Enoch crossed his arms over his wide chest and settled back easily into a wide stance. "I’ll pack the foot tonight," he told her. "Then I’d suggest you let her pad heal for a day or two, just to be sure it doesn’t open again." He turned again to the mare standing relaxed at the fence post. Then he turned back to the warrior.

"I think that should do it," the smithy said, training a cordial smile at the blue eyes. "I’ll keep an eye on it while she’s here. Agreed?"

Xena nodded. "Sounds like a good idea," she told the man. She walked over to the mare and held the rest of the apple under the horse’s chin. After a short sniff, Argo gently took the apple from the woman’s open palm and crunched the fruit happily. The warrior turned back to the blacksmith.

"I’ll pull the other shoes while her foot heals," the smithy said. "May as well check them all, while I’m at it."

Xena nodded in agreement, then reached into the belt of her leathers. "How much do I owe you?" she began, then stopped when she saw the man’s raised hand.

"We’ll talk about that when I get the shoes back on," Enoch chortled, again surprising the warrior with an easy grin. The warrior shoved the coins back into her belt and patted the mare’s thick neck.

"All right, then," she said to the smithy. "I’ll leave her in your hands." She extended her arm, but the man took her hand instead. The warrior’s slight tenseness seemed unnoticed by the muscular tradesman. He grasped her hand firmly, then released it. The warrior drew her hand back, a trifle disconcerted by the man’s attention.

"If you need a mount while she’s healing, just ask," the man said to the warrior’s blue gaze. "I have a number of a good breed. Feel free to take your pick."

"Thanks, I’ll remember that," Xena told him. She stepped away from the smithy and turned again to the town’s buildings. "I’ll check on her tonight," she said, moving away. "Thanks again."

The smithy nodded, waved and walked toward the big horse. As the warrior glanced back, she saw the man gather the reins and lead Argo into the stable again.

Xena lengthened her stride as she walked away from the smithy’s area. When she had traveled a few dozen paces, she slowed her pace and blinked in consternation. ‘What is going on here?’ she thought, bemused. The dark head shook slightly. ‘Must be the moon,’ the tall woman muttered, thrusting her hands on her slender hips. She scoffed at her own confusion, then continued on her path toward the tanner’s shop.

‘It’s your fault, little bard,’ the warrior mused, affectionately. ‘You’re turning me into a romantic, for sure.’ She smiled softly at the thought of the bard’s certain reaction to the recent event ... then decided maybe she wouldn’t share the episode, after all.

‘Like he said,’ Xena thought wickedly, ‘it’s a small village.’ She stopped at the tanner’s shop and strode through the door.


Chapter Six ~~~

In truth, Gabrielle would have been totally unimpressed by the warrior’s vaguely romantic experience. She had been much too busy making a determined effort at trying to induce a more serious attitude in her fellow bard. Musaeus seemed equally resolved toward convincing the little blonde that their concentration on the scrolls need not occupy all of their time together. It was an intention considered highly unsuitable by the little ‘lady bard’, and it was not the first time in recent days that she’d been moved to convey that opinion.

"Musaeus," Gabrielle said impatiently, sending a displeased scowl in the young man’s direction. "We need to find geographic evidence to the country mentioned in this one." The girl gestured pointedly to the scroll secured on the wide table, her brows furrowed under the blonde bangs. "I thought you were looking that up."

The young man lounging in the straight-backed chair across the room grinned at the little bard’s peeved expression. He twirled a piece of straw absently in his fingers, and looped one long leg over the arm of the chair.

"I did," he told the vexed little blonde. "I put the book ..." he twisted lazily. "... over there," he said, pointing the straw stick toward the opposite end of the table. Gabrielle turned toward the open volume an arm’s length from her, quickly scanned the pages and returned an aggravated gaze to the young man’s smirk.

"That’s not the right one," she told him. "This one refers to Aeneas," the girl said, her voice gruff. "We need the one that talks about Orion. Are you going to find it or not?"

Musaeus sat up quickly, an animated grin on his handsome face. He left the chair and literally bounded across the room to stand next to the little blonde. He playfully took both her hands and pulled her toward his gleeful face.

"Let’s go on a picnic!" he bubbled to the bard’s helpless giggle. "It’s still warm enough and the meadow smells so wonderful these days." Gabrielle extracted her hands and put a reproving hand on the young man’s shoulder. Her casual tone was betrayed by the bright blush coloring her soft face.

"Musaeus!" the little blonde laughed. "You’re hopeless." She gently pushed the fellow away and turned back to the scroll on the table. She pressed her lips together to combat the unnerving effects of Musaeus’ hand on her waist. Her hands clenched in a reflex when he brushed his lips to the back of her neck.

Instantly, the little blonde spun out of the unwanted embrace and leveled an angry glare at the young man’s satisfied expression. Gabrielle quietly clasped the fellow’s thumb and nimbly bent the appendage back against his wrist. The boy’s smug smirk faded immediately and his knees buckled under the sharp, piercing pain. A trace of the warrior’s feral grin floated across the little bard’s face as her juvenile aggressor reacted to her painful grip.

After a moment, Gabrielle released Musaeus’ thumb and smiled innocently at the young man’s humiliated look. She let him recover a bit before training a warning sneer at the boyish face.

"Private property," she told the young man meaningfully. "And you don’t have visiting privileges."

Musaeus gulped quietly, rubbing his hand briskly to relieve the stiffness still present. He backed away from the little blonde, a small level of fear behind the soft brown eyes. "Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you," the young man mumbled. He focused on his wounded wrist for a moment, then raised apologetic eyes to meet the bard’s green gaze.

Gabrielle studied the freckled face. The girl’s gentle nature began to tug at her conscience. She smiled regretfully and put a forgiving hand on the young man’s arm.

"Ok, let’s just forget the incident," she told him. "I didn’t mean to overreact, either. You kind of surprised me, that’s all." The little blonde watched the boy’s face brighten. She patted the young man’s arm affectionately.

"But, we really do need to get back to work, OK?" she said, raising one eyebrow in a good imitation of the warrior’s ‘look’.

Musaeus nodded and shook his hand briskly. The little bard saw the mischief return to the boy’s eyes. "But I want you to show me how you did that," he said boyishly. "That could come in handy sometime."

Gabrielle’s cheerful laugh dispelled the remaining tension that had settled over the little hut. She shook her head and clapped one small hand to her forehead. The bard gazed tolerantly at the young male face, then turned back to the table again. "Hopeless!" she scoffed as she closed the large volume and stepped to return it to the shelves across the room.

The next night, as the warrior and the little bard sat in the tavern, partaking of portions of what the waitress had termed the ‘special of the day’, Xena cast a concerned gaze at the faint signs of fatigue showing on the young bard’s face. She studied the sweet countenance, trying to decide first, if the signs were serious enough to mention outloud, and secondly, if she wanted to risk intruding on the little blonde’s personal domain.

The warrior battled the same dilemma that had challenged her on a regular basis lately as her instincts to ‘protect and defend’ the young blonde across from her came into direct conflict with her steadfast intentions to respect the girl’s desire to handle her own conflicts and make decisions based on her own best judgment.

The bard continued chewing, but the green eyes seemed trained on a distant, private subject. Xena waited to see if her friend was inclined to share whatever it was that had rendered her so unusually silent, thus affording the warrior an opportunity to help ease the bard’s obvious distress. The tall woman’s protective urges intensified when the bard swept a hand across her tired face.

"Gabrielle?" the warrior asked quietly. The bard’s green gaze slowly traveled to meet the blue eyes. "Are you OK?"

For an instant, the tall woman read a trace of tedium behind the slightly distracted gaze. The bard’s rueful smile incited the warrior’s apprehension. When the little blonde placed a comforting hand on the woman’s leather cuff, the warrior’s stoic face focused on the girl’s shaky grin.

"I’m sorry," the bard said to the deep blue eyes of her friend. "I guess I’ve been a little preoccupied tonight." The warrior covered the little hand with her strong one. Gabrielle pulled her hand away, concentrating for a moment on her half-eaten meal. "This is turning into more of a ... task than I thought it would be." She raised her eyes to meet the warrior’s and the leather-clad woman saw the uneasiness behind the emerald gaze. Finally the little blonde pushed the plate away and massaged her forehead vigorously with her fingers.

"Maybe I’m just more tired than I thought," the girl said, threading her fingers together. She looked into the warrior’s intense gaze. "I’m OK, really," the girl said to her friend’s look of concern. Xena returned the fragile smile, nonetheless noticing the considerable amount of food still remaining on the little bard’s plate.

She forced a lightness into her tone. "You must be tired," the warrior said, motioning toward the nearly-full plate. "I’ve never seen you send back that much." The little bard’s laugh was genuine, if not forceful. She gave the warrior a grateful glance.

"C’mon," Xena said, "time for you to get some rest." The warrior stood up, paid for their meal and gently pulled the little bard up from the bench. The girl rose stiffly, took the extended hand and let the tall woman direct her toward the room with the large bed.


Chapter Seven ~~~

As Xena approached the stable the next morning, she felt an odd sense of buoyancy invade her senses, then found the feeling soon replaced by a nervous expectancy. She carried her leathers and the empty saddlebags over one arm, and held a large piece of carrot in her free hand. The carrot was a treat for Argo who, the woman conceded, was handling her forced inactivity much better than her mistress was.

The mare’s foot was healing nicely, but the medicinal wrapping had postponed her rider’s enjoyment of the long, spirited, uninhibited ride she’d been so heartily anticipating since their arrival in the small village. The warrior had to admit the smithy’s remedy had proved quite worthy; but it still meant she’d had to find some other ways of filling her time while the bard tended to her project.

Yet, Xena told herself proudly, she had managed to take care of all the items on her ‘list’; she’d bartered, and quite successfully, for a pair of new blankets for their travel gear, and had arranged for the tanner to repair both the saddlebags and her ‘leather suit’, as Gabrielle had a habit of calling the warrior’s normal, daily clothing. On the afternoon that she had contracted for his services, Xena had told the man she would leave both items with him the next day. When he had cast an impatient look at her reluctance, she had cleared up his confusion in typically concise fashion.

"I can’t very well leave my leathers today, can I?" she had asked pointedly. When the man’s face remained blank, she had gestured toward her own attire. "I’m wearing them."

The merchant’s abashment had become evident at once. He laughed brightly and cast a self-effacing smile at the warrior’s slightly irritated expression.

"Well, would be a bit awkward, at that." he had admitted, pulling sheepishly on his ear.

"That’ll be fine then, ma’am’. I’ll look for them in the morning." Xena had been caught slightly offguard by being addressed as "ma’am", but the tanner’s open, friendly manner had served to dispel her wariness.

That was why the tall, slender form entering the stable on this morning was clothed in a soft, belted tunic, short, wool breeches and tall boots as she carried the leather outfit, the saddlebags and a carrot for her recovering horse.

Argo whinnied a welcome when the warrior arrived at her stall. Xena put down the things in her arms and extended the carrot. The mare’s lips captured the rare treat and the horse began enjoying it with relish. The warrior rubbed the animal’s silky neck, kneading one soft ear with her fingers.

"How’s it goin’, girl?" the warrior crooned, patting the sleek hide. She inclined her head toward the horse’s hind foot, looking closely at the piece of cloth covering Argo’s big hoof. It took only a moment to recognize the smithy’s efficient wrapping; the dressing was positioned in precisely the right place and secured perfectly by a thin length of twine tied around the horse’s leg. Xena could see that Argo was favoring her injured hoof less, even occasionally putting her normal weight on the foot. She smiled approvingly at the improvement.

"I’ll see you later," the warrior told her four-footed companion, turning to pick up the leather articles again. She gave the horse a farewell pat and turned to leave the stable just as the smithy entered the barn. His expression brightened when he recognized the tall woman with the clear, blue eyes. She returned his warm smile shyly.

"Looks much better today," the warrior said. Enoch nodded, his big hands on the corners of his smithy’s apron.

"Yeah, when I checked earlier, the split was healed completely. I was going to unwrap it later today." He gave his attention to the mare’s grateful neigh. "You’re welcome," he said to the golden head. The warrior joined in the gentle laughter. The blacksmith returned his focus to the lean warrior, his eyes traveling quickly over the change in her appearance. The brown eyes settled again on the woman’s blue gaze.

For a moment, the silence in the stable was accentuated by the muted sounds of the activity outside. The warrior blinked to break contact with the man’s intent stare and lowered her gaze to the material in her arms.

"You could probably take her out for a run tomorrow," Enoch said, his deep, clear voice resonating in the open enclosure. "Her foot should be ready. I’ll get those shoes back on first thing in the morning."

"Good," Xena said, taking a slow step toward the open stable door. Then she turned back to the waiting smithy. "But, I will take you up on your offer of another mount in the meantime, if that’s still ...."

"Of course. They’re out back," the man said, moving toward the smaller door in the back of the barn.

"That’s all right," the warrior said, halting his progress. "I have to take these to the tanner and get some lunch with ... the little bard," she explained. "But I’d like to take a ride this afternoon, if I could ..."

Enoch turned to face the tall woman again. "Sure," he said, his smile returning. "You can make your choice then." The sturdy male frame moved back across the barn. He followed the tall woman as she strode toward the wide barn door again.

"Fine, I’ll see you in a while," Xena said. Her eyes lit on the man’s faint scowl. She turned to the tanned face. "Is there a problem?" she asked.

The smithy exhaled roughly and looped his thumbs over the straps that secured his leather apron. He seemed to grapple with a decision before training a sincere gaze at the warrior’s blue eyes. He took another short breath and began.

"The little bard? Gabrielle?" he said, haltingly.

The warrior nodded, a wavering uneasiness beginning in her chest. "Yes, what about her?"

"Well, you can tell me it’s none of my business and you’d be right." The warrior’s eyebrows knit in a confused frown. "But I have a sense that you’re probably a little ... uneasy with the situation, as well, so I’m going to take a chance." He waited for the tall woman to respond.

Xena saw the sincerity in the man’s gaze, but his muddled statements were clouding her perception. She took a step closer to the tall, rugged smithy and submerged her impatience with an open smile.

"I’m sorry. You lost me. What situation?" She watched the man’s face.

"The situation with your little friend and that young man, Musaeus." The warrior’s jaw tightened as the clear blue eyes took on a grayish hue. Her thin smile faded immediately as she focused on the blacksmith’s face.

"Exactly what are you suggesting? As far as I know, there is no ‘situation’ between my friend and this young man. Are you saying ....?"

"No, no," Enoch said, his big hands open in front of him. "I’m not suggesting anything ... unseemly. She appears to be a fine young woman," he said, aware of the hardness in the tall woman’s expression. The man relaxed gratefully as he saw some of the stiffness leave the warrior’s body. He paused a moment, then continued.

"That’s my point, you see? If she were my friend, I’d make sure she didn’t get too involved with that particular youngster. He’s not exactly ... trustworthy."

Xena studied the tanned, mature face. Her senses sent her a solid message about the man’s honorable intentions. Yet, her instincts told her the subject was one that required she keep her own reactions as objective as possible, even though her first instinct was to wholeheartedly agree with the man. She took a short breath and relaxed her jaw.

"A bit of a ... charmer, is he?" she asked, keeping her tone light. The smithy’s eyebrows rose as his brown gaze locked with the warrior’s. He returned the woman’s subtle grin.

"If she were my daughter, I’d be more than a little worried," the man said evenly. "He has a habit of getting others into a tight spot while he escapes wearing an innocent smile." The smithy watched the warrior’s reaction. "But like I said, it’s really none of my business."

Xena took a deep, calming breath. She saw the man’s honest expression, taking note of his fatherly reference. The fact that he had verbalized her own impressions made her assign a more-than-ordinary credence to his comments. She felt the tenseness in her stance subside.

"No, it’s very kind of you to be so concerned about her. Even though, we are complete strangers." She favored the man with a gentle smile. "I appreciate you being honest. But as I keep telling myself, she is a grown woman. And I know her well enough to believe she’ll make the right decision, if that ‘situation’ arises." The smithy’s face creased in a friendly grin.

"I will, however, stay ... aware," the warrior continued softly. "And I have my own reasons for doing that."

Enoch’s warm smile grew wider as he gazed down into the warrior’s blue eyes. He laughed softly and raised one big hand to massage the back of his head. Then he returned the woman’s expression with a knowing glint.

"Well, she couldn’t ask for better than that, I’ll venture." The soft brown eyes made the warrior relax even more. She extended a hand and the smithy took it firmly. After another quiet moment, Xena withdrew her hand and stepped back.

"I’ll be back later for that ride. See you then." The smithy nodded and the warrior left the stable and headed for the tanner’s shop, the man’s words still echoing clearly in her mind.

After she had left the leather items with the tanner, Xena returned to the Inn. She halfway expected to find a hungry little bard waiting for her in the tavern, since the hour was close enough to lunchtime for the girl’s internal clock to suggest she seek nourishment. After quickly scanning the small dining area and not finding the small form of her friend, the warrior decided to go back to their room for her medicine pouch and the bag she used to store the healing herbs. She would simply take her ride into the forest a little earlier than planned.

Xena retrieved the items from the sleeping room. As she turned to leave, her eyes lingered on the scroll lying on the table against the wall. She recognized it as one the bard had been working on the night before. The warrior’s mind replayed the previous evening’s events, remembering the bard’s careful examination of the transcribed piece and the painstaking attention the girl had expended making detailed notes on the written words contained there.

The tall woman also remembered the sight of the exhausted little blonde, her chin supported on her fist, fighting heartily against the sleep that threatened to overtake her which, in turn had prompted her lanky friend to suggest that further work on the scroll could wait until morning. The warrior’s proposal was followed by the girl’s quiet, but firm, refusal to take the woman’s advice.

The warrior’s lips curved in a smile as she recalled turning toward the lithe form a while later to find the blonde head bobbing helplessly in fatigue, and her decision to smoothly sweep the small form out of the chair and deposit it in the large, beckoning bed. The girl had protested only until the warmth and comfort of the pallet had outweighed her slight resentment of the warrior’s custodial attitude. After a few moments, the green eyes had closed and the compact form had relaxed into sleep.

Xena stood quietly, her fingers lightly touching the roll of parchment. After a moment, her faint smile grew as she made a decision. Moving quickly, the warrior secured the sheath holding her dagger to the belted tie of the tunic, gathered the medicine pouch and the herb bag, and slipped the scroll under one arm. The blue eyes scanned the area, then the tall woman left the room, closing the wooden door behind her. When she entered the tavern, she crossed to the bar for a short conference with the round bartender. A few minutes later, she left the Inn and headed across the square toward the little, private hut.


Chapter Eight ~~~

Gabrielle sat back in the hard chair and raised her arms high over her head. After executing a long and loudly-vocal stretching maneuver, she dropped her arms, pulled her head sharply to one side, then dropped it to the other side, trying to relieve some of the tightness in her aching shoulders. After repeating the process a few more times, the muscles along her neck seemed to relax somewhat and she reached to knead the remaining stiffness with her left hand. As she lowered her chin to help with the process, her eyes came to rest on the quill pen in her other hand, the new tip gleaming brightly in the sunshine cascading through the open window.

The green eyes shone warmly as the girl’s thoughts turned to the warrior who had provided the new point. A soft smile lit the gentle face as she remembered the woman’s embarrassment when revealing the gift. The bard shook her head slightly, as usual convinced that her best friend really didn’t realize how truly unique she actually was, and how such small, gentle gestures, as random and unexpected as they always were, did more to secure a place in the little bard’s heart than all the heroic deeds and accomplishments she had seen the woman perform ever would.

‘She still believes she’s not good enough to deserve respect and devotion’, the little blonde thought. ‘She believes she’ll never deserve those things again.’

Gabrielle eventually became aware that Musaeus was speaking to her. She pulled her awareness back to the little hut and the young man staring at her from the other side of the table.

"I’m sorry, Musaeus," she said to the young male face. "What did you say?"

Musaeus’ gaze was gently teasing on the lovely, open expression. He tilted his head slightly and leaned easily on the table.

"I was just asking you what you were thinking about," he grinned. "Whatever it was, you seemed to be enjoying yourself."

A mild blush warmed the bard’s face. She straightened in the chair and turned a decisive glance at the boy’s brown eyes. The verdant pools now blazed in a business-like style.

"I, ah ...." the bard stammered, then caught hold of her feelings. "I was thinking that we’re not making much progress here, today. Maybe we should just wrap things up for now and get back to this first thing tom ..."

Musaeus moved swiftly around the table to stand at the side of Gabrielle’s chair. He touched the girl’s slim, tanned arm solicitously, resting his other hand on the back of the chair behind her shoulder.

"I’m sorry," he crooned, his expression penitent. "I didn’t mean anything, it’s just that ..." The boy’s words faded.

"Just that what?" Gabrielle prompted, facing the freckled face. "What are you trying to ask me?"

The young man backed away from the girl in the chair, his face showing a sincere degree of regret. He lowered his gaze from hers, then hesitantly met the green pools again. He leaned casually on the side of the table and stroked the worn surface with his thumb.

"Well," Musaeus began, obviously choosing his words carefully. "Your friend?" he said, haltingly. "The warrior ... person?" Gabrielle’s jaw tightened instinctively.

"Yes?" the bard said, her tone crisp. "What about her?"

The young man’s gaze darted to meet the bard’s, then swept away. He focused on the path traveled by his thumb. His smile was forced, his tone almost sullen. Finally Musaeus took a short breath and brought his eyes to meet the bard’s sharp gaze.

"She’s intimidating and rather formidable, and all that but ..." he stopped again. Gabrielle’s patience had finally ebbed. She turned herself fully toward the stammering young man, her back rigid and her voice firm. She covered the young bard’s tracking hand, bringing an end to the rubbing motion of his thumb.

"But what??" the little blonde said. "You can be plainer than that, Musaeus," the girl barked. "What is it you want to know, exactly?"

Musaeus noticed the impatience in the green eyes and the blatant intolerance in her manner. He knew he had stumbled onto hallowed ground, but his masculine priorities were at stake here. He summoned his best captivating face and forged ahead.

"I don’t think she likes me much," Musaeus began, watching the little bard’s face closely. "And she seems so dour and uninteresting." He paused when he saw the girl’s chin rise stubbornly. The young man decided to proceed, nonetheless.

"Why do you stay with her? You could be earning pouches of dinars as a bard, you know?" The young face was earnest, almost childlike. Gabrielle stared at the youthful countenance, more surprised now than angry.

"I’ve seen the way you tell a story, Gabrielle," Musaeus said, his voice warming to the subject. "You hold an audience spellbound. I’ve never seen anyone pull them in like you do. It’s ... like magic!"

The little blonde sat back in the chair, amazed at the young man’s announcement. She blinked in wonder at the juvenile attitude evident in the young man’s perception. She raised one hand to her forehead, and closed her mouth which had dropped open in awe.

"You could stay here in Almiros, we could be a team," the young man raved, pacing the room excitedly. "Once we restore these scrolls, people would come ... travelers from all over this part of the country ...." He turned back to the shocked bard. "They’d all want to come and hear you, weaving the tales as only you can."

Gabrielle shook her head to clear her senses. A small, startled laugh bubbled in her as the silliness of the young man’s proposal danced in her mind.

"Musaeus," the little bard giggled, but the young man didn’t hear her.

"Don’t you see?" Musaeus continued, even more excited than before. "You’d be famous in no time!" He swept back to the young woman in the chair. "We could both be famous ... and rich! You’d be ‘The Famous Lady Bard’ and I could be your ... associate."

Gabrielle burst into laughter. Her green eyes danced merrily and she covered her mouth with both hands. After a moment, she tried to contain her amusement and focus on the young man’s animated face. Blinking heavily to clear her vision, she began to recognize the total conviction in Musaeus’ flushed expression. She realized then that he had been completely serious in his suggestion, even though she had honestly assumed the wild pronouncement had been a colossal, expansive joke.

As she regained some control, Gabrielle began to experience her own brand of remorse. She immediately felt sorry for ridiculing the young man’s plan so emphatically. She laid her hand on the boy’s arm and fought strongly to submerge her rampant amusement. When she saw the hurt in her fellow bard’s eyes, the girl’s gentle heart lurched in sympathy and regret.

"Oh, Musaeus," she sputtered helplessly, "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to ...." The bard swallowed hard and wiped her eyes. As she watched the male face pale in disgrace and humiliation, Gabrielle felt even more guilty. She took the young man’s hand and smiled warmly at the crestfallen expression.

"That’s very dear of you," she told him. "But, I couldn’t possibly stay here in Almiros."

The green eyes now sparkled sincerely, her attitude open and genuine. "Xena and I will be leaving as soon as we’re finished here." She tilted her head to capture the young man’s rueful scowl.

"My place is with her," she said, meeting the brown gaze steadily. "We’re ..." The little bard paused, letting her thoughts dwell on the tall, slender warrior to whom she felt such devotion and loyalty. She raised her eyes to meet Musaeus’ again. "That’s the ‘team’ I’m on," the bard said softly. "I’m part of Xena’s team. Do you understand?" The sweet smile brought an answering grin to the young man’s face.

Musaeus studied the soft, open countenance of the girl he so admired. He saw the sincerity in her green eyes and the gentleness in the forthright expression. After a moment, he covered the small hand holding his and returned the warm smile.

"She’s really important to you, isn’t she?" he said. "I can tell you mean a lot to each other."

Gabrielle lowered her eyes and focused on their clasped hands. "She’s very important," the little bard said quietly. She met the young man’s eyes again. "She’s more than my best friend. We’re ... connected, you know? We’re secured to each other." The emerald gaze scanned the young male face. "It’s kind of hard to explain," the girl finished softly, pushing the chair away from the table and getting to her feet.

Musaeus laid his free hand on the little bard’s shoulder. "No, I understand perfectly ... now," he said to the green pools. "I see it clearly in your eyes." He smiled warmly at the bard’s flushed face. The brown eyes grew more serious. "I hope she realizes how lucky she is, too."

Gabrielle’s wide smile brought a friendly grin to the young male face. "Thanks, Musaeus," the little blonde said. The young man gathered the little blonde into a friendly hug and the two friends laughed softly together.

An instant later, Gabrielle heard a knock as a familiar voice called her name. The two bards turned in unison as the door to the hut swung open ... revealing the tall, slender warrior, displaying a blank, amazed expression, a small tray covered with a clean, white napkin in one hand and a soiled scroll of parchment in the other.


Chapter Nine ~~~

"Xena!" the little bard exclaimed, separating herself from Musaeus’ embrace and moving quickly toward her friend. When she was beside the tall warrior, she noticed the faint level of uncertainty in the deep blue eyes. Gabrielle smiled brightly, hoping to dispel the troubled look.

"What’ve you got there?" she said lightly, taking the tray from Xena’s hands and gingerly lifting the napkin.

"I brought you some lunch," the warrior said, her tone somewhat stiff. Her eyes drifted to an identical tray laying at the end of the table, remnants of food clearly displayed on the dishes and utensils. "But I guess you’ve already eaten," the smooth voice said evenly.

"Well, Musaeus had some sent over ...." the little bard said, maintaining her smile as she put the new tray down next to its mate. "But it was a lovely thought, all the same." She turned back to the warrior’s stoic expression, then let her eyes travel over the tunic the woman wore.

"Nice outfit," she said smoothly. "You got your leathers to the tanner, I see." She searched the tall woman’s face for signs of understanding; she found very little, if any, present.

A moment of difficult silence fell over the three forms in the little hut. Then the warrior turned to her small blonde friend.

"Well, I didn’t mean to interrupt," she said to the girl. "I’m going to take a ride ... look for some herbs. To replenish ... our supply." She stepped toward the open door, then noticed the scroll still resting in her other hand. She turned back to Gabrielle. "Here," she said, handing the parchment to the little bard. "You left this at the Inn...thought you might need it, too."

"Oh, yeah," the girl said, looking down at the scroll. "I wondered where that one went."

The tall form turned quickly toward the door again, but stopped when the little blonde put a tentative hand on her arm.

"Xena?" Gabrielle asked, quietly. "What’s wrong?"

The warrior swallowed, keeping her eyes on the open door. "Nothing," she said finally turning to her friend’s expectant face. "You’re busy and I’m off to the forest." She gave the girl a flimsy, fragile smile. "I’ll see you back at the Inn." With that, the tall warrior moved decisively through the door.

"OK," the little bard said blankly. "Happy hunting." The warrior waved a hand absently, then quickened her pace. After a few long strides, she disappeared from the bard’s view. The girl looked at the scroll in her hand, then turned a vacant stare at the silent young man still standing nervously beside the table.

"Medicinal herbs," the girl said, cryptically. "In the forest," she told her companion, then turned her own confused stare toward the door the warrior had recently exited.

Across the square, Xena had arrived at the stable again. She found the smithy at work at his anvil and he smiled invitingly when he noticed her approach. The warrior took a short breath, trying her best to maintain a level of civility, despite the knot of tenseness in her stomach. The man sensed her strained attitude and responded as cordially as possible, without appearing too forward.

"Ready for that ride?" he said, putting down the big hammer and pulling another big handkerchief out of the usual back pocket. The tall woman met his steady gaze, grateful for the man’s sensitivity.

"Yes," the warrior said stiffly. "I got finished with my other ... errands a little early, so I thought ... that is, if it’s all right," the woman said, her normal taciturn nature back in place.

The smithy’s easy smile settled the warrior’s uneasiness. He started toward a small, fenced area beside the barn. "They’re over here," he said over his shoulder, motioning for Xena to follow. "Like I said, you can take your pick."

The warrior’s face softened as the blue eyes traveled over the group of horses contained in the arena. There were several well-formed animals, all healthy-looking, spirited and obviously accustomed to random riders. Her eyes settled on a sleek, red-coated gelding with an intelligent head who met her gaze knowingly.

"Him, the chestnut fellow," the warrior said softly, glancing slyly at the blacksmith’s grin.

"I figured he’d be the one," the man said amicably. "And you’re one of the few who could handle him, I think. He really likes to run. His name’s Minos," he told the tall woman. "I’ll bring the tack." He strode back toward the barn.

Xena stepped closer to the corral and extended a slender hand toward the horse’s auburn head. The animal’s gaze was steady on hers as the two invested slightly in each other. By the time the smithy had returned, carrying a saddle, a clean blanket and a soft, supple bridle, the warrior and the red horse had reached a provisional agreement. She took the equipment from the smithy, opened the gate to the corral and calmly walked over to the waiting mount.


Once she had cleared the edge of the small town, the warrior pressed her boots to the chestnut’s sides and was pleasantly surprised at how smoothly the animal responded. She leaned forward in the saddle, urging the horse into a sloping gallop, her body matching his in cadence and tempo. She reveled in the feeling of the wind streaming against her face and body, sweeping her long, black hair out behind her as the beat of the animal’s hooves, regular and rhythmic, pounded firmly on the hard ground beneath them. The gelding stretched out comfortably under the lean form on his back, and the two beings charged through the countryside, enjoying the other’s company.

Eventually, Xena slowed the animal to an easy canter, rocking into the even meter of the chestnut’s level gait. She settled back easily in the saddle, letting the practiced responses clear her mind and reinstate her senses. The jolt she had experienced upon entering the little hut had clouded her awareness and, she had to admit, reignited the nagging doubts she seemed to battle regularly these days concerning the uncertain future of the young woman who traveled next to her and whose well-being mattered more to her than any other.

The warrior’s inner tumult had begun to undermine her normal, unshakable reserve. As much as she treasured the little blonde’s presence at her side, she had begun to question whether that aspect of their shared reality was really in the girl’s ongoing best interest. Seeing Gabrielle happily enjoying the company of her young male friend had rattled the warrior. The insidious qualms she’d suffered lately concerning the character, and continued longevity, of the most cherished friendship of her life, had begun to gnaw at her stability and threaten her reserves.

Xena clamped a restraint on her raging insecurity and drew back gently on the reins. The chestnut gelding smoothly reduced his speed. He sensed the warrior’s mental agitation and reacted placidly to the firm pull on the bit in his mouth. Gradually, the horse slowed to a gentle, gliding walk, as the woman in the saddle rewarded his obedience respectfully.

"Good boy," the warrior said, pulling the horse to a stop under a small grouping of trees and sliding gracefully to the ground. "You’re a good mount, Minos," she said, patting the strong neck fondly. The red horse shook his head briskly and the tall woman smiled lightly, satisfied with the gelding’s performance.

"You’re not my Argo," she told him gently, "but today you’ll do just fine." The blue eyes quickly traveled over the horse’s trim form, then lingered on the solid, intelligent head. "Thanks, boy," she crooned softly. "I needed that."

The warrior slipped the long reins over a thin, nearby branch. She opened the pockets on the side of the saddle, pulling out her medicine pouch and the herb bag. With one final, friendly pat to the horse’s neck, she moved off in the direction of the small patch of foliage she knew would provide some of the herbs she needed to refill her supply. She drew her dagger and began systematically trimming the undergrowth and depositing the various plants and leaves in the pouches.

When Xena had decided that she had obtained all she could from the present site, she returned her dagger to its sheath, closed the pouches and walked back to the chestnut gelding waiting patiently under the trees. She returned the bags to the pockets on the saddle, untied the reins and remounted the red horse. As she settled herself in the saddle again, her instincts sparkled to attention and she sensed the horse’s heightened watchfulness as well. The blue eyes scanned the surrounding area, alert and vigilant.

"You hear it, too, don’t you?" she said quietly to the trembling horse beneath her. "Easy, fella. C’mon, we’ll check it out." She gently pressed her knees against the warm hide and the animal stepped forward tentatively.

They had nearly cleared the little copse of trees when she saw him ... the beautiful, black horse standing proudly in the center of the open field ahead of them. His ebony hide glistened in blue-black patches in the bright sunlight. His flowing mane rose like an indigo crest, mounting high then falling low at the base of the long, slender neck. The muscled expanse arched up into a small, savagely beautiful head, the head of the wildest of all creatures -- a stallion born wild, a splendid, sentient being with a stunning physical perfection that matched his untamed, ruthless spirit.

"By the gods," the warrior whispered. "He’s magnificent. Eighteen hands, if he’s a notch ... a real beauty."

Xena sat in awe of the resplendent animal, frankly admiring the brilliance of the stallion’s confident stance. After a moment, the black horse reared slightly, lifting his powerful front hooves and pawing the ground. He tossed his noble head, the perfectly matched ears twitching in the sunlight. The warrior watched the grand declaration, a willing respect settling in her for the majestic essence displayed by the animal’s vibrant soul.

The chestnut horse pranced nervously. The warrior recognized the challenge in the gelding’s manner and she gathered the reins instinctively. She leaned near the horse’s ear and spoke to him soothingly.

"Easy, Minos," the woman murmured smoothly. "Believe me, boy, you don’t wanna go there."

The red horse’s manner quieted slowly as he responded to the warrior’s expert touch. His ears rotated back toward her liquid voice then returned front, maintaining a quiet vigilance in the black stallion’s direction.

Xena saw the wild horse dance forward, rear again slightly, then pound the ground heartily with his front feet. She heard a shrill, loud whistle float across the field. The chestnut horse trembled and the great mustang rose onto his hind legs, pivoted and streaked away from them, his muscled coat rippling as he thundered off in the opposite direction. The warrior felt herself relax as she let out a long breath. The blue eyes followed the retreating black figure as it disappeared into the thick line of trees on the other side of the clearing.

The tall woman pulled herself out of the reverent observation and focused her attention on the red horse under her. She pulled the reins against the chestnut’s neck, turned the animal around and nudged the gelding’s sides with her boots. Once again he responded smoothly and soon she was settling into the even flow of his canter. She headed them back toward the town.


Chapter Ten ~~~

Gabrielle sensed the warrior’s entrance into the tavern even before she raised her eyes to see the tall woman making her way toward the table. The little bard’s face lit in a warm smile as she watched her friend stride effortlessly across the room. Gabrielle wound the scroll she’d been reading into a roll and placed it with the other piece of parchment on which she’d been making notes. She slipped the quill pen into the soft, leather pouch that the warrior had fashioned for her and stacked the materials carefully at the edge of the table.

As the warrior strode nearer, her tanned face creased in an answering grin, the bard mentally instructed herself not to bother her tall friend with the growing doubts that had begun to prickle her senses about the restoration project, specifically the level of honor she could affix to the intentions of her young male bard associate. Gabrielle pushed back her own qualms and turned a welcoming smile toward her approaching friend.

Xena sat down on the bench beside of the little blonde, putting the bundle in her arms down on her other side. She gazed for a moment at the young, fresh face. The girl’s green eyes searched the quiet expression for any signs of the distress she had seen in the blue eyes when her friend had left the little hut. For a moment, the warrior endured the quiet examination. Finally she became somewhat unnerved by the little blonde’s intent stare.

"What?" the warrior asked cautiously. "You all right?"

The little bard laughed quietly, the emerald pools sparkling. "I was about to ask you the same question," she chided her slender friend. Gabrielle smiled warmly at the warrior’s slightly abashed look. She touched the lean arm next to hers. "You seemed a little ... upset when you left this afternoon." Xena lowered her eyes, separating her gaze from the bard’s knowing scrutiny. "It ... worried me a little," the little blonde finished, her warm smile still in place.

"I was just a little ... rattled," the warrior said, meeting the girl’s eyes sincerely. "You know how I love being in one place for days on end." Gabrielle took a breath to reply to the statement, but the warrior raised a slim palm to thwart the effort. "No, I’m not really complaining and yes, I’m dealing with it. OK?" She trained a gentle grin at the girl’s concerned expression. "Besides, once Argo’s foot is healed, I’ll be able to ‘escape’ now and then. I’ll be fine."

The young woman trained a skeptical gaze at the blue eyes, her blonde head tilting to one side. "Well, OK," she said slowly. "If you say so."

Xena patted the little hand resting on her arm. "Yes, mother," the warrior joked. "I say so."

The two friends shared a quiet laugh. The warrior studied the face of her young friend, her eyes lingering on the shadows becoming more and more apparent under the verdant pools. The little bard sensed the warrior’s concern and averted her eyes from the knowing gaze.

"How’re you doing?" the warrior asked the girl. "You were a little restless last night. I don’t think you ever really did get to sleep." The bard scoffed at the woman’s remark, then ran one small hand quickly across her eyes.

"Oh, I’ve had a lot of stuff traipsing around in my little brain, trying to keep all the different scrolls straight," the bard quipped, motioning in the direction of the young waitress. "I’m starving, by the way. How ‘bout you?"

The warrior’s instincts began to tingle again. The bard was being uncharacteristically evasive. ‘Changing the subject and not looking me straight in the eye. Something is going on, here,’ Xena’s internal warnings said. ‘Better start paying attention.’

The two women ordered their food. When the waitress had walked away, the bard turned again to the warrior’s quiet expression. The girl glanced at the bundle next to the woman’s hip. "What’s in the package?" she asked.

"Oh," the warrior answered looking down at the bundle absently. "My leathers. The tanner finished with them." She turned back to the little bard. "Only charged me two dinars ... for repairing both them and the saddlebags." She watched the girl’s brows skip under her bangs.

"Yeah, surprised me, too. Guess it pays to be the ‘companion’ of a ‘welcome guest of the town’."

Gabrielle’s smile dispersed rather abruptly. The warrior’s keen insight noticed the change immediately. She leaned toward the little bard to pursue the subject more thoroughly, but the waitress’ arrival with their food postponed the event momentarily. Xena waited until the red-headed woman had left the table before turning to the young blonde again. The scowl across the girl’s face changed the direction of the intended conversation again.

Continued - Part 3

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