A Matter of Pride
She knew it couldn't last forever. Gabrielle sucked on the end of a
quill, aware of the slow movement of Xena's hand over her thigh. The warrior had figured
out one of her new puzzles, had some breakfast, taken a short nap - all while Gabrielle
had worked on her diary.
Now, Xena was awake and the bard could almost feel the restlessness coming from her. Not a lot, just yet, but definite, distinctive shifts of the warrior's long body, which was curled around Gabrielle's as the bard sat there writing.
Dori was the same way, Gabrielle acknowledged in amused silence. The baby would allow things to occupy her for only so long, before her attention would wander and she would be off to find something more interesting to do.
It was funny, in a way. Usually she didn't think too much about Dori's unusual parentage. But at times like this, when she saw Xena so clearly in her daughter, it brought the miracle of it home to her all over again. She leaned back, enjoying the comfortable warmth of her living backrest and draped an arm over Xena's hip. One of the warrior's long legs was hitched forward, the other was extended due to its splint. "Want me to change that bandage, hon?"
"Mm." Xena had her head propped up on one fist. "Yeah." Her body shifted slightly. "I was thinking of going over there and working things out a little."
Uh huh. Gabrielle supressed a grin. "Over where.. near the wall there?"
Xena nodded. "Yeah. Just warm up my body a bit. I'm... "
Gabrielle chuckled. "Okay, restless."
"Mmph. Maybe it's the weather."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle closed her diary and set the quill down. "C'mere, Let me look at you... .eek." The bard found herself unexpectedly turned up side down, her limbs tangling with Xenas, ending up with the both of them nose to nose and wrapped in linen. "Ah."
"So." Xena nibbled the soft skin just under Gabrielle's jaw. "Here I am." She caught the bard's earlobe between her teeth. "How do I look?"
Well. Gabrielle pulled a lace free and peeled back the linen covering the warrior's shoulder. It was one way to keep her in bed. "Gorgeous." She breathed, sending eager fingers under the shift to explore the warm skin beneath it. Her body, rested and relaxed, now woke up in a hurry, responding to the jolt of desire Xena's lips were igniting inside her.
Somehow, her shift dissappeared. The cool, moist air coming in the window felt good against her heated skin, and she felt goosebumps raise all up and down her back as Xena rolled her over and leaned on both arms above her for a moment, gazing down at her with a seductive, predatory look.
"I think I'm in trouble." Gabrielle murmured, as the long body sank to brush against hers.
"Yes, you are." Xena purred in one ear.
The bard gave her hands permission to wander, and pressed her fingers lightly against the warrior's frame before she stroked gently downward. Xena's ribs expanded towards her, and she felt the chill breath of the air tickle her bare belly just before the heat of the warrior's skin banished it explosively.
Soft growls distracted her, and she left her hands to continue their wandering as she concentrated on the lips that were moving down her collarbone in a series of licks and gentle kisses, pausing to pay special attention to her most sensitive places and wringing an inarticulate sound from her throat.
Xena chuckled, her breath warming the skin under her and continued her efforts, rewarded with a lower, deeper sound, and the sudden clenching of Gabrielle's fingers against her side. "Like that, huh?"
"Oh yeah." The bard answered, on a very uneven breath. "Do it again."
Another laugh, this one rich with affection. "Whatever you say, my queen." Xena did as she was asked, feeling Gabrielle's body lift and arch against hers as the bard gripped her and pulled her closer.
The warrior nipped a little harder, and was glad, for Gabrielle's sake, that the walls were very thick stone.
She only wished, for a moment, that her ears weren't quite so close or so
Xena lifted her head at the soft knock on the door, resenting the need for her to stir from the lazily tumbled nest she and Gabrielle had burrowed into after they'd tired each other out. She really didn't feel like moving her body was sated and very comfortable. The restlessness that had started to make her itchy was completely gone, replaced by a sleepy sensuality that made her want to just close her eyes again, and put her head back down on
Gabrielle's belly while her fingers traced slow, lazy patterns across the bard's soft inner thigh.
Another knock. Xena glared at the door, and took in a breath. "What?" She projected a dangerous growl towards the door, sounding echoes of a certain warlord in days not that long past. "Better be worth your life if you knock again." She added for good measure.
Xena waited, then grinned as she heard footsteps retreating into muffled obscurity. With a contented sigh, she resumed her spot. Her eyes closed as she felt Gabrielle's fingers touch her neck, scratching it and kneading the muscles at the top of her spine. "Mm."
"That could have been someone with something important to tell us, y'know." The bard murmured.
"Don't care." Xena responded. "Whatever it is, can wait."
Gabrielle only wished she could stir up the energy to continue the protest. Instead, she started tracing the powerful ridge than ran down either side of her partner's spine. It wasn't often in their busy lives that they took a day out like this, and indulged each other. In Amphipolis, certainly, it would be fairly impossible given their responsibilities.
And, while a games compound in Athens wasn't exactly the most relaxed, romantic place she could imagine, still, it was raining, and it was quiet. Mostly. They had an acceptably comfortable bed, and each other. What more, really could she ask for? Gabrielle benignly eyed the still driving rain outside. "Hey. Maybe it'll keep raining, and they'll have to postpone the games."
A pale blue eye appeared as Xena turned her head and peered up over the curve of the bard's breasts. "You want to stay in Athens longer?" The warrior asked, in an incredulous tone.
"No." Gabrielle riffled her fingers through the warrior's bangs. "But I do want to see you go out there and kick the attitudes off some of those.... of those... " She paused.
"Walking fertilizer piles?"
"No. Fertilizer is useful." Gabrielle frowned. "I'll think of something later."
Xena seemed satisfied with that. Her eye closed again, though she squirmed around so she was now facing the bard. "Split nostrils?"
"What?" Gabrielle said.
"That animal you were describing. Split nostrils?"
"What animal?" The bard asked, then almost slapped her head in memory. "Oh... that animal." She truly had forgotten the game for a minute. "Split nostrils? Xena, I have no idea. I never got that close to it."
"Ah." The eye appeared again, sparkling with mischief. "So it's something you personally have seen."
"Before or after?"
"Where would I have seen something like that in Potadeia, Xena?" Gabrielle admitted, acknowledging the fact that giving that up meant she'd told Xena that Xena had, in all probability, seen the thing too.
"Ah." Xena wiggled her fingers, coincidentally tickling Gabrielle's belly.
"Was it cute?"
"In whose opinion?"
"Damn. That opens up the possibilities."
Gabrielle started laughing.
Weve got to find real shelter. Ephiny yelled, keeping her grip on the lead horses headstall with difficulty. The animal was afraid, plowing through muddy, racing water up to his knees, and only the fact that he, and his partner in harness had an Amazon latched onto either side of them was keeping them from bolting.
I know. But where? Pony yelled back, wrestling with the other horse. Eph, were losing ground here.
Theyd been caught by a rush of water, a flash flood that came down the road leading up to Athens, overrunning the edges of the stone lined way as the walls started to slope upwards forcing people to keep to it.
It was chaos. Theyd already been struck by debris washing down from further up the road, and seen bodies floating by. The wagon was half adrift already, despite the weight of the frightened elders, and their supplies. Ephiny was seriously afraid now that theyd lose it all and she knew if they lost their footing, no ones safety was guaranteed.
Cyrene was perched over the drivers seat, Dori lashed to her back, a grim, desperate look on her face as she balanced with difficulty, trying to keep the other villagers calm. Johan had joined them by the horses, his sturdy form just in back of Caits stubborn lightness, keeping the girl from tearing loose in the flood.
Can we back down the road? Follow the flow? Pony asked.
Ephiny looked back that way. The road had disappeared, replaced by a churning, brown nightmare full of anonymous, tumbling debris. They were huddled by one of the sloping banks where the flow was less, and she was afraid moving out into the current would be a disaster.
Staying where they were, being battered by everything that came at them was a disaster.
Moving forward was damn near impossible.
Ephiny freed a hand to swipe her drenched, curly hair out of her eyes. Being in charge really sucked sometimes. All right. She yelled. Lets see if we can turn the team around. She pointed. And Cait get the Hades up into that wagon!
Cait was already losing the battle with the water. Bother that! She glared at the flow, which was lifting her off her feet. Its not fair.
Paladia edged around in back of her and grabbed her around the waist. Wouldja get up there? Youre gonna float your butt away and end up getting your head cracked.
Hah. Cait squirmed around. Rather close on your getting yours cracked for grabbing at me without warning first.
Paladia rolled her eyes.
Oh, all right. Cait grabbed the harness lying across the second horse on the drivers side, and pulled herself up, slinging one leg over the animals back and taking a tight hold. There. Now go do something useful, wont you? She gave Paladia sudden shove. Jump!
What? Ow! Paladia yelped, as an uprooted trunk slammed into her legs. Sonofa
Bother. Cait gave her an exasperated look. You never do listen.
Cmon. Ephiny and Eponin turned into the current, side by side. They both moved cautiously, feeling for the roads surface as they pulled the unwilling horses around and edged cautiously into the flood.
Ephiny felt her boot slip, and she cursed, then found her arm being gripped and her balance steadied. Thanks. She gave Pony a grateful look. The weapons master had slipped between the two front horses, along with Johan. Paladia was hanging grimly on to the other front horse, her height and weight denying the water and allowing her to gain headway against the flow.
The horses didnt want to cooperate. The water frightened them, and the roaring sound was making them shy repeatedly, pulling against the Amazons and Johan and becoming almost uncontrollable. Ephiny hung grimly on to the cheekpiece and pulled with all her strength, using her weight to turn the animals head, and force him around. Cmon, you..
The horse reared, taking her up with it. She felt her feet leave the ground, and she wrenched herself in mid air, throwing her body towards the middle of the road and slamming into the horses neck. With a scream, the animal dropped back down and lunged into the middle of the road, taking his partner with him.
Ephiny lost her footing and hung on, feeling debris slam painfully against her legs. One hand slipped free of its grip and she took a deep breath, judging her chances in the now increasing flood. The rain obscured the wagon, and she thought she heard a yell, then a high pitched noise, then suddenly the back of her leathers was grabbed and she was pulled sharply against the horses side.
Ow. It knocked the breath out of her, but she got a chance to regain her grip and by a sheer force of will, shoved her boots down and found footing. Only then did she turn her head to find Cait leaning over the lead horses neck, still gripping her tightly. Good catch. She complimented the young Amazon.
Rather. Cait replied calmly. Cant be losing you, your majesty. Id hate to have to explain that to the Queen.
Ephiny almost laughed. Then she shook her head and inched back through the quickening water, and started leading the horse forward again. Cmon, you blockhead.. you cant stay here!
Slowly, they moved forward, feeling the frightening sway as the wagon was dragged into the deepest part of the water, and almost lifted up. The horses struggled, slipping and lunging sideways, and for a moment Ephiny thought theyd lost.
Then the wagon turned all the way, and they were facing downstream, feeling the shove against their backs as the water surged around them.
Then they heard a scream. Ephiny whipped her head around and looked back, over the shuddering wagon. Through the driving rain she could just see something very large heading right for them.
She barely had enough time to yell. HANG ON!!!!
The impact struck them. Ephiny heard a splintering, and felt a huge jolt as her grip was torn loose and she was sent flying, aware of the overwhelming scent of earth just before her body crashed into the slope.
She reached out blindly and grabbed hold of the first thing she felt, sharp branches cutting into her palms as the water swept her past it. The branch held, and she pulled her head up, shaking her hair out of her eyes as she stared down the road, seeing nothing but a tangle of wreckage and flailing limbs moving slowly away from her.
With a curse, she flung herself into the water and plunged after them, fighting to keep her balance against the current. The rain lashed against her scraped and battered body, but that meant nothing to her as she focused on the dimly seen bodies bobbing downstream.
Just then, the overturned wagon caught in a narrow point in the road and stuck the roar of the water redoubled as it raged against the blockade, but it gave Ephiny precious time to reach the wreck.
She pulled herself up on top of it, crouching as she leaped to the front and stood crouching in the rain, shading her eyes from the worst of it. Pony!!!!
Here! A very welcome yell came back. Ware left!
Ephiny glanced behind her, to see the water rapidly backing up behind the wagon. She jumped to the right side of the cart and leaped down, stumbling through the now only ankle high flow to where a huddle of bodies were.
Pony was standing spraddle legged over two of the elders, apparently either winded or injured. Johan had pulled Cyrene up onto the slim embankment, and was holding her there in safety, both of them pale and shaken. The rest of the elders were huddled next to them.
There was no sign of Cait or Paladia. Or the team of horses.
Ephinys heart sank. Lost a couple. She exhaled, her eyes going briefly to Cyrenes backpouch, where Doris head was visible, the baby seemingly oblivious to the rain. Dori okay?
Shes fine. Cyrene said. I saw Cait and Paladia go with the horses. She hesitated. Im sure theyre okay.
The Amazon regent felt the rain redouble, pelting her back with stinging force. She put a hand out against the wagon to steady herself as she took stock of the situation. The dam woudnt hold forever, that was one thing.
Her eyes met Ponys. They had injured people now to tend to, that was another.
They had no wagon, no supplies, no horses, had two missing Amazons, injured elders, and it was still raining. Ephiny rubbed her temples with one hand. You know what? She commented to the driving rain. I wish Gabrielle were here. Then Id at least have someone to blame this all on.
What was that? Pony yelled. Cant hear you, Eph!
A sigh. I said, lets take advantage of this damn wagon being stuck, and get everyone off the road and up onto the embankment. Well assess the injured, then make some shelter. She saw grim understanding in her partners eyes. Then well look for Cait and Paladia.
Cmon. Ephiny ordered, with quiet inflexibility. This wagons going to give, and weve got to get these people clear. She dropped to her knees next to the injured elder, drawing in a breath when she realized it was Josclyn.
A piece of debris had run him through his right shoulder, and as she turned him over, his blood splashed over her legs, turning the muddied water dirty crimson.
She had only time to meet his eyes, before they fluttered closed, and the body in her hands went limp, slumping against her with a weary finality that shocked even her experienced mind.
Into the utter, shocked silence around her, Ephiny released a quiet, shaky sigh, her fingers merely confirming what her instincts already had told her. Hes dead. She stated. Eponin, help me pull his body clear.
It was dark outside, and still raining.
Gabrielle had lit the candles inside the room, and they provided a warm, golden light that turned the stone walls cream toned and gave her enough illumination for her current task.
Xena was lying on her back with her eyes closed and her hands folded over her stomach allowing the bard to fuss over her injured knee. The warriors breathing was slow and even, and if Gabrielle didnt know better, shed almost think Xena asleep.
Carefully, the bard cut loose the linen bandages holding the splint in place, and removed the three arrow shafts, setting them aside for reuse. Then she unwrapped the limb, which was propped up in her lap so she could reach around it. Mm. Gabrielle murmured in a pleased tone, as she uncovered the ugly gash on the top of her partners knee and found it well on the way to healing.
The skin was closed, and knit together, with no sign of infection or redness. Also, the swelling around the joint had gone down drastically, returning the warriors leg to a more customary profile. Gabrielle could see the lines of bone and muscle now under skin no longer so puffed and bruised and it appeared to her that the broken cap seemed to be still in place and healing.
Xenas magic. Gabrielle traced the skin with gentle fingers, as she glanced up the length of her partners body. No, Gabrielle. Her conscience corrected her quietly. Call it what it is. The blood of the gods that runs in her. The immortal touch that lets her do the impossible things she does, and keeps her whole, and allows her to bend the rules of the mortal world for herself, and for you.
Not too much, she acknowledged. Not enough to turn away pain, or keep her blood from shedding. Not enough to hold back the years, or prevent the tiny lines from lining the tanned skin of her face.
Just enough to put her back together, to let her continue the long fight, that let her keep hold of life beyond the grip of the rest of humanity.
Just enough to give them Dori.
Well? Xenas voice interrupted her musing. Is it about to fall off or something?
Gabrielle chuckled softly. Not hardly. She squeezed the extra water out of the piece of linen in her right hand, then started washing off the dried blood. It actually looks like your leg now, not like something from Dedres butcher shop back home.
Ah. Xena smiled, keeping her eyes closed. Yeah, it feels a lot better. She flexed the leg a bit, the muscles bunching and rolling under the skin. Good.
Yeah. Gabrielle wiped the skin clean, removing the old herbs and dried salve. How about I finish up and have Mikah scrounge us up some dinner?
Good idea. Xena replied promptly. Hes been out there all day, should have a wagonload of news and gossip for us.
Assuming he hasnt run for the hills when you yelled before. Gabrielle countered.
Xena snorted softly.
Big bad Xena.
A pink tongue appeared, pointed in the bards direction.
Oh yeah, remind me of that the next time Doris jumping all over me. Xena reminded her. Ive had my reputation torn to such tatters . A melodramatic sigh. Its Xena, Warrior Creampuff now.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and snorted. Tell me another one, you poor old thing. She drawled. Wait is this where I get to hear how it used to be back in the days where you had to milk cows one teat at a time?
Listen, lambchop Xena growled. Watch it, or Ill show you what we used to do with cows mmph. She suddenly found the light blocked out and Gabrielles slim form looming over her as the bard leaned forward to kiss her.
Whore you calling lambchop? Gabrielle asked lazily, rubbing noses with the warrior as they paused for breath. You making fun of me being a shepherds kid?
Naaaaa. Xena baaed softly. Would I do that?
Uh huh. The bard grinned at her. I still remember that short enough to milk a sheep joke you told last time.
Xena started laughing in pure reflex.
Ill have you know I was the best sheep milker in Potadeia, as a matter of fact. Gabrielle went on, enjoying the expression of simple happiness on her partners face. The trick is, you turn them over.
Xena just laughed harder.
Then you hop up and down on them. Gabrielle hopped, just a little. The effect was, given her position, structurally hilarious. Parts of her anatomy bounced off Xenas, and nearly made the warrior choke. The tough part She leaned closer to Xenas ear. Is putting the buckets in just the right places.
Gods. Xena covered her eyes with one hand, her entire body shaking. Stop it youre making my stomach hurt from laughing.
Gabrielle chuckled a little herself, then exhaled, and let her forehead rest against Xenas. Xe?
Her laughter winding down, the warrior released a breath, and opened her eyes. Yeah?
I do now. How to milk a sheep. Xena joked, making them both chuckle again. No, what? She added, after a minute.
Gabrielle gazed down into her eyes, seeing past the gods blood, and the ultimate warrior, and the merciless killer down through to the simple innkeepers daughter who was her partner, her soulmate, and her best friend. I love you.
Xenas expression softened. I love you, too. She replied, with a tiny, charmed smile. What brought that on?
Nothing. Gabrielle leaned over and kissed her. Everything. She added, with a satisfied sigh. Life rocks.
Xena studied the look of contented joy on Gabrielles face, and found herself smiling in reaction to it, knowing shed played a large part in putting it there. She thought about the statement for a moment, then surprised herself by finding she was in complete agreement with it, at least for the moment. Yeah. It does.
Well. Cait wrung her hair out, giving the muddy bank theyd climbed up a dirty look. That certainly wasnt a terribly wonderful way to spend that bit of time.
No. Paladia was sitting on the ground, examining a long, ragged gash in her leg. It sucked. She looked back over her shoulder to where the road swept up around a bend, out of their sight. Figures the rest of em are taking their time.
Cait sighed, and climbed up onto a nearby boulder, shading her eyes and peering off into the distance. Then she cocked her head and listened intently. Rats. She finally muttered. Pally, I dont think theyre coming.
No? Paladia scrambled awkwardly to her feet and limped over to lean on the rock. Hey. Great.
Great? The blond girl frowned. Whatever do you mean by that? Its not in the slightest bit great. Theyre probably stuck back in that water somewhere, waiting for us to rescue them. Cait said. So, come on then, lets get at it. She hopped off the rock and picked her way across the stony embankment towards the water.
Paladia gazed plaintively at the sky, then shook her head. Yo! Dipwad! She sat down on the rock. You cant go back that way.
Cait paused, about to enter the water. She turned and put her hands on her narrow hips. Whyever not?
Paladia pointed. That water was knocking you on your ass up there with four horses and a scad of people hanging onto you. She snorted. Youre just gonna get blasted right back here.
Cait reviewed the rushing water, whose force seemed to have lessened, but which was still formidable. You could go first.
Why should I? The taller Amazon protested. So the damn rocks can crack me in the head? No thanks.
Cait turned around and made her way back, ending up right next to her friend. Now, you look here. She stated firmly. Stop being such a sissy at once, or I shall have to thump you.
Paladia sighed. It was goofy. Here she was, three times Caits size, and that little brat thought she could just run right over her like a runaway mule. She glowered up at her, as the blond girl folded her slim, but muscular arms across her chest. Problem was Cait could probably drag her butt down into the water size or no size, and they both knew it. Goofy. Why not go up there? Paladia pointed towards the ridge. Unless you gotta do everything the hard way.
Cait turned her head and reviewed the suggested alternate seriously. All right. She nodded. Splendid idea. Lets go. She tangled one hand in Paladias leathers and started off, giving the taller woman a choice of following her or remaining seated in perfect nakedness.
She hated that. With a groan, Paladia got up and trudged after her smaller companion, trying not to limp, or bleed too much. Allright.. cut it out. Im coming.
Right. Cait slowed her pace, and found a relatively smooth path up onto the ridge. Is that leg of yours awful?
Right. Cait turned around and gave her a push, landing Paladia neatly on the short, tufted grass of the embankment. Give it here. She flopped down on the turf with little ceremony, yanking the bigger womans calf towards her.
Hey! Paladia objected, pulling her foot back. Cut that out! I said it was fine!
Yes, but you lie all the time. Cait ignored her protest and trapped the limb between her ankles, holding it down. Now, be still or Ill cut the silly thing right off.
Paladia leaned back on her elbows and tried to ignore the driving rain pelting her from all sides. It washed the mud off at least, and it even sort of got Caits hair back to its normal color, more or less like Paladias own.
They had little things like that in common. Their eyes were sort of the same color too.
Ill have to stitch this.
Paladia groaned. Not those frigging square knots again, okay? She had a rather odd looking scar on one arm from Caits experimentation with needles.
Its not my fault you cant keep out of the way of things. Cait stated placidly, as she drew out her needle and a bit of gut. I get bored doing just those straight ones all the time.
Youre so weird.
I am certainly not.
Yes you are.
No, Im not. Now be quiet, or Ill stitch my name across your kneecap.
Paladia laid down on the slope and closed her eyes, glad of a chance to rest at least. The day had totally sucked so far, and if she had to put up with Cait jamming a sharp needle into her leg at least she could relax during it. Besides, there were worse people she could have doing it, like Eponin. Hey.
Yeah, yeah. The big Amazon waved a hand. I know, but listen you figure those guys got out of this stupid flood and took cover?
Cait bent her head, keeping the rain off the skin she was working on. How on earth should I know? She answered, taking careful, small stitches in the handsbreadth long gash leaking tendrils of her friends blood over both of them.
Yeah, like they have the sense to get out of the rain. Paladia muttered.
Hello, Lady Kettle? Seen whats pouring on your head lately? Cait snickered. Good gosh, Pally. Whats put you in such a bother today?
Its raining. My legs hurt. Youre jabbing me with a needle. Were lying in mud. Its lightning. The idiots were with are probably inside a cave with a fire already. Im thirsty. Paladia answered dourly, then yelped when a finger hooked itself between her teeth and yanked her mouth open. Rain immediately entered it.
There. Cait went back to her task. Anything else, then?
Paladia swallowed her mouthful of water and considered the question. A dry bed? She felt a single, last, sharp pinch against her skin, then felt the pressure as Cait sprawled on the wet grass next to her. She hazarded a peek, to see those strange, often cold eyes watching her. What?
You know, Ive quite decided having all those elders with us is a bother. Cait said. Puts a damper on things.
Paladia smirked a little. Yeah.. dont want to shock the old goats, though. Might send those Amphlifishies into a tiz.
A twinkle entered Caits eyes. Actually. She drawled softly. I was talking about the regent and Eponin. She gave the edge of Paladias leathers a tug. Do you know theyve never tried having fun in a tree?
A sigh. Most normal people havent, doofball. The big Amazon snorted, visibly pleased nonetheless. Theyre like, not into breaking their necks.
Or taking unnecessary risks. Cait added, leaning over and biting a fold of her friends skin. I cant imagine why not. She looked up from under very blond lashes. Im glad youre not normal.
Paladias nostrils flared. Thanks. She remarked. Glad being nutty as a fruitcake gets points.
Cait chuckled, then pushed herself off the grass and held a hand out to her. Cmon then. Lets go find those slackards. She hauled her friend up and they started up the slope again. The rain beat against them, but its force wasnt nearly that of the raging water below, and they made good time across the ridge.
Where in Hades did you get the idea of trees anyway? Paladia suddenly asked.
Where do you think? Cait replied, smugly.
Rolled eyes. Figures.
Never catch them being boring, what? Cait giggled. After all, thats how they managed Dori. She kept walking a few steps, then turned as she realized Paladia was no longer at her side. Do get on, Pally. What are you standing there for?
A tree caused that? Paladia had her hands on her hips. A freaking tree, and weve been.. She spluttered to a halt. Are you nuts? You want to end up preggers?
Me? Cait pointed at her own chest. Goodness no.
Paladia walked up to her. Damn good thing.
I figured youd be much better at that sort of thing. Cait replied calmly, giving her a prod in the belly. Youve got quite a lot more room, for starts. She turned and ambled off, leaving the taller Amazon rooted in place, staring after her slack jawed.
Why you little bacchae. Paladia managed to get out. Dont you even hey! Hey! Ignoring the ache in her leg, she broke into a run after Cait. Hey! Get back here you you .
It wasnt perfect, but it was shelter. Ephiny rose up from a crouch near the half unhinged door and looked around her. The old shrine was so weatherbeaten and worn, it was impossible to tell which god it had once honored. The roof was sound, though, and the walls kept out most of the rain, and the building was on a rise above the road.
It was the best they could have hoped for.
Who was in charge? Ephiny wryly mused, as she held her water wrinkled hands to the fire, and hoped this meant the worst was over.
It was still raining. Xena burrowed out from under the covers and rested her chin on her forearm, regarding the sheeted silver passing by the window. Gabrielle had gotten dressed and gone out exploring, with the goal of getting them some dinner and seeing what was going on in mind.
Xena considered her options. She could remain where she was, adhereing to her promise to Gabrielle of staying in bed and relaxing, or she could get up and work off some of the energy that was starting to once again make her twitch.
Well. With a sigh, the warrior rolled over and shed her fur covering, then sat up and rested her feet on the floor. Shed been good, after all, almost all day. Gabrielle would forgive her, right? With a soft grunt, she pushed herself up onto her good leg and waited for her balance to settle, then leaned against the wall with one hand as she very cautiously rested her bad leg on the ground.
Hm. So far so good. She tensed her thigh muscles and slowly, carefully let a bit of weight down.
Ow. She paused and waited. After a moment, the pain subsided and she continued her experiment, until the ache jacked up again and steadied.
Hm. The warrior frowned. Not good, but not entirely bad either. If she did the sensible thing and kept off her feet for another night, it might be all right. On the other hand, ignoring the restlessness for much longer wasnt going to be easy. Xena chewed her lower lip and regarded the room.
Ah. She limped over to where the rocks and slabs were, and studied them. There was one waist high piece, obviously meant to practice vaulting over. She sat on it and looked right and left. There were two more posts on either side, markers for warming up to pitch either spears or discus. The top of the posts was curved, mean to fit Xenas eyes flicked to the ground. Ah hah. She got up and limped over to the long, very heavy looking stone post lying on the ground.
Her fingers drummed on her thigh. Kneeling to pick the thing up properly wasnt an option, with her splint. Xena frowned. She could wait for Gabrielle to get back to help her but..
With a sigh, the warrior leaned over and got her hands around the post, then straightened, feeling the fierce strain in her back as she lifted the heavy stone, just barely balancing it as she turned and dropped it into place on the supports with a heartfelt groan.
Xena, Warrior Imbecile. She eased between the post and the vaulting block and sat down again, bracing her upper thighs under the heavy stone. Hm. That might work. She very slowly and carefully leaned back, letting the post counterweight her body.
She could feel the pull against her stomach muscles, and she spread her arms out to either side, intensifying the exertion. She extended all the way back until she was almost parallel with the floor, then paused, holding the position.
There was no strain on her lower legs at all, just on her thighs, and her body. With a grunt, she reversed the motion and pulled herself upright. All right. Xena thought for a moment, then decided on a routine. She repeated the lean shed just done, then rolled her body around in a slow circle, warming her muscles up and stretching out areas she hadnt had to use in a while.
Once shed done that to her satisfaction, she leaned over and scooped up one of the stones and repeated her exercise with that, using the extra weight to get a little more stretch out of her body.
It was awkward, certainly. Using just her upper body was tough, and it put a lot of strain on the long muscles on either side of her back and torso. She was used to being able to leverage with the powerful muscles in her legs, and she found herself quickly getting a little sore across her back and midriff from the exercise.
With a faint scowl, she pulled herself upright and regarded the far wall, tossing the stone up and down in her hands. Then she let it drop to the ground and eased out from under the post, regarding the red, angry marks across the tops of her thighs dourly.
Then she spotted the stack of discus, half hidden in an alcove near the window. She hopped over to them and retrieved a couple, then went back to her stone seat. Might as well get a little practice in. Xena fit her fingers around the edge of one of the disks and hefted it, then studied the wall across from her.
With a twist of her body, she wound up, then lashed her arm in reverse, sending the disc flying from her to smash against the wall with a very satisfying crunch. Hm. Xena studied the mark on the stone, then picked up another disc. Whered you get that aim, huh? Broad side of a barn? Bet you couldnt hit the broad side of Argo standing right next to ya.
Another disc spun, smacking into the wall at a higher angle. A chunk of rock trickled out in its wake. Gotta do better than that. Her sense of competition woke up, as she saw marks much higher up, and deeper in the walls surface. It wasnt easy. The length of the room was a challenge, and she couldnt use her entire body weight to get behind her throws. In fact, matching the upper marks might be darn near impossible.
The toga felt odd, draped over her body. Gabrielle twitched at it for the nth time, as she meandered around the long, echoing corridors in search of Mikah, in search of food and drink, in search of
Gabrielle rounded a corner and found herself entering a large, stuffy room full of muscular men and women exercising. Mostly nude. Eyes immediately fell on her.
In search of trouble, apparently, and as usual shed found it. Hi. Gabrielle gave the nearest man a polite smile. He was lifting two huge sacks, one on each shoulder, squatting down with them and standing up again in grunting rhythm.
He glared at her and turned his head, pointedly ignoring her presence. Sweat dripped off his face and onto the straw covered floor.
Nice. Gabrielle exhaled, then squared her shoulders and decided on a path through the sycophants. She could see a large, arched doorway on the far side of the enclosure, and brief flickers of dim forms in serving clothes indicated it probably was at least one of her goals.
She started through the room, edging past men wrestling, women wrestling, a pit where several bodies clashed with swords, and many individuals concentrating in silence, practicing jumping, leaping, throwing
It was exhausting just watching them. Gabrielle eyed the exquisitely chisled young bodies and had to seriously wonder about their chances. Everyone she saw looked well trained and athletic, and certainly skilled at whatever it was they were doing.
Gabrielle stopped, as a tall, sleekly muscled woman stepped in front of her, a challenging expression on her face. Yes? She replied mildly. Can I help you?
The woman was dressed in an off the shoulder, sweat covered tunic, belted, with a well made quiver strapped across her back. She carried a longbow competently gripped in one hand, and now she rested its end on the straw as she regarded Gabrielle. So youre one of the ringers, huh?
Ringer? Gabrielle frowned. Im not sure what youre talking about. She replied honestly, aware of the small group gathering around them. Im just here for the same reason you are. She said. To compete for my home town.
A few people laughed. Yeah? The woman eyed her. Well, dont think you being famous cuts any slack with any of us. A murmur of agreement rose up.
Okay. Gabrielle agreed amiably. I didnt really expect it to, so thats no great loss. She edged to her right a little, clearing some space. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Mikah peeking around the archway, then saw him disappear quickly.
Then why wait until the last minute? The woman countered. Sneaking in like that?
Yeah. Gabrielles sack lifting friend had joined them.
Well you know The bard deliberately found a barrel and perched on it. We didnt actually come to Athens for the games. We just came to talk to the council about our taxes, only..
Councils out of session. The man stated.
Right. Gabrielle agreed. So, we heard maybe the games were one way to do something about our assessments, so.. A shrug. We entered.
The woman laughed. So you just showed up, and figured youd have a chance? Do you know how long most of us have been getting ready for this?
Gabrielle could well imagine. Guess youve got no problem then, right? She smiled, folding her hands in her lap.
My problem is, Ive been working my butt off to get here, practicing all day long for a year, and only barely qualifying. Then you show up. The woman stated. And they just let you right in.
The bard stood and walked over to her. Well, you know Ive spent the last year rebuilding my birthplace, which was totally destroyed. She paused. And helping hundreds of refugees find new homes.. and the year before that, I spent fighting for survival and watching my friends and family murdered. Pause. Want to trade?
The woman took a breath, then stepped back a little.
Gabrielle followed her, tilting her head up and meeting the womans gaze. Get over yourself. She suggested, before she simply pushed by her, and continued on her way, ignoring the silence and the watching eyes.
Mikah was waiting for her when she reached the exit, his still bruised face tense as she rounded the corner. Mistress!
There you are. The bard greeted him. Okay, listen..
Shh. Mikah pulled her arm anxiously. Over here, quickly. He took her into a darkened corner, eyeing the passing servants. Celestas looking for you.
Gabrielle cocked her head. So?
Shes put the word out shes personally challenging you. The boy said. She said youre a fraud, and those stories in the library either are stolen, or copied from somewhere.
Gabrielle stared at him for a moment, then burst into laughter. Oh gods.. She covered her eyes with one hand. I only wish some of those stories were about someone else. Her body sagged back against the cool, stone wall. What a clueless dipwad.
Mikah leaned against the wall next to her. Shes lying, huh?
The bard was quiet for a moment, then she looked at him. You believed her?
His eyes studied her face intently. I hardly know you. He said, after a moment. And I wondered.. because youre so
A blond eyebrow lifted.
Young. Mikah said, with a smile. Odd, coming from a kid like me, I guess. He stared at his boots for a moment. But, no I didnt believe her.
Gabrielle gazed quietly off into the distance, trying to decide whether she should feel amused, or insulted, or just disgusted. Well tomorrow I guess well
A loud banging cut off her speech, and she turned, to see four men entering the large room, and mounting a small dias she hadnt noticed towards the front of it. The oldest of them beat a long, capped staff on the ground and waited for everyone to turn and look at him. Gabrielle pulled Mikah with her as they slipped into the exercise room and pressed against the wall.
My dear atheletes! The man boomed. He was large, and had salt and pepper hair with a long, almost silver beard. The gods have played us a trick, it seems. He cleared his throat importantly. Due to the weather, we will have to postpone the opening of the Games. Our soothsayer.. He turned and indicated a slim, almost bald man behind him. Tells me the weather should clear by sundown on the morrow, hence, we will begin the games at dawn the next.
A low murmur rose up. What of the tax deadline? Gabrielles erstwhile challenger spoke up. That will bring the end of the games past it!
The bearded man held up a hand. Fear not. Im sure we can work out something with the city council.. I have sent word to the prefect.
Gabrielle took note of the low comments around her. Okay.. well, that helps. She murmured to Mikah. Xena needs all the time she can get listen, do they have sandwiches or something I can grab?
Mikah lead her back into the servants area. I was going to bring you both something. He told her. I tried before but.. .um..
Xena scared you off. Gabrielle suppressed a grin. Yeah, she was ah.. practicing some moves.
Oh. He picked up a basket from a small alcove. Well, Im glad shes not like the rest of these people. Ive had to listen to them all day long. What a bunch of egotists.
Hm. Gabrielle led the way back through the big room, which now held clumps of people gathered together, evidently teams discussing the news. They all gave her quick, suspicious looks as they passed, and one or two snide comments about Mikah reached her ears.
She glanced at the boy, whose eyes were on the ground, but the reddened tips of his ears indicated that hed heard them. Sorry.
He glanced at her quickly. Why? Theyre saying Im your hired bedmate its what I do. You owe me no apology, rather, I owe one to you for making them think so. He took a torch from a wall sconce and lead the way through the halls.
Gabrielle thought about that as she followed him. Well, Ive had worse things thought about me. She commented.
Have you? Mikah gave her a curious look.
Gabrielle merely nodded silently. Anyway. She exhaled, raking her hair back out of her eyes. At least this gives us another day.
They turned the corner and started down the winding back passage where their rooms were. Is she feeling better? The boy asked.
Yeah but that legs worrying me. Gabrielle shook her head. Im glad shes resting, giving it a chance to heal.
Mistress, its a broken bone. Mikah stated. It will take far longer than the one day. He paused outside their door. When they started saying there was some trick.. I thought maybe she was entering the games to find out t you dont mean to say shes really.. that you are going to truly enter the contests, are you?
Gabrielle smiled briefly. Cmon inside. I know Xena wanted to talk to you. She turned and pushed the door open. Be quiet, though, she might have gone back to sleep and I.. The bard was facing him as he entered, and she saw his face as they cleared the door. His jaw dropped and his eyes widened, and somehow, Gabrielle figured out that whatever her beloved soulmate was doing, it probably wasnt involving sleep.
And sighed. Fishturds.
In the practice area, outlined in the torches fluttering glare, her partner was standing.
Completely naked. Drenched in sweat. Her hands cupped around the hilt of her sword as she went through the advanced drills that blurred the silver blade around her so quickly the eye couldnt follow it.
It was magnetic. It was hypnotic, and Gabrielle found herself caught up in the swiftly moving image, her eyes captured by the burnished skin, and the wildly flying dark hair and that feral grin flashing towards them.
A final twist, and leap, and then Xena was turning, moving towards them with her sword resting on her shoulder, a limp barely evident despite her bandaged leg. Completely oblivious to Mikahs goggle eyed stare. Hey. The warrior drawled. What took you so long?
Gabrielle licked her lips, and managed to tear her eyes from her partners glistening body. Um Xe?
Yeah? The warrior walked over to the table and picked up her sheath, sliding the sword home with a snick. The torchlight fluttered shadows over her back, outlining the move and shift of her muscles.
Mikah, would you..
Ill be outside. The boy said at the same time, shoving the basket into Gabrielles hands and escaping quickly out the door.
Xena turned as it slammed behind him. Damn. Wanted to talk to him. She frowned. Whats going on?
Gabrielle forced herself to merely reach out one fingertip and remove a droplet of sweat from between her soulmates breasts. Honey?
Mm? Xena leaned closer and sniffed. Hungry?
Yeah. Im starving. Gabrielle put the basket down and moved in. Cmere.
Xena gazed in bemusement at her partners flushed skin. Shed figured Gabrielle would be upset at her for catching her at her drills, and she was pleased, if a little surprised, to find just the opposite. Want to see whats in the basket? She asked.
No. Gabrielle lazily reached over and pulled the stopper from the bath. Not until I get you all nice and clean.
Yeah? Xena allowed herself to be led over to the tub.
Yeah. Gabrielle pulled her head down and kissed her, unable to resist any longer.
Did you find out whats going on?
Okay Xena chewed and swallowed, then peered down at the naked blond woman curled up in her arms. Are we ready to talk about what the Hades is going on now?
Mm. Gabrielle gave her another cube of lamb. Dont look at me like that. Its your fault.
Xena, now really. Gabrielle gave her a severe look. You cant honestly expect to be doing what you were doing how you were doing it when I came in here, and have me just think about stupid political piggy wonks.
Xena snickered a little. You sure arent as shy and innocent as you used to be, you know that?
Mist green eyes peered up at her uncertainly from under blond lashes. Is that good or bad? The bard asked softly. I didnt think you She stopped, a little confused, and a little stung by the warriors offhand comment. She shifted a bit, moving away from Xenas embrace. Sorry.
Ah ah ah. Xena recaptured her and tugged her back closer, despite the resistance. Get back here. She waited for the stiffness she could feel in the bards body to relax. Im flattered I cause that kind of response, Gabrielle. Theres nothing wrong with it, so take it easy, willya?
Gabrielle remained huddled against her in silence.
Gab? Xena repeated softly, gazing down and tipping the bards chin up just a little. Hey?
She was very surprised to see tears. Gabrielle. Xenas voice dropped lower and she cupped the bards cheek with one hand. Sweetheart, cmon now.
Gabrielle sniffled, and shook her head a little. Sorry. She exhaled. I dont know where that came from. I know you didnt mean anything by that, I just There was an awkward pause. Xena just remained still, one hand gently stroking the bards cheek. I miss that innocent, feckless kid sometimes, and I wonder if you ever do.
Unseen, Xenas eyes closed, in a moment of quiet pain. She slowly released a breath, and gathered her thoughts. Gabrielle.. I didnt mean to..
I know. Gabrielle sagged against her and rested one hand on the warriors bare belly. I must sound like a total doofball.
No. Relieved, the warrior cuddled her closer. I just meant that youre a lot more um.. aggressive.. about making love than you were when we first became lovers, and I like that.
Another shy look. You do?
Yeah. Xena reassured her. It makes me feel good. She gently traced a circle across the bards breastbone. I was always so afraid Id.. I mean, I never wanted to scare you.
Mmph. You never scared me.
I know.. but I was afraid I would if I Xena stopped. Anyway, Im glad you think Im worth going to bed with.
Now it was Gabrielles turn to shift and turn and study the angular face above her. Worth going to bed with? She asked, incredulously. Xena, youre not going to sit here and seriously say to me that you dont know just how attractive you are.
The warrior accepted the compliment with a smile. Its not that. She gently moved a bit of Gabrielles bangs back away from her eyes. I know I am. She said. Its just that Ive seen so much done so much before I met you, making love meant so little to me.
Gabrielle gazed at her in trusting silence.
I never wanted you to become jaded, like I was. Xena said.
Is that what you think, that I The bard hesitated. That Im getting like that? She watched Xenas face intently. Or that I take you for granted?
I hope not. The warrior replied softly. Being with you is very special for me. .and I hope its always that way for you, too.
Gabrielle nodded slightly. Every moment I spend with you is special, Xena. She rested her cheek against the soft skin over the warriors breast. So no, I dont take this for granted.
They were both very quiet for a few minutes, then Xena released a breath. So. What brought all that on?
I dunno. Gabrielle admitted. Could it be the pickled ducks eggs? She held one up. Im sorry.. I have no clue why I just went south on you there, honey bear.
Xenas blue eyes twinkled with wry amusement. She ducked her head and spent a few leisurely moments exploring the bards lips. You will She said, as they broke off. Always be that innocent, feckless kid to me, my love.
Always? Gabrielle had to smile. Even when Im old and gray?
Always. Xena told her. Even when you throw me into a bathtub and scrub me within an inch of my life, before you drag me into bed and ravish me.
Gabrielle turned a shade of crimson usually reserved for cherries.
See? Xena chucked her on the chin.
Urmf. The bard gave up and buried her face into Xenas shoulder.
So. After a quiet moment, Xena reviewed the information Gabrielle had given her. We get another days reprieve, which might cause its own problems, and youve got some half witted ham out there who thinks youre not the real deal, right?
Mhm. Gabrielle nodded.
Tell ya what. Xena decided. How about you circulate around the place tomorrow and tell a few stories so these lunkheads get intmidated by my reputation, and Ill go find your ham and make a sandwich out of her.
Gabrielle found herself grinning at the very thought. Sounds good to me. With a turn of her head, she inspected Xenas injured knee, which was propped comfortably up across her thigh. She thought about what Mikah had said, then shook her head a little as her eyes followed the thin, already fading scar. She was so used to Xenas healing abilities, she sometimes forgot people who didnt know here might find them unusual. How are you feeling? She asked curiously, touching the smooth skin.
Not bad. Xena offered her a slice of fruit, then bit into one of her own. I was trying to see what kind of handicap this damn legs going to be in the fighting competitions.
Xena was silent for a moment. I can work around it. It hadnt been easy, but after shed adjusted to the difference in balance, and figured out how to compensate for her lack of mobility, shed been satisfied with the results. Not going to be pretty, though.
Huh. Gabrielle nibbled another piece of fruit. I dont know, Xe. Most of those guys look really..um prepared. I dont know what good I can do in my events. She went on before Xena could protest. Dont get me wrong, Ill go in there and do my best, but I have to tell you I think the whole things going to be resting on your shoulders.
Dont sell yourself short. Xena had to grin at the last word, which she got a poke for. Youll do fine. Just dont let them intimidate you, okay?
Okay. Gabrielle settled back and opened a walnut with a tensing of her strong fingers. She picked out the meat and offered half of it to Xena. Can I tell them youll kick their butts?
Im set, then. Gabrielle said. Now, if youd like to throw a toga on, Ill go see if I can coax Mikah back into the room. She got up, shrugging together her own clothing as she moved towards the door. She turned as she got to it and looked back over her shoulder, to see her partner impudently reclining on the bed, making not a single move to get dressed. Xena.
The bard shook her head, going to their bags and pulling out a tunic, then tossing it in a ball towards the bed.
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