by Dani Sheldon
Disclaimer, warnings, etc.: see part 1
The fact that the Bard did not have a parchment or quill to write down a tale had never slowed down her productive imagination. What did slow down her imagination that day was her frustration at attempting to weave prose about their mostly dull, uniform surroundings of still dormant trees and brush under a gray sky. Her restless eyes eventually focused on one of her favorite story subjects who ranged just a few steps ahead.
The warrior looked particularly fearsome with her armor and the added bulk of her black furry cloak. Her long dark mane, lapis eyes, and prominent cheekbones, made her seem more Goddess than human. Gabrielle felt a tale begin to foment from this visualization and that made her smile.
Xena stopped abruptly, motioning sharply with one hand at the Bard. Gabrielle, creativity abandoned for reality, froze and remained completely silent, trying to hone in on whatever had alerted her preternaturally observant companion. She could only make out the call of a distant bird, but the hairs at the nape of her neck began tingling. The Bard placed her stave at the ready, gripping it solidly in both hands.
“There’s a rider coming up on us from behind.” Xena glanced back with concern. “Let’s find some cover.”
Gabrielle followed the warrior quickly off the path and through the sparse brush. The lack of leaves made it harder to find concealment, but fortunately a few trees were large enough to hide behind. Xena drew her sword as they silently crouched beside one another.
Gabrielle focused on the trail and eventually heard the sound of hooves and the jangle of the horse’s harness, as it got closer.
They watched intently as a horse and rider came into view on the path. The animal was of a rare breed in Greece, a large golden brown enormous footed beast, with blond mane and tail, and a white blaze between his eyes, zigzagging down to his nose. The rider was a medium sized man of dark brown complexion, with a head as smooth and shiny as any acolytes. A black mustache, streaked with gray, drooped over his upper lip. He sat on his horse with ease; reins gripped casually in his left hand, and he carried a short Hoplite sword strapped to his right side. Where his right arm should have been, his rough fur lined cloak was rolled up and pinned over a short stump
Xena stood, sheathing her sword, and muttered. “By all the fates...”
Gabrielle, still crouched, looked up at her as if she were mad and hissed. “What are you doing?”
“Adwen!!” the warrior yelled and plunged from the shelter of the trees.
The Bard uttered an expletive under her breath and followed.
The dark skinned man sharply reined his horse, causing the animal to charge sideways, well past them. He turned the large beast with considerable effort. “Who are you?” he demanded, his brow furrowing.
“Xena,” she answered, striding towards him with a smile.
He urged his horse closer and rumbled. “Then you are a wraith because everyone knows that she was crucified by Caesar himself.”
“How could an upstart like Caesar ever best me?” Xena asked, laughing arrogantly.
“You look like her, by the Gods and you certainly act like her too!” he exclaimed.
“It is me.”
He chewed at his graying mustache. “Then the rumors are true?” he asked with a note of wonder.
“If the rumor is that we live,” she replied with a grin, glancing at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle raised an inquisitive eyebrow, imitating the warrior’s famous expression.
Adwen hesitated only a moment before he leapt from his horse and clasped her arm, his hand still tangled in the horse’s reins. Xena pulled him into a brief embrace, gave him a good rib-bowing squeeze and then stepped away.
“This is Gabrielle of Poteidaia,” Xena said with a grin. She gestured to her companion.
“It’s nice to meet you.” The Bard took his hand, meeting his curious gaze.
“A pleasure indeed,” Adwen said with a wide warm smile. “I’ve heard many of your magnificent tales. My only sorrow is that I haven’t heard one of them told by you.”
“Maybe you’ll get your chance,” Gabrielle answered. The Bard could not place his accent, but knew she’d heard it somewhere before.
“I certainly hope so,” he replied with enthusiasm.
Adwen gave her hand a squeeze and let go, then looked at Xena with a twinkle in his eye. “You always had an eye for the beautiful ones, didn’t you?”
The warrior shrugged, but couldn’t hide her smug expression.
“Sweet Artemis,” Gabrielle muttered with a scowl, wondering how many beautiful ones Xena had an eye for back then.
The warrior gave the Bard a sharp look, and got an even sharper one back.
Adwen guffawed. “This chance meeting calls for some refreshment.” He led his large steed over to a stunted tree, wrapped the reins around a branch, and pulled a small amphora from the gear on the saddle.
“I was saving this for a special occasion.” He deftly held it between his knees to pull the stopper, breaking the wax seal, and then lifting it in a salute. “To old friends well met,” he said.
He took a drink and passed the ceramic flask to Xena.
She took a deep swig of the wine and exclaimed. “To old friends, some of them much older than the rest of us.” The warrior grinned rakishly at him.
“Not by much,” he retorted good-naturedly.
Gabrielle laughed as Xena passed her the ceramic flask. She took a polite swallow before passing it back to Adwen.
He gave them both a good once over. “You both look as lean as wolves,” he commented.
Gabrielle and Xena looked at each other, then at Adwen. “We’ve had quite a journey,” Gabrielle replied.
Adwen looked at her with thoughtful brown eyes. “If there’s any truth in what I’ve heard, I can’t imagine the road you two have traveled,” he said with regret.
Xena and the Bard’s eyes met in a raw, silent communion.
Adwen felt uncomfortable witnessing the painful moment that passed between them and turned his eyes away.
“Better you don’t imagine it,” the warrior answered as she reluctantly turned her attention from Gabrielle.
A soft snuffling came from the large horse tethered nearby, hopefully searching the barren ground around the tree for fodder.
“What’s your horse’s name?” the Bard asked, steering the conversation to something far less treacherous.
“Cethren.” Adwen glanced proudly at the beast. “I got him in Germania from a farmer who couldn’t afford to feed him any longer,” he stated.
“What a behemoth,” Xena marveled. “I bet you’re hard pressed to keep him fed too.”
He laughed. “I am indeed.”
Gabrielle finally gave into her curiosity. “How is it you two know each other?” she asked.
“I designed and constructed gastraphetes, catapults, towers, rams, earthen ramps and whatever else Xena the Conqueror, directed me to,” Adwen replied.
“He was my battlefield engineer,” Xena added, slightly uncomfortable that he’d used her old appellation.
“An easy job it was not!” Adwen exclaimed. “No sooner did we have everything built, than Xena would gallop up, bark some orders, and we’d have to tear it all down and move it some place else.”
“Kept you all too busy to get in any trouble, didn’t I,” Xena drawled.
“Wait a minute...” Gabrielle interjected. “Gastraphete? What’s that?”
“A large bow, mounted horizontally on a stand, that’s drawn with a winch, like an arbalest,” Adwen explained, absently rubbing his smooth head. “You can accurately fire large arrows, small stones and such at your enemies from a great distance with the touch of a trigger.”
At her continued blank look, he passed the wine to Xena, dropped to one knee, and began drawing a picture in the dirt. “Let me show you.”
The Bard, always eager to learn, knelt beside him. His sketch began to take on more detail as he explained the purpose of all the parts that he drew.
The warrior endured as much siege engine minutiae she could stand. “Adwen, I think Gabrielle gets the picture,” she barked.
“Thanks, it is much clearer to me,” the Bard replied and stood, smirking at Xena’s evident irritation. Gabrielle also figured out Adwen’s accent while he spoke. The only other place that she’d ever heard it was Britannia, not exactly a place with pleasant memories for her.
“You haven’t said a word about what you’ve been up to all these years,” the warrior prodded Adwen.
He stood with a one handed swipe at the dirt on his knees. “If I start with the battle field where I saw you last, we’d be here a month.” Adwen smiled. “Right now I am returning home from my daughter’s wedding.”
“Daughter?” Xena sounded surprised.
“Yes, believe it or not,” the former engineer added in a much more subdued tone. “Her mother, my wife… died several years ago.”
“I’m sorry,” the Bard said compassionately,
He sighed, obviously still very much in pain. “As am I.”
Cethren, growing restless, pawed the ground.
“This really isn’t the time or the place to reminisce,” Adwen stated almost brusquely.
“You’re right,” Xena agreed. “We need to keep moving.”
“You could reach my home by nightfall and I would be very disappointed if you didn’t accept my hospitality.” Adwen managed a smile as he looked at Xena, who in turn looked at Gabrielle.
The road weary bard brightened and that was all Xena needed to see.
“We’d be honored to be your guests,” she replied.
“Now you’re sure you can find it from here?” Adwen asked yet again, pointing to the drawing on the ground of a detailed map.
“No problem,” Xena reassured him, remembering now how his meticulous planning during battles had nearly driven her mad.
“Will you be safe?” he asked worriedly. ”It’ll be more pleasant if I ride ahead and make some preparations,” he explained.
“We’ve been journeying, just Gabrielle and I, for years,” Xena said, sounding as if her patience were fraying. “Go on ahead, we’ll be there by nightfall.”
“I can hardly wait,” Gabrielle said, “I’ve been dreaming of a hot bath for days.”
Xena crouched to growl in his ear. “And I’ve been dreaming for days of her in a hot bath, get the picture?”
“I do,” he said and stood with a wink. Adwen was amazed that Xena no longer seemed to be even close to the rapacious warlord that he had once known.
Adwen mounted his eagerly prancing horse that seemed to sense that they were close to home.
“Hermes feet my friends,” he said with a nod and clicked his tongue a few times. Cethren immediately broke into a trot and headed down the road.
Xena and Gabrielle followed at a brisk walk, but the horse and rider quickly out-distanced them and, in a short time, disappeared around a bend.
“There’s a goodness about him that somehow reminds me of Eli,” the Bard said, glancing at Xena.
The warrior nodded.
After a few minutes of silent trudging, Gabrielle asked. “Do you know how he lost his arm?”
“I was there,” Xena replied with regret.
The Bard remained silent, knowing eventually the warrior would tell her what happened.
“We were besieging Sicyon, near Corinth. A catapult wouldn’t trigger and he foolishly tried to fix it without disabling it first,” Xena said gravely. “When it fired, the torsion from the ropes took it off right here,” Xena looked at Gabrielle while touching her right arm at about mid-bicep. “He’s lucky he lived, though for a long while he wished he hadn’t.”
Gabrielle looked back up the road and shook her head. “War’s a terrible thing.”
“Yes, it is,” Xena replied with no small measure of guilt.
It had started with just a few intermittent drops of rain, but soon switched to a steady down pour. Within no time at all, Bard and Warrior were both soaked to the skin, miserable and short-tempered.
“I thought it was just beyond this ridge,” Gabrielle stated, leaning on her staff.
Xena slicked back her waterlogged bangs. “You didn’t listen,” she snapped, “I said it was on the next ridge.”
“Xena I’m cold and tired and I know you must be too,” the Bard said firmly as she plucked at her cloak which seemed to weigh more than her now and offered almost no warmth at all. “But there’s no need to take that out on me.”
Xena stopped and closed her eyes in shame for a moment, certain that she didn’t deserve someone as true and as noble as Gabrielle.
“Come here,” Xena said, her hand outstretched.
The tactile Bard grabbed it and the warrior drug her under a tree that offered at least a little shelter from the rain. Xena wrapped her taller, warmer frame around the Bard and kissed her blond head. “I’m such a lout,” she said sadly. “Don’t you ever get tired of it?”
“No, I just concentrate on those rare times when you’re not a lout,” Gabrielle replied.
“Rare?” Xena asked in a low whisper right next to the Bard’s ear.
Gabrielle found that delightful enough to nearly forget their wet misery. “Do you prefer the term infrequent?”
“I know something that’s been far too infrequent lately,” the warrior growled.
“What could that be?” the Bard asked with a sly smile.
Xena gave her a slow languorous kiss. “Better to show you.”
“You’re right,” Gabrielle said and retaliated so well that it raised their respective temperatures several degrees.
“We’d better get to where were going, so we can finish what we just started,” the warrior stated when they broke apart. They studied one another with affection until Xena added with a laugh. “You look like a wet cat.”
“What?” Gabrielle asked with mock outrage and pulled away.
“You do, you really do.” Xena was helplessly giggling as rainwater dripped off her head.
“At least I don’t smell like an old wet bear,” Gabrielle exclaimed, pointing at Xena’s sodden black cloak.
The warrior laughed even harder. “I don’t…” She tried again, “I don’t smell like a…” But she couldn’t seem to get the words out through her laughter.
“Oh yes you do,” Gabrielle assured her, breaking into her own fit of laughter.
When one of them had just about recovered, the other would set them off into hysterics again. It was a while before Xena laughed herself out and sniffed while wiping away tears. “I guess I needed that.”
“Oh no you don’t,” Xena said sternly, “You are not getting me started again.”
“I’m trying not to,” Gabrielle said as seriously as she could. “Are you ready to go, old wet bear?”
“Yes, I am,” Xena, answered with as much dignity as she could muster under the circumstances.
It was just starting to get dark.
“I see the lights,” Xena said, peering through the rain into the distance.
“Good, I don’t think I can go any further today,” Gabrielle replied, sounding plain exhausted.
They came upon a neat stone fence, about waist high, that stretched off either direction into the dusk. “Here it is, finally,” Xena said with satisfaction as she vaulted over it.
“Hand me your pack,” the warrior ordered.
“But…” Gabrielle began.
“No buts, give it here,” she demanded.
The Bard unburdened herself and passed her pack over the wall to Xena. She took a moment to stretch her back and groan.
“Hot ba-ath, foo-ood,” Xena said in a singsong voice.
“All right already,” Gabrielle replied crossly. She accepted Xena’s outstretched hand and let herself be mostly pulled up and over the fence.
A cow lowed from somewhere ahead of them.
Gabrielle reached for her pack, but Xena slung it over her shoulder. “I’ve got it, give your back a rest,” she said.
“What about your back?” the Bard asked concerned.
Xena started walking. “C’mon we’re almost there,” she said over her shoulder.
The white stone house, warm light spilling out like a beacon with Adwen anxiously waiting for them on the porch, was one of the most welcome sights Gabrielle could recall in recent memory.
“You made it!” he yelled, beaming at them, rushing down to help Xena with their things.