Disclaimers: MCA and Renaissance own all rights to Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, Ephiny, Eponin and Solari. Any other characters and the story itself belong to me. I am not making a single penny from writing about them but I do live in constant hope. If you want to post this to your own web site somewhere, please do so but it would be really nice if you ask my permission about it first.
Warnings: There are scenes of consensual sex between two women depicted in this story. If this is against the law in your part of the world or if you are underage, please delete now. If you find such material offensive, this is how I see the characters so kindly supplied by Renaissance and I am not about to apologise for my own vision of them. There are also mentions of rape in this story. It doesn't happen but it was important to the story I was telling at the time. Just thought you might like some warning if such a subject might upset you.
Hanky Alert: Yea, you might need two or three of them. (Someone to cuddle afterwards might help too.)
A few brief words of thanks to the people who put these wonderful websites together never goes astray. Let's them know all their hard work is appreciated by those that actually hit the site.
And Many Thanks: To my devoted and much beloved beta readers, Danielle and Deb, for plowing through each days effort here and commenting on each section. Thanks also to my Editor From Heaven, for not only tightening up any loose bits she found but for also explaining, yet again, another rule of grammar I keep messing up. All three of you are worth your weight in chocolate!! A special hug and gentle kiss on the cheek to the Warrior-Singer for being so overcome with emotion after reading this story for the first time, she was almost unable to comment at all. Your faith in my ability will always be cherished here.J. January 98.
Choices In Life
A young Amazon warrior dropped lightly from the trees overhead into a small, sun-dappled clearing in the center of an unnamed stretch of forest. The only sounds to be heard were the small birds calling to each other as they fluttered from twig to twig and the gentle sighing of the late afternoon breeze through the leaves. The warrior herself made no noise as she walked towards the center of the glade, the thick moss absorbing her passing footfall. Multi-toned greens and browns surrounded her on all sides, with little jagged patches of blue from the sky showing through the gaps in the leaves over her head.
She had searched for almost two full seasons to find this place, and she didn't want to disturb the sense of peace and tranquillity she found there. The little clearing had been hidden deep in the forest, far from the usual paths and tracks that other travellers might have taken. Dropping to one knee, she reached out and brushed her fingertips lightly over the piled stones of a single, large grave. The headstone was mostly rough-hewn, though someone had taken special care to smooth the one side where an inscription had been engraved by the hand of some master stone-smith. There was no name or date of passing carved into the stone, but she knew she had found the right place at last.
Lowering herself to sit cross-legged beside the grave, she placed one hand on the rocks as though making contact with the occupant. Letting the peace and silence of the glade gradually fill her, she wiped a tear from her cheek and began to speak quietly, knowing she would be heard.
The woman paused, not quite sure how to continue. In the quiet of the forest clearing, surrounded by all the small sounds of life, she found her mind drifting back over the cycles to the very beginning.
"Hera's tits!" Gabrielle cursed mildly. "You can't turn your back on anything around here."
"Now what's the problem?" Xena asked from her position near the saddlebags. Reaching for one of them, she put the herbed soap, in its special waterproof bag, into the side pocket.
"While we were bathing, something snatched our evemeal right off the spit," the bard explained.
Xena looked up, not quite believing the other woman. Glancing around the flat meadow where they were stopping for the night, there were no obvious signs of anything having been near the camp. Climbing to her feet, the warrior walked over to where Gabrielle stood, her hands still on her hips, looking irritated. Xena fought to keep the smile from her face. She knew how the bard loved to eat, and having their meal stolen was right up there with any number of dreadful crimes as far as the blonde was concerned. Xena wasn't too worried, though. Finding another pheasant would be a simple matter, after all. But the dark-haired woman hated a mystery as much as Gabrielle hated missing a meal.
Xena dropped down on one knee next to the still fuming bard looking over the small area of bare ground, perhaps two paces wide, she had cleared around the firepit before lighting the fire. There in the dirt, she could clearly see the boot-prints of both herself and Gabrielle, as familiar and known as her own face. But there was one set of prints that didn't belong among the clutter and scuffing caused by their own feet -- several barefoot prints of someone quite small, a tiny adult or, more likely, a child. They had crept nervously into the camp, crouched by the fire and then run back into the forest surrounding the meadow. From where the two women had been bathing, the tall reeds on the edge of the stream would have blocked their view of the camp itself, and the noisy water-fight they had engaged in probably covered any inadvertent sounds the little intruder might have made.
"It wasn't a something, Gabrielle, but a someone," Xena said, as she tried to guess the age of the youngster from the size of the blurred prints they had left behind. "Probably a child, from the looks of these footprints."
"A child? Out here?" Gabrielle said. "We're leagues from the nearest village, and we haven't even seen a farmhouse for the past several days. What would a child be doing in the middle of nowhere?" The bard's irritation had quickly changed to compassion at the thought of a child lost in the nearby forest.
"We can ask them later, when we find them," Xena replied, climbing to her feet again and dusting off her knee. Not bothering with her armour or greaves, she quickly strapped her sword around her waist and headed into the forest, following the slight traces made by the little one's passing.
Following the tracks carefully, they entered a thick and overgrown section of the forest. In the rapidly waning light, the going was difficult, Gabrielle occasionally stumbling on a concealed tree root or fallen branch. Xena's eyes constantly scanned the route they were pursuing, noting the minute signs of someone having been this way recently. Leaves bent back the wrong way, small, broken twigs, a random print barely showing on the scuffed leaf litter all served to lead the two women deeper into the forest. Stepping into a tiny clearing, little more than a break in the trees, both women spotted the torn apart remains of their meal.
"Well, they were here," Xena noted quietly, still looking through the gaps in the trees trying to find their tiny quarry. "Must have heard us coming."
The blonde leaned against the warm side of the warrior, her eyes flicking from the partially stripped carcass of the pheasant to the close woods surrounding them. "So, how do we find them now, Xena? If we keep tracking through the forest, they'll just move further into it, and the light is almost gone."
Xena thought for a moment, one arm draped loosely over Gabrielle's shoulders, the other hand rubbing her chin gently. "The smell of food tempted them out the first time; maybe it will again," she said.
The plan the tall woman had in mind was a simple one. On the journey back to the campsite, Xena had checked her other traps and found a small rabbit already caught in one of them. It was barely half-grown, not even a snack for either of the women but more than enough to tempt a hungry child. Gabrielle tried not to watch as Xena had quickly skinned and dressed the tiny body. Once the rabbit was spitted over the glowing coals of their fire, Xena headed back to the forest and hid herself in the branches of a tree right on the edge of the meadow. Gabrielle ducked into the tall reeds by the stream, peering through the gaps to watch their campsite.
Two candlemarks passed slowly, the moon rising over the top of the forest to bathe the meadow in its pale silvery light. Gabrielle was starting to think the child was not going to be tempted a second time when she spotted movement under the last of the trees near their clearing. Like some wild animal, the small child crept from the cover of the brambles, nervously edging its way towards the fire and the scent of the now over-cooked meat. Stopping frequently to sniff the air, the child gradually came closer to the camp. Gabrielle had to force herself to breathe as the child crouched just inside the circle of light created by the last of the fire's glow.
It was hard to guess the child's age, but the bard thought it might be nine or ten summers old. The child moved slightly in the fire's light, and Gabrielle was able to see it was a girl-child, wearing nothing more than a thick coating of grime, mud and dust, her matted, tangled hair some unknown color and filled with leaves and twigs from the forest where she obviously slept. Through the covering mud, she could just make out a long, shallow scar running almost the entire length of one thigh. It appeared long healed and didn't seem to hinder the child as she shuffled forward on her knees, reaching for the lightly blacken carcass of the rabbit on the spit.
Standing carefully and moving out of the reeds as silently as she could, the bard tried to approach the girl-child, now absorbed in stripping the meat from the rabbit as quickly as possible and stuffing it into her mouth. Gabrielle had only taken a couple of paces from the edge of the reed-bed when the child's acute hearing gave away her presence. Grabbing the still spitted rabbit from over the coals, the child bolted back across the field, heading into the safety of the forest once more. The bard was barely halfway across the meadow herself when she heard Xena's triumphant 'gotcha' floating back on the evening breeze. By the time she had gotten to the warrior's side, she was presented with the sight of a snarling, spitting bundle of terrified energy trying to escape from Xena's strong grip.
"Feisty one, isn't she," Xena said, pulling the child tight against her long body to try to protect herself from various extremities being flung viciously in all directions.
"Scared witless, more likely," Gabrielle replied. The bard reached up to the child's face to get her attention and perhaps to calm her down a little. The little head shot sideways and surprisingly strong white teeth snapped closed on the bard's fingers. Wrenching her hand away, Gabrielle quickly backed off, holding the bitten fingers gently in the palm of her other hand. "By the gods, the little vixen drew blood," she exclaimed, examining the deep, bleeding cuts the child's teeth had made across three fingers.
"Maybe she just wanted to see what a bard tasted like," Xena said, a wicked twinkle in her sky blue eyes.
Gabrielle couldn't stop the deep blush from creeping up her face until her ears were flaming. Managing to get herself under some control, though the redness was still blazingly apparent, the bard said, "Xena, stop that. Let's just get her back to camp."
"Good idea. I can take a look at those fingers of yours once we have this little one settled down a bit," the warrior replied. Lifting the still struggling but tiring child into her arms, Xena and Gabrielle moved back towards the campsite and the possibility of some answers.
"Do you really think it was necessary to tie her up?" Gabrielle asked as Xena carefully cleansed the cuts on her fingers.
"Would you rather one of us have to hold her all the time?" the warrior replied. "Every time I put her down, she tried to take off into the forest again."
Gabrielle gave into the logic of the situation, but nothing said she had to like it. Glancing over, she could see the child watching them suspiciously as she wriggled against the rawhide bindings Xena had used to tie her to a large log next to the fire. Simply tying her wrists together had not worked because as soon as they had taken their eyes from the child, she had start gnawing at the rawhide. It would not have taken her long to chew her way though them, so Xena had resorted to binding each wrist to the log and then tying her ankles to stop her from kicking them as either woman passed by. You know, under all that grime, she might be quite a pretty child, the bard thought to herself. This close, Gabrielle could see the blazing jade green of the girl's eyes, flecked with gold, and the bard guessed she had reddish hair under all that dirt.
"Okay, all done. They shouldn't even leave a mark once they're healed," Xena said, as she finished cleaning the bard's bitten fingers. "At least we know she has healthy teeth," the warrior deadpanned.
"Funny, Xena. Very funny," Gabrielle replied sarcastically, gently moving her fingers to see how much they hurt. Hardly at all, she decided, even though the bites had been fairly deep.
As Xena put away the small herbal kit she used to treat their cuts and scrapes, Gabrielle approached the girl-child still regarding them distrustfully from behind hooded eyes. "Hi. Can you tell us your name?" she asked gently.
The child simply stared back, her lips compressed firmly together.
"I'm sorry we had to tie you up like this," the bard continued. "I know you're frightened, and the forest probably does seem safer to you, but I promise, neither one of us wants to hurt you." Gabrielle watched for any reaction from the child. There was nothing but suspicion and mistrust blazing back from those jade green eyes. "It would be easier if I knew what to call you. I'm Gabrielle," she explained pointing to herself. "And that is Xena," she said, nodding her head towards the tall warrior sitting on their bedroll nearby. At the mention of Xena's name, the girl glanced briefly at the other woman and something flashed across the child's expression. It was too quick for the bard to put a name to it, but she felt that the child somehow knew who the dark-haired woman was.
Picking up a spare blanket, the bard carefully draped it around the girl's still bound body, tucking it gently over her shoulders to keep the early morning dew from chilling her. She reached out her hand, meaning to ruffle the child's hair. Remembering her bitten fingers, she decided against it. Patting her leg instead, Gabrielle said, in the same quiet voice she had been using all night, "We can talk some more in the morning. Maybe you'll even tell me your name then, eh."
Crossing over to the warrior, who was now stretched out comfortably on the bedroll they shared, Gabrielle looked back at the girl as she fought against the need for sleep, her head dipping and then snapping upright again. Even terrified and bound, the bard felt she would be asleep before too much longer.
"Come to bed, Gabrielle. There isn't much more we can do for her tonight," Xena said quietly, patting the bedroll beside her.
Dropping gracelessly, the bard sighed deeply. "I know, Xena, but I thought I might be able to at least find out her name." She snuggled up against the warrior's side, head nestled into the hollow of the other woman's shoulder. Gabrielle relaxed as she felt Xena's arm along her back, one hand lightly brushing the exposed skin. Stifling a mighty yawn, she said, "I wonder who she is and how she got here?"
Softly kissing the bard's creased forehead, Xena replied, "I don't know, but we had better get some rest because something tells me tomorrow is going to be a long day."
Within a candlemark, the two travellers and the unnamed girl-child were sound asleep, but two sets of ears twitched and sharpened as they listened to the occasional sounds coming from the night quiet forest and the gentle snores issuing from Gabrielle's mouth.
The bard woke the next morning to a chorus of bird-song as they greeted the start of a new day. She was more used to waking early now than she had been in the beginning, but she was also much more used to the fast pace Xena kept to and had developed strong, muscular legs from all the leagues they had travelled over the cycles. Without even moving, the bard knew Xena was long gone, probably waking before dawn as she usually did. It was a rare morning indeed when Gabrielle managed to wake before the warrior, and that only happened when Xena had been injured in a battle of some kind.
Xena always made a point of covering the bard completely when she rose because she knew how Gabrielle hated to wake to cold, dew drenched cheeks. Pulling the blanket from her face, the bard quickly glanced around the campsite to locate the warrior. As usual, Xena was standing in the middle of the meadow drilling with her blade and loosening up her muscles made stiff from a night of sleeping on the hard ground. Gabrielle always found watching the drills fascinating because Xena appeared to almost dance her way through them. The graceful line of her body and the early morning sunlight flashing from her sword generally left the bard thinking the other woman was some gift from the gods, she looked so incredibly beautiful.
Gabrielle had been entranced watching the drills on many a morning, but today there was something else to take her attention. The girl-child they had found the night before had somehow twisted herself around so she could watch the warrior training. From where she lay, Gabrielle could just see the child's face, and the unguarded expression of longing was plainly evident.
As the bard rose from the bedroll, the child caught the movement from the corner of her eye. Gabrielle watched as a door appeared to close on the girl's face, wiping all expression from her eyes. But something still lingered in the way she kept glancing at Xena. Perhaps Xena can get her to talk, Gabrielle thought. There is just something about the way this little one keeps watching her that looks familiar. The bard put that thought away in her memory for the moment and started to attend to her usual morning routine.
By the time Gabrielle had set a pot of broth heating, washed the sleep from her face and gotten the bedrolls folded and strapped to the saddle-bags, Xena had finished training and was donning her armour and greaves in readiness for the day ahead. Although the warrior appeared concentrated on what she was doing, she was well aware of a pair of jade green eyes which were following her every move. After bouncing briefly on her toes to settle her armour comfortably, she approached the child to release her bindings.
Maintaining a firm but gentle grip on the child's arm, Xena led her over to the clump of bushes the two women had been using as a privy. The girl seemed to understand as she had seen first Xena, and later Gabrielle, go into the bushes and squat down. That little chore taken care of, the next thing on Xena's list of duties was to try to get the child a little cleaner. This was to turn into a battle unto itself.
Over the sound of the child's terrified howling, Gabrielle shouted, "I have never seen anyone so afraid of the water before." The two woman had thought to try to bathe the girl-child in the stream where they had cleaned themselves the evening before, but as soon as Xena had started moving in the direction of the water, the child had erupted into the same snarling bundle of ferocious energy the warrior had captured in the beginning. Even standing in the middle of the camp and sponging her down with water heated over the fire raised the most amazing screams and howls of pure fear from the girl.
"Maybe she fell in at some time and that's what's frightened her," Xena offered as the child tried to squirm out of her grip.
Gabrielle snorted as she grabbed one leg and tried to removed several layers of ground-in dirt and grime. "Even of warm water, standing here, paces away from the stream?" she asked.
Xena just shrugged her shoulders as she readjusted her grip again. The noise didn't abate until Gabrielle finished and finally emptied the bowl she had been using to rinse the filthy rag after each pass over the girl's mud-splattered body. The warrior wrapped her arms around the shaking child, making gentle shushing noises in her ear until she felt the girl slowly relaxing against her chest.
"I don't know what we are going to do about her hair, Xena. I doubt she will stand still long enough to let us even try to get it clean again," Gabrielle said as she came back into the camp.
Xena felt the girl push back against her chest as the bard reached out to touch her hair. Tightening her hold around the child a little, Xena replied, "I think we might have to simply cut it off. Looks too matted to get it clean anyway, even if she was willing to sit still for it."
"Okay. Just let me find the knife," Gabrielle said, as she started searching through their saddlebags looking for the small, sharp knife they used to trim their own hair.
Xena explained, as simply as possible, what they where going to do, hoping the child would somehow understand. As Gabrielle began to carefully cut the child's hair as close to the scalp as she could get the small blade, Xena felt two small hands clutching her thighs strongly. The girl was still shaking but seemed to be settling, so long as Xena held onto her. It took some time but eventually Gabrielle managed to get it off in one large, tangled mass.
"Ick," the bard said, screwing her face up in disgust. "How on earth she put up with that for so long is beyond me." Tossing the matted bundle to one side, the bard gently rubbed her hand over the remaining hair, trying to ignore the toss of the child's head as she attempted to throw the bard's hand off. "You know, Xena, I think she is a redhead. This should grow out fairly quickly," she said, looking into the girl's eyes. "I've got an old skirt in one of the bags that I can probably get to fit her."
"If you can get her to wear it, you mean," Xena said. She was gradually loosening her grasp around the child to see if she was going to bolt for the forest again. The warrior didn't like the idea of having to keep her tied all the time, but until they could 'tame' her, it may well be their only choice. The child made no move to leave, even when Xena's arms were finally resting on her thighs as she squatted behind the child. Only when she started to stand up did the girl suddenly turn, wrapping her small arms about Xena's hips.
Gabrielle smiled at the perplexed look on Xena's face as she returned with the skirt neatly folded in one hand. "Looks like you have woven your magic over another one," she said.
Xena just grunted in response. It wasn't that she didn't like children, she just wasn't all that experienced with them, even though she did have a son of her own living with the centaurs. "Why can't they get attached to you for a change?" she asked, exasperated.
"Maybe I just don't look the motherly type," the bard giggled back.
Xena levelled one of her best I'll-get-you-for-that looks at the still chuckling woman as she approached, skirt in hand. Taking the leather from the bard, she tried to wrap it around the girl. The child wriggled and pushed the material away until Xena squatted down again to explain she had to wear it. The girl listened solemnly but would not let the warrior wrap the skirt around her small body. "I know you're not used to wearing clothes, but you have to put something on," Xena said reasonably.
The child shook her head and then hesitantly fingered one of the thick leather straps that made up the lower part of Xena's clothing.
Gabrielle stood back smiling even more broadly than before. "Yep. Definitely bewitched, that one. Looks like she wants a skirt something like yours."
"Then I'm glad this is an old skirt, Gabrielle," Xena replied as she drew her breast dagger from her bodice and began to slash through the leather. It took no time at all before Xena had a cut down version of a skirt that bore a vague resemblance to the one she wore. Holding it up for the child to see, she had no trouble getting her to put it on. "Care to sacrifice one of those dreadful tops of yours as well?" Xena asked, a lop-sided grin on her face.
"Ummm, somehow I don't think so," Gabrielle replied, looking at the remains of her skirt now gracing the excited girl's hips as she turned from side to side, feeling the leather straps brushing against her skin. "She's nowhere near her womanhood, so we might get away with leaving her bare-chested for the moment. The Amazon girls I've seen rarely wear a top of any kind until after their Pleasures of Womanhood ceremony anyway."
"Well, we've gotten her a little cleaner, dressed and she doesn't look like she is about to take off into the forest again. Now, what do we call her?" Xena asked. The warrior was looking down on the child, leaning against her knees, as she ran her hands over the cut down leather skirt. Beneath the soft childish giggles, Xena could hear strings of nonsense sounds being linked together like words. The tall woman spoke or had a passing acquaintance with several foreign and not so foreign languages. The words the child spoke were like nothing Xena had ever heard before, but occasionally a word which did make sense would come through.
Gabrielle crouched down in front of the child, a look of sadness crossing the bard's face as the girl pushed back against Xena's knees in fear. Pointing to herself, she said, "Gabrielle. My name is Gabrielle."
The girl simply stood, one arm wrapped tightly about the warrior's strong thigh, her face closed to all expression once more.
Determined not to give up, Gabrielle pointed at the dark-haired woman, saying, "Xena. And that is Xena."
Xena nodded as the child's eyes caught her's. "That's right. My name is Xena," she said, touching her breastplate with one finger. Pointing at the child, Xena asked, "And your name is?"
The child said something and it was only because Xena's hearing was hyper-acute that she heard it at all, being just the barest whisper of sound. Shayna.
"Shayna? Your name is Shayna?" The warrior asked gently.
The girl nodded in reply, a grin splitting her face as though she had accomplished something miraculous.
Looking at Gabrielle, still crouched in front of the child, Xena said, "Well, we have something to call her, at least."
"I just wish she wasn't so afraid of me," Gabrielle stated rather flatly. "I'm usually so good with kids." The bard's stomach chose that moment to announce its hunger, burbling loudly from the woman's mid-section.
"Keep making noises like that and she might take off for the forest again," Xena laughed. "And I wouldn't be too far behind her."
The bard just shot a look of pure disgust at the tall woman before turning back to the fire and their very late breakfast.
The little group had gotten away from the campsite somewhat later than Xena had originally planned. For some reason, Shayna insisted on being as close to the warrior as possible and refused to stay with Gabrielle, rolling her eyes in fear every time Xena tried to get her to stay by the bard's side. Giving in to the inevitable, Xena had let the child trail along behind her as she caught and saddled Argo, attached their saddlebags and made sure the campsite was as clean as they had found it. It was not something every traveller did, but it was a point of pride for the warrior to always leave things the way she found them or better.
Shayna had been fascinated with Argo from the moment she first laid eyes on the mare. In return, the horse was just as taken with the little person with gentle, patting hands and soft, whispery voice, whuffling in the girl's ear and lipping the closely chopped red hair. The child had walked all around the mare, even under her, running her hands over Argo's golden coat and along her muscular legs. Xena was just thankful the mare was trained to stand still when anyone was around her. Any other horse might have bucked or kicked, especially when the girl had stood at the back of the animal running her curious fingers through the mare's long flowing tail.
They were finally on the road again, and Xena was getting a chance to think. It was obvious from the sound of Gabrielle's footfall and the expression on her face, whenever the warrior glanced back, that she was not happy that the child was so afraid of her. And however much Shayna was frightened of the bard, she was equally taken with Xena herself. The warrior understood this even less. Gabrielle was so obviously gentle that children usually gravitated to her like bees to honey. Finding out she was a storyteller too more often than not cemented the relationship, a useful skill whenever they needed information. Children rarely missed anything and were more than happy to tell Gabrielle all about it once she had told them a story or two in exchange. Xena, on the other hand, with her often dark, foreboding expression, heavy leathers and weaponry, was more used to children being terrified of her. It was something she had simply come to accept since her change of heart.
Yet here was a little wild child, walking calmly beside Argo, one hand clutching Xena's ankle as her foot rested in the stirrup. The warrior shook her head, not quite believing the trust this girl was placing in her. Something caught her attention, pulling her from her mental ramblings. The small hand on her ankle suddenly disappeared and Xena saw a fleeting glimpse of Shayna's back as she ducked into the bushes beside the roadway. Focusing her hearing and breathing in deeply on the light morning breeze, she picked up the faint sound of creaking leather and the smell of long-unwashed bodies. Just what I need right now, she thought happily -- a nice little fight to get the juices flowing.
Shooting a quick glance over her shoulder towards Gabrielle, she saw the bard had picked up on the warrior's tension and the sight of Shayna disappearing into the undergrowth. Having travelled together for close to three cycles now, the blonde-haired woman knew what the signs meant and had swung her staff across her body in preparation for a fight.
Xena sat in her saddle, waiting for the trouble to come to her. She didn't have long to wait. Her ear caught the sound of the tightening bowstring long before the arrow was loosed in her direction. Letting her body react without thinking, she snatched the arrow from the air, a hand-span from her chest. Looking at it briefly, she tossed it to one side and jumped from the saddle. A second arrow came at her and once again she plucked it from its flight as easily as if she was catching a fly.
She heard the bowstring a third time and waited calmly for the arrow to follow. It came, but not at her. The arrow lanced towards the bard standing several paces behind the warrior. For a moment, she was terrified the arrow was going to make contact with Gabrielle's body but instead heard the sound of the iron arrowhead hitting wood. Looking back, she saw that the bard had quite deliberately caught the arrow in the center of her staff. Xena nodded at Gabrielle and the grim, determined expression on her face.
Obviously deciding the arrows were going to be of no use against the two women, the troublemakers erupted from their hiding places en masse and bore down on them in one solid wave. Xena whipped her sword from its back-sheath and pulled her chakram from its hook with her left hand. Most of the men came at her, thinking she was the more deadly of the fighters, and they were right, but several ran past her aiming to take Gabrielle down. Xena tried not to concern herself too much with the bard, letting her honed and trained body react to the danger bearing down on her like a runaway chariot. Whenever she could, she glanced back to check that the other woman was holding her own and was pleased to see she was. Gabrielle had become extremely skilled with her staff and had even learned some of the kicks and punches Xena used herself.
The battle raged for several bloody minutes, neither side quite gaining an upper hand, though men were dropping regularly from the end of Xena's sword or the side of Gabrielle's staff. The warrior's chakram flicked out and dropped a man in his tracks who was about to skewer Gabrielle through the spine from behind. The bard nodded a brief thanks at Xena before taking after her next opponent.
Xena had fallen into a steady rhythm of twist, parry, lunge and thrust watching the men fall around her. Perhaps a dozen of them lay dead or dying on the road but there still seemed to be more to take their place. Suddenly, out of nowhere came a third fighter to tip the odds in their favour. It was a little blur of enraged energy, slicing at the back of the men's knees and thighs with a long knife, effectively ham-stringing several of them. The child was lightning fast, her small body ducking through tiny gaps between the men, causing a couple of them to actually run their swords through their own allies in an effort to stop the little wildcat armed with the knife. It was almost comical to watch, and Xena couldn't help grinning through the fear she had for the girl accidentally getting hurt.
As fast as Shayna had woven her deadly way through the men surrounding Xena, she was off to complete her gruesome chore on the few fighters still trying to bring Gabrielle down. The warrior turned her full attention back to the half dozen or so men still standing in front of her.
By the time the last two had turned and bolted back into the forest, leaving their weapons behind in terror, Gabrielle and Shayna had finished off their own little group of troublemakers, though the bard did have to stop the child from trying to slit the throats of the downed men.
"You all right, Xena?" the bard asked as she approached.
The warrior quickly glanced over her body, and other than a fine sheen of sweat, there wasn't a mark on her. "I'm okay, though you seem to have taken a bit of a hit," Xena replied, noticing the bleeding cut on the bard's upper arm where a sword-point had sliced through the flesh. The bard had not felt it in the heat of battle and the rush of adrenalin. Reaching into the saddlebag, Xena quickly tied a scrap of rag around the wound to stop the bleeding. "I'll stitch that for you as soon as we are safely away from here."
Dropping to one knee, she carefully examined Shayna for any sign of a wound. Blood was congealing on her face and bare chest and still dripping from the end of the knife she held in one hand, but the child had come away from the fight with no injuries at all. Xena felt her shoulders relaxing once she knew for sure the girl had not been hurt. Holding out her hand, the warrior said, "Can I have the knife now, Shayna?"
The child shook her head and quickly slid the blade into the waistband of her skirt, keeping one hand over the handle so Xena couldn't take it from her.
The warrior looked a little cross and placed her own hand over the child's. "Shayna, it isn't safe for you to have such a large knife. Please give to me."
Gabrielle stifled a giggle behind one hand when the girl shook her head more emphatically to show she had no intention of handing over the weapon. "I'd say let her keep it, Xena. The people on the pointy end of it are in more danger than she is, if her display earlier is anything to go on."
Xena grunted but didn't break eye contact with the child in front of her. "She's a kid, Gabrielle, and kids don't have knives," she stated flatly, matching her will to that of the girl.
"Kids don't live wild in the forest either, but Shayna has and managed to survive quite nicely," Gabrielle answered seriously.
"Whose side you on, anyway?" Xena asked grumpily. She couldn't believe she was losing a battle of wills with a ten-cycle-old child. "Oh, keep the knife then, if you must," she said a little testily, as she rose to her feet and remounted Argo. As soon as she was settled in the saddle, she felt a hesitant hand inching around her ankle again, as though the girl was afraid Xena was angry with her. Looking down at the child, Xena smiled, "It's all right, Shayna. I'm just not comfortable with you having an edged weapon, that's all. But it looks like I'm not getting a choice, considering who your champion is."
Trying not to hear the muffled giggles of her travelling companion, Xena clucked her tongue at Argo and they moved away from the scene of the battle and on down the road.
"Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, owwwch" Gabrielle muttered through clenched teeth.
"Apollo's boots, Gabrielle. I've hardly touched you yet," Xena said. "It's just a little pain. You've had worse, you know."
The bard glared at the warrior seated next to her. "Lots or little, it's still pain. And I'm getting my ouches in now, while I still can," she replied.
Xena just shook her head and continued cleaning and stitching the wound Gabrielle had gotten in the fight earlier in the day. She was very aware of a pair of curious eyes watching her every move from over her shoulder. Cutting the end from the last stitch, the warrior was surprised when a small, gentle finger moved past her head and softly stroked the now closed wound.
"Ouchie," a whispery voice said.
Xena's head snapped around to see the look of concern on Shayna's face. "Yes, that's right. Gabrielle has an ouchie," she said.
"Aabriel a ouchie," the girl repeated softly.
"Hmmmm, maybe you can talk but you've just forgotten how after not being exposed to words for who knows how long," the warrior observed, almost to herself.
"And she has found the perfect teacher in Xena, Silent Princess," the bard remarked, grinning. It was an old joke between them about the way Xena was more prone to silences than to the nearly endless conversation Gabrielle had sprouted during their early days on the road. Over the cycles they had travelled together they had managed to find a happy medium between the two, though every once in a while, Gabrielle still thought Xena spoke too little and Xena felt Gabrielle chattered too much.
"Well, I will admit, the thought of two chattering women is enough to give me chills up my spine," Xena replied as she put away her healing kit.
"Xeeena!" the bard said dangerously.
Leaning down to kiss the blonde woman on the top of her head, Xena replied, "You've grown up a lot, Gabrielle, and I really do like listening to you tell your tales when we are travelling. Helps the time pass more quickly."
Mollified for the time being, Gabrielle watched as Shayna crept, a little at a time, towards her staff leaning on a tree on the other side of the campfire, and ran one hand over the hard wood of its shaft, delicately fingering the sleeve of white leather near one end. Looking at the bard from the corner of her eye, she picked it up and carried it over to Gabrielle. As soon as the woman had taken it from the child's outstretched hands, she backed off quickly and hid herself shyly behind Xena.
"What was that all about?" the bard asked.
"Maybe she thinks you need to keep your 'weapon' near you all the time, the way I carry my sword," Xena offered, after thinking for a few moments.
"Maybe it is some kind of peace offering," the bard said hopefully, as Shayna peeped around the edge of Xena's leather skirt. Smiling at the young girl, Gabrielle hoped she was finally getting over whatever it was that made the blonde seem so frightening to her.
The child quickly ducked back behind the warrior's sheltering skirt before slowly peering out at the bard again.
"Well, lets see if you two can make friends while I go and get something for all these appetites I suddenly find myself saddled with," Xena grinned, ignoring the glare the bard threw in her direction.
It was soon apparent to the tall warrior that leaving the child in camp while she went hunting was a lost cause. She couldn't get the child to stay with the bard, even though Gabrielle tried everything short of tying Shayna to the tree they were camped under. The girl clamped herself to Xena's thigh, tears filling her green eyes in the most woeful expression the warrior had ever seen. It would have taken a heart much harder than hers to keep saying 'no' to the child.
"Okay, okay. You can come with me, but only if you stay quiet," Xena said, and watched the child dancing ahead of her and into the surrounding forest. Shrugging her shoulders at Gabrielle with a what-was-I-to-do look on her face, the warrior followed the girl into the woods.
Gabrielle briefly watched Xena's rapidly retreating back as she headed into the forest before turning and starting to pull their cooking pots out of the saddlebags.
Xena looked at the last handful of sweet berries rolling around in the bottom of her bowl before quietly tipping them into the small container the child was eating from. Seeing the gentle expression on Gabrielle's face, she smiled back. "She seems to like them," the warrior commented, trying not to sound too defensive as she spoke.
"It's all right, Xena. She was pretty hungry, after all. This is probably the first decent meal she has had in ages," Gabrielle replied.
The bard had made a hearty stew with some of the meat from a small deer Xena had caught in the forest, adding turnips, onion and carrots to it as well. Serving up a bowlful to the child, she tried not to look as the youngster had almost dived into the hot food with both hands. Shayna had quickly stopped, though, when she noticed Xena tidily spearing bits of meat and vegetables from the bowl with the point of her knife and using a piece of flatbread to spoon the thick juices into her mouth. Copying the warrior, the child had pulled her purloined knife from the waist of her skirt and carefully stabbed at the stew. Xena's almost unconscious nod of approval just about guaranteed Shayna would probably continue to eat from the point of a knife from that moment on.
"Just how many helpings did she end up having?" Xena asked.
"Four full bowls of the stew and two of the berries, though where she put it all is something of a mystery," Gabrielle replied, shaking her head in disbelief at the child's appetite. "Shayna?" the bard said.
The child looked up blandly at Gabrielle, smearing the last of the berry juices across her already very grubby face with the back of her hand.
"Thank you for finding the berries. They were very nice," Gabrielle said quietly.
A tiny smile crept slowly across the girl's face before she hid herself behind Xena's broad shoulder.
A soft light had filled Xena's blue eyes as she looked down on the child, Shayna's cheek resting comfortably against her back. "S'pose we had better see about getting her cleaned up again. She still has a lot of that blood on her from this morning, though you would hardly notice for all the berry juices dabbed over her right now," the warrior said.
"You up to another screaming fit when she sees the water?" the bard asked seriously, gathering their bathing supplies from the saddlebags.
"Maybe all the sudden strangeness last night and this morning was too much for her and that was why she didn't want to go into the water. She does seem more settled with everything now. We might have a better chance of getting her properly clean this time," Xena replied, glancing down at the girl as she tried to hide a yawn behind her hand.
Xena's hopes were soon to be dashed, however. Shayna was quite happy to follow the warrior to the water's edge, but as soon as Xena started to strip her leathers and boots off, the girl's eyes filled with tears. When she began to take the cut down skirt from the child's waist, Shayna whimpered in fear, grabbing tightly to the warrior's leg and trying to pull the tall woman away from the stream's bank. "It's all right, Shayna," Xena said, gently peeling the girl's hands from her thigh and slowly walking backwards until she stood calf-deep in the water. "See, there's nothing to be afraid of here."
The girl keep shaking her head, her arms outstretched as though, through sheer force of will, she could drag Xena from the stream.
Xena took several more steps backwards, her eyes never leaving those of the obviously terrified girl. Sinking into the cool water, she sighed with pleasure at the feeling of its gentle brush against her skin. Sitting neck deep in the stream, she opened her mouth to continue trying to encourage the child to overcome her fear and take the first step into the water. Xena barely had a chance to say a single syllable before Shayna reacted to the sight of her bobbing gently in the evening dark waters.
"NO, MAMA!! DON'T LEAVE ME ALONE AGAIN!!" the child suddenly shouted, collapsing onto the ground in a sobbing heap.
That had the warrior out of the water in a flash. Gathering the youngster in her dripping arms, she quickly comforted the child. "It's fine, Shayna. I'm right here. Nothing's wrong," she said over and over to the girl in her embrace. "I don't know what happened, Gabrielle," the visibly upset Xena said to the bard as she squatted down beside the tall woman and the distraught child.
"I don't know either, Xena, but I'm willing to hazard a guess that her mama may have drowned," Gabrielle offered, as much to comfort her lover as to try to explain the girl's reaction. "So, what do we do now?" she asked as the child's sobs finally hiccupped into silence.
"I'm not sure, but we can't have her going to pieces like this every time I try to bathe," Xena said.
"Find yourself a new partner, then, if you intend to give up washing," the bard answered cheekily.
Smiling for a moment to acknowledge Gabrielle's attempt to lighten the mood, Xena thought seriously for several heartbeats before replying. "However much I may hate to do this, I think I am just going to have to force the issue."
"How?" Gabrielle asked, though she already knew in the pit of her stomach what the warrior had in mind.
"By doing this," Xena stated unemotionally. Picking up the child in her strong arms, she quickly walked into the water until both she and the child stood shoulder deep in its coolness. The girl reacted exactly as Xena thought she would. Shayna screamed for all she was worth, struggling against the tall woman's grasp to get back out of the water. Xena simply tightened her grip, refusing to move. She could feel the youngster's heels thumping painfully against her thighs, but she never wavered and kept a soft stream of gentle words and 'it's okays' flowing in the frightened child's ear. After what seemed like an age, though it really wasn't more than half a candlemark, Shayna stopped fighting, floating limply in the water surrounded by Xena's arms.
Gabrielle sat on the bank of the stream, watching silently as the girl fought against Xena's superior strength. Once the child had quietened, she entered the water, slowly approaching the pair from behind. Drawing alongside, she saw Shayna's eyes fluttering into sleep as sheer physical exhaustion claimed her young body. "If you hold her, Xena, I'll see what I can do about getting some of this grime off her," the bard said.
The warrior simply nodded, readjusting the child's position until she was gently cradled in the tall woman's muscular arms. Xena gazed down on the child she held, wondering exactly who she was and who her mother could have been. I can't remember when I last saw a child so strong and so determined, unless I think of myself, she thought as she watched the bard carefully washing the girl. She'll make a great warrior one day, she mused, then mentally shook her head. Don't go there, oh great Warrior Princess. Not everyone wants to be a warrior, and this little scrap of childhood deserves to make up her own mind. Xena forced herself to stop thinking and instead concentrated on cradling the child securely so the bard could clean as much of the filth off her as possible. Looking down at the child once more, a single thought rose unbidden from the depths of her heart. If I ever have a daughter, I want her to be just like you.
Shayna barely stirred as Gabrielle efficiently scrubbed cycles of dirt from the child's skin. The youngster had so worn herself out struggling against Xena she hardly had enough strength left in her arms to push the bard away. She made a token effort, even though it was obvious she was rapidly sliding into the grip of Morpheus.
Glancing up momentarily, Gabrielle noticed the tiny smile ghosting its way across the warrior's face and the expression of gentle love glowing in those impossibly blue eyes. Looks like someone has grabbed your heart, my big, tough warrior, she thought, chuckling to herself, barely keeping the smile from her own face, a smile she was sure the other woman would spot in a heartbeat. "Might as well wash you while I'm standing here," the bard commented, already running the soapy sponge over Xena's broad shoulders and down her back.
Xena nodded, her eyes never leaving the sleeping face of the child for a moment.
Xena briefly glanced over to the small lump under the blanket near her where Shayna was curled up in restless sleep. Gabrielle was stretched out along her side, head pillowed against her upper arm. Xena had been listening to the bard as she told a newly created story about the battle they had been in earlier that day. The warrior grinned as Gabrielle wound up the tale. Never does take her long to put our adventures into words, she thought, though I wish she wouldn't make me look so good in them. Anyone would think I can't be hurt, and that might be dangerous for us later down the track.
"Xena? Those men we fought today? There seemed to be an awful lot of them," Gabrielle said. "I mean, we're leagues from anything, so where did they all come from?"
The warrior pulled herself from her mental wanderings to address the question. "Either they were a large raiding party, which I doubt. Nothing around here to raid," she explained, feeling the other woman nodding in agreement. "Or there is an army around here somewhere."
"What do you think we should do?" the bard asked, already knowing the answer.
"I think we should go back and see what we can find out. We may be days from any villages here, but sooner or later an army is going to reach them, if that's what's out there," the warrior replied.
"What about Shayna?" the bard asked quietly.
Xena looked over to the child again, a shadow flashing across her face. "She won't stay with you, so that leaves out any ideas I might have about leaving you both here," she said.
Gabrielle tossed a light backhanded slap against the warrior's stomach. "Even if she would stay, I'd be going with you. I am not letting my best friend and partner go wandering off into who knows what kind of trouble without me," the blonde replied with some heat.
Xena laughed lightly before gently kissing the top of the bard's head. "I guess she comes with us then," she said. "And I hope I can keep us all out of trouble," the warrior mumbled almost silently under her breath.
The bard turned to snuggle against the other woman's side, draping one arm over her chest just under the swell of her breasts, one knee nestled between the warrior's. Xena found herself smiling as the blonde settled herself to sleep. No matter how she tried to explain it to Gabrielle, the bard always insisted on pinning Xena to the bedroll each night. It made getting up in the morning a trifle difficult, as she had to wriggle her way from under the other woman's light weight, Xena forever blessing the fact the bard was a heavy morning sleeper. It also meant the occasional abrupt awakening for the younger woman as Xena leapt from the bedroll to deal with some intrusion into the camp at night, more often than not a raider or some other thug bent on shortening both their lives. The bard had adapted over time, though, and generally was able to wake herself with enough speed to be of some help and then complain about the bruises later.
Xena listened as Gabrielle's breathing quickly evened out and settled into a slow, deep rhythm, the muscles relaxing against her as Gabrielle slipped further into sleep. Xena had grown so familiar with the way Gabrielle slept that she could almost count the number of breaths it would take before the other woman would begin to gently snore in her own characteristic fashion. She watched the stars overhead as they wheeled across the heavens, wondering if she would sleep through the night herself or be awakened by some nightmare from her past. Having the bard tucked against her side as she journeyed through the realm of Morpheus had eased all but the very worst of her night horrors, but she still suffered from them, even now.
Xena was just sliding into sleep, the last muscle twitches briefly jerking a hand or a foot as she relaxed, allowing the tension in her body to unwind, when she felt the hesitant touch of a small finger brush her cheek. Not moving, the warrior opened her eyes to see Shayna kneeling next to her.
"What do you want, Shayna?" she asked quietly so she wouldn't wake the bard lying beside her, though the other woman was probably deep enough into sleep that it would have taken a chariot rumbling through the camp to rouse her.
"Shayna sleep Mama?" the child whispered, patting the bedroll next to the tall woman, making sure her meaning was understood.
The warrior indulged in a small, long-suffering sigh before answering. "Okay. You can sleep with us, but just for tonight," Xena warned, lifting one edge of the blanket so the girl could lie down next to her. "And I'm not your mama. My name is Xena," she said gently.
The girl happily tucked herself against the warrior's other side, tangling her smaller arms and legs around Xena as tightly as the bard did every night.
"By all the gods on Mount Olympus, some warrior I am. Always had a weakness for women and children," the tall woman muttered to herself as Shayna dozed off again. "Guess I'm not getting up early in the morning," she yawned, dropping into sleep before she had even closed her mouth.
Gabrielle watched Shayna's short legs as they half-trotted beside Xena, mounted on her horse. The child's hand was, as always, wrapped protectively around the other woman's ankle. She knew from her own moderate pace that the warrior had reined the mare to a slow-ish walk so the child would have less trouble keeping up with them. It was another small sign of Xena's caring. She had done much the same thing when the bard had first started travelling with her and it was obvious she couldn't keep up with the taller woman's usual break-neck pace across the countryside. Xena, you're just a big silent softie, she thought cheerfully to herself. Always looking out for others and never saying a thing about it.
The bard couldn't help the grin that broke out on her face as she remembered the sight she had awakened to that morning. The moment she had returned to awareness, she knew Xena was still stretched out on the bedroll beside her. For one lurching heartbeat, she had thought the warrior must have fallen ill during the night because she could think of no other reason Xena would still be in bed at that time of day, well after dawn. Gabrielle had popped her head from under the blankets to be greeted with the sight of Xena's blue eyes staring down lovingly at the tiny red-haired bundle curled tightly against her side, the child's arms and legs tangled about Xena's body in such a way as to make getting up impossible, at least not without waking the sleeping child beside her.
Gabrielle had also been pleased to see that the child didn't appear to be quite so afraid of her now. Shayna wasn't being too friendly yet, but she had willingly sat beside the bard for a short time while Xena had practised her morning sword drills. The expression on the warrior's face when the child had gotten up and tried to copy the graceful and deadly movements with the tall woman had been absolutely priceless. Gabrielle had kept her amusement to herself, knowing it would not only embarrass the warrior, it might also alienate the child as well. But the little scene had looked very cute, nevertheless.
Ahead of the bard, Xena felt the hand on her ankle tighten briefly and looked down at the child walking by her stirrup. All her senses had been alert, scanning the surrounding forest for trouble. If there had been one scouting party from some large army, then there was bound to be another. Shayna pointed along the road towards the spot where they had battled with the thugs the day before. Xena could just make out the bodies lying in the dust. Drawing closer, she saw those men who had only been wounded, or simply knocked into unconsciousness by Gabrielle's staff, were long gone, probably helped away by their own compatriots. The warrior was a little surprised Shayna showed no sign of revulsion at the sight of the fly-blown corpses or the pools of dark blood gathered on the roadway under them. It seemed to be quite the opposite, in fact, as the child flitted from one dead man to another, pulling weapons from belts or long stiffened fingers.
Once she had all the weapons she could find in one pile, she took the warrior's hand and led Xena over to them. "Shayna good?" she whispered up at the tall woman.
Xena nodded at the girl before starting to examine the bodies of the men on the road. Gabrielle crouched beside her as she searched one man for any sign of a standard or crest showing which army, and warlord, he worked for. "What was that all about?" the bard asked, glancing back to see the child still standing guard over the weapons, her own knife drawn and held ready. In one way, she looked for all the world like a miniature Xena, right down to the coldness in her eyes and the set expression on her small face. Where did one so young learn to be so disciplined? the bard wondered before turning her attention back to the dark-haired woman by her side.
The warrior's eyes never lifted from the man she was searching. "I'd say her mother must have taught it to her. Sensible move if you are all alone and have a child with you. Never know when someone newly dead might not be quite as dead as you think," Xena explained.
"How do you know her mother was alone?" the bard asked, curious as to how Xena had reached that particular conclusion.
"If they were with other people, do you think they would have simply abandoned Shayna in the forest if her mother had died?" Xena replied.
Looking back at the child once more, Gabrielle said, "Probably not. Whatever happened though, she is a real survivor, if nothing else."
Gabrielle dragged her eyes away from Shayna and watched Xena turning men over, checking under armour and tunics for crests or standards. "Any idea who they worked for?" she asked as the warrior came back towards her.
"None," the warrior replied. "There isn't a single thing on any of them that would tell us who's in charge."
"That makes it more difficult, doesn't it?" the bard commented.
"It won't make it any easier, that's for sure," Xena said. Knowing who the men followed would have given the tall woman some idea of how to deal with him when they eventually found the main body of the army. The warrior started circling around the battle site looking for the tracks of the men who had survived the fight the day before. She quickly found what she was searching for as the thugs had made no attempt to hide their passing. From the amount of blood splashed on the ground and over the brambles, some of the men had been very badly wounded indeed, and she would be most surprised if had they lived long enough to get back to the camp.
Taking Argo's reins in her left hand, Xena headed after the men, following the clear bloody trail they had left behind. Shayna tucked herself against the warrior's side, walking almost under the mare's head in the process. The tall woman tried not to notice how close the child was to her but was grateful for the small fact she had chosen not to walk on the side of her sword arm. Whoever had taught the child had obviously done a good job in that respect.
It hadn't taken as long to get to the main encampment as Xena had first anticipated. Aside from the blood stains marking the way, they had also found the bodies of three men simply left to rot in the forest where they had died. Gabrielle had shaken her head in disbelief when she realised no effort had been made to bury the dead men, not even a token covering of leaves. It probably wouldn't be long before the forest scavengers found the bodies and tore them to pieces, scattering their remains over a wide area. She felt little sympathy for the men themselves but she knew, somewhere, there had to be wives and children who would never know what had become of their husbands and fathers. That aspect of life always saddened her a little, but there was not a great deal she could do about it. Over the cycles she had learned to live with it most of the time.
Each time they had come across a dead man, Shayna had dashed ahead of them to do her weapon-stripping routine before letting Xena get close enough to examine the bodies. The warrior had tried not to be annoyed with that because it did appear to be an important part of the child's thinking, but it was slowing them down somewhat.
Eventually, however, they reached the camp and got their first good look at it from the cover of the trees on top of a small ridge. Xena's face hardened into stone as she realised exactly what kind of camp she was looking at. This was not some warlord's army or even several raiding parties joined together in some strange alliance. This was a slaver's camp, a well-run, though slightly disorganised-looking, slavers camp. And Xena hated slavers more than anything else she could bring to mind.
In the center of the camp was a single large tent with several wooden cages mounted on wagons behind it, though only one cage seemed to be occupied. Xena recognised the captives but chose to say nothing for the moment, knowing what Gabrielle's reaction would be. More, smaller tents ranged around the central point in widening rings, campfires set between every third or fourth tent. On the far side of the camp there appeared to be a mess tent and a covered wagon for the healers, judging from the bandaged men lying on rough stretchers in front of it. Xena also noticed several women wandering, without escort, from place to place. Probably camp followers, she thought to herself. Though she didn't approve of women having to sell themselves, everyone had to earn a living somehow and if that was all you had, she was in no position to condemn them.
Gabrielle's fingers suddenly clutched at the armoured woman's wrist, her other hand pointing towards something in the center of the encampment. "Look. Over there, Xena. They've got Amazons in that cage near the large tent," the bard gasped, amazed the slavers had managed to catch the forest women at all.
"I see them," the warrior answered simply.
"We've got to get them out," the bard said with some urgency. Gabrielle might not have spent a lot of time with the Amazon Nation, but her sense of responsibility to them, as their Queen, was very strong indeed. Even without a clear plan in mind, she was all ready to dash into the camp and just take the slavers on.
"Calm down, Gabrielle. We'll get them out, but first we need to think about what we are going to do. There are just too many of them for an all-out battle," Xena said reasonably. She smiled over at the flushed bard, courage and determination written in broad strokes across the blonde's face.
The other woman nodded in understanding and followed the taller warrior to the comparative safety at the bottom of the ridge where they couldn't be seen by the sentries surrounding the slavers campsite.
Xena led the little group deeper into the forest until she found a small clearing some distance from the encampment. Squatting in the center, Xena began to scratch the layout of the camp onto the ground with a stick. "I'd say there are more than four hundred men in that camp," she noted, "too many for us to take on in broad daylight." The warrior cast a meaningful glance at the child seated beside her, getting a nod of understanding from the bard. "Looks like a big operation, with all those cages and wagons we spotted at the back of the large tent. Probably been sending parties of men out into the surrounding countryside to capture people and only sending them on to the various slave markets when they had a sufficient number to make a decent profit."
"How many Amazons did you count in that cage?" Gabrielle asked.
"Fifteen, I think. There might be more in some of the tents around the camp, though," Xena replied unemotionally.
Continued - Part 2
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