For disclaimers see Part 1 .
Disclaimer for Part 3: This part delves deeper into the relationship between our two characters and may contain material that should not be viewed by those under 18 or anyone who resides in a place where this sort of thing is illegal. Be warned.
Feedback is fantastic and can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org . Enjoy!
Neither woman wanted to contemplate what the gods were up to at that particular moment, so they just put all thoughts of the deities out of their minds as they headed down the road that would take them to their destination. Some hard manual labor was what they both needed to put all thoughts of gods and armies completely from their minds.
“Hey, Jace!” Xena called to a group of men standing next to the framework of a large building.
“Yo, Xena!” The older blond man turned and waved at the two approaching women. “Good to have you here to help us today,” he said as he held an arm out to her.
Up close, Gabrielle noticed that the man's blond hair was peppered with gray. His skin was tanned by the sun and he wore the customary clothing worn by most of the villagers in Amphipolis—rust-brown pants and a dark-blue tunic with a lighter blue sash around his waist to hold his tunic in place.
Xena took Jace's arm and shook it, then glanced at the others with a quick nod. “You ready to get those walls up today?”
“It'll be good to finish this job,” the man smirked. “The council members are grumbling that the rebuilding is taking far longer than it should. They're not happy that the grain is being stored in those old root cellars scattered around town.”
“If they would help, instead of sitting on their butts in their nice, new council chambers, it would go a lot quicker,” another man stepped forward and offered an arm to each woman. “Name's Breniden,” he said with a wary half-smile. “Jace said you would be joining us, Xena.”
A dark brow rose at the man's words. “Nice to meet you, Breniden. I had the pleasure of meeting your father just yesterday.”
Xena took in the man's appearance. He looked like any other villager, except for the slight remnants of something in his eyes that Xena knew all too well. It was the same wistful sadness that she'd seen in the eyes of some of her men after a difficult campaign. Many never lived long enough for her to know if it was permanent or not. Now she knew.
“Father mentioned it,” he nodded. “He also said he thanked you for what you did for me. I wanted to thank you, too, Xena. Things turned out better than I could have hoped for.” He then returned to the group milling about near the unfinished shed without another word.
“We'll raise this wall after we get a few more supports cut to the size we need,” Jace said. “Once we have all the walls up, we can get to work on the roof. I'm hoping to be done with most of it before dusk.”
“Shouldn't be a problem,” Xena said. “We'll help out wherever you need us. I'm pretty good with a hammer and Gabrielle…”
“…has a thing about heights,” the bard chimed in quickly. “I'll do anything you need, as long as I don't have to get up there,” she pointed to the framed roof high above. She caught Xena's questioning look. “It's why I never asked the Amazons to teach me how to fight in the trees.”
“Huh, learn something new every day, I guess,” Xena shrugged.
Jace glanced from one woman to the other. “I'll let you two sort out what you want to do, then,” he said and rejoined the other men.
“Maybe I should just go see if your mother needs help,” Gabrielle said.
Xena turned to face her partner with a raised brow. “Since when are you afraid of heights, Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle glanced up at the sloped framework high above. “I am not getting up there, Xena, no matter how much you argue with me on this.”
“Why not?” The warrior glared at the smaller woman. “What's so different about being up there than being down here? Are you afraid?”
“I'm not afraid,” Gabrielle countered. “I'm just not willing to put my life in the hands of a bunch of farmers-turned-carpenter. How do we know that framework will hold when we start climbing around on it?”
“You are afraid of heights,” Xena reiterated.
“No,” Gabrielle shook her head. “I'm just not getting up there.” She shifted positions.
“Bad experience from childhood?” Xena deduced with a knowing gleam.
Gabrielle hesitated, then shrugged. “I hid in a tree once to get away from some kids who were teasing me about my stories,” she finally said. “I climbed up higher than I'd ever climbed before, in the hopes that they wouldn't see me.”
“What happened?” Xena prodded when the woman didn't continue.
“The branch I settled on broke,” Gabrielle absently rubbed her backside. “I fell all the way to the ground and landed on…well, you know,” she patted her butt. “Hit every branch on the way down and was bruised from head to toe for half a moon. Had to sleep on my stomach longer than that because I broke my tailbone. The kids teased me unmercifully after that. Called me all kinds of names, including Graceful Gabrielle.”
Xena tried hard to keep the laughter from her voice with her next words. “So, you don't do high places.”
“I'm fine with lofts and ladders,” Gabrielle admitted. “I just don't do really high places. And I definitely don't do trees. I tried to climb a tree once, after I had fully recovered from the fall, and got so nauseous that I had to stop before I'd reached the lowest branch.” She shook her head and sighed in exasperation. “Haven't tried to climb one since.”
“Maybe you should try,” Xena eyed the nearest tree. “You can't keep giving in to fear, Gabrielle. It'll just paralyze you when you least expect it to.”
“Speaking from experience, Xena?” Gabrielle shot the tall warrior a wry smirk.
Xena shrugged. “I'm as human as the next person.”
“So, what puts a chill of foreboding down your spine?” Gabrielle asked. “I don't think I've ever seen you scared of anything.”
“Rats,” Xena answered with a shudder. “Hate the little bastards more'n anything. But I don't let ‘em get to me anymore.”
“Got locked in a cellar once,” Xena continued.
“Let me guess, there were rats in the cellar?”
“You got it,” Xena nodded once. “They'd eaten all the grain and were looking for their next meal.”
It was Gabrielle's turn to shudder. “Ew, please don't tell me you were it.”
“I didn't have anything on me that I could use as a weapon to keep them away,” Xena said. Her eyes took on a faraway look as she remembered that long-ago time. “I was in there for two days and three nights before someone finally came looking for me.”
“So, what happened?” Gabrielle asked. “With the rats, I mean.”
“I killed ‘em all,” Xena said. “But not before they managed to bite and scratch my entire body. They chewed holes in my clothes while I slept and chewed right through my leather shoes. Mother was pissed about the shoes, because they were brand new and cost her most of our meager savings at the time.”
“How'd you get locked in the cellar in the first place?” Gabrielle asked curiously.
“Hide and seek,” Xena said, as she grabbed a hammer from the ground and walked toward a pile of rough-hewn lumber. “Lyceus, a bunch of the boys and I were playing at dusk, despite the fact Mother was calling us in for the evening meal. Numerous cellars were dug beneath the buildings to hold grain and other goods. This particular one was located under the house of a man who had died the previous winter. No one even knew it existed, until Mother launched a full-scale search when she found my bed empty the next morning. Lyceus finally told her he hadn't seen me after we all hid from him. I guess he just assumed I'd camped out in one of my favorite tree forts or something.”
“That doesn't explain how you got locked in, Xena,” Gabrielle said as she took one end of a board and helped Xena carry it to over to where a wall was being put together on the ground.
“The cellar was really small and the only reason I knew about it was I'd seen the trap door in Parseus' floor when we'd visited him before he died the previous winter,” Xena said as she went to work hammering the board alongside the others that would eventually form an outside wall. “I saw the outline of the door beneath a rug he'd haphazardly thrown over it. Anyway, when I went to hide I had no idea the latch could only be opened from the outside. So, I pulled the door down once I was inside and…snick, the thing latched and I was trapped.”
“With the rats.”
“With the hungry rats,” Xena nodded as she hammered in the last nail and returned to the pile for another board.
“It must have been awful for you,” Gabrielle said as she helped Xena carry another board.
“Wasn't a picnic,” Xena agreed. “Can't help but cringe when I see a rat run by in an alleyway, even today.”
“But you conquered your fear,” Gabrielle said as she lowered her end the board next to the others. “How?”
Xena went to work hammering the board onto the crosspieces. “When I see a rat and that feeling comes over me, I just tell myself that it can't hurt me. Sometimes I have to repeat it a few times, but eventually the fear subsides.”
Gabrielle raised a skeptical brow at Xena's bowed head. “You will your fear away? Just like that?”
Xena looked up and met the skeptical look with a confident smirk. “Just like that,” she shrugged nonchalantly. “Works every time.”
“I don't think it would work like that for me, Xena,” Gabrielle shook her head.
“For me it isn't just a cringe that races through me when I try to climb higher than a few steps up a ladder,” Gabrielle answered. “I actually become physically nauseous to the point that I know I'm going to retch if I don't immediately get my feet back on the ground. My palms get all sweaty and my whole body shakes so badly that I can barely move.”
Xena jumped to her feet and stood there with her hands on her hips. “Sounds like we have our work cut out for us, then.”
The warrior returned to the lumber pile and hefted one of the long, heavy boards onto her shoulder without waiting for Gabrielle to help her. She carried the board over to the nearly-completed wall and tossed it next to the others.
“I'm not climbing any trees, Xena,” Gabrielle finally said. “I am very happy to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground, thank you very much.”
“We'll see,” Xena said as she just continued her work.
Olympus was surrounded by a bank of fluffy clouds as Athena stood defiantly facing her darker half-brother. Despite her smaller stature and lighter coloring, she was a perfect match against the brooding God of War who had his arms crossed over his leather-clad chest.
“I won't tolerate your interference again, Ares,” Athena said with a glimmer of anger in her sparkling blue eyes. “You got in our way the last time we went up against Xena and her little friend. That fiasco cost us dearly.”
“Her name's Gabrielle, Sis,” Ares corrected. “And I didn't really do anything when you and Artemis put on that little farce you call an inquisition. If anything, Gabrielle put you both in your place in front of all those dead Amazons.”
“She lied,” Athena groused. “No mortal lies to me and gets away with it.”
Ares snickered. “Gabrielle did.”
She glared daggers at him. “Knock it off, Ares. She hasn't gotten away with it, yet. I can still use what she did to my advantage.”
“Are you gonna bring up that whole consort thing again? ‘Cause I don't think Xena or Gabrielle cares what we think about their relationship anymore. Aphrodite's seen to it that they've cozied up real nicely together. Ugh! Makes me sick just thinking about all that lost potential.”
Athena rounded on him. “What did you just say?”
“What?” He shrugged in confusion. “I said it's too bad Xena's hooked her claws into that little…”
“No, the part about lost potential,” a faraway look came into her eyes as she looked past him. “That's exactly what we need to harness. Those two have more potential combined than any mortals we've yet encountered. But, so far, none of us has thought to use the Queen of the Amazons to our advantage.”
“Artemis tried,” Ares shrugged.
“She doesn't have half my cunning in matters like this,” Athena gave him a sly glance. “She was thinking only of stopping Gabrielle from making Xena her consort. She never looked beyond that to what lies ahead for both of them—and us—if Gabrielle did just that.”
“Oh, please, not you, too,” Ares rolled his eyes. “You're starting to sound like Aphrodite. Next thing you'll be going all gaga over them and watching them when they…um…” His eyebrows hiked at the sudden realization that hit him. “On second thought…”
“You're not allowed, Ares,” Athena shot a droll glare in his direction. “You know Father won't allow you to get within a league of Xena or Gabrielle after what Aphrodite told him about the little part you played on that mountaintop. He still blames you for what happened to Xena and Gabrielle in Illusia.”
“He has no sense of irony,” Ares groused. “He thinks all I want to do is bed the wench and produce an offspring who will take over Greece in my name.”
“Isn't that exactly what you want?” Athena's auburn brow rose as she looked at him matter-of-factly. “Xena wouldn't be your conqueror, so now you're convinced that a child between the two of you will be just the thing to carry out your twisted plan. Isn't that right?”
“Well,” he shrugged and set a hand under his chin as he rested his arm on the other crossed over his chest. “You could certainly deduce that…”
“Oh, give me a break, Ares,” the goddess rolled her eyes in exasperation. “It's no secret that you've been hatching a plan to get Xena with your child, so you can use that child to carry out your plans to conquer the civilized world in your name. You're after more followers. What better way to increase their meager numbers than with a child you can bend to your will. And what better mother for said child than the very woman who almost conquered the known world and who has the power to stand against the gods.”
“How about her protégé?” Ares smirked.
Athena's brow rose into her hairline. “You're serious?” She asked skeptically. “You're not after Xena at all, are you? You're now targeting…Gabrielle?”
Ares' expression went blank. “Let's just say I'm keeping a close eye on her, for the time being. You never know what she might eventually become, given the proper motivation and training.”
“Ugh! Ares, you can't really believe that Gabrielle would ever betray Xena,” the goddess exclaimed. “You know how mortals are when they fall in love with each other. They become loyal to a fault…at least the ones who discover what Aphrodite calls ‘true love.' She says the love that exists between them is just that—true love. Ugh! Just the thought of it sickens me.”
“Not my concern,” Ares said with a confident grin. “I've managed to get around that little detail on more than one occasion and with very satisfying results, I might add.” Athena shot him a confused look. “Oh, I know what you're thinking.”
“I'm sure you don't,” she answered drolly.
“You think I'm going to use that tired old trick that Dad uses all the time to spread his seed throughout the mortal world,” Ares said and watched her interest peek. “Of course, I haven't been above using it when the situation—or a beautiful woman—called for me to step up to the challenge.” He adjusted his belt proudly. “There are a number of lucky women out there who've been blessed with a child who vaguely resembles me, at least in deed, if not looks. But that's not what I have in mind this time around.”
“So, what are you cooking up in that scrambled brain of yours, little brother?” Athena glared at him with her arms crossed over her ample bosom. “Please don't tell me you're going to try to turn Gabrielle to your illustrious cause.”
“For me to know and you…well,” he shrugged. “You'll eventually find out, I'm sure.” He turned away from her and then glanced back with a wink. “Don't be surprised if my plan works and yours falls flat. After all,” he shot over his shoulder, as he walked down the pristinely white hallway of the palace of the gods, “I know Xena better than you ever will.”
Athena stood there in brooding silence as Ares' words echoed off the marble walls around her.
“Can't we just do some staff practice, instead?” Gabrielle fairly whined as Xena stood behind her. “It would be much less painful for both of us, I assure you.”
“Not today, love,” Xena said as she put her hands on the smaller woman's waist. “Just trust me, will ya?”
“I have serious doubts here, Xena,” Gabrielle answered. “Staff practice is so much more…beneficial. After all, wasn't it you who said I needed to increase my stamina? That lung infection really sapped my reserves.”
“Your reserves were replenished weeks ago, Gabrielle,” Xena countered. “Matter of fact, you've improved a lot with all the conditioning and the workouts we've been doing every morning. I shoulda thought of that long ago. Now, trust me in this, too. Time to face your fear.”
“Xena, this is a really bad idea,” Gabrielle protested vehemently, as she reached up and grabbed hold of the gnarled branch above her head. “We just ate a big noon meal. I really don't want to revisit your mom's venison stew anytime soon.”
The warrior helped boost the smaller woman up until she was able to pull herself onto the low branch. “It's not that high, Gabrielle. Stop complaining.”
“I'm not complaining,” Gabrielle groused as she settled on the branch with a death grip around the trunk that turned her knuckles white. “I just don't want to throw up. I hate throwing up, even when my stomach hurts so much that a good upchuck is the only option for relief.”
The warrior sprang deftly onto a nearby branch and stood there in triumph. “You have to conquer this unreasoning fear, Gabrielle. Sitting up in this tree is the best way to do it.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes tightly against the swaying of the tree, as Xena settled on the branch across from her. “I-I can't look. I'm gonna be sick.”
“Open your eyes, Gabrielle,” Xena ordered in a gentle tone. “We're not up that high.”
“High enough,” Gabrielle stubbornly kept her eyes shut tight.
“Not much higher than the first two rungs on a ladder,” Xena prodded. “You managed that without even flinching just a few candlemarks ago.”
“It wasn't a tree,” the bard remarked. “I told you I don't do trees, Xena. What about that don't you understand?”
“Ladders were trees once,” Xena tried a different tact. “You're not afraid of ladders, so you shouldn't be afraid of trees.”
“Ladders don't have branches that break when you sit on them,” Gabrielle countered and peeked one green eye at the woman near her. “They aren't trees after you cut ‘em down and shave off all the bark and leaves.”
“Okay, fine,” Xena sighed. “You win.” She jumped easily from the branch and landed on her feet. “I give up.”
“Xena?” Gabrielle said when the silence stretched on far longer than she was comfortable with. “Xena, are you still there?”
“I don't know, Gabrielle, maybe you should open your eyes and find out,” the warrior deadpanned.
“Please don't leave me up here by myself, Xena,” Gabrielle pleaded in a timid voice.
“It's gonna be a long night for you, bard,” Xena shot over her shoulder as she started walking away. “Enjoy the night air.”
“Xena?” Gabrielle's voice was suddenly filled with panic. “You cannot be serious that you're going to leave me up here!”
Xena stopped and turned back with a heavy sigh. “Okay, fine. But first you have to open your eyes and look at me.”
“Not gonna happen until my feet are firmly on the ground,” the bard argued.
Xena crossed her arms over her chest. “Then you're gonna be spending the night on that branch. Hope you enjoy having splinters in your…”
“Xena, please!!!” Gabrielle pleaded more vehemently.
“Open your eyes!!!”
“Open ‘em, or else,” Xena softened her tone, but kept the firmness in it. “I'm waiting.”
“Okay, fine,” Gabrielle huffed as she opened both eyes and glared daggers at the woman standing a short distance away.
“Now, that wasn't so bad, was it?” Xena grinned triumphantly as she walked back to the tree.
“It's Hades on earth, Xena,” Gabrielle gritted out. “Now, get me down from here.”
“Okay,” Xena said as she moved closer to the tree, but not close enough to be within easy reach. “Come on. I'll catch you.”
“No,” Gabrielle shook and shut her eyes again. “You need to be closer, Xena.”
“Gabrielle,” Xena said. “You can't stay on that branch all night. I know you. You'll eventually fall fast asleep up there and then take a header and break your neck. I just happen to love that beautiful neck of yours and don't want to see it all mangled.”
With a blush, Gabrielle opened her eyes and peered down at Xena's outstretched arms. “Closer, Xena, or I'm not doing this.”
“Oh, for the love of…” Xena moved close enough to touch the bard's booted foot. “Is this close enough for you? You are such a chicken about this, Gabrielle.” She did a reasonably good imitation of a clucking chicken and added a rooster call for good measure.
Gabrielle took a deep breath, opened both eyes and let go of the rough bark. Her utter trust in the warrior's ability to catch her was never in question as she pushed off from the branch and dropped into Xena's outstretched arms. When she felt those arms wrap protectively around her, she breathed a sigh of relief.
“Good catch,” Gabrielle whispered against Xena's ear. “You are such a brat, though.”
“Nice jump,” Xena said, as she slowly lowered the bard to the ground and took a step back to allow the bard some room to breathe. “The first step is always the hardest, Gabrielle.”
The bard glanced behind her and noticed something. “You moved.”
A dark brow rose matter-of-factly. “You jumped.”
“I dropped,” Gabrielle countered. “You moved.”
“You're safe,” the warrior conceded with a wry smirk. “That's all that matters.”
“I…” warm lips stopped any further protest. “Okay, so it wasn't so bad after all,” Gabrielle finally conceded when the kiss ended. “I guess I can try again tomorrow.”
“We're heading to Potidea tomorrow,” Xena said as she started back toward her mother's inn.
“We are?” Gabrielle said breathlessly when she finally caught up to Xena. “I thought we weren't going there until we were finished with the rebuilding. Why the sudden change in plans?”
Xena continued on in silence until she was standing at the back door of the kitchen. She turned to face the smaller woman. “My mother.”
“Your…Xena, what does Cyrene have to do with this?” Gabrielle looked around and realized she'd never been to this door before. “And why are we back here?”
“Privacy,” Xena stated flatly.
“The couple in the room next to ours complained about the noise we made last night,” Xena stated. “Apparently it's not the first complaint Mother's had while we've been here.”
Gabrielle blushed to her roots. “Oh.”
“It seems we were a bit…um…too loud and boisterous for their tastes,” Xena said. “They left, but not before complaining about what they heard.” She did her level best to keep her expression completely neutral. “Mother cornered me this morning and told me in no uncertain terms to knock it off, before she loses more business because of it. She wants us sleeping in separate beds from now on, but…”
Gabrielle eyed the silent warrior who wouldn't meet her gaze. “But?” She prodded.
Xena stepped up to Gabrielle and took her hands. “I can't…I don't want to sleep in separate beds. But I also don't think I can…um…” Xena looked away and wouldn't meet the smaller woman's expectant eyes.
Gabrielle tried to catch Xena's gaze and could sense the uncertainty in her partner's body language. “What can't you do, Xena? Talk to me.”
Xena blew out a frustrated breath. “I can't sleep in the same bed with you and not touch you, Gabrielle,” the warrior ground out as she ran the backs of her fingers against the bard's cheek. “I just can't do it. And I don't want to sleep in separate beds, either. I like cud…I enjoy holding you in my arms. But I also don't think I can hold you without…um…well, you know. It's become so natural between us that I just don't think I can do without it. And when we're doing ‘it' I just can't stay…um…quiet. You drive me wild.”
Gabrielle smiled. “And by ‘it' you mean sex?”
Xena rolled her eyes and sighed. “Yes, that's exactly what I mean.” She lowered her eyes.
“You are so cute when you try to talk about sex, Xena,” Gabrielle said. “Speaking of which, do you really think my parents are going to have less of a problem when they find out we're lovers?” Gabrielle asked quietly as she leaned into Xena's touch. “You know how my father feels about you as it is, Xe.”
“Uh,” Xena raised startled blue eyes and met laughing green ones. “Guess I never gave that a thought.”
“Yeah, not something I've given much thought to, either,” Gabrielle agreed. “I still haven't figured out how we're going to tell them that we're a couple, much less that we share the same bed or bedroll. They're not exactly the most open-minded and progressive people I know.” She shrugged. “I mean, if I'd been able to bring Perdicus home to them as my husband, they'd have been thrilled. But…” She couldn't finish the thought.
“I get it. I'm not exactly ideal spousal material,” Xena finished with a wry grin.
“You're perfect spousal material, Xena,” Gabrielle rose on her tiptoes and was mildly surprised when Xena met her halfway, as they shared a stolen kiss. “I love you more and more each day and count myself truly blessed that I had the courage to chase after you when I did.”
Xena pulled Gabrielle into a hug and reveled in the feel of the woman against her. “Same here, love.” She kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. “So, what are we going to do about the parent issue?”
Gabrielle snorted against Xena's breastplate. “I vote that we avoid the issue altogether.”
Xena considered that option for a moment. “Probably not the best solution you've come up with, bard.”
“I'm not the one who comes up with the solutions to our problems, Xena,” Gabrielle replied. “The pigskin's in your hands on this one.”
“I don't play that game,” Xena chuckled. “You'll have to show me sometime.”
“Not my area of expertise, either,” Gabrielle pulled back enough to see the gleam of mischief in the warrior's eyes. “I'm a bard, remember?”
“Maybe we should put our heads together and come up with a solution together, then,” Xena put her forehead against Gabrielle's. “Two heads are better than one, you know.”
“Unless those two heads are attached to a huge dog's body,” Gabrielle snorted, “a dog that belongs to a certain God of War, who shall remain nameless, lest he make an appearance and ruin this special moment.”
“Or a hydra,” Xena added with a wry smirk. “Okay, I guess it was a bad analogy all the way around. The point is we should be able to come up with a solution of our own.”
“We could stick around here and just set up camp somewhere nearby,” Gabrielle suggested. “The weather hasn't been too bad lately.” She glanced up at the wispy clouds overhead. “At least the rain stopped.”
“It's gonna rain again tonight,” Xena added. “I'm not a big fan of spending the night outside in the wet.”
“Oh, not such a good idea, then.”
“No,” Xena agreed. “I finished the last of the repairs to the roof in the hay loft above the stables. We could stay up there. It has nice, soft hay for us to sleep on and the roof shouldn't leak.”
Gabrielle considered the idea. “That has definite possibilities,” she smiled up into expectant blue eyes. “I don't think anyone would hear us up there.”
“And if they did hear something, they would just think the horses were…um…uh…” Xena winced.
“I get the point, Xena,” Gabrielle let her partner off the hook. “Any noise we make will just be attributed to horsey antics.”
“Yeah,” Xena chuckled. “I've been called many things in this lifetime, but a horse hasn't really made the list yet.”
Gabrielle shifted until she could look at Xena's backside. “I don't see a tail.”
“Hardy har har,” Xena playfully swatted the bard on the backside. “I'll tell my mother that she won't need to worry about her inn's precious reputation.”
“You want me to tell her, instead?” Gabrielle gave the taller woman a raised-brow look. “I mean, you're not exactly a woman of words, Xena.”
“I can tell my mother that we're staying in the loft, Gabrielle,” Xena said. “It's not like I'm telling her that I'm pregnant or something.”
Gabrielle snickered. “As if,” and then she sobered. “You never did tell her about Solon, did you?”
The stoic mask fell instantly in place on the warrior's face. “Do not even go there, Gabrielle.”
“Xena, she has a right to know,” Gabrielle continued soberly. “He was her grandchild, after all.”
“He's dead and his soul is in the Elysian Fields, where it belongs,” Xena said. “There's no reason to bring up his existence to my mother. She has enough on her mind these days.”
“He would want her to know, Xena,” Gabrielle said quietly when the warrior turned away in an effort to end the discussion. “It would make him happy to hear his grandmother's thoughts, even in the Fields.”
Xena stood with her back to Gabrielle, as the words sank in. She finally nodded slightly. “I'll tell her when the time is right. Please, just let me do it on my own, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle moved forward and wrapped her arms around Xena from behind. “I promise I won't say a word to her until you do.”
Xena turned in the bard's embrace and smiled. “Thank you.”
“You're welcome,” she answered and welcomed the smoldering kiss that they shared with a promise of things to come. “Can't wait to see what it's like making love to you in a hay loft. I don't think we've ever done that before.”
A dark brow rose as Xena considered the bard's words. “No, I believe you're right about that. I guess we can mark this one as a first.”
“You're keeping track?”
“Always,” Xena answered and they both chuckled.
Xena and Gabrielle both turned at the sound of the latch on the door behind them. The door swung open and a large woman filled the doorway. Her eyes went wide at the sight of the two women in each other's arms.
“Gods on Olympus !” The portly woman gasped and nearly dropped the heavy bucket of garbage she was carrying. “What are ye doin' back ‘ere?!? No one's allowed back ‘ere ‘cept…”
Xena stepped back from her smaller partner and turned a raised-brow glare on the woman. “Except Cyrene 's daughter?” She asked with hands on hips.
“ Cyrene 's da…” Sudden realization dawned in the woman's gray eyes. “Oooohhh,” she said as she lifted her load into both arms, holding the bucket like a shield in front of her. “You're Xena, then.”
“That's right, she is,” Gabrielle piped in. “And you are?”
“Aris,” the woman said. “I'm the cook ‘ere at the inn. And ye would be?” She shot back with a glare at the smaller woman.
Xena's expression softened as she placed a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. “This is Gabrielle.”
It took a moment for the name to register. “Ah, you're the bard what tells stories ‘ere after I leave for ‘ome.”
“Yes,” Gabrielle nodded.
“Xena and Gabrielle,” the woman repeated the names, as if she were committing them to memory. “Xena, the Warrior Princess and Gabrielle, the famous traveling bard. My Plathos mentioned ‘e met ye just yesterday,” Aris' eyes took in the tall warrior in leather and armor. “Said ye bought a trinket off ‘im and bartered ‘im down ‘til ‘e lost good coin on the deal.” Her eyes twinkled with mischief, as she glanced from one woman to the other. “Guess those extra pieces ‘e threw in weren't a total loss, considerin' what ye did for our son. Thank ye, Xena.”
“No problem,” Xena answered.
Gabrielle glanced at Xena with more than one question in her shining green eyes, as Aris shuffled over to a burlap-covered mound in a corner of the yard, lifted an edge of the burlap and dumped the garbage from the bucket onto the pile. The stench that wafted up from the uncovered mound was enough to make both Xena and Gabrielle grimace and move over to the door of the inn.
“How about we go inside and see what Mother's cooking up for the evening meal,” Xena said, avoiding eye contact with her smaller partner. She didn't wait for a reply as she opened the door and ducked inside.
“Oh, Xeeeenaaaaa…” Gabrielle called sweetly as she followed in the warrior's footsteps.
“Nice ta meet ya, too,” Aris muttered after the two retreating figures, but knew they didn't hear her through the closed back door.
Gabrielle was slowly chewing and savoring a tasty bite of fresh fish baked in a spicy butter sauce. The dish was a special treat from Cyrene , who wanted to thank both Gabrielle and her daughter for the work they were doing around the village. Both women were surprised when the innkeeper approached their table and set the trenchers down in front of them. One of Aris' daughters set a loaf of nutty brown bread between them with a sweet smile. The buxom blond looked more like her mother than the other two Gabrielle had seen. She now knew their names were Daisy, Aerilis and the youngest, Carlena.
Aerilis was the one currently serving them. She kept their mugs full of Cyrene 's special spiced mead, which the innkeeper said she'd been keeping for just such a special occasion. Gabrielle couldn't help wondering what was really going on. She knew there were a number of people involved in the rebuilding, many of whom were already finished with their own repairs and were lending their neighbors a helping hand.
Gabrielle glanced sidelong at her silent partner. Xena hadn't mentioned a word about the conversation with Aris, despite the bard's insistent prodding. Gabrielle was beginning to wonder if the sumptuous meal and Xena's silence were going hand-in-hand.
“Did you tell your mother yet?” Gabrielle asked conversationally, as she washed the fish down with a mouthful of sweet mead.
“Not yet,” Xena answered, as she absently pushed the last of her fish around in her trencher. “How's the fish?”
“Delicious,” Gabrielle answered. “I've never tasted anything like it before. I'll have to get the recipe from your mom and try making it myself sometime.”
“Not sure that's very practical while we're on the road,” Xena said as she kept a watchful eye on the people shuffling into the main room. They were all eagerly awaiting a performance by the ‘Famous Bard of Potidea' and apparently word was spreading fast. “We don't exactly carry an oven with us.”
Gabrielle considered that for a moment. “No,” she answered. “But I think I can do one of those small pits beneath the campfire and create the same results. I'll run it by Aris and Cyrene , see what they think.”
“You do that,” Xena answered absently, as she watched Plathos enter with his entire family.
The rather large group took up an entire round table, while Plathos stood behind his wife, Aris. The man glanced in Xena's direction, met her gaze and nodded at her with a reserved smile.
“Are you even listening to me?” Gabrielle already knew the answer, but hoped her question would at least bring the warrior out of the distracted mood she was in.
“I'm listening, Gabrielle,” Xena met her partner's expectant gaze. “You said you wanted to get the recipe for the fish and try making it while we're on the road.”
“Okay, then,” Gabrielle continued, now that she had the woman's attention. “You want to tell me what Aris was talking about earlier? She mentioned something about a trinket and you bartering for it.” Her expression mirrored her skepticism. “You don't barter, Xena. As a matter of fact, the only time I've ever seen you shop by yourself is when you're in the market for a new weapon or something we can use to help save someone's life. I've seen you buy rope, knives, a dagger or two, even those disguises we've needed on occasion, but I've never seen you shop for a trinket. And I have most certainly never seen you haggle over the price of…well, anything.”
Xena did her utmost to keep her expression completely neutral, as her mind whirled with possible answers. “I…”
“Xena, Gabrielle,” Cyrene greeted them with a cheery smile and got Xena off the hook, as she sat down at their table. She glanced at Xena with an expectant look, before her gaze rested on the bard. “Are you ready to tell a few stories, now that I've filled your stomach with my finest cooking and tapped a new keg of my best mead?”
“The fish was delicious, Cyrene ,” Gabrielle said with a gracious smile. “I really want that recipe.”
“ Tsk ,” Cyrene waved her off. “It's an old family secret passed down for generations.” Her eyes met Xena's. “If my daughter had taken an interest in the family business she would know how to prepare the dish.” Her expression softened. “Thank you for catching those fish, Xena. It was just the thing I needed for the dish. Dish, fish…” She chuckled jovially at her joke and received two questioning looks.
“You're welcome, I think?” Xena answered, not sure if her mother was really thanking her or chastising her for not being the daughter she'd always wanted. “Mother, have you been drinking?”
Gabrielle shot her partner a chastising glare and then softened her expression when she looked at Cyrene . “Please tell me you're not going to take the recipe to the grave, Cyrene ,” Gabrielle said expectantly. “It's too delicious to be lost forever.”
Cyrene placed her folded hands on the table in front of her. “No, I think I have just the person to share it with,” she smirked, but remained tight-lipped. She glanced from one woman to the other and then slapped a hand on the table. “Time to get the girls out here with that mead. We have so much to celebrate tonight.” She rose from her chair and moved away before either Xena or Gabrielle could comment.
“Is there something you want to tell me before I go up there and start telling stories, Xena?” Gabrielle glanced at the taller woman expectantly.
“Nothing comes to mind, love,” Xena answered as she tilted her chair back until she was balancing on two chair legs and leaning against the wall behind her.
Pale shafts of moonlight streamed intermittently through the window to her right, as a break in the dark rain clouds revealed the glowing orb. Xena glanced around the room and caught movement from the corner of her eye. She looked in that direction and saw Cletus standing against the wall opposite her. She nodded in acknowledgement of his quick wave and noticed he had an arm around a petite woman dwarfed by his immense size.
The woman had pale brown hair and her clothes were the plain homespun of the other villagers, but there was a sparkle in her eyes as she looked up at the man towering over her. She glanced in Xena's direction and smiled, then nodded once as Cletus whispered something in her ear.
“Any requests?” Gabrielle asked hopefully, pulling the warrior's attention back to her. The bard knew she would spring a new story on the crowd this night, but wanted to start with a few old standards before the grand finale. She was so preoccupied with her inner thoughts that she completely missed the silent exchange between her partner and the smith. “Maybe something romantic? Or one of our more comical escapades? What do you want to hear tonight, Xena?”
Xena considered her options for a moment. She knew Gabrielle's entire repertoire by heart. She also knew the few tales that didn't involve her exploits that the bard often used to warm her audience up and peak their interest.
“You could tell them the one about our time with Princess Diana, when we met up with Meg,” Xena smirked. “That one's always a real crowd pleaser.”
Gabrielle gave the warrior a skeptical glare. “You hate that one, Xena.”
“I don't hate it,” Xena scoffed with an uncomfortable half-smile. “It's just not one of my personal favorites. But it's always good for laughs,” she grinned, “especially the part where Joxer mistook me for Meg.”
Gabrielle snickered. “He was pretty terrified that you would get back at him for that kiss he planted on you.”
“I still just might do that the next time he comes clomping around in that stupid outfit of his,” Xena crossed her arms over her chest and lifted one corner of her lip in a pretend snarl.
Gabrielle chuckled. “Seriously,” she sobered quickly. “You want me to tell the Warrior…Princess…Tramp story?”
“Is that what you're calling it these days?”
“If the shoe fits…” Gabrielle shrugged.
“Works for me,” Xena finally answered. “At least it's better than that tale about my antics in that stupid beauty pageant Salmoneus cooked up. Incidentally, what are you calling that one?”
“Here She Comes…Miss Amphipolis,” Gabrielle answered with a teasing grin.
Xena rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Oh, you have got to be kidding me.”
“Nope, not kidding,” Gabrielle said. “I think it has a good ring to it, actually. Someday someone is going to actually make that a legitimate contest. You just wait and see.”
“Well, that story's definitely off the list while we're here, then,” Xena said with a look of disgust. “I have a reputation to maintain, you know.”
Gabrielle patted the warrior's bare arm. “Don't worry, Xena,” she said and unsuccessfully tried to hide the smile in her words. “I wouldn't want to tarnish your austere reputation here in the bosom of your hometown.” Xena shot her the annoyed lip curl snarl again. “That one doesn't work on me anymore, either, honey.” Gabrielle patted a muscular thigh this time. “I've pretty much seen all those intimidating expressions in your vast repertoire, Xena.”
“Go on, then,” Xena motioned toward the raised area that Gabrielle used as a stage. “Your fans await your unflappable bardic talents.”
“Wish me luck?” The bard turned pleading puppy eyes on the stoic warrior.
In an uncharacteristic display of public affection, Xena gently took Gabrielle's face in her hands and planted a searing, mind-blowing kiss on the surprised woman's parted lips. The kiss lasted far longer and was far more intense than anything Gabrielle would have ever dreamed. And the very idea that Xena did it in front of a crowd of onlookers was beyond reasoning. When Xena finally pulled away, all Gabrielle could do was stare in stunned silence.
“Work for you?” Xena smirked down into wide green eyes. “Knock ‘em dead, sweetheart.”
“Um…uh…” Gabrielle stuttered, as her cheeks flamed beat-red and her legs suddenly threatened to buckle. “I…uh…”
“Get up there, now,” Xena shooed the woman away impatiently. “There's plenty more where that came from when we're nice and cozy in our new digs.”
Gabrielle made her way to the stage on shaky legs and in a complete haze. The unexpected kiss, coupled with Xena's tantalizing promise of things to come was almost too much. Her entire body was tingling in anticipation, and she didn't know if she would be able to find her voice again as she stepped up on the raised platform and faced the hushed crowd.
Torches cast a warm glow around the packed room and Gabrielle felt beads of sweat break out on her brow and upper lip. She hadn't been plagued by stage fright in a really long time and didn't know if Xena's unexpected display had something to do with the butterflies fluttering wildly in the pit of her stomach.
“H-Hello everyone,” Gabrielle greeted in an unexpectedly timid voice. The answering greetings worked to calm her nerves slightly, as she surveyed the packed room and caught sight of Cyrene 's beaming smile. “Are you ready to hear a few stories?” She asked in a much stronger voice. The answering roar from the crowd shook the rafters above her head. “I'm glad you all came out on this rainy night to share some of Cyrene 's fine food and spirits,” another roar drowned out any words she would have said, so she just waited for the noise to die down again. “Well, as all of you might know by now, I travel with a rather famous…”
“Infamous is more like it!” A dark-haired man near the front roared with laughter that was shared by several others near him, as he raised his mug high above his head and tottered on his chair.
“Okay,” Gabrielle put her hands on her hips and glared down at him in imitation of her best Warrior Princess glare. “I guess there are some who might consider Xena's early exploits as rather infamous,” she was quickly warming up to her audience, as her initial trepidation quickly slid away. “She was deemed the Destroyer of Nations, once upon a time. But I'll bet you a handful of dinars that you've never heard the tale of how she saved a young boy's life when his father tried to sacrifice him to an angry and vengeful god…”
And with those opening words, the stage was set for the bard to launch into a tale of a brother's betrayal, a father's bitter choice, a mother's unconditional love and a loaf of henbane-laced nut bread that nearly ended a young boy's life and had a certain young woman leading a choir of imaginary singers.
Xena listened raptly to the tale with an amused half-grin gracing her full lips. She knew the story well and could almost hear that choir belting out its off-key tune, as their blond leader kept time with a silent beat that only she could hear. She remembered the exact moment that a youthful Gabrielle, high on the henbane-laced nut bread, turned to her, fell into her arms and exclaimed how beautiful she was.
“A drachma for your thoughts, Xena,” Cyrene nudged her mesmerized daughter with an elbow, as she sat down in the chair next to her.
“Just remembering something,” Xena answered, as she absently leaned forward and set the two front legs of her chair back on the floor.
“She's an excellent bard, Xena,” Cyrene watched the bard wave her arms in time with her words. “She knows exactly how to spin a tale in such a way that the audience is riveted and stays on the edge of their seats throughout the entire telling.”
“She practices a lot when we're out on the road,” Xena commented. “It never ceases to amaze me that she can use gestures and facial expressions so effectively. It just seems to come to her so naturally.”
Cyrene turned her attention to her daughter as she studied her intently. She saw the open awe in Xena's pale eyes and noticed something else, as well. “You really do love her, don't you?” The question was more of an affirmation than an actual question.
Xena turned her head and met her mother's sincere gaze. “Absolutely.”
Cyrene nodded. “When are you going to ask her to officially become part of our family, then?”
A dark brow lifted, but that was the only sign that Xena was caught off guard by the unexpected question. “Are you asking me if I intend to marry Gabrielle?”
Cyrene shrugged. “Truth be told, I'm not exactly sure how it's done, Xena. Gabrielle is an Amazon, so I'm sure there's some sort of ceremony for a joining of…um…like this.”
“We're a couple like any other, Mother,” Xena said drolly. “We've already pledged to spend the rest of our lives together. We don't need a ceremony in front of a bunch of strangers to express how much we love each other.”
“No, that's true,” Cyrene conceded with a quick nod. “Call me old fashioned, Xena, but I think it might be good for both of you to at least put some kind of official stamp on your relationship in front of your closest friends and family.”
“Mother,” Xena sighed and rolled her eyes. “You don't know what you're asking.”
“I'm not asking anything, Xena,” Cyrene prodded. “I'm just saying you should seriously consider having a joining celebration or…whatever you call it. I'm more than happy to close the inn down for a few days in order to hold the festivities right here.”
“I don't know, Mom,” Xena said, as her excellent hearing picked up on the fact that Gabrielle's story was coming to a close. “I'll discuss it with Gabrielle and see what she has to say about it. I'm not sure she wants a joining ceremony. She hasn't even told her parents about us yet.”
Cyrene patted the warrior's arm. “Just let me know what you decide, Xena. I want what's best for both my girls.”
The room suddenly erupted in thunderous applause, as Gabrielle bowed low, before launching into another tale that Xena knew all too well. This particular tale was a recent addition to the bard's repertoire and had the crowd in stitches within just a few moments. Xena was mildly surprised that the bard was actually sharing a tale centered on Gabrielle's misfortunes with the scroll the Goddess of Love enchanted. Xena remembered well how that story eventually ended and just sat back to enjoy the telling.
“Damned gods still piss me off,” Xena muttered as they walked through the mud toward the stables. She had an arm draped over Gabrielle's shoulders, as the bard remained silent and walked in step with her. “You okay?”
“Fine,” Gabrielle answered and let her head rest against Xena's breastplate. “Just basking in the glow of another successful evening of storytelling.”
“I liked that last one, by the way,” Xena remarked as they entered the dim interior of the stables. The smell of horses, leather and hay permeated the still air, as Xena closed the door and proceeded to light the lamp hanging on the wall. She held the lamp up and illuminated their surroundings. “Ah, home sweet home.”
“You're such a goof,” Gabrielle smirked at the playful warrior. “Why don't you show all those people out there this playful side of you? You'd sure quell the rumor mill with a few well-placed grins and remarks.”
“Never gonna happen,” Xena said as she checked the ladder to the loft and proceeded to climb up it without missing a beat. When she was up in the loft, she thrust her head over the edge and looked down at the bard with a teasing grin. “I have a reputation to maintain.”
“Not around here, you don't,” Gabrielle shot back as she slowly climbed the ladder without looking down. She reached the top and quickly moved away from the edge. The sight that greeted her made her gasp in surprise. “Xena, it's perfect.”
“A bed fit for a queen,” Xena said as she watched Gabrielle climb atop the pile of blankets and furs she'd been able to confiscate. “Please tell me you're not going to remain fully clothed up here.”
Gabrielle couldn't help the frown that crossed her features. “What if someone comes in here while we're sleeping, Xena?”
“No worries,” Xena said as she joined the bard in their makeshift bed. “I took care of that.”
“I paid one of Parthos' grandsons to keep watch for the next few nights,” Xena smiled in triumph. “He'll warn us if anyone approaches, passes by or otherwise looks shifty-eyed.”
Gabrielle gave Xena a skeptical look. “Do you really trust this kid not to sneak in here and spy on us, instead?”
“He won't,” Xena said with confidence. “I paid him well and promised him extra coin to remain a safe distance away. I even taught him a bird call, so he doesn't have to come close to this place. He'll just warn us if he sees anyone out and about.”
The bard quickly removed her clothes and climbed beneath the topmost coverlet. An amused warrior watched her antics and rolled her eyes.
“He'd have to be on the roof to see you naked, Gabrielle,” Xena said as she took her time undressing. “Besides, I can hear everything within fifty paces of this place. There's no one out there.” She glanced up at the ceiling and smirked. “And the only thing on the roof is that stupid goat who loves you so much.”
Gabrielle snorted. “Maybe he'll fall off and break a hoof. I wouldn't mind some fresh goat stew for dinner tomorrow evening.”
Xena blew out the lamp hanging above their heads and crawled in next to Gabrielle. It was a relatively balmy night, despite the rain, and the heat from the horses below them was enough to keep them comfortable, even without covers.
“Your feet are freezing, Xena!” Gabrielle nearly jumped out of her skin in the semi-darkness.
“My boots got wet on the way over here,” Xena said as she settled back with her arms behind her head. “Sorry.”
“Step in a puddle?” Gabrielle couldn't help the snicker that escaped. “Your eyesight going in your old age, warrior?”
“No thanks to you,” Xena answered as she shifted slightly and then reached underneath her. “What the???”
Xena held something up to a pinpoint shaft of moonlight streaming in through the roof above. “I think it's a…I'm not exactly sure what it is.”
“I can't see anything, so you're on your own,” Gabrielle moved into the crook of Xena's shoulder and settled down with a long sigh. “It's actually kinda nice up here. Smells like fresh hay and…um…”
“Horses?” Xena supplied.
“Potatoes, actually,” Gabrielle answered.
“Aha! That's what that was,” Xena nodded sagely. “Wait! Why are there potatoes in the hay loft?”
“Farmers sometimes grow two crops at the same time,” Gabrielle answered with a yawn. “They call it…um…oh, I don't remember what it's called. All I know is that potatoes and hay are compatible crops that nourish each other… or something like that.”
“Like parasites?” Xena wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and pulled her close.
“What's a parasite?” Gabrielle mumbled sleepily.
“They live inside other beings and feed off them,” Xena answered.
“Ew, that's gross,” Gabrielle lifted her head and stared into her partner's dark eyes. “Are you serious?”
“Horses sometimes get ‘em,” Xena nodded. “I've even seen some really ugly ones inside cows and pigs. You were raised around sheep. Didn't you ever see parasites in a slaughtered ewe or lamb?”
“No,” Gabrielle put her head back down. “Father didn't let us get close to sick or slaughtered animals. He always kept us away from anything that wasn't…um…normal.”
“Did you ever see the rams and ewes during mating season?” Xena asked curiously.
“Of course,” Gabrielle scoffed. “I wasn't that naïve. If my father ever learned that I snuck off to the mating pens when his back was turned…well…”
It was Xena's turn to snort. “So you're an expert, huh?” Xena asked as she began to slowly and gently stroke the bard's bare back.
“Hardly,” Gabrielle relaxed into the gentle touch. “I'm not an expert at a lot of things concerning livestock. Just because I'm a shepherd's child doesn't mean I know everything there is to know about sheep.”
“Just like I don't know a lot about running an inn or cooking or…”
“I get the idea, Xena,” Gabrielle she snuggled against the warrior's with a tired sigh. “Can we just forget about sheep and mating season and parasites and…well, everything? I'm really tired. I just want to lay here with you and enjoy the peace and quiet.”
“Works for me,” Xena shrugged. “I just thought…”
“That was your first mistake, Warrior Princess,” Gabrielle interrupted. “Don't think. Just…shhh!”
“Parasites, potatoes, and procreation,” Xena muttered quietly. “The three p's.” she couldn't help but snicker at her joke.
“Warrior-Joker,” Gabrielle groaned. “Maybe you should go entertain King…”
A pair of warm lips cut off any further thoughts, as Gabrielle gave in to the renewed sensations awakened by Xena's earlier public display. The warrior trailed kisses down her jaw line to the pulse point at her neck and sending exquisite sensations throughout her entire being. As Xena's ministrations continued lower, Gabrielle felt her world spiraling out of control. Every nerve ending ignited with desire as an inferno raged at her very center.
Xena knew she was driving her lover to the very brink with every kiss, every touch. The bard's breathless pants became increasingly more urgent, as strong hands pushed her lower. The warrior knew exactly what to do and where. She'd been patient for candlemarks, anticipating the moment when they were alone in their loft retreat. She tasted the exquisite flavor that was Gabrielle, reveling in the sweet ambrosia the bard alone could provide.
When Gabrielle could stand it no more and was begging for release, Xena obliged with all the expert skill of a seasoned lover. She took her lover over the brink and plunged her into the abyss with a cry that fairly shook the rafters above their heads. And then the warrior gently held her as Gabrielle slowly returned to earth.
“I got ya,” Xena whispered against the bard's ear.
“That was…mmmm…” Gabrielle managed, as she relaxed into the warrior's embrace.
“Horses didn't seem to mind the noise,” Xena chuckled quietly and received a playful slap on the belly. “Ouch!”
“That did not hurt,” Gabrielle said and decided to give as good as she got.
It wasn't long before the horses were hearing a cry of release from another of their two-legged roomies. Argo simply stuck her head out the window of her stall and bellowed her frustration to the sliver of moon that peeked out from behind the breaking clouds. The other horses soon joined in the call of the wild, until they finally settled back down and let the cricket song continue in their stead.
The chirps of crickets were soon joined by a pair of light snores, as the human couple let sleep take them to a place where dreams flourished and peace reigned.
“Ow!” Gabrielle dropped one end of her staff and grabbed her stinging hand. “I can't believe you got past my guard…again!”
“You keep dropping your shoulder, Gabrielle,” Xena waited patiently for her sparring partner to shake off the sting of yet another blow. “I told you to keep that shoulder up, like this,” she demonstrated by raising her own staff and holding her shoulder at an exaggerated angle. “If you drop it like you're doing, some thug is gonna get past your guard and chop your fingers off with his sword.”
Gabrielle sucked on the knuckle of her middle finger and then shook her hand out. “Not if he's using a staff, he won't,” she grumbled.
“Are you done babying those fingers?” Xena quirked an expectant eyebrow at her partner. “Let's finish this and maybe later I'll give your fingers the attention they deserve.” She gave the bard the eyebrow dance and smirked.
Gabrielle didn't need to see the warrior's expression. She heard the meaning behind Xena's words and blushed profusely. Their lovemaking the night before had certainly been a memorable experience. The excitement level in the stables when the horses added their own loud whinnies to Xena's cry of release was enough to cause the goat on the roof to seek entertainment elsewhere. It certainly made for a nice, peaceful, dreamless sleep afterward.
“Come on, Gabrielle,” Xena urged. “Let's do this. There's lots of work to do today.”
Gabrielle wiped the sweat from her brow with her forearm, as she took up her staff in both hands. “I won't be doing any work if you insist on breaking my fingers, Xena.”
Xena cocked her head and waited for the bard to make the first move. “Ahhh, poor baby. Did I hwert your widdle fingers?” She stuck out her lip in a mock pout and watched the anger ignite in the bard's eyes. “Control that anger and use it to your advantage, Gabrielle.”
With a loud yell, Gabrielle launched a series of quick strikes against Xena's staff. The warrior deftly met each strike without flinching and added a few offensive strikes of her own. Sweat ran down Gabrielle's face as she continued her assault and Xena countered each strike with practiced ease.
To those without a practiced eye the two seemed evenly matched, but Gabrielle knew Xena was holding back. She also knew that one word from her would be enough for the warrior to unleash that hold and put everything she had into the session.
Gabrielle knew she was ready. Her strength had returned and she'd increased it with the daily workouts. She knew their sessions had become more intense and their moves faster than they'd ever been before. Her staff whirled and spun with blurring speed, as did Xena's. Every time their staffs connected it was like two rams butting heads—the noise rang out loudly in the clearing. Gabrielle's iron grip on her weapon was surer than ever before—except when Xena got past her guard and slammed her staff down on the bard's exposed fingers.
Muscles bulged as Gabrielle spun around to deliver a side blow that connected loudly with Xena's staff. The answering counterstrike from the warrior was met with a combination of strikes that had the two dancing to a silent song that only they could hear.
The sounds of the two staffs rang so loudly in the clearing where the two had been doing their morning sparring since their arrival in Amphipolis that it drowned out the ever-present birdsong. Anyone passing by the secluded clearing would have thought the two combatants were fighting a match to the death. But Gabrielle knew differently and so did Xena.
In a split second of indecision, the bard missed her target and felt her center of balance falter. She braced for impact and was surprised when the blow never came. Gabrielle opened eyes she didn't remember shutting and stared into blue eyes just inches from her own, as she panted from her exertions.
“You missed,” Xena smirked.
“I screwed up again,” Gabrielle swiped a hand across her brow. “Can't figure out how I always overbalance when I try that move on you.” It was Gabrielle's turn to smirk. “Thanks for pulling up short before you clobbered my fingers again, by the way. It would've really hurt.”
“You dropped the shoulder again,” Xena said as she stepped back. “When you drop the shoulder your midsection overcompensates and your hips shift just enough to throw you off. You need to keep that shoulder up, like I keep telling you.” She grinned as she crossed her arms over the staff against her chest. “And you're welcome. I like your fingers whole and hearty, especially when you use them to…”
“Okay, then. I think we can call it quits for today. Don't you?” Gabrielle spun her staff like a propeller in front of her and then did a few quick around-the-back maneuvers that Xena had taught her.
“Show off,” Xena quipped as she did some more difficult staff spinning of her own, including a quick around-the-neck maneuver, a toss into the air and a behind-the-back catch that had Gabrielle's eyes bulging in awe. When Xena was done, she grinned triumphantly at the frowning bard. “Now, that's how it's really done.”
“And you call me a show off?” Gabrielle said as she used her staff as a walking stick and left Xena standing in the middle of the clearing.
“Tough audience,” Xena muttered as she followed Gabrielle back to town.
“Yo, Xena,” Cletus greeted the warrior's approach. “What brings ye to my neck of the woods?”
“Just checking on that project I gave you the other day, Cletus,” Xena said as she grasped the man's outstretched arm.
“Comin' along nicely,” he said with a smirk and a quick wink. “Saw ye at the inn last night.”
“I know,” Xena nodded. “Was that your wife with you?”
“Molly? Yeah,” the man answered with a grin that made him look years younger. “Thought I'd take ye up on yer offer to listen to a real bard.” His expression turned conspiratorial. “Yer bard's a real looker, she is.”
A dark brow lifted. “Don't let Gabrielle hear you say that. She prides herself on making her stories the center of attention, not herself.”
“Oh, don't get me wrong, Xena,” Cletus held up a hand. “I was mesmerized by those tales she was weavin'. It was almost like being right there with you, especially that beauty contest one.” He smirked. “Woulda paid a pretty drachma to see you with blond hair, prancing around like a prized horse.”
Xena crossed her arms and glared at him. “You wanna tell me how the project's coming? Or should I just drop kick you right here where you stand?”
“Whoa there, Xena!” Cletus backed up a few paces, even though he was twice her size and could probably at least give her a run for her money in a fight. He just didn't want to do any scrapping with someone of Xena's reputation. “No offense intended. I was just sayin'…”
“I know what you were saying, Cletus,” Xena continued to glare and secretly reveled in the chance to intimidate someone. “Let's just cut straight to the update. I've got a lot to do today.”
“No problem,” he said as he ducked through a bead-hung doorway and emerged with a cloth-wrapped bundle in both hands. “I still have some polishing to do, but here's what I have so far.”
He unwrapped the contents to reveal a pair of sais that resembled long daggers. Xena lifted one and examined it closely, before setting it back down with its twin.
“Nice work, my friend,” she said with a satisfied grin. “I'm looking forward to presenting them to their new owner.”
“Gabrielle?” Cletus gave her a knowing smirk.
“Yeah,” Xena nodded, as he rewrapped the bundle and tucked it away. “I know she isn't ready for weapons like those, just yet. She's still too worried about killing someone. But eventually the staff is going to be too remedial a weapon for her skills, and then she'll need something that has more of a…um…”
“Kick?” Cletus supplied with a nod. “I know what ye mean, Xena. ‘Twas the same with my little brother, Thomas. He couldn't kill a flea on a dog, much less a man when he was young. When Cortese came here that first time…” He shook his head. “Thomas raised a pitch fork against one of Cortese's men. The idiot didn't think Thomas would use the weapon, the kid was shaking so badly. But the man continued forward and Thomas stood his ground. It nearly tore Thomas apart to shove that pitchfork into the man's chest. But Thomas eventually got past that first kill experience and trained to be a soldier in the Athenian army.”
Xena nodded. “What happened to him? Is he still in the army?”
“He's been dead goin' on two summers, now,” Cletus rubbed the back of his neck. “Got a commendation for fighting against the Spartans and was promoted to lieutenant, then died the very next summer from a fever.”
“I'm sorry to hear that, my friend,” Xena said.
“Thank ye, Xena,” Cletus nodded. “The point I'm makin' though is that he eventually got past the prick to his conscience. Gabrielle seems like a really strong woman,” a gleam entered his eye. “She's a perfect match for a certain ex-warlord-turned-hero I know. She'll eventually need a weapon that is extremely versatile in a fight. Sais are good weapons for her, especially with the modifications you asked me to make. She'll be up to the challenge of guarding your back in no time.”
“She already does a good job of guarding my back,” Xena corrected.
“Ye sure ‘bout that?” Cletus' brow lifted skeptically. “Didn't sound like she has as much confidence in her abilities as you do, at least that's what I got from them stories she was tellin' last night. Ye might have all the confidence in the world in Gabrielle, Xena, but yer a touch blinded by the love in yer eyes.” He shrugged. “I'll have the weapons finished in a few days time. Not much left to do but sharpen the blades and polish ‘em up ‘til they shine.” He turned away and went back to his forge. “I'll send word when they're ready.”
Xena nodded and left the blacksmith's place without a backward glance. Her long strides quickly took her to the stables, where she needed to check on Argo and make sure the mare received a good brushing. Xena also needed some time to sort through all the errant thoughts racing through her head, not the least of which was the smith's declaration.
Xena couldn't believe the conversation had taken such an odd turn. One moment they're discussing weapons and then the smith is counseling her on blind love. It was certainly something that she hadn't really given much thought to before. Did Gabrielle have misgivings about her role in a fight? Was that why Gabrielle rarely put herself in the midst of one of their stories? Of course, she had told the one about Aphrodite's enchanted scroll. But Xena also knew the story wasn't really one of the many battle tales that centered on Xena's exploits.
“Hey, girl,” Xena greeted her Palomino as she stepped inside the stables. Argo nodded and stepped up to the waist-high half wall until her head was in Xena's hands. “How're you doing in here? You want to get outside and take a run?” The mare nodded her blond head again, this time more enthusiastically. “Okay, we'll do that, then.”
Xena made quick work of saddling the mare. As she put the leather bridle in place she heard a strange noise that caught her attention. She listened intently for the sound to repeat itself and, when it didn't, she merely shrugged. Her deft fingers quickly buckled the straps into place. She unlatched the stall door and led the mare out into the bright sunshine.
“Here we go, girl,” Xena said as she patted the mare's neck and then mounted. She settled herself more deeply into the saddle, before taking up the reins and giving the mare a nudge with her legs. “Let's go, girl. Hiyaaaah!!! ”
As soon as they reached the outskirts of the village, Xena gave Argo her head and kicked her into a gallop. They left the main road into town and galloped cross-country. The light breeze whipped blond mane and black hair back, creating a picturesque contrast of dark and light.
Argo never missed a step as she blazed across green fields teeming with wildflowers. Xena never saw the flowers as she reveled in the feel of her horse beneath her. Muscles bulged and soon Argo was breathing hard in time with the pounding of her hooves.
“Whoa, girl,” Xena finally reined in the lathered mare and patted her neck affectionately. “How was that?” The mare blew out a breath and nodded. “Glad you enjoyed it.”
Xena steered the mare around a large boulder and then dismounted. She looped the reins around the saddle horn and gave the mare another pat on the neck. Climbing on top of the boulder, Xena sat there in the bright sunshine and reveled in the feel of it on her skin. Argo took the opportunity to graze on the sweet grass beneath her feet and only moved a few paces away.
Xena's thoughts turned to what Cletus had said earlier and she couldn't help agreeing with the smith's assessment. She hadn't really thought about why Gabrielle was so adamant that she not kill anyone again. Before Britannia and Gabrielle's encounter with Meridian , the bard hadn't really been against killing. Then again, she hadn't really been for it, either. Xena knew Gabrielle was struggling with her identity in relation to Xena's. The two were compatible in so many ways, but Xena's skills as a warrior far surpassed Gabrielle's, despite the fact that the bard was a quick study.
“So, why won't she give up the staff and take up a weapon more suited to the kind of fighting we do?” Xena mumbled to herself.
Argo's head shot up and she stared at the warrior for a moment, before she returned her attention to the grass beneath her. Xena lifted her feet onto the boulder and wrapped her arms around her knees.
“Is it really as simple as a lack of confidence?” Xena muttered as her gaze took in the scene before her. “I can't believe, after all this time, that Gabrielle could still feel like she isn't good enough to fight with me.”
She sat there for a while longer, enjoying the quiet and allowing her horse to enjoy some prime grazing. There was time enough later to worry about what was going on inside Gabrielle's head.
Continued in Part 4
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