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Chapter Twenty-Five ~~~~
The group of vagrants silently witnessed the tall woman’s arrival at the edge of the little clearing. They watched nervously as the warrior slid off the mare’s back, secured the reins to a tree limb and proceeded carefully toward the mouth of the cave. When the leather-clad figure disappeared through the opening, the men emerged from their leafy hiding places and converged on the same opening. One of the scowling thieves wordlessly motioned toward the others in the group as they quickly aligned themselves in a wide circle outside the cave.
Inside the cavern, Xena’s senses alerted her to the presence of the motley crew. She stood still for a moment, her sharp instincts determining their number and their relative positions. She silently drew her sword and slowly stepped back toward the entrance of the cave.
The warrior’s attention was quickly captured by the sound of the rocky trapdoor rattling across the floor behind her. She quickly turned around, ready to meet the challenge of whoever had engaged the appliance, her body vigilant and alert. When the stones stopped moving, the warrior’s focus remained locked on the granite facade ... until the voice behind her echoed against the earthen walls of the cave.
"Pretty inventive, isn’t it?" a raspy voice asked. Xena stiffened, then turned slowly toward the owner of the rough tones. She recognized Phantaos’ hard-featured face and her mouth curled in a repulsed scowl.
"Phantaos," the warrior growled. "Why am I not really surprised to see you in a hole with the other vermin who probably live here?" The pitted face glared in glee. He looped his gloved thumbs over the wide belt around his massive waist. "Gawl!" the ruffian barked and the second bully appeared in the middle of the secret opening. Xena glanced sideways at the other brute, stepping slowly to her right to place herself between the two bandits.
Phantaos stepped to the side of the cave’s entrance and bowed slightly, extending his arm toward the mouth of the shelter. He gave the warrior a complacent grin, then bent and moved through the opening. Xena threw a contemptuous glare at the second man, then followed Phantaos’ path, emerging outside into the afternoon light. The circle of highwaymen tightened around the warrior’s figure, all of the men armed and sporting uncompromising expressions.
"So, what do you have in mind, Phantaos?" Xena said to the smug leader. "All of them and me?" She leveled a challenge at the scarred face. "Or just you and your sword against me and mine?"
Phantaos’ smirk grew into a maddening grin. He swaggered nearer to the tall warrior. When they were an arm’s length apart, he turned away from her slightly and bent his head toward her in a sickeningly familiar manner. "Just one thing before I answer," he sniggered, turning to face the clearing more directly. He searched the area for a moment before he faced the warrior’s steady gaze again. "Who’s the kid?" Phantaos’ dark eyes met the warrior’s cobalt stare, then turned smugly toward the small figure a few leagues’ distance away from them.
Xena followed the bully’s gaze and her jaw stiffened when she recognized the compact form running toward them. The blue eyes darted to the dark pools of the criminal before returning to the familiar little body. She tried valiantly to submerge her pulsing concern.
"He’s just a boy from town. He must have followed me here. I told him I’d help him catch a wild colt that he fancies." She turned back to the brigand. "He’s just a kid from Almiros, that’s all."
Phantaos’ dark eyes grew hard and mean. "Get rid of him, or I’ll have Gawl put an arrow through his head." Xena saw the other bully pull the mechanism of his crossbow into place, the arrow trained directly at the small figure advancing toward them. She glared back at the glowering face. "You know I’ll do it, don’t you?" He held the blue eyes calmly. One of the men pulled Xena’s sword from her hand and snatched the chakram from her belt. Phantaos cocked his head toward the approaching child. "Send him away without making him suspicious." He turned a complacent grin toward the youngster.
Camber dropped the pony’s reins as he started up the small hill toward the warrior and the group of men from the valley. He threw a triumphant smile at the woman as he arrived, breathless and panting, in front of her. For a moment, he thought she was angry with him for following her, but as he got closer, he saw something else in the pretty, blue eyes. It made him suddenly hesitant and somewhat edgy.
"Camber," Xena began, forcing herself to smile invitingly at the youngster’s expectant face. "What are you doing out here at this time of day? It’s going to be dark soon."
The boy’s instincts crackled, but he kept his manner calm and accepting. He threw the warrior an agreeable grin and perched his fists at the sides of his belt. The boy trained a cheerful smile at the dark man wearing dirty clothes standing right next to the tall warrior.
"Hi," the boy said easily. "Remember me? I’m the one who always waves at you when I come to the clearing."
Phantaos smiled back at the boy. "Oh yeah. Camber, is it? Nice to see you again." The big man crossed his heavy arms across his chest. Xena’s fists clenched when she heard the subtle sound of the crossbow’s locking arm sliding into place. She quickly stepped forward, placing herself between Camber and the clear line of fire from the threatening arrow.
"Ah, Camber," the warrior said to the boy. "I have some business to attend to with these men. And, it’s getting late, so we’ll have to go after the white horse in the morning, all right?" Camber’s brown eyes jumped to the warrior’s intense gaze, the wide pools narrowing a tiny degree before the message in her words registered in his mind. "So, just meet me back in town and we’ll set a plan for the chase. All right?"
Xena focused meaningfully on the boy’s open gaze. "We’ll go after the white colt tomorrow," the warrior said deliberately. "I give you my word. All right?"
For an instant, the warrior felt a searing glimmer of panic, afraid that the child might react outwardly to her deliberate falsity and incite the robbers into taking dangerous action. But in the next moment she saw the clear understanding flash in the soft, intelligent face. Camber met the blue eyes calmly as the young face sent a corroborative grin back to the woman’s contrived smile.
"Yeah, OK," the boy said cheerfully. He gave the warrior a little salute and sent a friendly grin toward the big man with the serious face. "See you back in town then. I’ll wait for you at the stable, all right, Xena?" The warrior nodded stiffly and the boy turned and scampered back to the waiting pony, jumped onto the animal’s back and urged the little horse forward.
Xena watched the small form grow smaller before she drew a shallow, relieved breath. She said a silent thanks to whichever god had engineered the boy’s compliance and swallowed the dread in her throat. The stiffness in her shoulders had almost dispersed when she heard the gloating, satisfied voice next to her ear.
"Nicely done, Warrior Princess," Phantaos crooned. "You just saved the little whelp’s life."
The warrior leveled a venomous glare at the ugly face.
"Too bad the same can’t be said for yours," the bully smirked.
Suddenly, a sharp pain exploded across the warrior’s skull. She fell to the ground unconscious, the butt of her own sword having been slammed against the back of her head.
When Xena regained consciousness, the first thing she noticed was the rampant, throbbing pain that occurred whenever she opened her eyes. She clamped them shut a moment, then opened them again very slowly. The blurred images in front of her eventually sharpened as the pounding in her head subsided slightly. The next thing to prick her awareness was the fact she was sitting on the ground, her back against a large, wooden post with her hands secured behind her and the length of rope wound around her chest and shoulders was wrapped so tightly, it prevented her from even drawing a deep breath, let alone trying to move away from the pillar. Finally she realized the face looming above hers was Phantaos and it was wearing a satisfied leer.
"Well, at least I have the pleasure of you knowing who sent you to Hades." The evil face laughed loudly as he leaned over the warrior’s captured form. "Good bye, Xena. We’ll meet in Tartarus some day. And then you can try and return this."
With that, the man drew back one large, gloved hand and delivered a heavy blow across the warrior’s jaw. Her head snapped back against the post and the blackness returned again. As the bully watched, the dark head fell forward, blood trickling from the side of the woman’s mouth onto the flanges of her leather skirt. He stood up straight, dropped the metal circle in his hand beside the sword near the warrior’s hip and laughed again.
"They’ll find your little toys when the worms are through with you." He turned to the brigand beside him. "All loaded?" he asked the plodding thief. When the man nodded, Phantaos moved toward the door to the large room. "Let’s go."
The lieutenant followed his leader to the opening. When Phantaos had passed through the doorway, Gawl turned and flung the lighted torch in his hand into the rippling pool of oil in the center of the wide area. The pool immediately burst into flames, filling the now-barren enclosure with thick, choking smoke. The bully cast a final view at the unconscious woman slumped at the base of the post, then turned and passed through the opening. A few minutes later, there was only quiet in the large room, except for the crackling of the oil-fed fire consuming the wooden shelves and pillars ... and advancing slowly toward the limp form of the warrior princess.
Chapter Twenty-Six ~~~
Xena became aware that the throbbing pain was back, only this time it seemed to travel across her jaw as well as the side of her head. She coughed as the thick smoke around her singed her throat and burned her eyes. The other sensation that captured her attention was the gentle, but determined touch being applied to her right cheek and the soft, young voice saying her name over and over. She slowly opened her eyes and tried to focus on the small face in front of her.
"Xena?" Camber said again. "Xena?" he repeated, patting the woman’s face with his hand. "Wake up, Xena, please. We have to get out of here."
Finally the blue eyes opened wide, stared at him a moment, blinked a few times, then registered clear recognition. The young face smiled widely as the pretty blue eyes cleared and the smooth face responded to his voice.
"Camber?" the warrior said, her voice strident in the empty room.
"It’s all right," the boy said quietly. "Those bad men are gone. I saw them leave."
"What are ... how did you get here?" the warrior asked, the thumping pain in her head distorting her perception.
The boy ignored her question and began tugging hard at the ropes securing her hands. Xena’s voice interrupted his efforts. "No, Camber. Take my sword and cut them. It’ll be faster." The boy’s eyes were surprised, his expression hesitant. "Go on," she urged him. It’s on my other side." She motioned with her head, ignoring the furious pounding that resulted from the hard jerk. "Go on, Camber. Hurry. We don’t have much time."
As if to punctuate her words, one section of the wooden shelving units collapsed, showering the area with sparks and creating a wall of yellow flames as it cascaded to the floor. The boy jumped, then scurried around to the warrior’s other side, picked up the large sword and wedged it between the wood and the ropes along the back of the post. He pulled the handle roughly towards him, took another firm hold on the weapon and pulled again. An instant later, the ropes popped away from the post as Camber stumbled back a step, recoiling from the unexpected snap.
Xena pulled the remaining hemp away from her shoulders then bent her head under the loose circles, freeing herself from the restricting binds. She stood up quickly, using one hand to steady herself, and waited for the wave of dizziness to pass. Camber reached to support the staggering woman. When she had regained control, Xena bent slightly to pick up the chakram from the earthen floor, took the sword from the boy and slid the blade into the sheath on her back. A moment later, a large post next to the one she had been tied against began to waver, falling slowly toward the spot where the warrior and the boy stood.
Xena wrapped her arms around Camber and flung the two of them away from the falling timber. The warrior’s slender body fell hard onto the dirt floor of the cave as the post crashed to the ground in the precise spot they had occupied a moment ago. She winced as her shoulder slammed onto the inflexible, rocky surface. After a moment, she looked down at the boy in her arms. His brown eyes were wide and fearful, his arms wrapped around her neck.
"You OK?" she asked hurriedly. He nodded quickly and scrambled to his feet. "You’re bleeding!" the boy shouted, pointing at the deep gash along the warrior’s shoulder. Xena stood, turning her head to inspect the wound. She swore under her breath at the blood oozing slowly from the open slash. Suddenly her attention was drawn to the burning timbers and the collapsing shelves. She grabbed the boy’s arm and ran toward the darkened opening that led to the smaller cave.
When she reached the door, she threw her healthy shoulder against the surface filling the hatch, stepped back again and repeated the thrust. The surface didn’t move. It had obviously been wedged closed from the other side. Their only means of escape seemed worthless. The blue eyes found the boy’s frightened face.
Suddenly Camber began tugging at the warrior’s hand. "C’mon," he said, pulling her back toward the open room. "We can get out this way."
Xena followed as the boy started to travel along the outer wall of the smoky room, one arm clamped over his mouth and nose, the other securely grasping the warrior’s wrist. She crouched down, trying to stay lower than the rapidly sinking cloud of dark, choking smoke, while at the same time making a determined effort to keep contact with the insistent little hand.
After a half dozen difficult strides, she felt the boy drop to the cave floor then reach back to retrieve her hand. She followed his actions and dropped to her knees, using one arm to shield her mouth as she crept along the earthen floor, Camber’s small hand now tugging at the leather strap on her tunic.
Xena saw the boy’s small figure disappear into the side of the cave. She realized he was guiding her toward another opening, a second access to the interior of the cave. She flattened herself against the earthen floor, found the narrow tunnel with her extended hand and slid her long form into the open shaft. She followed the sound of Camber crawling along the passage ahead of her as she pulled her body along using her elbows and boots to propel herself.
Suddenly the sound of a loud explosion filled the underground tunnel. The warrior covered her head with one arm and frantically reached forward, searching for the boy’s foot. She grunted gratefully when her hand fell on a small boot, and she held on tightly as the dirt and debris from inside the tunnel tumbled down around them. After a few moments, the warrior raised her head.
"Camber?" she shouted, shaking the little foot. "Camber, are you all right?"
She heard a series of muffled coughs followed by a series of loud spitting noises. The warrior expelled a short, happy breath, then found herself spitting the dirt out of her own mouth as well. She felt the little foot move in her hand. She released the boot as the boy craned his head around to answer her question.
"Yeah, I’m OK. You all right, too?"
"Yes. Let’s get going. This whole place is going to blow soon." She heard the boy start crawling again. "Keep going, Camber," she encouraged him. "I’m right behind you."
The warrior and the boy continued their escape, sliding along within the earthen passageway. Suddenly Xena noticed that the air around them had changed texture. It became clearer, less putrid. The smoke in the tunnel had also begun to dissipate. The warrior could tell they were getting closer to the end of the tunnel. Then she saw the light filtering into the passage. They were almost there!
Xena lifted her head to watch Camber scramble out the end of the tunnel. She smiled as she watched the boy’s little behind disappear through the opening to be replaced by his dirt-smudged face. The bright smile on the youthful countenance brought a happy chuckle to the warrior’s aching body.
"OK, I’m out. Keep coming, Xena. You’re almost out, too."
The warrior pushed herself forward again, pulling her long body along the dirt tunnel. She reached out with one long arm and grasped the youngster’s outstretched hand. Camber rocked backwards, trying to gain some leverage, pulling on the woman’s hand until he saw it emerge from the narrow opening. He released the hand and crawled forward, leaving the opening unblocked to allow the warrior to pull herself out.
Just as Xena pushed her other arm into the daylight, another loud explosion rocked the hillside. Camber flattened himself onto the ground as the warrior grimaced. When the thundering noise subsided, Xena tried to pull herself out of the tunnel. It was then she realized the walls of the passage had collapsed around her torso, the weight of the earth trapping her halfway in and halfway out of the underground tunnel. She wasn’t far enough out to get hold of anything solid to pull herself free and she couldn’t move herself forward any farther because of the weight of the dirt pinning her tightly in the opening. The worst of the problem was, she was wedged so tightly in the hole, she couldn’t even get a strong breath. She was securely snared.
Camber jumped to his feet and began tugging hard on the warrior’s arm. He sat down and braced both his feet against the uneven earth, pulling roughly on Xena’s wrist and forearm. His efforts were gallant, but totally fruitless. All he was accomplishing was a rather uncomfortable burn on the woman’s smooth arm.
"Camber," the warrior called. "Camber! Stop, Sweetheart!" Xena said. The boy stopped tugging, his young face a study in frustration and defeat. The soft chin quivered in angry
disappointment. Xena took both small hands then reached to stroke the dirty face. "It’s OK" she said, soothingly. "We’re going to be OK," she said to the flushed cheeks. She smiled at the youngster.
"Now listen carefully, please." She drew the boy’s focus to her face. "You’re my hero here, you know? You saved us. Now we’re almost home. Understand?" The boy’s face brightened. He ran one small hand over his eyes, then dragged a sleeve under his nose. The warrior saw the panic leave the young face as the brown eyes remained intent on hers.
"Go find my horse. Can you do that?" she told him. "I left her in the clearing. She’s tied just outside the ca ..."
The boy jumped to his feet, suddenly energized. "I remember!" he chirped happily. "I saw her when I came back to watch." The boy’s face showed a sheepish grin. "Good thing, huh?" he said, teasing. The warrior’s smile met the proud smirk. "I’ll be right back," he told her. With that he turned and ran down the hill, quickly passing from the warrior’s sight. Xena dropped her aching head onto the soft, grassy earth below her chin. She inhaled as far as her captured chest would allow and slowly let the breath out. She closed her eyes tightly to subdue the pounding, blinding pain behind her eyes and tried to relax.
After a moment, the warrior slowly opened her eyes and craned her head around as far in every direction as she could. She raised her eyes to the sky, then trained her blue gaze on the horizon. ‘Nearly dusk,’ the woman decided. ‘I wonder where those creeps have gone,’ she thought tiredly. She dropped her throbbing head onto her extended arm. ‘Gods, just this once, I hope they’re too far away to bother chasing them.’ Xena closed her eyes, giving in to the rest beckoning her tired body and the pounding in her head.
‘A promise is a promise, Gabrielle,’ the warrior said to the vision of her soulmate in her head. ‘A little tired, a little squished ... but at least in one piece.’ The bronze face showed a tiny smile.
Gabrielle emerged from the little hut, her arms feeling oddly empty without the bundle of scrolls and clean parchment she had grown accustomed to carrying during the past few days. The distraction she’d been fighting all afternoon nervously awaiting the warrior’s return had done nothing to secure her concentration either. She’d decided to give up on trying to keep her attention on the scrolls a candlemark ago when she realized that dusk was soon approaching and she had not seen her friend’s returning form yet.
The little bard stopped her progress across the town square to turn an expectant gaze toward the stable. Her heart thumped when she noticed the smithy standing against the wooden corral next to the barn, nervously scanning the fields beyond the edge of the town. She changed direction and walked toward the man, a rising apprehension quickening her pulse and tightening her throat. The blacksmith turned to meet her gaze when he heard the approaching footsteps behind him.
"Enoch?" the little bard said as she neared the tall man. "Is something wrong? You look worried." The young woman studied the tanned face, taking note of the concerned look under the full, dark brows.
"It’s Camber," the smithy said to the girl’s sympathetic expression. "He’s usually home by now, it’s not like him to be out after dark." He turned again to the open fields. "His pony came back a while ago." He faced the little bard again. "That’s not unusual. Camber sends the horse back ahead regularly. But he’s usually not far behind." Gabrielle followed the man’s gaze, then turned back to the concerned parental look.
"You don’t think something’s happened, do you?" she asked gently. "Surely he’s all right." The man met the gentle green eyes. "According to Xena, that little guy can handle himself." The bard sent a caring smile at the smithy. The tall man returned the bard’s smile.
"No, no," he said to the emerald pools. "It’s just that it’s not like him to be so late." The dark eyes scanned the horizon again. After a moment, the smithy stood back from the wooden fence and untied the leather strings on his long apron. He moved purposefully toward the barn as the bard followed. He raised the leather covering over his head and hung it on a nearby nail, then lifted a heavy saddle from the rack near the door, picked up a bridle from the collection on the wall and strode into one of the stalls beside a sturdy, rust-colored horse.
As Enoch saddled the sturdy animal, the little bard studied the precise movements for a moment, then spoke to the smithy’s wide back.
"Do you want me to come with you?" she asked him.
The man responded, while keeping his attention on the business of saddling the chestnut horse.
"No, you’d better stay here and wait for Xena," he said. "Maybe she’s seen him or knows where he is. If she gets back before I do, tell her I’ve gone to the little clearing. That’s where Camber usually is when he’s lost track of time chasing that black colt."
Enoch had finished with the saddle and he guided the horse backwards, out of the stall and into the road in front of the stable. On the way through the stable door, he slipped a leather water pouch from a nail near the doorway and hung the narrow strap over the saddlehorn. Once outside, he swung himself easily into the saddle, gathered the reins from the horse’s neck and looked down at the bard standing near the animal’s shoulder. "I’m sure he’s fine," the girl said to the worried brown eyes. "Like you said, he’s probably lost track of time and is on his way home right now."
The smithy gave the girl a weak smile, pulled the reins to the side of the horse’s neck and urged the animal toward the open field. Gabrielle watched the man ride away, a hollow feeling unsettling her stomach. As the smithy’s tall form disappeared in the fading daylight, the little blonde turned slowly toward the Inn, her thoughts as concerned as the tradesman’s had been. But the girl’s anxious feelings were of a certain tall, raven-haired warrior princess who was even later in her scheduled return than the boy.
‘Before dark, you said, Xena. You’re late. Please let it not be because you’re hurt, OK?’ the little bard thought hopefully. She let her steps take her toward the Inn.
Chapter Twenty-Seven ~~~~
Xena heard the mare’s hooves before she saw the animal. She opened her eyes and turned toward the sound, a warm welcome filling her senses as the golden head emerged over the hill. Camber’s short form preceded the horse, the reins grasped loosely in his small hand. He gave the warrior a proud smile and dropped to the ground near her.
"I found her. She was right where you said," the boy announced. Argo neighed in compliance, dropping her head to nuzzle the warrior’s dark, dirt-matted hair. "Hi, yourself," the warrior said, scratching the animal’s nose. Then she turned to the boy’s dirt-streaked face.
"Get my whip, Camber, on the side of the saddle. See it?"
The boy focused on the saddle, rose and untied the whip. He dropped to the ground again next to the warrior. She uncurled the leather thong, handing the slim end back to the youngster.
"Tie this to the saddlehorn."
The boy took the end of the whip and did exactly as he was told. He stretched his modest form out as far as he could, standing on tiptoe as he secured the leather piece to the tall horn at the front of the saddle. He turned back to the warrior. She had the hard, bound handle clasped tightly in both hands.
"OK, now lead Argo away from me," she instructed the boy. Camber turned back to the mare and, with one small hand on the side of the horse’s bridle, slowly began to lead the mare away. The whip went taut, as the warrior held on tightly. She grimaced as the pain in her shoulder sent a fiery wave across her back and down her arm. Xena pulled hard with her good arm, trying to keep the wounded shoulder from suffering any further strain.
Suddenly, the saddle on the horse’s back shifted. The horn that had stood at the front now slid down the animal’s side. Unaware of the change in the saddle’s position, Camber continued leading the mare away from the woman on the ground.
Finally the girth strap snapped and the saddle dropped unceremoniously to the ground beside the mare. The boy turned quickly, recognized the situation and halted the horse’s progress.
"Whoa, Argo," the boy crooned expertly. He pulled back firmly on the leather bridle and the mare halted immediately. The boy gazed down dejectedly at the useless saddle lying on its side at the horse’s feet. He turned nervous eyes toward the quiet warrior. The woman was lying inert, her eyes closed, her face pale, blood spurting from the wide wound on her shoulder covering her upper arm and smeared on the side of her face.
Camber dropped to the ground near the woman. "Xena?" he called gently. He touched the warrior’s face gently, then took one of the limp hands in his. "Xena!" the boy said again.
There was no response from the immobile warrior.
Camber jumped to his feet and stepped to the mare. He knelt and untied the whip from the saddlehorn, then pulled the saddle away from the horse’s feet. Moving up to the animal’s face, he pulled the golden head down toward his own face.
"She’s really hurt, Argo," the boy said fervently into the mare’s soft ear. Argo craned her head around at her mistress’ quiet form. She turned back to the boy. "We gotta get her out of there and back to town," he told the horse. He rubbed the strong neck with a dirt-smudged palm and gazed helplessly at the still warrior. "There’s gotta be a way, Argo. Help me think of a way." Camber kept rubbing the sinewy, yellow neck. Suddenly the little face cleared as the youngster’s quick mind determined a plan. He gave the silvery mane a friendly pat and stepped to the edge of the grassy hill.
Camber placed his two forefingers between his teeth and clamped his lips around the digits. Taking a deep breath, he blew hard against the captured fingers, resulting in a loud, shrill whistle that shrieked through the quiet dusk and echoed across the open meadow. When the piercing sound had died away, he took another breath and sent another high-pitched tone into the darkening sky. He lowered his fingers and waited, listening hard for the sound he hoped would follow.
Moments later, the sound of pounding hoofbeats filled the quiet air. Camber turned toward the sound, his eyes scanning the horizon expectantly. A few seconds passed and he smiled widely at the dark form that appeared over the grassy summit. Camber patted the mare’s neck to quiet the nervousness in the horse’s manner. "It’s OK, Argo. He’s my friend too." The boy held out the other small hand and the black colt stepped timidly forward.
"Hi, Pan," the boy said quietly. The black colt shook his handsome head, the white blaze shining clearly even in the fading daylight. Camber touched the horse’s soft muzzle gently, then dropped his hands and addressed the animal openly.
"OK, here’s the problem," he said to the colt’s dark eyes. He motioned toward the still-unmoving warrior lying silently on the ground behind him. "My friend is hurt, so we have to get her back to town as soon as we can." He faced the colt again. "Trouble is, she’s stuck in the tunnel and you and Argo," he waved a palm toward the mare, "have to help me get her out." The colt stood still, responding to the boy’s gentle tone.
"I won’t try to catch you, I won’t even try to make you stay here after we’re done, OK?" Camber said, his young face sincere. "Just help us get her out, OK, Pan?" The colt tossed his shiny, black head. "Please? It’s really important." The mare whinnied quietly and the black colt stepped closer to the larger, golden horse. Camber stood quietly, watching the two animals communicate. He smiled when the black colt turned his attention back to his hopeful face. "OK, good," the boy crooned. Then he slowly backed away from the pair of horses.
The boy moved quickly toward a clump of stocky bushes on the side of the hill. He grabbed one of the stalks firmly and yanked with all his might. After the third pull, the thick, fibrous length came out of the ground and Camber carried it back to where the horses stood on the hill near the immobile warrior.
The youngster laid the stalk in front of the animals, picked up the end of the whip and tied the slim strip securely around the middle of the stem. Then he moved back to the toward the quiet Xena, trailing his hands along the whip. He gently slid the grip from her hands and, reaching under the slender form, encircled the warrior and tied a strong knot near the bound grip. He tugged lightly on the leather thong, testing the knot. Satisfied with his efforts, he stood up and walked back to the horses, lifted the stalk from the ground and held it firmly in front of the animals’ faces.
"Now, take hold and pull, you guys," he urged the horses. Argo lowered her head and took one end of the stalk in her mouth. After a moment, the black colt lowered his head and did the same. "Good job," Camber sang out. He turned around to face the warrior’s inert form and, grasping the extended whip firmly with both hands, began to pull as hard as he could on the leather strip wrapped around the woman’s body.
"Together!" Camber called. "One, two, three!" The boy pulled on the whip and the horses pulled on the stalk. After a moment, Camber saw the loose dirt around the warrior’s body start to move. He dug his heels into the grassy earth and leaned back, tugging with all his strength. "She’s moving!" he called to the horses, and the mare and the colt each took a step backwards. And the whip grew taut again.
Xena’s eyes fluttered open as she realized her body was moving forward. She lifted her head slowly, recognizing her whip stretched out stiffly in front of her and felt the strong pull around her torso. She took hold of the leather strip and felt the heavy weight of the earth around her chest give way. After another moment, the sleek, muscled form slid sharply forward and the warrior felt the cool grass on the hill caress her legs. She felt the whip in her hands go slack an instant before she reacted to the young male form hugging her neck tightly. She shifted to one side, supporting her weight on the elbow below her uninjured shoulder, and returned the youngster’s enthusiastic hug.
"You did it, Camber," she said against the soft, wavy brown hair. The boy sat back to meet the warrior’s tired smile. "You got me loose. You’re a very smart young man."
Camber’s brown eyes left the woman’s blue gaze to focus on the two horses standing patiently at the end of the whip. He turned back to the warrior. "We did it!" he proclaimed proudly. "Me and Argo and Pan."
Xena turned her shoulders to follow the boy’s pointing finger. She smiled at Argo’s golden face, then her eyes moved to the small, sleek, black horse standing beside the mare. The warrior turned back to the excited boy.
"Pan?" she said to the dancing brown eyes. Camber nodded, then hopped to his feet. "Yeah, that’s what I call him." As the warrior watched, the boy walked slowly toward the white-blazed face, one small palm extended toward the colt’s soft muzzle. "Thanks, boy," he said softly. The colt bobbed his head, letting the small hand stroke his nose for a few seconds. Then the black head jerked back, and the ebony animal danced backward. Camber lowered his hand and stepped toward the mare.
"OK," he said to the beautiful wild colt. "A deal’s a deal. I gave you my word. Go." The black hide quivered a moment as the colt stood still, meeting the youngster’s soft smile. After another moment, the indigo horse, whinnied loudly, pivoted and sped away, his black form disappearing into the darkening sky. Camber watched the shrinking figure for a moment, then turned back to the warrior’s admiring gaze. "A deal’s a deal, right?" he said to the knowing blue eyes.
Xena nodded quietly, her gaze steady on the soft, brown eyes. "Right," she answered.
Enoch straightened in the saddle when he heard the shrill whistle shriek across the open meadow. The tanned face lit in a grateful smile as the man turned his head toward the sound, tracking its direction. His eyes scanned the short hills across from his position and he saw the small, black horse silhouetted against the gray sky. The smithy clucked to the chestnut horse and urged the mount toward the sight.
The tall rider guided the gelding to the narrow trail he knew ran up the back side of the rising hill; he knew his access to the top of the mound lay in that approach. He leaned forward in the saddle as the animal beneath him seemed to sense the necessity of a swift journey. Enoch’s heart pounded behind his tunic. The whistle meant his son was alive and at least capable of initiating the sound. The second high-pitched warble widened the man’s smile.
A few minutes later, the muscled form jumped down from the horse’s back and ran up the hill, his boots battling the uneven terrain and his own excitement. Twice he had to thrust his hands out in front of him to thwart an impending face-down mishap. But his happy reaction drove him on.
When he reached the top of the hill, he stopped running, bent forward and rested his hands on his knees, breathing deeply to catch his breath. He filled his lungs several times, then raised his eyes to scan the grassy area, searching for the small boy and the tall warrior. He quickly found them both. The warrior was laying on the grass, leaning evenly on one elbow, her leather tunic covered with dirt, the other long arm embracing the wrinkled, equally dirty, much-the-worse-for-wear, wonderfully welcome form of his young son.
As the smithy watched, his son rose from the warrior’s side and walked slowly toward the small, black horse, one hand extended, to touch the horse’s gray muzzle for a moment before the small black head pulled back. The man held himself as still as he could. He saw his son lower his hand and heard the boy’s voice float over the quiet air.
"OK, a deal’s a deal. I gave you my word. Go." Enoch saw the horse dance backward, then turn and bolt away. The smithy took a quiet breath and moved toward the pair at the top of the hill.
Xena saw Camber’s eyes move past her and sparkle brightly. "Daddy!" the boy shouted and ran toward the smithy. The man bent to claim the boy’s little form, lifting the child up and wrapping his strong arms around the wiggling torso as the youngster hugged his neck heartily. The warrior watched the touching reunion, closing her eyes for a moment to stem the pounding in her head that threatened to dispatch her sensibilities. After a moment, Camber leaned back in his father’s arms and smiled into the smithy’s tanned face.
"You all right?" Enoch asked the child, unwilling to release the boy from his arms.
"I’m great," the boy chirped happily. He turned to look back at the warrior, still prone on the grass. "But Xena’s hurt. She’s got a big cut on her shoulder."
The smithy’s elation subsided as he focused on the tall form in leather. He set the boy on his feet and moved quickly toward the warrior. As he knelt near her, he noticed the ragged wound on her shoulder, the blood on her arm and face, and the pallid cast to the attractive features.
Xena smiled weakly at the tanned face. She tried to raise herself up, but the man laid a gentle hand on her ‘good’ shoulder and turned to address his son.
"Camber, the chestnut is at the bottom of the hill. Go get him. I’ll need the water pouch."
The boy turned quickly and ran in the direction from which his father had come. Enoch turned back to the tall woman, his smile warm and concerned.
"It’s not too bad," the warrior said to the brown eyes.
"Yeah, just a scratch," the man said drolly, meeting the woman’s blue gaze. Enoch pulled at the edge of his tunic. He took a small knife from his belt, slipped it under the looped fabric and sliced a small opening in the cloth. He replaced the knife and ripped a long, wide piece of material from the garment, then tore another, narrow piece from the same piece of cloth. He folded the wide section over several times and pressed it carefully against the bleeding wound on the warrior’s shoulder. He used the narrow piece to tie the thick wad of cloth in place.
Camber returned, leading the gelding. He pulled the water skin from the side of the saddle and handed it to his father. Enoch uncorked the skin and placed it in the warrior’s shaky hand. Xena took several long swallows, then handed the skin back to the smithy. She sent the man another small smile. Enoch handed the skin to the boy and Camber took some of the liquid, as well.
While the boy enjoyed the water, the smithy turned back to the warrior. "Can you stand?" he asked her, laying a gentle hand on her arm.
"I think so," Xena said as she flexed her ankles. "My legs are a little numb, but I think they’ll still hold me." She accepted his strong grip and pulled herself into a more upright position. Enoch moved to stand near the warrior’s feet, his arms outstretched, his palms towards her. Xena took the smithy’s hands and let him pull her to her feet. She winced as the tingling in her ankles and thighs gradually changed to a warm, prickling sensation. As she rose from her prone position, the smithy wrapped one strong arm around the woman’s waist and waited while she tested the status of her legs. When it was determined that her muscles were returning to normal, Xena bent forward, her hands on her knees, and pulled in several deep gulps of air. Then she stood up slowly.
"Everything works," she said to the concerned expression. "I am a little dizzy. Must be the thin air up here."
The smithy’s slow smile brought a sheepish grin from the warrior. Then she bent forward again as the wave of dizziness behind her eyes threatened her balance. Enoch’s arm tightened around her waist. He turned to the boy.
"Bring her horse, son. I’ll saddle her so Xena can ...."
"The girth snapped," the boy said and the Enoch looked down the saddle on the ground. He turned back to Camber. "Bring the gelding here. She’ll need the horn." He met the woman’s blue gaze. "I’ll rig something. And I’ll ride Argo, all right?"
The warrior nodded wordlessly, still combating the cloudiness in her senses and the nausea in her throat. She rested her hands on her knees again.
Camber brought the gelding next to his father and Xena. The smithy guided the warrior’s foot into the stirrup and helped her swing herself into the saddle. He handed her the horse’s reins. While Enoch helped Xena get settled on the gelding, Camber gathered up the whip and the waterskin and handed them both to the warrior. She hung the coiled whip and the strap from the skin on the saddlehorn in front of her. She turned to watch the smithy’s activity at the mare.
Enoch knelt beside the saddle on the ground and tore the useless half of the girth strap away. Then he stood and pulled his leather belt from the waist of his trousers, knelt again and threaded the slotted end of the belt through the empty loops on the side of the seat and through the buckle on the belt. He yanked the belt tight against the hard leather of the underside of the seat. He stood up, lifted the saddle onto the horse’s back, reached under Argo’s belly to retrieve the new makeshift girth binding and drew it towards him. Working smoothly, he threaded the end of the belt through the buckle at the end of the other side of the saddle and pulled the strap tight against the mare’s middle. He tested the saddle’s position and turned to the warrior’s exhausted expression. "It’ll do until we get back to town, anyway." The brown eyes seemed to offer the warrior encouragement. The woman nodded her agreement.
Enoch brought the mare’s head to face the same direction as the gelding’s and held out his hand to his son. ‘C’mon, Camber. You’ll ride with me."
Suddenly the boy’s faced clouded. "I wanna ride with Xena, Daddy," the youngster said, his dirty little face locked in determination.
The smithy dropped his hand slightly and trained an impatient gaze on the boy’s stubborn expression. "Camber, she’s hurt and ...."
"Enoch," the warrior’s quiet voice broke the stillness on the hill. The smithy’s brown pools met the woman’s clear blue gaze. She sent the man a soft smile, then turned her eyes to the boy standing near her left knee. Wordlessly, she held out her open hand to the boy. His face brightened as he grasped the warrior’s wrist and stepped closer to the chestnut horse. Camber jumped as high as he could and Xena pulled him up into the saddle in front of her. She wrapped her uninjured arm around the boy’s waist and he settled back against the armor on her chest. She turned tiredly to the smithy, now mounted on Argo.
"We’ll take it as slow as you need, OK?" the man said, his eyes on the warrior’s tired face. She nodded silently and nudged the gelding forward, turning the horse toward the road to town.
Chapter Twenty-Eight ~~~~
Gabrielle took the warrior’s arm to help her out of the bathtub. The bard let the tall woman rest against the side of the reservoir for a moment as she wrapped the large, soft linen sheet around the dripping form. Xena waited while the girl surrounded her in cloth before letting her guide them both toward the waiting pallet.
As the little blonde wrapped the material around her friend, she remembered the sight of the injured warrior when the three riders had arrived back in town. Gabrielle had been waiting at the stable, perched on the top rail of the wooden fence beside the barn, hopeful eyes trained on the empty road, since the beginning of the evening, shortly after the smithy’s departure to search for his son.
She recalled how her heart had bounced at the first sight of her tall friend, slouching slightly on the chestnut horse, the young boy in front of her, while the smithy rode beside her on Argo. The switch in the mounts hadn’t seemed worth consideration; the important thing was that her best friend had returned, apparently in one piece and at least sound enough to arrive on horseback.
As the riders came closer, the bard’s eyes had caught the soiled bandage secured to the warrior’s shoulder and she’d noticed the tense grip the woman maintained on the saddlehorn. The little blonde jumped down from the fence when the horses turned into the stableyard, the heady elation she felt at the warrior’s safe return quickly replaced by the numbing realization that the tall woman on the chestnut horse was hurt and more seriously, the bard suspected, than the warrior would choose to display.
Enoch had dismounted first, handing the mare’s reins to the little bard, then stepped to swing his son from the saddle in front of the warrior. He had turned back to Xena, wrapping one strong arm around her waist. As the warrior had slid from the saddle, the bard recalled how her stomach had tightened when her friend’s long legs had seemed to crumble beneath her and how she gasped when the smithy had gallantly swept the tall woman into his arms and cradled her wounded form against his wide chest.
The blacksmith had turned a comforting gaze at the little bard’s frightened expression, smiled warmly and asked, "Where would you like our friend, here?" The bard cheerfully recalled how the man had masterfully dismissed the warrior’s weak protestations about being hearty enough to walk. He had turned to the woman in his arms and replied, "Quiet, please." Then he had followed the bard’s instructions to transport her injured friend to their room. Gabrielle recalled her own light amusement at the sight of the tall smithy proceeding smoothly down the hall and depositing the sulking woman on the large bed. She had thanked the man for his kindness and prepared to minister to her friend.
On her way through the tavern behind the smithy, the bard had instructed Minerva to bring the large bathtub to their room along with enough hot water to fill the wooden appliance. While her request was being fulfilled, the girl had removed the warrior’s weapons, assisted her in shedding her dirt-caked leathers, arm and leg coverings, her linen undergarment and her boots. She had helped the warrior get comfortable in the bed, the light coverlet covering her naked, bruised body, and gently removed the blood-soaked bandage the smithy had applied to the jagged cut on the warrior’s shoulder. She had decided the woman should bath first, before attending to the oozing wound.
She had guided the warrior into the tub, carefully washed the dirt and grime from the battered body, scrubbed and rinsed the long, dirt-and-debris-matted hair, rubbed the raven locks dry and carefully patted the moisture from the wet form with another of the large linen cloths provided by the young waitress. Finally she had helped the warrior back to the soft mattress, where the woman now waited patiently, her clean body covered by the warm coverlet, awaiting the ministrations required to attend to the long, ragged wound along her shoulder.
The bard had performed all of these duties, complete with her usual level of compassion and loving care, without uttering a single, solitary, sentient word. Her continuing silence had completely unseated the warrior’s sensibilities.
Xena studied the soft face of her best friend as the girl spread the contents of the medicine bag on the small table beside the bed. The little bard crossed the room and retrieved the small herb pouch from the saddlebags hanging on one of the pegs next to the doorway of the room. She thrust her hand into the pouch, searching for the preferred medicinal plant. The warrior cleared her throat nervously.
"Good thing I refilled the herb pouch, huh?" Xena said, forcing a lightness into her tone. The bard raised her eyes from the pouch to meet the warrior’s blue gaze for a quick moment, then returned her attention to her search. The tall woman transferred her gaze to the soft material covering her body, a sense of frustration deepening her heavy sigh. She turned back toward the bard, a superior quality underlining her words.
"You should use the ...." Her statement ended abruptly when she realized the girl had already selected the herb she was about to suggest. In fact, the bard had already pulverized the dry leaves on a small, metal platter and was slowly mixing the fragments together with a wooden tool, adding a small amount of clear oil, to create the thick paste to be applied over the sutured wound to prevent infection. The green eyes met the blue pools again, holding the steady gaze for another moment, then returned to the platter and the wooden tool.
The warrior sighed again, this time a bit louder and longer. She watched the bard settle on the side of the bed. Gabrielle ended the stirring and placed the platter on the table next to the other instruments. She carefully lifted the thick, square of folded cloth away from the still-bleeding wound. After discarding the bloody swatch, she gently raised the warrior’s arm and lowered the woman’s elbow onto one of the soft pillows. The placement alleviated the pull on the torn flesh and facilitated the suturing needed to close the open cut. Xena ignored the slight discomfort resulting from the manipulation of her aching shoulder and kept her eyes fastened on the bard’s face.
"Aren’t you ever going to talk to me again?" she said to the silent bard, her voice quiet and plaintive. The green pools locked with the cobalt gaze and the warrior noticed the tremor rippling the girl’s soft jawline. The two women exchanged a long, silent stare for a few moments. Then the bard carefully picked up one of the long suturing needles she had laid out on the small nearby table. She moved the needle into the warrior’s line of vision, her expression letting the woman know the stitching process was next on the agenda.
Xena’s eyes moved to the needle and back to the bard’s gaze. She took a short breath. "I guess not," she said to the emerald pools. She dropped her eyes to study her own hand where it lay in her lap. "Looks like you’re still mad." She raised her eyes to the bard’s but the blonde’s attention was captured by her efforts to thread the thick suturing thread through the eye of the large needle. When the heavy fiber was in place, the verdant disks met the blue gaze again.
The warrior settled herself against the pillows behind her and took a deep breath. She swallowed slowly and focused on the walled corner at the foot of the bed. "Go ahead," she said quietly, then had to refocus her concentration when she felt the bard’s warm palm rest softly on her clenched fist. She caught the soft green gaze for a moment, the returned her attention to the corner. She braced herself as the bard brought the needle to her shoulder and began to affix the first suture.
Half a candlemark later, Gabrielle carefully applied the herbal paste over the new stitches, positioned the clean bandage over the mixture and carefully wound the long, thin length of cloth around the sutured shoulder, securing the dressing in place.
Afterwards, the bard dabbed at the perspiration covering the tall woman’s forehead, gently applying the cool, damp cloth to the warrior’s warm skin. Xena breathed deeply, concentrating on submerging the rampant pain radiating from the wound on her shoulder.
Finally Gabrielle helped the warrior pull on the clean, linen sleeping shift, filled an earthen mug with cool water and waited while her patient had drained the vessel and fallen back against the pillows stacked against the wooden headboard.
When the process was complete, she picked up the shallow metal basin holding the bloody bandage, together with the platter containing the balance of the herbal paste, and carried them across the room to the other wooden table. She plunged her hands into the water in the ceramic basin, shook the moisture from her fingers and picked up another clean, piece of linen . With her back to the warrior, she wiped her hands on the cloth, drawing one deep breath after another, working hard to maintain her composure and quell the panic wafting through her chest. The warrior watched the small, stiff back, the pain in her shoulder secondary to the heaviness she felt as a result of the girl’s lingering silence.
"Gabrielle," Xena began, her voice showing the effects of her exhaustion in spite of her efforts to disguise them. "Please say something." The warrior kept her eyes focused on the soft, blonde hair.
After a long moment, the bard turned to face her friend. Her eyes were still on the cloth in her hands but the two large, heavy tears traveling slowly down over the soft face brought a rigid ache to the warrior’s chest.
"Oh, gods. Gabrielle," the reclining woman whispered. "Don’t ... please ... don’t."
Gabrielle raised her eyes to meet the shimmering blue gaze of her best friend. She turned to drop the cloth onto the table behind her and leaned against the wooden fixture, her fingers gripping the smooth edge.
The warrior’s gaze remained on the flushed, wet face, a painful expression of remorse covering the bronze face. A heavy silence hung in the room as the two friends exchanged a serious, meaningful glance. Finally, the bard drew a shaky hand across her eyes, and swallowed hard before her quiet voice interrupted the crackling fire.
"Why must you keep doing this to yourself? To me? How many times will I feel my heart shatter because I see you hurt or nearly killed? Why do you do it?" The girl’s words came softly, but the pain in her voice made the warrior’s throat close tightly. She blinked against her own tears as the bard’s gaze locked with hers.
"I ... I’m so sorry. I never meant ...." Xena gulped and tried hard to form the words. "I’m sorry I made you worry ... again," she said finally, her gaze pleading, her expression filled with regret.
The bard’s faced warmed slowly as she crossed the room back to the bed. "You always are," she said sadly, lowering herself onto the side of the mattress. She took the warrior’s slender hand. "You say that every time," the girl said softly, a small smile softening her young face.
"You always tell me you’re sorry." She met the blue eyes again. "But you still keep doing it," the girl said deliberately. She looked down at the long fingers and covered them with her other hand before raising her eyes to the glowing blue crystals "Can you tell me why?"
Xena’s tears covered her smooth face. She wrapped her fingers around the small palm and took in a slow, painful breath. She slowly raised her eyes to meet the bard’s green gaze, wet her lips and tried to speak.
"I didn’t exactly plan it this way," the warrior said, her nervous laugh softening her words. "I guess Camber showing up rattled my ... intentions." She trained her eyes on the little hand holding hers. "But I felt like I just had to stop Phantaos." She looked back up at the soft green eyes and swallowed hard.
"Before you and I ...." The gentle smile grew. "Before the gods were generous enough to send you into my life," the warrior continued, "I would have been one of Phantaos’ best customers." The woman’s tone showed her shame. "In fact, I probably would have waged an attack to challenge him for control of that stash." The blue eyes were deeply contrite.
"So when I found out about the second cave, I just got ...." The blue eyes darted over the coverlet.
"Tunnel vision?" the bard said, her face warming in a teasing grin. The warrior’s smirk widened the girl’s smile.
"Something like that," Xena said. She squeezed the small hand in her grasp. "Anyway, I just wanted to do something to stop Phantaos and his pals from getting to those weapons." She dropped her head wearily onto the pillows.
"Of course, in the end I didn’t really accomplish anything," she said. The frustrated blue eyes swept the ceiling of the room before returning to meet the bard’s. "Phantaos still has the weapons and I wound up destroying something very important to you." She closed her eyes tightly and rubbed her forehead with her fingertips. After a moment, the warrior focused on the little blonde’s open expression again.
"I’m really sorry I scared you. You know I never mean to." The blue eyes studied the quiet face. "But I guess I’ve been doing that a lot lately, haven’t I?"
Gabrielle took the woman’s slender palm with one hand and reached to smooth a few errant wisps of raven hair away from the warrior’s feverish face with the other. "You’re hot," the bard said absently, resting the back of her fingers against the woman’s warm cheek. She released the slender palm, picked up the earthen mug and started to rise to refill the container for the warrior. Before she could move, Xena captured the hand near her face and pulled the girl back down next to her.
"Don’t change the subject," she said firmly. Gabrielle returned the steady blue gaze, settling back on the edge of the mattress. She lowered her eyes from the warrior’s and tried to concentrate on the empty mug in her other hand, but Xena put her fingers under the soft chin and raised the green gaze back up to meet hers.
"Tell me the truth," she said to the girl’s glistening eyes. Gabrielle swallowed against the tightness in her throat. "I’ve been scaring you lately, haven’t I?" she asked again. "The truth," she said, stroking the soft flesh with her thumb.
The bard’s green eyes were steady on the warrior’s as the two women sat quietly returning the other’s gaze. Finally the little blonde lowered her gaze to the empty mug and swallowed quickly, blinking hard against the tears gathering in her eyes.
"Yes," she whispered haltingly. She looked back up at the warrior. "Lately it’s like you’re trying to prove something. Or you’re trying to ... atone for something. And, yes, it’s really begun to scare me."
Xena pulled a quick draft of air into her chest. A deep regret tightened her stomach when she recognized the clear, devastating anguish she saw in her best friend’s eyes. She gripped the bard’s slim shoulder to pull her closer and the girl laid her head on the warrior’s chest. Xena stroked the soft, blonde hair, then wrapped both arms around the slender form. She tightened the embrace when she felt the young body shudder as the girl’s quiet sobs overcame her.
"I’m so very sorry," she murmured to the blonde head. "Gabrielle, please forgive me."
After a long moment, Gabrielle drew a long breath and slipped her arm around the woman’s slender waist. "I keep reminding myself that you made me a promise," she said, her voice soft against the warrior’s chest." Xena closed her eyes and gulped around the ache in her throat. "You promised you wouldn’t die on me again, remember?" the bard said. The warrior opened her eyes and laid one hand on the girl’s soft hair.
"Yes, I remember," Xena whispered. Gabrielle pulled herself upright and met the shining blue eyes. "So, are you going to keep your promise?" she said to the bronze face on the pillows. "At least not for another fifty winters or so?" The tear-streaked face slowly warmed into a sweet smile.
Xena swept the tears from the girl’s face with her fingers. Her heart swelled at the affection in the green eyes.
"At least," she said, returning the bard’s smile.
Gabrielle took the slender hand in hers for a moment and gazed warmly at the warrior’s flushed face. "I’m going to hold you to that, understand?" she told the woman, smiling widely.
The warrior returned the warmth, despite the exhaustion showing in the piercing blue gaze.
Gabrielle released the slender hand and crossed the room to the larger wooden table. She refilled the earthen mug, returned to her seat on the bed and handed it to the warrior. Xena accepted the mug and dutifully swallowed several mouthfuls of the cool liquid. She handed the vessel back to the little bard.
"I’ll make you a deal," Gabrielle said retrieving the container, as the warrior leveled a guarded glance at the sparkling green pools.
"What kind of deal?" Xena asked, skeptically.
"You stop putting yourself in danger," the bard said, impishly, "and I’ll stop worrying about you." She grinned at the tall woman. "Deal?"
The warrior’s blue eyes twinkled in spite of the weariness apparent in the sculpted face. She pursed her lips to combat the merry smirk that began to cover her face. Xena playfully tugged on a lock of the bard’s blonde hair.
"Well, I’ll certainly try, my bard," she said grinning easily at the young face. "My friend," the warrior amended quietly, the blue gaze shining. Gabrielle smiled back at the warrior. She laid her hand on the woman’s face again, her touch as diagnostic as it was affectionate.
"So, my warrior patient," the girl said briskly. "Time for you to get some rest." She stood up and placed the earthen mug on the mantle above the flickering fire, then bent to gather the medical instruments on the small table. The warrior watched the young woman’s efficient activity, her blue eyes tired and spent.
"Gabrielle?" she said and the bard turned to the blue gaze. "I’m really sorry about the rest of the scrolls. Maybe someone will be able to uncover them again one day."
The bard interrupted her gathering efforts and smiled warmly at the tired warrior. She went back to collecting the instruments, then carried them to the larger table. "Don’t worry about them," she said as she returned the items to their normal space in the medicine kit. "As you say, maybe someone will find them someday. In the meantime, they’re safe where they are." The bard closed the kit and retied the leather lacings around the bag. She sat back down on the edge of the bed and patted the warrior’s hand.
"Get some rest," she told the sleepy woman. "I’ll have them drain the tub in the morning, so you won’t be disturbed." The warrior smiled as the blue eyes drifted closed. Within moments, the sound of her regular breathing quieted the bard’s apprehension. Gabrielle sat watching the even rhythm of the warrior’s chest for a long, long time. When she was completely certain the woman was enveloped in Morpheus’ arms, the bard wiped the tears from her face and quietly addressed her sleeping friend.
"And please remember your promise," she said softly. "You owe me fifty more winters."
Chapter Twenty-Nine ~~~
Xena agreed to let Gabrielle ‘attend to her’ during the days following her ordeal in the tunnel. It was totally irrelevant that the warrior’s superior healing traits had been at work, as usual. She submitted to the little bard’s loving ministrations and allowed the girl to satisfy her emotional needs by executing the simple tasks dealing with her friend’s physical condition. The tall woman admitted to herself that her subservience to the girl’s attention might very well be a result of her own guilty feelings at causing the little blonde so much anxiety and concern with her trip to the underground cavern.
As the bard expertly replaced the dressing on the warrior’s shoulder on the first morning following the incident, Xena contemplated the events of the previous evening and the painful effects the girl’s emotional distress had left on her own psyche. She also remembered the brief discussion that had occurred during the deepest part of the night.
The warrior had awakened a few candlemarks after the bard’s expert treatment of her wound to find the little blonde, wrapped in one of their new blankets, sitting at the foot of the large bed, her back and head resting against the wall, fast asleep and totally unmindful of her selfless surrender of her half of the bed.
Xena recalled gazing at the small form, a deep affection enveloping her heart and warming her spirit. She remembered quietly speaking the girl’s name and the bard’s abrupt transformation into wakefulness. The sleepy face had swung to hers immediately.
"Xena? Are you OK?" the girl had whispered.
"I’m fine," the warrior had whispered back. "What are you doing down there against the wall?"
Gabrielle had shifted her position slightly to face the warrior more directly. "I just thought I’d sleep here tonight, so I wouldn’t disturb you and maybe hurt your shoulder."
Xena remembered the way the glowing embers in the hearth had thrown a soft, pink light on the sweet face and the tousled blonde hair. She also recalled the exchange that had followed.
"Are you mad, woman?" the warrior had joked, gently. "You know I only really sleep when I know where you are."
The little bard had grinned sleepily.
"Get up here," Xena had decreed amicably. She had turned her body onto the side of her uninjured shoulder, facing the front edge of the pallet, and directed the bard to position herself behind her. Gabrielle had giggled softly, opened the blanket and scooted herself the length of the bed to occupy the required spot. The warrior had relaxed as the small form snuggled against her back, one slim arm draped over her waist, the girl’s soft tresses caressing the smooth skin behind her shoulders. Xena had pulled the soft coverlet and the new blanket over them both, curled her ‘good’ arm under her head and settled herself again against the soft mattress.
"You sure your shoulder doesn’t hurt?" had come the soft question from behind her.
"Not enough to try sleeping without you next to me," the warrior had replied. She remembered the gentle laugh that had floated over her shoulder followed by the deep, contented sigh. The last thing she remembered was her own quiet smile.
Gabrielle affixed the clean dressing to the warrior’s shoulder as the morning sunlight sparkled through the open window above the bed. She rewrapped the bandage and tied the new covering proficiently. Then she smiled at the bronze face of her patient.
"Looks good," she told the face. "Of course, you always heal faster than anyone I know. Must be one of your ‘many skills’, huh?" The sweet face smiled warmly.
She carefully pulled the warrior’s arm through the sleeve of her linen tunic, stood up and carried the soiled bandage and metal plate to the wide, wooden table. As she washed her hands in the ceramic basin, she addressed the woman on the pallet
"Hungry?" the bard asked, drying her hands on a length of cloth.
"Yes, actually," the warrior answered clearly. "And I know you’re ready for breakfast." She said, grinning at the girl. She swung her long legs to the side of the bed. "Shall we find out what they’re serving?"
The bard gazed lovingly at the tanned face of her friend. She shook her head slightly, as always, in awe of her friend’s amazing recuperative abilities. She positioned the warrior’s boots in front of her and watched as the woman inserted her feet into the leather coverings and yanked on the rawhide lacings. When Xena had finished with the boots, Gabrielle offered a supporting hand and the warrior stood up carefully.
"I told Minerva to have some thick broth ready," the little blonde quipped, her impish grin answering the tall woman’s quizzical gaze. "Sounded good, so I figured it might do you good, too."
The warrior’s soft laugh lightened the girl’s spirit. She accepted the light wrap from the bard and moved toward the door the blonde was holding open.
"Sounds good to me, too," she told the smiling young face.
The two friends left the room on their way to the tavern, Gabrielle’s arms resting loosely behind the warrior’s slim waist.
By the second afternoon following the episode in the tunnel Xena had convinced her ‘nurse’ that fresh air was as helpful to a recuperating patient as bed rest. In the warrior’s case, it was an even better prescription than sitting idle in their quiet room. The bard had agreed and the two women now enjoyed a leisurely stroll along the street of the little town. They had left the warrior’s grimy leathers with the tanner who promised to have them cleaned and ready by the following day. The next stop on their unstructured saunter was the tinsmith’s.
"You never did get your whetstone, did you?" Gabrielle remarked as they entered the shop.
"No, I guess I never did," Xena said. "I sort of got a little side-tracked." She grinned sheepishly at the bard.
"Same with my fish," the girl quipped and the warrior nudged the slim shoulder playfully. She looked up to meet the tinsmith’s welcoming grin.
"My dear," the man crooned solicitously. "From what I’ve heard of your ordeal, I’m certainly surprised to see you looking so fit."
The warrior cringed under the man’s fawning as the little blonde stifled her laugh. Xena threw a meaningful glare in the girl’s direction.
"I still need that whetstone," she told the man. She began to move to the back of the shop. "They were back here, as I remember."
"Yes, I recall the one you had selected," the tinsmith said. He hurried toward the table, arriving at the display well before the warrior had managed to traverse the narrow aisle. He picked up the stone she had been examining the last time she had been in the shop, selected a small vile of oil and turned back to the warrior.
"Anything else for you?"
"No, that’s all," she said, reaching into the pocket of her tunic for the required coins.
"Oh, no," the man said, holding out the small parcel in his hands. "That won’t be necessary." The warrior’s expression sobered slightly at the refusal of the money. "After what you did for the town, you certainly deserve more than just our thanks." Xena started to object to the gratis purchase.
"Look, that’s not ...." she began.
"In fact," the man continued, ignoring her objection. "You can choose anything in my shop, for yourself. My pleasure." The man spread his hands over the display tables placed between him and the tall warrior. "Please," he petitioned, a sincere smile on his lean face. "I’d like to show my own appreciation."
Xena battled her own frustration for a moment. Her eyes swept over the tables hurriedly, impatience in her manner. Then the clear blue stare came to rest on the open case of metal accessories she remembered from her previous visit. She walked closer to the display and glanced down at the delicate, copper hair buckle she had admired that day. The tanned face lit in a knowing smile. She looked back at the merchant.
"There," she said, pointing carefully at the copper piece. "If you insist," she met the man’s gaze and he nodded. "I’ll take that lovely thing right there."
The tinsmith followed the woman’s finger and lifted the copper buckle from the bed of dark material. He handed the ornament to the warrior who, in turn, presented it to the little bard.
"What’s this?" the girl asked quietly, taking the buckle in her small palm. She examined the petite accessory for a moment, then raised her eyes to meet the warrior’s loving glance. "You don’t have to ...."
"Yes, I do," Xena said quietly. "Call it an early birthday present, OK?" The blue eyes were soft on the little bard’s face.
"OK," the girl said closing her hand over the hair accessory. "But now, I have to find something equally special for you." She returned the tall woman’s warm smile.
Xena put her hand on the girl’s slim shoulder. "I already have that ... you." The bard’s green eyes glistened brightly. The warrior turned back to the tinsmith.
"Thank you," she said to the grinning tradesman. "This will be fine."
He gave her a little bow and smiled at the little bard. The two friends turned together and left the tiny shop.
Once outside, the bard opened her palm to admire the little metal buckle again. So intent was she on her study that the warrior had to pull her sharply out of the way of the two men who were striding purposefully down the middle of the path toward them. As the men passed them, the warrior released the girl’s arm and the women resumed their walk.
"Where else do you want to go?" the warrior asked the girl. Gabrielle put her hand in the pocket of her Amazon skirt and grinned impishly at her friend’s golden countenance.
"The baker’s," she said coyly, the green eyes twinkling. "Ever since we arrived, I’ve been dying to try these little candies I saw in the window. They look scrumptious." She took the warrior’s arm. "C’mon, it’s just down here." The blonde began to walk toward a nearby shop, tugging gently at her friend’s slender wrist.
Xena chuckled as she followed the little blonde toward the bakery. The tantalizing aroma wafting from the shop stimulated the warrior’s senses. "Whatever they’re selling," she quipped, "it smells great." They turned into the fragrant store and made their request to the proprietor. While they waited for the merchant to fill their order, the same two men who had passed them on the street entered the shop. Xena turned when one of the men called her name.
"We saw you come in here," the younger of the two men said. His friendly smile settled the warrior’s instinctive wariness. "We have some good news for you," the man said, focusing on the little bard.
"For me?" Gabrielle said, sharing the warrior’s curious gaze. "What do you mean?"
The other man addressed the tall woman. "In fact, it concerns you both."
"First of all," the younger man began, addressing the warrior as well. "I think we’ve seen the last of that filth in the valley." The warrior’s expression hardened. "We found lots of tracks leading north. Looks like a couple of heavy wagons and some big sleds. Apparently they’re moving their stash of destruction into the northern regions."
Xena turned to the second man. "Draft a message." She glanced at the blonde. "We’ll take it with us. My friend knows enough bards in those provinces to spread the word very quickly." The man nodded. "If we start now, we can make it very difficult for Phantaos to move his merchandise without a lot of people knowing about it."
"It’ll be my pleasure," the second man said "I’ll make sure you have it before you leave."
The younger citizen turned to the little bard. "The other piece of good news is, it turns out that when those ... thugs wedged the large rock door in front of the opening ... the one leading to the second cave?" he said, turning to the warrior momentarily. She nodded. The man addressed the bard again.
"Well," he said, excitedly, "by doing that, they actually protected the little cave by providing a perfect fire wall between the two spaces." The warrior and the bard exchanged delighted stares. "The rocks sealed off the access to the front area so the fire and the explosions stayed in the big room." He paused to acknowledge the girl’s happy laugh.
"And, since there was something wedged tight in the other access," he said jovially, turning a joking gaze at the tall warrior’s abashed face, "the draft that would have spread the fire got kind of ... shut off." He put his hands together in front of him. "The only thing they burned up were the posts and the shelves in the bigger cave." He returned the tall woman’s wide smile. "Pretty appropriate, don’t you think?"
The second man patted his friend’s shoulder. "I’d say it was a kind of ‘poetic justice’," he chortled. "Good planning, on those creeps’ part, huh?"
The four conversants laughed heartily together. Gabrielle turned a gleeful smile at the warrior. She squeezed the woman’s arm happily.
"They’re safe!" she giggled happily. "Isn’t that great?"
Xena smiled warmly at the blonde’s blissful expression. "Yes, that is good news." She turned to the two men. "Thanks for letting us know. You’ve just made my friend’s day."
At that, the baker presented the bard with a small, white box. "On the house," he told her, placing the container in her hands. "For all your hard work."
The two women looked at each other, then burst into laughter. They thanked the baker, said good bye to the two men and strolled out of the shop into the street. Gabrielle beamed up at the warrior, her soft face aglow with the news of the scrolls’ survival. After a few paces, she carefully opened the box and took out a number of the candies. "Here," she said handing the sweets to the warrior. "I say we celebrate."
The warrior accepted the treats and dropped the confections into her mouth. "Where to, now?" she asked around the candy. When she didn’t hear an immediate answer, she turned toward the little bard. Her pace slowed slightly when she noticed the noticeable change in the girls’ happy expression. Gabrielle swallowed her mouthful of candy and raised hesitant eyes toward the warrior.
"I want to stop by the little hut and finish up the work there." The girl looked back down at the white box, taking extra time to replace the lid and secure the slender twine before glancing again at the tall woman’s smooth face.
"You sure you want to deal with ... whoever might be there?" Xena asked carefully. "It might not be pleasant."
The bard stopped walking abruptly and turned to face her tall friend. The green eyes were steady on the warrior’s tentative expression. "It has to be done," she said firmly. "We’re leaving tomorrow and I want to make sure the scrolls that are done are given the proper attention. I spent a lot of time on them and I want to be sure they’ll be safe."
Xena met the bard’s determined gaze, then concentrated on licking the candy’s frosting from her fingers. When she had made the most of the contrived delaying tactic, she returned the serious glance. "OK," she said evenly. "You’re in charge of this expedition," she joked lightly. The blue eyes were steady and supportive. "You want to go now or wait until we have lunch?"
A tiny grin began to invade the bard’s soft face. "Now," the girl said steadily. "Let’s get it over with and then hit the tavern." She studied the piercing blue eyes for another moment, then turned sharply and started walking toward the little hut. A few paces later, her progress was interrupted by Musaeus and his deceitful grin.
"Well," the young man said, hollowly, his eyes moving from the bard’s face to the warrior’s and back. "If it isn’t the two newest heroines of Almiros." He crossed his arms over his chest and assumed a mocking, bitter stance. "Enjoying your fame?"
Gabrielle tried to step around the obnoxious male, but he shifted his position to block her path. Xena’s jaw tightened as the lean body straightened. She glared at the arrogant face of the bard’s antagonist, her fists clenched and her blue eyes hard.
The warrior became vaguely aware of another figure near her. The rage in her throat subsided when she recognized Enoch’s calm face out of the corner of her eye. He touched her back very briefly and turned to address the little blonde.
"Problem, Gabrielle?" he asked the girl casually. He turned a hard warning at the young man’s loathesome face.
"No, problem, Enoch," the girl replied. "Just trying to step around some manure in the road." She leveled a scornful glare at Musaeus, then smiled confidently at the smithy. Enoch took the warrior’s arm and looked directly at the bard. The two women and the smithy moved slowly away from the young man. He let them pass before he sent a venomous comment at the bard’s back.
"You realize no one will ever want to read those scrolls now, don’t you?" The threesome halted as the bard turned slowly back toward the vengeful young male. "They’ll be considered ‘tarnished merchandise’, Musaeus growled hatefully. "Your precious warrior has ruined things for everyone, you know that."
For a moment, it seemed all the other sounds in the street was silenced as every face in the immediate vicinity was trained on the figures involved in the confrontation. Enoch saw the warrior’s jaw ripple dangerously; he sensed the woman was about to demonstrate the skills that characterized every portrayal of her he had ever heard. He gulped as the stiff form began a slow pivot toward the offensive young man behind them. An instant later the little blonde’s firm voice thwarted the woman’s firm intention.
"Xena," Gabrielle said evenly. "I really don’t want to put those stitches in again." The cold blue stare drifted to the young woman’s face. "I don’t think you want to go through that again, either." The little bard took a step toward her friend, bringing herself to stand between the warrior and the jeering male bard. She handed the white box to the tall woman, gently forcing her to accept the container.
"So, allow me," the girl said softly. She took a quick step toward Musaeus, raised one small hand and slapped the smirking face soundly. The young man’s head recoiled sharply from the blow, then snapped back to the blonde’s seething face.
"That’s for risking my best friend’s life and nearly getting her killed in the process," Gabrielle spat out angrily at the astonished young man. The bard took a short breath and squared her shoulders with her victim’s.
Musaeus stroked his face with a shaky hand. He blinked at the little blonde and swallowed hard. "I didn’t tell her to try and take on Phantaos. She did that on her own," the young man snarled defensively.
Gabrielle stepped closer to the defiant face. "No, but you told Phantaos she was coming, didn’t you?"
Musaeus’ gaze darted over the crowd of on-lookers. "ME?" he choked.
"The only people who knew she was going there were me, Enoch," she gestured briefly at the tall smithy, "the Elders ... and you." The little bard cast a hard glare at the trapped face. She shook her head sadly.
"You have a lot of growing up to do, Musaeus. Anyone foolish enough to get involved with someone like this Phantaos doesn’t show a great deal of maturity. You better rethink your choice of ... associates." The green eyes held the young man’s angry gaze. "By the way, you’re wrong about no one reading the scrolls," she said, her voice firm. "Those stories will survive, long after someone as dishonorable as you has passed from the known world."
Eventually, the small form relaxed a bit. She started to turn away, then slowly turned back to the young man. She swiftly raised her hand and slapped him again, the second loud stroke propelling the young face sideways a second time.
"And that’s for getting me here on false pretenses and trying to use the scrolls for your own despicable purposes." The green eyes sparkled with even more distaste than before. "If I ever hear of you defiling another piece of parchment, I’ll find you and show you how good I really am with my staff." She sent a hard look at the cowering young man. "You got that?"
Musaeus stroked his burning face with his hand and nodded wordlessly. He threw one last hateful glare in the warrior’s direction before spinning on his heel and quickly striding away. After a moment, the little bard relaxed and turned quietly to the surrounding faces. "Excuse me for creating a scene, folks, but sometimes clearing the trash is noisy work." A moment of total silence followed her terse words.
An instant later, the crowd erupted in spontaneous laughter as the citizens witnessing the trouncing demonstrated their resounding support. Eventually, the little crowd dispersed offering the bard their congratulations as they moved along. When they were alone on the path, the girl turned a stern glance at the grinning warrior. Small fists planted angrily on her slender hips, she trained an admonishing glare at her dark-haired friend.
"And just what were you planning a moment ago?" she barked at the woman’s astonished face.
Xena gulped, trying to form an intelligent response. She bristled at the little blonde’s scolding. "I ... he .... I just thought ...." she stammered.
"You thought what?" the bard asked, heatedly. "You’d just slip into your normal ‘bard protector thing’ and take care of the little monster? Right?"
Xena felt the warmth of the deep blush covering her face. "My ... what? No!" the tall warrior sputtered. "He was ... he might have ...."
Enoch pursed his lips, fighting hard to control the hearty laughter bubbling in his throat. He averted his eyes from the warrior’s crimson face.
"That’s enough fresh air for you!" the bard declared, snatching the white box from the tall woman’s shaky grasp. Gabrielle put a firm hand on the warrior’s shoulder and turned the slender form in the direction of the Inn. She planted her palm in the middle of Xena’s back and nudged the warrior forward. "Back you go. Time for lunch and a nap," the girl said adamantly.
The warrior stubbornly rejected the bard’s mandate. She halted stiffly, her expression approaching an adolescent pout. "I have to check on Argo."
"Enoch will take care of Argo," the bard said, her voice rising. She turned sharply to the amused smithy. "Won’t you?" she asked him bluntly.
"Absolutely," the man answered obediently. He turned a ‘Sorry, I couldn’t help myself’ look to the warrior’s glare.
The bard faced her tall friend resolutely, pointing toward the Inn with authority.
"March!" she instructed, the green eyes firm.
Xena scowled down at the determined face. After a long moment of willful testing, and more useless stammering from the warrior, the tall form sagged in capitulation, turned slowly toward the Inn and trudged in resigned defeat in the direction of the bard’s pointing finger.
Chapter Thirty ~~~
Xena carried the bundle containing her newly cleaned leathers across the town square. As she entered the stable, she called out to the smithy and smiled when the handsome face emerged from behind one of the stalls. Enoch grinned happily at the sight of the tall warrior leaning casually against the wooden rails of Argo’s stall. He strolled to her side, amicably meeting the blue gaze.
"Good morning," he said to the warrior’s healthy face. "You’re looking well."
Xena smiled over her shoulder at the tall blacksmith as she stroked the mare’s golden head.
"Thanks, I feel great, too." She turned to face the handsome smithy. "I want to thank you for all your help during this whole mess, too. And for taking care of my horse while I was laid up," she told him. Enoch dismissed her comments, but the warrior touched the man’s muscled arm. "No, I mean it. Thanks, Enoch. I really appreciate everything you’ve done for her ... and me ... while we’ve been here."
The smithy gazed steadily at the clear blue eyes. He covered the slender hand on his arm. "I keep telling you, it’s a pleasure to have such a gracious lady in my barn," he said, holding the warrior’s blue gaze. "Not to mention having her lovely horse, too," the smithy joked, turning his eyes to the palomino in the stall. Xena was glad the man’s attention was on the golden horse; it gave her time to recover from the warm blush that traveled over her face. Argo’s friendly guffaw made the two tall figures laugh. The man turned back to the warrior.
"You know you and Gabrielle are always welcome here, anytime you’re in the area?" The brown eyes were sincere on the warrior’s face.
"Thanks," Xena replied. "We’ll be back to visit our friends here again, you can be sure."
She held out her open hand and the smithy took it. The two exchanged an easy smile as he released her hand.
"You two about ready to leave?" he asked.
"As soon as I get back into my leathers," the warrior answered, glancing at the bundle under her arm.
"Oh, by the way," the smithy said. "Camber’s out back and, ah ..." he lowered his voice conspiratorily, "the ‘surprise’ is in that stall over there." Enoch gestured with his head.
The warrior’s eyes moved to where the man indicated. The bronze face softened.
"He doesn’t suspect anything?"
"No, I’ve kept him busy with chores all morning," the tall tradesman grinned. "Want to do it now?"
"Yes," Xena said, putting the bundle down on a nearby barrel.
"OK, I’ll get him." Enoch moved to the back door of the barn. "Camber?" the man called out. "Xena’s here." The smithy stepped back into the barn.
A moment later, the boy appeared in the doorway. The youngster’s face brightened at the sight of the warrior and he launched himself across the stable in her direction. She knelt to accept the boy’s enthusiastic hug.
"Xena!" he shouted as she gathered the small form close. Camber hugged her neck tightly, then stepped back to gaze happily at her face. "You look all better. Are you?" he asked excitedly.
"Yup," the warrior answered. "I’m all healed up." The boy hugged her neck again, then stepped back to meet the woman’s blue gaze. She gently put her hands on the small shoulders. "I have something for you, to thank you for saving my life."
"You do!?" the boy squealed, excitedly. "For me?" He turned an ecstatic look toward his father who nodded approval. "What is it?"
Xena stood up and held out her hand to the boy. "It’s over here. Close your eyes."
Camber took the slender hand and closed his eyes tight. As the warrior guided him toward the nearby stall, the boy giggled in expectation. After a few steps, she stopped and carefully turned the youngster toward the cubicle. "OK, you can open your eyes, now," she told the child. She waited while the brown pools drifted open, then widened in astonishment at the sight before them.
In the stall stood a small, golden colt, his intelligent head bobbing in acknowledgement at the boy. The satin hide was close enough in color to Argo’s for the mare to give the young animal a gracious whinny. The silvery mane and tail had been brushed to a glimmering shine by the gift’s co-conspirator, and the small, boy-sized saddle secured to the horse’s back glowed warmly in the soft light of the stable.
Camber stared, open-mouthed, at the wonderful gift. He took in a little sigh, then turned a stunned expression up at the warrior’s soft smile. Xena cocked her head at the young face, then knelt down next to the child, resting one arm on her bended knee.
"Do you like him?" she asked quietly. Camber’s gaze swept slowly away from the colt to the clear, blue eyes next to him, then back to the small, golden horse.
"He’s beautiful, Xena," he breathed softly. "Just ... beautiful. Thank you." The boy hugged the warrior’s neck heartily. "Oh, thank you!" The warrior pulled the firm little form closer.
"You’re welcome," she answered. Camber released the sleek body to gaze gratefully into the woman’s face. "Look, I know he’s not the colt from the clearing, but ...."
The boy’s glance met the warrior’s as the young face grew decidedly serious. Camber looped his short thumbs in the back pockets of his trousers and dropped his eyes to the front of her tunic, then slowly raised them back to meet the blue eyes again.
"Well I’ve decided not to try to catch the black colt, after all," the boy said softly.
"You have?" Xena studied the small face, then glanced quickly to the beaming smithy.
"It’s like Daddy kept sayin’," the boy began, capturing the cobalt pools again. "That colt was born in the wild. It wouldn’t be fair to try to tame him. He belongs out there where he can be free." The warrior smiled warmly at the boy’s earnest face. "He’s still my friend and he did help us when you were stuck in the tunnel."
"Yes, he did," Xena agreed, her expression as open as the boy’s.
"And friends don’t try to innerfeer with each other’s freedom, right?"
The tall warrior took the boy’s small hand in hers. "Right," she said quietly. "That’s a very grown-up decision you’ve made, my friend. You should be very proud of yourself." Camber smiled widely at the woman’s compliment, the little form straightening brightly. Xena stood up.
"C’mon," she said smiling openly. "Let’s see how he feels from up there." She pulled at the loose knot in the reins secured to the side rail of the stall and handed them to the boy. Camber carefully led the colt out of the stall toward the open barn door.
"What are you going to call him?" Xena asked as she followed the youngster through the open door.
The boy’s face lit in a mischievous grin. He looked up at the tall woman’s soft smile.
"Pegasus," he said, giggling brightly. The warrior’s easy laugh echoed the child’s.
Xena maneuvered the food sizzling in the frying pan over the stone-rimmed fire. Using her knife and a narrow piece of wood, she turned the portions over and moved the large pieces to one side of the flat, iron space to make room for the slices of wild mushrooms she held in her other hand. As the uncooked side of the food hissed on the hot surface, Xena let her eyes travel across the campsite to the small blonde figure of her best friend.
Gabrielle sat in the middle of one of the new blankets, one trim leg crossed over the other, an expanse of parchment covering her lap. As the warrior watched, the quill pen traveled steadily across the manuscript, halting momentarily while the girl’s gaze focused on the surrounding area for a moment, before the soft scratching of the instrument’s tip resumed again. She turned her attention back to the food over the fire.
The bard had been relatively quiet during the short trip from Almiros to the campsite in the little clearing. They had said good-bye to the blacksmith and his son, the young red-haired waitress and the various merchants who had shown their appreciation by providing a generous supply of many of the stores necessary for their continued journey without requesting payment. They had also bid adieu to the town Council, who thanked the bard for her efforts on the scrolls and praised the courage the warrior had displayed while "dispatching those miscreants so efficiently."
Enoch had pledged to make sure the Elders fulfilled their promise to maintain the scrolls in their newly-restored status, and to provide a safe haven for their future protection.
There had been no sight nor mention of the young man whose urgent request had brought the "little storyteller" and her friend, the Warrior Princess to their village. The nature of his fate had not been discussed by any party, except for the passing comment made by his sister who alluded vaguely to a distant relative to whom her absent sibling might pay a prolonged visit.
The warrior and the small blonde had left the town with the big golden horse striding dutifully beside the tall, dark-haired woman. They had proceeded to the quiet, peaceful spot under the rustling trees in the small, welcoming meadow. And the bard had remained rather quiet throughout the short trip.
The little blonde ended the quill’s activity with a flourish, wiped the metal tip with a small cloth and returned the tool to its leather pouch. As she rolled the parchment into a cylinder, she turned a pleasant expression toward the tall woman crouching near the fire.
"Breakfast ready yet?" she asked.
"Almost," the warrior answered, pulling the frying pan to one side of the flames and dusting her hands. "Did you finish your story?"
"Yes," the bard replied, rising from the bedroll and crossing the encampment to sit on a large boulder behind the warrior. She gently pulled the tall woman towards her.
"I want to check your stitches before we eat," she said. Xena sat down on the ground in front of the boulder, settling herself between Gabrielle’s knees. She rested her forearms on her knees and relaxed against the stone. The bard pulled the long, dark hair over the warrior’s shoulder and gently slid the leather strap of her tunic away from the small bandage on the other.
"So," the little blonde said as she gently lifted the small square of cloth. "Camber decided to let the little black horse be, huh? To leave it free?" She examined the site of the stitches and prodded the area gently with her fingers.
"Yeah," Xena said. "He said he didn’t think it would be fair to tame something that had been ‘born wild’." The warrior chuckled softly. "He’s a pretty mature little guy for his age."
"Unlike another we’ve met lately," the bard murmured softly. The tall combatant waited for the girl to pursue the subject, but Gabrielle concerned herself with replacing the bandage and sliding the leather strap back in place.
"I think I can take those out tomorrow," she said, laying her hands on the tall woman’s shoulders. Both women were silent for a moment until the warrior’s smooth voice rose over the crackling flames.
"Gabrielle, I’m sorry about Musaeus," she said, turning her chin slightly to address her friend. She shifted her forearms from her own knees to the bard’s. "But at least you know you did good work restoring the scrolls, in spite of how he tried to use them."
"Yes, that’s something," the girl said softly, repositioning the warrior’s long hair.
Xena turned to face the girl more directly. Her blue eyes were direct and sincere as they met the bard’s.
"That’s everything," she said firmly. "You acted out of honor and a respect for something you valued." She studied the reluctant face.
Gabrielle looked down at the raven locks, running the fingers of one hand through the shiny thatch. "I just feel a little foolish. I was such an easy pawn for him. I put the scrolls in danger ...." The green eyes floated up to meet the cobalt stare. "Worse than that, I put you in danger with my misguided ...."
"Stop that," the warrior said firmly. She captured one small hand and shook it gently. "You did not put me in danger. I did that myself. And you have nothing to feel foolish about." The bronze face softened as she gazed at the soft features. "You always look for the good in everyone and you trust them to show you that ... morsel of themselves." The blue eyes were steady on the girl’s hesitant gaze. "That’s another of my favorite things about you."
The bard’s expression cleared at the affection in her friend’s voice.
"It’s not your fault if it turns out one of them didn’t deserve that trust. But that’s Musaeus’ problem, not yours."
Gabrielle’s smile warmed the warrior’s heart. The bard leaned forward and gave the warrior’s neck a tender hug as Xena’s slender palm caressed the soft face next to her ear. When the women separated, the bard’s gaze was still somewhat hesitant.
"Maybe I need to take my own advice," she said. One of the warrior’s dark eyebrows drifted upward on her forehead. "Maybe I should start being a little more careful about trusting people, or just be more careful about who I put my faith in."
Xena gave the girl an inquisitive stare. She waited, almost fearful that the little bard might have suddenly become disenchanted with the unpredictability of the warrior’s own violent nature. She watched the gentle face grow pensive, then settle on the warrior’s apprehensive face. The warrior gratefully recognized the girl’s warm smile.
"I could change my ... perceptions ... be a little less anxious to assume everyone is as ....."
"Don’t you dare!" the warrior interjected. She swung her body around and took the girl’s face in her hands. The green pools were steady on her face.
"Don’t you change one parcel about the way you look at people," the warrior warned. "There are enough of us who spend so much time looking for the faults in others, they have no trouble finding them." She released the bard’s soft face and tapped the short nose with her forefinger. "It’s people like you who keep the cynics like me from making total fools of ourselves." The bard giggled softly as the warrior turned back to the fire and the food in the frying pan.
"Oh, no, my bardly friend," the woman said, wrapping a small hide piece around the handle of the iron utensil and lifting it from the glowing coals. "You just go right on finding the good, even when the rest of us see only a waste of time."
Xena brought the frying pan to one of the earthen plates laying next to the fire’s circle. She slid one of the charred portions onto the plate and followed it with some of the singed mushrooms. She put the skillet down and handed the plate to the bard.
Gabrielle took the dish and studied the blackened lump curiously. She raised an uncertain gaze to the warrior’s grin. "What IS this?" she asked the radiant cook.
"Fish," the warrior announced proudly. The bard laughed heartily and hugged her best friend.