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© Copyright 1997 by F.S.
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"I just don't think I'm going to get this right." She put the block of wood down.
"I thought it was going pretty well." Her companion smiled slightly. "I never knew you had such a skill for carving."
Gabrielle shrugged. "It was something I picked up when I was little. Although we were not exactly poor, we never did have enough dinars to spend on a lot of toys and stuff. Me an' Lila had to learn to make our own." Her eyes grew thoughtful as she passed a hand over the half-formed figure. "Lila always said that if I didn't make it as a bard, I could always try this trade."
"She was right. That's a pretty good dog that you have there," Xena remarked.
"It's supposed to be a horse. This is Argo," Gabrielle retorted, but smiled anyway. Xena rarely gave compliments, and the bard had learned to take them when she could. She was glad that her friend had found one of her passive skills worth something. An annoyed whinny told her that not everyone thought her craft was admirable.
"At least this talent of yours doesn't involve noise," Xena continued and grinned as Gabrielle shot her an annoyed glare. Actually, Gabrielle had turned to wood working as a way to vent her creative soul without annoying her friend too much. Xena had enough frustrations in her life without Gabrielle adding any more to the burden. However, she was not going to let her friend's comment pass without her own remark.
"Just because you don't enjoy my pan flute playing doesn't mean that no one else will. And what's wrong with my storytelling?"
"There's nothing wrong with your stories. I just don't like hearing about myself. But I wouldn't say the same about your pan flute. Play that and we're liable to get run out of every village."
"Hmph. Everyone's a critic!" Gabrielle turned back to regard the wood carving again. "This is just awful. The wood's not shaping the way I want it to."
"That's life for you. It rarely takes a form that we want. A turn of the blade, a twist in the wrong direction, then you have one big mess." Xena had a distant look in her eyes. "Sometimes I wonder if our whole lives are like that, pieces of wood waiting to be carved by the hands of the Fates. Yet, perhaps we are the ones who carve what we become."
Gabrielle looked up curiously. The warrior was in a rare philosophical mood. However, before she could question her friend about that train of thought, Xena shook her head and her eyes cleared.
"Anyway, dinner's ready. Do you want the haunch or the belly?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "You pick." When she had first joined up with Xena, she had quailed at the thought of eating the cute furry animals that made up their usual fare. Although with time, she had gotten used to dining on what Xena caught, Gabrielle still could not bring herself to hunt her own dinner. The thought of killing an innocent animal with her own hands made Gabrielle's stomach turn and stemmed the bard's usually voracious appetite.
Xena caught her friend's expression and hid a soft smile. "You know, you're going to have to learn how to catch your own food one of these days. I can't always be around to do this."
"Look, I already know how to set a live snare," Gabrielle replied. "I just never seem to catch anything."
Cutting the roast meat, Xena made sure the bard couldn't see the amused look on her face. The truth to the matter was that Gabrielle could be quite proficient about setting a trap if she wanted to be. Compared to the other skills that she had learned from Xena, trapping food should have been one of the easier tasks. The bard did fairly well with catching fish, and that was a pretty difficult trick in itself. However, the more fuzzy and cute the animal was, the more Gabrielle seemed to bungle her traps. The bard's heart was just too soft to be a good hunter or a good killer. Xena loved her young friend for that trait. So she was the one that caught their dinners, while Gabrielle was the one that did most of the eating. When the warrior looked up again, her face was impassive as she flipped the haunch piece to her friend.
Gabrielle caught it easily and bit down eagerly. "This is good," she managed to say between bites.
"Get as much as you can into your system," Xena replied seriously, all traces of humor gone. "Tomorrow we'll be traveling into dangerous territory and I won't be able to stop to catch anything."
Nodding her understanding, Gabrielle swallowed and glanced worriedly toward the direction they would be taking.
"Do you think we'll actually be of any help?"
Xena followed her gaze. "I don't know. All we can do is try. The people around here have been terrorized so long by Falceus that I don't know if they have the spirit to fight back."
"You'll give them the spirit, Xena. You could rally any army," Gabrielle cheerfully stated.
"I know," Xena said softly as she finished her part of the rabbit. Gabrielle gulped as she realized her mistake. "I once rallied my own village to war."
Xena quietly looked to where her sword lay, always within arm's reach. "But this is different. These people have been living under Falceus' heel for more than two decades. A human soul can only last so long before it breaks."
"Xena ..." Gabrielle began, but the warrior cut her off as she drew a quick sketch of their route in the dirt around the campfire.
"We'll be going in the back way. I know Falceus; we have a ... history. Although he's a cunning strategist and great leader, he's also very superstitious. He rarely takes his chances with the gods." Xena made some rough scratches into the dust. "The chief city is Realthan, about two to three days hard ride from here. At last report, Falceus is away from home at the moment, fighting a war against the Centaurs. He's at least a four days' march away, and the realm is now protected with a scant back guard. That should make things a bit easier." She sketched out a couple of triangles. "This is Spirit's Glade. He rarely ever takes a patrol through these woods. We should be able to pass through unnoticed, and there's a small town at the edge of the glade, called Cyanthus. We will be safe there as we take stock of the situation."
Frowning slightly, Gabrielle leaned forward to study the drawing. "I don't know Xena ... I've heard stories about Spirit's Glade. It's a favorite stomping place of the demigod Pan. He's got a bad reputation of turning people into things ... I remember one story about a guy named Midas and something happening to his ears." She gulped. "Also, it's said to be haunted. Weird things happen there ... people go in, but they don't come out, at least, not in their original state of being."
Xena snorted. "Don't tell me that you're scared of a few fairy tales."
"I'm not scared!" Gabrielle declared "At least, not much. Are you sure there isn't another way?"
"Not one that doesn't run us right into Falceus' border patrol," Xena replied. "I don't want to take chances this time. We need to see what condition the people are in before we try anything."
Gabrielle gave in reluctantly. Already, she was having a bad feeling about this. Last time they hadn't listened to her ideas for a better route, something terrible had happened. Xena must have remembered the incident, too. She looked up, eyes haunted.
"I'm certain that this is the best choice, Gabrielle. It's the only way we can get in without a confrontation that could reveal our plans to Falceus."
Giving her friend a reassuring smile, Gabrielle returned to her wood carving. "I'm sure you're right." She finished a curl for the tail of the horse and started working on the mane. Gabrielle had been working on the piece for days now, and she had hoped to finish it before they embarked on their next adventure.
"What are you going to do with that once it's completed?" Xena asked, changing the topic suddenly.
"Oh, I don't know." In her heart, Gabrielle had been hoping to give the piece to Xena as a present, but was very hesitant to do so. What would a Warrior Princess want with a wooden figure of a horse anyway? Xena did not look like the kind of girl who liked to play with dolls. "Maybe it'll fetch a few dinars in a marketplace somewhere."
"Maybe." Xena watched as Gabrielle lovingly carved another lock of hair into the wood. As with anything she did, the bard was putting one hundred percent of her soul into making the work of art. "You could sell it as an souvenir of the Trojan War."
"Very funny." Gabrielle yawned.
"You should get some sleep. We have a busy day ahead of us."
"Yes, mother." The bard smirked. "Just a little longer, huh? I'm nearly finished."
"Very well." Xena kept the disapproving look on her face, but her eyes softened as she watched the bard at work. By the gods, she was lucky to have Gabrielle for a friend. Even though to outsiders, the bard seemed to be more a burden than anything else, Xena knew that she would be lost without her. Many asked why she would keep such an annoying chatterbox around, but they just did not understand. Gabrielle was a light to Xena's dark soul; proof that even she, once a despised warlord herself, could regain some measure of self worth. She shuddered. If anything were to happen to the bard, Xena did not know what would happen to her soul.
Gabrielle, perhaps keying into her friend's moody thoughts, put down the carving and came over to hug the warrior. Startled, Xena pulled away.
"What was that for?"
"To thank you for always being there for me," the bard said simply as she returned to her place by the campfire and resumed her carving. "I'd be lost without you."
"Don't be ridiculous. You'd do just fine."
"No maybes about it," Xena said warmly, although she was still a bit shaken. Had Gabrielle become a mind reader now? Xena stole another look at the open, innocent face. No. If Gabrielle could indeed read minds, then she would have gone crazy a long time ago picking up the thoughts of the Warrior Princess. Xena grimaced. Sometimes, her thoughts were not something she was extremely proud of. She turned back to Gabrielle, a half smile playing on her face. "Of course, you might starve, but otherwise, you'd be all right."
Gabrielle smiled. "Who's to say that I would go hungry? There's more to eat in the woods than just rabbits, you know. But you're right about one thing ... you don't need to feel so responsible for me."
Xena raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
"You know." Gabrielle stopped when she saw that the warrior really did not have a clue as to what she meant. "You don't have to worry so much."
"Who says I worry?"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Yeah, and a Cyclops has two eyes. Really, Xena, I'm a big girl. I know how to take care of myself, as you said. Now stop worrying about something happening to me."
"I wasn't," Xena declared firmly.
Knowing that her friend wouldn't budge from her position, Gabrielle finished the last few strokes with her blade and put the figure down as she prepared for bed. Taking out the bed roll, Gabrielle looked at the flickering flames of the fire as they haloed the little wooden horse. Fond images of her own childhood popped into mind as she spread out her blankets.
"What was your childhood like?" Gabrielle slid into the covers of her bed.
"It was ... acceptable. I really can't remember, it was so long ago."
"I hope it was fun." The bard's voice was heavy with sleep.
Xena stared into the flames. "Yes, it was," she replied softly, but Gabrielle was already fast asleep. Taking up her own sleeping position, with Gabrielle in plain sight, Xena made sure that her weapons were in easy reach before reclining comfortably with her head propped on one arm. As usual, she knew that there would be little sleep that night. Instead, almost as if the thoughts were drawn out by the bard's sleepy words, Xena remembered her own childhood, the days of innocence and laughter, before she knew the world of the blade and sword, before Cortez and his army, and before she had taken her first life. The days when she, like Gabrielle, was free spirited and light hearted.
"Those days are gone forever," she whispered quietly, before dropping off into a light, uneasy sleep.
The wind caught her words and carried them quickly over the earth. In the distance, the large forest heard and waited.
Morning dawned much too early for Gabrielle's liking. It seemed like as soon as she put her head down, it was time to get up again. Groaning faintly, the bard tried to ignore Xena as the warrior attempted to shake her best friend into some form of consciousness.
"Get up, lazy bones. It's time to go." Sharp shaking emphasized each word.
Gabrielle just turned over to her other side, much to Xena's annoyance. "Just a couple more minutes, please?"
"Now, Gabrielle. We need to get going."
"Aww ..." Another sleepy groan emitted from the stack of blankets. "The sun's barely up."
"It's high enough to see by." Xena had given up on the shaking tactic and just glared at her friend in exasperation. She was beginning to get a little annoyed. Looking around, Xena wondered if there was any water handy. As if sensing her friend's next plan, Gabrielle pawed her way out of her blankets before the warrior had the chance to even start toward the bucket.
"I'm up." The bard blinked blearily as she stumbled her way out of bed. She quickly straightened her hair and rolled up her bedding. "Where's breakfast?"
"You'll have to eat it on foot. I plan to be out of Spirit's Glade by noon." Xena whistled to Argo, who came trotting up obediently. Gabrielle looked at the horse enviously. Argo had already grazed her fill on the sweet green grass that surrounded the campsite. It just wasn't fair, the bard thought grumpily as she munched on a hard, dry biscuit.
Her mood didn't improve once she saw Spirit's Glade. The dark forest seemed to have an ominous air, even in the bright morning daylight. Gabrielle shivered as she neared the trees. Even Argo seemed uncertain about entering the glade and kept looking at Xena for reassurance. The warrior patted her absently as she scanned the tree line, looking until she found a worn trail near the center of the forest.
"Xena, I really don't think that's a path," Gabrielle ventured when she saw where Xena intended to go. "It looks almost like a deer trail."
"That's because it is one," Xena replied.
"We can't follow a deer trail!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "Who knows where we will end up?"
"I know where we're going. Are you saying that you don't trust me?" Xena raised an eyebrow.
"No, it's not that," Gabrielle said quickly. "It's just that I've heard so many stories about people getting lost in places like that ..."
"You don't have to come if you don't want to," Xena replied as she urged Argo forward.
Gabrielle watched her go, torn between her apprehension and her loyalty to her best friend. The struggle lasted only a fraction of a second before she was running after Xena.
"Hey, wait up."
In the eerie green gloom, the noises in the forest sounded surreal and unnatural. Strange shapes fluttered in the underbrush, and Gabrielle swore she could see something big flitting just out of the corner of her eye. Unconsciously, she drew closer to Xena and Argo and clutched her staff even more tightly. Every sound made her jump, and every bit of movement made her whirl, ready for an attack.
"Don't be so uptight." Xena tried to calm the nervous bard down. "There's nothing here but the trees and the regular forest animals."
"Have you ever asked why they're the only ones here?" Gabrielle shivered.
"That's because most of the population is scared of this place, like you are. That includes Falceus," Xena remarked. "There's nothing to these woods, Gabrielle, only your overactive imagination."
"Are you so sure about that, mortal?" The sudden sound of a voice to their left made them both spin around. A strange being sat grinning on a rock near the side of the path. Neither centaur nor human, but a curious mixture, nonetheless, the apparition seemed to be half goat and half man. Jumping off his perch and landing neatly on his two cloven hooves, he looked at the two disdainfully. "You seem so certain, Warrior Princess."
"Pan, I presume." Xena arched an eyebrow. "I mean you no trouble or disrespect, but my friend and I must pass through here in order stop the warlord Falceus. Let us through."
"I've heard of Falceus. Nasty piece of work, isn't he? But he knows better than to trouble my woods, so I have no quarrel with him. You, on the other hand, seem to be trespassing."
"We didn't mean to," Gabrielle spoke up. "We only wanted to help some people who really need us. This was the only safe way through."
"Mortal business is not my concern. Now let me see, what would be the proper punishment for two ladies such as yourself? Would you like to be frogs, maybe?" Pan scratched his horned head. "Nah, too warty. Besides, if a prince came along, all he'd have to do is kiss you. How about worms? No, too squishy. I've got it! You ..." he pointed to Gabrielle, "... would make a nice parrot, since you do tend to talk so much. And you, Warrior Princess, what would you say to being a skunk? I think you'd look marvelous in black and white fur. Plus, you have a habit of raising up a stink wherever you go ..."
"Pan, we don't have time for your childish pranks. Now let us pass!" Xena was obviously losing her patience. The little faun chuckled in glee.
"Childish, am I? Well, Xena, let's see who's real child here!" The master of the woodlands waved an arm. Suddenly, a blinding light enveloped all of them, and for a few minutes, the woods glowed brighter than day. When the light finally subsided, Gabrielle ran over to where she had last seen Xena and Argo.
"What was that all about?" she muttered as she spotted the horse. Her heart skipped a beat when she realized Xena was not on the saddle. "Xena?!? Where are you?"
"Over here," said a small voice. Gabrielle blinked. That had not sounded like her best friend. Running around to the other side of Argo, the bard got the shock of her life. There, still dressed in her now oversized armor, was a five-year-old Warrior Princess.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes," the girl said shakily. "But I wanna go home. I don't like it here."
"Well, ... Xena ... I would like to take you home, but I'm kinda lost myself." Gabrielle looked hopelessly at the trees as she tried to remember which way to go. All around her, the deer path forked out in many directions, and the trail they had left before had mysteriously vanished.
"Well, I wanna go home. Mommy and Daddy will be very mad at you if you don't take me." The girl stared icily at Gabrielle.
"Okay. Come on, get onto Argo." Gabrielle tried to plan what to do next.
"Why not?" Gabrielle looked at her in surprise. "I'll give you a boost." She walked toward Xena, but the girl reacted by stomping the bard's foot. Gabrielle yowled in surprise. "Why did you do that?"
"I'm not supposed to take rides from strangers," she replied stubbornly, not once taking her eyes off Gabrielle.
"I'm Gabrielle. I'm your friend," Gabrielle said soothingly as the startling realization sunk in. This was not Xena in a five-year-old body. This was a five-year-old Xena. And like any child her age, Xena was feeling insecure and frightened since she was in an unfamiliar location with a complete stranger. However, instead of bursting into tears like any other five-year-old would, the miniature warrior had decided to put up a fight.
"Ga-breee-yell." Xena screwed up her face. "Funny name."
"You should be the one to talk," Gabrielle snorted. Seeing Xena's angry look, she relented. "You can call me Gabby, if you want. Are we friends?"
"No. I want to go home." Xena crossed her arms and glared. Even though she was taller than Xena now, Gabrielle still felt a little unnerved by the ferocity in her friend's eyes.
"Have it your way," the bard said flippantly. "C'mon, Argo." She grabbed the horse's reins, hoping with all her might that the horse would play along. Argo must have sensed Gabrielle's growing frustration, for she followed the bard docilely. Both of them walked down the trail, as if they were going to leave the young Xena behind. Minutes later, Gabrielle let out a breath in relief as she heard the sound of little bare feet running to catch up with them.
"Decided to change your mind?" she asked. Xena looked away from her. "I promise I won't hurt you." The little girl cocked her head, then nodded.
"Okay, we'll be friends," Xena replied. Gabrielle let a warm smile break out on her face.
"Do you want a ride now that we aren't strangers?"
Xena seemed to consider that for a moment. Finally, she held up her arms. Gabrielle carefully lifted the little girl onto Argo's back. Xena seemed pitifully small in the enormous saddle, and she had to cling onto saddle horn and mane as Argo broke into a slow trot. To her credit, the trained war horse made her gait as smooth as possible, so not to jar her little passenger loose.
"Are we going home?"
"I'm afraid I don't know where we're going," Gabrielle admitted reluctantly. "Only you knew your way through the forest and now ..."
"Never mind." Gabrielle looked at her surroundings warily. "I just hope there aren't any other nasty surprises lurking around."
"If there are, I'll just bash them with a rock," Xena declared boldly. "I'm really good at that you know, and fighting with sticks. I like your stick, though."
"It's not a stick, it's an Amazon staff." Gabrielle grinned at the look of fascination that crossed Xena's face.
"I want to be an Amazon someday," she informed the bard. "How did you meet one?"
"Well, it's a long story." Gabrielle picked her way through the forest growth. "But I'll tell it to you, if you like." At Xena's eager nod, she began. "It happened when Xena and I ..."
"Um ... er ..." Gabrielle fumbled. "More like your big sister."
"I don't have one," the little girl pouted. "I have a younger brother and an older one, but no big sisters."
"Well, she's not exactly your *sister* but something close to that," Gabrielle hedged. Xena seemed to be satisfied with that answer, and the bard began her story again. While she was telling the tale, Gabrielle quietly began to mark her trail. There had to be a way out of Spirit's Glade. The only problem was to find it. After hours upon hours of fruitless searching, Gabrielle was worn out. She had already told Xena three more tales, and the little girl was beginning to look tired.
"Gabby, I'm hungry," she finally spoke up. With a start, Gabrielle realized that they had skipped lunch entirely.
"It's almost evening ... let's make camp. I don't think we'll make it out of the woods before nightfall anyway."
Scouting around, Gabrielle spotted a small clearing just ahead of them. She steered Argo toward it. Gabrielle helped Xena down from the saddle and started unloading the mare. The little girl helped the bard the best she could by carrying the items further into the clearing and depositing them down near where Gabrielle had marked their camp to be. The bard had to admire the young one's spirit. Xena had not complained once during their search, not even when informed that they probably would not make it home that night. Taking the last of the supplies from Argo's back, Gabrielle hefted them toward where Xena was sitting on a stump.
"Hey, I'm going to go look for some firewood," Gabrielle said as cheerfully as possible. "You stay here and watch over our stuff."
"You're gonna to leave me alone here?" Wide blue eyes regarded her with a tinge of fear. The bard gulped.
"You won't be alone. Argo will keep you company. Besides, I need you to dig a fire pit for me. Here, I'll show you how ..."
"I already know," Xena said disdainfully. "My daddy taught me."
"Great!" Gabrielle patted the little girl on the back. "Then I'll leave that to you. If you need me, just shout. I'll be near." Taking up her staff, the bard walked toward the woods. "Take care of her, Argo," she muttered to the horse as she passed. The palomino snorted her compliance.
Remaining within earshot of their makeshift campsite, Gabrielle quietly began to set the traps that would catch their dinner. She tried not to think about her situation or about how much she missed her best friend. What would they do now? If Pan chose not to reverse the spell, would Xena have to live her life again? On one hand that would not be too bad, Gabrielle reflected. The young girl had a sense of peace and innocence that Gabrielle had never seen before in the older woman. However, the world truly needed the Warrior Princess right now, especially the townspeople under Falceus. Gabrielle shook her head. Either way, the first thing she had to do was to get Xena out of the woods and into a more secure location. When they were both safe, then she could plan what she was going to do next. Gathering up an armful of firewood, the bard headed back into camp.
Xena had managed to dig a fairly decent firepit and had lined it with a bunch of rocks. Gabrielle eyed the youngster's creation and felt impressed. Even she, on her first night with Xena, had not done so well.
"You did a great job," she told the girl and was rewarded with a beaming smile. Putting the tinder and the wood into the pit, Gabrielle took out the pieces of flint from the saddle bags and quickly built up a fire. "That should keep us warm for the night."
"Yup," Xena agreed. "Is there any dinner? I'm hungry. Do we have any roast boar? Or honey cakes? I like honey cakes."
"Sorry, all we have are hard biscuits." Gabrielle got up and rummaged in the saddlebags. "But maybe, with some luck, we'll have some rabbit."
"Mmmm ... I hope so." Xena licked her lips eagerly. Gabrielle tossed her one of the biscuits.
"Start on that. I'm going to check my traps. Stay here," she instructed Xena, who nodded in reply. Gabrielle walked cautiously into the darkening woods. The first four snares were empty. Gabrielle tried not to show her disappointment as she headed for her fifth one. To her surprise, a rabbit was wriggling furiously in the rope harness. Moving quickly, the bard untangled the snare line and stood there for a moment, watching the rabbit as it struggled and squealed in alarm. His soft brown eyes seemed to bore into hers. Gabrielle took out her knife, the same one she had been using to carve the night before, and held it hesitantly at the creature's neck. One quick slash was all it took. Yet, she could barely move her hand. The sound of a twig snapping behind her made her spin around, wielding the knife protectively in front of her. To her relief, it was only Xena.
"I thought I told you to stay in camp," she said as she lowered the blade.
"I heard some noises," Xena explained, and Gabrielle saw that the little girl was clutching a rock. "I got scared."
"It's okay." Gabrielle hefted up the rabbit by the ears. "It was only him."
Xena looked at the struggling rabbit, then at Gabrielle, then back at the rabbit again. "What are you going to do with him?"
"Well, he's dinner." Gabrielle gestured with the knife. "As soon as I can skin him."
Xena winced. "You're gonna kill him?" she asked in a small voice. Gabrielle took a deep breath and nodded.
"Oh." Deep blue eyes filled with tears and Xena turned away abruptly. Gabrielle came over and put a hand on her shoulder.
"Hey, it's okay. We don't have to, if you don't want to. To tell you the truth, I've never done this sort of thing before and I wasn't looking forward to it either. If you don't mind a biscuit dinner, then I'll let him go."
"Really?" the little girl turned to her, eyes hopeful. "I don't mind biscuits at all."
"Me neither." Gabrielle replied and quickly slit the trap line around the animal's neck and let go. The rabbit bounded out of sight. Xena watched it go, a satisfied smile on her face. Gabrielle grinned in return and both of them headed back toward the campfire.
"My big sister Xena probably wouldn't have cried," the little girl said suddenly, almost ashamed.
Gabrielle handed her another biscuit and gently looked into the youngster's eyes. "No, she wouldn't have. But there's nothing wrong in crying, Xena. Nothing wrong at all. It just showed that you cared and caring is a good thing." The bard leaned back against a tree. "I think that your big sister would have been proud of what you did today. I know I am."
"I'm glad you're here with me, Gabby. I would be so scared if you weren't." Xena's eyes drooped.
"I'm glad that you're here, too," Gabrielle replied honestly, then smiled softly. The little girl had already fallen asleep. Spreading out a bed of blankets, she gently wiped the biscuits crumbs away from Xena's mouth before carrying the dark-haired youngster over to the blankets and tucking her in. Kissing the top of Xena's head, Gabrielle whispered good night and prayed to Morpheus for sweet dreams to visit her young friend. Then she made her own bed and prepared for the long evening ahead.
Morning came after a relatively uneventful night. Gabrielle was a bit tired, for she had been unable to sleep a wink. However, she was ready to start moving when the first rays of sunlight hit the forest canopy. She did not want to spend any more time in the woods and was eager to resume the search for a way out. Xena, on the other hand, was feeling a little cranky.
"I don't wanna have biscuits," she declared when Gabrielle presented her with another one of the tasteless lumps of dough. "They're yucky. I want some honey cakes."
"I don't have any," said the patient bard. "All I have are biscuits."
"But I want honey cakes," Xena pouted. "And some sheep's milk."
"I'm sorry, but there's only water," Gabrielle stated firmly as she lifted the girl onto Argo. "You can eat and drink as you ride."
The little girl squirmed unhappily in the saddle. "I don't wanna ride. I wanna walk."
"You can't. You don't have any shoes and that could be dangerous."
"You're walking," Xena pointed out.
"Well, I have boots, and besides, Argo can't take both of us on this type of terrain." Gabrielle decided not to mention the fact the she was scared to death of horses. "Tell you what. If you stay quiet and eat your biscuit, then I'll tell you a story."
"I don't want a story, and I don't want to ride." Xena threw her biscuit away, which landed with a loud clonk noise on the ground. Gabrielle blinked. The kid sure had an arm. "I want some honey cakes."
Patiently, the bard launched into one of her more exciting stories. As she had hoped, Xena became so intrigued by the tale that the girl forgot about their situation. However, all too soon, Gabrielle reached the end of the story, and Xena began to fidget again. Abruptly, she hopped off Argo, nearly giving Gabrielle a heart attack as she landed quite agilely on the ground. Before the startled bard could react, the girl had scampered away.
"Wait, Xena ... come back!" Gabrielle called after the wayward figure.
"I'm tired of riding. Catch me if you can!" Xena stuck her tongue out at the pursuing bard.
"I thought you wanted to get out of here." Gabrielle was slowly gaining ground as she ducked and swerved her way through the trees.
Ever the strategist, Xena saw that she would soon be caught if she remained at the pace she was going. Quickly, she changed her tactics and decided to go for an aerial assault instead. Catching the limb of a tree, the girl easily swung up the lowest branches. In minutes, Xena found herself high above the ground with an angry-looking Gabrielle below her.
"Get down from there!" the bard yelled. "You might fall, or worse!"
"Come and get me," Xena challenged. Gabrielle gulped. Heights had never been the bard's strong point.
"Please, Xena? We've got to get out of here!" pleaded Gabrielle. A hard, spiky acorn was dropped onto her head as a reply. Rubbing the spot where it hit, the bard tried to take herself out of the range of fire, but Xena was amazingly accurate with her throws.
"Hey, quit that! Look, I'm serious, Xena. We've gotta go." Gabrielle dodged another nut. "Don't make me come up there."
"I don't think you can," Xena giggled. "You're too big. The whole tree'd fall down."
Gabrielle gripped her staff in frustration as she glared at the young mischief maker. Xena was right, of course. There was no way in Hades that the bard could ever hope to reach her. Sighing, Gabrielle wondered how long it would take before Xena became hungry enough to abandon her perch. She also wondered if she had ever been so much trouble to her parents when she was younger.
"Gabby!" Xena said excitedly. "I see something ..." Waving her arms and pointing, the girl gestured to something in the distance. Unfortunately, her motions unbalanced her from her seat. Teetering wildly, the child grabbed at another branch as the one beneath her gave a loud crack.
"Xena!" Gabrielle yelped, her heart in her mouth. "Hang on!" Pushing down her own fears, Gabrielle shimmied up the tree trunk, as skillful as any of her Amazon sisters. Working her way through the branches, Gabrielle watched as Xena clung to a small limb, barely holding on. Gritting her teeth, the bard pushed herself upwards, unconsciously selecting in her mind the branches that she knew could hold her weight. Finally, she was there.
"Take my hand," she said firmly.
"I can't reach." Xena looked frightened.
"Of course you can," Gabrielle said as calmly as she could. "Just put your hand out and grab."
"You're too far away."
"No, I'm not. Just give me your hand," Gabrielle coaxed as she reinforced her grip on the unsteady limb she was on. Hesitantly, Xena let go of the branch with one hand and extended it out to Gabrielle. Reaching out as far as she could, the bard felt their fingers brush, then connect.
"Now let go of the branch with your other hand," Gabrielle said soothingly. "Don't worry, I've got you."
Xena nodded, and Gabrielle felt the girl loosen her hold on the branch. Then a sudden, tearing weight jarred her whole body and the bard had to strain not to lose her grip.
"Gabrielle ... don't let go."
"I won't." Gabrielle mustered her strength and swung the child to safety. Xena expertly caught a lower branch and quickly worked her way down. The bard closed her eyes in relief as she steadied herself.
"Gabby, you can come down now," a small voice called upwards.
"Uh ... sure," Gabrielle said weakly as she struggled for a toehold. Somehow, getting down was a lot tougher than going up. Feeling her way slowly, the bard gingerly inched her way toward the ground. When she finally reached it, she collapsed in relief.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be bad," a contrite voice told her. Looking up, Gabrielle smiled softly.
"It's okay. No real damage done. Just listen to what I say in the future, all right?"
"Yes, Gabrielle," Xena promised earnestly, but to the bard's surprise, she headed straight up the tree again.
"What did I just say to you?" Gabrielle shook her head. "Isn't almost falling out once enough of a warning?"
"I'm not going to fall again," Xena replied confidently. "Besides, I saw something." The girl seemed to gather her bearings, then scooted down from the tree again. Gabrielle followed, feeling a little mystified as Xena led her on a winding course through the trees. She tensed as she heard sounds coming from the direction they were heading and readied her staff in case there was trouble.
Suddenly, the trees parted way to show a small glade. Gabrielle caught her breath. It was beautiful. Sunlight danced and sparkled on a little laughing brook that ran its way through the middle of the grassy expanse. Butterflies fluttered in between flowers, and all around them there could be heard the buzzing of bees. However, the thing that had drawn Xena's interest was the source of an intense braying sound. Rounding an enormous rock, Gabrielle found Xena kneeling by a small white goat, who had its hind leg trapped in a crevice of stone.
"That's strange," the bard muttered to herself. "A wild goat? No, it must be one of Pan's flock that got separated from the others."
"We're going to help it, right?" Xena spoke up suddenly.
"I don't know. We've already had one encounter with Pan ... I'm not sure I want to meet him again."
"But he's just a baby, and he needs us." Xena watched as the little creature struggled to free itself. Gabrielle let her hands fall helplessly to her side when she saw the pleading look that both the goat and the little girl gave her.
"You said that a Warrior Princess helps people in trouble," Xena reminded her. The bard was already working on freeing the trapped leg.
"Yeah, that's something she does best," Gabrielle said as the hoof popped loose, sending her flying backward with twenty pounds of wiggling goat pressed down on her chest. Amid the sounds of Xena's giggles and the frantic bleating of the goat, Gabrielle got up, brushing the grass from her dress. The released goat hobbled around in a circle.
Xena stopped her laughter. "He's hurt ..." she said in a soft voice. Gabrielle caught the animal and examined him.
"I think it's just a sprain. He'll be fine in a couple of days. Still, can you find me a strong piece of straight wood? I'd like to make a splint for him."
Xena immediately ran off and brought back a suitable stick. Gabrielle ripped a small part of her dress, which was becoming even more soiled than usual, and gently wrapped the animal's foot. The goat, finding its leg feeling a lot better, bleated its thanks, and headed back into the woods. Xena looked like she wanted to follow it, but Gabrielle stopped her with a glance.
"He'll be fine. We'd better get back to Argo." Gabrielle took the little girl's hand, and they started back through the woods. Luckily, Argo was still where they had left her. The horse looked up at them as if annoyed, then whickered. Gabrielle put Xena back into the saddle, and gave Argo a fond pat.
"Sorry about that, girl," she said. Argo snorted, but started walking as soon as Gabrielle took up the reins. "I just wish we knew where we were going."
"Maybe he knows!" Xena pointed to a brown rabbit sitting patiently by the side of the road.
"A rabbit?" Gabrielle looked at the bunny. It looked awfully familiar ... The long-eared carrot eater tapped a fuzzy paw to the ground and looked at them pointedly.
"He wants us to follow him," Xena piped up confidently, as if communicating with rabbits was her specialty.
Gabrielle gave her a skeptical look, then shrugged. After all, what could it hurt? They could not possibly get any more lost. The rabbit led them through a maze of twists and turns, but in a shorter amount of time than Gabrielle thought possible, they were again under open sky. Their furry guide leaped up once, as if in salute, then left. The bard blinked. Was that a note of laughter she had just heard on the wind?
"At least we're out," she said to Xena, "Now, if I could just get you to a safe town somewhere, we might be able to fix this mess. I've had enough of trouble for one day."
"Me, too." The girl fiddled around with Argo's saddle bags as Gabrielle scanned the route ahead of them. "Hey, what's this?"
"Put that down." Gabrielle frowned. "That's a chakram. You don't want to play around with it; it's dangerous."
"Looks kinda like a discus toy Toris has." Xena eyed the weapon curiously.
"Well, it's not a toy." Gabrielle walked back over to Argo and took the chakram out of Xena's small hands. "You could hurt someone with it. I don't know how to use it either," she admitted.
Xena's eyes gleamed. "I bet the Warrior Princess knows."
"You could say that. Your ... uh ... big sister always had a way with that thing." Gabrielle tucked the weapon back into the saddlebags. "It was almost like an extension of her arm."
"I bet I could throw it just as good."
"Let's not try." Gabrielle looked at the girl seriously. "Like I said, it's a weapon, not a toy. You could kill somebody, especially if you don't know how to use it. Understand?"
"Yeah," Xena shrugged, although Gabrielle could tell that the girl had little idea of the damage that such a harmless looking "toy" could do. Gabrielle found herself wishing that Xena would never know. "I mean it, Xena. Don't touch."
"I won't," Xena promised, although Gabrielle had a nagging feeling that the topic would later resurface. Even as a child, Xena was not one to take orders.
"Good." Gabrielle checked the position of the sun. It was a little past noon. "Want some more biscuits for lunch, or do you want to wait till we see a village?"
"Wait. I don't wanna biscuit." Xena looked around her. "Where are we?"
Gabrielle bit her lip. "I don't know. I'm just glad we're out of the woods."
"I wouldn't say that just yet ..." a voice, sounding half drunk, made the bard spin around. Gabrielle saw a dirty looking man, armed with a sword, coming for her. A little down the road, she could see two more of his buddies ambling toward them.
"You're in Falceus' lands now, little girl. Dontcha know that there's road fines to be paid?" the man leered. "And guess what? Today's collection day!"