by Dani Sheldon
Disclaimer, warnings, etc.: see part 1
“Are we going to be here all day?” Xena asked exasperatedly, her patience running out.
“Xena, you had the opportunity to pick out a horse, now let me pick mine. You know how hard this is for me,” Gabrielle replied, glaring at her.
The warrior looked contrite. “What about that one?” she asked, pointing at a white horse that had just finished bucking its way across the small, enclosed pasture.
“Why do you always pick the ones that look as if they’d just as soon trample you, as let you ride them?” the bard asked incredulously. “Are you trying to get rid of me?”
The warrior looked at Gabrielle, raising both eyebrows outrageously. “Of course not!” she exclaimed. “I’m just trying to help you choose one with a little spirit.”
“I like my horses solid and unspookable. Spirit I can do without.”
“You like the plugs,” Xena mumbled.
“What was that?” the Bard demanded.
“Nothing. What about him?” she asked, gesturing at the dark brown, almost black gelding, roaming past where they leaned against the stone wall. The horse nibbled his way nearer and then snuffled along the wall, obviously seeking treats.
Gabrielle scratched his nose, and when he didn’t seem to mind, took it as a good sign. “I think I like him,” the Bard said, smiling at Xena.
“It’s your call since you have to ride him,” she replied.
“He’s the one then,” Gabrielle stated, with only a slight note of apprehension.
“Then let’s get them to the stables,” Xena said, hurrying away before the Bard could change her mind.
Xena gave the new buckle on her armor a good yank and it held. “That ought to just about do it,” she said, pleased with her handiwork.
Gabrielle sat at the table by the window in their room, writing on a piece of parchment that Adwen had given her. The Bard had long ago finished sorting through their things; putting aside what they weren’t going to need and placing the rest in bags that would fit behind their saddles.
Xena set her armor aside. “Do you want to keep writing Gabrielle?” she asked noncommittally. “Or do you still want to go for that walk before dinner?” It got a little lonely when Gabrielle was consumed by her writing, but the warrior tried not to discourage her in any way.
The Bard looked up, leaving her fugue behind, and lay her quill down on the table. “Walk of course,” she replied, standing and stretching.
Xena jumped up, looking pleased.
After donning their cloaks, they ambled out of Adwen’s home, past the stables and lambing barn, and up a nearby grassy slope, following a faint trail.
“Want to sit a moment?” Xena asked, approaching a rock that was ideally situated to perch upon and look back down at the valley. Adwen’s white washed house was brightly visible in the distance, looking significantly smaller from their vantage point.
“Sure,” Gabrielle replied, just slightly out of breath.
The warrior leapt up, reaching a hand down to her blond companion to give her a boost as she clambered onto the rough, dark stone. Gabrielle sat, wrapping her arms around her bent knees and Xena mimicked her, sitting at her side. At first, neither of them seemed inclined to speak, enjoying the feel of the afternoon sun, seeing the first pastoral touches of green around them, and listening to the distant sound of the rams. It was Xena who broke the silence.
“On that last day on Amaro… I never imagined that I would be able to do something as simple as this with you again.”
Gabrielle turned, squinting a bit from the sunlight and looked at the warrior. “I know that feeling.”
“How many times have we endured such misery?” Xena asked. “How many more times will we again?”
“I don’t know if anyone can answer that Xena.“
“How could I survive watching you get hurt again or, if Zeus forbid, I lost you?” the warrior asked anxiously, never taking her eyes from the valley.
“You’re not going to lose me,” Gabrielle insisted, grabbing one of Xena’s hands and squeezing it. “Is this the thing that you needed to be off the road to talk to me about?”
“One of them.”
“Well, I guess we’ll take them on one at a time whenever your ready,” the Bard said, confident that they could successfully tackle and solve everything right then and there.
The warrior visibly clenched her jaw, but didn’t reply.
“Come on Xena, you started this conversation. You must need to talk about something and keeping it all bottled up can’t be good for you,” Gabrielle said, encouraging, but also doing her best not to push her taciturn companion too hard.
“What’s the point? It won’t change anything,” the warrior replied bleakly.
“It’ll change things for me,” the Bard assured her.
“Because I’ll know how you truly feel, what your fears are and maybe help you deal with them. Because I’m here to help ease your pain.” Gabrielle looked almost anguished. “Do you want me to keep going?” she asked.
The thaw first showed as a glisten of moisture in the warrior’s eyes. “I’m so weak when it comes to you,” Xena said awkwardly.
“You are not,” Gabrielle said, holding tightly to her hand. “You are by far the strongest person that I know.”
“But I’m incapacitated by the fear that I’ll lose you,” Xena gasped, breathing as if she were in a battle.
“Give me one example of where you didn’t do something because you were incapacitated by fear,” Gabrielle demanded.
Xena obviously struggled to find something. “I guess the only thing I didn’t do, is open up and talk to you.”
“So you’re afraid of me?”
Xena looked at the Bard as if she’d finally lost it.
“Think about it honestly,” Gabrielle added.
“Yes… in a way, maybe I am,” she admitted.
“Why are you afraid?” Gabrielle asked, pressing to the heart of things.
The warrior struggled again, even opening her mouth several times to speak, before she found the words. “If I open up to you, you’ll think I’m weak and then maybe… you’ll leave,” she replied, her voice quavering.
“Xena my love, listen to me,” Gabrielle said, trying to put all the passion and understanding she possessed in her words. “I’m not sure how, but at some time in your life you got revealing your feelings to someone all jumbled up with being weak. Telling someone how you feel about them doesn’t make you weak, it makes you stronger, it makes the person you tell stronger and most of all it makes what you share stronger.”
“Then why do I feel so frightened?”
“I think it’s normal to feel a certain amount of anxiety when you consider the loss of someone you love… I feel that way if I think about us ever being parted. It may be worse for you, because of your skewed perception that the more you reveal you care, the weaker I perceive you to be. You’re going to have to realize that revealing your feelings doesn’t make me see you as weak, it let’s me know it’s important to you to share how you feel with me and that you trust me enough to know I’d never take advantage of you,” the Bard replied.
A tear trailed down the warrior’s cheek, which she brushed at irritably.
Gabrielle lifted Xena’s hand, brushing it with her lips. “I know you’re tough Xena, but it’s okay to let go. I’m here,” she whispered.
There was no wailing for the warrior, but there were a few more tears and several sniffles as she gazed unblinkingly down towards the valley while clenching Gabrielle’s hand.
“That still doesn’t solve what I’ll do if something ever happens to you,” Xena said, looking at Gabrielle, while wiping at her eyes.
“If the Gods determine that I should die first, then I’ll be waiting for you on the other side. When I say we’ll always be together, I mean it. It’s fated, remember?” she stated, trying to sooth the distraught warrior.
“You won’t have to wait long, because I’ll be right behind you,” Xena vowed.
“Xena…” Gabrielle began to argue.
“It’s my decision and nothing you can say will change that,” she interrupted, leaving no doubt as to her intent.
“That’s a double edged sword,” the Bard replied with equal conviction.
“You can’t mean that!” Xena exclaimed.
“It’s also my decision to make,” the Bard replied steadfastly, but leaned against her companion, seeking comfort.
Xena put her arm around Gabrielle pulling her close, simply letting it go, at least for now. The two of them sat for a long while, finding immeasurable solace in being close to one another. This time it was Gabrielle who broke the silence.
“Maybe if we could just learn the lesson from all these trials, neither of us would need to fear losing the other any longer,” Gabrielle mused.
“What lesson is that?” Xena asked, giving her a curious glance.
“That’s what we have to figure out,” she replied with conviction. “’He who garners day by day the good of life, he is happiest, blessed is he…’ maybe Adwen was trying to say something. There’s a great deal of wisdom in that simple statement.”
“It’s also said, ‘Zeus, who guided men to think has laid it down, that wisdom comes alone through suffering,’” the warrior stated, still unwilling to be comforted so easily.
“Since when do you listen to that patter?” Gabrielle asked.
“It’s not that I don’t listen to it, it’s that I don’t buy the majority of it.”
“I think you’re deliberately being negative and that if you examine your heart closely you’ll find all the answers you need,” Gabrielle said, looking intently at the warrior.
Xena gazed back into those ever-optimistic, green eyes and couldn’t manage to sustain her dismal attitude.
“I suppose one of my newest answers would be, that you can’t live in fear of what might happen, at the expense of the good things you have,” Xena replied, giving in.
The Bard bumped her leg against the warrior’s. “See that, you’re already learning and after only one lesson,” she said, sounding smug.
“I had a good teacher,” Xena replied.
Gabrielle looked reflectively out towards the valley. “I try to remember that every day. Amaro is an unforeseen blessing for us, one we can never take for granted. We’ve been given another chance and we certainly shouldn’t waste it on fear or regrets. I believe that if we can remind ourselves of that periodically, it’ll keep us from forgetting what matters most,” she stated.
“And you,” Gabrielle said, just as vehement.
They gazed at each other awhile, the vista forgotten.
“Can you believe how sappy we’ve gotten Bard?” Xena asked.
“Never ceases to amaze me lately,” Gabrielle quipped, smirking.
Xena gave her a quirky grin. “We better head back. Didn’t you promise Adwen a few tales after dinner?” she asked, standing up on the dark rock.
“I guess I did,” Gabrielle replied, sitting in the warrior’s long shadow and looking up.
“Don’t think you’re off the hook when that’s done,” Xena said, extending a hand down to her.
The Bard grabbed a hold and was pulled up. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked, sounding perplexed.
“I’ll show you what that means, later, in our room,” Xena stated with a cryptic grin.
“Of course, our last night sleeping indoors in a warm bed,” Gabrielle replied, deliberately obtuse.
“You won’t be sleeping Gabrielle,” Xena drawled as they climbed down from the rock.
“If you say so,” the Bard teased.
“I know so.”
“I don’t know, story telling really wears me out, I’m sure I’ll be hard pressed to stay awake,” she replied, feigning indifference as they started back down the hill.
“Ha!” Xena exclaimed. “We’ll have to see about that.”
Xena gave Gabrielle a leg up onto her dark gelding, deftly securing her staff as the Bard positioned herself, gripping the reins. So far the horse had been completely docile, almost as if he hadn’t quite woken up yet, which suited the Bard fine, because she felt the same way. She was comfortable, dressed in her own Amazon garb, sturdy leather boots and warmly enveloped in a green wool cloak. The only exception to her comfort was a long dagger or scramasax --as Adwen called it when he persuaded her to carry it-- on a belt at her left side. Xena had laughingly told her to call it a scram, because “that’s certainly what I would do if you pulled it on me.” Adwen had insisted that it was simply for “dicing figs,” nothing more. Although the Bard felt a twinge of unease when she felt its weight, she also felt that it might be necessary to protect herself or others who count on her. After so many years with Xena, the Bard had a rudimentary knowledge of how to wield almost any weapon, the question was whether she could bring herself to do so. She was still having a hard time reconciling her reverence for life with the beast that she had become on Amaro. If worse came to worse, Gabrielle knew that she would most likely fall back on her staff, or better yet, her well-honed, persuasive tongue, but Adwen’s obvious pleasure in bestowing the gift upon her, made carrying it worth a little moral discomfort. Besides, in a pinch, she just might dice figs with it.
Xena looked ready for any battle with her gleaming armor, shining bracers and boots, and various weapons protruding here and there. As usual the warrior was tingling with barely contained anticipation that seemed to stem partially from her own enthusiasm and partially generated by the chill morning air. It imbued her with the sanguine feeling that all challenges would be well met and triumphantly dealt with that day. The warrior leapt on the back of her skittish bay mare and the horse bolted a short distance, dirt and gravel flying, before Xena had her back in control, convincing the animal with hands and legs to rejoin the others.
Adwen put one foot in his stirrup, one hand on the pommel of his saddle and pulled himself up onto Cethren’s broad back, holding the reins in his teeth for a moment while he found his other stirrup. Cethren remained stolidly unmoving and unfazed at the antics of Xena’s spirited horse. Adwen’s bright multi-colored wool cloak resembled those favored by the Cymry, and was secured with an intricate bronze cloak pin in the circular design of a snake. Underneath he wore molded leather armor on his upper body, not unlike that worn by many a Roman soldier, heavy leather breaches to protect his legs, and stout boots his feet. His worn Hoplite sword hung from a broad belt on the right side of his waist. The former engineer thought that an excursion with these two not only capable, but also exquisite women was a fine way to start a glorious day.
“Keep an eye on things, Bunny!” Adwen bellowed, raising his hand and waving. He clicked his tongue a few times and Cethren stepped up into an easy trot.
Xena’s horse really didn’t need the, “Hi-ya,” the warrior yelled, to jump after Cethren, and pass him at a brisk canter.
“What is this, a race?” Adwen shouted.
Xena laughed, widening her lead.
Gabrielle’s gelding showed no interest in leaving at all, other than a side-glance at the other horses boisterous behavior. “C’mon boy,” she said encouragingly, giving him a squeeze with her knees and clicking her tongue. He soon got the picture, walking first and then breaking into a reluctant trot with the Bard’s continued encouragements.
“Goodbye!” she shouted over her shoulder at Bunny, hurrying to catch the others. The Bard felt a little remorseful that she had spent absolutely no time getting to know the former slave and vowed to do so on her return.
Bunny, looking forlorn and alone on the steps of the white stone house, would have assured them, if he could, that they appeared a fearsomely handsome, prepared looking assembly and anyone would do well to steer clear of them. Instead he raised his hand in a return salute and then waved as they rode away, eventually disappearing from his sight.
Gabrielle was feeling all the painful effects of three hours of hard riding when Xena and Adwen concurred that it was time for a break. She couldn’t quite straighten out her legs properly as she tied her horse off on a tree branch next to the other two animals. They had reached the Hebrus River, which seemed subdued compared to the torrent that she and Xena had encountered just two days before.
“Another hour or two and we’ll be there, so let’s make it a short break,” Adwen stated, unpacking a few things to eat.
Gabrielle couldn’t help but groan as she imagined what another two hours in the saddle was going to do to her. She stretched, arching her back to remove the kinks and a familiar hand began kneading right where she tended to stiffen up.
“Is it bad?” Xena asked.
“I’ll survive, it’s just been awhile since I’ve been in a saddle this long,” the Bard replied, leaning over a bit to provide better access for the warrior’s soothing fingers.
“If it helps any, I feel it too,” Xena said, still rubbing the Bard’s back.
“That’s right, it’s been a while since you’ve ridden too,” Gabrielle said, straightening up and facing Xena. “Can I return the favor?”
“Sure, but later,” the warrior replied. She turned to put an arm around the Bard who surprised her with an ardent kiss.
“If you two are quite finished with all your huggy stuff, it’s time to eat!” Adwen exclaimed.
“All right you old goat, we’re coming,” Xena yelled back.
“Old goat?” Adwen demanded, chewing at his mustache.
“I meant it only in the most affectionate of ways,” Xena stated innocently, as she and Gabrielle joined him.
Adwen, frowning, pointed at a waist-high rock where portions of dried fish, cheese and a few figs had been laid out on a leather bag.
“You certainly pasture your sheep a long way from home,” Gabrielle commented, grabbing a bit of fish.
“You know how sheep graze… they’re kept moving so that they don’t destroy an area completely. The herdsmen have them at the furthest point in the grazing area now and then eventually they’ll circle around to work their way back in time for the pregnant ewes to have lambs and to breed those that haven’t had any,” he replied, munching on some cheese. “I keep the rams home, because they fight and tend to get into trouble.”
“So… how many of these thieves can we expect?” Xena asked, suddenly very business like.
“Perhaps twelve, from what I’ve been told,” Adwen replied, handing Xena a skin of water.
“On horse back I assume?” she asked, taking a drink and passing it on to Gabrielle.
“Usually half and half. The scary part is, a few of them are using compound bows,” he replied fretfully.
“Well, that certainly gives this an interesting twist, doesn’t it?” Xena stated, taking a bite of cheese.
“Maybe we can surprise them,” Gabrielle suggested.
“Problem is, how will we know where or when they’ll strike again? ” Xena asked.
“Someone always talks,” the Bard stated nonchalantly, popping a fig in her mouth.
“What do you mean?” Adwen asked, pausing in mid-chew.
The Bard finished her fig before she spoke. “The area we’re going into seems pretty remote. Chances are if somebody’s stealing and selling sheep, word’s going to get around. Plus someone with these thieves has to know how to herd the sheep and it’s likely that one of them might know one or more of your herdsmen. A little boasting, and the secrets out,” she explained, making it all sound very simple.
Xena smiled. “Gabrielle’s absolutely right,” she said, sounding very pleased.
The Bard gave Xena a depreciating grin and spit her fig seed as far as she could manage.
The warrior choked a bit and did her best to appear unamused.
Adwen chortled, grabbing a fig of his own and popped it in his mouth. “So we question all the herdsmen and their families?” he asked, not thrilled.
“I think offering them a reward for any information about the thefts or the boy who was killed, would be your surest bet,” Gabrielle replied.
“You know, why would the herdsmen Adwen employs, not tell him if they knew who murdered one of their own?” Xena asked, seeming perplexed.
“That is troublesome,” Adwen muttered, spitting his seed in the general direction Gabrielle had, and frowning when he didn’t come close to her mark.
The Bard smirked smugly. “Maybe I’m mistaken and no one knows anything,” she replied.
“Or there’s more to this than we think,” Xena replied curtly. “If you two are finished with your… contest… we should get going.”
Adwen winked at Gabrielle. “The sooner we get to the bottom of this the happier I’ll be,” he stated emphatically.