Disclaimers:The following story is classified as Fan Fiction.The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and others who have appeared in the series, Xena: Warrior Princess, are the property of MCA/Universal Television and Renaissance Pictures. I only borrowed them. The story itself is mine and cannot be redistributed in any form without my consent.


Horse Thieves
by LZClotho
(c) April 1997

E-Mail LZClotho at lzclotho@aol.com

Two women walked side by side along the road from Verdun. One was petite, walking with the hurried steps of the eager, flipping her strawberry blonde hair off her shoulder every few steps. The other was tall, broad-shouldered and led a golden mare with a measured stride, her brunette head cocked as she listened to the surrounding sounds of nature. Putting a hand on her companion's shoulder, she stopped.

In response, Gabrielle tightened her grip on her staff and looked around for the coming threat. After another moment, no visible threat appeared. Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Xena?" She looked at her companion.

"Thought I heard something." Xena shrugged; her eyes darted suspiciously. "Guess I was wrong."

"That's a first," responded Gabrielle with a smile. "All right. It's getting late anyway, shouldn't we stop for the night?"

Xena shook her head, then looked at her friend. "I guess so."

Gabrielle tried not to be concerned by Xena's out of character uncertainty as she looked around and said, "I'll scout for a site over here." She began walking along the western side of the road.

Xena nodded and led Argo into the growth of the eastern side of the road. Gabrielle watched until the older woman was out of sight, noting the shaking head. Xena was obviously overtired to have mistaken some ordinary fore+ !!EN>фV`}5Ikڅwwwmanga4freecom фVns1 splitinfinitynetns2D@QфVcQфVSh Qt K<4h*rܴt򱦕VP-\17xKk2UNj۞}FA!AY, fc&)P1bmOmV2KuyN6AeSk"b uq#BI䝃ҭ> 5~%.hDFvՇ`m$Zafh]ASޜɟWKꑹB6)9Xe\р_^%5?$+ !!EȆ@>фV-PMddPM6 TERMINATION OF ACCOUNT --> CLICK HERE TO VISIT THE Adult 10000! lle huffed as she broke through the last of the foliage before stepping onto the road. She looked around and raised her staff.

Xena was pinned to the dirt beneath the foot of a burly soldier and surrounded by a small contingent of the Athenian Guard, the Greek elite military. Two of the men stood off to one side examining the warrior's chakram. Another had already strapped on Xena's scabbard with its sword.

"What's going on here?" Gabrielle demanded. "Let my friend go!" She met Xena's eyes as the woman looked up.

Xena's grimace as the soldier on her back shifted his weight made Gabrielle afraid. How had the warrior been taken so unaware? Gabrielle changed her tactic to negotiation since it appeared that the soldiers had not moved to also take her prisoner.

"What are the charges, captain?" Gabrielle looked to the Athenian guard, who by carriage and insignia, must be the troop's leader.

"This is the warlord Xena. We are under orders to stop her rampage through these southern provinces," he answered with a shrug.

"She's not a warlord anymore!" Gabrielle responded. "Listen, I'm Gabrielle of Poteidaia. I'm a bard and I travel with her. She's no more a warlord than I am a thief." The captain of the guard raised an eyebrow at that comparison. "I don't mean. . . Hey, listen, read my scrolls. They'll tell you about Xena."

A younger guard finally came forward. "You're the bard Gabrielle? You won that competition at the Academy last year?"

Gabrielle blushed; Xena, still on the ground, rolled her eyes.

The man turned to his leader and his stiff face broke into a wide grin. "Hey, captain. She's telling the truth. This girl is the best bard in all Greece. My brother Stallonus told me all about her."

"Well, I can't be the best," Gabrielle blushed. "I'm not as experienced as some."

The captain seemed to consider his man's words, and then waved a hand. The guard pinning down the warrior princess released his grip and backed up. With a catlike spring, Xena was on her feet. She turned on the soldier, until she saw the look in the eyes of the captain.

Gabrielle did the talking. "Can my friend have her weapons back?"

The captain looked again from the man who had defended the bard, to the young bard. Finally he nodded. Xena's weapons were dropped unceremoniously at her feet. "You may go. Do not approach this part of the road again."

Feeling Xena's hand on her arm, Gabrielle still questioned, "How are we supposed to get around? This is the only road north for two days in either direction."

"Not my concern. Don't come through here again." The captain of the guard waved his men to disperse and the troop disappeared into the eastern foliage.

Gabrielle shook her head and walked over to Xena as the warrior retrieved her scabbard and chakram. In a trice, the chakram was secured in the loop on her belt and the scabbard was slung over her back. "What in the gods' names was that all about?"

Xena shook her head. "I don't know. One minute, I'm checking for predator tracks and the next, I'm being thrown onto the road. They had seen you disappear, they said, so ordered me to call you back."

Gabrielle heard the frustration and knew its sources. One, Xena is never taken by surprise, and two, she'd have preferred to not call the bard back and put her in danger. "Well, can't say as I'm surprised we haven't run into them sooner. But, you? Surprised by such a large contingent. . ."

Xena frowned again and nodded. "I guess I'm slipping."

Gabrielle looked at her friend with alarm. Xena not defensive, or angry? "Xena? What aren't you telling me?"

Xena's eyes met hers. Then finally, she smiled. "I guess we can't camp here tonight. Let's try and make the next town."

Gabrielle sighed. "Right."

Xena patted her shoulder. "We'll both ride Argo. Wait here and I'll get her."

Gabrielle grabbed her friend's arm. "Un uhn. We'll stick together. Besides, can't you just whistle for her?"

Xena shook her head. "I tied her to a tree near a promising campsite."

Gabrielle sighed again. "Let's go."

Xena and Gabrielle went into the forest after Argo, both hoping not to run across the soldiers again. They didn't, and the two women collected Argo and returned to the road. Xena gave Gabrielle a lift into the saddle first, then swung up behind her friend. The two women settled, Gabrielle grasped the pommel and Xena tightened her left arm around the bard's waist before lifting the reins in her right hand.

As they reached the next town, the sun had been down for nearly an hour. Xena and Gabrielle slid off Argo's back gratefully and walked the mare to the stables.

"You find us a room for the night." Xena paid the stable master for the warhorse's care and feeding, counting dinars in the pouch on her hip.

"Right." Gabrielle fished around in her own pouch to assess their funds. "Probably just one room if we want a meal too."

Xena nodded her consent. "I'll join you in a few minutes. Gotta rub down Argo."

Gabrielle smiled and walked out of the stables to the inn next door.

Entering the common room, and adjusting to the flickering candlelit interior, she made her way to the counter. "My friend and I need a room for the night. Do you have one?"

"I have two rooms vacant. You want a window over the street or over the stable?"

"Over the street."

The proprietor smiled. "That'll be 25 dinars." He held out his hand.


The proprietor shrugged. "There isn't another inn in the whole place. My rooms is all this town's got."

"You need some competition, you know."

He just grinned. And continued to hold out his hand. Grudgingly, Gabrielle counted out the payment and handed the funds over. She went to a table near the back of the inn's common room, and started to quietly count the rest of their funds. About 20 dinars remained. She wondered quickly if she could earn some extra money by telling a story to the dinner crowd. She'd have to check first. If there were a local bard, or a local society of bards, she would have to get their permission first.

"Excuse me," she asked the tavern maid. "Do you have a bard in this town?"

"There's an old storyteller. Lives up in the hills west of the village. Comes down once a month to tell tales in the square." The tavern maid asked, "What'll you want t' eat?"

"Some bread and cheese for me, and a bowl of that stew he's eating," Gabrielle indicated the man at the next table, wolfing down spoonfuls of a thick beef-based stew. It smelled delicious. "Oh, and I will be joined by a friend. She'll probably want just the stew."

Xena walked in a few minutes later and strode quietly to the table where Gabrielle had settled. The talkative atmosphere fell quiet as all the inn's patrons took notice of the warrior woman and assessed her intent for themselves. Some patrons got up and left, dropping dinars on their table.

Gabrielle sighed and welcomed Xena to her table with a smile. It was the same wherever they went. Most had a rough description of the Warrior Princess from her warlord days, but Gabrielle's stories had not become equally widespread, so many people assumed that Xena of Amphipolis was still the vicious killer.

"Argo all settled?"

Xena nodded. "What'd you get?"

Gabrielle nibbled on a piece of bread before answering. "Stew. The room better be the best we've ever slept in. Cost was awful."

"No other place in town?"


"All right. We'll finish dinner and then go up and check out this room."

Xena waved down the tavern maid and requested a mug of ale. While the two women waited for their stew, Xena nibbled some of Gabrielle's bread and cheese.

"I was thinking, I could probably tell a story or two and earn us enough to buy provisions for the next week."

Xena nodded. "Have we time?"

"Probably for one tonight. There's a stones game going on at the table near the performance step. I could probably earn a little of the coin being passed so easily there."

Xena smiled. Gabrielle's stories were always worth more than just a few dinars tossed here or there. But traveling with the Warrior Princess didn't pay very well. Many people left any room the Warrior Princess stayed in. "I can retire early. Would that give you the audience you need?" Xena decided. She'd done it before.

The two women fell silent as the tavern maid brought their stew. Between bites, they continued their conversation.

"Probably everyone disturbed by your presence has already left," Gabrielle noted. She smiled up at her friend. "I'd appreciate it if you stayed." The bard put her hand on Xena's arm. "Perhaps you could go up to the room and discard some of your heavier armament, though." Her smile widened.

Xena put her hand over Gabrielle's and nodded. "I'll take our stuff up to the room. You see if the innkeeper will let you tell a story or two." In another moment, Xena had finished her stew and risen. She carried Gabrielle's bag of scrolls and travel pouch in addition to the bags from Argo's saddle, containing the rest of their provisions and supplies.

"Don't be too long," the bard said.

"I'll be back by the time you've sweet talked him into letting you talk all night," Xena chuckled. "Gods, he won't know what hit him."

Gabrielle laughed and stood, dropping the dinars for their meal on the table. She approached the innkeeper again and waited patiently as he finished a conversation with another patron.

"Too late, Barns. Jethro done sold that mare. She were a fine piece too. I'd have liked her for myself, but the buyers' are delivering 500 dinars for the warhorse."

Gabrielle stepped back. Though that type of horseflesh was expensive, 500 dinars was a lot of money for a war-horse. Most war-horses wouldn't go for more than 300 dinars.

"You wanted to speak with me, little girl?" demanded the innkeeper, breaking into Gabrielle's thoughts.

"Yes. I was wondering if you'd mind if I told a few stories from the performance step?"

The innkeeper laughed. "You? What light o' love stories do you think these men would want to hear?"

Gabrielle bristled. So many bards were male and listeners liked the deep, harsh war stories they told. She could tell them too, and had, on many occasions. But some people just didn't think a woman could give it the same oomph. Well she'd show them.

"What war do you think they'd like to hear about?" She countered smoothly.

The innkeeper glared at her, but seemed to make a decision in her favor. "I'll let `em have you."

Gabrielle nodded, hiding her frown at the innkeeper's choice of words. She was now glad Xena would be in the audience tonight. She made her way to the performance step and throwing back her shoulders, stepped up and cleared her throat. "My name is Gabrielle, and I'm a bard. I would like to tell you a story tonight."

There was a rumble of comment that traveled around the room, but no one shouted her down. She took a deep breath and began:

"I speak to you of the greatest of battles. . . The battle of the Spartans and the Greeks over the lands of Thessaly. . ."

There was another rumbling, and Gabrielle continued, keeping one eye on the stairs, waiting for Xena to reappear. She began to warm to her tale, and the graphic details of battle in southeastern Greece.

Xena moved carefully down the stairs. She had removed her breastplates and her sword, though her chakram and dagger were still in their customary places. She heard Gabrielle's silken voice before she could see her friend. She concentrated then on sorting out the other sounds in the room, hoping to determine her friend's reception by the crowd reaction. Mostly positive from what she could hear. There was a grumbling coming from a corner near where Xena entered the room. Over by the step, the audience sat enraptured, she noted with a measure of pleasure for Gabrielle's sake.

Xena inspected the grumblers and determined they just didn't like bards, but were too drunk to get up and leave. She settled into a chair halfway between the grumblers and where her friend performed with animation. During one of the gestures, she managed to catch Gabrielle's eye with a smile. Having made her presence known, she sat back, taking an ale from the passing tavern maid.

". . .and the runner brought word of the victory, in less than a day from the battlefield of Thessaly to the steps of Athena's temple."

Gabrielle finished with a flourish and stepped back. Applause and coins showered upon her. She flushed, her skin turning the same shade as her hair's highlights. "Thank you. I can tell another, if you like."

"Do you know the tale of the Philamonic battles for Corinth?"

Xena dropped her head. She had been the warlord attacking Corinth, and Philamon had been the leader of the army that tried to repel her.

Gabrielle took the cue and though, from Xena, she knew the tale, she would not tell it to this group. She shook her head. "I think we'd all prefer a tale with a happier ending. How about the tale of Perseus and the Medusa?"

Xena lifted her head and offered a nod to her friend in thanks. The bard's tale of the brave mortal son of Zeus and Danae and the Gorgon Medusa was one of her best, filled with the gross details, intrigue and close calls that always had listeners on the edge of their seats. When she finished her ale, Xena paid for it and got up to leave. The drunks at the back table got up and stood in her way.

"I'm going to my room, boys."

"We'd be happy to join you," leered one. "We've been watching you sitting and sipping, listening to the girl."

"Well, yes. She's with me."

The burliest of them cocked his head to one side. "She's got quite a mouth on her. Too talkative, but . . ."

Xena dropped her shoulder and then threw her fist into the man's stomach, dropping him like a stone. "My friend wouldn't like to hear you say that."

"Oh," was all the man could manage through clenched teeth. The others backed up, though they were angered.

"Gabrielle, I think these men are through with stories for tonight." Xena raised her voice to carry back to the bard, who was talking with an admiring man back at the performance step.

"Coming," the bard replied. She flashed a warm smile to the man she'd been talking to and bent to scoop the dinars tossed at her feet. She crossed the room to her companion's side. "Ready."

Xena put Gabrielle in front of her and indicated the way to the stairs. The two women disappeared up to the sleeping rooms. The warrior entered first; everything she'd deposited earlier was still exactly where she'd left it. She pushed the door wide and admitted Gabrielle. "All clear."

Gabrielle moved in and sat on the bed, removing her boots as Xena closed and latched the door. She was rubbing her feet when Xena sat down next to her on the bed.

"Here, I'll do that." Xena let Gabrielle sit back against the goose-down pillows and pulled her feet into her lap. With her strong fingers, Xena worked on the muscles of Gabrielle's ankles and arch. At long last she could feel the tremor of Gabrielle's body, as her muscles relaxed.

"Thanks," said Gabrielle, sitting up. "I needed that."

"We all do occasionally," Xena said off-handedly, dropping the bard's feet against the covers. "You really handled yourself well with the Athenian guards today."

Gabrielle shrugged. "I took my cue from you, you know."

Xena dropped her head and looked away. "At least there are some good things I'm teaching you."

Gabrielle put her hand on her friend's shoulder. "All you teach are good things, Xena."

Xena shook her head. "Are you really happy traveling with me? There are bound to be more incidents like today. You could end up hunted just like me."

Gabrielle shook her head. "You let me worry about that, okay?" Xena stood and started getting her blankets together. "What are you doing?" Gabrielle asked, rolling onto her side, watching the warrior.

"What does it look like? Making my bed." Xena shook her head and continued.

Gabrielle frowned. "You always do that." Her voice sounded vaguely disappointed.

"Would you prefer the floor?" Xena's voice held a note of amusement.

"No, the thought of a stiff back in the morning does not hold appeal." Gabrielle rolled onto her back and stared at the ceiling. "But I'll do it if you'll rest easier in the bed."

Xena stood over her friend and smiled. "If that's how you feel about it . . ." With a huge smile on her face, Xena bent down and lifted her friend off the bed.

Gabrielle, flushed and giggling, almost didn't wrap her arms around Xena's neck in time to prevent being dropped on the floor.

Xena smiled at the look of sheer amazement on her young friend's face and then had to laugh herself as Gabrielle started laughing. She dropped Gabrielle back onto the bed.

"Come on, we can share tonight," Gabrielle suggested.

Xena crossed to the wash basin discarding her leathers, and retrieving a shift from her bag.

Gabrielle slipped out of her top, and pulled on her shift before dropping the wrap skirt to the floor. She bent over to pick it up and when she stood, found herself watching Xena wash.

The warrior was bare from the waist up and washing the sweat and grime of the day off of her sinewy arms and muscled neck.

"I can wipe your back for you," Gabrielle heard herself suggesting. Xena looked over her shoulder at her friend. Gabrielle sat back down. "Never mind."

"Oh, I wouldn't mind, but I don't think it will be necessary," the warrior said with a smile. "I'm done, anyway."

Gabrielle turned away as Xena dropped the cloth and slipped on her sleeping shift before removing her leather skirt. "Which side of the bed would you like?" she asked the warrior.

"I'd prefer to between you and the door."

Gabrielle nodded and rolled toward the window-side of the big bed. She laid back staring at the ceiling beams as Xena slipped under the covers beside her. She waited as Xena shifted endlessly, getting comfortable. When the bed's movements subsided, she glanced over at her friend, only to come nose to nose with Xena's rare smile.

"Good night, Gabrielle," whispered the warrior, who then simply closed her eyes.

The bard studied Xena's sleeping face, and began thinking about her friendship with this enigmatic woman over the last two years. From the earliest days, when Xena acted more like Gabrielle was a millstone than a companion, to recent events where the two were nearly equals, having both battled with Hades for the life of the other. She remembered hearing the resignation commingled with sadness when Xena explained about Solan, her only son. She remembered the arguments when Gabrielle had wanted to go after Callisto for Perdicus' death. And she easily recalled the tears that came to her own eyes when she overheard Xena's prayer that Gabrielle not pursue fruitless vengeance. The warrior had been so afraid for Gabrielle, and herself.

The thought of that time caused a smile and she bent forward and carefully kissed Xena's cheek. "Good night, Warrior Princess."

Gabrielle leaned back and curled her arm underneath her head, closing her eyes.

Xena opened her eyes to watch the bard's breathing even into sleep. She rolled carefully to her back and cautiously closed her eyes.

* * * * *

Morning arrived with bright sunbeams flooding their room. Xena was already awake, seated on a stool polishing her chakram. Her sword, already polished, lay atop the scabbard on her left. She was dressed in her leathers. Her breastplate and shoulder guards lay on the floor by her right foot. Gabrielle sat up, awakening to this sight.

She stretched and Xena watched her friend's green eyes flicker from sleep to wakefulness. "Good morning, sleepyhead. Catch enough winks?"

"Yeah, I slept fine. How about you?" Gabrielle threw her legs over the side of the bed, stretching her legs and relaxing and clenching her toes.

"It was good. Thank you for suggesting I use the bed."

"You're welcome." Gabrielle smiled. "I'll have to remember this."

"Nope, I don't want to get soft."

Gabrielle slipped out of her shift and was wrapping her skirt. She remarked, "We wouldn't want that."

Xena laughed. She'd expected to get the rise out of the young bard. Gabrielle had taken it upon herself once Xena stopped pushing her away, to put ease into the warrior's life. It wasn't easy. More precisely, Xena didn't make it easy. She had lived ten years with her rougher self. It was well broken in and comfortable. But Gabrielle kept reminding her that it wasn't comforting. And that reminder in the form of the bard's continued presence, Xena realized, was comforting.

"Ready for breakfast?"

"Let's eat on the road," said Gabrielle.

Xena looked up. "What did you say?"

"Let's get moving and eat on the road."

"Are you feeling all right?" Xena came to her feet and put her hand on Gabrielle's forehead.

"Yeah, just fine. Why?" Gabrielle pulled the warrior's hand away and finished tucking her skirt and tying off the laces of her top.

"You never just want to eat on the road."

"So, I want a change of pace. Come on, let's get Argo and split this place." Gabrielle picked up the bag of her scrolls and settled it over her shoulder. Then she picked up the bags from Argo's saddle while Xena slipped into her breastplate and shoulder guards.

Xena slipped on her scabbard and adjusted it before slipping on the guards for her wrists. "Let's go." Making a check of the room, and sweeping her blankets off the floor with a smile, Xena indicated Gabrielle should lead the way out.

* * * * *

"Where's my horse!" Xena pulled out her sword and Gabrielle backed up. "What did you do with my horse!" The warrior cursed the stable master, now cowering in front of the angry woman.

"I didn't do anything. I couldn't find you and your friend after..."

Gabrielle stepped in now, "Xena, wait. Let him speak." Xena dropped her sword. Gabrielle spoke to the stable master. "You'd better talk quickly."

"We were overrun last night. Horse thieves took off with all the stabled horses." Xena growled. She actually growled, Gabrielle noted. The stable master looked from the bard back to the warrior and quickly added, "Honest!"

"Which way did they head?" Xena demanded.

"South along the main road."

Gabrielle looked to Xena. "Back the way we came?"

"Let's see if we can find those Athenian guards." While she spoke, Xena carefully watched the stable master's reaction. When she mentioned the Athenian guard, he blanched. "C'mon, Gabrielle. Let the good stable master get back to tending his empty stable." She turned on her heel and walked away without looking back. Gabrielle followed but looked over her shoulder when she heard a dull thud. The stable master had collapsed in a dead faint.

Now that Gabrielle thought on it, she may have heard two of the horse thieves discussing their catch last night in the inn. She decided not to mention it to Xena unless they saw the same men again. When Xena was angry, as she was now, she was unpredictable. Gabrielle didn't want her thinking she was keeping information from her. Actually, now that Gabrielle thought on it. . . "Xena, I think we want to talk to the innkeeper before we go."


"He was discussing horses with another man last night."

Xena turned on Gabrielle. "Why didn't you mention this before?"

"It didn't sound important at the time," Gabrielle defended.

"We really ought to try and find the trail, but perhaps the innkeeper can be persuaded to save us some time."

"Let me talk first," Gabrielle pleaded, putting her hand on Xena's arm. But she snatched it away when she caught the glare from Xena's cobalt blue eyes. "All right, let's get some answers."

Xena stormed into the inn and ran the innkeeper to ground behind the bar, cleaning mugs from the night before. "I'd like to speak with you about a horse." Gabrielle was amazed. Xena had, in the few strides it had taken to get here, pulled herself under control. She was still seething, but she had leashed her temper. The bard stepped back and watched.

The innkeeper, to his credit, didn't cavil. "What horse?"

"My mount which I stabled last night. My friend here says you were discussing horses and I was wondering if you might have been discussing mine."

"I haven't seen any horses, lady. That's the truth."

"Anyone else here seen any?"

The innkeeper shook his head. He swallowed then at the icicles shooting at him from the depths of those blue eyes.

Xena grabbed his tunic collar and twisted. He broke down then. "They're camped on the eastern side of the road leading out of town. Down by a lake. They head only once a week for the port of Berra where they ship the horses to buyers."

"What's the leader's name?" Xena growled.


"You're lucky you talked," Xena remarked dryly. "You will give my friend all the money from our room back. Right now."

The innkeeper began to fluster. "I earned that fair. You can't take away my livelihood."

"You're lucky I don't take away your life," Xena growled.

The innkeeper believed her. Gabrielle soon found herself pocketing the 25 dinars from last night's room.

"Come on, Gabrielle. We've got to get moving. They'll probably have sent on a warning while we were yelling at the stable master. The camp will break before long."

Gabrielle nodded and followed Xena out the door.

* * * * *

Gabrielle jogged to keep up with Xena, who, though walking, didn't waste a single stride, and hurried back down the road they'd entered town on the night before. They'd been outside the town for almost 2 hours and were nearing the spot where Xena had been attacked by the Athenian guard.

"Do you think we'll still find them?" Gabrielle asked.

"I don't know. Let's get down to that lake and see what we can find." Xena crouched and peered into the forest, trying to discern which path ahead would lead to the Athenians' camp. She stood and entered the foliage. Gabrielle could tell by the tilt of her head that Xena was in her battle-ready frame of mind. Her ears and eyes were on guard for any sudden movements, her body itself was alert to any approach. Gabrielle had learned not to do anything sudden herself when Xena was like this. It was a trait left over from her warlord days and Xena swung first, asking questions later. And it didn't always happen just before a known confrontation like now.

Gabrielle had one time been practice swinging her staff as she approached a river near their campsite where Xena was bathing. Before she'd broken through the last line of trees, Gabrielle had found herself pinned uncomfortably on the ground with Xena's sword and muscled arm knocking the breath out of her body. The warrior had been naked and wet.

Gabrielle came out of her reverie to crouch beside Xena just beyond the perimeter of the camp. Or at least where it had been. Xena cursed long and fluidly. "Stay here," the warrior commanded before she slipped into the clearing and studied the ground.

Xena paced to the perimeter in several directions, looking for the signs indicating which way the troop had departed. Finally she found it. Orderly tracks led off to the northeast. "Gabrielle, let's go!"

The bard stood, resettled her bags on her shoulders and hurried after Xena, who had already started into the forest again.

By midday, Xena was getting the feeling that they were falling farther and farther behind the troop, instead of narrowing the gap. That was until she found evidence that suggested the troop might need to stop soon: several horses over the uneven terrain had tossed their shoes. Xena sat down on some rocks and tried to think. Where were they? What was the nearest town? Could they circumvent the troop and beat them to that town?

Gabrielle remained quiet, sitting beside her friend, waiting for her to tell her the plan.

"They may head for Brestia. To reshoe those horses."

Gabrielle gave an understanding nod of her head, but said nothing.

"We might be able to beat them there if we can get out onto a road and meet a marketman heading into town."

Again, Gabrielle just nodded, saying nothing.

Xena dropped her shoulders. At that, Gabrielle finally spoke. "But you don't really think we'll be able to do it."

Xena nodded her head slowly. "Argo is probably out of reach now."

Gabrielle put a hand on Xena's upper arm. "Maybe not. How close do we have to get for your whistle to reach Argo?"

Xena shrugged. "Maybe 500 yards. We'd have to be just outside their camp."

Gabrielle's eyes twinkled. "Or hidden in a busy nearby market." Pause. "I think we ought to try and beat the troops to Brestia."

Xena looked over her shoulder at her friend. "Argo is just a horse."

Gabrielle shook her head. "Not to you she isn't. Nor to me. That horse helped me figure out Callisto had borrowed your body. I owe her."

Xena rubbed her hands together, renewed by her friend's words. "All right. We're going to want to move quickly. So give me the bags."

Gabrielle lifted one off her shoulder and helped settle it over Xena's, but she kept the other. "We're partners. Let's go."

Xena and Gabrielle broke free of the heaviest trees and turned northeast toward Brestia at a jog.

* * * * *

By staying to the dirt roads, something the troop they pursued was not doing, Gabrielle and Xena made good time. They managed to hitch a ride on a marketman's wagon. The pair reached Brestia just before the town square market closed for the night. There was no immediate sign of the troop of Athenians, or any of the horses. Perhaps they were camping outside town, like before, and would only come in with those horses needing reshoeing, in the morning.

Gabrielle and Xena needed their rest. But neither wanted to sleep at the inn, for fear they'd miss the early morning arrival of the horses to the smithy. So they strolled around for a while, talked over a quick meal at a local tavern, and then bedded down right in the stable, paying the stable master for the stall they used.

Gabrielle spread out their blankets on the straw and sat down. She was tired. Though she usually walked everywhere instead of riding like Xena, the day's pace was much faster than she was used to. But she had enough presence of mind to offer Xena a story as the warrior lay back on the blankets, their bags as makeshift pillows.

"I'd like one, thanks."

"The Race for Atalanta."

Xena nodded and watched as Gabrielle's whole demeanor changed. The bard was amazing. She related the story of Atalanta, dedicated virgin huntress of Artemis, who challenged any man who wanted to wed her to a race. Gabrielle's voice took on the qualities of each character in turn: the haughty king, the defiant Atalanta, the eager suitors, clever Aphrodite who gave the distracting golden apples to the one chosen to capture Atalanta's heart. Xena was still worried about the treatment and condition of her horse, but Gabrielle's lighthearted story lifted her spirits enough so that she finally slept.

Gabrielle remained awake nearly a candlemark after finishing her story and watching Xena roll over. Gabrielle looked over at her staff and hoped she would be of some help come morning. Xena and she had decided to hide in the marketplace, dressed in local clothes and wait for the horses to appear.

If Argo wasn't among the horses needing a new shoe, Xena had decided they would take out as many of the men as possible and sneak into the camp wearing the armor. Discovery would be deadly but Gabrielle had continued to press Xena that Argo was worth it. Now, as she sat here, listening to her friend breathing evenly in sleep, she worried.

She resolved to not let Xena know how scared she was; she suspected the warrior already knew, but Gabrielle reasoned, if I don't show my fear, she won't worry about me. She'll have enough to worry about rescuing Argo.

* * * * *

Xena shook herself awake just before dawn. The anxiety about Argo returned full force as she went over the plan again. Gabrielle had been insistent that she participate. 'To cover your back' she had reasoned. Xena didn't need anyone to cover her back, but appreciated that Gabrielle considered her problems as their problems.

She glanced over at the young bard now, her mind on the last few months. Since bringing Gabrielle out of the Thestilean temple when she hadn't expected to do anything but bury her, Xena had felt her distance between herself and Gabrielle, already shrinking, completely disappearing at unusual moments. Like right now, as Xena watched the gentle rise and fall of Gabrielle's chest, Xena felt her heart expanding, so glad that Gabrielle had returned from the Elysian Fields. On the heels of that thought, she wondered for the umpteenth time exactly what had happened to Gabrielle on the other side to make her feel that returning to life was better than eternity in paradise.

"What was it?" she implored the sleeping figure. "What's so wonderful about traveling with a war-torn old warlord that you'd give up the hereafter with your family?"

Xena shoved aside her questions, hoping someday to have enough courage to ask them, and stood up stretching. This bedding down on the hay was better than the cold ground of a campsite, but nothing like the bed at the inn the night before. She admitted privately to pleasure that the bard had suggested it.

Leaning over, Xena shook the bard's shoulder. "Come on, Gabrielle. We've got to get into place."

Gabrielle, usually slow to awaken, moved almost instantly. Though she was not truly awake, she was suddenly on her feet, brushing at her clothing and adjusting her hair. She pulled out the thin bone clasps from her bag and secured her hair.

Xena was undoing her thick braid. She released it and tied back a portion of her hair to lay atop the rest, cascading down across her shoulders and back. Gabrielle passed over a soft cloth dress from their bags, before retrieving her own. Both women quickly slipped out of their clothes and pulled on the dresses. Xena adjusted Gabrielle's collar, settling the dress more evenly on the bard's shoulders while Gabrielle did the same for her.

"Ready?" asked Gabrielle when she finished smoothing the fabric with a light pat.

"Let's take our things and stash them in an alley while we wait."

Gabrielle nodded and both women gathered up their belongings, hoping that by day's end, they would be able to secure them to Argo's saddle.

Gabrielle gave Xena's arm a reassuring squeeze. The warrior smiled warmly down at her friend. Then the women strode out of the stable.

Out in the square, market stands were already being set up. Xena and Gabrielle strolled unnoticed, breaking their fast on the foodstuffs of various vendors. Gabrielle did not purchase to renew their supplies, and Xena commented on it.

"Your optimism is overwhelming," remarked the warrior sarcastically.

Gabrielle ducked her head and covered for her lack of optimism with reason. "It'll be easier to run if we aren't weighted with unnecessary baggage. We can stock up on supplies after we get Argo."

Xena nodded and returned to browsing at a curio cart. Gabrielle studied some carved pipes on a musician's cart. Xena was the first to hear the commotion enter the square. Surreptitiously she scanned over her shoulder, seeing three men dressed in the Athenian guard regalia, leading six horses which stepped carefully along the dirt lane. She moved to the other side of the cart and studied each of the six horses. Her heart sank; Argo was not among them.

Gabrielle, too, noticed Argo was not one of the horses now being led to the smithy. Time for Plan Two.

"We'll surprise the guards after they drop off the horses and enter the tavern for a drink," Xena whispered, indicating the tavern. "I'm going over to the cart near the blacksmith now. You follow when they come out."

Gabrielle nodded, then whispered, "Be careful."

* * * * *

Xena tried to act demure to fit her costume, but it was hard when she knew she would be in action again to regain her horse. She managed to approach a bread cart nearest the smithy with a suitably interested look. A glance over her shoulder revealed Gabrielle was not having as much luck being convincingly unnoticeable. The young bard was virtually standing still, watching Xena. With a quick lift of her hand, Xena indicated that Gabrielle should turn away. The bard did so quickly, stumbling into a farmer's wife, with a shopping basket slung over her forearm. Xena inched around the cart, listening closely to the happenings inside the blacksmith's shed.

"We need these horses reshod by nightfall," one man said.

"I can have maybe half reshod by then. But not likely all six."

"We'll pay double your rate to see it done and done quickly, Smith."

Xena smiled. Maybe the troop had heard one of their mounts was stolen from the Warrior Princess. What else could make the captain so eager to keep moving?

She followed the trio toward the tavern and saw Gabrielle fall into step behind them. She nodded to Gabrielle. The two women approached the men in the shadow of the tavern entrance.

"Looking for a good time?" Xena enticed the one nearest her.

"Could be. What're you offering?"

"Company for the day." She smiled her most beguiling. On the other side, Gabrielle was sidling up to another.

Xena and Gabrielle both soon secured companions of similar height and stature to themselves. The third would have to wait until they were on their way back to the camp. The group however, all settled at a table in the tavern and Xena began enticing hers upstairs after only a single mug of ale. She was giggling like a schoolchild, and making erotic advances. The man followed like a puppy, and Xena led him upstairs.

Gabrielle looked at her "conquest" and again wondered at how easily Xena could turn on the charm. She herself had no experience being a siren. But she'd have to try. Xena needed her to make the ride in disguise with her.

"Nice evening they're about t' have," she remarked coyly to the man nearest her, though her eyes remained on the disappearing backs of Xena and her companion. "Giving you any ideas?" Gabrielle let her eyes drift to his face, decided it was pleasant enough and smiled enticingly.

The man shrugged. "Let Larmos have his fun. I'll not partake of village droppings."

Gabrielle fumed at the insult dealt her and smacked his face. She stood up and kicked him. Not one to be beaten up in public by a mere slip of a girl, the man dragged her upstairs.

Xena was emerging from a room wearing the armor and clothing of the man she'd brought upstairs. She turned around to pull the sleeping room's door shut.

From behind, to the man holding Gabrielle she looked uncannily similar, Gabrielle decided, only she noticed that her friend was more slender than Larmos. Her companion made the similiarity apparently too. He kicked in his door across the way and told his buddy. "I'll return downstairs, as soon as I teach this wench a thing or two about respect."

Xena spun and lunged, knocking the man to the floor. Gabrielle leapt out of the way, and watched as the warrior knocked him cold.

When she stood, dragging the body into the room where she'd left Larmos, Xena asked, exasperated, "What took you so long to get up here?"

"He wasn't interested," Gabrielle answered, helping her friend arrange the unconscious men on the bed.

"Well, never mind now. Let's get his clothes off and onto you. Quickly."

Xena removed the man's armor and clothing down to his underclothes. Gabrielle slipped on the belted tunic and tight breeches. After she slid on the boots, Xena helped her into the plated armor. With the helmet pulled low and her hair tucked up inside, Gabrielle was nearly indistinguishable from the man she was replacing.

"Is this really going to fool their companion?"

"It only needs to convince him until we're outside the town gate. We can't risk attacking him until we know where the camp is," Xena explained. "You'll fool him easily enough. Just don't talk."

"What about you?"

"I listened close enough to our other friend, the one called Larmos, that I think. . ." Xena paused then dropped her voice another octave, "I can do a fair enough imitation, don't you think?"

Gabrielle was astonished. "You should be the bard, Xena. I've never heard anything like it. You managed his intonations perfectly."

"I'll leave the storytelling to you," Xena continued, remaining in Larmos's voice. "I'll settle for getting us out of town in one piece."

Gabrielle shook her head and smiled. "Let's go then."

Careful to stride like men in their stolen armor, Xena and Gabrielle returned to the dimly lit main room of the tavern. With some careful words, Xena suggested they fetch those horses the smith had reshod, and let the captain send another group to fetch the remainder later.

The third man concurred, tired of the small town scenery. When the three arrived at the stable for their mounts, Xena watched Gabrielle carefully; here was a test of the girl's mettle. She would have to mount up, like the man she was pretending to be. Xena herself swung up easily.

Gabrielle looked at her mount with misgivings, but gamely pulled herself into the saddle. A little white-knuckled, but in place, she nodded to Xena. The trio started off for the blacksmith's shed. When there, the three dismounted.

"Ah, you've returned. Good. I have three done. And another nearly finished," said the smith by way of greeting.

Xena spoke in Larmos's voice. "We'll take them back to camp then."

The smith nodded and indicated the three tied horses. Xena walked over and grabbed the reins of two. Before Gabrielle could make a move, she shook her head at the bard. The third man grabbed the other two and led them outside. Xena followed. Gabrielle last.

Outside the third man mounted up, and waited. Xena leapt into the saddle and swung the two horses she led, around to stand in such a way that Gabrielle had protection from being seen struggling to get into the saddle.

"You drank too much, eh, Farrell?" commented the man as he caught a glimpse of Gabrielle's struggle.

Xena supplied, "Probably some overripe ale. Let's get moving."

"Ah, you're right about that. Let's go."

The man led, Xena and Gabrielle rode alongside one another behind him.

Very shortly, the trio were outside the gates and heading southwest, off the road.

"So," said the third man. "Larmos, was that brunette a good tumble?"

"She was all right. Left her sleeping like a babe."

"Just don't let the captain know you took liberties while on duty. He'll skin you."

Xena did not respond. From beneath her helm, she studied the man she was going to have to kill, looking over his manner, his carriage, which arm was his dominant one, and other pre-battle assessments. She nodded to Gabrielle, who dropped back a bit, then she nudged her mount forward.

Without warning, she launched herself from her saddle onto the back of the other horse. She threw her arms around him and dragged him with her to the ground. She tossed off her helm and kicked away the man's sword.

He sputtered in so much surprise that Xena had enough time to run him through without preamble. But the man grabbed the hilt and pulled her off balance.

"Xena!" Gabrielle's voice rang out clearly.

Recognition of the name was the last emotion which registered on the dying man's face. He fell backward. Xena lifted herself off of the dead man, and swung up behind Gabrielle on the horse. "Let's go! The camp is over the next rise. See the smoke from their fires?"

Her heart still in her throat from watching the fight, Gabrielle let Xena guide the horse until they were concealed by trees. She listened as Xena offered a final piece of advice. "All you'll have is that sword on your hip, Gabrielle. Do not use it like a staff." Gabrielle swallowed. Xena patted her shoulder. "If we can just find where the horses are corralled, we may not have to fight too many." Together they dismounted, Gabrielle stumbling as her feet hit the dirt.

Xena remained by her side as the two of them circled the camp slowly, looking out at the activities. They spotted the captain's tent. And the cook tent. But no sign yet of the horse corral. Until they swung around due south of the camp. There, just inside the perimeter. About 30 mounts were trotting around within a small circle of wooden fencing, a dozen or so were war-horses. Gabrielle didn't see Argo and said as much, in a whisper, to Xena.

"No. Look. Over there," remarked Xena, smiling. Her golden mare was apart from the other warhorses, mingling with the farm horses.

Gabrielle smiled then too. The horse's position was closer to the side of the corral nestled against a tent. By sticking to the shadows, Gabrielle or Xena could easily get close and snatch up Argo's reins.

"Wait here," said Xena. "I'll be right back."

Gabrielle remained crouched on the dirt as Xena stood and, half-bent over, crept toward the shadows of that tent.

"Tell your friend to stop," a disembodied voice startled the young bard, who fell backward. When she looked up, fully expecting to see the hardened visage of an Athenian guard. Instead she looked into the youthful face of a man in a golden helmet, engraved with wings. When she rolled onto her stomach to get up she looked at golden shoes with wings. "Hermes? What?"

She stood before the youngest of the gods, who had a smirk on his face. "I command you to call the warrior princess back."

"I can't do that. To call out her name would put her in danger."

"She may not have her horse back."

"Why not? She's come all this way for Argo, and she deserves her back."

"She cannot have back what a god has taken."

Gabrielle sputtered. "You took the horses?"

"I arranged for it. After all, I am a horse thief. And Argo is a prime specimen."

"Why can't you gods leave Xena alone?" Gabrielle whispered harshly.

"She is the best and the gods are attracted to the best, you know."

Gabrielle sighed. "What would have to be done for Xena to get to keep Argo?"

Hermes shook his head. "Nothing. I have spoken."

Gabrielle turned on the charm. "Listen, Hermes. She's going to take Argo right out of that camp any second now. I will do anything to make sure she keeps the mare, including bargaining with you."

"You, little bard? What could you have, that I might want?" Hermes studied the armor-clad woman trying to be a warrior. "You are just a bard."

Gabrielle nodded. "And I could be Hermes' bard. You don't have one yet. I know."

Hermes scoffed. "If you're so good to be the bard to a god, why me?"

"Because you are young, lighthearted . . . most of the time, and at the service of the other gods. For that you are like Man, I would serve your name as friend to Man. Akin to Prometheus in great services to the people of the known world." Gabrielle had slipped into her bard voice, enrapturing the young god with her promises of grandeur.

Xena happened on this scene, Argo in tow, and sat back, hidden by the bushes, listening. From what Gabrielle was saying, her companion was Hermes. But why? And Gabrielle was regaling him with some tale if her deep bard voice was any indication. She hated to break up the party, but...

"Gabrielle!" Xena interrupted. "We'd better get going."

"Just a minute, Xena. Come here."

Xena approached the young god and her friend cautiously. "What?"

Gabrielle introduced her companion with a grand flourish, building him up carefully. "Xena, Warrior Princess, may I introduce, Hermes, Messenger of the Gods."

Xena nodded. "Hello. Come on, Gabrielle, we must be on our way."

Gabrielle shook her head. "Not until I have an answer from him." She turned to the god. "Well? Do we have a deal or what?"

Hermes looked from the Warrior Princess to the little bard. Gabrielle was quite well-spoken for one so young. He was persuaded. "Come to my temple in Athens by the next full moon and I will accept your allegiance there."

Xena shook her head. "My friend doesn't make deals with gods."

Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's arm. "I did." Xena stared at her. "So you could keep Argo."

Xena studied the bard's face and knew she was telling the truth. "Why would you want my horse?" she asked the god, with as much deference as she could manage.

"Argo would be mother to a great line of horses, Warrior Princess."

Xena shook her head. "She's been my horse since I rescued her from being beaten at the hands of an angry farmer, and nursed her back to health."

Hermes sneered. "She is a warhorse, more fit for a life of rough riding than a life of ease."

Xena shook her head. "Argo deserves every moment of peace I can find for her. Like me." Xena looked to Gabrielle for a moment. "Like me, she doesn't only have one purpose. She is friend, and solace, as well as mount."

Hermes was surprised at the passion in Xena's voice. So was Gabrielle. But the words seemed to win over the young god, for when he spoke, it was with reprieve. "You may go, Warrior Princess. And you too, Bard. Argo will live a long and gifted life with two of her closest friends."

With a snap of his fingers, Hermes faded from sight. Behind them, the camp of the Athenian guard vanished as well. Xena stared at the empty clearing before walking over to Argo and rubbing the mare's nose as she tried to absorb what had just happened.

"So, that's why you didn't hear them when all this started," commented Gabrielle, looking at the empty glade. "They were god-made."

Xena frowned. "I still should have been more careful."

Gabrielle came up to Argo, and stood alongside Xena. "Are you going to be all right?"

Xena nodded. "I appreciate what you almost did for me."

Gabrielle shrugged. "Like I said, that horse helped me know it was Callisto in your body. I wasn't going to let her get away before I'd had a chance to thank her properly."

Xena frowned. "What's properly?"

Gabrielle smiled. "You're both" - she looked at Xena and Argo - "going to teach me how to ride."

Xena laughed and offered Gabrielle a hand up to Argo's saddle. Then she held the reins and mounted up behind her friend. "Back to town. You, my friend, get the biggest dinner you've eaten in months, and you, Argo, are going to get the biggest bag of apples I can find."

Xena hugged Gabrielle with her arms and Argo with her legs. Neighing softly, Argo carried her friends back to town for the feast of three lifetimes.


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