Part 3 of 3 (Conclusion)
By Maggie (AcerMMG@aol.com) and PeriBear (firstname.lastname@example.org)
DISCLAIMER: Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Cyrene and Argo are the property of MCA/Universal and no copyright infringement is intended here. All other characters, and all story plots, included here come from the fertile imaginations of the authors.
NOTE: This was a collaborative effort; comments, kudos and critiques may be submitted to either, or both, names above.
We just thought that having 'a day' was so great, how about having a whole week? So, we decided to find out. It begins with ......
DAY SIX: LE REVENGEANCE (THE REVENGE)
by Maggie & Peribear
"You doing okay?" Gabrielle asked and craned her neck to look up at her tall, dark companion.
"Yeah," Xena grunted slightly as she pulled Argo to a stop in front of the inn.
After finally regaining the use of her legs after the huge branch had pinned her to the ground during the earthquake, paralyzing her for a 16-hour period, Xena's amazing recuperative powers had been at work.
She was better than anyone else, under similar circumstances, would have been. She was able to walk, although not easily and not without a certain amount of pain; she was able to ride Argo, although at no more than a very slow pace.
Riding was less painful than walking, so, that morning, she'd gingerly mounted the mare and Gabrielle had kept a careful watch of the road, ensuring the mare didn't step in a rut or do anything else that might accidentally jar her passenger.
The warrior was not even wearing her armor. The fallen branch had not only traumatized the spinal cord, it had left such a livid, painful, diagonal bruise across her back that merely donning her snug-fitting leathers had been a chore. The armor was out of the question.
Therefore, Gabrielle had insisted they detour to a nearby village for a little vacation and to spend that day and night at the inn there. Despite her friend's objections, she knew the warrior had not slept well the night before and that sleeping on the ground would considerably slow her recuperation. Knowing the bard was right, Xena had acquiesced.
"You sure we can afford this?" the warrior asked. "We have to buy supplies, you know."
"I know, but I also know you'll get better a lot faster if you can sleep in a bed instead of the hard, rocky ground ... even if only for one night."
Xena carefully and slowly swung her right leg over Argo's rump. Gabrielle reached up to grasp the warrior's waist and braced her friend's descent.
Feet at last on the ground, the dark-haired woman turned to the little blonde. "But you didn't get much rest last night either," she said, her bronze face grimacing in pain.
"Sure I did," the bard remarked, a thin smile on her face.
"No, you didn't," the warrior countered firmly. "I slept more than you did. Every time I even considered moving, you were up and across the campsite before I could finish the thought."
"Well, you were --"
"And then there were the times when I simply rolled over in my sleep and was awakened by the quiet, gentle sounds of your 'Ow! Ow! Ow!' as you rushed to my assistance ... which, I would just like to point out for the record, I didn't need."
"Oh, Zeus, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to --"
"I know, I know," the warrior said touching the girl's arm. "It's okay. All I'm saying is you didn't get much sleep either."
"Well ... okay," the girl said, giving in.
"Okay, you're right. But it doesn't matter. I can take a nap. A nap!" the bard cooed. "In the middle of the day." The girl's eyes glazed over dreamily at the prospect.
Blinking slowly, Xena waited tolerantly, not wanting to interrupt the girl's enthusiastic anticipation of such a rare treat.
"Besides," the little blonde continued, pulling herself back to reality, "you know me, I'll tell a few stories and we'll have plenty of money. Either way, we can afford to stay here today and tonight at least and still have enough left over for supplies." Her eyes brightened. "You know how good I am at haggling. C'mon," she added, touching her friend's arm. "We'll be fine."
Xena nodded, knowing the bard was right on all counts, and the two entered the inn.
"Grab a table and order some breakfast," the bard said. "I'll go arrange for a room"
Gabrielle approached the bartender, who, as it turned out, was also the owner of the inn. After some initial bantering, an important preliminary to the bargaining process, in the bard's opinion, she got down to some serious haggling and, in a short time, she and the innkeeper had agreed upon a price reasonable for him and affordable for the two women.
Feeling extremely proud of herself, Gabrielle turned, located Xena and headed for their table. So pleased was she with her bargaining prowess, she almost didn't notice her friend's suspicious behavior.
The warrior had two bowls of some sort of porridge in front of her, but, the moment she noticed the bard's approach, she quickly shoved one across the table, surreptitiously placed an unknown object in the bodice of her leathers, then nonchalantly began eating from the bowl remaining in front of her.
"What're you up to?" Gabrielle asked suspiciously as she slid onto the chair opposite her companion.
"What d'you mean?"
"What'd you put in this?" the bard asked again, carefully inspecting her bowl's contents.
"Nothing. Why would I put something in your breakfast?" the warrior said, then added, "It's really good, by the way. You're going to love it." With that, she spooned some more into her mouth, then looked up to see two suspicious, green eyes trained on her. "What?"
"Oh, you think you're so clever, don't you?"
"Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I do," Xena said, smiling, "but what does that have to do with the price of tomatoes?"
"Don't pull that innocent act with me. I know you too well."
"What are you talking about?"
"You said you were going to get back at me for teasing you so much about Saaasssyy --"
"Keep your voice down, will you?" the warrior said and took a quick look around to make sure no one else had heard, which, of course, no one had since they were the tavern's only customers at that hour.
"-- and laughing at you when we were with your mother and when the skunk got you, but you are so lame. What'd you put in here?" The bard picked up her spoon and started poking around in her bowl. "Henbane? Some clever little surprise? Something to keep me running to the little bard's room all day?"
Xena stopped eating and turned hurt-filled eyes to her friend. "How can you say that? I would never put anything like that in your food."
"Oh, you're getting to be quite the actress, aren't you? 'I would never put anything like that in your food'," the bard mimicked her friend, then waved the waitress over. "Ha! You'll have to do better than that."
"Is there something else I can get for you?" the woman asked.
"Yes," Gabrielle said and slid her bowl toward the matron. "Another bowl of porridge, please."
"Is there something wrong with this one?" the woman asked, concern clouding her eyes.
"No. Not a thing," the blonde said. "I'd just rather have a different bowl and a fresh serving."
The waitress turned puzzled eyes to the warrior, who gave her a don't-ask-me look as she ladled more food into her mouth. Finally, the woman shrugged, picked up Gabrielle's bowl and withdrew.
"So," Xena said, "I take it we can afford to stay."
The warrior's eyes followed the befuddled waitress. As the matron passed the innkeeper, the man stopped her and looked down at the bowl of food, a proprietary scowl covering his worn face. While the warrior watched, the two engaged in a spirited discussion, which involved the man's silent question concerning the full bowl and the woman's answer: a confused gesture toward Gabrielle. The two looked at the bard, then back at each other, before the woman carried the bowl back into the kitchen.
The bard's voice drew Xena's attention back to the table. "Yeah. Not only did I get us a room, but the innkeeper threw in all our meals. So don't take advantage of his generosity and my haggling talents by tampering with my food again. Okay?"
"For the last time, I did not put anything in your food!" the warrior said, her voice displaying impatience with this game.
"Right. Sure," the bard said, obviously not believing the warrior's protestations of innocence.
"Oh, I give up," Xena said and returned her attention to the bowl in front of her.
A few moments later, the matron returned to the table and placed another full bowl in front of the bard. The girl slid both hands around the vessel, drawing it protectively towards her, green eyes turned smugly to the warrior.
Xena rolled her eyes upward and spooned the last of her porridge into her mouth. She followed that with a bite of bread, then took a drink of water from her mug.
The bard was enjoying her breakfast when she turned to notice a young man pass their table, struggling with two full buckets of steaming water.
"Oh, good. They remembered," the little blonde said.
"The hot water for your bath."
"My bath?" Xena's brows rose under her bangs.
"Yeah, I thought you and your back might enjoy a long, hot soak." The green eyes trained on the warrior's face were soft and caring.
The dark-haired woman smiled. "Yeah ... I'm beginning to like this vacation idea of yours more and more." She covered the bard's hand with her own. "Thanks," she said sincerely.
The little blonde smiled. After a moment, she tilted her head slightly. "Now, can we just forget about this revenge nonsense?"
Xena's smile grew wider as she patted the small hand in hers "Oh, I already have," she said, then stood up stiffly, putting a tentative hand to her injured back. "Now that you mention it," she said, grimacing slightly, "a long, hot bath is sounding better and better. What room are we in?"
The bard told her and the warrior moved slowly toward the stairs. She'd taken only a few steps when she stopped and exhaled exasperatedly. "Damn," she said under her breath and turned tiredly towards the front door.
The bard's voice stopped her. "No, no, no," the girl said around a mouthful of bread. "You go ahead. When I'm finished here, I'll bring our stuff up."
Xena sent a grateful look to her friend, then turned and disappeared up the stairs, her hand still supporting her sore back.
Gabrielle emptied the bowl in front of her, drained her mug, stood up and moved toward the front door. When she reached the entrance, the girl turned quickly and hurried back to the table just as the innkeeper's wife had arrived to clear it.
When the woman lifted the tray stacked with utensils, mugs and a plate of uneaten rolls, the bard snatched up the bread with both hands, smiled brightly at the woman and said, "These are really good." Then she turned and walked quickly out the door.
The innkeeper's wife watched, bemused, as the door closed slowly behind the bard. "Thank you," she said quietly and turned towards the kitchen, slowly shaking her head.
A little later, the warrior met an extremely happy bard, her cheeks bulging with muffin, in the hallway outside their room. Xena stopped and watched as the bard nodded and walked right past. She shook her head and continued on her way.
"Hey, wait a minute. Where're you going?" the dark-haired woman heard from behind her. She turned to answer the question, then tightened her focus on the bard's face. As she approached the girl, hand outstretched, Gabrielle rapidly back-peddled and said, "Oh, no you don't ... what?"
Xena stopped, turning her palms outward, and trained a barely tolerant look at her friend. "I'm just going to get Argo settled. I'll be right back." She turned again and walked away. As the warrior disappeared around the corner, the bard heard her friend's commander voice: "Wash your face!"
Gabrielle pulled the back of one hand across her mouth, then turned to walk into the room. Suddenly, she stopped and jumped back, peering suspiciously at the partially open door, then muttered under her breath, "Nice try, Xena, but it didn't work."
The girl took a step back and, delivering a kick the warrior would have applauded, propelled the door open with such force that it slammed into the wall behind it.
"Hey!" came a disembodied voice from a neighboring room. "Keep it down, will you?"
Tentatively, Gabrielle entered the room, glancing up cautiously to inspect the area above the entrance. Finding nothing unusual, she deposited the saddlebags next to one of the beds, propped her staff in a corner and turned to close the door.
It was then her eyes fell upon the two empty buckets standing next to the steaming bathtub. She walked to the doorway and peeked down the hall, turning first in one direction, then the other, and gently, quietly closed the door.
Later that morning, Xena sat cross-legged on her bed combing through her long, wet hair. The warrior wore a clean, white shift and relaxed easily, one of the soft, full pillows tucked behind her. She turned to see the bard enjoying the fresh, hot water in the tub and her face lit in a subtle grin.
"A vacation ... what a good idea," the bard purred lazily, sinking lower into the steaming water. "We should do this more often." The girl closed her eyes and laid her head against the edge of the tub.
The warrior slid carefully off the pallet and padded toward the saddlebags hanging at the end of Gabrielle's bed. She pulled out an apple and an orange, turned back to the girl in the tub, then stepped towards the bard, the apple in her outstretched hand. Just as Xena was about to offer the fruit to her friend, Gabrielle's eyes drifted open.
In an instant, the bard quickly reached down beside the tub and grabbed her staff. She stood up abruptly, weapon poised and ready, splashing water over the floor and dousing the warrior's bare feet.
"Don't even think about it!" the little bard growled, taking her best defense stance.
Xena halted, looked down at her wet feet, then looked back up at the bard. She gazed calmly at the apple and said, "Ooookay, I guess this means you'd rather have the orange." She pulled the apple back and held out her other hand.
Chagrined, Gabrielle looked at the orange in Xena's hand. She blinked several times, then swallowed hard. "Oh ... yes, please," she said softly, lowering her staff and accepting the orange.
The warrior's subtle frown was not unnoticed by the bard. "What?" she asked nervously, looking at the orange in her hand.
Xena slowly chewed a bite of the apple, her eyes traveling over the bard's dripping form. "Aren't you cold, standing there all wet?" she asked casually, turning calmly to walk back to her bed.
As the bard slowly sank down into the water, she positioned her staff across the tub's circular edge, then began to pull back the peel on the orange. The warrior's rhythmic crunching accompanied the gentle splashing in the tub.
When the bard had a handful of orange peel, she turned toward the open window and tossed the rind through the opening. She returned her attention to her task, unaware that the warrior had finished her apple and was aiming the core towards the same opening.
Without pausing, Xena tossed the apple core at the window, but, due to the slight stiffness still present in her back, the core bounced off the sill and traveled unchecked into one of the bard's leather boots.
"Oh, dammit," the warrior muttered, starting to get off the bed.
"What?" Gabrielle asked, seeing the discomfort on her friend's face.
"I missed the window."
"Stay put," the bard instructed. "I'll get it when I get out of the tub."
"Thanks," the warrior said, replacing the pillow behind her. She pulled the light coverlet over her torso, closed her eyes and relaxed.
When Gabrielle had licked the last of the juice from her fingers, she rinsed her hands in the water, stepped out of the tub, dried herself off and began to dress. She sat down on her bed to put on her boots, pulling the left one on first. When she pushed her right foot into the remaining boot, her toes came into contact with the errant apple core tossed by the warrior.
The girl's eyes widened in fright. She screamed loudly, jumped up and threw the boot out the open window. The warrior sat bolt upright, grabbing her back in pain. "Oh, OW! Dammit!" She turned sharply to the girl. "What?!"
The bard spun around and, fists on her hips, glared angrily at her startled friend. "Don't you oh-ow-dammit-what me!" she yelled accusingly. "What did you put in my boot?!"
"It was the --" the warrior began.
"Honestly!" the bard sputtered. "You have conquered nations! You've led armies! And now you've succumbed to this childish, infantile need for revenge!"
The little blonde stomped about the room, her only boot striking an odd syncopation on the wooden floor.
"Gabrielle --" Xena tried again, her blue eyes following the furious little bard.
"Well, it won't work. You may have many skills, but so do I and you have met your match on this one, lady!" The bard marched back toward the warrior to stand defiantly at the side of the bed.
"Lady?" the warrior echoed, her eyes wide in surprise.
"You heard me!"
"Gabrielle!" Xena said firmly, sitting up a bit straighter. "It was the apple core. Remember? I told you about it not five minutes ago."
The bard's stance slowly changed as a deep, clear, crimson blush rose steadily to cover her face. "Oh," the girl whispered in a very tiny voice. "The apple core."
The little blonde looked down at the single boot she wore, then walked slowly toward the open window. She leaned out to try to locate her missing boot, then grimaced when she saw the innkeeper below the window, holding her boot and rubbing his head.
"You okay?" she shouted down at him as he turned an irritated glower her way. "Sorry about that." She sent him her best smile. "I'll be right down to get ... it."
Gabrielle turned and walked towards the door, her eyes avoiding the warrior's. As she crossed the room, Xena heard the whispered comment, "Boy, I'll bet that smarted."
The dark-haired woman waited until the door closed behind the departing bard before giving free rein to the giant laugh bubbling within her. As the latch closed, the warrior fell back against the pillow, laughing openly, one hand again clutching her aching back.
Downstairs in the tavern, the bard was met by the innkeeper, who returned the girl's airborne boot to her. She sat down on one of the empty benches and pulled it on, smiling widely as the bewildered man, with his wife at his side, watched.
Now wearing both boots, the little blonde stood and decided some sort of explanation for her unusual behavior might be in order. Adopting her best bard's tone, she turned to the couple, laughing softly as she began her story.
"You're probably wondering why I threw my boot out the window," she said, chuckling openly to coax her audience to do the same. "It's really a very funny story. You're going to get a kick out of this. You see, my friend...." she began, then stopped and cleared her throat nervously. "Well, we've had some very unusual...." She stopped again.
The girl studied the less than appreciative looks she was receiving from the man and his wife, then decided against continuing with what would be, at best, a wildly fantastic tale.
"Never mind," she said, her smile fading slowly, but surely. "I guess you had to be there. But thanks for bringing in my boot," she added sheepishly and left the tavern, her head held high.
When she returned to the room, she found the warrior asleep, one long arm supporting her head, her face peacefully at rest. The bard crossed the room quietly and stretched out on her back on the other pallet, her hands clasped behind her head. She stared up at the ceiling, her senses alert, her mind rattled with nervous anticipation.
The little blonde smiled, a sense of pride calming her slightly. 'I'm still okay,' she thought proudly. 'So far I've beaten her at her own game. If I just stay alert until morning, maybe she'll forget about the whole thing.'
The girl glanced quickly at her sleeping companion, then stared at the ceiling again. She let out a little sigh and felt her body relax a bit.
The warrior's eyes drifted open slowly and her focus darted quickly to the girl on the other bed. A tiny smile graced her lips as her eyes closed again.
An hour later, as the two were finishing lunch, the warrior wiped her hands on her napkin and leaned forward. "My back feels alot better," she told the girl. "I'm going to go check on Argo. Why don't you go take your nap and I'll be back in a little while."
Xena stood and gathered the soft, woolen robe that had been provided with the bathtub, turned and strode out the door towards the stable.
Gabrielle finished her stew, drained the mug of water and stood. As she started toward the stairs, wondrous thoughts of her upcoming nap filling her mind, her stomach gently nudged at her. She retraced her steps back to find the innkeeper's wife clearing their table.
As the woman stacked the various containers and utensils on her tray, she looked up and recognized Gabrielle. Her eyes returned to the table and the remaining muffin. Wordlessly, she picked up the plate and held it out to the little blonde, who smiled, took the solitary roll and said, "They really are very good." Then the girl turned and walked toward the stairs as the woman watched.
Gabrielle walked up the stairs in a dreamy trance. When she reached their door, she opened it, crossed the room and sat on her bed. Placing the muffin on the coverlet next to her, she leaned forward to unlace her boots. As her weight shifted, the muffin rolled slowly towards her, coming to rest lightly against her hip.
When she felt the gentle thump, the bard flew off the bed, her feet not touching the floor until they came to rest next to the other pallet. She stared breathlessly as the muffin continued to roll across the covers and finally dropped off onto the floor. Her heart pounded wildly as she envisioned the hungry creature she was sure the warrior had released under the coverlet.
The girl grabbed her staff from the corner where she'd stashed it and leveled a mighty blow dead center across the bed. She raised the staff again and began pounding the covers madly, her battle yell punctuating the strikes. After a few tempestuous moments, she granted the bed a reprieve and stepped back, wild-eyed and breathless, to glare at the now tangled covers.
With one end of her staff, the bard poked hard at the pallet, then mightily jerked the bedding away from the mattress, causing it to float out like a ship's sail and come to rest on top of the girl, nearly covering her. She fought madly at the attacking linens.
When she heard a noise behind her, the bard turned sharply, staff raised, to the doorway where the innkeeper's wife stood, one ample arm clutching a bundle of towels. The woman glanced nervously around the room, studied the naked bed for a few moments, then stared, openly astonished, at the young blonde swaddled almost completely in the bed clothes, hair standing on end, weapon ready, in the center of the room.
"Is ... everything alright in here, miss?" she asked tentatively, her hand still holding the latch nervously, the desire for a quick escape obvious in her manner.
Gabrielle relaxed her battle stance, pulled at the linens and turned a tightly strung expression towards the woman. "Of course!" she said sharply. "Why do you ask?!"
At that moment, the bard's eyes came to rest on the warrior's calm expression now visible over the older woman's shoulder. Xena carefully moved past the innkeeper's wife, placing a solicitous hand on the woman's arm, and advanced slowly towards her wild-eyed friend.
"Good, Gabrielle," the warrior crooned, gently taking the staff. "Baaad bed!" she said, frowning accusingly at the pallet. She cast a brief, suggestive look at the woman in the doorway, cocking her head toward the offensive furniture.
"Bad ... bed," the woman said quietly, then quickly pulled the door closed.
Xena replaced the staff in the corner, then helped the bard extract herself from the bed clothes. Clamping her teeth tightly together to ward off her impending laughter, the warrior remade the bed, then turned quietly to her friend, who was still twitching, fists clenched and eyes wide. With a calming arm around the girl's shoulders, she guided the little form toward the bed.
"It's okay," the tall warrior said softly. "Take your nap. You'll feel better after you rest."
She helped the quivering bard sit on the pallet, then swung the girl's boots up onto the sheets. She gently pushed the little blonde's shoulders down onto the mattress and pulled the coverlet over the rigid body, brushing damp bangs from the feverish forehead.
"I just came back to get a dinar," she said evenly as she searched the bard's satchel. "The stable boy said he'd give Argo a good rubdown for that." She removed the coin and started toward the door.
The bard sat up abruptly, arms straight at her sides, her eyes startled and glaring. "Now what are you going to do?" she barked stiffly.
Xena returned to the bed and again pushed her friend back down. "I'll be right back. You rest now," she crooned, patting the girl's head. Then she turned and left the room.
Once in the hall, the warrior quietly pulled the door closed, then placed her ear against it. When she heard the mumbled ranting inside the room, she clamped a hand over her mouth and made her way down the hall as fast as her tender back would allow.
She got as far as the end of the hallway before laughter exploded between her fingers. She lowered her hand, collapsed against the wall and slid down the surface to sit gingerly on the top step. Holding first her stomach, then her back, the warrior rocked back and forth, succumbing to the roaring hilarity that enveloped her senses.
When she had recovered a particle of composure, she stood again and proceeded down the stairs into the tavern. Her eyes fell upon the face of the innkeeper's wife, who was involved in an animated discussion with her husband, obviously describing the recent events upstairs.
The matron caught the warrior's eye and Xena smothered her wide smile to respond to the sympathetic look the woman sent her. Motioning wordlessly, the tall woman sent the matron a confident message. 'Don't worry,' the warrior's gestures said, 'I took care of it. She's calm now.' She gave the woman an exaggerated wink and formed an 'O' with her thumb and forefinger, then calmly crossed the tavern and passed through the front door.
The innkeeper, his wife and all the patrons in the tavern responded with curiosity to the boisterous guffaw that floated back into the room as the door slowly closed behind the warrior.
A short time later, in the room upstairs, Gabrielle was still staring blankly at the ceiling. Not only had she not been able to enjoy the nap she'd anticipated with such great relish, she could not even keep her eyes closed. Every muscle in her young body was pulsing; every nerve ending was vibrating in fervent expectation. Finally, she sat up, threw off the coverlet, swung her feet to the floor and stood.
She marched to the corner where her staff was, grabbed the weapon and balanced it in her hands. Then she returned it to its resting place, spun around and marched across the room. Pacing aimlessly across the floor, the bard muttered incoherently to herself.
Finally, she stopped and turned to stare at the warrior's armor where it lay across the end of her bed. After a moment, the girl spun toward the door and retraced her steps across the room. She jerked up the latch, roughly pulled the door open, then looked nervously into the hall.
The bard pulled the door closed behind her and, keeping her back tight against the wall, crept slowly down the hallway, scanning both directions, searching for her tormentor. When she reached the end of the hall, Gabrielle flipped over to flatten her stomach against the wall, then snuck one eye around the corner to peer down the stairs.
Her heart leapt when she saw Xena casually climbing the steps The bard jumped back, sank into an attack stance, a maniacal leer on her face, and waited for the exact right moment to spring her trap.
Meanwhile, the warrior suddenly remembered an instruction she'd forgotten to give the stable boy concerning Argo's feed. She turned around and started gingerly back down the stairs, pausing a moment to let a little boy going the other direction pass, then continued on her way.
Her progress across the tavern was suddenly halted by a primitive growl followed immediately by a terrified scream that erupted from the hallway above. Xena spun around and instinctively reached for her sword, which, fortunately, she wasn't wearing. Every face in the tavern turned sharply towards the cacophony.
In the next instant, the same little boy who had passed the warrior on the stairs came shrieking across the room screaming, "Mama! Mama! Don't let the monster get me!"
A few seconds later, a furious bard followed the boy's path down the stairs. She took only a moment to locate the child, walked stiffly towards the boy and his parents, who were comforting him, and said in a hoarse, tense voice, "I'm sorry. I didn't see him." She then stalked, livid and white-faced, to the warrior.
With one quivering arm pointing towards the stairway, she addressed her astonished friend. "You! Upstairs! Now!" she sputtered, then pivoted and stomped up the steps.
Xena watched the little blonde go, then turned a gracious smile to the stunned patrons. She slowly made her way towards the stairs, then turned to address the startled, staring faces. "You'll have to excuse her," she said apologetically. "She's having a really bad day." She then turned and calmly climbed the steps.
As she walked down the hall to the room, Xena summoned all the restraint she could, submerged her own rampant amusement and arranged her features into a very serious expression.
She stood before the door to their room, raised her fist and tapped very lightly, but she nearly lost the battle with her laughter again when she heard the bard's fearsome response.
"Get in here!" the girl shouted. "Right now!"
The warrior took a deep breath, opened the door and, keeping her eyes focused on the floor, entered the room, closing the door behind her.
She crossed the room and sat on her bed, hands clasped demurely in her lap, her head lowered in apparent remorse. Without lifting her chin, she raised her blue eyes to follow the bard's briskly pacing form.
Gabrielle's boots struck a staccato rhythm as she stomped back and forth across the room.
The warrior waited several moments, then quietly addressed her friend. "Gabrielle...." she began.
The girl pivoted sharply, pointing angrily at the woman on the bed. "You wait until I'm finished!"
Xena lowered her eyes and captured her lower lip between her teeth. After a moment, she raised her eyes again to follow the bard's resumed pacing.
Quietly, the warrior tried another appeal. "Gabrielle...."
The blonde stopped and raised a warning finger. The warrior closed her mouth, fighting hard to keep her face expressionless.
The bard paced one more lap across the room, then turned to the warrior and, with her fists perched on her hips, leveled a stern look in the woman's direction. "Alright! I'm finished! Now what do you have to say for yourself?"
Xena took a deep breath and patted the mattress beside her. "Come sit down here a minute, please." She looked imploringly at the bard.
The girl wavered, then, with her chin raised, she crossed deliberately to the bed and sat at the far end of the pallet.
The warrior turned toward her blonde companion. "What exactly is it you think I've done?"
Gabrielle shot off the bed. "What have you done?!" she clamored as she stomped away, then whirled back to her antagonist. "Well, for starters, you poisoned my breakfast!"
The dark-haired woman's face remained calm as she beckoned the bard back to the bed. She again patted the mattress and looked at the girl, who crossed back and flounced down on the covers, sitting slightly closer to the warrior.
"I didn't poison your breakfast," the warrior said quietly, then stopped the bard's ready challenge with a raised finger. "I just made you think I did."
"Then what did I see you shoving down your cleavage?"
After a beat, the warrior said, "Nothing."
"I saw you --"
"Now, wait a minute," Xena said, again holding up one slender hand. "I had nothing. I did that on purpose to set you up. And it worked."
The bard bounced off the bed, ranting. "Well, what about the bucket over the door?"
Xena's blue eyes were genuinely confused. "What bucket? What door?"
Gabrielle pointed accusingly at the top of the door. After a moment, she lowered her hand. "Oh ... right," she said and looked back at her friend. Xena patted the bed again and the bard sat down.
"Okay," the warrior said. "What else?"
"Then you tried to attack me in the bathtub!"
"No," Xena said gently. "What I tried to do was offer you an apple. But, as I recall, you preferred the orange."
The little blonde jumped off the bed again and strode purposefully to the open window. "You put that apple core in my boot," she said, pointing toward the raised portal. "And it scared the ... the Tartarus out of me!"
The warrior spoke calmly. "Gabrielle, try and remember. I was going to get it, but you said, 'Stay put,' that you would get it after you finished your bath." Xena's voice betrayed the submerged amusement threatening to spill out again.
The bard's fingers played nervously with the sides of her skirt. She slowly peered out the window, recalling her boot's unexpected flight, then turned an embarrassed looked to the warrior's grin. In a quiet voice, she said, "I'll bet that really did smart, huh?"
The two women chuckled together. Finally, Gabrielle crossed the room and sat next to her friend. The warrior wrapped an arm around her shoulders as the bard shook her head and turned to her smiling friend.
"There wasn't anything in the bed either, was there?" the bard asked sheepishly.
The warrior's laughter rang out loud and true. "Well, if there had been," she gasped between hearty guffaws, "you surely would have beaten it to death!"
The bard slapped playfully at her friend's thigh. "Well, you were no help. 'Bad bed'?!" the girl said, sending the warrior sprawling backward on the mattress in uncontrolled laughter.
The little blonde covered her face with her hands, then turned to the shaking form beside her. Xena pulled herself upright, wiping the tears from her eyes.
"Did you see the look on that woman's face?' Gabrielle croaked, laughter now consuming her as well.
Xena leaned forward, more peels of laughter distorting her voice. In the midst of her giggles, the bard barely heard her sputter, "Bad bed!" before she was overcome again.
The little blonde slapped her forehead, remembering the woman's shocked look. "By the gods, she must think I'm insane."
"I couldn't have planned it better," the warrior wheezed, the words muddled by her laughter.
"Oh ... I wouldn't have let you get her," Xena rephrased, thinking quickly to cover her near blunder. "But we probably do owe her some sort of explanation."
The two women laughed together for several minutes. When the warrior had again regained some composure, she turned a questioning smile towards the bard. "There is one thing I have to ask though," she said, wiping her eyes again. "What did you do to that little boy?"
Suddenly, the amusement left the bard's face. She covered her mouth with her hands and her green eyes blinked in blatant concern as she stood and started for the door. "Oh, gods," she gasped. "That poor little guy. I'd better go and expl --"
The warrior's long arm stopped the girl's well-intended departure. Xena pulled her friend back down beside her and spoke to the worried expression. "Not a good idea," she said gently. "You didn't see the look on his father's face."
The bard grimaced remorsefully and looked at the floor. Within seconds the sound of the warrior's snickers brought her eyes back to her friend's face. Tears streaming from her blue eyes, Xena's shoulders were trembling as hearty laughter overwhelmed her yet again.
The bard was soon howling as well and both women flopped backwards on the bed.
Several minutes later, the warrior finally regained her usual composure. Blinking hard, she ran her hands over her cheeks and gingerly crossed across the room to pour a large mug of water. She shared the drink with Gabrielle and the two each took a number of calming breaths.
Xena returned the mug to the small table and walked to the door. "I'm hungry," she said, turning to the bard. "Let's go down and get some supper." Then she noticed the little blonde's rather reluctant expression.
"No ... you go ahead," the girl said haltingly. "I'm not really very hungry right now."
The warrior turned an understanding smile toward her friend. "Tell you what," she said. "How about if we eat up here?"
The little blonde smiled appreciatively.
"I'll get the innkeeper's wife to fix us a tray."
Gabrielle sent her another subtle grin. "I'll bet we get extra bread."
Xena started to leave, then turned back, a question in her eyes.
"I'll explain later," the bard said, shaking her head.
In the darkness of the quiet room, the two women relaxed, ready for sleep. They had decided to retire soon after their meal in order to get an early -- very early -- start in the morning. The bard had expressed her heartfelt desire to depart without having to encounter any of the other patrons or the resident proprietors.
As the warrior settled comfortably on the soft mattress, she heard the bard's quiet voice from across the room.
"Don't ever do this to me again."
"That's up to you, Gabrielle," the warrior said, smiling in the dark. "That's entirely up to you."
The bard sighed, defeated.
DAY SEVEN: SIX DINARS
Xena glanced down from atop Argo at the fresh young face of her blonde companion. The bard's wheat-colored eyebrows were furrowed in a tiny frown. The warrior turned front again, smiling contentedly.
"Xena!" Gabrielle piped. "Oh, sorry," she said contritely when she realized her unexpected exclamation had resulted in the warrior instinctively drawing her sword halfway out of its sheath.
The tall woman pulled the horse to a stop and turned a slightly perturbed glower at the young woman walking beside them.
"Sorry," Gabrielle said again. "I didn't mean to startle you."
The warrior slid the sword back into the scabbard. Her blue eyes softened when she saw the apology in the girl's green gaze and the bard's grin erased the last of the her irritation.
With her sword hand now resting relaxed on her muscled thigh, the warrior addressed the girl. "What was it you wanted?"
The little bard's smile faded instantly when her eyes returned to the sight which had originally prompted her shrill outcry. "Your hair buckle!" she said seriously. "It's gone!"
Xena reached to the back of her dark hair and touched the gathered section hanging down the middle. Her fingers explored the leather thong securing the thick bundle of hair, searched above and around the knot, then swept through the long hair which fell to her shoulders.
"Damn!" the warrior grumbled, using both hands finally to comb through the dark tresses trying to locate the missing ornament.
Xena swung herself down off Argo's back and began to search the ground around them. The bard did the same, scanning the area on her side of the mare. After a few minutes of inspecting the path as well as the adjacent trail they had just traveled, the warrior stood upright and stabbed both fists onto her leather-clad hips.
"Well," she said, dejected, "it's gone and that's all there is to it." She turned a resigned frown toward the bard. "C'mon," she said, walking back toward Argo. "We're wasting our time looking." She swung herself back onto the mare's back. "It could have fallen off anywhere."
The little blonde's expression showed her surprise at the warrior's attitude. "Don't you want to look for it? It's the one your grandfather made for you."
The tall woman on the horse scoffed lightly and turned an impatient eye toward the bard. "It's gone, Gabrielle," she said evenly. "I'm sorry I lost it, but there's nothing I can do about it now." She gathered the reins and resettled herself in the saddle. "Let's go. We need supplies. We're out of everything."
Xena turned forward again, her face calm and expressionless. Gabrielle's eyes scanned the ground once more, then she, too, turned and followed the woman on the horse.
'Whew!' the warrior thought. 'That was close.' She glanced sidelong at the little bard, then, turning forward again, she congratulated herself on her quick-witted melodramatics. 'Pretty good job of acting, if I do say so myself,' she thought smugly. 'But if she brings it up again, I'm done for.'
Gabrielle walked quietly beside the great horse, her young face solemn as she considered her friend's rather unconcerned reaction to the loss of her cherished accessory. The bard glanced up at her dark-haired companion, her attention lingering on the warrior's stoic face. The little blonde's brows drew together slightly as she returned her focus to the road.
Slowly, keeping time with the cadence of her boots, the girl's expression changed and brightened as a plan took shape in her mind. A warm, satisfied smile began to brighten the young face. After another dozen paces, the green eyes were twinkling in barely-controlled delight. Finally, the girl was forced to capture her lower lip between her teeth to keep from squealing in glee.
'That's it!' the bard thought triumphantly. 'That's what I'll get her! That's something she would never expect!' The young woman smiled widely and slapped one small hand against her firm leg. She turned a bright smile toward the warrior and raised her free hand, palm and fingers pointed at the warrior's waist.
Xena looked down at her small companion, her blue eyes wide with surprise. She stared openly at the bard's extended hand announcing her unusual request.
"You want to ride?!" she said, freeing the stirrup on the girl's side of the mare then reached down to grasp the slender wrist to help the little blonde up to sit behind her.
"You're right," the bard said, still smiling, as she settled herself against the warrior. "We need supplies and time's a-wastin". She watched as Xena secured her staff in the loops on the side of Argo's saddle. Then she wrapped her arms around her friend's slender waist, giving the woman a quick, tight hug.
The brisk move caught the warrior slightly offguard. She grunted in surprise and turned a quizzical look over her shoulder at the girl nestled against her back.
"Everything all right back there?"
"Yup, everything's fine. I didn't hurt you, did I?" the little bard asked, suddenly remembering the bruised area on the warrior's back.
"No, I'm fine. Don't worry about it."
The little blonde laughed softly. "Let's go."
Xena turned forward, a pleased smile covering her bronze face. She nudged the mare with her boots and the animal responded, her hooves clopping rhythmically on the hard earth of the road.
As the golden mare carried them toward the town of Servia, both women enjoyed a delight in their own private plots. Today held a special significance for the pair, even though neither had yet admitted her recognition of that fact to the other. Each was convinced her clever plan would completely surprise her friend and give her unbridled pleasure in keeping with the importance of the day.
When the two women had first begun traveling together, they'd discovered that, although their respective birthdays happened in different months, the two events actually occurred precisely eleven days apart. In order to avoid having to plan two celebrations on two separate occasions, the bard had decreed they would celebrate the two birthdays on a day exactly between the two dates. On the sixth day after Xena's birthday and the sixth day before the bard marked that anniversary, the two now traditionally exchanged gifts and celebrated their birthdays together.
As usual, this year the warrior had spent a frustrating amount of time trying to decide what gift she would provide for the bard. She knew Gabrielle's kindness and enthusiasm would happily accept anything she gave her, but this year the warrior wanted the gift to be something particularly special, since her affection for the little blonde had grown steadily during the past year.
The warrior's confident grin went unnoticed by the little blonde. The tall woman was enjoying the idea that, this year, she had stumbled upon the most worthy present for her young companion. A few nights earlier, she had noticed the bard struggling with a dull, well-worn and uncooperative quill as the girl tried valiantly to transcribe her newest story. The warrior's senses had snapped to strict attention when she realized she now knew the perfect choice for the girl's birthday favor.
Unbeknownst to her friend, the bard had been equally baffled in her search for an appropriate gift for the warrior. She had spent endless hours turning various ideas over in her mind only to discard them, one after the other, as either unsuitable or simply repeated efforts from previous birthdays. Now she was absolutely sure she had decided on the perfect gift.
Ironically, both friends had made a concerted effort not to discuss the impending celebration with the other. Consequently, each now assumed that her present would come as a complete surprise to the other. With this in both their minds, they made their way to the town to purchase their selected presents.
There was just one problem. Before setting out as usual this morning, they had spent several minutes discussing their meager funds and trying to determine how they could replenish the needed supplies while staying within the bounds of their sparse budget.
In order to give the warrior's injured back a night of needed rest, the two friends had elected to take a little vacation and spent the previous night at an inn in the area. That decision had depleted their already scant reserves even more. Normally the bard would have been able to earn enough to increase their deficient assets by telling stories and providing entertainment at the establishment where they had enjoyed their respite. However, that had not been the case with respect to the previous night's accomodations and Gabrielle was not anxious to discuss the reasons for their current situation in that regard.
Xena furnished most of their food from the traps and snares she set each night, and in spite of her current physical condition, she had still been able to perform that function. But the two women also had the need for some items that, while not edible, were still necessary to their relative comfort and well-being.
As they neared the town, the bard leaned forward to talk into the warrior's ear. "Is there something in particular that you need to do while I shop?"
Xena stopped herself from swiveling around to challenge the bard's seemingly innocent question. 'Easy, warrior,' she chided herself. 'You're going to give yourself away.'
"Just some laces for my boots. I've got more knots in them then a fisherman's net."
She straightened one slender leg to display the braided thongs securing her leather boots. The state of the lacings was rather comical; to compensate for the numerous breaks in the leather laces, she had been forced to tie knots at various intervals along the expanse of her boots. The bard giggled at the silly placement of the many knots.
"Yeah, I can see you do need new ones."
The warrior replaced her foot in the stirrup and patted the small hands clasped around her waist. "Oh, well, they shouldn't cost us much."
When they reached Servia, Xena pulled Argo to a stop and swung her leg around in front of her. She slid down off the horse's back and reached an arm up to help the bard climb down as well. Gabrielle rummaged in the satchel on her shoulder and handed the warrior two coins.
"Is that going to be enough?" she asked, concern in her green eyes.
The warrior smiled and closed her hand over the dinars. "That's plenty. I'll 'haggle'; I've been watching and listening," she said, smiling, then lightly touched the bard's slender arm. Xena tied the reins to the wooden post standing near the mare's head.
"You get the other things we need. We'll meet back here in an hour." She turned and walked away. The bard looked up at the sun. 'An hour?' she thought nervously. 'Not much time. I'd better get started!' The young girl strode quickly toward the nearest vendor, her manner hurried and purposeful.
Normally the bard somewhat enjoyed what the warrior had jokingly referred to as the 'haggling' involved in obtaining whatever they needed from the various merchants encountered along their way. But today, she had no inclination for such an activity. In fact, many of the sellers watched the young girl depart with a sense of amazement at how quickly the transaction had taken place. Usually, it would take several minutes for such a customer to decide, argue, turn away and finally be enticed back to purchase their wares. But this little blonde was obviously in no mood for discourse; if anything, she seemed in a terrible hurry.
The bard nearly ran from one vendor to the next, selecting her purchases without apparent concern or discernment. She paid one merchant, then raced to the neighboring stall, grabbed two good-sized apples and handed over the necessary currency. Then she scampered to another booth, took less than a minute to inspect the goods on the pallet, decided on two, replaced one, retrieved it again and turned impatiently to the merchant. The man held out his hand for the money, but had to scramble to catch the coins when the girl nearly dropped them in the dirt.
"Sorry," she said over her shoulder as she hastily scurried away.
A few shops away, Xena had found the tannery for her boots' laces. She was nearly hostile by the time the man finally meandered toward her, ready to transact business, then wanted to throttle him when he began discussing the different grades of leather he offered. She finally agreed to his preference if only to complete the transaction at last. She sat to remove her boots and replace the worn lacings, but her irritation made her fingers less than agile when working with the new, stiffer pieces. She clamped her jaws together and willed herself to be patient.
Her task complete, she paid the tanner and strode purposefully out the door. She scanned the street for the familiar blonde figure and was relieved when she noticed the little bard was nowhere to be seen. The warrior's eyes found the shop she needed and she turned up the street toward the appropriate tradesman, a subtle grin softening her features.
'She thinks I've forgotten,' the warrior almost giggled to herself. 'I love it the way her face lights up when she's really surprised.' The little smile grew. 'Wait'll she sees the quill. This year, I've got her!'
Meanwhile, Gabrielle had returned to the mare standing complacently at the post. She carried the various goods she had hurriedly purchased and, while Argo turned a curious eye to the little blonde giggling beside her, the girl stuffed the packages into the saddlebags then patted the mare's sinewy neck.
"She's really gonna be surprised, Argo. Her mouth is just gonna drop!"
The bard pulled her satchel off her shoulder and balanced the bag on the post in front of the horse. Holding it steady with one hand, she searched along the sides of the pouch until her fingers made contact with the deerskin wrapped in a tight bundle. Carefully extracting the small package, the bard replaced the satchel on her shoulder and, casting a wary glance around her, used both hands to carefully unwrap the parcel.
The bard untied the slender leather strings and opened the small hide slightly. Her face lit in a wide smile as her shoulders climbed happily toward her ears. She lovingly studied the item hidden by the skin, then gathered the edges of the covering around the object again. She gave the mare one final pat and turned toward the booth she had noticed earlier, the bundle clutched tightly in one small palm.
The little blonde stopped at a nearby stall and scanned various trinkets displayed on the flat table. Her eyes moved quickly over the merchandise, searching for the item she had envisioned in her mind. She turned away, disappointed, when she didn't find anything she liked. The girl decided to try another vendor, but, as she glanced up, she came to an abrupt and rather awkward halt. Striding toward her was the tall warrior, the woman's eyes, fortunately, turned toward the display of yet another vendor.
The bard looked around, frantically searching for a way to escape the warrior's attention. She took a few hurried steps and found herself facing the booth of a fabric vendor. The bolts of cloth were stacked in tall piles surrounding the heavy-set woman behind the counter who glanced up to notice the little bard's approach. The girl cast an agitated look in the warrior's direction only to gasp when she realized her friend was still striding toward her.
In the next instant, Gabrielle grabbed the edge of a piece of material flowing freely from a long, heavy bolt that had been stood on end. She wrapped herself in the large expanse of the fabric, covering every bit of her small form except her wide, hysterical eyes. She held her breath when she heard the creak of the warrior's leathers come closer, then stop just inches from her shoulder.
Xena slowed her pace when she saw the various pieces of material shining brightly from the table. She fingered one rather colorful swatch, held it up in front of her, head bent to one side, to better enjoy the fabric's filmy appearance. After a long moment, she refolded the material, smiled slightly at the rotund vendor and moved away from the booth.
When the sounds of the warrior's steps had faded away, the bard slowly unwrapped herself from inside the flowery cocoon. As her green eyes scanned the street for the warrior's tall form, then turned the opposite direction to do the same, her glance fell on the confounded face of the booth's proprietor. The woman's arms were frozen in position, standing out from her body, having just finished giving another customer change after a transaction. The vendor looked the little form up and down, then settled a confused look on the bard's anxious face.
Gabrielle stepped away from the large bolt of material and smiled brightly at the suspicious vendor. "Not quite heavy enough for my purpose," she chirped, brushing the fabric lightly with her hand. "Thank you." Then she scurried away.
The warrior arrived at the shop which she knew would suit her needs. She opened the door to the building and walked into the musty interior. The man behind the counter met her eyes as she moved toward him, one hand tucked into the belt of her leathers. She withdrew the item she had secured there earlier that morning and handed it to the merchant who took it silently from her hand.
"How much will you give me for that?" she asked him, suddenly feeling rather shy and inexperienced in the bargaining process.
The man examined the silver hair buckle, glanced up at the woman in leather standing before him, then returned his attention to the ornament in his hands. He turned the buckle over and carefully inspected the delicate designs engraved in the surface.
"Nice workmanship," he said quietly. "You sure you want to sell this? Somebody took some special care. It's very nicely done."
The warrior's blue eyes gently rested on the silver buckle and she swallowed hard against her own sentiments. For a moment, her memory was filled with the gentle, attentive man who had fashioned the adornment for her, the grandfather she had adored and with whom she had shared a special bond. The buckle had been his birthday gift to her on a similar day many years ago. But she had already decided to sacrifice the treasured item in order to buy a present for her best friend.
"Yeah, I'm sure. How much?" she asked, blinking away the tears that threatened her composure. They agreed on a sum and the man handed over the coins. The warrior thanked him and turned to leave the shop. With her hand on the door, she looked back to see him again admiring the silver buckle. She opened the door and walked out of the store, turning toward the shop where she'd seen the crisp parchment displays and the rows of feathery quills laid out on dark material.
Gabrielle arrived at a booth displaying numerous pieces of jewelry. She paused at the table, noticing the many items in a variety of different colors. The little bard smiled, a warm satisfaction settling her nervousness. She approached the sparse old gentleman standing behind the table, his hands folded loosely over his robe. The man's watery eyes met those of the bard.
"May I show you something, young lady?" he asked. The girl moved around the table to stand next to the vendor, unwrapping the bundle in her hands.
"I'd like to sell this. It's a very unusual piece," she began, gearing herself up for her sales pitch.
Before she could finish, the old man gently lifted the item in the middle of the skin and held it tenderly. His eyes moved to the girl's open face as he turned the object carefully in his hands.
"This is an Amazon necklace," he said softly. "They're always designed to be one of a kind." He turned a questioning gaze to the young woman beside him. "Surely you don't mean to part with it."
The little blonde kept her eyes on the blue necklace in the old merchant's hands. Her heart lurched painfully as she considered the jewelry's origins, the blue stones signifying her royal lineage when she had become an Amazon princess. The girl blinked away the tears gathering in her green eyes. She steeled her emotions and gave the man a determined look, straightening her back and crumpling the small deerskin in her palm.
"Yes, I'm sure. I want to buy a present for my friend's birthday," the little bard told him. "How much will you give me for it?"
The man looked into the girl's eyes again, then shook his head slightly. He dropped the necklace carefully into one hand and reached into the pocket of his robe with the other. He withdrew a number of dinars and slowly placed them in the little bard's upturned hand, while giving her another questioning look.
Gabrielle closed her hand around the little cache, thanked him and turned away from the booth. After a few steps, she turned to see the man again admiring the blue stones of the necklace. She took a guarded breath and bravely walked away.
Once she'd put enough distance between herself and her former accessory, the little bard turned purposefully toward the shop she had noticed earlier. She strode toward the store, a contented smile warming her expression. She pushed open the door and stepped inside.
The man behind the counter raised his eyes to greet the new customer. The girl walked smoothly over to the display in front of him, her eyes scanning the goods in a resolute fashion. She let out a little gasp when her eyes fell upon the item she was certain was the perfect choice.
The bard carefully picked up the article and turned the piece over to admire the delicate scrolling that covered the wider portion on the back. The man watched as the girl stroked the piece lovingly, as though she had rediscovered an old friend. The little bard's thoughts were filled with pleasure at her find.
"Nice piece, isn't it?" the merchant said and found himself returning the young woman's gentle smile. "Hand tooled, I can tell you," he said, then fell silent at the little blonde's obvious delight.
"How much?" the girl whispered, holding her breath in anxious anticipation.
The merchant started to declare his original price, then decided on a lower fee. "Six dinars," he told the girl and watched as she slowly opened one small hand to reveal a collection of precisely that amount. He accepted the coins and thanked her for her purchase.
On an impulse, the merchant reached under the table and produced a piece of colored paper, smoothing it carefully with his hand. "This will make it even more special ... when you give it to your friend." The girl's mouth opened slightly at the man's intuition and she met his eyes to thank him for his kindness. She handed her purchase back to him and watched as he carefully wrapped the gift in the wispy colored paper.
"Thank you," the bard said as she placed the gaily wrapped treasure in her satchel. She turned to leave the shop and gave the man a little wave. He smiled as the little bard opened the door and stepped outside. As he put the six coins into his coin box, he was still smiling.
At that moment, Xena was about to enter the parchment shop when her eyes were drawn to the booth set up just outside the building. She turned toward the elderly vendor standing behind the long table then stepped closer to his display. She immediately recognized the item placed prominently in the middle of the table. It was Gabrielle's Amazon necklace, the design of the blue stones clearly identifying the jewelry as unique and specifically original.
The warrior picked up the necklace and turned it slowly in her fingers. Her eyes went to the old man who stood watching her closely from behind the table. She saw the wise eyes of the vendor studying her face, then realized her surprise must be obvious even to this stranger.
"Where did you get this?" she asked, her voice trembling.
"A young woman just sold it to me," the man answered, still gazing intently at the warrior's blue eyes. "She said she'd decided to part with it to buy a present for her friend."
The warrior's throat caught at the man's words. She took a deep breath and closed her hand around the blue stones of the necklace then turned a determined eye toward the old man's withered face.
"How mu--" she started to ask.
"Six dinars," the man said before she had finished her question. He held out a wrinkled hand and the warrior dropped the coins into his palm.
"Quite special, your little friend," the old man said, then winked conspiratorially at the warrior.
"Yes, she is," the dark-haired woman whispered. The old man handed her a square of soft material. The warrior looked down at the piece of fabric, then took it and placed the necklace in the center of the square. She carefully gathered the edges around her purchase and raised her eyes to the old man's knowing gaze.
"Thank you." Xena gently tucked the little bundle into the belt of her leather suit, smiled and turned away, heading up the street toward the golden mare.
Gabrielle had started up the street toward the waiting mount when her nose zeroed in on a tantalizing smell emanating from the bakery shop she was passing. She slowed her steps as she spied the plate of fragrant delights arranged on the small table near the door and swallowed hard as her mouth began to water.
The little bard regretfully put her free hand into the coin pouch then smiled widely when her fingers located two coins, a surprise stash that had somehow eluded her attention when she'd counted the money that morning. She let out a little squeal and turned quickly into the shop. She knew the little confections were among the warrior's favorites.
A few minutes later, the little blonde emerged from the shop, the package of tasty treats safely nestled next to the colorfully wrapped parcel in her bag. She turned her eyes up the street and quickened her pace when she saw the tall woman in leather standing next to the golden steed.
"Sorry I'm late," the girl said breathlessly as she approached the woman leaning on the hitching post. "My last stop took a little longer than I expected."
"Where was that?" the warrior asked calmly, even though she had clearly seen the little blonde leaving the bakery shop. She made a concentrated effort to control the smile that begged for release.
"Where?" the little bard echoed, slightly unnerved by the question. Xena watched, amused, as Gabrielle's quick mind scrambled for an acceptable answer. "I, uh ... I had a ... an ... uncontrollable urge to ... uh ... to stop by the butcher's shop."
The warrior's eyebrows rose toward her dark bangs.
"I, uh ... wanted to see if ... uh ... he could ... recommend any new ways ... to dress wild game." The girl finished the fantastic explanation, her eyes wide and her breath short. She glanced nervously at the warrior's intent blue gaze.
"Uh-huh," Xena said evenly, striving to keep her voice from betraying her emotions."So, are you ready to go now?" she asked,
"Ready," the little blonde said brightly, giving the mare an affectionate pat. The warrior freed the reins and climbed on the horse's back. She gazed down at the bard, extending an inviting hand toward the young woman on the ground.
Gabrielle's hesitant expression lasted only a moment. Her excitement and happy anticipation of the upcoming celebration overpowered her normal reluctance to climb onto Argo's extremely high back. She put her foot in the open stirrup in front of her, took the warrior's hand and let the woman help her onto the animal. Holding tight to the pouch on her shoulder, she hugged the warrior's middle as the woman turned the mare and headed out of town for camp.
"I'll get supper started," Gabrielle said. "You go find us a fat ... something," she giggled.
Xena's light chortle surprised the young blonde and she glanced toward her usually unflappable companion.
"A fat 'something'?" Xena repeated as she gathered her snares. "Yes, oh Amazon princess," the warrior joked, then stiffened as she realized the reference her joke might stir in her friend. She cast a quick look at the girl, but found her smiling into the campfire she was tending.
The warrior took a guarded breath and feigned ignorance at her own comment. "I'll see what I can do," she said, a trifle too loudly. "Be back before you know it."
The bard turned a slightly suspicious look at her dark-haired friend. A bemused smile floated over the young woman's face. "You're certainly cheerful tonight," she said. "Any hidden purchases I should know about?"
The warrior made a concerted effort to keep her face as stoic as usual and she turned a practiced scowl at the young woman. "I'll be back soon," she said and walked into the surrounding woods.
When she was sure the warrior was out of earshot, the bard's manner became animated. She rummaged in her satchel and retrieved the cherished bundles, placing one out of sight, but close at hand, near her place at the fire. She unwrapped the bite-sized candies and placed them at the opposite corner of her blanket, taking care to make sure the fabric didn't disturb the frosting on the treats.
Finally the little blonde stoked the flames with the dry wood she had gathered, secured the spit and returned her attention to the small cooking pot she had filled with water from the stream nearby.
The bard's proficiency at preparing very worthwhile meals using what were, at times, very meager provisions had become a source of pride to her. She had found she possessed a talent she would not have believed she could cultivate and even the warrior had come to respect her prowess with the skillet and the pot.
The little blonde strode to forage in the surrounding woods, delighted to find some wild onions and a patch of soft, clear mushrooms. She felt a sense of accomplishment as she broke the mushrooms into smaller pieces and sliced the onions into the boiling pot she'd hung over the fire.
"Not bad for a little ... Amazon princess," the girl said softly to the empty campsite. For a moment, she felt a deep regret at having given up her treasured necklace, but it was quickly replaced by the happiness she felt at finding a present she knew Xena would appreciate. A little giggle rose in her throat as she stirred the contents of the small pot, and she was filled with anticipation of the warrior's response to her clever gift.
The warrior saw the plump pheasant just as she was about to set her last snare. Her eyes glistened with excitement as she envisioned the bard's response when she brought the delicacy back to the fire. 'You wanted something special, little one,' the warrior thought. 'You're about to get your wish.' She carefully unhooked the chakram from her belt and, cocking her arm over her body, turned slightly to get a better aim.
The two women relaxed as the newly added logs brought the subtle flames back to life. The remains of their delicious supper lay at various intervals around the leaping fire. The warrior watched the bard's squirming and casually put a hand to her face to hide her amusement. The girl seemed almost about to burst. Finally, Xena relented and provided the opening she knew the girl had been waiting for.
"What are you so excited about?" she said, trying very hard to keep a straight face.
The girl's smile beamed as she uncovered the small candies from under the corner of her bedroll. The warrior's eyes widened appreciatively, her smile matching the bard's as she reached for a handful of the treats.
"Can we afford these?" she asked dryly, popping one of the confections in her mouth.
"I had two coins left over," the bard said around her own helping of the candy. "They were hiding in the bottom of the pouch, so I splurged." The girl dropped another of the candies in her mouth and giggled.
The tall warrior's eyes were warm on the girl's happy face. She swallowed the candy and valiantly tried to keep her face as open as possible.
"What's the occasion?" she asked the bard, affably looking forward to the reaction she was sure was about to happen any second now.
The bard turned quickly and pulled out the small, wrapped bundle, proudly handing it to the warrior. The tall woman put a surprised look on her face as she extended a hand to accept the 'unexpected' gift.
"What's this?" she asked innocently, unwrapping the little bundle. "Did you find this at the booth with all the material?" She smirked at the girl's puzzled expression. The warrior's smile grew as she saw realization sweep over the little bard's face. The girl's mouth dropped open, then she scowled at the warrior in mock frustration.
"You rat!" the girl said, her smile creeping back again.
"I saw your boots under that flowered cloth." The warrior's gentle laugh floated across the fire. But the sound stopped suddenly when her blue eyes showed genuine surprise at the article nestled in the middle of the colored paper. She picked up the silver hair buckle and turned an astonished expression toward the grinning bard. The girl was actually bouncing, overcome with her own cleverness.
"Gabrielle," the warrior began softly, tenderly turning the buckle over in her trembling fingers. "You don't know how much this means to me. But how...?"
"You don't remember what today is, do you?" the bard challenged the dazed warrior. The little blonde covered her mouth with her hands, her giggles filling the night air.
Xena finally recovered enough to send her own smug look back at her laughing friend. "Oh, but I do remember," the warrior said as she reached into her own bedroll and produced the parcel she had secretly hidden there earlier in the evening.
The bard's mouth dropped open as she focused on the package in the warrior's outstretched hand. The green eyes looked down at the gift, then back at the blue eyes of her best friend. She slowly reached to take the soft material, smiling warmly at the woman who offered it.
Xena watched the bard's face as the necklace emerged from within the soft wrapping. She waited quietly, expecting a happy acknowledgment of her resourceful rescue of the bard's treasured piece. What she didn't expect were the two, large tears which began to travel down the girl's soft cheeks. The warrior's expression changed quickly, concerned now that she had bungled the present somehow and ruined the event.
Finally the little blonde turned a tear-streaked expression toward her friend's worried face. "When I saw the buckle, I thought it looked so much like yours, it would make up for you loosing the one your grandfather made for you. But this ... this is my necklace. You bought back my own necklace for me."
The girl took a ragged, shaky breath and looked down at the blue stones in her hands. Another wave of tears followed the wet tracks of the first. "How did you...?" she stammered, raising tear-filled eyes to her companion. "Where...?" The girl's words dwindled, lost in her deep emotion.
The warrior's eyes were also brimming, and she swallowed hard to steady her voice. "Gabrielle, this doesn't just *look* like my hair buckle." She held the accessory in her open hand. "This *is* my hair buckle, the one Boupa made for me."
The bard raised surprised eyes to stare at the warrior's warm smile. "I sold it and bought back your necklace ... even though that's not what I had planned to get for you."
The warrior shared her original plan for the bard's birthday present with the quiet girl facing her. When she finished the brief story, she was grateful to see the return of the bard's normal, happy look. The little blonde's smile grew slowly as she gazed at the face across the fire. She looked again at the necklace in her hands, then returned her gaze to the blue eyes of the warrior.
"Do you realize what we did today?" The warrior was silent. "We both gave up something that meant a great deal to us for someone who means so much more." The two women smiled at each other, then looked down at their respective special gifts.
"Happy Birthday, Gabrielle," the warrior said softly.
"Happy Birthday, Xena," the bard responded.
[Footnote: The authors wish to pay their humble respects to the master O.Henry for his inspiration and suggestion for this final tale. His genius was a gift to us all.]
"A Week in the Lives or The Week That Was" by
Maggie ( AcerMMG@aol.com) and PeriBear (email@example.com)