Xena cautiously accepts an unexpected traveling companion as she prepares to journey away from SINS OF THE PAST.
“I was gonna follow you. Until you were in some jam. It’s so cold out there. I couldn’t get a fire started. And … and the mosquitoes are as big as eagles!”
“You know I’m sending you home in the morning.”
“I won’t stay home. I don’t belong there, Xena. I’m not the little girl that my parents wanted me to be. You wouldn’t understand.”
“It’s not easy proving you’re a different person.” Xena exchanged smiles with the young interloper, both recognizing they had something in common after all. She tossed a blanket at the girl. “Sleep over there.”
Gabrielle grinned. As much confidence as she had in her persuasive abilities, she felt lucky she’d gotten this far with the warrior who’d initially warned, “I travel alone.” Good thing she’d also overheard Xena confess to her dead brother, “It’s hard to be alone.”
“Soooo …what’s for dinner?”
Xena had resumed stirring the contents of her cooking pot, her thoughts once again on recent events. Her head jerked up at the sound of a voice other than her own. She glanced over to see Gabrielle fussing with her blanket.
“Dinner.” Gabrielle pointed her nose toward the pot. “Got enough for uninvited guests? Whew! Sure builds a girl’s appetite, trying to keep up with you.”
Head cocked, Xena stared at Gabrielle a moment, trying to wrap her mind around the apparent reality of this unexpected situation. She’d resigned herself to the girl sleeping there for the night, but hadn’t pictured much beyond that. Like her eating. Or chatting.
“Smells good.” Gabrielle scooted closer to the fire. “You cook a lot? On the road?”
Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. “Not really. This is courtesy of my mother.” She got a bowl from her bag, ladled in some soup and handed it to Gabrielle.
“Thanks. But what about you? You have an extra ….” Gabrielle’s question was answered when Xena began eating directly from the pot. Gabrielle tilted her bowl to her mouth. “Mmm, hits the spot. Your mom’s nice. Well, after your rocky … homecoming.”
Xena snorted. “First time I’ve heard that description of a stoning.”
Gabrielle winced. “Oooo. Sorry. Didn’t mean it to come out that way. I was thinking more of –.”
“S’okay. Worked out in the end.”
“Were you …. Did it …. I mean, it must’ve been … hard –.”
“No reason to expect more. I shamed her. Caused them all pain. Lucky to get the acceptance I did.”
Gabrielle finished her soup. She studied her bowl. “My family’s probably not so happy with me either. My sister thinks I’m crazy for running off.”
“Huh. Imagine that.”
“Hey, what’s so nuts about wanting more than Poteidaia? I notice you didn’t hang around Amphipolis long. Your mom and the others wouldn’t have minded, now they see you’ve changed.”
“It’s not just about them anymore. What they think.” Xena wiped the pot clean. She began polishing her sword. “It’s about making up for that. For a lot of other things I’ve done.”
“See, that’s why I want to come.” Gabrielle leaned forward. “I knew I was meant for something bigger. Seeing more of the world. An adventuress. I didn’t know how, until you popped in.” Her eyes grew dreamy. “Seeing you whomp those slavers. Riding confident off to wherever the road takes you. I want to do that. Help people. Be free. A warrior like you.”
“Gabrielle, you have no idea. It’s a hard life. Not much of the glory you probably imagine. What makes you think you can –.”
“I got this far, didn’t I? No transportation `cept my feet. Little money or food. Just the clothes on my back.” Gabrielle ducked her head. “Not even a blanket.”
“What if I hadn’t carried you on my horse? Or shared my camp with you? You can’t always depend on –.”
“Why not? You said yourself it’s harder alone. I can take care of myself. Heh, there’s one hungry Cyclops I managed to escape, thank you very much.”
“You ran into him?”
Gabrielle laughed, enjoying the surprise on Xena’s face. “Put a cage over my head. Was ready to gobble me up. I called on the gods to curse him. He wasn’t impressed. Humph, called me ‘chatty food.’ So I told him I was friends with you.”
“Bet that won `im over.”
“How was I to know you’d blinded him? I had to ... um … take another tact.” Gabrielle grinned sheepishly. “Let’s just say he’ll be mighty disappointed when I don’t bring him your eyeballs and a couple of limbs.”
“I see.” Xena shook her head. “Good thing Cyclops aren’t the smartest creatures around.”
“True, but still took some convincing. I mean, he could tell I’m not the bulky violent type.”
“You tell `im you’re a magician or somethin’?”
“Uh … not exactly.”
“A favorite of the gods?”
“Noooo. I told the truth. Sort of.”
Gabrielle cleared her throat. “I argued that a sweet, innocent girl such as myself could get close to you, before you knew what happened. Unlike a bulky violent type.”
Xena cut her eyes at Gabrielle. “Thanks for the warning. Late as it may be.”
“Well, I wasn’t sure about the ‘get close to’ part at the time.” Gabrielle gazed shyly at her hands. “Or if it would last longer than this evening.”
“Mm. We’ll see.”
“I did tell a wee lie about my father being a rich horse trader in Amphipolis.”
“Sheep country. Not that the Cyclops would catch that.”
“No, I told that to an old guy on the road.” Gabrielle giggled. “After he stopped his wagon from running over me.”
“I had to hitch a ride somehow. I figured he’d at least want to know why a poor girl was lying there ‘unconscious.’ He did see through the horse-trading father story. I had to charm him into taking me.”
“Ah. Like you did the folks who wanted my head?”
“Hmmm. No, that was more … logic. You know – the consequences of them hurting Draco’s woman. Ya gotta admit, I do have a gift for gab.”
“Not to mention guilt.”
Xena assumed a pitiful expression and mimicked Gabrielle. “`You can’t leave me. I saved your life.’”
Gabrielle grinned. “You’re bigger’n me. What else could I do? Think how useful I can be once you teach me to use a sword.”
“I’d stick to what you’re good at.” Xena smirked. “Gab.” She grinned at Gabrielle’s scowl. “Speaking of which ….” Xena got out her other blanket. “How good’re you at sleepin’?”
Gabrielle brightened. “Very good! A few owls hooting or lumps under my … bed … won’t bother me. My mother says I could sleep through ….” She noted Xena’s raised brow. “Oh. Talking too much? Sorry. I get excited and can’t seem to – .”
“Stop? Now’d be a good time. I’m an early riser.”
“You are?” Gabrielle feigned happiness at this news. She scooted back to her blanket and made a poor showing of getting comfortable. “Guess I won’t have to worry about waking you up too soon. My sister Lila used to scold me about that.” She smiled. “Good night. See you in the morning?”
“I’ll be here.”
Before she finished adding wood to the fire, Xena heard light snoring. She spread her blanket and lay down facing Gabrielle. “What have I gotten myself into,” she murmured to herself. It seemed both their worlds had turned upside down in a matter of hours. Or maybe right side up in her case. One minute she’d been a solitary ex-warlord ready to bury who she was. The next, she’d discovered how to make herself useful, only to be attacked for it and then forgiven. Plus, acquired a companion who had about as much business traveling with her as a baby chick did hanging around a wolf.
She reminded herself her life was one of unanticipated turns. Where good intentions could lead to bad ends. Maybe Gabrielle would change her luck. Keep her focused on the positives that could lie in front of her, rather than the negatives she hoped to leave behind. Already she’d begun wondering whether the girl was warm enough, could adjust to travel rations or handle the rigors of the outdoors. Might stop talking long enough for somebody else to get a word in edgewise.
Sighing, she admitted to herself there were certainly a lot worse things to worry about. The ghosts churning her gut in the day, like hunger pangs waking her at night. A spirit starved of love and compassion, craving some morsel of joy. A heart needing nourishment denied too long. Couldn’t replenish on its own.
She closed her eyes. Might as well let tomorrow take care of itself. For the moment she’d content herself with the day’s accomplishments. Reassured she’d gotten off to a good start. Appreciating the new taste in her mouth of carefree laughter and conversation. What was it that Cyclops had called Gabrielle? “Chatty food?” Xena snorted. Gabrielle was that all right. Maybe good enough to feed a hungry soul?
“Mmmmm. Go `way. Couple more minutes. Chickens’ll still be there.”
“What about the wolves?”
“Mmmm. What?” Gabrielle’s eyes cracked open. She squinted at the face hovering above her. Not Lila’s. Where …. Who …. “Xena!”
“Mm. No chickens though. Bread’n cheese.”
Gabrielle sat up and rubbed her eyes. The fire burning was almost brighter than the light dawning in the sky. “Oh my!” She suddenly remembered why she should be awake. “Sorry. Am I late?” she asked, trying to get the kinks out of her back.
“No rush.” Xena handed Gabrielle her breakfast. “Have to take care of Argo first. Eat. I’ll be right back.” She picked up the saddle and a water skin, then headed off.
Gabrielle gazed around the camp. Her heart began to race. Had she really done it? Left home? Started her life of adventure? Her eyes rested on the copper armor. With Xena? She took a bite of cheese, partly to assure herself she wasn’t dreaming. The taste of it on her tongue sent chills down her spine. Not of fear, which surprised her a little. Of anticipation. Excitement. Pride. Grinning, she scarfed down more food. Just in case Xena still had any doubts, she quickly rolled her blanket and looked around for anything else she could do. The fire. Should she put it out? Would they need it for anything else?
“You `bout ready?”
Gabrielle whirled around. “Xena! Don’t sneak up on me like that!”
Xena chuckled. “Sorry. Not used to making my presence known.” She tossed over the water skin. “Might wanna take a few swigs before we get started.” She knelt, scooped up some dirt and threw it on the fire. When it was out, she hooked on her armor.
“Did you eat yet?”
“What? Eat? Uh, no. I don’t need – .”
“Here.” Gabrielle held out the remainder of her bread and cheese. “I’m almost full anyway.”
Lips pursed, Xena took the leftovers offered. “Thanks.” She sat down and tore off a bit of bread.
“Somebody’s gotta look out for your health.” Gabrielle smirked. “Seeing as how you’ve dedicated yourself to looking out for everybody else’s.”
“You can still change your mind. No shame in that, you know.”
Gabrielle’s breath caught. “You saying you’ve changed yours?”
Xena sighed. “The road is nothing like the life you’re used to. You might miss it more than you think.”
“I can go back if I want, just like I got here. Now finish your breakfast.” Gabrielle stood. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Mmmm. The morning smells fresh and clean. Can’t wait to get started.”
The warrior gazed wryly at the bubbly redhead. Gabrielle might be crazy, but she had guts. An intriguing – if mystifying – trust in the unknown. Faith the known could be made better than it appeared. Naïve, perhaps, to someone with more experience of the world. Yet maybe not so different from a certain wannabe defender of her home village – stumbling onto an improbable path. Stubbornly pursuing it with no idea where it would ultimately lead. One day discovering herself lost, needing a hand out.
Xena popped the last bit of food in her mouth and got up. “Grab the bedrolls.” She picked up her saddlebags, loaded the Palomino’s back and led them toward the path that would take them away from their homes. When they reached it, she paused for one last caution. “You mustn’t have stars in your eyes about all this, Gabrielle. About … me.”
“Xena, I heard what people said. I saw you in action. Besides, I had stars in my eyes before you. For as long as I can remember. Is it wrong to keep them? Now that I’ve met you?” Gabrielle smiled shyly up at her new hero. “Because I met you?”
Xena’s mouth opened, but what could she say? She suddenly felt sympathy for that Cyclops. Neither of them stood a chance with this handful of “chatty food.” Shaking her head, she responded by turning to resume the journey she’d envisioned making alone, still amazed to have Gabrielle there eagerly matching her stride.
“You know where I’m headed there’ll be trouble.”
“Then why would you want to go into that with me?”
“That’s what friends do. They stand by each other when there’s trouble.”
“All right. Friend.”
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