If anyone has any questions, comments, or quibbles about this story (or my previous efforts) feel free to contact me at email@example.com I always like to hear from fellow Xena fans :)
Gabrielle crept quietly along the twisting forest trail, turning her head from side to side to take in her surroundings. She tried to use all her senses, as Xena had taught her. She could hear birds twittering, leaves rustling, and what sounded like the gentle murmur of a stream somewhere nearby. As the breeze shifted, the smell of fresh water came to her nose, confirming the stream wasn’t too far off. She studied the ground closely, looking for anything out of place. She knew Xena wouldn’t make it easy for her, but she wouldn’t make it impossible either.
Gabrielle was trying to follow Xena’s trail through the forest as part of her training in woodscraft. Xena liked to throw challenges at her (“Test Days”, as she called them) to gauge Gabrielle’s progress. Gabrielle had come to dread the tests, since no matter how well she thought she did, Xena always found room for improvement. Gabrielle knew Xena wasn’t trying to make her feel bad, she just wanted her young student to learn everything thoroughly. As Xena never stopped reminding her, it could save her life some day. At least today wasn’t a surprise test, which Gabrielle really hated. But Xena kept throwing them at her, deflecting her complaints by pointing out that bad guys don’t usually give advanced warning before they do something bad.
Gabrielle noticed some scratches near the base of a tree and knelt to examine them, leaning on her staff as she peered at the bark. Would Xena have left such an obvious clue? No, these marks were from a badger sharpening its claws. She stood and looked around again, trying to think like Xena. She saw a lone leaf in the dirt and walked over to pick it up. It was still green, so it hadn’t fallen too long ago. She looked up at the branch swaying over her head and wondered if Xena had taken to the trees to confuse her. She knew she couldn’t follow Xena there, but she might be able to figure out where the warrior had gone by checking the adjoining trees. She moved in a circle, alternately looking up at the trees and down at the ground. At the base of a large oak, she saw a tiny fleck of bark that had been scraped off a branch. She picked it up and stepped past the tree where she spied a scuff mark on a rock. She knelt, bringing her face close to the rock. She smelled the faintest hint of leather and smiled. She knew Xena was leaving these clues on purpose to give her a chance, but they were so subtle she still felt proud of herself for spotting them.
Gabrielle moved down toward the stream, searching for more clues. She stopped to drink at the stream’s edge and noticed a partial footprint under the slow-flowing water. She edged along the stream, looking for more prints under the water and was rewarded with another a few yards downstream. She wondered if Xena had followed the stream for a while, or if she’d simply crossed over it and this was meant to be a diversion. She decided to keep going downstream for a bit and if she didn’t pick up any more clues, she’d cross it and work her way back on the other side. She waded through the shallow water for a few minutes, trying to see if there were any more indications of Xena’s passage. She was so absorbed in her task, she almost missed the voices.
She froze, crouching by the bank of the stream and cocking her head to the side. Yes, definitely voices, not too far away. At first, she wondered if it was Xena talking to someone, but as far as she could tell all the voices were male. These woods were supposed to be uninhabited, which is why Xena had chosen them for their little exercise. Gabrielle thought about moving on, but decided she’d better at least see who was out there; for all she knew, this was part of the test and Xena would be disappointed if she didn’t come back with some information on these mysterious voices. Gabrielle crept forward, holding her staff so it wouldn’t brush against any trees and give her away. She tried to move at an angle to the voices, so she could observe them before they knew she was there. As the voices got louder, she could discern the words; it sounded like at least half a dozen men, and their conversation wasn’t all that pleasant.
Gabrielle eased up behind a clump of ferns and held her breath, looking into a small clearing in the forest. She saw a group of rough-looking men sprawled around the clearing, casting casual glances at a trio of dishevelled people manacled together. The men were passing around a wineskin and making bawdy comments about one of their prisoners, a girl who looked a few years younger than Gabrielle. The girl averted her tear-streaked face from the gaze of the roughnecks, while the other two prisoners, both older men, watched their captors sullenly. From their talk, Gabrielle gleaned that the men had kidnapped these unfortunates from a village across the river and were taking them to some hideout they had in the forest. They were evidently taking a break, but soon stood up and jerked the prisoners roughly to their feet.
Gabrielle wasn’t sure what to do. She had no idea where Xena was and by the time she found the elusive warrior, the prisoners could be hurt ... or worse. She couldn’t just start yelling for Xena without alerting the ruffians, but she couldn’t just walk away and leave the captives to their fate either. As she tried to make up her mind what to do, a stray thought flitted through her head: could this all be part of Xena’s test? She didn’t think Xena would go this far, but she had always warned Gabrielle to expect the unexpected, so maybe this was part of the test. Gabrielle wasn’t sure, but she knew she had to do something. She decided to follow the men and their captives; once she figured out where the hideout was, she could determine her best course of action.
The men were easy to follow, certainly much easier than Xena. They took little care to hide the sounds of their passage, so Gabrielle could stay out of sight and still track them. She made sure to leave her own bootprints in the dirt so she could find her way back later. Daylight faded and the forest thinned out a bit, forcing Gabrielle to be more careful so the ruffians wouldn’t hear her behind them. She was concentrating so intently on keeping the men within earshot and keeping herself out of sight, she didn’t even notice the seventh man until he was right beside her.
When the large figure loomed up from behind a tree, Gabrielle’s first thought was that Xena had found her, but she soon realized her mistake when she smelled rank leather and sour wine. Damn, the kidnappers must’ve had a rear guard watching their trail all along. She wondered how long he’d been behind her and cursed herself for not noticing; Xena would never have made that mistake. As the man yelled a warning to his comrades and reached out to grab her, Gabrielle’s fighting instincts took over and she whipped her staff across his face. He staggered back as the others ran to help. They soon found themselves being thoroughly trounced by the agitated bard, who spun her staff like a whirlwind, knocking the slavers back as quickly as they advanced. The thugs weren’t well-trained and Gabrielle probably could’ve handled them easily, but they didn’t play fair. One of them whistled to get her attention and she saw him holding a dagger to the throat of the captive girl. He ordered Gabrielle to surrender or he’d kill the girl and the other two helpless prisoners. Gabrielle had no choice, tossing her staff into the underbrush and allowing the men to manacle her hands.
Their leader wiped blood off his face and snarled at her. “Well, we got us a little hellion here, ain’t we? Where’d you learn to fight like that?”
Gabrielle stared at him and wondered if she should mention Xena. No, that might put them on the alert, or scare them into killing their prisoners and moving on. “I learned from the Amazons.”
That got a general round of laughter. “Oh, you’re an Amazon, are you? No wonder you’re dressed like a harlot.” He ran his hand across her cheek and she twisted away. “I think somebody needs to teach you some manners, little girl,” he said, grabbing her face in a painful grip. “But I wouldn’t want to damage that sweet face and get a lower price for you, so ...”
She knew what was coming and tightened her stomach muscles, trying to turn her body away from the blow as Xena had taught her. His fist crashed into her stomach and she bent over, gasping for breath. Since she was ready for it, the punch hadn’t hurt as much as she’d feared, but it was still painful. He grabbed her hair and dragged her upright and that hurt so much she didn’t have to fake the tears that came to her eyes. He shoved her in line with the others and marched them all off into the woods. Gabrielle glanced back over her shoulder, hoping Xena would miss her soon and come looking.
Xena moved through the forest quickly but without making a sound. She’d expected Gabrielle to find her on the far side of the stream without too much trouble, but the young bard hadn’t shown up and it was starting to get dark. Xena worried that something might’ve happened to her and fought down the fear that threatened to overwhelm her. After nearly losing Gabrielle in that healing temple in Thessaly, Xena had realized the girl meant more to her than she’d ever expected. Xena feelings for Gabrielle had gone beyond friendship or even family ... she’d fallen in love. Xena had sworn off loving anyone after all the heartbreaks she’d suffered, but Gabrielle had insinuated herself into Xena’s heart so gradually, she hadn’t known how deep her feelings ran until she almost lost the girl. Just the thought of losing her again was almost enough to paralyze the warrior with panic.
Xena took a few deep breaths to calm herself. Gabrielle had probably just gotten lost following the false trail Xena had laid along the stream. Or maybe she was hiding, hoping to ambush Xena when she came to look for her. Xena crossed the stream and walked along the bank, noting signs of Gabrielle’s passage. She’d laid a trail for the bard to follow before letting it peter out and making her way to the other side of the stream, making sure to leave a broken twig where she’d climbed out of the water. But Gabrielle had either missed that clue, or ... . Xena bent to examine the distinctive bootprints. Gabrielle had left the stream and gone further into the forest for some reason. Xena hurried along, wanting to keep on the trail while she could still see properly. She came to a small clearing and her blood ran cold. There were signs of at least six men, plus three others who, by the jumbled look to their prints, must’ve been chained together. Gabrielle’s prints overlaid the others and Xena realized the bard must’ve found someone in trouble and decided to go after them.
As Xena followed the tracks, she noticed another set of prints behind Gabrielle’s and swore to herself. Someone had been following the bard even as she’d followed the others. Sure enough, Xena found the signs of a struggle and her heart skipped a beat when she found Gabrielle’s staff in the bushes. The prints went on, with Gabrielle’s joining the others, but the fading light meant Xena had to wait until moonrise to continue tracking them. She hoped Gabrielle was all right and swore she’d make anyone who hurt her sorry.
Gabrielle studied the dismal structure where she and the others had been confined. The slavers had brought them to a clearing in the woods where an old farmhouse sat, its thatched roof long-since rotted away and its yard choked with weeds. The prisoners had been shoved into a small stone granary, a dark, dusty place that smelled like mouldy hay. There was nothing inside except some filthy blankets, a couple of stinking buckets, and a few odds and ends from a broken wagon that looked as if it’d been there since before Gabrielle was born. The place was dark, the only light coming through a small opening in the roof. Gabrielle was surprised to see half a dozen other prisoners already there, mostly women; by the looks of them, they’d been there a while and weren’t having an easy time of it.
Gabrielle examined the door, quickly concluding that it was too sturdy to be broken down. Xena could probably have done it, but she wasn’t there and Gabrielle knew she couldn’t afford to wait for rescue. She’d heard the men talking about having a “full load” and moving the prisoners out at sunrise the next day. That meant they had to get out before dawn, but Gabrielle found the others reluctant to even consider escape. They’d given up hope ... no matter how she tried to buoy their spirits, they’d resigned themselves to their fate. Gabrielle understood their fear, but couldn’t bring herself to share their pessimism. She knew Xena was out there somewhere and if she could get out and signal her somehow, these slavers would find themselves with more trouble than they’d ever bargained for.
Gabrielle looked up at the hole in the roof, about twenty feet over their heads. “Has anyone tried to get out that way?”
One of the women who’d been there when Gabrielle arrived glanced up at the hole. “How’re we supposed to get up there? We’re not squirrels.”
Gabrielle resisted the urge to snap at her. “No, but there might be a way to get up.” She briefly considered trying to stand on someone’s shoulders, but none of them looked sturdy enough and she’d still be too low to reach the ceiling. She looked at the blankets and picked up several to see how strong they were. They were dirty but seemed to be in pretty good shape. “We could tie these together and use them to climb up to the hole.”
Xanthus, one of the older men who’d been brought in with her rubbed his chin. “But how will you get the blankets up there? You got no way to attach them to anything.”
Gabrielle pondered that for a moment, looking around the dingy interior of the building. If she had her staff, she could tie the blankets to that and toss it through the opening, wedging it across the hole so she could climb up. Her heart leapt as she spotted a broken wagon wheel in one corner of the building. If they could break out one of the spokes, she could tie the blankets to it and throw it through the hole. She outlined her plan and Xanthus perked up a bit, realizing she might be on to something. He helped her break a spoke out, but it took quite a while because they had to do it quietly so as not to alert the slavers. Gabrielle finally got the blankets tied together and one end knotted to the spoke, but it took numerous frustrating attempts to get the spoke through the hole. It finally went through and she tugged gently, not wanting to pull the spoke back through. She held her breath as the piece of wood slid over the hole, spanning it perfectly. She pulled on the tied blankets and they held her weight.
“All right, I’m going to climb out and get help. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Xanthus helped her scramble up the knotted blankets, but once she made it out of his reach she was on her own. She silently thanked Xena for all the staff drills that had strengthened the muscles in her arms. She climbed awkwardly up to the hole, as the other prisoners watched with fascination, silently willing her to make it. When she reached the opening, she rested for a moment, then grabbed the side and hauled herself up. Her arms were burning from exertion now, but she slowly dragged herself through the opening, which was so narrow she had to turn diagonally to fit her body through. She finally pulled herself out onto the flat roof and rolled over, trying to catch her breath.
After resting for a bit, she looked down through the opening and signalled to the others that she was fine, dropping the wooden spoke back through. Her escape had taken longer than she’d thought and the sky was beginning to get lighter in the east. Soon, the sun would rise and the slavers would come to collect their prisoners; they’d be sure to notice she was missing and she didn’t want them taking their frustrations out on the other captives. She cautiously crawled to edge of the roof, making sure to keep low so she wouldn’t be seen by any guards. Sure enough, there were two men walking around the building, although they weren’t all that attentive, stopping frequently to talk and drink from a wineskin. Gabrielle was grateful for their lax attitudes, but still had to be careful as she crawled around the perimeter of the roof to get her bearings. An old haystack lay to the rear of the building and Gabrielle thought she could jump into it without hurting herself. But the haystack was behind the building, opposite the forest. She didn’t have her staff, so fighting the slavers wasn’t really an option. Her best bet would be to get to the woods and go look for Xena, but she wasn’t sure if she could do that without being seen. As she considered her choices, she noticed movement on the edge of the forest and stared at the gloom under the trees.
As she squinted at the brush along the edge of the forest, she saw more movement and frowned, trying to figure out what it was. A smile lit up her face as she saw the pale light of dawn glint off something metallic—Xena’s chakram. She stared at the shadowed warrior, watching as she replaced the chakram on her belt and waved Gabrielle’s staff, signalling for the young bard to stay put. When the guards came around again and stopped to talk, Xena slipped out of the shadows and crawled toward them through the tall weeds. One of them noticed the weeds moving and was sober enough to realize there wasn’t enough wind to cause it. Before he could say anything, Gabrielle stood up on the roof and waved. “Yoo-hoo, boys. You really shouldn’t be drinking on duty, you know.”
The two guards turned to gape at her, giving Xena the chance to rush forward and knock one of them out with the staff. The other guard yelled for help just as Xena flattened him with a lightning-fast combination strike. Angry slavers poured out of the old farmhouse and rushed toward the stone granary.
“Xena,” Gabrielle shouted, “there are more prisoners inside. If these guys get them, they’ll use them as hostages.”
Xena nodded and tossed the staff up to Gabrielle, moving to intercept the men before they reached the granary door. Gabrielle quickly ran to the back of the building, jumped down into the haystack, and rolled out. She sprinted around the corner just in time to take down a bandit who was trying to aim a crossbow at Xena. The warrior was standing in front of the granary door, holding off half a dozen slavers. Gabrielle ran to help, taking down a couple of them from behind and drawing their attention long enough for Xena to finish the rest off. They let the prisoners out and threw all the beaten slavers into the granary, locking the door securely.
After escorting the grateful prisoners to the nearest town and informing the militia about the imprisoned slavers, Xena and Gabrielle ate a hearty meal and retired to a room at the inn (provided free of charge, since Xanthus was the innkeeper’s uncle). As she watched Xena sharpen her sword and polish her armour, Gabrielle waited for the older woman to say something about what had happened that day. But Xena didn’t say a word, so Gabrielle finally broke the silence. “Well, go ahead and get it over with.”
Xena looked up. “Get what over with.”
“Tell me how disappointed you are in me, how I should never have followed those guys on my own, how stupid I was to get caught ...”
Xena put her sword down and came over to sit beside Gabrielle. “I wasn’t going to say any of that. I thought you did pretty well, considering.”
Xena nodded. “Not that I like you taking chances like that ... you could’ve gotten hurt, or worse.”
Gabrielle sighed. “I know. But I couldn’t just let those guys take those poor people away without knowing where they were going, and I knew I’d never find you in time.” Gabrielle looked down at her feet. “Besides, I though maybe it was part of the test.”
Xena frowned. “What? Why would you think that?”
Gabrielle shrugged. “Well, you always say to expect the unexpected, so—”
Xena put her hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder, turning her until their eyes met. “Gabrielle, do you really think I’d do something like that to you, that I’d put you in that kind of danger just for a test?”
Gabrielle saw the look of hurt in Xena’s eyes and squeezed her hand. “No, I know you wouldn’t do that. When I first heard the voices that I wondered, but as soon as I saw the men and their prisoners, I knew it was real. But ...”
Gabrielle dropped her eyes again. “I know you’re frustrated that I’m not learning things fast enough, so I thought maybe if I could rescue those prisoners myself, I could show you I really have been paying attention to your lessons. I just ... I just wanted you to be proud of me.”
Xena swallowed, annoyed with herself for being so wrapped up in her own feelings and not noticing Gabrielle’s. “Gabrielle, there’s nothing for you to feel bad about. You’ve been doing great with the lessons. What made you think I wasn’t happy?”
Gabrielle shrugged. “Well, you keep making me do the same things over and over, even when I thought I was getting them right.”
Xena smiled. “I’m not making you repeat stuff because you’re getting it wrong, I just want it to become second nature to you, so you can do it without thinking. I guess I should’ve told you that.” Gabrielle’s smile lit up her face and Xena put an arm around the bard’s shoulders. “Gabrielle, I know you get frustrated sometimes and want to learn everything at once, but that’s really not the best way to do it. I intend to teach you everything I can, but I have to make sure you’ve got the old stuff right before I move on to new lessons.”
Gabrielle nodded. “I guess that makes sense. I’ll try to be more patient.”
Xena patted her cheek. “And I’ll try to be more open about what I’m teaching you and why. But just so you know, you did pretty well today. You found the slavers’ hideout, kept any of the prisoners from being hurt, and even escaped from that building. How’d you manage that, anyway?”
Gabrielle related her climb through the roof opening and basked in the impressed look Xena gave her. “That was great, very clever. You know, getting through that small opening is something I couldn’t have done.”
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at her. “Yeah, but you probably could’ve just kicked the door down.”
Xena shrugged. “Maybe, but we all have our strengths and they’re not always the same. You have plenty of your own, so don’t be so hard on yourself.”
“You really mean that?”
“Of course. You’re smart, you’re brave, and you always think of others before yourself. That’s a great combination.”
Gabrielle laughed, embarrassed by the praise. “Easy, Xena. You make me sound like some kind of hero.”
Xena gave her a serious look. “Gabrielle, heroes come in all shapes and sizes. If you want me to believe I’m a hero, then you better believe you can be one too.”
Gabrielle blushed, giving Xena a playful nudge. “All right, I’ll accept that, for now. But I still say you’re much more heroic than me.”
Xena smiled. “That’s just because I’ve had more practice.” She stood and headed back to finish sharpening her sword, but stopped and turned to look at her friend. “And I know I don’t say it enough, but ... I’m always proud of you.”
Gabrielle jumped up and threw her arms around Xena, who returned the hug with enthusiasm, feeling her heart swell with love for the young bard. She wondered again if she should let Gabrielle know how her feelings had changed. But her natural reticence flared up again and she lost her nerve. Telling Gabrielle how she felt was a big risk and if things went badly, it could ruin their friendship. Xena didn’t think she could live without that. And part of her knew she wasn’t good enough for Gabrielle, that the bard deserved someone better, someone who didn’t have such a legacy of blood and death behind them.
Xena watched as Gabrielle got ready for bed, wondering how deep the girl’s feelings for her might run. Better not to speculate about that or she’d drive herself crazy. No, Xena decided it was better to keep her feelings to herself, at least until she had some clear sign that Gabrielle might share those feelings.
The bard looked over at Xena as she slipped under the covers. “Good night, Xena. Thanks for not being mad about my little misadventure today.”
Xena got into her own bed and smiled across the room. “Don’t worry about it, we all make mistakes. Although ...” Gabrielle’s eyes met hers with a questioning look. “... we probably should review how to tell when someone’s following you.”
Gabrielle blushed and grinned back at the warrior. “I guess that’s tomorrow’s lesson, then. Good night.”
“Good night, Gabrielle.” Xena blew the candle out and watched as the bard slipped into a restful slumber. Maybe she should let Gabrielle know how she felt ... things might work out all right. Well, that wasn’t a decision that had to be made right away. She had plenty of time to sort out her feelings.
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