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"Okay, let's see..." Gabrielle hesitated, trying to ignore the cold, wet blanket that was supposed to be keeping her warm. It had been raining for three days and they were trapped on a barren hillock because the river had flooded its banks in a raging torrent. It was the only high ground for miles and although they were grateful to be safe from the deadly waters that surrounded them, that was about all they were thankful for. "I spy with my little eye--"
"That dead, bloated stag caught in the current downstream," Xena supplied without letting Gabrielle finish.
"No fair! How did you guess that?"
"You were looking right at it."
"You could at least pretend to have more difficulty guessing, you know."
"This stinks," said Xena.
"Okay, so it's not the most challenging game, but--"
"No, this stinks," said Xena, sniffing her blanket. "What is that smell?"
Gabrielle leaned over and sniffed loudly. "Ewww. I don't know."
"Great. Wonderful." Xena threw the blanket off, checking her leathers for any residual scent. "Seems okay, except for the pungent aroma of rain-soaked warrior."
"There's a shock."
"Oh, like you aren't!"
"Yeah, but you won't hear me complain about it."
"Do you have to be so perfect all the time? Go ahead and complain! We ran out of trail rations yesterday. There's not exactly any game up here and we exhausted the natural bounty when we both refused to eat crabgrass. We're going to starve."
"So go snag that stag you spied with your little eye. Though I'd love to know how you plan to cook it. We have no wood and even if we did, it'd be soaked through, and even if it wasn't, we couldn't get it lit in this downpour."
"Guess I'll start looking for berries washing downstream, huh?"
Xena smiled, shaking her head. "We may have to."
"C'mon, your turn."
"I'm tired of 'I spy.' Know any other games?"
"Spin the Flagon?"
"I'd rather drink the flagon."
"Truth or Dare?"
"Been there, done that."
"Who am I?"
"I want something different. We always play that."
"Oh, that's a great game. You never played it?"
"I think I'm living it," said Xena, shivering. She paused, then reluctantly grabbed the discarded blanket and wrapped it around her shoulders, wrinkling her nose at the smell.
"Okay," said Gabrielle, rubbing her hands together in delight. "First we each need seven rocks of various sizes. Then we have to remove one boot and find a short stick."
"You're making this up."
"I'll have you know this is a very popular game with the upper classes in Athens."
"Yeah, like you spend all your time with the upper classes in Athens," Xena said, wrinkling her nose then sloughing off her blanket. "Damn, that stinks. What is that smell?"
"Are you going to play or not?"
Xena eyed Gabrielle's blanket. "Winner gets your blanket."
Pulling it tight around her, Gabrielle glared at Xena. "No way!"
"C'mon, it'll be more fun if there's a prize."
"But I already have my blanket! What's in it for me?"
"Oh. Yeah, right. So what do you want if you win?"
Gabrielle sat for a moment, deep in thought. Then she brightened. "If I win, you have to find a way to keep me dry."
"Gabrielle, if I knew a way to keep us dry, don't you think I'd have done it by now?"
"I said keep me dry. You could be a human tent. You and your stinky blanket."
"Remind me again why I let you tag along three winters ago?"
"Because I'm so damn cute. Well? Deal?"
"Deal. Okay, how do we play this wretched game?"
"We each have to find our seven rocks. First rock has to be the size of our fists. Then our feet. Then our heads, our eyes, the width of our shoulders, the left breast, and the last one should be the length from ankle to knee."
"The left breast? You are making this up."
"You gonna play, or complain?"
"I'll play. I want that blanket."
"On your mark, get set, go!" said Gabrielle, leaping up, having already spied her first rock.
"She's making this up, I know it," grumbled Xena to herself as she loped over to a possible fist-sized stone.
"Give me a break! No way is your breast that size!" said Gabrielle.
"Maybe not the right one. But the left..." said Xena with a grin.
"In your dreams, Warrior Princess."
"Let's see yours."
"My breast or my rock?"
"Your rock. The breast I've seen."
"Here," said Gabrielle triumphantly, holding out a stone for Xena to inspect.
"Ha! Maybe when you were twelve!" Xena said, looking at what was little more than a pebble.
Smiling sheepishly, Gabrielle said, "Yeah, well, I think we're running out of rocks on this little hill."
"Gee, ya think?" said Xena, tossing the small boulder she'd chosen as her entry over her shoulder. "Any way to play this game with five rocks instead of seven?"
"Well... we'll have to fudge the rules a bit, but it should be okay."
"Good. What's next?"
"Remove one boot, but don't let me see which one. I'll count to one hundred. You have to have it off by the time I finish."
"My foot will get all muddy," mumbled Xena, staring distastefully at the sodden morass of churned mud that was their camping spot.
"You can wash it in the river afterward. Or just hold it up the air. The rain will wash it."
"One, two, three, four..."
Hopping on one foot, Xena began working the soaked laces. "They're stuck..."
"Ten, eleven, use your teeth, twelve, thirteen..."
With a sigh, Xena plopped down on her stinky blanket, pulled her leg up to her mouth and tried to work the laces loose with her teeth. She tugged at the string, lost her grip and promptly fell backward, landing in a puddle. Without losing a beat, she continued to gnaw at the laces.
"Forty-five, forty-six, how're ya doing? Forty-seven, forty-eight..."
"Zhoo zhust cow," said Xena, her mouth full of bootlaces.
"Count! Just count!" said Xena, angrily pulling away long enough to enunciate, then returning to her task. Gabrielle's back was turned and the warrior shot daggers with her eyes, convinced that this was all some sort of joke dreamed up by a bratty bard.
Finally, Xena felt the lace give. Frantically, she tore them free.
"Eighty-nine, ninety, ninety-one, I'm going to win, ninety-two, ninety-three..."
"Done!" said Xena, triumphantly, yanking the boot from her foot. Unfortunately, it slipped from her muddy fingers and shot like a rocket out of her hands. The warrior could do nothing but watch as it tumbled down the hill, out of sight. "Splendid..."
"You sure played that to the wire," said Gabrielle, her back still turned. "Okay, now I have to guess which boot. I say it's the right boot."
Xena looked down at her bare right foot and frowned. "You didn't tell me that was part of it. If you had I'd have used some strategy."
"Strategy? What strategy is there in removing your boot? It's left or right," Gabrielle said, turning to stare at the warrior. "What happened to your hair?" Xena's usually impeccable dark mane was dripping and stringy with caked mud.
"I fell in a puddle."
"Where's your boot?"
"Still on land, if I'm lucky."
Xena just scowled, rubbing her foot.
"So what strategy is there in taking off a boot? Other than flinging it toward the river."
Glaring, Xena said, "Everything has strategy. For instance, you would assume I'd remove my right boot because I'm right-handed and you've observed me in the past as I took off my boots, always starting with the right. So I might have taken off my left just to throw you. But! Maybe you would have anticipated this, so then I would have taken off the right. But! Maybe I would have anticipated your anticipating and then the left would've been better. But! Maybe I--"
"Enough! You took off the right; I guessed the right; I win this round."
"You haven't taken off your boot."
"I don't have to. It's a forfeit if I guess correctly."
"You are so making this up!"
"You want to play or not? This fresh-smelling blanket is nice and cozy!"
"The short stick."
"There are no sticks."
"Then I guess I win."
"I'll find a stick. How short?"
"It has to be long enough to roast a rabbit, but shorter than the one found by your opponent."
"Wish we had the rabbit."
"Ha! So you are hungry! I knew it! I knew it!"
"Of course I'm hungry! I didn't say I wasn't! I just said I wasn't going to spend my time complaining about it!" Xena said, looking around for sticks, but the hillock was bare.
"No, you won't complain because you're too damn stubborn to admit that you can't provide us with a simple meal."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means that sometimes it would be nice if you showed your vulnerable side a little."
"My 'vulnerable side'?" Xena shook her head getting an eyeful of mud from a stray clump of hair. "Spare me the touchy-feely routine, okay? I'm not in the mood," she added, digging at her eye, making it worse.
"Okay. I'm off to find my stick. Seeya in five minutes. No more, no less," said Gabrielle with a smile, racing down the side of the hill.
Opening her good eye, Xena watched her go, sighed, then ran off in the opposite direction, one foot bare, one booted.
There it was: the ultimate, perfect stick. Naturally, it was just out of reach. No matter how much she stretched, Xena's fingers were just shy of grabbing hold. Pacing the bank, she watched as the water swirled and eddied around the large rock that had the stick trapped. Her concentration was so complete, she almost missed the scream. Almost.
"Gabrielle..." she whispered, scrambling up the side of the hill, her bare foot slipping in the mud. She heard it again. A cry for help. "Hang on, Gabrielle! I'm coming!" she shouted, racing toward the frantic cry.
Their hill was an island in the waters of the raging flood and the screams of her companion were coming from the opposite side. Xena made short work of the distance, urged on by the increasingly frantic calls.
Topping the hill, she looked down to see her worst nightmare coming true. Gabrielle was in the middle of the churning water, holding precariously onto a flimsy branch wedged next to a boulder. A large ox carcass floated past her, knocking the stick and threatening to loosen it. Gabrielle screamed and Xena threw herself down the last few yards. The flood had ripped away a part of the hillock, and Xena tumbled down where once there had been solid ground, landing at the edge of the torrent.
"Hold on, Gabrielle! I'm coming!" she shouted as she pulled her body from the sucking mud at the edge of the flood. Quickly, she made her way upstream, judging the speed of the current and Gabrielle's position. It was only when she was several yards above the bard that she noticed the young woman clinging to an inert form. There was someone else in the river with her.
"Xena! He's hurt!" she screamed, her eyes widening as a bale of hay slammed into her branch. The entire thing shook, but remained wedged beneath the rock, the bard's grip still intact.
Xena leapt into the raging torrent, fighting the swift, chaotic current until she was able to grab the branch. "He's still alive?" she shouted over the rush of the river.
"Barely!" said Gabrielle, straining under her burden.
Quickly, Xena grabbed the man with her free arm, keeping his head above water. "Can you hold on? I'll get him to shore then come back for you."
"Yes. Go!" said Gabrielle, wrapping her arms securely around the branch.
Pushing off, Xena swam toward the hill, using one arm in deep, powerful strokes to fight the churning current. She knew that she had little time to spare as they were near the end of the hill. One miscalculation and she would overshoot it, with no idea what lay further down the floodplain.
With a surge of kicking feet she made a stab for landfall and managed to pull both herself and her burden onto the hillock. Glancing back, she saw that Gabrielle was still holding tight, so she took a moment to clear the man's lungs of water and give him mouth to mouth resuscitation. For what felt like an eternity, there was no change and Xena found herself glancing over at her companion with increasing worry. She could see a very large object being carried down the river and heading straight for the bard. Just as she was about to give up on the stranger, he sputtered and hacked his way back to life. Sparing only a moment to reassure him that she'd return, Xena bolted back upriver.
Gabrielle's eyes were wide as she saw the gigantic dray heading straight for her. "Xena!" she shouted then suddenly found herself beneath the surface of the water as her branch was crushed on impact. Rolling end over end in the undertow, she could feel the strength of the current pushing her down, not allowing her to reach for the air. She hadn't had a chance to take a deep breath before the impact and her lungs felt as though they would burst right out of her body. Suddenly, strong hands grabbed her by the back of her clothes and pulled her sputtering to the surface.
"You okay?" asked Xena as she swam with powerful strokes toward shore.
Coughing too hard to answer, Gabrielle nodded.
Using the last of her strength, Xena broke free of the current and landed them within a few feet of the stranger. He was sitting up, his face tense and bloodless. Xena helped Gabrielle up the muddy embankment, half-walking, half-crawling until they reached the stranger's side, both women collapsing once they were safe from being washed back into the river.
"You saved my life," said the man, awe in his voice as he looked at the two bedraggled women.
"Yeah," said Xena, her breathing heavy. "Hope you're worth it."
"Xena!" said Gabrielle, outraged. "How can you say that?"
"I recognize him, Gabrielle. This is Melineous. A minor thug who used to fight for Petricles."
"I've changed, Xena. Honest I have," said Melineous, his eyes fearful as he stared at the forbidding warrior. "I got married. Have kids. I'm a farmer now. Look." He opened the bag he still carried slung across his chest. It was filled with fruits and vegetables. "I was heading to market when the river caught me. I lost my stock when my cart washed off, but I always carry the most perfect specimens in my pack, to show people the quality of my goods."
"Food..." whispered Gabrielle, grinning.
"Yeah," said Xena, smiling. "C'mon, Melineous. Let's get you to our camp and then we can have dinner."
"These are my samples! We can't eat these," he protested.
"Either we eat these or you take another swim. Your choice," said the former warlord.
"Well, I am kinda hungry myself..."
"Thought so," said Xena, helping him to his feet and draping one arm around him. He was limping badly, a gash in his thigh bleeding generously.
"What happened to your other boot?" he asked.
"Which reminds me," said Gabrielle. She held up a short stick that was just long enough to cook a rabbit. "It broke off in my hand when the dray hit," she said, smiling.
"Could you tell me again why she's doing this?" asked Melineous, his leg freshly stitched and bandaged. He was huddling close to Gabrielle under her blanket while Xena stood behind them, shielding them from the worst of the downpour by spreading her arms wide, using the smelly blanket as a rain screen.
"We were playing Apollo's Curse and she lost."
"Ah, yes, the game of the Athens' elite," said Melineous with a smile.
"You told him to say that," grumbled Xena, shivering, trying not to breathe through her nose.
"A touch to the left, Xena. I'm getting a little spray," said Gabrielle. With a growl, Xena adjusted her position.
"What's that smell?" asked Melineous.
"We're not sure. Something on her blanket. Pass the apples?" said Gabrielle, deciding she had room for one more and then she would be stuffed.
"Smells terrible. Back up a bit, Warrior." Melineous reached for a carrot.
"All right, that does it!" said Xena, throwing the offending blanket to the ground. "I'm cold, I'm wet, my blanket stinks and I have yet to eat anything because I had to play human tent. I want to be fed, and I want that blanket." Xena ripped it from Gabrielle's body.
"Hey! You lost fair and square!"
"I lost a made-up game. And the only reason I lost was because I had to save both your worthless lives instead of getting the world's most perfect stick."
"Maybe we can all share," suggested Gabrielle, shivering without her blanket.
"Maybe. But I think Melineous should play tent-boy while I eat. He owes me. I had to breathe air into him and that'll haunt me for days."
"Nice, Xena," said Melineous, acting hurt.
"Give me the food bag," said the warrior, grudgingly sharing the blanket with Gabrielle. Melineous grabbed the smelly blanket and stood behind them, arms spread.
"It isn't like I lost a game of Apollo's Curse." He wrinkled his nose. "You ever wash this blasted thing, Warrior?"
"Yes, I wash it!" Xena grabbed an apple. "And there is no such thing as a game called Apollo's Curse. I think we can all admit that now."
Gabrielle fiddled with the hem of her skirt, unwilling to meet Xena's eyes.
"Right, Gabrielle?" Xena asked pointedly before taking a big bite of the fruit.
"I fawt fo," said Xena, triumphantly, her mouth full.
"She made me pretend there was," said Melineous.
"Yeah, she's pretty scary when she threatens ya, isn't she?" said Xena, sarcastically. "Good apple, by the way."
"How angry would you be if I told you a secret about your blanket?"
Xena stopped chewing for a moment as she slowly turned to face Gabrielle. Deliberately, she swallowed, then smiled coldly. "Let me put it this way. If you don't tell me, I'll cut off the flow of blood to your brain."
"Oh come on, you wouldn't do that to me." Silence. Just that smile. "Would you?" The smile grew. "Um... you see, I was drying the blankets after washing them a couple days ago and this muskrat sort of decided it was a part of his territory so he decided to spray it and well, I tried to put up with it but I just got so nauseous that--"
"Wait a minute," said Xena, dangerously. "Are you telling me..." Quickly, Xena checked the seam of the blanket around her shoulders and saw the blue stitching. "This is my blanket! The stinky one is yours!"
"That's a nasty trick," said Melineous. "You sure you two are friends?"
"You shut up!" they said in unison.
"What did I do?"
Xena turned to glare at him. "Nothing. But I can't take it out on her and you're convenient."
"Maybe it's a nice day for a swim, after all," he said in a small voice.
"You mean that? You're not going to take it out on me?" asked Gabrielle, astonished.
"Nah. It was a rotten thing to do, but it's hard to blame you. That thing stinks."
"How'm I going to get that smell out?"
"Lemon juice. When we can get to a market we'll buy some lemons. That'll fix it right up."
"There're some lemons in the bottom of the pack," said Melineous, helpfully.
Gabrielle quickly searched his bag and pulled the lemons out. "Look!"
Immediately, the three of them grabbed the fruit and began squeezing the lemons into an empty pot. When the blanket was soaking, Xena stood up.
"Where are you going?" asked Gabrielle, now sharing the good blanket with Melineous.
"I'm going to look for my boot."
"It's probably halfway to the sea by now," said Melineous.
"Maybe. Maybe not. Worth a try."
Gabrielle couldn't believe her eyes. Xena, both feet now solidly shod, was dragging a huge cart up the side of the hill. "What are you doing?" shouted the bard.
"I found us some shelter," said Xena. "Found some wood, too. Figured we can dry it out and make a fire."
"Wow," said Melineous.
"She's very resourceful," said Gabrielle, proudly.
"Yeah. That cart must weigh a ton."
Xena drew even with them, panting slightly. They helped her remove the wood, then she tipped the cart over. They all crawled beneath it and were out of the rain for the first time in three days.
"Cozy," said Melineous.
"It's wonderful," said Gabrielle. "I'm sorry about the blanket, Xena."
"S'okay. Just tell me next time. We could've taken care of the problem that day."
"I'm bored," said Melineous. "Do you two know any games?
"Not a one."
"Oh. That's okay, I know one," said Melineous. "It's called Haephestus' Horror and we'll need a sheepskin, three raspberries, a feather and a hollow tube..."
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