Xena sheathed her sword behind her knowing that if either of the prisoners made a threatening move her reflexes would be fast enough to stop any further movement from them. She glanced at Gabrielle to make sure she had not taken any injuries. Xena nodded to the others that were watching her and the prisoners with the same wary eye.
Weapons, prisoners and the fallen were quickly attended to. Xena noted with approval that the merchants seemed to be well organized for everyone moved with purpose without duplicating another’s efforts to access damages and to put things back in order for the resumption of their journey.
A merchant approached the most unlikely looking couple, the grim tall dark leather clad warrior and the shorter reddish blond haired woman, with an open and engaging smile. In fact the younger woman was the most unlikely looking woman to be dressed as an Amazon and carrying a staff that she proved was not for show.
“My name’s Callirhoe. We’re from Lacus about a day’s walk from the south. We want to thank you…” She let her nod fill in the unspoken request for their names, though by her look she already knew.
Callirhoe was an older woman whose carriage spoke of authority. She wore trews beneath the tunic that fell below her knees with slits for easy movement on the sides. The coloring of her clothing could easily blend in with the woods about them. Her boots, though covered with dirt from the road looked well made and comfortable, with her pants tucked neatly into them. She wore a sheath at either side of her waist for her sword and dagger.
“I’m Gabrielle from Potideia and this is Xena from…”
“The Warrior Princess. I thought I recognized you two.” She smiled widely. “We’ve heard plenty of stories about your kindness in helping out those who need it.” Callirihoe’s warm brown eyes changed quickly as she half turned to the sound behind her. One of the guards was pushing a wheel that was loose back into place. Her eyes narrowed,
“Claudius! Don’t force it at that angle! It will weaken the packing in the hub. Pylus, don’t just stand there and watch. Give him a hand.”
Callirhoe turned back to the pair standing before her. “Well, I am very honored to meet you both. I’m sorry it’s not in a place where I can buy you both a meal and a drink and listen to some entertaining stories, but I’m not going to complain, for I would rather you be here now than later.”
“Right.” Xena briskly scanned the group, distracted with trying to figure out how to get them safely to their destination and at the same time make it to meet with Hercules by the next new moon, which was two nights away.
Gabrielle was pleased that Xena’s reputation was honorable in this woman’s eyes and a little embarrassed that her glance included both of them when she mentioned helping people out. She enjoyed helping people but was more comfortable receiving praise for her stories. The warrior princess and she had an amicable agreement—hero stuff was Xena’s job, and writing about it was hers. She didn’t mind the arrangement, most of the times. It meant she got to go along on jobs Xena thought were too dangerous if for no other reason than to write about it. Gabrielle was realistic that fighting in the middle of a bloody battle was not within her metal. She would get too sick with the carnage happening around her. But if it meant protecting Xena’s back while taking mental notes on the less violent aspects of the battle, she insisted on participating.
“What are we going to do with them?” One of the other merchants asked as she held her bloody arm across her ample bosom. “We can’t take them with us. We’re down too many guards to watch them, plus we still have to care for our injured and watch for more of their kind.”
Xena regarded the captives for a moment. “Why don’t we first get the injured cared for.” Xena pulled some leather strips that were dangling from one of the carts and tossed them to one of the guards that looked the healthiest. He caught them and handed some to a young merchant’s apprentice, who then busied themselves tying up the still unconscious attackers.
Xena turned to Argo whose reins Gabrielle had gathered. They both exchanged glances and in a well practiced routine Xena pulled her healer’s bag out from their packs behind Argo’s saddle and begin making her rounds to the injured. Four of the merchant’s guards were injured and one had perished, she noted. Three of the robbers were dead and two seriously injured, leaving four alive, though unconscious. Three had ridden away with the loose horses.
“Are you going to Taltos?” Xena asked Callirhoe, who was following her and Gabrielle along and doing her own inventorying. Callirhoe had her own medicine bag with her but didn’t offer the warrior any advice understanding her efficiency in assessing and taking care of the injured exceeded her own abilities.
Gabrielle held the ends of the skin together while Xena made small and neat stitches on the unconscious guard’s leg. Callirhoe watched the pair as Xena finished her part Gabrielle had a powder and some cloth ready to dab and bind the wound up. Callirhoe was thinking how this was giving her a better appreciation of the stories the wandering bards told. In her town both the ugly and the new stories of the Warrior Princess were told with equal relish. This experience was going to change her preference, she thought smiling to herself.
“Yes. The celebrations and festival to Fauna starts in four days. We were hoping to beat the bad weather by starting out early”
Xena nodded for she had noticed the dark clouds that were about a day away, wrapped around the misty mountains. They were going to swing west themselves, thereby missing some of it.
“That’s a two days journey with all this stuff and the injured,” Xena estimated out loud. “You also have one lame horse that won’t be able to pull that cart.” She wished she had the chance to grab the stray horses before the bandit survivors ran off with them.
Xena carefully cleaned another cut above one of the merchant’s hip and decided it wasn’t deep enough to warrant stitching. She took the clean cloth Callirhoe handed her and dabbed a root powder on it that would coagulate the slight blood flow, exchanging glances with Gabrielle. Xena could see that Gabrielle was waiting for her to make a decision.
“Doesn’t the prince send out patrols during festival times to protect the roads?” Xena asked as she got up and moved to the next injured member of the caravan.
“Yes. But we won’t be in the area of his protection until we’re a day outside of Taltos,” Callirhoe said, wondering if their luck would hold and they would get Xena’s fabled protection till they reached Taltos.
“I’ve got too much invested to go back.” Xena’s injured patient muttered to Callirhoe, gritting his teeth when she pushed against the seeping cut.
“We’ll accompany you to the prince’s roads then see how safe it is. Argo can pull the cart in place of the injured mare,” Xena offered curtly. She rose and looked around for her next patient.
Gabrielle could see in Xena’s eyes the torn look of conflicting responsibilities. Xena wouldn’t let the merchants travel in their present condition without some sort of protection, and yet, Hercules message stressed urgency.
Gabrielle moved to Xena’s side. She resisted putting a comforting hand on her arm, which would only distract them both. Instead she touched her elbow to Xena’s arm to get her attention. “Hey,” she said softly. “I’m sure Argo and I can get by.” She hesitated a moment then closed her mind to all the things that seem to happen when she didn’t have Xena close by, “It’s only for a few days. Why don’t you go ahead and meet with Hercules? We’ll catch up with you in Petoli,” Gabrielle offered.
Xena looked at Gabrielle. It was an option that crossed her mind, but she didn’t want to take it. It meant both Argo and Gabrielle would be traveling in another direction. And what were the chances of the group being attacked again? She wasn’t going to put Gabrielle in any danger that could be avoided. Xena knew Gabrielle would offer herself up rather than delay something she felt was important, even if she was going to be miserable.
“Xena, I can handle myself fine,” she insisted, reading in the impassive face what others could not. “I mean, when word gets out that the great Warrior Princess and her partner are traveling on the road to the festival, who’s going to be crazy enough to set up a raid? Besides, by tomorrow there should be crowds on this road, so the odds of another group of raiders meeting up with us are pretty low.”
Gabrielle suddenly grinned. “And Argo and I can use this opportunity to do more of this bonding thing you keep saying we need.”
Xena didn’t want to point out to the Bard that when she fitted into those odds it would more than likely go towards another attack. Xena shut her doubts down. Gabrielle believed in positive thinking. Okay, she told herself, she needed to have more faith in Gabrielle’s instincts. Right.
“Bonding? This is not what I had in mind, Gabrielle,” she drawled.
Gabrielle lightly grabbed her friend’s leathered wrist and put pressure on it. “Hey. Didn’t you tell me the other day that you thought I could take care of myself well enough that you wouldn’t have to worry about me? Huh?”
Xena was stuck. She had said something to that effect when Gabrielle had passed another test to see how aware she was of what was going on around her. Xena had meant it at the time, but she wasn’t expecting to field test her so soon and without her being nearby to make sure no one got hurt. Xena watched the merchants and guards going about their business to get ready to resume their journey.
“The sooner you get going the sooner you can see what Hercules wants,” Gabrielle encouraged her, patting her confidently on her arm.
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t worry about you,” Xena quietly clarified. “I said you would be able to stay out of serious trouble, at least until I returned.” Xena’s eyes returned to Gabrielle’s smiling face.
This had been a sore point for both women for a while. Xena had found that leaving Gabrielle safely ensconced in an inn while she took care of problems that she felt were too dangerous to take her into, was more nerve racking than taking her along. It seemed, no matter how safe she left Gabrielle, trouble found her. Then there was having to face Gabrielle’s hurt feelings of being left behind. The compromise was that Xena taught her survival skills that would at least give her an edge over the more serious drunks, criminals with more than petty crimes on their minds, and attempts at kidnapping her for one reason or another.
Xena studied her hands that had blood on them. She sighed softly. Gabrielle would be reasonably safe and Argo would be with her, she tried to reassure herself. Both were very close to her heart, though it wasn’t Argo she was worried about. Argo wasn’t a magnet for trouble and her hurt feelings at being left behind only once created a slight problem. It also only took a few apples for Argo to forgive her. Apples didn’t work as well with Gabrielle.
“Right.” Xena took the cloth to wipe her hands from Gabrielle. She then turned around and walked over to Argo, probably to break the bad news to her, was Gabrielle’s guess. However, Xena was telling her to keep Gabrielle out of trouble for a nice reward of a few extra green apples, her favorite.
It took two candle marks to get the merchants ready to move again. There were carts to repack and fix. The injured were set atop the repacked carts, the prisoners that could walk had been tied securely behind some of the carts. Argo was relieved of her tack only to be replaced with the cart harness. Xena talked consolingly to Argo as she harnessed her to the cart. Argo’s tack and what Xena was not going to carry was stored on the cart she was volunteered to pull.
“There’s an inn called the Pelican’s Cry,” Xena spoke to Gabrielle in a low voice as she patted Argo’s neck. “I will leave word with the innkeeper if I’m not there when you get there. He has a scar on his chin right here.” Xena traced a line from her left ear to her chin with her thumb nail. “Goes by the name of Tobias the Red.”
Xena watched Gabrielle’s eyes as she was struggling to look cheerful. Xena touched her arm briefly as she picked up her water bag. She adjusted her scabbard in its familiar place on her back after she added the water bag to her shoulder. Gabrielle handed her a small pouch of food she could carry around her waist.
“I’ll come back for you two if it’s something quick. I’ll come along the merchant’s road, so don’t get any ideas of taking short cuts,” Xena warned, knowing all too well what dangers would await a woman wandering alone in the woods. “Try to travel with a group, if you can.”
“Another one of your old war buddies?” Gabrielle asked, referring to the man in the inn. She cocked her head to one side hoping Xena didn’t see her unhappiness. Volunteering to be left behind made this parting only a little less difficult than if Xena had asked her to remain. She was finding their partings more difficult and though she generally could feel when something was wrong with Xena, she still would rather be there next to her when things happened.
“No. One of Hercules’ friends,” Xena returned with a small smile. Xena caught the small droop in the shoulders and the less than usual energetic nod of Gabrielle’s head. She rested a comforting hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. Gabrielle could feel the warmth from the hand and the gentle pressure from the fingertips that curled momentarily on her shoulder. Gabrielle looked up into thoughtful blue eyes and grinned.
Gabrielle believed good byes in public were very difficult for the stoic faced Warrior because her life often depended on her intimidating faćade and she was determined to not undermine it especially when it was really her own cheerful faćade she was trying to maintain. Xena pulled Gabrielle into her for a hug that lasted more than a few heartbeats. That ruined Gabrielle’s mask, as her cheek rested against the armor swirls on the top of Xena’s leathers.
“I don’t have to tell you to stay out of trouble,” Xena whispered in Gabrielle’s ear. “But for my own peace of mind, please stay out of trouble.”
“And you, please be careful.” Gabrielle managed to whisper as she held back her fears. When Hercules called for help it was usually something very dangerous. She couldn’t help thinking about how she was not going to be there to make sure Xena’s back was protected, though she had faith in Hercules and his feelings for Xena’s safety.
It was just before noon when Xena left the group. She had been careful not to be over protective of Gabrielle and at the same time give her pointers on what to keep her eyes out for, which Gabrielle appreciated. Gabrielle watched her dark clad figure disappear into the woods knowing she would cover more ground before dark than what they would have had, had she been along. Though Xena preached against her taking short cuts Gabrielle knew she would be taking all the ones she could.
Gabrielle took her place at the end of the line of heavily laden carts, next to the cart Argo was pulling. It’s previous beast walked behind with a slight limp. The owner was nursing one of the guards that was seriously injured and sat atop of his goods with a good view of the surrounding landscape. Gabrielle was relieved that everyone that was conscious had the sense to be alert. She patted Argo on her neck and offered some consoling remarks about her plight, while scanning the surrounding area with a picture of Xena in her mind’s eye. A grin was on her face at the thought of Xena loving the opportunity to run like the wind. In her mind she pictured Xena’s progress over the ground and, she bit back a giggle, through the trees, more comfortable with the travel than an Amazon. The dreamy vision of Xena’s progress to Petoli made Gabrielle’s day easier. The dark clouds that promised rain they left behind.
They made camp after dusk. The merchants knew the area well and from the look of the site picked, so did others. It was annoying to come back over the same road Xena and she had taken earlier and knowing it was taking her further away from what had been their destination. Gabrielle helped set up camp then went around with Callirhoe and checked injuries trying to keep her mind on the present.
Since Gabrielle was one of the few uninjured she took first shift at guard duty, which was good because she found she couldn’t sleep thinking about Xena’s probable continuation of travel without sleep. Gabrielle knew that when she wasn’t around to get Xena to relax she pushed herself without mercy.
Gabrielle found a tree far enough away from the camp to be able to listen to the night’s sounds without the sounds from the camp overlapping. She was grateful for Xena’s lessons in sitting watch for they did come in handy when Gabrielle felt herself ready to doze. Right. Stay focused on the night sounds was one of her suggestions. The problem here was that the night crickets were singing her to sleep.
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