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"Xena!" the little bard exclaimed, separating herself from Musaeus’ embrace and moving quickly toward her friend. When she was beside the tall warrior, she noticed the faint level of uncertainty in the deep blue eyes. Gabrielle smiled brightly, hoping to dispel the troubled look.
"What’ve you got there?" she said lightly, taking the tray from Xena’s hands and gingerly lifting the napkin.
"I brought you some lunch," the warrior said, her tone somewhat stiff. Her eyes drifted to an identical tray laying at the end of the table, remnants of food clearly displayed on the dishes and utensils. "But I guess you’ve already eaten," the smooth voice said evenly.
"Well, Musaeus had some sent over ...." the little bard said, maintaining her smile as she put the new tray down next to its mate. "But it was a lovely thought, all the same." She turned back to the warrior’s stoic expression, then let her eyes travel over the tunic the woman wore.
"Nice outfit," she said smoothly. "You got your leathers to the tanner, I see." She searched the tall woman’s face for signs of understanding; she found very little, if any, present.
A moment of difficult silence fell over the three forms in the little hut. Then the warrior turned to her small blonde friend.
"Well, I didn’t mean to interrupt," she said to the girl. "I’m going to take a ride ... look for some herbs. To replenish ... our supply." She stepped toward the open door, then noticed the scroll still resting in her other hand. She turned back to Gabrielle. "Here," she said, handing the parchment to the little bard. "You left this at the Inn...thought you might need it, too."
"Oh, yeah," the girl said, looking down at the scroll. "I wondered where that one went."
The tall form turned quickly toward the door again, but stopped when the little blonde put a tentative hand on her arm.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked, quietly. "What’s wrong?"
The warrior swallowed, keeping her eyes on the open door. "Nothing," she said finally turning to her friend’s expectant face. "You’re busy and I’m off to the forest." She gave the girl a flimsy, fragile smile. "I’ll see you back at the Inn." With that, the tall warrior moved decisively through the door.
"OK," the little bard said blankly. "Happy hunting." The warrior waved a hand absently, then quickened her pace. After a few long strides, she disappeared from the bard’s view. The girl looked at the scroll in her hand, then turned a vacant stare at the silent young man still standing nervously beside the table.
"Medicinal herbs," the girl said, cryptically. "In the forest," she told her companion, then turned her own confused stare toward the door the warrior had recently exited.
Across the square, Xena had arrived at the stable again. She found the smithy at work at his anvil and he smiled invitingly when he noticed her approach. The warrior took a short breath, trying her best to maintain a level of civility, despite the knot of tenseness in her stomach. The man sensed her strained attitude and responded as cordially as possible, without appearing too forward.
"Ready for that ride?" he said, putting down the big hammer and pulling another big handkerchief out of the usual back pocket. The tall woman met his steady gaze, grateful for the man’s sensitivity.
"Yes," the warrior said stiffly. "I got finished with my other ... errands a little early, so I thought ... that is, if it’s all right," the woman said, her normal taciturn nature back in place.
The smithy’s easy smile settled the warrior’s uneasiness. He started toward a small, fenced area beside the barn. "They’re over here," he said over his shoulder, motioning for Xena to follow. "Like I said, you can take your pick."
The warrior’s face softened as the blue eyes traveled over the group of horses contained in the arena. There were several well-formed animals, all healthy-looking, spirited and obviously accustomed to random riders. Her eyes settled on a sleek, red-coated gelding with an intelligent head who met her gaze knowingly.
"Him, the chestnut fellow," the warrior said softly, glancing slyly at the blacksmith’s grin.
"I figured he’d be the one," the man said amicably. "And you’re one of the few who could handle him, I think. He really likes to run. His name’s Minos," he told the tall woman. "I’ll bring the tack." He strode back toward the barn.
Xena stepped closer to the corral and extended a slender hand toward the horse’s auburn head. The animal’s gaze was steady on hers as the two invested slightly in each other. By the time the smithy had returned, carrying a saddle, a clean blanket and a soft, supple bridle, the warrior and the red horse had reached a provisional agreement. She took the equipment from the smithy, opened the gate to the corral and calmly walked over to the waiting mount.
Once she had cleared the edge of the small town, the warrior pressed her boots to the chestnut’s sides and was pleasantly surprised at how smoothly the animal responded. She leaned forward in the saddle, urging the horse into a sloping gallop, her body matching his in cadence and tempo. She reveled in the feeling of the wind streaming against her face and body, sweeping her long, black hair out behind her as the beat of the animal’s hooves, regular and rhythmic, pounded firmly on the hard ground beneath them. The gelding stretched out comfortably under the lean form on his back, and the two beings charged through the countryside, enjoying the other’s company.
Eventually, Xena slowed the animal to an easy canter, rocking into the even meter of the chestnut’s level gait. She settled back easily in the saddle, letting the practiced responses clear her mind and reinstate her senses. The jolt she had experienced upon entering the little hut had clouded her awareness and, she had to admit, reignited the nagging doubts she seemed to battle regularly these days concerning the uncertain future of the young woman who traveled next to her and whose well-being mattered more to her than any other.
The warrior’s inner tumult had begun to undermine her normal, unshakable reserve. As much as she treasured the little blonde’s presence at her side, she had begun to question whether that aspect of their shared reality was really in the girl’s ongoing best interest. Seeing Gabrielle happily enjoying the company of her young male friend had rattled the warrior. The insidious qualms she’d suffered lately concerning the character, and continued longevity, of the most cherished friendship of her life, had begun to gnaw at her stability and threaten her reserves.
Xena clamped a restraint on her raging insecurity and drew back gently on the reins. The chestnut gelding smoothly reduced his speed. He sensed the warrior’s mental agitation and reacted placidly to the firm pull on the bit in his mouth. Gradually, the horse slowed to a gentle, gliding walk, as the woman in the saddle rewarded his obedience respectfully.
"Good boy," the warrior said, pulling the horse to a stop under a small grouping of trees and sliding gracefully to the ground. "You’re a good mount, Minos," she said, patting the strong neck fondly. The red horse shook his head briskly and the tall woman smiled lightly, satisfied with the gelding’s performance.
"You’re not my Argo," she told him gently, "but today you’ll do just fine." The blue eyes quickly traveled over the horse’s trim form, then lingered on the solid, intelligent head. "Thanks, boy," she crooned softly. "I needed that."
The warrior slipped the long reins over a thin, nearby branch. She opened the pockets on the side of the saddle, pulling out her medicine pouch and the herb bag. With one final, friendly pat to the horse’s neck, she moved off in the direction of the small patch of foliage she knew would provide some of the herbs she needed to refill her supply. She drew her dagger and began systematically trimming the undergrowth and depositing the various plants and leaves in the pouches.
When Xena had decided that she had obtained all she could from the present site, she returned her dagger to its sheath, closed the pouches and walked back to the chestnut gelding waiting patiently under the trees. She returned the bags to the pockets on the saddle, untied the reins and remounted the red horse. As she settled herself in the saddle again, her instincts sparkled to attention and she sensed the horse’s heightened watchfulness as well. The blue eyes scanned the surrounding area, alert and vigilant.
"You hear it, too, don’t you?" she said quietly to the trembling horse beneath her. "Easy, fella. C’mon, we’ll check it out." She gently pressed her knees against the warm hide and the animal stepped forward tentatively.
They had nearly cleared the little copse of trees when she saw him ... the beautiful, black horse standing proudly in the center of the open field ahead of them. His ebony hide glistened in blue-black patches in the bright sunlight. His flowing mane rose like an indigo crest, mounting high then falling low at the base of the long, slender neck. The muscled expanse arched up into a small, savagely beautiful head, the head of the wildest of all creatures -- a stallion born wild, a splendid, sentient being with a stunning physical perfection that matched his untamed, ruthless spirit.
"By the gods," the warrior whispered. "He’s magnificent. Eighteen hands, if he’s a notch ... a real beauty."
Xena sat in awe of the resplendent animal, frankly admiring the brilliance of the stallion’s confident stance. After a moment, the black horse reared slightly, lifting his powerful front hooves and pawing the ground. He tossed his noble head, the perfectly matched ears twitching in the sunlight. The warrior watched the grand declaration, a willing respect settling in her for the majestic essence displayed by the animal’s vibrant soul.
The chestnut horse pranced nervously. The warrior recognized the challenge in the gelding’s manner and she gathered the reins instinctively. She leaned near the horse’s ear and spoke to him soothingly.
"Easy, Minos," the woman murmured smoothly. "Believe me, boy, you don’t wanna go there."
The red horse’s manner quieted slowly as he responded to the warrior’s expert touch. His ears rotated back toward her liquid voice then returned front, maintaining a quiet vigilance in the black stallion’s direction.
Xena saw the wild horse dance forward, rear again slightly, then pound the ground heartily with his front feet. She heard a shrill, loud whistle float across the field. The chestnut horse trembled and the great mustang rose onto his hind legs, pivoted and streaked away from them, his muscled coat rippling as he thundered off in the opposite direction. The warrior felt herself relax as she let out a long breath. The blue eyes followed the retreating black figure as it disappeared into the thick line of trees on the other side of the clearing.
The tall woman pulled herself out of the reverent observation and focused her attention on the red horse under her. She pulled the reins against the chestnut’s neck, turned the animal around and nudged the gelding’s sides with her boots. Once again he responded smoothly and soon she was settling into the even flow of his canter. She headed them back toward the town.
Chapter Ten ~~~
Gabrielle sensed the warrior’s entrance into the tavern even before she raised her eyes to see the tall woman making her way toward the table. The little bard’s face lit in a warm smile as she watched her friend stride effortlessly across the room. Gabrielle wound the scroll she’d been reading into a roll and placed it with the other piece of parchment on which she’d been making notes. She slipped the quill pen into the soft, leather pouch that the warrior had fashioned for her and stacked the materials carefully at the edge of the table.
As the warrior strode nearer, her tanned face creased in an answering grin, the bard mentally instructed herself not to bother her tall friend with the growing doubts that had begun to prickle her senses about the restoration project, specifically the level of honor she could affix to the intentions of her young male bard associate. Gabrielle pushed back her own qualms and turned a welcoming smile toward her approaching friend.
Xena sat down on the bench beside of the little blonde, putting the bundle in her arms down on her other side. She gazed for a moment at the young, fresh face. The girl’s green eyes searched the quiet expression for any signs of the distress she had seen in the blue eyes when her friend had left the little hut. For a moment, the warrior endured the quiet examination. Finally she became somewhat unnerved by the little blonde’s intent stare.
"What?" the warrior asked cautiously. "You all right?"
The little bard laughed quietly, the emerald pools sparkling. "I was about to ask you the same question," she chided her slender friend. Gabrielle smiled warmly at the warrior’s slightly abashed look. She touched the lean arm next to hers. "You seemed a little ... upset when you left this afternoon." Xena lowered her eyes, separating her gaze from the bard’s knowing scrutiny. "It ... worried me a little," the little blonde finished, her warm smile still in place.
"I was just a little ... rattled," the warrior said, meeting the girl’s eyes sincerely. "You know how I love being in one place for days on end." Gabrielle took a breath to reply to the statement, but the warrior raised a slim palm to thwart the effort. "No, I’m not really complaining and yes, I’m dealing with it. OK?" She trained a gentle grin at the girl’s concerned expression. "Besides, once Argo’s foot is healed, I’ll be able to ‘escape’ now and then. I’ll be fine."
The young woman trained a skeptical gaze at the blue eyes, her blonde head tilting to one side. "Well, OK," she said slowly. "If you say so."
Xena patted the little hand resting on her arm. "Yes, mother," the warrior joked. "I say so."
The two friends shared a quiet laugh. The warrior studied the face of her young friend, her eyes lingering on the shadows becoming more and more apparent under the verdant pools. The little bard sensed the warrior’s concern and averted her eyes from the knowing gaze.
"How’re you doing?" the warrior asked the girl. "You were a little restless last night. I don’t think you ever really did get to sleep." The bard scoffed at the woman’s remark, then ran one small hand quickly across her eyes.
"Oh, I’ve had a lot of stuff traipsing around in my little brain, trying to keep all the different scrolls straight," the bard quipped, motioning in the direction of the young waitress. "I’m starving, by the way. How ‘bout you?"
The warrior’s instincts began to tingle again. The bard was being uncharacteristically evasive. ‘Changing the subject and not looking me straight in the eye. Something is going on, here,’ Xena’s internal warnings said. ‘Better start paying attention.’
The two women ordered their food. When the waitress had walked away, the bard turned again to the warrior’s quiet expression. The girl glanced at the bundle next to the woman’s hip. "What’s in the package?" she asked.
"Oh," the warrior answered looking down at the bundle absently. "My leathers. The tanner finished with them." She turned back to the little bard. "Only charged me two dinars ... for repairing both them and the saddlebags." She watched the girl’s brows skip under her bangs.
"Yeah, surprised me, too. Guess it pays to be the ‘companion’ of a ‘welcome guest of the town’."
Gabrielle’s smile dispersed rather abruptly. The warrior’s keen insight noticed the change immediately. She leaned toward the little bard to pursue the subject more thoroughly, but the waitress’ arrival with their food postponed the event momentarily. Xena waited until the red-headed woman had left the table before turning to the young blonde again. The scowl across the girl’s face changed the direction of the intended conversation again.
"Problem?" the warrior asked, searching the soft face.
Gabrielle studied the steaming, gelatinous brown mass on the plate in front of her. After a moment, the warrior did the same, looking down at her own plate. The bard raised her eyes to meet those of her friend, and the warrior’s smirk, which the woman was trying valiantly to hide, incited a similar reaction in the little blonde. Within seconds, both women were laughing heartily while at the same time struggling to keep the surrounding guests from witnessing their rampant amusement.
A few minutes later, the bard sat back against the wall behind her, drawing a hand across her eyes to wipe the moisture away. "Oh, boy," she gasped, turning to the smiling warrior. "I never thought I’d hear myself say that I miss digging into one of your charred fish filets, but I do."
She pushed the plate away and leaned her crossed arms on the table, shaking the blonde head slowly. "I guess I’m not as hungry as I thought."
Xena waited patiently, her instincts still tuned tightly toward the hesitancy in the bard’s manner. When the green eyes rose to meet the warrior’s, the cobalt blue pools were intent and attentive.
The little bard studied the bronze face for a moment, the emerald gaze sweeping lovingly over the sculpted features. Finally, the girl took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment. The warrior waited another moment, summoning her courage. Then she spoke.
"Well, I’m taking Argo out tomorrow. I saw a nice, little stream just east of town. I’ll see what I can do."
The bard met the blue gaze with a smile. She fell silent again as the warrior made a decision.
"C’mon," the warrior said, picking up the bundle next to her. "I think you need some fresh air. You’ve been inside too much this week. Let’s take a walk."
The bard glanced lightly toward the pile of materials next to her elbow, then back at the warrior.
"We’ll leave this stuff in the room, then get outside for a while. You can use it," she said sliding smoothly off the bench and extending a hand to the little bard. The girl gathered up her little pile, stood up and followed the warrior through the archway.
A few minutes later, as they walked along the quiet road at the edge of the town, Xena turned to her small companion, noticing not for the first time, how the moonlight played softly on the girl’s open face and how, even in the muted lunar light, she could see the tell tale signs of quandary across the soft features. Never one to take less than the direct route, the warrior opened the conversation.
"How’s the project going?" she asked the little bard, making a concerted effort to keep her expression open, at the same time clearly recalling her conversation with the smithy.
Gabrielle kept her eyes on the road, her hands clasped casually behind her. "Oh," she said after a moment, "slowly. It’s kind of tiring, trying to decipher some of them ... what with all the damage some of them have."
"Uh-huh," the warrior said, keeping her attention on the bard’s face. "Seems to be more work than you thought, at first, huh?"
Gabrielle sighed loudly. "Yeah, it has turned out that way." The two women walked in silence for a few minutes.
"How’s Musaeus holding up?" Xena asked, sensing the girl’s uneasiness. "Has he been helping?"
"Not much," Gabrielle blurted out, then closed her eyes tight and pulled her lower lip between her teeth. Without looking at the woman at her side, the little blonde sensed the stiffness which had entered the warrior’s form. She glanced quickly up at the blue pools, then returned her gaze to the road.
"Oh?" Xena said evenly. Gabrielle swallowed nervously, noticing the quick clenching of the warrior’s fists, followed by the labored fashion in which the woman opened her hands. The bard gathered her courage and turned an open smile toward her friend.
"Well," she said, laughing lightly, "he does seem to be more interested in daydreaming about how much ‘fame and fortune’ will come to the town when we get the scrolls restored." She trained an honest expression toward the warrior’s stony look.
"Really, Xena," the little blonde said seriously. "I think there’s more riding on this project ... for the entire town, I mean ... than Musaeus let on when he sent for me." She shook her head vigorously and rubbed the back of her neck.
"How so?" the warrior asked, taking note of the bard’s troubled gesture.
"Well," the bard said, turning back to her friend. "I think they expect that, if we get these scrolls repaired, they can put them on display ... use them to draw travelers and important scholars to this little place. They see them as some kind of ‘magic answer’ to ... I don’t know ... ‘putting this place on the map’, or something."
The quiet night emphasized the two matching sets of footfalls. The warrior’s eyes swept the area and she quietly reversed their direction. She let her glance linger on the little bard’s face as their steps took them back toward the town.
"There’s something else bothering you," Xena said simply. "What?"
The bard’s nervous laugh floated over the stillness. She shook her blonde head again and trained a fond look up at her best friend. "Too bad you can’t ‘read’ me, isn’t it?" the little blonde giggled. The warrior’s face softened slightly.
"OK," Gabrielle said, taking a labored breath. "Musaeus is hiding something about the scrolls from me. I can sense it." She cast another little smile at the tall warrior. "I think you’re rubbing off on me. I get those ‘feelings’ about things now, like you."
Xena laid a gentle hand on the blonde head and Gabrielle grasped the warrior’s extended arm for a moment. Then the women’s steps resumed. "I just have this ... ‘itch’ that says he’s either not telling me everything about them, or that what he has told me isn’t the truth." She turned abruptly toward the tall form. "Does that make sense?"
"Sure, it does," Xena answered quietly. "And, your instincts are good enough to consider, without any ‘rubbing off’ from me." She smiled warmly at the little blonde. "If you think something is wrong, it probably is."
Gabrielle returned the warrior’s smile. She clasped her hands behind her, her manner slightly less uneasy than before.
"What has he told you that bothers you?" the warrior probed.
"Well, he says they found the scrolls in an old cave, just outside of town," the bard said.
"You don’t think that’s true?"
"Well," Gabrielle continued. "It is true that some of them look like they’ve been somewhere damp and dirty for a while." She stopped, her statement suggesting more.
"But...?" the warrior urged gently. Her own uneasiness was rising again.
The bard turned impatiently toward the warrior’s questioning gaze.
"The stains are almost ... too ‘perfect’. Almost like they were devised ... planned to look the way they do," the girl finished haltingly. She glanced at the warrior’s raised eyebrow. "That’s the only way I can describe some of them. They seem too authentic."
Xena considered the bard’s comment.
"And then there’s the Elders," the bard said, her tone growing animated. "Musaeus said they weren’t all that ready to finance this restoration."
The warrior nodded.
"Well, if the scrolls are so valuable to them, why would they be so hesitant? Why wouldn’t they be anxious to get them restored? To see them brought up to date? Why would Musaeus have to ‘talk them into it’?" The bard stopped in the middle of the road, facing her friend.
The warrior’s steps halted next to the girl, her blue eyes meeting the green gaze.
"I can’t answer that," she said, smiling into the girl’s determined glance. "But, it is a very good question." She watched the bard’s face, fully aware of how well the girl’s quick mind was sorting facts and considering information. When the little blonde resumed walking, the warrior fell in step beside her.
"You could always ask him ... Musaeus, I mean," Xena said quietly, the slight sarcasm in her tone pulling the bard’s amused gaze toward hers.
Gabrielle studied the face of her best friend. She let her eyes linger for a moment on the warrior’s stoic expression. The bard was certain she saw the woman straining to keep a straight face.
"Yeah, I would," Gabrielle said slowly. "If I thought I’d ever get a straight answer."
After a moment, the warrior’s soft smile floated down to meet the bard’s impish grin. The girl’s giggle widened the tall woman’s expression.
"Is there anything I can do?" Xena said finally, proceeding cautiously. Her compelling instincts aside, she was still locked in the throes of showing the bard that she respected the girl’s desire to handle her own confrontations, if necessary.
"No, nothing," the bard answered quickly, a trifle too quickly for the warrior’s taste. "It’s something I’ll have to work out for myself." The warrior swallowed her objections. She turned her gaze forward.
"You do get to listen to me ‘work it out’, though," the girl said, laughing. "Thanks for your attentive ears ... again." She touched the warrior’s arm and the tall woman’s smile flashed again softly. "I’ll just have to figure out a way to keep Musaeus occupied while I do, that’s all." The little bard giggled and the warrior’s teeth clenched tightly.
‘Relax, warrior,’ she told herself. ‘She’s a grown woman, even if she is a small one. Let her know you trust her instincts, too.’
Xena became aware that the bard was yawning loudly. She turned her attention back to the young woman.
"Well, it looks like the fresh air cleared your head, huh?"
The girl stretched her lithe frame and smiled up at her tall friend. "Yes. You were right, as usual. It did help. I really think I’ll be able to sleep, now."
"Good," the warrior said, turning back toward the road. The entrance to the Inn became visible in the darkness. The women walked comfortably toward the building as the warrior made an effort to quiet the nagging concerns in her gut.
Gabrielle trained a steady gaze at the woman across the room who was expertly rubbing an oily mixture into the leather boot covering her slender arm. When the blue eyes darted up to meet hers, the girl’s hesitant smile made the tall woman slightly uneasy. She turned her attention toward the little bard.
They had settled into their room, refreshed and relaxed after their leisurely walk, to enjoy another luxury -- the warm bath water the proprietors of the Inn had provided during their absence. At least, Xena had assumed the bard had found some relief during their walk; at the moment, the sight of the girl’s tentative expression seemed to denote otherwise.
"Something else on your mind?" the warrior asked, now fully aware of the girl’s still-present uneasiness.
The little blonde studied the narrow-toothed comb in her hand, then raised her eyes to meet the gaze of the woman who had carved the tool for her. She smiled fondly at the lean warrior in the clean linen shift, reclining casually on the large bed. The look of concern in the cobalt pools touched the girl’s gentle nature.
"I just want to make sure you’re all right with what we talked about tonight." The warrior’s quizzical look greeted the bard’s remarks.
"How do you mean, ‘all right’?" the warrior asked, her head tilted in veiled confusion.
"About Musaeus," the little bard explained, her gaze steady on the warrior’s blue eyes.
"You mean when you said he hadn’t been totally truthful with you?" the warrior asked, her voice firm.
Gabrielle’s eyes remained trained on her friend’s. She nodded, her expression tense.
The warrior drew a calming breath. "Well, it didn’t exactly make me happy. It tends to get under my skin when someone lies to my best friend." The tall woman paused a moment, reacting to the rising uneasiness she saw in the bard’s face.
"But, I figured you could handle it," the warrior said, making a firm effort to make her comment convincing. But she could see the skepticism in the bard’s level gaze.
"So, you’ll let me do that, right?" the girl said, quietly, her green eyes direct. "And you won’t do your ‘bard’s protector’ thing?"
Xena felt a maddening warmth invade her neck and face. "What?" she squawked, totally unnerved by the girl’s teasing comment. "What ‘bard protector’ thing!?"
Gabrielle’s bright laughter filled the room. She left the wooden chair and crossed the space to sit down next to her friend. She gazed fondly at the warrior’s confounded expression and touched the woman’s shoulder with one small hand.
"Now don’t get your leathers in a twist, OK?" the girl chortled. "I just meant, it wouldn’t do to have you pound Musaeus into a grease spot, all right? Especially after he arranged all this." The bard’s arm indicated their plush surroundings.
Xena’s blush was growing deeper by the moment. She turned an exasperated glare at the little blonde’s wide grin.
"Gabrielle!" the warrior gasped, her control now completely unseated. "When did I ...?" she sputtered. "I have never ...."
The bard’s laughter rang louder in the warm, cozy chamber. "Never???" she croaked, tilting her head and raising her eyebrows in mock surprise. "Oh, no. Of course not. Not you, my noble friend. Never you." The girl dissolved into laughter again.
Xena turned a rankled glare at the young woman giggling on the bedcovers next to her. She endured the bard’s amusement stoically before exhaling loudly. When the girl seemed to have regained some control, the warrior leveled a steady look at the twinkling green gaze.
"OK, OK," she said to the flushed face. "I told you I’d control myself, didn’t I?"
Gabrielle’s laughter slowly faded as she became aware of the serious tone to the warrior’s words. She gave the blue eyes her steady attention.
"But if Musaeus’ little scheme, whatever it is, means getting you into some kind of ... tight spot ...."
The warrior’s tone captured the bard’s awareness. Gabrielle saw the hardness flicker in her friend’s blue eyes.
"I don’t take well to lies, you know that," Xena said, her eyes firmly holding the bard’s.
The girl blinked, her green eyes returning the warrior’s intense stare.
"Yes, I know that," the bard said quietly. "And I’m not suggesting that we let it pass. If it turns out I’m wrong, no harm done." Gabrielle gazed pointedly at the warrior’s blue stare. "But," she said, a firmness in her quiet tone. "If I’m right, I will handle Musaeus and the Elders. That’s what I’m saying."
Xena studied the soft, open face. She saw the resolve behind the green eyes. She knew the little bard had a valiant spirit and a generous heart. She also knew the girl had a will of iron. The warrior’s primary instincts were being challenged but she was determined to show the bard her trust. She submerged her comments and faced the girl’s open face.
"OK?" the bard said, purposefully.
The warrior took a breath, and closed her eyes for a moment. Then she met the green eyes again.
"OK," Xena said evenly. The two friends stared at each other quietly. Finally, the warrior returned her attention to the boot and the oily mixture. The bard stood up and walked slowly toward the glowing embers in the fireplace. After staring at the coals for a moment, she turned back to the long-legged form on the bed.
"So," the bard said, forcing a light tone into her voice. "Argo’s foot is all healed?" The warrior nodded, concentrating on closing the tin of leather fixative. "So, you can get us some fish tomorrow, right?" the little blonde said, turning a teasing grin toward the bronze face. She smiled when she noticed the smirk curling the warrior’s lips.
Xena looked up into the green eyes of her soulmate.. "I’ll see what I can find, my bard," she
said, her blue eyes soft. "Depends on what the stream has to offer."
The bard giggled and laid the comb on the mantle. Xena put her boot down next to its mate and crossed the room to replace the tin in the newly-repaired saddlebags. She wiped her fingers on a cloth, then turned back to the slim form of her friend.
"You ready for bed, yet?" she asked as the bard climbed onto the large pallet. The warrior smiled as she tossed the cloth onto the wider table. "I guess you are."
The warrior blew out the candles on the mantle, climbed onto the bed and extinguished the candle standing on the small nearby table. As she settled her slim frame under the soft coverlet, the bard’s quiet voice sounded in the darkness.
"I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about Musaeus before," the girl said. The warrior pulled one long arm under her head and turned toward the open face on the pillows next to her. She studied the girl’s apologetic expression, dimly visible in the shadows of the room.
"Don’t worry about it," the warrior told the girl. "I understand ... you wanted to take care of it yourself." The soft face became more discernible as the blue eyes became accustomed to the darkness. She smiled softly at the girl and playfully thumped the blonde head with her hand.
"And you always say I’m the stubborn one."
The bard’s quiet laugh ended the discussion.
"Well, thanks for understanding," Gabrielle said, covering her wide, lazy yawn with the back of one hand. She snuggled lower under the covers. "Good night." The bard breathed deeply.
"Good night," the warrior answered, turning her gaze toward the light from the embers reflected on the ceiling. As she closed her eyes, a silent vow repeated in her mind, like a mantra; ‘I will let her handle her own problems in her own way.’ ... ‘I will let her handle her own problems in her own way.’... ‘I will let her....’ Some time later, the warrior fell asleep.
Chapter Eleven ~~~
Xena stood waiting patiently, one supple boot resting easily on the rail at the bar, her newly-conditioned leathers emphasizing her slim, muscled frame. At the little bard’s shy request, she had left her armor and her sword in its scabbard on the peg in the room down the hall. It was a small acquiescence; besides the look of simple gratitude on the girl’s face had, as always, brought a warmth to her being and a peace to her spirit.
The tall woman’s practiced gaze chronicled the various patrons entering and exiting the tavern. The usual selection -- nothing to raise the warrior readiness this morning. Xena turned her gaze toward the approaching bartender and extended her hand to accept the fat carrot he handed her.
"Thanks," she said, favoring him with a simple smile. "You’re spoiling my horse, you know?" The blue eyes were kind on the man’s round face.
The bartender grinned, displaying his gap-filled smile. "S’okay," said. "She’s a beautiful animal. We throw out too much, anyway."
Xena thanked him again, turning toward the table which had become the ‘regular place’ for her and the bard. Since their arrival, it seemed they had landed at the same square console each time they’d shared a meal, as though the proprietors, and the other customers, had automatically relegated the spot to them since their first day’s repast.
The warrior slid onto the bench behind the table and blinked, slightly surprised, when the young waitress placed a mug of warm cider in front of her. She glanced from the vessel to the face of the girl who had provided it, a puzzled expression on the smooth face.
"Thanks, but I didn’t ..."
"I know," the red-haired woman said, smiling slightly. "I wanted to talk to you, if I could." The warrior’s back straightened minutely. "You’re Xena, aren’t you? You’re friends with the lady bard, Gabrielle." The last was a statement, not a question.
"Yes, I’m her friend," Xena said, evenly. "Is there a problem?" She studied the young freckled face for a moment, sensing the girl’s uncertainty. She motioned easily toward the bench across the table. "Sit down, why don’t you."
The girl complied and sat facing the warrior, but kept her eyes trained on her own nervous fingers.
"Now, what can I do for you?" the warrior asked, curious about the redhead’s nervous manner.
The young woman looked up into the clear blue eyes. "I’m Minerva," she said, a little smile lighting the attractive face. "Musaeus is my brother." The lack of warmth in the girl’s voice brought a tremor to the warrior’s instincts, but she kept her face open to the young woman’s gaze.
"Oh," Xena said, acknowledging the familiarity in the freckled countenance. "He’s quite a ... handsome young fellow," she finished lamely, trying her best to keep her rising uneasiness under control.
"He’s a rogue," the girl said bitterly. She glared openly at the warrior’s crystal stare. "He’s always got some scheme in the making, some easy, simple way to make plenty of dinars without doing anything worthwhile to earn them."
The tall woman in leather felt a maddening dread settle into her stomach. She kept her eyes trained on the girl’s brittle expression. Minerva lowered her gaze and moistened her lips while her fingers played with the edges of the cloth under her hands. She swallowed quietly and met the warrior’s gaze again. Her own anger diverted her reaction to the hardness that had overtaken the piercing, azure pools facing her.
"I don’t know what he’s planning with this ‘restoring of the scrolls’," the girl said sarcastically. She looked vaguely toward the archway where they both knew the bard would soon be entering the tavern. "And I don’t really know how he plans to use your friend to accomplish his little plan," Minerva said, pausing momentarily at the slight rise to the warrior’s chin.
"He talked the Council into financing this little ‘venture’," the gray eyes sparked with contempt. "If he wanted to, he could sell rain shades to cave dwellers." The young woman tapped the ends of her fingers on the wooden table. She cast narrowed eyes at the warrior’s tight-lipped stare.
"Anyway, I just wanted to let you, both of you, know that ... well ...." The girl let out a frustrated breath, studied her fingers again, then faced the warrior’s steely gaze squarely.
"Musaeus is my brother. We just have each other, our parents are both on the other side ... have been for about eight summers, now." Xena’s jaw tensed impatiently, but she waited for the girl to finish. "And I love him, you know. I mean, he’s all I have. But ...." Minerva’s gray eyes fell to her hands again. The warrior waited, nearly trembling now with unsettling anticipation.
"But..?" Xena said, carefully, not wishing to frighten the young woman, even though her basic instinct was to take the girl by the shoulders and shake the words from her mouth.
The young red-haired waitress faced the warrior’s blue gaze again. The young face had become serious and determined, the clear eyes direct. "But I wouldn’t trust him any farther than I could throw ... your horse." The incongruity of the statement dispelled the warrior’s anger only slightly.
"He’s as charming as a chariot salesman," Minerva said knowingly. "But he doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘scruples’."
Xena let out a very slow, very controlled breath. It was then she noticed her own white-knuckled fists and the tremble that had begun in her clenched jaw. She relaxed her hands and separated her teeth. The blue eyes blinked a moment as the warrior fought to calm the passion raging in her breast. She forced a thin smile onto her face and covered the girl’s hands with one slender palm.
"Thanks, Minerva," the warrior said warmly, meeting the young waitress’ eyes. "I’m glad you let me know about this." Xena took another deep breath and slowly moistened her lips with her tongue.
"I’m sure ..." the warrior hesitated, fighting to control the clamor in her head. "I’ll be sure and share this with my friend ... the ‘lady bard’," the slender woman quipped, smiling again at the freckled face.
"Share what with the lady bard?" asked a voice at the warrior’s elbow. Both women at the table trained their eyes on the little blonde standing nearby.
Minerva stood up abruptly and slid off the bench away from where Gabrielle stood. The bard’s green eyes followed her, then gazed down into the warrior’s blue gaze. A wave of
concern flickered in the green pools when the little blonde saw the veiled austerity in the sky-blue stare. Xena smiled stiffly, trying to impart a calm manner.
"This is Minerva," she told the bard "Musaeus’ sister." The bard’s face lit in a friendly smile. The warrior turned back to the waitress. "This is my friend ... the lady bard. Gabrielle." The little blonde turned to Minerva, her eyes warm on the girl’s nervous face.
"Oh," she said. "Well, it’s nice to meet you." The bard shifted the scrolls in her arms to one side, and offered her hand to the red-haired young woman. Minerva took the little hand and smiled back, glancing gratefully at the warrior. The two young women exchanged pleasantries while the woman in leather took another deep breath.
After a moment, Minerva responded to the bartender’s suggestive glare and excused herself as the bard sat down on the bench opposite the pensive warrior. She studied the tall woman’s expression for a moment, stacked the small pile of materials at the edge of the table and returned her attention to her friend’s unfocused stare.
"Everything all right?" she asked the warrior, and her slender, dark-haired companion pulled her focus to the bard’s green gaze.
"Everything’s fine," she said, meeting the verdant pools. "Let’s have breakfast." She motioned lightly to the bartender, and brought the mug of lukewarm cider to her mouth.
She swallowed the tepid liquid and met the bard’s stare with a thin smile.
"So, you’ll be working all day today?" she asked the little blonde, and Gabrielle nodded, her casual response in subtle contrast to the questioning stare now trained on the warrior’s distracted look.
"You all right?" she asked her tall companion.
"Fine. Just hungry," the warrior answered as Minerva returned to the table, serving their breakfast from the tray balanced in her other hand.
The warrior and the waitress shared a knowing look, taking care that their silent exchange had escaped the bard’s attention. Then Minerva left and Xena made a convincing show of enjoying the bowl of porridge as much as the little bard apparently did.
Chapter Twelve ~~~
"Are you going to stay in the forest all day, or will you be back in time for lunch?"
Xena turned to the little blonde walking next to her, a crooked grin warming the warrior’s smooth face.
"Gabrielle," she chided the girl, "you just finished breakfast. Are you thinking about lunch already?"
The bard giggled and smiled up at the tall woman.
"I need a whetstone, so I’m going to visit the tinsmith and then take Argo out."
In her attempt to reposition the materials in her arms, Gabrielle dropped one of the scrolls and the warrior bent to retrieve it. Before she had a chance to pick up the parchment, another hand quickly claimed it from the dirt. The blue eyes traveled up the extended arm and came to rest on Musaeus’ freckled face. The boy smiled at the warrior, then stepped around her to stand in front of the bard.
"Here, let me take those," he said gallantly, relieving the little blonde of her armful of materials. "Good morning," he chirped, favoring both women with a bright smile.
"Good morning," Gabrielle chuckled in return. "You’re up early today." The girl grimaced inwardly as she realized she had allowed yet another slip of the tongue regarding her male friend’s behavior. She turned brightly to the warrior’s bronze face.
"Well, tell Argo I’m glad her foot’s better," she said, deliberately ignoring the raised eyebrow and the knowing look coloring the woman’s expression. "And don’t forget my fish," she told her friend, smiling widely. "See you later."
The two young bards strolled casually toward the little hut. As the warrior watched, Musaeus looped a casual arm around the girl’s shoulders as the little blonde laughed heartily. After a moment, Xena turned sharply and marched toward the tinsmith’s shop, a growing anxiety rattling her composure.
On the way across the town square, the warrior held an internal conversation with herself. She tried to analyze the growing relationship between the two young bards. They were, she told herself, both young, intelligent, enthusiastic about their worthy project and, it seemed, even more enthusiastic about each other. ‘So why does this association bother me so much?’ the tall woman queried inwardly. ‘She’s certainly old enough to make that kind of choice on her own.’ A worrisome heaviness settled in the warrior’s chest. ‘Oh, Sweet Artemis,’ the woman’s brain lamented. ‘This is Perdicus all over again.’ Xena shook her head, still clearly distracted as she located the tinsmith’s and strode through the door.
The merchant was attending to a pair of young women, patiently explaining the work necessary to repair a dented candlestick. He raised his eyes to the tall woman and she nodded, her silent reply conveying her willingness to wait her turn. When the man turned back to the two young females, Xena wandered over to a case displaying various pieces of jewelry and accessories.
Her eyes fell on a delicate copper hair buckle, it’s shape petite, it’s design unique. The warrior’s face warmed in a subtle smile as she thought how the ornament put her in mind of her small, blonde friend. Xena was randomly considering the possibility of the ornament as a gift for the bard’s upcoming birthday when the tinsmith appeared behind the counter, a pleasant smile on his face.
"Yes, what can I do for you?" the merchant asked.
"I need a whetstone and some oil."
The man’s eyes swept quickly over the tall woman’s attire before he responded.
"I have them over here," he said motioning toward a flat table at the back of the shop. He moved toward the display and the warrior followed, the long display counter separating their paths.
As she considered the selection of stones, another customer entered the shop, announcing his arrival and loudly requesting service. The tinsmith cast an apologetic glance at the warrior’s blue gaze and moved back toward the front of the shop to deal with the vocal patron. Xena returned her attention to the display of stones.
Very soon, she became aware of the conversation occurring between the two young women behind her, the same two who had been involved in the discussion with the tinsmith concerning the damaged candlestick. Her awareness was heightened because the opening remark of said conversation mentioned the name of the young man now ensconced in the little hut with her best friend.
"I hear Musaeus has a new one ... a little blonde," said the brunette.
"I heard she’s a bard, too, only she travels around with a woman warrior," commented the taller redhead.
"Yes, I saw her with him in the square yesterday. She’s adorable, isn’t she?" the brunette said.
"She seems nice enough. I hope she isn’t expecting anything worthwhile from Musaeus, though. That would be a deadly mistake," declared the redhead.
The warrior’s jaw tightened, but she kept her attention on the display of stones.
"And how! My brother said he’s got her working on those scrolls he found. Typical Musaeus move; she does the work and he gets the glory. What a jerk. I hope she realizes it soon," the brunette stated.
"He’s a smooth talker, all right. He must have given the Council a clever story, to get them to pay for all this. Wonder if this girl knows what a snake he is, do you think?" the redhead queried.
"Maybe someone should enlighten her," the brunette said. "It’s time someone gave Musaeus a taste of playing the fool. He’s been at this game for as long as I’ve known him."
Xena made a concerted effort to quiet her quaking fists.
"She’d better hold on to her quill pen," the redhead joked.
"And her boots," the brunette chortled, suggestively. "Or maybe she’ll show him how she handles that walking stick she’s always carrying. Wouldn’t that be true justice?"
"I’d pay a handful of dinars to watch that!" the redhead giggled. "Half the girls in town would contribute, I bet."
The two young women enjoyed a boisterous laugh as they strode out the door of the shop. Once outside in the street, the two females grew suddenly quiet, proudly congratulating each other on their accomplished feat. ‘At least this time,’ they told themselves, ‘Musaeus won’t have such an easy time with his plans.’
After sharing a satisfied giggle, the women moved, arm in arm, to the next shop on their list.
Inside the tinsmith’s, the warrior blinked, working hard to relieve the tightness in her chest. Finally she drew a labored breath and trained her gaze toward the top of the counter, the sight of her trembling and tightly clenched fists restoring her awareness. A moment later, Xena became vaguely aware of a dull pain radiating from her left hand. She slowly opened her fist, only slightly surprised at the deep, jagged bruise in the middle of the palm, the outline and contour exactly matching the uneven piece of whetstone she had been examining when the two young women’s comments had drawn her attention away.
The appearance of the tinsmith behind the counter steadied the warrior’s perception even further. He glanced at the stone in her hand and studied the woman’s vacant expression. His face was expectant and solicitous as he spoke to her.
"Have you decided, then?" he asked her.
Xena’s blue eyes traveled up to the man’s friendly face, a clear decision bringing the piercing blue pools back to life.
"Yes, I have," the warrior said evenly. She handed the piece of stone back to the merchant. "I’ll be back for this later. Thanks."
The tall woman turned and made her way to the front of the shop, swept open the door and left the building, her stride forceful and decisive.
Musaeus scanned the bookshelf, tracing one finger along the row of volumes in an attempt to locate the title Gabrielle had requested. He found the edition in question, clamped his quill between his teeth and pulled the book off the shelf. He turned and handed it to the little bard, seated on the floor behind him.
"Thanks," the little bard replied, accepting the book. She opened the volume, flipped through the pages and found the reference she needed. The girl studied the open pages for a moment, then laid the book on the floor beside her and returned her attention to the damaged scroll spread on the carpet before her.
From his seat at the table, Musaeus watched as the little blonde leaned forward, her limber form bending easily over her work, one small hand carefully bracing the sullied manuscript, the other gently rubbing the stains with a soft cloth. After consulting the open volume again, the little bard picked up her quill pen and bent over the parchment.
For a few minutes, the scratching of Gabrielle’s quill pen was the only sound in the small hut. The girl finished writing, laid down the pen, and sighed openly. She closed the book and stretched her back, cat-like, before turning to the handsome male face at the table.
The sunlight filtering through the open windows brought a burnished glow to the girl’s reddish-blonde tresses and framed the lovely face in a sparkling halo. The young man smiled warmly at the little bard. She returned his smile for a moment, picked up the book, rose and walked across the room to return the volume to its place on the shelf.
Gabrielle stood facing the wooden rows for a long moment, keeping her back to the young man and his flattering gaze. The little blonde took a deep breath, turned around and leaned back against the shelves, her hands captured behind her. She trained a pensive gaze at her male friend. After a moment, the girl’s gentle voice filled the room.
"I met your sister this morning," she said softly, watching with interest as the subtle changes traveled across the young man’s face. The softness in the brown eyes faded for a moment, then returned as Musaeus sent a practiced grin toward the girl’s open expression.
"She seems very nice." Gabrielle kept her attention on the young man’s face. She had spent enough time at the warrior’s side to have learned a great deal about how to read outward reactions and judge how they reveal the character of the inward response. She waited for Musaeus’ reply.
The young man leaned forward, his crossed arms resting on the table. He trained a charming grin at the little blonde. "Yeah, Min’s a doll," Musaeus said. "It’s just the two of us, you know. She’s my ‘big sis’." The handsome face showed equal parts pathos, brotherly affection and candid determination.
"She works very hard at the Inn. That’s another reason I want to get these scrolls restored," the young man said, bravely. "Maybe I’ll be able to pay her back for all the drudgery she’s had to put up with during the past few years." The young man’s gaze was sincere as he focused on the girl’s face.
The little bard nodded sympathetically, then dropped her gaze to the scroll on the carpet.
"Well," she said. "We better get back to work, then." She smiled gently, then moved back to her position on the floor. Musaeus watched her retrieve her pen and resume the careful transcription, copying the words from the soiled scroll onto the clean parchment next to it.
Then he turned his attention back to the scroll in front of him.
The room was quiet again until Musaeus sat back impatiently and tossed his quill pen into the middle of the parchment. He stood up abruptly, the legs of the wooden chair scraping loudly across the floor. Gabrielle glanced up from her work to watch the young man flounce unhappily around the end of the table, turn back and snatch the open scroll from the flat surface. Musaeus turned a defeated scowl toward the little bard’s green gaze.
"This one isn’t even worth saving," he snapped, shaking the weathered vellum disgustedly. "It’s a waste of time to even try." The young man cast a distasteful glare at the crumpled parchment. "I think we ought to toss it in the fire and spend our efforts on the most worthwhile pieces."
The little blonde on the carpet trained a shocked stare at the angry male face.
"Musaeus!" she barked, her voice registering her revulsion at the idea of destroying any scroll. "That’s not funny!"
A moment later the door to the hut flew open, and an extremely angry warrior marched into the room.
Chapter Thirteen ~~~
Xena strode purposefully toward the small hut where she knew Gabrielle and Musaeus were working. The warrior’s assuredness had reached an unusual low and this new anxiety had nearly unseated the impervious mask that normally thwarted the display of any ordinary emotion. When she arrived at the hut, she stood immobile at the door, a great struggle taking place within her.
‘What in Hades’ name do you think you’re doing??’ the tall woman chided herself. ‘You’re behaving like a jealous fishwife! You overhear two children trading gossip and now you’re on a mission of rescue?? Get hold of yourself, warrior!’
She pivoted away from the wooden structure, a sense of disgrace knotting her stomach and tightening her jaw. For a long moment, the warrior stood still, truly confused, baffled by her own distraction and perplexed at its cause. The next sound she heard staggered her failing equilibrium even more.
"Musaeus!" It was Gabrielle’s voice. "That’s not funny!"
The irritation and annoyance clearly evident in the bard’s tone dispelled the warrior’s remaining reluctance at creating an interruption. At least, that’s how she would later justify her rather abrupt and uninvited entrance into the small hut. She swiveled forcefully back toward the door, roughly lifted the latch and strode meaningfully into the modest building.
Her determined pace took her halfway across the room. She turned and quickly located Musaeus where he stood, surprised and somewhat daunted, one of the fragile, damaged scrolls held gingerly in his hands. Xena retraced her steps, stopping an arm’s length in front of the astonished young man.
"All right," she snapped, lean hands on her hips. "I think that’s just about enough!"
Musaeus blinked and stared transfixed at the face of the angry warrior now glaring menacingly at him. After a moment, he swallowed hard, then moistened his lips with his tongue and affixed a flimsy, ragged smile to his bewildered face.
"No," Gabrielle’s steady voice ended the confrontation. "I’d say it was more than enough."
Xena whirled toward the sound of the voice. When her momentum stopped, what she saw brought a heavy embarrassment to her senses and a deep, crimson blush to the chiseled face. Her hands dropped to her sides as she stared at the sight, her mouth slightly open and her blues eyes wide.
The bard sat cross-legged in the middle of a wide expanse of carpet, her elbows resting casually on her trim thighs. Spread in front of her on the floor was another of the ancient parchment pieces, each corner of the mildewed fragment weighted down by a large volume from the surrounding shelves. In her right hand, she held her quill pen with the bright new tip that had been the warrior’s gift. In the other hand was a rumpled piece of cloth that showed the effects of the mixture of linseed oil which she and Musaeus had discovered was indeed a worthy treatment for removing the mildew and decaying residue from the ancient manuscripts.
The girl was fully clothed, appeared perfectly safe, agreeably content and reasonably happy
... except for the searing glare she now leveled at the warrior’s self-conscious face.
The warrior’s mouth drifted shut as she slowly closed her eyes. When she found the courage to meet the bard’s eyes again, the combination of disappointment and indignation in the green gaze made the tall woman swallow hard against her own rampant regret. The two women stared at each other for a long moment, until the warrior dropped her gaze and the leather-clad form sagged in repentance and remorse. When the blue eyes slowly drifted up to meet those of the bard again, the intensity of the emerald gaze held the crystal stare like an iron vice.
Without releasing the crystal pools, Gabrielle carefully placed her quill pen on the parchment in front of her, unfolded her slim legs, stood up and took a controlled stride toward the bemused young man hovering tentatively near the wide table.
"Musaeus," she began quietly, tensely wiping her fingers on the cloth she still held in her hands. "Would you excuse us for a few minutes?" She glanced in the fellow’s direction, favoring him with a tiny smile. Then her focus returned to the immobile warrior. "We’ll pick up this discussion in just a bit, Ok?"
"Of course," Musaeus answered softly. He turned to the table, quickly deposited the weathered scroll and strode through the open door, closing the wooden panel quietly behind him.
A short, stilted silence invaded the small hut as the bard studied the tense face of the tall warrior. Xena blinked quickly as the pounding in her chest traveled upwards into her throat. She gulped against the self-reproach rumbling there and clenched her fists to stop her hands from trembling. She turned awkwardly to her companion and tried to keep her voice even.
"Gabrielle, I’m sorry I ...." she began, then fell silent when the bard mumbled something indistinguishable and raised one small palm in a warning gesture. The warrior recognized the seething anger smoldering behind the clear green eyes. The little blonde was breathing heavily, bright spots of pink accentuated across her pale, seething face.
The tall woman closed her mouth and found herself lowering shamed eyes to the floor, fully aware of the bard’s infuriated scrutiny. She slowly let her eyes travel up toward the girl’s livid stare, took a deep breath and braced for her friend’s response. As she watched, the soft chin quivered in rage while Gabrielle’s green eyes flashed white hot and glistened with angry tears.
"How could you?" the bard growled, her voice tight with controlled fury. "How could you charge in here like a ... a vengeful father well-bent on restitution!? And what did you expect to find, exactly??" she sputtered, angrily flinging the cloth onto the nearby table. "The two of us breathless and sweaty, locked in some passionate abandonment??"
The warrior flinched under the bard’s wrath, her inward chastisement feeding her humiliation. Feeling ashamed and ridiculous, she nervously watched the trembling form of her best friend. She could tell Gabrielle was more than furious with her; the little bard was well past anything like ‘very angry’.
"I am not a child, Xena," the little blonde spat out, turning sharply to stand directly in front of the cringing warrior. "And I am not your property. You will not ‘claim’ me, warrior," the girl continued, fists clenched at her sides, her knuckles rimmed with a startling whiteness.
Xena took a quick breath, ready to finish the apology, but the bard’s extended forefinger, and the definitely threatening set to the young jaw, inspired a retreat in the lean warrior. She clamped her mouth closed again and waited.
"And you will not decide how I spend my time and with whom. Are we clear on that?" The bard’s clipped tone rang against the walls of the small room. She paced stiffly away from the dark-haired woman, then turned and retraced her steps to let her eyes travel over the taut expression before resuming her declaration.
"You agreed that I should come here and do this. Now, either you trust my judgment or you don’t. It’s that simple." By now, the girl’s hands had landed on her slender hips and the small form straightened to it’s fullest height. The little blonde poked a short forefinger sharply into the warrior’s sternum. The bard’s intense glare held the tall woman’s gaze. "Which is it? Yes or no?"
The warrior stood speechless, regret and chagrin silencing even her normal reticence. All she could manage was keeping her eyes fastened on those of the little bard. A clear message of atonement shone in the cobalt blues together with a genuine plea for forgiveness. The combination suddenly broke through the bard’s wrath and unseated her vexation. As the green eyes swept over the beautiful, blushing countenance, her resentment quickly dispersed when she saw the look of true contrition wash over the cherished face. After studying the sculpted profile for a few more moments, the little bard drew and exhaled a deep, calming, exasperated breath.
"You know," she said into the blue eyes, "if you didn’t look so downright pathetic right now, I could really be mad at you." The bard’s gaze darted over the mortified look and back to the piercing, azure gaze. Slowly the blonde head swept from side to side as the beginnings of a gentle smile spread across the soft face. Wordlessly, the girl took one of the warrior’s slender hands and led her toward the wooden chair at the side of the table.
She pulled the chair forward, turned and, with her hands on the sleek, tawny arms, directed the warrior to sit down on the wooden fixture. Xena complied, slightly uncertain of exactly what her friend had in mind with this maneuver. When the warrior was seated, Gabrielle slowly climbed onto the edge of the wooden table, facing the warrior, her boots straddling the strong lap on the seat of the high-backed chair.
The girl leaned forward, her slim elbows balanced on her knees, laced her fingers together and gazed steadily into the warrior’s clear, blue eyes. A look of subtle surprise raised the brows of the slightly puzzled bronze face.
"Now," the little blonde began, quietly. "This is important so I want you to listen carefully." She silenced Xena’s intended remark with wide-eyed insistence. "And, when I’m finished," the bard said, in a non-negotiable tone, "you can share your thoughts, OK?"
The green pools meeting the warrior’s were intense and direct, the young face determined and clearly honest. Gabrielle reached down and casually took one of the tall woman’s slender hands into both of her own. Xena nodded slowly, the blue eyes trained steadily on the bard’s.
"I’ll take that as a ‘Yes’," the girl said, smiling warmly. A slow grin began to crease the warrior’s face. As she watched, the little blonde’s expression slowly grew more serious while she took a short, quick breath and studied the chiseled face inches from her.
"You and I are best friends," Gabrielle said quietly. "No, we’re more than that, Xena," gazing down at the hand enclosed in hers. "We’re a part of each other, the essence of what makes the two of us ‘us’." The green eyes swept up to meet the piercing blue pools. "That’s true, isn’t it?"
The warrior swallowed and slowly nodded her head. She returned the little bard’s gaze intently.
"I would gladly give my life for you and I’ve seen you risk yours many times for me. So we’re certainly more than ‘good friends’; we’re ... linked together. For all time. No matter what happens today, tomorrow, during the next moon or between now and next winter. You’re a part of me and I’m a part of you."
The warrior gulped against the tightness in her throat. She moved her hand gently against the bard’s grasp as Gabrielle laced their fingers together.
"Nothing and no one," the bard continued, "is ever going to change that. Not Musaeus, not the stubborn village Elders ...." The green eyes sparkled with frustration for an instant then returned to hold the warrior’s gaze. "Nothing will change how we feel about each other. And no one will ever take your place ... here," the girl said softly, bringing the warrior’s hand to her chest. "Do you believe that, Xena? Tell me you believe that."
Xena nodded silently, blinking quickly to dispel the bright tears brimming in the steady blue gaze.
The bard’s little smile appeared again. "Now, I know you have this uncontrollable impulse to constantly try and protect me," she said, ignoring the brusque denial that stiffened the lanky form in the chair. "Actually, inside I’m really grateful, even when I sometimes yell at you about it." The smile crept across her open face.
"But, not right now, OK?" Gabrielle said with quiet strength, her wheat-colored brows rising under her blonde bangs. "Believe me, I can handle this situation all by myself." The green eyes traveled over the chiseled features, finally meeting and holding the shimmering blue gaze again.
"Musaeus and I have come to an understanding, you see? He’s agreed to concentrate on the scrolls and restoring them, and I’ve agreed not to introduce his nose to my staff."
The warrior’s blue eyes danced with grudging amusement as a slow smile warmed the stoic, bronze features.
"However, if he has trouble remembering his part of the arrangement, believe me I will joyfully step aside and let you remind him of our little ‘deal’. OK?" A light chortle escaped the warrior’s smile.
"So," the little blonde said, sitting back and gazing impishly at her silent, grinning friend. "Do you still have questions?" She grinned playfully. "You may talk now."
"No," came the quiet reply. "That clearly settles my confusion."
Gabrielle’s warm smile brightened her shining face. The little blonde slid forward on the table and hugged the warrior’s neck, snuggling against the warm leathers as Xena pulled her close. After a moment, the girl sat back and the small palms captured the sculpted cheekbones as the little blonde put her forehead against that of her leather-clad companion.
"Good," the girl chirped and sat back again. "I’d hate to have to get rough with you, too," she said with a teasing grin. The warrior’s ‘look’ was softened by her lop-sided smirk.
"I don’t think I’ll push my luck," Xena quipped, then surrendered to a genuine smile.
The bard gave the warrior’s neck another quick hug. Then, with small fists perched on her slender hips, she leveled her own ‘look’ at the twinkling blue gaze.
"Besides," the girl said in a ‘confidential’ whisper, "the sooner you get out of here and leave us to this work, the sooner you and I can be on our way." The blonde brows danced up and down beneath the golden bangs as the green eyes sparkled.
The warrior wrapped her arms around the slim waist and pulled the girl in tightly. She spoke softly into the small ear nestled against her chin.
"You’ve got a deal," she said as she stood up, lifting the little form up with her. The bard squealed in delight as she gazed lovingly into the warrior’s smiling face. Xena hugged the little body for a long moment, then set the girl’s feet carefully on the floor. She touched the soft face and turned toward the door of the hut.
"I’m outta here," the warrior said pulling open the wooden panel. "I’ll see you ..." she turned back to the little bard. "I’ll see you when you’re done. I’m going to take Argo for a run. Her foot’s healed and we can both use the ... exercise." She winked at the girl and left the hut, smiling openly.
Outside, she came upon a very nervous Musaeus. She felt slightly embarrassed when the young man stiffened and took a step back as she approached. Donning her best smile, Xena put a friendly hand on the youngster’s shoulder.
"I owe you an apology, Musaeus," the tall woman said, her eyes sincere. Musaeus relaxed somewhat. "I don’t blame you. Gabrielle means more to me than anyone I’ve ever known. I guess I can’t hold it against you if you feel the same."
A sheepish smile lit the faintly blushing young face. Musaeus lowered his eyes from the knowing blue gaze, then returned her focus. Xena removed her hand and stepped out of the young man’s path.
"Better get back to work," she said, motioning toward the little hut with her thumb. "Go ahead, she’s waiting." The warm smile widened and the young bard responded in a likewise manner. He took a tentative stride past the warrior. When he had passed her, he turned to meet her gaze again.
"She’s really special, isn’t she?" he remarked quietly. "You’re very lucky, Xena. She’s very loyal to you." Then he turned and walked resolutely toward the hut.
Xena stared after the young man for a long moment. ‘Now why do I have the feeling you don’t really mean that, you handsome devil?’ the warrior thought to herself. Then she turned away and moved toward the stables.
Argo whinnied happily when Xena entered the barn. The warrior reached over the rails of the stall to rub the horse’s long face. When she bent to examine the hoof in question and found the medicinal bandage absent, she could also see the edge of a bright new horseshoe gleaming under each of Argo’s feet. The smithy had been true to his word; the injured foot had healed so he had reattached the new shoes. The horse was now fit, and it appeared as ready as her mistress was, for that long-awaited ride they’d both been looking forward to.
Xena led Argo out of the stall and pulled the familiar bridle over the horse’s head. The mare accepted the bit into her mouth and the warrior removed the halter, hanging it on a nearby peg in the thick post near the stall. She laid the accustomed blanket on the horse’s back and lifted the saddle into place. As Xena reached under the horse’s belly to grasp the girth strap, she heard the blacksmith’s approach behind her. She turned to greet the man.
"I see you got the shoes back on. Thanks, the foot looks great," she told him and the smithy’s wide smile answered hers. Xena reached into the belt of her leathers. "How much do I owe you now?"
The blacksmith hesitated, about to suggest that the warrior’s payment wasn’t necessary, but when he saw the determined look invade the clear blue eyes, he reconsidered his plan. He concentrated on rubbing the soot and dirt from his hands for a moment, then looked back up to meet the woman’s gaze.
"Four dinars," he said firmly, setting his jaw at the surprised look on the tall warrior’s face. Her eyes studied his for another long moment. She drew out the four dinars and dropped them in her other hand. Then she leveled a crooked smirk at the man’s calm expression.
"That’s for the shoes. What about the healing for her foot?"
The smithy swallowed and let a slow smile answer the one growing on the woman’s face.
"It’s a package deal," he said finally, trying in vain to keep his expression noncommittal. "Who knows, maybe she cut her foot in here someplace. It’s my barn, so...." The man let the statement fade as he watched the clear blue eyes.
Xena hesitated, trying to dispel the effect the man’s intent stare was having on her reserve. Then she handed the man the coins and turned back to the waiting mare. "Well, you did a fine job on her," she told the man, busily completing the saddling of the horse. She yanked on the girth strap, pulling it snug against Argo’s stomach, and turned to face the smithy again. "She’s kind of ... important to me. Thanks again."
Enoch crossed his muscled arms over his expansive chest. "My pleasure," he said, holding the warrior’s eyes again. Then his glance swept to the golden mare behind her. "She’s a fine animal. A real prize."
Xena led Argo out of the barn, the smithy walking casually beside them. Outside, she gathered the reins in one hand, slipped her foot into the comfortable stirrup and swung herself gracefully into the saddle. When she had her other foot in position, she turned to gaze down at the smithy where he stood near her left knee.
"Oh, by the way," she began casually, making an effort to keep her tone light. "Can you tell me where this famous cave is ... the one where they found the scrolls my friend is working on?" At the smithy’s questioning look, she shifted her position in the saddle, hoping she was conveying only ordinary curiosity in the cavern. "I just thought I’d take a look at it, since my friend has told me what a prize the scrolls are."
Enoch’s easy smile swept over his rugged face. He pointed at the horizon, indicating the fields beyond the town. "It’s east of the village," he told Xena. "About half a candlemark from here, you’ll see a ridge of trees at the base of some steep hills. The cave sits behind the trees, about in the middle of the biggest mound."
Xena followed his pointing hand, then looked back at the man’s obliging grin.
"Thanks," she said. She urged Argo forward and gathered the reins comfortably in her fingers. As they moved away from the stable, the warrior slid forward in the saddle and patted the thick, sinewy neck.
"Let’s have a look, girl," she said to the mare’s twitching ears. "Then we’ll know what we need to do." She pressed her heels to the animal’s sides and responded with exhilaration to the perfect rhythm of the mare’s flawless stride. The warrior set their path toward the east.
Chapter Fourteen ~~~
Camber stood very still in the shade of the little group of trees. He had tied his pony near the end of the road, so he wouldn’t make any noise like the last time. He hadn’t wanted to leave Nisus there, but the pony had shrieked loudly and the little black horse had run away. This time, Camber decided, he wasn’t taking any chances.
He had been coming to the cluster of trees at least three times a week for the last two moons, ever since the first time he had seen the little black horse. Camber had thought then that, in all his ten summers, he had never seen anything as beautiful as the sleek, blue-black stallion, with the wide ribbon of white shining the length of his face, running flawlessly through the field, his long graceful stride sweeping across the tall grass, the black mane and tail flying. And his head! A perfectly shaped face, small and intelligent, just like his father told him.
‘Look at the head. And the eyes. You can see the intelligence there,’ he always said. And Camber knew then, the black horse was very smart.
The boy’s face creased in a grin as he remembered the last time he’d come to the little clearing; the black colt had taken the piece of the sweet root he’d offered him that time. He’d even let Camber get close enough to him to put the root right under his nose. That had been a grand day. All the other times before, the horse had stayed too far away for the boy to really get acquainted. Except for that one time -- when the animal had swept by him, close enough for the black tail to brush the boy’s face. That had been the best day of all.
At last he saw him, gliding effortlessly into the clearing. The boy’s body tensed, but he kept his eyes riveted on the small horse, watching the sleek muscles rippling under the glistening hide. The horse slowed his gait, then stopped stone still, ears twitching in the boy’s direction.
Camber took a slow breath and raised his hand to display the long, juicy carrot grasped in his palm. He took a single, lazy step toward the black horse.
The animal’s pink nostrils quivered but he didn’t move. The gentle breeze lifted the silvery forelock and fluttered the feathery black mane. The colt watched the small shape emerge from under the trees as the boy walked toward him, slowly, carefully, one step at a time.
Camber’s young hand grew moist around the carrot. He took one more step, changed the carrot to the other hand and wiped his sweating palm across the seam of his breeches. The jerky movement brought the colt’s head up sharply and he seemed about to bolt, again. The boy froze in position, the carrot extended shyly, his heart hammering in his chest. Then Camber started walking forward again, slowly. ‘Just a few more steps’, he thought, excitedly.
The black horse stepped forward a step, ears twitching quickly, gray muzzle sampling the humanness of the boy’s scent. He nickered quietly, shook his head and shifted nervously, the bright sunshine forming silvery shapes on his jet-black sides. He took another small step toward the boy.
Camber halted, hand still extending the carrot, his eyes never leaving the horse’s face. He cursed silently as the breeze lifted the edges of his tunic away from his body, again making the horse tentative and skittish. He smiled widely at the beautiful animal, extending his free hand, palm open, facing the sky.
"C’mon, boy," the child beckoned softly. "I’m not gonna hurt you." The black head shook and turned away, the soft muzzle trembling.
Camber took another slow step toward the horse. He could almost feel the magnificent hide under his fingers. He waved the carrot slightly and smiled wider when the horse turned back to face him.
"C’mon, fella. Here’s a nice, sweet carrot for you. Caahhmon." The boy stretched his free hand toward the quivering nose. He was almost there! Cautiously, the boy reached a hand toward the horse’s head. The colt drew it back as far as possible without moving. Camber stepped closer, his free hand so close to the satin hide, he could feel the heat radiating from the shiny surface. Gently, he touched the horse’s coat for an instant.
Suddenly the black equine pranced away, pivoted and turned back to the youngster. He stood a dozen strides away from the boy, front legs stiff, his ears flat against his head. Camber saw the colt raise up on his hind legs, teeth bared, pawing the bright sunlight with his white-rimmed front hooves. The horse swung his body to one side and reared again, his powerful legs slicing the air, his whistle shrilling through the clearing.
As the boy watched shocked and surprised, the ebony figure thundered away, the ground between them trembling under the force of the pounding hooves. He saw the black animal streak across the open space, turn, rear and, gathering himself in a mighty leap, head back across the meadow, straight at him, his thick mane and dark tail flowing freely, like two clouds of inky dust.
All at once, Camber heard hoofbeats pounding behind him. Yet he couldn’t pull his eyes from the approaching animal. He couldn’t move, couldn’t decide if he wanted to. Camber stood transfixed as the black horse came closer and closer, the white blaze down the front of his face blurring in the brilliance of the sun.
Xena relaxed into the welcome sensation of Argo’s rippling form striving beneath her. The woman and the horse coordinated their movements, each responding perfectly to the other, the two muscled creatures gliding in a seamless cadence, horse and rider completely attuned to each other. The animal sensed her mistress’ urgency and happily conformed to the woman’s commands. She stretched out easily, her hooves pounding an impeccable pattern on the hard ground.
The warrior guided the horse toward the clearing the smithy had described; she knew it was the same one where she had found the herbs during her ride on the chestnut gelding. As she enjoyed Argo’s effortless stride, her mind sorted and examined the information she had received during the conversation with Minerva that morning. Xena struggled to control the churning dread thumping in her senses. Sibling rivalry aside, she had an annoying feeling that the young woman’s concept of her brother’s character was unfortunately too accurate.
Another nagging dread also plagued her; what, if anything, she should do and how to explain what she did to the little bard, if it became necessary for her to act on Minerva’s misgivings.
Xena had barely arrived in the clearing when she saw the black horse streaking across the clearing. No! It wasn’t the same horse as before. This one was smaller, had a silver forelock and a white blaze running down the middle of its face. But the blue-black color and the thick, black mane and tail clearly showed a strain of relationship between the two animals. The warrior’s sharp mind spent only a moment on these considerations. In the next instant, she realized that the horse was flying, unrestrained and at a full gallop, toward the young boy standing frozen just beyond the smaller group of trees.
With the speed of her usual instantaneous reflexes, Xena turned Argo toward the small form balancing her weight to one side as the golden mare thundered closer to him. She glanced once at the approaching black horse before leaning far away from the saddle, her strong arm stretched out toward the boy. Argo pushed forward, stepping cleanly over the rough, ridged ground, altering her path slightly to pass close to the small form, to compensate for the weight of her mistress as she hung from the saddle.
A heartbeat before the black horse would have passed close enough for him to touch the sweeping tail again, Camber felt himself being yanked off the ground and lifted onto the yellow horse sweeping past behind him. The youngster yelled as his feet left the earth and he felt himself being deposited between the rider’s body and the large horn at the front of the saddle. The rider reseated herself, pressed her knees against the mare’s ribs and spurred their progress away from the stallion’s path. As the ebony shape flashed past them, the woman slowed the mare’s progress, then pulled the horse to a stop.
It was then that she noticed the boy in her grasp was struggling fiercely to release her grip.
Xena turned to watch the retreating black figure for a moment, then turned her attention toward the youngster wiggling against her chest, requesting heartily to be returned to the ground. She relaxed her arm as the boy twisted in the saddle to train a disgruntled gaze up at her.
"Why’d you do that?" Camber demanded unhappily. The warrior stared down at the young face, openly astonished. "You ruined everything!" He pushed her restraining arm out of the way, swung one leg over the saddlehorn and jumped to the ground beside Argo’s left shoulder. He turned to the warrior’s surprised expression, his jaw jutting angrily, the youthful face contorted in an angry scowl.
The warrior blinked and studied the flushed, red countenance. She stared down at the stiff form glaring up at her, his stance defiant, his fists jammed angrily on his hips. As she tried to contain her rising confusion, she watched a degree of the furor seep away from the boy’s irritated expression and slowly shift into a look of recognition. She swung down off Argo’s back, flipped the reins over the mare’s head and turned back to face the slightly less furious young face.
"You’re the lady warrior, aren’t you? The one who came to town with the little storyteller." The boy let his gaze travel over the warrior’s leather-clad form, settling momentarily on the golden mare behind her, eventually returning to the warrior’s blue eyes. The youngster’s angry expression gradually settled into an impatient frown.
"Yes, my name is Xena," the warrior said, regaining her authority. "Who are you? And just what were you trying to do back there? Get yourself trampled?"
The boy’s angry glare returned, full force. His lower lip drooped stubbornly as he pulled himself up as straight as he could, straining to address the warrior’s face high above him.
"I’m Camber and I would not have gotten trampled!" he barked, challenging the tall woman disdainfully. "The black horse knows me," he declared proudly. "He even takes the carrots and sweet roots I bring him, right from my hand." The boy raised his chin in a meaningful gesture. "For your information, lady warrior, I was trying to let him know he could trust me. and he was really starting to ..." he said, fixing her with another aggravated glare. "...until you scared him off."
Xena found herself experiencing a modicum of admiration for this brave youngster. He was obviously not intimidated by her leathers, her size or her status as an adult. He had certainly shown a level of courage when facing the stampeding black horse without displaying panic. In fact, she decided, this young fellow didn’t seem to be afraid of anything that usually scared someone of his age. The boy’s stalwart manner rekindled warm memories of her own son, and the valor Solan had demonstrated during their one, brief incident together. The warrior gave in to the grudging smile that beckoned to cross her face, even as she endured the boy’s hostility.
"I’m sorry," she told the boy honestly. "I guess you’re right. I’m sorry I ruined it for you." The boy’s animosity dispersed slightly at the warrior’s apologetic tone. His tense body relaxed a bit and he lowered his fists from their position on his hips. The angry scowl was slowly replaced by an expression of genuine disappointment. After a moment, Camber turned away and walked briskly back toward the spot where he’d been standing before the warrior swept him onto the mare’s back.
Xena fell in step beside him. After a moment, she cocked her head to focus on the boy’s disgruntled face. "So, what can I do for you now?" she asked gently. "Do you need a ride back to ...."
"No, that’s OK," the boy answered. "I tied my pony over there," he said, motioning absently toward the edge of the clearing behind them. "I’ll just try again tomorrow." He stopped and fixed her with a warning gaze. "As long as you steer clear of this place and don’t scare him off again."
Xena raised her hands in mock surrender. "You won’t see me, I promise. Just be careful, all right?"
The youngster threw her an impatient glare, then resumed walking. She followed, again admiring his noble attitude.
"You really were very brave, standing so still like that," Xena said, sincerely. The young face brightened at her compliment. "That took courage, not to panic and hold your ground. How’d you know to try that?"
"My daddy says it’s important for a man’s horse to trust him. He says that’s always the best thing to try, if you want a really good horse."
The warrior nodded, keeping her expression as serious as the boy’s.
"And your father knows horses, does he?" she continued, straight-faced.
"He should," Camber said, his face beaming. "He’s the best blacksmith in this whole province."
Xena reacted to the boy’s shining reference. He was referring to the blacksmith in the town, of course. She shook her head slowly, rebuking herself for not arriving at the obvious conclusion sooner. She studied the youngster for a moment. He was actually a true miniature of his father, the same large brown eyes, identical thatch of wavy, auburn hair. The sturdy little body already showed signs of matching, or perhaps surpassing, his father’s hearty, muscled build, the warrior concluded. The resemblance was obvious, now that she considered it.
They had arrived back at Camber’s original spot, in the shade of the little group of trees at the near edge of the clearing. He bent to pick up the carrot he’d dropped when the warrior’s strong grip had spirited him off his feet. He brushed away the dirt clinging to the carrot, cast a look at the golden mare, broke the orange stalk in two and walked around the tall woman to offer the treat to the animal. After a cursory glance at the horse’s glistening hide, he turned a deprecating look at the warrior.
"You’d better cool her down," he told her in a superior tone. The tall woman pursed her lips to hide the advancing amusement threatening to cover her face. "Whatter you doin’ out here, anyway?" the boy asked as he opened his palm to give Argo half of the carrot. "Nobody from town ever comes to this place."
"I was looking for the cave ... the one where they found the scrolls. The smithy ... your father told me it was near this clearing. Maybe you could show me where it is." Camber’s gaze was distrustful.
"Why?" he said suspiciously.
"Because I’m new to this area and I don’t ...."
"No, I meant why do you want to see it?" The boy’s large brown eyes met the blue pools.
The warrior read a degree of proprietorship in the youngster’s glance. He was not about to share his knowledge of the cave’s location until he was satisfied that her interest wasn’t more than acceptable curiosity.
"I just wanted to see it. My friend, the little storyteller, says it’s ..." she searched her mind for an appropriate word. "...neat," she said finally, swallowing the feeling of foolishness at the term.
She watched as Camber considered her request. "So, do you know where it is, or not?" After a moment, the warrior decided a little bartering was in order.
"Look, I’ll make you a deal," she told the child, dropping to one knee to bring her gaze level with his. "If you show me how to find the cave, I’ll help you catch the black colt." Camber’s eyes lit at the suggestion. "Do we have a deal?"
The boy stroked the mare’s nose thoughtfully and offered her the last of the carrot. He seemed reluctant to enlighten the warrior until Argo nudged his chest softly. The boy’s face lit warmly at the animal’s show of solidarity.
"Well, OK," he said. "But Musaeus says I’m not supposed to ‘bandy it about’," Camber told her. The warrior’s instincts spurted to life again but she clamped a restraint on her rising uneasiness and turned an open expression to the youngster.
"Why is that, do you think?" she asked, innocently, standing upright again.
Camber’s small frown greeted her steady look. "Because it’s a secret place, that’s why," he told her impatiently. "No one else is s’posed to go there alone, except, Musaeus, me and the men from the camp in the valley. That way nobody can mess up what’s in ...."
Xena’s senses had locked on the phrase ‘men from the camp’. She leaned down toward the boy.
"What men?" she asked him, her expression serious. Camber saw the wave of hardness sweep over the pretty blue eyes, even his young mind recognizing the change in the tall woman’s manner. His face responded to the gravity in her tone.
"Camber, what men?" She took the boy’s arm.
The boy studied the intent crystal pools for a moment, then his gaze left hers to focus on a spot behind her, at the far edge of the clearing. He pointed over the warrior’s shoulder.
"Them," he said. "Those are the men from the camp. The cave is on the other side of those trees over there. At the bottom of the biggest hill."
Xena turned to follow the path of the boy’s pointing finger. As her eyes scanned the open clearing they came to rest on the ridge of trees at the far edge of the expanse. She saw the
three men travel along the line of trees, then disappear behind the green curtain of the foliage. Instinctively, the warrior’s jaw clenched as the knot in her stomach tightened. Even at the distance she was from the figures, her intuition told her the caliber of ruffian they personified. She watched the men’s progress, a rising foreboding unsettling her senses.
‘Now what do you suppose their interest is in this particular cave?’ Xena’s mind queried. ‘Scholars? I don’t think so.’ Camber’s bright voice broke the warrior’s reverie.
"It’s OK," he told her confidently. "They know me. Just tell them I said it was OK." With that, her turned and started to walk away.
"Where are you going?" Xena asked the youngster, glancing back nervously at the ridge of trees across the meadow.
"Home," the boy said, emphatically. "I’ve got chores to do before it gets too late." He stopped and turned back to the warrior.
Xena reverted to her best ‘bored warrior face’ as she gathered up Argo’s reins and hoisted herself into the saddle. "No, I want to give Argo a little more exercise," she said blandly. She turned the mare toward the ridge of trees. "I’ll see you back in town after we ride some more."
Camber seemed about to pose another question, so Xena waited expectantly. "You said you’d help me. Tomorrow, all right?" the boy said, facing the warrior again.
"Yes, you have my word. OK?"
"OK," the boy said, finally satisfied. "I’ll see you back at the stable." He turned and walked away.
Xena waited until the little form disappeared into the trees near the road before she laid the reins on Argo’s neck and headed for the ridge of trees near the staggered hills. As she rode slowly toward the cave, she felt her stomach tightening and the familiar warning signals buzzing in her ears. She knew the first phase of her dilemma was about to become a reality; finding the cave and investigating it. She dreaded the onset of the next phase; explaining her suspicions to her best friend. She had a feeling acting on those misgivings would not please the little bard, or her male associate, in the least.
As she rode toward the cave, the warrior’s expression was grim and determined.
Chapter Fifteen ~~~
Gabrielle tried to concentrate on the stained scroll in front of her, but her gaze kept returning to the slouching figure of her so-called partner in the restoration endeavor. She shook her head slightly at Musaeus’ bored expression and the disinterest plainly apparent in his lazy manner. As she watched, he folded a discarded scrap of parchment into a triangular shape, then rolled the piece into a tight coil. When he had secured the ends of his creation inside the spiral, he raised the cylinder to one eye, closed the other in a contorted squint and trained the contrivance in her direction. She answered the young man’s teasing activity with an irritated scowl.
Musaeus lowered his plaything and grinned invitingly at the bard’s cool expression. Since it was obvious that his attempt at humor had gone unappreciated by his companion, the boyish smile faded to be replaced by a practiced, ingratiating smirk. Finally, the young man lowered his gaze to the coiled parchment as the little blonde sat back in her chair, her elbows resting on the wooden arms, and laced her fingers over her lap. After another stilted moment, Musaeus raised his gaze to meet the admonishment in the girl’s green gaze.
"Something wrong?" he asked innocently, a false degree of uneasiness shading his tone.
Gabrielle moistened her lips slowly, trying hard to make her intended remarks as charitable as she could. She gazed at the boyish, freckled face of her bardic compatriot, a vague reluctance invading her attitude. She took a short breath and studied her own thumbs.
"Musaeus," she said, finally raising her eyes to meet his. "When you asked me to come here, you said this was a very important project. You said it was a matter of ‘high magnitude’ to the town and to your own future as a bard." The green eyes on the young man’s face were serious, and considerably more genuine than those returning her gaze.
"It is," the young man said, fixing his best ‘convincing look’ on the girl’s sober gaze.
"Well, if that’s true, I sure wouldn’t know that by the way you’ve been handling it." The bluntness of the bard’s words brought a slight blush to the young man’s face. "In fact, the whole time we’ve been working on this, you’ve acted like it was the least important thing in your whole world. It makes me wonder just how much these scrolls really do matter to you."
Musaeus left his chair and strode quickly to stand across the table from the little blonde. She followed his advancing form, her position completely unchanged and pointedly disinterested.
"Of course it’s important to me, Gabrielle," the young bard pleaded. "I told you how the Elders are counting on me ... on us ... to restore these scrolls and bring distinguished travelers to Almiros. Significant people who will draw other people of consequence here."
"Yes, so you keep saying," the little blonde continued, annoyance very apparent in her crisp tone. "But, to put it bluntly, I’m doing all the work around here. And it’s starting to annoy me." She let the statement hang in the quiet room. "You might even say it’s making me really angry. You don’t seem inclined to exert any effort at all. Does that seem fair to you?" She sent the young man a meaningful stare. "Or have I missed something?"
Musaeus saw the clear disdain in Gabrielle’s green gaze. At that moment he realized he had arrived at a dangerous crossroad. He had erroneously assumed that he could rely on his perfected charm and engaging personality to control the young blonde woman now glaring at him from across the table. His mind quickly grasped the seriousness of his blunder and began a frantic maneuver to regain his equilibrium and control. The young face showed a sincerely regretful expression and his confidence drained away under the little blonde’s solemn stare.
"I’m sorry, Gabrielle," Musaeus said, lowering his gaze to the rugged table between him and the little blonde. "I guess I’m not as ... disciplined as you." He focused again on the young woman’s serious face, trying to judge how his comments were helping his failing image. There was no reaction in the green eyes trained on his. He tried another tactic. Sporting a flimsy grin, he shrugged his shoulders ruefully.
"When I saw how much more knowledgeable you are than I am, I figured I’d help most by just staying out of your way." Musaeus grinned, seemingly exhibiting a great remorse at his own silly mistake.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and briskly pushed her chair back from the table. She stood up and laid both hands flat on the surface, leaning across the expanse to level a solemn expression at the face of her male friend. Musaeus stepped back, truly unnerved by the girl’s purposeful attitude.
"That’s ... horse droppings," she said, her green eyes sparkling with rising impatience. "I’ve just had a little more experience with different dialects, that’s all." The little blonde stood up straight, spreading her slim hands along the belt of her Amazon skirt. "You’re the one who’s been so good at finding all the geographic references and the ancient verses." The young man’s face brightened at the girl’s compliments.
"But, you really must try to stay focused on what we’re here for, understand?" The little bard sent the young man a reproachful look. "Just try to concentrate. This is an important job and I think we should give it our best effort." The green eyes traveled over the boyish face. "OK?" Gabrielle said, her expression open and sincere.
Musaeus felt a vague wave of guilt waft through his conscience, but he ignored the noble inclination to reclaim his confidence in his previous agenda. His put on his best smile as he met the young woman’s honest expression.
"OK," he said, nodding agreeably. "I promise I’ll be more ... responsible," he chirped, smiling brightly. "At least, I’ll try. OK?" The little bard giggled, the sweet face returning the young man’s friendly smile.
The two young people laughed together. Then the little bard looked down at the scroll on the table. "Well," she said, scanning the parchment. "We’re out of ink." She looked back up at the young man. "And I need a little air, so I guess I’ll take a walk over to the parchment shop and pick up another glass." She slid the quill pen into its leather pouch and moved toward the door. Musaeus started to follow her, but she casually waved him off. "That’s OK," she told him. "I won’t be long." She walked briskly through the open door toward the town’s merchant.
After a moment, Musaeus turned away from the portal and strode purposefully over to one of the sections of shelving lining the walls of the room. He glanced at the open door again, then returned his attention to his task. After he had moved one of the bound volumes, he reached behind the book and carefully withdrew a weathered, outwardly antiquated scroll. He checked the doorway again, then quickly crossed the room, stopping near the collection of rolled parchments which Gabrielle had assembled on one end of the table.
Musaeus scanned the pile, selected one in particular, then replaced it with the scroll from the bookshelf. He restocked the scrolls in the collection, taking care to make sure the new roll of parchment matched the placement of its predecessor exactly. Checking the doorway yet again, he scurried back to the shelving, slid the original document into the open space and repositioned the book, covering the hidden opening once again. The young man sat down in the chair he’d occupied earlier and rested his elbows on the end of the table. He rubbed his hands together, his face creased in a smug, lop-sided grin, happily satisfied that the final aspect of his plan had been set into motion.
Chapter Sixteen ~~~
When Xena returned Argo to the stables a candlemark later, they were both panting and hot. The warrior took her time cooling the mare down and grooming the shining coat. She re-filled the water trough and the feed bin, even making sure there was fresh hay and fodder for the animal’s enjoyment. At one point during her labors, she paused to react to the quizzical glare she noticed in the mare’s big brown eyes as the horse gazed at her mistress, slowly crunching the handful of oats the warrior had offered during her ministrations.
"Well," the warrior said sadly, stroking the mare’s long face. "Now we know about the cave, don’t we?"
The mare tossed her golden head and responded with a sympathetic nicker.
"So, how do I explain our trip to our little friend?" The warrior trained a weary stare through the open window at the front of the stall. After a moment, she sighed heavily, patted the sinewy neck and tied the halter’s rope to the wooden rails.
"See you in the morning," she told the mare. She hung the bridle on the peg above the saddle, replaced the grooming tools on the shelf and left the barn.
The moon had already slipped above the leafy trees when the warrior exited the stable. She paused a moment as she crossed the darkened town square, casting a hesitant look toward the hut that housed the restoration project. She could see the dim candlelight that still twinkled within the structure. Swallowing her fleeting uneasiness, she turned instead in the direction of the Inn, finally acknowledging the hungry feeling in her stomach.
Once inside the noisy dining area, she strode toward the bartender as the rotund merchant’s easy smile spread in recognition of her approach. He came down to the end of the bar to meet her, drying his pudgy hands on a rumpled towel. As Xena leaned closer to address him, the bartender turned one ear toward the leather-clad form. She raised her voice slightly to combat the loud clamor in the room.
"Have you seen my friend?" she asked, then let her eyes sweep the room for the small bard.
"The little storyteller?" the man asked showing a gap-filled smile. "She’s waiting for you in the room," he told her, gesturing toward the archway with one fleshy thumb. "She said you two would eat when you got back from your ride."
Xena nodded, then favored the round face with a small grin. "I’ll take a tray to her, if you don’t mind," she said. "She’s probably tired after working on the scrolls all day."
The man’s stout chin bobbed in agreement, and he waved one wide hand to summon the middle-aged waitress. When the woman saw the signal, she crossed the room and listened to the bartender’s instructions. She glanced at the warrior, then turned and disappeared through the door to the kitchen. After a few moments, the waitress returned carrying a wooden tray holding two steaming bowls of thick stew, two large spoons, two mugs of cider and a bundle wrapped in a clean, white napkin. Xena decided the cloth held some of the sweet bread the bard had been praising so enthusiastically.
The warrior paid the bartender for the food. She took the tray from the waitress, thanked the woman and began to make her way across the tavern toward the door leading to the sleeping rooms. Once in the hallway, she quickened her pace as she approached the room she shared with the bard. She smiled as the fragrant aroma of the stew floated up from the tray into her nostrils.
‘She’s probably starving, waiting all this time for me,’ the warrior thought, amused. She stopped at the door of their room, balanced the tray in her free hand, turned the knob with the other and strode into the chamber. She quietly closed the door and turned around, expecting to meet the sparkling green pools of her soulmate. When her eyes had adjusted to the soft light flickering from the two large candles standing on the mantle the blue gaze swept the room for the little bard.
The first sight that registered was one rust-colored boot laying on its side on the floor next to the bed. The warm smile across the warrior’s expression grew slowly when the blue eyes traveled upward to the quiet form on the coverlet. Xena put the tray down on the square table across the room, hung her chakram on one of the wooden pegs on the wall, removed the dagger and sheath from her belt, and pulled off her arm coverings. She sat down on the small wooden chair, took off her shin guards and her boots, then quietly padded closer to the petite figure resting comfortably on the pallet.
The little blonde was fast asleep, her wheat-colored tresses spread softly across the pillow, her short, white sleeping shift accentuating her trim, well-formed little body. Long, fair lashes left wispy shadows across the soft, peaceful face. One trim arm was curled under the blonde head while the other small hand, still holding the quill pen, rested casually on a partially-scripted expanse of parchment. Under the clean scroll lay another, its dark stains and tattered edges identifying it as one of those in need of replacement. A cursory glance at neat lines clearly depicted the chain of events; the girl had been in the midst of the transcription when fatigue had overcome good intentions.
Xena leaned steadily on the edge of the mattress, lovingly studying the little bard. After a moment, she gently removed the pieces of parchment, placing them safely on the small table next to the bed. She carefully pulled the quill pen from the girl’s fist and placed it on the mantle next to one of the candles. Then she smoothly pulled off the remaining boot and dropped it quietly on the floor next to its mate. She sat down on the bed, tenderly lifted the little figure, pulled the coverlet from under the girl and gently repositioned the bard. As she drew the soft wrapper over the sleeping form and delicately tucked the covering around the slim frame, the green eyes slowly fluttered open.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked sleepily. "Did you have a good run?"
The warrior nodded and smiled warmly at the tired face. She leaned closer to the bard, one hand on either side of the compact little form.
"I brought some food for us," she said to the sleepy green eyes. "Are you hungry?"
The bard yawned heartily, stretched her lithe frame, then dropped her hands onto the pillow above her head. She returned the warrior’s loving gaze, a small grin lighting the young expression.
"Kinda," she murmured, training a bemused expression on the new position of the bedspread and her companion’s solicitous activity. Looking back up into the gentle blue eyes, the bard’s little grin grew wider. "Hey," she asked. "How’d I get under the covers?"
The warrior’s smile matched the bard’s. She pulled the covers up closer to the soft chin. "I tucked you in," she quipped, replacing the slender hands along side the trim body. The little bard giggled. "Oh," she chirped. "I guess that explains it, then."
Xena gazed down into the sweet, smiling face, her deep affection for the young bard flooding into the clear blue eyes. For a moment, the crackling fire provided the only sounds in the warm room. Then the warrior’s liquid voice sounded quietly.
"You sure you’re not hungry?"
The bard shook her head. "I’d rather just talk with you a while."
The warrior tilted her head and met the open request with a reproachful look. She steeled herself against the beginnings of a small frown now evident across the bard’s brow. "You’ll want to be up early again, if I don’t miss my guess." The little scowl was replaced by an adorable pout. "And you haven’t been getting a great deal of rest while we’ve been here," the warrior said softly. She studied the cherished face and took one small hand in her own.
"You still plan to be finished in time to get to Kerkira before the start of the Solstice, don’t you? " the warrior said as she studied the little hand clasped in her palm. "You’ll need to be alert and awake to get the job done."
Gabrielle blinked quickly against the angry tears stinging her eyes. The fatigue that had overcome her earlier even now plagued her shoulders and had produced a nagging headache. Still, she resented the warrior’s proprietary attitude; she felt like a child being sent to bed after a long, day of play. She swallowed hard against the frustration tightening her throat.
"C’mon," the warrior said, shifting her position on the bed. "Snuggle in and I’ll rub your shoulders for a while." She grinned at the bard’s unspoken question. "I noticed you flexing them this afternoon. I figured they’ve been giving you some trouble." The little bard grudgingly acknowledged the warrior’s intuition.
Xena maneuvered the little blonde over onto her stomach and began a firm manipulation of the tense muscles along the girl’s shoulders. The bard gritted her teeth against the mild discomfort before relaxing under the warrior’s deft touch. After a long moment, during which the bard began to enjoy the soothing effects of the strong, sensitive fingers, she raised her chin to address the woman applying the competent massage.
"You win ... for now, warrior," the bard said, then grunted quietly in response to a particularly firm touch from the warrior’s hands. "But, when the Solstice starts, we’ll just see about ... ohh!" The last comment came as a result of the unexpected - and very brisk - swat that had been delivered across her behind.
"Quiet, please," the warrior said sweetly. "This is hard enough without having to deal with unnecessary conversation. Now, just lie still."
The little blonde groaned in capitulation, then reluctantly surrendered to the proficient ministrations. Very soon her breathing became steady and regular as the little body succumbed to the warrior’s talented fingers. When a gentle snore emerged from the far side of the pillow, the tall woman smiled and gently pulled the covers over the sleeping form.
Continued in Chapter 17