In this first-season story, which takes place shortly after the episode HOOVES AND HARLOTS, Xena and Gabrielle meet two girls who help the companions deal with the recently crowned Amazon Princess’ new fighting skills.
THE STRONGEST TREE
"Did did did did did!"
"Not not not not not!"
"Will you two be quiet!"
"She started it!"
"I don’t care who started what. Go fight somewhere else. Now! Before I take a hankering to work on you behinds instead!"
Two young figures slowly backed away from the clump of adults struggling to right a tilted wagon. When they got out of spanking distance, the taller one nudged her companion toward a stand of trees near the top of a nearby hill.
"Stop pushing me! I can go where I want!"
"Yeah?" The taller one folded her arms across her chest. "Okay, then pick someplace better."
The shorter one glanced around with defiantly puckered lips. Two directions paralleled the rutted road where the wagon remained stuck. She frowned, fairly certain her mother hadn’t meant for them to run away. The river across from them had overflowed, making a muck of that choice as well.
"Well, Smarty Pants?"
The shorter one weighed her options. If she went back to the wagon, she’d seem like a "mama’s girl." Squishing around in that awful mud would be worse. At least for her. Marti would probably like it. That left the side they were on. Which was drying nicely in the hot sun and offered shade. Except Miss KnowItAll had picked it first.
"Ya got sweat drippin’ off your nose."
"You don’t like sweat. You don’t like mud. I already thought of that."
"Why didn’t you just say so? You didn’t have to push."
"Come on then, before you get us in more trouble."
"Ma wouldn’t’ve noticed us, if you didn’t talk so much."
"Nuh uh! You started it!"
"Just shut up and come on!"
"Okay, now show me the flip move."
Gabrielle leaned on her staff, trying to ignore the sweat dripping off her nose. They’d been thrusting and parrying for almost two hours, but she was determined not to admit her fatigue.
"It’s too soon for that." Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. "Unless, of course, you’re not already tired of building up your stamina, strength and speed."
Gabrielle glared at the maddeningly fresh-looking warrior. Xena’s bronzed skin glowed and gleamed, while hers felt like globs of dull wax melting down a candle that had burned too long. The taller woman lightly shifted from foot to foot, casually twirling a shorn branch as if it were a big toothpick, barely breathing hard, sporting that insufferable "told ya so" smirk. Gabrielle forced herself upright, refusing to swipe at the wet bangs clinging to her drenched forehead.
"Xena, if you wanted to rest, all you had to do was say so." Gabrielle strolled over to their pile of gear. "So you’re a few years older than me," she said, crouching down to retrieve a water skin. "That’s nothing to be ashamed of." She took a long swig. "You shouldn’t let your pride get in the way of your health. Here. Drink some water before you get dehydrated."
Xena’s jaw dropped. She stared with two hiked brows at her companion, too bemused to laugh. Talk about pride – Gabrielle had more than enough for both of them.
"Sure," Xena finally responded, able to suppress a smirk, but not the twinkling in her eyes. She dropped to the ground next to Gabrielle and took the water skin. "Good thing I’ve got someone to remind me of that now, eh?" She took a sip and handed the skin back. "Think I’ll be rejuvenated enough to risk teaching you some more? Or should we … I … call it a day?"
Gabrielle grinned to herself, grateful as usual that Xena had let her save face. "If you have to ask, that could be a sign we should stop." She chugged some more water, then blew out a long breath and wiped her brow. "But I think a little recess is enough. Maybe some fruit, to help you get your energy back?"
"Good idea." Xena reached into a saddlebag, rummaging around until she found two apples. "Why don’t you eat something too," she suggested dryly, tossing an apple into Gabrielle’s lap. "Even you younguns need your nourishment."
"I don’t think we should be doing this."
"It’ll take `em forever to fix all that. They won’t even miss us." Marti led the younger girl to the crest of the hill. "See?" she directed, pointing back toward the motley caravan of five covered wagons, three of which were no longer mobile. "All we have to do is keep checking."
Hannah frowned uncertainly at the scene below. "All right," she conceded. "But we’d better not go far. Ma’s in a really bad mood."
"We won’t." Marti was already calculating the distance to the small forest growing atop the steeply inclined slope of the other side. Even more shade than that puny stand of trees. And probably a lot more interesting. She tested her footing on the slick grass at the edge.
"Hey!" Hannah grabbed hold of Marti’s blouse, as the other girl seemed about to lose her balance. "What’re you doing?"
Marti righted herself. She looked around, pursing her lips when she apparently didn’t see what she sought. "Ooo, I know!" she exclaimed, untying the sash at her waist. "We’ll use our skirts!"
Marti had removed the first layer of long material and was smoothing it on the ground. She sat on it and scooted a few inches down the incline. "It’s like a sled! It’ll be fun! Move your feet like this. Keep your hands behind you if you need to brake your speed."
"You’re nuts! You know that?" Hannah took off her skirt and laid it behind Marti. She looked over her shoulder at the wagons to make sure nothing had changed, before exhaling a long-suffering sigh and plopping down. "I’m gonna die, I just know it," she mumbled. "And then Ma’s really gonna kill me."
"Yeah, yeah. You ready?" Marti asked, slowly starting her descent.
Hannah scooted a little, finding she could control her slide fairly easily. "Okay, but not too fast, okay?"
Marti leaned back and scuffed her feet against the grass as fast as she could. "Weeeeee!" she cried as she got up enough steam to slide a little with her legs up. "I’ll wait for you belooooow!"
Scowling, Hannah continued her cautious ride down, keeping her eyes on Marti. She held her breath as, a few feet from the tree line, the older girl frantically tried to plant her feet and clawed up tufts of grass.
"Martiiii! Look out!"
Suddenly Marti fell back, threw herself into a sideways roll, and continued the rest of the way down in this manner until her feet butted up against a tree.
"Marti?! You okay?" Hannah’s inch-by-inch progress had brought her over halfway down. With relief she saw Marti jump up and turn to wave her arms.
"Piece o’ cake!" Marti yelled, putting on the skirt she’d grabbed as she’d begun her roll. Grinning hugely, she ran over to position herself in front of the slowly approaching Hannah.
"You crazy nut crazy person!" Hannah swatted Marti’s hands away as the older girl tried to help her to her feet. "I stopped just fine, in case you didn’t notice," she huffed, stooping to retrieve her skirt. "Look at this! What’m I supposed to say about these stains, huh, huh?"
Marti examined her own wet garment. "It’s better than mud, isn’t it?"
Hannah glared as she grudgingly wrapped her skirt back around her. She glanced back sourly at the hill. "Marti!" she breathed, her eyes widening in consternation. "How’re we supposed to get back up?" She turned to see Marti edging into the trees.
Marti put her hand up. "Shush! You hear that?"
"Did you hear what I said?" Hannah demanded to know, not in the least interested in whatever Marti was talking about.
"Sounds like a fight." Marti took a couple more steps into the trees.
"Marti! Come back here! We need to go back!" Hannah was close to tears now. They were in enough trouble as it was. But she couldn’t leave Marti. She didn’t know how she’d get back anyway. "Marti," she said plaintively, "please don’t go in there. I’m scared."
Marti stepped back out, looking serious. "Somebody could be in trouble. We’re already in trouble, so we might as well check it out." She walked back to Hannah and gently grasped her shoulders. "I’m sorry. I didn’t think about getting back up. They’ll probably come looking for us. In the meantime, what’ll it hurt if we see if somebody needs help?"
"Can’t we just stay here, maybe yell, until our folks come?" Hannah wiped at her eyes.
"You can stay," Marti said sympathetically. "I won’t be mad. You can be the ‘lookout.’"
Hannah shrugged off Marti’s hands. "How come you always have to do things like this?" she asked, annoyance now mixed in with her fear. "I’m tired of getting yelled at because of you."
Marti ducked her head. "I don’t mean to. I get interested in something; next thing I know, I’m doing it." She sighed. "Look, I’ll tell Ma it was all my fault. She thinks I’m a bad influence anyway. I just gotta check this out, okay? I’ll be back before you know it."
"Nuh uh. You’re not leaving me here." Hannah sniffed a couple of times. "Somebody has to make sure you don’t do anything stupider than you already have."
"No, but I’d rather die with you, then die here all by myself."
"We’re not gonna die, silly." Marti frowned, thinking. She bent down and began yanking at a small rip in her skirt."
Hannah gasped. "Now what’re you doing?"
"We’ll leave a sign, just in case." Marti tore off a piece of fabric. She searched around for a suitable stick, tied the cloth to it and planted it in the ground. "They’ll see this and know we came this way. How’s that?"
"Whenever you say, ‘How’s that?’ it means more trouble." Hannah sighed resignedly. "Go on. The sooner we do this, the sooner we’ll get back here."
Marti grinned. "Now you’re talkin’."
Two figures lunged, spun, sidestepped, ducked, and leaped. Wood cracked, sometimes accompanied by grunts and battle cries, sometimes followed by peals of laughter. The small clearing became a stage on which the duo’s shadows cast dramatic silhouettes in the spotlight of the early afternoon sun.
"Okay, I think I’ve shown enough strength, stamina and speed." Gabrielle backed off, holding her staff in the "ready" position. "Let’s see the flip move."
"What’samatter? `Fraid I might give you a run for your dinars?"
Xena rolled her eyes. "Gabrielle, the little knowledge you got from the Amazons is dangerous, if you think it magically turned you into a fighting machine. What you’ve learned from them and me so far is still in your head. It has to be absorbed by your body, in your muscles – instinctive. A couple weeks isn’t enough."
"I laid out Petracus’ men well enough, didn’t I? Or maybe you missed that action, like you usually do when I manage to handle myself without your help?"
"I saw it." Xena winced, not meaning to sound so curt. She let out a long breath, her features softening. "Ya done good."
"Well, you don’t seem exactly thrilled. I can understand why you got upset back when I bought that breast dagger. I didn’t know any better about what happens when you pick up a weapon." Gabrielle shook her staff. "But this isn’t a sword. It’s simply a way to defend myself, to defend you and others if I have to."
"Which is what I’ve been trying to teach you. You don’t need fancy moves for that." Xena’s eyes narrowed. "You’re not seriously thinking of taking that Amazon warrior stuff up close and personal?"
Gabrielle tilted her head. "Maybe I am," she retorted. Grinning, she readied her staff again. "Show me, and maybe we’ll find out."
Xena relaxed her stance and lowered her "staff."
"What? You tired again?" Gabrielle asked, smirking. "Wanna take another break?"
"I think we have an audience," Xena answered softly, nodding toward the hill behind them. "No – don’t look. Pretend you are taking a break."
The warrior strolled casually toward her armor and weapons. "I’m gonna chop some wood," she said loudly, picking up her sword. "Be right back." Seconds later, she’d vanished into the tall vegetation opposite the hill.
"Great," Gabrielle muttered. "I so love staying behind pretending to do something useful." She longingly perused her now useless staff. Sighing, she glanced around, considering which of the usual chores she’d pretend to do. "Nuh uh. Not anymore," she finally decided, beginning to sweep the staff around in the drills Eponin had taught her. "Now I can at least pretend I’m more than the chief cook and bottle washer."
She ticked off the minutes, moving her staff in cadence to "one Poteidaia, two Poteidaia, three Poteidaia…." When she’d just passed "600 Poteidaia," she whirled at the sound of underbrush crunching. Soon Xena emerged from the hillside bushes, sword propped on her shoulder. She stopped at the edge of the clearing.
"Oh yeah. Couple of `em."
"You … um … kill them?"
"Didn’t have to."
"They lying in a heap unconscious?"
"Didn’t need to do that either."
"Chase `em off?"
Gabrielle huffed impatiently. "Xena, would it kill you to be less cryptic sometimes? Maybe force yourself to tell me what happened without playing `20 Questions?’"
"I chased and caught `em."
"`Caught’ them? As in captured them? As in dragged them here to keep us company?" Scowling, Gabrielle walked closer, searching for the telltale rope in Xena’s free hand. "Where are they?"
Xena sighed and stepped aside. "Come on," she instructed over her shoulder. "She won’t bite."
Gabrielle prepared to face some trussed up, unhappy louts. Instead, two girls walked out to stand next to Xena. The first looked about 12, with curly brown hair and hazel eyes that stared unblinkingly at Gabrielle. The second, perhaps a couple years younger, fiddled nervously with her amber braid, blue eyes darting between Gabrielle, Xena and the other girl.
"You can close your mouth now," Xena suggested wryly. "We have impressionable visitors."
Gabrielle sucked in her cheeks. "Do tell."
"All righty. This is Marti." Xena pointed her sword at the older girl. "And that’s Hannah."
"And," Gabrielle said through clenched teeth, "they’re visiting us why?"
Xena sauntered over to their gear to deposit her sword. Crouching, she grinned up at Gabrielle. "That’s your department. I got `em here."
"Xena, we’d better get these two back to their wagons," Gabrielle said, studying the sky. She and her three companions relaxed cross-legged on the ground in a small circle. "Those clouds are rolling in mighty fast."
"So soon?" Marti didn’t dare look at Hannah, who sat next to her, finishing off the fruit Gabrielle had given them. "I … we … were hoping we’d get to see some more of those moves. If you were just playing before, you must be awesome when you’re fighting for real." She looked hopefully at Xena.
"Yeah, Xena." Gabrielle suddenly decided she liked this train of thought. "I think we have enough time for that, don’t you?"
"Ma is gonna kill us." Hanna cut her eyes at Marti. "It’ll take forever to get up that hill."
"Not to worry. Xena’ll figure something out." Gabrielle smirked at Xena. "She has many skills."
"Yes, and Gabrielle has very strong legs from all the walking she does. And may have to do more of from now on." Xena cut her eyes at Gabrielle. "She could probably carry both of you up on her back. At the same time."
"Really?" Hannah regarded Gabrielle’s legs skeptically. "They don’t look that strong."
Gabrielle smiled, undeterred. "Maybe we’ll see. After Xena and I demonstrate the flip move."
Gabrielle jumped up and grabbed her staff. "Oh, come on, Xena. Let’s show `em more of what we can do with many skills and strong legs."
"Please, Xena?" Marti playfully punched Hannah in the shoulder. "We’ll go back right after. How’s that?"
"I knew I shouldn’t’ve listened to you," Hannah muttered. "Nothin’ but trouble."
Xena leaned across to put her hand on Hannah’s shoulder. "You have that problem too?" she inquired sympathetically, glancing darkly up at Gabrielle. "It’s good you’re such a patient person. I’ll try to follow your example." She acknowledged Hannah’s shy grin. "And I’ll do everything I can to make sure your mom isn’t too mad, okay?"
Hannah glanced darkly at Marti. She leaned towards Xena. "Okay," she murmured conspiratorially. "I find that sometimes patience does work best."
"All right!" Marti clapped her hands together. "Does this mean we’ll see that flip?"
Gabrielle rolled her tongue in her cheek. "Well, Princess Patience? Are we or aren’t we?"
Xena pursed her lips. She slowly pushed up, took her time dusting herself off and began a series of languorous stretches. "I don’t usually do that particular move," she said to their guests, limbering up her back. "I use a sword, rather than a staff like my friend over there. You might want to stretch your back too, Gabrielle. Wouldn’t want you to pull anything."
Gabrielle leaned on her staff, inspecting her fingernails. "You keep forgetting – my body has fewer years of wear and tear. But you go ahead. Get those … old … kinks out. Take all the time you need. Just let me know when you’re ready."
Xena mumbled something to herself and straightened from her jackknife position. She threw a look at Gabrielle. The two moved to the center of the clearing.
Xena explained to the girls that the flip came in handy when a bigger opponent was attempting to take your staff away. She showed Gabrielle the proper mechanics for distributing body weight to propel over the other person’s head, hopefully maintaining grip on the staff and gaining advantage over its control.
"Now, let’s pretend for a moment that Gabrielle isn’t such a shortie," Xena drawled as they faced off holding Gabrielle’s staff between them. She smirked at Gabrielle’s scowl. "And that I couldn’t toss her over my head with my little finger, despite my advanced age." She smirked even more at Gabrielle’s low growl. "As she tries to take the staff away, I’ll demonstrate proper flip execution." Her eyes narrowed in challenge. "Ready?"
Gabrielle was more than ready to snatch the staff away. They tugged it back and forth a few times before Xena yelled her war cry and flipped over Gabrielle, taking the staff with her. She landed, grunted, dropped the staff and quickly tucked into a roll on the ground, coming up on her behind.
"Wow! That was so cool!" Marti looked excitedly at Hannah. "Wasn’t that cool?"
"Yes, it was," Hannah agreed. "Gabrielle? Is it your turn now?"
"Um, I may need to see that again." Gabrielle glowered at the sitting Xena. "You neglected to show me that new move."
Xena glanced up with a pained expression. "What new move?"
"That little tuck and roll at the end, Xena."
"It wasn’t planned."
"Just had to be creative, eh?" Gabrielle addressed the young spectators. "Xena has something against doing things the same way twice." She walked over to pick up her staff. "Okay, you made your point. No fancy stuff this time. Just show me the ‘shortie’ version, if you don’t mind."
"What?! Of all the …." Gabrielle glared at the warrior. "Xena, this is ridiculous! Why are you being so … so … so whatever it is you’re being about this one little thing?"
"She said,‘ankle,’" Hannah interpreted helpfully.
"Your ankle?" Gabrielle looked blankly at the body part Xena had her hands wrapped around.
"I think she hurt it," Marti observed.
Gabrielle snorted. "You don’t know her. She’s indestructible. Her head especially. No, this is another ploy to avoid teaching me how to fight." She stalked over to stand above Xena. It was then that she noticed the strange pallor of Xena’s skin, her clenched jaws and white-knuckled grasp on her ankle.
"Xena?" Gabrielle crouched down in disbelief. "Are you really hurt? How could you be hurt?"
"Probably this rock." Marti stooped to run her fingers across the culprit, which rested dirt side up, the hole it had been hiding in on one side, a skid mark in the damp earth on the other.
Gabrielle turned back to Xena. "Let me see." She gently tried to pry Xena’s hands loose.
"I’ll be fine," Xena gritted out, maintaining the death grip on her ankle. She closed her eyes briefly and took in a couple of deep breaths. "Go on. Take the girls back. The wind’s picked up. It’ll rain soon."
Gabrielle shook her head. "All the more reason I can’t leave you here like this."
"I’ll stay with her." Marti came over to the two adults. "Hannah’s the one they’ll really be worried about. I can help Xena, while you and Hannah let everybody know what’s happening. How’s that?"
"Don’t listen to her!" Hannah came up behind Marti. "I’m no baby! If she can stay, I can stay."
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged looks.
"I appreciate the thought, Marti, but I’ll be all right. I’m used to taking care of myself."
Marti pursed her lips. "So’m I. I can get what you need for your ankle. They can let Ma know we’re safe, so folks aren’t out searching for us in the rain."
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged looks again.
"Makes sense, Xena. I know what you’re used to, but now that I’m with you, I can’t leave you alone, hurt." Gabrielle turned to Hannah. "And it wouldn’t be responsible to let your mom worry longer than necessary."
Xena let out a long breath. The ankle was killing her and swelling by the moment. The last thing she needed was a bunch of folks standing over her clucking.
Hannah scowled at Marti as she bumped past the older girl and knelt beside the injured warrior. "It’s okay, Xena," she soothed, resting a hand on the warrior’s shoulder. "Sometimes Marti does make sense. Ya gotta be patient, remember?"
Xena looked between Gabrielle and Hannah, then at Marti. "No heroics from any of you, got it? Marti, you’ll do what I say."
"Yes, ma’am, I will."
"We’ll be careful," Gabrielle assured the warrior.
"Go on then. Before I change my mind."
"We’ll be back before you know it," Hannah promised, hugging Marti.
"Yeah, yeah," Marti responded, giving Hannah a weak squeeze back.
Gabrielle patted Xena’s leg. "Like Hannah said." She stood. "Don’t worry about us. Take care of that ankle and –"
"Yeah, yeah. I know. Patience, patience, patience."
No sooner had Gabrielle and Hannah set out, than rain began to fall. They sprinted through the bushes bordering the clearing, heading for the umbrella of leaves a short distance away. Once in the forest, they searched for a suitable place to wait out the storm.
"How about there?" Hannah directed Gabrielle’s attention to an oak so large it seemed to push its smaller companions away. "That looks like the strongest tree."
Gabrielle nodded. "Quick, gather up some of that long grass. I’ll get some branches."
The two hastily constructed a shelter that cocooned them from most of the rain that blew under the protection of leaves above. Gabrielle had packed her carry bag with a blanket, water skin and fruit, just in case. She sat with her back against the tree, some of the blanket under her, most of it draped over her shoulders.
"Lean against me," Gabrielle instructed. She waited until Hannah had scooted between her knees, then wrapped the girl in the blanket. "Warm enough?"
"Uh huh," came the barely audible reply.
Gabrielle smiled against the girl’s head. "A little scared maybe?"
Gabrielle gave her a little squeeze. "Don’t worry. We’ll be fine."
"And my ma? And Marti and Xena?"
"Oh, honey, I’m sure they’ll be fine too. This isn’t a bad storm. It’ll probably blow over soon."
They sat quietly awhile. Hannah patted the ground and walls of their makeshift shelter every now and then, checking for signs of impending wetness. Satisfied things seemed okay, she lounged back more comfortably against her human chair.
"I picked a good tree, huh?"
"Yes, you did. I’m very lucky to have such a brave and thoughtful person with me."
Hannah leaned her head back. "You mean me?"
"Of course I mean you." Gabrielle chuckled. "I wouldn’t be too happy, if somebody else was in here I didn’t know about."
"Oh, Gabrielle," Hannah giggled. "You’re funny."
"Um, thank you. I think."
"Sure, that’s a good thing – being funny." Hannah sighed, picking at the blanket. "Marti’s always saying how I’m no fun."
"She’s probably teasing you," Gabrielle assured her, patting the girl’s arm.
"I don’t know," Hannah said doubtfully. "She’s always wanting to do crazy things. Like sliding down that hill. It’s fun sometimes, but Ma says what’s fun isn’t always good for you."
"Your mom sounds like she cares about you a lot."
"Yeah, she does. She cares about Marti too, but sometimes I don’t think Marti thinks so."
"Oh? How come?"
Hannah shifted around so she could see Gabrielle better. "See, we found her. When she was just a little girl. Father and some of the others make things. They stay home while some of the rest of us travel around selling to different markets. Ma caught Marti trying to steal from our wagon. She says Marti was like a wild thing and ran off."
Hannah stopped to rub her nose, feeling a sneeze coming on. When it didn’t, she continued, "Ma says she gave me food to put out for her. I don’t remember much about that, but that’s what Ma says. Anyway, Marti followed us when we moved on. One day, I was outside playing and Ma heard crying. Marti had hit a little boy who was trying to take my toy. Ma says she told Marti to get inside the wagon and bring me with her, that it was time to go." Hannah shrugged. "So Marti did."
"Do you know what happened to her parents?"
Hannah shrugged again. "Maybe Ma does, but she says it’s not important. She told us as far as she knew, Marti is her daughter now. She’s gonna make ‘an upstanding young woman’ out of her, same as me." Hanna snickered. "I don’t think Marti wants to be an upstanding young woman."
"I see," Gabrielle said, chuckling. "So she gets in more trouble than you, huh?"
"Uh huh. But being ‘upstanding’ isn’t much fun, so I get in trouble with her."
Gabrielle laughed. "You do, huh? Same thing happens with me and Xena."
"Yeah? You get her in trouble like you did today?"
Gabrielle choked. She coughed until tears ran down her face.
"Gabrielle?" Hannah peered anxiously up at Gabrielle. "You okay? Should I hit you in the chest or something?"
"Nnnno," Gabrielle gasped out. She put up her hand to indicate she just needed a few moments. "Whew! Boy, ya got me good with that one," she said when she’d gained her composure. "I guess she and I both do our share of getting us into trouble."
"Xena seems like fun."
Gabrielle chuckled wryly. "Yes, she can be."
"It’s good to have a friend like that, don’t you think?"
"Yes, it is."
"I’m not sure Marti always thinks so."
Gabrielle snorted softly. "That makes two of us."
"Oh." Hannah bowed her head dejectedly. "Maybe I shouldn’t fuss at her so much?"
"Oh, no, I’m sure Marti likes being your friend," Gabrielle hastily clarified. "I meant Xena. Sometimes it’s hard for her to figure out what to do with me. Like Marti, she had to depend on herself for a while. She’s still getting used to having me around. "
Gabrielle gazed thoughtfully up at the branches she could glimpse through the top of their shelter. "You know this tree you found? Xena thinks people are like that – the strongest ones stand alone, can protect and do for themselves, don’t need any help."
"Like she wanted to take care of her ankle by herself?"
"Uh huh. And she could too. She’s a wonderful warrior who can do things most people can’t even imagine. She’s smarter and braver than anybody I know. We met when she saved my village from some awful men."
"Sure did. Thing is, her strength hides soft spots. And just like a big snowfall can break the branches off even this tree, Xena carries a heavy load of things she needs to do, that can get her down. I want to help her with that, like she helps me."
"Yeah," Hanna sighed, "Marti sneaks off to do things she thinks I’m not old enough for." She snickered. "Like she ought to be doing them either."
"Well, as a wise young lady I know once said, sometimes you just have to have patience." Gabrielle cocked her head, suddenly aware of the quiet that had descended around them. "Hannah, listen. The rain’s stopped." She opened up a side of the shelter and peered up. "And we’ve still got plenty of daylight. Come on. Let’s show Marti and Xena what two small trees can do when they stand together."
Xena let the rain pelt her upturned face. Her pride had already been soaked. She figured it was only fitting that her body meet a similar fate. Besides, her throbbing ankle wasn’t giving her much choice anyway.
At least they’d managed to get her boot off. Still, a few stars continued to float before her eyes from the painful process, and she’d barely managed to keep a lid on the contents of her stomach that threatened to boil up.
The warrior slopped more muck on the cold mudpack they’d applied to her ankle in hopes of minimizing the swelling. If she’d had Argo, she could’ve at least ridden to some decent cover. But, noooo, the mare was stabled not far from the Amazons. She’d thrown a shoe, probably out of jealousy for her mistress’ newfound friendship with the Centaurs.
They’d traveled leisurely to this spot on foot, supposedly for a day or so of relaxation. Xena had envisioned fishing. If she’d known Gabrielle’s real agenda, she’d have attached a line and worm to the newly crowned Amazon Princess’ staff.
"Damn Amazons," she muttered, as if they were the cause of all that had happened since, though in her heart she knew it was inevitable that Gabrielle would become more involved in fighting. She snorted softly. "Look who she’s traveling with."
She shook her head. She had more important things to worry about than the inevitable. Like where Marti had gotten to. Once Gabrielle and Hannah were gone, Xena had allowed a small groan to escape.
"Hurts, huh?" the girl had asked, kneeling in the muddy grass, seemingly oblivious to the rain dripping off her nose.
"Only when I breathe. I need to get this boot off. Fast." After they’d completed that tortuous chore, Xena prepared to give out more orders. "I’m gonna pack the ankle. You go – ."
"I’ll get stuff for a shelter," Marti had announced. She’d jumped up and quickly vanished into the bushes.
Xena grinned wryly. "I suppose that constitutes following orders." Especially since that’s the order the girl was about to receive. But she’d been gone long enough to build a house.
"What in Tartarus is she doing?" Xena sighed heavily. She glanced around for the stick she’d been using as a staff. "Great. Now I have to hobble out to take care of my caretaker." Grimacing, she started shifting to her good side, preparing to drag herself to the staff.
"Xena! I’m ba …. Hey!" Marti halted, squinting through the rain at her patient. "What’re you doing?! Are you fainting?" she asked, dropping something and preparing to run to Xena.
"Fainting," Xena mumbled in disgust. "As if." She sat up. "I’m fine! Just sittin’ here waitin’ for you to come back from Athens!"
"Awww, Xena, you’re funny. Wait’ll you see what I found!"
The girl struggled mightily with a vine, which she’d wrapped around a large semi-curled slab from a dead tree trunk. Deterioration had reduced it to mostly bark. Huffing and puffing, Marti dragged it over and let its end drop in front of Xena. "Hold on. Be back in a jiff." She dashed off, quite conscious of Xena’s bemused gaze following her. She returned a short while later, this time hauling two longish, sturdy sticks.
"Got a knife?" Marti asked, depositing the sticks.
Xena cocked her head at the girl, beginning to wonder which of them was the adult. Chewing her lip, she stuck her hand down her bosom and drew out her breast dagger. She flipped it, caught it by the blade and handed it up to Marti.
Marti grinned. "Cool." She crouched next to the slab and began carving out a hole near the top edge of its concave side. She tried to insert one of the sticks in the hole. When it didn’t fit, she enlarged the hole until the stick sunk in like she wanted. She repeated the process on a spot directly across from the first hole.
Xena quietly watched the girl with growing admiration. "Want me to hold the sticks for you?" she asked, anticipating what Marti intended.
"Sure, that would be good."
"But first – ."
"But first I need to make some holes in the ground for them." Marti used a stick to measure the distance between the holes in the log. She cut a mark on the stick and used it to show how far apart to make holes in the ground, slightly in front of where Xena sat.
Xena’s head dropped. Her shoulders started shaking.
"Xena?" Marti glanced up at a strange sound coming from the warrior. She paused in her digging. "You cold? You gonna pass out?" The girl began digging faster. "It’ll only take a minute, okay? Then you’re gonna feel much better."
"No," Xena said, laughing. "Yes, I’m not especially comfortable. But no, I’m not passing out. I was laughing."
"Laughing?!" Marti snatched up a stick and inserted it in one of the dirt holes. She scowled up at her charge. "You think I look funny? I may look funny, but I know what I’m doing here."
"I’m laughing because I’m glad I’ve got you watching out for me."
Marti was sullenly beating the mud around the stick into submission. "Everybody acts like I don’t know what…." Her head bobbed up. "What’d you say?"
Xena smiled at the girl affectionately. "I know what you’re doing. It’s a great idea. I was laughing because I feel lucky you thought of it."
"Oh." Marti patted the dirt around the stick until she got her temper under control. "Sorry," she mumbled, head still down. "I thought …. Um, thanks." She straightened on her knees. "Okay, you can hold this one now if you want, though it should be pretty stable on its own."
Smiling indulgently, Xena held the stick in place. She watched Marti plant the other one. At Marti’s nod, Xena held the second stick in place.
Marti took a minute to appraise their construction so far, which mainly consisted of Xena’s forming an "H" with the two sticks. Marti snickered.
Xena mock growled. "You laughin’ at me?"
"Noooo. Nuh uh. I’m just thinking how lucky I am you have such long arms." Snorting, Marti quickly bent to push the bark to its other side. She lifted the end nearest Xena, frowned, then let it drop. It was one thing to get the slab there. It was going to be quite another to get it up high enough to drop on those poles.
Xena bit her lip to keep from saying anything.
"I need something …." Marti studied Xena. "Those arms strong too?"
"So I’ve heard."
"Okay then." Marti got behind the slab and pushed it closer to Xena, slightly to the left of the warrior’s outstretched right leg. "Now, what I need you to do is …. Um, you can let go of the poles." She noted Xena’s exaggerated obedience. "I guess you know what to do next, huh?"
Xena nodded. She leaned forward, got her hands under the end and lifted it high enough for Marti to scramble underneath, taking the weight on her back. Xena dropped her hands to the ground to brace herself. Gritting her teeth, she got her folded left leg under her and powered herself up and onto her knee. She took hold of the wood again. "Better hurry," she gasped.
Marti scooted around under the log to maneuver it in front of the poles. Together they tugged and pushed up until the holes dropped down onto the poles. Xena exhaled sharply and dragged herself underneath their new sloped "roof." She sat with her right leg stretched out toward the raised end, her head resting on her drawn up left knee, not yet quite able to fully appreciate no longer being pelted by rain.
Marti reached in to pat Xena’s head. "I’ll be right back." She reappeared shortly with Xena’s saddlebags and other gear, which she deposited next to Xena. "I’ll be right back," she said again, ducking out.
Xena swallowed against some fogginess and the pain that now radiated all the way to her hip. She didn’t think the ankle was broken, but it certainly wasn’t a minor sprain either. "Damn Amazons." She reluctantly lifted her head at the sound of busy feet and hands doing something industrious.
Marti was anchoring the wood’s bottom edge with stones. She began fashioning walls from bushes, tree limbs, long grass, mud, and anything else that might do. She tossed some sticks inside, which Xena planted around to shore up their walls against the wind. Finally the girl slipped through the small gap she’d left at the front.
"Whew!" Marti wiped at the water dripping down her face. She surveyed their handiwork. At least they could sit and probably lie on their sides pretty comfortably. So far they seemed fairly well protected from the rain and damp air, though the temperature hadn’t dropped a lot anyway. All in all, not too shabby. "How’s that?" she asked Xena, indicating their digs.
Xena tousled the girl’s wet hair. "Couldn’t’ve done better myself."
Marti grinned and began shucking her soaked outer garments. She pulled out one of the bedroll blankets. "Lucky you had that oilcloth to put over everything. Most of this stuff stayed pretty dry."
Marti blotted her arms and legs with the blanket, before getting Xena’s cooperation to spread it on the ground for a drier "floor."
"You should get out of that wet leather."
"Mm." Xena pulled some strips of cloth from her bag. "I wanna wrap the ankle first."
"Ouch!" Marti screwed her face at the bulbous red injury. "I think you’re right."
The two managed to get Xena bandaged, undressed and medicated with some herbs. Despite a few goose bumps on her own arms, Marti threw their other blanket over Xena’s shoulders.
"Feel better now?" Marti asked, suppressing a yawn, at last wearily dropping her chin on her hands.
"Like a million dinars." Xena observed the girl’s eyelids droop. "A little tired though."
Marti pried her eyes open. "Yeah? Maybe you should take a nap."
"Mmm." Xena smiled wryly. "Good idea." She gingerly curled up on her good side. She pretended to shiver. "Mind sharing the blanket with me? Might help to have some extra body heat."
"Sure! Anything to help." Marti snuggled down in front of the warrior.
Xena tucked the blanket around them. In truth she did feel drowsy from the herbs and lightly drumming rain. Gods knew it felt good to be semi-dry again. She reached in her bag for a cloth to gently mop over Marti’s curls and to squeeze as much moisture as she could from her own locks.
"How’s that?" Xena playfully asked the quiet girl, after she’d settled herself back under the blanket. In response she heard a soft snore. "Good answer." She closed her eyes. "Might as well keep you company."
Gabrielle and Hannah rounded the bend. The hill had indeed been too slick and steep to ascend – at least, not without possibly breaking their necks. They’d found a way around the hill, which had taken over an hour, compared to the few minutes’ slide down.
"Look, Gabrielle! There they are!" Hannah pointed excitedly at the wagons a good distance in front of them. "Thank you thank you thank you!" She turned to give her savior a grateful hug.
"You’re quite welcome," Gabrielle said, laughing and trying to calm the small body jumping up and down in her arms. "Save some of that energy. We’ve still a ways to go."
"Okay." Hannah pulled away and started running ahead, waving her arms and shouting. One of the figures – female – eventually detached itself and began walking towards them. As the woman got closer, she also waved her hands and shouted.
"It’s Ma!" Hannah exclaimed over her shoulder. "She doesn’t look like she’s gonna kill me."
Gabrielle caught up to the girl. "No, she might fuss a little, but she looks too happy to wanna kill ya."
Once the three met on the drier side of the road, Hannah and her mother embraced, the latter crying, fussing and kissing her daughter in various sequence and sometimes simultaneously. Eventually the woman noticed the bedraggled adult who’d arrived with the equally bedraggled girl.
Gabrielle extended her hand. "Hi, I’m Gabrielle. My friend and I found Hannah near our camp. I’m sorry the rain kept me from getting her back sooner."
The woman clasped both her hands around Gabrielle’s. "Thank you. When I saw they were missing …." Her brow furrowed. She searched behind Gabrielle and up the road for something.
"It’s okay, Ma. Marti’s with Xena, Gabrielle’s friend. Xena got hurt, so Marti stayed to take care of her."
Gabrielle thought she saw something flit across the woman’s face at the mention of Xena’s name. "My friend’s pretty good at taking care of people herself," she casually assured the woman. "She and Marti are lucky to have each other for company." She steered the two toward the wagons. "As you can see, Hannah’s in need of a clothing change. Why don’t we fill you in on the way?"
The woman held Gabrielle’s gaze a moment, but nodded her assent. As they walked, she listened to her daughter’s account of how the girls had sought shade on the hilltop and "happened" to slide down the other side. How they’d heard what sounded like someone being attacked and come upon two women fighting.
"Xena’s a warrior," Gabrielle explained in a measured tone. "She was helping me improve my staff work."
"Yeah, Marti … um … we wanted to see more, so that’s when Xena hurt her ankle."
Hannah skipped along, holding her mother’s hand, continuing on with how nice her hosts had been, how great it was to see their moves, how she’d found good shelter from the rain, how Gabrielle had figured a way around the hill. Somewhere in there her mother had used a brief pause to introduce herself as "Samma."
When they reached the wagons, Hannah ran over to one of the four which now rested alongside the road. Her mother and Gabrielle watched as some children and adults came over to greet and question the girl before she popped inside to change clothes.
Samma gestured toward a team of people and horses struggling to remove a wagon still mired in the road. "We’d almost gotten that last one out, when it started raining again." She smiled thinly at Gabrielle’s muddy outfit – and exposed midriff. "I have a spare dress, if you’d like."
Gabrielle returned the smile. "Actually, this doesn’t feel as icky as it probably looks. But if you’ve got a little something for my insides, I’d be more than happy to accept that."
The two climbed aboard the wagon. Samma cut some bread and cheese for her daughter and guest, then for herself.
"Are we going back for Marti and Xena now?" Hannah asked when she’d finished eating.
"Soon," her mother answered. "Stay with Jessiah for awhile. I want to talk with Gabrielle."
Hannah hesitated, anxiety creeping into her eyes.
Her mother smiled. "Don’t worry. I’m not gonna kill you. Not this time anyway. Go on."
Hannah released a breath. She hopped out. "Bye, Gabrielle. See you later."
Gabrielle waved. She waited silently for Samma’s questions.
"I’ve heard tell of a warrior called Xena. But not very kindly."
"My friend," Gabrielle acknowledged. "She’s on a different path now. She’s dedicated herself to helping and protecting the people she used to hurt. That’s how we met several months ago. Since then, I’ve seen her only do good – a lot of good."
Samma stared off in the direction where Hannah played. "I found Marti near the ruins of a village that had been sacked. Must’ve been awhile before. There were several fresh graves. It was like some angry wind had come through and blown the life away."
Gabrielle swallowed. "Do you know who … ?"
"No. Marti was only about seven. She’d cry out for her parents sometimes at night, but never said anything about herself or what happened. She didn’t talk much for a long time. After I’d gotten her to stay with us, I called her ‘Marti.’ It’s what I’d meant to name another daughter, if that was to be. Seemed to give us both a fresh start."
Gabrielle reached over to brush Samma’s folded hands. "She’s very lucky you came along. You’ve raised two wonderful girls."
Samma studied Gabrielle, her eyes seeming to penetrate the young stranger’s soul. "You say I can trust my Marti with this woman? This `Xena’ who maybe left someone’s children roaming hungry and alone?"
Gabrielle took a moment to consider her answer. She pointed her chin toward Hannah. "I was an innocent like Hannah, until some slavers took my village into their clutches. When Xena fought them, I saw the difference between good and bad. Maybe Hannah hasn’t learned that yet, but Marti has. They both trust Xena as much as I."
The women jumped, as a loud boom of thunder seemed to shake the cart. They looked up to see lightning flash across the darkening sky.
"Hannah!" Samma called, hastening to put their dishes and other items inside the wagon. "Come on home now!" She grabbed Gabrielle’s arm. "I hope you’re right. Looks like I might not get my Marti back anytime soon."
Xena awakened from her nap to discover the weather had cleared. She soon felt her young companion stirring.
"You awake?" the girl asked softly over her shoulder.
"Didya sleep good?"
Xena arched her shoulders back. She began stretching out her legs. "Aaaaarghh! Curses," she muttered at the reminder of why she was lying cooped up in some weeds.
Marti rolled out. "You need more medicine?" She got a water skin. "You should probably drink some water anyway."
Xena eyed the water skin being dangled before her, then the earnest young face behind it. Sighing, she struggled to a sitting position and took the skin. She rolled her tongue in her cheek when Marti stuck out a hand with herbs in it. Grudgingly, she took the herbs and washed them down with the water.
"Good girl," Marti praised, patting her patient on the head.
"You okay? Should I hit you on the back or something?"
"Nnnno," Xena coughed out. "Went down … the … wrong way."
"Okay. Let’s check that ankle." Marti crawled down to uncover Xena’s legs.
"Leave it!" Xena snared the girl’s hands. She took a deep breath and cleared her throat. "I mean, I think I can do that on my own. Thanks anyway."
Marti decided to overlook this bit of recalcitrance. She knew what it was like to feel helpless. She peered through the small opening of their shelter. "Sun’s back out." She gathered up their wet clothes. "Maybe it’ll dry our stuff some," she said, then was gone.
Xena stared at the spot where the girl had vanished, wondering if she sometimes left Gabrielle feeling the same sense of being in some nether world. She reached in her bag and pulled out some travel rations. Assuming, of course, that Marti hadn’t already come up with a different menu.
The warrior drew back her blanket, unwrapped the ankle and examined it. Still didn’t look very pretty, but the swelling hadn’t gotten worse. She cautiously rotated her foot a little, to keep the ankle from stiffening up too much. It hurt like Tartarus on a bad day. Maybe if she – .
"Xena, I got somethin’ for ya." Marti squeezed in sideways bearing some large leaves piled with mud. "I dug it up, so hopefully it’s cool enough."
Xena stared at the spot where the girl had reappeared, experiencing another flash of deja vu. "Um, yeah, I was just thinking about that myself."
Marti tied back their "door" so Xena could enjoy the view without moving too much. A layer of white clouds had opened like curtains to expose the western sun against a bright patch of blue. Her brow furrowed when she noticed Xena inching for the entrance with her right leg held slightly elevated.
"Where do you think you’re going?"
"Out?" Marti knelt and laid a restraining hand on her patient’s shoulder. "Whatcha need? I’ll get it."
Xena growled under her breath. She lowered her leg. "Can you make me a crutch in under five minutes?"
"Crutch? I told you, I’ll take care of it."
"I need to get some air. I need to get out of this cramped position for a while. Most of all, I need to let out some of that water you’ve been making me take in. I don’t think even you can do that for me."
"Oooo. Didn’t think of that." Marti grinned sheepishly. "Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back."
Xena’s chin dropped to her chest. "One Amphipolis, two Amphipolis, three Amphipolis …." She’d almost reached "300 Amphipolis" when Marti scrambled back inside with a long branch forked at the top.
Xena measured the stick visually. "Yeah, that oughtta work." She started scooching forward again. "Take it outside. I can’t stand up in here."
Once outside, Marti helped Xena to her good foot and handed Xena the crutch. It was a little short, but manageable. Marti positioned herself on Xena’s other side and grabbed her around the waist. The warrior’s instinctive objection got cut short when she saw the eager protectiveness on the girl’s upturned face. She pressed her lips together and let Marti help her limp to the nearest bushes. When she’d accomplished her mission, she stretched her upper body and convinced Marti to "walk" with her a few times around the clearing.
Later, the two spent awhile ministering to Xena’s injury, eating and arguing about which fish were most fun to catch. They’d just wondered for the 10th time what was taking their companions so long, when the horizon began turning an ominous gray, accompanied by thunder and lightning.
"Uh oh." Marti quickly collected the clothes she’d set out to dry. She assisted Xena settle back inside their shelter just before a few drops began to fall. "Guess we won’t be rescued anytime soon," she concluded, putting on her tattered skirt.
"Rescued?" Xena began struggling into her mostly dry leathers. "Who said we needed rescuing? We’ve got enough necessities for a day or two. I took care of the other necessities. In the meantime …." Xena glanced around their tight enclosure. "Uh …. You ever played that ‘X&O’ game? You know, where you – ."
"Could we maybe talk instead?"
"Talk?" Xena echoed, a little surprised.
"I was wondering how you got to be a warrior. How you learned those moves. Seems cool – maybe except for breaking stuff all the time."
Xena laughed. "I’ve had my share of injuries, for sure." She clucked at her current injury. "Can’t recall ever messing up my ankle this bad though."
"Wow. You mean you really are too old already?"
Xena blinked. "Too old?!"
"No, not old old." Marti grinned apologetically. "I mean to be a warrior. You know, like Gabrielle was saying how your body needs so much more – ."
"Don’t believe everything Gabrielle says," Xena grumbled, rolling her eyes. "That little flip you saw is nothing compared to the ones I do on a regular basis. Without a staff." The warrior beckoned Marti to help with the laces on the back of her battle bustier.
"I’m normally not playing around like that. I got careless. I didn’t think enough ahead." She snorted. "Like checking out where I’d land. In `action’ mode, my body instinctively adjusts to the unexpected, which is one of the reasons I’ve survived to this ripe old age."
Xena smoothed out her leathers, relieved to feel less like some ward in a healing temple. She cocked her head at Marti as the girl resumed her cross-legged position next to her patient’s bad leg. "Speaking of which, you seem pretty good at that yourself. For someone of such a ripe young age," she teased.
Marti shifted uneasily and drew her knees up. "You promise not to laugh if I tell you a secret?"
Something in the girl’s voice alerted Xena to what might be a truly sensitive chat. "I promise," the warrior said, all playfulness gone.
"I’m not really Hannah’s mom’s kid. I was on my own after … for awhile, before she took me in." Marti fiddled with a blade of long grass, bending and smoothing it out.
"Wanna tell me about it?" Xena probed gently.
Marti shrugged, continuing to focus on her hands. "I was little," she began, barely above a whisper. "I remember playing outside. Mama was talking to some women in the village. Papa came running from the fields with some other men, shouting. He grabbed me. Everybody took off for home. I looked back and saw horses coming very fast. They had men on them yelling and waving shiny sticks."
Marti peered up at Xena’s sharp intake of breath. She nodded. "Yeah, very scary. Mama and Papa were scared too. They pushed me under the bed and told me not to come out, no matter what." She stared at the blade of grass, as though it held the key to the memories she’d locked inside.
"I heard strange voices and arguing. Fighting. All I could see were lots of feet and a few things hitting the floor. Then it was quiet. I crawled out anyway." Marti’s shoulders heaved. She peered up at Xena beseechingly. "I had to! You know? I had to find Mama and Papa!" Tears welled up in the girl’s eyes before spilling down her cheeks. She looked down again. "I d-d-did. They were …. They were … some of the things that hit the floor."
Xena leaned over and pulled the girl unto her lap. Marti crumpled in halting sobs, her fists trying to stem a flood that had been dammed too long. Xena rested her chin on the brown curls. She held and rocked this innocent victim of evil resting on her heart, praying that maybe one of them would surface to survive with less pain.
"I stayed close by," Marti went on, her words muffled in the warrior’s battle dress. "I ate from our fields and made a camp like I saw Papa do. Some people came. I didn’t show myself, but I watched them … bury everybody. I didn’t want to leave Mama and Papa, you know?" she asked peering up at Xena a moment.
"I’d never been by myself before. A long time later, the wagons with Hannah and her ma came. They seemed nice. It kinda scared me at first – like maybe it was a dream. But they were real." Marti blew out a long breath. "Something inside me said I should go with them."
A multitude of questions pounded the walls of Xena’s brain. Where? When? Why? Who. But she couldn’t ask. Nothing Marti answered would change the girl’s past anyway, nor the fact that Xena shared it whether her army had been there or not. The only thing she could do was at least help Marti let it go.
"That’s a lot for a little girl to carry," Xena said softly, caressing Marti’s hair. "You had to be very strong and brave to make it this far. I’ve seen that in you. Hannah’s mother must have seen it too."
"Noooo." Marti reared back shaking her head. "She doesn’t know! She mustn’t!" She roughly scrubbed her face. "I should’ve come out sooner. I should’ve helped them. I ran! I ran and left them on the floor!"
She shook her head again. "I was such a baby. Ma said so herself, and she doesn’t know just how much of a baby I was." Marti’s head bowed. "I try to be what she wants, but I know it’s not true. I know I don’t have it in me. Every day I wonder if she’ll finally see that and give up."
"You’re wrong." Xena lifted Marti’s chin. "She didn’t mean you acted like a baby. She meant the same thing I did – that no one so young should have to go through that. It’s a terrible thing no matter how old you are."
Xena gathered the girl in again. "You asked how I became a warrior. I’ll tell you. I won’t make you promise not to hate me after."
Marti mumbled something against Xena’s chest, tried to raise her head. Xena gently held her in place.
"No, it’s hard enough, without seeing your eyes." The warrior rested her head on Marti’s, drawing strength from the girl’s enduring innocence. "When I was a few years older than you, some men attacked our village. My mother and the others didn’t want to fight either. She told me to hide."
"You ran too?" Marti wrapped her arms around Xena’s waist and gave a squeeze of reassurance.
Xena lightly kissed the top of Marti’s head. "No, not that time. I was big enough to fight back. I talked others into fighting with me. We defeated the men. I decided to keep on making sure nobody else hurt us. I grew up fast, but inside was still an angry child who wouldn’t listen to anyone wiser."
Marti felt something drip onto her scalp. Puzzled, she pushed back to look up at their makeshift roof. "Xena?" She touched the warrior’s impassive face, stunned to feel wetness escaping from the tightly clenched lids. "Xena, that’s not so bad. Lots of kids don’t listen to their parents. Please don’t cry."
Xena opened her eyes. "That’s not it. I became no better than the men who attacked your family and mine," she admitted tightly. "Someone who picked on the weak and frightened. I ran off to be with bad people rather than face the good person I’d left behind. That wasn’t especially strong or brave, was it?"
Marti slid off the silently waiting warrior’s lap. She sat hunched over for a long moment. "At least you did something," she finally mumbled. "I’d rather be like you than me."
"No!" Xena grabbed the girl’s shoulders. "Your parents died wanting you to carry on for them. You did! They trusted that somehow you’d survive. You have! They hoped you’d grow into someone they’d be proud of. You are! Honey, there are so many ways to run away. You left something you couldn’t change no matter how hard you tried." Xena shook her head in disgust. "But to run away from the best inside yourself …. That’s the worst way there is."
The two held each other’s eyes – the blue ones filled with pained honesty and self-loathing, the hazel ones searching for confirmation that both of them would be all right.
Xena let Marti go and rested her hands in her lap. "Well," the warrior said with a small smile. "You said you wanted to talk. Boy, did we ever."
"Yeah." Marti took in a deep breath and blew it out. "We sure did." She peered up at Xena. "Feel any better?"
Xena’s head jerked in surprise. "What?"
"I feel a little better. Do you?"
"Uh …. Well …."
"I mean, you do know you still have it, right?"
"That good you said you ran away from. You know, like you see in me and say Ma sees in me. Maybe you were bad, but you sure are brave and strong now. I see it. I bet Gabrielle does too. Do you?" Marti waited with an expression of absolute trust.
Xena stared at the girl, realizing she’d been trapped by her own comforting words, trying to recall at what point Marti actually had turned into the adult. She started laughing. "Don’t worry," she said as the girl’s mouth began to pucker. "This time I’m laughing at myself."
"Same thing," Marti stated, not smiling. "If you’re laughing at you, you’re laughing at me too."
Xena’s mouth dropped open. "Gods!" she thought to herself. "Boy, am I outclassed here." She cleared her throat, assuming a serious expression. "Sorry. To answer your question – yes, Gabrielle sees it. And yes, I do feel a little better, since you see it too."
"Good." Marti gave Xena a maternal nod. "Glad we got that settled."
They both nearly banged their heads on the wood above them as successive waves of thunder boomed.
"Wow," Marti said. "Almost forgot about that." She crawled over to peek out the front of their lean-to. "Xena, look!" Lightning flashed like streams of ribbon thrown against the black sky, some appearing to touch the earth. "Will we be okay?"
Xena frowned. "Yeah, should be." She slid anything metal up under their blankets, just to be sure. "Good thing we don’t need rescuing," she added dryly.
Marti scooted back. "Okay, so now what do we do? It’s too dark to play the ‘X&O’ game. Know any good stories?"
"Do I?" Xena laughed. "Comedy? Adventure? Romance? Action? Heh – more drama? What’s your pleasure?"
"How `bout one where Gabrielle becomes a warrior? It’s got Amazons in it, and Centaurs."
"Mm, don’t know about that," Xena said, chuckling. "It’s not one of my favorites. As a matter of fact, since you’re so good at these sensitive chats, maybe you can help me like it better."
"You mean the Centaur part? I’ve heard Ma and them say –."
"No, I mean the ‘Gabrielle becomes a warrior’ part."
The two figures sprawled comfortably in the early morning sun. The larger one leaned over the edge of their blanket, staring indecisively at one of several boxlike figures drawn in the dirt and crossed with vertical and horizontal lines. Suddenly she grinned malevolently, apparently having dismissed any hesitations.
"Xena wins again," she chortled, dragging a stick through a diagonal row of "Xs."
"Xeeenaaa!" Marti rolled to her back and crossed her arms over her chest in a huff. "I was thinking maybe you weren’t such a bad person after all. Ha!"
"Hey, you’re the one claiming to be such a champion at this," Xena reminded, not in the least repentant. "`You go first, Xena,’" the warrior mimicked in a high-pitched voice. "`Wouldn’t wanna take advantage of you – you being so gnarly and decrepit and all.’"
"Nuh uh. I said maybe you hadn’t played it in awhile, since you are tons of years older than me."
Marti grinned malevolently. "Yeah, guess it is." Her head jerked toward the hillside of the clearing. "Xena!" she whispered, crawling over to get Xena’s sword. "Someone’s coming!"
"Uh huh." Xena glanced at the sword but didn’t take it. "As noisy as they are, I doubt we have much to worry about." She stretched out, head propped on her hand, staring calmly at the spot where their visitors should emerge. "Patience, my friend. Patience."
Soon a small body crashed through the bushes. "Marti! Xena!" Hannah slowed her pace at the sight of her two friends lying on the blanket. "You okay?" she asked uncertainly.
"Sure thing," Marti responded, hopping up. "Why wouldn’t we be?"
"Oh, you had me so worried!" Hannah continued her sprint toward a bemused Marti. The older girl waited smugly for the hug she’d pretend to hunch away from. To her surprise, Hannah punched her in the shoulder instead. "That’s for your dumb ideas, you old … old … troublemaker!" she sputtered. She punched Marti’s other shoulder. "And that’s for causing all that thunder and lightning that kept us away."
Xena watched this scene with great amusement. She sat up. "Wanna piece a me too, while you’re at it?" she asked, offering Hannah her shoulder.
"Xena!" Hannah finally focused on the warrior. "I’m sorry." She came over to hug her older friend. "I’m happy to see you too."
Xena returned the embrace, keeping her eyes on the bushes. She smiled as she saw Gabrielle emerge. "Hey, stranger, `bout time you …." Her voice trailed off when a second woman appeared.
"Hi yourself!" Gabrielle made herself stroll casually toward the bigger of the two troublemakers, whom she’d missed more than she cared to admit. "I must say, you’re looking better than when I left." She patted Xena on the head, then dropped down to examine the problem ankle. "Can’t see much through the wrapping, but the area doesn’t look too red or puffy. Nice job of nursing," she said, looking at Marti.
Xena ignored Gabrielle’s head pat, except for an obligatory scowl, and kept her eyes on their new auburn-haired guest. The woman gave the warrior the once-over before focusing on Marti. She folded her arms and tapped her foot.
"Marti, get your little behind over here. Now."
"Uh oh," Marti muttered. "Nice knowin’ ya, Xena." She walked resignedly over to accept her fate. To her surprise, she was gobbled up in a big bear hug.
"You had me so worried." The woman brushed the curls off Marti’s forehead. "I know you’re a big girl, but you’ll always be my baby too."
"Awww, Ma." Marti cut her eyes at Xena, as if to say, "See what I have to put up with?" But inside, the girl felt like a million dinars.
"Xena, I’d like to introduce you to Samma," Gabrielle said. "I guess you can tell her other daughter is Hannah."
Samma gazed at the warrior over Marti’s head. "Xena. I knew of someone else by that name."
Marti and Hannah caught the strange tone in their mother’s voice. They saw Xena nod wordlessly, while, like them, Gabrielle stood quietly shifting her eyes from one woman to the other.
"Gabrielle told me I probably had you confused with that person," Samma continued. She glanced down at Marti, then over to Hannah. "I see she was right. Thank you for taking such good care of my daughter."
Xena let out a breath. "No, you’re mistaken." She smiled at Samma’s frown. "I should be thanking you. Believe me, your daughter did more taking care of me, than the other way around."
Samma finally let a smile reveal how pleasant her features actually were. "Yes, I believe that. She can be quite the little mother. She’s like my right hand. I have to remind myself sometimes to let her be. Fun isn’t always bad for you."
Marti and Hannah exchanged glances. They weren’t sure what had gotten into their mother, but they hoped it stayed.
Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Well, now that we’ve all gotten reacquainted, how about we take a load off?" She settled next to Xena. "The rescue party can fill you in on the plan."
"Rescue party?!" Marti said indignantly, coming over with Samma to sit across from Xena and Gabrielle. "We were doing fine on our own, weren’t we Xena?"
"Yeah, we can see that," Hannah giggled. She pointed at the dozen or so "X&O" games marked off in the dirt.
Gabrielle noted that all but one game had been won by the "X" player. She shook her head disapprovingly. "Xena, must you always be so competitive?"
"I was provoked. I let her win one, didn’t I?"
"Oooo, that reminds me!" Hannah plumped to the ground excitedly. "You two missed the real action. It was awesome, huh, Ma."
"Yes," Samma concurred, "I’ve never seen anything like it."
"What? All that lightning? Pffft." Marti gestured proudly toward their shelter. "We were right in the middle of it."
"No, no. I mean the attack on the wagons! See, we’d been inside the wagons for a long time. I was praying and praying the rain would stop. Ma was mad `cause she said I was fidgeting too much, but there wasn’t – ."
"Attack?" Xena interrupted, stiffening. "What kind of attack?"
Samma described how the rain had indeed let up the previous evening, apparently enough for a small band of robbers to resume their travels. Gabrielle had seen them approaching on foot and warned everyone to prepare for trouble. Samma said her neighbors defended themselves with cooking utensils and hammers, but that Gabrielle clobbered most of the robbers with her staff.
"She chased all of `em away but one," Hannah piped up. "And that’s when she did it."
"It?" Marti and Xena asked simultaneously.
Xena looked to Gabrielle for an explanation, but the latter was too preoccupied blowing on her fingernails and smugly polishing them against her chest. Samma seemed confused herself. Finally, the warrior joined Marti in staring at Hannah with exaggerated patience.
"You mean you don’t know?" Hannah regarded the two darker-haired listeners as though they must not be very bright. "The flip, you sillies! She did the flip just like Xena. Um, except for the … um … creative part at the end."
That evening, Gabrielle and Xena lay on their bedrolls just outside a rather sturdy – if makeshift – shelter. Samma’s group had managed to get a wagon fairly close to the clearing, then carried their building supplies the rest of the way. The party consisted of two each of men, women and children. Marti, initially miffed her lean-to wasn’t deemed good enough, soon found herself otherwise distracted – recounting her adventures as the unexpected "hero" of her recent saga. She decided she rather liked that role.
Gabrielle had rightly assumed Xena would rather recuperate at their campsite, so the neighbors had also brought herbs, food and a few other items the two campers might need. They’d stayed until a couple of hours before sunset. Much of that time was spent listening raptly to Gabrielle’s stories about a certain warrior who took on gods, bad guys and babies for the greater good. Marti seemed particularly interested. She cut her eyes at Xena a few times, once whispering, "I see you left out a few things."
Marti and Hannah bid their new friends goodbye with sadness and big hugs. Their caravan would be leaving the next day. Xena had to promise to check every market in the area if she and Gabrielle came that way again. Samma said she’d be proud to add them to her extended family.
As the party left, Marti had trailed a little behind. She grinned broadly when her final glance back revealed Xena standing with her crutch, waving, then devilishly marking a big "X" in the air with her finger.
"I still don’t see why they bothered building that thing," Xena groused into the quiet she’d welcomed as they prepared to turn in. "It’s not like I’m an invalid."
"They predicted more rain. They wanted to make sure you were comfortable while you’re laid up. What’s wrong with that?"
"You’d know, if you’d had your head patted as much as I have and been taken to the bushes by a 12-year-old."
"Awwww," Gabrielle said, patting Xena’s head. "Is um feewing wike a baby?"
"Why? Wanna change my diaper?"
Gabrielle snorted. She narrowed her eyes at her deadpan companion. "You’re not serious. You didn’t have an accident, did you? Even you aren’t that proud."
"Heh. Certainly not after a day with Major Marti. And I’m quite capable of making bush trips on my own, thank you very much."
"Sorry, but after that little fiasco with the flip …." Gabrielle giggled, rolling quickly away from the evil long fingers threatening to put the pinch on her. "Now, now, Xena, no need to be overly sensitive." She snickered. "It’s not like your lesson was a failure. Of course, I am a fast learner."
Xena decided pursuing her tormentor wasn’t worth tormenting her ankle. She withdrew her threatening fingers, got comfortable on her good side and propped her head on her hand. "So you really did it, huh?"
"Yup." Gabrielle crawled cautiously back. "Wanna hear about it?" She sat on the end of her bedroll, relaxed but vigilant.
"By all means," Xena drawled, relaxed but projecting sufficient mischief to replace physical payback with psychological.
Gabrielle pulled her legs up and wrapped her arms around them. "You know what’s funny? I didn’t really think about it. Up until then, I’d been focusing on what Eponin taught me. I got two of `em with the cross-hand upward sweep and two with low sweeps to the legs." She leaned forward excitedly.
"The last guy was the biggest. He tried to jump me before I could recover. He grabbed the staff. It was like my legs had their own memory of what you said and did. Next thing I knew, I was hurtling over him. I landed…" – she paused to grin – "fine. I whacked him good on the head, but not so hard that he couldn’t stumble away."
Xena nodded knowingly. "Felt good, huh."
Gabrielle tilted her head in thought. "Yeah," she acknowledged. "It did. I got a … rush. A thrill. My heart was pounding, my blood pumping, my nerves tingling. Not so much from beating him, but because I surprised myself with something I hadn’t expected to do." She gave Xena an appreciative smile. "I think I understand now why you get such a kick out of being creative."
"I don’t have much patience with words. You do," Xena quietly pointed out.
Gabrielle scooted next to the warrior. "Xena, I’m discovering I like and am even good at physical stuff. Not ordinary things like farming or walking, but moves that take skill. Moves that can save people if necessary." She lightly laid her hand on Xena’s bad leg. "I still like using words before it’s too late, or to make sense of what happened after, but it’s great that I can also take action in the middle."
"Yeah, I know." Xena sighed. "It’s just …. The `before’ and `after’ are important. The world needs more people like that, not more people like me."
"Don’t worry," Gabrielle reassured her concerned friend. "I’m not about to give that up, just because I can do staff flips. I’m not sure how good of a bard I’d be, but I still want to give that a whirl if I can."
Xena nodded. "You deserve the chance. Don’t get me wrong," she said softly, "I kinda like having you around, if only so I can … do this!" she growled, suddenly snaring the no longer vigilant Gabrielle and poising clawed fingers at her companion’s throat.
"Xeenaaa!" Gabrielle squeaked out, frozen in uncertainty, not at all reassured by the warrior’s bared-teeth version of her usually reassuring "I’ve gotcha now" grin.
Xena smirked with deep satisfaction at being able to exact this small revenge. She backed off. "Better be glad I’ve been reduced to geriatric mode, Your Highness Let My Guard Down Too Soon. Your career as an Amazon Princess won’t last too long if you keep that up."
"Humph!" Gabrielle made a show of straightening her hair and clothes, pretending Xena hadn’t nearly scared her half to death. "I didn’t want you to hurt yourself any more. Besides, nobody else could get the drop on me like that."
"That’s the thing about friends," Xena lightly reminded. "They can get to you when you least expect it." She settled back on her bedroll with a smug grin.
Gabrielle’s eyes rolled up at the warrior’s proclivity for seeing the underside of just about anything.
"Interesting you should say that. I had a conversation about friendship with Hannah. She’d picked a gigantic oak for us to take shelter under during the storm. Brought to mind a comment one of my dear acquaintances made about the strongest trees in the forest standing alone."
Xena lay with her eyes closed, humming under her breath, acting as if completely unaware of the green eyes boring into her.
"We passed that oak on our way back. It was still there all right, still majestic, still ruler of its own considerable space."
Xena rolled her head Gabrielle’s way long enough to spare her a "told ya so" glance.
"Very impressive roots too. Bigger than I am tall. I know this because it was lying on the ground."
Xena stopped humming. When she rolled her head Gabrielle’s way this time, the blue eyes were attentive.
"Yep. Lightning bolt must’ve decided to teach it a thing or two. Snatched it up, slammed it down and splintered a few branches for good measure. Didn’t touch a thing around it. Hannah felt sad that something so terrible could’ve happened to her `strongest tree.’ I did too."
Xena turned her head to gaze up at the sky. "It may surprise you to know that Marti and I had a couple of sensitive chats ourselves."
"I’ll bet." Gabrielle snickered. "Deciding which made the more noble sacrifice – the fish or the worm?"
Xena scowled at her insufferable companion before resuming her contemplation of the stars. "Actually, we talked about children," she said quietly. "How they can act like grown-ups when they’re little and like babies when they should be old enough to know better."
"Oh." Gabrielle leaned toward her companion, sensing which children Marti and Xena might have been talking about. "Did she say …. Did you learn anything …."
"In particular?" Xena let out a long breath. "No. Just that her parents were killed by marauders. She was under the bed when it happened." Xena swallowed. "She saw the bodies after. She was on her own for awhile before Samma took her in."
"Samma said Marti never talked about it." Gabrielle reached over to brush Xena’s arm. "From the looks of things, it did her good to finally get it out."
"Mm." Xena snorted softly. "After awhile, I wasn’t sure who was comforting who."
Gabrielle casually pulled her bedroll closer to the warrior and lay down. "Kinda redeems the reputation of storms and bad ankles."
"Yeah, funny how things work out sometimes." The warrior rolled to face her young friend. "If I were you, I’d be more careful about the people I associate with."
"Oh?" Gabrielle propped up on her elbow. "You think Hannah has a dark side?"
"I mean whoever came up with that `strongest tree stands alone’ line. Anybody with sense knows even the best need good backup. Going solo can make you a lightning rod for all sorts of trouble, especially if you stand out too much anyway."
"Really." Gabrielle regarded her companion with a mixture of pleasant surprise and amusement. "You saying my dear acquaintance didn’t know what she was talking about?"
Xena narrowed her eyes. "Possibly. In that one instance out of the many when she does."
"That maybe a couple of `shortie’ trees might not be so useless after all, if they happen to be in close proximity to a big tree? Maybe help brace it if it starts leaning too much? Be a buffer against the wind? Take some of the heat if –."
"Let’s not get carried away." Xena shifted to her back. "At least Marti knew when to quit," she muttered.
"I’m only trying to understand. Better I should listen to you, as opposed to associates who may not know what they’re talking about, right?"
"You know, I’m beginning to think your `associate’ wasn’t so dumb after all," Xena said testily. "Those `shortie’ trees can be real trouble when they get too cocky."
"Oh yeah? Well, those big old trees cause their share of trouble too." Gabrielle plopped back down. "Especially when they’re trying to prove how much stronger they are than a more understatedly durable and willowy youthful shortie tree."
"I was doing no such thing."
The combatants glared at each other, neither able to continue without laughing away her advantage.
"Tie, truce, standoff – whatever floats your boat." Xena closed her eyes.
"We both win?"
"Yesss. Now go to sleep."
Gabrielle lay quietly before suddenly popping back up.
"Heh. So, you could say the moral is, if the big tree and the shortie tree stand together, they come out even in the end?"
Xena groaned. She mumbled something unintelligible and tried to turn her back to her chatty companion. "Arrrrgh! Damn ankle," she cursed, quickly lying flat again, having forgotten the limitations on her usual forms of escape.
"Try rolling this way. I’ll make sure no lightning strikes you." Gabrielle lay down facing the warrior expectantly.
"Too late," Xena declared, sighing heavily, settling on her good side. She gazed fondly with a wry smile at the force of nature across from her. "Looks like it already has."
Author’s note: I am fortunate to live in a big city with wonderful parks, one right across the street from my home. It features a mini-forest bordered by lagoons and replete with wild birds and flowers. I love walking among the trees, searching out new paths, imagining Xena and Gabrielle adventuring with me.
I returned from a trip to discover I would have to climb over massive old trees uprooted and splintered during an extraordinary lightning storm. As dusk fell, my "wooded isle" became a gloomy scene of carnage made eerily beautiful by the fireflies keeping vigil. My mind flashed back to Xena’s early comment about "the strongest tree." I felt as though in the midst of a story that needed telling by a certain warrior and her bard.
All my XWP stories have been inspired by questions or insights about the series itself. I suppose this one was too. Yet it is a tribute in a special way because it impressed upon me the strong personal connection I have with the characters apart from the show – a connection I’ll probably feel at the most mundane times and places for the rest of my life. -- IQ
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