THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY
Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.
"Gabrielle, youve got to keep your line taut!"
"My line is as taut as its ever going to get Xena," Gabrielle gave her fishing pole a frustrated yank. "Obviously, the fish arent biting today."
"Oh, really?" Xena sat back against a large rock at the waters edge, and cast a gloating eye towards a nearby pail. It was filled to overflowing with trout. "Seems like the appetite down here is just fine!"
Gabrielle shot her a dark look from her position several lengths away up the shoreline, before returning her attention to the placid blue waters. "Maybe I should try a different lure," she said, perplexed, and she began to haul her line in, hand over hand.
"Its not the lure," Xena sighed, observing the futile exercise. "Im tellin ya, Ive fished this lake scores of times, and Ive never once caught a fish in that spot. They get spooked by the shadows of those cottonwood trees on the water!"
"Well see about that," Gabrielle muttered skeptically under her breath.
"Say what?" Xena could barely hold back her mirth at the bards obvious state of distress.
"I said... Im not giving up yet!" Gabrielle flashed her companion a tight smile, and busily began changing lures on her line. Gone was the sodden lambswool, and the warrior princess raised her eyebrows in surprise when she saw the young woman fishing in her bag of scrolls, pulling out a feathered quill.
Gabrielle held the quill up in the bright morning sunlight, giving it a circumspect examination.
Xena shook her head. "Its not the lure..." she repeated again, almost to herself this time.
After silently deliberating the various pros and cons of a quill-as-lure, the bard made her decision. The warrior struggled to hold back her laughter as the young woman - her face set with determination - worked to attach the feather to her line.
"Gabrielle--" Xena began.
"Quiet, Xena!" The bard held up her arm in warning. "Youll scare away all the fish! Now..." she recoiled her arms, holding the pole and preparing to cast, "watch this!" Gabrielle heaved her upper body forward, swinging her arms around in a herky-jerky motion, and hook, line and quill went streaming out over the water. Abruptly, the feathered hook reached the end of its brief flight, and plunked into the lake.
"There!" Gabrielle said breathlessly. She stood rigidly at attention under the shade of the low-branched cottonwoods. "Now, we wait."
"Uh..." Xena was about to answer, when she felt a gentle tug on her pole. Slowly, smoothly, she stood, and then with a quick flick of her wrists, she sharply jerked the pole back. "Yes!" Xena shouted gleefully, "Come to momma!"
The forward tip of the pole bent low towards the water, nearly doubling back on itself, but the hapless trout splashing and twisting at the end of the line was no match for the hungry warrior princess. With a "yah!" she hauled the line in, delighting in the light spray of water from the fight of the fish, how refreshingly cool it felt against her sun-warmed skin!
"Gotcha!" A final pull brought the trout flopping onto the narrow sandy strip lining the shore. Triumphantly, Xena swept her fish up into the air. "Whaddya think?" she swung her prize in Gabrielles direction.
"Its... okay," the bard admitted through gritted teeth.
Xena responded with a brilliant, self-satisfied grin, and turned to add the trout to her catch. "Oh, Gabrielle," she paused, pointing to the waters edge. Something was bobbing on the crest of the gentle, rippling waves as they lapped against the shore. "Isnt that your quill?"
There were few things in life that delighted the warrior princess more, than the simple, carefree days she spent by the edge of an inviting lake or stream. Or even in that lake or stream, if the situation called for it. For when the game was afoot, when she gave in to her desires, woe to the fish who thought hed safely hidden under a rock or in a deep pool. Yes, when it came to rest, relaxation, and sheer fun, fishing was Xenas sport of choice.
Aaaaah! Xena stretched and resumed her position against the rock and gazed out upon the lake. It was one of her favorites. She didnt know if it had a name and she didnt care; all she knew was that it had been too long since shed last passed this way and lost herself in the bottomless blue of its waters. A light breeze barely ruffled the smooth surface. It resembled an azure-tinted looking-glass, and Xena could see the white of the clouds, the blue of the sky and the sway of the cottonwood trees, reflecting off it.
She jabbed her pole into the soft pebbly earth at her side, kicked out her legs, and crossed her arms across her chest. Time for a nap, maybe. She and Gabrielle had decided to detour here for a couple of days, as a bit of a break along their journey to Athens. All right - maybe it was she who pressed for the change in plans. But after all, theyd just spent the better part of a week ridding the Denalas Valley of a gang of bandits that had been plaguing that area for months.
It had been rough work, rousting the bad men from their hillside hideout, finally cornering them near the little town of Barto. How surprised theyd been that night - thinking theyd find easy pickings in a wealthy pilgrim and her entourage, just passing through on their way to Delphi. Instead, that pilgrim was Xena, and her entourage included Gabrielle and the local militia.
End of bandit problem.
Eyes closed, Xena breathed in deeply of the fresh lakeside air; it smelled faintly of wildflowers, and of an early-summer rain in the hills of Amphipolis.
Amphipolis.... How easy it was to allow her mind skip back to those reckless, lighthearted days shed spent with her brother, Lyceus....
"Bet ya cant catch more fish than me before the sun hits the top of those trees!"
"Bet you I can, Xena!"
"Can-too! Just watch me!"
Two young children: a blonde, tousle-haired little boy, and a slightly taller, long-limbed, dark-haired girl. Different in temperament as day and night; the boy, more solemn and serious than any child his age had a right to be, and the girl, wild and rambunctious. Yet both carried with them an overwhelming passion for adventure. For life. Brother and sister they were, so marked only by the identical blueness of their eyes. They stood in a light breeze by a lakeshore on an early-summers day, not long after a rain-shower had cleared. The heavy-gray clouds had given way to blue; the day might be salvaged yet with some good fishing and fun.
For the girl, fun meant a contest. A challenge. For the boy, though he would rather have died than admit to it, fun meant being wherever his big sister was. A chance to beat her at her own game was an added bonus.
"Hah! I got one!" The boy tugged on his pole and began hauling in a great fish, overjoyed to have gotten first strike.
"Just you wait, Lyceus," the girl said, looking out over the water with annoyance. "Why, I could probably catch more fish with my bare hands than you can with that old pole of yours!" And it was apparent by the stormy look on her face, that if she could have willed a fish onto her hook, she would have done so.
But as her brother gave a hard pull on the line, it snapped. With the tension gone, the fish was free, and the boy stumbled back and fell, landing on his backside upon the muddy shore.
Peals of the young girls laughter rang through the air, as light and lilting as the song of a meadowlark. "He got awaaaay... he got awaaaaay...." she chanted.
"Not for long," the boy replied, extricating himself from the mud and grabbing his pole. Quickly, he was ready to cast again, and now the tip of the girls pole was bowing towards the far shore, it was her turn to have a bite.
"Looook!" she whispered, and her brother moved to her side, peeking over her shoulder.
"Do you think its him?"
"I dont know. Could be," she tried to sound confident to her little brother. After all, it was she who was in charge of them both. The pole began to bob up and down more furiously.
"What if hes angry at me - for trying to catch him?"
"Dont worry. Ill protect you!" and with a snap of her wrists, she hooked the fish and began to quickly haul him in. It was plain to see that the fish had other plans, and he gave the girl a fight. She was nearly pulled into the waters, but she would not let the line go.
"Ill help you, Xena!" The smaller boy placed his arms about his sisters waist, anchoring her to the shore. Together, they worked to bring the fish in.
"Xena! Lyceus! Cmon! Mother needs you two back at the inn! A young man, taller than both of the children, stood atop a hill behind them. Their older brother.
"NOW, Lyceus. And you too, Xena. Let it go! Theres work to be done. Nows not the time to be fishing!"
"NOW!" he shouted, as older brothers sometimes will, and he turned on his heel and stalked back the way he came. But because he was still young, still unsure of himself, he cast a furtive, sidelong glance back at his younger siblings, to assure himself that they had obeyed him.
Indeed, the boy had released his sister, and though his face was flushed and his eyes glistened, his tears of frustration remained unshed. For Xena had taught him that to cry was to be a child, and only if he acted grown-up would she allow him to accompany her on her adventures.
"Cmon Xena," the boy said in a hiccupy voice. "Mother will be angry... Xena?" The boy saw how his older sisters eyes were still locked on the water. Although she had stopped hauling the fish in, she would not release the line.
"Xena?" The boy tugged on his sisters arm. Having their mother mad at them was one thing, but their mother and Toris both - it was too much for his young heart to bear.
"Xena!" Came a roar from above. The brother saw that the children still had not followed him.
Again, the little boy pleaded, "Xe--"
In a flash, the girl loosened her hold on the line. She did not let go entirely, choosing instead to let it race through her hands, with the pole quickly following. In short order, the fish, line, and pole, disappeared beneath the waters.
"Xena - your hands!"
The girl looked down at her palms with far-away eyes, barely absorbing the thin red streaks that cris-crossed them. "Lets go." And she began to take great, loping strides back up the hill, with the boy hesitating at first, then following as fast as his little legs could carry him.
The girl turned only once to look back at the lake. Her blue eyes had hardened to stone. This day, the inn and the work that lies in store there, cannot wait. But that fish isnt going anywhere. There will be another day for fishing, a day when her little brother will not be disappointed. And on that day, that fish will be hers.
Roused from her reverie, the warrior reluctantly opened her eyes and swiveled her head towards Gabrielle.
The bard was once again fussing with her line. She paused, and took up a handful of the ends of her golden blonde hair, considering it for a moment. "Ugh!" she grimaced, releasing it. "I have become what I detest!"
"Now youre talking lures!" the warrior released a hearty laugh. She could not help but recall the enchanted time when a lock of her friends hair served noble duty at the end of a fishing line, enticing the mighty Solaris to fall under its spell.
But the young woman barely heard her friend. "Maybe if I... " she spied Xenas large Palomino, grazing nearby. As if reading her thoughts, the mare raised her head from the marsh grass, shook it, and whickered.
"Dont even think about it," Xena firmly said.
The bard sighed heavily, blowing wisps of hair from her face, and planted her hands on her hips. "All right. You win, Xena."
"What? I already--"
"Say it!" the warrior smirked.
"All right!" Gabrielle clenched her teeth. "Xena, will you please help me to catch a fish?!"
"Okay!" the taller woman said simply, brightly. She hopped to her feet. "Now then. The first thing we need to do is to get you a good lure." She moved to their bags by the campfire, and pulled out a small piece of hammered metal.
"I thought you said it wasnt a question of lures. And what is that?"
"Oh, lures are important, Gabrielle," the warrior said matter-of-factly, as she worked to affix the thin, sparkly metal to the line. "And this extra piece from the new sword buckle Im working on, should do the trick. That, and if you get out from under the shadow of those cottonwoods." Her tongue poked its way between her lips as she concentrated on the task at hand. "There!" she was finished. "Follow me!" and she led the way back to the rock where shed left her pole. As the two women approached, they could see that Xenas pole was nearly bent in two by the weight of... something, at the end of it.
"Hey!" Xena thrust the pole she held into Gabrielles chest, knocking her back. "I got another one!" She left the flailing bard in her wake as she raced to the waters edge. In one swift motion, she plucked her pole from the ground. "Yeeee-ha!" she laughed merrily, tugging the pole up, and then letting it play a bit. Giving the fish a fair shot in their duel. But he was hooked solid, of that there was no doubt, and Xena began hauling him in.
"That should do it!" she crowed. "Time for lunch!"
"Thank the gods," Gabrielle muttered. "Saved."
The warrior and bard sat side-by-side at the edge of the dying cookfire, leaning against a downed log. They faced out over the vast, open expanse of the lake. The fish had been gutted, cooked, and eaten. Two battered plates lay on the ground, piled high with fish bones, bearing mute testament to the feast that had been consumed. A not unpleasant scent of the trout still lingered in the air, and for Xena, this heady perfume only served to fuel her desire to resume fishing. But now, and for a little while longer at least, she was content to relax with her friend, and indulge herself in that full-bellied, lazy-yet-satisfied state of consciousness that often followed such fin-borne adventures.
Xena could see, too, how Gabrielle fought against an encroaching snooze; her eyelids drooped and popped open again periodically. Xena grinned, recalling how often Lyceus would drift off to sleep after theyd eaten their catch. Later, he would swear hed only been resting his eyes, shading them from the midday sun. Sometimes she would tease him about it... sometimes she wouldnt, depending on her mood. Truth be known, she found herself captivated at times by the peaceful, innocent look on his face as he slept. And she felt so strong and brave, guarding the both of them, while he dreamed. What she wouldnt give to see that sweet face once more!
Awash in memories, Xena slipped deeper and deeper into her meditations, recalling another young fair-haired boy, one with whom shed never had an opportunity to fish. To teach him how to string a pole, to bait a hook. She wondered: had he ever had a chance for such sport at all, before he died? The warrior gulped, and inhaled deeply of the fresh lake air. On the breath of it she swore she could nearly catch the scent of him... of Solon. Of that last time when shed held him, burying her face in his hair and, in a choking whisper, swore to him they would always be together. A future, stolen. The shattered memories of a lifetime that would never be.
"Aaaaaah...." Gabrielles contented sigh.
"What is it?" Xena startled, and returned to the present.
The bard chuckled, and picked up a small stone, tossing it out into the water.
"If anyone had told me a few years ago," she shook her head in disbelief, "that Id be sitting here, at the side of a beautiful lake, fishing with Xena, the warrior princess...."
The warrior casually, cautiously averted her eyes, and began toying with a small stick on the ground next to her. "Do you wish things had turned out differently?" She tried to keep the tone of her voice light, but by now, after all their years of travel together, after all theyd been through, the bard could read her friends face like a scroll.
"Youre joking, right?" she took up Xenas hand and squeezed it in a gesture of partnership. "No. Im right where I want to be."
Xena visibly relaxed. "Me too," she tilted her head to Gabrielle, and smiled.
"Good." Gabrielle tossed another stone into the lake with her free hand, watching the ripples spread out upon its surface. "Im glad we have that settled. Where did that come from, anyway?" In the past, earlier in their relationship together, the bard mightve been content to let the subject drop. But now, though Xena was more open than she used to be, for her to pose a question so simply... so at odds with the foundations of their bond, demonstrated how vulnerable she still remained to uncertainty and self-doubt. Something was on her mind, that was for certain.
"Ah... I dont know," Xena sighed. "I guess I just get to wondering sometimes, how funny it is the way life turns out. How... if things had been different...."
"Different, in what way?" Gabrielles voice was soft, reflective. "Like... if you hadnt passed by Poteidaia that day? Thats what I think about, sometimes. Or," she continued, "if I had married Perdicus sooner... or someone like him. Maybe I could have been happy with that, or convinced myself that I was. But I like to think," she hesitated only slightly, "that somehow... someway... you would have found me."
Gabrielle fell silent. The breeze had picked up a bit, and the sound of the gentle waves tapping against the shore mesmerized them both, for a time.
"What about you, Xena?" the bard gently probed her friend, encouraging her to talk. Sensing that she needed to. "Do you ever wonder... what if Cortese had never come to your village? What if--"
"What if Lyceus hadnt been killed?" Xenas eyes clouded over at the memory. If only Gabrielle knew how she still asked herself that question every day. "I dont know. I always was... restless. After my father was gone, it was just mother and us kids. With strangers coming and going at the inn all the time, I was mixed up. Dont get me wrong," she said, "I knew that mother loved us. But... I never felt I belonged there. Not really."
"Im sorry," Gabrielle didnt know what else to say. She wrapped an arm around Xenas waist, supporting her.
"Sometimes... I wonder if I wasnt looking for an excuse to get away, and my hatred for Cortese... for what he did, gave it to me. For a long time I blamed him for taking away my childhood, my innocence. But now, thinking back on it, I wonder if it wasnt already long gone."
The sadness in the warriors voice nearly broke her friends heart. "Aw... cmon, Xena," she said, trying to lighten the mood, "You mean you wouldnt have been married off to some big lug of a man? You could be somewhere else right now, now darning socks by the fire with a bunch of kids playing crush the Romans at your feet!!" She smiled brightly at the taller woman.
The cloud lifted, and a slow, easy grin crossed Xenas face. "Well never know, will we?" and the warrior cocked her head towards the undergrowth behind them.
"Thank the gods for small favors," the bard replied, turning to follow Xenas gaze.
"Okay, you can come out now!"
Gabrielles jaw dropped in surprise. Once again, her companion impressed her with her acute sense of hearing.
"Its no use. I know youve been hiding there for the last five minutes!"
Still nothing, save for the rustle of branches and the snap of a twig.
"Look, my friend here and I wont hurt you!" And at that, Xena stood, facing the swaying bushes. Gabrielle inched up behind her.
"Shes right, were harmless!" the bard agreed. She spared a quick glance at the dark, leather-clad warrior by her side and hoped her words sounded convincing enough.
A small, scruff of a boy peeked his head between the branches of the bush. His unkempt hair was fair, and he might have been fair of features too, but with the gray-black smudges of dirt marking his face, it was difficult to tell.
"Thats it!" Gabrielle crouched down a bit, and beckoned to him. "My name is Gabrielle, and my friend here," she pointed to her, is "Xena."
"The warrior princess?" the little boy stepped fully out of the undergrowth at that, his mouth opened wide in surprise. "Ive heard about your mighty deeds... how you turned back the entire Persian army at Tripolis!"
The warrior shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "Well, it wasnt the entire Persian army..." she said, and she could not help but take in the childs bedraggled appearance. His clothes, though sturdily made, were beginning to look the worse for the wear, and couldve used a good washing. He carried a small knapsack on one shoulder, and Xena was taken aback to see that he wore a silver-handled sword at his side, better suited to a man more than twice his size. "Cmere," she offered. "Why dont you have something to eat and Ill tell you all about it?"
From the haggard look of him, Xena suspected that it was the smell of their cook-fire that attracted them to his attention in the first place, and just now she didnt want to scare him off. He was obviously alone, and that could be a very dangerous thing for a boy who looked barely more than ten or eleven summers old.
"How does some fresh fish sound?" Gabrielle stoked up the fire and put several more of trout on to cook that had somehow escaped the hungry warrior princess attention.
"Okay!" The boy tried to sound indifferent, but Xena could see his blue eyes light up at the prospect of something to eat. He moved in closer, the tip of his sword dragging in the dirt behind him.
"Have a seat--" Xena paused, waiting for the boy to provide his name.
"Im Pipplonius, " he said, gratefully taking a seat close by the sizzling fish. "But you can call me Pip."
"Pip," Xena eased down next to him and handed him a waterskin. She gambled, continuing, "Is that what your parents call you?"
The boy slowly lowered the waterskin, oblivious to a thin trickle of water that cleared a pathway down his dirtied chin. His little face scrunched up, and though he fought against it, his lips began to tremble. "N-n-nooo...." he cried out, and now the tears began to fall. "M-m-my brother, Mercator... h-he used to call me that."
Pips narrow shoulders quaked as the sobs overtook his body, and in a flash, Xena put the pieces together. Instinctively, she wrapped her arms around him, holding him close, trying to soothe his pain. For a moment, he let her, and then struggled to free himself from her.
"Im not a baby!" he insisted, though Xena doubted he even believed that himself. "Im a warrior. Like you Xena," there was a catch in his voice, "Like my brother!"
Xena watched the bard as she removed the fish from the fire, handing them on a plate to the still-crying Pip. Gabrielle backed off, but not before she locked a pair of concerned green eyes with Xenas own.
Voraciously, Pip began shoveling the steaming-hot fish into his mouth, pausing from time to time to wipe the errant tear from his face. His efforts only served to further muddy the streaks of grime that marked his days as an orphan of the road.
"Well," Xena cleared her throat, "from one warrior to another, you eat now. Well talk later." She patted him on the knee and stood, moving away from him, towards Gabrielle. Giving him space. Silently, she looked at the bard and sadly shook her head. For as surely as she lived and breathed, she was certain Mercator was dead.
After Pip had eaten his fill, Xena invited the boy to join them at fishing. She could see that Gabrielle was a bit flummoxed at this; Xena knew the kindly bard well-enough to know that Gabrielle would be anxious to get to the root of the matter with the boy, and to see him returned safely to his home.
The problem was, that neither she nor the bard knew where the childs home was. Xena had seen his kind before: scared, angry, alone. Left to their own devices, they became scared, angry, isolated - and brutal adults. If they lived that long. At least today, this day, Xena was in a position to try and do something about it. She had no desire to see little Pip continue along such a fateful path.
And so, from one warrior to another, shed set him up with a pole and a line, convinced him to discard his sword, and he quickly scooted next to her by the lakeshore. "Do warriors fish much?" he asked her in his soft, childs voice.
"All the time!" Xena shushed Gabrielle with a glare that shot over the boys head. "Even warriors need a break once in a while from defending against evil. Ive found it a useful... warrior exercise to clear the mind!"
Indeed, Xena had always found that much could be accomplished through fishing. Sometimes, conversation was involved, and sometimes not. Granted, the tangible results so far - at least hers, she thought, casting another sidelong glance at a still fish-less Gabrielle - had been productive. And she and Pip seemed to be continuing along that vein.
"Thats it - youve got one!" She gave Pip a congratulatory pat on the back as he pulled a small sunfish in all by himself.
"Look! Look!" He proudly displayed his catch like a master fisherman, grinning from dirtied ear-to-ear.
"Nice," the bard smiled tightly. Even a small boy was out-fishing her now. "Xena," she began, "I thought you were going to help me--"
"Not now, Gabrielle," Xena said evenly, through a forced smile, "okay?"
"Ugh!" the bard released a frustrated sigh. "Let me take another look at this lure..."
"Good work, Pip!" Xena returned her attention to little boy. "Now, lets get your line out there again, eh?"
Yes, lazy days spent fishing were not always like this, with trout literally leaping from the waters into her pail. After all, it wasnt always about results, even for the competitive warrior princess. No, when it came to the sacred rite of fishing, it was the simple act itself - just the doing of it - that was enough. Extended periods of peace in her life were so elusive - it was like trying to scoop water up in her hands; whatever she could grab, it was never enough, leaving her thirsty for more. Yet she never failed to capture that peace, that calm, while staring out over the cool waters of a promising lake or stream. Waters that soothed, relaxed... healed.
Pip spoke in spurts as they fished, and Xena let him go at his own pace. The more he was able to relax in her company, the more she was able to get out of him. The boys brother, Mercator, had died fighting the Persians at Marathon. All that was left of him was his sword, and it had been returned to Pips family - his parents and two younger sisters - in Santori, where they lived. The tiny farming hamlet was an easy days ride from the lake, but Xena surmised that the little boy had been on the road for several days, at least. The family had been crushed at the news of the eldest sons death, but Pip planned to make it right. He was determined to go to Athens, to join up with the army. To be a warrior, like his brother.
A yellow disc of a sun was starting to slip towards tips of the cottonwoods to the west. Gabrielle had given up on fishing some time ago, her last attempt at a lure involving a bright green strip of cloth that Xena thought suspiciously matched that of her young friends top. Xena had made a mental note then to be on the lookout for any subtle changes in the bards attire. It would not be the first time.
Gabrielle had made it plain that rather than giving up on fishing, she was choosing to begin dinner preparations, and leave the two of them - Xena and Pip - to finish up lakeside. It was also apparent to her that the little boy was bonding with Xena and, while this was a distinct change of roles for the warrior princess, Gabrielle was not unhappy to see it. Ever since Solon... well... she thought having little Pip around was doing her friend some good. Now, if they could just get him returned safely home!
"So," Xenas voice was neutral as she and Pip stowed their fishing tackle, "Ill bet your parents were proud to see you go off to Athens!" She was testing him, and it worked. Instantly she saw his features stiffen.
"After all," she continued, easing a pole against her shoulder, "to have raised two warriors in the same family..."
The boy was silent. The only sounds that could be heard were the faint rattle of Gabrielles dinner preparations and the lapping of the water against the pebbly shore.
"They do know, dont they?" she persisted.
Pip did not look at her, yet he opened his mouth and began to speak. "My par--"
But Xena cut him off. "Before you answer, Pip," she said sternly, "let me tell you the first rule about being a warrior. A noble warrior never tells a lie. They tell the truth, even when it hurts. Now," she lifted his scruffy chin to her with the tip of her finger, "tell me. Your parents dont know, do they?"
The boys watery-blue eyes filled with tears, but he did not cry. He simply shook his head no.
"Ill bet your mom and dad and sisters are worried about you!"
"No!" Pip swore, standing as straight and tall as his little body would allow him, "Im not going back. Im going to be--"
"I know... I know... a great soldier like your brother, right?"
The boy bobbed his head yes at Xena.
"Riiight..." Xena repeated slowly, but her mind was racing. "Okay," she said, placing her hands on his shoulders. "Well help. You can be partners with us. Were on our way to Athens, too. You can come along."
"Partners?" The clanging of pots and pans at the campsite had ceased, and Gabrielle stood with a fish in one hand and a knife in the other, eyeballing the warrior princess with a baleful stare. "Partners?" Her voice was more of a squeak now, and if Xena didnt know better, she wouldve sworn that her friend tilted the knife in her direction.
"Yes. Partners," Xena cut off the young woman with a silencing glare of her own. Quickly, before Gabrielle built up another head of steam, Xena ushered the little boy back to the campfire.
"But - first things first, Pipplonius," Xena said. "As a partner with we warriors, youve got to earn your keep." Xena ignored Gabrielle, when out of the corner of her eye she saw her skeptically touched a hand to her chest and silently mouth the word: warrior?
"Anything!" the boy said, brightening considerably.
"Finish gutting and cleaning the fish."
Pip took a step towards the pail of trout.
"Then gather more firewood for the night."
"That your sword?" Xena nodded at the battered, dirtied weapon leaning against the log.
"Yes..." he started, before he remembered Xenas earlier remonstrations. "Well, it was Mercators." He watched as Xena stalked over to the sword and picked it up. She ran her eyes up and down it in the twilight.
"Its filthy. And it looks as though it hasnt been cleaned in a year." She lightly whapped the flat of it against his chest. "Youll have to clean and tend to it after you bring back the firewood. And," she looked past him towards the trees, "brush, feed, and water Argo."
The mare whinnied her thanks at that.
At this point Pip was simply staring up at the warrior princess, in a state of utter shock. Where was the companionable warrior friend hed made earlier?
"And then - get cleaned up, will ya? You smell like 2-day old perch!"
The boys face reddened. He would show her! He had what it took to become a great warrior!
"Well - what are you waiting for?" Xena did not crack a smile. "Get going!" And the boy was off like a shot.
Only when his back retreated into the woods, did Xena allow a small grin to creep across her face. She leaned the boys sword back against the log.
The warrior looked up, but she had already felt the heavy stare of the bards green eyes upon her.
"What?" she complained, but she knew what was coming.
"Dont you think you were being a little hard on him?" Gabrielle moved closer to Xena, and then looked off in the direction Pip had gone.
"Leave this one to me, Gabrielle," Xena said, softly, and she turned to meet the young blondes now questioning gaze. "I know this boy."
"I know him!"
And as those piercing blue eyes fell upon her, as she looked into the depth of the pain and the joy and the lifetimes worth of living that she saw there, the bard at last understood.
Dinner was a relatively quiet affair, just some intermittent conversation between Xena and Gabrielle, mostly revolving around the bards fishing technique. Or, rather, a lack there-of.
Young Pip could barely keep his eyes open, so exhausted was he from the stresses of his travels, coupled with all the work assignments he had received from his warrior friend. As the boys head drooped down onto his chest for the third time, Xena could not get over the change in him since his washing-up.
Now, more than ever, her heart ached with the sadness of how one so little had been senselessly hurt so much. She took in the golden mop of hair, his freshly scrubbed skin, the little hands that never strayed far from the comforting feel of his brothers sword. It was too soon for such pain!
"He looks like a little cherub, doesnt he?" Gabrielle sidled closer to Xena, and gently patted her leg.
"Yeah..." Xena said, welcoming her friends touch. She put down the new sword buckle shed been working on. Shed picked it up in Barto, and had spent nearly a week honing it down to her exacting specifications. It was just about ready.
"So, whats the plan for tomorrow? More tough-love?"
"I-- Im not sure. Im sort of playing this by ear," the warrior turned to Gabrielle and grinned in the firelight. "Just follow my lead."
"No problem. This girl can dance!" The both laughed softly, at that, until Xena grew solemn.
The fire crackled and burned, joining with the hum of the crickets in a soothing, evening song. "I just hope Im doing the right thing," she said at last.
"You are Xena. I didnt see it at first, but once the fish got cleaned for me--" and she winked at her friend, "I saw the light."
"Thanks," Xena said, sighing, and she swung her eyes back towards the slumbering Pip. "I cant help but think that... that maybe if somebody had tried to set me straight when I was a kid...." and she paused for a moment, remembering. "One thing I know for sure: there is no way that boy is going to Athens."
The next morning dawned bright and clear, with a cooling, light breeze coming in over the water. The milky remnants of a pre-dawn mist still hung above the middle of the lake, but the encroaching, rosette fingers of daybreak threatened to sweep it away entirely before the sun was much higher in the sky.
Xena had been surprised to note that Pip had risen before either she or Gabrielle, and replenished their supply of firewood. Now, he stood expectantly before them. Watching. Waiting.
"Today we leave for Athens?" Little hands reached for his sword.
"Mmmmph...?" A heaping pile of blankets adjacent to the now-standing warrior writhed and thrashed as if a badger had been trapped inside of them.
Xena yawned, arching an eyebrow at the display, and waited. At long last, the tousled head of the bard poked out, at the opposite end of where one might have expected it to be within the tangled bedroll.
"Were leaving for Athens?" It was obvious that Gabrielle was still nearly half-asleep as she turned a bleary eye to the warrior princess.
"No... not just yet," Xena replied, inhaling deeply of the fresh dewy air. She ignored the crestfallen look that skipped across Pips face.
"Fine," Gabrielle crashed back down onto her bedroll.
"Today," there was a gleam in her eye as warrior waved an arm out towards the blue lake water, "were goin fishing!"
"Gabrielle, why dont you just use that lure I gave you yesterday?"
"What makes you think I still have it, Xena?" A completely drenched bard waved off the hand Xena offered her as she pulled herself out of the lake. "I... I think Ill just g-go sit by the fire for a while," she said through chattering teeth and, mustering what dignity she could, she marched off, trailing small puddles of water behind her.
"Wrong lure?" Pip looked after the shivering woman.
"Its not the lure..." Xena replied, laughing. Once more, the tall woman and her little warrior friend had put in a successful morning of fishing, while Gabrielle had come up empty. Her most recent effort had included attaching a small, scalloped shell to the end of her line. Perhaps it had gotten stuck in the murky bottom or perhaps she had hooked a fish - but they would never know. When Gabrielle had felt the pressure of a tug on her line, she had given it a sharp pull, as Xena had instructed her. But whatever it was on the opposite end had yanked back, suddenly and with some force, sending the bard tumbling off balance and splashing into the lake.
The smart play was to give her friend a wide berth now, Xena knew, to dry off and to save face. Being bested at fishing by Xena was one thing; losing out to little Pip was quite another. Even so, the warrior had to give Gabrielle credit; she still kept plugging away, still kept in the game. And with each new cast of a line, the hope of success lay at the end of it.
Xena chuckled softly to herself and sat back against the rock next to Pip. She rested her fishing pole down beside her and, with her eyes closed, turned her face up to the midday sun.
"Are we leaving soon?" Pips voice quavered as he hesitantly asked the question that had silently burned in him all morning long.
"Let me tell you a story, Pip," Xena said, not opening her eyes. "Its the story of a little girl, not much older than you, who lost someone close to her."
Pip squirmed uncomfortably. "Who?"
"Her brother." Xena did not move a muscle. "She used to spend many happy hours with him, playing, sharing secrets, fishing... they were each others best friends."
Now, the warrior turned to the little boy and bored her eyes into his. "When he died, she was soooo angry."
"Why?" Pips voice was barely a whisper.
The blue of Xenas eyes turned pale as she saw herself as she was, far across the years. "She was angry with him for leaving her behind, and even angrier with herself that there had been nothing she could do to stop it."
"What happened to her?" Pips eyes were as round as freshly minted dinars.
"She didnt give herself time to mourn. She let her anger turn into a hatred that blinded her, made her push away the people around her who loved her. Eventually, it drove her to leave her home altogether. To take up the life of a warrior on the road. At last, she was alone." Xena paused, and laid a hand on Pips arm. She could feel him trembling. "It was what she thought she wanted," she continued, "but she was wrong. It was a long time before she was able to find her way home again, Pip. And there was a lot of hurt and pain along the way, that she can never un-do."
Silent tears began to trickle down Pips face, and Xena pulled him close in an embrace.
"Why did Mercator leave me all alone?" he sobbed. "He never even said good-bye!"
"Ssssh!" Xena stroked his hair. "Youre not alone! Youve got family and friends back home who love you!"
"NO!" Pip pushed away and stumbled to his feet. "Im not going back there. You cant make me!" His face was flushed and red, as he twisted his fists into his eyes to clear them of tears. "Im going to be a warrior, like my brother!" and he stormed off, back to the campsite.
Xena sadly watched him go. How well she knew what he was going through. It crossed her mind that she had little hope of instilling in him a lesson that had taken her years to learn, but she quickly pushed that thought away. For his sake - and for her own - she had to try.
Time for plan beta.
"Ready for lunch?" a rather damp bard looked doubtfully from the stormy-faced Pip to the entirely unreadable warrior princess.
"Not just yet," Xena said, reaching for one of the fishing poles. She quickly produced a knife and began whittling off the end of the pole, bringing it to a sharpened point.
"Xena," Gabrielle said in an overly-patient voice, "What are you doing?"
"Im tired of fish," she replied coldly. "Im in the mood for some meat. How about it, Pip? From one warrior to another?" she kept her eyes on him.
"Fine," he said, sniffling, thrusting out his chin.
"Good," she tossed him the spear and began working on another.
The bard started to speak but in the last instant, bit her tongue. Something had happened and by the looks of it, it wasnt good. Still, she had promised Xena shed stay out of it. She only hoped that her friend knew what in Hades she was doing.
"Ill wait here then," she said evenly. She caught a fleeting look of grateful thanks in Xenas eyes, and knew shed made the right call.
"Lets go." Xena stalked past Pip and pushed into the woods, without a backward glance. After the briefest hesitation, the little boy followed her.
The air in the forest was thick with humidity and moisture; the canopy of trees overhead created a sheltered world of a soft, pine-needled floor, of groaning wooden walls covered in a riot of vines and mosses, and a ceiling of swaying leaves and branches that barely gave admittance to the brave, dappled streaks of sunshine daring to penetrate the interior.
There was barely a whisper of movement as Xena and her young apprentice stalked their prey.
"Guess you wont mind missing your sisters marriages," Xena said. Her observation came out of the blue, and Pip didnt know what to say. His sisters were barely seven and nine summers old.
"What do you mean?" he screwed up his face distastefully.
Xena stopped dead in her tracks, and wordlessly motioned that the two of them should stop. Pip followed her lead, crouching down behind the stump of a rotting blue pine.
"Well," she continued, matter-of-factly, "Once youre in the army, its bound to be years before youll get to go home."
Xena peered ahead into murky forest. Nothing. But she could tell that Pip was huddled close to her, virtually holding his breath, waiting for her to continue. Good.
"The far-away lands youll be sent to, full of strangers and all sorts of wild beasts...."
"What beasts?" Pips voice was hoarse.
Xena cast a sidelong glance at the breathless boy. "But... Im sure that sort of adventure is just the reason you want to be a warrior, right?" and she gave him a collegial slap on the back. "Yep, its a rough life," she sighed, "but thats the sort of thing you crave, if youre a warrior."
"B- but youve seen your family, havent you?" the boy was plainly worried, twisting his hands on the spear he held.
"I didnt" Xena said, shifting her gaze from side to side. "Not for a long time. I missed out on a lot. And you can never get that back again."
At last the warrior princess found what she was searching for.
"There!" she said in a hushed voice, and she cautiously propelled Pip in front of her. A small deer was grazing its way through the woods, nibbling at the leaves that bloomed at the base of the trees. Its rich brown hide was still faintly speckled with the white splotches of its youth, and with each sidelong step, it moved closer and closer to danger.
"Aim right behind the shoulder."
Xena placed two steadying hands on the boys arms. "Youve got to kill it if were going to eat it, right? From one warrior to another?"
The boy was positively trembling now, yet he managed to raise his spear with one shaky arm.
"Thats it," Xena encouraged him, praying to the gods that he would not follow through. "Now. Kill it!"
At that very instant, the young deer raised its head, capturing them both with two coal-black eyes that showed no fear. Instead, it relied on the mercy of these two strangers who had stumbled into its world.
"Go ahead, youve got it!" Xena insisted.
"N-n-no--" Pip started to lower the spear.
"What are you doing?" Xena jerked his arm back up. "Youre a warrior arent you? And warriors have to kill, dont they? Or had you forgotten that?" her voice was hard. Unforgiving.
"NO!" Pip was crying now, and the deer blinked at him.
"KILL IT!" Xena steeled herself against the conflicted emotions she saw crashing and colliding across Pips young face. He was almost there. She couldnt back down now.
"NO!" he shrieked, flinging the spear into the springy earth just a length in front of him. "I-I cant!" He threw himself into Xenas waiting arms then, sobbing bitterly.
The deer had seen enough. It bolted back into the underbrush, wagging its white tail in parting.
"I wanted to be a warrior like my brother," he said through painful, choking gasps, "but I cant do it. Im not good enough!"
"Sssh..." Xena could feel the wetness of his cheeks against her chest, as his tears freely flowed. "Take it from me, Pip," she said softly, feeling a tear of her own slip from the corner of her eye, "... being a warrior - as you see it? Its no way to live. And no way to die."
"Mercaaaaator..." the boys weeping nearly broke her heart; it was a lament she knew all too well.
"Itll be all right," she promised him, and she held him until he had no more tears left to shed.
The bard did not question Xena and her young charge when they returned to camp without their spears and without any game. "Were going to have fish for lunch after all," Xena said simply, and Gabrielle, with Pips help, prepared the meal.
Nor did the young woman question it when, shortly after theyd finished eating, the warrior informed her that shed be leaving for Santori, and taking Pip with her.
"Do you mind waiting here?" the warrior asked. "We can make better time if Pip rides with me; I know his family will be anxious to see him." She wrapped an arm around the little boys shoulders and grinned; Pip looked up at her, his face shining, and matched her with a toothy smile of his own. It did Xenas heart good to see it, it was though a great weight had been lifted from the little boy.
"Thats fine with me," Gabrielle said, smiling warmly at them both. She stood, and began clearing away the plates. "Itll give me some time to work on my fishing."
"Gabrielle..." Xena sighed, rolling her eyes.
"No - no really!" the bard enthused. "Theres a fish out there with my name on it. Ill catch it - just you wait and see! Or die trying," she added blithely.
A quick travel pack was prepared for the two: some bread, cheese, and water, as well as some dried fish. But when Pip tried to clamber aboard Argo, his sword kept getting in the way. Finally, he relented, and took it off.
"Can you hold this for me Xena?" he asked, lifting it up to her. "I dont need it, now."
"Sure," she said, taking his burden from him. She slid it into a saddle strap, and offered him a hand up. "Until youre ready."
Xena was right. Thanks to Argo they made the trip back to Santori in no time, and dusk was just falling when they pulled off the trail into the tiny village. The buildings were little more than huts, really, and the surrounding landscape was filled with olive groves, and golden fields of wheat, and barley. Plows and scythes were these peoples weapons of choice, Xena saw, and she knew they were the better for it.
Pip kept one arm around Xenas waist as he pointed out the local sights, and the warrior could hear the excitement and relief in his voice at being home at last. At Pips direction, her big war-horse pulled up to a moderately sized hut in the center of the hamlet, where a middle-aged man sat near the front door, sharpening his farming tools. From within the hut came the faint sounds of voices, and dinner preparations.
The man looked up as they approached, and Xena recognized the same blue eyes of Pips in his gaze. She wondered if she would have seen that same sparkling color in the eyes of Mercator, as well. She would never know.
"Father..." a small, hesitant voice squeaked behind her.
Gently, she reached an arm back and lowered Pip to the ground.
"Pipplonius?" the mans eyes flew opened wide. "Pip?!!" He dropped his tools and raced towards the boy, crushing him in a hug. Smothering him with kisses. Heads appeared in the doorway, and quickly, Pips mother and sisters joined in the reunion.
Soon, just about everyone was crying, and it was all Xena could do to keep a grip on her own emotions.
"Where have you been?
"We were so worried..."
"We love you Pip... dont ever do that again!"
The warrior could tell by the kindness she saw in these peoples loving hearts, that Pip would be left in good hands.
"Thank you, Xena... thank you!" Pips father said, with tears streaming down his face. "The thought of losing another son..." and words died as he bit down hard on his lip. "What can I ever do to repay you?"
"Just hang onto this, will you?" she slipped out Mercators sword and handed it to him. She saw a glimmer of understanding light the fathers face.
"I will," he solemnly assured her.
"He wont be needing it for a while, will you Pip?" she hopped down from her saddle and faced the little boy. "Cmere," she motioned to him.
Pip untangled himself from his father and moved next to Xena, giving Argo a good-bye pat in the process.
"Here," Xena said, and she pulled a fishing pole out of her saddle. "Try this on for size."
The boy took it and admired the strong, ash-wood look of it. It felt comfortable in his hands, much better than that heavy sword. "It fits," he smiled, gripping it tightly.
Xena bent over, her leathers creaking, and kissed the boy on the top of his golden head. She closed her eyes, and for a moment she was transported back to another time, another place. The one that got away. In a different sense, Pip would be spared that same fate.
"One day," she whispered to him, "You will grow to be a man that your family, your brother... and I... will be proud of.
"Do you think so, Xena?"
She pulled away, and looked down upon a face alight with hope. With promise.
"I know so," she swore, her eyes wet with tears. A final squeeze of an arm, a wave, and she was gone. Back up the dusty trail, into the darkness of the eastern sky. She had another friend who awaited her there.
Dawn was still a faint glow on the horizon when the warrior princess slipped into the bedroll beside Gabrielle. Xena wrapped her arm around the bards middle, drawing her close. She could hear the young womans steady breathing change in tempo, and she stirred.
"Xena," her voice was still thick with sleep.
"Sorry - did I wake you?"
"Am I supposed to say no?" she said, and she laughed softly, rolling over to face the warrior. "Hows Pip?" Her face was full of concern now. She knew how difficult these last couple of days had been for the boy and for her friend. Some holiday.
"Hell be okay," Xena reached out a hand and idly played with a lock of blonde hair. "Thanks for... for understanding." she moved closer to her bard, intending to press her physical advantage.
"Hey - its what I do, right?" Gabrielle smiled, and wiped a grimy smudge off the darker womans cheek. "Youre dirty!"
Xena turned up her nose, sniffing. "And you," she made a face, "smell like fish!"
"Oh!" the bard pulled herself to a sitting position, and started chatter. "Xena! You wont believe what happened!"
The warrior frowned, pushing herself up on an elbow. "Try me!" she testily replied, realizing her early morning plans for Gabrielle had just taken a detour.
"Well, there was this huge fish that I had by the line..."
"And?" Xena said, only half listening. She rubbed the back of her neck. Long night in the saddle.
"And... it got away."
"Dont tell me - it was the lure, right?" Xena could not help but laugh.
"Well... not exactly," Gabrielle shifted nervously. "But anyway...."
"Dont worry," Xena said, reaching out a hand to stroke her arm. "Ill catch something for us for breakfast," and she started to stand.
"But thats just it, Xena! You dont have to!"
For the first time, the warrior noticed a gleam in the bards eye. The smaller woman stood and waved her arms in a flourish towards the campfire. A trout nearly half as big as Gabrielle was strung on a line adjacent to it. How had Xena missed it before?
"I had to make do with his little brother!" the bard was literally bursting with pride.
Xena was stunned. "Wow." She moved to check it out. "Thats some fish!" she said, running her fingers along the length of it, inspecting its mouth. "What kind of lure did you use?"
The warrior caught the nervous tone in her friends voice. "Gabrielle?" she asked again, lifting her head to the sheepish bard.
Gabrielle was no fool, and she weighed her options carefully before she answered. "Ill give you a choice, Xena," she said, stepping closer. "One of two things. We can talk about that new sword buckle you used to have--"
"Gabrielle!" the warrior swore, but she did not move away when the bard encircled her arms around neck, pulling her close.
"Or," she continued, "we can go back to bed. After all," she batted her eyes at the dark haired woman, "Im still a little tired."
The warrior closed her eyes, trying to remain strong. Shed been working on that buckle for a week! And now it was gone.
"Xena?" the bards voice was low, and she could feel the breath on her face as her partner moved in for the kill. "Whatll it be?"
Gods, that woman could be so infuriating! So irritating! So-- A fire sparked through Xenas veins as the softest of kisses brushed against her lips.
"Its not the lure," Xena groaned, "thats for sure!"
Fishing, Xena thought later, as the bard happily cooked up a magnificent breakfast of the sweetest, most delectable trout she had ever tasted, Theres nothing else quite like it!
She took in a deep breath of the peaceful, comforting fireside smells, and was warmed by the smiling green eyes of her friend as they flitted up from time to time from the sizzling fish.
Perhaps they should stay here another day, Xena decided, grinning to herself.
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