"Gabrielle, I'm going hunting for dinner. Be back soon."
"Hm?" Gabrielle was deeply engrossed in a work in progress, the tip of her quill in her mouth as she squinted at a scroll. She waved the quill absentmindedly in Xena's general direction. "Sure. Whatever."
"And keep an eye on Argo, will you?" The warrior didn't wait for a reply and disappeared in the dark shadows of the surrounding forest.
Xena's last request blew away Gabrielle's concentration. "Argo!" The bard threw down her quill in frustration and walked over to the clearing where the horse was contentedly grazing. She grumbled to herself for a moment, then addressed the horse. "I wish I got half as much attention as she gives you."
"Well she's got priorities, you know."
"Priorities! What do you know about-" *Wait just a minute here.*
"I know a lot about them."
Gabrielle walked over to Argo. She looked all around. Nobody else there ... just her and the warhorse. A talking warhorse!
"That's muh name. Don't wear it out."
"You can talk."
"I didn't mean to be rude. I guess this explains why Xena spends so much time talking to you. I had no idea ..."
"Well, I am a very good listener. Unlike some people I could mention." Argo shook her head. "If you're just going to just stand there gawking, why don't you grab my curry brush out of that saddle bag behind you. I've got this terrible itch ..."
"Sure." Gabrielle retrieved the brush and eyed the enormous equine. "Any place in particular?"
"Right at my withers."
"You don't know very much about horses, do you? Up on my back, between my shoulder blades."
"Here?" Gabrielle pointed with the brush.
"A little more forward." As the bard began brushing her, the horse leaned in her direction. "Aaah, much better."
"So ... um ... " Gabrielle struggled to overcome the idea that she was talking with Argo. "How long have you been Xena's horse?"
"You mean, how long has Xena been my human?"
"Right." Boy was she sensitive! "Have you known her very long?"
"Don't stop. That feels good. You have no idea how frustrating it is to have such a large back and nothing to scratch it with. Oh, I guess it's been about four winters. One look was all it took: she was hooked, had to have me. The warrior princess shelled out plenty of dinars that day, let me tell you!"
"So you've been ... together ... all this time?"
"I prefer to think of us as a team."
Gabrielle leaned forward conspiratorially, "So what was she like, before, you know, before she changed?"
"Well before, I wasn't her only horse, and she had somebody else groom me. And I spent a lot of time with the other horses in her army, and we didn't talk so much then. But I don't think she talked to anyone very much in those days, except to give orders. It's much nicer now. I get lots of personal attention, plenty to eat ... "
"So you like being on the road?"
What's not to like? We go all over the countryside, I get plenty of sunshine, fresh air, exercise ... have I told you that Xena has an excellent seat?"
"Yeah ..." Gabrielle gazes off into the distance, "she sure does."
"No silly, I mean she's a good rider. You know, tells me where to go by pressing with her knees and thighs instead of jerking me around by the bit."
The bard experienced a brief moment in which she wished she was a horse. "Oh, right. Sure." Shaking her head to clear it, she asked, "Do you mind when I ride behind her?"
"Naa. You're not that heavy. But I don't think you know that you wiggle and kick. Sometimes that gets confusing. You should just stay still and hang on. What I don't understand is why you don't want a horse of your own to ride. You haven't got anything against horses, do you?"
Gabrielle started to say something about Argo being so big, but didn't want to cause affront and replied more diplomatically, "No, no ... I'm just more comfortable with my feet on the ground."
Argo turned around and looked at her. "You can stop brushing now."
"OK." Gabrielle moved to sit on a rock in front of Argo so they could converse face to face. "How come your lips don't move when you talk?"
"How should I know? I don't even know how I'm able to talk in the first place. It's not the usual horse thing, you know."
"So other horses don't talk?"
"I never met any who did. There were a couple who <I>understood</I> people talk, but none of them could speak it. No, it would have been nice, though ... some of the other horses ... well, they didn't like me for it. They didn't want to associate with a horse who was ... different. If I tried to play with them or just hang out, they'd gang up on me."
Fascinated now, Gabrielle hugged one knee to her and dangled her other leg over the edge of the boulder. "What about your family?"
"Well, stallions aren't real family oriented. I didn't see my sire much, although I understand he was quite a charmer. But my dam, she was all right. Told me I was 'special.' The only problem with traveling as much as we do, is that I never get to see her. She's getting on now, in horse years. Sometimes I wonder how she's doing."
Argo and Gabrielle chatted a few minutes more. Gabrielle told Argo that sometimes she missed her sister, but that her parents and the other villagers didn't really understand her either. Wanting to be a bard had been bad enough, but running off after the Warrior Princess had been a totally foreign concept to them. She could relate to being different.
Argo told Gabrielle about the farm in Thrace that she'd grown up on -- not too far from Amphipolis as a matter of fact -- what it was like to be a colt in that northeastern region of Greece, and how she'd felt about leaving her mother and going with Xena.
"I guess we've both had a lot of adventures because of her." Gabrielle opined.
"You've got that right. It's never boring for very long around the Warrior Princess."
Gabrielle got up to stretch. Very casually she asked, "So, um ... Argo, has Xena ever said anything to you about me?"
"Oh, she talks about you all the time. How you never shut up, how you're always getting into trouble, that you never stay behind when she tells you to. Oh yeah, and how stubborn you are-"
"Stubborn! Me?" Gabrielle indignantly interrupted.
"Well you are, aren't you? I would think you'd have to be very stubborn to stick with her this long."
"Since you put it that way, I guess you're right." The bard still wasn't certain she cared for this particular confidence.
"On the other hand, she tells me you're a good cook. And between you and me ..."
Gabrielle leaned over to look at Argo. "Yes?"
"I think she really likes having you for a friend."
Gabrielle sighed and began fussing with Argo's mane. "I know, I know ... and I'm glad she's my friend, too. It's just that I'd been hoping ..."
"Hoping for what?" No answer. "Are you braiding my mane? She likes it when you do that for her."
"What?" Gabrielle hadn't even realized she had started twisting the mane into a braid. Exactly like she would for Xena. "Oh, yeah, sure. She has such beautiful hair, it's nice when she sits still long enough for me to fix it for her. Let me know if I'm pulling too hard."
"You're not pulling too hard. You were saying that you were hoping for something."
Deep sigh. "Argo, can you keep a secret?"
"We've been traveling together for two years and I've only just now decided to talk to you. I know how to keep my mouth shut."
Argo's lips didn't move when she talked anyway, but Gabrielle decided not to worry about technicalities. "I'd just been hoping that she thought of me as more ..."
"Well, as more than a friend."
"But you're her best friend. I know she's told you that."
"True, she has. I was just hoping that maybe, just maybe, she felt a little bit about me like I feel about her."
"And what do you feel about her?"
"You promise you won't tell her?"
"I've never told anybody this. It's kind of hard. You see, I think I'm in love with Xena."
"In love?" Argo's voice sounded a little funny.
"Yeah, I know, I know. I haven't got a chance. That's what I tell myself. So I don't say anything. But it's hard sometimes. Those eyes, that smile ... " She stopped braiding Argo's mane and leaned on the horse, propping her elbows on the warhorse's back and her chin in her hands. Dreamily she continued, "When she died and was in Autolycus' body, she kissed me. At least I think it was her. He looked pretty surprised."
"Why don't you think it was Autolycus? Didn't he grab your butt?"
"And she knocked him down for it, too. I thought she might be jealous ... I guess she told you about that, too?"
"A little. Go on."
"Well, it was wonderful. I felt like our souls had touched. But when she got her own body back, she never said anything. You'd think it never even happened."
"Maybe she was embarrassed."
"Xena? You must be kidding. This woman is not shy about that kind of thing. Did she tell you about Ulysses?"
"Why don't you tell me your side of the story?"
Gabrielle went back to her braiding project. "As soon as she saw him, I could tell she was interested. She just sat there ... smelling that stupid flower and watching him fight."
"Perhaps she liked his fighting style."
"That's what I told myself, too. But then when we were on the ship, she kept watching him ... and, and, smiling!
"There's nothing wrong with smiling at someone."
"I guess not. Don't get me wrong, he seemed like a nice enough fellow ... well, except for the time when he heard the sirens and kicked me, but I don't hold that against him. But there was one night when they were talking ... He told her he thought he might be falling in love with her."
"They didn't know I was awake. I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but I was so seasick that I couldn't sleep. So I heard them." She stopped braiding and looked at Argo. "She didn't tell him that she loved him, but ... she brought up the idea of soul mates. Of course, he said that he felt that way about her. And then instead of giving the usual brush-off, she kissed him. By the gods, that hurt!" She wiped a tear from her eye. "I could take her kissing him, but that soul mate business ... it was like she stuck a knife in my heart."
"So you never said anything to her?"
"What could I say? If she wanted Ulysses instead of me, there was no way I could compete. Besides, I love her. I want her to be happy. Her life is difficult enough as it is. So I told her that she shouldn't worry about me if she wanted to stay with him."
"Didn't she say the same thing to you when Perdicus asked you to marry him?"
"She told you about that?" Gabrielle looked thoughtful. "You know, you're right. She did say that to me."
"And I don't see Ulysses traveling with us."
"You're right. It turned out that Penelope was still alive, and Xena wouldn't let him leave with us. But she looked pretty upset when we left."
"Maybe she had second thoughts about him ... a married man whose wife doesn't understand him. Even I know that means nothing but trouble."
"Yes, yes. You're right. Still and all, it was very hard -- for both of us, I think."
"So why haven't you ever told her how you feel about her?"
"Are you kidding? She'd dump me on my butt back in Poteidaia so fast my teeth would jar and I wouldn't even see the dust you'd raise galloping away."
"You don't think she'd understand."
"Oh, she wouldn't hold it against me, if that's what you mean. Xena's pretty open minded. But she'd tell me something like I just have a bad case of hero worship ... or that I'm too young. You get my drift."
"I still think you should tell her."
"I just can't take the chance, Argo. I wish I was brave enough, but I'm not." She looked up at the sky. "Still, especially on a night like this ... when the stars fill the sky and the moon is so beautiful ... it's nice to dream ..."
"Tell me." Gabrielle did not notice that Argo's voice suddenly bore a remarkable resemblance to that of the Warrior Princess. Nor did she notice that very same Warrior Princess sneaking up behind her.
"Oh, it's a wonderful dream. She'd come up to me and put her arms around me ..."
"Yeah, like that. And then she'd whisper in my ear-"
"That I love you?"
"Xena!" Gabrielle stiffened in Xena's arms and tried to turn around, but the warrior was holding her too tightly. "How long have you been there ... listening? What did you hear?"
"That your dream is the same as mine, and that you love me." This time she did let the struggling bard turn around. "Gabrielle, Argo can't really talk. It was me, 'throwing' my voice. I thought I'd play a little joke on you. 'Guess the joke's on me, huh?"
"A joke?" The bard was still in shock. "It was you? You heard everything?"
"Every word." She caressed Gabrielle's blushing cheek. "That's a lovely shade of red, you know."
"I was pouring my heart out to a horse!"
"I do it all the time. She's quite the conversationalist."
"And it was you!"
"It was me." The bard suddenly found herself falling into clear blue. "Gabrielle." And the little bard finally heard what Xena had been saying for a long time when she spoke those three simple syllables. For this time, the warrior did not turn away to hide or disguise the expression on her beautiful face that so clearly communicated her longing, her desire, and her love.
Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's neck, and tilted her chin upward to meet the lips descending toward hers. Enveloped in the embrace of those strong arms, her lips parted in willing surrender to the woman she loved.
Eventually the kiss ended. Gabrielle rested her cheek against Xena's chest. "Xena," she whispered, then looked up at the warrior. "If I wasn't so happy right now, I could kill you." She clung to Xena's neck. She wasn't sure she could stand on her own -- her knees had inexplicably become quite shaky.
"Kill me later. C'mon, let's go back to camp. I think there's a lot more we need to talk about." Xena pulled Gabrielle's arms from around her neck, but continued to hold her hands.
Xena began pulling her in the direction of the campfire. "Like how beautiful you are in the moonlight, like how good it feels to hold you, like how much I want to make love to you. Stuff like that."
Gabrielle blinked and swallowed, hard. She smiled. "I have a feeling I'm gonna enjoy that conversation."
"Let's go then."
"Wait just a sec'. There's something I want to do first." Letting go of Xena's hands, the bard hurried over to the saddle bags, rummaged through them. "Ah!" She pulled an apple from the pack and handed it over to the grateful Argo. She stood, then dashed back to where the Warrior Princess waited for her with outstretched hand. "There. Now, you were saying?"
Xena just laughed and ran toward the campfire, pulling Gabrielle behind her by the hand.
Author's Note: This story was inspired by the Second Bard Contest's Category, "Xena Demonstrates an Unexpected Skill." Unfortunately, I am afflicted with chronic procrastination, and was unable to meet that deadline. Still, it was just too hard to resist.
Your comments and criticisms are very welcome. Please feel free to contact me at the email address at the top of this story
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