Disclaimer, Xena isn't mine, nor is her world. This little story is written in one day's time for the bard's challenge by Kam. I hope you like it. It's not beta'd at all.
Feedback is encouraged. Let me know what you think. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Caution: You might not want to be eating while you read this story.
The town came into view as the two travelers exited the mist of the early evening. Rains had freshened the air, but as they neared the village the air was very still and thick. The horse hesitated behind its mistress. The dark haired woman stopped and patted the muzzle, reassuring and hoping to soothe the animal's misgivings.
"It's okay girl, there's a village up ahead, and we can get that leg looked at," Xena said. The horse whickered and slowly started walking again. Argo had developed a slight limp on the outskirts of the village. Xena became alarmed. She usually read the animal and her sudden lameness worried her.
As they approached the town they saw an old sign hanging limply from between two rotting posts. Xena took a quick look at her traveling companion. Gabrielle kept looking back and forth, and she turned and walked backwards a few paces. White knuckles gripped her staff and the muscles in her arms flexed and twitched. Taking short quick steps also told she was nervous.
"Xena, have you been here before?" the blonde haired girl asked. She was no more than nineteen seasons. Her firm body and defined muscles were evidence of her work defending innocents from vicious thugs and battling warlords. She absently wiped a blonde lock away from her eyes and watched for Xena's reply.
"No, I haven't been this far north either," Xena answered. She put her hand on Gabrielle's elbow and gently squeezed. "It's okay Gabrielle, it's just the elements and the age of the town that's got you so jumpy. Take it easy, okay?"
"Yea, I'm just getting some weird vibes here. Are you? Getting strange feelings, I mean?" Gabrielle said as she stepped on a dead limb, which cracked loudly, and nearly sent her into Xena's arms. Xena caught her and helped her get her balance.
"Yea, me too," Xena said. She put her arm across Gabrielle's shoulders and pulled her closer. She hoped that would make her friend feel better. Xena was in alert mode too. She kept all of her options flowing like a mantra in her thoughts. Her uneasiness wasn't from a warlord or an attacker. She didn't detect any person as a threat, but there was definitely something setting off her friend's alarms.
Gabrielle took Xena's hand and held it tightly.
They neared a paddock and barnyard. "I'm going to find out if there is an animal healer in town, okay? You want to go with me or check on getting us a hot meal?" Xena asked and hoped Gabrielle would go with her. She felt ill at ease and thought they should stay together. But, she wasn't going to verbalize it.
Gabrielle's stomach, near rebellion ruled for her. "I think I'll go to the inn over there and order our supper."
Xena hadn't noticed an inn.
Xena's gaze followed Gabrielle's finger and saw the inn. She nodded and Gabrielle left her. "Hello," she said to an empty barn. She waited and an old man hobbled through the middle of the barn. Her nose caught a distinct odor. Something along the lines of rotting fish. Xena shook her head but the stench became stronger.
"Hello young lady, can I be of assistance?" he asked his voice graveling and pitched high and low. The closer he came the greater the offensive aroma. He looked to be at least eighty seasons. Graying beard covered a tanned leather like face, and gray eyes hinted at a once brilliant blue.
"Yes, my horse needs to be seen by an animal healer," Xena tried holding her breath. "Is there such a person here?" Xena asked, wondering if she needed to speak loudly. She seemed to be adjusting because the odor didn't nauseate her as badly as before.
"No, I'm afraid my brother Dannaeus was the only healer in these parts. He left us two seasons ago. Is she hurt badly?" he asked with genuine concern.
"I don't think so, she just started limping on the outskirts of this village. I thought it'd be best to stop here after I noticed the horse favored her left forefoot. I checked to see if she had picked up a stone or had a loose shoe. There's nothing like that."
"Okay, what should we do next?" he asked and stroked the horse's neck. Argo was near mutiny; she jumped and reared.
Xena pulled her reins and tried to calm the animal. "What is it girl?"
The horse snorted in the old man's direction and he backed away from the golden mare. "She's a bit jumpy, huh?"
Xena got her to calm. She too, felt an odd sensation when the old man neared. Xena went to the horse's lame hoof and stooped. Bent at the knees Xena pulled the leg onto her lap. She searched for any rocks or bruises, she tugged on the shoe and it was tight. Still holding the left front hoof, Xena looked through her legs at the horse's four legs and wondered if the lameness was something far worse. Then she realized something odd, she was holding Argo's hoof on her bent lap; how could the horse have all four legs on the ground. She looked again and yes, there it was, she saw four legs on the ground and one in her lap. She let the hoof down easy and turned. Not sure what she would find, she looked at her animal and she saw four legs. Her eyes must be tired, and she shook her head.
The old man's eyes sparkled, and Xena, still unnerved by what she thought she saw, didn't realize he spoke to her. "I'm Gaseous, by the way."
"Xena," they clasped arms. The smell must have been something else because it was gone now. Xena told Gaseous, "My friend is getting us some supper, and I guess we'll be here for the night." Although the way the horse was acting she thought they might not, too.
"You okay?" he asked.
"Yeah," Xena answered and then added in a voice too low for the old man to hear. "I think."
Xena patted Argo and told her she'd pick her up in the morning. The horse didn't seem to like the idea and followed Xena. She turned to the mare and whispered that she'd be back to check on her after she ate. The horse still tried to follow. "Argo, I have to check on Gabrielle. Okay?"
The horse snorted and shook its head. Gaseous moved away from her and she calmed enough for Xena to latch the paddock gate.
Xena patted the horse and she seemed to be settling down. Xena waited until the horse began grazing, after a bit she didn't notice that Xena watched her eat. That's when Xena went to the inn. Gaseous walked with her.
"I think we're all tired," Xena thought to herself as she walked, and to Gaseous she said, "And hungry."
"The inn has good food. Just two meals though breakfast and supper. That's all," Gaseous chuckled. "My sister Willamina will be happy to have someone real to speak to. She's a talker and there hasn't been many travelers pass through here in a while."
"Thanks, my friend is a talker too," Xena said and felt dread creeping up her back. Talkers, she groaned. "Argo, I might just be eating in the barn."
The old man went to the left and Xena headed to the inn.
Gabrielle walked into the parlor. She was amazed at a long sparsely decorated hallway. There was a table and a candleholder with two of its five candles lit. Light fading from the sun's sinking cast eerily shaped shadows, which look like flickering abstract dancers across the floor. The walls thick paste covering peeled and left deep dark holes. The floorboards groaned and sounded like they broke with every step Gabrielle took. She subconsciously bounced on her toes to make sure the floor would hold her weight. She finally came to a bar that was used as a sign-in area for the inn. A dust-covered book was opened; an attached quill was dried and cracked, and so was the matching inkwell. A small mallet lay next to a little circle of wood; a sign said to tap the wood for attention. Gabrielle picked it up and held it a moment before she decided not to use it. She was sure it would shatter if she did.
An elderly woman walked up behind her and tapped her shoulder. Gabrielle jumped and sucked in a quick breath. The old woman laughed, "scared ya didn't I?"
"Y...yes, you did," Gabrielle laughed uneasily.
"You want somethin'?" the woman's voice, very similar to Gaseous, was graveling and even a bit grating on the nerves.
Gabrielle swallowed and cleared her throat, "yes, I n..needed to know if there were a p..place to get a hot meal...."
"Right here little girl, you're in the right place!" She cut Gabrielle off.
"Oh, th..thanks, uhm, my fr..friend will be here in a bit and we'd like to get some supper, and maybe a room." Gabrielle's tongue raced with her heart. She sighed loudly when Xena entered the inn. Gabrielle ran to Xena's side and got behind her. "Th..this is my friend, Xe..Xena."
Xena turned to look Gabrielle over she was acting very strangely. The old woman laughed; she walked over to the Warrior Princess and sized her up. You're a big un ain't cha, and ran a boney finger up Xena's spine. Xena hiccupped and whirled around to find the old lady pushing the decrepit sign-in book towards her. "Ya, gotta sign your names, and supper'll be ready in half a candlemark. We got plenty too. Heh Heh," she slipped out of the hallway and behind the bar. For such and old person she was remarkably agile.
Gabrielle looked at the woman and her skin seemed to slip over her face. The old woman grabbed her hair and pulled the skin back. Gabrielle poked Xena and motioned her head in the direction of the old woman. Xena looked at the woman and she smiled. Then Xena looked back at Gabrielle, and in a whisper, asked her what she was doing. Gabrielle smiled because the woman looked right at her. Xena then went back to the book, as she worked with trying to get the quill to work as Gabrielle watched the woman. The woman watched Xena closely and when she turned to Gabrielle, her ear fell off. Shocked, Gabrielle emitted a nervous laugh. The woman quickly clamped her hand over her ear when Xena suddenly looked at her again.
Gabrielle was beside herself. She started humming in a very low voice and kept her eyes averted. Xena still fought with the quill. She turned to ask Gabrielle for her quill when she noticed the bard was humming with her eyes closed.
"Gabrielle? You okay?" Xena asked alarmed.
"Hmm, hmm," Gabrielle opened her eyes and saw Xena's arched brow. "Yes?" she asked sweetly.
"What's wrong with you?" Xena asked.
"N..nothing, a..at aalll." Xena felt her friend's forehead. "Quit it." Gabrielle pushed Xena's hand away.
"Where is your quill?" Xena whispered.
"In the saddle bags," Gabrielle answered and then went back to her humming and closed her eyes.
Xena smiled at the old woman, she opened the saddlebags and the quill wasn't there. There was an oozing mass of goo that gurgled and bubbled. Xena dropped the bags. She grabbed Gabrielle. "What's in the bags?" she said loudly.
"What?" Gabrielle asked. She picked up the bag and Xena knocked it from her hands.
"What's wrong with you?" Gabrielle asked and quickly grabbed the bag and flipped it open. She reached in and brought out the quill. "Here!"
Xena smiled sheepishly. "Sorry." Xena then dipped the quill in the dried inkwell. She examined the tip and was becoming very annoyed with Gabrielle's incessant humming. She pinched her. "Quit it with the humming!"
Gabrielle said ouch and then absently noticed the woman's nose was missing. "Ack," she felt very ill. The woman rubbed her nose when Xena turned to her.
"Gabrielle?" Xena called her friends name.
"Xena," Gabrielle whispered, "Her nose fell off."
"What?" Xena said and turned to look. Gabrielle smacked her hand.
"Don't look!" Gabrielle said frantically. "Xena, I don't think I want to stay here."
"Just let me sign in, we'll ear, I mean, eat and go to bed, okay?" Xena said quietly, she was very tired.
"Okay, but I'm not looking at her anymore." Gabrielle closed her eyes.
Xena smiled at the woman and realized the ink was dry. She tapped Gabrielle's shoulder. "Do you have any ink?"
"In the saddle bags," Gabrielle said and then closed her eyes and hummed a different song.
Xena tentatively opened the bag, again with the black ooze. She dropped the bag and smiled at the woman. She knew the quill would be useless and she asked for the fees for the room.
"Two dinars a night, and one dinar more for supper and breakfast. Course if ya are broke, I'll put ya up, and feed ya anyway. I'm really quite nice," she laughed an evil laugh, as her face drooped and both ears dropped to the floor with the sound of two distinctive plops. The woman's hand went to both ears and her nose plummeted to the bar top. Gabrielle began to shake and gave Xena strickened look, she didn't know it, but Xena shivered too.
"We'll be going now," Xena said. Before the woman could say anything they were gone. Xena and Gabrielle ran out the door. Xena was going to get her horse, when she suddenly noticed the horse was waiting outside the building. Xena grabbed Argo's reins, Gabrielle's arm and raced down the road that had brought them to the inn. They didn't look back.
The old man stepped out in the road and was joined by the old woman. They watched until they could no longer see the Warrior Princess and the Amazon bard. They laughed out loud.
"You win," the old man said with Ares' voice.
"Told ya, I could scare the warrior and the bard," the old woman said with Aphrodite's voice. The laughed a bit longer and then disappeared in shiny blue sparkles.