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Disclaimer: The usual stuffXena, Gabrielle, and Argo are characters which belong to MCA/Universal, and no copyright infringement is intended. This fan fiction story is for entertainment purposes and shall not be altered without permission of the author. If you are younger than 18 or this material is illegal where you live, then stop now, you naughty dickens, and read no further.
Subtext: Its main text herethese are two women who love each other and express it every which way. (In other words, yup, theres sex, but not a lot.)
Violence: Very little. There is implied corporal punishment of a teenager, which I am not necessarily advocating as appropriate treatment of minor. But cmon, this is Xena were talking about here.
Warriors Best Friend
It was a few hours before dawn. Near the edge of the forest, two figures slept soundly next to a fire. One was a strawberry-blond bard whose green eyes were closed in heavy slumber. Her companion, a raven-haired warrior who was usually a much lighter sleeper, was also deeply unconscious. Neither woke as a slight figure crept into the campsite, barely distinguishable from the shadows of the surrounding woods.
Flickering firelight revealed the figure to be much younger than the strangers Xena and Gabrielle usually encountered, closer in appearance to boy than man. Nevertheless, this "boy" was responsible for the warriors uncharacteristic failure to awaken. He had been trailing the pair since they passed through his village. He had watched as they made camp the day before, settling in the woods near a stream. He had even observed the kiss they exchanged before dinner. At his gasp the warriors keen hearing caused her to break off the kiss and stare into the woods beyond.
"What was that?"
"What was what? I didnt hear anything."
"I thought I heard something. And Ive had this feeling as if someones been watching us..."
"Xena," the bards voice held fond exasperation. "If you arent the soul of romance!"
Blue eyes narrowed and shifted back to the woman before her. "Ive never had any complaints before."
"Huh, well, maybe your previous lovers didnt care, but Id like your attention on me when were kissing, if you dont mi" the rest of Gabrielles sentence was swallowed as Xena grasped her shoulders and claimed her mouth passionately. When she was released several moments later, her cheeks were flushed and her lips tingling.
"Was that sufficiently romantic enough for you?" Xena inquired, surveying with satisfaction her companions breathless state.
"Um...what were we talking about?"
The warrior laughed. "Never mind. Well continue the discussion later. Im going to water Argo down by the stream. Would you take care of dinner for us?"
"Itll be a stew of trail rations," the bard warned. "We need to restock our supplies soon."
"Well be passing through Larisa in a couple of days," Xena replied. "We can shop then."
They had turned to their respective tasks, the warrior with her horse, the bard with her supper preparation. As Gabrielle stepped away to gather more wood for the fire, the figure watching them made its movea grubby hand dropped some brownish powder into the stew pot and stirred hastily. He sank back into the shadows and continued his surveillance. Several hours later his patience was rewarded, as both women drifted into a drugged sleep. When he was quite sure they were out, the boy crept into their camp. He stood over them now, observing the warriors arm draped over her golden-haired companion, and re-lived the lovemaking which had taken place that evening. Their cries of pleasure had been soft but evocative, and he shifted in his breeches at the memory. Then he shook his head impatientlyback to work.
His target was the beautiful palomino mare tied nearby, and Argo stood quietly as he approached. He stroked her face gently and exhaled softly into her nostrils. Then he pulled an apple from his tunic, and her ears pricked forward in interest.
He chuckled. "What a treat, huh, girl? Youll get it at the end of our ride, I promise." Sensing no malicious intent (as indeed, there was none), Argo let herself be led a few steps away. The boy rifled through the nearby saddlebags, discarding most of the contents before lifting the saddle onto her back. He went back for one final itemthe knife the warrior kept tucked in her boot. He was not foolish enough to look for the breast dagger (though surely she didnt sleep with it), and the sword was too big for him. But the knife would come in very handy...there it was. Fortunately, they had removed their boots before making love, it was relatively easy to remove.
Tucking it into his belt, he picked up a long branch collected earlier and mounted the horse. Dragging the branch behind him, he did his best to wipe out Argos tracks as he steered her onto the road and toward the nearest town.
The sun was well into the sky by the time the warrior awakened, scowling at her headache and the rank taste on her tongue. She knew immediately something was wrong.
"Gabrielle!" She shook her companion, who, having consumed most of the stew the night before, was even deeper in a drugged sleep. "Gabrielle, wake up!"
"Unnhh..." The bard awoke groggily, holding a hand to her forehead. "What happened? My heads pounding and my mouth tastes like Ive been chewing on my boots."
"Someone drugged us, Gabrielle. I dont know how, but some person, or some god," Xena glared menacingly at the heavens as she laced her boots, "knocked us out last night."
"But why? What did they want?" She pulled on her own boots and glanced around the camp.
The warrior whistled for her horse and swore in the silence that followed.
"Xena! Did someone take Argo?"
"Looks like it," she replied grimly. "Id suspect one of Ares tricks if it wasnt for this." She kicked a nearby pile with her foot.
Gabrielle bent over it with a puzzled frown. "Our clothes and food! My scrolls! This is the stuff that was in the saddlebags. Why would someone bother to take Argo and leave everything else?"
"Not everything, Gabrielle. These are our supplies and most of the food we had left, but I notice the money pouch with our last 50 dinars is missing. And they took my boot knife."
"But look, the amethyst ring from my mother is still here. And Lyceus verilas token as well. And they didnt touch your sword, which I know is valuable. It doesnt make sense."
"No, it doesnt," Xena agreed. "Especially since theres no sign of a struggle." She began to examine the ground around the camp, and made a sound of satisfaction upon discovering a set of footprints behind some bushes. "Uh-huh, looks like someone sat and waited here awhile. Damn, I knew I felt someone watching!" She wandered further, searching in careful circles.
Gabrielle shivered at the thought of some brigands watching them the night before. No doubt they would have seen the lovemaking. Her skin crawled at how vulnerable they had been. She and Xena would definitely have to discuss restricting their sessions to when they were behind a locked door. Since they rarely slept indoors, she doubted that her passionate partner would go for it. But they had been in danger last night, that was for sure. Xena returned a few minutes later.
"Well, someone tried to cover his tracks, but I found Argos hoof prints about 100 paces down the road. Looks like there was only one of them, and he wasnt very big, either. I still dont know how he managed to overcome Argo."
"Maybe he had a stallion with him. If shes anything like her owner..."
Xenas brow rose at Gabrielles attempt at humor. "Actually, I considered that possibility. But theres only one set of tracks. No, he rode her out of here."
"So what are we going to do?"
It was the answer she had expected, but Gabrielle sighed nonetheless. Of course they had to retrieve Argo, but it added days to their journey. Xena had predicted another 4 days till they reached the Amazon village, doubtless it would now be much longer.
"All right. What do you want for breakfast?"
"No time for breakfast, Gabrielle. Well eat on the road."
That had the bards spirits sinking even lower--she looked forward to her mealtimes. But the warrior was breaking camp with the speed of a woman possessed, and Gabrielle barely had time to wash her face and douse the fire, Xena pacing impatiently beside her. When she saw that Gabrielle was ready, she pointed to two piles on the ground. "Well have to carry our own supplies, so Ive divided it up. Ill take the bedding, cooking supplies, and food. You can carry our clothes and your scrolls."
"Wait," Gabrielle stopped her as she hefted the bundle into her arms. "Let me look for a piece of bread first."
"How can you think about food at a time like this?" Xenas voice held exasperation, and Gabrielles brows rose. She reached out and touched the warriors arm.
"Dont worry, Xena, well find her."
The worried blue gaze calmed as she looked down at her friend. "I know." She patted the hand reassuringly. Then a steeliness turned that gaze to ice. "And when I find that thief...."
Poor fellow, Gabrielle sympathized. Then, hefting the bundle of clothes that proved surprisingly heavy, On second thought, he deserves whatevers coming to him.
Once on the road, Xena set a punishing pace. Gabrielle, struggling to keep up with her longer strides while juggling supplies and gnawing on a dry roll, finally halted in frustration.
"Xena, is it worth it to you if you find your horse but lose your girlfriend along the way?"
"What? Oh, sorry." The warrior sent her an apologetic glance. She was careful to slow her pace after that, but Gabrielle could sense the raging impatience underneath, as if nothing short of Pegasus could get them there fast enough.
Fortunately, the tracks led back toward Delos, the last town they had passed through. It was late afternoon when they finally arrived. They headed straight to the only inn in town, the Sleeping Griffin. Though dinar-less, they managed to barter Gabrielles writing ability in exchange for a decent room. It was agreed that she would compose a letter for the innkeepers wife, who could not read or write.
Gabrielle climbed the stairs and entered the room.
"At last!" She dropped her armload and fell on the bed in exhaustion, groaning at the stiffness in her body. "I have aches where I never even knew I had muscles, and I feel like Im carrying a weeks worth of dirt on me! Do you think if I offer to tell a few stories theyll throw in a dinner and a bath?"
"Maybe," Xena agreed distractedly. She had put down her own bundle and begun to pace again. "But we should search the town for Argo while theres still some sun left in the sky."
Gabrielle stopped in the process of unlacing her boots and stared in disbelief. "Search the town? Are you serious? Xena, weve been walking, loaded down like pack mules, since this morning! Im exhausted and starving, arent you?"
"Of course Im tired, Gabrielle. But every candlemark that passes makes the trail harder to follow. This is Argo were talking about here."
Gabrielle stiffened at the note of censure in Xenas voice. She fought to keep her own tone level. "I realize this is Argo were discussing. But lets be reasonable. Shes a very valuable piece of property and even a thief is going to be very careful not to harm her."
The warrior stopped her pacing and glared down at her companion. "Argo is not a piece of property," she ground out slowly. "Shes the most reliable friend I have."
Gabrielle was speechless for a second. She took a deep breath. "Well, I guess that tells me where I stand."
Xena flushed uncharacteristically. "Dont be silly," she said gruffly. "You know what I meant."
"Im not so sure," Gabrielle replied. "I dont remember you getting this upset when Ive gone missing."
The warrior counted to ten silently. She sat on a nearby chair and rubbed her eyes.
"First of all, you know thats not true, Gabrielle. Second, you cant possibly be comparing yourself to a horse! At least you can defend yourself, whereas Argo is at the mercy of whoever puts a bit in her mouth. She was my companion from before I met you, and Im not going to abandon her to the clutches of some warlord."
"Nobodys talking about abandoning her, Xena. Look, I want to find Argo just as much as you do. But why cant we get a good nights rest and start early tomorrow morning?"
"She might be gone by then!" Xena caught herself shouting and lowered her voice. "Look, why dont you stay here and rest? Im going to see the blacksmith. Its a logical place to hear news of Argo if someone was going to sell her. Well do something about dinner when I get back." She stood up and strode out of the room, shutting the door rather loudly on her way out.
"Arrgh!" Gabrielle growled in frustration and flung a boot against the door. "Of all the unfair, pig-headed, single-minded...!" She succeeded in removing her other boot and flinging it after the first. Then she lay back and gave in to her desire to pound her heels against the mattress. "I havent eaten all day and all she can think about is her stupid horse!" Her grumbling continued in the same fashion for several minutes, with a few choice swear words thrown in. Finally she took a deep breath and sat up. Youre tired, Gabrielle, she told herself. Youre sore and youre hungry and youre worried about Argo. Plus, your moon cycle is due in, she counted on her fingers, five days, and youre not always at your most reasonable then. Xenas under stress too, she reminded herself. Shes frantic about Argo and must be tired and hungry as well.
She resolved to apologize and be more understanding when her love returned. In the meantime, she sighed and stood up to retrieve her boots, Id better go arrange to pay for our room.
Gabrielle found Charis, the innkeepers wife, running the kitchen in the small tavern downstairs. She was busy directing the serving girls and preparing the evening meal, but agreed to sit awhile and dictate her letter to Gabrielle.
"Lets go into the tavern, where its cooler," she said.
They sat at a small wooden table and Charis called for a couple of ales. The tavern was nearly empty, most people having gone home for dinner. A couple of farmers sat nearly nodding into their drinks at a table in the corner, and at a nearby table in the shadows two men sat with a young lad. They caught Gabrielles attention right away, as it was unusual for such a youngster, too young to shave even, to be frequenting a tavern. He was tall for his age, with a slim build. There was a delicacy to his features that was at odds with his rudely cut shock of brown hair and ill-fitting clothes. Neither of the men with him, a heavy set brute with a nervous manner, and a smaller man with a permanent scowl, looked like his parent. All three were extremely intent on their conversation, from time to time glancing around furtively, as if to insure they werent being overheard.
Gabrielle strained to hear their conversation while writing out the letter to Charis sister, but they were talking too softly. As Charis paused to take a sip of ale, Gabrielle caught the word "horse," and the boys clear alto rose on the words "cheat me." The two older men shushed him immediately, and they continued in lowered tones. In her excitement, Gabrielle barely heard the rest of Charis dictation.
"Well then, I guess thats it," Charis finally concluded. "Ill be sending it with the next merchant that comes through. Thanks ever so much, miss. Aedon will be so surprised to hear from me, we havent seen each other in seven years."
"Thats a long time," Gabrielle sympathized.
"Yes, ever since she ran off to join the Amazons, we have to rely on words passed between traders."
"She lives with the Amazons?"
"Aye, that crazy bunch of women down in the valley! She was always a strange one. Never wanted to get married and settle down like a normal girl. Our father arranged her a nice marriage to Odius the goatherd, and two days later she runs away! Can you believe it?"
Actually, Gabrielle could, easily. But she thought it best not to mention that. Instead, she said, "My friend and I are traveling to the Amazon village, by way of Larisa. We could deliver the letter to Aedon, if you like."
"Really? That would be wonderful!" Charis exclaimed. Then she glanced hastily at Gabrielles ringless fingers. "Oh, miss, I didnt mean anything about them Amazons. Im sure its a fine life for a girl, if you like fighting and killing and such."
"I have friends among the Amazons," Gabrielle assured her. "And theyre not all into fighting and killing and such." She forbore mentioning her status as Queen of the Amazons.
"Of course, we could pay you for your trouble," Charis began, but Gabrielle interrupted her.
"Perhaps if we could have a bath brought to our room, instead?"
"Oh yes, of course! Leitus! Take up a hot bath for the young miss here." With that, she bustled back to the kitchen to oversee the evening meal, and Gabrielle was finally able to turn her attention back to the threesome at the nearby table. It looked as if they were concluding their business, and the bard saw the boy jerk a thumb toward the rear of the building.
Maybe the stables, Gabrielle thought, and she left the tavern to return to their room upstairs. Xena had not come back, so she grabbed her staff and headed back downstairs.
The stables were gloomy in the lengthening shadows, but as she crept in a familiar nicker greeted her from a nearby stall.
"Argo! I never thought Id be so glad to see you! How are you girl?" She examined the golden horse hastily, but could find no signs of mistreatment. In fact, she looked recently brushed and her food and water bins were full.
"Who brought you here, girl? If only you could talk." Gabrielle broke off at sound of approaching footsteps. She hid in another stall as she recognized the voice of one of the men from back in the tavern.
"Okay, boy, wheres this wonder horse youve been bragging about? It better be worth eighty dinars!"
"Krateros, shes worth three times that, youll see."
The glow of a lamp illuminated Argos stall, and Gabrielle heard a low whistle.
"See, what did I tell you?" The boys voice was proud.
"Hmm, not bad, boy. Better than the rags and trinkets you usually try to unload on us. Mantes, check her teeth."
Gabrielle heard Argo move uneasily as the man approached, and then there was the sound of snapping teeth.
"Heras tits!" Mantes swore. "The damn horse tried to bite me! We aint paying eighty dinars for no wild animal!"
"Shes not wild, youre just scaring her!" came the boys protest. "Let me do it. Calm down, girl," he said soothingly as he moved into her stall. Argo quieted at the familiar voice.
"There, see?" as he lifted her lip to show them. "She cant be more than five or six years old."
"Okay, well take her. Mantes, put a bridle on her."
"Ill sell you the saddle for another 20 dinars," the boy offered.
"Where is it?"
"Over here." Gabrielle heard some shuffling, and then the squeak of leather and jingling of the bit as Argo was saddled and mounted. She tightened her grip on the staff lying beside her and pondered whether or not to make her move. Suddenly, the boys voice rose angrily.
"Hey, wait a minute! What about my money?"
"Shut up, boy. Mantes, take care of things and meet me outside of town."
"Thats the last time I bring you any goods, Krateros!"
There was a harsh laugh. "What a pity. I guess well have to look for another fool, eh, Mantes?"
"Ouch! Let go of me!" There was real fear in the boys voice now, and Gabrielle knew she had to act. She sprang from her hiding place with a yell.
"Stop right there!"
The smaller man was up on Argos back, trying to control the horse as she pranced and snorted. The larger man, Mantes, had the boys arm in one hand and a knife in the other. The jaws of all three dropped as they beheld the woman before them, eyes blazing and staff circling dangerously.
"That horse isnt going anywhere! She belongs to a friend of mine, and if theres one thing you dont want to fool with, its Xenas horse."
"Xena? The Warrior Princess?" Krateros eyes narrowed and he yelled at the boy angrily. "You fool, youve brought death down on all of us!" Cursing, he jerked Argos head around and lunged her through the stable door. Mantes gaped at his escaping partner and gave a futile shout. Turning back to Gabrielle, he grabbed the boy around the neck and held the knife to his throat.
"Back off, girlie, or therell be more blood than you know what to do with!" Gabrielle halted her approach. "Okay, drop the stick." She dropped the staff, but continued to watch for an opening. Mantes began backing slowly toward the door, when suddenly the boy opened his mouth and sank his teeth deep into the hand that held the blade. Mantes screamed and dropped the knife. Gabrielle jumped forward, but the bandit clubbed the boy on the side of the head and pushed him into Gabrielle.
The momentum carried the bard back into a bale of hay, the boy landing on top of her. She put her arms around him protectively as they both tumbled to the ground. It was then that Gabrielle knew the truth of what she had been gradually suspectingthat this "boy" was actually a young woman.
"Are you okay?" The girl nodded but had no time to say anything, because Mantes had picked up his knife and was advancing on the pair of them.
"Too bad you had to be a busybody, girlie," he snarled. "Now you and this unlucky brat are destined for Tartarus together!"
Gabrielle picked up her staff and pushed the girl behind her. She met Mantes charge with a block from her staff, then swept the left end down to knock the knife from his hand. A split second later the right end flew up and hit him in the temple. With a groan, he sank to the ground and passed out. Gabrielle checked his pulse, then kicked his knife out of reach.
"Wow, you got him good!" The girls voice was admiring. She walked over to the unconscious man and kicked him viciously in the ribs. "Bastard."
"Hey, cut that out!" Gabrielle grabbed her arm and pulled her back.
"He was going to kill me!"
"I know. But youre still alive, arent you? And hes unconscious. Attacking someone who cant defend themselves is unnecessary violence." Gabrielles tone was level, but the girls sullen brown eyes dropped before the cool green of the bards.
"Are you okay?" she asked again in a gentler tone. "Let me see your face." She lifted the girls chin and examined the large reddish lump that was forming on her left cheekbone, where Mantes had clubbed her with his fist. "Thats going to bruise badly."
The girl jerked away from Gabrielles gentle probing. "Its nothing. Im okay."
The bard turned her attention to Mantes, lying at their feet. "Wed better tie him up. Would you get me that piece of rope near the stall, uh...what is your name, anyway?"
"Pelonus." It was a boys name and Gabrielles brows rose.
"No, your real name." Both the dry tone and the skeptical expression were a fair imitation of her warrior friend, and the girl flushed.
"Thats the name I go by!" she insisted.
Gabrielle tilted her head consideringly, and the girls demeanor changed.
"Please." She reached out and touched Gabrielles arm. "Please dont tell anyone. My life would be in danger if anyone finds out."
"Oh? And your life isnt in danger as a horse thief?"
"Pelonus" flushed again as she retrieved the length of rope Gabrielle asked for. "I have to eat. And Ill not earn my dinars laying with the likes of them!" She gestured toward the man on the floor.
"Nice try, kid. But there are other ways to earn a living besides thieving and...and that." Gabrielle bound Mantes hands and feet securely. "There, that ought to hold him." She turned back to Pelonus. "Okay, hand them over."
The girl took a step back. "What?"
"Our money pouch and Xenas knife."
"I dont know what--" she began, but Gabrielle interrupted her.
"If I have to search you well see just how much of a Pelonus you are," she warned.
The girls mouth set, but she apparently thought the better of testing her rescuer, who had so easily dispatched Mantes. After a small hesitation she reached into her breeches and brought out the money pouch.
"How much is left?"
"Nearly all of it," the girl said defensively. "I just bought some food to eat."
Gabrielles jaw tightened but she said nothing. She held out her hand once more. The girl sighed and reached down into her right boot. As she handed over Xenas knife her eyes followed it wistfully. Gabrielle put the items away and faced the girl with a stern expression.
"The only reason youre not tied up with him is because you didnt steal our food and my scrolls," she began.
"I didnt figure they were worth anything," the girl replied without thinking, then, seeing Gabrielles angry flush, hastily sought to amend her answer. "I mean, I wanted you to have something to eat. And the jewelry looked like the stuff that people keep because it means something to them, ya know? The scrolls were wasted on me cause I cant read, but Im sure theyre real valuable. Are they treasure maps or something?" she finished ingeniously.
"No," dryly. "Some of them are blank and other have stories on them."
"Oh," the girl said, obviously searching for a positive comment on their worth, and not finding it.
"So how did you sneak Argo in here? The innkeeper told us he hadnt seen a horse of her description."
"The stableboy beds all the animals down, then goes to supper," the girl replied. "He never checks them again after that. I just waited till he was gone, then brought her in."
"Youre lucky nothing happened to you!" Gabrielle said angrily. "If I hadnt been here..."
"I know," the girl said in a more subdued tone. "Thank you for that." They both turned to look at Mantes lying in the straw.
"Well, at least we got one of them. Too bad Krateros got away."
"He didnt." This came from the door, and both women whirled around at the sound.
Xena stepped into the stable, one end of her whip in her hand, the other end stretching out the door. She gave a sharp yank, and in fell Krateros, his hands tied together with the whip. A bloodshot eye and split lip were evidence of the preceding struggle.
"Xena! Did you get Argo?"
"Shes right outside, Gabrielle. I was headed this way when this gentleman passed meand I noticed he was riding my horse."
"Im telling you, youve got it all wrong! I bought this animal fair and square. I had no idea it was stolen!" Krateros protested.
"Is that so? Then why did you run away from me?"
"Well...I feared for my life! I had no idea why you would be after me. When I bought the horse from that lad he never mentioned it was stolen!" He pointed at Pelonus.
"Thats a lie!" the girl flared.
The laser blue gaze swiveled in their direction, and Gabrielle made an instinctive protective gesture to put the girl behind her. Xenas brows rose.
"Gabrielle?" she asked softly. "Want to introduce your friend?"
"Xena, this is..." she glanced at the girl, whose expression was sullen but whose brown eyes held a hint of entreaty. "This is Pel," she said firmly. "Mantes was about to hurt him, so I jumped in to help. As you can see, we had to tie him up." As she debated how much more to reveal, Pel jumped into the silence.
"They beat me, miss! They kidnapped me and forced me to steal for them! They said they would kill me unless I found them a horse, so I told them I saw you camping outside of town. Then, after they had your horse, they were going to kill me so I wouldnt tell anyone. If it wasnt for Gabrielle, Id be dead right now!" She threw her arms around the bard, sobbing hysterically.
Fortunately, Xena was distracted by Krateros yelling, "Thats a damned lie!" and by the groaning of Mantes, who was beginning to regain consciousness. She didnt see Gabrielles jaw drop at Pels bold-faced misrepresentation. Even more incredible than the story was the girls facility at lying. Being a bard, Gabrielle could appreciate skillful acting when she saw it, and no one could have bettered that performance.
"There, there, get a hold of yourself," she said, patting the girls cheek a touch sharper than was warranted. Pel pulled away with a sniff and a quivering smile.
"Ill get your horse," she offered meekly, stepping outside and returning a moment later leading Argo by the bridle. Xena watched with narrowed eyes as she led the horse back into her stall and proceeded to remove the saddle.
"Youre not going to believe that crap, are you?" Krateros was shouting. "Were the innocent parties here! Mantes will confirm it. Mantes! Mantes, get up you fool!"
The larger man shook his head slowly, attempting to rub the large bump on his head but finding his hands tied.
"Ow! What happened?" When his eyes finally focused on the formidable warrior standing before him, he gave a little squeak of fear. "Xena! Spare me, gods, we didnt mean no harm! We didnt know the horse was yours, honest! We"
"Shut up and pay attention, Mantes," Krateros interrupted through gritted teeth. "I was just explaining to Xena here how we were taken advantage of. How we bought the horse in good faith, never dreaming it was stolen..."
"Thats right, thats right!" Mantes agreed hastily. "The boy sold us a bit of goods, he did. Why"
"Uh-huh," Xena interrupted. "And how much did you pay for the horse?"
"Two hundred dinars."
Both men answered at the same time, Krateros giving Mantes an evil look. "Two hundred and eighty dinars," Krateros finished smoothly.
"Hmm. You mustve been happy at the bargain," Xena commented dryly.
"We were, but we shouldve known better," Krateros said, adopting sadder-but-wiser tone. "Why else would the little hooligan be selling her so cheaply? We shouldve suspected hed stolen her."
"Very well, well let the magistrate handle this," Xena decided. "Im sure you wouldnt mind telling your sad tale to him?"
Krateros protested that it wasnt necessary, that Xena could have Argo back and they would just take the loss. They suffered no loss, since they never paid Pel a single dinar, thought Gabrielle. But she couldnt dispute their claim without revealing the extent of her knowledge of Pels involvement. The girl may have been cheated out of her money, but she was clearly a willing participant up till that point. Still, Gabrielle felt curiously protective of her for some reason. Speaking of which....
"Hey, whered the boy go?" came Mantes cry. They all turned around to look.
A bale of hay had been pushed aside to reveal a small hole in the wall. There was no one in the stall but Argo.
"Well, Pel may have gotten away, but everything else turned out pretty well, wouldnt you say?" Gabrielle sat in a tub of luxuriously hot water, finally able to scrub off the grime of the day.
"Umm," Xena replied as she removed her armor and examined her sword. "I meant to ask you how you got our things back."
Gabrielle hoped the color in her face could be attributed to the steaming bath.
"I retrieved them while Mantes was unconscious," she replied carefully. It wasnt exactly a lie, even though it implied she had retrieved the items from him. She exhaled silently and relaxed again as Xena appeared to accept the statement at face value. She continued, "We have Argo back safely, a bed to sleep in tonight, and money for meals." She patted her full stomach contentedly. "What more could anyone want?"
"Maybe a chance to get in that tub?" Xenas brow rose meaningfully.
"Whoops, sorry." Gabrielle finished rinsing and rose reluctantly. "I did ask you if you wanted to join me."
"I know you did, but that tub is so small it would have meant me sitting on the soap and you sitting on me." Xena finished removing her leathers and held out a towel for the naked bard, whose wet skin was beautifully rosy from her bath.
"Hmm, I dont know, that sounds like it might be fun!" Gabrielle laughed, sighing as she was enveloped in the rough towel and lifted by strong arms out of the water.
"Mmm, you smell good," Xena murmured, burying her face in Gabrielles neck. She carried her across the room and deposited her gently on the bed. Gabrielle reached up and put her arms around the taller womans neck. They exchanged a long, sensuous kiss. Both were breathing hard when it finally ended.
"Good, hold that thought," the warrior murmured, crossing the room and slipping into the tub.
Gabrielle leaned back and let the air dry her heated body, watching through half-closed lids as Xena bathed. She marveled for the millionth time at her lovers sleekly muscled body, and the unbelievably smooth skin which covered every inch of it. Most people noticed very quickly Xenas striking blue eyes--as clear and deep as a mountain lake even when they were narrowed in a threatening glare. Or they noticed her silky black hair and long-limbed beauty. But few were lucky enough to be treated to her smile, when those perfectly sculpted lips would quirk and relax, revealing white teeth and high spirits so infectious you couldnt help but smile back.
Still, if Gabrielle had to pick a favorite feature of Xenas (and gods willing, she would never be limited to just one), it would be her hands.
With their long, tanned fingers and nails cut serviceably short, most people would not give them a second glance. But Gabrielle had seen how powerfully they could maneuver a weapon, how easily they could cut off someones consciousness, how carefully they could hold a baby. She had experienced first hand how quickly (and sometimes painfully) they could make Xenas wishes known, especially when she felt she was restraining Gabrielle from danger. But those hands were definitely at their most skillful during lovemaking...Gabrielle had to bite back a groan at the memory.
"What are you thinking about, my love? You have the most interesting expression on your face." Xena had risen from her bath and was drying herself off, one brow quirked in inquiry.
"You. And what you do to me." The tightness in Gabrielles throat made the reply barely audible, but Xena heard it. The amusement left her face and her gaze focused in a way that made Gabrielle shiver.
"Ill be right there, love," she promised softly. She crossed the room to check the bolt on the door, and then brought the lamp closer to the bed. She lay down next to Gabrielle and took her in her arms.
Oh, the warmth of her body, the bliss of satin skin all along her length! Those artful fingers that Gabrielle had been admiring earlier began a slow tracing of her spine. They began at the nape of her neck, first gently kneading and then slowly stroking this most sensitive area. Then they wandered slowly southward, lingering at the small of her back as Xenas mouth suckled an earlobe. This time Gabrielle did not restrain the groan which erupted.
Xena rolled onto her back, pulling Gabrielle on top of her. Her hands moved down to Gabrielles buttocks, curving around them possessively and squeezing in gentle rhythm, while her mouth found the bards and her tongue entered, stroking with the same sensuous rhythm. There was the cool touch of air against her back, contrasting with the fire of her lover beneath her. Gabrielle found her hips moving helplessly, her thigh muscles tightening and releasing in an effort to ease the ache between them. Strong fingers moved between her legs, then one fingertip oh-so-slowly traced her opening, spreading the copious moisture found there all the way up to the sensitive apex.
Gabrielles thighs opened and her hips pushed forward. She tried to angle the fingertip in deeper, opening her mouth to Xenas tongue in blatant invitation.
The warrior broke away from the kiss with a chuckle and leaned over to breathe into her ear. "Oh no, my sweet. Youre not nearly wet and swollen enough for my fingers yet."
Gabrielle groaned, on fire from both the words and the warm breath against her ear. "Please," she whispered.
In answer Xena reversed their positions, pinning the bard beneath her and turning her attention to Gabrielles breasts. Propping up on her elbows, Xena began caressing the sensitive skin with her lips, avoiding the rosy peaks which were taut with excitement. She pressed her face up against the warm abundance of her lovers body, lavishing kisses everywhere, alternating with swirls of her tongue. She stopped a moment to enjoy the feel of Gabrielles body writhing beneath her, before finally taking a nipple into her mouth.
Gabrielle gasped at the feel of being enveloped by the warm cavern of Xenas mouth, the texture of her tongue against the sensitive surface, the sound of suckling and Xenas murmur of satisfaction. There was the small nip of teeth just before the warrior released her and captured the other breast.
"Please, Xena," Gabrielle begged again, rubbing her wetness up against her lovers abdomen. This time her plea was answered, as Xenas hand traveled down and pressed up against her.
"Oh yes, youve been sooo patient," she crooned, slipping a finger slowly into her. "You deserve your reward, dont you?"
"Oh! So...good..." Gabrielle gasped, feeling her bones dissolve in welcome at the smooth penetration.
"Youre so slippery, my love...maybe you need another?" Xena whispered, and at Gabrielles moan, another finger joined the first, leisurely stroking.
Gabrielle could feel her muscles tightening as Xena slid down to apply her tongue to the bards most sensitive region. The combination built tension in a dizzying fashion, each stroke more and more delicious, till her muscles exploded in a climax that had her crying out as colors flashed beneath her eyelids.
Xena stayed buried within her as the contractions subsided, moving up to lie next to her and covering her face with kisses.
"My goodness, you are loud," she teased.
"Your goodness had nothing to do with it!" Gabrielle growled. "Just wait until I catch my breath. Ill have you calling out every god on Mount Olympus."
"Oh, Im counting on it," came the throaty reply.
"Xena, do you think Pel will be all right?"
"Better than if the magistrate had dealt with him. The penalty for stealing a horse is the loss of a limb in some places, you know. Or even death."
Gabrielle fell silent. They were back on the road, resuming their journey toward the Amazon village. They had re-stocked their supplies before leaving, and by supplementing their meals occasionally with fish or game, they would have no trouble lasting till they reached the town of Larisa.
Xena glanced at her quiet companion. "Whats wrong, Gabrielle? You arent worried about him, are you?"
"A little," she admitted. "He just seemed so young. And he clearly has no one to take care of him, or else he wouldnt be associating with the likes of Krateros and Mantes."
"Ive seen kids like that before, Gabrielle. Hes obviously used to taking care of himself from a very young age. You dont have to worry about him. Unless I ever get my hands on him," she added, a scowl on her face.
Gabrielle thought it best to drop the subject.
That evening they pulled off the road and made camp among the trees. Xena took Argo off to graze and Gabrielle began to build a fire. She didnt see the figure that crept up toward their bags, intending to add some powdered herb to their drinking water. But as the hand reached out toward the waterskin, the figure was grabbed firmly at the back of the collar and yanked off her feet.
Xena stepped into camp, holding the struggling youngster in the air.
"Pel!" Gabrielle stared at them. "Xena, what are you doing? Put her-- put him down!"
She did, but kept a hold on the girls collar. "I caught your little friend trying to sneak up on our camp, Gabrielle."
"Is that true, Pel? What were you doing?"
"I wasnt sneaking," the girl protested. "I heard some noises and hoped it was someone friendly, maybe with some food. I was so hungry," she finished pitifully, turning a pleading gaze on Gabrielle.
"Well, of course we can share," began the bard, but Xena interrupted her.
"None of your lies, Pel! I want to hear the truth." She gave the girl a shake.
"Let go, that is the truth! I didnt want to show myself in case you were brigands or something. When I saw it was Gabrielle, I was just about to call her when you grabbed me."
"Nice story, thief. But that doesnt explain this." Xena grabbed her wrist and squeezed painfully till Pel opened her fist with a whimper. The remains of brownish powder coated her palm.
"Whats that?" Gabrielle asked.
"Nightweed," the warrior replied grimly. "Probably the same drug that did us in last time. He was about to drug our water, no doubt hoping to acquire whatever he missed before."
"Is that true, Pel?" Gabrielle asked, disappointment in her voice.
The girl flushed but looked away with a scowl.
"I had a feeling someone was following us again," Xena said. "Its a good thing I listened to my instincts this time. Well, I guess well let the magistrate deal with you as well."
"No way, Im not going back!" Pel kicked out viciously, by luck catching Xena on the thigh, which was unarmored. She grunted at the contact, and Pel broke free of her loosened grip. The girl took off running, but didnt get far. With a leap and mid-air flip, Xena landed in front of her a few yards away.
"Going somewhere?" she asked, arms crossed in front of her.
"Im not going back to Delos, youll have to kill me first!"
"Your choice," Xena replied carelessly. She took a step toward the girl.
"You wouldnt kill me!" Pel said scornfully. Nevertheless, she began to back away. Xena said nothing, but continued to advance slowly.
"I couldve killed you! I couldve left you with nothing, but I didnt," Pel pointed out, her voice taking on a tinge of desperation. "Gabrielle, tell her."
"Xena, dont hurt her."
"Stay out of this, Gabrielle."
Pel continued to back away, just a few feet between her and the warrior whose eyes glinted like ice chips. She backed into the trunk of a tree, trapped. She swallowed audibly and the woman facing her smirked. Pel hated anyone laughing at her, and her fear sparked into anger. She sought to shake the composure of her opponent.
"Youre a murdering warlord, but even you dont kill children!"
"Theres always a first time," Xena replied menacingly.
"Oh no, from what Ive seen," Pel taunted, sliding her eyes insultingly over Gabrielle, "you prefer to bed them!"
Gabrielle gasped and flushed angrily. But Pel knew she had gone too far as the warriors brows lowered like a thundercloud and her eyes went from ice to blue fire.
"That does it!" Xena reached back and drew her sword. "Its time someone shut that filthy mouth of yours!"
"Xena, no!" Gabrielle shouted, unable to believe her eyes.
Pel shrieked and covered her head, dropping down to her knees as the sword swiftly descended...
...and bit into a branch above her head. There was silence as the leaves fell around her.
Pel rose shakily to her feet, the blood still pounding in her ears. Both she and Gabrielle struggled to regain their normal breathing. Xena sheathed her sword and bent to pick up the branch that had been sliced off by her blade.
"I knew you wouldnt kill me," Pel began, relief bringing the bravado back. Her voice trailed off as she noticed what Xena was doing, plucking the leaves and shoots from the switch in her hand. Her eyes widened in sudden comprehension and she tried again to run. She only got a few steps away this time before the warrior grabbed her easily around the waist and held her tucked under her arm, despite her struggles.
"No, stop it! Gabrielle, help!" she called desperately.
"Ill be right back, Gabrielle," Xena said, turning toward a small clearing some yards away.
"Xena," Gabrielle tried again. "Pel...isnt a boy. Shes a girl."
"I know, Gabrielle," came the dry reply. "Thats the only reason shes getting off so easily." She strode into the forest.
"So you knew all the time?" Gabrielle handed Xena a bowl of soup and ladled some out for herself. They sat near the fire as they ate. Pel lay on a bedroll nearby, curled away from them in an exhausted slumber.
"I figured it out soon after meeting her," Xena replied. "Its unusual for a lad that old to have so hairless a beard. What I was wondering was why you were covering up for her."
"I felt sorry for her. I dont think shes a bad kid, Xena. I think shes just doing what she thinks she has to to survive."
"Huh. Well, Ive heard that excuse before. Shes still responsible for her actions."
Gabrielle finished her meal and went over to check on the sleeping girl. "Maybe I should wake her. She did say she was hungry."
"We can feed her tomorrow," Xena said. "She probably welcomes sleep more than food right now."
"Poor thing. You were pretty hard on her, Xena."
"Nobody told her to steal my horse."
"Well, Im sure she wouldve thought twice if she had known the kind of relationship you and Argo share!" Gabrielle muttered under her breath, but she underestimated the warriors keen hearing.
"I heard that, and I wouldnt go there, if I were you. I still have that switch around here somewhere, you know."
Gabrielle had no desire to start the Argo argument up again either, but she wasnt about to let her love get away with that. She turned around with a wide-eyed look.
"Ooo, that sounds interesting. Make it your whip and youve got a deal!" She burst out laughing at the surprised expression on Xenas face. "Got you that time, didnt I?"
As Gabrielle leaned over to drape a blanket over Pel, she jumped at the feel of something wrapping around her ankle. She looked down. It was the end of Xenas whip, its grinning owner standing a few feet away holding the other end.
"I think Ive got you," she said.
"There are children present," the bard warned, jerking her head toward the slumbering Pel.
"Shes sleeping. Well be quiet. Now, come here," was the growled reply.
Sometime later, as Gabrielle snuggled against Xena in their shared bedroll, her thoughts went back to Pel.
"I dont want to take her back to Delos, Xena."
"Um? Then what do you suggest we do with her?" Gabrielle half heard, half felt the sleepy murmur against the top of her head, where the warriors chin was pressed.
"Lets take her with us."
"Are you out of your mind?" Xenas voice was suddenly awake. "We have enough trouble without having to baby-sit some little hoodlum."
"You dont honestly want to turn her over to the magistrate, do you? You said yourself she could lose a limb!" Gabrielle leaned back so she could look her love in the eye. Xenas expression was troubled.
"No," she admitted. "But Im not going to let her run around loose, either."
There was silence for a moment.
"Okay," Xena said at last. "She can come with us."
"Really?" Gabrielle could hardly believe her ears. "All the way to Larisa?"
"Further. All the way to the Amazon Village." Xenas voice was guileless, and Gabrielle looked at her suspiciously.
"Youre planning something, arent you? I know you dont really want to look after...Xena! Youre planning to dump her on the Amazons!" She looked accusingly at the warrior. Xenas expression was answer enough.
"Think about it, Gabrielle. Who better to adopt her? She needs some strong role models, they can always use an extra pair of hands. And we know she wont be mistreated there. Its the perfect solution."
"Well, it does sound like a good idea." Gabrielle nibbled her lower lip as she considered. "And I bet Pel would actually be happy there. But theyll need some time to adjust to each other....Ephinys gonna kill us."
"I know," came the smug answer. "I was just thinking about her." They caught each others eye and burst out laughing.
That settled, Gabrielle snuggled back into Xenas shoulder with a satisfied yawn.
My love thinks of everything, was her final thought before drifting off to sleep. I think Ill keep her...even if I do have to share her with Argo!
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