"Problem?" the warrior asked, searching the soft face.
Gabrielle studied the steaming, gelatinous brown mass on the plate in front of her. After a moment, the warrior did the same, looking down at her own plate. The bard raised her eyes to meet those of her friend, and the warriors smirk, which the woman was trying valiantly to hide, incited a similar reaction in the little blonde. Within seconds, both women were laughing heartily while at the same time struggling to keep the surrounding guests from witnessing their rampant amusement.
A few minutes later, the bard sat back against the wall behind her, drawing a hand across her eyes to wipe the moisture away. "Oh, boy," she gasped, turning to the smiling warrior. "I never thought Id hear myself say that I miss digging into one of your charred fish filets, but I do."
She pushed the plate away and leaned her crossed arms on the table, shaking the blonde head slowly. "I guess Im not as hungry as I thought."
Xena waited patiently, her instincts still tuned tightly toward the hesitancy in the bards manner. When the green eyes rose to meet the warriors, the cobalt blue pools were intent and attentive.
The little bard studied the bronze face for a moment, the emerald gaze sweeping lovingly over the sculpted features. Finally, the girl took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment. The warrior waited another moment, summoning her courage. Then she spoke.
"Well, Im taking Argo out tomorrow. I saw a nice, little stream just east of town. Ill see what I can do."
The bard met the blue gaze with a smile. She fell silent again as the warrior made a decision.
"Cmon," the warrior said, picking up the bundle next to her. "I think you need some fresh air. Youve been inside too much this week. Lets take a walk."
The bard glanced lightly toward the pile of materials next to her elbow, then back at the warrior.
"Well leave this stuff in the room, then get outside for a while. You can use it," she said sliding smoothly off the bench and extending a hand to the little bard. The girl gathered up her little pile, stood up and followed the warrior through the archway.
A few minutes later, as they walked along the quiet road at the edge of the town, Xena turned to her small companion, noticing not for the first time, how the moonlight played softly on the girls open face and how, even in the muted lunar light, she could see the tell tale signs of quandary across the soft features. Never one to take less than the direct route, the warrior opened the conversation.
"Hows the project going?" she asked the little bard, making a concerted effort to keep her expression open, at the same time clearly recalling her conversation with the smithy.
Gabrielle kept her eyes on the road, her hands clasped casually behind her. "Oh," she said after a moment, "slowly. Its kind of tiring, trying to decipher some of them ... what with all the damage some of them have."
"Uh-huh," the warrior said, keeping her attention on the bards face. "Seems to be more work than you thought, at first, huh?"
Gabrielle sighed loudly. "Yeah, it has turned out that way." The two women walked in silence for a few minutes.
"Hows Musaeus holding up?" Xena asked, sensing the girls uneasiness. "Has he been helping?"
"Not much," Gabrielle blurted out, then closed her eyes tight and pulled her lower lip between her teeth. Without looking at the woman at her side, the little blonde sensed the stiffness which had entered the warriors form. She glanced quickly up at the blue pools, then returned her gaze to the road.
"Oh?" Xena said evenly. Gabrielle swallowed nervously, noticing the quick clenching of the warriors fists, followed by the labored fashion in which the woman opened her hands. The bard gathered her courage and turned an open smile toward her friend.
"Well," she said, laughing lightly, "he does seem to be more interested in daydreaming about how much fame and fortune will come to the town when we get the scrolls restored." She trained an honest expression toward the warriors stony look.
"Really, Xena," the little blonde said seriously. "I think theres more riding on this project ... for the entire town, I mean ... than Musaeus let on when he sent for me." She shook her head vigorously and rubbed the back of her neck.
"How so?" the warrior asked, taking note of the bards troubled gesture.
"Well," the bard said, turning back to her friend. "I think they expect that, if we get these scrolls repaired, they can put them on display ... use them to draw travelers and important scholars to this little place. They see them as some kind of magic answer to ... I dont know ... putting this place on the map, or something."
The quiet night emphasized the two matching sets of footfalls. The warriors eyes swept the area and she quietly reversed their direction. She let her glance linger on the little bards face as their steps took them back toward the town.
"Theres something else bothering you," Xena said simply. "What?"
The bards nervous laugh floated over the stillness. She shook her blonde head again and trained a fond look up at her best friend. "Too bad you cant read me, isnt it?" the little blonde giggled. The warriors face softened slightly.
"OK," Gabrielle said, taking a labored breath. "Musaeus is hiding something about the scrolls from me. I can sense it." She cast another little smile at the tall warrior. "I think youre rubbing off on me. I get those feelings about things now, like you."
Xena laid a gentle hand on the blonde head and Gabrielle grasped the warriors extended arm for a moment. Then the womens steps resumed. "I just have this ... itch that says hes either not telling me everything about them, or that what he has told me isnt the truth." She turned abruptly toward the tall form. "Does that make sense?"
"Sure, it does," Xena answered quietly. "And, your instincts are good enough to consider, without any rubbing off from me." She smiled warmly at the little blonde. "If you think something is wrong, it probably is."
Gabrielle returned the warriors smile. She clasped her hands behind her, her manner slightly less uneasy than before.
"What has he told you that bothers you?" the warrior probed.
"Well, he says they found the scrolls in an old cave, just outside of town," the bard said.
"You dont think thats true?"
"Well," Gabrielle continued. "It is true that some of them look like theyve been somewhere damp and dirty for a while." She stopped, her statement suggesting more.
"But...?" the warrior urged gently. Her own uneasiness was rising again.
The bard turned impatiently toward the warriors questioning gaze.
"The stains are almost ... too perfect. Almost like they were devised ... planned to look the way they do," the girl finished haltingly. She glanced at the warriors raised eyebrow. "Thats the only way I can describe some of them. They seem too authentic."
Xena considered the bards comment.
"And then theres the Elders," the bard said, her tone growing animated. "Musaeus said they werent all that ready to finance this restoration."
The warrior nodded.
"Well, if the scrolls are so valuable to them, why would they be so hesitant? Why wouldnt they be anxious to get them restored? To see them brought up to date? Why would Musaeus have to talk them into it?" The bard stopped in the middle of the road, facing her friend.
The warriors steps halted next to the girl, her blue eyes meeting the green gaze.
"I cant answer that," she said, smiling into the girls determined glance. "But, it is a very good question." She watched the bards face, fully aware of how well the girls quick mind was sorting facts and considering information. When the little blonde resumed walking, the warrior fell in step beside her.
"You could always ask him ... Musaeus, I mean," Xena said quietly, the slight sarcasm in her tone pulling the bards amused gaze toward hers.
Gabrielle studied the face of her best friend. She let her eyes linger for a moment on the warriors stoic expression. The bard was certain she saw the woman straining to keep a straight face.
"Yeah, I would," Gabrielle said slowly. "If I thought Id ever get a straight answer."
After a moment, the warriors soft smile floated down to meet the bards impish grin. The girls giggle widened the tall womans expression.
"Is there anything I can do?" Xena said finally, proceeding cautiously. Her compelling instincts aside, she was still locked in the throes of showing the bard that she respected the girls desire to handle her own confrontations, if necessary.
"No, nothing," the bard answered quickly, a trifle too quickly for the warriors taste. "Its something Ill have to work out for myself." The warrior swallowed her objections. She turned her gaze forward.
"You do get to listen to me work it out, though," the girl said, laughing. "Thanks for your attentive ears ... again." She touched the warriors arm and the tall womans smile flashed again softly. "Ill just have to figure out a way to keep Musaeus occupied while I do, thats all." The little bard giggled and the warriors teeth clenched tightly.
Relax, warrior, she told herself. Shes a grown woman, even if she is a small one. Let her know you trust her instincts, too.
Xena became aware that the bard was yawning loudly. She turned her attention back to the young woman.
"Well, it looks like the fresh air cleared your head, huh?"
The girl stretched her lithe frame and smiled up at her tall friend. "Yes. You were right, as usual. It did help. I really think Ill be able to sleep, now."
"Good," the warrior said, turning back toward the road. The entrance to the Inn became visible in the darkness. The women walked comfortably toward the building as the warrior made an effort to quiet the nagging concerns in her gut.
Gabrielle trained a steady gaze at the woman across the room who was expertly rubbing an oily mixture into the leather boot covering her slender arm. When the blue eyes darted up to meet hers, the girls hesitant smile made the tall woman slightly uneasy. She turned her attention toward the little bard.
They had settled into their room, refreshed and relaxed after their leisurely walk, to enjoy another luxury -- the warm bath water the proprietors of the Inn had provided during their absence. At least, Xena had assumed the bard had found some relief during their walk; at the moment, the sight of the girls tentative expression seemed to denote otherwise.
"Something else on your mind?" the warrior asked, now fully aware of the girls still-present uneasiness.
The little blonde studied the narrow-toothed comb in her hand, then raised her eyes to meet the gaze of the woman who had carved the tool for her. She smiled fondly at the lean warrior in the clean linen shift, reclining casually on the large bed. The look of concern in the cobalt pools touched the girls gentle nature.
"I just want to make sure youre all right with what we talked about tonight." The warriors quizzical look greeted the bards remarks.
"How do you mean, all right?" the warrior asked, her head tilted in veiled confusion.
"About Musaeus," the little bard explained, her gaze steady on the warriors blue eyes.
"You mean when you said he hadnt been totally truthful with you?" the warrior asked, her voice firm.
Gabrielles eyes remained trained on her friends. She nodded, her expression tense.
The warrior drew a calming breath. "Well, it didnt exactly make me happy. It tends to get under my skin when someone lies to my best friend." The tall woman paused a moment, reacting to the rising uneasiness she saw in the bards face.
"But, I figured you could handle it," the warrior said, making a firm effort to make her comment convincing. But she could see the skepticism in the bards level gaze.
"So, youll let me do that, right?" the girl said, quietly, her green eyes direct. "And you wont do your bards protector thing?"
Xena felt a maddening warmth invade her neck and face. "What?" she squawked, totally unnerved by the girls teasing comment. "What bard protector thing!?"
Gabrielles bright laughter filled the room. She left the wooden chair and crossed the space to sit down next to her friend. She gazed fondly at the warriors confounded expression and touched the womans shoulder with one small hand.
"Now dont get your leathers in a twist, OK?" the girl chortled. "I just meant, it wouldnt do to have you pound Musaeus into a grease spot, all right? Especially after he arranged all this." The bards arm indicated their plush surroundings.
Xenas blush was growing deeper by the moment. She turned an exasperated glare at the little blondes wide grin.
"Gabrielle!" the warrior gasped, her control now completely unseated. "When did I ...?" she sputtered. "I have never ...."
The bards laughter rang louder in the warm, cozy chamber. "Never???" she croaked, tilting her head and raising her eyebrows in mock surprise. "Oh, no. Of course not. Not you, my noble friend. Never you." The girl dissolved into laughter again.
Xena turned a rankled glare at the young woman giggling on the bedcovers next to her. She endured the bards amusement stoically before exhaling loudly. When the girl seemed to have regained some control, the warrior leveled a steady look at the twinkling green gaze.
"OK, OK," she said to the flushed face. "I told you Id control myself, didnt I?"
Gabrielles laughter slowly faded as she became aware of the serious tone to the warriors words. She gave the blue eyes her steady attention.
"But if Musaeus little scheme, whatever it is, means getting you into some kind of ... tight spot ...."
The warriors tone captured the bards awareness. Gabrielle saw the hardness flicker in her friends blue eyes.
"I dont take well to lies, you know that," Xena said, her eyes firmly holding the bards.
The girl blinked, her green eyes returning the warriors intense stare.
"Yes, I know that," the bard said quietly. "And Im not suggesting that we let it pass. If it turns out Im wrong, no harm done." Gabrielle gazed pointedly at the warriors blue stare. "But," she said, a firmness in her quiet tone. "If Im right, I will handle Musaeus and the Elders. Thats what Im saying."
Xena studied the soft, open face. She saw the resolve behind the green eyes. She knew the little bard had a valiant spirit and a generous heart. She also knew the girl had a will of iron. The warriors primary instincts were being challenged but she was determined to show the bard her trust. She submerged her comments and faced the girls open face.
"OK?" the bard said, purposefully.
The warrior took a breath, and closed her eyes for a moment. Then she met the green eyes again.
"OK," Xena said evenly. The two friends stared at each other quietly. Finally, the warrior returned her attention to the boot and the oily mixture. The bard stood up and walked slowly toward the glowing embers in the fireplace. After staring at the coals for a moment, she turned back to the long-legged form on the bed.
"So," the bard said, forcing a light tone into her voice. "Argos foot is all healed?" The warrior nodded, concentrating on closing the tin of leather fixative. "So, you can get us some fish tomorrow, right?" the little blonde said, turning a teasing grin toward the bronze face. She smiled when she noticed the smirk curling the warriors lips.
Xena looked up into the green eyes of her soulmate.. "Ill see what I can find, my bard," she
said, her blue eyes soft. "Depends on what the stream has to offer."
The bard giggled and laid the comb on the mantle. Xena put her boot down next to its mate and crossed the room to replace the tin in the newly-repaired saddlebags. She wiped her fingers on a cloth, then turned back to the slim form of her friend.
"You ready for bed, yet?" she asked as the bard climbed onto the large pallet. The warrior smiled as she tossed the cloth onto the wider table. "I guess you are."
The warrior blew out the candles on the mantle, climbed onto the bed and extinguished the candle standing on the small nearby table. As she settled her slim frame under the soft coverlet, the bards quiet voice sounded in the darkness.
"Im sorry I didnt tell you about Musaeus before," the girl said. The warrior pulled one long arm under her head and turned toward the open face on the pillows next to her. She studied the girls apologetic expression, dimly visible in the shadows of the room.
"Dont worry about it," the warrior told the girl. "I understand ... you wanted to take care of it yourself." The soft face became more discernible as the blue eyes became accustomed to the darkness. She smiled softly at the girl and playfully thumped the blonde head with her hand.
"And you always say Im the stubborn one."
The bards quiet laugh ended the discussion.
"Well, thanks for understanding," Gabrielle said, covering her wide, lazy yawn with the back of one hand. She snuggled lower under the covers. "Good night." The bard breathed deeply.
"Good night," the warrior answered, turning her gaze toward the light from the embers reflected on the ceiling. As she closed her eyes, a silent vow repeated in her mind, like a mantra; I will let her handle her own problems in her own way. ... I will let her handle her own problems in her own way.... I will let her.... Some time later, the warrior fell asleep.
Chapter Eleven ~~~
Xena stood waiting patiently, one supple boot resting easily on the rail at the bar, her newly-conditioned leathers emphasizing her slim, muscled frame. At the little bards shy request, she had left her armor and her sword in its scabbard on the peg in the room down the hall. It was a small acquiescence; besides the look of simple gratitude on the girls face had, as always, brought a warmth to her being and a peace to her spirit.
The tall womans practiced gaze chronicled the various patrons entering and exiting the tavern. The usual selection -- nothing to raise the warrior readiness this morning. Xena turned her gaze toward the approaching bartender and extended her hand to accept the fat carrot he handed her.
"Thanks," she said, favoring him with a simple smile. "Youre spoiling my horse, you know?" The blue eyes were kind on the mans round face.
The bartender grinned, displaying his gap-filled smile. "Sokay," said. "Shes a beautiful animal. We throw out too much, anyway."
Xena thanked him again, turning toward the table which had become the regular place for her and the bard. Since their arrival, it seemed they had landed at the same square console each time theyd shared a meal, as though the proprietors, and the other customers, had automatically relegated the spot to them since their first days repast.
The warrior slid onto the bench behind the table and blinked, slightly surprised, when the young waitress placed a mug of warm cider in front of her. She glanced from the vessel to the face of the girl who had provided it, a puzzled expression on the smooth face.
"Thanks, but I didnt ..."
"I know," the red-haired woman said, smiling slightly. "I wanted to talk to you, if I could." The warriors back straightened minutely. "Youre Xena, arent you? Youre friends with the lady bard, Gabrielle." The last was a statement, not a question.
"Yes, Im her friend," Xena said, evenly. "Is there a problem?" She studied the young freckled face for a moment, sensing the girls uncertainty. She motioned easily toward the bench across the table. "Sit down, why dont you."
The girl complied and sat facing the warrior, but kept her eyes trained on her own nervous fingers.
"Now, what can I do for you?" the warrior asked, curious about the redheads nervous manner.
The young woman looked up into the clear blue eyes. "Im Minerva," she said, a little smile lighting the attractive face. "Musaeus is my brother." The lack of warmth in the girls voice brought a tremor to the warriors instincts, but she kept her face open to the young womans gaze.
"Oh," Xena said, acknowledging the familiarity in the freckled countenance. "Hes quite a ... handsome young fellow," she finished lamely, trying her best to keep her rising uneasiness under control.
"Hes a rogue," the girl said bitterly. She glared openly at the warriors crystal stare. "Hes always got some scheme in the making, some easy, simple way to make plenty of dinars without doing anything worthwhile to earn them."
The tall woman in leather felt a maddening dread settle into her stomach. She kept her eyes trained on the girls brittle expression. Minerva lowered her gaze and moistened her lips while her fingers played with the edges of the cloth under her hands. She swallowed quietly and met the warriors gaze again. Her own anger diverted her reaction to the hardness that had overtaken the piercing, azure pools facing her.
"I dont know what hes planning with this restoring of the scrolls," the girl said sarcastically. She looked vaguely toward the archway where they both knew the bard would soon be entering the tavern. "And I dont really know how he plans to use your friend to accomplish his little plan," Minerva said, pausing momentarily at the slight rise to the warriors chin.
"He talked the Council into financing this little venture," the gray eyes sparked with contempt. "If he wanted to, he could sell rain shades to cave dwellers." The young woman tapped the ends of her fingers on the wooden table. She cast narrowed eyes at the warriors tight-lipped stare.
"Anyway, I just wanted to let you, both of you, know that ... well ...." The girl let out a frustrated breath, studied her fingers again, then faced the warriors steely gaze squarely.
"Musaeus is my brother. We just have each other, our parents are both on the other side ... have been for about eight summers, now." Xenas jaw tensed impatiently, but she waited for the girl to finish. "And I love him, you know. I mean, hes all I have. But ...." Minervas gray eyes fell to her hands again. The warrior waited, nearly trembling now with unsettling anticipation.
"But..?" Xena said, carefully, not wishing to frighten the young woman, even though her basic instinct was to take the girl by the shoulders and shake the words from her mouth.
The young red-haired waitress faced the warriors blue gaze again. The young face had become serious and determined, the clear eyes direct. "But I wouldnt trust him any farther than I could throw ... your horse." The incongruity of the statement dispelled the warriors anger only slightly.
"Hes as charming as a chariot salesman," Minerva said knowingly. "But he doesnt know the meaning of the word scruples."
Xena let out a very slow, very controlled breath. It was then she noticed her own white-knuckled fists and the tremble that had begun in her clenched jaw. She relaxed her hands and separated her teeth. The blue eyes blinked a moment as the warrior fought to calm the passion raging in her breast. She forced a thin smile onto her face and covered the girls hands with one slender palm.
"Thanks, Minerva," the warrior said warmly, meeting the young waitress eyes. "Im glad you let me know about this." Xena took another deep breath and slowly moistened her lips with her tongue.
"Im sure ..." the warrior hesitated, fighting to control the clamor in her head. "Ill be sure and share this with my friend ... the lady bard," the slender woman quipped, smiling again at the freckled face.
"Share what with the lady bard?" asked a voice at the warriors elbow. Both women at the table trained their eyes on the little blonde standing nearby.
Minerva stood up abruptly and slid off the bench away from where Gabrielle stood. The bards green eyes followed her, then gazed down into the warriors blue gaze. A wave of
concern flickered in the green pools when the little blonde saw the veiled austerity in the sky-blue stare. Xena smiled stiffly, trying to impart a calm manner.
"This is Minerva," she told the bard "Musaeus sister." The bards face lit in a friendly smile. The warrior turned back to the waitress. "This is my friend ... the lady bard. Gabrielle." The little blonde turned to Minerva, her eyes warm on the girls nervous face.
"Oh," she said. "Well, its nice to meet you." The bard shifted the scrolls in her arms to one side, and offered her hand to the red-haired young woman. Minerva took the little hand and smiled back, glancing gratefully at the warrior. The two young women exchanged pleasantries while the woman in leather took another deep breath.
After a moment, Minerva responded to the bartenders suggestive glare and excused herself as the bard sat down on the bench opposite the pensive warrior. She studied the tall womans expression for a moment, stacked the small pile of materials at the edge of the table and returned her attention to her friends unfocused stare.
"Everything all right?" she asked the warrior, and her slender, dark-haired companion pulled her focus to the bards green gaze.
"Everythings fine," she said, meeting the verdant pools. "Lets have breakfast." She motioned lightly to the bartender, and brought the mug of lukewarm cider to her mouth.
She swallowed the tepid liquid and met the bards stare with a thin smile.
"So, youll be working all day today?" she asked the little blonde, and Gabrielle nodded, her casual response in subtle contrast to the questioning stare now trained on the warriors distracted look.
"You all right?" she asked her tall companion.
"Fine. Just hungry," the warrior answered as Minerva returned to the table, serving their breakfast from the tray balanced in her other hand.
The warrior and the waitress shared a knowing look, taking care that their silent exchange had escaped the bards attention. Then Minerva left and Xena made a convincing show of enjoying the bowl of porridge as much as the little bard apparently did.
Chapter Twelve ~~~
"Are you going to stay in the forest all day, or will you be back in time for lunch?"
Xena turned to the little blonde walking next to her, a crooked grin warming the warriors smooth face.
"Gabrielle," she chided the girl, "you just finished breakfast. Are you thinking about lunch already?"
The bard giggled and smiled up at the tall woman.
"I need a whetstone, so Im going to visit the tinsmith and then take Argo out."
In her attempt to reposition the materials in her arms, Gabrielle dropped one of the scrolls and the warrior bent to retrieve it. Before she had a chance to pick up the parchment, another hand quickly claimed it from the dirt. The blue eyes traveled up the extended arm and came to rest on Musaeus freckled face. The boy smiled at the warrior, then stepped around her to stand in front of the bard.
"Here, let me take those," he said gallantly, relieving the little blonde of her armful of materials. "Good morning," he chirped, favoring both women with a bright smile.
"Good morning," Gabrielle chuckled in return. "Youre up early today." The girl grimaced inwardly as she realized she had allowed yet another slip of the tongue regarding her male friends behavior. She turned brightly to the warriors bronze face.
"Well, tell Argo Im glad her foots better," she said, deliberately ignoring the raised eyebrow and the knowing look coloring the womans expression. "And dont forget my fish," she told her friend, smiling widely. "See you later."
The two young bards strolled casually toward the little hut. As the warrior watched, Musaeus looped a casual arm around the girls shoulders as the little blonde laughed heartily. After a moment, Xena turned sharply and marched toward the tinsmiths shop, a growing anxiety rattling her composure.
On the way across the town square, the warrior held an internal conversation with herself. She tried to analyze the growing relationship between the two young bards. They were, she told herself, both young, intelligent, enthusiastic about their worthy project and, it seemed, even more enthusiastic about each other. So why does this association bother me so much? the tall woman queried inwardly. Shes certainly old enough to make that kind of choice on her own. A worrisome heaviness settled in the warriors chest. Oh, Sweet Artemis, the womans brain lamented. This is Perdicus all over again. Xena shook her head, still clearly distracted as she located the tinsmiths and strode through the door.
The merchant was attending to a pair of young women, patiently explaining the work necessary to repair a dented candlestick. He raised his eyes to the tall woman and she nodded, her silent reply conveying her willingness to wait her turn. When the man turned back to the two young females, Xena wandered over to a case displaying various pieces of jewelry and accessories.
Her eyes fell on a delicate copper hair buckle, its shape petite, its design unique. The warriors face warmed in a subtle smile as she thought how the ornament put her in mind of her small, blonde friend. Xena was randomly considering the possibility of the ornament as a gift for the bards upcoming birthday when the tinsmith appeared behind the counter, a pleasant smile on his face.
"Yes, what can I do for you?" the merchant asked.
"I need a whetstone and some oil."
The mans eyes swept quickly over the tall womans attire before he responded.
"I have them over here," he said motioning toward a flat table at the back of the shop. He moved toward the display and the warrior followed, the long display counter separating their paths.
As she considered the selection of stones, another customer entered the shop, announcing his arrival and loudly requesting service. The tinsmith cast an apologetic glance at the warriors blue gaze and moved back toward the front of the shop to deal with the vocal patron. Xena returned her attention to the display of stones.
Very soon, she became aware of the conversation occurring between the two young women behind her, the same two who had been involved in the discussion with the tinsmith concerning the damaged candlestick. Her awareness was heightened because the opening remark of said conversation mentioned the name of the young man now ensconced in the little hut with her best friend.
"I hear Musaeus has a new one ... a little blonde," said the brunette.
"I heard shes a bard, too, only she travels around with a woman warrior," commented the taller redhead.
"Yes, I saw her with him in the square yesterday. Shes adorable, isnt she?" the brunette said.
"She seems nice enough. I hope she isnt expecting anything worthwhile from Musaeus, though. That would be a deadly mistake," declared the redhead.
The warriors jaw tightened, but she kept her attention on the display of stones.
"And how! My brother said hes got her working on those scrolls he found. Typical Musaeus move; she does the work and he gets the glory. What a jerk. I hope she realizes it soon," the brunette stated.
"Hes a smooth talker, all right. He must have given the Council a clever story, to get them to pay for all this. Wonder if this girl knows what a snake he is, do you think?" the redhead queried.
"Maybe someone should enlighten her," the brunette said. "Its time someone gave Musaeus a taste of playing the fool. Hes been at this game for as long as Ive known him."
Xena made a concerted effort to quiet her quaking fists.
"Shed better hold on to her quill pen," the redhead joked.
"And her boots," the brunette chortled, suggestively. "Or maybe shell show him how she handles that walking stick shes always carrying. Wouldnt that be true justice?"
"Id pay a handful of dinars to watch that!" the redhead giggled. "Half the girls in town would contribute, I bet."
The two young women enjoyed a boisterous laugh as they strode out the door of the shop. Once outside in the street, the two females grew suddenly quiet, proudly congratulating each other on their accomplished feat. At least this time, they told themselves, Musaeus wont have such an easy time with his plans.
After sharing a satisfied giggle, the women moved, arm in arm, to the next shop on their list.
Inside the tinsmiths, the warrior blinked, working hard to relieve the tightness in her chest. Finally she drew a labored breath and trained her gaze toward the top of the counter, the sight of her trembling and tightly clenched fists restoring her awareness. A moment later, Xena became vaguely aware of a dull pain radiating from her left hand. She slowly opened her fist, only slightly surprised at the deep, jagged bruise in the middle of the palm, the outline and contour exactly matching the uneven piece of whetstone she had been examining when the two young womens comments had drawn her attention away.
The appearance of the tinsmith behind the counter steadied the warriors perception even further. He glanced at the stone in her hand and studied the womans vacant expression. His face was expectant and solicitous as he spoke to her.
"Have you decided, then?" he asked her.
Xenas blue eyes traveled up to the mans friendly face, a clear decision bringing the piercing blue pools back to life.
"Yes, I have," the warrior said evenly. She handed the piece of stone back to the merchant. "Ill be back for this later. Thanks."
The tall woman turned and made her way to the front of the shop, swept open the door and left the building, her stride forceful and decisive.
Musaeus scanned the bookshelf, tracing one finger along the row of volumes in an attempt to locate the title Gabrielle had requested. He found the edition in question, clamped his quill between his teeth and pulled the book off the shelf. He turned and handed it to the little bard, seated on the floor behind him.
"Thanks," the little bard replied, accepting the book. She opened the volume, flipped through the pages and found the reference she needed. The girl studied the open pages for a moment, then laid the book on the floor beside her and returned her attention to the damaged scroll spread on the carpet before her.
From his seat at the table, Musaeus watched as the little blonde leaned forward, her limber form bending easily over her work, one small hand carefully bracing the sullied manuscript, the other gently rubbing the stains with a soft cloth. After consulting the open volume again, the little bard picked up her quill pen and bent over the parchment.
For a few minutes, the scratching of Gabrielles quill pen was the only sound in the small hut. The girl finished writing, laid down the pen, and sighed openly. She closed the book and stretched her back, cat-like, before turning to the handsome male face at the table.
The sunlight filtering through the open windows brought a burnished glow to the girls reddish-blonde tresses and framed the lovely face in a sparkling halo. The young man smiled warmly at the little bard. She returned his smile for a moment, picked up the book, rose and walked across the room to return the volume to its place on the shelf.
Gabrielle stood facing the wooden rows for a long moment, keeping her back to the young man and his flattering gaze. The little blonde took a deep breath, turned around and leaned back against the shelves, her hands captured behind her. She trained a pensive gaze at her male friend. After a moment, the girls gentle voice filled the room.
"I met your sister this morning," she said softly, watching with interest as the subtle changes traveled across the young mans face. The softness in the brown eyes faded for a moment, then returned as Musaeus sent a practiced grin toward the girls open expression.
"She seems very nice." Gabrielle kept her attention on the young mans face. She had spent enough time at the warriors side to have learned a great deal about how to read outward reactions and judge how they reveal the character of the inward response. She waited for Musaeus reply.
The young man leaned forward, his crossed arms resting on the table. He trained a charming grin at the little blonde. "Yeah, Mins a doll," Musaeus said. "Its just the two of us, you know. Shes my big sis." The handsome face showed equal parts pathos, brotherly affection and candid determination.
"She works very hard at the Inn. Thats another reason I want to get these scrolls restored," the young man said, bravely. "Maybe Ill be able to pay her back for all the drudgery shes had to put up with during the past few years." The young mans gaze was sincere as he focused on the girls face.
The little bard nodded sympathetically, then dropped her gaze to the scroll on the carpet.
"Well," she said. "We better get back to work, then." She smiled gently, then moved back to her position on the floor. Musaeus watched her retrieve her pen and resume the careful transcription, copying the words from the soiled scroll onto the clean parchment next to it.
Then he turned his attention back to the scroll in front of him.
The room was quiet again until Musaeus sat back impatiently and tossed his quill pen into the middle of the parchment. He stood up abruptly, the legs of the wooden chair scraping loudly across the floor. Gabrielle glanced up from her work to watch the young man flounce unhappily around the end of the table, turn back and snatch the open scroll from the flat surface. Musaeus turned a defeated scowl toward the little bards green gaze.
"This one isnt even worth saving," he snapped, shaking the weathered vellum disgustedly. "Its a waste of time to even try." The young man cast a distasteful glare at the crumpled parchment. "I think we ought to toss it in the fire and spend our efforts on the most worthwhile pieces."
The little blonde on the carpet trained a shocked stare at the angry male face.
"Musaeus!" she barked, her voice registering her revulsion at the idea of destroying any scroll. "Thats not funny!"
A moment later the door to the hut flew open, and an extremely angry warrior marched into the room.
Chapter Thirteen ~~~
Xena strode purposefully toward the small hut where she knew Gabrielle and Musaeus were working. The warriors assuredness had reached an unusual low and this new anxiety had nearly unseated the impervious mask that normally thwarted the display of any ordinary emotion. When she arrived at the hut, she stood immobile at the door, a great struggle taking place within her.
What in Hades name do you think youre doing?? the tall woman chided herself. Youre behaving like a jealous fishwife! You overhear two children trading gossip and now youre on a mission of rescue?? Get hold of yourself, warrior!
She pivoted away from the wooden structure, a sense of disgrace knotting her stomach and tightening her jaw. For a long moment, the warrior stood still, truly confused, baffled by her own distraction and perplexed at its cause. The next sound she heard staggered her failing equilibrium even more.
"Musaeus!" It was Gabrielles voice. "Thats not funny!"
The irritation and annoyance clearly evident in the bards tone dispelled the warriors remaining reluctance at creating an interruption. At least, thats how she would later justify her rather abrupt and uninvited entrance into the small hut. She swiveled forcefully back toward the door, roughly lifted the latch and strode meaningfully into the modest building.
Her determined pace took her halfway across the room. She turned and quickly located Musaeus where he stood, surprised and somewhat daunted, one of the fragile, damaged scrolls held gingerly in his hands. Xena retraced her steps, stopping an arms length in front of the astonished young man.
"All right," she snapped, lean hands on her hips. "I think thats just about enough!"
Musaeus blinked and stared transfixed at the face of the angry warrior now glaring menacingly at him. After a moment, he swallowed hard, then moistened his lips with his tongue and affixed a flimsy, ragged smile to his bewildered face.
"No," Gabrielles steady voice ended the confrontation. "Id say it was more than enough."
Xena whirled toward the sound of the voice. When her momentum stopped, what she saw brought a heavy embarrassment to her senses and a deep, crimson blush to the chiseled face. Her hands dropped to her sides as she stared at the sight, her mouth slightly open and her blues eyes wide.
The bard sat cross-legged in the middle of a wide expanse of carpet, her elbows resting casually on her trim thighs. Spread in front of her on the floor was another of the ancient parchment pieces, each corner of the mildewed fragment weighted down by a large volume from the surrounding shelves. In her right hand, she held her quill pen with the bright new tip that had been the warriors gift. In the other hand was a rumpled piece of cloth that showed the effects of the mixture of linseed oil which she and Musaeus had discovered was indeed a worthy treatment for removing the mildew and decaying residue from the ancient manuscripts.
The girl was fully clothed, appeared perfectly safe, agreeably content and reasonably happy
... except for the searing glare she now leveled at the warriors self-conscious face.
The warriors mouth drifted shut as she slowly closed her eyes. When she found the courage to meet the bards eyes again, the combination of disappointment and indignation in the green gaze made the tall woman swallow hard against her own rampant regret. The two women stared at each other for a long moment, until the warrior dropped her gaze and the leather-clad form sagged in repentance and remorse. When the blue eyes slowly drifted up to meet those of the bard again, the intensity of the emerald gaze held the crystal stare like an iron vice.
Without releasing the crystal pools, Gabrielle carefully placed her quill pen on the parchment in front of her, unfolded her slim legs, stood up and took a controlled stride toward the bemused young man hovering tentatively near the wide table.
"Musaeus," she began quietly, tensely wiping her fingers on the cloth she still held in her hands. "Would you excuse us for a few minutes?" She glanced in the fellows direction, favoring him with a tiny smile. Then her focus returned to the immobile warrior. "Well pick up this discussion in just a bit, Ok?"
"Of course," Musaeus answered softly. He turned to the table, quickly deposited the weathered scroll and strode through the open door, closing the wooden panel quietly behind him.
A short, stilted silence invaded the small hut as the bard studied the tense face of the tall warrior. Xena blinked quickly as the pounding in her chest traveled upwards into her throat. She gulped against the self-reproach rumbling there and clenched her fists to stop her hands from trembling. She turned awkwardly to her companion and tried to keep her voice even.
"Gabrielle, Im sorry I ...." she began, then fell silent when the bard mumbled something indistinguishable and raised one small palm in a warning gesture. The warrior recognized the seething anger smoldering behind the clear green eyes. The little blonde was breathing heavily, bright spots of pink accentuated across her pale, seething face.
The tall woman closed her mouth and found herself lowering shamed eyes to the floor, fully aware of the bards infuriated scrutiny. She slowly let her eyes travel up toward the girls livid stare, took a deep breath and braced for her friends response. As she watched, the soft chin quivered in rage while Gabrielles green eyes flashed white hot and glistened with angry tears.
"How could you?" the bard growled, her voice tight with controlled fury. "How could you charge in here like a ... a vengeful father well-bent on restitution!? And what did you expect to find, exactly??" she sputtered, angrily flinging the cloth onto the nearby table. "The two of us breathless and sweaty, locked in some passionate abandonment??"
The warrior flinched under the bards wrath, her inward chastisement feeding her humiliation. Feeling ashamed and ridiculous, she nervously watched the trembling form of her best friend. She could tell Gabrielle was more than furious with her; the little bard was well past anything like very angry.
"I am not a child, Xena," the little blonde spat out, turning sharply to stand directly in front of the cringing warrior. "And I am not your property. You will not claim me, warrior," the girl continued, fists clenched at her sides, her knuckles rimmed with a startling whiteness.
Xena took a quick breath, ready to finish the apology, but the bards extended forefinger, and the definitely threatening set to the young jaw, inspired a retreat in the lean warrior. She clamped her mouth closed again and waited.
"And you will not decide how I spend my time and with whom. Are we clear on that?" The bards clipped tone rang against the walls of the small room. She paced stiffly away from the dark-haired woman, then turned and retraced her steps to let her eyes travel over the taut expression before resuming her declaration.
"You agreed that I should come here and do this. Now, either you trust my judgment or you dont. Its that simple." By now, the girls hands had landed on her slender hips and the small form straightened to its fullest height. The little blonde poked a short forefinger sharply into the warriors sternum. The bards intense glare held the tall womans gaze. "Which is it? Yes or no?"
The warrior stood speechless, regret and chagrin silencing even her normal reticence. All she could manage was keeping her eyes fastened on those of the little bard. A clear message of atonement shone in the cobalt blues together with a genuine plea for forgiveness. The combination suddenly broke through the bards wrath and unseated her vexation. As the green eyes swept over the beautiful, blushing countenance, her resentment quickly dispersed when she saw the look of true contrition wash over the cherished face. After studying the sculpted profile for a few more moments, the little bard drew and exhaled a deep, calming, exasperated breath.
"You know," she said into the blue eyes, "if you didnt look so downright pathetic right now, I could really be mad at you." The bards gaze darted over the mortified look and back to the piercing, azure gaze. Slowly the blonde head swept from side to side as the beginnings of a gentle smile spread across the soft face. Wordlessly, the girl took one of the warriors slender hands and led her toward the wooden chair at the side of the table.
She pulled the chair forward, turned and, with her hands on the sleek, tawny arms, directed the warrior to sit down on the wooden fixture. Xena complied, slightly uncertain of exactly what her friend had in mind with this maneuver. When the warrior was seated, Gabrielle slowly climbed onto the edge of the wooden table, facing the warrior, her boots straddling the strong lap on the seat of the high-backed chair.
The girl leaned forward, her slim elbows balanced on her knees, laced her fingers together and gazed steadily into the warriors clear, blue eyes. A look of subtle surprise raised the brows of the slightly puzzled bronze face.
"Now," the little blonde began, quietly. "This is important so I want you to listen carefully." She silenced Xenas intended remark with wide-eyed insistence. "And, when Im finished," the bard said, in a non-negotiable tone, "you can share your thoughts, OK?"
The green pools meeting the warriors were intense and direct, the young face determined and clearly honest. Gabrielle reached down and casually took one of the tall womans slender hands into both of her own. Xena nodded slowly, the blue eyes trained steadily on the bards.
"Ill take that as a Yes," the girl said, smiling warmly. A slow grin began to crease the warriors face. As she watched, the little blondes expression slowly grew more serious while she took a short, quick breath and studied the chiseled face inches from her.
"You and I are best friends," Gabrielle said quietly. "No, were more than that, Xena," gazing down at the hand enclosed in hers. "Were a part of each other, the essence of what makes the two of us us." The green eyes swept up to meet the piercing blue pools. "Thats true, isnt it?"
The warrior swallowed and slowly nodded her head. She returned the little bards gaze intently.
"I would gladly give my life for you and Ive seen you risk yours many times for me. So were certainly more than good friends; were ... linked together. For all time. No matter what happens today, tomorrow, during the next moon or between now and next winter. Youre a part of me and Im a part of you."
The warrior gulped against the tightness in her throat. She moved her hand gently against the bards grasp as Gabrielle laced their fingers together.
"Nothing and no one," the bard continued, "is ever going to change that. Not Musaeus, not the stubborn village Elders ...." The green eyes sparkled with frustration for an instant then returned to hold the warriors gaze. "Nothing will change how we feel about each other. And no one will ever take your place ... here," the girl said softly, bringing the warriors hand to her chest. "Do you believe that, Xena? Tell me you believe that."
Xena nodded silently, blinking quickly to dispel the bright tears brimming in the steady blue gaze.
The bards little smile appeared again. "Now, I know you have this uncontrollable impulse to constantly try and protect me," she said, ignoring the brusque denial that stiffened the lanky form in the chair. "Actually, inside Im really grateful, even when I sometimes yell at you about it." The smile crept across her open face.
"But, not right now, OK?" Gabrielle said with quiet strength, her wheat-colored brows rising under her blonde bangs. "Believe me, I can handle this situation all by myself." The green eyes traveled over the chiseled features, finally meeting and holding the shimmering blue gaze again.
"Musaeus and I have come to an understanding, you see? Hes agreed to concentrate on the scrolls and restoring them, and Ive agreed not to introduce his nose to my staff."
The warriors blue eyes danced with grudging amusement as a slow smile warmed the stoic, bronze features.
"However, if he has trouble remembering his part of the arrangement, believe me I will joyfully step aside and let you remind him of our little deal. OK?" A light chortle escaped the warriors smile.
"So," the little blonde said, sitting back and gazing impishly at her silent, grinning friend. "Do you still have questions?" She grinned playfully. "You may talk now."
"No," came the quiet reply. "That clearly settles my confusion."
Gabrielles warm smile brightened her shining face. The little blonde slid forward on the table and hugged the warriors neck, snuggling against the warm leathers as Xena pulled her close. After a moment, the girl sat back and the small palms captured the sculpted cheekbones as the little blonde put her forehead against that of her leather-clad companion.
"Good," the girl chirped and sat back again. "Id hate to have to get rough with you, too," she said with a teasing grin. The warriors look was softened by her lop-sided smirk.
"I dont think Ill push my luck," Xena quipped, then surrendered to a genuine smile.
The bard gave the warriors neck another quick hug. Then, with small fists perched on her slender hips, she leveled her own look at the twinkling blue gaze.
"Besides," the girl said in a confidential whisper, "the sooner you get out of here and leave us to this work, the sooner you and I can be on our way." The blonde brows danced up and down beneath the golden bangs as the green eyes sparkled.
The warrior wrapped her arms around the slim waist and pulled the girl in tightly. She spoke softly into the small ear nestled against her chin.
"Youve got a deal," she said as she stood up, lifting the little form up with her. The bard squealed in delight as she gazed lovingly into the warriors smiling face. Xena hugged the little body for a long moment, then set the girls feet carefully on the floor. She touched the soft face and turned toward the door of the hut.
Continued - Part 4
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