Origninally posted at XNF April of '97
The story belongs to me, the characters to MCA/ Universal
Xena had needed the few minutes away from Gabrielle, feeling a little embarrassed at her confession to her friend. The warrior hadn't meant to let that pop out, but she did. All too often lately, she allowed her thoughts to find their freedom, and Xena had to blame it on the fact that her friend was rubbing off on her. Next thing she knew, *she'd* be telling stories in taverns if she wasn't careful. She laughed at herself, letting a wry chuckle escape.
"What's so funny?" Gabrielle asked with a silly grin.
"If I told you, you'd laugh at me, so I'm not gonna tell you," she teased.
"Xena! You can't say something like that and leave me in suspense," she pleaded.
"Oh? Maybe I like torturing you a little. It's fun," she said with a wicked smile.
"Don't make me force it out of you. I have my ways, you know. So you might as well tell me before I have to twist your arm."
Xena raised both eyebrows and looked down at her arm, then at Gabrielle. She made a show of considering her odds, and said, "Nah, you'll just have to suffer," she said.
Gabrielle wacked her with the back of her hand across Xena's stomach, and growled in frustration. She then took a few fast paces and stepped in front of her, bringing her to a stop.
"Oh no you don't! We're not taking another step until you tell me. Don't make me get rough with you!" she threatened with an impish grin.
"OK, OK. I was thinking about how much you are rubbing off on me," Xena confessed.
"And? You were laughing. Tell me the rest," she demanded.
"And that if I wasn't careful, I'd find myself telling stories in some tavern somewhere," she finally said.
Gabrielle sputtered out a laugh, and tried to smother it with her hand. She turned around and tried to control her vivid imagination. No wonder Xena was chuckling to herself! A huge belly laugh gushed out of her, and she lost it. The bard sat on the ground, unable to stand. She laughed so hard, that every muscle hurt. The young woman managed to open her eyes for a few seconds, and saw Xena standing over her, hands on hips, running her tongue over her upper teeth in annoyance. It only made it worse. She started laughing all over again.
They sat around the small fire, just sitting and enjoying the pleasant night. The day had been mild, and the temperature had stayed at a comfortable level even after sunset. They had found a small stream to camp near and had stopped early. With the winter's cooler weather and shorter days, traveling time had been cut down. It gave them both time to rest.
Gabrielle giggled --again.
"Will you stop that!" Xena demanded. Ever since she opened her big mouth, the younger woman had teased her unceasingly all day. It was getting tiresome.
"I can't help it, Xena! I keep seeing it in my mind. It won't go away," she glanced at her friend slyly, "Maybe if *you* tell me a story..?" she hinted.
Xena leaned towards the smaller woman and with a stage whisper said, "Gabrielle, be glad it's Winter because otherwise you'd be taking an unexpected bath," she warned. Gabrielle looked towards the stream and smiled.
"You are a bully, Xena. Yep, I never really understood that until now. You are a big, bad-tempered bully that picks on small defenseless bards!" she said melodramatically
All Xena could do was roll her eyes and groan. This was her punishment for her evil ways, it had to be.
Xena woke to the presence of someone sneaking into their camp. She listened sharply and pinpointed the location of the intruder. The wary warrior shifted her eyes and spotted a small figure bending over Gabrielle. She leaped to her feet and let out her shrilling battle cry which made the unknown person jump in panic and for Gabrielle to snap awake.
Xena grabbed the person roughly as they attempted to escape. She looked into the face of a young girl. She couldn't be older then twelve, and by appearance, an orphan. Her bones were barely covered by flesh under the overly large shirt and britches. She was barefoot and filthy.
"What were you trying to do?" Xena said in a stern voice. The girl attempted to flee, but the warrior kept a firm hold on her thin arm.
"Please, I was jes' looking for food. I didn't think you'd miss a little bread. I..," she put her hands in her face and began to sob.
"That has got to be the *worst* piece of acting I ever saw!" Xena said sarcastically.
The girl stopped her 'sobbing' and looked up at the tall woman with sheepish grin.
"Didn't fool ya, huh? I guess you wouldn't believe me if I jes' told ya I was jes' lookin'? Far as I know, it's not a crime or nothin'."
"Uh huh. And I guess if I searched you, I wouldn't find any of our belongings on you. If I did..," she threatened. The girl scurried through her pockets, emptying them quickly. Small items belonging to them hit the ground. Xena's eyebrow went up along with the corner of her mouth. Gabrielle grunted a laugh and winked at her friend.
"Well, what shall we do with this little scamp, Xena? Shall we turn her over to the authorities or just hang her from the nearest tree?" she said trying to sound angry.
"Well, we could always use someone for target practice. You still can't hit the side of a barn with my chakram!" she teased. The girl looked at both of them and realized she was being kidded. She grinned and took off running, hearing laughter behind her.
Xena and Gabrielle strolled into the town, just looking around in curiosity. They could use a few supplies, but it could wait. The town was large enough to have several taverns, and they stopped to ask someone for the best one. They thanked the man and followed his instructions.
The tavern was busy, but they were able to find an empty place at a large table. They nodded at the people there and sat down. A barmaid came over to take their order. She first brought them their drinks, and promised to return with their meals.
"Hey Xena, want to try your hand at storytelling?" Gabrielle teased. Xena gave her the 'look' and turned her eyes away. She had almost laughed at that one, but she couldn't let her friend get the best of her on this one.
"Did a see just a *teensy* little smile that time? Come on! Laugh you brat. I know it's in there," she prodded. That did it. Xena sputtered out a laugh and swung a pretend swing at Gabrielle's chin. They both laughed at their own silly behavior, unaware of the eyes watching from a distance.
Nola watched the two women from behind the curtain leading to the back room. She had come into the tavern to see what she could find, and recognized the laughter of the two women from the night before. The one named Xena didn't seem the knee slapper type, but liked to laugh at others, that's for sure. She had her going last night. For a moment, she actually thought the tall woman would really kill her.
Nola ducked behind the curtain as one of the servants passed by. If she was going to snag anything, she had better hurry. The longer she was there, the greater the chances of being caught. The girl picked her target, a large man with a loosely hanging purse. She took a knife from a table and made her way slowly to him.
Xena spotted the dirty girl in the corner of her eye. Her head swiveled to get a better view. She watched as the child approached a man, a knife in her hand. She touched Gabrielle's arm to alert her and shook her head to keep silent. Xena got to her feet and circled around out of the girl's sight. The warrior didn't know what the girl intended, but she couldn't be allowed to finish. She watched the girl raise the knife, but not in a manner used for killing. She slowly brought it to the man's purse strings and cut them. The bag fell into her hand, and she backed away with the man unaware of her deed.
The girl turned away only to run into the torso of Xena. The orphan bent her head backwards, and looked into the face of an amused warrior. Xena held out her hand, demanding the bag. Nola handed it over reluctantly. Xena nabbed the girl before she could run and tossed the bag at the man. It hit the floor directly under his hip, and he looked down. He picked it up, wondering how the strings had broke. He stuffed it into his shirt and shrugged it off, continuing his conversation with his companion.
Xena pulled the girl behind her and returned to their table. She shoved her into a chair and sat down.
"Now, what's your name?" Xena asked. The girl wouldn't speak, her face stubborn.
"It's not a good idea to refuse Xena anything. She has ways to make you talk---and you won't like any of them," Gabrielle warned with a conspiracle wink towards her friend.
"Yes, and I enjoy using them," Xena said slowly in a deeper voice. The girl gulped and wondered if she had misjudged her.
"Nola," she said.
"Well, Nola. I think we need to have a little talk about theft, but not now. We'll eat and talk later," she said as she watched the approaching barmaid. She asked for another plate, and handed hers to the girl. She took it eagerly, and wolfed down the contents in a manner that resembled inhaling instead of eating. Xena grinned.
"And I thought *you* could put away food!" Xena teased Gabrielle. The bard sent her friend a killer look and continued with her meal. When the barmaid returned, Xena asked for yet anther plate. She took her plate and began eating. Nola licked her plate clean, and Gabrielle winced. Nola's table manners left a lot to be desired.
Once again, the barmaid returned with food. Nola looked at Xena quizzically, and the warrior nodded that it was hers. She attacked the second plate with just as much zeal. After everyone was done, they left the tavern. Nola debated trying to run, but figured she didn't have a chance.
"Nola?" Gabrielle started, "Do you have any family anywhere--maybe another town?"
"No. Nobody. My folks died last year. Bandits got 'em when they took a trip to the next town."
"So you've been stealing to survive? Isn't there anyone willing to take you in? Friends of your parents?" Gabrielle asked.
"Nope. They weren't liked much. People saw us as trash.. Who needs 'em?" she said in anger.
Gabrielle shot Xena a pleading look. Xena opened her eyes in panic. Her expression said 'no way!' She wasn't going to tote this kid around. She'd find another solution--even if it killed her.
Xena angrily whispered to Gabrielle as they returned to where Argo was tied.
"We are not going to keep the kid. She's not a puppy! Get over it. I know you want to help her, and we will. There's got to someone here we can take her to. We'll find them and leave her there. She'll be OK."
"Xena! She already told us that no one here would take her in. We've got to take her with us," she whispered back, her eyes pools of misery. Xena felt herself soften, unable to say no to that look. Damn Gabrielle and her mushy heart! She sighed in defeat.
"Alright--but just to the next town. We'll find her a decent home for her and that's it. And Gabrielle--*don't* make this a regular habit. There are hundreds of orphans in Greece, and I'm not going to find homes for all of them," she said harshly.
Her friend nodded weakly, glad she would help Nola, but stinging under Xena's cold words. She didn't often speak to her like that, but when she did, it cut into her heart.
Nola walked beside Gabrielle, feeling more secure with her than the leather-clad warrior. She had pegged the strawberry-blond as a soft touch right away. She noticed Gabrielle's subdued behavior and sad expression. She put her hand in hers. Gabrielle looked down at her and gave her a bright smile and squeezed her hand.
Xena was fuming. Once again Gabrielle talked her into something that her common sense told her was a mistake. The kid was trouble waiting to happen and she knew it. She glanced at the two of them and felt her anger disappear. Gabrielle was holding the girl's hand, a heart-melting look on their faces. Xena thought once more to herself that the bard should be a mother because of the way children brought out the compassionate side of the bard's nature. Xena looked away, unable to withstand the emotions that overcame her at the sight.
"Gabrielle, why is she so mad at me an' you? Did we do something wrong?" she asked fearfully.
"No. It's just that she sometimes won't admit she has feelings. She tries so hard to hide them. I guess that the emotions are too hard to deal with."
Nola nodded as though she understood, but remained confused. She knew that they didn't like her stealing, but if she didn't, she'd die. How else was she gonna live--by snappin' her fingers and makin' the food show up?
At the thought, she smiled and snapped her fingers. Argo jumped at the sound and snorted while shying away from the unexpected noise. Xena spun around to see what had happened. Nola had a grin on her face, amused by the horses skittish nature. Nola didn't realize that Argo was a battle horse, and that she could have just as easily turned on her aggressively for her act.
Gabrielle saw the outraged look on Xena's face and quickly stepped in front of her.
"No Xena, she didn't mean any harm. Don't loose your temper. Stay calm and let it pass." The warrior glared at the girl then spun on her heels to continue up the road.
Gabrielle insisted on the girl bathing. She pointed to the pond and told Nola again to get in and clean up. The girl sent her daggered looks and then did as she was told. Gabrielle told her to remove her clothes and she would wash them while she bathed. The bard handed the girl a lump of soft soap. The looked at it as though it was completely foreign to her. Maybe it was.
"Rub it against your skin. It will help you get clean. Remember to wash from head to foot, Nola," she instructed.
Gabrielle took the dirty rags to the shallow area of the pond and began scrubbing them, hoping they didn't fall apart. It took quite a while to remove the majority of the caked-in dirt, but she decided that was as good as they would get. She hung them over bushes to dry. She removed a woolen shirt from her satchel for Nola to wear until her own clothing dried.
Nola rushed out of the water, feeling as though she was frozen solid. The winter-cold pond was too much to bear. She shivered in the cool air and Gabrielle rushed to her with a towel to dry her off with. She rubbed down the girl's skin and then placed the shirt over her head. Gabrielle looked at the girl and was surprised by the results of the bath. She looked like a new person. Her once lanky dirty hair was now a moon-light pale blond, and her skin was the color of sun-kissed peaches. She was a very pretty girl, she thought to herself.
They walked back to the fire where Xena was keeping an eye on the spitted rabbits. She looked up at them as they neared and raised an eyebrow at the sight of the girl. She cleaned up pretty good. Maybe finding her a home would be easier than she thought.
The girl sat next to Gabrielle, not sure she liked the way Xena studied her.
"Stop it," she said to Xena. The warrior looked startled.
"Starin' at me. I'm not some sorta freak," she said angrily.
"Sorry," she said gruffly.
"Nola, why don't you lie down and get some sleep. There's an extra blanket over there," Gabrielle told her. The girl fetched the blanket and wrapped up. She closed her eyes. Within minutes, she was sleeping.
"Xena. Can't you be a little nicer to the kid? It's not her fault she's an orphan."
"Don't you think I know that? It's just that she ... I don't know ...bothers me."
"How? She's just a kid. Granted, she's a little outspoken, but you can handle that."
"Hmm. I just hope I don't live to regret this. I think this girl attracts trouble."
"See? She's a lot like you. Try talking to her tomorrow. It won't be so bad. Trust me."
Xena opened her eyes as the rising sun's rays hit her face. She stretched and yawned, then untangled herself from her covers. Gabrielle and Nola were both still asleep. The dark-haired woman stoked the fire, and added wood the embers. She took the kettle and filled it with water from the pond. Xena set it over the fire and sat down, still a little sluggish from her restless night. She had a dreamt about her son, and once again regretted the circumstances that led to her abandonment of him.
The warrior stared into nothing, lost in thought, and didn't hear Nola walk up to her. Xena was startled by the girl's voice.
"Looks like ya jus' lost yer best friend. Do ya always look this grumpy in the mornin's?" she asked.
Xena looked at the girl and attempted a smile, "No I didn't. She right over there, snoring," she said dryly.
"Ha __ha. Yer jus' the funny woman ain't ya? Whaddya do for fun, pull the wings offa bugs?" she said with sarcasm. Xena ignored the remark, and retrieved her bag with the tea leaves. She sprinkled an assortment into the boiling water. Nola didn't like being brushed aside, and tapped the warrior on the shoulder roughly. Xena looked up and looked at the girl impatiently.
"What?" she said curtly.
"Ya don' like me much, huh? I can tell. But let me tell ya somethin' . Yer the one who dragged me along, an' ya better stop treatin' me like trash or I'll..."
"Or what? Beat me up?" she said in genuine amusement. She laughed softly and relaxed her stern features. She told Nola to sit down and patted the ground next to her. Nola reluctantly joined her.
"Nola, I don't hate you. It's just that I don't like having my arm twisted, and that's what Gabrielle did to me when she wanted to bring you with us."
Nola looked puzzled. "I didn't see her rough ya up. Besides, she don' look the kind to go hittin' anybody."
"No, she's not. Her arm twisting was a figure of speech. She knew I couldn't say no to her, and she pushed me into saying yes."
"Are ya mad at her?"
"No. Not mad. Just annoyed," she sighed.
"That's good. I like her. She's nice."
"She likes you, too, Nola. I can tell."
"Really?" she said pleased. Xena nodded, and the girl jumped up in happiness. She ran over to the sleeping bard and gave her a hug. Gabrielle woke up and smiled up at the girl.
"Time to get up, I guess," she said. She yawned and rubbed her eyes. She dragged herself out of the bedroll and walked over to the fire. Xena filled three cups with tea, and passed them around. Nola sipped her cautiously, not used to hot drinks. Gabrielle cut slices of bread for everyone.
"So, have you two been getting along?" Gabrielle said with hope.
"I guess," said Xena. The bard looked at Nola who nodded. She released her breath, grateful for small favors from the Gods.
They finished their breakfast, and broke camp. While Xena was busy loading up Argo, Gabrielle told Nola a secret.
"Nola, just so you know--Xena would never hurt you. She acts real tough, but she wouldn't hurt anybody smaller than her. Relax. I think you're good for her. I think it's funny when you sass her, too. I like to see her flustered. But it's our little secret--OK?" she said with grin. Nola grinned back. Gabrielle had gotten rid of the last of her fear of the tall woman warrior. It was the fear of punishment that made her keep her mouth shut, and now Gabrielle seemed to give her permission to be herself. Gabrielle saw the mischief in the girl's eyes. Xena was in trouble now.
Xena walked beside her horse, while the Nola sat in front of Gabrielle on Argo. The girl tired easily, and she told them to get up and ride for awhile. Nola had been scared of Argo at first, but the horse was well-behaved, and she relaxed. She looked down at Xena and tapped her on the shoulder.
"What?" Xena said between clenched teeth.
"Can I ask ya a question?" the girl said.
"Gabrielle! Did you..??" she said while pointing at the kid.
"No! I swear!" Gabrielle said while choking down a laugh.
Xena looked as though she didn't believe her, but the puzzled look on Nola's face said she had no idea what she had done. Xena nodded wearily.
"How come ya get a sword an' Gabrielle doesn't?" she asked
"Because she doesn't kill, that's why," she said a little too harshly. Gabrielle gave Xena a kick with her stirruped foot. Xena looked up and saw her friend shake her head.
"She don', but ya do?"
"Yes, I have. Nola, I'm a warrior, and sometimes it's necessary. I'm not proud of it, but it's part of fighting. Gabrielle has her own rules to live by, and I have mine. Everyone has to choose what's right for them," she said.
"But what about the law? If everyone did what they wanted, then why have laws?"
"That's different, Nola," said Gabrielle, " The laws are rules that are commonly agreed on by the people about what is right or wrong. What Xena was talking about is the way a person lives. It's like a person who won't eat meat, or somebody who always gives money to the poor. Everyone makes judgements. Sometimes they're wrong, but it's their choice. Do you understand?"
"I think so. If Xena fights, what do ya do, Gabrielle?"
"Well, I fight too, but I fight with my staff. It's hard to kill with it unless you really try hard, but it gets the job done. I've got to thump more than one bad guy with it."
"Do ya like hittin' people?"
Gabrielle was taken aback by her question. She never really thought about it before. She tried to recall some of the past fights, and remembered a few times she had really enjoyed giving somebody a well-deserved blow. Maybe Xena was rubbing off on her too.
"Sometimes I do. When the person has angered me, or tried to hurt someone else. Like Xena said about her killing, I'm not proud of it. I'm afraid that's a part of me I never knew about until I joined Xena."
Xena felt the words like a blow. Did Gabrielle blame her for those feelings? She turned her head, not wanting to show the anguish she felt.
They came to the little town of Maldea a few hours before sundown. They were tired and hungry after choosing not to stop to eat on the road. Xena stopped at an inn, wanting to meet some of the locals and asking about a possible home for Nola. Innkeepers knew almost everyone, and were the best sources for information.
They sat at a table near the back. A large man took their order rather gruffly, and Xena put off asking him any questions. Xena whispered to Gabrielle to polish up her charms and sweeten him up. Xena knew Gabrielle could talk birds out of the trees.
When the man returned to table with their food, Gabrielle began her handiwork. She put him at ease and slowly brought up the subject. He glanced at Nola, who was paying attention to her plate, and he motioned to Gabrielle to follow him. She glanced at Xena and followed him. He stopped once they were away from the earshot of the girl.
"Don't bother trying to find that girl a home here. Her folks were the biggest thieves around. No one that knew of them will take her. You're better off trying to find a home far away from here. Her parents are well known in these parts," he advised. She thanked him distractedly, and returned to the table. Xena raised an eyebrow quizzically, and Gabrielle shook her head. She would explain later, after Nola fell asleep.
Gabrielle dreaded the idea. Xena wasn't happy to have the kid with them in the first place, and now this! Xena was going to kill her for this.
"He said what?!?! Gabrielle, this is too much! How can we travel with a kid? She's slowing us down, and we can't afford to keep feeding her. It's all I can do to keep *you* fed! " she complained.
"Well, what do you want me to do about it? We just can't dump her. There's got to be someone willing to take her. It's just a matter of time," she snapped back.
Xena paced back and forth, trying to get a grip on her temper. She felt like she was trapped and didn't like it. The warrior walked away from the fire, before she said something she'd regret. Gabrielle watched her disappear into the darkness. The bard knew she could keep care of herself, but she always worried anyway.
The petite woman returned to the fire, and looked down at Nola's sleeping form. She hugged her old woolen shirt like a doll in her sleep. Maybe the child used to have one, and missed having it with her. Gabrielle sat down and waited for Xena's return.
Xena returned several hours later, and found her friend still awake. She didn't feel like talking, but was too tired to keep walking around in the dark. She reluctantly returned to the camp and sat down.
"You were hoping I'd be sleeping when you came back, weren't you?" Gabrielle surmised.
"Well, I've had a chance to think while you were gone, and I have an idea. Why don't we take her to Jolese and Kanther. Jolese told me that she believed they couldn't have children, and I wonder if she'd be willing to take Nola in."
"Can't have children? She never told me."
"Well, you had other things on your mind at the time. So, what do you think? I think she'd welcome having a child in the house."
"You're probably right. Let's do it. We'll head for Atonea tomorrow." Xena took off her armor and boots and crawled into her bedroll. Gabrielle sighed with relief and laid down. Then Xena did something unexpected.
"Gabrielle, can I ask you a question?" she said seriously.
"Of course you can."
"When you told Nola that you found pleasure in fighting sometimes, you said it was the price you paid for joining me. Do you regret it?" Xena asked with a worried tone.
"No. I may have discovered a side of myself I don't like, but everyone has sides of themselves they find distasteful. It's human nature. I can acknowledge it, but I don't have to let it control me."
"Like it did with me when I became a killer," Xena said emotionless.
"Yes, but at least you know it exists now. It's the unknown that can control you. You faced that part of yourself, and looked it straight in the eye. You know it's there, and it will only take over if you let it."
"Sometimes I wonder if it's truly under my control. My anger is like a living thing, trying to get out from behind the walls that imprison it."
"Xena, you fret too much. Go to sleep," Gabrielle said kindly.
Xena remained silent, but didn't sleep for a long time.
Xena and Gabrielle spoke with Nola the next morning. They explained about taking her to Atonea and their friends. They wouldn't guarantee anything, but the chances were good that the couple would adopt her. Nola nodded sadly. The girl had hoped that she could stay with them, not really believing that anyone else would take her. Nola asked about Jolese and Kanther. If she was going to live with them, she wanted to know more.
"Well," Gabrielle explained, " Jolese is very quiet, and her husband is very outgoing and HUGE! He makes Xena look tiny!" she said with a grin.
"Tiny, huh?" she bent her head back, once again taking note of Xena's impressive stature, and wondered what she had gotten herself into. Gabrielle saw her worried look and quickly reassured her.
"Nola. I don't think he could hurt a fly. He's a gentle soul. He may be huge, but once you look him in the eyes, you'll never be afraid of him again."
"If ya say so," Nola said with disbelief.
"Hmmm.. Nola, I think we ought to work on your speech while we're traveling."
"You said people treated you badly, but if you change the way you speak, they'll accept you better," she said kindly.
Nola thought about it and agreed.
Gabrielle and the girl began the lessons while Xena finished packing Argo. She tried to filter out their talking, only listening marginally. She got on the horse and hesitated , then asked Nola if she wanted to ride with her. The girl gave her a beaming smile and eagerly joined her on the horse. Gabrielle's heart leaped with joy at her friend's effort to befriend the girl. Maybe she was finally warming to her.
They traveled for days, following almost the very same route as they had that summer. The nights were getting even colder, and their money was running low from spending so many nights at inns rather than camping outdoors.
Xena looked at the town they were approaching, wondering if Gabrielle remembered what had happened last time they were there. The bard stared at the town and frowned.
"Xena? Isn't that where I had the run in with that lout in the tavern?"
"Hm hmm. I wonder if he's still around. He just might want a little revenge if he is. We had better be careful while we're here. Nola, whatever you do, don't get separated from us. We didn't make any friends here if you know what I mean." The girl promised to behave and hoped the man they talked about was gone.
They strolled up to the same tavern as before and entered the building. Xena glanced around, watching for the man and his buddies. She didn't see him, and allowed herself to relax. the tavern owner spotted Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle! Have returned just to please my unworthy customers? You were the talk of the town after you left. We would love to hear more of your stories." Gabrielle smiled with pleasure. This was a good time to earn some money for their travels. Xena was right, the kid was eating like a small army, and they were quickly getting low in funds.
"Of course I can. But do you mind if we get something to eat first ? We've been traveling all day."
"No problem. Sit down and I'll bring you something," he spun on his heels and was gone in seconds. Gabrielle laughed and sat down.
"Well, you two might as well get comfortable, we're going to be here for a while."
Nola hadn't experienced watching Gabrielle at her craft, and was looking forward to it. She had gotten a small taste of it from the stories she had told at night, but this would be the real thing. She fidgeted in her seat.
"Are ya--you going to tell stories all night, Gabrielle?"
"Probably. I usually get paid pretty well when I tell stories in the taverns. Drinkers tip better." Nola didn't understand that, but she took her word for it. Xena just smiled slightly, and resigned herself to a long night of listening to stories. She couldn't even talk to the kid--she'd be listening to Gabrielle. *Gods! I'm going insane! Talking to the kid. I'm sinking fast!*
Xena sat at the table, staring at her mug. They had been there for several hours, and she was getting restless. Nola sat enthralled, her eyes never wavering from the performing bard. This was old hat to Xena, and she only paid attention when she told new tales. The biggest problem was that Gabrielle's view of their adventures didn't always match what actually happened. Gabrielle called it a 'creative license', but Xena called it exaggerating. She smiled to herself, and ordered another ale.
She suddenly felt eyes on her, and she glanced around the room. She spotted the trouble. It was the very same man that they had run into before. Word probably got out about their being in town, and this time he brought some friends along. Six men stood there with satisfied grins on their faces, enjoying the idea of taking on two women. They made their way towards her.
"Nola, hide someplace safe. We're about to have a brawl on our hands." Nola jumped to her feet and hid behind the counter near the back of the tavern. Xena stood and caught Gabrielle's eye. She pointed at the men, and Gabrielle excused herself. The tavern owner saw what was happening, and shouted at them to take it outside. But it was too late.
The men split up, three against one, and moved in. Xena laughed out loud, the odds were actually in their favor. She could take on three any day, and Gabrielle was getting there with her staff. She could handle them until she finished with her three.
She let out a battle cry and tackled the men, surprising them. She flipped into the air and over their heads. They watched her land and laugh wickedly. One of them thought to himself, *Uh Oh* just before he received a high kicked boot to the face.
Gabrielle waited for the attack, sizing up the men. The man she had trounced before hung back, letting the other two go first. *Coward!* she thought. The man who tried to attack first swung a large club at her. She easily avoided the clumsy weapon and agilely swung her staff, catching him along the head. He yelped in pain and in anger, swung his club once more. She barely got out of its way before it came smashing down on a table, shattering it. The force of his blow sent him forward, and she took advantage of it. The small woman struck him on the back of the head with her staff, knocking him out. The bard spun around and attacked the next man. He went on the defensive, trying to block the barrage of blows coming his way. Soon he joined his friend on the floor.
She turned to the man who suffered at her hands last time and smiled. He was no match for her.
"Ahem.," Xena said loudly, " You got to play with him last time. It's my turn," she said with a sly smile. Gabrielle bowed her head mockingly, and stepped aside. He swallowed hard and tried to back away. Xena wouldn't allow it. She wanted to play. She jabbed him with small punches and kicks, not putting any real force behind them. She wanted to teach him a lesson. His feeble attempts to land a blow on her failed, and she easily avoided his wild swings. He was getting more and more embarrassed by the moment.
On the verge of total exhaustion, held up his arms in defeat. "I give."
"Really? Then I think you still owe my friend an apology from the last time," Xena told him. He swallowed hard, and licked his dried lips.
"I'm sorry." It was a pitiful excuse of an apology, but Gabrielle accepted it with a nod. He made a hasty exit and didn't look back. The room was silent for a moment, then the people started cheering. What they had witnessed was even better than the stories, and they shouted their approval.
They approached Atonea. Nola began shaking in fear, unsure of what would happen. She didn't want to be left behind, but understood why they didn't want a kid tagging along. Nola saw the danger first hand, and didn't like it. During the fight, she had been scare witless. How they lived like this was beyond her understanding. Better to be in one place, than always suffering on the road.
They made their way to house and knocked on the door. Jolese opened it and looked at them in shock. She didn't expect to see them again for years.
"Xena, Gabrielle! Come in out of the cold," she fussed. They went in and spotted Kanther at the table. He jumped up in happiness at their visit and picked up a woman in each arm and hugged them. Nola had her eyes open in wonderment at the size of the man as he easily held her friends in his arms. He gently put them down and kissed each of them on the cheek.
"Sit down, sit down," he spotted Nola and smiled, "and who's this?"
"Kanther, this is Nola. Nola, this is Kanther and Jolese," Gabrielle said. She indicated with her head that she should say something.
"Hello. It's nice to meet you," she said carefully.
"The pleasure is all ours," Jolese told her. Nola smiled and sat at the table.
"So why are you here visiting again so soon--not that we're complaining!" Jolese said with a grin.
Gabrielle stopped Xena from answering, she didn't want Nola there when they asked. She turned to Nola and asked her if she would take Argo to the back area and feed her. Nola jumped up and left gratefully. If they said no, she didn't want to hear it.
"We came to ask a favor. Nola needs a home, and you were the first people that came to mind," Xena started.
"You want us to take her?" Kanther said in shock.
"We won't force her on you. It was just a hope..." Xena said quietly.
"You've grown fond of her, haven't you Xena?" Jolese said with a warm smile. Xena looked uncomfortable, and didn't answer. "Don't worry, we'll keep your little secret."
Jolese took Kanther's hand and pulled him up to talk privately with him. They disappeared for several minutes and returned.
"We'll take her in--on one condition. She has to agree. I won't have you dumping her, unwilling to stay. If she doesn't want to, you'll have to look elsewhere."
Xena and Gabrielle agreed. Gabrielle opened the shutters to the window and shouted for Nola. The girl came back in, pale and shaken. She glanced at everyone, waiting for the axe to fall. Kanther knelt down before her and smiled gently. Nola stared into his eyes and shyly smiled back. He held out his open arms, and she ran into them, her happiness apparent.
The two friends stayed for a few days, until they were convinced Nola had settled in. They were packing up, ready to leave when Nola ran up to them. The girl first hugged Gabrielle then turned to look up at the intimidating warrior. She motioned at Xena to bend forward and bit her lip, waiting. Xena knelt down on one knee and looked into Nola's face.
"We'll miss you, you little scamp," she said affectionately. Nola smiled and stepped forward.
"Good. I'll miss you, too!" Then with a mischievous grin, she tweaked Xena's nose.
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