The Art Of Instinct
When David returned, the two girls were still moving at half speed while Gabrielle instructed Antonia on several Amazon style fighting moves. They stopped when David reappeared up the trail.
"How goes it?" He asked cheerily.
"Paulo was right," Gabrielle said, breathing heavily. "She's a real quick learner."
"Yeah," David said, his expression sobering slightly. "I don't think learning is your problem."
He saw the nervous look in the girls' eyes when he reappeared. Something within her was holding her back.
He resumed his seat on the log and then gestured to the two of them.
Once again, the two of them began going through a long and complex series of moves. Again, David watched thoughtfully for a while, as if confirming his suspicions. Then he held up his hands.
"Alright, alright, alright," he said. "That's enough." His dark eyes fixed on Antonia and a wry grin played at his lips.
"You know what your problem is?" he asked.
Both women looked at him expectantly.
David pointed at Antonia. "Your boots are too tight." He said.
Gabrielle and Antonia looked at one another in complete confusion. Then they both looked down at Antonia's boots.
"You need to loosen up," David explained when he saw they were taking his expression literally. "You're too focused on the technique. You need to trust your instincts. Don't worry about doing it perfectly right all the time. Just do it."
Antonia frowned. "I don't understand?"
"It's like you're scared to let your instincts take over, or something?" David got to his feet. "You need to mix it up a little, do some things that are unpredictable, or just outright wrong." He stood before her. "You're thinking about how you're doing the moves, not just letting your body do it. That's killing your focus and messing with your instincts. Stop fighting like a juggernaut because you aren't one."
"Is that all?" Antonia asked, arching an eyebrow. Her gaze was icy and detached, as if she weren't interested in anything David had to say. Still, she remained grossly polite.
"No," David replied. "You also need to develop a sense of humor, in order to have fun, and - not to be too harsh - You have the worst case of White Man disease I've ever seen. Absolutely no rhythm at all! That's really what's giving you the most trouble! You look like me at my Junior Prom!"
He stood and came over to them. "Tell me? Do you like to dance?"
Antonia looked at Gabrielle and then back at David as if he had somehow lost his mind.
"Dance?" She shook her head nervously and something like a smile touched her lips. "I don't dance."
"You don't dance?" David exclaimed. "Where were you when I was in High School?"
Gabrielle smiled in amusement. "What are you talking about?" she said. "I've danced with you before. You're a wonderful dancer?"
David gave a slight bow. "Why, thank you."
"Excuse me," Antonia blurted. "What does this have to do with anything?"
David spun and then closed with Gabrielle, leading her a few steps as if they were dancing a waltz.
"It's about finding a rhythm in what you're doing," he said as he dipped Gabrielle and looked up at a completely consternated Antonia. He smiled as Gabrielle let a soft giggle burst from her. "And, most importantly, it's about having a little fun."
"Fun?" Antonia frowned.
"Yeah," Gabrielle replied, looking confused in her own right. "You know, the things you do because you enjoy doing them. Things that aren't work?"
Antonia frowned. "I still don't understand? How can you have fun in a combat situation? It isn't possible."
"Okay," David said, reaching into the deep pocket of his coat and removing two small white objects. "It's a good thing I went back to the room, because you, my dear, are about to mix business and fun in equal parts."
David shrugged out of his long coat and leather vest, lying it next to the two mysterious devices.
He stood up and looked at Antonia.
She stared at him, still confused. He stood there, lean and muscular in a sleeveless tee shirt and jeans. He pulled his boots from his feet and scrunched his toes in the soft earth for a few moments.
"Okay," he said, cracking his neck loudly. "I want to show you something."
He turned and plugged the small oblong device into the top of the other and then pressed several places on the tiny blue/green screen that lit up in the darkness.
Instantly, the sound of rhythmic drum music began to emanate from the small speakers and David moved towards the center of the clearing.
"Alright," he said, and then he saw the two of them staring, mouths agape at the small device.
"Yo!" David said, slapping his hands together once. The two girls blinked and looked back at him.
"Focus here," he said. "This isn't easy, so I'll only do it once."
Both girls stepped back a few paces as David planted his feet and listened to the drumming intently for a few seconds.
In a sudden burst of energy, David began to move with the rhythm of the drums. He sidestepped and kicked, punched and struck out in ways that neither of the observers had ever seen before. Many of the moves involved elaborate kicks, cartwheels, and hand plants. At times he seemed suspended in the air with only one hand splayed in the soft earth while his legs arched back, almost like a scorpion's tail before he rolled back onto his feet again. After several dizzying minutes of this, the drumbeats stopped and so did David.
He stood there, breathing in deep heaves. His shirt stained with sweat as he grinned at them. His eyebrows bounced once and he grinned broadly.
"Bet you've never seen anything like that before, have ya?" He asked knowingly.
Both women shook their heads in amazement.
"It's a style that originated in South America. You folks won't know about it for quite some time." David heaved a deep sigh and sat down, switching the device off as he did so.
"Alright," Gabrielle nodded. "I think we're both impressed."
David's grin widened. "You should be."
"Now," Gabrielle continued. "What is that thing?" she pointed at the small connected devices.
David looked down and his smile never wavered.
"Oh, those?" he shrugged. "My MP3 player and a set of external speakers. Why?"
"Your what?" Gabrielle asked.
David lifted the device and smiled at it lovingly. "A little piece of home." He said, musing. "A couple of thousand songs, give or take?" He shrugged.
Gabrielle knelt down in front of him, her eyes wide with wonder. "Thousand?" she asked in awe. "A couple thousand?"
David nodded. "I see that greedy light kindling in those curious eyes of yours," he smiled. "You can play with it later."
Then he looked up at Antonia. "It might be of some small interest to note that the particular style of fighting I just demonstrated began as a form of ritual dance?"
Antonia blinked in surprise. "It did?"
David nodded. "And it's a sure bet that none of your peers will know what to do if you use it."
A smile began to pull at the young woman's lips. An actual, genuine smile of hopeful anticipation.
"However," David held his finger up. "For you to use it, you first need to learn how to dance?"
The smile faded away.
"I don't dance," she said, shaking her head.
"Yeah, and I don't leap," David retorted, as if to himself. Then he looked back up at Antonia.
"Well, Tony," he continued. "Starting tomorrow evening, you're going to learn."
After Antonia had left, Gabrielle seated herself next to David and looked up the trail where the young woman had vanished.
"What do you think?" she asked.
David shook his head. "I think the lady needs to learn how to unwind or she'll have an ulcer by the time she's twenty."
"An education in the fine art of laughter?" Gabrielle suggested.
"Lessons in Levity," David added.
"Ooh, I like that," Gabrielle smiled. "You come up with that one all by yourself?"
"Just little old me," David grinned. "That's what I get for marrying a bard, I suppose?"
Gabrielle leaned up against his shoulder as he fiddled with the MP3 player for a few moments.
"So?" Gabrielle asked, nudging him with her shoulder. "You going to ask me to dance, or what?"
David set the small player down and pressed a button.
"Seems like you asked first," David countered as he stood.
The soft sounds of a ballad began to echo in the small clearing as he bowed and extended his hand. She moved up next to him and they began moving slowly around the clearing as the music played softly.
As it turned out, the clearing was not completely secluded. From a room in the nearby keep, Ioulas looked down at the two small figures moving about the circle of clear grass and sighed deeply.
There was a soft knock at the door.
"Yeah?" Ioulas said automatically. He adjusted his tunic and rolled his eyes. He hadn't meant to respond. "Come in."
Hercules pushed open the door and ducked into the cozy room.
"How are you doing?" he asked.
"Me?" Ioulas replied easily. "Fine. Why do you ask?"
"Because I know you," Hercules replied. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Hercules settled into a large chair and waited.
Ioulas looked back down at the two figures dancing beneath the stars. A faint smile touched his lips, tinged with bittersweet regret.
"Look at them, down there" he said.
Hercules stepped up next to the window and looked down on the two figures slowly turning around the clearing.
Hercules smiled. "Everything seems fine to me. Or are you seeing some strange threat that I can't make out?"
Ioulas continued to watch. "You know. The selfish side of me wishes that I had told her how I felt a long time ago. And then the reality of the situation sets in and I regret thinking that."
"Why didn't you tell her?" Hercules asked. He stepped over to the small table and opened the bottle he had brought with him. It had become an old tradition since they had finally "settled in" as Ioulas called it. Every night, they would get together, share a glass of wine and discuss the days events.
Ioulas heard the wine flow into his goblet and sighed.
"Drink's ready," Hercules prompted.
Ioulas glanced back at the cup waiting for him. Hercules settled back into the chair and raised his eyebrow expectantly.
He turned back to the two figures and watched as they danced more swiftly now. The sound of Gabriele's laughter drifted across the wind to his ears and he closed his eyes, as if trying to savor the sound.
Hercules saw the subtle shift in posture and the slight clenching of Ioulas's withered fingers on the windowsill.
"Ioulas?" He asked.
"That's the first time in almost thirty years since I last heard that laugh," Ioulas said in a far away voice.
Hercules took a sip of wine and smiled.
"She was laughing quite a bit when they found us yesterday?" He said.
"That was different," Ioulas replied. "She was excited and happy."
He paused. "I remember when she laughed out of simple joy. Now that was music."
"Music?" Hercules laughed.
"Yes," Ioulas turned to face him, a sharp look in his eyes. "Didn't you ever notice that about her? How her laugh seemed to make everything brighter?"
Hercules' smile softened, though it didn't vanish. "I remember."
Ioulas looked down at the clearing again and watched as Gabrielle and David walked arm in arm from sight. He sighed.
"I didn't realize until this very moment, how much I missed that sound." He sighed. He turned and seated himself opposite his friend.
"Then it's a good thing," Hercules commented. "She seems very happy with this David."
"You still don't approve?" Hercules asked with a knowing look.
"Herc," Ioulas said. "I just met the man. All I know is that he rubs me wrong."
"You seemed to be getting over that on the way here?"
Ioulas waived a dismissive hand. "I did that for her benefit."
"So?" Hercules asked, draining his goblet and refilling it. "What don't you like about him?"
Ioulas shrugged. "I don't know. He just - rubs me wrong somehow?"
Hercules gave a subtle shrug. "What? Do you think he's hiding something?"
Ioulas shook his head. "No, that's not it."
"Maybe he harms her?" Hercules offered lightly.
"If that was the case, I don't care how old I am, I'll still tear him apart!" Ioulas said with a sudden vehemence. Hercules raised a calming hand.
"Let me tell you something about Gabrielle's husband," he said. He smiled when Ioulas winced at that word.
Hercules cradled the goblet in his two powerful hands, turning it thoughtfully. "He didn't make a big deal about it, but he told me what he went through in order to get to her. Gabrielle got thrown two thousand years forward, into a world that, in spite of David's best efforts to describe it to me, I still can't imagine! He found her on the road, alone and lost, and took her in without hesitation. Then he and his friends helped her literally save the world from someone who could have done a lot of damage!"
"So?" Ioulas retorted. "Doesn't sound like any less than the things you and I used to do?"
Hercules nodded. "That's my point, Ioulas. He did it without expecting anything! His main concern was that Gabrielle be able do what needed to be done, and then get home safely."
"Then why is he here?" Ioulas shot back. "If he was so high and noble about the whole thing, why come back here after it was done?"
"Because," Hercules replied. "Somewhere in the middle of all that, he fell in love with her."
Something like a dismissive groan emanated from his best friend, and again he waved his hand dismissively. "So he seduces her and they live happily ever after. If I had a dinar for every time I heard that story?"
Hercules circled his finger in the air before him. "I believe it was the other way around, actually." He set the goblet down and leaned back.
"A couple of the things he said surprised me," he began. "First about how he felt drawn to her, but didn't want to take advantage."
"Smart boy," Ioulas growled. Hercules smiled.
"Second, that he had also become accustomed to the sound of her voice." Hercules grinned as he saw the similarity between his news and Ioulas's recent reaction.
"He said that he hadn't enjoyed just talking with someone since his own wife had died several years before."
"His wife died?" Ioulas said. "I never heard that?"
"That was because you were too busy ignoring him first, and getting talked down by Gabrielle later," Hercules commented, pointing a chiding finger. "Did you think the two of us just sat quietly and waited while you and Gabrielle were having your little "talk"?"
"Gabrielle's husband is a very open and honest man, Ioulas. That much I know for certain."
"Or he's a good liar," Ioulas replied. Then he saw the look in Hercules' eyes.
"Or, maybe not?"
"Definitely not." Hercules countered. "You got a taste of his honesty tonight, at dinner."
Hercules took another sip of wine.
"Anyway. The main thing he said that really convinced me was that Gabrielle gave him one night." Hercules watched his friends reaction.
"Gave him one night?" He stammered in a mixture of shock and surprise.
"Yes, those were his exact words." Hercules replied. "Not: we had one night, or I was with her for one night, but she gave him one night." Hercules smiled. "I think she hooked him?"
Ioulas winced. "Herc. That's a terrible way to put it! She gave him a night of passion and you say hooked?"
"Defending him now?" Hercules smiled.
"What?" Ioulas blinked. "No! It's just - "
Hercules looked at Ioulas knowingly. "You wish it had been you, thirty years ago, and not that young man there, don't you?"
Ioulas thought about it for a minute and finally nodded.
"Yes I do," he admitted. "I never said it before, and I never admitted it to you, let alone her, but I was in love with her from the first time we met. Now, she comes back, just as if she were brought out of the Elysian Fields, and I'm an old man?" He shrugged. "And I know she felt for me too! I know it!"
"Yes, she did," Hercules agreed. "And in many ways she still does, but we chose our paths?" He shrugged. "Would you do anything different, if you could do it over again? Do you think she would have, if you had told her?"
Ioulas winced again. This time from self realization. Quickly, he tried to dodge the answer he knew he would have to give.
"Don't you ever think about what might have been?" he asked. "You know, if you and Xena had stayed together, settled down, maybe raised a family?"
"Many times," Hercules replied easily. "And then I realize that it would have cost us more than either of us could have afforded." He sighed. "If Xena and I had decided to hang it up and start a life together, it would have destroyed her."
"How can you say that?" Ioulas asked. "She might be here, right now, with you!"
"Yes," Hercules nodded. "And I don't doubt that we could have had a very happy life together. But it wasn;t for her, Ioulas. At least, not at that time. She had so much that she felt she needed to atone for. Staying with me, or anyone else for that matter, would have kept her from that. If we had stayed together, it would have destroyed one of the things that made me fall in love with her in the first place."
The sound of quiet steps halted outside Ioulas's door and there was a soft knock.
"Yes?" Ioulas said, inwardly thanking the gods that he did not have to admit what he knew Hercules was pulling from him.
The door opened and one of the students poked her head in.
"Masters?" She asked. "I'm sorry to intrude, but I'm having trouble getting the youngsters to sleep. They're asking for another story?"
Ioulas smiled. "Kids?" he said. He saw the look on Hercules face and knew that he wasn't buying it.
"I have an idea," Hercules suggested. He rose and gestured for Ioulas to follow. The two of them went down the hall to the guest room where David and Gabrielle were staying.
"What are you doing?" Ioulas asked.
Hercules quietly knocked on the door.
It opened and Gabrielle stood in the doorway.
"Sorry to bother you," Hercules began. "But there's a small problem with some of the students, and I was wondering if I might borrow your husband for a moment?"
"Is everything alright?" Gabrielle asked.
"Fine, fine," Hercules saw the tension begin in the young bard. "Some of the younger students aren't going to sleep and they're asking for a story?"
"Well," Gabrielle smiled. "I think I can do something about that?"
"Uh, actually," Hercules looked over at Ioulas and saw his friends face go rigid. Ioulas subtly, but desperately shook his head. "I think you and Ioulas here have a few more things to iron out."
"Herc," Ioulas growled softly.
"And I can't get the old codger to talk, so?" He held his hands out to her.
David appeared behind Gabrielle.
Hercules placed a hand on David's shoulder and guided him out into the hall.
"Ah, just the man I need to see," Hercules said. "I was wondering if you could do me a favor?" He began escorting David down the hall. He held a hand up in farewell behind him.
"Thank you, Gabrielle!" he called over his shoulder.
"Oh, sure, no problem?" Gabrielle replied, still totally confused. Some of the confusion melted away when she saw how old Ioulas was fidgeting in front of her.
"Uh," Ioulas said nervously. "So, how are you?"
The rest of her confusion was gone in an instant. She crossed her arm over her chest and fixed the old man with a knowing stare.
"I'm fine," she said. "How are you?"
"That's a long story," Ioulas nodded nervously. "I wouldn't want to bore you with the details." He yawned theatrically and sighed. "Gosh, it's late. I think I'll just turn in for the night. Good night Gabrielle."
He turned to go.
"Ioulas!" Gabrielle barked. The old man froze.
Slowly, he turned to se Gabrielle's green eyes fixed on him intently. "It's not that late, and Hercules said you needed to talk to me?"
"Oh, well, you know Hercules," Ioulas replied with a nervous laugh. "Always over exaggerating things."
"Ioulas!" Gabrielle barked again. "In here! Now!"
Ioulas hung his head like a child.
"Yes ma'am," he replied dutifully and he stepped quickly into the room.
David listened with a growing sense of dread as Hercules explained both problems to him. The first issue wasn't so bad.
"I just don't want you to be angry with Ioulas," Hercules said. "He had feelings for Gabrielle a long time ago, and I think he still does.
Instead of being offended or angry, David only nodded and smiled. "I can understand that."
"I just don't want you to think-?"
David held up a hand and nodded. "Gabrielle is an amazing woman. We both know that. But I also trust her, and I trust you, for the most part. You wouldn't have done this if you didn't think it would help?"
Hercules nodded. "Thanks for understanding." Then he paused and frowned. "What do you mean, for the most part?"
David and Hercules entered one of the main rooms in the dormitory. Seated expectantly on the floor were nearly twenty children ranging in ages from seven to ten years.
David took a deep breath. "I mean this."
"They're children?" Hercules smiled. "What's the problem?"
David looked at Hercules skeptically. "Head Master," he said. "I may have been born at night. But, it wasn;t last night."
Hercules smiled and the two of them entered the room.
"I understand that you want a story?" Hercules said.
Cheers erupted from the assembled children and Hercules brought his hand sup to quiet them. "Well," he continued in fatherly fashion. "Since you've already heard all of my stories. I brought a friend with me. And he has lots of new stories."
"Uh, don't build me up too big there, boss," David said nervously.
Hercules led David to the front of the room.
"This is my friend David," Hercules said. "And he's going to tell you a story. One that you've never heard before, okay?"
There was an ominous silence in the room as twenty pairs of eyes looked at the newcomer.
Something like dread formed in the pit of David's belly as Hercules offered him the chair.
"I find it's easier to keep from fainting when you sit," he joked.
David offered him a mock smile in return, but sat down and looked out at the expectant faces of the children. He smiled nervously.
"A story," he said. His mind raced furiously, trying to come up with something. An idea began to germinate in his mind and his nervous smile became suddenly sly.
"Do you want an adventure story?" he asked. The children all nodded.
"With armies, and heroes, and magical creatures?" David continued.
Again, the children nodded or shouted in the affirmative.
David rubbed his hands together.
"Okay then," he leaned closer to them, as if to bestow some great secret, and in a hushed voice he said. "In a hole, in the ground, there lived a hobbit. . . "
It had taken three elaborate lies, two pathetic ones, and a myriad of half answers before Gabrielle wrung the truth out of Ioulas. Once she had, she didn't know what to say for a long moment.
"I know," Ioulas confessed. "I should have said something a long time ago, but I didn't think it would have been right? Then you show up with some new kid on your arm."
"Ioulas," Gabrielle said. "He's not a 'kid'." Then she reconsidered. "Well, not all the time."
"I know," Ioulas replied. "That isn't what I meant. I just - " He stopped and looked at her. "I've really been unfair to you, haven't I?"
Gabrielle nodded. "In some ways." Then her gaze softened and she put a hand on Ioulas's shoulder. "But I think you've been more unfair to my husband"
Ioulas winced again. "Do you have to use that word?"
"That's what he is, Ioulas," Gabrielle said evenly. "As fond as I always have been of you, I chose him. Even if we hadn't been through all the things we have, I know I would still have chosen to be with him."
Ioulas pursed his lips and nodded.
"Ioulas," she said sincerely. "I appreciate everything that you've said, and I guess I always knew that you felt that way, but I had to go with Xena, you know that?"
"I know," Ioulas nodded. "But an old man can dream, can't he?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Dream all you like," she agreed. "But at least understand that I love David and he is my husband, and I wouldn't have it any other way."
Ioulas opened the door to leave and found Hercules about to knock.
"Any progress?" he asked when the door opened. He looked past a stone faced Ioulas to Gabrielle who nodded.
"Good," he said, smiling. "Then I think the two of you would get a real kick out of this?" He gestured down the hall.
The three of them made their way quietly back to the main room of the dormitory.
As they grew nearer, they could hear David's voice echoing up the hallway.
". . . and he leapt, not a great leap for you or I, but a large one for a hobbit. Three feet up and six feet forward. Too late, Gollum realized what was happening. He fell back, his bony fingers snapping in the air as Bilbo flew over him. He landed square on his sturdy feet and fan as fast as he could down the tunnel, into the darkness with Gollum's voice wailing behind him.
"Thief, Baggins! We hates it! We hates it forever!"
There were a few holdouts among the children.
David sat on the chair with one of the young girls asleep on his lap, while the student that was responsible for them was gingerly picking up the sleeping forms and carrying them off to their beds, one at a time.
The three of them hovered at the entrance. Hercules leaned against the wall and crossed his arms, smiling in appreciation.
David continued the story, keeping the few yawning children enthralled until the last of them finally laid down and closed his eyes.
Gabrielle watched all this with a smile on her lips. Something warmed in her heart as she saw her husband with the child in his lap, gently holding her to his shoulder and absently stroking her hair as she slept. The whole picture seemed so completely natural for him, in spite of their recently violent past. In a flash, she had an image of him seated in a chair in their home, with another child, their child, resting on his knee, or sleeping in his arms. A longing deeper than anything she had ever experienced before welled up within her and nearly brought a tear to her eye. Then she caught a flicker of movement from one of the other entrances and spied Antonia, also watching David and listening. There was a faint smile on her lips as well as she saw the young girl contentedly sleeping against David's shoulder.
Finally, David fell silent as the upper classman scooped the last sleeping form up and carried him off to the beds.
David rose gently, still holding the sleeping girl and followed into the dimly lit hallway. Once he was gone, Gabrielle saw Antonia make an equally silent exit.
Gabrielle watched as David and the elder student emerged again. She shook his hand and smiled. They exchanged a few words quietly and David turned to go, seeing the three of them at the entrance.
Gabrielle grinned. "Always full of surprises," she said, shaking her head.
"What?" David asked.
"Is there anything you can't do?" Gabrielle asked him.
David shrugged. "Well, I've never tried walking on water, but then again, there's always tomorrow?"
Gabrielle stifled her soft laugh as the four of them headed back to their rooms.
Once they were gone, another figure dropped from the ventilation shaft and watched them depart. Rasten looked back at the empty room, and then at them, his eyes filled with a mixture of wonder and confusion.
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