For disclaimers, see Part I.
Xena's favorite time of the day.
It had been a late night, she mused, between nightwatch, and the planning of the day with Palaemon. Not to mention the arrival of the exhausted patrol members Palaemon had set on the attacker's trail earlier. It didn't looked good.
Xena proceeded to poke the fire into a nice flame and then heated some water on it. It was still dark, and she was very grateful for her internal clock, since she should have been, for all intents and purposes, still asleep.
Four candlemarks of sleep, that's what she had ordered everyone to have that night, at the very least, so they would be able to function at least close to properly. The adrenaline would do the rest, she knew. But she hadn't had that luxury, taking a couple of catnaps while Palaemon kept watch for her. She was important today, and needed to be rested; that was why she had even considered closing her eyes for a few minutes. And it won't be the first time I'm up for a couple of days without stopping, she told herself.
Yet she knew, if she really thought about it, that she could do with some rest. Her body ached in a very dull way, almost like a background noise, and she was still able to put it out of her consciousness. But Xena was aware that she had used her resources almost to the max, and it would soon be time to rest, heal up and take it easy for a few days. Once we're in Thessaly, she promised herself.
The water finally started bubbling, and she measured it into a cup, together with a few pain-numbing herbs. She prepared a second one for Gabrielle, making sure to cover up the scent with a few raspberry leaves. There was no use in the bard knowing that she wasn't feeling top notch herself.
Xena gnawed on a rabbit leg, leftover from last night, while she waited for the mix to finish brewing. She wasn't really hungry but knew she needed all the energy she could get.
Liandra knelt beside her for moment, cupping some hot water for herself. "Gabrielle up yet? she inquired, giving Xena a look.
The warrior shook her head. "No. But I'm going to go wake her shortly. She gave Liandra a small smile. "Gabrielle isn't a morning person.
"Uh-huh. Liandra nodded. She looked around, as if searching for something.
"We're out of bread. Xena said quietly. "You'll have to make do with the leftover meat from last night.
Liandra looked at her. "Oh - ok. She proceeded to dip some hot water in a caraffe she had brought with her.
"So where's Nyara? Xena asked. Seeing the tall, dark-haired woman without her small charge was unusual. She had carried the baby around all day yesterday while helping with the wounded.
"Back with my mother. She just fell asleep again after eating... Liandra piled some meat on a makeshift tray of a wooden slab, then paused to look at Xena intently. "Are we going to be ok?
Xena returned the gaze with the same intensity. "I think so. At least I'm going to do the best I can to see that we reach Thessaly tonight, and sleep in real beds for sure.
Liandra nodded, satisfied. "Then that's enough for me. She gathered her things and, with another nod, headed back to her mother and sister.
Xena followed her with her eyes for a bit, deep in thought, before gathering breakfast for Gabrielle, and got up with it and the cups of tea. She passed through the infirmary on her way to their camp, and automatically scanned her patients' condition while she walked. They had lost a twelve-year-old boy during the night, whose internal organs had given out after having been pierced by a spear, and there had been nothing Xena could have done. It hadn't been easy.
Other than that, all patients had survived the night and awakened to a rested morning and had already been taken care of. There wasn't anything to do now but wake Gabrielle, and Xena looked forward to a couple of quiet minutes with the bard. Her soul needed it so badly, she could almost feel it physically.
* * *
It was just before dawn when Gabrielle woke up, which was weird, because usually, she had a hard time waking up at all. She found herself tucked in both her and Xena's sleeping furs but the source of heat that Xena had provided through her warm body was gone. Gabrielle sighed. A whiff of leather scent crawled up her nose and, realizing its source, she buried her face deeper into Xena's furs and inhaled deeply. Yup, there it is, she said to herself, then slowly, realization kicked in as to what she was doing, and a sheepish smile edged onto her face. Oh well. It's not like anyone saw me. A content smile lit her face and the same contentedness started traveling through her body as she breathed in the warrior's scent.
She happily rolled onto her back and opened her eyes to gaze at the stars. Instead, she gazed into a pair of blue eyes in an amused looking face, framed by black hair. Gabrielle started.
"Oh, hi... hi, Xena." She blinked in frantic search for words. "I was just... I just woke up... I... Tartarus, why are you up already?" she exhaled, in not-so-mock-indignation. "You just scared the wits out of me!"
Xena's warm smile lit up her eyes and she eased herself to Gabrielle's side, trying to pry a piece of fur to sit on out from under the bard's grip, and handing her a freshly brewed mug of tea.
"I didn't sleep much, she commented, while watching the bard sip tentatively at the fragrant liquid.
Gabrielle tilted her head in question. "Was it... because of me?
The question startled Xena. Why would Gabrielle think that? It took her a moment to realize that the bard was probably just talking about their conversation, and that Xena hadn't been drugged like Gabrielle, and she had still felt the urge to do... something.
"Hm? No, no, don't worry about it." The memory of Gabrielle's soft, warm body so close to hers called a sheepish smile onto her face. When she looked up, and her eyes met Gabrielle's, there was a spark of understanding, and friendship, that threatened to reduce the warrior to a puddle of goo. Without thinking, she scooted closer and put an arm around the smaller woman's waist, so Gabrielle was able to lean against her shoulder, encircled by a strong arm. Both bard and warrior sighed, then laughed at the coincidence.
When they calmed down, Gabrielle's right hand had settled on top of the warrior's muscled thigh, which felt good, too.
"The two soldiers Palaemon sent after Taelos' men returned last night," Xena started after a moment of silence.
"They did? Well, good. I was worried they'd be trapped or ambushed trying to find out about Taelos' camp," Gabrielle nodded while minding her breakfast.
"So was I," the warrior confessed. "Apparently, the camp isn't too far from ours." Xena made a face. "They returned to get the bodies of their fallen comrades from the river and we didn't even notice."
Gabrielle regarded her partner with a long look. It wasn't like Xena to not notice something like that, and she wondered what caused that. Taking a closer look at her face, she found that Xena had dark circles under her eyes. When she really paid attention to the tea brewing in their mugs, she was certain that she detected the slight scent of a pain-numbing herb she had had the displeasure of smelling way too often the last few days. From both of their mugs. Something was off here. Xena was pushing herself way too hard.
"What else did they say about the camp?" she inquired, trying not to show her concern for Xena's well-being, but couldn't really help it.
Xena unconsciously took Gabrielle's mug to take a tentative sip. "Well, looks like he's got a bigger army stationed there than we thought. This is going to be tough."
Gabrielle nodded, noticing the mug change with a smile. "What are we going to do?"
"I have it covered."
Ah, well. There's nothing like the "I'm a woman of few words"-routine, Gabrielle thought, not discouraged in the least. It fit right in with the warrior pushing herself too hard. "Care to share your plans with me?"
Xena's eyes lingered on the face of her partner. The young bard's face, content and warm from snuggling down just a short while ago, wore a soft, vulnerable expression that made Xena want to crawl into the furs with her all over again. Something inside her was melting, Xena knew, and she wryly asked herself what it was. "His stronghold is not far from here," she started with a sigh. "My guess is that he will try to attack close to the river, just when we get out of the hills. I'll stop him from even trying, long before he will be even close to that spot," she stated matter-of-factly.
"But you don't want me to go along." Gabrielle looked up to her taller friend who turned a surprised eye at her and was at a momentary loss of words. She had noticed that there had been no "we" when Xena came to the action part of the plan.
"I... no... well, yeah, I'd like you to stay with the convoy, actually," she said, her eyes on Gabrielle while starting to unconsciously fiddle with one of the leather strips that made up her skirt. "You're still recovering and I wouldn't want you to..."
Unexpectedly, the warrior found Gabrielle's small hand on her nervous one. The bard wore a tiny, encouraging smile. "It's alright, Xena," she said.
Xena was caught unwillingly in the green that made up Gabrielle's eyes. "Are you?" The bard had surrendered too easily, without the fight she usually put up.
"Yes, I am," Gabrielle assured her. "You told me you wouldn't leave me, even in death, and I just decided I am going to take you by your word and believe you." She took a breath. "If you want me to, I'll stay with the convoy. It's probably just as well they have someone like a healer with them there."
Xena's left arm squeezed around the younger woman's waist in reflex. The warrior closed her eyes briefly at the swell of emotion that welled up in her. She didn't know what made her deserve Gabrielle's trust at all. What had made them survive their little personal hell and still cling to each other.
Xena opened her eyes and looked into the face of the woman she held in her arm. Her face grew serious. "All right. That sounds good." A pause. "I would rather I had you with me, Gabrielle, but..."
Now it was Gabrielle's turn to melt at the unexpected admission. "Thank you," she said. "Now it won't be so hard to stay behind." She turned in Xena's arm and sneaked her other arm around Xena's shoulder until they held each other in a tender embrace, with Gabrielle straddling Xena's outstretched legs, designed to reassure each other that everything was alright. "Let's just stay this way, Xena," Gabrielle whispered. "Let them fight their silly fight by themselves and we'll stay out of this."
She felt Xena's body vibrate with a low chuckle. "You're not serious, Gabrielle, are you?"
A sigh went through the bard's slim frame. "No, but I wish I had a chance to."
A slight frown contracted dark brows. "There will be," the taller woman assured. "We'll make a chance and take the time, ok?"
Gabrielle disentangled herself enough to look at her friend. "Promise?"
"Promise," blue eyes assured her.
Gabrielle couldn't help herself and put another squeeze in, pressing her body into that of her best friend, inhaling the scent and feel of her with every fiber of her body, as if she had to imprint it into her memory, as if she were afraid she would ever forget how that felt. Life felt so fragile at the moment, you couldn't do anything but live it as if there was no tomorrow. And Gabrielle was very much determined to do so. If their recent experiences had taught her one thing, it was to cherish the good things as they came.
She felt Xena's arms wrap around her in a hug that enveloped her almost completely and a harsh, almost choked whisper close to her right ear. "I love you, Gabrielle."
Another sigh from Gabrielle, who tried to hold on even tighter, if that was possible. "I love you, too, Xena."
Xena felt her scoot closer and upwards on top of her thigh. The resulting friction caused Gabrielle's body to react, and her pelvis ground into the warrior's thigh in a very tantalizing way without any consent of its owner. As a result, a very low whimper escaped the bard and both women froze for what seemed to be an eternity, not knowing what to make of this unexpected turn of events. Then Xena heard a very, very embarrassed Gabrielle in a very small voice, "I... I'm sorry, Xena, I... oh, gods!"
When Xena moved to able to see the bard's face, Gabrielle averted her eyes, not daring to meet the warrior's. The older woman smiled when she tipped Gabrielle's chin upwards so she was looking at her. She cupped her cheek in the same hand and caressed the bard's face with her thumb. "Don't you ever, ever apologize for that, Gabrielle, you hear me?" A shy nod. "I mean it." Another nod. "Good. C'mere."
Xena drew the blond head closer until their foreheads met and waited until the bard relaxed noticeably, before she allowed her right hand to slide up a warm, silky bardic thigh. "You have nice thighs, too," she commented with a slight grin. "So don't worry about it, ok?"
A smile appeared on Gabrielle's face and she decided to peek into Xena's eyes, which were warm with gentleness and caring. "So do you," she dared, dropping her hands from Xena's shoulders and enjoying the feel of said body parts under her hands.
"So I noticed," the warrior muttered, trying to hold her breath. Suddenly, she felt very hot, and very alive, despite the fresh, pre-dawn air and the exhaustion she wore like a second skin now.
Her reaction didn't get past Gabrielle, and her eyes went wide with genuine surprise and delight, as she let her fingertips dance across well-formed muscles under silky skin. "You like that?" she asked, still not quite believing.
Xena's eyes were almost black by now and it was her turn to try to hold on to herself but feel slightly embarrassed. "Too much," she admitted between clenched teeth before she could think of a "revenge", and let her hands slide around Gabrielle's midsection. "Stop or I'll tickle you."
Gabrielle squealed with delight, but stopped, without taking her hands away. They looked at each other, wonder about what was happening to them written on their faces.
"Funny, huh?" was all Xena could get out, for once very happy that she didn't have to maintain any kind of bardic reputation.
"Yeah," Gabrielle said, her thoughts a far stretch from even starting to worry about anything like that. Her eyes were fixed to the woman so closely before her, on the tender, delighted and at the same time wondering expression on her face. It was a new face to the warrior she had traveled with for almost three years now, but she instantly decided she liked it, and that she wanted to see it more often. Standing out in her slightly flushed face, Xena's eyes seemed to glow from within. "You look gorgeous, Xena," she said, and waved impatiently when Xena wanted to add some commentary. "Can I..." and she tilted her head and moved to meet the warrior's lips with her own.
This kiss seemed so very different from the last one they'd shared, but then, it was the same woman she kissed, her body, her lips, the soft skin. Xena's lips were so tender, and her kiss so tentative as if she was the one on foreign ground, not Gabrielle. The bard tasted the woman in her arms with a heart full of wonder, and feelings in a turmoil, and a churning in her stomach that seemed to spread outwards until her whole entire body tingled with this new sensation. She wanted to laugh and cry at the same time, and some kind of mad laughter sat in her throat, waiting for an opportunity to come out. She delighted when a soft tongue asked for entrance, and greeted it with her own tongue, reveling in its feel, and its taste, and found it delicious.
They parted, each with a little sigh, and just looked at each other wonderingly. "Yes." Xena said softly after a while.
"Hm?" Gabrielle had no idea what her partner was talking about, feeling a little lightheaded and fuzzy.
"Yes, you may kiss me," Xena added, answering Gabrielle's earlier question.
"Oh," was the bard's only commentary, and a little giggle made its way out. Xena added her low chuckle to it, both feeling the absurdity and yet the delight of the situation.
"I hate to tell you this." Xena started after an appropriately long pause.
"We need to get moving. The sooner we are at the river, the better."
"Oh." Gabrielle hadn't exactly been thinking about the world around her anymore.
Xena regarded her with a smile. "If we're really good, we get to sleep in a real bed in Thessaly tonight, so - hey!"
Gabrielle had unceremoniously left her spot on top of Xena's thigh and stood up. "Let's go, then," she said. "A bed sounds good."
With a shake of her head, Xena followed her up.
* * *
"What in Tartarus is taking her so long? Palaemon paced from his horse to the assembled veteran soldiers and back. "She said to wait for her here, and here we are - how long can it take her to break camp?
When he turned around to look at the assembled men, a few raised eyebrows met him, and some clearing of throats was heard. The able-bodied Tripoleans who had agreed on defending their little group with whatever weapons they could get their hands on looked from one to another, sharing a few knowing grins.
"What? Palaemon threw his hands in the air. "Ok, ok, she didn't get a lot of sleep last night, but...
"Palaemon, you have no clue what you're talking about. Liandra's calm, but clearly amused voice interrupted. She had decided to leave Nyara with her sister and mother, opting for defending them with a large staff instead. She leaned on it while she regarded Palaemon's pacing. "She's been up and about all night, with almost no rest. Let her have a few minutes with Gabrielle.
"What's Gabrielle got to do with it? Palaemon didn't understand the world anymore and felt very much belittled, when Liandra came closer, taking his arm and leading him away from the group for a little privacy.
"Look, she started to explain, shaking her head in bemusement. "I don't know how blind you can be but those two love each other.
"Yeah, sure they do, they've been friends for a long time now, and... Palaemon started, and then the implication of what Liandra had just said sunk in. "Oh.
"Yes, oh. Liandra chuckled.
"Like... like that? Palaemon's brows did a new record in climbing while he tried to indicate with his right hand what he meant. Then he laughed. "Nah.
The dark-haired woman twinkled up at him. "Just pay attention to the kind of look they trade. There's love there, Palaemon. Believe me, a woman knows stuff like that. She enjoyed teasing the young warrior a lot.
"What's that supposed to mean? He said, annoyed that he would be accused of a lack of perception.
"Let me just say that the way they are around each other doesn't really point to the fact that they just travel together for company.
"Hm. Palaemon regarded the woman at his side from head to toe. "Whatever, I still don't know what's taking Xena so long.
Liandra started laughing and gave up. "If you don't know that, then it looks like I can't help you, she chuckled, a big grin pasted on her face.
Palaemon was saved by the bell, so to speak, when finally, Xena showed up, leading Argo who carried a very satisfied looking Gabrielle.
Liandra gave Palaemon a meaningful glance. "Not a morning person my foot, she said to herself, and walked over to the others again to hear what Xena had to say.
Xena was confused by the smiles that greeted her. They seemed to imply something, like a joke shared by all that she didn't have part in, but she decided to let it slide by and get down to business.
"All right, is everyone ready to go? she asked, letting her gaze sweep over the assembled crowd. Everybody nodded. "Good. All right. This is what will happen today. She stepped forward to a sandy patch of dirt and started to scribble rectangles and little circles with a small stick. The leaders of every group stepped closer to get a good look, with the others crowded behind them.
"Those are the wagons. We will have the wounded on the wagons, together with three people caring for every wagon of wounded. Xena looked up and gazed at Gabrielle, who still sat on Argo's back, the two of them right behind her. "Gabrielle has agreed to supervise the wagons. If there are any problems, report them to her. She caught the bard's twinkle and answered it with a loving smile. Which, surprisingly, drew a round of chuckles from the crowd surrounding them.
Xena raised an eyebrow at Liandra, who seemed to be particularly amused, but decided not to ask what was going on when the woman winked at her. Palaemon changed the foot he was standing on and looked a little uncomfortable. Xena suppressed a grin. Whatever was going on here, if it made Palaemon a little more humble than he usually was, it couldn't be such a bad thing. "Gabrielle will also be the coordinator if we encounter any trouble, which I don't think we will, but you never know. She knows me, and knows how I work, and can defend herself with a staff quite well. Simon, Tanos, Kippan and Palaemon will stay with me. We'll guard the convoy until we're safe in the hills, and then we'll go and make sure Taelos won't get any ideas about trying to capture anyone again. The rest of the guards will stay with the convoy. We'll have one scout, and one to watch the rear. The rest will be deployed along the trek. They already have their instructions; those of you who agreed to defend yourselves, ask them where you're posted.
Xena made a point out of looking at everyone who enclosed her in a half circle. "The children are to be protected at all cost. They are the ones the slavers are out for, so they will be the ones protected by as many layers as possible.
Agreeing murmurs greeted what she said. They seemed to be in better spirits than yesterday, hopeful again that they would reach the safe haven of Thessaly without more grief coming their way.
Xena nodded to herself. "All right then. Let's move it," she called out, and watched as everyone started to move to their assigned posts.
Xena reacted fast enough to pat a certain dark-haired woman on the shoulder before she could move away. "Liandra..." she drawled. "Let me in on what is going on here?" She followed Palaemon's retreating back with her eyes. "What were you two talking about?"
Liandra gave her a blindingly white smile. "Nothing..." she said lightly, implicating that there was, indeed, a lot going on, she just didn't want to reveal it.
"All right, I'll drop it - this time." Xena regarded her through squinted eyes, then shook her head. "Listen, you could do me a favor."
"Sure." Liandra was actually glad that Xena changed the subject. "What is it?"
Xena shifted her stance, very aware of Gabrielle still waiting behind her. "Gabrielle will ride on one of the wagons, but I would like you to stay close to her and act as her envoy. She can't move as fast from the front of the convoy to the end, so she might need someone to relay messages for her."
Liandra nodded. "Sure. I think I can leave Nyara with mother, she is doing quite well again today. Except the times when I have to feed her, of course."
"Of course. Then go and get her and ride on the wagon with Gabrielle." Xena looked at her intently.
Liandra met her gaze, and a question occurred to her. "Is there another reason why you chose me, Xena?" she asked. "Because we do look a lot alike."
Xena sighed. "That's why I asked you for a favor. It would be good for the slavers to think I am still travelling with the convoy, and if you're around Gabrielle, that might make them think exactly that even more. But it is a risk to you, more so than if you just rode on one of the wagons by yourself."
The young woman knitted her brows in thought. When she looked up again, her expression was firm. "No, I'll be glad to help. They may think I'm you, and they may not. Whatever the outcome, it's beneficial to the trek as a whole, and I'm willing to take that risk." She exchanged a glance with the smiling Gabrielle. "You've given us so much hope, it's time I gave something back," she ended, meeting Xena's gaze. "Do you want me to change into something that resembles more what you wear?"
Xena nodded, turning around to her partner. "I have a spare set of leathers in the saddlebag, Gabrielle," she said, and the bard twisted in the saddle to dig it out and hand it to her friend. "If you would try that?" She gave it to Liandra. "I hate to make a target out of you, but if anything really happened, I know Gabrielle could take care of it. And I also told two of the guards to have an eye on you."
Liandra looked at the well-worn leather with round eyes. "Cool," she said, running one hand over the smooth surface. "I always wanted to wear one of those." She smiled at Xena. "Thank you for your trust."
"Don't thank me until we're safe in Thessaly." Xena held Liandra's eyes for a little bit longer, until the younger woman's face grew as serious as her own, and she nodded.
"I'll do my best," she promised. "Now let me go find a bush to change."
"Okay." Xena followed her with her eyes until she disappeared behind a wagon, then turned around to Gabrielle again. "Ok, bard, let's find you a place to stay." She took Argo's reins and headed for one wagon in particular that she had taken into consideration before.
"You are really worried, aren't you?" her friend asked from behind her.
Xena turned her head to look into her partner's face, and nodded. "It doesn't look good, Gabrielle." she confirmed, and slowed her step until she walked beside Gabrielle's leg.
Gabrielle reached out for her, catching a strand of the dark hair and letting it run through her fingers, as her friend looked up to her and smiled a crooked smile. "Not a good time for... this," she said, placing a warm hand on Gabrielle's knee.
"Looks like it never is." Gabrielle tried an encouraging smile. "But that's us, and we'll make the best of it, I'm sure."
"Yeah..." Xena knew she had to get out of that mindset, soon, or her distraction might cause her to overlook something important. But she wasn't really ready to say goodbye to that wonderful feeling of connection yet, and so she resolved to enjoy it as long as she could. Her mind would work in full warrior mode the moment she turned away from the convoy, she was sure of that.
They finally reached the wagon Xena had been speaking of. It was occupied by wounded and children, yet less so than the other wagons.
"This is it. Gabrielle felt Xena's warm breath on her bare knee.
Xena helped her off Argo's back as an older man in armor approached them and locked arms with Xena. "Xena. Good to see you. We're almost ready to leave.
"Tanos. Good to see you, too. She turned around to Gabrielle. "This is Gabrielle, my partner. Tanos, honorary officer of the Tripolis militia. He checked out Taelos' camp last night.
Tanos nodded in Gabrielle's direction. "I heard you were wounded?
Gabrielle smiled in return. "Yes. A stray Persian arrow.
His eyes squinted lightly, appraising her. "So you're one of us, he stated matter-of-factly.
"It looks very much like it. Gabrielle liked this man.
"I hate to interrupt... Xena cleared her throat. "...but we need to get going. Gabrielle?
"All right." Gabrielle hobbled over to the end of the wagon, and Xena helped her up. Tanos watched them for a short time, and then went to take care of the horses again.
Xena helped Gabrielle get some of their gear onto the cart, since she preferred letting Argo carry less weight in a battle situation. They went through the medical supplies again, Xena checked that Gabrielle knew the applications for the most important ones of the herbs, then she explained the situation to her again, telling her when to move and where. Finally, there wasn't very much more to say. It was just the two of them, as much as there could be just the two of them in all the melee.
"Are you sure you can do this? Xena asked again, standing beside the wagon, at the same head level as Gabrielle.
"Yes. I will be fine. I'm not too comfortable up here but since I have my staff with me...
"I won't let them touch a hair on your head, Gabrielle. The warrior was fiercely protective. "Not after all we've been through, not after I got you back..."
"Xena..." Gabrielle just started when someone to Xena's right caught her attention.
"Are you Xena?" a very young voice interrupted their exchange. Xena turned her head to find a young girl standing there, about ten years old, holding a little boy of about two years. Xena had noticed her yesterday, together with another family, but had been sorry to learn that the siblings had lost mother, father and another brother to the Persians.
"Yes, that's me." Xena answered, finally turning all her attention to the simply dressed girl. "And what's your name?"
"Eva," she answered, her gray eyes earnest. She shifted the weight of the little boy around, until she held him under his arms, and stretched her arms out to Xena. "I want you to take him," she said, and the warrior was so surprised, she just grabbed and held on. The boy gurgled and looked at her with big eyes. "His name is Golan." The girl shifted and put her hands on her hips.
Xena looked from the girl into the boy's eyes, and then at her partner, who looked extremely amused. Xena gave her an eyebrow and turned her attention back to Eva. "Eva, I can't take him. I'll be with the warriors."
"But you are a woman," Eva insisted, a scowl on her face.
"Yes, I most certainly am, but I will be protecting all of you today. Why don't you care for him yourself? You've done a good job with it so far."
The girl shuffled her feet and looked down. "No, I didn't," she said, very quietly.
"What would make you think you haven't?" the bard's gentle voice chimed in.
Eva gave her a glance, and tilted her head to regard her. "You told the stories yesterday, didn't you?"
"Yes, I did."
"Will you fight?"
"I may have to, but I'll stay on this wagon unless something happens."
"Then you take him." The scowl was back on Eva's face. She looked very determined.
"Explain to me first why you can't care for him yourself," Gabrielle said.
A silent tear ran down Eva's cheek, but her mouth stayed shut. Xena glanced at Gabrielle again, then handed her the little boy, who started to look a little disturbed. He couldn't understand why he wasn't with his sister.
It was such a simple gesture, to hand a little boy to Gabrielle, yet when Xena did, she felt that something shifted between them. She saw it in Gabrielle's face too, an expression of reverence, and an acknowledgement of a gift received. They both felt pieces inside of them shift, and fall into place, and Xena's knees felt week all of a sudden. She had to clear her throat repeatedly before she was able to say anything. Keeping eye contact with Gabrielle as long as she was able to, she then turned around to the girl, squatting down and inviting her closer. "Come here."
Eva stepped forward, and looked at the warrior with a tear stained face. She didn't sob or whimper, in fact, it looked as if she wasn't aware of the tears falling at all.
"Now tell me why you can't take care of your brother. He needs you. You are all the family he has left." Xena kept herself from reaching out and wiping the tears off the girl's face.
Something awful was going on in Eva's mind. Her expression was tortured, and when she shifted her weight again, it looked to Xena as if she would run away. The warrior reached out and held on to her upper arm in a gesture of compassion.
"Talk to us, Eva. Maybe we can help."
"No one can help me."
The girl clenched her teeth, her jaw muscles working. She looked down again, at her feet, and obviously fought a battle with herself. Finally, she whispered: "I didn't scream loud enough."
"Eva?" Xena pulled her just a little closer, trading another look with Gabrielle, who had obviously heard what the girl had said as well. "You didn't scream loud enough? When?"
Horrified gray eyes in a face framed by light brown hair lifted up to Xena's blue ones. "When they came. When the soldiers came. I was outside. In the field. And I saw them coming over the hill. And I couldn't do anything. I was just standing there. And Golan was there, too. And then I ran. Far away. And then I screamed. When I was in the woods already. And they didn't hear me. Because I wasn't loud enough. And I screamed and screamed. And Golan was all quiet," she blurted out, her breath coming in short gasps.
Another shocked glance was traded between the two women. "Eva, where were your parents?" Xena gently inquired, but the girl tried to jump back and run away. Xena's fingers clamped down on her arm. "I'm not going to hurt you, Eva, but where were your parents when you saw the soldiers?"
"I don't know!" the girl wailed, trying to pull away. "I don't know!"
"Eva, were they in the house?" Gabrielle asked, her voice soft, and understanding.
"I don't know! I don't know!"
"Were they in the field with you?"
"Nooo!" In her efforts to get away, Eva slipped and fell down, kicking furiously. "Noooo!"
Xena needed all her skills to get the girl under control, and pulled her into her arms. The girl struggled and sobbed, but soon stopped fighting when she realized she didn't have a chance to get away.
"It's not your fault." Xena said, in a low, soothing voice. "It's not your fault. You hear me? It's not your fault."
More sobbing was her answer, but the girl was now clinging to the warrior with all her might. When Xena looked up into the bard's eyes, she saw tears of compassion there, too.
It was so easy to forget that when all the fighting and killing was over, it still left so much sorrow behind. A feeling of guilt that would lie squarely on the shoulders of this little girl, guilt that she hadn't warned her parents and brother whom she most likely had found murdered on the field later. In what state, Xena didn't even want to start to imagine.
The warrior clenched her teeth, remembering that she had been responsible for tragedies like this more often than she could count, and that she hadn't cared in the least. The mountain of dead bodies she was responsible for was piling high in front of her inner eye, an insurmountable task to overcome on a day like this. To believe in her own redemption seemed a tremendous luxury in the face of such sorrow.
She felt a gentle touch on her shoulder, and lifted her eyes to green ones, full of compassion, attached to her friend, who pulled her closer.
No, maybe Xena couldn't believe in herself. But she could, and would, always believe in the forgiveness she found in her companion's eyes. She nodded, and lifted the girl up on the wagon. Eva struggled at first, but then let Gabrielle hold her at her side.
"I will... the warrior's voice was choked and it didn't get better when she looked into Gabrielle's face. "I will protect you with my life, I swear. So many emotions crossed her face. Xena knew this was her chance at healing some of the wounds they had caused each other. She had stretched out her hand by promising to protect Gabrielle and the children brought into their care. All Gabrielle had to do was to take it. And she did.
Gabrielle carefully turned, and placed the boy back into Eva's arms. Eva stared at her, but then took her brother, cradling his small body to her. Gabrielle gave her a reassuring smile, and then leaned over the partition of the cart and gently placed her hands on both sides of Xena's face. "We will be safe. I know that because you'll protect us. A quiet affirmation of the trust she put in her partner, although she had been disappointed another time. Right now, at this moment, it seemed to be another life.
Without breaking eye contact, Xena managed to turn her head and kiss the inside of each of Gabrielle's palms. It was her way to beg forgiveness and Gabrielle was ready to give it. Their heads tipped forward until their foreheads met in the middle. "I love you, Xena, Gabrielle professed.
Will you forgive me? Open up your heart and let me in? Without realizing it, Xena found herself whispering the words she had once said before, in a very different place not so long ago, in Illusia. And here and now, the true meaning of the words hit her. She needed this bard's forgiveness for her own deeds as well, even though she had thought she could deal with her regrets on her own terms. But this was different, it was between her and the person who mattered to her most, and only between them could they heal all the way.
And then, she realized, that somehow, in a very twisted kind of way, Gabrielle had indeed fulfilled what she lived for: She had broken the circle of hatred through her love. She had broken it in Xena's heart.
"Yes, I will, Gabrielle whispered, reacting to Xena's whispered words. "With all my heart and all my soul.
And then they kissed. It was a very chaste, reassuring kiss, but when they left off, each one saw the promise of something more in the eyes of the other. Xena was the one to draw a breath and speak first. "Let's get through this safely, Gabrielle. I still want to be with you tomorrow.
"So do I. Gabrielle assured. Another look, a squeeze of hands.
"And look out for the children, Xena added, being rewarded by the light in Gabrielle's eyes.
It was hard for the warrior to turn away, too much held her back to be with Gabrielle and the children. She was sure they would be ok, but she couldn't wait to be back with her. Her heart sang and it was hard for her to keep the glow off her face which she knew wouldn't exactly impress the men of the Tripolis militia. She realized she wasn't able to when she clambered onto her horse and turned the mare around, and encountered Liandra two wagons down the trek, on her way to Gabrielle.
"Is it a good day, Xena?" Liandra asked, smiling.
"A very good day." Xena replied, then shook her head and refocused on the dark-haired woman in her leathers. "They're a little loose, don't you think?"
"They'll do. I don't have your kind of back, muscles and all, but being a nursing mother has added some to the front." She padded the named parts with a grin. "And the shoulder straps hold it all in place, so it will do." She squinted up to the warrior. "Feels like a second skin, actually."
"Don't get too used to them." Xena drawled. "You'll have to give them back, you know?" With all the consequences attached, she added in her mind.
Liandra nodded, still smiling. "I know." She grew serious, and took one step closer. "I'll try to take good care of her," she offered, knowing that in all probability, it would be the other way around.
"I appreciate that." Xena replied, and meant it just like that. "I'll see you at the river, then."
"I'll see you then."
They traded one more look and parted, knowing that in reality, it was a wish they had uttered, not a certainty. A wish they desperately wanted to come true.
All the way from atop Argo, Xena took in the milling people, slowly forming into a coherent trek from what looked positively like an anthill.
The soldiers making up front and rear ends did their best to get everyone up and situated, helped by the volunteers. Then finally, with a great creaking, the first wagon, pulled by an extremely sturdy pair of oxen, started to move. Everyone somehow fell into place behind them and within a short period time, the trek was on the move. Finally.
Xena knew the area well, and her goal was to lead the trek up over the hills on a slight detour, rather than take the more direct route to Thessaly which led through the woods. Following the hill path provided everyone with a better overlook. It was harder to surprise the trek there than at the regular path that wound its way through the trees. Xena calculated that if the attackers would engage them, they could only do so from the very front or the very back, and those areas were easier to defend than an attack against their flanks.
Her eyes strained to find her soulmate perched on the plank up on the wagon. Her shoulders slumped forward, she still held Eva close to her side and by the tilt of her head, Xena concluded she was talking to her. It was amazing to the warrior how Gabrielle, having been wounded and being at the end of her strength herself, was still able to instill peace and comfort in others.
It was part of that special strength of hers that Xena was drawing on, as well, and she hoped would it never go away, for Gabrielle's sake... and for mine, she amended, truthfully. I wouldn't know what to do without her. Here's my guiding light - even though I forgot that for a short time. It was so ironic to think that Gabrielle had once chosen to go with Xena because she wanted to become like the warrior, seeing that she was her way out of the stuffy confines of Poteidaia.
"Did ya see what Liandra's wearing? Back to her high and mighty ways, you should think!" Xena's head turned to look at an older couple, walking beside a wagon just two wagons down from her. "There she was all the time, thinking she was something special - the Gods forgive me, but I thought losing that high and mighty Chairon of hers would cure'r," the woman spat. "Looking like that strange warrior woman - next thing she'll go off with'em!"
"Excuse me..." Hearing Xena's low voice right beside her ear, the woman turned to see the warrior towering over her from Argo's back... and almost tripped over her own feet in embarrassment to see the subject of her gossiping so close at hand.
"Hades, you scared me!" she exclaimed. "Your kind always sneak up on common folk like that!"
Xena rolled her mental eyes. "I found your topic interesting." She gave the woman a tight smile. Common folk was right, definitely. "Tell me more about Liandra's husband."
It was clear from the expression on the woman's face that she wasn't comfortable. But this warrior woman really scared her, and she was fairly sure that she knew how to handle that really big sword strapped to her back. "Showed up in Tripolis one day. Worked as a scribe. Tried to blend in. Couldn't." She snickered.
"A scribe?" Xena's left eyebrow rose. People who could actually write weren't that common. "Then what?"
The woman indicated Liandra's general direction with her head. "She fell in love with'm. It was a good match, `cause she can't blend in, either, for sure."
"Any idea where this fellow was coming from?"
The woman shrugged. "One of the kingdoms over at the sea. He had a funny accent."
"Anywhere near Nacchos?"
The woman stared at Xena. "Where?"
This time, Xena rolled her eyes for real. Judging from the woman's expression, she had never left Tripolis. "Never mind."
Xena dismissed the woman from her mind as she turned Argo around and headed off to find Liandra. They needed to have a little talk.
"See what I told you?" The woman leaned over to her husband. "They fit together, they do. All three of'em."
* * *
"Liandra? Walk with me, will ya?"
The dark-haired woman actually jumped to the side in surprise. "Xena... you always sneak up like that?"
"Second time I was told that. You coming?"
Liandra's eyes turned up, looking at Xena's intent expression. "Something wrong?"
"We'll find out in a moment, I'm sure." Xena was aware that she wasn't polite in the slightest, but right now, she didn't care. If what she thought was right, then they were in big, fat trouble.
"It's kinda hard to walk with you while you're up on that horse." Liandra quipped.
Xena looked around her to see that all soldiers and volunteers were at their assigned posts and Palaemon was very much doing the leader thing. She decided it would be ok to focus on this talk for a little while. "All right." She jumped off Argo on the right side to land right beside Liandra, her boots kicking up dust as she came down. "Let's talk."
"Aren't we the direct one." The younger woman gave Xena a look. She knew she should be intimidated, but she wasn't. Somehow, Xena was close to her, and she couldn't help but feel a kinship to her.
"Li, tell me about your husband."
"That birthmark on Nyara's arm, did he have it?"
Liandra stared at her in disbelief at her bluntness.
"Ares' balls," Xena swore, her mind racing. "Do you know what that means?"
"That Chairon gave that to our little girl? What are you talking about?"
"Do you know where he came from, Liandra?"
Liandra's open expression closed down. "Somewhere at the coast."
Xena knew someone keeping a secret when she saw it. "He told you, didn't he?" she asked, quietly.
Liandra searched the warrior's face, pain visible on her own. Her throat closed down, and tears started to well in her eyes. "Yes," she whispered, staring at the dirt road. "He did."
Xena stopped walking and turned to the younger woman. Liandra stopped as well, but didn't look at her. "Liandra..." she started, but didn't really know what to say. Her mind wanted to jump into action, to devise a plan, but there was a human being in front of her, clearly in a turmoil of emotions. Gabrielle was still on her wagon, and now quite a ways down from where they stood. So there wasn't a chance to let her handle this particular sensitive chat.
"He made me promise..." Liandra choked, "..not to tell anyone. He just wanted to live a simple life, nothing more."
"That didn't change the fact that he was a member of the royal family of Nacchos," Xena added softly. There, it was out. The romantic tale of a royal son, meant to be king... who denied his birthright for a chance to live his own life. Gabrielle had told this tale over and over at campfires and taverns, even inventing colorful details to add to the story. And here it was... playing out before their eyes.
"No," Liandra whispered, "it doesn't."
"And Nyara is the only heir." Xena added.
Liandra looked up. "She's what?"
"Chairon's brother died not too long ago. You haven't heard?"
Liandra shook her head. "No." Her eyes filled with tears. "No, I didn't know... oh, gods."
Xena felt awkward in the face of Liandra's tears and she shifted her weight from one foot to the other uncomfortably. "Li..."
"I'm glad Chairon doesn't have to hear that his beloved brother doesn't live anymore. I'm sure they are both in the Elysian Fields now." A tentative smile lit up the young woman's face. The sight was heartwrenching.
"Did you know him?"
"Yes." In a new onslaught of tears, Liandra turned sideways a little and Xena tried to respect her privacy as well as she could by looking down until the young woman was ready to speak again. "They were really close," she sniffed.
"That explains how word got out," Xena said softly.
Liandra looked up. "He would've never..."
"He may have left correspondence. Did Chairon write to him?"
The young woman bit her lower lip. "Yes."
Xena nodded. "There you go."
Liandra sighed, wiping away the last tears and composing herself. "So what is going on there?"
Xena took a breath. "There is a lot of fighting going on about who'll be heir to the throne. Several relatives are claiming their right. I'm sure if one caught Nyara and brought her into his custody he'd have a good chance of winning the throne."
"Or killed her if she was in the way..." Liandra's eyes widened in understanding and pain. "All this..." her brow furrowed, she made a gesture that encompassed the trek, "because of her?"
"No." Xena hated sensitive chats, and this was becoming a major one. That was usually Gabrielle's forte, and she really wanted to get out of this. "This happened because of the Persian's attack. The slavers? I'm sure Taelos wanted to have all the children, just because it's a good opportunity. But the chance that he's paid well for catching the big prize is good. Very likely, in fact."
"Oh, gods." Liandra sighed, her brow furrowing, and her eyes focussing on nothing in particular. From one moment to the next, she was propelled from being a simple woman to being in the middle of a royal dispute. Her mind was reeling while she was trying to encompass the facts. Her thoughts closed in on the one person she knew was there to help her, and she lifted her head to meet Xena's compassionate eyes. "Now what do we do?"
Xena felt the weight of responsibility settle on her shoulders like a blanket. Again. She closed her eyes for a moment before answering. "There will be a change of plan. Now that I know what Taelos is really after, it's actually easier to protect you."
"For a start - get out of these clothes again, huh?" Liandra pointed to the leathers. "Too bad."
Xena regarded her through squinted eyes. "No. Keep'em. It'll give the slavers two targets to choose from."
"You'll stay with the trek?"
"Yes." The warrior nodded, her mind pushing the puzzle pieces from one point to the next to form a new plan. "Now go along and tell Gabrielle. I have to talk to Palaemon."
Liandra nodded and turned to walk away, then stopped to look at Xena again. "I'm sorry I'm causing so much trouble, I'm..."
"It's alright. Don't worry about it." Xena placed one foot in Argo's stirrup and helped herself up into the saddle. "Go on."
The warrior turned her horse around and looked for Palaemon.
* * *
"Palaemon, we have to change the plan."
"We have to - what? Why?"
"The heir to the throne of Nacchos is with the trek, and that's what the slavers are after."
"The heir..." Palaemon's eybrows climbed. "Hera's tits."
"Yup." Xena agreed.
"Who is it?"
"Liandra's little girl."
"Oh... wow. Great." He looked confused. "Even more complications." He scratched his head.
"Look. We are the most vulnerable once we reach the river and have to cross there. Chances are the guy he's working for is waiting there for his merchandise - we can't risk it."
"So what are we going to do?"
"I need you, Tanos and Kippan to ride to Thessaly as fast as you can and inform friends of mine that we're in trouble - we need the enforcement."
"I can't leave you here unprotected!"
Xena smiled. In all his testosterone bravado, he was kind of cute. She raised an eyebrow, and when he met her eyes, he slowly dropped the act.
"But you wanted to go with us, Xena-"
"I can't leave her." The warrior interrupted him, quietly.
Their eyes met. For the life of him, Palaemon wouldn't have expected her to admit that. But the grave seriousness in Xena's eyes couldn't be dismissed.
"You and the other two, you can ride fast, as well. I promised to protect her, and I can't do that in Thessaly. I have to be right here for that."
Palaemon just nodded. "Let me tell the others."
"I'll make up a message for each one of you to deliver. You'll take three different routes to get there - if anyone turns up missing in action, at least one of the other two can deliver."
"It's that bad?"
Xena watched him turn his horse and went on her way to find Gabrielle and some parchment to write her messages on.
She found her bard in a severe state of upset.
"I heard," she said gravely. "You're staying with the trek, aren't you."
"What happened to Taelos and his camp?"
"Nothing. As far as I know, they're packing up as we speak."
"You wanted to go there and stop them and..."
"Gabrielle." Xena grabbed for one of Gabrielle's gesticulating arms and held it until Gabrielle met her eyes. "Gabrielle..."
Gabrielle looked annoyed. "What?"
"I'll send Palaemon, Tanos and Kippan to ride to Thessaly as fast as they can to notify the militia that we're in trouble. We need their help."
"Why don't you go, Xena? You wouldn't have to endanger three soldiers. You're faster than they are, and you'd be sure to get to the other side..." The young woman searched Xena's eyes. "It's because of me, isn't it? It's because I'm with the trek."
"That too." Xena admitted, looking down for a moment. She interrupted Gabrielle's next words with a silencing gesture. "But also because we are the trek's best chance to survive. Both of us. Together."
Gabrielle stared at her, trying to find out if Xena was truthful about what she said. Finally, after searching the warrior's features for a long time, she seemed to be satisfied with what she saw. "All right," she nodded. "What's the plan?"
* * *
The trek's progress wasn't compromised at all, while Xena dictated a letter to Gabrielle to be written. Two copies were made and all three were given to Tanos, Kippan and Palaemon. Each one of them were then instructed to give that letter to the head of the Thessaly militia, and Xena sent them on their way, each on a different route.
If I believed they cared, I'd pray to the gods for their welfare right now, she thought, watching as they disappeared along the roads. They would split up where the road forked into the main and the hill road to Thessaly, and Kippan would again take a detour all the way up on the hill where a crossroads was leading up to Larisa, and from there to Thessaly.
The warrior instructed the remaining soldiers to watch for spies from Taelos' band of ruffians. They were likely to be in the area, watching for what they were doing and a good moment to attack.
Gabrielle was sitting right on the front wagon by now, being a reliable liaison to Xena, who covered the rear. It was heartbreaking to watch Liandra guard her, when it was clear that her heart was with Nyara, who was still tucked in safely with her grandmother on one of the middle wagons.
Their short journey up to the crossing that would lead them uphill was a safe one. Xena watched for any sign of Taelos' men in the area, but couldn't find any. The suspicion that they would be waiting for them at the river crossing grew to be a certainty.
So far, so good. Xena took another short swig from the water skin that was hanging down her saddle. Everyone had settled down for a rest. It was past midday now, and the hardest part of their journey on their little detour was over. They were now resting right up on the peak of the small hill, giving them a beautiful view that no one paid any mind to.
Besides Xena, who did some serious scouting on her own. However, she didn't have a clear view of the river by way of the trees, so she had to give up after a while.
Xena was itching to move, but it was clear that they all needed a rest. Including me, she thought, and then: Did I just think that? I must be really tired!
She slowly let Argo walk along the trek, nodding back when some of the refugees greeted her, and keeping an eye on the wounded. So far, they had been extremely lucky. None of the wounds had opened again, and no unnecessary jostling of the wagons had happened, as the road was carefully tended and mostly sandy with just a few holes and rocks.
They all looked tired, but they were still in better spirits than when Xena had first met them. They had even taken the change of plan in stride, caring little as to how they'd get to Thessaly, as long as Xena delivered them relatively safely. The curious looks had mostly stopped as well. Granted, you didn't have a leather-clad former warlord with you every day, but after seeing how she helped where she could, and exuding all that confidence, if they didn't trust her by now, at least they didn't mistrust her anymore.
"Xena - I'm done, your turn!" Simon, one of the soldiers, spoke up from the other side of the trek.
Xena nodded, and a small smile was appearing on her face. "Thank you. Take the rear, will you?" She watched him nod and turn his bay horse to get to the rear.
Argo started to jog to bring her mistress up to the front wagon a little sooner. Liandra was still there, sharing a meal with Gabrielle, Eva and Golan.
Xena stopped the mare by the wagon and hopped off, with Argo looking for some tasty bushels of grass right away.
The warrior locked eyes with the younger woman who looked so much like herself. "Li, if you want to go check on Nyara..."
"Thank you." Liandra scrambled to her feet, jumped over the partition and made her way along the wagons back to the one carrying her daughter, mother and sister.
"Xena?" The warrior turned around to the owner of the hand that was placed over her bracer and met the warm green of Gabrielle's eyes. "Sit down?"
"Sure." There was a surprising touch of complacency in Xena's voice that made Gabrielle wonder. But Xena's hop onto the wagon was as energized as it usually was, and she didn't show any sign of being hurt.
"Want some of this?" Gabrielle handed her some meat, which Xena took. She needed it all, she knew, and it was much nicer to eat with Gabrielle by her side. In fact, just sitting down beside her helped already, as if the bard was a well of energy, ready to replenish Xena.
The warrior caught herself wishing she could just roll up right here in the bottom of the wagon, being watched over by her friend, and catch a few minutes of sleep. But of course, that was out of the question. She had to be the role model for everyone else, back straight, head up. It just got tiresome now, after a row of days that tested even this warrior's strength. So the smaller hand, warm and so familiar, that slipped into her own was very, very welcome.
Xena smiled at the woman at her side who smiled back when she swiftly switched hands and ate with her left instead of her right.
"More?" Gabrielle asked, and Xena arched an eyebrow, but nodded just enough for Gabrielle to notice.
Now the smaller hand snaked its way around the warrior's broad back and then settled on her hipbone, with a blond head snuggling on her shoulder and a very, very heavy but content sigh following by the bard.
Xena's stomach clenched. "I love you," she whispered, taking the chance to place a kiss on her friend's forehead.
"Love you right back," the bard returned, and merry green eyes twinkled up to Xena's blue ones. "Now that I started the mushy stuff, you have an excuse to snuggle back. Go ahead and rest for a moment, will ya?"
Oh, it was so tempting! Xena finished her meal, then her right arm took on a life of its own and finally encircled the shoulders of her friend. And somehow, Xena found her cheek on top of that soft, nice-smelling hair. Oh so comfortable... The warrior's eyes drifted shut, even though she knew she wasn't supposed to, and she just settled for the thought of being able to enjoy this so much... what a gift.
Gabrielle's eyes scanned the way before them, and her senses seemed to be more aware than usual, but she knew that for just this moment, as her warrior's protector, she had to be her eyes and ears. If just for a couple of moments...
Her eyes fell on Eva, who was sitting with her back against the partition, holding Golan, who had fallen asleep, and looking up at both of them.
They hadn't talked about the attack on her parents anymore. Eva had asked Gabrielle to tell a couple of stories to make Golan go to sleep there in the beginning, and somehow, even though she was so much younger than Gabrielle or Liandra, she had fit in as one of them right away. Not asking for a special "child" treatment at all. It was as if acting like an adult kept the memories and the pain at bay, to do what had to be done for her brother and around the wagon.
It's not my place to question her method of dealing with the pain, Gabrielle thought. And there could be worse than paying more attention to the people around you than to yourself. But I sure hope she'll find someone to care for her again. She's just too young to not have that.
"Do you want any more to eat?" she asked the girl quietly.
Eva shook her head. "Water?"
The bard nodded and pushed over one of the waterskins by her feet, carefully, as to not to jostle the warrior still resting on her shoulder. It was clear that Xena wouldn't sleep through her moving, but she still didn't want to disturb her. It was so precious that Xena even let herself rest like this.
But the form in her left arm stirred and sat up, stretching like a cat after her afternoon nap. No-one besides Gabrielle and Eva had seen that she had closed her eyes.
"Xena..." Gabrielle started, but the warrior smiled.
"It's fine, Gabrielle. Call it a warrior's catnap. Does wonders." She blinked. "Thank you."
Gabrielle smiled back, and her left hand found Xena's thigh. "You're welcome."
Xena looked at her, enjoying the warm hand on her thigh, the contact, and the friendly intimacy between them. Her friend looked better than yesterday and radiated a sense of comfort that was quite irresistible for the warrior. It made Gabrielle all the more beautiful in her eyes, and she felt that it had an effect on her that went beyond just feeling comfortable around the bard.
Gabrielle's eyebrows started to rise at the slightly out-of-this-world look in her friend's face. What did Xena see? "What do you see, Xena?" she asked, her voice barely above a whisper because unexpectedly, her throat had closed down on her.
"You." What an incredibly sappy thing to say, Xena mentally slapped herself. To make up for it, she grinned rakishly. "Quite a sight." She leaned forward, burying her face in the bard's fragrant hair and couldn't help but nip the succulent neck.
Delicious, she thought before pulling back and grinning all over again at Gabrielle's expression.
"Oh..." Gabrielle sighed. "That was nice."
"Uh-huh..." Xena purred, and a stray finger wandered up Gabrielle's arm. Snap out of it, Xena! This is not the time nor the place! Still, she found her eyes caught by Gabrielle's, and held them when the younger woman caught her hand and entwined their fingers.
"More and more reasons to get out of this in one piece," the bard commented, turning their hands and kissing Xena's knuckles, all the while watching her friend's expression. "Don't you think?"
"Mmmhh..." the warrior hummed. "Fast learner, huh?"
"Told you so." Gabrielle referred to their conversation over trying Xena's flip without her staff for help.
Their eyes kept contact over their raised, entwined hands for a long, long moment, before reluctantly breaking the contact as Xena realized that she needed to get up and going again.
"Gotta go..." she murmured, not wanting to let go of Gabrielle's hand.
"This is going to be the hard part, huh?"
"Yeah." Xena blew out a breath. "The path's too winding to do a long way of scouting now - and the chance that Taelos' men will show up grows with every foot we're traveling." She squeezed Gabrielle's hand a last time before letting go. "But no way will I let them take this from me - so they better watch out. An eyebrow rose in an imagined invitation to the attackers to just come and try her.
Gabrielle smiled, pleased that Xena was in much better spirits now than she was this morning. This had just been such a small, short exchange, but it helped both of them to believe what was happening between them. Every new look, or touch, made it more of a fact, of something to rely on, and fight for. She virtually felt recently inflicted emotional wounds if not close, at least not act as irritated anymore than they had just a few days ago.
"Already then. The warrior checked for her sword and chakram before getting up and hopping off the wagon. "Let's go! She nodded at both Gabrielle and Eva, giving each a smile, and wandered off to find Argo who was everything but pleased at her interrupted lunch.
Work had to be done and Xena was just the woman to do it.
* * *
The way down proved to be just as straining as the way up. Some of the load started to shift forward on the wagons and had to be secured again, and some of the wounded needed relocation as they complained about dizziness at lying the wrong way. For Xena, it was all minor adjustments, and she let the volunteers and Gabrielle handle what had to be done. Her attention was definitely directed forward, to secure the next bent, to scout ahead as much as she could without letting everyone out of her sight.
Her former exhaustion was nonexistent anymore, as she strained hearing and sight as much as she could. Apart from some bushes and the odd tree, the way was free for her to secure. The tricky part came down at the bottom, when they would be swallowed up by the woods again for some crucial moments before emerging into open land again, and closing in on the river.
Xena calculated that by now, one of her three messengers should have reached Thessaly, and if everything was going ok, help should be on the way. If everything was going ok.
The road was rockier now, with the odd root and rock to get over, which slowed down the trek. Xena certainly felt that they were between a rock and a hard place. To go slower could mean more time for help to arrive. To go slower could also mean that Taelos' men found out where they were and attacked up here before help arrived.
Xena just came back from scouting the next bend that was tucked under a rock overhang when the clamor started at the last few wagons of the trek, hidden behind a curve.
Sighing deeply, she kicked Argo into a short canter, passing the first few wagons until she arrived at the one surrounded by upset people.
The wagon stood at an odd angle, and Rufus was by its side, examining the damage. His face got redder by the moment as he vented his anger: "It's all this warrior woman's fault! If we had taken the regular road this wouldn't have happened! I can't believe this!
Gods, I am so sick of this... "Excuse me... Xena drawled, from all the way up her horse. "You were saying?
Rufus' head jerked up and he narrowed his eyes on her, stemming his fists into his burly sides. "I was saying that this perfectly working wagon of mine now has a broken wheel just because you decided we had to take this way up the hill. Not to mention the strain you put us all through and...
Xena's hearing shut down at his voice and she jumped down from Argo to examine the damage herself. True enough, two spokes were broken. Xena's thoughts were racing through their possibilities. Relocating the wounded from this wagon was out of the question. There just wasn't any space. She had to repair the damage, and that as fast as she could.
She took a step closer to Rufus, who kept up his tirade until his eyes met those ice cold ones and he recognized the signs of severe, cold anger. His started to stutter and then, grew quiet.
Xena raised a brow at him. "Done? Good. Go use your breath at finding me some tools. We gotta repair that wheel. And when he kept staring at her, "Tools, you know? Hammer, some nails. Get on with it! A part of her enjoyed his scrambling when he finally got into motion.
Next, she addressed the soldier closest to her. "Simon, go guard the front. Take some of the boys with you. I'm going to be busy with this for a moment.
He nodded and put his steed into a trot, aiming for the front of the trek.
"Ok - let's get the wounded off the wagon for a moment... She assigned helpers and shortly thereafter, the wagon was empty, and she was handed the desired tools. She didn't want anything more than to get back to her place at the front of the trek, but this had to be done. The sooner I'm done with this, the sooner I'm back up there, she thought, while hitching up the wagon with one shoulder, and watching one of the men put a rock under the axle to support it. See if one of my many skills comes handy right about now.
* * *
Gabrielle strained at hearing what happened behind them, but had to wait until Simon came up to her position.
"What happened? she asked.
He shrugged. "A wheel broke back there. Xena's repairing it.
"Does she need any help?
He eyed the bard from head to toe, then back, before he addressed her. "Looks like she has everything under control to me. It was clear from his expression that he was seriously asking himself if she even understood what was going on.
Gabrielle was worried. She wanted nothing more than check on Xena herself, but it was clear from what the warrior had told her that she was needed in the position she was in. Nervously, she shifted on her bench, always followed by Eva's dark eyes.
The bard checked on her staff again, on anything else that could be used as a weapon, and on the supply of small rocks they kept with them as ammunition for the boys as well as easy-to-use projectiles for anyone strong enough to throw them. Her palms started to sweat as she scanned the road before her again and again. No sign of trouble was to be seen, still, her uneasiness grew.
It was as if Xena was taking very, very long to be done with her repair while Simon just sat there on top of his horse, doing nothing.
"Simon... Gabrielle tried again, and the soldier turned his head to look her way. "Would you go and scout ahead again? It's been a while since Xena did that, and I don't have a good feeling about this.
"Things are going to be fine, he said, obviously belittling her. "Don't you worry about it.
Gabrielle grabbed her staff and leaned on it as she stood up. "Now look, she said, in a no-nonsense tone. "We are here, providing a very nice, unmoving target, and all I ask you to do is to scout ahead and see if there is trouble waiting and...
"Xena told me to guard the front, and that's what I'm doing, he said, stubbornly.
Gabrielle clenched her teeth, then turned around to Liandra who was leaning against the wagon and listening attentively. "Liandra, would you go and let Xena know what is going on here?
"Of course. Liandra straightened and shot the soldier an angry look. "The gods know you shouldn't be in active duty anymore, she hissed. "Blockhead.
Gabrielle's eyebrows shot up and her eyes followed the retreating woman. "Hell-o... she muttered to herself before fastening her eyes on the recalcitrant soldier again who, no doubt, thought exactly the same about her. He didn't move one bit and stubbornly stood his ground, while Gabrielle's discomfort grew. Something is wrong, and though I can't put my finger on what it is, I don't like it one bit.
Liandra was only a few feet away from the heavily sweating warrior who just put the last touches on the broken wheel when a high pitched scream pierced the air and all motion seemed to stop.
* * *
With a heavy thud the arrow landed squarely in Simon's chest, leaving the veteran soldier no time to realize he was dying. He slumped forward on his horse and fell off when it shied from the arrows piercing the earth around it.
"Scream, Eva. Scream as loud as you can!
Even while Gabrielle was shouting this to the girl on her wagon, she grabbed her staff and jumped down. Her shoulder hurt incredibly when she landed, the white hot pain taking her breath away for a moment. When she opened her eyes again, she saw four of Taelos' men pelting down from the overhang they had hidden behind, charging the front of the trek with drawn swords and loud shouts. Gabrielle didn't lose time and ran up to them, intent on stopping their assault, her barely healed ankle completely forgotten.
Eva's thin voice pitched up in a high scream as Gabrielle was running, and it pierced the bard's ears almost painfully. That's it Eva, don't stop doing that, she thought when she confronted the first man with her staff. She knew he'd know that she'd favor her healthy shoulder, trying to keep the strain off her arrow wound. She feigned a blow with that side just to reverse the motion and take out his legs from under him in a backhanded sweep. Her teeth clenched at the pain the impact caused in her shoulder and stepped on his sword before she delivered a blow to his head that made his body go limp.
"Xena! she yelled, and again "Xena! before taking on the next man who circled her carefully and feigned a couple of attacks to see how she would react before deciding on his blow. She went with his motions but already felt that she slowed down with pain and fatigue. This little exercise sure hadn't been in her book of How do I heal up really fast. Where in Tartarus was her partner?
The man's sword came down to her right, then to her left, and she blocked each blow, trying to get a stab in of her own that would knock him off balance. But he was very agile and seemed to be able to know where she would attack next before she did. When he finally knocked her staff out of her hands and threw it aside, Gabrielle felt that the end was near.
When Xena heard Eva's scream, not only did she know that something was completely wrong, she also dropped everything she was doing right there and then and broke out into a dead run to get to the trek's front at an incredible speed. I promised I would protect her, and here look at me, repairing a wheel instead of being at her side. A great protector I am! She couldn't even see what was going on because the trek's first wagons were standing around the bend.
Everyone else was trying to get to the front as well to see what was going on, and Xena unceremoniously pushed some of the refugees to the side to get where her heart screamed for her to get to.
She sped around the bend, and her eyes fell on the scene before her. Her heart nearly stopped. Here was Gabrielle, bravely defending herself with her staff against opponents armed with swords, and her shoulder wound was bleeding freely. Xena was too far away to do anything but stare in disbelief and fury at the armored man knocking the staff from her soulmate's grip and raising his sword to deliver the last blow.
"Nooooooooo..." Xena heard a voice scream. Was it her own? It didn't seem to matter, she was too far away to do anything should the men be successful. She, who had promised to protect Gabrielle with all she was, with all she could be, had failed. The love of her life was going to be killed right in front of her eyes.
Gabrielle's eyes were fastened on the raised sword, and somehow, a quiet calm settled on her. She looked at the sword, certain she would be dead in a few moments, and all she could think of was the calm she would see on the other side. I accepted the consequences of our life together... she remembered her words to Xena in the barn just a few days ago. Every day, she was facing the possibility of losing her life, and she had accepted that as being a part of the life she had chosen. Acknowledging and accepting the fact again every morning when she woke up. "I'm sorry, Xena," she whispered, her heart hurting for the pain her death would cause the warrior. "I'm sorry."
And then the man in front of her just dropped, and gave Gabrielle free sight of said warrior in full battle mode, fury written on her features, and running at high speed. The bard felt her knees go weak with relief, and she fell down on them, now getting a good look at the chakram sticking out of her former opponent's back.
Xena sure was a sight to behold, launching into the flip with her battle cry now, and landing exactly between the two remaining men, decapitating both unceremoniously with one arced swing of her sword. Her breath was going fast as she ran up to the rock overhang to check for more band members to come, but there were none to be seen, and the warrior's fury had to find another outlet. She bound down to check on the man Gabrielle had knocked down, and finding him still alive, she delivered two swift stabs to his neck and glared at him, watching with satisfaction as his eyes bulged out with fear and lack of air.
"Ok, you have thirty seconds to tell me where Taelos hangs out with the rest of you scum. Otherwise - no blood to your brain, you'll die. Spill it."
The man coughed and tried to speak, but there was only sputter to be heard. "He..." cough, cough "...river ford," he rasped.
Xena nodded with satisfaction. "Who is he delivering for?" She nudged the man with her foot when he didn't answer right away.
"Eliam of Nacchos," he got out with a hoarse voice.
"Aah... the former king's bastard son. Interesting." Xena tapped her chin with an evil grin on her face.
The man choked and pointed to his neck to make her remove the block, which she did, following up with another blow to his head that made him lose consciousness again.
She got up and finally turned to Gabrielle, who was still on her knees, a forlorn expression on her face.
Xena was by her side in an instant, looking at her intently. "Are you ok, Gabrielle?"
"Yeah..." The green eyes lifted to meet Xena's blue ones. "Thank you for rescuing me once again."
Xena smiled sadly. "You were so brave - and I wasn't here to help."
"But you were here, weren't you? Don't know anyone else who carries one of those," she pointed to the chakram, still sticking out of her attacker's back.
And then her eyes rolled up and she fainted, right into Xena's arms.
...continued in Part 4
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