STANDARD DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and Argo remain the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures and no copyright infringement is intended here. All other characters and the story depicted here are mine.
NOTE: Its a long one, so get settled, crack open a bottle of whatever beverage you prefer and enjoy! All comments and/or private perceptions concerning this tale are welcome. Hey, its your free time youre spending here, so give it your best shot. Heres hoping you have as good a time readin it as I did writin it. Love, MMG.
ONE FINAL THOUGHT: This tale owes its conception and birth to my personal Muse whose dedicated support and encouragement inspired me to derive and then complete this piece. Just proves you can lead an old horse to water and make her drink.
Xena watched the little bard spread the blinking ashes within the stone-rimmed campfire site. The precise, efficient procedure was one the girl had performed countless times before, but on this morning, the warrior sat transfixed and immobile. She saw the little blonde rest the tip of her tongue in the corner of her mouth as she concentrated on her task. The warrior took a deep breath to clear the confusion in her mind.
Just when did this happen? the warrior marveled to herself. Exactly when did this person and I become so incredibly ... attached to each other? The leather-clad form on the large, fallen log shook her head slightly and closed her clear, blue eyes for a moment. Then she resumed her study of the small blonde kneeling at the fire site.
And how did it become so certain and undeniable? the tall woman continued to wonder. A few summers ago, I wouldnt have let anybody get this close. How did she find her way into my soul so completely? The warrior shook her head again, staring openly at the trim, slender form.
The bard responded quizzically to the intent stare of the woman across from her.
"What?" the bard asked, somewhat confused by the look on the warriors face. "What??" she asked again when she got no response to her first question.
Xena swallowed quickly, surprised herself at the unsettling effect the green eyes had on her reserve. "Nothing," she responded, lowering her eyes to the small twig she held in her fingers. She looked up at the bard again. "I was just looking at you."
Gabrielle felt a slight blush invade her face. "Uh-huh," she said, still not quite sure of her companions state. She let her eyes travel over the sculpted face. "Why?" she queried, more out of curiosity than anything else.
"No reason in particular," the warrior responded. "I just like looking at you," she said, smiling warmly at the verdant pools. "Is that a problem?" she asked, characteristically raising one eyebrow.
"No, of course not," the little blonde said, laughing nervously. She looked down at the lifeless ashes, still unnerved by the warriors continued stare. "OK, it is a little embarrassing sometimes," the girl admitted. "Like right now, for instance." The green eyes darted to meet the cobalt gaze, before returning quickly to the remnants in the circle. The slim neck betrayed the abrupt gulp that contracted the young blondes throat.
Turning to her companion, the bard joked, "It makes me feel like I have spinach in my teeth, or something." The warriors bright laugh echoed in the clearing and deepened the warm blush on the bards face.
"Im sorry, my friend," the warrior said as she tossed the small twig away and rose from her seat on the large log. "Ill try not to stare from now on," she chided. "At least, not when youll notice." She tousled the soft hair and walked across the campsite, deftly lifting the saddle onto the waiting mares back.
Gabrielle stood and crossed the clearing to stand behind the warrior. On an impulse, she wrapped her arms around the womans waist, pulling the sleek, muscled form to her chest. She laid her head against the sinewy back, causing a pause in her companions saddling activities. The warrior let the little bard enjoy the embrace for a moment, then turned to speak over her shoulder to the blonde head nestled between her shoulder blades.
"If you keep that up, well never make it to Almiros by mid-day," Xena joked, waiting for the bard to react. Another moment passed before Gabrielle released the hug and the warrior turned to face the slender form. The bard hadnt moved away; in fact, she was staring at the ground near the warriors boots, her hands on her hips, one leather-covered toe tracking absent circles in the dirt.
Xena leaned her head to one side, trying to focus on the gentle face. She could see the bards pursed lips and recognized the nervousness in the girls stance. She put her hand on the slim shoulder, then raised the soft chin to bring the young blondes eyes to meet hers.
"OK, give," the warrior coaxed. "Whats wrong? Dont you want to go to Almiros? Are you having second thoughts about helping them?"
"No, no, nothing like that," the bard answered as she gave the slender hand under her chin a little squeeze, then took a stride away from the warrior. She stopped and turned back to her friend, her palms clasped together, fingers interlaced.
"I still want to go. I did promise Musaeus that, if he found the old scrolls, Id help him restore them. Hes depending on me."
The warrior studied the cherished face, a bit confused at the bards reluctance. She watched the girl turn, walk back toward the now-dead campfire and focus her attention on the ashes contained in the circle. When the bard put a small hand to the back of her neck and rubbed the spot vigorously, the warrior recognized the gesture as the little blondes way of wrestling with a particularly unsettling issue. She moved a step closer to her small companion.
"Then what is it? Why are you so uncertain about this?"
Gabrielle stared at the ashes for a moment longer, then turned to her friend, a concerned frown gathered under the wheat-colored bangs.
"Its not just restoring the scrolls, Xena. I know theyre in pretty bad shape. Musaeus told me that when we were at the Academy last year. He said he figured, even if he did manage to retrieve them from the old caves, theyd be covered with mildew and some of them would be beyond repair. Theyd need to be totally transcribed again ... from the beginning."
The warrior waited for the little bard to continue. She still had not heard the reason why the bard seemed so uneasy about the upcoming trip.
"So," the tall woman said, finally giving in to her own impatience. "Why should that be a problem? Youre the perfect choice for that. No one knows the old tales in this part of the country better than you do." The warriors subtle grin did nothing to lighten the girls manner. She waited for the bard to respond. When the girls uneasiness did not subside, the warrior stepped next to the trim form.
"Gabrielle, whats really bothering you?" the warrior asked, turning the bard to face her.
The girl raised her gaze to meet the piercing blue eyes of her best friend. She studied the bronze face that meant more to her than any other. The look of concern in the green pools caused the warriors pulse to waver as she waited for the little blonde to speak.
"Well, first of all," the bard began, "its a pretty big responsibility. I mean, well be transcribing ... or re-transcribing scrolls that have been around for generations ... in some cases, even longer than that. They contain the very history of these people, Xena. I just dont want to ... misinterpret something. I could be ruining something thats very valuable, very precious. What if I--?"
"You wont," Xena interjected firmly. "Youre too careful with that sort of thing. You wont make any snap decisions. Trust your own judgment, Gabrielle. I do." The warrior smiled at the anxious face, then pulled the little form into a loose hug.
"Just the fact that youre so worried about it should tell you how cautious youre going to be." She rested her chin on the soft blonde hair. "If you didnt care so much, you wouldnt be tormenting yourself like this. You have too much integrity to take this lightly."
The bard was quiet in the warriors embrace, but Xena could sense the issue had not been completely resolved. She held her friend close and waited ... again.
"You said first of all," the warrior prompted. "What else is on your mind?"
Gabrielle took a slow breath and decided to plunge ahead. The question had to be faced sooner or later.
"You," she said quietly from within the warriors strong arms, bracing for the response she knew would follow. Her instincts were true, as usual. She felt the warriors body stiffen as the comforting embrace dissolved around her. The leather-clad woman leaned back to address the small form.
"Me?" the warrior blinked, totally confused. "Did you say me?"
The bard focused on the metal armor covering the tall womans chest. She traced the unique patterns with one small finger. "Yes. Im a little ... nervous about how youll react to Musaeus ... or rather to how Musaeus reacts to me."
Gabrielle could feel the blush cover her face as the warriors arms dropped away and the lean body became tense and rigid. She swallowed hard and slowly raised her eyes to meet the icy pools.
"Who is this Musaeus, anyway," Xena asked evenly. "And why would I be ... unhappy about how he reacts to you?"
The bard swallowed again and took a tentative step back from the muscled frame. "Hes just a fellow I met at the Academy last spring ... you know when I went there to try my hand at getting in?" The blue eyes were steady on her face. The little blonde put both hands behind her and took another step back from the serious face.
She laughed nervously and gave the warrior what she hoped was a convincing smile. "I guess you could say he had a bit of a crush on me." The blue eyes hardened. "Oh, not that I encouraged anything, you understand," the bard laughed again, even more nervously than before. "But, it was kind of flattering ... a good boost for my feminine ego, so to speak." She giggled lightly, then gulped and fell silent when she saw the rippling of the warriors jaw.
The bard watched her tall friend closely. "He was just very ... attentive and agreeable. Really very sweet." She waited for the warriors stoic expression to soften.
"Is he still as ... agreeable, do you think? And so attentive?" The warriors tone was as cool as the look she leveled at the bard. One dark eyebrow was poised above the crystal glare.
The girl let out a shaky laugh. "Oh, Im sure hes found someone else to ...."
"Worship?" the warrior said sardonically. All traces of the amused boredom displayed in her manner had disappeared. There was nothing playful in the liquid voice now.
Gabrielle reacted to the disdain present in the stiff stance. "Thats exactly what I was afraid of," the bard said in a slightly irritated voice. "I knew you wouldnt understand about Musaeus. I knew youd think ...."
"Gabrielle, get a grip," Xena said firmly. "Im never surprised at how many people think highly of you." A tiny, barely perceptible grin began to replace the grim expression. "I dont doubt there are dozens of young fellows who carry a vision of you in their hearts." The bard scoffed and raised her eyes to the trees towering above them.
Gabrielle trained a rather bored look at her tall companion. The green eyes focused on the warriors blue pools were twinkling despite the girls attempt to maintain a serious expression. The blonde head tilted toward the warriors somewhat nervous gaze.
"Is that why youre afraid to go through with this? You think Ill try to clobber him, or something?"
The bard gave her best impression of her friends raised-eyebrow glower. It was the chiseled face that now showed a bit of embarrassment. "I just didnt want you to get the wrong impression, thats all," the girl told her friend. "I dont want to see you get upset about this whole thing."
Xenas tall frame relaxed as she drew a deep, calming breath. She gazed lovingly at the soft face before her and gave in to the warm smile that shed been submerging during the discussion. "OK. So now we both know," the warrior said. "Ill be on my best behavior, so you can rest easy."
The bards face lit up as she responded to the warriors smile.
"I promise to control myself, all right?" Xena quipped, turning back to the patient mare. As she reached to secure the girth strap under the horses belly, she threw a triumphant gaze at the bard.
"Now wed better get going or you wont get to your boyfriend until tonight."
The warriors normally sharp reflexes became side-tracked by the tone of the discussion; otherwise, she would certainly have sensed the approach of the small stone the bard had tossed at her rump.
Chapter One ~~~
By mid-morning, they arrived at the town of Almiros. The warrior had no sooner lowered herself to the ground when she heard an excited voice calling out the bards name.
"Gabrielle!" the young male shouted as he hurried toward the travelers. As Xena turned in the direction of the sound, she saw her companion being lifted up in a resounding hug and spun around by a person she assumed was the bards fellow scholar. She watched quietly as the girls delighted squeals tumbled from within the energetic embrace.
"Musaeus!" the bard shrieked. "Put me down!" The young man set the girl on her feet, then held her at arms length to level a bright smile at the blushing face. He stood a good head and shoulders taller than the bard, yet not quite as tall as the warrior herself. A trim, muscular form was clearly evident beneath the long, colorful tunic. Xena noticed the smattering of freckles adorning the boyish cheekbones, contrasting with the assured, masculine manner in which the young fellow carried himself.
"Its so good to see you again," said a pleasant, resonant voice. At the same time, tight auburn curls bounced around the warm, smiling face. "I told them youd come. I knew you would."
"Them?" the bard asked, tentatively. "Musaeus, whos them?" Xena sensed a slight lessening of the bards enthusiasm at this piece of news. She trained protective eyes toward the girls stilted smile. It was then that she sensed the young mans eyes on her own face.
Musaeus hadnt noticed the tall warrior next to the great horse until now. He saw the vigilance in the icy, blue eyes when the woman looked at the small blonde. He released the bards waist and took a step toward the sleek, leather-clad form.
"Xena," the young man said, extending his hand. "Its a pleasure to meet you at last."
The warrior cast a quick glance at the offered hand, then took the slender palm to acknowledge the polite greeting. She met the eager smile with a subtle grin.
"You must be Musaeus," the smooth voice said. "Its nice to finally meet you, too." Xena threw a solicitous glance at the bards apprehensive expression. She swallowed the amusement that resulted from the nervousness in the girls open face. She released the boys hand and turned to gather Argos reins.
"Ill let you two catch up," the tall woman said, sliding the strap of the bards travel bag from her shoulder. "Ill get Argo settled and see about a room for us." She met the bards green gaze. "Have fun." As the warrior turned toward the stables, her progress was stopped by Musaeus friendly voice.
"Oh, I already made arrangements for your room," he said, looking back at the smiling bard. "I hope that was all right."
The warriors jaw rippled slightly.
"Just mention my name to the Innkeeper. Its already set up."
Gabrielle favored the young man with a warm smile. "Thank you, Musaeus. That was very nice of you," she told him, laying a hand on his arm. Xena noticed he covered the small hand with his own.
"Were very grateful, arent we, Xena?" The green eyes held a slight warning as they met the clear, blue gaze. The warriors dark eyebrow rose only a tiny degree.
"Yes,", the warrior responded evenly. "That was very nice of you." She turned again to the handsome young man. "Well, Ill see to Argo then," she said, turning back to the bard, "and bring our gear in. OK?"
The bards lips pursed only minutely. The two women held each others gaze for another moment before the warrior led the golden mare away. Gabrielle didnt realize she had let out a small, grateful sigh ... but Musaeus noticed it immediately.
"Nice meeting you," the young man called to the departing warrior. The bard swallowed quietly when she noticed the subtle straightening of the womans strong back.
The bard faced the young man again. She touched his arm affectionately and returned his warm smile. "Now, tell me, my friend," the little blonde said as they walked away together. "Who are them and why would you have to convince them Id come?"
Xena removed the gear and saddle from Argos back. She had handed over the required number of dinars to the stable owner, then led the horse into a vacant stall, politely refusing the mans offer to tend to the mare herself. Her tense, irritated manner made the animals soft ears rotate questionably toward her mistress. When the warrior slipped the bridle over the soft muzzle, the horse nudged the armored chest in a sympathetic push.
The tightness in the warriors jaw slowly subsided as she stroked the animals long, smooth face. She laid her cheek against the warm hide and took a deep, calming breath. Xena stood back to gaze into the large, brown, knowing eyes and felt her own chagrin invade her expression.
"OK, girl," she told the horse softly. "Youre going to have to help me out here, all right?" Argo whinnied quietly against the warriors hair. "I have to try and behave like a grown-up," she confided to the mare. "Ive got to show her that I trust her. Its really important this time, understand?"
Argo tossed her golden head and sneezed lightly against the raven tresses. Xena smiled and rubbed the animals jaw. She patted the sinewy neck and hung the bridle on the rails of the stall, next to the saddle. After checking the water barrel and the fodder bin, the warrior picked up the saddlebags, the water skin and the bards writing satchel and left the barn, determined to behave like a grown-up.
When Xena stepped into the small tavern, the plump, bearded bartender turned a wary eye in her direction. She told herself that one day her entrance into an establishment would not result in every eye present marking the event, but she found the cynic inside her scoffing at the optimistic thought. The blue eyes scanned the room, locating all important entrances and exits, returned to the round face behind the bar and lingered on the suspicious glare. The warrior took a slow breath and moved toward the bar.
"Musaeus said to mention his name?" she began cautiously then was a little taken aback when the mans manner changed immediately. The corpulent face broke into an open, broad expression and he favored the warrior with a friendly, although somewhat toothless, smile.
"Oh, yes,", the man said graciously. He leaned under the bar and handed over a small bundle of soft, clean material. "You and the little bard are in the last room at the end of the hall," he said, motioning toward the archway across the room with a pudgy hand. "Its our best accommodation," he told the warrior. "Musaeus was very clear. He wanted you two to be most comfortable."
Xena looked down at the bundle in her hands, then back to the mans bright face. "Clean towels," the man explained, his fleshy jowls bouncing as he nodded agreeably. "When youre ready, Ill have the girl fill the tub for you."
The warrior tried to cover her surprise as she searched in the bards bag for the rooms fee. When she offered the man the money, he waved her intentions off with an open hand. "No need for that," he told her. "The Elders have said that the little bard is to be the towns guest. You too, of course, being her companion."
Xena swallowed her amusement at her identification as the bards companion. She dropped the dinars into the cloth satchel and gathered up the bundle of soft material.
"Thanks, but Im sure shell want something to eat first." The bartender trained an expectant gaze toward the entrance to the tavern. Xenas gaze followed his. "Oh, shell be along in a minute. Shes with Musaeus."
The man nodded and smiled at the bronze face again. He wiped his thick fingers with a ragged cloth and rubbed the bar with a practiced rhythm.
"Well, all the same. Just let me know," he said. "When youre settled in, Ill have some nice ale for you -- at the pleasure of the house, of course."
The warriors jaw stiffened as her internal warnings awakened. Something in the mans solicitous manner set off an alarm. The open expression on the bronze face faded slightly.
"Look," she said to the round face. "Providing the room is one thing, but I dont think Gabrielle expects the town to feed us, too."
The man blinked, somewhat surprised.
"She has rather determined standards about things like that."
The bartenders thick eyebrows came together in a small, confused frown. He studied the stoic expression on the warriors seemingly passive face. This is not a woman whose word should be questioned, he decided. He nodded agreeably and resumed rubbing the burnished surface of the bar.
After a moment, Xena gathered up the bundle of cloth and the rest of the travel gear and made her way through the archway leading to the sleeping rooms of the Inn. She strode down the narrow hallway toward the last room, remembering the bartenders directions. When she came to the wide, wooden door, she shifted the equipment in her arms, lifted the latch and entered the chamber.
The bed in the corner occupied most of the area. It was a large pallet, almost twice the size of the beds theyd seen in other Inns during their travels. When she tested the mattress, she found it firm, solid and quiet. Xena dropped her cargo at the end of the brightly-colored coverlet and turned to survey the rest of the room.
Next to the bed was a small wooden table on which stood a metal candlestick holding a large, thick candle. It matched the two on the mantle above the wide, welcoming fireplace on the wall opposite the door. All three tapers were clearly new and unused. The dark eyebrows raised slightly when her eyes fell on the neat stack of wood next to the tidy hearth and the clean, well-tended grate behind the metal screen.
With her hands on her hips, the warrior pivoted to the wall opposite the bed. There she found a small, wooden chair next to another slightly larger wooden table. Running down the center of the gleaming surface was a bright scarf, its patterns matching those of the beds covering. In the middle of the table stood a large, wide-lipped, ceramic basin holding a deep, generous water pitcher. The warriors lips pursed in grudging admiration of the rooms accessories.
Xenas gaze fell to the floor under her boots. A large, oval rug covered most of the space, reaching from the edge of the bed to the stone front of the fireplace, traveling across the room to end just in front of the wooden legs of the table and chair.
She turned again, this time to acknowledge the gentle breeze that ruffled the lacy curtains fluttering away from the open shutters of the window that winked from the wall above the headboard of the bed. It was then that she noticed the lightly pleasant aroma that wafted across the enclosure. She scanned the room and located the source of the smell; the small, silver vase that stood between the candles on the mantle held a bright bouquet of fresh, delicate flowers.
Shaking her head slowly, Xena moved to close the wide, wooden door. As she secured the panel, she noticed the three wooden pegs that had been set into the wall behind the opening, obviously intended for the hanging of long, travel garments or, in her case, for hanging up her scabbard and chakram, if she so decided.
"Quite the little arranger, arent you, Musaeus?" the warrior mumbled quietly. "This place must go for ten dinars a night to regular customers." As her gaze swept the room again, the golden face slowly creased in a knowing grin. "Cyrene, Innkeeper of Amphipolis would get even more."
She moved back to the bed and began to untie the lacings on one of the saddlebags. As she withdrew various items from the leather satchels, the liquid voice mused quietly.
"Well, Gabrielle, youre finally getting the respect you deserve."
Chapter Two ~~~
Across the town square from the Inn where the warrior was unpacking stood a small, private structure. The two young bards were huddled over a wide, well-notched table in the center of the room. On the table, in random stacks and other small piles, lay a number of rolls of parchment, all displaying a myriad of conditions, from radically damaged to slightly soiled to moderate exhibitions of decay. The two attending scholars were involved in a concentrated, enveloping discussion concerning said artifacts, most of their remarks centered on which of their charges required the quickest attention and why.
Gabrielle accepted the scroll Musaeus handed her, the young face reflecting the rancid odor radiating from the mildew-covered document. She gingerly unrolled the parchment as the young man to her side carefully held down two corners with his fingers.
"By the gods," the little blonde murmured. "Some of these are really in need of help." Her green eyes scanned the stains on the manuscript spread before her. "Musaeus, these poor things ... they must have been in those old caves for thirty winters."
Musaeus watched the face of the young woman beside him with open attraction. He could see the green eyes dance with genuine interest, then soften with heart-felt concern. His eyes followed the small hand as it tenderly stroked the damaged scroll, the girls gentle fingers running carefully over the covered transcription.
"I told you," the young man said. "I didnt think any of them could have survived," he continued, glancing at Gabrielles concerned gaze. "But, when we finally unburied them and got them here, I found that most of them could be saved. But some of them are really going to take some attention."
Gabrielle released the scroll and the bottom edge of the worn, decaying vellum crept upwards toward the secured top edge. The young blonde brushed the dirt from her hands, then stood up away from the table.
"Whew!" she wheezed, rubbing her nose with one finger. "They really fill up a room with their aroma, dont they?" she said laughing lightly. She turned to the young man at her side. "Well, well have to get some dry rags, some new parchment and lots and lots of ink." Her eyes swept the room and she noticed the other scrolls spread on the floor and draped over random pieces of furniture in the room.
"Well get started on them first thing tomorrow," Gabrielle told her companion. "Right now, I need to get some of the dust from the road out of my hair." She smiled widely at the young man, then found herself somewhat unnerved by his close position, literally right next to her.
Musaeus had moved closer to the young woman, taking both her hands warmly. "Im so glad you came, Gabrielle. I knew, when you saw them and how much I need your help, that you wouldnt let me down." He gazed adoringly into the green eyes now raised to his.
Gabrielle swallowed a bit nervously, withdrew her hands and stepped slowly to the end of the table. "Well, I gave you my word, Musaeus. I said Id be here to help and so I am." The girl turned back toward the handsome face, her smile somewhat less steady than before. After a moment, her expression became more inquisitive.
"What did you mean when you said you told them Id come?" You still havent said who they are." She watched as the young mans good-natured grin faded and his face became slightly apologetic, almost contrite.
"The Elders of the Town Council are the them I meant," Musaeus said, his tone brittle. "They dont think these scrolls are worth the effort or the dinars its going to take to restore them." The young man paced angrily away from the side of the table, then turned quickly back to the bard. His face was exasperated, his manner stressful.
"In fact, I had to promise them that you would be sort of overseeing this project to even get them to finance the restoration at all," the young scholar told the little blonde. He stepped back to her side when he saw the surprise and concern in the wide-open green eyes.
"Now you see why it was so important that you come here and help me with this."
Gabrielle stared unbelieving into the face of her bardic friend. When she could manage to draw a quick breath, she closed her mouth and put one hand on the throbbing spot at the back of her neck. She staggered back a step then turned a shocked expression toward the plaintive young man near the table.
"Musaeus, Im no expert!" the little bard said breathlessly. "Im just a student, like you. Theres no way I could claim to take charge of this ... operation." Gabrielle stepped closer to the young face, now grimacing in regret.
"How could you tell these Elders such a thing, especially without telling me first!?" She spun away from the young bard, strode a few paces, then turned back to Musaeus, her soft face now showing signs of pique. "And why would they believe you, anyway?" Gabrielle asked, her eyes level on the young mans face. "Why would telling them Id come make such a difference in their decision?"
Musaeus lowered his eyes and rubbed absently at a spot on the table. After a long moment, he raised his eyes to the girls irked gaze, his mouth quirked in a weak smile.
"Because, I told them you won the contest at the Academy last spring and that youre becoming famous because of your tales about your best friend, The Warrior Princess. They had certainly heard of her and that convinced them that your expert eyes would justify their ... investment."
"My ... what??" Gabrielle repeated, staring into the imploring eyes of her young friend. She saw Musaeus blink and reposition the flimsy smile. After a moment, an uncontrollable giggle began to tickle the young blondes throat. A few seconds later, she burst out laughing, green eyes dancing in thunderous humor. The reaction was contagious; soon the young man joined in the raucous mirth.
The two youngsters enjoyed their merriment for a few minutes, then Gabrielle drew a shaky hand across her eyes and laid the other on the young mans arm. "Oh, boy," the girl gasped. "Thats a new one." She playfully slapped at her friends muscled arm. "Waitll Xena hears that one. Shell think weve both gone daft, for sure." She dissolved into hearty laughter again.
Musaeus smile faded slightly as he took the girls hand again. "Oh, dont give me away, please, Gabrielle," he pleaded, drawing the blondes attention back to his face. "If the Elders find out the truth, theyll sweep these scrolls into the nearest garbage heap and write the whole thing off as wasted time."
Gabrielles laughter dissolved as she studied the young mans plaintive expression. The request in the soft, brown eyes appealed to her gentle heart. She took a deep breath and raised her chin a bit higher. She patted the young mans arm.
"OK, Musaeus," she told him. "If it means getting these scrolls restored, I guess a little fib wont hurt anything. Ill keep your secret," the girl said quietly. Except, how do I do that with Xena? she asked herself nervously. I sure hope I can pull this off.
Chapter Three ~~~
Gabrielles eyes found the warriors the moment the bard entered the tavern. Her leather-clad friend sat in her usual preferred seat, at the back of the room, leaning against a protective wall. On the table in front of her, Gabrielle recognized a tankard of ale.
The girl crossed the room, sat down on the bench facing her friend, and deposited her staff on the floor under the table. The bronze face softened as the warrior saw the excitement radiating from her young friends bright face.
"So," the warrior said to the shining green eyes. "You and Musaeus all set?" The stoic expression broke slightly as the bard leaned forward to share the details of the upcoming project.
"There are a couple dozen scrolls that need work," the bard gushed. "Some of them are really in trouble, but I think we can read them enough to get the tales written out on new parchment.
The warrior watched the girls face, as always, warmly impressed by the enthusiasm she found in the bards honest enjoyment of her chosen vocation. It was becoming less of a surprise to the tall woman that the bards heartfelt delight engendered her own, in a nearly equal capacity. She found herself smiling back at the little blondes wide grin, grateful again for the cherished closeness with this extraordinary young woman.
"Theres just one thing, tho," the bard said, her smile fading only a minute degree. The warriors senses twitched when she read the reluctance in the girls open face.
"Whats that?" Xena asked, focusing clearly on the bards green eyes.
"Well," the girl began. "I think it might take longer than the few days I thought when I first told you about this. Some of the scrolls are so bad off that ..."
The warrior raised a slender hand and the girls excited chatter ended as the deep, blue gaze captured hers. "Its all right," Xena said, her grin returning. "Take your time. Theres no problem. We dont have to be in Kerkira until the next moon, so you have plenty of time to ... do whatever you have to do."
The girls smile brightened once more. "Youre the best best friend anyone could ever have," she told the warrior. The crystal blue eyes softened as they met the verdant gaze. The bard reached across the table and clasped the tall womans slender hand. "We should be finished by then. Well still get to Kerkira by the beginning of the Solstice, I promise."
A short moment of silence fell on the two women seated at the isolated table. Then the warrior swallowed around the closeness in her throat. She pulled her hand from beneath the bards and motioned toward the bartender with her chin.
"They serve a great venison stew here, Im told," she said, raising the tankard to her lips. "Are you famished, as usual?" she quipped at the bards grin. The girl returned a teasing smile to the warriors smirk and waved to get the attention of the young waitress. When she turned back to her friend, she saw a trace of another brand of concern in the golden countenance.
"What?" the bard asked, searching the blue pools. "Something wrong?"
Xena swallowed the mouthful of ale and glanced at the approaching waitress. The bard turned quickly to the woman and said, "Venison stew, please. Two bowls. And Id like some cider, too, if you have any." The redheaded girl nodded and left the side of the table. When the bard faced her companion again, the questioning expression on the girls face prompted the tall woman to respond.
"When I tried to pay for our room, the bartender wouldnt accept payment." She waited while the bard reacted to the surprising news. "He told me that the Elders had decided that you and your ... companion," as expected, the bards eyebrows disappeared under her blonde bangs. " ... were to be the towns guests," the warrior finished. She calmly raised the tankard again to hide the pronounced smirk now even more evident on her lips.
Gabrielle stared at her friends amused expression. After a moment, the waitress returned carrying a tray with their food and the mug of cider the bard had requested. The woman placed a bowl in front of each of them, then deposited a cloth napkin and a spoon beside the bowls. As she placed a small basket of warm bread between the two women, she smiled shyly at the bard and left the table again.
The bard focused on the stew, then raised her eyes to meet the warriors. The blonde bangs hid the wheat-colored brows for another moment as the two friends smiled together and turned to their food. When she had sampled the steaming mixture, and reacted agreeably to the satisfying taste, Xena caught the bards eyes again.
"The bartender almost didnt let me pay for this ale, either, but I convinced him that you wouldnt approve of the town going that far." She watched the girls hesitant reaction.
"Musaeus must have really impressed the Elders with your talents, huh?"
Gabrielle swallowed heavily and not just because she had a rather large spoonful of stew in her mouth. She centered her attention on the bowl in front of her for a moment, then raised her eyes to meet the warriors steady gaze. She could see her friends impeccable instincts sensing her uneasiness. The bard induced an innocent smile and met the knowing blue eyes with a confident air.
"I told you he had a crush on me," she told the warrior nervously. "I guess he exaggerated a little, to get them to finance this ... project." She waited, noticing the subtle change that flickered in the clear, blue eyes. "No harm done, right?" the girl said, her voice wavering slightly. "We just get a free room. Whats wrong with that?" she finished lamely, shrugging her shoulders to show her lack of concern at the warriors statement. She took a small drink from the mug to cover her tenseness.
Gabrielle turned her attention back to her food. "This stew is really good, isnt it?" she said, her tone overly sincere. She scooped up another spoonful and grinned around the bulging mouthful. The warriors quiet stare caused the girl to shift her focus away from the knowing eyes and back to the bowl of stew. The two women finished their meal in silence. A few minutes later, Xena drained the tankard, stood up and deposited a number of dinars on the table. Then she turned toward the little bard.
"Well, I expect youll want to get some rest so you can get started bright and early, right?" she said, her blue gaze slightly teasing on the young face. The girl answered the playful comment with a warm grin. She retrieved her staff from the floor and rose to follow the warrior across the tavern.
"Very funny, my warrior friend," the girl chuckled to the warriors back.
When they passed through the archway into the hall leading to the sleeping rooms, Xena gently directed her small friend toward the room theyd been assigned. She opened the door, smiling gently at the girls reaction to the rather plush character of their lodgings. Gabrielle looked around the chamber, mouth open and wide eyes clearly overwhelmed. The warrior gently nudged the bard out of the doorway, closed the door and held her position against the wooden panel, inwardly enjoying the girls astounded observation of their accomodations.
"Hoooly mother of Zeus," the bard said breathlessly. The green eyes slowly swept the candle-lit interior again. Finally, the little blonde turned to meet the blue eyes of her friend. She closed her mouth rather abruptly and gulped. The unexpected sound of the warriors quiet laugh brought a broad smile to the young face.
"Well, whatever Musaeus told them," the warrior said striding away from the door, "he obviously convinced them that the lady bard deserves the best."
Xena glided across the room and gingerly relieved the bard of her staff, turning to place the wand in the corner of the room. She casually sat down on the wooden chair, crossed her arms over her waist, stretched her long legs out in front of her and resumed her observance of the little bards slow inspection of the deluxe quarters. After another moment, the green eyes settled on the blue gaze of the woman in the chair.
"Wow," the bard said softly. "This is some room, isnt it?" She focused on the oversized bed and, after favoring her friend with a childlike grin, crossed the room and launched herself unceremoniously onto the center of the mattress. The warriors smile widened as the girls delighted giggle floated up from the coverlet. The bard sighed loudly, drawing both hands behind her head and crossing her ankles. She turned an adorable smile toward her friend.
"And they wouldnt let us pay for this?" she asked the warrior. The
leather-clad form in the chair shook her head and the little bard gazed up at the ceiling
over the bed. "Remind me to thank Musaeus for arranging this," the girl
chuckled, wiggling comfortably on the wide pallet.
The warrior watched her young friends pleasure for a moment before rising to travel the short distance to the bed. She picked up one small foot, pulled off the leather boot and dropped it onto the floor, beside the bed. While she had undressed the other foot, she cast a parental gaze at the twinkling green eyes.
"Enjoy this while you can, little bard," the tall woman said, sitting down next to the little form and pulling both bare feet onto her lap. She gave the bard an indulgent look. "Well, I guess youve earned it," she told the cherished face, "with all the things youve had to put up with lately." The blue eyes returned the warm look shining in the emerald pools. "So, like I said, enjoy." Xenas heart thumped at the understanding and returned affection in the soft, green gaze.
"However," the warrior said, pointedly dispelling the hypnotic effect of the girls stare. "I would suggest you get into your sleeping shift before you fall asleep right here." She took a tight grip on one small foot resting on her knee and wickedly drew one finger over the bare sole, causing a squeal from the little bard and a quick shift in the girls position. With that, the warrior stood up and began loosening the ties on her leathers.
Chapter Four ~~~
The next morning, after they had consumed a very tasty and quite filling breakfast, the warrior walked beside the little bard toward the small hut that housed the restoration project. She had agreed to at least have a look at what the young blonde would be working on and the girls enthusiasm had, as usual, undermined the tall womans disinterest. She had to admit it to herself; the precise nature of the scrolls needing attention really didnt matter to her, but the fact that their existence instilled such concern in the little bard did.
So, during the short distance to the little hut, the warrior made a concerted effort to keep her boredom under control and give the proposed undertaking its rightful consideration. In other words, she had decided to fake it, if necessary, and let her best friend know she had her support, if not her unlimited attention.
Gabrielle chattered joyfully during the short walk, regaling her friend with the many possible chances of new knowledge available to her during the upcoming days. Xena nodded appropriately while her blue eyes scanned the assorted buildings and shops in the town, mentally plotting how she would spend her own time during the next few days.
The warrior consoled herself with the realization that, while her companion would be occupied with the scrolls, there would be some welcome relaxation accessible to her, as well. As the little blondes excited ramblings tumbled around her, Xenas mind turned inward again. A quiet, knowing smile emerged across the stoic face.
Since when have I been so concerned with down time? she mused, glancing down affectionately at the young woman striding next to her. Shes given me that, too, the tall woman thought. One of the many ways she soothes my heart.
When they had reached the little hut, Gabrielle lifted the latch on the worn, wooden door, surveyed the musty interior and beckoned for the warrior to follow. Once inside, the bard busied herself with opening the shutters on the windows, filling the little structure with the mornings light, while the warrior studied the rolls of parchment laid in neat rows on the table, turning next to the tall, wide shelves of books lining the room.
Xena turned toward the bard as the girl came to stand next to her. The bright sparkle in the green eyes brought a smile to the warriors smooth face. The little blonde gently unrolled one of the scrolls on the table, holding the parchment flat and turned to her tall friend.
"See what I mean?" the girl asked as Xena stepped closer to the table. The blue eyes scanned the soiled parchment, recognizing the signs of decay and deterioration mentioned by the bard.
"Yes," the warrior said. "You were right. They really need work." She focused on the little bards excited expression. Gabrielle released the scroll and reached for another. The edge of the second scroll crumbled in her fingers spraying fragile pieces and puffs of dusty fragments across the table.
"Oh!" the bard barked, pulling her hands back surprised. She turned to the warrior. "And some of them are in worse shape than others," the girl joked, brushing her hands together. Xena put a reassuring hand on the bards shoulder.
"Looks like you two have your work cut out for you, all right," she said. She cast another look around the small hut, her gaze taking in the additional scrolls draped over various pieces of furniture and laid out on the floor. She crossed the room and carefully inspected one of the scrolls hanging over the back of a chair, then turned back to the bard.
"Try linseed oil," she said quietly. "mixed with a little olive pulp." She slid her fingers lightly over the stained parchment. "It might take off the mildew and leave the writing."
Gabrielle smiled as she stepped toward her friend. "I was going to ask you about that. I remember you mentioned it worked on some old battle maps, wasnt it?" She saw the tall womans abashed expression and put a small hand on the warriors leather cuff.
"Thanks for the hint," the girl said, smiling warmly at the self-conscious face. The warriors grateful smile met the understanding in the girls steady gaze. "And look at all the maps and drawings here," Gabrielle said, cleverly changing the subject. Her open arms indicated the many rows of materials. She touched one wooden shelf respectfully, turning an animated grin toward the warriors indulgent smile.
"We sure wont be wanting for references or historic particulars, will we?" The bards grin widened as she moved back to stand next to her friend.
The warrior shook her head slowly, smiling warmly at the bards sparkling expression. "No, you sure wont," Xena answered, enjoying the joy in the green gaze. She laid an affectionate hand on the little blondes shoulder. The tall woman straightened and stepped toward the door of the hut.
"Well, good luck. Im sure youll keep me posted on your progress," she quipped, the small grin returning to the bronze face. She stopped abruptly, took a quick breath and turned back toward the little bard.
"Oh, by the way," the warrior said, drawing a small bundle out of the leather cuff mounted on one arm. "I thought you could use this," the tall woman said. She shyly handed the little package to the bard, her blue eyes darting only momentarily to the young blondes face.
Gabrielle giggled openly as she took the package and glanced questioningly at her friends disconcerted face. "Whats this?" she asked. As the bard opened the parcel, the tall woman covertly watched the curious expression. The girls grin faded quietly when the unexpected gift emerged from its wrapping. She raised wide green eyes to the warrior then looked back down at the womans offering.
"A new quill point," the bard said quietly. "When did you ...?" the girl began, meeting the warm gaze in the deep blue eyes. The girl studied the shiny instrument for a moment, then returned the warriors loving gaze.
"I found it last week, when we were in Leska," the lean woman said. "Ive been waiting for a good time to give it to you." The golden face softened as tears glistened in the green eyes. "So, when you got the message from Musaeus ...."
The little bard quickly stepped next to the tall warrior and wrapped her arms around the womans waist. Xena returned the embrace, waiting patiently until the young woman ended the hug and stood back. The warrior gazed warmly into the shining face.
"Its beautiful," the bard said haltingly. "Thank you." The girl gently ran a finger over the bright new tool. She put one small hand on the warriors arm as another mischievous smile lit the soft face. "You sneak!" she chortled, poking the tall woman playfully. "Stone silent about it, as usual." She looked down at the quill point again, then back up at the clear blue eyes. "Youre sure good at keeping a secret!" The warrior touched the young face with her fingertips. She returned the girls smile.
"Just trying to help out my best friend," she replied, softly. Finally Xena turned and strode toward the door.
"So, have fun. By the way, wheres Musaeus, anyway?" she asked, as the bard carefully re-wrapped the new writing tip and placed it carefully next to the quill pen on the table.
The bards attention returned to her friends face. "Gee, I dunno," the girl said a bit confused. "Oh, well, hell be along any minute, Im sure. Hes as anxious as I am to get started." Gabrielle crossed the room and stood next to the departing warrior.
"You going to be all right all by yourself today?" the bard queried innocently, trying in vain to submerge a charming grin. "Think you can stay out of trouble?"
The warriors eyebrow rose quickly and the grin shed worn so recently faded as she trained the look at the bards self-satisfied smirk.
"Ha, ha," the tall woman growled, tousling the bards blonde hair. "See you later," she said and smoothly left the hut. Gabrielle watched the warrior head across the town square, then turned back to the scrolls on the table.
Chapter Five ~~~
Xena spent the next few days occupied with the many incidental tasks that, as result of the womens constant travel, had gone wanting in recent weeks. The warrior had decided that, since Gabrielle would be so involved with the restoration of the scrolls during their stay, she could handle those simple maintenance duties which the girl normally fulfilled so efficiently.
Shed made a mental list the first night as shed drifted off to sleep listening to the bards quiet, contented little snore. The warrior had trained her eyes fondly on the small, sleeping form next to her before finally closing the brilliant blues to enjoy the first unguarded, relaxed sleep theyd had in a very long time.
The list included the ragged seams on one side of the saddlebags that needed repair, two of their blankets really needed to be replaced, she could always use a new whetstone for sharpening her sword, and there was a torn spot on her leathers that would soon require immediate attention in order to avoid a possibly embarrassing event in the very near future. Xena had also decided to explore the forest surrounding the town to replenish the supply of herbs carried in her medicine pouch.
The most pressing item on the agenda, however, remained Argos new shoes. So, as a result, on the second morning after their arrival, Xena found herself leaning against the rails of the fence in the stable yard, enjoying a ripe, red apple that had been supplied by the bartender as she watched the blacksmith efficiently shape and trim the metal appliances for the palominos feet. Xena was impressed by the tradesmans assuredness and care.
While the smithy filed and pounded, the two engaged in a rather stilted conversation with the warrior providing her usual economic brand of response. Even though her participation in the condensed discussion clearly depicted her as less than eager to volunteer more than the most necessary information, the man had sustained a friendly, yet not intrusive, stream of dialogue during his labors.
At the same time, the smithy had managed his own veiled study of the woman warrior. He had heard the many stories of her escapades, and of the many conquests inflicted by her now-disbanded army. Yet, he had also been struck by the more recent tales of how she had rejected that violent life to turn her attention, and her talents, toward defending those in need, now becoming known as a champion of the just, more deserving cause. And he had watched the woman tend to her horse; there was a gentleness in her treatment and a genuine devotion between the warrior and the mare. The blacksmith had always subscribed to the opinion that, if a person treated their animals with respect and affection, they couldnt be all that bad.
The muscled worker plunged the glowing horseshoe into the water barrel and wiped his glistening face as a cloud of hissing steam rose from the vat. He shoved the handkerchief in a back pocket and, using a large pronged tool, pulled the new appliance out of the water, examining it carefully. He carried the shoe to the anvil in the center of the working area, raised the large steel hammer and began to shape the iron device. Xena listened to the steady clanging that rang from the hammers blows and observed the smithys skilled manipulation of the steel. She had watched enough blacksmiths to recognize an accomplished craftsman when she saw one, and this was a man who truly took pride in his work.
After banging the shoe a few more times, the blacksmith rubbed his calloused palm over the edges, put the hammer down and walked slowly toward the waiting mare. Argo cast a disinterested glance in the mans direction as he raised one of her hind feet, pulled the hoof between his knees and held the shoe in position to check its placement. After a moment of attentive scrutiny, the smithy looked up at the warriors observant face.
"Shes got a split starting here," he told the woman. Xena pushed away from the fence rail shed been leaning against and bent to examine the hoof secured between the smithys legs.
She could easily see the red cut in the soft center of the frog on Argos foot. It was not a serious problem yet, but one the warrior knew could become a dangerous injury if left unattended.
"Yeah, youre right," she told the smithy. "What do you suggest we do for it?"
The man released the animals foot and Argo lowered her hoof to the ground. As he stood up straight, an unexpected grin lit the mans rugged, tanned face.
"We?" he quipped, pulling the handkerchief out again and wiping his strong hands.
The warrior found herself returning the mans smile. The raven head tilted as she met the genuine gaze in the smithys dark eyes. "OK, what can you do for her?"
The blacksmith turned back to the golden steed and ran a weathered hand along the mares sinewy neck. "Shes a healthy, well-tended animal," the man said, glancing quickly at the warrior. "I think a little poultice and some moss will take care of it." The man turned again to the tall leather-clad woman. "I hear youre going to be in town for a while," he said, returning the cloth to his pocket.
The warriors eyebrows lifted slightly. She glanced down at the partially-eaten apple in her hand to cover her uneasiness. After a moment, she returned the mans gaze. It was then she noticed that, for a change, she had to look up to meet his eyes.
"Its a small village," the smithy said amicably. "We dont get many visitors who stay for more than a night or two." He watched the warriors reaction. "You and the little bard are a bit more famous than were used to, tho," he told the tall woman, his warm smile softening his words. He watched her shake her head slightly before training a guarded eye on the town square.
Xenas jaw tightened for an instant before she glanced back to the mans open expression. Her gut feeling about the smithy was that he was an honest man of quiet strength, and not one likely to waste time and effort on petty gossip. She decided to trust her own instincts in the matter.
The smithy extended a muscled arm toward the tall, slender form in leather. "Enoch," he said, his eyes steady on hers.
Xena took the arm in a solid grasp. "Xena," she responded, returning the look.
"Yes, I know," the smithy joked. His smile spread easily at the tall womans sheepish expression. "And the little bard is Gabrielle, right?"
The warrior nodded shyly. The man released her arm.
"So, what does all this mean to my horse?" Xena asked, meeting the mischievous twinkle in the gentle, brown gaze.
Continued - Part 2
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