STANDARD DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and Argo remain the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures and no copyright infringement is intended here. All other characters and the story depicted here are mine.
NOTE: It's a long one, so get settled, crack open a bottle of whatever beverage you prefer and enjoy! All comments and/or private perceptions concerning this tale are welcome. Hey, it's your free time you're spending here, so give it your best shot. Here's hoping you have as good a time readin' it as I did writin' it. Love, MMG.
ONE FINAL THOUGHT: This tale owes its conception and birth to my personal Muse whose dedicated support and encouragement inspired me to derive and then complete this piece. Just proves you can lead an old horse to water and make her drink.
Xena watched the little bard spread the blinking ashes within the stone-rimmed campfire site. The precise, efficient procedure was one the girl had performed countless times before, but on this morning, the warrior sat transfixed and immobile. She saw the little blonde rest the tip of her tongue in the corner of her mouth as she concentrated on her task. The warrior took a deep breath to clear the confusion in her mind.
'Just when did this happen?' the warrior marveled to herself. 'Exactly when did this person and I become so incredibly ... attached to each other?' The leather-clad form on the large, fallen log shook her head slightly and closed her clear, blue eyes for a moment. Then she resumed her study of the small blonde kneeling at the fire site.
'And how did it become so certain and undeniable?' the tall woman continued to wonder. 'A few summers ago, I wouldn't have let anybody get this close. How did she find her way into my soul so completely?' The warrior shook her head again, staring openly at the trim, slender form.
The bard responded quizzically to the intent stare of the woman across from her.
"What?" the bard asked, somewhat confused by the look on the warrior's face. "What??" she asked again when she got no response to her first question.
Xena swallowed quickly, surprised herself at the unsettling effect the green eyes had on her reserve. "Nothing," she responded, lowering her eyes to the small twig she held in her fingers. She looked up at the bard again. "I was just looking at you."
Gabrielle felt a slight blush invade her face. "Uh-huh," she said, still not quite sure of her companion's state. She let her eyes travel over the sculpted face. "Why?" she queried, more out of curiosity than anything else.
"No reason in particular," the warrior responded. "I just like looking at you," she said, smiling warmly at the verdant pools. "Is that a problem?" she asked, characteristically raising one eyebrow.
"No, of course not," the little blonde said, laughing nervously. She looked down at the lifeless ashes, still unnerved by the warrior's continued stare. "OK, it is a little embarrassing sometimes," the girl admitted. "Like right now, for instance." The green eyes darted to meet the cobalt gaze, before returning quickly to the remnants in the circle. The slim neck betrayed the abrupt gulp that contracted the young blonde's throat.
Turning to her companion, the bard joked, "It makes me feel like I have spinach in my teeth, or something." The warrior's bright laugh echoed in the clearing and deepened the warm blush on the bard's face.
"I'm sorry, my friend," the warrior said as she tossed the small twig away and rose from her seat on the large log. "I'll try not to stare from now on," she chided. "At least, not when you'll notice." She tousled the soft hair and walked across the campsite, deftly lifting the saddle onto the waiting mare's back.
Gabrielle stood and crossed the clearing to stand behind the warrior. On an impulse, she wrapped her arms around the woman's waist, pulling the sleek, muscled form to her chest. She laid her head against the sinewy back, causing a pause in her companion's saddling activities. The warrior let the little bard enjoy the embrace for a moment, then turned to speak over her shoulder to the blonde head nestled between her shoulder blades.
"If you keep that up, we'll never make it to Almiros by mid-day," Xena joked, waiting for the bard to react. Another moment passed before Gabrielle released the hug and the warrior turned to face the slender form. The bard hadn't moved away; in fact, she was staring at the ground near the warrior's boots, her hands on her hips, one leather-covered toe tracking absent circles in the dirt.
Xena leaned her head to one side, trying to focus on the gentle face. She could see the bard's pursed lips and recognized the nervousness in the girl's stance. She put her hand on the slim shoulder, then raised the soft chin to bring the young blonde's eyes to meet hers.
"OK, give," the warrior coaxed. "What's wrong? Don't you want to go to Almiros? Are you having second thoughts about helping them?"
"No, no, nothing like that," the bard answered as she gave the slender hand under her chin a little squeeze, then took a stride away from the warrior. She stopped and turned back to her friend, her palms clasped together, fingers interlaced.
"I still want to go. I did promise Musaeus that, if he found the old scrolls, I'd help him restore them. He's depending on me."
The warrior studied the cherished face, a bit confused at the bard's reluctance. She watched the girl turn, walk back toward the now-dead campfire and focus her attention on the ashes contained in the circle. When the bard put a small hand to the back of her neck and rubbed the spot vigorously, the warrior recognized the gesture as the little blonde's way of wrestling with a particularly unsettling issue. She moved a step closer to her small companion.
"Then what is it? Why are you so uncertain about this?"
Gabrielle stared at the ashes for a moment longer, then turned to her friend, a concerned frown gathered under the wheat-colored bangs.
"It's not just restoring the scrolls, Xena. I know they're in pretty bad shape. Musaeus told me that when we were at the Academy last year. He said he figured, even if he did manage to retrieve them from the old caves, they'd be covered with mildew and some of them would be beyond repair. They'd need to be totally transcribed again ... from the beginning."
The warrior waited for the little bard to continue. She still had not heard the reason why the bard seemed so uneasy about the upcoming trip.
"So," the tall woman said, finally giving in to her own impatience. "Why should that be a problem? You're the perfect choice for that. No one knows the old tales in this part of the country better than you do." The warrior's subtle grin did nothing to lighten the girl's manner. She waited for the bard to respond. When the girl's uneasiness did not subside, the warrior stepped next to the trim form.
"Gabrielle, what's really bothering you?" the warrior asked, turning the bard to face her.
The girl raised her gaze to meet the piercing blue eyes of her best friend. She studied the bronze face that meant more to her than any other. The look of concern in the green pools caused the warrior's pulse to waver as she waited for the little blonde to speak.
"Well, first of all," the bard began, "it's a pretty big responsibility. I mean, we'll be transcribing ... or re-transcribing scrolls that have been around for generations ... in some cases, even longer than that. They contain the very history of these people, Xena. I just don't want to ... misinterpret something. I could be ruining something that's very valuable, very precious. What if I--?"
"You won't," Xena interjected firmly. "You're too careful with that sort of thing. You won't make any snap decisions. Trust your own judgment, Gabrielle. I do." The warrior smiled at the anxious face, then pulled the little form into a loose hug.
"Just the fact that you're so worried about it should tell you how cautious you're going to be." She rested her chin on the soft blonde hair. "If you didn't care so much, you wouldn't be tormenting yourself like this. You have too much integrity to take this lightly."
The bard was quiet in the warrior's embrace, but Xena could sense the issue had not been completely resolved. She held her friend close and waited ... again.
"You said 'first of all'," the warrior prompted. "What else is on your mind?"
Gabrielle took a slow breath and decided to plunge ahead. The question had to be faced sooner or later.
"You," she said quietly from within the warrior's strong arms, bracing for the response she knew would follow. Her instincts were true, as usual. She felt the warrior's body stiffen as the comforting embrace dissolved around her. The leather-clad woman leaned back to address the small form.
"Me?" the warrior blinked, totally confused. "Did you say 'me'?"
The bard focused on the metal armor covering the tall woman's chest. She traced the unique patterns with one small finger. "Yes. I'm a little ... nervous about how you'll react to Musaeus ... or rather to how Musaeus reacts to me."
Gabrielle could feel the blush cover her face as the warrior's arms dropped away and the lean body became tense and rigid. She swallowed hard and slowly raised her eyes to meet the icy pools.
"Who is this Musaeus, anyway," Xena asked evenly. "And why would I be ... unhappy about how he 'reacts' to you?"
The bard swallowed again and took a tentative step back from the muscled frame. "He's just a fellow I met at the Academy last spring ... you know when I went there to try my hand at getting in?" The blue eyes were steady on her face. The little blonde put both hands behind her and took another step back from the serious face.
She laughed nervously and gave the warrior what she hoped was a convincing smile. "I guess you could say he had a bit of a crush on me." The blue eyes hardened. "Oh, not that I encouraged anything, you understand," the bard laughed again, even more nervously than before. "But, it was kind of flattering ... a good boost for my feminine ego, so to speak." She giggled lightly, then gulped and fell silent when she saw the rippling of the warrior's jaw.
The bard watched her tall friend closely. "He was just very ... attentive and agreeable. Really very sweet." She waited for the warrior's stoic expression to soften.
"Is he still as ... agreeable, do you think? And so attentive?" The warrior's tone was as cool as the look she leveled at the bard. One dark eyebrow was poised above the crystal glare.
The girl let out a shaky laugh. "Oh, I'm sure he's found someone else to ...."
"Worship?" the warrior said sardonically. All traces of the amused boredom displayed in her manner had disappeared. There was nothing playful in the liquid voice now.
Gabrielle reacted to the disdain present in the stiff stance. "That's exactly what I was afraid of," the bard said in a slightly irritated voice. "I knew you wouldn't understand about Musaeus. I knew you'd think ...."
"Gabrielle, get a grip," Xena said firmly. "I'm never surprised at how many people think highly of you." A tiny, barely perceptable grin began to replace the grim expression. "I don't doubt there are dozens of 'young fellows' who carry a vision of you in their hearts." The bard scoffed and raised her eyes to the trees towering above them.
Gabrielle trained a rather bored look at her tall companion. The green eyes focused on the warrior's blue pools were twinkling despite the girl's attempt to maintain a serious expression. The blonde head tilted toward the warrior's somewhat nervous gaze.
"Is that why you're afraid to go through with this? You think I'll try to clobber him, or something?"
The bard gave her best impression of her friend's raised-eyebrow glower. It was the chiseled face that now showed a bit of embarrassment. "I just didn't want you to get the wrong impression, that's all," the girl told her friend. "I don't want to see you get upset about this whole thing."
Xena's tall frame relaxed as she drew a deep, calming breath. She gazed lovingly at the soft face before her and gave in to the warm smile that she'd been submerging during the discussion. "OK. So now we both know," the warrior said. "I'll be on my 'best behavior', so you can rest easy."
The bard's face lit up as she responded to the warrior's smile.
"I promise to control myself, all right?" Xena quipped, turning back to the patient mare. As she reached to secure the girth strap under the horse's belly, she threw a triumphant gaze at the bard.
"Now we'd better get going or you won't get to your 'boyfriend' until tonight."
The warrior's normally sharp reflexes became side-tracked by the tone of the discussion; otherwise, she would certainly have sensed the approach of the small stone the bard had tossed at her rump.
Chapter One ~~~
By mid-morning, they arrived at the town of Almiros. The warrior had no sooner lowered herself to the ground when she heard an excited voice calling out the bard's name.
"Gabrielle!" the young male shouted as he hurried toward the travelers. As Xena turned in the direction of the sound, she saw her companion being lifted up in a resounding hug and spun around by a person she assumed was the bard's fellow scholar. She watched quietly as the girl's delighted squeals tumbled from within the energetic embrace.
"Musaeus!" the bard shrieked. "Put me down!" The young man set the girl on her feet, then held her at arm's length to level a bright smile at the blushing face. He stood a good head and shoulders taller than the bard, yet not quite as tall as the warrior herself. A trim, muscular form was clearly evident beneath the long, colorful tunic. Xena noticed the smattering of freckles adorning the boyish cheekbones, contrasting with the assured, masculine manner in which the young fellow carried himself.
"It's so good to see you again," said a pleasant, resonant voice. At the same time, tight auburn curls bounced around the warm, smiling face. "I told them you'd come. I knew you would."
"Them?" the bard asked, tentatively. "Musaeus, who's 'them'?" Xena sensed a slight lessening of the bard's enthusiasm at this piece of news. She trained protective eyes toward the girl's stilted smile. It was then that she sensed the young man's eyes on her own face.
Musaeus hadn't noticed the tall warrior next to the great horse until now. He saw the vigilance in the icy, blue eyes when the woman looked at the small blonde. He released the bard's waist and took a step toward the sleek, leather-clad form.
"Xena," the young man said, extending his hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you at last."
The warrior cast a quick glance at the offered hand, then took the slender palm to acknowledge the polite greeting. She met the eager smile with a subtle grin.
"You must be Musaeus," the smooth voice said. "It's nice to finally meet you, too." Xena threw a solicitous glance at the bard's apprehensive expression. She swallowed the amusement that resulted from the nervousness in the girl's open face. She released the boy's hand and turned to gather Argo's reins.
"I'll let you two 'catch up'," the tall woman said, sliding the strap of the bard's travel bag from her shoulder. "I'll get Argo settled and see about a room for us." She met the bard's green gaze. "Have fun." As the warrior turned toward the stables, her progress was stopped by Musaeus' friendly voice.
"Oh, I already made arrangements for your room," he said, looking back at the smiling bard. "I hope that was all right."
The warrior's jaw rippled slightly.
"Just mention my name to the Innkeeper. It's already set up."
Gabrielle favored the young man with a warm smile. "Thank you, Musaeus. That was very nice of you," she told him, laying a hand on his arm. Xena noticed he covered the small hand with his own.
"We're very grateful, aren't we, Xena?" The green eyes held a slight warning as they met the clear, blue gaze. The warrior's dark eyebrow rose only a tiny degree.
"Yes,", the warrior responded evenly. "That was very nice of you." She turned again to the handsome young man. "Well, I'll see to Argo then," she said, turning back to the bard, "and bring our gear in. OK?"
The bard's lips pursed only minutely. The two women held each other's gaze for another moment before the warrior led the golden mare away. Gabrielle didn't realize she had let out a small, grateful sigh ... but Musaeus noticed it immediately.
"Nice meeting you," the young man called to the departing warrior. The bard swallowed quietly when she noticed the subtle straightening of the woman's strong back.
The bard faced the young man again. She touched his arm affectionately and returned his warm smile. "Now, tell me, my friend," the little blonde said as they walked away together. "Who are 'them' and why would you have to convince them I'd come?"
Xena removed the gear and saddle from Argo's back. She had handed over the required number of dinars to the stable owner, then led the horse into a vacant stall, politely refusing the man's offer to tend to the mare herself. Her tense, irritated manner made the animal's soft ears rotate questionably toward her mistress. When the warrior slipped the bridle over the soft muzzle, the horse nudged the armored chest in a sympathetic push.
The tightness in the warrior's jaw slowly subsided as she stroked the animal's long, smooth face. She laid her cheek against the warm hide and took a deep, calming breath. Xena stood back to gaze into the large, brown, knowing eyes and felt her own chagrin invade her expression.
"OK, girl," she told the horse softly. "You're going to have to help me out here, all right?" Argo whinnied quietly against the warrior's hair. "I have to try and behave like a grown-up," she confided to the mare. "I've got to show her that I trust her. It's really important this time, understand?"
Argo tossed her golden head and sneezed lightly against the raven tresses. Xena smiled and rubbed the animal's jaw. She patted the sinewy neck and hung the bridle on the rails of the stall, next to the saddle. After checking the water barrel and the fodder bin, the warrior picked up the saddlebags, the water skin and the bard's writing satchel and left the barn, determined to behave like a grown-up.
When Xena stepped into the small tavern, the plump, bearded bartender turned a wary eye in her direction. She told herself that one day her entrance into an establishment would not result in every eye present marking the event, but she found the cynic inside her scoffing at the optimistic thought. The blue eyes scanned the room, locating all important entrances and exits, returned to the round face behind the bar and lingered on the suspicious glare. The warrior took a slow breath and moved toward the bar.
"Musaeus said to mention his name?" she began cautiously then was a little taken aback when the man's manner changed immediately. The corpulent face broke into an open, broad expression and he favored the warrior with a friendly, although somewhat toothless, smile.
"Oh, yes,", the man said graciously. He leaned under the bar and handed over a small bundle of soft, clean material. "You and the little bard are in the last room at the end of the hall," he said, motioning toward the archway across the room with a pudgy hand. "It's our best accommodation," he told the warrior. "Musaeus was very clear. He wanted you two to be most comfortable."
Xena looked down at the bundle in her hands, then back to the man's bright face. "Clean towels," the man explained, his fleshy jowls bouncing as he nodded agreeably. "When you're ready, I'll have the girl fill the tub for you."
The warrior tried to cover her surprise as she searched in the bard's bag for the room's fee. When she offered the man the money, he waved her intentions off with an open hand. "No need for that," he told her. "The Elders have said that the little bard is to be the town's guest. You too, of course, being her companion."
Xena swallowed her amusement at her identification as the bard's 'companion'. She dropped the dinars into the cloth satchel and gathered up the bundle of soft material.
"Thanks, but I'm sure she'll want something to eat first." The bartender trained an expectant gaze toward the entrance to the tavern. Xena's gaze followed his. "Oh, she'll be along in a minute. She's with Musaeus."
The man nodded and smiled at the bronze face again. He wiped his thick fingers with a ragged cloth and rubbed the bar with a practiced rhythm.
"Well, all the same. Just let me know," he said. "When you're settled in, I'll have some nice ale for you -- at the pleasure of the house, of course."
The warrior's jaw stiffened as her internal warnings awakened. Something in the man's solicitous manner set off an alarm. The open expression on the bronze face faded slightly.
"Look," she said to the round face. "Providing the room is one thing, but I don't think Gabrielle expects the town to feed us, too."
The man blinked, somewhat surprised.
"She has rather determined standards about things like that."
The bartender's thick eyebrows came together in a small, confused frown. He studied the stoic expression on the warrior's seemingly passive face. 'This is not a woman whose word should be questioned,' he decided. He nodded agreeably and resumed rubbing the burnished surface of the bar.
After a moment, Xena gathered up the bundle of cloth and the rest of the travel gear and made her way through the archway leading to the sleeping rooms of the Inn. She strode down the narrow hallway toward the last room, remembering the bartender's directions. When she came to the wide, wooden door, she shifted the equipment in her arms, lifted the latch and entered the chamber.
The bed in the corner occupied most of the area. It was a large pallet, almost twice the size of the beds they'd seen in other Inns during their travels. When she tested the mattress, she found it firm, solid and quiet. Xena dropped her cargo at the end of the brightly-colored coverlet and turned to survey the rest of the room.
Next to the bed was a small wooden table on which stood a metal candlestick holding a large, thick candle. It matched the two on the mantle above the wide, welcoming fireplace on the wall opposite the door. All three tapers were clearly new and unused. The dark eyebrows raised slightly when her eyes fell on the neat stack of wood next to the tidy hearth and the clean, well-tended grate behind the metal screen.
With her hands on her hips, the warrior pivoted to the wall opposite the bed. There she found a small, wooden chair next to another slightly larger wooden table. Running down the center of the gleaming surface was a bright scarf, its patterns matching those of the bed's covering. In the middle of the table stood a large, wide-lipped, ceramic basin holding a deep, generous water pitcher. The warrior's lips pursed in grudging admiration of the room's accessories.
Xena's gaze fell to the floor under her boots. A large, oval rug covered most of the space, reaching from the edge of the bed to the stone front of the fireplace, traveling across the room to end just in front of the wooden legs of the table and chair.
She turned again, this time to acknowledge the gentle breeze that ruffled the lacy curtains fluttering away from the open shutters of the window that winked from the wall above the headboard of the bed. It was then that she noticed the lightly pleasant aroma that wafted across the enclosure. She scanned the room and located the source of the smell; the small, silver vase that stood between the candles on the mantle held a bright bouquet of fresh, delicate flowers.
Shaking her head slowly, Xena moved to close the wide, wooden door. As she secured the panel, she noticed the three wooden pegs that had been set into the wall behind the opening, obviously intended for the hanging of long, travel garments or, in her case, for hanging up her scabbard and chakram, if she so decided.
"Quite the little arranger, aren't you, Musaeus?" the warrior mumbled quietly. "This place must go for ten dinars a night to 'regular customers'." As her gaze swept the room again, the golden face slowly creased in a knowing grin. "Cyrene, Innkeeper of Amphipolis would get even more."
She moved back to the bed and began to untie the lacings on one of the saddlebags. As she withdrew various items from the leather satchels, the liquid voice mused quietly.
"Well, Gabrielle, you're finally getting the respect you deserve."
Chapter Two ~~~
Across the town square from the Inn where the warrior was unpacking stood a small, private structure. The two young bards were huddled over a wide, well-notched table in the center of the room. On the table, in random stacks and other small piles, lay a number of rolls of parchment, all displaying a myriad of conditions, from radically damaged to slightly soiled to moderate exhibitions of decay. The two attending scholars were involved in a concentrated, enveloping discussion concerning said artifacts, most of their remarks centered on which of their charges required the quickest attention and why.
Gabrielle accepted the scroll Musaeus handed her, the young face reflecting the rancid odor radiating from the mildew-covered document. She gingerly unrolled the parchment as the young man to her side carefully held down two corners with his fingers.
"By the gods," the little blonde murmured. "Some of these are really in need of help." Her green eyes scanned the stains on the manuscript spread before her. "Musaeus, these poor things ... they must have been in those old caves for thirty winters."
Musaeus watched the face of the young woman beside him with open attraction. He could see the green eyes dance with genuine interest, then soften with heart-felt concern. His eyes followed the small hand as it tenderly stroked the damaged scroll, the girl's gentle fingers running carefully over the covered transcription.
"I told you," the young man said. "I didn't think any of them could have survived," he continued, glancing at Gabrielle's concerned gaze. "But, when we finally unburied them and got them here, I found that most of them could be saved. But some of them are really going to take some attention."
Gabrielle released the scroll and the bottom edge of the worn, decaying vellum crept upwards toward the secured top edge. The young blonde brushed the dirt from her hands, then stood up away from the table.
"Whew!" she wheezed, rubbing her nose with one finger. "They really fill up a room with their 'aroma', don't they?" she said laughing lightly. She turned to the young man at her side. "Well, we'll have to get some dry rags, some new parchment and lots and lots of ink." Her eyes swept the room and she noticed the other scrolls spread on the floor and draped over random pieces of furniture in the room.
"We'll get started on them first thing tomorrow," Gabrielle told her companion. "Right now, I need to get some of the dust from the road out of my hair." She smiled widely at the young man, then found herself somewhat unnerved by his close position, literally right next to her.
Musaeus had moved closer to the young woman, taking both her hands warmly. "I'm so glad you came, Gabrielle. I knew, when you saw them and how much I need your help, that you wouldn't let me down." He gazed adoringly into the green eyes now raised to his.
Gabrielle swallowed a bit nervously, withdrew her hands and stepped slowly to the end of the table. "Well, I gave you my word, Musaeus. I said I'd be here to help and so I am." The girl turned back toward the handsome face, her smile somewhat less steady than before. After a moment, her expression became more inquisitive.
"What did you mean when you said you told 'them' I'd come?" You still haven't said who 'they' are." She watched as the young man's good-natured grin faded and his face became slightly apologetic, almost contrite.
"The Elders of the Town Council are the 'them' I meant," Musaeus said, his tone brittle. "They don't think these scrolls are worth the effort or the dinars it's going to take to restore them." The young man paced angrily away from the side of the table, then turned quickly back to the bard. His face was exasperated, his manner stressful.
"In fact, I had to promise them that you would be sort of 'overseeing' this project to even get them to finance the restoration at all," the young scholar told the little blonde. He stepped back to her side when he saw the surprise and concern in the wide-open green eyes.
"Now you see why it was so important that you come here and help me with this."
Gabrielle stared unbelieving into the face of her bardic friend. When she could manage to draw a quick breath, she closed her mouth and put one hand on the throbbing spot at the back of her neck. She staggered back a step then turned a shocked expression toward the plaintive young man near the table.
"Musaeus, I'm no expert!" the little bard said breathlessly. "I'm just a student, like you. There's no way I could claim to 'take charge' of this ... operation." Gabrielle stepped closer to the young face, now grimacing in regret.
"How could you tell these Elders such a thing, especially without telling me first!?" She spun away from the young bard, strode a few paces, then turned back to Musaeus, her soft face now showing signs of pique. "And why would they believe you, anyway?" Gabrielle asked, her eyes level on the young man's face. "Why would telling them I'd come make such a difference in their decision?"
Musaeus lowered his eyes and rubbed absently at a spot on the table. After a long moment, he raised his eyes to the girl's irked gaze, his mouth quirked in a weak smile.
"Because, I told them you won the contest at the Academy last spring and that you're becoming famous because of your tales about your best friend, The Warrior Princess. They had certainly heard of her and that convinced them that your 'expert eyes' would justify their ... investment."
"My ... what??" Gabrielle repeated, staring into the imploring eyes of her young friend. She saw Musaeus blink and reposition the flimsy smile. After a moment, an uncontrollable giggle began to tickle the young blonde's throat. A few seconds later, she burst out laughing, green eyes dancing in thunderous humor. The reaction was contagious; soon the young man joined in the raucous mirth.
The two youngsters enjoyed their merriment for a few minutes, then Gabrielle drew a shaky hand across her eyes and laid the other on the young man's arm. "Oh, boy," the girl gasped. "That's a new one." She playfully slapped at her friend's muscled arm. "Wait'll Xena hears that one. She'll think we've both gone daft, for sure." She dissolved into hearty laughter again.
Musaeus' smile faded slightly as he took the girl's hand again. "Oh, don't give me away, please, Gabrielle," he pleaded, drawing the blonde's attention back to his face. "If the Elders find out the truth, they'll sweep these scrolls into the nearest garbage heap and write the whole thing off as wasted time."
Gabrielle's laughter dissolved as she studied the young man's plaintive expression. The request in the soft, brown eyes appealed to her gentle heart. She took a deep breath and raised her chin a bit higher. She patted the young man's arm.
"OK, Musaeus," she told him. "If it means getting these scrolls restored, I guess a little fib won't hurt anything. I'll keep your secret," the girl said quietly. 'Except, how do I do that with Xena?' she asked herself nervously. 'I sure hope I can pull this off.'
Chapter Three ~~~
Gabrielle's eyes found the warrior's the moment the bard entered the tavern. Her leather-clad friend sat in her usual 'preferred seat', at the back of the room, leaning against a protective wall. On the table in front of her, Gabrielle recognized a tankard of ale.
The girl crossed the room, sat down on the bench facing her friend, and deposited her staff on the floor under the table. The bronze face softened as the warrior saw the excitement radiating from her young friend's bright face.
"So," the warrior said to the shining green eyes. "You and Musaeus all set?" The stoic expression broke slightly as the bard leaned forward to share the details of the upcoming project.
"There are a couple dozen scrolls that need work," the bard gushed. "Some of them are really in trouble, but I think we can read them enough to get the tales written out on new parchment."
The warrior watched the girl's face, as always, warmly impressed by the enthusiasm she found in the bard's honest enjoyment of her chosen vocation. It was becoming less of a surprise to the tall woman that the bard's heartfelt delight engendered her own, in a nearly equal capacity. She found herself smiling back at the little blonde's wide grin, grateful again for the cherished closeness with this extraordinary young woman.
"There's just one thing, tho'," the bard said, her smile fading only a minute degree. The warrior's senses twitched when she read the reluctance in the girl's open face.
"What's that?" Xena asked, focusing clearly on the bard's green eyes.
"Well," the girl began. "I think it might take longer than the few days I thought when I first told you about this. Some of the scrolls are so bad off that ..."
The warrior raised a slender hand and the girl's excited chatter ended as the deep, blue gaze captured hers. "It's all right," Xena said, her grin returning. "Take your time. There's no problem. We don't have to be in Kerkira until the next moon, so you have plenty of time to ... do whatever you have to do."
The girl's smile brightened once more. "You're the best 'best friend' anyone could ever have," she told the warrior. The crystal blue eyes softened as they met the verdant gaze. The bard reached across the table and clasped the tall woman's slender hand. "We should be finished by then. We'll still get to Kerkira by the beginning of the Solstice, I promise."
A short moment of silence fell on the two women seated at the isolated table. Then the warrior swallowed around the closeness in her throat. She pulled her hand from beneath the bard's and motioned toward the bartender with her chin.
"They serve a great venison stew here, I'm told," she said, raising the tankard to her lips. "Are you famished, as usual?" she quipped at the bard's grin. The girl returned a teasing smile to the warrior's smirk and waved to get the attention of the young waitress. When she turned back to her friend, she saw a trace of another brand of concern in the golden countenance.
"What?" the bard asked, searching the blue pools. "Something wrong?"
Xena swallowed the mouthful of ale and glanced at the approaching waitress. The bard turned quickly to the woman and said, "Venison stew, please. Two bowls. And I'd like some cider, too, if you have any." The redheaded girl nodded and left the side of the table. When the bard faced her companion again, the questioning expression on the girl's face prompted the tall woman to respond.
"When I tried to pay for our room, the bartender wouldn't accept payment." She waited while the bard reacted to the surprising news. "He told me that the Elders had decided that you and your ... companion," as expected, the bard's eyebrows disappeared under her blonde bangs. " ... were to be the 'town's guests'," the warrior finished. She calmly raised the tankard again to hide the pronounced smirk now even more evident on her lips.
Gabrielle stared at her friend's amused expression. After a moment, the waitress returned carrying a tray with their food and the mug of cider the bard had requested. The woman placed a bowl in front of each of them, then deposited a cloth napkin and a spoon beside the bowls. As she placed a small basket of warm bread between the two women, she smiled shyly at the bard and left the table again.
The bard focused on the stew, then raised her eyes to meet the warrior's. The blonde bangs hid the wheat-colored brows for another moment as the two friends smiled together and turned to their food. When she had sampled the steaming mixture, and reacted agreeably to the satisfying taste, Xena caught the bard's eyes again.
"The bartender almost didn't let me pay for this ale, either, but I convinced him that you wouldn't approve of the town going that far." She watched the girl's hesitant reaction.
"Musaeus must have really impressed the Elders with your talents, huh?"
Gabrielle swallowed heavily and not just because she had a rather large spoonful of stew in her mouth. She centered her attention on the bowl in front of her for a moment, then raised her eyes to meet the warrior's steady gaze. She could see her friend's impeccable instincts sensing her uneasiness. The bard induced an innocent smile and met the knowing blue eyes with a confident air.
"I told you he had a crush on me," she told the warrior nervously. "I guess he exaggerated a little, to get them to finance this ... project." She waited, noticing the subtle change that flickered in the clear, blue eyes. "No harm done, right?" the girl said, her voice wavering slightly. "We just get a free room. What's wrong with that?" she finished lamely, shrugging her shoulders to show her lack of concern at the warrior's statement. She took a small drink from the mug to cover her tenseness.
Gabrielle turned her attention back to her food. "This stew is really good, isn't it?" she said, her tone overly sincere. She scooped up another spoonful and grinned around the bulging mouthful. The warrior's quiet stare caused the girl to shift her focus away from the knowing eyes and back to the bowl of stew. The two women finished their meal in silence. A few minutes later, Xena drained the tankard, stood up and deposited a number of dinars on the table. Then she turned toward the little bard.
"Well, I expect you'll want to get some rest so you can get started bright and early, right?" she said, her blue gaze slightly teasing on the young face. The girl answered the playful comment with a warm grin. She retrieved her staff from the floor and rose to follow the warrior across the tavern.
"Very funny, my warrior friend," the girl chuckled to the warrior's back.
When they passed through the archway into the hall leading to the sleeping rooms, Xena gently directed her small friend toward the room they'd been assigned. She opened the door, smiling gently at the girl's reaction to the rather plush character of their lodgings. Gabrielle looked around the chamber, mouth open and wide eyes clearly overwhelmed. The warrior gently nudged the bard out of the doorway, closed the door and held her position against the wooden panel, inwardly enjoying the girl's astounded observation of their accomodations.
"Hoooly mother of Zeus," the bard said breathlessly. The green eyes slowly swept the candle-lit interior again. Finally, the little blonde turned to meet the blue eyes of her friend. She closed her mouth rather abruptly and gulped. The unexpected sound of the warrior's quiet laugh brought a broad smile to the young face.
"Well, whatever Musaeus told them," the warrior said striding away from the door, "he obviously convinced them that the 'lady bard' deserves the best."
Xena glided across the room and gingerly relieved the bard of her staff, turning to place the wand in the corner of the room. She casually sat down on the wooden chair, crossed her arms over her waist, stretched her long legs out in front of her and resumed her observance of the little bard's slow inspection of the deluxe quarters. After another moment, the green eyes settled on the blue gaze of the woman in the chair.
"Wow," the bard said softly. "This is some room, isn't it?" She focused on the oversized bed and, after favoring her friend with a childlike grin, crossed the room and launched herself unceremoniously onto the center of the mattress. The warrior's smile widened as the girl's delighted giggle floated up from the coverlet. The bard sighed loudly, drawing both hands
behind her head and crossing her ankles. She turned an adorable smile toward her friend.
"And they wouldn't let us pay for this?" she asked the warrior. The leather-clad form in the chair shook her head and the little bard gazed up at the ceiling over the bed. "Remind me to thank Musaeus for arranging this," the girl chuckled, wiggling comfortably on the wide pallet.
The warrior watched her young friend's pleasure for a moment before rising to travel the short distance to the bed. She picked up one small foot, pulled off the leather boot and dropped it onto the floor, beside the bed. While she had undressed the other foot, she cast a parental gaze at the twinkling green eyes.
"Enjoy this while you can, little bard," the tall woman said, sitting down next to the little form and pulling both bare feet onto her lap. She gave the bard an indulgent look. "Well, I guess you've earned it," she told the cherished face, "with all the things you've had to put up with lately." The blue eyes returned the warm look shining in the emerald pools. "So, like I said, enjoy." Xena's heart thumped at the understanding and returned affection in the soft, green gaze.
"However," the warrior said, pointedly dispelling the hypnotic effect of the girl's stare. "I would suggest you get into your sleeping shift before you fall asleep right here." She took a tight grip on one small foot resting on her knee and wickedly drew one finger over the bare sole, causing a squeal from the little bard and a quick shift in the girl's position. With that, the warrior stood up and began loosening the ties on her leathers.
Chapter Four ~~~
The next morning, after they had consumed a very tasty and quite filling breakfast, the warrior walked beside the little bard toward the small hut that housed the restoration project. She had agreed to at least have a look at what the young blonde would be working on and the girl's enthusiasm had, as usual, undermined the tall woman's disinterest. She had to admit it to herself; the precise nature of the scrolls needing attention really didn't matter to her, but the fact that their existence instilled such concern in the little bard did.
So, during the short distance to the little hut, the warrior made a concerted effort to keep her boredom under control and give the proposed undertaking its rightful consideration. In other words, she had decided to fake it, if necessary, and let her best friend know she had her support, if not her unlimited attention.
Gabrielle chattered joyfully during the short walk, regaling her friend with the many possible chances of new knowledge available to her during the upcoming days. Xena nodded appropriately while her blue eyes scanned the assorted buildings and shops in the town, mentally plotting how she would spend her own time during the next few days.
The warrior consoled herself with the realization that, while her companion would be occupied with the scrolls, there would be some welcome relaxation accessible to her, as well. As the little blonde's excited ramblings tumbled around her, Xena's mind turned inward again. A quiet, knowing smile emerged across the stoic face.
'Since when have I been so concerned with 'down time'?' she mused, glancing down affectionately at the young woman striding next to her. 'She's given me that, too,' the tall woman thought. 'One of the many ways she soothes my heart.'
When they had reached the little hut, Gabrielle lifted the latch on the worn, wooden door, surveyed the musty interior and beckoned for the warrior to follow. Once inside, the bard busied herself with opening the shutters on the windows, filling the little structure with the morning's light, while the warrior studied the rolls of parchment laid in neat rows on the table, turning next to the tall, wide shelves of books lining the room.
Xena turned toward the bard as the girl came to stand next to her. The bright sparkle in the green eyes brought a smile to the warrior's smooth face. The little blonde gently unrolled one of the scrolls on the table, holding the parchment flat and turned to her tall friend.
"See what I mean?" the girl asked as Xena stepped closer to the table. The blue eyes scanned the soiled parchment, recognizing the signs of decay and deterioration mentioned by the bard.
"Yes," the warrior said. "You were right. They really need work." She focused on the little bard's excited expression. Gabrielle released the scroll and reached for another. The edge of the second scroll crumbled in her fingers spraying fragile pieces and puffs of dusty fragments across the table.
"Oh!" the bard barked, pulling her hands back surprised. She turned to the warrior. "And some of them are in worse shape than others," the girl joked, brushing her hands together. Xena put a reassuring hand on the bard's shoulder.
"Looks like you two have your work cut out for you, all right," she said. She cast another look around the small hut, her gaze taking in the additional scrolls draped over various pieces of furniture and laid out on the floor. She crossed the room and carefully inspected one of the scrolls hanging over the back of a chair, then turned back to the bard.
"Try linseed oil," she said quietly. "mixed with a little olive pulp." She slid her fingers lightly over the stained parchment. "It might take off the mildew and leave the writing."
Gabrielle smiled as she stepped toward her friend. "I was going to ask you about that. I remember you mentioned it worked on some old battle maps, wasn't it?" She saw the tall woman's abashed expression and put a small hand on the warrior's leather cuff.
"Thanks for the hint," the girl said, smiling warmly at the self-conscious face. The warrior's grateful smile met the understanding in the girl's steady gaze. "And look at all the maps and drawings here," Gabrielle said, cleverly changing the subject. Her open arms indicated the many rows of materials. She touched one wooden shelf respectfully, turning an animated grin toward the warrior's indulgent smile.
"We sure won't be wanting for references or historic particulars, will we?" The bard's grin widened as she moved back to stand next to her friend.
The warrior shook her head slowly, smiling warmly at the bard's sparkling expression. "No, you sure won't," Xena answered, enjoying the joy in the green gaze. She laid an affectionate hand on the little blonde's shoulder. The tall woman straightened and stepped toward the door of the hut.
"Well, good luck. I'm sure you'll keep me posted on your progress," she quipped, the small grin returning to the bronze face. She stopped abruptly, took a quick breath and turned back toward the little bard.
"Oh, by the way," the warrior said, drawing a small bundle out of the leather cuff mounted on one arm. "I thought you could use this," the tall woman said. She shyly handed the little package to the bard, her blue eyes darting only momentarily to the young blonde's face.
Gabrielle giggled openly as she took the package and glanced questioningly at her friend's disconcerted face. "What's this?" she asked. As the bard opened the parcel, the tall woman covertly watched the curious expression. The girl's grin faded quietly when the unexpected gift emerged from it's wrapping. She raised wide green eyes to the warrior then looked back down at the woman's offering.
"A new quill point," the bard said quietly. "When did you ...?" the girl began, meeting the warm gaze in the deep blue eyes. The girl studied the shiny instrument for a moment, then returned the warrior's loving gaze.
"I found it last week, when we were in Leska," the lean woman said. "I've been waiting for a good time to give it to you." The golden face softened as tears glistened in the green eyes. "So, when you got the message from Musaeus ...."
The little bard quickly stepped next to the tall warrior and wrapped her arms around the woman's waist. Xena returned the embrace, waiting patiently until the young woman ended the hug and stood back. The warrior gazed warmly into the shining face.
"It's beautiful," the bard said haltingly. "Thank you." The girl gently ran a finger over the bright new tool. She put one small hand on the warrior's arm as another mischievous smile lit the soft face. "You sneak!" she chortled, poking the tall woman playfully. "Stone silent about it, as usual." She looked down at the quill point again, then back up at the clear blue eyes. "You're sure good at keeping a secret!" The warrior touched the young face with her fingertips. She returned the girl's smile.
"Just trying to help out my best friend," she replied, softly. Finally Xena turned and strode toward the door.
"So, have fun. By the way, where's Musaeus, anyway?" she asked, as the bard carefully re-wrapped the new writing tip and placed it carefully next to the quill pen on the table.
The bard's attention returned to her friend's face. "Gee, I dunno," the girl said a bit confused. "Oh, well, he'll be along any minute, I'm sure. He's as anxious as I am to get started." Gabrielle crossed the room and stood next to the departing warrior.
"You going to be all right all by yourself today?" the bard queried innocently, trying in vain to submerge a charming grin. "Think you can stay out of trouble?"
The warrior's eyebrow rose quickly and the grin she'd worn so recently faded as she trained 'the look' at the bard's self-satisfied smirk.
"Ha, ha," the tall woman growled, tousling the bard's blonde hair. "See you later," she said and smoothly left the hut. Gabrielle watched the warrior head across the town square, then turned back to the scrolls on the table.
Chapter Five ~~~
Xena spent the next few days occupied with the many incidental tasks that, as result of the women's constant travel, had gone wanting in recent weeks. The warrior had decided that, since Gabrielle would be so involved with the restoration of the scrolls during their stay, she could handle those simple maintenance duties which the girl normally fulfilled so efficiently.
She'd made a mental list the first night as she'd drifted off to sleep listening to the bard's quiet, contented little snore. The warrior had trained her eyes fondly on the small, sleeping form next to her before finally closing the brilliant blues to enjoy the first unguarded, relaxed sleep they'd had in a very long time.
The list included the ragged seams on one side of the saddlebags that needed repair, two of their blankets really needed to be replaced, she could always use a new whetstone for sharpening her sword, and there was a torn spot on her leathers that would soon require immediate attention in order to avoid a possibly embarrassing event in the very near future. Xena had also decided to explore the forest surrounding the town to replenish the supply of herbs carried in her medicine pouch.
The most pressing item on the agenda, however, remained Argo's new shoes. So, as a result, on the second morning after their arrival, Xena found herself leaning against the rails of the fence in the stable yard, enjoying a ripe, red apple that had been supplied by the bartender as she watched the blacksmith efficiently shape and trim the metal appliances for the palomino's feet. Xena was impressed by the tradesman's assuredness and care.
While the smithy filed and pounded, the two engaged in a rather stilted conversation with the warrior providing her usual economic brand of response. Even though her participation in the condensed discussion clearly depicted her as less than eager to volunteer more than the most necessary information, the man had sustained a friendly, yet not intrusive, stream of dialogue during his labors.
At the same time, the smithy had managed his own veiled study of the woman warrior. He had heard the many stories of her escapades, and of the many conquests inflicted by her now-disbanded army. Yet, he had also been struck by the more recent tales of how she had rejected that violent life to turn her attention, and her talents, toward defending those in need, now becoming known as a champion of the just, more deserving cause. And he had watched the woman tend to her horse; there was a gentleness in her treatment and a genuine devotion between the warrior and the mare. The blacksmith had always subscribed to the opinion that, if a person treated their animals with respect and affection, they couldn't be all that bad.
The muscled worker plunged the glowing horseshoe into the water barrel and wiped his glistening face as a cloud of hissing steam rose from the vat. He shoved the handkerchief in a back pocket and, using a large pronged tool, pulled the new appliance out of the water, examining it carefully. He carried the shoe to the anvil in the center of the working area, raised the large steel hammer and began to shape the iron device. Xena listened to the steady clanging that rang from the hammer's blows and observed the smithy's skilled manipulation of the steel. She had watched enough blacksmiths to recognize an accomplished craftsman when she saw one, and this was a man who truly took pride in his work.
After banging the shoe a few more times, the blacksmith rubbed his calloused palm over the edges, put the hammer down and walked slowly toward the waiting mare. Argo cast a disinterested glance in the man's direction as he raised one of her hind feet, pulled the hoof between his knees and held the shoe in position to check it's placement. After a moment of attentive scrutiny, the smithy looked up at the warrior's observant face.
"She's got a split starting here," he told the woman. Xena pushed away from the fence rail she'd been leaning against and bent to examine the hoof secured between the smithy's legs.
She could easily see the red cut in the soft center of the frog on Argo's foot. It was not a serious problem yet, but one the warrior knew could become a dangerous injury if left unattended.
"Yeah, you're right," she told the smithy. "What do you suggest we do for it?"
The man released the animal's foot and Argo lowered her hoof to the ground. As he stood up straight, an unexpected grin lit the man's rugged, tanned face.
"We?" he quipped, pulling the handkerchief out again and wiping his strong hands.
The warrior found herself returning the man's smile. The raven head tilted as she met the genuine gaze in the smithy's dark eyes. "OK, what can you do for her?"
The blacksmith turned back to the golden steed and ran a weathered hand along the mare's sinewy neck. "She's a healthy, well-tended animal," the man said, glancing quickly at the warrior. "I think a little poultice and some moss will take care of it." The man turned again to the tall leather-clad woman. "I hear you're going to be in town for a while," he said, returning the cloth to his pocket.
The warrior's eyebrows lifted slightly. She glanced down at the partially-eaten apple in her hand to cover her uneasiness. After a moment, she returned the man's gaze. It was then she noticed that, for a change, she had to look up to meet his eyes.
"It's a small village," the smithy said amicably. "We don't get many visitors who stay for more than a night or two." He watched the warrior's reaction. "You and the little bard are a bit more famous than we're used to, tho'," he told the tall woman, his warm smile softening his words. He watched her shake her head slightly before training a guarded eye on the town square.
Xena's jaw tightened for an instant before she glanced back to the man's open expression. Her gut feeling about the smithy was that he was an honest man of quiet strength, and not one likely to waste time and effort on petty gossip. She decided to trust her own instincts in the matter.
The smithy extended a muscled arm toward the tall, slender form in leather. "Enoch," he said, his eyes steady on hers.
Xena took the arm in a solid grasp. "Xena," she responded, returning the look.
"Yes, I know," the smithy joked. His smile spread easily at the tall woman's sheepish expression. "And the little bard is Gabrielle, right?"
The warrior nodded shyly. The man released her arm.
"So, what does all this mean to my horse?" Xena asked, meeting the mischievous twinkle in the gentle, brown gaze.
Enoch crossed his arms over his wide chest and settled back easily into a wide stance. "I'll pack the foot tonight," he told her. "Then I'd suggest you let her pad heal for a day or two, just to be sure it doesn't open again." He turned again to the mare standing relaxed at the fence post. Then he turned back to the warrior.
"I think that should do it," the smithy said, training a cordial smile at the blue eyes. "I'll keep an eye on it while she's here. Agreed?"
Xena nodded. "Sounds like a good idea," she told the man. She walked over to the mare and held the rest of the apple under the horse's chin. After a short sniff, Argo gently took the apple from the woman's open palm and crunched the fruit happily. The warrior turned back to the blacksmith.
"I'll pull the other shoes while her foot heals," the smithy said. "May as well check them all, while I'm at it."
Xena nodded in agreement, then reached into the belt of her leathers. "How much do I owe you?" she began, then stopped when she saw the man's raised hand.
"We'll talk about that when I get the shoes back on," Enoch chortled, again surprising the warrior with an easy grin. The warrior shoved the coins back into her belt and patted the mare's thick neck.
"All right, then," she said to the smithy. "I'll leave her in your hands." She extended her arm, but the man took her hand instead. The warrior's slight tenseness seemed unnoticed by the muscular tradesman. He grasped her hand firmly, then released it. The warrior drew her hand back, a trifle disconcerted by the man's attention.
"If you need a mount while she's healing, just ask," the man said to the warrior's blue gaze. "I have a number of a good breed. Feel free to take your pick."
"Thanks, I'll remember that," Xena told him. She stepped away from the smithy and turned again to the town's buildings. "I'll check on her tonight," she said, moving away. "Thanks again."
The smithy nodded, waved and walked toward the big horse. As the warrior glanced back, she saw the man gather the reins and lead Argo into the stable again.
Xena lengthened her stride as she walked away from the smithy's area. When she had traveled a few dozen paces, she slowed her pace and blinked in consternation. 'What is going on here?' she thought, bemused. The dark head shook slightly. 'Must be the moon,' the tall woman muttered, thrusting her hands on her slender hips. She scoffed at her own confusion, then continued on her path toward the tanner's shop.
'It's your fault, little bard,' the warrior mused, affectionately. 'You're turning me into a romantic, for sure.' She smiled softly at the thought of the bard's certain reaction to the recent event ... then decided maybe she wouldn't share the episode, after all.
'Like he said,' Xena thought wickedly, 'it's a small village.' She stopped at the tanner's shop and strode through the door.
Chapter Six ~~~
In truth, Gabrielle would have been totally unimpressed by the warrior's vaguely romantic experience. She had been much too busy making a determined effort at trying to induce a more serious attitude in her fellow bard. Musaeus seemed equally resolved toward convincing the little blonde that their concentration on the scrolls need not occupy all of their time together. It was an intention considered highly unsuitable by the little 'lady bard', and it was not the first time in recent days that she'd been moved to convey that opinion.
"Musaeus," Gabrielle said impatiently, sending a displeased scowl in the young man's direction. "We need to find geographic evidence to the country mentioned in this one." The girl gestured pointedly to the scroll secured on the wide table, her brows furrowed under the blonde bangs. "I thought you were looking that up."
The young man lounging in the straight-backed chair across the room grinned at the little bard's peeved expression. He twirled a piece of straw absently in his fingers, and looped one long leg over the arm of the chair.
"I did," he told the vexed little blonde. "I put the book ..." he twisted lazily. "... over there," he said, pointing the straw stick toward the opposite end of the table. Gabrielle turned toward the open volume an arm's length from her, quickly scanned the pages and returned an aggravated gaze to the young man's smirk.
"That's not the right one," she told him. "This one refers to Aeneas," the girl said, her voice gruff. "We need the one that talks about Orion. Are you going to find it or not?"
Musaeus sat up quickly, an animated grin on his handsome face. He left the chair and literally bounded across the room to stand next to the little blonde. He playfully took both her hands and pulled her toward his gleeful face.
"Let's go on a picnic!" he bubbled to the bard's helpless giggle. "It's still warm enough and the meadow smells so wonderful these days." Gabrielle extracted her hands and put a reproving hand on the young man's shoulder. Her casual tone was betrayed by the bright blush coloring her soft face.
"Musaeus!" the little blonde laughed. "You're hopeless." She gently pushed the fellow away and turned back to the scroll on the table. She pressed her lips together to combat the unnerving effects of Musaeus' hand on her waist. Her hands clenched in a reflex when he brushed his lips to the back of her neck.
Instantly, the little blonde spun out of the unwanted embrace and leveled an angry glare at the young man's satisfied expression. Gabrielle quietly clasped the fellow's thumb and nimbly bent the appendage back against his wrist. The boy's smug smirk faded immediately and his knees buckled under the sharp, piercing pain. A trace of the warrior's feral grin floated across the little bard's face as her juvenile aggressor reacted to her painful grip.
After a moment, Gabrielle released Musaeus' thumb and smiled innocently at the young man's humiliated look. She let him recover a bit before training a warning sneer at the boyish face.
"Private property," she told the young man meaningfully. "And you don't have visiting privileges."
Musaeus gulped quietly, rubbing his hand briskly to relieve the stiffness still present. He backed away from the little blonde, a small level of fear behind the soft brown eyes. "Sorry, I didn't mean to offend you," the young man mumbled. He focused on his wounded wrist for a moment, then raised apologetic eyes to meet the bard's green gaze.
Gabrielle studied the freckled face. The girl's gentle nature began to tug at her conscience. She smiled regretfully and put a forgiving hand on the young man's arm.
"Ok, let's just forget the incident," she told him. "I didn't mean to overreact, either. You kind of surprised me, that's all." The little blonde watched the boy's face brighten. She patted the young man's arm affectionately.
"But, we really do need to get back to work, OK?" she said, raising one eyebrow in a good imitation of the warrior's 'look'.
Musaeus nodded and shook his hand briskly. The little bard saw the mischief return to the boy's eyes. "But I want you to show me how you did that," he said boyishly. "That could come in handy sometime."
Gabrielle's cheerful laugh dispelled the remaining tension that had settled over the little hut. She shook her head and clapped one small hand to her forehead. The bard gazed tolerantly at the young male face, then turned back to the table again. "Hopeless!" she scoffed as she closed the large volume and stepped to return it to the shelves across the room.
The next night, as the warrior and the little bard sat in the tavern, partaking of portions of what the waitress had termed the 'special of the day', Xena cast a concerned gaze at the faint signs of fatigue showing on the young bard's face. She studied the sweet countenance, trying to decide first, if the signs were serious enough to mention outloud, and secondly, if she wanted to risk intruding on the little blonde's personal domain.
The warrior battled the same dilemma that had challenged her on a regular basis lately as her instincts to 'protect and defend' the young blonde across from her came into direct conflict with her steadfast intentions to respect the girl's desire to handle her own conflicts and make decisions based on her own best judgment.
The bard continued chewing, but the green eyes seemed trained on a distant, private subject. Xena waited to see if her friend was inclined to share whatever it was that had rendered her so unusually silent, thus affording the warrior an opportunity to help ease the bard's obvious distress. The tall woman's protective urges intensified when the bard swept a hand across her tired face.
"Gabrielle?" the warrior asked quietly. The bard's green gaze slowly traveled to meet the blue eyes. "Are you OK?"
For an instant, the tall woman read a trace of tedium behind the slightly distracted gaze. The bard's rueful smile incited the warrior's apprehension. When the little blonde placed a comforting hand on the woman's leather cuff, the warrior's stoic face focused on the girl's shaky grin.
"I'm sorry," the bard said to the deep blue eyes of her friend. "I guess I've been a little preoccupied tonight." The warrior covered the little hand with her strong one. Gabrielle pulled her hand away, concentrating for a moment on her half-eaten meal. "This is turning into more of a ... task than I thought it would be." She raised her eyes to meet the warrior's and the leather-clad woman saw the uneasiness behind the emerald gaze. Finally the little blonde pushed the plate away and massaged her forehead vigorously with her fingers.
"Maybe I'm just more tired than I thought," the girl said, threading her fingers together. She looked into the warrior's intense gaze. "I'm OK, really," the girl said to her friend's look of concern. Xena returned the fragile smile, nonetheless noticing the considerable amount of food still remaining on the little bard's plate.
She forced a lightness into her tone. "You must be tired," the warrior said, motioning toward the nearly-full plate. "I've never seen you send back that much." The little bard's laugh was genuine, if not forceful. She gave the warrior a grateful glance.
"C'mon," Xena said, "time for you to get some rest." The warrior stood up, paid for their meal and gently pulled the little bard up from the bench. The girl rose stiffly, took the extended hand and let the tall woman direct her toward the room with the large bed.
Chapter Seven ~~~
As Xena approached the stable the next morning, she felt an odd sense of buoyancy invade her senses, then found the feeling soon replaced by a nervous expectancy. She carried her leathers and the empty saddlebags over one arm, and held a large piece of carrot in her free hand. The carrot was a treat for Argo who, the woman conceded, was handling her forced inactivity much better than her mistress was.
The mare's foot was healing nicely, but the medicinal wrapping had postponed her rider's enjoyment of the long, spirited, uninhibited ride she'd been so heartily anticipating since their arrival in the small village. The warrior had to admit the smithy's remedy had proved quite worthy; but it still meant she'd had to find some other ways of filling her time while the bard tended to her project.
Yet, Xena told herself proudly, she had managed to take care of all the items on her 'list'; she'd bartered, and quite successfully, for a pair of new blankets for their travel gear, and had arranged for the tanner to repair both the saddlebags and her 'leather suit', as Gabrielle had a habit of calling the warrior's normal, daily clothing. On the afternoon that she had contracted for his services, Xena had told the man she would leave both items with him the next day. When he had cast an impatient look at her reluctance, she had cleared up his confusion in typically concise fashion.
"I can't very well leave my leathers today, can I?" she had asked pointedly. When the man's face remained blank, she had gestured toward her own attire. "I'm wearing them."
The merchant's abashment had become evident at once. He laughed brightly and cast a self-effacing smile at the warrior's slightly irritated expression.
"Well, would be a bit awkward, at that." he had admitted, pulling sheepishly on his ear.
"That'll be fine then, ma'am'. I'll look for them in the morning." Xena had been caught slightly offguard by being addressed as "ma'am", but the tanner's open, friendly manner had served to dispel her wariness.
That was why the tall, slender form entering the stable on this morning was clothed in a soft, belted tunic, short, wool breeches and tall boots as she carried the leather outfit, the saddlebags and a carrot for her recovering horse.
Argo whinnied a welcome when the warrior arrived at her stall. Xena put down the things in her arms and extended the carrot. The mare's lips captured the rare treat and the horse began enjoying it with relish. The warrior rubbed the animal's silky neck, kneading one soft ear with her fingers.
"How's it goin', girl?" the warrior crooned, patting the sleek hide. She inclined her head toward the horse's hind foot, looking closely at the piece of cloth covering Argo's big hoof. It took only a moment to recognize the smithy's efficient wrapping; the dressing was positioned in precisely the right place and secured perfectly by a thin length of twine tied around the horse's leg. Xena could see that Argo was favoring her injured hoof less, even occasionally putting her normal weight on the foot. She smiled approvingly at the improvement.
"I'll see you later," the warrior told her four-footed companion, turning to pick up the leather articles again. She gave the horse a farewell pat and turned to leave the stable just as the smithy entered the barn. His expression brightened when he recognized the tall woman with the clear, blue eyes. She returned his warm smile shyly.
"Looks much better today," the warrior said. Enoch nodded, his big hands on the corners of his smithy's apron.
"Yeah, when I checked earlier, the split was healed completely. I was going to unwrap it later today." He gave his attention to the mare's grateful neigh. "You're welcome," he said to the golden head. The warrior joined in the gentle laughter. The blacksmith returned his focus to the lean warrior, his eyes traveling quickly over the change in her appearance. The brown eyes settled again on the woman's blue gaze.
For a moment, the silence in the stable was accentuated by the muted sounds of the activity outside. The warrior blinked to break contact with the man's intent stare and lowered her gaze to the material in her arms.
"You could probably take her out for a run tomorrow," Enoch said, his deep, clear voice resonating in the open enclosure. "Her foot should be ready. I'll get those shoes back on first thing in the morning."
"Good," Xena said, taking a slow step toward the open stable door. Then she turned back to the waiting smithy. "But, I will take you up on your offer of another mount in the meantime, if that's still ...."
"Of course. They're out back," the man said, moving toward the smaller door in the back of the barn.
"That's all right," the warrior said, halting his progress. "I have to take these to the tanner and get some lunch with ... the little bard," she explained. "But I'd like to take a ride this afternoon, if I could ..."
Enoch turned to face the tall woman again. "Sure," he said, his smile returning. "You can make your choice then." The sturdy male frame moved back across the barn. He followed the tall woman as she strode toward the wide barn door again.
"Fine, I'll see you in a while," Xena said. Her eyes lit on the man's faint scowl. She turned to the tanned face. "Is there a problem?" she asked.
The smithy exhaled roughly and looped his thumbs over the straps that secured his leather apron. He seemed to grapple with a decision before training a sincere gaze at the warrior's blue eyes. He took another short breath and began.
"The little bard? Gabrielle?" he said, haltingly.
The warrior nodded, a wavering uneasiness beginning in her chest. "Yes, what about her?"
"Well, you can tell me it's none of my business and you'd be right." The warrior's eyebrows knit in a confused frown. "But I have a sense that you're probably a little ... uneasy with the situation, as well, so I'm going to take a chance." He waited for the tall woman to respond.
Xena saw the sincerity in the man's gaze, but his muddled statements were clouding her perception. She took a step closer to the tall, rugged smithy and submerged her impatience with an open smile.
"I'm sorry. You lost me. What situation?" She watched the man's face.
"The situation with your little friend and that young man, Musaeus." The warrior's jaw tightened as the clear blue eyes took on a grayish hue. Her thin smile faded immediately as she focused on the blacksmith's face.
"Exactly what are you suggesting? As far as I know, there is no 'situation' between my friend and this young man. Are you saying ....?"
"No, no," Enoch said, his big hands open in front of him. "I'm not suggesting anything ... unseemly. She appears to be a fine young woman," he said, aware of the hardness in the tall woman's expression. The man relaxed gratefully as he saw some of the stiffness leave the warrior's body. He paused a moment, then continued.
"That's my point, you see? If she were my friend, I'd make sure she didn't get too involved with that particular youngster. He's not exactly ... trustworthy."
Xena studied the tanned, mature face. Her senses sent her a solid message about the man's honorable intentions. Yet, her instincts told her the subject was one that required she keep her own reactions as objective as possible, even though her first instinct was to wholeheartedly agree with the man. She took a short breath and relaxed her jaw.
"A bit of a ... charmer, is he?" she asked, keeping her tone light. The smithy's eyebrows rose as his brown gaze locked with the warrior's. He returned the woman's subtle grin.
"If she were my daughter, I'd be more than a little worried," the man said evenly. "He has a habit of getting others into a tight spot while he escapes wearing an innocent smile." The smithy watched the warrior's reaction. "But like I said, it's really none of my business."
Xena took a deep, calming breath. She saw the man's honest expression, taking note of his fatherly reference. The fact that he had verbalized her own impressions made her assign a more-than-ordinary credence to his comments. She felt the tenseness in her stance subside.
"No, it's very kind of you to be so concerned about her. Even though, we are complete strangers." She favored the man with a gentle smile. "I appreciate you being honest. But as I keep telling myself, she is a grown woman. And I know her well enough to believe she'll make the right decision, if that 'situation' arises." The smithy's face creased in a friendly grin.
"I will, however, stay ... aware," the warrior continued softly. "And I have my own reasons for doing that."
Enoch's warm smile grew wider as he gazed down into the warrior's blue eyes. He laughed softly and raised one big hand to massage the back of his head. Then he returned the woman's expression with a knowing glint.
"Well, she couldn't ask for better than that, I'll venture." The soft brown eyes made the warrior relax even more. She extended a hand and the smithy took it firmly. After another quiet moment, Xena withdrew her hand and stepped back.
"I'll be back later for that ride. See you then." The smithy nodded and the warrior left the stable and headed for the tanner's shop, the man's words still echoing clearly in her mind.
After she had left the leather items with the tanner, Xena returned to the Inn. She halfway expected to find a hungry little bard waiting for her in the tavern, since the hour was close enough to lunchtime for the girl's internal clock to suggest she seek nourishment. After quickly scanning the small dining area and not finding the small form of her friend, the warrior decided to go back to their room for her medicine pouch and the bag she used to store the healing herbs. She would simply take her ride into the forest a little earlier than planned.
Xena retrieved the items from the sleeping room. As she turned to leave, her eyes lingered on the scroll lying on the table against the wall. She recognized it as one the bard had been working on the night before. The warrior's mind replayed the previous evening's events, remembering the bard's careful examination of the transcribed piece and the painstaking attention the girl had expended making detailed notes on the written words contained there.
The tall woman also remembered the sight of the exhausted little blonde, her chin supported on her fist, fighting heartily against the sleep that threatened to overtake her which, in turn had prompted her lanky friend to suggest that further work on the scroll could wait until morning. The warrior's proposal was followed by the girl's quiet, but firm, refusal to take the woman's advice.
The warrior's lips curved in a smile as she recalled turning toward the lithe form a while later to find the blonde head bobbing helplessly in fatigue, and her decision to smoothly sweep the small form out of the chair and deposit it in the large, beckoning bed. The girl had protested only until the warmth and comfort of the pallet had outweighed her slight resentment of the warrior's custodial attitude. After a few moments, the green eyes had closed and the compact form had relaxed into sleep.
Xena stood quietly, her fingers lightly touching the roll of parchment. After a moment, her faint smile grew as she made a decision. Moving quickly, the warrior secured the sheath holding her dagger to the belted tie of the tunic, gathered the medicine pouch and the herb bag, and slipped the scroll under one arm. The blue eyes scanned the area, then the tall woman left the room, closing the wooden door behind her. When she entered the tavern, she crossed to the bar for a short conference with the round bartender. A few minutes later, she left the Inn and headed across the square toward the little, private hut.
Chapter Eight ~~~
Gabrielle sat back in the hard chair and raised her arms high over her head. After executing a long and loudly-vocal stretching maneuver, she dropped her arms, pulled her head sharply to one side, then dropped it to the other side, trying to relieve some of the tightness in her aching shoulders. After repeating the process a few more times, the muscles along her neck seemed to relax somewhat and she reached to knead the remaining stiffness with her left hand. As she lowered her chin to help with the process, her eyes came to rest on the quill pen in her other hand, the new tip gleaming brightly in the sunshine cascading through the open window.
The green eyes shone warmly as the girl's thoughts turned to the warrior who had provided the new point. A soft smile lit the gentle face as she remembered the woman's embarrassment when revealing the gift. The bard shook her head slightly, as usual convinced that her best friend really didn't realize how truly unique she actually was, and how such small, gentle gestures, as random and unexpected as they always were, did more to secure a place in the little bard's heart than all the heroic deeds and accomplishments she had seen the woman perform ever would.
'She still believes she's not good enough to deserve respect and devotion', the little blonde thought. 'She believes she'll never deserve those things again.'
Gabrielle eventually became aware that Musaeus was speaking to her. She pulled her awareness back to the little hut and the young man staring at her from the other side of the table.
"I'm sorry, Musaeus," she said to the young male face. "What did you say?"
Musaeus' gaze was gently teasing on the lovely, open expression. He tilted his head slightly and leaned easily on the table.
"I was just asking you what you were thinking about," he grinned. "Whatever it was, you seemed to be enjoying yourself."
A mild blush warmed the bard's face. She straightened in the chair and turned a decisive glance at the boy's brown eyes. The verdant pools now blazed in a business-like style.
"I, ah ...." the bard stammered, then caught hold of her feelings. "I was thinking that we're not making much progress here, today. Maybe we should just wrap things up for now and get back to this first thing tom ..."
Musaeus moved swiftly around the table to stand at the side of Gabrielle's chair. He touched the girl's slim, tanned arm solicitously, resting his other hand on the back of the chair behind her shoulder.
"I'm sorry," he crooned, his expression penitent. "I didn't mean anything, it's just that ..." The boy's words faded.
"Just that what?" Gabrielle prompted, facing the freckled face. "What are you trying to ask me?"
The young man backed away from the girl in the chair, his face showing a sincere degree of regret. He lowered his gaze from hers, then hesitantly met the green pools again. He leaned casually on the side of the table and stroked the worn surface with his thumb.
"Well," Musaeus began, obviously choosing his words carefully. "Your friend?" he said, haltingly. "The warrior ... person?" Gabrielle's jaw tightened instinctively.
"Yes?" the bard said, her tone crisp. "What about her?"
The young man's gaze darted to meet the bard's, then swept away. He focused on the path traveled by his thumb. His smile was forced, his tone almost sullen. Finally Musaeus took a short breath and brought his eyes to meet the bard's sharp gaze.
"She's intimidating and rather formidable, and all that but ..." he stopped again. Gabrielle's patience had finally ebbed. She turned herself fully toward the stammering young man, her back rigid and her voice firm. She covered the young bard's tracking hand, bringing an end to the rubbing motion of his thumb.
"But what??" the little blonde said. "You can be plainer than that, Musaeus," the girl barked. "What is it you want to know, exactly?"
Musaeus noticed the impatience in the green eyes and the blatant intolerance in her manner. He knew he had stumbled onto hallowed ground, but his masculine priorities were at stake here. He summoned his best captivating face and forged ahead.
"I don't think she likes me much," Musaeus began, watching the little bard's face closely. "And she seems so dour and uninteresting." He paused when he saw the girl's chin rise stubbornly. The young man decided to proceed, nonetheless.
"Why do you stay with her? You could be earning pouches of dinars as a bard, you know?" The young face was earnest, almost childlike. Gabrielle stared at the youthful countenance, more surprised now than angry.
"I've seen the way you tell a story, Gabrielle," Musaeus said, his voice warming to the subject. "You hold an audience spellbound. I've never seen anyone pull them in like you do. It's ... like magic!"
The little blonde sat back in the chair, amazed at the young man's announcement. She blinked in wonder at the juvenile attitude evident in the young man's perception. She raised one hand to her forehead, and closed her mouth which had dropped open in awe.
"You could stay here in Almiros, we could be a team," the young man raved, pacing the room excitedly. "Once we restore these scrolls, people would come ... travelers from all over this part of the country ...." He turned back to the shocked bard. "They'd all want to come and hear you, weaving the tales as only you can."
Gabrielle shook her head to clear her senses. A small, startled laugh bubbled in her as the silliness of the young man's proposal danced in her mind.
"Musaeus," the little bard giggled, but the young man didn't hear her.
"Don't you see?" Musaeus continued, even more excited than before. "You'd be famous in no time!" He swept back to the young woman in the chair. "We could both be famous ... and rich! You'd be 'The Famous Lady Bard' and I could be your ... associate."
Gabrielle burst into laughter. Her green eyes danced merrily and she covered her mouth with both hands. After a moment, she tried to contain her amusement and focus on the young man's animated face. Blinking heavily to clear her vision, she began to recognize the total conviction in Musaeus' flushed expression. She realized then that he had been completely serious in his suggestion, even though she had honestly assumed the wild pronouncement had been a colossal, expansive joke.
As she regained some control, Gabrielle began to experience her own brand of remorse. She immediately felt sorry for ridiculing the young man's plan so emphatically. She laid her hand on the boy's arm and fought strongly to submerge her rampant amusement. When she saw the hurt in her fellow bard's eyes, the girl's gentle heart lurched in sympathy and regret.
"Oh, Musaeus," she sputtered helplessly, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to ...." The bard swallowed hard and wiped her eyes. As she watched the male face pale in disgrace and humiliation, Gabrielle felt even more guilty. She took the young man's hand and smiled warmly at the crestfallen expression.
"That's very dear of you," she told him. "But, I couldn't possibly stay here in Almiros."
The green eyes now sparkled sincerely, her attitude open and genuine. "Xena and I will be leaving as soon as we're finished here." She tilted her head to capture the young man's rueful scowl.
"My place is with her," she said, meeting the brown gaze steadily. "We're ..." The little bard paused, letting her thoughts dwell on the tall, slender warrior to whom she felt such devotion and loyalty. She raised her eyes to meet Musaeus' again. "That's the 'team' I'm on," the bard said softly. "I'm part of Xena's team. Do you understand?" The sweet smile brought an answering grin to the young man's face.
Musaeus studied the soft, open countenance of the girl he so admired. He saw the sincerity in her green eyes and the gentleness in the forthright expression. After a moment, he covered the small hand holding his and returned the warm smile.
"She's really important to you, isn't she?" he said. "I can tell you mean a lot to each other."
Gabrielle lowered her eyes and focused on their clasped hands. "She's very important," the little bard said quietly. She met the young man's eyes again. "She's more than my best friend. We're ... connected, you know? We're secured to each other." The emerald gaze scanned the young male face. "It's kind of hard to explain," the girl finished softly, pushing the chair away from the table and getting to her feet.
Musaeus laid his free hand on the little bard's shoulder. "No, I understand perfectly ... now," he said to the green pools. "I see it clearly in your eyes." He smiled warmly at the bard's flushed face. The brown eyes grew more serious. "I hope she realizes how lucky she is, too."
Gabrielle's wide smile brought a friendly grin to the young male face. "Thanks, Musaeus," the little blonde said. The young man gathered the little blonde into a friendly hug and the two friends laughed softly together.
An instant later, Gabrielle heard a knock as a familiar voice called her name. The two bards turned in unison as the door to the hut swung open ... revealing the tall, slender warrior, displaying a blank, amazed expression, a small tray covered with a clean, white napkin in one hand and a soiled scroll of parchment in the other.
Chapter Nine ~~~
"Xena!" the little bard exclaimed, separating herself from Musaeus' embrace and moving quickly toward her friend. When she was beside the tall warrior, she noticed the faint level of uncertainty in the deep blue eyes. Gabrielle smiled brightly, hoping to dispel the troubled look.
"What've you got there?" she said lightly, taking the tray from Xena's hands and gingerly lifting the napkin.
"I brought you some lunch," the warrior said, her tone somewhat stiff. Her eyes drifted to an identical tray laying at the end of the table, remnants of food clearly displayed on the dishes and utensils. "But I guess you've already eaten," the smooth voice said evenly.
"Well, Musaeus had some sent over ...." the little bard said, maintaining her smile as she put the new tray down next to its mate. "But it was a lovely thought, all the same." She turned back to the warrior's stoic expression, then let her eyes travel over the tunic the woman wore.
"Nice outfit," she said smoothly. "You got your leathers to the tanner, I see." She searched the tall woman's face for signs of understanding; she found very little, if any, present.
A moment of difficult silence fell over the three forms in the little hut. Then the warrior turned to her small blonde friend.
"Well, I didn't mean to interrupt," she said to the girl. "I'm going to take a ride ... look for some herbs. To replenish ... our supply." She stepped toward the open door, then noticed the scroll still resting in her other hand. She turned back to Gabrielle. "Here," she said, handing the parchment to the little bard. "You left this at the Inn...thought you might need it, too."
"Oh, yeah," the girl said, looking down at the scroll. "I wondered where that one went."
The tall form turned quickly toward the door again, but stopped when the little blonde put a tentative hand on her arm.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked, quietly. "What's wrong?"
The warrior swallowed, keeping her eyes on the open door. "Nothing," she said finally turning to her friend's expectant face. "You're busy and I'm off to the forest." She gave the girl a flimsy, fragile smile. "I'll see you back at the Inn." With that, the tall warrior moved decisively through the door.
"OK," the little bard said blankly. "Happy hunting." The warrior waved a hand absently, then quickened her pace. After a few long strides, she disappeared from the bard's view. The girl looked at the scroll in her hand, then turned a vacant stare at the silent young man still standing nervously beside the table.
"Medicinal herbs," the girl said, cryptically. "In the forest," she told her companion, then turned her own confused stare toward the door the warrior had recently exited.
Across the square, Xena had arrived at the stable again. She found the smithy at work at his anvil and he smiled invitingly when he noticed her approach. The warrior took a short breath, trying her best to maintain a level of civility, despite the knot of tenseness in her stomach. The man sensed her strained attitude and responded as cordially as possible, without appearing too forward.
"Ready for that ride?" he said, putting down the big hammer and pulling another big handkerchief out of the usual back pocket. The tall woman met his steady gaze, grateful for the man's sensitivity.
"Yes," the warrior said stiffly. "I got finished with my other ... errands a little early, so I thought ... that is, if it's all right," the woman said, her normal taciturn nature back in place.
The smithy's easy smile settled the warrior's uneasiness. He started toward a small, fenced area beside the barn. "They're over here," he said over his shoulder, motioning for Xena to follow. "Like I said, you can take your pick."
The warrior's face softened as the blue eyes traveled over the group of horses contained in the arena. There were several well-formed animals, all healthy-looking, spirited and obviously accustomed to random riders. Her eyes settled on a sleek, red-coated gelding with an intelligent head who met her gaze knowingly.
"Him, the chestnut fellow," the warrior said softly, glancing slyly at the blacksmith's grin.
"I figured he'd be the one," the man said amicably. "And you're one of the few who could handle him, I think. He really likes to run. His name's Minos," he told the tall woman. "I'll bring the tack." He strode back toward the barn.
Xena stepped closer to the corral and extended a slender hand toward the horse's auburn head. The animal's gaze was steady on hers as the two invested slightly in each other. By the time the smithy had returned, carrying a saddle, a clean blanket and a soft, supple bridle, the warrior and the red horse had reached a provisional agreement. She took the equipment from the smithy, opened the gate to the corral and calmly walked over to the waiting mount.
Once she had cleared the edge of the small town, the warrior pressed her boots to the chestnut's sides and was pleasantly surprised at how smoothly the animal responded. She leaned forward in the saddle, urging the horse into a sloping gallop, her body matching his in cadence and tempo. She reveled in the feeling of the wind streaming against her face and body, sweeping her long, black hair out behind her as the beat of the animal's hooves, regular and rhythmic, pounded firmly on the hard ground beneath them. The gelding stretched out comfortably under the lean form on his back, and the two beings charged through the countryside, enjoying the other's company.
Eventually, Xena slowed the animal to an easy canter, rocking into the even meter of the chestnut's level gait. She settled back easily in the saddle, letting the practiced responses clear her mind and reinstate her senses. The jolt she had experienced upon entering the little hut had clouded her awareness and, she had to admit, reignited the nagging doubts she seemed to battle regularly these days concerning the uncertain future of the young woman who traveled next to her and whose well-being mattered more to her than any other.
The warrior's inner tumult had begun to undermine her normal, unshakable reserve. As much as she treasured the little blonde's presence at her side, she had begun to question whether that aspect of their shared reality was really in the girl's ongoing best interest. Seeing Gabrielle happily enjoying the company of her young male friend had rattled the warrior. The insidious qualms she'd suffered lately concerning the character, and continued longevity, of the most cherished friendship of her life, had begun to gnaw at her stability and threaten her reserves.
Xena clamped a restraint on her raging insecurity and drew back gently on the reins. The chestnut gelding smoothly reduced his speed. He sensed the warrior's mental agitation and reacted placidly to the firm pull on the bit in his mouth. Gradually, the horse slowed to a gentle, gliding walk, as the woman in the saddle rewarded his obedience respectfully.
"Good boy," the warrior said, pulling the horse to a stop under a small grouping of trees and sliding gracefully to the ground. "You're a good mount, Minos," she said, patting the strong neck fondly. The red horse shook his head briskly and the tall woman smiled lightly, satisfied with the gelding's performance.
"You're not my Argo," she told him gently, "but today you'll do just fine." The blue eyes quickly traveled over the horse's trim form, then lingered on the solid, intelligent head. "Thanks, boy," she crooned softly. "I needed that."
The warrior slipped the long reins over a thin, nearby branch. She opened the pockets on the side of the saddle, pulling out her medicine pouch and the herb bag. With one final, friendly pat to the horse's neck, she moved off in the direction of the small patch of foliage she knew would provide some of the herbs she needed to refill her supply. She drew her dagger and began systematically trimming the undergrowth and depositing the various plants and leaves in the pouches.
When Xena had decided that she had obtained all she could from the present site, she returned her dagger to its sheath, closed the pouches and walked back to the chestnut gelding waiting patiently under the trees. She returned the bags to the pockets on the saddle, untied the reins and remounted the red horse. As she settled herself in the saddle again, her instincts sparkled to attention and she sensed the horse's heightened watchfulness as well. The blue eyes scanned the surrounding area, alert and vigilant.
"You hear it, too, don't you?" she said quietly to the trembling horse beneath her. "Easy, fella. C'mon, we'll check it out." She gently pressed her knees against the warm hide and the animal stepped forward tentatively.
They had nearly cleared the little copse of trees when she saw him ... the beautiful, black horse standing proudly in the center of the open field ahead of them. His ebony hide glistened in blue-black patches in the bright sunlight. His flowing mane rose like an indigo crest, mounting high then falling low at the base of the long, slender neck. The muscled expanse arched up into a small, savagely beautiful head, the head of the wildest of all creatures -- a stallion born wild, a splendid, sentient being with a stunning physical perfection that matched his untamed, ruthless spirit.
"By the gods," the warrior whispered. "He's magnificent. Eighteen hands, if he's a notch ... a real beauty."
Xena sat in awe of the resplendent animal, frankly admiring the brilliance of the stallion's confident stance. After a moment, the black horse reared slightly, lifting his powerful front hooves and pawing the ground. He tossed his noble head, the perfectly matched ears twitching in the sunlight. The warrior watched the grand declaration, a willing respect settling in her for the majestic essence displayed by the animal's vibrant soul.
The chestnut horse pranced nervously. The warrior recognized the challenge in the gelding's manner and she gathered the reins instinctively. She leaned near the horse's ear and spoke to him soothingly.
"Easy, Minos," the woman murmured smoothly. "Believe me, boy, you don't wanna go there."
The red horse's manner quieted slowly as he responded to the warrior's expert touch. His ears rotated back toward her liquid voice then returned front, maintaining a quiet vigilance in the black stallion's direction.
Xena saw the wild horse dance forward, rear again slightly, then pound the ground heartily with his front feet. She heard a shrill, loud whistle float across the field. The chestnut horse trembled and the great mustang rose onto his hind legs, pivoted and streaked away from them, his muscled coat rippling as he thundered off in the opposite direction. The warrior felt herself relax as she let out a long breath. The blue eyes followed the retreating black figure as it disappeared into the thick line of trees on the other side of the clearing.
The tall woman pulled herself out of the reverent observation and focused her attention on the red horse under her. She pulled the reins against the chestnut's neck, turned the animal around and nudged the gelding's sides with her boots. Once again he responded smoothly and soon she was settling into the even flow of his canter. She headed them back toward the town.
Chapter Ten ~~~
Gabrielle sensed the warrior's entrance into the tavern even before she raised her eyes to see the tall woman making her way toward the table. The little bard's face lit in a warm smile as she watched her friend stride effortlessly across the room. Gabrielle wound the scroll she'd been reading into a roll and placed it with the other piece of parchment on which she'd been making notes. She slipped the quill pen into the soft, leather pouch that the warrior had fashioned for her and stacked the materials carefully at the edge of the table.
As the warrior strode nearer, her tanned face creased in an answering grin, the bard mentally instructed herself not to bother her tall friend with the growing doubts that had begun to prickle her senses about the restoration project, specifically the level of honor she could affix to the intentions of her young male bard associate. Gabrielle pushed back her own qualms and turned a welcoming smile toward her approaching friend.
Xena sat down on the bench beside of the little blonde, putting the bundle in her arms down on her other side. She gazed for a moment at the young, fresh face. The girl's green eyes searched the quiet expression for any signs of the distress she had seen in the blue eyes when her friend had left the little hut. For a moment, the warrior endured the quiet examination. Finally she became somewhat unnerved by the little blonde's intent stare.
"What?" the warrior asked cautiously. "You all right?"
The little bard laughed quietly, the emerald pools sparkling. "I was about to ask you the same question," she chided her slender friend. Gabrielle smiled warmly at the warrior's slightly abashed look. She touched the lean arm next to hers. "You seemed a little ... upset when you left this afternoon." Xena lowered her eyes, separating her gaze from the bard's knowing scrutiny. "It ... worried me a little," the little blonde finished, her warm smile still in place.
"I was just a little ... rattled," the warrior said, meeting the girl's eyes sincerely. "You know how I love being in one place for days on end." Gabrielle took a breath to reply to the statement, but the warrior raised a slim palm to thwart the effort. "No, I'm not really complaining and yes, I'm dealing with it. OK?" She trained a gentle grin at the girl's concerned expression. "Besides, once Argo's foot is healed, I'll be able to 'escape' now and then. I'll be fine."
The young woman trained a skeptical gaze at the blue eyes, her blonde head tilting to one side. "Well, OK," she said slowly. "If you say so."
Xena patted the little hand resting on her arm. "Yes, mother," the warrior joked. "I say so."
The two friends shared a quiet laugh. The warrior studied the face of her young friend, her eyes lingering on the shadows becoming more and more apparent under the verdant pools. The little bard sensed the warrior's concern and averted her eyes from the knowing gaze.
"How're you doing?" the warrior asked the girl. "You were a little restless last night. I don't think you ever really did get to sleep." The bard scoffed at the woman's remark, then ran one small hand quickly across her eyes.
"Oh, I've had a lot of stuff traipsing around in my little brain, trying to keep all the different scrolls straight," the bard quipped, motioning in the direction of the young waitress. "I'm starving, by the way. How 'bout you?"
The warrior's instincts began to tingle again. The bard was being uncharacteristically evasive. 'Changing the subject and not looking me straight in the eye. Something is going on, here,' Xena's internal warnings said. 'Better start paying attention.'
The two women ordered their food. When the waitress had walked away, the bard turned again to the warrior's quiet expression. The girl glanced at the bundle next to the woman's hip. "What's in the package?" she asked.
"Oh," the warrior answered looking down at the bundle absently. "My leathers. The tanner finished with them." She turned back to the little bard. "Only charged me two dinars ... for repairing both them and the saddlebags." She watched the girl's brows skip under her bangs.
"Yeah, surprised me, too. Guess it pays to be the 'companion' of a 'welcome guest of the town'."
Gabrielle's smile dispersed rather abruptly. The warrior's keen insight noticed the change immediately. She leaned toward the little bard to pursue the subject more thoroughly, but the waitress' arrival with their food postponed the event momentarily. Xena waited until the red-headed woman had left the table before turning to the young blonde again. The scowl across the girl's face changed the direction of the intended conversation again.
"Problem?" the warrior asked, searching the soft face.
Gabrielle studied the steaming, gelatinous brown mass on the plate in front of her. After a moment, the warrior did the same, looking down at her own plate. The bard raised her eyes to meet those of her friend, and the warrior's smirk, which the woman was trying valiantly to hide, incited a similar reaction in the little blonde. Within seconds, both women were laughing heartily while at the same time struggling to keep the surrounding guests from witnessing their rampant amusement.
A few minutes later, the bard sat back against the wall behind her, drawing a hand across her eyes to wipe the moisture away. "Oh, boy," she gasped, turning to the smiling warrior. "I never thought I'd hear myself say that I miss digging into one of your charred fish filets, but I do."
She pushed the plate away and leaned her crossed arms on the table, shaking the blonde head slowly. "I guess I'm not as hungry as I thought."
Xena waited patiently, her instincts still tuned tightly toward the hesitancy in the bard's manner. When the green eyes rose to meet the warrior's, the cobalt blue pools were intent and attentive.
The little bard studied the bronze face for a moment, the emerald gaze sweeping lovingly over the sculpted features. Finally, the girl took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment. The warrior waited another moment, summoning her courage. Then she spoke.
"Well, I'm taking Argo out tomorrow. I saw a nice, little stream just east of town. I'll see what I can do."
The bard met the blue gaze with a smile. She fell silent again as the warrior made a decision.
"C'mon," the warrior said, picking up the bundle next to her. "I think you need some fresh air. You've been inside too much this week. Let's take a walk."
The bard glanced lightly toward the pile of materials next to her elbow, then back at the warrior.
"We'll leave this stuff in the room, then get outside for a while. You can use it," she said sliding smoothly off the bench and extending a hand to the little bard. The girl gathered up her little pile, stood up and followed the warrior through the archway.
A few minutes later, as they walked along the quiet road at the edge of the town, Xena turned to her small companion, noticing not for the first time, how the moonlight played softly on the girl's open face and how, even in the muted lunar light, she could see the tell tale signs of quandary across the soft features. Never one to take less than the direct route, the warrior opened the conversation.
"How's the project going?" she asked the little bard, making a concerted effort to keep her expression open, at the same time clearly recalling her conversation with the smithy.
Gabrielle kept her eyes on the road, her hands clasped casually behind her. "Oh," she said after a moment, "slowly. It's kind of tiring, trying to decipher some of them ... what with all the damage some of them have."
"Uh-huh," the warrior said, keeping her attention on the bard's face. "Seems to be more work than you thought, at first, huh?"
Gabrielle sighed loudly. "Yeah, it has turned out that way." The two women walked in silence for a few minutes.
"How's Musaeus holding up?" Xena asked, sensing the girl's uneasiness. "Has he been helping?"
"Not much," Gabrielle blurted out, then closed her eyes tight and pulled her lower lip between her teeth. Without looking at the woman at her side, the little blonde sensed the stiffness which had entered the warrior's form. She glanced quickly up at the blue pools, then returned her gaze to the road.
"Oh?" Xena said evenly. Gabrielle swallowed nervously, noticing the quick clenching of the warrior's fists, followed by the labored fashion in which the woman opened her hands. The bard gathered her courage and turned an open smile toward her friend.
"Well," she said, laughing lightly, "he does seem to be more interested in daydreaming about how much 'fame and fortune' will come to the town when we get the scrolls restored." She trained an honest expression toward the warrior's stony look.
"Really, Xena," the little blonde said seriously. "I think there's more riding on this project ... for the entire town, I mean ... than Musaeus let on when he sent for me." She shook her head vigorously and rubbed the back of her neck.
"How so?" the warrior asked, taking note of the bard's troubled gesture.
"Well," the bard said, turning back to her friend. "I think they expect that, if we get these scrolls repaired, they can put them on display ... use them to draw travelers and important scholars to this little place. They see them as some kind of 'magic answer' to ... I don't know ... 'putting this place on the map', or something."
The quiet night emphasized the two matching sets of footfalls. The warrior's eyes swept the area and she quietly reversed their direction. She let her glance linger on the little bard's face as their steps took them back toward the town.
"There's something else bothering you," Xena said simply. "What?"
The bard's nervous laugh floated over the stillness. She shook her blonde head again and trained a fond look up at her best friend. "Too bad you can't 'read' me, isn't it?" the little blonde giggled. The warrior's face softened slightly.
"OK," Gabrielle said, taking a labored breath. "Musaeus is hiding something about the scrolls from me. I can sense it." She cast another little smile at the tall warrior. "I think you're rubbing off on me. I get those 'feelings' about things now, like you."
Xena laid a gentle hand on the blonde head and Gabrielle grasped the warrior's extended arm for a moment. Then the women's steps resumed. "I just have this ... 'itch' that says he's either not telling me everything about them, or that what he has told me isn't the truth." She turned abruptly toward the tall form. "Does that make sense?"
"Sure, it does," Xena answered quietly. "And, your instincts are good enough to consider, without any 'rubbing off' from me." She smiled warmly at the little blonde. "If you think something is wrong, it probably is."
Gabrielle returned the warrior's smile. She clasped her hands behind her, her manner slightly less uneasy than before.
"What has he told you that bothers you?" the warrior probed.
"Well, he says they found the scrolls in an old cave, just outside of town," the bard said.
"You don't think that's true?"
"Well," Gabrielle continued. "It is true that some of them look like they've been somewhere damp and dirty for a while." She stopped, her statement suggesting more.
"But...?" the warrior urged gently. Her own uneasiness was rising again.
The bard turned impatiently toward the warrior's questioning gaze.
"The stains are almost ... too 'perfect'. Almost like they were devised ... planned to look the way they do," the girl finished haltingly. She glanced at the warrior's raised eyebrow. "That's the only way I can describe some of them. They seem too authentic."
Xena considered the bard's comment.
"And then there's the Elders," the bard said, her tone growing animated. "Musaeus said they weren't all that ready to finance this restoration."
The warrior nodded.
"Well, if the scrolls are so valuable to them, why would they be so hesitant? Why wouldn't they be anxious to get them restored? To see them brought up to date? Why would Musaeus have to 'talk them into it'?" The bard stopped in the middle of the road, facing her friend.
The warrior's steps halted next to the girl, her blue eyes meeting the green gaze.
"I can't answer that," she said, smiling into the girl's determined glance. "But, it is a very good question." She watched the bard's face, fully aware of how well the girl's quick mind was sorting facts and considering information. When the little blonde resumed walking, the warrior fell in step beside her.
"You could always ask him ... Musaeus, I mean," Xena said quietly, the slight sarcasm in her tone pulling the bard's amused gaze toward hers.
Gabrielle studied the face of her best friend. She let her eyes linger for a moment on the warrior's stoic expression. The bard was certain she saw the woman straining to keep a straight face.
"Yeah, I would," Gabrielle said slowly. "If I thought I'd ever get a straight answer."
After a moment, the warrior's soft smile floated down to meet the bard's impish grin. The girl's giggle widened the tall woman's expression.
"Is there anything I can do?" Xena said finally, proceeding cautiously. Her compelling instincts aside, she was still locked in the throes of showing the bard that she respected the girl's desire to handle her own confrontations, if necessary.
"No, nothing," the bard answered quickly, a trifle too quickly for the warrior's taste. "It's something I'll have to work out for myself." The warrior swallowed her objections. She turned her gaze forward.
"You do get to listen to me 'work it out', though," the girl said, laughing. "Thanks for your attentive ears ... again." She touched the warrior's arm and the tall woman's smile flashed again softly. "I'll just have to figure out a way to keep Musaeus occupied while I do, that's all." The little bard giggled and the warrior's teeth clenched tightly.
'Relax, warrior,' she told herself. 'She's a grown woman, even if she is a small one. Let her know you trust her instincts, too.'
Xena became aware that the bard was yawning loudly. She turned her attention back to the young woman.
"Well, it looks like the fresh air cleared your head, huh?"
The girl stretched her lithe frame and smiled up at her tall friend. "Yes. You were right, as usual. It did help. I really think I'll be able to sleep, now."
"Good," the warrior said, turning back toward the road. The entrance to the Inn became visible in the darkness. The women walked comfortably toward the building as the warrior made an effort to quiet the nagging concerns in her gut.
Gabrielle trained a steady gaze at the woman across the room who was expertly rubbing an oily mixture into the leather boot covering her slender arm. When the blue eyes darted up to meet hers, the girl's hesitant smile made the tall woman slightly uneasy. She turned her attention toward the little bard.
They had settled into their room, refreshed and relaxed after their leisurely walk, to enjoy another luxury -- the warm bath water the proprietors of the Inn had provided during their absence. At least, Xena had assumed the bard had found some relief during their walk; at the moment, the sight of the girl's tentative expression seemed to denote otherwise.
"Something else on your mind?" the warrior asked, now fully aware of the girl's still-present uneasiness.
The little blonde studied the narrow-toothed comb in her hand, then raised her eyes to meet the gaze of the woman who had carved the tool for her. She smiled fondly at the lean warrior in the clean linen shift, reclining casually on the large bed. The look of concern in the cobalt pools touched the girl's gentle nature.
"I just want to make sure you're all right with what we talked about tonight." The warrior's quizzical look greeted the bard's remarks.
"How do you mean, 'all right'?" the warrior asked, her head tilted in veiled confusion.
"About Musaeus," the little bard explained, her gaze steady on the warrior's blue eyes.
"You mean when you said he hadn't been totally truthful with you?" the warrior asked, her voice firm.
Gabrielle's eyes remained trained on her friend's. She nodded, her expression tense.
The warrior drew a calming breath. "Well, it didn't exactly make me happy. It tends to get under my skin when someone lies to my best friend." The tall woman paused a moment, reacting to the rising uneasiness she saw in the bard's face.
"But, I figured you could handle it," the warrior said, making a firm effort to make her comment convincing. But she could see the skepticism in the bard's level gaze.
"So, you'll let me do that, right?" the girl said, quietly, her green eyes direct. "And you won't do your 'bard's protector' thing?"
Xena felt a maddening warmth invade her neck and face. "What?" she squawked, totally unnerved by the girl's teasing comment. "What 'bard protector' thing!?"
Gabrielle's bright laughter filled the room. She left the wooden chair and crossed the space to sit down next to her friend. She gazed fondly at the warrior's confounded expression and touched the woman's shoulder with one small hand.
"Now don't get your leathers in a twist, OK?" the girl chortled. "I just meant, it wouldn't do to have you pound Musaeus into a grease spot, all right? Especially after he arranged all this." The bard's arm indicated their plush surroundings.
Xena's blush was growing deeper by the moment. She turned an exasperated glare at the little blonde's wide grin.
"Gabrielle!" the warrior gasped, her control now completely unseated. "When did I ...?" she sputtered. "I have never ...."
The bard's laughter rang louder in the warm, cozy chamber. "Never???" she croaked, tilting her head and raising her eyebrows in mock surprise. "Oh, no. Of course not. Not you, my noble friend. Never you." The girl dissolved into laughter again.
Xena turned a rankled glare at the young woman giggling on the bedcovers next to her. She endured the bard's amusement stoically before exhaling loudly. When the girl seemed to have regained some control, the warrior leveled a steady look at the twinkling green gaze.
"OK, OK," she said to the flushed face. "I told you I'd control myself, didn't I?"
Gabrielle's laughter slowly faded as she became aware of the serious tone to the warrior's words. She gave the blue eyes her steady attention.
"But if Musaeus' little scheme, whatever it is, means getting you into some kind of ... tight spot ...."
The warrior's tone captured the bard's awareness. Gabrielle saw the hardness flicker in her friend's blue eyes.
"I don't take well to lies, you know that," Xena said, her eyes firmly holding the bard's.
The girl blinked, her green eyes returning the warrior's intense stare.
"Yes, I know that," the bard said quietly. "And I'm not suggesting that we let it pass. If it turns out I'm wrong, no harm done." Gabrielle gazed pointedly at the warrior's blue stare. "But," she said, a firmness in her quiet tone. "If I'm right, I will handle Musaeus and the Elders. That's what I'm saying."
Xena studied the soft, open face. She saw the resolve behind the green eyes. She knew the little bard had a valiant spirit and a generous heart. She also knew the girl had a will of iron. The warrior's primary instincts were being challenged but she was determined to show the bard her trust. She submerged her comments and faced the girl's open face.
"OK?" the bard said, purposefully.
The warrior took a breath, and closed her eyes for a moment. Then she met the green eyes again.
"OK," Xena said evenly. The two friends stared at each other quietly. Finally, the warrior returned her attention to the boot and the oily mixture. The bard stood up and walked slowly toward the glowing embers in the fireplace. After staring at the coals for a moment, she turned back to the long-legged form on the bed.
"So," the bard said, forcing a light tone into her voice. "Argo's foot is all healed?" The warrior nodded, concentrating on closing the tin of leather fixative. "So, you can get us some fish tomorrow, right?" the little blonde said, turning a teasing grin toward the bronze face. She smiled when she noticed the smirk curling the warrior's lips.
Xena looked up into the green eyes of her soulmate.. "I'll see what I can find, my bard," she
said, her blue eyes soft. "Depends on what the stream has to offer."
The bard giggled and laid the comb on the mantle. Xena put her boot down next to its mate and crossed the room to replace the tin in the newly-repaired saddlebags. She wiped her fingers on a cloth, then turned back to the slim form of her friend.
"You ready for bed, yet?" she asked as the bard climbed onto the large pallet. The warrior smiled as she tossed the cloth onto the wider table. "I guess you are."
The warrior blew out the candles on the mantle, climbed onto the bed and extinguished the candle standing on the small nearby table. As she settled her slim frame under the soft coverlet, the bard's quiet voice sounded in the darkness.
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you about Musaeus before," the girl said. The warrior pulled one long arm under her head and turned toward the open face on the pillows next to her. She studied the girl's apologetic expression, dimly visible in the shadows of the room.
"Don't worry about it," the warrior told the girl. "I understand ... you wanted to take care of it yourself." The soft face became more discernible as the blue eyes became accustomed to the darkness. She smiled softly at the girl and playfully thumped the blonde head with her hand.
"And you always say I'm the stubborn one."
The bard's quiet laugh ended the discussion.
"Well, thanks for understanding," Gabrielle said, covering her wide, lazy yawn with the back of one hand. She snuggled lower under the covers. "Good night." The bard breathed deeply.
"Good night," the warrior answered, turning her gaze toward the light from the embers reflected on the ceiling. As she closed her eyes, a silent vow repeated in her mind, like a mantra; 'I will let her handle her own problems in her own way.' ... 'I will let her handle her own problems in her own way.'... 'I will let her....' Some time later, the warrior fell asleep.
Chapter Eleven ~~~
Xena stood waiting patiently, one supple boot resting easily on the rail at the bar, her newly-conditioned leathers emphasizing her slim, muscled frame. At the little bard's shy request, she had left her armor and her sword in its scabbard on the peg in the room down the hall. It was a small acquiescence; besides the look of simple gratitude on the girl's face had, as always, brought a warmth to her being and a peace to her spirit.
The tall woman's practiced gaze chronicled the various patrons entering and exiting the tavern. The usual selection -- nothing to raise the warrior readiness this morning. Xena turned her gaze toward the approaching bartender and extended her hand to accept the fat carrot he handed her.
"Thanks," she said, favoring him with a simple smile. "You're spoiling my horse, you know?" The blue eyes were kind on the man's round face.
The bartender grinned, displaying his gap-filled smile. "S'okay," said. "She's a beautiful animal. We throw out too much, anyway."
Xena thanked him again, turning toward the table which had become the 'regular place' for her and the bard. Since their arrival, it seemed they had landed at the same square console each time they'd shared a meal, as though the proprietors, and the other customers, had automatically relegated the spot to them since their first day's repast.
The warrior slid onto the bench behind the table and blinked, slightly surprised, when the young waitress placed a mug of warm cider in front of her. She glanced from the vessel to the face of the girl who had provided it, a puzzled expression on the smooth face.
"Thanks, but I didn't ..."
"I know," the red-haired woman said, smiling slightly. "I wanted to talk to you, if I could." The warrior's back straightened minutely. "You're Xena, aren't you? You're friends with the lady bard, Gabrielle." The last was a statement, not a question.
"Yes, I'm her friend," Xena said, evenly. "Is there a problem?" She studied the young freckled face for a moment, sensing the girl's uncertainty. She motioned easily toward the bench across the table. "Sit down, why don't you."
The girl complied and sat facing the warrior, but kept her eyes trained on her own nervous fingers.
"Now, what can I do for you?" the warrior asked, curious about the redhead's nervous manner.
The young woman looked up into the clear blue eyes. "I'm Minerva," she said, a little smile lighting the attractive face. "Musaeus is my brother." The lack of warmth in the girl's voice brought a tremor to the warrior's instincts, but she kept her face open to the young woman's gaze.
"Oh," Xena said, acknowledging the familiarity in the freckled countenance. "He's quite a ... handsome young fellow," she finished lamely, trying her best to keep her rising uneasiness under control.
"He's a rogue," the girl said bitterly. She glared openly at the warrior's crystal stare. "He's always got some scheme in the making, some easy, simple way to make plenty of dinars without doing anything worthwhile to earn them."
The tall woman in leather felt a maddening dread settle into her stomach. She kept her eyes trained on the girl's brittle expression. Minerva lowered her gaze and moistened her lips while her fingers played with the edges of the cloth under her hands. She swallowed quietly and met the warrior's gaze again. Her own anger diverted her reaction to the hardness that had overtaken the piercing, azure pools facing her.
"I don't know what he's planning with this 'restoring of the scrolls'," the girl said sarcastically. She looked vaguely toward the archway where they both knew the bard would soon be entering the tavern. "And I don't really know how he plans to use your friend to accomplish his little plan," Minerva said, pausing momentarily at the slight rise to the warrior's chin.
"He talked the Council into financing this little 'venture'," the gray eyes sparked with contempt. "If he wanted to, he could sell rain shades to cave dwellers." The young woman tapped the ends of her fingers on the wooden table. She cast narrowed eyes at the warrior's tight-lipped stare.
"Anyway, I just wanted to let you, both of you, know that ... well ...." The girl let out a frustrated breath, studied her fingers again, then faced the warrior's steely gaze squarely.
"Musaeus is my brother. We just have each other, our parents are both on the other side ... have been for about eight summers, now." Xena's jaw tensed impatiently, but she waited for the girl to finish. "And I love him, you know. I mean, he's all I have. But ...." Minerva's gray eyes fell to her hands again. The warrior waited, nearly trembling now with unsettling anticipation.
"But..?" Xena said, carefully, not wishing to frighten the young woman, even though her basic instinct was to take the girl by the shoulders and shake the words from her mouth.
The young red-haired waitress faced the warrior's blue gaze again. The young face had become serious and determined, the clear eyes direct. "But I wouldn't trust him any farther than I could throw ... your horse." The incongruity of the statement dispelled the warrior's anger only slightly.
"He's as charming as a chariot salesman," Minerva said knowingly. "But he doesn't know the meaning of the word 'scruples'."
Xena let out a very slow, very controlled breath. It was then she noticed her own white-knuckled fists and the tremble that had begun in her clenched jaw. She relaxed her hands and separated her teeth. The blue eyes blinked a moment as the warrior fought to calm the passion raging in her breast. She forced a thin smile onto her face and covered the girl's hands with one slender palm.
"Thanks, Minerva," the warrior said warmly, meeting the young waitress' eyes. "I'm glad you let me know about this." Xena took another deep breath and slowly moistened her lips with her tongue.
"I'm sure ..." the warrior hesitated, fighting to control the clamor in her head. "I'll be sure and share this with my friend ... the 'lady bard'," the slender woman quipped, smiling again at the freckled face.
"Share what with the lady bard?" asked a voice at the warrior's elbow. Both women at the table trained their eyes on the little blonde standing nearby.
Minerva stood up abruptly and slid off the bench away from where Gabrielle stood. The bard's green eyes followed her, then gazed down into the warrior's blue gaze. A wave of
concern flickered in the green pools when the little blonde saw the veiled austerity in the sky-blue stare. Xena smiled stiffly, trying to impart a calm manner.
"This is Minerva," she told the bard "Musaeus' sister." The bard's face lit in a friendly smile. The warrior turned back to the waitress. "This is my friend ... the lady bard. Gabrielle." The little blonde turned to Minerva, her eyes warm on the girl's nervous face.
"Oh," she said. "Well, it's nice to meet you." The bard shifted the scrolls in her arms to one side, and offered her hand to the red-haired young woman. Minerva took the little hand and smiled back, glancing gratefully at the warrior. The two young women exchanged pleasantries while the woman in leather took another deep breath.
After a moment, Minerva responded to the bartender's suggestive glare and excused herself as the bard sat down on the bench opposite the pensive warrior. She studied the tall woman's expression for a moment, stacked the small pile of materials at the edge of the table and returned her attention to her friend's unfocused stare.
"Everything all right?" she asked the warrior, and her slender, dark-haired companion pulled her focus to the bard's green gaze.
"Everything's fine," she said, meeting the verdant pools. "Let's have breakfast." She motioned lightly to the bartender, and brought the mug of lukewarm cider to her mouth.
She swallowed the tepid liquid and met the bard's stare with a thin smile.
"So, you'll be working all day today?" she asked the little blonde, and Gabrielle nodded, her casual response in subtle contrast to the questioning stare now trained on the warrior's distracted look.
"You all right?" she asked her tall companion.
"Fine. Just hungry," the warrior answered as Minerva returned to the table, serving their breakfast from the tray balanced in her other hand.
The warrior and the waitress shared a knowing look, taking care that their silent exchange had escaped the bard's attention. Then Minerva left and Xena made a convincing show of enjoying the bowl of porridge as much as the little bard apparently did.
Chapter Twelve ~~~
"Are you going to stay in the forest all day, or will you be back in time for lunch?"
Xena turned to the little blonde walking next to her, a crooked grin warming the warrior's smooth face.
"Gabrielle," she chided the girl, "you just finished breakfast. Are you thinking about lunch already?"
The bard giggled and smiled up at the tall woman.
"I need a whetstone, so I'm going to visit the tinsmith and then take Argo out."
In her attempt to reposition the materials in her arms, Gabrielle dropped one of the scrolls and the warrior bent to retrieve it. Before she had a chance to pick up the parchment, another hand quickly claimed it from the dirt. The blue eyes traveled up the extended arm and came to rest on Musaeus' freckled face. The boy smiled at the warrior, then stepped around her to stand in front of the bard.
"Here, let me take those," he said gallantly, relieving the little blonde of her armful of materials. "Good morning," he chirped, favoring both women with a bright smile.
"Good morning," Gabrielle chuckled in return. "You're up early today." The girl grimaced inwardly as she realized she had allowed yet another slip of the tongue regarding her male friend's behavior. She turned brightly to the warrior's bronze face.
"Well, tell Argo I'm glad her foot's better," she said, deliberately ignoring the raised eyebrow and the knowing look coloring the woman's expression. "And don't forget my fish," she told her friend, smiling widely. "See you later."
The two young bards strolled casually toward the little hut. As the warrior watched, Musaeus looped a casual arm around the girl's shoulders as the little blonde laughed heartily. After a moment, Xena turned sharply and marched toward the tinsmith's shop, a growing anxiety rattling her composure.
On the way across the town square, the warrior held an internal conversation with herself. She tried to analyze the growing relationship between the two young bards. They were, she told herself, both young, intelligent, enthusiastic about their worthy project and, it seemed, even more enthusiastic about each other. 'So why does this association bother me so much?' the tall woman queried inwardly. 'She's certainly old enough to make that kind of choice on her own.' A worrisome heaviness settled in the warrior's chest. 'Oh, Sweet Artemis,' the woman's brain lamented. 'This is Perdicus all over again.' Xena shook her head, still clearly distracted as she located the tinsmith's and strode through the door.
The merchant was attending to a pair of young women, patiently explaining the work necessary to repair a dented candlestick. He raised his eyes to the tall woman and she nodded, her silent reply conveying her willingness to wait her turn. When the man turned back to the two young females, Xena wandered over to a case displaying various pieces of jewelry and accessories.
Her eyes fell on a delicate copper hair buckle, it's shape petite, it's design unique. The warrior's face warmed in a subtle smile as she thought how the ornament put her in mind of her small, blonde friend. Xena was randomly considering the possibility of the ornament as a gift for the bard's upcoming birthday when the tinsmith appeared behind the counter, a pleasant smile on his face.
"Yes, what can I do for you?" the merchant asked.
"I need a whetstone and some oil."
The man's eyes swept quickly over the tall woman's attire before he responded.
"I have them over here," he said motioning toward a flat table at the back of the shop. He moved toward the display and the warrior followed, the long display counter separating their paths.
As she considered the selection of stones, another customer entered the shop, announcing his arrival and loudly requesting service. The tinsmith cast an apologetic glance at the warrior's blue gaze and moved back toward the front of the shop to deal with the vocal patron. Xena returned her attention to the display of stones.
Very soon, she became aware of the conversation occurring between the two young women behind her, the same two who had been involved in the discussion with the tinsmith concerning the damaged candlestick. Her awareness was heightened because the opening remark of said conversation mentioned the name of the young man now ensconced in the little hut with her best friend.
"I hear Musaeus has a new one ... a little blonde," said the brunette.
"I heard she's a bard, too, only she travels around with a woman warrior," commented the taller redhead.
"Yes, I saw her with him in the square yesterday. She's adorable, isn't she?" the brunette said.
"She seems nice enough. I hope she isn't expecting anything worthwhile from Musaeus, though. That would be a deadly mistake," declared the redhead.
The warrior's jaw tightened, but she kept her attention on the display of stones.
"And how! My brother said he's got her working on those scrolls he found. Typical Musaeus move; she does the work and he gets the glory. What a jerk. I hope she realizes it soon," the brunette stated.
"He's a smooth talker, all right. He must have given the Council a clever story, to get them to pay for all this. Wonder if this girl knows what a snake he is, do you think?" the redhead queried.
"Maybe someone should enlighten her," the brunette said. "It's time someone gave Musaeus a taste of playing the fool. He's been at this game for as long as I've known him."
Xena made a concerted effort to quiet her quaking fists.
"She'd better hold on to her quill pen," the redhead joked.
"And her boots," the brunette chortled, suggestively. "Or maybe she'll show him how she handles that walking stick she's always carrying. Wouldn't that be true justice?"
"I'd pay a handful of dinars to watch that!" the redhead giggled. "Half the girls in town would contribute, I bet."
The two young women enjoyed a boisterous laugh as they strode out the door of the shop. Once outside in the street, the two females grew suddenly quiet, proudly congratulating each other on their accomplished feat. 'At least this time,' they told themselves, 'Musaeus won't have such an easy time with his plans.'
After sharing a satisfied giggle, the women moved, arm in arm, to the next shop on their list.
Inside the tinsmith's, the warrior blinked, working hard to relieve the tightness in her chest. Finally she drew a labored breath and trained her gaze toward the top of the counter, the sight of her trembling and tightly clenched fists restoring her awareness. A moment later, Xena became vaguely aware of a dull pain radiating from her left hand. She slowly opened her fist, only slightly surprised at the deep, jagged bruise in the middle of the palm, the outline and contour exactly matching the uneven piece of whetstone she had been examining when the two young women's comments had drawn her attention away.
The appearance of the tinsmith behind the counter steadied the warrior's perception even further. He glanced at the stone in her hand and studied the woman's vacant expression. His face was expectant and solicitous as he spoke to her.
"Have you decided, then?" he asked her.
Xena's blue eyes traveled up to the man's friendly face, a clear decision bringing the piercing blue pools back to life.
"Yes, I have," the warrior said evenly. She handed the piece of stone back to the merchant. "I'll be back for this later. Thanks."
The tall woman turned and made her way to the front of the shop, swept open the door and left the building, her stride forceful and decisive.
Musaeus scanned the bookshelf, tracing one finger along the row of volumes in an attempt to locate the title Gabrielle had requested. He found the edition in question, clamped his quill between his teeth and pulled the book off the shelf. He turned and handed it to the little bard, seated on the floor behind him.
"Thanks," the little bard replied, accepting the book. She opened the volume, flipped through the pages and found the reference she needed. The girl studied the open pages for a moment, then laid the book on the floor beside her and returned her attention to the damaged scroll spread on the carpet before her.
>From his seat at the table, Musaeus watched as the little blonde leaned forward, her limber form bending easily over her work, one small hand carefully bracing the sullied manuscript, the other gently rubbing the stains with a soft cloth. After consulting the open volume again, the little bard picked up her quill pen and bent over the parchment.
For a few minutes, the scratching of Gabrielle's quill pen was the only sound in the small hut. The girl finished writing, laid down the pen, and sighed openly. She closed the book and stretched her back, cat-like, before turning to the handsome male face at the table.
The sunlight filtering through the open windows brought a burnished glow to the girl's reddish-blonde tresses and framed the lovely face in a sparkling halo. The young man smiled warmly at the little bard. She returned his smile for a moment, picked up the book, rose and walked across the room to return the volume to its place on the shelf.
Gabrielle stood facing the wooden rows for a long moment, keeping her back to the young man and his flattering gaze. The little blonde took a deep breath, turned around and leaned back against the shelves, her hands captured behind her. She trained a pensive gaze at her male friend. After a moment, the girl's gentle voice filled the room.
"I met your sister this morning," she said softly, watching with interest as the subtle changes traveled across the young man's face. The softness in the brown eyes faded for a moment, then returned as Musaeus sent a practiced grin toward the girl's open expression.
"She seems very nice." Gabrielle kept her attention on the young man's face. She had spent enough time at the warrior's side to have learned a great deal about how to read outward reactions and judge how they reveal the character of the inward response. She waited for Musaeus' reply.
The young man leaned forward, his crossed arms resting on the table. He trained a charming grin at the little blonde. "Yeah, Min's a doll," Musaeus said. "It's just the two of us, you know. She's my 'big sis'." The handsome face showed equal parts pathos, brotherly affection and candid determination.
"She works very hard at the Inn. That's another reason I want to get these scrolls restored," the young man said, bravely. "Maybe I'll be able to pay her back for all the drudgery she's had to put up with during the past few years." The young man's gaze was sincere as he focused on the girl's face.
The little bard nodded sympathetically, then dropped her gaze to the scroll on the carpet.
"Well," she said. "We better get back to work, then." She smiled gently, then moved back to her position on the floor. Musaeus watched her retrieve her pen and resume the careful transcription, copying the words from the soiled scroll onto the clean parchment next to it.
Then he turned his attention back to the scroll in front of him.
The room was quiet again until Musaeus sat back impatiently and tossed his quill pen into the middle of the parchment. He stood up abruptly, the legs of the wooden chair scraping loudly across the floor. Gabrielle glanced up from her work to watch the young man flounce unhappily around the end of the table, turn back and snatch the open scroll from the flat surface. Musaeus turned a defeated scowl toward the little bard's green gaze.
"This one isn't even worth saving," he snapped, shaking the weathered vellum disgustedly. "It's a waste of time to even try." The young man cast a distasteful glare at the crumpled parchment. "I think we ought to toss it in the fire and spend our efforts on the most worthwhile pieces."
The little blonde on the carpet trained a shocked stare at the angry male face.
"Musaeus!" she barked, her voice registering her revulsion at the idea of destroying any scroll. "That's not funny!"
A moment later the door to the hut flew open, and an extremely angry warrior marched into the room.
Chapter Thirteen ~~~
Xena strode purposefully toward the small hut where she knew Gabrielle and Musaeus were working. The warrior's assuredness had reached an unusual low and this new anxiety had nearly unseated the impervious mask that normally thwarted the display of any ordinary emotion. When she arrived at the hut, she stood immobile at the door, a great struggle taking place within her.
'What in Hades' name do you think you're doing??' the tall woman chided herself. 'You're behaving like a jealous fishwife! You overhear two children trading gossip and now you're on a mission of rescue?? Get hold of yourself, warrior!'
She pivoted away from the wooden structure, a sense of disgrace knotting her stomach and tightening her jaw. For a long moment, the warrior stood still, truly confused, baffled by her own distraction and perplexed at its cause. The next sound she heard staggered her failing equilibrium even more.
"Musaeus!" It was Gabrielle's voice. "That's not funny!"
The irritation and annoyance clearly evident in the bard's tone dispelled the warrior's remaining reluctance at creating an interruption. At least, that's how she would later justify her rather abrupt and uninvited entrance into the small hut. She swiveled forcefully back toward the door, roughly lifted the latch and strode meaningfully into the modest building.
Her determined pace took her halfway across the room. She turned and quickly located Musaeus where he stood, surprised and somewhat daunted, one of the fragile, damaged scrolls held gingerly in his hands. Xena retraced her steps, stopping an arm's length in front of the astonished young man.
"All right," she snapped, lean hands on her hips. "I think that's just about enough!"
Musaeus blinked and stared transfixed at the face of the angry warrior now glaring menacingly at him. After a moment, he swallowed hard, then moistened his lips with his tongue and affixed a flimsy, ragged smile to his bewildered face.
"No," Gabrielle's steady voice ended the confrontation. "I'd say it was more than enough."
Xena whirled toward the sound of the voice. When her momentum stopped, what she saw brought a heavy embarrassment to her senses and a deep, crimson blush to the chiseled face. Her hands dropped to her sides as she stared at the sight, her mouth slightly open and her blues eyes wide.
The bard sat cross-legged in the middle of a wide expanse of carpet, her elbows resting casually on her trim thighs. Spread in front of her on the floor was another of the ancient parchment pieces, each corner of the mildewed fragment weighted down by a large volume from the surrounding shelves. In her right hand, she held her quill pen with the bright new tip that had been the warrior's gift. In the other hand was a rumpled piece of cloth that showed the effects of the mixture of linseed oil which she and Musaeus had discovered was indeed a worthy treatment for removing the mildew and decaying residue from the ancient manuscripts.
The girl was fully clothed, appeared perfectly safe, agreeably content and reasonably happy
... except for the searing glare she now leveled at the warrior's self-conscious face.
The warrior's mouth drifted shut as she slowly closed her eyes. When she found the courage to meet the bard's eyes again, the combination of disappointment and indignation in the green gaze made the tall woman swallow hard against her own rampant regret. The two women stared at each other for a long moment, until the warrior dropped her gaze and the leather-clad form sagged in repentance and remorse. When the blue eyes slowly drifted up to meet those of the bard again, the intensity of the emerald gaze held the crystal stare like an iron vice.
Without releasing the crystal pools, Gabrielle carefully placed her quill pen on the parchment in front of her, unfolded her slim legs, stood up and took a controlled stride toward the bemused young man hovering tentatively near the wide table.
"Musaeus," she began quietly, tensely wiping her fingers on the cloth she still held in her hands. "Would you excuse us for a few minutes?" She glanced in the fellow's direction, favoring him with a tiny smile. Then her focus returned to the immobile warrior. "We'll pick up this discussion in just a bit, Ok?"
"Of course," Musaeus answered softly. He turned to the table, quickly deposited the weathered scroll and strode through the open door, closing the wooden panel quietly behind him.
A short, stilted silence invaded the small hut as the bard studied the tense face of the tall warrior. Xena blinked quickly as the pounding in her chest traveled upwards into her throat. She gulped against the self-reproach rumbling there and clenched her fists to stop her hands from trembling. She turned awkwardly to her companion and tried to keep her voice even.
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry I ...." she began, then fell silent when the bard mumbled something indistinguishable and raised one small palm in a warning gesture. The warrior recognized the seething anger smoldering behind the clear green eyes. The little blonde was breathing heavily, bright spots of pink accentuated across her pale, seething face.
The tall woman closed her mouth and found herself lowering shamed eyes to the floor, fully aware of the bard's infuriated scrutiny. She slowly let her eyes travel up toward the girl's livid stare, took a deep breath and braced for her friend's response. As she watched, the soft chin quivered in rage while Gabrielle's green eyes flashed white hot and glistened with angry tears.
"How could you?" the bard growled, her voice tight with controlled fury. "How could you charge in here like a ... a vengeful father well-bent on restitution!? And what did you expect to find, exactly??" she sputtered, angrily flinging the cloth onto the nearby table. "The two of us breathless and sweaty, locked in some passionate abandonment??"
The warrior flinched under the bard's wrath, her inward chastisement feeding her humiliation. Feeling ashamed and ridiculous, she nervously watched the trembling form of her best friend. She could tell Gabrielle was more than furious with her; the little bard was well past anything like 'very angry'.
"I am not a child, Xena," the little blonde spat out, turning sharply to stand directly in front of the cringing warrior. "And I am not your property. You will not 'claim' me, warrior," the girl continued, fists clenched at her sides, her knuckles rimmed with a startling whiteness.
Xena took a quick breath, ready to finish the apology, but the bard's extended forefinger, and the definitely threatening set to the young jaw, inspired a retreat in the lean warrior. She clamped her mouth closed again and waited.
"And you will not decide how I spend my time and with whom. Are we clear on that?" The bard's clipped tone rang against the walls of the small room. She paced stiffly away from the dark-haired woman, then turned and retraced her steps to let her eyes travel over the taut expression before resuming her declaration.
"You agreed that I should come here and do this. Now, either you trust my judgment or you don't. It's that simple." By now, the girl's hands had landed on her slender hips and the small form straightened to it's fullest height. The little blonde poked a short forefinger sharply into the warrior's sternum. The bard's intense glare held the tall woman's gaze. "Which is it? Yes or no?"
The warrior stood speechless, regret and chagrin silencing even her normal reticence. All she could manage was keeping her eyes fastened on those of the little bard. A clear message of atonement shone in the cobalt blues together with a genuine plea for forgiveness. The combination suddenly broke through the bard's wrath and unseated her vexation. As the green eyes swept over the beautiful, blushing countenance, her resentment quickly dispersed when she saw the look of true contrition wash over the cherished face. After studying the sculpted profile for a few more moments, the little bard drew and exhaled a deep, calming, exasperated breath.
"You know," she said into the blue eyes, "if you didn't look so downright pathetic right now, I could really be mad at you." The bard's gaze darted over the mortified look and back to the piercing, azure gaze. Slowly the blonde head swept from side to side as the beginnings of a gentle smile spread across the soft face. Wordlessly, the girl took one of the warrior's slender hands and led her toward the wooden chair at the side of the table.
She pulled the chair forward, turned and, with her hands on the sleek, tawny arms, directed the warrior to sit down on the wooden fixture. Xena complied, slightly uncertain of exactly what her friend had in mind with this maneuver. When the warrior was seated, Gabrielle slowly climbed onto the edge of the wooden table, facing the warrior, her boots straddling the strong lap on the seat of the high-backed chair.
The girl leaned forward, her slim elbows balanced on her knees, laced her fingers together and gazed steadily into the warrior's clear, blue eyes. A look of subtle surprise raised the brows of the slightly puzzled bronze face.
"Now," the little blonde began, quietly. "This is important so I want you to listen carefully." She silenced Xena's intended remark with wide-eyed insistence. "And, when I'm finished," the bard said, in a non-negotiable tone, "you can share your thoughts, OK?"
The green pools meeting the warrior's were intense and direct, the young face determined and clearly honest. Gabrielle reached down and casually took one of the tall woman's slender hands into both of her own. Xena nodded slowly, the blue eyes trained steadily on the bard's.
"I'll take that as a 'Yes'," the girl said, smiling warmly. A slow grin began to crease the warrior's face. As she watched, the little blonde's expression slowly grew more serious while she took a short, quick breath and studied the chiseled face inches from her.
"You and I are best friends," Gabrielle said quietly. "No, we're more than that, Xena," gazing down at the hand enclosed in hers. "We're a part of each other, the essence of what makes the two of us 'us'." The green eyes swept up to meet the piercing blue pools. "That's true, isn't it?"
The warrior swallowed and slowly nodded her head. She returned the little bard's gaze intently.
"I would gladly give my life for you and I've seen you risk yours many times for me. So we're certainly more than 'good friends'; we're ... linked together. For all time. No matter what happens today, tomorrow, during the next moon or between now and next winter. You're a part of me and I'm a part of you."
The warrior gulped against the tightness in her throat. She moved her hand gently against the bard's grasp as Gabrielle laced their fingers together.
"Nothing and no one," the bard continued, "is ever going to change that. Not Musaeus, not the stubborn village Elders ...." The green eyes sparkled with frustration for an instant then returned to hold the warrior's gaze. "Nothing will change how we feel about each other. And no one will ever take your place ... here," the girl said softly, bringing the warrior's hand to her chest. "Do you believe that, Xena? Tell me you believe that."
Xena nodded silently, blinking quickly to dispel the bright tears brimming in the steady blue gaze.
The bard's little smile appeared again. "Now, I know you have this uncontrollable impulse to constantly try and protect me," she said, ignoring the brusque denial that stiffened the lanky form in the chair. "Actually, inside I'm really grateful, even when I sometimes yell at you about it." The smile crept across her open face.
"But, not right now, OK?" Gabrielle said with quiet strength, her wheat-colored brows rising under her blonde bangs. "Believe me, I can handle this situation all by myself." The green eyes traveled over the chiseled features, finally meeting and holding the shimmering blue gaze again.
"Musaeus and I have come to an understanding, you see? He's agreed to concentrate on the scrolls and restoring them, and I've agreed not to introduce his nose to my staff."
The warrior's blue eyes danced with grudging amusement as a slow smile warmed the stoic, bronze features.
"However, if he has trouble remembering his part of the arrangement, believe me I will joyfully step aside and let you remind him of our little 'deal'. OK?" A light chortle escaped the warrior's smile.
"So," the little blonde said, sitting back and gazing impishly at her silent, grinning friend. "Do you still have questions?" She grinned playfully. "You may talk now."
"No," came the quiet reply. "That clearly settles my confusion."
Gabrielle's warm smile brightened her shining face. The little blonde slid forward on the table and hugged the warrior's neck, snuggling against the warm leathers as Xena pulled her close. After a moment, the girl sat back and the small palms captured the sculpted cheekbones as the little blonde put her forehead against that of her leather-clad companion.
"Good," the girl chirped and sat back again. "I'd hate to have to get rough with you, too," she said with a teasing grin. The warrior's 'look' was softened by her lop-sided smirk.
"I don't think I'll push my luck," Xena quipped, then surrendered to a genuine smile.
The bard gave the warrior's neck another quick hug. Then, with small fists perched on her slender hips, she leveled her own 'look' at the twinkling blue gaze.
"Besides," the girl said in a 'confidential' whisper, "the sooner you get out of here and leave us to this work, the sooner you and I can be on our way." The blonde brows danced up and down beneath the golden bangs as the green eyes sparkled.
The warrior wrapped her arms around the slim waist and pulled the girl in tightly. She spoke softly into the small ear nestled against her chin.
"You've got a deal," she said as she stood up, lifting the little form up with her. The bard squealed in delight as she gazed lovingly into the warrior's smiling face. Xena hugged the little body for a long moment, then set the girl's feet carefully on the floor. She touched the soft face and turned toward the door of the hut.
"I'm outta here," the warrior said pulling open the wooden panel. "I'll see you ..." she turned back to the little bard. "I'll see you when you're done. I'm going to take Argo for a run. Her foot's healed and we can both use the ... exercise." She winked at the girl and left the hut, smiling openly.
Outside, she came upon a very nervous Musaeus. She felt slightly embarrassed when the young man stiffened and took a step back as she approached. Donning her best smile, Xena put a friendly hand on the youngster's shoulder.
"I owe you an apology, Musaeus," the tall woman said, her eyes sincere. Musaeus relaxed somewhat. "I don't blame you. Gabrielle means more to me than anyone I've ever known. I guess I can't hold it against you if you feel the same."
A sheepish smile lit the faintly blushing young face. Musaeus lowered his eyes from the knowing blue gaze, then returned her focus. Xena removed her hand and stepped out of the young man's path.
"Better get back to work," she said, motioning toward the little hut with her thumb. "Go ahead, she's waiting." The warm smile widened and the young bard responded in a likewise manner. He took a tentative stride past the warrior. When he had passed her, he turned to meet her gaze again.
"She's really special, isn't she?" he remarked quietly. "You're very lucky, Xena. She's very loyal to you." Then he turned and walked resolutely toward the hut.
Xena stared after the young man for a long moment. 'Now why do I have the feeling you don't really mean that, you handsome devil?' the warrior thought to herself. Then she turned away and moved toward the stables.
Argo whinnied happily when Xena entered the barn. The warrior reached over the rails of the stall to rub the horse's long face. When she bent to examine the hoof in question and found the medicinal bandage absent, she could also see the edge of a bright new horseshoe gleaming under each of Argo's feet. The smithy had been true to his word; the injured foot had healed so he had reattached the new shoes. The horse was now fit, and it appeared as ready as her mistress was, for that long-awaited ride they'd both been looking forward to.
Xena led Argo out of the stall and pulled the familiar bridle over the horse's head. The mare accepted the bit into her mouth and the warrior removed the halter, hanging it on a nearby peg in the thick post near the stall. She laid the accustomed blanket on the horse's back and lifted the saddle into place. As Xena reached under the horse's belly to grasp the girth strap, she heard the blacksmith's approach behind her. She turned to greet the man.
"I see you got the shoes back on. Thanks, the foot looks great," she told him and the smithy's wide smile answered hers. Xena reached into the belt of her leathers. "How much do I owe you now?"
The blacksmith hesitated, about to suggest that the warrior's payment wasn't necessary, but when he saw the determined look invade the clear blue eyes, he reconsidered his plan. He concentrated on rubbing the soot and dirt from his hands for a moment, then looked back up to meet the woman's gaze.
"Four dinars," he said firmly, setting his jaw at the surprised look on the tall warrior's face. Her eyes studied his for another long moment. She drew out the four dinars and dropped them in her other hand. Then she leveled a crooked smirk at the man's calm expression.
"That's for the shoes. What about the healing for her foot?"
The smithy swallowed and let a slow smile answer the one growing on the woman's face.
"It's a package deal," he said finally, trying in vain to keep his expression noncommittal. "Who knows, maybe she cut her foot in here someplace. It's my barn, so...." The man let the statement fade as he watched the clear blue eyes.
Xena hesitated, trying to dispel the effect the man's intent stare was having on her reserve. Then she handed the man the coins and turned back to the waiting mare. "Well, you did a fine job on her," she told the man, busily completing the saddling of the horse. She yanked on the girth strap, pulling it snug against Argo's stomach, and turned to face the smithy again. "She's kind of ... important to me. Thanks again."
Enoch crossed his muscled arms over his expansive chest. "My pleasure," he said, holding the warrior's eyes again. Then his glance swept to the golden mare behind her. "She's a fine animal. A real prize."
Xena led Argo out of the barn, the smithy walking casually beside them. Outside, she gathered the reins in one hand, slipped her foot into the comfortable stirrup and swung herself gracefully into the saddle. When she had her other foot in position, she turned to gaze down at the smithy where he stood near her left knee.
"Oh, by the way," she began casually, making an effort to keep her tone light. "Can you tell me where this famous cave is ... the one where they found the scrolls my friend is working on?" At the smithy's questioning look, she shifted her position in the saddle, hoping she was conveying only ordinary curiosity in the cavern. "I just thought I'd take a look at it, since my friend has told me what a prize the scrolls are."
Enoch's easy smile swept over his rugged face. He pointed at the horizon, indicating the fields beyond the town. "It's east of the village," he told Xena. "About half a candlemark from here, you'll see a ridge of trees at the base of some steep hills. The cave sits behind the trees, about in the middle of the biggest mound."
Xena followed his pointing hand, then looked back at the man's obliging grin.
"Thanks," she said. She urged Argo forward and gathered the reins comfortably in her fingers. As they moved away from the stable, the warrior slid forward in the saddle and patted the thick, sinewy neck.
"Let's have a look, girl," she said to the mare's twitching ears. "Then we'll know what we need to do." She pressed her heels to the animal's sides and responded with exhilaration to the perfect rhythm of the mare's flawless stride. The warrior set their path toward the east.
Chapter Fourteen ~~~
Camber stood very still in the shade of the little group of trees. He had tied his pony near the end of the road, so he wouldn't make any noise like the last time. He hadn't wanted to leave Nisus there, but the pony had shrieked loudly and the little black horse had run away. This time, Camber decided, he wasn't taking any chances.
He had been coming to the cluster of trees at least three times a week for the last two moons, ever since the first time he had seen the little black horse. Camber had thought then that, in all his ten summers, he had never seen anything as beautiful as the sleek, blue-black stallion, with the wide ribbon of white shining the length of his face, running flawlessly through the field, his long graceful stride sweeping across the tall grass, the black mane and tail flying. And his head! A perfectly shaped face, small and intelligent, just like his father told him.
'Look at the head. And the eyes. You can see the intelligence there,' he always said. And Camber knew then, the black horse was very smart.
The boy's face creased in a grin as he remembered the last time he'd come to the little clearing; the black colt had taken the piece of the sweet root he'd offered him that time. He'd even let Camber get close enough to him to put the root right under his nose. That had been a grand day. All the other times before, the horse had stayed too far away for the boy to really get acquainted. Except for that one time -- when the animal had swept by him, close enough for the black tail to brush the boy's face. That had been the best day of all.
At last he saw him, gliding effortlessly into the clearing. The boy's body tensed, but he kept his eyes riveted on the small horse, watching the sleek muscles rippling under the glistening hide. The horse slowed his gait, then stopped stone still, ears twitching in the boy's direction.
Camber took a slow breath and raised his hand to display the long, juicy carrot grasped in his palm. He took a single, lazy step toward the black horse.
The animal's pink nostrils quivered but he didn't move. The gentle breeze lifted the silvery forelock and fluttered the feathery black mane. The colt watched the small shape emerge from under the trees as the boy walked toward him, slowly, carefully, one step at a time.
Camber's young hand grew moist around the carrot. He took one more step, changed the carrot to the other hand and wiped his sweating palm across the seam of his breeches. The jerky movement brought the colt's head up sharply and he seemed about to bolt, again. The boy froze in position, the carrot extended shyly, his heart hammering in his chest. Then Camber started walking forward again, slowly. 'Just a few more steps', he thought, excitedly.
The black horse stepped forward a step, ears twitching quickly, gray muzzle sampling the humanness of the boy's scent. He nickered quietly, shook his head and shifted nervously, the bright sunshine forming silvery shapes on his jet-black sides. He took another small step toward the boy.
Camber halted, hand still extending the carrot, his eyes never leaving the horse's face. He cursed silently as the breeze lifted the edges of his tunic away from his body, again making the horse tentative and skittish. He smiled widely at the beautiful animal, extending his free hand, palm open, facing the sky.
"C'mon, boy," the child beckoned softly. "I'm not gonna hurt you." The black head shook and turned away, the soft muzzle trembling.
Camber took another slow step toward the horse. He could almost feel the magnificent hide under his fingers. He waved the carrot slightly and smiled wider when the horse turned back to face him.
"C'mon, fella. Here's a nice, sweet carrot for you. Caahhmon." The boy stretched his free hand toward the quivering nose. He was almost there! Cautiously, the boy reached a hand toward the horse's head. The colt drew it back as far as possible without moving. Camber stepped closer, his free hand so close to the satin hide, he could feel the heat radiating from the shiny surface. Gently, he touched the horse's coat for an instant.
Suddenly the black equine pranced away, pivoted and turned back to the youngster. He stood a dozen strides away from the boy, front legs stiff, his ears flat against his head. Camber saw the colt raise up on his hind legs, teeth bared, pawing the bright sunlight with his white-rimmed front hooves. The horse swung his body to one side and reared again, his powerful legs slicing the air, his whistle shrilling through the clearing.
As the boy watched shocked and surprised, the ebony figure thundered away, the ground between them trembling under the force of the pounding hooves. He saw the black animal streak across the open space, turn, rear and, gathering himself in a mighty leap, head back across the meadow, straight at him, his thick mane and dark tail flowing freely, like two clouds of inky dust.
All at once, Camber heard hoofbeats pounding behind him. Yet he couldn't pull his eyes from the approaching animal. He couldn't move, couldn't decide if he wanted to. Camber stood transfixed as the black horse came closer and closer, the white blaze down the front of his face blurring in the brilliance of the sun.
Xena relaxed into the welcome sensation of Argo's rippling form striving beneath her. The woman and the horse coordinated their movements, each responding perfectly to the other, the two muscled creatures gliding in a seamless cadence, horse and rider completely attuned to each other. The animal sensed her mistress' urgency and happily conformed to the woman's commands. She stretched out easily, her hooves pounding an impeccable pattern on the hard ground.
The warrior guided the horse toward the clearing the smithy had described; she knew it was the same one where she had found the herbs during her ride on the chestnut gelding. As she enjoyed Argo's effortless stride, her mind sorted and examined the information she had received during the conversation with Minerva that morning. Xena struggled to control the churning dread thumping in her senses. Sibling rivalry aside, she had an annoying feeling that the young woman's concept of her brother's character was unfortunately too accurate.
Another nagging dread also plagued her; what, if anything, she should do and how to explain what she did to the little bard, if it became necessary for her to act on Minerva's misgivings.
Xena had barely arrived in the clearing when she saw the black horse streaking across the clearing. No! It wasn't the same horse as before. This one was smaller, had a silver forelock and a white blaze running down the middle of its face. But the blue-black color and the thick, black mane and tail clearly showed a strain of relationship between the two animals. The warrior's sharp mind spent only a moment on these considerations. In the next instant, she realized that the horse was flying, unrestrained and at a full gallop, toward the young boy standing frozen just beyond the smaller group of trees.
With the speed of her usual instantaneous reflexes, Xena turned Argo toward the small form balancing her weight to one side as the golden mare thundered closer to him. She glanced once at the approaching black horse before leaning far away from the saddle, her strong arm stretched out toward the boy. Argo pushed forward, stepping cleanly over the rough, ridged ground, altering her path slightly to pass close to the small form, to compensate for the weight of her mistress as she hung from the saddle.
A heartbeat before the black horse would have passed close enough for him to touch the sweeping tail again, Camber felt himself being yanked off the ground and lifted onto the yellow horse sweeping past behind him. The youngster yelled as his feet left the earth and he felt himself being deposited between the rider's body and the large horn at the front of the saddle. The rider reseated herself, pressed her knees against the mare's ribs and spurred their progress away from the stallion's path. As the ebony shape flashed past them, the woman slowed the mare's progress, then pulled the horse to a stop.
It was then that she noticed the boy in her grasp was struggling fiercely to release her grip.
Xena turned to watch the retreating black figure for a moment, then turned her attention toward the youngster wiggling against her chest, requesting heartily to be returned to the ground. She relaxed her arm as the boy twisted in the saddle to train a disgruntled gaze up at her.
"Why'd you do that?" Camber demanded unhappily. The warrior stared down at the young face, openly astonished. "You ruined everything!" He pushed her restraining arm out of the way, swung one leg over the saddlehorn and jumped to the ground beside Argo's left shoulder. He turned to the warrior's surprised expression, his jaw jutting angrily, the youthful face contorted in an angry scowl.
The warrior blinked and studied the flushed, red countenance. She stared down at the stiff form glaring up at her, his stance defiant, his fists jammed angrily on his hips. As she tried to contain her rising confusion, she watched a degree of the furor seep away from the boy's irritated expression and slowly shift into a look of recognition. She swung down off Argo's back, flipped the reins over the mare's head and turned back to face the slightly less furious young face.
"You're the lady warrior, aren't you? The one who came to town with the little storyteller." The boy let his gaze travel over the warrior's leather-clad form, settling momentarily on the golden mare behind her, eventually returning to the warrior's blue eyes. The youngster's angry expression gradually settled into an impatient frown.
"Yes, my name is Xena," the warrior said, regaining her authority. "Who are you? And just what were you trying to do back there? Get yourself trampled?"
The boy's angry glare returned, full force. His lower lip drooped stubbornly as he pulled himself up as straight as he could, straining to address the warrior's face high above him.
"I'm Camber and I would not have gotten trampled!" he barked, challenging the tall woman disdainfully. "The black horse knows me," he declared proudly. "He even takes the carrots and sweet roots I bring him, right from my hand." The boy raised his chin in a meaningful gesture. "For your information, lady warrior, I was trying to let him know he could trust me. and he was really starting to ..." he said, fixing her with another aggravated glare. "...until you scared him off."
Xena found herself experiencing a modicum of admiration for this brave youngster. He was obviously not intimidated by her leathers, her size or her status as an adult. He had certainly shown a level of courage when facing the stampeding black horse without displaying panic. In fact, she decided, this young fellow didn't seem to be afraid of anything that usually scared someone of his age. The boy's stalwart manner rekindled warm memories of her own son, and the valor Solan had demonstrated during their one, brief incident together. The warrior gave in to the grudging smile that beckoned to cross her face, even as she endured the boy's hostility.
"I'm sorry," she told the boy honestly. "I guess you're right. I'm sorry I ruined it for you." The boy's animosity dispersed slightly at the warrior's apologetic tone. His tense body relaxed a bit and he lowered his fists from their position on his hips. The angry scowl was slowly replaced by an expression of genuine disappointment. After a moment, Camber turned away and walked briskly back toward the spot where he'd been standing before the warrior swept him onto the mare's back.
Xena fell in step beside him. After a moment, she cocked her head to focus on the boy's disgruntled face. "So, what can I do for you now?" she asked gently. "Do you need a ride back to ...."
"No, that's OK," the boy answered. "I tied my pony over there," he said, motioning absently toward the edge of the clearing behind them. "I'll just try again tomorrow." He stopped and fixed her with a warning gaze. "As long as you steer clear of this place and don't scare him off again."
Xena raised her hands in mock surrender. "You won't see me, I promise. Just be careful, all right?"
The youngster threw her an impatient glare, then resumed walking. She followed, again admiring his noble attitude.
"You really were very brave, standing so still like that," Xena said, sincerely. The young face brightened at her compliment. "That took courage, not to panic and hold your ground. How'd you know to try that?"
"My daddy says it's important for a man's horse to trust him. He says that's always the best thing to try, if you want a really good horse."
The warrior nodded, keeping her expression as serious as the boy's.
"And your father knows horses, does he?" she continued, straight-faced.
"He should," Camber said, his face beaming. "He's the best blacksmith in this whole province."
Xena reacted to the boy's shining reference. He was referring to the blacksmith in the town, of course. She shook her head slowly, rebuking herself for not arriving at the obvious conclusion sooner. She studied the youngster for a moment. He was actually a true miniature of his father, the same large brown eyes, identical thatch of wavy, auburn hair. The sturdy little body already showed signs of matching, or perhaps surpassing, his father's hearty, muscled build, the warrior concluded. The resemblance was obvious, now that she considered it.
They had arrived back at Camber's original spot, in the shade of the little group of trees at the near edge of the clearing. He bent to pick up the carrot he'd dropped when the warrior's strong grip had spirited him off his feet. He brushed away the dirt clinging to the carrot, cast a look at the golden mare, broke the orange stalk in two and walked around the tall woman to offer the treat to the animal. After a cursory glance at the horse's glistening hide, he turned a deprecating look at the warrior.
"You'd better cool her down," he told her in a superior tone. The tall woman pursed her lips to hide the advancing amusement threatening to cover her face. "Whatter you doin' out here, anyway?" the boy asked as he opened his palm to give Argo half of the carrot. "Nobody from town ever comes to this place."
"I was looking for the cave ... the one where they found the scrolls. The smithy ... your father told me it was near this clearing. Maybe you could show me where it is." Camber's gaze was distrustful.
"Why?" he said suspiciously.
"Because I'm new to this area and I don't ...."
"No, I meant why do you want to see it?" The boy's large brown eyes met the blue pools.
The warrior read a degree of proprietorship in the youngster's glance. He was not about to share his knowledge of the cave's location until he was satisfied that her interest wasn't more than acceptable curiosity.
"I just wanted to see it. My friend, the little storyteller, says it's ..." she searched her mind for an appropriate word. "...neat," she said finally, swallowing the feeling of foolishness at the term.
She watched as Camber considered her request. "So, do you know where it is, or not?" After a moment, the warrior decided a little bartering was in order.
"Look, I'll make you a deal," she told the child, dropping to one knee to bring her gaze level with his. "If you show me how to find the cave, I'll help you catch the black colt." Camber's eyes lit at the suggestion. "Do we have a deal?"
The boy stroked the mare's nose thoughtfully and offered her the last of the carrot. He seemed reluctant to enlighten the warrior until Argo nudged his chest softly. The boy's face lit warmly at the animal's show of solidarity.
"Well, OK," he said. "But Musaeus says I'm not supposed to 'bandy it about'," Camber told her. The warrior's instincts spurted to life again but she clamped a restraint on her rising uneasiness and turned an open expression to the youngster.
"Why is that, do you think?" she asked, innocently, standing upright again.
Camber's small frown greeted her steady look. "Because it's a secret place, that's why," he told her impatiently. "No one else is s'posed to go there alone, except, Musaeus, me and the men from the camp in the valley. That way nobody can mess up what's in ...."
Xena's senses had locked on the phrase 'men from the camp'. She leaned down toward the boy.
"What men?" she asked him, her expression serious. Camber saw the wave of hardness sweep over the pretty blue eyes, even his young mind recognizing the change in the tall woman's manner. His face responded to the gravity in her tone.
"Camber, what men?" She took the boy's arm.
The boy studied the intent crystal pools for a moment, then his gaze left hers to focus on a spot behind her, at the far edge of the clearing. He pointed over the warrior's shoulder.
"Them," he said. "Those are the men from the camp. The cave is on the other side of those trees over there. At the bottom of the biggest hill."
Xena turned to follow the path of the boy's pointing finger. As her eyes scanned the open clearing they came to rest on the ridge of trees at the far edge of the expanse. She saw the
three men travel along the line of trees, then disappear behind the green curtain of the foliage. Instinctively, the warrior's jaw clenched as the knot in her stomach tightened. Even at the distance she was from the figures, her intuition told her the caliber of ruffian they personified. She watched the men's progress, a rising foreboding unsettling her senses.
'Now what do you suppose their interest is in this particular cave?' Xena's mind queried. 'Scholars? I don't think so.' Camber's bright voice broke the warrior's reverie.
"It's OK," he told her confidently. "They know me. Just tell them I said it was OK." With that, her turned and started to walk away.
"Where are you going?" Xena asked the youngster, glancing back nervously at the ridge of trees across the meadow.
"Home," the boy said, emphatically. "I've got chores to do before it gets too late." He stopped and turned back to the warrior.
Xena reverted to her best 'bored warrior face' as she gathered up Argo's reins and hoisted herself into the saddle. "No, I want to give Argo a little more exercise," she said blandly. She turned the mare toward the ridge of trees. "I'll see you back in town after we ride some more."
Camber seemed about to pose another question, so Xena waited expectantly. "You said you'd help me. Tomorrow, all right?" the boy said, facing the warrior again.
"Yes, you have my word. OK?"
"OK," the boy said, finally satisfied. "I'll see you back at the stable." He turned and walked away.
Xena waited until the little form disappeared into the trees near the road before she laid the reins on Argo's neck and headed for the ridge of trees near the staggered hills. As she rode slowly toward the cave, she felt her stomach tightening and the familiar warning signals buzzing in her ears. She knew the first phase of her dilemma was about to become a reality; finding the cave and investigating it. She dreaded the onset of the next phase; explaining her suspicions to her best friend. She had a feeling acting on those misgivings would not please the little bard, or her male associate, in the least.
As she rode toward the cave, the warrior's expression was grim and determined.
Chapter Fifteen ~~~
Gabrielle tried to concentrate on the stained scroll in front of her, but her gaze kept returning to the slouching figure of her so-called partner in the restoration endeavor. She shook her head slightly at Musaeus' bored expression and the disinterest plainly apparent in his lazy manner. As she watched, he folded a discarded scrap of parchment into a triangular shape, then rolled the piece into a tight coil. When he had secured the ends of his creation inside the spiral, he raised the cylinder to one eye, closed the other in a contorted squint and trained the contrivance in her direction. She answered the young man's teasing activity with an irritated scowl.
Musaeus lowered his plaything and grinned invitingly at the bard's cool expression. Since it was obvious that his attempt at humor had gone unappreciated by his companion, the boyish smile faded to be replaced by a practiced, ingratiating smirk. Finally, the young man lowered his gaze to the coiled parchment as the little blonde sat back in her chair, her elbows resting on the wooden arms, and laced her fingers over her lap. After another stilted moment, Musaeus raised his gaze to meet the admonishment in the girl's green gaze.
"Something wrong?" he asked innocently, a false degree of uneasiness shading his tone.
Gabrielle moistened her lips slowly, trying hard to make her intended remarks as charitable as she could. She gazed at the boyish, freckled face of her bardic compatriot, a vague reluctance invading her attitude. She took a short breath and studied her own thumbs.
"Musaeus," she said, finally raising her eyes to meet his. "When you asked me to come here, you said this was a very important project. You said it was a matter of 'high magnitude' to the town and to your own future as a bard." The green eyes on the young man's face were serious, and considerably more genuine than those returning her gaze.
"It is," the young man said, fixing his best 'convincing look' on the girl's sober gaze.
"Well, if that's true, I sure wouldn't know that by the way you've been handling it." The bluntness of the bard's words brought a slight blush to the young man's face. "In fact, the whole time we've been working on this, you've acted like it was the least important thing in your whole world. It makes me wonder just how much these scrolls really do matter to you."
Musaeus left his chair and strode quickly to stand across the table from the little blonde. She followed his advancing form, her position completely unchanged and pointedly disinterested.
"Of course it's important to me, Gabrielle," the young bard pleaded. "I told you how the Elders are counting on me ... on us ... to restore these scrolls and bring distinguished travelers to Almiros. Significant people who will draw other people of consequence here."
"Yes, so you keep saying," the little blonde continued, annoyance very apparent in her crisp tone. "But, to put it bluntly, I'm doing all the work around here. And it's starting to annoy me." She let the statement hang in the quiet room. "You might even say it's making me really angry. You don't seem inclined to exert any effort at all. Does that seem fair to you?" She sent the young man a meaningful stare. "Or have I missed something?"
Musaeus saw the clear disdain in Gabrielle's green gaze. At that moment he realized he had arrived at a dangerous crossroad. He had erroneously assumed that he could rely on his perfected charm and engaging personality to control the young blonde woman now glaring at him from across the table. His mind quickly grasped the seriousness of his blunder and began a frantic maneuver to regain his equilibrium and control. The young face showed a sincerely regretful expression and his confidence drained away under the little blonde's solemn stare.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," Musaeus said, lowering his gaze to the rugged table between him and the little blonde. "I guess I'm not as ... disciplined as you." He focused again on the young woman's serious face, trying to judge how his comments were helping his failing image. There was no reaction in the green eyes trained on his. He tried another tactic. Sporting a flimsy grin, he shrugged his shoulders ruefully.
"When I saw how much more knowledgeable you are than I am, I figured I'd help most by just staying out of your way." Musaeus grinned, seemingly exhibiting a great remorse at his own silly mistake.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and briskly pushed her chair back from the table. She stood up and laid both hands flat on the surface, leaning across the expanse to level a solemn expression at the face of her male friend. Musaeus stepped back, truly unnerved by the girl's purposeful attitude.
"That's ... horse droppings," she said, her green eyes sparkling with rising impatience. "I've just had a little more experience with different dialects, that's all." The little blonde stood up straight, spreading her slim hands along the belt of her Amazon skirt. "You're the one who's been so good at finding all the geographic references and the ancient verses." The young man's face brightened at the girl's compliments.
"But, you really must try to stay focused on what we're here for, understand?" The little bard sent the young man a reproachful look. "Just try to concentrate. This is an important job and I think we should give it our best effort." The green eyes traveled over the boyish face. "OK?" Gabrielle said, her expression open and sincere.
Musaeus felt a vague wave of guilt waft through his conscience, but he ignored the noble inclination to reclaim his confidence in his previous agenda. His put on his best smile as he met the young woman's honest expression.
"OK," he said, nodding agreeably. "I promise I'll be more ... responsible," he chirped, smiling brightly. "At least, I'll try. OK?" The little bard giggled, the sweet face returning the young man's friendly smile.
The two young people laughed together. Then the little bard looked down at the scroll on the table. "Well," she said, scanning the parchment. "We're out of ink." She looked back up at the young man. "And I need a little air, so I guess I'll take a walk over to the parchment shop and pick up another glass." She slid the quill pen into its leather pouch and moved toward the door. Musaeus started to follow her, but she casually waved him off. "That's OK," she told him. "I won't be long." She walked briskly through the open door toward the town's merchant.
After a moment, Musaeus turned away from the portal and strode purposefully over to one of the sections of shelving lining the walls of the room. He glanced at the open door again, then returned his attention to his task. After he had moved one of the bound volumes, he reached behind the book and carefully withdrew a weathered, outwardly antiquated scroll. He checked the doorway again, then quickly crossed the room, stopping near the collection of rolled parchments which Gabrielle had assembled on one end of the table.
Musaeus scanned the pile, selected one in particular, then replaced it with the scroll from the bookshelf. He restocked the scrolls in the collection, taking care to make sure the new roll of parchment matched the placement of its predecessor exactly. Checking the doorway yet again, he scurried back to the shelving, slid the original document into the open space and repositioned the book, covering the hidden opening once again. The young man sat down in the chair he'd occupied earlier and rested his elbows on the end of the table. He rubbed his hands together, his face creased in a smug, lop-sided grin, happily satisfied that the final aspect of his plan had been set into motion.
Chapter Sixteen ~~~
When Xena returned Argo to the stables a candlemark later, they were both panting and hot. The warrior took her time cooling the mare down and grooming the shining coat. She re-filled the water trough and the feed bin, even making sure there was fresh hay and fodder for the animal's enjoyment. At one point during her labors, she paused to react to the quizzical glare she noticed in the mare's big brown eyes as the horse gazed at her mistress, slowly crunching the handful of oats the warrior had offered during her ministrations.
"Well," the warrior said sadly, stroking the mare's long face. "Now we know about the cave, don't we?"
The mare tossed her golden head and responded with a sympathetic nicker.
"So, how do I explain our trip to our little friend?" The warrior trained a weary stare through the open window at the front of the stall. After a moment, she sighed heavily, patted the sinewy neck and tied the halter's rope to the wooden rails.
"See you in the morning," she told the mare. She hung the bridle on the peg above the saddle, replaced the grooming tools on the shelf and left the barn.
The moon had already slipped above the leafy trees when the warrior exited the stable. She paused a moment as she crossed the darkened town square, casting a hesitant look toward the hut that housed the restoration project. She could see the dim candlelight that still twinkled within the structure. Swallowing her fleeting uneasiness, she turned instead in the direction of the Inn, finally acknowledging the hungry feeling in her stomach.
Once inside the noisy dining area, she strode toward the bartender as the rotund merchant's easy smile spread in recognition of her approach. He came down to the end of the bar to meet her, drying his pudgy hands on a rumpled towel. As Xena leaned closer to address him, the bartender turned one ear toward the leather-clad form. She raised her voice slightly to combat the loud clamor in the room.
"Have you seen my friend?" she asked, then let her eyes sweep the room for the small bard.
"The little storyteller?" the man asked showing a gap-filled smile. "She's waiting for you in the room," he told her, gesturing toward the archway with one fleshy thumb. "She said you two would eat when you got back from your ride."
Xena nodded, then favored the round face with a small grin. "I'll take a tray to her, if you don't mind," she said. "She's probably tired after working on the scrolls all day."
The man's stout chin bobbed in agreement, and he waved one wide hand to summon the middle-aged waitress. When the woman saw the signal, she crossed the room and listened to the bartender's instructions. She glanced at the warrior, then turned and disappeared through the door to the kitchen. After a few moments, the waitress returned carrying a wooden tray holding two steaming bowls of thick stew, two large spoons, two mugs of cider and a bundle wrapped in a clean, white napkin. Xena decided the cloth held some of the sweet bread the bard had been praising so enthusiastically.
The warrior paid the bartender for the food. She took the tray from the waitress, thanked the woman and began to make her way across the tavern toward the door leading to the sleeping rooms. Once in the hallway, she quickened her pace as she approached the room she shared with the bard. She smiled as the fragrant aroma of the stew floated up from the tray into her nostrils.
'She's probably starving, waiting all this time for me,' the warrior thought, amused. She stopped at the door of their room, balanced the tray in her free hand, turned the knob with the other and strode into the chamber. She quietly closed the door and turned around, expecting to meet the sparkling green pools of her soulmate. When her eyes had adjusted to the soft light flickering from the two large candles standing on the mantle the blue gaze swept the room for the little bard.
The first sight that registered was one rust-colored boot laying on its side on the floor next to the bed. The warm smile across the warrior's expression grew slowly when the blue eyes traveled upward to the quiet form on the coverlet. Xena put the tray down on the square table across the room, hung her chakram on one of the wooden pegs on the wall, removed the dagger and sheath from her belt, and pulled off her arm coverings. She sat down on the small wooden chair, took off her shin guards and her boots, then quietly padded closer to the petite figure resting comfortably on the pallet.
The little blonde was fast asleep, her wheat-colored tresses spread softly across the pillow, her short, white sleeping shift accentuating her trim, well-formed little body. Long, fair lashes left wispy shadows across the soft, peaceful face. One trim arm was curled under the blonde head while the other small hand, still holding the quill pen, rested casually on a partially-scripted expanse of parchment. Under the clean scroll lay another, its dark stains and tattered edges identifying it as one of those in need of replacement. A cursory glance at neat lines clearly depicted the chain of events; the girl had been in the midst of the transcription when fatigue had overcome good intentions.
Xena leaned steadily on the edge of the mattress, lovingly studying the little bard. After a moment, she gently removed the pieces of parchment, placing them safely on the small table next to the bed. She carefully pulled the quill pen from the girl's fist and placed it on the mantle next to one of the candles. Then she smoothly pulled off the remaining boot and dropped it quietly on the floor next to its mate. She sat down on the bed, tenderly lifted the little figure, pulled the coverlet from under the girl and gently repositioned the bard. As she drew the soft wrapper over the sleeping form and delicately tucked the covering around the slim frame, the green eyes slowly fluttered open.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked sleepily. "Did you have a good run?"
The warrior nodded and smiled warmly at the tired face. She leaned closer to the bard, one hand on either side of the compact little form.
"I brought some food for us," she said to the sleepy green eyes. "Are you hungry?"
The bard yawned heartily, stretched her lithe frame, then dropped her hands onto the pillow above her head. She returned the warrior's loving gaze, a small grin lighting the young expression.
"Kinda," she murmured, training a bemused expression on the new position of the bedspread and her companion's solicitous activity. Looking back up into the gentle blue eyes, the bard's little grin grew wider. "Hey," she asked. "How'd I get under the covers?"
The warrior's smile matched the bard's. She pulled the covers up closer to the soft chin. "I tucked you in," she quipped, replacing the slender hands along side the trim body. The little bard giggled. "Oh," she chirped. "I guess that explains it, then."
Xena gazed down into the sweet, smiling face, her deep affection for the young bard flooding into the clear blue eyes. For a moment, the crackling fire provided the only sounds in the warm room. Then the warrior's liquid voice sounded quietly.
"You sure you're not hungry?"
The bard shook her head. "I'd rather just talk with you a while."
The warrior tilted her head and met the open request with a reproachful look. She steeled herself against the beginnings of a small frown now evident across the bard's brow. "You'll want to be up early again, if I don't miss my guess." The little scowl was replaced by an adorable pout. "And you haven't been getting a great deal of rest while we've been here," the warrior said softly. She studied the cherished face and took one small hand in her own.
"You still plan to be finished in time to get to Kerkira before the start of the Solstice, don't you? " the warrior said as she studied the little hand clasped in her palm. "You'll need to be alert and awake to get the job done."
Gabrielle blinked quickly against the angry tears stinging her eyes. The fatigue that had overcome her earlier even now plagued her shoulders and had produced a nagging headache. Still, she resented the warrior's proprietary attitude; she felt like a child being sent to bed after a long, day of play. She swallowed hard against the frustration tightening her throat.
"C'mon," the warrior said, shifting her position on the bed. "Snuggle in and I'll rub your shoulders for a while." She grinned at the bard's unspoken question. "I noticed you flexing them this afternoon. I figured they've been giving you some trouble." The little bard grudgingly acknowledged the warrior's intuition.
Xena maneuvered the little blonde over onto her stomach and began a firm manipulation of the tense muscles along the girl's shoulders. The bard gritted her teeth against the mild discomfort before relaxing under the warrior's deft touch. After a long moment, during which the bard began to enjoy the soothing effects of the strong, sensitive fingers, she raised her chin to address the woman applying the competent massage.
"You win ... for now, warrior," the bard said, then grunted quietly in response to a particularly firm touch from the warrior's hands. "But, when the Solstice starts, we'll just see about ... ohh!" The last comment came as a result of the unexpected - and very brisk - swat that had been delivered across her behind.
"Quiet, please," the warrior said sweetly. "This is hard enough without having to deal with unnecessary conversation. Now, just lie still."
The little blonde groaned in capitulation, then reluctantly surrendered to the proficient ministrations. Very soon her breathing became steady and regular as the little body succumbed to the warrior's talented fingers. When a gentle snore emerged from the far side of the pillow, the tall woman smiled and gently pulled the covers over the sleeping form.
Chapter Seventeen ~~~
Gabrielle awoke to the steady, even rhythm of the warrior's heartbeat under her ear. As she blinked away her sleepiness, she noticed first, that outside the window, it was still dark. Her next perception was the soft pressure of the slender hand resting on her hip. The warmth of the smooth palm radiated through the light-weight shift and spread across the bard's skin.
After taking a moment to enjoy the sweetness of the gentle contact, the little blonde raised her head to focus on the beautiful, sleeping face framed by the long, raven hair. Her eyes traveled down over the sleek, bronze body beside her, the gold, silky skin accented against the clean, linen shift the warrior now wore. A loving smile traveled over the girl's soft countenance.
At that moment, the warrior stirred, breathed deeply and the clear, blue eyes drifted open. Her first response was to the slender arm resting across her middle. She gently stroked the smooth limb as she met the bright, green eyes in the fresh face nestled against her. The lovely, chiseled features softened into a warm smile.
"Hello, there" the little bard said quietly.
"Hello, yourself," the warrior responded. She moved her hand from the bard's hip to the girl's slim shoulder. "How's that knot?"
Gabrielle laid her head back down on the warrior's chest and tightened her hug around the woman's waist. "It's all gone, thank you. I had an expert attend to it." She sneaked a quick look at the amused blue eyes, then laid her head down again. "She's very 'skilled'," the bard murmured as the warrior's arm drew her closer. "Of course, she beats me, so I'm not sure I want to ...."
The teasing comment dissolved into a high-pitched giggle as the warrior's probing fingers skipped quickly along the slim waist and tweaked the most ticklish spot, making the bard jump and squirm under the relentless attack. Soon the little blonde was wiggling in retreat, trying in vain to avoid the assault and begging for a reprieve from the inflexible digits.
Moments later, the girl was breathless and flushed, one small hand extended toward her attacker, the other holding onto the warrior's threatening fingers in an attempt to foil another onslaught.
"OK, OK, I give," the little bard panted,. giggling happily. She cast pleading green eyes up at the menacing blue stare hovering above her.
The warrior chortled victoriously. She gazed down at her captive, then gently swept the tousled blonde strands away from the soft face. As she watched, the playfulness in the sweet expression was momentarily replaced by a distinct wave of fatigue.
For a long moment, the warrior battled her own emotions. Part of her wanted to indulge the bard's desire to engage in the joyous exchange that had been absent from their time together recently, but the practical, sensible side of her noticed the slightly gray tinge to the soft skin under the luminous green eyes. Her cherished companion might be able to ignore the weariness that was fast consuming the brave spirit, but the warrior decided she could not. She clamped a steadfast control on her own enjoyment and chose instead a course of action that, she told herself bravely, was in the bard's best interest.
Xena sat back away from the little blonde, smiling tenderly at the girl's playful expression. She softened the abruptness of the move by casually repositioning the soft coverlet over the girl's trim form. Gathering her courage, she met the annoyance in the emerald stare with a loving smile.
"You need your rest, my bard," she said quietly, chafing inwardly at the clear sparks of irritation in the green eyes. "It's still a few candlemarks until dawn. Why don't you ...?"
Gabrielle sat up impatiently, supporting her slim torso on her arms. The verdant pools took on an amber hue, another recognizable sign of impending fury which brought an unusual tremor to the warrior's reserve. The tall woman blinked, slightly surprised at the bard's irritated manner.
"I hate it when you do that!" the bard spat out. She roughly pushed the covers away and swung her muscled legs to the side of the bed. As she began to move off the pallet, Xena put a tentative hand on her arm.
"Do what?" the warrior asked, honestly confused.
The bard turned back. She met the clear blue eyes with a cold stare.
"Try to 'manage' me," the girl snapped, pulling her arm away. She slid off the bed, took a few brisk steps across the room, then whirled to confront her companion's curious stare. "I especially hate it when you treat me like a child," the bard finished, defiantly, small hands clenched into white-knuckled fists.
"Listen, Xena!" the bard said, her voice rising angrily. "I can decide when I'm 'too tired', I don't need you to tell me that. Understand? You're not my mother." The green eyes locked with the blue crystals for a long moment. Then the young woman turned away, marched to the open window and stood, stiff-backed and furious, training a strained glare into the cool, dark night.
A heavy silence hung in the spacious room as the warrior's mind smoothly returned to its normal readiness. She slowly came to recognize the underlying anxiety driving her companion's uncharacteristic harshness, scolding herself for yielding to her own insecurities and being blinded to what now became perfectly clear; the bard was obviously very disturbed about something and it had nothing to do with the warrior's so-called unwanted 'mothering' of her.
Xena quietly watched the stiff, little form shivering in front of the open window. She pulled the coverlet from the bed, crossed to the bard and draped the soft material over the girl's shoulders. The bard's attention was slowly drawn from the darkness outside the window to the tender attention of the tall, concerned woman next to her. As the warrior pulled the blanket closed in front of the slim form, her blue eyes settled on the tear-filled gaze of her most cherished companion. Her throat caught when the tears brimming in the green eyes spilled down over the soft face.
"I'm sorry," the bard said softly. "That was unfair of me." The girl gulped hard. "I'm sorry."
Xena gently brushed back the soft blonde hair with her fingers, looking directly into the moist, green eyes. "Even if I could, I would never try to 'manage' you," the warrior said evenly. She put her hands on the girl's shoulders. "You know I respect you too much for that. You're your own person, Gabrielle. It's one of my most favorite things about you." The tall woman's face warmed in a gentle smile. She waited as the little blonde wiped her face with the edges of the coverlet.
"Now," Xena began, her arms lying loosely on the girl's shoulders. "You want to tell me what's really bothering you? You've been on edge for days. What's going on?"
Gabrielle grasped the edges of the coverlet in one hand and put the other to the back of her neck, rubbing the spot hard. "There," the tall woman said, a knowing glint in the blue gaze. "You've been doing that for days, too." The bard's brows knit in light confusion. "You only rub your neck like that when something's really bothering you. So, tell me. What is it?"
The girl's worried scowl broke slightly as she reacted to the warrior's insightful comment. She shook her head slightly, then the young face cleared in a tiny, grateful grin. She took a deep, shaky breath and pulled the blanket closely around herself. The little blonde slowly backed away from her friend's comforting embrace and took a few tentative steps toward the dancing flames in the fireplace. She stared into the blaze for a moment, then turned again to face the blue pools.
"We've been repairing these scrolls for a week, now," she said, a new weariness in her voice.
"Eight days," the warrior interjected, almost without meaning to.
The girl's expression softened as she stepped closer to her friend. "And, while I'm at it, I want to thank you for being so patient. Just hanging around here all this time must be about to drive you crazy."
"Don't worry about it. I've kept busy," the warrior quipped, her mouth curling in a half-smile. "Stay on the subject. Right now I'm more concerned with what's driving you crazy. What's making you so ... grumpy?" the warrior asked, stepping closer to the slender form wrapped in the coverlet.
The bard threw an aggravated look at the ceiling and closed her tired eyes to the nagging feeling in her conscience. She stepped past the warrior and flounced down on the edge of the bed again. Xena sat down next to her friend, her expression expectant and concerned.
"Well today I started examining this particular scroll ... it was especially damaged. Some of the words were completely covered by stains and the edges just sort of fell away in my fingers. It was a real mess."
The warrior nodded, a spark of foreboding tightening her stomach.
"Well, I got it cleaned up pretty well, at least enough so that I could finally read the words. I told Musaeus I was going to have to start over, totally re-transcribe it and he agreed with me. So I started to copy it onto a new piece of parchment."
The bard's narration stopped and the warrior's frustration grew. Xena watched the strain contort her friend's face. She could see the bard's inward battle and she was fairly certain the primary cause was her friend's unwavering sense of honor. She put a gentle hand on the girl's hunched shoulder.
"Go on," she prompted the little blonde. "Problem?"
Gabrielle turned a desperate look toward the worried sapphire pools. She swallowed again and pulled the coverlet tighter. "Well ... it's wrong. The story transcribed on the original scroll is wrong, Xena. Whoever wrote it down made some pretty serious mistakes in the translation." The bard turned an urgent gaze toward the warrior. "It's the story of Echo and Narcissus," she said. "You know, I told it at the Harvest Festival last season, when we went to help Hercules?
Xena nodded. She remembered the way the audience had been mesmerized by the bard's presentation and how proud she'd been of her best friend's talents.
"Well, maybe it's just a difference in the original dialect, or something like that," the warrior offered. "It's got to be one that's told by many bards, maybe it's just a case of ...."
The bard shook her head impatiently. "No, it's more than just a difference in interpretation," she said firmly. "It's ... it had ... some of the important lines of the story itself are totally wrong. Like, the ending, for instance. The whole point of the story is that Narcissus was so in love with his own image that the Goddess Juno punished him by never letting him experience the joy of being loved."
"And the scroll doesn't say that?" Xena pressed further. "What does it say?"
Gabrielle looked away for a moment, then turned back to the warrior's questioning expression. "It says Narcissus regrets his 'vain and cruel ways' and that Juno brings him and Echo together. See what I mean? It's not just 'kind of different', it's totally wrong."
The warrior saw the deep conflict raging in her young friend. The girl's sense of honor prevented her from randomly altering what was, to the people of the village, a valuable artifact, a treasured piece of their history. Yet, the inequities of the scroll were chafing roughly against the bard's sense of justice and her regard for the relevance of truth.
"So, fix it," the warrior said cautiously. "When you re-transcribe it, you can correct the mistakes, can't you? Wouldn't that be all right?" She read the dilemma still troubling the bard.
"Can I?" the girl asked quietly. "Do I have the right to 'fix it', to change the 'moral of the story' just because I don't agree with it?"
"But, if you said it's wrong ...." the warrior persisted.
"How do I know my ending is the true ending? How do I know that all this time I haven't been telling the tale wrong? Maybe the bards I listened to didn't like the real ending so they decided to make it more appealing ... more instructive. Maybe there's a reason the ancestors of these people changed the ending. And if I 'fix it', how do I know I'm not destroying something very important and very precious to their heritage?"
For a moment, the green eyes meeting the warrior's vibrant blues were intense and determined. Then, a wave of exhaustion floated across the gentle face and the bard brought one small hand up to massage her forehead. She shook her head slowly and Xena could see the girl's internal struggle had taken it's toll on her. She wrapped a consoling arm around the slender shoulders.
After a moment, the warrior's smooth voice sounded in the quiet room. "What does Musaeus have to say about all this?" The bard raised her head to meet the blue gaze and saw only sincerity gleaming in her friend's expression.
"He is another 'expert source', isn't he? What does he think you should do?"
Gabrielle dropped her eyes to the edges of the coverlet captured by her nervous fingers, then met the blue eyes again. "He thinks I should leave it ... transcribe it the way it is." The warrior's internal warning quivered. "In fact, he's been very determined that I shouldn't change it," the bard continued. "I've been a little confused about that, too."
A clear and palatable tenseness sliced through Xena's consciousness. Her sharply tuned senses were sounding a subtle alarm. For an instant, her jaw clamped tight and her natural instincts concerning the complete and total protection of the young blonde at her side produced a searing apprehension in the tall woman's psyche. She submerged the primal reaction in order to attend to the bard's visible anguish. Gradually she became aware of the sound of the bard's quiet voice.
"I don't know," the little blonde sighed tiredly. "Maybe I'm making too much of this. Maybe you're right and it is just a difference in the translation, or something. In that case, it would be valuable as a kind of 'novelty piece'." The bard dropped her head and rotated her chin, slowly stretching the knotted muscles at the base of her neck. "Either way, it's definitely given me one beast of a headache," the girl joked weakly.
Xena pulled her attention back to the little room and the bard's discomfort. She gathered the little form toward her, applying strategic pressure to the girl's aching neck.
"Here, let me take care of that," she said. She massaged the tense muscles, then gently moved the bard back toward the pallet. "Lie down and try to relax," the warrior said, pulling the coverlet away and guiding her friend onto the mattress. "Right now, let's work on that headache."
The bard complied, offering no protest to the warrior's directions. She flopped down on her stomach and wrapped her arms around the soft, down-filled pillow. Xena replaced the covers over the slender form and began to knead the stiff area expertly.
"I'll work it out somehow," the young woman said, her sleepy voice muffled by the pillow. "Thanks for putting up with my ranting ... ugh," she moaned as the warrior's deft touch found an especially tight spot. " ... and raving."
"No problem. I owed you one," the warrior said, softly. Her little smile went unnoticed by the exhausted bard. Xena kept up the therapy until she recognized the return of the deep, steady pattern to the girl's breathing. Fortunately the steely, gray tint that overcame the blue eyes was also missed by the bard.
'Well, that tears it for sure,' the warrior thought, ruefully. 'Time to have another little talk with Musaeus. More than one thing is starting to smell around here.'
Chapter Eighteen ~~~
Xena watched the little bard scoop the last of the thick porridge from the earthen bowl, deposit the heaping spoonful in her open mouth, followed by a large wedge of bread. The warrior supported her chin with one hand and focused an amused gaze on the girl's energetic activity. As the soft chin bounced rhythmically, chewing the food behind the puffed cheeks, the green eyes met the blue eyes trained on her face.
The bard swallowed once, chewed for a moment longer, then turned to the warrior's soft grin, the wheat-hued brows disappearing under the soft, blonde bangs.
"What?" the bard mumbled, when she had cleared enough of the full mouthful to speak around it.
Xena laughed quietly and shook her head slightly. "Amazing," she said, smiling warmly at the bard's fresh face. "I guess you feel a little better this morning, huh? Headache all gone?"
Gabrielle swallowed the rest of the food in her mouth and trained a warm smile at the warrior. "Yes, thanks to you," the little blonde said. "You really do have talented fingers, my warrior friend." She raised the mug of water to her lips and sent an impish gaze over the rim. Xena returned the smirk with a faintly disapproving scowl. She raised her own mug.
"Shh," she hissed at the bard's grin. "Don't let that get around, they'll wonder what you really mean." The warrior took a slow drink of cider to cover her own suggestive smirk.
Gabrielle giggled softly as she lowered her mug. She rested her arms on the table, both small hands surrounding the vessel.
"So, what's on your schedule for today?" she asked the warrior. "Fishing, maybe?"
Xena threw an astonished look at the bard's teasing grin. "By the gods, woman. When do you NOT think of food?" Her warm smile undermined the mock seriousness of her tone. She gazed fondly at the young woman, pleased to notice most of the tenseness and disturbed agitation from the previous evening had faded from behind the soft green eyes. She studied the sweet face, carefully inspecting for any signs of returning fatigue.
A moment later, Xena's quick senses were alerted. She turned toward the group of men advancing across the room toward their table. The warm smile was quickly replaced by her normal, stoic gaze. Xena lowered her mug and braced herself as the men continued toward them.
Gabrielle reacted to the change in the warrior's attitude. She followed the steady gaze to the group of males, then glanced back to the tanned face. She noticed the warmth she had recently enjoyed was no longer present in the clear, sky-colored eyes. She turned to face the approaching group.
Three of the four men she recognized as the Elders of the Town Council. Musaeus had pointed them out to her the afternoon they had tried a short walk around the Town Square as a method for dispelling her male friend's lack of concentration. The fourth man, she remembered, was the handsome blacksmith who had been so helpful with Argo's sick foot.
One gray-haired man pushed to the front of the group, arriving first at the opposite side of the table. He drew himself up straight, one weathered hand laid flat across his ample middle, the other gripping a tall, carved walking stick. His mature, creased face showed a formal determination as he faced the little blonde, cleared his throat and spoke in a smooth, even voice.
"Miss Gabrielle?" he began, causing the bard's green eyes to widen in surprise.
"Yes, I'm Gabrielle," she answered, favoring the elderly inquirer with a warm smile. "Can I help you, Elder?"
The aged official returned the girl's smile. He glanced openly at the warrior sitting immobile at the young woman's side, then returned his attention to the bard's open expression. "We would like a word ...." The man looked directly at the leather-clad woman. "...with your friend, if you wouldn't mind."
Gabrielle turned to the warrior, noticing the slight rise of the familiar eyebrow above the even gaze. She posed a silent question to her friend, interpreted the answer and turned back to the aged face across the table.
"No, I don't mind," the bard said calmly, striving hard to conceal the amusement tickling her throat. "But you don't need to ask permission, Elder. It'll be our pleasure." She turned an innocent expression toward the stiff warrior. "Right ... 'friend'?" the little blonde chirped, pursing her lips to meet the murderous look in the blue eyes. The bard turned back to the Elder. He nodded slightly, turning somewhat hesitantly to the tall woman's crystal gaze.
He cleared his throat again.
"Well, ah ... warrior," he began in a business-like tone.
"She has a name, Hagen." Enoch spoke reproachfully, stepping to face the steady gaze. "Xena," he said, addressing a gentle apology to the ice-blue crystals. "This is Elder Hagen," he indicated the senior gentleman. The warrior's focus floated to the mature face, then returned to the smithy's. "And this is Elder Turnis and Elder Perdix." He motioned toward the other two men. Xena's eyes traveled over the two worn expressions, the hardness in the blue pools easing slightly.
"They want to ...." He turned to acknowledge the older men. "We would like to ask your advice on something." The smithy's gaze rested openly on the warrior's. "Do you have a moment?"
Xena considered the man's honest expression. The slender body relaxed slightly as the warrior glanced quickly at the bard's curious grin. She sat back, casually resting against the wall behind her, crossed her long arms over her waist and met the gentle brown eyes of the smithy.
"Yes, I have a moment," she said smoothly. She returned the man's open gaze.
Enoch motioned for the men to seat themselves. The two silent Elders slid onto the bench facing the bard while Enoch sat down on the edge of a nearly table, crossing his muscled arms over his chest. Hagen perched on the end of the bench nearest the warrior. He peered into the woman's deep blue eyes then let his eyes travel over the sculpted face and the lean, sinewy body.
'Such an exquisite woman,' he thought ruefully. 'This beautiful creature cannot be the barbarian others have said her to be.' He gave his head a little shake. When he noticed the ice-blue pools were trained on his face, he cleared his throat, took a quick breath and addressed the woman in leather.
"Well then ... Xena," he began nervously. "It has come to our attention that there are several ... ah ...." The wizened gaze swept the table top. "Shall we say 'undesirable types' now occupying a camp in the small valley just to the east of town." Hagen paused to let the tall woman react. The blue eyes traveled over the three aged faces returning to meet the speaker's gaze.
"Yes, I've seen them," Xena said finally, her tone emotionless. She glanced at the bard's slightly surprised expression then refocused on the Elder's face.
"You have?" the bard asked quietly only a beat before the smithy voiced the same question. Xena turned to Enoch's curious gaze.
"Yes. The day I took my horse out on her new shoes?" she said meaningfully. "It was the same day I met a handsome, young ... colt," the warrior finished evenly, keeping her eyes on the smithy's curious expression. "He's solid black, with a white blaze down his face?" The handsome male face softened in a slow understanding. Xena turned back to the Elder. "I saw three of the men you're talking about. They were at the edge of the clearing." Her eyes swept over the three mature faces. "So, what's the problem?"
The two Elders across from the bard clustered in a muffled conference, then turned expectantly toward their leader. Hagen bent toward the warrior confidentially.
"Well, that's just it you see?" he said in a low, conspiratorial voice. "We don't know what they're up to, but it's obvious, they're a rather unsavory lot, wouldn't you agree?" He fixed a knowing gaze on the stoic face.
Xena glanced at the smithy sitting quietly on the edge of the table. The tanned face was attentive, yet the warrior could sense a degree of regret at the Elder's snobbish attitude. She met the brown eyes a moment before turning to the bard's green gaze. The coldness in the rigid face faded slightly as the blue eyes traveled quickly over the girl's soft face. A tiny, subtle grin met the little blonde's warm expression.
'You've given me this, too,' she thought, the blue gaze softening tenderly. 'Now I get offended anytime I hear anyone being judged without cause, even if they do seem to deserve it.' She turned away from her soulmate and back to the Elder across the table.
"Well, they seemed a little 'road worn', but otherwise, they looked pretty harmless." She met the mature gaze, her blue eyes returning to their steady intensity. "Just what do you want from me, exactly?" Her internal senses were wavering again, but the bronze face betrayed no emotion.
Hagen exchanged glances with the smithy and the other two members of the Council. He assumed an authoritative manner as he met the warrior's blue eyes again. "Well, they've also been seen near the cave, you see?" The cobalt pools remained non-committal. Hagen leaned forward, compelled to explain the situation further. "The cave? The one in the clearing? The one where the scrolls were found. The ones your friend has been ...."
"I know which scrolls you mean," Xena said, a small degree of irritation in her tone. She became aware of a gnawing uneasiness; the conversation was heading in a distressing direction.
"Well, if those men should get their hands on them ... that is, any other scrolls that might still be discovered in the cave," Hagen continued. "I mean, their 'sort' would surely ... try to use them for their own ... distasteful means." He waited for the warrior to respond, but she appeared unaffected by his remarks. He tried another approach.
"Worse than that, they might decide to threaten to defile them in some way, ransom them back to us, extort funds in order to preserve them." The Elder ended his impassioned speech and fixed a solicitous gaze on the warrior's stony gaze. For a long moment, there was silence at the crowded table. Then Xena's even voice sounded.
"You haven't answered my question, yet," she said quietly. "What is it you want from me?"
Hagen resumed his official attitude, sat back from the table and addressed the bronze face importantly.
"We want you ...." The Elder flinched slightly at the hard sheen that had invaded the blue eyes. He moistened his lips and reconsidered his approach. "We'd like you to find out what their intentions are ... precisely." The azure pools remained steady and non-committal. "And if you determine that they are as ... untrustworthy as we believe they are, then you can ... deal with them as you see fit." Hagen's statement hung in the air for a moment. "We'd be willing to pay you for your efforts, of course," the man finished lamely, then fell silent when he saw the clear blue eyes take on a steel gray hue.
Xena's gaze left the Elder's face and settled on the smithy's. The tanned countenance displayed a noticeable wave of regret. The brown eyes closed tightly for a moment, opened to focus on the floor then rose slowly to meet the warrior's. She read a sincere apology in the soft gaze. It dispelled only a portion of the anger building in her chest. She turned coldly to the mature face across the table.
"I am not a hired sword, available to the highest bidder." The icy tones shook the aged official as he physically recoiled from the slender woman across the table. "If you have a problem with these men, I suggest you find a way to approach them on your own." Gabrielle saw the chiseled jaw ripple under the smooth face. "I'm only here because my friend decided to ..."
The warrior's stilted words were interrupted by the bard's noticeable, and very contrived, clearing of her throat. The sound silenced the woman's tense comments as the blue eyes swiftly traveled to meet the green gaze of the young woman beside her. Xena read the reproach in the emerald pools. She tried to reject the entreaty in the bard's steady glance, but the girl's intent stare soon dispelled the rancor in the bronze face. After a moment, the tall woman's expression slowly changed to one of resignation. The bard's little smile portrayed her approval of the warrior's change in perspective. Xena let out a long, yielding breath and turned to the Elder again.
"All right," she said evenly, "I guess I could at least 'investigate'." She cast a conciliatory look at the little blonde, glaring in response to the girl's satisfied smirk. "But," she said, looking back at the Elders. "I'm not promising anything. You're still not certain what these men intend to do." Xena turned an abiding gaze to the smithy's supportive expression. "No use upsetting anyone until you have the facts." She looked directly at Hagen, her face cool and direct. "Right?"
"Of course," the Elder agreed. "Whatever you think is best."
The warrior's blue eyes left the Elder's and traveled back to the smithy's. The brown pools were soft on hers, the tanned face cordial and supportive. She turned again to the aged official.
"I'm going back out there today anyway," she said. She turned pointedly to the blonde's questioning look. "I still have some herbs to find and I promised someone I'd catch them some fish." The bard felt her face warming slightly. Xena turned back to the Elder. "I'll let you know what I find." She paused a moment, her eyes still on his face. "Anything else?"
The three elderly men consulted each other before Hagen responded to the warrior. "No, no," he said, nervously. "We'll leave the matter to you, then." The Council members vacated the wooden seat and prepared to leave the tavern.
Hagen took a step away from the table, then turned to address the smithy again.
"Enoch?" he asked. "Are you coming?"
"I have to get back to the stable," the tradesman responded before meeting the warrior's eyes again. "I'll get your horse ready."
Xena nodded. "Thanks," she said returning the man's gaze. The blacksmith smiled warmly, stood up and followed the three officials out of the Inn.
Gabrielle watched as the warrior's blue pools fell from the retreating figures to focus vaguely on the notched surface of the wooden table. The bard sensed the tenseness returning to her friend's slender form; she waited until she saw the woman draw a slow, careful breath.
"So," the little blonde said to the stoic face of her friend. "What do you think?"
Xena raised her eyes to the bard's. She saw the interest, the confusion and the guarded
concern mixed within the green gaze. She also read the slight strain of irritation.
"Like I told them, I won't know what to think until I 'investigate' further." She gave the young bard a tiny smile.
"Why didn't you mention these men before?" the bard asked. She looked away, her face a study in self-reproach. "I guess I have been a little preoccupied the last few days, but ...."
"Gabrielle," the warrior said, laying a gentle hand on the girl's shoulder. "There wasn't anything to mention. Like I said, they looked pretty harmless. I didn't want to ...."
"Bother me?" the little blonde said, her gaze intent on the tall woman's face. "Didn't think I'd be interested, or what?"
"Didn't think they were important," the warrior said firmly. "Just three ragged, scruffy men," she said, determined to ease the girl's worry. "Like so many we've seen before." The blue eyes focused again on the wooden table top.
Gabrielle gazed intently at the bronze face of her best friend. She had grown accustomed to being patient when the warrior decided to mull something over in her mind privately, rather than share her impressions, or her impending plans, with the bard. She recognized the familiar signs in the woman's expression; she knew her friend was considering various ways to proceed in the matter, weighing the virtues of one strategy against another. The young woman waited until she saw the signs of a decision reached and a method chosen.
"Well," Gabrielle said softly, "just be careful, all right?"
The warrior turned to meet the soft green gaze. She smiled warmly at the open face of her soulmate. "Always," she said, forcing a lightness into her voice. Her pulse skipped when she saw the look of dread behind the bard's steady glance. She touched the girl's slender arm. "I'll be back before dark, no sweat."
Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment as a wave of combined apprehension and fatigue swept through her. She sent an encouraging smile toward the golden face of the woman beside her, then took a deep, shaky breath herself.
"OK," she said haltingly, then smiled widely at the affection shining in the blue pools. "I guess I'll see you later, then." The bard turned to gather the stack of materials that seemed to have become a regular part of her attire. The two women stood up and started toward the door of the tavern.
"Hey," the warrior said, "maybe I can bring those fish I've been promising you, huh?" She sent a teasing smirk at the bard.
"Just bring back you ... in one piece, if you don't mind. All right?" the little bard said, the seriousness in her expression bringing a catch to the warrior's throat. She let her eyes travel over the tanned face before turning toward the front door again.
Xena watched the little blonde's small form pass through the open door. As the wooden panel thumped closed, the warrior swallowed hard against the tightness in her chest. 'With you to come back to, how can I not?' she said to herself. Then she turned and walked through the archway toward their room.
Chapter Nineteen ~~~
Xena slid her sword into its scabbard and neatly tied the lacings in place to secure the weapon to her back. She clipped the chakram on the hook on her belt and checked the placement of the leather cuff around her left arm. As she performed the rudimentary tasks, the warrior's mind considered the unsettling facts that were beginning to gnaw at her more and more.
'Why would he insist that she transcribe a story incorrectly?' she mused. 'What's his plan? What does he gain by such an obvious mistake?'
The tall woman shifted the sheath on her back, repositioning the weight and alignment of the blade to her right hand. When she was satisfied she had returned the weapon to its familiar location, she tightened the leather gauntlet on her right arm and lifted her foot onto the wooden chair to check the lacings on her right boot. She continued the mental debate as she pulled at the leather thongs.
'Surely he knows she's smart enough to realize it's wrong. What's behind this little maneuver?' She switched the foot on the chair and tightened the lacings on her other supple boot. As she tugged on the leather strips, she continued to sort and consider the specifics that had produced the nagging uneasiness that had plagued her since her conversation with the little bard the previous night.
'And what do those creatures in the valley have to do with all of this?' she wondered. 'They seemed to be right at home in the clearing ... like they knew exactly what was there and where to find it.' The warrior's activity stopped momentarily while her mind considered her trip to the clearing. 'Camber said Musaeus knew about them. Why would Musaeus have any use for scum like that?'
Slowly the lean form straightened as the vile nature of the young man's plot became crystal clear to her keen intellect. The chiseled jaw tensed as the slender fingers tightened around the leather tie, snapping one side off in her hand.
Xena dropped her foot to the floor, her tall, muscled form trembling with rage. The blue eyes sparkled with impending fury, then slowly settled into a molten, steel-gray glare. The warrior's mind bristled with the insidious conclusion now gleaming unfettered in her consciousness. A lethal calm settled slowly over the lean form.
After a moment, Xena became vaguely aware of the broken lacing dangling from her clenched fist. She turned a vacant stare toward the remaining bootstrap jutting from the side of her right boot. She pulled her foot back up onto the wooden chair, repaired the broken lacing, then returned her foot to the floor. The warrior took a slow, deep breath and forced the tenseness from her shoulders.
'Very, very clever", the tall woman murmured, her blue eyes narrowing, the sculpted jaw clenching tightly around the bitter words. Xena stood very still for a few minutes, her rapier mind sorting and disseminating information. Finally, when she had settled on her planned strategy, she opened her fists and relaxed her jaw as a feral grin spread over the sculpted face.
"Not while I draw breath, you weasel," the warrior said to the empty room. "I'll send you to Hades first."
Xena strode purposefully out of the sleeping room and walked down the hallway toward the tavern.
When she reached the dining area, she searched the room for Minerva. She found her, standing behind the bar, replacing ale mugs on the shelf along the wall from the tray cradled in her other arm. Almost as if she sensed the tall woman's glance, the auburn-haired girl turned to meet the azure pools. The two women moved toward each other, their paths ending at the end of the long, wooden bar.
"Your friend just left," the waitress said.
"I know," Xena said. "I wanted to talk to you. Do you have a moment?"
"Talk to me?" Minerva asked, a nervous glaze behind her eyes.
Xena tried to relax the strident agitation in her stomach. She leaned casually against the wooden counter and gave the young woman a thin smile. She didn't want Minerva to feel intimidated and, her familial relationship with Musaeus aside, the warrior respected the young woman's straightforward manner and simple, honest attitude.
"I just need some information, Minerva," Xena began gently. "Maybe you can help me with some things that are ... confusing me, all right?"
The young waitress nodded, her eyes meeting the warrior's honestly. "All right. What do you need to know?"
Xena took a short breath and focused on the wooden bar for a moment. When she raised her eyes to the girl's, she saw a level of dread behind the hazel gaze. The warrior's intuition sensed an uneasiness in the young woman's stance. It made her hesitate, suddenly unwilling to cause the girl any further distress.
"It's about Musaeus, isn't it?" Minerva asked, her eyes level on the warrior's. "He's in some kind of trouble again." It was a statement, not a question. "I saw the Elders talking to you. Is he ...."
Xena's smooth face was warm as she returned the young woman's nervous stare. "I didn't say that. In fact, I'm not sure that's true at all." She saw the waitress relax somewhat. "I just want a little information, that's all."
Minerva swallowed nervously and glanced at the bartender standing at the far end of the counter, tightening the corks on several jugs in front of him. When he turned to meet her gaze, his fleshy face showed he accepted the reason for the interruption in the girl's duties; she was 'tending to a customer'. He threw the warrior a solicitous smile and returned his attention to the corks. Xena turned back to Minerva. "Tell me about this cave everyone's talking about. When did Musaeus find the scrolls there?"
Minerva's gaze darted away from the blue eyes for a moment as the girl considered the warrior's question. "About four moons ago," the girl said, returning her attention to Xena's face. "I remember he came in here, all excited about his 'find'. He told me he had been exploring the hills around the clearing, trying to see if there were any caves where there might be some kind of ... treasure." The young face showed an impatient scowl. "His word, not mine," she told the warrior. "Musaeus always was one to spend time looking for the 'prize of the era'. The gods forbid he would ever look for decent work."
The warrior's face remained open. She briefly felt sympathy for the young woman, but she turned her mind toward other pressing matters.
"Has he ever taken you there?" she asked Minerva. "Have you ever seen it?"
"No," the waitress said, sourly. "He's made it very clear that he considers it 'his' cave and he gets very upset when anyone else even mentions going there." The girl's face lit in a dimpled grin, the hazel eyes twinkling unexpectedly. "Besides, who wants to spend time in a damp, dingy old cave, anyway?"
The warrior grinned easily. She was glad to see the young face relax, for a change. But as Minerva studied the tall warrior's clear blue eyes, she felt a palatable shiver when she saw the hard coldness sweep over the woman's piercing gaze. The girl swallowed and glanced nervously at the pudgy bartender.
"Is there anything else you wanted?" she said, her eyes directing the warrior's attention to the round Innkeeper. "Otherwise, I have to get back to work."
"No," Xena said, covering the girl's hands with her own. "Thank you, Minerva. You've been a big help." She put a kind hand on the girl's shoulder.
Minerva turned away from the tall woman, then looked back to capture the blue eyes again.
"If Musaeus is in trouble ..." she began, her voice wavering. She looked down at her hands, then back at the warrior. "He's still my brother, you know? He's all I've got."
Xena felt a wave of compassion for the young woman. Her loyalty to her brother touched the warrior's honor; it made what she suspected even more uncomfortable. She met the girl's concerned look with as much honesty as she could.
"I know, Minerva. I'll let you know what I find out. OK?"
The girl nodded, then moved slowly away to resume her duties. The warrior's jaw tensed as she drew a deep breath.
'Why is it always the loyal ones who get hurt?' she thought bitterly. 'Sorry, Minerva.'
She strode out of the Inn toward the stables.
True to his word, Enoch had Argo saddled and ready when Xena entered the barn. She gathered the reins and led the mare outside. As she checked the girth strap, the smithy appeared beside her.
"Thanks for your trouble," she said without meeting the man's gaze. "I should be back by dark. I'll have more of an idea about things then."
"Xena," the man said and the warrior turned to meet the brown gaze. "About Camber ... and that black horse."
The warrior faced the smithy, reacting to the seriousness of his tone. She saw the fatherly concern in the handsome face, yet she recognized something else in the hesitant expression.
"Yes?" Xena asked. She studied the tanned countenance again, and felt a subtle grin warming her own face. "You ... don't think he should try and catch it, do you?" The smithy's
smile was part relief and part surprise. He met the warrior's intent stare.
"How did you ... what made you come to that conclusion?" he asked her, his brown head tilted in scrutiny. The expression changed to one of proud challenge. "Don't you think he could handle that colt?"
The warrior's grin widened at the pride in the man's voice. "Oh, I think he could handle any horse he set his mind on." She watched the resentment clear from the smithy's face. "But the colt might have other ideas." She paused, trying to find the best way to express her opinion.
"That horse is a wild creature, born wild. He didn't seem the type that would take to a bridle and tack easily." The smithy's brown eyes were steady on hers. She turned back to the saddle on the mare.
"I think he has a right to stay ... free," Xena finished quietly, slightly unnerved by the passion she heard in her own voice. She turned back to Enoch. "Isn't that what you really think, too? That maybe the colt shouldn't be tamed, that he should be left to his freedom?"
The smithy's handsome face turned sheepish under the warrior's level stare. He focused his attention on the piece of leather he held in his fingers. After a moment, he met the clear blue eyes again and she heard his gentle laugh.
"You're very intuitive," he told the tall woman.
"So I've been told," she admitted a trifle embarrassed herself. "Would you rather I don't ... help him quite so much?"
Enoch thrust his big hands behind the bib of his leather apron. He concentrated on tracking a line in the dirt with his boot. "Well ... that is still your decision," he said, meeting the blue eyes again. "But, if it were up to Camber ...."
"If what's up to me?" a young voice said behind them. Xena turned toward the sound as the smithy also focused on his son's young face. The youngster's expression lit in a smile when he noticed the warrior's saddled horse, apparently ready for their planned trip to the clearing. Xena trained an apologetic look at the smithy, then turned to the boy's eager expression.
"Ah, Camber," she began taking a step toward the youngster. "I'm afraid we're going to have to postpone our trip. Something's come up and I can't ...."
The boy's face fell as his disappointment became clearly apparent. "You promised!" he said, his little form stiffening in anger. "You gave me your word."
Xena glanced at the smithy, then addressed the boy again. "I know, but I have to do something for the Council and I'm afraid it can't wait." She could tell the youngster was not impressed by her implied urgency. "We'll have to try for tomorrow, all right?"
Camber's eyes went from her face to his father's and back again. He thrust his small fists onto his hips and glared at the warrior's contrite expression, his mouth contorted in a willful pout.
"You're just like every other grown-up!" he snapped at Xena. "Giving your word doesn't mean anything!" And with that he stomped toward the barn, his pace brisk, his manner extremely angry. Xena watched the small form depart before turning to the smithy.
"He'll be all right," Enoch said, putting a reassuring hand on the leather-clad shoulder. "I'll talk to him." Abruptly the brown eyes swept over the sword laced to the warrior's back, then traveled down to notice the round, metal disc hanging from the belt of her leathers.
"Looks like you're expecting more trouble than you admitted to the Elders, huh?" The brown eyes became serious as he gazed at the piercing blues. Xena walked back to Argo, grasping the stirrup on the side of the saddle. She put her boot into the metal piece and swung herself onto the horse's back.
"Just being careful," she said as she settled herself in the saddle. "Better to be prepared than to be caught unaware." She looked back to the smithy's steady brown gaze. The look of concern made her slightly uneasy. The cobalt pools focused in the direction taken by the angry young boy. She looked down at the smithy again.
"Tell Camber I'll make it up to him, all right? I'm sorry to have to disappoint him."
Enoch waved off her apology and stepped away from the mare. "Don't worry about Camber. Just take care while you're out there with those men." He smiled warmly at the warrior. "I'll look for you before sundown, right?"
Xena nodded and touched her knees to Argo's sides. The mare responded and the warrior sat forward in the saddle, settling herself into the tempo of the mare's stride. Very soon they were headed toward the clearing and the confrontation she knew would not be pleasant.
When Gabrielle arrived at the little hut, she was a little surprised to see Musaeus already hard at work at the table. She tried to cover her reaction as she laid the scrolls and parchment she had carried from the Inn on the table. Musaeus' boyish grin met her gaze as she moved to the other chair.
"Well, you certainly seem inspired today. What's the occasion?" she joked, only partly sincere. She dismissed the young man's wounded look.
"You said I should try and be more responsible, didn't you? Well, I took your advice," Musaeus said, favoring the bard with his best 'charming face'. "Besides," he grinned, "you're a little later than usual, so I managed to get here before you." Gabrielle found herself laughing in spite of herself. She shook her head slightly as she sat down in the chair and selected a scroll to work on.
"How come?" Musaeus continued. "I mean, how come you're so much later than usual, today? Everything OK?"
The little bard continued spreading the materials as she responded to the young man's question.
"We had to wait until the Elders left." She glanced at Musaeus, then returned her attention to the scroll she had selected.
"The Elders?" the young man asked. "What were they doing at the Inn?"
"They came to talk to Xena about some men that have shown up near the cave. They wanted her to look into what they might be doing there." Gabrielle turned to the young bard, responding to the satisfied look she found on his face.
"Musaeus," she asked, "you look like you've just won the King's Lottery." The young man's smug grin widened. "Anything you want to tell me?"
Musaeus turned an appealing expression at the little bard's curious glance. "I was just thinking about how lucky the town is to have both you and the warrior princess here. If anyone can handle those hoodlums, it's Xena. Right?"
The little blonde nodded but her thin smile betrayed her conviction. "Right," she murmured quietly, then returned her attention to her work.
Musaeus waited until Gabrielle's eyes left his face before giving in to his own private congratulations. 'Not that she'll ever find them, let alone discover anything about our little deal', he gloated. 'Not even the famous Xena is that good.'
After another silent smirk, he went back to making Gabrielle believe he was really working.
Chapter Twenty ~~~
As she and Argo entered the clearing, Xena let her gaze sweep the edge of the trees, trying to determine if any of the men she had seen on her previous visit were anywhere nearby. The little glen seemed peaceful and calm, the light breeze rustling the branches of the trees and the long, wavy grass across the field. She guided the mare along the line of foliage, her senses tight and aware. When she arrived at the base of the large mounds, she pulled the horse to a stop and prepared to dismount.
Xena slid down from Argo's back, tied the reins to a slim tree limb and started toward the cave. She had located the cavern during her last trip to the clearing, but after a short, cursory inspection, hadn't seen anything she considered unusually impressive, or even out of the ordinary, for that matter. But the concern of the Elders about the men she'd seen and her little talk with Minerva describing Musaeus' insistence on the cave's location remaining 'off limits' to everyone but him had raised the warrior's curiosity and her sense of foreboding.
As Xena took a few steps toward the opening of the cave, her keen senses detected another presence heading toward her. She slipped back behind the wall of foliage and stroked Argo's nose smoothly. The golden horse sensed the woman's apprehension and became perfectly still. The warrior trained a discerning gaze in the direction of the noise that had alerted her. After a few moments, she saw the trio of men striding toward the cave.
They were the same three men she had seen during her previous visit to the clearing the day she had met Camber and ruined his plans for the black colt. At this closer range, she recognized two of the ruffians and the clearness of that identity caused the lean body to stiffen as the blue eyes turned hard and cold.
"Phantaos", the warrior murmured bitterly. "So, the snake slithers out from under his rock," the woman seethed quietly. "What in Tartarus could you want with this little cave?"
>From her vantage point hidden within the greenery, Xena watched the men casually saunter toward the little cave then disappear through the opening. She waited cautiously, keeping her eyes trained on the clump of leafy bushes hiding the entrance. Her senses remained alert, but the feeling of dread was tightening her stomach again. She stroked the mare's nose slowly and kept her attention focused on the scraggy bushes.
A short time later, the three men emerged from the cave. Two of them carried what looked like small, wrapped parcels, slung easily over one shoulder, while Phantaos, the largest and most offensive of the group, had one beefy arm wrapped around a slightly larger bundle. The three men strode away easily, totally unconcerned with being discovered and completely unaware that their mission had been witnessed by the warrior. Soon the trio disappeared from Xena's line of vision, their progress hidden by the tall weeds at the edge of the clearing. She waited a few more minutes until she was sure she couldn't hear the heavy footsteps any longer and, more importantly, that the men wouldn't be able to hear hers. Then she left her leafy hiding place and carefully made her way toward the cave.
Xena located the opening again, pulled the scraggy bushes to one side and stepped into the cavern. She acknowledged the damp, earthy smell and the close, restrictive atmosphere. When her eyes had adjusted to the dim, musty light, she felt along the wall for the torch she remembered using the last time. The fingers of one hand found the long piece of tree root while her other hand found the two flint pieces next to it. She clamped the root between her knees and struck the two stone pieces against each other.
After the third strike, a spark from the flint jumped to the oil-soaked head of the root and, within seconds, the torch burst into flames, throwing bright illuminations over the walls and the floor of the cave. The warrior stepped forward cautiously, holding the torch in front of her. After a few steps, she raised the burning root and let the light from the flames create a wider pool of light. She took a few more careful steps.
Xena determined she had again come to the obvious center of the small cave. The ceiling was high enough to extend an arm's length above her upright stance and the sides of the cave were three, perhaps four paces in any direction from where she stood. The earth had been cleared around the large, granite boulders along the edge of the open area, and the rocks appeared to have been moved to allow for the investigation of the earthen walls behind them.
It was a small, primitive shelter, the walls around her showing the effects of prudent digging and excavation. She scanned the interior, recognizing the same evidence she'd noticed the last time, the same indentations at random locations in the walls, the same small cloth flags displaying letters and numbers denoting where certain scrolls had been unearthed.
'Nothing new here', the warrior thought. 'Same stuff as last time'. She scanned the walls and ceiling of the cavern again, looking for any evidence she may have missed. When she stood with her back to the opening, an odd occurrence caught her attention and raised the hair on the back of her neck.
Xena's focus was pulled to the torch's flame. It wavered and jumped, then bent to one side, away from the root. The warrior recognized the phenomenon; the flame was being affected by a draft of air somewhere in the cave. What raised the woman's awareness was the flame was leaping toward the opening of the cave, not away from it. That meant there was air coming from in front of her, not from the mouth of the cavern, where one would assume it would be. The blue eyes narrowed as she studied the wall directly opposite the cave's access.
She stepped toward the large cluster of boulders in the wall before her, running her free hand slowly along the edge of the rocks, her fingers exploring the crevices between the massive pieces. Suddenly she felt something with a consistency unlike anything that would have been a natural aspect of the cave. This something was clean, smooth and metal. It was a hidden latch, a spring-loaded trigger that had been cleverly concealed behind the pile of rocks.
"Hello," the warrior said, her voice sounding rather loud in the quiet of the cave. "What have we here?" she asked whatever creature resided within the earthen cavity. She carefully explored the latch and the mechanism attached to it. After taking several minutes to examine the device, searching for any attached contrivance, she made a decision. There was really only one way to see what the lever controlled and that was to activate the latch and watch what happened. She moved an arm's length away from the cluster of rocks, turned her body perpendicular to the latch, raised the torch above her head and slowly pulled the lever.
A moment later, the cluster of boulders began to move toward her, scraping the earth into a mobile trough in front of the lower edge as it traveled along the cave floor. Xena stepped back, keeping out of the rocks' path, as the rumbling movement echoed loudly off the sides of the cave. The granite pieces moved as one large section, the individual stones now resembling a solid, wide, rocky trapdoor. After a few moments, the large edifice stopped moving and the warrior stood quietly, waiting until the quiet shower of pebbles around her had ended. She dropped to one knee to peer into the opening now displayed behind the cluster of stones.
'Quite a piece of work', she thought. She carefully explored the aperture and the walls around it. The opening was large enough for her to step into it without having to bend to even half her height and wide enough to afford easy access to the area beyond. Xena ran her hands around the space, searching for any kind of apparatus that might trigger the closing of the trapdoor, thus preventing her exit, when she decided to leave. When she found nothing suspicious, she stepped tentatively onto the wooden track behind the boulder-door, thrust the burning torch ahead of her and moved slowly through the opening.
She had taken only a few steps when she realized she could stand upright without her back coming into contact with any surface above her. She straightened, raised the torch higher and found herself standing open-mouthed and totally amazed at the sight now before her eyes.
Xena took a few slow steps into the area. After a moment, she saw another set of torches mounted on the wall near her. She touched the tree root to the metal fixtures and they sprang to life, throwing a wide blaze of light into a large, crowded cavern. The warrior walked slowly into the room.
The area was enormous, occupying a space at least two dozen paces in any direction from where she stood. The earthen walls were braced and supported with heavy, wooden timbers, the beams forming a sturdy latticework around the walls of the room. Pairs of torches had been set into the thick wood poles at regular intervals around the space. Between the posts were flat, level surfaces, arranged in neat, sturdy shelf units. And on the shelves, and in tall, rugged boxes on the floor and against the wall were rows and rows of merchandise.
The warrior moved toward the rows of boxes, examining the contents of the wooden crates and open, rattan chests. They all contained the same cargo --- weapons, in all manner of shape and lethal capacity. She found bows, arrows, daggers, shields, staffs, swords, chobos and chain gauntlets. There were axes, spears, whips and coil after coil of heavy rope. In a corner near the opening stood a collection of tall barrels and earthen jugs. She lifted the lid of one of the barrels and dipped one finger into the liquid contained there. From the smell and the texture she could tell it was oil, the same substance in which the tips of the torches had been soaked, the same deadly substance used to set afire any structure or building desired.
Xena felt her fingernails digging into the palms of her hands but the painful sensation barely registered in her awareness. The sculpted jaw clenched bitterly as the slender, sinewy form trembled with fury and rage. For a moment, the warrior's breath caught in her throat and she slowly became aware of the pounding under her leather bodice. She took several deep, calming breaths and blinked hard to regain her control.
"Those putrid bags of slime," she sputtered. "This place is a temple of evil. The only thing missing is an altar to Ares!"
The tall warrior's eyes traveled over the room again, a rancid, nauseous bile hovering at the back of her throat. The lean form eventually grew tranquil, placid as the certainty of her intentions settled clearly in her mind. The bronze face glowered in a primal, feral scowl.
"Not in this lifetime, Phantaos" she whispered quietly to the flickering torches. "Never again. Never, never again."
Xena turned abruptly, covered the mounted torches with a metal shield and waited until she was sure the flames had been extinguished. She stepped back through the hidden opening, reactivated the secret latch and watched the fraudulent rock cluster slide back into its concealed placement. She dropped her root torch onto the cave floor and stamped out the flames with her foot. Then she left the cave.
Chapter Twenty-One ~~~
Musaeus slipped the large volume back into its place on the shelf and raised his arms above his head. He stretched his back, loudly proclaiming the necessity of such a move for the benefit of the little blonde seated at the table. She raised her eyes to focus on the young man's contorting form.
Gabrielle sat back in the wooden chair and rested her elbows on its wooden arms. She sent a warm smile toward her young compatriot as he walked across the small room to stand at the other end of the table. She read the impending request in his handsome face.
"OK," the young woman said. "I guess it is time to break for lunch, huh?" She grinned impishly at Musaeus' boyish smile.
"Don't you ever get hungry?" the young man chirped, his hands sliding onto his hips.
Gabrielle's easy laugh filled the little hut. "Boy, that's the first time anyone's ever asked me that!" she said, then laughed heartily again. "Wait 'til I tell Xena that one," the girl giggled. "She always says I can out-eat any wild creature in the known world."
Musaeus' smile faded perceptibly at the mention of the warrior's name. He dropped his eyes from the bard's as the girl's laughter subsided. When she noticed the slight scowl, the little blonde's soft face reflected her curiosity.
"Something wrong?" she asked after a moment. She met the young man's hesitant expression with a steady gaze.
"I asked you once before why you stay with her," Musaeus began, carefully shielding his resentment with a look of sincere support. "Sounds like she doesn't really appreciate you ... if she says things like that."
Gabrielle felt her own irritation rising again, but the girl's gentle nature tempered her reaction with a patient determination. She looked down at the new quill pen tip in her hands before meeting the young man's eyes again.
"Musaeus," the girl said, "don't you ever joke with your friends? That's what friends do, they tease each other. Xena would never say anything to hurt me. We care about each other too much for that."
The young man shrugged, apparently accepting the girl's remarks. He took another step toward the young woman, finally settling onto the edge of the table. "Yeah, I guess that's true. You can only really joke around with your buddies." The brown eyes were earnest on the young blonde's face. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply anything. But, like I also said, she seems so ...."
"Yeah, I remember. You said 'dour and uninteresting'," the little bard said. "Oh, and I think you also used 'rather imposing and formidable'. Did I forget anything?"
Musaeus' blush was authentic. He was not accustomed to having his own words quoted back to him quite so exactly. He lifted himself away from the table top and stepped toward his own chair. "No, that's pretty much what I said," he agreed sheepishly. He responded with relief to the little bard's gracious laughter.
After a moment, Musaeus met the green eyes again. He knew he had to proceed carefully, but he needed the information that only this girl could provide. He took a short breath and sent a nervous glance toward the little blonde's expectant expression.
"What did she tell the Elders? What does she plan to do about the men in the clearing?" The young man's manner appeared casual, even though his senses were fine-tuned and alert.
"She didn't say she was going to do anything," Gabrielle said. "As a matter of fact, she was very clear about not making any decisions until she could find out who they are and what they want." The girl's tone depicted her loyalty. "Xena's not one to jump to any conclusions; she always gets the facts before she takes any action."
Again, Musaeus displayed an accepting response. Gabrielle studied the handsome face for a moment longer, trying to decide what there was about the boyish expression that didn't quite ring true.
"So," Gabrielle said finally. "I guess I'll take a walk over to the Inn and see what the 'special' is today. You coming?" she said, slipping the quill pen into it's pouch and rising from the chair.
"You go ahead, I'll be right there," Musaeus said. "I want to finish up with this one first." He pointed to the scroll spread before him at the other end of the table. "It shouldn't take too long. Tell Min' I'll be there shortly."
"OK," Gabrielle said and she walked out of the hut.
Musaeus smiled as Gabrielle left the hut, then he settled back into the chair, a pensive look invading his wary face.
'All the facts, huh?' the young man thought to himself. 'Well, that'll never happen ... at least not if I can help it.' Musaeus considered his options, his mind measuring one course of action against another. Finally, he made a decision.
'Maybe I should let everyone in on those facts ... make sure our friend the warrior princess doesn't stick her nose in where it doesn't belong.' A hard, determined glare traveled over the young man's face. In fact, so intent was he on his new course of action, he wasn't aware of the entrance into the hut by the very person who now occupied those private thoughts. Had he been more attentive, he might have been able to prepare himself for the impending meeting with that same warrior princess.
When Xena led Argo into the stable, the hard determination in her expression caused Enoch to interrupt his work and follow her into the barn. She had no sooner loosened the girth strap on the saddle when he appeared at her side. The smithy studied the bronze face closely, noticing the rippling jaw and the steel gray glint to the crystal pools.
"We have to talk," Xena said stiffly, keeping her attention on the leather straps until the blacksmith relieved her of the saddle and turned to place it on the wooden rails of the stall. He turned back to the warrior, again reacting to the woman's tense manner and the determined set to her mouth.
"OK," Enoch said quietly, his eyes steady on the tall woman's face.
Xena raised her focus to meet the smithy's gaze. "And you'd better get the Elders. They should hear this, too." She lowered her eyes to the earthen floor of the barn. "They're not going to like it, but I can't see any other way."
The blacksmith kept his eyes on the warrior's face. He saw a look of deep regret travel over the sculpted features. He waited patiently when he sensed the woman had more to say.
"Gabrielle isn't going to be happy with me, either," the warrior said, more to herself than to the man beside her. She trained the blue eyes on the tradesman's tanned face. "But it has to be done," she said evenly. "Will you find the Elders? Tell them we'll meet at the Inn in about a quarter candlemark."
Enoch nodded, took a step toward the door, then turned back to the quiet warrior.
"Xena?" he asked, an honest concern in his voice. "Are you all right?"
The leather-clad figure slowly responded to the soft question. "Yeah, I'm fine," she said, although not very convincingly. "I'll see you at the Inn, all right?"
The smithy nodded again, turned and left the barn. The warrior relaxed her fists, squared her shoulders and put a gentle hand on the mare's strong neck.
"Well, here we go," she said to the horse. "I hope she understands what I have to do."
Argo whinnied softly and swung her golden head to meet the warrior's pained expression. The large brown eyes seemed to offer the woman support. Xena stroked the animal's neck for a long moment, then turned and left the barn, heading for the little hut.
As she was about to leave the stable, Xena recognized the bard's small form walking across the town square, heading for the Inn. For a moment, the warrior enjoyed a slight feeling of relief. At least now she knew the bard would not be there to witness the 'little talk' she had planned to have with Musaeus. Xena had been dreading the thought of her friend's reaction to her now-certain opinion of the character of the girl's fellow bard. It would make the impending confrontation only slightly less unpleasant. She waited until the little blonde disappeared through the door of the tavern before crossing the square on her way to her meeting with the young male bard.
Chapter Twenty-Two ~~~
Gabrielle sat down at what had become their 'usual table' at the back of the room. She gave Minerva a wide smile when she caught the girl's eye. The young waitress' expression said she would take her order momentarily, so the bard settled herself patiently. While she waited for Minerva to come to the table, Gabrielle remembered her conversation with Musaeus concerning his sister's noble attempt to support them. The girl's gentle heart went out to the young woman, not very many summers older than the little blonde herself, she thought sadly.
'Musaeus is certainly right about one thing,' Gabrielle contemplated. 'Minerva surely deserves something more.'
The redheaded waitress gave the young blonde a warm smile as she arrived at the table. "Are you going to wait for your friend?" she asked, casting an absent gaze at the door.
"No, but Musaeus said he'd be right along," the bard told her. "In the meantime, I'll have some of that sweet cider you brought me the last time." The two young women exchanged easy smiles.
"OK," Minerva said. "Be right back." She turned and made her way back to the bar.
Suddenly Gabrielle remembered she had forgotten to bring the volume of poems with her from the hut. She had planned to study the verses while she ate her lunch, since she assumed she would be eating the meal without the company of the warrior who had not yet returned from her trip to the clearing. Besides, the girl had determined, if Musaeus decided to join her, the book would provide an easy distraction from the young man's constant tales of 'fame and fortune'.
Just as Minerva returned to the table with the mug of cider, the little bard stood up, giving the other girl an apologetic grin.
"I'm sorry, Minerva," Gabrielle said. "I forgot something. I'll be right back."
The waitress nodded agreeably and stepped aside to let the bard pass. The little blonde crossed the tavern again, strode through the front door and headed back across the town square.
Xena entered the little hut, blue eyes scanning the interior for Musaeus. The cobalt stare settled on the young man's figure sitting in the chair lost in private contemplation, an annoying gloat covering his smirking face. The warrior's stomach tightened in controlled fury, but the chiseled features displayed the usual hard, stoic, uncompromising expression. She took a controlled breath and knocked loudly on the wooden door, enjoying a grim satisfaction when the young man jumped at the unexpected noise. He bolted out of his chair and turned to face her.
"Xena," he said, obviously startled. It took only a moment for the youngster to regain his placid manner. "Gabrielle is at the Inn, having lunch. I'm just on my way to meet her. Perhaps you'd like to join us." The young bard had turned toward the tall warrior, an ingratiating smile covering his face. He sat down casually on the edge of the table. "Is there something I can do for you in the meantime?"
Xena fought against her inclination to rake the back of one hand across the fraudulent grin. She walked slowly toward the young man, stopping an arm's length from him, her body deceptively calm and relaxed. She leveled a steady glare at the freckled face.
"Maybe it's a good thing Gabrielle isn't here," the warrior began evenly. "It gives me a chance to talk to you alone. You might not want her to hear what I have to say."
In a single moment, any semblance of the friendly, charming, gracious young bard vanished completely from Musaeus' polite expression and any vestige of the false respect he'd shown the warrior was transformed into clear, unbridled reprehension. The smile gleaming from the handsome face displayed a palatable hostility as the young man met the warrior's hard expression with a conceited smirk. The brown eyes traveled over the leather-clad form, returning to challenge the steely blue eyes with a self-satisfied grin.
"I just wanted to congratulate you on your very clever plan," the warrior began calmly. The young male face contorted in apparent confusion, then returned to its previous insolent smirk.
"Plan?" he said to the warrior, a slight tremor traveling across the confident grin. "I don't think I know what you mean."
Xena's eyes were cool and disgusted, but the smile she showed the young bard was deceptively smooth.
"Oh, really? Let's see if I have it straight, shall we? The warrior took a step to the end of the table, turning to face the young man's smug expression. He followed her movements, keeping his eyes on hers.
"For starters, you send for Gabrielle because you know she's dedicated enough to the idea of preserving these scrolls to come here and because you know you can count on her to keep her word, whether you deserve her loyalty or not." She paused to let her contempt for the young man show clearly across her expression.
"So, you get Gabrielle here to restore the scrolls after you get the Council to finance the project. Of course she's doing all the work, but that's OK, because the Elders are only interested in the completion of the project, not necessarily in who's really getting the job done."
Musaeus' gaze remained locked on the warrior's.
"Then you discredit Gabrielle by convincing her to transcribe a scroll that you both know is incorrect. That way, all her work will be dismissed and you can claim all the glory of the restoration for yourself." The warrior paused, focusing a grim, lethal glare at the male face. "So that way, Gabrielle leaves Almiros in disgrace but the Elders get their new scrolls, with your name notably assigned to the work, of course, and all the visitors that arrive to see the newly-discovered prize pay homage to the resident scholar responsible for this very distinguished enterprise."
The young man's arrogant attitude incensed the warrior even more. She turned her back on the detestable grin.
"And if that part of your insidious little plot weren't depraved enough ...." She turned back to level a cold stare at the contemptible leer. "There's the cave to discuss."
The young face sobered slightly.
"I mean, the real cave, Musaeus. The one with all the crates and boxes in it? The one hidden behind the stones? That's the cave I visited today. The cave with all the evil in it." Xena enjoyed the slight constriction she noticed in Musaeus' throat. She kept her eyes focused on the deceitful face and waited.
"I really don't have any idea what you're talking about, Xena. I honestly don't. But, this tale of yours is getting better and better," Musaeus chuckled confidently. "Please, go on. I can't wait to hear the end of this."
The warrior's chuckle was as hollow as the young man's had been. She threw him a contrived frown. "No, of course you don't. And you don't know anything about the band of thugs camped in the valley either, do you? The scum that seems to have complete access to that same cave and it's very profitable contents?" Her face showed comical disbelief. "Of course, since you're the one who supposedly discovered this famous cave, it wouldn't necessarily follow that you maybe ... made a deal with them, would it?"
The young male face showed a sheen of pure loathing.
"Something like, you keep quiet about their little 'collection of death and destruction' as long as they stay away from the town and leave your precious scrolls alone?" Xena leaned casually on the end of the table.
"That way, the town enjoys all the new trade and commerce of the droves of visitors who come to see the new 'Almiros scrolls' and Phantaos and his slimy buddies ... yes, I recognized them ... have a steady stream of victims and they have a perfect cover for all the sleazy deals they make with other vile customers for the 'items' in the back of the cave. How'm I doin' so far?" the warrior's expression was deceptively amused.
"And Gabrielle says you have no imagination," Musaeus said, shaking his head in a blatant imitation of incredulity. Then he fixed a hard stare at his accuser. "But, you know, if you try to sell this ... fabrication to Gabrielle or even to the Elders," he chortled, bating the warrior, "are you all that sure they'll believe you?" He fixed a confident glare on her face. "You've already made an incredible fool of yourself with Gabrielle twice. Do you really want to chance it again?"
Musaeus crossed his arms over his chest in an arrogant display. When the warrior didn't react to his provocation, the young man smiled vainly. "I didn't think so." A sarcastic grin contorted the rakish face. "And the Elders aren't that convinced your new 'warrior-for-good' act is for real, either." The young face grew hard and defiant. "I doubt they'd take your word over a 'native son'. Not very likely."
Xena moved a step closer to the contemptuous youngster, her blue eyes locked on the egotistical countenance. A noticeable tremor narrowed the brown eyes as the young male instinctively drew back from the sleek warrior's nearness. Finally the woman spoke, her voice sounding with a lethal, deadly calm.
"Don't ever underestimate Gabrielle, Musaeus," she told the self-satisfied face. "It may be one of the biggest mistakes you'll ever make." She paused, her steely gaze provoking a wave of primal fear in the young man's stare. "Gabrielle may seem gentle and forgiving, and in truth, she usually is." The warrior's stony glare remained locked on the brown pools. She leaned forward slightly, bringing her face even closer to the young bard's.
"But underneath all that sweetness and compassion, you'll find a will of tempered steel. And she has more integrity and more pure, unquestioned decency in her smallest finger than you have in your whole, contemptible body." The warrior's form straightened and she leveled her own smirk at the young man's venomous glare. "Believe me, she takes a very dim view of anyone who uses lies and deceit for their own distorted purposes." Xena's gaze swept lightly over the collection of scrolls at the end of the table.
"Gabrielle also treats her responsibility as a bard very seriously. If you try to compromise that principle," the warrior's eyes grew hard and threatening, "dealing with me will be the least of your worry. She'll take your head off and hand it back to you. So consider yourself warned."
Musaeus stared contemptuously at the tall warrior's stiff form. After a moment, he regained some of his confident attitude. He slowly removed himself from the edge of the table and faced the leather-clad figure, meeting her piercing gaze with a prideful grin.
"And as for the Elders ... people like you always make the mistake of assuming the people they're trying to trick are as stupid as they believe they are." She glared at the young man's enraged scowl. "You may have another surprise coming when you find out they're not as easily fooled as you think."
The warrior's sleek body stood poised for a moment before she stepped back from the young man. After training a disgusted glance at the unresponsive male face, she turned and took a step toward the door of the hut. Then she slowly turned back to the loathsome face, the blue eyes sparkling with a feral gleam.
"By the way, the biggest mistake you could ever make is believing that there's a rock or a tree or a hole in this whole country where you could hide from me if you ever hurt Gabrielle or threaten her integrity." The young man gulped convulsively. "You got that?" Her crystal gaze locked with his. Then the tall warrior turned and walked toward the doorway of the hut.
Just as she was about to pass through the opening, she came face to face with the small form of the bard. The girl's green gaze lingered meaningfully on the warrior's blue eyes and the soft face displayed a clear message. The tall woman blinked at the deep affection she read in the emerald pools as the young blonde laid a small hand on her friend's muscled arm. For a moment, there was total silence in the room.
"So," the little bard said softly. "You two been getting better acquainted?" She looked first at the astonished male face, then back to the warrior's stoic expression. "Good," the bard said, smiling. She leveled a steady gaze at the face of the young man, then turned to the tall woman standing stiffly in the open doorway.
"Since I don't see any fish," she said gently, a teasing grin warming her young face, "I guess we'll have to make do with another 'special' at the Inn." Gabrielle turned to Musaeus. "I'll be back after lunch," she told him, a meaningful glint in the green eyes.
Musaeus' eyebrows rose slightly as he gazed nervously at the little blonde's open expression. He nodded wordlessly and walked back to the chair at the end of the table, his mind scrambling to restore order and control.
Gabrielle stepped closer to the warrior. "Shall we go?" she asked. The warrior met the emerald pools, the familiar dread returning to her stomach. She threw one last disdainful look at the shaken young man, then returned her attention to the young face of her friend.
"Yes," she said, moving through the open doorway as the bard followed. When they were a few paces away from the little hut, Xena turned regretfully to the little blonde. "But I'm afraid what I have to tell you may take away your appetite."
Gabrielle kept her eyes on the earth beneath their boots.
"No chance of that," she said softly. "I lost my appetite a few minutes ago." The warrior stopped stone still and faced the girl at her side. The bard looked up at her friend's nervous expression. She touched the warrior's arm.
"It's all right," she said softly. "I trust your judgment. I always have."
The warrior swallowed hard around the tightness in her throat. She returned the bard's gentle touch as a fragile smile warmed the sculpted face. The two women turned together and started toward the Inn. Gabrielle smiled, remembering the warrior's words.
Chapter Twenty-Three ~~~~
Enoch and the three Elders were waiting when they entered the tavern. Their faces were tense, their manner nervous. Xena strode through the room, acknowledged the smithy and motioned toward the back table with her head. The warrior gently guided the bard to the bench behind the table, giving the girl one last remorseful look as the men seated themselves around the fixture. The smithy assumed the same place as before, the edge of the wooden table nearest where the warrior stood.
When they were all settled, Hagen and the other two Elders turned an expectant gaze toward the warrior. She focused on the blacksmith's serious expression for a moment, then met the bard's green eyes. After a moment, Hagen cleared his throat and sat forward, laying one fleshy hand on the table.
"Well, warr... Xena," he amended. "Enoch said you have some news for us?" The blue eyes left the bard's emerald pools and met those of the aged official. "We were right, weren't we? Those men are a threat to the scrolls, aren't they?"
Xena took a deep breath. "No," she said simply. "Those men couldn't care less about the scrolls." The Elders exchanged surprised looks. The smithy's brows knit together. The bard watched the warrior's tense expression. When the murmuring between the men ceased, the tall woman continued.
"Their leader is called Phantaos. I once ...." she hesitated, revising her thoughts. "We've met before," the warrior said quietly. "He leads a band of ... thieves, bandits. The worst kind of vagrant. They prey on innocent travelers or sell their services to any warlord who wants to increase his numbers. They're ... garbage." The tall woman's bitter tone silenced the men at the table. Xena straightened her shoulders, the rising dread within her tightening her stomach.
"But, if they're not after the scrolls," Hagen began, his gaze darting to the smithy's quiet face, then back to the warrior's. "What do they want, then? Can you tell?"
The warrior's blue eyes turned to granite as the little bard swallowed hard. The green eyes were locked on her friend's face.
"They're after the cave," Xena said stiffly. "Or rather, what's in the cave."
"In the cave?" Hagen repeated. "But there's only the ...."
"No," the warrior said, sternly. "There's another room, behind where the scrolls were found. And it's filled with weapons. Lots of weapons." She turned to the bard. "More weapons than I've seen in one place since ... in a long, long time." The blue eyes sent an entreaty to the girl's green gaze.
Gabrielle's mouth opened slightly as she concentrated on her friend's anguished face. A nagging, unsettling dread had begun to constrict the sides of her stomach. She watched the warrior's jaw quiver as the woman's cobalt stare locked on hers.
"What do you think we should do, Xena?" It was the smithy's quiet voice. The warrior turned slowly toward the handsome face. She blinked at the brown pools and strove to regain her composure. After a long moment of tense silence, the tall woman answered, her voice tense and hard.
"Seal it up," she said coldly. "Seal the cave. It's the only way to keep Phantaos and others like him from getting to those weapons."
The warrior's jaws slammed tightly together when she heard the small gasp emitted by the young woman beside her. She dismissed the Elders' stunned reactions, as well as their exclamations of disbelief. Xena's attention was totally focused on the young blonde's horrified face.
"But, that would mean burying whatever scrolls might still be there!" Hagen blurted, outraged.
"Oh, Xena!" the little bard whispered, her stricken tone quieting even the flabbergasted Elder. "Seal it up? For good?"
Xena took the bard's hand. "Gabrielle, there are enough weapons in that cave to destroy this whole section of the country." The blue eyes were fervent on the bard's. "I can't let Phantaos get to those weapons. I can't." Gabrielle saw the urgency in the bronze face. "Please try to understand."
"Surely there must be another way," Hagen blustered. "Perhaps you could ...."
The warrior's head swiveled back to the stammering Elder. "No, there is no other way!" she barked, silencing the old man's objection. "It's the only way to be sure that Phantaos and any others like him never get their hands on those weapons. Sealing it up is the most certain method for keeping him from using them, or worse, bartering or selling them outright to any other warlord or lowlife scum who might offer him a handful of dinars."
The three aged men around the table sat dazed and bewildered by the frightening possibility presented by the warrior's passionate speech. They glanced at each other, shamefaced and contrite. After a long, stilted silence, Enoch addressed the warrior again.
"How, Xena?" he asked, his voice quiet and somber. "How do we do it?"
Xena's attention was focused on the bard's astonished expression. As she watched, she saw the soft face register disgust, regret and finally settle into sorry resignation. The girl dropped her eyes from the blue crystals, scanned the table top, then returned to meet the warrior's tense gaze. The blonde head nodded slightly as the soft face showed silent, loyal support. Xena drew a long, labored breath.
"I'll do it," she said quietly, turning to the smithy's steady gaze. The lean form straightened purposefully as the slender fists relaxed on the front edge of the wooden bench. "The whole interior is a series of wooden beams, braced and wedged tight. It's just a matter of unseating the supports, then burning it out. "There's plenty of oil there, too, to provide enough ...."
"Now, wait a minute, here," Hagen blared. "We have to present this notion to the entire Council before you go any farther with your ... plans." He turned a stubborn glare at Enoch's critical expression. "This is much too important an agenda for us to make this decision on our own ...." He turned a challenging glance at the warrior. " ... on just your opinion." The tall woman's face remained stony and unyielding. "I'm sorry. But we must make the Council aware and then hold a vote on this idea."
The aged official slid his heavy form off the bench and waved a commanding hand toward the other two old men . They shuffled to their feet. Hagen turned to Enoch with an imperious glare. "We'll need your vote, Enoch." With that, he turned to leave.
"Don't take too long," Xena warned sternly. "Phantaos and his men aren't going to be content to stay in the valley much longer. He could decide to go after those weapons at any time."
Hagen returned the warrior's level stare nervously. "We'll let you know what the Council decides, warrior," he told her, pulling himself up proudly. The three elderly officials bustled across the tavern, chattering nervously.
Enoch pulled himself off the table and trained a serious look at the warrior's stoic face. "I'll make sure the Council hears your concerns and not just what Hagen thinks they should hear, OK?" The slender woman nodded. "Where can I reach you?" the smithy asked.
Xena glanced at the quiet bard. "I'll wait here for you." The smithy turned to leave.
"Enoch," the liquid voice summoned and the tanned face turned back. "Don't let them stew too long. We really don't have much time. Understand?"
The blacksmith nodded supportively, then strode across the room and out the front door of the tavern. Xena focused again on the little bard's unhappy face. She waited until the green eyes floated up to meet hers. Her heart lurched at the look of faith in the emerald gaze.
"You know I wouldn't suggest this if I knew anything else to try, don't you?" The bard nodded mutely. "Are you going to be all right?"
Gabrielle studied the worried face of her best friend. She knew Xena's actions were driven by the warrior's honorable code, but it didn't lighten the disappointment in her chest very much. At the moment, however, she was more concerned with the look of contrition in the lean warrior's blue eyes. She laid a gentle hand on the woman's sleek arm.
"Of course I know that," the bard said to her friend's penitent look. "It just seems so ... final. And so ... irreversible." She glanced quickly at the warrior's clenched fists. "I'll be OK," the girl said, returning the apologetic gaze. "Just be careful, all right? Don't take any chances you don't have to. That's what I really want."
The golden face softened as the cobalt eyes traveled over the soft, young face. The warrior smiled quietly. "Yes, mother," she quipped, fixing the bard with a characteristic raised eyebrow. "Try not to worry, all right?" She covered the little hand with her own.
"Right. Like, 'try not to breathe', you mean?" the bard said seriously and the warrior's throat tightened. "OK," the girl said haltingly. "I'll try." The girl took a deep breath and closed her eyes tightly for a moment. "Well," she said eventually, "I guess I'd better get back to the hut. At least we'll have the scrolls that were already found. Right?" The green eyes drifted back to the warrior's steady glance. Gabrielle patted the slender hand covering hers.
"I'll be OK. Just make sure you come back in the same shape, you understand?" The bard's gaze was steady on the warrior's piercing blues. "I mean it, Xena. Just do what you have to do and get back here ... in one piece." One little hand yanked insistently at the side of the warrior's leather tunic. "Don't stick around to teach this Phantaos any lessons, all right?" The sweet face gathered in a meaningful frown. "Just seal the cave and get your skinny butt back to me." The warrior blinked in surprise. "Understand?" Gabrielle said, giving the leathers another firm tug.
Xena found herself chortling in spite of the gravity blazing across the sweet face. She took the small hand grasping her leather bodice into one hand and touched the girl's face softly with the other. "Yes, ma'am," she said into the earnest green gaze. "In and out, I promise." A warm smile crossed the tanned face. "I'll be back before you know it."
The emerald pools glistened brightly, a sudden glaze of tears radiating from the girl's fond glance. "Wanna bet?" she whispered quietly. After a moment, the bard pulled her hand from the warrior's palm and straightened her shoulders, blinking hard to turn back her tears. She laid both hands flat on the table, stood up and took a step away from the wooden bench.
"Well, I'll be at the hut. Let me know when you take off, OK? Just so ... so I'll know when to expect you back." She smiled bravely at the warrior's steady gaze. "Right?"
"Right," the tall woman answered softly, returning the little smile. "I won't leave without telling you first."
Gabrielle took a quick breath, turned and walked briskly toward the front door of the tavern. The small hands were clenched tightly, the soft chin raised high in a courageous tilt. The girl marched through the door, keeping her pace bright until she heard the wooden panel thump closed behind her. A second later, the rust-colored boots stopped abruptly as the small form came to a complete halt. The bard closed her eyes tightly, swallowing furiously to combat the large lump constricting her throat.
"Please! Artemis, protect her," the little bard whispered fervently. "Bring her back safe. Please!" The little blonde opened her eyes and slowly resumed walking. "Just bring her back safe, that's all I ask," the girl chanted quietly.
Gabrielle was so engrossed in her quiet prayer she didn't see Musaeus' advancing form until she had nearly bumped into him. The young man took her arms to prevent her from bouncing backwards as he stepped into her path. The little bard looked up surprised. After a moment, she recognized her male friend.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Musaeus," she told him. "Guess I wasn't looking where I was going."
Musaeus studied the girl's nervous face. He could tell the blonde was upset and he had a very good idea why. He released her arms and moved to her side, one arm resting easily at the back of her waist.
"You OK?" he asked, feigning concern. "You look like you've just met Hades' green harpies. What's wrong?"
Gabrielle sent the young man a thin smile as she began to walk toward the little hut again. "Oh, I was just listening to Xena tell the Elders about what she found in the cave. It seems there's another room behind the one where you found the scrolls," the girl said, noticing the 'surprised look' travel over the young male face. "Yes, isn't that something?" Musaeus met the green gaze skeptically.
"Another cave?" he asked tentatively. "With more scrolls, you mean?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "No. It's filled with all kinds of weapons. All sorts of nasty things, Xena said. Things that could mean lots of pain and lots of people suffering." The bard continued toward the little hut.
Musaeus relaxed at the young blonde's words. He was relieved that the warrior evidently hadn't mentioned her suspicions of his involvement in the second cave, but he was still unsettled by the possibility of the woman's further interference in his impending triumph. He pulled his arm from the girl's waist and put a hand on her slender arm . "So, what's Xena going to do?" he asked.
The little bard halted her progress and turned to face Musaeus' curious face. She took a quick breath and met the brown eyes openly. "She's going to seal it up ... seal the cave around the weapons, so that these men and others like him won't be able to get to them." The girl winced slightly at the look of horror on the young man's face. She put a small hand on his arm.
"Oh, I know, I was shocked when Xena first told me but, Musaeus, it's really the only way, don't you see?" The green gaze was sympathetic. "It's the only sure way to keep this Phantaos and any other creeps from using the weapons to hurt people." Gabrielle studied the young man's expression. She began to notice something else other than the regret of losing any future scrolls in the handsome face; she would later realize, what she saw there was venomous hate. "Musaeus?" the bard said, drawing the brown eyes back to her face. "What is it? Something else wrong?"
Musaeus' face showed a stormy insistence as he took hold of the little bard's arms. "She can't!" he blurted firmly. "You have to tell her she can't do that."
Gabrielle straightened her arms against the young man's grip. "Musaeus!" she barked surprised. "Take it easy! Calm down!"
The young man released her, his eyes contrite and seemingly apologetic. "Sorry, I didn't mean to ...." He patted the air with his outstretched palms. "Sorry. But you can't let her seal the cave, Gabrielle. She's going to ruin the whole thing. We'll ... we'll never be able to get to anything else that might be in that cave, if she does that." Musaeus' mind was scrambling to provide a believable argument without exposing the true reasons for his concern. "Don't you get it?? She's going to ruin everything!"
Gabrielle saw the panic in the young man's face. She pulled at the boy's arm, speaking evenly, trying to calm the hysteria in the male face.
"Musaeus, she has to do it," the girl said firmly. The brown eyes floated down to the determined green pools. The little bard watched as the panic in the handsome face receded slowly to be replaced by a cool resolve. She remained convinced of the value of her friend's plan.
"It's a shame we'll have to lose any scrolls that might be discovered in the future, but ..." Gabrielle tugged at the arm of her bard friend. "It has to be done. Try to understand, OK?"
The little blonde focused on the firm jaw of the tall, handsome young face in front of her. Her senses, also honed sharp by her winters at the warrior's side, were whispering quiet warnings to her, but the sincerity of the girl's spirit were directing her perceptions elsewhere. She saw only the young man's worry; his blatant, primal rage unfortunately escaped her.
After a moment, Musaeus calmly extracted his arm from the little bard's grasp. He focused at a vacant spot across the town square for a time, then turned a shielded glance down at the bard's honest expression. He patted the little hand solicitously.
"Look, Gabrielle, it'll all work out, I'm sure," he told her absently, his eyes empty of emotion. "But I'm afraid I won't be able to continue our work this afternoon. I have something else to do." He set the girl away from him and turned toward the stable. "I'll catch up with you later." He moved toward the stable with a determined stride. Gabrielle followed the retreating form, a heavy dose of confusion knitting the wheat-colored brows.
"Yeah, sure," she answered quietly, certain her voice hadn't registered with the young man crossing the town square. She pulled her hands onto her hips and shook her head briskly. "It's not like we have anything pressing to do here."
Gabrielle trained her eyes at the door of the Inn. Her thoughts settled briefly on the leather-clad warrior, whom she assumed was still awaiting the decision of the Council's vote. For a moment, she found herself hoping the Elders would refuse their permission to let Xena fulfill her plan. It was not the preservation of the scrolls that completely influenced the bard's fleeting wish; she had finally acknowledged the taut dread that had invaded her stomach when she thought about the likely danger to the warrior in the execution of her own plan. The bard gulped instinctively.
"Just be careful, Xena," the bard murmured to the vision of her friend. "Please be careful."
Gabrielle took a deep breath and opened the door to the little hut.
Chapter Twenty-Four ~~~
Musaeus jumped to the ground as the horse he'd ridden into the valley scraped to a halt. He threw the reins in the direction of the dark-clothed ruffian in front of him and scanned the camp for Phantaos. When he found him, the young man moved hurriedly in the brigand's direction. The pitted face registered a slight annoyance when he recognized the young male face.
"Whatta you doin' here?" he growled at the young face. "I thought you said it wasn't a good idea for us ...."
"Xena's going to seal up the cave," Musaeus blurted roughly. "Her little friend told me she plans to pull it down and bury the stuff, so that you and 'others like you' won't be able to get to it. She knows you're here, too. She saw you and some of your men going into the cave the other day."
Phantaos' grisly face hardened in a grim mask. "Xena? She's here?" He glared at the young man. "Why didn't you warn us before now?"
"I didn't think she'd be any problem. It seemed like she was glued to the blonde's side at first." Musaeus' face contorted in a disdainful smirk. "I figured she'd never leave the little broad long enough to discover anything."
The leering bandit in front of him didn't seem appeased by his explanation. Musaeus swallowed nervously. "She might not do it after all. She still has to convince the Council that it's a good idea and I don't think they're exactly all that much in favor of ...."
Phantaos grabbed the front of the young man's tunic, pulling him roughly forward. The young bard grimaced at the stench of the man's foul breath. "Well, you better make sure she doesn't get their 'approval', you understand?" He shoved the boy back savagely. "If she collapses that cave, it'll be the last thing she ever does." He glared harshly at the young bard.
"I'm sure as Hades not about to let the Warrior Princess ruin all my plans for the lovely profits I'm gonna make from the stash in that hole," the ruffian spat at the youngster. "Not to
mention how it would kick the dung out of your lovely plot, eh, Boy?" the man taunted the young man. "All that fame and glory, thrown right into the cow pile."
The young bard glared at the craggy face with open contempt. He righted his tunic and gathered himself up confidently. "Well, I can't very well try to change her mind without making myself look suspicious, can I?" Musaeus' clever mind began to function in its usual, cunning manner. He watched the robber's lumbering form react to the value of his statement.
He decided to present his own suggestion.
"Why not just set a trap for her? If she does manage to get the Council to allow her to try this, you could take her out of your way for good. You'd really make people notice with a move like that, wouldn't you?"
Phantaos' eyes narrowed as an evil, vindictive smirk traveled over the dirty countenance. The brigand's chest swelled pridefully as he considered the young man's proposal. He let his eyes sweep over the camp, consulting his cohorts. A low, guttural chortle began to rumble from the big man's mouth. It was soon transformed into a vicious, raging laugh. Phantaos threw back his filthy, matted head and roared in spiteful glee. He took a step toward the young bard, clapping a heavy hand onto the boy's wincing shoulder.
"You might be right at that, Boy," the bully guffawed. "Yeah, I like that idea better." Another raucous laugh escaped the wide, muscled chest. He turned to the man holding Musaeus' horse's reins and waved the ruffian forward. The man advanced, handing Phantaos the leather strips.
"Get your carcass back to town," he told Musaeus, dropping the reins into the boy's outstretched palm. "Just play innocent. In fact, you better stay clear of her all together." Phantaos threw a wicked smirk toward his second in command. "We'll take care of the Warrior Princess, eh, Gawl?" he snickered. The other ragged thug returned the depraved grin as Musaeus climbed onto his horse. Phantaos' dark gaze met the young man's brown eyes.
"Keep your mouth shut, understand? Just wait quietly for the 'sad news'." The ruffian slapped the horse's rump and the animal bolted under the young bard. Musaeus rode away from the camp, the sound of Phantaos' evil laughter still pounding in his ears.
At the last table in the tavern, Xena raised her eyes to meet Minerva's sad gaze. The young woman noticed that the tall warrior's attire now included the same metal armor she had seen the first day when she and the bard had arrived. The redhead gulped fearfully, a heavy sense of dread tightening her stomach.
A wave of regret swept over the blue crystals as Xena noticed the tankard the woman set quietly before her. For a moment, the two women silently studied each other. Finally Minerva's wavering voice broke the uncomfortable silence in the back of the room.
"Musaeus is involved in this somehow, isn't he?" the young waitress said. Her eyes were steady on the warrior's azure pools. "He has something to do with what you found in that cave, I can feel it."
"Minerva ..." the warrior began, her voice even. "I can't prove that he is." Xena met the girl's hazel gaze openly. She felt a strong reluctance at causing the pain she saw in the young worker's eyes, however inadvertent it might be. The stoic face softened minutely. "There isn't anything I can find that ties him to those weapons, for sure."
Minerva's eyes left the warrior's to focus on the heavy wooden tabletop. "No," she said quietly. "There never is with Musaeus. He's always very careful about that." She met the blue eyes again. "But, I want you to know. I agree with your plan." The warrior's dark eyebrow floated upward. The waitress smiled sardonically. "You hear everything from behind that bar," she quipped bitterly. "I wasn't really eavesdropping, I just couldn't help it." The little smile faded quickly. "You just do what needs to be done and I'll worry about Musaeus," she told the warrior, her tone quiet and firm. She favored the bronze face with another fleeting smile, turned and walked away.
Xena's jaw tensed rigidly as her gaze followed the girl's proud back. 'Always the loyal ones,' she thought bitterly. 'Why do they always feel the pain for the trash?'
The warrior's acrid contemplation was immediately dispelled when the front door of the tavern opened to reveal Enoch's tall form. He strode purposefully toward the warrior, arriving at the table quickly. She sensed from his expression that the time had come to put her plan in motion and she stood up to meet his advancing figure.
"The Council wasn't very happy about it, but ..." his brown eyes met the warrior's evenly. "They gave their consent. They'll stand behind whatever plan you have." Xena drew a deep, steady breath. The sculpted jaw rippled as the blue eyes left the smithy's momentarily, then returned his steady gaze. "What do you need? I'll help in any way I can."
Xena sent the tradesman a grateful look. "Everything I need is already there," she told him. "It shouldn't be too difficult. I just need to get out there and get it done." The smithy moved slightly to allow her to move past him. They moved together toward the tavern's entrance. As she passed the bar, Xena met the young waitress' nervous gaze. She paused long enough to send the girl a confident look, then continued her progress toward the front door.
Once in the street, she quickened her pace. The tall smithy walked beside her, easily matching his stride to hers. After a few steps, the warrior's eyes were drawn to the little, private hut across the square ... and the small, blonde form standing in the doorway. Xena slowed her steps and swallowed against the sudden tightness in her throat.
"I'll meet you at the stable," she said quietly to the smithy, her gaze still locked on the young woman walking towards her. Enoch looked quickly at the approaching bard, then back to the warrior's pained expression.
"OK," he responded quietly, touching the woman's sleek arm momentarily. He strode toward the barn as Xena altered her path toward her best friend.
"I'm leaving now," the tall woman said as the little bard's eyes held hers. "The Council agreed to my plan." She clenched her fists to stop them from trembling.
"I figured they had," the bard said quietly, "since you're wearing your armor." The warrior flinched inwardly at the fearful concern she saw in the deep, green pools. The two women exchanged a wordless stare, each pair of eyes locked desperately on those of the other. "Just be careful, OK?" the little blonde said finally. She took a deep breath and forced herself to smile bravely. "I'll see you before dark, right?"
"Right," the warrior said evenly. She touched the girl's shoulder and gently stroked a strand of the soft blonde hair. Then the tall, sleek frame straightened purposefully. She dropped her hand and gave her friend a confident smile. "See you then," she told the bard. She turned and strode briskly toward the stable.
'Just remember your promise, Xena,' the young blonde woman pleaded silently to her best friend's back. 'That's all I ask.' Gabrielle turned and walked back into the little hut.
When she arrived at the stable, Xena noticed that Argo stood patiently waiting for her. She took a moment to wordlessly thank the smithy for his foresight. The warrior's grave expression pulled the smithy's eyes to her face. He sensed her apprehension about the upcoming mission was only partly due to the men she expected to encounter. He waited until the blue eyes rose from the ground between them to meet his.
Finally, the liquid voice interrupted the stilted silence. "There is one thing you can do for me, if you would," she said to the smithy. She studied the warm, brown eyes closely.
"Name it," the man responded, his eyes on the woman's bronze face. She swallowed quickly as she met the man's gaze, an ardent plea clearly shining in the brilliant blue eyes.
"If something happens out there and I don't ... I don't get back here," the warrior began haltingly. Enoch kept his eyes trained on the woman's hesitant face. "If you would help my friend get back to ... wherever she wants to go?" the warrior stammered, suddenly unsettled by the emotions churning in her stomach. "If you could do that ...." the smooth voice wavered as the tall woman trained her eyes on her boots.
The blacksmith touched the warrior's shoulder gently. "You can count on me, Xena," he told her, his brown eyes warm and compassionate. "But, that's a little premature, isn't it?" he said as the warrior met the soft, brown pools again. A playful smile curled across the man's handsome face.
"You just be careful, do what you need to do and when you get back, we'll have a nice, quiet supper." The smithy's quiet smile widened. "Right?" The warrior's face softened in a little smile as the blue eyes returned the smithy's gaze. Finally, the tall form straightened and the golden face sobered again.
"Right," the smooth voice announced. She turned and mounted the palomino mare. Xena cast one final look down at the blacksmith's confident smile, laid the reins on the horse's neck and headed for the road to the clearing. 'Right, Gabrielle,' the leather-clad woman thought as she pressed her heels to the mare's sides. 'I did make you a promise, didn't I?' Xena leaned forward as Argo's hooves pounded the ground.
Chapter Twenty-Five ~~~~
The group of vagrants silently witnessed the tall woman's arrival at the edge of the little clearing. They watched nervously as the warrior slid off the mare's back, secured the reins to a tree limb and proceeded carefully toward the mouth of the cave. When the leather-clad figure disappeared through the opening, the men emerged from their leafy hiding places and converged on the same opening. One of the scowling thieves wordlessly motioned toward the others in the group as they quickly aligned themselves in a wide circle outside the cave.
Inside the cavern, Xena's senses alerted her to the presence of the motley crew. She stood still for a moment, her sharp instincts determining their number and their relative positions. She silently drew her sword and slowly stepped back toward the entrance of the cave.
The warrior's attention was quickly captured by the sound of the rocky trapdoor rattling across the floor behind her. She quickly turned around, ready to meet the challenge of whoever had engaged the appliance, her body vigilant and alert. When the stones stopped moving, the warrior's focus remained locked on the granite facade ... until the voice behind her echoed against the earthen walls of the cave.
"Pretty inventive, isn't it?" a raspy voice asked. Xena stiffened, then turned slowly toward the owner of the rough tones. She recognized Phantaos' hard-featured face and her mouth curled in a repulsed scowl.
"Phantaos," the warrior growled. "Why am I not really surprised to see you in a hole with the other vermin who probably live here?" The pitted face glared in glee. He looped his gloved thumbs over the wide belt around his massive waist. "Gawl!" the ruffian barked and the second bully appeared in the middle of the secret opening. Xena glanced sideways at the other brute, stepping slowly to her right to place herself between the two bandits.
Phantaos stepped to the side of the cave's entrance and bowed slightly, extending his arm toward the mouth of the shelter. He gave the warrior a complacent grin, then bent and moved through the opening. Xena threw a contemptuous glare at the second man, then followed Phantaos' path, emerging outside into the afternoon light. The circle of highwaymen tightened around the warrior's figure, all of the men armed and sporting uncompromising expressions.
"So, what do you have in mind, Phantaos?" Xena said to the smug leader. "All of them and me?" She leveled a challenge at the scarred face. "Or just you and your sword against me and mine?"
Phantaos' smirk grew into a maddening grin. He swaggered nearer to the tall warrior. When they were an arm's length apart, he turned away from her slightly and bent his head toward her in a sickeningly familiar manner. "Just one thing before I answer," he sniggered, turning to face the clearing more directly. He searched the area for a moment before he faced the warrior's steady gaze again. "Who's the kid?" Phantaos' dark eyes met the warrior's cobalt stare, then turned smugly toward the small figure a few leagues' distance away from them.
Xena followed the bully's gaze and her jaw stiffened when she recognized the compact form running toward them. The blue eyes darted to the dark pools of the criminal before returning to the familiar little body. She tried valiantly to submerge her pulsing concern.
"He's just a boy from town. He must have followed me here. I told him I'd help him catch a wild colt that he fancies." She turned back to the brigand. "He's just a kid from Almiros, that's all."
Phantaos' dark eyes grew hard and mean. "Get rid of him, or I'll have Gawl put an arrow through his head." Xena saw the other bully pull the mechanism of his crossbow into place, the arrow trained directly at the small figure advancing toward them. She glared back at the glowering face. "You know I'll do it, don't you?" He held the blue eyes calmly. One of the men pulled Xena's sword from her hand and snatched the chakram from her belt. Phantaos cocked his head toward the approaching child. "Send him away without making him suspicious." He turned a complacent grin toward the youngster.
Camber dropped the pony's reins as he started up the small hill toward the warrior and the group of men from the valley. He threw a triumphant smile at the woman as he arrived, breathless and panting, in front of her. For a moment, he thought she was angry with him for following her, but as he got closer, he saw something else in the pretty, blue eyes. It made him suddenly hesitant and somewhat edgy.
"Camber," Xena began, forcing herself to smile invitingly at the youngster's expectant face. "What are you doing out here at this time of day? It's going to be dark soon."
The boy's instincts crackled, but he kept his manner calm and accepting. He threw the warrior an agreeable grin and perched his fists at the sides of his belt. The boy trained a cheerful smile at the dark man wearing dirty clothes standing right next to the tall warrior.
"Hi," the boy said easily. "Remember me? I'm the one who always waves at you when I come to the clearing."
Phantaos smiled back at the boy. "Oh yeah. Camber, is it? Nice to see you again." The big man crossed his heavy arms across his chest. Xena's fists clenched when she heard the subtle sound of the crossbow's locking arm sliding into place. She quickly stepped forward, placing herself between Camber and the clear line of fire from the threatening arrow.
"Ah, Camber," the warrior said to the boy. "I have some business to attend to with these men. And, it's getting late, so we'll have to go after the white horse in the morning, all right?" Camber's brown eyes jumped to the warrior's intense gaze, the wide pools narrowing a tiny degree before the message in her words registered in his mind. "So, just meet me back in town and we'll set a plan for the chase. All right?"
Xena focused meaningfully on the boy's open gaze. "We'll go after the white colt tomorrow," the warrior said deliberately. "I give you my word. All right?"
For an instant, the warrior felt a searing glimmer of panic, afraid that the child might react outwardly to her deliberate falsity and incite the robbers into taking dangerous action. But in the next moment she saw the clear understanding flash in the soft, intelligent face. Camber met the blue eyes calmly as the young face sent a corroborative grin back to the woman's contrived smile.
"Yeah, OK," the boy said cheerfully. He gave the warrior a little salute and sent a friendly grin toward the big man with the serious face. "See you back in town then. I'll wait for you at the stable, all right, Xena?" The warrior nodded stiffly and the boy turned and scampered back to the waiting pony, jumped onto the animal's back and urged the little horse forward.
Xena watched the small form grow smaller before she drew a shallow, relieved breath. She said a silent thanks to whichever god had engineered the boy's compliance and swallowed the dread in her throat. The stiffness in her shoulders had almost dispersed when she heard the gloating, satisfied voice next to her ear.
"Nicely done, Warrior Princess," Phantaos crooned. "You just saved the little whelp's life."
The warrior leveled a venomous glare at the ugly face.
"Too bad the same can't be said for yours," the bully smirked.
Suddenly, a sharp pain exploded across the warrior's skull. She fell to the ground unconscious, the butt of her own sword having been slammed against the back of her head.
When Xena regained consciousness, the first thing she noticed was the rampant, throbbing pain that occurred whenever she opened her eyes. She clamped them shut a moment, then opened them again very slowly. The blurred images in front of her eventually sharpened as the pounding in her head subsided slightly. The next thing to prick her awareness was the fact she was sitting on the ground, her back against a large, wooden post with her hands secured behind her and the length of rope wound around her chest and shoulders was wrapped so tightly, it prevented her from even drawing a deep breath, let alone trying to move away from the pillar. Finally she realized the face looming above hers was Phantaos and it was wearing a satisfied leer.
"Well, at least I have the pleasure of you knowing who sent you to Hades." The evil face laughed loudly as he leaned over the warrior's captured form. "Good bye, Xena. We'll meet in Tartarus some day. And then you can try and return this."
With that, the man drew back one large, gloved hand and delivered a heavy blow across the warrior's jaw. Her head snapped back against the post and the blackness returned again. As the bully watched, the dark head fell forward, blood trickling from the side of the woman's mouth onto the flanges of her leather skirt. He stood up straight, dropped the metal circle in his hand beside the sword near the warrior's hip and laughed again.
"They'll find your little toys when the worms are through with you." He turned to the brigand beside him. "All loaded?" he asked the plodding thief. When the man nodded, Phantaos moved toward the door to the large room. "Let's go."
The lieutenant followed his leader to the opening. When Phantaos had passed through the doorway, Gawl turned and flung the lighted torch in his hand into the rippling pool of oil in the center of the wide area. The pool immediately burst into flames, filling the now-barren enclosure with thick, choking smoke. The bully cast a final view at the unconscious woman slumped at the base of the post, then turned and passed through the opening. A few minutes later, there was only quiet in the large room, except for the crackling of the oil-fed fire consuming the wooden shelves and pillars ... and advancing slowly toward the limp form of the warrior princess.
Chapter Twenty-Six ~~~
Xena became aware that the throbbing pain was back, only this time it seemed to travel across her jaw as well as the side of her head. She coughed as the thick smoke around her singed her throat and burned her eyes. The other sensation that captured her attention was the gentle, but determined touch being applied to her right cheek and the soft, young voice saying her name over and over. She slowly opened her eyes and tried to focus on the small face in front of her.
"Xena?" Camber said again. "Xena?" he repeated, patting the woman's face with his hand. "Wake up, Xena, please. We have to get out of here."
Finally the blue eyes opened wide, stared at him a moment, blinked a few times, then registered clear recognition. The young face smiled widely as the pretty blue eyes cleared and the smooth face responded to his voice.
"Camber?" the warrior said, her voice strident in the empty room.
"It's all right," the boy said quietly. "Those bad men are gone. I saw them leave."
"What are ... how did you get here?" the warrior asked, the thumping pain in her head distorting her perception.
The boy ignored her question and began tugging hard at the ropes securing her hands. Xena's voice interrupted his efforts. "No, Camber. Take my sword and cut them. It'll be faster." The boy's eyes were surprised, his expression hesitant. "Go on," she urged him. It's on my other side." She motioned with her head, ignoring the furious pounding that resulted from the hard jerk. "Go on, Camber. Hurry. We don't have much time."
As if to punctuate her words, one section of the wooden shelving units collapsed, showering the area with sparks and creating a wall of yellow flames as it cascaded to the floor. The boy jumped, then scurried around to the warrior's other side, picked up the large sword and wedged it between the wood and the ropes along the back of the post. He pulled the handle roughly towards him, took another firm hold on the weapon and pulled again. An instant later, the ropes popped away from the post as Camber stumbled back a step, recoiling from the unexpected snap.
Xena pulled the remaining hemp away from her shoulders then bent her head under the loose circles, freeing herself from the restricting binds. She stood up quickly, using one hand to steady herself, and waited for the wave of dizziness to pass. Camber reached to support the staggering woman. When she had regained control, Xena bent slightly to pick up the chakram from the earthen floor, took the sword from the boy and slid the blade into the sheath on her back. A moment later, a large post next to the one she had been tied against began to waver, falling slowly toward the spot where the warrior and the boy stood.
Xena wrapped her arms around Camber and flung the two of them away from the falling timber. The warrior's slender body fell hard onto the dirt floor of the cave as the post crashed to the ground in the precise spot they had occupied a moment ago. She winced as her shoulder slammed onto the inflexible, rocky surface. After a moment, she looked down at the boy in her arms. His brown eyes were wide and fearful, his arms wrapped around her neck.
"You OK?" she asked hurriedly. He nodded quickly and scrambled to his feet. "You're bleeding!" the boy shouted, pointing at the deep gash along the warrior's shoulder. Xena stood, turning her head to inspect the wound. She swore under her breath at the blood oozing slowly from the open slash. Suddenly her attention was drawn to the burning timbers and the collapsing shelves. She grabbed the boy's arm and ran toward the darkened opening that led to the smaller cave.
When she reached the door, she threw her healthy shoulder against the surface filling the hatch, stepped back again and repeated the thrust. The surface didn't move. It had obviously been wedged closed from the other side. Their only means of escape seemed worthless. The blue eyes found the boy's frightened face.
Suddenly Camber began tugging at the warrior's hand. "C'mon," he said, pulling her back toward the open room. "We can get out this way."
Xena followed as the boy started to travel along the outer wall of the smoky room, one arm clamped over his mouth and nose, the other securely grasping the warrior's wrist. She crouched down, trying to stay lower than the rapidly sinking cloud of dark, choking smoke, while at the same time making a determined effort to keep contact with the insistent little hand.
After a half dozen difficult strides, she felt the boy drop to the cave floor then reach back to retrieve her hand. She followed his actions and dropped to her knees, using one arm to shield her mouth as she crept along the earthen floor, Camber's small hand now tugging at the leather strap on her tunic.
Xena saw the boy's small figure disappear into the side of the cave. She realized he was guiding her toward another opening, a second access to the interior of the cave. She flattened herself against the earthen floor, found the narrow tunnel with her extended hand and slid her long form into the open shaft. She followed the sound of Camber crawling along the passage ahead of her as she pulled her body along using her elbows and boots to propel herself.
Suddenly the sound of a loud explosion filled the underground tunnel. The warrior covered her head with one arm and frantically reached forward, searching for the boy's foot. She grunted gratefully when her hand fell on a small boot, and she held on tightly as the dirt and debris from inside the tunnel tumbled down around them. After a few moments, the warrior raised her head.
"Camber?" she shouted, shaking the little foot. "Camber, are you all right?"
She heard a series of muffled coughs followed by a series of loud spitting noises. The warrior expelled a short, happy breath, then found herself spitting the dirt out of her own mouth as well. She felt the little foot move in her hand. She released the boot as the boy craned his head around to answer her question.
"Yeah, I'm OK. You all right, too?"
"Yes. Let's get going. This whole place is going to blow soon." She heard the boy start crawling again. "Keep going, Camber," she encouraged him. "I'm right behind you."
The warrior and the boy continued their escape, sliding along within the earthen passageway. Suddenly Xena noticed that the air around them had changed texture. It became clearer, less putrid. The smoke in the tunnel had also begun to dissipate. The warrior could tell they were getting closer to the end of the tunnel. Then she saw the light filtering into the passage. They were almost there!
Xena lifted her head to watch Camber scramble out the end of the tunnel. She smiled as she watched the boy's little behind disappear through the opening to be replaced by his dirt-smudged face. The bright smile on the youthful countenance brought a happy chuckle to the warrior's aching body.
"OK, I'm out. Keep coming, Xena. You're almost out, too."
The warrior pushed herself forward again, pulling her long body along the dirt tunnel. She reached out with one long arm and grasped the youngster's outstretched hand. Camber rocked backwards, trying to gain some leverage, pulling on the woman's hand until he saw it emerge from the narrow opening. He released the hand and crawled forward, leaving the opening unblocked to allow the warrior to pull herself out.
Just as Xena pushed her other arm into the daylight, another loud explosion rocked the hillside. Camber flattened himself onto the ground as the warrior grimaced. When the thundering noise subsided, Xena tried to pull herself out of the tunnel. It was then she realized the walls of the passage had collapsed around her torso, the weight of the earth trapping her halfway in and halfway out of the underground tunnel. She wasn't far enough out to get hold of anything solid to pull herself free and she couldn't move herself forward any farther because of the weight of the dirt pinning her tightly in the opening. The worst of the problem was, she was wedged so tightly in the hole, she couldn't even get a strong breath. She was securely snared.
Camber jumped to his feet and began tugging hard on the warrior's arm. He sat down and braced both his feet against the uneven earth, pulling roughly on Xena's wrist and forearm. His efforts were gallant, but totally fruitless. All he was accomplishing was a rather uncomfortable burn on the woman's smooth arm.
"Camber," the warrior called. "Camber! Stop, Sweetheart!" Xena said. The boy stopped tugging, his young face a study in frustration and defeat. The soft chin quivered in angry
disappointment. Xena took both small hands then reached to stroke the dirty face. "It's OK" she said, soothingly. "We're going to be OK," she said to the flushed cheeks. She smiled at the youngster.
"Now listen carefully, please." She drew the boy's focus to her face. "You're my hero here, you know? You saved us. Now we're almost home. Understand?" The boy's face brightened. He ran one small hand over his eyes, then dragged a sleeve under his nose. The warrior saw the panic leave the young face as the brown eyes remained intent on hers.
"Go find my horse. Can you do that?" she told him. "I left her in the clearing. She's tied just outside the ca ..."
The boy jumped to his feet, suddenly energized. "I remember!" he chirped happily. "I saw her when I came back to watch." The boy's face showed a sheepish grin. "Good thing, huh?" he said, teasing. The warrior's smile met the proud smirk. "I'll be right back," he told her. With that he turned and ran down the hill, quickly passing from the warrior's sight. Xena dropped her aching head onto the soft, grassy earth below her chin. She inhaled as far as her captured chest would allow and slowly let the breath out. She closed her eyes tightly to subdue the pounding, blinding pain behind her eyes and tried to relax.
After a moment, the warrior slowly opened her eyes and craned her head around as far in every direction as she could. She raised her eyes to the sky, then trained her blue gaze on the horizon. 'Nearly dusk,' the woman decided. 'I wonder where those creeps have gone,' she thought tiredly. She dropped her throbbing head onto her extended arm. 'Gods, just this once, I hope they're too far away to bother chasing them.' Xena closed her eyes, giving in to the rest beckoning her tired body and the pounding in her head.
'A promise is a promise, Gabrielle,' the warrior said to the vision of her soulmate in her head. 'A little tired, a little squished ... but at least in one piece.' The bronze face showed a tiny smile.
Gabrielle emerged from the little hut, her arms feeling oddly empty without the bundle of scrolls and clean parchment she had grown accustomed to carrying during the past few days. The distraction she'd been fighting all afternoon nervously awaiting the warrior's return had done nothing to secure her concentration either. She'd decided to give up on trying to keep her attention on the scrolls a candlemark ago when she realized that dusk was soon approaching and she had not seen her friend's returning form yet.
The little bard stopped her progress across the town square to turn an expectant gaze toward the stable. Her heart thumped when she noticed the smithy standing against the wooden corral next to the barn, nervously scanning the fields beyond the edge of the town. She changed direction and walked toward the man, a rising apprehension quickening her pulse and tightening her throat. The blacksmith turned to meet her gaze when he heard the approaching footsteps behind him.
"Enoch?" the little bard said as she neared the tall man. "Is something wrong? You look worried." The young woman studied the tanned face, taking note of the concerned look under the full, dark brows.
"It's Camber," the smithy said to the girl's sympathetic expression. "He's usually home by now, it's not like him to be out after dark." He turned again to the open fields. "His pony came back a while ago." He faced the little bard again. "That's not unusual. Camber sends the horse back ahead regularly. But he's usually not far behind." Gabrielle followed the man's gaze, then turned back to the concerned parental look.
"You don't think something's happened, do you?" she asked gently. "Surely he's all right." The man met the gentle green eyes. "According to Xena, that little guy can handle himself." The bard sent a caring smile at the smithy. The tall man returned the bard's smile.
"No, no," he said to the emerald pools. "It's just that it's not like him to be so late." The dark eyes scanned the horizon again. After a moment, the smithy stood back from the wooden fence and untied the leather strings on his long apron. He moved purposefully toward the barn as the bard followed. He raised the leather covering over his head and hung it on a nearby nail, then lifted a heavy saddle from the rack near the door, picked up a bridle from the collection on the wall and strode into one of the stalls beside a sturdy, rust-colored horse.
As Enoch saddled the sturdy animal, the little bard studied the precise movements for a moment, then spoke to the smithy's wide back.
"Do you want me to come with you?" she asked him.
The man responded, while keeping his attention on the business of saddling the chestnut horse.
"No, you'd better stay here and wait for Xena," he said. "Maybe she's seen him or knows where he is. If she gets back before I do, tell her I've gone to the little clearing. That's where Camber usually is when he's lost track of time chasing that black colt."
Enoch had finished with the saddle and he guided the horse backwards, out of the stall and into the road in front of the stable. On the way through the stable door, he slipped a leather water pouch from a nail near the doorway and hung the narrow strap over the saddlehorn. Once outside, he swung himself easily into the saddle, gathered the reins from the horse's neck and looked down at the bard standing near the animal's shoulder. "I'm sure he's fine," the girl said to the worried brown eyes. "Like you said, he's probably lost track of time and is on his way home right now."
The smithy gave the girl a weak smile, pulled the reins to the side of the horse's neck and urged the animal toward the open field. Gabrielle watched the man ride away, a hollow feeling unsettling her stomach. As the smithy's tall form disappeared in the fading daylight, the little blonde turned slowly toward the Inn, her thoughts as concerned as the tradesman's had been. But the girl's anxious feelings were of a certain tall, raven-haired warrior princess who was even later in her scheduled return than the boy.
'Before dark, you said, Xena. You're late. Please let it not be because you're hurt, OK?' the little bard thought hopefully. She let her steps take her toward the Inn.
Chapter Twenty-Seven ~~~~
Xena heard the mare's hooves before she saw the animal. She opened her eyes and turned toward the sound, a warm welcome filling her senses as the golden head emerged over the hill. Camber's short form preceded the horse, the reins grasped loosely in his small hand. He gave the warrior a proud smile and dropped to the ground near her.
"I found her. She was right where you said," the boy announced. Argo neighed in compliance, dropping her head to nuzzle the warrior's dark, dirt-matted hair. "Hi, yourself," the warrior said, scratching the animal's nose. Then she turned to the boy's dirt-streaked face.
"Get my whip, Camber, on the side of the saddle. See it?"
The boy focused on the saddle, rose and untied the whip. He dropped to the ground again next to the warrior. She uncurled the leather thong, handing the slim end back to the youngster.
"Tie this to the saddlehorn."
The boy took the end of the whip and did exactly as he was told. He stretched his modest form out as far as he could, standing on tiptoe as he secured the leather piece to the tall horn at the front of the saddle. He turned back to the warrior. She had the hard, bound handle clasped tightly in both hands.
"OK, now lead Argo away from me," she instructed the boy. Camber turned back to the mare and, with one small hand on the side of the horse's bridle, slowly began to lead the mare away. The whip went taut, as the warrior held on tightly. She grimaced as the pain in her shoulder sent a fiery wave across her back and down her arm. Xena pulled hard with her good arm, trying to keep the wounded shoulder from suffering any further strain.
Suddenly, the saddle on the horse's back shifted. The horn that had stood at the front now slid down the animal's side. Unaware of the change in the saddle's position, Camber continued leading the mare away from the woman on the ground.
Finally the girth strap snapped and the saddle dropped unceremoniously to the ground beside the mare. The boy turned quickly, recognized the situation and halted the horse's progress.
"Whoa, Argo," the boy crooned expertly. He pulled back firmly on the leather bridle and the mare halted immediately. The boy gazed down dejectedly at the useless saddle lying on its side at the horse's feet. He turned nervous eyes toward the quiet warrior. The woman was lying inert, her eyes closed, her face pale, blood spurting from the wide wound on her shoulder covering her upper arm and smeared on the side of her face.
Camber dropped to the ground near the woman. "Xena?" he called gently. He touched the warrior's face gently, then took one of the limp hands in his. "Xena!" the boy said again.
There was no response from the immobile warrior.
Camber jumped to his feet and stepped to the mare. He knelt and untied the whip from the saddlehorn, then pulled the saddle away from the horse's feet. Moving up to the animal's face, he pulled the golden head down toward his own face.
"She's really hurt, Argo," the boy said fervently into the mare's soft ear. Argo craned her head around at her mistress' quiet form. She turned back to the boy. "We gotta get her out of there and back to town," he told the horse. He rubbed the strong neck with a dirt-smudged palm and gazed helplessly at the still warrior. "There's gotta be a way, Argo. Help me think of a way." Camber kept rubbing the sinewy, yellow neck. Suddenly the little face cleared as the youngster's quick mind determined a plan. He gave the silvery mane a friendly pat and stepped to the edge of the grassy hill.
Camber placed his two forefingers between his teeth and clamped his lips around the digits. Taking a deep breath, he blew hard against the captured fingers, resulting in a loud, shrill whistle that shrieked through the quiet dusk and echoed across the open meadow. When the piercing sound had died away, he took another breath and sent another high-pitched tone into the darkening sky. He lowered his fingers and waited, listening hard for the sound he hoped would follow.
Moments later, the sound of pounding hoofbeats filled the quiet air. Camber turned toward the sound, his eyes scanning the horizon expectantly. A few seconds passed and he smiled widely at the dark form that appeared over the grassy summit. Camber patted the mare's neck to quiet the nervousness in the horse's manner. "It's OK, Argo. He's my friend too." The boy held out the other small hand and the black colt stepped timidly forward.
"Hi, Pan," the boy said quietly. The black colt shook his handsome head, the white blaze shining clearly even in the fading daylight. Camber touched the horse's soft muzzle gently, then dropped his hands and addressed the animal openly.
"OK, here's the problem," he said to the colt's dark eyes. He motioned toward the still-unmoving warrior lying silently on the ground behind him. "My friend is hurt, so we have to get her back to town as soon as we can." He faced the colt again. "Trouble is, she's stuck in the tunnel and you and Argo," he waved a palm toward the mare, "have to help me get her out." The colt stood still, responding to the boy's gentle tone.
"I won't try to catch you, I won't even try to make you stay here after we're done, OK?" Camber said, his young face sincere. "Just help us get her out, OK, Pan?" The colt tossed his shiny, black head. "Please? It's really important." The mare whinnied quietly and the black colt stepped closer to the larger, golden horse. Camber stood quietly, watching the two animals communicate. He smiled when the black colt turned his attention back to his hopeful face. "OK, good," the boy crooned. Then he slowly backed away from the pair of horses.
The boy moved quickly toward a clump of stocky bushes on the side of the hill. He grabbed one of the stalks firmly and yanked with all his might. After the third pull, the thick, fibrous length came out of the ground and Camber carried it back to where the horses stood on the hill near the immobile warrior.
The youngster laid the stalk in front of the animals, picked up the end of the whip and tied the slim strip securely around the middle of the stem. Then he moved back to the toward the quiet Xena, trailing his hands along the whip. He gently slid the grip from her hands and, reaching under the slender form, encircled the warrior and tied a strong knot near the bound grip. He tugged lightly on the leather thong, testing the knot. Satisfied with his efforts, he stood up and walked back to the horses, lifted the stalk from the ground and held it firmly in front of the animals' faces.
"Now, take hold and pull, you guys," he urged the horses. Argo lowered her head and took one end of the stalk in her mouth. After a moment, the black colt lowered his head and did the same. "Good job," Camber sang out. He turned around to face the warrior's inert form and, grasping the extended whip firmly with both hands, began to pull as hard as he could on the leather strip wrapped around the woman's body.
"Together!" Camber called. "One, two, three!" The boy pulled on the whip and the horses pulled on the stalk. After a moment, Camber saw the loose dirt around the warrior's body start to move. He dug his heels into the grassy earth and leaned back, tugging with all his strength. "She's moving!" he called to the horses, and the mare and the colt each took a step backwards. And the whip grew taut again.
Xena's eyes fluttered open as she realized her body was moving forward. She lifted her head slowly, recognizing her whip stretched out stiffly in front of her and felt the strong pull around her torso. She took hold of the leather strip and felt the heavy weight of the earth around her chest give way. After another moment, the sleek, muscled form slid sharply forward and the warrior felt the cool grass on the hill caress her legs. She felt the whip in her hands go slack an instant before she reacted to the young male form hugging her neck tightly. She shifted to one side, supporting her weight on the elbow below her uninjured shoulder, and returned the youngster's enthusiastic hug.
"You did it, Camber," she said against the soft, wavy brown hair. The boy sat back to meet the warrior's tired smile. "You got me loose. You're a very smart young man."
Camber's brown eyes left the woman's blue gaze to focus on the two horses standing patiently at the end of the whip. He turned back to the warrior. "We did it!" he proclaimed proudly. "Me and Argo and Pan."
Xena turned her shoulders to follow the boy's pointing finger. She smiled at Argo's golden face, then her eyes moved to the small, sleek, black horse standing beside the mare. The warrior turned back to the excited boy.
"Pan?" she said to the dancing brown eyes. Camber nodded, then hopped to his feet. "Yeah, that's what I call him." As the warrior watched, the boy walked slowly toward the white-blazed face, one small palm extended toward the colt's soft muzzle. "Thanks, boy," he said softly. The colt bobbed his head, letting the small hand stroke his nose for a few seconds. Then the black head jerked back, and the ebony animal danced backward. Camber lowered his hand and stepped toward the mare.
"OK," he said to the beautiful wild colt. "A deal's a deal. I gave you my word. Go." The black hide quivered a moment as the colt stood still, meeting the youngster's soft smile. After another moment, the indigo horse, whinnied loudly, pivoted and sped away, his black form disappearing into the darkening sky. Camber watched the shrinking figure for a moment, then turned back to the warrior's admiring gaze. "A deal's a deal, right?" he said to the knowing blue eyes.
Xena nodded quietly, her gaze steady on the soft, brown eyes. "Right," she answered.
Enoch straightened in the saddle when he heard the shrill whistle shriek across the open meadow. The tanned face lit in a grateful smile as the man turned his head toward the sound, tracking its direction. His eyes scanned the short hills across from his position and he saw the small, black horse silhouetted against the gray sky. The smithy clucked to the chestnut horse and urged the mount toward the sight.
The tall rider guided the gelding to the narrow trail he knew ran up the back side of the rising hill; he knew his access to the top of the mound lay in that approach. He leaned forward in the saddle as the animal beneath him seemed to sense the necessity of a swift journey. Enoch's heart pounded behind his tunic. The whistle meant his son was alive and at least capable of initiating the sound. The second high-pitched warble widened the man's smile.
A few minutes later, the muscled form jumped down from the horse's back and ran up the hill, his boots battling the uneven terrain and his own excitement. Twice he had to thrust his hands out in front of him to thwart an impending face-down mishap. But his happy reaction drove him on.
When he reached the top of the hill, he stopped running, bent forward and rested his hands on his knees, breathing deeply to catch his breath. He filled his lungs several times, then raised his eyes to scan the grassy area, searching for the small boy and the tall warrior. He quickly found them both. The warrior was laying on the grass, leaning evenly on one elbow, her leather tunic covered with dirt, the other long arm embracing the wrinkled, equally dirty, much-the-worse-for-wear, wonderfully welcome form of his young son.
As the smithy watched, his son rose from the warrior's side and walked slowly toward the small, black horse, one hand extended, to touch the horse's gray muzzle for a moment before the small black head pulled back. The man held himself as still as he could. He saw his son lower his hand and heard the boy's voice float over the quiet air.
"OK, a deal's a deal. I gave you my word. Go." Enoch saw the horse dance backward, then turn and bolt away. The smithy took a quiet breath and moved toward the pair at the top of the hill.
Xena saw Camber's eyes move past her and sparkle brightly. "Daddy!" the boy shouted and ran toward the smithy. The man bent to claim the boy's little form, lifting the child up and wrapping his strong arms around the wiggling torso as the youngster hugged his neck heartily. The warrior watched the touching reunion, closing her eyes for a moment to stem the pounding in her head that threatened to dispatch her sensibilities. After a moment, Camber leaned back in his father's arms and smiled into the smithy's tanned face.
"You all right?" Enoch asked the child, unwilling to release the boy from his arms.
"I'm great," the boy chirped happily. He turned to look back at the warrior, still prone on the grass. "But Xena's hurt. She's got a big cut on her shoulder."
The smithy's elation subsided as he focused on the tall form in leather. He set the boy on his feet and moved quickly toward the warrior. As he knelt near her, he noticed the ragged wound on her shoulder, the blood on her arm and face, and the pallid cast to the attractive features.
Xena smiled weakly at the tanned face. She tried to raise herself up, but the man laid a gentle hand on her 'good' shoulder and turned to address his son.
"Camber, the chestnut is at the bottom of the hill. Go get him. I'll need the water pouch."
The boy turned quickly and ran in the direction from which his father had come. Enoch turned back to the tall woman, his smile warm and concerned.
"It's not too bad," the warrior said to the brown eyes.
"Yeah, just a scratch," the man said drolly, meeting the woman's blue gaze. Enoch pulled at the edge of his tunic. He took a small knife from his belt, slipped it under the looped fabric and sliced a small opening in the cloth. He replaced the knife and ripped a long, wide piece of material from the garment, then tore another, narrow piece from the same piece of cloth. He folded the wide section over several times and pressed it carefully against the bleeding wound on the warrior's shoulder. He used the narrow piece to tie the thick wad of cloth in place.
Camber returned, leading the gelding. He pulled the water skin from the side of the saddle and handed it to his father. Enoch uncorked the skin and placed it in the warrior's shaky hand. Xena took several long swallows, then handed the skin back to the smithy. She sent the man another small smile. Enoch handed the skin to the boy and Camber took some of the liquid, as well.
While the boy enjoyed the water, the smithy turned back to the warrior. "Can you stand?" he asked her, laying a gentle hand on her arm.
"I think so," Xena said as she flexed her ankles. "My legs are a little numb, but I think they'll still hold me." She accepted his strong grip and pulled herself into a more upright position. Enoch moved to stand near the warrior's feet, his arms outstretched, his palms towards her. Xena took the smithy's hands and let him pull her to her feet. She winced as the tingling in her ankles and thighs gradually changed to a warm, prickling sensation. As she rose from her prone position, the smithy wrapped one strong arm around the woman's waist and waited while she tested the status of her legs. When it was determined that her muscles were returning to normal, Xena bent forward, her hands on her knees, and pulled in several deep gulps of air. Then she stood up slowly.
"Everything works," she said to the concerned expression. "I am a little dizzy. Must be the thin air up here."
The smithy's slow smile brought a sheepish grin from the warrior. Then she bent forward again as the wave of dizziness behind her eyes threatened her balance. Enoch's arm tightened around her waist. He turned to the boy.
"Bring her horse, son. I'll saddle her so Xena can ...."
"The girth snapped," the boy said and the Enoch looked down the saddle on the ground. He turned back to Camber. "Bring the gelding here. She'll need the horn." He met the woman's blue gaze. "I'll rig something. And I'll ride Argo, all right?"
The warrior nodded wordlessly, still combating the cloudiness in her senses and the nausea in her throat. She rested her hands on her knees again.
Camber brought the gelding next to his father and Xena. The smithy guided the warrior's foot into the stirrup and helped her swing herself into the saddle. He handed her the horse's reins. While Enoch helped Xena get settled on the gelding, Camber gathered up the whip and the waterskin and handed them both to the warrior. She hung the coiled whip and the strap from the skin on the saddlehorn in front of her. She turned to watch the smithy's activity at the mare.
Enoch knelt beside the saddle on the ground and tore the useless half of the girth strap away. Then he stood and pulled his leather belt from the waist of his trousers, knelt again and threaded the slotted end of the belt through the empty loops on the side of the seat and through the buckle on the belt. He yanked the belt tight against the hard leather of the underside of the seat. He stood up, lifted the saddle onto the horse's back, reached under Argo's belly to retrieve the new makeshift girth binding and drew it towards him. Working smoothly, he threaded the end of the belt through the buckle at the end of the other side of the saddle and pulled the strap tight against the mare's middle. He tested the saddle's position and turned to the warrior's exhausted expression. "It'll do until we get back to town, anyway." The brown eyes seemed to offer the warrior encouragement. The woman nodded her agreement.
Enoch brought the mare's head to face the same direction as the gelding's and held out his hand to his son. 'C'mon, Camber. You'll ride with me."
Suddenly the boy's faced clouded. "I wanna ride with Xena, Daddy," the youngster said, his dirty little face locked in determination.
The smithy dropped his hand slightly and trained an impatient gaze on the boy's stubborn expression. "Camber, she's hurt and ...."
"Enoch," the warrior's quiet voice broke the stillness on the hill. The smithy's brown pools met the woman's clear blue gaze. She sent the man a soft smile, then turned her eyes to the boy standing near her left knee. Wordlessly, she held out her open hand to the boy. His face brightened as he grasped the warrior's wrist and stepped closer to the chestnut horse. Camber jumped as high as he could and Xena pulled him up into the saddle in front of her. She wrapped her uninjured arm around the boy's waist and he settled back against the armor on her chest. She turned tiredly to the smithy, now mounted on Argo.
"We'll take it as slow as you need, OK?" the man said, his eyes on the warrior's tired face. She nodded silently and nudged the gelding forward, turning the horse toward the road to town.
Chapter Twenty-Eight ~~~~
Gabrielle took the warrior's arm to help her out of the bathtub. The bard let the tall woman rest against the side of the reservoir for a moment as she wrapped the large, soft linen sheet around the dripping form. Xena waited while the girl surrounded her in cloth before letting her guide them both toward the waiting pallet.
As the little blonde wrapped the material around her friend, she remembered the sight of the injured warrior when the three riders had arrived back in town. Gabrielle had been waiting at the stable, perched on the top rail of the wooden fence beside the barn, hopeful eyes trained on the empty road, since the beginning of the evening, shortly after the smithy's departure to search for his son.
She recalled how her heart had bounced at the first sight of her tall friend, slouching slightly on the chestnut horse, the young boy in front of her, while the smithy rode beside her on Argo. The switch in the mounts hadn't seemed worth consideration; the important thing was that her best friend had returned, apparently in one piece and at least sound enough to arrive on horseback.
As the riders came closer, the bard's eyes had caught the soiled bandage secured to the warrior's shoulder and she'd noticed the tense grip the woman maintained on the saddlehorn. The little blonde jumped down from the fence when the horses turned into the stableyard, the heady elation she felt at the warrior's safe return quickly replaced by the numbing realization that the tall woman on the chestnut horse was hurt and more seriously, the bard suspected, than the warrior would choose to display.
Enoch had dismounted first, handing the mare's reins to the little bard, then stepped to swing his son from the saddle in front of the warrior. He had turned back to Xena, wrapping one strong arm around her waist. As the warrior had slid from the saddle, the bard recalled how her stomach had tightened when her friend's long legs had seemed to crumble beneath her and how she gasped when the smithy had gallantly swept the tall woman into his arms and cradled her wounded form against his wide chest.
The blacksmith had turned a comforting gaze at the little bard's frightened expression, smiled warmly and asked, "Where would you like our friend, here?" The bard cheerfully recalled how the man had masterfully dismissed the warrior's weak protestations about being hearty enough to walk. He had turned to the woman in his arms and replied, "Quiet, please." Then he had followed the bard's instructions to transport her injured friend to their room. Gabrielle recalled her own light amusement at the sight of the tall smithy proceeding smoothly down the hall and depositing the sulking woman on the large bed. She had thanked the man for his kindness and prepared to minister to her friend.
On her way through the tavern behind the smithy, the bard had instructed Minerva to bring the large bathtub to their room along with enough hot water to fill the wooden appliance. While her request was being fulfilled, the girl had removed the warrior's weapons, assisted her in shedding her dirt-caked leathers, arm and leg coverings, her linen undergarment and her boots. She had helped the warrior get comfortable in the bed, the light coverlet covering her naked, bruised body, and gently removed the blood-soaked bandage the smithy had applied to the jagged cut on the warrior's shoulder. She had decided the woman should bath first, before attending to the oozing wound.
She had guided the warrior into the tub, carefully washed the dirt and grime from the battered body, scrubbed and rinsed the long, dirt-and-debris-matted hair, rubbed the raven locks dry and carefully patted the moisture from the wet form with another of the large linen cloths provided by the young waitress. Finally she had helped the warrior back to the soft mattress, where the woman now waited patiently, her clean body covered by the warm coverlet, awaiting the ministrations required to attend to the long, ragged wound along her shoulder.
The bard had performed all of these duties, complete with her usual level of compassion and loving care, without uttering a single, solitary, sentient word. Her continuing silence had completely unseated the warrior's sensibilities.
Xena studied the soft face of her best friend as the girl spread the contents of the medicine bag on the small table beside the bed. The little bard crossed the room and retrieved the small herb pouch from the saddlebags hanging on one of the pegs next to the doorway of the room. She thrust her hand into the pouch, searching for the preferred medicinal plant. The warrior cleared her throat nervously.
"Good thing I refilled the herb pouch, huh?" Xena said, forcing a lightness into her tone. The bard raised her eyes from the pouch to meet the warrior's blue gaze for a quick moment, then returned her attention to her search. The tall woman transferred her gaze to the soft material covering her body, a sense of frustration deepening her heavy sigh. She turned back toward the bard, a superior quality underlining her words.
"You should use the ...." Her statement ended abruptly when she realized the girl had already selected the herb she was about to suggest. In fact, the bard had already pulverized the dry leaves on a small, metal platter and was slowly mixing the fragments together with a wooden tool, adding a small amount of clear oil, to create the thick paste to be applied over the sutured wound to prevent infection. The green eyes met the blue pools again, holding the steady gaze for another moment, then returned to the platter and the wooden tool.
The warrior sighed again, this time a bit louder and longer. She watched the bard settle on the side of the bed. Gabrielle ended the stirring and placed the platter on the table next to the other instruments. She carefully lifted the thick, square of folded cloth away from the still-bleeding wound. After discarding the bloody swatch, she gently raised the warrior's arm and lowered the woman's elbow onto one of the soft pillows. The placement alleviated the pull on the torn flesh and facilitated the suturing needed to close the open cut. Xena ignored the slight discomfort resulting from the manipulation of her aching shoulder and kept her eyes fastened on the bard's face.
"Aren't you ever going to talk to me again?" she said to the silent bard, her voice quiet and plaintive. The green pools locked with the cobalt gaze and the warrior noticed the tremor rippling the girl's soft jawline. The two women exchanged a long, silent stare for a few moments. Then the bard carefully picked up one of the long suturing needles she had laid out on the small nearby table. She moved the needle into the warrior's line of vision, her expression letting the woman know the stitching process was next on the agenda.
Xena's eyes moved to the needle and back to the bard's gaze. She took a short breath. "I guess not," she said to the emerald pools. She dropped her eyes to study her own hand where it lay in her lap. "Looks like you're still mad." She raised her eyes to the bard's but the blonde's attention was captured by her efforts to thread the thick suturing thread through the eye of the large needle. When the heavy fiber was in place, the verdant disks met the blue gaze again.
The warrior settled herself against the pillows behind her and took a deep breath. She swallowed slowly and focused on the walled corner at the foot of the bed. "Go ahead," she said quietly, then had to refocus her concentration when she felt the bard's warm palm rest softly on her clenched fist. She caught the soft green gaze for a moment, the returned her attention to the corner. She braced herself as the bard brought the needle to her shoulder and began to affix the first suture.
Half a candlemark later, Gabrielle carefully applied the herbal paste over the new stitches, positioned the clean bandage over the mixture and carefully wound the long, thin length of cloth around the sutured shoulder, securing the dressing in place.
Afterwards, the bard dabbed at the perspiration covering the tall woman's forehead, gently applying the cool, damp cloth to the warrior's warm skin. Xena breathed deeply, concentrating on submerging the rampant pain radiating from the wound on her shoulder.
Finally Gabrielle helped the warrior pull on the clean, linen sleeping shift, filled an earthen mug with cool water and waited while her patient had drained the vessel and fallen back against the pillows stacked against the wooden headboard.
When the process was complete, she picked up the shallow metal basin holding the bloody bandage, together with the platter containing the balance of the herbal paste, and carried them across the room to the other wooden table. She plunged her hands into the water in the ceramic basin, shook the moisture from her fingers and picked up another clean, piece of linen . With her back to the warrior, she wiped her hands on the cloth, drawing one deep breath after another, working hard to maintain her composure and quell the panic wafting through her chest. The warrior watched the small, stiff back, the pain in her shoulder secondary to the heaviness she felt as a result of the girl's lingering silence.
"Gabrielle," Xena began, her voice showing the effects of her exhaustion in spite of her efforts to disguise them. "Please say something." The warrior kept her eyes focused on the soft, blonde hair.
After a long moment, the bard turned to face her friend. Her eyes were still on the cloth in her hands but the two large, heavy tears traveling slowly down over the soft face brought a rigid ache to the warrior's chest.
"Oh, gods. Gabrielle," the reclining woman whispered. "Don't ... please ... don't."
Gabrielle raised her eyes to meet the shimmering blue gaze of her best friend. She turned to drop the cloth onto the table behind her and leaned against the wooden fixture, her fingers gripping the smooth edge.
The warrior's gaze remained on the flushed, wet face, a painful expression of remorse covering the bronze face. A heavy silence hung in the room as the two friends exchanged a serious, meaningful glance. Finally, the bard drew a shaky hand across her eyes, and swallowed hard before her quiet voice interrupted the crackling fire.
"Why must you keep doing this to yourself? To me? How many times will I feel my heart shatter because I see you hurt or nearly killed? Why do you do it?" The girl's words came softly, but the pain in her voice made the warrior's throat close tightly. She blinked against her own tears as the bard's gaze locked with hers.
"I ... I'm so sorry. I never meant ...." Xena gulped and tried hard to form the words. "I'm sorry I made you worry ... again," she said finally, her gaze pleading, her expression filled with regret.
The bard's faced warmed slowly as she crossed the room back to the bed. "You always are," she said sadly, lowering herself onto the side of the mattress. She took the warrior's slender hand. "You say that every time," the girl said softly, a small smile softening her young face.
"You always tell me you're sorry." She met the blue eyes again. "But you still keep doing it," the girl said deliberately. She looked down at the long fingers and covered them with her other hand before raising her eyes to the glowing blue crystals "Can you tell me why?"
Xena's tears covered her smooth face. She wrapped her fingers around the small palm and took in a slow, painful breath. She slowly raised her eyes to meet the bard's green gaze, wet her lips and tried to speak.
"I didn't exactly plan it this way," the warrior said, her nervous laugh softening her words. "I guess Camber showing up rattled my ... intentions." She trained her eyes on the little hand holding hers. "But I felt like I just had to stop Phantaos." She looked back up at the soft green eyes and swallowed hard.
"Before you and I ...." The gentle smile grew. "Before the gods were generous enough to send you into my life," the warrior continued, "I would have been one of Phantaos' best customers." The woman's tone showed her shame. "In fact, I probably would have waged an attack to challenge him for control of that stash." The blue eyes were deeply contrite.
"So when I found out about the second cave, I just got ...." The blue eyes darted over the coverlet.
"Tunnel vision?" the bard said, her face warming in a teasing grin. The warrior's smirk widened the girl's smile.
"Something like that," Xena said. She squeezed the small hand in her grasp. "Anyway, I just wanted to do something to stop Phantaos and his pals from getting to those weapons." She dropped her head wearily onto the pillows.
"Of course, in the end I didn't really accomplish anything," she said. The frustrated blue eyes swept the ceiling of the room before returning to meet the bard's. "Phantaos still has the weapons and I wound up destroying something very important to you." She closed her eyes tightly and rubbed her forehead with her fingertips. After a moment, the warrior focused on the little blonde's open expression again.
"I'm really sorry I scared you. You know I never mean to." The blue eyes studied the quiet face. "But I guess I've been doing that a lot lately, haven't I?"
Gabrielle took the woman's slender palm with one hand and reached to smooth a few errant wisps of raven hair away from the warrior's feverish face with the other. "You're hot," the bard said absently, resting the back of her fingers against the woman's warm cheek. She released the slender palm, picked up the earthen mug and started to rise to refill the container for the warrior. Before she could move, Xena captured the hand near her face and pulled the girl back down next to her.
"Don't change the subject," she said firmly. Gabrielle returned the steady blue gaze, settling back on the edge of the mattress. She lowered her eyes from the warrior's and tried to concentrate on the empty mug in her other hand, but Xena put her fingers under the soft chin and raised the green gaze back up to meet hers.
"Tell me the truth," she said to the girl's glistening eyes. Gabrielle swallowed against the tightness in her throat. "I've been scaring you lately, haven't I?" she asked again. "The truth," she said, stroking the soft flesh with her thumb.
The bard's green eyes were steady on the warrior's as the two women sat quietly returning the other's gaze. Finally the little blonde lowered her gaze to the empty mug and swallowed quickly, blinking hard against the tears gathering in her eyes.
"Yes," she whispered haltingly. She looked back up at the warrior. "Lately it's like you're trying to prove something. Or you're trying to ... atone for something. And, yes, it's really begun to scare me."
Xena pulled a quick draft of air into her chest. A deep regret tightened her stomach when she recognized the clear, devastating anguish she saw in her best friend's eyes. She gripped the bard's slim shoulder to pull her closer and the girl laid her head on the warrior's chest. Xena stroked the soft, blonde hair, then wrapped both arms around the slender form. She tightened the embrace when she felt the young body shudder as the girl's quiet sobs overcame her.
"I'm so very sorry," she murmured to the blonde head. "Gabrielle, please forgive me."
After a long moment, Gabrielle drew a long breath and slipped her arm around the woman's slender waist. "I keep reminding myself that you made me a promise," she said, her voice soft against the warrior's chest." Xena closed her eyes and gulped around the ache in her throat. "You promised you wouldn't die on me again, remember?" the bard said. The warrior opened her eyes and laid one hand on the girl's soft hair.
"Yes, I remember," Xena whispered. Gabrielle pulled herself upright and met the shining blue eyes. "So, are you going to keep your promise?" she said to the bronze face on the pillows. "At least not for another fifty winters or so?" The tear-streaked face slowly warmed into a sweet smile.
Xena swept the tears from the girl's face with her fingers. Her heart swelled at the affection in the green eyes.
"At least," she said, returning the bard's smile.
Gabrielle took the slender hand in hers for a moment and gazed warmly at the warrior's flushed face. "I'm going to hold you to that, understand?" she told the woman, smiling widely.
The warrior returned the warmth, despite the exhaustion showing in the piercing blue gaze.
Gabrielle released the slender hand and crossed the room to the larger wooden table. She refilled the earthen mug, returned to her seat on the bed and handed it to the warrior. Xena accepted the mug and dutifully swallowed several mouthfuls of the cool liquid. She handed the vessel back to the little bard.
"I'll make you a deal," Gabrielle said retrieving the container, as the warrior leveled a guarded glance at the sparkling green pools.
"What kind of deal?" Xena asked, skeptically.
"You stop putting yourself in danger," the bard said, impishly, "and I'll stop worrying about you." She grinned at the tall woman. "Deal?"
The warrior's blue eyes twinkled in spite of the weariness apparent in the sculpted face. She pursed her lips to combat the merry smirk that began to cover her face. Xena playfully tugged on a lock of the bard's blonde hair.
"Well, I'll certainly try, my bard," she said grinning easily at the young face. "My friend," the warrior amended quietly, the blue gaze shining. Gabrielle smiled back at the warrior. She laid her hand on the woman's face again, her touch as diagnostic as it was affectionate.
"So, my warrior patient," the girl said briskly. "Time for you to get some rest." She stood up and placed the earthen mug on the mantle above the flickering fire, then bent to gather the medical instruments on the small table. The warrior watched the young woman's efficient activity, her blue eyes tired and spent.
"Gabrielle?" she said and the bard turned to the blue gaze. "I'm really sorry about the rest of the scrolls. Maybe someone will be able to uncover them again one day."
The bard interrupted her gathering efforts and smiled warmly at the tired warrior. She went back to collecting the instruments, then carried them to the larger table. "Don't worry about them," she said as she returned the items to their normal space in the medicine kit. "As you say, maybe someone will find them someday. In the meantime, they're safe where they are." The bard closed the kit and retied the leather lacings around the bag. She sat back down on the edge of the bed and patted the warrior's hand.
"Get some rest," she told the sleepy woman. "I'll have them drain the tub in the morning, so you won't be disturbed." The warrior smiled as the blue eyes drifted closed. Within moments, the sound of her regular breathing quieted the bard's apprehension. Gabrielle sat watching the even rhythm of the warrior's chest for a long, long time. When she was completely certain the woman was enveloped in Morpheus' arms, the bard wiped the tears from her face and quietly addressed her sleeping friend.
"And please remember your promise," she said softly. "You owe me fifty more winters."
Chapter Twenty-Nine ~~~
Xena agreed to let Gabrielle 'attend to her' during the days following her ordeal in the tunnel. It was totally irrelevant that the warrior's superior healing traits had been at work, as usual. She submitted to the little bard's loving ministrations and allowed the girl to satisfy her emotional needs by executing the simple tasks dealing with her friend's physical condition. The tall woman admitted to herself that her subservience to the girl's attention might very well be a result of her own guilty feelings at causing the little blonde so much anxiety and concern with her trip to the underground cavern.
As the bard expertly replaced the dressing on the warrior's shoulder on the first morning following the incident, Xena contemplated the events of the previous evening and the painful effects the girl's emotional distress had left on her own psyche. She also remembered the brief discussion that had occurred during the deepest part of the night.
The warrior had awakened a few candlemarks after the bard's expert treatment of her wound to find the little blonde, wrapped in one of their new blankets, sitting at the foot of the large bed, her back and head resting against the wall, fast asleep and totally unmindful of her selfless surrender of her half of the bed.
Xena recalled gazing at the small form, a deep affection enveloping her heart and warming her spirit. She remembered quietly speaking the girl's name and the bard's abrupt transformation into wakefulness. The sleepy face had swung to hers immediately.
"Xena? Are you OK?" the girl had whispered.
"I'm fine," the warrior had whispered back. "What are you doing down there against the wall?"
Gabrielle had shifted her position slightly to face the warrior more directly. "I just thought I'd sleep here tonight, so I wouldn't disturb you and maybe hurt your shoulder."
Xena remembered the way the glowing embers in the hearth had thrown a soft, pink light on the sweet face and the tousled blonde hair. She also recalled the exchange that had followed.
"Are you mad, woman?" the warrior had joked, gently. "You know I only really sleep when I know where you are."
The little bard had grinned sleepily.
"Get up here," Xena had decreed amicably. She had turned her body onto the side of her uninjured shoulder, facing the front edge of the pallet, and directed the bard to position herself behind her. Gabrielle had giggled softly, opened the blanket and scooted herself the length of the bed to occupy the required spot. The warrior had relaxed as the small form snuggled against her back, one slim arm draped over her waist, the girl's soft tresses caressing the smooth skin behind her shoulders. Xena had pulled the soft coverlet and the new blanket over them both, curled her 'good' arm under her head and settled herself again against the soft mattress.
"You sure your shoulder doesn't hurt?" had come the soft question from behind her.
"Not enough to try sleeping without you next to me," the warrior had replied. She remembered the gentle laugh that had floated over her shoulder followed by the deep, contented sigh. The last thing she remembered was her own quiet smile.
Gabrielle affixed the clean dressing to the warrior's shoulder as the morning sunlight sparkled through the open window above the bed. She rewrapped the bandage and tied the new covering proficiently. Then she smiled at the bronze face of her patient.
"Looks good," she told the face. "Of course, you always heal faster than anyone I know. Must be one of your 'many skills', huh?" The sweet face smiled warmly.
She carefully pulled the warrior's arm through the sleeve of her linen tunic, stood up and carried the soiled bandage and metal plate to the wide, wooden table. As she washed her hands in the ceramic basin, she addressed the woman on the pallet
"Hungry?" the bard asked, drying her hands on a length of cloth.
"Yes, actually," the warrior answered clearly. "And I know you're ready for breakfast." She said, grinning at the girl. She swung her long legs to the side of the bed. "Shall we find out what they're serving?"
The bard gazed lovingly at the tanned face of her friend. She shook her head slightly, as always, in awe of her friend's amazing recuperative abilities. She positioned the warrior's boots in front of her and watched as the woman inserted her feet into the leather coverings and yanked on the rawhide lacings. When Xena had finished with the boots, Gabrielle offered a supporting hand and the warrior stood up carefully.
"I told Minerva to have some thick broth ready," the little blonde quipped, her impish grin answering the tall woman's quizzical gaze. "Sounded good, so I figured it might do you good, too."
The warrior's soft laugh lightened the girl's spirit. She accepted the light wrap from the bard and moved toward the door the blonde was holding open.
"Sounds good to me, too," she told the smiling young face.
The two friends left the room on their way to the tavern, Gabrielle's arms resting loosely behind the warrior's slim waist.
By the second afternoon following the episode in the tunnel Xena had convinced her 'nurse' that fresh air was as helpful to a recuperating patient as bed rest. In the warrior's case, it was an even better prescription than sitting idle in their quiet room. The bard had agreed and the two women now enjoyed a leisurely stroll along the street of the little town. They had left the warrior's grimy leathers with the tanner who promised to have them cleaned and ready by the following day. The next stop on their unstructured saunter was the tinsmith's.
"You never did get your whetstone, did you?" Gabrielle remarked as they entered the shop.
"No, I guess I never did," Xena said. "I sort of got a little side-tracked." She grinned sheepishly at the bard.
"Same with my fish," the girl quipped and the warrior nudged the slim shoulder playfully. She looked up to meet the tinsmith's welcoming grin.
"My dear," the man crooned solicitously. "From what I've heard of your ordeal, I'm certainly surprised to see you looking so fit."
The warrior cringed under the man's fawning as the little blonde stifled her laugh. Xena threw a meaningful glare in the girl's direction.
"I still need that whetstone," she told the man. She began to move to the back of the shop. "They were back here, as I remember."
"Yes, I recall the one you had selected," the tinsmith said. He hurried toward the table, arriving at the display well before the warrior had managed to traverse the narrow aisle. He picked up the stone she had been examining the last time she had been in the shop, selected a small vile of oil and turned back to the warrior.
"Anything else for you?"
"No, that's all," she said, reaching into the pocket of her tunic for the required coins.
"Oh, no," the man said, holding out the small parcel in his hands. "That won't be necessary." The warrior's expression sobered slightly at the refusal of the money. "After what you did for the town, you certainly deserve more than just our thanks." Xena started to object to the gratis purchase.
"Look, that's not ...." she began.
"In fact," the man continued, ignoring her objection. "You can choose anything in my shop, for yourself. My pleasure." The man spread his hands over the display tables placed between him and the tall warrior. "Please," he petitioned, a sincere smile on his lean face. "I'd like to show my own appreciation."
Xena battled her own frustration for a moment. Her eyes swept over the tables hurriedly, impatience in her manner. Then the clear blue stare came to rest on the open case of metal accessories she remembered from her previous visit. She walked closer to the display and glanced down at the delicate, copper hair buckle she had admired that day. The tanned face lit in a knowing smile. She looked back at the merchant.
"There," she said, pointing carefully at the copper piece. "If you insist," she met the man's gaze and he nodded. "I'll take that lovely thing right there."
The tinsmith followed the woman's finger and lifted the copper buckle from the bed of dark material. He handed the ornament to the warrior who, in turn, presented it to the little bard.
"What's this?" the girl asked quietly, taking the buckle in her small palm. She examined the petite accessory for a moment, then raised her eyes to meet the warrior's loving glance. "You don't have to ...."
"Yes, I do," Xena said quietly. "Call it an early birthday present, OK?" The blue eyes were soft on the little bard's face.
"OK," the girl said closing her hand over the hair accessory. "But now, I have to find something equally special for you." She returned the tall woman's warm smile.
Xena put her hand on the girl's slim shoulder. "I already have that ... you." The bard's green eyes glistened brightly. The warrior turned back to the tinsmith.
"Thank you," she said to the grinning tradesman. "This will be fine."
He gave her a little bow and smiled at the little bard. The two friends turned together and left the tiny shop.
Once outside, the bard opened her palm to admire the little metal buckle again. So intent was she on her study that the warrior had to pull her sharply out of the way of the two men who were striding purposefully down the middle of the path toward them. As the men passed them, the warrior released the girl's arm and the women resumed their walk.
"Where else do you want to go?" the warrior asked the girl. Gabrielle put her hand in the pocket of her Amazon skirt and grinned impishly at her friend's golden countenance.
"The baker's," she said coyly, the green eyes twinkling. "Ever since we arrived, I've been dying to try these little candies I saw in the window. They look scrumptious." She took the warrior's arm. "C'mon, it's just down here." The blonde began to walk toward a nearby shop, tugging gently at her friend's slender wrist.
Xena chuckled as she followed the little blonde toward the bakery. The tantalizing aroma wafting from the shop stimulated the warrior's senses. "Whatever they're selling," she quipped, "it smells great." They turned into the fragrant store and made their request to the proprietor. While they waited for the merchant to fill their order, the same two men who had passed them on the street entered the shop. Xena turned when one of the men called her name.
"We saw you come in here," the younger of the two men said. His friendly smile settled the warrior's instinctive wariness. "We have some good news for you," the man said, focusing on the little bard.
"For me?" Gabrielle said, sharing the warrior's curious gaze. "What do you mean?"
The other man addressed the tall woman. "In fact, it concerns you both."
"First of all," the younger man began, addressing the warrior as well. "I think we've seen the last of that filth in the valley." The warrior's expression hardened. "We found lots of tracks leading north. Looks like a couple of heavy wagons and some big sleds. Apparently they're moving their stash of destruction into the northern regions."
Xena turned to the second man. "Draft a message." She glanced at the blonde. "We'll take it with us. My friend knows enough bards in those provinces to spread the word very quickly." The man nodded. "If we start now, we can make it very difficult for Phantaos to move his merchandise without a lot of people knowing about it."
"It'll be my pleasure," the second man said "I'll make sure you have it before you leave."
The younger citizen turned to the little bard. "The other piece of good news is, it turns out that when those ... thugs wedged the large rock door in front of the opening ... the one leading to the second cave?" he said, turning to the warrior momentarily. She nodded. The man addressed the bard again.
"Well," he said, excitedly, "by doing that, they actually protected the little cave by providing a perfect fire wall between the two spaces." The warrior and the bard exchanged delighted stares. "The rocks sealed off the access to the front area so the fire and the explosions stayed in the big room." He paused to acknowledge the girl's happy laugh.
"And, since there was something wedged tight in the other access," he said jovially, turning a joking gaze at the tall warrior's abashed face, "the draft that would have spread the fire got kind of ... shut off." He put his hands together in front of him. "The only thing they burned up were the posts and the shelves in the bigger cave." He returned the tall woman's wide smile. "Pretty appropriate, don't you think?"
The second man patted his friend's shoulder. "I'd say it was a kind of 'poetic justice'," he chortled. "Good planning, on those creeps' part, huh?"
The four conversants laughed heartily together. Gabrielle turned a gleeful smile at the warrior. She squeezed the woman's arm happily.
"They're safe!" she giggled happily. "Isn't that great?"
Xena smiled warmly at the blonde's blissful expression. "Yes, that is good news." She turned to the two men. "Thanks for letting us know. You've just made my friend's day."
At that, the baker presented the bard with a small, white box. "On the house," he told her, placing the container in her hands. "For all your hard work."
The two women looked at each other, then burst into laughter. They thanked the baker, said good bye to the two men and strolled out of the shop into the street. Gabrielle beamed up at the warrior, her soft face aglow with the news of the scrolls' survival. After a few paces, she carefully opened the box and took out a number of the candies. "Here," she said handing the sweets to the warrior. "I say we celebrate."
The warrior accepted the treats and dropped the confections into her mouth. "Where to, now?" she asked around the candy. When she didn't hear an immediate answer, she turned toward the little bard. Her pace slowed slightly when she noticed the noticeable change in the girls' happy expression. Gabrielle swallowed her mouthful of candy and raised hesitant eyes toward the warrior.
"I want to stop by the little hut and finish up the work there." The girl looked back down at the white box, taking extra time to replace the lid and secure the slender twine before glancing again at the tall woman's smooth face.
"You sure you want to deal with ... whoever might be there?" Xena asked carefully. "It might not be pleasant."
The bard stopped walking abruptly and turned to face her tall friend. The green eyes were steady on the warrior's tentative expression. "It has to be done," she said firmly. "We're leaving tomorrow and I want to make sure the scrolls that are done are given the proper attention. I spent a lot of time on them and I want to be sure they'll be safe."
Xena met the bard's determined gaze, then concentrated on licking the candy's frosting from her fingers. When she had made the most of the contrived delaying tactic, she returned the serious glance. "OK," she said evenly. "You're in charge of this expedition," she joked lightly. The blue eyes were steady and supportive. "You want to go now or wait until we have lunch?"
A tiny grin began to invade the bard's soft face. "Now," the girl said steadily. "Let's get it over with and then hit the tavern." She studied the piercing blue eyes for another moment, then turned sharply and started walking toward the little hut. A few paces later, her progress was interrupted by Musaeus and his deceitful grin.
"Well," the young man said, hollowly, his eyes moving from the bard's face to the warrior's and back. "If it isn't the two newest heroines of Almiros." He crossed his arms over his chest and assumed a mocking, bitter stance. "Enjoying your fame?"
Gabrielle tried to step around the obnoxious male, but he shifted his position to block her path. Xena's jaw tightened as the lean body straightened. She glared at the arrogant face of the bard's antagonist, her fists clenched and her blue eyes hard.
The warrior became vaguely aware of another figure near her. The rage in her throat subsided when she recognized Enoch's calm face out of the corner of her eye. He touched her back very briefly and turned to address the little blonde.
"Problem, Gabrielle?" he asked the girl casually. He turned a hard warning at the young man's loathesome face.
"No, problem, Enoch," the girl replied. "Just trying to step around some manure in the road." She leveled a scornful glare at Musaeus, then smiled confidently at the smithy. Enoch took the warrior's arm and looked directly at the bard. The two women and the smithy moved slowly away from the young man. He let them pass before he sent a venomous comment at the bard's back.
"You realize no one will ever want to read those scrolls now, don't you?" The threesome halted as the bard turned slowly back toward the vengeful young male. "They'll be considered 'tarnished merchandise'," Musaeus growled hatefully. "Your precious warrior has ruined things for everyone, you know that."
For a moment, it seemed all the other sounds in the street were silenced as every face in the immediate vicinity was trained on the figures involved in the confrontation. Enoch saw the warrior's jaw ripple dangerously; he sensed the woman was about to demonstrate the skills that characterized every portrayal of her he had ever heard. He gulped as the stiff form began a slow pivot toward the offensive young man behind them. An instant later the little blonde's calm voice thwarted the woman's firm intention.
"Xena," Gabrielle said evenly. "I really don't want to put those stitches in again." The cold blue stare drifted to the young woman's face. "I don't think you want to go through that again, either." The little bard took a step toward her friend, bringing herself to stand between the warrior and the jeering male bard. She handed the white box to the tall woman, gently forcing her to accept the container.
"So, allow me," the girl said softly. She took a quick step toward Musaeus, raised one small hand and slapped the smirking face soundly. The young man's head recoiled sharply from the blow, then snapped back to the blonde's seething face.
"That's for risking my best friend's life and nearly getting her killed in the process," Gabrielle spat out angrily at the astonished young man. The bard took a short breath and squared her shoulders with her victim's.
Musaeus stroked his face with a shaky hand. He blinked at the little blonde and swallowed hard. "I didn't tell her to try and take on Phantaos. She did that on her own," the young man snarled defensively.
Gabrielle stepped closer to the defiant face. "No, but you told Phantaos she was coming, didn't you?"
Musaeus' gaze darted over the crowd of on-lookers. "ME?" he choked.
"The only people who knew she was going there were me, Enoch," she gestured briefly at the tall smithy, "the Elders ... and you." The little bard cast a hard glare at the trapped face. She shook her head sadly.
"You have a lot of growing up to do, Musaeus. Anyone foolish enough to get involved with someone like this Phantaos doesn't show a great deal of maturity. You better rethink your choice of ... associates." The green eyes held the young man's angry gaze. "By the way, you're wrong about no one reading the scrolls," she said, her voice firm. "Those stories will survive, long after someone as dishonorable as you has passed from the known world."
Eventually, the small form relaxed a bit. She started to turn away, then slowly turned back to the young man. She swiftly raised her hand and slapped him again, the second loud stroke propelling the young face sideways a second time.
"And that's for getting me here on false pretenses and trying to use the scrolls for your own despicable purposes." The green eyes sparkled with even more distaste than before. "If I ever hear of you defiling another piece of parchment, I'll find you and show you how good I really am with my staff." She sent a hard look at the cowering young man. "You got that?"
Musaeus stroked his burning face with his hand and nodded wordlessly. He threw one last hateful glare in the warrior's direction before spinning on his heel and quickly striding away. After a moment, the little bard relaxed and turned quietly to the surrounding faces. "Excuse me for creating a scene, folks, but sometimes clearing the trash is noisy work." A moment of total silence followed her terse words.
An instant later, the crowd erupted in spontaneous laughter as the citizens witnessing the trouncing demonstrated their resounding support. Eventually, the little crowd dispersed offering the bard their congratulations as they moved along. When they were alone on the path, the girl turned a stern glance at the grinning warrior. Small fists planted angrily on her slender hips, she trained an admonishing glare at her dark-haired friend.
"And just what were you planning a moment ago?" she barked at the woman's astonished face.
Xena gulped, trying to form an intelligent response. She bristled at the little blonde's scolding. "I ... he .... I just thought ...." she stammered.
"You thought what?" the bard asked, heatedly. "You'd just slip into your normal 'bard protector thing' and take care of the little monster? Right?"
Xena felt the warmth of the deep blush covering her face. "My ... what? No!" the tall warrior sputtered. "He was ... he might have ...."
Enoch pursed his lips, fighting hard to control the hearty laughter bubbling in his throat. He averted his eyes from the warrior's crimson face.
"That's enough fresh air for you!" the bard declared, snatching the white box from the tall woman's shaky grasp. Gabrielle put a firm hand on the warrior's shoulder and turned the slender form in the direction of the Inn. She planted her palm in the middle of Xena's back and nudged the warrior forward. "Back you go. Time for lunch and a nap," the girl said adamantly.
The warrior stubbornly rejected the bard's mandate. She halted stiffly, her expression approaching an adolescent pout. "I have to check on Argo."
"Enoch will take care of Argo," the bard said, her voice rising. She turned sharply to the amused smithy. "Won't you?" she asked him bluntly.
"Absolutely," the man answered obediently. He turned a 'Sorry, I couldn't help myself' look to the warrior's glare.
The bard faced her tall friend resolutely, pointing toward the Inn with authority.
"March!" she instructed, the green eyes firm.
Xena scowled down at the determined face. After a long moment of willful testing, and more useless stammering from the warrior, the tall form sagged in capitulation, turned slowly toward the Inn and trudged in resigned defeat in the direction of the bard's pointing finger.
Chapter Thirty ~~~
Xena carried the bundle containing her newly cleaned leathers across the town square. As she entered the stable, she called out to the smithy and smiled when the handsome face emerged from behind one of the stalls. Enoch grinned happily at the sight of the tall warrior leaning casually against the wooden rails of Argo's stall. He strolled to her side, amicably meeting the blue gaze.
"Good morning," he said to the warrior's healthy face. "You're looking well."
Xena smiled over her shoulder at the tall blacksmith as she stroked the mare's golden head.
"Thanks, I feel great, too." She turned to face the handsome smithy. "I want to thank you for all your help during this whole mess, too. And for taking care of my horse while I was laid up," she told him. Enoch dismissed her comments, but the warrior touched the man's muscled arm. "No, I mean it. Thanks, Enoch. I really appreciate everything you've done for her ... and me ... while we've been here."
The smithy gazed steadily at the clear blue eyes. He covered the slender hand on his arm. "I keep telling you, it's a pleasure to have such a gracious lady in my barn," he said, holding the warrior's blue gaze. "Not to mention having her lovely horse, too," the smithy joked, turning his eyes to the palomino in the stall. Xena was glad the man's attention was on the golden horse; it gave her time to recover from the warm blush that traveled over her face. Argo's friendly guffaw made the two tall figures laugh. The man turned back to the warrior.
"You know you and Gabrielle are always welcome here, anytime you're in the area?" The brown eyes were sincere on the warrior's face.
"Thanks," Xena replied. "We'll be back to visit our friends here again, you can be sure."
She held out her open hand and the smithy took it. The two exchanged an easy smile as he released her hand.
"You two about ready to leave?" he asked.
"As soon as I get back into my leathers," the warrior answered, glancing at the bundle under her arm.
"Oh, by the way," the smithy said. "Camber's out back and, ah ..." he lowered his voice conspiratorily, "the 'surprise' is in that stall over there." Enoch gestured with his head.
The warrior's eyes moved to where the man indicated. The bronze face softened.
"He doesn't suspect anything?"
"No, I've kept him busy with chores all morning," the tall tradesman grinned. "Want to do it now?"
"Yes," Xena said, putting the bundle down on a nearby barrel.
"OK, I'll get him." Enoch moved to the back door of the barn. "Camber?" the man called out. "Xena's here." The smithy stepped back into the barn.
A moment later, the boy appeared in the doorway. The youngster's face brightened at the sight of the warrior and he launched himself across the stable in her direction. She knelt to accept the boy's enthusiastic hug.
"Xena!" he shouted as she gathered the small form close. Camber hugged her neck tightly, then stepped back to gaze happily at her face. "You look all better. Are you?" he asked excitedly.
"Yup," the warrior answered. "I'm all healed up." The boy hugged her neck again, then stepped back to meet the woman's blue gaze. She gently put her hands on the small shoulders. "I have something for you, to thank you for saving my life."
"You do!?" the boy squealed, excitedly. "For me?" He turned an ecstatic look toward his father who nodded approval. "What is it?"
Xena stood up and held out her hand to the boy. "It's over here. Close your eyes."
Camber took the slender hand and closed his eyes tight. As the warrior guided him toward the nearby stall, the boy giggled in expectation. After a few steps, she stopped and carefully turned the youngster toward the cubicle. "OK, you can open your eyes, now," she told the child. She waited while the brown pools drifted open, then widened in astonishment at the sight before them.
In the stall stood a small, golden colt, his intelligent head bobbing in acknowledgement at the boy. The satin hide was close enough in color to Argo's for the mare to give the young animal a gracious whinny. The silvery mane and tail had been brushed to a glimmering shine by the gift's co-conspirator, and the small, boy-sized saddle secured to the horse's back glowed warmly in the soft light of the stable.
Camber stared, open-mouthed, at the wonderful gift. He took in a little sigh, then turned a stunned expression up at the warrior's soft smile. Xena cocked her head at the young face, then knelt down next to the child, resting one arm on her bended knee.
"Do you like him?" she asked quietly. Camber's gaze swept slowly away from the colt to the clear, blue eyes next to him, then back to the small, golden horse.
"He's beautiful, Xena," he breathed softly. "Just ... beautiful. Thank you." The boy hugged the warrior's neck heartily. "Oh, thank you!" The warrior pulled the firm little form closer.
"You're welcome," she answered. Camber released the sleek body to gaze gratefully into the woman's face. "Look, I know he's not the colt from the clearing, but ...."
The boy's glance met the warrior's as the young face grew decidedly serious. Camber looped his short thumbs in the back pockets of his trousers and dropped his eyes to the front of her tunic, then slowly raised them back to meet the blue eyes again.
"Well I've decided not to try to catch the black colt, after all," the boy said softly.
"You have?" Xena studied the small face, then glanced quickly to the beaming smithy.
"It's like Daddy kept sayin'," the boy began, capturing the cobalt pools again. "That colt was born in the wild. It wouldn't be fair to try to tame him. He belongs out there where he can be free." The warrior smiled warmly at the boy's earnest face. "He's still my friend and he did help us when you were stuck in the tunnel."
"Yes, he did," Xena agreed, her expression as open as the boy's.
"And friends don't try to innerfeer with each other's freedom, right?"
The tall warrior took the boy's small hand in hers. "Right," she said quietly. "That's a very grown-up decision you've made, my friend. You should be very proud of yourself." Camber smiled widely at the woman's compliment, the little form straightening brightly. Xena stood up.
"C'mon," she said smiling openly. "Let's see how he feels from up there." She pulled at the loose knot in the reins secured to the side rail of the stall and handed them to the boy. Camber carefully led the colt out of the stall toward the open barn door.
"What are you going to call him?" Xena asked as she followed the youngster through the open door.
The boy's face lit in a mischievous grin. He looked up at the tall woman's soft smile.
"Pegasus," he said, giggling brightly. The warrior's easy laugh echoed the child's.
Xena maneuvered the food sizzling in the frying pan over the stone-rimmed fire. Using her knife and a narrow piece of wood, she turned the portions over and moved the large pieces to one side of the flat, iron space to make room for the slices of wild mushrooms she held in her other hand. As the uncooked side of the food hissed on the hot surface, Xena let her eyes travel across the campsite to the small blonde figure of her best friend.
Gabrielle sat in the middle of one of the new blankets, one trim leg crossed over the other, an expanse of parchment covering her lap. As the warrior watched, the quill pen traveled steadily across the manuscript, halting momentarily while the girl's gaze focused on the surrounding area for a moment, before the soft scratching of the instrument's tip resumed again. She turned her attention back to the food over the fire.
The bard had been relatively quiet during the short trip from Almiros to the campsite in the little clearing. They had said good-bye to the blacksmith and his son, the young red-haired waitress and the various merchants who had shown their appreciation by providing a generous supply of many of the stores necessary for their continued journey without requesting payment. They had also bid adieu to the town Council, who thanked the bard for her efforts on the scrolls and praised the courage the warrior had displayed while "dispatching those miscreants so efficiently."
Enoch had pledged to make sure the Elders fulfilled their promise to maintain the scrolls in their newly-restored status, and to provide a safe haven for their future protection.
There had been no sight nor mention of the young man whose urgent request had brought the "little storyteller" and her friend, the Warrior Princess to their village. The nature of his fate had not been discussed by any party, except for the passing comment made by his sister who alluded vaguely to a distant relative to whom her absent sibling might pay a prolonged visit.
The warrior and the small blonde had left the town with the big golden horse striding dutifully beside the tall, dark-haired woman. They had proceeded to the quiet, peaceful spot under the rustling trees in the small, welcoming meadow. And the bard had remained rather quiet throughout the short trip.
The little blonde ended the quill's activity with a flourish, wiped the metal tip with a small cloth and returned the tool to its leather pouch. As she rolled the parchment into a cylinder, she turned a pleasant expression toward the tall woman crouching near the fire.
"Breakfast ready yet?" she asked.
"Almost," the warrior answered, pulling the frying pan to one side of the flames and dusting her hands. "Did you finish your story?"
"Yes," the bard replied, rising from the bedroll and crossing the encampment to sit on a large boulder behind the warrior. She gently pulled the tall woman towards her.
"I want to check your stitches before we eat," she said. Xena sat down on the ground in front of the boulder, settling herself between Gabrielle's knees. She rested her forearms on her knees and relaxed against the stone. The bard pulled the long, dark hair over the warrior's shoulder and gently slid the leather strap of her tunic away from the small bandage on the other.
"So," the little blonde said as she gently lifted the small square of cloth. "Camber decided to let the little black horse be, huh? To leave it free?" She examined the site of the stitches and prodded the area gently with her fingers.
"Yeah," Xena said. "He said he didn't think it would be fair to tame something that had been 'born wild'." The warrior chuckled softly. "He's a pretty mature little guy for his age."
"Unlike another we've met lately," the bard murmured softly. The tall combatant waited for the girl to pursue the subject, but Gabrielle concerned herself with replacing the bandage and sliding the leather strap back in place.
"I think I can take those out tomorrow," she said, laying her hands on the tall woman's shoulders. Both women were silent for a moment until the warrior's smooth voice rose over the crackling flames.
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry about Musaeus," she said, turning her chin slightly to address her friend. She shifted her forearms from her own knees to the bard's. "But at least you know you did good work restoring the scrolls, in spite of how he tried to use them."
"Yes, that's something," the girl said softly, repositioning the warrior's long hair.
Xena turned to face the girl more directly. Her blue eyes were direct and sincere as they met the bard's.
"That's everything," she said firmly. "You acted out of honor and a respect for something you valued." She studied the reluctant face.
Gabrielle looked down at the raven locks, running the fingers of one hand through the shiny thatch. "I just feel a little foolish. I was such an easy pawn for him. I put the scrolls in danger ...." The green eyes floated up to meet the cobalt stare. "Worse than that, I put you in danger with my misguided ...."
"Stop that," the warrior said firmly. She captured one small hand and shook it gently. "You did not put me in danger. I did that myself. And you have nothing to feel foolish about." The bronze face softened as she gazed at the soft features. "You always look for the good in everyone and you trust them to show you that ... morsel of themselves." The blue eyes were steady on the girl's hesitant gaze. "That's another of my favorite things about you."
The bard's expression cleared at the affection in her friend's voice.
"It's not your fault if it turns out one of them didn't deserve that trust. But that's Musaeus' problem, not yours."
Gabrielle's smile warmed the warrior's heart. The bard leaned forward and gave the warrior's neck a tender hug as Xena's slender palm caressed the soft face next to her ear. When the women separated, the bard's gaze was still somewhat hesitant.
"Maybe I need to take my own advice," she said. One of the warrior's dark eyebrows drifted upward on her forehead. "Maybe I should start being a little more careful about trusting people, or just be more careful about who I put my faith in."
Xena gave the girl an inquisitive stare. She waited, almost fearful that the little bard might have suddenly become disenchanted with the unpredictability of the warrior's own violent nature. She watched the gentle face grow pensive, then settle on the warrior's apprehensive face. The warrior gratefully recognized the girl's warm smile.
"I could change my ... perceptions ... be a little less anxious to assume everyone is as ....."
"Don't you dare!" the warrior interjected. She swung her body around and took the girl's face in her hands. The green pools were steady on her face.
"Don't you change one parcel about the way you look at people," the warrior warned. "There are enough of us who spend so much time looking for the faults in others, they have no trouble finding them." She released the bard's soft face and tapped the short nose with her forefinger. "It's people like you who keep the cynics like me from making total fools of ourselves." The bard giggled softly as the warrior turned back to the fire and the food in the frying pan.
"Oh, no, my bardly friend," the woman said, wrapping a small hide piece around the handle of the iron utensil and lifting it from the glowing coals. "You just go right on finding the good, even when the rest of us see only a waste of time."
Xena brought the frying pan to one of the earthen plates laying next to the fire's circle. She slid one of the charred portions onto the plate and followed it with some of the singed mushrooms. She put the skillet down and handed the plate to the bard.
Gabrielle took the dish and studied the blackened lump curiously. She raised an uncertain gaze to the warrior's grin. "What IS this?" she asked the radiant cook.
"Fish," the warrior announced proudly. The bard laughed heartily and hugged her best friend.
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