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Chapter 5: Speak Softly Little Man
"...I dangers dared; I hindrance scorned;
I omens did defy;
Whatever menaced, harassed, warned,
I passed impetuous by . . . "
This story is about a staff tournament!? You say. Well, yes it is. Not everything in the warrior and bards life revolved around mortal danger. How is anybody really supposed to comprehend love when youre trying to dodge deadly sword thrusts? Come on. Imagine this: dodge, parry, thrust, Oh, I think I love Xena. Or how about: duck, block, strike why do I enjoy bathing with Gabrielle? Nope, this story is how they discovered the truth in their hearts and that didnt happen in the heat of battle. Well, maybe it did but thats not when they admitted it. Sometimes, the inane that brings about cosmic revelations. Now, just read along and hopefully youll see what I mean.
Dundar: Another sleepy village on the Eastern Coast of Greece safely tucked between the towering granite cliffs formed by the upheaval of the world. This town had little to worry about. Until a certain bard and her warrior showed up.
"Okay Xena," the bard said excitedly. "Where do I sign up for this thing?"
Xena couldnt help but grin at Gabrielles enthusiasm. She shifted atop of Argo, the leather battledress (that fit oh so snug) groaned at the movement. "Where do we always go first Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle looked up at Xena, who made a magnificent silhouette against the afternoon sky. She snapped her fingers before she answered. "The tavern!"
Xena smiled and was about to say something but she was interrupted by a rather irritable voice somewhere behind her. "Good! I could use a stiff drink. Heras cursed tits Xena! What the Hades was your hurry? I felt like I was in the bloody Olympiad trying to keep up with you two," Ephiny spat through dust encrusted lips. Then she turned her wrath toward Solari who walked meekly behind. " Leave the horses, you said. Gabrielle walks all the time, you said. Well *that* is the last time I listen to you! I think I got a freakin blister!"
Xena held back the glee she felt at Ephinys expense. (Cant laugh and smile too much in one-day lest her vicious reputation be tarnished.) "Nobody asked you to come along. Besides, I thought you two had some festival or dance to plan. I know how serious you fierce Amazons are about your little parties." Xena smirked then urged Argo into a condescending gallop. Fortunately, she missed Ephiny make a half-hearted lunge at Xena while fully expecting to be held back by Solari, which the Amazon did with much reluctance. (Sometimes Ephiny was a real pain in the butt.)
Ephiny, after a weak struggle to free herself from Solari, called out indignantly to the Warrior Princess. "Well, we have a duty to protect our queen!"
"Its a staff tournament Ephiny," Gabrielle cracked. "Its not like Im running from a crazed Amazon turned immortal. Geez, Eph get a grip." Gabrielle teased her friend then followed after her warrior.
Solari straightened her friend up and, just for the fun of it, dusted off various parts of the Regents leather outfit. "Can you make it the rest of the way?" Solaris tone mocked the bitchy Amazon.
Ephiny turned menacingly toward Solari. "I can make it and still have enough left over to kick your ass all over the known world!"
Solari guffawed then took off toward the local tavern with an acrimonious Amazon hot on her heels.
The tavern, "The Rusty Sword," was full of participants. In the back there was a table set up for registration. Xena, who never was one for lines, pushed her way to the front. Behind the table, a small balding man with an array of jewelry adorning his person held up his hand to the aggressive, leather-clad beauty. "Now hold on there missy." Xenas eyebrows arched to full attention. "We cant have you just bargin in here acting like youre all *that* just because you got leather on."
"Hey I just want to-" Xena tried to interject but was again surprised by an annoying hand in her face.
"Talk to the hand sister cuz the face aint listening." He pointed to the long line behind her. "Nuh uh Miss thing. You see those people behind you?" Xena gave the man her trademark bored look then brought her hand up to inspect her short (if you know what I mean) nails. "Girlfriend, those people are some of the best staff wielders round these parts so I suggest you adjust that attitude and step away from the-"
The small, and once brave man, found himself looking down into two cool blue eyes. Looking down? Now howd that happen? He gulped when he realized that Xena had him firmly by the collar and was easily holding him above her head. "Do you know who I am?" Although, Xena didnt often go around and flaunt her reputation, sometimes moments like these just called for it. Emphatically, the man shook his head No!. "Perhaps youve heard of me . . . names Xena." A collective gasp could be heard behind her and the small man fainted. Lets face it, there wasnt a village that hadnt heard of Xena. Then, as one could expect, the best staff wielders started to exit the tavern in dejected and fearful silence. (By the gods, this was Xena . . . they were right to assume that they didnt have a chance.) "But Im not here to enter the tournament," said Xena. There was a collective sigh of relief. "My friend is . . . Gabrielle!"
From the throngs of people, Gabrielle politely pushed her way through the crowd. "Excuse me, pardon me, oops sorry about that." Finally, she stood next to the Warrior Princess. " Xena . . . why are you holding a man above your head?"
"This mans going to sign you up for the tournament."
"Oh." Gabrielle looked at Xena inquisitively. "Perhaps, he could do that more efficiently if you werent scaring the crap out of him? Look hes fainted."
Xena smirked at Gabrielle who simply smiled sweetly. "Maybe," Xena said as she roughly put the man down. With a firm slap to his face, the man awoke from his blissful unconsciousness. However, he immediately tried to faint again once seeing the same deadly set of blue eyes staring at him.
"Oh no you dont," Xena warned as she shook him forcefully. "Now, are you gonna sign my friend up or what?"
"Y-yes of course."
"Good. Gabrielle I can take care of this. Go and secure a room for us . . . and your pesky friends."
The bard punched Xena on the arm. The tavern gasped again. Who was this little 5'4" blonde who dared to punch the infamous Warrior Princess? The crowd held their breath and waited for this unfortunate woman to be pulverized. Perplexed by the lack of breathing, Gabrielle looked around but then shrugged her shoulders. Weird crowd. "Xena theyre your friends too."
"Whatever, now go." And with that, the warrior gave her bard a slight, almost delicate, push.
Now, let me tell you that there were a lot of surprised looks flying through that room. This ruthless ex-warlord had allowed a waif of a woman (okay shes no waif but give me some creative license) to lay a hand upon her without so much as the obligatory snarl. In fact, the people were down right shocked that the warrior could be so . . . gentle. A woman in the back passed out from lack of oxygen and that was the cue for the rest of them to start breathing again. Obviously, the Warrior Princess could still surprise a few folks.
Chapter 6: Of Swine and Enlightenment
"...On sped my rainbow, fast as light;
I flew as in a dream;
For glorious rose upon my sight
That child of Shower and Gleam . . . "
Morning arrived as a silent messenger greeting the withering night. The sun began its journey into the heavens and the bard snuggled deeper into the blankets. The night had been full of fitful sleep, at best, for the blonde one. Unfortunately, there was only one room left at the inn so the four women had to share the cramped space. Xena and Gabrielle shared the bed, of course, which wasnt a problem. They often slept together to ward off the cold evenings. (Yeah right.) The problem was with the other two women. You see, they had rather annoying sleeping habits. Ephiny, although hardly a chatterbox when conscious, was quite a talker when she slept. During the course of the evening Gabrielle learned a new recipe for nutbread, how to properly care for a sword and could recite the twenty-five steps to Amazon enlightenment. For once, she understood how Xena felt.
Xena on the other hand could have slept through Ephinys nighttime dictation. (Being somewhat conditioned to constant chatter.) However, it was the other Amazon that kept the Warrior Princess from her beauty rest. Solari snored horribly. No, it wasnt like the dainty sound of someone simply breathing too loud. Nope, this sound was entirely unique to the dark-haired Amazon. Solaris snoring sounded like . . . well like a pig, a grunting, snorting, oinking pig. Xena, being on the verge of a warlord relapse, had to resort to desperate actions and that is why Solari woke up in the stables beside Argo rather than in the room with her friends. To this day, she still hasnt figured out why.
Gabrielle, who had finally fallen to sleep, felt a strong hand on her shoulders. "Get up sleepy-head and grab some breakfast. Ephiny and I are going to check on Solari," Xena said as she lovingly stroked the bards shoulder. An action she immediately stopped when she spotted Ephiny grinning in the corner. Then with a smirk of her own, she tugged the blanket off the bard exposing her to the cold morning air.
"Xena!" Gabrielle grabbed for the blanket but the Warrior Princess tossed it across the room. "I hate it when you do that," the bard grumbled. If there ever was a need for coffee to be invented, it was for Gabrielle, who epitomized the non-morning person. In fact, (a little known one I might add) Gabrielle . . . sweet, innocent Gabrielle often talked like a swarthy sailor in the mornings. "Stupid warrior . . . where the Tartarus are my boots . . . Hades! A girl cant even catch a few hours of sleep. Wheres that little piggy Solari . . . Id like to stuff an apple in her pie-hole! Blasted, bloody Amazons . . . who gives a flying fig about enlightenment . . . " Gabrielle continued as Ephiny and Xena silently crept out of the room.
After her brief bout of grumpiness, Gabrielle emerged from the room with a smile on her face. It was the day of the tournament and she was excited. The village had taken on a festival atmosphere and the streets and businesses were packed with patrons, participants, musicians and merchants. Dundar buzzed with excitement and tension. The bard loved it.
Gabrielle was making her way toward the "Rusty Sword," staff in hand, when the sun seemingly disappeared and was replaced by a dark shadow. The bard looked up and in her path, eclipsing the bright orb in the sky, was one very large mass. "Um excuse me but your blocking my path," Gabrielle said politely. The mass, which Gabrielle could now see was a huge man-made no attempt to move.
"Vhat did vou say?" The mans accent was as thick as his neck.
Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Im meeting my friends at the "Rusty Sword" before I compete today-"
"Vou ah competink?"
Gabrielle could barely understand him but answered yes to what she thought she heard. She was mildly surprised when the man burst out into hysterical laughter. "Whats so funny? Are you competing?"
"No, but my seestar is." The man called over his shoulder. "Gretahl!"
Gabrielle swore she felt the ground shake as an incredibly large, muscular woman came to stand beside the incredibly huge man. The bard swallowed hard and then in a meek voice started to speak. "I assume you are his sister?"
" Im Gretahl ja, thees my bwrother is Hansuhl and vou are . . . small!" With that the two giant beings burst out into raucous laughter.
"Ha ha," Gabrielle muttered under her breath. "Excuse me . . . Gristle-"
"Oh so sorry, but if youll . . . " Gabrielle began to push her way through the behemoths. "Excuse me, I have friends to meet."
"Sure . . . tiny!" The brother and sister team burst back into heavily accented laughter. "I tournahment vee shall see vou ja?"
Gods I hope not, Gabrielle thought to herself. Outwardly, she said "Ja" and waved good-bye.
"Gabrielle! Where have you been!?" Xena yelled across the packed tavern startling the bard and all the patrons.
Gabrielle put her hands up in a quieting motion and made her way over to the table. "Gods Xena! Whats the rush?"
Xena looked irritated but lowered her voice. "The rush is that youre supposed to compete in less than a candlemark and you havent eaten. Plus, I need to brief you on your first opponent." Xenas uncharacteristic anxiety was making itself known in full force. She was nervous (yes, cool and calm Ill-kick-your-ass-with-a-smile Xena, was cotton-mouthed, sweaty palmed nervous.) This tournament was full contact and the thought of Gabrielle getting hurt, in something as trivial as this, tied her stomach in knots. By the gods if someone hurts her Im gonna crack some heads!
The bard smiled and laid a soothing hand on Xenas arm. Instantly, the light touch calmed the Warrior Princess. "Xena dont worry. Now, whats this about my first opponent?"
"Hi girls." came a voice over her shoulder. Ephiny stepped around Gabrielle and laid a plate of eggs, bread, fish, stuffed grape leaves, calamari, roasted lamb, feta cheese, olives and fruit in front of her. Gods I hope thats enough. Hera! Forgot the oatmeal.
Gabrielle smiled graciously and promptly dug into her food while Xenas blue eyes pinned the Regent. "What did you find out?"
"Her first opponent is some little guy named Jackie Spam."
Gabrielles brow furrowed. "Jackie Spam? Thats an odd name."
"Hes from Chin," Ephiny added as if it would explain the oddity.
"What did Solari find out?" Xena had sent the other Amazon to scout out Gabrielles opponents. The Warrior Princess wanted to be prepared.
Ephiny shrugged. "That his names Jackie Spam." The Regent winced as Xena shot her a warning glance. "What? Thats all she told me!"
"Fine." Xena turned toward the bar and rubbed her forehead. "Thats what I get for sending out Amazons . . . " Xena mumbled to herself.
"What was that Xena?"
Gabrielle swallowed a large chunk of cheese and joined in the conversation. "Well, I ran into one of the competitors. Xena, this woman is huge, gigantic, abnormally big."
Xenas eyebrow raised (sometimes the darn thing just went up on its own). "What was her name?"
"Its Gretahl shorty." A booming voice came from the doorway and the crowd parted to let the abnormally large woman pass.
Ephiny shuddered at the enormous size of the woman and covertly bent down to whisper in Gabrielles ear. "Would you like to give me your right-of-caste now or later?"
Gabrielle sneered at Ephiny then turned to Xena. "This is Gretahl Xena."
"Weve meet." Gabrielle looked surprised then realized that Xena probably knew everybody, or at least it seemed that way. "Hello Gretahl. Hows Hansuhl?"
"Is good Zeena. Has been long time ja?" The woman towered over Xena (which looked entirely too strange).
"Ja. Still havent found your way home?"
"Nein, and dose bwreadcwrumbs didnt vork."
"It vas . . . I mean, it was a joke."
"Ah ves, humor. I dont like humor." Gretahl narrowed her eyes at Gabrielle. "She vis your . . . -"
"Hmmm, ja I bet. Im sorry but I vill have to pummel zis fwriend."
"I dont think so. Gabrielle is very good." The bard couldnt help but smile at Xenas compliment then grinned wider as Ephiny playfully nudged her in the ribs.
"So shall ve see." With that, the gigantic woman departed.
"Is she good Xena?" The bard, although confident in her abilities, couldnt keep the doubt out of her voice.
"Youre better." Xena looked at her bard and stifled a smile for Ephinys benefit (these Amazons were really starting to get on her nerves). "Finish your breakfast and Ill see you at the competition grounds." The smile Xena stifled, but for some reason, her hand shot out to smooth the golden hair of her companion. It was so brief that Xena didnt even realize what had happened; her hand was there and gone. Xena was out the door before she could register the effects of her simple act of love. Gracefully leaving the taciturn warrior were the instincts to protect oneself through the denial of physical expressions. Gabrielle was creeping over the enormous wall around Xenas heart.
"Wow," Ephiny said after Xena left.
"What?" Gabrielle looked at her with questioning green eyes.
Ephiny looked at Gabrielle softly, as one might look upon a little sister, and reached out her hand to mimic Xenas brief touch. "I miss being in love."
Gabrielle thought about denying this, as she often did, but something in Ephinys sad gaze brought her truth to the surface. Her voice was but a whisper when she spoke to her friend. "Ephiny, what if she doesnt really feel that way about me? I cant . . . it would hurt too much."
"Gabrielle, that warrior loves you like no other on this earth. Dont let this go because youre afraid . . . one day you might wake up and itll be too late."
Her appetite gone, the bard pushed the plate of food away from her and stood up. "I need to get to the arena." The bard turned to leave but a firm grip on her arm kept her in place.
"Gabrielle Im sorry. I just dont want to see you lose this chance. Something like this," Ephiny gestured toward the seat vacated by Xena, "doesnt come around too often."
The bard looked down at her feet suddenly feeling shy and awkward. "Its okay Eph. I just wish I could be as sure as you. If I ever lost her . . . her friendship . . . Id be shattered. I dont know if I can risk it." Gabrielle looked intently at the Regent, her eyes trying to plead with the Amazon to leave this alone, for now. "I need to get going."
"Okay Gabrielle but if you ever need to talk to anybody."
The bard smiled and retreated into the dusty village center.
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