by Dani Sheldon
Disclaimer, warnings, etc.: see part 1
Gabrielle woke, blinking sleepily at the barely red streaked dawn as she gradually became more cognizant of her surroundings. A bit disoriented at first, the mellifluent sounding spring and the tall trees that surrounded the clearing, now tinted pink by the sunrise, reminded her of where she was and how she’d come to be here. Xena breathed against her shoulder, radiating a blissful heat that, in the chill morning air, Gabrielle nestled closer to. She wasn’t sure what had woken her so early, but she realized that it was lovely to drift, warmly enveloped as she was. It was with reluctance that she decided to get up, hoping to surprise the warrior for a change.
Xena was at least semi-coherent when she opened her eyes, their late night amorous pursuits having left her pleasantly energized rather than spent. She rifled the bedding beside her, seeking the object of her desires, but only felt the rapidly cooling blankets where Gabrielle should have been. The warrior lifted her head to glance around the clearing, amazed that she’d been so out of it that the Bard was able to slip out of their bedroll without her notice.
She spotted her companion crouching by the fire, eyebrows quirked making their morning tea as the pink of dawn rapidly brightened into daylight around her. Xena piled the furs behind her back and sat up to study the younger blond woman, who despite all of her personal trials still radiated a purity of heart that was untarnished. She was astonished that Gabrielle’s incorruptible spirit had lost none of its intensity, appearing more pronounced by the self-confident maturity that seemed to radiate from the Bard these days. Xena found this ineffably beautiful, and at that moment, wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of her life illustrating this point to Gabrielle.
The Bard happened to glance back, catching her sentimental stare. “What are you looking at, lay about?” she asked, smiling.
“You, of course, the only thing here worth looking at,” Xena replied.
“I don’t know, the sunrise was pretty spectacular,” Gabrielle said diffidently, standing with a steaming cup of tea.
“It was nothing compared to you.”
The blushing Bard walked over, clutching the tea and crouched beside Xena. “I don’t know how you do that,” she said, holding the cup out like an offering.
“What?” Xena asked, accepting it and taking a sip. “That’s perfect, by the way.”
“Thanks,” Gabrielle replied, obviously pleased. “I don’t know how you can make me blush from twenty paces away.”
“One of my many…” she started.
“…Skills,” Gabrielle finished dryly for her.
Xena looked wounded. “Am I getting that predictable?” she asked.
“I prefer the term, ‘reassuringly repetitive’,” the Bard quipped, smirking.
Xena placed her cup aside. “Well, why don’t you just come out and say boring!” she exclaimed, pulling Gabrielle into her arms.
The Bard was too slow to do anything more than gasp in surprise.
“I’m going to show you something else reassuringly repetitive,” Xena whispered, nibbling her way around the Bard’s sensitive earlobe and then languidly down her neck.
Gabrielle was immediately aroused, her blood pounding to various points south, as she wrapped her willing arms around the warrior, who didn’t hesitate in pulling the acquiescent woman back into their makeshift bed.
Dawn was well past when Gabrielle grabbed Xena’s hand once again, getting a boost onto the back of the bay mare.
“I had a lovely time here,” the Bard said, slipping her arms around Xena.
“I’m glad,” the warrior replied, sounding pleased. She directed the horse forward into an easy walk, weaving through the trees and back into the open again.
“Except for washing up in that freezing water. That I could have done without.”
Xena shrugged noncommittally.
“Next time, why don’t you find a spot with a nice hot spring?” Gabrielle asked.
The warrior turned her head slightly, her eyes never leaving the path ahead. “I don’t think that would have been a good idea. You needed to cool off.”
“I needed to cool off?” Gabrielle demanded.
The warrior simply smirked as they reached the plain, urging her horse into a canter.
The area around Salmakis’ tent was in pandemonium with Adwen at its center, as Xena and Gabrielle dismounted.
“There you are at last!” Adwen exclaimed, striding up to them. “We were going to wait just a little longer and then leave with out you. Where in Hades slippers have you been?”
“Sightseeing,” Xena replied nonchalantly as she tied her horse off to a nearby wagon. “What’s going on?”
“They found at least six of the thieves at a campsite by the river, this morning.”
Xena turned, looking at him expectantly. “And?”
“The scouts withdrew without being seen,” Adwen said, agitatedly rubbing his shining pate. “As far as we know they’re still there.”
“We need to move then,” the warrior snapped, already untying her horse again. “Gabrielle, get your horse and gear.”
“Right,” she replied, jogging off towards their tent.
Xena turned to Adwen, “What preparations have you made?”
“We’ve got a few volunteers,” he said, pointing at four herdsmen, chatting by their horses. They were armed, with long knives and javelins.
“Salmakis is coming too.”
Xena frowned as she mounted her horse. “Do you trust him?” she asked.
“I found a lot of irregularities in his bookkeeping,” he said, stroking his mustache thoughtfully. “And he’s jumpier than a ewe during breeding season.”
“I’ll take that as a no,” the warrior replied dryly. “ Why do you suppose he intends to join us, today?”
“I don’t know. Let me see what’s keeping him,” Adwen said, heading to the merchant’s tent.
Gabrielle rode up and reined in beside Xena. “Everything okay?” she asked, having already discerned from the warrior’s expression that things were anything but.
“Dandy,” Xena growled, giving Gabrielle a grumpy once over, noting her staff. “Did you bring your scram?”
The Bard pulled back her cloak, revealing the weapon.
“Good, you might need it,” she said, too busy fuming about the merchant to notice Gabrielle’s frown.
Xena was fiddling with the chakram at her side, wondering if she could hit Salmakis if she threw through the tent fabric, when he and Adwen finally appeared.
The merchant was perspiring prodigiously, and carried a large gilt sword, that looked more like a stage prop than a weapon, strapped to his waist. As he maneuvered awkwardly to his horse and mounted, it was all too evident that this was the first time he’d ever worn the blade.
Gabrielle winced as he settled his large bulk, onto his unfortunate mount. “Poor horse,” she muttered.
Salmakis waved sweatily at the two women with a half-hearted smile.
“This just keeps getting better,” Xena murmured, resisting the overwhelming urge to bang her forehead against her saddle horn as she wondered what they’d gotten themselves into.
Adwen led his horse next to Xena’s and mounted. “We’re heading to the spot above the river where they were seen earlier,” he stated, adjusting his reins and getting settled on Cethren.
“If they’re still there,” the warrior groused.
Adwen nodded in agreement. “Let’s go,” he said, spurring his horse forward.
Gabrielle, Xena and Adwen crouched in a row behind a large boulder. It was one of a few enormous, anomalous stones that dotted the area, looking as if some giant had haphazardly scattered them across the green hillside.
“I think we got here just in time,” Xena said. “Their horses are saddled and they look to be packing up.”
“I wonder who that is tied up on the ground?” Adwen asked.
Xena squinted her eyes a bit, trying to see. “Whoever it is, is dressed like one of the local shepherds. Gabrielle, if the thieves make a run for it, I want you to stop and cut that person loose… See if they can shed any light on the situation,” she said. Xena’s unspoken goal was to keep the Bard out of combat altogether if possible, at least until she’d worked through her post-Amaro anxieties.
The Bard glared at her. “And let you go after these ruffians with a couple of sheepherders, a one armed man and a sleazy merchant?” she demanded.
Adwen chewed at his mustache. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked.
Gabrielle winced. “I didn’t mean that in a bad way,” she assured him.
“She just worries about me,” Xena said ruefully, patting his shoulder.
Adwen appeared at least slightly mollified. “I’ll see you two back at the horses,” he stated brusquely. “Don’t be long.” He jogged back, crouching low to the crest of the hill, and out of their sight.
The Bard shook her head. “Why would I say something that stupid?”
“Honestly, Gabrielle, he’ll get over it,” Xena said reassuringly. “Now come on, we need to concentrate on the problem at hand.”
“Right,” she replied stoically. “Do you think that’s all of them at the camp?”
Xena scanned the area, a little concerned about a copse of trees just up stream of the ruffians, but she was unable to discern any other activity in the area. “As far as I can tell from here.”
“Uh, oh,” Gabrielle said, gesturing behind them.
An alarmed looking Adwen was charging back towards them as quickly as he could. When he saw that he had their attention, he stopped, gesturing for them to return.
“C’mon Bard,” Xena said as she leapt up.
“We’ve got a problem,” Adwen hissed as soon as they crested the hill and were out of sight.
“What is it?” Xena demanded.
He pointed towards their companions. “When I got back, I saw that one of the herdsmen was missing,” he replied, panting. “I finally got it out of the others that he’s the father of the shepherd boy who was killed, and he’s gone down there to extract personal vengeance.”
“Triple formed fates and remembering furies,” Gabrielle murmured uneasily.
“There goes our surprise attack,” Xena snapped, striding towards her horse, leaving the others to catch up.
The warrior waited until they were all mounted again. “Remember, don’t clump up down there, and spread out. Pick out your targets and make every blow count,” she stated confidently, winking at Gabrielle.
The Bard gave her an uncertain smile, hoping that she didn’t let the warrior down.
Xena wanted to say something, anything to make Gabrielle feel more at ease, but there was no time for that. Adwen took the lead again as they galloped frenziedly, down the slope, and to the rescue.
Their party reached the campsite just in time to watch a mounted bowman release an arrow, striking the foolish shepherd with a sickening fleshy thud. He tumbled, face first from his saddle, lying inert in the crimson spray of his own blood. His wild-eyed horse bucked madly up the riverbank, reins dragging uselessly behind in the mud.
The bowman had another arrow notched in the blink of an eye, covering his now alerted companions as they mounted their horses.
Adwen hesitated, but Xena pushed closer and he fired again. She hurled her chakram at the bowman with one hand, yelling her war cry, and snatched the arrow out of the air as the chakram swept the bowman to the ground with the unmistakable sound of breaking bone. The warrior dropped the arrow, capturing her returning weapon, and drew her sword.
A muscular, brown haired man smirked admiringly at Xena as he worked to control his frothing steed.
The warrior recognized him as the man who’d contacted the Bard after her performance, and grinned ferally. She knew that this was too much of a coincidence, and that made her intensely uneasy.
The brown haired man nodded curtly to his cohorts. They whipped at their horses, splitting up, and fleeing in two different directions.
“After them,” Adwen barked at the herdsmen, pointing at two of them who had fled without their evident leader. The shepherds charged off in cautious pursuit; the sight of their fallen companion having tempered their fury with prudence. Salmakis trailed along behind them.
“Gabrielle can you handle them?” the warrior asked, gesturing at the fallen men and the writhing captive.
“Of course,” the Bard replied, dismounting her horse.
“Adwen, with me,” Xena yelled, grinning, and urged her horse after the arrogant, brown haired stranger. She looked forward to personally extracting any information from him, especially any that related to his earlier interest in the Bard of Poteidaia.
Gabrielle removed the medical bag from her saddle, hurrying to the injured shepherd to check for any signs of life, but his unmoving body was already growing cold. The Bard bowed her head for a long, painful moment, ignoring the wounded archer’s moans. She stood, turning away from the unfortunate man and startled, jumped back at the sight of Salmakis perched indolently on his horse, watching her.
She returned to her dark gelding, keeping well away from the merchant, and pulled her staff from the saddle. The Bard made a few practice spins with the stave, warming herself to its balance, and surprisingly for a change, felt almost no internal discomfort. Instead she imagined Xena, alone on that chill, dark night, meticulously carving a formless piece of wood into this well-balanced staff for her. Gabrielle thought that she could almost feel the warrior’s unwavering devotion to her, emanate from the wood itself, and was infinitely bolstered by this sensation as she turned to face the merchant.
Salmakis stared at the confident blond that faced him, feeling awed by her. “There was nothing you could have done,” he mumbled. Uncertain if he was talking to her about the dead shepherd or himself, at the unexpected stab of remorse that he felt over his premeditated betrayal.
Gabrielle ignored him, turning to free the restrained captive. “I’m here to help,” she reassured the prone, tied and gagged man as she laid her staff beside her. He relaxed, waiting, as Gabrielle fought with the tight ropes.
”I’m going to have to cut these,” she muttered, drawing her scram and sawing at his restraints.
The last bit of cord gave way. “You’re free,” the Bard said, stepping back to allow the captive some breathing space and sheathing her weapon under her cloak.
He rose to his feet unsteadily, rubbing at his wrists where the ropes had left red welts. Gabrielle guessed that he was around her age, standing only just taller and muscularly compact, like an Olympiad wrestler. His most distinctive feature was his short-cropped hair, which was an unusual, bright red.
“Are you okay?” Gabrielle asked.
He didn’t reply, gazing warily at her.
“I’ll get you some water,” the Bard said, stooping to reach for her stave. “I need to check on that archer yet too.”
He leapt then, kicking the staff out of her reach and grabbed her arm, forcing it up behind her back.
Gabrielle kicked behind her with her stout boot, impacting his knee squarely with all the force she could muster and he yelped, losing his grip. She spun away, dashing for her horse, but the red haired stranger was on her before she could reach it. Gabrielle, furiously beleaguered, caught a brief glimpse of Salmakis, nefariously seated on his horse as her assailant forced her to the ground.
Xena’s mare churned chunks of dirt from her flailing hooves as they galloped in full out pursuit. Adwen was just a short distance behind her, leaning low over Cethren’s out stretched neck, urging him faster.
The warrior found herself increasingly uneasy at the alleged thieves behavior. There was something troublesome about the way they looked back over their shoulders, not so much in fear as making sure that they were still pursuing. Xena was also unsettled by their appearance. These men were not outfitted like thieves nor did they act like them. They were something else altogether, soldiers maybe. The further away from the campsite, and Gabrielle, the more that niggling unease ate at her until, finally, things clicked.
Xena yanked at her horse’s reins, turning her so suddenly that the mare almost went down headfirst. Adwen, nearly colliding with her at her sudden change in direction, actually clipped the warrior’s leg as he charged by, trying to turn his enormous steed.
The warrior galloped, break-neck, back in the direction that they’d just left. Adwen finally got his mount stopped, and turned around, then spurred Cethren after her, wondering what in Zeus’s name was going on.