***Disclaimer: I do not wish to infringe on any rights to the characters or any parts to the story from Xena: Warrior Princess or from the musical "Man of La Mancha". The characters do not belong to me, but this story does.
Please Note: This story is unrelated to any Xena:WP episodes or the musical "Man of La Mancha." If you are unfamiliar with the story of Don Quixote (Don Q, as I refer to him) and his craziness (tilting at windmills, etc.), I dont think it will matter. Just know that he is wildly optimistic and a wee bit wacko, traveling afar in his quest to fight dragons and rid the world of evil.
This is an "alternative story", but is not sexually explicit. (It does involve romantic relationships between women. If this makes you unhappy, or is illegal per your age or where you live, then do not read it.)
Note: As in all typical Xena: WP episodes timelines are transcended and foreign language problems are non-existent. In my story, everyone miraculously speaks and understands English.
Also, this story fulfills my "self-imposed" requirement of what I call the "Critter Criterion" (i.e.: Angst!) and the already well known "Lunacy Factor" regarding X&G. I want to thank my Beta readers and editors, Jodi, Critter, Constare, PD and Dj. And thanks to Charrlett for her help with the title of the story.
This "Romantic Comedy" takes place somewhere between the second and third season.
My intention is for you to read and enjoy...it's all for fun. Please, let me know if you had a chuckle or two! Constructive criticism is welcome.
. Nadavay (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Have Wit n Travel
Balancing a cup in each hand, Gabrielle knelt down on her blanket. She adjusted her body, sitting on one hip just long enough to hand Xena her third cup of morning tea. Shifting again, she lowered herself onto her side and bent her elbow, resting her head in her hand. The bard wiggled for a second, balancing her position and carefully brought her own steamy teacup to her lips to take a sip.
"Thanks." Xena quickly swallowed another sip of tea as she watched the bard nestle in. "Umm!" An indulgent purr escaped from her throat as she shook her head at her thoughts regarding Gabrielles movements.
"Well, it cant be the same old tea were drinking. What?" The bard giggled in response to Xenas apparent amusement, loving the light-heartedness that the warrior had been expressing lately.
"Nothing, really." She knew she had been staring, but was particularly surprised that she got caught musing out loud.
"And you think youre going to get away with that answer?" Gabrielle was smiling. She knew that in teasing her friend she was the one getting away with something. The bard took another sip of tea and waited for a response.
"Its just- Im still amazed at how you can sit down like that without spilling anything." Xena looked away immediately to offset the personal observation, setting her cup down on the ground.
"Strong stomach muscles, I guess?" The bards cheeks pinked just a little as she enjoyed the attention from her friend.
I know! Xena shifted positions on her blanket to fix her eyes on Argo grazing lazily at the edge of their camp. She purposely did not respond to the bards answer in order to seem indifferent.
Gabrielle waited, but with the length of silence and the warriors attention clearly focused on her horse, she knew that their leisurely morning was just about over. She tried a different tact to see if she could delay their leaving. "Xena, have you ever wondered if youll find a situation where you cant fight your way out, you know, where your sword might be useless?" She tried to sound casual as she peeked over at her friend.
"You mean like now, where Im being tricked into a conversation so we can stay here longer?" Xena turned to Gabrielle and raised an eyebrow, giving the bard a knowing look. A smirk softened into a smile. "To answer your question, no, I cant imagine it, but Im sure your skills with chatter would drive anyone off, if I couldnt."
"Thanks, I think." Gabrielles tone was sarcastic but playful. She was used to Xena teasing her about how much she talked. She gave Xena a pouty look and leaned over, threatening the warrior with a poke to the ribs, then gave a smile. "I guess weve been lazy enough. Time to move on, right?"
Xena pretended to wince in fear at the threatening finger then paused for a second, watching the look of disappointment on the bards face change to one of resolve. She took a deep breath and let it out, finally answering, "Right! Its going to get hot later on; if we move now, well get to the springs by nightfall. The warrior reached over to grab her armor and stood, anxious to break camp.
Right! Gabrielles inner voice said the word with disappointment. Well, it was fun while it lasted The bard didnt understand the sudden change in her friend, but followed her lead and stood up. She headed toward the kettle by the fire, knowing the routine of what she was to do. Pots and food first, then the bedding.
"Gabrielle, head into the trees now!" Xenas voice was stressed and full of warning. She had been grooming Argo, but stopped and stood still, listening. In the distance, she heard a horse cantering toward them. She pulled her sword from her scabbard and took a few steps toward the road.
The bard hesitated. "What is it?"
"Its a rider and hes moving fast go Gabrielle! If hes in this much of a hurry it cant be good." Xena waved the bard off.
"But, if its just one man " Gabrielle was cut off.
"Move! Now!" Xena gave her an irritated look. "Well argue it later."
Damn! Now the bard was irritated, but she turned and headed into the trees.
The rider was pushing his horse beyond what he wanted to do, but he knew he was near his destination and the message he carried needed to reach Xena as soon as possible. He leaned forward over the saddle and softly voiced encouragement to his horse. "Good boy, get-yah!" Around the turn in the road, he saw a figure standing in the distance ahead. "Lets hope, boy."
Xena faced the rider and as he got closer, she realized she knew him. She called out, "William!"
The rider heard his name, causing an instant grin to appear on his face. He had known Xena from childhood and easily recognized her voice. Gently pulling up on the reins, his horse responded by quickly slowing to a walk just ten paces in front of the warrior. "Xena! Finally!" He slid down from the saddle and pulled a folded note from inside his shirt. Only then did he notice her extended arm. He smiled and grabbed her forearm in greetings. "I wasnt sure Id find you. Your mother wants you and Gabrielle to come to Amphipolis as soon as possible."
Xenas smile dropped to a worried expression. "Whats wrong?" She ended her grip on his forearm as she reached for the note. After reading what it said, she folded it back up. Her tension eased a bit knowing now that Cyrene was all right. "Do you know anything about the stranger she mentions?"
The young man shook his head. "No, but everyone is worried that hell show up in our village next."
The warrior just nodded. "Thanks, we were just about to head out. Do you want to travel back home with us?"
"Cant! Im heading on to the next village for supplies then Ill head back." He gathered the reigns in his hand and walked his horse over to the creek and bent down, splashing water on his face and the back of his neck, then cupping his hands to take a drink. He allowed his horse a swallow or two of the chilled water. "Not too much now thats it!" He pulled the horse away from the stream and walked toward the camp.
"William!" Peeking out from her hiding place, Gabrielle waved to the rider when she recognized him. She grinned when he returned her wave as they walked over to where Xena was waiting for them. The bard gave William a hug then looked at Xena with a curious glance, letting her eyes trail down to the note in the warriors hand.
Xena caught the glance. "Ill explain in a minute." She stepped toward William. "Go safely. It doesnt sound like Mother knows very much about this troublemaker, but well try and find him before he does any damage."
"Who does Cyrene want us to look for?" Gabrielle sounded impatient as she watched William head down the road.
Xena was slightly distracted handing the note to the bard as she answered, "I'm not sure, but with the description she gave, I'll recognize him when I find him. Listen Gabrielle, I want you to stay at Mothers while I try to intercept this man." Xena continued to pack up their camp, loading saddle and gear onto Argo, while Gabrielle folded and re-folded her blanket as she considered Xenas words.
After she finished tying the last pack to the saddle, Xena found herself leaning against Argo a moment, watching her bard deep in thought as she fussed with the blanket. The warrior just smiled as she watched Gabrielle's impatient hands smooth the creases of each fold. Automatically, Xenas eyes slowly scanned up the bard's muscular body and stopped at hazel eyes and golden hair. She let out the deep breath that she was subconsciously holding and closed her eyes to test her memory of every sweet feature of Gabrielle's face. When she opened them, Gabrielle was staring at her with a sudden look of worry.
Gabrielle clutched the folded blanket to her chest, studying the warrior's face, then voiced her concern. "Is anything wrong? Xena, are you all right?"
Xena abruptly snapped out of her reverie, grabbing Argo's reins and headed toward the bard with renewed intent. She cleared her throat and answered with a slightly self-conscious edge in her voice. "I'm fine. Come on, the sooner we get you to Amphipolis, the faster I can get this job over and done with."
Gabrielle hadn't had time to refute Xena's decision yet; that would come later, with the usual arguments over the bard's capability and naiveté versus Xena's profound need to protect her. The bard just wished they didn't have to go through it again, for she knew that she'd win and they both would be off to another great story-making adventure. Gabrielle took in a breath and reflected on their endless debate, the one she now secretly called, 'The Discussion'.
Neither one of them was looking for an argument this morning. With Argo in tow, the warrior continued over to Gabrielle and gently took the folded blanket. "Let's get going, it's already late." Xena tied the blanket to the other gear and mounted Argo with a familiar ease. "I think we both need to ride with such a late start." Xena leaned her arm down for the bard to grasp and turned her boot out as a step up, so her friend could make her way more easily onto the horse.
Gabrielle looked up into warm, familiar blue eyes. She knew not to say a word, but matter-of-factly made her way up onto the horse, behind her companion. In silence, she wriggled her legs against the warrior's and wrapped her arms securely around the warmed leather clothing of her best friend.
Xena took in a deep breath and slowly let it out. Feeling the bards arms around her, the warrior treated herself to a silent, but very contented sigh, turned Argo in the direction of Amphipolis urging the war-horse into a canter.
It took only two days to reach Xena's home village. This gave Gabrielle a chance to quiz Xena about the mysterious man as they traveled. In the time it took to speculate, Xena found herself deep into The Discussion and was helpless in the face of the facts that Gabrielle presented against being left behind at Cyrene's tavern.
"All right, all right, Gabrielle!" Xena's tone was one of resignation, "It's just that I'm not sure what we're up against and I want to stop him before he can get to Amphipolis where you and Mother will be safe and"-
Gabrielle interrupted with words of assurance that soothed Xena to the core of her soul, "Xena, we're in this together, for whatever it brings to both of us." Xena knew this to be true though she would rarely ever let it be admitted, even to herself.
The greeting that Cyrene gave Xena and Gabrielle was one of joy and relief. "Oh, it's so good to see you both." She hugged the two travelers and led them to the secluded corner table in the tavern where they could all sit and talk privately while the barmaid tended the other patrons. Cyrene took in a deep breath, her eyes carefully studying the two women. "Im so glad youre here. I didn't think I'd see you two this soon."
In a nearly imperceptible twitch, Xena shed the tension of the road and started to relax as she basked in her mother's greeting. The warrior subtly glanced toward Gabrielle and gave her a quick, contented smile.
Gabrielle caught Xenas glance and change in countenance, flashing a grin back; it was going to be a good reunion.
The warrior turned her attention back to Cyrene. "We headed here as soon as we got your message. What more do you know of this stranger, other than hes full of trouble?"
The conversation was stalled as the barmaid, Tula, served their food and drink. Gabrielle's eyes grew wide at the plate of stew and bread in front of her. Xena just smiled at her companion knowing that the food presented would be the best and most abundant of any of the village taverns. Of course, it didn't hurt to be the daughter of the tavern owner. Family ties held great influence over what was being served and the notion wasn't lost on Gabrielle. She moved her hand to give Xena a friendly pat on the arm in appreciation. It also didn't hurt to be the most voracious and appreciative food connoisseur that ever traveled with the daughter of the tavern owner. Gabrielle, remembering the quality of the food on her last visit, dug right in. She was enjoying every bite, voicing her delight in syncopated gasps of ooos and mmms. Cyrene looked at Xena and the two smiled at each other, acknowledging Gabrielle's unabashed pleasure with food.
Watching both Gabrielle and her mother, Xena took equal pleasure in the knowledge that Gabrielle's delight with the taste and flavors complimented her mother in a way that words could not. Xena raised her tankard and with silent thoughts of contentment, she quaffed her favorite port.
When Tula had finished serving and left for the kitchen, Xena took the opportunity to set her drink down and take a few small bites from her plate before urging her mother to continue.
"I was told that he would be a foreigner and that he never travels alone." Cyrene started again with similar information that had already been read in her note. "I don't know how large his army is, but from what I have heard every village he's been to has been left in total chaos. He's on his way to the village south of here. I was hoping I could find you in time to stop him before he does any more damage."
"Ill leave early in the morning and " Xena faltered at her words and looked at Gabrielle who was giving her a defiant stare. "Well try to stop him south of here and- " Xena corrected her thinking and paused long enough to see Gabrielles nod of approval.
Cyrene's words stopped Xena from proceeding, "Yesterday, some of the men in here talking about trouble south of here, at the village of Parton, just a days ride. It must be him."
Gabrielle looked up from her plate to express her sudden concern over Cyrene's revelation. "Xena, he could be here any time, right?" And then with a wry smile she continued, "Looks like I would have won our discussion either way, hmm?" She waited, watching for Xena's reaction. Cyrene looked puzzled over the comment, while Xena merely glared back at her friend. Seeing little reaction from Xena, Gabrielle smiled to herself and went back to eating.
Ignoring the exchange between the two friends, Cyrene asked without thinking, "Xena, are you sure you dont know more about this? Why would a foreigner come all the way north to raid us? We have little to offer his coffers. Is this about revenge?"
Xena cringed at her mother's words. She remembered only too well the past bitterness between the two of them over the battle with Cortese and his army. Cyrene laid blame entirely on her for the death of her youngest brother, Lyceus, and shamed her for her evil warlord past.
Gabrielle tensed at Cyrene's accusation. She witnessed Xenas body stiffen with anger at her mother's words. The bard attempted to calm Xena by gently stroking the warriors hand, to ease the vise-like grip the warrior had on the edge of the bench that they were sitting on. She felt Xena's palm open to her touch. Using caressing fingertips, Gabrielle felt the warrior relax and curl her fingers around her hand as they gave each other a reassuring squeeze.
Xena let a breath out and shut her eyes. In one last squeeze, Gabrielle watched her warrior process, then dismiss the ugly thoughts of guilt that had just resurfaced.
When Xena opened her eyes, she saw the bard's concerned, warm smile. The warrior felt a new a calm settle deep within herself. "Mother, I don't know anything about-" Xena's defensive words were stopped short by Cyrene interrupting her.
"Forgive me, I didn't mean to sound as if..."Cyrene hesitated, "I just meant that perhaps you knew why he would be in this region." Cyrene's regret was half-hearted at best over what had just occurred. Her reconciliation with her daughter was a hard-fought emotional battle, and was only recently won because of Xena's dedication to change her life for the good. Cyrene seemed to still feel it necessary to subtly remind Xena from time to time that she was responsible for Lyceus' death.
"It's all right, forget it." Xena squirmed a little at her own passivity, but was ready to change the subject back to the mysterious warlord or any subject, for that matter.
When all seemed somewhat peaceful again, though uncomfortably quiet, Gabrielle let go of Xena's hand and gave Xena's knee a pat. She then returned to eating the final morsel on her dinner plate. Catching Xena's eye, Gabrielle gave her a knowing smirk and said in her cheery tone, "How do you do it, Cyrene?" With an obvious pause, she looked directly at Xena's mother. Only Xena caught the slight sarcasm in Gabrielle's voice. The pause made Cyrene contemplate just what the bard was referring to.
Gabrielle continued her jab at Cyrene, "Just when the stew starts to settle, you seem to know just how to stir it again. I suppose it's what keeps it tender, but aren't you afraid you'll over do it and break it apart too much, hmm?" Gabrielle gave Cyrene a placid smile. Xena felt lovingly defended, but she wasn't at all sure that her mother got Gabrielle's double meaning. Xena was once again feeling tense.
Cyrene carefully replied, " I hadn't considered stirring being that big of a problem, but I'll watch it next time." She looked at Gabrielle and with a sincere smile she said, "Thank you ... for bringing it to my attention."
Breaking the momentary silence, Xena spoke up, "Gabrielle, we'll leave first thing tomorrow. I'm going upstairs to get some rest." Gabrielle nodded, content to stay behind for a while and wait for the fresh-baked dessert.
It was a quiet, sunny afternoon. Hearing only the sweep of their footsteps and the singsong hum of the local insects, the two men ambled along a non-existent path through the wild grasses. Their surroundings were not of the usual tree-lined road that they had come to expect while traveling the northern countryside. They walked slowly, knee-deep and encumbered by the undefined growth. Don Q had convinced himself that he and his servant needed to cut through the meadow. It appeared to him to be the shortest route to their destination, the secret road that would lead them to the Amphipolis dragon.
"This doesn't look like a road, Your Grace." It was more a question than a statement, as the pudgy little man spoke with hesitancy. Sancho knew it was not a good idea to question his master too firmly or he'd find himself on the long end of another lecture. Though actually, he knew he wouldn't mind a scolding, providing the result would give him the benefit of a small rest from their tiresome journey.
"Sancho, of course it doesn't look like a main road; that's because it's the way to the Veiled Passage of Amphipolis, the one the villagers in Parton told us about. Ah, the end of our quest, to rid these parts of a dreaded monster." Don Q spoke with the vocal tones of a great orator. His tall, lanky frame gave him a full head of height over his squire. "Look in front of you, Man. Don't you see the road curve toward the foothills? It is there, where the dragon lives, Amphipolis!" He was now waving his entire forearm around in a circle as he pointed his bony finger toward a craggy box-canyon.
"Yes, Your Grace," came the servant's faltering reply. "Sir, do you really think there are dragons this far north of home." He knew that in the months of travel, their northerly direction had been aimless, as had been their entire journey from their homeland of Spain. The squire was always careful not to disappoint with facts the odd companion he now calls his friend, though Don Q is considered his better in their society. If nothing else, he will have many tales to tell the grandchildren. Quietly muttering to himself, Sancho acknowledged, with resigned familiarity, the truth of his predicament. This looks very, very bad.
The squire squinted into the distance, hoping to see anything that might look like an actual road. Letting out a sigh, he prepared himself mentally to endure another day of wandering circles and hopeless shortcuts. Perhaps, in this next town, the chaos and damage from his masters deluded fights with evil will be kept to a minimum. Perhaps they will soon be able to head back home.
"Onward, Sancho, we should be there by nightfall!" And Don Q headed off in the direction of the canyon.
"I'm coming, Your Grace." The squire followed obediently behind.
It had been almost a full day since Xena and Gabrielle had left the tavern in Amphipolis. They wanted to intercept the foreigner as far away from Xena's home as possible, so they kept to a racer's pace, believing that they would see signs of the trouble-maker somewhere along the way. Gabrielle grew tired and impatient with the jostling she was enduring riding double on Argo. "Xena, we're almost to the village of Parton and there's no sign of them, what's going on?"
Xena pulled back on Argo's reins, bringing the horse to a gentle stop. She was silent for only a moment. "I'm not sure. We need to double back and head to Amphipolis. We can prepare a defense there. But, first I need you to stay here and make camp. I'll travel faster alone.
"Where are you going?" Gabrielle wasn't happy that Xena was leaving her behind.
"I'm going to Parton and start tracking from there. Maybe the villagers can answer some questions about this man. I'll meet you back here in the morning." Xena was troubled by the elusiveness of the warlord and his army, but didn't want Gabrielle to know it. Xena left the supplies with Gabrielle and rode Argo swiftly toward the village.
Camp was quickly set up and Gabrielle was heating water for tea and soup. She was glad for the rest and had nestled herself in a hollow near a stream. The camp was far enough away from the road to be missed by any travelers, and yet close enough to hear anyone coming. She relaxed and passed the time putting footnotes to her scrolls. After a short time writing, Gabrielle heard footsteps coming from the other side of the stream. With urgency, she grabbed her staff and hid behind a clump of bushes. She was sure there was more than one of them because of the voices.
"Of course this is the moat. What other body of water would be on the outskirts of the castle?" Don Q chided his squire as he found a trail of rocks across the wide stream and marched over to them. "You see Sancho, the bridge; we must go and greet the people." He gazed to the far side of the stream, staring directly at Gabrielle's campfire. "I can see the smoke from the smithy's forge." He crossed the stream, stomping firmly on each rock without missing a beat.
Sancho faithfully followed behind, but was having difficulty reaching each stone with his short little legs. On the final step, Sancho's foot slipped and his right boot slammed into the stream and immediately filled with water. "Aw...confound it!" Sancho grumbled to himself.
Never noticing his companion's plight, Don Q urged his servant to hasten. "Don't dawdle, Squire...we're almost there." Don Q continued moving straight to the campfire and eyed the kettle. "Ah, mid-day meal has been prepared for us, Sancho. We must eat to keep up our strength." He made his way over to the pot of boiling water and peered at the rolling contents, "Soup looks a little thin, these people are on hard times, Sancho." Then he directed his servant to serve him immediately as he plopped down on the blanket that Gabrielle had spread out on the ground.
"But Your Lordship, isn't it better to wait for our host?" Sancho's voice was squeaky and nervous, for he was expecting the absent traveler to confront them at any moment. He cautiously looked around and then moved over to a boulder where he was finally able to prop himself up while taking off his sopping boot.
"Right, Sancho! It would be remiss to enjoy this repast without our host bearing witness to his own generosity. We shall wait!" Don Q leaned back, stretching out full length on Gabrielle's blanket and fell soundly asleep.
Cautiously observing the intruders through the bushes, the bard sized up the two men and decided it was not too dangerous to confront them. They both spoke with a strange kind of accent and seemed more lost than violent. With one of them asleep and the other pre-occupied with his soggy boot, she figured that she had the upper hand, especially since the man drying out his boot apparently carried no weapons. Gabrielle stepped out into the open.
Xena pulled up on Argo, stopping in front of the only tavern in Parton. She was tired, cranky, and spoiling for a fight. She heard a commotion inside the tavern and instinctively knew that she was headed for trouble. She dismounted, pulled her sword and headed for the ruckus inside.
The sudden darkness blinded her for only a second, but it was long enough for someone to graze her forehead with an airborne bench. Though stunned, she quickly recovered and saw that a new object was flying toward her.
Xena shifted to her left and with her free hand grabbed at the flailing body as it descended toward the wood flooring and her feet. Her knee crunched into the middle of her attacker's back, pinning the offender to the floorboards. She sensed the next attack coming from over her right shoulder. With lightning swiftness, she swung her sword in a circle over her head. Using the hilt of her sword in the sweep, Xena hit her mark. The thug received a numbing blow to his left temple, leaving him a crumpled heap next to the pinned attacker. Xena looked around the room. Several men were slumped in various positions near each table. Most of them were conscious and rubbing their wounds. The fight had been knocked out of everyone except for the pinned attacker, who was constantly cursing at no one and yet at everything. The cursing attacker was a woman.
"Let me up, you fool, let me go", the woman squirmed and rolled under the weight of Xena's knee. The warrior had her trapped. "I'll get you, if you don't let me go free", the woman added along with other insults.
Xena smiled at the woman's empty threats. "And just how do you propose to do that?" Then she added, "Tell you what, I'll play nice, if you play nice. You quit fighting and I'll let you sit up. We can start there."
The woman lay still for the first time and pondered the proffered deal. Then she agreed. "All right, let me up."
Xena was cautious, but felt in control. She eased off her attacker and held herself ready for any tricks. None came. "Who are you?" Xena asked.
The woman moved slowly and with deliberation, as if understanding unspoken rules of surrender. When she was in a sitting position, she spit out the answer to the question posed to her; "My name is Aldonza. And Ive come too far from home to be stopped by the likes of you." The lines in her face still crinkled with anger.
"Aldonza." Xena repeated the name with skepticism, then speculated to herself about the womans accent, Spain? " You're a long way from home; why are you here?" Xena's eyes scanned the full course of the stranger's body. The warrior's eyes darkened as she realized how enticingly beautiful this woman was. Xena estimated that this stranger was only about an inch taller than Gabrielle. Aldonzas height was the only characteristic that was even close to her bard.
In sitting up, Aldonzas faded long skirt, once bright with earthy reds and golden browns, had shifted upwards to reveal smooth, olive skin above her boot. The cord to her peasant blouse had loosened from her fighting and the soft cloth draped carelessly off her left shoulder, revealing more smooth skin and a womanly voluptuousness that was impossible to ignore. The warrior felt the strangers eyes on her as she continued her observation, upward, finally taking in the foreigners wild waves of dark satin hair that framed strong cheekbones and full lips. Xena sensed that the woman was more flattered than irritated by the visual inventory. It wasnt until their eyes met that Xena realized the most beguiling feature of this woman was her dark eyes. They were as black as obsidian in the darkness of the tavern and seductively half-lidded as they absorbed her image.
Keenly aware of the warrior's gaze, Aldonza sized up her opponent as well. Her perusal of the warrior was slow and deliberate. Umm, a woman Warrior, all wrapped in leather. Her face softened as a smile grew on her lips. It was clear that the fight was out of her now. Aldonza's dark eyes held the eyes of the warrior for a moment, testing, then with a flirtatious wink, she finally answered, "I am looking for a man."
Xena raised an eyebrow as she observed the change of expression on Aldonza's face. The warrior felt her body twitch inwardly at the woman's explanation. Only then did Xena realize that she was surprised by Aldonza's answer. The warrior gave the foreigner a smirk and replied, "There are sweeter ways to find a man, you know. You might try that smile first, before you beat up on them." Xena stood up and helped the woman to her feet. This time Xena was smiling and Aldonza was caught up in the bluest of eyes.
"I'll try and remember that," Aldonza, recovering quickly from her haze, joked back as she dusted herself off, "but actually I'm trying to catch up to a specific man, his name is Don Quixote. He's from my town of La Mancha, in Spain. These tavern idiots here teased him of fighting dragons and sent him on to save some village called Amphipolis. He now believes that Amphipolis has the most ferocious dragon in Greece."
Xena gave the woman a puzzled look. "Dragons? This man...he's a warlord causing trouble in these parts, right?" Xena knew she was right and didnt wait for an answer. She surveyed the room and made the decision to leave before anyone else could try to attack again. "Let's get out of here, where we can talk."
Warlord? Aldonza was now puzzled at Xenas description of Don Q, but let it go. "I'm camped a close distance from here. We can talk there, but you'll have to do as I say. The men I travel with are suspicious of strangers."
"It must be his army," Xena contemplated silently, "Good! This will be over sooner than I thought."
"What do you think you're doing?" Gabrielle rushed out from her hiding place armed with her staff and confronted the man wearing one boot. She stopped in front of him within one length of her staff and eyed the fat little man. He had just finished hanging his wet boot upside-down on a stick next to the fire. Sancho froze at the sound of her voice. He knew he was in trouble. His eyes were wide with surprise and he held the breath that he had sucked in so fiercely.
"I I was only trying to warm my foot." Sancho's voice broke with nervousness as he expelled the air in his lungs. He held up his bootless foot toward Gabrielle and wiggled his toes as his body fought for balance. Gabrielle took a step back at the perceived kick and swung her staff, smacking the bottom of her attacker's foot. Sancho howled at the stinging pain, "Ooow, ooh, that smarts when your feet are cold." He slumped to the ground, ferociously rubbing his injured arch. He glanced over to Don Q and saw that the sleeping man was undisturbed by the encounter. Sancho blinked; his watery eyes returned to the woman in charge.
"No, I mean, what are you doing in my camp?" Gabrielle was all ready summing up the total of this man's wits and knew that the numbers were not great. She relaxed her stance somewhat and waited for his answer.
"We're on our way to Amphipolis...on a quest. My master is here because he thinks this is a castle to the south of there...he thinks that you could be in some kind of trouble."
Gabrielle relaxed a little, then frowned, furrowing her brow with her question, "What sort of trouble?"
"Dragons!" Sancho grimaced; even he knew how lame that sounded. He self-consciously tapped the fingertips of each hand together while he rambled on, "I try and look out for him, but before you know it, he's in all kinds of trouble."
"Stay where you are!" A booming voice coming from behind her caused Gabrielle to stiffen again into a defensive posture. Don Q's words were loud and emphatic. Gabrielle kept the sitting man in check with a poke of her staff, then wheeled around to face the strange voice. She turned just in time to avoid being knocked over by the body of the formerly sleeping man. He had awakened, and was instantly in mid-leap, heading straight for the suspended boot, just behind the bard.
"No fear, Fair Lady; this beast is soon to be done in by my deft hand and sword!" The man expelled a grunt as his body landed heavily on the ground. Gabrielle looked in astonishment as the once sleeping man had flung himself at his companion's boot and was wrestling with it dangerously near the fire. The sword Don Q spoke of was nothing more than a twig he had absentmindedly grabbed while lifting himself up from his sleeping position.
"Take care of her, Sancho, this will be finished soon," Don Q tried to sound commanding, but was now rolling back and forth in the dirt and his words came out as though he was panicky. The boot was clutched to his chest, and his twig-fisted hand stabbed mercilessly at all parts of the leather and heel.
"Cursed be you and all you fire-breathers; you dare to roast me!" Don Q shouted, while inadvertently rolling himself into the hot coals of the campfire. The back of his coat was immediately a torch, but the would-be hero had no idea of it.
"Stop it, you're on fire," Gabrielle was mystified by the site, yet tried to alert him. She started toward Don Q to help him, but his words warned her away.
"No, milady, keep back!" Don Q panted out his words as he continued the battle; "It grows weak! Sancho, my rope...bring...my...rope!"
Sancho started to move, but faltered an instant while he looked at Gabrielle, wanting her approval. She quickly glanced back at the squire with raised eyebrows, indicating a look of "What do we do?" It was enough of an okay to warrant him to move swiftly to his pack, grab a short length of rope and return to his master who was still fighting on the ground. Fortunately, Don Q had rolled onto his back again and had smothered his flaming coat in the dirt. Gabrielle, meanwhile, grabbed for her blanket and stood, ever ready, over the smoldering jacket just in case it burst into flames again. She was at this point, speechless, watching a crazy man tussling around hot coals and fire, saving her from a savage boot.
"Here, your Grace." Sancho held the rope out to Don Q who by now had seemingly, to his own satisfaction, vanquished the beastly boot and was kneeling over it in triumph.
"Never mind, Sancho, the rope is unnecessary," Don Q answered with a raspy, tired voice. Using the back of his hand, batting at air, the foreigner signaled his squire to take the rope away. He looked around and saw Gabrielle with blanket in hand. He spoke with surprise, "Oh, but milady, I cannot accept your gift, until we are properly introduced." Then he stood and walked over in front of her and while bowing his head, he knelt down on one knee, "I am I, Don Quixote de La Mancha!"
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow and stared as Don Q's coat sent signals of smoke swirling up from behind him.
Xena was not used to someone quite so eager to climb onto the back of Argo and ride behind her. She had noted that the foreign woman was obviously from humble, yet questionable background. It wasn't hard to speculate how the dark-haired, exotic beauty was able to earn her keep. Xena could understand what the fight with the men in the tavern was all about, though Aldonza was definitely not in the mood to do business with any of them today. Xena paused before she swung herself up onto Argo and asked innocently, "Do you ride much?
"Most every time!" Aldonza answered with a slight sultry lilt to her voice. With the warrior's help, Aldonza swung herself up onto the back of the horse with enthusiasm and wrapped her arms securely around the Warrior Princess. Xena couldn't see the smile on Aldonza's lips, but knew she was being played with.
"Which way?" Xena tossed back her question, but was only seeking information on how to get to the camp. The warrior was actually enjoying their banter somewhat. It wasn't often she had the opportunity to quip back and forth in such a manner; especially since she met Gabrielle.
Aldonza sputtered a laugh before she could get the words out. "Give me a chance and I'll show you, Warrior!" Then she gave Xena's rib cage a squeeze, and proceeded to give specific geographic directions, describing each turn and visual sighting on the way to her camp.
They had ridden south for a little while when Xena became aware of Aldonza's continued hand movements that accompanied each new direction. The original bear hug around her ribs seemed normal. Gabrielle had always held on to her that way until she found the rhythm of Argo's gate, then she would relax and ease her grip. But Aldonza had quickly given up the bear hug and now was constantly shifting her hands to a variety of positions around Xena's ribs and hip-bones, to the extent that it was impossible for Xena to ignore. The foreign woman's fingers continued to explore Xena's sides, delicately, as though she were counting ribs.
"One, two, three...yes, this is the third turn, Xena." With each count out loud, Aldonza would walk her fingers up and down Xena's ribs. Then barely touching, she would rub each bone through the leather, starting from the back, slowly, deliberately, towards the front, stopping just under her breast. The warrior could hear the stranger breathe in deeply and feel hot thighs tighten against hers. Then there would be silence. Xena was curiously intrigued, not to mention, slightly titillated by the movements. Yet, at the same time, she had the strange sensation that the movements had little to do with her.
"You seem to be a bit restless in the saddle, is it close?" Xena spoke with guarded sarcasm, referring to the proximity of the encampment.
Aldonza gave a throaty chuckle; her answer was oblique as expected. "Near perfect; just one more turn will do it!" Then she was silent again. Not happy with the answer, Xena pulled Argo to a gentle stop, turned her head to witness Aldonza with her eyes closed and holding her breath. The sudden stillness of Argo's pace caused the foreign woman's eyes to open suddenly and her lungs to expel air at a rapid rate. "Why have we stopped?" Aldonza said breathlessly. "I told you it is just around the next turn in the road." Aldonza started to grin.
"Don't mess with me, Aldonza. Are we near your camp or aren't we?" Suddenly, Xena did not like this journey one bit. She wanted to survey the foreigner's camp, count the enemy and get back to Gabrielle and Amphipolis as soon as possible. Xena's mind was racing, How did I get involved with this multi-tentacled hydra, anyway?
Gabrielle gathered the bulk of her blanket in one hand and held out her other hand to help the old man up. She only expected to have the stranger hold it while he steadied himself.
The moment Don Q looked up into Gabrielle's eyes, he gasped, as if in sudden recognition. He squeezed her hand as he lifted himself up from his kneeling position and placed a gentlemanly kiss on her knuckles. "But this is unseemly, Milady, how did you get here?" Don Q's face reflected puzzlement.
Gabrielle tried to analyze her situation while he paid tribute to her. She wasn't afraid of him but was still a bit guarded until she figured out a way to deal with him. Finally she spoke, "Who do you think I am? We don't know each other." She stepped back, dropping the blanket and picking up her staff, just in case.
"Milady, whatever do you mean?" Don Q looked hurt as he questioned Gabrielle's words. "You're my Dulcinea...my sweet lady. It cannot be that you've forgotten!"
Gabrielle was incredulous. She wasn't sure what else to say without provoking him further into the depths of his feeblemindedness. She looked over to Sancho for support. The squire just shrugged his shoulders. The bard knew that most logic would be lost on both men, so she decided to just be bold and tell them to leave immediately. Gabrielle was about to speak when it became obvious that logic was the least of her problems. It quickly became apparent that continuity of conversation was going to be near impossible. The bard exhaled her attempt at tenacity as she watched Don Q staring intently at the blanket close behind her.
"Dulcinea, the cloak, you've brought the cloak!" Don Q spoke with excitement and stepped over to where the blanket was in a heap on the ground. "Dear Lady, I cannot accept the Cloak of the Vanquisher unless I bring evidence of my victory." Don Q immediately turned and walked over to the hard fought boot. He leaned down, picked it up and proceeded to rip out the tongue from the throat and vamp of his squire's only footwear.
Don Q's servant was a little more than upset, and in his compliant way tried to stop the boot dismantling by intervening, "Sire, allow me, you should rest." He was hoping the distraction would take care of his master's latest chivalrous gesture. But, alas, he was too late and with the ripping sound of leather and thread, the tongue was extracted and held high in celebration. Don Q circled around the camp, his hand clutching the trophy for all to see.
He spoke with solemnity as he approached Gabrielle. "Milady, it honors me to be presented with the Cloak of the Vanquisher, but first I must present you with the proof of my worthiness." He again bowed to Gabrielle. Bent from his waist, his head down, he jutted out the hand that held the boot tongue and thrust it in the direction of his lady. Gabrielle wasn't sure if she was to take it from him, but she suddenly noticed Don Q's hand waving the leather strip around and around, circling his wrist in front of her face.
"Milady?" He questioned as he waved the tongue. Still bowing, he spoke in quizzical whisper, "Dulcinea? I present it to you!"
"Umm...Thank you, Sir Quixote! Though still confused, Gabrielle was suddenly caught up in the feelings of honor and she took the leather piece with mixed enthusiasm. Don Q did not move. She looked at Sancho and he shook his head, no. She tried again, "I mean, Your Vanquisher. Sancho shook his head again and then helped her out by mouthing the words, "My Lord." Gabrielle nodded then spoke in an officious tone, "Thank you, My Lord." It was this third attempt that brought Don Q back to his full height. He gave Gabrielle a smile and then turned his back on her. He stood and waited. Again, Gabrielle looked over to Sancho for help. Sancho pointed to the blanket and indicated with pantomiming gestures to drape Don Q's shoulders with it. Gabrielle rolled her eyes and proceeded to gather the blanket in her hands so she could place it over the strange man's back.
Now both on foot, Aldonza lead Xena into the encampment. It was getting late; the sun was quickly disappearing behind the hills. Xena quickly counted the men around the camp. There were nine men around the campfire and they all called out to Aldonza when they saw her. One of the men stood up and sauntered over to her, he eyed Xena with suspicion. "Sun's gone, hungry!" He circled his tummy with the palm of his hand and gave Xena a blank look. He looked back at Aldonza and continued, "Meet Goody." Xena was not sure of his coded message to Aldonza, but she figured that it was something they worked out in their travels.
Aldonza's reply was a simple, "Yes later." Then she headed toward the campfire where the other men were still sitting patiently.
Xena watched the man follow Aldonza to a log near the fire and he sat down with the others. Aldonza continued on to the kettle hanging over the fire. She peeked into the pot and shook her head and said in frustration, "All right, who put this in here?"
There was a silent pause and then several of the men started shouting, "Goody, Goody!" Two of the men stood up and started to trot around the fire as though they were on imaginary horses; each discussing openly to themselves the fact that they told Goody not to do it.
"Told him, told him; yes, no, no, no, no; bad thing, no, no, no; be trouble, trouble," the two men conversed out loud, to no one in particular, as they pranced like horses side by side around the kettle, just missing Aldonza. While trotting, one of them inadvertently changed directions and separated from the other. At the same time, both of them realized they were alone, they each turned around and continued back the way they came. It only took a second before they caught up to each other and at full pace they collided, sending both of them crashing to the ground.
One sat up and started insulting the other, "You Bounder!" He threw a punch, but missed by an arm's length. The two men leaped at each other and were quickly clenched and slapping at each other's back with a fury. As the fight escalated, the rest of the men got up and circled the two flailing on the ground. They all were jumping up and down, clapping with excitement, cheering, "Get 'um! Get 'um!" The man who first approached Xena in camp was crouched and alternately thrusting his fists out in front of him as if he were throwing knock-out punches to an invisible foe, all the while he shouted in a squeaky, excited pitch, "Fight! Fight! Goodie! Oooo, goodie, goodie, goodie!"
Aldonza was calmly working at the kettle, fishing out the large stone that she found. She let it "thud" to the ground. Xena stood motionless. Finally, Aldonza approached the fracas and grabbed one of the fighting duo by the collar and gave him a yank, "Xena, give me a hand here," and she indicated with her head for Xena to grab the other man. Xena gladly complied and within a minute, the whole event was a memory to all but her. Just as fast as the fighting duo was separated, the entire group walked back to their places around the campfire and sat in meditative silence.
Xena stood in place by the fire, having forgotten that she still had one of the men, now in fetal-curl, semi-suspended in her grip. She thought to herself, what, in Tartarus, kind of army is this?
Then she asked, "what should I do with him?" A stern-faced Xena gave the man a shake merely to indicate to Aldonza the subject of her question.
"Let him go; he's harmless." Aldonza laughed at Xena's expression of toughness. She continued, "They're all pretty much harmless until a fight or something sets them off."
Xena gave the man one of her fierce looks and let go. He thumped to the dirt, rolled to his knees and scuffled away from the warrior as fast as he could, finding his place again back on one of the logs with the others. She watched as Aldonza calmly turned back to attend the kettle, trying to salvage what was to be their supper. Xena was angry. She made her way over to Aldonza and sputtered in low tones so that the men could not hear. "What's going on; who are these guys?"
Aldonza stopped fishing for more rocks and turned to Xena. "They're what I call the Loco La Mancha's. The crazy's from my home village...took a liking to me, so they followed me here."
"Then there is no army?" Xena was finally getting the idea of just what kind of trouble this gang was causing. This cant be it. Xena was now mumbling to herself. She only half heard Aldonza's answer.
"Army? No, no army in the traditional sense, but these guys aren't innocent by any means...you still have to watch them."
The men now started filing passed the kettle, with bowls in hand. Aldonza spoke to them as she started filling each bowl, then directed them to a sack that contained bread, "Tear off one piece each, it has to last", she told each man individually. The men dutifully complied and with a minimum of pushing and shoving, they settled down to eat their supper. Aldonza then served up two bowls of the soup and handed one to Xena. Xena followed her as she walked over to the bread, pulled a piece from the loaf, and said, "Help yourself to bread, but watch the soup for stones, I'd hate to see that perfect smile ruined." Aldonza looked Xena straight in the eye, smiled and then winked.
It caught Xena off guard for an instant, but she quickly recovered with her own retort, "It would only be ruined if I have something to smile about...and so far I don't see anything, so tell me what is going on?"
The two women sat away from the fire and ate their food. Aldonza told her tale of Don Q and how his absurd delusions and antics embarrassed his family. They promised her a reward if she brought him back to them. "He escaped from the confines of what his family called the hospital with guards. I met him in the same hospital, while I was recovering from a beat- an accident. He took one look at me and called me Dulcinea, his sweetheart. I laughed at him at first; it seems he calls just about every woman he meets Dulcinea. Still, he persisted. I used to scream at him I am not your Dulcinea! But, he didnt care."
Xena broke her silence. "If he's so crazy, why do you bother?"
Aldonza continued, "I knew he was deluded, but, I grew to like him. He was the only one to ever treat me with a kindness that I had never known before, so now, I play along." Aldonza unconsciously stirred her soup as she continued. "I know he's a fool, but he is a gentle soul at heart and he always means well." Aldonza finished, " I seem to have enough influence with him to talk him home, if I could only catch up with him. I really don't want to see him get hurt, besides, the reward will certainly help!"
With that, Xena saw the sentimental side of Aldonza vanish within a blink. "So, all you're trying to do is catch up with this foreigner and take him home?" Xena didn't need much more information to make sense of it all, "And these men, they have no purpose, do they?"
It was getting late, both women had finished their meal, and Aldonza was tiring of Xena's questions. "Really Xena, let's talk about something else you for instance." When Xena didn't respond, Aldonza got up and ordered the men to clean up after supper and to settle down for the night. Then she pointedly walked back over to where Xena was sitting and held out her hand, indicating that Xena should follow her. "I'll show you the best place to put your bedroll where it's the warmest at night." Aldonza flashed a friendly grin.
Xena smiled back, somewhat amused at the offer, "Hmmm, thanks, but I'm used to finding my own warm spot at night."
Aldonza laughed appreciatively. "Pity...well... just so you know, the wind comes up late in the night and it gets quite cold." Aldonza pointed off toward the darkness of the trees, "That far log offers a nice wind-break, as well as privacy from the men."
Xena studied the site for an instant. Then she looked back at Aldonza and offered skeptically, "Looks like someone's all ready claimed it." A bedroll was tucked neatly along-side the log. "Sorry, I don't like to encroach on someone else's territory." Xena knew exactly whose territory she was referring to.
"You're a cautious one, aren't you?" Aldonza was beginning to feel defeat with the warrior, and fatigue was getting in the way of her patience, "Well, if you change your mind, Xena, I give you permission to encroach on my territory any time. I'm going to bed." Aldonza said her last statement with hopeful enthusiasm.
Xena was relieved when Aldonza left. It only took a minute to get her gear and saddle from Argo and she settled down in a spot away from the men and Aldonza. It was only in the quiet of the night that Xena could formulate her next plan. She knew that she was dealing with a bunch of wild men. And Aldonza, she was rational enough, but brought to Xena a different set of problems. She would just have to endure it all and help them find the man named Don Quixote, so that they would all go away, back to La Mancha. She decided that she would have to take them all with her and meet up with Gabrielle in the morning. Exhausted, Xena tried to still her mind, but couldn't, Oh, Gabrielle, you'd have quite a story for your scrolls, if you had been with me today. Xena finally drifted off to sleep, envious that Gabrielle was having a peaceful evening back at their camp.
Gabrielle sighed and draped the blanket loosely over Don Q's shoulders and took a step back. Don Q turned around and bowed to her for a final time, "Sancho, please join me in thanks to our fair Lady", he then gestured toward the campfire, "We have been waiting for your return. And woe to the beast that the fates brought us in time to save your castle." The squire nodded and stepped a little closer to Don Q. Seeing that Sancho was holding the remains of his boot, Don Q spoke up, "My good man, go and bury that thing, it serves no purpose but as a bloody reminder of evil."
"Yes Sire," Sancho was resigned to walk over by the stream to hide the boot under some rocks until Don Q was asleep later that night. Only then would he be able to assess the damage and try to repair it. He caught a sympathetic look from Gabrielle.
Gabrielle knew she had to take control somehow and spoke up. Motioning to Don Q, "Why don't you sit by the fire and warm yourself while I...um, speak to the servants." Gabrielle now knew she had to appeal to this man's confusion or she would never be able to get rid of him. Don Q seemed to take to her suggestion. He quickly moved to a log near the fire and settled down. Gabrielle signaled to Sancho. He acknowledged her and as soon as he finished leaning his boot against a rock, he made his way to her side.
Don Q was contentedly humming to himself, punctuating each musical note in mid-air with his finger, "Hum hummm, the impossible dreammm...ta-dummm, hum-hum-humm-da-da-dummm." He did not notice the two conspiring behind his back.
Gabrielle glanced at Don Q and could tell that he would be keeping himself busy for a while. She then turned to the squire and pleaded, "Sancho, you two can't stay here. My friend, Xena, will never put up with this craziness. You have to leave before she comes back in the morning." Gabrielle had a desperate look on her face, one that the squire couldn't ignore.
"I...I don't know," Sancho was fidgeting with the hem of his coat while he whined out each word, "He sort of does what he wants...if you know what I mean, milady."
"Look, I'm not a lady...well, at least not in the royalty sense...unless you consider being Queen of the Amazons a *lady...Well, no matter... just call me Gabrielle." She waited for a response, but none came. "Sancho, there must be a way to convince him to leave before dawn? Think of something!" Gabrielle started to pace back and forth with an intense look of concentration on her face. She didn't notice the squire keeping pace beside her, but his face could only reflect anticipation. Gabrielle stopped to see if Sancho had come up with anything and found him glued to her side. He was looking at her with his mouth half opened; ready to agree with anything she was about to say.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and whispered to herself, It's clear I'm alone in this one... Xena, where are you when I need you?
"Okay, Sancho, I think I have a plan, but I'll have to keep Don Q busy for a while...think you can do your part?"
"What do you want me to do? "The little man was nodding enthusiastically.
It was just before dawn and Xena couldn't sleep any longer. She gathered her gear and walked over to Argo. "I hope you had a better night than I did, Girl." The horse seemed to nod and Xena gave her a pat on the neck. It was still dark, but Xena was restless and ready to move on. She decided that it was time to break camp, which also meant that she would have to wake everyone up, a task she was not looking forward to. Xena quietly walked over to where Aldonza was sleeping. She surmised that Aldonza would be the best person to wake up the men, without starting a riot. Xena crouched down next to Aldonza and lightly gave her a tap on the shoulder.
"Aldonza, I need..." it was all Xena could get out before Aldonza rolled over to her back and grabbed the straps to Xena's armor. In a split-second, before she could react, Xena was pulled down on top of the now, wide-awake woman and subsequently was being smothered with words and kisses all at the same time.
"Oh, Xena, I *know* what you need... don't speak of it... Why didn't you just come to me earlier...Oh, you're so difficult!" Aldonza's words and kisses rolled out endlessly and she had managed to roll Xena over in a flurry, pinning her into captivity.
Horrified, Xena, tried to reason, "I didn't come to you for this, Aldonza...It's the men..." Xena squirmed and ducked her head long enough to get her words out.
Impatiently, the foreign woman, continued on, now trying to unfasten the hooks of Xena's armor, "Don't be silly, Xena, with the lights out, they're all the same...why bother with them?" Aldonza stilled her head and kisses for a second, long enough to make Xena believe that the free-for-all was over. The two of them stared at each other while contemplating the last question. In a blink of an eye, Aldonza leaned down and planted a passionate kiss on Xena's lips. Xena was taken by the warmth and softness of Aldonza's lips, but recovered from her reverie far too swiftly for Aldonza's liking.
"Aldonza, I don't want to hurt you..." Xena made one more plea, while trying desperately to corral her attacker's manic hands, but again was cut off in mid-sentence.
"Xena, you could never hurt me...I'm not the possessive type," Aldonza quickly spoke to her own interpretation, and once again struggled to unhitch the metal breast-protectors, "...how does anyone get through to you?"
Xena finally was able to grab Aldonza's wrists and stretch the woman's arms out to the side, far enough to where she had no leverage. But, this caused Aldonza to fall, spread-eagle, on top of Xena's chest again, something that the woman found quite agreeable. Aldonza began to nuzzle Xena's ear. "Oh, this is good...show me the way, Xena."
Disturbed by the ruckus, Goody and the men were awake and sensed trouble. They all ran toward the struggle. Before Xena could roll Aldonza off and over to the side of her, she saw Goody jump, out-stretched, over the log and on to Aldonza's back, "Fight!" It was the only word he could get out before the force of landing on his chest knocked all the breath out of him. Goody expelled all his air as he landed. He felt Aldonza twist in defense under him.
"Goody, get off...now!" Aldonza begged.
But Goody didn't hear her for all his shouting, "Fight! goodie, goodie... Fight! Fight...goodie, goodie, goodie!" Goody was flailing his arms and legs back and forth like a kid in water, his full weight trapping both women firmly on the ground. The other men gathered in a circle to watch and cheer and occasionally they threw fistfuls of dirt in the air as their way to celebrate the event.
Xena could hardly breathe between being crushed by body weight and the clouds of dust raining down on her face, "Aldonza, do something!" Xena managed to spit out her words along with the dust. Aldonza was torn momentarily between her lust for Xena's earlobe and the need to extract Goody. The extraction won out. Aldonza knew that her moment with Xena was over for now.
"Goody, listen to me...Goody...Goody, get off!" Aldonza shouted to get his attention. Xena had let go of her wrists and she was trying to push herself up from the warrior, while bucking her hips to throw Goody off to the side. It wasn't working. A few of the other men, in all the excitement, had taken it upon themselves to leap onto each other in a similar pile, in mirrored review of what was happening before them. The dust cloud grew worse and now Xena could hardly see with all the dirt in her eyes.
"That's it! Goody, if you don't get off, you're a dead man," Xena warned and waited, then felt no response. It was past time for her to act. She reached up and over Aldonza's back until she felt the leather of Goody's coat. She grabbed a handful of it and with all her strength pulled to the side. The coat, along with Goody in it, flew over the log and landed far on the other side.
This crazy woman is next, Xena thought to herself. "Aldonza, get off me, or I'll throw you somewhere, too!" Xena raised her arm with the same intent as she did when she grabbed Goody.
"Calm down, Xena, I'm getting off!" With a wink, Aldonza smiled and blocked Xena's arm before she could take hold of anything. Then with her palms planted firmly on the ground on either side of Xena's shoulders, Aldonza began to push up for one last time, slowly lifting her weight from Xena's body. Xena let her arm drop back to the ground in readiness to get up once she was free to do so. Xena was relaxed and finally able to take in a full breath of air. Aldonza couldn't resist, and she swooped down for one last stolen kiss. "Just wanted a little memento; you don't mind do you ...really?" Aldonza gave a laugh and licked her lips.
"You try that again and I'll have to bind and gag you while we travel." Xena pushed Aldonza's shoulders up and flipped her to the side. Xena rolled backwards and was instantaneously standing before a kneeling Aldonza.
"Hardly a threat, Xena." Aldonza wiggled her eyebrows, taunting the warrior unmercifully. Aldonza slowly got up from her knees, "What do you want to do with them?" She pointed to the pulsing pile of humanity still writhing in the dust. The other men, who were cheering them on, had long since lost interest and had gone back to their beds.
"I'll let you take care of them; build up the fire while I try and find some food. We have to get on the road soon." Xena couldn't wait to get away to hunt rabbits. "When I get back I want everything but the kitchen gear packed and ready for travel. We'll leave as soon as we eat."
Night had quickly come upon them. After instructing Sancho in what he must do, Gabrielle walked over to where Don Q was sitting near the fire. "You have a lovely voice, M' Lord."
Don Q turned toward Gabrielle and motioned her to sit on the log opposite him. "You are most gracious, Milady... I do love to sing!" Don Q fell silent for a moment, then spoke "And what talent do you bring to this feast...It is customary for the victor to be entertained."
"Oh, well.... Let me see...umm, I'm known best for being a bard, I could perform for you if you wish...Although, I haven't actually performed much since auditing the classes at the Academy in Athens... I was quite good, actually. Or, I could show you my defensive moves with my Amazon staff, if you like? I'm almost as good as being a bard; I've improved to the point where I can hold my own now..."
Don Q was bored with all conversations but his own. He was tiring of Gabrielle's chattering and interrupted her, "Well, I shouldn't like to witness abuse by your unruly servants...how did you tame them into servitude, anyway...Ah, never mind... I think I should like the first thing you mentioned...that will do nicely." Don Q positioned his right knee so he could place his elbow on it and then rest his chin on his palm. He closed his eyes to the heat of the fire and waited for Gabrielle to begin.
Gabrielle just shook her head, stood and drew in a full breath, " I Sing Of Xena, Warrior Princess..." Gabrielle started with gusto, but was quickly interrupted.
"Oh, Milady...a Song! I love a good song!" Don Q jumped up and stood before Gabrielle, "Do you mind teaching me the words...I'll catch on to the tune in short span!" Don Q was suddenly animated again. "I've grown so tired of the songs I sing." He babbled on..."There's one song in particular that I just can't abide, Little Bird, Little Bird, I think it's called...just abominable...makes no sense to me...I've been looking for a replacement.
Gabrielle couldn't get a word in with all his ramblings. She tried to get his attention by waving her arms, "Sir...Milord...Hello...there is no tune...it's a story!" He was finally looking at her. "I'm a Bard, I tell stories! I can't sing...in fact, I don't know any songs at all...well, except that naughty little ditty about the warlord and the missy, that Xena taught me a while back...I guess I could," Gabrielle actually considered the thought...hmmm, nah! ...Look, I'm sorry it's my friend Xena that knows songs...I just don't know any songs."
"But why do say you sing, if you don't actually sing anything?" Don Q was subdued in his questioning. He felt betrayed, "You say, 'I sing' but you don't sing...this cannot be, Milady!" He shook his head as if to clear a great shock to his sensibilities. "Do you mock me, Dulcinea?"
Gabrielle didn't know if she should continue, but finally said, "We say, 'I sing', but we mean it as praise...look, it's a Greek thing!" Once again, her frustration took over her usual patience. Will this ever end?
Don Q sat down on his log and warmed his palms by the fire. He was silent and just a little too brooding for Gabrielle's liking. She was about to say something when a horrible high-pitched scream came echoing out of the trees, "LaLaLaLaLaLaLaLaLaLa!"
A woman in leathers and wearing one boot came running at full speed into the camp. The odd warrior screamed out her battle cry and then proceeded to do very awkward forward tumbles on the ground, heading straight toward Don Q and Gabrielle. As Don Q's eyes grew larger at the sight, Gabrielle winced; her eyes closed to what she was witnessing. The rolling body crashed into Gabrielle's legs and was splayed out before her.
Don Q leaned close to Gabrielle's ear and whispered, "Do you know her?"
Gabrielle cleared her throat; "Yes...of course...this is my friend Xena." Then she bent down and whispered to Sancho in disgust, " It's YiYiYiYiYi, you fool...and you were supposed to do flips, not roll around on the ground like a turgid wine skin!" Gabrielle gave Sancho a hard look. He shrunk back a little at her demeanor, but recovered as soon as he saw Gabrielle nod her head, indicating the need for him to stand and be introduced. Sancho had cut and re-threaded Xena's new leathers so that they could fit most of the way around him. The tumbling had taken its toll. He knew it was imperative that he not turn around if he was to successfully continue to fool Don Q. Gabrielle had given Sancho some cloth so that he could wrap his head and cover most of his face. The darkness of night was their only hope that Don Q wouldn't catch on to the charade.
Gabrielle continued the introduction, "Xena, this is our guest, Don Q...he is fighting evil and has come all the way from La Mancha...Quite a feat, don't you think?" She caught Sanchos eye, quirked her head down toward the squires feet and repeated, "Feet, feet...pssst...feet!" She had noticed that Don Q was staring at Sancho's bootless foot and she was trying to warn the impostor. Sancho followed Gabrielle's gaze down to his wiggling, hairy toes and got the message. He quickly swung his bare foot around behind his booted one and used the movement to attempt a more feminine pose.
Sancho's new, high-falsetto voice grated on ears like steel against steel, "Pleased to meet you, Your Grace," and with his last two words, Sancho's voice dropped an octave into his normal, cracking tenor-baritone. Don Q didn't seem to notice, as though he was still pondering Xena's bare foot. Gabrielle, on the other hand, was obviously annoyed at the feeble attempt that was being made to make her plan work. Worse yet, the new leathers that had been sacrificed for this attempt were splitting up the back, loosening the bindings around Sancho's fat, squat body. Soon, it would be only too apparent just who this Xena was. Gabrielle stepped in between Sancho and Don Q just in time, as the last thong popped and the leathers drooped down to Sancho's waist. Facing Sancho, Gabrielle signaled with her hands discretely in front of her so Don Q couldn't see, and she mouthed the words, "pull it up, pull it up!"
"Well, any friend of Dulcinea's is welcome to join..." Don Q couldn't finish his gentlemanly gesture because of the distraction before him.
Gabrielle had now eased around behind Sancho and was holding the two ends of the garment together with her hands. "Tell Milord why you're here, Xena." Talking through her teeth, Gabrielle then verbally spoon-fed Sancho the lines, while smiling a frozen smile at Don Q.
Sancho repeated what he heard whispered in his ear, "It's the dragon...I return needing help in the village of Amphipolis." His falsetto was cracking worse than ever. "Do you know of anyone who can help us, Gabrielle?" His delivery was monotone and unconvincing. Gabrielle knew this would never work and that all it would bring would be the real Xena's wrath for ruining her leathers.
Gabrielle gave up. "No, I give up...this is not going to work-" She was cut off by Don Q.
"But Dulcinea, What am I, if not a Knight of the Woeful Countenance! My destiny calls!" Don Q approached Xena with a look of concern. With every step of forward movement that Don Q made, Gabrielle tugged Sancho back a counter-step. Don Q continued, "You seem a bit shy, dear Lady. Dulcinea, beg your friend to stand still so that I may take in her beauty." Sancho pulled up on the cloth to further mask his lips and chin.
Gabrielle suddenly had renewed hope and spoke up; "There's no time for pleasantries, Don Q, will you help us?" She quickly pushed Sancho's arms against his sides, so that the pressure would hold the leathers up. "Don't move a muscle, or you'll blow the whole thing," she whispered the last instruction into Sancho's ear, before moving back in front of the squire to face Don Q again.
"I'll leave immediately, Milady." He then looked around for his squire. "Sancho, we must hurry!" He called out expecting to hear his squire's voice in immediate answer.
Gabrielle pretended to help him, "Sancho, hurry!"
Don Q turned around to look behind him. Gabrielle turned and looked at the grotesque replica of Xena and waved him off, but he didn't understand.
"Do you want me to be me now?" Sancho was speaking in his normal voice and looking straight at Gabrielle.
Don Q turned toward the voice, "I hear him over this way." He looked in the direction of the motionless Xena.
Gabrielle quickly approached Don Q and spun him around in the opposite direction, instructing, "He's over there...I heard him over there." And she shoved Don Q off in the direction of the stream. She then ran over to Sancho and thumped his chest with her forefinger, "Are you crazy? Go and get changed before he finds you!" Gabrielle raked back her bangs with her fingers, then forced out a loud sigh of frustration and thought to herself, Of course he's crazy...they're both crazy! I just hope they leave now. Pushing Sancho in the direction of the trees, she hoped that he was smart enough to remember where he left his clothes.
Gabrielle took in a deep breath and slowly let it out. Morning was closer than she wanted and she was exhausted. She stepped over to the fire and sat down. With head in hands, rubbing her tired eyes, she quietly speculated on how she would tell Xena about today's events. She was sure that Xena would think she was elaborating beyond belief. "I'll just tell her the truth and she can take it in or not." Gabrielle was resigned. She started to relax but shouts coming from the direction of the stream startled her.
"Oh, horrible! This cannot be!" Don Q shouted from the waters edge. "Dulcinea! Come quickly!"
Gabrielle grabbed her staff and ran in the direction of the panicky voice. In the darkness, she could make out Don Q's form as she approached; he was sitting on a rock. "What is it?" Gabrielle was ready to do battle with whatever had been the disturbance. When she reached Don Q, he was clutching Sancho's boot.
"He's drowned, Milady." Don Q was deeply saddened and hugged the boot tightly to his chest. "I don't know what I shall do without him."
Gabrielle suddenly felt terrible at Don Q's mistaken assumption. "No, no no, Milord, I'm sure he is not dead. He's here somewhere, I just saw him." It wasnt a lie, but Gabrielle was beginning to wonder just where Sancho was. He should have been back by now.
Don Q was heartened by her words, "Oh, what a relief! But his boot is so mangled...I I thought..." He held the boot out in front of him and shook his head.
Gabrielle took hold of his arm and pulled him up from the rock, "Come back to the fire, I know I can find him." She gave him a definite look of confidence and she slowly walked him back to camp.
Sancho was running into camp when Gabrielle and Don Q arrived back. "I'm here your Grace," he was now answering in delayed sequence to his earlier summons. Sancho had dressed quickly by the evidence of leafy debris protruding from his collar and the disassociation of buttons to loops. He stopped just short of Don Q and waited for orders, trying to catch his breath.
"What is the meaning of this, Sancho? You gave us a scare!" Don Q showed concern and anger at the same time. He shook the boot wildly in front of Sancho's face. "I thought you had come to evil's hand. Why is it that your boot is so far from your foot?" Sancho could only open and close his mouth like a fish, without answer, as Don Q fired each question at him. "Oh, never mind." Don Q disregarded his feelings of frustration and tossed the boot toward Sancho. "You'll have to make do, we must leave at once!" Sancho sat on the ground and pulled the boot on. He was able to walk in it, only after he rolled up his pant-leg and tucked the floppy leather under the ankle-cuff of his long-underwear.
Don Q looked around the campfire, then asked of Gabrielle, "But, your friend Xena where did she go?"
Gabrielles eyes grew wide and she thought quickly, " Uhh...she... has left all ready, for the tavern in Amphipolis, you will have to hurry to catch up with her. Please hurry!"
Don Q bowed and took Gabrielle's hand in his as he spoke, "Then, farewell Dulcinea, this castle will keep you safe; I will send word soon." He leaned down, kissed Gabrielle's knuckles again, and turned to leave.
Sancho smiled and bowed also, "Thank you, Milady, ...it's...it's been...been... " He couldn't find any words.
Gabrielle impatiently shook Sancho's hand and pushed him in the direction that Don Q was headed, "It's been fascinating, Sancho...fascinating...good-bye now."
Gabrielle could hardly contain her relief at the site of the two men leaving. There was only an hour or so left before dawn and she needed to try and get some sleep if she was going to keep up with Xena on their journey back to Amphipolis. She was exhausted. It wasn't until she was standing in front of the now smoky, cold campfire that she realized that Don Q had walked off wearing her only blanket. She was too tired to care and sat down, leaning against the fireside log where she quickly nodded off.
With her armored back against the trunk, Xena slowly crouched down and came to rest on her haunches as she leaned against the tree. She pulled up a clump of grass in front of her and began pinching off each blade and flicking it in the air. With each flick of her fingers she voiced her thoughts aloud to no one, "Wrong place...wrong time...wrong enemy ...unbelievable!"
She sat mumbling in frustration, but then heard the thrashing of what was now caught in the snare she had set. "Finally!" She jumped up and ran to the trap. By the time she reached it, the animal had escaped. "No! I'm living a nightmare!" Xena spat her words out in disgust. She had been gone from what she deemed the "camp of madness" for too long a time and was still empty-handed.
First light was apparent and it was clear to her what the morning meal was going to be. Xena was resigned, "Nuts and berries...Nuts and ha! More nuts! Damn! Unbelievable!" She gathered what she could and returned to the camp.
Aldonza had the men packed and ready. They were restless for food and started to get excited when they saw Xena return with a bundle of something. "Rather small rabbits. " Aldonza gave Xena a smirk after her comment. She could see that whatever Xena had brought back was going to be on the short side of a full meal and she did enjoy giving Xena a hard time.
Xena raised an eyebrow and gave Aldonza a steely glance, "Don't start...it's all we have until we get to my camp."
The men gathered around the bundle as Xena opened it. They all grumbled and moaned, but were relieved to have anything spooned into their bowls. Goody and the others scrambled to their places around the campfire and picked at nature's morsels. "Hungry!" Goody was the first to complain. He got up and approached Xena in defiance, "More!" He shoved his bowl against her stomach.
Xena's tolerance was spent. She bent her head so that her face was an inch from Goody's; at the same time she presented her clenched fist next to his cheek, "How 'bout some knuckles, eh?"
Goody's eyes got big and he took in a deep breath and screeched, "Fight! Fight! Get 'um, oh goodie, goodie, goodie!" He then dropped to his hands and knees and head-butted Xena's shins. Aldonza stepped closer and jumped on Goody's back trying to stop him. Xena was jumped from behind by one of the other men and found herself on her hands and knees, twisting and bucking her unknown rider. Now Goody was butting heads with Xena.
"Stop it, get off, get 'um, Fight! Off! Stop! Goodie, goodie, goodie! Bloody insane! Get off! Stop!" Their words were heard in a jumbled chorus as they all writhed and bumped in fits. Aldonza was working Goody like a wrangler, tugging at his collar and nearly choking him, trying to get him to stop. She looked over at Xena who had just thrown her rider and was starting to get up. Aldonza started to laugh uncontrollably and fell from her mount to the ground.
Goody wheeled around on all fours to see who was laughing. He slowly moved toward the laughing woman.
Now standing, Xena looked around to see that the man who was on her back was crawling away, toward Aldonza.
"Oh Xena, if you could see your face." Aldonza spit out the words between her gasps of laughter, "You are way too serious...what did you think Goody was going to do...walk away?"
Goody and Xena's attacker were now sitting in front of Aldonza, watching her laugh and joining in. The rest of the men also gathered around and were giggling and slapping each other on the back congratulating each other for some unknown accomplishment.
Xena realized her threat to Goody was at best faulty thinking and as she turned her back to Aldonza, she gave herself a sheepish smile, acknowledging what they must have looked like to a casual observer and the reason for Aldonza's laughter. The warrior turned to face everyone again and with a stern tone ordered, "Let's get going...it's late!"
It had taken most of the day and strict perseverance for Aldonza and Xena to get the men to the camp where Gabrielle waited. Goody and the others complained constantly and often just stopped in protest at the fast pace that the warrior had set. But, she promised rest and a decent meal if they kept up with her. Soon, Xena recognized the area where Gabrielle set up camp. She was anxious to be with Gabrielle again and to get back to familiar habits of sanity. Aldonza walked into the camp a few steps behind Xena. She could see a figure slumped against a log near a long-dead campfire.
"GABRIELLE!" Xena cried out, and swiftly ran to her friend. Aldonza kept pace right behind her, while the men straggled behind. Xena knelt down next to her bard and at quick glance assessed that Gabrielle was free of wounds, "Gabrielle, wake up," Xena gave her a gentle shake, "it's me, what happened?" Xena now cradled her friend in her arms as Gabrielle slowly opened her eyes, yawned, then smacked her lips in sleepiness.
"Xena?" Gabrielle took in a deep breath and yawned. "Did you just get here?"
Xena, now sure that Gabrielle was healthy, was a bit annoyed, but helped Gabrielle prop herself up on the log. "What are you doing...sleeping the whole day away?" Xena was keenly aware that Aldonza was watching them and that the foreigner had stepped out from behind Xena to get a closer look at the new addition to their group. Xena stood up and distanced herself from her friend.
"Who are you?" Gabrielle was now focusing on Aldonza.
"A new friend of Xena's," Aldonza was testing and curious as to what the response would be. She stepped over and quickly cuddled Xena's arm as she answered. "We met at the tavern in Parton." Her answer was not a lie, but was carefully vague enough to be pondered, if one had the inclination. Aldonza gave Gabrielle an unreadable smile. Gabrielle glanced over to Xena with uncertainty, before Xena could move away or buffer Aldonza's words. It was the response Aldonza was half-expecting and her thoughts of teasing Xena about it were priceless. Aldonza continued to smile then quickly added in an almost pouting voice, "Xena never mentioned you to me."
"All right, Aldonza," Xena pulled away and curtly changed the subject, "Round up the men and start the fire again, Gabrielle and I will bring back some fish for dinner."
Xena looked at Gabrielle and said, "We need to talk."
"Right!" Gabrielle stood up and dusted herself off, looking at Aldonza again. "Nice to meet you," her words were bland. Aldonza just smiled back and then left a big grin with Xena. Gabrielle suddenly felt unsettled, but wasn't exactly sure why. She glanced over to the band of men shuffling into the camp.
Xena ignored Aldonza and turned, taking long, fast strides toward the stream. Gabrielle scrambled to catch up with her.
"Who is Aldonza? And what does she mean new friend?" Gabrielle quickly got to the matter at hand once they were far enough away from the camp not to be heard.
Xena did not answer until she pulled her boots off and waded into the water. "She's looking for the same man as we are. She says shell get a reward if she gets him back to Spain." Xena hunched over, knee-deep in water and waited to strike out at any signs of fish. "Gabrielle, just stay away from her, she's trouble."
Gabrielle considered the warning for a moment and then asked, "The men, what about them? Are they his army?"
Xena quickly answered back, "No, just a bunch of misfits. Keep your distance, especially from the one named Goody." Xena straightened her stance and faced her friend and said, "Look, they're all crazy, in one way or another; just stay away from them. Hopefully this will be over soon." Xena bent into her fish-catching stance. A bubble popped to the surface of the water and she lunged downward, pulling up a trout, "Just a few more and we can eat." The warrior tossed the fish on shore. She pulled out her breast knife from her armor and flicked it into the sand next to the floundering fish, indicating with a nod to Gabrielle to start cleaning the fish. The bard scrunched up her nose at the thought and continued to listen as Xena finished what she was saying. "Well help Aldonza find this Don Q and then they can all return home where they belong."
"Xena, I know Don Q he and his squire, Sancho, were in my camp last night oh, what a night you were lucky you were away." She chuckled then stepped a little closer to the edge of the stream and sat down to clean the fish as she continued her rambling conversation. "They're quite nice actually...harmless, I'd say, but they do cause a lot of confusion...especially with the boot and the singing...your leath-" Gabrielle was cut-off mid-sentence.
Xena was irritated, "Gabrielle, stop rambling...why didn't you tell me...When?" She suddenly absorbed what Gabrielle had said and paused a second. "Gabrielle...what about my leathers?" Xena spoke with an accusatory tone.
Gabrielle went instantly into verbal self-defense, "Xena it couldn't be helped...there was no other way to get them to leave!" Gabrielle knew she was in trouble temporarily at least, until she could explain. The explanation didn't take long. The warrior listened silently. Xena had promised to remain quiet until the bard was finished. But the warrior couldn't hold in a growl of discontent when Gabrielle got to the part where her new leather armor was sacrificed. Gabrielle interrupted herself and reminded the warrior of her promise, "Now Xena, remember...I'm not finished yet."
Xena looked up from the pile of cleaned fish in front of her and glared at the bard. "Well, I am! You don't have to tell me any more, Gabrielle." After a short rebuttal of disparaging remarks concerning the fate of her leathers, Xena was reconciled to the fact that the bard handled herself well, under the circumstances. "Its okay Gabrielle, I think I know what you went through, but I expect my new armor to be repaired and ready when I need it."
Xena thought through the facts. Don Q and Sancho couldn't be far ahead of them, so it would be sensible to get a good night's rest and start out in the morning in search of the duo. "Let's get these fish back to camp...I need to talk with Aldonza about tomorrow." Xena handed the pile of fish to Gabrielle and they headed back to camp.
Aldonza organized the men into groups and instructed them as to where they should bed down. She knew they could be trusted to at least gather wood for the fire and unpack their gear for the night. She was a little puzzled as to where she was going to sleep, but decided she would figure it out later, once everyone was settled in. With the fire started, she finally was able to sit down and relax while the men busied themselves. She studied Xena and Gabrielle as they strolled back into the center of camp. It was very apparent that Xena was more than comfortable with her companion. There was a rhythm to their conversation, as they walked along, that spoke of time and history together. Aldonza became more curious than ever. Xena nodded to Gabrielle, directing her toward the fire. Gabrielle nodded back in understanding. The wordless familiarity had Aldonza fascinated.
When Gabrielle reached the campfire, Aldonza was already engaging her; she spoke with a sultry suggestive tone, "You two took less time than I thought you would."
Gabrielle answered but, didn't look up from the pile of fish and the frying pan as she tended the meal, "Oh, Xena's always in a hurry when she's that hungry." Gabrielle was already in trouble, but didn't know it.
Aldonza laughed, as she carefully formed her next question, "Yes...it seems Xena is always in a hurry; what ever do you do to slow her down?"
Gabrielle kept on working while she thought seriously about her answer, "Well, she likes me to tell her stories, as long as they're not about her...I'm sort of a bard, I guess... Plus, she says she likes it when I use my hands."
Aldonza was now sporting a wicked smile, though Gabrielle still was not aware of it, "I'll bet! How clever of you!"
Gabrielle innocently continued, "Sometimes she gets so quiet, I have to stop what I'm doing and make sure she's paying attention to me."
"That could be a bother," Aldonza attentively answered back, but noticed Xena heading straight for them.
Xena had been watching the conversation between Aldonza and the bard as she tended to Argo. She became concerned when she witnessed Aldonza laugh out loud and shift closer to where Gabrielle was working. Xena grabbed her gear and approached the two of them and pointedly interrupted their conversation, "How soon before we eat, Gabrielle?" Gabrielle hardly noticed Xena's brusque behavior.
Aldonza looked up at Xena with innocence as she cleverly re-directed the conversation back to what it was, "Oh, Xena, we were just talking about what you like," Aldonza's voice was all sweetness, yet Xena felt the danger.
Quite sure that the subject in Aldonza's mind was not about food, Xena replied with a cautious, "Oh really?" She looked at Gabrielle for confirmation, but Gabrielle was still occupied with preparing supper. Xena sat down on the log to monitor the exchange of conversation more closely.
Aldonza continued carefully, with a straight face, "Yes, Gabrielle tells me that she has the "gift of tongue" and that you quite enjoy it!"
"WHAT?" In shock at the boldness of the stranger, Xena jumped up and stood in front of Aldonza hoping to end the path that the conversation was taking. Gabrielle was now watching Xena, still not sure of why Xena was being so irritable with their guest. Xena was emphatic, "Stop it, Aldonza!"
Gabrielle humbly tried to intervene, "Really Xena, I didn't tell her I was that good at it...though I guess you could call it a gift of-"
"Gabrielle...I need your help to fetch some more water." The bards unsolicited help only made things worse, and Xena stopped her from continuing before it went any further. Aldonza and Xena locked eyes. The foreign woman had a twinkle in her eye as she raised her eyebrows in playful triumph. The warrior could only roll her eyes in frustration as she wheeled around to take Gabrielle's elbow and quickly lead her toward the empty water-skins. She stopped short and turned her head back to the foreigner. "Be useful watch the fire."
Aldonza started to laugh, "Don't worry, Xena, I'm going to enjoy this... helping to keep an eye on your little fish."
Angry, the warrior snapped back at her, "Just watch it!"
The bard started to say something, but Aldonza interrupted, still laughing, "We'll talk again later, Gabrielle I do want to know more!"
"Xena! Whaa..." Again, Gabrielle was now firmly being escorted by Xena toward the water skins. "Hey, wait a minute!" She was angry and yanked her elbow back from Xena's grasp once they reached the water skins. "What's wrong with you? You're starting to act crazy too!" Gabrielle stood with her hands on her hips in defiance, "What's going on? She and I were just chatting."
"Never mind, just don't talk with her any more." Xena couldn't bring herself to explain what Aldonza's word games really were all about, especially since Gabrielle was oblivious as to how she was being played. They could hear Aldonza's laughter in the distance.
Gabrielle studied her friend carefully. Xena looked frazzled. "Xena, why is she upsetting you so? She seems friendly enough."
'Yeah, a little too friendly,' Xena grumbled to herself, then continued out loud, "Look Gabrielle, I just don't want you to have to experience some things in life and Aldonza has her own set of rules." Xena regretted her words as soon as she said them. She could see Gabrielle begin to bristle with anger.
"Oh, now it's back to that again...when are you going to stop mothering me!" Gabrielle grabbed two water-skins and headed for the stream.
"Gabrielle!" Xena tried to call her friend back, but was unsuccessful. The warrior cursed to herself silently, "Damn!" Knowing that Gabrielle would be angry for a while, she gave up and headed back to the campfire.
Aldonza was all ready serving the men, as they lined up by the cooked fish. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Xena return grumbling to herself the entire way. When the warrior was close enough to hear her, the foreigner teased, "You two have a spat?" She caught Xena's eye and her look of warning. Aldonza purposely held up two bowls of the cooked fish in front of her breasts, and continued impishly, "Maybe a mouthful...or two...will turn your mood?" She pursed her lips and gave another look of innocence.
Xena paused for a moment, to look at the two bowls and couldn't help but glance at Aldonza's ample breasts. Aldonza took the glance as a positive sign, tilting her head slightly to indicate an assumed openness to her suggestion. The warrior walked by the woman and shook her head in disbelief, as she responded, "Not interested, Aldonza." Xena was getting frustrated beyond her own endurance. Between the sensitive bard and the exotic foreigner, she felt like she might go crazy. The warrior sat down on one of the logs in front of the fire and stabbed at the coals with a stick that was lying near the fire circle.
Aldonza chuckled to herself when Xena continued walking on by, heading toward the log. She handed the two bowls of fish to Goody and the man behind him, then returned to dishing out more portions of fish to the rest of the men. She was silent for a few seconds before she continued to address Xena, "I guess you don't like fish that's been cooking for a time? I think you prefer a more rare sampler, one that's probably in the water right now, hmmm?" Aldonza pointedly shifted her eyes in the direction of the water where Gabrielle was filling the leather containers. She turned back to watch the warrior, waiting for her to react. Xena stopped stabbing the coals and glared back at the woman, but made no comment.
The two women stared at one another. Then with sudden flair, Aldonza pinched the folds of fish from the pan and lifted the shimmery flesh above her head. Tilting her head back, she slowly lowered the fish to her lips and toyed with it with her tongue. The juices were dripping into her mouth. She took gentle nips of the opaque flesh as she lowered it, sucking the tender meat through her lips. With nearly the entire portion consumed, Aldonza relaxed her fingertips and the last small bite dropped sacrificially to her waiting tongue. She knew Xena was still watching. She licked her lips, looked over at the warrior and said, "Now, I on the other hand, just love a good, seasoned delicacy. You never have to worry about being disappointed." Aldonza grinned in the direction of the warrior and added, "What's your experience, Warrior?" Aldonza gave Xena a wink and purposely turned her back to the warrior and continued serving the fish, knowing full well that she had made her point.
The warrior had to chuckle briefly to herself regarding the woman's antics, but quickly went back to stabbing at the hot coals, wanting to ignore the entire one-sided conversation.
Aldonza finished with the men, reminding them where they were to settle, away from the center of camp. She filled a plate for herself and walked over to where Xena sat. "Mind if I join you?" Aldonza was all ready sitting next to the warrior and not really expecting an answer. She continued freely, "So, ...now I think I know why you're always so irritable." Aldonza then took a bite of food, but didn't look at the woman sitting next to her.
Xena turned to look at the foreigner, "What does that mean?" She wasn't sure she wanted to continue the conversation.
"I see the way you're so careful around your friend...she's more to you than you want to admit." Aldonza waited for a reaction. There was only silence so she prodded again, "She doesn't know, does she?" Then her teasing tone changed to an irritating mix of motherly coquettishness, "Oooo, don't you think she's too innocent for you?" The foreigner stretched her arm around Xena's back and rested her head on Xena's shoulder. The reaction she was waiting for finally came. Aldonza feigned surprise.
"Keep your thoughts and your hands to yourself Aldonza, I'm warning you!" Xena was flustered, but emphatic; her words clearly ended the exchange. She got up and headed over to take care of Argo, and to get away from the meddlesome woman.
Aldonza chuckled to herself and finished eating what was on her plate. She noticed Gabrielle had been watching them as she was returning from the stream with the extra water.
Gabrielle was still upset as she hauled the water-filled skins to the fireside and leaned them against a flame-heated rock. It was hard for her to hide her emotions, and her anger with the warrior had left traceable lines etched in her brow. The bard was now even more upset witnessing what had just occurred between Xena and the stranger. How could this strange woman be so familiar with Xena? Remembering Xena's warning, she defiantly spoke to Aldonza, "How's the fish?" Gabrielle really didn't care.
Aldonza looked at Gabrielle's face with curiosity and quipped, "YOU tell me-" She smiled and covered her implied reference to Gabrielle continuing with, "-after you try some, of course."
"Hmm? Yes, I will...thanks." Gabrielle, deep in thought, wasn't paying much attention. She picked up a bowl and dug into the leftover fish with a knife, sliding it into her dish. Sitting on the same log with Aldonza, the bard began to realize just how hungry she was, as she inhaled each bite. "This is good." She took in a deep breath to slow herself down. "You know...I haven't eaten since yesterday...since I ran into the men you're looking for." Gabrielle swallowed a huge bite and licked her fingers. "We should catch up with them tomorrow."
"You saw them?" Aldonza was truly surprised. She hadn't realized they were that close. She was particularly surprised to feel disappointment. She wasn't ready to end her acquaintance with Xena just yet and she knew that when she caught up with Don Q she'd immediately need to return to La Mancha.
Gabrielle turned to look at the woman sitting next to her," You don't sound very happy about it I should think that you'd be relieved." She studied the stranger closely, continuing, "Won't you be glad to be heading home?"
Aldonza was quiet for the first time all evening. She all but ignored the bard, "Umm, excuse me, I need to talk to Xena." She got up and walked over to where Xena was grooming Argo.
Gabrielle sat for a minute and watched her go. Then, with a mysterious urgency she felt the need to follow. The bard wasn't comfortable with the thought of Aldonza talking alone with her friend, so she stood up and slowly headed toward the two of them.
"What do you want?" Xena felt Aldonza approaching and was still very angry. All of Aldonza's teasing was building into something that Xena had worked hard to suppress. Her self-control was firmly being tested and the anger she felt was now mostly turned inward with the realization that her emotions regarding Gabrielle were surfacing hard and fast, and were far too real to be ignored any longer.
Aldonza purposely tucked her body in-between Xena and Argo, to get Xena's full attention. "Why didn't you tell me that Gabrielle had met up with them?"
Xena held her ground, to challenge Aldonza's aggressiveness. For an instant, they were pressed together by the warrior's obstinacy and Argo's bulk. Each silently dared the other to move, but neither budged. Feeling the heat of Aldonza's body, Xena's anger turned into a corrupt passion. Her eyes grew dark and her focus was now on the stranger's lips. The foreigner was a seductive beauty and Xena knew that in the old days this woman would have been a delight, if not a challenge to entertain. The two women held their gaze. Aldonza had forgotten her question and was looking up, lost in the warrior's passion filled eyes. Xena then closed her eyes and thought of Gabrielle. She breathed in long and deep to calm herself. Aldonza thought only of Aldonza, and quickly reached up to caress Xena's face with her fingertips. Swiftly, Aldonza moved in closer, closing her eyes as well. She could feel the warrior's breath, as undefined as the touch of a feather against her moistened lips. Then, it was over.
It was Argo that first shied from the tension. With a sudden snort and nicker, the horse side-stepped away from the two women, causing Aldonza to rock backwards and out of balance on her heals. Both women shifted positions with a jolt. Xena's eyes snapped open in time for her to catch Aldonza's flailing arm, to steady her while the stranger shifted her feet firmly under her body again.
"Well, that was a close one." Aldonza smiled up at Xena.
Xena stood in silence as she let go of Aldonza's arm. She only came back to her senses when she heard Gabrielle's voice. Xena tried to mask what almost happened, as quickly and dispassionately as she could, for the bards benefit, "Careful Aldonza, it's rocky... you could have fallen."
"Oh, I'm sure I've already done that." Aldonza looked intensely into the depth of Xena's eyes, then turned as she, too, heard Gabrielle interrupting.
"Xena?" Gabrielle was standing a few feet away from her friend and was very aware of what she almost witnessed. Not fully recognizing her discomfort as jealousy, Gabrielle suddenly needed to feel Xena's complete attention. The bard nervously began to ramble, "Xena, it's getting late, the men seem to be settled in, and we have such a long journey tomorrow...I think it's time to go to bed."
At Gabrielle's last statement, Aldonza's eyes brightened, "Yes, who, uh...I mean... where am I to bed?" Aldonza looked directly at Gabrielle. Xena caught the slight challenge to her friend and didn't like it. Gabrielle tensed and was unaware that Xena had stepped up next to her. Xena placed her hand on her friend's shoulder and felt Gabrielle's tension melt away at the touch. It was what Gabrielle needed most at that moment.
Gabrielle turned to her warrior, "Xena, I need to sleep with you tonight." Her words were matter of fact and spoken with a slight tenor of command.
Aldonza turned to face Xena and grinned, then whispered so that only Xena could hear, "I see we all have needs from time to time."
Gabrielle ignored the stranger's mumbling and continued, "I haven't a blanket and it will be very cold tonight." She was met with the most unsettled look she had ever seen from her warrior friend.
"Gabrielle...I...I don't think this is a good time to suggest this." Xena was surprised by Gabrielle's request and had self-consciously stepped away. She subtly gestured to the bard, with her eyes and a furrowed brow, trying to indicate that the foreigner was untrustworthy hearing the personal request. Xena also knew in her heart that it was not a good time for her to be so physically close to her friend.
Aldonza interrupted, "I have a solution...Gabrielle can use your blanket Xena...and you and I can share mine. There, that's simple enough. Gabrielle, where do you suggest we sleep?"
Xena spoke up, "Forget it Aldonza. I'm not sharing with anyone tonight." Xena's words were merely meant to disarm Aldonza's suggestion, but she soon saw the hurt in Gabrielle's eyes.
Gabrielle looked up at Xena. She desperately searched the deep blue eyes for any hint of resolve, but found only a new vagueness. "Never mind Xena, I'll be all right by myself." As she spoke the words, they seemed to take on a much greater meaning and her stomach twisted inside itself with an awful sinking feeling. She knew she really wouldn't be all right by herself and the dread of it grew larger with each second of Xena's silence. Suddenly overwhelmed, Gabrielle feigned a new bravery, "I'll be back in a bit, I think I need to be alone for a while." Then she turned and quickly headed into the seclusion of the nearby trees.
"Wait Gabrielle!" Xena felt paralyzed watching her friend enter the forest, and she called to her again, "Gabrielle, wait!" There was no response; the bard did not stop.
"Oh dear, Xena, I thought you'd be a little more sensitive with her." Aldonza was trying to be careful with her playful tone. "See, you really do need someone like me. And I promise, blankets will never be a problem."
"You enjoy this, don't you?" Xena couldnt believe what was happening and glared at the woman, but didn't want an answer. She turned to re-check Argo's tether and then headed back to the campfire.
"Oh, get over it. Besides, I just might be doing you a big favor though I don't think either of you know it yet." Aldonza joked as she followed closely behind. It was becoming clear that she would never win the heart of this elusive warrior, but Aldonza wasn't quite ready to give up all the fun so soon.
At the campfire, Aldonza watched Xena reach for her gear and pull out the sharpening stone from one of the bags. Xena stepped over to a rock near the fire and sat facing the stand of trees. It was the perfect place where she could guarantee that there would be no room for Aldonza, and where she would be able to watch for Gabrielle, without appearing too obvious. She pulled her sword from her scabbard and methodically worked on sharpening each side of the blade as she subtly searched into the darkness of the trees. It still seemed a little too soon to begin searching for her friend.
Aldonza sat back down on the log opposite Xena; "Do you think we will find Don Q tomorrow?" She was hoping it would take longer.
Xena finished the long strokes to the sword edge and thought about the question, "They will have made it to Amphipolis by now; they'll rest there for a few days. We should meet up with them tomorrow night."
"Well then, we don't have much longer...you and I." Aldonza's words were spoken softly intending a moment of intimacy, rather than confrontation. Her gentle tone was unexpected but Xena wasn't going to waver from her earlier opinion of the stranger.
"There never was a you and I, Aldonza. Don't you ever give up?" Xena went back to sharpening her sword.
"Oh, just like there's no 'you and her', I suppose!" With those taunting words, Aldonza watched Xena flinch as the sharpening stone slipped and Xena's finger took a deep bite from the sword's edge. "Xena, you can't deny that we had a moment back there." Aldonza waited for any kind of confirmation.
"Damn!" Xena barked the profanity. Her finger was bleeding badly, but the cussing was more about Aldonza's relentlessness than her injury. "It wasn't what you think, Aldonza." Xena put her sword back into her scabbard and hurried over to another supply pouch. She knelt down and grabbed for a piece of cloth to wrap around the bleeding finger. "Leave it alone, will you."
In the time Xena tended to her finger, Gabrielle had walked back into camp unnoticed. Her eyes were red and still slightly moist with tears, but she displayed a new calm as she questioned Xena's last statement. "Leave what alone?"
"This! I got a little careless, I guess." Xena raised her injured hand to cover for the real subject matter. Xena shrugged her shoulders. "It's not as bad as it looks." The bandaged finger was soaked red.
Gabrielle ran the rest of the way to Xena and knelt down beside her, "Let me look at it. You know, you'd bleed to death before you would admit anything is serious."
"You got that one right, Gabrielle.." Aldonza chimed right in, "Ha! It's bad all right! Why don't you admit it, Xena?" She got up from the log as she spoke and wandered over to the two women, "I haven't seen a more serious case in a long time." Xena flashed a threatening look when she saw the taunting smile on Aldonza's face.
"Xena, are you sure this is what you two were talking about?" Gabrielle was still unsettled by what was going on between her friend and the intrusive stranger. Xena was silent, with renewed patience, as she felt her friend's gentle touch while tying a new bandage around her finger. Gabrielle's tired eyes searched for truth in the intense, dark eyes of her friend. They held their gaze only a few seconds, until Xena could no longer stand the honesty she felt, and with a blink she broke free from their gaze and focused on the caring hands finishing the bandage. Gabrielle closed her eyes for an instant, feeling the loss, then continued her aid. She knew that she wasn't going to get an answer and it gave her an empty feeling.
"Oh, I think you'll have to use more pressure than that, Gabrielle." Aldonza was still poised over the two of them, watching, but not the least bit interested in the medical care Xena was receiving. Just as Gabrielle and Xena turned their attention to her, Aldonza leaned down and gave a firm tap to the bandaged finger, then finished her thought, "She could open up any minute." Then she winked at Xena and turned to walk back to her place at the fire.
In reflex to Aldonza's words, Xena's eyes darted back to Gabrielle, then quickly closed. Gabrielle responded, thinking that the tap to her friend's injury was the cause of the perceived pain, by placing her hand on Xena's forearm to get her attention. "Xena, are you ok?"
"Yeah, I'll live...maybe." Xena loved feeling Gabrielles touch and gave the bard a warm smile to lighten the moment as she got up on her feet again.
Gabrielle reluctantly let go of her friend's arm, looked up and gave a sweet smile back. She gathered the supplies and put them back in the pouch. The bard started to get up and found that the warrior had moved next to her, extending her good hand to help her up. Facing her friend, Gabrielle purposely reached over and cradled Xena's injured hand in her own. She paused, then reached up with her other hand and proceeded to brush back a stray wisp of hair from Xena's eyes.
The warrior froze, feeling the electricity pulsing between them as she silently waited to feel Gabrielle's fingertips against her brow. She swallowed hard.
It was clear to the bard that she now had Xena's complete attention. With a look of concern, the bard held Xena's gaze, and then spoke, "If this is too painful, you'll tell me, won't you? I'm here for you."
Xena's eyes got wide, then narrowed. For a second, she wasn't sure of what Gabrielle was referring to. With all the double meanings to so many of Aldonza's conversations, she was now thinking that everyone had an underlying message attached to their words. Xena knew that the bard could also be clever at innuendo, when she was focused. But now, the warrior was more than afraid that Gabrielle could see into her heart and read her thoughts. Xena suddenly could hear the blood pounding against her eardrums. She pulled her hand away from Gabrielle and cleared her throat.
"No, it's...I'm fine, thanks." Xena quickly stepped away from the bard and headed in the direction of the trees. She turned her head back toward the bard and called out, "I'm going to check the perimeter." Then she disappeared into the darkness.
The bard just stood there. As in the past, she was sure that she felt Xena crave the caring that the bard wanted to give her, but as always, it was over in the time it took the warrior to blink. She thought to herself, Why can't she let me take care her, just once? Now, she was very aware of how tired she felt and looked over at the campfire, letting out a sigh of her own and thought, Well, I guess it's me and the log again tonight. She noticed that Aldonza had also disappeared from the campsite, but figured that she was looking after the men. Gabrielle grabbed one of the softer saddle-pouches to use as a pillow and dragged a log back and away from the fire, to be safe from the sparks. She curled up with her back against the warm side of the wood and the heat of it soothed her. As soon as she closed her eyes, she was asleep.
Xena had finished walking the dark perimeter of the camp and was leaning, comfortably, with her back against a tree; arms folded in sub-conscious self-containment. It was normal to circle the area at night before she settled in, but tonight her real intention was to be alone and separate from the closeness of Gabrielle's concern, and the warmth of her body. Her thoughts of the bard were interrupted by footsteps. She was not surprised to see Aldonza walking toward her. The warrior's voice was full of irritation. "Have more to say?"
"Just wondered if you're all right?" Aldonza smiled at the warrior. Xena could tell that the foreigner was sincere. "I've given you a pretty hard time."
"I'm just great." Xena's words oozed with sarcasm. "I suggest you get some sleep, I'm sure you'll need all your energy to finish your torment tomorrow." Xena stood up straight and started to leave.
"Wait. Where do you want me to sleep?" Aldonza stopped Xena from leaving by holding on to her forearm. "I just want to know that I'm safe." She had to grin at her own words. She checked Xena's expression and knew that the warrior was also mildly amused by the thought of Aldonza feeling vulnerable.
Xena looked down at Aldonza's hand on her arm. She felt the touch as a nuisance and in her mind, she silently compared it with the loving touch of her bard. Pulling away, Xena smirked and said, "I don't care where you sleep." She left the foreigner standing there and walked back to the center of the camp to grab her blanket.
Xena threw the blanket over her shoulder to get it out of the way, while she loaded more wood onto the fire. She turned around to see Gabrielle sleeping, curled up against a log, facing the fire. She quietly stepped over and crouched down in front of the bard. Gabrielle had folded her arms across herself as protection from the night's chill. For a short time, Xena just watched. She was drawn in by the calming rhythm of her bard's breathing and her sweet expressions in slumber. Xena took in a deep breath and slowly let it out again, while thinking, Gabrielle, I'm sorry. Xena pulled the blanket from her shoulder and carefully unfolded it. She lifted enough of the blanket to cover Gabrielle and draped it gently across her body. Then, Xena laid herself down next to the bard. She rolled on to her side, also facing the fire and pulled the rest of the blanket over her. The warrior was barely settled when she felt the warm presence of Gabrielle's body nestle against her back. Effortlessly, the bard seemed to mold perfectly into the warrior's curves. Xena felt the moist warmth of a muffled sigh as it vibrated against her shoulder blades, then felt Gabrielle's arm aimlessly slither up and over her leather-wrapped ribs. Her heart started to pound, as she was unsure if the bard had awakened. Xena whispered, "Gabrielle?" There was no answer. Xena swallowed hard and fought to keep her mind from racing. She tried to keep her eyes closed, in an attempt to sleep, but the closeness of her bard next to her was too much of a desired distraction. All she could do was lay there and think, I'm fine. I can do this.
Aldonza had made her way over to where the men were sleeping and picked up her bedroll. As she walked back to the area of the campfire, she could see that Xena had decided to share her blanket with Gabrielle after all. Her thoughts were immediate, punctuated by a fast growing grin, "Oh, this is too easy!" She headed toward the sleeping duo.
Xena had managed to keep her eyes closed for a while. She was unconcerned with the sound of movement near the campfire as Aldonza returned. Xena slowed her breathing to be in synch with Gabrielle. Her years of self-discipline seemed to be back in her control. Her body relaxed with each twitch of her muscles and she knew that sleep was sure to follow. It was the strange rustling of cloth that disturbed her. Xena opened her eyes to see Aldonza lying down, on her side, right next to her. They were face to face, and Aldonza was armed with a ferocious smile aimed directly at the warrior.
Xena was stunned and could barely protest in whisper, for fear of waking Gabrielle. "Whaa...What are you doing?"
Aldonza gave a look of pure innocence and whispered back, "You said you didn't care where." And then she wiggled a little closer to be sure that Xena was firmly wedged and unable to escape easily without waking the bard. She pulled her blanket up, tight around her chin, leaving her contented smile exposed for Xena's benefit. It was not long after she closed her eyes that she, too, was fast asleep.
Damn! It was all Xena could think to herself in response, as she watched the foreigner quickly nod off. Xena felt her body stiffen again with tension. She was now wide-awake, with nowhere to go. She knew it was going to be one of the longest nights she ever experienced. Unbelievable!
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