Some unexpected events happen when Xena sets up a little surprise for Gabrielle. Even the Warrior Princess gets caught off guard!
It was early...very early...but Gabrielle was aware of a slight chill at her back where a warm warrior body should be.. Xena had managed to creep out of the bedroll without waking her....again. "What in Tartrus is she doing?" Gabrielle mused.. Not that it was unusual for Xena to get up early and do a little sword practice and running. It was her way of keeping in top form. A very satisfied smirk lingered on Gabrielle's lips as she thought about what top form Xena had been in last night. But lately, there had been something else, something just a little off. Pushing her curiosity to the back of her mind, Gabrielle stretched, winced a bit at a sore spot, and decided it was time to get breakfast started. If there was one thing she knew, Xena would be hungry when she returned, especially in recent days..
The sun was beginning to spill into the little glade, warming the air and waking birds to their morning song. Gabrielle finished her mug of tea, and was just brewing another when she realized Xena was back. Gods, she moved quietly! Even so, Gabrielle was aware Xena had paused a moment beside Argo's saddlebags. Slipping something in? When she turned her head, Xena was coming toward her with a smile on her face.
"Morning. What's up for breakfast? I could just about eat a horse..." A snort from Argo's direction.... "Not you, Argo! I don't eat my friends." She sauntered over to the campfire, sniffing at the good odors wafting on the cool morning air. "Mint tea.....and is that some of last night's rabbit stew? I thought we ate it all."
"Not quite all of it. I had to add a couple of things, but yup...rabbit stew." Gabrielle grinned to herself. She had learned long ago to set back part of the evening meal, since she really needed breakfast to face the day. Especially some of the days they had. Their life on the road was usually adventurous. That thought brought another smile.
"You seem pretty pleased with yourself," Xena observed. "Something I should know about?"
"Funny you should ask that," Gabrielle shot back, a gleam in her green eyes. Before she could follow up on the opening, Xena ladled stew into her wooden bowl, sampled it and rolled her eyes. "What's wrong with the stew?" Gabrielle demanded.
"Not one single thing! It's wonderful! What did you add to this, any way?" Xena licked her lips and took another bite.
"I found a few fresh mushrooms and a couple of wild onions. You've had them in stew before." Gabrielle observed.
"Must have found some special mushrooms, then, because this is great. Here, you try some." Xena picked up Gabrielle's bowl and tipped in the rest of the stew. Handing the bowl to her, Xena returned to her own helping..
Distracted for the moment, Gabrielle tasted the stew, and admittedly, it did taste better than last night's version. Maybe she should gather the rest of those mushrooms she had found and save them for tonight's fare...whatever that might be.
Xena watched her partner closely to see if she had successfully changed the line of thinking. It seemed to have worked for the moment. "Let's get things packed up and hit the road, huh? I want to see a man in Polonius this evening. If we don't run into trouble along the way, we should make it."
Gabrielle cocked her head at an angle, her eyes slitting in thought. "See a man in Polonius, eh? Why haven't I heard about this before?"
"Uh....slipped my mind, I guess. You sure I didn't mention it back at Andros?" Xena asked, her blue eyes wide and innocent.
Gabrielle decided to let it slide for the moment, but she knew perfectly well when the Warrior Princess put on that guileless expression, something was most definitely up. "Huh! I don't think so." she answered. She finished up the stew, quickly cleaned the bowls and mugs, then put out the campfire. In moments she had gathered up their few belongings, packed them and handed the bundle to Xena to tie onto Argo. "Well, I'm ready....are you?" she challenged. No need to hunt up more mushrooms for supper if they were going to be in Polonius tonight. She firmly made up her mind to sleep in a bed and let someone else do the cooking.
The day went better than most. They only encountered two groups of road bandits that thought taking what little they had was better than honest work. The survivors of those encounters rethought their attitude very carefully while healing their assorted cuts, bruises and broken bones.
The sun had started it's evening decent as Xena and Gabrielle approached Polonius. They paused on a slight rise, looking down into the busy village. Gabrielle noted where the market area was located for later investigation. Xena pointed out a fairly large inn as their destination for the night. Gabrielle sighed in satisfaction. No wheedling, no argument was needed. They would enjoy a hot bath and a soft bed this night.
As they approached the End of Day inn, Xena nodded her head toward the stables, saying, "I'll get Argo settled in. Why don't you get our room while I do that?"
Gabrielle angled toward the inn, mentally counting how many dinars they had and what they could afford to pay. The inn was about what she had come to expect, but cleaner than most. There was a small group of village folk at a far table, drinking ale and apparently planning something. The discuss was lively, but friendly.
She spotted what looked like the innkeeper and walked toward him. "Excuse me? Who do I see about a room?"
The man was large, with a shaggy pile of grey hair and a warm smile. "Yes, miss. I'm the very person you want, then. What do ye need?"
"A room, a bath, and some decent food," Gabrielle answered. "And on the food, something besides rabbit!"
The innkeeper laughed, a hearty sound. "No rabbit, I be promising you. Cook is fixing roast boar tonight. Will that do ye?"
Gabrielle's mouth was already watering at the thought of savory roast boar, with all the goodies on the side. "Oh, that will do just fine. Now, as to price....."
The haggling went on for several moments until Gabrielle was satisfied she had obtained a good price for their lodgings. Xena came in just as Gabrielle handed over the required dinars.
"I have everything arranged for Argo," Xena said, "You get a room?"
"Yes I did, plus a hot bath, plus a really good meal." Gabrielle informed her.
"Good. Let's get settled in." Xena picked up the saddlebags and followed Gabrielle up the stairs to the room the innkeeper had indicated. It was a large room, with a corner fireplace and two windows affording views of two different streets. "Pretty nice, alright," Xena admitted. She put the saddlebags on the bed and prowled to the windows to check out what could be seen. "You'll like this one," she called to Gabrielle. "I can see the market right down the street."
"Oh, really?" Gabrielle moved to stand beside Xena, slipping her arm around the warrior's waist. "Mmmm...so it is. First thing in the morning, I'm going to restock our supplies." She leaned her head against Xena's shoulder. "But for now, I have better things planned."
Xena wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and dropped a kiss on top of her head. "And just what would these 'better' things be?"
"That's a nice start..." Green eyes looked up into Xena's face, a certain intensity flickering in them. "First, a bath. I can almost feel the dust and scuz crawling around on my skin."
A quick hug, then Xena released Gabrielle and headed toward the door. "I'll see about hurrying along that bath, right now," she promised, a delighted smile on her face. She quickly wiped the grin off as she went out the door and closed it behind her.
Gabrielle sat on the edge of the bed, thoughtfully sorting through what she needed from the saddle bags and laying them out. A small frown was on her face as she tried once more to ferret out what was bothering her. Something was just....different. Nothing big, but several small things. Xena was being secretive about something, and Gabrielle found it annoying she couldn't pin down what it was.
Moments later there was a knock at the door. "Come in," Gabrielle responded. The door swung open to reveal two gangling boys, each with two buckets of steaming water. They went to a small, almost hidden alcove, and drew back the curtains to reveal a large tub. They poured the hot water into the tub and went back down stairs for more. Shortly, the tub was filled and steaming in an inviting manner. Gabrielle could stand it no longer, she stripped off her travel clothes and stepped into the water. It was perfect. Sinking down, she found a comfortable place to rest with only her head sticking out. A profound sigh escaped her as she surrendered to the sheer pleasure of warmth and comfort.
A few moments later Gabrielle's peaceful relaxation was disturbed by the barest of sounds. She listened intently, but heard nothing more for several heartbeats, then another faint scuffling, as of leather scraping against a wall. She glanced around nervously. Her sais were on the bed, along with her clothing. Leaning in the corner of her alcove was a broom with a heavy handle. Quietly, she wrapped one hand around the broom handle, while listening for more clues to what was going on. A whisper of sound and shadow moving gave her enough information to see where the attack was coming from.
Gabrielle whipped the broom around to impact the person coming around the corner. To her surprise, the broom was grabbed before hitting the intruder. Surging up from the tub, Gabrielle grabbed the handle with both hands and pulled for all she was worth. Nearly half the water in the tub was sloshed out by the surprised Warrior Princess as she found herself draped across the edge, more or less face down in the water, with a horrified Gabrielle standing over her with an upraised broom.
"XENA!! For Gia's sake, what are you DOING?" Gabrielle demanded. "You nearly scared me to death there." She hastily leaned the drenched broom back in it's corner.
With a sheepish expression, Xena stood up and tried to regain her dignity while standing in an ever spreading pool of water. "Uh.....I brought you some lavender oil....for the bath....you like the stuff, remember?"
"Oh, yes.....I LIKE lavender oil, but why the 'stealth attack'?"
Normally, warriors do not scuff their boots on the floor, but Xena looked like she really wanted to at this time. "I wanted to surprise you...." she finally answered.
"HUH! I think we both got a surprise on that one." Gabrielle settled back into what was left of the water and gazed at Xena with a speculative expression. That soon broke up into an impish grin. "You're soaked anyhow. Why not get out of those wet clothes and take your bath while we still have a little warm water left."
Xena thought this was a great idea, since her surprise idea had gone so badly. May be they could get on to less embarrassing things. "Be right with you," She quickly stripped off the armor, leathers and under garments, hanging them on various things to drip dry. As she slid into the tub with Gabrielle, she triumphantly held up a small vial. "AND the lavender oil!"
Without a word, Gabrielle gently removed the vial, set it down outside the tub, and proceeded to kiss her Warrior Princess so thoroughly it actually seemed to warm up the water again.
It was nearly a candlemark later that the two lovers lay tangled in the blankets, taking a rest from their activities. A long, sustained rumble from Gabrielle's midsection reminded her they had missed supper. A really good supper at that. "Hera's Tits!" she exclaimed.
A crystal blue eye opened slowly to see what the problem was.
"We missed supper," Gabrielle lamented. "They were going to have roast boar and everything....." She sighed, then rolled her head to look at Xena. By now the other eye was open, and she could see a glint of mischief there. "What?"
"You want that now....or later?" Xena asked lazily. She couldn't keep from grinning at Gabrielle as her eyes widened.
"Now would be fine, but what are you talking about?"
"Oh, I dropped by the kitchen and had them hold two extra large helpings for later." Xena reached over and patted Gabrielle's belly. "I know you have to keep 'the monster' fed."
"Ummmm...yes, but if it's as good as it smelled cooking, I'm betting a few dinars you can tuck a bit of it away too." Gabrielle teased back.
"Naturally. I need my strength to keep up with your ...er...other appetites!" Xena shot back. That got her a resounding smack on the hip. "If you're going to be that way about it, think I'll go have them send up the meal. You might want to get decent before the scullery maid gets here." She rose gracefully from the bed, chose a minimum of clothing, and set off to make good her promise of supper.
Gabrielle lay a few moments longer, thinking about several things, then realized she better hurry or be caught in the buff. By the time Xena returned with the girl from the kitchen, both laden with good smelling platters of food, Gabrielle was in a decent shift to open the door.
A short time later, Gabrielle leaned back in her chair and just relaxed. A good meal, a hot bath, a lovely romp.... She looked at Xena from under lowered lashes, studying her as she finished up one last scrap of the roast boar. Aw....to Hades with it....she was full, happy, and ready for a good night's sleep on that nice soft bed. Time enough to worry about this little puzzle another day. "Coming?" she asked, as she headed for the bed.
Xena wiped her fingers on a cloth and stood. "Yep. It's been a long day and that bed does look good."
They settled into comfortable positions, wrapped around each other and were soon asleep.
Strange sounds woke Gabrielle this morning. People walking by, talking, carts creaking, dogs barking. The sun was well up. She rolled over, and with no surprise, found Xena was already up and gone. 'Huh! Why should it be any different here?' she wondered to herself. She got dressed, wandered down to see about some breakfast and inquired of the inn keeper if he knew where he partner had gone.
"Oh, her....tall, lovely and lethal? She asked how to find Lorath. I be giving her directions, but that's all. She left over a candlemark ago." he informed her.
Oh, great. She thanked the inn keeper, and decided to do the shopping she had in mind. There were several small things she needed, including some spices and dried meat. Thinking over her list of supplies, she made her way to the market area. It took quite a while to find everything she needed, and then of course, there was the haggling to be done. Satisfied that she finally had every needed item, she wandered around, simply looking at things and talking to people. A familiar, rather pungent smell caught her attention. She looked around, and saw a small house tucked back against a massive wall. The smell, and many others, were coming from there. A sign indicated this was the place of the healer, Lorath. 'A healer?' Gabrielle thought. 'Why would Xena need a healer? Is something wrong with her?' She made up her mind this time there would be some answers to the questions.
When Gabrielle returned to the inn, she found Xena in their room, re-packing their saddle bags. "Are we leaving already?"
"Naw, but I was looking for something and messed things up. You wouldn't know where my sharpening stone got to, would you?" Xena put the saddle bags on a peg.
Gabrielle shot her a suspicious glance. Xena never lost her sharpening stone. "Last time I saw it was two nights ago. You touched up your sword after those encounters with bandits. It should be in that little pouch right back of the saddle." How many times had that Hades-be-damned pouch rubbed a raw spot on her thigh when she rode with Xena? Countless times! Why would Xena put it any place else?
"Oh!" Xena glanced away. "Well, I better check the saddle then. If I need a new stone, we should get it before leaving town."
"How did your meeting with Lorath go?" Gabrielle asked sweetly.
Both of Xena's eyebrows twitched, but she maintained a calm look. "Interesting guy. I'm going back this afternoon." With that, she strode purposefully out the room, down the stairs, and was out of sight by the time Gabrielle reached the door.
"Bu...but....." she sputtered. "Xena, ya gotta sit still some time, and we are gonna talk." she muttered to herself. A passing guest glanced at her inquiringly, but made no comment.
Gabrielle went back inside their room, got down one of the saddle bags, and neatly packed away most of the supplies she had bought this morning. While she was at it, she carefully inspected both bags, but found nothing unusual. By now, her curiosity was rambling through all sorts of possibilities.
Her mind made up, she put the bags away, and headed down the stairs. Xena had left only a few minutes ago, she should be able to catch her in the stables. However, when she arrived at the stables, she found Argo happily munching on oats, but no sign of Xena.
Gabrielle patted Argo, then checked the saddle. As she had suspected, there was the pouch, stone inside, in it's usual place. She went back to pet Argo, and leaning against the golden horse, asked quietly, "Do you know what is going on here, girl?" A soft snort and nuzzle was all the answer she got to her question. "Oh, you're a great help!" She straightened up and headed back to the market. Somehow, she had a feeling this was one time Xena wasn't shunning the shops and stalls. And especially, one small healing place.
Gabrielle's determination to find out what was going on was so focused by now, she passed all the alluring shops and their wares. Straight to the healer's small house, with no glance to be spared at goods or people. When she arrived, she paused a moment, took a deep breath and walked in. No one seemed to be there, so Gabrielle wandered around for a moment or so, looking at all the interesting bunches of herbs, mysterious bottles with various colored contents, and listened intently for any sound from the back.
Finally, a withered old woman with white hair shuffled out and peered at Gabrielle. "What could I be doing for you, missy?" she asked.
"Are you Lorath?" Gabrielle asked.
"Nay, nay, he be my grandson." the old woman answered. "He's gone on a bit of business now, but if you need something...." she looked the blond woman over carefully...."Like a love potion, or scented oils, I can help you."
"Um, no, I don't need anything like that. Have you seen a warrior woman, tall, black hair, beautiful blue eyes, leather..... has anyone like that been here?" Gabrielle waited for an answer.
Again the old woman looked her over carefully, then grinned, showing a remarkable lack of teeth, "Why, yes I have. Lorath took her out to show her something. They won't be back for a while yet.."
"Show her something? What was he going to show her?" Gabrielle was rapidly becoming exasperated with the lack of information available.
An even longer pause as the old woman looked more carefully at Gabrielle., Then she asked, "Would you be Gabrielle, the Battling Bard of Potadiea?"
Gabrielle had expected almost anything except that question. Cautiously, she answered, "Well, I guess some have called me that. Why?"
"Oh, just wondered if I had the pleasure of actually seeing you. And you scribe all those scrolls about travels and adventures with Xena, the Warrior Princess? My, my, you be living an exciting life. Will you be telling tales at any of the inns here? I would make it a point to come and listen if you are." Excitement sparkled in the old woman's eyes..
Nearly blushing with the implied praise, Gabrielle gently told the old woman that no such plans had been made. "Actually, we are just passing through. We'll probably be back on the road by tomorrow morning."
A look of disappointment crossed the withered features, but then a smile. "Nay, I think your stay will be a bit longer than that. If you change your mind about entertaining at the inns, let me know. I really would like to hear your stories."
Puzzled, Gabrielle let it pass, asking instead, "Did your grandson say when he would be back?"
"Not exactly. He must confer with some of the others, you know. Maybe by supper, would be my guess," the old woman said.
"Well, thank you for your time. Maybe I'll see you again before we leave." Gabrielle said as she turned to leave the shop. There was a noisy argument going on outside, but she thought she heard the old woman mutter, 'Oh that you will, my pretty bard, that you will.' More peculiar all the time.
With no more information to be found at the healer's house, Gabrielle wandered through the busy market place once more. This time she enjoyed the sights and sounds, the smell of wonderful things cooking...which reminded her, a noonday meal might be a good idea. She stood a moment sniffing the air, then followed the most interesting smells to their source. Ah, an assortment of food and drink to choose from.
Later, with the inner person satisfied, Gabrielle continued her stroll through Polonius, following winding streets and looking at homes of obviously well off people. It seemed the town was prosperous. On her way back to the End of Day inn, she found a public well and a number of people visiting and gossiping. Next to the well was a large board with notices posted. She stopped to see what was going on, and noticed one hand illustrated notice of a special event tomorrow. There were to be contests and races, with a special guest appearance and demonstration of exotic combat skills as the last event of the day. 'I wonder if Xena would want to stay and see that,' she mused to herself. She continued back to the inn, where she intended to stay until Xena showed up.
More than two candle marks later, Xena returned to their room to find the bard deeply engrossed in catching up writing in her scrolls. With a final flourish of her pen, Gabrielle laid her writing equipment down and sat looking at Xena.
Xena sat on the edge of the bed and pulled off her boots, then leaned back against the head of the bed. Feeling the bard's gaze on her, she turned her head to find a pair of green eyes boring into her. "What?"
"Xena....? Are you feeling ill? Is there something wrong and you aren't telling me?"
Concern and worry could be heard in her voice, but mostly, Xena noticed a determined air. :"No, I feel fine, perfectly normal. Why?"
"Then why are you consulting with a healer? You aren't pregnant again, are you? How did it happen this time....and this better be good, because Warrior Princess, I've been with you all the time!" Gabrielle was working up a head of steam, and dangerous glints were flashing in her eyes.
"Ares' Farts, Gabrielle!!! Where did you get a crazy notion like that?" Xena's eyes were wide with shock. She knew Gabrielle was getting suspicious of the little surprise she had lined up, but this was a direction she had not anticipated..
(To be continued)
Gabrielle simply gazed at Xena silently for a long moment, then ticked off on her fingers: "You get up even earlier than usual, your appetite is about twice usual, you are being secretive, you suddenly hunt up a healer, not once, but twice...." She looked at the four fingers held before her. "I would say somewhere in there is reason to wonder what the Hades is going on. So give, Warrior Princess! I want to know what you are up to!"
Xena knew that expression all too well. The Bard was in full question mode, and not about to be deflected by half-truths or mis-direction. And she couldn't out and out lie to her. Not .....now, after all the problems they had with that in the past. A sigh escaped her as she motioned Gabrielle to come and sit on the bed with her. "It's none of the things your bardly imagination is coming up with. C'mon, I'll explain." She patted the bed beside her.
Gabrielle sat stiffly, waiting for the promised explanation. Xena reached out a long arm and curled it around the bard's shoulders, gently pulling her against her side.
"I'm not sure where to start, or even when to start.....but I want you to know how proud of you I am....on many levels." Xena nuzzled the blond hair, distracted for a moment. "One of your outstanding accomplishments, I think, is how you handle those sais. You can defend, attack, choose to only disarm, or kill if necessary. You've become very good with them."
A slight blush rose in Gabrielle's cheeks at this frank admiration from Xena. The Warrior Princess was not much in the habit of praise. "Um.... o.k., but what does that have to do with coming to Polonius, or seeing a healer, or anything else?"
An even deeper sigh, then Xena looked at Gabrielle with a serious expression. "You're ruining the surprise, you know."
"Surprise? Surprise!! Everything going on lately is a surprise. So what am I missing so far?"
"Well, I was talking to an acquaintance back in Andros, that told me about the events they hold in Polonius. They have races, wrestling, swordsmanship matches, for entertainment. They even have a small arena built here, rather, sort of a half-arena. I sent word of a specialty exotic combat exhibit....."
"Wait!!! I saw something about that near the market. You signed up to do an exhibit??" Gabrielle broke in.
"No," Xena answered drily, "I signed YOU up, with me as an assistant. Most people in these parts have never seen sais, let alone how they're used. There now, there is no more surprise."
"You signed me.....you...you're an assistant....XENA! Are you out of your mind? How is this supposed to work anyhow?" Gabrielle was so flustered at the entire idea she didn't know where to begin.
A satisfied smirk curled around Xena's lips at the confusion on the bard's face. "As for those early morning forays, I had a matching set of sais made and have been practicing like a demon with them so I can hold my own with you. I have no intention of coming out of this like a skewered chicken"
The vision of a 'skewered chicken 'with Xena's features invoked in Gabrielle's mind made her snort, then chuckle. "And the healer?"
"Let's just say, there's a man who wins no matter what. He's part of the bunch that promotes these things, and as a healer, he is right there to take care of injuries during the events. Nice arrangement, wouldn't you say?"
"Oh, very cozy indeed!" Gabrielle agreed. "And you thought all this was necessary because....?"
"Because not only are you a great bard, but I can think of no one I would rather have beside me when things get tight. I wanted people to meet 'The Battling Bard' I know. And because...." Xena's eyes softened as she looked into the green eyes of her soulmate, "Because I love you." she finished.
Gabrielle was motionless as she absorbed this new information, then snuggled close and whispered, "YOU are the sneakiest, most underhanded, wonderful person in the world! And, I love you too." She considered for a moment more, then asked brightly, "Does this mean I get to beat you publicly?"
A snort bounced her head from it's rest on Xena's breast. "Not if I can help it!" Xena looked down lovingly, "I have my reputation to uphold. How would it look if a short, admittedly cute little blonde, publically humiliated me? Besides, this is just for show." A sly grin on her face, Xena added the final bit of the surprise. "Of course, we also get paid...."
Gabrielle sat straight up. "We get PAID?? I thought you said I already knew all of the surprise." She mock-glared for a heartbeat or two, then settled back into the interrupted cuddle.
"Well, you certainly do know it all now," Xena soothed. "So much for me trying to surprise you."
"You're sure? No more little facts that slipped your mind?" Gabrielle poked at a convenient rib.
"Hey! Cut that out!" the warrior protested. "Yes....I'm sure. Absolutely no more surprises of any kind"
"Hmmmm...you rather I poke you with my sais?" Green eyes peeked up with mischief dancing in their depths.
"Not until tomorrow, no!" Xena captured the offending poking finger and gently nibbled along it's length.
Quite some time later the pair made their way downstairs in search of supper. The hour was late, and the scullery maid was putting pans and dishes away when she became aware of two pairs of eyes hopefully following her movements.
Xena cleared her throat and asked politely, "Any chance of getting something to eat, or have the locals cleaned up everything?"
"Uh...why, I could manage some cold cuts, maybe some cheese. Oh...and there were some strawberries brought in late this evening." the maid stammered..
Two pairs of eyes brightened at the news. "That would be just about perfect," Gabrielle assured her. "Can we help put it together? I bet you have a family waiting for you at home."
A nervous smile from the maid told Gabrielle she had guessed right.
Soon a tempting platter was arranged, and Xena and Gabrielle gleefully headed back upstairs, after leaving a dinar with the maid for her effort.
Back in their room, the two attacked the platter with gusto. "Look who's always poking fun at me and my appetite," Gabrielle teased., as she watched Xena tuck away yet another slab of cheese.
"Don't forget, we have to put on a show tomorrow....a good one!" Xena reminded her.
"Uh-huh. You never did say what they were paying us for this little display," Gabrielle reminded her.
"Oh, didn't I? Lorath said they would give us 25 dinars, and pay for our supper and lodging that night.. Not bad, considering I didn't have to 'haggle' to get it." Xena quirked an eyebrow at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle had a distant look on her face as she considered three whole nights in a nice room, in a real bed, with someone else cooking. "Um....not bad at all," she agreed..
Bright sunlight poked in through a window, bounced off a bit of polished armor, and smacked Gabrielle right in the eye. She stirred, surprised to find she still had a bed companion this late in the morning. Turning her head away from the glare, she looked up into amused blue eyes regarding her. "Ummmm.....what?" She murmured.
"Oh, just admiring how you wake up," Xena replied. She placed a gentle kiss on her bard's forehead, then stretched. "You do take your time about it...." she teased. "OOOF!"
Gabrielle smiled sweetly, "Teach you to let your guard down, Warrior Princess!"
Xena cocked one eyebrow at Gabrielle while rubbing the smacked bare belly. "That wasn't fair! I only said...."
"I heard what you said...." Gabrielle yawned, "Just didn't appreciate it, is all" She smiled a lazy smile, while inching a hand toward a sensitive area.... "OW!" Quickly withdrawing her hand from Xena's grasp.
"Enough fun and games for now, my bard. We need to do a little preparation for our sais exhibit this evening," Xena drawled. She rolled up and off the bed in one fluid motion, grabbed her gear and claimed the chair to sit and dress before Gabrielle had a chance to protest. Gabrielle found a comfortable position and simply admired the view. That past time ended abruptly when Xena pegged her clothing right into her face.
"C'mon sleepyhead," Xena mock-growled. "YOU are the prime attraction. Can't put on a sais display without you. Move!" She finished fastening her boots and stood up. " I'll get some breakfast sent up, you dress."
"What?? And miss the morning show?" Gabrielle stretched languorously, then arched her back.
With a wicked grin, Xena answered, "Nah! I'll catch the late show instead." She stood and headed for the door. "Be right back...."
"Centaur farts!" Gabrielle muttered, then scrambled to get dressed before Xena returned. When she said, 'Be right back...' she usually meant it. A very short time later the door swung open to reveal Xena carrying a covered platter that smelled wonderfully of fresh baked bread, and a large pot with a cloth wrapped around it.
At Gabrielle's questioning look, Xena put the platter on the table and rummaged their mugs out of a saddle bag. "Hot tea, local blend," she explained as she poured the steaming brew into their mugs. "And fresh berries, some meat, and bread straight from the oven."
Without a word, Gabrielle chose a handful of berries and a gently steaming piece of bread. "Mmmmmmm...good!"
A contented silence settled over the room as the two concentrated on breakfast. Finally, the last morsel was eaten.
"Now, what can we rig up for costumes?" Xena finally said.
"Costumes?" Gabrielle questioned. "Why do we need costumes?"
Xena looked her soulmate up and down speculatively. "It's supposed to be an 'exotic' weapons exhibit, remember?"
"Oh!" You think we should dress the part. I see," Gabrielle responded. "Mmmm, we travel pretty light, not much to work with in the saddle bags."
"Yeah. Guess you'll have to go shopping in the market," Xena suggested with a grin.
"Nope. I know just where to go. There's this little stall about two streets down from the healer's that should fix us up just fine." Gabrielle developed a small smirk of her own at the expression on Xena's face. "What? You thought I just sat in the room all the time you were out working up your surprise? Not hardly."
Xena swept up the tray and now empty tea jug and headed for the door. "C'mon. We can drop these off at the kitchen on the way out." Gabrielle hurried to keep up.
Only minutes later they were at the stall Gabrielle had in mind. There was a wild assortment of colorful cloth, strange jewelry, and mysterious objects. Gabrielle held up a brilliantly orange bit of material and looked speculatively at Xena. "This would contrast nicely with your dark hair and blue eyes.
Xena eyed the bit of finery with doubt. "And that would go where, exactly?"
Gabrielle walked around Xena and finally draped the strip of material diagonally across her and tied it off at the waist with a thin silk cord. "Mmmm.....not bad for a start. Now, if we were to use those blue pantaloons with this.... yeah, I think it might work."
Xena blew out a soft snort, reminding herself that she had set this thing up in the first place. Then an emerald green top caught her eye. "And THIS would work nicely with your eyes and coloring," she purred, holding the shirt up to Gabrielle. The green of the shirt seemed to make Gabrielle's eyes flash in response. Just then she spotted a golden yellow pair of pantaloons. "And this would complete the effect!" she pronounced.
Gabrielle cocked her head and looked at Xena curiously. "When did you develop such a dramatic flair?" she questioned.
A soft smile curled around Xena's lips. "Just remembering how you looked in some of the things you wore in India. Besides, we need to look 'exotic'. I haven't seen anything like this walking around the streets of Polonius. Have you?"
Gabrielle had to admit Xena was right on that one.
"One more thing." Xena reached out a long arm and collected a string of purple beads hanging from overhead. "Here." She wound the beads around Gabrielle's neck several times, then arranged them to drape attractively. "There. That should do it."
Gabrielle fingered the beads, then looked up at Xena. "Now, how do we pay for all this?"
"Trust me," Xena said confidently. She stepped closer to the owner of the stall and spoke intensely to him in a low voice. He looked startled, then a bit wary, but started nodding his head while staring at the tall, beautiful warrior that looked down at him.
"C'mon, we're set. Now we need to get in some practice with the sais before tonight." Xena headed purposefully down the street, leaving the bewildered Gabrielle to hurry to catch up to her long steps.
"Hold it just a minute there, Warrior Princess! What went on back there? Why didn't we have to pay any money?" Gabrielle demanded.
Xena slowed only slightly as she answered. "I made a deal. We get to use the materials for tonight's special show, return them, and pay a 'usage fee', extra if anything is damaged. He gets to show them off as part of the show. We get paid tonight, and this way we don't have to pack extra stuff. C'mon, we can use the area behind the stables to practice."
When they arrived at the holding area behind the stables, no one was in sight. Xena ducked into the stall where Argo was enjoying a portion of oats, and grabbed a cloth-wrapped bundle. When she unwrapped the bundle, two gleaming sais, exact matches to those Gabrielle carried, were brought into view.
Gabrielle ran her finger lightly along the length of one, wondering how Xena had managed to pull off this part of the surprise. She had no idea when there had been an opportunity to have them made. "Nice," she commented.
Xena and Gabrielle had held practice drills over the years with many different weapons. It had started with staff practice, then sword maneuvers. Gabrielle had picked up on using a whip quickly and proficiently. This was the first time they had worked with sais.
"We can start out easy to get the feel of it," Xena said. "But it shouldn't be much of a problem. We've fought together, and practiced together long enough to expect what moves will be made."
Within a candle mark they were at full speed, sais flashing in the sun, the soft slithering sound of metal on metal as attacks were countered. Almost as if at a signal, they both stepped back for a breather. "I think we've practiced enough. We keep this up, there won't be any energy left for the show tonight," Xena quipped, as she mopped away sweat trying to dribble into her eyes.
"Speak for yourself, Princess! I'm just getting warmed up." Gabrielle taunted, then jumped back, where Xena pinned her to the side of the stable. "Hey!" she exclaimed, then quieted as soft lips found hers and all she could focus on was her soulmate and the love she felt surrounding her.
"I'm thinking a bath, a rest... y'know." Xena finally breathed into the bard's ear.
"Ummmm... you talked me into it," Gabrielle responded, wrapping her arms around Xena's waist and snuggling against the tall warrior's body. They walked slowly back to the inn.
Once again the large wooden tub was filled with hot water, while the two boys grumbled about 'foolish women washing all the time' as they left. Xena cocked an eyebrow as she closed the door behind them. "Wonder what their problem is. They get paid.."
Gabrielle had already shed her boots and was pulling off the rest of her clothing. "You have nothing better to do than wonder about those boys?" she asked in a husky voice.
The tone in that question pulled Xena's attention to the bard. "Now that you mention it..." she drawled in a low growl. "C'mere..." They stood molded together enjoying a most satisfying kiss. A long breathless moment later, Xena scooped up her bard and deposited her gently on the bed, there to pay loving and detailed attention to the woman she loved. By the time the lovers got around to their bath, the water in the tub was nearly as cold as some of the lakes they swam in while traveling.
Evening seemed to come quickly, the sun sliding toward the western mountains. Many of the townspeople were at the arena already, watching some of the early events. Xena and Gabrielle were waved into the contestant's entrance when they arrived. Once inside, they were shown a cramped, dark room to use as a change area. They pulled their finery out of the saddle bag where they had been packed and checked each other carefully to be sure every thing was in place. That done, they simply waited.
The sounds of the crowd grew louder, taunts and jeers for the losers, cheering for the victors, as the evening wore on. Finally, a scrawny lad of perhaps eight summers poked his head around the open doorway and grinned at the restless women. "You're up next! Exotic weapons combat. They're announcing the event now." His message delivered, the boy scampered down the dim passage and disappeared around a corner.
Xena headed toward the door, a gleam in her eyes. "Let's go show the locals how a couple of girls can fight!" There was a grin on her lips as she anticipated the excitement ahead.
Gabrielle shook out her arms to loosen up, made one last adjustment to the pantaloons and the purple beads, then followed Xena toward the swelling sounds of the crowd.
A large man with a barrel chest was on the platform, bellowing, "For your enjoyment, we have a specialty event tonight. Presenting Gabrielle, the Battling Bard of Potadiea and her companion, Xena, of Amphipolis. These ladies will demonstrate the use of fighting sais. This unusual weapon from India can be used in a surprising number of ways, which will be well shown tonight. Ladies and gentlemen, Gabrielle and Xena!!" With that, he bowed toward the pair, then turned and disappeared through a draped doorway.
For a moment, Gabrielle and Xena just stood and looked out over the crowd. It seemed everyone in town must be there. Then they faced each other, gave an arm clasp, and fell back several feet. Almost in perfect unison, they drew their sais and started the weaving, stalking approach they had practiced that afternoon. The sais were constantly moving, darting toward the other person, catching the blades and turning aside the thrusts. Gradually, the pace picked up.
Xena's longer reach seemed to give her the advantage, but Gabrielle was quick and evasive, often dropping below Xena's advances. Without warning, Xena took a long forward step and launched into a somersault over Gabrielle's head. Gabrielle dropped and spun in place to be facing where Xena would land. She probed with both sais in what would have been a devastatingly savage attack against anyone but the Warrior Princess. Xena parried the attack and was ready to launch another leap when something not quite right grabbed her attention. Gabrielle nearly nailed her at that moment, until she, too, realized there was something going on besides their little show.
Xena had seen the gleam of a sword being wielded near the main entrance. Even above the sounds of the crowd, she could hear a muffled scream as the sword was thrust home. "Quick!! Grab on!" Xena ordered, then crouched and tensed for a huge leap. She landed half way up an aisle, Gabrielle released her grip on the Warrior Princess, and they both charged toward the main entrance. Anyone that got in the way was rudely shoved aside.
The small room beside the entrance was supposedly a 'strong room' where dinars and prizes were kept for the games. It was a killing area when Xena and Gabrielle arrived. Several people were on the floor, dead or badly wounded. At least eight rough looking men, well armored and holding bloody swords, were scooping up anything worth stealing.
"If you wanted to play, you should have asked for an invitation," Xena purred. "Now you've made me mad." With her blood-curdling war cry, the Warrior Princess waded into battle. Two of the bolder thieves made a move to get behind Xena, only to find themselves facing a blond, green-eyed demon that seemed to somehow surround them and hit from more than one direction at once. Within seconds, one had a serious stab wound in his thigh, the other a huge knot over one eye. Both were on the floor, completely out of the battle.
Meanwhile, Xena had 'persuaded' three of the thugs to 'go to sleep' with several well placed kicks and elbow punches, but two of the more bull-headed ones would not cooperate. Xena gave up trying to be nice about it, leaped over their heads and skewered them, abruptly ending the conflict.
By now the more alert people in the arena realized what was happening and came swarming in to help. None was needed.
"By the Gods!" one City Elder exclaimed. "You've got them all! You really do know how to use those sais!"
Xena rolled her eyes and started to turn to Gabrielle, just to make sure she was unharmed. A slight movement near the door brought her to full alert again when she realized the leader of this bloody bunch of robbers was trying to slide out into the crowd. Once out there, it would be impossible to catch him.
In one smooth motion Xena flung both of her sais at the figure. There were four distinct thuds, and the culprit looked shocked to find both his arms and his legs pinned to the wall by still quivering sais. Xena glanced to her right to find Gabrielle had reached exactly the same conclusion, and acted upon it. They grinned at each other.
"Nice throw, Gabrielle," Xena commented.
"You too," Gabrielle responded. "Just how much have you been practicing with the sais?"
"Enough." was the brief answer.
From that point on, conversation became impossible as news of what had happened spread throughout the crowd.. Everyone seemed determined to get a look at the carnage, and especially at the two pretty ladies that had stopped a very clever robbery dead in its tracks.
To Xena's relief, local officials finally arrived to cart away the wounded and the prisoners, then started to maintain some crowd control. When she saw an opening, she hastily grabbled Gabrielle's arm and escaped down one of the numerous passageways, away from the nearly hysterical crowd.
After turning several times through the confusing maze, Xena found the room where their things were. They recovered their own clothing and started to change.
"Uh-oh!" Gabrielle exclaimed. She held up the yellow pantaloons, to reveal a splash of blood and a rip down one leg.
Xena was instantly at her side. "Let me see! How bad is it?" She peered at the smooth unbroken skin of the bard's legs.
"Not me, Xena! The pantaloons are damaged and blood stained. We'll have to pay for them now." Gabrielle lamented.
"If I had to choose between paying a healer or paying a shop keeper, it would be the shop keeper every time," Xena remarked dryly. "We'll deal with it."
Gabrielle glanced uncertainly at her partner. "How? I doubt we will get paid for a half-finished demonstration. And no, we don't have enough dinars to cover both our lodgings and the useage and damage to this clothing." She looked more closely at Xena's outfit. "I see yours looks some worse for wear too."
Xena glanced down at the now somewhat ragged orange "sash" Gabrielle had arranged on her. It did look hard used. Several tears marred the material. "Hm. I see what you mean."
"Ahem." came a discrete cough from the doorway. Gabrielle stepped behind Xena to finish fastening her skirt in place. Lorath hesitated, bemused by the glimpse of lovely female flesh he had just seen, then forced his mind back to business. "The City Elders asked me to extend the following invitation. Polonius would be most honored if you would remain as guests of the city for a seven-day. And my group was wondering if you might be interested in doing a re-staging of tonight's events? Without the blood shed, of course. Sort of a combination of exotic weapons exhibit and an action play of the robbery attempt. We feel it would be well attended." He waited hopefully for an answer.
Xena and Gabrielle stared at each other. A nearly imperceptible shrug of the bard allowed it was Xena's choice Xena .faked a smile and answered, "We'll take your offer under consideration. However, we're passing through Polonius on our way to a very important meeting and can't stay long." She started to turn, but realized Lorath was holding out a small leather bag that jingled in a pleasing manner.
"Your fee, doubled, in gratitude for the service you have rendered. I will wait for word on your decision." Lorath bowed, then left the two standing with eyes round in wonder.
"Did he say DOUBLE our fee?" Gabrielle gasped. "Let me see that!" She took the leather bag and hefted it expertly in one hand. "Sweet Aphrodite!! That is certainly more than 25 dinars in there!" She looked at Xena excitedly. "We can pay for the costumes. We're covered on the lodgings! Sweet!"
"I'm happy you're so pleased, but it's time to get out of here and back to our room. I have a feeling we might not get any sleep at all if we get caught up in the festivities." Xena's keen hearing had picked up on a chant that barely made it through the twisting passageways..... 'Gab-ri-elle...Xe-na!!! We want Gab-ri-elle and Xe-na!'
They gathered up the now sorry-looking finery and their saddlebags, then picked their way through the maze of passageways away from the sound of the crowd. Xena filled her lungs with the cool night air as they finally worked clear of the arena. "Glad that's over. I'm thinking a very early start in the morning might be a good idea."
"To attend that 'very important meeting'?" Gabrielle quipped.. "Was that the best you could do?"
One eyebrow quirked upward as Xena regarded her soulmate. "You're the bard of this team...why didn't YOU come up with something?"
"You didn't ask." was the saucy reply as Gabrielle angled toward a short cut to the End O'Day Inn through the market place. "Coming?"
Xena blew out a sigh, and followed. Their path took them past the stall where they had selected their 'costumes' for the event. To their surprise, the fellow was still there, just closing up.
"I thought you would be at the games," Xena observed.
"Oh, no...no.. The games bring out customers. I wouldn't want to miss those." The stall keeper glanced up, then straightened up from packing his goods away. "Oh! It's you two!" A broad smile lit up his face. " I heard what happened at the arena. My, my, such excitement!"
Xena frowned, wondering how the news had traveled so quickly to the market. They must have fast runners posted at the arena or something.
Reluctantly, Gabrielle pulled the hard-used clothing out of a saddle bag. "I'm afraid we ruined your merchandise. How much do we owe on these?"
"Owe? Oh....nothing, nothing. I do want to put them on display. Mmmmm..... you wouldn't know which, er... bandit's blood this is, would you?" The merchant held the material up to best display the gory splash.
"Um...nooo.....it was rather busy there at the time," Gabrielle answered, her blond eyebrows climbing upward. "Does it make a difference?"
"Makes a better tale to tell the customers," the merchant assured her. "Never mind. Just the fact that I have the clothing worn by the 'Battling Bard' while she defeated 20 men will be an exciting addition to my display. Oh, the others will be so jealous!"
Gabrielle's eyebrows had by now disappeared completely behind her blond bangs. "Uh....well if you say so." She finally responded.
Xena barely suppressed a snicker at that fascinating bit of news.
"Anything else I can do for you ladies? Anything at all?"
Xena stepped forward, gently clasped Gabrielle's arm and answered, "No, thanks very much, but we have to go now." With that she firmly steered the bard toward the inn.
Slipping in a side door to the inn, Xena motioned Gabrielle up the stairs, while she quietly made her way to the kitchen. By now several of the cooks were acquainted with the tall warrior woman that seemed to know her way around a kitchen.
A florid-faced woman named Janzee saw Xena and smiled. "Worked up an appetite over at the arena, did you now?" She wiped her hands on a rag. "Borrin said you were to have what ever you wanted, the best! So what will it be?"
"Well, we just need some food sent up to the room. I think we had enough excitement for the day. Whatever is on the menu tonight will be fine." Xena answered quietly. She could hear the excited buzz from the front of the inn.
"I'll be fixing it meself!" Janzee declared. "Is it true? Were there fifty of the bandits and you captured them all?"
"Nah! Only about a dozen, and some won't be bothering good folks like you again. Now, how soon can you have that food ready?" Xena answered, feeling foolish to even allow that much expansion on the truth.
"Give me half a candle mark and I'll be bringing it up meself. You run along now dearie, go get some rest! I'll see you in a bit," Janzee made shoo'ing motions with her hands, then turned to start the promised platter of food. Moments later Xena entered their room to find Gabrielle busy on a scroll.
Gabrielle glanced up, then returned to her work on the scroll. "I thought I should get some of the more important parts of this written down," she explained.
"Don't forget to mention those 20 blood-thirsty villains you pounded into a pulp." Xena teased.
"Huh! As if! Where do these people get their information? I counted eight of them, right?" Gabrielle complained.
"Oh it gets worse....downstairs they say we took out 50 bandits. Funny how rumors blow things up, isn't it?" Xena yawned, then started to shed her armor and leathers, and stretched out on the bed. She was content to relax and listen to the soothing sounds of Gabrielle's pen scratching over parchment. A low rumble sounded across the room. Without opening her eyes, Xena smiled and said, "Supper will be here shortly. Tell the beast to be patient." She was pelted with a scroll case before Gabrielle resumed her writing.
True to her promise, Janzee softly tapped on their door within the half candle mark.
Gabrielle opened the door to find Janzee and the young scullery maid laden with enough food and drink for half an army. She stepped back, startled. "Um....we can't possibly eat all that," she protested.
"Be that as it may, Janzee chuckled, "Eat what you like. I be told by Borrin, and now Lorath, both, the best is none too good for these warrior women." She started laying out the feast on the one table in the room. It nearly groaned with the weight. "Now if you want for anything, just be letting me know."
The scullery maid cast an admiring glance at the pair, then closed the door behind them, leaving Xena and Gabrielle to deal with the situation.
"What in Tartrus are we going to do with all this food?" Gabrielle asked, picking out an especially tempting morsel.
Xena stood a moment, contemplating the bounty they had somehow collected. "Well, first we eat until we are full," she chose a large slab of fresh bread and an assortment of meats. "Then anything that will travel, we pack and take with us."
"Always practical, aren't you?" her soulmate remarked. She started looking at foods that would keep on the road. "Meanwhile, we can eat ourselves into oblivion."
"Mmmph. Yea, and I won't have to hunt supper for a day or two. Would you pass that wine skin? It looks interesting."
Some time later, stuffed beyond all reason, the pair sat back and stared at the still impressive amount of food. "Gods!" Gabrielle groaned, "What do they think we are..... a pair of starving cyclops?" An un-ladylike burp escaped her. "Sorry."
"S'alright.....ya might explode if you don't relieve the pressure. Where do you put all that food anyhow Shortstuff??" Xena teased with a twinkle in her blue eyes.
"Soon as I can move, you'll pay for that!" the bard threatened.
"Uh-huh!" Xena grinned at her. "You and what army? Better save your strength, we leave before first light."
"I've been thinking about that. Don't you think we should at least leave word for the City Council and Lorath? It's not very nice to simply vanish on them." Gabrielle yawned and eyed the bed longingly. What she really wanted at this moment was to sink into that bed's softness and cuddle up to Xena while Morphus took her to the land of dreams.
"Yeah, point taken. You gonna do the bard thing and leave a note?" Xena asked hopefully?
A huge sigh escaped Gabrielle. "The things I do to save your sorry butt! O.K., I'll come up with some brilliantly important reason why we had to leave all this hospitality behind. But you'll have to hand me a fresh scroll and my pen," she bargained..
A few moments later two short notes had been composed, one for the City Council, the other for Lorath. "There! I'm more than ready for bed. You??"
"Me too." Xena gathered up the remaining cheeses, one large hunk of smoked meat, and some hard rolls. After debating a moment, she included two of the wine skins. "Might as well have a little comfort on the road, right?" She wrapped the food in a clean cloth and packed the bundle in the top of one saddle bag.
That done, she reached a long arm down to Gabrielle and pulled her up from her chair. "C'mon, let's get one more good night's sleep from this bed."
The bard came willingly, curling one arm around Xena's waist as they moved toward the bed. Clothing shed, they both crawled wearily into bed and surrendered to its soft embrace. Silence settled over the room as they snuggled comfortably together.
"Mmmm....whaaaat?" was the drowsy response.
"You promised! No more surprises...right??" the bard persisted.
"Uh. Yesssss. What's your point?"
"I would say there were quite a few more surprises that happened after that promise. Right?"
"I guess so. Couldn't help it, not my fault.....now go to sleep," was the rather grumpy reply.
"Well, just for the next couple of days, can you see to it there are no more surprises coming our way?" Gabrielle asked plaintively.
"Ummmph....I'll see what I can do. Why?"
"'Cause I need a little quiet time to work up a surprise or two for you. It's only fair," Gabrielle kissed a handy shoulder and snuggled down for the night.
She didn't see Xena's eyes pop wide open as she considered what Gabrielle had just said. 'Gods....what am I in for now?' Xena thought. She lay there worrying about the possibilities until finally, the events of the day caught up with her, and she slept.
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