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Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles, and backstory, are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea, and the story itself, are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
BARD IN A CAGE
by Barbara Davies
"This is more like it, Gabrielle. See." Xena indicated the tavern floor. "Fresh sawdust."
Gabrielle gazed dubiously at their surroundings. This place certainly didn't smell as bad as the other had, she conceded. And a sign above the bar was promising: 'Welcome to Erianthe's Tavern - please leave it as you find it!'.
Xena strode confidently towards the plump, grey-haired woman wiping down the bar counter with a clean cloth. Gabrielle followed in her wake, trying to ignore the gawps of the other customers. The warrior princess always had that effect on people.
The tavern owner stopped wiping and eyed Xena's sword, chakram, and figure-hugging leather-and-copper armour nervously.
"We'd like a room for a few days," said Xena, her tone polite.
"I don't know," said Erianthe. "You look like trouble to me."
Gabrielle joined them. "She is trouble," she said, ignoring Xena's indignant glance, "but only to evildoers. Erianthe - may I call you Erianthe? My name's Gabrielle, by the way - I'm a bard and this is Xena: Warrior Princess. When word gets round we've chosen your tavern to stay in, business will start booming. Just you wait and see."
"A bard?" said the tavern owner, intrigued. "You studied at the Academy?"
"Great place, Athens. I learned a lot there," said Gabrielle, carefully not answering the question. "Tell you what." She smiled winningly. "You let us rent one of your excellent rooms for a few days, Erianthe, and tonight I'll tell your customers some stories - free."
"Done. You can have the upstairs room at the back."
The speed and ease of her victory left Gabrielle temporarily speechless.
Xena pushed a couple of dinars across the counter. "Thanks," she said dryly.
Erianthe made the coins vanish as if by magic. "This way." She came out from behind the counter and started for the stairs.
Xena followed her. A moment later, Gabrielle hurried after them both.
"Actually," Erianthe confided, as she showed them their room - the clean bedlinen and swept floor showed Xena's confidence in her had not been misplaced - "I think I've got the best of our bargain. We haven't had a bard in Pherae for, oh, must be two years. And now I've got one performing here tonight for free!"
The look on Gabrielle's face was one Xena would treasure for days.
Xena spent most of the afternoon getting Argo looked at - her hooves were overgrown and needed trimming. She also purchased a new sharpening stone, and, on impulse, a small comb made of ivory. When she arrived back at Erianthe's Tavern it was nearly dusk and Gabrielle was getting ready for the performance.
"Do I look all right?"
Xena grunted and stowed the new whetstone in her pack.
"I take it that's a Yes?"
Abrupt silence made the warrior princess look up warily. Gabrielle was staring at her, her hands on her hips.
Xena sighed and appraised her companion. The younger woman's honey-blonde hair was freshly brushed, and she was wearing the skirt and top that emphasized the green in her eyes.
"You look fine," said Xena. She produced the comb. "Here. I got you this."
Gabrielle flushed with pleasure. "For me?" She took the comb and used it to pin back her hair, then admired the result in the mirror. "It's lovely, Xena. Thank you."
Embarrassed, Xena turned back to her pack. "It was on special offer."
"Special offer, right!" Gabrielle glanced at her reflection once more then became serious again. "Are you going to come and watch?"
"Got nothing better to do," murmured Xena.
"I heard that!" But Gabrielle's protest was half-hearted, her mind already on other things. "Now what shall I give them - Tales of a Warrior Princess? Or I could do Oedipus ... Hercules ... Odysseus even. Hmmm." She began to pace up and down.
Xena knew her friend was only speaking to herself and didn't bother to reply.
Erianthe had certainly spread the word; the tavern was packed to overflowing. A nervous Gabrielle was reassured by the presence of Xena, squashed into a far corner apparently engrossed in a mug of wine but in reality keeping an eye out for trouble.
Gabrielle quickly gained in confidence, however, when it became clear that her every tale was to be met with thunderous applause. "They love me!" she told Xena during the interval.
A passerby clapped Gabrielle too familiarly on the shoulder, and Xena prepared to defend her friend, but the fan's comments merely made Gabrielle laugh and her cheeks glow as though she'd had too much to drink. Xena shrugged and settled back in her seat.
"Isn't this just the greatest?" asked Gabrielle, wanting to share her delight.
Xena was noncommittal. "Mmmmm."
In fact, the favourable reaction of the people of Pherae had taken Xena by surprise. Gabrielle was good, but not that good! And all this adulation was making Xena nervous - sometimes Gabrielle was almost smothered by her admirers. She resolved to do nothing to lessen the joy on Gabrielle's face though. The gods knew, life on the road was joyless enough.
Xena's resolve was severely tested after the second half, when an expensively dressed young man named Cenon came up to the bard, congratulated her fulsomely on her performance, and invited her back to his place.
"Don't go," advised Xena, when Gabrielle told her about the invitation. Cenon's avid expression made Xena feel uneasy. "He looks creepy to me."
"You're just annoyed I'm getting all the attention for once," said Gabrielle, who had worked up an appetite. "He only wants to treat me to a slap up meal as a thankyou. And he can afford it so what's wrong with that? Besides," she added plaintively, "I told him the invitation must include you too."
Xena sighed and got reluctantly to her feet. "OK," she said. "Let's get this over with."
Cenon's house was only two streets away, in the fashionable district of Pherae.
"Welcome to my home." Cenon ushered Xena and Gabrielle into a spacious dining room, where a fire burned welcomingly in the hearth and two low tables, decorated with flowers, were loaded down with plates of food and jugs of wine.
Hmmmm, thought Xena. He was certainly confident Gabrielle would accept his invitation! She glanced at the numerous tapestries and intricate carvings, the expensive vases and furniture, and wondered how he made his money.
"Please, make yourselves comfortable." Cenon indicated the two couches beside the tables.
Xena settled herself on a couch, shifting up to make room for Gabrielle. She hid a smile when Cenon's annoyed look revealed he had clearly been planning to sit next to Gabrielle himself.
"This is nice," said Gabrielle, looking around her with pleasure. "Do you live here alone, Cenon?"
"Yes, apart from my servant, of course." He gave her a doleful look. "My parents were killed two years ago. An accident in our vineyard."
"How tragic," sympathized Gabrielle. "You have a vineyard?"
He nodded. "We make the best wines in the region." He turned to one of the tables and reached for a jug. "But we must toast your success tonight, Gabrielle." He sniffed the jug's contents ostentatiously, then filled three ornate goblets to the brim.
Xena raised an eyebrow. If Cenon thought he could impress them with a show of wine snobbery, he could think again.
"Drink." He handed them each a goblet.
Xena placed a restraining hand on Gabrielle's arm and watched their host take a long swallow. Satisfied he had actually drunk the stuff, she took a tentative sip from her own goblet. To her surprise, it made the wine Erianthe was serving in her tavern seem like vinegar. Perhaps Cenon's boasting was justified after all! She took a huge gulp, and pointedly ignored Gabrielle's amused glance.
"Now, what food can I get my favourite bard?" Cenon beamed at Gabrielle. "A quail's egg, perhaps? Some pork in berry sauce? A honeycake?"
Gabrielle glanced at Xena who nodded. "I'll have some of everything, please," said Gabrielle happily.
"Ooh," groaned Gabrielle when she awoke the next morning. "I think I ate too much!"
Xena finished buckling her belt. "Nobody forced you," she said unsympathetically. "I'm going down for breakfast. You coming?"
But at the mention of breakfast Gabrielle had put a hand to her mouth and was looking distinctly queasy. Xena sighed, helped Gabrielle back to bed, placed an empty bowl beside her in case she should feel the need to vomit, and left her to it.
Erianthe greeted Xena with a welcoming smile. "Is the bard coming down soon?"
"She'll be skipping breakfast this morning," said Xena, helping herself to some fresh-baked bread, mutton, and green figs.
Erianthe frowned. "But she's all right?"
"She's fine. Barding takes a lot out of her."
Erianthe looked relieved. "Only I wanted to ask her if she'd be willing do another performance tonight. I'll pay her this time of course," she added hastily. "What do you think?"
Xena shrugged. "Ask her yourself ... later."
Erianthe took the hint and let Xena finish her breakfast in peace.
Xena had intended to stay in Pherae four days at the most, but such was Gabrielle's success there she extended their stay indefinitely - Erianthe agreed to waive the rent in exchange for Gabrielle's storytelling, so there was no problem with dinars.
Though the bard was fully occupied and happy, however, the warrior princess was less so. She told herself that all the waiting around, let's face it the boredom, was worth it, if only to see that glow on Gabrielle's face, and took to riding Argo to the nearby forest and exercising energetically, keeping her muscles and battle skills honed. But as the days crawled by, Xena's restlessness grew. And one evening, eight days into their stay, she realized her edginess was due to something more than surplus energy.
Xena was watching Gabrielle pacing the little podium that Erianthe had erected for her performances when she realized, her heart sinking, that Gabrielle no longer needed her.
Everyone in Pherae loves Gabrielle, she mused. Cenon, for example, follows her like a faithful hound. She doesn't need my protection, yet what else can I offer her? I can't string a rhyme together to save my life! She felt suddenly useless. Was this what Gabrielle felt when they were on the road together? And if it was, then how could she possibly ask the bard to return to such a dangerous and unfulfilling life?
Gloom descended on the warrior princess like a veil. "Erianthe," she signalled the tavern owner a little desperately. "More wine."
Gabrielle touched Xena gently on the forearm. "Are you all right?"
The bard might have been run off her feet for the last few days but she wasn't blind. Even if Erianthe hadn't told her, she would have noticed that the warrior princess was drinking more than usual. Last night, Xena had even tried - fortunately without success - to pick a fight with some of Erianthe's more thuggish customers. Something must be wrong.
Xena pushed her breakfast round her plate again then looked up blearily. "I'm fine, Gabrielle." She forced a smile. "I'm just not sleeping well. Maybe the bed's too soft."
Gabrielle didn't believe for one minute that this was all about soft beds. She held Xena's gaze. "You can tell me what's wrong, you know."
The warrior princess was the first to blink. She opened her mouth to reply -
"And this is the bard everyone's talking about." Erianthe's voice made Gabrielle jump and Xena's mouth close with a snap. They had been so engrossed they hadn't heard the tavern owner approach.
Two young men were with Erianthe, one held out a hand eagerly to Gabrielle. "I must tell you how much I -" he began.
"Just a minute," said Gabrielle exasperatedly. "I'm talking to Xena."
But the moment had passed, and when she turned back to Xena and prompted her, "You were saying ...?" the warrior princess merely shook her head tiredly and excused herself, saying she had to get some sword practice in.
"I'll catch you later, then?" called Gabrielle after her departing friend. But an indecipherable grunt was her only reply. With a sigh Gabrielle turned her attention to her new admirers.
Xena was absent all that day, but Gabrielle consoled herself that she would eventually turn up - she always did. During the performance that night, however, when she glanced across to the corner of the tavern where Xena usually sat, she realized with a start that the warrior was missing.
Her thoughts in a whirl - had the warrior at last got herself into some trouble she couldn't handle? - she brought forward the interval and rushed up the stairs to their room. Finding Xena passed out drunk would have been bad enough, but what met Gabrielle's gaze was much, much worse: the room was empty, and Xena's pack was gone.
Apprehensively Gabrielle reached for the note left on her pillow, and struggled to decipher Xena's familiar scrawl.
I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me. It's for the best. I don't belong here, but you do.
When Erianthe finally came to find out what was keeping Gabrielle, she found the young bard weeping inconsolably on the bed.
Xena had made Argo gallop out of Pherae as though the Harpies were on her tail. She wanted to be as far away as possible when Gabrielle read her leaving note, otherwise the bard would come after her and convince her to return ... and she couldn't allow that.
No matter how fast she rode, however, she couldn't outrun her thoughts. And as the outskirts of the town vanished behind her, she found that part of her was hoping Gabrielle would come after her. She shook off that treacherous thought. It's for her own good, she told herself grimly. Then she sighed. Why then did she feel as if she'd done something unforgivable?
When the forest loomed up ahead, Xena allowed an indignant Argo to slow to a more reasonable pace. Already the first stars glittered faintly overhead. She would camp in a clearing tonight, she decided, and tomorrow take the coast road to Pagasae. There would be people who needed her there, wrongs to put right.
Feeling slightly better now she had a plan, Xena rode on into the gathering darkness.
Erianthe stayed with Gabrielle for a little while before going back downstairs to tell the audience that the performance was cancelled - even upstairs Gabrielle could hear the chorus of catcalls. Some time later, Erianthe reappeared.
Gabrielle sat up eagerly. "Is she back?"
The tavern owner shook her head. "Sorry." She held out an ornate goblet that looked vaguely familiar to Gabrielle. "Cenon sent you this. He says it might make you feel better." She sniffed. "Though what's wrong with my wine, I'd like to know?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "That was kind of him." Mechanically, she took the goblet and placed it on the chest beside the bed. "Will you thank him for me, Erianthe?"
"Of course." Erianthe paused and regarded her anxiously. "Gabrielle?" Her voice was tentative.
"I could go after Xena, you know. Maybe if I -"
"No!" For a moment, anger wiped away all other emotion, then the hurt returned stronger than ever. "No," said Gabrielle tiredly. "Thank you, Erianthe. But she's made her decision; she won't change her mind."
Erianthe forced a smile. "Then get some sleep, Gabrielle. Maybe it'll all look better in the morning."
"I doubt it."
Gabrielle awoke with an aching head. I'm still asleep, she thought, gazing confusedly at her strange surroundings. I'm dreaming I'm a bird in a cage!
But as the light brightened, and the outlines of the wooden bars became clearer, and the room beyond the cage enclosing her came into view - a cellar with a single window near its ceiling and steps leading to a door - she realized that she had woken to a nightmare. Abruptly her headache worsened and she massaged her temples.
She had drunk the wine Cenon sent her, she remembered muzzily. It had tasted slightly bitter, but she had ascribed that to too much crying. She had barely taken two mouthfuls before sleep overcame her -
He drugged me, she realized, appalled. If only I'd listened when Xena ... Memory returned in full flood, and her chest seemed to clench itself like a fist. For one panicky moment she was unable to breathe, then the spasm eased. "Oh, Xena," she groaned. "Where are you when I need you?"
Somewhere a door creaked open, and footsteps descended steps then came towards her. She looked up, wiping the tears from her eyes.
An expensively dressed young man with a wisp of beard smiled brightly at her. "Hello, Gabrielle."
"You don't seem surprised to see me." He looked disappointed.
"No," she said dully. "Why have you kidnapped me?"
"I've always wanted my own personal bard." He sounded as though it were the most reasonable thing in the world.
He fetched a three-legged stool from a corner, made himself comfortable on it, and looked at her expectantly. "Tell me a story, Gabrielle."
He frowned, then gave her a calculating look. "You must be thirsty."
And hungry, thought Gabrielle, and she could do with a bath too. Whatever Cenon had used to carry her in from Erianthe's Tavern - an old carpet by the smell of it - hadn't been any too clean. "I might be," she hedged.
"If you tell me a story, I'll get you some breakfast. Deal?"
Gabrielle considered for a moment. "All right," she said at last. "I'll tell you one story, no more ... and only after I've had breakfast." She folded her arms and waited.
To her relief, Cenon smiled, nodded once, then rose. "I won't be long."
Xena had slept badly, her thoughts in turmoil, fighting an overwhelming urge to head back to Pherae. She was glad when the sun came up and she could give up all pretence of trying to sleep. She ate a quick, tasteless breakfast, doused the fire's embers, saddled Argo, and prepared to ride out.
It was the silence that was the worst, she realized, after she'd been on the road for an hour. She actually missed the bard's constant prattling! Well, she grimaced at the thought, she was just going to have to get used to it, because that was how it was going to be from now on.
But as the day wore on, she had to admit that it wasn't just the silence that drained all pleasure from her journey. She had once told someone that Gabrielle was 'like family', and now she realized that that rather glib comment was the simple truth. Gabrielle had forced her way into Xena's life and reshaped it, and now there was a gaping hole where she used to be.
When, soon after noon, a tearful looking boy erupted from a tangle of vegetation and yelled to Xena that his village was being attacked, it was frankly a relief to have something other than Gabrielle to think about for a change.
"You're not trying," said Cenon, his tone peevish.
Gabrielle put her hands on her hips and glared at him. "You try telling stories convincingly when you're not in the mood," she ground out. "You think you're a man of such taste and refinement, don't you, Cenon, but you don't understand the first thing about barding! How can I put my heart and soul into it when I'm hot and tired and in fear of my life?" Not to mention, she thought, before she could suppress the stab of pain, missing Xena.
Cenon frowned. "All right," he conceded. "We'll take a break for an hour. Then will you tell me another story?"
"We'll see," said Gabrielle.
Xena found it surprisingly easy to solve the boy's problem. The 'warlord' attacking his village turned out to be a petty bandit with delusions of grandeur. He'd never come up against the likes of Xena before and soon he was nursing a broken head, his men suffering from various gashes and broken limbs.
Xena used her knowledge of pressure points to cut off the blood supply to his brain and ordered him to leave the village never to return or die a painful death. It took him precisely two seconds to weigh up the odds and agree.
When the last of the beaten raiders had limped off, the cheering villagers invited the warrior princess to a celebration feast in her honour. She declined as gracefully as she could, however, mounted Argo, and rode swiftly away.
She wasn't in the mood to celebrate. She wondered if she would ever be in the mood again.
It had been a long, tiring day, but Gabrielle had never felt less like sleeping. Cenon had retired for the night, so she was alone at last. As she paced - the cage allowed her only three paces each way - she considered her situation.
It was no good dwelling on the shocking carelessness that had got her into this mess - some of which could be ascribed to her distress at reading Xena's note, but not all - she had to do something. By now, surely, Erianthe would have noticed her absence. But would the tavern owner alert anyone, or would she merely think Gabrielle had run off without paying her bill? And without Xena to rescue her - she bit her lip and refused to think about that for the moment - she must find a way out of this on her own.
When the morning sun crept through the cellar's window, it found Gabrielle examining every inch of her cage. The bars were thick, made of hardwood - curse Cenon and his expensive tastes! - but given time (how much time before he grew tired of her? she wondered apprehensively) perhaps one could be sawn through.
It would help immensely, of course, if she had a saw. She sighed, flopped listlessly on the straw-strewn floor, curled up, and allowed her eyelids to droop ...
How long she had been dozing, Gabrielle had no idea. When she awoke she was lying face down, and something hard was pressing into her cheek. She spat straw from her mouth, sat up groggily, and gazed at the offending article - the little ivory comb must have worked itself loose from her hair while she slept. Tears smeared her vision as she gazed at Xena's present. They had been happy, then. Who could have foreseen -
Abruptly she was wide awake, her pulse racing. Thoughtfully she ran her thumb along the comb's tiny row of teeth. She would have to be very careful, or they would break, but it could work, couldn't it? It must work.
Now, if she could just make sure Cenon didn't notice what she was doing ...
"Xena. Xena. Where are you?"
The warrior princess emerged silently from her hiding place, startling the plump, grey-haired woman who had minutes ago barged into her camp.
"Thank the gods," said Erianthe, her frown easing. "The villagers said you came this way. It's Gabrielle."
Xena sheathed her sword and kept her expression calm, though inside her nerves were shrieking. "Gabrielle?"
"She missed last night's performance," explained Erianthe. "I thought at first she was simply too distressed to go on, but I checked her room. She's missing, Xena."
"I see." Xena stored the mention of Gabrielle's distress for later consideration. "Her pack?"
"Still in her room. That's how I knew she hadn't skipped town without paying."
"You were right to come after me," said Xena tersely. "You rode here?" She kicked dirt on the fire, then strode across the clearing and began to saddle Argo.
Erianthe, who had trailed behind her, nodded. "I borrowed an old nag from a friend. It's tethered by the roadside."
Xena pulled Argo's cinchstrap tight. "It'll be quicker if I go on ahead," she said. "You'll be all right riding back alone, Erianthe?"
Without further ado, Xena swung herself up into the saddle.
"Tell me a story," ordered Cenon, his cheeks flushing an angry red.
Gabrielle shook her head. She had vowed to speak not another word until he released her, and, no matter how he tricked her, she wasn't going to break her vow.
It was a dangerous strategy, she knew. But if she annoyed him enough, he might tire of her and release her. And if that didn't work, his rage would make him less likely to notice her other escape attempt, the one involving the comb.
She had selected one of the bars at the side and rear of the cage where the shadows were deepest. At the moment, a wisp of straw, held in place with spit, hid the tiny groove she had made. Progress was painfully slow, but it was progress ... and if nothing else it gave her hope, made the ordeal easier to bear.
Cenon slammed his fist against the bars, and she stepped back, warily.
"You are my bard," he shouted. "You will do as I say!"
I am not 'yours', she wanted to protest, but managed to restrain herself. He won't harm you, she told herself, trying to still her pounding heart ... or not much anyway. Bards are too scarce a commodity and where would he find a replacement?
He hit the bars again. "Speak," he roared.
Gabrielle examined her fingernails. They could do with a good clean, she noted. And a trim.
Abruptly Cenon turned away, stormed across the cellar and up the steps. At the top, he paused and look back at her.
"Until you obey me, bard," he hissed, "no food or water. Let's see how you like that." He slammed the door shut behind him.
Xena pounded up the tavern stairs, flung open the door of the room she had shared with Gabrielle, and stalked across to the bed.
She pulled back the blanket, and pressed the back of her hand against the mattress then the pillow - both felt stone cold. Noone had slept here last night, she decided. She heaved Gabrielle's pack from its place by the wall, and ran her fingers over it. A thin film of dust transferred itself to her fingertips. Noone had used the pack recently either.
She slammed her fist against a wall. I should never have left Gabrielle, she thought bitterly. If she's safe and I find her I swear by all the gods I'll never let her out of my sight again! She sighed and turned back to her task.
Methodically, the warrior princess began to examine the room for clues. She had come up empty handed and was pacing up and down in frustration when her boot hit something that had rolled under the bed, sending it skidding across the floor. It hit the wall with a clank. Her eyes narrowed when she saw what it was: an ornate goblet. She recognized the design immediately.
In two strides she had picked up the goblet, sniffed its crusted interior, and touched a forefinger to the dried remains. She licked her finger gingerly then gagged at the bitterness and spat hastily.
Moments later, Xena was striding down the street toward the fashionable quarter, the look on her face making passersby give her a wide berth.
Much as Xena would have loved to break down Cenon's front door, knock him flat, and kill him - he deserved a slow and painful death for what he'd done to Gabrielle - she decided a more cautious approach would be wise. So she hid across the street from his house, gritting her teeth, waiting for an opportune moment.
It was midafternoon when it came. The servant had just gone out shopping, then the front door opened and Cenon himself emerged. He looked angry about something, but Xena didn't stop to ponder what it might be. As soon as he disappeared round a corner, she was easing the front door open with her breast dagger.
She stepped into the gloomy hall, her senses alert for the slightest sound, and gently closed the door behind her. Silence met her. As she had hoped, nobody was home.
It took only a few minutes for Xena to search the house from top to bottom. There were six rooms in all, and no sign of Gabrielle in any of them. She cursed fluently and started over. In the kitchen she found goblets matching the one found in Erianthe's Tavern; Xena suppressed the urge to dash them to pieces on the stone tiles and continued her search. Time was slipping away. Cenon would be back soon.
She ran her fingers through her hair, trying to think. She had missed something, she must have. But what? Absently she glanced out the window; the kitchen overlooked a small herb garden. Something about the garden ... or the window? She frowned. While waiting outside, she had counted seven windows in all. Yet there were only six rooms. She closed her eyes, trying to picture the house. Yes. There it was. A single window at ground level. Which meant ... a cellar!
Feverishly, she began to search the rooms on the ground floor for a third time, this time tapping every wall and examining inside every cupboard. It was in the kitchen that she found it.
At the back of the larder was another door. She was just about to open it when she heard the unmistakable sound of Cenon's return.
It was lucky the cellar door creaked so loudly, thought Gabrielle, hastily replacing the comb in her hair. It made a perfect early warning system. She composed herself, and glanced across the room. The person standing at the top of the steps wasn't Cenon.
"Xena!" She lurched forward, grabbing the bars of her cage door tightly.
The warrior princess had leaped down the stairs and was standing in front of her before the bard could catch her breath.
"Shhh." Xena's hand brushed Gabrielle's fingers. "Cenon's back."
Even as the warrior princess spoke her eyes were scanning the cellar for a hiding place. There weren't any. She frowned, and turned her attention to the cage itself. There was a gap between the top of it and the cellar ceiling. Cenon might not look up there for a while. It would have to do. She leaped, pulling herself up the last few inches by sheer brute strength.
A startled Gabrielle watched Xena squeeze into the cramped space above and tuck in first one long leg, then the other. The cellar door creaked loudly.
"Distract him," hissed the warrior princess.
Cenon trotted down the cellar steps, his expression one Gabrielle had last seen on a used chariot salesman. "I've brought something nice for you, Gabrielle," he oozed, holding out a basket. "Quails' eggs. You like them, don't you?"
"They're OK." She realized, at the same moment as Cenon, that she had broken her vow of silence.
A broad smile spread over his face. "I knew you'd come around," he said.
In the space above the cage, Xena eased herself stealthily into position for a jump.
"I was just testing you," agreed Gabrielle. It was hard keeping her gaze off Xena. "A bard never likes to be taken for granted."
"So, now that's sorted out, you'll tell me a story then?" He licked his lips eagerly.
"All right," said Gabrielle. "Pull up your stool."
Cenon had put down the basket of quails' eggs and was reaching for the stool when Xena leaped on him. The stool was about as much use to him as a parchment shield; seconds later, he was stretched out unconscious on the cellar floor. Xena turned back to the cage.
"Hmmmm," she said, eying the bard. "First time I've seen a bard in a cage!"
Gabrielle ignored the joke. "Quickly, Xena. Get me out before he comes round."
Xena glanced at Cenon and shrugged. "That won't be for a while," she said. "I think I broke his jaw." She worked on the cage door lock with her breast dagger for a moment. "There, got it." The door swung open, and she and Gabrielle gazed awkwardly at one another.
Gabrielle found she was frozen to the spot. "You came back for me, then," she managed eventually. To her annoyance, her voice trembled.
"Of course," said Xena. "Come on." She held out a hand.
Gabrielle didn't take it. "Come where?" she asked instead.
"Back to Erianthe's."
"And what will we do when we get to Erianthe's?" persisted Gabrielle.
Xena shrugged. "Get your pack and head out. But first you have to do that performance you missed. There are angry customers demanding their money back."
Anger wiped away Gabrielle's tearfulness. 'Head out'. As though nothing had happened! "I see," she said coldly.
"Gabrielle," said Xena uneasily. "Come on, let's go. Everything's all right now."
"Really! You run off and leave me, but now you're back so that's all right then, is it?"
"Isn't it?" To Xena's embarrassment, her voice cracked.
The edge of Gabrielle's anger was instantly blunted by the warrior princess's distress. She sighed. "Oh, Xena! What am I going to do with you?" She stepped forward and hugged her friend hard; Xena returned the hug with interest.
After a moment, Gabrielle reluctantly released her grip and stood back. "We have to talk about this, Xena. We can't just pretend it didn't happen."
"I know." Xena examined her hands.
"I've been so angry with you."
Xena's voice was almost inaudible. "You had every right."
"You made a major decision," continued Gabrielle doggedly, "without consulting me. You assumed you knew what was best for me, but you didn't. You can't go doing things like that, Xena. People get hurt."
"I found that out," admitted Xena. "So ... what do you want, Gabrielle? You know I can't offer you what you've got here in Pherae." She braced herself for the answer.
"You idiot." Gabrielle felt almost lightheaded with relief now the worst was over. "Pherae has been a great experience for me ... who wouldn't enjoy all that praise? But it isn't for real. Sure, one day I want to be a bard. But not yet. That's my back-up plan for when -" she cleared her throat "- if anything happens to you."
"Oh!" Xena looked thoughtful.
"In the meantime I like being on the road with you. Is that so hard to understand?"
The warrior princess felt her cheeks redden with pleasure. She grinned self-consciously at Gabrielle then glanced back at the now empty cage. "As a matter of interest," she said. "How did you intend getting out of there? I assume you were planning to escape?"
"Of course!" For now, Gabrielle let Xena change the subject. "I was sawing through the bars, with this." Proudly, she held out the little ivory comb.
Xena gazed at the comb's few remaining teeth, already worn away to half their length. "It's a good job I stopped by," she said dryly.
Gabrielle ignored the remark and stepped over Cenon's prone body. "Come on." She picked up the basket of quails' eggs and headed for the stairs. "Erianthe's, remember. Angry customers etc. etc."
"Right." Xena stooped and heaved the unconscious Cenon over her shoulder. "And we have a delivery to make to the jail on the way."
At the top of the stairs, Gabrielle paused, peeled an egg and popped it on her mouth. "Hey, these are really good," she called. "Want one?"
"Later, maybe," grunted Xena. "You may have noticed I've got my hands full at the moment!"
"They're really good," said Gabrielle. "Say what you like about Cenon, he has excellent taste."
"Of course he does," said Xena, starting up the stairs. "Why else would he choose you as his personal bard?"
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