A couple months or so into her new life of adventure, Gabrielle chafes at sitting on the sidelines and determines to keep her “help” from rubbing Xena the wrong way.
The highwaymen took their time unburdening the family of their possessions. They’d sighted a couple more travelers headed their way. It was proving to be a good day for thievery.
“Two women and a horse,” the lookout reported from his tree perch. “Don’t seem ta have much with `em, besides the horse.” He squinted at the approaching figures. “One of `em looks like an Amazon or somethin’. Wearin’ metal an’ leather.”
“Think they’ll be a problem?”
“Nah. Other one’s a kid. Peasant type.” The lookout snickered. “Maybe the Amazon’s recruitin’. Or babysittin’. Whatever, way they’re strollin’ along, don’t seem primed for what we got waitin’ for `em.”
The leader directed some of the men to stay with the family. The others concealed themselves on either side of the road.
“This is nice, huh?”
“Sunny day. Cloudless sky. No interruptions so far.”
“If you say so.”
“Come on, Xena. When was the last time we got to enjoy all that?”
“Xenaaa.” Gabrielle scowled at the woman walking beside her. “`We’ as in both of us. Since we’ve been traveling together.”
“What.” Xena cocked her head. “Bored already?”
“Nooo. It’s just, we don’t get to do this on the road much. When it’s peaceful? You’re usually riding.” Gabrielle peered around at Argo. “No offense.” She chuckled at the mare’s whinny. “When it’s not so peaceful ….”
“I’m usually riding?”
“We’re … um … not together.” Gabrielle noted a raised brow. “You know, you’re doing your thing. I’m … waiting … somewhere. Beside streams. In meadows. Maybe a tavern.” She snorted. “If I’m lucky,” she mumbled.
“Mm. We have different notions of ‘waiting.’ Mine doesn’t include wandering off to get thrown in dungeons. Sneaking off to play with Titans. Popping up after I tell you to run away.”
“Um …well ….” Gabrielle stuck out a stubborn chin. “That doesn’t count. It’s still not where you are – the main action.”
“You’re close enough most times.” Xena cut her eyes at her young companion. “I’ve seen you wiping off the blood, spit and snot during fights. You complaining `cause it’s not yours?”
Gabrielle scowled at the warrior. “If you recall, I started by saying how nice this was.” She glowered at the sky. “The beautiful day we’ve forgotten all about. The peaceful chitchat that lasted two minutes. The – .”
“Lack of interruptions?” Xena pointed her chin at the scene that appeared as they rounded a sharp bend in the road.
“Okay, ladies, that’s far enough.” One of a gang of rough-looking characters gestured toward a family cowering next to their wagon. “You’ve lucked up on a surprise party. We already got their gifts. You wanna pass through, we gotta collect yours.” He stared pointedly at the golden mare.
“My horse? But I didn’t have time to wrap her.”
“No problem. We’ll accept `er as is.”
“Guess you want my sword too?” Xena started to reach back.
“Leave it in the scabbard. We’ll take the whole set. Somebody might get cut otherwise.”
“And my whip?” In a flash, the slender hide uncoiled from Xena’s side and snaked upward to a large overhanging branch. A loud “Yeeeoow!” preceded the thud of a body hitting the ground. “How about you take him instead.”
The men gaped at their prone buddy, then at the tall woman who didn’t look nearly as cooperative as before. True, she stepped over to the clear side of the road. Her sneer and the way she rubbed her hands together suggested it wasn’t in retreat, so much as gaining a better space to rumble.
“So ya don’t believe in freebies, eh?” The leader beckoned his comrades to follow her. “Too bad. Now it’s gonna cost you more’n it’s worth. Get `er, boys!”
A flurry of punches and kicks later, all but two of the attackers lay moaning. Xena finally drew her sword, prepared to dispatch them if necessary, when the man who’d fallen from the tree regained his senses and began crawling towards her.
“Xena! Behind you!”
“Xena?!” The leader hesitated, indicating for the others to do the same. “Whyn’t ya say so? We’d’ve let you pass.” He winked. “You being in the same business and all.”
“Appreciate the courtesy.” Xena watched the others get to their feet and head cautiously to some sacks. “That your loot?”
“Um, yeah.” The leader backed away to join his men. “Figure we’ll just take what we got and leave. “
“Nothing for me?” Xena twirled her sword before sheathing it. “You did make me fight over it.”
“What about us?” the leader threw out, sweeping his hand at his bloodied and dirtied gang. “Wouldn’t of had to fight at all, if not for you.”
“As overwhelmed as I am by your logic, surely you don’t expect me to walk away empty handed.” Xena blew on her fingertips. “I do have a reputation to maintain, hmmm?”
The men stared at Xena with a mixture of outrage and trepidation. After a whispered conference, they held up the loot sacks. “No sweat,” the leader said. “Take `em all, if ya want.” He tossed a bag at Xena. When she put out her hands to catch it, the men took off into the forest.
“Have to go after `em on foot.” Xena grabbed her rope off Argo.
“Shouldn’t I – .”
“Calm the family.”
“But won’t you need…?” Gabrielle watched Xena sprint off into the trees, wondering how the warrior intended to haul the sacks and men by herself. She joined the shell-shocked people by the wagon. “It’s okay. You’ll get your things back.” She glanced at Argo, then into the forest. Mind made up, she added, “Watch our horse, please,” and set out after Xena.
“Ugh.” Gabrielle muttered, now wondering about her own intentions. A recent rain made it relatively easy to follow her targets, but not so easy maintain pursuit. She’d skidded in the mud and tripped on her long skirt. Tried running with one hand clutching the hem and lost her balance. The earth-caked cloth now felt like casts restricting her legs. She’d considered ripping the thing off, instead settling for a walking stick to aid her balance.
To make matters worse, she’d come to a place where the footprints split in two directions. She chose the set layered with the imprint of a long, loping stride. It took her to a stand of trees decorated with gang members bound in vines.
“Which way did she go?”
“Pfft. Ta Tatarus, if we’re lucky.”
“You oughtta know,” another man snickered. “Looks like you already been.”
Gabrielle ignored them and concentrated on a path of trampled grass leading to some high weeds that had been hacked through. She broke through them to more trees, noticing signs that earth or vegetation had been disturbed. A familiar boot print suggested she was on the right course. She thought about calling out for the warrior, but realized it might not be wise.
Soon she found no clues. She stopped, turned in a circle and became aware how far she’d gone without any idea where she was. She was hugging herself, looking anxiously at sky peeking through the leafy ceiling, when suddenly her faced brightened. Maybe Xena’d taken to the trees! She’d done that before when scouting or close to her prey. Gabrielle scanned the branches overhead. There. A vine dangling, long enough for the warrior to use. But which tree would she have leapt to next?
Gabrielle searched the ground until she found a small twig recently snapped off. On a hunch, she jogged alongside the trees in that direction, ecstatic to discover more freshly fallen branches or leaves. If she was correct, she’d soon see signs the gang had passed nearby. She grinned in triumph when she saw tracks and gouged dirt in front of her. They formed a rough line parallel to her position. Which way? She crouched to examine the tracks, eventually making out a couple of good prints. She grinned. The heels and toes told her all she needed to know.
Xena was tying three of the robbers together when her instincts went on alert. She whirled, hand poised above her chakram, and beheld ….
“There you are! I’ve been looking all over for you!”
Very few things surprised the Warrior Princess. This particular … apparition … did. Though shrouded in mud, arms tattooed with dirt, the head a tangle of gold and greens, its shape resembled a certain tagalong. As did the smug smile, made brighter by teeth set in a dusty face. Except the tagalong Xena had in mind was supposed to be somewhere else.
Gabrielle relished the moment. She blithely surveyed the scene – signs of a skirmish, the bound men and Xena gawking at her as if she’d popped in from Mt. Olympus. “Any more of them lying around nearby?”
“Uh, no. Couple got away. S’okay.” Xena nodded toward the now filthy loot bags. “They had to travel light.”
“Why don’t I get those? You’ll have your hands full with our friends there.”
Brow raised, Xena watched Gabrielle trudge toward the sacks. “Good idea.” She bit her lip. “They go better with your outfit anyway.”
They’d used the family’s wagon to transport the captured thieves to the nearest village. All in all, this latest “interruption” had taken up the whole day. Gabrielle spent a good part of the evening washing her clothes. Though her shift had survived her exploits in relatively decent shape, it didn’t provide much protection against the cool night air. She could’ve put a blanket around her shoulders – if she’d wanted to let on she was less impervious to the elements than her seemingly indestructible companion.
Xena was out hunting for something more substantial than their usual travel fare. In truth, she needed the time to herself. She recognized how long it had been since anyone provoked such mixed emotions in her as Gabrielle. She wasn’t accustomed to monitoring them for appropriateness other than selfish goals. Balancing them all at once with a single person. Expressing them with someone else’s feelings in mind. She could’ve been her typical blunt self – if she’d deemed it acceptable to roll on the ground laughing at her young companion one minute and chewing her out the next.
“Sorry,” the warrior said when she returned. “Word must’ve gotten out I was on the prowl.” She dropped her catch on a mat near the fire. “Guess these rabbits missed the news.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “Good thing there’s so many of them.” She squinted at the poor creatures a moment as if wishing them into something else. “Is there any way of cooking them we haven’t tried? Heh. Didn’t happen to come across a vineyard didya?”
“No such luck.” Xena pulled their herb pouch from a saddlebag. “I did accept some ‘exotic’ spices as reward for our heroics. Figured they might liven up … whatever. Took this too,” she said, holding up a shawl.
“It’s … pretty.” Gabrielle smirked. “Doesn’t exactly go with your outfit.”
“It’s for you.”
“Me?!” Gabrielle suppressed a shiver. “Whatever for?”
Xena tossed Gabrielle the shawl. “Your goose bumps?”
“Pshaw. I’m fine. But if it’ll make you feel better ….” Gabrielle wrapped the shawl around her shoulders. “There. Happy now?”
“Infinitely.” Xena dropped down and began taking off her armor.
“How come you never get chilled?” Gabrielle snorted. “Hide too tough?”
Xena shrugged. “Guess I’m used to it.” She narrowed her eyes. “Of course, I didn’t play in mud today. Like some people.”
“I looked a little worse for the wear, huh?”
Xena recalled her companion’s pre-bath appearance. “Not bad.” She suppressed a snigger. “If you meant to scare `em to death.”
“We each have our gifts. Yours is action. Mine is … drama.” Gabrielle grinned sheepishly. “Surprised to see me, huh?”
“Mm. Coulda sworn I told you to stay with the family.”
“You … requested … me to calm them. I did.”
Xena took out her cutting knife and began preparing the rabbits. “Coulda got yourself hurt. Or lost.”
“But I didn’t.” Gabrielle got sticks to set up a roasting spit.
“No, you didn’t,” Xena acknowledged with a grudging hint of admiration. “The idiots went in different directions. I used the trees. Even a good scout might’ve had problems.”
Gabrielle leaned forward and eagerly recounted her tracking methodology. “So you see, it was all because of you. Watching you work. Learning your habits.” She puffed up. “You have to admit, I did pret-ty well, huh?”
“Paying attention when I don’t tell you to? Uh huh. You’re the champ all right. As for the opposite ….” A chuckle softened Xena’s gruff observation. “Not so sure you’ll improve on that.”
“Give me a chance, okay?” Gabrielle scooted closer to the warrior. “I know I’m still green. But, Xena, I’ve picked up a lot, being with you. Doesn’t this prove it? That you don’t always have to dump me somewhere? When there’s trouble?”
Finished with her rote skinning of their dinner, Xena skewered the small bodies and placed them over the fire. In a way she envied them. No more dodging danger. Outwitting traps. Now that they were toast, they didn’t even know it. Sighing, she consoled herself with at least something she could take confidence in – there was only one of Gabrielle.
“Every situation’s different. For now I wanna focus on these rabbits.” The warrior cut her eyes at Gabrielle. “Whether spice `em up’ll make the taste better.”
He thought his heart would burst. Legs churning faster than ever. Arms pumping like wings of a barn swallow. Breath caught between keeping pace and conserving for the next stretch. What would be enough? He’d zigzagged through the market. Raced down rocky roads. Tried the woods and fields of high corn. That mountain pass ahead? Climbing its craggy side? Would that work?
He kept his eyes forward, on this last possible escape, even as he felt the danger at his back. If he could reach the rocks it wouldn’t matter. If he couldn’t – or the danger followed – all that mattered was his instinct to survive. It had propelled him this far, his destination now within reach. He scrabbled over boulders at the base. Jumped to grab a low ledge. Pulled himself up to feel a crevice he could use. Inched further from the ground to a slab with room for both feet. Only then did he risk glancing below. Though close, the tall one had stopped to check on the other, trailing a distance away. Yes! He patted the pouch at his waist. A few more feet, and the danger wouldn’t matter.
“I’m okay! Go on!”
He checked again. No! The tall one was attacking the rocks! Scaling like a monkey! Her ferocious energy mocked his own tired limbs. She’d already reached the slab. Stood there peering up at him with sneering certainty.
“Throw it down!”
“The jewelry! Toss it to me!”
“I’ll never let you catch me! I’d die first!”
“Ya got that right! Give me the jewelry, you can live up there for all I care! Otherwise, I’ll take you both!”
He thought about trying to move sideways, maybe get back to the first boulders, but now the other woman perched there, blocking his way. Just his luck, crossing paths with crazy women running free to harass anybody they pleased.
“This is your last chance!” The crazier of the two held up a round disk. “Do it now, or I’ll send you to Tartarus! If you’ve ever heard of Xena, you’ll know I speak the truth!”
His eyes bugged. Xena?! What was the world coming to? Somebody like her had nothing better to do than chase a small potato like him? Maybe she really was crazy. He pulled the pouch free, momentarily considering whether to throw it somewhere unreachable.
“Try anything funny, you might as well jump! It’ll be better than what I have in mind!”
“You’ll let me come down? Let me go?”
“You have my word!”
He dropped the pouch. She caught it.
“Be warned! Don’t let there be a next time!”
He watched her descend. Waited until the two had nearly disappeared from sight, before thinking about climbing down. He’d had a chance to get his breath. Keep his body parts intact. Crazy as it was, could that be a sign? Maybe he’d live better as a farmer after all?
Gabrielle sighed with relief when Xena left to fill their water skins and search for dinner. Everything hurt, sagged or pricked. Where to begin? The burrs covering her clothes and hair? The scratches where her blouse had been caught and torn by thorny bushes? The knee bruised when she’d once again gotten tangled in her skirt? The little pits she could feel in her butt from sitting on that craggy boulder?
Grimacing, she eased off her right boot. The hole in its sole matched the tender spot on her foot, which sported quite a few blisters. Her toes throbbed, rubbed nearly raw, the blackened nail on one about to fall off. Her left foot had fared little better. She marveled at how she’d made it back to the market, stood there smiling while the matron who’d been robbed thanked them profusely for rescuing family heirlooms. The pursuit there and back, to this camping site, covered more miles than she wanted to guess. Most of it stumbling through territory not fit for human travel.
What on earth possessed her to believe she could keep up with Xena? Because she’d done so much walking with little problem? The warrior had warned life at her side wouldn’t be all strolls through meadows. Or decent roads either, apparently. To think she’d chafed at waiting in cushy places. Eager to stay close to the “action.” Well, whatever illusions she had before, her bumps and bruises screamed she was nuts. And yet, when she heard Xena approaching, she hastily hid her feet under the blanket and drew that shawl over her disheveled form.
“We’re in luck.” Xena walked over dangling fish. “Your second most favorite catch.”
“No rabbit?” Gabrielle mocked groaned. “I was soooo looking forward to that again.” She watched Xena lay out the fish, then hesitate a moment before gathering firewood – usually Gabrielle’s task. “Hey, I can do that,” she offered, gritting her teeth in preparation for rising to her sore feet.
“Nah. I’ve got it. Relax.” Xena pursed her lips. “You did enough earlier.”
“Pfft. Shadowing you? Sitting on rocks? Hardly worked up a sweat.”
“Mm. No sense doing it now.”
“Well … okay. If you insist.” Gabrielle looked around for something she could do without moving too much. “Drop that wood over here. I’ll take care of the fire.” She reached for Xena’s knife. “Hand me your whetstone. I’ll sharpen this for you.” She grinned. “No sweat.”
The two went about their tasks, reviewing their latest adventure. Gabrielle was seasoning the fish when Xena came over to hang a large pot filled with water above the fire.
“Did we lose our frying pan? Where’d you get that?”
“I have many skills.”
“Um, you planning on fish … stew? Without the … vegetables?”
“You’ll see.” Xena wrapped the fish in leaves and placed them on hot coals. She dragged a log next to Gabrielle. “Sit on this.”
Gabrielle gave Xena a look but did as instructed. The warrior stuck a finger in the pot, nodded, stirred in some herbs, removed the pot and placed it front of her companion.
“Xena?” Perplexed, Gabrielle stared into the steaming water. “Are we supposed to …. This seems to be missing … something.”
Xena knelt, gently grasped one of Gabrielle’s feet and placed it in the pot. She did the same with the other foot. “There. Enjoy. My recipe for the weary … sole.”
Gabrielle sat propped against the log with her legs stretched out. Xena’s potion in the pot had merely been the first course. After the soaking, the warrior had massaged and put ointment on her patient’s feet, then tended the other scrapes, scratches and bruises. This was as close to bliss as Gabrielle had come in weeks.
She hated to admit it, but maybe she was right about being too ambitious too soon. Hardened criminals couldn’t keep up with the Warrior Princess. Why would a kid fresh from the farm? It’s not like Xena really needed help. Carrying bags so she didn’t have to make extra trips? Blocking the getaway of some guy too scared to move anyway? Riiiight. Consoling victims or staying with Argo was more her speed – and probably more useful.
“You okay?” Xena looked up from clearing away their utensils. Gabrielle had covered her initial embarrassment with raves about Xena’s healing skills and the smoked fish. She’d been uncharacteristically quiet since they’d finished eating. “You look a little flushed.”
“Heh, maybe `cause I’m so warm and cozy.” Gabrielle grinned. “Less worse for the wear.”
“Mm.” Xena gave a pointed look at Gabrielle’s clothes and feet. “Could be better.”
Gabrielle snorted. “Not for what I have in mind.”
“If it involves walking, don’t count on testing that quite yet.” Xena chewed her lip. “Switching your limp from one side to the other only goes so far.”
Gabrielle scowled at the warrior. “Might’ve worked with somebody who doesn’t notice every little thing.”
The corner of Xena’s mouth twitched. “Sure, if it was that ‘little.’”
Gabrielle couldn’t help but chuckle. “It’s okay. You can laugh. I’ve been quite a mess, huh?”
Xena got up to stow a few things in her saddlebag, mainly to distract herself from visions of a bedraggled, dirt-faced munchkin. “I had brothers,” she said over her shoulder. “I’m used to mess.” She snorted. “Mine too.”
“We’re not talking childhoods here, Xena.” Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. “Or evil pasts. You fight 10 men, race up hills, through rivers, dales and brambles. Barely a drop of sweat, hair out of place or mark on you.”
“Gabrielllle.” Xena dropped down on her bedroll. “Must have me confused with somebody in your head.”
“Oh, no you don’t. Don’t even try that ‘hero worship’ stuff.” Gabrielle gingerly scooted over to her furs, not bothering to hide winces. She wiggled battered toes in the warrior’s face. “Do those look like anything on you? Or these?” she asked, gesturing toward her sundry wounds. “How about this?” She plucked at her frayed skirt and combed her fingers through debris-tangled hair. “Despite everything you do, when do you ever look ‘worse for the wear.’”
Xena pursed her lips. “What’s your point. I doubt it’s about grooming.”
“My point,” Gabrielle said, pulling her covers over her legs, “is that you’ve made yours.”
“And that would be …?
Gabrielle lay back, arms crossed over her chest. “You’re suited to … action. I’m suited to waiting, watching and chatting. For now at least.” She snorted. “Hopefully, I’ll be suited to walking again soon.”
Xena studied the young woman who often made her feel she’d entered a parallel universe. “Gabrielle.” She pulled off a boot. “What do you see.”
Gabrielle turned toward the warrior. “Your foot?”
“What do you see on my foot.”
Gabrielle propped on her side. “Calluses?”
“Calluses.” Xena picked up one of Gabrielle’s boots and held it next to her own. “What do you see?”
Gabrielle fought a grin. “Leather you could use for a funnel?” At Xena’s scowl she said, “Okay, okay. Mine is flimsy, compared to yours.”
“Yes. Mine is made for the things you see me do. So’s my battledress. The leather resists stuff clinging to it, sticking in it. The darkness makes it hard to tell if it’s soiled or wet. The length gives me freedom to move. It doesn’t get tattered much because ….” Xena lifted some of the strips on her skirt. Smirking, she continued, “It’s already in pieces.”
“So ….” Gabrielle grinned. “You’re saying – if I cut off my sleeves, slice up my skirt and wear sandals inside my boots – I could be you?”
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. “I once fought in dresses. I had a warrior outfit so elaborate I could cut myself putting it on. Boots insects could nest in. I’ve spent years perfecting the simplest, most effective gear.” She rubbed the calluses on her sword hand. “My body has toughened in areas that get a lot of action.”
“Okay, so which is it? The clothes make the warrior?” Gabrielle used her fingers to mimic scissors cutting. “Or the Warrior Princess makes the clothes?”
Xena gave Gabrielle a “why do I bother?” look. Lips pursed, she began removing her bracers. “Accessorizing isn’t your biggest concern at the moment. Unless you’re planning on crawling behind Argo tomorrow.”
Gabrielle bolted up. “You’d leave me? If I can’t walk?”
“I didn’t say that. Not permanently anyway. I did promise the local magistrate I’d – .”
“Couldn’t I ride with you? You’re always telling me I should.”
“Gabrielle, all he wants is my advice on security. And what about your fear of heights?”
“Compared to being stuck down here? While you go off for gods know how long? Xena, we know how it is with you. The simplest task turns into a campaign. Who knows what your ‘advice’ could lead to?”
Xena was struck by the anxiety in her young companion’s voice. She suspected it had less to do with being left alone than being left out. “Get some rest,” she said, lying down. “It’ll help you heal better. We’ll see in the morning.”
Gabrielle remained sitting up. “I feel better already. You did a great job.”
“It’s like my feet visited a spa. Relaxed and energized at the same time.”
“And the other stuff? No worse than nicks I got as a kid. In fact, I forgot all about them. Well, I can smell the salve, but otherwise – .”
“Right. ‘Go to sleep.’ Just wanted to assure you ….” Gabrielle paused at hearing a low growl. “I’ll sleep like a baby. Pop up all fresh and new.” She lay back, somewhat satisfied she’d at least given the warrior enough to think twice about. “Good night.”
“Mmph.” Xena blew out a long breath, amazed at how someone so comforting could provoke longing for calluses a warrior hadn’t needed before.
“Mmmmm.” Eyes still closed, Gabrielle did a full body stretch. A slight twinge in her lower extremities reminded her a challenging day might lie ahead. She turned toward Xena’s bedroll. Empty, of course. She smiled. Gave her time to get the jump on the warrior, figure a way to ensure not being left behind.
Quickly pushing back her furs, she examined her feet. Still a bit discolored, but not too bad. She pulled up her knees and put pressure on her soles. Twinges, but no real pain. Now all she needed was …. Her eyes landed on that shawl. If she cut it in half, she could wrap her feet in the pieces. That should do once she convinced Xena to let her ride Argo.
She looked at the mare. Yes! Already saddled. She could tiptoe over and be astride when Xena returned. Conjure up a pitiful expression even the taciturn woman couldn’t resist. She crawled to the saddlebags and took out Xena’s hunting knife, crawled back to her furs and prepared to attack the shawl.
“What’re you doing?”
Gabrielle’s head whipped around. “Xena! You have got to stop creeping around like that!”
Xena stood with waterskins, staring at her young companion. “I asked what you’re doing.”
“Um, thought I’d use this for my feet. They feel fine. Just taking … you know … precautions.”
“You won’t need that,” Xena said, walking over to Argo to tie the waterskins to the saddle.
Gabrielle’s face clouded. “I told you, I’m fine. There’s no reason I can’t – .”
“Use your boots.”
“If your feet aren’t that sore, your boots should do.”
“But ….” Gabrielle reached for her boots, stunned to discover the holes had been fixed. She stuck her hand inside and felt reinforcement, overlaid with a cushion of some kind. She gaped at the warrior. “You …. When …? How come?” she asked with cautious optimism.
“You’ll have to ride Argo.” Xena began rolling up her furs. “No doubt there’ll be walking too. As little as possible today. Give yourself more time to heal.”
“Um, okay. Sounds reasonable.” Gabrielle contained herself until Xena turned to carry her bedroll and saddlebags over to Argo – at which point she silently pumped her fist.
“Better be careful,” Xena warned without turning around. “Way you collect injuries? Wouldn’t wanna add a dislocated arm.”
“This is nice, huh? Sunny day. Cloudless sky. No interruptions so far.”
Xena rolled her eyes. “Where have I heard that before.”
“From me? Except we were on the ground. I’m kinda liking this height thing.” Gabrielle tapped Xena’s back. “Something comfy to lean on if I need. No trouble keeping up with you. Plus, much easier letting Argo do all the work.” She heard a grunt. “Well, not all the work. I meant, in the leg department.” She heard another grunt. “Um, right. Once you get past your thighs. Feet? Easier on the those?”
“Not necessarily on the butt. Even one used to riding.” Xena guided her Palomino up the path on a small hill. She paused at the top. “There’s a village up ahead. Ready for a break?” She snorted. “Or are you still too … ‘comfy’… for one yet.”
“It’s not all about me,” Gabrielle said, ignoring her tired butt. “I’m not the one co-working with Argo.” She patted Xena’s shoulder. “If you need a rest, let’s go for it.”
Xena did her usual scan of the village. It appeared normal and peaceful enough. And yet …. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but something …. She squinted into the shadows, at the couple horses tied to the hitching post, under some unoccupied wagons. No danger signs there.
Gabrielle began to appreciate another aspect of riding behind the warrior – being able to feel the slight tension she might not have noticed before. “Everything okay?”
“Um, sure.” Xena glanced over her shoulder. “Why do you ask?”
Gabrielle grinned. “Just checking.”
They trotted up to the village inn and dismounted.
“G’won inside. Wanna check out a couple things. Won’t take long.”
Gabrielle pursed her lips but did as instructed. As soon as she entered, she felt something … off. She walked over to the counter.
“Hi. Are we too late for breakfast?”
The thin woman behind the counter gave her the once over. “If ya want somethin’ fancy. Otherwise, we got gruel, bread, eggs.”
“Bread and eggs’ll be fine. Enough for two, please. Someone’s joining me.”
The woman nodded. “Take that front table.” She started to walk away but paused when her customer didn’t move. “Somethin’ else?”
“Uh, no. Not food anyway.” Gabrielle leaned on the counter. “Everything okay here?” At the woman’s frown she explained, “Probably my imagination. It’s quite active, you know.” She giggled. “Oh, right, you don’t know.” She glanced around, noting two older men a few seats down, sullenly studying their mugs. The place was otherwise empty. “I sensed there might be a problem.” She shrugged. “Like I said, probably my – .”
“I’d stick ta food, if I was you.” The woman crossed her arms. “Better for your health.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude. It’s just, if there was a problem, sometimes it helps – .”
“What do you care?” The woman narrowed her eyes. “Most folks run from trouble.”
Gabrielle smiled. “I don’t run with ‘most folks.’ My friend and I …. Well, you could say trouble is our business.”
“Inta gossip, eh? Look, you seem like a nice kid. No crime in nosiness, but this’s way outta your league. Take my advice. Leave well enough alone. Soon’s your friend comes, I’ll fix your eggs and you can be on your way.” She turned, presuming she was talking to a normal person who’d gotten the message, startled to hear a response that indicated otherwise.
“What could it hurt, telling me?” Gabrielle blinked innocently. “Since you expect us to move on anyway?”
The woman cocked her head. “Persistent little thing, aren’tcha?”
Gabrielle grinned. “So I’ve been told.”
Despite herself, the woman found this amusing. “Parents couldn’t spank it outta ya, huh?”
“I’m not sure they realized who they had on their hands.” Gabrielle snorted. “Until it was too late.” Sensing a breakthrough, she hopped up on a stool. She extended her hand. “Gabrielle, by the way.”
The woman rolled her tongue in her cheek before finally shaking the offered hand. “Ursula. I usually do the listening.” She glanced at her other two customers. “Stuff I hear, loose lips not good for my business.”
“Gotcha. Perhaps you could join me at our table for a while? I mean, if you’re not too busy.”
Ursula studied the young stranger, surprised at even considering conversation, especially when it had no point she could see. Although … there were certainly worse ways to pass the time. She’d already made do with wiping, sweeping and guessing which old guy would doze off first. Shaking her head, she poured water into two mugs. “Take these to the table. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Gabrielle beamed. “It would be my pleasure.”
Xena leaned against a post outside the stables. The few words she’d gotten from the blacksmith hadn’t indicated anything unusual. Nor did her visit to the dry-goods store. It wasn’t unusual for villagers to be tight-lipped with strangers. And the absence of younger men could simply mean they were busy in their fields or elsewhere. Still, she sensed an undercurrent that did seem … off.
She made one last scan and shrugged. Why worry about looking for trouble, when it usually had so little trouble finding her? She headed toward the inn. Halfway there, she saw a familiar figure walking gingerly toward her. She snorted to herself. No better prelude to trouble than Gabrielle.
“We have to talk.”
“They out of food? We’re back to rabbits or fish?”
“Uh, no. It’s something else.” Gabrielle caught sight of a swinging bench in front of the dry-goods store. “Might wanna sit first,” she said, pointing that way.
Xena raised a wry brow. “Trouble on the menu?”
Gabrielle pursed her lips. “It happens, being around a certain Warrior Princess.”
“Mm. Couldn’t find any here. And believe me, I tried.” Xena guided Gabrielle to the bench. “So. What goodies you serving up this time?”
Gabrielle rubbed her nose. “You?”
“Well, partly, anyway.”
“You mean ….” Xena surveyed her surroundings again. “I don’t remember being here before. Sure, my army was in the area. I suppose ….”
“That’s not it. Um, exactly.” Gabrielle scooted back, nudging the warrior to do the same. “Ursula, the proprietor of the inn? I asked her about the tension in the air.”
“You felt it too?”
“Uh huh. I, um, said maybe my friend and I could help.”
“Mm. I take it you neglected to mention your friend’s name?”
Gabrielle ducked her head. “I’m learning it’s best to ease into that sometimes.”
“Smart girl. Go on.”
“She told me how her husband Galleos and some other men were restless. Tired of eking out an existence, little to show for their efforts. Awhile back, they heard about a … defensive … army. They could protect their village, have adventures and pick up extra gold at the same time.”
Xena snorted. “Sounds like somebody did quite a sales job.”
“They, uh, weren’t recruited by the leader.”
“Ah. Darphus. Never should’ve trusted him with that. Too arrogant to worry he could turn `em against me like he did.”
“Heh, not the guys from here. Took them only a few weeks to realize it wasn’t what they had in mind. According to Ursula, they snuck off the first chance they got.”
“Good for them.” Xena drummed her fingers on the bench arm. “I’m not seeing the problem.”
“The problem is, they didn’t abandon their dreams of gold. With the skills they picked up, they decided to go after what they wanted on their own. Every now and then they disguise themselves. And … um …. go … shopping. Merchant caravans. Other villages.” Gabrielle sighed. “And don’t bother paying.”
“Peachy.” Xena let her head loll back. “Yet another mess I gotta fix.” She rolled her shoulders, getting ready to stand. “Wait here.” She paused when she felt a hand on her arm. “Something else?”
“Uh huh.” Gabrielle smiled sheepishly. “This time it’s the other way around.”
“I go.” Gabrielle patted Xena’s knee. “You stay.”
“Gabriellle. There’s a time and place for you to – .”
“It’s not me. When I said my friend was just the person to help? Told her it was you?” Gabrielle ducked her head. “She, um, mentioned Hades and Tartarus a lot. She did agree to talk more with me. Let’s just say she made it clear the only way she wanted to see you was … dead.”
Argo watched her mistress pace and mutter inside the stables.
“Can you believe it?”
The warrior stopped in front of her warhorse as if the mare at least would understand the ridiculousness of the situation. She of countless battles, who’d survived impossible odds, fearless before even the gods themselves, expected now to hide behind the skirts of her teenaged tagalong? Let others determine a course of action to mitigate her past evils? To … wait … for gods knew what?
“Neeeighhh.” Argo bucked her head in apparent agreement.
Smiling despite her snit, Xena stroked the mare’s nose. Argo pawed the ground and lowered her head toward the saddlebags resting against a hay pile.
“Uh huh. I hear ya. I’d ride off in a minute if I thought – .”
“Neeeighhh.” Argo nudged the flap on one of the bags.
Xena snorted. “Ah. It’s not flight you’re interested in, but food?”
The mare bit at a piece of cloth peeking from beneath the flap. When Xena knelt to open the bag, Argo pulled on the shawl Gabrielle had been using.
“This is what you want? What’m I supposed to ….” Xena held up the shawl. “Pfft. You think I’ll be more acceptable, dressed like Gabrielle?”
“Ya gotta be kiddin’. Since when did you two ….” Gradually Xena’s eyes began to gleam. “Ahhhh. You’re suggesting I be more like Gabrielle? Maybe take a hint from her?” She snickered. “On the proper way to … wait?” Xena got up and scratched behind the mare’s ear. “Sorry I ever doubted you, girl. Gods know you have more sense than most humans.”
Argo bobbed her head. She watched the warrior stride toward the door to scope things out, then stuck her nose in the saddlebag to snag the now accessible apple she’d seen Xena stow there that morning.
“I understand why Xena’s not your favorite person. If you just give her a – .”
“She ruined everything!” Ursula banged the table. “Before her, our men were content. Satisfied with what we could make from the land and each other. It wasn’t much, but it was a decent living. Now they’re no more than thieves, playing at being decent.”
“But if there’s anyone who could convince them to turn from --.”
“You don’t think we’ve tried? The women? The elders?” Ursula ground her teeth. “Our men come back all puffed up. Drop bags of goodies in front of everyone. Next thing you know, folks’re celebratin’ and snatchin’ what they can. Act like they don’t see the effects. The laziness and greed it breeds. The suspicion or lack of courtesy toward strangers. The example set for our kids.”
Gabrielle leaned forward. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Nobody knows that better than Xena. You have to believe she’s changed. Her life now is dedicated to making amends for having a hand in things like that.”
Ursula drew back, regarding the young woman across from her. “You may seem different, but you travel with `er. Make excuses, even if you’ve never hurt anybody yourself. Why should I trust you any more than her.” She gazed pointedly at Gabrielle’s scratches and patched garments. “Maybe you’re just another of her victims.” Her eyes softened a bit. “But don’t know it?”
Gabrielle grimaced. “Traveling with the Warrior Princess can be painful.” She propped her right foot up on a chair seat. “Talk about blisters.” She shook her head. “My fault, trying to keep up with her. But you’d never know it.” She held Ursula’s eyes. “She tended them. Fixed my boots so I could walk with more comfort. In fact, if it wasn’t for her, I might be a slave. Or dead. She could’ve walked away. Left me to suffer from my own or someone else’s doing. It’s because she didn’t that I’m here.”
“So you owe your life to `er.”
“I’ve seen her take life too. I’ve met some of the killers and thugs from her past. I’m not blinded by the good I’ve seen even more of. The good that makes me stay.” Gabrielle squared her shoulders. “It’s true, I haven’t hurt anyone. And she tries her best not to hurt me. That’s what I’m asking you to trust.”
Ursula searched the green eyes in vain for any hint of doubt or subterfuge. If the innocence and sincerity she saw instead formed a true mirror of Gabrielle’s soul, then perhaps they also conveyed an honest reflection of the “new” Warrior Princess.
“Let’s say I buy what you’re sayin’. That Xena really might agree to help. Our men won’t know she’s ‘changed.’ She’ll be like a magnet pullin’ them further into what we want them to leave. What’s she gonna do? Fix things by killin’ `em all?”
Gabrielle ducked her head. “Um, well, strategizing isn’t exactly my thing. That’s where Xena usually comes in.” She smiled. “If you’re game, I’d say – .”
“Ursula!” A woman burst in, followed by several others. “They’re back! And … and ….” The woman pointed in consternation outside. “You’d better go see for yourself!”
From a distance, the scene could have signaled either a village being invaded by marauders, or a village welcoming home its militia. The bounty lying at the feet of the uniformed men might’ve been taken from or delivered to those gathered. It was hard to tell which situation possibly evoked the amazed expressions. Only a closer inspection revealed neither the men nor their loot as the center of attention. Instead, all eyes focused on a single individual lounging against the stables. All thoughts consumed with a common concern.
“Who is she?”
“It can’t be!”
“It is! Xena!”
The whispers flowed from group to group – anticipation and anxiety, certainty and confusion. Finally one of the uniformed men stepped forward to confront the question in their midst, confident he already knew the answer.
“Xena. You found us.”
“What makes you think I was looking.”
“You didn’t like losing soldiers.”
“Deserters? Most weren’t worth keeping.”
The mutters from his comrades spurred the man to lift his chin. “Maybe not then.” He pulled his sword and used it to lift a golden goblet that had spilled from a sack. “Late bloomers.”
“Mm.” Xena straightened from the stable wall, mouth quirking at the collective flinch. She cocked her head. “Guess that explains it. Why I didn’t know who I was looking for.”
“Name’s Galleos. Me and a few others here spent awhile in your army. Mostly under Darphus. Stayed long enough to learn what we didn’t like.” He twirled the goblet on his sword. “And what we did. Figured you might hear about us. Recognize your mark.”
“My mark?!” Xena appraised the men and their loot with obvious disdain. “You didn’t come closer than Darphus. A slip in my standards I’ll always regret.”
Galleos bristled. “Then why’re you here? Didn’t hear you were the type for sight seeing, unless it was for recruits, rewards or supplies. Nothing else besides us worth this trip.”
“You hear that?” Xena asked the crowd. “Wouldn’t make this guy your chief of tourism, if I were you.” She sauntered up to Galleos. “There’s this,” she said, plucking the goblet from his sword. She gestured toward the women clustered around Gabrielle. “And them. Good peasant stock. Very attractive to some slavers.”
The women gasped. A couple of the braver ones edged forward.
“You don’t scare me. Our men may think you’re the cat’s meow. We got claws too. And aren’t afraid to use `em!”
“Yeah, you have a lot of nerve coming here, after –.”
“Wait.” Ursula exchanged a long look with Gabrielle. “All she’s doin’ is talkin’. See what she’s got to say, before we charge.”
The others gawked at Ursula. Of all the wives, she’d been the most vocal in her opposition to the men’s “outings.” In her hatred of Xena. Her calm response surprised them but also persuaded them to follow suit.
“My mistake.” Xena nodded to Ursula and winked slightly at Gabrielle. “Seems there might be decent recruits here after all.”
“Okay, Xena, enough of this.” Galleos signaled for the others to draw their weapons. “Our women are off limits. You wanna insult us any more, you’ll have to do it with a sword.”
Xena appeared unfazed by the men circling her. She sheathed her sword. “How many can you … ‘late bloomers’ … handle?”
“How many swords? A whole army? Enough to even the odds?”
“What’re you….” Galleos joined the others in nervously looking over their shoulders.
“I could probably handle the lot of you by myself. I don’t do that any more for sport. Not much profit in dead villagers. No, if I signal for reinforcements, it’ll be because you were too stupid to heed my warning.”
“Yeah, and what’s that?”
“Stop playing at being me. You aren’t and never will be. Every merchant or village you attack makes it harder for me down the line. Competition I can’t tolerate. Right now you’re nothin’ more than strangers who should’ve stuck to whatever you were better at than listening to Darphus.”
Xena tossed the goblet back to Galleos. “Stick your noses in my business again, you’ll become an enemy. Whatever you hoped to gain will pale in comparison to what you forfeit from your fields, your homes, your shops. Trust me,” she said, her gaze lingering on the women around Gabrielle, “I speak from experience.”
“How do we know you won’t change your mind? Come back and attack us anyway?”
“You don’t. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll use your skills to protect your village. From folks with ambitions like yours, if not from me. If you can’t hack that, maybe your women will.”
“That’s it? You want nothing in return?”
“Yeah. What I meant to come for. Breakfast.”
Except for the two older men who apparently were fixtures, Xena and Gabrielle had relative privacy in the dining area. The villagers were in a meeting hall discussing Xena’s ultimatum. Actually, the women had already concluded there would be no more marauding. They wanted to give their men a chance to decide that on their own. The men had a hint about what awaited them if they didn’t – bags packed with clothing beside the door to their homes, in some cases theirs, in other cases their wives’.
Gabrielle polished off another sweet roll. “Wow,” she said, rubbing her stomach, “I worked up quite an appetite watching you … wait.”
“Mm.” Xena chewed appreciatively on a piece of ham Ursula had been saving for herself. “Blame Argo. She reminded me how you can be as creative about waiting as I am about fighting.”
“Humph.” Gabrielle blew on her fingertips. “It worked, didn’t it?”
“We’ll see.” Xena glanced over at Ursula, who had been observing the two. “Depends on how well they bought my act.”
Ursula detected openness in the warrior’s eyes. She set three cups of tea on a platter and walked to her guests’ table. “Mind if I join you?”
“Sure,” Gabrielle said, grinning up at Ursula. “I’d love to hear your perspective.”
Ursula grunted. She eased down on a chair. She studied the ex-warlord she’d never expected to be so near – at least, not without taking a skillet to the dark head. “You’ll really leave us alone? If the men cooperate?”
“And your army? They’ll go along?”
“Don’t have one.” Xena raised a brow at Gabrielle. “Unless you count her.”
Ursula snorted. “She’s as good as one. Did a pretty good job on me. Nobody else could’ve made me believe you deserved a second chance.”
“She does have a knack for that. I might not be here, if she didn’t.”
“That so.” Ursula cut her eyes at Gabrielle. “I’d heard it was the other way around.”
Xena shrugged. “I try to keep up.”
“Huh. Heard that was the other way around too.”
“She fancies herself a budding bard. No telling what’s real or imaginary.”
“Hey! I base what I say on experience.” Gabrielle scowled at Xena. “It’s everybody else who insists on making it whatever they want.”
“Speaking of which ….” Ursula focused on Xena again. “Your plan? It depends on the men seeing the ‘old’ you. You gonna tell `em the truth? That you’re tryin’ to change?”
Xena blew on her tea. “It’s not about my image. I am who I’ll always be to the person at the end of my sword.”
“But won’t it help the men? Knowing if you gave up doin’ it for kicks, maybe they should too?”
“If it works, leaving things as they are, fine by me. Besides, it wouldn’t stick because of me. It’ll stick because of you. People they care about insisting on it.”
Ursula nodded. “We tolerated too much. Too long. They know what’s at stake now, if they backslide.”
Xena nodded. “I’ve had my moments.” She shot a look at Gabrielle. “Pesky reminders help.”
“I bet.” Ursula winked at Gabrielle. “Afraid I hear some pesky reminders callin’ me back to my chores.” She offered a hand to Gabrielle, then Xena. “Appreciate what you did for us. Stop by before you leave. I’ll give you somethin’ for the road.”
“So,” Gabrielle said, watching Ursula walk away, “I didn’t do too bad, huh?” She smirked. “For somebody with patches, stitches and a big mouth. I even waited like you told me.” She batted her eyes. “Perhaps a promotion is in order? Less tagalong, more … sidekick?”
“You mean, being in on more action?” Xena sipped her tea. “There’s room for improvement.”
“And you call me stubborn? Xena, I swear –.”
“You’ve got the heart, all right.”
“But?” Gabrielle narrowed her eyes, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“For starters ….” Xena drolly scrutinized her worse-for-the-wear companion. “Less skirt, better boots.”