You look up at her as you're walking next to her, occasionally resting your hand lightly on Argo's flank. You study her features, how for once they're relaxed. She seems like she's even enjoying the warm morning sun on her face. You try to remember if you noticed when she started becoming so comfortable. When you first left your village to travel with her she always looked tense, even angry or pained sometimes. You wonder if your presence is as good for her as being with her is good for you. You often privately muse, as you're doing now, that she would be very different if you weren't around - although you've been learning how to fight with your staff since being made an Amazon, your pacifism has been influencing her, and you've witnessed more and more mercy from her, and violence becoming more of a last resort.
You notice a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth - she knows you're looking, but she keeps her eyes trained on the path ahead, and lets you study her. Her hair flicks lightly over her temples in the warm breeze.
Part of you yearns to be in front of her on the saddle, her strong arms resting at your sides, loosely holding Argo's reins, her thighs brushing the backs of yours, but you turned her down when she offered to pull you up as you set off this morning, and you don't want to explain why you changed your mind. Besides, you don't mind walking. You get to linger a little behind sometimes and admire the beauty of the Warrior Princess astride her horse.
You approach a town a little before noon. The sun is high above you, and you're glad for a chance to rest. Xena ties Argo to the post outside the inn while you make your way inside to ask about food, and possibly about staying for the night. You've spent several nights sleeping in the forest, and you're sure Xena is looking just as forward to sleeping on a bed again as you are.
"We've only got one room," the woman tells you, clearly bored and frustrated. You squirm uncomfortably and look over at Xena, who's talking to the barman. You really don't want to spend tonight on the forest floor, trying to huddle close enough to the embers to keep warm. You hand over the money, telling the woman you'll take it. She eyes the coins suspiciously, counting the Dinars, before handing you a key that's only starting to rust. You take it with a grimace. You'll figure out the sleeping arrangements later.
You push Xena's feet off the table as you pass them on the way to your seat. She gives you a cheeky grin, and gestures to the tankard and the glass on the table.
"That's my ale," she tells you, "and I got you some mead. This town is famous for it," she says, matter-of-factly, and you make a show of looking for another glassful behind her tankard.
"If it's so famous," you chant, "why are you drinking the same kind of ale you always drink and not mead?"
She laughs heartily, and something deep in your belly stirs. "Come on, Gabrielle, you know that stuff is way too sweet for my tastes. Besides, I thought you'd prefer a nice girly drink - it's definitely not my style."
You narrow your eyes at her and take a sip of the golden liquid. Its rich honey flavour instantly warms your mouth and you feel your face brighten up. "Well- it's amazing! Thank you!" You beam at her, before smiling fondly at the glass in your hands. You feel her eyes on you and look up at her to see her watching you warmly, the corners of her mouth only just turned up into a gentle curve.
"I knew you'd like it," she tells you, so quietly you almost don't hear her, and you see a faint pinkness on her cheeks before you meet her eyes. Your lips part to say something, but before you can, the woman from earlier drops a tray on the table in front of you, nearly spilling the bowls of broth and stew onto the bread and cheese. Xena's eyes flick upwards to her in a look of warning, and you quickly thank her.
"Whatever," she says, and waddles away. You eat, grateful for the more decent food than the stale bread and the few berries you could forage that you ate in the morning, and decide you'll keep quiet about sharing a room with your friend tonight until after you're done with the meal.
Just as you're scooping up the last of the broth with the bread, a man bursts into the inn, panicked. "Fuck," growls Xena under her breath, and for once you know exactly what she's thinking: what now?
The man is panting, his face pale, and it looks like he can't find the words to say what's wrong. Xena strides over to him and puts her hand on his shoulder, bending down slightly to peer into his eyes. "What happened?" she coaxed, while he gulped in mouthfuls of air.
"In the woods…" he sputtered, "they're in the woods...outside the village...there's so much blood!" Xena straightened, staring at the door.
"Which way?" She barked, and the man pointed roughly eastward. "Gabrielle, stay here. Calm him down. I'm going to see what happened." With that she strode quickly out of the inn, and almost immediately Argo bolted past, Xena swinging a powerful leg over her saddle.
"Great," You mutter, and go over to the man. The inn owner's wife brings over a glass of mead and you make the man drink it, rubbing his upper back gently, straining to hear the fading hoofbeats over the chatter starting up again.
After what seems like an eternity, you're slumped on the table, your chin resting on one arm, unable to hide your boredom any further. The man - Phaestrus - is relaying for probably the tenth time what he'd seen. "I don't know, maybe someone went mad - it's so close to Dionysus' festival and I found them so close to the temple-"
"Temple?" You ask, sitting up. "What temple? You never mentioned this before."
He looks at you as if you're the stupidest person he's ever met. "The temple of Dionysus, of course. Weren't you listening? The Dionysia is the day after tomorrow."
Your face crinkles. "But that doesn't make sense. Dionysus likes...parties, not murder!" Phaestrus shrugs.
"I don't know. Maybe he's angry because he prefers wine and we only make mead here," he suggests, draining another mug of the honey-wine. You roll your eyes and lay your head back down on the inside of your elbow.
Xena wakes you by shaking your shoulder. "'S going on," you mumble, smacking your lips. It's after nightfall. She sits and scrapes her chair closer to you.
"It's Ares," she whispers conspiratorially. "He's not happy with Bacchus. He's convinced an assassin to stop any festivals for the Dionysia. I still have to find out why...but I know it's him!"
You frown. "Ares? Why would he care about Bach- Dionysus?" Your back makes popping noises as you stretch, yawning widely. "Do you think it's got something to do with the mead?" you add, scratching your scalp.
"Mea- what are you talking about, Gabrielle? Anyway, let's get some sleep. I have a feeling that assassin won't be doing anything tonight. Which way to our rooms?" She stands and you quickly get up too.
"Rooms. Uh...about that. There's-"
She turns to fix that piercing stare on you. What have you done, Gabrielle?, they ask. You falter.
"There's only one room," you whisper, looking at your feet. She doesn't reply. When you look up, she has that signature smirk on her face, one eyebrow up in a wondrous arch, her pursed lips curved in what could only be some kind of amusement. What is she amused by? You feel that stirring again that you don't quite understand,
"So, where are you sleeping, then?" She finally asks, her eyes twinkling dangerously, her brow only arching further and her mouth breaking into a grin. You gape, opening and closing your mouth like a fish. You're too dumbfounded to reply; would you have to sleep outside? Would she let you sleep on the floor in the room, at least? Should you even ask?
"I can...I suppose Argo-"
She laughs, loudly and richly and something in you almost aches.
"Argo? I didn't know you felt such an attachment," she teased. "Come on, you big dummy, we can sleep in the same bed for one night, surely."
You're grateful when she takes your hand and leads you up the stairs to the rooms, where you unlock the door to yours, because she doesn't look back to see you blushing.
You wake the next morning to find yourself alone in the bed. There's a note in her place.
I've gone to the temple.
Tell anyone who asks that they should prepare for the Dionysia as normal. I have to find out what Ares is up to and stop him from hurting anyone else over this grudge or whatever it is.
I'll meet you back at the inn as soon as I can.
Yours? You wonder what she means by that, but you quickly make the bed and get dressed. It looks like another boring day for you. You go into the town, and get some supplies for when you leave. You talk to a few people, some who want to know what to do about the festival. You find Phaestrus, no longer anaesthetised by the copious amounts of mead, sitting in front of the inn, sobbing. You sit with him and try to help him work through what he saw. You comfort him, and a few other people, inside by telling stories of your adventures with Xena and promising them that she'll keep them safe. As you're talking, convincing them how brave Xena is, you can't help thinking about her, worrying that she needs you. You know, logically, that there's not much you can do most of the time to help her, but you like being by her side just in case. You hope Ares didn't appear to her again and put her in any danger. You wish you knew what was happening. You'd probably have to beg her to tell you on the way to the next city.
The sun is starting to set. What the hell, you figure, you'll have a glass of mead. You rarely drink, and since Xena basically abandoned you, you deserve something to make you feel better. When you take a sip of the sweet liquid gold, you're instantly overcome with a flood of memories. Xena's eyes, staring into yours, that rare smile on her face - her anger and disdain at someone who threatened you, her hand moving to your hip to guide you gently aside as she protectively steps in front of you - her pulling you up onto Argo and pressing you close to herself as she spurs the horse on to get you out of harm's way - feeling her watching you as you take your first sip of the mead - her arms wrapping around you, one strong thigh winding over your hips as she...cuddled you in her sleep last night - your throat catches, your whole body on fire. The mead must be stronger than you think. You cover your eyes, you can feel your face burning.
"Thinking about Argo again?"
Her voice is deep, and it feels the same as the mead pouring into your chest. You can hear the way her lips are curled, the way her brow is raised up. She falls into the chair next to you, and puts her feet up on the table. Her boots are muddy. The leather is scuffed and frayed in places; you should probably find her a new pair soon.
"This mead is really good," you say, draining the glass. She just keeps smiling at you with that eyebrow cocked. The barman puts a tankard of ale in front of her and disappears.
"Yeah, it seems like it. I spoke to Ares. Apparently our friend Bacchus interfered in some scheme Ares was hatching. Made a general abandon a skirmish Ares had stakes in but would have affected Bacchus' plans. Ares wants revenge and also influenced the general, to try to prevent the Dionysia so people would stop their worship of Bacchus. I haven't found this soldier yet, and Ares refuses to give him up. Of course he thinks the whole thing is hilarious. Scumbag."
You stare wide-eyed at Xena. You still marvel at how she gets involved in the affairs of the Gods.
"So you're supposed to find this general and stop him? How are you gonna do that?" You sound childlike in your fascination.
"The next town over is joining this town for the festival. I think the general is headed there to kill some of the worshippers. I went there after speaking with Ares, but I needed some supplies. And to let you know I'll be back in the morning." She finishes the ale in her tankard, slamming it back on the table. "Goodnight, Gabrielle," She says, smiling at you almost sadly, and before you can react she gets up and strides across to the door.
"Xena!" you call just before she crosses the threshold. She stops and looks back at you over her shoulder, her face passive. She could have been feeling anything. You suddenly don't know what to say, so you just say "be careful." She snorts. You go up to your room and try to work on the scroll you're trying to write, but not one of the Muses are blessing you tonight. You fall asleep.
The sound of flutes and lyres wakes you up. You hear people below laughing and talking loudly. Today is the Dionysia, and apparently whether the various phoroi arrived from the other village to join the procession or not, the townspeople were going to enjoy the festival as much as possible. You can't help but feel a little bit excited as you head downstairs - you've never attended one of these festivals, and you don't know what to expect. You were always told you were too young to attend the ones the bigger town nearest your village used to have, and Xena didn't strike you as the type to attend a giant party. First time for everything though, right?
As soon as you land on the bottom step someone shoves a whole tankard of mead into your hands. You start, and nearly throw it into the air, but the woman who gave it to you just smiles and encourages you to take a sip. She's already looking very...cheerful, and the sun hasn't even been up long. You go out into the town and find the streets, the square, everywhere filled with the sound of people clinking drinks together, laughing and singing and shouting. It's almost overwhelming but the atmosphere is certainly infectious. You hope Xena returns soon, you'd like to see what she'd do in this situation. You, however, just walk among the people, turning down nearly all the drinks you're offered, starting to feel a little uncomfortable as the townspeople become drunker. They seem to have forgotten about the deaths just two days ago - but perhaps that was some extra motivation for drinking, especially for the families.
Not even noon yet, a sudden commotion starts at the eastern entrance to the village. Flutes, piping a distinctive melody. You crane your neck, stepping out of the way of a near-stampede of people, but even before you see anything, your heart leaps - Xena's battle-cry rings out among the cacophony. A broad grin on your face, you run into the stream of people, wanting to get to the Warrior Princess.
She scoops you up onto Argo when you get to her, smiling broadly. She allows Argo to lag behind the throng of people entering the town. "Ready for your first Dionysia?" she asks, her mouth brushing against the conch of your ear, making the hair on the back of your neck stand up. You look over your shoulder at her, beaming.
"I found the general. He didn't get to anyone else." She tells you, back in the square. You're sitting with her on a pile of haystacks, waiting for the procession. You smile at her. You don't need to hear the details right now, and she won't burden you with them. She smiles back and hands you a mug from Gods know where, and you peer inside to find not the mead you'd grown accustomed to drinking in this little village, but rather what looked like red wine.
"Try it," said Xena, taking a long pull of it. "It's wine mixed with honey and spices. They call it a hypocras."
You take a sip, and while it's not as pleasant initially as the mead was, it's tasty, and probably still too sweet for Xena. You peer over into her mug, and as you expected, there's ale inside. You laugh. She looks at you and smiles, knowing what you're laughing about. A silence falls over everyone, and Xena looks up. The expression on her face changes from surprise to a mischievous grin.
"The procession is about to start. You'd do well to finish that drink," she informs you, winking.
"Why?" you ask, obediently draining the sweetened wine.
"Oh, you'll see," she responds cryptically, still grinning.
Music starts up again and the first people in the procession are some dancers, musicians walking alongside them. You don't particularly see anything that needs you to be feeling the warm buzzing of the wine that you do until-
"Oh Gods, are those-"
"Yup," Xena replies, her grin wider than ever as the first phallophoroi came into view.
"Oh Gods, Xena!" you yell, covering your eyes, giggling. You can feel how hot your cheeks are and know how red you must be. Her low chuckle only makes you squirm more, but she pushes another mug into your hands and you gratefully drink from it, your back turned on the parade of phalloi.
"What? Don't tell me you've never seen one before," she teases, elbowing you playfully in the ribs. You risk another peek and fall into another fit of giggles. "Oh come on," she laughs, "with all those guys running after you and all the times you've been 'in love' you've never seen one?"
"Only in paintings," you admit, trying to regain your composure, having another sip of hypocras and pretending to watch the procession. Xena scoffs, but the smile on her face is not a naughty one anymore. She puts an arm around you and pulls you into a side hug, and you relish in the affection she's showing you.
Long after nightfall Xena helps you up the stairs into your room at the inn. Three nights in a row, you giggle to yourself, that you're sleeping in an actual bed. And now you're drunk and Xena is practically carrying you to bed. You giggle more. "Okay," she tells you. "It's okay."
In bed, in the candlelight, you and the Warrior Princess are smiling at each other. "Did you enjoy the Dionysia?" She asks. You smile, stretching in the warmth, your eyes closed. You open them to meet the crystal pools again.
"Yes," you hum, feeling warm and safe and, although you can't quite work out why in your drunken state, loved. "I was worried you wouldn't come back," you tell her earnestly. "I love you, Xena."
She smiles softly at you, in a way you've never seen before.
"I love you, Gabrielle." She presses a soft kiss to your lips, and you don't think twice about it, melting into her, kissing her back. Once again, you beam at her. "Now hush," she instructs, "get some sleep. Tomorrow you'll feel like Tartarus, and we have to get to Thebes in three days."
Riding with Xena on Argos the next morning as you head towards your destination, your head throbbing and stomach lurching, you decide that this story should stay in your heart rather than on a scroll.