of year, anyway."
"Did you get a look at them?" Xena asked, pressing for details.
"No, they came after dark, but they were pretty scruffy looking. But, the leader did have an eye-patch. A nasty piece of work that."
"We've had a fair amount of problems with bandits ourselves these last few days," Xena commented. "We could take you to the magistrate in Neapolis; you'd be safer than if you went alone. If it's a local problem with raiders we might be able to help, but it isn't safe for you to stay out here. Especially since..." She glanced back at the blazing ruins of his life.
"I'll agree it isn't safe, but there's no way that I'm going to Neapolis," the farmer said vehemently, shaking his head.
"Why not?" questioned Xena with a sudden premonition.
"Because those bandits have besieged the town."
The bard and warrior exchanged a long look. "So much for a room at the inn," sighed Gabrielle at last and turned back towards Argo.
"-so look, it’s not like I meant for this to happen, Gabrielle." Xena’s voice contained the unmistakable hint of anger at the bard’s articulately detailed, yet acerbic observations regarding their campsite.
Gabrielle took in their current surroundings which included a small rock overhang that would just barely accommodate them, their things which took up most of the available room, and a fire. A really small fire, mind you. Argo would be loosed outside as usual with no stable for her bed either, but there wasn’t anything to be done about it at this time of night. All of which being a pretty far stretch from what she had been promised. She looked over at the warrior and couldn’t help but notice the thinly veiled expression of irritation. The bard took a deep breath and tried to calm herself a little. She didn’t have the energy for a fight tonight.
"I know, I know. Even with your ‘many skills’, it’s not as if you could have planned this or anything." Gabrielle conceded finally as she tossed her bedroll down on the most even stretch of ground she could find after brushing away the pebbles. "Or did you?" she suddenly asked, attempting to work in a playfully suspicious tone into her voice.
"Hardly," Xena gave a bark of laughter, responding to the banter, stilted as it was.
"Right, so until you can, I won’t hold it against you. Though, for some reason, I wouldn’t put it past you to arrange an entire siege to avoid a large, crowded town." The bard smiled knowingly.
Xena rolled her eyes and felt the deep seated annoyance ease a little. "Are you hungry?" the warrior asked as she pulled their supplies closer. She fully expected to hear the impatient howl of bard’s insatiable appetite at any moment.
"No, I’m just gonna hit the sack." She paused, caught in the throes of a huge yawn. "I’ll do double duty on breakfast though, so you’ve been warned."
"You’re not going to eat?" Xena’s eyebrows buried themselves somewhere in her dark bangs, her voice registering disbelief. She went to the bard’s side and slipped her palm beneath the fair hair to rest against the younger woman’s forehead. "Are you sure you’re all right?"
"Would you stop that?" Gabrielle swatted the hand away, annoyed. "I’m fine." She went to lay down on her bedroll, and let out a sudden hiss of breath as she asked too much of her abused side. Xena was on her knees next to her in an instant.
"Roll over." Gabrielle could hear tone of command in Xena’s voice and decided not to argue. She rolled from her kneeling position onto her back on the bedroll and tried to find a comfortable spot. After days of hard travel and constant vigilance against attack, her muscles finally began to slowly and painfully unclench as the unrecognised tension was released.
Xena noticed the muscles in the bard’s jaw working as she lay back, and wondered if Gabrielle had sustained any other damage than her side. In the weak firelight she bent once more to examine the injury.
Time had served to provide evidence of it and she could tell from the size and colour that it ran deep into the muscles and was undoubtedly painful. She laid a hand gently against Gabrielle’s side and drew back almost at once. "You’re like ice! Why didn’t you say something?" Xena demanded, and reached to tuck the blanket around her friend, leaving only her midriff exposed.
"Xena, would you stop treating me like a child?" Gabrielle threw back sharply, her energy and patience at an end. She began grappling with the blanket in an attempt to free herself.
"I wouldn’t have to if you’d take better care of yourself!" Xena shouted in return, her normally rigid self-control in tatters. She reached again to probe at the bruise only to have Gabrielle turn on her uninjured side away from her.
"Just leave it be."
Xena stood, ducking her head just in time to avoid smacking herself on the rock overhang. She had to get out before she said anything more she would regret. The warrior turned abruptly and stomped out of their makeshift shelter.
"Where are you going?" demanded Gabrielle, lifting her head to see Xena leaving.
"To check on Argo," she growled and walked into the darkness beyond the firelight.
"Great," Gabrielle muttered as she laid her head back down on her right arm. "That's just great."
She pulled the edges of the bedroll more closely around her. Now that she had finally stopped moving she was feeling the undeniable bite of the cold air. She shivered beneath the covers as she turned her tired mind to what had just happened between them. It’s like we can’t say anything these days without starting a fight and hurting one another. The same thing day after day. And if we’re not arguing, one of us is giving the other the silent treatment or we’re just stiffly trying to ‘be nice’ to each other. Gods, it feels like we’ve been doing this for ages… at least, for a while now… If she were being honest she would admit that the tension had been present for some time before these unusually frequent encounters. For some time, in fact…
Since Perdicus… she finally, and somewhat reluctantly, admitted to herself. She hadn’t wanted to believe it, but it was true. And all of it is my fault. A wave of regret washed over her; for the loss of a husband she didn't truly love, at least not in the way he deserved, and for the ill-considered decision which had led to his death. And, further… perhaps most importantly, for this… distance… between her and Xena. When she left Poteidaia she was only looking for a way to escape the life her parents had tried to mould her into. The warrior had been her way out. She had never really expected to become friends with the woman who was once a warlord, and the most feared one of all at that. But, in retrospect though, something had drawn her to the woman from the moment their eyes had met in that clearing.
She had been amazed that a woman so independent and strong, brave and confident, could hide such depths of pain and vulnerability within. How many times had she witnessed the nightmares, and the impact that her horrific past had played in her present? Perhaps it had been at some point during those early months, when a small gesture had earned her one of those full smiles or a real laugh, that she found herself making persistent efforts to draw out more of the same.
That persistence had made small cracks in the walls that hid away the large heart Xena pretended didn’t exist. The wary tolerance had grown into warm regard and then deep friendship. A friendship that now felt threatened by a widening chasm of hurt and anger with seemingly no way across.
I left her. Abandoned her. Why did I do it? When he came along… it was like… he needed me. It felt so good to feel needed... wanted. I thought I could maybe help him. With Xena I often feel like such a tag-a-long. Maybe after I left she didn’t really want me back? After all; she doesn’t really need me for anything.
"Today just proves it." The whispered breath hung in her ears, and she couldn’t halt the overflow of moisture as a tear coursed down her face. What am I going to do? Because, may the Gods be my witness, I need her. She closed her eyes and curled tighter into herself seeking warmth to push back the chill in her soul.
Xena leaned into the currycomb as she murmured softly to the animal, and heard Argo nicker back to her in pleasure. The process of caring for her horse was soothing, and she allowed herself to drift for a while in mindless ritual. After a time she pulled the horse blanket over Argo and made certain that she was within easy reach of fodder before contemplating the opening to the small shelter. Unready to face Gabrielle, she pulled her sword from its scabbard and began undoing the afternoon’s damage. She shook her head roughly as, yet again, the unbidden image of a falling axe rose in her mind’s eye. It was over. Gabrielle would be fine, Xena reminded herself.
The whetstone in her hand made jagged passes over the blade as she honed the nicks and scratches from its surface. Had Gabrielle been present to watch, she would have known that the warrior was troubled in spite of the calm expression on the older woman’s face.
Did it again, didn’t I? Can’t find the right words, so I yell at her for it like it’s her fault. Stupid, Xena, really stupid. The whetstone scrapped shrilly against the sword and she winced as she inspected the blade closer. Like the blow from a weapon, betrayal leaves wounds. And scars too, if one’s lucky enough to survive. Take enough hits and it teaches you to protect yourself. She had spent so long protecting herself from others that trying now to open up was difficult beyond words. Even to Gabrielle.
But the bard’s sudden decision to marry and leave had awoken her to the depths to which she had been affected by her relationship with the chatty little village girl. The emotional attachment, which to that point had begun to turn her life around and heal a darkened soul, had rendered her so much more vulnerable than she had ever realised.
Part of her hated it, and wanted nothing more than to distance herself to avoid being hurt like that again, to avoid feeling that kind of loss as she had so many times in the past. And for a while now the warrior had done exactly that as she tried to avoid touching the bard, avoid sharing what small bits of herself were safe to know. But inexplicably, instead of making it easier, it only hurt more. The only thing she could think of was to send Gabrielle home. Walk away for good. Except… now it barely even seemed like an option. Having come so far from what she once was, losing Gabrielle was almost unthinkable. And the very thought of it let loose a slew of emotions that left her spent and wondering at the bitter sweet pain of it.
Xena clenched her eyes tight shut and shook her head to regain her focus. This loss of control of her feelings, and the uselessness of her efforts to keep a distance from the bard was terrifying in the in extreme. But, if something wasn't done and soon, things might be too damaged to go back. As it was they constantly swung back and forth between calm normalcy and vicious arguments. And the warrior could see how her long-standing reluctance of contact, even more restrained of late, was hurting the bard almost as much as the disagreements. We just can’t keep on like this…one way or another.
Too tired to work through her thoughts in any further detail, Xena wiped her blade down and sheathed it. The firelight was dying out, but her acute vision was by no means hampered as she headed back to the camp and her friend. She stood at the entrance, leaning her head on her forearm against the rock face as she looked in. Gods, what would I do without you? A sad but tender look played over the warrior’s features as she took in the form of the bard, curled up in a ball beneath her blanket.
Her intent gaze picked up the small shivers and the younger woman’s efforts to draw the blanket even closer against the chill. She had intended to simply grab her blanket and sleep near Argo but… Feeling the cold a little as well, Xena debated with herself for only a brief moment before coming to a decision. She knelt next to the fire and built it up slightly, lending more heat to the small interior before quietly removing her weapons and placing them within comfortable reach.
Then, in keeping with her nightly routine, she eased closer to Gabrielle to admire the play of firelight on her fair features and reddish-gold hair. There was something so magical about watching the bard in her sleep. The innocence and peace lay so evident on the youthful face, that Xena sometimes felt that she could almost remember what it might have been like to once feel that way herself. She reached out a hand to brush aside a few strands and for the first time noticed the trails of moisture against the pale cheeks. Crying… She felt her heart clench into a painful knot. Oh, Gabrielle…what are you doing here with me?
"I’m sorry, Gabrielle," she whispered. Hesitantly, Xena pulled her own blanket over and laid it on top of the bard before easing under the covers and next to the other woman. In her sleep Gabrielle sought out the sudden influx of warmth and turned to the warrior. Xena felt the movement and gathered Gabrielle against herself, wrapping her long arms carefully around her. With Gabrielle tucked up beneath her chin, she reached up one hand and gently stroked her hair. "I’m so sorry.. I never meant to hurt you, my bard." The whispered endearment was one she allowed herself only at night, when she knew the woman was already asleep.
"S’okay," Gabrielle mumbled as she rubbed Xena’s waist. "The baklava’s great, by the way; try some."
Xena grinned through sudden tears as she marvelled at the simplicity of her friend’s dreams. What I wouldn’t give to spend a night like that. Convinced her rest would be fleeting anyway she lay savouring the feeling of her friend in her arms, and was quite unaware of the moment that Morpheus claimed her dreaming.
She dreamt of a sunlit meadow, lush and colourful. A copse of trees circled this space and she breathed in the fragrant air with a calm serenity. The grass was warm and soft where she sat, and the few branches extending out from the others sent down patterns of sunlight to dance across her skin as the breeze rustled the leaves overhead. She was relaxed, far more so than she could remember being in a long time.
The trill of birdsong was distant, but welcome. And even when the dark cat appeared at the edge of the trees, she felt no alarm. The regard of those liquid blue eyes was palpable and she held out a hand toward it, palm up, in invitation.
She saw indecision in its posture and gave it an encouraging smile. One step at a time, the large cat came closer, stopping at the edge of the shadow, barely touched by the light of the sun. One paw lifted and slowly extended outward, hesitating, as if the light would burn. All else, even it’s eyes on her, were profoundly still.
Come to me, she urged.
And so it did. One slow step after another until it sat even with her in the grass, all sleek and sensual in its grace.
Without fear, she laid herself down against it, turning her face into its coat of short, black fur. The scent was of sunlight and spice, wildness and the animal with all its barely contained lethal strength . But, as she slide her arm over it’s belly she thought she could feel the faint rumble of a purr and she ran her hands over its pelt thinking of how warm and comfortable she felt. It was odd though, how its fur, which she ran her fingers over slowly, felt strangely smooth and smelled vaguely of-
"Leather," she mumbled aloud and felt a sudden sense of disorientation as sleep receded and discovered, much to her chagrin, that it was Xena cushioning her rest. Her eyes rolled over them both, observing the steady rise and fall of the warrior’s chest beneath her cheek with grave interest wondering, distantly, when this arrangement had taken place. Strong arms held her close, and in that quiet moment with dawn barely peeking through the trees, the bard could pretend that everything was fine. She revelled in the perfection of it, drifting a little yet between the lines of wakefulness and sleep, soaking in the moment. It was such a wonderfully peaceful feeling.
Gabrielle finally lifted her head a little and was further surprised to see Xena's eyes still closed, and her lips parted slightly in sleep. Gods, she most be exhausted, to sleep in later than me. This was the only time Gabrielle knew she would see this side of her friend, this softer, gentler, less fierce side. The side that would reveal the youth and beauty that lay within, adding a deceptive air of fragility to Xena's relaxed appearance. She didn't get this chance often. Rising before her friend and simply observing her in repose like this was a rare and treasured opportunity.
Gabrielle silently admired the effect of the early morning light against the woman's sun darkened skin. More than one scroll had been dedicated to capturing moments like these; but unlike the rest of her stories and songs, she kept those ones to herself.
"Are you done looking at me yet?"
"What!" Gabrielle twitched, startled by Xena's quiet voice. "I thought you were asleep!"
"I know." A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth, though her eyes remained closed. "You were mumbling and petting me."
A mortified flush rose in her cheeks. "I was not!"
"You most certainly were," Xena corrected her, not that it was an unpleasant way to wake up, but it was somewhat unusual. She lifted one lid in time to see Gabrielle bury her face in her shoulder, completely mortified. It was warm and cosy, which was all the more reason to get them both up and moving.
Gabrielle huffed and hid in the blankets. She felt the deep rumble of Xena's laugh, and the warrior’s arms tightened briefly around her. "C’mon, out of bed with you."
"No." Gabrielle pouted, and made no effort to move. She could almost hear the eyebrow Xena raised in her direction. "And you can go point that eyebrow somewhere else, 'cause I ain't movin' yet."
"Nope." Gabrielle burrowed herself even further into Xena's side, eking out whatever warmth she could before Xena decided enough was enough. She felt the other woman's hands move from around her back to trail down to her bare sides, hovering there, dangerously, beneath the blankets.
"Last chance, bard," Xena offered, a wide grin on her face, her blue eyes now open and twinkling.
The bard gave an answering smile, enjoying the long absent horseplay. She quickly weighed her options and took the opportunity for a pre-emptive strike. The move under blanket took the warrior by surprise and her eyes widened as the bard's fingers, already close, dug into Xena's waistline and tickled her unmercifully.
"Ack!" Xena jack-knifed out from under the covers and crouched beyond the reach of Gabrielle's hand. She watched through narrowed eyes as Gabrielle took the remainder of the covers and proceeded to cocoon herself.
"All the more for me," the smaller woman chortled.
Xena's notorious competitive streak flared to life. "Oh, you think so," she said, a feral smile growing on her chiselled face as she stalked forward on all fours. The sight of Xena crawling towards her with the same sensuously dangerous look as the cat in her dream made Gabrielle feel slightly breathless. Realising too late just how much trouble she was in, she tried to scoot away, only to be drawn down again by the vengeful warrior. Ignoring the bard's protests, Xena laughed outright as she straddled her and took advantage of her sensitive spots. Both Gabrielle’s hands were soon trapped and pinned above her head to prevent retaliation while Xena continued her torture.
An agonised cry filled the air as Gabrielle twisted away, stopping the tickle-fight abruptly. Xena froze for a second, startled, before grasping the bard's shoulders and easing her back down on the bedroll.
Gabrielle's face was a mask of pain, but she tried to wave her friend off. "Xena, it's okay; I'm just stiff."
"Uh huh," Xena drawled sceptically from her still straddled position. She looked down at her friend, lips pressed tightly together as she considered the best way to approach the situation. Okay, let’s try something different this time… "Would you let me take a look at your side again? I'm worried that it's worse than we thought."
Gabrielle looked up, and failed to hide the astonishment she felt. The Warrior Princess asking? Well, that's new, thought Gabrielle. The look of concerned entreaty on Xena’s face decided her and she lay back and tried to relax.
Xena pulled the covers back out of her way and shifted back, her knees on either side of the bard’s thighs. A low sound of sympathy escaped the warrior as she took in the deep bluish-purple bruise that spread from the left of her navel up under the green top. She spread her hand out over it, not quite touching, but close enough to feel the heat of Gabrielle’s skin beneath her palm. "Hades, Gabrielle, what did that guy knock you down with? It’s bigger than my hand."
"Well…" Gabrielle trailed off.
The tone of voice alerted Xena immediately. "What aren’t you telling me?" She strove to keep her voice light and calm.
"Well…" she started again.
"Well…?" the warrior prompted, her patience quickly running out.
"He kicked me twice, and I think he had iron-shod boots," she said in a rush, and looked up warily at Xena, waiting for the explosion of anger that would surely follow.
But Xena sat back and rested her hands on her thighs. A look of hurt passed through her eyes before she could hide it behind cold stoniness. The growing silence between them was broken only by the early morning birdsong and Gabrielle, taken totally off guard by Xena's utter lack of response, began to panic. "Aren't you going to say anything?" she asked worriedly.
Xena's eyes looked deeply into Gabrielle's own. "You don't you trust me anymore, do you? Because of what happened… you don’t trust me to look out for you."
The bard’s breathe left her in a painful rush; there was no mistaking Xena’s meaning. The words, spoken so softly and filled with such sadness, it wrenched Gabrielle's heart in response. "What? No." Seeing Xena’s expression crumble and feeling the warrior begin to draw away, she reached up immediately to grab Xena's hands tightly in her own. "Oh, Xena, no. You don’t understand. I do. I trust you with my life," she answered fervently.
"How could you? It’s my fault he died. I didn’t," Xena’s voice faltered, and she visibly collected herself before continuing. "I didn’t expect her to go after him. I should have. I should have." The older woman berated herself. Callisto had been intent on hurting her through Gabrielle, had taunted her with it, really. "I long to see you wailing over the body of your friend," she had said. Xena believed her, and had responded in the only way she could by protecting the bard, with her life if necessary. But, I should have known… it was just like her to do something like that. And it was-
"Your fault?" Gabrielle asked, unable to believe what she was hearing. "Xena, how can you think that? The fault was mine."
The warrior shook her bowed head in denial, the long dark hair brushing against the bruise that stood out so starkly against the lightly tanned skin. "I should have guessed. It was just like her. I should have known, but because I didn’t your… I mean… he died." Your husband, your Perdicus. Gods, what a coward I am… can’t even say his name. "I took away the life you wanted, Gabrielle."
After how many arguments on the subject that the bard had finally lost count, she now understood the thrust of the warrior’s guilt. So many times in the past Xena had tried to convince her that the better, safer life was as far from the former warlord as she could possibly get. A husband, a family, children, a stable life. To Xena, those were the things that Perdicus represented. And that Gabrielle had told her it was what she wanted was enough for the warrior.
So Gabrielle believed. But, only until after the ceremony. Seeing the look in Xena’s eyes the moment before the warrior kissed her brought the truth suddenly and forcefully to light, showing her just how much she would be losing. Of what she was walking away from. And realising, in a moment of such blinding clarity it hurt, that she would never see her friend again, no matter what Xena had said. It was over. All of it. The stories, the laughter, the horseplay, the quiet times that were theirs alone between the hectic and life-threatening moments spent helping Xena atone for her past. All the things that she treasured most in being with her, Gabrielle had thrown away.
"No," Gabrielle's eyes dropped to the hands she held in her own, and gently caressed the callused palms made rough by sword work. "I took away the life I wanted. That was my fault. Just like his death was my fault…" She trailed off unable to look at her friend. "I should never have married him."
"What? But why?" Xena interrupted, confusion in her tone. "You… you loved him." How could you love that farm boy? He was never worthy of you.
There it was. The question she had dreaded most. "I-I…" Gods, this is so hard. "I didn’t, I mean I did… but not… like… the way he deserved." You call yourself a bard? She kept her eyes downcast, absently rubbing at a spot of dirt on the back of Xena’s hand. She felt flustered and unaccountably at a loss for explaining her feelings, even to herself.
Xena, too, kept her eyes on their intertwined hands, watching the bard’s agitated behaviour. "Why, Gabrielle?" she prompted, sensing there was more.
"For the longest time I’ve just felt like… baggage. You kept telling me that this life is too dangerous and that I’d be better off without you. So each time we get into a fight, and I get the least bit hurt I wonder and… I worry... will this be the time that you’ll try and leave me behind because you’re too concerned I’ll kill or be killed? Or finally find a place to dump me because you think I'm too injured to keep up with you? Or because… I'm just too much of a… of a burden." Gabrielle's voice cracked with emotion and she blinked hard against tears. She rushed on seeing Xena open her mouth to speak.
"I know I'm learning... I'm getting better with the staff. But I still feel sometimes that I can't do anything right. You always have to keep putting yourself in danger to help me out. Look what happened yesterday. I just get in the way. You don’t need me. And when Perdicus came along, and said he did, it was… it felt… good to know someone felt that way… about me." She shrugged, the motion causing one stray tear to track down into the blonde hairs at her temple. "I didn’t… I just… I can't even imagine why you’ve kept me around as long as you have." Gabrielle got out before turning her head away and trying to pull herself loose from Xena. The warrior fractionally tightened her grip and did not allow her to break free.
Xena’s head dropped and she closed her eyes against the sound of pain in Gabrielle’s voice. Can’t you? Don’t you know? "Of course not," Xena whispered almost too softly for Gabrielle to hear. "How often do I ever tell you?"
The warrior swallowed roughly. The course of action was always her preferred choice, because she was good at it. But, the woman before her needed more than that. She needed to hear the words, and the voice that spoke them, in order to believe what was true.
Finally, she raised her eyes to look at Gabrielle. The look of panicked despair in those green eyes was tempered now by the faintest hint of hope. She felt the weight of that hope and wondered if she could find the words to put things back together. Xena took a deep breath and tried to think of where to start. "You’re my best friend, Gabrielle." She squeezed the bard’s hands hard in emphasis. "But, you’re also more than that. You’re the light I turn to that leads me from my own darkness. You’re my conscience when I falter or fail. I’m not sure I could have made it this far without you here beside me along the way."
She paused to collect herself, unused to the strain of being so emotionally exposed. "I know you get upset by how protective I am, but I can’t help worrying… about you." She gently pulled one hand loose and wiped away the tears collecting in the eyes of her unusually silent friend.
"I tears me apart to see you unhappy or in pain. If something ever happened to you…" she let out a breath as her hand trailed down the bard’s face to gently trace the scar at her throat, unwilling to finish. She leaned down a little then, and searched for understanding in Gabrielle’s eyes. "I won’t leave you, Gabrielle," her voice dropped to a whisper. "Once maybe… but, now…" she shook her head. "You’ll leave me only if you choose to go."
And the thought of that nearly made her heart stop. The bard had chosen to leave her before, hadn’t she? And wasn’t that was what had brought them to this? That’s unfair, and you know it, Xena. If you had just said something…her conscience railed at her. Say something. Now. Before it’s too late. Xena could feel her hands tremble a little and pressed onward before her courage failed her completely. "I… care about you… so much," she said trying to reassure the other woman, her liquid voice rendered husky from emotion. Not exactly what she wanted to say, but…
Feeling the sudden shakiness of her companion’s hands in her own and she clasped them against herself, holding them there tightly with one hand. The other hand left off its efforts to stem the almost continuous flow of tears to gently cup Gabrielle’s cheek, her thumb slowly stroking the fair skin. "And I couldn’t imagine my life now without you here."
And in the following silence, the bard reached up and drew the warrior down beside her. Arms grown strong with staff work enveloped her and held her close enough that Xena could feel the accelerated beat of the bard’s heart against her leather clad chest. Gabrielle buried her face against the warrior’s neck and went slowly, quietly, to pieces in total relief. Understanding Gabrielle’s need, Xena wrapped her arms around her and gently rocked them both. She blinked a little as her own eyes became moist before finally giving it up as a bad job and closed them completely. It had been rough going, and to think that she might have lost this… Turning her head to rest against Gabrielle’s, she let the tears trickle down her face.
In time the silent sobs faded away to a faint hitching breaths, but the pressure of her arms around Xena never lessened. Gabrielle felt as though a nagging weight had been lifted off her heart, and could hardly believe it; such an outpouring of emotion from the Warrior Princess was so rare as to be unheard of. The dispassionate and stoic face Xena turned to the world almost belied the possibility. "I thought you said once that you weren’t any good with words?" she whispered against the warrior’s shoulder.
"Yeah, well…" Xena shrugged, smiling a little. "You must be rubbing off on me. Don’t tell anybody, okay? I’ve got a reputation to maintain."
Gabrielle laughed softly, her breath tickling the warrior’s skin. "Right. Did you hurt yourself?" She asked jokingly.
"I’ve hurt us both," Xena responded, suddenly serious again. She lifted one hand and trailed her fingers through Gabrielle’s long hair. "I never meant to do that."
Concerned by Xena’s tone, she eased back to look at her directly. She lifted one hand and wonderingly traced the residual evidence of tears from the other woman’s face. "I told you; if there’s fault here, it’s mine. It’s-"
"It’s done, Gabrielle," Xena broke in. "We both made mistakes, it seems." Callisto, Xena knew, would have been thrilled with the damage she had wrought between the two of them . The blonde bitch couldn’t have done a better job if she had planned the whole thing out in advance. And thinking back to the mad woman’s role in the whole agonising situation, once again brought her blood to a boil, though without her actions things would have been so much… different… now. Xena shied away from looking to closely at her feelings on that score. She turned a blind eye to that dark part of her that might feel the least bit of selfish gratitude for the turn of events. Those emotions were shoved down deep, untouched, unacknowledged. The relief she felt in finally having her friend back was enough, she told herself, more in fact than she deserved.
"I’ve never wanted to hurt you, just as I know you would never deliberately hurt me, Xena," Gabrielle was saying. For a moment she bowed her head, before meeting her friend’s eyes once more. "But, thank you," came the heart-felt whisper. "I know that was hard for you. But, until now… I wasn’t…"
"Well, now you know." Xena pulled the bard to her once more and Gabrielle laid her head down against Xena’s shoulder as the warrior rolled to her back on the blankets and gave out a sigh. "I’m really not cut out for this heart-to-heart stuff…"
Gabrielle closed her eyes and smiled at the grumbling tone in Xena’s voice. You do better than you think, you know. I never thought, never expected, that you’d be able to touch me so deeply. Gabrielle, caught in the relieved rush of overwhelming emotion, nearly lost the thread of the conversation.
"-look at your side now?" she heard Xena suggest.
"Uh, yeah." Gabrielle agreed trying to catch up. "Okay."
Xena carefully extracted her arm from beneath the bard, and looked closer at the injury in the light of the rising sun. With careful fingers she slowly felt her way through the whole of the bruise paying close attention to Gabrielle’s ribs, feeling for irregularities that might signal a fracture or break.
Gabrielle gritted her teeth, and tried to concentrate on anything other than the necessary pain that Xena was inflicting on her. The sweep of her companion’s long, dark hair against her skin for example, or the contrast in shades of blue between her eyes and the morning sky…
"Breathe, Gabrielle," Xena reminded her without looking up. The bard gladly obliged, having forgotten the necessity for a moment.
"Right," she gasped. And winced. And gritted her teeth again, locking the groan behind her teeth. "Are we almost finished yet?"
"Almost," Xena said in a distracted tone. Finally, she lifted her hands away and sat back.
"Well?" Gabrielle asked pensively seeing the serious expression on Xena’s face.
"Well, I think three of your ribs are cracked. Which might explain why you have a hard time taking a deep breath. I’m going to wrap your ribs up pretty tight for now. I’d prefer that we find a place for you to heal for a while, but with all these attacks lately I don’t know that anywhere would be particularly safe. I want to make certain you have at least a fighting chance to defend yourself if I… can’t protect you." She still felt guilty for not seeing the bard go down in that last fight.. If she had paid better attention instead of playing with those last three thugs she might have been able to prevent this from happening.
Gabrielle heard the implied message, but given the emotionally draining morning the warrior had been through, she repressed the desire to ask what on earth Xena had meant by that statement.
"I should have told you, huh?" Gabrielle asked instead.
"You should have told me," nodded Xena. "Don’t hide things if you’re hurt; if I don’t know then I can’t help. And it could be more serious than you realise."
At that moment a low growl reverberated around the small alcove of the rock overhang.
"Stay behind me, Gabrielle!" Xena exclaimed, as she looked around, her hand going to her chakram.
Gabrielle leveraged herself up onto one elbow and smacked the warrior in the arm. "Oh, please! What do you expect? I haven’t eaten since yesterday afternoon." She watched a slow grin spread across the warrior’s features.
Xena laughed, feeling truly better for the first time in ages. "I guess I better feed you before you wither away to nothing, then." She wriggled her eyebrows at the bard and pulled the saddlebags closer as Gabrielle smiled in return. Xena rummaged through their things and extracted their medical kit. From within she withdrew several lengths of bandage and gestured for Gabrielle to try and sit up.
"Come on. I’ll get you wrapped up and then see about catching something for us to eat."
"Better make that several somethings," came the muffled reply as Gabrielle extracted herself from the green top. She felt Xena’s hands slide up her sides and help it off over her shoulder, preventing her from straining herself any more than necessary. The thoughtfulness of the gesture warmed her and she gave the warrior a grateful smile from over her shoulder. Applying a balm and wrapping the bandage took very little time, and before she knew it the warrior was patting her on the back to let her know she was done.
"There," Xena said, ignoring the warm tingling in her fingers. "All finished. It's gonna hurt for a while. I want you to take it easy as much as possible for the next moon or so." Or as much as our lifestyle allows, Xena mentally grimaced. "And stay out of any fights unless there’s no choice, got me?"
"Xena…" Gabrielle complained.
"No. Fights." Xena stated holding up a finger in front of the bard’s nose. "The last thing we want is for you to get involved in a fight, strain yourself, and have a rib to poke you in the lung."
The bard paused, mouth open, contemplating this vivid scenario. "Oh."
Xena watched as Gabrielle reached the same mental conclusion she’d already visited, and felt more confident that the younger woman appreciated her point. "Right." She then gestured to the waterskins sitting near their bags as she grabbed her armour and weapons. "Would you mind getting the fire going again, and maybe boiling some water? I’d like some tea with whatever we end up eating." At Gabrielle’s nod, she made to leave, but paused. "I’ll stick close by in case you need me for anything, okay?"
"I know," Gabrielle answered with a soft smile and gave the warrior a shooing motion. "Get moving now, or I'll starve to death before you get back."
Xena rolled her eyes and walked out of the shelter. "Imperious chit."
"Flattery will get you no where," Gabrielle called back affectionately. She watched the other woman shake her dark head and stride into the trees before turning her attention back to the fire.
"So what are we going to do about Neapolis?" Gabrielle finally asked as she chewed on the last of her fish. "I assume that we’re doing something since you haven't made any move to load up Argo."
Xena put her plate aside and reclined against the rock wall. "I want to scout out the area first - see what the brigands’ camp looks like."
Gabrielle noticed the frown of concentration on Xena's face and tilted her head to one side. "What else?"
A corner of Xena's mouth turned up in acknowledgement of how well Gabrielle knew her mind. Her hands idly trailed over the rock floor picking up pebbles and tossing them into the grass. "It doesn't sound right. Burning farms, sure, but sieges? Road bandits generally aren't that bold and numerous - or organised. Neapolis is a walled town, Gabrielle, and given its position near the mountains it’s fairly defensible." Xena shook her head again. "No, there's something else going on. A new warlord or something."
"You sound as thought you know the place. Have you been there before?"
Gabrielle ‘s eyes watched as Xena’s face abruptly shuttered itself against further discussion on the topic. But she needed to know. "With an army?"
Xena’s silence warned to leave well enough alone.
"So when are we going?" Gabrielle asked aware that it was time to change the direction of the conversation. And given their soul-baring discussion this morning she wasn't about to let Xena leave her somewhere.
Xena gave her a sharp look, her blue eyes drilling into the bard. She had already thought this through while standing knee deep in a bone-numbing stream nearby. Given Gabrielle's injury and the fact that roaming thugs seemed to be everywhere lately, she couldn't, no matter how badly her heart screamed at her, leave the bard behind. Rib fractures could be tricky; not too much abuse and they'd break. The vision of Gabrielle suffering from a punctured lung and internal bleeding was enough to make her shudder. No, as much as I hate to admit it she'll be better off with me, Xena conceded. And given my sterling effort this morning there's no way she'd stay behind without a fight anyway.
"We'll wait until almost dusk and then take an indirect route to the town through the woods. We're pretty close now so it won't take long to get there."
Gabrielle felt a warm little glow at being included. She set her own plate aside as she pulled up her blanket against a small chill and gave a contented little noise. Injured ribs aside, this was the best she'd felt in days. "So, in other words, we have the whole day to just sit here and… relax?" She plastered an amazed look on her face as she regarded her friend. "Do you even know how to do that?"
"Don't you start," Xena raised a mock-glare at Gabrielle's giggle. Can't even intimidate a bard anymore. She pulled out her sword and began a thorough examination of its edges. From the look of the blade, last night's efforts were pretty ragged indeed. Must have been a little more distracted than I realised. I’m losing it, Xena thought wryly to herself. Out of the corner of her eye she watched as the bard retrieved her scrolls from their pack and settled herself more comfortably against the side of Argo's saddle, her blanket pulled snugly up under her arms. Quill in hand, she quickly lost herself in whatever story of their adventures she was just getting around to chronicling.
Though the words came sparingly, Xena was inordinately proud of her friend's abilities. To be able to create stories and touch others in such meaningful ways was a source of some gentle envy, though admittedly she could wish the bard would use different subject matter sometimes. She had lost count of the number of times Gabrielle's gift had comforted the bereft or injured, sharing her stories and bits of wisdom, to distract and to teach and to bind those in need together. Xena knew she could stitch a wound, or rebuild a home, but felt she could never reach people the way that this woman did. Her open love of people and her genuine caring drew them in and they couldn't help but love her in return. Who wouldn’t? She must have friends in almost every village we've ever been through. Her attention was drawn back to the sound of the bard's quill scratching rapidly across the scroll.
After the long silences and thick tension between them, the subtle shift back to comfortable camaraderie was all the opening she needed to prod the bard into chattering at her again. "Whatcha workin’ on?" she asked as her hand on the whetstone slowed.
"Just getting a few things down from the Miss Known World Contest,"Gabrielle answered, never taking her eyes off the page. "And don't worry; I'll think of another title," she added cheekily.
"Will I like the new one any better than 'Queen for a Day'?"
Gabrielle just chuckled evilly and winked at the warrior from over the top of the scroll. "Don’t suppose you’d like to hear what I’ve worked out so far?" the bard offered, a little timidly.
The expression of casual interest disguised the elation she actually felt as she responded, "Sure, go ahead." And with minimal success suppressed a tiny smile at the pleasure on Gabrielle's face.
The bard’s voice was like water and honey; both life-giving and nourishing to the parched soul of the warrior. At the mention of ‘Miss Artifice’s’ kiss, Xena let out a good-natured groan and went back to her sword. She supposed there were worse fates that being story fodder for a bard.
Gabrielle knew she was in trouble when the warrior began to fidget. Ever an active person, Xena was wholly incapable of sitting still unless it meant taking out an enemy. And then she could sit for hours without moving a muscle, Gabrielle knew and was continually amazed at the dichotomy.
Here it was, only early afternoon, and Xena had already sharpened her sword, polished her chakram, brushed her horse, oiled her saddle, cleaned her armour and leathers, stitched a loose part of a bracer, caught enough fish to satisfy even the bard’s hunger, and rearranged the camp for increased comfort if not aesthetic taste. And was now eyeing Gabrielle and fingering her chakram in what the bard felt was a most disturbing fashion.
"Don’t you even think about it," Gabrielle warned her.
"What?" Xena asked with an innocent upsweep of her eyebrows.
"You know exactly what. And if you fling that over-sized bracelet in my direction Warrior Princess, I’m gonna make you eat it." Gabrielle shifted against the saddle, and eyed Xena suspiciously as the other woman grinned. "The last time you got this bored you nearly sheared my hair off with that thing."
"You exaggerate. It was only a couple of strands."
"Let me tell you a story instead," Gabrielle offered.
Xena flipped the chakram in the air, and caught it loosely in one hand with a sigh. "Get your staff ready," she responded casually.
So casually in fact that Gabrielle could only stare and blink at her for a second before processing the quiet request. She leaned nonchalantly to one side where she had laid her weapon between herself and the wall, and placed her hand firmly against the wood. She looked back over to her friend and waited for some sort of signal. "Or, how about a poem instead, then?"
"Yeah, five or six of them would be nice. You can sit for a while and just entertain me." Xena thumbed the edge of the chakram and gave all the appearance of inspecting it for dirt. Blue eyes lifted to meet green, and saw Gabrielle nod in response.
"Sure, I can do that," Gabrielle answered, hearing the message clearly. She tightened her grip and the staff and felt her muscles tense in anticipation, her heart rate already on the rise. Across from her Xena suddenly exploded out from beneath their shelter, her war cry splitting the air as her arm snapped out and released the chakram in a sharp, lethal arc.
The spinning disc ricocheted off a rock and angled into the bushes. A scream was heard before a body fell through the foliage and landed heavily in a patch of sun-covered grass. More raiders moved through the underbrush, weapons raised.
"Look what we got here, boys?" An eye-patched thug looked Xena up and down. "She plinked Gerius. Must think she’s a man." He bellowed his laughter to his mates, unconcerned by the body cooling in the afternoon light.
"I imagine people make the same mistake about you," Xena responded, her voice silky smooth. Her eyes became back-lit with a dangerous fire.
"Bitch!" Eye-patch spat and swung his large sword easily in one hand as he approached. His companions edged out attempting to flank her. Though her eyes never left Eye-patch, she was intensely aware of the other four men as they pressed in. Her protective instincts rose to the fore, knowing that Gabrielle wasn’t up to this fight. Best to take him out fast, before the others get too cocky.
Eye-patch looked over her shoulder and caught his first good glance at Gabrielle who held a defensive posture near the shelter. "Whooee, look there boys; we got us a sweetmeat. She sure is a pretty thing," he said to Xena with a wink. "Bet she can warm those blankets real well."
Without blinking an eye, Xena ripped her breast dagger free and flung it with deadly and unerring force. He was still blinking with the dagger stuck in his windpipe before he realised that he was dead.
Two down, Xena noted with satisfaction as he fell to the ground. "You boys wanna play, too?"
In response, the raiders charged in together, swords and daggers at the ready. She leaned under the first swing and came up with an elbow in the man’s face. His nose crunched wetly and he dropped his weapons to stem the flow of blood pouring down his face.
Xena turned on her next attacker as he attempted to impale her through the chest. She twisted aside narrowly avoiding the blade as the third bandit entered the fray. Throwing caution and his life to the Fates, the third man tackled her in her moment of imbalance and bore her roughly to the ground. The breath was driven from her as the man leaned all his weight into her upper body. The bandits pounced on her and Xena could barely hold off the rain of blows. She growled her anger and gave back as good as she got; a well placed kick threw one of them off, but the other two continued their assault.
Gabrielle moved the moment Xena hit the ground. The man Xena had knocked away became aware of her presence behind him too late. She laid the staff hard across the back of his head before he turned to engage her. His eyes rolled back, and he crumpled silently to the ground. She gasped a little for breath, beginning to feel the constraints of the tight binding. Fear for Xena’s life pushed her to disregard the order to stay out of the fight and she never slowed as she drew closer to the pile of writhing bodies in the grass. The man with the bloodied nose glared at her through streaming eyes and picked up his sword.
"Just where do you think you’re going?" he demanded in a nasal voice over the shouts and swearing erupting from his compatriots.
"You’d better get out of here while you still have a chance," Gabrielle warned, approaching cautiously. She watched out of the corner of her eye with some relief as Xena flipped one of the attackers over her body and then laid into the one remaining on top of her. Xena wrestled herself to her feet and delivered a roundhouse kick to one before slamming a fist back into the throat of the other. She still hadn’t drawn her sword yet.
He glanced over his shoulder and wondered how things had moved so out of control so fast. Angry at being humiliated by a woman, he turned back to Gabrielle. "Maybe I’ll just take you out before I go!" He came for her, sword in one hand and a long knife in the other. Gabrielle brought the staff up across her body and waited for her attacker to close with her. He brought the sword down through an overhead swing, its passage so swift it hummed as it clove the air. She whipped the left end of the staff up, turning side ways to deflect the blade away and then brought the other end across his already crushed nose. Blood fountained over the both of them. Even blinded by pain the man still came back at her, swinging the knife wildly in hopes of connecting. Panting with the exertion she snapped the staff against his forearm, and the knife went flying. Can’t breathe, her mind panicked as she started hyperventilating. Eager to end this, Gabrielle brought the staff up between his legs. The agonised scream climbed in pitch and doubtless would have continued until he was breathless if she hadn’t put him out of his misery with a solid backhanded blow to the head.
Sudden dizziness staggered her and she had to lean heavily on her staff to remain upright. With one hand pressed tightly against her ribs she watched the remaining bandit try to land a blow. Xena moved gracefully through his desperate swipes, darting in and away with a well-placed kick or punch. A flurry of close movement between the two, a gasp of shocked pain, and the fight was over.
Xena stood breathing hard as the man fell from her grasp and slid down her side into the dirt. Gabrielle didn’t look away quickly enough before seeing the gapping wound in his throat. Shaking herself, as if from a dream, Xena turned to look for Gabrielle. The bard knew the blood covering her would be the first thing she would see as Xena strode quickly to her and her eyes roamed over her searching for wounds.
"Are you hurt?" Xena asked, her voice calm though her heart raced at the sight of the blood splattered across her face and chest. The unbidden reminder of Thessaly was a little too vivid and she reached out to touch Gabrielle, to reassure herself that the bard was with her. "I thought I told you to stay out of the fight."
Gabrielle swayed a little, still feeling somewhat breathless but, mindful of their discussion this morning, Gabrielle tossed aside any notion of hiding her discomfort. "Please… untie it." Xena decided to forego her lecture and instead took hold of Gabrielle and slowly helped her friend to the ground. The ties on the front of Gabrielle’s top were quickly undone and the knot holding the bandages tight around her chest loosened. Pulling them free, the bard sighed and lay back in the grass, already feeling her breathing come easier.
"Is that helping?" Xena asked, her brow furrowed in concern. The warrior wiped her hands on the grass to rid herself of the worst of the blood and then slid them beneath the slack cloth and gently checked for more damage.
The warm fingers incited a mixed reaction from the bard and Gabrielle quickly wrapped her hand around Xena’s wrist and firmly drew it back. "I’m okay, now. It was just a bit too tight during the fight. Couldn’t get enough air." As she raised her head to look at Xena her eyes widening as she became aware of the extent of the blood covering her friend. "Is any of that yours?"
"Huh?" She glanced down at herself and suddenly became aware of the gore liberally covering the rest her body. "Oh. Um… no, not really."
"Not really?" Gabrielle pressed, looking closer. "What's this?" She pulled the warrior around so she could get a closer look at a gash across her right thigh.
"One of them got lucky during the pile-on. Don't worry about it," Xena told her. She glanced about the clearing, checking once again for more raiders.
"I want to clean that up, Xena. It looks as though it might need a couple stitches," Gabrielle pointed out. A couple was a slight understatement; it looked deep and was bleeding freely. If these fights kept up much longer they were both going to be in a world of hurt, the bard noted grimly.
"We’ll look after it later; right now we have to get out of here. Get your stuff together while I break camp and grab my weapons. We’ll head to the edge of town now instead of later. They might have more patrols out and this bunch will be coming around soon."
Breaking camp was a quick exercise in efficiency born of long practice between the two women. In a matter of minutes, Argo had been saddled, re-loaded, and was ready to travel. Xena finished tightening the girth to Argo’s saddle and then gestured for Gabrielle to join her. She handed Gabrielle her cloak as she donned her own. "I want you to ride with me," Xena said quietly. Then, seeing the bard on the verge of arguing, used the only non-violent weapon she could think of that was likely to get the bard to agree without a prolonged discussion in committee: "Please?"
Gabrielle’s immediate feelings of opposition to the idea crumbled in a limp heap beneath the strength of those imploring blue eyes. How did she do that? She wondered in amazement as her resistance broke. "Well…" she tried to appear to consider it while she recovered her composure. "Only if I can ride in front for a change."
Xena smiled to herself as she watched Gabrielle succumb to her ploy. "What a hardship," she muttered under her breath as she turned to adjust a stirrup.
"What did you say?" Gabrielle asked leaning closer.
"Yes, your bardship," Xena repeated erroneously. "Let me re-tie the bandage and then we leave."
Minutes later, Gabrielle was firmly ensconced in the saddle, obviously enamoured with the novelty of having a view that wasn't confined to the warrior's broad shoulders and scabbard. Novel enough, that for the moment her ever present aversion to heights was forgotten as she took in the sights from a better vantage point.
"Gabrielle, would you stop fidgeting?" the warrior demanded in some exasperation, as the smaller woman wiggled about in the tight space between the saddle horn and Xena’s front. Which was causing her far more distraction than she was willing to deal with right now. She snaked an arm around Gabrielle’s middle and pulled the bard against her firmly. "Now stay still; we’ve got to go."
"But, Xena…" The bard was cut off as Xena urged Argo into a quick run. The warrior was eager to put distance between themselves and their most recent adversaries. The constant fighting was really beginning to wear on her. She clenched her jaw against the pain and fatigue, and tried to keep her mind off it by turning her thoughts towards Neapolis.
Gabrielle rubbed at the rust coloured patch where her thigh met Xena’s; the blood covering them had long since congealed, pulling the skin taut and making it itch. The untended wound had bled freely, and the seepage was causing a slick stickiness between them. It never ceased to amaze her how Xena could throw herself into the thick of trouble (as she usually did), endure who knew how many injuries (because the Gods knew the woman would rarely tell her), and never say a word (though that was hardly new).
It had taken her quite some time to discern the difference between the ‘I’m-not-interested-in-talking’ silence and the ‘I’m-in-too-much-pain-to-put-up-with-any-nonsense-so-would-you-just-shut-up’ type of quiet. At the beginning of their partnership she had spent evenings on end tip-toeing around the campfire, seemingly unable to avoid setting off Xena’s temper, which, given her brevity, was usually a soul-withering glare or a half snarled grunt. The tight discipline with which the older woman carried herself had become long ingrained as a measure of self-preservation. Weakness in a warlord meant a short life span, and after ten years, Gabrielle could understand how an old habit could be hard to break. The body behind her was rigid, and tense, and she felt as though she was being held against a rock. Well, a warm rock, but that was beside the point.
"You know, Xena," Gabrielle began quietly, "that bit this morning about telling you when something is wrong could probably work both ways."
"I did tell you," Xena’s warm breath tickled her ear as she leaned into her friend, "and we can take care of it later; it’s almost stopped bleeding anyway." She felt the bard shiver against her. "Are you cold?"
Um, not exactly. "Don’t change the subject. I know what you said. But, Xena, would it be such a difficult thing to admit that you hurt?"
"I’m fine," came the terse reply.
"You’re not… I can feel it." She laid a hand on Xena’s left thigh feeling the tightness of the muscle beneath the skin.
The hand against her stomach clenched briefly before relaxing. "Drop it, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle sighed, and briefly debated pushing the issue. But she’s got enough on her mind right now. And who knows when more raiders will suddenly appear? Given what she does, is it any wonder that she doesn’t let her guard down? Those walls have been so long in the making…
…I just hope it doesn’t take as long to bring them down…
Patience, Gabrielle reminded herself.
The afternoon light was finally beginning to wane as they neared the edge of the woods just west of Neapolis. To avoid detection by any patrols, Xena insisted they hang back from the edge of the bare and leafless forest, and finding shelter against a thick tangle of bushes. Xena slid off Argo’s back before helping Gabrielle to do the same. Gabrielle groaned quietly as her feet hit the ground, and swayed slightly until her legs stopped tingling. A warm hand on her shoulder steadied her. Looking up she noticed Xena scanning the area, eyes constantly in motion.
"Do you see anything?" Gabrielle whispered, as she moved her hands to a more comfortable position on the length of her staff. The warrior shook her head.
"No," she answered in a quiet tone. "But that doesn’t mean that something’s not there." She reached past Gabrielle to lift a waterskin off Argo’s saddle and took a moment to drink deeply. "No fire tonight," she informed the bard as she offered her the water. Gabrielle leaned her staff on the crook of one arm before taking the skin. No fire, no hot food, cold, cracked ribs, blood covered and dirty beyond belief… And I wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the world, Gabrielle realised. She was where she wanted to be. Her eyes tracked to the warrior who stood a few feet away, hands on her hips, surveying their surroundings with an intense expression on her beautiful face. What little twilight managed to filter through the trees painted her in a grey half-light, hiding one half of her features in shadow while emphasising the angular cut of her face, and bringing out the glint of her fierce blue eyes. Making her seem…panther-like… It’s n o wonder she can intimidate people on sight, thought the bard as she tried to see the warrior as if for the first time. The strength of her presence, combined with the blood and grime covering her, fashioned Xena into a picture of mayhem and destruction made flesh. Good thing it doesn’t work on me anymore.
"Hey," Gabrielle said drawing the warrior’s attention to her. The frown of concentration eased as Xena focused on her. "Why don’t you take a break for a moment and let me look at that cut of yours?"
"Not now, Gabrielle." She could hear the distraction in Xena’s voice as she turned back to studying the woods.
"Alright. If not now, then when?" Gabrielle persisted. "We’ve got a safe couple of minutes here. It won’t take that long. And besides, if you’re planning on scouting out the town, it would hardly do to leave a trail of blood for them to follow like breadcrumbs, now would it? I mean-"
"-who knows when the next bunch of lunatics are going to jump out of the bushes and-"
"-try to do us in-"
"Alright," Xena repeated with an exasperated sigh.
"Oh, good." I love to win. She kept her face pleasantly neutral as the medical kit was pulled out of their bags for the second time that day. She also unloaded their bedrolls and unfurled one onto a fairly even patch of ground. "Here. Why don’t you lay back and take it easy?"
With every joint in her body aching Xena stretched back on the blanket and tried not to give in to just how good it felt to be prone and unmoving for a change. She bit back the sigh of relief and put one arm behind her neck as a headrest. Though still, her eyes followed Gabrielle’s every move as the smaller woman washed her hands and prepared the necessary items. Using one of their extra rags, Gabrielle wet it down and began to gently cleanse the area of dried blood and dirt.
The warrior steeled herself against the unavoidable discomfort and watched the focused look on Gabrielle’s face instead. She was efficient and thorough, Xena noted through half closed eyes. It bothered her that Gabrielle should even be doing this; be exposed to danger and its inevitable results, but she had, over time, become a very competent healer in her own right. A small smile played on her lips as she took a moment to enjoy the fact that for once her influence on someone else could be such a good thing; an effect with a long lasting benefit. A quicksilver jab of pain made her wince and she looked down to watch Gabrielle’s hands work over the cut on her thigh.
"Sorry," Gabrielle muttered, minutely aware of Xena’s every expression, "but the dirt’s been ground in a bit."
"It’s okay… you’re doing fine," Xena reassured her. "Do what you have to do."
"Doesn’t it hurt you, Xena?" Gabrielle asked, picking up on her line of questioning from earlier that afternoon as she picked up a small flask of alcohol. Xena closed her eyes as she felt the hard burn of the liquid as it trickled over the length of the wound, disinfecting the abused flesh.
"I am human," shem ground out around clenched teeth. "Of course it hurts."
Gabrielle sterilised the needle and thread, and bent closer to see in the failing light. "I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just that all the things you’ve been through the past few days… most people would feel dead tired, hungry, in need of a bath, whiny, and not afraid to let the world know it."
"Well, aren’t you lucky that I’m not most people." She paused as she felt the needle pierce her skin. "Besides, what’s the use in complaining? It’s not going to change the situation any." The slight tugging of the thread through her skin was always a disconcerting feeling. A twisting of the suture and the first knot was tied. She could feel tiny beads of perspiration form on her forehead beneath her bangs.
"So stoic," Gabrielle murmured, mostly to herself. "You never know, Xena," she continued in a more normal tone. "Maybe there is something that can be done. Maybe not by you, but for you."
"Huh?" Xena asked, her mind mostly on the second pass of the needle through the cut.
"Would it be such a terrible thing to maybe admit once in a while that you’re as tired and miserable as I am? Who knows, maybe there’s something that I could do to help; friends do that you know."
"Mmm," Xena agreed faintly, her hold on the conversation somewhat impaired as the pain in her leg throbbed in time to her heartbeat.
"Are you paying attention?" The third suture began. Another tug.
Gods, Gabrielle, Xena wished she could think of a polite way to tell the bard to just be quiet and finish it without hurting her feelings. It had been way too difficult to patch things up this morning from the last few months; she didn’t think she could handle another heart-to-heart talk anytime soon.
"Let me tell you a story." Gabrielle could see the tightening around Xena’s eyes and wanted to take her mind off the pain she was inflicting on her.
"Don’t, Gabrielle," Xena said evenly as she laid one arm over her eyes. "Just… don’t."
Gabrielle drew in a breath to make a biting comment, and immediately stopped herself. They had managed to make some progress this morning, the last thing they needed right now was to start fighting again. The ‘I’m-in-too-much-pain-to-put-up-with-any-nonsense-so-would-you-just-shut-up’ look had just announced itself and Gabrielle decided not to push. Well, I made my point, Gabrielle sighed to herself as she continued to work, I just wonder whether she was listening or not?
Finished at last, the bard sat back and contemplated her work. A row of small neat stitches made a diagonal path up her thigh and under the edge of the loose pleats of her leathers. The dark, rough thread made a contrast to the other silvery white lines of older scars scattered across her sun bronzed skin. How many other times had she been stitched up in her life? How many other times had she endured similar treatment in this silence? Her fingers reached out to gently trace one, and felt the muscle ripple beneath her touch.
"Uh oh," Gabrielle muttered. "Now, I’ve done it.
"What?" Xena peered out from underneath her arm.
"I’ve gone and made a clean spot. Considering the state the rest of you is in, this looks pretty silly."
"Given how the rest of me looks, I doubt anyone will laugh about it." A nasty smile grew on the warrior’s lips. Gabrielle made a point of blatantly surveying Xena’s body, running her gaze from head to toe. Xena watched the bard’s hazel coloured eyes slowly appraise her, and raised an eyebrow in response. She felt a delicate curling warmth growing beneath that intensely, serious gaze. Get a grip, Xena. You’re imagining things.
"They wouldn’t laugh twice, that’s for certain," the bard agreed solemnly. She pulled the cork on the wine flask and held it out to Xena. "Do you want some of this before I put it away?"
Xena sat up and gratefully accepted the drink. The alcohol made a welcoming trail of warmth as it went down. She took a moment to glance down at her leg, noting the care Gabrielle had taken to keep the sutures as small as possible given the state of the injury. Xena stretched and flexed it surveying the range of motion available to her without tearing the threads. "Good job," she said and took another drink before passing the flask back to Gabrielle. The bard ducked her head a little; compliments being an uncommon gift, one that was rare and all the more valuable for its sincerity.
"Thanks," Gabrielle murmured, and reached once more into the kit for a fresh bandage to wrap around the treated area. Satisfied that it was secure, she put the rest of the supplies back in the kit, and rose tiredly to her feet. After seeing the kit back to its place on the saddle she rejoined Xena on the bedroll the warrior thoughtfully unrolled for her. Brushing her hair from her eyes, she settled herself more comfortably on the blanket. "Now what?"
"I’m going to get a look at the camp. I want you to wait here for me and stay with Argo. You can keep a blanket out for yourself if you get cold, but don’t unload anything else. If you see the least sign of trouble I want you on her and moving. I’ll find you if that happens. Do you hear me?"
"Why can’t I come with you?"
The age old complaint threatened to get her temper going, but she held back, conscious of the progress they had made to getting things back on track between them. "Gabrielle, I’m not going far. Just to the edge of the trees. I’ll be concentrating on the town; you can watch my back to make sure we don’t get any surprises from behind. And you might as well have something to eat while I’m gone, too."
"Watch your back," Gabrielle said slowly appearing to give the words serious consideration. "Ok, I can do that."
Xena watched a small smile play about the other woman’s face and felt a sinking feeling of suspicion. "Riiiight." What’s she got up her sleeve now?
"Right. Take care of those stitches." Gabrielle stood, picked up the blanket and began re-rolling it. "See you when you get back." A small breeze behind her was all the warning she had that Xena had slipped away from her and into the trees. Turning around she scanned the woods, and just barely caught the movement of one shadow against many. She tied the blanket back onto the saddle and then dug about in their supplies for something to eat. Her staff in hand, she sat down in front of Argo and fed the golden mare one of the two wrinkled apple taken from the saddlebag. "So, Argo, have you heard the story about the Hestian virgin and the used chariot salesman…?"
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