The following story takes place a little over halfway through the first season of XENA: WARRIOR PRINCES, shortly after the episode "A Fistful of Dinars."
Pressing himself against the inn, far enough in the shadows to see without being seen, he honed in on the tall warrior lounging against a hitching post outside the dry-goods shop across the village square. Occasionally she stroked the head of a magnificent Palomino shifting impatiently beside her or laughingly whispered into the mareís ear. Her free hand rested on a gleaming disk at her waist. The man ground his teeth. He knew of only one person who used such a weapon.
"Itís her, all right," he muttered to himself. "My lucky day."
A young redhead came out of the shop and spoke to the warrior. The warrior nodded, untied her horse and strolled further down the road to the stables, while the redhead skipped back inside the shop. The man watched the warrior casually scan the square. He hunkered down further when she seemed to look right at him before disappearing into the stables. He blew out a shaky breath.
"Still got it," he murmured with grudging admiration. "Good thing Iím probably a dead man anyway."
"Um, Iíll take this one Ö and Ö that one." The redhead grinned. "And I might as well throw in an extra one in case she makes me barter away the first two."
The shopkeep peered up at his young customer. "You sure? Pack `em all?"
She nodded. "Yep. Iíll be over there, seeing if thereís anything else I can add to the pile." She wandered over to a bin she hadnít searched through yet.
"Miss? Could you spare a little something for the poor?"
The redhead glanced up to see a man dressed in rags, hunched over, clutching his midsection. "Iím sorry. Were you talking to me?"
The man pointed to a couple of bulging sacks the shopkeep had set to the side. "I was thinking you might have a little something extra," he murmured. "For the poor."
She looked him over, noting his well-trimmed beard and stocky frame, the healthy color in his ruddy face.
"You seemed like a caring sort," the man said, sensing she wasnít quite the innocent heíd thought. But, then, she did seem acquainted with the deadliest warrior around. He turned as if to leave. "Sorry. Donít want to be a bother."
"Wait." Tentatively she reached out to stop him. "I didnít mean to Ö. Itís just, you donít look like a Ö um Ö."
She nodded, blushing a little. "Is it for you?"
"For my family," the man responded, standing taller. "I need to look strong to get work. But what I earn isnít enough to feed my wife and four children."
"Iím sorry," she said sympathetically. She stuck her fingers in a pouch at her waist. "Iíve spent most of what I had." She handed him two dinars. "Iím afraid this is all we can spare."
He nodded, taking the money. "I didnít need to do this before Ö. Our village used to be prosperous. We had good farmland. Now we own little but the rags on our back."
"What happened?" She grasped the manís arm. "Were you run off your land? Is someone stealing from you, threatening you? If so, I may know just the person to help."
"Gabrielle?! Gabrielle, arenít you through yet?!"
The manís head whipped toward the voice outside. Blanching, he scurried toward the rear of the shop.
"Wait!" The redhead tried in vain to catch him. "Iíll be out in a minute!" she yelled through the door, then jogged to the man cowering behind a dressing curtain. "Donít be afraid. Thatís the friend I was talking about."
"Friend?" The man shrunk back.
"Her nameís Xena. Let me get her and ñ"
"No! I donít want your help!" He threw the coins at her. "Go away!"
"What Ö?" She stared at him in consternation. "I thought you needed ñ"
"No! She did this to us! Please, if you have any mercy, donít let her see ñ." The man crouched down behind the curtain as suddenly the door swung in.
"Gabrielle?" The warrior squinted, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darker interior of the shop. She located the redhead standing stock still as though sheíd seen a ghost. "Gabrielle, what are you doing?" The dark-haired woman frowned. "Is everything all right?"
"I Ö I Ö uh Ö." Gabrielle glanced sideways at the curtain. "Sorry I took so long." She gave the warrior a nervous grin. "I know itís silly, but I wanted to try on a couple of Ö things," she explained, walking quickly toward the shopkeep.
The warrior stared at Gabrielle, then at the proprietor shifting open-mouthed behind his counter. "You sure youíre all ñ?"
"Right as rain," Gabrielle assured her brightly. "See?" She pointed at the bags of supplies. "All done. Why donít you take these out, while I pay this kind gentleman?" She smiled conspiratorially at the silent shopkeep. "Heís been so patient. You know how I am when Iím shopping."
The tall woman leaned against the doorway, not looking particularly reassured. She eyed the bulging bags, Gabrielleís flushed face and the curiously uncomfortable proprietor. Shaking her head, she pushed off and strolled to the bags. "You know, if you got something you shouldnít have, Iíll find out sooner or later," she warned, grabbing the bags and throwing one over each shoulder.
"What? Little olí practical me?" Gabrielle said lightly, ducking her head. "Cheesh! You donít have to be so suspicious all the time."
The warrior paused at the door and turned. She cocked her head. "I was beginning to think that myself. At least," she added pointedly, "notall the time."
Gabrielle watched the dark-haired woman exit. "Gods," she said under her breath. "What am I doing?" What she did was return to the curtain. She bent down to the still crouching man.
"Xenaís not like that any more," she whispered. "Iíll prove it to you. Meet me here tomorrow at the same time." She straightened and ran over to pay the shopkeep.
"So, did you get a new shoe for Argo?"
Xena rolled her eyes. "We had time for four new shoes." She finished tying the supply bags behind Argoís saddle. "Lucky for you," she whispered loudly to the Palomino, patting the horseís flank. She flashed a look at Gabrielle out the corner of her eye. "Seeing as how your friend here stocked up for a siege."
Gabrielle swatted the warrior on the arm. "Hey, weíve been living like vagabonds for who knows how long. Whatís the good of some extra dinars, if we canít treat ourselves every now and then?"
Xena shrugged. "Suppose I canít rightly complain, since you earned them. Guess that time you spent at the Bards Academy paid off." She smiled with some pride. "Thought those folks would never stop throwing coins at you." She took Argoís reins and steered the Palomino toward the road out.
"Xena?" Gabrielle grabbed her friendís arm. "Can we stay awhile? I Ö um Ö Iíd like to see if I can work my bardic magic here too."
Xena reviewed the small, dusty town, doubting there were enough inhabitants to fill the bar, let alone an audience to hear stories. She tried to silence the alarms going off in her head about this place. About Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, is there something else?" The warrior studied her young companion. "Something you think I wonít like?"
"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle chuckled, focusing just below the warriorís eyes. "I told you about being so suspicious." She pivoted to sweep her arm around the town square. "Youíve got a nice place for Argo to rest. That lovely garden over there where we can stop to smell the flowers. A perfectly fine inn that probably has comfy beds and plenty of folks whoíd love to hear about gods and warlords. Not to mention a little market with fresh sweets. When was the last time we had all that?"
"Yeah," Xena agreed, her brow still furrowed. "Guess we have been roughing it a lot more than youíre used to. I forget that sometimes." She put her hand on Gabrielleís shoulder, turning the bard to face her. "Youíd tell me if something was wrong, right?"
"Wrong?" Gabrielle swallowed. "What do you mean?"
"Wrong, Gabrielle. As in something bothering you or Ö being tired of roaming around like this."
"Xena, I love our life. Sleeping under the stars. Helping people." Gabrielle smiled, finally meeting her friendís eyes. "I wouldnít change a thing."
"Just need a little break once in awhile?"
Gabrielle let out a sigh of relief. "Exactly. You okay with that?"
"Sure," Xena answered, squeezing Gabrielleís shoulder. "I get these feelings sometimes and Ö." She snorted softly. "Donít mind me. Too many years dodging the dregs of society. Come on," she directed, leading Argo toward the inn. "Couple days taking it easy canít hurt."
"You wonít be bored?"
"I might double back to that forest we passed through. Should have some good hunting." She grinned. "Maybe I can catch something worth a few dinars. Keep you from tossing me out as a slacker."
"You? A slacker? Thatíll be the day."
"Mm." Xena glanced over her shoulder at the dry-goods shop. "You might have a point there."
Xena kicked the door open and sauntered in with a breakfast tray.
"Oooo, Xena!" Gabrielle exclaimed, throwing off her covers, sprinting towards the warrior. "If this is your idea of not slacking, I like!"
"Figured you wouldnít be springing up with sunrise." Xena sat the tray on a small table by the door. "The way you tossed and turned last night."
"I did?" Gabrielleís hand paused in its descent toward a sweet roll. "Um, maybe `cause my stories arenít flowing like I wanted."
Xena sat down on her bed and began strapping on her armor. "Yeah, you seemed a little Ö distracted yesterday."
"I Ö uh Ö wanted to try out some new ideas. Lucky the masses didnít show up like I expected, huh?"
Xena chuckled. "Iím sure word of mouth will draw more of `em in tonight. So," she continued, adjusting her sword, "whatís on your agenda for the day?"
Gabrielle stared at the warrior. "Itís obviously not as active as yours. You expecting the deeríll be armed?"
"Always good to be prepared," Xena answered, slipping her breast dagger into place. "Iím picking up a bow and some arrows from the innkeeper on my way out."
"Oh." Gabrielle focused on the breakfast tray. "Thought Iíd do some more shopping. Not necessarily buying," she added quickly.
"I should hope not." Xena went over to stoop next to their shopping bags. She retrieved a small leather pouch. "One of these wouldíve been sufficient for whatever you had in mind. Iím thinking Argo could wear the other two to cover her ears."
Gabrielle gave Xena a mock glare. "From the cold, right?"
"Riiiight." Xena pulled out some dangly earrings. " I suppose we could put some bad guysí eyes out with one of these. Kinda expensive, but good weapons donít come cheap."
"Guess I was thinking about that wedding bracelet we buried with Petracles, how heíd kept it to remind himself of you. You never get to wear jewelry, unless youíre pretending to be somebody else. It looks so good on you."
Xenaís eyebrow arched. "Iím sure some idiot would love to have a bobble like that to latch onto in the middle of a fight. Would you rather I look cute, or keep my earlobes?"
"Oh," Gabrielle said, grinning sheepishly. "Hadnít thought of that."
"I appreciate the thought. Try to keep in mind I travel light, okay? Everything has its purpose." Xena headed for the door. "Whatever you do, stay out of trouble, will you?"
"Ha! Iím not the one we need to worry about."
Xena opened the door. "Iím used to trouble." She snorted. "Iam trouble. Thatís not something Iím always happy about, when it comes to you," she said quietly. "Promise me youíll be careful."
"Xena, shopping isnítthat dangerous. You donít have to worryÖ." Gabrielleís voice trailed off at the seriousness in Xenaís eyes. "I will. You too."
Xena nodded and left.
Gabrielle lingered at the table, her usual appetite now gone. She hated deceiving her newest and now best friend. The warrior trusted her, even though Gabrielle suspected that Xena suspected something wasnít quite right. Gabrielle sighed. It was hard sometimes, balancing her acceptance of what Xena had been with her hopes for who Xena wanted to be. Was she going behind the warriorís back to protect her? Was it because of her own fears or curiosity?
"Guess I know how to find out," she said, admitting to herself that there was no way she wouldnít keep her appointment with the mystery man.
The crowd at the inn that evening did swell from the 10 people of the previous night to about 20. Xena was relieved to see that Gabrielle hadnít started her performance yet. The warrior hastened to the storeroom to deposit the game sheíd snared, then to the well out back to wash up. She returned just in time to see Gabrielle hop atop the bar, to give everyone a good view of her. Xena found a seat in the rear and waved at the bard. Gabrielle smiled at the warrior and launched into her first story.
Xena ordered ale and propped her feet up. She settled in for a long night, even though Gabrielle once again didnít seem "on." Just as Xena started to relax, she heard the bard utter some surprising words.
"All right, folks, thatís it for the evening. Thanks for coming."
"Hey! One story?! Thatís it?" someone yelled as Gabrielle hopped down.
"We want more!"
"Yeah, we put off our late chores to hear you!"
"Sorry," Gabrielle apologized, putting up her hands. "Iím not feeling my best tonight. Perhaps tomorrow."
"No! Not tomorrow! Now!"
"She said ëtomorrow.í" Xena wove her way through the tables to stand beside Gabrielle. "The day after today. The next sunset, to be exact. Anybody still having problems understanding what ëtomorrowí means?"
The more raucous audience members paused to examine the imposing warrior whoíd deigned to educate them about different days of the week. Though they continued to grumble, most folks either got up to leave or decided to spend their entertainment time getting drunk. Apparently no one deemed it wise to ignore the lesson theyíd been taught about harassing a certain redheaded bard.
Xena sat by the window polishing her armor. She glanced frequently at the young woman seated at the table with her quill poised above a scroll. Theyíd gone immediately to their room after Gabrielleís performance. The bard had thanked Xena for rescuing her, but said little since.
"One of those deer put up quite a fight. Had to chase it up a tree and wrestle around on some branches before subduing it enough to shimmy down." Xena checked to see what response this had gotten. None. "Carrying it in my teeth."
"Mmm. Thatís nice," Gabrielle responded, continuing to stare at her scroll.
"But the rabbit was even worse. Knocked me to the ground a couple times. Butted me hard enough to put a dent in my chestpiece."
"Uh huh. Glad it worked out okay."
"Care to tell me where you are?"
"Maybe tomorrow youíll find a Ö." Gabrielleís head jerked up. "What?"
"I get the feeling whatever youíre thinking about isnít going on that scroll."
Gabrielle blinked. She looked down at the blank parchment in front of her. "Oh. That." She let out a long breath. "Yeah, itís not coming along like I pictured."
Xena set her armor on the floor. "You seem a million miles away. Mind telling me where?"
The bard fiddled with her quill, apparently lost in thought again. Finally she took a deep breath and turned her chair toward Xena.
"You know how you almost let those people execute you for something you didnít do?"
A beat passed before Xena answered. "Yesss?"
"How far would you go to fix something? I mean, something you really had done wrong?"
"Wrong? What kind of ëwrong?í"
"Wrong. You know, like Ö like maybe hurting some innocent villagers."
Xena leaned back in her chair. "Gabrielle, whatís this about?"
"Nothing, really. Iím just trying to understand some things." Gabrielle lowered her head. "Not so much for a story. For Ö myself."
Gabrielle sighed. "I know you want to make up for some of the bad things you did. I just wondered Ö. If you had the chance to do that, would you? I mean, if the victims were right in front of you, asking for justice?"
"How about you be more specific."
"More specific?" Gabrielle squirmed a bit in her chair. "I Ö um Ö I meant generally. Would you feel itís too late? That it wouldnít help you or them? Or that it would be worth the try?"
Xena sighed, then got up and leaned against the window, gazing out. "Iíve done a lot of ëwrongí things. Most canít be fixed. Some of it, maybe people have already gotten past." She regarded Gabrielle solemnly. "I canít change any of it. Iím not even sure sometimes whether the greater justice is paying with my death or my life."
"Would you leave it up to the victims? If they told you what would satisfy them?"
"Gabrielle, I react to the moment. I canít let what I could do be weighed down by what Iíve done. I canít escape my responsibilities by hoping what I do in the future will free me from the past. I canít say exactly what Iíd do until Iím there. Only that Iíll try to do what seems best."
Gabrielle pondered this. "I think I understand," she decided. "That seems fair."
"And what about you? What would you do?"
"M-m-me?" Gabrielle searched her friendís face, seeking in vain for clues to this surprising question. "What do you mean?"
The warrior picked up her armor and carried it to the pile of belongings beside her bed. "Youíve traveled with me a few months now. Youíve seen how people react." She stated this casually, though Gabrielle could feel the tension beneath the studied calm. "How would you decide whatís right?" Xena got on the bed and propped herself against the wall, gazing at Gabrielle with an unreadable expression.
"M-m-me?" Gabrielle stammered again. "How wouldI know? Iíd have to ask Ö." Her eyes widened as she seemed to come to some realization. She swallowed. "Iíd have to ask Ö you," she finished softly.
"Mmm. Youíd trust me? To be my own judge and jury?"
Suddenly Gabrielle covered her face. "Oh, Xena," she said between her fingers. "Iím such a dunce."
"Why? Weíre speaking hypothetically, right? Helping you understand?"
Gabrielle lowered her hands. "Yes," she answered softly. "Still, I shouldnít have doubted Ö. I shouldíve known the answer."
Xena snorted softly. "Not necessarily. I donít always know the answer upfront myself. So. Anything else you want to understand?"
The bard drummed her fingers on the desk, before clenching them into a fist. She straightened in her chair. "No," she answered resolutely. "Like you said, we have to trust ourselves to fix things the best we can." She rose and started undressing for bed.
"Gabrielle?" Xena waited for her friendís attention. "I may not be the best person around, but Iíll be here for you as long as you want. Donít ever be afraid to ask."
Gabrielle nodded. She stacked her clothes and slid under the covers of her bed. "Iíd like to check out the town a little more tomorrow. Will you be okay on your own again?"
"Of course," Xena said, slipping off her bed. She went around the room blowing out the candles. "Thereís always something to hunt." She sat on her bed to take off her boots, then lay down and pulled her blanket up, still in her battledress.
Gabrielle awoke the next day to find Xena gone. After dressing, she went to the main room for some fruit and cheese. She waited until she thought enough time had passed, then left the inn and walked a path that led to a small grove about a mile away.
"Are you here?" she whispered loudly.
"Yes." The man, Malchius, appeared from behind some trees. "You got the information for me?"
"No. Something Ö something else came up. Weíre gonna have to do this another way."
"What?!" Malchius sputtered. "Another way?!" Catching himself, he lowered his head. "Our children are so hungry," he said plaintively. "We finally had hope, and now Ö."
"Thereís still hope," Gabrielle reassured him. "Itís just that Ö. We canít do it without telling Xena."
"Canít or wonít?"
Gabrielle squared her shoulders. "Both."
"Thatís not what we agreed!" he shouted, pacing in agitation. "You promised to protect me!"
"She wonít hurt you. Besides, she already suspects something. I canít keep asking her questions without her wanting to know why."
"I donít get it!" he said, throwing up his hands. "I thought all you had to do was tell her it was for a story you were writing."
Gabrielle sighed. "I started to, but it got Ö complicated." She frowned in concentration. "Look, Iíll say I overheard something. That your kin came into the inn talking about it. Iíll leave you out of it completely."
"And then what?"
"If youíre right, she and I will take care of it ourselves. In the meantime, let your folks know weíre on the way."
"Why wouldnít she finish us off this time, so thereís nobody left to tell tales? Why canít you leave it somewhere and send word to us where it is?"
Gabrielle sighed in exasperation. "If Xena wanted it for herself, sheíd ambush you anyway. I trust her. Youíll have to trust me." She crossed her arms. "Itís either that or go back to begging."
Malchius silently weighed his options. "Youíll let me know first? If she says itís still there?"
"That shouldnít be a problem."
"All right. Can you talk to her when you go back? Meet me behind the inn at sundown?"
"You may have to wait awhile. Sheís out hunting. Iíll talk to her as soon as she returns."
Malchius finally smiled. "This just might work. Iíll be there."
"Hi," Gabrielle greeted the innkeeper. "Nice day, huh?"
"I suppose," he said, continuing to wipe down the bar. "Donít get to spend much time outdoors, since the kids left and my wife took sick."
"Oh, Iím sorry to hear that."
"Donít be." He paused to smile at Gabrielle. "You made more work for me, but you also brought in more money. I took in enough extra the past two nights to hire a girl to clean for me, at least to where I can keep it up without much trouble for awhile."
"Really?" Gabrielle grinned, rather pleased with herself. "Iíll try to hold the customers longer tonight. But I might have to start later, if thatís okay. I need to take care of some business with Xena first, when she gets back from hunting."
"Hunting?" The innkeeper looked puzzled. "I told her she could borrow my gear again."
"Nope. Havenít seen her today."
"Oh. Thanks. See you later then."
Gabrielle tried to quell the queasy feeling growing in the pit of her stomach. She went to their room. No Xena. She poked her head in the handful of establishments and the stables. She found Argo, but not the mareís mistress. What was it Xena had said last night? Gabrielle vaguely recalled something about the warrior stalking prey barehanded.
"Sure, thatís it. Sheís challenging herself today, by going on foot, hunting close range." Gabrielle forced herself to be satisfied with that explanation for Xenaís disappearance. Determined to keep her mind occupied with something else, she spent the next few hours smelling flowers, sampling sweets and browsing once more in the dry-goods shop.
Gabrielle stopped writing, fairly certain sheíd heard familiar footsteps, more relieved than she cared to admit when the door finally opened.
"Hey." Xena walked to the bed, dropped down on it and began removing her weapons.
"Finished with those for the day, huh?"
The warrior pulled out her boot knife and put it with her scabbard and chakram, her hands seemingly moving by rote. "What?"
"You didnít use the bow or Argo today." Gabrielle gestured toward the pile of weapons. "You hunted okay the minimalist route?"
"Yeah," Xena answered, smiling thinly. "You could say that. Iím assuming I wonít need them for your performance tonight. Unless youíre planning on ëshow and tellí or another quickie story time?"
Gabrielle giggled. "Um, no, I wasnít planning on anything like that."
"Just checking." Xena looked up from unfastening her armor. "Youíre full of surprises lately."
"Oh?" Gabrielleís heartbeat quickened.
"Rushing through stories. Getting philosophical just before bed."
"Oh. Yeah. About that Ö." Gabrielle fortified herself and took a deep breath. "Um, I need to talk to you about something."
Xena set the armor down. "What a surprise," she said sardonically, scooting back against the wall.
"Boy, where to begin Ö."
"The beginningís usually a good place."
"True," Gabrielle agreed, grinning wryly. "I Ö um Ö heard a rumor the other day. About a village that was attacked some months ago. Supposedly by Ö you."
"I see. And?"
"They claim theyíd acquired quite a bit from several good seasons of trade ñ gold, dinars. That your army destroyed the village and mustíve taken the booty."
"Really. They donít know for sure?"
"Itís a bit confusing, but apparently this was when your men revolted and put you through the gauntlet. Afterwards, some deserters went back looking for the booty, saying you hid it somewhere, but left it behind when you joined Hercules." Gabrielle chuckled. "They figured you wouldnít be schlepping around like a vagabond otherwise. Anyway, the villagers are hoping itís still there, that you do know where it is and will give it back to help them get on their feet again."
Xena folded her arms against her chest. "What makes them think Iíd do that? Assuming I could."
Gabrielle smiled. "They heard youíd changed."
"Mm. These villagers ñ I take it some of `em are here?"
"And they know Iím here?"
"Why didnít they come to me?" Xena raised an eyebrow. "Since they believe Iíve changed."
"Um, thatís kind of complicated," Gabrielle said, looking down. "I guess theyíre still a little Ö mixed up Ö about the best way to handle it."
"But you ñ you have a solution?"
"I think so. If you know where the gold is, you and I can retrieve it and make sure it gets in the right hands."
Xena rubbed her chin. "Letís say I do know what happened to it. Whatís our next move?"
Gabrielle leaned forward excitedly. "I give my last performance tonight, and we set out in the morning."
"Well, then," Xena said coolly, "I suggest you get on with it, if you want to start early tomorrow."
"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle exclaimed, clapping her hands together, "thank you so much! Iíll let the innkeeper know. You join me in the main room when youíre through cleaning up, okay?"
"No problem," Xena replied, continuing to lounge on the bed. "See you later."
"Pssst! Malchius!" Gabrielle waited in front of a collection of large kegs behind the inn. "Malchius," she hissed again. "You there?"
The lid on one of the front kegs shifted slightly. "You alone?" came the muffled response from within.
Malchius slid the lid open. "Well?"
"Itís all set," Gabrielle said softly. "Xena and I leave in the morning. You know how long it should take us. Go ahead and tell your folks to watch for us."
"Good work, Gabrielle." Malchius climbed out of the keg. "You have no idea how much I Ö. How much our village appreciates this."
Gabrielle started to leave, then hesitated. "Malchius? They donít want to hurt Xena?"
Malchius snickered. "Theyíre simple people, Gabrielle. They wouldnít harm a flea."
"Youíd better be right. Youíve seen what Xena can do."
"Oh, yes," he answered with a trace of bitterness. "People are counting on me to pull this off as peacefully as we can."
"Good. Then Iíll see you when I see you."
A few minutes later, Gabrielle emerged from the kitchen to see Xena seating herself near the front door of the inn. She smiled and waved. The warrior nodded back. The bard perched on the bar, pleased to see at least 30 faces clustered near her performance spot. She waited for the noise to die down, eager to begin, confident that this time no one would leave disappointed.
Early the next day, the two companions did indeed set out to fulfill Gabrielleís promise to Malchius. According to Xena, the trip would take about four days. Each day seemed longer to Gabrielle, as the already somber warrior steadily became more tense and silent. At first the older woman would disappear into the trees for long periods ñ scouting, she said. But as they neared their destination, she hovered close, never letting Gabrielle out of her sight.
On the third night, Gabrielle nearly lost her temper. She found Xenaís watchfulness eerily too similar to her recent behavior when theyíd had to team up with the warriorís former fiancé, Petracles. The charming warlord had wooed, then dumped Xena when both were younger. Xena saw him using the same tactics on Gabrielle and warned them to stay away from each other. Gabrielle had testily informed Xena that she wasnít a child anymore ñ a point of contention between the two as the younger woman became more skilled physically and astute about life in Xenaís complex, often violent world.
"Xena, I donít see the harm in rooting around for a few fresh herbs to spice up our meal. You afraid Iíll get lost or fall in a deep pit?" Gabrielle glowered at the maddeningly protective woman across the campfire. "Sometimes I think you think I have the sense of a baby chick."
Xena swiped the whetstone along her sword a couple more times before glancing up. "Itís been awhile since I made this journey. I need to concentrate on details that might be familiar, as signs of safety or danger. Did it occur to you that Iím not wandering around in the dark either? That maybe I want us to stay together because Iím not exactly sure whatís out there myself?"
Gabrielle pursed her lips, but nodded and held her tongue. She had to admit that Xena usually had good reasons for what she did, even if Gabrielle didnít always understand or agree.
"Iíll use seasoning from our supply bag," Gabrielle said with a concessionary smile. "I keep forgetting we have luxuries to fall back on now."
Xena bowed her head in acknowledgement. "Yes, your many tortuous hours spent in that store were not in vain."
Gabrielle grinned. She continued with her meal preparations and left Xena to sharpen her sword in contemplative peace. In truth, the bard wasnít all that anxious to push her righteousness. She had her own secrets, like when sheíd wandered off to talk to Petracles despite Xenaís suspicions. Heíd seduced her all right, to the point of extracting a brief kiss. But sheíd detected in him the capacity for genuine caring, proven accurate when heíd stunned Xena by saving Gabrielleís life. It was while he lay mortally wounded that heíd pulled out his wedding bracelet, the duplicate of which Xena confessed sheíd long ago tossed away as "garbage."
The bard sat back on her heels staring sightlessly at the rabbit roasting over their fire. She had the same bittersweet taste in her mouth as when sheíd been right about Petracles. She hadnít told Xena about her encounter with him in the woods, just as she now concealed her talks with Malchius. She shook her head, remembering several other occasions when surreptitiously relying on her own judgment had produced mixed results ñ most notably involving the Titans, Amazons and Sisyphus. It occurred to her that her balancing act wasnít just with Xena. It also involved juggling her respect for the warrior and own her need for independence, to be respected for having personal thoughts and instincts, even if Xena didnít always understand or agree.
Gabrielle suddenly became aware of being watched. She glanced up to catch the enigmatic blue eyes before they quickly returned to their inspection of the now gleaming sword. Xena had done that when theyíd been with Petracles ñ wordlessly observed her young friend, reluctantly giving her space, even when she suspected Gabrielle hadnít heeded the warriorís words. Gabrielle now studied the older woman a moment, wondering what kind of balancing act she herself posed for Xena. It had worked out okay before. She prayed the same would be true this time.
"Thatís it." Xena pointed to a cavern not far ahead. "Go inside and wait for me. Donít come out unless I call you. I want to look around, just in case."
"Um, okay." Gabrielle was puzzled by Xenaís precautions, since the dark entrance opened into a rock wall with plenty of open space in front. Still, she did as instructed, waving to the watching warrior before ducking inside. She lit the torch sheíd brought with her and moved further in.
The space wasnít quite as large as sheíd envisioned. Old kindling, dark circles on the stone floor, scattered pieces of cloth and metal suggested this was a frequent haven for travelers. She didnít see any surfaces soft enough to bury anything, so began inspecting the numerous crevices. "As if Xena would leave a red flag," she mumbled dryly.
She decided she might as well make herself comfortable until the warrior showed up. Seating herself on a large boulder, she took out a scroll, positioning the torch to better see what sheíd last written. Sheíd become so engrossed in her thoughts that she was startled to hear a noise inside the entrance. She lifted her head, expecting to see Xena.
"Xena sent me to help you," Malchius said.
Gabrielle stared at him in disbelief, her mind churning. She didnít need Xena there to tell her to be careful. The hairs standing on her arm already confirmed that.
"Thatís funny, seeing as how she forgot to tell me where to look."
The manís eyes narrowed. "You saying you donít know?"
"If I did, you really think Iíd be sitting here reading stories to myself?"
Malchius cursed. He started pacing, mumbling to himself.
"Whatís to worry? Xenaíll be here soon. The two of you mustíve made up, since you talked with her and lived to relay her words to me."
Malchius stopped pacing. "You donít seem that surprised to see me here."
Gabrielle shrugged. "Look who I travel with. Iím used to surprises."
"Yeah, well, letís hope weíre both surprised when Xena shows up."
Gabrielle didnít like his tone at all. "What are you saying?"
"She shouldíve found a welcoming party by now. With any luck, theyíll manage to subdue her so sheís in good enough shape to make things easy." Malchius began walking toward Gabrielle. "And youíll do your part to convince her to cooperate."
Gabrielle rose, whacking her leg when she realized sheíd left her staff on Argo. She glanced around her. "Great," she muttered. "Between a rock and a hard place."
Malchius was now a swordís length away. Gabrielle had a pretty good idea about the distance, since heíd drawn a sword and pointed it at her.
"I donít wanna hurt you," he said. "Stay calm and we might all get out of here with what we want. Alive."
"Maybe. Maybe not," a velvety voice drawled at the entrance.
Gabrielle and Malchius whirled around to see a tall, dark figure outlined against the sunlight outside.
"I just left about a dozen guys who might dispute you on that." Xena let the sack she carried drop to the floor. It clattered open, spilling out a collection of swords. She sauntered casually toward them, but stopped when Malchius edged closer to Gabrielle.
"You never were very bright ñ Malchius, is it? But then neither was Darphus. I sometimes wondered where he dug up recruits like you."
"Yeah? Well, I was bright enough to pull this off." He let his sword fall lightly on Gabrielleís shoulder. "The others blamed me. Said I shouldíve known where you buried the stuff, me being a lead scout and all." He snorted. "Like anybody knew where you disappeared to sometimes or where youíd hide anything. But I found you this time. I set this up good enough to Ö." Malchiusí brow furrowed. "Who told you about the others?"
Xena strolled over to a ledge jutting out of the rock wall. She dusted it off, sat, crossed her legs and leaned back with her arms folded across her chest. "You did. That day you met Gabrielle in the grove. And later, skulking inside that keg."
Malchius and Gabrielle exchanged stunned glances.
"If Iíd been a snake ñ oh, thatís right, I am! ñ I couldíve bit you." Smirking ferally, Xena bared her teeth and snapped them together. "I figured you didnít have the guts to do this alone, that youíd have some muscle attack me once you knew my destination."
"Enough!" Malchius growled. He placed the swordís tip at Gabrielleís neck. "So youíre the same smart snake youíve always been. Well, not smart enough. Start digging or I slit your little girlfriendís throat!"
Xena uncrossed her arms and, never taking her gaze off Malchius, slowly unloosened her chakram. She dangled it from the tip of her finger.
"First, thereís nothing to dig up. Never was. I havenít the foggiest idea where you got that."
"You lie!" Malchius rested the sword on Gabrielleís shoulder again. "Darphus told us, before we set fire to the place, while you were gone. He said youíd found a large booty in town that you meant to keep for yourself."
Xena shrugged. "Maybe he thought itíd be incentive for you to follow him in countermanding my orders and turning against me. Itís not like he expected me to survive the gauntlet and say different."
"Malchius, Iídíve dug the stuff up long ago, if thatís what I wanted."
"B-b-but weíd heard youíd given up warlording and looting, that you didnít care about gold anymore. There were stories ñ "
"Ah, yes. Stories." Xena leered at Malchius. "Why do you think I keep her around?" She pointed her chin at his silently perturbed hostage. "Which brings me to my second point."
The Warrior Princess stood, though made no move toward Malchius.
"The little redhead has provided the perfect cover for me. Now that folks think I mightíve turned hero, theyíre perfectly willing to hand over to me anything I ask, sit by while I break into forts, figuring itís for a noble cause. I donít need a lot of manpower anymore. Much less effort and expense. Sheís done such a good job ñ I do have an eye for talent, if I must say so myself, except for Darphus, of course ñ that I really donít need her any more."
Xena fixed Malchius with an icy stare. "But you know me ñ I get cranky when folks try depriving me of whatís mine. Nick her even a little, ya got zero chance of leaving here alive. Step away, and I give you 50-50. Better odds than you deserve."
Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Xena has no need to lie, Malchius," she said softly out the corner of her mouth. "You know she means what she says. She couldíve killed you in town."
Malchius glared at Xena. "So why didnít you?" he asked with unconvincing belligerence.
"Like I said, I figured you werenít alone. I wanted to tie up all the loose ends, so to speak." Her smile made Malchiusí blood freeze. "Now, Iím getting tired of this. My little bard is definitely getting tired. Choose."
"You wonít let her kill me?" Malchius whispered to Gabrielle.
"Iíll do my best," she promised.
Malchius lowered his sword. He moved away from Gabrielle.
Xena stalked up to him and grasped his throat. "Those bodies lying out there? They belong to soldiers from my old army. All of `em lined that gauntlet." She squeezed. "So did you."
"Xena?" Gabrielle came up beside the warrior.
"Stay out of this, Gabrielle." Xena closed her hand tighter, until tears came out of Malchiusí eyes. "Never, ever forget the snake lives in me, no matter what the bardís stories say. Cross my path again and youíll wish Iíd killed you now. Got that?"
Malchius coughed and nodded.
Xena slowly released him. "Get out, before I change my mind."
Malchius ran for the entrance, leaping over the swords of his fallen comrades. His footsteps faded into nothing before Xena could blink twice.
"Xena? We donít need to worry about the others?"
"Are they all really Ö?"
The women decided to spend the night in the cavern. Neither said much as she went about their evening preparations. They sat side by side in front of their fire, lost in separate thoughts. Finally, Gabrielle couldnít stand the silence any longer.
"Xena, Iím so sorry. His story was so close to what you said happened." She sighed. "I thought he was telling the truth about the villagers."
"He was," Xena said tightly. "Despite my orders, those men I killed today torched or murdered nearly everything in sight."
Gabrielle nodded slowly. "I guess thatís why I wanted to believe the part about the gold, so maybe there was a chance you could set that right."
"That was true too."
"I had hidden some loot, but not from that village. Weíd taken from a warlord who tried to cross me. I meant to use it for more weapons."
"What happened to it?"
Xena stared off into the distance. "That woman who risked her life to take care of the baby I saved? Before I left, I told her where to find the loot, that the people should use it to rebuild. I made her swear not to reveal how she knew about it." The warrior smiled wearily at Gabrielle. "Ironic, huh? Turns out thatís one of the few debts Iíve already made a payment on."
Gabrielle scooted closer. She lay her hand on the warriorís arm. "Xena, why didnít you say something?! When you found out I ñ"
"You never asked."
Gabrielleís hand slowly lifted to her mouth. She hung her head. "No, I didnít," she acknowledged softly.
"Gabrielle? You tried to honor what you believed to be Malchiusí rights and my wrongs at the same time. Donít blame yourself. I donít." Xena reached over to give the bardís shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Say what you will, neither of us can be sure what Iíll do at any given moment."
Xena shifted to bring her knees up. She wrapped her arms around her legs and gazed into the fire.
"I didnít know who was working with Malchius. I certainly didnít plan on killing `em all. But when I recognized those faces, it was like I was their commander again. They knew my rules and the price for breaking them." She glanced over to Gabrielle with no remorse. She smiled grimly. "I couldnít wait to get my hands on Malchius, for sucking you into that plot of his. Yet when I finally had my fingers around his throat, all I saw was a pathetic piece of crap, not worth the effort."
"I still shouldíve told you." Gabrielle looked down at her hands. "I keep saying Iím not a child. Iím so sure Iím right, like I was about Petracles. I think Iíve gotten smart enough to handle things by myself, even fool you." Gabrielle laughed without humor. "You know what my original plan was? To say I wanted to know where the gold was for a story I was doing."
Xena grinned ruefully. "Well, at least then I mightíve had a clue about what you were really after. All that heavy stuff about paying for my crimes? Made me wonder if maybe you considered turning me over to a lynch mob or something."
"Xena?! You didnít!"
"You were acting mighty strange." Xena chuckled. "I decided Iíd better see what you were up to, in case I needed to get my affairs in order."
Gabrielle shook her head, still a little hurt. "After you followed me the first time, why didnít you just ask?"
Xena patted her friendís arm. "Ya got me there," she admitted. "Guess we could both improve in the ëcome cleaní department."
The two sat silently, considering how easily Xenaís past could creep between them, like a stray cat that insinuates its way into the household, slumbering in contented concealment one moment, demanding its due attention the next. How to pretend it wasnít there, pawing at your lap, when youíd rather it left you alone?
"Itís hard sometimes," Gabrielle acknowledged softly, "finding out about you in bits and pieces, usually from third parties who have such different parts of the puzzle. If Iím afraid to ask, itís only because I never know if my questions might cause you pain, maybe take you someplace you donít want to go. "
"Iím a big girl too, Gabrielle. I donít have a problem saying ëno.í"
"I know. Itís just that you try so hard to be patient with me." Gabrielle shook her head at Xenaís snort. "No, really, I couldnít ask for a better teacher." The bard grinned. "Even if her methods are a little unorthodox sometimes."
"Youíre not always easy to figure out yourself, my friend." Xena smirked. "`Course, I do have a nasty habit of telling, not asking."
Gabrielle laughed. "Also true." She noted Xenaís scowl. "But youíre really good at giving me space, once youíve said how I should use it." Her face scrunched. "Um, that didnít come out quite ñ"
"I get the point. Iíll work on that."
"And Iíll work on giving you less space."
"You know, being afraid to ask stuff."
"So Ö um .Ö" Gabrielle cleared her throat. "This mean youíll be keeping me around awhile after all?"
Xena laughed. "Youíre notthat Ö." It dawned on her what Gabrielle was referring to. The warriorís eyes softened. "Malchius mightíve done something stupid, if heíd known how much you really mean to me. Or that I actually do want to be more like that warrior woman in your stories."
Gabrielle grinned shyly. "I knew that. Just practicing. You know ñ asking."
"Uh huh. Right. No time like the present, I always say."
"Well," Gabrielle concluded, stretching, "this was a really good chat. Iím glad we had it."
Xena stretched too. "I donít know, we might notíve needed it, if Iíd barged into the shop and snatched that curtain down like I wanted to from the get-go."
Gabrielle gasped. "You knew he was there all along?"
"Not Malchius exactly, but something giving off bad vibes."
"You trusted me anyway?"
"Um, letís say I pictured a worse case scenario if I didnít."
"Okaaaay," Gabrielle responded uncertainly. "I suppose thatís almost as good."
"Sure it is. We warriors are suspicious by nature. Reining that in takes lots of work." Xena smiled fondly at her young companion. "And motivation."
"Iím not sure ësuspiciousí is the right word, but we bards have to know whatís behind the curtain too."
"Thatís why we make such a great team."
Gabrielle beamed. "Yeah?"
"Absolutely. We just have to watch being suspicious of each other."
"Keep cutting away at the curtain, so we worry less and less about whatís there?"
"Uh huh. Sorta like that skirt and top of yours. I swear, they get shorter every time I turn around."
"Me? Nuh uh. No way. The more I see, the better you get." The corners of Xenaís mouth twitched before she turned to reach behind her for their bedrolls. "Isnít that what weíve been talking about?" she asked huskily over her shoulder.
"Hmmm. That remains to be seen." Gabrielle propped her chin on a fist, regarding her multi-layered companion with suspiciously glinting eyes. "But I certainly hope so."
The menagerie that Xena found herself in in the title graphic at the top of this story came from combining many pieces of artwork from the fantastic artist James Marsh.