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The Perils of Tavern Dining
The coastal fog was slowly rolling into town as Lessa wearily stepped through the tavern doorway. Squaring her shoulders, she steeled herself against the casual noise of this late afternoon crowd. "Just a quick meal," she told herself, "then I'll return to..." return to what is indeed the question. "Will I ever go home?" she wondered, shaking her head. It was best not to think too far into the uncertain future. The future would arrive when it did.
Tired but cautious, she scanned the interior of the tavern and its patrons. She selected a small table by the unlit fireplace. It had a good view of the room, her back to the wall, and clean shot at the door. No, her instincts hadn't slipped... yet. The tavern, Hog's Head the faded sign outside the door declared, had lost most of its lunch crowd. There were several farmers at a large table, regulars from the sound of them, a few merchants conversing amongst themselves and a couple of barmaids. A second glance revealed that the woman sitting at the table next to her was in fact, not a barmaid. She appeared to be a patron. A solitary female traveling alone. This was odd. Lessa noticed clear green eyes observing her. The woman appeared only slightly older than Lessa. She had a delicate mane of strawberry blond hair framing an attractive face, not overtly friendly, just curious. Not wanting to be noticed, especially not now, Lessa looked away, willing the anxiety to dissipate by sheer force. Deciding to leave, she was stopped by the barmaid's approach. She was a young girl, maybe fifteen, with short blond hair. Do I look that young? Lessa wondered to herself, then shook her head. She hadn't been fifteen for three years. It seemed a lifetime away.
"What'll ya have?" the girl asked politely.
Lessa didn't have the strength to hide the exhaustion in her voice, or pass up what was to be her first meal in two days. "Can I get some food for three dinars? And some apples for my mount?" Reaching for her money, Lessa winced as her leather armor creaked loudly, the thick hide protested the archer's lack of attention.
"I'll see what I can find," the young woman replied with a kind smile as she accepted Lessa's money. "The food won't be fancy though."
Nodding acceptance, her attention was diverted as a huge man crashed through the tavern entrance with uproarious laughter. "Who owns the funny striped pony?" he asked, jabbing a fat finger behind him and looking around the room.
With an audible sigh, Lessa raised her head. It figured. "She belongs to me, but she isn't a pony."
"I'd like to buy her for my kids," he said, still laughing with eyes that said refusal was not an option.
"I'm sorry. But she isn't for sale." Lessa thought the big man's next words as he said them.
"Everything's for sale, little girl. I want that pony."
This was why she'd not been able to eat a hot meal in two days. As soon as she stopped anywhere, inevitably someone would remark about her unusual mount. Not ideal when one was on the run. Last time she'd bolted from the tavern and taken off. Now she was too hungry. She'd already paid for her food, and Zeus be dammed, she was going to eat it.
"Look, friend," she said, with an edge creeping into her voice, "She isn't safe for kids, she isn't safe for you and she isn't for sale. I'll prove it to you if I have to." He stood staring her down, waiting. "Fine. I'll bet you ten dinars that you can't sit on my mount for two seconds."
"That little thing?" The farmer bellowed with laughter. "I'll break its back!"
"I take it we have a bet then?"
Gabrielle watched the exchange with interest. She had seen the unusual woman come into the tavern, looking as if she'd not slept in days. The woman was hard not to notice. She had shoulder length hair a color Gabrielle had never seen before. It was dark brown, but burgundy and rust as well- the color of a deep sunset after a forest fire. The woman was small, shorter than her, Gabrielle supposed, and looked like she couldn't be much more than sixteen. Dressed in dark green and black leather she had a short sword strapped to her back in a scabbard that also served as a quiver for several arrows. She looked small for a fighter. Still, Xena was the warrior Gabrielle was used to, and most people seemed small in comparison. Unlike Xena, this woman wore dark green pants that tucked into the top of her armored boots. Her midriff was bare, the armor on her chest not reaching much past her bust. Gabrielle's inventory of the stranger's armor was interrupted as the woman stood and, with the rest of the crowd in the tavern, headed outside.
The bard couldn't keep from smiling as she saw the pony the farmer had referred to. It was smaller than the horses outside the tavern, and it was impossible to tell if the animal was black with white stripes or white with black stripes. Every inch of the animal's fur was striped. Equal bands of black and white draped themselves over the animal in an exotic pattern. "Xena won't believe this," Gabrielle thought.
Lessa smiled as she approached the creature. Green eyes looked into black in silent greeting as a small crowd gathered. "This is Socrates. I'll untie her. If you can stay on her back for two seconds, I'll give you ten dinars."
"That isn't a proper saddle," the farmer complained, looking at the heavy blanket strapped to the animal's back.
"Go on, Talen," one of the other farmers encouraged. "You don't need a saddle to ride a pony." A chorus of cheers greeted the farmer as he rolled up his shirtsleeves.
"Easy girl," Lessa said gently to the striped animal, "wait 'till he's on..."
No sooner had the farmer put his full weight on the animal's back, then the head went down and the back legs kicked up. The big man flew over the beast's head, landing flat on his back several feet away. The farmers on the porch of the tavern laughed and cheered as they helped their friend up. Brushing the dust from his tunic and trousers, he walked over to Lessa, a bashful grin on his face. He looked at the animal a moment and noticed its ears flattened back against it's equine head as it stomped a foot aggressively.
"You win, young lady." The farmer reached into a pouch at his side and extracted ten dinars, putting them in Lessa's hand. "I've ridden horses most of my life, but I've never been thrown so quickly. Something tells me she also bites."
Accepting the coins with a nod and a quick grin, Lessa spent a few moments stroking the animal's head and speaking to it in soft tones before heading back into the tavern. Just as she returned to her table, the barmaid approached with a bowl and platter. "I found four apples," the young woman remarked placing the food on the table. "Hope that's enough."
"That's fine. Thank you." Lessa vaguely heard herself answer, as she handed the woman an additional dinar from her winnings. Her immediate awareness was focused on the feast before her. The bowl contained a thin soup. It was not much for flavor, but it was hot and had a few bits of meat and some onion in it. The platter had some fresh bread a few strips of dried fish and a large hunk of cheese in addition to the four large red apples. So distracted by the meal, Lessa didn't see the strawberry blond approach until she sat down at her table. By then it was too late to warn her away with a glare.
"Hi," the young woman said pleasantly, "I'm Gabrielle. That thing your horse did was amazing."
Lessa looked up with a glance and returned to her food. "Not a horse," she said around a mouthful of hot bread. "Getting thrown is not that unusual." She carefully put the four red apples in a satchel at her waist, and packed the rest of the bread and dried fish. After breaking off a small piece of cheese, she packed that as well.
Gabrielle nodded, aware that this woman was trying to ignore her. "So what is she?"
Lessa looked up, surprised that the other woman was still there. She took a moment to really look at Gabrielle. Aware of her scrutiny, the bard sat up straight and looked at Lessa without fear, kindness clear in her features. "Well, if you're that interested, Gabrielle, she's a zebra."
"Zebra..." Gabrielle tried out the word. To her it sounded as exotic as the unusual horse looked. "Not from around here, I suppose. I take it she likes apples?"
Lessa glanced around the tavern to be certain. Her first assumption appeared to be correct, this woman was indeed alone. Probably not the Gabrielle that she'd been told about. Besides, she didn't really have blond hair. "Yes, Socrates likes apples. Zebras are similar to horses in most respects. And yes, she isn't from around here." The hot soup had done wonders for Lessa's disposition. She popped the bite of cheese into her mouth, savoring the tartness of it, and ventured a question of her own.
"If you don't mind my asking, Gabrielle- you're dressed like a traveler, but surely you know the coast line and forests around it are not a place to be traveling alone."
Gabrielle smiled. "I'm not alone. I'm meeting a friend here. She had something to do when we got into town. I hope she gets here soon; I'd love for her to see your...zebra."
Lessa stopped chewing, the color beginning to drain from her face. "Does this friend of yours have a name?" She asked trying to sound casual.
Lessa had just taken another sip of broth from the bowl and almost choked. "Xena," she croaked.
"You've heard of her?" Gabrielle asked dubiously. "She's still a warrior, but not like she used to be..."
"Ah, no. I've never heard of her," Lessa replied, quickly draining the last of the broth from her bowl. "It's just that Xena is such an unusual name, lovely in fact. I'm sorry I won't be able to meet her Gabrielle, but I've got to be going."
Lessa couldn't get to the door fast enough, as soon as she opened it, she stood face to face with another warrior. Actually she was face to face with another warrior's chest. A female warrior.
Xena looked down, amused at the woman no taller than her shoulder. She was dressed in green and black, looking every bit the archer. "Excuse me," the slight woman muttered, pushing past Xena. The warrior watched casually as the archer quickly untied her unusual horse, leaped on, and headed out of the village at full gallop. Xena felt a disquieting suspicion begin to grow.
"How odd," Gabrielle remarked as she met Xena in the doorway. "I was just starting to tell her about you when she left all the sudden."
"What did you say about me?" Xena asked, turning to face her companion.
"Nothing, really. She just asked if I was traveling alone, and I said I wasn't and mentioned your name then..."
Gabrielle was interrupted by Xena's whistle as she signaled for her horse, Argo. "Gabrielle, I don't have time to explain," Xena said evenly, "I heard some rumors when we got into town that we were being followed, and I want to ask that woman some questions." Argo trotted up, and the warrior vaulted into the saddle. "There is a small cove two miles south of this village, by a waterfall. Wait for me there. I think we'll be having company this evening." With that, she signaled Argo and turned to go.
"How are you going to follow her?"
"This way leads to the shore- there's sand, cliffs and ocean. It won't be hard. I'll see you later." Xena lightly kicked Argo as they raced from town at full gallop.
Lessa had ridden for about ten minutes along the sandy shore when she first heard the hoofbeats off in the distance. Crouched as she was on her steed's back, head down, she risked a quick look behind her. As she feared, the big warrior was following her. Using her strong legs to signal Socrates, she headed the animal to the water's edge. The sand there was firm, she'd be able to increase her speed. Cliffs jutted up from the sand about two miles distant. If she could reach the steep trail before being caught, she was confident her compact, nimble footed zebra could outmaneuver Xena's war-horse on the narrow trail. The trick would be keeping her lead along this open expanse of sand.
As the steady thrum of hoofbeats increased in volume, Lessa didn't have to look to know the warrior gaining on her. Briefly she considered grabbing a hand crossbow attached to her blanket saddle and firing on her pursuer, then thought better of it. She couldn't kill Xena with one shot from a zebra's back at full gallop. Stopping and giving herself up never crossed the archer's mind. Xena was chasing after her for a reason, and she could guess that meant Xena knew why she'd been in Tenthe in the first place. "She must have assumed the worst, seeing me with Gabrielle," Lessa thought, sea spray whipping at her hair and face.
Xena gained steadily on the fleeing woman in front of her. It was clear to her that the woman she pursued was proficient on horseback. The striped horse and armor clad woman moved in sync as they raced across the wet sand. Xena could see a long bow and small crossbow attached to the side of the saddle; she was definitely in pursuit of an archer. Her quarry's muscular build, in spite of her small frame, indicated she was also a warrior. Looking father up the beach, she could see where the other was headed. A steep trail headed up into the cliffs, where forest abruptly met sea. If the archer made it to the trail before Xena could stop her, the smaller striped animal would have the advantage. "I'll just see that doesn't happen then," she whispered fiercely under her breath.
A half-mile to the trail, Xena caught up with the archer. Approaching from the inland side, she forced her quarry into deeper water. When she was alongside, she leaped from Argo's back into the smaller woman, knocking her off her horse and into the shallow surf. Xena didn't say a word. If words would have persuaded this woman to stop running, she would have already.
Lessa felt as if she'd been hit by a Titan. The muscular form flying into her drove her clear from her saddle and on her back into the cold salt water. Quick as lightning, she brought her legs up and with a thrust surprisingly powerful for her size, threw the warrior back over her head. With a jump she was on her feet. For a half second she thought about drawing her sword. She well knew Xena's reputation, if in fact this was Xena. If she drew her sword now, she'd probably never draw another...ever.
Xena was surprised by the throw, but managed to pull her legs in. With a graceful tuck and spin she landed on her feet, splashing in the surf. Both women eyed each other critically, trying to anticipate the other's next move. Lessa was cautiously backing up, fists at the ready, heading for dry sand. With a leap Xena was over her head, landing on the other side driving her back into deeper water. "I just want to ask you a few questions," she said flatly.
"Forgive my impertinence," Lessa replied, "but I don't believe you."
"If I wanted to kill you, you'd already be dead."
Lessa nodded. "Maybe, maybe not." With that she stopped moving backwards and lunged straight for the warrior. Connecting solidly with Xena's torso, she knocked the air from the big warrior's lungs. Surprised, and reacting from instinct, she responded with a right forearm across the archer's back. Lessa dropped, unconscious, into the knee-deep surf with a splash.
Xena sighed and turned the body over with her boot, sea foam receding off the still form leaving fine sand in its place. Unceremoniously, she hoisted the body out of the surf and positioned it across her shoulders. Any water in the archer's nose and mouth would drain out. Xena grimaced at cold wet body dripping water down her back and arms as she headed up the beach. Argo watched the striped horse with interest. It in turn was studying Xena most intently.
"Don't worry." Xena said as soon as she got within earshot of the animal. "I'm not going to hurt her." She spoke in soothing tones, looking occasionally over her shoulder at the beast as she draped the woman across Argo's back and tied her arms and her legs. That done, she tried to approach the striped animal, who deftly stepped out of her reach. "Suit yourself," she muttered, grabbing Argo's reins and heading up the shore. In moments she heard the footfalls of the smaller animal as it followed behind.
Gabrielle had just gotten the campfire under way and set water to boil for tea when she saw the vague outline of figures moving up the beach. A moment's observation and she was sure it was Xena, Argo with a something across her back, and the small striped horse. Zebra, she corrected herself. Straining her eyes, Gabrielle hunted for the other warrior, then realized she'd been looking right at her. She was that bundle across Argo's back. As her friend entered the campsite, Gabrielle rushed to her, concern apparent in her voice.
"She's fine Gabrielle." Xena replied gently, soothing the other woman's concerns. "She wouldn't stop running."
"So she started swimming?" Gabrielle asked, noticing the water dripping from the still form on Argo's back. "Get her down from there, she'll catch her death of cold. So will you for that matter. Come here and warm up by the fire."
Xena smiled in spite of herself. So like Gabrielle to worry about the little things. No matter that she'd just captured someone who could be as proficient with a bow and arrow as she herself was with a sword, Gabrielle was worried about her getting the sniffles. Still, it was dusk now and the temperature was dropping swiftly. Taking a step toward her horse, Xena grimaced at the squishy feel of seawater seeping out of her boot. She didn't want to think about the effect salt water was going to have on her armor.
"Oh, hi, Socrates," Gabrielle said, addressing the zebra that had just stepped into their campsite. It kept a wary eye on her mistress.
"She won't let anyone get near..." Xena had been looking down as she positioned Lessa's body against a tree near the fire. When she raised her head she watched in amazement as the bard slowly stepped up to the unusual animal.
Socrates studied Xena with a decidedly smug look on her face. "Don't worry," Gabrielle soothed, "your friend is going to be fine. Xena didn't hurt her-well not too bad anyway." Slowly the bard reached her hand out and let the animal see her open palm, then gently stroked its head and neck.
"I'll bet this is for you," she continued, pulling a large red apple from the bag of food attached to the horse's saddle. The equine sniffed the bard for a moment before accepting the apple in a large bite. "I'm going to get your friend to wake up now. Don't wander off. I'm sure she'll appreciate a familiar face."
"And you didn't think you had a way with horses." Xena teased.
"It's because Socrates isn't a horse, she's a zebra. I must have a way with zebras."
"Is that so? You're really something, Gabrielle, you know that?" Xena said fondly as the bard joined her by Lessa's still form.
Gabrielle joined Xena in removing the cold, soaked armor from the unconscious woman. "What do you mean?" she asked, blushing at the compliment.
"You just have a way...with everyone." Xena replied shyly, not meeting the bard's appreciative gaze. "We weren't in the water very long," she continued, changing the subject, "I don't see how she got so soaked."
"Well, you're almost as soaked. When we finish with her, your armor is coming off next."
No point in arguing, the bard was right. "Yes, ma'am," she replied with a chuckle.
Lessa began to wake up as the last of her armor was gently removed. When she finally opened her eyes, she realized she was dressed in a clean dry shift her clothes and armor drying by the fire. She was grateful to see her armor was not too close to the fire. Drying out too quickly was hell on leather. She noticed that her hands and legs were tied as Xena approached.
"You slept long enough," the warrior said evenly.
"You hit me hard enough," Lessa retorted sullenly, looking down at her bound hands. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Xena extend two fingers and draw her hand back. "If you're going to poke me- cut off the flow of blood to my brain- don't bother. I'll talk."
Xena shrugged and put her hand down. "You didn't seem too willing to talk before."
"Well, I've heard about the procedure and it doesn't sound too pleasant." Lessa heard Gabrielle chuckle from the other side of the fire. "Besides, before I had a least a chance of escape, and I had my clothes on."
"Suit yourself. Why don't we start with your name."
"And why were you following us?"
"I wasn't exactly following you," Lessa replied, shifting uncomfortably. "I mean, I was supposed to be following you, but I changed my mind at Delphi and I left before the two of you did. I honestly expected you to take the inland rout, not the coastal."
"We did take the inland route, but that was four days ago." Xena commented. "So how did you manage to get from Delphi to Tenthe in only four days if you took the coastal route?" the warrior asked.
"By not stopping..."
"No wonder you're exhausted." Gabrielle blurted from where she sat near the fire. Xena shot her a look and the bard quickly busied herself with other things.
"So who do you work for?" Xena asked evenly.
Lessa sighed, apparently giving up. "There is a quiver on my saddle. In it is an arrow with black feathers. It will explain everything."
Xena stood and took a step towards the zebra who took an identical step backwards. The warrior shot an irritated look at Lessa who shrugged.
"I'll get it," Gabrielle offered, hurrying over to where the animal stood. The zebra nickered softly at the bard's approach, but didn't move.
"It's all right, Socrates," Lessa called. "Let her get it."
A moment later Gabrielle returned with the arrow. It was a bit fatter than most arrows, expertly made with short black feathers for flights. At its tip was a nasty looking barbed arrowhead. "Go ahead, break it open," Lessa suggested.
Before Xena could stop her, Gabrielle broke the arrow across her knee, extracting a thin piece of parchment from the hollow shaft. She unrolled it with delicate fingers and read the note, looking up with disbelief.
"You were supposed to kill me?" Gabrielle asked, stunned.
"Let me see that." Xena demanded, concerned as she reached for the note. She scanned the parchment, her eyes narrowing in anger as she muttered a single word, "Callisto." Then she offered the captive archer two more words. "Talk, now."
"I was kidnapped by Callisto's thugs during an archery competition three months ago. It wasn't so bad at first, I was looking for some travel and adventure anyway. But it was a big mistake. The work was easy, the pay was good, but there was a lot I didn't bargain for. I didn't realize that she was completely insane. She had just decided she needed an archer and...a companion. Callisto is one sick mind, I'll grant you that.
"Four days ago she left me in Delphi with that note and explicit instructions to kill Xena's companion, someone she referred to as an irritating blond named Gabrielle. I thought I'd be able to do it. In fact, if you'd gotten there in the morning when you were supposed to, I might have. But I had all day to think about it. I asked around. The stories I heard made it clear that the only thing in life I needed to fear more than an angry Callisto would be an enraged Xena." Lessa shrugged again. "So I took off and have been running ever since. I was hoping to avoid you and Callisto, but my luck seems to have run out."
"What could make you willing to kill another person in cold blood?" Gabrielle asked quietly.
"A lot of things," Xena and Lessa replied in unison, then frowned at each other for a moment.
"Did she threaten your family?" Xena asked.
Lessa nodded and Gabrielle had her answer.
"Well, it looks like you'll be traveling with us for a few days." Lessa held up her hands for Xena to untie and the warrior shook her head. "Not so fast," Xena continued, "If you're lying, we can't trust you. If you're telling the truth and we keep Callisto from killing you, I think you'll forgive me."
Lessa nodded. The warrior's logic made sense. "Can I at least take care of my zebra?" she asked.
"I don't see why not. Just don't be stupid." Xena cut the rope that tied the archer's feet together, but made no move to untie her hands.
Lessa got up and gingerly walked a short distance from the fire. Her feet were bare and clearly accustomed to boots. Socrates walked over, nickering softly, bending slightly so her ears could be scratched. Gabrielle joined them, approaching cautiously.
"Can I help you?" she asked noticing Lessa's awkwardness with her hands tied together.
"That's awfully brave, considering I was sent out here to kill you," Lessa quipped, straining to release the straps to the blanket-saddle.
"Yes. But the point is you chose not to kill me, isn't it?" Gabrielle replied, helping lift the saddle off the zebra's back, aware of Xena's watchful glances.
"If you say so," Lessa shrugged. The bard gently put the saddle on the ground near the fire. "You can give her an apple if you want while I comb her out." The two worked in silence for a few moments while Lessa brushed the zebra's coat, then inspected each of the animal's four small hooves. Gabrielle noticed Xena tending to Argo.
"I need to help Xena. I just want you to know there're no hard feelings, okay?"
Lessa smiled in spite of the exhaustion plainly evident on her face. "No hard feelings. I'll say one thing for you, Gabrielle, you're a class act. And don't worry, I don't hold you responsible for Xena's behavior," she continued, raising her bound hands. "She's taking sensible precautions." The bard smiled sadly. Giving Socrates a final scratch, she walked across the campsite.
Xena had finished with Argo and was removing their bedrolls from the saddle packs. "Xena," Gabrielle said gently, getting the warrior's attention. When she turned, the bard continued. "Leave that for later. If you don't get out of this wet armor, you'll catch your death." Xena glanced over to Lessa and noticed her lying on the ground, head resting on her saddle near the fire, sound asleep.
"You're right. But first, go toss this on top of Lessa." She handed the bard her blanket.
Xena sat patiently in front of the fire, watching Gabrielle gracefully drape the blanket over the sleeping archer who mumbled incoherently and curled into a ball, a smile on her unconscious face. She then sensed the bard's warmth at her back at the customary tugging as her armor was loosened. Carefully, Gabrielle set the pieces of armor away from the fire to dry. She handled them so gently Xena noticed, even as she felt them as slabs of ice being removed from her body. It had gotten colder than she expected. When the last of it was off she was suddenly very aware of Gabrielle's proximity...and her warmth.
"Your skin is like ice," Gabrielle commented as she lightly touched the warrior's shoulders. She felt the warrior tremble slightly. Thinking it was from the cold, she quickly retrieved a blanket from her pack. After gently wrapping it around Xena's sitting form, she poured her some fresh tea.
"I don't know what I'd do without you." Xena said, accepting the steaming mug. She tried to keep the humor in her voice, but knew she was deadly serious.
"I'll remember that." the bard replied, eyes laughing. "So what are we going to do with her?"
Xena sipped her tea thoughtfully and gazed into the fire. The hot liquid warmed her within, the wool blanket drew the chill from her skin, and Gabrielle's presence heated her in ways she thought it best not to dwell upon. "Tomorrow we'll go after Callisto. I think she and I need to have a little talk. And you," Xena looked at Gabrielle seriously, "will need to be careful whenever Lessa is around. Even if she looks like she's asleep."
"Gabrielle, we don't know if she's one of Callisto's plants, or if she really is running away from her. If Callisto really wrote that note, she certainly intended me to find it sticking out of your chest. I'm not prepared to gamble with your life, and I'm not prepared to have you gamble with it either." Xena did her best to communicate the gravity and urgency of her words, warmed yet again by the bards understanding smile in return.
"Thank you, Xena." she said softly. "Now try to get some sleep. Please." Gabrielle stretched out by the fire, pulling Xena down with her.
The warrior was about to protest until it became evident the bard wanted a portion of the blanket that she'd been wrapped in. Remembering it was Gabrielle's blanket, she smiled to herself. "If Gabrielle can share, I guess I can too," she thought. Stretching out between the warmth of the fire and Gabrielle's body, Xena felt too much bliss to sleep.
Runaway, Archer, Thief
Lessa awoke to the customary warm breath of her traveling companion as the zebra snorted in her face, nudging her gently. "I'm awake, enough already," she mumbled as she opened her eyes to a dizzying array of black and white. Fumbling under her saddle with her right hand, she found her cache of food and extracted an apple, handing it to the expectant zebra. It was then she noticed her hands were untied.
Sitting up with a start, she looked around the campsite. Xena sat across the fire tending to her armor. Gabrielle was nowhere to be seen. "I undid the bow strings on your weapons," Xena announced flatly, and if you don't mind, I'll hang on to your sword for awhile.
"Sure, no problem," Lessa said, seeing her hopes for escape melting away like ice in summer.
"Here," Xena said, tossing the archer an oiled rag and some compound. "Your armor needs some work."
"You're telling me." Lessa picked up her leather breastplate and set to work, but was distracted by the aroma of cooking coming from the fire. A rabbit hung from the spit and some plants were steeping in liquid off to the side. The familiar rumbling in her stomach was unmistakable. "Um... I have some bread and cheese. I'll trade for some rabbit?"
Xena stopped sharpening her sword and studied the archer. Her neon blue eyes unreadable, Lessa felt naked in their gaze. "Fair enough," she said after a long moment. "But we'll wait for Gabrielle, if you don't mind."
"No, of course not..."
"You could elaborate a little on your story while we're waiting."
Lessa searched her packs and brought out the bread and cheese, placing them on a flat rock equidistant between her and the warrior. "Story?" she said, returning to work on her armor. "Does that mean you don't believe me?"
"Let's just say I'm undecided."
Lessa's retort died on her lips as Gabrielle stepped through the shrubs at the perimeter of the campsite. Freshly bathed, her hair not quite dry, she looked radiant. "You were right about the stream, Xena, it's freez- oh hi, you're awake."
The smile on Xena's face at Gabrielle's return did not go unnoticed by the archer. Lessa smiled at the greeting, doing her best to be a casual observer of the body language between warrior and bard. There was a chance Callisto was wrong about these two, so perhaps she was wrong about more as well.
"Lessa was just about to tell us a bit more about her background while we have a bite to eat." Xena explained, finishing with her sword and proficiently tucking it into its scabbard.
"Go on," Gabrielle urged, taking a seat next to Xena. She broke off a piece of bread and rabbit then handed it to the warrior. Next she served Lessa, then herself.
"There isn't much more to tell. I don't know what you're after..."
"Well, you said you were kidnapped from an archery competition. Are you any good?" the bard asked, placing a small piece of meat on a bit of bread then popping it into her mouth.
"As a matter of fact, I won the competition in the kingdom of Minos. I win every year," Lessa said, around a mouthful of food. "I returned to Socrates with my winnings, and she gave warning just as I was hit in the head." The archer turned around and frowned at the animal watching her. "A little more warning next time would be helpful." The zebra snorted and turned away.
"It looks like she can almost understand you," Gabrielle observed.
"The funny thing is, I think she can. She's the most unusual animal I've ever seen."
"Where did you get her?" the bard asked, serving Xena a second helping of food.
"I stole her."
Xena looked up at that admission, arching an eyebrow.
"A horse trader my father knew had three of these magnificent animals. When I went into market and saw them, two had already been skinned. Soc here was the only one left. The merchant discovered they couldn't be broken for riding and didn't see any other use for them. They simply won't behave if they don't want to. I didn't have the money to buy her, but when I saw those eyes, I had to do something. So I devised a plan." Lessa could see Gabrielle listening intently to her story, hanging on every word. For her part, Xena seemed divided between occasionally looking at Lessa and watching the bard listen to the story.
"That night," she continued, "I went visiting, supposedly to bring him news from my father; they were friends. He lived alone, his wife and child taken by a sickness a few years ago. I fixed him dinner. I put something in his mulled mead to make him sleep, then I set to work. I had ridden my horse, a gift from my father, which was an excellent animal. It was small for a horse, only slightly bigger than Soc, but a well-trained animal and black as pitch. This merchant, Gagnon, had three other horses as well, not too much bigger than the zebra. One was tan, the other two chestnut. I made a wash of black soot and water, and painted the other three horses so all four were solid black. It dried quickly, then I used some flour paste to paint white stripes on all four animals. I figured Gagnon would see four zebras the next morning and have to wash them all to see which one was real, only they'd all be horses. I hoped that would give me enough of a head start to avoid capture. Gagnon would naturally accuse me, when he found my horse painted like a zebra in his pen, but I'm sure my adoptive family would argue the point. They have a rather unrealistic view of me. I left evidence at home that I'd fallen in the river- an accident doing laundry, which I'm not very good at, to further confuse the issue, then set out with Soc to live as the persona I created for the archery competitions."
"So you're adopted?" Gabrielle asked.
"Let's just say that my mother thought it best I grow up with my father's family as one of their own. I've never really fit in with them though. I'm just too...different."
Gabrielle nodded, understanding. "And Lessa isn't your real name?"
"What is more real, Gabrielle, how we see ourselves, or how others see us?"
"Good point," the bard observed, pouring three cups of tea from the pot with the steeping herbs. "So when did you discover that Socrates was unusual?"
"Well, I had I funny feeling that night as I worked," Lessa continued. "Almost as if I was being watched. I guess my scheme was creative enough that Hermes smiled on me that night. Soc was as quiet as could be. I intended to walk her from town but she kept nudging me in the back. I finally got fed up and tried hopping up on her back. She didn't throw me, and I'd heard horror stories from Gagnon. She just seems to understand what I say, follows me around. Kinda like a dog I suppose." There was a loud nicker and snort from the edge of the campsite, followed by the stamp of an irritated hoof. "But much smarter." Lessa amended.
"So archery was the only reason Callisto was interested in you?" Xena asked, sipping her tea.
The archer had almost forgotten about the warrior's presence. She had been so still, so quiet. Lessa suspected she'd worked very hard at being unobtrusive. "I'm the best archer she'd ever seen. She wanted you to find that arrow sticking out of Gabrielle's heart and wanted you to seek her out because of it. Callisto is good with a sword, quarterstaff, and hand to hand fighting, but she isn't as good with a bow and she knows it. I'm certain there were other factors in her decision, but the archery was first and foremost."
"She pegged me with a dart." Xena observed.
"And don't think we haven't all heard that story a thousand times." Lessa laughed. "Fact is, she had a clean shot while you were preoccupied. I could have made that shot with my eyes closed. But piercing Gabrielle's heart, not in battle, in a crowded market place with you keeping a watchful eye on her and not have that arrow deflected or caught, now that takes an expert."
"Don't you think your family is looking for you?" Gabrielle asked, feeling uncomfortable at the turn the conversation had taken.
"I doubt it. The river where I lived was pretty treacherous. People have drowned in it before. Occasionally the body isn't recovered."
"Where is Callisto now?" Xena asked.
"When she left me at Delphi she said she and her thugs were going to Korinos to do some recruiting. She fully intends to build another army. She wants your blood, Xena, and she knows she's going to need at least an army to get it. After Korinos I think her next stop would be Eselan."
"Then I'd say we have four days to catch up with her before she reaches Eselan," Xena observed. "If you're telling the truth."
"Wait a minute. I'm not going with you. Callisto will kill me. She's going to know Gabrielle isn't dead. She also knows there isn't any way I could have missed. This is a death sentence..." Lessa's fear had an agitating effect on the zebra which began to bob its head nervously.
"You have a choice, of course," Xena said evenly. "Travel with us or risk facing Callisto on your own. I will have my talk with her. If there's anything left when I'm done, she very well may come after you. And there's one other thing," Xena continued, finishing the last of her tea. "Like it or not, you threatened to kill Gabrielle. If you choose not to travel with us and I see so much as a glimpse of you, I'll have to assume you're trying to make good on your threat." She left her words hanging, a slow smile crossing her face as she watched the archer think about them.
"Look, Xena," Lessa said, trying quell her anxiety and think clearly. "I fully intended to travel up the coast as quickly as possible. I need to warn some people about Callisto before she...discovers my disloyalty. We both know the trail that way is thin. The odds are good that you might see me."
"Then I strongly suggest you travel with us." With that the warrior got up and began to saddle Argo.
"Would the Warrior Princess mind if I got cleaned up in the stream before leaving?" Lessa asked sarcastically, standing and loosening the shift she'd slept in.
"We leave in a half hour," Xena replied, not looking up from her preparations.
The water was indeed cold, the bard hadn't lied. Socrates stood near a bend in the stream, intermittently drinking and blowing bubbles. Gabrielle approached quietly and stopped behind a large boulder. Lessa's back was to her, dark hair slick with water, appearing almost black. She was naked, reaching for her breeches, muscular arms graceful in their movements. From the back she did resemble Xena, only much smaller. Gabrielle couldn't be sure but her back appeared to be covered by a series of scratch marks. The archer turned around before she could get a better look.
"You don't hide very well, Gabrielle," Lessa commented, seemingly unconcerned as she faced the bard, naked from the waist up.
"I...I wasn't hiding." she stammered, "I was going to let you know we're leaving soon."
"I see," Lessa shrugged, putting on a leather halter. "Well, then, thank you. Soc and I are just about ready. Can you give me a hand with my armor?"
Gabrielle swallowed, carefully crossing the stream, to join the archer on the other side. Lessa put her armband in position, holding it in place while Gabrielle tied the laces. "How did you know I was there?" she asked, conversationally.
"Over there," Lessa said, gently touching her arm then pointing to the shadow cast by the tree as it splayed across the sandy bank. "Standing next to the boulder you stood out bright as day." Gabrielle nodded, helping the archer with the rest of her armor. She wore more guards on her right arm and a slightly different style of armor on her front and back. As she worked, she could feel the archer's green eyes watching her, and could feel the cold moisture on her skin from the stream. Overall, the effect was pleasantly uncomfortable. As Gabrielle adjusted the straps in the back, she got a better look at what were definitely healing scratch marks.
"You're good at this," Lessa commented.
"Thank you, I get a lot of practice. What happened here?" Gabrielle asked, positioning a buckle away from a particularly angry scratch mark.
"Callisto." Lessa said flatly.
Before answering Lessa looked at her for a long moment. Then a huge grin spread across her face, accompanied by a lyrical chuckle. "I guess Callisto was wrong after all," she muttered to herself.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, Gabrielle, that she is mistaken in the nature of your relationship with Xena." Lessa said, softly whistling for the zebra to join her.
"How so?" Gabrielle asked, accepting Lessa's offered arm and joining her on the back of the zebra.
"Callisto thinks you and Xena are a bit closer than you are, that's all. She was trying to replicate that closeness with me and I'm relieved to discover she is quite mistaken." Lessa explained as Socrates slowly walked back to camp.
"I'm closer to Xena than I've ever been to anyone." Gabrielle protested.
"I don't doubt that, Gabrielle, but I suspect that you're not having sex with Xena. The two of you aren't lovers are you?" The trio entered the clearing of the campsite, leaving Gabrielle wide eyed and stunned. Xena was scattering the remains of their campfire and looked at the bard with concern.
"Everything okay?" she asked quietly.
"Ah... yes. Fine." Gabrielle answered in a rush, color rising to her cheeks as she saw the warrior, almost as if for the first time.
"Then get the rest of your stuff together, we've got to go."
Lessa finished tightening the saddle on the zebra, not looking up at the warrior's approach.
"We'll take the trail you were heading for yesterday," Xena said without ceremony. "You in front, Gabrielle and I will follow. If you try to hurt her, I swear I'll kill you."
Lessa looked up without anger. "Xena, if I had made a move to hurt Gabrielle, she'd already be dead. You've got my weapons, and you have my word. If you still feel that isn't good enough, then by all means kill me now. I'm tired, Xena, and I suspect that if you don't kill me Callisto will soon enough. Frankly, I think you'd be quicker about it."
"If what you're saying is the truth, archer, then you've nothing to fear from Callisto." Xena walked away, then quickly vaulted onto Argo's back. "I think you'd better ride, Gabrielle," she said turning her attention to the bard. "It's going to be a quick pace."
"Sure," Gabrielle replied. With a quick swallow, she grasped Xena's strong arm and was gracefully lifted into position behind the warrior. Still profoundly affected by Lessa's words, her arms trembled slightly as they wrapped themselves around the warrior's waist.
Heading across the beach, Gabrielle looked out into the surf and thought about the archer's words. Xena and her- lovers? "Why would Callisto think that?" she wondered. Socrates started a lazy lope in the shallow surf and Argo followed. It was the most comfortable gait that was faster than a walk, and the animals seemed to agree. With the breathtaking shoreline stretching out as far as she could see, it was easy to get lost in thought. Easier still with the rolling gait of Argo and her arms wrapped around a well-muscled, very warm body.
"You're awfully quiet," Xena commented when they neared the steep cliffs.
"Just enjoying the ride," Gabrielle replied with a bashful grin into the warrior's back. Xena turned her head in surprise, a wry smile on her face as the bard turned her head, keeping her smile out of sight.
"I'm glad to hear it. When we get to the cliffs, I want you to sit in front. It's pretty steep."
Nodding mutely, Gabrielle looked up in awe at the steep sheets of rock directly in front of them. It was almost impossible to see a trail, seeming better suited to sure-footed mountain sheep than a horse or zebra.
Lessa hopped off Socrates and walked over to Argo. "There's a small village up there called Poli. We should hit it by nightfall. It's situated by a small lake on relatively flat ground. I suggest we camp there." Xena nodded in agreement, letting Gabrielle down and rearranging some of their gear.
"Do you want me to carry some of your stuff?" Lessa offered. "There's going to be a lot of up and down, at least 'till midday."
"That would be helpful, but I'd still like to keep a hold of your weapons."
"Xena, you're nothing if not predictable."
"Then you don't know me very well," the warrior replied evenly.
Accepting their gear with a light laugh, Lessa headed back to Socrates. "I know you better than you think," she muttered to herself as she attached the gear to her blanket saddle.
The trail was an exaggerated series of steep switchbacks working their way up the cliff face. It was narrow, barely wide enough for Argo, but the horse kept her footing even in the most rocky patches. Xena sat behind Gabrielle one arm lightly around the bard's waist, the other holding Argo's reins. In the steep inclines Gabrielle could feel her body pushed against Xena as the warrior leaned forward in the saddle. Going downhill it was the reverse, Xena pulling the bard against her as she leaned back slightly, helping the horse with her footing. They didn't talk much that day, Xena was even quieter than usual. When they did converse, Gabrielle felt the distracting sensation of warm breath against her ear as the warrior spoke, or saw Xena's tan profile just behind and above her shoulder.
Lessa was not too far off, but the distance was more than casual conversation would allow. As a result, the bard was forced to occupy her mind with the scenery, which became more treacherous, by the mile. That also left more time for the awareness of immediate sensation. She could feel Xena's breathing through the armor pressed against her back. There were moments the bard thought she could almost feel the warrior's heartbeat as well. When that happened she could feel her own pulse quicken in response, desperately hoping it went unnoticed by statuesque woman behind her. It was cold out, but she was kept deliciously warm by the strong body behind and gentle arm around her middle. Her olfactory senses were enticed by the subtle smells of the sea, leather and something else equally as pleasant that Gabrielle could only surmise was Xena herself.
When they stopped for a midday rest, Gabrielle's legs felt like water. She doubted it was just from the hours of riding. "I'll have a look around," Xena announced quickly and headed up the trail. Gabrielle watched her go, puzzled. When she saw Lessa's approach, she busied herself with getting some food from their packs.
"That was abrupt." Lessa noted, looking off into the horizon.
"She's just having a look around."
"If you say so," the archer shrugged, looking back down the trail. "But it isn't as if anyone could really sneak up on us with a trail this narrow."
"What do you think she's doing then?" Gabrielle asked with genuine interest, voice slightly edged with irritation.
"I'd say regaining her composure. If not that, then she's probably taking a leak," Lessa replied, heading back to her own mount and taking a bit of dried fish out of the saddle bag.
"I've been thinking about what you said earlier, Lessa," Gabrielle said quietly, "and I really think you're wrong. I don't know where Callisto got that idea, but Xena isn't interested in me like that. Hercules maybe, but not..."
"Gabrielle, that is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard," Lessa said, doing her very best not to laugh outright. "It's obvious to me how she feels I suspect the only reason you've not heard anyone else comment on it is a healthy fear for their life. I, on the other hand, will most likely not see the full moon so I've got the luxury of honesty."
"Is probably a way for her to blow off some steam. No wonder she's so frightening, she's in a constant state of sexual frustration. I guarantee that if she had a choice between Hercules and you, muscle man would be lonely indeed."
"You're making fun of me," Gabrielle said, hurt she looked down into smiling green eyes.
"Maybe a little, Gabrielle, and I'm sorry." Lessa smiled with genuine kindness, her eyes widening suddenly. "Look, I've got an idea."
"Here," she said, rummaging into her saddle pack. Smiling, she extracted a polished piece of metal. It was slightly curved, about the size of the bard's hand. "When we camp tonight, I'll set this by the fire. I'll position it in such a way that you can brush your hair or whatever it is you usually do in the evenings, and you can see if Xena is watching you. If you stay put when I set this up, I doubt Xena will see it- she won't know you're watching her."
Before the bard could respond Xena came walking back down the trail. Lessa quickly tucked the mirror back into her bag, making the pretense of getting an apple for the zebra. "Last one, Soc. You'd better make it last."
"We're making better time than I expected," Xena announced, looking at the archer suspiciously. "We'll make camp outside of Poli, but we'll be able to get some supplies."
"I hope they have apples," Lessa said to no one in particular.
The trio reached Poli well before dusk. The trail meandered into a canyon and widened out so the two equines could walk side by side. Gabrielle and Lessa talked amiably, Xena participating in the conversation only occasionally. With the small village barely in sight, they left the trail, heading towards a densely wooded area by the lake Lessa had mentioned.
"This looks good," Xena announced, deciding on their campsite.
Lessa looked around and shrugged. "If you say so." She dismounted from Socrates and stood waiting for Xena and Gabrielle to do the same. They didn't.
"Where are you two going?" Lessa asked, puzzled.
"We're going to stop by the village. You stay here, and try to keep Socrates out of sight."
"Aren't you afraid I might run off?" Lessa asked removing the zebra's saddle.
"Are you that stupid?" Xena asked in return with a smile. She turned Argo towards the small village.
"If you can, get some apples for Soc!" she called after them. Looking around the shore of the small lake, she addressed the zebra. "You heard the princess, make yourself scarce." With a flick of her head the zebra headed into the dense trees.
Looking down at her saddle, Lessa decided she might as well set up camp. She had most of the warrior's gear here anyway. After collecting firewood, starting the fire and putting some water on to boil, she set to arranging the bedrolls. While unrolling the blanket she'd used the previous night, a small pouch fell out, landing at Lessa's feet. She stooped to pick it up, surprised at how light it was. A closer examination of the blanket showed that the pouch had been sewn into the bottom, concealed under a patch. With a quick look over her shoulder, the archer dumped the contents of the pouch into her hand; a strawberry blond lock of hair tied with a thin piece of leather was its only contents. "Warriors!" Lessa thought. With a sigh, she put the pouch back where it belonged and rummaged through her gear for a needle. Taking a loose thread from the end of the blanket, Lessa set to work sewing.
"So what do you think of her?" Gabrielle asked Xena as they slowly walked to town. Argo trailed behind Xena, punctuating their conversation with the occasional snort. It felt good for the bard to stretch her legs, and as much as she appreciated the warmth of the warrior's body, it was much easier to talk to her this way.
"Well, definitely an unusual animal. What did you call it, zebra?" Xena replied with a smile.
"Not Socrates, Lessa!"
"She seems unusual as well, but not quite as charming," Xena quipped, still grinning.
"I don't think she was treated very well by Callisto. When I went to get her at the stream, I saw that her back was covered with scratch marks."
"Really" she said, arching an eyebrow.
The two women had reached the tiny village. It was easy to spot the tavern- it was the only building obviously populated. The noise level dropped significantly when the warrior and bard stepped into the main room. All eyes turned to the door, and a nervous murmur swept through the dinner crowd. It was irritating, but Xena was used to it.
"What can I get you?" an old woman asked when they'd taken a seat at a nearby table.
"I'd like to buy a bed roll and some traveling provisions, bread, cheese, a little wine, and some apples."
"Eleven dinars, fix you up real good." the woman said smiling. She was missing several teeth.
"Fine," Xena replied, nodding to Gabrielle, who discretely fished the money out of her satchel.
The old woman returned with a bundle of provisions wrapped in a blanket. An unpleasant memory surfaced at the woman's approach. Xena quickly surveyed the room. A few farmers, a blacksmith, maybe a merchant or two. This quiet, sleepy town was a raider's dream. The warrior suspected that its inaccessibility was its best protection. Pushing thoughts out of the past from her mind, Xena and Gabrielle headed out of the tavern to a patiently waiting Argo.
"You're not that warlord anymore, Xena," Gabrielle said quietly. "That isn't who you are now."
"Can you always tell what I'm thinking?" Xena asked gently, surprised by the bard's astute observation.
"Only sometimes," she replied with a reassuring grin. "Sometimes I get the feeling it's just as well I don't know what you're thinking."
"You can say that again," Xena thought to herself as they headed back to camp in comfortable silence. Walking near the warrior, arms not quite touching, Gabrielle again pondered the archer's words, her thoughts equally divided between wondering how Xena might feel about her as well as how she truly felt about the enigmatic warrior.
Gabrielle loved Xena, certainly. In a way, that was the easy part. Never had she been as open, honest, and vulnerable with anyone as she was with her friend. But physical desire? Yes, she knew there was that too, but those feelings rarely surfaced. Perhaps because she suspected Xena did not feel the same way. No, Xena probably felt towards her as one would for a baby sister. But still, sometimes she wondered.
There was no sign of Lessa at the campground when they arrived. Two bedrolls had been neatly rolled out side by side next to a blazing campfire. A skin of water hung near the flame heating, and the remainder of their gear was neatly stowed near the bedrolls. Lessa's saddle blanket was positioned on the other side of the campfire, but that was the only indication the archer was around.
Sudden sounds emerged from the dense trees beyond the campsite. Harsh words and the thrashing sound of a fight could clearly be heard through the foliage. Xena and Gabrielle ran the short distance to the trees. Just beyond they were brought up short by what they saw.
Six men, fishermen by the looks of them, surrounded the archer and were engaged in combat. One was swinging a net, another a club. Two had short swords and the remaining two grabbed for Lessa with bare hands. Gabrielle was about to charge into the fray when a restraining hand on her shoulder stopped her. "Wait a second," Xena said quietly, watching the fight with interest.
At that moment, Lessa ducked and rolled under the feet of the man with the net, who promptly released it onto his companion with the club. Rolling to her feet behind him, Lessa shoved him with a booted foot and wrapped the remainder of the net around him. A quick turn and Lessa kicked the sword out of the hand of it's wielder, catching it as it fell. Without missing a beat she kicked behind her, catching a barehanded attacker in the face with her boot. Another one down.
Gabrielle wordlessly looked from the fight to Xena who studied the archer, a thin smile on her lips. A glance down revealed that her hand had freed her chakram from its thong. "Just in case," Xena whispered.
Lessa allowed herself to be grabbed by the remaining unarmed attacker, using the leverage to kick two more charging at her. That accomplished, she threw the man over her shoulder, thrusting the sword she held down at him. She pierced the inseam of his trousers, pinning him to the ground between his legs.
"I wouldn't move if I were you." she said tightly, leaping into the air and landing a backwards flip over the head of the remaining charging swordsman. Pulling two daggers out of her boots as she landed, she let them fly. The first pieced the shirt sleeve of the sword wielder to a tree, the second landing hilt first into his hand, knocking the sword from his fingers with a painful yelp. At the sight, three of the unpinned fishermen took off at a run, carrying a still unconscious companion with them.
With deliberate slowness Lessa walked to the tree, and using her boot, hoisted the sword into the air, catching it easily. She unpinned the man's shirtsleeve, not looking as she threw the dagger at her boot. With a thwap the blade entered it's sheath. "Beat it," she muttered to the man, who took off at a run after his companions. Stooping to retrieve her other dagger, she glanced at Xena and Gabrielle before walking over to the man pinned to the ground, sword sticking out between his legs.
Casually tossing the dagger in the air and catching it, she surveyed the evident terror on the man's face. "What's your name, friend?" She asked.
"Mekor- please don't kill me."
"Mekor, you and your pals were going to steal my horse. The last person that tried that got a broken pelvis for his trouble..."
"That's gotta hurt," Xena muttered under her breath.
"Funny thing was, I didn't do it." Lessa continued. "That animal does not like strangers. And she's more foul tempered than I am."
As Lessa spoke, she tossed the dagger higher and higher over the man's face, only moving her hand to catch it at the last possible second. "And I distinctly recall," she continued easily, "that you said you were going to have your way with me." With that, she did not reach her hand out to catch the descending dagger, rather, stuck out her boot and caught the dagger in its sheath.
"Show off." Xena said, causing a smile to ease across Gabrielle's features.
"I didn't mean it," the terrified man pleaded.
"Oh I see, why didn't you say so before?" Lessa asked, her hand resting on the grip of the sword, gently rocking it back and forth. The frightened man squirmed to keep the blade away from anything sensitive. "I wish I had a better sense of humor. You should think about that before you threaten a woman, you know." With a quick pull, she freed the sword from the ground. Mekor jerked in fear, wetting himself. "It seems we have a problem," she continued, noticing the stain spreading down the front of his pants. "Tell you what, Mekor. I was planning on camping here one night. I suggest you personally see to it I'm left alone. If I have any more trouble, I just might stay a while and see to it your life is very miserable indeed."
He crawled to his feet, almost paralyzed with fear, afraid to run. "Don't forget your blades," she said, handing him the swords. He was about to flee when she put a hand on his shoulder. "And, Mekor," she jabbed her thumb behind her. He looked up and for the first time saw Xena and Gabrielle standing near the trees. What little color remained drained from his face. "Don't make me have to send my big sister after you. I'm the one with the sense of humor in the family, and she so hates it when people pick on me." In seconds he was gone.
"A little over done, don't you think?" Xena observed.
"I didn't know when you guys would show up. They thought I was traveling alone. You could have helped, you know."
"Oh, I don't know," Xena observed, getting several apples out of Gabrielle's bag. "You seem to have had things well in hand." At that, she tossed three apples to the archer who caught each one, beginning to juggle when the third arrived. Gabrielle laughed, amused, especially when Socrates nudged the archer from the back, causing her to stumble and drop an apple. In an instant it was gone, replaced by the contented crunching of the zebra.
"What's for dinner?" Lessa asked as they headed back to the fire.
"I don't know rabbit I guess," Xena said as she unsaddled Argo.
"But we had that for breakfast!" Lessa complained.
"For someone who acts like she's starving, you're pretty particular," Gabrielle observed, helping Xena with Argo's tack.
"It's not that, guys, honest. It's just that with this lake, why don't we have fish?"
"A little cold for swimming, don't you think?" Gabrielle asked, heading to the campfire to check on the heating water.
"Who said anything about swimming?"
"You want your bow," Xena said flatly. It wasn't a question, she knew the answer. For a moment she locked eyes with the archer, penetrating blue searching out resilient green. It was clear the woman could fight; did she have any more surprises in store?
"Just to catch us some fish. I'll take the string off soon as I'm done," Lessa said, not flinching from the warrior's gaze. Xena was welcome to see into her soul. The archer doubted she could however.
Xena walked to the stash of weapons. "Long bow or hand crossbow?"
"Long bow if you don't mind." Lessa said politely, not moving from her place by the fire.
Gabrielle watched the exchange with interest. It was clear some sort of understanding was being reached between the two fighters. Aside from several sarcastic comments, the archer had given Xena a wide berth, and been very clear in her acceptance of the older woman's authority. She had also been very careful around Gabrielle, treating her with courtesy and acknowledging awareness of the warrior's eyes watching her whenever she was near the bard. Her moves were measured and deliberate. It was clear she knew her life depended on it.
Xena handed Lessa the longbow, string and her scabbard. She'd taken the sword out, but left the arrows. The archer selected two arrows then handed the scabbard back. Gabrielle watched with interest as she strung the bow, checking the tension when she finished. The three of them walked the short distance to the lake, Xena's hand never straying from her chakram. Lessa climbed onto a small rock outcrop. She watched the lake for several long moments, then stooped to pick up a fist sized rock. After laying both arrows in a groove in her bow, Lessa tossed the rock high into the air. It came down with splash into a shadowed area of the lake; an instant later, she released the arrows together with a resounding thwap of the bowstring. In the blink of an eye, Gabrielle saw both arrows sticking out of the shallow bank, two large, still fish impaled through the eye with an arrow. The bard was stunned.
"How...?" Gabrielle asked in wonder as the archer unceremoniously unstrung the bow, handing the pieces back to Xena.
"Did you think I was bragging, Gabrielle?" Lessa asked her with a smile as she headed to the bank to get her fish.
Gabrielle looked at Xena, amazement still apparent on her face. "But..." she stammered.
"If that's all it takes to get you speechless, I'd've taken up the bow a long time ago," Xena said with a wry grin as she headed back to the fire. "Lessa might need some help cleaning those fish," she called back over her shoulder.
No sooner had they finished eating, than the rhythmic sounds of deep breathing could be heard from Lessa's side of the fire. "She must be exhausted," Gabrielle observed, pouring another cup of wine for Xena, then herself.
"Traveling four days straight will do that to you," Xena commented, sitting away from the fire, behind Gabrielle and a short distance to the right.
"I still can't get over that shot," she muttered.
"Well, she did say she won the competition at Minos. It's a very serious contest," Xena observed, glancing at the sleeping woman.
Nodding, the bard picked up her brush and sat on her bedroll. Something shiny caught her eye. There, between the stones of the fire at the edge of her bedroll, was Lessa's shiny bracer. By shifting her seat just slightly, she could gaze down and see the face of the warrior to her side. For a moment she considered moving, of not observing Xena with such stealth, but curiosity got the best of her. It would be a simple way to find out if there was any merit to the archer's words.
As she began to brush her hair, she watched Xena drink her wine. She noticed how the warrior gazed into the fire, glanced at her, then lifted the mug to her lips. After a couple of quick glances to the softly snoring archer across from them, Xena's eyes made fewer and fewer trips to the fire. They were entirely focused on Gabrielle. Xena slowly drank her wine and openly watched the bard brush her hair. Gabrielle could see Xena's eyes focus on her hands as she lifted the brush to her hair, following the brush as it easily passed through. The warrior's eyes began a lazy descent down the bard's body, stopping briefly on her throat, then resting on her breast as her chest gently moved, breathing. When Xena's eyes reached her bare abdomen and the warrior unconsciously moistened her lips and smiled, Gabrielle almost dropped the brush. There was hunger in those penetrating blue eyes. Affection, lust, desire, it was all there.
Gabrielle could feel the color rising in her cheeks as she finished with her hair. Xena wanted her, and she hadn't known, hadn't really known until now. Why had the warrior not said anything? Why had she kept it hidden? "Maybe it was just the wine," she thought. But she knew better. When she raised her head and looked back into the curved mirror, her own desire was clear in her eyes. But Xena didn't see her, didn't know the warrior's expression had effected her so profoundly. Xena's customary unreadable look had returned. Downing the last of her wine she stood.
"I'm going to have a look around," Xena said quietly, her voice neutral. She headed off into the trees.
She didn't wait for Gabrielle's response, so the bard nodded, seemingly to no one. "If only I'd known, Xena" she whispered. "It's alright." Unsure if she had any regrets about what she had just done, Gabrielle picked up the shiny bracer and tucked it under Lessa's saddle blanket. The archer didn't even stir, and in that moment Gabrielle envied the younger woman. She had no idea how on earth she was going to sleep this night.
Xena walked for what seemed like hours. A quick glance at the moon told her she'd been gone for two at the most. There was nothing to worry about in the wooded glade by the small lake, Lessa had seen to that. As the warrior quietly stole past the tavern she'd visited earlier, she heard Mekor commiserating with his wounded friends. She doubted any of the others would risk invading the privacy of their camp.
As the warrior stole back into the woods, a thousand fragmented thoughts tumbled through her troubled conscience. Xena had given up asking why she tortured herself so. Stolen glances turning into loving looks fanned the fire of desire burning within. The sound of Gabrielle's voice, the soft glow of her skin in the firelight, the lightness of her hair, Xena drank all of this in and more. She reveled in the bard's affectionate nature and the moments when she'd feel her tender skin on her own. A touch, a caress, the holding of a hand- Xena guarded all of these memories fiercely, revisiting them often.
There were the shy glances that crackled with the electricity of their chemistry- it seemed to Xena that she and the bard had been engaged in an erotic dance since the day they'd met. She was smart enough to figure that Gabrielle was aware of this, too. How could she not be? She was certain the archer knew. She had caught the young woman's emphatic stare at midday. Xena frowned at the memory.
Again Xena reminded herself why approaching Gabrielle would be a mistake. She could not risk hurting her friend, or hurting herself with rejection. Deep down, she knew she was a monster, one that had lived her life for years, whom she kept in check only with great effort. Who, with provocation, might again resume its control. With all of the things she'd done, all the people she'd hurt, someday, someone was going to get their revenge on Xena: Warrior Princess. How could she ask the bard to share that life with her? Yet Gabrielle was already a part of that life. She did share it, willingly. Still, with that remaining boundary, she might share her life, but not the tainted darkness of her soul.
But just as Xena reminded herself why she should leave the bard well alone, she fantasized about what would happen if she didn't. In the darkness of the trees surrounding the lake, she sat and let weariness leave her as she pictured Gabrielle in her mind's eye. The shining of the sun off her hair, the gentleness in her eyes, the softness of her skin, the fullness of her lips. The warrior's breathing deepened as she focused on her fantasy. Many times she'd imagined making love to the bard, in many places, in many ways. Now though, with the moon bathing the campsite in a soft glow, she thought of only a kiss, warm lips coming together, mouths engaged in dance, tongues intertwined. She knew she could kiss those lips forever, savoring them for eternity.
Xena sighed and stood. There was a place and time for fantasy, and this wasn't it. As she headed back to camp, a sad smile on her face. She vowed to revisit this fantasy later, when she had the time and privacy to explore it fully.
Part 2 -(End)
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